“Hey, Sam, wait up!”
Samantha Carter turned at the sound of her name being called by one of her teammates. Daniel Jackson hurried down the corridor towards her, a worried expression on his face.
Sam spoke as he arrived, “What's up, Daniel?”
“I just wanted to see if there was anything else I could so to help with Jack's situation.”
Sam shook her head. “Not really. I have done everything I can for the moment. It's going to take a few more weeks of trial and error work with the plasma cutter before we have the best possible chance of succeeding with burning through the rock covering the gate.”
“But you'll be able to? You're sure?”
Again, Sam shook her head. “I can't guarantee anything. But I am reasonably sure. What's up?”
Daniel looked uncertain. “I was thinking that if we don't make contact in the next month or so, maybe we should contact Jack's next of kin.”
Sam's face hardened. “No. Colonel O'Neill is alive. And we will rescue him. There is no point in unduly worrying his family.”
Daniel's face was neutral as he spoke, “And Cali and Joyce Summers?”
Sam spoke in a calm voice, while inwardly angry, “They don't need to know.”
“Daniel, stop. We can't tell them anything to alleviative their worry. Everything is Top Secret. And Cali doesn't even have her Secret clearance yet. Joyce Summers is a civilian. So, no.”
Daniel sighed. “All right, Sam. I just hate to see anything happen to Jack's relationships while he is... unavailable.”
“Don't worry about it. But while I have you here, I do have something I need to talk to you about.”
Daniel nodded absently. “Sure, shoot.”
“When you assigned those reports to Cali, were you aware of the adverse impact they would have on her grades? Of the pressure she is under as a fourth class cadet at the Air Force Academy? That she spent so much time on that last one that she lost A's in two
classes? What do you have to say about that, Daniel?”
Daniel's face looked by turns shocked, embarrassed, and upset. His mouth made motions more resembling a fish out of water than a person. Sam nodded decisively. “That's what I thought. Come with me, Daniel. I want to give you a quick breakdown of the realities behind the Air Force Academy.”
A group of people sat around a large table. Each had their task. The shy blonde girl and another short-haired pouty-looking girl were making little packets of something using spices and other ingredients. The scruffy-looking man along with the girl, Anya, were sharpening stakes. The blond boy was playing a flute over a strange looking device while the brainy guy watched avariciously. The only ones not working were the dark-haired girl and her Watcher, who talked quietly in one corner. The attitude in the room was one of quiet determination. A digital clock in the corner showed the date and time, May 29, 2000 around two in the afternoon. Then the Watcher walked over and picked up the phone. He spoke a few words, then stopped and just listened. After a moment, he put the phone back. Without hesitation, he gestured for everyone to attend him. After a short speech, the action seemed to speed up, and one by one, they each finished their tasks. Then they left as a group. Shortly after they left, something huge and hulking burst through the door, spraying the now empty room with bullets from a huge gun on his arm. Then he seemed to realize that no one was there and briefly a look of bafflement and rage crossed his face before he, too, left.
Buffy woke up, groaning. Glancing over to the alarm clock on her desk, she realized it was only 2330 hours. Great, she thought, I only just got to sleep. Now I'll probably be up for hours. Laying back down Buffy figured she would concentrate on her dream to see if she could figure it out. Within minutes, she slept again.
Wearing her BDU's, Buffy walked through strange streets filled with oddly dressed people. Stalls filled with all sorts of odds and ends stood at the street edges. Every time she paused to examine something, a large black man wearing a fool's motley, a tattoo in gold on his forehead, would caper in front of her, waving her forward. Finally they reached the end of the street in front of an imposing castle gate.
Guards with pikes ignored the two as Buffy and the fool sauntered between them, heading within. Inside lay an enormous room dominated by two immense thrones on the far end. Moving forward, Buffy could see richly dressed figures on the thrones, one male and one female. Closer still, Buffy recognized the man as Colonel Jack O'Neill. Holding an immense jeweled scepter, he would occasionally wave someone forward, only to strike them on the head with his scepter minutes later.
The woman on the adjacent throne was an unknown woman with a regal air.. When Buffy tried to run forward to meet the two, the motley'd fool blocked her. Trying to get around him, Buffy ran dizzingly in different directions, only to be stopped each time. Finally, she gave up, content to just watch the strange scene.
One thing she noticed was that the two appeared to be ignoring each other. Since they were obviously the King and Queen, Buffy wasn't sure why that was, but somehow, it made her glad.
After some time had passed, the motley'd fool capered over to the Colonel's throne, After dancing crazily for a moment, he pulled from his brightly colored tunic a large device of modern design and blasted the throne out from under the Colonel. Crashing to the ground, the Colonel scrambled up, shouting at the fool, who bowed to him.
Okay, Buffy thought grumpily, that was just wrong. And if it was supposed to tell her anything about Colonel O'Neill, she had no clue what that might be. Besides, what was up with Murray being the court jester? Narrowly eying the ceiling, Buffy quietly muttered, “I wasn't kidding. He'd better be okay.” Grumpily, she punched her pillow. Buffy then rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. After all, tomorrow started Recognition, which was going be much harder than even The Forty Days had been.Recognition, Day Three, the Obstacle Course
Buffy ran to her next obstacle. The Instructor shouted, “Get a move on, Summers! Get up that wall! Hancock! Move it, you maggot!” She was rather proud that he didn't end hers with a maggot like the guy next to her got. Most of the instructors knew she was pushing the physical boundaries of what a woman could do, leading even many of the male cadets. And while a lot were pretty hide-bound about women in the military, there were plenty that were okay with it as well. They seemed pretty proud to see one of theirs succeed so well.
