"Alright guys," Jared said, smiling for the benefit of his kids. He hated shopping. "The government is paying for us to replace everything we lost at the house. Since we're going to be staying at a government run facility for a while we're on a limited list that allows us to buy," he pulled the list up on his tablet. "Clothing, personal electronics, entertainment, children's toys, a limited selection of sports equipment, personal supplies and a special 'discretionary' fund for whatever crosses your fancy. Each of us has our own, individualized budget from Uncle Sam, and you'll note that you two are allowed more money for toys than I am."
Cody giggled at the 'sour' tone Jared used, turning Jared's smile that bit more real. "Alright, first off we're doing clothing. Remember, we have to stay inside our budget on each section, but other than the discretionary budget we can't transfer money out of a section. So don't try and hold back on clothes in favor of toys!" Jared led his troop off through the strangely subdued MCX. It was still weird, having two men in full battle dress following him around, but he was willing to put up with it for the additional two men covering each of his sons. Better yet, the seventh man, who was in charge of this operation, had expressly told Jared that his men were babysitters as well as bodyguards on this expedition. If Jared wanted to ditch his kids 'to go flirt with a lady' in the man's words, he could. Or, if the kids wanted to run wild over the entire store, Jared didn't have to reign them in himself, just let the bodyguards try to keep up.
He probably wasn't going to be quite so cruel, but given the boys' differing interests, he'd probably have to cut one of them loose at some point to keep the peace. Especially since the boys knew -- thanks to the person running their guard detail -- that the entire store had been kept open after normal closing hours for them, and only them. So his normal 'safety' arguments wouldn't work very well. Not that they would anyways with the over-armed babysitters riding herd, but...
Jared shook his head and tried to focus as they reached the boys section. It was strange, not having any other shoppers around, at all. The entire building just to themselves, even the food court. That was one thing he'd almost choked on, until General Sheridan had explained that it was part of a series of readiness tests going on. It wasn't important that they kept the food court itself manned; the point was to show that they could use personnel from on base to keep services running without bringing in external workers like they normally would. The food court, and MCX, were simply the 'lucky recipients' of a late-night test that probably would have gone to other services that 'contributed to morale readiness indicators'. If Jared's family hadn't needed the security it would probably have gone to fast food joints or the movie theater or something similar..
Jared didn't even want to guess how they'd explained to the employees in question that he and his family would be running around, alone other than the platoon of marines that was securing the building, with a single squad detached to keep herd on them directly. It was one of those things that was thankfully still far above his pay-grade, leaving him free to explain that "Yes, Cody, you do need more than one change of underwear!" and "No, Davey, you need to save some money for good clothes for stuff like church." Between socks, underwear, shirts, shorts, jeans, shoes, sizes, prices, and juggling the paperwork Jared was quickly overwhelmed.
"Sir, let us help," the squad leader offered.
"Thank you Corporal Rogers," Jared sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't have even tried to do this myself."
"Probably not," the corporal agreed. "The base actually arranged for a helper for every single parent who needed to do this, and-"
"Cody! No!" Jared barked. "You don't go around picking up display stands like that!"
"And," the corporal finished dryly after Jared finished finding the shirt that Cody had somehow managed to drop and lose under the stand, "most parents don't have to deal with a child stronger than most adults, with a sense of mischief that could only be called devilish."
"Are you looking to adopt?" Jared joked as he pretended to pull his hair out. "They're driving me crazy!"
The corporal laughed. "Sorry sir, they pay me to be stupid, not suicidal!"
"You sure it's not the other way around?" Jared quipped.
"Doesn't matter, I'm covered either way!"
"Tell me about it," Jared groaned.
"Hendricks, grab two more carts!" Rogers ordered. "If you'll just transfer the budget sheet for your boys to Ramirez and Lawson, they'll ride herd on the boys while you get your own stuff."
"Corporal, I..." Jared shook his head. "I appreciate the sentiment, but it really is my job to ride herd on these two."
