Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

A fic: As the general saw it



“All right, Jase, I'll talk to her. Count on me.”

General Jason Robert Baylor put down the phone and breathed a huge inward sigh of relief. If his wife said she would deal with Major Kuhlmann's problem, she would. She would make sure that the Major did not resign her commission, support her in her depression, and, if there was a way to reconcile her with her boyfriend, Bobbi would find it.

Mrs.Baylor's strength of will was legend. Jokes about it had followed Baylor all the way through his career; to his subordinates, she had always been “the Captain's Captain”, “The Colonel's Colonel”, “The General's General”. Some people meant it in amusement, others in disparagement; but he did not mind. In fact, he was rather proud of her. In what was by now a long and eventful career, he had learned that one of the safest ways to judge a person's character is to look at their friends, and especially at their partner. He remembered a certain media-star four-star general, against whose impressive front he had warned friends and contacts in vain. The man had punctually come a cropper, at the worst possible time, and the damage had gone up all the way to the Oval Office. Of course, after the disaster, everyone had wanted to know how he'd been so correct. The answer? He was impressed neither with his colleague's doormat wife, nor with his indecently exhibited trophy girlfriend.

Even though... the very facts, now. The issue that held his mind right this minute – the thing he was talking about – Major Kuhlmann and her emotional life. She was the evidence that no rule was always universally true. There was always some human rough edge that cut through it.

If he had not been able to assess Marjorie Kuhlmann right from West Point, as a soldier, before he ever knew anything about her agonizingly hidden personal life, he would have made a great mistake. As a cadet, as a second lieutenant, as lieutenant and captain, she had been simply outstanding. Officers, in his view, needed to have at least one of three gifts: the gift to inspire people, the gift to design tactics and strategies for the battlefield, and the gift to organize – especially in the ever-neglected, unglamorous, but inevitably war-winning field of logistics. It was rare for an officer to have even one of these to an outstanding degree. The most legendary commanders had rarely had all three; Washington and Eisenhower, for instance, had in his view been deficient in number two, strategic brilliance. Patton had been chewed out in public by Marshall for taking insufficient care of his logistics. And history was littered with the names of generals who had been clever enough in strategy and competent enough in organization, but who treated their own men little better than the enemy, and won battles – if they did – in their despite.

The thing with Major Kuhlmann is that she was able, and perhaps more than able, in all three areas. His attention had first been drawn to her during a cadet exercise in West Point, when the team she led had performed visibly better than anyone had a right to expect, given their personal and group records. It had become clear that it was she – this dumpy, heavy-set woman with the thick waistline and the graceless face features – who was making all the difference. She had enormous potential as a field commander. And she had never disappointed him. She knew by instinct, without being told, that soldiers perform twice as well when they know what they are supposed to do and achieve, and she put a stake on it. When she explained a plan – in short, simple sentences, in plain English – her men walked away with their eyes shining, clear in their minds as to what they had to, and certain that they could succeed. And her plans were as good as her orders: frequently unconventional and sometimes touched with flashes of brilliance, but always – if you looked – focused with laser-like intensity on the goal to be achieved, to the exclusion of any other consideration. If you looked, any bit of what could be called quirky and bizarre decisions were motivated simply by having taken in details that others might not consider, and found ways around obstacles that others might not see. And although her plans often demanded a lot of her men, they also kept supplies and logistics very clear in mind – though, again, not necessarily in conventional ways. She had not been above instructing her troops to loot a food deposit in the neighbourhood when communications with base were difficult, or to seize gas from a local gas station. The goal, always the goal, nothing but the goal.

And taking her troops home after.

That was the woman, and that was why he'd taken her under his wing. But if he had met her in a private capacity, he knew he would have been left with a very different impression. A series of hopeless stories with very unimpressive men, mostly of the kind who is just not bold enough to be an abuser, but selfish enough to hurt, always taking, never giving; relationships that never lasted – and maybe it was better that they didn't – but that often ended in ways that were not only painful but harmful. It took him years to see the pattern. One selfish and emotionally abusive man might have been a coincidence (especially since that particular specimen was misleadingly handsome and might be taken for a surface-induced mistake); but – once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action. Especially since he slowly became aware that the pattern had been repeating itself ever since her teens.

