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    Default Distance

    Time to jump right back into things!

    What is this?

    This is a sequel to my previous story, Stargazer, which you can read by either clicking here or on the link in my sig.

    Do I have to read it?

    You don't have to as it's not a direct sequel in the sense that it picks up immediately where the last story ended, but I certainly won't discourage you from doing so if you choose.

    What's up with the one-word title?

    I'm unimaginative. I decided to go with it because the concept of distance, both physical and emotional, is a big theme of the story.

    Chapter 1: Restart

    “T minus ten...nine...eight...seven...six...five...four...i gnition...two...one...liftoff, we have liftoff.”

    At first there was nothing but a small flash of light as the rocket fuel ignited, then it was followed by a rapidly-expanding cloud of peach-colored exhaust as the rocket, all one-hundred-ninety-one feet and three-hundred-and-sixty-nine tons of it, rose into the air on a pillar of incandescence. The event began in silence, but approximately four seconds later the roar of the launch reached the viewing platform, completely drowning out the cries of the gulls and the sound of the ocean waves lapping up against the support struts below.

    The only other sound that was able to reach Atlas Therman’s ears over the rocket’s din was the exclamations of “Amazing! Just amazing!” that his guest was uttering next to him. The man, a relatively young representative from the client telecommunications company, was leaning over the platform’s guardrail, hair and tie billowing in the wind, personal dignity left behind and replaced with a childlike sense of wonder and starry-eyed exuberance.

    “Have you never seen a rocket launch before?” Atlas asked as soon as the noise had lessened enough that he could speak without shouting.

    “No, not in person Mr. Therman.” the representative replied, eyes still on the spectacle at the launch pad in the distance. “I’ve seen many videos of course, but it’s just so different witnessing and hearing one with my own eyes! Everything’s so loud and big!”

    Atlas allowed himself a slight smile at the sight of a grown man being so overcome by the sight that he could only describe it in grade school terms. He craned his neck to follow the exhaust trail curving up into the blue, cloudless sky overhead, the rocket itself already lost from view. These days the minority of people who had been into space did so by riding spaceplanes, far less stressful and rough than the rockets that the first astronauts had ridden into orbit and beyond. Rockets, however, still had their place in quickly getting large payloads up into space, whether they be satellites, construction materials, or supplies.

    His company Atlas Aerospace Industries, whose triangular emblem gleamed from the pin attached to his lapel, had made its start as a small manufacturer of airliner parts during the formative years of commercial air travel, but once he had assumed leadership he had set about retooling its business. Now, decades later, AAI was one of the forefront companies of the commercial space industry in the world. They developed and built rockets, spaceplanes, and other such material for SARA and other client companies, such as the telecommunications company that had contracted them for today’s launch of a new communications satellite. Both he and the company he had nurtured and transformed were rich and successful by any measure, and his legacy well-and-truly secured. However, Atlas took little personal pride in his achievements. It was simply a case of pragmatism, that was all.

    The roar had faded away by now and Atlas turned to one of his attendants and gestured with his hand. The man nodded in understanding and handed him a bulky hand-held communicator that was probably older than the still-awestruck representative. “Control, how do things look?”

    “The first stage is jettisoning now.” the flight director’s scratchy voice reported from back inside the control room. “Everything is green so far, and we should be at our first transfer orbit within the next seven minutes.”

    “Thank you. Keep me posted on further developments.”

    “I didn’t realize it was so fast!” the young, starry-eyed representative repeated.

    “Not necessarily.” Atlas replied, deciding to educate this young fool some. “Simply getting a payload into space takes little time at all. Getting it into the precise orbit you want, especially a geosynchronous one, is rather more complex. There are all sorts of maneuvers that need to be taken into account. It takes hours, as a matter of fact!” He put on a little smile. “Perhaps we can discuss this more over lunch, and afterwards I can take you on a tour of the control room?” he offered.

    “Oh, yes, absolutely!” the representative exclaimed, finally tearing his eyes away from the pad. This must be his very first assignment, Atlas thought to himself. “I’d be honored!”

    Atlas broadened his smile and made an “after you” gesture to usher the youth forward. His attendants followed, and when it came his turn to descend the stairs leading down from the platform he stopped and cast one last look at the trail of frozen vapor spiraling overhead. It would be soon, he thought to himself. One day soon those rockets would be carrying a very different sort of payload, one that would completely change the order of the world...

    * * *

    Artemis was stirred awake from her sleep by the captain making the routine announcement that the flight was beginning its final descent into Marine Cove City and for everyone to return to their seats. She frowned a bit and scratched her forehead as she realized that she had had “that” dream again. The dream, it really was. She was one of those people who very rarely had dreams when she slept, or at the very least had very low dream recall, but on the few occasions that she did it was always of the exact same sequence of images and emotions, with little variation: bright lines in the sky, laughter and admonishment followed by a deafening roar and then blackness, followed by a return to the void of dreamless sleep.

    She sniffed and brushed her bangs back into their proper position as the captain concluded his announcement and the seat belt sign lit back up. She glanced out the window to see the fractal-like coastline of eastern Sentremare, alternatively known as either the Foundation or Founder States by its inhabitants, stretching below. She checked her watch to see if she had remembered to change it since the last layover, then settled back in her seat and quietly gazed out at the late afternoon sky. Her dream had probably been triggered by the flight, she thought as she stared out, the roar being borrowed this time from the sound of the plane’s four powerful jet engines while the bright light had simply been the golden late-afternoon sun penetrating her closed eyelids.

    Aside from the dream, the remainder of the flight was just as unremarkable as the rest of it had been, and the plane touched down at Marine Cove International Airport without any incident, as did the disembarkation. Artemis retrieved her luggage and and after a short walk - Marine Cove Intl. Airport was no different than any other airport she’d been to in regards to its sprawling complex - found the sign marked “A. Glanson - Atlas Aerospace Industries” at the taxi terminal without any trouble. A black livery taxi was already parked beside it as promised, and standing next to the sign was a smartly-dressed, portly and friendly-looking driver, who immediately doffed his cap when he saw her approach. “You’re Ms. Glanson?” he asked politely.

    She nodded. “I am.”

    “Excellent, let me take your bag please.” Artemis surrendered her luggage and the driver wrestled the bag, an impressive sight given how short and round he was, into his car’s trunk before opening the rear passenger door and gesturing for her to get in. She nodded and flashed a polite smile to show her appreciation and once she was inside and buckled they were off.

    “How was your flight Ma’am?” the driver asked, wasting no time in striking up conversation as he pulled away from the terminal’s curb.

    “I fly fairly often for my work, but not usually long-distance.” she replied, figuring that as long as they were confined to the close quarters of his vehicle it wouldn’t hurt to keep up a conversation. “My flight was nice: pleasant and uneventful.” Obviously she didn’t mention the dream, as that was personal. She couldn’t really call it a “nightmare” anymore though; after twenty years’ worth of repetition it had lost its power over her.

    “I’m glad to hear that.” the driver answered, and sounded genuinely happy for her. “Me, I had a bad experience with turbulence when I was younger.” Artemis could see his reflection in the overhead mirror shake its head. “Family’s the only thing that’ll get me on board one of those things these days.”

    The taxi pulled onto an overpass leading out into the city, and Artemis’s window was suddenly filled by the view of Marine Cove City’s North Side’s impressive lineup of skyscrapers marking its financial and midtown districts. It was hard to get an appreciation of just how enormous the city was from thirty-thousand feet up in the air, but from the ground it was an entirely different story. Marine Cove had long since outgrown its name, she thought as the skyline seemed to almost scroll closer and closer, as today it was one of the largest cities in the world, boasting an impressive population of over eight million people. There was traffic all around them, and she could spot many more planes either taking off or landing in the sky ahead if she looked. The roar of the highway easily penetrated the cushioned seats of the car, and they were driving at just the right angle to catch the radiant reflection of the late-afternoon sun off of the awesome towers of glass and metal before them. Compared to Marine Cove her home of San Paolo, while impressive in its own right, was quite inconsequential.

    Once they were settled into their highway lane, the driver spoke again. “I take it you’re here for business?” he asked, and Artemis replied that he was correct, thinking that that was virtually a rhetorical question given the business pants and blouse she was wearing coupled with her swept-back, long dark hair made her look every bit the young professional, an image she took pride in. “I here to attend a technology expo that’s being held this week by the software manufacturer DuneTech.” she elaborated without being prompted. “They specialize in security management and navigation systems, such as GPS’s, both of which are areas of interest to my company.” Those were examples of their consumer products at least - in reality they also did high-level contracting work for the Foundation States’ government, including for their armed services. She felt herself frown momentarily as a dark cloud briefly built up in her mind at the thought of her purpose for coming here...

    “Well, I hope you manage to fit in some time for leisure.” the driver said jovially. “This is a big city, there’s something here for everyone!”

    “Yes, I certainly hope so.” Artemis settled back in her seat and resumed gazing out the window, resting a palm against her cheek. Marine Cove continued to draw inexorably closer and bigger, until they were off of the elevated highway and onto the streets of the city itself, surrounded on all four sides by buildings and other vehicles of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Their progress naturally slowed down significantly, and the driver’s usual gaiety faded a bit after his radio up front squawked to life, its message indecipherable to Artemis a mere few feet behind.

    “Lasser Ave’s blocked off by some police action,” he reported apologetically. “So we’re going to have to take a longer route to reach the Tri-Shore.”

    “I don’t mind.” Artemis replied. It didn’t matter to her, as it wasn’t like she had any plans for the rest of the day other than checking in to her hotel room.

    “Glad to hear that.” the driver answered, regaining his cheerful tone of voice. “I must say though, it’s good to see the police finally doing their jobs like they’re supposed to.” he declared. “It’s been too long!”

    “Oh, was the city unsafe before this?” Artemis asked, though she was pretty sure she knew what the driver was referring to already.

    “Well, I wouldn’t say that it was exactly unsafe by-and-large...” the driver replied, gesturing indecisively with his right hand. “But the former mayor, Thomas Wellow, he was no good at all! He took away power from all the law enforcement agencies and cut their budgets on top of it!” He spoke with the sort of passion that only a longtime resident could have. “And whaddaya know, every criminal and two-bit punk in the city sees that as license to do whatever they want!

    “And then somehow,” the driver went on, voice becoming even more passionate. “the guy survives a recall election and goes on to redistrict a buncha poor neighborhoods, leading to a spike in gang violence ‘cause all of a sudden turf wars are breaking out between folks that hate each other’s guts and are now expected to share and play nice! Ah, sorry,” He quickly tried to stop himself. “I’m getting too worked up. I shouldn’t talk like that in front of customer.” he said, sounding embarrassed.

    Artemis smiled, bemused. “Don’t worry about it.” she assured him. Actually, it was nice to be so passionate about one’s home. They certainly needed more people like that back in San Paolo.

    “Well anyway,” the driver continued in a more subdued voice as the line of traffic stopped for a red light. “needless to say Wellow did not win a second term. The new mayor, well, he’s done an okay job in picking up the pieces. Things didn’t really start picking up for the MCPD until last fall, though.”

    “What happened?” Artemis politely asked, though she was certain now what topic the man was about to touch.

    “They managed to apprehend the leader of the biggest of the South Side gangs, called themselves ‘The Beings’.” the driver answered. “Apparently he was also a Stargazer.” he said, his voice going hushed as if in reverence.

    “A Stargazer, really?”

    “Yeah, that’s what the paper’s claimed at the time. And there was another one working with him too, some crazy girl who turned out to be the culprit behind a whole spree of burning attacks.” He shook his head. “That part was scary. Everyone was real tense while that was going on.

    “Anyway,” he continued. “Bagging two Stargazers was certainly a feather in the MCPD’s cap, then back in January they arrested the executives of the Changxing Organization for being caught red-handed smuggling contraband in from Heion! The SCIE was involved and everything! ‘couse,” he snorted. “everyone here already knew they were involved in shady business! That came as no surprise.”

    That wasn’t exactly how that incident had gone down, Artemis thought to herself. The driver had omitted the part about the trafficking cell that had been working with the Changxing Organization, not to mention the crucial fact that it hadn’t actually been the police department alone who had resolved the incidents being described, but rather a trio of Stargazers secretly affiliated with them. Then again, in her experience law enforcement organizations tended to be incredibly prideful, egotistical even, only too willing to bend the truth if it cast themselves in a better light. The existence of their Stargazers was not supposed to be something people outside of the government were supposed to know anyway...unless one happened to have access to the sorts of resources that she had...

    “Well, it certainly seems that a lot of interesting things have been occurring in this city recently.” she commented, allowing herself a bit of self-satisfaction in being privy to a bit of inside knowledge that the other man didn’t. “Hopefully, it’ll be nice enough to remain peaceful until after I leave. After that, it can do as it wishes.”

    This caused the driver to let out a hearty chuckle. “Please don’t jinx us, Ma’am!” he said with an additional guffaw. “I’d love for this peace to last a good, long while, thank you very much!”

    As do most people, Artemis thought to herself. It was somewhat ironic that a loud, busy, and bustling city was a sign of a peaceful one. However, her bemused smile faded and her expression, hidden from the driver, darkened as that thought made her recall her dream and the events that had spawned it so long ago. Peace was fragile, she knew. All it took was a fraction of a second to shatter it.

    Just as the peace of Terry Eaves’s afternoon had been broken by a simple order.

    Up until then it had been a fairly typical afternoon for him, sitting at his desk in a half-stupor as his science teacher Mr. Pashni droned on and on, eyes darting to the clock in the hopes that the minute hand was nearing the time of dismissal, though even time seemed to be moving sluggishly under his teacher’s influence. His classmates were in a similar state, staring blankly ahead like zombies when they weren’t trying to surreptitiously play with their phones beneath their desks. It was a scene that had played out exactly the same way almost every day he had spent attending Marine Cove Academy, but today there was finally a break in the tedium in the room’s private intercom letting out a buzz, forcing Mr. Pashni to put his lecture on hold while he answered it. After ending the call he turned his vacuous face on Terry and said in a monotone, “Go down to the office. You can take your things with you.”

    So Terry stood up, uncomfortably aware of the fact that now everyone had regained their wits and were all staring at him. Being called down to the office, alone, was never a good sign, especially when you were told to brings your things with you, and he could already hear a few questioning murmurs from the back of the room. He didn’t have any idea what the school’s headmaster would want from him - he was far from a troublemaker after all - but he figured a few minor, short-lived rumors swirling around was an acceptable price to pay for escaping the purgatory of Mr. Pashni’s classroom. Waiting for him downstairs outside the administration wing, however, was not a school official but rather one of the school’s usual security guards. With a knowing look the man said to Terry that there was a need for his abilities. And so he soon found himself being whisked away in an unmarked police van being told that he was going to be the key in breaking up a hostage situation currently unfolding downtown. It was a very odd position for someone his age to be in, but Terry was not a normal 17 year old student. He was also a Stargazer, one of the very few people in the world who possessed superhuman abilities, and this was just the sort of situation that his powers were suited for.

    “The perp’s name is Davis Tindle, age forty-seven.” the officer seated with him was explaining, his tablet displaying the mugshot of a grubby, unshaven man. “He’s had a very extensive history of alcohol abuse and he’s been in and out of the slammer a lot over the years for misdemeanors of all kinds. Until today he’s never done anything to harm the public, though.”

    “So what set him off this time?” Terry asked.

    The officer scrolled through the file he was reading from, eyes glancing back and forth as he skimmed. “The other day he was fired from his current job it appears, so I suppose he simply snapped.”

    “He snapped and just decided to hold up a bank?”

    The officer shrugged. “We’ll let the psychologists figure him out. All we need to concern ourselves with is the fact that right now at least twenty people are still trapped inside MaeDec Banking on Lasser Ave with a gun-toting madman who’s threatening to kill the hostages unless he’s given four million yura and an airplane ticket.”

    A nutjob indeed, Terry thought. It was the sort of scenario that had been played out countless times, to the point of becoming a cartoon cliche. One would expect that it would become a discredited one, yet continued to occur in real life because many crooks really were that stupid. “And that’s where I come in.” he stated, seeing where this was going.

    “Exactly. Tindle wants someone who isn’t an officer or otherwise a member of law enforcement to make the drop-off. Someone normal.”

    Terry could practically see the quotation marks around the word “normal” as the officer spoke it. From his experience the police seemed to view Stargazers as some kind of novelty, like a fancy new toy in their arsenal, but he’d learned by now to try and tune that sort of attitude out. It was just an unavoidable reality that he had to deal with since Stargazers were indeed practically a complete black box, even to himself.

