Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Omega's Folly: Chapter Three
Arion Adams sighed. Few people realized her computer programming aspirations were nil, and that what she did was actually all hobby. Hard to tell nowadays. It was impossibly expensive and complicated to do the required software licensing and get the stuff in the main language they needed, if they wanted to use software from the outside. Their language had linguists falling over themselves to study it. The most the linguists could agree on was that it was non-Indo-European, it sounded nothing like Finnish or Hungarian, and seemed to sort of fit Etruscan. Arion snorted at the thought. They made it sound as if language was a piece of clothing, and if only you tried it out on enough people it would fit. And by that point in the process, Arion and her colleagues hadn't managed to find anyone willing to do the work to use any of the Amazon scripts in the software displays. Well, except for themselves of course. So they had.
She rewrote a few lines of code to finally remove the unfortunate hexadecimal print queue.
Then there was the archaic Greek dialect they used when dealing with the Greeks, in which Lesbos was still pronounced Lesbos – not Lesvos. And Turkish with such heavy accents sometimes the Turks gently suggested switching to another language for negotiating, because listening to an Amazon speak Turkish was often like trying to read a thickly calligraphied mosque wall after only just becoming fluent in the language it was written in – when speaking. Turkish linguists loved to take notes on that and puzzle over just what these Amazons were doing to produce such extraordinary pronunciations.
Arion paused, rubbing at her right hand, frowning as it cramped uncomfortably. Shutting down the coding program, she returned to her first task, working on a bit of sleight of hand in the fiscal department. Picking up the phone and making triumphant use of speed dial, she waited patiently through five rings before someone picked it up.
"X. Adams Corporation."
"So formal, Waldbilling. I have a little job for you."
"Yes, Doctor Adams – as always. Only a little job, ma'am?"
"Definitely. How's year end going?"
"Excellently, and you'll be pleased to know I have managed to put the various government authorities through the wringer. For awhile they seemed to think they could grab the Amazon Nation in general by the conjones, let alone us."
"Conjones – is that the right word?"
"It sounds fairly correct."
"Mmhmmm – and you pointed out, no doubt, that we don't have conjones to grab."
"Ah, Waldbilling, you make me happy. How about the other thing?"
"A sizable cheque to allow the addition, with comfortable salary of Benton Basilas to the Academy faculty has been sent, together with a bit of funding for paper chasing and the rest. X. Adams was quite generous – has she seen the young Basilas?"
"And is she smitten, or some other ridiculous thing? So much money on a completely untried person who is popularly denounced as a maverick."
"Oh, I doubt it. X. Adams is such a cold calculator." Arion's voice tightened with sarcasm. "She knows a good investment when she sees one."
Sensing the rebuke, Waldbilling backpedalled gently. "I meant no offence, Doctor Adams. It is just an unusual action in response to a highly unorthodox situation."
"Waldbilling, we're Amazons, we have no idea how to be orthodox." Arion replied drily. "Anyway, I'm glad things have been going well. Do you need anything from me?"
"Just some idea where to send your papers, Doctor Adams."
"My office, as per usual, Waldbilling. That will do." Arion hung up crisply, then turned back to her paper on the results of soil testing at a strange dump site everybody in Southern Europe denied existed. Of course, that had nothing to do with the fact it was radioactive enough to make the Incredible Hulk glow in the dark.
"Mmmm – do that again."
"Can't, too tired."
"Since I spent eight hours fixing the brakes on my car."
"Well – I guess I can live with that this time. Now the contraption you call a car stops on a dime, and I can stop reaching for heart medication every time you get behind the wheel."
"This from the woman who thinks speed limits tell you the minimum required speed."
"No I don't – I just drive a little faster than most people."
"Yeah – no other way to drive during the war."
"Hmmm – I suppose. We didn't have vehicles most of the time, and when we did we had no petrol."
"You were lucky. You know why I got nicknamed Angelos?"
"Tell me." Chris had heard the whole story a thousand times, and this abbreviated version about five hundred. These were among the very few types of reruns she could tolerate. Always.
"Because I had to drive the only jeep, and I carried the messages – hey, didn't you just say you were tired?"
"Hush – you were just complaining."
"Sure, but, I don't want you to wipe yourself out – and if you're really tired..."
"Not that tired."
