Soccer. Star Trek. Symmetry.

Amber isn't anti-social. She's all over social media. Anonymously, that is. Okay, so she isn't social. Her older sister, Kara, was completely the opposite. Queen of their high school and totally comfortable in her own skin. When Kara gets diagnosed with a terminal illness, she makes Amber promise to get out of her comfortable online life and live a life for both of them. As much as Amber wants to make good on that promise, she doesn't know if she can. Will Amber be able to learn about living from her sister once she's gone? Or will she let the grief swallow her and keep to herself?


1. Seek out Life and New Civilizations

It was Kara's dying wish that I have a social life.

"Go beyond the galaxy of data you so love," her voice was scratchy as she spoke to me. Her lips were white, chapped and cracked.

This is how she'd looked and sounded for the fast few months since she'd stopped treatment and decided that dying peacefully at home was much more dignified. Not that she even got that in the end. She came down with pneumonia, was rushed to the hospital, and spent her final week hooked up to tubes in a sterile room. Exactly the opposite death that my dear twin had hoped for. Drawn out, gross, dramatic, cold, and much too soon.

A few days before she went, though, those were the words she had spoken to me.

"You have to live for me, too," she said and I rolled my eyes. "I'm serious-" she coughed several times "-I can't leave you knowing you'll lead a boring life. And I'm not saying give up being a nerd. That's fine. It's you. But if you're going to fawn over cosplays on tumblr, then you need to go to one of these conventions and take part. Boldly go where no Amber Oswald has gone before. Be social. Off the screen. Don't just watch, do."

I was going to protest, but she gripped my hand tightly. She was so weak she couldn't lift a glass off of her bed tray, but the hold she had on my hand was that of a vice. Her exhausted eyes were burning into me.

"Amber, you have to live. I would be nineteen years old in a week, and I'm not going to make it to that. I am going to die, but dammit you will live."

Then she smiled at me. Reassuringly. The same way she smiled at me when I fell out of a tree in our backyard and she helped me clean the scrape on my knee. Always the big sister.

I simply nodded.

Kara had always had a way with words. She had been on the debate team in school. She always won. She was the ultimate participant. She laughed louder than most and she told great stories. She always invited me, tried to include me.

My tongue often failed me, except for when I declined her invitations.

She was right, too. She didn't make it to her nineteenth birthday. She did die. The day after she passed, I felt so... ripped off. I knew that Kara was going to die. I knew that there was a strong possibility when she was diagnosed. I knew that it was definite three months ago when she told me she was ending her treatment. I had an opportunity to plan to mourn. So, I expected to be composed at her funeral. I expected my mom to cry and my dad to take care of her. Instead, I felt empty and angry when they lowered her casket into the ground. I felt helpless when my mom broke down into a sobbing mess and my dad ushered her away from the crowd at the wake. I felt guilty when Kara's friends started sharing stories, but I didn't know the people, or what all she had accomplished in her life that touched so many people. Mostly, I was ashamed that I had none to share.

I had spent so much time on my phone or computer, aggregating content for my fandom dedicated Instagram, that I failed to spend time with my sister until time was running out.

In my frustration and guilt, I couldn't get her words out of my head. Don't just watch, do. I snatched my mom's credit card and bought tickets for the next nerd convention in the nearest city big enough to hold one. And bus tickets. The next day, I threw on my running clothes and a backpack- I'd taken up running to deal with stress and grief after the diagnosis - and ran seven blocks to the town's only resale shop. For seven dollars, I picked up a corn yellow sweater dress, black boots, and a Plaster of Paris kit that I prayed wasn't dried out. I ran back home and snuck in through my window - another habit I'd picked up (not that I ever went anywhere beyond the library).

I dumped the contents on my bed and picked up the plaster of Paris. A good enough portion of it was still malleable.

I quickly molded the Starfleet emblem and pressed it onto a safety pin. When it dried, it just looked boring. White and flat. I had nothing to paint it.

I was stuck.

