Release Date: July 16, 2022
Series: Aces High, Jokers Wild #6
Publisher: Amphibian Press
Genre: Science Fiction
They say to really free your body, you’ve gotta free your mind…
America is waking up. People are standing up for each other and a future worth living in. But they can’t do it alone.
Now, they don’t have to. The Democratic State Force is calling in favors across the nation. Members of Base 1407 and hundreds of other teams across the country are teaching the citizens how to fight back on their terms, with tactics that hit the Corporations right where it hurts–in the wallet and the pride.
The seven Corporations that think they own the country are scrambling to keep control over the citizens’ communications, their decisions, and their lives. Every dirty trick is coming out of their bags as they lose their grip. It’s going to take a lot to beat them at this game for the country’s soul.
Life’s a bitch. She doesn’t play fair. Out-think her with every hand, and you might just win.
Excerpt: Chapter 3
Event File 03
File Tag: Assignment Of Duty
In the mirror, Liza watched her fingers ram home the pins that held her hair in its bun. It was like her mom had always said: do it right, do it tight, and it’s done for the day. The efficiency of that saying had always satisfied Liza; the clean, squared-away look the hairstyle gave her was great on any day, but it served her best on the days from hell.
She was really hoping this wouldn’t turn out to be one of those days. But Liza couldn’t be sure. So she used her special hairpins and followed her mom’s rule. Do it right, do it tight. Do the absolute best you can, and then? Well, if it all went to shit, at least it wouldn’t be your fault. And the hairpins were a good backup for her knives.
The last hairpin slid into place; Liza worked with it carefully, making sure not to tap the little button on its apex. Opening her hair-cream, she dabbed some out and ran her hands over her hair, making sure no stray wisps would sneak out of place. She checked the hang of her jacket, straightened her unit patch and rank pin, and pulled herself up for one last look in the mirror.
“Okay,” she whispered to her reflection, “Let’s get this done.”
Turning, she stepped through her quarters door and out into the hall.
It was quiet this early; only Billie and teams headed out on long-distance runs started work around now. Striding to her office, she checked the clock. Just enough time to go over the communications from National, the unions and their civilian contacts one more time, and make sure she was prepared for the inter-Quadrant Council meeting before she checked with Dozer about the truck they’d use for transport on this early-hours jaunt.
Taking her seat, she brought up her screens and ran over the
Message Handle: NationalComm
Message Authentication: 5365645swordfish
Secure Message, Command Authenticated
Message: Requesting named
Sector commanders and relevant
base personnel for attendance at
talks with civilian groups.
Finalization forthcoming. See
encrypted attachment re coordinates.
Focus: network security, resource
and personnel allocation.
Personnel Requested For Attendance:
Liza scrolled down the list, which read like an honor roll. The best bases from around the country were going to be at this event. It was going to be a heroes and legends convention. No wonder security had been so tight around it; one good drone blast would knock out the cream of the Duster crop.
Scrolling down to Western National Quadrant, CO-WY Region, Sector 14 (Front Range), she stopped at the entry for Base 1407, marveling nearly as much as she had the first time she’d read the documents two weeks before. All eleven Quadrants and who knew how many of the Regions within them were sending people to this. She’d never seen people from every
National Quadrant of the country in one place. She read the names under her base’s number. Aidan, Kevin, Tweak and herself were requested. She still wasn’t sure how the ride up was going to be, with the four of them stuck in a truck. All of them had gone up for their own specialties, but they’d never gone all together. In fact, Liza could count on one hand the number of times she’d gone up to the Regional base with anyone else, let alone to a big inter-Quadrant event like this. And Tweak hated early mornings, too. That wouldn’t make the ride any more fun.
Liza let herself sit back and think in the early morning stillness.
She’d never worked at the National level personally before, so far outside the day-to-day concerns of her own Sector and base. It was part of her duties to go up and represent Base 1407 or sit in virtually when presentations were given on new personnel procedures, new entries to the code of conduct and discipline, or new intake procedures for inducting members of the Force were implemented, but that was the kind of organizational detail she knew like the back of her hand. This was different. This was everyone from everywhere talking over options, and probably getting their hackles up about all kinds of things. That was the kind of thing Aidan was good at settling down and Kevin was good at talking around, at least when he didn’t get impatient. And of course the tech people would grab Tweak; they’d want to worship at her feet, then they’d want to work with her on checking everything over and making sure the Common Ground app was ready to go and the security was air-tight.
