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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 Eight

"Oops." Arion frowned, and reverted back to the earlier version of the code. The whole point was to add interesting things but not break the system or the specific program. A word processing program that didn't work consistently was not merely bad but diabolical. She sucked in her cheeks and after a few minutes found that her change had accidentally revealed a rather serious memory bug, one of the difficult to track down ones because it had to do with inappropriate character entities in a variable name. The sort of thing that made many of her colleagues want to throw things at each other. Still, she had tracked it down and could provide a pattern for addition to the code combing system. Arion was still making notes and writing up the bug report when Ges walked in, her hands full of boxes. Setting these down, Ges dug something small out of one of them, pulled over a broken cathode ray tube to perch on, and positioned herself in front of Arion's current workbench.

"Ges, you look like you have a question." Arion commented, still working at the finishing touches on her report.

"Yes. Maybe it is more like a request." Ges sounded thoughtful, and began rolling an object rapidly back and forth across the knuckles of one hand. Out of the corner of her eye, Arion could see it was a universal serial bus key embedded in a disk about the size of an old style english penny, or one of the dollar coins still so common in Canada. The disk stilled abruptly, and Ges settled back a bit more, crossing her ankles. "Yes, I think technically a request. My hope is that you will not say no, as I think you are by far the fastest and most effective person for the job."

"Flattery is pointless, Ges." Now finished her report, Arion gave the other woman her full attention. "Put them back."

"What? Oh, oh all right!" Mock sighing, Ges began pulling items out of her pockets and replacing them from where she had caught them up on her way to sit beside Arion. "I was just practising."

"I know. To be honest and un-Amazonly blunt, I am not a fan of you keeping that practice up here. Stick to the jacket with bells all over it you have at your house." They had been over this ground before, and Ges was doing much better, except when she was anxious. Evidently she was more than a little anxious about whatever she planned to ask.

"I admit, people are generally not fond of it, though they like my close up magic shows well enough. Until recently I had no idea that it was effectively how I was drowning out my other worries. Most embarrassing." Not only had that discovery been embarrassing, Ges had been even more flabbergasted when Jed made a point of coolly handing Ges her own wallet, keys, identification, and voucher book. Then, Jed slowly and pointedly put all five her watches back on, followed up by a pause to break apart two of Ges' obsolete keys from the Outside between two fingers – no thumb. Thoroughly chastened, Ges had taken on board the point that she was hardly the first woman to come to the Amazon Nation with a chequered past.

"Anyroad," Ges took a deep breath. "I have a programming job that needs doing, as part of taking care of some old business. Correcting an old mistake. Eventually I could make something that works, but not near so well."

"Correcting an old mistake? And what precisely do you mean that to entail?"

"I need the program to go through a directory tree and flip a series of bits on specific files. Preferably while deleting record of the original state to prevent restoration." The level stare that met her eyes made her wince and begin a closer examination of her shoes.

"Not encrypt or delete the addresses to these files."

"No, this is is strictly a one way job."

"A one way job." Arion folded her arms. "What's in it for you?"

"Just cleaning up an old mistake of mine. Nothing else. No cash involved or anything like that."

Closing the laptop she had been using, Arion dragged over a fresh sheet of paper and began to doodle. "So, this program is something you want for yourself, in order to 'clean up an old mistake.' Cash is physical money, so you are not engaged in something nefarious involving movement of unmarked bills or something equally cliché. Therefore I surmise the point of this program is to wreak some non-trivial havoc within the banking systems you have access to in a certain autonomous zone."

Ges sighed in annoyance. "I don't see how that is relevant. Furthermore, the result of this program is certainly meant to be trivial, in the mathematical sense."

"It is relevant. I won't help steal from people or monkey around in electronic gambling of any kind, including the stock market and interest speculation."

"It's not stealing, nor is it gambling. The point of altering the files is specifically to close avenues I created to facilitate those things. They need to be closed down in a permanent sort of way."

"You have already shed the majority of your ties to the Outside, and your days helping move and launder money in your relatives' dubious banking operation were all while you were a minor, including your cracking exploits."

"Yes, I know, I know. This is a remainder from my cracking exploits, and so far as I can tell nobody else has figured out the nature of these files and how powerful they can be in unfortunately clever hands. I'd rather nobody did. But as soon as anybody else Outside seriously learns about it, they will immediately take steps to copy it and then make a conspicuous event out of supposedly finding and deleting it forever. All while keeping it to use."

"That certainly is not a desirable end result." Arion motioned to the disk in Ges' hand, which the other woman handed over. "I can't imagine this software is meant to be run by a person directly."

