On My Watch

From the Story Arc: One of Two

Previous Story in the Arc: Merry Christmas Commissar by Belladonna Aura (Friday, December 12, 2008)

Next Story in the Arc: Big Girls Don't Cry (They Just Eat Ice Cream) by Belladonna Aura (Tuesday, June 30, 2009)

(posted Tuesday, June 30, 2009)

Memos. If there was one thing bureaucracies loved, it was memos. Even in an organization dedicated to fighting off a threat to the very existence of humanity, it seemed like the top brass mostly specialized in sending out obscure recommendations and "necessary commands" that any competent field officer would ignore, if they had a choice in the matter.

Methods of cost control can include: the commander skimmed, rolling his eyes at the idea that somehow, the Rikti could be defeated by cost savings and bulk purchase discounts.

Marksmanship training can reduce ammunition costs, as long as such training does not exceed ammunition allotments as outlined in Appendix 3a.

He looked up at the bullet-ridden picture across his desk and smiled thinly.

Ensure that personnel from outside organizations primarily use their own equipment and ordnance, with Vanguard-issued equipment reserved for emergency situations.

The hat was resting on a corner of his desk, a trophy to discipline and proper behavior. There was a lesson in there somewhere, he was sure. Something along the lines of "I am always right, and everyone else is always wrong." Someone ought to send out a memo on that, he mused. Maybe then, some of these walk-ins would start acting like real soldiers, not that there was much of a chance of--

"Sir?" He straightened in his chair as one of the newer sergeants poked his head around the door frame. "We have a couple new volunteers, sir. They--they wanted to speak to you about--privileges, I think." The NCO shrugged as his commanding officer rolled his eyes.

"You know what the problem here is, Johnson?" The sergeant shook his head. "No discipline. We're so damn caught up fighting those damn bugs that we just take anyone who strolls in with a gun or fireballs or a sword they picked up on late-night QVC." He picked up the hat, examining the bullet holes, the singe marks, the ragged fabric. "That's what this hat reminds me of. That every one of these freaks we let in is just a casualty waiting to happen. That cowgirl didn't have the sense God gave her boots, and look where it got her."

Tossing the hat back onto his desk, the commander shook his head and headed out to greet the new "recruits." He nodded vaguely at a nearby operative, Al something-or-other, standing quietly against a nearby wall.

"Discipline, Johnson, that's what we need more of. Some good old fashioned discipline around here." His voice faded as he rounded a corner. The soldier watched him leave, blue-green eyes locked on the commander's back as he turned. Brushing a lock of white-blond hair from his eyes, he quickly slid towards the empty office. Easing the door open, he slipped inside.

Standing in the doorway, he took a moment to scan the room, eyes flicking over the walls and probing the shadows of the corners, freezing briefly on the bullet-riddled picture decorating the bulleting board. Satisfied that there were no visible cameras, he slowly approached the desk. Taking a deep breath, 117 Alpha Dire carefully lifted the battered cowboy hat, gingerly holding it close against his chest, and hurried out of the room.

"- ridiculous-looking wings! And no-one could fight in boots like that!" The commander's voice echoed closer, approaching the office from the direction of the portal to Cap au Diable. Alpha Dire pressed himself against the wall, his mind racing. The decision was quick. He turned and sprinted for the main portal, to the Vanguard home base and the Rikti War Zone, cradling the hat against his body as he ran.

* * *

Commissar Bella Dawn Parker, callsign Belladonna Aura, gave a contemptuous sniff at the Vanguard personnel and a "watch your step, woman," glare at Lady Grey as she passed through the doors of the Peregrine Island facility. She did not stop to check in with anyone. Not Borea, not Gaussian, not Serpent Drummer, nor Dark Watcher. Not even Lady Grey herself. And anyone in a Vanguard uniform gave her wary respect and tended to detour to avoid her path. Bella had no use for Vanguard. Not since they had held her captive for six weeks to keep her from spreading Blue Velocity's warning about the coming Second Rikti Invasion. Once the Second War was fundamentally "over," she had looked for her "Vanguard Auxiliary" and other Vanguard-themed badges and given them to Chug to eat. The only reason she was even in a Vanguard building at all was because it was the only way into the War Zone.

She spent a lot of time here. Some of it was spent in fly-by medical aid to the forces both of Paragon and the Isles engaged in fighting. Marx knew Vanguard healers couldn't be bothered. Part of it was spent carefully picking off Bugs herself. Mostly their mentalists. Part was spent studying them, their pylons, their ship. Sooner or later she was going to find something that would give humans the edge; if it took her until her blue hair was white, she'd do it.

