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<<--- Back to Masterpost




Jensen remembered all too well, the day the Earth built a wall around itself.

It had been the New Space Era year 38, and he was all of twelve at the time. Old enough to be obsessed by the idea of stars and galaxies and space travel, old enough to have soaked up the basic data and mechanics of it like a sponge, but only on the verge of being old enough to comprehend the politics involved. His parents had happily encouraged his enthusiasm, however, buying him all the holomodels of planetary systems and spacecraft they could find, and then mapping out further diagrams for him when the holomodels weren't comprehensive enough for his eager mind. Like most people of their age group, his parents had grown up knowing more than their fair share of astronomy and general space science. Theirs was a generation that had been saturated in it out of necessity, that hadn't been old enough to know anything different – they had only ever existed in a world where travelling to and exploring deep space was a very real and attainable goal.

His father had only been a year old when First Contact was made and the NSE Year Zero was proclaimed. His mother's parents hadn't even met yet.

And there they all were just a few decades later, watching the world recoil from its child-foolish ventures. Like a kid with a new toy too delicate for their clumsy hands, their intent was reckless, something was bound to break. They were reaping the reward of stamping their wilful feet all the way out there in the next galaxy, when instead they should have thought to tip-toe.

From what Jensen understood, the Earth had always acted too big for its boots. And now they had been forced to withdraw into their shell, form a cocoon around themselves in an act of calculated submission, and hope that the Pandora's Box they'd disturbed would eventually leave them be.

That's where the SPUD had come in.

It had only been him and his mother at home that day, and they'd watched it on the holoscreen in real time. Jensen would never forget it. The image had been burned into his retinas in those moments, sparking something deep within his young soul.

All over the Earth strategically placed SPUDs were deployed from within the WASP stations that dotted the land and sea – zaps of electric blue travelling up thirty-storey high poles, then blasting into the outer edge of the stratosphere. The energy spread over the sky like a giant umbrella being opened, the circumference of it connecting with that of the next 'umbrella' positioned a few hundred miles away. It all happened so far up they were only able to see it thanks to footage from low-flying news station satellites.

It had been something to behold, especially so for an impressionable kid like Jensen. The SPUD was a great feat of both modern science and engineering, and worldwide coordination and cooperation – the first example of such in more years than anyone could remember (as Jensen had later found out). But while it had been amazing watching it all go down in the news streams, his understanding of the reasoning behind it had not been quite so immediate. He'd practically grilled his mother with questions about it, followed by every other adult he'd come into contact with over the next few days when her answers hadn't proven adequate.

All he'd really managed to weasel out of them was that the SPUD was for their 'protection'. To Jensen, that was not enough to suffice. The very fact that the SPUDs had been erected by the Worldwide Anti-Alien Safeguarding Program (better known as the WASP) was enough to raise a whole bunch of red flags as far as he was concerned.

He'd seen what footage there was of humans interacting with the various alien races they'd encountered so far, even the really dated stuff from the First Contact all those years ago. Not all of them had been what you might call 'friendly'. In fact, some of them had been downright hostile and continued to be so all these years later, but that’s what the military's EDOT units and the WASP programs were for. What more protection did they need?

But then again, he'd also seen footage of the strange happenings within his own race.

His mother hadn't liked him looking at such terrible things, so he'd had to do his digging on the sly. He'd gone on to make a detailed timeline of every incident he could find even the slightest mention of, and it hadn't taken all that long to find the key connections – his timeline ended up looking more like a spider web.

Mere weeks after the blue-skinned Leonisians had made their first Earthly appearance, the first mention of a 'freak accident' had occurred. They'd happened sporadically in the two years since, killing dozens, and then suddenly, days after an Earth ambassador was scheduled to visit Leonis, the SPUDs had been activated…

It was too much of a coincidence for a too-curious kid like Jensen to believe that that was all it was.

He'd been thirteen(-going-on-thirty) by the time he'd figured out enough of the truth to place the blame. But while his parents may have raised him to value honesty and integrity, he'd known in his gut that it was something he would have to keep to himself, despite its importance. If he was to really make something of his revelation he would have to play it close to the vest, play the long game. It wasn't as if anyone would believe a thirteen-year-old kid's rantings anyhow.

But his youth-inspired conviction was what had led him there, to that night.

He was nineteen now, and perhaps too determined and too intelligent for his own good.

People had short attention spans. No doubt they would think it incomprehensible that the revelations of a thirteen year old could breed such goal-driven intensity – an intensity that had never waned in all the years since and had little chance of doing so any time in the near future. He'd always been a bit of an oddball, but his single-minded focus had sometimes come at the cost of other more teenage-level matters. In many cases it had left Jensen an island.

He had friends, he supposed, but not the kind he could (or would) whisper secrets to in the dark of the small hours – not like his peers did. He always kept his head despite what they might have been drinking or smoking. It was probably no surprise that he'd always gotten ribbed for being too uptight.

He could hold a decent conversation if he had to, sure, but it was namely his appearance that had allowed him to keep up with the usual milestones – sex, and the like. Something about his lips or eyelashes or the green of his eyes… He could never get a straight answer about that, but in his mind it was beside the point. He got to know what worked, what the signs were, and used it to his advantage when he needed to. But otherwise… there was an emotionally charged barrier around him. And he liked it that way.

People tried to get to know him occasionally, but more often than not they let themselves be pushed away by his brush-offs. His aloofness could be alienating, or so he'd been told. As a man on a mission, he accepted the downsides. He'd been planning too long to allow himself to be side-tracked by other baser things.

Perhaps such character quirks were why he'd fit into the armed forces so well.

His mother had always thought teen-Jensen a bit of an obsessive conspiracy theorist and had been shocked at his decision to jump into the army while he was still fresh from high school. But his father had talked her around. He and Alan had never talked much, period, but Jensen had always felt that they just didn't need to. He'd always had a sneaking suspicion that Alan knew exactly what he was up to, but he'd never put a stop to it. For all Jensen knew, maybe he thought the same. Alan essentially worked for the military, too, after all. Albeit in a 'non-serving' capacity. He was a specialised technician, one that travelled to various places around the country to perform checks on particular devices – devices like the SPUD. Over the years he'd answered every question Jensen had ever had about the SPUDs. Even the obscure ones that no one except a technician or engineer would ever need to know.

