Omega's Folly


Chapter Four

'This computer was shut down improperly, and one or more of your drives may contain errors. These will be checked and repaired. To avoid this scanning process and this message, use 'shut down' from the main menu.'

"If," Arion's voice was measured and flat. "I had been able to USE the shut down command in the main fricking menu, I would have... did somebody have a little contest inside the company who wrote this shit to write the most condescending and stupid message? No way they don't know how completely flaky this system is... come on... what will it take to get this thing running for one hour of my at this point ludicrously short life? Dancing, singing? Shaking a rattle over it while wearing feathers? What?!" Realizing that at some point, she had walked over the flat and measured line and started shouting, she waited a moment longer. The screen lit up, showing everything at fifteen times its normal size, so she couldn't even find the little icon meant to represent the computer, although Arion felt it was just a tacky picture of the monitor, and clearly the artist figured users were too dumb to know the difference.

Sighing, and reflecting on the fact that really, her invective got much more creative when dealing with this type of computer system, used a few keystrokes to copy the useful files off the thing for the desperate, nearly weeping professor whose most recent thesis version was now safely on a good disk. The poor woman had been nearly beside herself, the computer having given itself up in the midst of a backup to avoid exactly this kind of emergency. Arion smiled faintly. These particular machines never had good timing.

Starting a a few relevant algorithms to get the woman's files switched over to a stable, staid computer... which just happened to be running the latest of Arion's system creations, she returned her attention to the flaky machine, which had crashed itself again. "How long did that take? Ten seconds? That's amazing... must be something physicaly wrong with it, too. Oh well." She grinned, disconnected the monitor and set it to one side. Those always came in handy. The same for the keyboard. Those came in handy too. A few deft applications of the screwdriver and a shock later, Arion remembered to unplug the hard drive.

"I do that to myself far too often. It's no wonder I can wear spiky haircuts with a minimum of goop." Arion stopped to consider that, since what she was about to do had put her in a much better mood. "Silver lining then, I suppose. The goop tends to be gross... couldn't believe it when a student came into class with stuff tinted green in their hair. Ewww..." RAM card... could fool a completely different computer into using it quite happily. Tossing a few other cards to the floor in a pile of such remnants, Arion finally yanked out the hard drive itself. "It's therapy time!"

Walking over to a solid workbench occupying the opposite side of her office by the window, she carefully clamped the hapless hard drive to it, then reached underneath the bench for a small sledge hammer. "This will hurt the you far more than it hurts me," Arion declared in a mock serious tone. Then in a more sorrowful one, "And the guy who writes such lousy software none at all. Oh well."

The red haired woman was still beating the last few fragments of the drive into unrecognizable pieces when some one cleared their throat in her doorway. "It's too late, I'm almost done, and I wouldn't share anyway." Flicking a piece of silicon off of her shirt and reaching for a broom to collect the mess, which with the pile of abandoned cards would be sent to the recycling plant by the chemistry department, she added, "Is there something you need, Waldbilling?"

Inclining her head slightly, Waldbilling stepped the rest of the way into the room. "Maybe, maybe not. In any event, here is your mail." Waldbilling was a weedy looking woman with a wardrobe that looked like what Sonny Crockett used to wear in Miami Vice.

"Pink?" questioned Arion, finishing with the debris and taking the pile of envelopes.

"My lime green shirt is in the laundry." deadpanned Waldbilling.

"Your maybe, maybe not refers to... ooh, look, I'm preapproved for a platinum whatever it is card, with a credit limit of... fifteen thousand American dollars. Why ever would I want that?" The papers joined the silicon and metal in the recycling bin.

"I have received an invitation for X. Adams, requesting her presence at the grand coronation ceremony of our newest queen, Quentin Halliday-Pontius."

"Halliday-Pontius? As opposed to Chris, who is a Pontius-Halliday?"

"As I understand it," Waldbilling explained patiently, having expected the question to come up, having worked for the other woman for over ten years. "The Halliday-Pontius people are all related directly to Erganis Pontius and Evan Halliday... after that, I can't fathom the logic leading to the Scottish branch of the family to be called Halliday-Pontius, and the branch of the family here Pontius-Halliday."

