So the latest Smart-holo, the ‘Immersion 7,’ comes out this week. And, aside from an extra half an inch radius of projectable image, it’s identical in every way this reviewer can find to its predecessor; the Immersion 6. Maybe next year our friendly ‘big-brothers’ at the Bureau of Technology Standards and Safety will see fit to unseal a few actual tech-innovations to include in the inevitable ‘Immersion 8.’ At least then there would be a somewhat logical reason for the mass rush to get the latest piece of tech. Maybe we could finally get a battery for the damned things that lets you use the holographic displays for more than two hours before getting stuck trying to read text messages or surf the web on a 3″ screen with crap resolution. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll be standing in line in the cold with the rest of you technophiles to get the newest phone on release night; I just want it to be enough of an upgrade that, just once, I don’t hate myself for it the next morning.
Alberto Powers, excerpt from The Latest Same Thing, Wired Magazine
Jessica stood rigidly at the head of the small conference room table, her back to the five officers and one consultant also present, and stared at the information that scrolled on the screen in front of her. Stared, and tried to make the words scrolling by somehow rewrite themselves into something that would even PARTIALLY mitigate the circumstances of her new company’s training regimen.
“Mr Keyes, are there ANY other training files for Echo Company?” In spite of a valiant effort to keep her tone neutral, there was clearly enough venom that a round of uncomfortable fidgeting immediately started up behind her.
“None relating to the… ‘regular’ squad members, ma’am. I do have the officer training records if you wanted to review those?” The tall technopath sounded far too at ease for the mood in the rest of the room.
Probably has something to do with knowing he can’t be held responsible for this clusterfuck. “Not right now, Mr Keyes, though I expect we’ll be going over those records in detail once we finish digging our way out of our current abyss.” Jessica turned to face her officers, and suppressed the urge to sigh.
On one side of the table Captain Coleman was glaring defiantly, as expected, and was also the only other person in the room who had remained standing after she had called the meeting to order and instructed them to be seated. Down from him Lieutenant Byrd fidgeted nervously while continuing to stare, still more than a little star-struck apparently, whenever Jessica wasn’t looking directly at him; another seat down Captain Malone looked like he was trying to sink through his chair and doing everything he could to avoid eye-contact with his new commanding officer. On the opposite side of the table the two female officers sat together, with Lieutenant Guzman’s eyes flicking back and forth between the interim CO and the new one as if she expected the two of them to come to blows at any second. Next to her the company’s attached teleporter, Lieutenant Wagner, seemed to be trying to watch everyone at once with an expression that clearly indicated she was unsure if she should even be in the room.
“So, Captain.” Jessica’s hazel eyes met Coleman’s glare with one of her own. “Care to offer any ‘highly technical’ explanations for this? Because from here it looks a hell of a lot like gross incompetence, and possibly dereliction of duty.”
The stocky blond officer bit back his first response with a visible effort, then snapped to attention and addressed himself to a point slightly above Jessica’s head. “We did the best we could with the constraints placed on us, ma’am.”
“Constraints?” The shorter woman took two rapid steps forward to stand directly in front of Malone. She gave the man a little bit of a credit when he didn’t flinch. “According to company records the extent of ‘training’ for Echo Company has consisted of nothing but basic physical fitness and constant repetition of the AAC intake evaluation. This must be the most thoroughly EVALUATED Altered in the country by this point. Quite possibly in the whole, wide world. Unfortunately you were put in charge of TRAINING Echo Company, NOT EVALUATING THEM!”
“According to US Code A-611, it is a felony under federal law to provide combat or tactical training to any Altered with a crim-…”
“Are you SERIOUS?” Jessica’s shout cut the recitation short. “You’re going to stand there and pretend that you failed to train the general’s ‘special project’ because you were afraid of breaking the law?”
“As an officer of the US Army, it is my duty to uphold the laws of the United States. Doing so could not possibly be considered dereliction of duty, colonel.” A smirk crept onto Coleman’s face for a second before it relaxed back to a neutral expression.
“That’s true, captain. HOWEVER.” Jessica let a similar smirk creep onto her face and remain there as she took a step back from her subordinate. “In order for ANY of the insanity that IS Echo Company to work in the first place, step number one was to expunge the criminal records of all our civilian volunteers. I mean, can you imagine the number of strokes and heart attacks in the PR Corps if they found out that the general had formed an active duty company of CRIMINAL civilian contractors for domestic actions? A-611 is not applicable here, captain. Got any other really good excuses.”
Coleman’s mouth opened and closed a few times without any words coming out, until finally Jessica took enough pity on the man to order him seated again. The blond man dropped dejectedly into his chair this time.
“Mr Keyes.” The short woman strode back to her position closer to the monitor as she addressed the technopath at the foot of the table. “Please bring up all Alpha Company training and exercise records under ‘Contain’ and ‘Evac.'”
