Chapter 18

Alan, Nalley, and Steve were sitting at The Kaiser Roll™ on Neimuth Avenue, about a block away from the 15th and Neimuth Securemarket™. The time was 21:53, and the three were having a post-shift dinner together before going their separate ways. All three were grinning widely as Alan told a story.

“—but of course, his weapon belt had already come loose,” Alan said, “and when it fell, it went and took his slacks right with it.”

“Oh my God!” Nalley said, her hands flying to her mouth. She giggled madly as Alan continued.

“And yeah, so that day we found out that Sir Tor wore boxers with little cartoon depictions of Arachne on them. I’m surprised he didn’t challenge one of us to a duel; he was probably too shocked to think straight.”

“That’s so crazy,” Steve said, smiling.

“Yeah…” Alan said. “Yeah.”

“Hey Steve, what’s up?” Nalley asked, tilting her head a little bit. “You’ve looked kind of out of it this whole time.”

“Oh, uh,” Steve said, shaking her head. “It’s really nothin’.”

“Hey, don’t be a Fed,” Nalley said, smiling. “You can talk to us about it. You’ve talked about your Zap stuff with both of us.”

“Yeah, but,” Steve said, making an unsure gesture.

“It’s really okay,” Alan said, also smiling. “I know I’m your boss and all, but this isn’t really your real career anyway. I want you to feel like I’m more of a friend by the end of it than a boss.”

“Uh, it’s just about something I heard from Paru, and some other stuff.”

“Yeah?” Nalley asked.

“Um, Alan, you used to have a Chiaroscuro, right?” Steve looked up into Alan’s eyes as she asked. She saw a definite flicker of fear pass behind them, but when he responded, his tone was casual.

“Yeah, for a year or so before I sold it,” he said. Nalley’s expression grew unsure.

“What model was it?” Steve asked.

Alan paused for a moment before responding. “It was a Lumia,” he said. “The model that Nalley based her last name on when she changed it.”

“Oh,” Steve said, nodding a bit. “She changed her last name.”

“Yes. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

“Yes,” Nalley replied, her expression unhappy.

“What’s the matter?” Steve asked.

“Her parents really didn’t want her to do it,” Alan replied, smiling.

“What was your car’s name?” Steve asked. “Paru said it was—”

“O’Malley,” Alan replied a bit too fast. “Funny coincidence, huh? It wasn’t—”

“No,” Nalley replied, her expression dark.

Alan faltered and let his voice drop off.

“What?” Steve asked.

“I don’t like this,” Nalley said, her voice quavering. “I don’t like this any more.”

“Sweetie, please—” Alan pleaded.

“It’s all I’ve got, Alan,” Nalley said, “don’t make me put it away.”

Steve was silent, letting her gaze flash from Alan to Nalley. Alan’s face expressed a mix of sympathy, concern, and fear.

A tear rolled down Nalley’s cheek. “I didn’t change my name,” she said. “Alan didn’t sell me!”

Steve’s jaw dropped.

Nalley burst into tears and pushed away from the table, sobbing loudly. She ran from the restaurant, drawing stares from the nearby patrons. Alan looked back and forth between Steve and his fleeing girlfriend for a moment, then gave Steve an apologetic look and bolted after Nalley.

Steve was left alone with the empty trays on the table to make sense of what had just been said. She scratched her head, took a deep breath, and slowly stacked the trays, putting all of the trash on top of one of them. She walked with the tray to the trash, emptied it, placed the tray on top of the can, and exited the restaurant.

When Steve left the Kaiser Roll™, she was surprised to find that Alan was standing just outside, facing the street. He was just outside of the flood of a street lamp, standing mostly in shadow. His arms were at his side, but his shell was in one hand. It cast a soft bluish glow against his jeans, the only spot of color on him

Steve approached cautiously. “Alan…?” she said, half-expecting him to explode at her.

“Mm?” Alan said, turning a little bit.

“You okay?”

“Oh? Uh, yeah,” Alan said. He sighed and ran a hand back through his hair, leaving it in a blond tousle not unlike what he wore for concerts. “Nalley wants to be alone for a bit.”

“I, uh, I didn’t mean—”

“I know you didn’t mean,” Alan said. “This is sort of my fault.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s so honest, Nalley is,” Alan said with a wan smile, turning toward Steve. “Trying to force a lie on her for safety’s sake was…”

“Could … you tell me what she meant?”

Alan rubbed his nose, and was quiet for a few moments. He sighed. “Thereby … hangs a tale.”

Steve chewed her lip and shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“Let’s go to your apartment,” Alan said. “I’ll tell you the whole thing. I think that Nalley’d probably prefer I did.”

“Uh, okay,” Steve replied.

The two walked toward the rail station in silence.

“Steve,” Alan said, carefully stepping into the apartment, “this may be the messiest apartment in New Washingtonian history.”

“I like to think that by creating a protective layer of debris,” Steve replied, clambering over a pile of laundry, “I’m keeping the floor from getting fucked up.”

“Not like you’ve got too much room in here,” Alan said. He soon gave up on walking and crawled over the mountains of clothing and possessions, trying to avoid destroying anything. “How much does this place cost?”

“Four fifty,” Steve said. “Not a bad price for the location, but yeah it’s basically a matchbox.”

“Right. Um, so where should I sit?”

“On the futon is fine,” Steve said, nodding and leaning back on a pile of laundry.

“Where’s that?”

“You’re on it.”

Alan looked down at the surface he’d ended up on, and realized that it was actually a futon on a frame. Steve’s homeshell was taking up about half of it, and a dropcloth on which gun parts were strewn was covering up another quarter.

“How in the hell do you sleep here, Steve?” Alan asked.

“I move the dropcloth,” Steve replied, “and curl up. I don’t take up that much room. Anyway, a lot of the time I just sleep on Master’s couch. His second wife is a pretty good cook, and she feeds me if I crash out there.”

“Is there even a kitchenette in this apartment?”

“Um, there’s a bathroom there,” she pointed at a small door that barely had room to open. “With a sink. And I’ve got some minifridges under the futon frame, and a multiheater on that pile there that I use to heat frozen dinners. Anyway, weren’t you going to tell me Nalley’s story?”

“So I was,” Alan said, leaning back against the wall. “Okay, let me give you the history behind it.”

Steve settled into her laundry.

“In May of 2225,” Alan said, “I graduated from NWU with a degree in business, as you know. My parents were really happy about that. They’re both really good with money, so I got a really nice graduation present: a Chiaroscuro Lumia ’25. A sleek new car, a method of transportation, and status symbol all in one. I named the car Nalley.

“As the year progressed, things got difficult for me. I was still working at the Securemarket™, which I had been for a while, but I wasn’t making then what I make now and anyway I was terrible about spending. I hadn’t picked up any money-saving skills, so I was paying all of my bills with my Securemarket™ wages and not really able to save much. I was also trying to beef up my martial certs, get myself up to B-Rank pistol and CCDM. Those courses took up time and cost money, and I was eating takeout a lot. Things got kind of bad.

“So anyway, in the summer of ’26, I decided that things were just getting too bad, so I made the decision that I was going to have to sell my car. I wasn’t happy about it at all, but I thought it was the only option and I prepared myself to do it. And that’s where the story really begins…”