Buffy actually had to force herself to slow down as she scrambled up the wall, going only as fast as the guy next to her, rather than at full speed. Hell, she could have jumped to the top of the wall. Still, the obstacle course was exhilarating, consisting of running, jumping, climbing, and a short rappel. The rappel was still to come, while she was working on more of the climbing. The wall was the third climbing event so far. The rope climb had been the most fun, while the monkey bars had been just lame.
Pausing a split second at the top of the log wall, Buffy could feel the fresh breeze cool her body off. Noticing her companion starting to get ahead of her, she casually swung her body around and effortlessly passed him on the climb down, taking off at a run. Or a jog to her.
It was Recognition, the hellish time in early April when you were pushed to your absolute limits. Today they were running the Obstacle Course. Tomorrow it was the Assault Course. In the last six weeks leading up to this, there had been endless Spirit Missions. Those had been immensely fun, often sleep depriving, and sometimes incredibly nerve wracking. Thinking back on the last six weeks, Buffy recalled three particularly memorable Spirit Missions.The Forty Days, Day Eleven
Connie and Buffy stood at rigid attention as their room was destroyed completely around them. Nothing was sacred. Buffy managed to keep an even expression on her face as one of their tormentors tossed Mr. Gordo on top of all of her formerly perfectly pressed uniforms. Then he dumped the contents of her footlocker on top of that. Luckily there wasn't anything that could leak or otherwise make a mess. That had been one of the things that Major Carter had warned her about. Now, there wasn't a single ink pen or other source of stains in the entire room. She and Connie had stored everything in Gator's room, where it would be safe.
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“What is the number of days until Air Force beats Navy?”
“Sir, the answer is that the number of days until Air Force beats Navy is one hundred and ninety days, sir!”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
“I can't hear you, Cadet Perez!”
“SIR, YES, SIR!”
“What is the number of days until Air Force beats Army?”
“Sir, the answer is...”
“I can't hear you, Cadet Perez!”
“Sir, the answer is the number of days until Air Force beats Army is two hundred and seventeen days, sir!”
Finally, after what seemed like eternity, the SLAMI was over. Their tormentors filed out of the room and Buffy and Connie set about making everything right. Without the addition of any food or liquids, straightening things went pretty smoothly. Buffy caught Connie staring at her a couple of times and finally asked, “What's going on, Connie?”
Connie shook her head, a sad expression on her face. “I... oh fuck it, Cali. I am just not sure I am cut out for this.”
Buffy was flabbergasted. “Not cut out? You're the poster child for the Air Force. Look at you, tall, dark, Hispanic. You know what they say, minorities rule.”
That last brought a smile to Connie's face, but her eyes remained serious. “Maybe I look the part, but I let things like this get to me too easily. I mean, look at you.”
Uneasily, Buffy asked, “What about me?”
Connie sighed. “You never ever get told that they cannot hear you. And I am louder than you. Not to mention how easily you slip back and forth between speaking normally and not using contractions. I cannot use contractions at all. I think I have been brainwashed.”
Buffy grimaced. “Look, Connie, don't let it get to you. Everyone goes about doubting themselves about now. This is what the Forty Days are all about. And it's only going to get worse during Recognition. Major Carter told me some pretty hair-raising things from her own Recognition.”
Buffy walked up to her roomie and gave her a hug. “You'll feel better after your Spirit Mission tonight.”
Connie's eyes gleamed with amusement as she stepped back. “Okay, maybe you are... you're right, goddammit!” With that, both girls burst out laughing.
Connie gave the sign, a quick forward jerk of her hand and Buffy, Sky, and Big Mike all scrambled forward, lugging the supplies for tonight's mission. Each of them wore camo, from their dress to their face paint. They were on a mission after all. An important mission. One that Connie had dreamed up. But it was very time sensitive. They only had, at best, thirty minutes under the cover of darkness before General Kerrigan finished up and headed out to his car. Quickly they got down to business. With Connie directing, they unpacked the items they were carrying: large rolls of plastic wrap, liberated from the dining hall.
Working diligently, they began wrapping General Kerrigan's staff car, the goal to cover it completely. While Sky and Big Mike worked on going round and round the car from bumper to bumper, Buffy and Connie worked on going around the car from roof to wheels.. Connie and Buffy had the harder job as they had to pass the rolls of plastic wrap under the car after each pass. Still, with minutes to spare, they finished, giving Connie time to spray paint their Squadron Number onto the plastic-wrapped vehicle. In mere seconds, she was done. They had time for a couple of quick pictures, then they quickly headed back to their dorm, high-fiving each other as they ran.
“You were right.”
Buffy looked up at Connie as they got ready for bed. “About?”
Connie smiled crookedly. “About me feeling better. Tonight was unbelievably fun. Maybe I am cut out for the Air Force.”
Grinning, Buffy gave Connie another high five, then began brushing her teeth. Connie was going to be fine. Of that, Buffy was sure.The Forty Days, Day Twenty-One
Buffy again checked her supplies. She didn't want to be short anything. Okay, she thought, let's see what we have. One hundred dry cleaner bags. Check. Eight hundred straws. Check. Two hundred birthday cake candles. Check. Fifty rolls of Scotch tape. Check. Fifty lighters. Check. Everything divided up into fifty separate kits. Check.
After that, Buffy looked over her personnel. She had forty-nine smacks on hand plus herself to help complete the mission. That still made only one person for every two dryer bags. It was going to be tight. But Buffy was convinced they could pull it off.
