Chapter 20

Zap trudged through the aisle, his gait slow and tired. He stopped for a moment to contemplate a shelf of disposable flatware. He spent a few minutes staring at the variety of paper plates and bowls with sleepy eyes, then put out his hand and leaned against the shelf. His eyelids slowly drooped and his head lolled slightly. His arm suddenly went slack, and he stumbled against the shelf clumsily, jolted awake. He scrambled to regain his footing hurriedly, then tried unsuccessfully to stifle a huge yawn. He resumed his slow trudge.

As Zap gradually approached the end of the aisle, To’mas walked around the corner. The half-elf halted in his tracks when he saw Zap.

“You look like a blue mutant in a sauna, dude,” To’mas said, smirking at Zap.

“Precertification finals,” Zap murmured.

“Bit early for them, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, well see,” Zap explained, “if I don’t earn my precert before the retreat, I won’t be allowed to use any decent magic in the simulations or exercises. You can only use weapons and magic you’re certified for.”

“Ahh,” To’mas said, nodding.

“So I’ve got it all scheduled,” Zap said, “so that I can get my precert in time to be able to include it in the shellwork for the retreat. And if I stick with the schedule, I can actually get four full hours of sleep a night, six if I work really hard.”

“Iyesu. I hate deadlines,” To’mas said, his face a mask of distaste. “You’ve got my sympathy, bro.”

“What’s going on with you, To’mas?” Zap said. “I haven’t been keeping up.”

An idyllic smile crept onto To’mas’s face. “I have been having a lot of fun lately.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Remember that couple I met at the Sixth Gear concert?”

“Ahh,” Zap said, echoing To’mas’s earlier gesture of commiseration.

“They’ve decided to keep me,” To’mas said. “We’ve been having a great time.”

“Congratulations,” Zap said, yawning.

“What about you?” To’mas asked. “You have a girlfriend now, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Zap replied. “Her name’s Pazi. She’s at Ethertech too, working on an Apprentice degree in Arcane Invocation.”

“A summoner?” To’mas said, grinning. “Sexy.”

“I’m not really sure what you mean, but sure. Also, another thing about her—”

“You ladies plan on working anytime soon?” Steve asked from the end of the aisle.

“Can I just nap instead?” Zap asked.

“Sure, why not,” Steve said. “I’ll just give Paru a call and let her know that you’ll be napping, and is she okay with that.”

“Right, to work!” Zap said, striding from the aisle.

Zap walked across the front of the store, checking the diagnostic panel on the self-checkout machines as he passed by. He turned his head for a moment, glancing out the front window of the store. He turned back and continued his walk, then did a double-take back out the window as it registered whom he had seen.

Sir Lewis Birchmore stood just outside the store, looking in and craning his neck to try to see down the aisles. Zap’s hand flew to his workshell and he tapped it, murmuring into the microphone of his store earpiece.

“Steve,” he murmured, “stay in the back. Your asshole Romeo is here.”

“Son of a bitch,” Steve’s voice growled in Zap’s ear.

Sir Birchmore tapped on the front polyglass window of the store.

“Do I get to go to the turret?” To’mas asked excitedly.

“Yeah, go ahead,” Alan’s voice said. “Zap, please get Sir Ironsphincter to go away.”

“Me?!” Zap said indignantly. Sir Birchmore looked irritated and knocked on the glass. He gestured to the door, indicating that Zap should meet him there.

“Just go do it, Zap.”

Zap very slowly and reluctantly moved toward the entrance of the store. Sir Birchmore walked over to the doorway and stood there. The door opened as the Knight passed in front of it like an arena portcullis opening on an opponent that Zap was quite ill-prepared to face.

“May I speak to Miss Steve?” Sir Birchmore asked, polite but ice-cold.

“You’re really not supposed to be here, Sir Knight,” Zap said slowly.

“I am not to enter the store,” Sir Birchmore said, “thanks to the research of the toadies that your company retains. The research that you hide behind, as none of you are intelligent nor brave enough to speak for yourselves.”

“You’re also not supposed to like camp out in front of the store,” Zap said.

