[TO THE BEGINNING]
As I've said, Finley managed to deflect what looked to me like an outpouring of long-suppressed wrath from the hyperspace engineer and we parted from him on at least neutral terms. Once we were making our way back across the gravelled chaos of the "Cooperative," Finley started to chuckle.
I didn't think it was funny. "What got into him? It's just a telephone."
"It is for you. —There's a reason he's not working over at Tweed. Or anywhere else."
"You ever notice how the best 'Drive people, the top navigators and automation designers, all tend to be a little different?"
I thought about it. Take Lupine Engineering: we're an assorted lot but pretty typical of the genus geek, it seemed to me: at turns hyperfocused and distractable, not always so great with the interpersonal stuff. Okay, not average, but who is? "Not really. But I didn't mean to upset him."
He misread my expression (or did he?) "Ha! You do know what I mean. Your tutor — did Tim ever even introduce himself? — is a real extreme case, is all. Did him good to be reminded some of us have bosses."
We parted company at the park. Finley headed toward the Tweed building and I walked back towards my autotel, keeping an eye out for a bus or a marked stop. (I really should have looked up the returning bus schedule!) The anti-Earth graffiti on the park gate was already starting to blur and fade. Frothup's long days meant there was still plenty of light and so far, there'd been no hint of rain. The corner where I'd stepped off the bus didn't have any of the usual signs. The one by the autotel'd had read...Oh, duh. "Phi-Low Transport Stop 6." I hadn't noticed any barcode nonsense syllables on the bus, though.
I kept walking, figuring I'd come to Thoth Street in a few blocks and walk the rest of the way unless a bus happened by. A big, fading, half-painted over poster on the side of a building three stores high caught my attention. It looked like had shown a row of tractors working vast fields; the text at the bottom was illegible but at the top, I could make out "H..LP FCS...IGHT..." and below that, "...e Food Army...." The Far Edge had been in a bad way right after withdrawing from Lyndon/Linden, the oldest settled planet and the only one with four names: It was their breadbasket. They'd called it Peace-and-Prosperity, which has always struck me as wishful thinking. Still, the settled region is great for farming and the easily-mined coal at Pitty doesn't hurt. After they'd skipped out at Lyndon, they'd had to go with Plan B. Frothup had been one of a pair of worlds found suitable for rapid agricultural expansion. The other one had failed, (rumor says very badly), but things had worked out here. It put me in happier mood — the place didn't have that many people, only a few towns and just one large city; we'd find the stolen 'Drive amplifiers and if some of the people were hostile, so what? Most were not. Weren't. I corrected myself and wondered if I was starting to pick up the accent. Things weren't so bad. Raub and Handsome Dave would get the sabotaged squirt-boosters squared away, I'd finish the class on the new 'Drive amps I was supposed to be taking, we'd check out the recovered units, install them and it's all be back to normal.
Picture me, if you will, strolling along on a fine later afternoon, reading old billboards, gawking at buildings and the somewhat overwhelming arch of blue sky overhead, starting to be dotted with clouds from the direction of the port, the city's hum briefly broken by the distant Ba-bam! pop-pop of a squirt-booster leaving port. I spotted the little exclamation marks of a course and attitude adjustment scrawled high in the sky. I looked for the wavering star of Lupine herself without success; held "parked" at low-orbit altitude on the fusion/MGHD drives, far above the far side of the port from the city, reflectivity reduced by the barely-idling drive that keeps realspace effective mass manageable, it didn't take much of a cloud to hide the ship from view. Closer to sunset, she'd sparkle against the darkening sky but it was still too early for that.
When I looked down, I had company. Three young men — late teens, maybe, or a little older — had arranged themselves on the sidewalk ahead, blocking my path. One wore a dark T-shirt with the circled-A-and-star, and a truculent expression. The shirt hung so long that only the ragged cuffs of denim shorts could be seen between and his legs. His companions looked a little uncertain; both were dressed in dungarees and tan tropical-type shirts, almost like a uniform. All of them had buzz-cuts, grown out to various degrees.
What the heck, I smiled and said, "Howdy," as the distance closed.
The T-shirt wearer gave me an insolent once-over, shrugged. "You are a long way from home, lady."
One of his companions snickered. "Yeah. Long way."
Well, that was true, but it wasn't friendly. I stopped farther away than I usually would and tried to look around without appearing to. Still— "Not as far as you'd think." Nobody else in sight. Two intersections down, traffic came and went, but never turned our way.
He snorted. "Too far, Earth-girl. Nobody wants you people here."
"Hey, look, I'm just goin' where they tell me—"
One of his pals, the guy who'd snickered, "You people are hanging a warship over us!"
The ringleader took a step towards me. "Nearly bombed us by accident, is what I hear. Or was it an 'accident?'"
I wondered who'd been telling tales out of school? Our would-be saboteurs? Oh, there was no winning this one. It was worth a bluff; I stood up straight and gave them my best schoolteacher look. "I don't know what kind of wild rumors are goin' around, gents, but Lupine has been a plain cargo and passenger ship for twenty years, we never park over settled lands and the ship hasn't got any bombs."
He gave me a nasty smile and rubbed his hand over his scalp. "Right. Like Earth would tell the truth. The whole city heard your misfire the other day!"
Misfire? —Right. Butch's seat-of-the-pants corrections on our wild ride down, lower and louder than usual, especially for a port more used to little Edger bell-ships whistling and buzzing down. I looked him square in the eye and lied, "Just the normal sound of normal squirt-booster operations, Mister—?"
"We reject your empty titles! 'Normal?' Do you think we are all deaf?"
He was nearly shouting and way closer than I wanted. Oh, this was going well. I hoped my increasing panic wasn't showing.
The snickerer took a step closer, too. I held up both hands in front of myself what I hoped was a placating manner and thought about pocketknife in my wright pocket. I was wishing for the first time since Linden/Lyndon that I was armed with something a little scarier. Still, you can't let 'em know they're getting to you, right? I smiled, "Not at all. I think you're used to different ships." I took a sidestep and saw a car turn onto the street from the busy crossroad and head our way, a bright speck. I sure hoped they would keep on coming.
The guy in the FCS T-shirt shook his head. "Lies. Nothing but lies." He stepped within arm's reach, his buddies close behind.
Now I really wanted to be carrying a gun. I'm not all that great; I probably wasn't was gonna quick-draw and do an El Presidente against three guys at close range, especially since there was a good chance they were armed, this being a former Far Edge planet. The way things were going, it sure looked like I was about to discover Edgers were not the least bit sexist about administering a curb-stomping and I would rather have some other options.
If I'd been a little smarter — or paid attention in the self-defense classes T and Ian take turns giving — I would have stepped back, increased the distance. As it was, I thought it would make things worse, so I stood my ground. It wasn't helping.