Alec Walker

Nobody Expects the ARMA Inquisition:

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October 31, 2020

 

Mr. DeLuc, welcome. 

 

Please, take your seat. This is a pretty informal conversation that we'll have here... but you know that... don't you? 

 

Alec smiled kindly and gestured broadly at one of the comfortable chairs opposite the triad of senior ARMA agents. The commanders of divisions were far too busy to sit in on every hearing... or so they claimed. That was fine. It meant the agents under them had a purpose.

 

To my right is David Halliday, our representative for Commander Zikara. At my left is Lieutenant Merval of the Cloak division. I am Alec Walker, also a Lieutenant of Cloak division. 

 

The man was not exactly affected in his speech, but Lieutenant was pronounced as the British had done-Leftenant. 

 

We're here today to just have a chat and see whether you've shown improvement in your willingness to command and lead. 

 

There's no value for us in hearing falsehoods, and we tend to be very good at spotting a lie, so as long as this conversation stays honest, it should be quite pleasant.

 

Alec lifted up a fountain pen in his right hand and ran the tip lightly down a sheet of paper, making sure ink would flow.  He pulled a sheet of paper out from under his legal pad and made a quick note.

 

We can start whenever you're ready. And please, Mr. DeLuc, speak freely during this conversation. 

 

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God, he hated these damn things.

 

Gavin had felt stagnated and trapped in Shield Division, and here was his opportunity to get out without leaving the city or the organization. Being real, there was no way someone with a track record of instability and a power set like his would just be allowed to fuck off when and how he wanted anyway. It was better for both parties if he stayed in ARMA, and he had managed to stay on so far despite his depression’s best attempts to the contrary. Still, he couldn’t quite shake the urge to regain that freedom and be done with this shit for good.

 

He knew that he had all of the tools and skills to survive wherever in the world he decided to fuck off to, regardless of the circumstances of how he left. There was very little tying him down at this point that was actually still present. He still had his property here, sure, and his possessions and the money that he didn’t piss away on alcohol and the occasional donation to a charitable organization when guilt and self-hate got to him really badly. But material possessions were never extremely important to him aside from a small assortment of things he could carry on his back if he needed to.

 

He used to be a person who put a lot of stock into teamwork and team cohesion, but to be frank at this point he was no longer capable of leading in that manner. The soldier was no longer the emotional and inspirational enlisted officer that he used to be, and that was a fact. Gavin these days was a cold, aloof, and brutal man who still looked after his men but had lost that human touch that was present in the past. Hesitation to use violence was as good as a character trait before, but his shadows have tasted more blood these past few years than most mages spilled in their lifetimes.

 

Today was the first day in months where the man had given any care to his appearance, so he had to trick himself into getting into the frame of mind that would allow him to actually make it through this without fucking it up. One of the first things he did when he got back to America the first time was to ensure that he got a new set of United States Army uniforms so he could always trick himself into behaving a certain way when he needed to. The Irish uniforms served the same purpose, but he was all out of field uniforms and had not pulled out the formals in years.

 

Gavin strode into the interview room with his Class B Army Service Uniform on, consisting of army blue trousers along with a white shirt and black combat boots. The shirt was unadorned with ribbons, and was worn entirely within regulation otherwise with three notable exceptions: the combat boots, the unit insignia, and the rank. The soldier had never earned the right to wear the green beret in America, but had done so in Ireland and thus audibled and wore the combat boots. The unit insignia, in turn, was for the Army Ranger Wing of the Irish military instead of his unit in America, because he had spent far longer in the former than the latter. The rank tab was also his Irish and ARMA rank of Sergeant rather than his American military rank of Specialist, which meant both epaulettes bore the three bar chevron.

 

None of these differences would even be noticed by a civilian, but Gavin did them deliberately more to show himself that he still had that attention to detail more than anything else. Gray eyes surveyed the room as he walked in, knowing that a large part of a performance review was the panel that was put forward to examine each soldier. When an unfamiliar voice rang out that instructed him to take a seat, he resisted the urge to physically react with the realization that quickly dawned upon him: there wasn’t even an officer of Shield up on this damned panel.

