The Hands We’re Given, Event File 03

Event File 3

File Tag: Raising Morale


In the morning, Kevin’s tab pinged a message alert half an hour before he was officially on duty. Of course, the official duty schedule rarely matched the hours people worked on the Wildcards’ base. They had been working incredible amounts of overtime for months, everyone running ragged during Commander Taylor’s long illness. Kevin himself had been working a good ninety hours a week, running on modafinil patches and StayWake pills until Damian had threatened to tie him down and sedate him. What was half an hour early?

He paused in pulling on his shirt to glance at the base-wide memo that had popped up. The new commander was requesting private meetings, mandatory for the officers and optional for everyone else. How quixotic of him.

Brushing his hair, Kevin smiled to himself. Quixotic. That really was such a wonderful word. Quixotic. Derived from a novel written in 1605, meaning overly idealistic and hopeful. A beautiful word.

And he was letting himself wander off into his ivory tower again, wasn’t he? Kevin shook his head and mentally filed ”Quixotic” back with the other antiquated words and ideas from history he collected. “Quixotic” and words like it had bewildered his peers at the Citizen Excellent Standing prep school he’d attended since the age of two. Words like that had only earned him more blank looks once he made it out to the Dust. But someone had to keep the words in general usage, or their language and culture would become ever more impoverished. Besides, he loved the sounds.

A smile still quirking the corners of his lips, Kevin tapped out a response to the memo.

Available this morning at ten, sir. Will ensure my division has time, too. -Kevin

“Hey, Suckup!” Yvonne’s voice shouted through the wall dividing Kevin’s room from hers and Sarah’s. “You didn’t have to reply to the whole damn base. We already know you never stop working!”

“And I’m the only one keeping this rabble together, you ungrateful plebe,” Kevin called back, affecting the cultured pre- Dissolution accent he always used when teasing his base mates. He set the tab aside again and checked himself in the mirror, pulling on his cooling jacket as he called through the wall. “I’m off on a short- distance req run later today. Do keep Dilly and Don from raiding my office while I’m occupied this time, will you?”

A muffled snicker was his only reply. He slid his tab into the side pocket of his cargo pants and manhandled his door open. Though he’d never admit it aloud, he did miss the slick glide of the automatic doors on the city Grid. But little conveniences never made up for the hell the Corps had created for most people in this country.

The next door down opened a breath later and Yvonne stepped out, standing conspicuously to one side to give Kevin an uninterrupted view of her wife, Sarah, toying with the bra she had yet to put on and grinning.

Kevin caught an unfortunate eyeful of Sarah’s naked torso and her leer before wrenching his gaze back to Yvonne’s face in one gut- churning, mortifying second. He could feel the rush of blood reddening his cheeks as he yanked off his glasses and squeezed his eyes shut in protest.

“Ladies. We talked about this. Third time this week,” he groaned. The sound of raucous laughter bounced off the paneling.

“Third time this week, and you’re still blushing!” Sarah’s voice drew out every syllable in a sing-song.

“Yes, Sarah, I’m blushing,” Kevin sighed, refusing to open his eyes. “You knew I would blush. You’ve known me nine years. You know I always blush. You know for a fact that, while you ladies had the good fortune to be raised in the Dust, I had my upbringing courtesy of Cavanaugh and, furthermore, you know perfectly well how that Corporation indoctrinates their children on the subjects of modesty, shame, the Perfection Mandate, and the sanctity of intimate relations. I can’t help how I was taught,” he finished in a weary monotone. “And I can’t help that I blush. So have some pity and put a damn shirt on.”

That set them off into new fits of the giggles. It was Yvonne who managed to speak first. “Aw, Kev, baby, we can’t help it. You look ridiculous when you get all flustered…”

“I’m working on it,” Kevin replied tartly. “And you aren’t helping.”

“We need to do something for entertainment around here,” Sarah added, pulling on her shirt. “Besides, for all you know, the new commander could secretly be a nudist.”

Kevin slid his glasses back onto his nose, giving them his patent glare over the rims. “I highly doubt that.”

