After Forty-five of the longest minutes of my life, the ninja aide opened the doors and informed me very seriously that “Colonel Morales would like to see you.” Like I hadn’t just been in the meeting which was ABOUT ME. A meeting in which I was told to go hang out in the hall like I was the disruptive kid at a parent teacher conference who had to leave so the adults could have an ‘adult conversation.’
At this point, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and wonder if I was crazy for wanting to affiliate with the military if this was the level of nonsense I would have to deal with on the daily. The saving grace was that I got a chuckle out of Fox who shared a ‘Military, am I right?’ look with me before we both hobbled back into the room.
Ninja aide closed the doors behind us before disappearing to do ninja aide stuff, and I retook my chair at the end of the table across from Colonel Morales but didn’t bother stifling the wince this time as I sat down. I couldn’t help but hope it made him feel a tiny bit bad in that shriveled little Grinch heart of his. Sadly I suspected this plan would fail. Even though Fox reinforced me by also wincing as he sat back down in his chair to my left.
“Thank you for joining us PMC Walker,” he said more than a little pompously leaning forward and lacing his fingers together. “It would be an honor for any person to obtain this certification and clearance. That is why it is our duty to do our due diligence to the utmost of our ability to assess your abilities and qualification for this clearance. The President himself has been following your progress and if this ultimately ends up before a Congressional Review everything has to be completely in order. As you know we owe it to the American taxpayer to ensure that we have only their security in mind in the event that we move forward with this program which has been generously funded by them.”
As he paused to take a breath I raised my hand like I was in class. I simply could not absorb any more pompous rhetoric.
“Yes, Walker,” the Colonel said with a frown on his face that I’d interrupted whatever this little speech was.
“Respectfully Colonel, can we get to the point? I’ve been sitting around for God knows how long now and it’s been a long day,” I gritted out having finally reached the end of my manners. I instinctively knew that as far as career decisions go that this wasn’t one of the better ones considering how long I’d waited for this but at that moment I had no more craps to give with my hip throbbing steady fire up and down my side.
Doctor Robinson let out a full guffaw of laughter and Doctor Rokker comically widened his eyes in shock while the Lieutenant Colonel and Captain Williams studiously studied the table. Fox shot me a look that I’d seen too many times in training that told me to find my center but it was somewhat spoiled by the slight smirk he was wearing.
Colonel Morales, it turns out has a vein that bulges at his temple when he’s angry and the tips of his ears turn red. He ground out “You should mind your tone, Miss. Walker. Unless you’d like me to disqualify you right here on the spot for insubordination. I don’t know what makes you think you have the right to speak to me or any other officer here that way but you will be respectful while on my base.”
Leaning forward in my chair I gripped the table and heatedly replied “I have the right to say that because I don’t recall you getting smacked around the training room and blown up just for the chance to show you that I’ve done everything asked of me. To prove that I belong here in this program and that I’ve been doing my best to not let everyone down. That includes being ambushed today with a test that I’m sure you all had your reasons for but feels no less unfair to me, to being made to sit around like a kid in detention while the adults discuss my punishment. It may not feel like it to you but I am an adult and you can damn well treat me like one or I’m not going to treat you like one. You full well know that I was knocked out in that training exercise but here I am, in pain meeting with you like it couldn’t wait, so let's not pretend respect is something we’ve fully leaned into today.”
“She not wrong Reginald. Let’s wrap this up so she can go rest and start recuperating. Doctors orders,” Doctor Robinson interjected with a stern look at the Colonel.
The doctor must have significant sway with the Colonel because some of the fire left him but you could tell that I’d thoroughly pissed him off. Which…fair, I did talk to him like crap, but also, bite me.
Leaning back in his chair the Colonel took a deep breath and chewed down whatever his original response was going to before finally speaking. “Well, it seems that I should get to the point. Let the record show upon the recommendation of the senior officers of this base in concurrence with the base commander I am recommending PMC Walker be awarded Special First Responder certification and all clearances that go with it. PMC Walker will be contacted by legal to review the contract and to go over any final details.”
I couldn’t stop myself from doing a little fist pump and a hissed “Yesss.” Partially because I was trying to have some decorum and partially because ouch.
Looking me dead in the eyes the Colonel asked me, “Any more comments, or was that enough to the point?”
Composing myself I side-eyed Fox who almost imperceptibly nodded and I responded, “No, that was very to the point, and thank you very much, sir. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
He leaned back in his chair and steeped his hands across his chest with his elbows on the armrests and glared at me for a minute like he was rearranging whatever it was he was going to say.
