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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

FICTION at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Alphabet Soup: Chapter Seven

Perched precariously on yet another laboratory stool among the overtly unorganized but growing contents of the room she worked in when she was at Benny's house, Arion stared out the window, pondering her next steps. Unhelpfully, the ancient pine outside waved gently in time with the breeze, ever so gently, until watching it nearly sent Arion to sleep and she had to catch herself before she felt to the floor. "Dammit." she muttered, rubbing at her eyes. She would not doze off in the middle of the day, which would give Benny weeks of teasing fodder even if technically Benny was the cause of her being tired in the middle of the day. Rubbing her eyes again, Arion made up her mind and turned back to her desk and her typewriter.

Arion's typewriter was an original laptop, a small unit of just over five pounds weight, with what she referred to as a smooth key action and pleasing clatter, accompanied by a turquoise case with removable lid. The lid had a clever sleeve on its inner side that a person could keep spare sheets of carbon paper and similar gear in. Furthermore, this was no electric unit but a purely manual machine, equipped with a redesigned ribbon feed that handled an invention that Arion counted as her personal favourite, the Möbius Strip typewriter ribbon. Said ribbon being in red and a deep turquoise. Cracking her knuckles, Arion loaded in a sheet of paper and began typing furiously, utterly oblivious to the world outside and how sleepy she had been. On one hand, the agreement she was typing did not number among her favourite solutions to the problem she was working on. On the other, nothing else was likely to work.

On the roof of the house, Jed looked up bemusedly as the clatter of Arion's typewriter managed to make it to her ears as she paused to wipe her brow and consider how many more struts she needed to nail in place to finish the permanent roof repairs. She had hoped that maybe Benny would begin to notice when she needed to pitch in on these things, but with the rains coming she didn't dare wait any longer. Roof rot meant danger to structural elements in a bigger way, and Jed couldn't wait for that to happen. She had a hard enough time keeping up with the repairs the house needed these days, between getting the Nation ready for the war that would be officially declared any day now and rounding up the rest of her uprooted family on the Outside to get them home. "Well, these things won't sort themselves out." she muttered, and returned to work.

By the time she had finished closing the roof again and pinning down the cladding the roof tiles would slip into, Jed was tired, sunburned, and rather annoyed. Sitting down wearily on the nearest chimney angle, she looked across the roof, noting the irregular line where the gently shifting parts of the house came together. She sighed a little. Technically, Benny didn't have to maintain her half of Omega's Folly as part of the current whole. She could decide to have the houses separated again. After all, nothing said anywhere that the houses had to stay joined, if the omicrons were not partnered to each other. And the present omicrons were not partnered to each other. Nor were there any prospects that such a partnership would happen again, practically speaking.

"Here you are!" Evrope gamely climbed out the nearest window, which was in one of the bathrooms on Jed's side of the house. Picking her way carefully over the fresh tiled surface, she peered at her adopted daughter, who looked very unhappy. And dreadfully sunburned across her cheekbones and the tops of her ears. "Darling, have you been working on this all day by yourself?"

"What? Oh yes, I had the day off and no one else did. So, there it is. Shouldn't take all day to get the rest of the roof tiles on tomorrow."

"I see." Evrope had brought a bag with her on her way through the bathroom window. Sitting down beside Jed, she pulled out a large bottle of cold water and two glasses. Serving Jed and herself with the beverage, and then producing a container of meat-stuffed grape leaves, they spent some companionable time in silence, eating and drinking as the Sun began to set. "What will she do when you and Chris have to go upland?"

"Oh, Mama, I just don't know. It has been more than a year now, and Benny seems unable to see much beyond the need of the moment. There's no way to leave the place in her charge."

"Hmmm." Evrope pulled yet another bottle out of her bag, this time a flask of slivovitz. "Your cousin Vlad says hello." Satisfied when Jed had taken a big enough swallow to make herself temporarily unable to talk – the slivovitz being both very strong and very good – Evrope closed the bag on the empty water bottle and container, then leaned back, crossing her feet at the ankles. "Perhaps it is time to call the older one back."

Jed frowned. "The older one needed to get away."

"Not forever. Everyone has a moment when they mistrust their memory and need to go back for a time."

"Hmmmph." grumbled Jed.

"Ah, you are angry with her." Evrope nodded briskly. She had suspected as much. It was not like Jed and Chris to be so excruciatingly close lipped about a person they had shared the house with, unless that person had stepped into trouble with them.

"It is for her to manage her clan, not us." Jed forced herself to take a deep breath. "Insofar as there is a clan there still."

"Surely there is one?"

"There are only the two of them." Jed ran her gaze over the expanse of the roof. "Perhaps what we should do instead, is help them move to town. The Erzevadi would appreciate the chance to live together as is our way, instead of scattered across the east side of the city."

Evrope winced. Only two of them. With only two women left, no clan was viable. Their name would not be lost, it would go into the ranks of names kept sleeping until another family grew large enough to carry the name again, so the clan wouldn't be lost forever. But a two woman clan was not viable as such. There needed to be at least seven. "Then you would move their house?"