“Let me go over the plan one final time...” As Buffy explained, she couldn't help the grin that stole over her face, echoed by almost everyone there. She finished with, “Remember, if you are caught, disavow any knowledge of the mission. Let's go!”
With that, they moved out, as quietly as fifty people can be who are up to no good. Buffy skipped ahead, and began handing out packs of supplies as each pair went by. Finally, it was just her and Connie and the final two packs of supplies. “Connie, let's go.”
Running, they hit the Quad, quickly finding their designated spot. Buffy put her plan into action. She quickly used the straws to assemble a frame. Taping the plastic bag around the frame so that it wouldn't fall apart was the work of mere seconds. Finally, she taped the birthday candle into the center of the frame where the straws crossed. She repeated for the other bag. Glancing over at Connie, Buffy saw that she was also done.
Glancing at her watch, Buffy saw that it was almost time. She quickly lit both of her candles, as Connie carefully held the bags away from the flame. Even if a hole was burned in the bag, careful application of tape should seal it. But it was better to be safe than sorry. Next, they did Connie's candles.
The bags quickly filled with the warm air. The surrounding cold air made them become buoyant very quickly. After a moment, Buffy was unable to control both of her bags. She allowed one, then the other to begin floating, as Connie released hers as well. She could see other balloons starting to rise, slightly ahead of schedule. Oh well, Buffy thought with a fierce grin, no plan survives contact with the enemy unchanged.
As the time to launch arrived, then passed, more and more balloons began to launch. Now there were several dozen points of light in the sky. Suddenly there was a whining cry as an air raid siren began to sound. Sharing an “Oh shit!” look with Connie, Buffy ran as fast as she could to her duty station. Behind her, Connie followed, laughing like a banshee. At least they couldn't get in trouble for not being in their rooms.The Forty Days, Day Thirty-five
Buffy was chuckling as she finally made it to her room. She'd made it from her last class of the day to Vandenberg Hall with minimal interruptions. Only the most hard-core firsties rousted her these days. Her reputation was set after the Night of Balloons fiasco. The air raid siren had been just the first of several crazy things that had gone on as the PTB prepared to evacuate the Zoo because of a possible attack. Complete insanity. Luckily some more sane person had finally figured out what all of the lights in the sky were, and had called off the evacuation.
Of course Buffy had paid. She'd been called into General Kerrigan's office and read the riot act. At the end, though, there had been just the slightest twinkle in his eyes as he had dismissed her with the admonishment to, “Stay out of trouble, Cadet Summers.”
Considering that Buffy had half expected to get her Tours doubled at the very least, being yelled at didn't even register to her as punishment. And people were looking at her. It was in many ways better than when she'd beaten a certain jarhead, and in other ways worse. None of the upperclassman were really testing her these days. They seemed to think she was a known quantity, feisty and dangerous, always up for a dare.
Which might have been why when she went to answer the door a moment later, Ed Westerman stood in the doorway. Staring as Buffy went rigidly to attention, he took his sweet time before finally saying, “At ease, cadet.”
Buffy stood in a rigid at ease posture, hands clasped behind her back, having zero intentions of being busted by Westerman for any infraction he might be able to drum up. Not that he seemed interested in busting her. More like wasting time. He idly walked around the room, looking everything over. At Mr. Gordo, he paused and said, “That pig's not regulation, Summers.”
“Sir, no, sir!”
“Can the seven, Cali. I don't really care about the pig. There's another matter I need to discuss with you.”
“Sir, yes, sir!”
Sighing, he walked over and grabbed Connie's chair. Putting it behind Buffy, he said, “Have a seat, Summers.” At the same time, he sat down himself in Buffy's own chair.
Short of disobeying a direct order, there wasn't anything that Buffy could do, so she sat. As she started to speak, Westerman raised an admonishing finger. “No seven, Summers.”
Buffy steadily met his eyes as she asked, “What do you want, sir?”
There was a gleam in his eyes as he smiled at her. “What do I want, Summers? Besides world peace? Let's see; what I want is for you to assemble a team. There's a mission that needs doing.”
Vaguely alarmed, Buffy sat there a moment. Finally she bit. “A mission, sir? What mission would that be?”
The gleam in his eyes became positively maniacal as he expounded, “This is the thing, Summers. There have been some crazy Spirit Missions over the years. Some of the best have taken place in the last four years if I do say so myself. Your mission... was very, very good. Memorable, you might say.”
Confused, Buffy asked, “Sir?”
“I have been looking for a... successor. Someone to pass the torch to. Someone who would be able to do me proud. Produce some serious missions on the road to building spirit. What have I gotten? A bunch of weenies who are afraid of their own shadows. Gutless wonders who only want to get through the Zoo without experiencing the full splendor that it can offer. Then when I think all is lost, you come along. A smack. A girl. Hell, a girlie girl. But you have It
, Summers. Whatever It
is, you have it in spades. So I am passing the torch to you. I am giving you the mantle of leadership, if you're ready for it.”
Okay, Buffy thought, Ed Westerman is certifiable. His long, semi-ramble diatribe made exactly zero sense. Not that she was going to tell him that. Since he seemed to be waiting for an answer, Buffy finally managed, “Sir, this cadet...”
“Uh uh. No seven. Either you're in or out, Summers. Either you want to put your mark on this institution or you want to be one of the faceless masses that just settle for getting by. Which is it?”
Westerman thundered, “Which is it, Summers?!”
Buffy thundered back, “I want to set my mark, sir!”
Chuckling, he leaned back in his seat. “That's what I thought. I didn't peg you for a pussy, despite being a girl. You've got balls of steel. Now, onto the rest of it.”
