Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Omega's Folly: Chapter One
It was raining. Not very hard, but enough that everything was wet, and not a little cold. The murky sky sprawled lazily on top of the land in a sort of cold sweat. Sitting on a small wooden bench beneath a dirty awning was a huddled figure, dwarfed by two large cases and a trunk. The bench might have been pleasant to look at once, but weather and time had reduced the paint to peeling, curled tongues, and the wood that showed through to pale grey. If a person felt destructive as well as bored and miserable, they might begin pulling off some of the long flakes of paint. If they did, the wood beneath would show deep brown, soft and pliant, easy to remove with a fingernail or the tip of a pencil. The huddled figure felt no need to do such things, however.
She – the figure was a woman – had sunk her head as far into her heavy overcoat as she could get it, until the brim of her hat rested on its collar. Since the coat, the hat, and her hair were dark, the result was a rather faceless looking apparition. A pair of sharp green eyes spoiled the facelessness by glaring irritably out at the world in general.
The red leather case on her right smelt of perfumed epsom salts. The lacquered cardboard case on her left smelt of chocolate. The red case had been an accidental gift from her father. It presented a defiant red front, interrupted only by the always rather ludicrous looking gold tinted buckle and its accompanying wide strap. The smell of perfumed epsom salts came from a bag of them that had sat in it for months, hopefully waiting for the day when her father finally opened them and used them to help treat his ailing back. He never had, even though the label on the box officially reassured him and any other reader that the perfume was a men's cologne with hinds of the seafarer's life and salty breezes.
The cardboard case – the cardboard case was far more interesting. In total, it had suffered thirteen coats of lacquer. The previous owner, a musician who had busked all over Europe, also managed to travel around the world thirteen times. Each trip added a new collection of stickers duly attached to the suitcase. A coating of lacquer followed at the end of the trip to keep them in brilliant colour and from wearing or falling off. Stinky and sticky as the treatments must have been, they provided the case's present ability to survive miserable weather.
The trunk, sunk about an inch into the muck blandly referred to as a road by the customs agent, came of its own accord, so to speak. It arrived one day at the now huddled figure's door as she was being politely served a notice of eviction by the greasy new manager of her apartment building. Someone had taken great care over it, carefully polishing its forest green paneling, its silver bolts and corner caps. The delivery person insisted on seeing two pieces of identification before handing over the key in a carefully sealed envelope. A short letter accompanied the key, written in a manner as slovenly as the enevelope was tidy.
Dear Ms. Basilas,
The firm Digger, Chaser, and Hyde is pleased to send you the requisite papers and objects delineated as your inheritance from your late cousin, Ges Basilas. All matters are in order, although she allowed us to do very little, and you have sole ownership of all properties, monies, and businesses listed. We understand that at this time you do not have legal counsel. Please feel free to contact us at any time.
Messrs. G. Digger, A. Chaser, and L. T. Hyde
The trunk was full of bundles which Benny Basilas had had no time to examine. Being evicted will keep a person running to escape with their dignity and hopefully their possessions – but another, thicker envelope sat right on top the tightly packed contents of the trunk, addressed to her in bold, clear capitals:
FOR BENTON BASILAS
and contained a great many interesting papers, tickets, visas, and oddly shaped keys.
Benny still had no earthly idea – or a heavenly one for that matter – why she had been named such a thing. Then again, she considered wryly, really she hadn't. In any event, the papers described a huge, rather run down house she had inherited partial ownership of, said inheritance including paid for transportation to it. Having nothing else to go to, and nothing left to lose, she sold what she could, gave away the rest, and packed what she had left in the two cases that dwarfed her now, under a tiny awning, in the rain. Five hours later, she climbed onto a bus empty but for herself and the driver, and suffered through a silent five hour trip. The symmetry did not impress her.
An hour stop over in a tiny town somewhere in western Canada after another long bus trip later, with a name pronounced completely differently from the way it was spelt, Benny began to wonder what the hell she was doing. She had a degree in history, but had never managed a doctorate, since carrying on the work that proved that the Amazons had indeed existed before the twentieth century was extremely unpopular. Stubborn, and loving her subject too much to leave it, Benny kept at it, working various jobs to keep the bills paid. Painting, cleaning, working a cash register, building web pages, even book reviewing for awhile. Then she had been abruptly evicted from her leaky, noisy, often smelly apartment building, for no reason she could determine, except greed. An affordable renovation of the air circulation system could have taken care of the smell problem easily. The original landlord could probably have funded it by sending a circular to the tenants asking for donations even. Instead, down the building went, replaced by a casino. Now, now she was on her way to the Goddess knew where – a quick look at the cuff of one sleeve where she had written the name in white grease pencil – Ennea Hodoi, Thrake was. Even the spelling of the name was strange, so much so Benny had nearly torn her hair out trying to track it down at the public library under the suspicious gaze of a security guard who wanted Benny and her luggage out yesterday.
