Slices of Life [Ep 5]


#1

Roxanne adjusted herself in her “professor” clothes; finding clothes that fit her Amazonian physique was always a challenge for her. She was trying to dress “professorially” – wearing a long black skirt, white dress shirt, and red sweater vest. She was even wearing glasses! However, she would not part with her signature waist-length hair braids; getting them together was too much effort.

As an Associate Professor at the University of Albrook, Roxanne was only teaching one course this semester: “Ancient History of the Mana Dimension.” If she did really well she could get more classes next semester, and maybe even a tenure track position. As a thousands-year-old Valkyrie she had amassed some comfortable wealth, but she was far from rich, and definitely had to worry a little bit about money so long as she lived in this modern web. Her Kuat Valkyrie sports car, and her elaborately themed apartment, did not come cheap. (Though, she would be able to budget things more easily once Osprey and Terry found their own place.)

Her class had about forty students, and, since this was Albrook, there were people from all over the Web. There were, of course, some Mana Dimension natives, though as many as you’d think – this was an intro-level class, and most Tasnicans, Pandorans, and Kakkarans would already have a passing familiarity with the material. A lot of students were just here for a requirement – U of A required all students take at least two courses on the culture or history of a dimension other than their own.

Today’s topic was Belgememnon the Unforgettable, the famous Taznikanze hero who founded the Tasnica Republic. Roxanne didn’t really prepare for this lecture too much; after all, she was there .

“So, Belgememnon’s army was defeated by the King of Norfrest,” she said, recounting a famous incident. “They were surrounded and clasped in chains. They were probably going to be sold into slavery. But Prince Hendre of Norfrest offered the defeated army a deal: they would all go free, provided one of them identify the person or the corpse of ‘the leader of this rabble…the one they called Belgememnon.’”

One of the students raised a hand. “Didn’t he KNOW which one Belgemenon was?”

“This isn’t like today,” said Roxanne. “It wasn’t like he could do an OmniNet search. Remember, Belgememnon was a merchant, and not even a very successful one. It was his vision of a united, free Republik Taznikanze that brought people together. This had never been done before – the Taznikanze were highly individualistic. In the past, they had only been united briefly, under warlords like Kedir the Black or Harsdrubal the Hammer…and as we talked about last class, it was never lasting.” Roxanne gave her a class a disapproving look – surely they had reviewed the material from before?

“Anyway,” continued Professor Zodsdottir, “these warlords, that we talked about last week, were all great warriors. They kept people together because they were winning battles and conquering stuff. Belgememnon had just been defeated ; the Kingdom of Norfrest thought that would shatter the threat of a Taznikanze Horde. So what happened next was remarkable. The Prince Hendre, as I said, offered to spare the Taznikanze from being sold into slavery, if they identified Belgememnon. Now, Belgememnon knew that slavery was a terrible fate for any free Taznikanze. He was determined to prevent it, to save his people. So he stood up to turn himself in, but before he could, his companion Brynjar – Gudbrand’s fighting son – stood up and shouted, “I am Belgememnon!” at the same time as Belgememnon himself. Then it was the turn of Hertha, Eira’s noble daughter. “I am Belgememnon!” she shouted. And one by one, each warrior of his host stood, declaring themselves to be Belgememnon.”

“But, Professor Zodsdottir,” asked one student, a bespectacled moogle from Kuvalla. “I don’t think it happened that way.”

“What do you mean, Kualan?” asked Roxanne. She was a little offended, but tried to hide it under a mask of academic objectiveness. “What makes you think it didn’t happen this way?

“Well,” said the student, “there’s not really any supporting sources for it.”

“The saga Belgememnon the Unforgettable itself – which was your reading for this week – recounts it happening that way,” said Roxanne.

“Well, is the writer a credible witness?”

“The skald Steindor – Solmund’s honorable son – was there himself. It’s an eyewitness account!”

“And he had every reason to embellish!” said Kualan. “Belgememnon was his friend, and more than that was the subject of his epic saga. He had to make him a larger than life myth to cement the new Republic.”

“You would dare doubt the word of the noble skald Steindor!?” asked Roxanne, shocked. “This is a man who had fought besides Harsdrubal the Hammer, who had seen the whole known world, and spoke every known language of the ancient world?”

“Well,” said Kualan, “our only source for what Steindor was like is Steindor himself…is it possible that he exaggerated his own accomplishments, too? I mean, I’m not sure I know of any peer-reviewed article from a reputable scholar in this field that actually substantiates his claims. And most scholars think the ‘I am Belgememnon’ story is apocryphal, too….I was reading an article from Professor Meckstein of the Palmerston School, and tries to reconstruct test elements of the saga using archaeological methods. He finds a lot of discrepancies.”

Roxanne was a bit at a loss. She had actually known Steindor, and had been at the battles for the founding of the Republic. “Consider, Kualan,” she said, “this was an age undreamed of. Steindor, Belgememnon’s chronicler, may not have had a PhD, he may not have been published in Mana Historical Monthly….but he was a part of the spirit of this legendary age. What he says tells us more about these days of high adventure than any egghead today.”

“More even than you, Professor?”

Roxanne smiled. “Well, I’m a bit of an anachronism,” she said, “I think sometimes I was born for the wrong time…though, I suppose, there are plenty of legends and heroes that walk the Web today.”

“But the ‘I am Belgememnon’ story,” asked Kualan, “is it true? Obviously you can’t tell whether or not something like that happened from an archaeological dig…and Steindor is the only surviving contemporary account.”

Roxanne thought about how to answer it best; of course it happened, she was there . “I suppose,” she said, “for those who believe in the legend of Belgememnon, there’s no question what happened. And if you don’t believe in his legend, well, he was only a man, and it does not really matter if it happened.”


#2

“Alright, now, teach me the secret arts of the samurai sword!” said Fara, donning her kendo practice armor.

“It’s not really…secret,” said Kamiko Kurita, pulling on her own practice armor. “I mean, kendo is extremely popular in Eblan and Guardia.”

Fara finished suiting up. “Huh. At my high school in Tasnica there was just Baronian Style Fencing. It’s actually styles from a bunch of countries…they just call it the Baronian Style. And it was definitely not as popular as football.” Fara recalled that most of her high school friends found her enthusiasm for the anachronistic weapon very strange – after all, Egmont was a city built on the firearms industry.

The two kendokas put on their helmets, faced each other and bowed, respectfully. There was a rapid-fire exchange of attacks with the bamboo practice swords; Kamiko had never sparred with Fara before, and was taken a little off-guard. Fara scored the first point.

“Yes! Suck it! I’m like Damien Gavalian - I own you!” Fara pumped her fist.

Kamiko frowned. “Fara, such rude manners are inconsistent with the spirit of martial competition,” she said, her tone unfailingly civil. “If this were a competition, you would lose the point for that.” Kamiko felt compelled to add, politely, “That was well-done, by the way. Although you are new to these techniques, you have very good swordfighting instincts.”

“…sorry,” said Fara.

The two exchanged blows again, and this time Kamiko did not make the same mistake. She was more experienced with this style of fencing, and scored her own point.

