Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today: O.E. Tearmann 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 it “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.
Thanks so much, O. E., for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
O. E. Tearmann: We describe it as Hopeful Queer Cyberpunk. It fits pretty cozily on the sci-fi shelf.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
OET: That’d be Aces High Jokers Wild Book 1, The Hands We’re Given. The best way to describe it is ‘Firefly crossed with MASH 4077 and set in a cyberpunk world’
JSC: Do you use a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, why not?
OET: Yep! O.E. Tearmann is a pen name for a writing duo: Olivia Wylie and E.S. Argentum.
The O. in O.E. Tearmann, Olivia Wylie (she/her), is a professional horticulturist and business owner who specializes in the restoration of neglected gardens. When the weather keeps her indoors, she enjoys researching and writing about the plant world, the future, and the complexities of being human. Her solo work is in illustrated non-fiction works of ethnobotany, intended to make the intersection of human history and plant evolution accessible to a wider audience. She lives in Colorado with a very patient husband and a rather impatient cat. Her works can be viewed at www.leafingoutgardening.com
As the “E” in the O.E. Tearmann writing duo, E.S. Argentum (they/them) brings to a life a cast of eccentric, loveable characters. They bring the same passion for diverse, character-driven stories seen in Aces High, Jokers Wild to their solo work. E.S Argentum’s fantasy and scifi romances center on GLBTQ+ relationships with the emotional comfort of your favorite puff piece, layered with rich, unique twists. They have short stories published in multiple anthologies under the pseudonym of Emily Singer, including Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Crossing Colfax and Ultimate Power, from Northwest press. When they’re not writing, they’re generally found playing video games, having existential crises, or napping with their cat. Their work can be viewed at https://argentumbooks.com
So, why Tearmann?
Both Olivia and E.S. study the Irish language. In Irish, ‘tearmann’ is defined as: noun. A refuge, place of asylum, home or sanctuary. When these two authors decided to write a series centering healthy social bonds as the best way to deal with traumatic events, and giving agency to marginalized characters, it seemed only fitting to use a name that means ‘a sanctuary’.
JSC: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
OET: Be brave, little one. Be persistent. Keep telling tales. Good things are coming
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
OET: heh heh heh, Olivia here, I have a real taste for including people who annoy me and then…well, excoriating them. A former manager of mine became Sector Commander Schultz, a very distasteful little man. A worse-than-useless person of my acquaintance became a pig-headed commander whose hubris gets him killed. Most recently, we got a piece of hate mail trying to scold us for posting a Langston Hughes poem on the Fourth of July.
We copied it, pasted it, and made it into the speech of a nasty character. Then we gave him his reply via one of our characters…and his just desserts 😉
It’s like Chaucer said in A Knight’s Tale. I was naked for a day. Those who cross me will be naked for eternity.
JSC: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
OET: I do, but first I check the star count. If it’s low, I don’t read it. I don’t need stranger’s bile pulling me down.
JSC: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
OET: usually about six months, if I’ve got it in my head beforehand.
JSC: Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
OET: As two writers, we work on a lot of different things: Olivia has a few illustrated nonfiction projects and writes urban fantasy, and E.S. writes alternate-world steampunk fantasy and essays on modern Paganism. I think on this project, we didn’t so much choose a genre as take what was offered. We were writing out our fears in 2016 by imagining the worst version of the future in the United States that we could see current events taking us towards. And then we wrote our characters getting themselves and each other into a better future, to prove to ourselves it could be done.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
OET: Oh very much so. Our main character is a trans guy, and his relationship with his boyfriend draws on E.S.’s experience to explore dating (and sex) between these men. We were sick of seeing the few examples of trans relationships being fetishized, so we started our focus on the guys. Around them, we have a cast that reflects the communities we live in: a cast of characters from every stripe of the rainbow and all walks of life. Because that’s how our world really is. And it’s time our stories reflected that.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
OET: for Olivia most things begin with an image, and for E.S. things usually start with a person. Together, we create pretty cool things from those seeds.
JSC: What was one of the most surprising things you’ve learned in writing your books?
OET: Well, recently we were incredibly grateful that we do our research. One of our newest characters is named Inyoni. His nickname was going to be Yoni. But it turns out that’s the Sanscrit word for a lady’s private parts. So his nickname very quickly became Bird.
JSC: How do you combine all the different worlds of your life in your works?
OET: Well, E.S. gets frazzled. Olivia very carefully compartmentalizes and schedules to balance it all. And then gets frazzled. However, our mixed experiences let us put in a lot of fun details that make our settings more real and believable.
JSC: What does success mean to you?
OET: We have a couple fond goals: making a little more money, getting into SFWA, and getting a few more (good!) reviews on all the books. But those are bonus points. We’ve already succeeded. When we touch a reader’s heart, make them feel seen, and give them hope, we’ve done our job.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
OET: With Book 6 out the door, we’re working on Book 7 of this 8-book series! So close, we’re so close.
We’re also working on the audiobook for Book 5, due out in September of this year.
They say to really free your body, you 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.
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 messages.
Message Handle: NationalComm
Message Authentication: 5365645swordfish
Secure Message, Command Authenticated
Message: Requesting named Sector commanders and relevant base personnel for attendance at inter-Quadrant implementation 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 were taking 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!”
