Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Omega's Folly: Chapter Ten
The pipes – it turned out not to be one pipe – that required attention were out in a small shed that housed the hotel's emergency back up generator. The floor was literally the levelled dirt, rather than poured concrete. Benny looked over at the hotel owner and raised an eyebrow. "I won't tell the bylaw dicks if you won't," he smiled at her. The historian laughed softly, and used a broom she had pulled out of the pile of tattered leaves by the shed door to remove dirt and dust from around the tangle of piping emanating from a small main. "This is an odd set up, isn't it?" Benny asked.
"Yes and no – it isn't common for the area water main to be inside a shed. Unfortunately, abandoning rural towns is common. Between myself and the shopkeeper, we communally take care of this little shed and try to keep things in shape. This used to be part of a front yard, believe it or not. If the weather breaks for a bit, go poke in the scrub a bit. You'll find bits of asphalt and pavement."
"Hmmph." Benny frowned at the peripheral piping, tracing the paths around the badly cracked and leaking pipe the hotel owner thought needed welding. Unfortunately, it needed rather more than that, especially since it wasn't metal, as a quick test with a magnet showed, but good old fashioned polyvinyl chloride. Ironically, this once cheap and common material was now worth a fortune on the scrap market. There was considerably more going on here than protecting a water main. "Okay – well, I need to dig a trench so I have room to work," digging her work gloves out of her jacket pocket as she spoke. "And I would appreciate it if you could convince someone to get me these supplies." She scribbled a list onto a receipt she dug out of her pocket.
"Can't just weld it?" the hotelier frowned.
"No, I'm afraid not – if the pipe with the problem was some of the nice copper stuff here and here," Benny pointed to a couple of spots. "Probably I could weld to fix it. Trouble is, the frost is coming from water spraying out of this pipe here," She gave the chunk of polyvinyl chloride a gentle thump with one toe. "And I'm very much afraid welding would make more of a mess and stink than anything else."
"Hmmph." the old man said in his turn, apparently unhappy.
"Look, tell you what, I'll go get the stuff." Benny took the list back and sighed. "Be back inside an hour."
The wind was howling, and the rain had changed to a heavy, sticky snow. Benny dashed as best she could in the slippery conditions to her room, and barely managed to get the door open thanks to how difficult it was to get any sort of purchase on the slush, reminiscent of a curling rink, although not quite as smooth. Once inside, she dug out her regulation goggles and woollen headgear, then her drier, heavier jacket. An awful lot for a bad storm in what was still late summer, but running around in her other, now heavily soaked beret and jacket would simply leave her colder than the quick trip through the chilling wind already had. She stumbled back out into the elements and signed out the transport truck, biting her tongue when the man in charge of it made a comment about her probably needing blocks to reach the pedals.
Guiding the hulking thing back into the culvert was surprisingly easy. Benny had figured the first time she managed it had been luck, but apparently the truck was slung higher than she had realized, and the short drop was no real problem. Unfortunately, fabulous drainage aside, the culvert was piling up with snow, captured by the hollow and formed into great, swirled looking drifts. Gunning the engine, Benny got the truck moving and began the slippery trip back to the hardware store, cursing each time a sharp slip swung the front or the back of the vehicle to the side, tossing her around the cab. There was no seatbelt – the army was too butch for seatbelts nowadays, apparently – so Benny found herself struggling to balance her need to avoid flying across the cab against the fact wrenching the steering wheel around could only make matters worse.
Taking the single turn in the path, Benny eased the brake pedal down as she felt the distinct, drifting sensation of the outside tires slipping on the slick snow, rapidly compacting to ice because of its mass and the standing puddles already present. For a moment, it seemed as if she had managed to get control of the truck, but with no ballast in the back the slip turned into a skid, and now she could feel the lift as the wheels started to leave the ground. Swallowing down panic and resisting the urge to hit the brakes, Benny glared fiercely ahead, away from the sides of the culvert – staring at something you could collide with actually helped insure you hit it, instead of helping you avoid it, unfortunately – and made it through the corner. "Okay," she breathed. "Just have to get things under control here, and things should be reasonably okay, or some facsimile thereof." Then a thump, and the truck lurched sideways as the tires on the left side grabbed unexpectedly, slamming Benny into the door, which did her the great service of popping open.
