Bonding Agents: Buster and Benny

‘BEAN SIDHE’ COFFEE HOUSE

RC ROUTE 1, EXIT 13, SOUBRIDGE

ROCK CITY

 

Time seemed to fly by when Benny was cleaning. He’d get into it and just lose track of everything, and before he knew it, the workday was over. So Benny cleaned often. He ground bags of coffee often. He checked fridge temperatures, refilled dairy carafes, restocked the display shelves often. If there was a repetitive, solitary task to be done at the shop, Benny was on it; his reputation for busy work was so thorough that one of his coworkers had floated the nickname ‘Benny Againy’ for him. It didn’t catch on because it was a terrible nickname, but the reputation was still there. Another coworker watching him work observed that it was like he entered a kind of fugue state, his perception of time bending as he mechanically worked his way through one task after another.

 

None of Benny’s coworkers had any idea how true that was.

 

Benny’s commute home was short. Two stops on the metro, any line, just a little further south in Soubridge and a few levels down to an apartment block originally created as a set of offices later abandoned and repurposed. It was, by many accounts, an amazing deal: the studio apartment was affordable on Benny’s meager salary and its window offered a breathtaking view over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Its downsides were a bit harsh, though, as was the case with any affordable Rock City apartment. The sound of the trains passing by was loud enough to drown out casual conversation, and they shook the whole room enough to knock over a carelessly-placed water glass. There was no kitchen, only a compact fridge and a microwave; as a result Benny pretty much lived on leftover sandwiches from the shop. Possibly worst of all, he shared a public-style stalled bathroom, sloppily expanded to have a set of shower units, with five other people.

 

Benny’s neighbors complained frequently about the dorm-style living, but it didn’t bother him too much. It was the closest he’d ever really come to living on his own. Besides, one of his two only real friends lived with him.

 

“I’m home, Petey,” Benny called, stepping into the apartment. He tapped a panel on the inside of the wall and the door slid shut behind him with a hiss. Moments later, a ginger cat hopped down from a wall shelf and padded to Benny, meowing plaintively. “Yes, I know, I’m just the worst, aren’t I? The worst. I’m a horrible person.”

 

Benny reached up to one of the numerous cheap wire shelves that ringed the single-room apartment and retrieved a plastic container of cat kibble. He went through the repetitive motions of measuring out and serving the food to the cat, checking the water fountain’s level, and tossing a bag from the automated litter box into the trash chute, but unlike at work, his eyes didn’t glaze over.

 

Even though they were the same every day, Benny never used his time-perception compression powers with his cat. He didn’t want to miss a minute of time with Petey.

 

Once cat maintenance had been completed, he walked to the corner of the room he used to sleep, which stored a heavy, compact bedroll. He untied it and rolled it out, then lay on his back and pulled out a mechanical arm with a viewscreen attached to the end of it so it hung above him and pointed down.

 

He tapped at his phone for a few moments, and the screen came to life, displaying an icon meant to evoke a telephone headset that no one had used in fifteen years. Benny found his pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones and put them on, pulling down the microphone arm.

 

Seconds later, a face appeared on the viewscreen. It looked… like Benny, if he had magically become a girl and happy. And gotten his hair shaved into a floppy mohawk, then dyed powder blue, baby pink and white.

 

The cheerful doppelganger yelled into Benny’s ears. “Iiiiiiit’s the bro!!”

 

“Hiya Buster,” Benny grinned. “How’s lunar life treating you?”

 

“~I nearly diiiied,~” his sister sang to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth.

 

“Again?” He sounded skeptical.

 

“For reals this time! Big ole Cataclysium explosion. If I hadn’ta acted real fast, my Cestus woulda had a hull breach and I’d be Event Horizoned all over the place.”

 

“Acting real fast is your thing,” Benny rolled his eyes, “just like acting real slow is mine.”

 

“Let me brag, asshole. How’s the shop?”

 

He shrugged. “Eh.”

 

“When are you gonna get a different job, breh? Aren’t you bored?”

 

“I dunno,” he sighed, “maybe? Maybe.”

 

“Get a boyfriend, at least,” Buster teased, “or come to the moon and I’ll lend ya one of mine.”

 

“I don’t meet anybody down here, Buh,” Benny complained, “it’s just me and Petey and my coworkers and my cranky roommates.”

 

“I know there are bars down there. There are probably some gay bars on the surface. If you want that ‘desperate and broke’ vibe you seem to like so much, you could take the metro up to Oak Bay or something.”

 

“Why are you so invested in my sex life? You’re my sister. That’s weird.”

 

“I’m just worried about you, Benny. You’re not doing anything. I know I’m over here blowing shit up on the moon but there’s some space between here and there, yeah? You’re gonna stagnate.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Benny replied in what he intended to be a final tone, “I wanna hear more about you blowing shit up on the moon. Or roller derby. How’s roller derby?”

 

“I nearly broke this girl’s arm, it was sweet,” Buster began.

 

Benny smiled. Life was better when his sister was talking.

 

Things were alright.

 

Bonding Agents: Something Like Gravity

PHALANX FITNESS CENTER

DREAMLIGHT, LUNA

 

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.”

 

“Pfff whatever”

 

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.

 

“Hello.  Again.”

 

“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.”

 

There. Perfect.

 

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.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

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.

Distant Thunder: Together Again

TOP OF THE ROCK RESTAURANT

NORBRIDGE ROCK CITY

 

“I’m underdressed,” Benny fretted, adjusting his bow tie and smoothing down his fitted vest. “I’m underdressed. I look like some kind of hipster fuck.”

 

“You’re fine,” Buster scolded him. “You’re better dressed than I am.” That, at least, was true. At least she wasn’t in BDUs, but Buster wasn’t about to dress up formal for something as simple as going to dinner at a fancy restaurant with an international celebrity. She was wearing slacks and an untucked button-down, the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. She didn’t even bother taking off her dog tags.

 

“Yeah, but you can pull it off,” Benny shot back, checking the tuck of his undershirt into his slacks.

 

“Whatever. You’re hot stuff. You’ll be boning the Damselfly before the evening is over.”

 

“I’m sure ey didn’t bring us here to hit on us, Buster.”

 

“Dream big, buh!” Buster grinned, then strode up to the Maitre D. “We’re the Damselfly’s guests, my good man! Lead us to your finest… table that we have reserved.”

 

Buster—”

 

“This way, madam,” the host seemed unfazed, nodding to Benny too. “Sir.”

 

The siblings followed, and were led to a smallish table near one of the windows. Window tables at Top of the Rock were what made the restaurant famous, and for good reason—it was fifty stories up, looking out over the entirety of Norbridge Rock City, all the way to the Canadian shore.

 

“Whoa,” Buster breathed. “I know I live on the moon, but damn.”

 

“Kinda dizzying,” Benny agreed.

 

“So, been practicing your pick-up lines?” Buster smirked.

 

“Would you stop?” Benny scolded. “I thought you’d let up once I had a boyfriend.”

 

“Why stop at one, though?”

 

“Forget it. Seriously, though, why do you think the Damselfly wants to take us to dinner and drinks? Us, of all people? We’re nobody special.”

 

“Speak for yourself!” Buster folded her arms and leaned back in the seat.

 

“You know what I mean. We’re not… superheroes, or celebrities. There’s nothing that should make us stand out.”

 

“Oh, I dunno,” a voice came from above. “You seem pretty distinctive to me.”

 

The twins looked up. Above them, floating in air as if laying tummy-down at the edge of a bed, was a slight, freckle-faced redhead grinning down at them. Ey was wearing a pair of loose pants made of some wispy fabric, a scoopnecked top, and a full face of evening makeup with colors to match.

 

“Um,” Benny said.

 

“Hi.” Buster added.

 

“Wow, you…” Nat floated down, grabbing the back of eir own chair. “You two look totally different. I never would have…”

 

“Different from what?” Buster blinked.

 

“Um nice to meet you Mx. Damselfly,” Benny stammered.

 

“Right! Hosting.” The Damselfly was positively beaming. “Do both of you like red sangria? I seem to remember that you both liked sweet wines when we were little.”

 

“When we were… what?” Buster asked.

 

“Oh my god,” Benny murmured, eyes wide. “Oh my god.”

 

“And Benjamin gets it,” Nat said quietly.

 

“What—OH.” Buster’s eyes went wide too, staring at Nat.

 

“Petey?” Benny’s voice was tiny.

 

“Not any more,” intense emotion crept into Nat’s voice. “I’m so happy you made it out, sibs.”

 

With a voice-breaking cry, Buster lunged forward and swept Nat and Benny into a tight hug. “Oh shit,” she wailed. “Oh shit, oh shit! We’ve got our kid back! We’ve got you back!!”

 

Benny, too, clung to Nat, sobbing. Finally overcome by the emotional display, Nat burst into tears too, and the three held each other for a while.

 

 

Only a few minutes later, they were all at their seats again, a pitcher of red sangria on the table in front of them, a full glass in front of each sibling.

 

“So,” Nat began anew, snuffling. “Hi. My name is Nat Zygoptera. They call me the Damselfly. I’m kind of a big deal celebrity superhero. It’s.. really nice to see my brother and sister again.”

 

“I’m uh, Beth Schuster, but everybody just calls me Buster,” Buster smiled, clutching her sangria glass in both hands. “I drive the best tank that PHALANX makes. Also, I’m bi and a girl.”

 

“And um. I’m Benny. I make coffee. Also, I’m gay.”

 

“Look at this queer little family,” Nat got a little misty again, and took a sip of wine. “Oh! That reminds me. Benny, you know how your boyfriend was asking you about whether you were exclusive.”

 

Benny stared, a blush creeping across his freckles.

 

“Yeahhh, I kind of fucked him. Sorry, I didn’t know he was yours.”

 

“I mean, um. I guess I don’t mind if… you don’t mind?”

 

“Oh. Also, he’s kind of maybe possibly a supervillain?”

 

Benny stared, his face flushing red.

 

“Well, maybe. We know his mom is one. The Oathkeeper’s sworn nemesis, actually. He might be okay.”

 

Benny stared, face bright crimson, looking faint.

 

“You’re fucking a supervillain?” It wasn’t clear whether Buster was addressing Benny or Nat. “I feel way better about myself now.”

 

“I feel like there’s hope for him,” Nat shrugged a little, “I dunno. Just… wanted you to know.”

 

“Should… do I need to break up with him?” Benny’s voice was a little small.

 

“Nah. Don’t. I’ll let you know if you should. Let’s talk about literally anything else.”

 

 

Two hours, three fancy entrées, and two full pitchers of red sangria later, all three siblings were flush-faced and loud.

 

“An’ then,” Buster slurred, “he says, I know a place. In public! That has a real nice view. Of the lunar sunrise! And do you want to go there. For sex. He didn’t say that last bit.”