    “From what we can tell from the security feed and from the victims that managed to escape before he tried barricading himself inside, Tindle’s armed with a Gregern AS semi-auto, which is pretty much the same thing I have holstered here.” The officer indicated his gun holster as he said this. “It’s designed for nine millimeter cartridges, so a good set of body armor will be enough to protect you if he gets trigger-happy.” Going up against a gun was not something that Terry was especially looking forward to - he had had a rather harrowing encounter with one several months ago. Hand to hand combat didn’t scare him much, but that didn’t change the fact that he was uncomfortably aware that a single, tiny bullet could be far more devastating than someone’s fists or knife. One wrong move, one slip of bad luck, and he could be dead before he knew what hit him.

    The thought that it would be in the hands of an off-the-street lowlife instead of someone like a highly-trained soldier did make him feel better though. His briefing officer didn’t seem to notice the slight paling of his face when he had mentioned the gun and was continuing right along. “Next, Tindle claims that he has a bomb set up inside, but we’re pretty confident that that’s just a hoax.” he continued. “However, we still have the bomb squad on standby at the scene just in case. Therefore,” He fixed Terry with a serious gaze. “your mission is to get in and neutralize Tindle the moment an opening presents itself so that we can evacuate the hostages and scour the building. Can you handle it?”

    “Yes.” Terry said. “I’ll do my best.” It wasn’t like he would answer anything else, was it? Besides, this was his job, and he was determined to carry it out.

    As the van passed through a police barricade and arrived at its destination Terry was given some body armor as promised as well as a heavy briefcase that supposedly carried the money that Tindle was demanding and a small earpiece communicator the kind of which he was already familiar with. When he stepped outside Terry found himself in the midst of a whirlwind of frenzied activity. Lasser Ave had been almost completely cordoned off, with the largest of the barriers having been erected roughly fifty feet away from the bank in response to the bomb threat. In between the two barricades was a gridlock of police cruisers, siren lights flashing to an almost painful degree, while officers were everywhere taking up positions and barking orders while those nearest the barricades were wearing body armor like he was and crouching low to the ground, assault weapons gripped in their arms. There was even the distant buzz of helicopters hovering overhead. It was an impressive show of force, Terry thought, though it did seem a little overkill for a single stupid crook. Then again, lives were hanging in the balance and the police no-doubt needed to be prepared for any eventuality.

    “Out of the way, out of the way!” the officer who had briefed him called as he led Terry through the sea of officers, which split as they passed. Just like in the classroom he could see all eyes turning and all necks swiveling in order for their owners to focus their attention on him. This was the first time that he’d been under so much scrutiny and in a situation where a multitude of lives were on the line, but oddly enough he didn’t feel nearly as much pressure as he felt like he should. What he was about to do was dangerous yes, but this was his element. He felt prepared. Still though, it was somewhat unnerving to have to walk alone through the no man’s land between the barricades and the bank, all eyes remaining upon him. The automatic doors of MaeDec Banking swished open to welcome him into the building’s vestibule, and once out of sight of everyone on the street he paused and took some steadying breaths, inhale, exhale, then tightened his grip on the briefcase’s handle and strode purposefully up the short span of carpeted steps and into the bank itself.

    As soon as he reached the top a harsh voice barked at him. “Stop right there!” it growled, and Terry did so. Standing in the middle of the room, one arm resting on the sill of the empty teller windows, was Davis Tindle, looking even more grubby and shabby than he had in the picture he had seen earlier. His sunken, shadowed rat-like eyes darted around as he sized Terry up. In his left hand he could see the dark gray shape of the gun, pointed right at him. A bit of the old fear began to resurface inside of him, feeling like a plug had been pulled inside him and his insides were beginning to drain out, but he fought to resist the feeling and keep his poker face, reminding himself again that the criminal before him was not a soldier and that he was wearing protection, though the fact that the police had decided to forego a helmet in order to appear less threatening was hard for him to ignore.

    Tindle’s eyes darted down to the briefcase. “That the money?”

    Terry nodded. “Yes.” he said. He had been instructed to avoid engaging him in conversation, just answer his questions and demands and nothing more until an opportunity presented itself.

    Tindle grunted and gestured with his gun. “Bring it here.” he ordered and Terry obediently stepped forward. As he slowly crossed the distance between them, again trying to ignore the gun, he did his best to take in his surroundings. The lobby of the bank appeared much like what he had expected, teller windows on one side of the room while the meeting area for customers and bank employees were on the other, the space decorated with potted ferns and other plants in order to add a little color to the interior. Aside from a few abandoned jackets and bags lying on the floor he didn’t see anyone else in the room - Tindle had apparently herded the hostages deeper into the building, out of sight. It was encouraging to see that there weren’t any signs of struggle, like broken glass or a trail of blood leading away. He did wonder why, if he was holding up a bank, why Tindle hadn’t forced the tellers to turn over the cash in their tills. Once he got close enough to the man, close enough for his nose to recoil at his unwashed stank, he set the briefcase down on the floor in front of him.

    “Now back off!” the man barked, and Terry was all too happy to oblige. Tindle circled around and bent down to fiddle with the latch, but it seemed to be too much for him as he let out a short curse and set his gun down on the floor beside him so that he could use both of his hands.

    That was Terry’s moment. He focused, and felt a small comforting tingle around his hand as he called upon his Stargazer power. His eyes changed color from their usual green to the flat light blue unique to Stargazers as a small crackle of blue-white electricity appeared over his palm, and with a loud crack that reverberated throughout the lobby Terry threw his hand forward as a much larger bolt shot from his arm and pierced right through Tindle before he could even turn around. He let out a sharp cry as the bolt sent him sprawling over the briefcase, knocking it over before being thrown to the ground. Terry exploded into action, reflexes honed by years of martial art training, and was on him in a flash, pinning the stunned man’s arms behind his back and pressing his knee down on the center of his back. He quickly grabbed with his free hand the pair of plastic cuffs that had been issued to him and bound the would-be criminal’s wrists together, then continued to put pressure on the man’s back to keep him from rising, keeping the gun lying on the floor a few feet away in his sight.

    “Got him!” he called into his earpiece and almost immediately the squad of armored police officers burst into the building and were hustling him out while others moved to apprehend the prone Tindle and liberate the hostages sequestered deeper inside. Outside Terry saw that the bustle of activity from over by the cruisers and ambulances had now built up to a fever pitch. People were shouting, dashing to and fro, but the tension from before was now being replaced by a more purposeful sense of controlled chaos.

    As they passed by some of the officers slapped him on the back and gave him “Good work!”s and similar as he was steered over towards a van and helped out of the body armor and gave him some water. He could see the squad who had gone in were now leading the freed hostages outside the building and behind the barricades while the bomb squad hurried in. Some of the liberated men and women still looked confused and scared, but most of them were instead happy and smiling with relief. Already some of the news reporters who had been outside the barricades were trying to push their way forward, bent on interviews, but the police were forming a human wall, strenuously trying to get them to keep them at bay. None of the reporters clamoring for access seemed to notice the brown-haired student separate from the hostages and off to the side, idling sipping from a water bottle.

    And that, Terry thought, was perfectly okay with him. Sure the sight of the freed hostages made him proud of what he had done and he’d probably get some kind of commendation later, but if he had to choose between being treated like a normal kid and being feted as a hero, he’d take being treated just like anyone else over being treated as a Stargazer.

    A (re)introductory chapter in order to get back into the swing of things as mentioned above. "Gregern AS" is something I made up, but the gun's model is supposed to be similar to a Glock, which is what the majority of police departments in the United States use as their standard-issue sidearm. Atlas Therman's given name has two namesakes, the first of which is, unsurprisingly, the Atlas series of rockets used by NASA and the United States government. The dimensions mentioned at the start of the chapter are taken from the Atlas V in particular.

    Next, something new that I want to try. Since I ended up finding those encyclopedia entry thingies I made for Stargazer really boring to write, this time around I'm going to be supplying "excerpts" every now and then that will basically serve as spaces for bonus material not directly related to the story, but to the world of the Stargazer stories; sort of like a datalog function for extra world-building, fleshing out plot elements that come up in the story, or just a free space for me to ramble about whatever comes to mind as it pertains to the story. A number of books out there do something similar, but I got the idea for this from the book 2312, which contained snippets of in-universe history, science lessions, philosophical musings, lots and lots of terminology and jargon and more in-between each section of the book. I found it fun to read, so I'm going to give a whack at something similar here in the hopes that I have some fun with it too:

    Excerpt 1: On Stargazers

    If you asked people what they thought the greatest mystery in the world was, the answer would overwhelmingly be “Stargazers”. If you asked them what a Stargazer was, the answers would be far from unanimous: supermen, monsters, superheroes, freaks, boogiemen, unnatural, etc.


    Many theories have been put forth as to the origin of their metahuman powers, and why Stargazers spontaneously gain them, with the five most common hypotheses being given below:

    • A power granted to them by God (while not held by the scientific community, this is by far the most common explanation provided especially in the more religious parts of the world, and also the oldest, older than modern science itself)
    • A Stargazer is a human who has learned to utilize the full 100% of their brainpower (a theory thoroughly disproven by modern science, though still very popular among those who lack a complete understanding of how the human brain works)
    • Stargazers are aliens (while evidence of alien life does exist, this theory is only taken seriously by fringe conspiracy theorists)
    • Stargazers gain their powers via alien parasites (one of the more plausible theories given the existence of Weissman Particles, but they are completely inert, not even being in a state of unlife similar to viroids)
    • The Personal Pseudoreality Theory (dismissed as pseudoscience by most scientists, though there are those who argue its merits)


    Weissman Particles, discovered by scientist Tessel Weissman, are nanoscopic particles found inside the mitochondria of a Stargazer’s cells, and the stronger and more potent a Stargazer’s control over their power, the higher their Weissman count. However Weissman particles do not show any outward signs of activity nor reaction to stimuli and thus do not provide any clues as to how or why a Stargazer gained their powers. It is also noted that Weissman Particles are mutually exclusive to their parent Stargazer; a blood transfusion or other bodily fluid contact will not transfer them to another human’s body, thus it is impossible to “create” an “artificial” Stargazer through this method.

    A child conceived by two Stargazers will not inherit a power, his parents’ or otherwise.
    ~Stargazer~, ~Distance~ original stories.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  2. #2

    Default Re: Distance

    Chapter 2: School Life
    The beginning of May signaled a change at Marine Cove Academy. Like a switch had been flipped, Terry’s teachers had immediately begun conducting review for the final end-of-school-year exams, which resulted in the first-years’ workload being doubled. Terry had expected this given that the Academy’s reputation was built on being one of the top private college-preparatory institutions in the country but the sudden increase was a shock to the system either way. He considered himself a decent student, but even so he often found himself drawing blanks as he reviewed the study packets that they were receiving in class, wondering if he actually had learned this material earlier in the year. On top of that, there was something else that he and his fellow first-years had to worry about.

    “I really don’t know what to sign up for.” his friend and classmate Akira Kamiya sighed one morning while they were waiting for the monorail they took to school to arrive. He was leafing through the pamphlet on second-year course sign-up lethargically, an unhappy look on his normally-cheerful face.

    First-years at Marine Cove Academy shared a set curriculum and stayed together with their homeroom. Second-and-third-years, on the other hand, got to choose their own classes and were freely mixed with others of their grade. The problem, naturally, was in decided what to pick. Their current curriculum was pretty basic: Literature, World History, Intro to Advanced Mathematics, Chemistry, and Physics, while second-year courses branched out into languages, Biology, more advanced mathematics’ courses like Calculus and Statistics, FS Foreign Policy, 23rd Century Darlsinian Literature, FS Political Theory, and so on. The pamphlet Akira had was fairly thick for what it was, filled with highly detailed descriptions on all of the courses available to them.

    “These count for college credit, right?” Terry asked him. “It’s probably best to get all of the basic requirements out of the way first.”

    “I suppose.” Akira said, scratching his head dubiously, his fingers disappearing inside his spiky dark hair. “I guess that’s the best angle to take... I dunno what I’m going to do after I’m done with school yet though.”

    That was the billion yura question, Terry thought, sympathizing with his friend. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do after college either. It was a normal sentiment for people their age, but their situations were a little more complicated than most, given that they weren’t normal teenagers but instead members of Trident, a quartet of Stargazers formed by the Marine Cove police department and the organization Lifeline. Originally they had been created in order to deal with two Stargazers and their gang that had been a thorn in the city’s side. They had accomplished that goal and seen the gang dissolved last year, though Trident was still active in case any other situations requiring their supernatural powers happened to arise, such as the hostage crisis the other day. Officially they counted as civil servants just like those of the police force, though it had been explained to them that if they chose they could still pursue a different path once they had completed their educations.

    “Would any of the colleges back home even accept credits from here...?” Akira continued to mutter. Like Terry he had come from elsewhere to attend the Academy, but while Terry was from the midwestern state of Severstone, Akira had come all the way from the country of Kamagura on the other side of the world.

    “Talk to your program adviser.” he suggested, shrugging his shoulders. “They must though, ‘cause otherwise what’s the point in having an exchange program?”

    “I ‘spose so... What a pain though, only giving us a week to decide...” Akira swung his head over to the other person who was sitting on the platform’s bench with them. “I dunno, are you thinking of signing up for anything in particular yet, River?”

    River Serac glanced up from the book that she had been reading. She was the fourth and newest member of Trident, and her situation was considerably more complicated than his and Akira’s, Terry thought as he recalled the circumstances of their meeting. Unlike them, she had been a Stargazer since a young age. Originally from the Darlsinian country of Danzier, after an accident involving her power to generate ice and freeze things she had fallen into the care of a smuggling cell for an underworld criminal organization. Terry and Akira had had a chance encounter with her around New Year’s, and after a haphazard investigation the cell’s members had been arrested, and she had decided to join Trident as a way to start her life all over again.

    It hadn’t been the easiest of adjustments. Terry didn’t know if she had always been like that or if it was a coping mechanism brought about by the situation that she had been thrust into, but she was a very withdrawn, introverted person. It was uncommon for her to speak without being spoken to first and she had a hard time opening up to those outside of Trident, and even within Trident she didn’t speak about herself all that much. To outsiders, the way she carried herself gave off the impression that she had a very aloof air about her, and he had thought the same thing the very first time he had seen her. Still though, there were some subtle signs of improvement compared to five months ago. She still had a shell around herself, but in their day-to-day activities Terry felt that she was speaking up a little bit more now, and showing more flashes of unguarded emotion every now and then, as she had at the end of her first day here at school with them. He understood that it wasn’t going to be an overnight chance, but it was still heartening all the same to see Akira trying to strike up a casual conversation with her, given how he had been initially wary at the idea of her joining Trident.

    “I’m not completely sure yet, myself.” she replied, her voice calm and measured as it almost always was. “This...isn’t exactly something I’ve ever had much reason to think about.”

    The irony of the situation struck a chord of amusement inside Terry, and he found himself grinning a little bit as he absently watched the crowd gathering on the opposite platform. The three of them were all here in this city because they all had the desire to have more control over their lives, and now that they had reached one of their decision points, none of them had any idea of what they wanted to do!

    “What’re you smiling about?” Akira asked as he closed his pamphlet and slipped it into his bag. “Anyway, I sure can’t wait until this is all behind us... Only one more month and then it’s summer vacation. Why must it still be so far away...?”

    Marine Cove Academy had its own moderately-sized campus thanks to being built on an artificial island nestled within a small cove on the shore of the river that split downtown in two before emptying out into the ocean. There were some small roads that allowed motor traffic to reach the school, but the majority of the students had to cross a short, white bridge before stepping foot on school grounds. As long as the weather was nice it was always a pleasant walk, affording a nice view of the city in either direction, but today Terry found it rudely interrupted.

    “Hey, out of the way! I’m coming through!” The voice that was shouting this was not doing so in the usual frantic, apologetic way those in a hurry usually did but rather in a harsher, more arrogant manner. A rough grinding noise reached Terry’s ears and he quickly grabbed Akira by the forearm and pulled his startled friend out of the way before leaping back himself as someone came barreling through the space they had just vacated.

    “Watch where you’re going!” Terry shouted angrily after the student. The boy came to a suddenly halt and deftly spun around to face them. He wasn’t someone Terry could say he recognized: he had blond hair that was swept back into a somewhat windblown sort of look and he had his blazer slung over one shoulder. Tied to his backpack, one of those cloth types that looked to weight only two ounces, were his shoes, as Terry could see that he was wearing a pair of expensive-looking inline rollerblades.

