Chapter 27 – Chosen

It figures I would have to save you.

“Hey, we were able to hold our own! For a while, at least…”

“Yeah, if that asshole hadn’t taken hostages, then we totally would’ve beaten his loser ass.”

Mote glanced between Austin and Pierce, his brow furrowed, lips pursed, and arms crossed with irritation. Eventually he shook his head and turned away. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you…

“Ah ha ha ha…!” Austin laughed uneasily.

Pierce looked between Austin and Mote, and then at his surroundings. He, his friends, Austin’s friends, and all of the Eximius Vir were currently aboard a Corvette of a design Pierce had never seen before. It bore the same angular style and crimson, gold, and black coloring of the armor that Mote currently wore — which, as far as Pierce could recall, seemed to be the same armor that he had been wearing during the confrontation on the dam near San Francisco over a week ago. The designs were a stark contrast to SERRCom’s existing spacecraft, which could be best described as gunmetal-colored boxes; Pierce hadn’t any idea where the Corvette had come from, or if it was even of SERRCom design, but the one thing he did know is that he currently stood in the presence of SERRCom’s four renowned Chaotics: the Eximius Vir.

If this keeps up, we’ll end up pressed into service like the floppy-haired loser here, Pierce mused to himself, momentarily glancing backwards. He, Austin, and Mote were standing at the front of the craft’s cabin, right outside of the bridge. Behind them, split into a handful of separate groups throughout the cabin was everyone else, with the exception of Kate, who was somewhere on the bridge.

…Hey… we outnumber the Eximius Vir two-to-one, Pierce noted, slowly turning his attention back toward Austin and Mote as he did. I just need to get Austin and his friends on board, and then an opening… we could even hijack this ship and fly off before SERRCom chases. But how to even get that opening…?

What? You think you qualify as an experienced Chaotic now?

“Oh c’mon! We were sent on an official mission, and everythin’! That totally counts!”

Pierce backed out of his thoughts, returning his focus to the conversation in front of him as Mote audibly scoffed.

The only reason you were sent on this mission is because we were off-world, Mote retorted, in response to Austin’s claim. You were only chosen because there was no other choice.

“And what about the part where we held our own against another EA mech and his robots, huh?” Austin countered.

That’s funny, you seem to be forgetting the part where I had to rescue you.

“Well, I mean… technically it wasn’t me or my friends who had to be rescued…”

“Hey, what?!” Pierce turned to glare at Austin. “Don’t try to pin this on Phoenix and Conrad. They were way more helpful during the whole fight than you were, anyways.”

“What?! I helped out a lot! Like when I helped destroy the laser cannon!”

“Literally anyone here could’ve done that, dude.”

“Even Conrad?”

“I’m sure he would’ve found a way.”

Your arrogance is astounding, in both how unfounded and how blatant it is, Mote interjected, his attention squarely on Pierce.

“It’s not arrogance, and it’s not unfounded,” Pierce shot back. “I have plenty of experience.”

I’m sure you do, Mote deadpanned, and then looked Pierce over head to toe. …Who are you? You seem familiar… have we met?

“Uh…” Pierce forced a smirk as he thought about how to respond. I can’t let him know that we met once already. It’ll just give SERRCom more ammunition to try and conscript me…

What’s your Chaotic ability?

“…I plead the fifth.”

Austin snorted in amusement, drawing an impatient glare from Mote. He then turned his attention back to Pierce, his brow still furrowed. As if one obstinate fool wasn’t enough, now I have to deal with two, Mote muttered, and then raised his voice to address Pierce. Listen, SERRCom is an organization whose authority supersedes the nations on Earth. If we ask you a question, then you—

Mote!

Mote paused mid-sentence, the irritation writ across his face deepening. Without turning around, he responded, yes, Kate?

Chill the fuck out, dude. A blond-haired, olive-skinned woman wearing a red bandana peeked out of the bridge, immediately setting her sights on Mote as she gestured for him to approach. I wanna see something, and this fucking ship only listens to you. Get your ass over here!

What have I told you about ordering me around?

Yeah, yeah, whatever. Just c’mon, already! Do you seriously wanna talk to those two losers instead of me?

“Losers?!” Pierce echoed incredulously, “I’m not—!”

Great, another dude with a stick up his ass. Kate rolled her eyes and disappeared back into the bridge. C’mon, Mote! Hurry it up! she shouted from inside.

Mote sighed and rubbed his temples. …We aren’t done here, he eventually said to Austin and Pierce; he then turned toward the bridge and stepped inside.