The CO-WY Regional Base was beyond packed when Liza and her team got in, and there were more people in line behind them. The organizers had taken down some of the module walls between two rec-rooms and one of the base canteens to make a gigantic meeting space, and people were everywhere; clusters of folks from the same base chatting among themselves, people with the lean, quick look of Logistics comparing notes over here, people with the bright eyes of Technical over there throwing their hands around. Liza guessed they were telling stories to impress each other. That definitely looked like an ‘I can top that’ conversation.
Beside Aidan, Tweak squeaked. “D-D-Deniki!” The little woman took off like a bullet in a black leather jacket, racing across the room to glom onto a huge guy with skin like South Colorado soil and hair long and dark as vulture wings. The man had to be six-four, built like a bulldozer, and Tweak was hugging him.
Liza had to repeat that phrase in her head. Tweak. Was. Hugging. Somebody.
“Well will you look at that,” Kevin murmured. “Will wonders never cease.”
“Pretty cool, hunh?” Aidan observed quietly, dividing a smile between Liza and his husband. Liza gave him a small smile. “Our little girl’s all grown up?”
Kevin gave her a dry look. “And you say I’m a sap.”
Liza saw his dry look and raised him a patient expression. “You are.”
The conversations around the room snapped off. Everyone faced forward with the precision trained into them as the Regional and even Quadrant Officers filed up to the front of the room, along with a number of civilians and, holy crap, three members of the National Command Council.
Liza blinked, staring at the insignia on the collar of the magnetic woman in front of the room, and the two men who flanked her. Holy crap. Holy. Crap. Three of the thirty-three people who met to create consensus policies for the Democratic State Force and stand as an alternate government in negotiations with international press and allies. Were standing in this room. With her.
“Welcome, everyone,” the woman at the center of the gathering stated. “I am Councilor Williams, standing for the Cascadia National Quadrant. With me are Councilor Hernandez, standing for the Western National Quadrant, and Councilor DuValle, standing for the Tidewater National Quadrant. We’re pleased to see this gathering come together; everyone standing in this room represents a new phase in this fight.” She gave the gathering a tight smile. “Today, people, we turn a page. Today, we welcome our civilian friends, and begin to work together towards a better future.” Turning, Councilor Williams stepped out of her place in line and shook the hand of the woman Liza had known as a sick refugee in a bed, gasping as the gene-tailored disease called MACHA attacked her from within. That monster of a disease had been unleashed into the water supplies of dissenters across the nation by Cavanaugh Corporation, and it had cost them all. But today, the head of the Denver chapter of the Writer’s Union stood tall, perfectly coiffed and proud in a cream pantsuit. She shook Councilor Williams’ hand firmly, then glanced over the crowd. Liza stayed at parade rest, as protocol dictated, but she caught Aidan giving the woman a little wave out of the corner of her eye. Up at the front of the room, Phyllis smiled and returned the discrete wave.
Councilor Williams shook hands with the rest of what must be Union leaders. “We are glad to work with you going forward. If you’ll excuse me, for a moment I’m going to address my Force directly.” When she turned back, her mahogany face was sober in its lines. “People. I’m going to get to the point here: our mission has never wavered, and it never will. But from now on, our tactics change. If you don’t like the direction the Force is going by the end of the week, get out now. You’ll have the support to make a new life in a new country. But this change in tactics is happening. Period.”
There was a stunned quiet. Liza caught Kevin’s eye, giving him a ‘what the hell?’ look. He shrugged, looking just as confused.
Up at the front of the room, Williams thawed out a little as she went on. “The National Council has been reviewing our tactics, with reference to success rates and effective actions. And we’ve come to this conclusion: our most successful actions didn’t involve a weapon. They involved the informing and the empowering of civilians, and they involved the removal of Corporate power structures. So, this week, we make a change. This week, we will be presenting our civilian allies with a new set of digital tools and resources that will make it possible for them to resist Corporate control and begin to erode the Corporate power base, on the civilians’ terms. We will be offering possible options for the Unions to vote on implementing. We will be refocusing on a new aim: gaining the participation of four percent of the American population in orchestrated non-violent movements of resistance.”
A quiet rumble made the rounds of the room, a summer thunderhead of unease. Williams talked through it. “Why four percent? Research. Data from three hundred and twenty three violent and nonviolent campaigns in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and a hundred and seventy seven such scenarios in the twenty-first and twenty-second, were collated and analyzed jointly by the Council and two independent international bodies, CANVAS and the World Court For Human Rights. The findings accorded across the board. A complete file of the research will be on everyone’s tabs after this meeting. What we find is this: nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns. The research shows that a nonviolent campaign led to political change fifty-three percent of the time, compared to twenty six percent for the violent protests. I like the sound of those numbers. Anybody else like the sound of those numbers?”
There was some quiet clapping, and a few whoops, but Liza was pretty sure the rest of the crowd was still trying to catch up with the conversation mentally.
“Nonviolent campaigns are more likely to succeed because they can recruit many more participants from across the social strata,” Williams continued, “and when all those people act, that paralyzes normal urban life and the functioning of a city, even a country. If we get four percent of the population behind us—and I mean four percent of everyone; grandparents, kids, everyone—then the Corps are done.” She paced the room, obsidian eyes boring into them all. “People. We’ve been trying things the old military way since our grandparents’ day. And we’re still out here eating rats and ration bars. It isn’t working. This is the time for a new way to do things. The population is sick of Corporate atrocities. One of our most impactful actions to date was the release of the Folder. Everyday people saw babies and the poor being made into dog food. And now the Corps are openly using bio-weapons. People are disgusted. If we offer them a real, a viablealternative? They’ll grab it with both hands. If we can reach thirteen million out of the three hundred million people in this country—four percent—then we win.”
