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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

FICTION at the Moonspeaker

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

Omega's Folly: Chapter Five

Quentin leaned back in the car, feeling fully relaxed for the first time in a day and a half of travelling. She was back in her Nation. Women had been arriving from twelve hours after her phone call, and things were going smoothly. Better yet, they were off of the plane, and Avi was sleeping soundly beside her, a soft cover novel sprawled across her chest. Her partner peered at it, wondering which tome by her favourite author she was reading this time. Waiting for the Volcano declared the cover. Ah hah. Actually, Quentin reflected, she really liked this particular author herself. Digging the receipt stub from the airport fee out of her pocket, she used it to mark Avi's page and started the novel herself.

One of the main characters was sprawled hedonistically on the beach before the car slowed, and someone rapped on the window. The queen was ready for this. Pulling a peculiarly coloured object from her jacket pocket, she made sure nothing was plugged, then used the tacky little switch to get the window to slide open. "Power windows." she snorted to herself, rolling her eyes. "Hello, you rapped?" And as soon as the other woman had turned around, she aimed and fired, cheerfully drenching the other woman with her water gun.

"Arrrgh!" Very eloquent, Quentin figured. Avi, still utterly exhausted, barely twitched, making small, disapproving noises at the racket and cuddling up to her partner. "Dammit Cue!" Arion wrung her hands in disgust, water dripping off the tip of her nose.

"Had to be done, had to be done – congratulations on the book. It's flying out of the stores."

"I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Flying as in lots of people are buying it, or flying as in storekeepers are tossing it out because the critics hate it?" Arion asked sourly, wiping at her face with one hand. The queen tipped her head to one side.

"Maxine has been getting to you again, hasn't she?" Arion sighed, and walked around the car, slipping in beside Avi, carefully folding up her legs.

"A bit. I'm so tired of her picking at everything. My academic qualifications, my publications, my personal life, where I was during the war. What country I'm really from, are my business interests really legitimate – blah, blah, blah." Arion peered at Avi for a moment, expression thoughtful. "She is pretty cute."

Quentin laughed. "She's far more than cute, of course. Avi is the most beautiful woman in the world." This drew a snort from the woman in question, who had drifted up out of sleep soon enough to hear "...isn't she?" before her lover had spoken. The red head to her right laughed softly, then leaned back into the still plush but slightly ratty seat, putting her hands behind her head. A little smile curled her lips, and Arion gazed benignly at the trees with their carefully pegged on signs indicating another fifty kilometres to the Academy.

"Okay, I have to ask – who or what are you thinking of that could thrust dear Maxine so completely from your mind?" Avi asked, having woken up fully and retrieved her novel from Quentin's lap. She peered intently at the other woman, trying to imagine how strange it must be for her partner, who saw a stranger but heard an old friend every time she and Arion got together.

"Hmm? Oh, nothing, nothing really. I was just noticing the signs on the trees for the first time, really noticing them. The new fac member Benton Basilas, finds it completely absurd they weren't just nailed on. I pointed out it was completely absurd to notice it in the first place, and she told me it was the only way to avoid dying of heart attack when seated in a vehicle Chris or Jed is driving." Blinking in surprise at how much she had spoken in a stretch, she shifted a bit uncomfortably, examining the small hole crowning one of her cloth covered bony knees. "She's one of those people who gives off nice vibes." It sounded quite lame even to her ears, even though it was the truth.

"Vibes?" Avi turned to the queen. "Your majesty, did I just hear the word 'vibes' from our esteemed computer engineer who is in fact an environmental engineer?"

"Yes, yes, you did, you did – so did I. Could it be? Could it be that the great, grim, determinedly eccentric A. X. Adams of business tycoon fame is..."

"Don't say it." Arion growled warningly.

"Oh yes, it must be so!" laughed Avi.

"No, no, it isn't. Don't be ridiculous. It hasn't even been a month, and I hardly see her."

"She's blushing – Artemis the mighty, she's blushing – oooh, I bet you're in her office almost as much as you are in yours!" Avi was starting to get sore sides from laughing so hard.

"You're so cruel to me." pouted Arion.

"Of course we are, we love you. And it sounds like you're screwing up your courage to ask the mysterious Benton Basilas out on a date." shifting her artificial leg a bit, Quentin considered taking it off. The sensation of the smooth cup against her stump got a bit nasty and sticky from the sweat and gunk travelling always involved.

"No, no. I couldn't do that." twitching at one of her loose shirt cuffs.

"I suppose." Quentin gracefully changed the subject. "Did you see that plane full of nuns? We got our luggage just as they were disembarking. At first I thought their plane had had engine trouble, and therefore had a forced stopover. Would you believe they're joining the Nation?"

******

"I have to what?!" Benny stared at the older woman in disbelief. "Look, please don't misunderstand me, it's not that I don't care for challenges and such things. And certainly, the work is something to be glad of." she folded her glasses, then unfolded them and put them back on. "It's just, I can't speak French, really. Yes, I'm Canadian, very technically speaking due to an appalling paperwork loophole, but a French speaker that does not automatically make!"

