PHALANX FITNESS CENTER
The PHALANX fitness center was mostly quiet, except for the occasional, repetitive bang, bang, bang of weights rising and falling, and the similarly cyclical thump, thump, thump of sneakers on the treads, breathing irregular with the push. There weren’t many people there, though. Not at this hour.
Outside the large glass-like panels, the sun glared too bright, the Earth not shading it quite yet, leaving everything in the fitness center washed out, like light was bleaching the color away. In a few hours, the angle would be more preferable, more muted, as the moon rotated onward.
Beth Schuster was there, clad in a loose, breathable warm-up suit. She’d spent a lot of time in the fitness center, and enjoyed almost all of it, but this area was the exception. The padded mats, the open space, the utter lack of equipment—they all signalled the thing she was worst at: hand-to-hand combat.
She fidgeted, looking at the figure on the other side of the room. This frail motherfucker is who the Sergeant sent her to train with? Really? What was their game?
Of every place in the fitness center, this is the one in which Simon Lydes feels most at home. He has spent the most time on those mats, after all, and the way he is standing, squared shoulders, straight posture, shows it, to an extent. Of course, he does look out of place. He is lean, but not quite lanky. Rather than loose exercise clothing, he’s in what looks like a sleek black combat suit with small metal sensors laced through it. He is not wearing the helmet, though, calm, even face visible, along with those too bright eyes, calmly watching.
When he had agreed to come to the training mats today, it was because his trainer told him he needed to be less nervous when going in for throws, and that he needed to work on ‘not falling back’ so much. He was hoping that mountain of a woman approaching was not his trainer’s solution to this.
“Uh. Hey. You’re… Simon sa—um. Doctor Lydes, right?” Buster approached with slow, cautious steps. She was brash, but not stupid; if Sarge had put her up against this little wisp of a man, he had to know what he was doing. “I’m Buster. I guess we’re… training together today.”
Simon Says. He caught it before she could fully correct her trajectory. Simon closed his eyes, taking in a deep, long breath, spending double the time on exhalation. Finally, that done, he opened his eyes again, lips set in a firm line, and regarded her.
Perhaps he would be able to use her caution to his advantage. He was already watching how firm her steps were, estimating the amount of weight she carried on each, how she shifted, what her center of gravity was. It might not have been fair– he was standing utterly still, after all– but if she managed to land a hit on him, he knew he would be going to the infirmary.
“Yes. So it would seem.”
“Well, uh,” she fell into a stance that Simon recognized well—the standard CQC stance that most PHALANX troopers learned for the first time in basic training. Hands up and open, knees bent, feet planted and aligned toward the opponent. For such an imposing and fit trooper, she seemed awfully nervous, and the stance was practiced but uncomfortable. “Come at me, I guess.”
Lydes shifted into the stance as well. His breathing was measured, gaze sternly watching her, though he actively concentrated on not reading into what chemicals were raging through her. In certain combat scenarios, his abilities were called for; this was not one of them. He would have to do this on his own.
The call to come at her made his eyes narrow a touch. Lydes was the reactive one in combat, or at least that was how he usually played it. It was the safer game. It meant he was left open or off balance less often– Oh, right, he was supposed to be getting more comfortable as the active agent.
It seemed his trainer had given this more thought than Lydes had given him credit for.
With that, Lydes darted forward, fast, but not an inhuman sort of speed– just the type that someone with his frame and training could maintain. He had no plan to strike first, but would bait for it.
Buster tensed, like she thought she should be able to do something, hit a switch, fire a gun—but it was just her and her body. She moved as if to intercept Lydes; it was a clumsy move, and one that he could gain advantage from easily. At the last moment, however, she pivoted, stumbling to safety as if she’d realized her mistake just in the nick of time. It was odd. Bad technique, but absurdly quick reflexes and improvisation. Not a combination Lydes was used to training with.
Just like that, she was stomping towards him and then– My my, wasn’t that interesting? Lydes turned, sliding sideways on the mat for a moment before he came to a stop, crouched low. He had been about to go in for a throw, an easy one at that, and then she was out of his grasp. He was not entirely sure what had happened, or how the situation had changed so very rapidly, but it felt a lot like they were playing Chicken, seeing who would swerve off first.