Jed chewed her lip. "Yes. I think we would have this house," she motioned to Benny's half. "Moved to town. Then we would rebuild the raw side of this house properly, and finally finish the other house we meant to complete long ago across the ravine and join them together." The two women turned to look across the ravine in question, just wide enough to be too far to jump on a regular basis, the covered foundation of another house clearly visible on the ground, joined at gentle angles to the linking framework on the mountainside.

"You think they would both be better off in town?"

"Yes, I think the isolation here troubles them. It would be different if they were part of a clan. I have been watching Benny's stress level creep upward as more Adamses arrive, and the shifting zone causes more strangeness." Jadis, Antiope, and Ygrainne Adams had arrived with more refugee family members in tow, and suddenly the Adams half of the house was full of people, full enough that the crew of guest Amazons had shifted to another small house closer to town. They had not expected to stay at Omega's Folly more than a few months though, so this had moved up their move date rather than displacing them.

"Well," Evrope drawled, sitting up straight again. "I think that you should call the older one home. And then you should tell those two that if they want to stay at Omega's Folly, they must be adopted into one of the Adams subclans or be on their way. It seems to me that they are still too disconnected from our kind, and so they cannot properly feel their obligations." Having said her piece, she dropped a fond kiss on Jed's cheek, and then picked up her bag. "Put your tools away and come inside Jed, and let us care for your sunburn before Chris gets home."

******

Benny grimaced unhappily, and took a step back, planting her hands on her hips. The library on her side of Omega's Folly consisted of a very different collection of books than its counterpart next door. Besides the riot of publications pertaining to Ges' research and complicated archaeological and historical interests, there were volumes and volumes on various aspects of nineteenth century ex-patriot english culture in multiple countries. She was fighting the urge to stack those up in the hallway and ask for help carting the damnable things away. If that had been her interest as a historian or if she wrote detective fiction maybe those books wouldn't be taking up space Benny resented, considering she had her own stuff to shelve that had just arrived at long last from north america. Throwing up her hands and caution to the wind, Benny stepped forward and began emptying the nineteenth century ex-patriot english stuff, swiftly exchanging its place from the shelves to the carts the cases of her own books had arrived in. She refused to surrender the cases, as she had better plans for those.

To be sure, Benny had only so many books to evict earlier tomes for, so a few shelves of nineteenth century english stuff still remained after this step, but she felt much better about the whole thing now that she had a start on removing them. An awkwardly placed vertical shelf near the floor looked like she would be able to open it now – Benny was enough of a library snob to refuse to call it a drawer – so she did, at last revealing a copy of the plans for Omega's Folly. A fine layer of dust revealed that it had been awhile, but actually not as long as might be expected since the bound set of B2 sheets had seen the light of day. Benny reached down and pulled the softbound book out, pausing to admire the hand made tabs and catch the outer right hand edge for fear of various slips and sheets of paper falling out. Besides the book, still other, smaller booklets and several hard covers remained, plus a magnifying glass and a set of measuring instruments. A sticky note declared in block letters, "FREEZER."

"There is always one more weird thing here." Benny sighed, finally feeling a bit beyond her personal weirdness tether. "I would be much obliged if something more like where I used to live would happen here for a day or two. How about weekends off for normal, huh?" Slapping the plan book down on the table, Benny took a deep breath and tried very hard not to burst into tears. "Okay, not going to have a melt down over this, it's just same old same old here, right?" Angrily scrubbing a sleeve across her eyes, she had just put her glasses back on and was about to have a closer look at the plan book when an unfamiliar throat clearing sound came from the library door.

Myrrhine watched Benny sympathetically from the doorway. No matter how badly a woman wanted to pull up stakes and head for the Amazon Nation, compared to wherever she came from, the Nation was strange. Culture shock caught up to everyone sooner or later, and Benny had probably been dodging and weaving hers for too long as it was. Stuffing her hands in her pockets and stepping into the library, Myrrhine looked around curiously, presenting such a Jed-like demeanour that if it hadn't been for her hair and her clothes Benny would have had every right to be very confused. "Rough day, huh?"

"Rough week. Rough month. Rough life." Benny sighed in melodramatic disgust, dropping her head down on her arms where she had crossed them on the plan book.

"Quite a few of us share that feeling." Myrrhine agreed, wincing when Benny looked up, revealing that she had lost the battle against tears and had a smear of dust on the tip of her chin. "This isn't the Outside, Benny."

"I am well aware of that." Benny snapped.

"I don't think you do." Myrrhine objected. "That's not entirely your fault, ordinarily everyone who comes here has a mentor, and that mentor is usually a member of their own clan."

"So where am I supposed to apply for a replacement?" Benny asked wearily, digging a handkerchief out of her pocket. "Unless there is a protocol for raising the dead, of course."

"You think your cousin is dead? Are you sure?" Myrrhine leaned back in her seat. "The last thing I'll be doing in the immediate future is going back to work. Its hard enough to figure this place out without managing a new job on top of everything else."