The next point would settle the match, and although Fara knew Kamiko was the more experienced kendoka , she had to believe she could win this after besting rock demons and giant robots.

Fara raised her practice sword high, and brought it down in a rapid, large downward slash towards Kamiko’s shoulder. Kamiko quickly thrust her sword forward, toward’s Fara’s chest.

“That would be my point,” said Kamiko. “I connected first.”

“…really?” said Fara. “You totally exposed your head. You hit me first, but you’ve only caused a flesh wound – you probably wouldn’t even break armor with that. My slash would’ve cut you almost in half! In a real fight, you would’ve barely scratched me a millisecond before I cut you open!”

Kendo is not about ‘cutting people open’ with a katana, Fara,” said Kamiko. “It is a martial art about becoming a better person – not against your opponent, but through your opponent.”

“Yeah, that’s all well and good, but I kind of want to learn how to actually fight ,” said Fara.

“Why are you so interested in this?” asked Kamiko.

“I just….like to be safe? A girl can never be too safe!”

“So if some goon nabs your purse, you’re going to pull a sword on them?” asked Kamiko.

“But, Kamiko,” asked Fara. “Don’t you know how to use a sword? Not just in fencing competition, but like…for real?”

“A daughter of the House Kurita is a warrior born!” said Kamiko proudly.

“Show me,” said Fara. “Don’t hold back. Bring your best kenjutsu .”

“Why?”

“Humor me. Maybe it’s part of my cultural education. Maybe you’re not the only ‘warrior’ here.”

“Very well, Fara. I will not hold back. Prepare yourself.”

With a mighty shout, Kamiko assaulted Fara. It was like fighting a whole other opponent. Kamiko was fast, and Fara was caught off guard when she sprang forward with a pair of kicks. Fara threw what she knew of the formal rules of kendo out the window, doing her best to keep up. Kamiko was fast and had excellent technique, but Fara was stronger; she clashed Kamiko’s sword in a bind and forced her back. Kamiko seemed briefly caught off guard – she hadn’t realized how strong Fara was – but she recovered quickly and was on the attack again.

If Fara had been using one of her strong styles, like a zweihander or longsword, she might’ve had a chance, but with these weapons, Kamiko had the advantage. Kamiko forced her way forward, inside Fara’s guard, and unexpectedly grabbed the hilt of Fara’s sword. Using her leverage and momentum, Kamiko stripped Fara of her sword.

“…damn,” said Fara. “That was pretty good. I like that disarm, too…that was sexy stuff. Can you teach me to do that?”

“You did well, Fara,” said Kamiko. “Though you lost, there is no dishonor in your defeat. Tell me – did you learn all that in the Baronian Style of Fencing?”

“There’s some other stuff I know,” said Fara. “A fight is not the same as a sport or competition, you know? Bunch of rock demons come to town, ‘scoring points’ doesn’t much matter, does it?”

Under her helmet, Kamiko smiled. “Fara, you have a true warrior’s spirit. We will practice again next week. Unless…you are ready to go another round now?”

“I would love to,” said Fara. “But I have a date tonight!”


#3

The storefront was a mess. Again.

Terry deftly slipped under the line of police tape and moved inside the small tailor shop. The thugs had been back, and they had knocked the place around good. Terry hadn’t seen an ambulance outside, so he’d hoped that Klyde was okay…

“Hey,” came a voice from behind him, followed by a hand clapping onto his shoulder. Before he could turn himself around, the hand did it for him, and Terry was staring down his nose into the grizzled face of a disshevled middle-aged man in a frumpy trench coat.

“Saw you duck the yellow line, kid,” the man (clearly a police detective, because they wore trench coats, of course) said. “You know that means you gotta keep out, right?”

“It’s okay, Detective,” said Klyde Munro, the owner of the shop, as he emerged from some far corner of the decimated storefront. “He’s a friend. I’m sure he’s just come to check up on me.”

Terry smiled apologetically. “I just… wanted to make sure Mister Munro was all right. I didn’t mean any harm.”

The detective’s mouth snarled beneath his push-broom mustache. His eyes narrowed, and he scrutinized Terry.

“Okay, Klyde,” the detective said, “I don’t think we have anymore questions for you… but if you’re going to talk with your friend here, do it outside my police line. This is a crime scene, dammit.”

“Of course,” Munro said, taking Terry by the arm and leading him back outside. A small crowd had gathered some distance from the police line; there were barricades and uniform officers there to keep people away. Doubtless one or more of them would eventually get chewed out for letting Terry slip by.

“Was it them, again?” asked Terry.

Munro inhaled deeply. “I believe it was. But I can’t be sure. Thankfully, I wasn’t here when it happened.” Munro arched an eyebrow, looking at Terry knowingly. “Just in the neighborhood?”

Terry kept his composure and just nodded. “Actually I was on my way to see you. I never got a chance to thank you properly for the jacket.”

Munro waved him off, dismissively. “A trifle. Most people in this neighborhood just walk on by when they see a person in need of help. You were the only one who actually stopped to help me pick up the pieces after the Garlandinis’ last visit.”

“I was happy to help,” Terry said.

“And I was happy to make you such a fine jacket,” Munro said, patting Terry on the shoulder. “I’m just glad I got your measurements right. You a football player or something?”

Terry shrugged. “Nah, I worked my way through junior college working for a moving company. Nothing but lifting and stairs all day.”

Munro gave Terry a knowing glance. It unnerved Terry a bit; did Klyde know more than he was letting on? Had he guessed at Terry’s secret identity?.. was it a mistake for Terry to double back in his civvies to help out the beleaguered tailor?..

“Well, Klyde,” came the gruff voice of the police detective, “You can have your shop back again, for whatever that’s worth. We’ve got about all we can get out of the wreckage.”

Munro turned to the detective, and he nodded grimly. “Yes, well. I’d figured as much.”

The detective frowned, almost apologetically. “I wish there was more I could do,” he said. He seemed genuinely distraught, helpless even.

“You’ve done a lot for me over the years Rodric. For all of us in Alrega Beach. Please, don’t trouble yourself further. I’m quite familiar with the process of repairing the shop after something like this.”

Suddenly feeling remiss, Munro realized he hadn’t introduced the two men he was speaking with. “Where are my manners? Terence Shale, this is Detective Rodric Bronze of the APD. Rodric, this is Terry. He helped me put the shop together the last time it got smashed up.”

Rodric shook Terry’s hand. “Nice grip,” he said. “You play football or something?”

Terry smiled. “Ballet, actually. I used to be with the Royal Baronian Dance Theater company.”

Munro, far from being shocked at Terry’s sudden change of story, smiled at this and chuckled knowingly.

“Interesting,” Bronze said. “You don’t look all that graceful.”

“That’s why I’m no longer with the Royal Baronian Dance Theater company.”

Bronze nodded. “You know the last time the Garlandinis knocked this shop over, someone was here to stop them. Man dressed all in flying power armor with a shield painted on his chest.”

“I heard about that,” Terry said.

“I bet you did, that’s why you were here afterward to help out, right?”