    “Excuse me?” he said in a drawn-out, affronted tone that immediately made Terry mentally roll his eyes and brace for the worst. “I told you to get out of the way, didn’t I?”

    “Yeah, as you were about to run us over, you dick.” Akira grumbled indignantly as he rubbed the sore spot on his arm. “Ever heard of ‘right of way’?”

    I had the right of way.” the boy insisted, rolling a bit closer. Terry didn’t like the way he emphasized the word “I”. “You were the ones in my way.”

    “You coulda gone around us, you know!” Akira pressed, heatedly.

    The boy let out an amused snort and made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. “I did give you fair warning. If someone tells you to get out of the way, you get out of the way. It’s simple survival instinct...which I guess you don’t seem to have.” He grinned unpleasantly as he leaned in towards Akira’s angry face, an unpleasant light in his green eyes. “If you can’t understand a concept that simple than how did you even make it into a school like this?”

    Akira was about to shoot back with a retort of his own when Terry sighed and put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. This kid was being an entitled, arrogant asshole, cartoonishly so, but this whole argument was stupid and pointless. “Come on, Akira.” he said. “This guy isn’t worth it.”

    At that the boy swung his unpleasant gaze over to him. “And who the hell do you think you are, huh?!” he demanded crossly. Evidently a nerve had been touched.

    Akira’s expression immediately lightened. “Heh, if you only knew.” he said as a sly grin split his face. Immediately Terry felt a sinking sensation within his stomach; that grin on his friend’s face was never a good sign. “My friend Terry here’s much, much more of a man than you’ll ever be! A prick like you’s nothing compared to him!” Terry glowered at him in an attempt to get him to shut up, but Akira wasn’t paying attention at all. He was a good friend, but he also had a very habit of running his mouth like he was doing right now, oblivious to the trouble it stirred up.

    And unfortunately the pompous boy was dumb enough to swallow the bait hook, line, and sinker. “Oh, so you think you’re hot shit, do you?!” he growled, switching over to glower at Terry instead, his beef with apparently completely forgotten. Terry tried to say that he hadn’t done a single thing, but he wasn’t listening. “Well, ‘Terry’ - isn’t that a girl’s name by the way? - if you knew who I was you wouldn’t act like a hotshot, you’d think differently. You’d show respect.”

    “I don’t really care who you are.” Terry replied coolly, trying to keep his exasperation from showing. What the hell was up with this kid? “The only thing I care about right now is getting to homeroom before the bell rings.”

    “You’re holding us up.” added River, who up until this point had been taking the high road by remaining silent. “And you’re causing a scene.”

    This was true. By now a small knot of people had formed as students struggled to wriggle past the four of them standing in the middle of the bridge while a few others had stopped to watch the argument unfold. Annoyed grumbling drifted through the air as people found themselves stymied by the resulting congestion, bags being jostled and uniforms scuffed. The boy’s eyes roamed the crowd, narrowed, then he let out a small grunt of annoyance and turned around, though not before looking sidelong over his shoulder and pointing back. “My name’s Vincent Cray!” he barked. “Don’t forget it, ‘cause I’m not done with you yet!” With that he kicked off and skated away, weaving somewhat haphazardly through the other students ahead of him until he disappeared from sight.

    “Thanks a lot.” Terry muttered darkly to Akira as they and River resumed their walk.

    “Well it’s true right?” Akira responded, completely brushing off the attitude. “If he knew who you really are, heck, who all of are, he’d shit his pants!” Terry just rolled his eyes, physically this time. It was useless to argue when he got like that.

    “There was no point in speaking to him at all.” River replied evenly. “You should’ve simply ignored him entirely.”

    “It’s a guy thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Akira said breezily as they stepped off of the bridge and onto the school grounds proper. The building, large and bright in the morning sun, lay ahead, its archway as grand as ever. “You don’t just let a guy step to you like that, it’s all about honor.”

    “That’s the last thing I want to hear from you right now!” Terry snapped.

    “Oh, I think I understand plenty.” River replied, her eyes cold. Akira didn’t seem to notice and started humming to himself, clearly pleased at his performance even if no one else was. Terry shook his head and muttered something under his breath. What they said about not being able to choose your friends was certainly true...

    What Vincent meant by his final outburst eventually became clear around lunchtime. During the warmer months of the school year Marine Cove Academy allowed its students to have lunch outside on the campus, and as the day remained clear and balmy most took advantage of this privilege, and the school grounds were packed with students seated at picnic tables or on the grass while sailboat frolicked on the water and the skyscrapers of the North Side caught the afternoon sunlight invitingly. But Terry and his friends weren’t exactly enjoying this momentary oasis in the middle of their busy day.

    “I really can’t believe this!” As always Akira was the one being the most outspoken. “How the hell can Mr. Pashni expect us to complete all those worksheets by Monday, on top of everything else we have to do, including what he assigned us this morning for Earth Sci?! It’s like he thinks his classes are the only ones we take here!”

    “You know, I think this time I actually agree with you.” Terry said before swallowing a mouthful of his lunch’s side dish - mint peas, brain food, he suspected. The lengthy packet of worksheets that they had just received in Physics would at least blend in with the one they had gotten earlier in Pre-Col. Mathematics, but their Earth Science and World History packets, while substantially thinner, were composed entirely of short-answer questions. When one of their classmates had asked their history and homeroom teacher why that was, Ms. Fencen had replied with a knowing smile that the school wanted to see some thought put into their answers. Multiple choice would be too easy to speed right through.

    River didn’t chime in as she was too busy leafing through one of said packets as she ate, and instead it was the fourth person at the table with them who spoke next. “At least we have a study hall next.” Karen said, trying to be reassuring. “I think the reason why we have so much work is so that we’ll all work on it together.”

    Karen Emerage was one of their two homeroom classmates that Terry and Akira interacted with the most, the other being the aspiring athlete Bar. She was a friend, but Terry wouldn’t go so far as to call her a close one as like many of the other students he barely ever interacted with her outside of school. He couldn’t help but compare and contrast her with River. Both of them were low-key individuals, but while River was heavily introverted Karen was more timid, though not to an extent that he’d call her a shrinking violet, and she was generally pretty cheerful and eager once she got into the swing of a conversation. Her countenance was more open-eyed than River’s more serious, sharp look, and she also had short, nape-length brown hair compared to River’s longer blond look. Terry almost never saw Karen without the white bell hat with the fish emblem on her head.

    “I guess...” Akira sighed, looking down at his food with a beaten look that was almost comical. “It’s just not fair that we have that guy for two classes...and who knows what Mr. Matthews is gonna give us before we can go home...”

    “Well, we probably won’t have him after this year.” Terry said.

    “True. We won’t be in the same classes either anymore though...”

    Before Terry could respond to that he noticed a particular student picking his way through the crowd a little ways away, come to a stop, look in their direction, and then striding purposefully towards their table. After what had happened this morning the sight of another unknown boy approaching him filled Terry with another sinking feeling. Sure enough, he came right up to them.

    “Hey, your name’s Terry, right?” he asked. His arms were crossed and he had a sour expression on his face.

    “Yeah, so?” Terry answered, not bothering to hide his annoyance this time. He could already guess who had sent this kid here.

    “Vincent wants to see you after school.” the boy replied. “Four o’clock, Seabrook Green. Be there.”

    “For what?”

    “Whaddaya think?” the boy asked, his sour expression breaking into a very familiar-looking smirk. He balled one of his fists and slammed it into an open palm. “To settle things.”

    Oh my god... Terry wanted to say, and wondered for the umpteenth time what the heck was wrong with that Vincent kid. Was his pride really that fragile? Was he really that boneheaded and stupid? Seriously, where did he get off on acting like that? But before he could put those thoughts into words Akira suddenly spoke up again: “No problem!” he declared, immediately perking up. “He’ll be there, right?” He gave Terry a little nudge in the arm. “Right?”

    Terry gave him a look that, in a fair and just universe, would’ve caused him to evaporate on the spot. But unfortunately this wasn’t a just universe and the the damage had already been done. The boy grinned once more and folded his arms again. “Good.” he said, as if Terry actually had agreed to the thing. “You better not puss out, you hear me?”

    “What was that about?” Karen asked, perplexed, as the boy sauntered off in another direction.

    Terry sighed. “Just some asshole we ran into this morning. Thinks I disrespected him thanks to this guy here.” He cast another unhappy glare at Akira.

    “What’s the big deal?” Akira asked as he sliced off a slice of his steak with renewed vigor. “Come on, we both know that guy was just full of hot air. You can take that guy easy, and after you do he’ll be scared shitless of you! You’ll teach him a lesson and he’ll never bother you again, it’s win-win!”

    “And the only reason I’m in this mess at all is because of you!” Terry hissed, not following that logic at all. It was useless to lecture Akira on the fact that he hadn’t studied martial arts just so he could beat people up.

    “I still don’t understand.” Karen said, clearly confused by the squabble. “What exactly is going on here?”

    “Now I’m stuck fighting some guy I just ran into this morning over the dumbest shit imaginable thanks to this guy right here!” Terry tried to keep himself from shouting at her in his exasperation. “And no, that’s not a good thing at all!” he snapped at Akira. “I don’t even know where Seabrook Green is...”

    “Oh, uh, I know where it is,” Karen said slowly, eyeing him warily with her brown eyes. “I pass by there everyday.” When Terry and Akira returned blank stares she elaborated. “It’s near the Pereis Park neighborhood, where I live.”

    Terry had heard of that area, though it was one of the places in Marine Cove that he still had yet to visit himself. Pereis Park was primarily a residential neighborhood near the waterfront. Rather well-off, from what he had gathered, which was confirmed by Akira’s low, impressed whistle. “What do your parents do?”

    “Well, actually, my parents divorced when I was little.” Karen said. “I live with just my dad.”

    “Oh. Sorry...” Akira trailed off, looking uncomfortable.

    “Oh no! It’s okay, it’s no big deal at all!” Karen said hastily, almost jumping out of her seat in her rush to reassure him. “My dad works at a big software firm that’s near here.”

    That made Terry realize that the only one sitting at the table here that had a full family was Akira, and even then they were off in another country. River’s parents had disowned her when they had discovered that she was a Stargazer, while his own father had died before he had been born. His mother was not part of his life. She was an astrophysicist who worked for the Space and Atmosphere Research Association, or SARA, up on Heion, Lagoon’s improbably-habitable moon. His only memory of her was from when he was very little, of a dark-haired woman saying goodbye to him and his uncle, his current legal guardian, at an airport terminal. His mind darkened at recollecting that memory. His family situation wasn’t something he liked talking about, and even now the only person that he had fully disclosed it to was River...

    The five-minute warning bell rang out across the grounds and he quickly shoved the memory and his annoyance at Akira and Vincent aside so that he could focus entirely on finishing his lunch. He’d have plenty of time to stew over all of that after this ill-advised rendezvous that he had been volunteered for.

    When the bell for dismissal rang at three in the afternoon the halls that had only moments ago been silent were immediately filled by the loud, massive crush of students filing out of their classrooms and making their way to their lockers and then to wherever they needed to go after school. Karen ended up stopping by one of the bathrooms before heading home, feeling quite tired. The week was only half over, and already they had a mountain of work to get through, enough so that it looked like even the weekend was not going to be the brief reprieve from school it usually was. Her bag thumped heavily on the floor when she set it down inside one of the stalls; all those workbooks they had been given had a combined weight that surely rivaled one of those old telephone books, and she wondered why, with how much money and prestige the school supposedly had, it hadn’t pushed to invest more in electronic textbooks. At least then she wouldn’t have to carry around so much.

    Perhaps, she thought as she did her business, she should ask Terry and the others about staying after school sometime this week or getting together over the weekend to form a study group. They had worked together some during their study period, and while it would be a stretch to say that they all had truly enjoyed it, she had found it a lot easier to work as a group. Instinctively she reached down into her bag to retrieve her phone, then remembered that she didn’t actually know any of their numbers. In fact, she had never asked for them, nor had they ever volunteered the information. Now that she thought about it, neither she nor they had ever really suggested that they meet outside of school, despite the fact that they frequently spoke with each other during homeroom and lunch...

    While she was looking at her phone those morose thoughts were suddenly pushed back by the sound of the bathroom door bumping against the wall as it was carelessly thrown open and she heard a loud, irritated voice start to fill the empty room: “God that guy is such a dumbass! I mean, take a hint, y’know?”

    “Yeah, all the boys in my class are like that too, always thinking with their dicks. You wanna smoke?”

    “Are you blind? There’s a detector right above your head! Save that for when we get outside. ‘sides, my dad’s gonna freak if I come home with my uniform smelling like cigarette smoke again!”

    “Hey, you got the text from Bridgett about Friday night, right? You guys goin’?”

    “Hell yeah I am! This week’s been such a drag so far. I need to just, let off some steam, have some fun, y’know?”

    As the conversation began to elaborate further on the party that they were looking forward to Karen sat up straight, leaning away from the stall door separating herself from the three girls and feeling a growing sense of unease within her. From the way they were talking she could guess what type they were: the bored, self-absorbed, well-off partygirls who treated their school life like it was a chore. Before coming to Marine Cove Academy she had gone to a small private school that had been much smaller, so she hadn’t been prepared for how different one so large could be and what that did to the social dynamics, especially when money and social status entered the equation. She had been put off from day one by how catty some of the other girls in her grade could be and had done her best to stay away from the cliques and their unpleasantness. The ideas for “having fun” that some of the girls had, really just the usual acts of disgruntled teenage rebellion, were completely foreign ideas to her. She just did not have the personality or nature for those sorts of people, and her desire to avoid them had resulted in her social circle being confined mainly to her classmates in homeroom, and even then, as she was just now realizing, it wasn’t very large or deep.

    Karen wished that the girls would leave on their own, but as their chatter went on and they showed no signs of leaving it became obvious that they had come in here just to talk and gossip. Eventually she had no choice but to announce her presence to them when she flushed her toilet and stepped out of the stall. “Excuse me.” she muttered quietly as she went to wash her hands. She was acutely aware of how the girls had gone silent the moment she had revealed herself, of how they looked as she had imagined - glossy makeup, elaborately styled hair, looks of boredom - or of how they seemed to be silently sizing her up.

    “You’re from class 1-13 with Ms. Fencen, right?” one of them eventually asked. Karen recognized her voice as the one who had made the comment about letting off steam.

    “Y-Yes.” she replied warily.

    “Yeah, I’ve seen you before...” the girl continued, getting up from the sink she had been leaning on and taking a few looping, lazy steps towards her. Her friends were looking on, exchanging an amused glance that didn’t seem to bode well. “Can I ask you a question?”

    “What?” Karen had a bad feeling about this.

    The girl put a hand on the sink she had been using and leaned forward. “Why are you always hanging out with those boys?” she asked.

    Karen realized that she must be referring to Terry, Akira, and Bar. “They’re my classmates,” she replied, starting to feel a little sick as she realized where this was about to go. “and my friends.”

    “Reeeaaaallly?” The leader began to grin. “I don’t think that’s the case, I know what you really do with them! Isn’t that right?” She glanced back at her two friends, who snickered. “Yeah, we know aaaallll about it!” one of them declared, sharing the same malicious grin while the other smirked, raised a closed fist and made a crude, demonstrative gesture that made Karen reel as if she had been physically slapped in the face.

    The leader flashed a grin back at her friends then turned back towards her target. “You put on this innocent and pure act, but behind closed doors you’re just a dirty slut, aren’t you?” she said accusingly. “You have them wrapped right around your finger as your little harem, don’t you?”

    “Wh- That’s not...” Karen just stood there, blindsided. She couldn’t do it, she just couldn’t process why someone would get the urge to say something so untrue and ugly to her. “Y-You’re...” She could barely get a fragment past her lips, and her tiny voice immediately died as the other two girls giggled in perverse amusement.

    “That’s not true?” the leader quipped. “Okay, then why don’t you tell us just how many other guys you’ve sucked off? How many you’ve screwed? Come on, admit it you slut!”

    “I-I haven’t!” Karen managed to gasp in a strained voice. “Why are you saying -”

    “’Why are you being so mean?!’” one of the girls cut her off in a cruel parody of her frantic, weak voice that made the other snicker even louder. The lead bully looked back at her friends, grinned again, then suddenly lashed out and swiped Karen’s hat right off of her head. “And what’s with this thing?” she taunted, twirling it around on her finger. “This thing’s so ratty and used; I guess it fits you then! I know where it belongs...” Her eyes drifted over towards the bathroom’s trash receptacle.

    “Give that back!” Karen begged, making a frantic grab for it.

