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Building a Better Soldier

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This story is No. 2 in the series "Identity Crisis". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Riley has to brief 'The Brass' about the status of the Initiative following Maggie's death, as well as deal with some previously unrevealed aspects of the entire project.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > Riley-CenteredGreywizardFR13211,01512113,38527 Aug 099 Dec 09Yes

Chapter 2 A conference room DeWitt Army Community

Disclaimer: They all belong to Crack-Head Joss and ME. Deal with it. I have.

~~~

A conference room
DeWitt Army Community Hospital
Fort Belvoir, VA

"Well, Lieutenant? I'm not getting any younger here. And I haven't heard anything that would explain how a boy confined to a wheelchair by the age of twelve is now sitting across a table from me, or how you are now commanding a squad of federally-funded demon hunters, looking like a recruiting sergeant's ideal poster child."

The glare the General was giving him made Riley swallow involuntarily, and he took a quick sip from his bottle of water, to moisten his suddenly dry mouth.

"Uh, you see, sir – " The Initiative's field teams' commander paused for a moment to collect his thoughts and figure out where to begin his explanation.

Both Marchinko and the group's ranking staff officer sat quietly, staring at him, their silence serving only to make the Iowan native even more uncomfortable than he had been feeling while waiting for them to arrive.

{ What the hell, } Finn sighed to himself, { it's not as though they don't already know what's happened. May as well give them the whole nine yards. }

"By any chance, do you have any relatives or friends in wheelchairs, sir?" the blond field agent asked, then remembered his audience.

"Because of something that's not combat-related, I mean?" he quickly qualified his question. "Do you know anyone who's trapped in a chair because their own body betrayed them?"

Seeing the puzzled looks on his superiors' faces, Riley let his memories of his early adolescent years unfold in his mind, letting all the emotional turmoil he had felt then course back into his consciousness.

The self-conscious embarrassment and humiliation of being in the wheelchair, the burning resentment, the reluctantly self-acknowledged envy and hatred of his contemporaries, who stood off to the side and snickered and made snide comments at his condition, the anger at his fate and the feeling of betrayal by his own body – it all flooded back into his mind.

"Do you have any idea of what it's like to be a top-notch ballplayer, the best first baseman in your little league, the one that some high school coaches are already looking at as a potential recruit, and you find that you're getting more and more tired after every game, every workout? That it's getting harder to pick up your bat, let alone actually swing it? To not be able to keep up with the guys that you used to outrun easily when you ran cross-country?" he asked, an angry and embittered expression on his face.

From the corner of his eye, Marchinko saw Stephenson cock his head to one side and narrow his eyes as he focused his attention on Riley as they listened to the putative T.A.'s story.

"I was first diagnosed with Becker MD a few months after my tenth birthday, sir," Riley stated. "My sister was a third year med student at the time, and she thought that she recognized some of my early symptoms, so she suggested to our mother that I get tested.

"When my doctor finally got the test results back and confirmed the diagnosis, I thought my mother was going to have a heart attack," he noted with a pained grimace. "As it happens, my – case – happened to be a particularly fast developing form of the disease, and, less than a year and a half later, I could hardly walk twenty yards on my own."

The tall blond let a bitter grin take over his face as he recounted the early years of his condition.

"Want to know what I got for my twelfth birthday, sir? A motorized wheelchair. Exactly the type of gift every male pre-adolescent wants to receive," he said, his mouth pulled back in a vicious slash as the frustration and rage he had felt about his condition permeated his voice. "My whole family pitched in to help once I was diagnosed. My sister began searching for a cure, or at least some kind of treatment to alleviate my condition, the same day I got my test results back. My mother read up on anything and everything available about every form of Muscular Dystrophy known to medical science, trying to find something she could do or someone she could talk to or go to that might help cure me, or at least give me back some semblance of independence in my life."

He shook his head as he looked down at the surface of the table, reliving the memories he had called up. "And do you know what all that research showed us? That there was absolutely nothing that could be done for me. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

"I was going to be stuck in that damned chair for the rest of my life."

{ Damn, } Marchinko thought to himself as he watched the varying emotions play across the agent's face as he spoke, { it hurts just watching him talk about his – condition. I don't want to even think about what it's like to have to live with it. }

"So, Lieutenant, given the situation you've just described, exactly how is it that you're now sitting across from us in what would appear to be the pinnacle of health?" Stephenson spoke up, in the momentary silence that followed Finn's declaration.

"Well, sir, I was originally approached by one of Maggie's, that is, Dr. Walsh's representatives about four and a half years ago, while I was working on my doctorate at Georgetown University," Riley replied. "When you can't spend your time running around playing ball, or doing other things along those lines, you need to find other ways to fill your schedule, or you'll go nuts. I had my bachelor's degree in psychology, and a master's in sociology, and was working on my doctorate in psychology by the time I was twenty-one," he added in passing.

"Anyway, this guy introduced himself as Dr. Margolis, and said that he and some of his associates were in the initial stages of a new, highly experimental program – one which they hoped would eventually be able to replace the defective genes responsible for various diseases with customized gene complexes that would enable the test participants to lead a full and completely normal life," the blond agent elaborated.

"He said that the project was looking for volunteers to participate in their program, but that, because of security concerns, the program participants would be required to sever all contact with their families and friends until the successful completion of the program. Thatl, for as long as we were involved with the program, they would provide us with all of our physical needs, and that we would even be encouraged to continue any educational courses we might be interested in."

"What else did he say?" Marchinko barked out, doubting that Walsh would have left it at just that.

"He also made it clear that, since the major sponsor of the project was a covert American military group based in the Pentagon, that, once the program proved successful, all of the test participants would have to agree to enlist and serve a tour of duty as part of a special unit which had been created and tasked with handling, among other duties, 'possible periodic, nonstandard instances of aggressive inter-species interaction'," he reiterated, with a small grin. "Sounds a whole lot less intimidating and dangerous than saying 'demon-hunters,' doesn't it?"

"Your presence here, today, is a clear indication that you evidently agreed to those conditions, Lieutenant," Stephenson observed

"You bet your as- uh, I mean, yes, I certainly did, sir," Riley caught himself before the reflexive smart ass response escaped, a habit he seemed to have picked up from Buffy's friend, Xander, over the course of the few weeks they hung around together, escaped. "After spending nearly ten years in that damned chair, sir, I would've considered making a deal with Satan himself to get out of it. I'd spent nearly my entire adolescence watching the world go by, stuck in a chair, and almost as completely helpless as an infant.

"I had trouble even feeding myself, General," he almost snarled at his commanding officer. It was a polite snarl, though. "Do you have any idea how humiliating that is? Twenty-one years old, and I can't even feed myself the way a five year old can! There were too many times to count when I wished I was dead, and the only reason I didn't do something about that was because I couldn't even *try* to kill myself without getting someone else to help me set everything up! Talk about frustrating!

"Margolis showed up a few days after one of the times I had been thinking about that," he sighed, "and at that point, I was ready to agree to do just about anything to get out of my wheelchair, and get back to anything close to a healthy body, sir.

"I think it only took me about eleven seconds to think over his offer and agree, General," he admitted.

"And that was because I was in shock for the first ten."