She clapped her own hands together. “So. This week, we run discussion groups, as well as break-out sessions that will allow each division to discuss your areas of expertise in detail with our civilian contacts. Schedules are available on the screens around the room.”
She swept her eyes around the space. A real speaker, Liza thought. She knows how to make us feel like she’s talking to every one of us.
“We in the Democratic State Force commit today to providing the resources, support and protection the civilian communities need to assert their human rights and demand a government that supports them.” Williams continued, her voice ringing around the room. “The days of fighting in the Dust and the shadows are at an end. Together, all of us are going to work towards a new way of reclaiming this country. Our country. Together, we’re going to shine a light over this nation. And in that light, something new will grow.”
This time the clapping in the room was incredible. It went on until Liza’s hands hurt.
And then it was time to check schedules, and move to assigned rooms, and really get to work.
Two hours later, Liza was in the Command-division breakout session with heads of Unions, legendary Commanders of the Force and a National Councilor. And she’d never wanted out of any place more. Had it only been two hours? It felt like two days. The leaders for the new Unions just would not let go.
“Yeah, we understand that you’re giving us all this information,” the Packing and Shipping Union’s head guy was saying for about the fourth time, “but what do you want us to do, hold up a bunch of books we’ve read when EagleCorp goons come to bash our heads in?”
“What do you expect us to do, be the ones who keep on taking the beating?” the Commander from a Base out East demanded. “What, you want us to die for you some more?”
Liza worked to repress a sigh. She knew that only the best of the best commanders were here; only the people with the highest success and innovation rates had been invited. But it was depressing how often the best of the best didn’t get along when you put them in a room.
“People,” Aidan cut in, pitching his voice in that sharp tone that always cut the chatter back home. The two men went still. Aidan spoke into the silence he’d made. “Nobody wants anybody to die around this table. Don’t start that. It doesn’t get us anywhere good.”
At the head of the table, National Councilor Hernandez sighed, running a hand over his salt-and-pepper hair. “I think we all need a break. Ten minutes, everybody.”
With a lot of side-eyes and grumbles, people got up and took their breaks. Liza turned her head and watched Aidan deflate a little in his seat. He caught her looking, and gave her a crooked little smile.
“You want to go home yet?” He asked in an undertone.
For a moment Liza froze, the idea of being unprofessional in this setting grinding the gears in her brain. But most people had left the table, and after all, this was Aidan.
She gave him a tight smile. “Been wanting to get out of here for an hour,” she murmured. “You?”
Aidan leaned back in his seat with a tired grin. “Wanted out pretty much since we got in.”
They shared a quick laugh, resting up for what was starting to feel like rounds of sparring. Liza had thought the civilians would be excited about the Common Ground App and all the information it handed them. But the leaders of the Unions’ reactions ran the gamut from unimpressed to intimidated. None of them seemed even a little excited. It was kind of a letdown.
In the corner, Hernandez was having a quiet conference with Commander Hall and Commander Magnum. For a moment, Magnum flicked dark eyes up, and Liza watched him and Aidan share a look. Then Magnum swept that searchlight look over Liza, and away. She breathed out. Her sector commander was great, but that said, he was intense.
“Okay,” Hernandez began when everyone had taken their seats again, “new plan. How does this sound: the Force puts together dedicated training teams, people with experience in organization and operations, as well as dealing with Corporate backlash. They’ll travel between Union setups within their Sectors. We’ll give day-long classes—”
“A day?” The guy from the Denver chapter of the Union of Health Workers demanded, voice shrill. “Are you kidding?! That isn’t enough!” Liza repressed a frown. Trust a Cavanaugh guy to feel entitled to more.
“It would need to be longer than a day to cover the material,” Phyllis agreed with quiet calm.
“They’re not wrong, sir,” Aidan agreed. “There’s a lot to go over.”
The adobe-skinned man considered for a moment, tapping his knuckles against the table. “What about this? We kill two birds with one stone and send out tech personnel with these training personnel. Techies add VPNs for the Meshnet. At each gathering, they’ll get everyone’s tabs cleaned of Corps surveillance and set up with Force encryptions and a copy of the Common Ground app, while trainers teach. That way, our new friends know what they’re doing and have the tools to do it with. Thoughts?”
“I like the sound of that,” Commander Magnum agreed.
Thoughtfully, Hagge nodded. “I don’t like this long-term personnel depletion on our bases; it could bring down mission effectiveness.” She tipped her head. “But it could work. Let’s talk about a core curriculum for these teach-ins. That’ll tell us how long they need to be.”
Four hours later, they had a bare-bones set of classes that nobody hated. That would be refined and expanded later, but it was a start. And they had a plan for week-long training sessions given to each Union gathering. They took dinner and reconvened, going over a plan that was looking less and less awful.
“Last thing we need is a name that people want to say for these classes,” Commander Seattle suggested, their dark eyes dancing. “You name something, you give it spirit. And this needs a hell of a lot of spirit to get off the ground.”