"I adore the direct way you Adamses answer questions." Benny growled sourly.

Myrrhine gazed at her thoughtfully for so long before saying anything else that Benny began to wonder if maybe she had finally been too rude to bear with. "Well, all right. I can fill in a little for the time being. Jed has her hands far too full right now to cope with this on top of everything else, and it never hurts to practice on someone who isn't playing as many angles as my girl Agape." Pushing a hand through her hair, Myrrhine considered where to start. "Here is the first lesson, and I think it is the most important one. Perhaps you might make a note." Then she leaned back again, making it very clear from her body language that she wasn't saying anything else whatsoever until Benny made the indirectly demanded note.

"Okay, okay." Benny pulled a pencil out of her shirt pocket and pulled over her current working notebook, or "CWN" as Arion irrepressibly insisted on calling it. She turned to a clear page and for good measure wrote "Lesson One" at the top, in greek. That made Myrrhine smile.

"Direct questions and direct orders except in extremely narrow circumstances are not okay among Amazons, especially between adults or people of similar age and old enough to know better. It's too close to speaking to someone as if they were a child or a pet." Considering how much detail to add, Myrrhine dug in her own pockets until she found a packet of cough drops. "Liquorice and menthol flavour." she held the packet out.

"Oh, thanks." Benny accepted one of the cough drops and popped it in her mouth, glad for the relief to her sinuses and throat. "No direct questions or orders." She stopped short and looked at the packet again, which was busy vanishing as Myrrhine stuck it back in her pocket.

"Yes, exactly." Myrrhine beamed this time. "Once you are used to it, it isn't difficult at all to unpack what people are saying and when they are asking you for or about things. You are already an expert in evasive answers, so no need to spend time on that." Benny's fierce blush didn't phase her and she continued. "After about six months or so, Amazons will start having a hard time understanding where your survival skills from outside went, that you have to keep asking them things directly, if you do. It's not all sweetness and light here, you still need them."

Well, Benny reflected ruefully. That was true enough. She hadn't been here a month when she had ended up helping Arion deal with a very unhappy ex-girlfriend. On one hand she didn't have to worry about being jumped or something. But on the other, she did need to keep her wits about her. Jed and Chris were generous and patient, yet they certainly couldn't magic her life into some other shape for her. She'd have to do that on her own. Folding over her handkerchief, Benny carefully wiped off the front cover of the plan book.

"That's more than enough to get started with, I think." Myrrhine bounced up and dusted her hands on her jeans. "Next week after the boys and I are back from checking in with the dislocation office, we could have tea." And with that, she was gone and Benny could just hear her footfalls as she briskly strode down the hall in her soft soled indoor shoes.

"Okay, I get it. Be ready for lesson two next week, have tea ready." Benny chuckled softly, and then sighed. She felt like she had been hit by a truck. Not enough water or lunch probably wasn't helping, so she got up and wended her way to her kitchen.

The kitchen, now sporting a brand new tiled floor, redone walls, and stone counters "so they wouldn't bubble up at the edges and become disgusting" Benny had decided when splurging on them, it definitely presented a more pleasant appearance and more effective workspace than before. Not that Benny worried about this much when busy making and devouring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That was a bit of normal she could count on at least, she decided as she plugged in the kettle for tea. Leaning back against the counter while the kettle began hissing and rattling, Benny's gaze fell on the refrigerator, with the small freezer on top. "That isn't the only freezer here though." Benny blurted out loud, pouring the water before heading a couple of doors down the hall and then down a few steps.

The little room she entered could as easily be labelled a cellar. Cut into the rockface, it kept a temperature between five and ten degrees year round, and included a huge freezer that opened from the top. The freezer's original motor and compressor were long gone, and its purpose now was mostly to fend off any nibbling creatures who might want to eat its contents. That said, as Benny considered it more closely, she saw that further modifications meant that she could pack a layer of real ice in the inner wall of the freezer and then seal that in. The ice would keep for months, and two valves at one end showed where Benny could drain off meltwater before replenishing it. For the moment however, there was no ice to speak of, nor any water. And that was odd. Benny thought back to the note back in her library. "FREEZER." So she opened it.

Sitting precisely in the middle of the otherwise empty freezer compartment was a large book sealed in a giant plastic bag. Covered in red leather over boards, it looked old at first glance, at second like something made to suggest age. Picking it up and giving it a bit of a shake, Benny couldn't see any reason for the book to be sealed up, except for yet another sticky note on the underside that read, "By the time the ice is all drained off, that should be long enough." Well, that was pretty weird, but it was back in Benny's personal weirdness range, so she closed the freezer and tucked the book awkwardly under one arm. Stopping back at the kitchen to pick up her tea, she headed for her outdoor work bench. She had worked as a museum conservator long enough to know better than to just open a sealed possibly buggy thing indoors.

