Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Four
"Yes, Mama. No Mama. I don't know, Mama." Jed winced and held the receiver away from her ear a bit. "I know that, but Mama, if I cross the border I'll be thrown in prison, which would in turn throw a rather serious spanner in the works."
'Mama' was actually Jed's youngest aunt, who had happened to have three other children close to Jed's age when she was orphaned. This lead to the decision that it would be best if Jed moved in with them. The arrangement had worked out reasonably well.
At the moment they were struggling with wedding logistics. Specifically, it was far from clear how they were going to follow the customs of her home village, which included a revival of the old custom of laying out the bride's dowry and ceremonially shaving the groom. Of course, the custom had been tweaked a bit in that the groom usually had a dowry too, and the whole practice had become a way to make sure a young couple had nice housewarming gifts. In this day and age, the key was usually clothes. The collapse of the oil and gas industry hadn't just made fuel expensive. The synthetic fabric market had spun a complete 180 degrees. Now only the very rich could afford polyester or nylon for instance, and people found themselves needing to either make their own clothes or make barter arrangements with friends and family who had better sewing skills.
From Mama's perspective, there were three potential issues. Laying out the dowries required the couple to be present. The ceremonial shaving was going to be a problem if Chris and Jed refused to decide which one of them was going to be the groom and of course, shaving can't be a virtual experience. And who was going to provide Chris' dowry, for heaven's sake?
"Well Jed, I'm just worried about getting everyone together." Mama insisted. The line popped and crackled, and Jed frowned.
"Mama, what's happened to your phone? It's never been this noisy before. Did I just hear a truck?!"
Mama, also known as Evrope Adams dearly wished she could put Jed on hold and gift the damned truck driver with two and a half ears full of her best invective. But payphones didn't lend themselves to that. She peered through the grungy little window in the phonebooth door, and watched her daughter Myrrhine patiently round up her children, convincing them to get back up on the cart with promises of apples and hot tea very soon. All of their worldly possessions, including a certain physicist's dowry were packed on that cart.
The soldiers had come three days ago, press-ganging every man and boy twelve or over they could find. All of the men in Evrope's corner of the far-flung Adams family were already in service, but the soldiers had bashed in the door and torn the house apart anyway. The same night, heedless of the news which declared no one was at war, and no one was going to be, they watched airplanes fly over from Bulgaria, all marked with the unmistakable insignia of the Blue army.
They were packed and on the road before dawn. The sound of the bombs and the plumes of smoke were sensible a bare hour later.
Taking a long deep breath, Evrope answered quietly, "Yes, that was a truck. We finally got through the border checkpoint into Turkey at seven this morning. We're refugees, Jed."
"All of you?"
"Except for your uncle and your brother. That makes us – three women, five children. Three girls, two boys, both boys are under ten." And they had no papers. Tell me you can get us papers without saying you can get us papers. Evrope prayed. She had actually done some quick talking and footwork to get them through the checkpoint. Refugees still had to have proof of where they were refugees from, assinine as that was when most refugees hadn't been so lucky as to flee homes before they were bombed.
"Okay. After you hang up, go straight to the Amazon Embassy, not the Greek Embassy, the Amazon Embassy. It's on the outskirts of Istanbul, so you won't have to go through town."
"All right." Evrope took a deep breath. "Are you sure the road will be clear?"
"They'll be happy to let the Amazons worry about you."
After a few more words, Jed finally hung up. She stared listlessly into space for a few moments, barely noticing that her keyboards had gotten stuck playing Chopsticks. Then she picked up the phone again. "Ygraine, have you sent paperwork out to our embassy in Turkey yet for today?"
"Er, Jed, we're on the verge of closing the embassy. They're literally packing it as we speak."
"Refugees are fleeing out of northernmost Greece right now. As I understand it, they've been going through Turkish checkpoints since at least dawn."
"What?!" A rapid clicking corresponding to Ygrainne typing in the number to the number of the Istanbul embassy on the other phone, then, "Jed?"
"How many of your family members are among those refugees?"
"Eight for certain."
"Okay, I can do that. I'll get Cue to talk to the Turkish government. We need to get people the hell off those roads."
Benny chewed on her lip, and repressed the urge to shout at the road crew to hurry up and get those gnomes out of the feet already. It didn't matter how many times Chris reminded her the term she wanted to use meant, idiomatically 'get out of the way!' she just couldn't think of it in any way but its literal meaning which was 'get out of the feet!'