Terry nodded.

“Being from Baron, I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the Shield?”

Terry chuckled. “I never said I was from Baron, detective. I just used to wear Baronian tights and dance with pretty Baronian girls.”

Munro interjected, to spare Terry from further interrogation. “You know the old saying: ‘nobody’s really from Albrook except the Generalissimo himself’? Well, not true, in fact. Detective Bronze is a true-born Albrooker native.”

Bronze smirked. “Well we can’t all get here travelling with the Royal Baronian Dance company, can we?”

Terry shrugged. “I dunno, Detective. You seem like you’d be spry enough.”

Bronze exhaled. “Well. I have some paperwork that needs tending. I won’t take up anymore of your time. Klyde, again… I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to lock someone up for this.”

“You do enough already, Rodric. Thank you.”

Bronze’s eyes fell on Terry again. There was something familiar about him. He wasn’t quite sure, but he thought that maybe, just maybe… “Kid,” Bronze said, shaking Terry’s hand again. “Nice to see an upstanding citizen in Altrega Beach for a change. This happens all to often down here, and I’ve been too long thinking I was the only one who gave a rat’s ass.”

Terry made a mental note to make Altrega part of his nightly patrol.

“Just happy to do my part, Detective.”


#4

“Hot date tonight, Egmont?”

Fara turned around with a start. On some level, she was still not quite used to sharing her personal space with another person.

“…don’t you knock, Denise?” asked Fara.

Denise shrugged. “It’s my room, too. Besides, if you wanted me to knock, you should put a sock on the doorknob.”

Fara felt weirdly self-conscious. Denise was tall, thin, blonde, beautiful, a fashion plate – a model who had had her face plastered across billboards. Fara was just plain old Fara. What was her nice dress from home seemed strangely childish and out-of-place now that she was on her own.

“That dress is from Kuat, isn’t it?” asked Denise. “Gods, Fara, you’re so… Egmont . I mean, I guess you don’t own any guns, but that’s like, you’re one non-stereotypical thing.”

“Your condescension is so… Centwerp ,” retorted Fara.

“Your makeup is Kuat, too,” said Denise.

“They make a fine line of Kuat Kosmetics!”

Denise sighed. “If I were buying, I dunno, weapons for an army, or a space fleet or something, than I’d buy Kuat. But dresses and makeup aren’t really their thing.” Denise smiled, slightly, showing just a hint of enviably white and perfect teeth. “It’s kind of strange to see you dolled up like this, you’re usually such a jock.”

“I can be strong AND feminine!” protested Fara. “Just because I like swords doesn’t mean I don’t do girly things!”

“…Fara, how long has it been since you’ve been on a date?”

Fara pursed her lips. “It’s been a while,” she said. “Things ended badly with my high school boyfriend.”

“What happened?”

“Well, it turned out that he was working for an ancient magical conspiracy, and I had to best him in swordplay in order to stop their EVIL ritual.”

Denise cracked a smile and laughed. “You crack me, up, Fara!”

“Yeah. I think I prevented his dark master from switching bodies and maintaining his immortality. We really couldn’t keep seeing each other after that, no matter how pretty he was.”

Denise giggled. “You’re so funny!”

“…but yeah,” said Fara. “This is my first date in some time. I met him online. He’s a GA cadet, because Albrook.”

“I thought you had a boyfriend….who is that gorgeous specimen of chiseled man-meat you’re always hanging out with? The one with the Guardian accent?”

“You mean…Terry?” asked Fara.

“Is that his name?” asked Denise. “He’ll be at that house party you mentioned, right? So he’s single?”

"…I don’t think he’s seeing anyone,” said Fara, though truth be told, she hadn’t exactly asked. “I mean, I think he had a girlfriend in Guardia, but I think it ended badly.”

“So he has a dark and tragic past? That’s SO hot!”

“…I think you and I have somewhat different taste in men, Denise.”

“Well, what’s your type, Fara? What’s this date of yours tonight like?”

“Well, he’s a GA cadet.”

“You mentioned that.”

“And I met him online, so this is my first time meeting him in person.”

“…and you liked him, why?”

“Well, he actually responded to my online profile in a complete sentence,” said Fara. “And he avoided making a joke about ‘the carpet matching the drapes’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I swear, if I had a GP every time I heard that one, I’d be richer than Damien Gavalian.”

“Setting your sights really high, huh, Fara? Minimum command of Common and the ability to resist sending you dick pics are all you looking for in a future husband?”

“Well, also not being a member of a secret EVIL conspiracy, that’s a deal-breaker for me.”

“Ok, where’s he taking you?”

“The Drunken Soldier Tavern.”

“…THE Drunken Soldier Tavern? The place where Celiose and Chrystalis used to get drunk? One of the most famous bars in the Web of Worlds? THAT Drunken Soldier tavern? And you’re going there in THAT dress, with THAT makeup?”

“…well, that was my plan, but your tone of voice indicates that I should I should reconsider.”

Denise bolted to her closet and returned with a small, black dress. “This is the dress you need to wear. And I am doing your makeup. With my cosmetics from Orlean. This is not open to negotiation or discussion.”

“…isn’t that dress, like, really short?”

“Pfft. On ME it’s really short. But on a shortie like you, it’ll be down to your knees almost. A quite respectable length for a good Raineric girl like you.”

“….ok,” said Fara. “But I’m keeping the boots. They’re cute and they’re tough and I like them.”

Denise rolled her eyes. “But they’re so…. Egmont …”

“Well, so am I! Ich bin Egmonter . Besides, we’re going to beat Centwerp’s ass in soccer.”

“No, you won’t.”

“…I thought you didn’t follow sports, Denise?”

“Fara, I don’t follow sports,” said Denise, “except I know that Centwerp always wins.”


#5

“Why don’t we step outside and do this out here?”

The manager opened the door and held it open, waiting for Osprey to step outside. Most of the people who associated with Osprey only ever saw him wearing his loose-fitting gray-and-black infiltration getup; his “ninja suit,” as Fara might call it. Lately, however, Osprey had invested a good deal of time, effort and money into building up a fairly deep wardrobe of interview clothes.

For this one, he was wearing a simple light blue button-down shirt tucked into a pair of khaki slacks. Shoes were usually not an issue for Osprey, as members of his particular species of Mystic usually didn’t need them, but for the interview today he’d visited a specialty shop in the Fashion District and picked up a very fetching pair of three-toed avian loafers that were just his size. It felt unnatural, uncomfortable even. But if it helped him land this job, it’d be worth it.

The managed sat down on a park bench just outside the storefront, and invited Osprey to sit next to him.

“So, why do you want to work at Albrooker Video?”

“Well, sir,” Osprey said, “I am an avid watcher of cinema. And I couldn’t help but notice your franchise actually boasts a rather large International Film section. I feel that my breadth of expertise in this subject area would be of great use to you in the furtherance of your business endeavors.”

“You ever worked retail before?”

Osprey faltered. “Well, truthfully, no. I lost my job a little while ago, and before that I’d never held any form of previous employment whatsoever.”