This was the last thing he had expected from Mountain Woman.
Rather than give her a moment to rethink, he was coming in again, at the last moment dropping down to slide and hopefully take out her legs– or at least disrupt their angle just enough to topple the weight.
And she noticed, and moved, and if she’d been a better opponent she’d be out of the way, but she didn’t seem to have any idea what Simon was doing when he started doing it. In spite of her speed and observation, she dodged the wrong way, and he caught her legs squarely with the slide. The mat shook as she hit the ground, even in the reduced gravity.
He was not expecting to hit her square on. He was not expecting her to fall straight for him.
Thankfully, he rolled to the side just in time, even as he bounced slightly off the mats as she hit them beside her. He carried the roll onward, up, into a kneeling position, and back to his feet again, a semi-smooth motion.
Mentally, he marked off Simon: 1, Buster: 0.
“Right, okay,” Simon could see Buster kicking herself mentally for the mistake. She should have known how to dodge that. They taught it in basic. She took the stance again. “Once more with feeling.”
Simon paused, quirking a dark eyebrow at her. “…Did you just quote Buffy?” He did not wait for a response, instead coming in, this time ducking low on the other side and grabbing for an arm with a synthetic, cold to the touch glove.
As before, Buster’s reflexes were superb and she seemed to have no idea what she was doing with them. Her off hand came in to bat his away, and did, and she was reaching out to wrap around him but she’d completely neglected her legs again, and seemed to realize that she was open to a throw just as it would have been impossible for her to escape it.
He barely managed to get under what would have been a very painful bear hug, swinging a leg around to put a knee in the back of her knee, other one pushing off for forward momentum as he got ahold of her extended arm and used his weight, her weight, and the inevitability of gravity carry through the throw.
Simon caught a good glimpse of her face as she went down. It wasn’t a look of surprise, or shock, or even bracing to hit the ground. She looked… frustrated. It was the face of someone who was already lying on the ground, going over what she did wrong and trying to figure out why she didn’t remember how the fuck to avoid an incredibly simple throw.
Of course, then she did hit the ground, wincing, and lay there for a second.
Simon definitely saw that look, and continued to see that look as it was arcing past him and to the ground. He straightened, quite nonchalantly, and circled over, to Buster’s feet, offering a hand down to her. His expression was still placid, eyes nearly indifferent to this entire situation, but the gesture was there.
She grimaced, took the hand, and vaulted up. “Thanks,” she muttered, eyes averted. “I ain’t so good at this.”
“You are letting your nerves get to you.” Simon stepped a few paces back, to regain the proper starting distance again. One of the men watching them– Simon’s trainer, cleared his throat loudly, disapprovingly, to which Simon quickly snapped, “That’s plainly obvious, Sir.”
With that, he dropped back into stance like he was ready to hit something.
Buster blinked, eyes darting between the trainer and Simon, squinting, trying to figure out what weird dynamic she’d just walked into. She shook her head, took a deep breath, and exhaled into the stance, doing her best to let her nerves slip away. Her breathing was even, regular, but her eyes flickered a little faster than they had, moving from spot to spot on Simon’s body, her mind clearly racing even as her body and breath were slow and settled.
The next few direct confrontations were a lot of the same: Dr. Lydes getting the throw, Buster being frustrated, and the occasional quip from the trainer at the sidelines. With each throw, Lydes was getting more confident, Buster more frustrated– but better.
And he did not realize it until it was too late. He’d over-extended, trying to get a high arm grab, near the rotator cuff, rather than going for the forearm which would have gotten him the desired throw and compromised his position less.
It showed in the slight furrow of his brows, the minute widening of his blue eyes, the thrum, thrum, thrum of his pulse visible and quickened on his pale, sweat slicked throat.
He realized it, but his body had not quite caught up, brain still not registering. His body was still trying to carry through the throw, even as his mind was telling him he should brace himself.
Their eyes met, and Lydes saw that Buster knew. She’d seen what he’d seen, was already twisting her body to get in a position where he couldn’t stop her from completing the throw. For a moment, it felt almost like time was moving as slowly for Simon as it seemed to move for Buster, and then his world turned upside down.
