Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Omega's Folly: Chapter Six
The ground was hard, a greyish brown. Often it harboured rocks. Carved into it was a long, narrow trench. Several women worked over one part of it, setting down cable, measuring it carefully and marking it once every metre with thick, yellow paint. At the end of the trench, two women struggled with spade and pick, extending it further. A resounding clank jerked one of them nearly off her feet, and her partner caught her arm and winced in sympathy. "That had to feel lousy."
"You got it. Hey Lefty, how much further in this direction?" One of the women working with the cable layers peeled off and jogged to where the pick woman was standing.
"Only another metre or so. Then you'll turn two hundred thirty-two degrees North and dig it up to the command tent." Lefty, who was in fact Lieutenant G. Ro Sams, her nickname deriving from the British pronunciation of her rank, looked over at the woman who had been wielding the shovel. "Sunburn looks like hell on you, Basilas."
"Yeah, it's not the best form of fashion accessory." Benny agreed wryly. "Pretty much comes with any time I spend in this part of Saskatchewan, it seems."
"Hmmph." Sams looked out across the prairie, and scowled. "I'd rather be back in the Kootenais. This much sky with no interruptions is unnatural." Wiping her face with a handkerchief she added, "Right. Well, get a move on, and we'll have the communications hooked up before dinner." A quick round of salutes, then Sams left to check for messages and new orders at the impromptu base's temporary command tent.
"Something's going on, there has to be. There's no reason to put a base here, even a temporary one." Thompson, the pick wielder, scowled unhappily. The two women returned to breaking the sod and opening the trench. Hitching up her trousers, Benny considered the question for a few moments in silence.
"I think we're getting shipped out." She turned back to the trench, and began throwing rocks out of it by hand.
"You think we're getting shipped out?!"
"Yeah. I do." Benny looked up, her green eyes unreadable. "They're being real logical about it – setting up extra temporary bootcamps," she waved a hand to indicate the shabby tents and rackety buildings growing up around them. "That way they don't have to cart the recruits too far to get them trained." Back to the rocks.
"But – christ, Benny, I can't go to the front!" blurted Thompson. "I'm a w – I'm not an Amazon wannabe." She winced when her compatriot glared at her with cold, angry eyes.
"Last time I checked, I still had the correct genitalia to be classified as a woman." Picking the shovel up again and digging harder. "I don't mind the idea of serving on the front or anywhere else. Sex shouldn't affect what you serve as or where you serve." Kicking a chunk of limestone loose with one boot, Benny looked up again. "What I do mind, is how stupid this war is. And how quickly people like you want to avoid the worst of it, but don't want to do anything to stop it."
"Well, well. Look who's holier than thou." sneered Thompson. The smaller woman shrugged her shoulders, and kicked loose another rock.
"You're not listening." A corroded penny turned up under the shovel's blade, and Benny picked it up. "That doesn't surprise me." Quite without meaning to, Thompson had told more than she actually said. Both she and Thompson were commissioned officers, but Thompson was a member of the armed forces before the war started, part of a long tradition of military service in her family. The Thompson family was rich in money and high ranking officers. So it hadn't really been a surprise when the personnel muster had not included Thompson or a number of the recruits from other richer families hadn't been present. Those who had been present were told they'd be shipping out at the end of the week to a training base in Scotland, then to the African front.
"Basilas! Drop that damned shovel and get to the command tent! Move!" an unfamiliar male officer bawled. Benny frowned. Where had he come from? She jogged past him, pointedly refusing to salute, and entered the command tent.
Sams was already there, with several other officers. Lined up in parade stance were eleven other women, all staring straight ahead, faces impassive. Benny shuffled a little, then stood to attention. She flicked a glance over them. Lieutenant Sams. Two colonels. Three – second-lieutenants, she supposed, from the stripes. Maybe. Five lower ranking officers, no, non-commissioned, they were a selection of sergeants and corporals. And standing in a dominating position just to one side and on – of all things – a soap box behind them, a brigadier-general. Sweat inspired by a sudden terrible attack of nerves ran down Benny's back. This couldn't be good.
Maybe she was finally going to be court-martialled.
