Coming up later this evening on CNN: The US Altered Crime Wave, is your city safe? We give you a complete up to date breakdown on this recent spike in Altered criminal activity, and what’s being done to take back the streets. Our panel of experts, including decorated AAC Lieutenant Colonel Jessica Lawson, will weigh in on the pros and cons of the current proposals to combat these criminal threats. Is military intervention really the only workable solution? Is there any real hope in privatizing the war on Altered crime? And what about recent alarming trends in masked vigilantism?
But first, after the break, Altered Medicine; Is it safe? Our panel of medical professionals will walk you through the pros and cons, offer tips to help spot the fakers, and share their own personal experiences.
Brandi Skaye, CNN Afternoon Domestic News Anchor
“It’s the same nightmare, day after day, week after week. I don’t know how much longer I can hold it together like this.” Jessica leaned back into the comfortable cushions behind her, eyes closed with her fingers massaging at her temples. “I think I’m going to finally crack.”
“Colonel Lawson, you REALLY need to stop exaggerating like this if you expect to get any positive results from these sessions.” The red-haired psychiatrist managed to hold a perfectly serious, even dour, expression to match her long-suffering tone for several seconds. The facade crumbled as soon as the brunette on the couch opened an eye to shoot a questioning glance at her.
“Really? THAT’S your professionalism?” Jessica managed a perfect deadpan as Heidi attempted to stifle her giggles. “The most destructively powerful Altered in the world is sitting in your office, confessing her fear that she might be descending into mental instability, and your response is mockery followed by laughter?”
“Probably wouldn’t be the best approach if I was one of those poor baseline psychiatrists that can’t tell when you’re fibbing your ass off.” The psychiatrist managed to get about halfway back to a professional tone as she continued. “But seeing as how I’m not operating under THAT particular handicap, what’s REALLY bothering you?”
Jessica’s deadpan expression cracked to reveal a moment of shock, before a sardonic smile replaced it. “You act far too innocent for how perceptive you really are. Powers or no.” A pause. “And, who the hell says ‘fibbing’ anymore?”
“Don’t try and redirect. I know you wanted to come here and vent, and I’ve been letting you do that for the past hour. But there’s something else, and it’s big enough that it’s really getting to you. So talk.” The redhead fixed a stern glare on her patient, this time with no sign of wavering back into her earlier mirthful state.
“It’s… it’s stupid. Not something I should be worrying about.”
“To paraphrase something a very intelligent woman told me recently, it’s probably not a good idea to just blow off something that’s upsetting, ‘the most destructively powerful Altered in the world.'”
The smaller woman sat silently for long minutes after her therapist finished speaking, a pained expression on her face that made her look far too fragile for the amount of power she carried. “This is the longest they’ve ever stuck me in one of these PR stunts for. Six weeks tomorrow. Six weeks of ‘no Champion’ out there, and the country hasn’t fallen apart. NOTHING has fallen apart without me.”
“Six more weeks in which you feel like you aren’t keeping your promise to your friend?” Jessica winced at the insightful question. “Six more weeks where you feel like you’re failing because you haven’t figured out how to fix the whole world yet?” The redhead stood and walked to loom over her patient. “Jessica Danielle Lawson, there are five and a half BILLION people on this planet other than yourself. You need to stop beating yourself up for failing to accomplish, on your own and in a matter of weeks, something that would be impossible for ALL of the rest of us.”
Jessica sat silently beneath her psychiatrist’s piercing gaze, shocked and unblinking for several seconds, before she looked up with indignation written across her features. “Where the hell did you get my middle name from?”
Heidi sighed with deep exasperation and stormed back to drop into her own seat as Jessica chuckled behind her. “Yes, because THAT was the most important part of what I was saying. It’s going to be this same thing with you every week, isn’t it?”
“Would you really prefer it if the ludicrously powerful Altered wasn’t holding herself up to high standards?”
“I would prefer if my new FRIEND didn’t try to hold herself to an impossible standard.” Heidi sighed and massaged her own temples. “No one can completely change the world in a day, Jessica.”