It was her looks. It had to be. Her looks, and perhaps some kind of mistreatment or emotional abuse (those words again!) in her vulnerable youth. General Baylor had never had that problem; without being a Paul Newman, he knew he had always looked sufficiently well set and impressive, especially in uniform. And Bobbi's determined pursuit of him, beginning in high school, had certainly had its flattering side. But he knew good men who had their confidence sapped by a rat-like mix of long nose and weak chin, or by heavy and coarse features, or even by a bad set of teeth and a balding pate. And for women, he thought, for women it must be a thousand times worse. Looks, and elegance, were central to the way a woman saw herself – that was his view. He had been struck by the time it took even his Bobbi to prepare every morning, and by the immense technical complexity of the subject. He had heard women discussing it for hours. And if a woman was born with a figure that most dresses could not make up for, with heavy features and dull brown hair, and withal not even tall or imposing, but slightly smaller than the average, that could do a lot of damage. Especially if someone had not given her enough help as a child. Baylor noticed that Marjorie Kuhlmann rarely spoke of her parents and hardly ever visited them. The only time he had met them, they had both proved violently political and instinctively averse to the military; and he wondered whether Marjorie's choice of career did not have a touch of rebelliousness about it.

The only good thing about the Lord Giles affair, he thought bitterly, is that it had put an end to the umpteenth bad relationship. “Peter”, as was to be expected, had thought only of his own offended feelings (if sexual propriety mattered so much to him, why had he been having sex with Marjorie for months without the least suggestion of a ring or of any permanence?), had said just enough to make Marjorie feel even lower, and had walked out of her life with a self-righteous air. General Baylor's wife still intended to try and reconcile them, but he sometimes wondered whether he and Bobbi could do something to lead the Major to less painful paths.

But Lord Giles -! While the thought of Major Kuhlmann only made the general feel rather sad, the thought of the aristocratic English black-ops specialist made him angry enough to spit. “L” represented everything about the modern military that Baylor despised, indeed that he could not bring himself to consider military at all: black ops contaminated with domestic politics, alphabet soups of semi-secret or wholly secret agencies whose activities never seemed to be safe enough to discuss and which were treated as autonomous fiefdoms by ambitious young majors and colonels with uniforms too perfectly pressed and ribbons that they did not want to account for. General Baylor was neither naïve nor innocent, and he knew plenty about black ops and espionage; but there were things he would not touch. He liked to say that he served only one acronym, the U, Ess, A. One thing he had never itched for was secret power; and secret power was what these people were about.

He had always managed to avoid having any contact, let alone any debt of gratitude, with the British double-oh operation. He knew that the double-oh division was supposed to be a part of the Royal Navy's special forces, but he also knew that it was virtually beyond the control of anyone but the Prime Minister and the Queen, and perhaps not even of them. For as long as he had known about M's merry men, he had regarded them as nothing better than an assassination bureau, and as a rogue operation that had just about been lucky and judicious enough not to get themselves shut down. They should have been discontinued as soon as WWII came to an end; instead of which, they had been sent to man the outer battlements of the Cold War, and had pretty much become a law unto themselves. They decided on their own what was a menace to the security of England; they were judge, jury and executioner – emphasis on executioner; and they had managed to convince three generations of British politicians of their patriotism and indispensability. If a double-oh agent had decided that the Prince of Wales was a menace to the kingdom, the inevitable assassination would have been accepted and covered up.

Bad though it was that Major Kuhlmann should have been so ill-used, it was an aggravating circumstance that it had been done by such a man, for the purposes of such an agency. Terawatt was only guessing when she informed “L” that he, General Baylor, would make his displeasure known in D.C.; but it was a damn good guess. He was going to raise Hell. And besides, watching L being publicly and humiliatingly rebuked by the one person he could not cross had done wonders for Baylor's mood.

Looking back, he was not proud of the way he had treated Terawatt at that hearing some months back. He had excuses, if not justifications; not only did he know very little about her and about the SRI until then – and that little was not calculated to appeal to him – but he had just had a series of exceptionally unpleasant run-ins with a few other alphabet-soup agencies that had left him disposed to think ill of any such group. And he knew equally little about Colonel Jack O'Neill, its leader; their professional paths had never really crossed – airmen with Special Operation duties don't often work together with career infantry generals; but what little he knew was not calculated to appeal to him, either. Sure, the man was excellent at his job, but Baylor had him pegged as a swashbuckler, a condottiere, a mercenary who fights because he is good at it, not because of any loyalty or principle. Such men are useful, sometimes indispensable; he knew that; but he did not think that they would feel very different about their work if it was a terrorist group that paid them. Or, at least, he doubted whether they saw the difference between terrorists and themselves.

Baylor prized all the formal aspects of the military – the uniforms, the badges, the traditions. They were there to remind everyone that they were not about brute force nor about self-serving, that they were in the service of a number of things including the public, the constitution and the laws – pompous abstractions, he knew, to all too many of his colleagues, but the only distinction, in his mind, between his army and any street gang. The reports of O'Neill's cavalier and insolent attitude had struck him very badly. Being told he had a glamorous red-haired girlfriend half his age had not helped. Certainly the man was good at what he did; and as super-power incidents grew more frequent and deadly, Baylor understood that they needed someone good to deal with this area of operations. But the evident need for the man, his operation, and his super-powered friend did not make Baylor any happier. In fact, it made him feel as though the whole country were suspiciously near being over a barrel.

