I did get to come home for Christmas this year. I’m not sure I should have, I’m still not sure if I should have ever come out, but I did. I’m sitting in my old room now as I write in you, diary, and I… Everything is even MORE confusing now!
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore. I tried to lock myself up, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep the door closed with Deanne out there asking me to come out. I killed so many people, for real this time. As real as that other place felt… I KNOW that this time was really real. But there was the president on the news, and everyone at the base kept telling me I was a hero, and Deanne…
Deanne is the only one who seems to understand that I hate having these powers. Everyone else keeps acting like I should be happy that I got to be a hero, or thankful, or… Like it’s wrong to be upset about having to live the rest of my life as some kind of monster. Like I’m crazy to not want a medal and a promotion for killing people. Maybe I AM crazy.
I get to stay with my family til after New Years, then I have to report back for duty. The First Altered Combat Division, that’s where they told me I’m going to be posted next. I don’t know… I want… I’m afraid of what will happen if they make me go out and fight again. But I’m afraid to run away too… All those people back on the base, so many of them would have died if I hadn’t been there. Does it somehow make it okay to kill lots of people as long as you save more? I wish you could tell me what to do, diary. I wish God would answer me when I ask him, too.
Oh, mama’s calling for me. Dinner must be ready.
“Ah, General Poste, welcome to my new facility!” The grin worn by the wiry scientist was wide and unapologetic as he greeted the scowling officer. “I must admit, it’s a bit of a surprise to see you, congratulations on your upcoming retirement.”
Poste actually growled for a moment before he could manage a response. “A little early to be gloating, Kimmel.”
“On the contrary, General, I’m not gloating at all. I’m CELEBRATING!” Bernard Kimmel leaned back in the plush chair behind his new, expansive, desk. “Altered Research is guaranteed full funding for the next decade, and we’ll be working closely with the newly formed first Altered Combat Division. There’s a great deal to celebrate, unless you’re one of the few people who were too blind to support both endeavors.”
“You really think that your little brain-trust and a platoon of freaks is going to last? It won’t be long before everyone remembers that the military is built on the backs of REAL soldiers, out the-…”
“Your ‘real soldiers’ are barely more than cannon fodder in this new world we find ourselves in, General.” The levity vanished from Kimmel’s tone to be replaced by harsh resolve. “Your way, that you tried to preserve by blatantly LYING to your superiors, and at multiple Senate hearings, would do nothing but put our country’s young men in the path of beings they are HELPLESS against.”
As the general grew flushed and angrily stammered for a retort, the scientist slammed a fist into his desk loudly enough to briefly shock the other man silent. “One woman, who looks about as threatening as a pet kitten, did THAT.” Kimmel managed to conceal a wince of pain as he raised his hand off the desk to point at a blown up photo on the wall.
The picture was the best shot Bernard had been able to find, blown up to cover almost half the office wall, of the death of the Japanese battleship Hiei. The scientist regretted that he hadn’t been able to find an angle where Jessica Lawson was visible on the deck of the ship, and found himself sidetracked from his argument as he again marveled at the evidence of how much damage a single Altered could do in the blink of an eye.
“You make it sound like they’re ALL like this. Like every Altered in the world is some kind of demon, capable of slaying countless millions.” Poste actually spat on the office floor before continuing. “I’ve met a hundred of these freaks, Kimmel. Most of them can barely manage a decent parlor trick. A few could do something that was actually USEFUL. And yet you’re set on trying to wrap our government, and its military, around your finger on the FEAR that something like this could be commonplace.”
“It doesn’t HAVE to be common you imbecile!” Kimmel finally stood as he shouted at the shorter, stouter man. “One Altered like this took on the most powerful fleet in recorded history, by HERSELF, and won. Reports from Europe are full of descriptions of Germany’s units of ‘Übermensch’ massacring entire companies arrayed against them. Paris is reportedly being kept unoccupied by the efforts of a SINGLE MAN who has destroyed every attempt the Nazis have made to advance on that city. The days of throwing good young men out into the field with a weapon in their hands and scarcely enough training to know how to use it are ending, General, and I for one plan to welcome that change.”
The scientist forced a more nonchalant look back onto his face as he finished his speech and returned to his seat. “But we’ve been sidetracked having the same old argument, General. Why are you here?”
The shift in conversational focus, and knowing smile that accompanied it, drew a nervous grimace from the older military man. “I have a candidate for the command position of the first ACD that I’d like you to consider.”