Which was partly what had brought him to his current situation:

It was nearing three in the morning, as cold and dark as Neptune's asshole. Earlier that afternoon he'd completed his first mission with his new group of advanced-standing second-level Privates and was supposed to be back at the base recuperating. And as far as his team and superiors knew, he was.

So long as he could help it, none of them would ever know that he was actually in a sectioned-off area a mile adjacent to the base. It was all fenced off and monitored, but he knew his way around such things by now. Hell, it was part of his current training. And with the hefty competition he was surrounded by? No one batted an eyelid when you proved just how exceptionally good you were at whatever crazy mission they threw at you.

Jensen had been waiting for such an opportunity as this. Had been preparing for months. He knew precisely how long he had to get in and get out before the system detected him, and he'd even forged a fake 'getaway trail' in advance should big brother become aware of the tampering and go looking for the culprit.

But his calculations should be sound – it shouldn't have to come to that.

Jensen knelt at the base of the connection box and opened the access flap – the one that had Space Protection Utility Device (aka SPUD) stamped across the top. He settled his night vision eye-shield on his nose and pulled the plastic case from his pocket, very carefully removing its content.

The chip was barely half as big as his pinky fingernail, not to mention a bit 'home-made' looking, but it was sure going to pack a punch. With the utmost care (and a pair of plastic tweezers) he slipped it into the correct slot and replaced the access flap as he'd found it. He wouldn't know if it had worked until he got back to his room, to his laptop, and he only had seconds to spare before the next surveillance drone flew by, so he hightailed it back to the base, covering his tracks as he went.

He was just slipping under the laser-lined fence of the base perimeter – tutting to himself about the lax security – when he heard a low snap. He turned to see the faintest surge of blue-lit energy sliding up the length of the SPUD pole, all the way up toward the sky. And he figured that it was either a really good sign, or a really bad one.


~


"Ready to go, Sarge?"

Jensen looked up to find Genevieve's head poking into his room. Casually he closed the lid of his laptop and slipped it into his case of belongings. Every mission-level soldier got a Safe Case – sturdy, lockable, with your ID number punched into the side – and anything and everything inside was considered private and untouchable. All of his stuff was packed into it and one other bag since they would be on the move again shortly. He took extreme measures with his data encryption anyway, his natural paranoia coming into play. Most people had paper-thin tablets or handheld devices with holographic capabilities these days, so Jensen's methods were a little 'old school'. But it wasn't as if he was the only one – one of his juniors, Adrianne, still had a laptop, too. She was probably the best hacker and code writer Jensen had ever seen (besides himself) and over the course of things, and the mutual quirk of owning laptops, they'd forged a pretty airtight respect of each other.

He slid off the bed and secured his case closed, picking up his uniform jacket as he turned to face his teammate.

"I'm no Sergeant yet, Gen."

"Oh, please," she scoffed, "Literally everyone knows that so long as there's no major fuck ups on this next little jaunt that they're going to promote you. You're a good leader with great ideas and you've got more credits to your name than any other one of us, blah blah blah. It makes sense."

Jensen hedged, "It's not like I'm the only Corporal with good leadership qualities on the team."

"Hey, if you think they'd actually choose Steve or Ruthie over you, well… maybe you just aren't as fuckin' smart as I thought you were."

She elbowed him hard enough to make him wince, and then laughed. He'd made a couple friends in this particular team – the higher in rank you went, the more there seemed to be a focus on mutual respect rather than things like 'joining in', which pleased Jensen greatly – but Gen was one of a small few who had managed to get him to open up a little in the six months they'd been training together so far. And he couldn't say he really minded the connection he felt, either. It was… oddly refreshing.

"You know once they promote me I'll probably be shipped off somewhere else."

"True," she said as they left Jensen's room, heading down the hallway, "But we were going to get split up sooner or later. Everyone here gets that. And you've got bigger fish to fry. Seriously, you'll be a Master Sergeant and compiling your own pro team before you know it."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, hmm?"

She turned on him with a fierce look. "I know you know how fucking good you are, Jenny. The modesty thing is cute, but you don't fool me. You're the favourite here, and no one begrudges you for that believe it or not, but your ability reflects on us too, and we're counting on you to do right by us. Don't let us down, you ass. Do it for us as well as yourself."

They stopped as they reached the transport platform and Genevieve muttered something about 'breaking a leg' before she punched his arm and ran off. Jensen had been about to head toward his usual craft to retrieve his combat gear when a hand grabbed his elbow, stopping him in his tracks. He turned to find Adrianne looking at him strangely.

"Hey, Addy, what—"

"Can I talk to you? Privately? It'll only take a sec."

He led her over to an area he knew was spare on surveillance and bid her to speak.

"This is probably going to sound strange, but I know you like strange, so… I just have this… feeling. You're going to be promoted for this mission really quickly, too quickly – I know that's not that much of a leap to make at this point. But I've just heard some things that make me think they're going to try to push you up the ranks in a hurry. I worry they're trying to make a statement with you or try to control you or something. The Generals really like you for numerous reasons, but…"

Jensen wanted to butt in, point out that there was no way in hell they'd let someone under thirty be a Master Sergeant, let alone someone still under twenty-five. It was weirdly reminiscent of what Gen had said to him just before, and Adrianne had this almost trance-like fear on her face, so he dared not interrupt her.

"Jensen, I know you've got other stuff going on. We're kindred spirits in a way, so I get it. But don't freak out because I honestly don't know anything, I just know patterns. And your pattern tells me you have ulterior motives for doing what you do. I choose to believe they're good ones, because I've come to believe in your methods and actions, and you're no fool. All I'm saying is… you're going to have a lot of attention on you very soon. Like a bug under a microscope. People are going to be watching and plotting… You'll be a good target. So maybe… try not to do anything rash, okay?"

Forcing himself up from whatever level of shock he'd plummeted to, Jensen managed a nod.

Moments later he was alone.