As it turned out, the gnomes had been spilled off of a truck carrying various types of recycled ceramic objects, and then stacked onto the median so as to prevent too many more of them from being smashed. Not that smashing was a real problem in general, as they were going to be smashed and made into bricks or something anyway, but the debris would have been a bigger problem. Sighing, Benny rubbed at one temple, wishing she could shake the stubborn headache she had had since last night. She was driving Arion's ludicrous VW bug, the plan being to pick up their assigned gear from the supply depot. It was important to drill with your full guard gear on for at least a month before you went out on guard duty. The only problem was, Benny could not for the life of her fathom Jed's directions to the supply depot. She could follow them, sure. Understand them? No.
"Isn't that a major euphemism? Supply depot for armoury?" Benny had asked, peering at the scrawled notes Jed had stuffed in her hand.
"I suppose. It's not really an armoury, Benny. That would be insane, I mean, occasionally bombers do manage to fly over Themiskyra."
"Jed, there's a fireworks factory in Themiskyra!" Benny blurted.
"Is that what they're calling it now?" Jed replied enigmatically.
Since the clean up crew still wasn't moving that fast, Benny ran her eye over the directions again. "Go into town. Turn left at the third traffic cop. Go on until you have to stop. Then take the second tunnel."
The cleaning crew finally finished obstructing general traffic, and Benny began to try to put her instructions into practice. For some reason three traffic cops were bunched up at a single intersection. The wax paper wrapped sandwiches they were sharing among themselves seemed to have something to do with it. Guessing that this should be the third traffic cop's spot, Benny turned left, and wound up slamming on the brakes almost immediately.
A blank wall glared forbiddingly at her, and Benny laughed helplessly. She should have anticipated it. Pretty much all Jed considered something that had to be stopped for was solid walls, or at least so it seemed. Backing up and maneuvering carefully, Benny found the second tunnel easily enough. It looked like the entryway to an underground parking lot. A few sickly orange lights lit it, and a big sign hung from the ceiling a few metres from the entry, reading: IF YOU CAN READ THIS SIGN KEEP RIGHT
So Benny kept right. Saw a huge truck coming up the left lane, and got even more right, coming dangerously close to knocking off a door handle or scraping the tiny car's paint. The truck went by with about half a metre to spare, and Benny watched it trundle on its merry way. It was a familiar sort of army truck, the kind with the cargo space covered with a metal frame that was itself covered by a green canvas cover.
When she finally arrived at the Supply Depot, for a moment Benny though she had wandered onto the set of a 1970s era John Travolta movie. A glitter ball hung over the clerk's desk, and signs giving directions and locations were constructed from strings of holiday lights or cobbled together neon signs. Very little by way of regular electric light seemed to be available, except for the lamp that inhabited one corner of the clerk's desk. An old beer refrigerator crouched opposite from the lamp, literally on the desk. It was labelled 'live bait' but the boxes and bottles inside were evidently some small selection of medical supplies.
Pulling into a parking spot, one among twenty or so crowded into the depot-front, Benny headed for the clerk's desk. The desk was just sitting out in front of a set of double doors, the old fashioned automatic kind they used to use in grocery stores. The clerk was dressed in filthy overalls and a tiny beeny. "Basilas, Benny and Adams, A. X.?" the clerk asked in a bored tone as Benny came within earshot.
"That's right. How?"
"Why do you think we gave you a specific time to come and get this stuff? Hurry up, we've only got twenty parking spots, and I can hear more people coming down the tunnel." Traffic was indeed very audible, and Benny swallowed her temper with an effort. It was probably no fun to be the supply depot clerk when guard rotation was approaching.
The clerk yanked two tickets off of a book of them, and began punching several holes in each one. "Hope you came ready to lug out a lot of stuff. The Blues started bombing northern Greece this morning, so you'll be getting the active service kits instead of guard kits. Our whole damned armed forces have been given the order to mobilize, we're going crazy down here." Handing over the tickets. "Grab a cart. Everything should be on the shelf in the order it is on the list. Go ahead and grab some of the rations in the bins at the end of aisle twenty-five, that's why they're there."
Wrestling a cart loose from its herd, Benny considered that. Apparently whoever scheduled equipment pickups liked to schedule them during what would usually be dinner or lunchtime, and so they figured you should be able to eat if you wanted. Even if it was rubber rations.
True to the clerk's word, everything was in list order. It just wasn't all bunched together. You did wind up going through every aisle in a rather grotesque parody of the ultimate effect of big box store random product placement. During one of her last forays into such a store in Canada, all Benny had wanted was a squeegee. So she went to the automotive products aisle. Only to find nothing. So she went to the cleaning products aisle. Only to find nothing. In the end, Benny had been forced to ask three different staffpeople until she found the person who was supposed to know. Said person was in charge of the painting section. The squeegees were hanging out with the hoses in gardening products.