 

“Doctor Lydes did that?” Nat clutched the edge of the table to keep from floating away. “You propositioned Simon fucking Lydes and he suggested a public place to fuck you in??”

 

“Buster,” Benny said sagely, “is magical.”

 

“I’m a fucking unicorn,” Buster agreed, “and yes. So like, he takes me up there, and it’s legit one of the nicest views I’ve seen in Dreamlight. And he bends me over the railing and fucks my brains out. It was amazing.”

 

“Holy shit,” Nat whispered, “I have to get in on that.”

 

“I recommend it highly.”

 

“Maybe we should hook you up with Callister too, Buster,” Benny suggested, giggling.

 

“Ehhhhh.” Buster waved off the notion derisively. “Too pompous. I don’t wanna fuck no world of wartime blood elf poet shirt limpdick.”

 

“His dick is really very not limp,” Benny pointed out, and Nat nodded agreement.

 

“Whatever! You know what I mean. Anyway that was kind of something. So Nat are you like. In a relationship, or just fucking everything that moves.”

 

“Both,” Nat sipped eir drink. “I am in love with a girl, though. Her name is Fiona. She’s… awkward. You’d like her, Benny.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“You’ll have to meet my polycule,” Nat nodded, “you’d love the hell outta the other couple, Buster. It’s all gotta happen. How many days before you have to head back to Luna?”

 

“Three.”

 

“Okay. Just. Wow,” Nat smiled, eyes tearing up again. “I’m drunk with my gay as fuck siblings. I’m drunk and gay with my siblings.”

 

“Drunk and gay,” Buster agreed. “Fuck.”

 

“Here’s to being drunk and gay with real family,” Benny raised his glass.

 

“Drunk and gay!” Nat agreed, and they all toasted.

 

And then Nat made everyone drink a ton of water so they wouldn’t be hung over, the end.

 

Summer Sweatin’

PHALANX FITNESS CENTER
DREAMLIGHT, LUNA

 

The Fitness Center in Dreamlight never closed, and it was never empty. Today, it was close, but several troops went through methodical, repeat motions in frictional exercise machines. One trooper stood out; a muscular, tall, broad-shouldered woman in her mid-twenties with a colorful soft mohawk and an even more colorful warmup outfit. She was in a clear cylindrical tube, bounding off the walls in a rainbow-hued streak.

 

Another figure that stood out was the pink alien lady in the silver uniform. She’d taken off her jacket and cape. Cape? And what looked like a sword and buckler belt and and laying it at a practice dummy barehanded. And in thigh high boots.

 

Aliens ammirite?

 

Meanwhile, across the room, walking out of the bathroom was a shirtless figure that appeared to be made completely out of obsidian filled with stardust. Also baggy grey workout shorts. He placed his hands on his hips and examined the entirety of the workout room with a curved featureless head, aside from the galaxy floating within. His hips made some cracking noises as he stretched them, and his arms popped multiple times as he stretched those too. It had been literally years since he had worked out. “Ok Summer you got me here, now what?” He asked as he approached her.

 

Summer finished her set with a spin kick that would have made someone’s day worse and jogged on over. She gave the obsidian man a critical look. “Let’s start with some stretches. Let me see how well you can touch your toes.”

 

“Ok. Right.” He pointed two hand downward. Then leaned with his back until there was an audible crack. “Ahhhhh jeeez that hurt then felt good.” He said, voice strained as he reached further. His fingertips were only able to get down to his ankles.

 

It gradually became apparent that they had an audience. The jacked woman in the clear plastic tube had ceased her focused bounding, and was staring, fascinated, at the two aliens(?). People. Interesting looking… bipeds.

 

“That’s good, better than I expected!” Summer clapped her hands, then she waved at the woman in the tube. She returned the wave immediately, beaming. Summer turned back to Shane. “Let’s go through a few more stretches then we’ll go on the running machine things.”

 

The colorful woman resumed her exercise, though she kept glancing over to the cool looking people across the room in the process.

 

Shane glanced back a few times, though it was hard to tell because well, he had no eyes. “Alright alright more stretches more stretches.” He sat on the floor and attempted to get his foot behind his head and was surprisingly quite successful at doing so, though it was preceded by a series of sharp popping noises until it came into rest. “Oooooooh there’s the spot….” Apparently he had a lot of practice doing this one before.

 

“That is good! You’ve done -” and here her translator split into three voices as opposed to the normal two. One, the word she used, xi’latie’s. Two, an extended explanation of the term. Three, a simple Earth term, yoga. Summer paused, looking annoyed as she tapped what appeared to be an ornate hairclip. “I’m sorry, it’s still adjusting. What was that word you know? Yo-ga? You’ve done such stretch and breathing exercises before?”

 

The slamming noises from the plastic tube resumed. The woman was once again sending herself in a controlled ricochet from one end of the tube to the other, turning in midair so her sneakered feet always hit a different place on the wall. She was very fast for a human, though she certainly didn’t seem to be faster than baseline.

 

“Oh yeah I have liked weirding people out with stuff like this since I was a kid.” Shane chuckled as he slowly pulled his foot back down, making noises that could only be described as wincing. “Though it hurts a lot more to do it now days. Yeouch.” He slowly brought himself back up to his feet with a groan. “Hey. We should try those grav tube exercises. Looks fun.”

 

Summer nodded. “They certainly look like they’ll give you a full body workout. I’ve not tried these yet. There’s a few empty ones…yes, there are.” She led the way to them.

 

The woman finished a circuit and then braced herself at the end of the tube, sweaty limbs splayed and watching the other two. “Tastemaker!” She told herself with a toothy grin.

 

Shane walks up to it, tapping it on the glass. “Hmmmm. I really should know how to work one of these.” He flicks a few switches on the side. “Ah. There we go.” He puts it up to high weight gravity, stepping inside with thunks so loud one would assume he is made out of solid iron. “Well I’ll be damned, the techs they had working on this did a great job.” He slowly fought against it, feeling the weight on his body. “Feels just like when I jump in the Map.”

 

Summer looked at the setting Shane set it as and her jaw dropped in protest. “But….” Then stared. “Ah, I see. But perhaps you should start at a lower setting. You have not worked out in a long time and your muscles will protest tomorrow.” Somethings were basically universal.

 

“No way I need to feel the burn!” Shane replied as he forces his arms up in the air defiantly. Perhaps some of Dr. Lydes serotonin experiments had longer lasting side effects than intended. “Why don’t you give it a try?”

 

Summer gives an indelicate and unladylike snort. “Oh no. You can’t fool me like that.” She crossed her arms, looking amused. “Why don’t you try a few…” she paused, looking for a word. “Squats? Yes, squats.”

 

“Fine fine sure.” He took a wide stance, his body crackling under the weight as he went into his first squat. Man baggy pants looked weird under high gravity. Shane appeared to be stuck in his squatting position, making straining sounds as he tried to come back up. He did  not ask for help.

 

Summer gave it anyway, adjusting the gravity settings to something more comfortable while still being a challenge. “You need to start small before you can do big things,” she said gently.

 

“I totally had that Summer.” Shane assured, though it was in a joking way. “I just don’t get out much. Probably won’t have much time to build up enough small to do big anyways.” He sighs, pulling his elbow in yet another stretch.

 

The tube in which the colorful lady had been exercising was no longer visible from their current vantage point. After a few minutes, purely coincidentally, she left the grav tube and walked over to a tension pull machine across from them. She set the weights– high, for her size, but certainly very human– and clambered into the machine.

 

“You don’t have time to hurt yourself by starting big. And perhaps you can schedule breaks into your shift?”

 

“No can do, I need to be at my post as often as possible. I am instrumental to the expansion of earth settlements in this system and keeping an eye out on other civilized planets. Not to mention every hour I have off I spend in the labs working on Wheird and Catalysium physics.” He looks up dreamily. “I could be in the labs right now.”

 

“So do exercises at your post!” The woman in the tension machine blurted in an enthusiastic and husky alto. In the silence that followed, she realized that she had committed a gaffe, and hurriedly added something to save face. “….nerd!”

 

Shane looked over at Buster. He stared. He stormed right up to her. “Do you even know who I am?” He leaned his head in close to hers. She reared back a little. She probably wasn’t supposed to punch him, so rearing back seemed good. “I’m the biggest fucking nerd.” And then he leaned back. “Thanks for the advise. Sorry if that was a bit weird. Let someone mess with my brain a bit earlier.” He scratched the back of his head a little more, turning to look at Summer. He shrugged.

 

Summer shrugged back, bemused. “That is very good advice. There are a great deal of exercises that you can perform at your station.” She wandered on over.

 

“It weirds me out that more people up here aren’t weird! We on the moon, people! You’re all right. Are you two from offworld or what?”

 

“I am,” she nodded. “I am Summer of the Gi’ia’n Star Empire.” Her tone was friendly to match her smile.

 

“I have no idea what that is!” Buster said cheerfully. “I’m Buster! I drive the Cestus.”

 

“Human born and raised here.” “Huh.” “Oh!” Shane said calmly, readjusting himself as the strange serotonin surge died down. “Shane, or Astral. Nice to meet you. The Cestus huh? That’s a good one. I worked on the Ether Chalk and Phase Cascades designed for that. It’s treating you well?” A lab coat materialized out of cosmic dust around him as he said this.

 

“Oh for real? Fuck yes! I love my baby. Run drills every other day, and we’ve been on a dozen-ish sorties. Best tank I’ve driven yet.”

 

“Fantastic. I will be sure to let the techs know their driver is satisfied.” Shane nodded, sounding pretty pleased himself. “Summer is from another solar system, more advanced than us.” He clarified with a motion of his hand. “It’s very impressive.”

 

“Hell yeah! I’m mad impressed! I’m also impressed that you’re human-born but obviously way fuckin cooler than most humans!”

 

“Heh, thank you. I personally agree with you but….you do have to be a bit careful who you say that around.” He said it a bit softly. “There are others who have a similar condition and it isn’t exactly something that happens by choice. They get treatments and can remain, for the most part human but…yeah. Some folks get rather touchy about it.”

 

“Right. Sure. Cool. I’m still kinda learning this uh offworld diplomacy thing. I was real sheltered before I joined Phalanx to be honest.”

 

Shane did a small wave in dismissal “Oh it’s fine, don’t worry about it too much, I think we are good here. But, ah, yeah. The Cestus? One of it’s main functions is to keep anyone who doesn’t want to become this-” He gestures to his body “From becoming it once they enter the Cat zone on the other side of the moon.”

 

“Ohhhh. Yeah. I’d be four kinds of dead and even more kinds of messed up without it by now.”

 

Shane nods. “Yeah I was one of the lucky ones. Was a really messy business when all that went down. Anyways….how are you enjoying the moon so far? I know it’s not exactly the ideal place to live but….we are trying.” He kind of sounded like one of those door to door surveyors.

