Call the Bluff, Event File 01

File Tag: Base of Operations
Timestamp: 10:00-10-30-2155

WHUMP!

The explosion sent a geyser of dust into the sky. Base Commander Aidan Headly cursed as pebbles rained down on him. He crawled out of the empty cistern pit he’d leaped into and stood, trying to wave the dust away without much success. The grit settled on him like a second skin.

Adrenaline was treating his guts like its personal skate park and taking some extra turns around his heart. But that wasn’t his biggest problem right now. Hell, it didn’t make top ten on his list.

He scrambled up the hill and raised his voice.

“What the hell was that? We weren’t supposed to be blowing anything up today!”

                                                                                  

Two dark faces peered out from under helmets in their own culvert, trepidation in their eyes. Aidan sighed. Dilly and Donny. Again.

The twins had turned thirteen a week ago. Maybe he should be happy that they had started begging to do vocational apprenticeship the minute they’d gotten out of bed on their birthday, but if they kept up this kind of crap they wouldn’t live to fourteen.

“Sorry Aidan!” the girl called.

“We’re trying out a new setting mechanism!” The boy beside her hollered over. “I think I know what I did wrong!

“You better know what you did wrong,” Aidan growled as he scrambled down the other side of the new site’s hill toward his charges, chest still tight with the dregs of his fear. “We can’t afford a blast like that again, you hear me? You guys know how dangerous drawing attention is!”

Dilly flinched. Her twin’s shoulders stiffened.

“Okay, but we hit water!” Donny countered, “There’s water down there, and

“The fuck did you two little gamma-gets do?!”

Both twins flinched as Janice Danvers climbed out of the nearest water tank, still on its side and empty so soon after the base’s site change. Fire in her black eyes, the hydroelectrics specialist stalked across the dusty red earth and grabbed the collars of both teenagers’ ponchos like the scruffs on a pair of puppies, shaking them in what looked like ferocity. Since the kids were barely shifting for all the show Janice put on, Aidan pushed down his instinct to step between an angry adult getting physical and a pair of kids. In the seven months since Aidan had taken his place commanding the Wildcards unit of the Democratic State Force, he’d learned to let Janice have her say with anyone pulling idiot stunts. She was a more effective scolder than him any day.

“The ever-loving frag grenade-fucking hell does ‘wait till I get it damped down’ mean to you two little sons of sister-fuckers, hunh?! Or how ‘bout ‘let me check your work ‘fore we go to the next bit?!’” Janice demanded. “I said wait! You coulda’ killed yourselves, you cluster-fucked CPS dumbasses! What are you, a pair of gammas? This’s the middle of a relocation setup, you think I got time for you two playin’ around? You wanna help me out you listen to me, you hear?!” She knocked their heads together, and Aidan noted the control the muscled woman used in doing it: just hard enough to sting, nowhere near hard enough to do the damage Janice could have dished out.

“Aw Jan —” Dilly began, but Janice cut her off.

“Ah! Don’t start. You two ain’t —” She glanced up, caught sight of another dark figure in the blazing sun and raised her voice. “Damian! Come over here an’ deal with your family!”

         Turning, the scarecrow of a man got a look at the two dust-covered teenagers. He sighed, putting a hand over his cybernetic eyes. “Dilly, Donny, what’d you do now?”

“Nothing!” Dilly defended.  Striding over, Damian set a hand on each teenager’s shoulder, raising a brow. His ocular implants whirred, punctuating the expression.

Nothing, hunh?” He glanced with pointed attention from the crater, to the boxes of explosive material much too close for comfort, to the teens. “Funny, doesn’t look like nothing to me.”

Dilly rolled her eyes, letting out a dramatic sigh. “Fiiine. We screwed up. Sorry.”

The medical officer gave his superior a wry smile. “Sorry about the monsters, Aidan. Go help out, I said. I should’ve known better. These two are working in the garage for the rest of the week,” he added darkly, letting go of Dilly long enough to straighten the wide-brimmed hat on his shaved head. Today everybody in their eighteen-man crew wore the brown ponchos and wide-brimmed hats that had earned their Force the nickname of Dusters.   Inlaid with coolant, the gear kept them comfortable and made sure they weren’t spotted on infrared by EagleCorp’s ViperDrones. The clothes would be some protection until the base that sustained them was set up and secure again.

