Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Eleven
Momentarily stymied by how bluntly weird Ges' notes on the Prime program were, and how the designation 71623-A bothered her, Benny turned her mind to a different question that seemed likely to have an actual answer. Among the stubborn ones she couldn't quite sort out was the local calendar, and Benny had decided that she was fed up with being unable to read and convert the year properly. She knew what year it was Outside, because she kept count of the days and could do a local conversion from her own notebooks. Not too much of her military training had seriously stuck with her except of course for marching, how not to blow off her own limbs with ordinance, and how to make a brief and effective status report for each day. Unbeknownst to her, Benny's series of notebooks bore a non-trivial resemblance to those of the spy recently returned unceremoniously to the Outside, although what she wrote only started out as ISO-standard mini-reports. Digging her current book out of her pocket and flipping to where she drew in the customary six sheets of that year's calendar, Benny glared at it. Then turned her attention back to the newspaper and several different borrowed periodicals from downstairs, plus what notionally was a local calendar. Format-wise this last item did look like a calendar, each page with a month marked up on it by the days of the week and so on. But the year number remained incomprehensible.
Arranging her documents neatly on the table, Benny began tracking backwards, sorting out day and week numbers from the month numbers, which by process of elimination left the year number. That explained one area of confusion, because the year had six digits instead of just four. Faintly alarming as this was at first glance, Benny immediately surmised that the Amazons started counting from a different base year, which logically meant all she had to do was subtract the year she knew it was in the date system she was accustomed to from the year indicated and presto, there was the difference. Completely logical. Except, now that she could read the digits in the date properly and in the right order, Benny could see that none of the Amazon Nation documents in front of her said the same year. Just the same day, week, and month. Sweat began trickling down her back, and in spite of herself Benny began to feel the first tendrils of genuine panic. This was sheer screaming madness. Maybe she was asleep after all?
"You're not asleep, you're trying to compare incommensurate documents." Ges burred from where she had rolled onto her back. The storm had returned to full force outside, so much so that visible gusts of air shuffled the curtains even on the solidly shielded windows.
"Incommensurate documents. The newspaper is for local time as correlated to the Outside. Half of those periodicals are for the Amazons who work in the temples, and they all have different starting years. Everybody has to at least agree what day of the week it is, that's why the parts related to that are consistent."
"Local time as correlated to the Outside?"
"Yes, so that one will give you the year offset."
"Good, good. I think." Something still seemed off about all this. Then again, it was late, right in that time of night when a person was tired enough to find poor quality horror movies utterly terrifying instead of laughable. Benny dug the last of her Outside paperwork out of her briefcase. This had arrived only a couple of weeks ago, and she hadn't read the date carefully because it was already obvious. So she had assumed. Looking over the envelope and rolling her eyes again at the hamfisted attempt to make it look like the Canadian insecurity establishment hadn't opened it – she wasn't even annoyed that they had, she just thought it was a silly level of effort when they could just call their colleagues across the street to confirm her immigration status. Then again, maybe this was how the new recruits practised messing with the mail. Finding that thought too paranoid even for her current state of probably near asleepness, Benny glanced at the date.
Well, so much for being mostly asleep. The date was impossible. It was four years different from her own count.
"Your count is fine." Ges yawned and began rearranging the blankets. "Really." She could see from Benny's glare that this was not reassuring or convincing. "Come on Benny, you must have already suspected that there is something wonky about the time here. I thought it was a psy-op when I first got here, used to keep people off balance until they were found trustworthy. It isn't, though."
"So what is it instead?" Benny asked. "Unlike the ridiculous story you told me about how you got here, which I don't believe, I arrived here after standard forms of air and land travel. Every woman here I have met says the same, and nothing in the newcomer's guidebook says otherwise."
"Of course you did, and so did I the first time I came here." Ges replied. "There are permanent gates that we use all the time, and those must be accessed the usual way. Once you are through them though, things are different. I bet Jed fobbed off your identification of the strange geography here with her story about hacking geographical databases. The story is quite true, by the way, it's just that it distracts from the core question."
"Suppose I accept that time is passing faster Outside than it is here. How is that possible?" Benny was beginning to get angry again.
"Well, the easiest way to think about it is to think of time like space in a more literal sense. The Amazon Nation, as best I can tell, is on a large and stable portion of slower moving time. Sometimes it runs over bumps that create temporary shifting zones on the land. That's how you can experience changes in geography that Outside we could never experience in a lifetime." Ges frowned at her feet where they stuck up under the blankets. "Jed insists that time is not real and this is a bad way to describe things, but to me at least little else makes sense."
"You're making this up. How could there be any connection between the Nation and Outside?"