"Hmmph. Probably a mistake by immigration officials. It's common. Look at all the French Roys... and you and I know how to pronounce it properly." Sitting down behind her desk, Arion turned a catalogue upside down. "How do these women stand in such positions, and still have their boobs sticking straight ahead? It's tape, isn't it?"

Poor Waldbilling's eyes nearly fell out of her head. "What?! I mean..."

"Relax, Waldbilling, it's a Sears catalogue." drawled Arion, tossing it to her flustered assistant. "X. Adams will attend the big coronation whatever it is."

"Ah, I think they meant..."

"Waldbilling, it is hardly my fault that every member of my family has the initials A and X, is it? And if they don't specify precisely which Adams they mean, then they'll get me nine times out of ten. Why aren't more of these things sent to Jed?" She tore open another envelope, grinning at the bewildered mailer's method of solving that very problem... by writing in bold letters across the top: 'To A. Adams... I mean, X. Adams... no, I mean... the one with red hair at the Academy who fixed my computer!'

"Perhaps they are concerned about her... social, manners?" Waldbilling winced. It would have been far easier to say...

"You mean they think she's 'dead common' as the English used to say? Funny, very funny... if anyone knows which fork to use and when it's appropriate to wear diamonds or pearls, Jed is it. Her family was old, old money before their assets were stolen during the war. I'm the one who's liable to ask for french fries and ketchup and eat chicken with my fingers between chugging beers." Setting one sneakered foot on top of the desk, she considered the dayglo top for a moment. "We'll settle things out so such oversights are no longer made."

"Please, ma'am... it really would be better if the person they think they are inviting actually came." pleaded Waldbilling, the image of her employer with a beer in one hand working over a plate of greasy chicken and french fries giving her palpatations, because if pushed too hard and offended a little too much, Arion would probably do just that... even in a four hundred dollar tuxedo, or whatever she ultimately decided to hang on her lanky form.

"Who says they won't? Did you forward this invitation to her?" at Waldbilling's nod, Arion continued. "Then stop worrying. Either we'll both be there, or only I will." She smiled enigmatically at the unhappy blonde across from her.

"If she wasn't so reclusive, this would be much easier."

"True. Let me see how you handle being in a terrible car accident and four years of reconstructive surgery to your face and shoulders."Arion played unconsciously with a ring hanging loosely on one of her fingers. 

"Which reminds me... the healer called me in frustration. She wants to know if you've been following the diet she put you on."

"Oh, you mean the gorge yourself on these foods, but by the way you can't have anything you like diet?" Arion asked dryly.

"Apparently she wants you to put on muscle, as opposed to the alternatives." Waldbilling replied, carefully straightening her white trousers.

"I'm doing the best I can. I never was a female Schwarzenegger." This drew a snort of laughter from  Waldbilling who immediately stifled it and struggled to return to her preferred mode of decorum.

"Terrible image, isn't it? Stop worrying. The coronation will be fine, it won't be like the Adams family reunion out in the States."

A shudder from the other woman as she rose gracefully and pushed her sleeves up a bit, in fashionable eighties style. "The logic was tortuous for that event... whoever heard of a reunion to which the vast majority of the family is not invited?"

"No idea. But the food fight was fun."

******

It was all a matter of careful, cold, calculation. It had to be. It wasn't humanly possible for one person to be so disgustingly good at this game. The board was square, about three quarters of a metre on a side, because when it first spread beyond the Amazon Nation, male players liked to cheat by sneaking pieces on and off the board. It's very hard to reach across the board while stretched out just above it, precariously balanced on one foot, without drawing attention. Cheating wasn't terribly effective, but when both players start with a hundred eighty pieces to begin with, it still didn't take long for it to become embarrassingly obvious whether someone had sixty extra pieces. Add to that the fact each player's pieces were differentiated by the little logos on their backs rather than overall colour, and a cheater had a real nightmare in their waking hours.

Chris grimmaced, and considered her options. Jed's cavalry had her hemmed in on one side, and her footsoldiers were executing a fascinating maneuvre, forming a crescent of little figures on the board. The chemist was quite sure if she dumped anything into the middle of that, Jed would just close the loop, and capture all her pieces, sending them back to their little compartments in the game's wooden box. Hard as she might think, Chris found herself unable to come up with some sort of tactic so she could advance backwards. Calling it a retreat was against her principles. Or something.