******

Making her way to the gazebo, now gaily repainted in red, blue, and green, much to Benny's surprise, she paused to unfold a small table she kept around to add to the workspace inside it. She paused after setting the book down on the table, and put her hands on her hips. When had the gazebo been repainted, and who did it? Was it on some kind of schedule? Maybe it had something to do with the springy section of flooring that also had some plants poking through it. That could be it. Now Benny began looking around a bit more, trying to fathom which side of the house the gazebo fell on. Well, now she was looking, Benny could see it stood unambiguously on her side. The grass and bushes were more groomed on that side, so much so she could now see a line between her half and Jed and Chris'. But that still didn't answer the question of who repainted the gazebo. So she peeked inside. And felt her heart drop in her shoes.

The gazebo had a brand new floor, freshly polished windows, and a brand new paint job inside too. A note in Jed's scrawled handwriting lay precisely in the middle of the main work surface, held down by a couple of rocks. Approaching the paper hesitantly, Benny steeled herself. Jed was never mean, and had quite remarkable founts of patience. But the fact of her discussion with Myrhinne, and that Jed had very little time for her questions and rarely indulged in teasing or jokes with her these days suggested that matters had gotten more than slightly out of whack. The note said very little, and was all business. This made Benny feel rather worse.

Hi Benny – Floor repaired, paint job inside and out redone, Ges left me a request to finish this up for her as she couldn't do it. You may want to do a walk through of your side of the house to tote up what materials you need to order. Last chance right now, we can't expect easy access to construction materials or shipping much longer. – Jed

Indirect message firmly received. Benny winced, realizing at last why Jed and Chris had begun showing up constantly with tools in their pockets and paint or plaster in their hair, as they hurried to not only get people settled but also to finish the most necessary repairs. "I suppose a great start would be tracking down wherever Ges kept her tool box or similar." Digging in her pants pocket, Benny extracted a receipt from something she had picked up the other day and began making a new "to-do" list on it. Finished for the moment, she tucked it in her shirt pocket and went back to the book in its bag. Pulling open the zip closure, Benny pulled out the book and began inspecting it more closely.

No smells suggestive of chemical sprays, which was cautiously encouraging. Then she tipped it onto each edge and thumped it on the table, watching for anything that might drop out. This was technically not good curatorial practice of course, but the book couldn't be that old. Not even slips of paper fell out, just a little garden variety dust. No suspicious poppy seed-like things or insect castings of any kind. Benny sighed in relief. Things were looking up when she didn't have to follow up examining a sealed object with stripping her outer clothes and relegating them to an unhappy date with the outdoors hot dryer in its weatherproof shed. As Chris had gravely reminded her one day while dousing a trunk with diatomaceous earth preparatory to filling it for shipping, they technically lived in a part of the world where a person who didn't take due precautions soon ended up with many itchy regrets.

Carrying the book with her into the gazebo now, after folding up the bag and the table, Benny set it down. The surprises weren't done yet, because she had expected the book to open on the left, as most did in this part of the world, with local scripts running right to left. Instead, it opened on the right, and a cursory glance revealed left to right text except for specific sections. The pages were crammed with text, pasted in articles, photos, and other things. Now Benny could see she would need to add closures to help keep everything in place as she carefully rearranged items disordered by her initial thumping of the book. "Maybe this was all supposed to be drying or degassing? But then, why out it in a giant plastic bag?" Benny wondered allowed. Flipping back and forth to check for odd-sized items and make sure they were back in place, she found an envelope tipped in between the last two signatures, an unusual home made one with a window made out of wax paper and sewn in. Through the window she could see a selection of items apparently meant to add to the book, or so she supposed, and a small sheaf of ragged odds and ends of half-used paper. These Benny recognized immediately as a pile of her cousin's reused used paper, with multiple test print outs in various directions on them, and snatches of note taking in various inks. But why keep these?

The packet had a string closure wound around a circular fixing, and Benny suspected Ges had culled it from a former interoffice mail envelope. Pausing to take a breath, hitch up her pants and resettle herself on the trestle chair, Benny unwound the string and opened the flap. Then she pulled out the papers, feeling oddly unsettled. Ges liked to draft things within an inch of their lives on pieces of paper like this. Most likely Ges' last note would be here in several iterations, and maybe a few other things related to her last errands. That was the sort of thing Benny was ready for. She was emphatically not ready to see multiple iterations, with polishes, edits, and changes of an entirely different note. "G[rave] Digger A[mbulance] Chaser L[ies] Hide – too obvious, Hyde." One familiar scrawl read. "Too obvious, more annoying. Reminder, annoying anyway, shouldn't make it worse." Another sheet with more room. "Late is a good word, still true. Not the other one." A section of longer drafting, then in another colour with lots of underlining, "No, no, no – too professional sounding."

Then, finally, untidily but in finalized form:

Dear Ms. Basilas,

The firm Digger, Chaser, and Hyde is pleased to send you the requisite papers and objects delineated as your inheritance from your late cousin, Ges Basilas. All matters are in order, although she allowed us to do very little, and you have sole ownership of all properties, monies, and businesses listed. We understand that at this time you do not have legal counsel. Please feel free to contact us at any time.