"It's not easy. The permanent gates are natural, they are remnants from the events that separated this place from the Outside to begin with. After that, I think it must take quite a bit of energy – I didn't expect to get yanked the other day at all. Usually that takes weeks of preparation, but I guess with so many women fleeing the war they must have already had things running." Ges waited patiently, well aware that her cousin could work this stuff out, and she would. But she would need more actual data, not just more stories from her awkwardly famous and not quite reputable cousin.
"Dare I ask what those events were that somehow made an – I don't know, pocket universe or something here?" Benny's sarcastic tone revealed that she had probably heard all but her limit for now.
Ges smiled. "Since you just did, we'll take the default answer to that question to be yes. The events in question were a foolish and dangerous military experiment intended to create an energy shield around a research facility as proof of concept. The long fantasized actualization of the so-called star wars defence system. From what I've read and Jed told me, the energy source for this sci-fi style forcefield was supposed to be charged liquid plasma."
"I flunked a physics class on magnetohydrodynamics, but I still learned enough to get that those are not containable in anything but the smallest amounts under normal conditions. As in, inside fancy light bulbs." Benny's tone turned thoughtful. She had no idea what happened to her copy of the book from that class.
"I thought you were a historian." Ges objected.
"I am, we had to take credits outside our faculty. A mistake in the electronic course catalogue allowed several of us to enroll in the class, because it technically had no prerequisites." In the end she had audited the course rather than quit attending, because it was interesting. Benny was still half-convinced the instructor had bluffed his way through most of the classes by describing the diagrams and rewriting the equation derivations on the board from the book.
"Well, the outcome of the experiment was not an electromagnetic shield but what was reported as a massive nuclear accident." Ges yawned again. "You'll have to collar Jed to get more details, but the point for us now is that it made a hell of a mess of how space is connected and time flows here. Or how we measure it anyway."
"How we measure it." Benny repeated rather faintly.
"Rather than try to sort this all out in the middle of a giant storm, total exhaustion, and a return to overt war status, why not take a nap and continue the process of working it out in the morning?" Ges suggested hopefully.
Arion tried very hard not to grit her teeth. Successfully folded up into the small passenger seat in the cessna, she fiddled with her tattered satchel, running her fingers over the old ten number plus one letter designation. The way she had come by the bag was less than pleasant, but she insisted on keeping and using to death any equipment that came from the whole experience. For good or ill, the design of this satchel and the way it was sewn together suited her very well, so Arion had already arranged with a friend to work up a pattern ready to make a new version of the bag with a few small adjustments including the removal of the designation number. The little plane's engine started droning, and Arion consciously stretched her jaw and tried again not to clamp down with her teeth. Explosives and flying projectiles didn't trouble her at all, something she shared with Chris. But she hated, hated, hated flying.
The door of the plane popped open again, and Jed bopped merrily into the pilot's seat.
"No fucking way!" Arion rarely swore, but she was now on the edge of total panic, since no matter how talented a pilot Jed was, she still sported a light cast on one arm. "I want out!"
"What? No, of course you don't Arion, please calm yourself." Jed replied with remarkable aplomb. In fact, she didn't seem to be getting ready to fly the plane so much as giving considerable attention to the navigation controls. Even one handed she adjusted the various small dials and buttons with remarkable speed, then slipped a new map into the holder above the control yoke and readjusted it so that the pilot could check the map quickly and conveniently. Even in her panicked state, Arion could see a series of numbered points marked on the map. Evidently the pilot would be expected to keep accurate track of these as they flew. Checking a few other things, Jed flipped on the radio and tuned it until a pleasant female voice declared, "Kuran, aevton." Nodding briskly, Jed shifted carefully in the pilot's seat so that she could look Arion in the eye. "Did you bring your other bag?"
"My other bag?" Arion asked blankly, struggling to resettle her nerves.
"You forgot it, I can already tell." Hauling herself out of the pilot's seat, Jed brushed herself down carefully with her injured arm, testing its range of motion and pain levels. "I will fetch it for you. There is no sense in your experiencing this flight more than strictly necessary. Besides, I am sure that Benny will not permit you to come back immediately." Suiting action to word, Jed loped back to the house to retrieve Arion's forgotten travel bag.
Arion did have reason to forget though, being deathly afraid of flying, so afraid that she hadn't even packed it herself. Later she would discover that Chris had generously and idiosyncratically packed the bag for her. For now Arion was pulled out of her panic by the realization that honestly, Jed should not have been able to tolerate jogging back to the house with her injured arm. Yet that was exactly what she was doing. So either Jed could heal remarkably over the course of thirty six hours, or she was on some of the most wonderful painkillers ever. Then again, Arion reflected, Jed was also stubborn enough to just soldier on through the worst of it. These meanderings went on long enough that Jed reappeared and tipped the duffel bag onto her lap. "There you are." Jed smiled, a real smile, because Arion no longer looked like she was going to curl up in a fetal position and scream. For a few minutes there Jed had been very worried, in part because this was one of the few times she had not taken Chris' grave warnings about Arion's perspective on flying seriously enough.
