They were the weirdest pair of officers Sergeant Colbert had ever seen, and that was saying something.
An Air Force Major, not tall but solid. Perhaps mid thirties, and with the sort of grounded officer calm he'd never seen in a Zoomie. Usually those guys' feet rarely touched the ground even when they weren't flying. Hell, he hardly ever saw this sort of easy frostiness among his own chain of command.
Then, his contrast in any way you'd care to name, a female Marine Lieutenant in her late twenties, thirty at most. Her posture was unmistakably Marine-in-presence-of-superior-officer, but she was brimming with energy in that confident, comfortable way Lt. Fick was still growing into.
By his eye, they were both recovering from injuries. Major Lorne to his upper back, judging from the slightly stiff way he moved his shoulders. Lieutenant Cadman had the red shade of a healing burn on her left jaw and the side of her neck, like she'd been in a blastwave, and she held her head carefully. Either the damaged skin was pulling, or she was recovering from a neck injury.
The weirdest thing was that they seemed comfortable with each other, in a way he'd never seen any Zoomie and marine officer be. Like they worked together a lot. Like they'd been through a war together, whole worlds of meaning in a shared glance.
The Major had just finished telling - or perhaps more precisely, not telling - them about a highly classified project that was interested in recruiting them. It was remote, it was elite, it had a clear mission, and to Brad's very great irritation, he was curious despite the total non-information situation they had going on.
* * *
They stood looking out over the training field. Unsurprisingly, she drew a lot of attention, though Espera yelled at the guys to shut up and pay attention.
"Should have brought a rolled up newspaper," she said dryly when Manimal wolf-whistled and yelled an invitation to grapple with them.
It didn't seem to bother her though, her stance alert but at ease. He wondered what it would have been like to deal with that sort of thing every single day from bootcamp onward.
At this angle he could see the burn on her face a little better. The eyebrow was scorched and the skin definitely looked as if she'd had a burn incident recently. He idly wondered what could have happened at that top-secret place they couldn't tell him more about.. until he signed papers.
"Anything in specific on the base you wanted to see, ma'am?" he asked when she didn't say anything more than her initial 'let's take a walk'.
"Not really, sergeant. Just thought you might like the opportunity to ask questions."
Ah. Okay, he hadn't expected that. Usually Marines weren't supposed to ask questions, and perhaps they had thought he would find it easier with a Marine officer than in the presence of his direct superior and a Zoomie major.
He was vaguely impressed by how personable she was while still undeniably an officer. Most people, when meeting the Recon Marines, felt the need to posture and insist on extreme formality to fill the role. Hell, a lot of their own officers were like that. That she, more than a head smaller and still recovering from an injury, could comfortably be in control of the situation while being this as ease, made him wonder what on earth they were facing at that top-secret base.
"Ma'am, given that you can't give us much to go on, I find it hard to decide if I want to do this," he said after a moment. She tilted her head slightly as if conceding his point. "Could you give me a reason why I should chose to agree to go?"
"Sergeant, have you ever worked in a chain of command that is sane and competent all the way to the top?"
He contemplated this for a minute, mostly to resist his initial reaction of 'bullshit!'
"With all due respect, ma'am.. I don't believe such a thing exists."
She smiled minutely, never moving her eyes from the sparring men.
"That's what I said."
The silence stretched comfortably while he weighed that. Both Lorne and herself seemed well-adjusted and competent, with the sort of deceptive relaxedness the best Marines he knew all had. Even without the recovering injuries he wouldn't have mistaken them for desk jockeys. So the question really was, did he trust their judgement of their chain of command?
Out on the field, Espera was showing the men a takedown. Shirts were coming off, and there was a bit more posturing going on than usual. He swallowed a grin, knowing he was going to get a hail of questions about her later.
"Think of it like this - every single person on that base has been handpicked because they are the best at what they do."
"Every single one? Down to the individual Marines?"
"Well.. it's more common to pick a particularly good officer and let them select the people they want to take with them," she admitted.
"That's what your Major is talking to Lt Fick about?"