The only reference Benny found to the place had been in a rough, unpleasantly biased account of the history of the ancient Thrakian town of Amphipolis. A history very much at third hand, written by an obscure master of arts holder in the nineteenth century. "Ennea Hodoi" was the Greek version of its original name, when the town had still been home to its Edonian founders. Eventually, imperialistic Athens drove many of them away, and this history reflected the contempt the writer had for the people whose homes the Athenian colonists had stolen. Benny therefore knew the town was in northern Greece, and that at some point she would arrive there. At some point.
A second, shuttle bus to an airport, and a long flight later, she arrived in Rumania. Hopes of a flight to Athens dashed when she discovered her tickets referred to a train terminal rather than a flight terminal. Eventually she and her three pieces of luggage arrived, by some miracle, in Greece, only to be transferred to another train altogether, and eventually deposited in the middle of nowhere on a peeling wooden bench beneath a tiny awning – and that awning was emphatically not in Greece. Somewhere in Turkey maybe, but Benny admitted to herself freely that she was out of her reckoning.
If it all hadn't been so surreal and uncomfortable, Benny might have laughed.
But, it all fit with cousin Ges' personality. Always wildly eccentric, but also always tolerated. Brilliant scientists will get that, if they happen to catch the kind eye of public opinion, and Ges had been brilliant. She completely deciphered the Phaestos Disk, then went on to revolutionize the theory and understanding of Cepheid variables. Then she had returned to her first love, much criticized in the press for not being "sciency" enough, working on the decipherment of the ancient language and script of the people now grudgingly recognized as ancient and female Amazons by the academic community. Ges actually had to go and find the evidence for these herself, since other scholars had decided the Amazons must have been illiterate and therefore without inscriptions or other types of documents of any kind. Somehow those other scholars forgot about all the writing right there in plain sight on ancient Amazonian pottery, let alone other remnants.
Some of Ges' eccentricities had been accidental. Her inability to match her socks or put together a coordinated outfit or that didn't jar the eye came from her tritanopia. Ges ultimately convinced a friend to buy her clothes in the style she liked, all in black or blue. She still regularly mismatched her socks, but now deliberately and without blinding combinations of orange and purple in the rest of her clothes.
The trip so far had Ges' unmistakable touch all over it. A long bus ride to a busy airport, to take a plane crammed full of Members of the Society for Creative Anachronism headed to a conference, to take a train that looked like it belonged in a cheap vampire movie, to a muddy station in the middle of northern Greece. The flight hadn't been so bad after all, except the man sitting beside her had failed to keep his chain mail oiled properly, and so stunk of rust.
One of Benny's better jobs was as a curator in a museum on the west coast, which held a huge number of weaponry and armour exhibits. She worked there for five summers and weekends of the rest of the years, without boredom although not always without injury. At first, she was a gopher – in a fit of pique Benny once counted how may times she took the museum stairs in one day early on in her tenure there. After reaching a hundred and seventeen, she gave it up. Then she got to work on exhibits, cleaning, repairing, and eventually creating. It turned out that a childhood full of as many books on armour and weaponry as she could get her hands on made for excellent book training in identifying pretty much any piece of armour or nasty ancient weapon. Over the years she learned to restore, polish, and set each one in its proper historical framework. That nobody quite believed she could handle a blacksmith's hammer and forge until they sae it, well, she reflected. A person couldn't have everything.
So, she knew all about the care and handling of chain mail. Which didn't help the smell, but unfortunately it wasn't going anywhere.
Trying to scuff her boots on the ground but managing to produce only a few mucky noises and two narrow puddles of her very own, Benny looked from side to side, squinting. It had never occurred to her that it might be necessary to squint in the rain before. Unfortunately, it was an ineffective means to try to make out anything through the greyish haze all around her, let alone the condensation on her glasses.
When the change finally came, it came in the form of a rattling, banging, groaning old vehicle that clattered through the muck to stop in front of her. Its halt gave Benny and her hapless entourage of luggage a liberal coating of mud.