But some was spent in a lab in the no-man's land between the Vanguard base and the ship, a lab once owned by Crey and now defended against their reclaiming it by every clever defensive structure that Petrograd and Waitron9000 could devise. Now part lab and part sickbay, this was where Doctor Bella Dawn Parker, ER physician and surgeon for Chiron Hospital in King's Row, treated the members of a shadow organization known in the Rogue Isles as "NWO." She took care of everything their paramedic, one Lt. Bobbi Sachs, could not handle, because their CO, Agent Delta, aka Steve Deltano, rightly did not trust the hospital facilities in the Isles.

NWO and CCCP had had their differences in the past, but that past was long dead, burned, and the ashes buried. Sachs herself had been the instigator of the healing of the rift. She'd taken over the apartment once belonging to Bella's clone, "Belladonna Nova", and had discovered that literally nothing had been touched once the poisonous bitch had vanished. About that time, Delta's powers had started to ramp dangerously up out of control. That was when Bobbi shoved all of Nova's extensive archives at Deltano, and suggested that since the clone had hated CCCP in general and the Commissar in particular, maybe she might be approachable, under the heading of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Bobbi might be a wingnut herself out of uniform, more easily distracted by Manolo pumps and Prada bags than an ADHD kid with a butterfly, but in uniform she was a helluva medic and knew her stuff.

And she had known the kind of doctor that Bella was. Charlie made the approach for the meet. Bella had agreed to meet Deltano. Thus had begun the association, and an at-least-weekly series of experimental treatments for Deltano's condition. It was both exhilarating and frustrating work. Meta-human medicine on the bleeding edge--and at best, keeping Delta in a holding pattern.

But hell. At least it was in a holding pattern. He wasn't getting permanently any worse, even if he wasn't getting any better. Every time he took a step back, she was able to come up with something to haul him back to the acceptable baseline.

And if she ever found out who'd done this to him--and others--there was a nuke in Warburg waiting for his name to be carved on it. See how he liked waking up a "freak."

Today was going to be a low-activity day. She'd just come off an ER shift, no one in NWO was bleeding out, Thanh Ha and People's Elf had the CCCP covered, so she was going to go run another Delta series at the lab and see if the results were duds or promising. And, in passing, add a couple more notches to her Bug count.

* * *

On the other side of the portal, Dire took a moment to breathe, forcing himself to calm down and think. Taking the hat had been impulsive, reacting to the tactical opening without thinking about the long-term strategy. He'd been planning to exit to the Rogue Isles, but that wasn't an option now. He could hide the hat somewhere, stash in a hiding place, but something about that felt... wrong. He didn't know what had happened, where Charlie... Agent Rawhide... had gone, but, for whatever reason, he couldn't let himself leave it behind.

Part of him needed to contact his superiors in the NWO, to report to Agent Delta what had happened and let the responsibility pass over onto an officer's shoulders. But that felt wrong too. He didn't know the whole story, but he thought he knew how Delta would react, and it wouldn't be pretty. The confusion was unpleasant, frightening. There had to be something he could do, someone to talk to... someone who would tell him what to do next.

From out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of black uniform and deep blue skin.

The doctor. The one Rawhide had talked about. The one treating Delta. She was almost like an officer... not in the chain of command, but close to Delta and to C... to Agent Rawhide. She could give him orders. She'd know what to do.

He moved out to follow her, keeping a careful distance, watching her in reflections and his peripheral vision, shifting his position in relation to her, waiting for an opening. Finally, she was out of sight of anyone else, in the long corridor that led to the warzone proper. Increasing his pace, he came up behind her.

"Ma'am?" His voice cracked as he called out, and he stopped moving as she turned around.

* * *

It was uncanny. The person standing in front of her was a teenaged boy in well-worn fatigues, the black and grey mottling of urban camouflage. But the strangest part was his face, the structure of his bones, even his disheveled white-blond hair. He was a spitting image of Charlotte Duke, in the body of a nervous adolescent. He was clutching a familiar black hat to his chest and, when he looked up at her, she recognized the familiar almond shape and pale blue color of his eyes.

"Ma'am," he whispered, "I need your help."

That's Charlie's hat. Rawhide was never, never without her hat. Bella was half convinced she slept in it, made love in it. Or at least, hung it on the bedpost. She got a strange feeling in her gut. Rumors about Charlie drinking herself into oblivion, about Charlie and Hreb breaking up...

"That's what CCCP is here for, soldier," she said, biting off the "kiddo" her mind wanted her to append and replacing it with something a little more dignified. "What can I do for you?" You can tell me where you got that hat and how! her mind shrieked, more and more internal alarm bells going off.

The boy glanced over his shoulder, back towards the Vanguard base. "Yes, ma'am. I..." When he looked back, he wouldn't meet her eyes, his gaze carefully locking just past her shoulder.

She took the hint. "Somewhere less public?"