Finally, Chris shifted several pieces, which gave her hemmed in pieces an escape route, at least. Jed shifted in her seat. "Fourteen moves."

"Is that all?"

"I'm afraid so. A hundred better than two months ago, though. You learn fast... it took me twelve years to learn the ins and outs of this game, and you've picked up quite a lot in just six months." Jed beamed at her, and Chris smiled back. She was quite sure her lover was full of crap, because if it took twelve years to really get the hang of this game, and the spectacular ones took weeks to play, then a game taking only two weeks worth of evenings was strong evidence Jed had spent the majority of two weeks worth of evenings ignoring winning moves. Chris shrugged internally. Oh well.

They were still sorting out the pieces and getting ready to disassemble the wooden board when the door to the library flew open. "Snake!" Benny hollered, feeling dignity would just have to step aside for sheer panic.

"Where?" Jed asked reasonably.

"In my room... on the bed... a huge bloody snake, an escapee from the temple of Hera or something!" blurted Benny.

"Oh, I know where she came from." smiled Jed.

On arriving at Benny's room, Jed put her hands on her hips and gazed at the reptile intently. It was big and sleepy looking, its skin a sort of mottled brown. It flicked its tail, then its tongue at them, but didn't move, apparently considering Benny's nest of heavy blankets and pillows a fine place to relax. "It's not poisonous, anyroad." commented Chris.

"No, I think you're right." Jed agreed. Stepping forward carefully, so as not to alarm it, she carefully picked the snake up, which obliged by sliding itself around her waist and wrapping a few loops of itself around her left arm, allowing it to peer intently into her face. Chuckling merrily, Jed winked a bright, silvery green eye at it. "So's Benny, isn't she, sweetie? Hmm?" The tall woman made a few humming noises, and the snake bobbed in front of her eyes, apparently fascinated. "This snake is indeed an escapee from a temple of Hera... the one forming part of the South wing of the house, as it happens. Argeia will be quite worried, I'll run this beauty back down." Decision made, Jed strode briskly from the room, leaving Benny and Chris to stare at where the snake had been making itself at home for a few moments.

"Snakes." declared Benny.

"Only one. And anyway, it could be worse." Chris replied, straightening her spectacles.

"Could it?"

"Sure... it could be bugs. One of the previous members of Jed's family lived here was an... entymologist, I think you call it. Weeks it took, before we managed to finish removing her specimens and convinced the rest to live outside. Why..."

"Stop!" Benny said quickly. The golden haired woman gazed at her quizzically. "Please, I just had a huge snake in my bed, and found out it's a resident here. I don't think I can handle tales of the eccentric entymologist just now." she pleaded. Chris nodded gravely. Then...

"Have a cup of tea, then?"

******

A crumpled paper ball arced smoothly through the air, falling neatly in the midst of a scattering of its fellows around a small wastebasket. Arion threw another one, this one with the words 'TO DR. A. X. Y. ADAMS' clearly visible amongst its creases. It fell down amongst the others, and the tall woman sighed, running a finger along a purplish scar running along the inside of one arm. She gazed at it a moment, pondering where this one had come from... looked rather older than the one she had on the outside of the same arm from flying shrapnel... Arion smiled to herself. 'Ah, right... a very nasty game of rugger, that was.' Her smile turned melancholy. That had been the last time Quentin Pontius had been seen with two legs.

Arion's parents hadn't been rich, but they had been reasonably well off. It hadn't originally been part of their plans to send their daughter anywhere but public schools in Toronto. After all, they had brought her up right, and she was fiercely intelligent. Unfortunately, Arion had found entering puberty, unpleasant. Her gangly arms and legs and a painful stuttering problem hanging on stubbornly from childhood left her clumsy and struggling to communicate. She met her fair share of bullies, who soon learned the hard way she was no push over. Three months into a junior high year, and it was obvious to her parents it was do something with a daughter who was obviously bored and miserable with where she was before she became an 'unsolvable disciplinary problem' as one unhelpful teacher had put it. A favour had been called in from an old Scottish friend, and Arion had found herself flying to the land of the loch, which was just as well, because being on a boat made her deathly ill.

