2024.05.04 Awkward Moments Plumb Local Socialization

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I had to pause before opening up my ship to this port, so I could collect myself. To hold onto all the things I've learned about myself, and consciously recognize the truth of them. Because this is a hard place to be: the place I'm originally from. And they think they know me here. It's awfully easy to become what other people tell you that you are, and it very rarely serves you well.

Grey light from overcast skies bundled between rocky peaks flooded my hatch, and my hand reflexively went to drag my helmet over my head so I could see better - but I stopped. To stride out of my ship with my helm already in place sends a message, and if I had any hope of making this go well I needed to appear relaxed. So instead I shrugged on a cloak to obscure my habitual gear, and met the tech ambling towards my still-pinging ship.

"Cargo or repairs?"

I give them a terse shake of my head. "Nothing right now. Maybe later." They give me a squint, to wonder wordlessly about why I'm even here then. "I pre-paid the landing fee and parking for a day on my way in. But..." I dip my chin and make sure to catch their eye. "Try to keep folks from getting to near to her. The security system is a little aggressive."

The tech gave a glance at the well-patched hull, and gave me a shrug. A worried little part of me thought there was a good chance I'd be scraping a charred limb of theirs off of the hull later on, and hoo-boy that would definitely make future visits home even more awkward.

Wending my way past other parked ships, I eventually made it through the personnel gate. It stood open, as it does generally - other than in times of trouble. Apparently I couldn't help but make an amused face at the backwater half-assery of the security measures as I walked through, because one of the guards sitting in the guard station yelled down. "Something funny, stupid face?"

Stupid face? I have a feeling I know that guy. Probably doesn't recognize me, though. Not yet, anyway.

"Nope." I keep walking, and head toward the public transit station.

No crowds here. Which makes sense, this is hardly a busy port of call. And this is the end of the line for the train, so it's completely empty when it glides into station. The meta-ads for taxis suddenly drop their prices before the train stops, as a last-ditch plea for my credits. But if I wanted to glide into town in a hopper directly to where I was going, I would have just taken my own out of the hold.

The train glides to a stop at the next branch - which connects to the industrial district. District is a bit of a laugh - it's a section of valley out of sight of the main town habitants, where the large ugly machines of industry can efficiently turn materials and effort into credits and means to do more things. And most of both of those are generally heading off-world. Or, at least, out of town.

Onto the train, fresh off of shifts of grimy toil, several burly people trundle wearily. I don't stare, but I watch them, doing that thing I can't stop myself from doing every time I'm here: asking myself, "Do I know them?".

Perhaps because of my watching them, however low-key I think I'm being, or perhaps just because I'm an oddity on this train, they watch me back. I imagine them thinking to themselves, "Do I know that person?" I'm not broadcasting any contact details, and neither are they, and it's likely that nobody actually recognizes anybody right then. I knew that I wasn't sure about who any of them were, though vaguely familiar aspects suggested that I would if I knew more - but I wouldn't have made any fuss even if I did actually recognize anybody here. Unlike the folk in this town, who in my experience unfailingly make a fuss over discovering someone.

Of course, several of them get the standard far-away expression of someone concentrating on media or comms. Which, in my standard paranoia, translates into at least one of them sending an image of me to someone else asking, "Do we know this person?" So it goes.

The next stop slides up almost immediately, and several well-worn characters parade into the train. Beaten long coats budding with off-putting personality cover unknown arrays of concealed items. The trio grin lasciviously at the weary labourers, a couple of whom lift their chins in mildly contemptuous acknowledgement. One of the trio give a theatrical look around the train, as though checking that the coast is clear, and glaces at me. I don't look particularly official or enforcement-like, so their gaze swept past me. But then they blinked and looked sharply back.

"Hey! It's you! When did you get back, man?"

I spread my fingers and hands in an Anurian gesture of honesty. "Just landed."

He gestures to the other two with a 'continue on without me, I'll be just a moment' sort of shrug and wave. They sidle up to the more-receptive labourers, while Kayson turns back to me. "Wait. Didn't you have, like, a whole thing happen?"

"It wasn't what people were saying."

Kayson's arms gesticulate with big motions, showing glimpses of non-standard med-kits gripped underneath. "Well, obviously not! You have non-robotic legs, for starters. And your head appears to still be attached, and you don't appear to be choking on shit."

I can feel myself squinting at his loud, possibly intentional obliviousness. "Yeah, no. The whole 'ripping off a persons head and shitting down their neck' is just colourful turn of phrase."

