I'm uploading this here now because it has done very well on AO3, but I wrote it around the time the movie was released.
Sergeant Calhoun knows that she was made to suffer.
That's reassuring, sometimes. At least she knows she's doing her job.
It's a job where fear is just as important as bravery, though, and she was made full of fear.
Tapper wasn't used to it at first, these high-res hulks downing his beers and stomping through his hallways, but he and the others got used to the fact that games were different now. They also get used to the fact that you shouldn't go near the marines if you have antennae, and many a beetle and spider were squashed under armored boots or fingers.
(She was born stressed, born afraid, but she thinks she can still remember her backstory well enough that it gets confused with the real world of Game Central Station: maybe she was married in one of those offshoot rooms where she never goes.)
Tapper got used to other things too, like the way the marines would come and go in a rush and order drinks that never seemed to satisfy them (too low-res, pixels got lodged in their throats). Calhoun got used to the way her men would shy away from things and tell her that she had done the same, although she didn't always remember. She would catch someone walking to a hall with his finger on the trigger of a gun larger than most of the occupants of the building and she would slam him against the wall, fingers trying to dig into metal-plated shoulders, and say "We don't act like that off-duty, do you hear?" and she would see the fear in that man's eyes, the flushed cheeks, the sense of siege.
(And if he was her second-in-command she would get her arms around him and tell him things were all right until he straightened up and looked at her and said they weren't. She nodded at that, because it was true.)
After the bugs got out of Sugar Rush she calmed down again, never hesitating to return to her black-and-neon world.
In the cloying candy air of Sugar Rush she sat down on a jawbreaker and crossed her long legs in front of her as she watched the racers go by, tens of little cars kicking up wind that dragged her hair to the side. Game-jumping didn't feel new any more. At first, Sugar Rush had just been a new war theater, with its own cover and dangerous terrain, but when she settled down into it she could see the bizarre peace of it all and hear the wind knocking the candy canes together. It was serene.
Most importantly, it didn't remind her of anything.
In fact, it was getting boring.
She wasn't sure when she had started consciously wanting to explore the other games. Perhaps it had been just now, as she looked for the sun. She wasn't a traveler - she had never trekked from one side of Hero's Duty to the other but that was because some of the game terrain had a nasty habit of not existing when it wasn't under attack. When it was, when the player bot was tripping along behind her and everyone shouting, there wasn't much time to stop and look at the scenery.
Sometimes, Calhoun felt like that land: she didn't quite exist if she wasn't fighting something.
She watched Vanellope and the racers (that kid had one good thing going for her - she didn't let presidency get in the way of her smashing candy cars together once in a while) flash past in the next lap, and she stood up. Her hoverboard was propped on a jawbreaker next to her helmet.
She kicked off and joined the fray. The plucky little cars didn't run on any mechanics she understood: no smell of fuel, no pound of cylinders, no antigravity. Her board caught the group in a few seconds, and the small voices followed her as she looked around for Vanellope -
"Hey, what are you doing here?"
"Fiddlesticks, you scared me!"
Vanellope turned around. "Oh. It's you."
"Hey kid. Figured I'd join your little powwow and see if any of you are useful."
Vanellope kept her eyes on the road. Powdered-sugar snow lined gentle slopes, but the wide road meant she had to watch for people trying to pass. None of them seemed to want to touch Calhoun's gravity wash.
Vanellope said, very seriously and archly, "None of my subjects are going to war, sergeant."
"Didn't want 'em to, kid. I just wanted to race. Need something to do."
As Vanellope considered this the other cars continued to buck and jostle behind her. She said, "Do you think you can beat me?"
Because it was the most fun possible answer Calhoun said, "I honkin' well hope so, kid," and the way Vanellope smiled, a little bit mean, told her that she thought this was the most fun possible answer too.
(They were game characters, after all, and fun was their purpose.)
The hover board scraped candied sugar off the side of Vanelope's car and the little girl squealed and gunned it, glancing back at Calhoun with vitriol in her eyes and then knowledge as she flipped a switch that did something, and Calhoun had to dodge a candy cane, blue fire cooking something that sent the smell of caramel through her helmet filters. She cursed and laughed and dove back into the group, determined to catch that cackling little president of a nascartocracy at her own game.
Sargent Calhoun enjoyed a good challenge.
The race was an organized, controlled kind of suffering (just as games were), and it had joy in it too.