    “Nope!” the girl grinned, pulling it out of reach. “Here!” she flicked the hat off of her finger and towards one of her friends, who squealed as it sailed into her hands.

    “Ew, gross! It’s probably stained with all sorts of gunk! What if it’s got lice all over it too?! I don’t wanna catch anything!” She launched it towards the third girl.

    “Please! Just...stop!” Karen pleaded, trying and failing to hold her emotions back. She felt small and helpless, and just couldn’t comprehend why...

    “You want this back that badly?” the lead bully asked, the hat back in her hands and being held over her head. “Well then, what should we make you do...”

    “Leave her alone.”

    None of them had heard the door opening, but Karen immediately recognized the voice. She turned her head and saw River standing in front of the closing door, coolly taking in the scene before her.

    “You’re one of her skank friends?” one of the two other girls asked leeringly, but River ignored the bait. She stepped forward and moved in between Karen and the bullies.

    “I said to leave her alone.” she repeated, her voice low and cool. “Give her back her hat and get out of here unless you want me to report you.” As she was speaking Karen could see in one of the mirrors her face and the intent, piercing stare of her blue eyes. The leader looked taken aback, unused to someone standing up to her, but then her face quickly contorted.

    “What makes you think you can talk to me like that, bitch?!” she growled, raising her arm as if to strike. But as she swung River seemed to effortlessly catch her wrist mid-slap, eliciting a gasp of surprise from the bully. She gritted her teeth in defiance but quickly wilted under River’s glare. She tore her arm free and stalked out of the bathroom with a grunt of anger, posse in tow, but not before taking the time to throw the hat on the floor as she left.

    When they were gone and the door swung shut again River bent down to retrieve Karen’s had, brushed it off, then held it out. “Here.” she said. “Are you okay?”

    “Y-Yeah,” Karen said quietly as she took it back. She was trying to control herself, for the last thing she wanted to do was to break down in front of her classmate. “I don’t even know who they are...”

    “They’re just looking for a victim.” River replied, her gaze and voice softening a bit.

    “I know...” Karen sighed. “Thanks for getting this back.” she said as she put her hat back on and adjusted the brim to how she liked it. “It’s very special to me.”

    “You’re welcome.” River went over to wash her hands, Karen’s eyes still on her. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened to her. Last year, before River had joined their class, there had been a riot in the city that had been instigated by a Stargazer, and the following day Bar had gone on an anti-Stargazer tirade in class. It hadn’t been right, it hadn’t been fair, and so she had tried to speak up against him only for him to turn on her in his anger. That was when Terry had gotten up from his desk and stood up for her, silencing Bar with a few words and later getting him to apologize to her. She’d never told him, but that action had really touched her, and since then...

    And now another member of his small circle of friends had come to her rescue during a similar situation. Karen had always wondered about River, as all she really knew about her was that she was also a member of that same special program that Terry and Akira were, the one that they never seemed eager to talk about. Though while they at least were willing to talk about themselves, River wasn’t. All Karen knew about her on that front was that she was from overseas. But still, the way she carried herself and the way she had dealt so easily with those bullies just now... She had inner strength, a strength that Karen found herself admiring because she herself didn’t have any. She realized that she was feeling the same sense of warm relief that Terry had given her...

    “Um,” she began as River withdrew her hands from beneath the sink’s automated facet head and stepped over to the hand drier. She had to say a little more, something. “Is Terry still meeting with that guy after school?”

    River waited until the drier’s roar had subsided before answering. “Yes.” she said, giving a brief shake of her head to show her disapproval. “It’s so stupid.”

    Karen didn’t say anything to that, not knowing the full story behind this supposed fight. But then, before she had given much thought to the matter, she found herself saying “Hey, can I come with you guys?”

    “What for?”

    “Well,” Karen thought for a second. “Terry said that he didn’t know where Seabrook Green was. I can show you guys where it is since it’s practically on my way home anyway.”

    The other girl shrugged. “If you want to, I won’t stop you.” She started to head for the door and Karen quickly splashed some water on her face before following her out. She had spoken on the spur of the moment, but perhaps this was her chance to learn more about her tight-lipped classmates, even if it was only a little.

    Karen’s home of Pereis Park was a pleasant neighborhood blocks away from Marine Cove’s waterfront that consisted mainly of small parks and mid-and-high rise condominium complexes. Despite their number the neighborhood had been planned to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible such as wide roads and strategic placing of buildings so that the neighborhood wasn’t constantly cast in shadow, buildings the color of limestone and sandstone that were built in a style that was ornate without becoming ostentatious, and plenty of sidewalk planters containing many different types of ferns and flowers that gave the place an almost tropical look reminiscent of southern Darlsine, especially now that it was nearing the end of spring and summer was just over the horizon. As she led her companions from the monorail station Karen had to agree with River. Having a fight here wasn’t just stupid, it felt wholly inappropriate.

    “Here it is.” she said, pointing at the familiar archway that marked the entrance to the park once they had crossed a busy thoroughfare. Seabrook Green was a long, curving green mall that served to demarcate the boundary between Pereis Park and the waterfront’s business center.

    “Thanks.” Terry said as his eyes roamed over the line of green that expanded before them. Obviously he had shared River’s assessment of the situation, that much was clear from his attitude whenever Akira had made reference to it, but evidently it was not strong enough to ignore the whole deal entirely. Before he had left school he had even changed into his gym uniform; better to wear that than to get his uniform dirty. “Are you going to stick around for this, or go home?” he asked her.

    “I...guess I’ll stay.”

    “Good choice.” Akira said, smirking in a manner that was eerily similar to the way those bullies had. Terry chose to ignore him and uttered an unenthusiastic “Let’s go find this Vincent guy or whatever...”

    As they walked down the main path Karen noticed that Terry’s expression lightening a bit as he surveyed the mall. He had a particular fondness for green, natural spaces, Karen had picked up during the time she had known him, and this mall had built with the intention of providing a nice oasis in the middle of the city. The mall was wide enough that the sound of the rushing traffic on either side was reduced to soft, rolling noise in the background like ocean waves lapping at a beach, and the path was spruced up with fountains and public art projects which were all done in a myriad of different styles, modern and old, the mishmash lending a neat degree of character. During this time of day there were many people out enjoying the clear weather: couples and families laying on the grass, children playing in the fountains or playgrounds while their parents looked on, students and adults off work early just passing through and relaxing after a busy day... Karen sympathized with River even more.

    But eventually a smarmy voice called out to them. “So, you decided to show up after all, huh?” A boy with swept blond hair standing over by one of the fountains strolled lazily out onto the path as they neared. “That’s him.” Terry muttered under his breath for Karen to hear. This Vincent had apparently had the same idea as Terry, for he was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jersey shorts instead of the Marine Cove Academy dress shirt and pants. Behind him stood two of his friends with their arms crossed, one of them being the one who had accosted them at lunch. With a start, Karen realized that they looked almost exactly like the three bullies from school; they might as well have been gender-swapped clones.

    “And you brought an audience with you too.” Vincent observed, throwing a quick look over Akira, River, and her. “Heh, suit yourself. Be all the more embarrassing when you lose.” His two toadies snickered sycophantically.

    “Keep talking!” Akira boasted, full of bravado. “Terry’ll kick your ass so quickly that-”

    “Well, is this where we’re going to fight?” Terry asked, cutting off his friend. His expression and tone had hardened again to what Karen remembered from the time he had talked down Bar. “Right in the middle of the pathway?”

    “Nah.” Vincent said, shaking his head. “Follow me.” He started walking off of the path and onto the grass, towards one of the athletic fields that dotted the green here and there. The one he was leading them towards appeared to be a softball diamond, as it looked like a normal baseball diamond save for the fact that there was no grass in the center; the entire infield was uninterrupted brown dirt that was fine and dry enough that his every step kicked up small clouds of dust. “This is where we’ll fight.” he announced once he had reached the center, planting a foot on top of the pitcher’s mound.

    Without comment Terry left his bag with the others at the edge of the grass and tromped out to the mound. “This is gonna be good.” Akira whispered in Karen’s ear. River stared ahead, saying nothing.

    “Last chance to apologize.” Vincent taunted as Terry took up his place opposite him. He was absentmindedly stirring the toe of his shoe in the dirt, stirring up even more dust, enough to almost completely obscure his feet. “Save yourself some pain.”

    “I have nothing to apologize for.” Terry said coolly, regarding his opponent. He sounded absolutely nothing like how he usually did in class. “I still don’t even know why you’re so bent on picking a fight with me, but if you keep on asking for it...” He flexed his fingers and spread his feet apart into a stance of readiness. “Let’s get this over with.”

    “Good.” The blond boy grinned menacingly. “On the count of three,” he said, crouching down into a ready stance of his own. “One...two...three!”

    As soon as the world “three” was out of his mouth Karen saw Vincent explode into movement, crossing the space between him and Terry in an astonishingly high speed. She stared, transfixed. She had never seen anyone move that quickly, and wondered for a moment if he was a member of the school’s track team. Beside her Akira’s look of confidence flickered ever so briefly, while River’s expressionless mask had cracked into a slight frown.

    Terry, however, seemed absolutely calm. With a deft flick of his feet he had moved out of the way of Vincent’s outstretched punch with the grace of a leaf dancing on the wind. Before he could let out even the slightest exclamation of surprise Terry’s fist slammed into his cheek from the side, the force of the punch making his legs crumple out from under him and his body crash to the ground, the impact kicking up an even larger cloud of dust. The “fight” had lasted only a few seconds.

    Vincent’s cronies had the pale, frozen looks of people who had just witnessed a horrific car accident. Akira started openly laughing at the outcome, but Terry was a little more sportsmanlike and went to his fallen foe, who was now sitting up and looking dazed. “H-How did you...” he began to gasp.

    “When you crouched you put the left side of your body forward, so it made the most sense that you would try hitting me with your right hand.” Terry explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re fast if you’re going to rely on a super-telegraphed move. Here.” He held out his hand.

    Vincent, however, angrily slapped it away. “Don’t touch me!” he snarled.

    “What the hell’s your problem?! I’m just trying to be a good sport!”

    “Take it and shove it!” Vincent spat, getting to his feet on his own and trying to futilely dust himself off. He stormed over to his friends, who were both looking a little scared and unsure, then turned and shouted “I’m not going to forget this, you better believe me!” as they beat a hasty retreat, pride and ego severely bruised.

    “Good riddance.” Terry muttered darkly as he headed back towards his friends. He didn’t look happy that he had won, just annoyed at the whole deal. River was still staring out after Vincent and his friends. That frown still on her face. Beside her, Akira was congratulating Terry as if he had just been awarded MVP of a sporting event, obvious to or ignoring the fact that he was completely turning the other cheek. He bent down to retrieve his own bag, slung it over his shoulder then as he straightened up he asked “Hm? Is something wrong? You look out of it.”

    Karen jerked suddenly when she realized that he was talking to her. “S-Sorry!” she stammered awkwardly. “Nothing’s wrong, I just zoned out just now, that’s all!”

    “That didn’t scare you, did it?” Akira asked, still smirking at the outcome, though it was disturbingly similar to the bullies’ smirks.

    “No, but I was surprised at how quick it was, you know?”

    “And thank goodness for that.” Terry sighed, then turned towards River. “You see something?” he asked, probably under the impression that she was looking at a bird or something.

    “It’s nothing.” River shook her head and quickly flicked her bangs from her eyes. She met Karen’s gaze and once more her voice and gaze softened a bit when she spoke. “Have a nice rest of your day.” she said. “We’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

    “Yeah, you too.” Karen said back to her. It was the first time River had ever addressed her like that, and it felt very different from how she normally acted. Perhaps she was trying to be nice because of what had happened earlier, she thought.

    The others said their farewells too and soon Karen was by herself again, following the familiar route home but with her head full of heavy thoughts. The cruelty that had been inflicted upon her, her savior, the fight she had just witnessed... Akira had been joking, but he had been somewhat right; what she had seen had frightened her, not because of the violence per se, but by the perpetration. It was as if he had been replaced by a wholly different Terrence Eaves that had none of the qualities that she had come to associate with the down-to-earth, good-natured, and humble classmate who had stood up for her. She had known that he practiced martial arts, everyone did, but in those brief seconds she had seen a side of him in action that she never had before, one capable of dishing out violence so effortlessly and casually... There was something lurking here that she had been entirely unaware of, and that was a deeply disquieting thought.

    I had a pretty hard time broaching the reintroductory stuff at the start until I hit upon using the discussion on class-up as a framing device to segue into it. Always remember to consider framing devices, they can be quite useful!

    As for the middle part of the chapter, it initially presented me with a slight quandary. Stargazer had mild swearing and violence, but not much in the way of vulgarity, so I wrote the first draft in a similar manner and the scene came out looking laughably neutered, so on my second I made it rather more explicit as to what the trio were getting at.

    Also it's funny. Marine Cove City is obviously supposed to be the Stargazer universe's equivalent of New York City from the way I write about it, but a lot of the locations are based off of Boston instead, as it's my hometown. While I haven't described it much, the neighborhood where Trident's dorm is located is based off of the residential streets of the Back Bay, the area where Nova and Auto confronted that drug dealer was basically a seedy Commonwealth Avenue, Nova lives in a neighborhood analoguous to Somerville, Seabrook Green from this chapter is basically an expanded version of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, and even the cafe Terry was at in that chapter where he learned of River's backstory was named after one near Downtown Crossing that I like visiting!
    ~Stargazer~, ~Distance~ original stories.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  3. #3

    Default Re: Distance

    Chapter 3: Plans for the Future
    “You beat someone up?” Daniel Centone said, dry incredulity in his voice.

    “No, I did not beat anyone up.” Terry grumbled with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “Akira’s making stuff up.” He was sitting down with his fellow dormmates to dinner in their dining room. Tonight the caterers from school had cooked up a stir-fry meal for them of noodles with chicken and beef, red, green, and orange peppers, carrots cut into strips julienne-style, broccoli, and snow peas, all sauteed in sesame oil and with soy and peanut sauce on the side. It tasted and smelled quite delicious, and its scent wafted from the adjacent kitchen and the buffet-style serving area over by the far wall.

    “What actually happened,” he corrected. “is that some dumbass at school tried to pick a fight with me, and thanks to this guy,” He jerked a thumb at Akira, who still had an expression of self-satisfied contentment on his face. “I couldn’t back out of it.”

    “He settled it in one blow!” Akira said excitedly, motioning with his fork for emphasis. “You should’ve been there!”

    Daniel’s eyes darkened behind his glasses. Terry knew that this was coming, knew that he would disprove of what he had done. Daniel was the nephew of Trident’s administrator, Mr. Gerald Centone, and though he was neither a Stargazer or an official member of Trident he lived in the same dorm building and was privy to most of what went on concerning them. Out of the three first-year boys he was the most studious and was a stickler for the rules, though there had been a few times when they had managed to sway him into more brash behavior but this was not going to be one of those times.

    “If one of the faculty members saw you, you would’ve gotten in very serious trouble.” Daniel said in reproach before taking a sip of his drink and resuming when he had finished. “Marine Cove Academy has a zero-tolerance policy regarding student altercations of any sort. I know that my uncle would be quite upset if he knew.”

    “Relax!” Akira said, trying to placate his companion. “We weren’t anywhere near school grounds! We’re not stupid, you know.”

    “Then why did you show up for this fight at all?” Daniel replied coolly, and Terry had to admit that he had no good answer to that question. Akira seemed to realize the corner he’d been backed into and didn’t say anything either, nor did River, who was continuing her silence apparently still being of the mind that this subject was not worth commentary. It was instead the fifth and final person at the table, Nova, who spoke up now. “Who was this kid?”

    Nova’s real name was Theodore Bown. He was the oldest of the group having recently turned 19 years old and was a year above Terry and the others at school, and he certainly looked it. His height and grim face coupled with his football player build and his strikingly-deep red, shoulder-length hair gave him an appearance that was easily intimidating at best, fearsome at worst. When Terry had first met him he hadn’t especially liked the older teen, but since then they’d developed a burgeoning sense of respect for one another. Though he could be very blunt, irritable, and often butted heads with Akira over trivial matters, Terry knew now that Nova was one of the most reliable allies he could have.

    “He said his name was Vincent Cray, I think.” he answered. “Blond hair, roller blades...”

    “Oh,” Nova said shortly, as if remembering something unpleasant. “Him.”

    “You know him?” Akira asked, voice muffled by a mouthful of noodles.