Aidan found himself reflexively glancing up. The readings had given them a window of a few hours before the next drone pass. Technically, they were safe for now. But blowing holes in the Dust would make them a new point of interest if the blast had been picked up by a satellite.

He forced his eyes down. If a drone was up there, it wouldn’t have waited this long to drop a bomb. He knew that.

Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Janice stealing a glance upwards.

Aidan reminded himself to take a breath, shrugging as he motioned to the crater. “They did find water, Damian. So I’d say their punishment is hauling it up and storing it for us.”

Both kids groaned.

“But water hauling sucks!” Dilly whined.

Janice gave her a deadpan look. “Shoulda’ thoughta that ‘fore you fucked up. Get the pipes an’ the lil’ pump an’ get over there, I ain’t baby-sittin’ you two no more today. Git!”

When the teens were out of earshot, Janice turned to her base mates with a sigh. “I swear those two are gonna give me a heart attack. I ain’t never lettin’ them assist again.”

“Funny, I thought I heard that last time.” Damian stated, face unreadable. “And when I heard it last time, I had thought for some reason that we made an agreement about my sibs staying away from things that go bang.”

Janice gave the man a scathing look. “An’ who told ‘em to ‘go help’ an’ let ‘em off the leash with no moren’ that? An’ who’s their minder around here? Cause I ain’t wearin’ no frilly hat an’ I don’t think I look much like the nanny, d’you?”

Aidan knew Janice’s drawling agricultural worker’s accent only grew that thick when she was rattled. Beside him, Damian opened his mouth, but Aidan spoke first.

“Guys? Relocation days suck for everybody.”

Damian had the good grace to nod in acknowledgment, leaving whatever he’d planned to say unspoken.

 

Aidan watched the teens manhandle the temporary water pump into place, attach it to a primary cistern tank and start spooling the weighted siphon line down into the hole, where it could get to work pulling up water. The groundwater from the aquifer would be decontaminated by the systems inside the cistern, before being hooked into the base’s plumbing. It’d make a good stop-gap while the main water drilling rig was being calibrated to supplement the base’s water-recycling system.

We really need to get better at water recycling and depend less on ground water sources, Aidan thought with dismay. This aquifer might be as good as Janice thought, but the aquifers are getting smaller all the time.

“Keeping them away from explosives is probably good for everybody… they didn’t screw up the well though, did they?” He glanced at the three full cistern tanks they had, squatting like deformed pineapples on wheels off to his left. The reflective condensate fins designed to catch any humidity in the air during the cool nights and turn it into supplemental water gleamed dully in the sun.  The supply of water in the tanks was all the crew had until Janice, Topher and Dozer finished hooking up the systems. Was it enough? They’d come to this site for the water. If they had to drill a new well, would the water last that long?

Janice waved a hand. “Nah, we hit shale an’ I didn’t want the fuckin’ stuff collapsin’ everywhere, was the reason for the new setting mechanism. Kids set it off ‘fore I was ready, is all. We’ll have a new well by the end of the day.”

“I’ll get the kids to help me shelve and prep the med bay when they’re worn out.” Damian added, glancing at the module that housed his workspace, sitting on its wide wheels at an angle to the module that served as their canteen. The separate modular units that connected to make their home looked like a kid’s dropped toys, each module sitting where they’d left it when they arrived.

Aidan drew in a long, slow breath, feeling the adrenaline ebb from his system. “Sounds good.” He dusted himself off as best he could, picking pebbles from his hair. “Is anyone on sentry yet? My guess is that blast got us on the map for the next drone sweep, and we need to be ready.”

“On it.” Sarah called, setting down the crate she’d been carrying and whistling loud and sharp. On a rise, Lazarus waved a hand. Aidan blinked, then couldn’t help but smile. Lazarus was kitted out in a slick poncho, the fiberoptic mesh weave mirroring the surroundings. On top of that he’d piled a couple tumbleweeds and sprinkled dusty soil over himself. If the munitions officer hadn’t moved, Aidan never would have seen the guy.

“Okay great, slick tarps?” Aidan asked, counting seconds in his head. He knew the laborious process of unfolding and tying the slick tarps to their struts would take at least twenty minutes if he got a full division on it. They had an hour before the next drone flyover, but there were always watching satellites. That blast would have drawn attention.

