Chapter 4

“Scuze me, miss.”

Steve looked up, startled, into the face of a man in his mid-twenties. He was wearing a simple pair of cargoes and an Ellis Manteaux ’24 ‘Elemental’ world tour t-shirt. He smiled at Steve, his expression one of nervous hope. “Can you help me with something?”

“Uh, sure,” Steve responded.

The customer pointed over at the flower display, a cool jungle of colorful blossoms. Steve’s confidence faltered immediately. The customer continued. “I have a lady friend who I, uh, think likes me.”

“Izzat right,” Steve said.

“I like her too,” the customer said. “She’s very shy, though. I don’t think I could just tell her I like her, for some reason. So I was kind of hoping to get her some flowers. Today.” He paused and looked at his watch. “Like in less than an hour.”

Steve led the customer to the flower display and looked them over. She chose one of the most flamboyantly colorful displays and gestured at it. “Uh,” she muttered. “That one is … good.”

“It’s a little…” the customer trailed off.

“Well,” Steve said as her eyes roamed over the flower display, preparing to pick another bouquet at random. Before she could do so, Zap appeared behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders and giving the customer a winning smile.

“My associate,” Zap interjected, “was about to mention that she needs to know a little bit about who these flowers for. Who are they for, again?” He delicately moved Steve to the side, who tucked herself behind her rescuer, grateful for the save.

“Somebody I know,” the customer said. “Well okay, I guess I don’t know her really that well. But we like each other. I’m pretty sure.”

“So I think it’s safe to say that you wouldn’t call it love, right?”

The customer held up his hands. “W-whoa, that’s a bit much this early.”

“Right,” Zap said. “Let’s not do red roses, then.” He pointed at a tasteful bouquet with a romantic theme, but that avoided roses altogether. “How does that look? Or this one, or this?”

“I like that one,” the man said, pointing at the second bouquet Zap had indicated. It had a white and pink theme to it, mostly white. Zap nodded.

“Good choice, sir. Would you like me to ring you up here? How will you be paying for that?”

“Card,” the customer said, holding out a chargebus. Zap produced his workshell, plugged the bus into it, punched a few buttons and handed the card back. “That’s gonna be twenty-two thirty-five. Here’s your bouquet.”

“Thanks!” the customer said cheerfully, taking the bouquet and walking out of the store.

“Well, that was cute,” Steve said, only half-sarcastic.

Zap furrowed his brow at his workshell. “Stewve…”

“Do not start making up weird nicknames for me, Zap,” Steve said in a flat tone.

“No, this flower guy’s name,” Zap said. “It’s literally the last bunch of letters in the alphabet. How the hell do you pronounce that?”

Steve looked at the shell. “Stew-vixens.”

“That can’t be right.”

Alan interrupted the pair suddenly. “Iyesu, Steve,” he said, exasperated. “Can we please get you to some customer service classes? You can at least pretend that you know what you’re talking about, even if you choose horrible bouquets like Zap does.”

“Horrible?!” Zap snapped, indignant.

“The important thing is to make the customer feel like he is making the right choice,” Alan continued. “I don’t care if it’s a bouquet that I wouldn’t be caught dead giving my girlfriend—”

“Wait, you have a girlfriend?” Steve asked, raising her eyebrows.

“The bouquet was fine! Pink is romantic!” Zap ranted.

“—what’s crucial is that you empower him. You make him think, ‘I am buying this horrible bouquet and I feel good about it.’ And I mean girlfriend hypothetically. Anyway, Zap, could you please give Steve some pointers? I’ve gotta go finish inventory.”

Alan walked off.

“Iyesu!” Zap retorted. “Orc manners!”

“I think Alan has a girlfriend,” Steve said. “I always figured he was way too boring for that sort of thing.”

“Well, he never talks about himself, does he?” Zap said. “For all we know, he could be a Shadowflame. Whose magic uses infant massacre as its focus.”

“Don’t be a jackass; he was right about the bouquet.”

“No he wasn’t! Anyway, you had your chance, and you pointed at the crazy person bouquet!”

“Crazy person? It’s exciting!” Steve objected. “And if it’s so bad, why are we selling it?”

“Ask the distributor,” Zap said.

To’mas approached from behind, pushing a shopping cart full of returns. “What’re you guys talking about?”