Benny shifted in her seat again, looking at her watch impatiently. The straight backed chair, made of some hardwood and painted a terrible shade of brown, did not do much for personal comfort. A small case sat beside her, just big enough to hold a notebook, pad of paper, a few pens, and any papers she found herself stuck with at the end of the day. Yesterday there had been no chance to do anything, between her adventures in navigating the house and completing repairs on the two cars in the garage. Halliday had the brakes and the shocks on her car working, to Benny's relief, but today they would be using the hearse, since it was raining again as if it intended to produce a new sea around Mount Ararat.
According to her watch, they should have left for the Academy nearly twenty minutes ago. At one point Benny had considered trying to raise them. Then she sat down and thought very hard for a few moments, and came to the conclusion such an act would be unwise. After all, they were lovers. They adored each other. They were supposed to be washing up and getting dressed to leave. They were running unexpectedly late. The implications were obvious. Benny knew herself to be as luckless in the sex department as in the employment department the past few years. But she had two eyes and a penchant for thinking too much which often kept her butt out of embarrassing situations, like walking in on people doing intimate things to each other, or overhearing, or something.
Sighing again, Benny pulled off her hat and turned it about slowly in her hands, gazing at the faint chalk marks still remaining after years of wear. '$50' the marks sketched out. Its rich red lining and neatly embroidered label reading 'Long John's Hat Emporium' were still in good shape. Long John's store mascot was a three-dimensional pirate, one metre high complete with parrot and wire cutlass, gracing the front window. At Christmas time the store's owner wound a few little coloured lights around him, and perched a bigger, insulated outdoor bulb on the crown of his hat, and played a piratical version of 'Merry Christmas.' The silliness of it all had appealed to Benny. At Halloween the shop owner really went for the gusto, including costuming himself as a pirate with a license.
Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of her co-tenants, both neatly dressed and quite flushed. "Shall we?" Jed boomed merrily, and with that they piled into the hearse and made their way out of the garage. This time the gate was wide open when they got to it, and after a moment or two of debate, Halliday clambered out of the hearse and closed it. The huge, old, and rusty padlock flatly resisted all of her efforts until she resorted to throughly beating it with a pitted and scarred cricket bat she dug out of the trunk. The rain, steady and pounding now, thumped heavily on the car roof like fingertips whenever the hearse slowed down. It was noisy, but not too unpleasant Benny thought, even if she did keep catching herself checking for high speed aircraft guns. They sounded much like this at a distance. Then she looked over at Jed from her position in the backseat.
The tall woman looked pale and sweaty, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Halliday slid over and wrapped both arms around her, whispering something in her ear. Benny sat bewildered for a few moments, and then a quiet clue tapped her on the forehead. Sometimes in her nasty, smelly apartment building back in Canada, the elevator got stuck. No big deal. The main reason Benny even knew this as a practical rather than theoretical matter was the position of her door, right in front of the elevator doors. When the elevator got stuck in the middle of the night, its occupants were often forced to resort to activating the fire alarm, as the caretaker refused to get up and let them out otherwise. The fire alarm wasn't a bell, but an awful, wailing siren like the ones signalling incoming enemy fire to the armourers, and their guns had better be loaded. The first time it went off after she moved in, Benny had been out of bed and standing in the middle of her flat in confusion, so disoriented by her sudden wakening she was looking for an antiaircraft gun in her living room. After that, she had reacted much the same way every time it went off as Jed was now. It was lousy feeling, but Benny did see a bit of gentle goodness in it. During the war, it had saved her life. In that dingy building, it had done the same.
Someone had accidentally set their carpet on fire on the floor above hers one night – fell asleep and dropped a cigarette, she found out later. The carpet was thin and old, and there were openings the peripheral heating pipes went through between each room. Within twenty minutes, half the rooms were in flame. The wailing fire alarm jerked Benny awake, and not even stopping to grab her house coat, she dashed out of the room in her ragged t-shirt and regulation army green boxers. She nearly fell back into the room when she collided with a wall of thick, chemically sharp smoke. Nipping back into the room for her manuscripts, always neatly placed in order of completeness in her storage box before she went to bed each night, Benny had taken the stairs down all but two at a time, trying to breathe as shallowly as possible. The unpleasant smoke brought back all the lectures she had ever sat through about gas attacks. The way even a sniff of it made her chest feel like it was filling up with spiky fuzz didn't help.
Three floors down, and she pulled up short on hearing someone bellowing vigorously for help. The man was pounding on something too, from the sound of it. Popping open the floor door and sticking her box in it to hold it open, Benny located the man's room almost immediately. It was on the same side as the fire four floors above, all now aflame, if the yellow tongues licking at some of the open doorways were any indication. Most people had already gotten out, but for whatever reason this guy hadn't. The air was stunningly hot, and Benny soon discovered one reason the man couldn't get out. The walls and his door handle were impossible to touch.