Kimmel’s mocking smile shifted to a genuinely bewildered stare, an expression that lasted several seconds before realization flashed in his eyes and the wiry man broke out laughing. “You, you want ME, to make an endorsement for the military commander of the division?” The evil glare cast his way in response to the laughter simply caused the seated man to laugh harder. “Contrary to whatever new conspiracy you’ve dreamed into existence, I’m still a civilian. I don’t have any real say in the military side of things.”
“And you aren’t half as oblivious as you act, Kimmel. Right now any recommendation you feed to Washington is going to be acted on immediately, and you know it. Getting a real-…”
The single word interruption left Poste turning red with apoplexy, but Kimmel met the rage filled glare with a calm expression. “Unlike you, General, I know where I am NOT an expert. And after having been forced to work with you for the past several years, I wouldn’t substitute your ‘expertise’ for my own lacks under ANY circumstances. I’ll be making no recommendations for the military side of things. Is that everything, General?”
Poste had managed to regain some control of himself during the brief, insulting, rebuttal; though his tone was still heavily laden with anger. “You should reconsider, Kimmel.”
“Goodbye, General Poste. I’d say that I’ll miss our little chats, but I’m not really that good of a liar.”
Kimmel sat patiently, wearing the same mocking smile he’d had at the start of the conversation, until the older man finally stormed angrily from the room. After the door slammed shut, a quick press of a button under his desk rendered it quite thoroughly locked, a useful little feature that the scientist mentally berated himself for not remembering earlier. Another quick poke at the top of the desk turned on the shiny new intercom system.
“Janet? I’m working on some sensitive materials, make sure not to send anyone through to my office without informing me no matter how many stars they have on their shoulders.”
“Of course, Dr Kimmel.” Bernard briefly marveled at how crisp the sound through the concealed speakers was, as if his secretary were in the room with him.
Confident that his office had been transformed, more or less, into a proper sanctuary, Kimmel reached under the desk to recover the folder he’d hastily hidden there when General Poste had arrived, unannounced. The folder was dropped somewhat haphazardly on the left side of the desk, and a hefty stack of applicant papers grew next to it as Bernard dug the various sheets from his desk drawers. Finally ready to get back to some REAL work, the scientist found himself pausing for several long seconds as he contemplated the two words stamped onto the nondescript folder. An apt summary of the secondary objective for the Altered Research Division.
Bernard Kimmel seated himself wearily in the nearly empty officer’s mess and stared blankly at the meal in front of him. I suppose it’s a case of being careful what one wishes for. God but I miss sleeping.
“Good afternoon, Doctor Kimmel.” The wiry scientist started awake at the greeting from behind him. “Is the food here really that bland or are the hours that bad?” The uniformed man seated himself across the table from the recently roused doctor with a faintly mocking smile.
Bernard blinked several times, trying to force himself fully aware and identify the vaguely familiar man across from him. After a few seconds of staring, the scientist’s recognition finally clicked. “Capt-… sorry, Colonel Clayton. What brings you to our new base?”
“Been too busy to read your dispatches, Doctor?” Lester Clayton’s smile widened slightly. “I was hoping that YOU could tell ME what I’m doing here, in command of a combat division no less.”
“Ah, I was wondering when they’d get around to assigning a commander to the first ACD. Congratulations on the promotion, Colonel.”
“Why me, Kimmel?” The smile had vanished, replaced with a sternly serious expression.
Bernard adopted a confused expression at the question. “I had nothing to do with your posting, if that’s what you’re asking, Colonel. My only recommendation was that whomever was selected had previous experience dealing with Altereds with no indications of phobias or discrimination.”
“So what, I was selected because I was CO during a half-dozen Returns? And you had nothing to do with it? I find that hard to believe, considering how my last combat command ended, Kimmel.”
“Whom was involved with one of those Returns may have also been a major factor, and I’m not referring to myself, Colonel.”
“Lieutenant Lawson now, actually. I understand she received the increase in rank at the same time she was awarded the Medal of Honor. Considering she’s the only known Paragon level Altered currently in the US Military, and potentially one of the most powerful Altered in the world at that…” Kimmel’s voice trailed off meaningfully.
“And I was there, ordering around a woman that could have obliterated me and everything else on that base. You think that’s why I was picked?”