Benny winced, and rubbed at her head again. That squeegee search was a headachy memory all its own.
Most of the stuff punched out on the ticket was what you'd expect. Cargo pants, cargo shirts. Binoculars, the latest greatest backpack, et cetera. Benny had finally gotten to aisle seventeen, when the things to pick up finally stopped her short. The last items were weapons and their associated parephernalia, except for the very last one, which indicated she should stop by the lens grinding shop to pick up two spare pairs of spectacles, and two sets of false teeth.
"False – oh, right, right." Rolling her eyes, Benny hurried briskly through the weapons aisles, making unhappy faces at the gun and rifle cases. Arion had lost all the front teeth from her upper jaw in her accident, so she had an appliance with false ones. One of her more disconcerting habits was of moving the thing around in her mouth when she was typing. Benny knew they were really getting comfortable with each other when Arion asked for a glass to put them in before turning in one night.
The cart was more than a little heavy by the time Benny made it to the end of aisle twenty-five, and she was pleased to see not only rations but a water fountain.
"Basilas, is it?" The woman handing out the spectacles and occasional sets of teeth peered at her. "Got some specials for you, word up is you're good with ordinance. You'll need to read this." She heaved a tremendous binder onto the counter. "Pay close attention to the second half." Peering into the envelope that contained Arion's spare false teeth, Benny couldn't repress a fascinated shudder. Unlike Arion, who had one of her old wisdom teeth in a tiny envelope because 'the dentist had to cut it in half, and it's cool!' Benny found bones and teeth out of their proper place creepy, and fake bones and teeth out of their proper place even more so, illogical as that might be. Ironically, she loved Hallowe'en.
"We're not a post office." the woman declared severely, waving a letter warningly at her. "But we do make the odd exception."
It wasn't until Benny had managed to extricate the car from the suddenly crammed parking lot and then into the open air that she found a place to pull in and take a closer look at her oddly routed mail.
TO BENTON BASILAS, SOMEWHERE IN AMAZONIA
The only sign of a return address was a cryptic reference on the back flap of the envelope. "ABC, The Bunches." Slitting it open, Benny pulled out what turned out to be five sheets folded together in thirds, covered in dense handwriting. It didn't look anything like cousin Ges' handwriting, and after that Benny couldn't imagine who would have written it.
1627 er, I think - 19 Solis - right, look, it's March, okay?
ABC, The Bunches
Hey Basilas, guess who?
That's right, it's the inimmitable G. Ro Sams! I made my way on over to the Amazon Nation sort of by accident a couple of weeks ago. My fiancé finally insisted we ought to actually tie the knot, and the plan was to have the ceremony on this fancy boat that cruises around the Mediterranean. Everybody else was hurrying onto the boat and pretty much ignoring me, including my fiancé, who I think might have preferred to marry the boat – and I kind of – missed the boat, you know?
Anyway, no doubt you're wondering how I know you're here. Well, you're on the Academy fac list, that's how! I've got a buddy who works in military supplies here – get this, she was a spy for the Amazon Nation in Canada! – and eventually, we must all troop through the supply depot, right? So I figure you're bound to get this letter sometime not too far in the future. Trust me, the woman has a mind like a steel trap, she doesn't forget anything.
The rest of us who you left behind in Saskatchewan kept track of you as best we could. Course, we didn't get to go to Africa anymore than you got to go to Russia. Did you know you were falsely reported killed three times? And when you went missing in Alabama that time – you've gotta tell me all about that, okay? I've got loads of news. You wouldn't believe where Peeper Singh's at, and it's totally appropriate, and Jane runs an auction house –
Shaking her head in wonder – that wasn't even a fifth of the front of the first page – Benny stowed the letter in her pocket and started for home.
Delos peered hesitantly into the office. She sighed at herself. What could be more pathetic, than peering hesitantly into your own office? One more reason to swap territories with another healer, because not only did she have Omega's Folly and its generally crazed inhabitants to deal with, she had the officemate from absolute hell. She was caught between sticking it out, at least concerning the officemate, because she was damned if she was going to let that woman get her way, a way which looked almost like it included forcing her out of the office. Puffing out her chest, Delos scowled. "I was here first!" Throwing open the door, she marched in.
As always, the maroon macrame monstrosity poked her in the eye first. Not literally, but figuratively. Delos still wasn't sure what it was actually for. All one and a half metres of its width sprawled across a former plant stand in one corner of the room, reminding Delos irresistably of Jabba the Hut. Unable to resist another feeling it inspired in her, Delos picked up a bottle of disinfectant spray and began spraying the awful thing. Marginally satisfied with the effort, Delos retreated to her desk.