"Well, you're the closest we've got, and someone simply must explain how the Nation works to this group of French nuns. They are very nice."

Benny swallowed hard. A plane full of French nuns. French nuns. It beggared the imagination, and somehow there was simply no one else with even a reasonable amount of French language ability around at the moment to deal with them. Nuns. All Benny could think of were repeated images of Julie Andrews in a nun outfit, which she was sure wasn't quite right – surely someone else was the Flying Nun? But that wasn't helping. Goddess was it ever not. Nuns? Nuns? "And you're forgetting, I've only just got here myself. How can I teach them about the Nation? Even I haven't had the beginner's course yet."

"Too late." declared Maxine, smiling rather cruelly. "Deal with it."

Standing patiently on the grass in front of the Administration building were fourteen, no fifteen nuns, in civilian gear, surprisingly enough. Benny considered that. Except on television, admittedly, she had never seen a nun in a habit. So maybe the civilian gear shouldn't have been surprising. She stepped forward hesitantly, twitching her tie and wishing irrationally that she had polished her boots. "Ah, ahem – bonjour." Wincing, as her very anglophone accent emerged in her resoundingly unrolled 'r,' although her Amazon language lessons had already improved it a bit. "How was your trip – how do I say that – umm – comment – how was – votre voyage?" Half covering her eyes with one hand. Then she blinked, remembering at belatedly long last a key section of her old army foreign language phrase book. "No, wait, I can do better than that!" Not that her English accent was any better, but this time Benny said in reasonably clear French syllables, "Avez-vous fait bon voyage?"

The head nun, or at least the spokesnun – Benny giggled in spite of herself at that thought as the nun smiled kindly. "Oui, c'est ça. Parlez-vous Français?" A bit surprised by the question, because, it had to be sort of obvious she didn't really, Benny answered slowly, waggling one hand in the air. "Comme çi comme ça – well, no that's not really true. Ah, je parle Français, mais, je parle Française – mal." She groaned inwardly. That sentence was bad grammar in English, she could hardly imagine how badly she had just mangled that poor sentence in French.

"Non, non!" declared the nun. "Comme çi comme ça." then she winked. Straightening her tie and pushing her hair out her eyes, Benny grinned a bit, and took a breath.

"D'accord." she did know how to say 'all right' at the least. And things like, 'Where's the bathroom?' and 'I'm hungry.' so presumably she could survive for awhile. It was a good thing to know when somebody was needing to deal with various bodily needs. A couple of Amazons walked by, carrying boxes labelled 'sex education materials' in big red letters, one with a large – Benny almost swallowed her tongue when she realized just what was protruding from one flap – anatomically correct prop teetering precariously where it was balanced on top of a bundle of worksheets. She had never seen that represented in that way in all her born days, and that was a fact. Maybe she should take that class after all. She had assumed it was for the older kids when she saw the listing for it on the bulletin board at the Academy.

"Qu'est que ç'est?" laughed one of the nuns, prodding one of her companions as she directed the question at Benny.

"Mais non, oh la la, regard, qui-est-ce?" interrupted the nun whose riot of dark curls kept getting in her eyes, making her look cherubish.

"C'est Brigitte La Bombe!" all fifteen nuns chorused together.

"On second thought," Benny muttered, "Maybe I had better ask Artemis nicely to come and get me now." Now officially way out of her depth, she wondered where these nuns could possibly be from that they were singing a section of one of the French textbooks she had used in grade school.

******

One more step. A very careful step, but one more step was all that was necessary. Arion took a deep breath, and asked herself, one more time, what in the hell had convinced her to say 'Sure!' to Jed's gentle request that she have a look at the weird passage between the two halves of Omega's Folly. From way up here, on the roof, the peculiar convolutions of the place reminded her of some weird, Dali-esque rendition of a brain. Then again, maybe it was just the vertigo. The gawky woman simply refused to admit to herself that she had half hoped to see Benton at home – maybe wheedle her into one of those all purpose cups of tea – listen to Dinesceau instead of Beethoven. She sighed. Trouble was, it was early in the day for Benny to be home, and most times she worked as late if not later than Arion herself.

A deep breath, and Arion stepped across the gap, onto the little stone catwalk running beside the vault over the passage. Everything looked solid, no leaks or other problems. The view was actually quite pleasant, and Arion blinked in surprise when she realized this was where one of the better pictures of two of her aunts had been taken. They had been standing on this catwalk together, arms around each other's waists, grinning broadly. In the middle of a lightning storm. Put simply, they adored the wind and rain. To them, it had simply never mattered how awful things were, even in the middle of the worst days of the war. Always, they asked for only one thing, to be together. The Goddess had arranged it.

Arion peered at the highest point on the vault. Eight spidery looking ribs spread out from it, reminding her of the story of Athena in spider form, watching over the world. She was supposed to stretch across the dome of the sky, the way those ribs did over the vault. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, and hitching up her blue jeans, Arion tossed one leg over the catwalk railing, carefully finding her balance on one of the ribs. Then she followed it with the other and began to walk about the vault, every step placed flawlessly on each rib, never putting the slightest pressure on the stones stretching in between. Catlike, to go with the catwalk, Arion thought to herself with a broad grin.