"What do you think of this color?" Kara's voice popped into my head. "Is it too Oops-I-did-it-again? Like space princess-y?"

"Space princess-y?" I had asked her for clarification.

We were standing in the makeup aisle of Walgreens.

"You're into sci-fi and all that," she opened the bottle of silver nail polish and coated a nail on her left hand. "What do you think? Does it look like I'm from Mars?"

I sat the Starfleet emblem on my desk and snuck across the hall to Kara's door. I hadn't been in her room since we'd rushed her back to the ER. I took in a deep breath and turned the knob. I stopped short, scared half to death when I saw my mom passed out on Kara's bed. She hadn't been sleeping well at night, but I didn't realize this was where she had been finding sleep during the day. I tiptoed to Kara's closet and found her nail polish case on the floor of it. I snuck it quietly out of the room and quietly closed the door.

I made it back to my room and placed the case on my desk, opening it and digging through until I found the Space Primces nail polish.

I painted the Starfleet emblem silver, then I put on the sweater with some black tights, the boots I'd purchased, and a black belt. I went to the mirror to examine. The sweater color was inaccurate and the boots were scuffed. If I squinted my eyes, though, I could see a Starfleet officer. I could see it. I wanted to show Kara that I was trying, but I couldn't.

I dropped to my knees, feeling the exhaustion from the past several weeks starting to catch up to me, and almost gave way to tears at the thought, but something caught my attention first. In the mirror, I saw the reflection of something under my bed. It was a box Kara had given me to keep. Everything she deemed important and irreplaceable.

I pulled the box out and opened it. At the very top was her first cellphone, a Motorola Razr that she kept because Bobby McClusky had punched his number into it with his very own fingers. She and Bobby dated through two iPhone models before she got sick. She dumped him the day she withdrew from school. He was at the funeral. I don't think he's dated anyone since Kara.

I looked at the flip phone resting in my palm. If I squinted, it looked like a totally passable Starfleet communicator. I opened the phone, then closed it over my belt and stood back up.

"Well, Kara," I whispered. "I'm going to try it. I am going to seek out life and new civilizations. You were right about everything. All of the terrible, awful... please be right about this. I want to live, like you said."

My reflection, with my ponytail sagging from the run and the mediocre costume, had no inspiring reply for me. Nothing in me perked at the sight. It was just me, trying.

I found consolation in posting pictures of excellent Yeoman Rand cosplays I found on the internet and linking the post to the cosplayers who did it. That hair basket is rarely achieved very easily. Then, I spent the next several hours scrolling through Reddit and Tumblr before falling asleep at my desk.

I woke up to new followers, dozens of comments, hundreds of notes. I'm not internet famous, but I am pretty popular among the clinically obsessed.

"This isn't real. You aren't even sharing yourself, you're just posting and tagging other people's stuff," Kara had shut my laptop right in front of my face when she caught me staring at my follower count, nearly smashing my fingers. I'd hit one-thousand and she didn't even care.

"I give credit to everyone I post about. I'm helping them, too."

"That's not what I'm talking about," she sighed. "When are you going to let someone in to know the real you? You're persona on here is so...inhuman. It's locked tight."

It wasn't enough. It felt like enough, but it wasn't enough according to Kara.

The following Saturday, I steeled my nerves, put my longest coat on over my costume and walked to the bus station before my parents had even gotten out of bed. I took Kara's makeup bag with me.

There was a day, freshman year, where she gave me a makeover. It was the day we all returned to class after winter break. I never wore makeup. In fact, I really preferred to hide behind my glasses and hair so that I could go unnoticed and read comics that I hid in my textbooks. That day, she kept telling me I looked so pretty. I tried to keep my shoulders high as I walked through the doors. The first look I got from another student, though, and I made a dash to the bathroom. I washed the makeup off and scrubbed my face with brown paper towels until my skin was pink and bare. She just shrugged the next time she passed me in the halls.