The brigadier-general spoke first. "Second-lieutenant Basileas." Benny held her peace. "You've been singled out, due to new orders from Ottawa." She stepped off of her soap box and walked up to the map table. "No doubt, you expected to be sent out with the others tomorrow, to the African front."
"Ma'am." Benny knew a spot where she was supposed to make some noise.
"Now, it cannot be denied that your discipline leaves something to be desired – you have been written up more times for refusing to salute than I've seen before in my entire twenty-seven year career." The brigadier-general glared at her disapprovingly. "But these are extreme, desperate times, and under ordinary circumstances I understand that you would not have joined the army."
"No ma'am, I would not have. Military discipline is not something I'm terribly suited to, as those write ups indicate." Benny replied sobrely. They'd just keep the whole press gang thing as an unhappy incident between friends, she supposed.
"You're blunt, Basilas, and I can't say I care for that much. But, it's that bluntness and solid judgement, along with your other skills that have kept you from being thrown straight out of this army. For all the possible reasons we could have done it." The officer tapped at the map with the thick fingers of one hand. "Homosexual conduct is still poorly regarded in the armed forces." The historian's face went stony and blank. Her military training had taught her that, and it was the only lesson she appreciated.
"Nevertheless, the situation on the Russian front has taken a drastic turn for the worse. We're going to have to hold the line to keep the Blues from pushing to Moscow. A second world war style of battle in the Moscow streets cannot be allowed to happen. You're not going to the African front, Basilas. You've been promoted, along with Sams – both to captain, despite the fact allowing a rank jump is also something frowned upon."
Benny could hardly believe her ears. Something was seriously wrong – it made her think of the scene in the novel Dances With Wolves when the crazed superior officer cheerfully signs the order to send the main character out to an abandoned fort in the last plausible element of the whole story. That had to be the explanation for this.
"Why the push? Because, Captain Basilas, the Russian defensive is going to be a winter defensive, and every Canadian from a wintery area, person from the former Soviet States from a snowy area, even a few Americans, is going to be fighting like mad in the snow. You are being assigned to the First Regimental Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. Go pack your kit, because we leave for Shilo after dinner. Your regiment heads to the Russian front three weeks from now – near the end of October."
A faint smile twisted the historian's lips. "Just in time for winter to start. The hot weather today is a tease."
She left the tent, feeling stunned. It hardly felt real. Stumbling over the ragged, unyielding rows of dirt and heavy wheat stalks, the remnants of a field shell shocked by the drought stricken summer, Benny found herself stumbling towards the dusty olive green tent where her kit sat, her thoughts running in helpless circles. After a few long moments, she realized she was standing stock still in a furrow, because the incessant racket of the grasshoppers, who were neatly replaced by the crickets at night, intruded on her awareness. The sound of those insects was astounding, a great wall Benny found difficult to shut out, especially at night, when she was tired but too wired to sleep yet. An awful, chirping cacophony bearing no resemblance to the wind, chirrupping frogs, occasional crickets, coyotes, wolves, and dogs she had managed to grow accustomed to in the interior of the Kootenais and the Secwepemc uplands.
Forcing herself to get moving again, Benny took a quick look around. Stopping short again, she nearly tripped herself. Something tucked under a great curl of hardened mud had caught her eye. Kneeling down, she pulled it loose.
It was a heavy, sealed plexiglass case, a little larger than her palm. The seal was a very good thing, for inside was one of the rare, replica runs of an early era hockey card. These cards were a classic capitalist price manipulation tactic of the time, produced in minuscule numbers and worth almost nothing once unpackaged a bare two months after their original release. Still, Benny had wanted one of these cards rather badly, being a religious fan of his particular team. The garish jerseys from the waning days of the North American professional men's hockey league system had to be seen to believed. Of course, no card had turned up in the packs she patiently collected throughout the year of high school they had been available. She rubbed her eyes, and squeezed the case. This was some kind of weird dream, right?
Straightening, she turned to look back where she had been working. There was Thompson and the cable layers. But then again, what was she thinking? They were in a damned war zone. The person who dropped this had never meant to, they were busy fleeing with as much of their stuff as they could ahead of the bombing.
