Omega's Folly


By Alexiares




Chapter One

It was raining. Not very hard, but enough that everything was wet, andnot a little cold. The murky sky seemed to be sprawled lazily on top ofthe land in a sort of cold sweat. Sitting on a small wooden bench beneatha dirty awning was a huddled figure, dwarfed by two large cases and a trunk.The bench might have been pleasant to look at once, but weather and timehad reduced the paint to peeling, curled tongues, and the wood that show! edthrough to pale grey. If a person felt destructive as well as bored andmiserable, they might begin pulling off some of the long flakes of paint.If they did, the wood beneath would prove deep brown, but soft and pliant,easy to remove with a fingernail, or the tip of a pencil. The huddled figurefelt no need to do such things, however.

She... the figure was a woman... had sunk her head as far into her heavyovercoat as she could get it, until the brim of her hat was held up byits collar. Since the coat, the hat, and her hair were dark, the resultwas a rather faceless looking apparition. Spoiling the facelessness wasa pair of sharp green eyes, glaring irritably at the world in general.

The case on her right was made of red leather, and smelt of epsom salts.The case on her left was made of lacquered cardboard, and smelt of chocolate.The red case had been an accidental gift from her father. It presenteda defiant red front, interrupted only by the always rather lud! icrous lookinggold tinted buckle and its accompanying wide strap. The smell of epsomsalts came from a bag of them that had sat in it for months, hopefullywaiting for the day when her father finally opened them and used them tohelp treat his ailing back. He never had.

The cardboard case... the cardboard case was far more interesting. Intotal, it had suffered thirteen coats of lacquer. The previous owner, amusician who had busked all over Europe, had managed to travel around theworld thirteen times. Each trip had accrued a collection of stickers, dulyattached to the suitcase. A coating of lacquer followed so they would keeptheir colour and not fall off. Stinky and sticky as the treatments mayhave been, they had resulted in the case's present ability to survive miserableweather.

The trunk, sunken about an inch into the muck which was blandly referredto as a road by the customs agent, was an out and out strange acquisition.It had arrived one day at the now huddl! ed figure's door as she was beingpolitely served a notice of eviction by the greasy new manager of her apartmentbuilding. Someone had taken great care over it, carefully polishing it'sforest green paneling and silver bolts and corners. The key had been carefullysealed in an envelope, and the delivery person had insisted on two piecesof identification before handing it over. Sealed in the envelope with thekey had been a short letter.

Dear Ms. Basilas,

The firm Digger, Chaser, and Hyde is pleased to send you the requisitepapers and objects delineated as your inheritance from your late cousin,Ges Basilas. All matters are in order, although she allowed us to do verylittle, and you have sole ownership of all properties, monies, and businesseslisted. We understand that at this time you do not have legal counsel.Please feel free to contact us at anytime.

Yours truly,
Messrs. G. Digger, A. Chaser, and L. T. Hyde
 

The tru! nk was full of bundles which Benny Basilas had had no time toexamine. Being evicted will keep a person running to escape with theirdignity and hopefully their possessions... but another, thicker envelopehad been sitting right on top addressed to her in bold, clear capitals.

FOR BENTON BASILAS

Benny still had no earthly idea... or a heavenly one for that matter...why she had been named such a thing. In any event, the papers describeda huge, rather run down house she had inherited partial ownership of, andincluded paid for transportation to it. Having nothing else to go to, andnothing left to lose, she had sold what she could, given away the rest,and packed what she had left in the two cases that dwarfed her now, undera tiny awning, in the rain. Five hours later, she had climbed onto a busthat was empty but for herself and the driver and suffered through a fivehour trip.

An hour stop over in a tiny town somewhere in Western Canada, with an! ame pronounced completely differently from the way it was spelt, Bennybegan to wonder what the hell she was doing. She had a degree in history,but had never managed a doctorate, since carrying on the work that provedthat the Amazons had indeed existed was extremely unpopular. Stubborn,and loving her subject too much to leave it, Benny had kept at it, andworked various jobs to keep the bills paid. Painting, cleaning, workinga cash register, building web pages, even book reviewing for awhile. Andthen she had been abruptly evicted from her leaky, noisy, often smellyapartment building, for no reason she could determine, except greed. Thebuilding had been knocked down to be replaced by a casino. Now, now shewas on her way to the Goddess knew where... a quick look at the cuff ofone sleeve where she had written the name in white grease pencil... EnneaHodoi, Thrake.

