It was Valentines Day. This is probably a big day if you work in a florist's, a jewellery shop or a high-end restaurant, but for most sections of the Handy Pavilion it was just another day.
There were exceptions, of course. The garden centre was busier than it had been in months, while Nalda in arts and crafts was struggling to keep papier-mâché hearts and red paint on the shelves.
"Excuse me, miss, where's the pink glitter?"
"Ofer dere, and next year buy champagne."
Nalda muttered to herself. As a killer cyborg from the future, she'd long since decided that not understanding love was a cliché, and so had taken care to educate herself on the subject. Now love did make sense to her. It just seemed stupid.
Sex, now that made sense. Biological imperatives were enough like programming to be comprehensible. It was the fact that sexual congress required high levels personal approval that confused her, that and the fact this approval could be won by displays of dying flowers or second-rate craftsmanship. Romance made no sense at all.
A lot of the organisms that worked and shopped in the DIY Barn were using the day as an excuse to pursue both their romantic and sexual agendas. Mrs Lebeaux had gone into Ms Shan's office on the pretense of a business meeting and was still there two hours later. Adam was trying to look like he was comforting Donna from lighting over the arrest of Sadie, but his body language made it obvious that he had other things on his mind. Laura had taken the morning off to visit Carlos in the hospital.
"There's no price on this paint-by-numbers MDF tissue box."
"It costs 12.99."
"Der nearest jewellery shop is about three hundred metres…"
"Okay, okay. 12.99 it is."
Even the customers seemed caught up in things. That guy with the beard -- the one that Nalda's internal biometric database clearly showed was Captain Stellar -- was talking to another beardy middle aged guy. Stellar was laughing out loud at jokes that were barely scoring 23% on Nalda's humour recognition module – a sure sign of hoping to get some.
"Excuse me, is this suitable for a beginner's skill level?"
"Ja. No need to improve yourself as a human being for love's sake."
Captain Stellar finished exchanging numbers with the other guy and came over. "Hi, uh, I'm looking for a guy named Fanaka?"
A weird, heavy, angry feeling flashed across Nalda's CPU. What this this man want with Fanaka?
"My name is Vincent Pizano, and I'm a friend of Axel's," Stellar said. "His solicitor, in fact. I was just visiting him in prison, and I was given a message to take to Fanaka."
Nalda felt herself relax, but only up to a point. There was something suspicious about this man, but she couldn't tell from which of her modules this assessment had arisen.
"Ja, I vill get him."
"Great. I'll just wait here, shall I?"
"Ja and I'll be here. When I return. I will come back. Here."
"You'll be back, great."
Hesitantly, Nalda walked off towards the break room, where Fanaka was at work.
"Have you finished with the skull…? Oh, it's you Nalda. Sorry, thought it was Fiona and Norman again." Fanaka wiped the sweat from his brow with a paper napkin. "They were just here a minute ago. I think. Maybe it was longer. I'm so tired…"
There was a brief spike in Nalda's CPU load as she fought off an urge to tuck him into bed. Skynet alone knew where that came from. Perhaps the DIY Barn was using EM radiation to weaken Handy Pavilion electronics? It deserved further thought.
"Fanaka, der is a man to see you. He brings a message from Axel."
Sighing deeply, Fanaka stood, swallowed a cup of cold coffee and adjusted his Pavilion polo shirt. "Okay, then." He staggered a little as he stood.
"Are you sure you are all right, Liebchen?"
"Fine. Uh, what does Liebchen mean?"
Microprocessors worked hard to manage the bloodflow to Nalda's face, preventing it from visibly reddening. "It is German for 'platonic work comrade.'"
The pair trotted out to the arts and craft section where Vincent/Stellar was examining a balsa truck kit. He put it down guiltily and shook Fanaka's hand.
A customer called Nalda over. Her hearing was exceptional and she could easily home in on a particular conversation through the surrounding din. She chose not to do so. Whatever the reason this man needed to see Fanaka, it was none of her business…
"Excuse me? My husband collects wooden models, but I'm not sure whether to buy him this jet fighter or this helicopter."