I tried to fight the panicked feeling of not wanting attention as I opened the bag and pulled out the compact mirror she kept in it. I made clumsy work of the foundation, powder, and blush. I tried to remember how she put the eyeshadow on. I skipped the eyeliner and went straight to mascara. Then I looked at my reflection, almost jumping out of my seat when I thought I saw Kara looking back at me. But, it wasn't Kara. I looked for the chickenpox scar above my right eyebrow. There it was. I sighed. Panic rose in my chest, but her words sang out in my head.

"I am going to die, but dammit you will live."

I clenched my fists and tightened the muscles in my arms, then let them go limp. My therapist had taught me to do this anytime I was overwhelmed and couldn't relax. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. After I felt composed enough, I zipped everything back into the makeup bag and tucked it away into my backpack. I found my Nintendo DS and played Pokémon the rest of the ride. Eventually, I was at the convention center in Irving, TX.

There was a bus stop right in front of the venue. I disembarked, then looked to the early crowd that had gathered before the doors had opened. They shivered in a huddled mass. It was gray and cold outside. I was thankful I'd brought my coat, but wishing my tights had been thicker.

"Hey, officer," a male voice drew my attention over to a large set of concrete steps that cascaded down the side of the oddly shaped, very modern convention center.

He smiled and raised his left hand in the Vulcan salute. He was tall, thin, blond, and dressed in a red Starfleet shirt and zombie makeup under a fleece-lined hoodie, standing near a group of people in similarly themed costumes.

"We have hot cocoa and you look cold," he said. "Come join us."

I tucked my hair behind my ear and nodded. This was it. First contact. I began walking in their direction.

"I'm Erik," he said and reached his hand out to shake mine.

"Amber," I willed my handshake to be firm and not sweaty or weak.

Then, he introduced me to everyone else.

"That's Emily," he gestured to a short, pretty girl with hair that fell in long red tendrils all the way to her waist. She waved.

"Corey," a dark skinned guy with an average height who looked like he worked out all the time. He handed me a styrofoam cup with hot cocoa and gave me another Vulcan salute.

"Marybeth," a girl with olive skin and bobbed hair dyed magenta. She quickly looked up from the game on her phone to nod at me, then wailed in defeat at whatever had happened on her screen.

"Sorry," I whispered before he pointed out the last person in their group.

"My cousin, Austin." Austin smiled at me.

"You're not in costume?" I asked before I could stop my mouth.

"I'm not really big on this stuff," he said. "But I own a car. They're buying my ticket and food, I'm playing taxi driver."

"Cheaper than Über," Corey said.

"Not with his appetite," Erik joked.

"What can I say? Athletes gotta eat," Austin smiled again.

He wasn't tall, but he was taller than me. He had sandy brown hair that was short and neat. He had a defined build, muscular but slender. Not bulky like Corey. He said athlete. Probably a runner like me.

Looking at him, knowing he was looking at me... made me nervous. Everyone else in this group was obviously well initiated with the culture of nerd. Even if my culture was internet culture, they seemed fairly accessible to me. But, Austin looked like the kids I avoided at school. The ones Kara would have gotten along with easily. The ones who ignored me. I turned back to Erik.

"How did you know I was a Trekkie?" I asked. My coat was covering my costume.

He pointed to the patch on my backpack with the numbers NCC-1701 embroidered on it.

"Oh," I said, then changed the subject. "Your shirts are so authentic. You've even got the bands around the cuffs."

"Thanks!" Emily piped in with a broad smile. "I made them with my mom. She does alterations on wedding dresses."

"Wow, I wish I could do that. I just went to a thrift shop and looked for something that met my standard of 'close enough'," I was trying to keep my inner monologue from freaking out that I was actually speaking normally with a group of people near my own age.

"Maybe we can swap numbers and we can work together on costumes for the next con," she smiled sweetly and handed me her phone.

I nodded excitedly and plugged my number into her phone before I handed it back to her.

"Smile!" She said and aimed the camera at me. "Gotta get a contact pic in here."

I posed as un-awkwardly as possible. Trying to imagine what Kara would do. Put her hand on her hip and cock her head a bit to the side? I always thought she looked like a confused puppy when she posed like that, but it looked nice in photos.