The rest of it? That didn't sound good. Then he began to explain. As Buffy listened in horror, Westerman explained his version of the Spirit Mission to end all Spirit Missions. He really is insane, she calmly thought. Complete and utterly certifiable.
After he finished, Westerman asked, “So what do you think, Summers?”
Looking him straight in the eye, Buffy said, “Sir, I'm in.”
Laughing, Westerman got to his feet, and pulling Buffy to hers, began an impromptu dance. They finished with a fierce scowl and a loud rendition of “Big, Bad, Barbarians! Hu! Hu!” With that, he left.
Had she really just agreed to what she thought she had to? Buffy pinched herself, hard. Okay, that hurt. So she was awake. Just then, Connie bustled in, looking frazzled. Buffy stared at her roommate, who slowly turned towards her. As Buffy's thousand yard stare registered with Connie, she began to look worried.
“Cali, what's going on?”
“Westerman was just here.”
Connie looked tenser, if that was possible. “What did he want?”
“He wanted us to perform a Spirit Mission for him.”
Connie relaxed. “That's it? I thought it was something awful.”
“Well...” Buffy watched Connie's face as she explained the mission. It grew more and more horrified. Finally she finished. Buffy didn't have to wait long for a reaction.
“He's insane! He's going to get us kicked out! He's insane!”
Reasonably, Buffy pointed out, “You already said that.”
“I know I did! It's because he is insane! We need to report him to the AOD. They will lock him up for sure.”
Buffy just shook her head. “It's too late, I already agreed to do it.”
“What?! Are you insane?!”
Buffy started to giggle. After a moment, it turned into a laugh. From there it escalated into a howl. Connie stared at her for a moment, before she too lost it, howling in laughter. Finally after at least ten minutes had passed, the laughing began to wind down.
Finally, Connie gasped out, “Oh my god, I thought you were serious. I should have known you were joking.”
Puzzled, Buffy stated, “I am serious. I'm going to do it. It'll be fun.”
Connie's amusement faded into disbelief. “You really are crazy. They'll kick us out.”
Buffy looked smug. “They can't.”
“Why can't they?”
“Because by their very own rules, they have to allow anything that is spirit-based, aka raises the spirit of the student body as a part or a whole. And this does that. It totally promotes us.”
“Holy fucking hippopotamuses, Butch.”
“Exactly, Sundance. Now let's get this party started. Westerman is meeting me with the supplies. We only have five hours to round up troops...”
It had been surprisingly easy to gather fifty or so volunteers for a mission that was sight unseen. Buffy wasn't sure if it was because she was getting a reputation for crazy and fun stuff, or because everyone was just in a manic mood that night as the Forty Days wound down. Regardless, by 2300 hours, she had her cadre, led by her and Connie. Sneaking out of Vandenberg was easy, the PTB expected Spirit Missions and didn't hinder them, although Buffy had heard rumblings that they were considering making them “approved” before they were allowed to be executed. Which would totally ruin the entire concept behind them. But that didn't matter at that moment, only the mission at hand.
They met Westerman at the edge of the quad, exactly where he said he would be. He was casually sitting on a five gallon bucket, while leaning against a stack of two more. Other items bulked behind him in the darkness. Recognizing him, someone behind Buffy asked in an uneasy voice, “What's going on, Cali?”
Buffy turned with a dangerous smile that they couldn't quite see in the darkness. Which was good, as it probably would have sent half of them running. “Cadet First Class Westerman is here with supplies. Okay, here is where you find out what is going on. This is the plan...”
As Buffy outlined what was going to happen, there were loud groans of disbelief. She could tell that Westerman was getting restless behind her. Rather than let him talk and run off half of her group, Buffy decided to deal with the dissenters herself. “Atten-hut!”
As the group snapped to rigid attention, no more able to resist the command that had been hammered into them all year than breathing, Buffy strolled along in front of them. She didn't have the faintest idea what to say to them. Finally, she found her voice, “I know this is intimidating. It's the biggest Spirit Mission of the Forty Days. Maybe the biggest in several years. That is why I chose you
! Each of you is the best of our class. Smart. Resourceful. You are exactly the type of cadet that can make this mission a success.” She paused a moment, then said, “At ease.” Fifty-three cadets fell into an at ease position. Buffy continued, “If anyone wants to go back to Vandenberg, go now. We are here to make history. And no one who is a pussy will succeed. Otherwise, step forward and I'll assign duties.”
The shocking part was that no one
backed out. Buffy grabbed her assignment chart, and using a flashlight she had “liberated” from the AOD's office, began to give out assignments. A few people needed clarification, which she provided, then they grabbed the supplies they needed and moved on to their assigned area. Finally, she was alone with just Westerman for company. Westerman, who hadn't spoken at all the entire time.
“Nice job, Cali.”
Buffy started at his voice. It was odd hearing her nickname from him. Westerman always called you by your last name, except for a handful of cadets in his own class. “Thank you, sir.”
Even in the darkness, her Slayer-vision could see the crazy grin he wore as he got up and walked over to her. Leaning in, he stated, “You are going to be one hell of an officer, Cali. Just keep doing what you did tonight. I'll leave you to finish the mission.” He gave her a hard clap on the back.
And just like that, he was gone, whistling as he casually strolled back to Vandenberg. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for upperclass cadets who sponsored a Spirit Mission to leave someone else in charge of said mission. Mostly not. Because if it failed, it was still on the sponsor, making them appear weak in front of their contemporaries. Apparently, Westerman trusted her. Buffy wasn't sure whether to be excited or scared about that. But right then, neither mattered. Only the mission, for which she had her own part to play. Grabbing the last of the supplies, Buffy got to work.
