Staying the Course by Fred Wong

General Roberta Strock always reported in for duty at FemForce Headquarters a little bit before 7 AM, well before anyone else. Her first order of business was virtually the same every day, almost like a boring routine, consisting of checking her massive litany of email messages received overnight from various military agencies and groups. While reviewing all of them, General Strock was often irritated by the fact that the majority were frivolous nonsense from staff officers with nothing better to do with their time.

Today was different, though. Significantly different, for as General Strock passed through the security checkpoint and parked, she found a small entourage of four U.S. government sedans had already parked and waiting for her. General Strock exited her car, walked towards FemForce Headquarters and was greeted by a familiar face: General Richard Brennan, one of the top senior officers with the Inspector General.

“Hello, Rick,” said General Strock. “What brings you here this early?”

“We need to talk, Roberta,” replied General Brennan quietly. “In private.”

General Strock didn’t say a word as they walked towards her office, followed by an entourage of a few lieutenant colonels, a couple of full colonels, and several majors. She had served with General Brennan before, who was a well-respected officer with a generally reserved demeanor, almost to the point that he was cold and calculating on some occasions. It was the ideal trait for an Inspector General officer, charged with investigating and policing the Army from within its own ranks.

Once inside, it was just General Brennan and General Strock, while the rest of the staff waited outside.

“Coffee?” offered General Strock.

“No thanks,” replied General Brennan. “Maybe later.”

“So why are you here, Rick?” asked General Strock. “With a full staff, no less.”

“Roberta, you’re not under investigation,” explained General Brennan. “But what I’m about to tell you is classified to the highest levels. No one outside this building must know what I’m about to divulge.”

“What?” inquired General Strock.

“The current Ms. Victory, Jennifer Burke, was railroaded into the project through the manipulations of General Gordon and Captain Kelly,” explained General Brennan. “It’s all here from your review. Her husband David Burke’s firing, the cancellation of his insurance, his so-called ‘work accident’; it’s all there. Initiated and authorized by General Gordon himself and executed by Captain Kelly.”

“It’s shocking. I almost can’t believe it,” said General Strock as she reviewed the documents, consisting of memorandums, email exchanges, and transcripts from phone conversations between Captain Kelly and General Gordon. “I never liked Gordon and thought he was a blowhard, but I never thought he was dirty. Not to this extent, at least.”

“Captain Kelly hated his guts, too, but still followed his orders,” added General Brennan. “I think deep down inside he wanted the new Ms. Victory project to work as badly as Gordon did.”

“So what now? Where are they?” asked General Strock.

“Fort Leavenworth penitentiary,” answered General Brennan. “Several weeks ago we arrested them and tried them in a military tribunal for a court martial. To this day it’s still being suppressed for security reasons; it hasn’t been reported by any civilian or military news media.”

“And the verdict was..?” asked General Strock.

“Captain Kelly worked a plea bargain and only received 10 years at Leavenworth, in addition to the standard punishment of reduction in rank to E-1 and forfeiture of all pay, benefits, and entitlements as part of his court martial. Gordon, on the other hand, was found guilty by the military tribunal and sentenced for life at Leavenworth; the only daylight he’ll ever see will be his one hour a day in a small courtyard for exercise.”

“My God,” thought General Strock, thinking about Ms. Victory, and the living nightmare she had to endure.

“This report is for your files, Roberta,” said General Brennan. “But I don’t envy where you’re sitting right now.”

“Why’s that?” asked General Strock.

“Because I’m not the one who’s going to tell Ms. Victory everything,” replied General Brennan.

* * *

General Strock mulled over this for two days. Throughout her military career General Strock had the solemn task of informing spouses that their husbands were killed in action, and had counseled soldiers suffering the psychological effects of battle fatigue. However, nothing she ever did before prepared her for this, as the prevailing question haunted her:

How do you tell someone that her life was a lie created by the same government you swore an oath to protect?