“Good point,” Hernandez agreed, nodding at the commander. “Floor’s open, people. Throw out ideas.”
And people started putting things up. Revolution Academy, 1776 School, Dandelion Academy, Mustard Seed School and Matrix Training all got suggested, in honor of old history and old stories. None of those were quite right. The Democratic State Force-Civilian Coalition Joint Training Groups got offered up. Everyone agreed to drop that one; too much of a mouthful. Someone suggested the Democratic Army Training, and that got the man the stink eye and a comment of ‘yeah, if you want to get us shot’, from the guy standing for the Grapevine. He wasn’t wrong.
An uncomfortable lull fell over the gathering. Liza glanced around the room. Was nobody going to say the obvious?
She cleared her throat. “Permission to speak freely, sir?” she asked, addressing the National Councilor. She was actually addressing a National Councilor. If she wasn’t a professional, she’d be giddy.
Hernandez gave her a patient look. “The floor’s open, Officer Carlan. We’re not standing on protocol tonight.”
He knows my name! The little girl inside Liza exclaimed. She gave a polite smile. “Thank you, sir. What we’ve been sending out is called the Good Trouble Bundle. So the logical follow up is to call this training program the Good Trouble Training, or Good Trouble Camp, or something along those lines. It connects the dots for people intuitively.”
For a moment, the room was quiet. Liza’s heart seized. Were they all writing her off? Fine. If they were, let them. At least she’d tried.
Then Commander Seattle clapped their hands. “Now that’s the spirit!”
“Good Trouble Training. I like that,” the guy from the shipping union put in, mulling it over out loud.
“I’d suggest Good Trouble University?” Phyllis offered. “It gives a touch of class.”
“Even better!” The Medical Union guy agreed, nodding enthusiastically. The more they talked, the more concrete Good Trouble University became.
“Okay, everyone in favor of the name, hands up,” Hernandez offered. Out of the twenty people at the table, eighteen went up. Liza didn’t want to be seen voting for her own idea, but she had to smile at the sight. Glancing over, Aidan gave her a quick, proud grin that made her heart swell.
“Now that’s settled,” the National Councilor stated, “I’ve got work for my Regional and Sector Commanders. List out your best people where it comes to structure, personnel placement and organization. If they know tactics, even better. Get me a list by tomorrow. Base Commanders, day after tomorrow you’ll meet with your Sector Commanders to discuss the assignments and give your feedback. Everyone, expect to see finalized lists by day three of this event.”
“Yes sir,” the Dusters around the table replied automatically. The civilians looked a little freaked out.
It was amazing how fast the days went by, considering that individual meetings never seemed to end. Liza sat in with the logistics teams to talk over how to liaise with the civilians and get them hooked up with more tangible resources; sound boxes and slick tarps for securing meeting spaces were the first thing on everyone’s list. She sat in on two more discussions to finalize the core curriculum for the Good Trouble University; the trainers who went out would have to use every moment of their seven-day trainings effectively, and that took planning. She sat in with the Union leaders to help them clean up their charters and draw up effective policies and codes of conduct that pushed citizens in the direction of becoming the kind of people the movement needed. They worked up a list of solid nonviolent actions that could be carried out on a city-wide basis, as well as some bigger campaigns that could be orchestrated across the country. The assembled groups of Dusters and Union members voted on the actions that would go out across the nation, and Liza was impressed with the list they ended up with. The union leaders would have plenty to take back to their organizations for further discussion and voting. Liza sat in on the on-boarding talks too, discussing how to balance recruitment and security. The talks were mostly productive, though everyone was still stumped on the question of preventing infiltrators and informants from getting in with everyone else. That conversation set off some arguments, but it could have been worse. Liza was glad to see that people had worked out most of their bravado on day one. By now, you mostly got quick fizzles of irritation from the tired and the frustrated, but that was easy to deal with.
She was grabbing breakfast and checking her daily schedule on the third day, when Kevin’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts. “Got a moment, Liza? I’ve got something I think you should take a look at.”
“Hm?” Liza looked up from her tab, oatmeal dripping off the serving spoon. “Something wrong?”
Kevin shook his head, smiling his ‘I’ve got a surprise’ smile. Times like this, it was hard to remember he wasn’t the teenager who’d arrived when she was twenty.
“I’d say something’s very right, personally. Come on, put the spoon down and come see this.”
Wondering what the catch was here, Liza put the spoon down and followed her friend. Kevin wasn’t usually the type to pull tricks, but he got up to something every once in a while. He usually had better sense than to do anything during important events, but Liza had learned to keep an eye on everybody in her team. Love them? Sure. Trust them to behave? Not so much.
She followed Kevin across the room, where a handful of projectors were throwing lists up on the wall.
Good Trouble University Teams, By Sector
Kevin gave a ceremonial little wave of the hands. “My lady, your superior nature finally receives the recognition it merits.”
Liza gave him the side-eye. “Kevin, we’re at a high-level meeting. Tone it down.”
He gave a sigh of defeat. “Yes, nanny.”
“That’s not toning it down.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “You are absolutely no fun sometimes. Read the bloody list and let me be proud of you for five minutes, Liza.”
Taking her eyes off her basemate, she scrolled down through the Regions and Sectors, all organized by Quadrant. Kevin kept talking.