“Fucking assholes,” Pierce muttered under his breath, though still loud enough for Austin to hear.

“I don’t disagree, but you sure ain’t helpin’,” he responded. “I guess I didn’t see it before our fight with EA, but Mote’s right about your arrogance.”

“Arrogance? Ha!” Pierce scoffed. “Everyone around me just lacks self-confidence, that’s the problem. People only call me arrogant ‘cause they’re jealous of what I can do.”

“That’s… what? Seriously? You seriously believe that?”

“I’m sure you’ll understand one day. But listen, we have something more important to talk about.”

“If you start braggin’, I think I’m gonna punch you. And it’ll hurt, too, ‘cause I’m close enough to you to copy your superspeed.”

“That’s not— actually, that’s perfect!” Pierce glanced around himself; aside from Austin, he couldn’t see anyone standing within a few meters of him. He subsequently leaned in toward Austin and lowered his voice, saying, “hey, tell me something — if you count yourself and all of your friends, and me and all of my friends, how many of us are there?”

“Uh…” Austin’s eyes flicked to the side for a moment before he turned back toward Pierce, with a confused look on his face. “…Eight?”

“And how many of the Eximius Vir are there?”

“Four…?” Austin’s eyes widened with realization. “Wait, are you sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?”

“We have the numbers,” Pierce replied. “If you want to break free of SERRCom’s control, now’s our chance! There’s even a sweetass ship here for us to steal!”

“Yeah, but… if we flee now, then SERRCom’ll still be huntin’ us down. We can’t go back to our regular lives…”

“Maybe not, but we can do a lot better than SERRCom. With a ship like this under our control, we could go anywhere, do anything! With that kind of opportunity, why would you even want to go back to your regular life?”

“I mean… I guess that’s true, sort of. But…”

“And if you really can copy my superspeed, then that’s two people who can move faster than any of those arrogant pricks can react to. We’ll have them down hella fast!”

“I dunno… Mote is pretty powerful, you know. And Mark is super durable, so there ain’t much we can do to hurt ‘im.”

“Maybe, but that Mote guy is the biggest threat. We just need to take him down first, and figure out the rest later.”

“I don’t really like this idea…”

“Look, it’s either this, or get stuck with SERRCom. Personally, I like the idea of going rogue a lot more than being a cog in a massive, overbearing military organization.”

“What about the part where we try this, fail, and then end up a prisoner of the massive, overbearing military organization?”

“Fail? Ha!” Pierce smirked and slapped Austin on the back. “We won’t fail. We can’t! Not when we have me on our side!”

“That doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence,” Austin deadpanned.

“Funny,” Pierce retorted as he began moving toward the door to the bridge. “Now c’mon! The sooner we do this, the better!”

“The sooner—? Wait, hold on!” Austin rushed after Pierce. “You really shouldn’t do this—!”

Austin stopped himself just after stepping into the bridge behind Pierce. Mote was currently sitting in what appeared to be the Captain’s chair in the middle of the bridge, while off to the side sat Kate as she interacted with a console.

“Alright, Austin! Let’s do this!” Pierce exclaimed.

“No, wait—!”

Before Austin could stop him, Pierce blasted forward and reached Mote in an instant — where he slammed his foot into the Electrotechnic’s cheek, ripping him out of his chair and flinging him across the bridge. He immediately followed by speeding over to Mote and kneeing him in his gut, though as he did so, he noticed that the impact area shimmered with a golden light. Shit! An energy shield? That’s not good—!

The next moment, Pierce’s vision filled with white as searing pain shot through his entire body. He reeled back and collapsed to one knee, completely overwhelmed; by the time his vision returned to him, he found Mote standing over him, his arms crossed and his brow furrowed. Instinctively, Pierce tried to jump to his feet and flee the bridge, but he stumbled and sprawled across the floor as he did, unable to move his body as fast as he wanted.

I knew bringing a CENT generator would be a good idea, but not for this, Mote growled. The utter audacity, that you would think attacking me is a sound plan.

Pierce stared up at Mote with an uneasy smile upon his face. Well that didn’t go as well as I’d planned…

Kate. Mote spoke without turning his attention away from Pierce. Give us some room.

“I’ll, uh—” Austin spun on his heel and made to leave the bridge. “I’ll just leave, too—”

No, you stay here, Mote ordered.

Ah ha ha!! Kate grinned in malicious amusement as she moved toward the bridge exit and slapped Austin on the back, almost knocking him over in the process. You fucking losers! Give ‘em what they deserve, Mote!