"Basilas, you all right?" Sams asked gently. Coming out of the command tent, she had immediately spotted Benny's slight figure, stooped in a deep furrow that looked ready to swallow her.
"Yeah, yeah – I mean, I think it's just catching up with me." Benny grinned ruefully.
"A bit much to take in, huh?" Sams said sympathetically. "What have you got in your hand there?"
"Actually, could you look at it? I can't believe it." Seeing the astonished look on the other woman's face, she added, "Please?"
"All right." Sams took the case, wiping off the cover a bit more. "Hey, it's one of those fancy run hockey cards that were in the news a few years back." She tipped the case back and forth, peering at the lettering on the card. "Oh yeah, these guys had all the bling on their jerseys, and then it kept flaking off all over the ice."
"And was that ever a mess – they had to play in their training jerseys with only numbers on for the rest of the season." Benny laughed ruefully. The sports announcers who rarely actually announced what was happening on ice bewailed it all as the season of no names. She had loved that old team, but damn some of the gimmicks they tried towards the end were dumb. Then she sobred. "I found it here in the dirt."
"No kidding!" Sams laughed. "Damn Basilas, you've got some kind of luck. Somehow I think I'll be hearing about you after the war – and you'll be making a hell of a splash." She chuckled and then her smile faded in its turn. "Your call whether to drop this at ost property. I didn't see you find it."
Benny snorted. "Are you kidding? Course I'll turn it in. What would I do with it in winter trench fighting?"
Two sets black full face winter headgear. White drop cover to camouflage the black wool when in position in the snow. Flak jacket, ballistic plates in a separate bundle, black on one side, white on the outside. Prescription ballistic protective eyewear, an absolute necessity for someone working the anti-aircraft batteries. Mortar gloves, two pairs, cold wet weather gloves, one pair. Combat vehicle crew gloves, one pair. Three layer clothing system, including liner and thermal socks. Benny put aside her helmet, since this would be strapped to the outside of her pack once the sleeping bag, canteens, and rations had been added in. She jammed in her favourite thick notebook – it was effectively a blank bible, and the young woman had to go through all sorts of misery to get it. But, it was the most efficient sort of notebook-cum-journal possible, because it contained the most pages for the least volume and mass. Plus, people mistook it for a bible and let her alone to write. Her solar rechargable radio and cassette player, that was actually a wind up rechargeable radio and casette player. In truth, she had only three cassettes with her – two containing Beethoven's ninth and fifth symphonies, the third full of Celtic music. Her one, highly prized red t-shirt, black vest and black jeans. The extra set of boots – these had been assigned to her by the quartermaster, and an examination of them revealed they were proper winter boots, with carbon fibre shanks and the peculiar reinforcements meant to prevent you from having toes blown off.
Benny grimaced, and forcibly pushed the thought aside. A deep breath, then she collected her beret, her light jacket, and her mess kit. Every soldier had two great enemies in the armed forces. One was whoever you were supposed to be scrapping with. The other was the coffee. The food was actually pretty good. Having spent more time hungry in her life than she really liked to think about, Benny appreciated being able to eat enough to not feel like she was going to pass out after a few hours hard work. On really tough days, when she was quick and determined, she could manage three helpings and a piece of pie. Her compatriots simply couldn't believe it. Men a foot or more taller than her couldn't eat as much, and wanted very badly to know where she put it, and how she could drink so much beer. Her answer was always the same.
Benny grinned to herself. She was still proud of that moment, because weirdly enough, that had won her an astonishing amount of respect. They'd be marching for the morning, deliberately through the ragged stubble in the fields, in and out of furrows sometimes as high as the diminutive woman's knees. Someone would start grumbling, and after a bit one of the bigger men would give her a nudge. "Listen to that bugger – what does he know? Piece of cake, right LT?" And Benny would grin, and manage to glance at him from beneath the visor of her helmet, and nod. LT was an extremely truncated form of 'little train that could.' Benny tended to mutter fiercely at herself when she started to get tired, and most joked she was hissing, 'I think I can, I think I can...' like the train in the problematic story. Only a very few knew what she really was saying, and they respectfully requested swearing lessons from her.