He could hear them readying the supply carriers in the background, performing last minute checks on the v-jets that would whisk them off to the site of their next mission. It was supposed to be simple and straightforward – raiding a storage facility that was allegedly stockpiling illegally obtained munitions. At Specialist level (that being the majority of the team) that was about as easy as it got. But now… Jensen doubted whether he'd be able to keep his head screwed on straight. Adrianne had thrown him completely for a loop. Her words had been spoken with a complete conviction that had well and truly spooked him, and she'd said them as if she knew for a fact that they would come to pass. Yet there was no way she could know for certain. Not unless she'd been eavesdropping…

Adrianne might have only just made Specialist rank, but she'd been in their team for a while now. There were a number of them skilled with breaking open technology – Jensen included – but Addy just had a particular knack for getting into tight spaces when it came to information gathering and code breaking. She was a natural. And it struck Jensen that they were the only two around that kept laptops, just as they were potentially the only two with real secrets to hide.

She had to have seen something. What had she hacked into that could expose such plans as Jensen being promoted? They had retrieved encrypted military data on their previous mission – had she somehow managed to keep some of it for herself? Or had she actively hacked into EDOT correspondence logs? Neither answer gave Jensen much comfort.

He worried for her safety now. She was still a couple of years younger than Jensen and he felt a sense of protectiveness over her. But he couldn't deny that they both existed on a similar wavelength, meaning he should trust that she was smart enough to not get caught so easily. She was better than that – as was he. Whatever she did or did not know about Jensen's 'ulterior motives', he knew she would guard it safely. She was more than capable. He hoped he'd have the chance to have her in his team again one day.

And it was that thought which shook him out of his daze.

He had a unit to lead. He didn't have the luxury of allowing other matters to cloud his thoughts.

Taking an absolving breath, he turned and strode back toward the transport platform like he meant business. He located the container with his personalised armour and weaponry, checking and double-checking everything before arranging it upon his person. Soon after, the warning siren sounded, prompting all of WASP Mission Team 6 to board their assigned jets. There were twenty-eight of them in the team, five of whom were on the jet with Jensen. Richard was the one to take the pilot's seat, Rob riding shotgun, and within minutes they were in the air.

They were headed for somewhere on the East coast, but Jensen ignored the flight plan in exchange for tactical specs. He set a palm-sized device on the floor and activated the holographic documents stored within, using his hands to manipulate the images until he had the outside landscape of their target location in view. Richard set the jet on auto and all six of them gathered to discuss their preferred entry plan, Jensen taking any and all points on board as it would ultimately be his decision in the end. Alona had just begun to speak when an alarm blared through the cabin, Richard and Rob immediately turning back to the instrument panel, comm. units coiled into their ears.

Jensen ignored the back and forth between Richard and whoever was on the other end of the transmission, though he did jerk in surprise when the jet suddenly took a turn in a different direction. Rob was the one to eventually leave his seat and move back into the cabin.

"We've been given a new mission."

"So I noticed," Jensen said with some impatience.

"An attack was just launched on a research lab in the East. Mission Team 3 is closer but since we were already mobilised and in the air they called us in instead. Team 3 will get there as soon as they can with back-up artillery." Rob seemed to hesitate. "Command said that reports list the attackers as the Kajamites…"

Gasps circled around the cabin.

"Is that confirmed?"

Rob shook his head. "No. Only that the technicians who called in the attack said that they had arms like tree trunks and shooting them with normal guns didn't take them down."

"Sure sounds like Kajamites," Nick piped up, "But I thought that all the ones still on Earth had been detained?"

Jensen sighed. He knew better than to ever expect every single one of a present hostile race to be so easily bagged up by the government, no matter what the reports said. "Those guys are pretty comfy in human skins. It wouldn't have been that hard for them to hide out for a bit, formulate a plan." He turned to Rob. "Let the others know that we're ninety percent sure. Leave any metal-based ammo behind, only use lasers or voltaics. Oh, and they hate water."

Alona stared at him from across the way. "How do you even know that?"

Jensen just shrugged, denying the team any further (and unnecessary) information. It wasn't like his source was a legitimate one, after all.

The v-jets moved at hyper-speed and they were disembarking within fifteen, weapons at the ready. The research facility was smoking at one end, doors and windows were smashed in, the cacophony of thuds and screams and cracking walls filtering out toward them. All twenty-eight of them stood exposed in the parking lot they'd landed in, and Jensen immediately divided them into four teams with a few gestures of his hands; Steve, Ruthie, and Gen taking leadership of each of the other three.

They surrounded the building from all sides, ready to charge, but before they could even get near the doorways the Kajamites poured out to meet them. Most seemed to advance on them without thought, and they were taken out easily with a few well-aimed shots. Others came out with the battered bodies of technicians being used as makeshift shields, but Gen's team had managed to scale to the second floor of the building and took the club-handed beings down from behind.

Their partial-human skins seemed to fizzle and melt as they perished, their limbs unfolding out into their normal elongated state and revealing the reddish colour of their real 'skin'. The onslaught came to a halt as the last Kajamite appeared to be defeated, but then a loud rumbling emanated from within the facility.

Everyone pulled their weapons back up, taking aim, tension hanging taut in the air. An animalistic growl cut through the silence, so deep and dense that it caused the very ground to shake beneath their feet, some even losing their footing where they stood. More rumbling, and then cracks began to appear in the outer walls of the facility, puffs of brick and plaster dust tumbling down. Jensen could only hope that anyone still living had managed to either get out or take shelter, because he didn't like the chances of the building remaining upright for much longer. But then Alona shouted, sighting movement inside, and a bare chested man in ragged sweatpants barrelled out through the middle of a wall, debris flying everywhere. His body was obscenely thick with muscle, pulsing veins popping out from the surface of his skin, to the point that it could not possibly have been natural.

The earth rocked with each step he took, and after a frantic pause he began to run for Ruthie's team like a rabid dog off his leash. Shots were fired. Bursts of laser light and bolts of energy hurtling toward their target. But nothing seemed to phase the creature. Every attempt to down him with their high-powered assault weapons made no difference – rather, it only angered him more. His limbs swung around wildly as he attacked everyone and everything in his path – mindless and impulsive and crazed. Pared of any shred of his humanity.

It suddenly clicked what Jensen was witnessing.