The next day, the terrazzo area was decorated with squad and maybe even class pride in mind. Everyone woke up to find tens of thousands of feet of red duct tape all over, patches of snow dyed red, a red flag on spirit hill, the Risner statue painted red, red-themed paintings on all the glass in all the stairways and many of the glass doors with class-related sayings, and finally, red spirit banners and their class motto hung in Mitchell Hall. It was the only thing people were talking about.
Then the shit hit the fan. The PTB crushed them. Buffy and her fellow conspirators spent the next twenty-four hours cleaning up the mess they made, never mind class. It was a pain in the ass, especially since they actually had to melt all of the red snow with hot water they lugged from the dorms. By the time cleanup was done, even Buffy was starting to feel exhaustion creep up on her. It was worse for the others, who had been up for almost forty-eight hours straight. Still, it was fun
! Buffy had gotten ten times as many pictures of that Spirit Mission as she had of her and of Connie's combined. And there wasn't any additional punishment handed down, despite the number of times Buffy was brought in for “counseling.” Good times.
And she'd apparently sealed her reputation as Westerman's heir apparent. Her classmates were already talking about the Spirit Missions she would lead with the smacks next Spring. The rumors of what she was considering ranged from the bizarre to the truly psychotic. Like she would consider taping General Kerrigan naked to the flagpole in front of the Administration building. You might get away with something like with a Cadet Squad Sergeant, but the Zoo commandant? You'd be insane to even think that would fly. Weird and wild stuff.
Buffy could do worse than be considered the next Ed Westerman. After all, he was the Cadet Squadron Commander. Also, both he and Gator had been seen in the presence of Major Carter being escorted up to the Mountain. So it appeared that both men would be working for Colonel O'Neill on whatever project he ran. Since that was her goal as well, she might as well embrace Westerman's legacy. With a grin, Buffy got back to studying.Recognition, Day Three, the Obstacle Course
Pulling her thoughts back to the present, Buffy ran to the zip line and fastened her safety clip over the line. The Cadet First Sergeant assigned there checked her equipment. At his signal, she jumped forward and upwards, while simultaneously lifting her legs. As she left the platform, Buffy shouted, “Whoot!” While this wasn't exactly SOP, it wasn't frowned on either. With the air rushing by her face, she was grinning all the way down. The zip line drop had to be one of the funnest things on the Obstacle Course. Buffy felt sorry for the people who did the drop while screaming for real, of which there were at least a half dozen in her class. Hopefully, they'd all get through it.
With the other side coming up fast, Buffy prepared herself. As she hit, she deeply bent her legs, absorbing the shock of landing. The Officer Instructor, Major Kendleman, put an impersonal arm at her back to keep her from falling off. As soon as he gave permission, Buffy released her safety clip and headed out at a dead run. Now she was ahead of the guy who had been pacing her to this point. Deciding not to hold back that much, Buffy set off at a decent pace. It was now just a quick run to the finish line and everyone typically sprinted it. Buffy was really barely jogging, but it would look like a fast pace to anyone watching.
Hitting the finish line, Buffy waited for her time. Captain Billings, the time judge, gave her a thumbs up. “Eight minutes, fifty-seven seconds, Cali. Great job!”
It was more than six minutes under the required time, and while not a course record, should easily lead all of the girls and most of the guys. Buffy had tried to make sure she stayed under the top guys, just because she didn't want to stand out too much. As it was, she was starting to draw attention. More than one instructor had encouraged her to focus on their particular specialty, with the idea that she could become an Olympic caliber athlete. Even Captain Billings had mused aloud about how awesome it would be to see her compete, then had shaken his head in rueful dismay because her fighting style was such a hodge-podge of the different martial arts that there was no way she could compete in any of the “pure” disciplines. Which was fine with Buffy. The last thing she wanted was to take someone's slot who worked their ass off for their accomplishments merely because she was the Slayer.
Now if she could do just as well on the Assault Course...
McNamara couldn't help a grin of vindictive satisfaction from crossing his face as he stared down at Summers' orders. These would ensure that she was Initiative-bound come May. And then he would get to the bottom of just what she was, whether a demon or just some odd type of human affected by the strange energies that were unique to Sunnydale. Either way, he would be vindicated. And if by some odd chance, she was only human, collateral damage was to be expected from any ops.
He tossed it in his outbox, where it was promptly picked up by his clerk along with the rest of the contents. The man wasted no time in heading off at a fast pace as McNamara watched with approving eyes. McNamara had made him wait for the last twenty minutes while he wrote out the orders, just so that they would be in the system.
No one would be able to trace where Summers disappeared to. Her orders involved reporting to the Army base outside of town. But she would be intercepted shy of that destination by two of his men who would take her into the Initiative and down to the holding cells. Plus, his name would never show up on any of her paperwork. McNamara had written her orders out himself only for the satisfaction doing so gave him. The name of some drone in the Pentagon would be on the “official” orders.
Glancing at his watch, McNamara noticed that it was past lunch time, a fact that his stomach agreed with. Getting up, he grabbed his uniform jacket and headed out of his office. He turned left to head to the small commissary that was here when he heard a voice behind him.
“Colonel McNamara, how nice to see you.”
Turning swiftly, he paled at the hideous sight of Cain standing only a few feet away. Summoning his courage, McNamara commanded, “Stand down, soldier!” Where the hell was the MP stationed at his door?
With a move whose swiftness could only be matched by that annoying girl that Walsh was working with, Cain lunged forward, simultaneously extending his organic weapon system. McNamara tried desperately to twist his body out of the way, but it was if he were moving in treacle. The last thing he saw before blackness claimed his vision was the long spike that extended from Cain's arm being driven up into his body, right through his heart. At least it doesn't hurt, he thought, as life faded from his eyes.