"No."

"Remotely?"

"No. Activation on a timer, no calls home. After all, there won't be a home to call."

"Ges," Arion's tone got very serious again. "You are describing something that needs to autorun from this little device, and then –"

"Propagate itself throughout its target network until its job is done, then self-destruct."

"Scanners will catch it."

"Yes, but I have the counter to that coded already. Look in the directory named Robin Hood."

"How did you manage this?" It was several hours later, and Arion had been examining the deeper details of Ges' scheme on an isolated machine.

"It was an accident!" Ges declared morosely. "It all started from when I reverse engineered a BIOS security technique so that I could run a game in a virtual machine on one of the boxes at the bank. I had nothing else to do."

"You figured this out to play a game?" Arion asked incredulously.

"I was fourteen years old! And why did it take that much work just to play a basic black and white version of tetris?" Throwing up her hands, Ges scowled. "By then there was already no way to get a decent handheld video game unit."

"Well," Arion scrubbed both hands down her face. "This is from quite a common hardware set up too. No wonder you've been worried. I will have to report this, Ges."

"I know, but Amazons won't weaponize it, will they?" Ges asked. Now her body language gave away how very concerned about this Ges was, and why.

"No, too dangerous. More dangerous is your knowledge of how to build these tools in the first place. I expect you'll have to brain dump it all to Jed, and then help reprogram quite a few boxes around here to clean up the risk." Tapping the end of her pencil against her chin, Arion added, "We should be able to work out a way to document the system hardening technique for the outside as an important way to manage certain memory management issues in the graphical user interface. We even have a publishing cover name for such things – the people Outside need a chance to protect themselves, Ges."

"But, the whole thing started from nothing to do with the gr – oh, never mind, I get it." Standing up and wishing heartily she could avoid one or more of Jed's interrogations, but that couldn't happen for now, she was about to walk out when she stopped short. "A cover publishing name?"

"Yes. Tula Boubouli, she has papers and articles in a variety of mathematics and computer science publications."

"What!!??" shouted Ges. "I have all of her stuff! That's a cover name? Why didn't you tell me earlier? Who is in the club? I..."

"No one." Arion replied primly. "No one is in the club. The cover is for security, not secret decoder rings and club houses." Nettled, Ges found herself unsure what to do next. "There is a price." Ges stared at Arion in shock.

"Based on what I can see here, you are just the person to complete delivery of paperwork to the Outside necessary to allow the movement of A.X.Y. Adams' assets. For some reason the authorities in Germany refuse to oblige despite clear demonstration that the correct amounts are set aside, present and verified as real and existing to cover the required fees for transit and taxes. The poor bugger at the office in Frankfurt was almost in tears the last time I talked to him about it, because nobody on the Adams side of things is arguing at all with paying taxes or demonstrating we aren't elbows deep in organized crime." It seemed like the willingness of the Adamses to follow the law had rised flags all over the place. Really Arion reflected, it didn't seem to matter whether they behaved like everyone else or opted for the completely bonkers. People made obstacles either way.

"Well, there was your big mistake. You should never have turned up with all your forms duly completed and such. They get annoyed when they don't have an opportunity to fool themselves into thinking they've inconvenienced you." Ges commented. Then stood stock still. "Arion, your skill at this game is beginning to scare me."

Arion just beamed.

******

Cue Halliday-Pontius reread Evrope Adams' note again, wondering what the best answer to it would be. Evrope was quite insistent that they could not go ahead without Chris' dowry being duly laid out along with Jed's, and where was Chris' dowry by the way? Cue had no argument with Evrope, being far too sensible for that. But she was also in the uncomfortable position of having to sort out how to deal with the fact that neither the English nor the Germans had this practice anymore. What made things even more uncomfortable, Cue wholeheartedly agreed that it would be simply outstanding if they could have things all ready and a big party, or at least as big of one as they could manage, ready for Chris and Jed when they got back from guard duty. This left her needing to find out what Jed's dowry consisted of, so that she and her opposite number, Kjell Pontius-Halliday, could get to work pulling things together. Maybe. A headache began to creep around Cue's temples, and she sighed.

"That was a very loud and long sigh." Avi commented from the doorway.

"I thought you were very busy?" Cue answered, too startled and delighted at her partner's reappearance to protest much when Avi swept across the room and wrapped her in a big hug.

"I am, but with time for a quick break to wonder why you are still here so late this evening." Ordinarily Cue would have her foot up at home by now, her artificial leg airing gently in the back pantry.

"Just working on a clan-related matter." Cue motioned to Evrope's note on her desk.