“Very well Miss Walker, pending the final details welcome to the Supernormal Tactics and Response Team, or STAR for short. As you are aware the original basis for this program was to research your unique manifestation of abilities with the hope that the data gathered would help better understand Supernormal abilities. The establishment of the Supernormal Theory and Advance Research Project has proved to be fruitful and the government sees the success of the program as the perfect opportunity to show support for Supernormals and non-supernormal citizens.”
Pausing for effect and meeting the officer's eyes around the table he continued, “The government hasn’t had publicly sponsored operatives since after World War Two and feels with Supernormals becoming more and more of a flash point in world affairs it’s time to reestablish the idea of a public face. To this end, the Supernormal Theory and Advance Research Project is being combined with a newly formed tactical first response unit which because the government loves its fun acronyms has been named the Supernormal Tactics and Response Team, so STAAR and STAR,” he said with a sigh.
Seeing that there was about to be a flurry of questions the Colonel held up his hand to forestall them by saying, “Hold onto your questions I’ll get to them, but there is more. The research team will continue to operate as it has collecting data and working on its projects but it will now also put focus on R & D to support the Tactical Team. Funding will be adjusted and any positions will be filled accordingly. The Tactical Team will operate as early adopters of any technology that comes from the Research Team and will provide data to the research team. It is expected that the teams will work in synergy. The umbrella name for the combined teams is Project: American Star, and the teams will be based here at the Michigan City base. It was determined that since the Research Team was already relocated here from DC that it made sense to continue to house the project here. The base’s operations will be refocused to operate primarily in support of this unit. The base and unit will be also tasked with training additional units as deemed feasible. Alright, I’ll pause here and open up for questions.”
There was a weird energy around the table that ran from apprehension to excitement. Everyone here had played some role in the planning and execution of this project and my training so to be here at the point where it was about to become reality was a bit surreal.
“Sir, If I may,” the Lieutenant Colonel began and with the acknowledging nod from Colonel Morales continued, “How public is this team going to be? The majority of our First Response and Supernormal teams aren’t classified but yet also benefit from being shielded from public scrutiny by being part of the military,” she finished waving her hand to indicate the base.
“Well, this team will be more public than what is standard. We will be more akin to an agency like NASA is the best analogy I can think of at the moment. We are in somewhat uncharted waters.” he answered. “In fact to that effect, anyone with the potential to be in a public facing situation will go through Public Relations training and will be assigned a callsign and yes you can suggest your own callsign but it is subject to approval from leadership. However, at the end of the day, we are still a functioning military base so not everything will be public.”
Doctor Rokker indicated that he’d like to speak and was acknowledged by the Colonel. “What does this mean in terms of personnel? Will leadership be changing and will my team be affected?”, the white haired man said with some concern.
“You don’t need to worry Doctor. You will remain in charge of the research team and not personnel changes are planned other than any needed additions. Same for you Doctor Robinson, unless you’d like to transfer. In fact that goes for everyone with a few exceptions. Any transfers deemed reasonable and within established protocol will be granted if possible,” the Colonel said while giving everyone eye contact. “If anyone wants to transfer you can tell me now or see me privately,” he added.
I met the Colonel's eyes to make sure he could see I wanted to speak, “Umm, does that mean I change my callsign? Also since I’ll be part of the unit but I’m not military what does that mean for my living arrangement?”, I asked hoping to get a bit of clarification.
“I’ll answer the second part first. You will be expected to live on base for the first year while establishing the unit and that gives us time to get a better idea of any potential threats this unit could face. You will be provided an officer's suite and additionally, a protection detail will be assigned to your family,” he said.
“Oh, Ok,” I said in response but my mind was spinning about how I was going to explain moving out of my apartment. I wasn’t in love with the idea of losing my freedom but I understood why they were being cautious and living on base wasn’t the worst thing either. Also if my family was going to be protected I guess I really should be grateful.
“Thank you for thinking of my family, sir. While I hope that precaution is never needed it’s nice to know it’s there”, I said sincerely. The Colonel gave me a sincere head nod in response.
“As to your callsign, you are set as Star and no changes will be granted, so if you’re not happy with it you’ll need to find a way to get okay with it,” he said.
“No sir, it’s not that. It’s just there’s a lot of usage of Star with the Unit name and team names. My original designation was ‘Stella’ which is Latin for Star which is which is where I got it from, so I thought it might be something to think about is all.”
Unexpectedly he actually chuckled at that. “Trust me Walker I get it, but you’re the whole reason everything is named ‘Star’. You keep forgetting that you’re the branding. Clearly, I need to have the Lieutenant work with you some more on the PR side of your duties,” he said while chuckling and surprisingly I found myself smiling. The mood seemed to lighten a bit after that exchange.