“SUCCESSFULLY ordering around a woman that could have obliterated the entire base, I think is the important distinction here, Colonel. It would seem to be an important criterion for commanding an entire division of Altered, at least in my opinion.”
“Are we really going to have anywhere near a full division? I’ve heard rumors that Vanishings are becoming more common, but there can’t be THAT many Altered in the army.”
Bernard shrugged and turned back to his neglected meal, before pushing the tray away after noticing that his food had apparently cooled and congealed during his unplanned nap. “I’m afraid I won’t be much help with the organization of the military side of things, Colonel. I have my own work cut out for me and my team with just our research projects.”
“Yes, that will be one of the first things we’ll have to discuss, Doctor Kimmel, say tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll need a full briefing on all of your ongoing projects, since they’ll be occurring on MY base. And I would recommend looking into delegating more of that work, Doctor, seeing as you’re likely going to have a great deal of involvement with ‘the military side of things,’ as you put it, and you already seem to be stretching yourself pretty thin.”
“Wha-… But, Colonel, some of the projects that Altered Research has been tasked with are EXTREMELY sensitive, not to mention extremely technical and to suggest I’d be taken away from that wor-…”
“I’ve been instructed to have the first ACD ready for a combat deployment to Europe within a month. You’re the resident expert on everyone I would be deploying, Doctor. That makes your assistance with military matters a greater priority than anything else right now.”
“A MONTH?” Kimmel sat back in his seat, briefly slack-jawed with shock. “That’s insane. The only Altered we have with both REAL combat experience AND a combat useful ability is… not suitable for deployment right now.”
“You’re talking about Lawson, right? Why is she not suitable? I saw the footage from Pearl Harbor, she was incredible. I never would have suspected she was the same girl from her Return.”
The wiry man sighed loudly before glancing around to insure that the two men were alone in the room. “We absolutely CANNOT put Ms Lawson into combat any time soon, Colonel. This is VITAL.”
“Explain.” Clayton’s tone was suspicious as he spat out the word.
“Colonel, we never progressed from testing Altereds to actually TRAINING them at the Pearl Harbor facility. Ms Lawson was every bit as unprepared for combat when she actually engaged in it as she was when you met her immediately after her Return. Additionally there are… mental considerations.”
Bernard made eye contact with the man across from him, but the Colonel met his gaze with a hard, but patient, stare. “After the battle ended, Ms Lawson was out of commission for a few days.” Kimmel raised a hand to forestall the interjection he saw coming when Clayton rolled his eyes at the beginning of the statement. “Not physically, Colonel. Ms Lawson claims she was lightly injured by the Japanese Altered, but she was in perfect health as far as could be observed by the time she returned. She locked herself in her room and refused to acknowledge any attempt to get her out for three days. After she was finally coaxed out by Lieutenant Ritely, she made an extremely disturbing confession about her participation in the battle.”
“Ritely… the nurse that was working with you during Lawson’s Return?” Colonel Clayton sounded slightly confused at this added detail, but the scientist waved the question off dismissively.
“Yes, the same, but that’s hardly relevant. Ms Lawson stated that she was not entirely in control of her actions during the fighting, and Ms Ritely can confirm that her statement was the absolute truth.”
Clayton’s confused expression lingered for a few more moments before he finished processing all the information and his face went pale in shock. “You mean, all of that, that was some kind of uncontrolled rampage?”
“I wouldn’t go QUITE that far, Colonel. This wasn’t the same as the insane lashing out that plagues a small percentage of Returning Altered. I think this is a side effect of the intense, combat driven delusion that Ms Lawson experienced during her Vanishing. The cause, however, is not important. The primary point is simple, we CANNOT allow Ms Lawson into a combat situation without finding a way to train her to keep herself fully under control. She’s just too powerful to take any chances.”
“Well then, Doctor, I believe we have our work cut out for us. I’ve been all but directly ordered to include Lawson in the combat force we’re sending to Europe. The President himself wants it clear that America will deploy its new ‘Champion’ to defend its allies as well as itself. If we stall, I’d say we have about six weeks to get Lieutenant Lawson ready for her second combat deployment.”
“That’s INSANE, Colonel. Not to mention completely idiotic.”