"Hmmm." Avi leaned her head against Cue's and chuckled. "I am quite sure that both Kyev and Kjell know about this already and have been putting materials together for weeks."

"I am inclined to agree. By all accounts they both have steel trap memories, and Chris must have kept her mother posted on things."

"Haven't you ever met them?" Avi asked curiously.

"Not once! No true Scotsman here," Cue added.

"They live in a house just down the mountain on the other side from Omega's Folly. It seems like half the people whose files that cross my desk these past three weeks are people heading to one or the other of those houses. The Evarak house must be bursting at the seams."

"If Chris is any indication it would be even if half empty." Cue replied wryly.

"Are you nervous about meeting these cousins?" Such a possibility hadn't occurred to Avi before. Her partner's iron grey haired stolidity rarely succumbed to any sort of nerves.

"Well – yes. The family stories about the Evarakeen are generally rather terrifying. Let alone that Kyev Evarak is referred to as none other than the Evarak."

"Yes, and Kjell Pontius-Halliday is known as the Pontius-Halliday because they are the omicrons. By any chance is it Kjell's branch of the family that yours was feuding with?"

Cue's long sigh was its own answer.

"Well, that is excellent news. What better way to make a permanent repair to the breach than by offering to help with Chris' dowry? She's a younger daughter so it won't come across as too forward." Satisfied in terms of the arcane interconnections of Amazon clans and protocols, Avi gave Cue one more kiss and then hurried out to rejoin Benny, who was now fuming as opposed to in full rant mode.

For her part, Cue was not nearly so sanguine about the situation. The breach in intrafamily relations was not a feud so much as a serious disagreement about politics. On one side, Cue's grandmother led a party demanding the Amazon Nation institute a form of absolutist monarchy with constitutionalist trappings, because in her view and those of her followers, this was the only possible way to survive the conditions they were facing. On the other, Kyev Evarak's great grandmother had led a slim majority who stood fast against dropping their relatively decentralized, consensus-based practice. "It is better to be a clever hydra than a dumb strong man," she had insisted. The short period Cue's grandmother and her followers were more or less in charge had wrought considerable havoc on the Amazon Nation both politically and militarily. Cue was no follower of the absolute monarchy line, but had still been astonished to be called on as third queen. It had seemed to her more likely that her specific family connections would disqualify her for good and all. That aside, she had nearly convinced herself that maybe she could continue avoiding her cousins, which of course was foolish. "I suppose there is nothing else for it," she said aloud. "Best to give them a call and arrange to have tea."

Pulling over the land line telephone, Cue hesitated. Maybe she should call in the morning. Yes, of course, call in the morning first thing, it was ridiculously late to call now. Having so thoroughly convinced herself to procrastinate, Cue jumped when the phone in front of her rang. Reluctantly, she picked up the receiver. "Hello?" The accent of the person answering carried the unmistakable cadences of Farsi.

"Hello, Doctor Halliday-Pontius." Cue blinked. Not many people knew she could claim that title in the Amazon Nation. She didn't like to make much of it considering.

"Errm, hello." Cue repeated, unsure who she was speaking to. "Who is this?"

"This is Kjell Pontius-Halliday – also doctor, Doctor Halliday will be acceptable." The sound of shuffling paper interrupted her. "Thank you Helene, and this is all that is left? Excellent, excellent."

"I am not usually at the office this late you know." Cue said, now wildly curious how this Doc Halliday had known where she would be as well as not entirely sure Avi wouldn't have told her.

"Oh yes, I am well aware of the bureaucratic hours of your office." A hint of a dry chuckle shifted the rolling syllables a little. "One of my daughters' friends is part of this evenings yank team."

"Oh." Cue felt a bit nettled.

"I have here, a list of the outstanding items for Chris' dowry. Perhaps you would have an interest in it."

"Wait, you're Chris' mother?"

"Yes, who else would decide to call you at such an hour wherever you might be?"

"Chris is German-English or English-German or whatever it is. You sound..."

"Persian?" Kjell Pontius-Halliday interrupted smoothly. "Why, yes, yes I am. Count me among those displaced in early childhood during an unfortunate war. There is such a range and number of us." She paused. "Now have this to bake your noodle. My partner is Russian, and two of my five daughters are technically Danish."

"Ah. Oh dear." Cue sounded a bit faint.

"In any case, why don't I send you this list, and your family can get to work on it? We behaved ourselves and left you the most interesting ones."

"Oh n... I mean, how thoughtful of you. Being as it is right in front of you at the moment, how many items thereabouts is that?" Cue winced.