~~~

DeWitt Army Community Hospital
Fort Belvoir, VA

One of the various medical labs

"What exactly are you trying to do here, sir? If you don't mind my asking," Riley phrased his question as politely as he could manage, as he tried to ignore the technicians checking over all of the innumerable lines leading to the various sensors and other esoteric equipment that seemed to line the room.

"I want to get as detailed a set of readings on your current physiology as is humanly possible, son," Col. Stephenson replied as he focused his attention on one of several screens displaying readouts that were – 'somewhat unusual' were the least imaginative words that sprang to the Initiative agent's mind, judging by the reactions of several of the medical personnel that had accompanied the senior officer to the examination room in which he was currently quartered.

At least he'd been spared the indignity of a standard issue hospital gown in favor of the gym shorts and tee shirt he's been issued, Riley reflected to himself as he tried to relax on the admittedly non-standard examination couch he was confined to. Well, relax as much as was humanly possible with the constant influx of technicians intent on taking samples of his blood and assorted tissues, and doing so with the same amount of enthusiasm that he would normally ascribe to a ravenous vampire – and less politely, to boot.

"Before we can consider proceeding any further, we need to have some idea of the magnitude of the changes you've undergone, Agent Finn," Stephenson stated as he turned to address him directly. "As I indicated in our discussion earlier, we have absolutely no idea of the number or nature of the changes that Professor Walsh has initiated in your system.