"So why are you talking to me? If you don't mind me asking, ma'am," he added quickly. Damn, she was easy to talk to. Easy to forget himself.
"Because you were handpicked too - there's an SAS Captain who asked me to check you out for his.." she hesitated over the word, as if she couldn't say the actual title. "Strike team," she settled on.
SAS? Well, he supposed if he had to be lead by somebody who wasn't a Marine, the British Special Air Service made people he wouldn't be ashamed to follow.
There was something about her reaction to the Marines' catcalls though..
"Did he ask you to find out how I reacted to a female officer, ma'am?" he played a hunch.
"Nice," she said approvingly, as if that confirmed something about him. "Yes, that was part of the request."
He contemplated that for a long moment, thinking of some of the barracks talk.
"Fair enough," he conceded.
"There's about a 60:40 men to women ratio in the larger community there, and many of the military teams are mixed too."
"And Recon Marines aren't renowned for their levelheaded and respectful reactions to women," he said wryly.
"If you're going to sail a yacht across an ocean, you don't just want the best sailors aboard - you want the best you actually want to spend thirty days on a yacht with," she nodded.
He waited for her to continue, but she left it at that.
"Ma'am, is this the first time your program recruits from the Recon divisions?"
"We've always had Air Force and Marines on the base, due to how the whole project started - you'll hear about that later. And there are a couple of Navy techs. Lately we've been restructuring teams, and the Colonel wanted all the team leaders to start looking cross-branch and more international."
Huh. He was almost irritated at how curious this all made him. He really didn't want to be this eager.
"And do you do most of the recruiting, ma'am?" because she was damn good at it, and not just because she had a cute grin.
"Actually, I'm the resident explosives expert. I just happened to be available because I'm still on light duty. We don't have dedicated recruiters - it's much more useful to talk to the people who actually work there."
That made so much sense it was almost un-military. He said so and was rewarded with a flash of her bright grin.
"It's not the most by-the-book place, which is why we look for people who have shown they can work without the book."
"It certainly sounds like an interesting place," he finally said.
"I don't really want an answer right now, sergeant. Think about it for a few days. We're off to Fort Bragg to talk to some Rangers, and we'll be back here on thursday."
* * *
"So," he said, looking at Nate.
"So." the Lt. replied, in a contemplative sort of voice.
"You gonna do it?"
"Thinking about it. They're offering me my own team - bring along a couple of the guys, ones I pick."
"Guidelines for selection are.. " he ticked off on his fingers "The most experienced, dependable, inventive people. Able to find a work-life balance when on a base long term.."
"What do they mean with that?"
"I took it as that we'd be living on whateverthehell that base is, and it's a community including people stationed there permanently, so our lives will be there. They don't want people who go into deployment mode. Apparently that doesn't go well."
Yeah, they both knew guys who became entirely different people when they were on deployment. To a degree it was unavoidable, even good, to close off parts of yourself during missions, but that wasn't something that was sustainable for a year, and not desirable if they'd be stationed in a city with permanent residents.
"Right. Stationing, not deployment. But there's leave, right? I forgot to ask details."
"Every seventh day is a rest day on the entire base, and on a year's time there you get three weeks of Stateside leave to schedule as you want, current situation on the base permitting. If you re-up, there's two weeks extra."
"That's not bad, actually. You could go home for a week every three months, if you wanted. What else?"
Nate continued: "Able to cooperate with, and take direction from, any branch of military and even civilians."
"Well, that rules out a few people..."
"And importantly, not too trigger happy. We wouldn't just do combat situations, though he couldn't really tell me much more."
"Yeah, I got the impression the Lieutenant found that a bit frustrating."
"Well, they weren't recruiters, just two officers still on light duty."
Colbert nodded. "I got that. She's their explosives expert, apparently. And he's the XO..."
What sort of base sent their XO on recruiting missions?
One that valued the quality of new recruits and didn't leave it to just anybody?