 

Halliday was a Tower representative, and quite frankly his very presence made Gavin quite sure that this would not be the most friendly review he had ever had. They had never gotten along, especially because the officer thought that Gavin was a danger to himself and others and had made his opinions quite clear to him in the past. Even in the good old days they had always been frosty with each other, because Shield tended to break things and need the most enchanting and ward resupplies out of any division due to the skirmishes that they got in semi-frequently. Some Shield members saw Tower as basically their gear dispensers, and Gavin was one of them. He never thought it would bite him in the ass quite this hard, though, especially because he was already temporarily stripped of command earlier this year and was in danger of losing it again with an official demotion this time around. There was no changing Halliday’s opinion of him, and his employment would be terminated if it was up to him.

 

Merval was a Cloak representative, and the only one of the three that the soldier knew would not fuck him over without good reason. He was a Dragon War veteran and English Army Officer before the Resonance. He and Rebekah used to be good friends, and they had served together during the war more than once. The past few years, though, the officer had wisely distanced himself from Gavin and was more than likely on the hostile end as well at this point. Lieutenant Merval was a man that Gavin respected, which made the fact that he didn’t know which way he would lean even worse. He was fair, but strict and was actually on the last panel that reinstated his command and rank. He had shown improvement in most areas, but whether it would be enough and whether his admittedly unorthodox style would be a negative or a positive in the officer’s eyes would influence how the Brit would lean.

 

The third man was the one that Gavin knew the least about, but he had recognized the name for sure. Alec Walker was a man who Rebekah always considered pleasant enough, but more than a little distant and aloof. To Gavin’s knowledge, they didn’t know each other very well and the Shield Sergeant certainly never had any interactions with him. He was a mind breaker, though, that much he did know. How exaggerated or true the rumors of the mage’s skill set were, the American had no idea, but either way the soldier figured that it would be worse than useless to lie because he didn’t know the triggers for Lieutenant Walker’s power set and had no way of knowing whether he would be put under some magical damned lie detector… or if he already was.

 

He was running through the possible scenarios of what could happen here, and few of them were positive. The soldier was tense and stressed almost as a character trait at this point, but his posture and movements were stiff even for his standards as he moved to stand in front of the chairs rather than sit and instead stood at parade rest in an attempt to make sure he didn’t start any nervous fidgeting. He was unarmed, which was something that should not have a mental effect on him but did due to the fact that he was so used to the weight and feel of a sidearm somewhere on his body that just amplified an already stressful situation just a notch more.

 

”I’d prefer to stand, sir, if it’s all the same to you.” Gavin said in his odd accent that mixed acquired Irish brogue and native Southern drawl, making eye contact with Lieutenant Walker and steeling himself for a rough ride ahead. He forced his body posture to relax for a moment, before allowing it to stiffen in as picture perfect a posture as he could manage at this point. When he continued speaking, he shifted eye contact between the three of them but noticeably looked at Halliday the least because he knew that no amount of polish would change that man’s opinion of the soldier in front of him. ”As for willingness to lead, I think that it is fair to say that I am not the most excited man in the world to be in charge of other people’s lives when we go down range, or even when situations occur like the incident at the Harbor bombing with the virus exposure.”

 

He paused, then, and looked to Merval in particular before continuing: ”There are risks that we take every day out there, and even a routine call can turn into a life or death situation for the entire squad. Since my last performance review, I have been in multiple life-or-death situations that you all have the after action reports for and have kept all of the men under my command alive and uninjured through all of them. While leading others on a day to day is not my favorite task in the world, I recognize that it helps keep our guys alive out there in that great vast nothing outside of the civilized world and for as long as I am allowed to maintain command I will continue to keep my track record of routinely making sure the only casualties suffered on the field are our unfortunate adversaries who threaten the Eastern American Alliance’s safety and security.”