“If there’d been SOME mention of Lawson’s instability in any of the official reports, I imagine we’d have a shot at some other solution.” Kimmel paled as he recognized the truth in the officer’s statement, and realized the implications it could have for his freshly realized dream of Altered Research. “But since there was no such mention, we’re going to pretend it never happened. From your story I’m assuming that Lieutenant Ritely has developed a bit of a rapport with Lawson? So the two of you need to figure out a VERY rapid training program for a dangerously powerful being.” Clayton stood and turned towards the exit, before pausing and looking down at the still shell-shocked scientist.
“I’m not going to say I would have done it any different than you, Doctor. Someone that powerful, the wrong choices might have been made out of fear if the people in charge knew she wasn’t a hundred percent reliable. And Lawson has been through enough that she doesn’t need her name tarnished by shit like that if it turns out to be a one-time thing. But now we have to FIX IT. Understood?”
Kimmel could only nod, still staring almost blankly forward as his mind raced through possible solutions, discarding most. He didn’t consciously note the Colonel’s exit, so engrossed in his own attempt to solve the problem. After several minutes, the scientist bowed his head, and did something he hadn’t since he was a child.
Please, God, give us a way out of this one.
“Reset the course, let’s try it again. You had some good improvement that time, Lieutenant.” Bernard Kimmel tried to keep the weary notes from his voice as he sat in the control room, watching the events in the hastily cobbled together ‘Advanced Altered Training Course’ unfold from a safe distance.
“Once more, unless she has a breakthrough, or she’s going to backslide into depression again and we’ll lose at least a day of training.” The scientist nodded his response to his assistant’s warning, trusting her to accurately judge the subject’s remaining mental fortitude.
“Course is live, commence training run at your convenience, Lieutenant.” Bernard sighed as he released the mic’s ‘talk’ button and tried to focus his full attention on the monitors.
The training course, a converted artillery range, sprang to life as dozens of cutout soldiers popped up out of concealment to fire quite real rifles at the woman approaching them. It had taken a week to get the course operational, which had worked out well since it had taken Deanne nearly that amount of time to get Lawson back out of her room after she’d heard about her upcoming deployment on a televised news broadcast. Kimmel shook his head again at the memory of THAT surprise. Propaganda at its finest; we’re so powerful that we can tell the entire world exactly what our plan is and the enemy won’t be able to do a thing to stop it.
For the first few runs the AATC had used low power ammunition for the small arms, and blank powder charges for the simulated tanks and heavier guns. While completely invulnerable to all the course’s ‘threats,’ however, the Paragon Altered hadn’t had any episodes of control loss like the one that she claimed occurred at Pearl Harbor. The rifles were switched to full loads, and the smaller artillery and emplacement guns to firing non-explosive training rounds. The result had been the same. During the third week Bernard, and a reluctant Deanne, had stepped up the risk level again by using live rounds for everything. A tank shell had caught Lawson in the shoulder during that run, the first impact that Bernard had ever recorded where the woman seemed in any way distressed. There had been no visible injury, neither on film nor during the physical inspection afterwards, but the results…
Jessica Lawson destroyed nearly every square foot of the course after suffering, at worst, a minor flesh wound. The pair of observers had sat, awestruck, as they watched the usually timid and non-threatening woman on the screen obliterate every simulated enemy with a methodical efficiency that neither had EVER seen from her before. It took two days to get her out of her room again after that episode, time spent rebuilding and upgrading the AATC.
Kimmel found himself holding his breath as one of the heavier artillery pieces hit close enough to Lawson to likely trigger another bout of automatic violence. The breath was released, and a slight smile curved his lips as he noted the abrupt change in the Altered woman’s fighting pattern.
“She’s out of control again, but not as bad as last time I think.” Deanne rubbed her temples from her seat next to Bernard, the course being out at her extreme sensing range. “I’m still not sure if this will work or not, Bernard.”
The wiry scientist kept his attention focused on the screen, ignoring the wary tone from his colleague and hoping that his extra additions to the course would pay off in a big way for the frighteningly powerful woman’s progress.
The petite brunette blinked around the course, annihilating simulated targets with brutal efficiency, when several of the simulated soldiers suddenly ejected their rifles into the dirt, leaving them unarmed. At the same time, one of the few surviving ‘tanks’ popped the hatch to reveal a small white flag waving back and forth. Bernard smirked slightly at the cartoonish effect, but he hadn’t had time to rig something more ‘real.’ On the screen Jessica’s onslaught continued unabated, but the pattern changed. Several of the ‘surrendered’ soldiers were blown off the stands holding the cutouts upright, but none were obliterated by the destructive energy wielded by the Altered Lieutenant. Less than a minute later, the massive course was silent. Jessica Lawson stood in the middle of the cratered field, holding herself so perfectly still that Bernard actually worried for a moment that something was wrong. Then the woman on the screen slowly walked over to one of the knocked over cutouts, and carefully lifted it up to inspect. In the seat next to him, Deanne Ritely let out a triumphant cheer.