What she was searching for now, the ancient stained glass windows that had once been present all around the circumference of the vault where it joined the walls. Over time new additions to the house hid them or led to their removal, but a few were probably still letting the daylight in. The effect was bound to be eerie and unexpected, especially if you really didn't expect any windows to be there. The only reason she and Jed knew about them was because they had dug out one of the massive volumes containing blueprints of the house dating from the addition of the vault. At last, Arion located thirteen different windows, and a tiny porthole.

Peering through the porthole first, Arion could barely make out the interior of the vault. Drawing out a flashlight, she pulled a walkie-talkie out of her other jacket pocket and depressed the 'transmit' button. "All right Jed, I am shining my flashlight through a porthole dealie now." The walkie-talkie spouted some crackling, then,

"Right. Okay – I can see the beam. It's only in the vault though – hey, there are stars and so forth painted up there." Jed sighed. "Have to clean those and the windows, then."

"Summer project, Jed. Lucky for us, right now it's fall." Arion grinned, knowing the other woman would be chuckling. "Okay, now, shining the flashlight through window number one." This went on, checking each window, and each showed that there was no way to get a beam of sunlight directly to the floor. It would be bounced around the vault until it was diffused into a fascinating glow that lit up the representation of the sky painted on it. "Well, I'll be right down and check the midway with you." Arion said, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Right."

By the time she arrived, Jed had gotten a tall, shockingly rickety ladder, a bucket of soapy water, and a squeegie. "Might as well clean the windows." the physics professor declaimed as she began doing just that. Arion grinned. Her friend liked to tinker with this house the way she tinkered with web pages and computer programs. As soon as something interesting or new turned up, she simply had to incorporate it, or make a cool something that was broken work again. Watching the other woman squeegie for a moment longer, she pulled the flashlight out again and began prowling the floor.

"There has to be a reasonable explanation."

"Of course there is. The Omicron has been poking her head in, having a look at the place, making sure it's taken care of."

Arion sighed testily. "Don't be ridiculous, Jed. There's no way she could do that. She's been dead these past two hundred years."

"How do you know she couldn't do it? Who died and made you Artemis?" Jed snapped.

"There's no such thing as ghosts." declared Arion. "You know that as well as I do, Jared." Time to lay on the heavy logic, always signalled by the use of full names.

The other woman had climbed down and shifted her ladder so she could clean the next two windows. "I don't know that at all. Shakespeare had Hamlet say that there were more things on Heaven and Earth than in his dorky buddy Horatio's philosophy – and I think that holds quite true in this world just as in fictional ones."

"Right, Next you'll be telling me I'm the reincarnation of some ancient warrior and Benton is the reincarnation of an Amazon queen." snorted Arion.

"Why not? I believe in reincarnation."

"You're a physicist!"

"And by the grace of the Goddess I know better than to think the sciences alone can explain everything perfectly. They must simplify in order to explain, especially physics. Ghosts, reincarnation, all that, is a part of what happens with humans. And humans are so complex we physicists don't even talk too loudly about how the quantum universe might or might not affect human behaviour." Jed was warming up now, and not just because climbing up and down the ladder and cleaning windows was hard work.

"Whatever you saw last night, it wasn't the ghost of a long dead Omicron."

"Sure. Could easily have been her. She'd be a skywalker, now." Jed replied, inexorably. Arion threw up her hands in disgust. "Hey, what did you used to look like, anyway?"

"Come again?" blurted Arion, thrown off by the segue.

"Found a bunch of old photographs last night, and I was hoping to get them all assigned to the right people in the grand family album this weekend. There are pictures of three of the omicrons from the turn of the century." Best to leave aside arguments that would yield no agreement even to disagree.

"Ummm..." frowning, as she found herself in front of a door that Jed had already told her lead nowhere, because a mistake on the part an eager house renovator who had unwittingly directed her carpenters to wall it up. "Well – I used to be..." she rubbed at her chin unconsciously. "Well, I guess I am still square jawed – mostly I'm thinner in the face, really. My nose used to be a rather crooked version of your aunt Artie's but it's straight now. Ah hell, I don't know how to say in words – more like an Adams. Less like – like..." she stopped and threw open the dead end door. "Scarface. Son of a bitch."

Having power cleaned her way to the thirteenth window, this wasn't quite the statement Jed expected. "Pardon?"

"You said this door was walled up."

"It is."

"It isn't."

"Yes it is."

"No, it isn't." Arion was looking across a vast, dusty foyer. A huge flight of stairs trailed in a spiral up to a long landing that disappeared into the rest of the house. A smaller door into a bit of storage space, or maybe a cellar was visible half tucked underneath. Considering the position she was standing in, this door had to have once been the entryway.

