Interlude [Ep 9.5]

Weapons World always reminded Fara of home. Maybe it was the art deco design, or the café that served novalox bagels, or the Kuat logos plastered everywhere – the giant retail space devoted to endless arrays of guns, armor, and other weapons of various shapes and sizes was like a little island of Egmont in the heart of Albrook’s Corporate Enclave.

Osprey, on the other hand, was a little taken aback. Intellectually, of course, he knew that gun laws in Albrook were quite lax, a blending of Tasnica’s civil libertarian traditions and proud Esperian self-reliance. Knowing this was one thing, but seeing over 200,000 square feet of retail space devoted to pistols, shotguns, rifles, body armor, holsters, scopes, bipods, carry bags, sights, grips, and magazines boggled his mind. There was a whole floor devoted to various calibers and types of ammunition alone. And it was all clean, well-lit, air-conditioned; but for the sleeker-than-thou design, it faintly reminded Osprey of an organic grocery store in Guardia.

“….why are you here again?” asked Osprey, casting a dim view on a rack of pump-action shotguns. “You have a magic sword, you are more than capable with it. What exactly do you need with any of this stuff?”

“Well, two of my U of A hoodies have been ruined by shrapnel and bullet fire,” said Fara. “I was thinking I might pick up something a little more…appropriate for the adventurer lifestyle.” She took a quick glance at the directory. “There! Armor is on the third floor. I’ll see you later.” She leaned in and gave Osprey a hug. “Good luck with your job interview!”

“Thanks, Fara,” said Osprey. “I’ve got a good feeling about this one.”

The branch manager for Weapons World was a portly, tabby neko; his back office was the exact right blend of luxurious, spacious, and blandly unimaginative that one would expect from a middle manager from one of the Web’s AAA corporations. The desk was empty, save one of those ball things that go back and forth, an endless, repetitive smack-smack of metal spheres the only sound rising over the sounds of smooth jazz piped throughout the store.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Lancer,” said the neko.

“Thank you for having me,” replied Osprey. So cordial! Things were surely off to a good start!

“I have to say, Mr. Lancer, I’ve had a look at your CV,” said the Neko.

“Surely you found it suitably impressive,” said Osprey. “Service in the Omnisent Conflict, expert in ninjitsu and shadow magic, and a typing speed of over 90 words per minute.”

“Well, to be blunt, there is nothing on there related to this position,” replied the neko. “You have no prior sales experience. Even your typing speed isn’t really that important – you’d be spending most of your time on the show floor. Really, I’m more interested in your people skills.”

Osprey nodded. “I have fantastic people skills.”

The neko waited for a moment, expecting there to be more – perhaps some illustrative example. When none came, he prompted, “…and?”

“Well, I’m quite the team player,” insisted Osprey. “…though the details of my various team player-exploits would violate Guardian national security.”

“…perhaps you can try, without including any of the classified bits?” asked the neko.

Osprey considered for a moment. “There was one time, a few years ago,” he began. “I was on the…the unspecified mode of transport…with many of my fellow agents. The air was thick with electricity; every man there felt their adrenaline pounding, as we rapidly approached a…place…somewhere in the Web. I could tell that some of my…coworkers…were quite nervous about this particular…project. The stakes were quite high.”

“Oh, I can totally relate,” said the neko. “I remember that when I first got the assignment to turn around this Weapons World, I had to show progress in ninety days or get kicked back down to the bush leagues.”

“Yes,” said Osprey, “this was totally like that. If we failed we would end up with a …’League’ that would brutally torture and kill us.”

Awkward silence punctuated the office, the click-click-click of the ball thing being the only noise.

“Maybe you should forget I said that,” said Osprey. “Anyway, my coworkers were all looking to me. And then we did some stuff on an airfield and then we went somewhere else.”

“I…see…I think?” said the neko. “Anyway, despite your clear lack of sales experience, your background in ZAPS and espionage suggests a fairly extensive familiarity of weapons systems. Having such a knowledgeable person on our staff would undoubtedly be an asset for us.”

“Yes,” said Osprey. “Although of course I have my specialties, such as my signature katana, Shiva’s Edge, forged from the dying breath of a God.” That didn’t seem really relevant, but Osprey liked saying it. “Also itching powder, smoke pellets, and things of this nature.”