The car was, unbelievably, an ancient American model, barely beyond the tin lizzie in age. The grill steamed in the cool, damp air, and its panels patched with bits of neatly trimmed plywood. In a few spots, the patching looked suspiciously and terrifyingly like papier mâché. Luckily, those were mostly on the dashboard – unluckily, since the car had no roof, these makeshift repairs were melting rapidly. The upholstery was a sort of greyish purple colour where it wasn't greyish brown from mud. Benny wondered vaguely if the upholstery had been purple to begin with, then sighed as she realized there was no escape from this weird version of planes, trains, and automobiles.
At last, the brave, or perhaps suicidal, driver of the car clambered out, after a delayed from the door getting almost irretrievably stuck.
"Hello, Ms. B – B – Basilas!" This managed between tugs to a long, tattered grey scarf still trapped in the car door.
The driver proved to be a cheerful, golden haired transplant from England, with tinted spectacles despite the poor light. Tugging off her grey cap, she grinned broadly and added, "Marvellous day, ain't it?" She grinned even more broadly, and tugged her tweed trousers, also grey, up an inch or two further. "'Fraid the train's stuck somewhere – they don't even bother with schedules 'ere anymore. I've come to take you up to Omega's Folly."
Benny stared at the woman doubtfully. Somehow the knee high wellingtons, grey tweeds and bright yellow mackintosh inspired little confidence.
"Oh, suppose it would help if you knew me name – bet you'll never guess it!"
Given yet another opening in which to say something, and feeling quite put out altogether, Benny blurted the first thing that came to mind. "Doc Halliday."
The other woman gaped at her, pale eyes goggling almost as wide as her spectacles. "What, you a psychic, or something? How'd you know that?" Jamming her cap back on her head, she muttered, "Takes all the fun out." Looking back to the sodden, sullen individual beneath the awning she said aloud, "Yes, I'm a doctor of chemistry, and I usually introduce myself Chris Halliday – my first name's actually something else, but I don't like it."
Benny nodded slowly. "Right – Omega's Folly?" Doc Halliday brightened up immediately. "Absolutely, absolutely – Ges absolutely loves, er loved it – her half is the less drafty one of the two, I think." Well, that confirmed that this bizarre individual and her bizarre car were for real.
"I'll be glad of damn near any roof over my head, at this point." sighed Benny.
It took some time and effort to place her luggage into the rickety vehicle. The two cases made it easily enough, but the trunk was more than obstinate. An attempt by the two women to lift it led to Doc Halliday temporarily losing her wellingtons in the mud. A judicious use of a crowbar later, "I use it to get the car door open, sometimes," to oust the trunk and the wellingtons, the luggage was lashed down in and on the back of the car.
"Can't be too careful, on these roads, with things like that." Doc Halliday declared gravely.
"Oh, then you must have seat belts in this contraption." Benny replied in a relieved tone. An injured expression appeared on the good doctor's face. She patted the hood of the car gently. "Ignore that, old thing – she doesn't understand what a marvellous car you really are." To Benny she replied, "If the one on the passenger side doesn't work, just use some of the leftover rope. I find it's usually more convenient not to use one."
The seat belt, functional even if slightly ragged, and duly fastened, the car finally lurched off. Doc Halliday seemed to have a certain amount of difficulty with the manual transmission until the near whiplash causing starts and stops finally eased, and then stopped after she managed to flood the engine, and had to work a half hour to get it to start again. This all gave Benny time to wonder how there could be seatbelts in a car this age at all – how would you get the damn things connected properly? She eyed one of the ends where it disappeared into a crevice between the flattened cushions nervously.
At last, they were on their way, and Benny had actually fallen asleep when a booming shout of, "Great Scotia! Grab the wheel, woman! But not too hard, I think it needs a new locking bolt." From peacefully dozing to clutching the steering wheel with white knuckles, Benny watched the scenery fly by at an alarming pace. "Thought I'd fixed this problem, but now that we're going downhill I see I haven't – hang on!" With that, Halliday climbed over the windshield and popped the hood, effectively blocking Benny's view of the road. Inside the hood a fairly modern looking engine rattled and hummed. "Been souping it up," Halliday hollered gaily, as she dug around in it. "I'm an inventor as well, and I've put a few of my ideas into practice. One of them isn't working well, though."