"Holy shit!" Barely catching hold of the handle and the big rectangular loop on the side of the door, Benny found herself careening along, hanging on for dear life. Her weight was pulling the truck over bit by bit, and she realized that her grim problems stemmed from the fact the culvert had a distinct downward slope, not terribly noticable in normal or merely rainy driving conditions. The truck was picking up speed on the downward leg. She struggled to swing herself back in the truck, and nearly made it before the vehicle hit a bump and threw the door she was clinging to out again, slamming her shoulder into the side of the culvert. On the bright side, the impact bounced her back in the right direction and into the cab, and Benny managed to jerk her ankle inside before the door slammed on it. Seeing there was only one thing for it now, Benny snatched the key out of the ignition to kill the engine, then began working to bleed off speed. In the end, she was forced to run the truck into a sizable pile of black garbage bags with a light covering of sticky snow collecting along the fence around the hardware store's parking lot. The windshield, big enough for the sort of panorama shots so ubiquitous in cowboy movies, broke with a pop, throwing roughly trapezoidal chunks of glass all over her.
Wincing and wiping blood off of her cheek from a good sized cut, Benny sighed. The goggles she had put on because visibility was appalling without some artificial assistance now looked as if they had guided a good sized chunk of glass along the side of her face. Folding her arms on top of the steering wheel, she braced her forehead on them and sighed. Noticing the burning, wet sensation from the cut, and her still wild heartbeat. It was moments like this, moments when the forces of the world seemed against her, that Benny seriously considered deserting and living in the woods until the war was over. Whenever that was going to happen.
"Hey, you all right?" The shopkeeper, looking very wide eyed and alarmed.
"Yeah, just a bit rattled. Snow?" Benny looked over at the other woman, peering under her right upper arm.
"Freak weather. Was just listening to what I could on the radio. Damn weatherman is useless as shit. But, look over there," the shopkeeper pointed east, where a rift was visible in the cloud cover. "This stuff should blow out in a couple of hours. Then we'll get an hour or so window. Then probably something else nasty. That's the way these storms tend to act. They come in little bunches. Prob'ly something like those strings of squalls you see sometimes."
"Great." Pushing up her goggles, Benny considered her options. "Do you have any sandbags? I think this little adventure might have been more pedestrian with some ballast in the back. For whatever reason, I never thought of that."
Before she'd let Benny take a chance to do anything else, the shopkeeper demanded she come into the store and allow the ugly gash down her right cheekbone to be stitched. Of course, there was no anaesthetic, so Benny got to learn exactly how it felt to get she had no idea how many small, careful stitches. "I'm not a doctor or a nurse – I'm using a sort of chain stitch," the shopkeeper said calmly, keeping up a steady stream of unwanted information and offhand comments to keep her patient distracted. "To my way of thinking, the windshield in that big Bronco out back should be only a little smaller than what that truck needs, and we can still get it in there."
Before any windshield replacements, there was the matter of cleaning out all of the broken glass, then easing the machine out of the pile of steaming, smelly trash. Gritting her teeth as her stomach struggled to leave through her nostrils, Benny got the engine running and slowly backed up, wincing when the fence remained bowed outwards, and the wide fan of trash scattered everywhere came into her field of view. The snow had retreated in favour of the rain again, and now the big, splattering drops were falling with loud bass thwops all over the faux leather seats in the cab. When they struck the dashboard, the thwops were a sort of tenor. The rhythm was almost pleasant.
Then Benny pulled the vehicle underneath the overhanging veranda in the back of the store, and taking a hammer and a pry tool began removing the rest of the bits of the windshield. She was under no illusions concerning how correct this choice of methods was, but time wasn't exactly plentiful. The original hour was already looking to stretch into two, if not three. "Excellent – I have some piping here, and some other stuff." The other stuff seemed to be most of the front of the Bronco, or at least the part of the front around the windshield, with a cracked but servicable thickness of glass in place. "If we weld some pipe around the frame on this monster, then weld this onto it, your new windshield will even be half assed waterproof. And since we'll be working together for a couple of hours – my name's Aspen." she declared with a grin.
"Aspen, of course." Grinning back, Benny motioned towards the bulky window. "How'd you get it off the other truck so fast?" she asked, honestly puzzled.
"That old Bronc is a lot rustier than it looks – we'll have to do some reinforcing," the shopkeeper replied.