The woman on the couch started to open her mouth, but a glare from the therapist stopped her long enough for the redhead to continue. “No one can completely change it for the BETTER in a day. You are far too old to be this much of a brat.”
“With old folks like me, I believe the correct term is ‘pedant.'” Jessica finished her very solemn statement by sticking her tongue out at her friend, drawing a giggle from Heidi.
“Well, we’ve got another fifteen minutes left of your session. Any other issues you want to talk about that DON’T revolve around your martyr/messiah complex?”
“Well… there is one thing. Something I realized a little while ago, that I thought would never happen.” Heidi suddenly sat up straighter, detecting the lurking humor behind Jessica’s words, but also the complete veracity of the statement.
“While I was sitting in the green room, waiting to go on as another ‘expert panelist’ for Fox News Primetime, it just hit me out of nowhere.” Jessica paused and glanced over at her friend, making sure the woman was paying complete attention.
“Yes, I’m listening and I know you’re telling the truth, and I know you think there’s some big shock coming. Hurry up and get on with it!”
“Empaths, they tell you what you’re about to say and then demand you say it faster so they can be right.” Jessica stood up from the couch, and brushed imaginary lint from her clothing. “I think I might just decide to cut the session short for today.”
“No, please! Come on! It drives me…” Heidi paused, and mock glared at the now smiling Jessica. “Of course you know. Your best friend for decades was an empath. Just spit it out and stop tormenting me already!”
“Well… It’s like this. Have you ever had something you had to do, regularly, and you HATE doing it, but you have to? And you always think, ‘I am so looking forward to a time when I will never have to do this again.'”
Heidi just tapped her fingers impatiently on her crossed arms and waited for Jessica to finish her story.
“So, I was sitting in the green room, waiting to go on yet another panel. Another completely serious, real news story kind of thing. And that was when I realized it.”
“I was actually missing going on those stupid fluff shows like ‘Good Morning with Pamila Pearce.’ I just never thought it would actually happen, but ‘real’ news shows are even WORSE than those stupid talk shows are!”
Heidi stared for a few seconds after the revelation, shock and humor warring on her face. Humor won out, and both women shared a laugh before it was time for Jessica to depart for another ‘real’ news show.
“You’re on in sixty seconds, Colonel Lawson!”
Jessica nodded her acknowledgement to the producer who hurried past her with barely enough time for a glance. Then she found herself forced to tilt her head back as one of the sound technicians appeared to casually grope his way into attaching the wireless clip-on mic to her uniform. Just one more week of this. One more week and I’ll be free from this hell… Free to sit up all night in a monitoring room waiting for one of the blips to turn red so I can scramble to deal with a Paragon-class Lunatic.
The sound tech stepped back and apologized profusely as he caught the change in expression on Jessica’s face, and she forced herself to offer a smile. “No, nothing you were doing. Just got caught thinking about what my next couple of weeks is probably going to be like.” There’s no escape, it’s just trading one kind of hell for another. At this point, I think I’ll take the trade for the sake of my sanity.
Jessica quickly forced her expression back to a politely neutral one as the last technicians began sprinting off the set and the host for the evening segment slid into her place on the other side of the desk just as the producer began the ten second countdown to ‘live.’
“Good evening everyone, I’m Brandi Skaye. Tonight’s top story; the recent surge in Altered criminal activity. What’s being done, and what else CAN be done to keep all of us safe.”
Jessica found her attention wandering as the segment hostess continued, knowing she wouldn’t likely be introduced until a few minutes in when they decided they needed their first ‘expert’ opinion on the matter. Her roving gaze swept around the studio, even as she kept her expression relatively fixed and her head pointed more or less towards the camera that had been called out as ‘hers.’ There are a lot more people coming in the back than you usually see during a live show… The uneasy train of thought suddenly ended as she spotted something that should NOT be in a television studio.