“She FINALLY believes she can do it! She’s not there yet, but she actually believes it’s possible now!” Kimmel found himself suppressing his own urge to cheer at the elated cry from his assistant. “With another week left before we have to deploy, she might actually make it through this!”
Bernard shook his head softly at the word choice from the excited blonde woman. “It was never a question of HER making it through this, Deanne. It was a question of if the rest of us would survive.”
“Is it confirmed? It’s over?” The tall, wiry man ignored the glare thrown at him as he barged into the military commander’s office with a small stack of papers clutched in his hands.
“I’m going to assume we’re talking about the latest on the warfront?” Colonel Lester Clayton relaxed his glare slightly and motioned for the agitated scientist to sit down. “As far as I know, it’s all accurate. It’ll take time to confirm EVERYTHING, but the coup itself is definitely real.”
Doctor Kimmel sank into the indicated chair and stared at the older military man across the desk from him. “What the hell happened?”
“The ‘Übermenschen’ decided that we weren’t bluffing. The public plans for an allied Altered unit with members from the US, Canada, and Great Britain apparently scared them into taking a different course. Guess they didn’t like their odds. The first ACD’s first combat deployment is on hold until we confirm that the Germans really are sticking to the ceasefire and pulling all of their occupying troops back home.”
“That’s… that is exceptional news if it proves true. Even if it’s some kind of ruse, we’ll still have extra time to get Lieutenant Lawson more fully prepared. And if it’s true, I can FINALLY get back to my research!”
Clayton shook his head at the enthusiasm displayed by the scientist at the idea of ‘research.’ “Don’t get TOO excited, Doctor. It’s entirely possible the situation will degrade no matter what the intentions over there are. The overthrow of one fascist government espousing garbage about a master race in favor of ANOTHER fascist government claiming to BE the master race might not work out well in the long term.”
Bernard seemed to consider the statement, then simply waved dismissively. “If they were really competent enough to take over without destroying everything, they should be competent enough to hold things together until this all becomes NOT my problem to deal with. I apologize for my rude entrance, Colonel. I think I’ll go inform Ms Lawson of the potential good news.”
“I understand your tendency to get overexcited, Doctor. Just knock first next time?”
Bernard Kimmel was already out the door again before the Colonel finished speaking, wheels spinning wildly in his head as he considered the best ways to make up for all the lost time so far.
“I don’t understand, Doctor. I thought the war was over now. Why do I still need to do this?”
Kimmel sighed and removed his glasses to rub his eyes as he considered his response to the uncertain question from the young woman in front of him. “Because, Lieutenant, there will always be another war. Besides, I’d thought you were quite interested in gaining a more complete control over your abilities.”
“I’d rather not have them at all.” The petite brunette’s response was barely a whisper, but the scientist easily read the words on her lips. They’d been repeated often enough in his presence that it was hardly a challenge.
“Be that as it may, Lieutenant,” the reminder that the scientist had noticed the oft repeated mantra drew a brief, embarrassed blush. “As far as we’ve been able to determine, you’re the only Paragon level Altered in the United States, and among the most powerful beings in the world. In addition to it being an EXCELLENT idea, in my opinion, to learn both control and about your limits; I believe it’s your duty, as long as you wish to continue wearing that uniform, to master your powers to the best of your ability.”
A honeyed tongue, Bernard Kimmel did NOT possess. He fought an involuntary wince at the lack of sincerity he heard in his own tone, and was more than a little shocked to see his audience respond with a firm nod and a look of renewed conviction.
“You’re right. It’s not just about me. Let’s do this.”
The wiry man shook his head slightly in disbelief as he watched the young woman blink out towards the converted artillery range.
“Don’t make her regret believing that load of crap.”
Bernard started at the sudden voice behind him, and turned to see Deanne Ritely walk past him to seat herself at the second console.
“If you disbelieve me so strongly, why let her go? I somehow doubt my words would have held much weight if you’d spoken up.”
“Because ultimately I agree that she needs this. Now what insanity are we putting Jessica through today?”