Instead of the subdued reaction he had been hoping for, Yvonne snickered. “Buzzkill.”

“Yes, well, someone has to be responsible on this base. And it certainly isn’t either of you.” Kevin sighed as his tab pinged again. He dug it out of his pocket and glanced at the private memo. Liza was asking to see him. Wonderful.

“Apparently I’m not the only one starting early. Yvonne, I need you prepped for the run with Ed by the afternoon.”

The taller of the two women nodded curtly, the humor draining from her as if he had popped a balloon. “Sure, Kev. I’m on it.”

He shot Yvonne a smile, nodded in reply and hurried down the narrow corridor.

It was one of the things Kevin loved about his crew. As ridiculous as they could be, when it came down to the wire, they worked their posteriors off. Especially his requisitions team. They knew it was their work that ensured the base had the 3D printing blueprints, food, and materials to keep them all alive.

Liza was already in his cramped office, sitting in the spare chair beside his cluttered desk. She looked as pristine as she had the day before, her hair pulled back so tightly Kevin wondered if it might actually deform her face, were she to leave it up too long.

Her smile was uncertain. “Morning.” “Everything all right?” Kevin asked as he closed the door behind him and carefully rounded the desk.

Liza didn’t request meetings often. She had a tendency to simply show up when she needed something or send a long list of things she needed added to the requisitions lists. Add to that the unusual attention she had paid to her uniform and appearance, and Kevin knew her anxiety must be going through the roof.

Liza took a breath, held it a moment, and let it out in a long sigh.

“It’s the new commander. Well, not really. I mean, it’s the crew. You got the same briefing I did from Sector, right?”

Kevin blinked at her and adjusted the glasses on his nose. She must be really nervous if she wasn’t completing a thought.

“The briefing about Commander Headly?” he asked, shoving his red hair back from his eyes with an absent swipe of the hand.

“About this being our last chance,” Liza elaborated quietly. She glanced up. “I’ll give you a haircut later. Your hair’s too long.”

“Yes, nanny,” Kevin replied dryly. Watching Liza’s face fall, he sighed, slid his tab onto the desktop and sat back in his chair. The old plastic creaked beneath him. “Sorry, Liza. Please, try to relax. I can’t imagine they’d truly be insane enough to disband us.”

Liza gave him a long, hard look. “Kev, we’re a base of fuck-ups and clowns without Taylor, and they know it.” She looked down, nervously plucking at one of the calibrators on his desk. “But, I can’t lose this. I can’t lose my family.”

Kevin chewed his lip a moment, trying to find the right words. What was there to say when his friend and superior was suffering an emotional crisis across the desk from him?

“They’re my family, too, Liza,” he stated quietly. “And we’re not going to get disbanded.”

“Laz is already talking about planting snappers under the commander’s mattress,” Liza sighed, dropping her head into her hands. “And Janice was grumbling about dumbass kids all night. They’re going to run this one off too, unless I can get them under control.”

Kevin leaned forward and reached across the desk to touch her arm. “Liza, listen. You’re not the only officer on this base. It isn’t your responsibility alone to get our riotous ducklings to behave.”

She snorted behind her fingers. “Riotous ducklings?” “It seemed appropriate.” At least he had gotten a reaction out of her that wasn’t despair. Gently, he reached to pull one of her hands away from her face. “But the point is, if you’re that worried they’re going to misbehave, you have resources. Me. Damian. Blake. I imagine Janice would help keep everyone else in line, if you bribed her well, and even Lazarus won’t risk circumventing her. We’ll make it through this, Liza. We’ve faced more catastrophic circumstances together, haven’t we?”

“You really think we can get them in line?” After a moment, Liza looked up, her dark brows pulled together. “They decimated Commander Quinn last week.”

Kevin wrinkled his nose at the name and swallowed the urge to correct her improper usage of ‘decimated’. Unfortunately Quinn was alive and well, and still in possession of one hundred percent of his body mass.