Jessica stood and reached up to quickly tap the concealed mic underneath her collar; not the one that the sound tech had spent a few seconds too long clipping onto her a minute ago. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the expression of shock start to spread across the anchor’s face. Then she was on the other side of the room, reaching forward to catch the wrist of the man pulling a handgun out of his jacket.
“Vortex…” Jessica spoke quickly and clearly, even as she turned the man’s hand to pulp before he could even register her arrival. She blinked again to appear next to the second man before the first could begin to scream. “Bulwark.”
This time a casual swat sent the surprised gunman crashing into the wall with bone-breaking force. “We have armed hostiles in the building.” Another blink, another man down as he barely got his submachine gun out of his bulky jacket. “Non-Altered. Sweep, neutralize, detain.”
The last man was facing away from her, and was firing his weapon into the air to get the attention of the rapidly panicking studio staff as Jessica appeared behind him. “Objective is no fatalities, but prioritize civilian lives over living hostiles.” A motion that looked like barely more than a gentle squeeze dropped the last man to the floor, screaming and pawing at his mangled shoulder.
“Acknowledged!” Jessica fought back a smirk at the amount of shock she heard in the synchronized response over her coms.
Sometimes it’s nice to have something so well documented, like an intense hatred of using callsigns. It really lets the troops know that things are serious when you stoop to using them.
“Everyone listen up!” Jessica pitched her shout to be easily heard over the two disarmed men who were still conscious, and crying in agony. “Get to a secure area in here and barricade the doors. I don’t know how many gunmen are in the building, but there are two other members of Alpha Company plus myself present for interviews. We will sweep the building, and keep everyone safe until law enforcement arrives. And maybe the top news story for the evening will be a little different than we all expected.”
Jessica delayed in the studio only long enough to make sure that everyone was moving into a smaller, lockable, adjoining room before she headed for the same door the four men had come in through. Jessica briefly shook her head as she spotted the female anchor speaking rapidly towards one of the portable cameras that a cameraman had been ordered to carry into the side room with them.
Three members of Alpha in the building, and they’ve been advertising us all day. Not really much chance these guys were too stupid to know we were going to be here if they bothered to plan an attack on the station, which means we’re the most likely targets. Jessica’s train of thought barely paused as she heard gunfire off to her left, and two quick blinks brought her into a conference room and saw another gunman on the ground, writhing in agony. Still, what the hell are they hoping to accomplish against two Paragons and an Exemplar with civilian firearms? They’d need an airstrike before any of US likely noticed the damage. So who else could they…
“Champion, this is Bulwark. I have three hostiles contained on the second floor, along with a duffel bag filled with something that looks like high-explosives.”
They MIGHT think that dropping the whole building on us would work though. “Champion acknowledges, I’m en route.”
“This is Vortex, floors five and above are clear. Seven hostiles in need of medical attention on floors five and six.” Jessica smiled at that news, glad that one of the fastest movers in her company had been stuck playing ‘expert panelist’ with her today. “Be advised; two of my neutralized hostiles have DoH tats.”
Jessica’s smile vanished immediately. Defenders of Humanity, fucking morons. “Bulwark, make sure you’ve got that bubble locked down TIGHT!”
“Copy th-…” Jessica tried to speed up her rapid blinking descent through the building as the voice on her comms trailed off for a second. “Champion, this is Bulwark. I no longer have any live detainees on the 2nd floor.”
Fucking morons… “Champion copies. Finish sweeping the first floor, and wait for local law enforcement to arrive and take our hostiles into custody.”
Another, more subdued chorus of, “Acknowledged,” sounded over her earpiece, and Jessica started moving again to finish her own portion of the sweep.
The three uniformed officers stood at rigid attention, eyes staring unblinking at a point somewhere past the heads of the two men who sat facing them. Colonel Nelson Burgess wore an angry glare as he examined the woman and two men across the room, while General Kyle Mathis kept an expressionless mask over his own features.
“So, who wants to go first?” Burgess spat out the question, and looked completely unsurprised when it was the tiny woman in the middle who stepped forward.
