The sheer variety of way in which the many nations of our world have chosen to integrate, or not integrate, the ever-growing number of Altered into every day society is staggering. Even neighboring countries that share otherwise similar ideologies can be found to treat their Altered population in radically different ways. The one thing that appears most consistent among all the nations? Only a very few seem willing to adapt to, or even acknowledge, the incredible rate at which the Altered population has, and is, growing.
The best estimates historically available put the Altered population at the turn of the previous century, that is 1900, to be significantly less than 1 in 100,000. That is, specifically, those that both Vanished and survived their Return with demonstrable, super-human powers. By the late 1920’s when most of the developed nations ‘chose’ to reveal Altered as a reality and not some far-flung hoax, most estimates had the Altered at nearly 1 in 10,000. Using the most recent census datum available at the time of this writing, the turn of another century to the year 2000, the most widely accepted estimates have the Altered population at slightly more than 1 in 400. In spite of this stunning population explosion over the past century, most of our world’s nations refuse to adapt in any way to this fast growing demographic.
-Renaldo McLaurin, excerpt from Observations of an Altered World
“Major Clint Robbins… reporting as ordered, sir. Ma’am.” Jessica noted the momentary pause in the major’s voice as he came into General Mathis’ office, clearly not expecting to be meeting with anyone other than the general this morning.
“Major. At ease. Please, sit.” The general pointed at one of the chairs opposite his desk as he offered the nearly monosyllabic greeting in an exhausted tone. “Colonel Lawson, as the AAC First Division field commander, had some questions for you regarding last night’s action.”
“Of course, sir. Ma’am.” Robbins’ walked rigidly to the indicated seat, clearly uncomfortable with the general passing authority to Jessica. “What questions can I answer, colonel?”
The lieutenant colonel turned to pick up a stack of folders concealed behind her on a table, then walked over to stand next to the general’s desk, looking down at the seated major.
“The basics first, major. Your platoon was mobilized due to an emergency request from the state of California, correct?”
“Yes, ma’am. Delta’s first and second platoons were both mobilized.”
“And Captain Locke transported all of you into the downtown area of San Diego?”
“That was where the incident was occurring, yes ma’am.”
“Please describe the intel you received while platoon one moved to intercept and engage with the group of criminal Altered responsible for the emergency status.”
Robbins frowned at the open-ended question. “Well, colonel, I’m certain my written report has better specifics.”
“Your best recollection should be sufficient, major. For now.” Jessica’s attempts to keep her voice passive were starting to fail as an icy note crept in.
“Should I have a JAG officer present, ma’am?”
“Only if you want to skip this part and move directly to a court-martial, major. Answer the colonel’s question.” Mathis rejoined the conversation, and stared down his subordinate with a steely glare. “NOW, major.”
“Platoon one was in pursuit of four criminal Altered, tentatively classed as three Potents and one Exemplar. All were confirmed by Intel as having pre-existing criminal records, and there were reported fatalities at the scene of their latest criminal endeavor. I believe it was a jewelry store?”
“Diamond exchange. Please continue, major.” Jessica began laying out the five, closed, folders as she answered Robbins’ question.
“Right. So Intel confirmed that we were clear for unrestricted engagement of the hostile Altered. We corralled them, they attacked our people, and we went in with lethal force. Standard two on one overwhelm tactics, with the floating pair ensuring that no one escaped.”
“Do you recall the name of the gang your targets were members of?” Jessica flipped open the first folder, revealing a mugshot of a heavily tattooed Hispanic male.
“Um…” The major’s poker face cracked for a moment as he considered the question with genuine confusion. “Uh, no ma’am. Knowing what group our enemies belonged to didn’t seem particularly important at the time.”
The second folder was flipped open, revealing another mugshot; another tattooed, Hispanic male. “Los Diablos. It’s a strictly Mexican, strictly Altered gang.”
“If you say so, ma’am.” Robbins watched as the third and fourth files were opened, revealing two more males. The final pair had no visible tattoos, but both were clearly Hispanic.
“So, with your FOUR targets ‘corralled,’ and two military trained PARAGON Altered assigned to take each down, I have to ask.” The final folder was flipped open, revealing the only photograph that was not a mugshot. A smiling face, looking like the sort of thing usually posted on social media, looked up at the major from the page. The face belonged to a middle-aged, clearly Asian, man. “Why the fuck did your floating pair engage a FIFTH man who was more than TWO BLOCKS outside of your killbox?”
Robbins shrank away from the sudden, and very loud, shouted question; but the lieutenant colonel leaned in close with an enraged expression. “This is the IMPORTANT question, major, because this is the one that decides whether we’re headed straight to a general court-martial from here!”
The heavily built man turned to look at the general as he continued to shrink away from the petite, shouting woman. “Sir, I-…”
“You WHAT?” Mathis stood and roared his own rage at Robbins, nearly startling the already off-balance man out of his chair. “You had the situation completely under control, and then you let your men go trigger happy in a heavily populated area?”
