Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Nine
"So, have they finished shouting at each other yet?" Avi tried not to yawn, she didn't want to rub in the fact that she was on her way to bed and Matt was still on duty.
"Not really – I mean, they haven't really started yelling at each other. That's a bit, strange, isn't it?" Matt glanced nervously down the hallway to where Benny and Ges were supposed to be working out the basics of their immediate differences.
"I wouldn't call it strange so much as evidence of how recently Benny has come from the Outside. She has a hard time letting her temper loose." Covering the receiver so that she could yawn before her ears started popping, Avi considered the possibilities. "No need to worry, Ges has a double edged knack for this sort of thing. Give them another hour, they were probably too hungry to get down to brass tacks at the beginning."
Meanwhile, in the parlour Ges and Benny were engaged in an uneasy stand off. Ges had been trying to head off Benny's temper with entirely the wrong sort of tactics. Benny had been tolerating her cousin's evasive responses until her face began to flush. Then, quite suddenly, she seemed to change the topic herself.
"You went to see your ex I take it."
"What? Deanna's not my ex, she's –"
"Your ex, because she wasn't here before and sure's a hell ain't here now. As soon as the rubber really hit the road, she said forget it. You know it and I know it." Benny's voice was getting louder. "That's no excuse for pulling the same bullshit yourself."
"Hey, hey, hey, that is not a comparable situation. What the hell do you know about it?" Angry in her turn, Ges jumped to her feet.
"She's constantly in the papers, Ges. Scions of rich families busy running large organizations get that sort of interest. Not one to hang onto noted eccentrics, not in the long run. Bad for the image. Must have been a cracker of an evening when she came home to discuss your prison record with you." This was not Benny's usual way of working at all, because she hated fighting with words. Far too difficult to manage how much damage they were doing. But neither of them could afford to keep living like they were members of a crime syndicate, especially considering they had been born into and then spent considerable parts of their lives getting out of one. Old habits might die hard, but they needed to die sometime.
"She knew about that the whole time, it was no big deal. Just like you having to handle yourself on your own for awhile here. Benny, you are not a child."
"Then stop treating me like one, and while you're at it, stop acting like one!" Throwing up her hands, Benny turned and began gathering up the book and her other gear. "I've had enough. Go on to the hotel, I can sleep in the jeep. You're right, I should get used to the fact that you are in fact as undependable as the rest of our family, except with respect to your own immediate interests." Packed up, Benny walked to the door.
"Nice of you to suddenly discover I shouldn't be on some sort of pedestal."
Benny gave her a withering look. "If you seriously think that expecting basic adult commitment from an adult is putting someone on a pedestal, then you've got bigger problems than disappointing me." The door shut behind her with a thunk. Ges frowned at her bare feet, not sure what to do. Things weren't going at all the way she had anticipated.
"Did you hit your head or something?" Matt asked curiously, having come in by a different door, so quietly that Ges jumped when she spoke.
"What? No, why would you ask me that?" Ges snapped, trying to think were her clothes were.
"Because you're acting like a numbskull, and I was told you're quite brilliant in your own odd way." Matt began collecting the dishes, cups, and teapot. "Why don't you just tell her why you went back and that you were genuinely trying to protect her? She's just walked out of here thinking you've become a selfish asshole." Then she walked out, knowing very well that Ges had a difficulty in the form of being in a too long robe and a pair of underpants on top of everything else. Probably Ges would have some big and loud questions about acolytes for the Kepler later, but that was all right.
Mind finally made up, Ges ran out, trying to think of where Benny must have parked the jeep. The dawn was coming up when she got outside, the ill-fitting robe flapping annoyingly around her ankles. The Amazon Nation had few to no obvious parking lots, women were expected not to park in front of important access points or on top of any gardens. Finally Ges heard the distinct sound of a motor starting up and ran towards it, managing to catch sight of Benny pulling out, high beams on, flashers going as she backed around to drive back onto the road. "Benny, wait!"
"Why?" Not even bothering to turn off the engine, Benny glared at her cousin. Hard.
