The year: 2157
The mission: change everything
The Unit: Democratic State Force Base 1407
Call handle: The Wildcards
Seven Corporations control what was the United States of America. The food supply and its production is controlled by American AgCo. All agricultural seeds in the United States have been genetically designed to fail outside Corporate control.
At least, that’s what the Corporations say.
There’s a rumor that a seed bank has survived the destabilization that brought down old America, and the seventy-five years of Corporate ownership that followed. If it still exists, it would provide free, accessible food for the Democratic State Force and everyone in their care. It’s a risky hunt for a treasure that may or may not exist. Something to put the most resourceful team in the Force to work on. The Wildcards just got the call.
A hunt for hidden treasure.
What could go wrong?
Never ask that question. Life’s a bitch. She’ll answer.
“Hey birthday boy! Catch!”
The box sailed through the air. Kevin reached out to catch it reflexively as it sailed down the hall, and yelped as Blake smacked his rear. He should have known.
“Twenty one!” the finance officer exclaimed with relish. Kevin raised his eyes to heaven. “Blake,” he began patiently, “you know I have a great deal of admiration for your skills; bear that in mind when I tell you that this ‘birthday smacks’ thing was a bloody stupid game when I was seventeen, and by the time I’ve hit twenty seven it’s become more than a little egregious, not to mention utterly beneath my dignity and yours, and—ow!”
“Twenty two!” Sarah crowed behind him. Kevin sighed and, pointedly, put his back against the corridor wall.
“I hate you. Both. With a deep and abiding passion.”READ MORE
Sarah cocked her head, grinning. “Open your present and then say that.”
Kevin eyed her as he undid the tape on the box. “If this is some indelicate gag gift, I’ll have you know that I will not be amused, in fact I will be…oh …wow…”
With a grin, Kevin lifted out the t-shirt. The image printed on the fabric showed an ancient music distribution device, its magnetic tape spooling out artistically around the words ‘Life is a Mix Tape’. Kevin laughed at the words. “A Rob Sheffield quote! Stupendous! Alright, maybe my hatred has been somewhat ameliorated.” Stepping forward, he bowed his head and gave Sarah a peck on the brow. “Thanks, this rocks.”
“Tell Aidan I made it to match,” Sarah acknowledged with a grin.
“Hey! Don’t squeal!” Tweak’s high voice snapped as she opened the door of Aidan’s office behind Kevin and stepped out into the hall. Kevin turned to give her a weary smile. “Thanks for the assist, Tweak, these plebes are—”
A sting across his rear was paired with Sarah’s crow of, “twenty three!” Kevin sighed. “Sarah,” he remarked in his best teacher-is-displeased tone, “I understand that you are proudly bisexual, but you do not, in fact, need to prove it by taking swipes at my ass. You may be bisexual, but I’m not, and I’m not impressed. Are we clear?”
“What are we doing that involves Kev’s ass? Do I want to know?” Aidan asked, looking out into the hall with preoccupied eyes.
“Aidan, love, save me from the depredations of the mob!” Kevin threw out, putting on a vid-worthy show by pressing a hand to his heart. That got him a medley of chuckles from his boyfriend and his family. Aidan shook his head a little, lips quirked at the corners. “Okay guys, enough until dinner. I need Kev focused for talking through a mission plan. Go do your jobs.”
“I suppose we’ll let you have him for now,” Blake harrumphed, arms folded over his pot belly, “only don’t be late for dinner, you hear me, you lovebirds? We’re not letting Kevin duck out on a decent party again this year.”
“Define ‘decent’,” Kevin countered. Tweak snickered as she sidestepped out of her commander’s office. Crossing her arms, she looked up at Kevin. “My present. On your tab,” she chirped. “Later. Not now. Take a l-look. Try twenty three. Have fun!” Then she was off down the hall, her ridiculously oversized combat boots clattering on the prefab floor panels.
Kevin blinked, shaking his head as he stepped into Aidan’s office. “You know, I’ve tried to requisition Tweak new boots three times this year. She won’t give up those gun ships she’s wearing. Any idea what that crack about a present references?” he asked, glancing dubiously over his shoulder as he took a seat. “Or do I want to know?”
Aidan shook his head, but he bit his lip in a gesture Kevin had come to know: the man was trying not to grin.
“No idea,” his boyfriend managed, choking on a laugh, “though she did say she’s got the bugs out of our systems. Eagle’s pairing with Techo to send out a ton of virus shit aimed at Force systems.”
“I heard,” Kevin agreed absently, glancing back the way Tweak had gone. “The GreyNet’s started getting restricted too, which is inconvenient on requisition runs. And that’s not to mention the damn ‘independent contractors’ sniffing around our routes and our online communications, like the mangy scavengers they are.” Turning, he eyed Aidan over the rims of his glasses. “Aidan, love. In all honesty, this present. Tell me I haven’t just gotten pranked. Again.”
“It’s not a prank,” Aidan protested, blue eyes twinkling. “Like she said; it’s a birthday present. Though you should probably wait until we’re done with work before you open it.”
“If it’s from her I shudder to think.” Kevin replied as he took his seat. “I’ve already had twenty three ‘happy birthday’ slaps on the ass today. I’m truly beginning to despise birthdays. So what have we got on this?”
“It’s another extraction, for the guys who’re getting too much attention from that undercover job assigned to Base 1321. They need an out, ASAP,” Aidan explained, pointing at the screen. “It should be simple, but we lost our contact in the garage that I thought we could use to get them into a vehicle under cover, and now I’m kind of staring at this and stuck.”
