The Hands We’re Given, Event File 04

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Event File 4

File Tag: Situational Awareness

Timestamp:10:30-4-2-2155

By the time the gaggle of base mates had left his office, Kevin was hours behind where he’d wanted to be. He left the door open but pulled up his most archaic playlist in self defense, cranking the volume as high as it went on his tab. A blaring wall of Guns N’ Roses might as well have ‘keep out’ written on it in caps. This morning, that was exactly the way Kevin liked it.
Spinning easily in his chair, he flipped between three different holographic screens, analyzing the hacks of Corps shipment schedules and routes. His eyes brightened, and he leaned in to highlight an entry on one of ZonCom’s shipping rosters. Shipment of synthesized coffee and dehydrated foodstuffs leaving the Foothills Metro Sector for the New England Regional Hub in two days.
That wasn’t enough time to send someone on-Grid to fetch it, but plenty of time to reach out to their contacts and organize a drop point. He’d take Yvonne with him. Quick and dirty. Perfect.
His fingers tapped on the touch screen of his console, an underscore to the song. A bitter smile quirked his lips as he sang along under his breath.
“Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day…”

That done, he had time to run through the new access codes he’d just acquired through his on-Grid supplier. Reading them over, his brows rose. Jazz had always sold them good work, but this was something special. If they wrote these codes into a manual access card, the places they could gain entry might expand by a factor of ten.
Might. If he was right. If the codes were as legitimate as they looked. They’d wager an awful lot on that ‘if’.
He ran a finger over the coder’s signature in the header, studying the odd little glyph.

<(-_-)>^^^^^-__

“Hello. You’re new,” he whispered, studying the screen.

The loud knock on his door frame made him jump. He glanced up from his work and felt the blood drain from his face.
Commander Headly stood in the doorway, looking bemused. Kevin closed all his projected windows with a single sharp motion and looked at the clock in the top corner of his tab screen. Ten-thirty. He was half an hour late for his debrief with the commander. Idiot!

Mentally kicking himself, Kevin flicked his music off. The sudden silence made his head spin.
“Commander! Sorry, I didn’t notice you there.”

“I guess not,” Commander Headly said into the quiet. Kevin couldn’t place the man’s tone. Was he amused or irritated? Probably irritated, Kevin thought, scolding himself internally. He had good reason.

The commander cleared his throat. “I can come back, if this is a bad time.”
Kevin realized he was still sitting and rocketed to his feet, saluting as crisply as if he had been doing it his entire life.

“No, sir. This is fine, sir. I just got caught up in work, and I apologize.”

Something akin to frustration crossed Commander Headly’s face, the moment so brief Kevin wasn’t sure if he’d imagined it.
The commander coughed again. “At ease. I’m not exactly a fan of saluting.”
Kevin let the salute drop but remained standing, the two of them stiff on either side of the small room. We must look like two junkyard dogs with a bone, he thought distantly. Two feral dogs sizing each other up for potential threats. One of us is going to make a move, display weakness or strength, and hope the other accepts the signal.
As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he realized how crazy it was. They were people, not dogs, and they certainly weren’t fighting for the same scrap of food. If anything, he was here to help the commander keep the base alive. Assuming the new commander was as hot—intelligent, he berated himself, intelligent—under the uniform as he seemed.
In the awkward moment that followed, Kevin took stock of the man in front of him. Slightly shorter than himself, around the same age, with the typical Duster stance that screamed “ready to run at a moment’s notice.” This man looked like he had accepted the fact that the world was dangerous long ago. Kevin had read the commander’s file of course, and knew he was Dust-born, but it was always fascinating to see who stood like a born and bred Duster when they weren’t fighting.
The new commander had rich, dark blonde hair in the kind of quasi-pageboy cut you ended up with when you had straight hair and didn’t pay attention to getting it cut in a timely manner. His eyes were a deep blue, set in a soulful face tanned by Colorado’s sun. It had been what struck Kevin so emphatically the day before: those eyes, and that expression. The man reminded Kevin oddly of the portrait of Saint Jude that his mother had kept on her bedside table.
He had the vague urge to bring out a smile on that poignant countenance. It would be dazzling.
Damn, he was getting hard up these days. Focus.

“You wanted to speak to me, sir?” Kevin finally asked. At the same moment the commander apparently nerved himself to ask, “What music were you playing?”
The warmth of a self-conscious blush kindled in Kevin’s cheeks. He gave a sheepish smile and a half-shrug.
“‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ It’s pre-Incorporation music. I’ve got rather a penchant for it. Well, pre-Dissolution music, actually. It’s a bit over a hundred and fifty years old, quite a bit more melodically and stylistically creative than what’s produced on the Grid nowadays and-”
He cut himself off at the blank look on the commander’s face. Straightening his shoulders, he cleared his throat and reminded himself that this was his superior officer, not his friend.
“Excuse me, sir. Didn’t mean to waste your time. What was it you wanted to speak with me about, sir?”
Commander Headly bit his lip. It was obviously a nervous gesture, but one that Kevin wasn’t entirely certain he could interpret. After a moment, the commander inhaled sharply and smiled. “I wanted to talk to you about your division. See how things are going and if there was anything you needed.”
Kevin nodded. “I can have a report sent to your tab by morning, if you give me your current GreyNet handle.”

