"Hey, Chip, got that laser-beam sighter loaded in properly yet, or you need some help with it? My dad used to work on those things when he was hanging around with Sheila's mom and dad in the sixties. I could give you a little advice if you need it, or do you prefer to let your intuition and instincts put it together back-assward as usual? Your choice, man; I just want you to know you have some options." My darling was always teasing our resident fix-it person about the time he took on projects.
Anson and Chip were in some ways complete opposites. They were both quite adept with technical projects. But Chip was very hands-on and gut-feeling-oriented, as opposed to Anson's walking-checklist mentality. It didn't help that Chip routinely wore his hair in such a way that it looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket, whereas Anson was meticulous about every aspect of his appearance. It wasn't that Chip didn't pay attention to how he looked, it was that he almost invariably wound up looking like somebody's conception of the white-coated lunatic who had captured the beautiful blonde and was threatening to dip her in some weird chemical. Oh, those two had fun.
But when you put the two of them together on a programming project, there was no stopping them, even if you wanted to. And if you were any defense commander from the North Pole downward, you wanted to. It just went with the territory.
I could hack into anything I pleased, but these two could build code like nobody's business. And generally whatever they designed a security system to protect stayed just exactly that: Nobody's business. We routinely kept tabs on the safecracking ability of about the ten or twelve top computer people on earth. Seeing as how I'd trained seven or eight of them, it wasn't much trouble. And even I had some trouble sneaking into an Anson-and-Chip project. It annoyed Chip that I could do it at all. I told him to polish up his object-technology spinning matrices and keep trying.
I also proceeded to inform him that my cat could do it better. It was just that she was trying to be courteous to those of lesser species and give him a break for once. She could've had his securities sliced into without a second bat of the paw if she'd really tried hard. She was just taking a break so as not to ruffle her fur too badly. She had a date that night. With that kind of comment, I generally got a Mountain Dew and a glare from Anson thrown in my direction for my pains.
So what. I could just go play with the dragons. I didn't need their company, at least until Anson came over and apologized and ordered out for Chinese food. He was useful that way. I kept him around for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was the availability of certain useful kinds of foods in his environment. Nice kid to have around if you got hungry.
Scooter interrupted. "It's in. I double-checked it. Sheila's called triple-check rights." Scooter was our safety-factor man. If he called something ready to go, it was. His uncanny ability to sniff out potential trouble spots more than compensated for a slight visual problem. In his own home town, he wasn't allowed to drive. He was barely allowed to walk by himself. Around the Sheila Station, as it was called by common consensus (to my huge embarrassment -- I hated being memorialized for any reason), he could do damned near anything he pleased.
He didn't need functioning retinas to be able to take a research shuttle through the hyperspace boundary, just the common sense to know where the difficulties might show up. And that he had aplenty. He might not choose to use it sometimes, but that was because he had other things to do at the moment. It was always there on call when he wanted it. And it showed up at the strangest moments, like five minutes before one of our Crays went down. A couple of seconds on one of the spare monitors and it invariably bounced right straight back up into useful working mode, instead of down into an abyssal crash that generally left us without a good fourth of our major computing power for at least the six hours required to get the Sheila Station's interstellar flight systems back up again. Not a good idea when you control the ports used for all interstellar and indeed intergalactic travel on the planet, ports that receive a good 500-600 vehicles worth of use every hour on the average, and more during the crucial 4 AM-9 AM hours when the magnetic fields are safest for long-term flights.
Yes, indeed, Scooter had his fans all over the globe. But when you got him into his own home town, he was considered a misfit. Smart, cute, savvy, but totally useless other than that. It was so bad he'd even quit trying in school. Sounded like most of us. Either we were too bored to do any work, or we got so punished for doing well that we quit fooling with it and paid attention to other things. Like directing intergalactic traffic or some such.