Quaylis Pontius had listened thoughtfully to Arion's unhappy, stuttering explanations of why she was there, and pulled out a notebook and some sheets. "Lucky for you," she had said, "I am a speech therapist. And tomorrow, you will start school at my daughter Quentin's place. It's a privately run girl's school, but easy to get into... are you an Amazon?"

"Sure I am. I g-g-got the scars to p-p-prove it." Arion had growled.

"Scars aren't everything." Quaylis had replied and held up a sheet. "Now, we'll start with this..."

Quentin Pontius had cheerfully ferried her everywhere, bragging delightedly about her brand new friend come to stay awhile from Canada. What was the big deal? Arion had wondered. To her surprise, it did seem to be quite important, and she had fallen in easily with the new schedule, range of sports, and distinct lack of unpleasant boys hollering various comments about her breasts... or rather, lack thereof. They altered their insults only slightly for the girls who did have breasts, Arion had noticed.

The rugger game had been a sharp, angsty contest with another private school in the next district. A number of her teammates had already been 'spiked' a far too innocuous sounding term for getting stomped on with a pair of cleats. They were winning, though, and managing to stick to the coach's edict 'not to play dirty.' Not always easy. Quentin had caught the ball and was dodging and weaving through the opposition, her solid build and stubborn determination keeping her on her feet even after two or three players had grabbed her and slid off. She had passed it then, and things had moved on. Arion had been the next receiver for one of Quentin's passes when she had it again, and so could see straight to her through the running players. It was weird, how there seemed to be a sort of alley that opened up just as Quentin tossed the ball. Then an opposition player had nailed Quentin solidly in the back just a split second too late to alter the course of the pass, and a second player had gone for her legs, hitting her from the side. The collision had left Quentin sprawled in the damp grass, completely still.

The waiting room at the hospital had smelt bad, Arion remembered. That crappy, antiseptic smell inspiring anybody who felt even remotely up to it to get out. Why couldn't the staff leave a few windows open, Arion remembered wondering as a nurse carefully stitched up her arm. She had gotten so busy trying to see what had happened to Quentin, someone had knocked her down and run right over her, gifting her with the angry cut. It had hardly touched her awareness. Something was wrong. The team had been told, only a mild concussion, and a broken leg. The family had been told something different.

Leaning her head on the back of her chair, Arion scrunched up another piece of paper. How Quentin had dealt with it all, she never knew. The operation, and the rehab. And the drugs. That part made Arion shiver all over. Feeling so sick all the time... shit, having cancer of course, who ever in their lives wanted to deal with a life threatening disease... she ran a thumb over a the small labrys she wore on a thin chain around her neck. Praise Artemis she had never had to deal with that. Pray Artemis she never would.

Another ball of paper missed the wastebasket. If she had actually been trying to get the balls of paper in it, she would have put her spectacles on. As it was, the point of the exercise was nothing of the sort. It was a patented time waster. Or should have been. Arion sighed unhappily. A heavy book sat on the corner of her desk, looking fresh and new. Appropriate, since it was. A just finished project, well done. Another copy was at the very moment running through the presses, helping to produce bound copies to grace bookstore shelves. A cool thing. There was one small problem. Arion looked around the office, feeling its emptiness more than she usually did. There really wasn't anyone in her life to share it with. Family and friends she had, but none who really understood what it meant to finish a significant piece of writing. They knew writing was something pleasing to her, and she was good at it. But they couldn't muster her enthusiasm for it, or her interest in it. She had carried around the finished manuscript for a bit, ready to flash it at the first friend who would listen. Somehow, the conversation had never allowed for its introduction. No one had even given the obvious, new bulk of paper and cardboard under her arm a second glance.

So now Arion was sitting quietly in her office, wishing wholeheartedly she had sent for her car a week sooner, so she could drive into Ennea Hodoi proper and find a place to drink. Not too many. Just enough to forget a little bit, and maybe cruise a little, catch a few eyes and maybe some fun. As it was, it was late, and walking there wasn't an option. Sighing again, Arion sat up and put on her spectacles, then pulled over her computer and opened a document. Might as well write for a bit, then go work out, she decided. Fifteen minutes later, her phone rang. Baffled, because it was past ten p.m. and who called her these days anyway? Arion picked up the phone.