“Oh, c’mon!” Austin protested, “I didn’t have anythin’ to do with this!”

Sit down, Mote snapped, striking Austin with a minor jolt of electricity before turning his attention back to Pierce. So you’re a Velocitechnic? And you’re around six feet tall, with dirty blond hair and a Californian accent… I knew I recognized you. We met at the Bay Area Reclamation Project, didn’t we?

“Yeah, so what if we did?” Pierce shot back, “I was just doing what SERRCom should have been doing, you know? And you wanted to punish me for it!”

Mote’s brow furrowed even further, his lip curled in disdain. You’re the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on. You’ve managed to turn your ignorance into arrogance, and I won’t stand for it. That goes for you too, Austin.

“The hell did I do?!” Austin exclaimed.

Don’t play dumb, you came on the bridge at the same time as this Velocitechnic. You’ve been complaining about your conscription for weeks; I knew it was only a matter of time before you acted out.

“What?! That’s not—!”

Silence! Mote boomed, sparks wreathing the bridge as he did so. Now. We still have some time before we arrive at HQ. I will use that time to teach the two of you about the error of your ways — and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out the other side with a proper appreciation for what it means to be a Chaotic.

“Does it mean abusing your powers and handing out arbitrary punishments?” Pierce retorted, and then grunted in pain when Mote shocked him.

I do not abuse my powers, nor are my punishments arbitrary, Mote countered. You only think so because you don’t understand the responsibility that you are now beholden to as a Chaotic. If you continue talking back to me, then this will only take longer.

Pierce scowled, but ultimately didn’t say another word. Instead, he passed Austin an irritated glance; Austin quickly returned the expression, prompting Pierce’s scowl to deepen in frustration. What a fucking dayhe thought irately as Mote launched into a lecture. My life… fucking sucks.

*     *     *

“Looks like Pierce got himself into trouble again…”

“And Austin, too…” Twy passed a wary glance toward the closed entrance to the bridge. It had been nearly twenty minutes since Kate stepped out of the bridge and sat down on a bench just outside the door, where she slouched back with her hands behind her head, her left foot up on her right knee, and her eyes closed. Not once had Pierce, Austin, or Mote stepped out of the bridge in that time.

Eventually, Twy sighed and shook her head. “I wonder what happened. Mote’s been hard on us, for sure, but I have no idea what Austin could’ve done to warrant getting stuck in a room with him.”

“Ah, you can probably blame Pierce for that,” Phoenix replied airily, leaning back against the bulkhead as she sat on a bench that ran the entire length of the Corvette’s central cabin. “He has a habit of biting off more than he can chew, and bringing down anyone near him in the process.”

“Is that so…”

“Unfortunately, it is. Pierce never sees reason unless it hits him in the face, often literally. But enough about that asshole.” She glanced over at Twy. “So you’ve been with SERRCom for a while now, huh?”

“Only a little over a month,” Twy corrected. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“It’s long enough.” Phoenix sighed wearily. “Well, I guess we’re in the same boat as you, now.”

“Sorry about that…”

“What are you apologizing for? This isn’t your fault. If anything, Pierce is to blame, or that EA guy.”

“Still…” Twy looked over at Phoenix, and then down at the ground between her legs. “Suddenly being kidnapped, or conscripted… it isn’t fun.”

“Of course it isn’t. But at this point, our only choice is to fight it from the inside. Anything else, and our lives are as good as over.”

“…Have you really accepted all this already?”

“It’s not like I have much of a choice,” Phoenix refuted, and then passed a glance toward Mark and Danielle in the back end of the cabin. “…After all, something tells me that, if we were to try and fight SERRCom or the Eximius Vir, it would go badly for us.” She flashed a resigned smirk as she turned back to look at Twy. “Otherwise, I’m sure you would’ve tried already.”

“I guess…”

“The fact that they’re transporting us without any kind of bindings or strict supervision is a pretty glaring hint as to how much of a threat they think we are, anyways.”

“Sort of…” Twy glanced toward Mark and Danielle herself, prompting Phoenix to follow suit. The two members of the Eximius Vir were currently engaged in conversation with Spike and Sky, respectively. “…I think it’s more that they have sympathy for our situation. Some of them, at least.”

“But not enough to let us go.”

Twy adopted a pained expression as she leaned her head back to stare at the ceiling. “…If only it were that simple,” she lamented.

“Hmph,” Phoenix snorted. “For all the good that SERRCom does and claims to have done, at the end of the day, they really are just a bunch of self-serving bastards.”

