For the recent spate of birthdays.
by Lesa Soja
There was going to be a review.
Central was sending someone, Chris told them at dinner. An inspector. Two of them, in fact.
They all felt like they should be doing something to get ready. But they weren't sure what exactly the review was going to cover.
Joey panicked about the state of the windows and roped the others into helping wash them, except for JC, who was holed up in the computer room muttering something about compliance. Lance went out to the firing range and repainted all the targets. Justin untangled all the gear in the stables and polished it till it shone. Chris sat in his office late into the night with the biweekly reports spread out in front of him.
The morning of the inspectors' arrival came.
They heard the jeep long before they saw it, clattering over the stony ground, till finally it rounded the last sharp bend in the road. As it got closer they could make out two figures sitting in it, in the black uniforms of Central Ops.
The jeep pulled up in front of the main building, but the inspectors didn't get out right away. Justin thought they were looking in his direction, but their dark glasses made it hard to be sure.
Finally they opened the doors and stepped out. "Who's in charge here?" one of them said.
"I am," Chris said. "Kirkpatrick. Chris Kirkpatrick. And you are?"
She frowned. "You can call me Dale."
Chris turned to her partner. "Dacey," she said.
Justin opened his mouth to introduce himself, but Joey elbowed him in the ribs and he shut up.
No one said anything for another minute. Finally, Dacey gave a sigh. "Well," she said. "Let's get started."
"What would you like to see first?" Chris asked.
Dale looked at Dacey. "The usual?"
"Your quarters," Dale told Chris. Lance gulped.
"This way," Chris said. Justin started to follow but Dale gave him a look.
"The rest of you can stay here," she said.
When Dale and Dacey had disappeared up the stairs, Joey went and got a cloth and wiped away the dust left by their boots.
That night Justin had a hard time falling asleep. He didn't think anything in his room had been touched, but it felt different somehow. He twisted and turned and even though he kept working at it, he couldn't, could not get the bolt to lock into place. Then the light snapped on and his eyes flew open as he sat upright. Dale was standing in the doorway. She was carrying her rifle, and she did not look pleased.
The light went off again just as suddenly and Justin heard her footsteps fading down the hallway. He sat there breathing hard for a while before he lay down again.
"Did Dale check up on you last night?" he asked Lance at breakfast.
Lance shook his head. "Dacey," he said.
"Was there some kind of curfew? Chris didn't say anything about a curfew."
"It freaked me out, man," Justin complained, but Lance didn't say anything because just then Dale and Dacey came in and made themselves some very strong coffee.
"Do you want to see the exercise grounds?" Chris asked them, when they seemed to be mostly done.
Dale took another swallow and set her mug down. "All right."
When Justin lay down that night he kept looking at the door. Finally he got up and went down the hall to Lance's room and stuck his head in. "Lance," he whispered.
Lance jumped, and Justin knew he had only been pretending to be asleep. "What?" Lance hissed.
Justin went over to the bed. "Scoot over."
"There's not enough room. Go sleep in your own bed."
"I'm too spooked," Justin insisted.
Lance rolled over towards the wall. Justin got in.
"Stop shivering," Lance said.
Lance turned around, and Justin pushed forward into his arms. "Shh," Lance said. "Shh."
When the light went on, Dacey's eyes on them were serious, but not quite as angry as Dale's had been. Justin lay very still and tried not to look at the holster on her hip as she turned away.
He got called into Chris's office the next morning. "Just answer their questions," Chris said before he opened the door. "It'll be fine."
"Sit down," Dale said without looking up from the file in front of her. He did.
"How long have you been with this unit?" she asked.
"About five years," he said.
Dacey came in from the other room.
"Did you talk to Justin yet?" Dale said.
"About what?" Justin asked.
Dacey spared him a glance and turned back to Dale. "No," she said. "I haven't heard back from him."
Dale frowned at the papers she was holding. Justin glanced nervously from one of them to the other.
"Dude!" Joey yelled, bursting into Lance's room with a towel wrapped around his waist, "I can't believe this shit!"
"What?" Justin asked.
"I was taking a shower, and the door opens and they're standing there looking like fucking snipers. I thought they were gonna pick me off!"