Bracing herself against the windshield, she began pulling several feet of tubing out of the engine. "Knew I left it this long for a reason!" The tubing resembled a skinny drinking straw in diameter, and seemed thoroughly inappropriate for use in a car engine or anything associated with a car engine.
"Hmmm –" Halliday reached into a trouser pocket, pulling out a large pair of blunt ended shears. Then she pulled on each end of the tubing, until one end pulled snug. "Excellent, excellent – " Two quick snips cut the tubing in two and gave one end a diagonal cut. "Right – " Halliday bent forward slightly, tracing where each end now led to.
The car's speed steadily increasing, and the wind changing from whistling to roaring in Benny's ears, she tried to make out what was on the road ahead. She turned the steering wheel slightly, and produced a stunning swerve. "Holy shit!" she squeaked. A look up revealed Halliday clutching the windshield with one hand, and the tubing in the other.
"Until further notice, all you need to do is go straight!" Halliday snapped. "Damn it, where has my hat gone?" She didn't spend long pondering this, but returned to her pieces of tubing. Finding her bearings again, Halliday stuck one end in her mouth and sucked on it vigorously. Twice more, then she hurriedly spat a mouthful off the side of the car. An unhealthy looking fluorescent green fluid spurted from the tubing.
Pinning it between the wiper and the shield, Halliday gazed at the other end a moment, then began pulling all kinds of tubing out of the guts of the car, tossing coils of it into the hapless Benny's lap. "Got it!" she crowed triumphantly when another tug ended with a jolt that nearly pitched her headfirst onto the engine. That piece was soon trimmed, and after widening its end with a pencil retrieved from yet another pocket, the end spurting what reminded Benny of nuclear waste as portrayed in B-grade science fiction movies was jammed into it, and the join wound about with electrical tape.
"There, that should do it," Halliday said happily, stowing away her supplies in her collection of pockets. "Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes!" she screamed suddenly. This Benny did, jerking the hood of the car shut and hurling Halliday off onto the grassy verge, from which she bounced into a puddle with delusions of pondeur.
"Perhaps, I should have rephrased that." Clambering slowly to her feet and wiping muck off of her face with one hand, Halliday sighed. "Okay – we have a ways to go before we make it to the house, and being as I need to go find my hat, we'll then take a detour and pick up my sweet at the Academy." Decision apparently made, Halliday gave herself a vigorous shake, mopped her face with a purple spotted handkerchief, and marched down the road back the way they had come. Benny watched in bemusement as the fair headed woman cast about on either side of the road, occasionally poking the road itself with an extendable stick that she pulled from another voluminous pocket.
Some ten minutes later, the doctor returned, an all but spotless grey cap replaced on top of her blonde locks, swinging her collapsible stick jauntily. "Now, on to the Academy." she declared triumphantly, shoving Benny out of the driver's seat and clambering back into the vehicle. It started with a wheeze and a bang, and soon they were careening along again, forcing the young historian to shield herself from low hanging branches. These barely captured her attention, as she found herself wondering a bit forlornly just what her cousin had gotten her into – and from beyond the grave, no less!
Benny woke up three hours later, thinking grumpily about jet lag as the ancient car groaned around a wide turn and trundled down a stretch of dry road with yellowish fields on either side. Dust floated everywhere, and Benny wondered in disgust where the clammy rain had gone. The fields eventually began to get spotty with trees and bushes, and the odd patches created by farmers when they piled the rocks from their field together and ploughed around it. Then trees began to line the verge, and slowly encroach on it until they were travelling through a leafy corridor where the distance signs were pegged to the tree trunks. One turn placed Benny so close to them she could see that the signs really were pegged on, not nailed or put up using screws. 'What a bizarre amount of effort.' she thought to herself in confusion. Turning to Halliday she asked incredulously, "Putting up signs with wooden pegs?"
"Do you know where you are, Ms. Basilas?"
"Sure I do. This is northern Greece." This of course, was bravado.
"Not exactly." Halliday's eyes were enigmatic. "Things aren't the way they were."
"I don't understand. I've studied the history of this region – this part of Thrake is part of Greece. I mean, Turkey. I mean... no, you tell me."
"Not since the last world war. Your textbooks must be outdated where you went to university. When we get to Ennea Hodoi, you'll be able to look across the river, and several fields, and see the borders of the Nation." Halliday braked a bit to allow them to cross an elderly bridge without rattling their brains in their skulls.