He winks conspiratorially at me. "Yeah, yeah, man. It's very action-packed and got some interesting visuals."

And just like that, I'm unsure of myself. Is this another classic case of Kayson feigning insight with parroted commentary, and actually being a mostly-harmless doofus? Or maybe some neurophysical/chemical happening has expanded his capabilities beyond the doofus I knew, and he's actually plying my reactions for information and is no longer quite so 'mostly' in his harmlessness? I lower my eyelids briefly to consider the probabilities, and my math co-processors burp up an entirely uninspiring array with very few holes to have leverage.

I give a tight smile, as genuine as I can manage. "Speaking of action-packed, how have things been here on the Rock for you since I last saw you?"

Kayson diverts immediately into an anxious sway and awkward head-jerking motions behind his emphatic arm gestures. It's a 99%-identical performance to the ones I remember him doing, save with some different names and events sprinkled in among the familiar places. Same old Kayson, I guess.

The next station isn't as close as the train can take me to my planned trip to the city center, but it's a way to make my departure from Kayson with a modicum of grace. Plus it would be good to get more of a direct feel for how the old home town is doing, instead of sorting through carefully manicured social media. This station is midway between a park and the local hospital. Both brimming with unpleasant memories. But I aim my footsteps towards the main drag and trawl the local scene.

It's totally dead. Aside from an intermittent stream of older hoppers going occasionally to and fro, I see no activity outside.

I mean, I'm not sure what I was expecting. A quick sort of my math co-processors suggests that I had fallen victim, yet again, to an availability heuristic - unintentionally estimating what is likely biased toward what is vivid and emotionally charged. All my memories of encounters on this selfsame drag through town blotted out how the vast majority of the time there's really nothing going on.

Saying like that - in my head, obviously - has a contemptuous edge to it. But, really, in the core of me, I like the quiet. The peace that possible to find inside one's self here is pretty great, and an important aspect of myself.

Of course, the way in which the other parts of me like things to happen promptly finds that time passes entirely too slowly here. But that's not a problem for this visit. I shouldn't be staying long enough for that effect to bother me. And, honestly, there isn't much that I need to wait for any more - I'm remarkable capable of making what I want happen. It's part of why I left.

Oh shit - Riverside is gone. I liked hanging out there. Hardly ever got beat up there, and there were cool games and snacks. Now it's, what? A family restaurant? I guess the upside is that they won't hold that grudge about me pretending to have a bomb any more. Ah - good times.

After a few more long moments of marinating in nostalgia and sifting through augmented memories to annotate them with more-mature interpretations, I find myself entering the downtown. Or, what was the downtown at some point. Even in my time growing up here, this cluster of businesses and nexus of services was a stagnant remnant of a simpler era. More interesting and popular locations distributed around among the arrayed neighbourhoods have been the real deal for getting things done, and looks like that remains true. And the result of that is that this district is quietly low-rent while maintaining an old-school air of respectability.

And I'm pretty sure that exact same hopper has passed by me twice before. Yup - a quick scroll back through the visual buffer confirms that. It's possible this is a busy local delivery gig worker, but my paranoia is that I'm being cased.

As it makes a quick U-turn to pull around to stop on the side of the paveway behind me, I'm already resigned for something stupid to happen. If I were on some strange planet, I'd be snapping on my helmet and looking for ways to get the hell out of trouble. But I try to remain nonchalant - for reasons both simple and convoluted.

"What the FUCK are you doing back here?"

I realized that I have a confused look on my face. They yelled that before they actually got out of the hopper, so I was lacking context. Unfortunately, even after they got out I was still a bit unclear. I knew I was supposed to know who they were, but honestly all the various blustering goons kind of coalesced in my memory such that it wasn't very clear. Was this one of the ones that I embarrassed? Or was this one of the ones that I merely insulted? I know this isn't one of the ones that directly harmed me physically, because those are better remembered. Whatever.

I look down at my feet. "Walking." Then I shrug at them and continue to do so.

Based on the way that they glance back into the hopper, I deduce that there is at least one more inside. "I better not see you again, or you're fuckin' getting it." They then jump back in the hopper, and I flinch-hop to the side as they accelerate past me.

Cool. Perhaps in the fullness of time that encounter will make sense. But I resist the urge to try to understand it. That's one of the traps that small places have: the extremely small stakes drive drama into everything for no damn reason. Better to ignore the petty stupidity.

