Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Ten
"This doesn't say laughs. It doesn't say lights. What the hell does it say?" Avi muttered to herself, puzzling over the damnable dowry list. They had managed to get most things for it, which was a matter for complete surprise. A war was starting, there were shortages. Yet apparently the Pontius-Hallidays had dealt with the more difficult things. Considering that aspect a bit more, Avi admitted to herself that probably they had been quietly been putting things aside for years. Jed and Chris had been together quite some time already, long enough that they were an established institution before Ges Basilas showed up the first time. Which, Avi realized with a jolt, was ridiculous. Ges had first showed up over twenty years ago! Feeling subtly perturbed, Avi returned her attention to the unhelpful scrawl that continued to fiercely resist all efforts to decode it in a satisfactory way.
A different explanation for how impossible to read the word occurred to her. For one thing, this word was written in a rather different hand, out of line with everything else. Could it conceivably be a random jotting for some other purpose that the Pontius-Halliday hadn't taken much notice of, considering it obvious that it didn't count for anything? Having wrestled so long with this little but important puzzle, Avi had to grit her teeth to keep from dissolving in giggles. They always got triggered by nerves, frustration release, or the first stages of alarm in an emergency. An awful affliction, and genetic in nature by all accounts. But, returning to the word in question, she now knew just what to to do about it. This wouldn't be so bad after all.
Matt slipped into the room, carrying a hefty pile of folders topped with a metal casserole dish holding the dishes with their lunch. "It's that time!" she warbled gaily, carefully setting the stack on one end of Avi's desk before deftly rescuing the casserole before it took off. "Today it looks like souvlaki and that Indian zucchini thing – looks sort of scary, but it's really good." She carefully unloaded the casserole and tucked it under her jacket preparatory to taking it back to the kitchen. The weather was miserable and cold today, and she saw no reason to let perfectly good heat from the dish go to waste.
"Thank you, Matt, for lunch. Not so much for all this." Waving at the stack of folders. "What is all this about? This isn't the new arrivals office or anything like that."
"I do understand. Truth be told, I am not sure what those folders are actually about. I had a cursory look at the first few while waiting to pick up lunch, but they don't seem to be personnel files. Or at least, not personnel files in the usual sense, even though they do seem to deal with people." The folders were also very old, and dusty. Matt had been utterly fascinated with them and a bit sad to surrender them. They included old-fashioned photographs, the kind that came out of a special camera all white and then the image appeared after a few minutes. Each one held in place with proper paper clips, which they couldn't spare the metal for anymore. Much of the text Matt could see looked printed, yet didn't resemble any printer fonts she was familiar with, she couldn't imagine the visible irregularities of the lines passing muster even in the most basic inkjet print outs. She was too young to recognize the product of now completely obsolete electric typewriters. There was plenty of handwritten stuff too, and Matt was even more at sea about that script, because at first it looked very Greek to her, yet, it wasn't.
"Well, that means I have been somehow delegated to mess with whatever these are about, I suppose." Luckily Avi took care to eat lunch before trying to do anything with the curious document collection, because when she did try, she soon lost track of time, flabbergasted by what had just unobtrusively come into her hands. Divided in specific lots of seven, thirteen, and seventeen, were the records of the infamous military experiments known in the scandal sheets Outside as "Operation Suprahuman." In the Nation, it was known everywhere as "Prime," referring to the identification numbers imposed on the subjects brutalized in the experiments. Outside it was merely a scandal, understood as a horrible reflex of the worst impulses of authoritarian governments in the past century or so. That was part of the general understanding of it in the Nation. In the Nation, Prime was also known as one of the greatest counter-intelligence operations in its millennias-long history. That still didn't explain who had sent the files along to her or what she was supposed to do with them. A loud buzzing interrupted Avi's thoughts, her much unloved cellular phone jittering on the blotter on her desk. Getting up from her work table, Avi picked the phone up, wondering who could be calling her when even she wasn't sure what the number was.
As it happened, no one was phoning. She had received a long email message with an encrypted wrapper and a priority signal. Feeling more and more uneasy, Avi dug out the instructions for how to decode the message, applied them as fast as she could to get the phone to stop its buzzing, and read the first few lines. Said lines made immediately clear just why she had been sent those folders, and that she had better get onto some serious security arrangements because the treasure hunting Amazons were up to something seriously dangerous. Most of them had no idea how dangerous. Scanning further into the text, a highlighted section stood out, as of course it was meant to.