"Oh, this door – no, no, the one on the other side is blocked up. Only half of this one is – this used to be double doors, but one was pulled out. The other one is the door to Benton's room now. This," now Jed trotted into the dusty foyer. "This used to be the main entry to all of Omega's Folly. Then the weather changed, and to keep drifts of snow from blocking up the front door, A. X. Samtrez Adams simply had the first part of the area you're standing in built, and turned the front door ninety degrees."

"Oh." Arion goggled, pulling off her cobalt blue glasses to reveal luminous, lapis eyes. "Don't any of you ever use this?"

"Sure. For storage, mostly. Remember, at the moment basically only four of us live here full time. Now the call has gone out, that will change, of course." Jed paused in front of an ancient oil painting. Drawing a handkerchief from one pocket, she carefully wiped the dust from the canvas, revealing the de rigeur sharp features, dark hair, and silvery green eyes of a long dead member of her family. "Would you look at that – it's Rolly!" she crowed delightedly. "Rolly was a sailor. Have I told you any stories about her? Did you know..."

"Save it for tea time, Jed." Arion smiled fondly. The only thing Jed enjoyed as much, maybe more, than physics, was recounting the various deeds and misdeeds of their ancestors. Replacing her tinted spectacles, she added, "I still think you must have been overtired, Jed. There's no such thing as ghosts, and this house has enough weird atmosphere to make an owl jumpy. Where'd you go?" She strolled around, hunting for the other woman, finally picking her out on the landing.

"Did you hear me?"

"Of course I did." the woman on the landing replied. "You should know better than to make such categorical statements." she leaned on the banister. "Why, if wasn't for the things you'd like to deny, you'd be doomed to a very lonely life."

"What?!" Arion stuck a finger in one ear and jiggled, then the other, and jiggled again. "Jed, did you hit your head on something? You're not even talking like yourself."

"Don't be ridiculous. Of course I talk like myself. It's just that I'm not Jed." a flash of white teeth in a broad smile, and the mysterious woman began to walk away.

"Hullo, Omicron."

"Hullo, Jed." she replied, pausing.

"How are things on the other side, then?"

"A little tedious. To be expected this time of year, when the weather is so calm."

"Good point. I have missed the nice booming storms."

"Precisely. Good bye."

"See you later." Jed replied, dutifully sticking to the edict she had long set for herself, never to say good bye.

"Oy vey." sighed Arion.

"Told ya." Jed crowed happily. "Tea?"

"Please."

******

Benny sighed tiredly, trudging up the walk to the front door. The French nuns had been absolutely wonderful, and taught her more French inside the afternoon than seven years of school classes. They appreciated her efforts to speak to them in their first language, and it soon turned out they were French nuns from Québec. Troubles still lingered there from the Extreme Separatiste party trying to take Québec out of Canada via a dangerous fling with the Red Army - West that backfired into a hasty mobilization to fight with the Canadians against a two prong Blue Army and Red Army - West assault. It hadn't made anyone feel better when the two opposing armies turned ferociously on each other at the first opportunity. The end result for Québec and Canada was a proper revision of their confederation that cleaned up a great many problems as both countries readjusted to their new borders and sheepishly began negotiating for water access with their northern and southern neighbours. The work on those tasks went on through the rest of the war, even as the Red Army - West retreated back south deep into central United States territory and tried a new media offensive to explain why they felt driven to take the "Red Army" designation away from the godless communists. Those times had been as terrifying as they were weird.

Benny was only so aware of how these aspects of the general political situation had developed so far east of where she had ended up before coming to the Amazon Nation, so she found the nuns' explanations more than a little eye opening. Both Canada and Québec were more densely populated than they had been in nearly four hundred years, and the Expansionistes had finally left Manitoba for good, marching the Orangemen out with them.

Then they moved on to less sensitive topics. Like the weather, the rotten politicians left over from before the Fast Evolution media fiasco of 2017, and commiserated over how very irritating it got when people claimed that it always rained in Vancouver and always snowed in Québec. The first problem was that they had both place names wrong. Then, at the end of the day, after several – okay, maybe a few more than that – beers, Benny escorted her faintly tipsy charges to their temporary homes. Halfway there, they noticed a bare flagpole. They all looked at it.

The spokesnun prodded the dark haired professor, and winked conspiratorially. Pulling open her sturdy dufflebag, she revealed a carefully folded flag. For a mad moment Benny expected it to be a Canadian one, or even the confederation flag with the blue and red maple leaves on it. Maybe it was too much beer and feeling homesick. Her eyes pricked with tears and she wished for the flag of her country. That would be nice.

Sensibly enough it was none of these. Instead, it was a freshly sewn and embroidered Amazon Nation flag, with the standard triangle insert of the flag from the nuns' own country. The Québec stripes and fleur de lis looked a bit odd, but then the whole point of the insert was to insist on the importance of origin countries in a visual way. Benny had forgotten how most church decorations were made by either nuns or secular women working for their church. The flag was huge, and no small amount of work.