Benny looked up and down the hall, and cursed when she saw the fire extinguisher was gone. Calling to the man she'd be back for him, she hauled in the bigger extinguisher from the stairwell. Later she would be unable to explain how she had lifted it at all, let alone swung it hard enough to break open the trapped man's door. He came flying out of the room, the other fire extinguisher still gripped in his hands, its bottom scarred from pounding it on the concrete inner wall. He had stared at her in sheer wonder.
"How'd you do that?" he blurted. "You're a bloody smurf!"
Benny hadn't bothered to answer, just pushed him towards the stairwell. Soon they were almost at the ground floor, along with Benny's precious manuscripts.
"Wouldn't it be easier to dump that?" the man had asked. It wasn't a completely unreasonable question. The olive drab box looked heavy.
"Would you dump a life's work?" Benny shot back.
"Would you leave your balls behind?" Benny snapped at him, rather more bluntly and coarsely than she usually would have done.
"No!" the man squawked in shock.
"Then you shut up while I keep the things I care about the most from getting toasted."
Benny tipped her head to the side. Her apartment had been half gutted. On the up side, she had saved someone's life, and her manuscripts. Her picture also wound up in the paper, more because she was standing outside on a cool fall night with a box of papers and nothing on but a t-shirt and boxers. It mortified her to see it the next morning, but an ex-commanding officer recognized her from the serial number printed on her underpants, and sent the best help he could think of. Three boxes of clothes from stores. benny appreciated the irony of her serial number being so much more memorable than her name.
Hence her clothes today: black jeans, black vest, olive drab shirt and tie, and olive drab socks. Benny blinked. No wonder Halliday and Adams thought she was colour blind. Pretty much the only colour she wore besides black was green.
"Hello? Hello? Ms. Basilas, are you all right?" Halliday was looking at her with concern now. "You're not having bad memories of a creeping barrage of popping shells, are you?"
"No, no." Benny smiled a little. "I was remembering a fire in the building I used to live in actually – because of the fire alarm. Sounded like a raid siren – that used to give me trouble."
Jed took a deep breath and let it out. "I don't get rattled by my memories too often any more, but every now and again something will get my number." she turned to look at Benny. "You're not having too much trouble with that sort of thing are you?"
"No. I got lucky." Benny smiled a little, and unconsciously ran a thumb over a tiny hematite carving of a bear she wore on a leather thong around her neck. Her companions nodded quietly.
The rest of the drive to the Academy was quiet, all three women lost in their thoughts. Benny's attention turned back to the road and the buildings on either side of it as they drove past the laboratory buildings and deeper into the campus. They were approaching a large stone building, its facade ornamented with spiralling snakes and swooping birds. A large statue carved from mottled black marble stood in front, depicting a tall woman, a bow gripped in one hand, the fingers of the other tangled in the fur of a wolf. A sinewy mountain cat was pressed up against her other leg. Eeerily enough, the statue had a faint smile on her face, and her gaze seemed to follow them as they drove past the little montage.
"Where are we?" Benny asked, still staring back at the unnerving statue and wondering uneasily about the sculptor.
"Administration." Jed jerked the car to a stop and turned to look at the younger woman. "Or, as we tend to refer to it, Paperwork Hell."
The inside of the building was painted with bright murals, with numerous little offices opening off the hallways. Busy Amazons worked over spreadsheets, or carried on phone conversations for much needed supplies at something resembling a reasonable cost. Still others typed up course notes, printed them, or collated them before tying them up expertly with twine and tossing them on a cart which would be wheeled over to the binding house across the road when full. "Nobody likes paperwork," Halliday commented. "But you have to keep track of bills and students and employees somehow. Most times I just use a notebook, but apparently using twenty thousand odd notebooks for various tasks isn't quite practical." They were standing in front of a large desk presided over by a tiny, weedy Amazon with iron grey hair. Slapping two sheets down she barked, "Fill 'em out, then sign this one." she threw another sheet on the desk.
Benny shuffled up hesitantly, then dug a pen out of her pocket and began filling in the various demands for name, address, and age. A demand for details she kept in her C.V. forced her to dig a rumpled copy of it from her jacket pocket. The various copies of it in her possession never seemed to help her find work, although they had been vetted and deemed excellent by various career and placement officers, so she used them all for scrap paper. This one bore a short grocery list, a calculation determining the corrected date from a carbon-14 reading, and a series of scribbled phone numbers. She paused, trying for a moment to remember who she had meant to call. Then shrugged. As if it mattered now. Filling in her address was the best part, as she could just block print OMEGA'S FOLLY and the staff would have all the information they needed. And so would the post office and everything else that would use her address. Jed had cheerfully informed her while trying to keep her mind occupied in the course of her rescue from Chris' car.