Supra, meaning above, beyond, more than, in charge of, previous in time, transcendent.
Pouring herself a fresh mug of tea, Avi settled in to read the message with due care and attention. She had already suspected that the persistent treasure hunting debacle had to do with the Seven, not just the Adams clan. This confirmed it, and now she wondered just how the stragglers from the now smallest of the Seven would arrive. By her own count, they were too many to yank, too unusual looking to worm them in among the general run of refugees. This was going to be tricky.
Chris sighed a little, and tucked Jed in while Artric bustled around repacking her medical bag and recounting the bandages for the air cast one more time before closing it up. "Jared won't need to wear the cast too long, though she does need to do the exercises on this sheet." Artric pulled a crisply folded piece of paper out of the open side pocket of her bag.
"Is this a common injury?" Chris looked askance at Artric's bag. It seemed a bit much for that page of exercises to be available right then.
"Not common, as such." Taking one foot out of its sandal, Artric tried to warm it against the calf of her other leg. It was little wonder that Jed and Chris' room was built on two levels to manage heat at night, but at the moment Artric was standing in the cold part. "Amazons working at the fireworks factory suffer a few more often than others." She switched sides to try to warm her other foot.
"I dare say there are some socks we could spot you here. You and Jed have similarly sized feet, I think." Not waiting for an answer, Chris walked at first glance apparently out of the room, but actually into a section divided off from the main area by a folding screen. After a moment she reappeared with a pair of well-worn, still warm wool socks, one green, the other blue. Jed never matched her socks except by length. Thankfully, this seemed to be a more general Adams practice, because Artric didn't so much as blink at the colour mismatched pair, and happily pulled them on, dragging them right up her calves so that almost no bare skin showed between the bottom of her nightshirt and their knitted fabric. Watching the doctor as she walked down the hall, Chris suspected Artric was already asleep.
For her part, Chris hoped very much to be sound asleep soon herself. Checking briefly on Jed, who was now curled up on her uninjured side with her nose just barely showing because she had half dragged the quilt over her head to block the light from the overhead fixture, Chris slipped into her own pyjamas. Then she turned off the light and got in bed, giving thanks again for not having a tendency to get cold feet at the least provocation. Not quite settled yet, her mind wandered to the apparently burnt out light upstairs. That didn't happen often, and she wasn't quite sure where the spare light bulbs were.
"Not burnt out." Jed mumbled sleepily.
"What? Jed, for heaven's sake, go to sleep!"
"Am mostly. Light's not burnt out up there. There isn't one. Observatory."
"Oh, I suppose that's all right then." As if waiting for this acknowledgement, sleep suddenly got very much closer, and Chris began to yawn. "Just as well, don't know where the light bulbs are."
"Heaven sakes, go you to sleep!" Chuckling at the resurgence of grammar from Jed's mothertongue, Chris snuggled in and did just that.
The transistor radio emitted an ancient single about hungry hearts in a tinny warble, occasional bursts of static marking the progress of the still growing storm. Unbeknownst to Benny or Ges, Jed's dash home had paralleled a few hours when the storm's track seemed to be turning aside from the region. Instead of making its way in a less populated direction, the storm was now barrelling down on them, and so as soon as Ges was dressed, they had turned their hands to helping board up the windows of the hostel and its nearest neighbours. Most buildings were already prepared, storms of this severity and danger level now being commonplace. Safely ensconced in the room she was sharing with Ges, Benny found herself unable to settle down to sleep unlike her cousin who was too worn out to get undressed again before going to bed. Benny considered it a victory that she managed to get Ges to take off her new shoes and hat.
Benny picked up the radio and gave its crank a good hundred or so turns to ensure it would keep running well into the daylight hours, then checked to see if her lantern needed similar treatment. It's level indicators were good, so she left it on beside the big book and got up to make her way down to the hostel canteen, where she knew even this late she would be able to pick up a pot of tea and maybe something to eat. Amazons were still hard at work patrolling, checking on storm culverts, locking down larger electric and gas systems so that when the big winds really hit there would be less chance of damage or fires breaking out. The hostel staff contributed hot drinks and what food they could to their comrades, and didn't begrudge a share to a smudge-eyed relative newcomer even if said newcomer felt weirdly out of place not working outside herself.