"Get him der chopper!" Nalda snapped.
Fanaka waved Nalda over, and she was surprised how relieved she was at this. The scientist rubbed his red-rimmed eyes. "Vincent says Axel has been suggesting I step up work on the skull powered device. He's sent some ideas for improving it. They'll need a work to implement but… Damn it, they're brilliant. Could you and Vincent go find the skull? I need to… Need to sit down."
Why on Earth wasn't the skull in its proper place? Nalda had no idea, but chose not to say so in front of the lawyer. She walked off with Vincent, searching. The skull was vastly powerful. How could Fanaka have let it out of his sight? Was he not feeling well? Did he need some Panadol? A lie down? What did Vincent/Stellar want with him anyway?
Through narrowed eyes, she looked at Vincent.
"So, you are homosexual, yes?"
"That's right," Vincent said, a defensive tone in his voice.
"You people have it easy."
"Ja, it is der killer cyborgs dat are der real oppressed ones."
Vincent stopped dead by a pruning saw display. "I don’t know what to say to that."
Vincent shook his head to clear it. "Are there many killer cyborgs?"
"I am der only one in dis time period."
"Must be lonely."
Nalda wanted to argue, but nothing came to mind. Perhaps her vocabulary database was glitching.
"Well, you're lucky in one way, at least," Vincent said.
"I do not believe in luck."
"Call it what you want. I just wish I had someone who looks at me the way Fanaka looks at you."
"Red eyed and bleary?"
Vincent laughed. "No, I mean he loves you."
Nalda's CPU almost melted down. "Vas?"
"Could it be any more obvious?"
A worried look filled Vincent's face. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "But you're a killer cyborg and he's a genius from an alternate Afro-steampunk Earth? Honey, I've got to tell you: I've seen stranger relationships work. Much stranger."
Her processes were in such disarray that she barely noticed the skull, sitting in the middle of a chalk circle, right next to the mushroom growing kits. Customers were eagerly avoiding it, except for a couple of fourteen year old boys who were watching it in case it did something interesting. Nalda pulled herself together and damped down her reactor temperature and blood flow.
"Well here it is. Are there any precautions we need to take?"
"Nein, it is powerful but inert. Let me just get it—"
Nalda reached into the circle. As she did, there was a flash of green light. The mushroom kit boxes split open, scattering spores to the floor. In a matter of seconds, these had grown into mushrooms. A few seconds more, and they were the size of human beings, with long white arms and jagged teeth in their caps.
The fourteen year old boys applauded politely.
"I don't do this any more!" Vincent said, his hands beginning to glow yellow. A beam shot out of his hand and a mushroom man exploded. Bits of the mushroom fell to the floor, where they started growing into additional mushroom men.
Vincent swore. "Oh, uh... I didn't say that," he said to the teenagers. "Don't use bad language. Get out of here. And say no to drugs!"
Nalda's brain went into overdrive. Combat! This was easy. She'd been programmed for this. Concussive force was out, so there was no point getting her shotgun. Fire? Yes, fire would do it, but it would have to be extremely hot and fast, or else the sprinklers would kick in, and who knew where that would lead?
Her tactical programming crashed at the sight of Fanaka standing, confused and exhausted, at the entrance to the aisle. Her desire to destroy the enemy collapsed. None of that was important. Fighting, killing, dying... What mattered was getting this brilliant, beautiful man to safety.
Fanaka was a foot taller than her. Still, she grabbed him by the waist and with hydraulic arms she swept him off his feet. He looked at her blankly at first, too addled by tiredness and cheap coffee to know what was happening. Then his weary eyes closed and he wrapped his arms tight around her neck.
"I must be asleep. Asleep and dreaming the most wonderful dream!"
"Nein, Leibchen, this is no deam." Nalda turned and jogged away from the conflict. "Oh, Fanaka, come vith me… If you vant to love!"