Ion Vignette #14

Zenith’s Edge serves sandwiches. I had not expected that. I’d been picturing something of a… what do they call them? A dive? I had no doubt I was in the right place, not just because it was the only ‘Zenith’ anything on L3, but it had that legendary sign on the front door I’d heard so very little about.

“No hedgehogs allowed”.

I’d managed to stop in two days running and I still didn’t have a coherent story. In fact, I’d interrogated suspects high on controlled substances that had managed more reasonable explanations for their actions.

I was positive hedgehogs could not fly, nor did they make spacesuits to fit them. The color of a hedgehog was not normally in the magenta/purple range. I’m pretty sure they could not speak, and even if that assumption were wrong, “take me to your leader” would probably not have been in their repartee. Research assured me that they were not pack/herd animals.

But most of all, I thought I knew my Duo well enough to know that if said flying, purple, leader-seeking hedgehog had actually come to an explosive end… he would not get that weird, almost smug look whenever the subject tried to come up. Right before I got a kind of side-eyed look, he lapsed into embarrassment, and the subject got abruptly changed. I think Victoria wasn’t willing to tell the story, just because it was me wanting to know, and the woman delighted in thwarting/annoying me any way she could. I’d spent the trip so far learning to respond without flinching to ‘Grumpy’.

Hayden simply did his best to stay the hell out of the middle. I respected his lack of enthusiasm for the position enough not to impose on it. He did, after all, pass me sympathetic looks sometimes that told me he’d at least tried to rein his wife in, but having me tossed into their artistic jaunt to L3 and back was just more temptation than she was willing to let pass. Ok… it wasn’t temptation so much as “Open Season”. I was an uninvited guest. Or the guest of a guest. In her mind, I suppose, that made it all right to needle me at every turn. I needled right back… accept when Duo was painting their “babies”. Much as I loved to watch Duo when he painted, that was just a little too private and intimate a thing between the three of them, and I usually made myself scarce; into our cabin to read or check email while we were connected to the dock net. But the last few days the artwork had extended to that same cabin, so I’d decided to take some “walks”, especially after I’d discovered that Zenith’s Edge was close by.

Which was how I found myself sitting at the Zenith’s bar, nibbling on a sandwich, nursing a beer, and listening to the third “newbie” I had managed to subtly prompt into asking about the sign on the door. It was a different bar-tender and the hedgehog was suddenly a foot taller than the last telling and mostly purple. I sighed, starting to become resigned to never getting the real story, when I felt somebody that pinged my discomfort radar slide onto the stool next to me. Odd enough that they had chosen the seat right next to mine when there were a dozen open stools, but the sheer size registered on a whole other level.

Then the bar-tender did a double take, his gaze narrowing and flicking to the door and back, ‘You know you’re not…’ he began, and there was a chuckle I recognized.

‘Relax,’ I heard Hayden say, ‘The order didn’t include me, and I left my Mad Minions aboard ship. Torie loves your sandwiches though, so I just stopped in for an order pick up.’

I turned from my own half eaten lunch, and quirked a grin his way. ‘Are you stalking me?’

His rumble of a chuckle sounded again. ‘You keep coming back smelling of beer and Dijon mustard. It’s been driving Torie crazy. When they pulled their little… practical joke, it never occurred to them they might be… uhm….’

‘Banned for life?’ Supplied the bar-tender, checking his computer for take-out orders. Presumably to get Hayden on his way as fast as possible. I picked up my own sandwich with more intent to finish it, and less at using it for camouflage for my eavesdropping.

‘You know you could have just asked me for the real story,’ Hayden said, casual as you please.

I glanced up at him with surprise that I hoped I kept out of my expression. ‘I assumed you would be part of the stone-walling.’

‘It’s not stone-walling so much as…embarrassment on Duo’s part, and… opportunity on Torie’s part.’

‘Opportunity?’ I had to ask, but the bar-tender interrupted at that moment with Hayden’s order in a brown paper bag with the contents list stabled to the flap. Hayden checked the order over carefully, not wanting… I’m sure… to disappoint his wife with anything but a perfect sandwich. Or Duo either, from the size of the bag.

I finished my lunch just as Hayden deemed the order suitable and was able to follow him out of the place.

‘So,’ I prompted, ‘just what the hell is the real hedgehog story, if you’re going to be willing to share?’

‘Well,’ he grinned down at me from his superior height, ‘let’s start at the end… no real hedgehogs were injured in the performance of said practical joke… you realized that, right?’

I snorted, ‘I know Duo at least that well; he wouldn’t just be embarrassed… he would be guilty. But I also don’t believe the thing talked…'

‘It did… sort of,’ he interrupted, and I raised an eyebrow but continued down my list of conclusions.

‘Was purple…’

‘It was.’

I blinked, but bulled on. ‘Wore a spacesuit?’

‘It had one… though not exactly space worthy.’

‘Uh… and traveled in a pack?’ Or herd, or pride, or whatever a hypothetical group of hedgehogs were called.

‘Well, it threatened…’ Hayden said, trying for a woebegone expression but not able to hide the grin.