"Are you waiting on another group?" She asked.

I shook my head. "Came alone."

"That is so brave of you," Marybeth chirped in, eyes still locked to the screen of her phone. "I would never come to one of these things alone."

"This is actually my first convention," I said.

"A pretty girl like you shouldn't stay alone," Erik said, then coughed into his hand. "What I mean is girls get harassed a lot at cons. It's gotten better recently, but, still... Em ended up with a stalker last year. It sucked. Hang out with us. We'll show you the ropes."

I swallowed, suddenly scared at what I'd done in coming here by myself and relieved at making new friends who offered a bit of protection. I had read about harassment of female cosplayers. How could I have thought running off here alone was a good idea? My parents didn't even know I'd snuck off here. They thought I was wandering around our home town like I always do, stopping by the library for hours on end and buying video games at the only big box store we have. Not that they'd notice I'd left my room anyway. Mom was too busy sleeping and dad was too busy making sure she was still alive.

"Thanks, I'd appreciate that," I tried to make my smile show that I was appreciative and hoped the feeling would be conveyed.

"Hey, you want me to give you a zombie make over to match the group?" Marybeth asked.

"I'm a gold shirt," I frowned. "I don't think it would work with the joke."

She nodded thoughtfully.

"We could, like, haunt you," Corey suggested. "You were our captain and we're the officers you've lost in missions."

"Oh, that would be great," Marybeth snorted a bit when she laughed. "But we're zombies, not ghosts."

"I don't understand a bit of this, but it sounds like it would be fun to photograph," Austin said and dug a camera out of a backpack that had been resting on his feet.

"Oh, yeah, Austin takes pictures for our group's Facebook page. Is it okay if we put your picture on our group page?" Emily explained and asked simultaneously.

"Sure," I couldn't keep my cheeks from blushing and my heart from hammering.

I was all over social media. Anonymously. That was my 'galaxy of data', as Kara referred to it. I never put my picture on anything. I always used anime characters for my avatars and profile pictures. And I didn't exactly want this group to see how lame I actually was.

"Cool! I'll friend you so that I can tag you," Emily smiled brightly and tapped away on her phone. "Is this you with Ein from Cowboy Bebop for your picture?"

"Yup, that is me," tucked my hair behind my ear nervously.

"So cute," she said. "I had a crush on Spike Spiegel for the longest time when I was in junior high."

I smiled and thought, 'me, too,' but didn't say it. I sipped my cocoa, which was definitely Swiss Miss. It had the little shimmer of oil on the surface and tasted a little watered down. The tiny marshmallows were melting. It was nice and warm, though. I felt nice and warm from making new friends.

I caught Austin staring at me, but he averted his eyes quickly. I blushed.

"Guys, the doors are opening," Corey pointed ahead where the crowd started to funnel through the doors.

Everyone that had been sitting on the steps stood up and we all headed into the crowd. People swelled and swayed together like a body of water. I felt overwhelmed. Then the bodies started pressing in around me. An image of Kara swarmed by doctors and nurses and tubes and fluids and machines flashed in my head. I was paralyzed. I felt a hand wrap around my arm and pull me back towards whoever it belonged to.

"You okay?" Austin asked, his backpack hung from his shoulders in front of his chest. It looked like he was carrying a baby in a Bjorn.

I shook my head instinctively. I'd been working on being honest with my emotions in therapy. I'd been minimizing my problems in the shadow of Kara's disease, according to Dr. Burleson. But I felt embarrassed in this moment. He was still kind of a stranger to me. My problems weren't his. I didn't want him to know how weak and afraid I was.

"Can I put my arm around your shoulder?" He asked, his eyes hinted at concern. "These crowds are tough. I don't want to lose you and I'd hate for you to get squished."

I nodded and tucked myself under his arm. Too freaked out to worry about my cover being blown. I shouldn't be here. I should be filtering through photos of this event on the other side of a screen, publishing the best of what I find and falling asleep at four am.