"Sergeant, your job is to be a parent," the corporal argued. "And you are being vastly overworked on that front. Yes, you're being given more aid than most of the parents are, even those that are also recently..." the corporal searched for a gesture. "Bereaved doesn't really apply here, but you get the idea. The difference is, most of those parents don't have half the stress you're already dealing with, or the responsibilities that come with it. They may have other stressors, but... they're normal stressors. They still have family and friends they can talk to about them, seek help and advice. You can't. So we're just here to take a little of that burden off of you. And... most of them don't have a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of a possible major medical disaster. Reducing your stress is just a plain smart idea all around!"
Jared raised his hands in defeat. "Fine, fine!" Pulling his tablet back out, his fingers danced as he brought up the accounting sheets he'd been provided with. Bumping his tablet against the tablets of the soldiers in question, he quickly transferred the boys' data to the two gentlemen in charge of riding herd on them. "At least one pair of good clothes, formal civilian wear of some kind, each. Buttoned shirt, dress pants, dress shoes, you know the drill. Both of them need to get child-safe tablets, but if Davey wants he can purchase a real one as well, but it has to have parent-slaving enabled! No stereo equipment; personal media is alright, but I don't want speakers, please!" Jared hoped he'd thought of everything. "Oh, and the budget doesn't include household electronics for a reason; a TV and desk mounts will be provided. They can get whatever software they want so long as it's age appropriate. Cody is allowed a rating of 'E', and Davey..." Jared smiled. "What the hell. Davey is 'allowed' 'E10', but take note of any teen software he wants and message me."
"Planning a surprise?" one of the guards guessed.
"Yeah, so please don't ruin it," Jared smiled. "And don't," he added hurriedly, "let them talk you into buying anything for them!"
The men laughed. "Wheelers and dealers?"
"Not to mention mischief makers," Jared rolled his eyes. "Thank you for your help gentlemen. Use your own judgment, but feel free to contact me if there are any questions."
"Like that shirt not being appropriate for a thirteen year old?" one of them asked.
Jared counted slowly to ten after seeing the shirt Davey had found, probably from the neighboring men's section. "Davey, no!" he shouted.
"But Daaaaad!" Davey protested, trying to hide the offending shirt behind him.
"No!" Jared barked. "Put it back!"
Davey pouted and turned around to return the offending garment. Jared sighed. Davey was clearly getting ready to break out into full-blown adolescent rebellion, and this was just not the time to deal with that kind of crap.
Well... it was a bit better than Davey acting like an eight year old, Jared had to admit.
"Thank you again gentlemen," Jared shook his head. "Alright, I'd better start shopping for myself, too..."
It felt weird. He'd shopped for civilian clothing often enough before, but not holding any of his budget aside for uniforms was... weird. At least he wasn't having to deal with buying a suit just yet. He'd have to get one soon, but he wasn't sure he was ready to deal with that process. He was too used to just wearing his dress uniform.
Carefully scanning each bar code into his tablet to keep track of the costs, he quickly finished his personal budget for clothes. He'd tried to scan in a few items for the kids, but the predefined sheet rejected them until he scanned them under 'discretionary'. Pressing the autochecker, he waited a few seconds while the tablet compared his purchase list to a list of 'suggested' and 'required items to make sure he hadn't missed or overbought anything. A red flag popped up suggesting that he didn't need quite so much underwear compared to outerwear, but it was only a 'suggestion' so he ignored it. You could go a couple of days in the same pants or shirt, but trying to do so with underwear was a recipe for disaster, so it was better to be overstocked. Besides, whites tended to develop holes more often than other clothes, so a certain degree of turnover was to be expected.
Sighing, he headed over to personal electronics, ignoring the overdressed watchdogs watching his every move. He needed to get a new tablet, and he had never enjoyed that process. Technology just wasn't his thing.
Jared snorted at the thought. Perfect man to install so much tech in, wasn't he? Spotting a likely model, Jared picked it up and glanced over the specs. Looked good, so he scanned it into the tablet to see if it qualified. "It won't accept it," a sales associate warned him just before the tablet buzzed it's rejection. "Your kids came through a minute ago; you're going to have to get a unit with a card tray rather than an integrated wireless system," she told him. "I don't know why, none of the other people we've processed had to."
Jared shook his head. "I may just have an idea," he laughed. "Any suggestions?"
"Well, Dell is an old name, but honestly it's a piece of crap," she sighed. "The tech is actually fairly good, but you pay a huge premium for the services they provide, and most people don't need that. Worse yet they come just chock full of bloat-ware. Apples are, like always, overpriced, but we're more or less out of those anyway. The Sony model is alright, but I honestly wouldn't buy it myself."