    “I know of him.” Nova sighed. “He’s in my grade, and not very popular outside of his circle of friends. Well, not friends exactly,” he corrected. “They’re more like toadies if you ask me.” He took a sip from his glass and then added, “Then again, he’s far from the only person at school who needs an attitude adjustment.” Nova was no doubt referring to how their school, given its exclusive nature, had a number of students from more affluent families which had resulted in a noticeable divide in the student body. Though there were of course numerous exceptions, most of the well-off students tended to stick together and form social circles and cliques separate from the rest of them. Some of them could be rather elitist, and while everyone in Terry’s homeroom got along just fine no matter where they were from, he had heard of occasional friction and confrontation between other students concerning their different backgrounds. This Vincent kid seemed to be one of them, he guessed.

    In the meantime, Akira reacted to Nova’s information with another laugh. “He was actually older than us?!” he exclaimed. “That’s even better!” Terry groaned inwardly; by the way he acted much of the time it was difficult to believe that Akira was actually the second-oldest of the group.

    “You need to be more focused on the end-of-term work instead of dragging your friends into fights!” Daniel lectured, pointing with his fork. “Have you figured out which classes you’re going to take next year?”

    “No, not yet.” Akira admitted, and Terry shook his head as well.

    “Well they need to be decided on and the forms turned in by the end of the week. You could’ve had them done today if you hadn’t gone on your little escapade.”

    “Yeah, yeah...” Akira muttered, slowly waving his hand dismissively. “Don’t tell me that you’ve already decided?”

    “In fact, I have.” Daniel said shortly, responding to his dormmate’s challenge. “I actually turned all my paperwork in to the registrar’s office yesterday.” Akira made a noise of exasperation and got up with his plate to get seconds from the serving area. It didn’t take him long to come up with another topic of conversation, though.

    “So hey,” he began brightly when he sat back down. “You all got any special plans for the summer?”

    “Aren’t you jumping the gun a bit?” Nova remarked. “It’s only the first week of May.”

    “So? I’m tired of talking about school all the time, and vacation’s gonna be here before we know it.” Akira countered, throwing Daniel a look that read “don’t rain on my parade” as he did so. “Anyway, it’s something to look forward to, something that’ll get us through these dark, academic times!” This made Terry smile a little bit; compared to before, this was the sort of enthusiasm he liked to see in his friend.

    Nova shrugged. “Okay then, what are you gonna do?”

    “Well, I’m still thinking.” Akira said, a little defensively. “Back home summer vacation is only like a month so I’m not used to having so much. But my exchange program has special provisions, so I can stay in the city over break without making my parents wonder what happened to me.”

    Ah, that was right, Terry thought. He hadn’t thought about it until now, but when the school year came to an end it would be expected that he would return home to Rentune for the duration of the break. Nova and Daniel were already from the city, their families being aware of their Trident-related activities, while River had no one to go back to, Mr. Gerald being her legal guardian now, but what was he going to do?

    Daniel, however, had already guessed what he was about to ask. “Don’t worry.” he said. “Marine Cove Academy has a couple of summer programs for its students; I’m sure my uncle can write up some official-looking documentation to send to your home. It’s not like Lifeline’s going to just keep you here though; you’ll be free to spend your summer however you like as long as nothing crops up that we’ll need you for. I...I’m actually a little jealous,” he admitted. “Even if there’re no incidents to take care of Lifeline still pays you guys, so you can afford to have a lot of free time.”

    “It’s not like they let us have much of it.” Akira replied, referring to how their Lifeline pay was locked in accounts that they couldn’t access outside of their monthly stipends. “I guess I’ll fly home for a week or two.” he said. “Show my parents that I’m still alive, y’know?”

    “I guess I’ll do something like that too...” Terry said absently, thinking. So much had changed for him since he had left home to come out here, so much that he couldn’t imagine anymore what it would be like to go back, to his old life.

    Next Daniel talked a little bit about a trip to Abelshire overseas that his family had planned for vacation, but when Akira asked Nova and River if they had any specific plans both of them answered noncommittally. This apparently did not sit well with him.

    “Man, you guys are boring!” he declared, pointing accusing fingers at both of them. A look of annoyed consternation passed over River’s face which caused Akira to falter a bit, while Nova retorted, “It’s none of your business what my plans are, and ‘sides it’s not like you’ve got anything special planned!” which Terry thought was a bit uncalled for, but Akira didn’t flinch at this. Instead he slammed his hands on the table dramatically, causing all the silverware to rattle.

    “Fine then!” he said, a serious gleam in his eye. “If that’s what you think, then I’m going to take matters into my own hands!”

    “And how is that?” Terry asked, wary of any scheme his friend could conjure.

    “Simple!” Akira said, crossing his arms. “I’m going to do us all a favor and find something we can all do, together! Just you wait!”

    The following morning it came clear that he had been serious about that. Terry was sitting at his desk during the time before homeroom began, head sleepily resting on his arms, when Akira burst into the classroom with the energy of a dynamo. “I’ve got it!” he exclaimed, waving a flier over his head. Terry, River, and some of the other students in the quiet classroom gave him an annoyed glare and he quickly subdued himself as he made his way over to them.

    “Got what?” Terry asked sleepily, raising his head from the cradle of his hands.

    “What I was talking about last night!” Akira continued in a more discreet tone of voice. “C’mere, you should take a look at this too, River!” River looked up from her book somewhat reluctantly and came over to see what was up. Terry fully raised his head to read the flier that had been plopped down right in front of him. It was advertising the school’s annual end-of-year for the first-years, scheduled for the week after final exams for mid-June. His eyes flitted over the destination - the Morgana Islands - and within his drowsy brain he felt a spark of recognition.

    “Hey, didn’t we see an advertisement for this back in December, on the information board in the entrance hall?” he asked. “Remember? With Nova and Daniel?”

    “Yeah, we did.” Akira said, nodding in agreement. “I’d forgotten about it until last night when I was wracking my brain for something to do this summer. So, whaddaya say guys? Wanna go, wanna go?”

    The flier’s background graphic was of turquoise surf lapping at the shore of a white-sanded beach with emerald tropical trees and ferns visible in its curving distance. Even if it was just a stock photo the sight of it did certainly look appealing to Terry, having never been out of the country or even a real, honest-to-goodness beach before. The two-thousand yura fee wasn’t too bad considering he hadn’t spent much of his stipend recently, and a week in the tropics certainly felt like it would be worth it. His eyes reached the deadline for signing up at the bottom of the flier: the end of the current week, in other words, the day after tomorrow. “Geez, that’s not much time!”

    “Well as I said I only came up with the idea last night, so sue me!” Akira said in protest. “What do you think?” he asked, looking at River, grinning. “Sounds like fun, right?”

    “Maybe.” River gave a noncommittal reply as she scanned the flier herself. Terry figured that maybe she and the tropics didn’t mix very well given her fair complexion.

    “Don’t be like that!” Akira pressed, gesturing emphatically. “It’ll be the perfect place to relax, unwind, enjoy ourselves!” he insisted. “We’re young, we’ve gotta seize opportunities like this if we wanna make good memories to look back on later!”

    “Well...” she still looked unsure.

    “Akira’s right, it’ll be fun.” Terry said to her, encouraging her along. “I’m sure Mr. Gerald will OK it.” He obviously wasn’t about to say this in the middle of the classroom in front of everyone, but River had spent most of the year so far being confined to the dorm when not at school while the investigation into her former trafficking cell had been ongoing. Finally freeing herself from those shackles only to be placed under house arrest had not sat well with him, but their caretaker had campaigned for her and Lifeline had recently agreed to lift her imprisonment. He wouldn’t have put it in quite the same way as his excited friend had, but Akira was right; now that she was free of all of that it was precisely the time to for her to begin anew by discovering life again and replacing those old memories with new, brighter ones. “You should go for it; I think it’ll be a good decision.”

    “Well...” The at-a-loss expression Terry remembered from her first day at school reappeared on River’s face, and just like back then he couldn’t help but find it amusing. “All right.” she finally said. “I’ll go.”

    “Awesome!” Akira said happily, clapping his hands together. “I guess I’ll ask Daniel later if he’d like to come too, and maybe Nova too, I guess.” He put on a dubious look at the thought. “I bet he’ll be a killjoy about it though...”

    “Where are you going?”

    Terry recognized that as Karen’s voice and looked up to see that she had stopped on her way towards her desk in front of him. “Sorry!” she hastily added when she saw his eyes on her. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop!”

    “Don’t worry about it, it’s fine, it’s fine.” he assured her. She sure did seem to get jumpy around him, he thought. “We were just talking about signing up for the end-of-year trip, that’s all.”

    “The school trip?” Akira handed her the flier and her eyes roamed back and forth across it. “Oh, that sounds like fun...” she said absently.

    “Why don’t you come with us too?” Akira suddenly asked, taking everyone by surprise, Karen especially as her brown eyes went wide. “Trips like these are more fun the more people you’re with, right? The more the merrier and all.”

    “Are you...inviting me?” She sounded like she couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing still. It was very River-like in that regard.

    “Why not?” Terry suggested, shrugging in a friendly way. “I mean, if you want to, of course.”

    “I’m just surprised is all.” Karen insisted, though she needn’t have bothered given how obvious it was from the wideness of her eyes and the flushness at her cheeks. “But thanks, thanks a lot. I’d love to go if I can.”

    “Awesome!” Akira said again, grinning broadly. “The sign-up deadline’s Friday, kay? Don’t forget!”

    The bell for homeroom rang and everyone quickly started to shuffle back to their designated desks. Terry leaned forward and whispered, “That was nice of you.” to Akira before he left for his own.

    “Well yeah, I mean...yeah.” Akira scratched his head, looking a touch self-conscious now that the moment had passed. “Anyway, a tropical vacation can’t be complete without some cute girls, eh? You know what I mean, dont’cha?”

    “Oh, get back to your seat!” Terry hissed at his joker of a friend, though in an unmistakably playful manner. One day before Akira had annoyed the heck out of him, but now he was doing something nice for everyone. Vintage Akira. Still, he was right; trips were more fun with friends. A week-long stay on a tropical island with his classmates... That would definitely be something to look forward to.

    Karen felt positively aglow for the rest of the school day, giving her friends a hearty and heartfelt farewell at dismissal. A trip to the Morgana Islands with her friends... She was truly touched by their invitation, as she’d never done anything like that with her old friends from her old school. She still had good memories of them, but they had gradually drifted apart after starting high school as the usual drama began to creep into the picture. Marine Cove Academy still had plenty of that, as she knew firsthand, but it still represented the opportunity for a fresh start. She walked down the streets of Pereis Park humming in tune with the music playing on her smartphone; she liked Terry, Akira, and River. They were friendly, got along well despite the occasional argument, drama-free... Well, River was still somewhat distant, and the memory of Terry effortlessly slamming that boy to the ground still played in the back of her mind, but they weren’t bad people, they couldn’t be. More than anything else, she hoped that this trip would allow her to get to know them a little better.

    She arrived at the doors of the condominium complex where she and her dad lived, placing her phone over the card reader so it could scan her electronic resident’s ID and let her inside. She remembered this always making her feel self-conscious whenever she had had friends over as this was a more upscale neighborhood than most were used to, and needing an ID instead of a simple key to get inside one’s home definitely gave off a sense of exclusivity. Her condo was on the fifth floor just high enough to have a view out over the tops of most of the other buildings in the immediate area, though when she stepped inside the blinds were still drawn as they had been when she had left for school this morning. Late afternoon sunlight was filtering through the tiny gaps in between the slats, casting the spacious yet homey, upholstered living and kitchen areas in a muted golden light, illuminated dust motes drifting lazily through the air. She cast a habitual glance around the apartment, but naturally it was empty. Up a short flight of stairs and she was at her room, which was not as bright due to it facing away from the sun. Bed, closet with floor-length mirror on the outside, wardrobe, desk with closed laptop, bookshelf full of books, old textbooks, and magazines, vanity, posters of colorful coral reefs and schools of tropical fish, it was a pretty cozy space.

    She changed out of her uniform into something more comfortable, hung her hat on the back of her desk’s chair, and spent a few moments simply lying on her bed staring at the ceiling doing nothing but savoring this period of mental and physical inactivity after a busy day, then got up and decided to start tackling the pile of work that had been assigned to her. Aside from a few breaks to go to the bathroom down the hall or downstairs for a drink or snack from the kitchen she spent the next two hours working diligently at her desk, trying her hardest to put a dent in the workbooks she had received in class, switching from subject to subject as her mind tired of each. At around six-thirty her back was starting to get sore, so she finally decided to put her pen down, figuring that she had made a decent amount of progress for one night. As she stretched her arms above her head and arched her stiff back her ears caught the sound of the door to the apartment closing shut, followed by slow , tired rustlings of movement from below her. She got up and padded barefoot down the stairs and saw that the lights in the living room were now switched on, and a figure was resting inside the recliner, a freshly-opened bottle of beer sitting on the floor next to it.

    “Daddy?” Karen asked, stepping forward into the subdued light.

    The man opened his eyes and his tired features broke open into a smile. “Hey there.” he said, the chair creaking as he shifted upright inside it. “How’s my little girl doing?”

    “Is the expo over?” Karen asked, sitting down on the sofa across from him. She hadn’t seen her father much over the past few weeks; as a section chief at DuneTech he often worked long hours, whether scheduled to or not, especially when the projects he was working on were entering crunch time. This time of year the company was especially busy setting up and running their annual expo, which from what she understood were closed-door affairs for investors and potential clients. DuneTech was a pretty big name in the Founder States’ tech industry, so these expos were always a very big deal for them.

    “My part in it is at least, and thank goodness.” her father sighed. He took a sip of beer before further loosening his tie, as if he was too warm even in their comfortably climate-controlled apartment. “I tell management every year that I’m a programmer and overseer - I don’t have it in me to stand up on stage and speak to a bunch of suits for forty-five minutes but they never listen, and that’s on top of all the other headaches these shows bring.” He closed his eyes again and sighed. Karen could see that the lines under his eyes were especially deep tonight. “Anyway,” he continued, his eyes opening and his smile returning. “I’m over the hump now, and I stopped by Tessmaro’s on my way home as way of celebration. There’s a bag of macaroons with your name on it, so let’s talk more about our days over some dinner, ‘kay?”

    Said dinner considered of some meals fished out of the freezer and defrosted in the microwave, of which they had plenty as her father was often too tired to do any cooking when he got home, if he was home before nightfall at all. As they sat at the kitchen area’s small table over their steaming plates Karen listened to her father elaborate further on how his time playing spokesman had gone and how his assistant Manny was trying to handle the tasks that he had had to step away from in order to fulfill that role. “He’s a good kid,” he was saying, shaking his head in between bites. “I wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff I do without him, but he could definitely use a little more autonomy. Anyway,” His expression brightened. “How’s school been going for you lately? I hear they’re already prepping you for finals?”

    “Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it’s not too bad, I guess.” Karen said, shrugging non-committally. She talked a little more about classes, but there was no way she was going to bring up the altercation she had witnessed, nor the bullying she had been subjected to. That would just bring down the mood and embarrass her.

    Instead she remembered the flier in her bag upstairs. “Oh right, there’s something I want you to take a look at!” she said, and quickly got up from the table. When she came back she pressed the flier into her father’s hands before he could ask her what was up, and he held it up close to his face and squinted as he began to read it.

    “A week in the Morgana Islands...” he murmured as his squinted eyes roved up and down the page.

    “One of my friends invited me to come with them on the school trip.” Karen started to explain. “I can pay for it with some of the money I’ve made working at the pool, and -”

    “Who?” her father asked before she could finish.

    “Akira, one of my classmates.” she said. “You know, he hangs out with Terry and River. I’ve told you about them before, remember?”

    “Oh yes, yes you have...” he said in a vague way that made it clear that he didn’t really remember hearing about them. “Well, I...”

    “Can I go? Please?” Karen pressed, leaning on his shoulder expectantly.

    “Hm...” Her father put the flier down on the table and considered. He fixed her with a serious, parental stare before she could say anything. “Before I say whether you can go or not, there are two conditions. The first,” He held up a finger. “is that between now and the end of term you keep your grades up, alright?” Karen nodded energetically. Her grades were fine, and as long as she took the finals seriously maintaining them would be no problem. “The second,” her father said as he raised a second finger. “I know how some of these school trips can be, with kids being far away from parental supervision for the first time in their lives. I know that you’re eighteen and an adult, but I don’t want you doing anything down there that’ll result in me getting a call from the school. No underage drinking, getting wasted, anything like that, you understand?”

    “Oh course! I promise!”