“Oh any other questions before I dismiss and let the lawyers get to the contract stuff?” he said.
“Actually Colonel, if I may?” Captain Williams said. She has been quiet through most of the meeting but in the last few minutes since I came back into the room she had been studiously looking at a spot on the table and not really engaging.
“By all means,” the Colonel said with a wave.
“Sir…, I wish to be reassigned. I’ve spent the last two years training PMC Walker to the best of my ability but my unit needs to get back into the field and do what we do best as a special forces team. Major Hanson left us a mess and I want to…I need to get back into the field and show that HOUND unit isn’t a liability and while I can’t speak for my team I suspect they would agree,” Captian Willimas said tensely. Her whole posture had gone rigid and I could tell that the normally unflappable Captain was working hard to maintain control.
Colonel Morlas regarded the Captain for a few beats before slicking back his hair with his hand and letting out a sigh. “I had hoped that some of that burning need to chase after Hanson’s ghosts would bleed away over the last few years but I can see that I was wrong. I appreciate your honesty if maybe not your choice of venue. In case anyone had any doubts I’ve been assigned to continue running this base and as such will continue as STAR’s commanding officer.
It is at my discretion that personnel changes are approved and as I said earlier transfer requests will be granted to anyone who wants one with a few exceptions. You Captain Williams are one of the exceptions. Your request is denied and in fact, you will remain assigned to the STAR unit.”
“Colonel Morales…SIR, I do not wish to be on the sidelines babysitting a civilian. I have done my part in training her and think we all know I can be better utilized elsewhere” she said with some edge to her voice.
It was extremely disconcerting to see the normally level headed Captain so agitated. I knew her, Fox, and Brunner had a history, and this was clearly tied to that but we’d still trained together for two years. Rationally I knew it wasn’t really personal but I couldn’t help but be a little hurt by how she regarded her time working with me.
And just like that the positive mood that had taken over the room evaporated. The Colonel’s command face snapped back into place and the steel in his eyes reappeared. All of the officers seemed to suddenly be holding their breath and Fox's expression just looked pained for his friend.
“Captain Williams, where you go and what you do is fully at my discretion. Your record is impeccable aside from Syria and there are few better than you in the whole of the military but let me be frank with you, HOUND Unit is dead. It’s not coming back, and you are not going to save its reputation. Hanson made damn good and sure of that in Syria. You’re radioactive as far as the rest of the Army is concerned and no other unit is going to pick you up.
In fact, if it wasn't for your Special Forces Training Officer Major Parker asking me to personally step in to give you a chance so that the military couldn’t quietly kill your career you probably wouldn’t be here. That’s how toxic anything to do with HOUND Unit and Hanson is. I didn’t really know Hanson so I can’t speak to why he did what he did but I trust the hell out of Major Parker so here you are doing your level best to piss all that goodwill away,” he said coldly.
“Sir, I just…” she started but was cut off.
“I’m not done, Captain Williams. I made sure that you were promoted to Captain upon joining this project because it’s the least you deserved after Syria but also because I knew I would need someone to lead the tactical unit if this project was green lit. That’s you, Captain. You will be assigned as the Detachment Commander of the STAR Team and will be given a chance to redeem your reputation by supporting PMC Walker, or you could push this and see where fate takes you should you decline this assignment, but I guarantee you won’t like it. Oh, and you seem pretty confident that your team would follow and honestly Brunner probably would but don’t be sure about everyone,” he finished with a look at Fox.
A look of utter surprise blossomed on Captain William’s face as she looked at Fox before morphing into a look of disappointment and hurt. It was an expression that I’d seen earlier in the day from Christina so in that moment I felt empathy for what Captain Williams was feeling. As I watched two friends and teammates struggle to find their words I couldn’t help but idly think, was my argument with Christina really only this morning? It felt like it was days ago at this point.
Finally Captain Williams pinned Fox with a stare and found her voice and asked, “What’s he talking about Fox?”
“I was going to talk to you about but as the end of this assignment has drawn closer you’ve gotten more and more obsessed with the idea of getting back into the field and either avenging HOUND or proving yourself to the world. I”m sorry, it’s my fault as your friend for not finding a way to tell you but I’m tired Jas. I’m tired of the endless missions to God knows where for goals I’m not even allowed to know. I’m not afraid of doing dangerous work or doing the things that need to be done but I’m tired of not knowing if I’m making a difference for the better,” Fox said with more emotion than I’m used to hearing from him.
“So that means you’re giving up on finding out what happened with Hanson and HOUND? You’re just going to move on?” Captain Williams almost shouted back at him.