And not a moment too soon, as the obnoxious officemate arrived.
A woman with what Jed had nicknamed 'bullet proof hair' entered the room.
"He-lloooooo!" the new arrival shouted. "Hello, friend!" She rushed over to another table, once home of the magazines and books that occupied the attention of people waiting for prescriptions or brief checkups. Now it was home to an assortment of 'gender appropriate girly items' in non-Amazon parlance. Ostentatiously scattered make up and hair things, a few glossy fashion magazines, a collection of half empty candy bags, a festering syrupy drink – somehow Delos couldn't help but think the thing had to be imported. A smattering of work jackets. The bullet proof haired woman fussed a bit. "It smells like disinfectant and your feet in here." Then she threw open a window.
Delos didn't bother to answer, burying herself more deeply into a book on shamans.
On one hand, Delos was inclined to cut her officemate some slack. Tiffany – that being the officemate's name – was still very new to the Nation, and was here mainly because her parents felt it was the safest place for their precious daughter with a war looking so imminent. Whether that was true or not was another question. For her part, Tiffany had absorbed rather a lot of nonsense about the Nation, one part of that nonsense being that every single Amazon was a lesbian just looking for the chance to pounce on hapless heterosexual women, tearing off their clothes and making weird hooting noises. This peculiar fantasy was one Tiffany spouted off in endless variations until she was forced to fan herself with a hankerchief and do her impression of Scarlet O'Hara. Of course there were plenty of heterosexual women in the Nation, not one of whom had been subjected to involuntary disrobement and hooting noises, but that fact hadn't phased Tiffany.
Now, logically, you'd think Tiffany's corresponding strategy would be trying to look non-heterosexual as a sort of, protective camoflauge. Tiffany would be the first to declare to anyone within thirty metres who could be constructed as listeners that she was most certainly not logical – such an obnoxiously masculine trait.
On hearing that, a number of the other healers who lived at the building debated one evening whether at any time Amazons could ethically attempt to get a woman into a deprogramming seminar without telling her what it actually was. "Sounds like an outwardly polite version of jumping her, tearing her clothes off, and hooting." Delos had commented drily on hearing this idea. "Mmm. Good point. And it probably wouldn't do a damn bit of good anyway." sighed Lius, who specialized in herbal medicines and could often be found brewing potions in the basement.
And so, with divine illogic, Tiffany had been making a point of giving every 'heterosexual feminine' sort of signal she could think of. Hence the ostentatious make up and the rest. Tiffany was also very young, evidently very spoiled, and probably not a little culture shocked.
So Delos kept doing her level best to cut the poor woman some slack. On the other hand, at this point, she was beginning to feel that she had no more rope left to cut. So she was avoiding the office a lot, these days.
"Then again, maybe it's mostly that I've been knocking heads with Jed a fair amount lately. Could be I'm just out of sorts from that." The thought didn't convince or console her, but Delos figured it was better than thinking about the strings of recently washed panty hose perpetually hanging from the office ceiling nowadays.
"What's all over my dish holder?"
"My dish holder! What is on it?!" Tiffany's voice rose, pointing an angry, shaking finger at the maroon monstrosity. It was dripping disinfectant just a bit.
"Nothing dangerous, I'm sure." Delos had learned how to answer without answering very well from Jed, thank you very much. That thing was a dish holder?
"No respect! That's what people have around here, no respect!" shooting Delos a venomous glance, Tiffany flounced to her desk, sitting down with an angry bounce.
"Interesting you should comment on that." looking significantly at a pile of various things Tiffany had thrown into Delos' workspace, which had been shrinking rapidly over the month that Tiffany had been there. Then up at the latest batch of clean panty hose, dripping perilously close to a good book.
"Hmmph. I'll put in a complaint about the cleaning staff –"
"There is no cleaning staff. We have to clean our own offices. That's the way it is all over the Nation. Which is why no one shines your boots for you overnight or cleans the mold cultures you grow in your lunch containers." It was bizarre. This had to be the thirtieth time Delos had explained about cleaning staff.
"Oh, right. Well, who dumped disinfectant on this, then?"
Covering her face with her hands, Delos sighed. "Well, Tiffany, now that I know it's a dish holder, that explains a lot. Have you noticed yet, how it is actually a terrible health hazard?"
"What do you mean? The dishes are clean!" Actually true. It was the yarn or string or whatever doing the rotting.
"Yes, but the rotting superstructure is not."
"Oh, would you look at the time. I have another appointment." cramming books and papers into her backpack, Delos headed for the door.
"Oh, look at this. It's the perfect diet for you, Delos." ever helpful, Tiffany ran to catch Delos in the hall.