“Oh,” said the neko, “we’re running a special on smoke grenades. You should pick some up.”

“I’ll check it out,” said Osprey. “As I was saying, though I have my areas of particular expertise, I like to think I have quite a wide range of knowledge.”

“Ok,” said the neko, “so let’s roleplay a pretty common situation for us at Weapons World. Let’s say we have an Albrook resident come in, and he’s concerned about reports of rising crime in the city, and he’s worried about being able to protect his family in the event someone threatens them. What would you recommend?”

“Well,” said Osprey, considering, “clearly, spending years to learn the art of ninjitsu is not really practical, here. Although the stealth skills it teaches are useful to someone like me, for someone more interested straight-up fighting they’re not really the most pertinent thing. There are several branches of Karate I could recommend…I also hear good things about Muay Pan, though I admit my personal experience is kind of limited.”

There was another awkward pause, filled with the click-clack of the ball thing.

“Or,” suggested the neko, “what about a gun? What would you recommend if the customer wanted to buy a gun, from this, the largest chain of gun stores in the Web?”

“An inelegant weapon for an uncivilized era,” said Osprey. “Swords, magic, martial arts….these all require years of training and intense discipline. Anyone can use a gun.”

“….that’s actually kind of the point,” said the neko. “How is a working stiff, holding down a 9-to-5 job, desperately trying to find enough time to spend with his family, also going to take the time to learn any of that?”

“They could, uh…make a schedule and stick to it?” said Osprey.

“You know a great deal about time management, Mr. Lancer?” asked the neko. “It’s not even clear from your CV the last time you had regular, steady employment. Besides, say they do take your advice and learn swordfighting. How well do you think a swordfighter – one WITHOUT a magic weapons – stacks up against a rifle? There’s a reason the Kuat Consortium is the Web’s largest corporation, and it has to do with GUNS, not with SWORDS.”

“…so uncivilized,” said Osprey, his mouth curling into a frown.

“I think I’ve heard enough,” said the neko. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Lancer. We’ll be in touch. Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

“Uh,” said Osprey, “I would also like to inquire…are there any openings in the café?”

“I said, ‘best of luck in your future endeavors,’ Mr. Lancer,” said the neko.

Fara had done a quick ON search about ‘modern body armor’ before going shopping, and she made a post on Gladius Schola about it. She had done some research on the topic (quite a bit more than she had put into her paper on Bal.) But being there in person, she couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious. Although lots of people in Albrook bought firearms of various types – either for personal protection, hunting, or just a hobby – body armor was largely the province of law enforcement, security, and mercenary types.

“Hello, miss,” asked a sales associate, a short, white-haired moogle. “How may I help you?”

“I want to buy some body armor?” said Fara.

“Uh huh,” asked the sales associate. “Did you have anything in mind?”

“Well, I thought I would look around a bit,” said Fara. “I need something that can protect against bullets, shrapnel, and things of this nature. Ideally, it would be pretty lightweight – I don’t want to be too encumbered.”

“I see,” said the sales associate. “May I recommend our ‘Zero Suit’ form-fitting armor? We’re running a special.” The moogle gestured towards an advertisement on the wall, featuring an impossibly gorgeous, impossibly thing model wearing matte-black skintight armor. The model’s lips were slightly parted; her butt jutted outward provocatively as she leaned forward.

“Not really my style,” said Fara. “Maybe something a little more…practical? Also, something that doesn’t advertise my badankadonk for all to see?”

“Is this your first armor?” asked the associate.

“Yes,” answered Fara, feeling a bit sheepish.

The moogle smiled. “I have just the thing,” she said, and left for a moment. She returned, producing a rugged-looking Kevlar vest, in drab green, with lots of added pouches and pockets. “May I present the ‘Lorica’ body armor,” said the associate. “It’s basically what the GA Grenadiers use. The GA version has a lot of extra bells and whistles and fancypants electronics. This is stripped down – but it gives you all the same protection.” She held it vertically. “You see, it protects all your vitals. It has a big collar to protect your throat, and it has extra ceramic plates built into the Kevlar weave to give extra protection to your core organs.”

