Willm took out two, thick, gray slabs from the old military bag slung over his shoulder. The slabs were identical in size, but each had a messy strip of off-white tape along the edge with varying handwriting in black magic marker.
"Two? That's it?" Millr said.
"Yeah," Willm said, "but they're fresh. Good. Special."
Willm, a lanky teen, held out the gray slabs with arms delineated by prominent tendons. He was covered with scratches from recent salvaging.
"Like those other ones? People complained about those," Millr said.
"No, really. New crew, new production. Very slick." Willm handed Millr the slabs.
"OK, let's see what these ReeLs have got." Millr took one and turned it sideways, he pressed with his thumbs on both ends of the colorless slab. Then he put it down on the rough, cluttered work bench in front of himself. A light inside the slab flickered, irregularly, but grew so that the entire surface glowed.
Millr stared for a few minutes, motionless, rarely blinking, looking at the ReeL playing somewhere in his head, the light from it illuminating his face. Then he placed his thumbs again on the corners, repeating the movement, until the light dimmed and disappeared.
"Yeah, it's good. Different," Millr said. "I think people probably want something different these days, whether they know it or not."
"Did you get to the part about the Shrubs?" Willm asked.
"Yes, I mean, Shrubs don't care if we make fun of them. Shrubs don't care about anything except growing," Millr said. "Was good though. I'll give you one and half each for them."
"No way, two each," Willm replied strongly.
"Come on. I'm not doing this for free. Look, you keep getting these, good ones, and they build up an audience, then I'll raise my prices and I'll give you two," Millr said.
"Alright," Willm said after a pause. He folded his arms resolutely. "But next time, two." He tried scowling but it was clear he liked the offer.
"If there's an audience." Millr took the two ReeLs and put them into a large felt pouch clearly designed for this purpose. "Also, and I've said it before, you gotta be careful with these—if you break any that's less we have in the pool. The Shrubs won't let us make anymore." Millr reached over to the side of the bench for another bag, opening it, and from a selection of seemingly identical slabs took out two and handed them to Willm. "Here's the blanks," he said.
Willm took them, mocking delicacy.
"Arsehole," Millr said, "you don't remember what it was like before Surrender."
Willm rolled his eyes. "I remember," he said.
"What? How old were you?" Millr asked.
"Five, six. I don't know," Willm said.
Millr grunted. "Things are going to fall apart. Someday soon. Won't be able to fix everything anymore. No more machines. No more ReeLs."
"That why you collect on the side?" Willm said.
"Damn straight," Millr asserted.
"I don't think the Shrubs will be here that long."
"Oh, here we go," Millr shook his head.
"Think about it. Why'd they come here in the first place?" Willm asked.
"I dunno. To grow. Cuz they couldn't grow where they were before. Nobody knows. It doesn't matter much at this point."
"Maybe they're gonna grow enough here to keep going, maybe they've got a home to go back to. Maybe they're gonna, like, flower. And then they won't be Shrubs anymore. They'll be something else," Willm said excitedly.
Millr laughed a little, "You're talking crazy."
Willm appeared offended, roughly readjusting his shoulder bag with the blanks inside. "You'll see, not always gonna be like this." Willm went to the stairs, huffing.
Millr shouted after him as he left, "Just keep getting good ReeLs."