"I thought you wanted to know what happened."
"Yesterday. It's tomorrow. Too late." Checking her seatbelt, Benny eased her heel onto the accelerator. For her part, Ges began running along beside the jeep.
"Listen, I know you're pissed off, but it was necessary to make sure nobody Outside could trace you here through me, and that nobody there would try to trail me back." Observing the speed of the jeep picking up so that she couldn't keep up running barefoot, Ges opted to jump onto the running board, holding onto one of the handles soldered onto the jeep body. Well, properly not handles at all, but tie downs for lashing on equipment. Instructors were constantly trying to get new Amazons to absorb that these were not handles at all, in hopes of ending attempts to joy ride in just the way Ges was now.
"What do you think you're doing?" Benny snapped at her, keeping her eyes on the road to Omega's Folly. They were already about to enter the first winding stretch.
"Not letting you storm off." The jeep started to go much faster, as Benny angrily pushed down on the accelerator. "Okay, okay, countering myself having just persuaded you to storm off. Couldn't you stop the jeep, or at least slow down? This is getting a bit dangerous, I think." The wind was not quite whistling in her ears, but Ges was beginning to worry it soon would.
"Nope." Benny bit off, and went back to concentrating on the road, negotiating the next two turns, the last two for awhile.
"Fine, fine. I'll explain from here then." Shifting her grip, Ges frowned a bit. The handle seemed to be in a different position than before. Weird. "I've had to talk myself out of worse situations. Now –" Benny slamming on the brakes both interrupted Ges and finished breaking loose the handle, sending Ges cartwheeling off the jeep and down the embankment. The reason for the sudden stop was the gate down the road from Omega's Folly, which unaccountably had moved itself much closer to town or Benny had been driving far faster than she thought.
"But that doesn't make sense. There are five more turns before this gate!" Benny burst out, slapping the steering wheel in frustration. After a few more minutes, Ges reappeared, still holding the tie down from the jeep, with a variety of branches and leaf bits stuck to her. She stared at the gate.
"Where's the mail box?"
"What do you mean where's the mail box? It's not that dark and the headlights are on!" Benny protested, pointing towards where the bright red box should be. Precisely where it wasn't. Astonished, Benny scanned both sides of the road, peering as far ahead as she could. "That's ridiculous. Chris and Jed were seriously chuffed about the thing and its convenient positioning and now they've moved it?"
"No, no, they haven't." Ges sighed wearily. "Why didn't anybody mention this is a shifting zone now, I mean it's just a seriously important piece of information." She shook down her borrowed bath robe and took a closer look at the gate. "Worse yet, this isn't the gate to Omega's Folly." The evidence of this, besides the wrong name on the sign attached just above her head, was the distinct lack of easy ways to climb it. No matter how much Jed disliked treasure hunters, she didn't have the heart to rip out her house's gates and replace them with something like these. No good hand or footholds, and what in the slowly growing dawn light looked alarmingly like barbed wire. "I really don't like this."
"Great. How the hell do we get back, I must have missed a damned turn. No way this was here before."
"Probably it wasn't, but you didn't miss your turn, everything else about this stretch is familiar." Just a few metres down the road stood the only set of free standing road signs where they had been so far as Ges knew for at least decades. She hadn't panicked about falling down the embankment because she knew that it was shallow and all she had to do was roll. The worst she could bump into was sheep droppings when she came off the edge and down into the adjoining field. "It's a shifting zone now. Stuff will pop in and out. Never seen it before though."
"I have." Benny growled sourly. She got out of the jeep and spent some time trying to find a way to open the gate. Unfortunately, it was an electronic gate, and extended far enough to each side that trying to drive around it wouldn't work too well. The sheep fields took only a half kilometre or so to begin shifting into the treacherous Perfumed Mere, safely navigable only on foot by those who knew how to recognize the actual solid ground from floating patches of vegetation. "Dammit," she sighed. "No choice but to go back to town and call Jed to let her know about this."