The stocky healer stopped in the hallway, struggling to count mentally to ten rather than repeat strings of curses. They had had this conversation far too often as well. "I do not need a diet. I thank the Goddess every day that I bear no resemblance of any kind to Twiggy." She turned around, and before Tiffany could reply, said rather more than originally intended. "I don't know who taught you it was appropriate to accost other people about their weight, but it is not. I don't know who told you it was okay to discuss anyone's underwear in public –"
"Oh, but Delos, you actually wear men's underwear, I can hardly believe it!" Tiffany had observed Delos folding her work laundry one day, and evidently believed that any underwear that wasn't a thong or had actual legs as opposed to leg holes must be for someone afflicted with penis envy.
For several long moments, Delos stared speechlessly at her. "You just don't care, do you?"
"What?" Tiffany looked bewildered. Well, truth be told, she looked like Bambi. She kept trying to teach Delos her doe-eyed look 'because it would help her do better with men.'
"You don't give a rat's ass about other people's feelings when you talk. Or when you start taking over all of the common and not common space in a room. Or when you spend every other moment saying something offensive or stupid, or trying to call me fat without actually saying the word for fear it might add ten pounds to your hips!" By now Delos was shouting. "You listen to me, princess, either you're going to clean up your act or you're out of here, even if it means I have to strap you screaming to the roof of my car and drive you to the furthest, dankest corner of the Nation and leave you there without so much as a flashlight or a tube of lipgloss!" Leaving the stunned and teary eyed Tiffany behind, Delos threw her backpack into the trunk of her two seater, and picking a direction at random, drove away.
She wound up where she always seemed to when she was especially upset, by a giant lake crowning a not so old but certainly extinct volcano. For years, a geographer from outside the Nation had dragged a team of surveyors up the mountains and hills, and set them to work surveying the lake shore. A second team would be sent out in a motorboat to work on lake soundings. She was bound and determined to map the lake and determine how deep it was. Then, then she could name it after herself.
Each year for twelve years she went back, but every year when the surveyors started by mapping in the ostensibly fixed base points again, they had moved. Driving the surveyors like a demon, the geographer had gotten two complete shore surveys done in one season. Up in the mountains the season of fair weather was fairly short, so this was quite a feat. By then she had a core group of surveyors just about as obsessed as she was. Two surveys, same gear, same people, same base points. The data was entered triumphantly into a computer running a mapping program, which obligingly spat out two versions of the lake shore survey. Triumphantly, the geographer printed them onto overlays for comparison to each other and the specially scaled and carefully corrected aerial photograph of the lake she kept pinned to her bulletin board.
All three things disagreed with each other. Worse yet, a brand new aerial photograph didn't match any of them either. And the sounding crew never could figure out how deep the lake was, because their sounding weights kept vanishing. They seemed to just drop off the end of the sounding chains, regardless of how new or old the chains or the weights were.
"Hmmm. Always leave a gift when you go there." Avi had advised her on hearing the story.
And funnily enough, Delos always did, and she always kept stuff in her car and backpack just in case, because somehow the idea of being caught without something for the spirit of the lake seemed a bad idea. She wondered idly if anyone ever had named the lake, or if they had just left it unlabelled. One of her clients called it 'The Lake That Might Tell You It's Name If You're Super Lucky.' Delos grinned at the thought. Carefully tucking today's gift in a crack in one of the gnarled and shattered rocks, Delos picked her way carefully down to the shoreline, sitting down on one of the hexagonal pillars of dark stone clustered along the eastern shore.
Today's question to mull over, if she didn't fall asleep in the cozy sunlight was: what was she going to do about the intolerable situation at the office?
"Gramma, are we gonna get there soon?" Agape peered anxiously into her grandmother's face. Things were serious, and she was the oldest of her siblings so she had to set a good example, and that meant she had done her very best not to ask too many questions all day. It was pretty hard. She had never seen practically all the places they drove through, and she couldn't understand why bad people had come to her house. Now they were someplace where they all talked like Mister Meebles next door when he was chatting with his family – Mister Meebles was actually Mahir Bilgin, formerly of Ismir, a kindly man Agape and her siblings loved dearly. He always told interesting stories. The bad people had stolen him.
"Pretty soon, honey. According to cousin Jed's directions we should be at the embassy very soon." Them, and more than a few other people. It seemed like half of Greece was on the road with them, and Turkish soldiers were providing an escort. Periodically Turkish warplanes flew overhead, part of the effort to prevent the Blue army from using one of the most infamous tactics of any war. It seemed to be working so far, but everyone knew it was a combination of luck and borrowed time they were travelling in.
A serious eyed young man trotted up to Evrope. "Evrope Ademler?" he asked.
