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A note from pwtucker

Thank you cerealman and TheEarlofBronze for the reviews!

The conference room was large and almost completely empty. A couple of aides were on hand, ready to work the screens, while a couple of officers sat together at one end, stiff and cold and withdrawn.

The dozen TV monitors were lit, dour faces staring at them.

It felt like walking into a prison sentencing.

Major Hackworth was on one of the central faces, and James studied him, trying to get a sense of what was to come.

The major’s handsome visage gave nothing away.

Once they were settled, a bald man in fatigues with enormous presence kicked things off. He looked as if he could have been carved from granite, his brow furrowed, his eyes almost lost between his narrowed stare.

“Good evening, everyone. I’m Lieutenant General King, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.” James got the distinct impression this was said for his and Serenity’s benefit alone; everybody else stared out of their screens without an ounce of surprise.

“These are unprecedented times, and just as in 1977 when numerous terrorist incidents highlighted our nation’s need for a new form of special operations unit similar to the British SAS, we are faced today with a need that requires an innovative solution. In 1977 we had Colonel Charlie Beckwith. Today we have Colonel Tom Hackworth.”

Serenity glanced sidelong at James and mouthed: colonel?

“The United States Army Special Operations Command has approved the creation of a new special operations force that shall be known provisionally as Blue Light, and with which we will seek to marry the discipline and effectiveness of the US military with the… innovative powers and tactics of this new world’s ranking system.”

King frowned out at them all. “James Kelly, Clarice Parker, you are both being instated as Majors and will operate under the guidance of Lieutenant Colonels who will in turn report to Colonel Hackworth. Jessica Miles, you will be instated as a Chief Warrant Officer 4, and will continue in your role of advising and guiding Blue Light through what is to come. In short order we hope to have created a structure that can accommodate the chaotic nature of this new force, and which will respect the unique squad structures that best optimize the new synergies at play.”

James remained silent, watching, allowing the words to sink in. Nobody was asking him if he wanted this.

Jessica had been right. There’d never been much of a choice in the first place.

King continued. “JSOC recognizes that to expect Blue Light to adopt military culture overnight is impossible, so you will be granted the leeway necessary to execute your responsibilities as needed so long as you maintain basic protocols and understand that you are now an extension the US military. Colonel Hackworth will work with you to create a functioning system, with the primary goal being to get you all up and running as quickly as possible and with a system that can be duplicated in every city.”

The Lieutenant General pinched the bridge of his nose and his tone lost its formal cadence. “Kelly, Jones, I’ll level with you. The forces assaulting our nation are unlike anything we’ve ever faced, and the prospect that we’re dealing with only the first waves of God knows how many is… sobering. We need to harness your abilities and ensure that the men and women in the armed forces are not left behind and unprepared when future Nemesis wave appear. This is a hinge point. Either we adapt and rise to the occasion, or we fail in our most sacred duty and live long enough only to witness the collapse of the United States of America.”

James sat up a little straighter, King’s words hitting him like blows.

“Colonel Hackworth will take over from here. But it’s clear that we cannot afford to neglect the unique tactical benefit your powers afford us in these upcoming battles. Whatever comes, know that we are all united in one sole purpose: to defend the American people at any cost.”

Some invisible signal must have passed through the monitor, because everybody saluted, and then the monitors darkened as people logged off, till at last only Colonel Hackworth remained on the line.

“Congratulations on the promotion, colonel,” said James.

“Thank you, major. It came at some cost. The creation of Blue Light was controversial, and we’ll need to prove our viability before the army fully trusts us. The one thing we don’t have is time. As such, I’m not going to waste any attempting to re-organize what was once known as the DRC, nor replace any existing current leadership with outside officers. Instead, I want to support your operations with my staff, and will be putting as much focus on creating a model that can be implemented in other metropolises as anything else.”

“Yes sir.”

“You will continue to play an outsized role in all this. In large part, it’s the leadership role you have grown into which helped make Blue Light a reality; nobody could deny your utility in harnessing other ranking civilians and bringing them into the fold. As such you will continue to work with Blue Light’s new public relations department in order to recruit new branches.”

“Yes sir.”

“We also won’t bother with fatigues or normal army protocols when it comes to appearances. We’ll take a page from Delta Squad on that front. What we need to focus instead is on convincing everybody currently working in the DRC to enroll in Blue Light. James, I want you to think about how you’re going to do that.”

“Sir, if I’m to convince them to sign up, I need to know exactly what they’re signing up for. Do they have to live permanently on an army base or the like?”

“No, major. As long as they report for duty to execute missions, they’re fine.”

“Will their pasts or records be held against them?”

Hackworth sighed, clearly reluctant to answer. “I’ve fought for as much leeway as I can, but the United States military requires all members to meet rigorous moral character standards. Usually there’s a process by which recruiters review applicant’s criminal backgrounds so as to screen out persons who may become serious disciplinary cases and who could harm a mission. For Blue Light, all traffic, civil convictions, juvenile offenses, and misdemeanor offenses will be automatically waived. Felonies are more complicated, and the baseline for moving forward will be for each candidate to have completed their sentence and not have violated probation. However anyone who served a state prison sentence will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with low-level or less serious felonies open to receiving an expungement that will reduce their felony to a misdemeanor.”

James frowned. “We don’t have time for evaluations. We have the Third Wave of Nemesis 2’s arriving later today. That’s an order of magnitude larger than the second.”

“And well I know it. But this is the US Military, Major. We cannot and will not change our base standards for moral character.”