“So,” asked Fara, “that all sounds pretty good…but how much protection am I getting?”

“The Lorica armor can stop a 9 mm round traveling at 1,400 feet/second, with minimal deformation,” said the sales associate. “That’s good enough for most small arms. Pistols, SMGs, things of this nature. It will also keep you a lot safer from fragmentation or shrapnel, unless you jump right on the grenade or something. You will run into trouble against high-caliber weapons, or armor-piercing ammunition. It’s not going to stop something like a gyroc round. But even if the armor gets penetrated, you’re MUCH more likely to survive. And, of course, when it comes to magic all bets are off.”

“I’m curious,” asked Fara, “what would it take to get something that protects me against heavy weapons?”

“Well,” said the associate, “when it comes to a personal vest like this, there’s not much better you can do – at least with Kevlar and other standard materials. This is designed for GA frontsoldaten who need to be able to march all day and move around a lot – it has good flexibility, it won’t slow you down too much, and it has reasonable comfort as far as these things go. There’s some heavier vests available, but they’re for vehicle crews and such – people who don’t need to move around very much. And past a certain point you’re pushing battlesuit territory.”

Fara really couldn’t imagine using the sword all that effectively while wearing a battlesuit. “Does it come with pants?”

“Yeah, there’s a special if you buy a pair of tactical pants with it,” the associate said. “You’ll like ‘em. They have lots of pockets for your pens, notebooks, grenades, and what-have-you.”

“Ok,” said Fara, “I’ll take them in green. Oh! My Dad works for Kuat, I get an employee discount.”

“Great,” said the associate. “Anything else? There’s a discount on N2 Warden Heavy Pistols. It’s one of the most popular military and law-enforcement sidearms in the Web.”

Fara thought about it – she didn’t have a lot of experience with guns outside of school trips to the pistol range, where she had done very poorly. She thought about some of her opponents, and it didn’t seem like giant robots or ancient wizards would be all that put off by something so humble as a gun. After spending all this time and effort training with a powerful magical weapon, did she really need a gun, too? She tried to picture it in her mind, and the picture seemed ridiculous, just like the time she tried on Denise’s haute couture dress from Winlan. “Eh,” she said, “that doesn’t really seem like my style.”

Sunday is sparring day.

Terry, clad in seraphim armor, glanced around the fighting pit that Roxanne had in her apartment; not for the first time, he wondered how exactly she had arranged a fairly elaborate Taznikanze-themed apartment in an expensive neighborhood in Albrook. “…how do you afford all this?” he asked.

“Compound interest and patience,” said Roxanne. “It’s easy enough to make good investments if you’re willing to wait a few centuries.”

Roxanne spun the Daedalus Lance, giving it a bit of a Xsian-style flourish. “Enough chatter, though. Time to fight…Fara’s late, but we can get started. Came at me. Like I said, you need to practice getting inside the range of someone with longer reach.”

“But,” said Terry, “I have heat-based eye lasers now. Surely such a ranged weapon would help me against someone using a spear or something.”

“…so, how many ways do you think there are to defend against a heat-based attack?” asked Roxanne. “I can think of at least half a dozen species in the Web that are straight-out immune to heat and fire-based attacks. Add to that various forcefields, fire-based elemental barriers, or other situations where you’d be better off in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Ok, point taken,” said Terry. He took out his beat-sticks, assuming a fighting stance. He dug his heels in, and with a quick burst from his foot-jets, he closed the gap to Roxanne in an instant, well in beat-stick range.

“Good,” said Roxanne. “That’s quick, sudden, and explosive.”

“Thanks,” said Terry, “the suit used to have a lot of problems with quick, controlled bursts. Regular maintenance has really made a difference.”

“That, and practice,” said Roxanne.

“I kinda hate to admit it,” said Terry, “but I feel like I’m a better fighter now than I was when I had the superpowers. I mean, yeah, maybe I can’t lift cars with my bare hands, or stop Ultima missiles, and I actually have to go to the gym and work out all the time, but back then I didn’t need to think too much about tactics or anything. There was nothing in the Web that could stop me, anyway.”

“Ok, who’s ready for a SWORDFIGHT?” came Fara’s voice as she entered. “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey, Terry – I’ve always wondered…if I charge the Mana Sword with the power of Lumina, could I cut Seraphim plastic? Can I try it?”

