Someone Else’s Mess Chapter One – The Assignment Summary:
Cordelia’s first serious mission with the US Army takes her back to her favourite place on Earth.... (Sequel to Making the Quota) Pairings:
None at present Disclaimer:
I don’t own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Stargate SG-1 or JAG (I think that covers everything I’ve even hinted at). Notes:
Loosely set between the 4th and 5th seasons of BtVS. Continued from “Making the Quota”, though the tone is a little more serious in this one. Cordelia may sound different from normal in this chapter, but bear in mind that she’s mainly dealing with superior officers in a highly disciplined military setting. The old wit and sharpness will return in subsequent chapters.
Methos has very kindly produced some superb artwork to match this chapter. Please take a look at http://www.tthfanfic.org/Story-11355-165/Methos+Fanart+for+my+favorite+stories.htm Divisional Intelligence, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina – 1st July 2000
“Mornin’ Barbie,” Major Steve De Salvo breezed cheerfully into the office, with his usual greeting.
“Good morning, sir,” Cordelia saluted smartly and returned to her desk.
As one of the most junior ranks in the G-2 (Intel) section, she was pretty much expected to salute practically anyone who entered.
De Salvo grinned at her. The big Italian-American was a dreadful flirt and occasionally – at least according to some of the other females in the division – skated perilously closely to the harassment line. Cordelia didn’t see a problem personally. The Major was a happily married man, who flirted the way most men breathed and never actively fraternised with any of the female staff below him in the command chain.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that, sir,” she complained, in the customary morning ritual.
Cordelia really didn’t care. She’d been called much worse over the years and, indeed, there were people with far more objectionable nicknames on the base. If she’d learned one thing in the past six months, it was that the Army was no place for those who couldn’t take a joke. Hell, the mere fact that she was in uniform was one big – and not particularly funny – joke, on the part of a Vengeance Demon. A Vengeance Demon whose card was marked if Cordelia ever caught her in the sights of an M16.
“Corporal, you’re by far the prettiest little thing on this base. What else should I call you?” the Major replied reasonably, sliding behind his desk.
“But if it bothers you, I’ll stop,” he offered.
The brunette NCO smiled and shook her head. “Not a problem, sir. You know I so don’t do Politically Correct!”
In truth, the Army was no place for anyone who was overly sensitive in PC terms, especially a woman posted to the elite 82nd Airborne Division. The testosterone levels in a male-dominated combat unit had to be experienced to be believed. As a former cheerleader, however, having been surrounded by horny teenage jocks all through High School, she was pretty much desensitised to the whole thing. Paratroopers, to an extent, were just like a bunch of overgrown football players.
Much to Cordelia’s astonishment, she was actually beginning to enjoy Army life. The work was surprisingly varied and she liked most of her fellow paratroopers, a category that unbelievably – at least to her own ears – included herself. If someone had suggested a year ago that the formerly highly individualistic and positively snobby brunette would find a place in the US Army, she’d have laughed in their face. On the whole, she didn’t even mind being ordered around – and that was a minor miracle.
True, Army life had its downsides. Her long hair was now only a memory, even if she’d since grown it to the maximum length and body permitted. The combat fatigues worn on a day-to-day basis weren’t exactly flattering, but everyone reckoned she looked great in a dress uniform. The Army had also taught her to swear and cuss – at least on occasion – like the proverbial trooper. That had always been a definite no-no at home – right up to Graduation, her mother was likely to stuff a bar of soap in her mouth for the mildest of curses and tan her backside hard for anything stronger.
The first half of Basic Training was admittedly torture in its purest form, especially when Tanika removed her spell and Cordelia realised the depth of her predicament. Physically, she was in far better shape than most of the other recruits. Three years of running for her life in Sunnydale had its benefits. On the other hand, with a Drill Instructor who seemingly hated her – Cordelia had spent endless hours cleaning the latrines or doing push-ups – she’d been the target of more sadistic abuse than most of her fellow recruits. More than once, she’d cried herself to sleep.
