Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Three
Light danced in swishy patterns on the ceiling, easily outshining the wisps of steam meandering a little closer to the marble lined floor. Marble was relatively easy and cheap to get in the Amazon Nation, but it was spectacularly hard and miserable to work when there was so much pressure to get housing and facilities built. So its uses were not terribly frequent despite its low cost, but it did make the odd appearance in an old-fashioned bathroom or temple.
Jed picked up a tiny, round, smooth skinned orange from a bowl resting by her elbow, and rolled it along the edge of the sunken tub, watching as it very slowly rolled to a stop, just beside and to the right of two others. Tipping her head to one side, Jed selected another orange. There was no way to get another orange tucked into the little group on the edge without causing two or more of the others to fall in her bath water. This odd little scenario was actually relevant to a problem Jed was working on.
Leaning back onto the little rest mat which was lightly stuck to the side of the tub with a suction cup and weighted at two corners by good old fashioned rocks, Jed returned her attention to the swishy lights on the ceiling. That was enough thinking about work for today. A quick mental calculation revealed she had spent seven minutes, eleven seconds on it. More than sufficient.
Using one foot, she knocked a little floating container towards herself. It obediently bobbed towards her, revealing a cargo of a bar of soap, a small bottle of liquid soap, and her spectacles. Selecting the small bottle, Jed removed the cap, which was one with a device for bubble blowing attached to it. Beaming as far as she was able in view of her sore jaw, Jed went to work on overwhelming the steam from her bath water with soap bubbles.
She was still pursuing this challenge when Delos arrived, a bit out of breath from climbing so many stairs. "Gosh, aren't we in a good mood." she commented, setting her pack down not far from the bathroom door before she closed it again. "Isn't this pretty wasteful?" Motioning to the full tub.
"Possibly. Except we only fill this one up a maximum of three times a year, and then the water goes into the clothes washing system before it hits the filtration tank." There really was a clothes washing system. Benny had been horrified the first time she encountered it, but had come around after discovering it did the ironing.
"Hmmph." Delos looked around the bathroom, all done in shades of blue-green. The sunken, octagon-shaped tub filled up one corner of the room, and set around its wallward edge were a series of windows. When Jed wasn't busy studying light patterns on the ceiling, she could feast her eyes on one small part of the chaotic grounds of her home. The sink was to the right – it had a tub-sized drainspout and a big plug that hung from the taps by a hunk of twine. To the left of that was an incongruous shelving unit constructed of plywood and cinder blocks, home to supplies of soap, towels, candles, and the like. Then the door, and finally the toilet, which had no sign of a bookrack anywhere. In fact, a series of little rubber doodads, for lack of a better word, had been siliconed all over the lid of its tank, preventing any magazines or books from taking a refuge there. This was such an odd sight, Delos pointed at it, opening her mouth to ask.
"Protection against right wing, anti-lesbian, fundamentalist whack job magazines." Moving a rag and spreading it out over certain specific bits – Jed was not in favour of showing her particularly sacred bits to just anyone, even if anyone happened to be an ex-girlfriend who had seen them already some time back – she then asked mildly, "Why are you here?"
"Protection against – whack job magazines?"
"Have you ever seen a good magazine in a bathroom?"
"Er, I guess I don't tend to notice. I've never been big on porcelain-side reading if I can avoid it."
"Well precisely, me either." Jed raised her feet and wiggled her toes above the water.
"But – no, no, nevermind, nevermind. I know better than to go there. I do, I do." Mentally picking herself up by the collar and giving herself a shake, Delos tried to return her attention to the business at hand.
"And the reason you're here is?"
"To check your jaw, of course." Delos rolled her eyes irritably.
"Chris already did, it's fine." Jed returned to her bubble blowing.
"Chris is not a doctor!" snapped Delos.
"Yes she is." contradicted Jed, sinking deeper into the bath water, yet keeping her toes on watch above it.
Gritting her teeth, Delos counted to ten. "She isn't a trained healer, Jed."
"She's trained enough to recognize a glorified bruise when she sees one." Putting the cap back on her bubble making solution, Jed carefully placed it on the bath tub ledge and shut her eyes. Maybe now Delos would go away, and stop spoiling her waterlogged bliss on her one day of the week off.