“Sir, I can state as a fact that Captains Howard and Eldeil did not take any actions without my express orders. Further, I’m confident that a full review of those orders will be found to be in keeping with standing orders under artic-…”
“Enough, Colonel Lawson.” Mathis interrupted the obviously pre-prepared speech, the faintest hint of humor in his tone while his face remained impassive. “Captains, you are dismissed. Report for independent debrief tomorrow morning at 0700.”
The two men exchanged a brief glance, then looked down to their CO and hesitated. The brunette didn’t even look back at the men as she spoke. “You two heard the general, you’re dismissed.” The captains braced back to attention for a moment, then turned and stalked out of the room.
“Are all your men that insubordinate, Colonel Lawson?” Burgess looked more than a little disappointed at the general’s decision to dismiss the lower ranked pair.
“Burgess, shut the fuck up.” Annoyance was clear in both tone AND expression as the general turned to regard the man seated next to him. “Her people are loyal, and if they weren’t then I wouldn’t trust them to do a damned thing. Drop the act, you aren’t fooling me and you sure as hell aren’t fooling the woman who’s been doing this longer than we’ve both been alive.”
The colonel snapped his glare back and forth between the older man and the petite woman in the room several times, before dropping the angry expression and laughing out loud. “It’s not normally appropriate for me to respond with my GENUINE feelings after an incident like this, general.”
“I’m confused, sirs.” Jessica entered the conversation with a level tone that held none of the confusion she professed to feel. “There was a cluster-fuck somewhere in intel that led to a twenty-man DoH team trying to blow up CNN’s New York studios, while three members of Alpha were inside it. Why are we really happy about this, while pretending to be really upset?”
Mathis sighed and leaned back in his chair, making a waving motion that the man beside him should explain.
“It’s quite simple, Colonel Lawson. Publicly we must make it look like this was the absolute LAST thing the military would ever want. I mean, engaging with non-Altered terrorists inside the borders of the US without a specific state of emergency declaration and request for assistance? It would be a publicity NIGHTMARE.”
“And God knows the whole AAC runs on PUBLICITY these days.”
“As the only one in the room who was in the Army BEFORE that was true, I feel like I should get to be the one that makes that complaint, sir.” The deadpan interjection from the lieutenant colonel startled a genuine laugh out of Mathis, and drew a genuine scowl from Burgess.
“Back to the point. We have to make it clear that this was ABSOLUTELY an event that we in no way precipitated, or had any advance knowledge of. The fact that this particular DoH cell was surprisingly professional will help us out there.”
“I’m still missing the ‘why?’ Sir.”
“A major public spectacle has been made, three military Altered saved an entire building and all its occupants, who happen to work for one of the most powerful media outlets on the planet. This is the kind of positive press you CAN’T buy. Literally, because if we tried to make something like this happen it would get us all thrown in prison.”
“Okay, so that’s why you’re actually happy but have to act unhappy, sir?”
“Correct, colonel.” Mathis spoke again. “And it should go without saying, you don’t breathe a word about this to ANYONE.”
“Why tell me at all, general?”
“Because you deserve to know.” Jessica couldn’t hide the shocked expression that swept over her features, a look that drew chuckles from both men. “Seriously, colonel. I won’t keep you in the dark unless I absolutely have to. You and your men did good work, and if it were up to me you would all receive commendations instead of a bunch of bullshit in your files.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“So now, moving on to your next assignment.”
Jessica stifled her desire to groan and waited patiently to hear where her next stop on the PR tour would take her.
“You’ll be rotating with Bravo Company on emergency response watch for the next five days, then you’ll have a mandatory forty-eight hours downtime before the Paragon Return window starts.”
Jessica couldn’t keep the expression of shock off her face a second time. “No more ‘expert panels,’ sir?”
Burgess sighed loudly and dramatically at the amount of eagerness in the brunette’s voice. “No, colonel. Not for a while at any rate. You are released from public relations duties for the immediate future.”
“Dismissed, Colonel Lawson.”
Jessica had to work extra hard to keep herself from skipping as she turned and headed out of the office. New hell, infinitely better than the old hell, here I come!