There hadn't been a (known) sighting in nearly two years, and it had been on the other side of the world. A hiss squeezed from between his teeth. No wonder their guns did nothing. And now… he couldn't exactly run all the way back to the v-jets to exchange munitions. Meaning he was left with no other option. So he immediately dropped his gun and ran.

He paid no mind to the fact that his own team remained behind, some standing frozen in shock while others called at him to stop and come back. But he couldn't do that.

"Hey, you! Come at me, motherfucker!"

Jensen watched as the man turned his sights on him, eyes fevered-yellow with the need to kill. He swiftly pulled out the knife he always kept tucked in his boot and threw it with a precise flick of his wrist. The man suddenly stopped, glaring down at the handle now sticking out of his chest as if he had no idea how it had gotten there, and then dropped to the ground like a ton of bricks. Jensen pulled up from his run and moved to stand over the man-shaped creature. Strange how in death it still somehow looked as human as Jensen or any one of his teammates.

He didn't move until he heard the calling of his name, and he turned to find the whole of Team 6 looking at him. Ruthie's lot looked like they'd been beaten to a pulp, many of them cradling likely broken limbs, but thankfully none seemed beyond help.

"Well, Sarge," Steve said with a smirk, "If anyone doubted you deserve that promotion… Say, they can't promote you twice in one day can they?"

Jensen snorted, pointedly paying no mind to Steve's taunt harkening back to both Gen and Adrianne's words earlier that day. "You asshole."

In the distance he could hear the arrival of the incoming Mission Team 3 with the back-up weaponry.

So much for not doing anything rash.



~{//////}~



It was cold out. There was a breeze but the air was clear, only wisps of clouds here and there to interrupt the broad expanse of sky that stretched from horizon to horizon.

Jared was laid out on the roof, too engrossed in the deep indigo veil above him to notice the night's chill. Watching the stars was more important to him than the threat of hypothermia anyway. The sky – the promise of the sky – was his hope and refuge. His love of 'looking up' was pretty much the only point of consistency he had left these days.

Currently he was staying with a couple who claimed to be third (or was it fourth?) cousins of his father's. He had no idea whether it was the truth or not (not that he cared) and the town was as dry and empty as Venus' snatch, but he'd lived in worse. Martin and Deb didn't seem to give much of a shit about him either, only keeping him around for the monthly welfare payouts, but at least they left him alone. Fending for himself, he could do.

And as many nights as he cared to, he'd climb up onto the roof from the second-floor balcony and just stare into the great beyond. It was peaceful, for one thing, whilst also stoking the long-burning fire in his belly.

He imagined he could see the seam of two SPUDs up above. Supposedly you could if the light was just right, catching the fibres of the energy shields at just the right angle. The edges wouldn't meet up, though. He knew this for a fact. Jared didn't consider himself a 'space nerd' per se, but he'd still done the calculations – he knew precisely how far the 'umbrellas' stretched, and knew precisely how far away the nearest two SPUD stations were. And there was no way they met. He remembered vaguely mentioning something about it to his Astronomy professor once, and the way she'd suddenly looked at him as if he'd spontaneously grown a second and much more intelligent head. 'If you devoted half the amount of energy to the rest of your schoolwork as you apparent devote to that', she'd said to him with a stern look, 'I suspect that there would be little in this world that could stop you, Mr Padalecki.'

Her words had affected him profoundly, though perhaps not in the way the Professor had hoped. His grades had remained as average as always, but his thirst for poking holes in the government's lies only grew. As did his desire to get closer to the sky. Nutting out the secret of the SPUD was just the first rung on his newly-assembled ladder. But there was no way to know if was like this everywhere, not when the Device supposedly covered the whole entire world and the exact coordinates of many WASP base-stations was classified. Still, he could say with certainty that in that particular spot there was a gap of at least fifty feet between the two shields. More than enough wiggle-room for someone – something - to slip through if they knew which slice of bumfuck nowhere to go to.

His fists clenched at his sides.

Just how many somethings had managed it? Slipping through the glaring cracks under the eyes of the military's miracle watch dog – which was apparently no miracle after all.

Likely there was no possible answer to that question. No way to know if the SPUD had purposely been planned that way. How widely aware the governing bodies were. If they were using it to send things out just as often as they were probably bringing things in. And how many uninvited guests might have managed the same?

For Jared, in the end, his anger always came back to one underlying source.

How could it not? When it had fucked him up that much…

His parents had died at the hands of an Infected. And he'd seen the whole nightmare go down with his own two eyes.

But he hadn't been fool-headed enough to blame the Infected itself. They were like that because of one reason.

And he'd cursed the Leonisians every day since. They deserved to suffer, and one way or another Jared was determined to have a hand in that.

Once upon a time he'd thought of being a Fighternaut – flying through deep space in hyper-rockets and taking his vengeance directly to the source – but he'd eventually grown up and seen his childish fancies for what they were. No, he could be of more use down here on the surface. There were private contractors who had adaptable teams, specialist groups that hunted specific types of threats. But then, there was no way they'd take a completely untrained novice like him.

His only other option was government-sponsored military. They took the young, the inexperienced, rich or poor. It wasn't Jared's ideal, necessarily, but there was no shame in it. The stats these days for military entry was something like forty-one percent – nearly half the population was either in on the fight or in some way directly supporting it.

Perhaps most important of all was that it was a means of true escape. Jared was practically counting down the days now – just a few more months and he'd be of minimum age to join. No more foster homes, no more dragging his feet…

His heart leapt in his chest just thinking about it.

He'd seen video of it just the other day, the first public sighting of an Infected in almost two years. The ground had shaken for miles around, crevices opening up into the earth, people screaming… Until the military had gotten there. Some fancy team had taken down the culprit in little more than a handful of minutes.

Jared wanted in so badly it physically hurt. He wanted to be there, taking down those toxic motherfuckers from the front line. He needed to be there.

Forcing himself to take a breath, Jared relaxed his limbs, unclenched his teeth, and stared up. Back up at the sky.

It could be almost dizzying sometimes. Not just the fact that there were seemingly almost as many satellites up there as there were stars, but just the overarching emptiness of it all. And he could relate in some ways – there was a vicious hollowness inside himself as well, gnawing away at his fears and hesitations.