“Commander Quinn was an autocratic, homophobic jackass. Headly seems like he has a much better understanding of basic human decency.”

She studied him for a moment before a slow smirk crawled across her face. “You’re not just saying that because you think he’s cute, are you?”

Heat crawled up the back of Kevin’s neck and pooled in his cheeks. He slipped his glasses off and focused on polishing them with a cloth pulled from his breast pocket to hide the flash of instinctive panic. Liza didn’t need to see how the teasing affected him.

It was easy for Liza to tease about this kind of thing, he reminded himself. That was no reason to get snappish with her. She was Duster born, like Yvonne and Sarah and Laz. She hadn’t been raised under the constant threat of the Cavanaugh Perfection Mandate and the EagleCorp Morality Laws that half the major Corporations ascribed to. She hadn’t been taught to live with fear of her own body lodged in her gut. He had, and talking casually about wanting to do things with a man which carried mandatory jail time and a likely death sentence in half the nation’s cities would probably never come easy to him.

He’d never be able to tell Liza how closely he’d been scrutinized as a child, the things his parents had taught him to hide. That would involve admitting just how high up the Cavanaugh totem pole his family had been. No one was watched for signs of deviation as closely as the next generation of CEOs, CFOs and executives. If the base ever found out what he’d been on the Grid…

The two fears wound around each other, a Gordian knot in the pit of his stomach. And, to add insult to injury, his emotional reaction to the teasing made him blush. His damnably fair skin made it obvious.

He cleared his throat. “Of course not. He’s a commander. But he’s the first they’ve sent that gave us condolences for Taylor’s death. And he seemed quite earnest about his desire to learn our rather… unorthodox methods.”

“And the insta-crush is just a bonus, right?” Liza smirked a little more widely. “Ask him out, if he lasts more than week.”

Kevin gave her the best withering glare he could manage without his glasses on. It was sweet that she still went out of her way to encourage him to have a personal life. It was also intensely aggravating.

“Stay out of my romantic life, Liza. It’s really not something sister-figures ought to be meddling in, don’t you think? Especially not when we have much bigger fish to fry.”

“What I wouldn’t give for a real fish fry,” she groaned, sinking into her chair as if she’d lost the entirety of her spine. “Anything better than protein patties and rehydrated spinach.”

Kevin remembered entirely too late that mentions of real food tended to derail any and all conversations with Liza. He had only himself to blame, too. When he’d first taken over the responsibilities of Logistics Officer five years ago, he’d attempted to get better food for the base. Real produce grown on the American AgCo farms that covered the Eastern plains, fresh meat shipped in from slaughterhouses at the other end of the Co-Wy Grid. They’d had an entire month of fresh produce before he’d nearly gotten both himself and Yvonne killed on a run and he’d put the idea aside. But that month had spoiled the culinary-leaning members of the Wildcards quite thoroughly.

“I’ll put ‘food we can’t afford or grow’ on the requisitions list,” he replied dryly. He replaced his glasses and studied his friend across the desk for a long moment. “In all seriousness, though, let me know if I need to talk sense into anyone, will you? And don’t let Laz take the snappers out of munitions.”

Liza gave a brittle little laugh. “Like I can make that prank- happy asshat do anything.”

“Try?” She let out a sigh, her sour expression shifting into something softer. “Why aren’t you personnel officer, again?”

“Because I prefer puzzles to people,” Kevin replied. The tension in his shoulders relaxed a little as he sat back once more. “And because you’ve been on this base far longer than I have.”

Liza huffed a weak chuckle. “Can’t argue with that. Think you can get your team together for a meeting before they run the commander off?”

“I’ll try,” Kevin agreed. “I can help whip munitions into shape, too. If you need it.”

Liza took a breath and let it out slowly. Her smile looked a little more genuine this time. “Thanks, Kev.”

“Any time.” He waited until his office door closed behind her before allowing himself to drop bonelessly into his chair.

Putting on an act of calm was one of his specialties, he reflected, and it had its perks. Especially now, when his base mates needed someone to lean on. But damn it was getting exhausting.