 

He was never the best at these inspiring messages, and the fact that he was even trying to do it was a sure sign that he was extremely concerned about his position getting axed, and promptly. He also chose to leave out the parts about the tiff he got into with a Shield Lieutenant on that Harbor assignment, as well as the fact that he underwent that entire scenario by inserting himself in command and up-jumping the chain of command due to his belief that it would be much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission in a scenario like that – and safer for everyone involved too.

 

Safer for everyone but him, anyway, because the rung above him on that chain of command was staring back at him now. He still believed wholeheartedly he did the right thing, because that zombie and contamination could have killed quite a few people if he had not intervened and killed the damn thing… but whether these officers would agree was an entirely different issue, and one that the American had zero confidence in at the present.

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Alec had not chosen the panel. If he had, the men would have been representatives of each department. Such was bureaucracy, however, that availability of appropriate people takes a back seat to speed of execution where matters of review were concerned.

 

Alec was also not a veteran by the military definition of the word. He had never been issued a uniform and a rifle and told to shoot in that direction.

 

Nonetheless, the mentalist knew many who were, had spent time in their heads, and removed the most painful of their memories so they could function once more.

 

He knew enough to recognize nonstandard dress, but not enough to engage off the cuff. Brown eyes registered recognition of the soldier's modifications to his service uniform. 

 

The man had tensed, recognizing the absence of shield. It was unfortunate... especially if the goal was to put this mage at ease. 

 

Alec would have to advocate for better matches on these review boards.

 

Gavin responded to the invitation to sit by standing and taking full stock of the situation. He somehow grew more visibly tense and then relaxed mentally into what seemed to be a rehearsed speech.

 

Good. The man was interested in staying afloat. Merval scratched a note on the pad at his desk. Alec let fluid motions carry ink onto page. Halliday sat silently, staring at the soldier.

 

Ultimately nothing that would be discussed here mattered so much as the way Gavin portrayed himself. And he seemed to care.

 

"As for willingness to lead, I think that it is fair to say that I am not the most excited man in the world to be in charge of other people’s lives when we go down range, or even when situations occur like the incident at the Harbor bombing with the virus exposure.

 

There are risks that we take every day out there, and even a routine call can turn into a life or death situation for the entire squad."

 

A slight smirk from the mentalist.

 

He would let this continue.

 

There had been recent situations that had raised concerns with many in leadership about Gavin's command. To hear that he was reluctant brought an actual chuckle, followed by a quick apology.

 

Georgian drawl slipped through the layered Chicagoan and New York accents developed over a lifetime away from home.

 

"Mr. DeLuc, I do apologize for that. Bit surely you know the old adage that a commander who enjoys his post is unfit to hold it."

 

It was something he'd heard once, never attributed to anyone.

 

"I dont think any of us walked in here to talk about stripping your rank or command and putting you away. And hearing your genuine concern for the lives of your fellow is as good a reason as any for us to stay away from that course of action. Isn't that right, Thomas?"

 

Alec gave a smile and set his pen down, his last words directed at the representative from Tower, who nodded and acquiesced.

 

Alec paused.

 

"We are here to make sure you're in the right place, if that makes any sense. 

 

Your tactics lately have been... shall we say... unorthodox?  for shield. You aren't a match necessarily for tower either, in terms of power set,  according to records. However... there are places in ARMA not governed by those two branches."

 

Alec was alluding to knight division, comprised mainly of those who had served prior to merging with the silver winged who defended the borders of the Eastern Seaboard. It had occurred to him that a man who had fought dragons might not welcome fighting alongside them.

 

There was also cloak, there were commanders other than Gavin's own in Shield... there were options.

 

Alec leaned forwards slightly.

 

"So here's the million dollar question. Would you rather be somewhere else?"

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This was odd.

 

This entire setup was off, the entire atmosphere of the event was not the typical. Not that he was typical, given the fact that he was a jaded drunkard past his prime trying to keep his job and pay grade… but he expected a little more hostility, to be frank. When Lieutenant Walker made the quote, Gavin just nodded his head sharply without committing to a verbal response.