“On one hand, I agree,” Twy replied, turning her attention back to Phoenix. “But on the other, not everyone in SERRCom is bad just because the organization as a whole does some… not great stuff.”

“I disagree. Every willing member of an organization bears the responsibility for the things that that organization does, full stop. If you don’t agree with what an organization is doing, then you quit. You don’t stick around and wring your hands, hoping that everything will just work out in the end.”

“What about the people who stay to try and change things?”

“Then they’re a little less guilty than the rest, but still guilty.”

“That’s… that’s a hard line to draw.”

“It’s the only way to keep large organizations accountable. Especially ones with the reach and influence of SERRCom.”

“It sounds like you aren’t much of a fan of SERRCom.”

“Are you?”

Twy took a deep breath as she processed her thoughts. “…I think what they’ve done here is pretty shitty, at least.”

“Well I’m glad we agree on that much!” Phoenix reached over to give Twy a playful shove. “You know, I’m happy to have someone to talk about this kind of stuff with. Someone who will actually listen and respond, that is.”

“Huh?” Twy glanced toward the back of the cabin again, toward Conrad and Kestrel — who were both sitting in the back, in what appeared to be silence. “…Aren’t you friends with them?” she questioned as she turned back to Phoenix.

“Well yeah, for better or worse,” Phoenix replied, “but Conrad isn’t much for serious conversation, and any such talk with Pierce almost always turns into an argument.” She sighed in irritation. “As for Kestrel, well. When I can get her alone, or over text, she’s fine to talk with, but otherwise she really doesn’t say much.”

“Oh. That must suck.”

“I mean, I’m still friends with them, but… it is what it is.” Phoenix shrugged. “What about your friends? Sky’s your sister, isn’t she? What’s that like?”

“She might be my twin, but… well, let’s just say that our Chaotic abilities are a decent representation of how we usually get along.”

“Fire and water? Heh. It can’t be that bad, though, can it?”

“No, but…” Twy paused for a moment to let out a deep breath. “…She could stand to take life more seriously than she does.”

“Ah. What about Spike, or Austin?”

“Spike might be the most sensible of all of us. But… well, we’ve been friends since we were kids, but he’s also been going out with my sister for a few years now. So it feels kind of weird to try and have a serious conversation with him when she isn’t around.”

“Is it really that weird to talk to your sibling’s significant other?”

“You disagree…?”

“Oh, no, I don’t have any siblings, so I don’t know.” Phoenix quickly put her hands up, as if to say she meant no offense. “It just seems like a weird thing to be uptight about.”

“I guess it is, huh…”

“Well, what about Austin, then? He isn’t dating your sister, I assume.”

“What? No, of course not! But…” Twy glanced down as she fiddled with her hands. “Well, he’s a decent guy, but he also has some… quirks. Not to say that I don’t like him — or that I do like him, I mean, uh…”

Phoenix smirked as she noticed the tinge of red upon Twy’s cheeks. She reached over to offer Twy a reassuring pat on the back as she replied, “don’t worry, I get what you mean. Everyone has something about their friends that they can complain about. I know I sure do. But, at the end of the day, you’re still friends, right?”

“Yeah, that is true,” Twy responded with a faint, though amused smile. “I guess that is pretty universal…”

“And now that we’ve met, I’m sure we’ll find plenty that we like and dislike about each other,” Phoenix remarked with a cheeky grin.

“Ha! I guess so. And with this conscription nonsense, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other.”

“Right… and now we’re back at the conscription talk.”

“Oh, I’m— I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“No, don’t apologize. It’s fine. Let’s just… talk about something else. Like… home, maybe?”

“That could be fun. I’m from Texas. What about you?”

“California. Heh, we’re basically opposites, there!”

“Really? Wow. My parents actually grew up in California, so I’ve always wondered what it was like to live there.”

“Ah, well you’ve come to the right person! The state’s pretty big, though, so I can only really tell you about where I’m from — the Bay Area. Still, though…”

As Phoenix and Twy launched into a discussion comparing their hometowns and states, Conrad and Kestrel watched on from the back of the cabin in silence. Both simply sat on the bench running the length of the space, Conrad in a relaxed slouch while Kestrel sat with her back straight and her hands clasped in her lap.

“…Looks like Phoenix is having fun,” Conrad remarked dryly after a lengthy silence.

Kestrel looked down at him, and then at Phoenix, where her gaze lingered for a moment before returning to the empty bench across the cabin from her.