"You know I can't leave it at that." Pulling out her light with attached magnifying lens, Delos tried not to get within grabbing distance, as the last time she had interrupted one of Jed's soaks, Jed had eventually chucked her into the water in a fit of pique. Keeping her distance was at odds with examining anything, unfortunately.
The bruise on Jed's jaw was certainly a spectacular one. It had turned a livid shade of purplish blue with reddish edges, and everything was swollen enough still that Jed's usually sharp features were looking a bit bleary on the edges. Everything looked symmetrical, however, and Delos couldn't see any bruising around Jed's ears or any blood inside them. Which left one more challenge.
"Okay, Jed, listen, all you need to do is open your mouth so I can check things out in there. Then I can leave." A rumbling noise emanated from Jed's chest, marking disapproval, but she did open her mouth just enough for Delos to look where she needed to look and prod a couple of spots she felt needed prodding. The second spot nearly won her a sharp smack across the wrist as Jed reacted to the unexpected pain. Her hurried, awkward retreat landed her in the tub with a plunk.
"Could you not have taken your shoes off?" Jed cried, her tone completely outraged. "Terrible, terrible, you keep pigs at your house!" she scrambled out of the tub, wriggling in disgust.
"They're my roommate's pets! Nobody eats them, and they use litter boxes!"
"Pigs are unclean animals!" Stalking over to a curious panel Delos hadn't noticed, Jed turned two knobs and hit a button.
"You and your religious weirdities. You weren't worried about me wearing my shoes in the house."
"The house does not come into intimate contact with my skin." The panel whirred, and then produced an oven-style ding. The bathwater promptly began to be sucked out of the tub.
"What the, hey!" the suction got a grip on Delos' shirt. "Jed, turn this thing off!" she struggled to get loose, but the suction was quite spectacular. For a moment, Delos managed to get a grip on her garment. With a series of tiny pops, the response of the buttons down the front, the suction simply tore it off her body. The shirt's vanishing down the pipe was followed by a gargling burp. "That did not happen." Reduced to just the shirt's sleeves and a sports bra on her upper body, Delos surreptitiously checked her hands for puncture marks. Maybe she had accidentally injected herself with something, digging around in her bag. She had done that once when still an apprentice, accidentally stoned herself with morphine. Jed had laughed herself almost sick at the things she had done in her dazed state. Nowadays she never, ever, took the chance of having a loose needle as she kept covers on them and kept the covered needles in a tin box, but she was at Omega's Folly, and anything seemed able to happen there.
"So you customarily put on only a pair of sleeves and a bra first thing in the morning?" asked Jed, twiddling at the panel again.
"No, of course not." Clambering out of the tub, Delos began calculating how many favours she would have to call in to swap regions with a different healer. It was bad enough how uncomfortable she tended to get around Jed, but worse yet, this damned house didn't seem to like her one bit. All together it was looking like more than sufficient cause to avoid having to come back for any reason.
An odd chugging noise came from somewhere to the right of the taps, and Jed dashed over to yank open a small door set into the wall underneath them. The tub taps themselves, as opposed to the taps which were smaller and set in the usual spot by the sink, the faucets were set a bit higher up in the wall over the tub than usual. Reaching into the little recess revealed by the open door, Jed yanked and heaved for a few moments, until finally she pulled out what looked like a rather oddly textured bar of soap. Snapping the door shut, Jed returned to the panel and set the now cleaned water to be run back into the tub.
"Here is your shirt." tossing the bar to Delos, who caught it rather gingerly as she expected it to be soggy. It was bone dry, however, and in no condition for wearing by any stretch of the imagination. There was some other stuff in the bar too. Delos winced in disgust.
"Thanks, I think." she could just make out what might be a seam.
"Not so nice to lose the shirt off of your back, is it?"
A long silence followed, while Delos carefully studied her now much cleaner shoes. To anyone else, the reference to her decision to clear out of their former apartment with most of Jed's stuff and hers while ditching the rest except for school books and shoddy camping gear in the trash was a complete non sequitur. But for Delos, who knew Jed well, the reference was quite pointed, especially coming from Jed, who tended to prefer a more indirect approach to difficult topics. The whole situation hadn't been one of Delos' prouder moments, and when she discovered that she had unwittingly absconded with Jed's beloved family album – braced into a gap between boxes in the greasy trunk of her car, which had ultimately torn its spine apart – Delos had been thoroughly horrified as well as shamed. Jed had lost her parents as a small child, and that album had every picture, paper, and a few things like pressed ribbons and flowers in it that could be in any way associated with them. The album's contents hadn't been much affected by the destruction of the book's spine, luckily. One of the worst moments in Delos' life had been taking the pieces back in a big plastic shopping bag.