Better be transport division with Tweak checking the connections, considering the tarps’ weight and the muscles on Dozer and Topher.

“Yep!” Tweak called down from the roof of the main module. Grabbing a loose guideline meant to tie the tarp to its support struts, the tiny coder slid to the ground like something off an action vid and ran past with the line in hand, talking in bursts as she went. “All connected, software g-good, hardware up in forty. Should w-work. W-worked on l-little p-piece. We see.”

“Can we move it, forty minutes is ” Aidan started to ask as Tweak looped the last line to its connecting strut, pulled out her tab and hit something. Every line snapped taut, and the carefully folded fiber-optic mesh tarps unfurled like wings. Sliding smoothly into place, the slick tarp cast dappled shade over the half-assembled base and its watching crew, protecting them from blazing sun and searching enemies. Aidan’s sentence never finished.

“Goddamn.” Janice murmured. “Ain’t never seen it go that fast, how’d she

“Seconds,” Tweak interrupted, trotting up with a hint of a smile. “Forty. Not minutes. Seconds.” Her slanted eyes caught the light, glinting with triumph.

“I noticed.” Aidan agreed, staring up with a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

 

   

************

 

The rest of the day was chaos. Relocation days always were. Taking a multi-section base apart into its component modular units, unfolding each module’s wheeled undercarriage and hitching the things to trucks for transport to a new site, then putting it all back together was nobody’s idea of fun. But neither was getting a consistent travel pattern around a base picked up by a detailed satellite reading and getting a bomb dropped on their heads. Or running out of water, for that matter.  

Like every other Duster base, the Wildcards shifted sites every few months. It was a sensible safety measure. It was also a pain in the ass. Relocations ate up time and everyone’s patience, starting with the nerve-wracking days before a move when hydroelectric officers went out scouting a new aquifer for their base and culminating in the heart-thumping hours of setting up under the watchful sky.

And then there was the paperwork covering a base relocation, which was nearly as bad as the move for the poor bastard who had to fill it out. Once the sun had set and he’d made sure the base was in good shape, Aidan had gotten into his office and started on his part of the job, writing up the reports he needed to file on their new position, their level of security in the new site and the procedural boxes they’d checked in the moving process. He was pretty sure it was never going to end.

“We missed you at dinner,” a quiet voice remarked from the doorway, the cultured syllables warm in Aidan’s ears. He grimaced at his tab. “Had to file a report on the raised danger level in this area after what the twins pulled. Then I had all the rest of this to start on. And I still have to find a good time in the calendar for a full base system shut down and defrag.”

Kevin’s hand squeezed his shoulder. “We traditionally do the defrag over the Winter Holiday. I’m sure Janice has it scheduled already. As for the kids, it could’ve been a lot worse,” the soft voice murmured behind him. Kevin’s thumb ran gentle circles against Aidan’s jacket.

“I know,” Aidan muttered without looking up from his work, “Thank God it wasn’t. I just… I don’t know what I’m going to do with Don and Dilly. They’re trying, but…” He shook his head, finally sitting back in his seat and looking up at his boyfriend. “I know the kids think they’re ready to train for the fight, but I don’t want another disaster like this.”

The lean logistics officer dropped down beside him, sighing. “It’s hard on a lot of the kids without parents,” Kevin remarked quietly. “At least they’ve got their brother around.” Glancing at Aidan’s screen, he quirked a brow. “These inventory counts are my job, you know. You don’t have to do everything.”

Aidan gave his boyfriend a wry smile. “You know how I get when I’m stressed. The more work the better. Otherwise I start thinking too much.”

“And staying up too much. And not eating enough.” Kevin added reprovingly, pushing his old-fashioned glasses up his nose. The lamp kindled highlights in his red hair as he pointedly flicked files off Aidan’s main screen. The old machine struggled to keep the hologram steady and track the movement at once, and the screen blipped and shuddered under Kevin’s fingers.

Aidan gave the other man a dry smile. “Look who’s talking.”

Kevin tipped his head, smiling thinly in acknowledgment. “Touché.”

Aidan leaned back in his chair, studying Kevin’s face. Behind his glasses, Kevin’s eyes were downcast. His shoulders had slumped.

“What’s wrong?” Aidan asked into the quiet.