So Benny got to weld after all, although not on pipes, which would have made the old man back at the hotel no happier. She attached the pipes, then handed the gear over to Aspen. Together they clamped the new windshield as firmly as they could, wanting to avoid adding another hundred pounds or whatever it was of broken glass to the collection gracing the pile of trash in odd counterpoint to the rapidly dissolving snow crystals. Aspen got started on the next section of welding, and Benny headed inside to collect piping, wrenches, silicon tape, yet another hammer, and sandbags. Lifting the sandbags into the back of the truck, her shoulder protested fiercely, but Benny ignored it. If she couldn't wield a shovel when she got back, then she'd worry.
Arcs of tiny orange sparks sprayed back from where Aspen crouched on the front of the truck, the sound of blowing heat surprisingly loud. Almost comically so, with the still furious storm drenching things just beyond the edges of the little sloping roof. Such a tiny roar against such a big storm. Turning down the flame, Aspen straightened and pushed up the welding mask, blowing a few sweaty strands of hair out of her eyes. "I can hardly believe how stupid big this damn truck is. I took a look at the back too. It's no wonder you were having such a miserable time down that culvert once it got slick. The thing is stripped down to almost bare transition with a wannabe wooden box for the cargo space."
"No kidding." Benny crouched down, gazing underneath the vehicle, poking at chunks of mud clinging to the battered back bumper. "Probably because we ran short of steel for guns last month. Must have enough metal to make instruments of destruction. To my way of thinking, we should just use baseballs instead of shells, then we'll have an excuse to take baseball bats to the front." Standing up, she stepped up onto one of the stools placed around the truck to make the welding a bit easier. "You're fast."
"Only with the right person." drawled Aspen, winking. Benny blushed vigourously.
"Honestly, that is not what I meant!"
Laughing, the shopkeeper waved a hand at her to relax. "I know that. Joke, hah ha, funny. That sort of thing." Aspen sat down on the nose of the truck and leaned back, crossing her legs at the ankles. "No way I'm gonna believe you don't have some kind of a dirty mind, though. You're too young to be a fogey. Me, I'm plenty old enough to be a fogey. Course, that doesn't mean I am a fogey, because I don't know about you, but I think fogeying around is actually pretty boring." Pulling off her welding helmet altogether, she pushed her fingers through her hair, and watched curiously as Benny fiddled restlessly with the clamps. "S'matter with you? You trying to be invisible while you're in the army, or what?"
Benny blinked in surprise. "No, no, nothing like that. I just..." she let out a gusty sigh, flattening her hands against the side of the vehicle. "Have you ever been in the army?"
"No, thank the Lady." Aspen replied quietly.
"Do you know what happens to lesbians who get officially tagged as such in the forces right now, let alone the army?"
"No, but I think you had better tell me." Aspen said grimly.
"New bill just passed. C817. Any member of the armed forces identified as homosexual will suffer immediate court-martial, three months in military prison, and a one way trip to the nastiest part of the front. I nearly got nailed six months ago, and managed to get off with a month in prison. Boy, let me tell you, that was fun."
"How'd you get charged?" Aspen asked. It beat the hell out of her how it could have happened, because while she wasn't a young woman, she wasn't a bad to look at woman either. During Benny's earlier visit with some of her fellow officers in tow, out of the three, only Benny hadn't really looked at her. In fact, Benny tended to look you straight in the eye, and nowhere else. No way her outward behaviour gave anything away.
A shrug. "I kept a skinny, effeminate guy from having the crap beat out of him, and wound up having to fight off the three goons trying to do the beating myself. Fighting on base gets all the fighters in trouble. These three guys had been in trouble before, so they were on pretty thin ice. They saved their butts by claiming the guy they were going to beat up was a queer, and I must be one too, or I would never have helped him out." Benny smiled faintly. "What saved my butt was the fact this skinny effeminate guy was married with four kids. So I got a month for fighting and for breaking one guy's arm. And a warning that the next accusation of homosexual sentiment or behaviour would be the last one."
"You know, this just proves my theory." Aspen declared. Glancing over, she caught Benny's gaze. "The folks running the government and the forces are living la vida loca." For emphasis, she waved one finger in a slow circle beside her left temple. Setting aside her equipment she added, "Hey listen, you want a cup of coffee, or tea, or something? You look bushed, I'm kinda tired myself, and it's cold out here."
"Sure." Benny grinned, and waited to follow the shopkeeper inside. "Living la vida loca – you think that song old song is their anthem?" Aspen snorted and rolled her eyes as she walked past.