 

Shrug. “I don’t have much of a basis of comparison. I applied for my Phalanx scholarship the day after I moved out of my parents’ place, so it’s been, uh. Dorms dorms dorms.”

 

“Yeah I can’t really say much either. I basically like in my lab. And the observatory.” He sighed. “Nice to hear that the scholarship is bringing in smart talent though. Not anyone can handle machinery like the Cestus. That was a good decision.” He looked around. “Our gyms beat the shit out of earth ones though am I right?”

 

Buster beamed at the praise. “Hey, thanks, that’s right nice of ya. Not for nothing, neither. I’ve got the highest recorded scores on the CLAMORs since they were implemented. And yeah! This gym is the best I’ve ever worked out in. I spend more time in here than I spend video calling my bro.”

 

Summer had stepped to the side, taking a call. “I’m sorry,” she said to Shane. “I’m being called away. I do hope this has helped you.” She nodded at Buster. “It’s been good meeting you.” She gathered her things and left in a hurry.

 

“Bye cool name lady!”

 

“Find a job you love and you won’t work a day right?” Shane said in response to Buster’s fantastic test scores. “Bye Summer, keep looking for that masseuse for me will you?” He chuckled after her as she left. “Ah, so a brother on the surface then?”

 

“Yeh. Benny, my identical twin. Kinda shy, but he’s a mensch. Miss ‘im. Tried to convince him to join up too, but couldn’t convince him. He works some shit job and lives in a matchbox under Rock City.” She pauses for a moment, then frowns. “I worry about ‘im.”

 

Shane placed a hand on his chin, thinking for a bit. Hell. He was in a good mood. Why not. “Would you like to check up on him?” He asked with some curious mischief in his voice.

 

“I check up on ‘im like four times a week,” Buster replied, audibly confused. She wasn’t connecting the dots.

 

“Right. He is working right now though right?”Shane said patiently. “I think it’s normal business hours down there at the moment.”

 

“Uhm… yeah I guess he does have a shift right now. He’s a barista, so his hours are kinda weird, but he keeps me up to date on his schedule week to week.”

 

“Now what if I told you we could send a hologram of you down there right now into his shop and have a conversation with him?”

 

“Yooooooooo,” Buster whispered.

 

“Want to give it a shot?” Shane asked, pretty amused at the moment.

 

“Yeah let’s do it,” she squeaked, “he is gonna fliiiip.”

 

“Awesome.” Shane says, the hype real. He sets a hand on Busters shoulder, and slowly the Gym and Luna fade out. They are floating in space, but it doesn’t feel like space. Just looks that way, and the earth’s massive orb is resting in front of them. “Now don’t worry too much, this is just how my power works. It’s a bit weird at first, but if at any point you feel uncomfortable all you need to do is take a step back and I will let go.” And it was true, he had no real grip on her shoulder. “Rock City right?”

 

“Yeah. Route 1, exit 13, transit level, at the Bean Sidhe coffee shop.” Buster bounced on the balls of her feet, excited.

 

“Alright, hold on to your lunch.” Shane said, raising an outstretched hand to the earth , slowly pulling it to the side, causing it to rotate until they were looking directly at Rock city. He strained his obsidian muscle and squeezed his hand into a fist and the sky split before them as they rocketed down, down, down till they floated in the skies above Rock City. Buster whooped in delight.Route 1, exit 13” Shane said ponderously as he moved the earth beneath him, or rather, moved their own position rather quickly. Soon they found themselves right above the Bean Sidhe, slowly floating down to the ground. “This the place?” Shane asked with a bit of pride in his work. He very rarely projected towards the earth, and honestly his memory of it’s landscape was quite weak.

 

Buster looked down at the pavement, and up at the girders and the ceiling of Rock City’s transit level, then over at the populated parking lot and the rush of cars on the other side of the lanes. Every surface was painted a harsh yellow from the rest stop’s sodium lighting.

 

“Yup, this is the shithole.”

 

Shane chortled. “Ha, I dunno. It’s kind of quaint. Cute little shop.” He shrugged, taking his hand off Busters shoulder. “We’re invisible right now…we should wait till we get inside. Really spook him.” His voice was all mischief as he began walking up to the Bean Sidhe’s door, phasing right through it.

 

Buster scampered past him and ahead, then pointed at a dishwater-blond boy behind the counter. “That’s Benny,” she tittered. The resemblance was obvious the moment he lifted his head; other than Buster’s slightly fuller lips and softer face shape, the two were identical right down to the freckles. They probably had the same hair color when Buster’s wasn’t dyed in the colors of the trans flag. Their bodies couldn’t have been more different, though; Benny lacked Buster’s breasts, hips, and musculature. He had broad shoulders too, but little muscle to speak of and a fair bit of pudge in its place.

 

At the moment, he was the only barista on the floor. The shop was nearly empty, save for two customers sitting in corner seats.

 

Shane walked behind the counter. “So this is Benny! He seems to be doing alright for himself.” He then looked right back up at Buster. “How should we scare the shit out of him?”

 

Buster squinted, then grinned. “See how mechanical his motions are right now?” She whispered, even though Benny couldn’t hear her. “He’s using his time dilation powers right now to make a boring task less boring. That means he’s slow to react and spacey. Perfect time to imitate one of his supervisors.”

 

She scampered through the counter, taking a position just behind Benny and to his right. She gave an exaggerated ‘okay’ symbol and a wink to Shane.

 

Shane returned it with a thumbs up and Buster slowly began to fade into existence, only slightly retaining a wispy see through quality. She could see it herself when looking down at her hands. Shane then gave her an okay symbol back, letting her know she was all ready!

 

“SCHUSTER!” Buster bellowed, her voice suddenly a perfect natural baritone. “Whaaaaaat did you dooooooo!!!”

 

Benny startled so hard that a spray of coffee grounds flew upward into his face. “What! I didn’t– what– WHAT??” His confusion only deepened as he turned to see his spectral sister, laughing too hard to speak.

 

Shane appeared behind him. “I was supposed to reap her soul, but your sister decided she would rather haunt you for eternity instead.” His voice was deadpan and flat.

 

“Oh my god what? What??” Benny’s eyes were wild, and he reared back at the sight of Shane.

 

“Say what again, motherfucker!” Buster quoted, imitating Samuel L. Jackson’s voice nigh-perfectly.

 

“Wh–“

 

Shane was cracking the fuck up at that. “Don’t say it man she will go poltergeist on your ass.”

 

“Bennyyyyyy. I didn’t aaaaaalmost die this time,” Buster said in a spooky ghost voice. “I died for reeeeeaaaallll!!”

 

“You’re such a fucking asshole,” Benny scowled at her, “and I don’t know why PHALANX lets you use expensive equipment.” There was no venom in the assertion; he was just cranky about being pranked so hard.

 

“You should have seen your face, dude,” Buster said, and twisted hers into an imitation of it.

 

“Are you gonna introduce me to your friend the grim reaper, or what,” Benny brushed coffee grounds off the front of his apron.

 

“Oh yeah. This is Shane. Shane, Benny.”

 

“Hi there.” Shane gave a small wave. “I do holograms and projections along with a bunch of other stuff up on the moon.” He was still shaking the laughs out of his voice. “And yeah, your face was pretty sweet.”

 

“Yeah, leave it to Buster to make a friend with a cool power and then use it to punk me right away,” Benny made a face. “Well uh. Nice to meet you, and welcome to the Bean Sidhe. So to speak.”

 

“To be fair, it might’ve been my idea.” Shane says, only a little apologetically. “Don’t get to do this stuff very often, so I saw my opportunity and took it.” He chuckled a little bit. “Nice place you have here.”

 

“Oh,” Benny replied, looking around, “is it?”

 

“No,” Buster replied.

 

“That’s what I thought. But it’s a living, right?”

 

“No,” Buster replied.

 

Benny glared the glare of someone who agreed but was mad about it.

 

“You want to work for Phalanx?” Shane said, giving Buster a look that said…well. Something. No face. Was kind of hard to tell.

 

“I kind of don’t, to be honest,” Benny shrugged apologetically, “I was still living with Buster when she went through basic, and that nonsense is brutal. Also it’s way dangerous. I’m not thrilled that she’s doing something so risky.”

 

“Oh. Well like. I meant you could be a space barista. But yeah it’s hard to make drinks at zero G too. Super dangerous. Could burn yourself.” Shane nodded in understanding. “But your sis is going to be fine. She drives the Cestus. That’s like….well. It’s as close as we can get to making one person into a full sized tank. It’s pretty dang cool.” He turned to Buster “You’ve shown him the Cestus right?”

 

“She’s described it,” Benny said, “in lurid detail.”

 

“Nathanyul Craaaawss,” Buster elaborated via whining, “says that I’m not supposed to distribute images of it because it’s claaaaaaassified.”

 

“Oh yeah that guy’s a dick.” Shane nods. “Well when it’s unclassified you should drive it over for Benny to see. It is a MARVEL of modern technology.” Shane was hyping it up big time.

 

Benny smiled knowingly. “You worked on it, huh.”

 

“Well, yeah. A bit. Valkyrie also helped. It is SO cool.”

 

“Gotcha,” Benny said. “Well, I really oughta get back to work. Nice to meet you, Shane.”

 

“Talk to you tonight?” Buster shot twin finger guns at her brother.

 

“Sure, buh.”

 

“Nice to meet you too!” And with that, they were suddenly and immediately back in the gym, Shanes hand still on Busters shoulder. “So that was pretty cool right?”

 

“That was so cool,” Buster clenched both fists and bobbed up and down. “Thank you so much! I haven’t been in that awful coffee shop in almost a year!”

 

Shane grinned. “Glad I could help. Now i’ve only got about 15 minutes before my next shift starts….” He checked a watch weirdly attached over the sleeve of his lab coat. “Need a spotter?” ((Tag/endscene? Gonna have to shower n then go to work soon))((sounds good! Thanks! 🙂 ))((I had a lot of fun! Thank you too!))

Outreach: Spaghetti Night

THE MCGOWAN FAMILY HOME

 

“Benny, are you okay? You look sick.” Nat literally hovered over eir older brother, face showing concern. Ey was dressed ‘formally’ in eir best wrap pants, a vest, and a bottle of rosé wine cradled under one arm.

 

“He always looks like that when he’s nervous,” Buster grinned, tossing her bottle of sauvignon blanc end over end before catching it effortlessly. She was dressed in slacks and an untucked button-down, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows—her standard ‘dress’ attire. “You shoulda seen him before we met you for the first time.”

 

“I don’t think the two of you understand,” Benny clutched a bottle of merlot close to his chest. His outfit was similar to Buster’s, but the shirt was tucked in and tidy, the top button was done, and a pair of suspenders and a bow tie rounded out the ‘incredibly dorky dress’ look. “I’m about to go have dinner with the most famous woman in the world, and I’m dating her worst enemy’s son.”