And that was it for paperwork. This left Benny astonished. "Why is this building called Paperwork Hell, if that's all the paperwork I have to do?" she asked in confusion.
"Because if you have no courses to teach in a semester and no research or laboratory work to keep you occupied, that's where you work until the next one. It's boring and awful to the non-administratively inclined. Hence the saying when a professor learns they haven't any courses, and didn't set up enough research in time, 'Damn, now I have to go to Paperwork Hell.'" Jed explained as they clambered into the hearse again. "Let's go see your office."
The office – an office which Jed and Chris had both referred to as little, was in fact, huge by Benny's standards. It had two windows on walls perpendicular to each other, with a couch under one. "Folds out into a cot, in case you're working late and it's too hard to get home." A sink and bit of counter was tucked into another corner.
"Or if the road gets blocked off or the bridge goes out. The former tends to happen more often in winter, nowadays." Halliday added, flopping onto the couch in question. A fridge sat in the other corner, powered by a solar panel, a ubiquitous arrangement – so much so the gleaming dark panels of various sizes could be picked out around practically every door and window. Benny peered in the back of the gently swishing machine, and picked out its battery which charged all day and did duty while the Sun was down. The desk was a roll top with shrieking drawers, indicating the need for some work with a dry bar of soap. The bare walls but for white wallpaper with brown pinstripes reminded her inexplicably of old fashioned cotton pyjamas. "Feel free to strip off this terrible paper and put on something else." suggested Halliday, who had thrown an arm over her eyes.
"In fact, barring knocking big holes in the walls or something else equally violent, feel free to make yourself completely at home. Go ahead, decorate, add furniture, whatever. Around here, we figure you might as well like where you are. The wiring will be hooked up by tomorrow afternoon, then you'll have electricity for the ceiling light." A knock at the door drew Jed's attention, and she flung it open. "Oh, excellent, bring it all in."
A burly Amazon carried in a wheeled desk chair first, and Benny watched in confusion as the woman positioned it behind the desk. What was the big deal? Then the others began to come in, carrying stack after stack of books, and piles of scrolls. The sixty history books came first, then a bunch of others Benny wasn't sure of yet. Many of the scrolls came in special trays that built up into shelves, preventing them from having weight on them. The Amazons quickly hung cloth covers around them to keep off the direct sunlight. A group of thirty or so other scrolls arrived in plastic bags, with a set of rubber gloves and tweezers. "These ones are terribly fragile. If you could concentrate on copying them onto something else first, then passing these back to the preservers, that would be great," one of the movers told Benny with a gentle smile. The Amazons finished by leaving behind shelves and curtains and curtain rods for the bare windows. Benny looked at the piles of stuff in some trepidation. "When do I actually start?" she asked.
Jed pulled a battered notebook from a pocket and consulted it, then a little leather-bound datebook. "In two weeks. No need to worry about anything. If you need it, you've got it. Food, lodging, all of that. Just focus on getting settled." she smiled. "There'll be time enough to borrow trouble later."
Which was certainly true, Benny reflected later as a portable radio blared Beethoven's fifth symphony around her office. She wore an old battered tee shirt and jeans, a crumpled baseball cap jammed backwards on her head. Shifting her feet, squeaking a little in grey tennis shoes, she grabbed a sponge from a bucket of warm water and patiently applied it to the wallpaper. It sucked up water easily, and then peeled away in delightfully large strips, leaving Benny with a bit of wall wiping afterwards. The colour underneath was a decent pale blue, not that Benny was going to leave it that way, and there seemed to be a border stretching from the ceiling to about a hands-breadth down the wall. Waterproof tiles covered the floor, some mysterious designer's practical decision, even if it was a strange flooring choice for an office, and an infinite mercy compared to the usual brown carpet from the dusty back of the carpet warehouse.
The young historian had gotten started on the last wall when a knock on the door stopped her with both hands gripping the sponge as she stretched them as far above her head as she could. "Come in." she shouted, bringing her hands down. Arion Adams pulled open the door and slipped in, looking a little embarrassed.
