Chapter 15

“Okay,” Alan said, tapping his tabletshell. “Nice work, Zap. I think the only thing I’ve got for you right now is to go help Steve with restocking the canned goods aisle.”

Zap shifted his weight onto one foot. “Uh,” he said, “isn’t there anything else to do?”

“Nothing more pressing,” Alan said. “Got To’mas on the bathroom, and in a fit of unexpected productivity Matt went and mopped the entire store. Hop to, little guy.”

Zap took his time moving over to the aisle, but couldn’t help but reach it after a minute or so. Steve was there, moving goods from a cart to the shelves. She froze when she saw Zap, and then looked away.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” Zap said back. He moved to help her with stocking the items, and both of them worked in silence.

They had been at their work for several minutes when a customer came by, humming a children’s song. The customer didn’t tarry in the aisle at all, carrying through and exiting the aisle within fifteen seconds.

There were several more silent moments of work before Steve started humming the song.

Zap ignored her, at first, but upon the completion of the verse she actually started singing the words aloud. “Johnny was so poor and sad, the saddest in the town; his house was made of sticks and leaves and always falling down…

Zap joined her without thinking. “Johnny was the most unlucky man I’d ever know; I thought he couldn’t have it worse, but it began to snow.”

Alan appeared at the end of the aisle. “Hey!”

Zap and Steve both looked at their manager, who stared at them for a moment, then burst into song. “Johnny, Johnny, the unluckiest man, Johnny’s is a fate that I never could stand.

Zap and Steve resumed both stocking and singing, accompanied by Alan, who began harmonizing. “When the magic came back we all had it rough, but it seemed like Johnny just couldn’t get enough.

They made it through all five of the standard verses, and then threw in a few extras that each of them had heard in primary school.

“—and things sort of got a little less weird there,” Steve said, then took a sip from her coffee.

“Wow,” Nalley replied, leaning against the hard back of the café’s chair. “I’m so sorry all that stuff happened, Steve.”

“It sucks,” Steve agreed. “But the way it went down, it wasn’t like he was being some kind of asshole. I’m not going to lay it on Zap. He should have told me right away and he shouldn’t have kissed me back, but it’s not like I gave him time to think about it. Whatever.”

Nalley gave a sympathetic nod, keeping her large brown eyes on Steve. “You’re being pretty even-headed about it.”

“It’s about time I did that with something,” Steve said. “Anyway, enough about me. I’d love to hear about how you met Alan.”

Nalley smiled. “Well, I met Alan in ’25,” Nalley said. “We just sort of … met. I went through some serious difficulties a year later, and Alan was really nice and let me stay with him for a little while. Pretty soon I was able to get a job as a mechanic and I started making more money, so he and I became roommates for real. And, um, I’ve kind of been interested in him since I met him, but he didn’t think it’d be appropriate at first. Especially when he was supporting me. But around Christmas he admitted that he liked me, and we started going out,” Nalley said, smiling.

“That’s a cute story,” Steve said. “I wish I could have a boyfriend as thoughtful as that.”

“Oh, you totally could, Steve,” Nalley said. “You just have to wait to find him.”

“Mmm,” Steve replied, taking another drink of coffee. Her tone was not a hopeful one.

“Thank you for meeting me for coffee, Steve,” Nalley said, smiling. “I … moved from a different neighborhood and lost touch with most of my friends. I don’t have a lot of them around here. It’s cool hanging out with the band, but it’s nice to branch out, too.”

“Hey, no problem,” Steve said, grinning. “I haven’t got a whole lot of female friends. Come to think of it, my number of actual friends is a little lower than I’d like these days. I spend too much time with my Master.”

“That’s right,” Nalley said. “You’re an apprentice gunsmith. Who’s your boss?”

“Grover Messianic,” Steve said, a bit proudly. “He’s an amazing gunsmith. I carry a piece of his; it’s named Polaris.” She took the gun out of its holster and set it on the table. Polaris was a gorgeous weapon, impressive even to an untrained observer. Its design was smooth and sleek, crafted of silver plasteel and carefully balanced.

“Polaris uses nine millimeter ammunition, but honestly it’s so well-balanced it kicks like a twenty-two. Using Messianic guns just ruins you for standard models,” Steve said. “Though frankly, few people can afford to carry them.”

“How’s it that he lets you carry one?” Nalley asked, smirking.

Steve laughed. “Polaris was a commission by a merc who was trying to make a name for himself. Master was just working himself raw on this piece, and had me working on a lot of the lower-priority ones. So he finally finishes the damned thing, and he’s ecstatic. He says that it’s one of the best guns he’s made in the past year, and it was a rush job, too, so there was a lot of money coming in for it. He sends me out to buy a gallon of Good Old Apple Scrumpy and a case of St. Liam’s, saying that we are just going to get shitfaced in celebration. I head out.”