“Not sure how she can be so energetic when we’re about to be fuckin’ conscripted.” Conrad exhaled warily. “…Man, I’m never going to have time for a nap, now…” Movement out the corner of his eye prompted him to glance over at Kestrel, who was simply staring at him. “What?” he responded defensively, “don’t you get annoyed with me for wanting a nap.”

“Mm…” Kestrel turned away and closed her eyes.

“See? Exactly. I would be napping right now, if not for all the noise around here. But, man… this whole thing sucks. I wish there was a way out of it.”

“…Your parents?”

“Dunno how much they’d help, really. SERRCom’s a big organization, and they’re already ignoring the law. Don’t think an army of lawyers would scare them much.”

“Hmm…” Kestrel looked down. “…Even money… wouldn’t work.”

Conrad nodded. “Exactly. SERRCom’s making tons of money from interstellar trade as is. My Dad wouldn’t be able to do jack shit to them.”

“…”

“But hey, at least we’re still together, right? You, me, Pierce, and Phoenix. Though…” Conrad passed a glance toward the closed bridge door. “I kinda wonder how long Pierce is going to last…”

“…Mm…”

“Yeah, I guess that’s his problem, not ours. Ah, well.” Conrad yawned, and then began to lay down on the long bench. “You know what? I’m going to try and take a nap anyways. Wake me if anything interesting happens.”

Kestrel looked down at him as he laid his head down just next to her thigh, his arms brought up to his head to act as a pillow of sorts. A few moments passed in silence before she carefully moved her arm over and waved her hand in front of his face, only to get no reaction.

Wow, is he asleep already?

“…?” Kestrel glanced over to see Sky and Danielle approach, both of them staring at Conrad. Quietly, Kestrel moved her hand to hold a finger in front of her mouth, making the “shush” sign.

Oh. Sorry, Danielle loudly whispered.

“Oh c’mon, he’s the one trying to sleep in a shared space. In the middle of the day, too!” Sky responded. “I’m not going to quiet down just for him!”

Kestrel turned to stare at Sky, her expression blank. Then, a few moments later, she turned away, prompting Sky and Danielle to exchange confused glances.

Uh… do you mind if I ask you a question? Danielle spoke up, her voice low.

Kestrel turned her attention to Danielle, but didn’t verbally respond. The two women stared at each other for a few moments before Danielle glanced uneasily at Sky, and then back at Kestrel.

…Uh, well, she eventually continued, how, uh… how tall are you?

“Six two,” Kestrel replied.

“I knew you were over six feet tall!” Sky exclaimed. “Hell, you’re almost as tall as Spike, and he’s already huge!”

Wow, that is pretty tall, Danielle remarked. Everyone says that Kate and I are taller than average, but we’re still under six feet. But two inches over, wow!

“Not to mention the… other ways you have me beat.” Sky looked down at her own modest chest, and then at her butt, before looking back to Kestrel’s sizable bust and curvy figure. “Man… some people get all the luck…”

Kestrel looked down at herself, and then off to the side. “…I… didn’t ask for this.”

“I guess no one does, huh?” Sky sighed. “Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and all that. People with straight hair want curly hair, people with curly hair want straight hair. Chicks with big boobs want smaller ones, girls with small boobs want bigger ones…”

I don’t, Danielle refuted.

“Yeah, well, you also think it’s cool to walk around with a metal prosthetic when you could just make a real arm, soo…”

Hey, it is cool! Danielle shot Sky an annoyed glance, and then looked down at her metal right arm in doubt. …Isn’t it? Kate said it looks cool…

“Hey, what matters is what you think, not what other people think.”

Weren’t you just judging me for it?

“…Anyways!” Sky turned back to Kestrel. “I just wanted to tell you that you’ve got a pretty interesting look all around, you know?”

Yeah! Danielle nodded in affirmation. I really like your hair! That silver looks really cool!

Kestrel stared at Danielle, her eyes widening slightly. She then reached up to grab part of her bangs and twisted them around a bit, getting a look at the white strands of hair that covered her head and extended back into a long braid. “You… like it?” she questioned quietly.

I do! Danielle nodded again. It’s really unique!

“Unique…”

“In a good way,” Sky quickly interjected. “It makes you stand out, you know?”

“Mm…” Kestrel glanced at Sky before turning her gaze downward. “It’s… inconvenient. And painful.”

Painful? Danielle echoed incredulously, why?

“Sunburn. Bright lights, too.”

“…Oh, I get it.” Sky nodded. “So… your hair is naturally that color, then?”