The only reference Benny had been able to find to the place had beenin a rough, unpleasantly biased acco! unt of the history of the ancient Thrakiantown of Amphipolis. Ennea Hodoi was the Greek version of its original name,when the town was had still been home to its Edonian founders. Eventually,imperialistic Athens had driven many of them away, and the histories reflectedtheir contempt for the people whose homes they had stolen. So, there wasexaggeration in the accounts. Benny knew the town was in Northern Greece,and that at some point she would arrive there. At some point.

A second bus had taken her to an airport, and a long flight later, shehad arrived in Rumania. Hopes of a flight to Athens had been dashed whenshe discovered she was to take a train. Eventually she and her three piecesof luggage had arrived by some miracle, in Greece, only to be depositedin the middle of nowhere on a peeling wooden bench beneath a tiny awning.

If it all hadn't been so surreal and uncomfortable, Benny might havelaughed.

But, it all fit with cousin Ges' personality. The woman ! had always beenwildly eccentric, but had also always been tolerated. Brilliant scientistswill get that, if they happen to catch the kind eye of public opinion,and Ges had been brilliant. She had managed to completely decipher thePhaestos Disk, then had gone on to revolutionize the understanding peoplehad of Cepheid variables. And then she had returned to her first love,which was working on the interpretation of the language and script of thepeople who were now grudgingly recognized as Amazons by the academic community.Ges had actually had to go and find the things herself, since other scholarshad decided the Amazons must have been illiterate.

Some of Ges' eccentricities had been accidental. Her inability to matchher socks or put together an outfit that was coordinated or didn't jarthe eye was due to her complete colourblindness. This had ultimately ledto Ges convincing a friend to buy her clothes in the style she liked, allblack or red. She still had regularly ! mismatched her socks, but blindingcombinations of orange and purple stopped happening.

The trip so far had Ges' unmistakable touch all over it. A long busride to a busy airport, to take a plane crammed full of Members of theSociety for Creative Anachronism headed to a conference to take a trainthat looked like it belonged in a cheap vampire movie to a muddy stationin the middle of Northern Greece. The flight hadn't been so bad after all,except the man sitting beside her had failed to keep his chain mail oiledproperly, so he had stunk of rust.

One of Benny's happier times had been as a curator in a museum on theWest coast of Canada which had included a huge number of weaponry and armourexhibits. She had worked there for five summers and weekends of the restof the years, and had never been bored. At first, she had been a gopher...in a fit of pique Benny had once counted how may times she took the museumstairs. After reaching a hundred and seventeen, she had giv! en it up. Thenshe got to work on exhibits, cleaning, repairing, and eventually creating.For no reason that she knew, except maybe a childhood full of as many bookson armour and weaponry as she could get her hands on, Benny had a remarkableaffinity with pretty much any piece of armour or nasty ancient weapon...she could restore it, polish it, and set it in its proper historical framework...even if she had never heard of it. A weird ability, but handy.

So, she knew all about the care and handling of chain mail. Which didn'thelp the smell, but unfortunately it wasn't going anywhere.

Trying to scuff her boots on the ground but managing to produce onlya few mucky noises and two narrow puddles of her very own, Benny lookedfrom side to side, squinting. It had never occurred to her that you mighthave to squint in the rain before. Unfortunately, it was an ineffectivemeans to try to make out anything through the greyish haze all around her.

When the change finally ca! me, it was in the form of a rattling, banging,groaning old vehicle that clattered through the muck to stop in front ofher. Its halt gave Benny and her hapless entourage of luggage a liberalcoating of mud.

The car was, unbelievably, an ancient American model, barely beyondthe tin lizzie in age. The grill was steaming in the cool, damp air, andit's panels had been patched with bits of neatly trimmed plywood. In afew spots, the patching looked suspiciously as if it had been done withpaper mache. Luckily, those were mostly on the dashboard... unluckily,since the car had no roof, these makeshift repairs were melting rapidly.The upholstery was a sort of greyish purple colour where it wasn't greyishbrown from mud. Benny wondered vaguely if the upholstery had been purpleto begin with, then sighed as she realized there was no escape from thisweird version of planes, trains, and automobiles.

At last, the brave, or perhaps suicidal driver of the car clamberedout, havin! g been delayed by the door becoming almost irretrievably stuck.

"Hello, Ms. B... B... Basilas!" This managed between tugs to a long,tattered grey scarf that had gotten trapped in the car door.

The driver proved to be a cheerful, golden haired transplant from England,with tinted spectacles. Tugging off her grey cap, she grinned broadly andadded, "Marvelous day, ain't it?" She grinned even more broadly, and tuggedher tweed trousers, also grey, up an inch or two further. "'Fraid the train'sstuck somewhere... they don't even bother with schedules 'ere anymore.I've come to take you up to Omega's Folly."