"Oh, I don't know. How many lines is on a piece of foolscap? There is more than one column, oh look at that, there are a few on the back too. Never mind, never mind, you will enjoy these, especially the gummy bear challenge." Pontius-Halliday now chuckled openly. "Or maybe the toast. Now, don't hog all the good ones to yourself." She hung up.

"Wait! Don't. Hang up." Cue stared at the gently whirring receiver. "How are you going to send this list? That brat downstairs doesn't have my address, I'll wager!" Standing up, Cue nearly forgot to hang up the receiver before heading for the door. A swishing sound behind her stopped her short. She turned around.

Sitting on the floor underneath the mail slot in the inner office door Cue hadn't gotten around to trying to open yet, was a folded and sealed sheet of foolscap. Two and a half columns of spiky, scrawled writing in burgundy ink showed vividly on the paper. Inching forward, Cue carefully, carefully, picked up the paper, broke the seal, and unfolded it. True to what Kjell Pontius-Halliday had said, there were three full columns of list on the other side. In the top margin in bright green ink, Cue read the endorsement on the sheet in increasing bewilderment.

Hello Dr. Halliday-Pontius. Here is the list. Just drop the things by our house when they are ready, that will be most satisfactory. – KPH

Cue glared at the inner door. "Okay, I get it, I get it! You're here late too aren't you Doctor Pontius-Halliday?" Then she leapt forward and wrenched open the door.

Which opened on a blank wall.

******

Benny stood at the office window, glaring out into the night, arms crossed, both fists balled up in her armpits. It was just like Ges. Just like her to use redirection to distract her attention from key details and then dump her into the middle of some place crazy. Just bloody like her. Angry tears began to leak out of the corners of her eyes again. She seriously hated it when Ges insisted on treating her like a child who needed to be distracted out of danger by a stubborn puzzle.

"Based on what my contacts on the Outside have gathered, it is most likely that Ges seriously feared that she would not be able to return, one way or the other. She also took care to make your whereabouts untraceable through her." Just back from Cue's office, Avi brought over a tall glass of water and set it on a side table. Within sensible distance, but not too close. Women in Benny's frame of mind were known to punt full glasses off of tables rather than drink their contents if they were too close to hand.

"Why are you making excuses for her?"

"There are no excuses. These are simply plausible interpretations. I didn't say this was an excusable situation. But neither is it an inexcusable one. Neither of you know how to behave properly, and to make matters more difficult you are both shell shocked." Settling into her creaky office chair, Avi watched Benny half turn towards her, ready to deny it. Then Benny's shoulders drooped.

"So now what?" Benny sighed, leaning against the window frame.

"First, my people will yank your cousin out of trouble. Then I imagine you two will probably shout at each other. After that, my suggestion would be that you both sleep at the hostel tonight, and start the process of making amends with Jed and Chris tomorrow." Avi picked up her jacket, smoothing it across her lap.

"Fine, I guess." Benny turned towards the priestess again. "I'm tired of being tired, and always on the wrong foot."

"Of course. Once your cousin is here and serving as your mentor as she properly has done before, much of this will improve. Do you want to go back?"

"Are you nuts? No way in hell!" Benny blurted.

Avi smiled sadly. "You'd be amazed how many women say yes and mean it." The next question she supposed, was whether it was best for Benny to see Ges as soon as the older woman got back, or if it would be better for the young woman to try to get some rest. It would be a few hours yet. "For good or ill, it will be a few hours longer before your cousin arrives. Do you think you could possibly rest a little?"

"You mean lay on a cot and stew?" Despite how sarcastic she sounded, Benny was curious. The trouble was she was too grumpy to express it well.

"Actually, I thought you might prefer a soak in the hot spring next door." Biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from laughing at Benny's incredulous expression, Avi explained. "We are in a seismically active area, so we have a surprising number of them around. This one is very old, and in my experience the best place to try to ease stress before potentially angst-filled reunions."

"I didn't bring a bathing suit." Benny was coming around reluctantly in spite of herself.

"You don't need one, we're all Amazons here." Avi winked. "There is also a locker to keep your clothes and effects in. This late at night practical jokers are not often abroad, but even I can't quite convince myself not to take precautions."

Once Benny understood where the hot spring was relative to the building Avi's office was in, she made her way to the loaner jeep to pull out a portable radio, tuning it up onto the temple frequency. After duly exchanging "radio checks" and "five five fives" with Matt the acolyte, she retreated with it and a smaller transistor radio for music to the hot spring.