"H-h-hello?" cursing mentally, she licked her lips and tried again. "Hello?"

"Hi. Are you okay?" Arion stared at the phone in her hand as if it had grown legs. "Arion? Are you there?"

"Yeah, yeah... c-course... ummm, Benny, why are you calling me?" The historian laughed softly.

"Because I'm slogging through paperwork, found something surprising, noticed your light was still on when I stuck my head out my window to look, and..." a pause. "That's why I called. Err... sorry, I must be tired, babbling like that."

"No, don't apologize. I don't mind at all." Arion grinned a little. Whacko, she chided herself inwardly. Total coincidence she called when you felt so low.

"Is there a problem? You sounded out of it at first."

"No, no... I was writing, actually. Takes me a bit to get my brain onto dealing with the phone when I never expected it to ring and have been writing for a good hour." Arion twirled a leaky ball point pen between the fingers of her right hand, feeling irrationally happy to hear Benny for some reason. Well, there it was. She was named for a Goddess of luck and good fortune... a good vibes sort of deity. Tonight she was lucky enough to be the recipient of some good vibes.

"Oh. I never thought of that. I've sort of picked up on writing more recently, and you're right... writing does sort of put you in a zone, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it does... time moves so quick, even when every word is like getting toothpaste out of a tube." Arion sat up eagerly, more then ready to discuss one of her favourite things.

"Okay, before I forget... Arion, on my personnel file here, Jed asked me to check it, make sure everything was in order, especially my birthday, because you had to guess it."

"True, very true."

"So, I wanted to know... you didn't really guess it, did you?" Arion's reddish eyebrows rose.

"What do you mean, I didn't guess it?"

"Well, how could you have? You've got it completely right, down to the year I was born in." Benny twirled a bit of lacing from her oldest pair of army boots, now retired and sitting placidly on a shelf behind her desk.

"Umm... well, I did." Arion replied, a bit lamely.

"Maybe you should go on tour... the 'Amazing Adams.'" Benny said in appropriately melodramatic tones.

"Nah, wouldn't want to compete with my aunt Artie, the magician who is also an actor." Arion replied, idly hitting the save button on her computer.

"Your aunt Artie?" Benny asked, fascinated, tapping a few keys on her own computer.

"Yup... you already know about her, you've got a poster from one of her more recent movies on your office wall." Benny looked up in surprise. Of course, there, the centrepiece of one wall was her carefully preserved movie poster, the vampire's dark good looks contrasting sharply with silvery green eyes and white false fangs. At least, she thought they were false. Somehow, somehow... they looked very like they were meant to be there. Benny shivered a little, and indulged in a wish she had decided to be a power guzzler and use the ceiling light instead of her lamp. Now her attention was on it, it was as if those pale eyes were looking at her. "Those eyes of hers are pretty diconcerting even on a movie poster, eh?" commented Arion.

"You got that right." Benny agreed ruefully. "What are you doing around here so late, anyhow?"

"Oh, grinding my way through paperwork at first. Then indulging in a halfhearted probability study," Arion flicked a glance at the balls of paper scattered around the wastebasket. "Then I started writing."

"I've been meaning to ask you, but I had to go to an appointment... what's the big book you were hauling around today?" Benny had noticed Arion trying to talk to one of her friends about it, and seen the crestfallen, hurt expression when she had been brushed off.

"Oh, you noticed?" Arion asked, feeling another one of those peculiar irrationally pleased bursts Benny seemed to inspire on a nearly regular basis.

"Yeah. So come on, give." Benny grinned, singing out a mental 'Bingo!' Somehow she had figured asking about it would make Arion happy. The Amazon of the Red Lawns popped up on her computer screen. A little blurb of text scrolled down her shield.

"Good morrow, fair composer.
This document has reached 150k.
Would you like to start a new one?
Such a course will improve program
speed and performance."

This was a good idea, Benny figured, so she clicked on 'okay' and returned her full attention to Arion, who was just starting to explain what her book was about, her voice full of enthusiasm. The Amazon of the Red Lawns popped up again.

"Well met, fair composer.
Good deeds are always well rewarded."