 

“Whatever, geez, I fucked him too and she still loves me,” Nat zipped ahead on the cobblestone walkway, then turned and shrugged. “You’ll be fine. You’re a sweet guy.”

 

Benny just sighed and hugged the bottle of wine tighter.

 

“Here goes!” Nat grinned, whirled about, and pressed the doorbell with a flourish.

 

Scott McGowan opened the door, giving his trademark grin. “Nat! Good to see you again. And wine! I’m always glad to see wine.” He offered his hand to Nat’s siblings. “Hey, I’m Scott. I don’t think Alice mentioned your names. You’re the twins, right? Nat’s siblings?”

“Yes sir,” Benny extended his hand first, eyes a little too wide. “I’m Benny Schuster. It’s an honor, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Buster!” His sister took Scott’s hand after Benny shook it, grinning widely. “Real honor. I couldn’t be driving the Cestus without your frameworks, Mr. McGowan.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat dove in for a hug. “I missed you! Aren’t the twins adorable?”

 

Scott returned the hug, laughing. “They have a certain bright-eyed enthusiasm about them, that’s for sure. Just Scott, please. Christ. Mr. McGowan is my dad’s name.”

“That’s such a dad thing to say,” Alice said, coming out of the kitchen and wiping her hands. “No one actually cool has said that.”

“I’m pretty sure they have, ‘cause I just did.” Scott shot back.

 

“Sorry sir,” Benny said, eyes even wider at the sight of the Oathkeeper, freckled skin pale, “Scott.”

 

“Alice!” Nat squeaked, going in for the hug. “Look look! Siblings!”

 

“Scott it is!” Buster agreed cheerfully. “Hello Mrs. Oathkeeper!”

 

“Does that make me Mr. Oathkeeper?” Scott asked, amused. Alice smiled and shook her head at him, approaching to offer handshakes to the twins and a peck on the cheek and hug for Nat.

 

“I dunno, do you wanna be? Sounds kinda cool, right?” Buster replied.

 

As Alice shook his hand, Benny looked just about ready to faint, a thin sheen of cold sweat on his brow.

 

“I dunno,” Scott said with a grin. “People might expect the hammer and wings combo from me, and that ain’t my style. Benny, you look a bit, ah, pale. Would you like to sit down? We can get you some water, something to nibble on while the sauce simmers?”

Alice nods. “Anything, really. It’s no problem at all.”

“Oh! No. I’m fine,” Benny attempted a feeble reassurance.

 

“Benny’s just a li’l nervous,” Buster clapped her brother on the back and led him inside after Nat. “Until last week, I was the only VIP he knew. Now he’s drownin’ in ’em!”

 

“VIP, huh?” Scott expertly guided the conversation away from Benny. “So you pilot a McGowan tank on the moon? That does sound pretty important, I gotta say. But what are you shooting, exactly?”

“Usually nothin’,” Buster shrugged, “since the Cestus has the best Catalysium shielding of any personnel-sized vehicle, they usually have me walkin’ the dark side of the moon for research purposes. But I’ve blown up some Wheird stuff in my time, if y’know what I mean.” Grin.

 

Nat gently guided Benny to one of the dining room chairs, which he sat in heavily.

 

“No shit,” Scott began, before being interrupted with a: “Language!” And correcting himself with a sigh. “Well, you know, if you want to bring the ol’ girl down while you’re on Earth leave, maybe we can tune her up. Put some racing stripes on her.”

“Holy shhhhoes, that would be amazing,” Buster looked like a kid in a candy store. “I mean like it’s deviated some from the McGowan designs, especially since Valkyrie worked on it, but uh. I think you’ll like it. It’s a real fine tank, Scott. Best walker in PHALANX, maybe anywhere.”

 

“We’ll make it better.” Scott said, clearly thinking about how to do that. “Gotta figure out how the gravity would affect what I’m thinkin’, but…”

“Scott, tone down the work talk, please. We’re here to meet Nat’s siblings.” Alice interrupted. “Please, dinner is almost ready. Why don’t you have a seat? We can get to know each other.”

“Okay! Don’t worry too much about gravity; Cessie’s got Catalysium inverters for shocks that adapt to whatever environment. You’ve got to see ’em in action; I can jump off an earthside dropship with no hull damage.” Buster claimed the seat next to her wan-looking brother as she yammered on, while Nat pretended to take the chair on Benny’s other side.

 

The McGowan children were out of the home at the moment – Alice was concerned about safety risks. And so, the group… ‘enjoyed’ a slightly more close dinner, with the far seats at the dining table being ignored.

 

“So!” Alice said. “You’re, ah, a barista, Benny? That sounds… nice!”

“Yes ma’am,” Benny replied, “in Rock City. I… like to serve people.”

 

“I keep telling him he can do better,” Buster lamented.

 

“I think it sounds nice.” Alice repeated. “I guess you can make lots of… drinks? I thought there was just coffee.”

“Um, well yes,” Benny looked a bit more comfortable, talking about something he feels knowledgeable about. “We have a decent selection of teas, and we sell and mix lemonade and hot cider drinks in the hot and cold months, respectively. Even just with coffee, there are a lot of different things you can do with espresso, and I’ve been practicing my latte art.”

 

He chuckled to himself, recalling something. “In fact, making a little foam heart for him is one of the first things I did when I met my boyf—” he halted mid-word, realizing what he had said.

 

A long, awkward silence dragged by. Scott stood, excusing himself for a moment.

 

“Your boyfriend.” Alice said, smiling just a touch too widely. “That’s so nice. Isn’t that nice?”

“It’s very nice!” Even Nat looked kind of nervous now. “Benny’s a really sweet guy. To everybody.”

 

“To everybody!” Alice agreed. Was her voice a bit higher? “That’s so nice. Even someone like Callister. Who -”

Alice looked at Nat.

 

She looked at Benny.

 

You could see the wheels turning.

 

“I should go,” Benny whispered, teetering in his chair. He didn’t look like he was in any state to even stand.

 

“No! Nope,” Nat placed a firm hand on Benny’s shoulder. “No, we’re all gonna have a nice family dinner. Everyone here is a beloved member of my family and we are going to have dinner together.

 

Alice opens her mouth –

 

And Scott bursts in carrying a heavy pot. “SPAGHETTI!”

“Spaghetti!” Nat agreed!

 

“Spaghetti!” Buster added.

 

Scott eagerly begins to spoon up spaghetti. “It smells delicious, doesn’t it? Alice is such a great cook.”

Alice pours herself a large glass of wine.

 

Nat floated out of eir chair and poured all three siblings glasses to match Alice’s, then looked over at Scott with a questioning expression, wiggling the bottle a bit.

 

He mouthed “yes please,” then redoubled his valiant efforts to change the subject. “So, what kind of machines do you guys use in Rock City? I’m curious. For the coffee, I mean.”

“W-we use the Bean Sidhe’s standardized model,” Benny blinked a few times, fighting to maintain consciousness through dramatically elevated blood pressure, “it automates temperature regulation and monitors pull time, but we grind and dispense ourselves because it’s…” groping unsuccessfully for words, “…better.”

 

“Better, huh? Better quality coffee?” Scott gently slid the conversation back on track as Alice poured herself another glass of wine. “You’re clearly passionate about it. That’s great to see.”

Nat returned to eir seat after pouring Scott a glass of wine to the brim. “Yeah, us Schuster kids,” ey winces a little at saying the name aloud, “we um, take our crafts seriously. In case it wasn’t already obvious.”

 

“How many more siblings do you three have?” Alice asks, and her voice is surprisingly gentle.

 

“Six,” Buster replied. “But we don’t know how many of ’em are still with our folks.”

 

“Is there… anything we can do to help?” Alice continues the line of questioning carefully.

 

Nat averted eir gaze, not replying.

 

Buster glanced at her sibling and then looked back to Alice. “I don’t know,” she said, “our family was pretty f— f-fouled up.”

 

Benny drained his wineglass.

 

“Okay.” Alice said. “If you ever need a family, you can come here. We understand. Even when you… have… problems? That I can’t… quite… understand.”

“Benny has a robot coworker!” Nat cut in, “one of the ones we placed, I think!”

 

Benny nodded, looking miserable but willing to try to dig the conversation out. “Her name is Janet.”

 

“Wow!” Alice said, pouring herself another glass of wine. “What’s… that like?”

“She’s… the most curious person I’ve ever met,” Benny dabbed his forehead with a napkin, “and very considerate. I wish more people were like her.”

 

Nat wiped the corner of one eye, trying to be surreptitious.

 

“I think that’s very sweet.” Alice managed.

 

Scott leaned in to speak to Benny. “If your friend ever needs – help. I know people who can help her. With anything. We used to work with Evocatus.”

Evocatus was born of a military chassis project and the EV0 AI project of Scott McGowan. He was a member of the Legion for many years, and served alongside many of the most decorated war heroes on Earth today. After one battle, he retired, saying that he needed to focus on helping his fellow AIs. He now works as a politician, on the front lines of the fight for AI rights.

 

“I’ll—let her know,” Benny blinked. “Thank you.”

 

“Any time. More wine?”

“Yes sir, thank you.”

 

Buster fidgeted, casting a concerned glance at Benny and then Alice.

 

There’s a pause where everyone eats in silence, Alice refilling drinks and offering her guests buns. The mood is slightly better after a few minutes, although the air is still tense. Nat came out of eir funk, once again playing the glittery peacemaker, and Buster and Scott resumed technical discussion.

 

Benny, however, remained cowed—head down, shoulders hunched, staring at the table, offering sparse commentary, mostly polite observations about how good the food was.

 

Scott stood. “Benny, why don’t you come for a walk with me? Get some air. Check out the property.”

“Yes sir,” Benny stood and followed Scott, seemingly relieved to have something to do.

 

The dining room was silent for a few moments as Scott led Benny away. Once their voices were distant enough, Nat turned to Alice, eyes blazing.

 

“He thinks you hate him!” Ey hissed.

 

Alice looked up from the sandwich she was making by ripping apart her bun and stuffing it with spaghetti and sauce. “What? Why? I was nice. I didn’t do anything!”

“You were about to launch into a tirade about how evil his boyfriend is! Do you think we couldn’t tell that?”

 

“Whoa, Nat—” Buster tried to cut in, but Nat silenced her with a glare.

 

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Alice replied defensively, face flushed with wine. “I said it was nice. That’s all. I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m not Scanner. I don’t peep in on other people’s personal business.”

“You do that constantly!” Nat’s voice spiked in pitch. “Alice I love you like the non-shitty mother I never had, but—”

 

“But what?” Alice shoots back. “Do I approve of Callister? No, I don’t. I don’t. But I wasn’t going to say anything, and I wouldn’t say anything, because when I was nineteen years old I had my dad try to ship me off to a facility because he didn’t like who I was or what I was doing and I’m never going to do that to anyone who looks up to me, even if they are making choices I don’t like!”

And then she bursts into over-emotional, too drunk tears.

