I knew it was time to drink up and leave when Choice Ranson pushed in through the doors. Crazy Eddie's isn't the most high-toned place in Heartbreak Pass. The fact that Eddie hasn't picked Ranson up by the scruff and seat and pitched him back out the door is proof of this.
Ranson is a troll. He likes to pick at people. On the whole, he's a pretty fair geologist, which is why Survey keeps him on—that and they don't have to look at him in the home office. That no one's shot the creature yet is put down to people's basic law-abidingness here on Sheba, or the general opinion that Ranson isn't worth the waste of powder.
The bridge game conversation had turned to Admin's latest publicity blitz to try to attract more settlers to Sheba. Old Ed Grinder was saying, “They been tryin' to make it safe an' borin' fer years.”
Ranson loomed over the table with his beer. “Boring? You find settling this place boring? You old coot, this is the greatest adventure in the system! And you sit there and call it boring! Madness!”
The four of them sat looking up at him in silence. Dick Ewell, George Topolopis, and Harty Gunther were old enough to be his father. Ed, old enough to be their father.
Ed carefully laid his cards face-down on the table as the color rose in his neck and face. His voice, though low and even, betrayed strain, “Admin up on Avenir's doin' their dangest to sanitize life here on this rock. They want to convince ever'body that livin' and workin' here is safe, routine, an' borin' as bein' up on Avenir.”
The others put their cards down as he warmed to his subject. Ed's stringy muscles knotted as he gripped the edge of the table and continued, “One reason is to sucker people into sellin' ever'thing they've got to come down here—that's good fer gettin' rid of the troublemakers, extra mouths, an' relievin' crowdin'. It's also good fer their buddies who buy up the stuff fer next to nothin'. But the main reason”--he raised an index finger--”is that they are bureaucrats. An' the knee-jerk reaction of a bureaucrat is to cover his butt. No matter what might happen, he's scared he's the one who's gonna be tossed out the airlock—so nothin' ever happens, ever'thing is always A-OK an' routine...safe.”
He swallowed. “But it ain't safe. It ain't routine. An' things happen.” He looked at the others at the table, then back up at Ranson. “We come here before there was a hole in the ground. I was lucky; I partnered with my missus. Hoppers weren't invented yet; you yomped ever' single kilo in on yer back. It took a generation to get rockhead environment suits to the point they sorta work. Like I say, I was lucky—the missus wasn't. I buried her three years to the day we made planetfall.
“Way back when sometime, they was a critter called a lion—some kind of mantid maybe—that ate people. A boy became a man by killin' one.” He swept a hand to include the others at the table. “These men killed their lion. They went through it. They survived it. They ain't quit. They won't.
“Now, let me ask you a question.” He pointed up at the younger man. “Who are you partnered with? Anybody?” At Ranson's silence, he continued. “No, I figured not. That, maybe, suggest somethin' to you? Man don't live out here long without somebody to watch his back. Somebody who cares about him.” Ed hooked a thumb at George. “Now George, here, is my bunkie. He puts up with my feet an' I puts up with his wind. Are we cuddle-bunnies? Nope, but we're partners an', generally, friends.” He picked up his cards and the others followed suit. The old man didn't bother to look up from his cards as he dismissed Ranson, “Boy, you come back after you kill your lion.”
Ranson stood looking at the bridge players, then at the rest of us. Nobody gave him any slack. Even Eddie just returned a blank look. After a couple of minutes, he sat down his glass, turned, and slowly walked out.