"Maybe you should stay here tonight," Justin suggested.
Lance nodded. "Safety in numbers."
"They wouldn't really take us out, would they?" Joey said.
"It's hard to tell," Justin said. "They have a mandate from Central."
So Joey climbed in with them and fitted his hands around Justin's waist while Justin nuzzled Lance's neck.
When the light went on, Joey's grip tightened. Justin glanced over his shoulder. Dale's thumb was tapping gently against the trigger but her expression was merely thoughtful. After she had gone, he closed his eyes and let the warmth lull him to sleep.
He had a vague impression that Joey's hands had been moving during the night, but when he woke up they were in the same place they had been.
"Some of your methods are very unorthodox," Dacey said.
"We've been out here on our own for a while now," Chris said. "We've had to adapt."
"We're going to need more time to gauge your productivity."
"Central said three days," Chris said angrily. "We have work to do, you know."
Dale turned a cool stare on him. "We'll be here for as long as it takes," she said.
Chris didn't say anything.
A report rang out from the other side of the building, and all three of them tensed.
"Chris," Lance said.
They went running down the darkened hallways. There was a light under Chris's door. Joey threw his shoulder against it and it opened.
Chris was sitting cross-legged on his bed in his undershirt. "Reveille's not for another five hours, you numbwits," he said.
"We heard a shot," Lance said.
Chris bit his lip. "That was me. I was loading my gun. She startled me."
"So you're all right?" Joey said.
"I'm fine," Chris said. But none of them moved.
"Chris," Lance said, looking at him, and Chris sighed.
"They'll be leaving soon."
"I hate this," Justin burst out. "They could do anything, they could wipe us all out, and who would report it?"
"We need to keep an eye on each other," Lance said. Joey was nodding.
"Fine," Chris said. He got up and got the extra blankets from his trunk and spread them on the floor.
Justin was on the outside this time, curled around Lance's back while Lance pressed up against Chris and Joey wrapped his arms around Chris from the other side. Lance kept shifting around, brushing against Justin. He started trying to shift back himself, but he didn't seem to be moving away from Lance.
He was a little relieved that the door didn't open again until after they had stopped moving.
"Do you want to go over the ledgers?" Chris asked.
"Why not," Dacey said.
He fetched the printouts and laid them out on the tables they'd set up in his office. But the two of them gave the neat columns only a cursory scan.
"Who keeps your books?" Dale said.
"JC," Chris said.
"We'd like to talk to him."
"The books are fine," Justin said when Chris had gone. "JC's really good."
"We'll be the judges of that," Dale said.
When JC arrived, they wanted to talk to him alone, so Justin reluctantly got up and left, brushing against JC in the doorway. JC looked rather frightened - twitchy, Justin thought. But then, JC was always twitchy.
Chris's door was ripped open. Justin heard someone gasp, but it was just JC standing there. "There you all are," he said, looking over his shoulder. "Dude, do you know they're patrolling the building? With, like, three guns apiece?"
"Yeah, we know," Joey said. "Where the fuck have you been for the last week?"
"In the lab," JC said.
"You shouldn't stay there by yourself," Joey said.
"Are we expecting an attack?" JC said.
"No," Chris said. "It's us they're checking up on." His fingers hadn't stopped circling Justin's thigh.
Lance held out a hand, and JC came over and squeezed himself in between Lance and Chris. "I don't like it," he said.
"You're safe with us," Chris said.
Justin reached up and got a handful of JC's hair and held on to it. A little later he wound up kind of pulling on it. That time it was JC who gasped.
Justin heard the door close and realized he didn't know how long it had been open.
When they came downstairs in the morning Dacey and Dale were loading up the jeep.
"You're leaving?" Chris asked.
"I think we're through," Dacey said.
"You'll hear from Central," Dale said. She got behind the wheel, and Dacey got in the other side.
They pulled out at top speed, and the dust from their wheels left everyone coughing.
"So the review's over?" Joey said when he could speak again.
"Must be," Lance said. JC nodded.
"Did we pass?" Justin asked.
"I don't know," Chris said.
The jeep disappeared around the bend.