"Of course, this is what Amazons do to hot springs." Instead of a turquoise painted concrete basin and enclosure similar to the larger and fancier establishments Benny had seen in both North America and Europe, the hot spring remained open to the elements. A row of metal lockers bolted to the rock edge on one side well away from splash range and a few chiseled seats, plus a gently floating ramp and the lights were the only additions. Still feeling a little shy, Benny wished for a tent or something to strip down in, even though afterwards all she was going to do was walk across and step into the pool stark naked anyway. So she did, and tried not to think about it too much.

Fed up with composing angry words for Ges, Benny's mind turned back to developing a list of repairs in order of priority for her – their – half of Omega's Folly. On one hand, the place was by no means ramshackle. On the other so many of the repairs came from the fact that the place was two houses stuck together, and that meant continuous maintenance to deal with the different ways they were settling with age, diverse materials, mismatched windows, and some stubborn challenges related to air circulation. To keep the place as it was, Benny reflected, they needed to level the two houses up, and she strongly suspected, repair the foundation on their side. The visiting subway station could not have helped the foundation's integrity. At this thought, Benny paused to pinch herself, and then check in with Matt to make sure she was awake. Then she went back to the question of the foundation. That question had relatively constrained answers, compared to the outwardly erratic, but probably dangerously practical behaviour of her cousin. Unless Benny very much missed her guess, her cousin had gone back to tangle with their formidably dangerous money laundering and generally organized crime connected family.

Now in a calmer frame of mind, Benny felt almost sure Ges had engaged in so much gallows humour because she was not at all sure she would be able to get back.

The transistor radio popped and fizzed, then the signal steadied again. Dvorak's "New World Symphony" began playing. "Seriously?" Benny exploded in disgust, and drying her hand, tried to dial up a better station. Swapping the digital tuner for an analogue one had been her earliest project after transcribing scrolls after she arrived. "If this thing starts picking up anything from Chicago I am going to run away screaming, naked or not."

The transistor radio did not pick up anything from Chicago, although it did manage to catch a repeated signal from Istanbul, a rebetika station. "Okay, so long as there isn't too much bouzouki playing." Whether there was too much bouzouki playing in evidence was debatable, certainly there was plenty of it, at least for the first hour. Then a different radio program came on, this one playing selections from a range of brass bands. They were an excellent distraction from Matt's quarter hour reports from the Viewing Room. For good measure, Benny dried out her other hand to reposition the big book. In truth she wasn't certain why she had grabbed it on her way to the jeep. The thing was awkward and heavy to carry, and she wasn't seriously thinking of reading it when she left. Yet there she was after all, going through the pages, now with off kilter Turkish language covers of North American pop music rattling the small transistor radio.

******

All of a sudden, she was submerged in water. Warm, mineral-tasting water, but not wholly pleasant because a few seconds ago Ges had been diving under a partition in a parking garage. Disoriented, she forced herself to calm down and figure out which way was up, helped along by her feet bumping against rock and a stronger light overhead. Only a couple of strokes brought her head up into the air, sputtering and choking, her hat dumping a sheet of water into her face and her soaked sweater hanging lankly down her sides. Standing in front of her several metres away was a dark-headed acolyte in a red baseball cap, loosely holding an old-fashioned walkie-talkie in one hand.

"Whoa!" the young woman crowed in delight. "I thought the Kepler was kidding when she said you might pop up there!" Getting a better grip on the walkie-talkie, Matt depressed the button and declared, "Ten ten ten, over."

"Received, code seven, over." Ges wasn't certain if the answering voice was genuinely unfamiliar or merely weird sounding because of the combination of the radio and the cavernous room.

"Would you like a towel?" Matt waited patiently until Ges finished swimming to her end of the pool, where the older woman finally nodded.

"This has to be one of the worst yanks ever." Ges grumbled, climbing up onto the half bridge and plopping her soaked hat and sweater on the floor beside her.

"You needed it at awfully short notice." And didn't call for it either, Matt thought, but of course didn't say. If the Kepler saw fit to make sure help was ready to haul an Amazon out of trouble even if the Amazon hadn't exactly requested it, then they'd set up a buffer and manage the yank.

"Who butted in? I know for a fact there was no exit scheduled."

"No one butted in. I used my prerogatives. You are responsible for rebuilding your clan now, and that starts with your younger cousin, who needs you." Avi wondered a little at the rather weedy looking character sitting on the floor in front of her. Well, she shouldn't judge just now. All priestesses went through a yank in order to understand directly how uncomfortable and disorienting they were. At least by now they had figured out how to do it without making the subject seasick. Still, maybe Ges was feeling a bit peaky. Reaching into a long side pocket of her jacket, Avi asked, "How are you feeling? I think I have some of Chris Halliday's favourite ginger pastilles in this pocket somewhere. Mmm, liquorice." Suiting action to word, Avi brandished a tin of the pastilles and tucked a twisted string of black liquorice in the corner of her mouth.