Cain eyed the body at his feet with distaste. The Colonel was a fool and needed to be eliminated to maximize confusion for the upcoming slaughter. Next was Dr. Walsh, but she would be far more of a challenge as she had allied herself to that little bitch and her band of misfits. But ultimately, it didn't matter. The Vision would come true. He would achieve the destruction of the Initiative and eventually the world. Order would be achieved for all living things in the new world he was creating.
Now he just had to decide if it would be better to have the Slayer join his slaughter here or just destroy her and her group early. There were advantages to both plans. Also under consideration was which would cause her the most pain. Cain decided he would think about it for a while first. After all, he had a few weeks before the inevitable happened. Hefting the Colonel's body over one broad shoulder, Cain wore a look of deepest concentration as he headed back out of the Initiative.Recognition, Day Four, the Assault Course
Buffy yelled as she hit the well-padded instructor with her rifle. 'Not too hard, not too hard,' was her internal mantra today. It turned out that the Assault Course mostly consisted of whacking on people with your rifle while running around the course. And they tended to whack you back with padded pugil sticks. Later you got your own pugil stick and you did your best to beat up as many of your classmates as you could while defending a narrow bridge.
All this while simultaneously keeping your weapon spotless and belly crawling through mud and other nasty stuff. If, by some miracle, you actually got through relatively
clean, there were buckets of icy water ready to be tossed onto you. So no matter what, you were supposed to finish cold, dirty, and exhausted.
Buffy wasn't sure exactly what this was supposed to do in terms of making you a better officer. As she ducked another blow and whacked her padded opponent a little harder than she meant to, sending him crashing onto his back, Buffy wondered if maybe it was just to separate the sadists from the masochists. She'd already decided which one she was. Swiftly scrambling away now that her opponent was down, Buffy sprinted to her next position.
Here she had to work with a group of her classmates against a larger group of opponents, made up of mostly first and second year cadets. It was six against ten. You had to somehow get by. As Buffy eyed the larger group, she already had a plan in mind, which she swiftly outlined to her team.
Breaking from the huddle, Buffy's five teammates raced towards their opponents, tightly bunched, with Buffy following just behind. They attacked the center of their opponents line causing it to bow in. As the surrounding wings started to close in to attack Buffy's flanks, she was there to wildly hammer blows to either side. While Buffy did deliver a few good shots, she was mostly a distraction as their opponents center crumbled under the onslaught. After all, at that exact position, they were outnumbered 5 to 3, and paid for it.
Before the beleaguered center could be rescued by the flanking cadets, Buffy and her group were through and sprinting towards their next mudpit, leaving their grumbling opponents behind. As she plopped down onto her stomach to wriggle through the mud as fast as she could while simultaneously holding her rifle high to keep it immaculate, Buffy wondered how Connie was doing. Hopefully, the other girl wouldn't be having too much trouble.
“Wow you look like crap.” Buffy's blunt observance was issued without a trace of sympathy on her face as she took in the appearance of her roommate where she was sprawled out on the ground. Connie was covered in mud from head to toe. It was even in her hair and on her face. Said face wearing an exhausted scowl under her helmet as she looked back up into Buffy's smirk.
“Can it, midget!” Then her scowl disappeared and a look of horror replaced it. “I dropped my rifle,” Connie admitted looking down at the aforementioned item now resting in her hands, the only clean part of her anatomy.
Buffy's own eyes widened. “Oh crap! What happened?”
Connie explained, “I was humping it through that one patch of mud near the end of the course. Mine was one of the last groups through. And the mud had gotten out of control. It was all the way to my boobs when I went through. Be glad you were one of the first groups through or you would have had to swim, shortie.” Buffy stuck her tongue out at her roommate, who was too tired to respond. Connie continued, “I was almost out when someone bumped me from behind. I faceplanted and my rifle went all the way into the mud. I almost lost it completely before I finally found it. Then I had to go back to the beginning, where those oh so helpful bastards poured buckets of cold water on me to “clean” off my rifle. I had to spend several minutes getting it as clean as I could and go through again. I passed the final inspection, barely, and now I'm here. Tell me we're done.”
Buffy nodded. “All except for the ritual beating to death of each other with pugil sticks. And don't forget, Chimes at Midnight and the Run to the Rock tomorrow.
Connie groaned piteously. “Oh dear god. Cali, if someone hits me with a pugil stick, padded or not, I'm going to die.”
Buffy grinned at her roomie before grabbing an arm and hauling Connie to her feet. “Let's get your rifle dropped off and grab some chow. I already ate, but I can definitely eat again. And we have some pummeling to do after.”
“Ugh. Don't remind me. Just lead me to food.”
Buffy faced her fourth opponent in five minutes. Armed with padded pugil sticks, the goal was to beat the other person into the ground. The winner stayed to defend the bridge and the loser left. Luckily, Buffy had been in one of the last groups of smacks to be grabbed by the instructors and there were only four more opponents who hadn't had the chance to fight. She'd already decided not to lose to any of those last eight people, especially since the pugil stick resembled more than a little the quarterstaff that Giles had first trained her on.
Buffy could still remember how confident Giles had been up until she had effortlessly dropped him, whereupon he'd painfully waved her towards the crossbow. Of course, she'd actually enjoyed the quarterstaff more, Slayers tending to be more hands on than not, but she hadn't wanted to kill her watcher to work out. And anything that killed vampires was of the good.