It had been the only time in their entire relationship Delos had made Jed cry.
"No letting that go, huh?" Stupid thing to say, but it was all she could think of.
"Do you still insist I was cheating on you?" The tub was full again. Jed carefully rearranged her rest mat, then clambered back into the water.
"Jed, every time I managed to finally catch up to you, there you were with Chris!"
"By that logic, since I was also very often with Bill when you managed to find me, I must have been sleeping with him too. Ick." Jed crinkled her nose in disgust. "Bill is my friend, but we both agreed it would be for the best for him to avoid ever being naked in my presence after the time Chris accidentally blew up the women's locker room."
"Err, what? Bill was in the women's locker room?"
"No! He was in the men's locker room next door. The explosion blew a hole in the wall and the men using it fled for their safety in various states of undress." Fishing around in a bucket of junk by the tub, Jed found a rubber duckie and a curious, folded up frame. "I happened to be in the area, and so got a rather unfortunate eyeful of hapless fellows waiting for the fire brigade to arrive." Tossing the rubber duckie in the water, Jed began unfolding the frame. "I couldn't help myself, I burst out laughing. There is nothing more silly looking than a self-conscious man with no pants on. Bill was of course, feeling self-conscious, and my laughing apparently left him feeling somewhat traumatized." Hooking the frame up to the sides of the tub, Jed picked up a large book to set on it. Delos could see the frame would also accomodate a notebook, had a sponge set out to absorb water from her arm when Jed wanted to write, and also had a cup holder.
"You laughed at him because he had no pants on?" Delos asked, feeling utterly confused.
Jed looked equally puzzled. "Why would that be funny? Although as a rule I think pants are better worn than not under such circumstances – Bill and his compatriots were funny because they were so self-conscious about their lack of clothing. You should have seen them, and it wasn't even cold outside." Shaking her head in bewilderment, Jed shrugged her shoulders.
"Oh." Delos hesitated, juggling the remains of her shirt. "I guess." she didn't quite get it. Oh well.
Retrieving her spectacles, Jed added, "Delos, has it dawned on you yet that I am in the bath?"
Groaning softly, Delos dumped her shirt bar into her pack and dragged a crumpled t-shirt out one of its side pockets. "Yes, I am aware you are in the bath. You seem to have forgotten that the one and only time I tried to catch you for an examination when you weren't in the bath, you locked me in the fifth floor pantry and left me there." Pulling on the shirt, she muttered, "At least this way I only have to count on getting dunked." Hoisting her pack she added, "Speaking of that specific examination, how is your shoulder doing now?"
"Fine." Jed was chasing down a reference in a book by Chandrasakar. Taking the hint at last, Delos carefully slipped out of the bathroom and headed for her car.
'Town' was Themiskyra proper, which Benny hadn't really seen yet. There had been far too much to do, and the task of figuring out how to get back to Omega's Folly from various places, at times a disturbingly formidable task. Chris was driving fairly slowly, a necessity due to the number of Amazons moving around on foot and by bicycle. Benny was especially impressed by the woman skillfully herding a flock of sheep while perched on a tiny stunt bike, assisted by a border collie.
Parking in a small field on top of a set of strategically arranged blocks, Chris dragged a large pan out of the back seat and set it underneath the engine. "Required by law because of the age of the car, even though all my work on the engine means it does not wantonly drip oil or fuel." She sounded a bit peeved. "And it only dripped a phosphorescent chemical once! Once! But you'd think I was forever distributing noxious substances." Parking her lightly toasted hat on top of her unruly hair in almost as cockeyed a fashion as she had parked the car, her expression brightened. "Off to the filling station, shall we?" She marched off, and Benny had to run to catch up with her, then just concentrate on synching up her breathing with her stride so she could talk.
