Chapter 56

Steve emerged from the Rail station and fished out her pack of cigarettes. She withdrew a cigarette and lit it with a small fire spell, then put away the pack. Re-shouldering her backpack, she walked on.

She had no intention of going straight to work, of course; she veered toward the alleyway where she knew Old Aggie would be ensconced. Sure enough, the ugly old vagrant crouched there, waiting for Steve.

“Hate the cunt, but keep coming back, eh?” Aggie rasped. “You’re just like a man!” She expelled a grating laugh.

“Ugh,” Steve said, grimacing. “Shut up.”

“You said it first, dearie,” Aggie said, then spotted the cigarette in Steve’s hand. “Bum a fag, eh?”

Steve glared at the old woman, but dug out her packet of cigarettes and withdrew one. She offered it to Aggie delicately.

“Thank yuh, dear,” Aggie said. “I can’t die fast enough fer my tastes.”

“So,” Steve said. “Anything for me today?”

“Got a light?” Aggie asked.

Steve pointed at the cigarette and a dancing flame appeared at its tip for a few seconds. Aggie took a drag from it and grinned, displaying a set of teeth resembling a lumber pile at the end of winter.

“Well?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” Aggie said.


Aggie shrugged. “Nothing for you today.”

“For this I gave you a cigarette?” Steve asked.

“No,” Aggie said. “You gave me a cigarette to help me to th’ grave. An’ I thank y’h for that.”

“…right,” Steve said. She turned and began to walk away.

“If yeh want some news,” Aggie called, “there’s always the Ether!”

Steve gave Aggie a dismissive wave as she walked away.

Steve walked through the door with her personal shell in hand, her eyes fixed to the screen.

“Hey, look who’s early!” Alan said, glancing up from his own shell only briefly.

“I had an appointment I thought would go longer,” Steve replied. “What do you think of this whole Better Living occupation thing?”

“I think Better Living is putting too many of its eggs in one basket,” Alan replied.

“Maybe,” Steve said, “but what other threats are there? Lorenz is kind of our only rival.”

“True,” Alan said. “Maybe I’m just being paranoid.”

Alan looked up from his tabletshell. “How’re—how’re you doing?”

Steve looked up. “Me?” she asked. “Oh, well…” She shrugged. “I’m doing ok,” she said. “I’m not happy about what happened, but I’m moving on. It’s not like I was dating him for very long, right?”

Alan nodded.

“Just another one in the pile, right?” Steve said. “I’d say that I’m probably going to end up a cat lady, but I hate cats.”

“Don’t think about it like that,” Alan said. “You just haven’t found the right person.”

Steve sighed, somewhat irritated by Alan’s attempt at placating her. “I—Alan, you know, I can understand why you’d say that. You’ve got a perfect relationship. You get along just right, you have the right amount of arguments and agreements, you love each other … I can see why you’d be like ‘you have to find the right person’.”

Alan blinked.

“But for the rest of us?” Steve said. “There is no right person. It’s a matter of settling for the least fucked up relationship you can find, because there’s never gonna be a ‘right’ one. Look at me, man. If I’m really really lucky, I’ll find somebody who’s willing to put up with me and who doesn’t piss me off too bad.”

“I don’t know about that…” Alan said lamely.

“Well,” Steve said, “obviously I don’t either. But I know I’m not going to get anywhere looking for ‘the one’. Just … ‘one’. We’ll work from there.”

“Okay,” Alan said.

Steve sighed. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated.” She turned and walked toward the back of the store.

“Steve,” Alan said. Steve stopped and turned. “I hope you find the best person for you that there is.”

Steve paused and stuck her hands in her pockets. “Thanks, Alan,” she said, then turned and kept walking.

A dark figure in a wide-brimmed hat stood outside of the store. It was tall and fearsome, with a black coat and a face obscured by a mask and a large sword strapped to its back. It stood in the middle of the store’s front windows, looking directly in and barely moving. It had stood there for several minutes by the time Steve walked nearby and spotted it. She had gone nearly halfway across the checkout lines by the time she realized that the figure was familiar.

You again!” she said, pointing an accusing finger at the figure. She walked up to the bulletproof polyglass and gesticulated violently at the figure. “What do you want!

They stared at each other for a while, then Steve tapped her store earpiece. “Alan, that weirdo with the wide-brimmed hat from a few months ago is back.”

“Just leave it alone. If it’s still there in fifteen minutes, we’ll call the cops.”

Steve scowled, still staring at the figure.

After about a minute, she sighed and waved the figure over to the front door of the store. The mysterious stranger obeyed, walking to the front door until it opened. Steve stood in front of the stranger.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I seek…” the stranger whispered. “…the Eternal.”

“It’s been discontinued,” Steve said. “Go away.”

She left, leaving the figure standing by itself in front of the store.