Benny stared at the woman doubtfully. Somehow the knee high wellingtons,grey tweeds and bright yellow macintosh inspired little confidence.

"Oh, suppose it would help if you knew me name... bet you'll never guessit!"

Having been given yet another opening in which to say something, andfeeling quite put out altogether, Benny blurted the first thing that cameto! mind. "Doc Halliday."

The other woman gaped at her, pale eyes goggling almost as wide as herspectacles. "What, you a psychic, or something? How'd you know that?" Jammingher cap back on her head, she muttered, "Takes all the fun out." Lookingback to the sodden, sullen individual beneath the awning she said aloud,"Yeah, I'm a doctor of chemistry, and I usually introduce myself ChrisHalliday... my first name's actually something else, but I don't like it."

Benny nodded slowly. "Right... Omega's Folly?" Doc Halliday brightenedup immediately. "Absolutely, absolutely... Ges absolutely loved it... herhalf is the less drafty one of the two, I think." Well, that confirmedthat this bizarre individual and her bizarre car were for real. "I'll beglad of damn near any roof over my head, at this point." sighed Benny.

It took some time and effort to place her luggage into the rickety vehicle.The two cases made it easily enough, but the trunk was more than obstinate.An att! empt by the two women to lift it led to Doc Halliday losing her wellingtonsin the mud temporarily. A judicious use of a crow bar later, "I use itto get the car door open, sometimes." which ousted the trunk and the wellingtons,the lot had been lashed in and on the back of the car.

"Can't be too careful, on these roads, with things like that." Doc Hallidaydeclared gravely. "Oh, then you must have seat belts in this contraption."Benny replied in a relieved tone. An injured expression appeared on thegood doctor's face. She patted the hood of the car gently. "Ignore that,old thing... she doesn't understand what a marvelous car you really are."To Benny she replied, "If the one on the passenger side doesn't work, justuse some of the leftover rope. I find it's usually more convenient notto use one."

The seat belt proved functional even if slightly ragged, and the carfinally lurched off. Doc Halliday seemed to have a certain amount of difficultywith the manual transmi! ssion, but the near whiplash causing starts andstops finally eased, and then stopped after Halliday managed to flood theengine, and had to work a half hour to get it to start again. This allgave Benny time to wonder how there could be seatbelts in a car this ageat all... how would you get the damn things connected properly. She eyedone of the ends where it disappeared into a crevice between the flattenedcushions nervously.

At last, they were on their way, and Benny had actually fallen asleepwhen a booming shout of, "Great Scotia! Grab the wheel, woman! But nottoo hard, I think it needs a new locking bolt." From peacefully dozingto clutching the steering wheel with white knuckles, Benny watched thescenery fly by at an alarming pace. "Thought I'd fixed this problem, butnow that we're going downhill I see I haven't... hang on!" With that, Hallidayclimbed over the windshield and popped the hood, effectively blocking Benny'sview of the road. Inside the hood proved t! o be a fairly modern lookingengine. "Been souping it up," Halliday hollered gaily, as she dug aroundin it. "I'm an inventor as well, and I've put a few of my ideas into practice.One of them isn't working well, though."

Bracing herself against the windshield, she began pulling several feetof tubing out of the engine. "Knew I left it this long for a reason!" Thetubing wasn't that thick, resembling a skinny drinking straw in diameter.

"Hmmm..." Halliday reached into a trouser pocket, and pulled out a largepair of blunt ended shears. Then she pulled on each end of the tubing,until one end pulled snug. "Excellent, excellent..." Two quick snips cutthe tubing in two and gave one end a diagionally cut end. "Right..." Hallidaybent forward slightly, tracing where each end now led to.

The car's speed was steadily increasing, and the wind had changed fromwhistling to roaring in Benny's ears, as she tried to make out what wason the road ahead. She turned the steering wh! eel slightly, and produceda stunning swerve. "Holy shit!" she squeaked. A look up revealed Hallidayclutching the windshield with one hand, and the tubing in the other.

"Until further notice, all you need to to do is go straight!" Hallidaysnapped. "Damn it, where has my hat gone?" She didn't spend long ponderingthis, but returned to her pieces of tubing. Finding her bearings again,Halliday stuck one end in her mouth and sucked on it vigourously. Twicemore, then she hurriedly spat a mouthful off the side of the car. An unhealthylooking florescent green fluid spurted from the tubing.