The Lt seemed preoccupied. "He knew about a bunch of 'em, can you believe that? Suggested Espera and Person. I asked if I could bring my own corpsman, and he just looked at his PDA and said 'That would be HM1 Timothy Bryan? Very much yes.' like he had a shortlist of people he wanted, but he was going to leave it to me. What kind of top secret out-there program knows about our individual Marines?"
"And how the hell do they select them? It's not like these guys have glowing records. They're a pair of belligerent fuckers."
The time Doc had told Encino Man to his face that he was incompetent was legendary amongst the men. It hadn't just been the fact that he'd said it out loud, but the calm, utterly serious tone had made it impossible to dismiss as frustrated enlisted talk. The Navy had deservedly promoted him to Hospitalman First Class, but the Marine officers weren't fond of him. Any officer willing to take him on had to be pretty damn confident in his own abilities.
"A top-secret out-there program that values independent thinkers, if they want Tim Bryan and Ray," Nate cracked a grin. "Think they'll say yes?"
"Ray? Probably, even if it's mostly out of curiosity. Doc? If you can convince him the upper-ups there know what they're doing..."
"Lorne seemed solid, but... you never know."
"Cadman was full confidence on the sanity and competence of the entire chain of command over there. We've only got her word for it, but..."
"You believe her?" Nate asked over his coffee cup.
"She's an LT - you guys always know. Sergeants and LTs."
Nate nodded in agreement. They both knew all too well that their respective positions were the ones that had to protect the men from the incompetence higher up.
"Plus, she's an explosives expert still on light duty after what looked like some kind of blast incident. If her upper-ups had the slightest doubt that she didn't trust her commanding officers, they wouldn't send her to recruit new people, right?"
"Point. Can you picture some of--" he made a vague handwave, referring to what between them they called 'that clusterfuck in Iraq' "-sending me out to recruit? Anyway, I figure, if everybody on that base is handpicked like we just were... well, the screw-ups would at least be of a higher level."
"Signing up for properly elite, classified screwups."
"Something like that. Think Tony'd come?"
"I don't know. His daughter is getting old enough to ask why daddy is away, and they don't pay you that sort of combat pay for no reason."
"Maybe," Colbert agreed. "Who else'd you want?"
"Garza, Christopher, Hasser, Kocher or Wynn, if they're willing to go."
"How about you?" Nate asked after a long moment. "He said they had other plans for you - I figured that's what the 'let's take a walk' was all about."
"Apparently some SAS Captain tapped me for his team."
"A Brit Para headhunted you? Nice." Marine Corps pride aside, an SAS officer wanting you on his team was a compliment.
"And the Lieutenant wanted to see if I would turn into a howling feral dog the moment I got near a female officer."
"Ah yes, the Major did mention a significant female presence. So," the Lt asked brightly, "did you?"
Colbert rolled his eyes. As if that merited an answer.
"Manimal did, nicely demonstrating it was a valid concern," he shook his head, irritated that the two officers had had to specify, if not in so many words, they wanted Marines who were decent human beings.
"Their strike teams are mixed, too - I think the team they want me for has at least one, since that SAS Captain asked her to look at it specifically."
"You're telling me"
"So you're decided?"
Brad realised that he was.
"I gotta meet this Brit who reads my record and decides I'm the one he wants for his team," he nodded. "You?"
"I need to sleep on it," Nate said. "It sounds damn tempting, but.. Lorne said standard transfer is a year, but that there are a lot of people who are stationed there permanently.. and that if you do that, they have a lot of study and research options. Apparently Lieutenant Cadman is working on a Chemistry PhD, with the full support of base command. So it could be a good career move, but... I don't know. I need a little time to think it over. Maybe ask if there's any word on it floating around."
They sat in contemplative silence for the space of a few minutes.
"You know what's really weird about the whole thing?" Brad finally said.
Nate raised en eyebrow. "Apart from the whole highly classified, inter-branch, civilian and international, can't-tell-you-what-our-program-is-called-without-non-disclosure-paperwork, independent-thinker selecting, amiable Air Force and Corps officer cooperation thing?"
