I wonder if they’ll let me go home for Christmas this year? I decided to stay on base for Thanksgiving, Deanne didn’t have any family to visit and I didn’t want to leave her here alone with the creepy research guys that keep following her around. I know I didn’t want to go last year and they offered but I didn’t… I couldn’t… I was too afraid to be that close to people. I don’t think I’m as afraid anymore, except when I think about being not afraid and it makes me worried that I’m going to…
I’m talking in circles again, aren’t I, diary? So let’s focus on the better stuff for a change! Deanne says it will help me get better inside my own mind if I can be more positive! So living on an island is different. There are beaches EVERYWHERE and I can go swimming, sometimes. I didn’t know how to swim when we got here back in June, and I found out that I can hold my breath for a REALLY long time. I also found out that I can’t get sunburned, but I can’t tan either. I think it’s a positive thing, overall. Tanning would be nice, but sunburns are awful.
I think I’ve gotten better at the testing, too. Aside from working around Gunnery Sergeant Kramer… I think I might hate him, diary. He can hurt people with his power too, but he seems to WANT to hurt people. Dr Kimmel says he’s a ‘frontline soldier’ and it’s normal for him to be more enthusiastic. But the Gunny keeps wanting to ‘have a match’ with me, and I… I don’t…
Most of the other Altered have been great to be around. There’s ten, plus me, and they mostly have little useful abilities instead of scary powers like me and the Gunny.
Oh, darn! It’s after 0900 already! That’s another positive I guess, diary. Now that I can actually sleep when I want to, I found out that I really don’t need very much sleep at all! There’s a lot of extra time at night though, I should start trying to learn somet… I need to stop writing before you get me in trouble again, diary. Wish me luck getting to go home for Christmas!
Private Gary Gleason leaned back in the waiting room chair until his head rested against the wall, and stared up at the ceiling with a bored expression. Two floors up, at the end of the hall, Doctor Kimmel was still arguing with General Poste. I’m impressed that they’re still going at it after two hours without a break. Don’t think the doc is getting anywhere though.
Gary had only briefly met Kimmel, the base’s head of research, when he’d arrived the night before to report for duty. Join the army, serve your country, get experimented on by crazy old scientists.
“We’re finished here, doctor, and soon you’ll just be FINISHED.” The young private leaned forward again, the change of tone in the conversation he was eavesdropping on gave him hope that the two men were almost finished. “Funding for this station will be cut at the end of the year, and then MY soldiers can get back to their duty instead of sitting here on their asses while you poke and prod them day and night!”
“After all this time, General, do you really think it’ll be over that fast?” Gleason absently noted that the research director was growing quite hoarse, another good sign for an end to the argument and maybe he’d finally get to his check-in physical they’d promised him last night.
“How many times now, John? How many times have you thought you’d rid yourself of me only to have smarter men than you turn things around because THEY can se-…”
Gary ended his focused eavesdropping as his heightened senses alerted him to the approach of someone else. Woman, short, walking quickly. A glance at the clock drew a grin from the young Private. I’ll bet she’s the 1000 appointment. I wonder how many of us will be waiting down here by the time those two actually finish arguing.
“It’s open, come on in and grab a chair!” The cheerful greeting was called out as Gary noted the approaching woman hesitate when she reached the door, So she’s at least observant enough to tell someone’s in a room through a closed door.
The door swung slowly open, and Private Gleason immediately pulled himself up and to attention as he noted the rank insignia on the woman’s sleeve. “Good morning, Staff Sergeant.”
“Um, good morning, Private. As you were?” Gary struggled to keep a smile off his face at the almost questioning tone the woman used. “Sergeant Jessica Lawson.” The follow-up took the taller man by surprise, as the petite woman stepped forward and offered a handshake.
Every bit of her posture says she’s afraid to let me touch her, or afraid of touching me maybe. She’s making herself do this. To seem normal? What the hell does she do? Gary kept his internal debate off his face as he stepped forward to accept the handshake, albeit a bit gingerly. “Private Gary Gleason, good to meet you ma’am.”
And now she seems relieved that she… what? Survived a handshake?
