Perhaps the oddest casualty of the widespread presence of superhuman ‘Altered’ in our midst; the death of traditional militaries. The potential presence of superhuman soldiers on the battlefield, regardless of how forbidden such a deployment has been made by numerous treaties, seems to have rendered even the idea of large standing armies to the realm of obsolescence. The few nations that failed to win whatever cosmic lottery grants the greatest powers to the Vanished tried to keep up in a different arms-race; one of quantity over quality. After a few early examples were made of such efforts, the surviving countries found themselves frantically seeking new alliances. In some cases to the point of allowing their nation to be subsumed by another, sacrificing the largest portion of their identities on a chance for survival.
Meanwhile, in most countries, these same Altered that governments have intrinsically linked to their national security continue to suffer from increasingly burdensome legal restrictions and public discrimination. A few others, most notably the New German Republic, laud the Altered as truly superhuman and elevate even the weakest to positions of relative royalty over their normal human citizen. One who is even a marginally attentive student of history should quickly realize that neither of these paths is likely to end in a good place.
-Renaldo McLaurin, excerpt from Observations of an Altered World
Jessica found herself frozen at attention in her new commanding officer’s office for the second time in three days. She had to admit to herself, even as the man stood in front of her with a glare filled with equal parts rage and utter contempt, this had actually gone a lot better than she’d expected.
“Is this REALLY how you think things are run, Colonel? That the FIRST thing you do under a new command is circumvent THAT commander by running all the way up to the god damned Secretary of Defense?” It took several seconds after the general finished speaking before Jessica realized that he was NOT being rhetorical with his questions.
“Sir, whether we like it or not this IS how things are run. And the FIRST thing I did under a new command was get assigned to do a job that we have a dozen administrative people for. The SECOND thing I did was provide insight on the first three dozen personnel interviews.” Jessica finally dropped her rigid stance enough to make unflinching eye-contact with her superior officer. “Getting the Sec-Def involved was, at the earliest, number five on the list, and it saved a HELL of a lot of time doing it this way, rather than having this meeting TWICE, wouldn’t you agree, sir?”
The thick sarcasm on the final question threw the general off guard as the rage on his expression was momentarily replaced with surprise. “HOW DARE YOU-…”
“HOW COULD I NOT!?” Eight decades in the military had taught the tiny woman a number of lessons on how to properly shout at someone, as she completely drowned out the general’s angry shouting. And set him back a pace with a flash of panic in his eyes. “If we’re here because you want to yell at me because you feel insulted, just let me know when I can leave. If you want to bring any charges up for conduct unbecoming like you’ve been threatening all morning, DO IT AND LET’S BE DONE.” The general took another step back at the still-surprising volume, but his expression no longer held any trace of fear. “And if you truly don’t understand why I NEED the files on ‘Echo Company’s’ operations and personnel, seeing as how I’m still the FUCKING FIELD COMMANDER FOR THIS DIVISION? Then YOU need to resign your commission and walk out that door, NOW.” There was a long pause before she added. “Sir.”
Silence reigned for almost a minute after the last echoes of the petite woman’s shouting died away. When it was finally broken, it was Jessica’s turn to stare in shock. General Kyle Mathis finally lost his expression of rage and contempt, and broke down laughing. The lieutenant colonel stared in open-mouthed surprise for several long moments before her superior managed to get control of himself.
“God dammit, Colonel. MacAllister warned me that you wouldn’t take shit from ANYONE when he informed me of the merger, but after that performance on day one? I didn’t really believe him.” The general ran a hand through his close cropped salt and pepper hair as he chuckled again. “Especially with you being in for what, almost eighty years now? And never promoted above lieutenant colonel? I guess I got stuck thinking of you as a figurehead instead of an officer.”
“I have been demoted a few times over the years, sir.” Another chuckle came in response to the deadpan delivery.
“There’s also the bit where Washington doesn’t really WANT to see the immortal, all-powerful Champion,” thick sarcasm dripped from the title. “With stars on her shoulders. And personally I think I’ve already got enough responsibilities to carry without adding any more on top. Sir.”
General Mathis nodded in acknowledgement of both points, and reached into a desk drawer to produce a heavy folder and drop it on the desk. Jessica looked at the massive file for a moment, surprise visible on her face again that the general had apparently prepared the records she requested in advance, then understanding dawned. “General MacAllistair talked to you before that show you two put on with the speakerphone, didn’t he?”
“Of course he did, I called the man up last night as soon as Garrett mentioned the conclusion of your little introduction.” The man’s tone turned more serious again. “This is everything you’re getting for now, by the way, so don’t bother asking me, Garrett, or even Secretary MacAllistair for more. The actual names of our ‘civilian’ personnel are blacked out for now, because frankly you don’t need to know WHO they are more than WHAT they can do. Particularly since the scenarios in which Echo is ever publicly deployed are… unlikely.”