Yours truly,
Messrs. G. Digger, A. Chaser, and L. T. Hyde

For ten long minutes, Benny sat absolutely still, mind whirling. She took a deep breath. She took another one. The shock was wearing off very fast. She was getting very, very, very angry.

"What in the everloving FUCK is Ges playing at?!" Benny bellowed furiously. "If she doesn't turn up two shades sooner than yesterday I'll make her late in the other true sense all right!" Picking up the book, she stormed back to the house, angrier and angrier. She knew exactly how to contact her errant cousin, and exactly what she was going to say, and furthermore exactly how long she would give Ges to haul her ass back here. Not many people had encountered Benny's formidable temper, and of course, most adults in positions of authority wouldn't have gotten a dose of it while Benny was still a minor. That included Ges, who otherwise might have planned things a bit better.

******

"Hello all," Arion called nervously from her position bobbing nervously at the library door. Chris and Jed were having tea quietly in one corner, giving off the vibe that Arion knew meant one or both of them was too tired for drama just now. They looked over at her, and Arion winced at the cream marking out Jed's sunburn and the singed edges on Chris' left sleeve. "I am reluctant to butt in with queries."

"It's all right Arion, what's the matter?" Chris asked, and while Jed began pulling over another chair and a plate and cup for Arion, heaped up her distracted partner's plate with more food.

"Oh, I wasn't angling for an invite, I really have a question – a quick one!" Arion protested as she hesitantly walked over to sit down.

"Don't worry about it Arion. What is it?" In an unusual sign of how tired she was, Jed spoke in a noticeably Greek-accented drawl.

"Well, then." Arion coughed a little and fussed with her tea, trying to order her thoughts. She had long suspected certain things, especially after reading the peculiar pseudo-lawyers' note Benny had pulled out of her gear one day to show her. The note read more like a mockery of legalese than anything else, and it wasn't even printed on office stationery. "I was wondering if you knew perhaps where the infamous Ges Basilas is, and therefore how fast she needs to run?"

"Ah." The precise, clipped syllable was as close to laughing as Jed permitted herself to get for the subject of Benny and her cousin. She took another sip of tea, and then said to Chris, "Darling I love you and appreciate your determination to feed me, but at this rate I won't have room for dinner all the same."

"All right." Chris replied peaceably, in the tone Arion knew good and damned well meant Chris had refilled her partner's plate twice before she noticed and therefore would have room and to spare for dinner.

"She is not close, technically."

Arion watched Jed rearranging items into neat piles so that she could eat them without dropping crumbs everywhere from the spinach pie. "Not close, technically. So she's far away, but Avi could call her back via an exit." She paused to take a bite of her helping of cheese pie, watching Jed nod, watching Chris' eyebrows pop upwards, then nearly choked. "Wait, you just nodded as if you know. That is not congruent with your usual response to Avi-related things along the lines of we have to ask her."

"I what?" Jed asked mildly. Arion took a breath to repeat what she had just said, then stopped. Chris was surprised, but she wasn't reinforcing the question. That meant Chris wasn't surprised by what Jed knew, but by Jed slipping up and revealing she knew. This meant first that Jed was exhausted. Second – Arion mentally grabbed herself by the scruff of the neck. Second, right now, was none of her business. None at all. That had too many implications when combined with the ghost omicron thing.

"You were noting that Benny would have to talk to Avi about that?" Arion revised, watching Chris' body language out of the corner of her eye. The other woman visibly relaxed. Phew.

"Yes," Jed agreed, producing one of her rare full face smiles. "Why do you ask?"

"Have you ever seen Benny completely furious?"

"No, she is generally quite even-tempered." Chris commented.

"Not right now she isn't!" Arion declared with feeling. "I had no idea her swearing vocabulary was so multilingual."

"That's all right then." Jed had already cleared her plate and was refilling her tea cup. "Better she finally follows up on the business." The sound of the front door of Benny's half of the house banging open and then shut, followed by revving the engine of the military jeep provided on loan from the Amazon Guard. They weren't in a hurry to take it back even though her rotation on guard duty was done for the year. "Perhaps Benny is heading off to talk to Avi now."

"More likely she's going to haul Ges back here by the scruff of her neck." Arion muttered.

"Arguably the same difference." Chris added. She deftly cleared the remainder of the dishes from the table and laid out the small version of the board for Jed's favourite game. With this many squares, the game would be done in time for dinner, and Jed would be distracted completely from doing any other work. "Agape is due to come and help me defend myself against your strategic prowess any moment now." Winking at her partner, Chris picked up the container of counters, and frowned in mild annoyance on finding them mixed together at random in the lid instead of sorted out in their compartments. She must have forgotten to sort them out, or maybe ignored it thinking she'd do it quickly later. Well, she decided, technically now was later, so it didn't count as procrastination.

"You are both so calm. How can that be?" Arion asked. She was genuinely astonished, and all too aware of the certain amount of tension brewing between Benny and Jed over the past couple of months.

"Why shouldn't we be calm?" Jed asked in her turn. "Now we don't have to be the ones to drag Ges home by the scruff of her neck, as you say." The game pieces were sorted, and Agape bobbed into the room, carrying a thick paperback book in one hand.