Themiskyra was an odd city, and not just because of the lack of cars and other larger motorized vehicles. There were also no traffic lights, although there were Amazons with white gloves and whistles a bit like the traffic cops Benny had only ever seen on television. More importantly, there was no concrete. None. The road was cobbled, and the outer cobbles were of a smaller size, demarcating where pedestrians had the right of way. The lanes – there were only two – were separated by painted strips, and oddly, a long row of garden gnomes to their left. "We can't abide by traffic cones here." Chris had warbled breezily when Benny inquired about them. Benny struggled to see how far the line of gnomes extended. She had a niggling feeling that Chris was pulling her leg. Since she was so new to the Nation, and so much was weird to her, she was just a bit vulnerable to such jokes.
Themiskyra was a place of towers, but only so many as they were built from local stone, and with so many mountains in view anything more would have seemed hubristic. Most of the other buildings were on stone foundations and at least the lower halves of their walls were stone as well. Otherwise buildings were made of brick or wood, or both. The bazaar wasn't a series of booths; instead it was more like a tent city.
Benny looked around, picking out the places she had actually been inside. The main library, which looked more like a bunker because it was mostly underground. The cobbler's shop, where she was also able to get her hats cleaned and lightly refurbished. The gadget store, haven of solar powered, chocolate bar sized transistor radios, solar panels, giant models of ships ready for assembly provided the purchaser had many trimming knives, infinite patience, and a bucket of rubber cement – or Jed's knack for ignoring the directions and making something surreal. But this was far from all, and not Benny's main reason for going there. Nope, for Benny it was all about the power tools. She didn't care what anybody said, the hardware section was the coolest place on earth.
"Are you quite certain you aren't some kind of engineer at heart, old thing?" Chris deftly steered Benny back on track. "Because you are unconsciously wandering towards the gadget store."
"Yes – you're an inventor, why don't you look in there?"
"Because I'm an inventor, and there is plenty to work with at home." Peering to the right and left, Chris considered which path would be easier to take. "This way."
'This way' was straight through three different tents in the bazaar, followed by a mad dash across the road and an accidental waltz with a traffic Amazon, a trip over a scowling gnome, a collision with a cart full of hay, and finally arrival at a record shop. "Here we are!" Shoving the swinging doors open, Chris gestured grandly. Hesitantly, Benny stepped inside.
The place was a record shop, with one huge wall given over to a sign reading 'Toothpaste Filling Station' in English, oddly enough. Besides forty-three flavours of toothpaste, there was also a whole range of liquid soaps, from those for dishes to those for hair. Bottles of vinegar, and bleach were stacked up on the end furthest from the toothpaste, accompanied by a variety of sodas and powders. The only theme Benny could see was that all of the things available were able to produce suds in some way. Which gave her a highly silly thought. She started looking for soda and draught beer spouts. They turned out to be on the other side of the toothpaste dispensary from the non-edible products. Each set of spouts was neatly labelled in Greek characters, and a large white sign hung on the draught taps declared: NO LIQUOR UNTIL AFTER 1600. The soda fountain had its own sign reading: SODA ALL HOURS UNLESS PATRON IS UNDER THE AGE OF 13. Benny tipped her head to one side. Why Greek characters?
Chris bounced over to the toothpaste dispensary. "Hello!" she called.
"Hello!!!!" a woman with wild, curly hair shot up from behind the dispensary as if from a jack in the box. "Why, it's my cousin!" she crowed in delight, and jumping up on the dispensary counter she leaned forward and threw both arms around Chris' neck. "You are late!" The two women pounded each other on the back, spent a few moments dissecting the lastest episode of Doctor Who, and finally turned their attention to Benny. "Chris, you rude thing! You've done no introductions. I insist on being introduced at once!" the curly headed woman struck a pose.
"Benny Basilas, this is my cousin, four times removed and two to the side, Egon Pontius-Halliday."
"Hi." Both Chris and Egon seemed to be incapable of not shouting at each other nearly at the top of their lungs, and the contrast made Benny seem as if she was whispering.
"Oh dear, sore throat old thing? I have cough syrups and headache remedies too." Egon peered at Benny anxiously through her unruly curls.
"Oh, no, I'm fine really, thank you very much. Is this a sort of drugstore, then?"
"Dear me no, it's a foamstore. It just so happens I have a sideline in cough syrups and headache remedies. Which flavours today, Chris?"