Steve drank the rest of her coffee, far more animated now than she’d been earlier in the conversation. Nalley leaned against the table, rapt.

“While I’m gone, Master gets a call. It’s from a mercenary who’d previously commissioned a Messianic, and knew about the Polaris. He tells poor Master Grover that the commissioner of the Polaris ended up taking a hit job on somebody who was being defended by Johnny Fucking Holiday. Wachow,” Steve said, making a swiping motion with both hands. “Holiday took off both of his arms with those katana, and our man bled to death before he could make it to the hospital.”

“Wooow,” Nalley said, her eyes wide.

“It also turns out that our man owed hundreds of thousands of creds to debtors, so all of his accounts were liquidated and distributed. Way the contract went, we could keep the down payment and the pistol, but we had no way of collecting the rest of the commission. We lost over half of what we would have made. Master was furious. I came back to the workshop and he was cursing this guy’s name up and down, ranting and raving and cursing all over the place. Said that the last time a client died, he destroyed the gun to send it to the client in the afterlife, but there was no way he was sending Polaris to this deadbeat.”

Steve cleared her throat and grinned slyly.

“Well, I could see that Master was super upset, and I wanted to calm him down a little. So after he says that there was no way he was sending this guy his unpaid gun, I chime in and say well, it wouldn’t work anyway. So he stops and kind of looks at me funny and asks why. I look at him real earnest and give him a little-girl look and say because Messianic guns are too good to go to hell.”

Nalley laughed earnestly, a melodic noise. Steve spread her hands in a grand gesture.

“Well that totally throws him for a loop. He starts laughing there, and says that I just made his night and that he wasn’t allowed to bitch until he’d had at least one tall stein of Scrumpy. So we sit down and start drinking, and soon he gets all sentimental like he always does when he gets drunk. He says that Polaris reminds him of some of his best pieces, and he wishes that some of them were still around for him to show me. And he says that he wants to have Polaris be somewhere where he can see it until he retires, but guns are meant to be worn and used, not displayed like trophies. I want another coffee.”

“What?” Nalley asked, thrown by the sudden departure from the story.

“I want another coffee,” Steve said. “Mind if I interrupt the story and go get one?”

“Uh, sure,” Nalley said, nodding. “I could use one too.”

They got another pair of coffees from the counter, then returned to their seats.

“Okay, so where was I?” Steve asked.

“Used, not displayed,” replied Nalley.

“Right!” Steve said. “Used, not displayed. So all of a sudden I see him switch gears in his head, and he looks at me and leans forward a little bit. And he says to me, he says, ‘Stephen, someday yer gonna have to carry a piece o’ yer own craftin’,’” Steve rasped, affecting an exaggerated accent and squinting one eye. Nalley giggled and Steve continued.

“‘But until that time, I d’want yeh carryin’ around no Dai-Sho gun. Worthless man-ya-fakkered shit,’ he says. So he reaches over and grabs the Polaris and slaps it down right in front of me. And he looks at me and he says, ‘My star student. I ’spect you to make yerself a standard belt tomorrah an’ a dress belt th’ next day. An’ they better be good.’”

Steve threw her hands into the air and smiled. “And there you go. I made holsters and belts for myself, and Master gave me the gun. Until I get Journeyman Cert and can legally carry my own weapons—” she leaned toward Nalley “—and let me tell you I have one design that is going to kick ass—but until then I get to bear the Polaris, one of Grover Messianic’s self-admitted best guns.”

“That’s an awesome story,” Nalley said, clapping her hands.

“Thanks!” Steve said. “What kind of training do you have, Nalley?”

“Oh, just C-Rank pistol and CCDM,” Nalley said.

“Oh, I don’t mean just martial or magic,” Steve replied. “Don’t you have VC? You said you were a vehicle mechanic.”

“Oh yeah,” Nalley replied. “I have a history with cars, so I learned a whole lot of stuff on my own. When I finally had to make a living, I managed to get rush-certified as a mechanic because I already knew just about everything about Chiaroscuro-make cars and was quickly picking up other makes. I am pretty good with cars.”

“Wow,” Steve said. “That’s really impressive.”

“Thanks,” Nalley replied shyly. She looked down at her watch, then up at Steve. “Hey, weren’t you supposed to be at work ten minutes ago?”

“Oh, shit!” Steve agreed, leaping to her feet. “Really nice to spend time with you! Sorry to have to leave so quickly!”

“It’s okay!” Nalley said, smiling. “I look forward to doing it again.”