"Don't worry about it. You can work in the crazy weather next time," the Amazon on duty reassured her, and Benny had to admit this was true. It wasn't as if they weren't going to get more storms like this one. She climbed carefully up the solid and what had looked at first to her like overbuilt stairs. Now, as she walked down the hallway to her fourth floor room and felt vibrations through the concrete and rebar infrastructure from the heavy winds rapidly increasing to hurricane-level speeds outside, Benny understood there was nothing overbuilt about it. Thunder rumbled nastily overhead, and Benny sighed as she pushed the door closed behind her with one elbow, resisting the temptation to try to take a bite from one of the spinach pies on her plate before she got back to the formica table with her booty from the kitchen.
A storm announcement interrupted the music. "This message applies to all of the following sectors..." The list of sectors went on long enough that Benny's eyebrows climbed nearly up to her hairline. She knew this storm was no mere thunderstorm, but this sounded like something frighteningly close to the apocalypse. "...all Amazons still abroad are ordered to stand down and return to shelter immediately. Do not attempt to shelter outdoors in place unless there are absolutely no other possibilities whatsoever." That last bit Benny knew, was directed at some of the more gung-ho and over-military movie instructed new women who came from North America. Having had to shelter in place with her unit during a storm half this size during the previous war, Benny knew too well how nothing like a movie or even a survival course just that experience was. She got up and double checked the storm shutters, then put her jacket back on. The heater was down low and on the other side of the bed, so it was a bit chilly to sit at the table now.
Well, now there wasn't much more that she could do except wait it out. Benny turned her attention back to the large book as the final tones played at the beginning and end of every emergency announcement finished. Besides all manner of observations and inserts pertaining to the Nation and the various oddities Ges had encountered there, there was plenty to show she was still following the ongoing saga of their now mostly jailed banking family. Besides all that, Benny kept finding cryptic sections dealing with something called "Prime," focussing on what she had finally worked out was a single person involved with it. The something, from what Benny could tell so far, was a sort of, spy operation, for lack of better words. Yet the person of interest did not seem to be a spy at all. In fact, the materials and write up that recognizably dealt with the person, whose designation was 71263-A, suggested that they were in the hospital. Or rather, had been in a hospital, not an ordinary one. A military, high security one. Something was seriously disturbing about all of this. Benny dug around in her pockets, hunting for the pocket lens she habitually kept ready for moments like this. Maybe it was just the storm, but her skin kept crawling whenever she looked at the photocopied logo in one of the documents about 71263-A. It looked frighteningly familiar. Pulling the lantern to a better spot and wiping down her pocket lens, Benny braced herself for what she already felt fairly sure she'd find.
Ges watched Benny from the bed, carefully keeping still despite the fact that now the thunder was just about enough to force her to jump. She didn't feel remotely up to discussing what she could tell Benny was looking into now, her notes on Prime and subject 71263-A. It was actually all because of 71623-A that Ges had finally found her way to the Amazon Nation. Of course, finding the Nation this way meant that when she thought she had cleverly finagled her way in she had actually gotten herself into a security trap, and as a result she caught it hot for the first year or so. Unlike Benny, her first year had been spent in what even the Amazons referred to as "the clink." She couldn't blame them for imprisoning her. After all, fundamentally she was a crook, even though she had moved on to much better things. The Amazons had to make sure she wasn't working for a foreign government or outright organized crime syndicate. Her prison record and unfortunate family connections had taken some explaining. She had not expected anyone to take her real explanation for searching for 71263-A seriously, because even she considered it outlandish and perhaps evidence that she should have her mental health carefully assessed. Yet that was the one part of her story that her captors never questioned. They took it as a perfectly reasonable quest. That she went about getting to the Nation the way she did rather than using the routes available to the Amazon branch of her family, that was the part they absolutely could not accept at first.
Practically speaking though, Ges had found the clink to be the most pleasant prison she had ever landed herself in. Not that she could complain too much about the jails and prisons she had cycled through in the immediate aftermath of her misspent youth. She never had to spend time in any maximum security lock ups, since she was not a violent offender and was not complicit with hits or violent shake downs. No, her deeds had all been computer-based and technically white collar. Not that she had done herself many favours with the prosecuting authorities anyway. They had wanted her to name names and give up whatever she knew about her family's general business. She didn't mind explaining the business and how that was arranged, because that information could be used to take down many dangerous outfits besides her family's, and that needed to happen. But she wouldn't name names, because she already knew how that worked. No number of names given was enough once a prisoner started giving them, the interrogators would keep demanding and pressuring for more, until their quarry broke and could be guided into somehow naming all the other people the police wanted to be able to grab. Ges knew that when the investigators went through her computer and the few goods she had besides, they would pull every recorded name possible from the documents they found. She had nothing she could add to whatever was there, and written evidence had the benefit of being very hard to challenge in court.
