â€œMom! Mom, I wanna look at this one!â€
Stephen was pulling on his motherâ€™s arm, straining against it with that eight-year-old lean that kept him just within the bounds of parental supervision, since he wasnâ€™t allowed to let go of his motherâ€™s hand, but created the same effect as the puppy-dog eyes he was giving her now. â€œAll right,â€ Marie laughed, letting him half-pull, half-drag her over to the booth. â€œGo ahead and look, Stevie, but donâ€™t touch anything.â€
â€œHello there, maâ€™am,â€ 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. â€œLooking for a new piece for your son?â€
â€œMaybe,â€ Marie said, letting her eyes wander over the rows of gleaming black metal.
â€œMom! Look at this one!â€ Stephen was on his tiptoes, eyes alight and mouth open in a huge grin.
â€œThatâ€™s a semi-automatic flux rotating laser pistol,â€ the man informed them. â€œSpecial anti-shielding matrix that also works against adaptables. Changes frequency so fast they wonâ€™t even get a chance to shift.â€ He chuckled. â€œItâ€™ll take out a raid party of two at a thousand yards with auto-target turned on. Your sonâ€™s got a good eye.â€ He grinned at Stephen.
â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€¦â€ Marie was frowning. â€œIsnâ€™t he a little young for an automatic?â€
â€œMom!â€ Stephen protested, looking like he was going to throw a tantrum. â€œHe said semi-automatic! All my friends have them!â€
â€œStephen, shush,â€ Marie cautioned him, then looked up at the shopkeeper, an embarrassed flush on her face. â€œHeâ€™s eight,â€ she explained. â€œHe still thinks guns are just big toys.â€
â€œAll the more reason for him to learn early,â€ the man told her soberly. Marie looked shocked at this change of demeanor, but he continued before she could protest. â€œDid you know that eight is the minimum age for the mines?â€ Marieâ€™s mouth dropped open in a soft â€œo.â€ Stephen had already moved on to another gun model. â€œIf a raiding party gets him, theyâ€™ll ship him underground right away. Unless you live in a military base, itâ€™s best to get the boy a manâ€™s weapon. I donâ€™t need to tell you what will happen if heâ€™s captured by those monsters.â€
Marie shook her head, eyes lowering. â€œHis father was taken from us in one of the first battles, right when the war started,â€ she said softly.
â€œAll the more reason for his son to learn to fight, and learn early. If it was men we were dealing with, Iâ€™d say to let the kid live a littleâ€¦â€ The man shook his head. â€œBut these creatures arenâ€™t even human.â€
Marie was quiet, head still down, until Stephen interrupted with another excited burst. â€œMom! Mom, look at this one! Can we get this one mom? Please?â€ Marie looked from her bright-eyed son to the sober face of the merchant.
â€œLetâ€™s try it out first, honey. You want to make sure itâ€™s light enough for you to shoot.â€