Scratching at a mosquito bite on one forearm, Benny threaded her way through the tables to where her buddies were sitting. The whispering and muttering didn't go unnoticed, but Benny was a pragmatist when it came to muttering and gossip. Ignoring the whisperers, she thumped down on a trestle seat and pushed up her glasses. Most of the division called her LT, but a couple of her buddies preferred to call her Radar. The only show quoted from more often than Monty Python or Xena:Warrior Princess was M*A*S*H.
"Hey, Radar." drawled Peeper Singh, who had earned his nickname not from peeking into any of the shower stalls, but because he could mimic bird calls with astonishing accuracy. "Word out is you've been promoted."
"That's right." Benny replied, poking at her beef pie and green beans. It was really too bad the pie got mashed when they dumped it into the serving bins, she decided.
"So we get a new lieutenant out in the wilds of Africa?" persisted Peeper.
"No, you don't." Benny smiled sadly. "I've been posted to Shilo, then I'm being shipped out to Russia."
"Holy crap! No way, say it ain't so, LT!" this from Jane Smith, who tended to speak entirely in exclamations. This took time to get used to, and had resulted in her being kept far from any communications duties. One day at boot camp she accidentally started a riot by exclaiming, "What, you mean when those shells go off there could be a fire!" And only the final word had made it to everyone else, unfortunately.
"I could, but I'd be lying." Benny smiled a little, then took a good sized forkful of the pie. The scary thing about the army experience was, she really was going to miss the food. But not the coffee. It smelt like motor oil tonight, and even the most gung-ho of the gung-ho had refused to touch it.
"Wow." Peeper murmured. "Well Radar, if anybody can beat the snot out of the enemy and live to tell about it in Russia in winter, it'd be you."
The newly promoted captain raised her dark eyebrows. "You make me sound like somebody important. I'm just a goony who gets to run an anti aircraft gun and hope no planes blow me up before I get 'em first, Peeper." The dark skinned man shook his head.
"Nope. They should give you a never ending supply of hockey sticks and baseball bats and set you on the Blues. You'd send 'em running home screaming." Then he winked, as the rest of the little group burst out laughing at the image, then solemnly declared they believed Peeper was absolutely right.
There wasn't much time, so after dinner they met Benny as she thumped out of the tent she had slept in for the past five nights, her bulky pack hitched up on one shoulder, looking outrageously huge on her. They spent a few moments passing around illegal, but ubiquitous flasks, although Benny herself didn't have one. This Peeper and Jane solemnly remedied, by presenting her with a silver one, full of the dark rum she was fondest of.
"We'll miss you, Captain Basilas. Make sure and come back in person to mess with our heads." And then, just because it went completely against the way the military was supposed to act, and honestly, they were all complete rebels at heart – there was a round of hugs. A call to fall in interrupted them.
Benny's throat tightened as her compatriots lined up to salute, and after getting her pack into the back of the transport truck, and straightening her beret, she saluted back.
The back of the truck, its frame usually covered by a camouflage patterned bulk of canvas looked bare and skeletal. There were no seat belts, which made Benny sigh, even though it wasn't unexpected. Luckily the sides of the truck were high enough she could look out and not worry about hanging on for fear of flying out. The higher ranking officers took all the seats in the cab. Three other people climbed into the back of the truck, Thompson who was being sent to Winnipeg, and two others who were being sent out to Kingston.
Finally they rattled off down the dusty dirt road, occasional sharp pebbles flying upward. The fields stood surreally empty. No farmers out in harvesting equipment, no trucks piping grain into silos. No gasoline trucks or chemical trucks careening along the lanes. No dodges around billboard bylaws by painting them on storage containers anymore. Just miles of yellowish grey prairie, broken up by ragged patches of rusted barbed wire fence and occasionally rows of bushes. Great round bails, and very rarely smaller rectangular ones lay scattered irregularly over the fields, and sometimes a stubborn slough, covered in slimy green algae, flashed by. Once, even a good sized rattlesnake was visible at the side of the road, lying in the Sun. The sky and the fields went on and on, and Benny found herself wishing fiercely she was back in the rough, mountainous territory or the ragged coastlands she loved best. But she knew already that she was going from miles of prairie, to miles of snow.