“Tweak will be thrilled, though I’m surprised the brass is sending her out, given the situation with her DNA. On the other hand, her skills are salient and she is the quickest hacker in our sector, so I suppose…” Liza barely heard him. Finding Western Quadrant, CO-WY Region, Sector 14, she read the names.
Technology: Officer T., 1407
Training: Officer L. Carlan, 1407
She turned her eyes to Kevin, and his smile fell off. “Liza?” He reached out, touching her shoulder as if she was fragile. “You alright, my girl? I thought you’d be pleased?”
Liza didn’t know what to say to that. “Yeah, um…Where’s Aidan?”
“Not sure, last I saw him he was having a shave in our quarters,” Kevin replied, eyes worried behind his glasses. “Liza, I…shall I call him for you?”
Mutely, Liza nodded. She couldn’t talk to him about this. Not now.
Kevin pulled out his tab and brought up his call app, stepping away for a moment. Liza stood at parade rest, staring at the list. She’d straighten this out. She had to.
“Hey Liza,” Aidan offered a few minutes later. Liza breathed again.
“Commander, can I speak with you in private?”
“Sure,” Aidan agreed. “They lent me a spare office. C’mon.”
Liza followed her commander to his temporary workroom, stepping inside as he shut the door. Keep it together, keep it professional. That was the key.
“Commander, can I speak freely?”
Aidan gave her a cockeyed look. “Liza, nobody’s listening to us. Relax. What’s going on?”
Aidan was a good Commander for the most part, but he never understood the value of procedure. It kept things clean and clear and professional. It kept emotions under control.
Liza kept it professional. “I’d like to give feedback on the assignment for civilian training. I’m honored to be suggested, but I don’t believe I have the qualifications to fit the position.”
Aidan blinked at her for a moment. “Hunh. Why don’t we take seats?”
Liza followed the order. Aidan watched her, eyes calm, chin in his hand. He should not be this calm right now.
“So, what qualifications are you missing?”
Keep it professional, she ordered herself. “I don’t have the required on-the-ground experience for coordinating a civilian group and instilling structure.”
“And what makes you think that?” Aidan asked quietly. Liza just stared at him. How was he asking this?
Keep it professional. “Sir, I have no experience in giving training effectively outside a Force paradigm.”
Aidan smiled, just a little. “I don’t know about that. I mean, you do most of the training for the Wildcards. And we’re not exactly following the Force paradigm, are we?”
“We are adhering to Force structure,” Liza replied, feeling like a block of wood.
Aidan watched her for a moment, quiet. “You think so? Because I kind of think you and Del file paperwork to keep Sector off us whenever they bug you, and the rest of us stick on rank pins and use them when it’s going to get us somewhere. The rest of the time, I like to think we act like a team.” He tapped his collar. “I mean, sometimes this Command pin means I can get assholes off our backs, and that’s great. And you and Kevin can pull rank if somebody’s being a shit, sure. But the most experienced person on our base keeps telling me she doesn’t want to be an officer on paper, because she wants to be on base with her machines, not sent out all over the place. I figure, that’s because we’re not here to earn rank badges like the handbook tells us we should want to. We’re here to be a team.”
Aidan’s blue eyes were gentle, but they were stripping the one thing Liza was holding onto away. She felt her heart rate rising. Swallowing, she tried to get it through to him again. “Sir…”
“Liza. Breathe. You’re talking to me. I’m just Aidan. Just talk to me, yeah?”
Liza fixed her eyes on a spot over Aidan’s shoulder. It made it easier to get the words out. “There’s no structure to this. No rules. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I can’t do anything without a direction to go in. And if I don’t get this right then…then I’ll get people killed. Again.”
Aidan’s voice was gentle. “Yeah. I get that. But I want you to hear something: people we love have died; that doesn’t mean you got them killed. And you’re going to have a direction, yeah? Think about all the books you’ve been reading and annotating for everybody. All these resources. The core curriculum you just helped plan. That’s your direction.”
Liza shook her head. When she spoke, the fear quavered in her voice. She hated the sound of it. “It’s too theoretical. It hasn’t been tested.”
“And you don’t want to be the one who tests it and gets people killed if it doesn’t work,” Aidan suggested. Liza’s throat tightened.
“It feels premature,” she offered. “We need more research. More experience.”
Slowly, Aidan shook his head. “Sorry, Liza. We don’t get to wait till this doesn’t feel like a gamble. It’s always going to feel like a gamble. Everything’s a gamble right now. And if you’re scared, you’re not the only one. But I thought about this last night. Can I tell you what I came up with?”
Wordless, Liza nodded.
“I think it’s better if we go in there and say to the civvies, ‘look, we’re all scared, but we’re in this together, so we’re going to show you what we know and get you everything we can.’” Aidan offered. “I figure, that’s got to be better than leaving a lot of scared civvies all alone and telling them to figure it out. Sure, maybe they won’t like finding out that we’re not heroes or monsters, that we’re just scared people too. But maybe that’s what they need to know. And maybe that’s what we need to be. Scared, sure. But still…there’s that word Kev uses, ‘resolved’? Yeah. We’re still resolved, even if we’re scared. And maybe we can show everybody that they can be scared and still stand up for what’s right. I think that’s what you’re best at.”