"Ok, so what would you buy?" Jared asked.
She sighed again. "I'd suggest a Thot model, but we don't have any in stock that use card trays." She shrugged. "Your older kid grabbed a Samsung model that's halfway decent. Best we have in stock, anyway."
"Alright, where is that one?" Jared asked.
"In your son's hands," she told him, smiling as she sidled up and took his arm in her own. "But if we go in the back, we have a few more boxes that I know just were to find..."
Jared bit his lip as one of the guards behind him snorted. The very last thing he needed was for an admittedly pretty woman to be flirting with him. "If it's all the same to you," he told her while stepping back, "I'll browse around for software while you grab one for me to look at."
She frowned as she walked away, heels clicking out an angry cadence. Jared sighed as he browsed the available software packages. As usual most of the software provided in-store was crap, he'd have to go online to find the good stuff. "Here you go," the woman told him, lips pursed. "And..." her expression softened. "Just so you know, the personal electronics budget can be applied against online purchases made through the store. I can set up the tablet's account for you if you'll give me some information, or configure it to work with an existing PDSS5.4 or better system if you have an existing account. Just give me a minute and I'll link your purchase software to our system."
Jared smiled at her. "Thank you," he said as she made herself busy. "Most of this software isn't much good anyway."
"No, it's not," she agreed. "PX's are about the only place in the world still trying to sell stuff like this. My boss say's it's because they have to keep similar stock in all stores, and the overseas ones don't always have decent internet access."
"This is an MCX, not a PX," Jared reminded her with a smile.
"They're the same thing," she laughed, and Jared just shook his head.
"Be back in a few minutes," he told her. "Would you pick out a media player for me? Basic A/V is all I really need, nothing fancy."
"Any preferences, like Zune, or iPod?" she asked.
"Cheap, but sturdy," he suggested.
"Zune then," she nodded. "The latest model is a bit bulky, but it's very hard to break. I 'steered' your children right at them."
"Thanks," Jared smiled. "I didn't realize they had that much budget."
"This isn't the dark ages!" she laughed. "I know stuff like this used to be really expensive, but basic media players are so old that they just can't charge that much anymore."
Jared shook his head. "True, but between tablets, software..." Jared's eyes widened. "Did they get all the necessary educational software?" he asked. "You know, word processing, tutorials, dictionaries, encyclopedias..." he trailed off trying to remember the other required student software.
"Don't worry," she laughed. "It was a required item on the personal electronics sheet, they couldn't get a tablet without a decent educational suite."
Jared sighed with relief. "Thanks again," he smiled. "Listen, I need to go fill out the rest of this list..." he hefted his tablet.
"Sure thing," she smiled. "Here, let me tag your tablet..." she waved a device over his tablet, and it started vibrating. Accepting the incoming datalink, he nodded at her. "Alright, if you have an existing account you should be able to use your current tablet to log in and associate this new one," she told him. Jared glanced down and saw some new options at the bottom of personal electronics. He quickly entered his information in, and in seconds the system had authorized the new tablet.
"There, now all you have to do is scan what you want and I'll be able to pre-load it when you finalize your selections," she told him. "You can also use the datasheets to go online to the appropriate marketplace for online software, the link should be at the bottom. It'll also show you what software you might need to re-purchase, or will be out of date and need replacing."
"Thanks," Jared smiled. "I'll go browse for a while," he told her. "I'll give it a glance."
"You're welcome," she smiled.
Jared walked off, glad to have gotten that much done so quickly. He spotted a few books that he hadn't read yet and scanned their bar codes into the tablet. It quickly pulled up the electronic versions and placed them into his electronic cart. Jared took a guilty look at the next isle over, where expensive, real-paper books were for sale. Their leather bindings, gilt pages, and genuine, tree-paper pages made them weighty, expensive, and beautiful. That was the one thing e-books had improved. Printers were, in general, no longer required to mass-produce books as a matter of marketability, and so they could take the time to turn every binding into a work of art. Printed books were a connoisseur's item, something for a bibliophile to enjoy for the sheer joy of the printed word.
