Analysis of Altered powers continues to be almost as frustrating as the search for patterns in the occurrence of Vanishings. Certain categories have proven to have few secrets when exposed to direct scientific scrutiny, while others continue to make the very laws of physics weep at their existence.
Physical and Genius category Altered seem to hold no grand secrets. While the exact nature of the changes to their nervous systems, sensory organs, and gross musculature can vary greatly even in Altered with very similar abilities; the full range has been documented and categorized. Similarly, while we don’t understand exactly how the changes found in Mental category Altered function to provide Extra Sensory Abilities, we have had no difficulty documenting and measuring these changes.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Paragon and Exemplar Altered truly defy all of our understanding of the physical universe. None of our attempts to determine a power source, or even method of power conduction, for these categories have met with even the barest hint of success. Even as newer and better technologies become available, some of them specifically developed for this exact purpose, we have made no progress in any real understanding of how these most powerful of superhumans function.
The remaining two categories not yet mentioned, Lux and Potent, are perhaps the most frustrating and most inspiring. Both of these classifications, even those with the most fantastic and bizarre abilities, have yielded incalculable amounts of raw data to our investigations. Unfortunately, none of this data being collected yet has been deciphered in any meaningful way. Hence the frustrations, and inspiration: While we don’t yet have the capabilities to understand what we’re looking at here, we must believe that when it IS deciphered that it will carry us that last, elusive step forward to beginning to understand the Paragon and Exemplar abilities.
Excerpt from Dr Bernard Kimmel’s 28,000 page report on Altered
“Stop smiling like that, it’s creepy.” A noticeable pause. “Colonel.”
The statement was accompanied by a heavy mug full of coffee plunking down on the table beside Jessica, and led to her looking up for the source of the familiar voice. And then continuing to look even further up as she craned her neck to make out the face of the seven foot tall man standing beside her chair.
“Good evening, Captain Locke. And what am I smiling like that’s creepy?” Jessica ignored the captain’s intentional ‘slip’ in military decorum as she picked up the delivered coffee mug.
“You’re in monitoring, and you’re smiling. Smiling like you’re actually HAPPY. NO ONE in monitoring is ever happy. Hence: creepy.” The extremely tall man dropped into an open seat, bringing his head down far enough that Jessica no longer had to strain to make eye contact. “Plus, there’s that whole thing where none of the other CO’s ever assign themselves to monitoring when they’re the ready company. They all delegate.”
“I’ve been doing this longer than any of them, and I never delegate monitoring. Technically, that means that THEY’RE doing it wrong, not me.” Jessica continued to smile as she watched the large monitors and dozen or so technicians working.
“It’s still weird if you look happy about it.”
“C’mon, Locke. You hear everything that goes on around this place. You know damned well that it’s not being here I’m happy about, so much as being happy about where I am NOT right now.”
A long moment passed before the tall man nodded in concession to the point. “So why do you assign yourself to monitoring whenever Alpha is on call?”
“Technically it’s Charlie on call this week, most of Alpha is still stuck performing tricks for the press.” Jessica paused to take a sip of her coffee, and then smiled wider at the scowl from Locke when she failed to continue.
“That’s not an answer, colonel.”
“But it is, captain. What’s the one great perk of being the company member stuck on monitoring?”
The tall man continued to scowl, but the look didn’t quite reach his eyes as they scanned around the room as if looking for an answer. “As the officer assigned to monitoring almost every waking hour of the day, I have no idea what in this room you find to be a perk, colonel.”
“No incoming calls for personnel assigned to monitoring, barring specific emergency circumstances. Alpha can’t call to gripe about still being on publicity duty, or beg me to get them out of it, while I’m in here. Also holds true for Col-… certain other officers I don’t feel like having any more ‘heart to heart’ conversations with right now.”
The conversation was momentarily interrupted as a red blip popped up on the monitor that was, technically, her current workstation; and the previously quiet technicians began to shout back and forth and the whole room took on a much more harried atmosphere. Jessica tensed in her seat for a moment, but then relaxed as the blip switched from red to orange as the map zoomed in to give a more accurate view.