Kestrel nodded once.

“So you’re… albino?”

Another nod.

Oh, I see. That’s, uh… Danielle passed an uneasy glance toward Sky before turning back to Kestrel. …Cool?

Kestrel shook her head. “No.”

Oh…

“Personally, I think it really suits you,” Sky declared. “Everything about you gives off a mysterious, yet beautifully unique aura, and that makes it all fit together nicely, you know? Not to mention you look really fit, too, like, athletically. Man, I wish I had what you have…” She began counting off on her fingers as she listed off, “your height, your silver hair, your pale skin that pairs so well with your hair… even your eyes, and your musculature, and your… curves…”

“Oi, Sky! Leave the poor woman alone!”

“Oh c’mon…!” Sky immediately began whining as she looked over her shoulder at her boyfriend, who was looking at her from halfway up the cabin. “I’m just trying to make friends, here!”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be talkin’ about her ‘curves’, then!” Spike countered.

“What?! How’d you hear that from way over there?!”

“We’ve been over this a dozen times. You talk loud.”

Very loud,” Twy interjected from farther up.

“Hmph!” Sky crossed her arms impetuously and turned toward Kestrel. “Hey, we aren’t bothering you, are we?”

“Dunno ‘bout her, but you’re definitely bothering me,” Conrad muttered, lifting his head slightly to look at Sky across Kestrel’s thigh.

I think we should leave them alone… Danielle suggested.

“…Alright, alright…” Sky sighed. She then turned to Kestrel and bowed her head. “I’m sorry if we bothered you.” A frown crossed her face as she began rubbing the back of her neck. “…Aw, man, who do we talk to now?”

I haven’t met the girl talking to your sister yet, Danielle pointed out. Phoenix, right?

“Oh, I haven’t properly met her, either! Let’s go see what she’s about!” Sky grinned as she met eyes with Danielle and then marched off toward the front of the cabin.

Kestrel and Conrad watched the two leave for a moment. Conrad then put his head back down on the bench as Kestrel glanced down at him.

“…Thanks,” she muttered quietly.

“Hey, no problem. They were getting in the way of my nap, anyways.” Conrad closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Just as Kestrel did the same and began to relax, he added, “she wasn’t wrong, though. About your body and everything. You shouldn’t be ashamed.”

“…Mm…” Kestrel looked down at her hands, but offered no further response.

Halfway across the room, Spike watched Kestrel and Conrad for a moment before shaking his head and turning toward Mark.

Sky really does say whatever’s on her mind, huh? Mark commented.

“Yeah…” Spike sighed and rubbed his neck. “It’s got its ups and downs. At least I don’t have to worry about her bein’ indirect with what she wants. Ha!”

There’s a difference between being direct and being blithely blunt, Mark replied. Though Sky does at least apologize if she realizes she crossed a line…

“You say that like you know someone who doesn’t.”

Mark’s eyes momentarily flitted toward Kate before he shook his head. It doesn’t warrant discussion, he said. I’d rather not talk about someone behind their back.

“That’s fair,” Spike responded. “I’m not a big fan of gossip, either. So let me change the subject by thankin’ y’all for showin’ up at just the right time to save our asses.”

Oh, no, we’re just doing our job. Don’t worry about it.

“Still, though, that was some damn good timin’. When’d y’all get back to Earth?”

Just an hour ago, actually. The moment the Genesis dropped out of Subspace, HQ contacted us about the situation. We headed out immediately.

“Damn! Talk about convenient, huh?”

I suppose… Mark glanced away from Spike as he took a deep breath. But it would have been nice if our help wasn’t needed.

“Aw c’mon, man. We’ve only been doin’ this for, what, a month? Cut us some slack.”

Oh, no, that’s not what I meant! It’s just that, since we had to get involved, well… Mark glanced back toward Kestrel and Conrad. …We’ve personally confirmed the identities of more Earthian Chaotics, and the General is no doubt going to draft them. In the long run, our assistance may have done more harm than help…

Spike shook his head. “Don’t think of it that way. You ain’t the one issuin’ the conscription orders, so you ain’t the one to blame. Just think about the fact that you probably saved a couple of lives by comin’ in when you did.”

…I’m not sure that I agree, about the blame. But I appreciate the thought.

“Good! Now let’s talk about somethin’ less dark. How’d your mission go?”

It was a success, for the most part.

“What even was your mission? Y’all just up and disappeared a week ago, with barely any warnin’.”