“What was your previous job?”

Osprey faltered again. “I am not at liberty to say. In fact, I would have to either kill you or magically erase all memory of this conversation. And I do not currently possess the equipment necessary to do the latter.”

“Funny,” the manager said. He wasn’t smiling. “You know our company is losing money daily because of the rise of OmniNet streaming services, right? People don’t want to trudge down to the video store for a video disc when they can just stream a movie on their computer or Manaseed.”

Osprey did know this. He loved streaming video. However, he deemed it prudent not to mention this fact during his interview for a job at Albrooker Video.

“Damn those streaming services to hell,” Osprey said.

The manager nodded approvingly. “So why do you think we should hire you? If I have enough money to hire on just one hand to help run the store, in the midst of hemorrhaging money, why should it be you?”

Osprey scrutinized the store manager. Smiling, he knew the best possible answer to this question.

“Sir, I am a man with a very particular set of skills,” Osprey said. “You are suffering and losing business to the streaming services. I am the solution to this problem. Hire me, and I shall select nearby facilities which house vital infrastructure for the top three streaming services that serve metropolitan Albrook. I will infiltrate these facilities, and cause their operations great difficulty. Difficulty from which they shall not recover. … Also, my typing speed is over 95 words per minute.”

The manager blinked. “Okay, pal. If you’re not going to take this seriously, I’m not going to bother continuing this conversation.”

He stood and walked back into the store.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

“So, why do you want to work at Fuchi Sushi?”

“Well, sir,” Osprey said, “I am an avid eater of Eblanese cuisine. In looking over your menu, I’ve assessed that I have eaten similar, if not identical, items to every dish your restaurant serves. I feel that my breadth of expertise in this subject area would be of great use to you in the furtherance of your business endeavors.”

“You ever worked food service before?”

Osprey sighed. Why did they always ask this? “… Not as such. I have been unemployed for a while now, and before that I’d never held any form of previous employment whatsoever.”

“What was your previous job?”

And the expected followup. “I am not at liberty to say. In fact, I would have to either kill you or magically erase all memory of this conversation. And I do not currently possess the equipment necessary to do the latter.”

The young woman blinked, and half-smiled nervously. “O…kay. I… don’t know what to say to that. How do you feel about delivery?”

“Well, speaking from firsthand experience, I can tell you that it fills my heart with joy when I hear the doorbell ring after having placed an order for food delivery. Being so intimately familiar with the experience of being delivered to, I believe I am in a unique position to offer the same, if not superior, service to your customers.”

The woman smiled. "I love that enthusiasm!.. So, tell me… Mister Osprey… why do you think I should hire you?

“Young miss,” Osprey said. “I am a man with a very particular set of skills. Skills which the common delivery person would be hard-pressed to match. I swear to you, ma’am, that I shall serve you as no other delivery person ever could. Under my care, the foodstuffs entrusted to me shall come to no harm, and any who would keep me from my appointed duty will be met by cold steel and death. Know you that any delivery task rendered unto me shall be completed in 30 minutes or less, or else I shall give my life in the attempt.”

Young woman smled uncomfortably. “Okay. Well… I’m sorry, Mister Osprey, but I don’t feel like this is a good fit. I hope you have better luck seeking employment elsewhere.”

Osprey just watched as the woman stood up and walked back inside her shop. He had killed in the line of duty before, but the callousness with which he kept being turned away from prospective employment never ceased to shock him to his core.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

“So, why do you want to work at Jonny Kwik’s Copymart?”

“Well, sir,” Osprey said, “I am an avid user of copy machines and printers. In preparation for seeking this position, I have taken apart my roommate’s home copier/scanner/printer thirteen times, and re-assembled it successfully each time. I have also perused several online catalogues of printing machines and their various peripherals and parts. In doing so, I believe I have equipped myself with more knowledge than your average Copymart employee. I feel that my breadth of expertise in this subject area would be of great use to you in the furtherance of your business endeavors.”

“Well… that’s some dedication!” the rotund moogle seemed jolly and amiable. Osprey hoped this interview wouldn’t inevitably turn the way all the others had. “Apart from taking apart your friend’s copier… have you ever worked in a copy shop before?”

Ah yes. This question again. “No, sir. All of my experience with these amazing and wonderful machines has been undertaken in my own time, as a labor of love. I do have a surplus of time on my hands these days, due to my being unemployed for a little while now. Prior to that I’d never held any form of previous employment whatsoever.”

“What was your previous job?”

Osprey had been specifically trained to weather various interrogation techniques. Why did this question bother him so much? “I am not at liberty to say. In fact, I would have to either kill you or magically erase all memory of this conversation. And I do not currently possess the equipment necessary to do the latter.”

The moogle was suddenly taken aback. He honestly didn’t know how to respond to that. He moved on: “Well… all right then. So tell me, what makes you think you’d be such a good fit for Jonny Kwik’s Copymart?”

Osprey cleared his throat. “I am a man with a very particular set of skills. One of those skills, of late, has been copier disassembly, maintenance and repair. If you would hire me, I can promise you that all of your machines will be fully operational for the entirety of my tenure watching over them. And if any of them should come to harm, I swear to you upon my honor and the honor of all the Kings and Queens of Guardia, the offender that brought disrepair unto one of your machines shall not survive to harm again another.”

The moogle was no longer smiling and laughing. “Mister Osprey… did you just threaten to kill our customers? After also threatening to kill me for asking about your previous employment?”

Osprey levelled his gaze at the Copymart manager. Now was the time for some of the confidence they always talked about in those self-help videos! “Sir, I never make threats. Only promises.”

The moogle stood up from his desk. “You’d better leave. I’m calling mall security.”


#6

Despite its storied reputation, the Drunken Soldier Tavern and Bar was still a bit of a dive. In fact, it was proud of its dive-y status; it seemed to revel in the fact that a tiny whole in the wall watering hole could still exist adjacent to Grand Army Headquarters, one of the Web’s most recognizable landmarks.

It was, of course, almost impossible to get in – it was one of the tourist “musts”, but Fara’s date had a connection. Fara had arrived a little early, and at her table she had time to take in the crowd, a mix of races from across the Web: humans, moogles, dwarfs, elves, robots, dozens of different types of anthromorphic animals and more than a few anthromorphic plants. Tasnica was a diverse place, but even it was not on the same level as Albrook.

But of course, right here, next to Grand Army Headquarters, there was one thing almost all the bar patrons had in common: virtually all wore the white-and-gold uniform of the Grand Army. The ambient conversation, relaxed though it was, still had a clipped, military cadence to it. People moved with determined discipline and purpose, as though they may be called upon any moment to abandon their revelry and save the Web from a secret conspiracy of Dark space ant gods. Fara was one of the only people in the bar not wearing the white-and-gold.

“Fara?”

Fara bolted upright, and turned to face her date, a young fair-haired man. “Fara? I’m Rogal. Nice to meet you!”

“Nice to meet you, too!”

Should she shake his hand? Should they hug? How well did they really know each other after exchanging a handful of omninet messages? She went for the handshake.