“Sounds like the ‘Altered Crime Wave’ continues.” Locke hadn’t even flinched at the uptick in activity, and sipped his own coffee casually as he surveyed the room. “I’m going to guess we won’t be needed once again.” The second sentence came as the briefly frantic activities had already begun calming.
“Pennsylvania, a bit outside of Pittsburgh.” Jessica began tapping away one-handed at the keyboard under her monitor to get the information she wanted to scroll. “No injuries reported as yet, and… There it is. The governor’s office has already issued a statement that local authorities are on scene and have the incident in hand.” A rueful headshake accompanied the last statement.
“So our criminals remain at large, and still smart enough to focus their work in areas that really only call us in as a last resort.” Locke simply continued drinking his coffee, having watched this scenario play out so many times now that it was about as interesting as selecting a pair of socks in the morning.
“Oh, this is new.” Jessica sat up a bit straighter as a new line of text marked *URGENT* blipped onto the screen. “There was actually a DART team close enough to attempt apprehension… shit.”
“Casualties?” The tall man was on his feet and leaning down to look at Jessica’s monitor in an instant. Pennsylvania had some of the best Direct Altered Response and Tactics teams in the country, and they tended to get a lot of use with their near complete refusal to request or allow military aid outside of Lunatic Returns.
“No serious injuries reported, but…” Jessica trailed off and let the taller man read over her shoulder.
“Two teams were neutralized with no injuries?” Locke’s tone held genuine emotion for the first time since he’d entered the room as he walked quickly over to an empty terminal to pull up more data himself. “Armored vehicle response… Christ, they had three Exemplars with them and they couldn’t even put up a fight?”
“Shoved back inside their own vehicles before they could completely deploy, which were then fused closed around them… and they were almost ten blocks from the scene when they managed to force their way back out.” Jessica sighed and dropped her head into her hands as she processed the information. Then she stood and downed the remainder of her coffee in a single gulp. “Captain Locke, please contact Captain Revers to take over in monitoring for me. I have a feeling that the general is going to be woken up soon, and that I will need to speak with him immediately after that.”
Before the tall man could respond, the phone at Jessica’s station began to beep loudly at her. She picked up the receiver, listened for a few seconds, then spoke again. “Already on my way, sir.”
“I’ll get Revers up here, colonel. Good luck.”
Jessica nodded, and offered a small smile of thanks to her friend, then blinked out of the room.
“Someone, ANYONE, explain to me how the hell this happened?” The equally angry and exhausted face of the Secretary of Defense loomed down at the nearly empty conference room, larger than life on the giant wall monitor projecting his image from DC. Jessica carefully sat perfectly still between Lieutenant Colonel Garrett and General Mathis, knowing this question was not directed their way.
Teleconferences: still way too damned confusing. We should have just had Locke collect everyone and do this face to face…
“…has to be foreign Altered, sir.” Jessica tuned back as she realized she had missed part of the response from the National Intelligence deputy director. “Our monitoring of Vanishings is too complete for it to be anything else. If there’s an unregistered Paragon or Exemplar working with, or for, this group of criminals, they are NOT domestic in origin.”
“‘If,’ sir?” Jessica almost flinched as she realized she’d said the words out loud and was forced to continue. “Given the on-scene reports, I don’t think there can be any doubt, and this has to be at least ONE Paragon. Unless we want to entertain the idea of an Exemplar that breaks the curve past anything we’ve ever seen.”
“If you’re so certain, Colonel Lawson, then why didn’t YOU intervene?” Jessica was a little surprised to hear the defensive tone in the NIA director’s voice so clearly. “You were supposedly at ready status when this incident took place, and a criminal Paragon falls under the current Special Exemptions Act.”
“A criminal Paragon causing any loss of life is an exemption.” General Mathis joined the conversation with an angry growl at the speaker. “With no loss of life, and a governor that absolutely refuses to declare a state of emergency, there was nothing Colonel Lawson could do.”
“Enough bickering!” The enormous Secretary of Defense head on the wall shouted as the intelligence director was starting another rebuttal. “The AAC is hereby ordered to full alert status. Get your personnel back on base and at ready status immediately, General Mathis. If a single body drops, I want your people to neutralize the situation.”