He had a pretty good idea how to fill it.

Just a few more months…


~


Jared shouldered his pack and picked up his compressed-voltaic rifle as he jumped down from the carrier-craft.

He was taller than the twenty-or-so men and women that stood around him, broader in the shoulders than most, but also younger. His size was the only armour he had at that moment, especially when his jailbait face gave him away completely. He could count on one hand the number of peers and superiors that hadn't called him 'kid'. It had taken everything in his power not to hiss and spit at them – which was probably not the best response regardless.

Still, his youthfulness didn't make him any less adept than the soldiers around him. He'd been through all the required basic training courses plus a few extra that he'd specifically been chosen for, and he'd passed the lot of them with flying colours. He'd felt the jealous stares from the other trainees at the time, but he had bigger things to worry about. Like being tossed in with a bunch of other guys and girls who'd been found to be as 'well equipped' as Jared. The competition would be fierce. And he welcomed it.

"Gather round folks."

They all huddled around the senior officer – his insignia marked him a Staff Sergeant – waiting to see what came next. They were all still a bit green around the ears, so there was an air of excitement and apprehension in the air.

"You're all here because you've proven yourselves to be the best amongst your respective training groups. Some will be more experienced in certain areas than others, but I can guarantee you have all been hand-picked to be part of this team for a reason. You all have skillsets that are considered valuable. So please be respectful and understanding of each other. Any kind of defiant or disobedient behaviour will not be tolerated. And we expect you to be one hundred percent committed. If something is stopping you from performing, we need to know about it, and if you don't want to be here for any reason – quantifiable or otherwise – then I suggest you get your ass out of here now, not later. There is no excuse for wasting our time. Clear?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Yes, sir!"

Jared joined in, truly believing his own words. He'd never felt this committed towards anything before, not until he'd first arrived at the base training compound a few months before. But then, even if he did want to leave, he had nothing to go back to on the outside anyway. Only emptiness.

"At ease, rookies."

Jared's head had dropped to stare at his feet, but the sound of a new voice had him looking back up in a flash. The older man that had greeted them had moved away to the side, and now there stood another comparatively younger man, one that couldn't have been all that much older than Jared. Possibly he was even younger than some of the other trainees that stood around him. Yet his uniform clearly marked him as their superior.

"I'm Master Sergeant Ackles. You may address me as Sarge or Sir, unless I say otherwise. It was by my asking that you have been brought here today. I am the one who picked you all out from amongst the crowd and I trust that you will work hard to prove that my faith in you was not unfounded. You have a great opportunity here. Within this group you will gain not only specialty skills, but also camaraderie. Once you're proven mission ready, these men and women around you will be the only thing standing between you and a whole lot of hurt. Trust, teamwork, and intuition will be your foundations for success and survival. Now off to the barracks with you. Move your asses!"

The other superiors present began herding them towards the so-called 'S1 barracks', but Jared couldn't help but turn back to get one last look at the Master Sergeant. His expression was hard and emotionless, much like every other Sergeant (and beyond) that Jared had so far come in contact with. Yet something told him that there was more to this particular man than met the eye, and it wasn't just his unexpectedly stunning appearance that had Jared intrigued.

Jared knew a mask when he saw one. He would know, after all… That awkward, young-and-stupid 'Jared guy' everyone seemed to love? Total farce. But it was the greatest protection he had.

Letting himself be pulled along by the small crowd, they were soon ushered into moderately sized rooms with two double bunks a-piece. Jared ended up taking the bottom of one while a guy named Chris took the top. The two guys taking the other bunk introduced themselves as Rosey and Tom. They all shook hands and Jared got the strangest feeling – they'd only just met, but somehow he could imagine himself becoming actual friends with these guys.

~


Things were no picnic in the advanced standings club, but Jared hadn't expected them to be.

For all that he might have initially thought the Master Sergeant 'stunning', the man's training was brutal and dirty and relentless. Jared had never felt so exhausted in his life. Still, it wasn't like they were being run into the ground or punished or something. If someone needed help, the Sarge would actively help them, and if anyone ever gave the impression that they thought the guy had no idea what he was on about, he'd immediately prove them wrong. Throughout the obstacle courses and combat training and target practice, the computer science, the space science, and the lessons in munitions and specialised chemistry, Jared watched Ackles like a hawk. He was a hard-ass with a glorious ass, and it seemed that there was nothing he couldn't do better than any single one of them. Jared found himself floating in a constant state of limbo, stuck somewhere between jaw-dropping awe and being incredibly turned on.

But while it was a terrible mental place to be in, it only made Jared try all the harder. Ackles made a point of doling out terse praise where is was due, and the couple of times Jared had felt the prickle of awareness as Ackles passed by at his six, the brief 'good' that registered from that low, potent voice… it had taken all his efforts not to go completely weak in the knees and turn an embarrassing shade of red.

It was a quandary he'd never faced before. He hated the seeming weakness that came over him at the mere sight of the man, yet he craved this new and foreign excitement – the way his pulse picked up, the flutter of his stomach… He decided eventually to treat it as a new mission. An obstacle to overcome. Rosey and Chris had cottoned on to him all too quick, however, and from then on never let him hear the end of it. But Jared tested himself, made himself stronger against this new opponent, and learned to put on a new kind of mask. Weeks passed, and his roommates still hedged him about it from time to time, but they'd backed off once their teasing started to lose its desired effect. It made Jared pleased to know that he'd succeeded in managing to keep his emotions to himself.

Not that it was a bad thing… It was normal for others – growls of anger, shouts of joy, the usual sort of stuff. But that just wasn't Jared. Not really. Not since he was a kid.

And yet. Something about not being able to express himself to the Sergeant made him hurt. He wanted to show the guy a genuine smile, wanted to touch him – as in, just pat him on the shoulder or something. Something with a positive feel. But Jared was too caught up in his own anxieties to let out these unfamiliar impulses, not to mention that Ackles was so far his superior, so fucking amazing at everything, why would he ever consider Jared any more than he considered anyone else. Fucking dammit.