Austin wasn't very tall, but he was tall enough for me to feel like a small child folded in at his side. He squeezed my shoulder and we moved forward in the mass. Eventually, we got checked in and had little orange bands wrapped around our wrists.

"Don't you guys look cozy?" Marybeth winked at us as we found our way to the group.

I bashfully pulled away from Austin and put some distance between us.

"I just wanted to make sure she made it in safely," Austin explained.

"Let's go check out the vendors! I heard the artist for Mystic Number 7 has a booth and is taking commissions!" Emily grabbed Erik's hand and he nearly fell over from the force combined with the difference in their heights.

"He is so whipped," Marybeth laughed with a snort.

"That's a pretty misogynistic thing to say," Corey said.

"Is it?" She asked, her nose scrunched up.

"I don't know, honestly," Corey sighed. "I think it is."

She shrugged her shoulders.

I looked towards Austin, who was apparently waiting on me to follow first. I turned my head towards the backs of our group moving into the exhibition hall and started to walk in their direction. I heard the shuffle of Austin's bag and his footsteps behind me.

The vendors in the exhibition hall had ridiculous amounts of goods, ranging from slightly random steampunk accessories to incredibly rare set pieces from Stargate. There was something for everyone.

"What?!" Austin exclaimed and sped past me to a video game booth.

"See, he's a nerd just like the rest of us," Emily gently elbowed me in the side.

I walked over, curious to see what had caught his attention. I found that he was ogling a twelve inch figure of a soccer player in a yellow and red jersey.

"How much for this figure of Messi?" He asked the older man running the booth.

"Three-hundred-fifty," the vendor replied.

Austin's shoulders sagged, "Yeah..."

"I saw someone selling the same one for one-fifteen on the other side of the hall," I said quietly, not sure what had come over me.

The guy looked at me incredulously. So did Austin.

"Who? Fletcher's Goods? His figures aren't authorized by FIFA."

"It looked exactly the same to me," I said, trying to imagine Kara's confidence in my voice. Her nerve. Her debate winning prowess in a conversation. "But, the packaging wasn't scuffed like this one."

He eyed me. I just kept an innocent look on my face, hoping it didn't reveal the fact that I hadn't seen anything on the other side of the venue.

"I'll sell it to you for two-hundred," he said.

Austin's eyes started to sparkle.

I looked over to Austin, completely channeling my sister now, in all of her charm, with all of her flirtatiousness, and pouted, "We only brought one-fifty with us, didn't we?"

He just stared at me, dumbfounded.

"Fine, one-fifty," the vendor huffed and handed the figure to me.

Austin fumbled for his wallet, found the right bills to hand to gentleman and took my arm to quickly escort me away from the booth before he could change his mind.

"I'm so glad I had one-fifty in exact change. Your hard work would have been lost if he realized I'd actually brought three-hundred dollars with me in case I found a figure like that," he said in one breath. "Where did you learn to deal like that?"

What was I going to say? My dead sister was good at those things. I'm just trying to act like her to make you think I'm cool and interesting. I'm trying to borrow her charisma and savvy.

"Oh, you know..." I trailed off.

"Well, that was awesome. I owe you two-hundred dollars now," he smiled. "But I only have one-fifty. You see something you like, tell me. I'll get it for you."

"For real?" I asked, suddenly excited.

He nodded and held his hand out to shake mine. I shook his hand firmly, but he didn't let it go. Instead, he turned his hand to hold mine and lead me back to the booths. He dropped my hand naturally when he found something to look at, like it wasn't a thing at all to hold my hand. Like it was completely normal. Like he'd done it everyday. I turned to pretend like I was looking at something, but really I was trying not to sweat and panic at how fast my heart was racing.

Kara would be calm in a moment like this.

"Amber, I've fallen in love," Kara, thirteen at the time, had said, pressing her Razr to her chest. "His name is Bobby. He put his number in my phone. Himself. He took my phone in his own hands and he put the number in. And when he gave it back, his hand brushed mine and I felt a spark!"

"I hate static electric shocks," I frowned.