Benny would ponder this whole little episode later, because something obviously shifted during it, she just couldn't quite figure out what. She followed the shopkeeper across the tiny patch of roughly cemented ground to the battered back door, and found that her protective blinkers had run off somewhere, probably with the damned crescent wrench she had put down somewhere earlier and now couldn't find. Aspen was only just old enough to have grown kids, with a solid build earned from years of work. In fact, the way she carried herself made Benny think of a farmer she had met once, in those now oddly far off days when she had been a civilian. Aspen was wearing a heavy, wool-lined jean jacket and a banged up black fedora, battered baggy khakis and solid steel toed boots. It was at the khakis that Benny had found herself suddenly very aware of what those protective blinkers had kept her from seeing before. She blinked a couple of times and shook her head a little.
The other woman's hair was still mostly dark, and she had a surprisingly graceful walk. One of those walks that made you think of movie stars in old films, the femme fatales who smoked cigarettes in holders and strode around in heels, causing palpitations in all watchers. Making even the grizzled old bartender willing to fall over himself to light a cigarette that was already creating a nimbus of blue smoke around her head. Walks were amazing things. A graceful one was always striking, even if the walker was wearing a burlap sack.
Or at least, this was the case for someone like Benny, who had always had a thing for legs, and butts, and the attendant walk owners of those body parts could produce.
"Tcch – wipe your chin, girl." chuckled Aspen, giving Benny a bit of a poke to snap her out of it just a little. "They can't get mad at you for looking, provided you don't drool and spoil the polish on those goofy boots."
Benny grinned, and paused in the next doorway, this one leading into a battered little kitchen. "Thanks." she said simply.
"Hey, no problem. We lesbians have to watch out for each other." Aspen winked, then began rummaging in one of the cupboards. The tiny kitchen was painted a rather awful cross between yellow and a sort of beige, with battered counter tops covered in formica that was probably meant to look like marble. The trouble was, the stuff just looked greasy. A bare bulb burned in its fixture, throwing harsh light across the wobbly round table and its compliment of mismatched chairs. The linoleum underfoot was bubbled and when Benny stepped on it she watched one bubble collapse under her weight and reappear as a ripple just ahead of her foot. "This is the ratty kitchen – able to withstand filthy boots, greasy overalls, and dirty hands with impunity." Putting the kettle on when holding up a teabag drew a grin and a half can of coffee a frown, Aspen continued, "This actually used to be a garage."
"No kidding?" Benny perched carefully on one of the battered chairs. "The linoleum aside, that's actually hard to believe."
"Well, I have had a few years to make it look like something else. Before the economy went to pot, the previous owner had a nice little car repair business going. That's one of the first things to go once most of the people do, of course." Aspen pulled off her jacket and hat, hanging them on a couple of hooks by the door. "Two more hooks." she motioned. "Being as you're staying awhile anyway..."
Grinning – it occurred to her she had been doing that a lot the last half hour or so – Benny gratefully removed the wool hat and stuck it on one of the hooks, then went to work on the fastenings on her jacket, grimacing when her stiffening shoulder complained. The shoulder still seemed workable until she tried to take the heavy coat off, when the pain caught her off guard and actually sent her arm numb. Gritting her teeth, Benny held the injured limb close to her body, hoping that taking at least a bit of the pressure off of it would help.
"Hey, I thought you said you were all right!" Aspen said in alarm. She helped Benny get her jacket and outer shirt off, and blew out a low whistle when she saw the nasty bruise just visible above the collar of her regulation green t-shirt. She ran her fingers over the injured joint and shook her head. "Looks like your shoulder is going on strike for better compensation."
"Hey, no fair, I don't get to go on strike." Benny laughed ruefully. "And here I was hoping maybe it wasn't as bad as it felt." Feeling a bit light headed, she sat down carefully.
"Well, if you didn't hear a big crack noise when you hurt it, it probably isn't broken." Aspen dug around in the fridge gracing one corner of the kitchen, rummaging in its tiny freezer. "Here we go – I think these might be frozen peas. Or are they beans? Oh well, not as if we're gonna eat 'em." Settling the cold package carefully on top of Benny's shoulder, she looked around for a tea towel. "It looks like I'll have to run in and grab a towel..."
"Actually, why don't we just wrap the bag in my other shirt? It's dirty and smelly, but it is right there."
"You my friend, are far too pragmatic for your age." The bag of vegetables was now suitably wrapped, and Benny leaned her head on her good hand, sighing a little. The two women remained in companionable silence for awhile, Aspen moving around quietly finding mugs and spoons. Eventually there was nothing to do but wait for the water.