Benny gaped. What the hell was that? "Benny?" Arion's tone was worried.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm here, and I am listening, honest, you were explaining how you untangled the Thermodontine Amazon migration and traced one tribe from Lake Van in Anatolia to Norway. It's just, this word processor on the computer I inherited from my cousin. It just popped up this message all of a sudden."

Arion laughed. "Oh well, of course it does. An Adams wrote it. As I recall, Ges made several loud, unhappy complaints about how tedious and boring most computer programs were, and if the people writing them were going to stuff them full of crap nobody needed more than once in their lives, they could at least make it a bit entertaining."

"Oh," Benny laughed, now understanding completely. "Like random messages and goofy menu commands."

"You got it, babe." Arion hurried clapped a hand over her mouth, face flaming. 'Shit, shit, okay, prepare for the telephone slap...'

"Cool... you know, usually I don't care for people calling me things like that, but for you, I'm making an exception."

"Rrf re?" Arion jerked her hand off of her mouth, nearly throwing the phone to the floor. "You are?"

"Yup." Benny replied, grinning broadly. "We're friends, after all."

******

"No ye great daft bugger!" Quentin hollered savagely at the customs agent. "I will not remove my artificial leg so you can x-ray it separately from the rest of me!" the customs agent looked frankly horrified, and waved his hands a little. Too late, other passengers waiting to pass through customs, several of whom looked uncomfortably like media types, were watching avidly.

"Please ma'am, be reasonable." the man pleaded.

"I am being reasonable. I am refusing to have my dignity trampled because you're being an anal retentive fool." Quentin shot back. "It's a solid leg, nothing hidden in it. The best way to check is to knock on it... or lift it. Or just bloody x-ray all of me, because I'm NOT TAKING IT OFF!" The new Amazon Queen was feeling very tired, and very stressed, and this was only London, for Artemis' sake! Los Angeles she expected this sort of junk from, but London?

"Ma'am, there's no need to get offensive," the agent began again.

"Then you can stop being so ignorant, right now."

"Ma'am,"

"What is going on here?" a crisp, angry voice interrupted. Quentin's deep blue eyes and the custom agent's rather muddy brown ones tracked over to the new arrival, a tall, blonde woman with a gaze capable of melting lead. "Is there some reason for this disturbance?"

"Why, yes," the customs agent straightened. Obviously someone in authority. Now this Scottish harpy would get what was coming to her. "This person refuses to cooperate with a simple request required for the security of this airport."

"I see. This suggests you want her to remove her artificial leg." The customs agent paled. This woman had just gotten here. How did she know about it?

"Ye-es." he said doubtfully.

"I could get her to take it off." The man's eyes brightened. The woman stepped forward and grabbed him by the collar. "But only because I'm gonna beat you with it, you jerk!" she hissed. The man's eyes bulged in alarm. The woman was really very tall, and his feet were now several inches above the floor.

"Excuse me," a smooth voice said. This new arrival was an airport official. "I am so, so sorry, your majesty, Kepler Ionnidis." the official glared furiously at the customs agent, although his glare really couldn't have done much to ice let alone lead, except for the fact he was the agent's boss. "I swear, I swear, somehow the message to the effect your leg had already been examined and checked yesterday and marked for a visual check today in accordance with the new measures we've been forced to take due to the recent bomb threats did not get to this person. I see the tags are in place," Quentin had obligingly lifted her kilt a bit, making the examination tags attached to the soft material covering the metallic joint visible. "That is quite sufficient. Thank you for being so restrained, I realize this situation is extremely provoking." Ionnidis still looked like she wanted to beat the customs agent with Quentin's leg, but now the situation had been suitably untangled, Quentin was quite happy to move on.

"I just hope such an oversight doesna happen again. Relax now, Avi. Let's just get on the damned plane." The blonde took a deep breath, reining in her temper with an effort.

"All right, Cue. Let's go." Nodding curtly at the official and presenting the agent with a look he was very glad couldn't actually reduce him to a smoking spot on the ground even though it looked like he was about to be suspended for life for nuisancing a foreign dignitary, Avi slipped an arm through Quentin's and they moved on.

The walk down the hallway to the boarding gate was relatively quiet, the silence marred only by the faint tapping of Avi's boots, and the dull half thumps from Quentin's artificial leg. "I've got a feeling we're heading to the homeland just in time." Quentin commented, after a moment.