"Hello – I would have come around earlier, but I had no idea it was you. Thought it was Chev messing around again." Arion smiled, waving around a battered circuit board for emphasis. "Anyway, welcome – my office is right above yours, so if you need anything, borrow the hall broom and give the ceiling a thump."
"I'll keep that in mind." Benny replied, smiling in turn. "Thank you. My music isn't bothering you, is it?"
"What? No, no – I love Beethoven, actually. Movement six of symphony eight – one of my favourite pieces." Which was what Benny's mixed compact disc had gotten to now.
"Really? That's one of my favourites too. Have you got the Deutsche watchacall'em recordings, or something else?"
"Actually, I have a set of Canadian recordings, a compendium by a bunch of different orchestras. Can't get hold of Deutsche Grammophon just now."
And somehow, Benny had found herself talking to the rangy Arion Adams until the Sun had disappeared from the sky, and her bucket of warm water was frigid enough to make a polar bear squeal. It was one of those peculiar conversations, a wandering one over many subjects, with no real end in mind. They debated whether the fuss some of the newer arrivals were making over the lack of television really made any difference. They came to the tentative conclusion that the current talks about some sort of arms agreement so the same countries could effectively go back to war in five years was not merely daft, but one of the most irresponsible ideas in history. And then they somehow wandered into wondering why somebody sat down and figured out a way to make green ketchup without using green tomatoes, which seemed like doing it the hard way. As Benny would say later, pondering the hours she had spent talking to her gentle eyed giant of a companion, "A pleasing, brain tickling sort of conversation."
Chapter Six: A Question of Survival
The real question is, of course, how the Nation survived under such adverse conditions. As a general rule, every major non-Amazon group engaged in some effort to exterminate any group of Amazons they might find. There seems to be no obvious rhyme or reason to this. Archaeology and Amazon history has yielded no evidence for continuous violent campaigns, repeated raids or home wrecking and thieving that became part of a life pattern for many migrating and sedentary patriarchal groups among analogous groups of Amazons. Nor widespread slavery of men or brutalization of non-Amazon women. Nor invasion, trade clash, or any other of the 'accepted' causes. Ultimately, this was one weak reason later historians of non-Amazon lands claimed there were no Amazons, and never had been. Never mind that on the same basis, we can say Troy never existed, or since the only ones who tell of the wars and successes of the Hebrews seem to be the writers of the Bible and a few other questionable sources, that there were no Hebrew tribes.
So, perhaps how the Nation survived can be understood by examining why it had become a target for such rage and violence. Sadly, it isn't so unusual, or a demonstration of strange ancient Greek psychopathology. (A theory that is astonishing in its position of chauvinistic superiority.) Women in general have suffered in the same way for over two millennia, and have only just begun to make serious inroads against it outside of the Nation in the past fifty years.
Archaeological studies have shown a massive shift in culture and religious bent around the time of the beginning of the Bronze Age. Previously unfortified settlements and blooming cultures disappear abruptly amongst evidence of fire and war. Whether we historians like to acknowledge it or not, the movements of Indo-European tribes annihilated a stunning amount of human progress, from building techniques and medical knowledge to writing and astronomy. The process was repeated before the most recent Dark Age.
Note, human progress. Not the 'progress of man.' This is no semantic exercise. Not only did knowledge change, so did religion. From the worship of a Great Goddess and a benign, uncle sort of god, to worship of a terrifying god who despite creating everything and declaring it good, seemed to bear nothing but malice for his creations. There was no Goddess anymore, and the attempts to wipe out Goddess worship were hysterical and later systematic. Read the Bible. It will tell you all about the massacres perpetrated in the name of a strangely insecure god to wipe out the followers of the Goddess.
So what has this to do with the Nation?
It tells you why the Nation was the target of such hostility. Woman had been made over into a scapegoat, a being to be treated as poorly as possible on the grounds she was the being that brought sin to the world – a backhanded acknowledgement that as badly as some men may wish they hatched from a mysterious egg or grew up from a start in a test tube, every man is born of a woman. The Goddess and the women's religion had to go too, these gave them a sense of power and self worth, and in the new system of war and might is right and the strong men rule and the rest cringe, power and self worth wasn't for women to have. The Nation consists of powerful, self assured, Goddess worshipping women. Some come to stay, some stay for awhile, and go back to the rest of the world. Some are born here, and live out their lives here, never knowing a place where women aren't free. The way to crush resistance is to crush knowledge of alternatives, and destroy those that live differently.