"No, no, no!" Chris had exclaimed when she learned that Jed had sent Arion ahead to get in the plane. "You must never do that! Arion isn't just a little bit afraid of flying, she is utterly terrified of it, and the smaller the plane the worse off she is. Now you will neither be able to get her out of the plane, nor able to keep calm her enough to allow anybody to fly it!" And as Jed ruefully discovered, Chris was non-trivially angry about her partner's mistake. "You sort out how to manage this preparation step now, since you decided not to pay attention to what I said." Chris growled, and stalked off, leaving Jed with the job she was doing now.
"So now you are fully luggaged," Jed declared.
"Equipped, luggaged isn't a word in english like it is in your language Jed." Arion reminded her, delighted at the ongoing distraction from her horrible fate. If Benny wasn't ecstatic to see her when she got out of this despicable little plane – well, that would be disappointing.
"Really? But that makes no sense. Is there not an english verb, to lug?"
"Of course it makes sense, to lug isn't the same sort of verb as to equip." Arion insisted, beginning to feel a very alarming sensation that might be hysterical tears or hysterical giggles trying to break out. Beads of sweat began growing on her forehead. "This distraction isn't helping, Jed."
"No," Jed agreed sobrely, observing how her cousin had suddenly lost all her colour and was beginning to slip into the unhelpful breathing pattern that preceded hyperventilating. "Something to bite?" She held up a softish looking square, pale yellow with light brown specks. "Ginger flavour, not too sticky."
"Of course it's ginger flavoured. What about cinnamon?" Arion didn't like ginger nearly as much as Chris did.
"I do have cinnamon!" crowed Jed, handing over a light red square instead.
"Now you eat the ginger one. First." Arion insisted. Back in the old days, her military compatriots had taken to drugging her unconscious for ordinary but necessary military flights. She hated that. A plain sedative to mellow her out was fine, but somehow she could never get her hands on any. Instead they always found a way to knock her out. It was ridiculous. She'd be fine with a sensibly calibrated sedative. In any case, she didn't quite put it past Jed to try knocking her out. Not because Jed disrespected her wishes as such, but because Jed did not share her belief in the efficacy of sedatives that didn't knock her completely out. "Go on." Was it her fault that in the middle of that one flight Jed had finally resorted to knocking her out with a smart punch on the chin? That was totally different. In that case the plane did them all the unwanted favour of unexpectedly running out of fuel, and Arion had hardly been the only person panicking.
Jed dutifully put the ginger one in her mouth and chewed it happily, despite the fact that based on how strong the scent of the candy was, it had to be burning her mouth. "Are you actually enjoying that? Isn't your mouth very hot?" Arion asked in astonishment.
"Oh yes, that's the best part!" Jed warbled happily. "Is not as strong as all that." To be fair, her eyes weren't watering or anything, so by her standards clearly it wasn't.
Satisfied that this was just an ordinary sort of treat after all, Arion finally popped the cinnamon candy into her mouth. Luckily it was not as strong as Jed's ginger candy, and true to Jed's word it was chewy but not too sticky, which Arion's much battered jaw could not have suffered. In fact, Arion was a bit surprised to find after a few more chews the candy seemed to be dissolving away even faster than Jed's. Jed was still worrying at a chunk of hers, evidently caught up in her teeth on one side. Good thing she had insisted on the cinnamon one for sure then, Arion reflected, just before her eyes dropped shut and her head slumped forward. The duffel bag prevented her from folding up in an awkward heap, which allowed Jed to get her seatbelt fastened around her after a still considerable effort.
Finally done making sure her cousin was safely unconscious and buckled in, Jed leaned heavily against the side of the plane, huffing and puffing. She was going to catch hell for stressing her arm, but that went along well with how annoyed Chris already was with her anyway. Luckily they didn't fall out often. Pushing herself upright, Jed stepped back and closed the passenger door, locking it down. By now the pilot was waiting patiently in the pilot seat, basic safety checks already done. Myrrhine winced when her cousin paused to hold her aching arm tight against her side for a few seconds before walking around to speak to her.
"How long will the stuff you just gave Arion last?" Myrrhine gave her gloves another tug, then checked the ignition and her instruments one more time.