    “Good, glad to hear it. You can go.” Her father smiled and patted her arm. “And don’t worry about the money, I’ll take care of it. I need to act like a father every now and then.”

    “Thank you so much, Daddy! I love you!” Karen happily exclaimed, throwing her arms around his neck in an impromptu hug.

    He patted her arms playfully. “Not so hard, not so hard! Don’t kill me before I can officially sign off on this, now.”

    “Sorry, I’m just really looking forward to this” Karen said, grinning as she disengaged and slid back into her seat at the table. This was exactly what she needed after the events of the day before.

    “I know you are, sweetie.” her father said, smiling as well. “Now let’s finish eating so we can start working on those macaroons, what do you say?”

    Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, Artemis was also having dinner with someone, though it was a much less pleasant meal than the one Karen and her father were having.

    “And how have your studies been going?” she asked her companion, who merely squirmed a bit in his chair.

    “It’s okay.” he replied flatly. “Nothing special.”

    Inwardly, Artemis sighed and figured that this must be what it was like to be the parent of a teenager. Here they were at a nice restaurant, and all her companion did was respond to her questions with these flat, laconic, and surly non-answers. “Are you at least going to tell me what happened to your face?” she decided to ask.

    At this Vincent cringed, a hand instinctively flying up to cover the white bandage stuck to his cheek, which didn’t fully manage to cover up the bruised purple skin underneath. “I told you, it’s nothing!” he insisted, eyes flashing. “Why do you care, anyway?! It’s not like you’re my mom or anything!”

    “No, I’m not.” Artemis replied coolly, her eyes flashing as well, which made Vincent cringe even more in his seat. “But I am your elder and I expect you to respect and take heed of what I have to say. And,” she added. “keep your voice down.”

    Vincent’s eyes moodily darted around the restaurant at the other dining patrons; most of them were absorbed in their own meals and discussions, but at least two other diners had been eyeing him with distaste, hurriedly looking away as they made eye contact with him and returning to their drinks. With a scowl ugly enough to curdle the soup sitting in front of him, Vincent finally relented. “Fine,” he muttered. “I got into a fight, okay?”

    “With whom?”

    “None of your business.”

    “It is my business.” Artemis replied coolly as she took a sip of her wine. Honestly, for a 19 year old he had all the stubbornness and immaturity of a kindergartner sometimes. “Allowing you to stay up here with your own apartment and stipend is a privilege that Father allows you. You’re here to study, not get into fights and cause scenes that will embarrass us. Father and Leon will be quite cross when they hear about this, I’m sure.”

    It was no surprise to her that Vincent caved at that, “I’ll tell your father!” was one of the oldest tricks in the book. “Fine,” he muttered again, a touch more toxic than last time. “It was with that Stargazer kid at school, Terrence Eaves or whatever!”

    Artemis put her glass down so quickly that the wine almost slopped over its rim. “Terrence Eaves?!” she hissed, suddenly beside herself with heated anger that she immediately tried to suppress lest she make a scene herself. How could be be so-?! “Do you have any idea what-”

    “So what?!” Vincent hissed back defensively. At least he was keeping his voice down. “It’s not like he was gonna use his powers on me! He’s just an unremarkable student without them, just like all the rest!”

    That wasn’t even worth responding to, and quite rich coming from him, Artemis thought. She sighed and put a hand to her forehead. “I can’t believe you.” she said. “Starting a fight is one thing, but why out of all the people at the academy you had to start one with someone from Trident? Just why?”

    “He stepped to me!” Vincent protested, but his voice was quickly regaining its deflated tone as he struggled futilely against the ridiculousness of his situation, and Artemis helped it along by skewering him with a cold glare.

    “Yes, and I can see how well that turned out for you.” she remarked, noting his bandage again.

    Vincent grimaced again. “He got lucky, that’s all! I’ll find a way to get him back for this, I swear!”

    “You will do no such thing.” Artemis declared, steel in her voice. This was exactly like dealing with a pampered child. “I will definitely be speaking to Father about this. You will spend the remainder of the school year focusing on your studies, and once you return to Portanga we will have to have a serious discussion about your behavior.” she said. Yes, that was exactly it, he was pampered and entitled. It would do him good to be given a wake-up call. Vincent tried opening his mouth to protest further, but another cold glare told him that she was not in the mood, and the discussion would proceed no further.

    Given the bad mood he had put her in, it was a relief to drop Vincent off at his apartment after dinner and returning to her hotel room at the Tri-Shore. Artemis indulged herself with a long shower, then after freshening up considered pouring herself another small glass of wine from her suite’s mini-fridge, but ultimately decided that that would be a bit decadent, especially given that she had another appointment to make before she could turn in for the evening. So instead she went around gathering up her materials and setting up her laptop’s videoconferencing program and waited. On the dot, the blank screen was replaced by a familiar face.

    “Good evening Art.” the man on the screen said, and Artemis smiled a bit. It was a welcome face to see after that tension-filled dinner, and she still found it endearing how he still referred to her by that nickname after all these years. “Good evening Leon.” she said, repeating his greeting. “Excuse my appearance - it’s been a long day.”

    “I’ll allow it.” Leon said, smiling slightly too in bemusement. “How has your stay in Marine Cove City been so far?”

    “On the whole it’s been productive, I suppose.” she replied. “I spoke with a few representatives from VistaCor and Helios Path at the DuneTech expo earlier this week; the latter says his company’s interested in partnering with us on the design of the next PX-67 spaceplane engine prototype, while Helios Path is looking for a manufacturing contract. I’ve already sent all the necessary information on to Father.”

    “Yes, the PX-67 project has been a hot topic at the board meetings.” Leon said, nodding. The PX-67 was one of AAI’s latest projects, a new model of spaceplane made from stronger yet lighter materials for stronger durability, longer operational life, and greater fuel efficiency. “Finding a partner that’s willing to share the costs will go a long way towards placating them.” A number of the board members had argued that the project wasn’t worth it, that the demand for spaceplanes had plateaued at present and that the money would be better spent elsewhere. That was shortsighted thinking, Artemis held, as industries could not thrive if they weren’t thinking towards the future, and in the aerospace field that was more true than ever.

    “Now then,” Leon said sternly after they exchanged a few more pleasantries regarding her stay in Marine Cove. “we need to discuss that other matter. Did you get it?”

    Artemis’s eyes narrowed. Here it was, the true purpose of her trip. She glanced over and looked at the small black thumb drive resting on the table beside the laptop, the one that had been surreptitiously slipped into her hand as she had walked from room to room. It was a dark speck standing out against the polished, immaculate glass.

    “I did obtain it.” she said calmly, feeling the gravity of that little device. What it contained was information on a major job that DuneTech had taken on in the past: designing and programming the cybersecurity systems presently being used by the Foundation State’s federal government. This included things like the federal reserve, military command centers, and the FSIIC. If their security systems were like a vast labyrinth, then this small thumb drive was the map: with the data contained inside one could crack the security and effortlessly access the main systems and the vast treasure trove of information stored within, regardless of how classified or protected it was and leave absolutely no trace. All the government’s secrets would be at one’s fingertips.

    ...but only in the most optimistic and, as it turned out, unrealistic scenario. While the thumb drive did contain quite a bit of useful information on DuneTech’s project, it didn’t have the complete library - the archive for those sorts of records being strictly classified, with only a few at the corporation having clearance, their inside contact not being among those few. Artemis told this to Leon, and he was nonplussed. “That’s not surprising.” he said. “We expected that after all. If they could be so easily penetrated than the government would never have hired them in the first place.”

    Artemis nodded. “We can use it as a stepping stone.” she replied. “I’ve already taken care of our insider.” As soon as she had received the drive and had verified its contents on her tablet she had arranged for the payment to be electronically processed. That money would serve as both the man’s reward and as his chain. In any case, they had already taken the appropriate measures to avoid the bribe being traced back to AAI if he happened to blab.

    “Good.” Leon said. He leaned back in his chair a little and clasped his hands together in front of him. “Father will be pleased that we’re another step closer to his dream.”

    His dream... Artemis pursed her lips as she thought about it. That was one way to refer to his plan, she supposed. Sometimes she found herself thinking that the word “obsession” would be a better fit, especially when Atlas had been working towards it for fifty years, just over half of one’s natural lifespan! When one had been working on one project for that length of time, she supposed that it stood to reason that one would be patient enough to bear having the wait extended just a little more.

    “Is there something wrong?” Leon asked, brow moving questioningly at her silence.

    “I’m just thinking.” she replied, before frowning a bit as her dinner with Vincent crept back to the forefront of her mind. “Well, there is one other thing that I need to mention.”

    “Oh? And what might that be?”

    “I also had dinner with Vincent earlier this evening.”

    “And how did that go?”

    Artemis felt her brow furrow. “It was like sitting across from a viper.” she said in summary. “He was in a foul mood because he picked a fight with another student at the academy and lost.”

    “I see.” Leon replied, his face impassive. “That’s not entirely surprising for a boy his age...”

    “That’s not the point!” Artemis said quickly, feeling her anger at the foolish boy rising to the fore again. “The boy he picked a fight with was Terrence Eaves, the Trident Stargazer!”

    At this Leon’s face went expressionless. Artemis knew that look; beneath that impassive exterior his mind was working fast to determine the web of scenarios that could branch out from that encounter and what the appropriate response would be to each one. It was a technique that he had had to hone early, and it had been what had caught Atlas’s eye and eventually elevated him to his position as his personal assistant. “Personally,” she said. “I believe he needs to be kept on a much shorter leash if he’s going to behave that way.”

    “That would be best.” Leon agreed, stirred from his thoughts. “More supervision would certainly curtail any further escapades.” Artemis nodded. She hadn’t been in the mood to press Vincent on the matter any further, but her fear, and no doubt Leon’s too, was the possibility that he hadn’t simply “just” fought Terrence Eaves, that by doing so he had caught Trident’s attention. She and Leon were both cued in to Lifeline’s network and dealings; they were both well aware of the accomplishments Trident had achieved already in their brief existence. Theirs was the type of scrutiny they did not want to deal with.

    “As for the matter of Trident themselves, I don’t believe we should be overly concerned.” Leon continued. “Yes, it was foolish of Vincent to antagonize them, but the odds of them being aware of us are slim. Powers aside, they are simply teenagers like any other, and the scope of Trident’s jurisdiction is very small in the scheme of things.”

    “That’s true.” Artemis admitted, seeing the logic in her companion’s words. “Vincent’s foul mood probably just put me on edge.”

    “No, it’s fair that you’re concerned.” Leon replied, his voice and expression softening as they had when he had greeted her. “I’m sure the trip and attending the expo has taken a lot out of you.” he said gently. “You’re not scheduled to fly back until the day after tomorrow, yes? Get a good night’s sleep tonight and spend tomorrow relaxing, Art. I’ll take care of everything on my end, so don’t worry.”

    Artemis allowed herself to smile. Yes, Leon was right, she was just tired and had let Vincent get to her. She recalled the advice that her driver had given her upon her arrival and figured that he had a point: their work, both legitimate and not, was quite important, but so was the health of her mind and body. A day all to herself sounded like it was exactly what she needed.

    Leon noted her softening expression and smiled himself, looking fondly at her image on his side of the computer screen. They didn’t need to exchange any further words. “Well then,” he said. “Have a nice night Art, and we’ll talk again when you return.”

    “Thank you.” Artemis said warmly. “Have a good night as well, and tell the others that I said hello.”

    “I will. Good night.” Leon leaned forward, hand reaching for a key just outside the camera’s field of vision and the display went dark. Artemis leaned forward herself and clicked out of the program, then leaned heavily back in her chair, eyes closed and still smiling softly. Leon was always keeping her in mind, ever since they met what felt like so long ago, and she deeply appreciated it. Perhaps a splash of wine was in order after all to ease her into a deep and restful sleep after a long, busy day.

    Excerpt 2: On Stargazers 2
    The combined populations of both Lagoon and Heion are 7.3 billion, yet out of all that teeming mass of humanity, there are only 217 currently-active Stargazers cataloged by SPHERE. However, it is estimated that the actual Stargazer population is closer to three-hundred when one factors in those who have either slipped through the cracks, have yet to be identified, or simply hide their powers from discerning eyes.

    Regardless, it cannot be stressed that the odds of any one person becoming a Stargazer are incredibly low. It is two-thousand times more likely that a person will be struck by lightning at least once in their lifetime than becoming a Stargazer. The vast majority of the human race will go about their lives never once seeing or meeting another Stargazer face to face.

    Whichever sex, gender, orientation, age, or nationality one identifies as has no bearing on whether or not they become a Stargazer.

    Despite their rarity, there is one thing that is certain: whenever someone becomes a Stargazer, they will always come into contact with more. This is mainly due to how SPHERE and Lifeline prefer to keep them close together both to provide familiarity and ease of surveillance, but some speculate that Stargazers are intrinsically drawn to one another, as if yearning to be around others of their own kind...

    Terry should probably start picking up the pace if he wants to keep his status as the main character. Something's going to actually happen at some point, I promise!
    ~Stargazer~, ~Distance~ original stories.
    3DS Friend Code: 2234-8294-8917

  4. #4

    Default Re: Distance

    Another six months (??!!) another chapter of Stargazer: Slice of Life Edition.

    Chapter 4: Arm's Length
    As the month of May continued to pass by Terry and his classmates found their workload increasing exponentially as they got closer and closer to the end-of-year exams. By now their time at school consisted entirely of review work, and they had even more of those seemingly-endless review workbooks to work on outside of school, to the point where he was starting to wonder if he’d even be able to lift his bag if he put all of them in at once. He, Daniel, Akira, and River had pretty much taken over the dorm’s rec room after school and they spent much of their evenings doing more review work, both together and silently depending on the mood and difficulty of the material. The mess that formed on the floor’s center over the weeks, pages of literary criticism, math formulas, work and review sheets, scribbled notes, open textbooks, and empty candy wrappers and potato chip bags were truly becoming a sight to behold, to the point where one could tell who sat where by the sort of detritus that was left behind. They didn’t see much of Nova; he spent most of his time at the dorm locked inside is own room, absorbed in his own studies. He never joined the others in their study sessions, for as a second-year he had a completely different curriculum. Even Akira was buckling down and attacking his studying without a word of complaint, though Terry did notice that he hadn’t said a single word about next year’s class sign-up after they had submitted their applications; odd, but they did have more pressing things to attend to at the moment. Terry was glad that no Stargazer business popped up to interrupt them, and as their final study session drew to a close late in the evening on Sunday May 31, the day before exams were to start Akira dramatically threw down his pencil and all but collapsed on the adjacent sofa.

    “Almost there...” he sighed. “One more week, and then I don’t have to care anymore.”

    “Same here.” Terry replied, imagining that he looked just as exhausted as he felt. When the following morning rolled around he didn’t feel like he was fully rested, but this was probably going to be the most ready he was going to be. When he and his friends arrived at school that morning the entire student body definitely felt more subdued than usual, with more than a handful sporting caffeinated zombie looks. For the final full week of school the schedule was laid out differently than normal; after each homeroom period they had an hour-long block of free time for last minute review/study/cramming before being handed their materials for the day’s exam and spending the next several hours working on it right up until lunch, and after gulping down their food it was back to the classrooms for the second half of the exam, which they worked on straight up until dismissal at three.

    That was the shape of their existence for five days straight, and after the brutal math exam on Thursday Terry was relieved that their final exam was History, his favorite subject. He breezed through that one and spent the last forty-five minutes of the school year with his head resting on his desk, dozing peacefully. “And now I can finally stop caring!” Akira declared once they had finally been dismissed and a joyous cheer had reverberated throughout the entire building. “Summer vacation! Finally!”

    “I hear you loud and clear.” Terry said happily, feeling both relieved and proud that he’d managed to make it through his first year at Marine Cove Academy. They were still going to have to come in for a few hours on Monday, but from what he understood it was only a formality really. After that there would be nothing on the horizon; no schoolwork, no Trident missions, no obligations. They could relax.

    “And you know what else?” Akira added, grinning. “This Wednesday’s the day that we’re scheduled to fly out to the Morgana Islands!”

    Terry had pushed the trip to the back of his mind during the exam crunch time. “Oh yeah,” he commented as they were heading out towards their class’s lockers, something easier said than done as they had to go against the general flow of the crowd in the hallways. “I suppose I should do some shopping this weekend.”

    “For what?”

    “A pair of swimming trunks, travel bags, toiletries, that sort of thing.” he replied. “I’ve never really gone on a trip like this before.”

    “You’ve never gone on vacation before?”