“I’m, did I, no, not too early.” The question transformed into a statement as Jessica turned to eye the clock in the waiting room.
“No ma’am, just a holdup this morning. Doctor Kimmel just finished speaking with General Poste in his office, and he’s on his way down now. He should be down in a minute.”
“How-… Right, Altereds everywhere. I still forget sometimes. What time was your appointment?”
Jessica looked again at the clock that showed it now a minute past 1000. “Hopefully he’ll get through your examination quickly. You’re new, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am. Just arrived yesterday evening. Barely had time to review the first bit of that binder of information they dumped on me. Apparently I am a fifty-seven, Physical Altered.” The Private’s voice dropped in volume and took on a conspiratorial tone. “Between us, Sergeant, I have no idea what that actually means yet.”
His attempt at camaraderie drew a brief smile from the young brunette in front of him. “Altered range of 40-60, means you most likely have purely physical abilities with nothing flashy.” Gary’s eyes widened slightly as Sergeant Lawson recited the information easily. “You’re a new arrival, so that would put your Vanishing either in late October, or back in mid-August, right?”
The young man nodded in agreement. “Yes ma’am, 17th of August. You can tell that from the numbers?”
“You really just skimmed the packet, huh?” Gary smiled as his new acquaintance seemed to be relaxing a bit more, and her tone took on a similar conspiratorial air.
“In my defense, ma’am, it’s seven HUNDRED pages.”
“The whole number system is based on the date. Specifically days from the last solstice, or days until the next solstice, whichever is shorter.”
Jessica sighed and Gary watched a little more tension drain out of the woman. “Honestly, how can you not know something that simple? The summer solstice and winter solstice, the longest and shortest days of the year?”
Private Gleason had actually known what the word meant, though in his attempt to inject a bit more levity into the situation at his own expense he found himself presented with a question he didn’t know the answer to. “What the hell, pardon my language ma’am, does the length of the day have to do with getting super powers?”
“If you figure that one out, be sure to let us ALL know Private.” Gary almost jerked out of his chair in surprise at the unexpected voice from the doorway.
You are paying way too much attention to the girl if you didn’t realize the old man was here. Wake up, Gary! “Ah, good morning Dr Kimmel.” The Staff Sergeant mumbled a similar greeting at the same time.
“I apologize for being so late, Private Gleason. Time got away from me an-…”
“I understand, sir.” The younger man’s cheerful interruption drew a suspicious smile from the older scientist.
“How much of our conversation could you hear, Private?”
“Currently there are seven people in the mess hall, Corporal Johansen is arguing with one of the cooks over them not having any more hot food since it’s after ten-hundred.”
Kimmel’s eyes widened, and Sergeant Lawson choked back a sound somewhere between a giggle and a shocked yelp. The cafeteria was halfway across the base, more than a quarter-mile from the medical exam rooms.
“I think we’re going to have to see about getting your security clearance upgraded, Private.” Dr Kimmel spoke slowly, as if reasoning something out in his head as he went. “I’m not comple-…”
“Please, don’t worry sir.” Gleason interrupted again. “The reason I got in on December 1st instead of August 25th was that someone else already came up with all that. It took a couple weeks before they decided they couldn’t really court martial me since it’s not like I ASKED to be an Altered. I have more clearances than any previous member of the US Military below the rank of Major, and I am strictly forbidden from entering Langley, Virginia or DC under any circumstances.”
The brunette woman choked back another surprised giggling sound, and the scientist smiled as he nodded in response. “Well then, you should be completely set. I’ll simply have to trust in your discretion regarding any personal information you learn about your fellow Altereds while on base here.” The scientist’s tone turned darker. “Several of them have a bit more… direct abilities than yours.”
Gary nodded solemnly in response. He didn’t appreciate the thinly veiled threat masquerading as a warning, but he accepted it as reality. “Shall we get started so that we don’t take up more of Sergeant Lawson’s time, sir?”
“Excellent idea. Follow me please, Private.”
Dr Kimmel moved through the interior door to the small medical room, with Gleason following. As he reached the door, the young man turned back to the waiting woman for a moment. “Sorry if it’s out of place to ask, ma’am, but what sort of number did you end up with?”