Maybe this was why the Regional Hub didn’t recommend keeping units cohesive for more than a few years at a time. Granted, with the number of casualties the Dusters suffered, it was usually a moot point. People cycled through bases. They were assigned where their specialties were needed on a regular basis, and were killed on a regular basis, too.

But Commander Taylor had kept his people together. He and the older members had trained half the base personnel. Every one of the younger members had been mentored in their assignments by an older specialist before they took the positions as their teachers died or retired from strenuous field duty. Kevin himself had inherited Logistics from Blake when the older man had gotten slow. He still asked for advice on occasion.

Commander Taylor had encouraged relationships like that. He’d wanted a team that bonded to one another. He’d taught them all to act like a family, not like a military unit. Kevin knew personnel higher up the command chain hadn’t liked it. He’d overheard a few of the arguments. But that tight bond had been their greatest strength before Commander Taylor died.

The problem, Kevin thought wryly, was that they acted like a family at its worst these days. Everyone knew one another’s vulnerabilities too well.

Pulling his glasses off, he toyed with them, the world gone out of focus around him. He knew it wasn’t logical to keep them instead of simply having his eyes repaired. But he liked the glasses for a host of reasons. They were occupation for his nervous hands. They represented his parents’ defiance of Cavanaugh Corporation’s Perfection Mandate. They were a mark of his defiance, too. A mark of his humanity. And they helped him make a point when needed to. All he had to do was look over the rims and people got the message.

Well, occasionally, at least. After a long moment to catch his breath, he sat back up and plugged his tab into the desktop console.

The tab had barely connected when Kevin’s door opened again. He looked up and blinked. “What can I do for you, Janice?”

“Got some shit I need to get on the req list,” the hydroelectrics specialist said. She slipped inside and kicked the door shut, but didn’t sit. Instead, she set her wide-gauge pipe wrench carefully on the edge of Kevin’s desk and sighed.

“Hope to fuckin’ God I won’t have to use this on the new asshole.”

“I’m sure Liza would appreciate not having to explain to Sector why our new commander was in the medical bay with a concussion,” Kevin agreed as lightly as he could.

Of all the people on this base, he hadn’t expected Janice to be one of those coming to him for reassurance. The req list request was a pretty poor smokescreen too. Janice prided herself on her strength, on her ability to protect the base that was their family, and to squeeze water out of the hidden aquifers left in the Dust. She hid any worries she did have behind her cursing and her work. But here she was, in Kevin’s office with the door closed, as close to vulnerable as he had ever seen her.

Janice snorted, folded her arms, and looked down her nose at him. “Sector can suck it. They keep sending us fucking idiots with sticks so far up their tight asses they-”

“I get the picture,” Kevin interrupted gently. It was best to keep Janice from one of her curse-filled tirades if one wanted to get anything done without losing body parts. “But, like it or not, we’re rather at their mercy at the moment.”

Janice grumbled under her breath in Spanish. After a long moment, she looked up from the wrench and met Kevin’s gaze, her dark eyes full of unsettling worry. “What the fuck’re we gonna do if this one’s as bad as the others?”

Kevin forced a small smile and tried for a joke. “Knowing you, you’ll hospitalize him and demand another replacement. Life and lemons and all that.”

“The hell do lemons have to do with shit?” Janice asked, bewildered.

“Old saying. Forget it.” He shrugged, shoulders slumping wearily. “We all have reservations about Commander Headly. But what choice do we have except giving him a chance? He’s already leaps and bounds better than Quinn, right?”

“Anyone’d be better than that asswipe,” Janice grumbled, frowning down at her wrench on the table instead of meeting his gaze. After a long moment, she snatched the tool back up. “I’ll give him a week, if’n he doesn’t fuck up too bad. Maybe longer.”

Kevin found himself hoping fervently that Commander Headly could cut it with Janice’s standards. Otherwise, he wasn’t entirely certain he could keep that promise to Liza. “A week will have to do. Now, what did you need to put on the list?”

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