It was Laura Cho's first day at the Handy Pavillion, and her trainee badge was pinned to a neatly ironed apron over her polo shirt. Her excitement on starting her new job was rapidly dwindling, since Adam had parked her close to the entrance and told her to wait for her supervisor.
That had been half an hour ago. Not only was she bored, customers kept coming up to her and asking questions that she couldn't possibly answer, then getting annoyed when she didn't know.
She wished she could go hide in the break-room, but she didn't know where it was.
"Excuse me?" came a voice.
"Yeah, no, I'm new here, so…" she turned and nearly jumped to see a little man in a Handy Pavilion uniform. He had slate grey hair and a deeply lined face, and stank of tobacco. "Oh, sorry, I thought you were a customer."
"Well I'm actually your supervisor," he said. He didn't shake her hand, and she realised that he was carrying a metal box, so heavy he needed both hands.
"You must be Laura. Bad start, by the way. Never brush off a customer with an inquiry."
Laura blushed. The little man continued: "I'm Axel Platzoff, your supervisor. You're a lucky girl, getting a job here now. They're talking about shedding more positions. The teammember you're replacing was working full time, and they've brought you in for ten hours a week, and frankly you're lucky to get that. Are you going to help me with this box, or what?"
"Woman," Laura said.
Axel scowled. "What?"
"You said I'm a lucky girl," Laura said. "I'm eighteen. Woman, not girl."
To her surprise, the little man grinned. "An error, corrected," he said. "I appreciate that. Nonetheless, help me with this damned box."
She took one end of the metal box and wondered how he'd been able to carry it on his own.
"So what's your story?" Axel said, as they carried their burden towards the back of the store. "Psychic? Lycanthrope? Revenant?"
Laura laughed nervously. Axel grunted. "School leaver," he said. "Well, it takes all sorts. Tell me a bit about yourself."
"Well, I was born in Taiwan, but grew up here," Laura said. "I want to be a hairdresser, but I need a part time job while I'm at TAFE, first year apprenticeships don't…"
"Not that stuff," Axel said. "I mean like what's your favourite movie? Favourite band, TV show, do you have a boyfriend?"
"'Star Trek: the Motion Picture', Beyonce, Cake Boss and yes but its early days," she said. "Why…?"
"Because you might be about to die, and I'd like to know who I'm missing if you do," Axel said. "This way! Wait, Star Trek, like Star Trek One? Wow, it really does take all sorts."
"What do you mean about…"
"Never mind, here's Wellsey."
They'd come out the back of the Pavilion to the loading bay,, where they met a bald man with tattooed arms. "We're going with this?" he said.
"Yes, of course," Axel said. "We have to, don't we?"
"You'd like to think that, wouldn't you?" the bald man said. "That this is out of your hands. Well you started this shit with the DIY Barn."
"They started it!" Axel said.
"Should I be writing any of this down?" Laura said.
There was a palate under a tarpaulin. Axel pulled it off with a flourish, revealing a metal tube on top of a tripod. At one end the tube ended in a metal box, at the other in a brass cone.
"Laura, the isotopes," Axel said.
"You came to work at a really bad time," Axel said.
"This is the new girl?" Wellsey said. "Seriously?"
"No time to argue," Axel said. He opened the box, which contained a smaller plastic box full of metal pellets. Axel began shovelling them into the box at the end of the tube which, now that Laura thought of it, looked an awful lot like a death-ray. "Norman's been keeping tabs on Ms Shen, and he says she's heading this way. We need her to have plausible deniability. Besides, Laura here's safer than Carol, and you didn’t mind where I stationed her."
"I objected for hours! I only said yes to keep Fiona from having to go!"
To say that Laura was confused would be a gross understatement. But all of a sudden, the clouds parted and she understood. They were messing with her. It was some elaborate version of sending the new trainee for a left-handed screwdriver and a bucket of striped paint. Laura suppressed a smile. What the hell, why not play along? Show the old boys that she had a sense of humour. She dipped her hands into the plastic box and helped Axel scoop the 'isotope' pellets. Wait until she told her parents about this! They'd split their sides laughing.
At the sight of Laura actively helping, Wellsey stopped grousing. "Fine, fine," he muttered. "But are you sure…"
"'Are you sure', 'is it safe', 'doesn't this violate the laws of God and nature'… honestly you sound like a broken record," Axel said. "What you need is a 'can-do' attitude like Laura here."