He braced for a painful impact, but none came; he hit the ground no harder than if he’d fallen on his own. Buster’s hulking form towered above him, his arm in a lock. She’d tossed him, but she’d broken his fall too, on the way down.
The flag-haired trooper smiled for the first time. “Nice. Now I don’t feel quite as bad about you throwing me around more than my brother Paul used ta.”
Simon squeezed his eyes shut, breath held– not in, mind you, that was asking for disaster; he’d exhaled first– and waiting… waiting… Wait. Slowly, Simon opened his eyes, blinking a few times in confusion.
He had expected to be slammed into the mats with a whole lot more force. Whenever his usual sparring partners got a hold on him, they made sure it hurt. This was. This was strange.
Simon blinked a few more times, looking at that arm, then Buster’s face, then back at the arm again, and when his lungs started burning a bit remembered that breathing was a necessary human function.
He opened his mouth to say something back, but couldn’t manage any words, still a bit on the dazed side.
“Uhh, doc, you okay?” Buster’s face was a little concerned as she straightened. “I tried not to let you hit the mat too hard but you look mad winded right now. You want a break?”
She held out one hand to help him up.
“That… was not what I was expecting.” Simon spoke plainly, staring up at her for a moment longer. Finally, he reached for the arm and hopped back up. Once there, he took a step back, stretched for a few moments to make sure nothing locked up from the jolt.
Buster beamed at her staff sergeant, who rolled his eyes, barely impressed. She turned back to Simon. “How bout it? Break? Keep going? Hit the bar?”
Markus Cross, Captain of the PHALANX Coffin Division, walked into the room to stand next to the Sergeant. “What’s this? You managed to get Buster to do CQC training willingly?” Shit. They should give my captains badge to this guy. “And she’s winning! Hot damn. Nice work. And nice technique, you two.”
Simon’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced quickly over his shoulder, taking stock of who it was who obviously had not been watching very long at all. It sounded like a challenge to him, and normally he did not rise to such base accusations, his heart was pumping and his body was flooded with a chemical cocktail made for a little bit of competitiveness.
“Let’s keep going.”
Of course Simon ignored the bar comment entirely.
“Oh my fucking god, Markus,” Buster laughed. “I am not winning. That was my first throw. The doc has already landed twelve. Anyway. Keep going it is! Let’s see if I can’t learn a little faster.”
She took the stance again, trying to settle back into focus with limited success.
“Yeah….no. That sounds about right.” Markus laughed. “Good work anyways. Let’s see what you two have got.” He crossed his arms and made himself comfortable for the next round.
There were even more eyes on them now. Simon tuned them out, training his focus back on Buster. Did she seem more comfortable now? Simon was certainly feeling more restrained now, but knew he could not take too many steps back into his old routine, lest his trainer lay into him. It would likely happen either way.
With no warning, Simon sprung forward again, fast on his feet, weaving rather than taking the direct path. He was ready to change his momentum at any moment this time– rather than getting trapped.
Buster’s movements weren’t any faster than they’d been before, but her eyes tracked him unerringly, and as he got close she pivoted, clearly intending to stay nimble depending on which way he chose to go.
Huh. She was focusing on almost pure evasion this time.
Simon found the evasion more refreshing than frustrating. He went for multiple grabs only to find Buster’s limb no longer in position, or weight shifted enough that he would not have been able to carry her movement into a throw. Simon continued with his weave, left, right, behind, right, around, left, a constant sequence, trying to find something he could leverage.
“Keep up the good footwork.” Markus directed at them. “Delaying the inevitable Buster, he’s faster than you.” His voice was loud and clear, same way he talked back in basic. “But it’s a good strategy. Stay well rooted and adaptable.”
Buster didn’t reply, but she did respond. She kept those quick eyes on Simon and positioned her body across from him step by step, keeping one rooted and squaring off. When she finally saw what she thought was an opening, she went low and rose fast and hard and broad—almost a body slam and a bear hug rolled into a single stable lunge.
Simon was extended again, and she rose up under him like a Great White breeching under an unsuspecting seal– and this time he did not even see it coming. A moment of panic hit him just as she collided, and for that moment, there was a thick cloud, invisible to the eye but not to the nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system would rapid fire under that, activating fight-or-flight in the lower brain. He was too startled to even realize he was doing it.