"It is clear that there have been multiple modifications made to your various systems, as the absence of any sign, whatsoever, of your Becker Muscular Dystrophy indicates. How this was accomplished, however, and what other effects the treatment used to accomplish this might entail is currently unknown," he continued.

"Based on your statements that Professor Walsh had you and the other participants in the program continue with whatever formulations she was providing would indicate to me that the changes are most likely not permanent, and would, most likely, require you and the other recipients to continue taking the compounds she provided.

"What we're attempting to do here is establish a baseline from which we can, hopefully, work backwards and determine exactly how those changes you underwent were implemented, and possibly figure out some way to emulate or duplicate them."

"Okay, sir," Riley nodded his understanding of what the medical teams surrounding him were trying to accomplish. It didn't make him feel any better, but at least he now knew what was going on, what the plan they were working to, was.

Which, he had to admit, was a lot more than Maggie had ever given them.

~~~

"So, Hank, what's the latest news on what you've found out about what Walsh was doing to our people?"

"Oh, good afternoon, sir," Stephenson began getting to his feet when he noticed Marchinko had entered the lab's annex office, then dropped back into his seat as the General waved him back down.

"Well, as the saying goes, we've got some good news and bad news, sir," the doctor replied as he reached over to pick up a bulging folder filled with a variety of multicolored lab reports and test results and pull out the top sheet.

"The good news is that we've discovered seventeen clearly nonhuman organic compounds in the lieutenant's blood and tissue samples, which we believe to be enzyme-analogues obtained from the various HSTs the Initiative captured, and we have been able to establish baselines for his various metabolic systems so that we can begin keeping track of any variations in them as time passes," he continued, absently noting the same intense focus given his report that Marchinko gave everything under his command. "All of the compounds are presently undergoing analysis in our labs, and I anticipate we'll have the molecular structures of all of them established within the next day or so.

"Unfortunately, that's about the full extent of the good news I can report, sir," Stephenson sighed. "The bad news is that we have absolutely no idea at the moment of what specific effect any of these enzyme-analogues might be having on any of Finn's systems, aside from the obvious remission of his muscular dystrophy, no idea whether or not they are intentionally being used in the present combinations to alter his metabolism to the state it has been, at this point, or whether some of the enzyme-analogues are being used to mitigate or offset possible debilitating effects created by other enzyme-analogues, or whether Dr. Walsh was attempting to induce multiple, overlapping effects in her test subjects, and finally, we have absolutely no idea of which, if any, of these changes are secondary effects that have nothing to do with the muscular dystrophy cure that might be occurring as a result of his undergoing whatever treatments he and his fellow test subjects received.

"We've also discovered the existence of some type of bio-electronic chip that was implanted in Finn and is connected to his vagus nerve," he added. "The various suggestions my people have come up with to explain the purpose of the chip range from quite interesting and innovative from a biomechanical aspect to seriously disturbing from an ethical viewpoint."

"You're gonna have to dumb down that last part for me a lot more, Hank," Marchinko shook his head in confusion at the doctor's report. "I have no idea what a vagus nerve is or what it does, so knowing that Walsh attached some biochip to it doesn't help me in the slightest."

"Okay, sir," Stephenson nodded his appreciation of his superior's lack of medical knowledge, having run into the same roadblock in the past. "I'll try to keep it simple.

"The vagus nerve is arguably the single most important nerve in the body outside the brain, which is actually a collection of neural cells," he began his explanation. "It starts in the medulla oblongata, which is part of the brainstem, and continues on down into the abdomen. It supplies electrical impulses to various motor and parasympathetic functions as well as controlling the operation of various skeletal muscles; in short, it is connected to pretty much every function in the human body to a greater or lesser extent.

"And if you can affect the vagus nerve, you can affect any number of bodily functions, effectively allowing you to control the person," he finished up.

"I see," was all Marchinko said.

Although the smoldering fury Stephenson could see banked behind his superior's eyes was a definite indicator that this was yet one more mark the General was chalking up against the now-deceased mad scientist, and yet something else for which whoever was responsible for sponsoring Maggie Walsh's work would be held accountable.

In many respects, Marchinko was considered one of the last of the Old School, despite his relative youth as compared to most of his contemporaries; he had a strong, unwavering sense of personal honor, was fiercely protective of the troops under him and didn't give a good God-damn who he might offend when going after anyone who had tried to harm or shortchange his people. More than one multinational conglomerate had come away licking their wounds after attempting to unload on one of the services material that might have left whoever used them more vulnerable to harm than expected, and Stephenson smiled with anticipation when he thought about the probable results once Marchinko determined who was responsible for giving Walsh leave to use soldiers as guinea pigs.

Regardless of who or what they might be, man or woman, Congressperson or nameless corporate executive, rich or poor (although poor people were usually the ones getting screwed, not the ones doing it), the people behind this atrocity were going to pay, and pay big.

And the coin of the realm that Marchinko moved in was blood.