Yanking five different empty tubes from her pocket, Chris deftly unfolded their ends and used a popsicle stick to open them up. "Gel for Jed, cinnamon for me –" She pronounced it 'kinnamon' – "Super mint for guests we don't like, wintergreen for guests we do like, and," Staring at the fifth tube. "What's this one for?" Peering at its label. "Emergencies, I suppose. Pine needle flavour." Handing the tubes over, Chris beamed.
"Nothing quite like pine needle flavour for emergencies, except maybe the cinnamon-black pepper. Clear your sinuses in a flash, and only blinds you for five to twenty minutes. Much better than the original formulation, it knocked people out." Egon clattered into the back, and after a few bumps, grinds, and bangs, a whirring began to emanate from it. "Do you have time for drink and news today, Chris and Benny?"
"Yes." Benny declared, feeling it really was past time she took some initiative.
"Certainly." grinned Chris.
"Where is Jed today?" Retrieving two tall glasses from under the counter, Egon headed over to the soda fountain.
"She is enjoying the ministrations of the second best bathroom, and hopefully not realizing yet or ever that I set Delos on her because of her jaw." Accepting a glass of root beer with a dollop of vanilla ice cream on top for good measure, Chris crossed the fingers of her free hand. For her part, Benny chose old fashioned orange. Unlike any other part of the Middle East she had been in, or any part of North America, in truth, orange pop wasn't mostly flat here. It was properly carbonated, and usually flavoured with a dash of cloves. Any other time Benny couldn't stand cloves, but Amazon Nation orange pop was a pleasant exception.
"The second best bathroom?" Benny asked curiously. She was still exploring her half of Omega's Folly, and so far she had found the one main bathroom adjoining her room, and two water closets. One water closet was wallpapered with ancient newspaper comics. The other looked like a transplanted outhouse closet.
"Yes, the best bathroom is in your half of the house. No idea where exactly, though. It may have gotten lost some time last century." Chris smacked her lips, having taken a long drink of her root beer float.
"Somebody lost a bathroom?!"
"Newspapers!" Egon interrupted smoothly. Benny bravely accepted the unwieldy orange, multi-colour edged sheets of the Amazon Nation's main newspaper, The Eagle, while Chris settled for The Muddle, which was printed on blue newsprint. Having supplied her charges, Egon picked up a rack of tall glasses just finished running through the washer and began drying them with towel. She gazed intently at Benny, who was the unwitting living image of her cousin Ges. A little shorter, too thin, but the same basic dress style. Small spectacles perched on her nose. The beginnings of a dignified head of grey hair at her temples. Probably wearing a well-worn pair of army boots, and a battered army issue tin watch on a string. Smiling a little, Egon finished with the glasses and accepted a bundle of afternoon papers from a messenger whose hair was yellow with carefully picked out blue stripes.
The Muddle was exactly what it said, for the most part. A mish-mash of nonsense stories written by students at the Academy, samplings of weird fundamentalist ravings from the six continents, pointless trivia, obnoxious horoscopes, and tips on how to be a good housewife. It wasn't long before Chris was alternating between chuckles and guffawing outloud. The fundamentalist stuff could be quite disturbing sometimes, but she hadn't got to that section yet. She turned the paper around to read the next page. One of the trademarks of The Muddle was that although the pages were in some semblance of order, sometimes they were folded in upside down or sideways, facilitated by the square layout.
Having finally wrestled The Eagle into a state from which it couldn't fall apart all over the floor, Benny glanced over the list of contents, then began peering at the headlines, which actually took up the entire front page. They were written bustrephodon style and without punctuation except bullets to indicate the end of one headline and the start of another, so it had taken some practice to get reading them comfortably.