But there was one other option from flight or fight, and it seemed that Buster’s brain was inclined to take it. Both of them hit the floor hard, but Simon barely felt it—Buster had immediately wrapped around him like an animal protecting her cub. Instead, Simon struggled to breathe as his opponent held him tight, shaking in stimulated fear and otherwise unmoving in a tight huddle on the mat.
“Schuster!” The staff sergeant yelled, mortified. Markus had never seen this fighting technique before, and was markedly confused.
“Lydes!” The other trainer was yelling as well, obviously recognizing what was happening.
Simon was, indeed, struggling to breathe, heart rate sky high, pounding in his head– and then he realized that she was hugging him? Simon went still, and gradually, the cloud changed from sympathetic to parasympathetic stimulation: fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest (the other nickname, feed-and-breed, had never been one he used).
His face was growing markedly more red, but he was trying to conserve as much of his air as possible by not struggling. They had, after all, run him through scenarios like this for his zero-atmosphere training.
Buster’s muscles slackened as the sympathetic reaction relaxed its death grip on her system. “What… what? Oh fuck, I’m sorry doc,” she clambered back, letting Simon up. “I dunno what happened. I feel… weird.”
Markus stepped forward to help the two get back on their feet. “Yeah that was a bit strange. You two alright? Nice job keeping your breath by the way.” Markus noted, seeing Lydes training in action.
Simon brushed himself off as he was standing, taking a few deep breaths before his face began to return to its usual pale. He glanced over at his trainer, and at seeing the very stern, very disapproving glare from him, sighed loudly.
“I… suppose I should apologize for suddenly manipulating your autonomic nervous system.” Simon paused for a moment. He was not looking at anyone in particular, more at the mats. He heard that throat clear again, and added, “It was… unintended.”
“Oh dang, is that what happened. I was really confused,” Buster didn’t seem angry, just baffled. “I was like, I sure as shit hate the training room but usually it don’t remind me that much of Thanksgiving at the Schuster homestead.”
“No harm done I don’t think.” Markus said, examining Buster who seemed to be doing ok with it. “Having good reflexes can really save your ass on the frontlines.” He added. “Besides…you seem like a man who understands discipline. Keep working on it.” He turned to Buster, back to Lydes, then the Serg. “I think now is a good time for a break.”
Lydes quirked an eyebrow, staring at this random man who happened in during their training, made no introduction of any sort, and then started making comments like he was a commanding officer. Normally he would just write it off as a hot headed soldier– weren’t most of them– but now, when his ears were still ringing and his own neurotransmitters were slightly off kilter, was not normally.
“Who are you?” The words are grated out, a bit rougher than Lydes was intending, but he continues staring at the man like he would somehow discern the answer.
“Ladies and Gentlemen and Distinguished Guests,” suddenly Buster was a wrestling announcer. “Introducing the man with the plans, the Wizard of the Wheird, the Bad-Assinest Black Sheep! Leader of the Coffin Division, terrible with the ladies but real good with dogs—MARKUS! FUCKING! CROSS!!!! Hhhhhhhhhhhhh–” she aspirated into her cupped hands, imitating a crowd cheering.
Markus had a large grin there, and was holding himself back from laughing. “Not quite the leader yet. I’m a Captain.”
I run the strikeforce consisting of the 9th, 10th, and 11th regiments.” He didn’t seem to give two shits about Lydes tone. “And you?” He tilted his head and waited for an answer, remaining composed and respectful to this man he had not met.
That was… one of the most obnoxious introductions he had ever heard before. Simon stood there, utterly unimpressed, hands laced together before him, fingers fiddling with his combat gloves.
Once all the commotion was over, Simon deadpanned, “Dr. Simon Lydes.” No other titles, no references to his ‘project name’, the division he fought with, or his other nickname.
“He’s the neuromancer, Markus. That’s why I got all accidentally messed up.”
“Oh yeah yeah, that’s right. You’re the one whose base is full of assholes who need to learn how to behave. Right.” Markus said, remembering a conversation he had months ago on twitter. “Well it’s nice to meet you Doctor Lydes. You fought pretty well out there for science staff.” A hint said that he was kind of impressed. “Hey Buster do you think I could get that intro on a recording? Would save me a lot of time when arresting Tox’s.”