If Scooter Price didn't know about something at least six hours before it became critical, he didn't need to know about it. He had a way of identifying the high-priority stuff. Everyone knew one of his priorities was getting me alone for a sufficient length of time to try to make a dent in Anson's status with me, but everyone also knew where my priorities were. Oh well. Such was life. He lived with it. And hit on anything female and breathing that reminded him even remotely of me.
I didn't like it, but there was nothing I could do about his hormones. Those were working just fine. I had all the evidence I could want on that score whenever he directed a comment at me. We'd been soulmates once until the universe had seen fit to split us upa about 50 years prior. The bond could never be rewoven. He was still getting used to it. Meanwhile, I was celebrating as hard as I could. I was enjoying my newfound freedom. Even if it had taken me a while to settle down.
Everybody who'd known Scooter in one of his more notorious past lives was sure I was angry with him over the abusive things he'd done to me. But I was fine. I'd made my peace with him. I could accept very easily that it was over. He wasn't the only bird in the sky. Sure, Anson wanted to pop him one on a couple of occasions, but Anson felt that way about almost everybody at one point or another. I had gotten used to that. Anson was just going to be that way. He was the universe's new choice as my protector and partner. Such was life. Besides, at least this time around, he was much cuter, although I would never have told Scooter that in a million years. It would have shattered his dignity, and dignity was one of his strong points. No, the whole thing was one of those little crosses he was just going to have to bear.
Our prized specimen of authentic Confederate redneck royalty, Mr. Amos Chauncey Peterson Garland, the King of Red Bird, North Carolina, a small but proud suburb of one of the less-heralded municipalities buried in the protective nooks and crannies of the mountains of southern Appalachia, chimed in: "Our task forces have pronounced the vehicle battleworthy on all counts, Cap'n. We're loaded up, we're ready to launch, and all we await is your signal. We're ready to take off and avenge the defilement of the greatest flower of Southern womanhood itself, that sacred blossom that, against our best efforts, you have been allowed to call your girlfriend."
"For centuries on end, we of these mountains have defended our womenfolk from those who would cart them off without ever so much as a by-your-leave. We have stood at the proud edges of our towns and run off the red Indians, we have fended off the damn Yankees, and we have even kept the Goddamned revenooers from depriving us of our moonshine, which is as good as womenfolk for some of us, I'll admit here."
"But never you mind that, you cotton-picking Yankee boy. Who are you to think you can swoop down in that fancy car of yours, a goddamned Lamborghini or whatever it is, some kind of Yankee machinery y'all have imported to ruin the morals of the women of this fine state, and come down here and snatch up one of our ladies? We ain't going to put up with that any more. You hear me? Sure, we'll rescue your fine young fair maiden from the clutches of the enemy, we'll avenge her disgrace, and we'll sweep'em all up in a pile and let the wolves have'em. We'll tie'em to burning crosses and toast marshmallows in the ashes. It's a fine old Southern tradition and needs to be revived anyway. We'll do that much for you. You and your goddamned Yankee machine. But don't expect us to do any more than that. You remember your place here, and it's down across the border in..."
There was a burst of laughter in the crowd. Everybody knew Chaunce could barely keep his car together with spit, baling wire, and duct tape. His people might not have much money, in fact, his county might be one of the poorest in the state, but no one who knew them ever doubted the pride that came from defending one's land since their ancestors had first trudged up to the Blue Ridge 'way back in the 1600s.
Chaunce's ancestors had come over so early and had huddled in their own particular corner of the hills for so long that he spoke almost pure Elizabethan English, unmodified by contemporary slang. We had to work to understand him at times, but he was the one we all went to when we had trouble translating Shakespeare. In fact, he'd helped a couple of us with class projects on the original texts. But we learned not to ask him to translate Chaucer for us after he embarrassed me and several others with the real version of some of the jokes in The Canterbury Tales that the translators had watered down to protect modern sensibilities.