Terry sighed. “Violante impressed upon me the great difficulty of working with a material designed to be unbreakable and indestructible,” he said, turning to face her, “I don’t think she would approve of you breaking the suit just to see if you could.”

Fara entered Roxanne’s fighting pit room, wearing her new acquisitions: a Kuat ‘Lorica’ Kevlar armored vest, tactical pants with armor weave (and lots of pockets!), and a heavy belt. (Her boots, however, were her old favorite black ones.) “Ok, ready to fight?”

“….storm, earth, and fire, Fara,” said Roxanne, “what in Seafather Zahd’s name are you wearing?”

“Oh, it’s my new armor!” said Fara excitedly. “Clerk at the store says its what GA Grenadiers use.”

“…a little short for a Grenadier, aren’t you, Fara?” asked Terry.

Roxanne planted the base of her lance in the ground, sending a thunderous crack through the air. “ARMOR!?” asked Roxanne.

“Yeah!” said Fara animatedly. “And it’s got lots of POCKETS! Like, I have a spare battery for my phone in here. It’s really convenient!”

“CONVENIENT!?” spat Roxanne.

“Uh….yeah,” said Fara. “….something wrong?”

“Have you learned NOTHING?” asked Roxanne. “Surely by now you should know that bravery and courage are the best, the only, armor. For the war-god favors the valorous, and no gilded panopoly is proof against his displeasure.”

“…but what about guns and stuff?” asked Fara. “Or shrapnel?”

“You must master the Sword, and your elemental barriers,” said Roxanne.

“Well,” said Fara, “I was thinking about that. What if, say, someone attacks me with a fire-based weapon. Like a flamethrower.”

“He heat-based eye lasers!” added Terry.

“Yeah,” said Fara, “so I’m all in Salamando and safe. But then someone else attacks me with a Supervolt rifle, or even a plain-vanilla assault rifle, Salamando my fire-based barrier doesn’t do a damn thing against it.”

“In all the countless battles against thousands of opponents across the millennia, I’ve always fought without armor,” said Roxanne, “to show my contempt for my enemies to do me harm.”

“You’re HALF-GOD!” shouted Fara. “When I get shot , it fucking hurts . Next time an Esperian terrorist tries to cut me open with an electrified buzzsaw I want to have protection a little bit more substantial than my 100 percent cotton U of A hoodie. Gods, what’s your problem? It’s 44 WR already, and in this day and age people wear armor . GA soldiers, Republic Marines…I never see you give Terry crap for wearing armor.”

Roxanne sighed. “Look at Terry,” she said. “Look at his armor. Abe Zion could’ve just copied a Phalanx battlesuit from the Marines, slapped some Seraphim on it, and called it a day. But he did his best to copy Terry’s old costume – the one everyone knew him for. It’s obviously a little bulkier, but it still has the same silhouette and more-or-less the same outline he had before. Why?”

“….this is one of those things where you pretend to ask me a question, but you know I don’t know the answer,” said Fara.

“Because the Shield is an icon,” said Roxanne. “And Abe Zion wanted to keep it that way. Even though he’s wearing different clothes, everyone knows that the Shield stands for truth, justice, and the Guardian way. And when I fight an enemy with no armor, they know that a daughter of Zahd stands before them, and my superlative skill is protection enough. But someone sees you wearing that,” Roxanne pointed her spear at Fara, “what do they think of?”

“Well,” said Fara, “Grenadiers wear something similar. There’s a lot worse people to be associated with than GA Grenadiers.”

“….but you’re not in the Grand Army,” said Roxanne. “You’re more than some cog in an awesome and terrible war machine. You need to stand for something different .”

“Actually,” said Fara, “I was thinking about that…why don’t we try to work with the Grand Army more? I mean, I met Rhodes Palmerston over spring break, and he seemed like a pretty good guy.”

Roxanne’s face contorted. “What, you take the Sword, and all your power, and you become just one more political tool? One more government super-soldier in the Great Powers’ chess game?”