Liza swallowed hard. “I’m…Aidan, I’m a behind-the-scenes person. I can’t lead. I don’t have the presence. Nobody will listen to me.” Staring at the wall, she got the words out. “They don’t listen to me at home. They think I’m a joke. When I lead, everything falls apart. I remember what happened when I tried to fill in for Commander Taylor. It’s just…it’s not my place. I belong in the background, keeping things organized.”
Aidan laughed softly. “Liza. Hey. Liza. Look at me, okay?”
Screwing up her courage, Liza turned her head. Aidan was giving her a tired, commiserating smile. Reaching over, he put a hand on her shoulder. “You think you didn’t keep your family together? Way I see it, you kept them sane through some seriously messed up shit. And they don’t listen to you? That’s because they’re all brats, and you’re either their sister, or their kiddo. Of course they treated you like somebody in the family and not somebody with rank. I mean, come on, our team? They’re nuts. They’re a bunch of off-the wall punks and freaks and geeks and geniuses. And you kept the lid on all of them—and I’m gonna cut you off right here, because I know you’re going to tell me you couldn’t keep them from pranking Commanders into relocating and fighting with each other.” He had both his hands resting on her shoulders now, his eyes holding hers. “And I’m telling you right now Liza, nobody could have stopped our family from going off the rails after they lost Taylor, and then got shit on by two pissants waving their rank pins around. These days, I know the crew, and I’ve heard all the stories. And I’m going to say you’re the only one who could have kept Lazarus or Kevin from shooting Commander Quinn. After what he pulled, you did an amazing job getting them down to the level of covering him in glue and a pillowcase full of insulation. You say you’re in the background? I say you’re the bedrock of our team. You’re the foundation that holds us all up. And if you can get the Wildcards through the worst year of their lives without any friendly-fire incidents, you can handle anyone, hear me?”
Liza opened her mouth, but Aidan held up a hand.
“Still don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s some more proof. Look at the way you took care of the base when I was in a fucking cell and Kevin was on the grid, running like hell and going out of his mind? And after that, look at how you handled a whole base of refugees when your family was sick in bed last year? That wasn’t me running things and you taking orders, Liza. I was in bed choking on MACHA. I know that for a fact. I was flat on my back and so was Blake, and Kevin was a lot sicker than us, so don’t tell me we were running things. You kept us going. You kept a bunch of civvies who were freaked as hell calm and working on base chores. And it was you who kept the Wildcards who were still up and running feeling like we were going to be okay, one way or another. I was pretty woozy, but I remember that.”
Liza shook her head. “That’s…that isn’t the same.”
“I’m going to call bullshit on that,” Aidan parried quietly. “The people you took care of then are the same kind of people you’re going to be taking care of on this trip. You’re the person to teach them. You’re the best one there is at making people feel grounded, and secure, and cared about.”
His words boxed her in. She didn’t know where to go from here. He’d already seen all her arguments and refuted them, and his logic worked, damn it. But everything inside her was still screaming ‘I can’t do this!’
She shook her head, helpless. “The base. It’ll be a mess…they need me…”
Aidan watched her as she trailed off, running out of words to wrap around the frantic terror in her gut. He gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Yeah. They do need you. And they’ll get you back. But remember, this is a National decision. Everyone knows our Personnel officer isn’t on base, and they’ll cut us slack for that. Deliquisha can handle a couple months if you’re gone that long, filing basic paperwork. She’s ready to step up as a trainee. We’ll help her with everything.” He smiled, holding her eyes. “I won’t let them go downhill while you’re gone. Promise. Kay?”
Liza felt her muscles tense like wires under her skin. “You really want me to do this?”
“I don’t want you gone,” Aidan offered. “I’m going to miss you like my right hand, and I don’t know how I’m going to straighten Yve and Sarah out without you around, honestly. But I want you doing this work. Because you’re the right one for it.”
Lisa caught her breath. Finally, she forced herself to nod. “Okay. Okay. We’ll…we’ll make plans back on base. We’ll make checklists. We’ll make sure everything’s running smoothly. And then…okay.”
“So you’re going to accept?” Aidan probed.
Liza nodded. “Yes, sir. I accept.”
Aidan nodded. “Thank you. How long do you need to prep before you feel confident heading out?”
Confident?! Liza’s mind yelped, how am I supposed to ever feel confident about this?! She squashed the thought. “I can have Deliquisha ready to take over pro-tem in two months, if that works.”
Aidan nodded. “Sounds good to me.” For a moment he paused, and a little worry came into his eyes. “Um, you did see Tweak is going along too? Is that going to be a problem?”
Liza gave a weak laugh. “Aidan, it’s Tweak. Of course it’s going to be a problem. But she’s the only one I’d want protecting the civilian tech.”
Aidan gave her one of his smiles that said ‘I get it.’ “Okay. Then let’s get out there.”
Excerpt 2: 1563 Words
The hiss of the train’s wheels skating over the rails filled the baggage train with white noise. Tweak listened to the train whisper to itself and shifted in her rail-worker’s jumpsuit. The thing was way too big, it was itchy, and it was starting to piss her off. But the jumpsuit was actually the worst thing about this whole plan, and that was fucking amazing. Kevin had sent her all the details for the plan to get them to the safe house, along with a little note that had said ‘I really am sorry’.
Maybe she should send him a note back. She had kind of ripped into the guys. Sure, she’d been scared…but so had they. And she knew she’d taken a chunk out of Aidan with that crack about dying. That wasn’t right.