With his backwoods ways, his homespun charm, and his vicious Dixie-whistling honor, he was a true relic of ages past. Someone had once said that the distance from Asheville to Red Bird was far more than the mileage on the road sign. Asheville might not be very advanced in some ways, but Red Bird was doing well to be a dues-paying member of the 20th century. There weren't many like Chaunce left. Those of us who knew him loved him to death. Let others laugh. We loved our boll-weevil Democrat boy. Even if he could skin a squirrel better than he could parse a sentence.
Chaunce had had a bad crush on me at one point and had felt that my spurning of him reflected badly on his entire upbringing. It wasn't that, I'd tried to tell him over and over again; it was just that we weren't suited for each other. But he kept on pushing anyway. Oh well. I'd found what I was looking for. I knew I intimidated Chaunce somewhat, and he was trying to make up for it by blustering through it. But this wasn't about bluster. I'd have grabbed Anson if he'd been Chaunce's first cousin once removed on his daddy's side, and I'd have grabbed him if he'd been the richest man alive. Which, contrary to certain reports, he wasn't. Not nearly. Not yet. But he had plans to that effect. He planned to put them in motion with me by his side. I could handle that. I liked being able to pay my grocery bill.
But somehow Chaunce couldn't quite accept the notion that he'd been outdone at what he viewed as his own game. He was used to batting those pretty blue eyes, ladling up a dose of his sweet strawberry-blond good-old-boy charm, and pretty much having what he wanted. No carpetbagging downstater was supposed to outdo him, and especially no carpetbagging downstater with a credit line fatter than the Artichoke County Co-op electric cables that were just now making their way into some areas of his hometown. All Chaunce knew was that a power greater than his had swooped down and carted off the woman he'd once had his eyes on. He might not be able to buy his way out of the deal, but he could sure as shooting talk his way out. That was what he was attempting to do tonight. Lucky for him, Anson thought he was funnier than "The Beverly Hillbillies" and didn't take him seriously at all. Otherwise, he'd have found himself in big trouble. Anson didn't take kindly to being picked on. As I'd found out.
Chaunce allowed himself a sip of water, pointed a finger at Anson, and went on: "You damn flatlander, you think you can come up here, wave some folding money around, and make off with our women. We'll get you back yet for stealing our woman, but we're willing to put up with it for the time being. You and your money can't buy our goddamn womenfolk; only the finest flower of Southern manhood can raise her to the place for which she is destined. And you obviously ain't it. Why don't you go back home and leave our womenfolk alone?" And here Chaunce burst into a torrent of tears worthy of his political and rhetorical idol, the senator from the great state of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond himself.
I interrupted this masterpiece of homebrewed feeling to remind Chaunce yet again that the finest flower of Southern manhood, as he called it, had already attempted on several occasions to deliver my helpless person from the exploitative machinations of the despoiling plunderer. It had failed miserably. Besides, I was quite happy being taken advantage of in such a way, even if the finest flower of Southern manhood did find itself grievously offended by my so doing. And I felt it necessary to throw in a brief lesson on Confederate geography. Last time I'd looked, the Mason-Dixon line that delineated the borders of our beloved Confederacy ran quite a few hundred miles north of here. Winston-Salem was east.
Anson was a Southerner. He walked Southern, he talked Southern, and trust me, he courted Southern. Flatlander, maybe. Yankee, no way. I paused for some Coke and moved in to close my rebuttal with a warning that perhaps Chaunce should be a trifle more polite to visiting downstaters, seeing as how Anson's momma's family was providing a decent living wage for a reasonable percentage of the people in Chaunce's home county. Not much else but tobacco could grow on that land. His dad might be Yankee, but his momma was pure Southern blood, as pure as it came, and there was no arguing about that over anybody's pickle barrel. I dropped back into my seat and reached for another chicken wing, to a round of thunderous applause.