It had been, Benny realized, a very long day. She swallowed, and rubbed at one temple with her good hand. How to explain her absence, and the peculiar windshield replacement and the rest? Shutting her eyes, she made an effort to push the worries away before they made the headache weighing down her head any nastier. Temporarily preoccupied with her miseries, she didn't hear Aspen slip behind her, or notice immediately when the older woman began carefully kneading her upper back and the muscles of her good shoulder.
"There's no point thinking too hard about stuff you can't change. Trust me on this one, I learnt it the hard way." Aspen's hands stilled a moment. "You just hang in there, until you can change them."
"You think?" It was proving very difficult to resist the urge to just lean back and let her head rest against the woman standing behind her.
"We could go on sparring like this." Aspen commented, finally allowing one hand to stray a little higher, playing with the hair at the nape of Benny's neck.
"We could." Benny agreed, giving in and letting herself relax against the older woman. "It would keep me out of trouble with the army."
"The army isn't here."
"And I'm in trouble anyway."
A soft laugh. "Captain Basilas, you are trouble."
"I don't want to get you in trouble."
"You won't." Aspen gazed down at the younger woman, who clearly had no idea that she was possessed of a quirky, charming smile, and an open, kind face and warm green eyes. Whoever eventually got to wake up to those eyes every morning was going to be one lucky woman.
"I got winged on my way in here." Benny motioned to her bad arm.
"So we'll improvise."
"You know, I think we will."
Books can tell you a lot of things, Benny reflected. She had yawned her way through what had been ironically dubbed a 'sleeper hit' by the press, which centred on a character who passed through a series of steamy, forbidden love affairs. Why had she read it – ah yes, it was a miserably long, boring wait in the office to have her vitals taken and be assigned her first uniform when she had been recruited. The press gangs got paid for stuffing the staging areas, not providing a steady, easy to process stream of handcuffed victims. It had been that novel or tattered, miserably out of date copies of a terrible national magazine that veered between right wing fanaticism and low grade snobbery. Leaving aside the fact the plot had been stupid and unbelievable, the various encounters of the main character had been mechanical, and apparently present for the titillation factor alone. And the funny thing was, real life wasn't like that, really. Instead, it was feeling sort of awkward and embarrassed, because, honestly, what did you say when you had never been involved in a seduction before? Luckily, simply admitting to being tongue tied was just fine.
Some things just happened the way they happened. Before they left the kitchen, Aspen carefully unlaced Benny's boots, and then her own, so they walked in stockinged feet through the small carpeted hallway into the adjoining house. The house had a funny, empty feeling, somehow cold and lonely despite the warm, rich colours and colourful throws draped over the furniture in the living room, the only room Benny saw before she found herself standing in a surprisingly spacious bedroom. There was a picture of a beautiful, Slavic looking woman on the dresser, which was a bit unnerving.
"I wish she was home – I think she'll understand." Aspen sat quietly at the end of the bed, and simply waited for the younger woman to make up her mind.
"I'm going to trust your judgement."
Books tend to miss a few details. Like having a terrible time figuring out how to get an army style belt undone one handed, because you need to release the tension on the little slider, hold it back, and pull through the loose end of the belt, and that's pretty much impossible with one hand, Benny reflected. And as it happened, she was wildly ticklish, and when she and Aspen had finally worked out an arrangement to get the belt removed, Benny had found herself having serious difficulties stopping her giggles long enough for the thing to work. And despite her avid and detailed reading of The Lesbian Sex Book, there had been no section anywhere explaining how the hell to deal with a bra that opened in the front, plus the fact your partner in bed sports had decided to tease you mercilessly by insisting you could so deal with it one handed, you just had to have imagination.
The incessant patter of rain invaded her consciousness first. There was a half hearted bird somewhere close making a bit of noise, although the growing daylight was still diffuse and mostly unhelpful if you wanted to see where you were going. For her part, Benny wasn't too worried about seeing where she was going, as she was laying in a nice, warm bed, still tired. There was nothing physically calling on her to get up, so she ignored the option, tucking the edge of the covers back under her chin and dozing off again.
Some time later, maybe an hour or so, Benny supposed, she woke up again, this time too completely to doze off again. She struggled into a sitting position, growling in pain when she put a bit of pressure on her bad arm. Rubbing a hand over her eyes, for a few moments her brain pretty much refused to make sense of anything, apparently on the grounds that she didn't have her glasses on and everything was fuzzy. A few moments of clumsy groping over the bedside table on the side of the bed she had been sleeping on, then the other finally turned up the spectacles in question, and Benny turned her attention to figuring out what time it actually was.