The high priestess building reappeared on the left as Benny drove back at a far more sedate pace than before. The idea she might not be able to get back to her own home was more than a little disturbing. "Nice of that gate to show up just then." She pulled back into the place she had left only an hour or two before.
"Quite the coincidence. A bit much." Ges agreed, uneasy herself.
"Ah, here you two are. The hotel is not in that direction." Matt handed Ges her now dry clothes. "Go up Bouboulina Street, turn right at Lost Road." The two exhausted women glared at her, and Matt wondered how two women could look both so alike and so different. Then again, she mentally slapped herself, it was hardly their fault she had assumed they had the same eye colour. "Arrangements are already made, you'll have to stay an extra night. Some road issues on the way to Omega's Folly." That didn't help the stereo dirty looks she was getting at all.
"You knew about that?" Benny asked.
"Yes." The notification came in not long after Ges sloshed out of the Viewing Room, although in the fuss Matt had missed it until she noticed the message on her desk coming back from the office kitchen.
"You didn't say a thing about it!" Ges exploded.
"I hardly expected you both to storm off in such an unsafe fashion." Matt pointed out mildly.
"Gummy bear challenge?!" Cue winced. Her daughter was not taking this as well as she had hoped. "Gummy bear challenge?!" Val threw the heavy bundle of sports equipment up onto the bus rack with rather more ease than her mother expected. "What other batshit crazy stuff is on this list?"
"Now then, it's na batshit, just atypical." Cue took a step back as Val slipped past her to finish strapping down the bundle. "Mostly food, and lights, I think."
"Because gosh, we're the best cooks around these parts." Val shot back, her outrage emphasizing the roll of her r's.
"We may not be the best cooks, but we have connections to the best cooks. No need to worry about that." Cue insisted sturdily. "I'm more worried about the light things, or whatever these are." She pointed to a section of the burgundy list.
"That doesna say lights." Val squinted. "I think it says 'laughs.' Who has such miserable handwriting in that family? I shudder to think half of them work in the scriptorium."
"Bloody hell, I think you're right, that it says 'laughs.' How do we add that to Chris' dowry? It's not as if we can bottle them." Cue frowned.
"Depends on your view of chemistry, I s'pose." Val, finally done with adding gear to the bus rack, jumped all the way down and dusted off her hands.
"We are not adding recreational drugs to Chris' dowry. And anyway, she's been making her own since she was sixteen." Cue made a note of her own on the back of the list. "There must be another explanation." Folding up the list and tucking it into the heavy wool sock on her real leg, she tucked one hand inside her daughter's elbow. "Now come to lunch. Avi misses you."
"Why?" Val muttered mutinously under her breath.
"Because she likes you, even when you insist on behaving atrociously." For reasons of her own, Val's birth mother had broken things off with Cue and absconded not long after her daughter's seventh birthday. Cue and Avi had been together barely four years, and Val still saw no reason to agree that Avi wouldn't vanish into thin air herself at the first convenient moment. "That's one of the many reasons she is quite sensational, you know."
"Hmmph." Counting that response as a win, because it verged on a full word and wasn't definitively rude, Cue dragged Val off to Avi's office, where the tall priestess was dealing with a crowd of shouting Amazons.
"It is completely unacceptable! You can't let that jackass control the roads like that!" A dark, wiry woman boomed furiously, pointing furiously at Avi.
"There is nobody controlling the roads in the way you are suggesting! The area of Omega's Folly is a shifting zone right now, probably will stay that way for the rest of the year. You are hardly the only Amazon who has been inconvenienced," another Amazon put in, her white hair done up in a spiky square top. Certainly the number of people crammed into the office with them bore her out.
"What is this about controlling the roads?" Avi asked, tone dangerous. The ambient noise level fell abruptly.
"Go on, Kepler. Everybody knows what Adams gets up to out at Omega's Folly. By rights the lot of them ought to be in prison." The wiry woman again.
"Besides basic housekeeping, what is Adams supposed to be getting up to? Or better yet, which one?" Avi answered. Depending what she heard here, this could be serious.