* * *

On the third day General Strock sat quietly in the empty pews of her church. She made arrangements the day before with the minister and his staff to allow her access well before it opened for regular hours. Ms. Victory arrived as well, dressed in regular clothes as she entered and sat down next to General Strock, visibly concerned over the cryptic message she received on her answering machine the night before.

“How do you like my church?” asked General Strock. “I practically grew up here as a kid, you know. My mother sang in the choir and used to light up the whole congregation. She had some pipes.”

“It was very nice,” replied Ms. Victory. “A much better experience than when I was little.”

“You’re always welcome to join me again,” offered General Strock. “I think the congregation took a liking to you, also.”

“Thanks, that’d be nice,” replied Ms. Victory. “Why’d you call me here, anyway?”

“Did you ever sit alone in the pews after services?” asked General Strock. “Or when church isn’t in session?”

“No, I can’t say I have,” said Ms. Victory.

“My Dad used to do it, and sometimes he’d take me along,” explained General Strock. “He’d just sit in the pews, quietly thinking. No music. No prayers. Not a word. Just reflecting. In a strange way, though, it seemed like he felt a presence that uplifted him each time.”

“And now?” asked Ms. Victory.

“He and I still come here now and then to reflect, although nowadays I’ve been coming here myself,” said General Strock. “What I’m about to tell you isn’t easy for me, Jen, which was why I came here.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Ms. Victory.

“I read your background. You didn’t want to be the next Ms. Victory, but as the daughter of the original one, you were the only person who could take the V-47 formula, and General Gordon knew that,” said General Strock. “Even though you turned them down at first, you eventually accepted, because you and your family were practically destitute at that point.”

“I remember,” said Ms. Victory. “Those were hard times.”

“Jen, General Gordon and Captain Kelly manipulated your life to force you into this. I found this out three days ago by the Inspector General’s Office, and Gordon and Kelly are now in prison,” said General Strock.

“W-what…..?” said Ms. Victory in disbelief.

“Yes, Gordon and Kelly used their government connections to make you join. David Burke’s accident, the increased bills, everything, all driven by them,” explained General Strock. “They lied to you, and committed the most grievous of crimes in robbing you of your life.”

“Jason…” whispered Ms. Victory sadly. “…so what now?”

“Jen, the government has awarded you $10 million dollars for what’s happened,” said General Strock. “It’ll never measure up to the crimes committed against you, and for that I am truly sorry. If you leave FemForce, no one will question your reasons why, but I want you to stay.”

“Why….? What good am I to anyone? I only got this because of my mother. I didn’t want this responsibility. I’ve lost my husband…my son….” replied Ms. Victory coldly.

“Jen, you are the team’s leader. You’ve proven yourself again and again, and no one can question your loyalty or your leadership,” said General Strock. “You have no idea how much you impact all of us, both in your triumphs, and from your sacrifices. I can’t think of a better person I would want standing by me than you. Stay with us, Jen. Stay the course.”

Ms. Victory said nothing as she hugged General Strock and quietly wept.

* * *

Two days later, all was quiet at FemForce Headquarters as Rayda and Nightveil sat in front of the large network of computer systems while on monitor duty.

“Say, has Ms. Victory been assigned a new case? I haven’t seen her around,” commented Rayda.

“General Strock told me that Ms. Victory’s taken a temporary leave of absence. That’s all I know,” answered Nightveil.

“Weird. You don’t suppose she’s leaving the team after what’s happened, do you?” asked Rayda.

“I don’t know,” replied Nightveil solemnly. “If she did, I wouldn’t blame her.”

“Why the glum faces?” asked Ms. Victory humorously as she snuck up behind the two of them. “Can’t a girl take a couple days off?”

“JEN!” said Nightveil excitedly. “You’re back!”

“Well, technically I never really quit, but yeah, you’re stuck with me,” replied Ms. Victory.

“We wouldn’t have it any other way, kiddo,” said Rayda.

THE END