"Why?" Avi asked curiously.

"These problems at customs, they're only going to get worse. Things are very unstable right now. The Nation has been recognized, because there simply wasn't a choice anymore, but there's a lot of bad blood. I think we may have to send out the call now, before governments start restricting movement again." Quentin rubbed her thumb along the tip of her chin. "In other words, I think we've got another war coming, my love, and if we don't get our people out of harm's way, countries with axes to grind are going to use any Amazons outside of the Nation as pawns." Avi nodded unhappily. She had figured as much herself. But as the Kepler, it really wasn't her decision to make.

"Hence the movement of so many Adams and Pontius-Hallidays... Halliday-Pontiuses... er, whatever, to the Nation over the past two months."

"Actually, it was when the Adams started moving I started watching. The Adams never move without good reason, and certainly not all at once." replied Quentin. "When Artimachos Adams cancelled her latest tour and her partner sold off the American branch of her hotel chain to follow after her to the Nation, I knew something had to be up. What's your family doing?"

"Don't know. I'm the only Amazon in it, really. You want the phone?" Avi asked quietly.

"Yeah." Quentin took a deep breath. "I think today might be the best time for it." She took the cell phone from Avi's hand, and grimmaced at it. "I hate these things."

"I know." Avi replied, giving her partner's hand a squeeze. "But this one has the shielding you wanted, and it's only for a moment." A study had come out clearly linking cell phones and brain cancer, resulting in Quentin continuing to flatly refuse to ever use one unless somebody could find a way to keep the damn electromagnetic waves the things used from frying her brains, as she put it. Some people found this attitude quite irrational, but Avi felt it was understandable, considering Quentin had barely survived her first run in with the disease. The tall Amazon had decided that in some cases, the risk outweighed the gains, especially when you were genetically predisposed to problems.

A tinny ringing came from the phone, and Quentin frowned impatiently. "Leave it to a damned Adams to ignore the phone." she crabbed. At last there was a click. "A. Adams, communications hub."

"I know you're an Adams. Which one are you, and no funny stuff."

"Morgan, your majesty." Ah, Quentin chuckled to herself. They all knew about her now. "Get me Ygrainne on the horn, and run, woman!" A moment's silence, muzak having been banned throughout the Nation unless it was being piped into holding cells.

"Quentin?"

"Yes, that's me... send out the call, Ygrainne." Silence.

"Things have gone so far?"

"Yes, they have. Send out the call."

"All right. We'll be ready for new arrivals inside twelve hours. No more flights through main U.S. or U.K. hubs. Looks like most of the women will be going through Russia for a part of the trip." Quentin paused, since now the gate was only a couple of metres away.

"The steppes."

"The steppes."

"Och... I'm no Scot. I canna stand the moors, but can ride happily for days through the steppes. Makes no sense." Visions of the last time she had been to the plains steppes, seemingly unending miles of artemisium and grass, riding a tireless horse for what felt like forever passed through Quentin's mind. It had been incredible. No wonder so many legends spoke of those lands as being among Artemis' favourites.

"Of course you're no Scot... you're an Amazon." Ygrainne replied cheerfully. "It'll all turn out fine." With those words, she hung up, and Quentin handed the now quiescent phone back to Avi, who tucked it into her pocket again.

"Cue?"

"Yeah?"

"How long is this flight again?"

"Now Avi, don't torment yourself. Just help me ignore the inflight movie and finish my crossword puzzle, and it'll be over before you know it." Quentin smiled winningly. Poor Avi was seriously afraid of flying, and suffered it as a necessary evil demanded by the needs of her Nation.

"I'm not sure I can do that while clinging to the ceiling, but all right." Avi grinned a little, determined to relax at least enough to avoid all the sore muscles she had gotten the last time.

******

"All right, now, who can tell me which of these equations I can use... this one," adding a smudge with one chalky finger under a set of symbols, "or this one?" Jed waited patiently. It was a sad fact that even young women who had passed the physics curriculum in North America often had no real understanding of it, so she had to start with about ten basic check questions to see where they were actually at. A conference with a group of professors at universities outside of the Nation had been all about improving the curriculum. Jed had gotten herself into some trouble by pointing out maybe it would be better to improve the teaching. 'Oh well,' she sighed inwardly. 'onward.' She wrote another set of equations on the board. "If you've ever seen this before, please make a note to that effect on your paper. If you can tell me what each variable refers to, all the better."