“That’s not what I’m saying at all Jasmine and you should damn well know that. I’ve been doing this for longer than you, and you of all people should know the assignments I’m given when I’m detached from our unit. I can’t just be the Army’s scalpel anymore. I like training others Jas, and I like feeling like I'm doing something positive. This posting reminded me that there is more to what we do than just defeating whoever we were told are the bad guys are this week. I’m never going to forget Syria and if the chance ever comes to find out the truth of what went on there… to make those responsible pay I’ll be there at the front of the line, but I’m not going to let what happened control my fate, and deep down I don’t think you are either. At least I hope not, and that’s why I asked Colonel Morales if it would be possible for me to stay on as a combat instructor,” Fox finished with a look that was almost pleading with Captain Williams to understand.
“I thought were together on this, especially after everything we talked about the other day. You couldn’t have shared what you felt then? I had to find out like this? I’m sorry but you know what all this has been like for me and Brunner, yet here you are thinking about yourself Master Sergeant Takahashi,” she spat at Fox.
“Jas that’s not fair be reasonable…” Fox started.
“ENOUGH!” Colonel Morales cut through the two friends' argument. “You two can spend your own time working out whatever issues you have but I have a meeting to finish,” he said heatedly.
“Permission to leave the meeting Colonel?” Captain Williams asked with clenched fists while starting to stand.
“Permission denied. Now sit your ass back down and listen. I’m going to say a few things to both of you and then I’m going to wrap this up and have a nice evening.
Captain Williams as I’ve already said you are a tremendous officer but either figure out how to move past Syria or get out of the service. Anyone on active duty in the service that’s been around long enough, especially those of us in Special Forces, will see something go sideways, and if you’re lucky you survived it to learn something from it. You don’t ever have to forget but it’s not a dishonor those who you lost or left behind to move forward either. You’re doing yourself and the country a disservice when you have so much more to give. Think about that,” he said to the Captain which elicited a nod, and a mumbled “Sir”.
“Now Fox, I’m sure you’ve seen and done some things that make it hard to sleep at night. That’s the cruel twist of being the best of the best. You get to do the worst of the worst, and we all have our limits, but it’s our friends and teammates that help us hold on to our humanity. If you’ve stepped up to the abyss and need something to pull you back I completely understand but don’t leave your team behind while they’re still here. Talk to them and at least give them closure. You may even be surprised to find out they are going through similar things,” he said to Fox and punctuated it with a sweeping gesture to indicate Captain Williams eliciting a curt nod from Fox.
I’m going to be honest, this little drama was not something I saw coming. I couldn’t help but feel bad for both Fox and Captain Williams as I knew they’d been friends for a long time but to discover they weren’t on the same page like this had to suck. I made up my mind to do whatever I could to help them mend whatever damage this meeting has caused right as a huge yawn broke free. I quickly ducked my head I covered my mouth but there was no hiding it and I felt my ears turn red in embarrassment.
Colonel Morales noticed and of course called attention to it, “See even Walker is bored by this drama,” he said making me squirm in my seat which of course caused me to wince as I aggravated my injuries.
“Now where was I?” he continued before snapping his fingers and saying, “Right, I was being your commanding officer and telling you what to do. In one week this unit goes live so there is lots to do. Captain Williams, should you decide to stay, as Operational Detachment Commander of the tactical team you will be responsible for helping fill out the roster for the team. The tactical unit will be a seven person team designed to be a flexible, fast response unit comprised of both Supernormal and non-Supernomal personnel.
This unit will loosely follow the special forces team structure so you will need to decide on an XO. Additionally, this team has designated spots for an Operations Sergeant, Medical Sergeant, Engineering Sergeant, Intelligence Sergeant, and Communications Sergeant. The good news is that two of those spots are filled so that should make things go a bit faster. Sergeant Spinklemann who you met earlier today in the exercise is being assigned to the team by a request from above my pay grade, but her service record is impeccable so I doubt you’ll find any issue with it. Your Operations Sergeant has also been decided and it's a choice that up until a few minutes ago I thought would be a slam dunk, but Master Sergeant Takahashi has been assigned to that role as well as serving as combat instructor. Doctor Robinson can assist with choosing a Medical Sergeant if desired.
Lastly Lieutenant Colonel Amin callsign ‘Astrea’ will be your main liaison and will continue to function as Public Relations for the unit. Before I adjourn the meeting I want you Captain Williams and Master Sergeant Takahashi to make every attempt to mend fences. Before you protest, this is an order and if you haven’t patched things up I expect you to attend mediation with the doctor as I will not have this project derailed by personal grevances. As for you PMC Walker, you will hold no official rank nor will you be in the command chain of the unit. I expect as you gain experience that the team to listen to you as a trusted advisor but you are to follow Captain William's orders. We will be in touch with you about finalizing your contract and assigning your living quarters. Unless there is any additional drama this meeting is adjourned,” the colonel said and spread his hand in a get out gesture. The ninja aide appearing like magic to open the doors.