James sat back and glanced at Serenity, who was also frowning.

“Look, sir.” James considered his words, then sighed. Changed his mind. “I understand. This is clearly as good as it’s going to get. Thank you.”

Hackworth raked his fingers through his hair. “I have to admit I wasn’t sure how you would take this. It’s not what I wanted. In an ideal world, the DRC would continue to do what it was doing. But we don’t live in that world. So we have to make do. But I can tell you this, Major. I’m going to do my level best to stay out of your way and run interference with the brass that wants to have a say with what you do on a day-to-day level.”

The colonel paused, but James could tell he wasn’t done, so he waited, and when Serenity went to speak, he touched the side of her thigh, and she fell silent as well.

“Blue Light is going to be a highly unorthodox force, and so will our relationship. We will have to observe basic protocol, but I’ve been putting what little free time I have into envisioning how this all plays out. We’re around two weeks’ out from the appearance of Nemesis 3 and were it not for the Fabricator’s ability to produce manna we would already be facing a humanitarian crisis that beggars the mind. I wish I could say that I have full faith in our institutions in their current incarnations ability to fend off this enemy, but I don’t. That means I want to put as much energy into making Blue Light capable of independent operation for the long run. There may come a time where other structures have collapsed, and we are left with Blue Light branches in every city holding the line against the void.”

James felt a chill. The colonel’s words felt prescient, and opened his own vision as to what was coming from merely anticipating then next wave or few weeks to months, to years.

“Yes sir,” said James. “I’ll do what I can.”

“I know you will. Which is why I still feel some modicum of hope. I’ve never been much of a traditional, institutional man, and for most of my life that was to my detriment. But now it’s a unique strength. It’s allowing me to prepare for what’s to come, and I believe you’re the right group to work with. But anyways.”

Hackworth sat up straight, his manner subtly becoming more formal. “I’m going to work with Warrant Officer Miles on getting the paperwork squared away, and will swear everyone in tomorrow evening. In the meantime, your orders are to engage the enemy as you deem fit, and are free to operate in the field at your discretion until called back in.”

“I like that sound of that,” said Serenity, her tone somewhere between relieved and surly. “Can’t we keep it that way?” A beat. “Sir?”

“No, Major Jones.” Hackworth sounded almost kindly. “We can’t. Miles, I’m going to be putting you in touch with the right people so as to expedite this process. The military isn’t nearly as nimble when it comes to paperwork as yourself. You will have to exercise patience.”

“Yes sir,” said Jessica.

“Then let’s bring in some key officers that will be part of this process and review everything that we’ve got thus far. I want to familiarize them and myself with your current structure, strategies, and synergies, and then review your leadership structure and decide how we’re going to convert that to military ranks.”

“Sir,” interjected James. “Before we do that. I have a few questions.”

“Go ahead, Kelly.”

“When Operation Urban Angel destroyed the enemy fortress, did you notice any effects on the comatose?”

“None,” said Kelly. “We destroyed the enemy structure but weren’t aware of the spire and gem as you described them. A dome of darkness covered the structure that defeated our sensors, but that darkness dissipated once the structure itself was destroyed.”

“The magic darkness,” said Serenity. “You need Dark Vision to penetrate it.”

“A similar dome covers every enemy structure we’ve observed thus far,” said Hackworth. “Following your description and handing over of the black gem, we’ve analyzed the space between the enemy symbols and the structures but have been unable to detect anything passing between the two. Obviously, that doesn’t rule out energies that transcend our understanding of physics.”

James considered. “Has anybody tried attacking the symbols?”

“We have. Sidewinders were fired at a symbol over Atlanta, but to no effect. We’ve attempted a variety of means to destroy them, but they’ve remained impervious to conventional weaponry.”

“Well shit,” said James. “Any more instances of Monitor’s appearing?”

“Within the US? There are five, with your being one. We’ve dossiers on the other four individuals, and all were high ranking like yourself. It’s my hope to bring them into Blue Light.”

“Could I see those dossiers?”

“Sure. I’ll have them shared with you.”

“What’s being done with the black gems we handed over today?”

“They’re being analyzed by scientists. I don’t know the exact details, but they’re a high priority. I’ll keep you appraised as information comes in.”

“And your own ranks? In the regular army? How are folks keeping track of what’s going on, level-wise?”

“Haphazard at best. Our systems aren’t designed for that kind of intel and adapting to this new facet takes time. Hard to believe it’s only been six days - has it been six? - since this all began. I understand what you’re going to say, and yes, it’s a priority. But we have to work with what’s plausible, and restructuring the armed forces overnight is just not going to happen.”

James glanced to his two companions. “That’s unfortunate, but I understand. Well, we’ve got the DRC waiting on us. I think I should head back to the Marriott and tell them we’re now Blue Light.”

“Very well. Good luck with breaking the news, Major. I have confidence in you. We’ll coordinate on your messaging, and how we’ll make this announcement to the world at large. For now, refrain from posting new content on TikTok.”

“Understood.” James stood up. “I don’t know how this is supposed to work. Do I ask to be dismissed or something?”

Hackworth smiled tiredly. “We’re not going to be playing this that way. Others may disagree, but I understand what’s truly going on here. We’re allies, Kelly. In public, we might need to observe more formal decorum, but in private, don’t worry about it.”

“Yes sir,” said James, and realized: the reason he was calling Hackworth sir wasn’t due to his rank, but because he respected the man and it felt right. “We’re going to make this work.”

“I know,” said Hackworth. “Seeing as we don’t have a choice, I believe it.”

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