"Yes." slowing the cart a little, Evrope frowned. "What is it?" speaking in Turkish rather than Greek, to the soldier's visible surprise. He bobbed a little in a bow, then offered a small package.
"A parcel, sent to you by Jared Ademler." he softened the 'j' so Jed's name sounded more like 'Sherad.'
"Thank you –" Evrope almost let him walk away, but then she blurted, "May Allah protect you." He reminded her so much of her son. He smiled, and gravely pronounced an old Greek blessing Evrope hadn't heard in many years.
It just went to show, people could always surprise you. Turning her attention to the package, Evrope pulled open the flap, and uttered a startled gasp when a bundle of papers fell out. A brief glance showed they were visas and identification for all of them, so Evrope passed them to Myrrhine to distribute and turned her attention to Jed's short missive, scrawled in Greek but with a post script in Arabic script.
"A transport will be waiting for you at the embassy – a specific one, I mean. There will be many vehicles there to pick people up and take them to safety. I will try to meet you as soon as you get to the border, but I may have to go the fireworks factory first. Please be careful. I don't think there will be anyone who speaks koine to get news from, sorry about that. Hug and kiss everyone for me – don't forget to ask one of the kids to hug and kiss you back on my behalf, or I'll sulk – and I'll see you soon.
P.S. This is the worst news, but you must know. The Blue army has taken over the rest of Bulgaria and has moved in force against northern Greece and are driving towards the Bosporus. It may get ugly very fast.
Benny had stopped by the Themiskyra market to barter for some fresh cheese and olives when she heard an unmistakable voice calling behind her.
"Ah, there you are, Benny! Just when I was looking for you too, excellent timing." For emphasis Jed did a rapid flash of her pocket watch collection. "As soon as you're done at the market we just need to pop over to –"
"No!" Stopping the unusually chattery physicist short. "Jed, I am bone tired, regretting giving in to the temptations of rubber rations and sunflower seeds, and if my headache hasn't knocked you down yet it's a bloody miracle. All I want is my bed, my favourite blanket, and Ari's weird singing to put me to sleep."
"Oh. Yes. Ordinarily I'd go right along with that, but I'm afraid under the circumstances it really is necessary that you forgo those things for just a little longer." Jed smiled weakly.
Handing her a small tin box in which Jed kept a variety of quick remedies, things like cinnamon gum for grinding and gritting the teeth, cloves to tuck in the cheek for toothache, willow bark extract for headaches, a valiant all-purpose teabag, she motioned for Benny to sit down on the nearest seat-like surface with her. Said surface was the volkswagon, and Jed herself promptly slipped off due to the extremely old dress pants she happened to be wearing, the old-fashioned kind that used to be de rigeur business wear. Chris kept asking her when she'd finally run the things in to the cloth traders and pick up the small fortune the dreadful things now represented.
"You didn't seriously think it was all a given when you first came here, did you?" Jed asked kindly after Benny had hauled out a battered canteen and choked down some of the willow extract.
"Err, no I guess. What do you mean?"
"Visitors never get put on guard duty. And until you've stuck it out here for at least a year and a day, you're a visitor. Visitors also don't get their own papers."
"Papers! I was starting to think they weren't used here. You mean I'm going to get a new passport or something?" Rubbing at one temple, Benny tried to get her head around the idea.
"Good grief, you must have a bad headache." Jed gave up trying to sit on the car and sat on the grassy verge instead. "We don't have centrally distributed papers of the kind you mean. When it comes down to it, what we have is letters of introduction. Benny, every official action you've been involved in has been vouched for either by your cousin's will, my word, Chris' word, or the Academy's. But you'll be needing words of your own to carry when you're on guard duty."
"Your word, as in, vouching for who I am?" Benny could hardly believe her ears.
"Precisely." Jed beamed, even though she liked to inveigh against precision on the grounds that in physics you could be precisely wrong. Blowing her hair out of her eyes, Benny scowled. She knew all about Jed's anti-precision fetish. This meant that while she was at the least semantically correct, the clue had missed her and was off unravelling in a corner somewhere.
"Look, I have a driver's license, a passport, a –"
"Every one of them totally meaningless here."
"What?!" utterly poleaxed, Benny found herself automatically reaching for the pocket on her military surplus shirt where all Canadian soldiers kept their identification.
"Just so much wasted paper, except insofar as you might like to see other countries on your Canadian passport." Jed declared firmly. "We've never had centrally administered identification here. Mostly for practical reasons, but if you think about it there are more important ones. But Benny, it's nothing to be concerned about. You have a whole posse of us to vouch for you, and even if we were gone, your own adoring students and cheerful colleagues would be glad to stand in."