Kevin pulled off his glasses, tugged out the cloth he kept in his jacket pocket and began cleaning them absently. It had taken Aidan a few months to catch on, but now he knew the signs of his boyfriend’s moods. Fiddling with glasses? That was either fear or worry.

Finally, Kevin glanced up. His smile was a small, crooked thing. “Another generation of kids training up for the fight. They’ll be the fourth.”

Aidan nodded, catching on. “Yeah. Sucks, doesn’t it?” He put his hand on Kevin’s knee. Kevin sighed, fingers squeaking the cloth against the plastic of his glasses.

“Seems like our actions don’t have much effect sometimes, you know?”

“They don’t,” Aidan replied softly. “But we have to keep trying. We can’t live like this forever. And giving up isn’t an option.”

Kevin nodded. “I know. Only sometimes I wish…” the sentence trailed off. Replacing his glasses, the logistics officer looked at his boyfriend speculatively, then reached out to run a hand over his cheek. “I do hope you’re going to get some rest now that we’re settled again. If you keep staying up, you can pass yourself off as a raccoon.”

Aidan laughed and caught Kevin’s hand in his. “Maybe that’s my master plan. Disguise myself as a raccoon and sneak into Corporation headquarters to blow the bastards up. I can be like the raccoon in that weird-ass vid you put on for everybody Friday.” He drew his lips back, imitating a character’s snarl from a movie that hadn’t been that good when it was new and hadn’t aged well. They’d laughed so hard that Sarah had fallen off the couch.

Kevin’s lips quirked. “You aren’t nearly vicious enough to be that character,” he demurred, amused, “and I think the Corps tie their trash cans down a little tighter than that.”

“Yeah.” Aidan agreed with a quiet chuckle. He ran a hand gently over Kevin’s hair.

“Don’t worry about the kids. I’m not turning them into soldiers today.”

“I’m afraid they might do it themselves. Or the world will do it to them.” Kevin murmured, closing his eyes and leaning into Aidan’s touch. In this light, with that expression on his face, his gene-sculpted features looked too perfect to be human. Turning his hand in Aidan’s, he lifted their joined hands and kissed Aidan’s knuckles. “Come to my room tonight?”

Aidan smiled softly. “In a minute. I need to finish this first.”

Kevin gave a grumble of annoyance for show, leaning in for a kiss. “The price of greatness is responsibility, I suppose.”

“Go to bed,” Aidan muttered into the kiss. “You’re being weird again.”

“The word you’re looking for is eloquent.” Kevin rejoined with one of his sidelong smirks. Aidan watched him leave with a smile before turning back to his work.

 

   

************

 

An hour later Aidan finally allowed himself to shuck his jacket, kick off his boots, flop down onto Kevin’s bed and close his eyes, letting out a long sigh.

“I hate relocation days.”

Kevin’s chuckle colored the quiet as the other man set aside the tab he’d been reading from and spread himself out beside Aidan, head pillowed on Aidan’s shoulder. Kevin was shirtless, and his pale skin was cool where it touched Aidan’s.

“Talk to Damian and get the kids assigned an actual vocation training program?” Kevin murmured, dropping an arm over Aidan’s chest companionably. “You’ll feel better, and they’ll be better off.”

Aidan grunted and gently shifted Kevin’s arm away from his breasts under their binder. “We’ll see.”

The fingers toyed with the hem of Aidan’s shirt. “Don’t make Liza and I do it for you.”

“Brat,” Aidan muttered, rolling over to tuck his head under Kevin’s chin.

“Yes sir, of course sir.” Kevin smirked in the soft room lights.

Aidan yawned. “Don’t call me sir.”

“Yes sir.” Kevin repeated, a teasing note in his voice.

Aidan groaned and shoved at Kevin’s shoulder. “Stop it.”

“That an order?” the laughing voice breathed in his ear, warm on his skin.

“’Course it’s an order,” Aidan muttered, kissing Kevin’s throat.

Kevin chuckled, leaning closer. “Lights out,” he said aloud, and his room lights faded down to the barest orange glimmer.

Aidan smiled in the dark as Kevin’s arms wrapped around him. Maybe they weren’t doing a lot of good. Maybe their fragmented guerrilla force wasn’t changing things yet. But they were still here. They were still fighting for an America worth living in. Nights and lives like this were worth fighting for.