The train shushed the dark. Tweak had offered to take the first watch, because there was no way in hell she’d sleep, amped up as she was. She stared into the safety-light accented dark. Sprawled over a couple of pieces of luggage, Jillian and her family slept like nesting dolls: Jillian curled up on Cameron, their baby curled in her arms.
Tweak still couldn’t believe they’d had a kid. Who’d give a kid a life like this?
At least the baby hadn’t cried when they’d gotten aboard. Following the directions Kevin had sent, they’d snuck the uniforms and key cards out of a maintenance workers’ closet in the middle of the night and used them to walk over and hop onto one of the slow baggage and freight trains that ran by night. The freight cars took forever to get anywhere, but traveling this way was safe. In a couple hours, they’d be in a house where they could hide out. Kevin had made a plan for her that worked out great.
That meant he cared about her, didn’t it? Yeah. Of course it did.
Her fingers tapped on the empty screen of her tab, counterpoint to the whisper of the wheels.
Of course the guys cared about her. Screw Inyoni, the Wildcards did care about her. She knew they did. Aidan had spoken up for her more times than she could count. He’d let her stay after she fucked up in her first year on the base. And Alice had knitted her a sweater for Christmas two years back. She only did that for people who were really part of the crew. Kevin had sat with her and talked her around when she’d felt like trash about being a gene-mod last year. They did care about her. They would come for her. That’s what families did. Wasn’t it?
Restless, she turned her tab on and re-read the plan again. Re-read the note at the bottom.
‘I really am sorry, Tweak. We’ll get you out of this morass as quickly as we can. My word on the Good Book; I’ll fix this.
Beside her, Inyoni cleared his throat. “Everything look okay?”
Tweak just about jumped out of the baggy railway uniform. “Fuck!” she hissed, forcing her hand to relax out of the half-cocked fist she’d folded it into. “Don’t s-s-scare me! You’re s-supposed to be passed out!”
“Sorry,” Inyoni muttered. “Couldn’t sleep…”
For a moment, they sat in silence. The safety lights outlined Inyoni, cutting through his holo and giving him the outline of a deer cut from black paper.
“Look, I…I’m sorry ’bout last night,” he murmured into the dark. “Didn’t mean to get to you.”
Tweak stared at him for a second. But that was weird. She didn’t want to be weird. So she stared at her feet. Damn. She wished she was better with people. She hadn’t cared a few years ago. Fuck the world, that had been her motto. But now there were people worth caring about. Things had changed.
And if Inyoni was one of those people…
Tweak let out an explosive breath. “Look. What you said. When I got mad. Wasn’t you. The guys…the base. They’re my guys. My gang. They care about me. I know they d-do.” Her fingers tugged at the bandages near her right wrist, checking them. “Not a lot of people cared about me. Not before. Care about. Me. Not cared ’cause I code. Cared ‘cause I am, you get it?” She swallowed. “Sometimes, I get scared. Why do they c-care so m-much? What if it’s fake? I think about that. So, what you said. S-scared me, y’know?”
The soft sound of the rails filled the silence. Tweak cleared her throat.
When she turned her head, Inyoni was watching her. He smiled weakly. “Call it good. And you know…I think they do care. Wouldn’t have made such a fuss getting’ you back if they didn’t. Those guys on the screen looked really worried about you, too. Handlers don’t get worried. Friends do.”
Tweak gave him a small, bleak smile. “Lady at my base. She told me the same thing, when I t-told her what I was s-s-scared about. She cussed more, but yeah.” Glancing away, she sighed. “I gotta tell the guys sorry. Those two guys. Who you saw. Commander. Logistics. Good guys.” She shrugged. “What I said. No fair. They’re gonna freak till we’re home.” After a moment, she glanced up. “You’ll like them. Good guys. The blond guy. Sweet. The carrot, he acts stuck up. Ignore it. He’s okay.”
“Good to know,” Inyoni offered quietly.
Tweak smiled at him. “Hey. Turn your holo off in here. Save the power.”
That was bull, but it made her feel good to see his ears. It made her feel like she wasn’t alone, and right now, away from Billie and all her people, she really wanted to feel less alone.
Inyoni hesitated. In the safety-lights, the whites of his eyes gleamed. “‘S’okay. Powered on my heart, yeah?”
Tweak made a face. “Still don’t l-like that. Bad for you.”
“Better’n getting seen,” the slim man suggested.
Tweak sighed. “Yeah. There’s that.”
Overhead, the wind whistled beyond the train’s skin.
“We’re cool, right?” Tweak asked quietly.
“Yeah.” Inyoni’s teeth gleamed in a quick smile. “We’re cool.”
“Cool.” Tweak repeated. “Glad. Gonna need help, keeping those three alive.”
Inyoni snorted. “Can’t promise nothin’. Man…”
Tweak nodded. “I get you. Won’t shut up, won’t take orders, no streetwise. How they’re still alive, I d-d-don’t know.”
“Some folk get all the fuckin’ luck,” Inyoni agreed with a sigh. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and reached up to tap the silver circle in his neck. His holo flicked out.
Tweak glanced over, and gave him a quick grin. “Y’know, I wasn’t lying. Cute. The ears.”
Those ears lowered as he shrugged. “I think they’re stupid. But…thanks.”
“Could get them fixed. Doctor?” Tweak asked curiously, then rephrased her question to make it easier for other brains to parse. “Ever tried to get them fixed?”