Jed sighed, and read the figures again. And again. Her stomach knotted with stress and frustration. No matter what she tried, she simply couldn't get the bill to go away. Before the official recognition of Amazonia, she had lived part of the year in Greece, where she owned a small house. It had been seized when the Blues temporarily seized Thessaloniki, but they had gotten no further. The Greeks had suffered too many occupations and too much political interference to be pushed aside, and the attack seemed to create an outlet for the outrage and anger they had felt at so much mistreatment. The southern wing of the Blue army had simply collapsed under the onslaught, bewildered by the ferocity and determination of the Greeks, which had spread like a bizarre sort of virus to the other small countries in the region. The Blues, thrown into a wholesale retreat from the region abandoned that front.
Now, Jed still did not have title to the house – when she had looked into repossessing the it, all white plaster and charmingly ancient looking, she had been told she had missed the deadline for reclamation, and now the government owned it. It also so happened there was record of her paying her property taxes the year Thessaloniki was taken. Nevertheless, the government was now determined she owed them the equivalent of ten thousand American dollars. This was a sum Jed didn't have to spare, even if her imagination had been put on the rack. The consequences of not paying would be, she'd lose the house for good – Jed frowned in confusion. Hadn't she already? The physics professor finally shruggd her shoulders at that. The final paragraph of the letter indicated she'd lose her Greek citizenship if she didn't pay the sum as well. That seemed a nasty gild to an already unpleasant lily. Jed bit her lip. It was by accident that she'd been born in Greece, and she had always had an abiding love for the place, especially the islands where she could sense the history of the Amazon nation thrumming beneath the surface. The government was seriously hard up, so the insistence on payment wasn't too shocking. Still – how had things changed by a hundred eighty degrees like that?
Taking a deep breath, Jed picked up the phone and dialed a number. "If Georgeopolis calls again, please tell him the answer is no."
Then she pushed the matter out of her mind, and returned her attention to the problem she was working on, which was the design for a radio telescope she was going to get her first year physics class to help her build as their major laboratory project. The experiments usually gone through, with little weighted carts running down tracks and the rest, were meant to demonstrate the vigour, certainty, and exactness of physics. Jed simply couldn't use those as they were, because to her mind they demonstrated only the first of those things, and then not always. It was neat explaining why, though. She made a few calculations of wavelength versus detector sensitivity.
"Professor – professor Adams?" A hesitant voice from the doorway.
"Yes?" Jed looked up, a little surprised. Almost no one besides Chris came up to her office, mostly because no one else really knew where it was. The young woman shuffled a little.
"I just got here from Tonga a couple of days ago."
"Wow." Jed said with genuine admiration. "That's quite a trip."
The other woman smiled, a little embarrassed. "Thanks – but it really wasn't so bad."
"What can I help you with?" Pushing aside her pile of scrap paper and her half empty mug, Jed gave her visitor her complete attention.
"Could you – maybe – sort of give me a better sense of how the Nation works? I mean, I know the orientation course is next week, but I feel sort of lost."
"Oh, sure." Jed smiled. "One of my favourite topics."
THE NEW AMAZON HANDBOOK (54th Edition)
Is the Nation right for you?
Borderline trite as the question sounds, it is an important one to answer. As was the case long before the patriarchal system was violently imposed on the tribes who had formerly been allies of the Amazon Nation, women are free to come and go. Some women choose to remain, and some simply feel the need for a temporary sojourn in women-only space, where they can learn the priestessly skills that were once the common heritage of every woman. Originally, those women who stayed for only a short time were feted in their homelands on their return. After all, they had learned valuable new skills and brought the blessing of the Goddess with them. While this may eventually be the case again, right now except for a few other Nations, it is not.
Currently, out of three hundred fifty countries recognized by the various political alliances now in power, three hundred and seven institute literal or effective penalties against women who have lived for a time in the Nation. The official reasons for this generally include 'paganism and devil worship,' 'lesbianism' (see section b for information on how gender and sexuality are expressed in the Nation), 'propensity to cause trouble,' 'inability to take direction,' and so on. There are many women who have taken this unjust reaction and used it as fuel for their struggle to bring change to the societies they have returned to. But since not everyone is able or willing to deal with this type of fall out, please read this entire handbook. It should be able to provide enough information to help you make the best decision for your needs and circumstances. If you have any questions this booklet can't seem to cover, please feel free to call our foreign consulate toll free at 7-159-477-0717, or email our chief information officer at email@example.com.