"My apologies, dear sir. I never meant to offend you, your momma, or any one of your family. I was simply suggesting that perhaps next time Miss Sheila goes looking for a man, she should at least consider her possibilities a little closer to home." Chaunce waved off any interruptions to the effect that I had done precisely that before I had climbed into my Camaro and headed off down 40 to experience the joys of Piedmont romance. He was on a roll. He bowed and went on. When he got into one of these moods, there was no stopping him except by sheer force of rudeness. This wasn't the moment for that. He was having too much fun showing off in front of a Rich Boy from Down Yonder.
Poor and hardscrabble as Appalachian Glory High was, it didn't need a formal debate program to develop public speaking skills in its kids. The native oral tradition did a fine job of that. Especially when your sainted grandpappy had once run half of Western North Carolina from his back fence. Sometimes the mountains provided their own education. Anson kept one eye attentively on the speaker at hand. This kind of experience was one of the reasons he enjoyed coming up the mountain to visit me. Just one of the reasons, but it was important nonetheless.
You just didn't find orators like these downstate, even at D.C. Johnson, his alma mater and a nationally-known debate center. This was raw native talent on the hoof, the kind that won a region to its side and fought for better conditions for its people. These boys had learned speaking skills not as academic sideboards but as pure survival tactics. And Anson knew it.
He had had a strong respect for the mountain speaking tradition ever since the day I'd whupped his cosseted little rear end in an impromptu forensics tournament, and without an ounce of formal debate training. I'd worked my way up one side of his heritage, lifestyle, and habits, and then back down the other, comparing and contrasting downstate tobacco royalty with the real kind that was to be found nestled in our fair hills, and having a fine time pointing out just how little he knew about me, whereas I could give a frighteningly accurate readout of what was going on with him just from the fine points of the way he was dressed, how he walked, and a million other little things that spoke more clearly than words to someone with the eyes to see them. As a result, Anson had quit debate, asked me to marry him, and learned to take a much broader view of life outside his own insular circles.
One of the things Anson had learned from hanging around with me was a true appreciation of excellence in whatever form it chose to show itself, and at the moment excellence was sounding off front and center in the damn middle of Denny's. And Anson was listening. He was quite well aware of the influence that the Peterson family had. His own family might be the ones who processed the tobacco into final form, but this boy and his people spoke for a lot of the folks who worked tirelessly to produce the raw leaf that fed the automated factories that made the Roberson name world-renowned, whatever you chose to think of the product that came out of those plants. This was prime networking time, and Anson believed strongly in networking, even if the contact in question had never been near a decent set of orthodontia in its little life.
And right now the pride of the Peterson lineage was informing all and sundry of its views on life. And enjoying itself immensely into the bargain. "I humbly welcome you and your family's enterprises into our beloved Artichoke County. Y'all can come pull up a chair on the family porch any time y'all want to. I was merely establishing the fact that we can pay attention to our women just as good as y'all can. No harm intended. Next time you're in Red Bird, we might even take you up to see the emerald mine. You're one of us. A trifle funny-looking sometimes, but I guess that can't be helped. You're from afar and sometimes, well, the genetics just ain't as good-looking."
A chorus of hoots followed this. Chaunce's family had held its territory for so long that it had managed to breed itself right into the core of the Artichoke County gene pool. Sometimes it seemed to less tuned-in members of the group, such as myself, that everybody in that esteemed region was related to everybody else. We could be forgiven for assuming on some occasions that Chaunce and his relatives held a special warm spot in their hearts for ladies of their own bloodlines. But we kept quiet. The point had been made before. Several times. Let Chaunce have his say about things. He bowed again and held his cap to his chest. "But you're forgiven. You're family. You always are."