“I do commissions,” Buster replied primly, her voice suddenly in a feminine range again.
Simon frowned at that. He could practically feel the angry look his trainer was giving him. He mumbled, more to himself, “They mostly leave me alone,” before just watching them and listening. It seemed like they were friends and he felt like he was intruding, despite being commanded to be there.
“Well that is good to hear at least.” He did seem genuinely happy for Simon, and nothing would really put off that Markus felt he was intruding. “A doctor though, that’s interesting. You are training to be a medic in the field? Or ah. Of course. Your abilities.” He nodded. “Those should be invaluable.”
“Hey okay well. This is cool. But. Now that I have a super cool new friend and we’ve been through some crazy times together, how booooout we go get a pint together? Yeah?”
That was most certainly a blank stare. In fact, it would have seemed like the blankest stare; however, Simon’s trainer had to speak up on his behalf and that stare became even more wide and blank.
“That’d be good for Lydes. He’ll go.”
“Well now isn’t that lovely? I could go for a pint or two.” The captain grinned, ignoring Lydes discomfort. “Don’t have active duty again for another 4 or 5 hours, it sounds perfect.”
“And my brother has a shift at his shitty coffee shop right now, so I can’t even video call ‘im. It’s a plan! I just gotta go run some water over this temple and get changed. Meet y’all at The Cheese in a half hour? Yeah?”
No. The stare just got even blanker. He was not even entirely sure what she had said, but apparently he was going somewhere and should probably shower— oooohhhhhh— and change into something more socially acceptable than his Kite Division combat undersuit.
“Yeah, you two clean up. Blunt would never forgive me if something happened to that “temple”.” He smirked teasingly. “I will probably be the guy sampling the fondue.”
“They don’t actually serve cheese, markus.”
“See you two soon!” He waved to them before heading out.
“See you soon, doc?” Buster grinned and winked. Shit. She actually expected a verbal response out of him.
“Sure.” That was probably the best response she was ever going to get.
“Cool! See you then!” And she bounded away.
‘The Cheese’ was the name of the civilian spaceport bar just outside of the PHALANX barracks and training facility in Dreamlight. Though it was open to any of the visitors to Dreamlight’s main port, it was well-understood to be mostly a PHALANX bar.
Even though Buster had only been a ‘loonie’ for less than six months, everyone there recognized her.
“AYYYYYYYYYY,” she yelled at the crowd as she walked in, receiving an identical response from them. “Three pints, Joaquin, Markus is coming and so is a new friend!”
“Who’d you fuck this time, Buster?” Someone heckled.
“Your sister!” She shot finger guns back.
Markus laughed, walking in with her “Heya Joaq, long time to see!”
“Markus! Hey,” the bartender grinned, then sobered. “You’re not going to ask for fondue again, are you?”
“You guys are called The Cheese, can you blame me?” He chuckled, leaning on the counter. “I’ll just grab some booze tonight though.”
“Who’s your third?”
“Doctor Simon Lydes!’ Buster cut in, grinning as she hopped up onto the barstool.
Joaquin blinked. “You mean Simon Says?”
And there was Lydes, himself. He was obviously freshly showered, hair still damp. The combat suit had been discarded for a pair of slacks and a dress shirt, the top button undone and the sleeves rolled up– perhaps the most casual he had ever been besides when he was sleeping.
It took him a moment, but he eventually spotted the tall, muscular woman and equally tall and muscular Captain at the bar and made quick, clipped strides to join them.
“Come on Joaq, that name’s not nice.” Markus scolded lightly, then looked back at Simon and sighed. “Moon-shine for me, by the way.”
“I’LL—” Buster started singing at the top of her lungs. Immediately, a quarter of the bar joined in for the extremely brief pub song, which was to the tune of Luna’s International Anthem. Even Joaquin sang it as he poured the beer. “HAAAAVE~ a Lu-nar-I-P-A!!”
Suddenly it was a musical and Lydes was not sure what he felt about that. The bar was louder than he remembered bars being, but it had been a while. He had more important things to remember.