Pinning it between the wiper and the shield, Halliday gazed at the otherend a moment, then began pulling all kinds of tubing out of the guts ofthe car, tossing coils of it into the hapless Benny's lap. "Got it!" shecrowed triumphantly when another tug yielded a sharp jerk that nearly pitchedher headfirst into the engine. The piece was soon trimmed, and after wideningits end with a p! encil retrieved from yet another pocket, the end spurtingwhat reminded Benny of how nuclear waste was portrayed in B-grade sciencefiction movies was jammed into it, and the join wound about with electricaltape.

"There, that should do it," Halliday said happily, stowing away hersupplies in her collection of pockets. "Hit the brakes! Hit the brakes!"she screamed suddenly. This Benny did, jerking the hood of the car shutand hurling Halliday off onto the grassy verge, from which she bouncedinto a puddle with delusions of pondeur.

"Perhaps, I should have rephrased that." clambering slowly to her feetand wiping muck off of her face with one hand, Halliday sighed. "Okay...we have a ways to go before we make it to the house, and being as I needto go find my hat, we'll then take a detour and pick up my sweet at theAcademy." Decision apparently made, Halliday gave herself a vigourous shake,mopped her face with a purple spotted hankerchief, and marched down theroad bac! k the way they had come. Benny watched in bemusement as the fairheaded woman cast about on either side of the road, occasionally pokingthe road itself with an an extendanble stick that she pulled from anothervoluminous pocket.

Some ten minutes later, the doctor returned, an all but spotless greycap replaced on top of her blonde locks, swinging her collapsible stickjauntily. "Now, on to the Academy." she declared triumphantly, shovingBenny out of the driver's seat and clambering back into the vehicle. Itstarted with a wheeze and a bang, and soon they were careening along again,forcing the young historian to  shield herself from low hanging branches.These barely captured her attention, as she found herself wondering a bitforlornly just what her cousin had gotten her into... and from beyond thegrave, no less!

******

Benny had woken up three hours later, thinking grumpily about jetlagas the ancient car groaned around a wide turn and tru! ndled down a stretchof dry road with yellowish fields on either side. Dust was everywhere,and Benny wondered in disgust where the clammy rain had gone. The fieldseventually began to get spotty with trees and bushes, and the odd patchescreated by farmers when they piled the rocks from their field togetherand ploughed around it. Then trees began to line the verge, and slowlyencroach on it until they were travelling through a leafy corridor wherethe distance signs were simply pegged to the tree trunks. One turn placedBenny so close to them that she was able to see that the signs really werepegged on, not nailed or put up using screws. 'What a bizarre amount ofeffort.' she thought to herself in confusion. Turning to Halliday she askedincredulously, "Putting up signs with wooden pegs?"

"Do you know where you are, Ms. Basilas?"

"Sure I do. This is Northern Greece."

"Not exactly." Halliday's eyes were enigmatic. "Things aren't the waythey were."

"I don't under! stand. I've studied the history of this region... thispart of Thrake is part of Greece."

"Not since the last world war. Your textbooks must have been outdatedwhere you went to university. When we get to Ennea Hodoi, you'll be ableto look across the river, and several fields, and see the borders of theNation." Halliday braked a bit in order to allow them to drive across anelderly bridge without rattling their brains in their skulls.

Benny grimmaced. She had gone through the war, and she made every effortnot to think about it much. Being part of an armourer's squadron had been...terrible was too mild a word. The whole thing had forced a two and a halfyear hiatus in her studies. Nothing good had come of it that she couldsee, beyond the past three years of boundary drawing, which had left mapmakingin utter confusion. She despised geography, and the professor she had hadfor it had given up in frustration when every new week of negotiationsresulted in another thick! booklet of revisions on his desk. Some sour grapesinspired miniwars had been indulged in, especially in the Balkans and,oddly enough, between the United States and Mexico. Canada had been inthe midst of  long negotiations around Southern Europe, but Benny'semployment woes had eaten up her attention, and she had lost track of whatthe negotiations were for or what the results had been.

"What Nation?"

"You know a great deal of its history already... it is usually calledAmazonia." Benny gaped. The woman was delerious. Cousin Ges had been workingon archaeological digs, and digging records out of the depths of Greeklibraries. Nothing was real now, nothing.