 

The next words out of the Cloak’s mouth were equally off, because if that wasn’t the purpose of this meeting… Well, Gavin had no idea what the hell this was about unless it was some wacky ass Cloak recruiting mission given that two of their officers were sitting right in front of him. Seeing Halliday knocked down a peg was also a great feeling, because if Walker wasn’t here to fuck him the soldier was safe… at least for now.

 

This meeting became more and more surprising by the second, and when the Lieutenant continued the soldier again visibly stiffened as he was caught completely off guard by the direction the conversation had taken. He had been with Shield from the beginning, and was part of the initial merger of the Silver Winged and ARMA to begin with. Rebekah played a much bigger role, but he was at least present during the entire affair. The entire division was his wife’s baby, essentially, and she had gone above and beyond early on to help Aura make the transition as smooth as possible.

 

It wasn’t Gavin’s baby, though. He had lost all emotional connection to that branch the day that Rebekah went missing, because she was the only thing that tied him to that job in particular once all of his original group either fell in battle or got promoted out of the squad along with getting alienated by his alcoholism and depression in the years after her disappearance.

 

This was not the meeting he had expected when he came in, but he was not going to waste an opportunity like this because he was all but being asked to switch. He had a position of some leverage here, and he was more than willing to at least test the waters. He forced his body language to relax as much as he could physically force it to before continuing, but it was admittedly very difficult to do so when caught so off guard. His intense gray gaze locked with the mentalist’s before he started speaking, trying to gauge what the hell sort of game that he was playing.

 

 The officer had access to his file, which meant he had full access to the soldier’s vast array of deficiencies as well as his skills and power set. It was extremely risky to offer someone like Gavin a transfer, and Walker had to know that. There had to be some ulterior motive or critical need, which would complicate things if he was indeed suggesting a move to Cloak Division. If that was just to butter him up so he would accept a swap to another division as well as a demotion and pay grade drop with it, the mage could go straight to hell. If it was an actual offer, though, that would just be ill-advised from any practical perspective. Also, internal work? If everyone hated him anyway, he supposed nothing exactly changed on that front even if he did swap over to the rat hunter division.

 

”If that million dollar question came with a million dollar offer, I’d be willing to hear about a job swap to just about anywhere.” he joked drily as he bought himself time to both think of an actual response and to force his body to stop being so damned rigid. ”In all seriousness, as long as the pay grade remained the same I would be willing to take offers from anywhere in the organization provided I could be at my house at least enough of the year to keep it from falling apart.”

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Alec chuckled softly to himself as the mage before him stood taken aback. 

 

He would have probably shat himself were he called up before a disciplinary hearing... 

 

But this wasn't his disciplinary hearing. So he had nothing to worry about.

 

Alec watched Gavin's face, noticing eyes flickering around the room the way we all do, subconsciously, despite best efforts to keep eye contact at all times. 

 

"In all seriousness, as long as the pay grade remained the same I would be willing to take offers from anywhere in the organization provided I could be at my house at least enough of the year to keep it from falling apart."

 

Interesting. Was the mage more of a merc than a loyalist? Or did he still believe in the values ARMA holds dear? No matter how this went, Alec would be sure to follow up, learn more. 

 

"Your station and pay are, again, not in question here. And if you won't mind me speaking frankly, It's more of a hassle for us to take a trusted ARMA agent out of the field and... neutralize... the potential threat to our organization's security than it is for us to make sure our agents are happy, effective, and... not a liability where they are."

 

Alec folded up the dossier on the desk and sat back, taking a moment to clear his throat as Merval took over.

 

Before you go thinking we're doing this for our own reasons and speculating wildly, let me clarify. Cloak would benefit from having someone like you... both in the field and at home.

 

The tower rep took his chance to chime in here. 

 

"Not to mention you'd break much less equipment if you were closer to HQ to have it repaired before it got that bad.

 

"Now, as I was saying." Merval interrupted his interruptor. "We could use you. Knight squadrons could probably use you. There are other commanders in Shield who might give you greater freedom in your actions."

 

Merval finally sat back in his chair, indicating he had said his piece.

 

"So there you have it. No division can promise you won't be off on deployment for months at a time in extreme circumstances, but this isn't an inquisition... well, ok, we're inquiring, so maybe by the dictionary's definition it would be...  

