It was an ordinary Wednesday in the greatest city in the world.
The air was crisp but not cold, made warmer by the mid-day sun shining down upon acres of pavement and skyscraper. Hours ago the nine-to-five crowd had begun their takeover of the city, releasing it from the hands of the late-night workers and career partiers. The streets milled with thousands upon thousands of everyday people, dressed in suits and casual clothing alike, wearing guns and swords and wands. They poured into and out of the entrances to Rail stations, office buildings, restaurants. For many, it would be the first or last day of their lives; for others, it was merely an ordinary day.
On the fourteenth floor of an apartment building on 15th Street in north New Washington, an employee of the mighty Securemarket™ woke at the crack of noon.
He was wiry-thin and tall. Like most New Washingtonians, he had a deep tan skin tone and facial features indicating the melting-pot heritage of the city. His black hair was splayed in dreadlocks around his head which slowly drew together as he sat up.
He blinked several times, then turned to his bedstand. On top of his alarm clock were a simple black handshell, a tube of chapstick, and a nametag reading ‘Matt’. He reached for the handshell and picked it up, knocking the tube of chapstick to the floor.
He tapped the surface of the shell, watching its screen come to life. A few more taps from his thumb and he had opened a contact and set the shell to call it. He held the shell to his ear and cleared his throat several times. After five rings, someone picked up.
“Steve, girl,” he said into the receiver of the phone.
A female voice said something, sleep-thick, into his ear.
“Yeah, you slept through your alarm.”
The female voice sounded startled.
“I know. But it’s aight. The boss is going to be late too. There’s a Rail delay. Chill.”
The voice responded with relief, then, after a pause, sarcasm.
“If I used my second sight for anything important,” the dreadlocked employee said, “You’d still be asleep when Alan got to the store. You’re welcome.”
The employee ended the call, set down his shell and once again cleared his throat loudly.
“That reminds me,” he muttered, “I need to buy a camera.”
“Hey Zap, catch!”
The black-haired young man turned just in time to see a large package of toilet paper flying toward him. He jerked his arms upward, clipping his elbow against the sharp edge of the weapon at his hip.
“Ow!” he yelped as he caught the toilet paper.
“Pff. That hurt you? It’s TP, not plasteel,” his coworker Steve said, her tone incredulous. Her auburn curls swayed as she carried another bundle of toilet paper toward the shelf and shoved several along the ground with one foot.
Zap swiveled, trying to bring his aching elbow into view around the large package in his hands. “No, it’s this damn Forcebolt,” he complained. “My elbow hit it. I’m not used to wearing a weapon.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Steve said. “If you don’t look like you can defend the place, we’ll get an audit.” She rose to her tiptoes and shoved the package into place on the high shelf. Her own weapon, an ominous-looking custom pistol, glinted in the store’s sterile light as she turned. Zap glared at it for a moment, then laughed.
“Hey Steve, got a joke,” he said, smirking as he stood on his own tiptoes to place his package on the shelf. “What’s the difference between a gun and a marital aid?”
Steve turned to him and raised an eyebrow.
“The average New Washingtonian can get it up without a marital aid.”
His coworker’s stare hardened, her eyebrows forming a flat, angry line.
“What?” Zap said. “It’s just a joke.”
Steve’s glare bore into Zap’s face. He averted his eyes.
“Look, I wasn’t trying to offend you.” He paused, then said, “I just sort of think the whole arms culture thing is—”
“Whatever,” Steve snapped, turning back to stock the shelf.
“I’m honestly not trying to say your apprenticeship is—”
“Whatever! Zap!” Steve said, her whole body tensing. “I don’t care. You want to do your job or what?” She snatched another package of toilet paper and jammed it into place. Zap gingerly slid his onto the shelf, then picked up the next.
“Are you sure?” he probed.
“I’m not an apprentice gunsmith because you think it’s cool,” she said, shoving the package onto the shelf. She tossed a dismissive gesture at Zap and focused a look of uncharitable appraisal on him. Zap found himself suddenly self-conscious of his skinny frame and soft features. “You’re not working on your degree because wizards make me moist. Because they don’t.”
Zap shifted uncomfortably and set the package back down where he’d picked it up. “Maybe I’d better go stock the sodas.”
“Maybe you’d better,” she replied coldly.
At the front of the store, a man in his fifties with a muscular, lean build pushed his shopping cart up to the checkout line, his bald pate gleaming in the CoolSun full-spectrum crystal lamps of the store. He began unloading his items, placing them in the scanning area one by one. This was not a noteworthy event until the scanner refused to recognize one of the items. The man looked puzzled and moved it out of the sensors, then placed it back in. The computer remained unresponsive.