~~~

DeWitt Army Community Hospital
Fort Belvoir, VA


"Good news, Lieutenant," Riley heard Colonel Stephenson announce as he stepped into the 'examination room' the agent was currently occupying while a seemingly endless string of lab technicians flowed in and out of the room, acquiring new blood or tissue samples or adjusting the monitoring equipment he was presently connected to via innumerable wires and cables.

"Sir?" he answered, squaring his shoulders but not making any attempt to rise from the reclining chair he was in, albeit that was because of previous orders given in an effort to avoid dislodging any of the sensors' connections, rather than any intended disrespect.

"After reviewing all of the data we've accumulated over the past couple days to establish a baseline against which we can compare any future changes" the Colonel replied, "the General has decided that we should begin transferring our base of operations back to your facility and begin establishing the same baselines for your fellow recruits."

Seeing the smile that lit up the agent's face at that bit of news, Stephenson smiled himself as he commented, "I think I could have told you we were transferring you to McMurdo Station and you'd look almost as happy, Lieutenant.

"What's the matter? Getting tired of our hospitality here?" he joked, knowing the way his reluctant patient/lab rat viewed the majority of the medical personnel: as only a small step up from the vampires and other demons he and his fellow Initiative agents hunted nightly.

In some cases, a *very* small step.

"Not at all, sir," Riley tried not to smirk as he answered his superior officer.

"It's more that I don't want to impose too much on your staff's overwhelming warmth and generosity. After all, I'm sure there are plenty of other people out there who're looking to be treated by such dedicated professionals," he said, the sarcasm in his voice sharp enough to cut through a quarter-inch steel plate.

"I'm glad to hear that you've developed such a rapport with our staff," Stephenson smiled benignly at his patient/research project.

"I'm sure that will help them settle into their routine faster and easier once we finish moving them into their new station in the Initiative base," he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, as he examined some of the compiled data the instruments had gathered.

"Excuse me, sir?" Riley tried not to seem too eager as he heard his physician's comment, even as a wide smile flashed across his face, "but did you just say we're relocating the project to Sunnydale?"

"I believe I did, Lieutenant," Stephenson confirmed with a nod. "The General wants you to accompany the lead medical team back to the Initiative's base tomorrow, after we've completed our final series of tests, and assist them in establishing the preliminary procedures that we're going to utilize in order to determine the requisite baselines for all of your fellow agents.

"The rest of the research teams will be joining us by the beginning of the week," he noted. "By this time next week, I fully expect that we should have the necessary baselines for all of your teammates, and we can then start on figuring out exactly what it is Dr. Walsh has been doing to all of you, and how we can maintain the beneficial aspects of her work while minimizing the less desirable aspects of her work as we were discussing with you yesterday.

"Do you foresee any problems with anything I've outlined, Lieutenant?" he concluded.

"Aside from the normal problems that come from living in Sunnydale, no, sir, I don't," Riley shook his head. "We can handle the logistics of bringing the equipment in the way we normally would, sir, and I think the staff will be able to pass as either students or faculty members without any problem, whatsoever.

"I just think that you should emphasize very strongly to your people that traveling around Sunnydale at night is the equivalent of walking around a third world city in the middle of a civil war, and that just being human makes them look especially appetizing to some of the HSTs that live in the area, sir," he added.

"And make sure that they understand that we're not being paranoid; there really are things out there that are out to get them.

"For lunch."


FIN

The End

You have reached the end of "Building a Better Soldier". This story is complete.

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