All that made sense. But Liza was an implementation person. She needed a direction to work in. An order to execute. What they thought somebody like her was going to do at a massive wrangling session, she had no idea.
The longer she looked at the list, the more amazed she was. The number of people showing up in person was incredible, and even more folks would be attending virtually. She was seeing names she’d whispered to the other Base kids with awe, telling stories about their work like fairytales at bedtime. And now they were going to be in the room with her.
Liza couldn’t quite believe it, so she switched to thinking about the practical things. The meeting rooms at the Regional Hub were going to be packed. Good thing Tweak had gotten work done on her nerves and started getting past her personal-space issues; all the same, Liza made a note to keep an extra eye on their prickly little coder. If anyone set the girl off, Liza would need to step in before Tweak took them apart. Maybe that was why she had been invited.
She opened the first civilian message on her list, then the second, third and fourth. All of them said basically the same thing: all this information is nice, but if you’re releasing it to us, send someone who can show our people how to use it.
She sighed under her breath. “People, come on.”
Liza turned at the sound of her friend’s voice. She gave Kevin a tight smile. “It’s the civilians in the Good Trouble beta group, they all want their hands held, even with all the resources we’re handing them. The Grapevine’s trying to help with on-the-ground training; they’ve got the experience, but they don’t have the numbers. And the organizers are insisting that in-person training is what they really need.”
“Considering the price if they get it wrong, I don’t think the organizers should be faulted for that request,” Kevin observed grimly, stepping over to drop into her spare chair with a yawn. His red hair was all over the place. It always irritated her when he left his hair a mess like that. It was so pretty when he paid attention to it.
“I know,” she agreed ruefully. “That’s part of what worries me about all this; if we get it wrong, all these civilians are going to get hurt. And…”
And she didn’t really know what to say after that. Saying she didn’t want to be responsible for that was ridiculous. But saying she didn’t want people hurt didn’t make sense either. People got hurt every day.
“You don’t need to be up yet,” she offered quietly, noting the sleepy eyes behind Kevin’s glasses. “You need more rest. We don’t head out for another couple hours.”
Kevin raised a brow; how he did just the one eyebrow, she’d never know.
“I do believe that’s the pot maligning the kettle, Liza.” She gestured at her screens. “I’ve got procedural details to go over for all this, and I’m not tired.”
“Well, neither am I,” Kevin tried, but since the sentence ended in a yawn, she felt justified in calling him on it.
“Now say that without falling asleep halfway through.”
“Touché,” Kevin chuckled. “I was on a call with some contacts on the other side of the world last night, so I may be a little sleepy. We were talking till the wee hours. An early morning trip on top of a late night call isn’t a winning combination, but I’ll nap on the ride up. Good news though; we’re getting more and more international backing, not just the server space for the Common Ground. It seems we’re no longer listed as a terrorist organization by any country outside United Corporation land.”
Liza’s heart leaped. “Really? We finally got legitimacy?”
Kevin nodded through another yawn. “Indeed.” He gave her a grin.
She glanced back at her screen, staring at it as Kevin went on. “The United Nations officially announced that they took us off the list of terrorist organizations earlier this year, it seems. Shame it took us this long to hear about it; we should have held a proper celebration.” He clapped Liza’s shoulder. “Congratulations old girl, you’re an official freedom fighter now.”
Freedom fighter. The words rolled around Liza’s head. She’d always known they were doing the right thing. Fighting for the right things.
But she’d always known she’d be spat on for a terrorist; it was part of the life she lived. Re-orienting in a world that had changed that assumption was going to be strange.
“Liza?” Kevin asked quietly. “Regretting the loss of your romantic title, by any chance?”
Liza blinked, coming back to the moment. “Being called a terrorist isn’t ‘romantic’, Kevin. What gave you that idea?”
Kevin shrugged, smirking. “Poor reading choices, probably. Bad pulp adventure novels. My greatest vice.” He pressed a hand to his heart, affecting a martyred expression. Liza shook her head, smiling in spite of herself .