"It's tomorrow." Aspen said from the doorway, smiling a bit. "Bit of an unplanned longish nap." She brought in some toast and juice with the various associated fixings. "I haven't got much by way of variety."
"Depends what category of thing we're talking about." Benny drawled, accepting a thick piece of toast and adding honey to it. "One thing's for sure, Katrina must be one of the luckiest women alive." This drew a blush from the older woman who concentrated on her own breakfast for a moment.
"I certainly hope so – luck is good stuff to have during a war." Aspen refilled Benny's glass and added, "Been up for a couple of hours already, and I've had an idea. Seems to me all kinds of people must be unable to contact their families right now. There's not too much happening around here. I don't get to be as constructive as I'd like. Maybe you could give me the names of the right people to bother, and I'll see about helping out other folks who need to get their families chased down."
"That's a great idea." Benny leaned back against the headboard, pulling the sheet up a bit to keep her assets from getting full of breakfast crumbs. "I have a few ideas already – I won't be able to pin anything down until I get to Shilo, but I'll write as soon as I do."
"Right – and don't go away from here thinking that's the only letter you can write me, either. We talked about a lot of things last night, and you never mentioned your family even once. What happened? Did you hatch spontaneously from an egg?"
"If I had, that would explain a number of things." Benny commented thoughtfully. "But no, I didn't hatch from an egg, nor did I start life at the age equivalent of fourteen, although since that's the earliest picture I could provide to my high school yearbook committee, that's what they teased me about." Wiggling her toes and watching the quilt shift over them as she did, Benny tried to find an accurate description of how things stood with her blood relations. "I've got a selection of aunts and uncles, and both parents still banging around. Pretty much what it comes down to is they don't call, and they don't write. I used to call, and I used to write, but they didn't answer. So I gave up." She absently brushed crumbs off the coverlet. "I've got other family in southern Europe and Turkey, so I figure after the war I'll probably look them up."
Aspen shook her head slowly. "I don't understand people. All this crabbing about the destruction of the family – well, if you won't answer letters, that really doesn't help. Sort of like cutting off your own nose to spite your face, then complaining your glasses have nothing to sit on."
Since lateness was already a given, there hardly seemed a point in doing a bad job on finishing the truck. Kitted out in some work clothes belonging to Laurel, Benny went back to work on the welding while Aspen cheerfully insisted on tossing her regular clothes through the laundering process. Part of Benny's training included basic vehicle maintenance, so after the windshield seemed stuck on well enough not to promptly fall off, she did some work on the engine, and then grimaced in disgust at the bald tires. There was nothing to be done for that just now, as the tires were an extra wide type the forces had switched to with the idea of making the vehicles more versatile without making them four wheel drive. The plan worked surprisingly well, provided the tires were replaced and rotated at the proper intervals.
"No more freak snow is in the wishful thinking masquerading as a forecast, so your trip back shouldn't be too unusual..." Aspen stopped short, blinking in surprise when she realized she couldn't see the stocky army captain anywhere.
"I'm right here, and listening." Benny waved her good arm from underneath the truck, where she was braving the various scary substances that tended to leak out of the various hydraulic systems on vehicles to make sure the brakes were actually working.
"And your listening skills are impressive. See what I meant yesterday? This truck is stupid big." Shaking her head in disbelief, the shopkeeper knelt down by the front of the truck and added, "Your nasty green army togs are ready for use again." She paused. "Funny how none of your nasty army associates haven't come hunting for you."
"Been thinking about that myself." Benny carefully loosened a small valve, as according to the little maintenance book she had found in the glove compartment, you needed to make sure something nasty and purple would spray out of it when it was opened to the outside air. If the stuff sprayed as expected, the brakes worked. Of course, there were two valves to open, one on each side. No matter what, the test was going to be interesting. "At the very least, you'd think they'd care what happened to the truck. It's been requisitioned in somebody's name."
"Mmmph. Maybe you should take your chance."
One valve produced purple stuff, the other green. "Oh great." Benny muttered. "What the hell is this green crap?" This didn't mean she wasn't considering what had just been suggested. She was. Quite seriously.
