I forced myself to take a deep breath. You have been shot before, Warren. This is nothing compared to that. Only your dream since you were eight years old, no big deal. Dammit.
I stared into the mirror, poking through my black hair for even the slightest hint of imperfection. One gray hair caught my eye, only to find itself plucked for the offense so I might search for any other traitors. I gave the clock a glance; a quarter to ten, fifteen minutes away from the moment that would decide the rest of my life.
I stopped by my rec room, grabbed a couple of twenty-five kilo freeweights for a few reps. Enough to get the heart pumping for reasons other than panic. I was in better shape today than when I got out of basic twenty two years ago, with the physicals to prove it, but I wanted them to see it with their own eyes.
During the last ten minutes, I inspected my dress uniform and every medal on it for the fortieth through fiftieth times. The battle plan was as complete as it could be before its inevitable death upon meeting the enemy. I heard them approaching, but waited until five seconds after they knocked to get the door. Nothing put people off quite like appearing desperate, especially when you were desperate.
I was prepared for a man in uniform when I opened the door; NASA and the military may as well be married. I was not prepared for the three silver stars on his uniform. I snapped into a salute faster than I ever had before in my life. While I did my best imitation of a very respectful statue, I went into observation mode.
The General was an older man, possibly in his early seventies, and his scarred face suggested a close encounter with some form of shrapnel bomb. He gave me a quick salute that bordered on the lazy before he spoke. “Care to invite us in?”
God damn it! “Yes, sir.” I stepped back, but kept hold of the door for him. He walked with a confident, if somewhat hurried pace, to be followed by a small, dark-haired man in a casual suit carrying a small briefcase.
“You are Sergeant Warren Richard Cross, honorably discharged October third, the year two thousand?”
“Yes, sir, I am.” What the hell?
“I’m giving you permission to speak freely. In fact, consider it an order.” There was no humor in his face or tone.
I forced myself to relax and think. In retrospect, they obviously weren’t from NASA, a detail that I was growing more and more pissed about, so I decided to start there. “Okay, sir, in the interest of following orders: why are you here?”
The general looked me dead in the eyes. “I hope you don’t mind if I answer your question with a question. How long have you had powers?”
What. “Sir, if this is some weird psychological test, I’d like to remind you I’ve got a stack of files saying I’m psychologically healthy. None of them say anything about having super powers.”
“If- if I may?” The small guy spoke with a notable, if faint, Indian accent. “I’m Doctor Patil, I work with Imbued, and it’s not uncommon for the lowest levels to never realize they have unique abilities. In fact, it’s a fascinating subject. Some evidence suggests that powers cause their owner to become more isolated from society, but-”
“Long story short,” the general cut Doctor Patil off. “Others in isolated circumstances have gained powers without realizing it in the past. After your discharge, you have remained a loner. No family, no long term relationships, and you seem content to a rather modest lifestyle. You fit the profile.”
They have to be fucking with me. I resolved to remain polite until they were gone, then report that I may have met someone impersonating an officer, but first I needed to collect as much intel as possible.
“Listen. I’ve been around the block a few times, I’m going to need better than some vague claim about powers I’ve never heard of.” I turned my head to the older man. “I don’t believe I caught your name, General?”
The man took the hint. “General Lindsey.” As far as fake names go, I wouldn’t have expected ‘Lindsey’, which made it a perfect choice. “Based on your medical records, we believe you gained powers somewhere between ninety and ninety-four.”
Based upon that claim, they’d have to be using my physicals from basic, and the ones from when I entered the Green Berets. “Alright, so that gives me a timeline, but why does that mean I have powers?”
“According to your records, you had a sports related injury in your junior year of highschool,” the doctor said. “Your records show no sign of that injury.”
“Okay.” A torn rotator cuff and broken shoulder bone, but I wasn’t about to share information with this pair until I was certain I trusted them. “Injuries do heal, you know.”