Besides, I'm almost to my first real destination. A turn and down a few short blocks I find myself in front of an extremely familiar General Store. It's a modest affair, limited mostly to just what a small apartment dweller might spontaneously need on occasion, or what workers in other small businesses might want to grab while on break. The door struggles open as I step towards it with purpose, and I take the half-dozen steps it takes to get past the specials stand to be in front of the counter.

A generic representation of a face materializes holographically in an old-timey way. "Hello - can I help you find something?"

I give it a curt but respectful bow. "Yes - I'd like to see the fresh candy instead of the old stuff out on display. And if possible I'd like to talk to an old friend."

The AI considers me in a way far too sophisticated for an out-of-the-box mart-bot, and I give it a wink. It dissolves into nothingness, apparently dismissed, and a disembodied voice calls out, "Oh shit! Hang on a sec!" After the briefest of waits, a big felinid is projected holographically wearing his standard-issue disarming smirk. "What the fuck are you doing back here?"

Chuckling as I rock back on my heels. "I've been getting a lot of that today."

My furry friend tilts his head to consider that. "Yeah. The story about your departure has taken on a life of its own."

"So it seems. What else has changed? Besides folks appreciating the in-person touch in their shopping, I mean."

"Shit, most of our business is handling handoffs to gig deliveries now. Don't need to be in person for that. Just need to keep the backend sorted, and I can do that from home."

Nodding, I look down at my feet. "Cool. Just so long as it's not about avoiding being pinched in person by folks looking for protection money."

When I glanced up he looks genuinely appalled. "What? Shit no. The cops are still lame, but folks are still generally safe from that kind of shenanigans."

I squint an uncertain look at the hologram. "Yeah? You sure?"

"Well, yeah, I WAS. But now you're here asking about it, and now I'm worried."

"Ah, don't worry about it. It's probably nothing you need to be concerned about if everything is currently copacetic."

He gives me a suspicious glower. "K"

With a long awkward breath out my nose, I say, "We should meet up to hang out or something."

"Yeah, maybe! I'll have to see if I can find some time."

I smiled. "Cool." It meant we probably wouldn't. But it's fine, because our friendship was never based on meek assurances of familiarity. And I'm genuinely relieved that he's doing well, and even more that he didn't feel compelled to warn me about any of our acquaintances being in dire straights. It means the rest of my visit is unencumbered.

With a respectful fist-in-hand bow, I backed out of the store and take a deep breath. Time to see how things go.

A couple blocks back out onto the main drag, and I resume walking through the tiny downtown. Crossing a cargo-track overpass, I walked purposefully into one of the places in town that I had rarely dared to be in before. A totally empty restaurant.

Except, of course, I didn't just walk straight in. As I walked towards it, I gave it a tight ping to query how sentient it was - it ranked pretty low. So I followed up with a general service access code when I had direct contact, and when it was granted I slipped a mechanical patch onto the mechanism. The faithful little door lock didn't spill any access codes, but I severed the network connections and reset every function to suit my whims. It was done before I even finished walking through the door. Also before I closed the door, I sent two small probe robots to sweep around the building and quietly make friends with any doors they found.

Once inside I blinked a couple times, realizing that not only did I not actually know the name of the place, I don't think I ever actually bothered knowing its real name. It was always just mapped in my brain as being right here, and the totally-fake restaurant front for a local group of shady operators. Honestly, I think the only time I've actually seen the inside before was on a dare as a kid, and I didn't stay long.

A hologram of a Groten stuffed improbably into a suit flickered into existence by the entrance. It looked at me with disdain glittering from its black eyes set deep into its big furry head. "I'm sorry sir, you don't appear to have a reservation. You'll have to leave."

I looked around at the dusty and frankly shitty establishment then up at it with mild disbelief. "People make reservations to be here?"

A guttural invective in a range I don't hear well wafted from a back room in a language my meat brain didn't recognize. Before my co-processor could nail down a likely translation - not that I needed it - a brawny Zygroten burst out of the nominal kitchen area. "What the fuck are YOU doing here?"

"Honestly, wondering if the Groten hologram was joking about needing reservations."

His nostrils flared, which is probably hard to avoid with a snout like that. "I heard you were in town, but never would have guessed that your plan was suicide. Get the fuck out."

"How?"

Arms furiously indicated, "Through the fucking door you came in, you cheese-brained fuckstard! Before I punt you the fuck through it."

"No - how did you hear that I was in town?"

"Are you fucking deaf? You're getting out, running or bleeding, either fucking way." He starts stomping angrily towards me.