*** THE EAGLE 3611 AFNAN 03 F1***
BORDER CLOSURES THROUGHOUT EUROPE IN RESPONSE TO MYSTERIOUS OUTBREAK•
ROF SUONEGIDNI YB ACIREMA LARTNEC FO TUO NEVIRD SU REMROF MORF SPOORT
CES•RECORD TEMPS SPAIN CANADA ENGLAND•NEW HUMAN RIGHTS BILL PASSED IN
HTUOS GNOLA SDNE ECURT YSAENU•DOOG ROF DESOLC NOSIRP SUOMAFNI YEKRUT
EUROPE BLUE BELT CANADIAN BELT EXPECTED TO FOLLOW•ADELAIDE SINKS OFF
AIGROEG•AIRYS OT EELF SCIRELC NARI NI LIOMRUT GNIOGNO•TSAOC CITCRATNA
REFUSES TO BREAK MAA WITH NATION•FIRST CROSS ATLANTIC FLIGHT IN 40
OT SESUFER LAYOR REMROF DESSARRABME•TROPRIA NILREB TA SEHSINIF SRAEY
MOVE INTO BUCKINGHAM PALACE•RELIGIOUS LAWS TIGHTENED IN GREECE RUSSIA
STUORPS NOITAMROF KCOR SUOIRETSYM•EELF OT DECROF SNAITSIRHCNON DNALOP
OVERNIGHT IN SOUTHWEST NORTH AMERICA•VATICAN CITY MYSTERIOUSLY
TRELA HGIH NO SECROF YTIRUCES NAILATI DETAUCAVE
Across the Continent
Border Guard Schedule
Comics - See The Muddle
Entertainment - See The Muddle
"Something really strange is going on." Benny muttered, flipping to the grey edged pages for overseas news. "Strange rock formations sprouting in the southwest?"
"I've heard of things like that, seen 'em too." Egon commented, refilling Benny's glass. "Once one of our queens got it into her head that we needed modernizing here. Got a big project started to build us a freeway. The place she picked to put it ran through a big field. Logical enough, flat, didn't tend to flood or anything. Except it was called the Plain of the Unquiet Dead, and not a single local would take so much as a spade to it. The queen finally rousted up enough foreign newbies to get things going." A resounding pop interrupted her, and she dashed into the back room, reappearing a few moments later with Chris and Jed's toothpaste tube collection, now full. "Anyways, they got started, marked off the places to start digging. They were all set to send out the earth moving machinery to strip the turf just before lunch. Off they went to sit in the shade and have dinner, fully expecting to play deleriously in the mud right after." Shifting something neither Benny nor Chris could see because of the counter, but was evidently a stool as Egon climbed onto it and sat down, yet was now up high enough that her voice was no longer muffled by the soda taps. "But a big storm came up, and forced them to throw it in for the day. Off they went next morning, planning to make up for the time they lost the day before. Only to find the Plain of the Unquiet Dead had sprouted this great obnoxious ridge right across it. All sinewy and snakey like. Too big to have been done by people, you know." Satisfied with her account, Egon sipped at a tonic water.
"I don't know –" Benny commented doubtfully.
"Is that where that came from? I've always wondered! And here, I never thought to ask you." Chris beamed at her cousin, who beamed back.
"You've seen this snakey thing?"
"Yes, I have. My unit used it for cover during a firefight with Blue troops during the last war. The old field is close to the border, and battles have been fought on it repeatedly. Trust me Benny, it's no wonder it's called the Plain of the Unquiet Dead. Why, even the Muslim folks use the name, and that's saying a lot in this part of the world." She frowned into the bottom of her glass. Egon hadn't refilled it yet.
"Hmmph. Well, I admit I'll have to see it before I believe it, Chris." Benny took a long pull at her drink.
"I think you will soon enough. Blue allied Bulgarian troops are massing on their eastern border." the soft comment came from a bulky Amazon dressed in an ill fitting and incongruous flower print dress. "That's why they're busy blocking the passes and blowing up bridges on our side."
For a moment, Benny seriously wished she hadn't drunk quite so much orange pop as her stomach turned over. "Do they have any planes?"
"Sure. But no fuel to fly 'em." The woman held up a pair of dish soap bottles. "Same as usual please, Egon. I just got off border guard duty. Ever'one figures the Bulgarians will have a go at us just in time for spring vacation." Benny sighed. She had border guard duty starting spring vacation.
"Now then Mora, that's enough." Chris put a friendly arm around Benny's shoulders. "No sense worrying, Benny. If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. It's the waiting that's worst."
"Yeah, I know." Benny frowned. "What is it with people? Who would pick a war over a nice vacation?"
Dumping the toothpaste tubes in her pockets, Chris pushed over a handful of miscellaneous foreign coins and smashed bottle caps. "Why Benny, I do believe you just had an Adams moment! Let's have a go at the crossword."
Benny grinned and promptly flipped to the appropriate page, and looked around for one of the ubiquitous ratty old photocopiers kept anywhere newspapers were kept for reading. Since each issue had to be so widely shared, etiquette demanded no one write on the original version unless they were the person taking the paper hosting it to the recycling bin. The photocopier in this case was crouched rather forlornly under a rack of records with alarming titles like 'Another Dead Skunk in the Road' and 'Goobers Are Us.'
