Chapter 43

Layla McPhee heard the lock to her room’s door unlatch as she approached it, responding to the downloaded key on her workshell. She turned the knob and pushed the door open, expecting an empty room. She was therefore surprised to see her roommate Pazi sprawled on one of the beds.

Pazi turned her head to look at Layla, but didn’t move the rest of her body. A familiar of hers, Inryu, was draped across her chest and she petted him idly. Inryu resembled nothing so much as a little dragon-dog, with a serpentine but furry body and an adorable canine face. A contrast to her familiar, Pazi’s face was currently less than adorable.

“Hey, girl,” Layla said. “What’re you doing here? I thought you were going to go hang out with your boy.”

“He’s busy, apparently,” Pazi said. “Doesn’t have enough time to just hang out.”

“Oh,” Layla replied, her face falling into a sympathetic expression. “Pazi, that sucks.”

“I guess I could have given him more warning,” Pazi said quietly. “I didn’t really ask him about it until yesterday.”

“It’s a retreat,” Layla said. “He should have been able to make at least a little time.”

“Whatever,” Pazi replied petulantly. “He likes Steve better than me anyway.”

“Don’t say that, now,” Layla shot back. “There’s no need for you to get like this. If he’s not giving you the time you need, go get your needs met somewhere else.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Pazi said. “I like Zap.”

“Like him however much you want, but don’t give him the benefit of no doubt he didn’t earn. You should tell him he needs to shape up or you’re gone.”

Pazi was silent, petting Inryu with her eyes averted.

“Pazi, I want you to tell that boy that if he doesn’t take you somewhere tomorrow, you are through with him and his disregard. Can you do that?”

“I guess,” Pazi said.

“You guess, or you will?”

“I will.”

“And so they calculated the absolute maximum load amount that the animal could carry, and made some reasonable assumptions about how much it could conceivably throw and how far,” Marlon said. “Having that knowledge, it was really only a matter of setting a time limit and making the calculations.”

“But it’s not about how much it could throw,” Steve said. “It’s about how much it would.

“Well, I think that we can safely assume that if given the ability, the groundhog would prefer to move as much lumber as possible.”

“Who are you again?” Steve asked.

“That’s my roommate, Marlon,” Loren said.

“Ohh,” Zap said. “You’re the guy who memorized the Hall of Records’ ethsite.”

“That’s me!” Marlon replied proudly.

Zap and Steve exchanged a look.

“Anyway,” Zap said to Steve. “Where’re you headed now?”

“I’m headed to the range,” Marlon said. “I’m not really so enthusiastic about fighting; I think that stock memorization is really where I shine.”

“That’s great, Marlon,” Zap said. “But—”

“I mean, enough of my coworkers are fighters,” Marlon continued. “With Raye Courts-the-Shadows as my shift supervisor, what we really need more of are regular employees. Anyway I got basic rifle certification and usually use a shotgun.”

“Ok, Marlon,” Zap said.

“That’s why I took it upon myself to keep track of all of my store’s inventory—”

“I’m also headed to the range, Zap,” Steve said loudly, talking over Marlon, who looked irritated but fell silent.

“Okay,” Zap said. “I guess I’m free, then. I’ll walk partway there.”

“I’m going to the range too,” Loren said, “but it’s cool, don’t ask or anything.”

The four employees walked out of the classroom and into the hallway, where employees who had been released from seminars and exercises were wandering. One who had been standing nearby approached the group.

“Oh, Pazi,” Zap said. “Hi!”

“Zap, I need to t—” Pazi began, her expression stormy. Her sun-spider paced her shoulder, clearly agitated.

“I’m free all of a sudden,” Zap said with a bright smile. “You wanna hang out for a while?”

Completely thrown, Pazi’s eyes went wide and she stammered a bit. The sun-spider grew completely still, its legs vanishing into its orblike body.

“Yeah, no?” Zap asked. “Are you busy?”

“Um, no,” Pazi said.

“Then let’s hang out! Do you want to take a walk to the lagoon? Maybe we could go swimming.”

“I … that sounds nice,” Pazi said a bit weakly.

“Great!” Zap said. “I’ll see you guys later, ok?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, already walking away.

“Ok, see you, Zap,” Loren said.

“That’s a Sunburst familiar,” Marlon said matter-of-factly. “I hear that they are very versatile and can handle a lot of energy for being a low-level familiar. Have you ever tried feeding it extra energy?”

“Yes,” Pazi said. She still seemed a bit dazed. “Actually, a few weeks ago at my store—”

“I hear that it’s capable of some very powerful fire magic in a pinch,” Marlon said. “Though it’s not very efficient, in the long run. So I’ve read, I mean. If you—”

“Marlon, we’re going to be late,” Steve said loudly, talking over Marlon again. Marlon stopped talking, looking sour. Zap nudged Pazi, put an arm around her and guided her away from the others.

After realizing that his quarry had escaped, Marlon turned and followed Steve and Loren as they walked down the hallway.

“You know, guy, it’s really great that you know all this drek,” Steve said to Marlon as they walked, “but it makes you a serious pain in the ass, ok?”