The cost of that for her was being deemed a hostile witness considered likely to go back to "the life" if they let her out of prison early. No time off for good behaviour and off to a nastier prison. But she did manage to complete her basic education and her first degree in physics in the penitentiary, and that was something. It annoyed the prison authorities that she didn't try to petition for computer hours or anything, she happily did the work by correspondence and hard won hours in the machine shop so that she could do the kinematics experiments. It had been surreal to walk out into the world again after all that, with a card and a bus ticket to get herself to the university campus where the professor who had taken particular interest in her worked. Unbelievably, it sounded like if she played her cards right, she'd have a modest job and a chance to keep following her academic interests. Not physics so much, she had picked that because she was good at math and it leant itself to study independent of lectures. The professor was an archaeologist who ran a co-taught course on ancient engineering.
As she had anticipated, things were plenty different outside. Or rather, plenty different in the autonomous zone, which was only "outside" relative to prison. Ges couldn't stay long even if she wanted to, that was a condition of her parole. She had two days. A condition, yet one made quite difficult to meet when by law she was forced to return to the zone first from the penitentiary, and the zone was now barely connected to anyplace else. Ges remembered the arrogant talk of the adults in her life on the subject of sea level rise. How it wouldn't bother them, they weren't in a coastal city, nor were they connected to a seaway. Whenever it snowed too hard, they gave the army a call and after providing a modest fee to the right officers, just like that soldiers hurried in to town to plough the roads that they deemed most important. All was right in the world. So it gave Ges a certain sense of schadenfreude to see the impacts on the autonomous zone today. Yes, the rising waters didn't affect them directly. But the brining of the aquifers certainly did, and the newly developing estuary to the northeast was no longer so far away, and people loved to complain about the smell. Then there was the new weather, which couldn't be so easily shrugged off anymore not since the first time there was a major storm that knocked over a significant portion of the electric grid. Much of it remained offline, since it was more profitable to strip the broken equipment and wires for scrap metal than continue providing service to predominantly residential areas. Now if a person could afford to fly, they could look at the autonomous zone's major city at night, with the lines of lights into its outlying areas that once bound it together in a web of pallid light reduced to a sharply isolated web with great rents in it.
In any case, Ges' immediate plan was to get the hell out of town. Hefting her heavy backpack and a duffle bag, she kept moving. Her mean spirited parole officer's idea of a reasonable place to drop her was not anywhere near the train station, where she needed to go, but in the middle of the roughest part of town where even this early in the day prostituted women were working the streets. Apparently Ges' parole officer figured her choices were finding a pimp or going back to jail. He had regaled her with his assumptions about her character all the way to the strip, assuring her that he was well aware of her drug addictions, that she must have a gang to slip into all lined already. He badgered her to tell him what her rates were, because he was quite sure she was turning tricks before she got caught. But hey, he'd maybe drop her off at the train station for a freebie. She waited quite calmly until he pulled up in what he considered a discrete alleyway. "After all, one word from me, you go right back to the pen," he drawled. He really had no idea who he was dealing with. Ges had observed when and how the officer shut off the cameras and recording devices, all intended officially for the protection of parole officers, even though Ges was locked in the back seat behind a barrier of plexiglass and metal bars.
The officer jumped out of the car and held the door open, already loosening his belt. Of course he never expected it when Ges slugged him solidly with a right jab, then finished the job with the left hook she had developed in the penitentiary women's boxing league. She hadn't been one to go into many boxing competitions, she was leery of concussions, but she was fine with working hard and sparring. "Stupid asshole," she muttered at him. Then she shoved him in the back seat, making no effort to be careful. It would take less than hour for her to drive to the train station.