 

“God fucking damn it Alice,” Nat burst into tears emself, “Callister is an abused child too!!!”

 

There was a long, miserable, soggy pause, before Alice asked: “W-What?”

 

“Just look,” Nat gesticulated, “all of the signs are there. He wants her approval, he’s not getting it, he’s desperate for affection, his behavior is erratic and confused. He’s just like us. Just like you and me. And yes he’s been an utter shit, but when Benny and I look at him, we see someone who is going through what we’ve been through. What we got away from.”

 

Alice shoves half of her spaghetti sandwich in her mouth and chews desolately, her face a blotchy mess. She finally swallows and mutters: “This is all Anathema’s fault.”

Nat snuffled and wiped eir face with the cloth napkin. “Five bucks says she was abused too,” ey replied quietly.

 

“Still a Villain, though.” Is all Alice can muster.

 

“Oh yeah,” Nat murmured, draining another wineglass.

 

Alice looks at Buster and Nat, face red and splotchy. “…More wine?”

Nat glanced left, then right, then scratched eir cheek. “Alice,” ey ventured cautiously, “you’ve been in a fairly groundbreaking mood lately. You, uh. You know I love you like a mother and would never do anything to harm you, right?”

 

Buster’s eyes widened. “Oh em gee Nat—”

 

“R-Right? I know both of those things,” Alice squinted.

“Would you like to try…” Nat searched for a euphemism, “a new thing?”

 

Alice sniffed and took another long drink of wine. “You know what? After tonight? Yeah. Whatever. Why not.”

Without another word, Nat pulled out a small, hand-folded paper packet, tore open the end, and tipped the powder inside into Alice’s wineglass.

 

“Nat!!” Buster squeaked.

 

“Shh,” Nat shushed, emptying the rest of the powder into eir own glass. “I brought E for you and Benny.”

 

“Shushing,” Buster squeaked, quieter.

 

Alice drained the wine glass and smiled at Buster and Nat. “Things can only get better from here, right?”

 

“Iunno,” Nat shrugged.

 

The older man led Benny out onto the balcony. It’s surprisingly… suburban. A couple of armchairs are facing out over the gardens, there’s a tricycle and a picnic blanket in the distance, and there’s a barbecue that someone has added mysterious, engine shaped augments to.

 

“You okay, bud?” Scott asked, grabbing an armchair.

“Yes sir!” Benny assured him, actual fear in his eyes. “I’m fine! I’m just shy. I apologize.”

 

“Hey, no problem. I get it. It’s intimidating. Big house, war heroes, terrible small talk…” Scott laughs. “You smoke?”

“N-no,” Benny lied poorly.

 

“It’s okay.” Scott produced a couple of narrow cigars and a lighter, winking. “Neither do I.” He handed one to Benny and lit his own.

Benny peered at the cigar, sniffing it and seeming impressed. He accepted the offer of a light, then, after a pause, stammered, “I’m sorry I’ve brought this conflict into your home, sir.”

 

Scott laughed. “What conflict? That my wife’s a total spaz who doesn’t know how to keep a dinner conversation going? Christ, that conflict’s been going on since well before I married her. I don’t know how you could possibly make it worse.”

“I can tell she’s angry with me. She has every right; I told Nat that she wouldn’t want to see me.”

 

Scott took a deep inhale on his cigar and puffed out a perfect ring. “Nah,” he finally said. “She’s mad, but not like you think. Definitely not at you.”

“What do you mean?” Benny asked. Then, “if… it’s all right for me to ask. Sir.”

 

“Scott.” Scott reminds him, smiling again. “Just Scott. Yeah, it’s alright for you to ask. It was kind of begging the question. She’s mad because my wife doesn’t like loose ends. She was hoping that there’d be a neat and tidy end to the Anathema thing. Callister… bothers her.” Scott took another puff. “But he bothers her as an abstract, not as a person. Every time they interact as people, she looks like an idiot because she can’t stop thinking of him as that abstract.” Scott shrugs. “She’ll get over it. And it has nothing to do with you.”

Benny rubbed one eye with his free hand. “Two weeks ago I was just a barista,” he murmured. “I thought my sister could do all the big world changing stuff and I could just… make drinks.”

 

“Y’know what the bitch of life is? Everything you do changes someone’s world. Does this Callister kid make you happy?”

Benny looked up at Scott, then down at the cigar, then shifted in his seat, then looked up at Scott again.

 

“…yeah.”

 

“You make him happy?”

“I’m— I mean—I seem to?”

 

“Well, hey, there you go. You’re a hero of that very small corner of the world. And who gives a shit about the rest, honestly. You got a guy, he’s happy, you’re happy. That’s great. And sure, he’s got baggage, but we all do. At least he’s upfront about it. Ain’t like he dropped 300k of credit card debt on you.”

Blink. “Did somebody do that to you, sir—Scott?”

 

Scott laughed. “You know why I married Alice? She’s honest. I mean, part of that is she’s just hideously incapable of telling a lie. But most of it is I can trust her with my life. I trust her to be a good mother. And she isn’t a fan of Gucci.”

“She… seems like a really good person, from everything I’ve seen,” Benny puffed on the cigar. “She didn’t have to come out for queer rights like that, but she looked so… proud to do it. And happy. I was so upset at the idea that someone like that might hate me.”

 

“She doesn’t hate you at all. She called you family. It means she likes you. She ain’t one for half measures like that. I’m sure we’ll walk back in and she’ll apologize and serve you some more spaghetti and it’ll be a nice, calm time.”

 

“Hi Scott!” Nat greeted Scott and Benny with wide, glittering, powerfully dilated eyes. “I got your wife super high!”

 

“I’m sorry you what -” Scott managed.

 

“I’m super high!” Alice spun on her chair to face Scott, one leg around each side of the chair’s back. “But it’s okay. We’ve had a great time, but now it’s time for a serious talk -”

She looked at Scott with dilated eyes.


“About Jesus Christ.”

And then she burst into laughter.

 

Benny looked at Buster, wild-eyed. “Please tell me ey brought drugs for us too.”

 

Buster wordlessly handed a small capsule to Benny.

 

“Thank goodness,” Benny breathed.

 

Nat giggled. “Scott I dunno if you—what’s your metabolism like?”

 

“It’s… good?” Scott replied, still bewildered as Alice had somehow managed to get off the chair and was now slinging both of her arms around his neck.


“Okay I should… be clearer,” Nat nodded sagely, “do you want drugs if so do you want para drugs or baseline drugs also sorry I didn’t check with you about the drugs first but to be honest I’m not very sorry.”

 

Scott considered for a moment. “Side effects?” He finally asked.

 

“Of Dazzlefly? Few!” Nat chirped. “Loss of focus, jaw clenching, erectile dysfunction for the duration. Some dehydration the day after, mild headaches. For the baseline one, that’s just MDMA, you can erowid that shit.”

 

“Pffft. You think I haven’t taken that before?”

“Hee hee hee.” Alice snickered into his neck. “That’s terrible. You shouldn’t do drugs.”

“Alice, you’re high right now. I think I’ll just babysit for tonight, but thanks.”

“Best cyborg dad,” Nat patted Scott’s cheek. “Best family. I’m sorry I yelled at you, General Mom.”

 

In the background, the twins clinked their wineglasses and downed both capsules.

 

“You have one prosthetic arm – and you put a human sheath over it – and they call you cyborg dad.” Scott mused, grabbing a seat and spinning a fork in his dinner. “They don’t call you billionaire dad, or genius dad.”

 

“To be fair, Scott,” Buster pointed out, “cyborgs are extremely cool.”

 

“I’ll show you putting a human sheath over something,” Nat giggled.

 

Things that Definitely Happened That Night

 

– Buster going over the technical specifications of the Cestus in excruciating detail at Scott, whether or not he is listening

– Benny making improbably good coffee for everyone and preparing cold brew for the next day

– Scott taking away Alice’s phone to keep her from tweeting, multiple times

– Nat and Alice petting each other’s faces while complimenting each other for a full hour

– Alice aggressively attempting to seduce Scott

– Alice loudly extolling Scott’s sexual prowess while Scott covers his face with both hands and tries not to laugh in the background

– “Fuck Bunker” mentioned

– Tour of Fuck Bunker

– Buster offering to spar with Alice

– Buster offering to spar with everyone

– Benny crying while everyone else pets him reassuringly

– Alice following through on the Jesus Talk thing

– Alice talking wistfully about Jesus like He’s a family friend

– Benny and Alice trading Wine Tips

– Alice and Benny having a Good Nice Talk About Callister and make nice

– Alice complaining about so many people being attracted to Callister

– Nat and Benny extolling Callister’s sexual prowess

– Scott taking pictures of Alice’s extremely red face

– Wrestling match over whether Scott has to delete those photos

– Alice informs everyone how much she loves them for like a half hour

– Sad Schuster Family Story Time

– Everybody cries and hugs

– Nat loudly demanding that “we talk about something nice for fuck’s sake”
– “Language!” gigglefit.

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed on a balcony while watching the Lunar Sunrise

– Buster talking about that time she got nailed in a relaxation pod

– Alice whining to Scott about how he “never takes me anywhere nice” with the obvious implication intact

– Someone says they’re hungry and Alice declares that she will cook the best meal EVER

– a small kitchen fire

– Burger Church delivery

 

Outreach: The Call

PHALANX HQ
DREAMLIGHT, LUNA

The message was delivered by a skittish Private, uniform pristine, posture rigid.  He saluted sharply, then stood at attention, voice weak and strained, “Admiral Celza has requested you go to his office.” And just like that, without a moment for response, the lanky, meek man saluted again, spun on a polished heel, and marched down the corridor, leaving Buster with no information and even less choice.

 

“Uh,” Buster said to the Private’s retreating back. “Okay.”

 

She wasted no time, having been reprimanded for various things enough that month. She fluffed the gentle wave of her mohawk, smoothing it with both hands as she took long strides toward the Admiral’s office.

 

She halted at the door itself for a few seconds, took a deep breath, raised one hand, and rapped on it.

 

“Come in.” The voice sounded tinny, like it was coming out of failing speakers or echoing down a long corridor.  The door beeped, and slid open sharply, revealing an austere office.  A sleek metal and glass desk was in the middle, an equally minimalist chair behind it, the man himself seated.

 

Admiral Fane Celza was, according to the troops, more machine than man at this point.  The other joke was that he had never quite been a man to begin with.  Mismatched eyes watched Buster, one obviously cybernetic, a light shining from inside it, the other a dull brown.  His head was shaved, but the ghost of stubble along his skull showed there was more scar tissue than follicles anymore.

 

Regardless, he was known as a brilliant tactician, and had lost his fair share in the Invasion of Earth.  He was also a commanding officer in the Kite Division.

 

“Please. Have a seat.”

