Chapter 25

“Okay!” Alan shouted over the skyport din. “Is everybody here?”

The New Washington First Precinct Skyport was bustling with activity. People of all races bustled about, walking and running, toting baggage, shouting to each other. This particular concourse, however, bustled with a unified purpose—every one of the hundred-odd passengers-to-be was an employee of the mighty Securemarket™, each one waiting to board a jet headed to the season’s retreat. Shift supervisors directed frantic shouts, each one trying to determine whether all of his or her employees were present.

“Let’s get a roll call!” Alan shouted, walking backward so he could address his employees. “Stephen Anderson!”

“Pong!” Steve shouted, reshouldering her backpack and moving as quickly as her short legs would carry her.

“Zap Bradshaw!” Alan called.

“Pong!” Zap barked, pulling a floating piece of luggage behind him.

“To’mas Bonv—”

“Pong!” To’mas shouted, a small shoulder bag slung across his body.

“Let me finish your name, please!” Alan shouted. “To’mas Bonvent.”

“Pong,” To’mas replied, rolling his eyes.

“Click o’th’Granfalloon!” Alan called.

“Pong!” Click replied, wearing a colorful messenger-bag across his shoulder.

“Matt Del Fye!”

“Pong,” Matt said with just enough volume to be heard. He didn’t have any luggage on him at all.

“Loren Waites!”

“Pong!” Loren called. He was carrying a durable shell-case in his free hand and wearing an oddly old-looking coat.

“Okay, I think that’s everybody,” Alan said. “Is there anybody here who hasn’t checked their luggage?”

There was no reply.

“We’re good to go!” Alan said. “Who’s the best shift?!”

“Archmage Tea-Time!” the employees all shouted.

“Fuck yes!” Alan shouted. “Follow me!’

The afternoon shift employees were soon standing in front of Paru Dupree’s form, which was even more imposing than usual due to her red military-style Securemarket™ Officer’s outfit. Her jacket had several pins on it indicating her rank and accomplishments, and she wore a beret with the Securemarket™ logo on it. An Okage Arms M33-RK135 7.22 mm Automatic Rifle was slung across her shoulder, but it was not nearly as impressive as her dark eyes, which swept the crowd critically.

“Shift managers, report.” She spoke in an unstrained tone of voice, somehow audible over the airport din.

“Emma Rammek,” a hardy-looking woman with blue-streaked brown hair called from one side of the crowd. “Early morning shift. All employees present!”

“Alan Morganstern,” Alan called. “Afternoon shift. All employees present!”

“Raye Courts-the-Shadows, late-night shift,” a hollow voice called from the end of the group. Its owner was swathed completely in clothing, including a pair of goggles and a brimmed hat. His skin was a dark gray. “All employees present.”

“A Shadow mutant,” Zap murmured under his breath.

“Good,” Paru said. “That’s everyone.”

“What about the morning and evening shifts?” Steve murmured to Zap.

“Don’t you ever read the ethsite?” Zap whispered. “How d’you think they staff the store while we’re gone?”

“No talking,” Paru said in a chilling voice, silencing the employees. “This is a pretty green group. How many of you have been on a Securemarket™ retreat before?”

A smattering of hands went up. Of the afternoon shift, Alan, To’mas, and Matt raised their hands.

Paru nodded. “Not many of you. Well, I am expecting you to surprise everyone by how well you do. You are all hand-picked in collaboration between me and your shift manager. I know who you are, and I know that each and every one of you is capable of making it through this retreat. Now, this isn’t a militia—many of you will have a very hard time getting through this. I cried almost all the way through my first retreat, but I made it through. And when I faced my first hostile situation in my store, I was ready for it. Thanks to this.”

She walked in a line in front of the gathered employees. “This retreat will make all of you stronger. It will improve your ability to work together, it will improve your self-confidence, and it will improve your prowess both as a service worker and a fighter. Obey your superiors, stay sharp, and believe in yourselves. That is all I ask of you. Understood?”

There was murmured assent from the crowd.

“Understood?!” Paru barked.

“Yes ma’am!” the crowd shouted.

“Good!” she said, and then smiled a bit wickedly. “So, how many of you have never flown before?”

Most of the new employees raised their hands.

“Well, won’t this be fun,” Paru said with a small laugh.

Steve was already seated by a window when Zap walked down the aisle, looking at his seat assignment on his shell. He walked to Steve’s row and stopped, looking at the seat next to her, then at Steve herself.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” she said, and then studiously looked out the window.

Zap frowned, but shoved his bag under the seat in front of him. He took his seat next to Steve.

“Your first flight too, isn’t it?” Zap asked.

“Yeah,” Steve said, not looking at him.

“Little nerve-wracking,” Zap said, smiling as he fumbled with his safety belt. “I’ve looked out of some pretty tall buildings, but it’ll be different to actually zoom around.”

“Mm,” Steve replied.

“Uh,” Zap said, looking at her. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Steve said.

“Is this about Pazi?” Zap asked.

Steve was silent.

“Look, I didn’t know either,” Zap said. “Her shift wasn’t supposed to seed the retreat; it—”

“Zap!” Steve said. “Whatever! It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.”