“If it’s all that bad, how come Osprey is so eager to sign up for it again?” asked Fara. “C’mon, Terry, when you worked for ZAPS, you and Osprey did all kinds of heroic stuff. You fought the Omnisent, the Defilers, saved Guardia multiple times…could you have done all that without ZAPS behind you? Could you have even found the Omnisent’s secret base on your own?”

Terry sighed, knowing that he would full well regret being drawn into this. “No, I couldn’t,” he admitted. “And you’re right, Fara. Working for the Guardian government had a lot of advantages. It was nice to get a steady paycheck. It was nice that Bekkler had a giant web-wide intelligence network to look out for threats. But the part that was the best – the part I loved – was the purpose. For the first time in my life, I was part of something larger than myself. It was…more than I had ever hoped for. After I flunked out of college, I had no idea what I was going to do, but then all of a sudden I had direction. I was protecting the kingdom, saving lives.” Terry shook his head. “And yeah, what Roxanne said about being a symbol was right. My brother Cal looked up to the Shield…of course, he didn’t know that his big brother was actually Captain Guardia himself. None of my family knew. They just knew I had a big, important job for Norstein Bekkler, serving King and Country.”

“I’m sure your family is still proud of you,” said Fara.

Terry was silent. “I know they are,” he said. “You know, I was all set to be the first person in my family to go to college. But I never made it through the first semester. I could tell my Dad was disappointed. He never said anything, of course – emoting’s not really his thing. But when I got the ZAPS job, he was proud – he didn’t even know what it was, he couldn’t talk about it with his buds at the fire station or anything, but he knew his little boy was doing something important and that made his chest swell with pride.”

“Sounds pretty great,” said Fara.

“Yeah,” said Terry, “it was. But then things changed. See, working for a government is all well and good while they have a use for you. But as soon as you become inconvenient….well, you know the story. I was investigating the ties of the Pyra Syndicate to the Guardian government, and it went higher than I imagined…the Pyra Syndicate was the Guardian government at that point.” Terry sighed, and shook his head. “Yoshiko and I were going to go public with it. I broke into the Justice Ministry to get the evidence we needed. Even though I knew what I was doing was technically illegal, I knew it was righteous and just. And I knew that in Guardia, the Realm of Perfect Good, we would persevere. And now Yoshiko’s dead. Then the Pyra Syndicate’s allies in the Guardian government trumped up a bunch of charges and went after Bekkler and everyone of his ZAPS men….and now Os and I, we can’t go home. It’s funny, outside of Guardia people still love the Shield…but inside the Kingdom, I’m officially a criminal. You know when the GSF officers were here a while ago? They were willing to work with Osprey, but they probably had orders to arrest me on sight.”

“Terry…” said Fara.

“I know what you’re thinking, Fara,” said Terry, “yeah, what happened to me is terrible, but maybe exceptional. But the kicker is, even if I were still working for ZAPS the political winds have changed. Yesterday, it was all about fighting Omnisent terrorists. Today, they’ve decided that the Communists are the enemy. Who will it be tomorrow? Maybe Tasnica? When I was with them, I fought who they told me to fight…whether or not that was the right thing to do. But now…well, Fara, a lot of the people we’ve helped don’t have anyone else. And the reason they don’t have anyone else is because none of the so-called Great Powers of the Web care to help them.”

“So,” said Fara, “…everything you said is true. But…what the hell does it have to do with what I wear?”

“It’s about being a symbol,” said Roxanne. “Even though the Guadian government’s disowned the Shield, even though he’s a wanted man inside the Kingdom, everyone knows that the Shield stands for all that is right and true about Guardia, because that’s what being the Shield means. What does it mean, to be the Mana Knight?”

There was a pause.

“….I’m waiting, teacher,” said Fara.

“Well, keep waiting,” said Roxanne, “because that’s a decision you will need to make for yourself. You’ll need to decide what the Sword means to you, what you’ll do with it, and what you’ll stand for. And what you choose to wear into battle – how you make yourself an icon – that [i] does [/I] matter.”

“…you know,” said Fara, “…I haven’t even chosen a major yet.”

“It’s not like you need to do it right this minute .”

“Ok,” said Fara. “Until I figure out my super awesome, spiffy, iconic look, I’m still wearing this vest so I don’t die. That seems to me to be an eminently reasonable idea.”

Roxanne grumbled. “Well, ok…”