Benny grimaced. She had gone through the war, and she made every effort not to think about it much. Being part of an armourer's squadron had been – terrible was too mild a word. The whole thing had forced a two and a half year hiatus in her studies. Nothing good had come of it that she could see, beyond the past three years of boundary drawing, which left mapmaking in utter confusion. She despised geography, and her professor for it had given up in frustration when every new week of negotiations resulted in another thick booklet of revisions on his desk. Some sour grapes inspired mini-wars were indulged in, especially in the Balkans and, oddly enough, between the rump United States and Mexico. Benny's employment woes had eaten up her attention at the time, so she had lost track of what the negotiations Canada participated in were for or what the results had been.
"You know a great deal of its history already – it is usually called Amazonia." Benny gaped. The woman was delirious. Cousin Ges had been working on archaeological digs, and digging records out of the depths of Greek libraries. Nothing was real now, nothing.
"The Nation seemed to disappear altogether for many centuries. But we were always here – always watching, and waiting for the chance to make the rest of the world see the Nation again." A smile twitched Halliday's lips. "A few tribes of Amazons have stayed living out here, and in parts of Turkey. We were far enough out of the way, and fierce enough that the new Turkish government left us alone. They didn't want to officially give up the land, but we managed to talk them into it. Lots of trade and good publicity – at least in this part of the world. We cut the same sort of deal with countries around here." She looked over at her dark haired passenger. "You don't believe a word I'm saying."
"How can I? Where the hell has everyone been?"
"I told you, waiting, and watching, and keeping our ways alive. It's okay. Considering how lousy attitudes toward women were for the majority of the past three thousand years or so, we had good reason to keep well hidden." She dragged her fingers through her hair. "Jed is better for this stuff than I am – she'll explain, and seeing is believing – the Academy is part of the Nation. I told you we were close to the border."
The trees had opened up into a sizable lane that led to the entrance of a sprawling campus. Several large buildings encroached on the road, and the place bustled with students. Temporary structures, clearly thrown up in a hurry with makeshift signage and unpainted fronts scattered among the main buildings. "When we started the Academy, we thought we'd have mainly Amazons, so we built a theatre, a library, a temple, and two buildings full of laboratories and classrooms. We – oh – I mean those of us Amazons who were involved putting together the Academy – we actually thought we had gotten carried away, that we had built beyond the number of students we were likely to get, especially since this is a woman-only place." A tall woman dressed in black with a long black jacket flew past them on a rickety bicycle, her briefcase balanced precariously on the handlebars. "Women have been clamouring to come here, we can barely keep up." They were driving within the campus grounds now, and more women dressed in the curious long black jacket the bicycle rider also wore became common, as well as many others in all sorts of clothing. Kaftans, saris, to Benny's relief, familiar blue jeans – and all sorts of garments she had never seen.
"Anyone who is wearing a long black jacket has at least a bachelor's degree, and more often than not right now they are also faculty. We need all the instructors we can get – sometimes folks don't wear the jacket though, so don't let looks fool you." Halliday guided the rickety car into a roughly delineated space in front of a building with a large telescope protruding from a slot in the rounded dome on one side. "My laboratory is over there." She pointed, and Benny picked out a second building whose bottom was hidden by the crest of the hill that it sat behind. Two of its windows were being replaced, and scorch marks surrounded them.
"What happened to where those windows are?" Benny asked curiously.
"Those windows are the windows to my laboratory – I had a bit of an accident this morning, that's all. Good job that Jed insisted I put in those ear protectors she is convinced I should wear now. It was a pretty good bang. Might have done in my ear drums otherwise." She turned off the car by popping the hood, reaching around the window and hauling off the distributor cap. "There." Seeing Benny's aghast expression. "I'm still working on the key ignition mechanism. The current is a little high – tends to torch all the wiring. And I didn't feel like wrestling with that crank again." Tucking the cap under her arm and straightening the one on her head, she motioned for the historian to follow her.
Benny resettled her own hat, and jammed her hands in her pockets, blinking in mild surprise as she realized she was dressed in the same sort of jacket as the woman teaching what looked like – entry level calculus, writing on a blackboard attached to a wall that looked like part of a former foyer rather than a classroom. Then it dawned on her. Of course. Cousin Ges had sent the jacket along as a gift when Benny graduated with her own advanced degree. Shaking her head a little, she hopped forward a bit, and soon caught up with Halliday, who was standing inside an old fashioned elevator, holding the door open.
