Stranger and stranger, I thought as I walked across to the coffee shop and went through the swing doors.
The place was modelled on a historic ideal of the small-town diner, a long counter with stools and the cook behind it on one side with booths on the opposite side. There was lots of gingham in bright reds and blues, it adorned just about everything. After the grey outside it almost made my eyes hurt. The seats were all red leather with white-topped tables and the chrome work gleamed.
The place was busy. There were groups of women sipping coffee and chatting, teenagers swinging on the stools, and a bunch of miners sitting in the corner, eating huge plates of food and laughing loudly. Ceiling fans swung lazily as I slipped into the only empty booth and sat, laying my purchases out on the table in front of me.
“You vacationing, or on business?” asked the waitress as she poured my coffee. Tall, blond and far too young for me, her voice had a bubbly, friendly quality, and I felt better for hearing it. She had a tight red gingham uniform with ‘Dome Diner’ embroidered on it. “Your clothes give you away as an off-worlder, no offence, and anyway I’ve not seen you around before.” Her name badge said Macie. It suited her.
“None taken,” I answered. “I’m working, but I only got here yesterday and I’m still getting used to the place.” I thought that the body in the bathroom story would not be a good conversation piece so I kept it to myself.
“Oh right,” she replied, still smiling, “who did you upset to end up here? Well if there’s anything you want to know, just ask.” I was surprised after the surly attitudes so far to be treated like a normal person. I assumed that her remark about upsetting people was just a bit of friendly banter, but it added to my overall impression of the place. I could think of about a hundred questions, but started with the last thing I had noticed.
“OK, well if we’re in a sealed pressure dome, where does the breeze and the rain come from?”
“Good question.” She sounded impressed. “Well it’s all—”
The door crashed open and a large man in stained miners overalls and a yellow jacket came in just as she was about to tell me. All conversation ceased as his piggy eyes swivelled around the room, taking in all the occupants in an instant. He had a shaved head, with a red weal around it from a safety helmet, and heavy gloves tucked into his belt. His gaze stopped as it settled on me. “Macie,” he growled, “When you’re done talking to off-worlders, there’s a working man,” and he said that a little louder, “who needs service.” And he turned and walked to his mates in the corner. They greeted him with raised voices and laughter, as the volume came back up.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s Harris Morgan. He’s the most important man on Reevis,” she grinned, “in his head. I’ll tell you later.” She wandered off towards him smiling, the coffee pot swinging in her hand. “Hi, Harris, what can I get you?”
Sipping my coffee, which was strong with a deep bittersweet tang, I paired Nic’s drive with my new one and copied the contents across. Then I put the copied drive in the envelope and sealed the flap. Taking out my stylus, I addressed it to myself, care of Gaynor Rice at the magazine offices on Centra, ready to drop it into the post. Gaynor would look after it for me till I could pick it up; she might even resist the temptation to look at it. Once it was in the post, it would be safe.
The miner she had called Harris was sat with the others in the corner and was watching me. Initially I hadn’t noticed, as I was intent on my task. Now I felt his gaze on me. At first I tried to avoid it, and then I thought, why? I stared right back. He said something to his mates, which got them all laughing, and then he lumbered to his feet and came over to me.
“Anyone ever told you it’s rude to stare?” He planted his fists, about the size of two good bunches of bananas, on the table, the force spilling my coffee. People looked up at the noise and the place went quiet again.
“I didn’t start it,” I replied calmly. “You’ve been staring at me since you got here.”
“Be careful, lad,” he spoke slowly, “we don’t like strangers here, or tourists, lots of dangerous things around for off-worlders, and it’s very easy to die here.”
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