Kevin leaned in. “Lost him, as in…”
“He transferred,” Aidan replied. “He was pretty sure his supervisor was getting wise. He’s helping out in a new Sector, but now we’re screwed.”
“Maybe not,” Kevin mused as he studied the timetables on the screen, his mind flicking through possibilities. He moved the multicolored boxes of time slots around the screen experimentally. “If we try getting Hansen on this shift, he could walk over to the garage and…hm…”
It took another hour to sort out the difficulties and lay out an extraction plan to get the team from another base out of their undercover operation and off the Grid safely.
Kevin glanced at the clock as he leaned back, satisfied, and shot his boyfriend a sidelong smile. “Prepare yourself, the rampant mob is probably going to come banging on the door asking why we haven’t come to the birthday dinner yet.”
Aidan gave him one of his quiet, cockeyed smiles. “Guess I better give you this before they get in here.”
Reaching under his desk, he tugged out a cardboard box, large enough that he had an awkward moment getting it into his hands. He laid it in Kevin’s lap. “See what you think.”
Kevin glanced down at it, brows quirking. “Now this is interesting. Where’ve you been hiding this, love?”
Aidan shrugged, deflecting the question. “This one’s not just from me, but the guys decided I should give it to you. Open it?”
Carefully, Kevin unfolded the box’s interleaved flaps. What he saw inside made his thoughts stall.
Stupefaction. That would be the right word for this feeling, he decided. Or possibly wonderment. An old word with Middle English and German antecedents, wonderment. It was a good candidate as descriptor for the joyful shock he was experiencing.
Sitting there, in his lap, was an analog music player, ranks of cassette tapes packed neatly all around it. The cassette player gleamed in the room lights, the colors in its petroleum-based plastic surfaces still bright. The stuff lasted so much longer than the agar-based plastics of the modern world. They’d probably be scrounging things from the days when it was used for another hundred years yet. The machine barely looked twenty years old. The chrome dials and trim were cloudy with innumerable small scratches, the patina of age and wear. Some of the brittle plastic cassette cases were spider-webbed with cracks, their plastic yellowing over the brilliant artwork and the fascinating titles.
He raised his eyes to Aidan’s in amazement. His boyfriend was smiling like a little boy.
“Where…how …how did you find this?” Kevin managed, the words escaping in a breath of awe.
Aidan shrugged, his face alight. “I told the guys about all those songs that the Corps deleted off American servers after the Incorporation. The ones you talked about wanting to hear sometime? Tweak jumped the firewalls and got on some international collectors’ forums under a fake handle, Jim went trading with Fringers. Janice called a buddy she knows. Yvonne ran and picked everything up when people got a lead on it. Topher fixed the player she found. He added new power conduits to it, replaced the old charge cord it had. All I did was give everybody clearance to go for it. So, what do you think?”
For a moment, Kevin was utterly lost for words. With reverent hands, he set the box aside. Then he leaned in and kissed his man long and deep, stroking his hair. “I think I love you,” he murmured against Aidan’s skin, feeling his amazement and his thankfulness like a cup running over in his chest.
“Later on I’ll give you my present,” Aidan replied, leaning into his touch. Kevin laughed in thrilled bewilderment. “This isn’t enough?”
“This isn’t just from me,” Aidan countered, returning the kiss. “Besides, after what you gave me that first birthday of mine we had together? I kind of owe you. So I got ahold of wine and something special.”
“That wine sounds fairly special in its own right,” Kevin murmured, “How—”
“Traded at Sector on my last trip up,” Aidan murmured with another soft kiss. Kevin leaned into his touch.
“Mm. Do you know what the French say about wine?” he asked, tipping his head to breathe the words into Aidan’s ear. He loved the little shiver that ran through his man as Aidan replied, “No? Tell me?”
“Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire,” Kevin murmured, kissing Aidan’s throat. “When the wine is drawn, one must drink it. And I think—”
The multipartite cacophony shattered the air. Kevin fell out of his chair. Scrambling to his knees, he glared up at the sound of laughter. In the doorway, five of their fellow Wildcards leaned against each other, laughing fit to burst.
“Perfect timing! Perfect!” Yvonne gasped out. Kevin sighed. “Yvonne,” he remarked wearily, “remind me to hunt you down the next time you’re snogging Sarah and make a fool of you, will you?”
“Oh sweetie, it’s no fun to get after them, they do it on any flat surface.” Blake snickered. “You two are the only ones who make such a fuss!” Behind him, Jim and Topher laughed like a pair of hyenas.
“You know, the last time I checked the regs, it was polite to knock on your commander’s door when you wanted to talk,” Aidan interjected mildly.
“Oh knock it off Aidan, workday’s over,” Sarah declared, leaning against Topher as she caught her breath. “Besides, we knew if the birthday boy wasn’t working, he’d be with you somewhere.” Stepping into the room, she offered her hand to help Kevin up. “C’mon, we want to celebrate!”
Kevin turned his eyes to the ceiling, mostly for show. “If that be my fate, then I shall resign myself to….oof!” he finished, as Henrietta wormed through the group to land on his chest, hugging him.
“Happy birthday!” The four-year-old giggled. “Thanks,” Kevin managed on a wheeze, “but you’re a big girl now. You’re too heavy for sitting on my ribs, sweetheart.”COLLAPSE