“Uh, I don’t technically have access to Alpha’s records, Colonel Lawson.” Jessica turned to meet the weak objection with a pointed stare. “Ah, right, being authorized by the new CO and all that. Data going to your screen now.”
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Jessica raised a hand towards the screen and turned to look at her officers again. “Today is Tuesday. You have until Thursday to take these drills and adapt them for the abilities present in Echo Company. Any questions?”
One tentative voice spoke up. “Me too, colonel?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Wagner, you too.” Jessica failed this time to repress the sigh that escaped. She could hardly blame Wagner for a question like that when she’d only been attached to Echo a week longer than Jessica herself. Coming on top of everything else, however…
“Anyone else?” Silence was the only response this time. “Good. All officers, we have a company meeting in nineteen minutes, be dressed out for training and meet in the muster room at 1600.”
“We’re training today? Um, colonel.” Byrd’s startled question drew a cold smile from the colonel.
“No actual training today, Lieutenant. Just some introductions, and some object lessons that might get a little bit too dirty for dress blues.”
“Holy shit, that’s really her.”
“I always thought she’d be taller…”
“Oh god, we’re all gonna die. That’s the only reason they’d stick us all in the same room, army’s cleaning up their dirty little secret all at once.”
“Stop being so damned paranoid.”
It was a challenge to keep her expression carefully neutral as Jessica stood at the front of the muster room in a textbook ‘at-ease’ posture and listened to whispered bits of conversation as the twenty individuals that made up the ‘civilian volunteer’ portion of Echo Company made their ways into the room. She held her position, and her silence, for several long seconds as the conversations died down and her company fell quiet.
Well, most of them are terrified of me. Jessica finally moved, though just enough to scan carefully over all the faces in the room, and to make eye contact with each of them. Not ideal, but something I can work with.
“Good afternoon.” Jessica allowed herself to smile, but suppressed the urge to laugh as several people jumped in response to her greeting. “As you are all most likely aware, I am Lieutenant Colonel Jessica Lawson, and I’m your new comm-… LIAISING officer as of today.” The smile stayed in place as Jessica made an obvious and intentional slip over the non-standard title she was stuck with for working with a ‘civilian company.’
“First thing, to put a few minds at ease.” The short brunette dropped her smile for a much more serious expression and locked eyes with a very-nervous looking Hispanic man in the back of the group. “I am NOT here to kill you all. I promise.” The deadpan remark drew a couple of weak laughs that were quickly covered up with nervous coughing.
“Second thing.” Jessica relaxed her posture and took a half-step forward with her head bowed slightly. “I want to apologize, to all of you. Mistakes have been made, and as a result your lives are going to get a lot harder for the next few months.
“All of you should have received extensive training over the past 14-18 months.” Jessica increased her volume slightly to drown out the few murmurs that started in response to her declaration. “You should all be fully field certified by AAC standards, able to respond to and assist with a wide range of scenarios. Instead, you have had your basic abilities constantly evaluated, and spent a few hours doing pushups, situps, and aerobics.” A few curious, and a couple obviously angry, looks were directed to a very-unhappy looking Captain Coleman in his position on the left side of the room.
“A few things have also been left unclarified, or intentionally misleading as well.” All attention shifted back to Jessica as soon as she continued speaking. “So let me set the record straight on at least one of them. All of you have been treated like criminals since you’ve arrived here. Virtually no time allowed outside of the facility except when on mission, constant monitoring, and I’m fairly certain the officers here haven’t been the most cordial of ‘liaisons’ for any of you. So, to clarify; since the minute you accepted the military’s offer to join this experimental program, none of you has had a criminal record. Every trace of any record you used to have has been completely expunged, and it will NOT be coming back. You will not be punished or restricted for any previous transgressions.” Jessica paused for several seconds to let the words sink in, and smiled again at the level of shock radiating off the crowd in front of her.
“Before anyone gets any ideas, or says or does something rash.” The colonel raised her voice this time and glared in Coleman’s direction as he had his mouth open with an expression indicating that he was about to do exactly that. “The contract you signed was written under some very harsh national security laws, which means if you try to walk out on Echo Company before your agreed upon time is up; it won’t matter that all prior records were expunged, you will be guilty of treason at that point and punished accordingly.” The mood in the room shifted most of the way back to fear, but not nearly as tense as it had been before the speech began. Progress!
“So, with all the preliminaries out of the way, a couple of announcements! Firstly, tomorrow is a free day for all of you. Go forth and do, whatever it is you like to do. Just make sure everything is legal, and that you’re back in the facility in time for a good night’s sleep, because the day AFTER tomorrow, the real training starts.” Jessica’s smile widened as the first signs of positive emotions were finally visible amongst her company.