Ducking the hard swing that would have taken her head off, Buffy effortlessly poked the offending smack squarely in the solar plexus, knocking him off his feet and completely taking his breath away. She gave him time to scramble back to his feet, lungs heaving. Buffy was conscious of the officer observers who watched the matches from up on the adjacent bleachers. Made up of several medium to high ranking officers of the Air Force, they were here to see what kind of mettle the most recent Zoo class was made of.
Buffy doubted they had been disappointed. Most of her classmates had acquitted themselves well, hammering each other with fierce eagerness, even if the skill level was lacking. But then that was what it was all about, she thought, absently knocking aside the hard overhead swing from her foe, then doing an effortless leg sweep on him. Buffy placed one end of her pole at the throat of her stunned opponent. Glancing up, she noticed the alarmed looks on the faces of her last four opponents. Uh oh, Buffy thought, smiling weakly, maybe she should have been a little easier on him.Recognition, Day Five, the Run to the Rock
Buffy continued to jog in formation, chanting out the Jody call. The current one they were using was the Air Force Colors, one of the cleaner ones. After all, Buffy thought in amusement, we wouldn't want to shock any visiting observers by talking about pussy, cocks, or any of the myriad other things that young men and women with dirty minds could come up with.
The Air Force Colors
The color is red
To show the world
The blood we shed
The Air Force Colors
The color is white
To show the world
That we can fight
The Air Force Colors
The Color is blue
To show the world
That we are true
The Air Force Colors
Red, White, and Blue
To show the world
That we'd die for you
They were doing the Run to the Rock, which marked the end of Recognition. The entire Fourth Class, accompanied by the entire First Class, had to run in formation out to Cathedral Rock. Back in the day, before the run, the fourth class cadets of each squadron would acquire a large rock (normally carryable by six to eight people) and decorate it with the class and squadron colors. Often, these rocks were kept in the squadrons and passed down and repainted from year to year. Just prior to the run, upperclassmen from the squadron would transport the squadron rock to the Cathedral Rock area. Upon reaching Cathedral Rock, the fourth class cadets would be expected to locate the squadron rock and carry it, as a team, back to the Cadet Area. This was a considerable challenge, as carrying a rock weighing a couple of hundred pounds for three miles, usually gripping the edges of a blanket holding the rock, required significant coordination and teamwork on the part of the fourth class cadets.
During the past few years, the squadron rock had been replaced with a "charge", a plastic/composite railroad tie fitted with rope handles and likewise decorated by cadets. Although just as heavy, if not heavier, than a typical squadron rock, the handles made it much easier to carry. Gator told Buffy to expect the tie to weigh about three hundred and fifty pounds and for it to be exhausting to carry three miles. Buffy didn't have the heart to tell him that she could carry it by herself the entire distance, even if it had been one of the old school rocks.
Buffy could see Cathedral Rock in the distance. It was a group of stone spires that dominated the surrounding terrain. Somewhere in that area would be their squadron “charge”. Buffy couldn't wait to get started carrying it back. She felt great. The past week had been exactly what the doctor, or in this case, the Slayer ordered. The physical and mental stresses that she had been put through by endless drill, memorization exercises, and SLAMIs, had taken her back to the good times in Sunnydale. While not as stressful and entirely lacking the whole murder motif, it was as close as the Zoo could offer.
Over the last few days, she and her fellow smacks had been getting stopped every ten feet by yet another upperclassman to be put through everything from the seven basic responses to barking out entire passages from Contrails
. It never stopped. And Buffy reveled in it.
They were finally at their destination. It took only a few moments under the watchful eyes of the surrounding First Class Cadets to locate their “charge.” Then the discussion began. The First Class Cadets accompanying them stood back, not interfering. After listening to a couple of proposed plans to carry it, Buffy'd had enough. “Come on, guys, let's wrap it up! This is simple. It only takes six of us to carry this thing. Everyone else will spell us every two hundred steps. Call it three jodies. We switch and keep going.”
Jeff Brucker, one of the few people who would argue about anything just for the sake of arguing, challenged Buffy, “So, Cali, you ladies going to be doing your share?”
It was a given fact that women did not have the upper body strength of guys, but still had to do their share. Besides, their lower bodies and endurance was just as good as a guy's. There were still female cadets who used the fact that they were girls to get out of some of the harder duties, citing feminine “issues.” Buffy didn't have any use for them and could understand the frustration they caused her male classmates. So all she said was, “Of course, Connie and I will start out on the first team. After that, we'll rotate in one woman out of every six people to carry. Good enough?” Since males outnumbered females about six to one at the Zoo, Buffy figured this was fair.
Jeff apparently did as well, since he nodded in agreement, not seemingly surprised in the least that Buffy would put herself into a male's role as far as the physical requirements of carrying the charge went. Buffy assigned him the task of dividing everyone up into five man and one woman teams, while she thought about what had just happened. She had taken command. And had come up with a plan in just a few seconds that several dozen of the smartest people out there not only agreed with, but were now carrying out.
Buffy knew she had made mistakes in Sunnydale. Twice her junior year she had been faked out, first by the Anointed One and again by Angelus. And it had cost her and the Scoobies. She had made plenty of other mistakes as well, perhaps her worst being that she didn't realize just how vulnerable Faith had been to being manipulated because of her outcast status with the group. But for the first time, Buffy felt like she was growing as a leader. And it was a good feeling. With a jaunty air, she set out to bring the charge home to Spirit Hill.Recognition, Day Seven, Props and Wings Ceremony
Joyce watched her daughter stand at attention. She and her fellow fourth class cadets were about to receive their “Props and Wings” insignia. Watching her daughter, dressed immaculately in her blue uniform, Joyce couldn't believe the changes she had gone through over the past ten months.