I mentally activated one of my small probe robots, and it floats up between us. I looked at it, then at him - looking all confused himself. "Gosh, I wonder where this is going." It then darts around him and makes for the kitchen door.

His priorities obviously had drastically shifted, as he lunged at the probe, then followed it enraged into the kitchen. I gave him a 83% probability of resorting to shooting at it after about 90 seconds of realizing it was fast enough to prevent him from getting in reach.

The probe sent imagery of some pretty flagrant yet petty criminal materials - stim patches with faked certification and heavier weaponry than is typically allowed through the port authority. Enough to get in trouble with the local police, but hardly worth the fuss what's-his-fur was making. Which turned powerfully ironic as my forwarded view of the paveway out front from the pwned front door showed a police hopper settling down out front.

I double-checked my chronometer. Yeah, this was the right time for my thing, which made the Human police officer getting out of the hopper and trundling efficiently towards the front door highly suspicious. Even more suspicious: he sent a pretty secure coded access request to the front door. I had to door send a generic "I'm open, come on through" message. And come on through he did.

He immediately scowled at me. "Who are you?"

Several responses rolled around as possibilities in my head, based on him perhaps almost-recognizing me, or maybe just having that cop-sense of something being off about me. Anyways, the laconic genius I might have uttered was suddenly overshadowed by the sounds of blaster fire in the kitchen.

His eyes were furrowed into slits, and he pulled is service blaster. "Don't make any sudden movements." Barked at me, followed by a louder yell. "What the zark is going on back there!?" Why was he yelling? There wasn't any jamming. And it's not like he was a stickler for OPSEC keeping his comm logs clean - he rumbled through that door without a secure confirmation response.

A staccato set of blasts, then the Zygroten leaned out of the kitchen. Seeing the police officer, his face curled his snout into frustrated snarl. "You're early, but maybe you can help - this asshole just sent a probe robot flying into the lab!"

My imagination told me that the police officer was rolling his eyes behind the slitted lids, but it was hard to tell. He raised his blaster generally in my direction, sending my co-processor into a laughing-like state as it calculated probabilities of his implication. But his fun mistake was looking sternly at the Zygroten. "What do you expect me to do?"

Obviously, these two didn't work well together. Still, it was a fun opening for me to reach out with the force-tools in one of my subtle gauntlets and make a minor but profound change to the barrel of his very common blaster model.

"Get him the fuck out of here before, you know, the thing."

The police officer sighed, then spoke through clenched teeth. "You said he sent a probe into, uh, kitchen."

"I'll get the probe, just get him the fuck out!"

The police officer turned to look back at me. "Two problems with that. One: he already saw everything via the probe. And two: we need to know why he's here sending probes into private businesses."

The Zygroten stared hard at me. I looked passively back. The Zygroten looked cool, but he clearly wasn't the brains of this operation. I shifted my gaze to officer squinty, who wasn't winning any tactician trophies either but at least had a grasp of the edge of the situation a little better.

"Recall your probe robot." He emphasized the order by making his blaster pointing less general and more specific.

"There is no probe robot in the kitchen." Which by this point was technically true - the robot had found a ventilation port over the mostly-disused stove and had tampered its way out.

"Fuck! It was right fucking here a second ago!"

I made myself stop making a pained expression. It looked like the cop was going to make some other command or question, but I asked first. "Why aren't you two using coded comms?"

"Shut your mouth, and drop your weapons."

My hands spread wide, to open up the front of my cloak and reveal the array of tools and robots I've got strapped to me. "I don't have any weapons to drop."

This appeared to be confusing to the police officer and to the Zygroten. So it goes.

"Lock this jackass in the vault until we're done with business." The cop gave me an extra-squinty squint. "Then we'll decide what to do with him."

As soon as I heard about having to come to this middle-of-nowhere planet, I guessed things would go poorly. But even I had to admit that this was an even more disappointing trajectory than I would have suspected. The Zygroten joined the cop in gesticulating where I should go with blasters. Which, as it turned out, was through a passageway in the back past the restrooms. It was a wide, spartan hall, likely connecting to the kitchen at one end and the garage/loading bay at the other. I was ushered hurriedly towards the garage. Which, as it happened, sported a very bulky looking door hiding some volume at the back corner.

"Drop those tools and bots."

I honestly was suspecting that they might have forgotten about the non-weapons. Alas. Reluctantly, I put down the actually rather nice tools and remaining probe robots. Of course, I uploaded the AIs as backup so that the robot bodies were just empty husks - I'm not a monster. Odds are that they would be smashed, and letting they run for it would just antagonize these idiots at the wrong time.