Understandably, the locals weren't inclined to cheer her on. They had their own problems, and didn't trust that it would be safe for them to engage with anyone associated with a marked car. No doubt, this officer was an unpleasant regular. Who knew what and how much he extorted from people around here. Ges deftly restarted the car, then navigated out of the warren of streets, taking care to keep away from the main strip where everyone knew the big deals went down. White collar crime types had no business trying to poke their noses their even by accident as far as Ges was concerned. But she also needed to behave in a way that showed she wasn't looking to mess with the local equilibrium, that was way too big a thing for her to try out. She was stopped at a light when another man, dressed in a very expensive suit and the showy jewelry that seemed to be part of the local gangster uniform walked up and knocked on her window.
"Hey, sunshine," he drawled. Ges was disgusted, but of course, kept that to herself. "I ain't seen any of Greedo's perps try what you're doing before."
"I'm sorry to say most of them didn't have the information that I do." Ges said calmly.
"Well, that's all very nice, sunshine, but I can't let you run around here anyway you please." Ges could see a couple of other men hovering just at the edge of her peripheral vision.
"Of course not. That's why I'm leaving. You realize that the cop cams are off, right?"
"Sure I do sunshine, do you think I'm stupid?" Much sharper toned now.
"No, I don't think you're stupid. But you don't have enough information about my situation." Shifting slightly, Ges made it quite visible that she had availed herself of the parole officer's pistol, and that the way she had it positioned meant she knew how to use it. Furthermore, that she could, quite easily, shoot her new acquaintance straight between the eyes. His eyes narrowed.
"I don't think you have enough information, bitch."
Ges smiled. "Name calling won't get you anywhere. And you and I both know that if the cop in the back doesn't manage to get himself and his car back to base, they'll come looking for him. Do you really want them to find him here? They had his heading, he didn't turn off his GPS until just a few blocks from here." At this point, Ges knew it was critical to do something unexpected. The man leaned in on her, trying to be intimidating, apparently not believing the gun was a real danger because of his enforcers, who were now in clear view and ambling over. Ges smiled. The man leaned back just enough, and she whacked the button to close the window, catching his probably three hundred dollar tie. Then she touched the accelerator, forcing her unwanted conversation partner to run alongside the car or suffer unpleasantly.
"My tie, my tie!" he shrieked. Ges revised her estimate of how expensive it was, and without any serious concern about gunfire, since, after all, she was in a bullet-proof car, with the car now running at almost fifteen kilometres an hour, she finally loosened the window.
The man fell with another shriek, struggling to roll away from traffic while preserving his suit from injury. Nobody tried to shoot at her or chase her, as Ges expected. She was small fry, and it would do them no favours to have their little arrangement with the parole officer messed up too badly. Probably the guy whose expensive suit and tie she had just spoiled was green. Anyone with real experience would have just left her to her own devices. She glanced in the rear view mirror and began to laugh in spite of herself. The guy was fussing over his coiffeur, and the two armed thugs were watching him with expressions of amused contempt. Yep. Guy was so green, they probably had to water him twice a day.
The train station looked much as Ges remembered it. Grotty in the way that very old buildings meant to demonstrate imperial superiority are as soon as they're finished, plus upwards of three centuries of grime and bird shit. She pulled the car into a nice spot in the parking garage, making free use of the parole officer's charge card, the organization one that in fact he was supposed to use for such things. It would probably raise questions that all of a sudden he had a plausible charge on it. Ges shrugged her shoulders, then gave some thought what would make the most sense to do next, having popped the trunk so she could grab her bags. She could just leave the parole officer locked in the back seat, but that would leave him serious motivation for immediate revenge. But on the other hand, the thought of leaving him to continue procuring young releasees to the pimps made her feel sick. Nah, she had a better idea than that.
The main annoyance of trying to do the right thing was how much work it was physically sometimes. Her bags set neatly to one side, after more effort than she liked, Ges had manoeuvred the parole officer back behind the wheel, after replacing his wallet with of course, nothing removed from it. She also restored his sidearm to its holster, but only after emptying it first. Then she deftly reprogrammed the camera and GPS units to restart, and after restart to go back online after ten minutes, with notifications off. There was no doubt in Ges' mind that this guy would head right back to where his pimp contacts were before doing anything else. He'd be in trouble for not anteing up any goods. Finishing by locking the car doors, Ges shut the driver's side, strapped on her bags, and walked over to the elevator, where she hit all the floor buttons. Then she headed through the nearest stairwell door to catch her train.