Another thing Jared had learned, between all the foster families and shitty so-called 'parenting' he'd endured, was how to suck it up.


~


He settled the butt of the gun along the inner-edge of his arm pit, aiming the cylinder and breathing through the ache. The flesh from his collarbone to his sixth rib was black and blue from the recoil on the fucking things, but goddamn they were effective.

He lay in wait as the field before him remained still and clear, pushing his usual impatience to the side. Minutes ticked by, his shoulders just barely starting to burn, but then he saw it. He swung easy to the left and fired. A bolt of bright blue galvanic energy shot forth and obliterated the 'enemy' target, and Jared could feel the heat of its power wash over his face.

He pushed back and stood, joints cracking as he stretched, and suddenly there was a hand clasping tightly at his shoulder.

"Seventeen out of seventeen targets. Well done, Private. Top of the fuckin' class."

He clung to that one interaction for a matter of weeks.

He was lovesick, and oddly enough, he'd come to accept it.

All the more Jared found himself searching for a glimpse of the Sarge at any random point in time. Sometimes a moment would pass when he'd find Ackles looking back at him, too. Just for a moment. But then, logically speaking, the more he looked – or stared was probably more accurate – the more likely it was he was going to get caught now and then. He didn't mind it so much, he didn't quickly turn away as if he'd been discovered doing something wrong, but the expression Ackles seemed to have on his face whenever it happened… Jared couldn't for the life of him figure if it was interest or irritation.


~


The barracks during break times were a hive of activity, chatter, and space-talk. Between them all they shared two large holoscreens and five communal tablet computers (for those that didn't have their own) that were kept in the lounge area, so there was no excuse for not keeping tabs on the news. And in their line of work, news was knowledge, and knowledge was a leg-up. By being brought into the advanced training group he was currently in, Jared was already in preparation for a position in either the Earth Defence against Outer Threats (EDOT) corps or Worldwide Anti-Alien Safeguarding Program (WASP), which would put him exactly where he wanted to be. WASP was his ultimate goal, though, since they were involved in more specialised and offensive approaches. Being part of their ranks would mean having detailed knowledge of tech and strategies and science. WASP fighters were the ones who had the real secrets, or so everyone said.

Just being in his current group had let him in on enough tidbits, though. Some things were open secrets amongst their ranks, things that civilians would never hope to know. The SPUD, for instance. Not too long ago he'd thought himself so clever for figuring out it had problems. It had been such a revelation when it was first enforced, but apparently any half-decent student of the astro sciences knew how imperfect it really was. Indeed, much of their current tech had its imperfections.

He remembered his first days as a rookie Private. His shock at hearing some of the gossip of those around him. His outrage. Not unlike what he'd felt that day years before, when he'd finally dug deep enough to reveal the SPUDs truth.

But then, mindset-wise, he'd matured a lot as he'd passed from teenager into his twenties. Realised the nature of faults around him as well as within himself. Realised that perfect was never.

Jared stood in one of the doorways leading to the lounge area, just enough out of sight that he was unlikely to be bothered. His teammate Anna had switched the screen to footage of one of the nearby launch stations, two hyper-rockets taking off for an internationally-sanctioned peace-keeping mission in Alphardia. The first (publicly acknowledged) trans-planet travel in eighteen months or more.

Once, such a thing had been as commonplace as a full moon, but since the launch of the SPUD such events were strictly limited and heavily monitored. For decades now intergalactic travel had been stable and accessible, and contact with other beings was made regularly, but it had also opened up a gateway for Earth to a whole new world of problems. Technology, diseases, raw materials, warfare… For every positive that deep space exploration gave them, the negatives it brought far outweighed them. All over the globe, dozens of launch sites were now essentially abandoned.

Everyone and their dog knew that it was the Leonisians that had been the final straw. The official story went that they had brought a 'gift' – some sort of token that could grant that power to those that touched it. Whatever outcome the Leonisians had been hoping for no one really knew, but their so-called gift backfired when it resulted in the death and suffering of dozens of people.

Having since dug a bit deeper for information, Jared figured it was more likely to have been some sort of weaponised virus that just happened to manifest as 'powers', sending the victims insane in the process. If it didn't instantly kill them, that was. Of course, then there was the alternative theory that their gift had been just that – a gift from one planet to another in good faith, which unfortunately just happened to be very lethal to humans.

Either way, when Earth publicly rejected their deadly gift, the Leonisians had not been happy, and had proclaimed that they would not suffer such insult.

Jared had no clue how true any of the known theories were. No one did. Military-based research labs had apparently tried to contain and eradicate the virus (or whatever it really was) but by the time they'd realised how unpredictable said virus was, it had already spread too far for them to ever know for sure that it was all gone.

Thus, every now and then there would be stories. People going mad and killing everyone in their path, strange instances of fire, explosions, bizarre accidents that should have been impossible…

On the one occasion that there was a live newscast about a supposed Infected attack, the whole of Jared's team gathered round to watch. He wondered if any of them had seen one up close and personal before, and stared into its mad-crazed eyes, just like he had.

He might have been better informed now, and not so quick to judge as he had been during his volatile teenage years, but that youth-borne anger still boiled somewhere deep down inside.


~


"Jared. Come with me"

"Uh. Yes, sir."

Ackles' voice had snapped him out of his daze and he dutifully followed the Sergeant off to an isolated room. He was still thinking about the video link Tom had just sent him, one that had been going viral over the past few hours. It had contained amateur footage of an ordinary looking person standing in an ordinary looking street, but doing unexplainable damage to the surrounding cars and buildings and people whilst barely moving a muscle. Something about it had shaken him to the very core, and only the Sergeant's repeated calling of his name managed to jolt him back into blinking and breathing normally again.

"You good?"

"Yeah, yeah. Fine. Uh… Thanks, Sarge."

Jared trailed him into an unoccupied dorm room and sat down on a bunk while Ackles seated himself on the one opposite.

A few moments ticked by with Ackles sitting there perfectly still and Jared trying not to fidget awkwardly, though no words passed their lips. When Jared finally managed to settle himself he began to wonder what the Sergeant wanted with him. More so since in all their interactions up to that point, Ackles had been the one to instigate the conversation. Yet he wasn't talking. Only looking curiously at Jared.