Jessica looked up at the young Private and met his bright blue eyes with her own dull hazel for a long, silent second. When she finally spoke, there was no trace of emotion in her voice, even to Gary’s vastly enhanced senses. “I’m a seven. Paragon Altered.”
His first two days at the Altered Research base had been absolutely chaotic. Four separate meetings with base security to confirm that the pills found in his luggage and quarters were, in fact, an allowed prescription. The powerful narcotics were the only way Gary could hope to get any sleep with his extremely powerful senses. Another SIX meetings, one for each meal so far, to verify with the kitchen staff that Private Gleason needed to be able to prepare his own meals. His sense of smell and taste were nowhere near as advanced as his eyesight and hearing, but so far past human norm that his diet had become extremely restricted in order for him to actually be able to force any food down.
“Don’t worry, it gets better.” Gary snapped out of his self-absorbed trance at the quiet words from behind him, and turned to see a tall blonde woman smiling at him. “After the first few days everyone adjusts to the few odd requirements each Altered tends to bring, and life returns to a semblance of normality.”
“Speaking from experience, ma’am?”
“Why yes, as you well know Private. I’m fully aware of your abilities, and I have no doubt you know, at the very least, the names and abilities of every Altered on this base.”
“I notice people tend to be more comfortable if I pretend to be ignorant of personal details until they share them with me themselves, Lieutenant Ritely.” The Private accompanied his statement by snapping to attention and saluting. “And you’d be wrong with that assumption. No one’s talking about what Staff Sergeant Lawson or Gunnery Sergeant Kramer can do.” Not in any way that makes sense at least.
“You don’t have to salute the nurses, Private. At ease.” Deanne found herself smiling in spite of herself at the obvious show the new Altered was putting on for her.
“Yes ma’am, I’ll remember that.”
“So is that what brings you to the observation area, Private? Wanting to see the two Sergeants in action? I’d have thought you could monitor the other Altereds’ testing from anywhere on the base.”
“Trying not to go insane, ma’am.” Gleason grinned at the prompting look his brief response drew. “I can hear them testing, everything they’re talking about, but some of the sounds that go along with it, couldn’t tell you WHAT those were. So I try to get my own schedule set so I can watch the other tests, since Dr Kimmel told us it wouldn’t get us in trouble or anything. This way I can put what I hear together with something I can see, and it doesn’t drive me crazy.”
“And that’s the only reason?” The teasing tone reminded Gary that the woman he was talking to could read his emotional state even better than his own enhanced senses could.
“There’s nothing wrong with being concerned for my fellow enlisted, ma’am.”
“No, Private, that there is not.” Deanne continued to smile knowingly, but turned to watch the screen in front of them. “It really is amazing how fast technology is going these days, isn’t it? Ten years ago I don’t think you could have found a monitor this big anywhere in the world.”
“Be nicer if they finally get them to stop making that high-pitched noise, ma’am.”
“So this will be your first time actually seeing what our two most powerful Altereds are capable of, isn’t it Private?”
“Yes, ma’am. I know Gunny Kramer does something with metal, but no one really talks about what Sergeant Lawson does.” Gary hesitated for a moment, then shook his head as he realized the woman he was talking to could probably guess the question he was debating over whether he asked it or not. “What DOES she do, ma’am? I read through all that ‘Altered Scale’ stuff and it doesn’t make sense to me. If she’s a seven…
“Why does she seem so anxious all the time?”
“Scared, ma’am. She’s scared, all the time.”
Deanne nodded in acknowledgement of the point as the monitor in front of the pair flicked on to reveal a shot of a heavily reinforced concrete room. In the center of the room stood a muscular, bare-chested man with closely cropped dark hair and a confident grin on his face. Next to the man was, what appeared to be, an old M3 tank.
“Escalation test number seventeen; Altered subject Gunnery Sergeant Ned Kramer.” Gary winced slightly as he heard the voice coming from the speakers below the screen in front of him and reverberating through the testing room a half a mile away. The slight mis-synchronization always gave the Private a headache when exposed to it for long.