“Of course I’m glad. Everything that’s happening is great, it’s just…” She paused, lost for words.
“A lot to take in?” Kevin suggested, laying a hand on her shoulder.
She glanced up into his eyes. “Yeah. A lot. I mean, earlier this week I was worrying about tumbleweeds, holes in our slick tarp and ranking requirements for new specialists, and now we’re talking about National-level meetings with all the Quadrants in the country. I’ve never worked at the National level before, not personally. I mean, all of it’s good—great—but it’s a lot. It feels… unreal.”
“I can definitely sympathize with that,” Kevin agreed. “Though I will add, it still irks me that they use the term ‘quadrant’ improperly. Quadrant means one fourth, and there’s eleven of them, I mean it’s practically language abuse!” Liza gave him a look, and he held up his hands, grinning. “I know, I know, I’m a pedant, but it’s still poor usage!”
She couldn’t help but smile at that, shaking her head. “You’re a geek, Kev honey. And you’re trying to cheer me up by being a geek.”
“Guilty as charged,” Kevin agreed with a little-boy grin. Sitting up, he sobered. “But in all seriousness… when I begin to think it’s implausible, everything that’s happening… I consider what we’ve sacrificed. It seems well-earned then.”
“You’re not wrong,” Liza sighed. She gave her friend a weak smile.
“Lazarus would have said something about them demoting him from ‘terrorist’.”
Kevin’s sad smile mirrored hers. “I know how I would have bolstered his ego, too.”
“I would have told him that he was still a terror.”
Liza gave a little laugh. Reaching up, she squeezed Kevin’s arm.
“We’re doing good.”
“Indeed we are,” the younger man agreed.
At that point, Liza couldn’t resist anymore. “Hold still a second, okay? We’ve got a big meeting, and I’ve got a comb in my desk; I’m just going to get your hair neat real quick, okay?”
Kevin was out of his chair like a scalded cat. “You are never going to stop trying to nanny me!” He exclaimed, laughing. “Not ‘okay’ at all! I’ll go back to my own room and brush my own hair with a mirror, thank you very much. You yank when you do it.”
He stepped to the door, just in time to give Deliquisha a quick high- five as she stepped into Liza’s office. “Watch out, she wants to brush someone’s hair,” Kevin quipped.
The seventeen-year-old gave her a jaundiced look. “Yeah, no, you were bad enough doing that when I was little. Besides,” she tapped the crown of Bantu knots she wore for today’s look. “No loose hair to brush?”
“She takes care of her hair, I don’t need to brush it,” Liza shot at Kevin’s back. That got her a wave of the hand and a chuckle out in the hall, along with Deliquisha preening just a little. The girl really did do a good job with her hair; around fifteen, she’d gotten into figuring out Black hair, and now every day her hair was on point in some amazing style. She’d come such a long way from the scared six-year-old in fuzzy pigtails that her big brother had arrived on base with. They’d all come a long way, really; Damian had been delivered to their base unconscious, his eyes destroyed by the chemical bomb he’d found in his home office. The twin six-year-olds in the truck with him had been staring and silent, traumatized. Now Damian was one of the most respected Democratic State Force medical officers in the Western Quadrant, and you could barely see the scared child in the face of this confident young woman with her hair in Bantu knots and her eyes on the work screens.
“You’re up early,” Liza observed.
“Yeah. I wanted to double-check stuff before you went out on the big trip,” Deliquisha agreed as she dropped into what had become her seat in the last year. “So, you guys leave at oh-eight-hundred. What do we have going on while you’re gone?”
“Mainly getting the trade and barter shipment ready to go out. Kevin was cleaning their room, and he bumped into Aidan’s old binders in the back of a drawer; add a note that we’ve got chest binders for anyone who’s dealing with dysphoria,” Liza suggested. Deliquisha nodded, typing.
“Got it. I’ll check with Aidan and get the binder size.”
“And we’ve got to file everyone’s annual Statement of Consent To Serve,” Liza added, bringing up the files, and sighing. “Actually, chase everyone down to sign their Statements, then file them.”
“People haven’t signed? It’s been a month!” Deliquisha tapped the air around the screen, enlarging it, and rolled her eyes. “Oh of course my twin forgets to sign. And of course Yvonne and Sarah haven’t done it. I’ll corner them today, sound good?”