    “As I just said, not like this.”

    “I see.” Akira commented. “I guess I could do some shopping too... And I bet the same would go for you as well, huh?” This last bit was directed towards River.

    “I suppose.” River replied without much visible enthusiasm. She must’ve done all sorts of traveling around the world as a former member of an underworld criminal organization, Terry thought, but it couldn’t have been very enjoyable. He often felt the urge to ask her about all her former life, but he knew she wouldn’t appreciate that. Better to wait until she was ready to open up herself, however long that took.

    “So why don’t we all go out and do our shopping together?” Akira suggested brightly. “It’ll be Saturday after all, so we need to do something to celebrate the end of exams!”

    Celebrating something by spending money; that definitely sounded like something a city dweller would do, Terry thought. But Akira was right, a day out on the town sounded like a good way to unwind after the grueling week they’d just had. “Sure.” he told his friend. “I’m up for that.”

    “Cool.” Akira said before addressing River. “How ‘bout you?”

    “Well...” River looked a little hesitant, as she had when Akira had first proposed this trip. Again Terry was about to suggest that she should come along when Akira quickly interjected.

    “Oh I know!” he exclaimed, a cheerful look on his face. “So you won’t be lonely...” He stood up on the balls of his feet to look over the top of the crowd. “Hey!” he called out, hands cupped around his mouth. “Karen! Over here!” Terry craned his neck and saw that he was addressing a conspicuous patch of white visible amongst the bobbing heads in the hallway, and once she saw Akira’s confirming wave she did her best to make it over to them, no easy task given the crush of departing students and the knots standing in the hallway still.

    “Hi guys.” Karen said once she had squeezed her way up to them. “What’s up?”

    “Well,” Akira began. “the three of us,” He gestured unnecessarily to indicate Terry, River, and himself. “are planning a little shopping trip for tomorrow to stock up on stuff we’ll need for the big one next week. Interested in coming?”

    Karen’s face immediately lit up. “Oh yes!” she exclaimed, her eyes suddenly shining brightly beneath the brim of her hat. “I’d love to!”

    “Awesome!” Akira said. “See River, now you won’t be the only girl!” River looked rather nonplussed.

    “So where are we meeting?”

    “Where? Uh...” Akira closed his eyes and thought. “How about at Birch Square?” he suggested. “There’s a big coffee place there that we can meet up at. Does ten-thirty sound alright?”

    Karen spent the rest of the day in a very good mood after saying farewell to Terry and his friends. Exams were over and done with, summer vacation had arrived, and she found herself looking forward to this shopping trip almost as much as the one to the Morgana Islands. Though they’d never not been friendly towards her, they’d always seemed to be rather tight-lipped when it came to their personal lives, so she was glad to see that they were trying to be inclusive in inviting her out like this. Hopefully this would be her chance to learn more about what they got up to.

    Upon waking up early the next morning Karen found herself confronted with the problem of what she should wear, a good percentage of her wardrobe’s contents laid out on top of her bed while she tried to decide. It was best to try to match what her friends would be wearing as much as possible so that she didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but she’d never seen them outside of their school uniforms. So she did her best to try and imagine what sort of casual clothing Terry and River would wear. She knew that Terry was from the mid-west and seemed pretty outdoorsy, so she could imagine him going with a rugged look with jeans, heavier sneakers or boots, button-down shirt, maybe a light jacket though it was supposed to be warm today... Then on the other hand she thought River looked rather elegant in the Academy’s uniform, and given the way she carried herself Karen could imagine her in a blouse, skirt, leggings, and light cardigan - just refined enough to be semi-formal without overdoing it. But then again she was also pretty athletic, thought not quite sporty, so maybe she’d instead go for a much more light and casual look? She frowned hard at the selection of clothing before her. There were just so many possibilities! Blouse, shirt, or tanktop? Skirt, shorts, or capris? Sandals or flats? And then how would she coordinate the colors, and which accessories would she wear? It took her a good fifteen minutes agonizing over her outfit before she finally decided on a simple flared-sleeve yellow blouse, shorts, and simple white sneakers. She adjusted her hat in the mirror, grabbed her bag, some breakfast to eat on the way, scribbled a quick note for her dad, who was still asleep in the living room’s easy chair, magazine plopped over his face, and headed out.

    Birch Square was a fifteen minute ride away on the monorail, and Akira had been referring to the Chalmer Coffeehouse, part of a large business/office complex located right across the street from the station. “Coffeehouse” was a bit misleading given that it was large enough to have a second level that overlooked the square, and it was already jam-packed with the morning rush despite it being the weekend. Karen was relieved that she had thought to grab something from home for breakfast already as the lines leading up to the registers were quite long and she had to snake her way through the crowd carefully, her hand protectively over her bag. Upon finding a small gap she stood on her tiptoes to see over the heads of the crowd but didn’t see Terry or the others anywhere, neither standing in line nor seated at any of the tables or booths.

    So she made her way over to one of the two flights of stairs that lead up to the second level, where it was less crowded and a little quieter, though the pulsing buzz of conversation from below was still present in the background. She started to peer around the floor when she heard a voice from behind her call, “Hey! Over here!” Terry and River were seated at a set of upholstered chairs set in a corner by one of the wide windows that offered an expansive view of the city outside, the former waving in her direction.

    “Hey guys.” Karen said as she approached, sliding her bag off of her shoulder and onto her lap as she sat down in one of the free chairs.

    “Glad you found us.” Terry said after River wished her good morning. “I was thinking we should’ve texted you since it’s so busy down there.”

    “Where’s Akira?”

    “Oh he’s here.” Terry said, taking a sip of the iced coffee he was holding. “He just got one of those candy frappe drinks that take forever to make, and you saw how long the lines were down there, so... Did you want to get something? We don’t mind waiting.”

    “No thanks, I already ate on the way here.” Karen replied. She was glad that she had decided to dress down after all, since her two classmates were both dressed in causal jeans and T-shirts; Terry in a black shirt with an asymmetrical stripe pattern while River had on a close-fitting gray and maroon shirt that reminded her of a soccer jersey.

    “Is something the matter?”

    Karen suddenly found River’s vivid blue eyes on her and realized that she had probably been staring at the two. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed, feeling awkward. “It’s just... I guess this is the first time I’ve seen you guys wearing something other than your school uniforms.”

    “I guess it is.” Terry said, shrugging as he took another sip of his drink.

    Thankfully a loud voice called out to them before an awkward silence could ensue and Karen turned in her chair to see that it was Akira, stepping around a forest of tables and chairs occupied by people on their laptops, a large, creamy-looking, mud-brown drink in his hand that was topped by a swirl of whipped cream. “Hey guys!” he called as he plopped himself down in another one of the empty chairs. “Hey Karen!”

    “Hey.” she replied. “How are you?”

    “Doing great, doing great!” he said enthusiastically, looking and sounding like he didn’t need any of the copious amounts of sugar that his drink surely contained. “Now that we’re all here,” He looked around the group. “Anyone have any suggestions for where we should go today?”

    “I dunno, I’m not all that familiar with the shopping scene around here.” Terry said, leaning back in his chair and contemplation. “I don’t shop for clothes much, and when I do I order most of my stuff online... I only really know of the shopping centers around the Penumbra Convention Center...”

    Karen immediately noticed the corner of River’s mouth grimacing slightly at that name, and soon enough Terry and Akira both followed suit, as if momentarily recalling bad memories. Akira quickly spoke up. “I don’t think so.” he said. “That part of town’s kinda expensive, and I’d like to avoid getting in touch with my inner wallet if I can.”

    Terry shrugged again and then looked towards Karen. “Do you have any ideas?” he asked. “I think you would know best, since you’re actually from this city and all.”

    “Well...” Karen thought for a moment, mentally filing away those odd looks. “Oh, how about the Sea Diamond Market?”

    “Where’s that?” Terry asked.

    “It’s back in the direction where I live, a few blocks away from the waterfront.” she explained. “While there are some high-end places there, there’re plenty of normal stores there, and it’s all mostly outside. We can have lunch there too, since there’s a big outdoor food court there as well.”

    “I’m fine with that.” Akira said. Terry and River voiced no objections either. “Alright then, that will be our destination for the day! Let’s go!”

    The Sea Diamond Market had always been busy whenever Karen went there, but on a balmy, near-summer day like this one it was especially lively. The shopping complex primarily consisted of four double-tiered buildings - shopping establishments on the bottom, eateries on top - built around a large, naturally diamond-shaped piazza. Around the large fountain serving as a centerpiece were tables and chairs of passerby to relax in, and numerous merchandise kiosks hawking all sorts of cheap jewelry, souvenirs, T-shirts, and many other miscellaneous odds and ends. There was quite a diverse crowd here, and when she and the other three arrived a large crowd had formed around a street performance, where young men were putting on a show of impressive gymnastics set to techno music pulsing from an old, large boombox.

    “Can you do backflips?” Akira asked Terry as the crowd burst into applause at a particularly impressive feat of acrobatics.

    “No, I can’t do backflips.” Terry replied in a tone that suggested the topic was an ongoing thing between them. “They’re showy and offer no advantages whatsoever in a real fight.” Karen grinned to herself.

    After a brief discussion they decided to split up to do their shopping, the boys going one way and the girls another, and meet back up for lunch in an hour. River said that she wanted to look inside a bookstore she had seen on the way in, so that’s where she and Karen went first. Karen ambled idly through the shelves, occasionally taking out a book to lazily leaf through; she wasn’t a huge reader, but River on the other hand appeared to be a voracious one. At school she had always seen her with an open book whenever there was a spare moment, and when she returned with a small stack of books held in her arms Karen tilted her head in order to read the titles on the spines and recognized none of the authors, who all had harsh-looking names that looked like they were from northern Darlsine. She asked about them.

    “They’re all Danz authors.” River replied. “I’d prefer the original texts, but a translation will do for now.”

    “You can speak Danz?” Karen asked. She hadn’t known her classmate was bilingual. “Are you from Danzier, then?” she asked, and River simply nodded. That did make sense, Karen thought, for even though she didn’t have much, if any of an accent as far as she could tell River did have the fair sort of features people from that part of the world usually had. The name “River Serac” didn’t sound like it was Danz, though. “How did you end up over here, then?” she asked. “Did you come over on an exchange program like Akira did?”

    Another curious look of discomfort passed across the girl’s face before she replied, “Something like that.” in a rather evasive manner and turned towards the check-out line. Was she perhaps shy? Karen wondered. That didn’t quite match the her cool and calm image.

    Regardless, she decided to poke around the store a little more herself and smiled a bit as she passed by a spinner displaying copies of the latest comic book issues. When she was little she had had her dad buy her a couple that she had read over and over until the pages were worn and falling apart, enticed by the adventures and heroes within. Eventually she decided to buy a novella for the flight out and an illustrated guide to the flora and fauna found south of the equator. Once she met back up with River she suggested that they head next to the largest store in the complex, the Vellance clothing store for some vacation clothes. After wandering over to the summerwear section Karen found herself contemplating an enormous rack of swimsuits. She pulled out a few, looked them over, tried to imagine what they’d look like on her, then replaced them and moved on to a different part of the rack to repeat the process. She frowned to herself as she put another back on the display, one that was a nice, appealing color but exposed just a bit more than what she was comfortable with. It was quite a challenge, she thought, trying to find something that struck the right balance between being flattering while not showing off an excessive amount of skin. “You’re so lucky, River...” she commented absently as she moved down the line. “I’m sure you’d look good in any of these with your figure...”

    River, who was examining a rack of sunglasses opposite, gave a sudden live-wire jolt and nearly fumbled the pair she had been holding in her hands. “Huh?! What’re you -”

    Karen blinked curiously at the sudden turnabout. That brief, wide-eyed startled expression was very far removed from her classmate’s usual behavior. “Well, it’s true.” she insisted. “I mean, you’re athletic, but you’re still slender and still have, y’know, curves and stuff...” Saying this aloud was making her feel embarrassed too, so she quickly changed the subject. “A-Anyway, have you ever been on a vacation like this before?” she asked. “I’m guessing Danzier is a little too cold for the beach, right?”

    “The cold doesn’t bother me.” River replied, recovering. “Danz summers are comparable to days like today, actually, so there are still plenty of people who go to the beach then. But no, I haven’t gone on a trip like this before. Not for leisure, at any rate.”

    “I’ve been to the west coast a few times to visit my mom.” Karen said as she pulled another swimsuit off the display rack. This one she actually liked the look of, but it was just a bit too pricey for her. River meanwhile seemed to settle on which pair of sunglasses she wanted and turned to join Karen in gazing at the swimsuits. She slowly made her way to one side, then the other, then circled around, all the while without her expression changing much aside from the slight flush of pink slowly fading from her cheeks. Looking at the slow, lazy movements of her feet and occasional listless pawing at the rack, Karen wondered if the other girl just couldn’t decide on something, just like her.

    So she plunged her arms in to the rack and slide some of the suits aside until she found one that she thought looked promising. This one was a sky blue two-piece that came with a translucent shawl that one could wrap around their waist, almost like a knee-length sarong. “How about this one?” she asked, pulling the item out from the selection and holding it up for her classmate to see.

    “What about it?” River asked, her eyes glancing over the blue suit within the plastic packaging.

    “What about it?” Karen repeated, deciding just to roll with her. “I think this one would look great on you, that’s what.”

    “You do?” River looked skeptical.

    “I’m serious, really!” Karen insisted. “I think this color fits you really well, and your legs are long enough to make the wrap look work. If it looks good on this model,” she said, indicating the picture on the packaging. “it’ll look good on you! I guarantee it!”

    River took the package from her and spent a few moments looking down at it with that indiscernible gaze of hers. “At least give it some thought, alright?” Karen prompted. “Of course, you don’t have to buy it if you don’t want to or find something you like better.”

    “No, I just...” River closed her eyes briefly and seemed to sigh. “I’ve just never really done anything like this before. It’s all new to me.”

    Yet again Karen had to wonder at what sort of life her classmate had led in which vacation preparations gave her so much trouble, but she refrained from saying anything, guessing that that wouldn’t be a very tactful question to ask. To her surprise River’s expression warmed up a bit, and when she said, “But thank you for trying to help. I’ll trust your judgment.” Her voice sounded genuinely grateful.

    “Oh no, not at all!” Karen replied, feeling aglow at receiving the normally-taciturn girl’s gratitude. “Actually, well...” She sheepishly adjusted the brim of her hat. “I’d like it if you could help me pick something out too, pretty please?” River looked honestly befuddled at the turnaround, like Karen’s arms had suddenly sprouted feathers. She couldn’t help but chuckle aloud at the look on the other girl’s face. “Come on, it’s fun!”

    Once the hour was up Karen and River returned to the middle of the market’s plaza, and it didn’t take long to find the two boys seated at one of the tables just outside the fountain’s spray zone, their shopping bags resting on the ground at their feet. Terry, Karen noticed to some slight surprise, had more with him than Akira did.

    “How was your shopping? Did you find everything you needed?” Karen asked as she and River sat down with their bags in two other chairs Terry had quickly grabbed from a neighboring table for them.

    “And then some.” Akira said, sighing in a rather put-upon way. “Shopping with this guy is worse than shopping with a girl. No offense, of course.”

    “What did you buy?” she asked.

    “A pair of swimming trunks,” Terry began, beginning to count off on his fingers. “a pair of sandals, some new shirts, sunscreen, bug spray, then I saw a sporting goods store and decided to get a new pair of wristbands for training because the ones I’ve been using are starting to get gross and...”

    “...and you get the picture.” Akira cut him off, shaking his head as if this was just so unbelievable. “Anyway, I’m hungry! Let’s get some food!”

    So they headed upstairs to the market’s open-air food court, selecting a table beneath the shade of a large cloth tarp that had been hung over a section of the space. “They’re surprisingly large birds.” Karen overheard Terry comment as they settled in, his eyes on some seagulls that were perched on a nearby railing. “We’re quite close to the water, aren’t we?”

    “Yeah, it’s only a block or two away.” Karen said as she was putting her things down. “After we eat we should go see the waterfront; it should look really nice today.”

    “That’s a good idea, I haven’t actually seen the ocean before...”

    “Wait, you seriously haven’t?” Akira asked with a tone of bemusement. “You?”

    “...’with my own eyes,’ was what I was about to say.” Terry finished, glancing sidelong at his friend. “I come from a landlocked part of the country, in case you’ve forgotten.”

    “In that case we should definitely go see it.” Karen suggested brightly, and the others concurred. They took turns leaving to go buy their food, and when they were all assembled again and began to dig in she decided to try making conversation again. “So, what do your families do?” she asked. “I don’t think we’ve ever talking about them much before.”