Setting the crossword face down on the scanning plate, Benny pushed the copy button and jumped a little when a marble dropped out of a chamber and into a weight tray in a little pulley set up on the other side of the machine. The marble was apparently a bit too much weight, because the little tray descended, pulling a string which rang a bell.
"Would you look at that!" she laughed. "It's like a Rube Goldberg machine!"
The ringing of the bell summoned Egon, who ran over to the photocopier. Yanking open its front door to reveal an empty cartridge meant to hold paper, she soon had it refilled with an all manner of curious recycled sheets. They included covers printed only on one side for brochures, government reports from miscellaneous countries where someone hadn't bothered with duplex printing, the fly leaves from recycled pulp books, and what Benny strongly suspected was wrapping paper.
"Doesn't the machine jam a lot, with such a dog's breakfast of sheets to work with?"
"No, not really. Every now and again the wrapping paper gets crumpled up." Feeding the marbles back into the chamber they would be dropped from, Egon dusted her hands and snapped the copier door shut. "Off you go."
Two photocopies of the crossword finally acquired, Benny and Chris read over the clues in silence. "'Mysterious and storied, both Christie and Columbine wager.' Nine letters." Chris chewed thoughtfully at the end of a pencil, decimating its eraser.
A wavering flashlight beam struggled valiantly to light up the dusty, cramped space within which was crammed far more old plumbing works than Arion wanted to even dream of. The taps had seized up all together in Benny's bathroom, and Arion had determined to get them sorted out before she got home. It just seemed like a cool idea. Or at least, it had. Until Arion had started trying to trace the works to their source. Otherwise, she had everything, new taps, teflon tape, big wrenches, small wrenches, disinfectant, a bucket to dump scary things from the goop trap in. On principle she didn't want to ask Jed for one of her house schematics. The principle consisted mainly of, she didn't want to know if Jed actually had a schematic of the plumbing. The implications were too alarming if there was such a thing.
To her relief, she managed to find the pipes in question, and chortling merrily, ran off to turn off the water main for that side of the house. After all, it simply wasn't sensible to try to do any plumbing work before making sure there wouldn't be water anywhere but where it was supposed to be, Arion figured.
The water main for the Basilas half of Omega's Folly was in the basement, as water mains generally are, however, 'basement' was perhaps too mild a term for the floors below ground. To Arion's knowledge, thanks to exploration expeditions with Benny, there were at least three floors below ground under this half of the house. The first basement floor wasn't terribly interesting, in fact it was 'despicably ordinary' as Benny had declared it, looking delighted anyway. The next basement floor had things like a very old wine cellar, a forlorn potato bin, and a fair amount of dusty storage space even with what looked like an entire gypsy caravan stowed away in it – barring people, of course. The third basement floor was more of a dungeon, damp and dark. It was way down here that the water main was, and Arion approached it with care, knowing all too well how slippery the floor was. The only reason the steps down into it were fairly safe was because of the stolid railings available for their users.
Playing her torch over the floor, which appeared to be bedrock, Arion chewed her lips nervously. In truth, she was actually a bit scared of the dark when there weren't even stars to relieve it. The water main was a big, old fashioned looking spinning handle of the type shown on submarines in comic books. Or at least, Benny had tentatively concluded this thing had to be the water main as she couldn't find any of the other sort of water shut off valves she was used to seeing. Arion took her word for it. Setting the flashlight down carefully, Arion set about turning it to the 'off' setting – it was actually marked in neatly stencilled red letters – the main wasn't rusty, oddly enough, but it was still hard work. Finished that task, Arion retrieved her flashlight and headed back upstairs.
A drink seemed in order, so she swung by the kitchen, thinking to grab a beer before heading back to work. Her head was deep in the fridge when she heard a loud 'sploosh, plop' directly behind her. Spinning around, Arion stared at the kitchen sink, which was of course, directly across from the fridge. Silence. Nothing. Not even a gargle. Loping over to it, Arion tried the taps, getting the creaky, squeaking nothing from them she expected. Although, oddly enough, the sink was pretty wet. Maybe the taps were leaking.