"We get to go first, remember Thea!" she admonished her aunt, who mock wagged a finger at her and intoned, "Manners, young lady!" Then they both giggled, and in spite of herself Arion had to relax. There wasn't anything she could do about the situation either, in the end, except hope for the best.

******

Benny forced herself to take her foot off the accelerator and count slowly out loud to ten. The key thing was not give Ges a chance to take off again and submarine even more completely. So even though she knew exactly how to contact her cousin, doing that off the cuff wouldn't work. Or rather, it would work, just not to get Ges to head straight back to Omega's Folly. Straight back home. Why she had gone back Outside Benny simply couldn't fathom. They had nothing left for them there right now. Maybe there could be something to go to after the war, which Benny sincerely doubted. And anyway, Ges had worked very hard to figure out how to contact the Amazons and then make her way to the Nation, even though at first she had taken great care to conceal that was where she had gone. She stopped the jeep. Then what was she going to do instead? Nonplussed, Benny tried to work out what to do. Her usual source on such matters was Jed, but she and Jed were not on the best of terms at the moment. Chris refused to answer this sort of question outright, oddly enough, and it hadn't occurred to her in time to ask Arion.

"Aaaarrrrgh!" she shouted, and let her forehead thump down on the steering wheel.

The sound of a rotary phone ringing began emanating from the glove compartment. Benny lifted her head and stared at it. Slowly, carefully, she lifted her hand and unlatched the compartment. She hesitated. The sound definitely came from there. It sounded so much like a rotary dial phone it was unnerving. The last time she had seen one of those, she had been seventeen years old and it was in a pile of junk, back in a museum store room in Canada. Her job that day was yanking out old items for scrap metal pick up, but that was not where that phone went. Slowly, Benny opened the glove compartment, revealing an old cell phone rattling against a pair of yes, gloves, and a couple of road maps. It continued playing the rotary dial phone ring, and now Benny wondered why it hadn't gone to voice mail.

"Hello," a vaguely familiar voice said.

"Hello?" Benny replied hesitantly.

"You've been very naughty, Doctor Basilas." Avi twirled a roll of packing tape around one finger, leaning back in her seat.

"I've been naughty? And excuse me, who the hell are you?" Temper flaring back up in a hurry, Benny got ready to find the button to hang up.

"We have not been as thoroughly introduced as we should have been yet," Avi conceded. "I am Kepler Avi Ionnidis, the third queen's partner. You have some need of my assistance, if you seriously want your cousin to stop hiding and come home."

"Oh. Oh great." Benny felt deflated, but that didn't mean she had to be gracious about it. "What am I supposed to do then?"

"Drive on up to my office, and we'll call your cousin back together. I do believe she may appreciate a way out of her present predicament."

"Why is she hiding anyway?" Benny sighed, and restarted the engine. AVi's title told her where the other woman's office was.

"She lost trust in her memory temporarily. It is not an uncommon response in an Amazon who knew someone Outside, and then gets ready to meet them again here." Avi sat up when one of the acolytes waved from the watch post. Avi was duly impressed by Benny's high speed driving skills.

"Should I bring down some refreshments, Kepler?" Matt asked formally. When Avi had a watch up to let her know how close somebody was to the building, big things were happening.

"Not quite yet. Probably after we have yanked our friend and she and her cousin have finished shouting at each other."

******

In one of the few arguably iconic scenes of the early twentieth century still possible to experience in the flesh in Canada, a tall woman sat awkwardly on an uncomfortable metal chair at an outdoor table with a giant umbrella over it on the patio of a coffee shop. The table was drunk, so she was trying to sip enough of her too-elaborate coffee concoction to keep it from spilling when she set it down. She couldn't find napkins or cardboard debris to shove under the table legs to stabilize it. Once she had drunk enough of the coffee, or the beverage purporting to be coffee – there was so much other stuff added she was not sure if more than half of it was coffee – she would be able to set it down and try reading the newspaper. A real newspaper, or at least one printed on paper that wasn't a tabloid and had relatively few ads. Of course, the number of things available to advertise was a lot lower than it used to be, now that the incentives in the economy were so different. By the time she finished reading the main stories, the person she was waiting for would arrive, and she could clear out the last item on the particular list of tasks in her pocket.

The person she was meeting was certain they could force her to add new items to the list, and they were wrong. They were also wrong about why she was there. But that was okay. That sort of wrongness wouldn't hurt anyone, and that was a welcome change from the usual consequences of ignorance in a place like this. The woman looked around, and carefully set down her beverage, then set about unfolding her newspaper. A seagull hopped by, checking for stray food and settling within dash distance of the door to the coffee shop. Somehow entire city flocks had taught each other about the goodies available to the clever and quick, if they could get through the door and snatch up a bag of potato chips or popcorn. The woman strongly suspected she wasn't the only one who rooted for the birds, and maybe helped out a little by getting inexplicably tangled up in just the right spot to accidentally hold the door open and miss seeing a seagull swoop in to grab the booty to share with their friends.