"Some of us," yet another Amazon said from a different part of the group. "have heard that Jed Adams can control where the shifting zones go, and how fast."
"Then please feel free to let the people who have been saying that to stop repeating such nonsense." Not as serious as it could have been, but serious enough. "Jed is a highly talented physicist, but such feats are certainly beyond her ken." A discontented murmur rippled around the room. "She's as stuck as you are, can't sort out how to open the gate or move the structure blocking the mill road. The shifts are fast though, Jed told me that they recently had a subway station but it didn't hang around for a full day."
"Listen Kepler, these structures have turned up in awfully convenient places. Awfully convenient." Still another Amazon said this, and Avi sighed inwardly. This Amazon she knew, one of the most persistent treasure hunters who was actually under a restraining order to keep her away from Omega's Folly.
"No they haven't. Have you forgotten that at the moment Omega's Folly is full of displaced and returning Adamses? People who need to gather supplies and to try to work out what they are going to do next and a thousand other tasks only possible to complete in town." This mollified most of the discontent and the crowd broke up. Treasure hunter and a couple of her cronies hovered rebelliously for a few moments, but finally gave up and made their way out.
"Artemis the mighty." Val swore. "What is going on with people?"
"They're afraid. Waiting for the news on the war is hard on everyone, and it is true that it could hardly be a worse time for the area of Omega's Folly to become a shifting zone. The returning border guard crew has been busy since just after dawn putting up signage and radioing notices about the need to reroute for awhile." Rubbing her eyes, Avi flopped into the arm chair by her office window. Cue watched her partner with concern, while Val decided to try to seem useful by unpacking the food and drink still waiting for consumption on a side table. "On top of that, of course Jed is not actually at home. She is stuck at the fireworks factory."
"Of course, of course. It'll be monitoring and translating messages all the time." Rubbing Avi's shoulders, Cue frowned. "Since when are Amazons spreading rumours that Jed can control shifting zones?"
"Not long, this is only the third incident here. At the check in this morning, only a few other priestesses recounted any examples, and less than ten of the busiest shop keepers." Smiling gratefully at her partner for her ministrations, Avi accepted a bowl of soup and a spoon from Val. "Thank you, Val." The younger woman mumbled something incomprehensible and went back to get another bowl of soup for her mother. "This won't take long to fade out. Jed Adams is a bit of a lightning rod, and we are caught between a war starting and the brink of a treasure hunting season when Jed and her partner are going to be away for much of it on guard duty."
"Oh, so the treasure hunters can't quite let things go." Cue nodded thoughtfully, sopping up the remains of her soup with a bit of warm bread.
"Who cooked this?" Val asked. "It's good." She sounded surprised.
"Don't be so surprised, plenty of Amazons know how to cook. We're not in a place where people are pathologically afraid of spices anymore." Avi got up to return her dirty dishes to the table and poured water for both Val and herself. "How long have you been here now, Val?"
"Almost six months, but barely two months in I got hustled off on border duty because somebody else broke her leg in training." Val refilled her bowl.
"Ah, that makes unhappy sense. Too many rubber rations, and things are haywire right now with so many women and children pouring in." Luckily Val was adaptable, and her experience in managing crowds of exhausted and frightened people from her job as a paramedic Outside had come in handy more than once. Her first guard assignment was the main entry point for women and children fleeing to the Nation.
"That's one of the issues we'll be talking about in council today. We're doing better on making sure everyone is properly fed and housed, but we can't have people doing hard physical work struggling to eat the food they get." The trouble with food if it got too bland and uniform was that after awhile even the hungriest people simply couldn't stand to eat it. Judicious spice availability and better distribution of food stuffs helped avoid most danger of that. Cue's eyes softened as she found a small container of one of her favourite deserts. Where had Avi managed to spring that from, let alone how had she managed to make lunch, Cue wondered.
Jed sighed sadly, and straightened her bed roll on the bed she had released from its storage space in the wall. Sometimes shifting zones were a serious pain in the ass.