"Almost three hours, ample time." Jed replied, still rubbing absently at her arm. Really, it was a shame she was allergic outright to that particular sedative Arion was convinced she could take before a flight without having enough in her system to be completely unconscious. In far smaller amounts it was an excellent analgesic for those who could tolerate it.
"Good, I should be back by nightfall then." Myrrhine readjusted the pilot seat one more time, then added more gently, "After we're out of sight promise me you will at least go and lay down in the library?"
"Yes, yes, all right." Jed mumbled. What she wanted to do was go to her home laboratory and work on something interesting. But she was feeling a bit played out, so maybe a nap would be better first.
"I know how you hate having to slow down for anything Jed, but sometimes you must at least a little." Smiling fondly, Myrrhine closed up the small door window, checked it and the door were properly locked, then waited for Jed to get all the way to the back of Omega's Folly before starting the engine again, gratified this time to see Arion remain oblivious and unconscious. Much better than before when Myrrhine had started the engine with a view to taxiing the little plane down the garden and orienting it preparatory to heading for the runway marked out for those who knew what to look for in the Perfumed Mere. For a moment there, Myrrhine had seriously thought Arion was going to take the passenger seat with her as she fled. Yet, Arion did manage to stay put, and that said a great deal about her character. It also firmly instructed both Myrrhine and Jed in how very non-trivially afraid of flying Arion was.
Smiling at Jed's carefully annotated chart, and nearly laughing out loud when the radio declared seriously, "Kuran, aevton." She knew that after kuran came ekvet, and after ekvet, turan, and so on. Myrrhine didn't find the basic counting numbers in the language of the navigation system funny so much as the paradoxically sobre-drunk tone of the digitized voice that recited them. Omega's Folly was of course kuran aevton – station one. "Kuran, aevton," the radio repeated as they took off, and Myrrhine deftly brought the plane round the house and on course for town. Her eyes widened a bit as the plane reached cruising height, and she saw part of just what Jed had flown over on the way home.
"Oh Arion, you have absolutely no idea." Myrrhine breathed. No way in hell that poor woman would be able to tolerate having the slightest inkling of this. For her part, Myrrhine found it profoundly beautiful, although also viscerally frightening. She had never seen a shifting zone quite like this, and now, now she was sure. It was the Evarakeen who had gotten up to this. "I sure hope my lunatic Evarakeen soon to be in-laws know what the hell they're doing." She checked her verticals and listened to the next station call, the sobre-drunk declaration of "Ekvet, aevton." Somehow, later she would wonder just how, it suddenly really hit her. The Evarakeen had done this. They had to have done.
Chris was Evarakeen.
"Yes, but does it..." Chris looked up, and watched Jed make her sore and tired way across the still rather irregular floorspace between the two halves of Omega's Folly. Spray painted markings and taped sections indicated where the house removal crews would soon be at work breaking down the shell that loosely joined the two sections together. Quite unexpectedly for Benny, the Amazons had apparently prioritized moving her house to town, and as a result there was no sense doing anything else to level the floor. Well, maybe there was, as Jed caught a toe on a tile and fell unceremoniously in the middle of the hall. "...I expect you to make sure that the results are satisfactory. I have to go." Hanging up the receiver, Chris hurried downstairs to retrieve her partner, who for some reason wasn't moving.
By the time she got there, Jed had apparently curled herself into a ball and gone to sleep. The sight was both adorable and sad at the same time, and Chris hesitated, torn between wanting to get Jed up and off the floor to a warmer, drier, and certainly cleaner sofa in the library and her knowledge that if woken up too much at this point Jed would be thrown into a low and miserable temper for the rest of the day. For good or ill, and from the perspective of the kitchen crockery very much for the good, Jed had not inherited the sort of stormy temper that blew things off with a good bout of crockery throwing or shouting.
"The correct answer is to provide her with a blanket and a pillow." Evrope commented, handing those items to Chris, then firmly overseeing her efforts to somehow tuck Jed in. "You wouldn't believe the places that girl could find a way to fall asleep in at – where she grew up." The older woman gently teased Jed's dark hair off of her forehead, subtly checking for a temperature while she was at it. "There was a specific bookshelf in my husband's study she napped on until she outgrew it." Standing up straight and stretching out her back, Evrope added, "Perhaps we should make tea."
"Of course, of course." Chris agreed hastily. "I have just the thing right over here," pointing to a nearby, low door. Noting her mother-in-law's skeptical expression, Chris couldn't resist declaiming, "It's my own invention, a full fold out tea production-mobile for when you'd rather have tea outside but the weather is terrible!" True to her word, opening the door revealed a rolling cart with a spirit stove, tea pot, cups, and saucers. The tap in the wall provided clean water for the kettle, which Chris pulled out of another compartment, and then having found nothing to eat that she considered appropriate for her mother-in-law, dashed into the main house to find, "Some cheese, or maybe some scrambled eggs..."