The patriarchs knew as long as the Amazon Nation stood, in any way, there would always be resistance. Isn't this why the Communists ranted continuously for the destruction of Capitalism everywhere and prevented the people living in Communist ruled countries from travelling and controlled what they read and listened too? Isn't this why the Capitalists do the same? That is why the violence and war on the Nation has been almost continuous for over two thousand years. That is also why it has survived.
One thing about attempting to imprison and destroy a people, it does guarantee resistance and survival against all odds. Further evidence of this is easy to find, and includes the continued existence of the Jewish people, the Basques, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, to name only a few.
Benny sat up straight and pushed the book back, rubbing her eyes. Opting for boning up on recent Amazon history first, she had dug out one of the smaller volumes among the books she couldn't identify at first. This one was Some History of the Amazon Nation, Period 1900 to 1950 After the Dorian Invasion. The date meant, after Benny had done some calculating and research, a fifty year period two thousand years after 1200 B.C.E. The fall of Troy. Everything in Amazon history books was dated after the fall of the famous city, because it signalled the beginning of continuous clashes with the new warring tribes rather than sporadic raids which tended to result in embarrassing debacles for the men. The dating system was extremely confusing, because an Amazon calendar sitting on a desk said no such thing. For the present date, it said it was the year 3607 after the founding of the Northern Amazon Nation. The year of its founding corresponding to 1600 B.C.E in the western calendar. For now it was head spinning, but Benny found herself adjusting to the dating systems easily, and was already able to rattle off the proper month and day names. This had been easier than expected, as they were all named after Goddesses.
Rubbing her eyes again, Benny adjusted the position of the lamp beside her and looked around her office. The couch had been joined by a couple of end tables, already piled high with manuscripts and books. The walls were mostly hidden by the shelves half-full of books, but where they were visible, they were a plain, almost gleaming white even in the faded yellow light of the lamp. A few pictures crowded into the empty spaces, one a fine landscape of a stretch of unlabelled coastline, another of the Shining Mountains. A larger oil painting of an Amazon warrior in full regalia crowned the wall behind the couch. Benny had found it in the very back of an antique shop, afflicted with a palid, miserable rendering of a punt going down the river Cam. Pallid, despite being painted on top in garish oil paint, but age and the cheapness of the newer materials allowed it to fade until the Amazon could be seen, eerie as a ghost behind. The thing had cost Benny three dollars.
It had also gotten her a smashing 'A' in her antique materials preservation class, as she had spent day after patient day removing the newer paint and layers of dirt before fixing the older image. She had done much of the work long into the depths of the night after writing and marking were finished for the day. Benny felt more than a little certain this was the ultimate cause of her present need for eyeglasses.
A fourth frame contained not a painting or a photograph, but a garish poster from a vampire movie. The movie in question had been made in the Nation, and become an unexpected smash hit worldwide, not least because of the lead's dark good looks and dazzling smile. Artimachos Adams had been the first member of the clan to be recognized outside of the Nation who wasn't a Schmidt-Adams, Jed had explained unhelpfully one day on seeing the poster. In the end, it was Arion who had explained that the Schmidt-Adams were a section of the family who lived mainly in Sweden, although a few had lived in Germany before the last war.
Getting up and setting the kettle for a cup of tea, Benny reflected on that answer, sparing some headspace for the question of how best to ask her new acquaintances questions.
"Damn," she muttered aloud. "That answer is no better than Jed's, isn't it!" shaking her head and chuckling, Benny flipped on a different lamp at a work table near the kettle and settled in to copy some more of one of the more fragile scrolls. She had finished four of them already, a great feat. Except there were well over two hundred of them to go. Luckily only fifty were in her office at the moment.
A resounding thump jerked her head up. The thump sounded again, followed by an angry shout. "What the hell?" Benny muttered, automatically grabbing one of the long aluminum handles for the paint rollers she had used while redecorating her office. Dashing up the steps towards Arion's office, she wondered with some trepidation what trouble the woman was in. Three days ago she had been nearly electrocuted when a young student flipped a switch, apparently unable to read the sign which said in eight different languages, 'Live wires. Touch no switches.'
Skidding to a stop outside of Arion's door, the voice shouted again.
"And you thought I'd just walk away?"
"That's exactly what you did! Gave me the 'Arion, you're not the woman I used to sleep with' line, packed your bags and left. So I figured after a week, well, much as this sucks, I had better face up to the fact she is not going to come back. Since you had also made a point of telling me what an immature philistine I was, I figured such a mature, considerate, respectful action would be just what you wanted."
Benny winced. The sarcasm in Arion's voice would have peeled off the nasty wallpaper she had finished removing from her office walls such a short while ago.