And Jared, much though he always loathed to admit it, liked them. There was something about the smell of leather binding, old fashioned glue, and the look of real ink on real paper that he enjoyed. But he couldn't afford anything today, and he spared a moment of regret that he's lost his existing collection. He'd spent years building it, and some of the books were gifts he'd deeply regret losing. If he was lucky, he might get some of them back; the hazmat specialists going over the area thought that the compound was breaking down in the wild, and the items might become 'clean' in as little as a year or two. Fortunately from the perspective of recovering his collection, they all agreed that trying to speed up the process would just spread the contamination, and that letting it break down 'naturally' was the best option for now. And the cheapest, too; the containment efforts necessary to make any artificial clean up safe for the surrounding areas would be far more expensive than just buying more land and building a new housing district on it. With all the rural area surrounding the base, the government was almost certain to go the cheaper route.
Which meant he just might get back a few of his most precious mementos.
Jared shook his head and moved over to the music section to make a few selections there, and then finished up with a trip by the videos section. Glancing through the section on the forms that indicated what he would need to repurchase, he frowned. Nearly half of his existing music collection was in a format this device didn't currently support. The conversion software cost a bit less than repurchasing the music in bulk, but it wouldn't cover a few songs that he needed to outright re-license. Cursing under his breath about the stupidity of DRM, he paused before hitting the 'bulk buy' option. The conversion software would work on his son's systems as well; depending on how badly they'd been hit it might not be a bad choice to get it anyway. Sighing, he walked back over to the counter, where the sales lady was busy re-boxing the four new tablets.
"So Davey got an adult one," he nodded, pointing to the fourth box.
"Yeah," she nodded. "I put full parental lock outs on it, and slaved them over to yours; you can release them over time."
"Thanks," Jared nodded. "I'm thinking of letting him use the normal tablet when he's at his desk or in his room, but restricting him to the child one when he wants to travel. Can you slave the two together?"
She frowned. "Yes, but I should warn you that the child tablet doesn't have a fraction of the power, battery strength, or storage capacity of a normal tablet; he'll have to manually manage what he syncs over to it because he will not be able to move everything over."
"I thought as much," Jared sighed. "If he were a bit older I might consider letting him skip the child one, but as young as he is..."
She nodded. "Children will be children. Tablets aren't that expensive, but they aren't something you want to replace every time he drops his backpack."
"Precisely," Jared laughed. "I bet you hear that a lot."
She shook her head. "You have no idea how many people want to buy a 'real, grown-up' tablet for their kids, and then find out the hard way how bad an idea that is when they demand we repair damage that isn't covered by the warranty."
"Ouch," Jared winced. "That can't be fun."
"Nope," she agreed. "Anyway, I've synced the software up for you. Both of your children's tablets are slaved to yours for parental controls, and they have overriding communication access to yours so they can always contact you. You can change those settings at will, too."
"Thanks," Jared smiled as he helped her move the items into his basket. "Didn't my kids pick out any software?"
She laughed. "They decided to look at toys and then come back here after they knew how much of the discretionary fund would be left over."
"Oh joy," Jared laughed. "I'd better go take a look at what they're doing. Do I need to leave these with you?"
She laughed. "No," she told him. "I've set up a temporary datalink between my system and theirs, they can browse the online marketplace for software from the public booths here."
"Great," Jared smiled. "Hey, can you pull up the data on their tablets, see what music and videos they need to repurchase and why?"
"Looking at the conversion software?" she asked, pulling up the three files and cross-referencing them without waiting for an answer. "Even with re-licensing fees, that looks like it's by far the best option," she told him.
"Thanks, can you-" he began.
"Easily done," she smiled. "Honestly, I don't know why they make you buy the conversion software, I think they're just trying to make a few extra bucks. I can actually run the entire process from here, and either split the conversion software across the accounts or leave it on yours, make it a gift to the kids."
"Do they have anything that needs to be re-licensed?" Jared asked.
"Yes, but it might be a good idea to let them decide to do it," she laughed. "The elder one looks a bit young for children's shows, or the music that comes from them."
Jared laughed in agreement. "Thank you," he told her. "I really need to go check after my kids before something goes wrong though!"
