“Mom! Mom, I wanna look at this one!”

Stephen was pulling on his mother’s arm, straining against it with that eight-year-old lean that kept him just within the bounds of parental supervision, since he wasn’t allowed to let go of his mother’s hand, but created the same effect as the puppy-dog eyes he was giving her now. “All right,” Marie laughed, letting him half-pull, half-drag her over to the booth. “Go ahead and look, Stevie, but don’t touch anything.”

“Hello there, ma’am,” said the booth owner, a grizzled, baseball-capped lug of a man. He smiled at Marie and then chuckled at Stephen, whose eyes were practically sparkling at the sight of his wares. The vendor wiped his greasy hands on a cloth. “Looking for a new piece for your son?”

“Maybe,” Marie said, letting her eyes wander over the rows of gleaming black metal.

“Mom! Look at this one!” Stephen was on his tiptoes, eyes alight and mouth open in a huge grin.

“That’s a semi-automatic flux rotating laser pistol,” the man informed them. “Special anti-shielding matrix that also works against adaptables. Changes frequency so fast they won’t even get a chance to shift.” He chuckled. “It’ll take out a raid party of two at a thousand yards with auto-target turned on. Your son’s got a good eye.” He grinned at Stephen.

“I don’t know…” Marie was frowning. “Isn’t he a little young for an automatic?”

“Mom!” Stephen protested, looking like he was going to throw a tantrum. “He said semi-automatic! All my friends have them!”

“Stephen, shush,” Marie cautioned him, then looked up at the shopkeeper, an embarrassed flush on her face. “He’s eight,” she explained. “He still thinks guns are just big toys.”

“All the more reason for him to learn early,” the man told her soberly. Marie looked shocked at this change of demeanor, but he continued before she could protest. “Did you know that eight is the minimum age for the mines?” Marie’s mouth dropped open in a soft “o.” Stephen had already moved on to another gun model. “If a raiding party gets him, they’ll ship him underground right away. Unless you live in a military base, it’s best to get the boy a man’s weapon. I don’t need to tell you what will happen if he’s captured by those monsters.”

Marie shook her head, eyes lowering. “His father was taken from us in one of the first battles, right when the war started,” she said softly.

“All the more reason for his son to learn to fight, and learn early. If it was men we were dealing with, I’d say to let the kid live a little…” The man shook his head. “But these creatures aren’t even human.”

Marie was quiet, head still down, until Stephen interrupted with another excited burst. “Mom! Mom, look at this one! Can we get this one mom? Please?” Marie looked from her bright-eyed son to the sober face of the merchant.

“Let’s try it out first, honey. You want to make sure it’s light enough for you to shoot.”