"Right – and you never thought I'd come and get what was mine."
"What? You mean the money I've got now? Hello, it's been five years, and I made it all after you left."
"That's not good enough..."
Benny had wormed her way up to the doorway, and could now see a woman with brown hair, whip thin, waving something at Arion, who was standing behind her desk. The thumping had apparently come from the office door, which was half askew, bits of the upper hinge scattered into the hallway.
"I've got documents."
"You've got nothing. Go crawl back under your rock."
Benny put a hand over her eyes. 'Way to get control of the situation, Ari.'
"What did you say to me? No never mind, it doesn't matter. I've learned the language you understand."
Situations like this always made Benny wonder when her body would forget the war. Then she could stop snapping to attention when someone shouted just the right way, or maybe she'd be able to wear civilian underwear and not feel really weird. Then again, since most civilian underwear outside the nation for women involved lace, little bows, or a little stamp of a cartoon character, maybe that wasn't the best example.
In any event, she stepped smoothly forward and walloped the hostile woman's wrist in one motion, knocking whatever weapon she was holding to the floor with a clatter. Then, just because the idea of somebody marching in and acting like a jerk pissed her off, Benny knocked the woman's feet out from under her and settled the end of the handle right beneath her chin. "It's just a hunch," she commented. "But I'm pretty sure we don't like each other."
"Hmmm. So this is what you've been robbing banks with. I don't like guns." Arion waved the thing a little. "Was it making you feel better, to know you were scaring the crap out of people with a wooden prop? Made it so you weren't a criminal for stealing?" She shook her head in disgust. "Can you hang on there for a bit, Benny?"
"Sure I can, I'd love an excuse." Benny glared at the woman, a little unnerved at just how angry she felt. A half hour later, a couple of Amazons came by to pick up the whip thin woman, who had spent most of her sojourn on the floor insulting Benny's parentage, looks, and lesbian status.
"Tea?" Arion asked, even as she put the kettle on.
"Yeah." sighed Benny, flexing her cramped hands and carefully setting aside the handle. Truth be told, if the brown-haired woman had realized how flimsy the handle in Benny's hands really was, she might have made a break for it. But Benny had learned long ago that the effectiveness of a weapon had more to do with the person wielding it than the weapon itself.
"Desperate ex-girlfriend fallen on hard times." Arion stood still a moment, fiddling with her tinted glasses, wiping them with a soft cloth before putting them on again. "She fought for the Blue." The Blue being one of two enemy armies involved in the war, at least from the perspective of people like the Amazons, or Benny, who was from a so-called non-aligned country. The other army being of course, the Red. The Blue and the Red represented two coalitions warring against both each other and any country they deemed non-aligned. Since the Red and Blue leaders did not have an agreed on list of who was aligned with who or who was aligned at all, the end result was that they each attacked anybody who didn't seem to be in the same uniforms as them.
"What a prize." Benny snorted, dropping into a chair. "I met one of them face to face over my gun, once." The red haired woman gazed at her intently, patiently setting up the teapot and mugs. "I had a handgun, of course, and he was in the process of pointing his rifle at me. But he was as scared and nervous as I was, I think." She pushed her hair out of her eyes, and fiddled unconsciously with her tie. "He sort of got tangled up – I got my gun out, but it sort of got stuck in the holster, and if it hadn't been for my steel toed army boots, I would have shot my toes off. By the time I got it pointed at him, it was jammed and wouldn't fire, and he was pointing his rifle at me."
"He was confused." Arion commented enigmatically.
"Right." Benny replied in a confused tone. "Anyway, I did the only thing I could think of. I ran around him and clonked him on the head with my ration bundle." A burst of laughter from her companion nearly emptied the contents of the sugar bowl into Benny's mug. "Should have seen the look on his face, before he passed out."
"Hot damn – I never thought of using those miserable rations for a weapon. Except the chocolate, of course."
"Of course." Benny declared virtuously, smiling a little at the memories of hoarding the little bars of chocolate. Not all of them had been plain milk chocolate, either. Some of them had been made from other varieties of cacao beans, with attendant differences in flavour, reflecting the shift in control of the cacao industry from the hands of the chocolate producers to the cacao farmers. As a result chocolate was more expensive, but also that much more appreciated.