“Nice dress!” said Rogal, awkwardly.

“Thanks,” said Fara. “Nice…uniform.” Rogal, of course, was wearing a GA cadet’s uniform.

The server took their drink order – the two ordered Albrooker Cola, of course, the legendary drink of the Generalissimo himself, a small-batch, handcrafted soft drink. (Nonalcoholic, of course, as Celiose was never a big drinker.)

“So,” said Fara. “You’re from Hyrule?”

“Well, technically it’s called Hyland now,” said Rogal, “but, yeah, people still call it Hyrule a lot. And you’re from…Tasnica, right?”

Ja ,” said Fara. “From Egmont.”

“…where’s Egmont? Is it by Tasnicaport?”

“Well, uh…not too far, I guess. A long-ish drive…if you take the Quadline train it’s pretty quick, though.” Fara was a little surprised he hadn’t heard of Egmont, which was, after all, the second largest city in the Republic, headquarters of the Kuat Consortium, and had been recently been attacked by giant rock demons.

“You ever been to Hyland?” asked Rogal.

“No,” said Fara. “I mean, my dad was in Trianbale, during the war. He was an airplane mechanic. But, I’ve never been. What’s it like?”

Rogal shrugged, as if he didn’t have the words to describe it. “It’s a little weird, coming to Albrook,” he said. “I mean, Hyland has all kinds of people – humans, Hylians, zoras, gorons, moblins…but Albrook has all of that. I remember reading that there’s something like over a hundred sentient species in this city.”

“I know, right! It’s like the whole Web in one place. How long have you been here, Rogal?”

“Not long,” said the GA cadet. “I just got here for my junior year training tour. I’m very lucky to do my training tour at GAHQ, I had to get really good grades and top marks from my instructors.” Rogal smiled. “I’m hoping to get a prime assignment when I graduate.”

“So…what do you do for fun?” asked Fara. “I mean, you play any sports, or anything?”

“Well, I play chess, of course,” said Rogal. “Oh, and I study military history and military theory. Did you by any chance read Jendon Fel’s new book? It’s very interesting, it has all these Guardian concepts of chivalry and Eblanese bushido , but it’s very Scandian, there’s all this stuff about sacrifice and living an aesthetic lifestyle.”

“No, can’t say I’ve read that one,” said Fara.

“Well, what about Celiose’s books? You have to have read those. Supplying War is probably his most important one for me, as a logistics officer. Which of Celiose’s books on military theory is your favorite?”

“Uh….” Said Fara. “That’s not really my thing.”

“…oh.”

“…what kind of music do you like, Rogal?” asked Fara. “I like jazz and I like pop music. I like Bertha Javelins, even though now I know it’s kind of cool to hate her.”

“…yeah, I don’t really listen to music. I mean, besides military marches.”

The two Albrooker Colas arrived. The two drank their sugary beverages quietly. Fara swished the cola around in her mouth; it tasted strange, unfamiliar. It tasted unlike Kuat Kola, the soft drink she had consumed most of her life.

“So…you follow sports?” asked Fara. “I’m a big soccer fan, but I follow a couple of teams.”

“No, I can’t say that I do,” said Rogal. “I mean, I was never really into it, and with all the training and studying, it’s hard to have free time for things.”

“So, what’s your training like?”

“It’s pretty intense,” said Rogal. “I mean, I know everyone says the GA ain’t what it used to be, but the standards for training and tactics are still really high. It’s one of the most physically and mentally demanding things I’ve ever done. I’m not even going to be a Grenadier, but I still had to be trained on a bunch of different weapons – needle pistols, gyrocs…all sorts of things.”

Fara perked up a bit. “What about swords? You learn about fighting with swords? It’s a bit of a hobby of mine.”

“No, we don’t,” said Rogal. “I mean, I don’t really think swords have a place on the modern battlefield.”


#7

Albrook Harbor – “the AH” – was one of the busiest ports of call in the entire Web of Worlds, as its position near multiple portals made it a key point of trans-shipment. On any given day, ships from across the Web were coming and going carrying goods to and from Light, Gate, Mana, Crystal, and of course, Esper.

Terence Shale walked along the docks, finding a relatively nondescript (but recently repaired) garage. He knocked on the door.

Hola , Terry, come on in,” said Violante. The Damcyanese smuggler was smeared in engine grease, and wearing overalls; she had a pair of dark welding goggles pushed up on her hair. “Sorry about the mess…still fixing things up from the time the Golden Axe Triad trashed the place.”

Terry entered Violante’s garage. Most of the garage’s space was taken up by the sleek form of Violante’s custom hovercraft, the Velocity, but in a corner was Terry’s own suit of Seraphim armor.

“Hey, Violante,” said Terry. “I picked up some burritos from on my way over.”

“What? I’m you assume because I’m Damcyanese, I must automatically like burritos?” snapped Violante.

“….well, it was more like burritos are convenient and delicious. I figured everyone likes burritos, truly one of Damcyan’s great gifts to Web culture.” Terry reached into a brown paper bag, and extended one of the foil-wrapped burritos.

“…they’re not ‘Albrooker-style’, are they?”

“Gods no, I don’t hate you.”

Violante snatched one of the burritos out of his hand. “Well, I do happen to love burritos…who doesn’t? Though, the locals seem to think that drenching everything in hot sauce makes it more ‘authentic’.” She unwrapped the burrito, and took a hungry bite. Terry unwrapped his burrito, and started eating.

Violante sighed. “You know, I think it’s the food I miss the most from home,” she said. “Charcoal-grilled chicken, proper queso…I mean, there are a few places in the city that do an OK job – this burrito’s not half-bad – but they just make me homesick.”

“I know what you mean,” said Terry. “Back in Arris, there was this one donut shop I would go to all the time, and I would always, always get a maple-frosted donut there, every Friday, for breakfast on the way to work. Even before I started doing the superhero thing. I know there are donuts everywhere in the Web – and thank the Gods for that! – but every time I go to one, I just think of that tiny little shop in Arris…”

Terry sighed. It was strange to think about; there were plenty of parts of Guardia, his home, he’d never see again. There were also plenty of places – like Model Square – that he’d never bothered to go see, because there was always plenty of time. But now he was a wanted man in Guardia – there was no way he could go back, no way he could see Ft. Arris again where he had gotten his start as a humble janitor, no way he would see the castle in Truce again, and no way he would ever get a maple-frosted donut that was quite the same.

“That’s a pretty damned impressive piece of tech you have, there,” said Violante, jerking her thumb at the Seraphim suit. “Seraphim plastic is tough to work with, though…you can’t weld or cut it easily. All the parts are pressure-molded, or in a few cases, they’ve been cut by very special lasers. I think even if someone cracked Diamond’s super-secret formula, it’d be pretty hard for them to have the technology to work with the material. I think it was probably a lot harder to make a battlesuit than a giant robot, because all the parts had to be smaller.”

“It was designed by Abe Zion himself,” said Terry.

“Holy shit!” said Violante. “This suit, it’s…one-of-a-kind.” She smiled. “I can’t wait to tinker with it. Some Scandian night vision goggles fell off the back of an aircraft carrier and into my trunk.”