It took two hours, but they figured out how to string the flag up properly and how to get it to the top of the flagpole, between irritated comments about the Americans and the baseball championship stupidity of the early nineties. Getting Canada's flag upside down was about as easy as getting the American flag upside down. The thing rankled on principle. If it had been the other way around, no doubt it would have been a huge international incident. It rankled them, and it wasn't even their flag involved.

Okay, okay, Benny had had to acknowledge to herself, as the flag climbed steadily up the pole, helped along by steady hands drawing the rope downward in arm lengths. So she would have laughed her guts out if they had gotten away with something like that. But then, she didn't actually share the notion that any flag was so sacred as never to be allowed to touch the ground and that sort of thing. As she had told one of the Amazons who happened to be American earlier that day, she didn't dislike Americans, she really didn't. She just disliked the American government. And if it helped any, she didn't like the Canadian government either. The other Amazon had laughed merrily and replied, "You and most Americans alike, sugar." It was a wonderful, double edged answer.

The flag stretched itself out in the wind, and for several long moments, sixteen transplanted women just stood there and watched it. Then, the eldest of the nuns began to sing, her voice quavery, and a little off key, the words to the newest version of Canada's anthem, the one written so the words were the same in meaning in French and English, and could even work in several First Nations languages. Spontaneously, fifteen other voices joined her. When the new anthem had come out, someone had joked on international television that the writer should win the Nobel peace prize, for managing such an extraordinary thing. It was a sad joke because the Nobel peace prizes were already so discredited by then. In any case, as odd as singing the Canadian anthem may have seemed to bystanders, they were honouring the country that had at least seen them safely off to the Amazon Nation. Never mind the press gang that "drafted" her into the war, the immigration officials, or "get us the hell out of here officials" as they were nicknamed, were good people.

Next they sang the Amazon Nation's anthem in call and response mode, as Benny only had one copy of the words, dug hastily out of her jacket pocket. She promised to get back to the nuns with their own copies as soon as possible. Then, Benny had gotten her charges home, and wondered at what had gotten into them all, to stand there, spontaneously singing like that. She was usually much shyer about that sort of thing.

Sitting in the Academy canteen, sipping at a cup of tea that tasted sadly like dishwater. 'This is what happens when you let a restaurant outfitter provide your orange pekoe.' Benny decided irritably. Her American friend had smiled broadly.

"I know exactly what got into you people."

Benny had raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, you put that thing down. You Canadians are the most patriotic people I've ever run into. It's hard to explain the difference, in a way." the curly haired woman grimaced at her mug, swirling the contents a little. "This coffee is miserable."

"You should try the tea." Benny declared unhappily. "I'm not Canadian except by a sort of weird accident actually..."

"You sound like Chris – barring the accent, are you sure you're not English?" pushing aside her cup, she continued. "Let me think about it, then I'll be able to explain what I mean better. Not that I don't think myself and my fellow Americans aren't super-patriotic, mind." she grinned. She slapped her hand on the table. "I've got it!"

Benny goggled at her. She was going to have to go along with this. Think fast.

"Benny, what's that thing you've got sewn onto the sleeve of your jacket?"

"Err – a Canadian flag. But this is my demob jacket from the army, I didn't choose it."

"Would you ever buy a hockey stick in the States?"

"What?" Benny blurted in outrage. "Of course not! Err – I mean – well, look, I can't get the sort of hockey stick I like in the States." she blushed.

"How about a car?"

"A car?"

"Would you buy a car in the States?"

"No, the exchange rate is terrible."

"Agree if the Canadian government said, 'Hey, let's become the fifty first state.'?"

"That is not even remotely related to funny." Benny declared seriously. That kind of nonsense from the politicians had provided a pretext for the worst Blue Army bombing offensive of the war in northern North America.

Her interrogator grinned triumphantly. "See what I mean?"

"No." Benny replied, baffled. Had she and her American companion been in the same war?

"Sweetheart, you reacted just as vigorously to the very idea of slipping a bit of the ol' stars and stripes into your hockey bag as to making Canada a part of the United States. That my friend, is exactly what I mean."

"You make it sound so irrational." scowled Benny. Good, the other woman was distracted from slipping into war talk, where most likely a verbal minefield waited. It was true Benny couldn't get her preferred brand of hockey stick in the United States though, just not for the reason the other woman assumed.

"Of course it is." the other woman leaned across the table and whispered. "Our constitution was signed August thirty first, and we still make a mess and racket on the fourth of July. You think that's rational?"

Benny chuckled softly, as she wrestled the front door open. Apparently, the way her American friend saw it, the more irrational your patriotism was, the more patriotic you were. And this was all perfectly all right, unless you got into starting wars, and that sort of nasty thing. Unable to find any reason or point to arguing, and more than delighted to stave off possibly awkward questions, Benny had smiled and excused herself for the evening. Summer would be soon enough to show off her maple leaf tattoo, emblazoned on one arm. That had come from a night when she and her fellow unit members had been painting the town during the war. The next morning, they were heading into a major offensive, and chances were good most of them wouldn't make it. So they had gotten maple leaf tattoos, to be sure the Blues knew good and damned well who had helped kick their asses. Then they spent awhile arguing over whose maple leaf it was anyway, agreeing that Canada could keep the red and blue ones to itself.