"Jed, I do not understand how you found this crazed women in all the world!" Evrope muttered, throwing up her hands. Then she turned her attention to preparing the tea leaves, intrigued to find an excellent blend that the Persian family down the street always used to have ready at their tiny kiosk. Carefully measuring the tea and checking the water, Evrope noted that this was consistent with what she had heard about Chris' mother, Kjell Pontius-Halliday, who was exotic even for an Amazon. She hadn't met her opposite number yet, despite now being such a short distance away. In fact, based on her observations, Evrope was quite certain that what looked like a mini-aqueduct attached to the back of Jed's half of Omega's Folly was actually a raised pathway running across a portion of the Perfumed Mere, all the way to the Evarakeen's great house. She was less sure about the name of this house, which when Chris said it sounded like "All One's Keep." In any case, it looked like she could walk along the raised pathway right up to the place and knock on the door to ask for Chris' mother. Arranging the tea cups and poking into other cleverly arranged compartments until she found spoons, Evrope stumbled on an incongruous collection of old parking tokens, English old pence, and a well-worn pack of playing cards drawn onto the backs of pieces of cardboard trimmed from cigarette packets. There was a story in these, she could tell!
"I fold," snorting in disgust, the stocky woman sitting across from Jed threw her cards face down on the table. This was absolutely necessary, because two of the other players were highly trained mnemotists who carried otherwise impossible to secure messages. They would both know exactly which cards were not yet accounted for, which made playing any sort of poker with them all the harder. This did not take all the fun out of the game, as might be expected, because usually they had enough players to need more than one deck of cards. But not tonight.
Jed frowned a little, and took a long draw on her cigar, which of course, she was not supposed to be smoking. Obviously she did anyway, but not where Chris would be troubled by the smoke, or around anyone else who had serious objections. They were playing outside, half frozen in the confused spring weather. It really was too bad they had so few players available today, she was under strict orders not to let slip that there as a third trained mnemotist around. She chewed harder at the mouthpiece of her cigar. When it came right down to it, she hated such specific orders, there was nothing to work with in them at all. On the other hand, the odd time she – forgot – that specific order, the other players all laughed, declared her the best close up thief they had ever encountered, and threw all their tokens into the pot to redistribute it evenly again and start a new game. Therefore Jed was not convinced the order meant anything more than an excuse for the foreign officers to yell at her whenever they wanted.
"Just as well we don't play for real money, that's for sure." The mousy haired woman sitting directly opposite Jed threw down her own cards. "Of course, it's not about the money." She gave the first woman who had folded a nudge, and despite still being annoyed the other woman managed to smile. It really was a shame how absurdly competitive Americans could be, they thought they should win at everything because they were sure they had the best of everything. To be fair, they certainly had the best of many things. They hadn't seen a tin of spam in decades, apparently. It was just that sometimes the best things were too specialized. Jed took another long drag of her cigar, and considered whether for this game she could stay in without getting too much ranting from General Nincompoop.
This was hardly the man's name, but Jed had never picked up what it actually was, and because of security restrictions on signal operations, no higher level foreign officers wore name tags. Jed wasn't even sure which primarily English-speaking country the man was from, not least because so many names were reused between them for their cities and towns that there was a slice-of-life feature in the military gazette on soldiers sent badly afield by malicious or foolish transportation agents. Jed had sent Chris a clipping featuring one poor man's saga as he sadly trudged from city to city in western Canada trying to find the correct "Strathcona." That place name had humorous connotations for Chris already, and Jed heard back from Chris' bunkmates that she had laughed until she cried at the clipping. But her bunkmates weren't Amazons, nor were they English, so it was impossible to really explain it all to them.
"Smokin' causes cancer, Adams," grumbled folder number one, as she dragged her fingers through her stringy hair and jammed her cap back on top of it. The stringy hair thing was not her fault. No one had been able to hit the showers yet after a long day's march.
"I never offered you any, Greene," and never blew any smoke that woman's way either. Jed decided to stay in the game. If Greene was this grumpy about having to drop out of a round of fake money poker, then it was worth it. When Greene got nervy, she got grumpy. And when Greene got nervy, that meant some harebrained operation by the North American forces was about to start. It was always better for everyone else to pay attention to what the North Americans let slip if you were a member of some other military, it cut down the friendly fire accidents.
"You would if you knew where things were really at in this war! You'd offer us Yanks anything!" Greene exploded onto her feet, suddenly beet red and furious. Folder number two grabbed Greene by the shoulder.