Once the noise had died down enough his quiet voice could be heard, he ordered, “Stout. Or next darkest.” He at least understood how the process worked, even if he was looking around like the noise itself was invading his personal bubble without his permission.
Markus leaned back and moved his drink in tune with the song, not spilling a drop. “Ahhh, see you added your special mix to it. Someone’s getting an extra large tip tonight.” The big man nodded a friendly thanks to the bartender. “We need to have more moon pun beverages here.”
“Doc! You showed. Great,” Buster grinned toothily. “Saved ya a seat right between me and the Captain.” Pat pat.
Simon’s protests never made it out. The Dark Side of the Moon Stout sat in front of the empty stool, and he took both. Sitting between the two and sipping on his beer, he reflected on what a terrible idea this was, and also how he was likely expected to say something.
“So! Fill us in. ~Where do you woooork, what do you doooo, what else should weee know about youuuuu~”
Why was she singing again. At least this time, nobody else joined in.
Markus downs the special mix pretty quickly, leaning over to watch. “Well I mean he is a doctor so he probably patches people up.” It was impossible to tell if Markus was being for real right now.
Rather than glowering directly at Markus, Lydes glowered at his beer, and then finally spoke up, turning slightly on his stool so he was more facing towards Buster.
“I am, part time, a neurosurgeon and researcher on Moon Base 1. Otherwise, I am with Kite Division.” Lydes took another sip, generally ignoring Markus. For a moment, he wished that he had made better friends with that Cosmic being. He’d rather be listening to lectures on flesh crystals than deal with… whatever it was Markus was doing that was subtly annoying him.
“That’s badass,” Buster replied, then took a sip of her pale ale, then said, “I pilot the Cestus.”
CODEX UNLOCKED: The Cestus Bipedal Tank
Though deeply locked under top secret PHALANX classification for years, the Cestus Tank has finally hit the field. Powered by an experimental and dangerous Catalysium reactor and equipped with Catalysium augmented armor and weaponry, this compact power armor rocketed into notoriety shortly after deployment for being one of the toughest, meanest, scariest pieces of personal armament in the PHALANX Arsenal. Costs and resources are currently too steep to produce another so for the moment, there’s only one Cestus, and only one Cestus pilot.
“It’s pretty cool.” Sip.
“I can attest to that, it is, in fact, very cool.” Markus nodded. “Brain science sounds pretty awesome too though.”
“Oh wow. That Cestus.” Simon did actually seem impressed. Barely. It is more that he did not sound unimpressed, really. He raised his drink, “Cheers.”
“Skol!” Buster happily toasted.
Markus joined in, downing another mix. “So hows the moon been treating the two of you? I only come up on occasion.”
“It’s pretty sweet,” Buster says after taking another generous draught of the beer, “I’m makin’ friends, makin’ waves, sowin’ oats. I worry about my brother but he’s a god damn adult, so whatever.”
Maybe it was the fact that Simon didn’t really drink much and was a lightweight, or maybe Buster was actually growing on him a bit, but he did laugh at how she phrased it all. He wasn’t sure sure he wanted to know what she meant by sowin’ oats, but he could probably guess, and good for her.
“I actually prefer the moon.” Lydes shrugs, and takes another large swig, almost done with his pint by now.
“Well from the sound of twitter Benny is sowin’ a few oats himself.” Markus chuckled. “Glad you two are enjoying it up here. If I am being honest I find myself missing the place pretty often down on the surface.”
Buster slammed the pint glass down. “Can you fuckin believe it??? I thought the kid would never lose his virginity, like we’re twenty fucking six, he’s cute, just go to a bar and tuck your hair behind your ear a lot, right? Right?? But suddenly some video game protagonist from the internet shows up and is like ‘suck my cock’ that shit doesn’t happen, does it? Does it?!”
Simon’s mouth fell open, and then he remembered himself and sipped the beer. “Wait, protagonist from a… Is that how you are describing his looks or is the person actually claiming to be a protagonist from a video game?”
Yes, it was an honest question.
“Oh no I mean his looks,” Buster waved off the notion. “Like, crimson red hair, smoldering eyes, too many belts. That kinda stuff.”