Here he gestured sweepingly toward some of his seatmates, who grinned eagerly in anticipation of tonight's festivities. Red Bird boys could be counted on for pure hell-raising talent, auto-mechanic genius, and woodsman skills beyond belief. There was literally nothing like them on the face of the earth. Sometimes we weren't sure exactly where they'd come from, to be honest. But they said they were Celts and we accepted that, despite a little bit of jawline tilt to some of their faces that put a couple of us in mind of some of the friendlier extraplanetary races we'd come across who had developed a distinct taste over the years for fun and games with humans. But we were following the rules of the Order of the Bitten Tongue tonight. Let Chaunce dig himself out as he might.
"And as I said, the task forces assigned to this endeavor by myself and my subordinates are prepared to launch our vehicles and proceed with the night's duties whenever you are. You're the resident boyfriend here. It was your manly pride that was wounded most of all. And I forgive you for carting off our girlfriend here just so long as you're treating her right. It appears that you are, so I really have nothing more to say to you. Just let us know. Any time you're ready." He settled back into his seat. A chorus of agreement followed this, courtesy of the infamous Red Bird Coalition. Invading Yankee armies had chosen not to march through Red Bird during the Civil War. Red Bird had chosen not to let the tradition die.
"Well, that sounds like it's that. Let's finish our meals." At least Anson was learning not to waste money. Besides, we were engaged in a strenuous game of Killer Footsie under the table. I was currently ahead 3-1 with no penalty kicks against me. Anson refused to leave business unfinished if at all possible. Since Anson was paying, this meant he would probably be laying out for a couple more chocolate milkshakes on my behalf before we finally wrapped it up with what would probably be a double-overtime shootout for that final 14th or 15th point, depending on which subrule concerning extra-point scoring got invoked at the 10-point marker. He was just so concerned about my metabolism and my weak spells that he always made sure I had some food whenever I was engaged in any sort of strenuous activity whatsoever. He'd seen me collapse too many times after hard figure-skating workouts to take any chances.
Although I'd adapted pretty well to life outside the labs, I had to watch what I ate. I generally needed food every four hours or so in order to be able to function. It had gotten to the point where he had learned to keep extra crackers and sodas (refrigerated, of course) in the back of his car so that he could reach over his seat and hand me one whenever I looked like I was about to faint.
That man took good care of me, he did. He said it was a worthwhile investment, considering the amount of money that the Federal Government had already put into me and that his family had already laid out to keep me healthy, happy, and bright-eyed. But personally, I always figured the helpless puppy-dog look in his eyes whenever he did anything for me said something just a little different about the subject.
And since any written form of Killer Footsie that we had codified in written form at all was a good 45 minutes of strategy, tactics, and pure competitive venom, he was naturally going to make sure I was in the proper condition to enjoy the effort we were putting into it. And since we spent as much time as we did at Denny's, we had a whole 3-page addendum on the Denny's booth version of the game that added a tremendous amount of spice, negotiation, and viciousness to the works.
Needless to say, the second I sat down at Denny's, the waitresses knew to have a couple of Cokes, maybe a lemonade, and certainly a full appetizer basket on their way. They also knew how much fun they had when they were waiting on us, and they had a pretty good idea that a very generous chunk of monetary compensation would probably be hiding under a plate or tucked into a napkin when they cleaned the table off. I had once bestowed upon my darling the honorary middle name of "Overprotective as Hell." He'd earned it. But I wasn't about to argue. I loved him. One of the chief joys of his life was spoiling me. I knew he really meant it. No problems there.
And I could rest assured there was nothing in the food that I couldn't handle. Even though I was generally okay with eating outside the home, you could never tell when a restaurant's distributor had changed the product they supplied in some form or other. Just to make sure it was okay, Anson pretty much always took the first bite or two. I often had to stop him from eating the whole thing, but that was okay, since he was paying for it in the first place. He could get so wrapped up in what I needed that he would forget about taking care of himself. There were times when I'd just shove my plate at him and order something else for myself. It didn't matter. We both got what we needed.