"The idea has crossed my mind more than once. Trouble is, the whole world is at war. Where would I go? A deserter is pretty much out of luck, no matter what happens or where they go." Examining the thickness of the two types of fluid, and deciding to gamble that the green stuff was just a different type of brake fluid, Benny tightened the valves again and pushed herself out from under the truck, making the little rolling platform she was laying on squeal in protest. "So I'm sort of stuck with what I've got. For the time being." She sat up. "It could be worse."
"Worse?" Aspen sounded unconvinced.
"Oh yes – somehow I'm quite sure some variant on being stuck in banking would be worse. Can you imagine – you don't even get to count dirty old money all day, machines get to do the only good part!"
"Uncertainty principles and chaos theory. What dreck." Delos muttered as she double checked Benny's condition, which was much improved now that her fever had broken. The medication had finally kicked in from the look of it, and with the added boost her immune system was having more success.
"Delos?" croaked Benny, managing to pry her eyes open. "Delos, you have to go and check on Arion, she fell through the roof."
"What?!" astonished and baffled, Delos stopped in mid-motion, pen poised above her casebook. "I already checked her, she's fine – how did you know?"
"And maybe clean off the bed." Benny mumbled, beginning to doze off again.
"Right – more bed rest for you." shaking her head a bit, Delos returned to her notes. Maybe Arion had said something. Otherwise, how could Benny have known about it? Making sure her patient was comfortable and soundly asleep, Delos tucked away her casebook and went out to the solarium, where Arion, Chris, and Jed were busy cleaning. They had been gone most of the day at work, of course, and Delos found herself truly unnerved by her time basically alone in the house. It groaned and creaked, the way older houses are wont to do, and there would be regular tappings and thumpings that reminded her irresistibly of footsteps. Then, despite an impressively detailed map Jed drew from memory, Delos had spent the better part of two hours hopelessly lost. The place was definitely a far cry from the tiny one bedroom apartment they had shared in England for three years. Since they had been in graduate school and medical school respectively, it hadn't been huge or luxurious, but it had been enough.
The apartment had been fairly nice in fact, even after it began to get overrun by the evidence of Delos' medical studies and Jed's physics experiments. The front wondow gave them a fine view of the park not far away, and if you craned your neck a bit you could look at the university campus. They had pursued a running argument over how to decorate their bedroom, as Jed had a fondness for oddly composed artworks made of metal that looked suspiciously like ruined lab apparatus, and Delos liked rather more ordinary things. Nice paint, a few flowers, matching furniture and curtains, that sort of thing. They had settled on a compromise over Jed's bicycle, which was allowed to occupy a part of the tiny living room provided she found a way to wrap it in material that would keep it from ruining the threadbare carpet any further. Replacing carpet was expensive, and Delos had been afraid of the landlord nailing them for it when they moved out.
In the end, this outrageously complicated, ludicrously big, insanely hard to maintain house was the best possible place for her ex-lover to live, Delos admitted to herself. She just wasn't sure if this was true of anyone else, even Chris, who had sensitive lungs thanks to her war injuries and didn't need the dust.
Arion walked briskly by, rolling a wheelbarrow piled high with pots full of rock hard potting soil and broken bits of fired clay. Chris and Jed were working over the collapsing couch, literally pulling it to pieces. "Unfortunate we can't save the poor old thing." The chemist commented as a spring popped out with an impressive 'sproing' noise.
"Maybe." Jed sounded doubtful. She wasn't much for couches. They were generally too short for her tall frame, and too narrow for a proper cuddle, in her experience. She began tossing the chunks of wooden frame and sagging upholstery into a second wheelbarrow. "Only so much of it is recyclable, unfortunately."
"Hey, look at this, a tree." Chris grinned, and pointed at a rather shocked looking denizen of one of the darkest corners. "Wonder what kind it was."
"Mayday tree." Delos piped up from her favoured spot in the doorway. "They're nice trees. I have two of them in my backyard."
"Mayday? As in the plane distress call?" Chris sounded unconvinced.
"That's what they're called where I come from. Eerrk!" Not taking in Delos' position until a bit too late, Arion banged into the backs of her knees, depositing her into the wheelbarrow with a thump, and moving her briskly well into the room before managing to stop.
"Good grief, woman. What are you standing in such a ridiculous spot for?" Arion made a shooing gesture to get the healer out of the barrow, then began gathering up more pots and dead plant bits to cart away.
"Why don't you look where you're going?" Delos snapped crossly. Before the other woman could answer, a rather frenzied beeping began to emanate from her pants pocket. Successfully extricating the cell phone, Arion settled it against her ear, then remembered to press the 'answer' button and tried again.