“Bouquets,” said Zap.

“Alan,” said Steve.


“Infant massacre.”

To’mas stared at the two for a moment before continuing to push the cart. “You guys are too much,” he said, grinning and walking by.

Zap hummed a tune to himself, watching a diagnostic program run on one of the self-checkout devices. He had been sitting through the process for about a minute and a half when a familiar figure walked out of one of the aisles.

“Hey, Little Merlin,” the figure called to Zap, ambling toward him.

“Hey Matt, what’s up.”

Matt reached the checkout device, towering over Zap. His holo-tattooed face was grinning down at Zap, his dreadlocks framing his face as he leaned down slightly. Matt was a fairly talented employee, when he bothered to work; it was fairly well assumed that he showed up to work on drugs most of the time.

“I got one for you,” Matt said, a cryptic smile on his face.

“Got one what?” Zap asked.

“An answer.”

“I don’t think I asked a question.”

“So do it now,” Matt replied.

Zap laughed and shook his head, then looked up at Matt. His smile faded a bit. “Wait, you’re serious?”

It was also fairly assumed that Matt had an oracular talent. Every once in a while he displayed a prescience that was unlikely to be coincidence, but seemed to manifest itself only in useless situations.

“I’m never serious,” Matt replied with a laugh.

“Yeah but … are you serious about answering a question?”

“What else am I supposed to do with this answer?”

Zap paused. “Okay, okay,” he said, his mind racing. “I don’t want to ask you anything too serious, because you might not be able to answer it and anyway I don’t want to know important things too early and be tied to them…”

“It’s very simple, Little Merlin.”

“Uhm,” Zap tapped his foot. “Okay. Let’s keep this all secondary school, like. When will I get together with my next girlfriend?”

“Soon, man.” Matt laughed. “Real soon.” With that, he turned to the failed diagnostic program. “Since that was lame, I’ll give you one extra: the driver on this thing is down. You want to download another one from the franchise Ether. I’ll see you five minutes after you stub your toe today.”

With that, Matt turned and walked away, leaving Zap standing, confused, by the crashed checkout machine.

A girl with a pretty face and long black hair who wore a black-stained pair of overalls and a t-shirt peered through the window of the Securemarket™. She stayed there for a moment, standing on her toes and moving her head about to try to look down the aisles. Her large brown eyes swept back and forth as though spying on heavily guarded territory. After a few moments of this, she sighed and walked around the corner to the entrance.

As the doors opened, she scurried through, still sneaking like a truant student. She rushed past the self-checkout machines and approached one of the aisles, looking down it cautiously.

Steve, who had seen all of this, thought it would be hilarious to sneak up on the girl and greet her from the closest possible proximity, which she did.

“Hi!” Steve chirped. The girl started violently and whirled toward Steve, her large eyes wide with surprise. Steve noted that the girl’s hands were in a similar state to her clothes, stained black with an oily substance.

After a moment, the girl calmed enough to respond. “Hi,” she said.

“May I help you?” Steve asked, all smiles.

“Um, that’s okay,” the girl said shyly. “I just wanted to see if an employee was here.”

“Unless his name is To’mas, the answer is ‘no’,” Steve replied, looking a little annoyed at being left alone with the half-elf. “Alan and Zap had to go pick something up from regional HQ and left me and To’mas to mind the store. We don’t know where Matt is.”

“Oh,” the girl said, looking a little crestfallen. She then looked up at Steve and smiled. “Okay, thanks.”

“Which one were you looking for? I can tell him you came by.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” the girl said, ducking her head. “It’s really not that important. I’ve gotta get back now. Nice to meet you, uh, Steve,” she said, glancing at Steve’s nametag.

“Well shouldn’t I at least tell them who came by?” Steve asked, nonplussed.

“No, that’s okay, that’s okay!” the girl said, already on her way toward the door. “I’ll just talk to him later. Thank you! Bye!”

A few seconds later, the girl was out of sight. Steve scratched her head.

“Huh,” Steve said. She let a few moments pass, then spoke to no one in particular. “Hey Alan and Zap, some girl who didn’t leave her name came by with a message she didn’t give for one of you, but she didn’t say which one.”

She shook her head, and then walked back into the aisle. “I’m gonna sit on this one.”