Slowly, Benny looked through the carefully curated pieces of identification in her wallet. The cracked and grungy yellow social insurance card. A pocket birth certificate with tattered edges and her birthday wrong. A driver's license with the obligatory bad photograph. The photo id from her alma mater. Her bulky blue covered passport, stamped and notated within an inch of its life. The dog tags she had always refused to wear. A health care card with a bullet hole through it.
"None of these mean anything here?" the possibility had genuinely never occurred to her.
"So what do we do instead?"
"We go to one of the scriptoria, and ask a scribe there very nicely to make you out a letter, and those of us who are going to vouch for you sign it in front of her. You sign it. Then she puts a final flourish on it, and you are equipped to move freely throughout the Nation without having one of us effectively attached to you like a remora, Arion excepted of course whenever you prefer." Pulling a well worn leather case out of her back pocket Jed tossed it over. "When it's your first letter, you get a complimentary case. My first one got too old to use and I had to put it away. My Mama made me this one."
The case was literally bulging, each letter attached to one of the twenty-odd tabs of thin paper attached to its spine. Each letter was carefully folded up, and when Benny unfolded one to look at it, she let out an astonished gasp. The letter she had picked at random was written in bold uncials, with moderate illumination, a pile of vouching signatures, a group of unexpected Arabic characters, the stamp from an ornate seal, and the finishing signature of the scribe. "Are they all like this?" Benny asked, reverently folding the soft cover around the letters and smoothing together the velcroed edges.
"Every one. Otherwise, they could be all too easily forged. It's actually not possible to forge good quality scriptorium work, not least because each scriptorium makes its own paper and mixes its own inks. Too many variables. And of course, these letters aren't usually accepted elsewhere." returning the book to her pocket, Jed peered anxiously at her friend. It was getting late!
"Why do you need so many?"
"Oh, because every scriptorium is basically local. There are networks so as to facilitate travel and the like, but for activities where security is higher, you need a more specific letter."
"Hmmph. How much does this all cost?" Those letters were gorgeous. Like the paper currency it was almost impossible to get anymore. Benny couldn't imagine how much they must be worth in terms of money.
"Why, nothing." This time Benny slipped off the car.
Laughing merrily, Jed helped her up and dusted her off. "Nothing but the willingness of other Amazons to vouch for you, and the evidence of your own actions. The scribe is already provided for. So, are you ready to get your first letter at last?"
"Yeah, let's go." Still not quite able to believe her ears or her eyes, Benny followed Jed on a rather rambling walk away from the usual places to a rickety looking converted house. It seemed to lean tipsily against its more sobre neighbour, a footwear maker's cooperative.
Thankfully there were no steps to climb. Although her headache had abated, Benny was already tired and footsore from her trip to the supply depot. A sign she was feeling better was her puzzling over Jed's behaviour. The woman was clearly terribly excited. Letters of introduction obviously had a lot of social and practical significance, but Jed's enthusiasm and hurry seemed all out of proportion with that. She was almost a rambunctious match for her hyper-cheerful partner.
Contrary to the older impression the house first gave, like Omega's Folly it had some newer features. In this case, sky lights over the scribes' circular work area. Each scribe worked at a desk facing outward. Gathered in the middle was a small group of people, among whom Benny picked out Chris, and a couple of friends from work. Feeling more and more at sea, and now very nervous, she hurried to catch up with Jed, who was barreling towards one scribe in particular. Anyone else might have been alarmed to see an eccentrically dressed woman practically flying at them, but the scribe didn't look up or turn a hair.
Jed stopped short so abruptly it was as if an invisible hand had grabbed her by the collar and yanked her back. "Good grief, I can't do anything yet! Go on Benny, the scribe can't read your mind, you know."
Hesitantly, Benny shuffled up to the scribe, who finally looked up.
The scribe nodded gravely and pushed a large album over to her. "Samples of layouts and colours are all in there. You're quite new, right?"
"Err, right." nettled, Benny unconsciously yanked off her hat to show off her grey hairs. Not that she had too many, it was the principle of the thing.
"Okay. What you do, is you take this album over to the people who will provide vouching signatures for you, in other words, the yahoos in the middle of the room. They flip through the album and make like they're only just picking out the features of the letter they'll be signing. It's all pretense though, letters are always gifts, and chances are they've been carefully picking out yours for months. When they've hemmed and hawed enough for appearances, you'll be handed the book back, and it'll have a green envelope tucked into its front cover. Bring the lot over here and I'll get to work." Pushing up the green tinted, transparent visor she wore over her eyes, the scribe stared at Benny with an absolutely thunderous frown. "Right, as the King of Hearts would say, that's quite enough cross examination. Off you go."