CSF-1 and a Black Suns team were under attack by Drakkars, so we went to help. We managed to save most of the soldiers, but…

“…Oh…” Spike frowned and looked away as Mark did the same. “That, uh… that sucks.”

Mark shook his head. I’m sorry for bringing this up. You wanted to talk about something less dark, and then… well, the second part of the mission went down with no casualties, at least.

“That’s good!” Spike then glanced around at the cabin, and at the crimson and gold geometric patterns that adorned the black bulkheads. “…Your mission have anythin’ to do with this ship?”

Yeah, this Corvette was actually recovered from the planet where CSF-1 was under attack. Apparently, it’s an ancient Aldredian ship.

“I figured it wasn’t SERRCom. Too, uh…”

Grandiose?

“I was gonna say colorful, but that works, too.”

Heh. Mark let out a brief chuckle before glancing away again, his expression solemn.

Spike regarded him with concern. “Hey, man, you okay?”

Huh? Oh. Mark turned his attention back to Spike and shook his head. No… I’m fine.

“If you say so. But if you wanna talk, I can listen.”

Thanks, but it’s not necessary. Really.

“Aight.”

Mark passed Spike a curious glance as the latter took a seat on the bench next to them. …You’re a thoughtful person, you know?

“I could say the same to you,” Spike replied, and then smirked. “I guess appearances can be deceivin’, eh?”

That is true. Mark sat down next to Spike and took a deep breath. People always seem surprised to learn that I’m not an aggressive meathead.

“I know what you mean. When you’re over six feet tall, and you’ve got a lot of muscle and bulk — people seem to lump you into a stereotype.” Spike looked down at his large hands, momentarily balling them into fists before relaxing them. He then looked over at Mark. “But shit, dude, you’re even bigger than I am. How tall are you? Six and half feet?”

That’s it exactly. You must be around six four, then?

“Ayup.” Spike chuckled briefly. “I dunno if it’s a coincidence or what, but it’s kinda funny that the two biggest dudes here ended up with superstrength, huh? Almost like someone wanted to reinforce a stereotype…”

It’s not entirely a coincidence, Mark refuted. Forcetechnics tend to gain more muscle than other Chaotics for the simple reason that they use their body more than other Chaotics. This is true even if the Forcetechnic wasn’t muscular before they developed their powers.

Spike passed Mark an incredulous glance. “Are you sayin’ you used to be scrawny, or somethin’?”

Well, not quite scrawny, per se. But not as big as I am now.

“Huh. That’s kinda funny to think about.”

Constant training and military activity does tend to put some muscle on you, after all.

“Yeah, I knew that, it just didn’t occur to me to think about what you looked like before all that.” Spike clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back against the bulkhead behind the bench, silent for several moments. Mark indulged in the silence as well, closing his eyes as he savored the moment of respite.

“Hey, now that I think about it…” Spike spoke up again, drawing Mark’s attention. “…Which one of us is stronger?”

…I guess that’s hard to say concretely, Mark replied. I don’t really carry things around often, so I don’t know what my weight limit is. My strength is mostly used for punching, and halberd swings…

“I don’t really know my limit, either,” Spike lamented. “I went to the gym at the base we were stationed at to see, but there weren’t enough weights to give me a challenge. It was kinda disappointin’, really.”

That’s just how it goes. I can never find enough weights to do proper weight training, either.

“Damn, that sucks. Well we can still test our relative strength, at least.” Spike turned toward Mark with a mischievous grin on his face. “How ‘bout an arm wrestle?”

What…? Mark looked at Spike with surprise. Arm wrestling? Really? Here?

“Yeah, you got a point. We need a table. Uh…” Spike glanced around for a few moments before his eyes lit up with realization. “Ah, I got it!” He jumped up from his seat and fabricated multiple shields, stacking them in the middle of the room to form a makeshift table. After wiping his hands and taking a moment to admire his work, he gestured toward Mark. “C’mon! Let’s do this!”

I don’t know, Spike. I’m not sure if this is a good idea…

“What’s wrong? You afraid you’ll lose?” Spike taunted.

Mark sighed and shrugged. After a moment, he stood up and approached the makeshift shield table, standing across from Spike. Well, alright, he said as he placed his right elbow on the table, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Warn me?” Spike stared at Mark in confusion as he placed his own right elbow on the table and clasped hands with his opponent. “Warn me about what?”

Mark shook his head. We’ll see. You count off.

“Well, alright! On ‘go’. Three, two, one, go— agh!”