 

Buster gave a quick, neat salute, then did as instructed, sitting intently. “Thank you, Admiral.” She could be a bombastic character, but she wouldn’t even made it to ‘Specialist Schuster’ if she didn’t know how to sit down and be quiet when the need arose.

 

“I have an unusual question to ask you.” Celza did not move, not much, though the faint mechanical whirr of his breathing filled the silence otherwise left by him.

 

Fuck, I’m in trouble aren’t I. Shit. What did I do. Think, Buster, think.

 

“Of course,” Buster inclined her head confidently.

 

Finally, Celza broke her gaze, glancing at the papers on her desk. “It has come to my attention that you have spent more time with Doctor Lydes than other soldiers have.” His tone, other than the tinniness, is otherwise flat.

 

Buster hesitated for a moment, then replied: “Sir, yes sir.”

 

Celza straightened the papers on his desk, and pulled a pen out of the container at the edge of his desk. “Then you might be able to tell me if he had any next of kin.”

 

“What?” Buster blurted, eyes wild, then quickly added, “–d-do you mean, sir?”

 

“We lost contact with Kite Division 474 on a routine investigation of an anomaly.  I am not at leisure to say more than that at the current time, pending investigation.” Celza paused. “Or recovery.”

 

“Oh,” Buster replied, a weird tightness in her chest that she found unfamiliar and very unpleasant. “Sir, Simon… Doctor Lydes took pains to avoid the subject of family. If he has kin, he was not in contact with them. I’m sorry I don’t know more, sir.”

 

“That’s a shame.” Celza put the pen back away, and eased the folder shut. “Every soldier should have a home to return to, at the end of the line.”

 

“Home means something different to all of us, sir,” Buster said, then shifted in her seat. “Admiral Celza, sir, may I make an observation?”

 

Celza nodded, ready to dismiss her, but then he paused.  He gave her a stern look… and nodded. “Absolutely, Specialist Schuster.”

 

“The Cestus was created for the express purpose of minimizing the unpredictable nature of Wheird anomalies and the effects of Catalysium,” she says, her voice speeding up a little bit, “and its memetic, catalytic, and physical shields are better than any other personal vehicle in our fleet. If we wish to avoid the loss of further personnel, it may be in our interests to use the equipment we designed for this. Sir.”

 

Celza pursed his lips, listening, despite knowing what the Cestus was created for.  He slid the folder off to the side, as though it was inconsequential at this point, waiting for Schuster’s outburst to be completed.

 

“Not every anomaly is worth the cost of potentially damaged or lost Cestus equipment, much less worth the life of a highly trained pilot.”

 

Buster opened her mouth, clearly ready to continue, but halted before any words escaped. She slowly let the breath go, a light dimming in her eyes. “Yes, sir, Admiral, you’re… right. I apologize. Sir.”

 

However…” Celza paused, watching Schuster closely. “We are currently considering a…” He glanced over at the file, then back at Schuster. “Recovery operation.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“I could not authorize the use of a Cestus tank on a recovery mission.” Celza flexed his obviously cybernetic hand, then rested it on the desk edge again. “That does not mean that personnel cannot volunteer for the operation.”

 

The brightness of Buster’s sky blues flared again. “I have made significant strides in my CQC technique, sir,” she asserted, “and my marksmanship and reflex scores speak for themselves. Whom should I report to?”

 

“Have a crew together within the end of the week, and I will oversee the logistics myself.”

 

And it sounded like a challenge.

 

“Sir, yes sir!” Buster was standing, back straight and in a crisp salute in less than a second. “Thank you, Admiral Celza sir!”

 

“Dismissed, Specialist Schuster.” With that, Celza pulls the file back in front of him, continuing with his work as though she has already left the room.

 

Outreach: Pink and Blue

PHALANX BASE CAFETERIA
DREAMLIGHT, LUNA


“Bustahhhh!” a few Coffin Division troops called to the specialist as she took a tray and stepped into line.

“eyyyyyyy,” she returned with markedly less enthusiasm than usual, then turned away to get her food, leaving her teammates to mutter among themselves.

A small (tiny, maybe, is also a good descriptor) woman in a lab coat peered up at the line, having ​visibly​ flinched at the loud greeting Buster received. It didn’t matter that only a few soldiers said it. Soldiers are, statistically, sixty percent likelier to be distressingly loud when talking to other soldiers. She hated missing her self-appointed lunch time for this reason, but alas, she had, and alas, she was here, now. It didn’t help that she stuck out a lot, and that no one had any idea who she was or what she did. That’s a good way to feel uncomfortable, too.

Why does she stick out? Because along with the lab coat (which inspection would tell others was more of a field design, a clue perhaps as to why folks had no idea who she was), she had a straw hat that could be considered, ​​on the god damned moon_​ to be slightly superfluous, and her size of “approximately zero feet” meant that on the occasions people did notice her, they were almost guaranteed to ask why she was wandering around alone. (She found that slightly offensive. She was ​a whole five even, thank you!)

The muscular woman ahead of her in line had all the markings of a specialist: nonstandard, brightly-colored hair, combat-ready physique, pink BDUs, and no sign of recent sleep.

The officer in line in front of the woman turned and asked her, “have you gotten authorization to move out yet?”


“No.” Her tone was flat. Tired.


“Where-” And then she immediately shut up and pretended she hadn’t been about to ask anything. For those close enough to hear her, she had a not-at-all-faint accent marking her as a non-native speaker, as if it was hard to tell by her demeanor, complete with intense focus at the ground.

The woman with the softhawk turned and peered down at the straw hat that seemed to have just started to ask a question. A moment later she shrugged and served herself some food from the buffet, moving further down the line.

Aoi determined that: One: This was likely more food than she was going to eat, and two: She was in danger of making a scene. She had been ​noticed. (Her thought process, as always, was a bit out there.)There was only one choice now: flight! She quietly stepped out of line with her half-plate of food and scurried past folks milling about to find an empty table.

Thank goodness! Now she was safe. Safe at this table, where she could sit down and pay attention to her food and her food alone, as surely no one would sit down across from an innocent straw hat. Now she could oh god it was the specialist sitting across from her why. why.

“Hey.”

Yaaaaa-ohgodnowhy. “H-” She quietly removed her hat, (oh right, manners.) and the hat was magical, or some sort of techno-artifact, because there was no conceivable way all that hair fit in there. She tried again. “…hello?” She didn’t sound much past a little confused.

“I’m Buster,” was she mad? she almost sounded mad. “Who’re you and what’s your deal?”

She was probably mad. Aoi stared ​intently at her food. Then Buster’s. Did she do anything lately? Were these greens hers? No. No, they were Svensons. She knew that because the veins grew in ​zig-zags​ and how do you even ​do that? So that wasn’t the problem.

“Aoi Aoi. Botany,” she responded. She still didn’t sound ​unsettled​ so much as a bit confused, and a bit surprised. “Why?”

“You seem interesting,” Buster replied. “Where you work?”

“H..Hydroponics?” … did botanists work other places? Did she have ​options!?​ “I am not really very interesting unless you find that you are fond of long dissertations upon how to properly grow plants in lunar soils, and the qualities thereof.” She spoke with the lack of contraction that said she knew the language more academically than conversationally. “I hope you ​are​ enjoying the results when you are here, though. We work very hard.”

“Yeah, the veggies are real good,” Buster speared a glazed carrot as if to punctuate her point. “Y’all do good work. But I mostly meant, like, do you work mostly on Luna or bases further out. I ain’t seen you in here before, and I’d remember you.”

“Oh! At which ​location do I work…” She looked a bit sheepish. Shrugged. “I do not typically eat at this time. I work at several places, depending on what sort of care is needed for what plants, where. The main lab is where I am now.”

“How come?” Buster asked, failing to elaborate on ​what​ she was asking for more information about.

Aoi looked at Buster before her innate politeness reasserted itself. “An experiment designed to improve the effectiveness of the enrichment process used for soils.”

“Nice,” Buster nodded, “but how come you don’t usually eat here?”

“Noise levels.”

“Oh, I guess that’s legit,” Buster admitted with a mouthful of food, then took another forkful of greens and vat beef.

“Yes,” she said, peering around the room for a bit of emphasis – and she may have been looking for something too, the way her eyes lingered now and again. “…Generally, I compile my notes at this time, but forgot to eat earlier.”

“Eating is important,” Buster said, then peered at Aoi for a few seconds. “You look anxious. D’ya want me to leave you alone?”

“You are fine. I am unused to company. That is all.” She finally looked at Buster and smiled. And then looked right back down at her plate.

“Cool,” Buster nodded and resumed eating. The prodigious feast on her plate was slowly starting to approach the size that Aoi’s had been when she first sat down.

Aoi Aoi and her half-plate. Buster earned herself another blank look while the word parsed. Error. “Is it?”

“Mm?” Buster looked up again, mouth even more full of food.

“I think I misunderstood.”

“Howzat.”

She flushed. “…It is ​good​ that I am unused to company?”

“Oh. No, I meant like, ‘that’s cool’ as in like. ‘No problem’.”

“I understand, now. Thank you.”

“But like. Do you ​want​ to interact with people more?”

“I do not ​dislike​ it. I just do not do much of it. Plants, as much as they have to say, take far too long to say it, you see.” She added, “Oh. That is a yes.”

Buster chewed thoughtfully and nodded for a little while. When she finally swallowed and stopped nodding, she looked straight at Aoi. “Okay, well, we’re friends now, so you’ll start interacting with me more.

“Okay.” Aoi nodded as though this made perfect sense.

Stabbing a piece of vat beef: “You date girls, by the way?”

She sputtered ​something.​ It wasn’t English.

“Easy,” Buster assured. “You don’t ​hafta​. We’re still pals.”

She did seem to calm down a bit. “Okay.”

“Whaddya like to do in your free time? You watch movies? Play games? Work out?”

The last question was already answered by the fact the lab coat hung on her with ​_slightly more_​ room than it would on a coat rack. “Gardens.” uh. … Wait. No. “Harvest Moo-” NO, AOI. “…I like video games,” she finally said.

“Oh, you like that farming game? You’d get along with my identical twin brother,” Buster laughed. “I’ma guess you’re not that into shooters, huh.”

“I play them. I do not play them well.”

“Cool. When’re you free next? We’ll get together and play something co-op. That sound good?”

“I work with plants. I am never not free.”

“Cool. 1900 hours, rec pod 2? I should be done vidchatting Benny by then.”

“That is fine.”

“Badass. I’m looking forward to it; I badly need a distraction right now.”

She fidgets. “..Er. No ultraviolence, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine by me, as long as there’s some kind of action.”

“besides that, I am not particular.”

“If it’s too slow, I’m just gonna spend the whole time thinking about the mission I’m still not cleared to go on.”

“Well that defeats the point them, does it not?”

“Exactly.”

“Yes.” And she resumes eating, in her quiet, almost ​_weirdly_​ polite manner.