Jessica successfully fought back her urge to point out that knowing details about the actual personnel was probably every bit as important in an extreme emergency as being briefed on their capabilities. You already had a huge, and unexpected victory today. No need to rock the boat harder and see if you can get back on his bad side in record time. “As long as there’s some actual evaluations in there and not just a brief rundown of Altered abilities, this will be sufficient for now, sir.”
Mathis grinned and seemed entirely unbothered at the implication that his subordinate would find a new way to go around him if such information wasn’t included. “Ability assessments, after-action debriefs, field assessments, you get everything except for names, dates, and places. And Colonel?” The grin disappeared. “Don’t fuck around with me again. Come straight to me and make your case the first time, THEN you can call upstairs if we can’t work something out. Dismissed.”
Jessica strode across the room to pick up the large folder before snapping a salute to the general. “Sir, yes sir!”
Jessica sighed as she reached forward to click off the small alarm sitting on her desk. Been in this office more in the past few days than I was all of last year. God, tell me this isn’t some grand conspiracy to finally promote me out of field deployments. I know I used to ask for it all the time, but I really don’t want to go back to 24/7 paperwork!
Delicate hands ran their way through short, brown hair as she stood up from her chair and stretched, a habit she hadn’t yet broken after eight decades of muscles that never cramped or tired. Now why did I set the alar-… Right, time to go see the shrink. Everything else has gone so much better than expected today, maybe number twelve will finally have something decent to contribute to the session.
A quick cleanup saw the giant stack of papers all crammed, more or less in order, back into their folder and thrown into a drawer. The instant the drawer slipped shut, Jessica was gone from her office; blinking rapidly across the base in an effort to put distance between herself and the cramped space as quickly as possible. I’m not fleeing from my office, I’m just making sure I’m on time! After all, the medical complex is on the far side of the base…
Jessica lost her train of thought as she appeared in the afternoon sunlight, and heard a startled yelp from behind her as she vanished again. A moment later she was back at the spot, identifying herself to base security and making sure they didn’t put the base on lockdown due to an unidentified teleporter. She fought back the urge to sigh and blink away again when the soldier called for a vehicle to ferry her to her destination. They make me fly on a plane when they send me out to do PR crap. They make me ride in a glorified golf cart to get around the base, or walk. I get ONE ability that’s not all about either destruction or survival, and they do their best to never let me use it UNLESS it’s for destruction or survival. Maybe THAT’S what I should bitch about with number twelve today.
The trip across the base that would have taken less than thirty seconds stretched into ten minutes as she impatiently waited for her transportation, then waited even more impatiently for the small vehicle to weave its way across the sparsely populated military complex. She managed to keep a polite expression on her face as she thanked the driver for the ride, then made her way into the base’s hospital about five minutes late for her appointment. Fortunately her destination wasn’t far inside, and a few short hallways later found Jessica inside a well appointed waiting room.
“You must be Colonel Lawson!” The cheerful, feminine, and unfamiliar voice from behind the her caused Jessica to start a little in surprise. “I’ve been really looking forward to meeting you!”
Jessica turned to see a young, red-haired woman, a few inches taller than herself – Someday I’ll meet someone shorter than I am. Someday – staring with a look that foretold barely contained excitement and energy. “Ah, yes, I’m Colonel Lawson. And you are?”
“Heidi Carpenter.” The energetic redhead practically bounced forward to offer a handshake, which Jessica accepted with a still somewhat confused expression.
“Do you work with Doctor Tw- Longan?”
“Oh, I used to! Well, he was one of my professors back when I was just an undergrad, and I saw him a few times during my residency, and then a few weeks ago he called me ou-…”
“Do you know where I can find him?” Jessica interrupted as she suspected the geyser of words would have persisted for quite some time otherwise.
“Oh, I imagine he’s in Florida now? He retire-…”
“He’s retired. Oh! I’m doing this wrong, I’m sorry.” Heidi offered another handshake, this time with a much more serious expression on her face.
Did I just find an escaped mental patient? Jessica accepted the second handshake, secure enough in her own invulnerability to be curious as to what was going to come next.
“I’m DOCTOR Heidi Carpenter, the new chief of psychiatry for the AAC First Division. I took over for Doctor Longan last week. I believe we have an appointment for… seven minutes ago?”
Jessica managed, barely, to keep her jaw from dropping open in shock as she released the taller woman’s handshake, and carefully inspected the redhead with a new level of scrutiny. Unblinking green eyes stared back at her, the doctor’s expression indicating she felt nothing wrong or unusual by the sudden shift in manner or blatant inspection.
“Well, it’s good to meet you then, Doctor Carpenter. Unfortunately I think I’ll need to reschedule today’s session, I’m just buried under files from the merger with the Second. Maybe next week?”