Markus’s phone buzzed. “Markus Cross. Oh, hey dad. Yeah. I’m kind of in the middle of something? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah that does sound pretty important. Alright. Sure. Bye.” He hung up. “Sorry gang. Seems I need to start my flight back to earth.”
“Bye Markus!” She waved. “Anyway yeah, ‘video game protagonist’ was Benny’s description, then I looked at his photo and confirmed it.”
“Oh, um, bye?” Simon watched the captain go, and then it dawned on him who the ‘dad’ must have been, and yeah, that was probably a really important phone call. Lydes did, however, decide to order a plate of nachos along with his next beer. A lab tech had brought in a to-go order of them once, and they were very good. “Hmm, strange.”
“I feel like we all lead pretty strange lives,” Buster said, sounding oddly philosophical. Well, maybe not odd, considering that she was starting on her fourth pint.
“I thought I had a normal life. Until… two years ago?” Simon shrugged. He had a second pint—he was a slow drinker, and still had enough wits to realize he should really pace himself—which he was pleased with, and nachos were on the way (with real cheese and peppers, not any of that squirt cheese monstrosity). “I guess researcher on a moon base isn’t normal, is it?”
“That was when you Emerged, huh?” She sipped her beer, then nodded. “My Emergence kinda changed everything too, though probably not for the same reason.”
Simon tilted his head slightly and quirked an eyebrow, his universal ‘please go on’ signal without having to waste energy for words.
Buster was about to launch into it, but balked, and looked into her beer. “Aw man, you’re bein real patient with me. You seem like a to-the-point dude, you don’t wanna hear about some t-girl’s fucked up childhood.”
There was a moment where Simon just watched and waited, utterly unphased. “We’re drinking and sharing. I’ll tell you about my emergence, if you tell me about hers.”
Simon had not really talked about his emergence with anyone. There were a few rumors swirling around about it. One said that he’d been hiding it all along. Another was that he had emerged in the training room when someone punched him and he wasn’t expecting it. There was another one that said something about alien experiments, but no one believed that kid anyway—his hair looked like aliens were abducting it in slow motion.
“Um, okay,” Buster shrugged a little. “If you want. I grew up in a super religious household in the midwest, right? Like, not quite megachurch central, but definitely the whole sorta thing where it’s a tight-knit community and anybody who sticks up gotta get cut short, you know? I had this younger brother named Peter, who was just like. Queer as all get out. Said he wasn’t a boy, refused to do normal boy stuff, said that gender didn’t make any sense and he wasn’t ever gonna get married. Obviously he got the shit kicked out of him constantly. He was little, and pretty, and stood out even from us—we were all blond, he had red hair. So anyway, he turns 14, mom and dad take us to the zoo, tell him something he really doesn’t like. Dunno what it was, but the next day, he was gone. Never came back.”
She paused to take a long drink of her beer.
Simon nods, listening respectfully without making any noises to interrupt her. He was, after all, good at being quiet. Though the nachos just arrived, steaming hot, and they looked and smelled amazing. Simon took one and gestured for Buster to do the same, still focused on her story otherwise.
“Shit got worse around that time,” Buster said quietly. “Our parents blamed our eldest brother Paul. Paul took it out on us. It was a bad time. The only person I really trusted or felt close to then was Ben, and one day, he… he told me he was gay. And I told him… I was actually a girl. We swore to look out for each other for the rest of our lives.
“Then, um, something happened. An accident. I don’t—I don’t think I can talk about it in a lotta detail, but Benny and I both Emerged. I could slow down how I saw time, and he could speed it up. We only got out of that… cave alive because we had those powers and each other, but our folks saw it as some kind of sign that we were bad. Satanic or something, they didn’t seem too clear on it themselves. So we did like Petey, and we… left.”
“I was told science was the devil’s work.” Simon shrugged, then actually held up his bare hand to high five.
He was not going to say he understood, because really, he could not understand that kind of situation, but he recognized similarities in his own life and appreciated them, or rather that there was some shared thread there.
Buster chuckled, getting a bit of her composure back, and returned the high-five. “Thanks for listening, man.”
Simon mumbled something along the lines of ‘no problem’ but it was lost in the din of the place. He took another sip, munched a bit more, and then finally had him pulled together enough to comment on his own emergence.