    There was a moment of silence from the others before Akira spoke up. “There’s nothing too special about my family.” he began, after swallowing some of his hamburger. “My mom stays home, and my dad’s a salaryman. It’s a fairly typical thing back home. Traditional.” He put air quotes around that word. “Then my brother,”

    “Oh, I didn’t know you had a brother.”

    “Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned him at school before, have I?” Akira said, nodding. “He’s older than I am, and he’s already graduated from college. Last I heard he was trying to apply to Tenkai Energy.”

    “What’s that?” Terry asked.

    “An energy engineering firm.” Akira replied. “They focus on designing and building fusion reactors and similar stuff. He won’t actually be building the stuff though, he’d be part of corporate.”

    “You don’t know if he got in or not?”

    “No, not really.” Akira shook his head, and for a moment his tone had a touch of wistfulness, if not weariness to it. “We’re not as close as we used to be, so we haven’t been in touch lately. He’s a smart guy though, like really smart, so I’m sure he’s fine. When I go home over break I’ll make sure to ask about him.”

    “Okay, so, what about you, Terry?” Karen asked, turning to him. “I think you mentioned something about living with your uncle?”

    “Yeah, I have.” Terry replied, but the moment the words had come out of her mouth his expression had suddenly grown tight and steely, and she was suddenly reminded of that look he had had when he punched out that boy from school. “He’s a contractor.”

    “What about your parents?” she asked, feeling suddenly like she was navigating a minefield. “Well, if you don’t mind me asking, that is...”

    Akira and even River were looking a little wary now, and Karen realized now that there had to be a reason why Terry had avoided speaking much about his family up until this point. Akira seemed like he was about to try changing or deflecting the subject, but Terry raised his free hand slightly as he took a sip of his drink as if to ward him off and said, “No, that’s okay.” He put his drink down and folded his hands in front of him. “If you really want to know, the reason why I live with my uncle is because neither of my parents are a part of my life.” A slight crease had formed on Akira’s brow; apparently this was news to him too. River seemed like she was focusing on a spot on the table, looking occupied by her thoughts.

    “I’m...sorry to hear that.” Karen said apologetically. There was definitely bad blood then. “If you feel like I’m prying then,”

    “I said it was okay.” Terry told her, voice calm and steady. “It’s better to get this out anyway.” He closed his eyes for a brief moment, then resumed. “My dad he, well, he passed away before I was born, so I never knew him. My mom on the other hand, lives and works on Heion, as an astrophysicist for SARA.” As he said this he looked up, instinctively perhaps, at the tarp gently flapping overhead, as if he could see through it to the sky beyond.

    “And...you don’t see each other at all?” Karen asked, her voice small and quiet.

    Terry shook his head. “No, I haven’t seen her since I was a little kid. The last time we ever communicated with each other was shortly before I left to come here.”

    “Oh.” What Terry was revealing about his family’s situation was making Karen think about her own. Her mother lived on the other side of the country and she always flew out there to visit her during the summer, so even though they were apart they could still spend time as mother and daughter. Terry and his mother though, were separated by a much greater distance, and as a result it sounded like their relationship had atrophied away. “That sounds so sad.” she heard herself say aloud, and immediately felt her cheeks go warm.

    Terry didn’t appear upset, however. “Maybe.” he said. “But if my situation was any different, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now and know the people that I do.” He gave a small shrug. “At least some good’s come out of it.”

    “Yeah,” Karen said, not knowing what else to say. Despite Terry’s reassurances, she could still see that distant look in his eyes and hear the tightness in his tone, leaving her with the feeling that she was intruding on something. “Ah ha ha...” she let out a small, nervous laugh, trying to break through the tension she was suddenly feeling. “I’m almost afraid to ask what your family does now, River.”

    River’s reply was swift. “Then I suggest you don’t.” she said in a cutting voice.

    “River!” Terry said in admonishment, instantly scowling, but the girl didn’t reply to him, instead simply excusing herself from the table and walking away to dispose of her trash. He sighed and shook his head when she was gone. “Don’t feel bad.” he said apologetically. “River’s a bit...sensitive when it comes to certain topics.”

    “’Touchy’ is the word I would use.” Akira muttered, earning him a quick dark glance from his friend that appeared to go unnoticed.

    But Karen didn’t really feel reassured. The look in River’s eyes when she had cut her off was the same look she’d had when she’d driven off those bullies, only now that sharp, cold glare had been directed straight at her instead. “Did...something happen between her and her family?” she quietly asked.

    “Uhhhh, kinda.” Terry said, looking rather uncomfortable. “It’s not something I think she would like us talking about, especially behind her back.” Akira looked a little confused as he sipped his drink, but didn’t say anything.

    Karen turned her head a bit to take in the rest of the food court. River hadn’t made to return to their table; Karen could instead see her at the railing, staring out in the direction of the waterfront with her back facing towards them, alone.

    Karen didn’t have much opportunity to speak with Terry and the others on the final day of school thanks to the final few hours of the school year being dominated by the end-of-year assembly. When she greeted them in homeroom Terry and River responded in the same manner they always had. There was no indication that they felt like she had invaded their privacy the other day, but River’s harsh tone and the brief, ugly look in Terry’s eyes still stuck with her. As she sat in the main auditorium along with the rest of the school, listening to the headmaster’s speech, her thoughts wandered and she couldn’t help but feel that even though she’d known them for nearly a year now there was still very much a sense of distance between herself and her three classmates, and that she still really didn’t “know” them. She hoped that she’d be able to speak with them again afterwards, but in the chaos of the school’s final dismissal she lost sight of them, and resigned herself to walking to the monorail station alone.

    As she was crossing the school’s bridge she checked her phone, looking at the newly-arrived text messages congratulating her for completing her first year at Marine Cove Academy. There were four total: one from her father, another from her mother, and two more from some of her old friends. When she had spread the news that she had been accepted into the Academy there had been more, but sadly it made sense that some of the people she had used to know would drift away now that they weren’t seeing each other every day. It was really difficult to make new friends.

    When she was wondering if Terry or Akira were going to send her a message she heard a vaguely-familiar voice call out “Hey, you!” and didn’t pay it any mind until it called out again, a lot closer and apparently directed at her. She turned and saw an unfamiliar student coming up behind her, a blond-haired boy with a serious look on his face.

    “Hey,” he said. “Do you remember who I am?”

    Karen frowned. “No, have we met before...?” Wait, she thought, that voice did seem a little familiar, and now that she was focused on him, the face seemed familiar too... “Wait!” she suddenly exclaimed, recognition snapping into place. “You’re that boy from the park! You’re the one who picked a fight with Terry!”

    “Yeah, that’s right. Me.” Vincent said. He didn’t look very happy, that arrogant expression she remembered being replace with a scowl. His two lackeys were nowhere to be seen.

    “What do you want?” she asked warily. This boy had tried to fight Terry and lost, badly. She couldn’t imagine him being up to anything good.

    “I know you’re in the same class as that guy and you hang out with him and his friends, right?” Vincent asked, grimacing. Apparently he couldn’t even bring himself to speak Terry’s name.

    “Yes...? He’s my friend...” Karen replied, and suddenly she felt her stomach twist in her gut as she remembered the vulgar accusations those bullies had thrown at her. “I-It’s not... I mean, I’m not...”

    Vincent cocked an eyebrow and her sudden stammering. “What’s up with you? I’m just here to give you a piece of advice.”

    “W-What do mean?” Karen asked. She didn’t even know this person, what sort of ‘advice’ could he give her?

    Vincent shifted his stance a bit, and leaned forward slightly and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well if I were you, I wouldn’t hang out with him.” Before she could say anything in response he continued: “They’re not your kind of people. They’re different, if you know what I mean.”

    “No, I don’t know what you mean. What are you trying to get at?”

    “Oh, come on!” The boy sighed and rolled his eyes in an exaggerated display of frustration. “You know exactly what I’m talking about here! I saw the look on your face when that guy punched me out!”

    The image of the cold look that had been on Terry’s face, so unlike his usual self, came back to Karen. “So what?” she tried to retort. “He’s still my -”

    “Friend?” Vincent finished for her, and now he had the shadow of the smirk she remembered him having plastered on his face. “Yeah, keep telling yourself that. Believe me, there’s a whole ‘nother side to him and his group that they’re keeping from you. Claiming to be friends with someone while you’re keeping stuff from them isn’t very fair, you know? I certainly wouldn’t call it pure friendship.”

    “I...” Karen had no reason to trust what Vincent was saying. He talked about the possibility of friends being dishonest with each other, but it wasn’t like he was a friend; she didn’t even know him, or have any reason to find him trustworthy!

    ...But even so, in light of what had happened the other day, his words still triggered a pinprick of doubt within her chest despite all her attempts to ignore it.

    “I see you get what I’m talking about, you’ve got that look on your face again.” Vincent said, looking her over. “Think about it, okay?” He began to walk away.

    “Wait!” Karen shouted, and he stopped and peered back over his shoulder. “Why are you telling me something like this? Who I’m friends with is none of your business! What makes you think I’ll believe anything you tell me?!”

    Vincent shook his head. “You’re the kind of person who’s good and honest, right? Don’t get me wrong,” He shrugged and took a few swaggering steps back towards her. “I think it’s an admirable way to live, heck knows there aren’t a lot of people out there like you. However...” Here he leaned in close and his voice adopted a low, conspiratorial tone as a group of students walked by them, chatting amiably about something or other. “goody-two-shoes always end up being the ones who get chewed up and spat out. So just consider this some friendly advice, okay? So you won’t end up getting stabbed in the back later. That’s all.”

    And with that Vincent turned on his heel again and walked away, leaving the girl standing there on the bridge, appropriately dumbfounded. As he left her behind his mouth broke out into a broad grin. He’d done it! For weeks he had been thinking of a way to get back at Eaves for humiliating him that wouldn’t bring about Artemis’s ire and he had been having his hanger-ons sleuth around and spy on the group. Eaves seemed to have a generally decent reputation among his classmates, but he and his core group of friends tended to be rather insular though it wasn’t necessarily apparent at first. Given that they were really Stargazers that was only natural, but it gave him an avenue of attack.

    While Eaves and his Trident companions were perfectly cordial if distant towards the rest of their classmates that girl, Karen Emerage, was the only other student that seemed to penetrate their circle, and even then they were still holding her at arm’s length. Vincent himself had observed how she often choose to socialize with them rather than with the other girls in her grade and how she had a lightweight personality. He learned of an incident towards the start of the school year where a member of Eaves’s class had turned on her during an anti-Stargazer tirade and he had risen to the occasion like a good little white knight to defend her. Her demeanor around him, the swing back and forth between subtle bashfulness and bright-eyed, hopeful expectation... She was crushing on him, no doubt about it.

    Once he considered that and recalled that look of fright he’d caught a glimpse of and one of his spies had reported overhearing them discussing their upcoming trip to the tropics together he’d hatched his plan. All he’d had to do was find a moment where he could speak with her alone, and come up with something that Rafael would say. So what if Karen claimed that she didn’t believe him? The expression he had seen on her face as he had left her behind was evidence enough that his words had gotten through her thin skin and the seed of doubt had been planted. Now all that was left was letting her own mind fill in the blanks for her.

    Vincent grinned to himself as he walked past the school gates and mingled with the mass of people already walking Marine Cove City’s busy streets. Vacations were about making memories, that Kamaguran kid had said. That was such a cheesy line, but he could only imagine what sort of memories they’d be left with when their friendship was exposed as the halfhearted sham that it was.

    Excerpt 3: Stargazer Classes
    While Stargazers have been referred to by many different names throughout history, the most widespread nomenclature used today dates back to the 18th century Hellan philosopher Hippolytus. After reviewing numerous texts on Stargazers from all over the ancient world he broke them down into seven distinct classes, each one named after one of Hellas’s seven sacred symbols:

    Taurus: Taurus Stargazers tend to have powers associated with the classical element of earth in some way, such as the ability to manipulate hard elements such as stone or metal. Of the seven, Taurus Stargazer abilities seem to have the greatest amount of variety between them, and many of them are noted to have strong-willed or hardy characters.
    • ...Anthony “Deck” Ballast, Theodore “Nova” Bowne, Tracey Gibbon, Klwali Gowani, Jessica Liqua, Simi Tang, William Urn (...)

    Leo: Leo Stargazers are very easy to classify, as the predominate theme with their powers is the application of heat and fire. As such many of their abilities tend to be more overtly harmful than other Stargazer classes, which unfortunately carries with it an added stigma.
    • ...Pieter Cosmatos, Matoi Hiyama, Tera Ibis, Rhodes Mackson, Jason Kells, Sayren, Abu Singh, Lison Veroux (...)

    Aquarius: As the name suggests, Aquarius Stargazers derive their powers from the element of water. In Hippolytus’s time Aquarius Stargazers were revered for their supposed abilities to calm the sea and they were often viewed as emissaries of local sea deities. The most famed Aquarius Stargazer is Martin Cresceau, lifelong friend of explorer Clement Rande. Thanks to his abilities to alter sea currents he served as Rande’s navigator throughout his entire forty-year period of exploring the Tresca Ocean.
    • ...Kun Ben-yu, Megan Conner, Benjamin Hill, Constantin Prodan, Diogo Ribero, River Serac, Lacie Yang (...)

    Sagittarius: Stargazers with dominion over air and sky. Similar to Aquarius Stargazers, Sagittarius Stargazers enjoyed much reverence in the ancient world due to the sky often being seen as the realm of the gods and especially in dry areas where the relationship between wind and life-giving rains were well understood. Sagittarius Stargazers often became local folk heroes.
    • ...Sires Ailven, Damon Beck, Akira Kamiya, Gwnurodr Manwue, Deirdre Mellows, Pen Strike, Espella Underzo (...)

    Gemini: The dominion of Gemini Stargazers is often said to be electricity, but it would be more accurate to say that their power encompasses electromagnetism, or the concept of “waves” in general. As such, Gemini Stargazers tend to have a fair degree of non-combat-related utility.
    • ...Terrence Eaves, Wei Gao, Coral Jewing, Tschering Lamo, Francisco Nuoci, Barry Porter, Randis Wivven (...)

    Virgo: The final two Stargazer classes, Virgo and Capricorn, share a certain degree of duality between them. While the other classes can be neatly categorized under “fire”, “water”, “earth” and so forth, Virgo has often been referred to as having the power of both “light” or “creation”. The creation aspect has some commentators claim that Virgo Stargazers are the most “pure” Stargazers. This belief is borne out by the fact that the Stargazer considered to be the current strongest, REDACTED, has the ability to REDACTED.
    • ...Andrew Due, Dennis Ganut, Serena Harklite, Takeshi Irohito, Aaron Overman, Daniella Tuso, Po Xue (...)

    Capricorn: If Virgo is claimed to be “light” and “creation”, than it can be said that Capricorn Stargazers have the power of “darkness” and “destruction”. Capricorn Stargazers tend to be stigmatized even moreso than Leos due to the destructive power of many of their abilities, with the most notorious Stargazer in recent history being a Capricorn. In 2615 a coup was launched against the national government of Agrippas, and when the tide turned against the attempted rebels their leader, a powerful Capricorn who called himself Dakila Manansala, used his power to poison the northern isles, and by the time he was killed he had managed to create a massive ecological disaster from which Agrippas is still recovering from over thirty years later
    • ...Liesen Bernberg, Abbar al-Dac, Sean Graphton, Johan Hawking, Hogan Rette, Leia Turner, Ivanovitch Uvo (...)
    As for how I chose for which sign corresponded with which element, Leo, Taurus, and Aquarius were no-brainers since those signs actually do symbolize fire, earth, and water in real life (though back when I was trying to use all twelve signs Aquarius was going to be strictly water while Pisces was ice and I dunno what I would've assigned Cancer to). Sagittarius represents wind and air because I've seen archery used as a wind motif plenty of times before, and Gemini is electricity to represent how there are two types of charges, positive and negative. As for Virgo, since its theme is light mainly, I assigned it a sign that has sort of a holy feel to it. Its opposite took me a little while to figure out. At first I was going to use Corvus, but that's not a Zodiac constellation. Then I thought of using Scorpio, but that didn't really feel right. Finally I settled on Capricorn because goat skulls are often used in satanic imagery, and satanism is certain an opposite to a holy virgin!
    Last edited by Crossword; May 24th, 2016 at 01:55 PM.
    ~Stargazer~, ~Distance~ original stories.
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