"Arion Adams speaking."
"Hello, ma'am. I have a requisition form here, for a rather peculiar list of materials. Perhaps you could authorize or cancel it?"
"Why Waldbilling? What does it say?" Arion frowned irritably and smacked the remains of a fern flat. She was well aware of what the order had said, and had hoped that just once Waldbilling wouldn't be her maniacally efficient self and let it go.
"All right, here goes: ten boxes high grade printing paper; one hundred and eighty two by fours, divided into lots of two dozen; two bags of nails; one hammer; five bags of Swiss recipe chocolate; and a sublist of various sorts of machinery and parts I don't recognize, to be packed in the same crate." Waldbilling tapped the end of her pencil on the blotter in front of her, and waited.
"Fine. What's wrong with the list?" Arion frowned in confusion.
"It's being delivered to your office."
"Five bags of Swiss recipe chocolate?"
"I've run out."
"I self publish, you know that Waldbilling." Arion's tone began to get tight and angry.
"It's more the parts than anything else – some of them are usually purchased from the United States, and their customs officers are asking a lot of questions. They think you're a terrorist."
"Then retract the order and give it to some one else, or send me a list of the stuff that's problematic and I'll send you a different list of alternates." Shoving the load in the wheelbarrow into a better balanced configuration, Arion waited for the next complaint.
"Is it really necessary to buy equipment Americans firmly believe are meant to track the movements of their airforce?"
"Well Waldbilling, pretty much if we intend to prevent planes from crashing into each other when they come in to land at our airport." Arion replied shortly. "Never mind, I'll deal with it myself." She hung up, scowling angrily. "Jed, you were talking about having your students build a radio telescope?"
"Yes." Jed answered, picking up the handles to her own wheelbarrow.
"Do you think you could build a radar array instead?"
Quentin idly paged through the ancestry files, looking around for the Basilas clan and the Skinner-Graves. It wasn't at all clear to her what had happened to the latter, nor where the former had come from. It was as if they had dropped out of the sky and started procreating. Frustrated, she tried a completely silly search, trying to see if Bellonis plus bard would come up with something, and nearly had a heart attack when her computer screen suddenly overflowed with search hits, including a neat list of Basilases and a few scattered Skinner-Graves.
"Well, I'll be. Looks like somebody didn't index you folks properly. Now why would that be?" Quentin skimmed through some more material, updating the database as she went. Curious as this behaviour might seem for a queen, it was actually part of her job to see to it that Amazons could find their families in the outside world. Most people only had a very minimal amount of information recorded. Others had entire genealogies carefully recorded and annotated, many of them in hopes of finding some connection to the throne, despite the fact 'queen' was rather a misnomer nowadays. Queens were chosen by lot from a group of twenty seven women elected from the general population. And mostly, the queen did stuff like open new buildings on the less serious side, and hardcore diplomacy with the rest of the world if she had good interpersonal skills. The queens those questing families were searching for a connection to were from a bygone age, when queens still occasionally had to fight challengers, and their daughters could inherit the throne directly. That didn't work quite so well once you had millions of women to deal with, so the system had been reluctantly retired.
The Skinn-Graves who had spent a some time in jail had successfully kicked her gambling habit although not her mean streak, and ultimately finished up in the second world war, killed in a bombing raid on Dresden. It wasn't quite clear what she had been doing in Germany, and Quentin quietly closed the file. She had no intention of finding out. Given the conditions and the woman's personality profile, it was far too likely she had been a Nazi. The last Skinner-Graves listed had lived alone in her half of Omega's Folly, quietly going to work at the bank every week day for thirty years, producing scintillating prose under the name of Raven Basilas until the ripe old age of eighty six. The unfortunate Nazi connections of several members of the Skinner-Graves family besides the nasty ex-gambler had led someone to change their name to the illustrious nom de plume, and just like that, things became much clearer. At least where Benny was concerned. Arion, with her peculiar lack of most of a past, was still an enigma.
- There did used to be such a book, an early edition with no BDSM or other such stuff in it, illustrated with line drawings of diverse women for a definitely non-male gaze. Alas, I can't relocate it yet to provide a proper reference.
- This is a real phenomenon. In older houses, as Louise Erdrich notes in her wonderful novel The Painted Drum, the wooden floors in old houses spring back with a sort of counter step when left alone, repeating the steps set on them through the day.