So it was that she was moving briskly down the platform, ticket already purchased with cash and at the ready. She was sad to see that there were no ticket takers anymore. Now it was all about the scanning machines, with the presumption that anybody who tried to steal their way onto the train would be caught using the security cameras. Still, she found her way onto the train and to her seat without incident. Glancing at her watch, she knew that the train would reach the first stopover in about two hours, and then lay over for three. Not a train the parole officer would expect her to take precisely because of the stop over and where it was going. During the stop over, she'd get a hair cut and some new clothes. Things were looking up quite sensibly.
Three days later, Ges had to resist the urge to put her feet up on the chair opposite from her. Instead, she sipped at her coffee and picked up another piece of toast. Now well beyond the jurisdiction of any authority in the autonomous zone, and aware that they lacked any effective means of chasing her down, Ges was relaxing just a little. Her appointment with the professor was two hours away, and so she was having a leisurely breakfast in a nearby cafe on campus. She picked up a discarded copy of the local newspaper, then discarded it herself in favour of a more wide ranging publication. She flipped to the section covering general news, and was rather astonished and impressed to see a below the fold story about the shocking revelation of collusion between parole officers and organized crime organizations back in the autonomous zone. Well, that was that then. It was a small victory, and not good enough for the people who had already been railroaded into terrible trouble. But it was a real start.
Waldbilling sighed. Really, what were they thinking out at Omega's Folly, now was the worst possible time to play around with the shifting zones. Accidents could happen, and it seemed to her cutting the place off from ready contact with the rest of the Nation counted as one hell of an accident. It had taken her the better part of the morning to arrange an appropriate, secured channel to speak with her employer, and then she made further arrangements so that it could provide more general communications for the other inhabitants of the house and its companion houses. All that work aside, Waldbilling was under no illusions about who was trying out influencing the local path of shifting zones. No Adams cared much for that, they preferred consistent navigation markers when they could get them. No, this was an Evarakeen project all the way. They had a mania for security and access controls that Waldbilling found disturbing, but that the Nation as a whole benefited from. In any event, the story of Jed Adams' crazed flight back home had made it down the crackling radio connection, and it looked like they'd be able to put one of the old Cessnas to work providing basic minimum access to Omega's Folly once the storm had blown itself out. Like it or not, Arion couldn't get out of the meetings she wished she could get out of.
A box of books and papers waited dutifully at the front desk for pick up, and Waldbilling gravely signed for them and picked it up. Realised a second too late that she had startled the young Amazon with how easily she had picked it up. Since the box was big enough that Waldbilling had to hold it by its outer bottom corners, and it was deep enough that she had to peek around one side to see, the younger woman's surprise was warranted. "This is an absurdly sized box for how much is in it." Waldbilling tutted, and thankfully the other woman's face cleared, and she smiled. Then Waldbilling walked on to her own office, forcing herself to walk much slower than was her wont, in hopes of not gathering any further attention. It was always so awkward when she accidentally revealed her strength. No matter what happened, she did not want information about that to get around. Too many awkward questions. Setting the box down on the floor, she began unpacking and sorting the contents. Among the quick updates during her radio call to Omega's Folly was one from Jed Adams, and she hadn't expected it at all. Now it all seemed perfectly obvious, which annoyed Waldbilling a bit. She prided herself on noticing what was actually happening, as opposed to getting mentally tangled up in the less than helpful fairy tales spread around by obsessive treasure hunters. Thinking of the obsessive treasure hunters, one of them had been lurking outside, and something about that specific Amazon disturbed her mightily. Finished sorting the books and documents, Waldbilling paused to wash her hands and think through what bothered her about the Amazon trying to peer into windows and annoy people going in and out. Resettling the sleeves of her lime green jacket and checking her orange t-shirt wasn't dusty, Waldbilling made herself relax and watch the Amazon outside without trying to see anything specific about her. And there it was. Oh dear, there it was indeed.
Moving very slowly and very carefully, because her heart had started beating very, very fast, Waldbilling picked up the radio transceiver handset, and carefully, as if it would blow up in her hands, she dialled in the codes to make a connection. After only a few seconds, with startling clarity even though at the moment the eye of the storm was passing overhead so weather-wise it was eerily calm and almost normal looking but for the persistent green tint to the light, a voice spoke.
"Hello Doctor Adams. I am sorry to annoy you at this hour." The hour being not too early, but awfully early for someone who worked the night shift, which this Doctor Adams often did right now.