"Please, ma'am."

Well Delta wasn't due at the lab today. "Follow me, I have a secure loc." Without looking to see if he was, she stealthed to avoid the damn pylons and the Crey and the occasional Fake Nemesis, and headed for the lab. Not that she couldn't handle them, but it would be a tedious waste of time. If the kid was any good, he could follow her. And if he was out here, he had better be good.

##

It looked like hell on the outside, which was the point. And there wasn't enough room in here to swing a cat. This was the deepest room in what had once been a full-boat Crey complex, and it was unlikely that anyone would ever bother to go this far in to find the locked, guarded, mined, trapped, and triple-secured door. Her own ID disarmed everything and she double-tapped the "visitor" sequence to hold the door for him and waited for the kid to show. A few short minutes later, he was carefully moving into the room, standing in the doorway and watching her warily. She sat down and gestured to a chair, double-tapping the "lock up" sequence on her PDA. The door closed, and the protections came to cybernetic life. The lights came up all over the lab. "Now. I know that hat. It's Charlie's. I assume what you have to tell me has to do with that hat." She chuckled a little at his expression. "I'm a 'cut to the chase' kind of gal."

Nervously fingering the brim of the hat, he nodded. "Yes, ma'am. It... It is. I... Vanguard found it. Here, in the war zone. And Charlie... Agent Rawhide... hasn't reported for duty or been in the base since it was recovered."

When she felt like it--and around NWO she did not in the least have to watch her language--she could and did spout invective that would make Russian Trawler blush. She vented her feelings for a few seconds. "Did you overhear anything from Vanguard while you were collecting it? Speculation is fine."

He tried to hide the wince that forced itself across his face, but could only nod once. "Yes, ma'am," he said quietly. "They seemed certain that she was..."

He couldn't say it. So she would. "Dead." He nodded. She rubbed her temple and throttled down the ache in her throat. Another one on her watch. Damn it all to hell. And another friend, one she had something very much in common with. "All right. I'll get hold of Delta and break the bad news. That's the job of the CMO anyway. Who knows? We could be wrong." She held out her hand. "Evidence, please." The hesitation was obvious, but brief. He handed over the hat, and she barely needed to tug to get it out his hands.

"Check your duty roster, soldier. Under 'Auxilliary, Emergency Medical. Ping that."

He frowned. "Ping, ma'am?"

"On your PDA or whatever passes for it. Hit the call button and see what happens. Aux, not Main, Medical."

"Oh. Yes, ma'am." Popping open a small pouch on his belt, he pulled out a slim comm system and lightly tapped out a quick series across its keypad.

Her PDA lit up. Waitron9000's voice immediately echoed through the speaker she'd left on. "Emergency at NWO, Commissar. Designation One-One-Seven Alpha Dire."

"Got it, Waits." She turned off the alarm. "I'm your chief of surgery, experimental procedures maven, and diagnostician. Anything Bobbi can't handle. I suspect for whatever reason, you've never needed to see me." She shrugged. "Strange bedfellows." And something else occurred to her, as she put in the call to Delta, Code Orange, Urgent Intel, Face to Face. "Delta can't get here sooner than half an hour. While I have you, can I run a quick once over and get a blood sample?"

Something like suspicion flashed across his face. "I don't need medical attention, ma'am. I'm fine."

"Funny," she said dryly. "That's pretty much word for word what some of the comrades have said right before they ended up on the table, shredded, powdered or turning interesting colors. Or emitting uncontrolled rads. Or setting everything on fire. We're metas, soldier. That means no one really knows where our powers come from, how they work, or how they can go wrong. I like to have a stable baseline for all my patients so I know what I am trying to get them back to." She thought a moment. "Also, I'm working on a bug-out hole for your people and some of ours. It's keyed to DNA, so if you were going to use it, I'd need yours anyway. I'd rather get it voluntarily than get Delta to order you to give it to me."

For a moment, he stared at her, before giving her a quick shrug. "Yes, ma'am," he sighed. "What should I do?"

"Hop up on the table. You get to keep your clothes on. This is state-of-the-art."




Fifteen minutes later, she had a good notion of what the lad was made of, inside and out, and the blood sample was in the analyzer. No visible scars. No obvious internal injuries. For all intents and purposes, a normal, healthy, fifteen-to-sixteen year old boy. Except for the healed fractures in just about every bone in his body. Multiple compound fractures. So many healed-over skull fractures...one of them looked like a close-range, execution-style bullet wound in the back, that had somehow skidded over the bone under the skin instead of penetrating. Yoiks. Jinkies, a clue.

"Well I can say at the moment I think the patient is in good shape. Don't smoke, drink to excess, party without protection, yada yada." Probably able to regenerate himself, Like Untermensch. Unter's bones looked something like that. Only...not as extreme.