Nigh instantly after the word “go” left Spike’s mouth, Mark slammed his arm down on top of Spike’s, crushing the top shield and denting the rest of the stack in the process. Spike immediately withdrew his arm and began massaging his hand, his face scrounged up in pain.

“Ow, what the…” Spike scowled. “Holy shit, dude! How are you so much stronger than I am?!”

It’s often been said that the other Eximius Vir and I are more powerful than other Chaotics who share our abilities, Mark replied. It’s most notable with Mote and Kate, though.

“Ah, damn…” Spike sighed. “Well, I guess that’s my loss. Thanks for not holdin’ back, at least.”

I suppose. Mark glanced down at the makeshift table. …What do we do with all of these shields, though?

“Uh…” Spike stared down at the table himself. “…Good question…”

From the front of the cabin, Kate watched as Spike and Mark tried to puzzle out what to do with the pile of shields. With a snort of derision, she turned her attention forward and then closed her eyes, slouching back even further on top of the bench.

You’re not going to talk to anyone…?

Huh? Kate opened one eye and glanced to her side, where Danielle was standing with her hands clasped behind her back. Oh, it’s just you. She closed her eyes again and released a deep breath. You go talk to them. I don’t have any patience for wannabes and newbies.

Aw, c’mon! Danielle sat down next to Kate and grabbed her hand. You’re only saying that ‘cause you haven’t had a chance to talk to them!

What? Kate’s eyes shot open as she yanked her hand out of Danielle’s and passed her an impatient glare. I don’t need to talk to them to know that they’re newbies.

You called them wannabes, too. That’s not really fair.

What-fucking-ever. Kate rolled her eyes. My point is that they aren’t worth my fucking time.

But you’re not doing anything right now!

I’m resting.

Oh, like that Conrad guy?

Yes, like— like who?

Conrad. Danielle pointed toward the back of the cabin, where Conrad was still lying on the bench next to Kestrel. He said he was taking a nap.

There’s a difference between resting and fucking napping, Kate countered.

Really? What is it?

Well, I don’t have to actually fall asleep to rest, for one.

That doesn’t really sound like an important distinction…

Of course it’s important. If you’re asleep, then you can’t react to your surroundings. Only fucking dumbasses sleep where there might be danger.

Danger? Here? Danielle glanced around the small space. From what?

That— that doesn’t matter.

It sounds like you’re just trying to come up with some reason that makes you different from Conrad.

I don’t need to try to know that I’m already better at everything than he’ll ever be.

How do you know? You haven’t even talked to him!

Look, I don’t want to fucking talk to him, or any of the others, okay? At least wait to pester me about this shit until after I’ve had a chance to get off of a fucking spaceship and decompress after a goddamn mission.

Oh… Danielle drew away from Kate, her eyes cast downward as her shoulders slumped. Sorry…

Damn it… Kate released an impatient sigh as she held a hand to her forehead. Don’t… don’t apologize, you didn’t do anything wrong. Just… give me some space, okay? Just for now. We can hang out later.

Is that a promise?

Yes, it’s a promise, Kate replied as she rolled her eyes.

Yay! Maybe we can hang out with everyone else, too!

Whoa, hang on, I didn’t say that

A loud metal slam interrupted Kate as the entrance to the bridge suddenly opened. Out stumbled Austin, followed quickly by Pierce as they each gingerly rubbed various spots on their bodies and glared at each other.

“This fucking sucks,” Pierce muttered.

“I tried to stop you, but you wouldn’t listen,” Austin shot back. “This is all your fault!”

My fault?! Maybe if you hadn’t waffled on whether to follow me or not, we would’ve won, you indecisive loser!”

“What?! How the hell are you tryin’ to pin the blame on me?!”

“It’s your evil fucking twin that got me into this mess in the first place, of course its your fault.”

“I had nothing to do with that—!”

Shut the hell up, you two, Mote snapped as he stepped out of the bridge behind them. They both drew away from him, glaring the entire time before splitting off to find their respective friends.

Finally done lecturing them? Kate questioned with a smirk.

For now, Mote responded, but they both still have a lot to learn…

I mean… can you really blame them? Danielle glanced between Mote and Kate with unease. They didn’t ask for any of this, after all…

Maybe not, but they still need to deal with it like mature adults, Mote countered. But that’s a topic for another time. Everyone! Listen up! He raised his voice to address everyone in the cabin. Once all eyes were on him, he continued, we’re about to dock with the Opportunity, SERRCom’s HQ station. Get ready to disembark… and after that, we’ll all be meeting with the General.