"That is quite all right, Waldbilling. I trust implicitly in your judgement because my cousin Arion does. I have never gone wrong following her appraisals." In spite of herself, Waldbilling blushed. High praise from two people whose opinions she valued very much, and at such a time.
"I have located the – individual – who is labouring under the misapprehension that she has successfully made herself into a mole."
"And here all this time, she thought she was locating you, no doubt! What gave her away?"
"Her boots. She couldn't bear to give up her military issue boots. They're so notoriously difficult to break in, but ex-soldiers aren't permitted to keep any of their gear, not even their boots, after they leave. The only minimal exception is their dog tags." Waldbilling knew this very well, having served in the same armed forces as the woman lurking outside.
"Very good. A clean up crew will sweep her up shortly. I must confess that I will miss her reports, they are quite amusing. She is utterly unable to make sense of her experiences and observations."
"Her reports?" Unusually, Waldbilling's voice rose in alarm.
"No need to be alarmed, Waldbilling," Adams soothed. "we have been successfully intercepting her reports ever since she got here. We have a new Amazon here with excellent knowledge of current protocols and conditions in our mole's forces branch. It seems she worked on some sort of interchange. She has been providing plausible responses." Waldbilling sagged against the edge of her desk, suddenly exhausted. For a non-trivial amount of time, a gnawing unease had been troubling her, centred on that false Amazon.
"I am pleased to hear that. The clean up crew will have to hurry, the eye of the storm will complete its passage over us in less than an hour." Reluctantly, Waldbilling stood up straight, knowing she needed to face up to the consequences of opening the storm shutters to catch at least a little fresh air.
"They are already almost there. In fact, you should be able to watch them at their work before you have to close the storm shutters." Another voice just audible in the background interrupted her. "We will have to stop here, Waldbilling. Please try not to worry. Everything is going to be fine."
"I never worry. I merely assess matters with a view to minimizing surprises." Waldbilling replied firmly, winning a chuckle before the final sign off. Setting the transceiver down, Waldbilling moved sideways towards the front window so that she could see out but not be seen. She didn't like spies. Especially not the sort drawn from an illegal project that had gone down in scandal.
The dark, wiry woman paced back and forth again across the street from the building, making Waldbilling wonder just who she was hoping to see. Thinking back, Waldbilling remembered Amazons at the temple grumbling about this woman, how she kept turning up and trying to incite anger against the Adams clan. Or rather, one specific Adams. Her animus against Jed Adams was strange, but knowing now that she was a mole, Waldbilling wondered if maybe, just maybe, the woman was trying to flush out information about Jed Adams precisely because she didn't have any knowledge of her. Arion Adams was awkwardly famous in her own odd way Outside, but her cousin was not. Still, it hardly added up.
More and more Amazons were bustling by, and looking up anxiously as the wind began to pick up again, the ambient light already dropping noticeably. Two remarkably dressed Amazons came down the street, walking in brisk syncopation, in long, straight black jackets, dark shiny boots, and black top hats. Other Amazons carefully got out of their way, recognizing them and their job immediately by their clothes and their makeup. Their faces and lips were painted white, and in the increasingly weird light conditions, they seemed to have eyes and noses, but no mouths. With hardly a pause they bracketed the dark, wiry woman in her very foreign boots, deftly tipped her into a canvas sided cart rolled out to them by another pair of similarly dressed and painted Amazons. Their quarry didn't even have a chance to scream as they proceeded to march away, an Amazon at each corner of the cart.
In no time the woman had righted herself and attempted to dive out of the cart. This was unwise and ineffective, as she got stuck with one leg thrown awkwardly over the unyielding side of the cart. In a near panic, she hadn't observed that the canvas sides were attached to a solid frame. Struggling to get herself over the side without doing something painful to herself, she tried to take a swing at one of her captors. The Amazon on the same end of the cart but further from her than the one she had just swung at drew a gun. "Oh yeah! Yeah! Come at me, bitch!" Credit for not giving up, debit for calling bad names.
