Chapter 22

Zap stood at the end of the aisle, watching as Loren ran an automop methodically over the floor. Loren’s passes of the mop were slow and carefully measured, passing over each section of the floor twice, punctuated by a single step between. The monotonous rhythm of the cleaning kept Zap mesmerized briefly, and once he was able to look away he surveyed the other employee.

Loren was possibly as ordinary as a New Washingtonian could ever be, particularly considering that he was in his late teens, generally an experimental age. He had short hair of a dark brown color, brown eyes, and a tan skin tone. He wore utilitarian clothes, just dressy enough to be professional, and had no tattoos or jewelry.

Zap suddenly had a thought. He stepped forward down the aisle and stood not too far behind Loren. “Hey, Loren,” he said.

“Yeah?” Loren asked, not looking up from his work.

“What’re your certs?”

“Business casual,” Loren said, using a slang term for the standard businessman’s certification set: a C-Rank Pistol certification and a C-Rank CCDM certification.

“Aren’t you still in secondary?”

“Yeah, early program,” Loren said, “about to finish. But once I was old enough, I picked up my certs during summer courses.”

“Huh,” Zap said. “What do you like to do?”

“I’m pretty busy,” Loren said. “But when I’m not working or at school, I just do regular stuff. You know, watch the ether and stuff.”

“Huh,” Zap said thoughtfully. “Hang on.” He turned and jogged from the aisle.

Loren sighed and continued the work that the interaction had not actually interrupted, alternating two swipes of the mop and a step. After several more rows, Zap returned, the transfer employee named Click in tow.

“Loren,” Zap said, “you’ve met Click, right?”

“Yes,” Loren said.

“Yeah, we met when I came in,” Click said, a bit puzzled.

“Well, uh,” Zap said, “did you shake hands?”

“Yes,” Loren said.

“We did,” Click said.

“Well,” Zap said, “you should do it again. Just real quick.”

Loren actually stopped his work, staring at Zap. He and Click exchanged a look, then shook hands. They looked back at Zap and saw a disappointed look on his face.

“Okay,” Zap said with a sigh. “Never mind. As you were.” He then turned and walked away.

“I wonder what that was about,” Loren said.

“I don’t know,” Click said, then smiled at Loren. “Hey, are you as boring as you look?”

Loren paused for a moment before replying. “Yes.”

“So it turns out that the matter/antimatter theory is crap,” Zap said as he approached Steve. “What are you doing?”

“I’m staring down this douchebag,” Steve replied, not turning to look at Zap. Following her gaze, Zap saw that Steve’s eyes were fixed on the front window of the store, where a shadowy figure in a long, dark coat was standing. The figure was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, hiding most of his features from view. A long, wide sword was strapped to his back. He looked like the dictionary definition of imposing.

“Uh, why are you staring him down?” Zap asked, a little unnerved.

“It just cheeses me off,” Steve growled. “Give an ether troll a big sword and a trenchcoat, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s Alec Fucking Gainsborough.”

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to provoke him like this?”

“Provoke him my ass,” Steve said. “This guy has been standing in front of the store for a half an hour. On my first three passes I just ignored him, but he kept lurking right there. He needs to understand that he is not impressing anybody.”

“What if he decides to come in here and start shit?”

“I’m kind of hoping he does,” Steve said. “To’mas saw him and is already doing a little jig near the turret booth.”

“I think you need more engaging hobbies, Steve,” said Zap.

“No,” Steve replied, “I need a more engaging job.”

“Don’t let Alan hear you say that,” Zap warned.

“I won’t,” Steve said. “Anyway, what was that you said about antimatter?”

“Nothing important,” Zap replied.

“You wanna stare at this jackass with me?”

“No, that’s okay,” he said. “I think that’s a one-girl job.”

“Your mom’s a one-job girl,” Steve said.

Zap gave her a Look. “What does that even mean?

“Hey, if you’re not going to stare at this guy with me, isn’t there something you should be doing? Like stocking things or dating customers?”

Zap rolled his eyes and walked away.