"No, I'm not feeling peaky. I'm feeling frustrated and angry." Ges snapped, now stripped down to her damp boxers and socks.

"That's good, should make for a fine shouting match." Avi commented unhelpfully. Then she began eating another piece of liquorice.

Accepting a robe from Matt, Ges began hanging up her clothes on a nylon line hanging across a segment of the wall not far from Avi's favourite lawn chair. It always amazed her that nearly three metres of this nowadays almost priceless stuff was still here, serving as a clothes line. She sighed, and dumped water out of her revolver holster, then hung that up too, leaving the disassembled gun in a lined bin waiting for that purpose. "You have everything here," commented to Matt, who kept quiet and carefully edged around Ges' shoes. These smelled quite awful, and where her acolyte feared to tread, Avi did not. She picked them up and smoothly pitched them into a garbage bin just outside the Viewing Room.

"Your cousin is in the side parlour. This way."

Pulling off her damp socks, Ges hurried after the priestess. "What side parlour? There is nothing like that in here."

"Sure there is, it is hardly anyone's fault you won't explore the local buildings. We don't lock the doors you know." Avi pushed open a stairwell door. "Put it back."

"What? But who uses this thing?" Ges protested, with a small, unidentifiable tool half shoved in her pocket.

"Do you know what it is?"

"No, I'll look it up when I get back to my lab."

"Take a picture." Avi's voice dropped dangerously.

"Okay, okay, okay." Ges put the thing back and kept her hands in her robe pockets after that, muttering mutinously.

"It's for keeping windows open."

"What?" Ges asked.

"The object you tried to abscond with merely because you have nerves."

"Oh. How do you know?"

"Chris Halliday told me, and it's her invention, she should know." And with that, Avi firmly shoved Ges into the parlour and shut the door on her. "There, now I'm going home."

******

Ges stood awkwardly near the door, watching her cousin, who was absorbed in reading a large book propped up by a lamp and a big cup of tea. The younger woman looked stressed, and in this light Ges could just see the first fine strands of grey in her hair. Benny also seemed older, carrying herself with much more poise and authority, even with bare feet and the hems looking a bit ragged at the ends of her dark jeans.

"Are you going to stand there all morning?" Benny pulled a small notebook out of one pocket and a pencil out of another to make notes.

"Not necessarily." Wishing that she had some real clothes on, Ges padded further into the room. She didn't like Benny's air of seeming calm.

"I've made up my mind about some things, and you'll just have to sign off on them."

"I see."

"I'm not moving out of the room you set up for me."

"Of course not."

"There is someone in my life now whom I'm very serious about. She's not optional."

"I trust your judgement."

"We're moving the house to town." That put Ges back on her heels.

"What made you decide that?!" Benny gave her a level stare.

"Jed and Chris already trained you up to live here, and they have way too many responsibilities to begin with, let alone all their work helping out their families and dealing with all the women pouring into the Nation right now. Let alone that the commute is making me nuts."

"But the light pollution..."

"Is going to be even less than it already was, due to the shift to wartime light limitation, it starts tomorrow. The official declarations of war Outside are expected any day now." Benny pushed her glasses a little further up her nose. "Why did you put this book in the freezer? You obviously meant to."

"What makes you think I did?" Ges was genuinely curious, because she hadn't placed that book in any freezer.

"Who else had the opportunity?"

"Jed and Chris among others. I left it in the gazebo, though evidently I left something in it that tipped you off."

"It's more complicated than that." Benny ran her fingers over the tooled book cover. "You forgot to clear your draft folder."

"Ah." Ges winced. She had forgotten that.

"Jed did quite a bit of repair work on the gazebo, but this book has been in that freezer for months. The note I found referring to the freezer was covered in dust." She held it up, block letters stark on the square of paper. FREEZER.

Ges stared at it, her expression alarmed and mystified. Then it smoothed out. "You know, I think this is Chris' block printing, still no idea why she'd put the book in a freezer. Just like this?"

"No, it was in a giant plastic bag with a zip closure."

"Oh. That doesn't sound like Chris at all." Ges' face clouded again. "Back to the weirdness of Omega's Folly, I guess." She turned the bit of paper around in her hands, unsure what to say. After all, the point of fixating on the book was to avoid more difficult topics, but the book was its own difficult topic and therefore the fixation was not helping.