Soon, however, the worst of Basic was over. To her surprise – and probably that of her Instructors – Cordelia found herself to be quite proficient at the basics of soldiering and was numbered amongst the best in her squad. Aside from her fitness, the brunette had excellent situational awareness – a consequence of literally watching out for her own neck for so long – and she was also an excellent shot. Guns might not be Cordelia’s favourite thing – especially in private hands - but she could still shoot. That was down to her father who, when she was only eight, had been a business partner with an enthusiastic member of the NRA. A disgruntled young Cordelia had been cajoled, pushed and threatened into participating in a range of events – the association liked to play on the “family friendly” aspect of the sport – and she rapidly became very accurate indeed with a rifle. Clearly she still had the eye, as several marksmanship badges proved.
A posting to the 82nd Airborne came as a surprise, nevertheless. As far as she knew, no one could simply be sent to Jump School, they had to volunteer. Somehow – and undeniably – her signature was on a request form. She suspected Tanika’s evil sense of humour, but couldn’t very well back out on the basis that it was forged by a Vengeance Demon. That was a quick way to a secure Army psychiatric unit.
Still, she wasn’t complaining. Jump School might have been tough, but she quickly discovered that leaping out of aircraft was immense fun.
Cordelia had only been in this post for a few weeks. Sixteen weeks Basic, three weeks at Jump School and an introductory course at Intelligence School – she felt as though her feet had hardly touched the ground since enlisting. The disturbing fact was that she was actually beginning to believe the Army might actually offer a long-term career for her, rather than a stepping stone to college. That impulse hadn’t been helped when Major De Salvo announced he’d recommended her for Officer Candidate School.
“Looking fine in that dress uniform,” the Major said appreciatively.
“Any idea why the Colonel wanted me to wear it today, sir? Said something about an important briefing at ten, but no details. And note-taking for the brass usually doesn’t need the full dress. Maybe just want to drool over the Cordy...”
De Salvo chuckled. “Suggesting that your senior officers would be guilty of such lechery? You could be right, of course... Seriously, I’m not invited to the briefing, so I don’t know the details. But I get the feeling you’re the centre of attraction – and it isn’t an officer candidate board!”
Cordelia was suddenly alarmed, visions of Fort Leavenworth Military Correctional Facility suddenly popping into her head. There were so many ways to screw up in the Army, it was possible she was in serious trouble without even knowing it. Especially in her new post, where material of a highly classified nature frequently passed through her hands.
“Have I done something wrong, sir?” she asked fretfully.
“Relax, Corporal. It’s not a court martial or a disciplinary hearing – they’re just interested in you, for some reason,” De Salvo replied, in reassuring tones.
“Want my guess? Probably some sort of PR exercise. You make a great advert for women’s recruitment. Maybe too much uniform, but...”
“Can I make a suggestion, sir?” Cordelia fixed him with the Queen C stare, not at full icy intensity but enough to catch her superior’s attention.
De Salvo blinked. His NCO had a stare like twin laser beams and it was hard to avoid once she locked on target.
“Insubordination, Corporal Chase?”
“Bet your a... I mean, wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” she replied innocently, but her mind was on other things.
De Salvo could be right and this might be all about a PR exercise. Cordelia was now developing a hunch of her own, however. There was one thing the brunette NCO had which no one else in the 82nd could claim, the one thing she was still trying to avoid, and the reason she’d declined all leave from Fort McGregor. It had to be Sunnydale-related – and the prospect of the Army shoving its oversized combat boots into the Hellmouth made her cringe.
Divisional Headquarters, Briefing Room, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina – 1st July 2000
After hurriedly checking the shine on her shoes and checking the angle of her beret, a conspicuously jumpy Cordelia was, without ceremony, shown into the main briefing room in the divisional HQ complex. Someone, she noticed, was taking security very seriously – and that borderline paranoid someone wasn’t even Army. Two very large and almost comically serious guards, in the uniforms and berets of US Air Force Special Operations, guarded the door. Less comically, each was toting an HK MP5 submachine gun. Alarm bells inside her head were growing louder by the minute.