"Jed, what was in that willow extract you gave me?" Benny asked as she lugged over the book.
"Hmm?" The little group in the middle of the room included not only Chris and some of Benny's colleagues from work, but also Arion, Avi Ionnidis and Cue Pontius. A mysterious individual wearing a high collared trench coat and a floppy hat was trying to look small behind Cue, oddly enough.
True to the scribe's word, the little group, including the person trying to look like Kilroy proceded to mock debate the features of Benny's impending letter. Colours and fonts, papers and add ons. And then the book was thrust back into her hands, a green envelope made of shiny paper tucked in the front cover, by no less than Kilroy.
Feeling more unnerved than ever, Benny carried the book back to the scribe.
"Very good. Let's see." Opening the envelope and pulling out a slip of paper, the scribe made a noise of approval. "Tasteful, yet personalized. The nice thing about a group of vouching signatories like yours is that not one of them has a clue about canned greeting cards. You wouldn't believe some of the requests I get, things most emphatically not in the sample book." The scribe hurried off to gather paper and pots of ink, and Benny went back to the little group.
Arion promptly flourished a bottle and a spoon. "Open wide."
"Oh, no, not that." Benny groaned.
Her girlfriend drew her to one side. "Sweetheart, we can't have a party for you if you're feeling dispeptic." Unable to help herself, Arion burst into fits of giggles. "I think that's the most ridiculous thing I ever said."
"Pretty much." Benny agreed. "All right, let's get this over with. Unlike you, I don't like to eat lemon wedges."
"You're missing something juicy, delicious, and refreshing." declared Arion, in pseudo commercial voice, pouring a spoonful of lemon juice, which Benny managed to get down without making too much of a face.
"Blehhh – why does that work better than those chalky tablet things?" she knew this by experience.
"Well, sometimes it wouldn't, especially if you had a sour stomach." Arion poked Chris in the arm, and she obligingly raised it so Arion could dump the bottle of lemon juice and the spoon in one of her giant coat pockets. "Better already, I bet."
"Yeah, yeah." Benny growled, putting an arm around her girlfriend's waist. She did feel a lot better. It might have been the prospect of a party, though. "You're having a party for me?"
"Indubitably." They had gotten rather distracted when Chris cleared her throat politely behind them.
"Your letter is ready for signatures Benny, come on, you don't want to miss it." Chris proceeded to herd them towards the scribe by the simple expedient of bouncing around them until they were just about dizzy, then shooing them along with her battered grey cap.
"Wait, what about –" Benny protested. Who was this Kilroy character, and what did she have to do with anything?
It was no use. Soon everyone was cheerfully penning their names onto the ornate page amid scribal warnings not to touch the text or the illuminations as they were still damp. The second last person to sign was Kilroy, who didn't write that name of course. Instead, she wrote in careful, precise, tiny bold capitals, 'Guenhifar Ro Sams, protoi.'
"Protoi indicating this signatory knew you before you came here, and hasn't been here long herself." the scribe declared a bit stuffily.
"I don't believe it!" laughed Benny, and soon the two women were pounding each other on the back. "What's the Kilroy get up for?"
"'Cause I'm a surprise!" chuckled Sams.
Arion signed next, writing with intense effort clearly related to her determination not to add any more blotches to the page than Chris' caffinated looking moniker. Jed had signed her name in Arabic characters. Finally, Arion stepped aside and held the reed pen out to Benny. "You have to sign it too."
"Oh, sure." Benny was about to hurry through her usual plastic card scrawl when the scribe stopped her.
"And you have your left name in mind?"
"My left name?" Artemis the mighty, how much more complicated could this get? And furthermore, "left name"? After a point this was all ridiculous.
"That was a joke, actually – still, Amazons don't use patronomics."
"Is that all!" Benny sighed in relief. "I never have either. No man ever carried the Basilas name." Instead of her plastic card scrawl, Benny took her time. Watching the ink dry, she commented thoughtfully, "You know, I don't think I have ever signed my name so someone else could read it before."
The scribe smiled, added her own signature, then inked the scriptorium stamp and walloped the sheet with it. The name of the scriptorium was worked modestly into the outermost ring of the seal's design, 'Aydin Gunnul.' Finally, the scribe pulled out a letter case, slimmer than Jed's by far, and with the help of a rubbery looking glue fixed the letter inside, then folded it up and folded the case closed.
"It is an honour to be present at the initiation of a new sister."
"Now it's official Benny, you are a definitely, no kidding, gosh, golly really full citizen of the Amazon Nation." Arion's eyes twinkled. "And you were just going to go home and mope!"