"Yeah - the out of contact thing. You and I have been to some pretty damn remote places, but at every base camp there's been some form of phone and internet connection, and semi-daily post. Where on Earth is this remote-ass base that they get one weekly mail delivery and email syncing twice a week? And no phone reception at all? Is there some crazy-ass top-secret war going on in Antarctica or something?"
"This is a lack of information torture. You want to know more to know if you want to sign the papers, but you have to sign the papers to get to know more," Nate summarised.
"Fuck it, I'm going to do it," Colbert said. "If I end up in the ass-end of Antarctica, at least I'll know all about the top-secret war over penguins."
* * *
He had just signed a stack of paper nearly as high as his coffee cup, quite possibly giving the US military permission to deep-six him or consign him to a life of slave labour in the depth of some godforsaken mine somewhere if he ever spoke to anybody about... well, about what they had yet to tell him.
The fucked-upness of the situation struck him as mildly hilarious.
"Let's start with this," Lorne put a single sheet of paper in front of him. He didn't look at it, observed them for a moment instead. Lorne had taken the chair at the head of the table, with Colbert on his left side and Cadman on his right, opposite Colbert. He liked that they hadn't chosen to put the table between him and themselves like it was a tribunal.
Cadman noticed his glance from the thick folder of non-disclosure agreement to the single sheet in front of him, and flashed a grin.
"Hardly seems fair, doesn't it?"
"We have more information for you, information that we're not permitted to print, only pass on verbally," Lorne clarified.
Right. Highly classified. Point.
He read the sheet.
He turned over the sheet.
There was no information about the psychological experiment they were clearly conducting with him here.
He wanted to punch somebody, or burst into hysterical laughter. Neither was acceptable under the circumstances, so he just looked up slowly with as incredulous an expression he could allow himself without saying 'What the fucking flying fuck' out loud.
"With all due respect, sir," he said dryly, aware he didn't sound all that respectful and not caring, "Did the information about the classified project I just signed on for get switched with the script of a sci-fi TV show?"
There, and he didn't even say fuck even once, even though he really really wanted to. Cadman had a glimmer of amusement in her eyes that reminded him of Nate. Like she was well aware that he just swallowed about nine instances of 'fuck'. Of course, she was a Marine.
The weird part was, Lorne looked like he knew it too. Of course, he was a Zoomie working with a Marine.
Then the major started talking, in a completely matter of fact tone. Talked about wormholes and travelling to other planets and other galaxies and a floating city that was usually, but not always, a safe place to live in between missions, and then he coughed to hide the 'what the fucking fuck?' when the man came to the part of the space vampires.
They both looked completely unruffled.
"Right. Space vampires."
"Nothing we say at this point is going to convince you, is it sergeant?" Cadman said. Still that glimmer of amusement.
"A sound assessment, ma'am."
"We can't bring along the things that would really convince you," she said. "So instead we'll rely on your innate curiosity, and you'll get your proof when you arrive at Cheyenne Mountain."
Huh. Damn it, and he'd been looking forward to their efforts to convince him. Lorne, who might not be a Marine but was definitely perceptive, smiled minutely.
* * *
"Lieutenant Fick and his team, once he has assembled it, will be stationed in Colorado Springs for about a month to get them prepared for the outward base," Major Lorne said. "We have some former Atlantis personnel that does our training, these days, put some gate experience on 'em. You, on the other hand, are getting thrown straight into the deep end."
"Captain Avery is chomping at the bit, don'tchaknow," Cadman grinned, mocking a British accent. "We've been getting impatient emails."
"You live on base right now, is that correct?"
"Three days enough to wrap up your affairs here? We do have a department that helps our people with long term arrangements."
"Three days should be enough, sir," he said. It wasn't like he'd built up any entanglements.
"Good. We'll arrange your transport to Colorado Springs for Monday morning - we'll make sure they're expecting you at the mountain. They'll put you through the medical screening and possibly cram in a little training, depending on who is available. We're shipping out on Tuesday, hopefully mid-day."
His only regret was that he couldn't be there when they told Ray about the space vampires. Maybe Cadman would be willing to tell him about it later.