“Never this perfectly under normal circumstances.” The doctor handed me a couple x-rays of a shoulder that might have been mine. One had a circle around spots that meant nothing to me, while the other had a similar circle without the spots. “The earlier records show signs of an old injury, but in the latter, it’s as if the it never happened.”
This has to be bullshit. “How come no one told me this before? I’ve had more than one physical during my service.”
“They didn’t look as close as NASA’s people,” General Lindsey stated. “The military doesn’t care about prior medical records, only current fitness. NASA’s people need to track everything, to better understand the effects of space travel on the body. When they spotted the discrepancies in your old charts, they flagged it, and that’s where we come in.”
“And you are?” Let’s see how elaborate their lies can be.
“One of the many new departments created during the Patriot Act.” With the ease Lindsey responded, he was either telling the truth, or a genius liar. “NASA suspected you might be attempting fraud, so we were asked to investigate.”
“And what you found was?”
“That you have an impressive service record, soldier,” Lindsey answered. Using praise to cement a lie was a common enough tactic that I didn’t bite. “After Desert Storm, you went into the Green Berets on recommendation from your C.O., having learned fluent Arabic after six months in Iraq, despite no prior experience with the language.”
“It’s not that unusual, sir.” An uneasy feeling started in my stomach. “You tend to pick things up pretty fast when surrounded by it.”
“There are a lot of experts who wish it worked that easily.” Lindsey still hadn’t cracked a smile. “You were an exemplary soldier until wounded in action. You turned down a position as an officer and accepted your discharge.”
If they’re liars, they’re damn well informed liars. “Never was the type to sit behind a desk, sir. Besides, I had other ambitions.”
“You began applying to NASA as an astronaut almost immediately out of service. Declined for a time based on your injury,” Lindsey continued telling me my own life story. “It wasn’t until recently that they gave you a serious look, and discovered the discrepancy between your service record, and prior and current medical records. There are only a small number of possible causes.”
“I don’t suppose you can share what those are?” I kept it off my face, but I was starting to worry. I had learned to trust my instincts, and right now my instinct trusted the general.
“The most likely cause was clerical error, but we ruled that out before contacting you.” Of course they did. “Second most likely was some form of power-assisted disability fraud.”
“No.” I put all my conviction into that one word. “I didn’t even apply for disability benefits from my injury.”
Lindsey nodded his head. “We know, but you’d be amazed how many people try injuring themselves on purpose only to have a healer patch them up later. To say nothing of identity theft and records tampering. We had to rule it out before moving forward.”
I forced myself to swallow. They’re telling the truth. “So the only other answer was that I have powers?”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Well, no, it was also possible you were exposed to a healing power without your knowledge. Many healers have area of effect powers that restore everyone. There’s a woman in Brazil who can steal life force from someone, but only if she gives it to someone else. But we believe we’ve ruled that out, too.”
“Your test results border on the inhuman,” the doctor got more excited as he pulled more paperwork out of his briefcase. “Nothing that’s past the human scale, but everything at the top of human ability. You’re a competitive match for Olympic medal winners, in every sport. Which is physically impossible, the conditioning necessary to be a weight lifter not only doesn’t help, but often hinders, the endurance conditioning a runner needs. You learn languages in a matter of months, and your senses have improved despite the fact that they should be declining with age.”
“Maybe there were errors, then. I work hard to keep myself in good condition, and top athletes always face diminishing returns. The difference between good and record setting is often a matter of fractions.”
General Lindsey stopped watching the exchange to put us on a different track. “Can we see your bullet wound?
What. “Sir?” I allowed myself to express my surprise. “The injury was to my upper thigh, near my hip. Are you asking me to drop trou?”
“Come off it, soldier. I’m an ol’ mustang, myself.” General Lindsey was using a slang for an officer that started as a grunt. Based on his age, I’d guess that put him in the Vietnam, or perhaps even Korean war. “Unless this is one of those don’t ask, don’t tell situations, you ain’t gonna shock me.”