Laura smiled. What the hell, she was having fun. The pellets were warm to the touch, which was a surprising piece of authenticity.
"Just to get you up to speed," Axel said, "there was this ape-man who used to work here, but he's been captured. Using information gleaned from a gnome, we've learned that he's been taken by our arch-enemies at the DIY Barn. Carol, who works at the coffee shop across the way (get your coffee there, by the way, not the swill Belinda makes) is over there now. She's figured out where Zorbar is being held, and will be helping us knock the wall off the DIY Barn's secret dungeon. Zorbar can do the rest."
"And Norman?" Laura said, picking a random name to show she was listening.
"Norman, is in love with our manager, Ms Shan," Wellsey said. "But he's keeping an eye on her for us even though it breaks his heart to see Ms Shan in the company of the true love of her life. But by doing so, he can help us keep her out of this, so that if we're discovered, our actions won't splash back on her."
"And the staff lockers?"
"In the staff room, which is at the end of aisle 12," Axel said. "But you need to bring your own padlock. Okay, that should be enough." He slammed closed the lid of the box and pressed a sequence of buttons on top. Laura was impressed at the detail they'd put into their death-ray. It looked glorious, a crazy steampunk contraption, with real lights, even. Four red lights. As Laura watched, one blinked off. Oh, like a timer. That was clever.
Axel checked his phone. "Good old Carol! Range, declension… To think she knew nothing about this a week ago. Never underestimate a hipster's skill in picking up something obscure!"
Laura looked around to see a stout, middle aged Islander woman rubbing the shin that she'd barked on a small pile of timber. Was she part of the game, or just another employee who'd wandered in?
"Didn't see it?" Laura said, though even as she asked, she knew it wasn't a helpful question.
"Didn't hear it," the woman said.
Definitely part of the act. A second light blinked off.
"What are you wankers up to?" the woman continued, pointing at the steampunk death-ray.
"Look!" Laura yelled, pointing to a yellow blur in the sky. She thought it was a shooting star, bright enough to be seen in daylight, but it changed direction and in a second resolved itself into the shape of a flying man. With astonishing speed, the shape hit the ground, and… holy crap! Was that Captain Stellar? It was… though it looked like he'd seen better days. He was unshaved, his costume was filthy, and he reeked of bourbon. A third light blinked off.
Laura stared open-mouthed as Stellar pointed a gold-clad finger at Axel. "Captain Stellar, we meet again… No, wait, I'm… I mean Profersa Devesto we meet… Ohh, death ray… Sweet."
"Captain." Axel said his voice was low, slow and forcedly calm. "Captain Stellar, listen to me very carefully."
Oh God. Laura's stomach rose to the height of her tonsils. Oh God, it wasn't a joke was it. What had she walked into?
"Captain, you are standing directly in the path of this weapon," Axel said, moving towards the controls.
"Touch anything, and I'll get you," Stellar said. "With my powers 'n' abilities. 'N' shit."
Laura began creeping back towards the Pavilion entrance. She'd turned down Kmart for this?
"Stellar, you need to either move out of the way or let me deactivate the weapon."
"Fuck you!" Stellar said. "Always tellin' ever'one what ter do! Well you know what? You're not so fucking…"
Then the last light blinked off and the whole world went bright.
Laura's hearing returned before her eyesight. Screaming, running, shouting. Then shapes started resolving themselves. There was the Islander woman, maybe, on fire, drop stop and roll by a pallet of burning timber. Axel, sunburned all down one side of his face, was pounding on Wellsey's chest, like CPR or something. Miraculously, the tripod stood, but the death ray itself was nowhere to be seen. Stretching away from the tripod were two parallel lines, gouged in the earth, ending in a man-shaped hole in a distant building.
Laura looked down at herself. She was in terrible pain, but she seemed more aware of this on an intellectual level than a visceral one. There were a bunch of holes in her apron, and she was bleeding through all of them. Well, that can't be good. She felt in one of the holes with the tip of a fingernail. At the bottom was a piece of warm metal.
"Well that sucked," she said.
In later years, her gratitude at her own survival was magnified by her happiness that those were not her last words.