Well damn, that was…something. I watched for a second as Captain Williams nodded to the Colonel and left the room without a word to Fox who looked troubled as he got up from his chair and watched her leave.
“Are you ok?” I asked as he stood there holding her injured arm.
He looked lost in thought for a moment before saying, “I don’t regret my decision but I regret how I’ve handled it. I very much hope we can work this out,” before finally looking at me. You should get out of here and get some rest. You got pretty banged up today and you should really take care of those injuries.”
“Same could be said for you,” said the voice of Doctor Robinson as she had come into earshot of the conversation. “In fact, I think I’ll make it doctor’s orders. Get out of here and do nothing for the rest of the night and see me tomorrow and we’ll see where you’re at with that shoulder.”
“Yes Doc,” Fox replied before reaching over with his good hand and squeezing my shoulder and saying, “I’ll see you soon Dani. I know this has been a hard day but you did good today. Get some rest and we’ll catch up soon,” he said and left the conference room.
Looking over to the head of the table the Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel were in a conversation and Doctor Rokker must have slipped out when I was talking to Fox. The Colonel caught me looking at him and said, “I’m pretty sure I said dismissed Walker. Go get some rest and if you need help getting home just ask Major Ziet and he’ll arrange transportation.”
“Ok, that’s our freebie. The next time he’ll yell so let's get going,” Doctor Robinson said with a smile while grabbing my bag from the floor while I slowly got up out of the chair.
“Do you want anything for the pain?” the doctor asked as we started making our way out of the operations room to the elevator to head back to the main floor.
“I’m not going to lie. I feel like everything hurts but I think what I need most is to just get home and go to sleep. I can take a bunch of Ibuprofin when I get back to my apartment but as you know most painkillers don’t do much because of my metabolism,” I said as we stepped into the elevator and pressed the button to take us back to the main floor.
We made it to the main floor and I noticed that it was late evening with the sun just starting to dip into the horizon and casting everything with a last gasp of orange. Julie’s shift must have ended as there was someone I didn’t recognize helming the reception desk as I signed out. It turned out someone had the foresight to have my backpack waiting for me at reception so I grabbed it and headed toward the entrance.
Walking up to the doors I turned to the Doctor and gave her a quick and painful hug. “Thank you for today. I really appreciate you being so supportive. Doctor Rokker too.”
“Oh Dani, you’re such breath fresh of air. It’s absolutely my and Roland’s pleasure. You have so much potential for greatness and it has nothing to do with your abilities. Now are you sure you can get home?” she asked again.
“I’m sure,” I said while putting it at about ninety five percent certain in my head. “If you could help me get this backpack on I would appreciate it.”
The Doctor helped me get the backpack over my shoulders and positioned it so that it wouldn’t slide off. It hurt quite a bit getting it on and I wasn’t looking forward to how was going to feel once I started flying and the drag from the air started pulling at it.
“Thanks Doc. I’ll see you soon,” I said with a wave as I pulled open the door.
“Please call if you need to!” she said as I stepped through the doors into the still warm evening air. It felt amazing to be out of the building and the light breeze helped restore some of my spirits even though I still felt like I had been used as a chew toy.
As I Iimp walked to the parking lot I noticed that Captain Williams Bronco was gone and couldn’t help but think about the sadness in Fox’s eyes when we parted I really hope those two can talk it out. I passed the guardhouse and after I had a look to see if anyone was watching I jumped into the air and felt the weightlessness that comes with my flight ability kick in. Orienting myself to the south I gained altitude and started flying toward my apartment just off the campus of the University.
I made it home and landed in the secluded spot I always used when flying since my Supernormal abilities weren’t public, at least not yet. I was fortunate to have a ground floor apartment so I didn’t have to deal with stairs and managed to get inside right as the last bits of daylight were fading. Painfully shrugging out of the backpack and locking the door behind me I went straight to my bedroom as the events of the day were definitely catching up with me, and at this point, I was almost drooling at the thought of crawling into bed. I worked the hoodie off and then my shoes but didn’t even bother with anything else and sank down into the mattress with a sigh. The cold of the pillow felt delightful and I took a moment to reflect on the day as I felt my eyelids already getting heavy but before I was overcome by sleep I yelled out, “I did it!” to the universe with my last bit of energy before swiftly falling asleep.