Paper and coffee arranged, the woman checked her watch, and then looked up and down the street. The only drawback to her position was that she couldn't find an angle that kept the restored St. Catherine's street tram line cars from blocking her view every ten to fifteen minutes. But it wasn't possible to have everything, she reflected, brushing automatically at her dark jeans and frowning briefly at a broad scuff mark on one boot. No, not everything in one person. That was why she had a helper watching for her and ready to signal if necessary. She went back to the newspaper, and her coffee-favoured drink. When the chirp came from her pager courtesy of her watching friend, she chirped them back and pretended to be oblivious to the bulky man wearing an ill-fitting suit who sidled up to the coffee shop. He spent the better part of fifteen minutes inside, probably struggling unsuccessfully to order a large black coffee, dark roast, preferably hot, no spoon.

Sure enough, when he finally escaped, red-faced and sweating in the mild spring air, he was holding a large and awkward mug with an inch and a half of foam and what looked like mint sprinkles on top. He hurried over to where the woman was sitting, and she warned him quickly, "Watch out, the table is drunk."

"What?" the man blurted in confusion, glancing at the table. Luckily, the glance showed him the unevenness of both the patio and the table legs. "Oh, I get it. Drunken table. Maybe I should just let this stuff spill, except I'm not sure there is much actual coffee in it. No help sobring it up." He smiled a little. The woman liked him a bit in spite of herself. He caught up fast, but only so far. "Anyway, we're not here to discuss badly levelled tables, are we Kingsley?"

"No, it isn't as if we work here." The woman shrugged her shoulders and tugged down the bottom of her red shirt. The man peered nervously at his drink.

"I asked for a straw, but the barista said it would be too hot to drink that way." He screwed up his courage and carefully lifted the mug to take a sip. His eyes crinkled. "Oh my god, I think my pancreas just ran away screaming." Pushing away the cup a little he motioned with his chin to the woman's. "What did they inflict on you?" The new style coffee shops had a great deal in common with hair salons. The baristas rarely stood for letting the customer choose their own drink.

"I made him make me what he was drinking, and did that ever piss him off. Still too sweet, but it may be around half coffee, only a table spoon of syrup and way too much cream."

"Good one! So you insist by saying..."

"Ooh, I'll have one of those wonderful drinks you're having, that looks amazing! Loud enough for the whole store to hear."

The man burst out laughing. "I'm not sure I could pull it off as well as you Kingsley, but will definitely give it a shot. After I track down my pancreas and persuade it to come home." His expression turned serious. "I'd rather banter with you than deal with business Kingsley, but you know how it is."

"I do." Kingsley conceded, before taking another sip of her drink. She might just be able to drink half of it, and that meant the guy really had made her something decent. "What is the exchange rate?"

"Look Kingsley, you're not in a position to bargain," the man snapped, suddenly annoyed. "You have some bad enemies around. Frankly, I'm surprised you had the guts to come so close to the old banking region." Whether she was unable or unwilling to take the danger seriously, Kingsley was going to get herelf killed. And before he could get the information out of her he wanted at this rate.

"I am well aware of the constraints on my position. In fact, on that subject my information is more complete than yours." Kingsley carefully folded up her newspaper again, deftly palming a slender plastic case across the table to the man. "Don't blame me if it doesn't work out the way you expect. I already warned you about the system set up."

Finally looking pleased and much less red-faced, the man flicked the case up into his sleeve and out of sight in a smooth gesture he covered with another effort to sip his drink. "Don't be ridiculous. I didn't accept that humiliating plea bargain to live in poverty for the rest of my life."

"Of course not. You ratted out Jay and Vera in order not to live in jail for the rest of your life." Contrary to what the average person might have expected, the man actually smiled.

"Don't give me that butter wouldn't melt in your mouth tone, Kingsley. You handed more dope over to the authorities than anyone."

"Certainly. And my dope happened to be more trustworthy because I wasn't trying to bargain my way out of a prison sentence. What a happy happenstance it verified the more important things you said." By now, Kingsley's pager was vibrating against her hip, and she knew what that meant. She eased her old service revolver loose in its holster. To the untutored eye, she was merely shrugging her shoulders, maybe trying to manage an awkwardly placed itch.

"Okay, okay, so I embroidered a bit. What do you care? It isn't as if there's any love lost between you." Now, now he just wanted to keep her in place awhile longer.

"I learned a long time ago not to try to gild the lily, Herman." Kingsley stood up. "There's no love lost between us either, but my recommendation is that you take to your heels as soon as you can, or you'll have wasted all the good stuff you intend to get out of that humiliation." Before Herman could say anything else, Kingsley dropped the newspaper over the camera-equipped parking meter and crossed the street in three swift steps, right in time for a tram to rush by behind her. By the time it was gone, she was long out of sight, and Herman sat rather stunned, caught between swearing with all his might and horrified to realize that if the police he was working with searched him and found the data disk, he was going straight back to jail with no chance of talking his way out of it. Gritting his teeth when he saw a plains clothes constable, he got to his feet, taking his cup in hand and making as if he was going back into the shop, maybe to pick up a biscotti or something.

