Chapter 33

The bar was sparsely occupied when the ex-combatants entered it. The rank-and-file employees had lagged behind their supervisors, who already sat talking at the bar. The installation’s pub was in a different area of the facility from the event bar where the employee mixer had been held, and was open more often. The pub had about it a much homier atmosphere than the event bar, complete with couches, faux-wood tables, and a fireplace at the far end of the pub.

“Oh, this place is nice,” Zap said as he entered.

“You haven’t made it here at all?” To’mas asked.

“Nope,” Zap said. “I’ve been too tired.”

“Pity,” To’mas said.

Steve and her new friend peeled away from the group. The two hadn’t stopped chatting about guns even upon arrival at the pub, and continued doing so on their trip to the table.

“Let’s take a table near them,” Zap suggested to the remaining employees: To’mas, Click, and two of the Rose street employees. One was Masha, the sparrow morph who had shot Matt, and the other was Dru, Zap’s wizard opponent.

The employees all moved to one of the tables and sat down heavily.

“Oh ’yesu…” Zap said, sagging in his chair. “It just hit me how much that fight drained me.”

“Just now?” Masha said. “I haven’t been able to stop my hands shaking since I was revived.” She held up one of her trembling, feathered hands.

“Anybody here not drink beer?” Dru asked, looking around.

To’mas smiled a little. “Not typically, but I can make an exception if it’s good.”

“A pitcher of Equator, then,” Dru replied, then pushed his way to his feet. “I’ll go get it.”

Zap noted that Click seemed to be distracted. “How’re the two new buddies doing?”

“Pretty well, looks like,” Click said with a smile, breaking out of his reverie.

“Good!” Zap said. “Steve could use some positive attention.”

“Yeah,” Click agreed.

“And that’s how I ended up with it,” Steve said, patting her holster fondly.

“That’s great,” Mike said, laughing. “Your Master sounds like a real card.”

“He’s a piece of work,” she replied with a grin. “I love working for him, and I think he’s going to really help me become a good gunsmith. I think that my final project for him might be to modify Polaris. I’ve got some great design ideas.”

“Well, I’m impressed,” Mike said. “I love seeing different gun designs and working with them, but I can’t quite imagine machining them myself.”

“It’s a trade,” Steve replied, shrugging but smiling. She turned to look at her coworkers for a moment. “Iyesu, are they on their second pitcher?”

“Looks like it,” Mike agreed. “I’m a little surprised everybody’s getting on so well after shooting each other up.”

“Maybe it makes them feel better about the violence to be friendly afterward,” Steve said. “So, what do you think of the retreat so far?”

“It’s been challenging,” Mike said, “but in a really good way. I’m hoping that I can keep some of the habits they’re instilling in us now.”

“Wish I had the time,” Steve said. “I’m feeling good too, with all the focus and exercise and everything, but apprenticeship and this job keep me pretty busy. And I like to have a little time to myself, you know?”

“And with people you like,” Mike replied. “I know.”

“If I keep anything from this, maybe it’ll be meditation. My roommate has been teaching me meditation, which is very cool,” Steve said with a smile.

“Oh, are you spiritual?”

“Not really,” Steve said, shrugging. “I was brought up Catholic, but not really very devoutly. My family missed church a lot.”

“Oh,” Mike said.

“What?” Steve said.

“Well, I’m uh,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “I’m Etherist.”

“…yeah?” Steve said, a creeping apprehension working its way into her voice.

“I don’t know, I guess it’s no big deal,” Mike said. “It just means that we couldn’t date.”

“It does?” Steve asked in a small voice.

“Yeah, I don’t think I could date somebody outside of the faith.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Listen, I gotta go,” Mike said, standing. “Have a good one, okay?”

“Sure,” Steve said, her face bleak.

Mike strode away from the table hurriedly, driven by an odd sense of urgency. He had made it to the hallway and was several paces away from the pub when he heard the voice of the young magician, Zap, behind him.

“Hey, hold still for a second. You’ve got a big ole bug on you.”

Mike froze. “What is it?”

“I dunno, but it’s big and gross. I’ll get it.”

Mike stood stock-still and felt something flickering just behind his back.

“Okay,” Zap said. “I got it, you can move now.”

Mike turned around and smiled at Zap. “Thanks, man,” he said, then looked around. “Where’d the bug go?”

“Oh, it flew away,” Zap said, adjusting his wand holster. “What happened back there?”

“Oh,” Mike said. “I guess I was sort of hoping to have a chance with Steve, but something bad came up.”