"Greene, shut up will ya? It's just a game. Siddown." For a moment it looked like Greene was going to turn her temper on her friend, whose name, Jed could see, was Hayes, but then she collapsed like a popped balloon.
"Fine, it's just a game." Greene snapped.
But it wasn't about the game, that was obvious to all six women clustered around the battered table top they had balanced on two emptied, upside down oil barrels. The atmosphere turned far more tense. Allford, who was sitting on Jed's left peered upwards. "There they go again. How many of those planes are there? And don't try to tell me those are drones, they're obviously too big." The first few times squadrons had passed over them, the presiding officer had loudly declared them drones. But drones sounded quite different, and flew at much lower altitudes. These were definitely planes, visibly bristling with ordinance as they angled upward in their flight away from the aircraft carrier still just out of naked eye range to the south.
"Something strange going on," mumbled Firth, who sat across from Hayes. "Overheard some talk by the spooks coming back from headquarters. Accident of some kind out in the Mediterranean sector, one guy kept referring to Turkey, another guy to Albania. The rest of them kept telling those two to shut up."
Jed's ears pricked up. Now that was a bit of promising scuttlebut. That suggested that maybe, just maybe the mad but physically plausible scheme the Evarakeen had cooked up actually worked. Or it wasn't working as planned, but far better, from the Evarakeen perspective, which was also the Adams perspective, and so the Amazon perspective. With luck besides the worst kind, that meant better security and fewer dead and injurred. She considered her cards again. In truth, this was a pretty terrible poker hand, even though aesthetically she had all the best cards. Murgatroyd shamelessly peeked over Jed's shoulder, since she was about to fold herself and see what would happen. What she saw so astonished her that she sat back in her seat with her mouth hanging open in astonishment, then collected herself enough to throw in her cards.
"You bugger, Jed, how did you get those?" In spite of herself, Jed liked Murgatroyd just for her accent. She was very careful about expressing this to Chris, who was just prone enough to jealousy to snipe that Murgatroyd was evidently from the south. Jed understood that this was meant to be at best an uncompliment, but heaven help her if she could figure out what it meant otherwise.
"Just luck," Jed replied, flourishing the cards. "These are much nicer looking, don't you think?" Which accidentally led to the other two remaining players folding, even though Black-Altmann would unquestioningly have won with her royal flush. Terribly embarrassed, Jed insisted that Black-Altmann must be considered the winner because it was all a linguistic misunderstanding, but the burly, ruddy faced German laughed merrily and declared herself properly and fairly beaten by her own mind and that was that. She even went and got a bar of chocolate from her rations to share around to reinforce the point, making sure to save the cardboard packaging so Jed could cut more playing cards from it. Even nervy Greene accepted a piece of chocolate and stopped glaring at the weedy physicist, who cheerfully ran off to brush her teeth so that she could enjoy the chocolate properly.
Much later, Jed squinted up from her position at the radio monitoring desk, wishing that she could spend more time writing her letter to Chris in the gaps between transmissions. Murgatroyd smiled. "There'll be lots of time for letter-writing later too, you know. So your girlfriend, she's from Yorkshire?"
"Yes, but not Sheffield." Jed wasn't sure why, but on hearing that Chris was from Yorkshire many people who learned English partly by watching reruns from the old British Broadcasting Corporation promptly asked if she was from Sheffield. Actual Englishpeople asked at least three times out of seven, Jed had been keeping count.
"Oh, to be sure, there are many places in Yorkshire besides Sheffield!" chuckled Murgatroyd. "Like Wensleydale!" Relaxing into a full-bodied laugh, she peered more carefully at the print out running in front of her than a casual onlooker would have appreciated. "Message on,"
"I hear it." The shift in static and crackle in the background wash from the short wave radio as it responded to the sputtering cable modem the way it wasn't supposed to had begun halfway through Murgatroyd's first chuckles. The cables were supposed to be better shielded than that, but the truth was they were using consumer grade equipment because they couldn't get much else after the raw minimum of military equipment these days. "It's nonsense."
"What?" Alarmed, Murgatroyd leapt to her feet. If Jed said a transmission was nonsense, it was nonsense, not encrypted or encoded, nonsense.
Turning her monitor so Murgatroyd could see it and holding up her own print out besides, both women stared at the wild scribbles. They definitely bore no resemblance to anything they were used to seeing, until, until – Murgatroyd uttered a low curse. Steadily more visible as they watched the plot develop, but lost on the rapidly updating liquid crystal screen, were intermittent versions of the Lorenz attractor. "The hell is that doing there, we're waiting to receive messages, not weather simulations!"