There was a quiet time in the night, when the enemy would quit gunning for no apparent reason. Then the sky would clear, and Benny would be able to gaze at Ursa Major, and pick out Polaris and wish she was complaining good-naturedly about the winter weather at home. The Pleiades would show on a really fine night, and sometimes, sometimes, she could almost convince herself she could see all seven, even though most times it was hard just to see six. One night, Mars sat unnervingly in the sky, bright and glowing. If the planet had really been the god, then he would have been disappointed at the show. The eerie light from burning mortars and the huddled shapes of fallen soldiers mourned by a chilly wind reduced the combatants to unnerved ordinary people, crouched into any sort of space that shaded them from the planet's baleful light. But it was on the nice nights, the odd times when things were almost civilized again that Benny would pull out two bars of chocolate and savour them. Sometimes Roaring Joe, who couldn't talk, was still awake. Then she'd share one with him, and he'd prod her into telling him stories about the constellations.
Arion settled a mug by the other woman's elbow. "What I meant before, was that the Blue must have confused his rifle with his privates. I remember the male soldiers were always trained to talk about them like that. Which is weird. I mean, anybody can steal your gun."
"I can't explain it. I was always so miserable with guns and rifles I got stuck in artillery because the officers decided I'd be useless out there in infantry with a baseball bat and a smile." Benny grinned wryly and sipped her tea.
"Did you try it?" Arion asked curiously.
"Yeah, actually. I had just been stationed to Normandy, and our bunker got raided. The baseball bat was dependable – knocked twelve guys senseless. You can imagine – five foot not very much maniac knocking Blues into next week. They ran. I got a promotion."
"Idiots. Should have put you in the front line, you could have stopped the damn war single handed." Arion grinned and motioned to her mug. "Enough sugar in yours?"
"Yeah, it's perfect. So what are you working on so late?"
"No, the whole reason I'm calling you is because I need to requisition scientific equipment. If I needed groceries, you condescending little twerp, I would go out and raid the community garden." Jed's voice had risen by several decibels, and a number of students working in the laboratory had beaten a quiet retreat to the outdoors. "Do I sound like someone who doesn't understand English? Oh, I know English – you wanna hear English? Listen to this you f..."
A resounding bang rattled the walls, and Jed sighed a little. Now was absolutely not the time for Chris to blow up her laboratory. And it was too bad, because she had been doing so well, only one explosion a month.
"You know what, I don't want to talk to you anymore. I'll take my five million American dollars worth of business elsewhere." Holding down the button on the phone, Jed counted to twelve, then called a different number. "Hello – hey, Mach? Yeah, has Cue finished packing yet? No? Get her on the horn, okay?"
"Quentin Pontius, incumbent Amazon queen who'd rather be looking for Nessie out on the Loch."
Jed laughed softly. "Cue, can you do me a favour? I've tried the usual channels, but the call of greed apparently isn't as effective as it used to be."
"Och – of course it isn't. Those men have figured out what yoo're up to. What do you need?"
"Remember the huge equipment list you saw me working on last?"
"Aye, that I do, that I do – 'twas very long." burred Quentin, cheerfully playing up her accent.
"Oh stop – I need everything inside two weeks. Can your connections rustle it up for me?"
"Aye, and I can get it to you in three days – 'twon't take near as much as you'd have to pay either."
"You were expecting this?"
"Had a feeling."
"How's the leg?"
"Oh, 'tis marvellous – you realize I'll be getting your students to make me a new one from the molds every time one wears out? Doesn't leave me stump sore or blistered – Avi is nigh on delirious, she's so happy about that. It was worrying her, the blisters especially."
"Good." Jed declared with happy smile. "I'm glad the kids did so well. My aunt Jadis has had them all busy making up new ones. She's got a cause on the go."
"Doesn't she always, though? Well, let me go, I've only just finished loading me duffle, and there's a few phone calls I need to make before the gasman comes to shut off the furnace and the phone man follows him in to yank the cord out of ta wall."
"Such lovely people. Aren't you glad to be going where people are civilized?"
"Sure – but for Artemis' sake woman, did tha have to make me queen?"
Hanging up, Jed walked over to her window to see whether Chris' explosion had shattered all her windows or not. Instead of the sight she expected, there were shreds of fine white paper everywhere. But for its bedraggled look, it might have been snow. Amazons were out in force with rakes and leaf blowers, cleaning the stuff up. "What the?" Peering at the rakers until she recognized someone, she shouted down, "Jill! Jill! What's going on?"
"Oh – hello ma'am. Just a bit of a mishap with the new gas line. There was a bit of a leak by one of the supply huts. Luckily it was the one full of mostly toilet paper, paper towel, that sort of thing." she laughed. "Only in the Nation, eh?"
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