“I have to be here for at least fifteen minutes to present any precedent for enforcement,” Sir Birchmore responded. “Moreover, I do not come here to fight or argue. I come under only the friendliest of pretenses today.”

“Is that right,” Zap said.

“It is,” Sir Birchmore replied. “I am concerned for Miss Steve; she has not contacted me in some time, and I am worried for her safety.”

“Tell him I’m dead,” Steve said. “Tell him I got eaten by a mimic.”

“Steve is fine,” Zap said, “except that she’s sick today.”

“Ah,” Sir Birchmore said. “Perhaps I should return tomorrow?”

“Tell him I got run over!” Steve said urgently. “Say a roc shat on me!”

“Shut up!” Zap growled under his voice.

“I beg your pardon?” Sir Birchmore asked.

“Uh, no,” Zap said to the knight. “She’s … got that thing going around. That lasts a few days.”

“I see,” Sir Birchmore said. “Perhaps that is why she missed our follow-up date.”

“Fuck,” Steve muttered. “Fuckety fuck.”

“Hey Zap,” To’mas cut in eagerly. “Lure him into the store.”

“Will you two please be quiet,” Alan said. “As if Zap weren’t having enough trouble up there.”

“Uh,” Zap said. “It’s possible.”

“Hmm,” Sir Birchmore said. “She has not been answering my messages pursuant to rescheduling.”

“Oh, well, see…” Zap said, the gears in his head turning rapidly. “Steve just … converted. To orthodox Etherism. So she can’t date outside of the religion.”

“Don’t tell him that!” Steve said. “He’s Etherist! He was evangelizing at me on the lunch date from hell!”

“Ah,” Sir Birchmore said, pleased. “I see that she has heeded me. It should not be a problem, as it is I who bore witness to her.”

“Tell him a date killed my dad,” Steve said, “So I can’t date any more.”

“Um, I’m sorry,” Zap said. “See, she converted to really orthodox Etherism, so she doesn’t date at all.”

“That doesn’t … make much sense,” Sir Birchmore said, squinting his eyes suspiciously.

“Tell him you just got a call from your manager,” Steve said urgently, “And I completely just exploded for no reason. Blood and guts all over the place, very tragic.”

Zap stared at Sir Birchmore for several seconds, then cleared his throat.

“Steve doesn’t like you,” Zap said. There was a stunned pause from the knight, so Zap continued. “She thinks you’re a creepy old man, and she wants nothing to do with you.”


“Steve, ow!” Alan said. “I’m muting you now. Stay in the back room.”

“What?” Sir Birchmore asked.

“I mean, do you not get this?” Zap asked, shaking his head and giving the knight an incredulous look. He found that the more he talked, the easier it was. “You pretty much ignore everything everyone else does and act like you’re the most important person in the universe. That might be attractive to stupid people, but Steve’s not stupid, and she thinks that basically you are an arrogant cock.”

Sir Birchmore looked very angry for a moment, and Zap wondered for a moment whether he should turn tail and run. The angry expression dissolved, however, into one of shock and disbelief. “Really?” Sir Birchmore said.

“Really,” Zap said, nodding. “We pretty much all think that.”

Sir Birchmore’s eyes flickered back and forth, his face a mask of disturbed contemplation. “Why, then,” he asked, “didn’t she say anything about it?”

“She was afraid that you’d throw a hissy fit if she denied you,” Zap said. “That’s probably why most people are so nice to you. You’re honestly not a very nice man.”

Sir Birchmore looked for a moment as though he were about to retort in anger, but decided to stop just short of shouting and consider Zap’s words. There was a tense silence. Sir Birchmore dropped his hand and looked critically at Zap. Zap, to his credit, stood his ground and returned the knight’s gaze.

“I will consider your words, Mr. Zap,” Birchmore said after a pause. “Your honesty is refreshing. In the meantime, good day to you.”

Sir Lewis Birchmore turned, then, and walked away from the store.

Zap turned away from the store entrance, smirked, put his hands on his hips, and nodded triumphantly at the nearest security camera.

“Holy shit,” Alan said.

“Zap,” Steve said quietly, “I owe you a burrito and several sexual favors.”

“Now,” Zap said, “is the time that I do the happy dance.”

He did. And it was seriously dorky.