“Second announcement, there’s going to be a special demonstration in about ten minutes. Please get changed into your training gear, or any other clothing you don’t mind getting a bit caked with dirt and dust, and report back here for transit.” A quick look around showed that most of the expressions had shifted back to surprise and confusion, so Jessica added, “MOVE IT!”
Jessica found no further reason to repress her laughter as the twenty civilian members of Echo all tried to stampede through the room’s single exit at once, though the desire to laugh trailed away quickly as she found herself looking up at the, once again, angry expression on Captain Coleman’s face.
Jessica found herself slightly impressed. Judging by the way he was practically shaking with contained anger, she hadn’t expected Coleman to manage to maintain decorum OR come straight to the point. “Yes, captain, a demonstration. I noted in our review of the company exercises that they’ve never really gotten a chance to see what the AAC officers attached to Echo can do.”
The casual response drew panicked looks from three of the other four Echo Company officers, and saw the color drain from Coleman’s face as anger was quickly replaced by worry. Lieutenant Wagner was alone in wearing an expression of curiosity intermingled with confusion.
“Are you INSANE?” Jessica raised an eyebrow at the lack of honorific, but made a motion for Coleman to continue instead of reprimanding him. “Whatever declarations you want to make about their OFFICIAL status as law-abiding citizens, that is twenty Paragon level CRIMINALS, colonel. An ability demonstration? It won’t matter that we’re stronger than they are, some of them are going to think they see something they can exploit. Hell, some of them are smart enough that they might actually spot a real vulnerability! You are going to have a revolt on your hands! Sir.”
“That’s funny, captain. See I was thinking quite the opposite. In general I find that the more people know what I’m capable of, the less likely they are to pick a fight with me.” Jessica offered another smile, only partially mocking, to accompany her statement before turning to the company teleporter. “Lieutenant Wagner, how many trips to get all of Echo out to Ground Zero in the Mojave?”
“Umm…” The blonde teleporter trailed off as her eyes flicked back and forth a few times for a mental calculation. “Should be able to get it in four trips, sir. Definitely no more than five.”
“Plan on five then, lieutenant.” Jessica made a mental note to ensure that the teleporter was also included in the ramped up training to come.
“So, who here can tell me the most difficult type of Altered to engage in direct combat?” Jessica’s voice had taken on a somewhat droning quality as she guided her somewhat-awestruck company through the massive Altered testing and training facility. God, I sound like a teacher leading a class field trip.
“Probably you…” The response from someone in the middle of the group drew some surprised laughter, but more startled gasps. And resulted in everyone pulling a step or two away from the redhead who’d made the comment. A woman who looked distinctly terrified when she saw that Jessica now had a clear line of sight to her.
“Good guess, but no.” Jessica had expected the answer. She’d gotten it quite often from actual AAC recruits over the years when she asked them the same question. “As an individual and not a type, I’m disqualified on this one.”
“Enhanced Elemental types.” The second response came from a very-thin bespectacled man, completely bald and only a few inches taller than Jessica herself.
“That is correct. Can anyone tell me why that is?”
“Because we’re invincible. Sir.” Coleman offered the response this time, the cocky tone and swagger he suddenly walked with obviously intended for the benefit of keeping his company cowed.
In response, and without warning, Jessica bent down and snagged a pebble off the ground to fling directly at Coleman’s head. The tiny projectile picked up enough speed from the throw that the whistle of its passage was clearly audible for the split second before it plowed into the captain and vanished in a flash of sickly green light. “Enhanced Elementals are considered much more difficult to engage than their standard counterparts because their power reacts to hazards and harm, and will automatically shift them partially or fully into their elemental state in response to such stimuli.” Jessica sounded like she was quoting a textbook as she turned the group and headed them for a different section of the Ground Zero facility, and ignored the glare her subordinate shot her way once the glow faded.
“Fortunately for us, especially when we have to deal with rogue or Lunatic Elementals, they are NOT, in fact, invincible. Who here can tell me one way in which an Elemental, standard or enhanced, can be engaged with?” Jessica continued to ignore the worsening death-glare Coleman adopted in response to her question, but the rest of the company didn’t seem to share her confidence as that same gaze swept out over them. The silence stretched out for several long seconds.
“Manipulators!” The same Hispanic man that had been earlier convinced that Jessica was here to kill them all finally blurted out the word, though he couldn’t seem to get anything else out when all attention turned towards him.
“He’s right.” The follow-up came from the same short, bald man who had answered earlier. “Overwhelm their own manipulation abilities with basic Manipulators of the same energy type, even enough Lux class should be able to rip an Elemental apart.”