“Two years ago…” How did he phrase this? “I had to repair a solar array panel that powered my lab. And I emerged.”
Buster nodded for several seconds, then looked up. “Cool,” she said. And left it at that.
“I guess it was more complicated than that but…” SIGH. He played with his pint glass for a moment, then finished it off, waving for another. “It was outside the base. Space suit. Tools. No clue what I was doing. I may have had a panic attack and then discovered I could manipulate neurotransmitters.”
Her expression was confused. “How was that useful when you were by yourself in space?”
“I stopped my own panic attack?” He kind of shrugs, but it is rather noncommittal. His tone is still considerably more flat that 98% of the other patrons, but this is, perhaps, the most expressive he’s been in Buster’s presence. Of course, that could be because he was tightly controlling his own neurotransmitters constantly, but that was not something Simon would even think about, much less admit to anyone.
“Oh—” Buster began, then realized the full implications, possibly more than Simon assumed she would. “Ohhhhhhh.”
“These nachos are really good.” He wasn’t trying to change the subject, of course.
“You’re trying to change the subject.” Damn, these nachos are really good.
Simon shrugged. He didn’t really have anything to say about that.
Buster shrugged too. “Whatever, man. You seem all right. Thanks for listening to me blather about my shitfuck upbringing.”
He waved it off like it was nothing. He wasn’t sure what to say. That’s a psychologist’s job. He pokes the brain with sharp objects. There is a big difference there.
She squinted, then looked at her glass, then drained it, set it down on the bartop, and signaled for another. “So. You got a girlfriend or boyfriend, or what?”
Simon nearly choked on a chip. He paused for a moment, taking a gulp of his third pint, and swallows hard, taking a moment to process the question. He opened his mouth once, twice, then finally shut it again, thinking a little more.
“Not quite?” How did he… “More like a dial up playmate.”
Because that did not sound creepy.
“What so like… a phone sex fuckbuddy? A sext partner? C’mon dude I spilled my guts, you ain’t gonna offend me.”
She certainly did have a point.
“One of us texts the other. We meet up. We have sex. We go about our lives.”
That was, quite totally, the sum of it. Usually he did not bring it up because, well, some people thought that was horrible or unhealthy, but even a man of his demeanor had occasional needs.
“Oh, okay!” Buster seemed pretty happy with that answer. “That sounds like a damn decent arrangement. If it does what you need it to, good on ya.”
“It’s been a while. Scouting mission, HIVE.” Simon did sigh at that, and then tapped on his glass for a moment. “I’m not really… good at relationships.”
Buster knit her brow, and frowned, and fixed Simon with an intense look for a few seconds. “Okay, well,” she said, “d’you wanna go have sex, Simon?”
Simon was about to drink from his pint and was glad that he had not quite gotten to the glass to his lips yet. He blinked a few times, then gave Buster a quick up-down glance.
He did not want to respond until he was certain what he heard wasn’t a mix of all the other noise around them distorting strangely.
Buster held up both hands. “No pressure! I don’t even know if you’re into girls. Or girls with dicks. Whatever. Sorry. I got no tact. Please don’t tell my staff sergeant I propositioned you. Uh.” It was starting to catch up with Buster that she had said something incredibly rude.
Simon glanced between his almost done pint, and the almost done nachos, then deadpanned at Buster, “Let me finish my drink first.”
“Y-yeah,” she stammered, and stuffed a nacho in her mouth.
Simon knocked back the last of his drink like he actually knew what he was doing, then glanced at Buster.
“Your place? Mine? Somewhere random?”
Buster took a looooooooooong draught from the beer, draining it. “I live in the barracks. If you got a place, let’s go there. If not, hotel.”
Barracks, not the best place. Not a place he was welcome either, as far as he knew. Simon thought for a moment, then leaned over, whispering low in her ear, “I know a place. A balcony overlooking the city. No one can see up there. I could… It’s a good view of the sunrise while bent over the railing.”
If he could feel embarrassment, it did not show, as his tone did not even change.
“Put it all on my tab, Joaquin!” She barked, then leapt up from her stool. “Show me.”
It was a hell of a way to watch the sun coming up.