“I like this plan,” Liza agreed with a smile for the kid. “We also need to check everyone off on their hand-to-hand training for this week, and on their physical health tests. Alice got us the paperwork last night.”
“Got it,” Deliquisha agreed, tapping at her screen. “Do you have time for a homework question?”
“Shoot,” Liza agreed.
“Our assignment to write up the history of the eleven Quadrants and their Regions.” Tapping her screen, she brought up the table of contents for her paper. Liza ran her eyes over it. There were all the Quadrants: Freshwater Quadrant and New Netherlands, the Midlands, Tidewater and Appalachia, the Gulf Quadrant and El Norte Quadrant, Cascadia, Western Quadrant, New France and the First Nation Quadrant. Under each, Deliquisha had meticulously noted the Regions, abbreviated by state grids they covered, and the Sectors inside each.
“Do you want a quick historical summary of each Sector in each Region, or just an overview at the Regional level?” The young woman asked, glancing up.
“I think you’d end up writing a book if you did all that, so let’s not go down to the Sector level,” Liza replied, keeping her eyes forward. “Maybe just talk about why we partition things the way we do; that’s plenty. Why Sectors are designed to encompass three population centers each, things like that.”
Del nodded. “And you want to give the official state names for the Regions as well as the handles? So, Colorado and Wyoming for our Region, not just the CO-WY Grid?”
“Yep,” Liza agreed. “The Corps still label things by state, so it’s important to know how their system corresponds to ours. Besides, if you interact with civvies, they know states, not regions.”
“Kay,” Deliquisha agreed. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” Liza agreed. Excitement bubbled under her skin, but she got the words out casually. “Keep it around ten pages and go over how the history of a National Quadrant and Region affects decisions made by people raised there, and you’re good. Oh, and we need to make a schedule change for next week. Put something in after the time that’s blocked out for debriefing after the big meeting, okay?”
“Okay,” Deliquisha brought up the unit’s schedule. “What are we putting in?”
“Add a Ranking Ceremony for one Ms. Deliquisha Oshun Coson, noncombatant, to be raised to the rank of Specialist In Training, Command Division.”
Deliquisha’s eyes shot wide. She turned in her seat. “I made rank?”
Liza grinned. “Turned the paperwork over to Aidan last week. We got the approval yesterday. You made rank.” “I made rank! I made rank!” with a whoop, Deliquisha jumped out of her chair and glommed onto Liza for the hug of her life. Liza returned it,
grinning. “You earned it,” she added, holding Deliquisha out at arms’ length to smile at her. “Honestly, we should have gotten it for you a year ago, but Regional didn’t want to rank a sixteen-year-old. You’ve been so much help since you started doing stuff with me. I never could have kept up during the MACHA disaster, if you hadn’t been helping out. I couldn’t have asked for a better Specialist.” Deliquisha beamed at her, bright as a sunflower in June. “What call sign should I pick?”
“That’s up to you,” Liza replied, straightening the girl’s jacket where it had been rumpled by the excitement. “Right now, let’s get everything prepped and settled for you to watch the shop while I’m gone, kay?”
“Kay!” Deliquisha enthused, still a little bouncy. She took a deep breath, composed herself, and straightened up. “Ready for duty!” Liza pulled back and saluted her, heart swelling with pride as her second in command returned the salute. Then let herself smile. “Let’s get after the people who are late on their papers.”
Deliquisha grinned. “You got it!”
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About the author
O.E. Tearmann (they/them) is the author of the Aces High, Jokers Wild series. Their books include strong themes of diversity and found family, providing a surprisingly hopeful take on a dystopian future. Bringing their own experiences as a marginalized author together with flawed but genuine characters, Tearmann’s work has been described as “Firefly for the dystopian genre.” Publisher’s Weekly called The Hands We’re Given “a lovely paean to the healing power of respectful personal connections among comrades, friends, and lovers.”
Tearmann lives in Colorado with two cats, their partner, and the belief that individuals can make humanity better through small actions. They are a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, the Colorado Resistance Writers and the Queer Scifi group. In their spare time, they teach workshops about writing GLTBQ characters, speak and plant gardens to encourage sustainable agricultural practices, and play too many video games. Find out more about them at https://oetearmann.com