Buffy had always been a confident young woman. She'd only become more confidant since becoming the Slayer. But there had been a grimness to her at odds with the carefree persona she tried to project. Joyce had seen it throughout Buffy's sophomore and junior years. Only after she'd found out about Buffy's night-time extracurricular activities did she understand why Buffy was becoming so hard. It was a cruel and brutal life for a young woman, especially someone as empathic as Buffy had been when she was younger, before Hemery High and its social pressures. And especially before Sunnydale and its endless fights to the death under the cover of darkness.
Now, however, Buffy appeared to be a healthy, well-adjusted young woman. Where Joyce had seen many signs of strain in Buffy's classmates during her visits over the last few weeks, Buffy had thrived under the pressure. Maybe because it wasn't pressure to her. Oh, Joyce had no doubt that Buffy felt some stress from studying, but the Academy seemed exceptionally good at directing fourth class cadets' schedules so that they always had time to study.
What Buffy didn't seem to feel is the pressure of toeing the line, of performing. With a sad, inward smile, Joyce thought that compared to sending your lover to Hell, or trying to save the world yet again, dealing with people tossing your room around just didn't seem that big an issue.
The only thing that kept Joyce from literally jumping for joy was a matter unrelated to Buffy; the uncertainty of Jack's fate. She was worried, about him, about the situation. She now knew that he was involved in some type of dangerous business, that his command in deep space radar telemetry was just a cover. And Joyce wasn't sure about continuing to be involved with him even if he made it back unscathed. Because eventually, he wouldn't make it back. Even though he made her skin hum, the trade off of living in fear over his fate on a continuous basis didn't seem enough. After having to do the same thing with Buffy, Joyce just wasn't sure she was strong enough to do it with Jack as well. She hated herself for being so weak, but she couldn't just bury her head in the sand, ignoring the situation until it got worse. She'd done that with Buffy and paid for it. Joyce wouldn't do that with Jack.
Joyce forced herself to pay attention as the general in charge of the Academy personally pinned Buffy's Props and Wings to her collar. Buffy's pride was visible as she gave him a crisp salute. Pushing the shadow in her heart further back, Joyce settled in to just watch her daughter on her big day.
Buffy stood at rigid attention as she received her Props and Wings from General Kerrigan. She was one of a handful of smacks who were being recognized by the Zoo's Commandant. Buffy, both because of her exemplary showing in the UA Combat Cross Services Tournament, as well as her grades. Major Carter had been as good as her word and Buffy was carrying another 4.0 GPA into April, although she was likely to to fall to a A- or B+ in Physics. The others were there for reasons ranging from grades to helping with special projects, like working with Habitat for Humanity during Spring Break.
She recognized her mother in the stands watching the ceremony, and felt a pang at the absence of Colonel O'Neill. Buffy hoped he was all right and that this was merely the PTB way of removing him from the playing field while whatever was going down in Sunnydale played out. Because the alternative was worse. That the Colonel was lost somewhere indefinitely. Or even dead.
Buffy refused to believe that Colonel O'Neill was dead. He was too tough and smart to go down easily. She had to stop worrying about him. Then Buffy realized the General was speaking. “Congratulations, Cadet Summers.”
Quickly, she pulled her thoughts back to the present as the General finished pinning on her Props and Wings. Buffy snapped off a crisp salute to General Kerrigan, ignoring the twinkle in his eye as he gravely saluted her back before moving on to the next cadet in line. At least the General didn't appear to hold a grudge, she thought. It wouldn't exactly be good for her if he did because he had the power to send her home if he felt she wasn't a good candidate for becoming an officer in the Air Force. It surprised Buffy just how much she would regret being ejected from the Zoo.
When Buffy had first arrived, there had been more than a little culture shock. From the short haircuts and monotonous clothing, to the intense and rigorous emphasis on military life, Buffy had found herself in an alien world. But she had adapted and thrived. The external discipline that the Zoo placed upon her had changed Buffy in ways she hadn't expected. And she was better for it. There couldn't be any doubt of that. Her grades alone proved that. Of course, not Slaying every night might have a little something to do with that as well. But it was primarily that Buffy so wanted
to excel that made her work so hard for her grades.
But more importantly, Buffy had seen herself grow as a leader. If she had the same Sunnydale situations to deal with again, she had no doubt that she would handle things differently. Buffy had learned a way of thinking, of analyzing problems and coming up with solutions, that was different than anything she had ever known before. And she'd learned of the value of teamwork. About how everyone had a part to play.
Thinking back on how she had handled the situation with Xander during the Sisters of Jhe mess, Buffy could only wince at her own stupidity. There had been so many other ways to handle the situation other than the one she had chosen; to freeze Xander out. And look how well that had worked. Now, she would have found him an important duty doing something that only he was suited for. But only after completely analyzing the situation.
There would be no need to crush someone's ego because she thought she knew best. Whether it was true or not. And Buffy knew she had handled the situation poorly. As well as many others. Like with the Anointed One. And again with Angelus.
Smiling faintly, Buffy allowed those failures to lapse into the past. She wouldn't dwell on them. They were part of a different person. Buffy Anne Summers at her worst. Well, “Cali” Summers wasn't going to repeat “Buffy's” mistakes. She would make entirely new ones while learning to do her best. And that made her smile slowly relax and become more genuine. It was a great day to be alive and soon there would be cookies ala Joyce Summers. And Fourth Class Cadet Cali “No longer a smack” Summers was just happy to be alive.