Penny wished she had some civilian clothes to change into, but by the time she had a moment to herself the shops in Carsontown had closed, so she had to spend the rest of the day in her fatigues.
From the outside Sheriff Rose’s house looked like a standard, pre-fabricated, 3-bedroom dwelling, the kind Penny saw on planets all across the periphery.
Penny rang the bell and heard a muffled call asking her to wait. When the door opened Sheriff Rose threw her arms open and called “Penny!” like they were old childhood friends.
Sheriff Rose wore a pair of hipster jeans and a wide-necked t-shirt that hung down and exposed one shoulder. Her hair was the relaxing kind of dishevelled mess that made her look playful.
Penny accepted the hug. “How you doin’ Sheriff?”
“Sister please.” Sheriff Rose dismissed the word with a wave. “I leave that at work with the badge. You call me Sharon in this house.”
Penny couldn’t help but smile. “Alrightie Sharon, lead the way.”
Sharon beckoned her inside and Penny followed. Sharon’s house smelt like a home-cooked meal, warm, hearty and with the faint hint of saffron and bay leaves.
Sharon lead Penny into the living room and then called out. “Jessy, company’s here. Why don’t y’all come on down and introduce yourself?”
Penny sat herself down on the couch, which dominated the living room.
After a while Penny noticed a small pair of brown fingers grip the doorway on the far side of the room. Followed shortly by a mess of puffy brown hair and little enough head to reveal a single eye.
The eye considered Penny for a few moments.
Sharon put her hands on her hips. “Come out now little missy. This is your house too and that means you have to say hello when we have guests over.”
The eye stayed on Penny. “Hello.” Said a little voice.
“Hello Jessy.” Penny said softly and gave her a little wave as she knelt down to Jessy’s eye level.
“Do you want to play hide and seek with me?”
The eye hesitated. “Yes.”
“Okay.” Penny smiled. “You go hide and I’ll count to twenty. You ca…”
The eye had already disappeared.
Penny straightened up again. “Now how am I going to find her if I barely know what she looks like?”
“It won’t be hard girl.” Sharon said “She always hides under her bed.”
Penny pretended to look around in Jessy’s room, wondering aloud if she was in the wardrobe, behind the door or in the toy box, before finally checking under bed and getting really excited to find Jessy. Jessy giggled as she scrambled out to her feet and told Penny she had to hide now.
A minute later they were all at the dinner table as Sharon’s robot maid carried in a big steaming pot of gumbo. Sharon hovered around the maid as it placed the pot in the middle of the table so she could lift the lid with a flourish and a tail of steam.
The smell filled the room immediately and Penny found she had to swallow before she’d even taken a bite. Sharon served everyone, taking their small bowls and ladling out the gumbo into each of them.
“Alright y’all, dig in.” Sharon grinned as she grabbed her spoon and got her first helping.
Penny brought a spoonful to her own lips and ate. “Mmmmmm.” Penny said. “I cannot tell you how long it’s been since I’ve had a meal that didn’t come with a retort pouch or out of a starport restaurant.”
“Hmmmm, mmm.” Sharon smiled. “The recipe’s been in my family for generations.”
Penny took another spoonful. “You must have been slaving over that pot all afternoon.”
“She didn’t make it.” Jessy giggled. “Agatha did.”
Penny looked around. “Who’s Agatha?”
“She calls the robot Agatha.” Sharon replied. She turned to Jessy. “Sweetie, I know I told you not to lie, but Mommy likes to have her little fun with guests when we eat. So next time, maybe wait until after everybody done swooning over the food before telling them Mommy can barely boil water without burning the place down.”
Jessy giggled. But made no such commitment.
“So where you from Penny? How’d you become a Ranger?”
Penny pushed her gumbo around with her spoon as she spoke. “My parents were from Io, they moved out to Bast shortly after I was born because of my father’s work and that’s where they’ve been to this day. My little brothers grew up and started working in robotics and ship mechanics, like my parents. But even as a little girl I could never see myself following in their footsteps.”
Penny hesitated for a moment, but pressed on with her story. “So when the uh… the war started and the call for volunteers went out, I signed up. I wanted to see more of the spiral arm than I was going to on Bast. After the war becoming a ranger felt like my only real choice. I’d spent my entire adult life in the military but I didn’t want to be stuck doing garrison duty, so here I am.”
“You’re awfully polite for a Fed.” Sharon said between mouthfuls. “If you don’t mind me saying that. Most government types we see out here are like the garrison troops: a bunch of pushy snobs who prefer to hide in their little enclaves. Like they’re worried they might catch something if they hand out with the locals.”
Want to read the whole thing now? Buy it here