Zap gave her an incredulous look. “Honestly, Steve, I don’t think—”

“I don’t. Care.”

Zap sighed, took out his pocketshell, and booted up a game of Tetronimo.

Click, seated by the window, watched as Loren sat down next to him, then Matt sat next to the aisle. He leaned forward and looked across the aisle at Zap and Steve.

“Say, Steve looks kind of pissed,” he noted.

“She just found out two days ago that Zap’s girlfriend is going to be at the retreat,” Loren said.

“Zap has a girlfriend, huh?” Click noted. “I always figured those two for a couple.”

“No,” Loren said. “They’re not.”

“But Steve’s interested in Zap?”

“I suppose she must be,” Loren replied, his tone dry.

Click canted his head a bit, his face calculating for a moment, but soon To’mas appeared and took the seat next to Zap and Steve, obscuring them from view. Click leaned back in his seat, shifting a bit to let his wings drape to his sides. “Huh,” he said. “…that’s interesting.”

In the first-class section, Alan took his seat next to Paru, who had already settled in. Her rifle was in the holster just below the window, her carry-on baggage stowed. Alan nodded to her, and she returned the gesture. He dropped his bag and kicked it under the seat in front of him, finding the space more than adequate. He placed his pistol in the between-seat holster and then sat down.

“You realize,” Paru said, “that this year they’re probably going to ask you to start carrying a higher-rank weapon. You could be carrying a rifle, with your certification.”

Alan sighed. “Yes, well, it was nice playing it down while it lasted. I’m really not so into the idea of toting a big hunk of plastic around the store all day, every day.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Paru said. She did not take her eyes off of Alan, and he fidgeted under her scrutiny. “You look nervous,” she finally said.

“Uh,” Alan said, scratching his head. “We’ve got some drama going on.”

Paru nodded. “I assume it’s something to do with Zap and Steve,” she said.

Alan nodded, chewing on his upper lip.

“It happens,” Paru said. “I’m confident that you’ll be able to keep things in line, and that your employees have been taught to appropriately prioritize.”

“Thanks,” Alan replied a bit acidly.

“Let it go, Alan,” Paru said. “This is nothing. This is life. We’re not the military, we’re a store. These things will happen because we don’t run a barracks.”

“I know,” Alan said. “I know.”

Paru reached up and patted Alan on the shoulder.

Once all of the employees had boarded and sat down, a few flight attendants walked down the aisle, positioning themselves throughout the plane. The pilot’s voice echoed through the resonating plates running the length of the jet.

Securemarket™ employees, welcome to the flight to Employee Retreat number sixty-seven. My name is Malcolm Hawthorne, and I’ll be your pilot for the day. We’ll be departing from the Precinct One Skyport shortly, and will be landing at the Orleans Inlet Installation approximately 3 hours later with an expected arrival time of 11:00. It’s a beautiful day out there, so this should be a very smooth flight. Please look to your flight attendants for details about jet safety.

The flight attendants pulled out a few props and gestured with them as the pilot spoke.

You’ll find a placard in the pocket of the seat in front of you that will reiterate these safety details. Please ensure that your safety belt is securely fastened as the flight attendants are demonstrating for you; our clasps use triggerstone for the most effective securing method. If any of you cannot operate these clasps for any reason, please notify our flight attendants immediately. I would like to remind you all that this is a secure flight; please leave your weapons holstered and any operable enchantments or shields off for the remainder of the flight.

The flight attendants showed the seatbelt operation, then expansively mimicked turning off a bulletshield.

Please remain in your seats with your safety belt fastened as long as the seat-belt sign is lit. Once the light is off, you may walk about the cabin if you need to use the restroom, but otherwise we ask that you remain in your seat. We will be serving breakfast during the flight. We will now taxi into position on the runway and will be leaving shortly.

In first class, Alan closed his eyes. “I never really get used to this part…”

“Really?” Paru replied. “I love watching the takeoff.”

In second-class, Click pressed his face to the window. “This is going to be so cool,” he said.

“Sure,” Loren said, settling back in his chair and closing his eyes.

“You are incredibly boring,” Click said. “Hey Matt, will this plane explode and crash?”

“No,” Matt replied.

“You guys are both boring,” Click said, keeping his attention fixed on the ground.

Across the aisle, Steve looked out the window and started to sweat. “Uh,” she stammered. Her voice quavered. “I, um.”

“You okay?” Zap asked her.

“I dunno.”

Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff,” the pilot’s voice echoed through the cabin.

The plane’s engines roared and it began to speed forward, pressing the employees back against their seats. After a few long seconds, it lifted off the ground.

In first class, Alan kept his eyes closed, taking deep breaths. Paru kept her eyes fixed on the outside, watching with uncharacteristic wonder as the plane lifted off.

“Guaaaaaaaardian,” Click intoned, staring at the ground. “This makes me wish my wings worked for real…”

Loren snored in response.

Steve turned away from the window as the plane lifted off, and she stared straight ahead, her breathing shallow.

Zap looked at her with a concerned expression. After a moment, he moved his hand to the side and took hers. She gripped his hand hard and continued to stare straight forward, but her breathing calmed a little bit and her eyes grew a little less wide.

The great plastic bird took to the sky, slowly leaving the Legendary City.