"It's the sort of weird thing Arion would do more so than Chris or Jed. And it would be just the thing she'd forget doing. Still, why put it in the freezer when everything else in that pile of paper and books didn't need to be?"

"Oh, you mean the vertical file? There's no way it would fit in there, and generally speaking that isn;t where I kept it anyway. It lived – lives, I suppose again, now – on that podium in the corner by the fireplace. Usually I work on it in the evenings before bed."

"There's no podium in the library." Benny objected, then blew out a low whistle. "Okay then, so this is some sort of non-traditional solution to removing it from its usual place while absconding with the podium? Scratch Arion as a possibility, she would have turned up with the podium by now."

"I'm not sure if she ever block prints either, but then she'll happily ask others to copy short things out for her rather than subject them to her handwriting." Ges was feeling more and more at sea, an unwelcome sensation she had hoped to avoid for the foreseeable future. "Somebody in the house who was not me, deemed it necessary to put the book in cold storage for a few months at least."

"Probably to keep me from being more overwhelmed than I already was. That does sound like Jed. I haven't paid enough attention to her handwriting." Or many other things Jed did and was doing, Benny admitted to herself. "What does Jed do here exactly? Everybody has to teach at the Academy from time to time. I keep hearing about a fireworks factory."

"Oh yes, there is one of those." Ges had finally located the tea pot, and even, to her delight, a dish of crumpets, kept warm by the fire in a heavy covered pan. Suddenly she was very hungry.

"Jed is not a chemist, I would expect Chris to work at the fireworks factory." Benny objected again.

"Heaven forfend!" Ges sounded really alarmed. "The explosion would not be helpful." Before saying anything else, she ate several crumpets with some of the cheese and sliced meats in the dish. She did this with enough gusto that Benny reluctantly gave in and joined her. "Jed works on communications and codes and cyphers. She does seem to have something else going on besides that, but I can't make head nor tail of it. For the longest time I thought she had been made her clan's omicron, yet that doesn't seem to be the case either. Where did she sit at the coronation?"

"In the main seating area, once she was done her job." Benny felt cross again. "You could have at least left me some basic operating instructions for this damned place. Or how about the Amazon Nation handbook? I had to find the version for outsiders by accident!"

"Oh, then she's not the omicron then. Weird. I had a lot on my mind when I headed out for this trip. You got on all right." Whoops, too breezy. Ges back-pedalled when she saw Benny's face crumple. "I didn't mean that is flippantly as it sounded. I just meant that I knew and know that you are a tough, intelligent woman."

"And I've had to get on with no dependable relations all my life so what's a few more months, right?" Benny asked bitterly. She was so fed up with crying, she practically never did that.

"No, yes – Benny, our family doesn't work like that, it never has."

"You're the one who was supposed to be different!" Benny shouted at her.

******

Arion frowned and tried to concentrate on coding more WP signposts into Benny's laptop. She was having a hard time, between worrying about Benny and wondering if Ges was going to successfully extract her head from her posterior or not. For her part, Arion hoped so. Her relationship with Ges was at best distant, as Arion had always found the woman eccentric in a less-Adamsish sort of way than she could make sense of. Let alone the great AC/DC feud early in Ges' tenure at Omega's Folly. Maybe Jed had decided to let bygones be bygones in the end, but Arion was not so easily won over. A further serious blot on Ges' copybook consisted of abandoning her cousin to a foreign country without so much as a cheat sheet. She didn't even arrive with a copy of Pseudo-Athena's Rock and Roll Guide to Amazon History for pity's sake, and that was the raw minimum most newcomers planning to stay had with them. It's outwardly fatuous appearance and text provided plausible deniability critical for the safety of many women around the world under vastly different circumstances.

Sighing, Arion saved her work and restored the laptop's original state. The trouble was the difficulties of distribution. They needed more printers, and more ways to hand it around. She and her latest coding class had happily seeded it in a variety of archives for documents produced for free distribution, but the difficulty with those was search engines. To this day it remained nearly impossible to get search results that weren't either overrun with pornography or else redirects to men claiming to be Amazons. That always struck Arion as very strange. There were a few men connected to the Amazons of course, a steadily dropping number of sons and former husbands on the Outside, and even the ones friendly to Amazons didn't claim to be Amazons. The fellow who drove the Turkish relocation bus had been asked if he was an Amazon once, and his aghast reaction had thoroughly amused the Turkish women on board that day. Then they had saved him further spluttering by explaining to the confused gentleman who had invited himself on the trip why that was not the case, then firmly put him off on another bus going the opposite direction at the next stop. Firmly, and of course not without reasonable directions about how to avoid traveller's trots and the easiest way to get to his country's embassy in order to get himself some more useful longterm assistance.