"So," Jared said, breaking the silence, "I'm thinking that with your pulling me aside like this… something important must be on your mind."

"So far, so good."

It was a response Jared hadn't expected, but he would keep guessing if that was the game in play. The only thing was, Ackles wouldn't have called him aside like that just for kicks. That was one thing he'd picked up about the Sarge from the beginning – he always had an agenda.

"Okay then. So I'm now thinking that you must have a job in mind for me. Maybe something specifically fitting my skillset, or…"

The Sergeant wasn't quite quick enough at wiping the vaguest grin from his lips. "Oh? And what else do you think?"

Jared thought a lot of things, some of them not entirely appropriate, but if he was going to be serious about it… his particular skillset involved precision, strategy, and a mindset unique to himself – a mindset geared toward bringing down the Infected. His thoughts drifted again to the video he'd watched earlier and he snorted.

"Don't suppose it has anything to do with a video, does it?"

He'd said it half as a joke, but when the Sergeant got that thoughtful look on his face, he couldn’t help but show his surprise.

"Wait, seriously? Everyone and their mother has seen that link by now. Why would you need to talk to me about some random footage of an Infected attack?"

Ackles cleared his throat. "Firstly, you and I both know that 'random' is hardly the right adjective to use. Secondly, while the population at large might call them 'Infected', wouldn't you suppose that calling 'super human' isn't exactly wrong either? It does ultimately get the point across."

Jared's jaw worked but no sound came out.

He'd never thought about it like that, but perhaps Ackles had a point. Still, Jared couldn't get past the fact that, yes, he had been pulled aside by the Sarge about a video he'd watched once all of ten minutes ago.

"So I'm right, then."

"You're not wrong."

Jared huffed a laugh and looked away, trying not to look his superior dead on in the eyes, lest he start staring. There was a time and place for everything, but this was not it.

"I climbed to this rank through my own efforts in the way of the Infected. I actually made Sergeant by stabbing one in the chest – I realised our target was unaffected by lasers and voltaic energy, and I was quick-thinking enough to take him down the old fashioned way, so-to-speak." Ackles went on, "Hence why I was allowed to take charge of this taskforce."

Things suddenly clicked. "You've been training us to go after the Infected specifically?"

"It's why I've tried to incorporate more practical things like hand-to-hand combat as well as the usual required stuff. I've found that their overall weakness tends towards blades and old-school bullets more than anything else. Energy blasts and taser-shots are particularly useless. But more to the point, I was the one who asked to create team S1 in the first place. I was allowed a certain amount of time and resources and asked to conduct my 'little experiment' in secret. Honestly, some of the higher ups think I'm wasting my time, but I guarantee they won't when they see what you're capable of—"

"Wait," Jared cut in, "What do you mean by wasting your time? They can't really be so stupid—"

"Jared, let me tell you right here and now that you have no idea of the stupidity and corruption that runs rife in the upper echelons of this force. You may be here now but you were still an ordinary trainee like everyone else, and you know that the majority of military teams are dedicated to either protection of national borders or protection from the skies. In my mind there is not nearly enough focus on protection from internal threats, and I'm pretty goddamn sure you can figure out why."

He ran his fingers through his hair, heaving a sigh in the process. "There's only two options that I can think of: ignorance or knowledge."

Ackles crossed his arms and nodded, his eyes dark with intensity.

"You're not wrong."

"So… This is all pretty blunt, even for you, Sarge. Why are you telling me all this?"

The Sergeant hesitated a moment, then leaned forward, elbows on knees, like he was divulging a secret. "I want to raise you to Sergeant. I want to split our current band of eighteen into two smaller teams. We're about as mission ready as we are ever going to get and we need to start putting some definitive results on the board, a-sap. I've tried to appear as patient as possible with everyone, but like I said, I was only granted a certain amount of time to make this happen. We need to prove that the S1 team and the army's expenditure toward it is not unwarranted."

"What…? Wait. I mean, you…" Jared took a deep breath, hoping to prevent himself from hyperventilating. He worked hard to be the best, to be deserving of his advanced standing, but this was something else. "You're making me a Sergeant? I'd be skipping Corporal rank altogether? Can you even do that?"

Ackles' lips twisted into a smirk. "Jared, did you hear anything else I just said?"

"Oh. Totally. Every word. I swear. But, really? Me? Have you seen me ever? I may be a good shot but my anxiety's gonna get me fucking killed one day, and not to mention I'm one of the youngest in the whole group. Who would take me seriously enough?"

As the words poured from his mouth, Jared did his best to swallow the subsequent mortification. He didn't know what kind of sorcery Ackles was weaving, but Jared had probably never spoken so honestly in front of anyone before.

"I do," Ackles reassured, "I take you seriously, Jared. I believe I know what drives you to do what you do, and I've seen enough over these past weeks to discern what kind of person you are. I don't make these decisions lightly. And I have little doubt your teammates will think similarly. Not to mention that you’re a great all-rounder, you’ve got a good head for strategy, and despite that mask you put on to pretend otherwise, you do genuinely give a fuck about people. That’s a fairly rare trait these days."

"Huh."

Between the unexpected praise and the notion that the Sergeant somehow seemed to know about his parents, Jared was lost for words.

"Jared?"

"Hm?"

"You good, Soldier?"

"M-hmm."

"You know, since you're going to be of senior rank now, I was going to ask you to call me Jensen. Just in non-professional instances. But, I mean, if you can't even speak… well…"

"I… what? Jensen? That's your name?"

"Don't wear it out."

Jared gaped for several long moments before he got control of his jaw again. He then attempted to wave the whole thing off as if it were nothing.

"Gee, I'm not sure what I'm worried about then when you're clearly not all that serious yourself. I mean, dragging people off to secluded rooms, revealing military secrets, telling them your name… Completely unprofessional."

Honestly, he didn't really know where this flippantly humorous attitude was even coming from. Jared was… really not a flippant nor humorous kind of guy. Most of the time.

Jensen shook his head with amusement, but then seemed to shake off his light-heartedness all of a sudden.

He looked Jared straight in the eyes and Jared immediately found himself teetering on the edge of a line he hadn't realised he'd been so close to.