Now, for a first quick run at just what the Nation is, what it's about, what it's like.
Put simply, the Amazon Nation is a small, northeastern near east country whose adult population consists solely of women. There are three main tenets that guide its economy and culture: self-sufficiency, self-defence, and environmental stewardship. This may sound utopian, lovey dovey and perhaps a little silly. However, these tenets have been translated into a practical lifeway that has brought the Nation through attacks by armies with greater numbers and more vicious weapons, punitive sanctions intended to starve and cripple, and an unceasing propaganda war that nearly destroyed the Nation's ability to find a way to live peacefully with its mainly Muslim neighbours. It's a work in progress all Amazons are justly proud of.
- Self Sufficiency
This tenet has two expressions, one from the Nation as a whole in its dealing with the world economy, and one from each woman in the Nation. In terms of the world, partly due to trade sanctions and the effects of recent environmental change, goods exchanged are typically art or technology for mainly non-essential goods that are not produced within the Nation. Generally we function in what verges at times on a barter economy. All occupations are pursued here within the bounds of the law, with a few key exceptions. There is no professional clergy, mainly due to the deliberate maintenance of decentralized religious institutions, and because traditionally priestesses have always pursued what is often referred to as 'secular' work elsewhere. There is neither a standing army nor a professional military, because all women are expected to train in self-defence techniques and to fight together should the Nation come under attack. There are border scouts, who serve their watches for three months of each year.
The tenet of self-defence was partly covered above, but some expansion on the theme can be done here. The ability to defend yourself personally from attack is a non-negotiable item in the Nation. This doesn't mean you must take a self-defence course before you can live here, but it does mean that if you haven't been trained in physical and verbal self-defence you'll be signed up for the beginner's courses automatically on arrival. This is not done because it is terribly dangerous here, but because the Nation pursues a policy of working against the training in helplessness fostered in many other countries. It does a woman little good to work her way to the Nation in order to win her goals only to find in the rest of the world the raising of a fist can force her to give them up again.
- Environmental Stewardship
In truth, this is nearly the most challenging tenet to follow, especially for those Amazons who hail from heavily industrialized nations and react with understandable shock to the small number of vehicles and the pared down use of electricity. Our striving for energy efficiency not only helps maintain the integrity of our water and agriculture, but also has insulated us from some of the most damaging impacts of the worldwide energy crisis. On the flip side, avoiding almost all use of herbicides and pesticides sometimes makes life very difficult for our food producers.
But where you'll notice our environmental policies the most is in how you get to work, and what you eat at meals. Chances are, it will take a few days for your body to adjust to the sudden lack of heavily processed foods, as well as to getting to work by a vehicle of your own only if you live more than an hour away by foot. Despite how Spartan this description may sound, there are plenty of other things to do besides work and adjusting to different foods, laws, and culture. If that seems a little hard to believe, skip to Chapter Four on culture or Chapter Seven, Lighter Notes, that among other things covers the annual festival round in the Nation.
Benny blew her hair out of her eyes, and let the handbook fall flat against her chest. She still felt lousy, despite her four hour nap and a second dose of Chris' nasty green stuff. An attempt to play Tetris had failed miserably, as the quickly moving blocks had made her head swim. So she had hauled open her peculiar word processor and begun tapping at her memoirs a little. After awhile, the Amazon of the Red Lawns had popped up with yet another unusual message.
"Good morrow, fair composer. Where once there was
silence, now there is music.
Remember, the WP both serves and protects.
Press 'okay' to see the proof.
Press 'cancel' if this is perhaps one weird message too many."