And as I said, Anson truly enjoyed spoiling me. He wasn't trying to take over my life; he was trying to make sure I had what I needed. That was okay. Very few people I knew did everything for me out of true sweetness, but he was one of those few. I'd decided long ago that I could trust him implicitly. There was never that strange extra motive in his heart that made me jump when he reached to do something for me, as there was with so many other people. What he said might not always be much, but he meant it. Very few people did.
Well, how about that. I turned quickly toward the back of the booth. Someone stirring from the driver's seat of a peach BMW had caught my eye through the glass in the front parking lot outside the restaurant. I had to look again to be sure. This had to count as a bloody miracle for us. And, as usual, the girl was displaying perfect timing. I almost hollered to the crowd. This could make our night much, much easier. And it was about time, too. But let her come in and announce herself to the gang in her own way. I just gave Anson one more desultory kick, leaned my back against the booth, and breathed silently. Hallelujah. Amen. And pass the collection plate on this one, boys and girls. It was a defector. A wall-jumper. A recruit to the cause. And boy, did we need her.
Scooter caught the reflection in the glass. Nothing got past him. And he almost exploded there and then. This was his moment. He'd seen this coming for almost as long as some of the rest of us. He jumped up on the seat, punched his fist in the air, and howled to the lighting fixtures. It was his right. He'd worked as hard winning her over as anybody else had.
"No way! Lily Fancy-Pants Newbery! The epitome of American style herself!" Scooter had had quite a few fights with the girl in his time. We all had. She had taken her own sweet time, shall we say, about making her loyalties known. Some of us had thought she was simply playing her connections on the other side of the fight for all they were worth. Others of us suspected she was playing it safe and trying to do as much damage as possible before walking out. None of it mattered now.
She was in the building, on our territory, and ready to roll. We all welcomed her. Everybody knew about her information sources: In this town, she almost as tuned in as I was. And Scooter had been eyeing her for years, just like half the rest of the guys. He'd made his noise about her, sure, but she was so much like me in her sneakiness and style that we'd all suspected it was at least partially due to a case of copycat emotions. "Not the queen of Biltmore Forest!" No, dear, just the queen of Judson High on the numerous days I'd been absenting myself from things on the high-altitude side of the state. And I'd generally had to admit she'd kept the place in shape for me when I got back.
(Finally, says the author...) Someone else apparently agreed with me. "Watch it with the titles, Scoot," piped a small voice from another booth where she was currently engaged in a smooch session with her favorite British import. "You don't have a chance with her anyway." The aforementioned small voice and Scooter were veterans of a previous relationship in which the small voice had thoroughly convinced Scooter he was so hot, cute, and unforgettable that there was no way he could lose out with any woman he wanted in the long run.
Now, of course, he was having to sit at courtside and watch an old enemy of his from centuries back score with his woman, as he still tended to think of her, and he retaliated by letting everyone in sight know that it was purely because of the looks, money, and status that the boy tended to flaunt everywhere he went. Of course, he wouldn't have been tolerated in the group if he did it openly, but then, as Scooter was so fond of saying, "Everybody knows what he has. All he has to do is show up and he flaunts it. Especially if there's a camera within 100 yards. We know they're all genetically incapable of not waving their asses if there's a camera present. Especially -- "
And Basil, as he preferred to be called stateside, or colonyside as he called it, would be at him again with a well-placed punch. Nobody talked about his momma like that, at least not around him. The press could say what they wanted to, and often did. His own family could tear her apart; that was their business. Especially since they were financing her shopping sprees. But nobody else laid a hand on her, said a word about her, or even laughed when they read about his future father's dating habits. Nobody.
Basil hadn't even been conceived yet by regular chronological time. But that was okay. He was welcome in our neck of the woods any time he showed up. And he sure made a good advertisement for the ladies. They needed to know there was more than just practical value in hanging out with us. And we all got the feeling that our British buddy's lab-baby looks and intelligence-agency-coached charm might just have been part of the reason our new guest was currently rounding the corner past the newspaper racks and into the waiting area.