There was a light on in the library, which meant the potential for a decent cup of tea and a little bit of company before she fell into bed was a distinct possibility. Dropping her briefcase, jacket and hat in her room, she turned her weary steps to the dusty, cozy edifice.

To her surprise, Chris, Jed, and Arion were sitting around a table at one end of the second level, arguing merrily over what looked like a very large book, and a disheveled pile of photographs. "Hey, what's up?" she asked, after labouring up the steps and making her way to stand beside Arion.

"Great Artemis woman, ye look exhausted. Sit down, sit down – tea?" Chris bustled around her, pouring Benny a cup of tea without paying attention to her reply.

"Long day, today. Had to help out a group of nuns from Québec." Benny peered in her cup, and sighed in pleasure at the deep red-orange colour of the beverage before additions. Now this, this was tea. Two spoonfuls of sugar, a quick stir, and she took a sip.

"Had some of the dishwater at the canteen, I see." Chris declared gravely. "They get the awful stuff the restaurants usually buy – it's only good for iced tea. Sometimes." she added.

This whole time, Arion had been peering worriedly at the smaller woman. "Are you sure you're all right?" she asked abruptly.

"Yeah, fine. Just tired."

"You look pale. Awfully washed out." Unconsciously, Arion twisted her loose ring about her finger. She couldn't explain it. Somehow the exhaustion and pallor of Benny's face was striking all of her 'don't like that, don't like that a bit' buttons. The effort it took not to reach out and check Benny for a fever startled her.

Having known Arion enough to recognize the nervous distress action for what it was, Benny smiled kindly. "It's okay, Arion, really. Probably I'm just manifesting early hangover symptoms. Don't let anybody tell you nuns can't drink. So come on, what were you three arguing about when I came in?" Thankful for the distraction, but making a mental note to have Benny carted off to the healer the next day, because she didn't like how very pale she looked either and furthermore hangovers didn't look like that, Jed promptly began to explain the large folio containing one section of the family tree, to which each picture was affixed by the correct name. They had come to one particularly mysterious image, of a pair of women in old West style clothes, quite reminiscent of how people dressed in the few cowboy movies Benny had seen. The two women stood close together, one with wavy, pale hair, the other with long, dark hair, both leaning against a rough fence made of half logs with the bark still on them.

"Looks like a Halliday and an Adams, to me." Benny commented mildly. Three pairs of astonished eyes fixed on her. "Well, it does!" she blurted defensively.

"Yes," Chris agreed softly. "We were trying to figure out which Adams, so as to put the picture in the right place." a pause. "We could try using the measurement system I worked out..." she turned eagerly to Benny. "You see, it's my own invention..." the phrase was unnecessary, but also one of Chris' favourites, so imperative.

"I can't help but think that shouldn't be required. I mean, the woman is a member of my own family." Jed declared peevishly.

"Come on Jed, I don't recognize her either. Maybe we should give it a try, and while you do that, I'll hunt in the ancestry files." Arion began to roll up her sleeves, revealing her bony wrists.

"Ancestry files?" Benny asked curiously.

"Mmmhmm. Over the years, we've put together a huge database of the genealogical information on the Three Families – well, that's how we pretentiously refer to ourselves." Arion smiled gently, neatly taking the arrogance out of the term. "The Adamses, the Pontous-Hallidays, er, Halliday-Pontiuses – umm, whatever, and the Bellonis'. With the better bandwidth and memory the newest computers have provided, we've added in the various pictures. You'd be astonished how small the proportion of unimaged family members is to those who have had their mugs portrayed in some way."

"Bellonis?"

"The Bellonis family is an offshoot of the Northern Adams'." Jed said, her nose half concealed by her tea cup.

"In other words," Arion added. "Some Adams who lived here had a kid who ultimately wound up starting a clan of her own, and it grew to official family status – three successive generations descended from one female ancestor."

"Wow." Benny declared, truly impressed. "Ummm – how does my family come into this?"

"You know, I'm not quite sure?" Jed commented thoughtfully. "It's peculiar – for the longest time, the other half ownership was with the Skinner-Graves. Then one day when I was just a child, something changed, and the name on the papers was altered to Basilas."

******

The next morning started far too early. Benny groaned, and threw the alarm clock on the floor to silence it. She was frozen, she felt like crap, and just breathing hurt. The hunt in the ancestry files had taken longer than anyone had anticipated, and by the end of it Arion had been trooped off to a guest room, and Benny had dragged herself to bed. She gazed at the ceiling, and wondered how long it would take before she fell back asleep. Not long, she hoped. Another ring nearly levitated her to the ceiling, and she was about to curse the damnable persistence of the alarm clock when she realized the sound actually emanated from the old fashioned telephone sitting on a the nightstand on the left side of the bed. "I'll be damned." Benny croaked, and winced at how awful her voice sounded. "I was sure that thing was just there for show."