She smiled amiably at him as he walked off, his two silent bodyguards still in tow. "Thanks for taking Riff and Raff with you!" she shouted. Jared rolled his eyes at the joke but didn't respond.
Naturally, his kids had reduced the toys section to a disaster area, and sorting that out took far, far too long.
"Welcome to your new home, Sergeant," their driver announced as he pulled in a gate. It didn't look like much; a bunch of fields with a few small structures popping up a few feet above the ground here and there. To Jared's familiar eyes it just about screamed 'bunker', and a large one at that. They drove over the grassy lawn to a medium sized concrete hut not much larger than an average house. Of course, your average house didn't have six feet concrete rebar walls, or a twelve foot blast door for an entrance. Their driver climbed out and punched in a security code on a door panel before sliding a card into a reader. A few moments of electronic consideration later, and a retinal scanner popped out to take a reading. Finally a tray ejected to take a full up palm print and blood sample. "Security, as you see, is very tight," the driver commented as he climbed back up into the truck. The blast door started to grind its way open, and the driver shifted the truck into gear the second he could get through safely. A security guard inside, protected by thick bulletproof glass waved at them before using his control console to seal the door back up. A team of guards ran a quick check on the truck, some of them using mirrors to scan underneath while another group did a hands on check.
"You're baggage will have to wait upstairs until a thorough check can be completed, sir," one of them told Jared. "You and your children are cleared to go ahead; my squad will do the search and make sure your belongings make it to your rooms."
"Security is tight," Jared commented.
"No terrorist attacks are making it through on our watch, sir!" the guard agreed. "The only reason you can bring in so much personal gear like this is we were able to confirm its purchase through the PX, so it's already been screened. Otherwise you'd have to replace three quarters of it."
"Security, what fun," Jared sighed. "Alright. Boys, I'm unleashing you."
"Cool!" Davey screamed as he practically flew out of the truck, looking left, right and center at all the fascinating things. Cody wasn't far behind him.
"Stay close!" Jared ordered, laughing. "Sorry, but I promised that once we got here they'd have a chance to stretch a bit."
The guard's eyes twinkled. "Don't worry, we'll make sure to put collars on them before they get into any secure areas," he joked. "The kind that they use for obedience training -- shocks the dog anytime it misbehaves and all that."
Jared laughed. "Wouldn't work, trust me."
"Oh, I don't know. Enough voltage and they'll get the idea... eventually," the guard told him. "I warned my guys," he said more seriously. "Your kids might get a few bruises if it's absolutely necessary, but short of them trying to take a weapon or grabbing a live wire, they won't get so much as a scratch."
"If they're stupid enough to try and take a weapon from one of your men," Jared growled, "make sure it's a great big nasty bruise. And tell me about it so I can add a few more to their behinds. They know better."
"Speaking of weapons, are you carrying your sidearm?" the guard asked.
"Haven't been issued one," Jared frowned. "My old one was at the house when the terrorists hit."
"Ouch. Well, the orders came down, you aren't cleared to carry inside the facility," the guard shrugged. "If you want to keep your skills in line you can make an appointment at our practice range, but you have to make it an appointment. Oh, and the labs have a few weapons, you can carry if it's necessary for an experiment but it has to be cleared through the base CO first."
"Alright," Jared nodded. "There are a couple of toy swords and guns in the back. Nothing too real looking, but are they going to be a problem?"
"I'll take a look," the guard sighed. "The swords are OK, but the guns probably won't be. Unless their one of those Nerf things, the kind with the darts. Security is tight, and some toys look like the stuff the scientists play with."
"Alright," Jared nodded. "I warned the boys against toy guns, but..." he shrugged.
The guard sighed. "If it's rejected you'll get a stipend to replace it with something that's allowed. We have an electronic PX you can purchase it at, so you'll know what is and isn't accepted."
"I'm surprised they didn't have us use that in the first place," Jared laughed.
"They could have with you," the guard told him, "but until this morning it didn't connect to the toys department. Well, you could mail a toy to a relative as a present, but you couldn't order in."
Jared laughed. "Well, looks like my terrors are coming back. Not a lot to explore in here."
"Dad, this place is just a big box!" Cody whined. "They won't let us inside!"
"Well, that's because you're running around free," Jared told him. "You're going to have to take me with you to get inside."