He kept his face carefully blank and his tone professional. Behind the facade, his mind raced. Had he shot himself in the foot by attempting to begin an over-eager discussion of old music? Was the commander going to tell him to quit listening to music while he worked?
“No, I don’t need a report.” Commander Headly cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I just wanted to talk about how things are working for you. Um. Informally. One officer to another.”
Kevin blinked. It was a little uncomfortable how easily he’d expected some form of discipline for doing absolutely nothing against the rules. Maybe those last few temporary commanders had left more of an impression than he’d realized. Okay. Fresh start.
He reached to roll a second chair out from its place between plastic supply cabinets against the wall. “Please. Take a seat.”
Gingerly, Commander Headly lowered himself into the chair and folded his hands in his lap.
Kevin had to wonder if the man was trying not to fidget.

Rather than letting himself appear to be staring, he turned to pull up a handful of holographic windows: a detailed map of the Co-Wy Grid dotted with symbols, the requisitions list, his notes for the run he had just begun to organize, and the half-finished code for a game he was working on. He quickly flicked the last one away and hoped the commander hadn’t noticed.
“We’ve been having rather a rough time,” he said as he worked. “But I think we’re pulling through. My crew’s been staying pretty well supplied in all the staples, and we seem to be staying well under the radar at this location. We haven’t had to move in four months. I’ve been working on several new physical routes onto the Grid using an algorithm that should help to ensure that they’re both feasible and randomized enough to get lost in the crowd. We have four go-to entrances, but it doesn’t do to overuse them. Especially not with EagleCorp cracking down on anything they see as a deviation from the norm.”
“I see.” The commander nodded, his startling eyes scanning over the information on the screens. After a moment, he took a breath and looked back to Kevin. “Can I ask you something?”
Kevin tried not to tense. What could Headly possibly have to ask that required that kind of preface? If it was a question pertaining to his duties, the commander had every right to ask it, whether or not Kevin actually wanted to answer. And if it was a personal question? Well, Kevin was well-versed in delicately skirting situations as needed. “Of course, sir.”
Commander Headly twisted his hands together, then pried his fingers apart and set them carefully on the armrests of his chair. He took a deep breath and met Kevin’s gaze. “What are you long-term goals for your division? I mean the ones you really want, not what’s logged with Sector.”
“Sir?” Kevin nervously adjusted his glasses on his nose. Long- term goals? Had Headly been told about Commander Taylor’s Ten Year Plan? It had been the entire base’s shared daydream, but it had seemed like such an impossible fantasy that they’d kept it amongst themselves. It had only drifted even further out of reach once Taylor had gotten sick and their family had started falling apart. It had been months since Kevin had so much as thought about the Plan. He was fairly certain the new commander would laugh if he told the truth.
“Well, sir, we want to keep the base well-supplied in the necessities, and I’d sleep easier if we could get some higher-grade slick tarp patches.”
“That’s all? Tafa—oh, crap. I thought I’d had it. Tafar-”

“Tafarah,” Kevin put in easily, the Lebanese name rolling off his tongue. “He prefers Topher, though.”
Commander Headly nodded, his face creasing with frustration. “Right. This morning, he was telling me he’d love to work on a modern Go System enabled truck one day, instead of the ancient hand-me- down manuals we get. Likely to happen any time soon? Not really. But it gives me a chance to know him and what he wants to do here, and how I can help him work toward that. I’d like to know the same thing about everyone, especially division officers. Don’t worry about achievability. I know we’re talking long-term here, and Sector or Regional might not approve. But if I can get that intel, we can organize the run.”

Kevin blinked. This soft-spoken, humble man was their new Commander? It was almost unbelievable, and the polar opposite of what Sector had been sending them since Taylor passed away. Was this some elaborate prank Lazarus and Yvonne had cooked up to screw with him? If it turned out those two were behind this, he’d strangle them bare-handed.
The commander shifted uncomfortably, and Kevin realized he’d been staring in silence for quite some time. He really needed to stop doing that. Unfortunately, soulful and scruffy men had always been his weakness.
He cleared his throat and pulled his glasses off, polishing them as a convenient excuse to avoid Commander Headly’s gaze.

“Well, Commander, it’s not exactly possible, but-”
“Two things,” Headly interrupted quietly. “One, my name is Aidan. Please use it instead of ‘sir’ or ‘Commander.’ Rigid command structures don’t exactly sit well with me. Two, what did I just say about dealing with achievability together?”
The heat in Kevin’s cheeks spread to the tips of his ears, and he applied himself even more studiously to polishing his glasses. He added another tally to the “Times Commander Headly has Surprised Me Today” column in his brain and took a breath. “Well. In an ideal world, we-I would love to make the base self-sufficient. Find a decent water source, some arable land, get our hands on unpatented seed and livestock embryos, and be able to properly look after ourselves without relying on Grid supply runs every few weeks.”
The silence that greeted that statement made Kevin look up, squinting at his new commander. Damian had been right about the new lens prescription. His eyesight was getting worse.
He couldn’t be certain, but it looked like Headly—Aidan, he corrected himself—was seriously considering the idea.
After an impossibly long moment, Aidan nodded. “If we’re not constantly scrounging for supplies, we might actually be able to make some headway in the fight. That’s an incredible idea- Um. Do you prefer Kevin or McIllian?”
“Kevin’s fine, sir. Aidan. Sorry.” Another question Kevin had never expected to hear out of a commander’s mouth. He slipped his glasses back on and smiled as best he could.
Aidan acknowledged the attempt with a smile and a quick nod. “Well, let’s see what we can do to work toward that goal of yours. In the meantime, is there anything I can do for you or your division?”