“He was an Altered!” The major forced himself back upright and shouted his response back. “Lieutenant Tythen spotted an unknown Altered using a high level ability outside of our containment area, and he-…”
“That Altered was named Johnathon Wei.” Jessica interrupted, her voice low but carrying enough menace that it instantly silenced the seated man. “He was an Exemplar level, and he was putting up a force-field in front of the apartment building that was taking a large amount of fire from your ‘unrestricted engagement.’ Oh, and he was a RETIRED COP!”
Robbins flinched again at each statement, but showed no sign of surprise. “Glad to see you at least looked up the details of your fuckup before you got here. What, you were hoping we wouldn’t have done the same, major?”
“He shouldn’t have walked into a combat zone.” Robbins’ jaw was set, and his gaze locked straight forward as he answered the question.
“And your people shouldn’t have gone in blasting at RANDOM.”
“Enough.” The general interrupted with a hand slammed into the desk for emphasis. “Major, Delta is officially removed from the active roster, pending the results of a full investigation.”
“And you are relieved of command, pending the outcome of that same investigation.”
Robbins shot out of his chair. “WHAT? I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Sit. NOW.” The major turned to loom over the tiny woman, and locked eyes with her, aggression written in every inch of his posture.
Jessica didn’t move an inch, but the air around her seemed to shimmer for a moment, and her expression radiated nothing but lethal intent. A second later, Robbins dropped back into his seat, staring at the floor.
“As for what you did wrong, Major Robbins.” General Mathis resumed speaking as if a near-fatal stare down hadn’t just taken place a few feet away from him. “NOWHERE in your official report did you mention the fifth fatality inflicted by your men, in spite of several DOZEN personnel hearing you announce ‘five hostiles have been neutralized’ on an OPEN com-line. NOWHERE did you account for the collateral damage done to an entire city block that could NOT have been inflicted by the criminals you were sent to neutralize. Can you even begin to IMAGINE the magnitude of the mess you’ve created?”
“I apologize, sir.”
“Colonel Lawson, please escort Major Robbins to his quarters. Major, you are under house arrest until this investigation is completed. You do not leave your quarters for anything other than a direct, personal order from myself, Colonel Lawson, or Colonel Garrett. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” The major stood and began to slowly head towards the door, Jessica following a few steps behind.
Once the two were out of the office, Robbins paused and looked back at the small brunette trailing behind him. “I wasn’t going to attack the general, you know.”
“No. You weren’t.” The major shuddered at the undercurrent in Jessica’s tone, then resumed his trek towards his quarters.
“At ease.” General Mathis looked around the conference room table at the assembled Altered officers. Commanders of five of the six AAC First Division companies, and among the most powerful human beings in the world. “I’m sure by now everyone is, at least somewhat, aware of the situation with Delta Company.”
Nods went around the table in response to the non-question. “Good. To make sure you’re all on the same page about the latest; Major Robbins will be transferring from active duty with the First Division to a position in the reserves. Delta is in need of a new CO, and I would like your recommendations.”
Mathis noted the shocked looks on a few faces, and he understood them well. It was unusual for the wheels of bureaucracy to accomplish such a feat in a matter of days, even within the military.
“Captain Haley, from Charlie Company.” Mathis was unsurprised that it was Colonel Lawson making the first recommendation. He’d finally acclimated to the reality that someone who looked younger than his own children was actually far older and more experienced than he himself was.
“Haley would be a good choice. She’s got seniority over most officers, and she has more commendations than the ones she’s junior to.” Major Blake Gill, commander of Bravo Company, recovered from his own surprise quickly to reinforce Lawson’s pick.
“Captain Errings, from my company.” Foxtrot’s CO made the recommendation with a somewhat resigned tone, more to have another candidate on the table than anything else when the Charlie CO also endorsed Haley.
“Captains Haley and Errings. Anyone else being recommended?” Mathis smiled slightly at the quickness of the proceedings, but that emotion was quickly buried as he considered the next item on the agenda. “Very well, I’ll review both candidates fully and should have a selection made within the week.” Another round of surprised expressions at the quickness the general was suggesting.
“For the time being, Major Torres will be acting CO of Delta. That’s all for the general meeting, everyone except Colonel Lawson and Major Torres is dismissed.” The petite brunette and the tall bald man exchanged a brief glance as the other three officers stood, saluted, and exited.
“What can we do for you, general?”
Mathis stood and turned to look out the conference room’s window, taking a long moment before answering Lawson’s question. “The initial inquiry has recommended a general court-martial for Lieutenant Riley Tythen. Army public relations wants this to be an open trial, to show the public that we’re not hiding anything or covering anything up after last week’s incident.”
“Which is to say that there’s a dozen videos already online of Tythen ripping apart a retired police officer who was trying to protect an apartment building, and he’s going to get crucified.”
“I had thought you’d be in favor of punishment, colonel.” Mathis turned and allowed a hint of surprise to show in his expression.