“…so?” asked Terry.

“So the Scandians have the best night vision equipment in the Web! I can integrate that with the vision-plate to let you see in the dark.”

“That’s…nice, I guess…”

“I think I can also improve your flight time a little bit,” said Violante. “Though that’s a maintenance thing…when was the last time someone worked on this?”

“Well….not since leaving Guardia?” said Terry. “Actually, even in Guardia, I don’t remember ‘taking it in’…I mean, it’s indestructible plastic, right?”

“And it has lots of destructible components that are subject to wear and tear,” said Violante. “I mean, your flight intakes are jammed with gunk. Scrubbing them should give you a lot more flight efficiency. And with your servos properly lubricated, the suit should be a lot faster and easier to fly.”

“…thanks, I guess,” said Terry. “Um, random question…do you think it could take an Ultima weapon?”

“Well,” said Violante, “Diamond did have a Seraphim take an ultima weapon as a publicity stunt way back when. I think the suit could probably take it…but the shockwave would probably kill the pilot.”

“You know,” said Terry, “back in my superpowered days, I twice – twice – stopped weapons of mass destruction from destroying Guardia.”

Violante rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows that, Terry,” she said. “And now you’re zooming around in this fucking awesome, one-of-a-kind battlesuit made of indestructible plastic, designed by the legendary Abe Zion.”

“Yeah, a battlesuit ,” said Terry. “You know what they call battlesuited troops in the Grand Army? Regulars .”
“What, and before you had superpowers from a magic spirit ? Those aren’t exactly uncommon in this Web of ours…you know they call this the Esper Dimension for a reason, right?”

Terry sighed. “The Shield – Shiru – was a part of me. I didn’t have to worry about ‘suiting up’ or dealing with ‘maintenance’ or any of these clunky mechanism.” He looked up. “I was up there .”

Violante gestured around her workshop. “ Down here isn’t so bad, Terry,” she said. “It’s where most of us live. I mean, what did you do before the superhero thing? Were you like a knight, or a special forces soldier, or a secret agent, or —”

Terry chuckled. “I was a janitor,” he said. “I stumbled upon the proving grounds for a supersoldier program by accident, and I managed to best all the other candidates. Bekkler insisted that I ‘won’ the competition, though I think he mainly wanted to troll Scorpius.”

Violante laughed. “So, from a janitor to the great hero known as the Shield!”

“…to a regular,” added Terry. “I don’t even have heat-based eye lasers.”

“Oh,” said Violante, “adding some heat-based lasers to the suit shouldn’t be hard. This is Albrook, military surplus magitek is easy to come by. Probably a shoulder mount would be the best.”

“….could you make them come out of the eyes?” asked Terry.

“That’s actually a lot harder. I mean, I’d need to rework the visionplate entirely to add a magitek emitter, and I’d need to add some heat transfer to make sure you don’t burn your face whenever you use it…and I can’t think of any good reason to do it that way. It just doesn’t make any mechanical sense.”

“…please?”


#8

Roxanne was beaming. She had wanted to have a housewarming party much earlier, but she had been sidetracked by killer androids and vengeful Valkyries. But maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing; if she’d had a housewarming party when she first moved to the city, she wouldn’t have so many guests.

She was expecting plenty of guests. Osprey and Terry were coming, of course (they hardly left!); Fara had come with her roomies in tow (Denise, and Kamiko, though Violante was coming later); the whacky dwarven neighbors (Eleod, angry at the world as always, and Grilka, who had brought delicious baked goods as always); and Roxanne was glad to see that Terry was making some local friends (a tailor named Klyde Munro; local cop Rodric Bronze and his family.) Fara had even brought a date!

Roxanne got everyone’s attention. “Welcome, everyone!” she said. “It’s hard to believe it, but I’ve been in Albrook four months. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure that my move here would work out. It’s hard to imagine it, but just a few years ago I was in a bit of a rut. And I was maybe a little nervous to get back in the saddle, so to speak. But things here in this city of heroes have gone better than I could’ve imagined.”

Roxanne raised a glass of beer. “So let’s toast,” she said. “To Albrook, and to new beginnings!”

Everyone in the room raised their glasses. “To Albrook, and to new beginnings!”


#9

“Albrooker Cola!?”

Fara’s ears perked up. The music was thrumming pretty loudly, but she could still hear Osprey call out from the kitchen, partly in rage, partly in surprise.

“Yes please!” Fara said, bringing her cup in and placing it down on the island.

“I asked for Kuat Cola!” Osprey said. “The King of Colas!”

“… Would you believe the store didn’t have any?”

Osprey closed the refrigerator door and brought himself to his full height. His eyes were stern, steely; his mouth locked into a grim frown. “I asked you to help me restock our food stores for the party, because I had some interviews today.”

“Yeah? How’d those go!?” Fara was genuinely excited, hoping for good news on the Osprey-job-front.

“Irrelevent,” Osprey said, dismissively, burying away his disappointment deep down inside. “As you know I surrendered the last of my beloved Kuat Cola (the King of Colas) to Gabriela the Grave when she came to us from the supernatural realm known as the Pure Land in order to pass judgement on my new best friend, Bim.”

“Right,” Fara said. “Whom I defended in accordance with ancient Taznikanze law and now am fated to fight to the death for once some magical weaponized seltzer bottles from Foo can be located.”

“These are all things that happened, yes,” Osprey said. “And as you also know, your temporary assumption of my duties as Roxanne’s personal grocery shopper was a favor to me, and part of that favor was making sure that I had my favorite beverage readily available at our much-belated housewarming party for Roxanne’s Albrook apartment.”

“Trust me, Os,” Fara said, grabbing the Albrooker Cola bottle out of Osprey’s hand, twisting the top and then pouring herself a cup. “You may not realize it yet, but I actually did do you a favor.”

Osprey sighed. “In the depths of my despair, I had hoped that just one thing in this universe would turn my way today.” Then, quickly, under his breath: “After I used those caltrops to elude mall security, I mean.” He cleared his throat. “This party, I had planned to just sit back, prop my weary feet up on top of Bim’s… flat top-part of his body, I guess… and enjoy the cool, refreshing taste of Kuat Cola. … the king of colas…”

Fara slid the bottle over to Osprey. “Just try it. It’s the cola that won the Great War.”

Fara sipped from her cup and strolled out into the main room of the apartment. She looked around and found she didn’t recognize most of the people who were here. Some she assumed were people Roxanne knew from her work at the university. Others she wasn’t so sure about, but over by the couch she noticed Denise holding court with several overly-eager-looking males, with Kamiko sitting uncomfortably nearby.

Fara smiled, suddenly possessed of an idea. She grabbed Osprey by the hand. “Come here. I’ll make up for the cola thing in a second.”

Moving toward the couch, her suitemates spotted her approach, and Denise offered her a wave. Kamiko nodded respectfully.

“Hey guys! I’m glad you could make it!” Fara exclaimed.

“Whose place is this again?” Denise asked.