Kevin considered the question a moment. Anything the new commander could do? Well, he couldn’t exactly be Taylor, so that was out. And asking for a date was incredibly inappropriate. That left only the hard answer.
“A list of expectations might be nice, if you don’t mind.” He glanced at the slowly moving readouts of drone flight patterns in the Sector, studying the screen as he spoke. “And remembering that we’re human and have limits. I can’t make a miracle happen, no matter how long you want me to run my crew without rest.”

Much to Kevin’s surprise, the commander chuckled. Kevin stiffened. Logically, he knew the commander was probably attempting to sympathize. But logic didn’t stop the anger that cut through Kevin like a hot knife. This man had laughed at the idea of his friends, his family being run ragged.
Commander Quinn had laughed in his face too. Commander Adams had shown this kind of disregard for his family’s lives. Kevin didn’t have the patience to deal with a man who could turn out to be just as much of an asshole. So Headly had only been playing nice. Now the gloves came off.

Kevin gave the commander an icy stare over the rims of his glasses.
“It’s not funny. Sir,” he stated, making sure to emphasize the title. “The last two commanders Sector sent us didn’t acknowledge the conspicuous little fact that we’re mortal, and tried to work us to death. We were given four on-Grid shipment runs in seven days, and told to lay out personnel transport routes for the next six months to boot, with the logic—if you can call it that—that we’d done it once before. Yes, we had done it once before, in dire straits. Once. And those runs failed and landed most of the logistics division and part of munitions in surgery. I swore I’d never push my division like that again.”
Kevin clenched his hands into fists in his lap to keep from surging upright. “Even if we’d all worked around the clock for a full week—which, by the way, our med team would slaughter us all over— we still wouldn’t have been able to finish the work ‘to satisfaction.’ And that’s not counting how sloppy we would have gotten with the on-Grid requisitions runs. Sir.”

Commander Aidan Headly’s eyes had widened, his back stiffening.
“I didn’t realize it was that bad. I mean, I’d read the reports, but-”
Kevin continued to pierce him with the coldest stare he could manage, the fury burning in his gut. “What, you thought we were simply a collection of delinquents? Committing insubordination just for the hell of it? I hate to disrupt your cozy little bubble of illusion, sir, but, for as much vexation as we’ve caused over the last few months, we weren’t the irritant. We’re not spoiled children, so spare the rod. We’ve had enough attempts at ‘whipping into shape’ lately, the operative word being whipping.”
The confusion that crossed the commander’s face made Kevin wince internally. He’d done it again, let his anger elevate his vocabulary. It had been a mannerism he’d used habitually while he was still living on the Grid. If you sounded haughty enough almost anyone would back down. It was a hard habit to break. Apparently he still hadn’t.
And he’d lost his temper again. At the worst possible time. Hadn’t he sworn he was going to keep himself under control?
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m sorry, sir. I spoke out of frustration. What I’m trying to say is that we’re not always like this. We don’t take kindly to orders without reason, and even less so to unreasonable expectations. We’ve had nothing but unreasonable since we lost Commander Taylor, and we all know the stakes for your post here. So, if you don’t mind, please, try to remember that we’re humans, not bots.”
“I… don’t think that will be a problem,” Aidan said after a long moment. He searched Kevin’s face, his own unreadable. Slowly, he nodded. “I’ll send a list of what I’d like to see to your tab by tonight. Queen of Hearts is your current handle, right?”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Oh, not again. It’s King. King of Hearts.” “Your file said Queen.” Aidan’s brow furrowed as he glanced at the tab in his hand.
Kevin sighed and gave a helpless shrug. “We’re really not insubordinate by nature, but… well, some of us relieve stress with humor. And getting into the personnel files to make jokes is a favorite pastime.”
Aidan gave him a very small smile. “Yeah. I guess that explains a lot. And, keep in mind everything I’ll give you is flexible. If anything seems unreasonable or like it might cause issues, just let me know and we’ll talk it through. Okay?”
For a long moment, Kevin studied the commander’s face. It really was handsome with that faintly wistful look, just a touch of peach fuzz stubble and a worry line between his brows far too deep for someone his age.

He’d just balled the man out. His Commanding officer. And in return he was getting… understanding?
Eventually, Kevin found himself returning Aidan’s smile. He stuck his hand out. “I think you have a deal, Com—Aidan.”
The commander’s smile strengthened as he shook Kevin’s hand. “I look forward to working with you.”
For the first time since Commander Taylor died, Kevin felt like those words might be true.