Benny had blinked, and wondered if she was dreaming. So first she had taken a screen grab for later, then, being an adventurous sort even when she did feel like a large truck had run over her in snow tires, hit the okay button. For a few seconds, the screen was blank. Then it began to phase into a picture, with what looked like a verse in the upper right corner. The picture, astonishingly, unbelievably, was of a striking woman dressed in the unmistakable red leathers and bronze gauntlets and body armour favoured by the consorts of the queens of the Amazon Nation as ceremonial dress long into medieval times. She had dark hair, hair so dark, that patch on the screen looked like a bit of empty space Benny could poke a finger into. Her eyes were bright, bright blue, the sort of blue that can make a person look a bit psychotic if they've had too much coffee and not enough sleep. Judging from the scale provided by the short sword hanging from one shoulder – Benny recognized its type and origins from its stylistically unique hilt – the woman had to be somewhere a bit over six feet tall. Her features were the unmistakable sharp, square jawed Adams look. A goofy little balloon had been popping off and on intermittently, and now Benny squinted to read it. "This is the WP."
Laughing a little, Benny muttered, "Okay. So what's in this corner?"
"In many shoes have I walked,
beginning each life with a grey hair
earned from the last.
Still, the journey stretches ahead.
And this is no sorrow, no punishment.
For I have a friend,
and never do I travel the road alone."
Tipping her head to one side, Benny made another screen grab, then found herself wondering how to get her computer back to normal behaviour. Shrugging a little, she tried the usual standby, and hit return. The program obediently put her document on screen, with one last message.
"Well met, fair composer. Follow the signposts."
And that, Benny had decided, was probably one of the most enigmatic messages she had seen yet. Putting aside the laptop, she had pulled the Amazon handbook off of one of the shelves at the head of her bed and read that for a bit. Now that the book was gracing her chest, she found herself considering the whole idea of sleep again. A knock on her bedroom door interrupted her. "Yes?" she called as loudly as she could.
"It's the healer, Ms. Basilas. Delos here."
"Like the island?" Benny had actually asked the same question when she had first met the healer, and got the soft chuckle she expected.
"I suppose so. Can I come in? Are you decent?"
"Sure." As to whether she was decent – Benny chose to leave that question unanswered. She slept in her birthday suit, after all.
"I promise I'm completely harmless. No cough syrup a spoon would stand up in." Delos paused just inside the door, watching as the sick woman relaxed, and sagged into her pillows. The big bed made her seem even smaller than she was, and Delos found herself struck by the poignant sense of loneliness this room so obviously built for two had with only one occupant. "Chris asked me to come by and have a look at you."
"Nice of her." Benny managed a faint smile and watched as the healer set out a thoroughly unmedical looking backpack.
"Can't stand those awful black leather things. And I've noticed they tend to make people really tense." Warming the end of her stethoscope in her palm, she motioned for Benny to uncover her chest. The woman's heavy, uncomfortable wheeze was already worrying her. "Well," Delos said quietly. "This is no virus, unfortunately. You've found a crashingly bad case of bronchitis somewhere. Antibiotics for you – and regular visits from me, because if you get any worse at all you will have to come sleep at the hospice for a bit. Your immune system is playing chicken with pneumonia." A beat, and the healer wagged a finger at her hapless patient. "Stop that." She then took a throat swab, an experience Benny decided was only slightly better than the swab she had suffered through during a pelvic exam.
Watching the other woman rummage a phial of pills from her bag, Benny blinked in surprise. "You have the antibiotics with you?"
"Chris described the symptoms you exhibited last night. They're pretty much a calling card for the type of bronchitis you've got. It's a new strain. Looks to have put itself together over the past few years." Holding up two of the pills. "Do you think you can these down with some water now, or do you need a bit of throat spray first?"
"No spray, thanks. It weirds me out when I can't feel my throat." managing to choke back the pills – swallowing pills had always been hard for her, Benny asked, "How long am I bedridden?"
"As long as it takes. Probably five days." Delos gently grasped Benny's chin and turned her face a little to examine the souvenir from a flying cricket ball. "Still looks like you used your face to catch a hard, fast travelling object, but the swelling has gone down." A pause. "I think, especially since double checking your x-rays – that you may have a hairline crack in your cheekbone after all."
"Oh great." Benny scowled sourly. "It'll be months before the damned black eye goes away."
"True – but that you can use for sympathy points with beautiful women." Delos winked. "Stay in bed, barring the obvious calls of nature. I'll send one of my assistants around to help you bathe." Holding up a hand to forestall Benny's squawk of protest, she asked simply, "Can you sit up easily?" The flashing green eyes dropped. "Trust me, having somebody around to help is a good idea." The healer watched the younger woman until she dozed off, then quietly slipped out the door.