Jessica noted there was no surprise in the taller woman’s face; no real change in her polite, cheerful expression. “That would be fine, Colonel. I’m glad I got to meet you today at least. Just call the hospital front desk and they can let you know when I’m free.”
Eyes narrowed in suspicion at such calm acceptance of a blatant lie. “You can completely tell that I’m lying about needing to reschedule, can’t you?”
Jessica choked back a giggle at the instant, honest response to her question. “I’m still leaving now though.”
A scowl this time from the smaller woman. “You’re a telepath or something, aren’t you?”
Jessica’s expression shifted at the word ’empath,’ and Heidi finally lost her cheerful look to the momentary burst of sadness from the brunette.
“I’ll schedule with the front desk, like you said.” Jessica was gone before the empath could say anything else, determined to drown her resurgent depression in the paperwork she’d lied about just a few seconds ago. Might as well go make another lie into the truth. I’ve got plenty of practice after all.
Conversation in the recreation area dropped off sharply for a brief moment when Jessica appeared in the room. The volume quickly resumed its previous level when the Lieutenant Colonel made no move to address the soldiers, and instead made her way to one of the room’s many oversized refrigerators.
“What’s the occasion, Colonel?” Jessica shot a questioning glance at the blond man making the inquiry. “We almost never see you down here unless it’s an emergency call-out.”
“Just needed to relax a bit. All the paperwork from the Second that I have to go through? It’s actually made of PAPER.” The half-hearted joke still drew a round of laughter from the dozen or so soldiers in the room, and Jessica finished acquiring a bottle of iced coffee from the fridge before heading in the general direction of the largest group in the room.
“-…elling you these assholes need to be taken care of. Not one of them has the balls to step up to a real Altered, but they’ll murder a Lux class in their sleep and think they should be hailed as heroes for it.”
“The hell are we talking about?” Jessica blushed momentarily as all eyes turned to her in surprise, but she took a seat and pasted an interested look on her face.
“Just venting a bit, Colonel. You kno-…”
“The General isn’t here, Jake. You don’t HAVE to use my rank when we’re not in the field you know.” A round of chuckles went around the table as it was the lanky soldier’s turn to look momentarily embarrassed.
“Some of these new hate groups that have been popping up, Jess.” The only other female at the table graciously leapt into the conversation to save her squadmate from further embarrassment. “We’ve been having an in-depth discussion about what we’d like to do to the assholes.”
“Hope hard enough and we just might get the chance. C-SPAN says that they might FINALLY pass that new law that lets us deploy without any of the current ’emergency circumstances.'” The new topic brought up drew a great deal of interest around the table, as well as a bit of mockery for the soldier having outed himself as actually watching C-SPAN.
“Don’t get your hopes up, boys and girls.” Jessica’s quiet interjection quieted the conversation at the table as all eyes swung back towards her. “Not saying it WON’T happen, but this isn’t the first time they’ve tried to revoke the Posse Comitatus Act. Not the fifth or sixth time either, for that matter.”
“But, imagine if they finally do it!” Lieutenant Jake Holland reentered the conversation with a wistful tone in his voice. “We could finally DO something instead of sitting on our asses ten months out of the year, waiting for some police chief, or mayor, to figure out that they’ve got something out of their league and call ALL the way up the chain to get us there to deal with it. We could just DEAL with it, you know?”
“That’s the dream.” Jessica paused to drain the last of her drink. “But two things to keep in mind; the odds that they’ll actually get rid of even MOST of the paperwork have got to be slim at best.
“And the odds that we’d EVER get to officially track down non-Altered, even for hate crimes?”
“You are just a ray of sunshine, aren’t you ‘Colonel.'” Jessica grinned at the extra emphasis the lieutenant placed on her rank this time.
“Just do what I do Jake.”
“And what’s that?”
“Take care of problems like that on your leave time.” Jessica offered a wide grin along with her response, but judging from the suddenly silent table it was apparent she hadn’t quite hit her intended target. A few looks of genuine concern were now directed towards her. Along with a couple of, far more worrying, predatory smiles.
“Christ, that was a JOKE people. Seriously.” Jessica stood and began heading towards the exit. “I mean, think about it. When was the last time they actually let ME go on vacation?”
The final, rhetorical, question drew a few strained chuckles that gave way to a, brief, wave of genuine laughter. Jessica hid a sigh as she exited the room and headed off to lock herself into her vault for the night. I have got to get better at socializing. Make an ACTUAL friend who doesn’t ever have to salute me and I don’t have to salute. Maybe… maybe it’s time to finally be done with the army. The short woman didn’t try to suppress the sigh this time. Or maybe I’m just getting grumpy because I’m a hundred years old and didn’t get my beauty sleep last night.