Dropping off the cup on a random table, he made his hasty way through the shop and out the side door, red-faced and sweating again. The autonomous banking region constables were not allowed to carry weapons, serve notices, or arrest anyone outside of that region. Still, they did all those things anyway, following their motto to the letter. "All debts must be paid, with lifelong solitude if necessary." Herman had a few debts of his own to worry about, and his plan had been to pay them off with one great coup. Get Kingsley into their hands, and use the information she had given him to reload his personal bank accounts with plenty of ready electronic cash. Now was the time to do it, before the war turned official and hot. He relocated his car, and dove in, gunning the engine. He'd take care of the constables some other way.

Kingsley watched Herman catch up again, but only so far, standing calmly in line for a subway token still right across the street from the coffee shop. The bank constables would be busy trying to catch up with the tram, certain she had jumped on it. She was good at that sort of thing, which was why her aunt and uncle had forced her into working as a bagman. Token acquired, Kinglsey headed into the train station, mingling with the crowd and duly using it to verify she had paid the required fee. The turnstile clanked open, and she walked on, heading past the first set of public washrooms and on to the next, catching sympathetic glances from other seasoned riders. Stepping inside the third set of washrooms, Ges shrugged out of her achingly loud jacket and red t-shirt, leaving them for her helper to pick up where they had agreed. She took out the pager and briefly tipped it out of the potato chip bag in order to pull out the battery before adding it to the clothes. Then she pulled down the first aid kit and pulled her own black button down shirt and loose cardigan sweater out of it to put back on. Belatedly remembering she had a wig to take off, she added that to the pile of clothes too. Her helper would have bitterly missed it, then added the battery driven wrist watch. Hilariously, it was already badly wrong despite Ges carefully resetting it that morning. That always happened to the electric watches she wore. Finally, she washed her face, winced at the new stitches along the angle of her chin, and dug a squashed felt hat out of her baggy sweater pocket. It was time to go.

While Herman drove anxiously as fast as he could out of Québec and into the adjacent state, Ges took the train to Joliette station. Stepping outdoors again, she began strolling with the crowd towards a well-known hotel. Just as she thought, a bank constable was hanging around, watching the station intently. If she peeled off from the crowd too soon, that would probably be a mistake. She had access to a vehicle nearby, but she strongly suspected that Herman had unhelpfully fingered the car sharing service she liked to use, and nowadays even though it was easy it was pointless cracking a randomly chosen car unless she had time to disable the various location monitoring devices. Ges frowned slightly, and shifted her sidearm again. Overall she didn't have many options to work with, and she didn't want to spend any quality time with the bank constables. Her aunt and uncle had been very pointed about her ostensible debts. So she was astonished, but relieved, to recognize an Amazon far out of place, working in the pay kiosk of a multilevel parking lot. Ges crossed over to have a chat, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the receipt for her subway ticket. Those receipts had a similar overall look to parking lot chits.

"Downstairs three floors, inside row, five cars down," the Amazon said, pretending to look over the receipt and then taking it from her. "Go now, I have another exit." Gesturing her thanks, Ges headed straight for the stairs. As for the Amazon, she flipped a small sign around that read, "Away on rounds, use dispenser," and left by way of a different stairwell, heading up.

Plunging down them two at a time, Ges winced as the air promptly turned stale with hints of urine and cigarette smoke. These days lot owners only ran the air circulation for three hours in the morning and for an hour in the evening. Checking for other people doing sensible things like getting into or out of their cars and the like, Ges found the inside row and counted down the cars. She stopped short and counted again, then again, then verified that she had not managed to mistake the inside row for the outside row. But no amount of counting or checking did anything to change the fact that all there was at the place the Amazon had told her to go was an open segment between two pillars, about fifty centimetres high. Recent repair work surrounded it, leaving chunks of rebar uncovered and a scattering of concrete dust and coarse chunks jackhammered out in the course of the work. Not only did this work look unfinished. It did not look like the getaway car Ges had more than half expected.

Biting off an expletive, Ges crouched down and began passing her hands over the floor. Maybe she was supposed to be picking up a key fob or something. And then she felt it, or rather, smelt it.

A cool gust of air, clean, smelling lightly of mineral salts. It reminded her so strongly of the Viewing Room back home in the Nation that Ges was momentarily transfixed. How surreal she thought, to be so desperately homesick for a place she hadn't managed to live a full decade in yet. The lack of sense in hovering around was brought firmly back to the front of Ges' mind by voices echoing at the far end of the floor.

"You're sure? You saw somebody come through here, all dressed in black, cut on the chin? This way?"

A bolt of pure adrenalin made Ges' heart start to pound. But she could still smell it, the good air. She had no time to lose, nowhere else to go, no key fob or similar in evidence, and no wish to draw her service revolver if she didn't have to. So she did the best thing she could think of, and dove through the fifty centimetre gap.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Sunday, November 25, 2012 20:17:21 MDT