Pulling the collapsing grate across the opening and latching it tight, she set two different levers and flicked a switch. "Solar power." she said to Benny's surprised look at the smooth progress upwards and near complete silence of the mechanism. "To get down again we take the stairs." Five, and then two more doorways passed by, usually with activity of some sort going on. A mime inhabited one of them, pretending to lift the elevator up on a rope as they went by, and winked a bright eye at them. After the elevator stopped, Halliday pushed the door open quickly and tossed over her shoulder as she ran off, "Come on!"
One thing was certain, Benny reflected. Doc Halliday did nothing without her fullest enthusiasm. Chances were, the woman could even fall on her face with gusto, which Benny might well see happen. No wonder cousin Ges had liked her so much – when it came to their approach to life, they were identical.
Halliday led her along several hallways, all with clean, well polished floors. All the doors were made of wood, real wood, and carved with things appropriate to whatever the room was used for – except a dissecting lab. This door had a discrete carving of a set of glassware and instruments instead, with a frog balanced on a stack of books. Benny had been to one dissection in her life. It had been fascinating, more because she didn't do the cutting and could match all the structures to her biology textbook pictures. Unfortunately it had smelt terrible. Of course, live dissections had been stopped altogether long ago.
Looking up from her mud caked, dusty boots, she saw that they were standing in front of a door carved with a mock up of the Solar system, some pulleys, and a cartoonish little professor heating a cup of tea over a Bunsen burner. "Jed actually used to heat her tea like that, but when she insisted I do something about mine, I made her get an electric hot plate." Halliday declared virtuously, punctuating the statement by kicking the door. Music was audible from within the room now, piano – no synthesizer music, odd, and catching. Benny rolled her eyes at herself as she realized the damned tune would probably be in her head for the rest of the night.
Another kick to the door finally popped it open and Halliday – literally – waltzed in, despite the completely inappropriate music. A tall woman with hair so inky black Benny rubbed her eyes in reaction, and silvery green eyes stood behind a three keyboard synthesizer set and electronic drum kit. Like Benny, she wore a long black jacket. Unlike Benny she wore it over a rumpled white shirt and blue jeans, with a pair of scuffed up pointy toed boots. A pair of spectacles sat halfway down the bridge of her nose, and when she caught sight of Halliday she proceeded to play 'Peter Gunn.' On sight of Benny she switched to the opening theme music for 'Airwolf.' Noting Halliday's puzzled expression, the woman smiled.
"I just like the way it sounds – and it so happens that she reminds me of a pilot I used to know." Adjusting something, she left the synthesizer to play on its own, Making a half-hearted effort to smooth her shirt, she stepped up to Halliday. "You're late."
"Are you sure?" asked Halliday, looking just plain astonished. Jed replied by drawing a watch out of her pocket and reading it. Then another fob watch from a different pocket. Then a third, and a fourth. Finally she declared, after examining a fifth watch,
"Absolutely, give or take twenty seconds." Halliday blinked. Jed blinked back. Halliday broke the stalemate by grabbing the other woman by the collar and kissing her soundly.
"So?" she asked.
"What?" Jed replied, staggering back to her seat with a silly grin on her face. Halliday rolled her eyes and tried not to look insufferably pleased with herself, to very little avail.
"This here is Benton Basilas – you know, Ges' cousin. I figured we'd pick you up on the way to the house, instead of taking two trips and leaving the poor woman all alone almost immediately."
"I see." Jed said gravely, straightening her glasses and standing up again. "Let me just grab my case – oh," she stopped short on the way to her desk and walked hurriedly back to Benny. She held out one hand. Benny blinked in bemusement. "Hello – pleased to meet you. I should have known, you look quite like your cousin." Another pause, and then Jed simply grabbed the younger woman's limp hand and shook it vigorously. "Are you colourblind too?"
"N- no, I'm not." Benny blurted, finally getting her mouth into something resembling working order.
"Hmmmph. Must be a recessive gene, then." Jed grabbed a somewhat frayed looking briefcase and popped it open. Tossing in several folders and slamming the thing shut on top of more than a few corners, she stepped up to Halliday and linked arms with her. "Well, let's be off then, oh love of my life and really quiet Benton Basilas."
The meticulously clean stairwell, its steps already well-worn by the passage of many feet, smelled faintly of sage and oregano. The number of each floor started out neatly painted on the landing in front of the door opening onto it, but the seven was gone and the six looked more like a 'C.' After that Benny didn't notice anymore, as she ran bodily into someone else going upwards.
