Chapter 50

Steve looked at the array of ingredients sitting in front of her, then turned her head to look at the pictorial sandwich-making instructions on her shell. She looked back at the ingredients and sighed.

“I’m going to be honest with you guys,” she said, “and tell you that the last time I made a sandwich there was an apartment fire. I pretty much live off of instant food and restaurant fare.”

Michelle-Bear’s arpeggio laugh preceded her ample hips, which she used to push Steve away from the counter. “Scootch,” she said. “I’ve worked food service, and not just as a waitress.”

Makaseta,” Steve said, gesturing to the food. “I’ll be over here. Supervising.”

“Me too,” Click said.

Michelle-Bear flexed her Saf-T-Mem-gloved hands and surveyed the ingredients. “I’m assuming we have to do this by the book.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Substitutions are okay, but no experiments the customers don’t ask for.”

Michelle-Bear began to assemble the sandwich, her eyes flicking back and forth between the instructions and the ingredients. “This reminds me of when I used to work at SubFleet. That was a pretty shitty job. Not in my worst five, but definitely up there.”

“You’ve worked a lot of jobs, Michelle-Bear?” Click asked.

“I went through a lot of them early on,” she replied. “The Reynaldo’s job is the longest one I’ve held to date.”

“Why the turnover, if you don’t mind me asking?” Click asked.

“Excuse me,” a curly-haired man said, peeking over the counter. “Can I get a sandwich?”

Steve pointed at the sign on the counter:

Securemarket Deli™ Coming Soon!

“Not yet,” she said. “We expect to be serving by the end of the week, sir.”

“You shouldn’t be working behind the counter if you’re not serving,” the customer replied.

“Thank you for the observation, sir,” Click replied, smiling cheerfully.

The would-be customer grumbled and moved on.

“The reason I lost a lot of jobs early on,” Michelle-Bear said, “is because I hadn’t realized that my size would affect my career too.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked.

“In school, I got teased and beat up because I was big,” Michelle-Bear said. “Eventually I formed a clique and got decent at fighting back, so I got left alone. That doesn’t work so well in the job market. People still didn’t like my size, so they antagonized me and I got fired a lot for no reason. There!”

Michelle-Bear slid her knife into the middle of the sandwich and closed it around the blade. The three surveyed the sandwich.

“Looks fine to me,” Steve said. Click nodded.

“Okay, awesome,” Michelle-Bear said.

“What did you do?” Click asked. “About the jobs, I mean?”

Michelle-Bear sighed. “I got ingratiating. Subby,” she said, and shrugged. “I’m a skilled suckup now. I’m friendly anyhow, but that’s not good enough for people who can’t handle a woman who’s a head taller than they are.”

“That sucks,” Steve said.

“Yeah, well,” Michelle-Bear said and shrugged.

“So, Click, I think I’ve got to watch you make a sandwich,” Steve said, “but unless it’s a total disaster I think I’m comfortable with saying that you guys are fine to run the counter. You’ll have other shift employees assigned to help you out, two during dinner hours.”

“Sounds good,” Click said.

“Maybe,” Steve said. “We’ll see how it pans out in practice.”

“This sandwich is too dry!” To’mas shouted, throwing both of his arms over the counter from the other side. “I demand more hoisin sauce! Where’s your supervisor! I’ll have your job! My marriage is falling apart and service personnel are the only available targets for my impotent frustration!”

Michelle-Bear laughed. “I’m so sorry, sir,” she said. “Would you care to insult me for a solid half hour with baseless attacks on my behavior?”

“Aw, how cute,” Click said. “I think she thinks he’s exaggerating.”

“Oh no,” Michelle-Bear replied, rolling her eyes. “No, no I don’t.”

“I’m going to make racist comments and expect you to commiserate now! Half-orcs all belong in jail! Mutants are dangerous freaks! Having sex with a morph is like bestiality!” To’mas droned.

“Okay, To’mas, shut up now,” Steve said.

“How dare you speak to me that way!” To’mas said. “I’m going to have you killed! I know people! I—” he cut off abruptly as a cherry tomato bounced off his face.

Zap was nearly to the end of the aisle in his inventory when a customer, a dark-skinned man with laugh lines and a long coat, walked around the corner.

“Excuse me,” the man said.

“Yes?” Zap replied.

“Could you help me find a few things in the frozen foods aisles?”

“Sure,” Zap said, tucking his workshell back into its holster. “What do you need help finding?”

“Happy Cow Burgers,” the man said. “I’m having a barbecue.”

“Right this way,” Zap said, walking ahead of the man. The man followed.

“Have you heard about Better Living?”

Zap laughed a little and glanced back. “I live in this precinct, so…”

The man laughed and shook his head. “No, I mean recent news.”

“There’s news? I just got back into town,” Zap said. The two turned into one of the freezer aisles, where ambient light from the temperature-isolation fields bathed both of them.

“Just last week,” the man said, “Better Living launched an offensive against Lorenz Municipality and claimed all the way up to Peterson Street, which they’ve been fighting over for ages.”

“Yeah, wasn’t that block part of a UZ at one point?” Zap asked.

The man nodded. “It was,” he said, “but Lorenz has had it for years now. But Better Living just took it and it looks like Lorenz doesn’t have the resources to take it back.”

“I’ll have to congratulate Sir Drake,” Zap mused. He halted in his tracks, gestured to the shelf and smiled to the customer. “There you are, sir,” he said. “Happy Cow farms. You should try their Reddi-Fry skillets; they’re new.”

“But you know what I think?” the man continued, seeming oblivious to his destination. “I think that Better Living needs to stop treating Lorenz like its only enemy. Mayfield Limited would benefit greatly from the destabilization of this precinct’s municipal corporation.”

“That’s an interesting observation,” Zap said.

“Oh yes,” the man said. “Most of our defense funds are in the Lorenz detail, which is now in the form of an occupying force. What happens if something hits at home?”

“Mmm,” Zap mmmed. He took his workshell out of his holster and did his best impression of a man who really needed to get back to work.

“I’ll tell you: chaos. Mayhem. You’ll see, my friend. I am stockpiling weapons and rations, and—”

“Is—is there anything else you needed, sir?” Zap asked.

“No,” the man replied, looking a bit put off.

“That’s fantastic,” Zap said cheerfully. “Please feel free to find me if there’s anything else you need.”

Zap walked away. The man sighed, a bit annoyed, and opened the fridge case. After taking several boxes of burgers, he walked to the front of the aisle. Matt was standing near the auto-checkout machines, studiously not using the automop in his hands.

“Don’t nobody want to hear the truth, is the problem,” the customer said to Matt.

“Don’t get me started, man,” Matt replied. “Anyway, can’t you see I’m mopping the floor?”