“I think I overheard a little,” Zap said. “You must feel pretty strongly about your religion.”

Mike paused and his eyes went wide. “I—no! No I don’t!” he said, his face turning pale. “I’m really not that religious! What the hell did I just do?!”

“Oh, geez,” Zap said.

“Oh, I’m such a jerk!” Mike said. “I don’t know what was wrong with me! Why did I say that?”

“I’m sure it was just nerves,” Zap said, smiling a little. “But you’d better go apologize to Steve. I think she was interested in you too, and if so that would have hurt her feelings pretty bad.”

“Did she stay at the table?” Mike asked.

“No, it looked like she was heading out when I got up. She’s staying in B Block. If you hurry, you can still catch her.”

“Thanks so much for shaking me out of this, Zap,” Mike said, shaking Zap’s hand emphatically. “I’ve gotta go make things right.” He broke into a jog down an adjacent hallway, beelining for dormitory block B.

“Yeah,” Zap said quietly as he watched Mike go. His face slowly settled into a stony mask of anger as the young man got further away. “So do I.”

Leaning against the wall of one of the facility’s hallways, Zap saw Steve come around the corner and approach him. She had a bounce in her step and looked cheerful.

“Hey there,” Zap said, smiling. “You look happy.”

“I have a date to the concert tonight!” she said, more cheerful than Zap had ever seen her. “Mike came back and was really nice to me.”

“That’s great!” Zap said. “You think he’s interested?”

“He said so!” Steve said, grinning. “I’m really looking forward to it. Have any idea of who the band’s gonna be?”

“No,” Zap said. “You should ask To’mas, he’s pretty good about info hacking.”

“Good call,” Steve replied. Her look became suddenly inquisitive. “What are you doing waiting in this hall, anyway?”

“Nothing important,” Zap said. “Say, were you gonna help nab that Creepy Dan guy tonight?”

“Oh yeah, Creepy Don!” Steve said and her eyes widened. “Thanks for reminding me; I gotta call Matt!”

Zap watched Steve’s retreating form as she hurried away. After she had disappeared from sight, Zap drew his wand and began tracing a charm in the air.

Click exited his room cheerfully, humming the tune to Comeback. He had showered and changed into the clothes he intended to wear to the concert: a colorful ensemble that he thought made him look like a shiny butterfly. To enhance the look, Click had stuck a pair of micro-LEDs onto the ends of his antennae.

Click strode from the dorm area quickly, and then turned down a connecting hallway. He was somewhat surprised to find it empty, but continued his trip. Once he was a few paces into the hallway, Click thought he detected someone behind him. He halted in his tracks and did an about-face.

There was nothing behind him, of course, but the entrance to the hallway. Click couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling that he was being followed, but turned back and continued his journey, more cautious than before.

Once he was halfway through the hallway, everything went pitch black.

Click spun and caught a faint glance of a ghostly figure slipping out of his line of sight. Moments later an icy, burning pain clamped around his neck. He tried to scream, but the freezing sensation was overwhelming. Click dropped to his knees as numbing, spidery threads snaked their way through his system.

Cold iron! Click thought to himself, panic rising in his gorge.

“You should be very ashamed of yourself,” a distorted voice said in his ear. “Manipulating a fine young lady into feeling like she has no chance with anybody.”

“I…” Click gasped. “didn’t…”

“Don’t take me for a fool,” the voice hissed. “Do you think I didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt? Do you think I didn’t make absolutely sure it was you?”

Click whispered, “I…”

“Do you have any idea how you’ve hurt her? Did you want to destroy her confidence utterly before you moved in?”

“I—I didn’t…” Click said, sobbing from the pain. “I didn’t think…”

“I didn’t think you did,” the voice said. “Well, take a good look at yourself. If you give a damn about Steve, you’ll realize what you’ve been doing to her.”

“Who…” Click mumbled.

“I think you can figure that out,” the voice said. “I’m going to end our little chat with a demand. If you want to win Steve, you will do so like an honorable man. Don’t tell anyone about this encounter or I will tell her what you’ve done, and God help you then. Can we agree to this?”

Click nodded dumbly and gasped with relief as the icy pain disappeared, the cold iron pulling away from his neck. Click placed his hand on the wall and leaned forward, breathing hard.

“Remember,” the voice said, “they’ve got sayings about pissing off faeries, but there are far more of them about pissing off wizards.”

The darkness vanished with a sucking noise and Click found himself alone in the hallway. He gingerly touched the back of his neck, wincing at the burn there. He shook his head slowly and placed both hands over his face.