 

Alec shook his head, pulling himself out of the rambling line of thought. I guess what we're saying is... it's your choice, Gavin.

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”Given that you’re a mind reader, Lieutenant Walker, I hope you don’t mind me thinking out loud so that the others can hear me as well. I’m also going to be very candid with y’all, given that any secrets will be vetted out anyway soon enough.”

 

His body language was completely relaxed, now, because once the threat of neutralization was slipped nothing else really mattered. His life was already forfeit at this point, so all that remained to see was how far he could push his skills to advance that life into a state that he could live with.

 

”Since I do not wish to be… neutralized, I guess I better start making the case I don’t need to be. My sunny disposition is not suited for Knight Division, so we can strike that immediately. That wing needs peacemakers more than dogs of war, and that’s not me.”

 

Snarky and flippant were two ways to describe the tone that the soldier was using, though his stance remained the very image of respect. He was now railing against the authority that chained him so, as much as he yet dared.

 

”I would not be adverse to a swap back to Shield, if there was a pressing need. My specialty is leadership at the squadron or platoon level, but I’ve led companies before and would again if we should find ourselves attacked again by monsters or men that would seek to have us all die violently. But it is at the moment too safe, and too stable.”

 

Therein lie the crux of the argument that he was about to present. That safety and stability were new enemies that he did not intend to suffer for long. Gavin wasn’t completely oblivious to what he had become. He was going to kill himself before an enemy did it at this rate, especially with his own ability to control the terms of combat in Shield. Self-preservation was an instinct that he had not let go of, despite trying very hard at some points.

 

With Cloak, and the added incentive of his employer to get him killed during the course of work, that would change. He would have no control over the battlefield, and no control over what duties he was assigned. An elite level ex-special forces operator with the ability to make himself invisible and completely silent was an asset that most would be able to pay dearly for, and that wasn’t even including abilities past his most basic.

 

”Cloak is the most interesting, and probably the best choice to put a killer who you were thinking about getting rid of anyway. You could send an operative to die and not have to suffer the bad press of them doing something stupid while wearing your badge… I’ll play ball, but I need something in return to make sure we both get what we want out of this.”

 

This was stupid and risky, but it also forced a resolution. If this gambit failed, at least it ended without years starving as an outlaw in the vast nothing of the outside. He knew it was impossible to win a confrontation with Lieutenant Walker, so he was fully prepared to end his own life rather than let his mind and powers be wiped. He would rather die than be neutered, and that was one of the only reasons that he was still in this organization to begin with. The relaxation in tone and posture was almost unnatural at this point, because it was the mannerism of a man who accepted that in all likelihood they would not leave the room alive.

 

”I’ll sign a contract, a year or so long with Cloak. I will remain functioning enough to do my job, or I will simply die and your issue is over. Also in that contract, which I want no less than ten copies of, you will agree that at the end of the contract I am free to walk out without the aforementioned neutralization resulting in death or in my case specifically most likely complete power negation. You will also agree that as long as I end up my end of the deal, my memories and mental faculties will remain intact as well and I will suffer no retribution from ARMA personnel for having the gall to survive, if I do in fact make it to the end.”

 

A pause and a smirk, here, because he had nothing to lose at this point. If one is going to demand things, they might as well not stop there and go full out. The board was not used to being talked to like this, with such candor. He could tell, and steel gray eyes relished the look on their faces before this meeting reached its inevitable conclusion.

 

”Two years is my hard limit, and a willing signature on that end of the spectrum would have to come with more incentive… seeing as though if I get this contract you have pretty good incentive to make sure I do not last the duration, I think we both know I would not receive the full benefits of any contract written out due to untimely death negating it. I am perfectly fine with that arrangement, frankly. Give me a soldier’s death, or I go off to find someone else who can. That’s my counteroffer, and I think we both know that if there wasn’t a need for someone to die in service to their country that I would not be here to listen to talk of neutralization – it would have happened already. The only question that remains, now, is whether or not I leave this room alive or not.”