Fara paused a moment to think. “Oh, she was my… history tutor back in Egmont. She just happened to accept a teaching position here this semester as well. Small world, right? We’re very close. It’s not weird.”

“She has some hot friends,” Denise said, knowing full well the men standing around her could hear what she was saying.

“That’s not gross,” Fara said. She turned to Kamiko. “How are you enjoying the party?”

“Unfortunately, Denise is my ride,” Kamiko said. Then, remembering her manners: “Your history tutor has a very well-appointed apartment.”

“It’s pretty great,” Fara said. “Have I introduced you to my friend Osprey? He’s a Mystic from Guardia. He knows everything there is to know about Eblanese cinema.”

Osprey arched a brow. “What?”

“Well it’s true. The only samurai movies I’ve ever seen were ones that I fell asleep watching with Osprey.”

Kamiko regarded Osprey. Albrook was filled with culture shocks of varying kinds for Kamiko, but the profusion of various and sundry non-humans was the most profound. Still, she was nothing if not polite.

“Very nice to meet you Osprey,” she said. “I myself find most cinema, even Eblanese cinema, doesn’t accurately portray a number of things properly. The kenjutsu choreography in particular.”

“Actually,” Osprey said, “Some of my favorite films are works by Ramesh Akesawa, and he was pretty famous for being meticulous about the staging of his swordfights.”

Kamiko took a pause, and she met Osprey’s eyes briefly. “Well. Yes. Akesawa’s work is sublime. … Which is your favorite?”

“Blades of Fury. Of course. It is his magnum opus.”

“I always thought his pacing in the beginning of Blades of Fury was too slow,” Kamiko said.

“It is slow on purpose,” Osprey said. “He builds his pace very intentionally, right up until the final moments.”

Fara smiled and slowly backed away. Was Rogal even still here, she wondered? She’d had misgivings about bringing him along, but she just didn’t have the heart to let him down easy after she’d mentioned that she had a party to go to later and he sort of managed to invite himself along.

Just then the door opened. Violante and Terry strolled in together, with Eleod and Grilka following behind them. Roxanne was nowhere to be found, so Fara approached them instead.

“Hey,” Fara said, curious at seeing Violante and Terry together. “Where have you been?”

“I was working on… that thing Terry wanted me to fix up for him,” Violante said.

Terry smiled knowingly. “Yeah, you know, that old car I totally have, which is real and not a cover for something else that we shouldn’t be talking about in public.” Excitedly, Terry added: “She’s working on putting EYE LASERS into it!”

Fara blinked, and glanced around. “… on your CAR?” she asked.

Terry balked, and turned to look at Eleod.

“Oh, stop, you damn kids,” Eleod said, “I was here for the trial and I saw you in your stupid armor. Your secret’s safe with me, now get your bulky arse out of my way so I can get at Roxanne’s beer!”

Eleod pushed his way past.

“Once again, I apologize for him,” Grilka said. As she so often was, she was carrying a basket of baked goods. “Here, Terry, have a muffin.”

Terry’s eyes lit up. “Thank you, Grilka. Thank you so much!”

As Grilka followed in after her husband, Fara stood by and watched Terry wolf down his muffin.

“You know, you weren’t here earlier, but some of your friends have already come by.”

“Oh yeah?” Terry said, brushing a cascade of crumbs off his chin. “Mister Munro’s here?”

Fara nodded. “Yes, I believe so… he actually came in with some guests… a police detective and his family?”

Terry blinked. “Detective Bronze? Why did he show up?”

Fara shrugged. “Anyway they’re around somewhere. Also, this other guy… Doctor… Doctor something. He said he was your ‘best friend’ and that you had invited him personally?”

Terry shook his head. “The only person I asked to stop by was Mister Munro. I don’t even think I know any doctors here in Albrook.”


#10

Klyde Munro and the Bronzes hung out together in the midst of the party. Munro wasn’t sure exactly why Detective Bronze had shown an interest in coming, but had brought along his wife, Rachel, and young daughter Barbara for good measure.

As Terry pushed his way through the crowd, Klyde waved him over.

“Terry!” Munro said, beaming. “Thank you so much for inviting me!”

“Oh of course, Klyde!” Terry said. “Thank you… for bringing the police with you.”

Detective Bronze smiled warmly – which was strange to see, as he was so gruff earlier. “Detective Bronze, Mister Shale. We met earlier?”

“Yes, yes of course,” Terry said. “I’m a little surprised to see you here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” Bronze said. “I apologize, really. It’s just that my wife and daughter, I never take them out much, and Klyde was mentioning you had this housewarming party, and I thought it would be nice to come by.”

“Well, the more the merrier,” Terry said.

“Say, ah, listen,” Bronze said, pulling Terry aside. “As long as I have you here, would you mind if I asked you just one more question? I know you’ve got this great party going on and everything, I promise I won’t take up too much of your time.”

Terry wasn’t sure where this was going. “Yeah, sure, Detective. What did you need to know?”

“Well, actually, it’s about the Royal Baronian Dance Theater company.” Bronze clapped a hand on Terry’s shoulder. He marvelled a moment, then clapped his shoulder again. “Gods, that is some solid muscle you have there… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dancer with such massive shoulders before. How are you even able to move like that, kid?”

Terry wasn’t exactly sure he was comfortable with Detect Bronze feeling (and commenting on) his muscles like this. “Well, you know. I’m surprisingly limber, actually.”

“Right, I guess you’d have to be,” Bronze said. “The Baronian Dance company is one of the Web’s best, you know. Did you know my wife loves the ballet?”

Terry shook his head.

“Oh yeah, sure. For years. Made me take her a bunch of times. I don’t get it, I’ll be honest. But that’s what happens when you’re married, you know. We suffer for the ones we love, right?”

Terry hardly responded before Bronze spoke again: “You know we saw the Baronian company once, some years back. When did you say you were dancing with them?”

Terry smiled. “I didn’t say, Detective. But I was actually never on stage with them. Too bulky, as you said; best I ever did was serve as understudy.”

Bronze’s eyes widened and he smiled. “Well. That explains it. Mystery solved. Thank you so much for your time, Mister Shale, and I’m really sorry to bother you like this. Say… over there at the snacks table, is that real Kakkaran hummus?”


#11

While Terry was being accosted by Detective Bronze, Violante started to make her way over to where Denise and Kamiko were sitting. Denise was surrounded by random guys (of course), but Kamiko looked to be engaged in a pretty deep discussion with Osprey. Osprey??.. Weird. Violante couldn’t remember Kamiko ever talking to a guy before, much less a weird bird-man like Osprey.

“Pardon me,” came a voice, followed by a tap on Violante’s shoulder. She turned and saw a thin greasy-haired man with thick glasses and a colorful (but woefully mismatched) suit smiling at her.

“Doctor Walter Glass,” said the man, offering Violante a hand. She shook it, and was immediately repulsed: his hand was moist, his grip flimsy. It was the squishiest, most frail handshake she’d ever experienced. “I can’t help but notice you came in alongside one Mister Terence Shale…” Then, he added, in a conspiratorial whisper: “a.k.a. the Shield.”