The bells reached a crescendo when Cordelia looked around the room and the double doors closed firmly behind her. Last time she’d been in close proximity to so much brass, it was in a Sunnydale scrap metal yard. She stamped to attention and fired off the smartest salute she could muster – first impressions tended to count in the Army.
A quick look around, without making it too obvious, also revealed that the Army was definitely in the minority here.
Major-General Paul Strass, the two-star currently commanding 82nd Airborne, motioned her towards a seat at the far end of a long conference table.
“Relax Corporal and sit down. I won’t bite – and I’m pretty sure no one else here will, either,” he said gruffly, but not unkindly.
“I’ll make the introductions, then I’m expected to make myself scarce. Aside from you, seems the Army isn’t invited to this party,” Strass continued, clearly disgruntled by the omission.
“From the top, Rear-Admiral Chegwidden, Judge Advocate General’s Office. Major-General Hammond, US Air Force, Cheyenne Mountain. Colonel O’Neill, US Air Force, Cheyenne Mountain. Commander Cravitz, SEAL Team One, Naval Station Coronado. Major Temple, US Marine Corps, Force Reconnaissance Company, Camp Lejeune.”
It was, Cordelia decided, impressive company.
“As of now, Sergeant Chase, you may consider yourself on attachment to SOCOM, until further notice. And yes, you have been promoted ahead of schedule, with immediate effect. Congratulations,” Strass said dryly, the clipped tones clearly meant for the others, not Cordelia.
“Th-thank you, sir,” she didn’t quite avoid the uncharacteristic stammer.
He didn’t have the first inkling what dubious black operation United States Special Operations Command was planning, nor why it was so imperative that one of his most inexperienced enlisted personnel should be involved, but he wanted to give her every advantage possible, small though it was.
Cordelia, while appreciative of the early promotion, was utterly bewildered. SOCOM was the natural home of hard-bitten veterans, not green-as-grass newbies like herself, with under a year’s service. And the latter didn’t tend to make Sergeant at this stage, either.
“I don’t know what these gentlemen have in mind, Sergeant – and frankly I don’t like it – so I can’t really advise you. Just be careful and always keep the legalities in mind. If it seems illegal, then refuse. And if you get out of your depth, call me direct and I’ll do what I can to help,” Strass, known for his concern for the welfare of the lowliest private in the division, promised her.
“Thankyou, sir,” Cordelia replied quietly, growing more nervous by the second.
It was all very well to advise her to refuse orders that seemed illegal, but she wasn’t well enough versed in military law to know the difference and certainly not in a position to argue the toss with a senior member of the Navy’s JAG, like Chegwidden. Cordelia hoped Strass would provide a favourable character reference before they put her in front of a firing squad. And she wouldn’t be refusing the blindfold.
Strass eyed his assembled peers and lower ranks. “One warning, gentlemen. I know this operation – whatever the Hell it is – has been sanctioned at the highest levels. But if you don’t look after my soldier – or try to turn her into some kind of scapegoat if anything goes wrong... We look after our own here.”
Cordelia actually felt slightly insulted that the Major-General should think she wasn’t capable of looking out for herself. On the other hand, with a long military career behind him, Strass obviously knew more about ultra-secret – and probably deniable – operations than most in the Army.
Hammond almost looked hurt. “General, she’ll receive the same consideration I would give to any man or woman serving under my command. Sergeant Chase is simply here in an advisory capacity with, perhaps, some special liaison duties. Nothing more.”
“I’ll hold you to that, George,” Strass, with nothing more to say, abruptly left the room.
Hammond exhaled and took the lead. “Sergeant Chase, I have to tell you that this briefing is classified Top Secret and I won’t have to remind you of the penalties for divulging anything that is discussed.”
“No, sir,” she replied.
“Very well. We should get down to business – there’s a great deal to cover,” the USAF General nodded.
“I suppose you’re wondering why you’ve been assigned to Task Force Van Helsing?” Hammond was clearly having problems with the name.