Arion liked talking to that bus driver, he had a wonderful, flamboyant storytelling style with many sound effects and great big arm gestures. She blinked. That gave her at least two startling and potentially doable ideas. She loped out to the nearest telephone that actually connected to the network outside Omega's Folly itself. It could be amusing to start with trying to dial out through the house intercom system, because that worked at startling and random intervals, at the moment Arion needed a bit more technical certainty.

"Waldbilling."

"Yes, Doctor Adams?" Waldbilling sounded very congested, giving her voice an unusual both deep and nasal tone.

"Good grief, Waldbilling, you sound awful."

"That is congruent with my state of being," her assistant replied drily.

"Further to the recent discussions about Pseudo-Athena's Rock and Roll Guide to Amazon History and how to better distribute it, I have two ideas to inquire about – maybe someone has already done them."

"Your cousin already suggested carrier pigeons."

"No, no, not that. I'm thinking visual distribution. Do we have a signed version on video by any chance? And or something animated?" Biting her lip to smother her chuckles, Arion was just about sure she could hear Waldbilling doubletaking.

"Why would we have a video tape of someone signing the book? Deaf women can read the book."

"Yes, if they can get it. But what if we could slip that in to the still all too limited instruction video pool for people learning to sign? Slipped into the right places with the right labels, only women from the deaf community who wanted to come here would be certain to get all the nuances. Maybe that would also be a different angle to help provide more appropriate information specific to their concerns too. I think unfortunately that generally we still suck at that, including in the basic guidebooks." Arion leaned against the hall table the phone rested on. "Besides, sign language is the one language we all learn and share here."

This was a good point, although Waldbilling would be the first to caveat that claim with the note that every Amazon learned only the basics of the latest internationally agreed on sign language dialect. Only so many women kept taking instruction in it. She still considered it more of a political move than a practical one, but the arguments for establishing it as part of basic training came from a revered linguist from the Outside, Suzette Haden Elgin. And after overcoming their initial shyness, newcomers did get quite excited about learning it. "I will add the proposal to the next meeting agenda."

"What about an animated version? Of the history, not worrying about guidebooks or the rest of it." Arion's voice rose a bit. This idea had firm hold of her imagination.

"I will add it to the agenda as well – that will take much longer than making a video of someone signing."

"Tch, we don't know that! We'll see how the discussion goes next week." Satisfied, Arion hung up, then returned to one of the rooms where her electronic gear now sat spread out in various degrees of disorder on every available surface. "Now, I wonder about Ges' little project on the outside." She opened a different laptop and started it from a key she took out of her pocket. After a few minutes she was checking a range of news sources and computer programmer fora on the outside. Ten minutes more, and she was chortling and exclaiming at intervals.

Someone had tried very hard to access the hidden fortune that an infamous money laundering banking syndicate had sequestered overseas before its top two executives were arrested. On paper, considerable funds should have been waiting for access and pick up whenever they managed to finagle a bargain to get themselves out of prison, however unlikely that was. As it stood, one local account stood empty after somebody other than them made use of illicit data to break into it. Hilariously, on further research Arion determined that it was the last great electronic currency wallet still standing after the implosion of the majority of the more questionable operations after the last war. Whoever that was had gotten away clean. But it seemed on their way out they accidentally triggered what investigators were characterizing as a worm that scrambled data registers for the overseas accounts, such that after checking the paper versus current machine state, the accounts were empty. Or rather, the registers had been overwritten with zeros, and the worm took advantage of a code weakness that rendered it impossible to track down connections to real money, let alone what was real money and what was very clever magic money. So the prisoners would stay in their rather cushy prisons, and the various law enforcement organizations were embarrassingly obvious in their disappointment about not bagging the money.

Meanwhile, the computer programmer fora, including a range of them frequented by the less law abiding sort of programmer, were abuzz with speculation about the worm, especially how to catch and decompile it. Arion smiled. She and Ges had made that extremely hard to do. Of course, it was possible. Just not too likely to be achieved under the present conditions, which included, based on the reports Jed had decoded this morning, the first steps in cutting the transoceanic cables carrying most of the world's internet traffic.

Shutting down this laptop and stretching, Arion did a quick check.

Have I been so unwise as to wish for things to be less boring lately?

Satisfied that she had managed not to do this, Arion turned her mind to other puzzles. Like what to make for lunch. She figured Ges and Benny should be arriving soon after their overnighter in town.

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