Buster wolfed the rest of her food in a manner that suggested that she might be trying to offset the politeness level of the table.

Aoi looks mortified for approximately half a second.

“Aight blue,” Buster stands, picking up her tray. “See ya tonight. We’ll play some of that game where everybody’s a mollusk kid or something.”

“It is also a flower.” That part seems to amuse her and she grins.  “But – you do not need to go that far. Just… nothing-” She handwaves vaguely. “Mortal Kombat levels. Do have a nice day!”

“Probably will, now,” Buster smiles, then walks away, tray in hand.

What an odd comment. Aoi Aoi waves and resumes eating her plants.

 

The Tribunal: Schuster Emergency Meeting

EDEN

LOS ANGELES

THE PRIVATE BOOTH IN THE BACK

 

While the Faerie Glen was home, Eden was a better place to conduct business — the staff were respectful of Nat’s request to give them distance, and so ey waited in the back booth for the rest of eir siblings to be teleported in.


“Scott and Alice are very worried.” Scanner buzzed through the chip in Nat’s jaw. “…It’s hilarious.”

“I’ll find it funnier once I know what it is,” Nat subvocalized, ‘seated’ on the back of the booth. “I’m gonna be shutting off transmission for the meeting itself, in case it’s personal.”

 

“That’s not fair, I’m Scanner, I get to lis–” The signal cut, and Nat was back to waiting in silence, smiling a bit in spite of emself.

 

“Daaaamn, sib,” Buster marveled at the surroundings as she walked in. “This place is tight.”

 

“You ready to meet your long-lost sister?”

 

“Does it matter?” Buster asked, sliding into the booth next to Nat.

 

“Nah.”

 

A lean, loose-limbed figure approached, hurriedly dressed in a slighly rumpled button down blouse and a long ankle length skirt in muted blues and browns.. She had a hand in her long blonde hair, pushing it back in a familiar gesture. Her cosmetics were minimal, maybe some spf foundation, but that was it. She stopped a few feet away. “Hey. It’s me,” said Susanna. “What’s the emergency?”

 

“Don’t know,” Nat shrugged, “but I’ve never seen Benny tell people what to do like that before, so I’m taking it real seriously. He should be here any moment.”

 

“Um,” Buster said, trying and failing to make eye contact, “hi Susanna.”

 

“Hi.” She’d never gotten along with Buster and clearly didn’t expect that to change now. Susanna slid opposite her siblings. “Don’t order the pad thai today. Matthew told me that Chef Nerone had an argument with Chef Wai.”

 

“I’m here!” Benny shouldered through the door, waving. He looked as much like he had when he left home as Buster looked different now. “Thank you all so much for coming on short notice, I’m so sorry to inconvenience you. Sue! It’s so nice to see you again!”

 

You too, Bunny.” She gave him a restrained hug. “What’s gotten you worried?”

 

As Benny sat down, Buster’s attention fixed on him. He took a deep breath, then another. Buster extended her hand across the table, and Benny took it, met her eyes, nodded, and spoke.

 

“Paul has Emerged,” he said. “And he’s forming a cult.”

 

“Fuck,” Buster whispered.

 

Nat’s eyes widened, then narrowed.

 

Susanna paled beneath her freckles. “Drew…”

 

“Yeah,” Benny nodded to Susanna. “Esther snuck away to come see me. She’s Emerged too, and her powers… she’s… she’s like Callister, but white instead of red. She has armor, she can teleport in pools of light. She said that Paul thinks he’s the new Oathkeeper, and that he’s treating her and Drew like slaves.”

 

“I’ll kill him,” Nat whispered. “I’ll fucking kill him.”

 

Susanna picked up the salt shaker, put it down, picked it up again, and fumbled clumsily before setting it firmly on the tabletop and sat on her hands. “I should have taken Drew with me,” she whispered.

 

“Esther… she… she passed on a message,” Benny whispered, “that we… have to stay out of his way. Or…” he just trailed off.

 

“Fuck. No. No no,” Buster shook her head. “Not Drew, you don’t– no.”

 

Nat took a deep breath, processing the implications of that.

 

“…We have to get Drew out of there.”

 

“But how?” Buster shook her head. “She’s still a minor, and we don’t have proof that Paul’s broken the law.”

 

Nat nodded, scowling. “…and we don’t know what he’ll do if we start a Legion investigation. And if Alice hears about this, she is going to flip her shit.”

 

Susanna took a deep breath. “Maybe I can go back for a visit. Would that be too suspicious? I…I can’t bring Isaac with me. I won’t.”

 

“I… I don’t know. Esther said that we had to stay away, all of us, but… I know he’s madder at the three of us than he is at you. We ran away. You did everything right.” Buster scowled at that.

 

“I’m divorced. Zach found out.” Glumly, she stared at salt shaker and slowly moved it an inch or two across the table. Without her hands. “I just told mom and dad I moved out for school and took Isaac with me because Zachary didn’t know how to look after him. Maybe. Maybe we hire a private investigator? I don’t have much money, you can have what I got.”

 

“If money needs to be spent, that’ll be on me,” Nat stated flatly. “But yeah, a third party going in on our behalf may be our best bet. If I report this to my direct superior, she can keep it quiet and, um. Away from Alice. For now. We need recon before she goes in there in full armor and halo, and the Black Ops team may be able to provide it.”

 

“I know a guy who has a specialized remote viewing ability,” Buster added, brightening. “I can talk to him, maybe.”

 

“You do that too. Sus, this place is clearly a haven for people with connections. Who owns it?”

 

“Oh. That’s Mr Smith-”

 

Sin’s voice could be clearly heard, even through the privacy booth, apparently addressing someone outside the Schuster’s private booth. “Mr. Evans. This is your second, and last, warning. I pay my girls and boys very well, but each one has their limit. I respect their limits. They’re good employees.” There’s a whimpering gurgle heard outside.

“Oh god, of course it’s him,” Nat buried eir face in eir hands.

 

“If you’re going to use that, like that, with those, you need to declare it before you start, so we can cater to your needs. Do we understand each other? Nod if you do understand.” There’s a pause, and a thump of someone falling to the floor. “Miss Allan, please, get yourself cleaned up and thank you for being so patient with Mr. Evans.” Sin sighed. “Someone take Mr. Evans home, please.” There’s a clatter of footsteps rushing to do what Sin asked.

 

Sue cleared her throat. “Mr Blake Smith. I think he’s more commonly known as Sin?”

 

“Yeah,” Nat wiped some sweat from eir brow. “I, uh. I’ve heard of him.”

 

“Oh geez,” Benny looked distinctly pale, “I’ve met him. He used to work with my boyfriend.” “Yeah, I saw the news.”

 

“You fucked him, didn’t you Nat.”

 

“NO.”

 

Sue gave Nat a look both horrified and relieved.

 

“Well. Okay. Maybe we don’t ask your boss for help then,” Nat said, “and maybe he doesn’t walk by the booth and see our little reunion–“

 

“Ah, Sue, right? You’re not working today, is everything all right? Nat, Benny, pleasure to see you again. And you must be…?” Sin paused, looking at Buster.

 

Buster blinked, smirked, and held out a hand to shake. “I’m Buster, Benny’s identical twin. Couldn’tcha tell?”

 

“Hi Sin,” Nat actually managed to smile. “Nice to see you on the other side of… the thing.”

 

Benny mumbled something unintelligible.

 

“Yes, sorry, family emergency, Mr Smith.” She looked confused that most here had already met her boss.

 

Sin waved one hand in a dismissal of the excuse. “That’s what PTO is for, Sue, you’re fine. Really.” He shook Buster’s hand with a smile. “A pleasure, and there’s a resemblance, but it was mostly the hair throwing me off a little.” He winked at Buster, then looked at Nat, and grinned. “You as well, Nat.” There was a distinctly sharklike quality to the smile, though.

 

“Is there anything that I can get for any of you, while I’m here?“

 

Sue looked like she wouldn’t dare to ask her boss for anything.

 

“Nah, we’re cool, but thanks.” Buster was still smiling, apparently finding this kind of fun.

 

Nat sighed. “By the way. I’m, uh. Sorry for all the shit I said that one time. I was mad, and I was right to be mad, but I ain’t holding a grudge. Okay?”

 

Sue hunched over, staring at Nat, willing the words don’t get me fired into her sibling’s head.

 

“Water under the bridge. Grudges were always bad for business, I always told my past employers. Never really got it into their heads, but now? They’re fighting for Detroit with Pariah, and they’re gonna lose.” Sin shrugged. “Bigger picture, and all that.”

 

“Cool. Thanks.”

 

He paused, thinking, reading the Schuster clan’s faces. “All right then. Once again, Eden’s services is at your disposal. Hope the family thing gets solved.” Sin smiles, somehow turning a well wishing into something sinister, SOMEHOW, before a slight nod and heading off to talk with one of his assistants/sycophants about Mr. Evans.

 

Buster raised her eyebrows. “That dude knew that Nat was your sibling, Sue. Like, ahead of time. Did you know that he knew?”

 

Sue stared at Buster. The little salt shaker she was playing with trembled, then stilled. “I…am not surprised.” She looked slightly scared though.

 

“Yeah, sorry, if I’d known,” Nat glanced out of the booth for a moment, then said, “your boss and I kiiiind of have a rocky history. He kind of sort of nearly murdered me and instead put me in the hospital for a week. And then he did the same to the Oathkeeper, and I threatened to kill him. But he helped us out with the Anathema thing so it’s all good.”

 

“He what?” She looked like she was going to climb over Benny to confront her boss.

 

“Sue nooo,” Benny whispered, eyes wide.

 

“It wasn’t anything personal, exactly,” Nat shrugged, “he was trying to kill someone else for cheating him, and I tried to knock him out, and he hit me with a barbed chain and a bunch of debris and I bled a lot and had surgery and now I’m fine.”

 

“Christ, Nat, way to be reassuring,” Buster shot em a look.

 

“Brat, I swear, I’m going to pull a Carrie right here.” She had one hand on Benny’s shoulder, the knuckles were white. He could probably hear her racing heart.

 

“Take it easy, sis. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

There was a pause while Nat looked chagrined, then said, “sometimes I forget that most people aren’t in life-threatening situations on a regular basis.”

 

“No kidding.” Sue settled in her seat, probably writing up her resignation letter in her head.

 

“Please don’t do anything drastic. We’ve got this whole Paul cult thing to worry about, and to be honest I feel better knowing that someone I know has an eye on Sin. Besides, he’s amoral and opportunistic but he isn’t gonna mess with us unless there’s something in it for him. Just… be cool for now, okay Sue?”

 

“This is a weird family,” Buster noted. “But I still like it way better these days.”

 

“Yeah. Okay. That…I can do that.” She nodded at Buster. “You know what else is nice? No one saying that they’re in charge because they’re the oldest.” She looked like she wanted to say more but didn’t.