“Punishment, yes. Making a public spectacle out of the kid for screwing up? No. What are we doing with Kullen?”
“His partner during the engagement didn’t violate the rules of engagement, but he did falsify his statements after the fact to try to justify Tythen’s actions. He’ll be dishonorably discharged.”
“Why are we the only ones here for this part of the briefing, sir?” Major Torres confused tone matched his expression. “Lieutenant Kullen is being kicked out, Lieutenant Tythen is being court-martialed, shouldn’t we be turning this over to JAG officers or something at this point?”
“Lieutenant Tythen is still officially only under house arrest, pending the outcome of the investigation. He’s also a telekinetic, Paragon Nine.”
“You want us to go take him into custody.” Lawson made the words a statement, not a question. And definitely sounded as if she’d reached that conclusion long before Mathis had practically spelled it out.
“Correct. Teleporters with direct offensive capability are extremely rare, and also supremely well suited for bypassing a telekinetic’s defenses. The two of you will take Tythen into formal custody, and work out security arrangements. Dismissed.”
“You really think this is the best approach, ma’am?” Jessica sighed loudly at the fifth variation of the same question asked by her colleague.
“Major, we have no reason to suspect that Lieutenant Tythen will do ANYTHING other than come with us willingly when we inform him of the charges. Whereas if we attempt to ambush him in his quarters, it is entirely likely that we will startle him into doing something destructive, which would likely escalate with one or both of US doing something destructive. Now he’s technically under your command right now, do you want to knock or should I?”
The heavily built black man drew himself up to his full height at the question. “No, even if I’m only interim commander of Delta, I’m his CO right now. I’ll do it.”
Jessica smiled, a little surprised that her ultimatum about knocking would be the nudge that got Torres to man up. As the large major reached out to knock on the door, that smile was quickly ripped from her face.
A blast of incredibly focused force smashed through the door, removing most of the front of the small house, and crashed over the stunned pair. Jessica dug her feet into the concrete underneath her and pushed back with her own power, suddenly surrounded by a bubble of shimmering air and a sound like an endless sonic boom as her power fought with the telekinetic wave. A glance showed that Torres had not fared as well, the large man had been blasted off his feet and crashed into the pavement several times before he flickered out of sight.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! I’m not gonna let you take me off to be executed!” Jessica turned her attention back to the wrecked officer’s house in front of her, and the terrified voice coming from inside it during a lull in the invisible onslaught.
“We aren’t here to execute you, Tythen. You get a fair trial, although I imagine you’re facing a few extra charges involving assaulting superior officers now.”
“I WON’T LET YOU TAKE ME!”
Jessica only had a moment to brace herself when another barrage of telekinetic energy came crashing into her. Instead of a massive wave, this time the energy was narrow and focused. A rapid fire onslaught that managed to punch through her defensive abilities and gouge through her skin in sprays of blood. The small woman set a stony expression on her face, not reacting in the slightest to the grievous injuries as she was impaled again and again by beams of invisible force. Then she vanished.
Jessica reappeared almost right next to her assailant, startling a strangled cry from the man as drawing another barrage of telekinetic blasts even as he wrapped himself in a shield so tight Jessica could actually see the air compress around the edges. “Last chance to surrender.”
Tythen watched in shock as his latest round of attacks blasted into the short woman, several of them penetrating her own shield and generating fresh sprays of blood. And Jessica saw the moment when that shock turned to horror as he watched those massive wounds close in less than a second. “You can hurt me, but you can’t kill me, lieutenant. Give up.”
“No, NO! YOU GIVE UP! I may not be able to hurt you, but I have a half mile range! You want to see if anyone less durable happens to be living in that dire-…”
Jessica didn’t let the obviously deranged man finish making his threat. Her left hand shot forward in a well-practiced, shoving motion, and her own explosion of invisible energy ripped through the small house. For just an instant, the incredibly dense shield around Tythen held back the wave of destruction. Then it all came apart with a thunderous clapping sound, and Jessica watched as the broken and mangled body of the former officer was blasted through three walls and into the small side yard. A single blink brought her out of the collapsing building to stand over the ruin that was hardly recognizable as a body, as she leaned down to make the pointless confirmation that her opponent was deceased.
“Jesus, I can’t believe… I’ve never seen anything like that.” Jessica looked up to see Major Torres had returned. The large man was bleeding from several small wounds, but the shaky stance and shocked expression had nothing to do with his injuries.
“You said it yourself, major. ‘Like me, but less so.'”
“I guess I never really knew how MUCH less.”
“I try not to think about it too much.” Jessica shrugged and then stood, looking away from the remains that had so recently been Lieutenant Riley Tythen. “Have base security check around and see who warned the lieutenant that we were coming. I don’t appreciate having my uniform ruined. I’ll stay on scene until the coroner gets here.”
Torres stood stock still, still wearing the same dumbfounded expression, for several seconds. Then he shook his head slightly and snapped a quick salute to the female lieutenant colonel. “Yes, ma’am.”