"Oh – so sorry – I was just – " Someone else was a tall, thin woman with mostly red hair cropped close to her scalp and a pair of cobalt blue spectacles that hid her eyes. The trademark black jacket hung off her lanky frame, otherwise covered with a pair of terrible green trousers, a blue shirt, and a battered pair of high topped basketball shoes with day-glo yellow tops. Several cables and extension cords swayed about her neck, and her arms were full of a jumble of computer equipment.
"It's okay. I wasn't exactly watching where I was going either." Benny replied kindly, feeling a bit badly for the other woman. Her expression screamed deer caught in headlights.
"Thanks – "
Jed raised an eyebrow. "I hope the various pieces of equipment semi-attached to your person are being returned to where they belong?"
"Of course, of course. Only needed them for the duration of the beta test, remember?" The red head smiled hopefully and juggled her armload of equipment.
"The beta test finally finished today? Why did I think it should have finished a week ago?"
"Maybe, if I hadn't had to spend four days undoing the utter havoc wreaked by the newest batch of programming students. I still can't get the main printer to stop spouting out the core files in hexadecimal characters. Over four thousand pages of information, and the only way I can stop the print out is still unplugging the printer. I knew having it come on automatically when a print job was sent to it was going to be a problem – "
"Okay," interrupted Halliday. "I'm sorry old thing, but we've still got errands left to run. No doubt you'll find the mysterious troublesome print queue somewhere."
Unexpectedly, the other woman grinned. "Of course I will. I'm the greatest. See you later." With that she bounced up the steps, humming as she went.
"Who was that?" Benny asked in an astonished tone, unsure what intrigued her more, the cobalt spectacles or the high topped sneakers.
"Arion Adams, formerly some obnoxiously high rank Adams of the impromptu Thrakian army we had in the last war." Jed dug into her pants pocket and pulled out a key, using it to open a small mailbox jammed full of papers and envelopes. "Do you see any red edged ones in there, love?" she asked Halliday. The golden haired woman leaned forward, peering at the mess.
"Nope. There's some airmail, though. Bet some of it is from your sister."
"Some of it may even be from your bandy legged cousin out on the Scottish moors." drawled Jed. The airmail pocketed, they were soon on their way again.
This time Jed clambered behind the wheel and Benny found herself forced to choose between squeezing herself into the front seat or taking her chances perched on the back with her luggage. Judging the fire to at least have being intermittent in its favour versus the frying pan, she climbed into the back and found some more rope, securing herself firmly to the front seat and her trunk. Her compatriots hadn't strapped themselves in as carefully, and in fact were arguing over the distributor cap, which somehow Halliday had misplaced. "The damned thing can't go without it, and you've left it somewhere?" Jed blurted in outrage.
"Oh, and you've never misplaced anything." scowled Halliday. "It must be in your office, I'll just run and fetch it." she paused, tugging the brim of her cap down. "Aye, I left it on top of your synthesizers."
"Wait, wait, wait – " Jed caught Halliday by the lapels and leaned on her until she sat down again. "I'll get it." Satisfied Halliday would sit where she was instead of heading back into the building, Jed removed her long jacket and settled it carefully on the cleanest part of the driver's seat, which was precisely where the driver sat. Then she walked up to the building, examined the windows and walls for a moment, then simply shimmied up the drainpipe which ran just beside one corner. Reaching about halfway up the wall, she clambered into a huge tree and climbed further upwards. Finally she walked out on a sturdy limb until she was directly across from a window with an orange frame. It was particularly noticeable, since the rest of the building was red brick, and the other window frames a sedate brown. Jed paused, momentarily nonplussed. "Toss me your swizzle stick then, Chris." Halliday obediently fished out her extendable stick. Only five tries were necessary before the two women were synchronized enough for Jed to catch the stick. The fourth was the most alarming, as Jed lost her footing and fell straight down onto the tree limb, the shock of meeting the thing so intimately rendering her temporarily windless.
Armed with the swizzle stick, as she referred to it, Jed deftly popped open the latch to the window. She disappeared through the window with the skill of a monkey, and soon emerged again with the distributor cap gripped in one hand. "Catch!" she sang out, dropping stick – still extended – and cap.
The required parts of the vehicle now retrieved, it was only a matter of minutes before they were on their way, the rickety old car careening around corners and lurching down hills, because Jed liked driving extremely fast. Benny was soon gripping her hat with one hand and desperately clinging to the back seat with the other. Halliday had given up on keeping her own hat on, tossing it onto the floorboards and pinning it with one foot. Instead she focussed on keeping her spectacles in place.