“Cooper.” The eyes on the screen flicked as the Secretary looked at a different point on his own monitor to address the NIA director. “The fact that you’re on this call instead of your boss tells me more about this situation than I want to know. Tell Director Bradeley that she had better have something better than ‘it has to be a foreign operative because our system is perfect’ for the briefing later this morning.
“Everyone is to keep EVERYONE else in the loop. Regular updates, NO ARGUMENTS. Dismissed.” The image on the large wall monitor cut off, followed quickly by all the other teleconferenced attendees signing off as well.
“Congratulations, Colonel Lawson, that was a masterful job of pissing off the deputy director of the NIA.”
“Shut up, Garrett, and get your people on alert. You have a lot of work to do. Dismissed.” Garrett immediately braced to attention at the rebuke from the general, then quickly left the room to follow his new instructions.
“Is there a reason you decided to antagonize Director Cooper, colonel?” The general’s traditional scowl was back in full force as he faced the last remaining person in the room.
“Cooper’s hated me for over a decade, sir. I seemed like the logical person to poke at the giant hole in his speech.” Jessica paused for a moment, then continued with a question of her own. “What is it that Colonel Garrett needs to take care of so immediately, sir?”
“Echo Company is officially made up almost entirely of civilians, remember colonel?” Mathis scowl hardened a little more at his own statement. “It keeps them in a legal grey area that we have to keep exploiting until we can get the authorization to really do our jobs that we need. Burgess is probably doing the most enthusiastic happy dance ever right about now.”
“Sir?” Jessica had been about to ask for more clarification on Echo, but that train of thought was derailed completely out of her head at the mental image of a dancing Nelson Burgess.
“A criminal group operating with at least ONE unregistered Paragon? The man has actually been PRAYING for a Lunatic Event in a major city during next week’s Paragon window because it will make forcing the Posse Comitatus kill through congress that much easier. An unknown criminal Paragon?” The general shook his head angrily as he turned to leave the room as well. “It’s like Christmas for the military’s PR people. Get the rest of the First up to ready status, colonel.”
Jessica braced to attention as the general departed with a, “Yes, sir.” But remained in the room for a few minutes with a contemplative expression on her face, before finally shaking her own head and striding quickly from the room to follow her orders.
He’s right though. It’s almost completely perfect. What are the odds of a perfect coincidence?
Several bright flashes from far closer than they should be set the small military squad on edge for a moment, before they relaxed to the sound of a brief struggle and the angry shouts from another reporter being dragged back outside the safety perimeter by a security officer. Jessica walked over to the window the camera flashes had come through, and snapped the drapes shut with quick motions.
“Colonel Lawson, we don’t want it to look like we’re intentionally excluding the media!” It took a supreme effort of will to resist the urge to tear a chunk of her brown hair out in frustration as Jessica turned from the now-blocked window to look at the man addressing her.
“Colonel Burgess, I understand that, but we also can’t keep allowing the media inside the safety perimeter. Blocking this one window is the simplest thing we can do to dissuade them, and we’ve allowed them to set up over a dozen remote cameras in here to observe the event.” Now if I could only figure out something simple, and legal, to do to get YOU to understand that YOU aren’t supposed to be here EITHER.
“It would be best if you would move back behind the inner perimeter line, Colonel Burgess.” The suggestion from one of Jessica’s subordinates, Lieutenant Field, was ignored with a wave of Burgess’ hand.
Jessica hid her smile as the young officer offered a very sincere looking ‘I tried!’ expression. “Colonel, Lieutenant Field is correct. You need to move back to at least the inner line. You can continue your conversation with Senator Trott about his son’s plans for after the Return.” And both of you can completely ignore that Tens have over an 80% mortality rate.
Jessica managed to breathe out a mostly concealed sigh of relief when her suggestion managed to get her superior headed back to where the politician was waiting with the rest of his family. That relief was immediately swallowed when she saw the senator himself headed her way. Jessica moved quickly, seeing her backup freeze as they were uncertain how to respond to a technical security breach by a senator, and managed to intercept the man before he was more than a few steps past the line.
“Colonel Lawson, it’s a great honor to meet you in person. And Trevor has always been such a huge fan of yours! I think he’s got all your movies,” the tall politician leaned in for a moment to stage-whisper. “Even the really bad ones! He’ll be so excited when it’s you waiting for him when he gets back!”