"Can't say." Jed stared in astonishment at the print out. This was the information the Evarakeen had promised to send if they found what they expected at the old military base site. So she really couldn't say. Glancing over the other monitors and equipment, Jed could see now that everything was going offline. "Wait, something else is happening here." Then the power went out.
"Where's your lighter, Adams?"
"I do not have one of those."
"What? Then how the hell do you light those terrible cigars?"
"It doesn't matter, there are matches just here, what are you trying to do?"
"Light this." True to her word, Murgatroyd lit something, a good old fashioned wax candle. "I carry these everywhere. Petroleum product, not beeswax. Rather not attract any more rats." She held the candle up, and now Jed could see it had seen some use already some time in the past. "Can't even hear anybody outside, the general ought to be screaming his head off, ordering us around." Uneasy, Jed loosened her sidearm, and unhappily accepted Murgatroyd was right to gesture at their gas masks. Fitted up and now gloved besides, they moved silently together out of the room, more and more unnerved to see the usually bustling military outpost looked empty. Once they had climbed up to the ground level, Murgatroyd put out her candle and tucked it away in her satchel. Carrying their sidearms ready to fire, they began systematically checking rooms as they worked their way up the next three floors.
The second floor revealed signs of a hasty exit, papers scattered over the floor, half drunk cups of coffee. Even the odd burning cigarette. Overturned chairs. More and more bewildered, Jed tried not to notice the itchy trickle of sweat creeping along her hair line. She checked the little line of sensor paper and digital gauges attached to her sleeve. No positives for known chemical agents, not that she was inclined to chance anything. But that still didn't make sense of what they were seeing here. If the outpost has been overwhelmed, the last people who should have been left behind without a backward glance was the sigint officers!
Finding the building clear, Jed and Murgatroyd checked quarters next, and found those just as empty. At a bit of a loss, each woman repacked her duffel bag and other kit, slung it about her body, and looked warily at each other. Then, silently agreed, they pulled their gas masks off. No trouble.
"This is completely mad." Murgatroyd declared. "This whole lot bugged out without us?"
"But they didn't big out," Jed objected. "They left everything behind."
"You know what I mean! Don't be so literal." snapped Murgatoryd, uncustomarily testy.
"This is most unhelpful. I am worried about Black-Altmann, she was determined and sensible." She had also saved them more than once due to an uncanny ability to hear bombers before anyone else could see them, including the radar crew.
"Alty'll be all right, she'll have dumped Greene into the first puddle and gone on." Murgatroyd pushed her helmet back on her head. "All this digital equipment is deader than a doornail, including this fancy kit on our sleeves." She waved her uniform jacket sleeve, which flopped comically because the jacket was too big in the chest and too long in the arms.
"Yes." Jed walked out of the metal hut, trying to see more than a person could in a new Moon with no artificial lights. She wanted to light a flare or something less ostentatious like Murgatroyd's candle, because now she felt sure of what had happened. Noticing the homemade playing cards abandoned where a member of the watch had been playing solitaire, she scooped them up, glad to see the handsomest ones were still there. Of course, this still begged the question of what exactly had happened here as opposed to the old military base far to the northwest. Wait, northwest. With all those planes heading south.
"You know what's happened here, don't you, Jed?" Murgatroyd had relit her candle, and was watching her comrade curiously. By rights they both should have been terrified, but Jed was her unflappable self, and Murgatroyd figured if Jed wasn't in hysterics they probably weren't going to die or suffer torture in the immediate future.
"Ah, Adams, there you are!" A tall woman with dark hair and eyes, in what was definitely not a military uniform stumbled over to them. "Too sorry about the lights and equipment. The adjustments generated a bigger electromagnetic pulse than we expected. Did you get our message?"
"Yes, we did. But no one else." Jed motioned to Murgatroyd. "Just the two of us."
"That really is too bad. No other women?" The woman looked around, shaking her head in annoyance.
"No one else was ready."
"Well, we'll have to get a move on here. Only just under three hours to collect what we can and of course whoever is ready, then head out. We have an exit rigged up eight kilometres to the east of here, just over an hour's march. There's a path."
"Hang on a minute, who the hell is this?!" interrupted Murgatroyd.
"Of course, of course, I am forgetting your English manners." Jed arranged them so that the newcomer and Murgatroyd were facing one another. "Lieutenant Murgatroyd, allow me to introduce you to Doctor M..."
"Pontius-Halliday," the newcomer interrupted smoothly. "Helen Pontius-Halliday. Easiest of my names to pronounce. I'm the head of the Amazon clean up crew."
"Amazon cr – what have you lot been up to? This outpost had a hundred and seventy three people staffing it!"