“Exercise goal is removal of sponson mounted weaponry and disabling of vehicle drive capability. Gunnery Sergeant, you have one minute to complete these goals. Do you have any questions before we begin?”
“It’s not gonna take me anywhere CLOSE to a minute, Kimmel. Just say when.” The Gunnery Sergeant’s response wasn’t transmitted to the observation screen, but Gary could still make out the words.
Gary felt his eyes widen with shock and his jaw drop involuntarily open at the scene that followed that single word. The human form on the screen transformed from flesh and blood to something like living metal in a heartbeat, its hands coming together and fusing to form an enormous axe-like blade. Even through the many reinforced walls and across all the distance, the tortured scream of metal tearing through metal caused Private Gleason to wince. Less than twenty seconds after starting, a flesh and blood Gunnery Sergeant Kramer stood proudly in front of the remains of the old tank. The main cannon and its housing lay in pieces on the floor, and the engine compartment was crushed beyond any possible hope of repair.
“Damn.” The word came out unbidden, and Gary winced and turned to apologize to his companion.
“Don’t worry about it, I’d say it’s a pretty accurate sentiment.” Nurse Ritely turned a smile to the taller man, before looking back at the screen.
“Gunnery Sergeant, test completed. Thank you for your time. Please report to medical for after-action evaluation.”
“Why don’t I stay and help out the Staff Sergeant with her testing instead? She’s up next, right?” Gary felt his hands clench into fists at something he picked up in the tone of the Gunnery Sergeant’s question.
“We’ve been over this, Gunnery Sergeant Kramer. Report to medical.” Gleason relaxed slightly at the steely authority in the research director’s voice, and smiled slightly as the muscular Gunnery Sergeant acquiesced and strode angrily out of the testing room.
“Ready to see what Jessica can do?” Gary turned at the question, and realized he was feeling nervous now for a different reason.
“Is it anything like that?”
“Absolutely NOTHING like that, Private.”
The pair lapsed back into silence as the monitor showed the petite form of Staff Sergeant Lawson enter the testing room and move to stand near the remains of the tank.
“Escalation test number forty four. Staff Sergeant Lawson, the interior of the tank in front of you has been completely filled in with high strength steel, making it effectively a solid block of armor. At commencement of test, please strike the tank as hard as you can to see if we’ve FINALLY found a level of armor that can hold up to your ability.”
“Wait, what?” The shock in Private Gleason’s voice drew a chuckle from Nurse Ritely.
“That’s not the best part, Private.” The young man turned an inquiring look at his blonde companion, but her attention was fixed back on the screen.
Jessica didn’t leap into action immediately the way Gunny Kramer had. Gary watched anxiously as the petite woman walked, almost timidly, up to the front of the tank and examined it for a moment. Then she raised her right hand to shoulder level and pushed forward quickly, as if she were going to shove the tank. What looked, to the observers at least, like a gentle shove sent the several ton chunk of metal hurtling across the room. Pieces flew wildly in all directions and most of the center seemed to disintegrate before it even reached the wall.
Deanne, even with her un-augmented senses, could hear the tremendous crash, could FEEL the tremendous crash, as the remnants of the tank embedded themselves deeply into the reinforced walls. Portions of the ceiling could be seen collapsing on the monitor as the impact spread wide cracks across nearly half the testing room.
For a long moment, Gary blinked in awe at the screen and waited for the ringing in his ears to subside. He barely made out the voice of the research director from the speaker. “Well done, Sergeant Lawson. Initial estimates have almost 20% of the vehicle still in one piece after impact. Would you evaluate your own effort as ‘full power’ during this test?”
Private Gleason strained to hear the response from the petite brunette standing in the ruined testing chamber, but realized it was likely pointless with the loud ringing still dominating his hearing. Instead he focused all his attention on the picture of the monitor, watching carefully when the Sergeant’s lips finally moved to mouth a single word.
“Good morning, Sergeant.” Gary held up his hands in a gesture of surrender as the startled woman spun at his entrance. “Just me, ma’am. Private Gleason.”