Picking up the little cylinderish thing you held to your ear, she picked up the rest to hold it near her mouth, and lay back again. The small effort left her head spinning, and it took a moment before she said, "Hello?"

"Cheerio." Chris boomed cheerfully. "How are you feeling, then?"

"Awful." Benny declared unhappily.

"Stay in bed. The healer will be by after lunch. Fever?"

"Yeah."

"I'll bring you something for that. Seriously, stay in bed. Don't worry, you won't be bored, I'll turn on the entertainment system. It's my own invention." Somehow, despite how lousy Benny felt, the favourite catchphrase made her smile. Halliday was so unfailingly, warmly enthusiastic, she could certainly see why Jed absolutely adored her. What else could you do but adore somebody who seemed like embodied sunshine on pep pills? The young woman laughed softly, the ludicrousness of the image the comparison inspired proving just a bit much.

The door to her room popped open, and Halliday popped in right after, nearly tumbling to the floor. "Ooops." she sang out, unable to repress a grin.

"I'm sick as a dog, and you're one of those awful morning people." Benny mock crabbed.

"Not exactly." Chris replied, holding up a green medicine bottle. "Easier to swallow than pills." She sat down beside the smaller woman, and handed the bottle and spoon to her. Noticing Benny's glasses certainly weren't perched on her nose, Chris checked they were within the sick woman's reach and added, "Two teaspoons."

"How bad does it taste?"

"Miserable. But it works, and it puts you to sleep." Chris crossed her long legs. "The chemical it uses is my own invention." Benny's eyes went buggy in alarm. "I figured out another way to make acetylsalicylic acid less hard on the stomach, so that syrups like that wouldn't be so hard on people." she sighed happily. "A great triumph. Even though at the time I was actually trying to create a green dye that wouldn't fade so quickly." Then her face fell a little. "Not that colours matter much to me now."

Benny swallowed down two teaspoons of the syrup, which did taste rotten in the sense that all medicine tastes rotten, because to need it, you have to be sick – and she chased it with some water from a tall glass on the right hand nightstand. "I thought you weren't colourblind?"

Chris looked over at her, and Benny blinked in surprise. The morning light was indirect, and Chris was actually wearing untinted lenses, revealing a pair of startling grey eyes. "I wasn't. Looked like the gas might not have done too much damage after all." She waved at her eyes, and the two women nodded sobrely. Few forms of attack had been so dreaded, and so despised, as the gas attacks during the war. Bacterial warfare had been given up on fairly quickly, when the warmongers realized if they couldn't survive occupying the places they were planning on taking over, there was hardly a point in the whole mess. Insofar as war can have a point.

"Anyway. Been doing my regular check ups, the way we war vets often have to. The healer noticed my colour vision seemed to be deteriorating about three months ago. Already, it's almost gone." Chris took a deep breath. "Nevertheless, I am determined to have a reasonably cheerful morning – today, today I get to unveil one of my newest inventions."

"Ah hah." Benny grinned. That did explain a lot. There was almost nothing Chris liked better than debuting a new contraption. The fair haired woman dug around on a shelf Benny hadn't examined in much detail yet, and came up with a remote control. Pushing two buttons, a panel to one side of the door slid back, and a television set creaked out on a wobbly tray, and came on.

"Not much on the tube here, but most of it isn't too bad. Xena reruns, of course. So you see, we do have television here, just not much. Six hours of actual visual programming, then the channels become radio stations. The cathode tube switches off when the images stop coming." handing Benny the remote, Chris pointed at her laptop, where it sat on one side of the bed. "Is that plugged in?" Flushing a little, Benny nodded. She had forgotten about going to sleep with it sitting there. "Good, good – feel free to give any of us a holler at work if you need to." The chemist bustled toward the door. "Please don't tell Jed about my eyes." Suddenly serious, in a strangely familiar way.

"I won't." Benny promised, just as serious. A bright, toothy smile answered her, and the door shut quietly. Benny lay quietly for a moment, not paying attention to the television, wishing rather wistfully someone felt about her the way Jed and Chris so obviously felt about each other. A careful breath. No sense brooding about what wasn't going to happen. "Now," she muttered. "Where are those Xena reruns?" A tentative knock on the door interrupted the search. "Who could that be? Come in."

"Oh – hi." Arion smiled awkwardly. "Heard you were sick. Thought I'd pop by. Say hello. Leave you a good book, some chocolate. All the essentials." She hesitated, struggling to get her gangly body to obey her earnest desire to look suave, cool, and graceful, instead of skinny, clumsy, and gangly.

"Thanks, Ari. I really appreciate it."

"Xena reruns are on channel seven." Arion said with a mischievous smile.

Benny laughed, then began to cough. When the coughing passed, she looked up at Arion, who looked more worried than ever. "It's just a rotten cold or something, Ari. Nothing life threatening. What made you so sure I'd be a Xena fan, huh?"

"Lucky guess?" a pause and a shuffle. "Do you need anything? I mean, I can bring some stuff by, if you want."

