Bryce leaned against the counter, one shoulder propped behind him as he ate.
"I never thought a lousy hot dog would taste so good," he mused.
The clerk scowled. "You shouldn't eat that until it's paid for."
"You got the man's credit card. It's paid for."
The counter was heaped with bags of potato chips, donut boxes, beef jerky, a jar of pickles, candy bars with unfamiliar names (he would have passed on the "Sugar Dog Log", but curiosity got the better of him) and a six pack of beer.
"You're eating before the transaction is complete. It's against protocol."
"Huh! Protocol." Bryce shoved the last of his fourth hot dog in his mouth. He glanced around. "What's taking that kid so long? The troll is still after us."
"Yeah. We're running from a troll. He drives a big jeep, and he wants to kill me for stealing his car."
"A...a troll is--"
A red light flashed on the corner of the cash register.
"Uh-oh," the clerk said.
"What? What is it?"
"Your friend has apparently attempted to defraud an official waste disposal unit." The clerk's face twitched as he read his screen, his grin reflecting both horror and amusement.
"What does that mean?"
"It means he's about to die."
Bryce stared at him. "So how do we save him?"
"Save him, sir?" The clerk pulled out a metallic wand. It had a black rubber grip, and as he drew a trigger on the side, a spark jumped across two elements on the end. "If he is incinerated, he won't be able to to pay for the food you ate. I hope you have an alternate means of compensation."
* * *
Eddie kicked and thrashed against the bathroom door. An alarm sounded above him and the crimson lights pulsed. The screen on the door said...
This disposal unit has received damage. Evaluating compensation charges.
"Fine, charge me," Eddie said as he kicked the door. The door looked undamaged. "Just let me out of here!"
He didn't see the needle coming. It caught him in the back of the neck, sunk in half an inch, then withdrew into the wall. Eddie slapped a hand over his neck and wailed with pain.
Commencing DNA analysis. Identifying next of kin.
"What's wrong with this place?" Eddie screamed at the walls. He kicked the door with more fervor.
Server is Down
Server is Down
Server is Down
Eddie reared back to give the door a big shove with his shoulder. Just as he began forward, the door clicked and opened. He crashed into Bryce and nearly knocked him down.
Bryce helped him to his feet. "You okay, man? The clerk said you were going to die."
"I almost did. How'd you get me out of there?"
Bryce held up the shock batton. He pulled its trigger, and electricity arced across its elements. "That crazy clerk tried to jab me with this."
"I didn't let him." Bryce pulled the clerk's keys from the bathroom door lock and slammed the door shut.
The clerk sat on the tiled floor beside the counter, rubbing a bruise on his head. "This is illegal," he muttered. "What you're doing is illegal."
"This place is crazy," Eddie snapped. "Where is this? Where are we?"
The clerk's face slackened. "This is the Fuel Fast, where customer service--"
"This desert," Eddie said. "Where is this desert? Where are we in the world? How did we get here?"
"I... don't know."
"You don't know where we are?"
"I don't know..." the clerk's eyes darted to the windows and the vast wasteland beyond. "I don't know anything."
"Well, where did this gas station come from?"
Bryce frowned. "Where's Monston?"
The clerk rolled his eyes. "Monston. It's the state capital." When they didn't react, he added, "In Franklin? Franklin State?"
Bryce glanced at Eddie. "Does that mean anything to you?"
It didn't. But then again, maybe it did. Eddie frowned, trying to negotiate with his memory to withdraw a single fact about Franklin State, of the thirty-two states of the Federated States of Columbia. No, thirty-five states. No, that whole nation got nuked back in...
Eddie shook his head.
Bryce turned back to the clerk. "So your whole gas station appeared in this desert, and you're not curious about what happened?"
"I'm not paid to be curious."
"Man, look around you. There's nobody around here to pay your wages."
The clerk looked astonished. "Of course they'll pay me. It's in my contract."
"You've been in this desert for how long?"
"And you've been behind the counter all that time? What are you waiting for?"
"Anson will be here any time. I have to wait for him before my shift will end."
Bryce scoffed. "Huh! Anson isn't coming, man."
"Of course he will. It's in his contract."
Eddie shook his head. "He doesn't know anything more than we do."
Bryce shrugged. "Okay, well, we're getting out of here. You want to come with us? The troll is bound to pay you a visit if he comes this way."
"I... I'm not going anywhere until Anson--"
Bryce gathered most of the items on the counter into his arms, keeping one hand free for the shock batton. Eddie took the rest.
"Wait," the clerk called, jumping to his feet. "You can't leave. You've damaged... I mean, you've destroyed and stolen without proper payment."
"So call the police," Bryce said, pushing the door open.
"But the phone's down."
"Well, get a good look at us so you can report us later."
The clerk stepped forward but halted as Bryce held up the shock batton.
"But... you're criminals."
"If you say so."
Eddie took one last look at the clerk as he followed Bryce back out into the sweltering heat. The man stood watching, agony stretched on his face. Did he want to come with them? Maybe, but he stood still and watched with burning eyes. "You'll get hanged for this," he promised through clenched teeth. "You can't break the law."
Eddie blinked. He turned and followed Bryce.
"Ah, crap," Bryce exclaimed as he looked out at the horizon. Eddie followed his gaze. To the west, a dust cloud rose in the distance. Cornelius the troll was still after them.
Meanwhile, the screen on the bathroom door continued to report on its progress:
Server is Down
Server is Down
Server is connected
Edwin Foster, *WANTED FUGITIVE*