Inyoni shook his head. “Got looked at once, when I was little, but the doc wanted too much cash. The docs we could afford would’ve reported us. Mom wasn’t gonna risk it, and I can’t afford shit like that on my own.”
Tweak nodded. “Yeah. I wondered,” she added, leaning back. She watched his ears droop. She really wanted to see those funny ears perk up again.
“Could be worse,” she offered.
“Yeah,” Inyoni agreed with a sigh. “Could have somethin’ a holo couldn’t hide. Like that poor bastard.” He motioned vaguely towards Cameron. “Three fingers…how’s he managed like that?”
“Yeah,” Tweak agreed, her mind on her own arms. Then she shot the guy beside her a sidelong smirk. “Could be a lot worse. Could have a llama dick.”
Inyoni busted out laughing, his ears springing up in amusement. It took him a long moment to compose himself enough to add, “Then no pretty girl’d let me near her.”
“Yeah,” Tweak agreed. “You’d look like you had a r-r-rifle in your c-crotch. Imagine that!”
“Don’t make me, that sounds fucking awful,” Inyoni laughed.
“Or you c-could have camel balls. Hang down past your knees,” Tweak suggested. She grinned wickedly, watching his ears wobble with his laughter. This was fun.
Inyoni bent over, he laughed so hard. “Oh shit, man. That’s raw! What other things they mix in to fuck us up?”
“Lizards, some snake. Some cat. Waterbear; kinda bug,” Tweak ticked off, grinning. “Could have a w-waterb-bear face. Shit, babies’d scream!
“Lizard eyes—poppin’ out of your skull and wrigglin’ every which way,” Inyoni tried with a grin.
“Lizard tongue that goes across the table.” Tweak offered, sticking out her own tongue.
“Whiskers!” Inyoni suggested with a grin. “Or a tail. Imagine a cat tail, huh? That’d be hard to hide.”
“No shit,” Tweak agreed, grinning. “Other hand, could join a kinky strip joint. Real pussy. Meow!”
Inyoni laughed until he had to gasp for air.
Behind them, a thin wail rose, along with a pissy rumble out of Cameron. “Will you two shut up?”
Inyoni’s ears flattened against the sides of his head. Tweak glanced over her shoulder, frowned, and resisted the urge to flip Cameron off. He really knew how to kill a mood.
“Gonna be a long three weeks,” she grumbled to Inyoni, once Cameron had put his head down. “Too long.”
“No shit,” the man beside her muttered. Tweak closed her eyes and listened to the train chanting itself through the night.
Excerpt 3: 683 Words
“If you annoy those in power, they come for you. You may not want to admit it. But you know it’s true, every time someone misbehaves and the terror of what happens next rises up in you.”
Liza’s voice dropped, soft again now. “But it wasn’t always like this. And it doesn’t have to be. In this country, we used to have two documents that told us who we were as citizens; not of a Corporation, but of a nation. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ That’s what one of them said. ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’ said the other.
“That’s what they wanted for you, and me, and all of us. If you look around and you feel like you’re treated as equals, that you have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no matter what the number on your citizen card is, then things are fine.”
Liza spread her hands. “But if you look around and you say ‘wait, I don’t have the right to walk into some stores because of the number on a card. I get told that I don’t eat today because there’s a calorie restriction on my Citizen Standing. My boss just kicked my neighbor out of his house because he got sick. My friend’s baby got taken away because her genes weren’t perfect. And I don’t get to say anything about it, because if I do they’ll call EagleCorp on me?’ Then this is not the America your ancestors wanted for you. This is not liberty. If that’s what you see, then do this with me.
“Start standing up. The Corporations tell us that we will be punished if we take a stand. They tell us they’re coming for us. But if every one of us stood up together, they couldn’t take any one of us. If they come for one of you, they need to know that they’ll have to deal with all of us. And they need your work. They need you to show up and do what you’re told. They tell you that you need them, but they are lying. They need you. So what happens when you say no?”
Liza waited just a beat, drew a breath. “It’s time we all stood up and stood beside each other. Every kind of person. From every Corporation. It’s time we stood as equals in the Creator’s eyes, look the CEOs in the eye and said ‘no. That’s enough. You don’t own us.’
That was her cue. Tweak stepped in beside Liza. “And she means it. We mean it. Every kind of p-person. Is part. Of this.” She planted her fists on her hips, giving the camera a grin and a perfect view of her arms. “They call me the Golden Dragon. I’m an officer in the Force. I have a family there. Black, white, Asian, Lebanese, Mexican. Alpha. Gene mod. Gamma. We’re all family. We all take c-care of each other. Because we’re all p-people. We’re all g-good at something. And we all matter.”
She spread her arms. “I’m the Golden Dragon. I took down the Citizen Ratings. I took down the CO-WY G-grid. I took down the drones, and I’m g-gonna keep taking them d-down. And I’m standing beside you. Every one of you. Whoever you are. Whatever you are. If you’re a g-Gamma and you’re out there watching this, find me on the Common Ground. You are part of this family too. Everybody. Come to the Common Ground. There’s a place for you here.”
She drew a breath, and grinned. “I’m the Golden Dragon. And I’m telling you. First, we’re gonna stand together. And then, we’re gonna fly together. It’s t-time for everything to change.”