The kids grabbed his hands and dragged him over to the clearly marked entrance. The guards there pulled out equipment and started a thorough security scan. Jared's kids didn't have any security data yet, so Jared got to sit around for a full identity sweep. Davey at least had an ID card, but that was just a photo, thumbprint, and name. All three of them had to have voiceprint, retinal scan, DNA and blood type, full palm print, and IR scan performed before the guards would let them past. The IR one nearly caused a problem when Jared's data didn't match his profile, but the Captain of the Guard showed up and cleared him manually. The error, apparently, was expected. "The nanites won't have changed most of your ID data, but your infrared pattern was bound to have changed," the guard shrugged. "Hell, most of us undergo regular shifts, that data isn't accurate unless it's frequently updated. Which is why you'll be getting a weekly repeat scan. But in your case, the data was completely out of date."
Jared sighed, "The implants."
"Plus a complete metabolism shift, yeah," the guard shrugged. "You guys ready?" he asked the kids.
The 'front door' to the place was twelve feet of raw steel. The blast door that they went through now was two foot thick, but had a subtle gleam to it. "Battle steel?" Jared asked, surprised.
"Expensive, but worth it," the guard nodded as he manipulated the control panel to seal the door. "This entire facility is built as a series of independent, blast-sealed sections with corridors connecting them. Once the blast doors are all sealed, you could set a nuke off in one of them and that would be the only one destroyed. In theory, anyway."
"Wow," Jared blinked as the door began to grate closed with a dreadful sense of finality. "That's... a lot of security."
"This place used to focus on heavy weapons research," the guard shrugged as a second set of doors, made out of regular steel, slid smoothly shut. "They repurposed it a few years ago when the new Federated WMD rulings came down."
"WMDs?" Jared asked, shocked.
"Some of the technology edged closer to that line than was allowed, yes, but that wasn't what they were researching," the guard assured him as he typed in another code. "Anti-tank missiles, heavy particle lasers, stuff like that. It's just that some of the really high-yield stuff was... unstable."
"Oh," Jared said in understanding. "The equipment clause, I remember that."
"Yeah, Uncle Sam didn't particularly feel like announcing this place just to get a waiver for some of the test material and equipment needed," the guard shrugged. "They went ahead and announced a slightly more public location and got the permits for that facility instead. More chance that if something goes wrong it does damage to something other than the facility, but they didn't have to give up one of their most secret facility's best protection."
The elevator jerked a little before it began it's descent. Something about it just felt final to Jared, and he felt his stomach sink in time with the elevator. Security this tight wasn't aimed at just terrorists.
"This elevator seems a bit small," he commented in an effort to take his mind off matters."You couldn't get a lot of heavy equipment through it."
"Don't have to," the guard shook his head. "This is the personnel elevator; we also have a freight elevator. This one takes about a minute and a half to get down so we use it whenever possible."
"How long does the other one take?" Jared asked.
"Half an hour, but it can carry a thousand tons at a time," the guard shrugged.
"This facility isn't going to be evacuated quickly then," Jared said.
"We don't even have a drill for it," the guard agreed. "No point.
The steel doors slid open smoothly as the elevator rumbled to a stop. The first blast door ground open more sullenly. After crowding out of the elevator into a small room, it ground shut again while scanners went crazy. "This security is a bit overdone, don't you think?" Jared asked.
The guard shrugged. "Rules."
Finally the next blast door ground open, and Jared blinked in shock at the sight of yet another room, with another blast door, beyond it. "Is this place made of nothing but blast doors?" he exclaimed.
"Actually, no," the guard laughed. "Last one. This is as far as I go; no weapons are allowed in there.
"Why does that not surprise me," Jared sighed as he led Cody and Davey in.
As the blast door ground shut behind them, Jared glanced around. This room was larger than the last few, but the double-height ceiling left room for equipment that disturbed him. He wasn't an expert, but several of the 'concrete' bulges overhead looked suspiciously like automated weapon emplacements.
"One second... the second door isn't opening... oh," a voice told them. "One second..."
The door began to open then, and Major Williams walked through and smiled at Jared. "Welcome to your new home, Jared. A hundred feet underground and with paranoid security systems that think you are a weapon, but it isn't half bad other than that!"