I just sighed heavily. ‘Ok… I give; take it from the top.’ Good thing the sandwiches were cold cut; we weren’t exactly rushing the walk back to the ship and I assumed this was going to be a somewhat long tale.

‘Well, there was this guy,’ he began, and I’d heard the lot of them tell enough stories by then I knew to just let him go at his own pace. It was usually faster than trying to rush things. ‘Pilot just off the Mars project, so a little on edge and… with a gullible streak a mile wide even before that.’

So, primed for a Duo and Toria double-hit. I contained the sigh of sympathy for the poor sap.

‘Derek something or other,’ Hayden supplied, not that it mattered, except (hopefully) in the speed of the telling. ‘Torie knew him from somewhere and it seemed he was pure Spacer-born and had a bit of a phobia about small animals. I think you could give him a heart attack with a rat on board his ship.’

I snorted. Duo had a bit of the same Spacer mind-set to be honest, but it was bugs, not animals. He was fascinated with animals. I was still afraid there were hamsters in our future somewhere, Lord knows why.

‘There was a night of drinking and conspiring between them,’ and here he looked a bit chagrined, ‘I maybe should have been paying more attention, but when those two get started… it’s usually just talk and doesn’t really go anywhere.’

‘The one time…’ I muttered, wondering if we needed to slow the walk down some more.

Hayden just chuckled. ‘Oh, far for the one time… I’ve derailed more jokes and stunts than I care to admit to.’ He hesitated a moment before offering up a slightly different topic, if related. ‘I was worried about them being… jealous of each other at first. You know that Duo and I had been talking about going in together on a ship before I met Torie?’

Made me wonder if he thought I might be a bit jealous too, but I just smiled. I’d heard the story. ‘Sounds like it almost ended with you as the odd-man out.’

That got me a full laugh and a muttered ‘No shit.’ I wondered if it ever occurred to him what it said that his wife and Duo were so much alike. That smile I kept contained.

‘So,’ I prompted, ‘hedgehogs?’

He shifted the lunch sack to his other hand, making sure he wasn’t crushing the precious (to his wife) sandwiches, and shook himself back into story mode.

‘They worked on him for months,’ he said, seeming to realize he had to move the story along before we got to our destination. ‘Hints here, things they made sure he overheard. Alien hedgehog like creatures from… I don’t even know… asteroid belt? Edge of the universe? It didn’t really matter… they were purple, they were threatening to invade.’

The story stalled when I couldn’t help but blurt, ‘Are you shitting me? How stupid was this guy?’

‘Just… kind of on edge,’ Hayden replied and did sound a bit sorry. ‘And most of it happened back there in the bar, so they had plenty of people who were more than willing to back them up.’

‘You too?’

‘Not so much,’ he smiled, ‘they didn’t really need my help but I do have to admit it was damned funny.’

I shook my head at him, and he laughed again ‘I said I stayed mostly out of it… why I can still go in there if I don’t over-stay my welcome.’

We were nearing the dock area and our pace had slowed to a crawl.

‘Anyway, by the time Duo got Howard to make the… construct? Whatever the hell the little purple thing was, and Torie sewed it a little space suit for it… it was so far out of hand it wasn’t even funny.’

‘Howard was involved?’ I blurted, and it suddenly took two or five steps up from practical joke. God damn… poor Derek never stood a chance.

‘Yeah.’ he confirmed and then sighed. ‘So by the time they took the stupid thing to the bar, Duo used the controller to walk it up to Derek, with a few too many beers in him, and made it say “Take me to your Leader”…’

‘On edge?’ I had to ask and he had to work hard to turn the maniacal grin into something that tried for contrite.

‘So on edge, he pulled out a gun and blew the things head off.’

I stopped dead in my tracks. On a colony? Were they all mad?

‘Purple fur and ectoplasm kind of stuff and gears… which Derek didn’t seem to notice when they were hauling him out for… uh… rehab, just everywhere.’

We stood there and stared at each other. I was appalled. I could see it playing out in my head. That poor damn hedgehog-fearing man. I wondered where he was and if he had ever tried to come after my partner and his… partner in crime. Or if he was locked up somewhere still?

I wondered how a ‘restraining order’ was the worst that had happened.

Like I said… appalled was the one thing that I could identify I was feeling.

Which did absolutely nothing to explain why I burst out laughing like a loon.

‘You understand my position,’ Hayden remarked, grinning along.

I managed to stop, and then looked up at him with an expression somewhere between threatening and imploring. ‘Just promise me you will not stay uninvolved if they ever go after me that hard.’

This grin was somewhat lop-sided, perhaps not able to settle any more than my own. ‘Done,’ he said. Then he added a droll little,‘Grumpy.’

We resumed walking. ‘I have it on good authority that Grumpy intimidates your wife. And… at least I’m not Dopey.'

‘That would be Derek,’ Hayden dead-panned and I had to chuckle again. ‘It’s the image of all that purple fur that does it…’

Someday I would ask if there were pictures. Not on this trip… but someday. There had to be pictures…