"Not like that! Like, chemistry," she sighed dreamily.

"That doesn't make any sense, Kara," I rolled my eyes.

"I couldn't get my heart to calm down," she continued. "I thought it was going to explode!"

I shook my head, returning to the present from my sudden memory. I turned to look for Austin and found him looking at me again.

This was silly. I've obviously been cooped up way too long. I'm seventeen years old. I'm like a waif. He's been keeping track of me the whole afternoon. This is relatively normal given the situation. I've practically fallen in the lap of this group as a damsel in mild distress. They probably think I need to be lead by the hand anywhere I go.

I have not fallen in love. I'm just, uninitiated in the real world. It's like, when a Disney princess meets their first live, age appropriate male and falls in love instantly. Like instant ramen. Instant ramen love. Full of msg packed flavor, very short on depth and nutrition.

"Hey, they've opened up the deck on the second floor and the clouds have cleared up a bit," Erik announced after finding Austin and I among racks of DC paraphernalia. "You guys up for taking pictures?"

We headed up the escalator to the deck, as did dozens of other people in costume. Austin pulled out his camera and the rest of our group started to pose like zombies.

"Get in there," Austin nudged me.

"What should I do?" I asked, to which he shrugged his shoulders.

"Whatever comes to mind," he suggested. "Be yourself."

That was my problem. This was not something I would do. Being myself would mean continuing to observe from a distance. I couldn't be myself. What would Kara have done? Not the hand-on-hip-head-tilt...

"Kara, I vant to suck your blood," Bobby had said in an exaggerated Eastern European accent as he approached her on the couch.

"No!" She shrieked as he grabbed her and brushed his teeth against her neck.

I watched in annoyance as she let herself go limp in his arms. They were interrupting my Firefly binge session in the living room.

She opened her eyes, pretending to be dazed. Then, she had a hungry look in her eyes.

"Amber," she cooed and pulled out of Bobby's arms, slinking over to me. "Amber, in so hungry. Amber..."

"No," I said flatly and pushed her away as she reached for me.

She dogged my arms and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. She opened her mouth wide to bite me and I squealed before the simply kissed my cheek and giggled.

She was fun. I really should have had more fun with her.

"Earth to Amber," Austin interrupted my thoughts. "You okay? You don't have to..."

"No, sorry, I was just thinking of what to do," I explained. "What if I pretend like I'm hiding behind this wall and they're a little bit in the distance?"

"Good idea," he said.

I pressed against a nearby wall. Everyone else started to zombie walk around the corner from me. I took the Razr off my belt and opened it like it was a comm in my hand, covering the logo and angling it carefully to keep the fact that it was an old flip phone from the camera. I tried to show terror on my face.

"This is great," Austin smiled as he snapped away.

We took pictures of me running from them. Of them surrounding me. At one point, Austin climbed on a table to put the camera above us. Everyone pretended to be trying to eat me and I reached up for the camera lens, trying to escape. Acting like this, it was a rush. It was exactly the kind of thing Kara would have done.

"We should have planned to have a gold shirt with us from the beginning," Marybeth said at one point. "These are going to come out so much better than with us just being random zombies."

"No kidding," Corey said. "It helps that you're actually good at acting this out. Are you sure this is your first con and first cosplay?"

I nodded. I didn't want to tell them that I was just pretending to be my sister pretending to be a Starfleet officer running from Starfleet zombies.

"Well, you're awesome," Emily chimed in. "You should join us for future conventions. We should make you an official member of Lonely Star Cosplay."

My heart sunk. They were Lonely Star? Now that I looked at Emily, who obviously put her heart and soul into this, I recognized her from a Sailor Moon cosplay picture I had slammed on my account for being 'lazy' on my Instagram account. There was nothing lazy about this group. I looked down at my thrown together outfit, then at their carefully crafted costumes. I had never cosplayed before today. Who was I to call anyone else lazy?

Maybe they didn't know about my account. Maybe I could just keep things separated. Maybe I could be a part of this group.

"That would be fun," I smiled.

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