"Well, not..." the lanky face fell. Ah hell, Benny thought to herself. Could it hurt to come up with a couple of things? Arion was being so sweet, and obviously was concerned for her. "Actually, maybe you could phone the shippers, and see if my stuff from Canada is here? And if you could please pick up my mail."

"Sure." Arion replied eagerly. Then she flushed a little. "You must think I'm a great, silly woman."

"Nope. I think you're a great woman who hasn't had near enough nice friends." Benny declared stoutly.

"Some people find my scars disconcerting – and how skinny I am. But it's as if you don't see them." the tall woman sounded puzzled.

Retrieving her glasses from where they were hung on a little hook attached to the headboard, Benny considered that. "I don't, really. They're there – they just – they aren't important, the way you are." She gazed intently at Arion, beginning to see how much of the time spent with machinery was a way to avoid the looks on people's faces when they saw her face. There was no way to deny the scars were vivid. Mainly white, occasionally purple. Rarely the nasty, puckered kind, but revealing the evidence of former stitches. From an arms length away, only a few were visible. Close up, it became obvious something nasty had happened. "Bad accident?"

"Beyond bad. Made it out, though."

"I'm glad." Benny said simply. A smile answered her.

"Now I am too. There's a half hour or so before I have to leave – hey, 'Day in the Life.'' I love this episode."

"Me too." grinned Benny.

Only twenty minutes later, Benny was sound asleep. Arion carefully covered her up, putting the remote within easy reach and hanging up her glasses. "You sure are something, Benton Basilas." she murmured. Checking the fire was well stocked, the windows properly closed, and turning down the television volume a little, Arion found herself with no more excuses not to leave. "Okay, must behave and go to work." Another pause by the door. "Maybe I'll stop by the healer's on the way, see if she can come by a little sooner." Mentally grabbing herself by the collar, Arion marched herself out of the room, carefully shutting the door behind her.

******

Kepler Ionnidis stood at parade rest, examining the vastness of her domain. Okay, so it was a pokey little office. It was still a domain, she decided. Her feathered masks had arrived yesterday, as had her beloved snake Sam. Sam was just a tiny little garden snake, but somehow he was just nice to have around. Avi frowned. Was Sam a he? How could you tell? Opening a box, she began removing books and papers in preparation for putting them into some kind of order on the bare shelves. Her mind drifted to more immediately professional matters.

The temple of Artemis was in a sad state of disrepair. Thanks to the war, no one had had a chance to do any work on it after the Blues had attempted to bomb it out of existence. They had claimed the great ring of stones must be a landing pad of some sort. Avi snorted to herself. For who? Little green nasties from outer space? The truth was, it was the only site they could manage to reach. So the first thing was bound to be getting a work crew detailed to just plain clean up, then gather together the various initiated priestesses and novices together to put the place back together. The few women she had talked to out of the ranks of initiated priestesses and novices spoke a veritable babel of languages, and at least one of them made her nervous. Nervous enough she had asked for a security check. Somehow she was sure the rather hostile, nasal voiced priestess was a man.

This would make the twentieth or so example of a strange phenomenon. Men cross dressing and trying to sneak into the Nation. The few still there had gotten in before the war was over, when everyone's borders were in a shambles. The motivation seemed to be, simply violating women-only space. Various pop psychologists in the rest of the world were making scads of money on talkshows, talking about why men felt so threatened and discriminated against by groups that excluded them. Avi began filling a shelf, and shook her head slightly. Women who attempted to get into male only space were treated little better than criminals, especially now. Although honestly, most of the male only spaces left were now things that could reasonably be that way. It wasn't as bad as it had been even in the early 2000s, when those all male groups had included the people who controlled most businesses, governments, churches, and educational institutions. If men wanted to set up a little all male nation somewhere, Avi simply couldn't see a reason to complain, considering what she was up to. But barring one fellow who had tried to get a 'He-manland' started, the groups screaming the loudest about Amazons and women-only space seemed to prefer the woman at home barefoot and pregnant model.

Avi pondered that idea. "Why barefoot, anyway?" she wondered aloud. In any case, it took less than twenty four hours on average for unwanted male visitors to discover that actually, they really wanted to leave yesterday. And that they were all unwanted, no exceptions. Somehow they found the Amazon Nation a very disturbing place to be after all. Maybe it was the food.

  1. Sharp eyed re-readers may catch that this is not the original novel title. The original reference novel began as a self-hosted set of web pages, then won formal publication. But truth be told, there is no reason to reference a real world novel here, so it doesn't anymore.
  2. This refers to a real textbook, and I don't think they'd mind referencing it. The textbook makes another brief cameo later in the novel, or at least the fictional blonde bombshell featured in several of its dialogues does.
  3. During one of the two world series baseball championships won by the toronto blue jays baseball team, someone with either no sense or bad sportsmanship hung the canadian flag upside down. It is hard to believe it was an accident, because there is an american practice of flag worship that verges to an outsider view on mania. In any case, the result did the american team no good as they lost to the blue jays in the end, and left a bad memory on the books.
  4. Yes, those Xena reruns, but no, not really.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Sunday, November 25, 2012 20:17:21 MDT