 

This was not a gambit that Gavin expected to survive. Even if it was accepted, one way or another he would be dead by the time the contract was up. ARMA weren’t idiots, and they sure weren’t letting someone with his skill set just walk. What if he was captured by the Order of the First Light or another organization and tortured, brainwashed, or worse? There was no way that was happening, and that’s exactly what the soldier was counting on.

 

The very fact that he was physically present to hear threats and given a space to move into meant that there was a need. If there wasn’t a need, he would have just died in an unfortunate vehicular explosion or something else that could have been chalked off as an unfortunate accident. He still would not survive the term, but he could trick himself into thinking he had a chance for long enough to have an honorable death. A good death, one in combat against an enemy that was either technically or numerically superior. Close quarters would be the ideal, so he would know who did it.

 

And if ARMA could not provide a threat deadly enough to kill him without betrayal and sabotage, at least he knew he was good enough to force their hand in that respect. And if he actually made it out the other end… well, he would cross that bridge when he came to it. He would actually need to be perhaps the best in the world to pull that off, however, which would mean his negotiations with alternate employers would be … interesting, to say the least.

 

Call him a drunk, call him a loose cannon, call him suicidal… but one thing you could not call Sergeant DeLuc is a coward unable to make a stand.

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Alec sighed. Gavin really didn't understand. Sure, leaving ARMA would put them at a disadvantage, with a free agent out there operating, potentially against them, but that really wasn't part of the protocol. 

 

Yes, they'd done some memory wipes, some identity changes in the past. Yes, they'd had to completely wipe some people from the historical record... ARMA was an agency dedicated to protecting one of the largest subsets of humanity anywhere in the world. Of course, they'd taken drastic measures.

 

And yet, it seemed entirely possible that Sergeant DeLuc was unaware of ARMA's actual exit protocols. 

 

Agents were brought in, sat down in a chair, and given a sedative. One of the trained mentalists would come in and expunge any highly sensitive information from their memories, replacing it with benign versions of events. Past operations with no bearing on current day efforts were left alone. Their memories of people and places not deemed mission critical were left intact. For all intents and purposes, the skills, magic, and relationships they had built over the course of their careers with ARMA would remain. It was a time-consuming process, and incredibly taxing on the mentalist responsible, but ultimately harmless to the agent being dismissed. 

 

Maybe Aura and her band of dragons had a different way of doing things out on the frontier, but since effectively forming Cloak in that meeting with Lydia and Ali, Alec had made it very clear he would not stoop to the level of the Order. He'd been there when ARMA made its break, and he was gifted...perhaps cursed... with the ability to remember every last horror he had seen, reliving them at will. Perhaps the Order had changed their way somewhat, but their legacy was indelibly stained for anyone old enough to remember who they'd been when ARMA made the world aware. 

 

It would be increasingly obvious to Gavin, as he talked, that the panel before him had honestly no idea what he was worried about. 

 

Only after Gavin finished speaking would Alec speak up.

 

"I think, Mr. DeLuc, that you have the wrong impression, here. You're free to tender your resignation at any time and walk away mostly unmolested."

 

Alec paused for a moment, and Halliday stepped in. 

 

"It is understandable that you seem uninformed of standard protocols. We rarely have anyone who actually wants to leave, and we do our best to make sure our mages and agents are happy in their positions so we can keep it that way. Aside from information regarding the highest level clearance... which you do not have... and any specific operations with clandestine significance... nothing in your head would cause permanent damage to ARMA's reputation, even if it were revealed. Your life is yours to live. 

 

Alec nodded his assent. 

 

"Your skills would be a great asset to us on Cloak... but if you want to walk away today and seek employment elsewhere, you're welcome to do so. We'd ask you not to act against our interests, in that case, for a period of several years... and we'd request a way to reach you in case of a true emergency... calling up the reserves, so to speak... but you would have your life to live. We are not the Order."

 

The mentalist sat back in his chair, and Halliday closed his notepad. Now all that remained was to watch for Gavin's reaction. It seemed ridiculous, the divide between expectation and reality here. Perhaps ARMA really did need some PR help.

 

 

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