Satisfied nothing too weird seemed to be going on, just the usual weird, Arion went back for her beer. 'Sploosh, plop.'
Slowly, Arion turned back toward the sink. This time, she saw what caused the noise. A slug of water shot out of the drain with the tell-tale 'sploosh' and dropped back into the sink with a ringing follow up 'plop.'
"Oh my fricking hell, I'm hallucinating." The sink did it again. "'Kay, deep breath, calm down, haven't even opened the beer yet. Good thing, too." Arion carefully set the bottle down, and inched toward the sink. She peered into it, even put her eye to the drain, just for the sake of argument. Straightening most of the way up, she sighed in relief. All quiet. 'Sploosh!' the gout of water caught her squarely in the face. "Stop that!" Arion ordered the drain, now feeling peeved. It splooshed again defiantly. "Beyond weird. Where's Jed?" The sink proceeded to fire off gouts of water about every eight seconds.
Within two minutes the sink was getting horrifyingly full, and Arion was beginning to feel beyond panicked. "A bucket, need a bucket, where's a bucket?" The only thing she managed to find was an obnoxious little popcorn bucket, the kind people used to be able to get at the movies in North America.
"Tea, Arion?" Jed stopped short in the kitchen doorway, a bit nonplussed to see the floor running with water and Arion frantically bailing out the kitchen window. "Your sink is running backwards." Her tone was so shocked that her cousin stared at her with an expression of utter horror.
"This is NOT a good time for you to be stumped by your demented, evil, possessed, poltergeisted house!" hollered Arion.
"But it shouldn't be doing that at all, I mean, it defies the law of gravity!" Jed was actually looking a bit shaken.
"Don't I know it! I turn off the water main, and this is what I get!"
"You turned off the water main?" Jed scratched her head and winced at the water, which was spreading inexorably towards her.
"Yes! You know the submarine door type handle thing."
"The what??!!" the look of utter horror on Jed's face made Arion's blood run cold. "Arion that isn't the water main, that's a pump – you have to have a pumping system like that for a house this size in case of fire!" Jed followed this up by dropping what she had in her hands and running.
"You better be running to turn the pump off!" Arion bawled after her, straddling the sink and bailing for all she was worth.
The water was lapping at the little piece of tin marking where the kitchen tiles stopped and the hallway carpet started when Arion realized the sink was now emptying out in the correct direction. Dropping the popcorn bucket, she sat down on the kitchen counter, mopping at her face which was drenched with both water and sweat.
"Maybe, maybe I should try and convince Benny to rent a flat –"
"Well, I had best go to town and pick up a few things." Jed stepped carefully onto the wet kitchen floor and peered at Arion, whose face was so red her scars were purple.
"Need to fix the pump and make the actual water main more visible. It is just an ordinary, Canadian type water main Arion."
"All right." Arion was glad she was red from bailing, or she would have been even more embarrassed. "Why do you need to fix the pump?"
"Because I had to beat it to death with the spare cricket bat. Arion?" Jed set one hand carefully on her cousin's shoulder.
"I love you very much, but it is imperative for you to remember, and repeat softly to yourself three times a day, once at each meal: I am an engineer, therefore, I am inept with real tools and must resist the temptation to use them." Jed's lips began to twitch.
"I am not incapable of using tools!" Arion burst out indignantly. "The time I broke your watch changing the battery was an accident! And anyway, this had nothing to do with tools and everything to do with a pump that in no way hinted it was such a thing!" The watch reference was related to an incident a few months after Arion had arrived in the Nation, when she had just met her cousin again and had been trying very hard to make a good impression, as opposed to the sullen one she had started out with. Somehow she had managed to break Jed's watch and walk in on her and Chris in bed together within the span of two hours. A rather tough day, all together. Not least because Arion had had no idea Chris was anywhere in the picture.
They stared at each other.
Jed began to giggle helplessly. "It's not funny! I am so good with tools!" Arion struggled to sulk, but Jed's giggling was contagious and soon they were both gasping for breath from laughing so hard.
"On the bright side, the kitchen floor is now very clean." Jed pointed out brightly, giving her cousin an affectionate poke before heading off for the hearse.
Looking ruefully over the also very wet floor, Arion conceded the point. Easing herself off the counter she fished a tatty mop out of a hall closet and began the task of getting the kitchen fairly wrung out before her lover got home.