Cordelia’s alarm system went into overdrive. With a designation like “Van Helsing”, it couldn’t be a coincidence. This was all about Sunnydale and things that went bump in the night.
“The name was my idea,” O’Neill put in almost proudly, carefully watching Cordelia’s reaction – clearly, the reference had struck a cord.
“I’m beginning to figure it out, sir,” the brunette Sergeant responded grimly.
“I believe you’re familiar with the names Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg, Alexander Harris and Rupert Giles?” Chegwidden scribbled a note. “They were friends of yours in High School?”
“You might almost call them friends, sir,” Cordelia reluctantly acknowledged, remembering a time pre-break-up when she was actually beginning to think of them that way.
“And you’re familiar with – uh – aspects of the supernatural? Vampires, demons, and so forth? Our records suggest you’ve some experience of fighting them, together with your friends,” the Admiral continued, visibly having some problem with the concept.
In the background, O’Neill, Cravitz and Temple – clearly the three combat officers in the room – practically rolled their eyes. They apparently hadn't wholly convinced themselves there was such an affront to rationality as vampires and demons. Cordelia wasn’t surprised by their reaction. Sunnydale syndrome - it had taken her a while to get over the whole “gangs on PCP” explanation, too.
Probably they weren’t overly impressed by what they saw, either. A rookie prematurely promoted nineteen-year-old Sergeant, who hadn’t even smelled the powder.
“Very familiar – too familiar! And some experience of fighting the nasties... Fort McGregor was the most recent, I suppose. I staked two vamps there – they’d been living on the base for years, sir,” Cordelia acknowledged.
Her knowledge of Sunnydale and its undead denizens clearly gave her something the others didn’t. O’Neill, meanwhile, was growing noticeably impatient – and he clearly didn’t always respect the niceties of rank.
“Oh for pity’s sake, Admiral! You aren’t cross-examining a witness... Give her the damn file and a half hour to read it and let’s go get some coffee!” the Colonel growled.
Chegwidden shot him a look of annoyance, while Hammond simply appeared long-suffering, then handed over a thick file.
“This is the file on the Initiative Program, from inception to catastrophic failure. You’ve thirty minutes to digest the main points, before we return. Don’t try to leave alone – the guards have orders to stop you. If you need to – uh – well, there’s a private latrine over there...” Hammond indicated a door, while the group filed out.
Five months of hanging around her apartment in LA, waiting for tiny acting parts that seldom materialised, hadn’t been entirely wasted. In that time, Cordelia had taught herself to speed-read and she was, therefore, able to cover a significant portion of the file, in addition to the various summary sections.
Half-an-hour of solid reading and she felt ready to explode. For sheer arrogance, naivety, and – ultimately – bungling stupidity, the creators of the Initiative Program really took a lot of beating. In fact, given how close they’d come to causing an apocalypse, they were probably unbeatable in the arrogant-idiocy stakes. If it hadn’t been for Buffy and the Scoobies, the end result would have been catastrophic. She could certainly see why the Army was being squeezed out at the higher levels. Her service hadn’t officially sanctioned the Initiative, but rogue Army elements had combined with a similarly minded group from the National Intelligence Directorate. Probably no one knew whether Initiative supporters still lurked in the higher levels of the Army or not, but they weren’t taking any chances, even if the whole misconceived affair was the brainchild of the NID faction.
The Combined Chiefs had decided that the NID’s own investigation and apparent handling of the aftermath was decidedly suspect. While an FBI team was assigned by the President to put the shadowy intelligence organisation under the microscope, the armed services were tasked with scrutinising their own.
This was to be a combined classified internal investigation, carried out purely by JAG under Chegwidden’s authority, and a joint USAF/USN/USMC field operation in Sunnydale, under O’Neill. Cordelia was, inevitably, assigned to the latter, the main aim being to ensure that the NID had, indeed, sealed off the Initiative caves and contained their inhabitants on a permanent basis. Hammond, operating from Cheyenne Mountain, would oversee the whole. Her own role was to act as a local guide in Sunnydale and a liaison between the field team on the one hand and Buffy and the Scoobies on the other.