 

“Exactly! I’m in charge, because I’m the coolest and sexiest.”

 

“Uh scuze you, bug, I’m in charge because I have the coolest hair.”

 

“I am not in charge,” Benny noted happily.

 

“Order us ice cream and booze, Brat. If you’re in charge.” Sue smiled, wanly.

 

“I like your suggestion,” Nat said magnanimously. “I shall appoint you my chief advisor. Ice cream and booze for everyone.”

The Tribunal: Family Meeting

THE MCGOWAN MANSION
TWO DAYS AFTER THE GLENWOOD SPRINGS BATTLE

 

The McGowan Mansion gates were open today, on account of all of the villagers. Alice was in the kitchen as Scot welcomed guests and got them settled in the living room. There were couches and bean bag chairs and knitted covers and all sorts of things to host the talk between the Schusters and the McGowans about the future. The smell of chili came from the kitchen, and a maid took coats and served drinks.


Susanna Gilford arrived, and wide-eyed, looked around at the living room, slightly awed. The invitation to the Oathkeeper’s home had left her slightly flustered and grateful that she had brought Isaac along. The little boy was currently napping in her arms, his little blond head on her shoulder.

 

The Damselfly was furiously assisting in the kitchen, but also flitting out to make sure that introductions were made and everyone was comfortable. Ey had been an Avatar for a few days now, and was starting to get used to it. Those taking a close look at eir body might note that ey was a bit curvier than usual, bearing a slightly feminine shape to eir face.

 

Those who had spent time with em would have noticed that yesterday, it had been precisely the opposite.

 

Buster, on Earth leave to help sort out the ‘family issue’, sipped a beer and watched the proceedings silently.

 

Callister was also there, his arm around Benny’s shoulder, a beer in his spare hand. He took a sip. The hell kinda family he married into?

 

Benny looked more than a bit overwhelmed, but remedied this by leaning into Callister and sipping from one of the craft doppelbocks that he had brought to share with the gathering.

 

Poor Noah was most out of his element. Wide-eyed, he clutched his coke from an easy chair and tried not to freak out about being in the presence of celebrities and long-lost family, some of whom were the same people.

 

Ruth and Timothy McGowan were ushered out of the house well before the meeting to a brightly coloured playroom on the other side of the grounds – far enough away that they had no chance of overhearing, and far enough away that Ruth’s Null powers wouldn’t affect them.

 

Alice finally began to hand out bowls of chili, quietly murmuring welcomes to her guests.


Scott wore a button down shirt that was undone over a dark blue t-shirt that read MCGOWAN INDUSTRIES, and was drinking a beer and talking animatedly to Callister and Benny about machines that had hidden compartments.


“Well,” Alice said, cutting off her husband. “Thank you all for making it. I’m sorry the place is kind of a mess. It’s been a rough few days.”

Sue set Isaac to sleep on the sofa. “No, it’s fine. You’ve done much for our family.”

 

“Speaking of… Drew and Esther are old enough that I think they should be part of this conversation. I’d like to bring them in.” Alice inclined her head to the Schusters. “That’s not my call, though. It’s yours, as a family.”

“They absolutely have the right to have a say in their own futures, at the very least,” Nat said, “and I haven’t seen either of them since… since I d-died.”

 

Noah looked at the floor. He, Buster, and Benny all made vague, affirmative noises. Sue added her voice to theirs. Callister was silent, not his call.

 

“Drew!” Alice called. It was a little unsettling how her ‘mom’ voice was different from her ‘General’ voice. “Esther! Could you two please come into the family room?”

The two girls had been staying with the McGowans. They had the space, after all.

 

Esther strode in like she owned the place, badly bruised but seemingly unruffled. Drew shuffled behind her, head down and masked by a curtain of hair. Nat immediately circled around the two and hugged Drew, making a happy noise. “Look at all the siblings, peanut.”

 

Sue made a subtle movement, shifting so she hid Isaac with her body while keeping an eye on Esther. “Drew, honey, want to sit next to me?”

 

Drew made a happy squeak, finally lifting up and peering at everyone from beneath the curtain of hair. “Oh wow, everyone’s here.” she said.


“Yes,” said Esther. “Even me.”

“Shut up, Esther.” Drew said, settling in next to Sue and beaming at her siblings. Sue slipped an arm around her youngest sister.

 

Scott glanced at Alice, who shrugged.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Esther,” Nat said, sincerely, putting a hand on her shoulder as ey flew by. “I’m really glad that all of you are here. I honestly never thought we’d be together like this again.”

 

“And we want to help you guys stay together.” Scott said, looking at everyone. “From what we understand, you guys have… You’ve been leading your lives. Taking in two teenagers is really, genuinely hard, even for people with everything going for them.”

“We want to help.” Alice blurted out. “Educational, financial, giving them a place to stay. Anything we can do.”

Noah raised his eyebrows. From his perspective, this was as sudden as it was unexpected.

 

Even Nat was a bit thrown. “It… that kind of. Sounds like… you’re offering to adopt Esther and Drew.”

 

“…We’re not asking anyone to give up their parental rights.” Scott said, quickly. “We understand that you will always have the ultimate authority over them and we will never fight you on what you think is best for them. But we have… finances, connections, a pool, extra bedrooms… Everything they could need.”

Buster raised one eyebrow. “Yeah no offense Scott but the last thing most of us want is ‘ultimate authority’ over our sisters. Glad to have ’em back, but I feel like Sue’s the only one of us who might feel different.”

 

Nat, Benny, and Noah all murmured their agreement. Callister shrugged, not his place.


Sue looked at Esther and Drew. She was all too aware of sleeping Isaac at her back and the mound of bills at home. She squeezed Drew about the shoulders. “And…I cannot take either in.” She sounded heartbroken.

 

Scott shifted. “Sue, if you need a place to stay, you could help with the kids. We have a teleporter as well, so you can get to work or travel.”

“Scott! The teleporter is supposed to be for emergency use only.”

Scott scoffed. “Yeah, hon, that ship has sailed. Nat and I use that thing for everything.”
“In my defense, no one has stopped me.”

“I tried to! Four times!”

“In my defense, Scanner hasn’t stopped me.”


Sue bowed her head, frowning. “I…I need to finish my apprenticeship but I can do that at any restaurant, I think.”

Scott and Alice nodded, holding hands. “Anything we can do to help. We consider you family. All of you.”

Noah’s eyes went wide at this. Surely they didn’t mean him too.

 

Buster laughed. “Okay, I’ll go change my last name to McGowan I guess.”

 

Scott shrugged at the joke. “If you want to.”

There was a long pause.

 

“…you’re being serious. You’re being serious?” Benny blinked rapidly.

 

Alice blinked, tears in her eyes. “We’re sorry if this is presumptive, we don’t mean to make assumptions. Just… the Legion was quiet for so long. We thought it was dying in front of us. And then Nat walks into the recruitment room, “I mean I didn’t really walk and we… we’ve grown close, and we know that the relationship is young, but you guys are… the next generation. Even Benny, and Sue, and… It’s not about Powers, or serving in the Legion, it’s… you guys started out representing so much hope to us, and we… care for you, deeply. And I know we don’t know you, Noah, or Drew or Esther yet, but… We want to be family to you. We just…” she sniffed and wiped at the corners of her eyes.

 

“Wh—!” Noah blurted. “M-me? I’m just a cr—a nobody!”

 

“You seem like a nice young man, and Nat cares deeply for you. You’ve all spent too many years apart, or under the reign of a tyrant. We want to… be a stable presence in your lives. We want to, if you’re interested, well… show you a life of familial love. If you want that, of course, we don’t want to intrude -”

“I want to!” He shouted, then covered his mouth with both hands.

 

“T’be honest… me too,” Buster clearly had something in her eye. Jeez, get that shit out of there.

 

Sue wiped the corner of her eye with the heel of her hand.

 

Callister only sipped his beer and held Benny closer.

 

Benny looked up at him hesitantly. “Babe, would it… would you be okay with it? If I… changed my last name?”

 

Callister choked on his beer.

 

“Babe, I’m not gonna be okay with being Rayne-McGowan. Just so you know.”

 

Benny laughed. “Obviously I’d change my name again when—wait did you just imply—” “Nufink, just thinking long term.” “ohmigod”

 

“Well damn, I guess I’d better change my last name too,” Nat grinned and folded eir arms.

 

“McGowan-Rayne sounds lo-” Alice began, and Scott cut her off. “You guys are great. All of you.”

 

“I’ll change my name too.” Drew grinned, leaning into Sue.

 

“It’d be an honour if I could as well,” Esther said, eyes bright. “I’ve… never really had a mom.”

Callister looked at Esther. He frowned then bent to whisper in Benny’s ear. “Esther might be trouble, we should offer to take her in later.” In response, Benny gave him a Look, but said nothing.

 

“Aw,” Nat welled up. “I’m all verklempt. The McGowan siblings. A fresh start for a bunch of mostly-queer paras.”

 

“We’re mostly queer?” Noah wondered.

 

“Hey, somethin’s been bothering me, actually,” Buster frowned. “We all know that there are nine of us, right? Nine Schuster kids?”

 

Benny and Noah nodded. Nat thought, then frowned too.

 

“Yeah. Well, so like. All of us are here but Paul. Yeah? Drew, Esther, Benny, me, Nat, Noah, Sue… and then there’s Paul, that’s… that’s eight. Where’d we get nine? We all know it’s the number, but where’d that number come from?”

 

Sue bit her lip, worried again.

 

“I… I dunno,” Nat admitted, “but it is nine, it’s always been nine. That’s super weird.”

 

“Does it matter?” Esther asked. “They’ll find us on the news. It’s not like this whole adoption thing will stay a secret. People love Alice. They love Nat. This’ll be a big thing.”

“Them not being here isn’t the disturbing bit,” Benny shook his head, “it’s that we forgot. I never forgot a single one of you. Nat was gone the longest, ey remembered us all. How could we all, every single one of us, forget an entire sibling?”

 

“We’re all paras,” Noah ventured. “What if… the one who’s missing has a power that means forgetting them?”

“Photographs. School records. There must be some trace of them.”

 

“I thought… I dunno, I just…” Drew shook her head. “I can’t remember anything. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“Oh,” Nat’s eyes flashed pale pink, and ey swooped over to snuggle Drew. “Peanut, nobody’s mad. We’re all just curious and a little confused. Sue’s right, this is worth looking into. I’ll have the Sthenographer do some research.”

 

Drew smiled inbetween Sue and Nat. “Okay. I um, I think this’ll be nice. Staying here. I like Ruth. She’s nice.”

There was a bit of quiet murmuring as everyone let the subject of the missing Schuster go for now. Small talk started again, and Buster started talking tech with Scott as Benny and Callister murmured to one another.

 

Nat checked in with Esther about her hand, then resumed eir task of cuddling the smallest Schuster… soon the not-smallest McGowan.