The dust was simply unbelievable. Benny was coated in a fine layer of the stuff, and to top it off, she could see great beigy clouds of it being carried from the fields and across the landscape in billowing clouds. The day had passed into evening, and it looked like rather than stop anywhere for the night, the officers intended to push straight through to Shilo. Bundling up in her heavy army issue jacket, Benny muttered irritated curses under her breath as she tucked herself against her pack. Her watch beeped for twenty three hundred, and she sighed. Ah well. There were worse places to have to sleep. Now the young historian was looking upwards, watching the Big Dipper, and managing to pick out Cassiopeia. The unmistakable form of a fighter jet flashed across the constellation, leaving a hazy trail of exhaust. It was boring, so Benny watched the Milky Way instead. The truck ran over a bigger bump than usual, and she braced for the impact as her weight was thrown upwards, then dropped back down. Before she knew what was happening, her eyes drifted shut.
"Hold this? Hold this? Are you nuts? I am not holding this thing in the middle of a storm." This was an umbrella with a long metal spike at the end. Like the one the guy from the Avengers carried all the time.
"Would you relax? It's not as if we're in an open field." her compatriot, a tall woman with dark hair and bright, bright eyes sighed irritably. "And this is a great idea. You'll see."
"Sure I will." Benny sighed herself. Sometimes cousin Ges was so weird. "You know electrical storms freak me out."
"Yes, I know. But do you really think I'd put you in danger?" Ges flashed a smile at her, then adjusted her equipment. "Spherics are very interesting. And when the adjustments are finished, we can retreat for tea."
"So long as we retreat." Benny replied drily.
"So little faith in one so young. What happened? Did someone feed you cynicism as a child?" screwing tight a lid that protected he sensors from the impending rain. At the moment, it was hailing.
"Nope. Was born this way." A crack of thunder made her jump. "And regardless of how interesting spherics are, they'd be even more interesting in the safety of the house." There was a sizzling sound, and a resounding rolling boom so close both women dove for cover.
"The storm seems to have arrived. The sensors are ready, and now a strategic retreat is in order." declared Ges, from halfway under a mulberry bush, crouched protectively over her young cousin's fourteen year old body.
"Strategic. Right." Benny muttered.
They clattered into the house, dumping raindrops and bits of mulberry leaves all over the hall floor. Ges had paused just long enough to disentangle her long arms from her outdoor jacket and kick her shoes off into a hapless corner, then bounded off to put the kettle on. Benny had taken a little longer, struggling around her newly awkward adolescent body. Tucking in her black t-shirt again and tightening her belt, she found her cousin piling mugs and spoons and a bag of raisin crumpets onto one arm with a view to putting them on the table.
"Tea and crumpets?" Benny had asked incredulously.
"I like them." Ges had replied in a faintly injured tone.
"Okay, okay." Benny had smiled apologetically, and thankfully that had been enough to soothe her cousin's feelings.
The storm had continued banging away outside, alternately drenching things, then pelting them with tiny spheres of ice. One of the kitchen windows was open a finger's width or so, and several larger stones bounced into the house. Benny picked one up, and gazed in fascination at the milky white, rough sphere. It was broken, a part of one of its layers smashed off in the impact with the windowsill, presumably. The radiating layers of ice were neatly implied by the scar from the break. Then another stone bounced in and smacked her in the forehead, spoiling her wonder at Nature's creativity.
- This being the unfortunate 1988 novel by Michael Blake later made into an equally if not more unfortunate movie under the aegis of Kevin Costner.
- All relatively (in)famous popular television shows. Monty Python's Flying Circus ran on the British Broadcasting Corporation for 45 episodes from 1969 to 1974. Xena Warrior: Princess is the not quite as storied series that first ran on various networks in 1995 to 2001 in 134 episodes. M*A*S*H has more controversial origins in that it was meant to take advantage of the success of the feature film of the same title, but artistically and thematically went in quite different directions. It ran for 256 episodes on the Columbia Broadcasting System from 1972 to 1983.