Violante’s eyes went wide.

“Oh calm yourself, girl,” Glass said. “I assure you, we are both engaged in the conspiracy by equal measure. For I, you see, am the Shield’s best friend and technical consultant.”

Violante arched a brow. “Really?”

“Yes,” Glass said. “And, what of you, then? You are his… paramour, I assume? He has fine tastes, fine tastes indeed.”

Again, Violante experienced a feeling of revulsion. “Uh, no. I’m just a friend.”

“Oh,” Glass said. “Apologies, I thought you were his date.”

“Yeah,” Violante said. “I caught that.”

“Well, even so,” Glass said, “As his best friend, surely he’s mentioned me?”

“No, I think I’d remember if he said he’d met anyone like you.”

“Did he tell you about the time he came to me to upgrade his suit?” Dr. Glass beamed with pride. “I cleared the ol’ sched just for him, that’s how tight we are. Built him his new Vanguard shield module from the ground up, yes I did. Stuff like this is typically proprietary Kuat technology… but I have pull with the big G, and uh… he gave me the go-ahead to hook my friend up.”

“Oh. So YOU’RE the numbskull who gave him that shield module,” Violante said.

Dr. Glass balked. “What? What do you mean?”

“Yeah. I had to rewire the connection circuit just to make it work with the suit. Took me a whole day.”

“Impossible,” Glass said, “Terry would have told me if he had someone else tinker with the suit…”

“He only came to me because he couldn’t attach the damn thing himself,” Violante said. “And, good thing he did, too: if I’d left the connectors the way you had them, I could have blown his arm off.”

“Impertinent little bitch,” Dr. Glass said, rage rising in his voice. “My designs are flawless!! The Vanguard module is a work of art, ART I tell you!”

“… Nice to see you making friends, Violante,” Terry said, as he came upon the pair.

“Ah, Terry,” Dr. Glass said, smiling.

“Oh… it’s… you,” Terry said. “How strange of you to be here, without being invited or even knowing about this party…”

“Oh, I was just in the neighborhood,” Dr. Glass said. “Heard about the party, thought I’d check in…”

“Yeah, we… didn’t really make it very public…” Terry said.

“How are you liking the Vanguard module?” Dr. Glass said.

Terry looked around. “You mean that add-on for the piece of technology I have which I generally don’t speak about out in public where others can hear, because of the secret I must keep?”

Dr. Glass flushed red with embarrassment. “Yes. … For your… air conditioning unit. Which I serviced, for free, on account of our close personal friendship.”

“Well, it worked great,” Terry said, smiling. “Violante here installed it for me, and then I got to field test it almost right away. Works like a dream.”

Dr. Glass fumed. He glared daggers at Violante. When Terry wasn’t looking, she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Would you mind terribly, Terry, if I took a look at the… air conditioning unit… right now? Just to make sure this… Violante didn’t mess anything up?”

“Afraid not,” Terry said. “Because, for one, I don’t really let just anybody take a look at… the unit --”

Violante snort-laughed.

“… air conditioning unit,” Terry corrected. “And for another, it’s actually over at Violante’s workshop.”

“… Where?” Dr. Glass asked, stunned.

“My workshop,” Violante said. “Where I work on things. … like Terry’s unit.”

Terry pursed his lips and glared at Violante.

“What? You don’t mind showing a girl your unit, do you?”

“Terry, you can’t let this filthy woman touch your… air conditioner!” Dr. Glass said. “She’s a hack, a dumb grease-monkey, not the refined mechanical genius that you deserve!”

Violante puffed herself up and looked like she was about to throw down, but Terry interceded.

“Okay, Doc… Come on. Calm down.”

Terry took Dr. Glass by his shoulders and walked him toward the door.

“Where are you taking me?” Glass asked.

“I think it might be time for you to go,” Terry said.

“No,” Glass said, suddenly very upset. “No, please, Terry… really, I’m sorry. I know that outburst in there was unbecoming of me, but I just got so…”

“I know, I understand,” Terry said. “But you’re clearly upset, and being here in this party with Violante isn’t going to make you feel any better.”

Dr. Glass fumed. “Why don’t you kick her out then? She started it. She was rude to me, and she’s ugly and stupid.”

“First of all, I’m not kicking you out,” Terry said. “I just think you should go head back to your own space and clear your head, for your own good. Besides, I can’t kick Violante out… she’s my roommate’s friend, she had the personal invite… there’s nothing I can do. It’s kind of her place to begin with, not mine.”

“So… if there’s a problem between guests… it’s your guest that has to go,” Dr. Glass said.

Terry held up his hands. “You have it exactly right. My hands are tied.”

“But that’s so unfair, Terry! You’re a hero to millions of people! People LOVE you, and what’s your roommate ever done?”

“I dunno, but as old as she is, I’m sure she’s got a thing or two under her belt that make all my heroing look like nothing,” Terry said. He patted Glass on the arm. “Take care of yourself, buddy. Okay? Have a safe walk home.”

“… I… I will. Buddy,” Dr. Glass smiled. “Thank you for inviting me to your party.”

“Well, I didn’t, but you’re welcome. Safe walk home, because that’s where you’re going!”


#12

“Helluva a party, Roxanne,” said Fara. Most of the guests had left; Osprey was lounging on the couch, beginning to disassemble Roxanne’s scanner/printer/copier to relax, and Terry was in bed.

“I dunno about that cop, though,” said Roxanne. “He seemed nice at first, but he always had ‘just one more question.’ Daughter’s cute as a button, though.”

Fara wiped off crumbs from Roxanne’s Torian redwood table. “Seriously, Roxanne, didn’t you think of putting some of this stuff away before your party?”

Roxanne shrugged. “Where would I put it? Besides, it’s all this stuff that makes this my home .”

“Yeah,” said Fara, adjusting the Harp of King Edward on Roxanne’s mantle, “but a lot of it is impossible to replace. It’d be a shame if any of it got damaged.”

“There’s no point in having all of this just to keep it in a safe, somewhere,” said Roxanne. “…though I am thinking I should start hiding my scanner/printer/copier from Osprey.”

“I’m timing myself,” said Osprey. “Each time I get better. It helps me to have a hobby, a goal to work towards, to give me a sense of accomplishment. I mean, I used to play White and Gold Online, but in the Siege of Trianable Expansion they ruined it.”

“You could try something else, Os,” said Fara. “Do some volunteer work or something.”

“I don’t want to be tied down when opportunity knocks, Fara,” said Osprey. “By the way, I asked your date about job openings in the Grand Army.”

“If you really want to work for the GA, there’s recruiting stations all around town, Os.”

“Yes, but I wanted the inside track!” said Osprey. “Your date seemed like a nice guy…what was his name?”

“…Roger? Robert?” said Fara, trying to remember. “Oh, Rogal. That’s it. I’m pretty sure.”

“Think you’ll see him again?”

Fara sighed. “I dunno,” she said. “On the one hand, we don’t have much in common. On the other hand, it couldn’t possibly turn out worse than my last relationship.”