Seemingly from thin air, a young man appeared next to the customer. He was coffee-skinned, dreadlocked, and very handsome. He had a small set of shimmering holo-tats on his face, a common sign of a yuzie or street punk, but he was also wearing the simple red apron of a Securemarket™ employee and a nametag labeled ‘Matt’. He raised a hand and used it to tap a few points on the scanner’s console.
“Tamarind,” he murmured to the bald man, keeping his voice low. “The scanner doesn’t like tamarind. Never recognizes it.” Then, raising his voice to more normal levels, he added, “Also, your wife’s cheating on you. Check her pea-coat when you get home.”
The scanner beeped as it decided to acknowledge the tamarind’s presence. The dreadlocked employee turned and sauntered away, leaving the bald man standing baffled in front of the scanner.
Now alone, the bald man scoffed, smiled and shook his head. He then paused, furrowed his brow, took out his handshell, and stared at it.
Ten minutes after Zap had begun restocking the sodas, he had a visitor. The shift manager Alan, a twentysomething with light brown hair, walked by the drinks aisle holding a tabletshell, absently tapping the screen with his finger as he took inventory around the store. “Hey, little guy,” he said in an offhand tone to Zap as he approached. “What’s on?”
“Uh, not much,” Zap said, keeping himself busy stocking the sodas.
“Cool, cool,” Alan said. “Cool.” He tapped his tablet a few more times. “Hey, candy aisle’s been lossy. Think you guys could keep an eye on it like after school hours? I think we’ve got some yuzies hanging around.”
“Okay,” Zap intoned rotely. Alan seemed satisfied and continued his patrol, still jabbing at the tabletshell. Before he reached the end of the aisle, he stopped and turned back to Zap.
“Oh hey, uh,” he said. “Steve pissed about something?”
“We had a discussion about guns,” Zap said.
“Huh,” Alan said. There was a pause as he failed to think of something appropriate to say. He eventually just made a helpless gesture and moved to the next aisle.
Zap spent a few seconds staring at the space where his manager had just been standing, then stood up and shoved the soda case forward with his foot. “That’s it,” he growled. “Smoke break.”
Moments later he was outside, leaning on the side of the building and watching cars hum by. A pink-tinted roll of paper dangled from his fingers with a glowing ember on the end. Zap let it sit for a little while, checking his watch periodically to make sure he was not outlasting his break.
It was a cool day. Spring had recently begun and now the weather was nice; Zap had been taking advantage of the fair conditions by visiting his parents often. His parents lived in the Agricultural District of Home and actually had a yard, a commodity that Zap imagined they must have paid a great deal of money for. He would visit whenever he could and used the yard as a place to study when he had the time to take the Rail there. Someday, Zap promised himself, I’ll have a condominium with a rooftop garden and I’ll walk there every day.
The outside of the Securemarket™ was not so picturesque, but the weather was still nice, and it provided a pleasant respite from a stressful day. Zap brought the cigarette to his mouth and took a drag from it.
Zap then heard a clack from the door and looked over to see it open. Steve walked out casually, then saw Zap and stopped short.
Both of them looked at each other for a moment. “Taking your break early,” Steve observed dryly.
“Yeah,” Zap said.
After a moment, Steve apparently decided that was all right. “Okay,” she said, coming out of the store all the way and letting the door close behind her. “Alan’ll do floor patrol.” She leaned against the wall herself and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
Zap looked at Steve as she tapped the pack against her opposite hand, then brought it up and drew a cigarette from the pack with her mouth. He began to speak. “Hey, listen—”
Steve’s left hand flew up very quickly with one finger extended. “Don’t—” she said, fixing him with a steely gaze. “Don’t.”
Zap faltered and let his voice drop off. Steve’s eyes remained steadily on him for a moment, then her expression changed, one eyebrow raising. “Is that cig pink?”
“It’s a rose cigarette,” Zap said, thinking this explained everything, but Steve seemed to expect him to continue. “Mages smoke them.”
“Femmey mages?” Steve asked, the edges of her lips turning up in a little smile as the unlit cigarette dangled between them. “Mages who wear dresses?”
“No! Iyesu. Regular mages.” Zap retorted, annoyed but relieved that Steve was no longer staring him down.
Steve snorted derisively and raised her hand to the edge of her cigarette. Zap sensed a faint surge of magic as his coworker summoned a small flame to her hand, lighting her cigarette.
Eager to change the subject, Zap pointed to the newly-lit cigarette. “I didn’t know you knew Color Magic, Steve.”
“Took it on the side during high school,” she said. “Knew I needed mag-cert to get a decent job, and CCDM looked boring.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Zap,” Steve said, suddenly very serious.
“Does your wand have a glittery star on it?”