I took a moment to undo the belt to my dress pants, then slid them to my knees. For brevity’s sake, I included my boxers as well. It had been years since I’d shown the full monty to any man other than my doctor, but I just bit the proverbial bullet.
“Not so much as a scratch on you.” The general was right; I knew the scar had faded with time, but it happened so gradually that I never noticed it was gone entirely.
“Remarkable. I’d have thought there’d at least be some discoloration around the entry point.” The doctor’s stare was so intense that I hoped he was gay just so I’d feel less uncomfortable. “How long did it take you before you healed?”
I pulled my pants back up before I answered. “Well, the doc took the bandages off after two months, and I went jogging again the day after. Scar went away after a year or so, I think.”
“And you didn’t think there was anything strange about that?” General Lindsey managed to sound incredulous despite his tone of voice remaining the same.
“It didn’t seem unusual at the time. The pain was there at first, and only went away after weeks. By the time the doctor gave his all-clear, I thought that meant I was free to go back to my normal routine. I guess it’s a little strange in retrospect.” Oh fuck, they’re right, I do have powers. “But that should only make me a better astronaut, right?”
The pair glanced at one another. “I’m afraid not,” Lindsey said.
The doctor explained further. “Perhaps in the old days, when the program was racing the Russians to see who could plant their flags first. Now, with all the unmanned projects, most of the point in astronauts is to develop space travel for people. More like test subjects than anything.”
“And if I have powers, my results aren’t viable.” No. I sat down on the edge of my couch, decorum be damned. “But they still send Imbued up, right?”
“Sometimes, but only if they have specific, useful powers.” I wanted to punch that doctor. “There’s still a chance, but in all honesty I wouldn’t count on it.”
“So you just came here to deliver the bad news in person?” Fuck. Fuck damn. Now what do I do?
Lindsey stepped forward. “We came to offer you a job.”
I looked up at him. “A job? Doing what?”
“First, let us be clear that this information is beyond Top Secret.” Lindsey managed to somehow sound even more stern than before. “If anyone other than the President of the United States asks, you lie to their faces. Is that understood, soldier?”
“Yes, sir.” I had no intention of accepting their offer, but I was too curious not to hear it.
The doctor took that as his turn to offer the pitch. “I represent a certain military contract company. We’re mainly a research and development firm which relies upon harnessing Imbued, but we also do other government enforcement work.”
“Translation: mercenaries.” I’d dealt with a few merc companies in my day. In my experience, they consisted of people too fucked up to function under proper military discipline. Few were there out of any sense of responsibility to their country, the best ones were there for the money and didn’t care who they hurt, and the worst were there to hurt people while getting paid.
“Know all those movies where scientists tamper with things and somehow release alien plagues or giant monsters on the world?”
“I’ve seen a few.”
“Well, those movies are to us what Hogan’s Heroes is to you.”
I mentally grimaced; my dad used to watch reruns of that show all the time. Even as a child, I knew how silly it was. “That bad, huh?”
“Bad? No, we get together every Thursday and play drinking games while talking about all the ways we’d have done things different. To start with, our equipment is made exclusively of metal or bullet proof plastic. And we run background checks on our employees, as well as pay them enough that they don’t take bribes.”
“More than that, this is a chance for you to make a real difference.” General Lindsey apparently decided he’d let the doc digress enough. “You know the world’s changing. More people, and with it more Imbued who cause trouble. You’ll be part of a new, elite force designed to bring down the monsters that can’t be controlled or ignored. It’s your chance to help save the world.”
I’ve heard that line, before. I considered my response. “Sir, I think after eight years, six of them spent crawling around in the sand, I’ve served my country enough. Maybe my chances of being an astronaut are FUBAR, but if I accept this job they’re reduced to a guaranteed failure.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Actually, are you concerned with being an astronaut, or going to space?”
I looked at him. “Is there a difference?”
The doctor’s smile was every bit as intense as his stare before. “I can’t do anything about NASA, but how does a weekend on the moon sound?”