“Correct again!” Jessica brought the group to a halt in front of a bunker that looked out over a long, flat range dotted with massive steel girders embedded in the sand every ten feet or so. “For reference, there are two other methods as well.” The petite woman waved the company into the bunker and pointed them towards the heavily reinforced viewing window that faced the range, but held up a hand to stop Coleman and the other Echo Company officers and motioned for them to follow her around the outside instead.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into those other methods today, as I’m sure all of you would like to have this demonstration wrapped up in time for you to get back for dinner.” A set of speakers inside the bunker clicked on and transmitted Jessica’s voice to those inside with more clarity than if she’d remained with them. “So, let’s get to it.”
The small woman turned back to face the bunker window and offered a wave to the twenty faces all crowding forward to see as much as they could. “Echo Company officers!” Jessica waved a hand to indicate the flat field dotted with heavy girders. “Please be so kind as to show our company what kind of firepower their fearless leaders are packing!” A few excited hoots and cheers could be faintly heard coming from the bunker, as those inside realized what kind of show they were in for. “Let’s go junior to senior rank, shall we?”
Wagner and Byrd both seemed excited as they stepped up to the line, while the other three exchanged a look before glaring at their commanding officer. Jessica caught Coleman’s eye and cut off another objection with a brief shake of her head, then settled in to watch the show. Byrd put on a visually impressive display as he unleashed a wave of fire and plasma at the open range, but Jessica found herself choking back laughter at the shocked expressions all around when he failed to do more than warp a few of the girders.
“For reference, those things aren’t steel. They’re leftovers from a project with an experimental polymer that ended up not working out. VERY durable.”
Wagner was up second, and after a few moments of concentration, Jessica actually applauded a a significant chunk of the course (including two of the girders) vanished. “Not bad, lieutenant. I’d guess that was between three and four tons shifted out. Where’d you put it?”
With a small smile, the teleporter pointed her finger towards the sky just before a loud whistling could be heard. “Permission to move into the bunker, colonel?”
“Granted.” Jessica laughed out her permission, and Lieutenant Wagner vanished several seconds before the chunk of displaced target range crashed back to earth. The other four officers all shifted to their elemental forms as the debris cloud swept over them and the bunker while Jessica simply stood her ground and waited. After about a minute, a roaring sound could be heard and the dust cloud was swept away in a stream of artificial wind.
“And that’s one of the reasons I like Ground Zero. Automated cleanup systems!” The declaration from the lieutenant colonel drew a laugh from Byrd and grudging nods from the other three.
Lieutenant Guzman stepped up next, and unleashed a torrent of pinkish-orange energy that warped several of the pillars and melted a long stretch of sand into scorched glass. Malone’s turn was marginally less impressive, as the lightning Elemental didn’t have any targets that were particularly susceptible to his ability. Coleman continued to glare at Jessica throughout the demonstration, ignoring the cheers and other sounds that could be faintly heard from the bunker, and took several moments after it was his turn before finally shifting to face the range.
The torrent of wispy green energy unleashed by the blond captain wasn’t nearly as bright as any of his subordinates, but it was far more effective. The other three had heated, melted, and twisted parts of the range; but Coleman’s attack seemed to actually eat away at everything in its path, doing far more damage. Coleman’s surge of energy did what none of the others had managed; and actually destroyed the first dozen or so girders in its path.
“Not bad.” Jessica made her declaration earnestly, as she stepped up to the range herself. A smirk sat lightly upon her lips as she saw the surprise from the other officers that she was also joining in the demonstration. After setting herself in front of the range, and taking a few deep breaths in a very theatrical impression of preparation, Jessica suddenly turned to wink at Coleman with a smirk on her lips, and lunged towards the range without further warning as if throwing a haymaker at an invisible opponent.
The air itself seemed to explode. Dirt, sand, and grit flew everywhere as the bunker BEHIND Jessica shook with the force of the massive shockwave. Even the Elementals instinctively recoiled from the detonation, and visual range dropped to almost nothing as a cloud denser than the one thrown up by Lieutenant Wagner’s kinetic drop blanketed the area. Thirty seconds later, the facility’s giant fans clicked on again, and the cloud was swept away. Silence reigned on the training range as a scar stretched out from directly in front of where Jessica stood, almost a canyon really. Some two hundred yards long, a little less than half that in width at the far end from where Jessica stood, and at least twenty yards down at the deeper points. Of the girders that had stood directly in the path of the attack, there was no trace. To the sides and in the area beyond where the worst of the destructive force had reached, several of the large structures were bent and twisted by the secondary force of the aftershock of the attack.
Jessica turned and offered a cheerful wave to the awestruck company in the bunker. “Lieutenant Wagner, you can ferry our people back to the facility now. Leave me and the officers for last, we should have a brief chat before we head back.” A half step and blinking teleport brought her within a couple feet of a stunned Captain Coleman.
“So, captain.” Jessica’s voice was a carefully pitched whisper, too low for the mics to transmit into the bunker. “Still think anyone’s going to want to start something after a demonstration of what the officers can do?”