Given Buffy’s experiences with the Initiative – they had tried to kill the Slayer after all, though the report glossed over that fact somewhat – it wouldn’t be an easy job. Cordelia wasn’t exactly Buffy’s bosom buddy, but she could see how the feisty little blonde might just violently object to any further intrusion by the military on “her” turf. At the very least, the Slayer would most likely be obstructively uncooperative.
Cordelia felt the beginnings of a headache and wished for an aspirin, just as the officers re-entered. Mere sergeants, it seemed, weren’t entitled to a coffee break.
They immediately proceeded to view security footage shot during the last hours of the Initiative and covert surveillance videos of supernatural activity in Sunnydale. Recordings varied from the intense battle within the Initiative complex, to helpless individuals being plucked off the sidewalk at night. It was unspeakably voyeuristic, like a snuff-movie collection on a vast scale. In particular, the former Sunnydale High School seemed to have been well-monitored with hidden cameras. Those cameras were still rolling when the student population bravely took on Mayor Wilkins in his terrifying one-hundred-foot snake incarnation.
Cordelia felt a horrible sick feeling in the very pit of her stomach, as she unwillingly relived that hideous afternoon. Since leaving Sunnydale, she’d successfully blocked or mentally played down the worst of her memories, but now they threatened to return with a vengeance. She barely suppressed a shudder.
“That was impressive, Sergeant Chase,” Cravitz acknowledged, as one image showed a clear frame of Cordelia staking a vampire single-handedly.
She barely muttered a reply, eyes glued to the screen. Somehow, she couldn’t look away. It was like watching a car wreck, but a thousand times more harrowing. The rage building inside her, meanwhile, continued to bubble and ferment.
“So, what d’you think?” Hammond’s question was a mile wide and could have meant anything.
Cordelia decided it gave her a chance to vent, before she exploded.
“Can I speak freely and frankly, sir?” she asked mildly.
“Under the circumstances, that might be a good idea,” the grandfatherly Air Force General agreed.
“Give ‘em Hell, kiddo,” O’Neill muttered, sensing a gathering thundercloud at the end of the table.
Cordelia took a deep breath, wondering how far “freely and frankly” went before she was court-martialled and discharged.
“What sort of half-witted refugee from La-La Land put this scheme together? The whole project was one half-baked abortion from beginning to end. People messing with things they don’t understand. Six of us, working from a school library, put more of a dent in Sunnydale’s demon population than these guys ever did. And – how do I put this? Hello! Didn’t come close to causing a fucking apocalypse in the process!” she stormed.
“And you know what really pisses me off? Now they want us to go in and sort out someone else’s mess. But they had most of the town under surveillance for a year while they built their mad scientist bunker. You know what that means? Do you? It means those bastards watched – and did nothing – while people were dying. While the Mayor was planning to eat us all for Graduation Dinner! His Ascension was only stopped by a bunch of High School kids, fighting for their lives. A Hell of a lot us died that day – but it’s all remembered as a fucking gas explosion!” Cordelia was near to yelling, eyes tightly closed and her body almost shaking as she remembered the carnage of that awful fight.
She cursed herself for appearing weak. Heck, even in the days following the Battle of Sunnydale High, she hadn’t been so affected.
“Easy, Sergeant,” O’Neill said gently and sympathetically.
“I know this must bring back a lot of bad memories. If you don’t want to take part in the operation, we’ll understand. See, what neither General Hammond or Admiral Chegwidden have told you is that this is a volunteer situation – at least for you. We’re operating out of our jurisdiction, even with a Presidential special order. That gives you a clear and legitimate out...”
The two senior officers glared at the unorthodox Colonel. They’d hoped to co-opt Cordelia into the team without making that option clear.
“I’m in, Colonel. I wouldn’t miss this for the world! But if you expect Buffy to welcome us with open arms... Boy, are you all living in Denial Land!” she laughed harshly.