"Get in."

With a deep breath, I did my best resigned walk into the vault. A quick look around confirmed my suspicion. Looking back out at the Zygroten and the cop, I tilted my head to one side as I thought about how to say this. "So, when you said vault, you really did mean you were going to lead me straight to where you keep important or valuable items. Amazing." With a stiff kick from my augmented move boots, I slammed the heavy door closed. Then fired up my gauntlets to secure the locks mechanically from the inside.

This seemed to be holding their attention pretty well, based on the muffled swearing and the pair of blaster impacts I could hear through the door. Funny. I locked the front door of the restaurant remotely. The probe that found a back door hadn't gained that kind of access, so I had it just weld it closed instead. The garage door was trickier - too secure for the probe to tamper directly, and too big to brute force.

From the outside anyway. I had the probe that flew out of the kitchen settle down by the thinnest section of the door, send a backup of its AI, then do their part trick. It overloaded it's microfusion source but refracted it to create a small plasma bomb. A neat hold appeared in the door, through which the earlier probe could zip in and beeline for the door's drive motor. Which turned out to be relatively easy to tamper immobilized.

Apparently, the plasma bomb was close enough and loud enough to get the attention of the Zygroten, because he pelted into view of the probe robot. Briefly. He left its field of view shortly afterward.

Likewise, the police officer stormed through the dining area of the restaurant to head out the front door a short while later, and was somewhat unhappy to discover that it would not open for him.

All of which I was only passively taking note of, as I efficiently got about the business of opening the highly-secure crates, and assembling the battle robots inside.

It took about an hour.

But before I was done, I was hailed - finally - by the bumblefucks trapped in the restaurant.

First was the Zygroten. "We're not going to forget this, asshole. And after what you did last time, you're so dead!" I sent him back an ancient Human meme-clip of a Monty Python movie "I'm not dead yet." I don't think he thought it was funny.

Shortly afterward, the police officer pinged me. "I've traced your records, and know everything about you now. You had best just step out now, before this becomes a bigger problem, so that I can go easy on you." I really wanted to goad him, but I'm honestly not great at doing so in a way that would help at all. So I just stayed quiet. Then he followed up with, "I see you have a ship registered to park at the commercial port. That's in lockdown now, and will remain so until we're done with you."

I knew it was unnecessary, but I did ping my ship to check in. It laughed at me. Not exactly reassuring, because that might have been its "I've killed a bunch of people" laugh. Which is a whole different set of problems. I decided not to worry about that yet.

Like I said - it took about an hour. The first ones I actually configured as combat technicians, because we're just handy like that. Stages of Defender and Technician are the easiest ones for me to install for obvious reasons, but mostly so that they could help me build the others faster in their default shock trooper settings. Plus upgrade their shields, like you do. No guns, but even though I knew where some were it would be easier to do the rest of this if we didn't trip weapon sensors everywhere.

So it was that I cracked open the vault and stepped out flanked by 16 vaguely humanoid combat robots. They weren't hulking by any stretch of the imagination, but they had robust menace about them.

The Zygroten and the police officer, whose names I refused to look up, had cover by the hallway facing the garage.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

As as little inflection as I could manage, I replied, "Talking to you two, briefly, to avoid too much bloodshed."

"You're unarmed. Stand down, deactivate those robots, and you won't get hurt."

I pivoted to address the cop. "You don't have enough firepower to down even one of these fellows before they bludgeoned you to death. Lower your guns, so you don't accidentally trigger their self-defense protocols." After a moments hesitation, I added, "I checked pretty carefully - they don't have non-lethal settings as default."

That caused the blasters to be pointed in a somewhat more circumspect manner.

"Cool. We're leaving. I suggest you stay out of the way." I indicate for the full-goons to lead, and with the techs in the middle. I keep a pair of goons at the rear with me.

"Do you really think you can just fucking walk out with these combat units?"

"I think so, yeah."

"Some scary people own these things, and aren't just going to let you take them, asshole."

I made a frown, and rejected a bunch of true things to say before settling on, "What is scary to you might not be particularly scary to others."

The front door opened for us before we got to it, and we formed up outside. With a glance inward, I told the Zygroten and the police officer, "Stay put for a while." Then I locked the front door again.

It was tempting to PWN the police hopper and use it as transportation to the port, for the sheer ballsiness of it. But it would have looked stupid, with at least half of us having to be gripped to the outside. So I went with the original plan - walking to the downtown train station.