“Ah, sorry Private. You startled me. What can I do for you?”
“Just thought you might want some company, ma’am, or at least some coffee.” The Private reached down and produced a pair of steaming mugs. “You’ve been up here almost every morning of the week that I’ve been here, always by yourself. Don’t want to intrude, bu-…”
“I like to watch the sunrise.” Jessica interrupted the babbling Private and waved a hand at the massive east facing windows. “This is the only place on the base you can really watch it from, unless you want to go outside.”
“Don’t like the fresh air?” Gary kept his tone light as he moved slowly forward and placed one of the mugs within easy reach of the Sergeant.
“Dr Kimmel doesn’t like me going outside without a chaperone.”
“You don’t strike me as the type to get into trouble, ma’am.”
The petite brunette smiled, but kept her focus out the window. “I think he’s worried I’ll run away and won’t come back if he lets me out of sight.” Gary started to respond, then stopped and waited instead. It took several seconds before Jessica spoke again.
“I wouldn’t run. It would be pointless. Can’t run from yourself, no matter how fast you can go.” Apparently to underscore her statement, the Sergeant suddenly vanished and reappeared in several different places around the room before returning to her seat.
“That is really amazing. What’s the word… teleporting?”
“Or something close to it.” Jessica’s smile withered as the conversation turned to her abilities. “Dr Kimmel tells me I can’t go as far as any of the other Altered teleporters can, but I can do it faster than anyone else he’s heard of, so far.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t hav-…”
“I started blinking around the room, Private. You don’t have to apologize for expressing your opinion on my antics, or for being curious.” A half smile reappeared, though this one held little trace of humor. “EVERYONE wants to know what the mysterious and powerful Altereds can do, after all.”
Gary laughed at the stage tone the Sergeant adopted for her statement. After a moment Jessica joined in, giggling softly.
Private Gleason moved to sit near, but not too near, the petite Sergeant, and the pair lapsed into a companionable silence for several minutes.
“What’s that?” Gary broke the silence as he spotted several distant shapes along the horizon. “Planes?”
“Where? I don’t see them.” The taller man pointed in response, then flushed with embarrassment as he realized there was no way Jessica would be able to see them yet.
“They’re still quite a ways out, but it looks like a whole bunch of little planes. I wonder if they’re doing some kind of drills with the carriers.”
“I don’t, wait, I think I see them. Little spots over there?” Gary nodded as Jessica pointed in more or less the right direction.
“They’re coming towards us, so we should be able to see them a lot better really soon. Probably headed for the naval base.” Gary trailed off again as his eyes focused on something new in the swarm of small planes. “Holy shit, there’s a guy out there flying with the planes!”
Jessica moved closer to the window and strained to see, but couldn’t find more than tiny specks against the sunrise. “Are you sure?”
“He’s glowing, I’m pretty sure. And… those aren’t our planes. The markings are all wrong.” Gary felt fear knot in his stomach as his enhanced senses resolved more and more details on the approaching fleet of aircraft. “I thin-…”
The discussion was interrupted by the distant sound of a loud siren, which stunned the enlisted pair silent as they recognized it almost immediately. Air raid warning.
“This, this has to be some kind of drill.” Jessica was the first to find her voice, but Gary was already shaking his head.
“Attention all AR base and NDRC personnel, move to the secure underground areas immediately. Repeat, move to secure areas IMMEDIATELY. This is not a drill.” The somewhat panicked voice over the PA began repeating its message as the Sergeant was stunned into silence again.
“Come on, Sergeant. We have to get moving, now.” Gary reached over to tug gently at the petite woman’s arm, but he might as well have been trying to pull a mountain.
“They’re going towards the naval base.” Jessica barely whispered the words, and to anyone else they probably would have been inaudible over the blaring sirens and repeated PA calls.
“Yes, but we nee-…”
“Deanne works shifts at the hospital there on the weekends.”
“Sergeant we have to-…” Gary trailed off as he realized he was suddenly alone in the room, his eyes focusing out the window on the rapidly disappearing and reappearing silhouette that was racing off to meet a force of nearly two hundred enemy aircraft, and at least one unknown Altered.