"You're right, though. This is completely unprofessional of me." Jensen's hands clenched where they lay on his knees. "But I can't lie to you Jared. I'm… fairly sure I know how you feel about me, and I don't feel… dissimilar."

Saying it threw him for a loop would be the ultimate understatement.

Taking a shuddering breath in, Jared tried to process the words.

He'd been pining over this man he barely knew for the past six months – longer than any of his few past relationships had ever lasted. As well over a man who was a bit of a celebrity amongst the ranks. Someone who had accomplished a great deal in such a small amount of time, and who garnered respect from so many of his peers and superiors. He was military disciplined, yet with this wild gleam in his eye. And it was (at least partially) that gleam that had dragged Jared down into this hopeless and unrelenting crush. Tom and Rosey still prodded him about it whenever he was having a 'not so serious' day as they put it, but Jared had adjusted enough to be able to let it roll straight off his back. He'd kept it thoroughly buried just how deep he'd really fallen, and now, without even the slightest sign of what was coming, Jensen had just up and said it out loud like that? Like it was so easy?

"If you're about to say something about how we can never," Jared said steadily, trying to contain his ire, "I'd really rather you just didn't say anything at all."

Silence ensued.


~


“Sooo, Jay... You and the Sarge were in that room - alone, together - for quite some time...”

“Knock it off, Rosey.”

“What were you up to, hmm?” Tom teased, poking Jared in the arm, “Holding hands? Gazing longingly into each other's eyes?”

“You do look decidedly unrumpled, though... Ackles manage to keep it in his pants this time, huh?”

"Rosenbaum."

“Fine, fine. Take it easy, Jare. But for the record, we weren’t the only ones who noticed,” Rosey pointed out, “Anything you wanna tell us?”

Jared sighed forlornly. These motherfuckers he called his friends just wouldn’t quit.

“You’ll find out soon enough. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

Chris grasped melodramatically at his chest. “Dude, you’re killin me!”

“Blue balls, man! Blue balls!”


~


He was promoted within the week, and then the real missions began.

They were split into two teams, one each with Jared and Jensen at the helm. Things started off small - intelligence gathering and raids on previous known locations of suspected Infected. A few things turned up, but nothing of the calibre they’d been looking for. So they continued on.

Jared took to his new status as Sergeant with tentative enthusiasm. It took some time to get used to being the one his team turned to, but he felt more at ease with it as the weeks wore on. And admittedly, the new dynamic seemed to bring him out of his shell a little. He never let himself venture too far though (emotionally speaking), since he had made a promise to himself to work harder than ever before. Jensen had put a shitload of faith in Jared, and Jared had every intention of proving he was a worthy recipient of it.

The missions stacked up and before long they’d moved on to even bigger game. They were granted the use of two WASP-team grade v-jets, allowing them to be early on the scene if ever another sighting came to pass. And soon they were being siphoned specialised intel direct from Mission Command as well – 'As it should be,' was all Jensen had to say on the matter.

That connection to Mission Command proved to be their turning point.

Jared’s initial contact with an Infected in the position of Sergeant – and the first one since he'd been witness to since his parents’ and sister’s deaths - had been difficult. In fact, he’d almost choked right there and then, right in the line of fire. A crucial error. He just hadn't been able to stop the onslaught of images from bombarding his mind – the saturation of red, the sickening crunch of bone, the sound of his little sister screaming… The couple of scars on his thigh and chest pulsed with phantom aches. For a long time he'd hated that that was all he'd been left with – two scars. He would have been happier being covered with them, wearing them like some kind of symbol of his inner anguish.

He struggled to keep his breathing even, his eyes clear, gun steady, but then that voice…

They’d been all wired up, earwigs tucked deep in ear canals, and Jensen’s voice had come loud and clear over the group comm line.

Keep it steady, Jared. Get ready to move.

It was (much to his relief) a wholly unassuming phrase and something they would have expected Ackles to say. But it was all he'd needed. Thanks to that voice, calm and composed, he’d remembered to breathe again, and was able to pull his shit together before his distraction became a problem. Jared could have kissed him.

"Yes, Sir."

Their intentions were always to capture where they could, take the subjects in for questioning and medical attention if at all possible. But after several instances of direct contact, not once did they manage to take a single one alive. Their power was too great, their madness too complete, the destruction too threatening. Twice Jared had gotten close enough to look them right in the eye, but never was there a moment of recognition. These Infected were simply too far gone. Their humanity stripped from them, and lost in a haze of psychosis. He tried to think of killing them as an act of mercy.

'Whatever helps you sleep at night,' Alona had said when he'd told her that. And not with even the slightest hint of sarcasm.

But in the end, it was the how that bothered Jared most.

Their missions soon started popping up nearly every month - where were they all coming from? Were there always this many? Had they just never had the right intel? Or were they genuinely becoming more common – the virus spreading once again?

It had been so long since the Leonisians had brought this fate upon the earth – intentionally or otherwise – and yes, there had always been reports of such madness for as long as Jared could remember, but the rate of instances appeared to be increasing. It couldn't possibly be a coincidence.

"You're not wrong," Jensen had said again when Jared mentioned his thoughts on the matter. He knew for certain that Jensen knew more than he was telling and it bothered him, but by the same token he had to hold out faith that Jensen would have told him if he thought it worthwhile knowing. The Sarge hadn't failed him yet.

They brought down two more Infected before they finally got wind of something solid.

One of the girls – Adrianne, a highly skilled hacker and code breaker that Jensen had belatedly brought into the team – managed to pull some scraps of encoded messages that (once decrypted) mentioned something about an underground hideout. It had immediately been forwarded to some higher-ups in the hope of getting the approval to investigate further.

As it went, they were denied as a group and were offered no explanation.

Jared tried his best to let it go and move on, prepare for whatever mission came next, but the suspicion still lingered. Some of the most significant information they'd ever procured and their mission plan was nixed before it even left the page? Yeah, no way Jared was fucking buying that.

Jensen had been right that night they'd been alone in the dorm room. And the longer Jared played Sergeant for his team, the more he discovered that the 'upper echelons' of the military had far too many ulterior motives for his liking.


~

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