Sliding off the table, he gave her an odd look. "No, ma'am. I won't."

She was used to odd reactions by now. Being Commissar to an ill-assorted motley crew of ex super-soldiers, aliens, Spetznaz, and fantasy critters got you used to reading those reactions for what they were, with a little help from the ambient emotional leakage that her empathic senses picked up. "That, soldier, was what passed for a joke. Not a good one, I'll admit, but a joke nevertheless."

"Oh." He blinked at her. "I'm sorry, ma'am. I'm sure it was very funny."

"More 'irony' than 'funny.' That which normally kills non metas doesn't do much to us." She washed her hands. "Now, at some point in the next few days Delta will give you something that looks like this." She held up her Portal Key. "It's yours, and yours only, tagged with your DNA. Very evil emergency use only. Takes you to an oil platform. One way in, your key. One way off, Portal to Pocket D. You do have permission to hole up there if things have gotten too hot for you to come back, but if you do, report in to Delta immediately, then report to the Chief Duty Officer on the platform. Do what he tells you, touch nothing. It's not our toy."

"Yes, ma'am. I understand." He paused. "Permission to ask a question, ma'am?"

"Unconditional permission granted."

"Can we... In an emergency situation, I mean..." Looking down at the ground, he shifted his weight. "Can we bring others, if necessary?"

Hmmmm. Interesting. "That is a good question. You can't piggyback anyone on your key. That's to prevent someone from grabbing you and using you for access. I do have permission to issue other keys. NWO is getting them, because I know and work with you. Outsiders...." She drummed her fingers on the table she'd propped her butt on. "I'd have to interview them. Get dossiers, intel. Like I said, this is not my toy. I bought access for a favor. Conditionally...yes, I have authority to issue keys to personnel other than NWO and CCCP." Her lips thinned for a moment as she thought. "This other person. Would you be willing to be the one to institute a full background check? And I mean a thorough one."

The question obviously surprised him. He stared down at the ground, frowning for a moment, before looking back up and shaking his head. "No, ma'am. I don't believe that I could conduct an unbiased investigation in... in the case in question. And it would be possible that attempting to perform such an investigation would... She would..." He flushed a light pink. "I believe it would be inadvisable to attempt it."

"MmHm." She considered. "Well, in the event that Delta vouches for this person, a key can be issued. However...you do have my contact. I can do a lot of things personally." She gestured at the lab. "This, for instance. In an emergency I can probably ExFil this person for you and stash same somewhere safe enough. Will that do?"

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Da nada. Remember I'm your CMO. Don't hesitate to get hold of me and feel free to ask anything you need to." She paused. "Is there anything you prefer to be called besides One-One-Seven Alpha Dire?"

"No, ma'am," he said, giving her an quizzical look. "I don't have a preference. It's my designation."

She nodded, more adding up in her head. "Just as a future reference for you, most folks have a name besides their designation. Mine's Bella Dawn Parker. You can refer to me as Doc Bella if you like. In the Isles that would actually be safer, since I am pretty well known by my callsign over in Paragon...and there. I am pretty sure Lord Recluse remembers how I spit in his eye." She waited for his reaction. Finally, he gave her a nervous, uncertain smile.

"Yes, ma'am. I'll remember that. Arachnos can be... problematic."

"To say the least." She thought a moment more, saw that the preliminary DNA scan was done, and told the lab to tag Dire as "friend," and allow accompanied access. And something else was confirmed. Two and two were adding up pretty much as she'd figured. "All right, soldier. I think you and I are done for now, and Delta is inbound in case you want to avoid him. Shooting the messenger and all that. I've told the lab to let you in from now on. If you need to, this is as safe a place to be as there is in the War Zone. If you come in here and shit starts blowing up, someone from my end will call the lab to find out what's going on, don't hesitate to pick up and follow instructions. Oh, you can bring people with you. No more than two. Green?"

He nodded again. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am." He checked the straps of his armor and turned to go. A few steps up the stairs, he turned back.

"Ma'am? I... I wasn't scared of what he would do to me. I just..." His voice choked off for a moment. "I didn't know how to say it."

She let her eyes and her voice soften. "I've had it said to me, and I've had to say it more times than I like to think about, Dire. It's the part of my job that I hate. But...it's something I do know how to do. And for what it's worth...I am very sorry. It's going to be hard on Delta, and it wasn't so good for me either. I consider Charlie a friend. Steve, too. So...this will be coming from a friend, and that does make a difference."

He stood silhouetted in the door for a moment, silent, his shoulders slumped. His chest heaved once and he ducked his head in an awkward nod.

"Thank you," he whispered, as he took a steps backwards and slipped into the shadows up the stairs.