"Yes, and the lot of them abandoned you the instant the warning came through of a pending enemy barrage. A warning never passed through the communications equipment you were responsible for monitoring." Pontius-Halliday pointed out. She watched the other woman's expression shift from outrage to shock, then real fear.
"Right then Adams, you're up to something rotten looks like." Jed forced herself to remain calm. This was always the worst part and the most dangerous.
"No Murgatroyd, we're not fighting for the Blue Army anymore than your lot is." Taking a deep breath. "The war's over you know."
"What?! What are you talking about?"
"War's over, that's why Greene was practically chewing her own bootlaces yesterday, she was counting the minutes to the ceasefire. But the peace is only with the North American forces." And with that, the other boot dropped.
"And you're worried about Alty? She's left us behind too, hasn't she?" Murgatoryd glared suspiciously at Jed, and then at what she now realized had to be a light source that Pontius-Halliday was carrying. "How's that work if all the electrics are burnt out?"
"It's chemical, cold reaction. My cousin's invention." Pontius-Halliday repressed the urge to declare "My cousin's own invention!" in a big voice with visible effort, to Jed's fond eyes.
"Alty's the one who told me what was happening Murgatroyd, including that I had been reassigned to a dummy station." Jed refrained from adding she had known right away that her new station wasn't supposed to receive anything, and that was important, or the channel wouldn't have been clear for the Amazon signals. So nobody had interfered when she got out her toolkit and started adjusting it, making sure to comment how baffling it was that she was getting so much sixty hertz noise on the line as she hooked it up to an alternate power source and readjusted the range and frequency. "The point is, Alty made sure we'd have a safe exit. Come on Murgatroyd, we have an hour's march at least before we can eat, and you wanted to see the Nation."
"I wanted a choice in the matter!"
"I know." Jed watched the other woman, feeling genuinely badly about the situation. This sort of thing was so unfair to the new recruits. "The world here is not as we would have made it."
"Yeah, yeah. I know." Hoisting her pack a bit higher on her back, Murgatroyd considered the situation. "Do we really have to march? There are bicycles here, and we may as well take as much of the really good kit as we can carry." Seeing Pontius-Halliday's raised eyebrows, she snorted. "Yes there's good stuff – chocolate, and real tea, over in the officer's supplies." Then she nearly laughed out loud as both Adams and Pontius-Halliday perked up at the mention of tea.
"Real tea?" Pontius-Halliday asked hopefully.
"Sure, and probably other stuff it'll make us angry to see besides. How long have we got?" Back home, Murgatroyd had already been in the British military before the war, taking the risk-fraught path out of poverty by way of joining up to take up the right path selection to become a quartermaster. This initial plan had been spoiled by her aptitude tests which demonstrated she had unavoidable officer potential and a talent for mathematics and solving linguistic puzzles. But she still kept a hand in on the quartermaster side of things, as it never did not to have a means to organize some special goods when needed. Murgatroyd came from too rough a background to trust that the higher ups would make sure the foot soldiers in general would be fed, let alone that the woman foot soldiers would have properly fitted equipment. The women didn't, they had worked up a whole quiet system of trade and alterations within regulations to sort that out.
In the meantime, in the here and now Murgatroyd reflected, there was no reason for the Amazons not to strip the place of whatever good stuff they could carry. She'd give this Pontius-Halliday character a sketch of the layout of the place, and learn what the Amazons considered worth salvaging. Something told her it wouldn't be weapons, or even fuel. Word from her own sources was baffling, because the Amazons demonstrated an unmistakeable soldier's fondness for absconding with good food and drink when they could get it, but a complete disinterest in anything else sensible. They didn't gather metals for reuse, not weapons, not sensing equipment. Not even computers and related stuff. But they seemed to have a weird mania for calendars and datebooks, actual books, and even the few surviving paper catalogues and telephone books that showed up if not in use at least as ballast and insulation. They never left anything like that, but had no use for the few newspapers, magazines, or propaganda leaflets, which might have been explained away as wanted for toilet paper or even fuel. There was a whole propaganda line about the Amazons' supposedly desperate quest for toilet paper. The first time Murgatroyd saw a propaganda leaflet talking about this, she had gone with it straight to the camp medic, certain she had somehow become intoxicated.
"Settle down Murgatroyd," the old man had grumbled. "Yer fine. No the water supply ain't tainted. Been telling everybody all day." He had thrown down a batch of leaflets in disgust. "The hell good is this crap if instead of helping the war effort it convinces half the foot soldiers somebody gave 'em acid at breakfast? This kind of shit, and supposedly we got no sense in New York?" Then he stumped off to deal with a few very young true believers who took every propaganda leaflet in deadly earnest, motioning to Murgatroyd to head off in the opposite direction. "No sense in both of us losing the day."