“Thank you, senator.” Jessica carefully guided the man back across the line, noting both Lieutenants accompanying her breathe much easier now that one of the VIPs was a bit further outside the danger zone. “I sincerely hope that this all ends well.”
Trott smile tightened a little at the reminder of how else this might end, and Jessica almost winced at the look she elicited from the senator’s wife. No, that’s not an expression the senator’s wife wears. That’s the nineteen year old boy’s mother looking out through the wife’s mask.
“I’m sure with you here, nothing could possibly go wrong.” Jessica tried to smile reassuringly at the senator’s last statement before he turned back to addressing the media through a camera, but couldn’t force the expression onto her face. She knew that the real reason she was here, outside the media circus and recognition, was in case things DID go wrong.
Jessica made her way over to the other two AAC soldiers assigned to his ‘event’ and spent a moment inspecting them. Neither Lieutenant Field nor Lieutenant Grace were members of Alpha. Colonel Burgess had insisted on the three of them specifically for this event, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. The Champion is the most famous Altered in the US, and these two have got to be the most photogenic members of the military I’ve ever seen. Grace was technically a reservist, but she hadn’t objected anywhere Jessica had heard regarding the assignment. Both were also only Exemplar class, with abilities centered almost entirely on the defensive side of things.
Then again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never failed to have the offensive side of things covered before, but containment can be-… Jessica’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud beeping tone from the countdown timer set up in the room. She immediately blinked over to her position, about fifteen feet from the point where Trevor Trotts had vanished from a little over 71 hours ago, and noted with a sense of satisfaction that both Lieutenants had scrambled to their own positions without any need for orders from her.
The last few seconds were always the hardest, and Jessica forced herself to focus almost everything on breathing normally as the beeping continued to count down to the estimated moment of Return. Please, please be one of the ones that makes it.
It was a singularly odd sensation to have someone standing in front of you where there had been only open air a moment ago. Jessica had grown quite used to it, having been present for more Returns than nearly anyone else in the world by this point. A smile started to light her face as she saw the boy standing upright under his own power, a good first sign. Then she saw the look in the half-closed eyes; a look that she was far too familiar with.
“Barrier up!” Jessica barked the order at about the same time that everyone else was finally registering the actual Return, and neither Field nor Grace responded immediately. “NOW!” She accompanied her second shout with a small curse and blinked forward to be within arm’s reach of the boy.
She arrived just in time to mostly intercept a blast of superheated air, igniting the expensive wooden floor beneath her and scorching her uniform while several screams came from behind her. The barrier finally went up, and a louder scream drowned out the panicked family members for several seconds. Jessica winced at the familiar scream, an expression of literally inhuman agony that truly made her wish she could drink her memories away on a regular basis. Ignoring all the signs for a moment, she grasped the boy by his shoulders as his clothing was burned away by massive shockwave of burning air, and he began to lash out blindly as the scream continued.
“Come on, kid. WAKE UP!” Jessica could barely hear herself shouting in the boy’s face as he continued to scream and blast in every direction. She ignored the pain as he managed to strike her with enough heat to briefly sear through skin and into the muscle beneath it. But she couldn’t ignore the desperate shouts she could barely hear from outside as the two lieutenants tried valiantly to hold their barriers in place against the onslaught of a far more powerful Altered than they were. Jessica closed her eyes, brought her right hand to rest directly over Trevor’s heart, and pushed.
The next instant, the scorching blasts were gone, and the boy was lying limply on the floor in a pool of blood. Jessica clenched her hand shut, and turned to walk over to the exhausted lieutenants with her bloody palm concealed from the cameras. “Good work, both of you. Make sure you get completely checked out by medical before you accept any new assignments.” She then continued over to where Colonel Burgess stood next to the dumbstruck family, the rotund officer seething with barely contained rage.
“I’m sorry, Senator Trott. There was nothing else I could do.”
“Get out.” The senator managed to find his voice at the same time as his wife, though the latter didn’t bother with words as she wailed in grief and rushed over to the still form of her son. “Get. Out. Now.”
“Yes, sir.” Jessica turned on her heel and strode away without another word, forcing her expression to remain perfectly placid as she passed the dead boy and his grieving mother.