Turning around, she gazed at her earnest group. A hundred of them, the biggest class she had seen yet. Rumour had it one of the writing classes had just topped three hundred, but she simply couldn't believe it. The apparatus she had set up for a demonstration later in the class burped noisily, and Jed winced. For the life of her, she could not understand why a simple, cold, beaker of glycerine set up for an experiment demonstrating terminal velocity would do that. It burped again, and several students laughed helplessly. Jed grinned. It was pretty funny. She made her way over, unconsciously stuffing the chalk in her pocket.

Shifting a few things, she picked up the beaker, and gazed at it. A neat rubber top prevented splashes and leaks. Should have been clear, nice clear glycerine. Oddly enough, it seemed awfully runny for glycerine, and had a distinct bluish tinge. "What the hell is this stuff?" Jed muttered. Basic chemistry suggested dropping in some of her little iron balls would show something, though... the door of the classroom burst open, and Chris hurried in.

"Don't do that! Please." she hurried up the aisle, trying not to allow the stares from the students distract her. "Here's yours," Chris handed over a beaker. "I'll take this one. It's highly reactive. Just about a bang type moment, there, Jed." Crisis averted, she wiped her brow with a polka dotted hankerchief.

"Right," Jed peered at the beaker her partner had handed to her, and turned it around a few times, satisfying herself as to its viscosity.

"That's how I realized you had the wrong one." Chris declared proudly.

"I'm glad," Jed replied, smiling. "That stuff was burping, by the way."

"Was it?" Chris frowned and then glared at the beaker. "It's too early for it to be producing gases... at least, I think it is." A moment more, and she wandered out of the classroom, writing on the beaker with a black felt tipped pen, apparently working out a chemical reaction equation again. Just outside of the door she exclaimed, "Of course! How could I forget to add those two numbers!" Jed swallowed hard and sent a quick prayer to Artemis.

"How about letting me see those papers?" she asked the students.

******

Benny winced, and carefully ran her fingertips over her rapidly expanding black eye. The cricket ball had come from nowhere, it seemed, and the things seemed to be made of wood with a red leather covering. Now she was sitting in the infirmary, wishing she could open her eye at least a little, and adding cricket to her list of sports she would prefer to see only on television.

The healer bustled up to her, tipping up her chin and making tsking noises. "Dear me, that must be miserable. Looks like a good old fashioned black eye though, nothing sinister. How's your nose?"

"All right. It only bled for a few minutes." Benny had been distracted from her misery by the panicked group of cricket players who had seen her knocked off her feet as if by a bullet. For a few minutes they had been convinced they had accidentally killed her.

"Maybe so, but I still have to check nothing is broken in your face... come with me." They walked down two rambling corridors and down a set of steps, the healer carefully holding Benny's elbow on the way down. Their destination was an almost comically ancient x-ray machine, although it had been modified to allow the films to develop while they waited. "Looks good, looks good... don't go catching anymore of those with your face. What are these?" she was pointing to five clearly visible metal pins in the left side of Benny's jaw. The historian shrugged.

"Nasty accident involving a landmine and a troop transport truck I was in. Can't stand straws to this day."

"Hmmph. Must have been a miserable break. I've only seen them used in pretty extreme cases. There's an x-ray in the files here... I believe I had to x-ray her to check for a skull fracture. Between the pins and the other bits of metal, you could hardly make out the bones in her face." the healer had expertly probed Benny's eye again, and had now handed her an icebag, two ibuprofen and a glass of water. "Chances are she had to get used to the new face she got out of it. Luckily, you are just going to have to get used to that black eye, which will go away in due time."

An hour later, Benny was sprawled across her hide away bed, her laptop balanced on her stomach, tapping away at what she had begun to jokingly refer to as her memoirs. The Amazon of the Red Lawns popped up.

"Great battles you have survived today...
and smaller accidents."

Benny blinked, then chuckled a little. "You go that right, sister."

On to Chapter Five
Back to Chapter Three

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