A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 06



“So why are you turning my shop into a mess this time?” Stephanie’s dad inquired politely, leaning against his basement workshop’s doorframe with a cup of coffee in one hand. His tone was one of weary resignation, but a laugh lurked in its depths, and Stephanie looked over her shoulder at him with a smile.


“I’ve been thinking about what Mom said about the celery thieves,” she replied.


She opened one of his neatly labeled drawers and found the circuit chip she wanted. She also checked to make sure there was still at least one more t-chip in the drawer — one of the conditions for her free use of her father’s tools and supplies was that she help keep track of inventory and tell him when it was time to reorder items — then turned back to the chassis of the device she was building.


“And that thinking led you to a conclusion which explains all this?” her father asked, raising an eyebrow and waving his coffee cup at the contraptions taking shape on the workbench.


“Well,” Stephanie paused and turned around to face him fully, “in a way. It all seemed pretty silly right at first, of course. I mean, celery?” She rolled her eyes, and Richard snorted a laugh. Celery wasn’t very high on Stephanie’s list of edible foods. She’d eat it under parental duress (and if there was nothing better around) but that was about it. “Besides, according to all the reports, only a head or two at a time was taking missing, and who’d go to all that bother to steal that teeny an amount, right?”


“I can see where those thoughts might have occurred to you,” he conceded.


It had been almost a full T-year since a mounting number of settlers had reported vanishing crops, but in the beginning, most people had been inclined to think it was some kind of hoax, especially since the only plant that was ever stolen was celery. And since, as Stephanie said, so few heads of celery were going missing each time the “thieves” struck.


“The first thing I thought when Mom told me about it was that some zork-brain was probably stealing the stuff and hiding it somewhere — or just getting rid of it, for that matter — as some kind of joke,” Stephanie continued. “It wouldn’t be any dumber than some of the other stuff I’ve seen kids in Twin Forks pull. In fact, it’d be less dumb than a lot of it!”


“You know,” her father said after a moment, “not all the kids in Twin Forks are idiots, Steph.”


“I didn’t say they were,” Stephanie replied. There might have been just a hint of insincerity in her response. “They sure act that way sometimes, though, don’t they?”


“Not all of them,” he said. “Still, I’ll grant you that some of them do. Like that young hoodlum Chang.”


“Stan Chang?” Stephanie cocked her head, surprised at the noted genuine anger in her father’s tone. It was unusual for her mild-mannered parent, and so was the curtness of his nod. “What did he do this time?” she asked a bit cautiously.


“He says he only meant it as a ‘joke,’ and that’s his father’s view of it, too,” her father said. “It wasn’t very funny for Ms. Steinman’s Rottweiler, though. He set up a booby trap that was ‘only’ supposed to dump a five liter bucket of cold water on whoever walked into it. I guess we’re all lucky it was Brutus and not another kid.”


“How bad was it?” This time Stephanie’s tone was resigned, not cautious.


“Let’s just say he’s not a very good carpenter, and the entire contraption collapsed when Brutus walked into it.” Her father shook his head, his expression more resigned and sad than angry this time. “The whole thing came down on him. It crushed his entire right foreleg and he was trapped for over forty-five minutes before we could get him out. I spent better than two hours putting it back together again, and I’m not sure he’s ever going to recover fully.”


Stephanie nodded slowly. Her father cared — a lot — about his patients. Like he’d often said, they didn’t have voices, so they couldn’t explain what was wrong. And people couldn’t explain it to them, either. No wonder she’d heard so much anger in his voice.


“I’ll bet he wasn’t real sorry about it, either, was he?” she said after a moment, and her father laughed harshly.


“Not so you’d notice,” he agreed. “After all, Brutus is only an animal, right? And like Stan said, it’s not like he got killed, is it?”


The two of them looked at one another for a moment, and Stephanie felt a warm surge of affection. It was so typical of her dad to take the dog’s side, and she wondered just how her father’s conversation with Stan’s father might have gone. Under the circumstances, she was pretty darned sure there’d been one, at any rate!


Wish I could have been a fly on that wall, she thought with a mental smile. I bet the sparks were just crackling off Dad’s hair!


“Well, I guess Stan’s just proved they can do things dumber than stealing celery,” she said out loud, winning an unwilling smile from her father. “But I did think at first that it was probably somebody stealing it because they thought it’d be funny to watch people run around in circles trying to figure out what was going on. Only then I did a search for every report about missing celery and plotted all of them on a map, and they’re spread so wide every kid on the planet would have to be in on it!”


“You know,” her father said, “when your mom mentioned this to me, it never even occurred to me to think about mapping them to see how widespread it actually was.” He gave her a smile. “Of course, given my general all-around brilliance no doubt it would have occurred to me if I’d given the matter any serious thought.”


“Yeah, sure,” Stephanie said, rolling her eyes.


“It was a good notion, though,” he said more seriously. “That puzzle-solver side of you coming to the surface again, I see.”


“I guess,” Stephanie agreed. “And you’re not the only one who hasn’t given it any ‘serious thought,’ either. It doesn’t look like most people have noticed it at all. In fact, I wouldn’t have if the farmers who’ve been losing the stuff weren’t part of Mom’s genegineering program.”


Her lip curled, and her father tried to stifle his sigh.


Her father nodded thoughtfully.


Celery was one of the terrestrial plants which hadn’t adapted well to the local planetary environment, and Stephanie’s mom had taken over the project trying to do something about that. She’d had to restart it almost from zero, unfortunately, because the geneticist who’d originally started it had been one of victims of the Plague’s final resurgence. In the end, she’d come up with an entirely new approach that was in the field test stage now, and the farmers’ reports she was reading to assess its effectiveness were where she’d first heard about the mysterious thefts. None of the thefts had been very big, and they had been scattered pretty widely.


“They do cluster, though,” Stephanie said, turning back to one of the contraptions on the workbench. “It’s like there are maybe four or five areas where the celery’s getting pinched, but there’s an awful lot of separation between those areas. And I’m not sure it really started as recently as people seem to think it did, either.”


“No?” Richard raised his eyebrows.


“People have had a lot on their minds, Daddy. First they were dealing with the Plague and just trying to stay alive, and since then everybody’s been crazy busy trying to put everything back together again. I wouldn’t be too surprised if a whole bunch of little, tiny ‘celery raids’ didn’t just go completely unnoticed in the middle of all that, especially if whoever it is was just snatching them out of the field. I think the only reason anyone’s noticed even now is that the stuff’s been disappearing out of greenhouses during the winter months. Who knows how much of it might’ve gotten snatched out of outdoor gardens during the summer without anyone even noticing?”


“Point,” he acknowledged.


“The thing is, though,” she went on, “that however recently it started, it’s not happening in just one place and nobody’s been able to catch whoever’s doing it.”


“How hard have they tried?” he asked.


“Wellll . . .”


Stephanie looked up, forehead creased with thought as she considered the best way to answer her father’s question. To her way of thinking, there was a difference between “how hard” and “how effectively” (or “how intelligently,” for that matter). That wasn’t exactly what he’d asked, though, and she shrugged.


“I think at first most people figured it was kids,” she said, “and it’s not like the amount of celery that’s being taken is really hurting anyone that much. I mean, it’s only celery, and it’s not like there’s a big market for stolen celery, right? So the truth is, no one put a whole lot of effort into it at first. Like I said, they’ve had other things to worry about.