"Do you think the bridge might be out?" Halliday bawled over the wind and the car's protests.
"Why would it be? It hasn't been raining." Jed shouted back. Bridge? Benny thought to herself in horror. Spurred by her experiences of the morning, she added her own voice to the cacophony.
"Maybe we should make sure the brakes work before we get there?"
"Too late!" Halliday roared, and Benny didn't even wait to see what was happening. She dove as far down in the backseat as she could get and began asking the Goddess, a little plaintively,
"Hi there ma'am – are you mad at me?"
A resounding bang interrupted her train of thought, and then there was silence.
"Two more aspirin, I think."
"Why is the gate shut?"
"I don't know."
"Who the hell shuts that thing? We never do before dark, sometimes not even then."
"Probably the delivery people with Ms. Basilas' things."
"Good point. My nose is bleeding."
"Maybe we should hire a chauffeur."
"Can't afford it. Would make more sense to get a new car."
"A new car!?"
"At least let me get the hearse running properly, then we'll use it while you add shocks to this one."
"Hmmm. I could live with such an arrangement. I quite like the hearse."
"All right. Hey, where's Benton? Did we lose her somewhere around the last bend, do you think?"
"Oh, I hope not, she's liable to be bitter."
The woman in question had one cheek pressed to the floorboards in the back of the car, her hat pulled down tight over her ears, wishing frantically that something resembling normality would return to her life again. To add insult to injury, she had a cramp in her left calf, and was beginning to feel a niggling certainty she was stuck.
"Oh dear, there she is."
"Yes – I think we may have to unload the car before you'll be able to move." Jed's voice, surprisingly close.
"Is it far?" called Benny, nearly deafening herself.
"Not at all. Just through the gates and down the lane to the front of the house."
Benny swallowed hard. "Is it flat?" she sounded close to tears.
"Quite flat – and Jed promises to drive slow – don't you, Teddy?" This was hissed in an undertone, which Benny could hear anyway.
"Yes, of course – can hardly drive at a decent speed with her head on the floorboards. I still don't understand why you like calling me Teddy."
"Because Jeddy sounds funny. Move along, Jeeves." Halliday hollered regally.
And so it was that Benton Basilas' first look at her new home was the rocky drive she could see through a crack in the car floorboards, and the first look some of its other inhabitants had of her was her booted feet.
- "Busk" is not a new word. It is as the OED notes with admirable clarity, a verb meaning "play music or otherwise perform for voluntary donations in the street or on subways. Noun form 'busking."
- Tritanopia is "a rare form of colour-blindness resulting from insensitivity to blue light, causing confusion of greens and blues," according to my OED. If, like me, you find this definition rather unhelpful, see this excellent page including sample photographs to demonstrate to those with normal colour vision what having this condition would be like, see the Colbindor Tritanopia &ndash' Blue-Yellow Color Blindness page.
- The "tin lizzie" being the nickname of early model Ford cars, here specifically the "Ford Model T" that was famous for its price and branding as "affordable."
- This is the infamous stuff many people have experimented with in elementary school, made of strips of paper dipped in a mixture of flour and water or diluted white glue, and then applied to some sort of frame. In my experience, usually a balloon. Sculptors still use it when modelling armatures.
- Yes, this is a reference to the 1987 comedy film starring John Candy and Steve Martin.
- Wellingtons are just rubber boots, especially the basic black kind with orange treads on the bottom. They were named after the duke of Wellington.
- That is, a waterproof coat made from Mackintosh fabric originally patented by a Scotsman named Charles Mackintosh.
- I get asked about this verb a lot, because it is slipping out of mainstream media english, but it is quite ordinary vocabulary anywhere people spend time on sailing boats.
- My OED insists that this word is british english, but I have heard it where I have lived in use to refer to the narrow strip of grass on each side of the road outside of a town or city.
- I have had readers and editors alike inveigh against this pun. Well folks, you are stuck with it.
- That is, a small, open flame gas burner still commonly used in chemistry laboratories.
- "Peter Gunn" is apparently the name of a detective from a short-lived television series. Its theme music, composed by Henry Mancini, is quite catchy and has long outlived the program.
- "Airwolf" was one of many 1980s military propaganda series featuring some sort of exotic, non-existent technology used by a special team to bother the villain of the week, usually labelled "Russian." Like the theme music to "Peter Gunn" it is catchy.