There had been an accident not long before, whose consequences had shaken him. Visiting a base that was not really part of his command, he had come across an instructor talking to a bunch of recruits. He had been horrified to hear that the man basically informed his young listeners that law and right ceased to have any importance once you crossed the gates of the military. Baylor had practically barged in and challenged the instructor, quoting extensively from laws and regulations to impress on the recruits that the military are under the law and that illegal orders must not be obeyed, whoever issues them. He had written his own graduation thesis on this area, and had the quotations at his fingertips. He had, he felt, done himself some justice. And yet that intervention had got him into hot water, since the instructor was apparently a favourite of some Pentagon big gun, who felt he had said nothing wrong. That was the closest he ever came to being court-martialled.

The fuss had died down, and a person from the Joint Chiefs' office had let him know in private that they felt it would be ridiculous to prosecute him – in a military court of law – for upholding the concept of military submission to the law. But that had not satisfied Baylor altogether; it did not say anything about the justice of his case, only that they thought they did not stand a chance in court. So he had been left with a very grim view of at least some part of the military; and he had come to the interview with Terawatt with a serious prejudice against her and the groups she seemed to be close to.

By the time the interview was over, Baylor was beginning to feel bad about his role. His instincts told him that the young lady's indignation was the indignation of insulted innocence, not that of injured guilt. And she quickly followed it up with one of the most impressive press conferences he had seen in his life – dignified, intelligent, patriotic, clearly principled, giving nothing away that had to be kept secret, but interesting in whatever she said, and courteous and responsive even to insulting or stupid questions. She would have been interesting whether or not she had any powers. In fact, some of her thoughts needed to be kept in mind, including the one about an international jail for superpowered villains. He went away feeling fairly certain that he had misjudged her, and even wondering whether O'Neill was better than he thought, having gained the loyalty of such a fine person.

His prejudice against O'Neill suffered a further shock when he found out – from the newspapers! - that his “glamorous red-haired girlfriend half his age” was a self-made software millionairess with a stellar reputation across Silicon Valley and all the IT world. Not a trophy girlfriend, then, but a very impressive equal. His own IT assistant went into fanboy ecstasies when her name was mentioned.

So Baylor was pleased to receive his invitation to the Terawatt-Europe conference, supposedly from Terawatt herself, and resolved to take the offered opportunity to mend fences. And to find out more about O'Neill – who now, as a new-made general, was a member of the club on a wholly different level from a mere colonel.

But even if he had been on the defensive, and if his prejudices had not been repeatedly challenged, the conference would have changed his mind about O'Neill and everything he stood for. Baylor always said that the way to know a man is to know his friends and his partners; and one person in particular convinced him that he had been flatly all-out wrong about O'Neill. For if O'Neill had been the swashbuckler, rootless type he had cast him as, he would never have had Annie Farrell for an adjutant. That kind would always have spectacular females around them. They would not want bimbos; they would make sure that their spectacular secretaries and assistants, whether blonde or raven-haired, were capable and did their work, because – if they were any good – they always despised incompetence and confusion; but they would never even consider someone with Annie Farrell's looks, or lack thereof. And Farrell with her pasty skin and pudgy body, was right there by O'Neill's side, and he clearly appreciated her.

Indeed, there was something there more important even than the easy disregard for the unfair hierarchy of looks. Farrell was a kind you very rarely found among the military, a woman of complete self-confidence but without a shred of aggression, cool and occasionally amused under the shower of O'Neill's chaff. She managed effortlessly the incredibly difficult middle road between submission to rank and instinctive self-assertion, treating O'Neill's rank with the respect it was owed but never giving the impression of crawling. Farrell had taken only half a dozen sentences to impress the Heck out of Baylor; and O'Neill's personality, so easy to misunderstand and misrepresent, had suddenly appeared in its proper light next to her. Baylor no longer suspected him of treating military conventions and traditions with contempt; rather, he was a man who used wit both as a weapon and as a means to lighten what would otherwise risk being a close and stifling atmosphere. An impressive pair altogether. And when he found that Farrell had befriended Kuhlmann and treated her kindly in her trouble, he was totally delighted. A friend like that was exactly what Kuhlmann needed, to draw her out of herself and give her the confidence she should always have had.

General Baylor, like most of us, tended to be clearer about others than he was about himself. His view of people was in general penetrating and fair; but he had a curious self-image of himself as a hard, cynical, unsentimental military machine. But when he was out of hearing – for they knew it would mortify him – his people called him, with affection, “Daddy Baylor”.

Tags: fan fiction
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