Eerily, not one of the Amazons in the clean up crew spoke. The one with the gun fired, and the sound of it was quite impressive. The wiry, dark woman uttered a shocked gasp and then fell over back into the cart. Incongruously, a little flag and a stick now stuck out of the end of the gun. The flag read, "Bang!" and of course, the cartridge fired was a blank, designed to sound scary but otherwise do no harm. Women with this one's background were best prepared for return to the outside by such subterfuges. She'd flatly deny that she had fainted, of course, and insist that somehow her cover was blown and she barely escaped with her life. She could hardly tell her superiors that four creepily dressed women with painted faces had dumped her in a garbage cart and then deposited her back Outside, even though that would be closer to the truth. In any case, the more disoriented ill-intentioned outsiders were when they left, the faster they forgot what they had seen.
Assured that their captive was fully unconscious, the Amazons headed for the temple at a run, not worrying much about how much the cart bounced and jolted. If the woman was a bit bruised and ruffled, that would be better for her when her colleagues found her anyway. They skidded to a stop outside the temple, then briskly picked the woman up by her arms and legs and ran at speed down into the Viewing Room, barely pausing to nod briskly at the Kepler, who was standing by to observe them as they dashed through to the Outside, dropping the woman onto the wet grass in front of what Avi understood was a sergeant's and warrant officer's mess. The four Amazons dove back through the gate, only just ahead of the watch. Their colleague wouldn't have to lay unconscious on the grass long.
The four dark clad Amazons stood in formation in front of the Kepler, barely ruffled in their strange costumes. "Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. I was worried that we might not be able to turn this around before the storm closes back in. The first formal declaration of war is going to be from her country, and we expect to hear the announcement within the hour." Avi exchanged head bobs with her four colleagues, who, now dismissed, gravely removed their top hats and began unbuttoning their jackets. Not until one of them paused to pull off the gauze covering her mouth did they become rather ordinary looking again, and soon they were all chatting merrily and using damp cloths provided by Matt to wipe the white paint off of their faces. Avi watched this process with interest, wondering how they could possibly keep that white stuff off of their black jackets.
Meanwhile, a dazed and confused young officer, recruited into army intelligence with a view to infiltrating the Amazon Nation came to on the grass. She looked around herself in confusion, trying to make sense of what had happened. Struggling into a sitting position, she immediately checked her pockets for her basic gear. The training in keeping the most important data with her in encoded form at all times meant that she had her notes on her. Sure enough, her book and regulation pencil were nestled in her jacket pocket. She pulled it out, flipping the book open, feeling a happy bubble of triumph in her chest.
Only to stare in shock at the completely blank notebook, and a fresh, never used pencil. She had indeed done just what her training directed. It was just that her original notebook had been switched out that very morning via the deft work of a member of the clean up crew. The Amazons who had scooped her up and dumped her Outside were an escort crew. An effective crew were almost impossible to notice at their work, and indeed she hadn't noticed them among all the Amazons who had rushed past her, including several who had physically bumped into her, of whom two were the clean up crew.
The young woman did her best, checking the rest of her pockets, then she forced herself to take a deep breath. She had worked hard, and sent regular reports just like she was supposed to, written and drafted with the utmost care. Plenty of detail was in her memory, and the reports would help. Redundancy meant everything. Standing up carefully, other soldiers had finally taken notice of her, but even as they ran toward her, what little she could remember vanished away, except for her ride by bus to the Turkish border to join the refugees streaming into the Amazon Nation.
Oddly enough, despite all the preparations, the Turks had picked her out based on a photograph an official from the Turkish foreign office sent them. They reassured her that thanks to the quick work of her country's ambassador they had been watching out for her and understood that she had lost her luggage and documents in the most recent raids. She was very fortunate, so few foreign refugees had anyone looking for them!
For a moment, just a moment, she remembered the strange Amazons in their black top hats and jackets and their strange white, mouthless faces. But then she dismissed the memory. Obviously that was no more than some sort of frightening dream.
Back in the viewing room, Avi pondered the young soldier's book of observations. The book was nearly full of careful, diligent notes in neat printing, using a pencil with hard lead. Difficult to smear or erase, a bit pale. Even the few entries Avi had glanced at were redolent with confusion and disorientation. The poor woman simply could not make sense of a society where women were at the centre of things, let alone one where women did all sorts of things and dressed in all sorts of ways, and seemed to always be laughing and singing. And no one monitored what she ate or what she wore, even their military didn't seem to get or take orders. There was no structure anywhere, it was utter chaos, there were no laws!
"I am half tempted to try to find out what nonsense this poor woman was told about us." Avi murmured.