"The Nation seemed to disappear altogether for many centuries. But wewere always here... always watching, and waiting for the chance to makethe rest of the world see the Nation again." A smile twitched Halliday'slips. "A few tribes of Amazons have stayed living out here, and in partsof Turkey. We were fa! r enough out of the way, and fierce enough that thenew Turkish government left us alone. They didn't want to officially giveup the land, but we managed to talk them into it. Lots of trade and goodpublicity... at least in this part of the world. We cut the same sort ofdeal with countries around here." She looked over at her dark haired passenger."You don't believe a word I'm saying."

"How can I? Where the hell has everyone been?"

"I told you, waiting, and watching, and keeping our ways alive. It'sokay. Considering how lousy attitudes toward women were for the majorityof the past three thousand years or so, we had good reason to keep wellhidden." She dragged her fingers through her hair. "Jed is better for thisstuff than I am... she'll explain, and seeing is believing... the Academyis part of the Nation. I told you we were close to the border."

The trees had opened up into a sizable lane that led to the entranceof a sizable campus. Several large buildings wer! e visible, and the placewas bustling with students. Interspersed among the main buildings werevarious more temporary structures, clearly thrown up hurriedly. "When westarted the Academy, we thought we'd have mainly Amazons, so we built atheatre, a library, a temple, and two buildings full of laboratories andclassrooms. We... oh... I mean those of us Amazons who were involved puttingtogether the Academy... we actually thought we had gotten carried away,that we had built beyond the number of students we were likely to get,especially since this is a woman-only place." A tall woman dressed in blackwith a long black jacket flew past them on a rickety bicycle, her briefcasebalanced precariously on the handlebars. "Women have been clamouring tocome here, we can barely keep up." They were driving within the campusgrounds now, and more women dressed in the curious long black jacket thebicycle rider also wore became more common, as well as many others in allsorts of clothi! ng. Kaftans, saris, to Benny's relief, familiar blue jeans...and all sorts of garments she had never seen.

"Anyone who is wearing a long black jacket has at least a bachelor'sdegree, and more often than not right now they are also faculty. We needall the instructors we can get... sometimes folks don't wear the jacketthough, so don't let looks fool you." Halliday guided the rickety car intoa roughly delineated space in front of a building with a large telescopeprotruding from a slot in the rounded dome on one side. "My laboratoryis over there." She pointed, and Benny picked out a second building whosebottom was hidden by the crest of the hill that it sat behind. Two of itswindows were being replaced, and scorch marks surrounded them.

"What happened to where those windows are?" Benny asked curiously.

"Those windows are the windows to my laboratory... I had a bit of anaccident this morning, that's all. Good job that Jed insisted I put inthose ear protectors sh! e is convinced I should wear now. It was a prettygood bang. Might have done in my ear drums otherwise." She turned off thecar by popping the hood, reaching around the window and hauling off thedistributor cap. "There." Seeing Benny's aghast expression. "I'm stillworking on the key ignition mechanism. The current is a little high...tends to torch all the wiring. And I didn't feel like wrestling with thatcrank again." Tucking the cap under her arm and straightening the one onher head, she motioned for the historian to follow her.

Benny resettled her own hat, and jammed her hands in her pockets, blinkingin mild surprise as she realized she was dressed in the same sort of jacketas the woman teaching what looked like... entry level calculus, writingon a blackboard attached to a wall that looked like it may once have beenpart of a foyer rather than a classroom. Then it dawned on her. Of course.Cousin Ges had sent the jacket along as a gift when Benny had graduated.Sh! aking her head a little, she hopped forward a bit, and soon caught upwitth Halliday, who was standing inside an old fashioned elevator, holdingthe door open.

Pulling the collapsing grate across the opening and latching it tight,she set two different levers and flicked a switch. "Solar power." she saidto Benny's suprised look at the smooth progress upwards and near completesilence of the mechanism. "To get down again we take the stairs." Five,and then two more doorways passed by, usually with activity of some sortgoing on. One was inhabitted by a mime, who pretended to lift the elevatorup on a rope as they went by, and winked a bright eye at them. After theelevator stopped, Halliday pushed the door open quickly and tossed overher shoulder as she ran off, "Come on!"

******

One thing was certain, Benny reflected. Doc Halliday did nothing withouther fullest enthusiasm. Chances were, the woman could even fall on herface with gusto. No wonder ! cousin Ges had liked her so much... when itcame to their approach to life, they were identical.

Halliday had led her along several hallways, all with clean, well polishedfloors. All the doors were made of wood, real wood, and carved with thingsappropriate to whatever the room was used for... except a dissecting lab,which had a discrete carving of a set of glassware and instruments instead,with a frog balanced on a stack of books. Benny had been to one dissectionin her life. It had been fascinating, more because she hadn't been theone to do the cutting and could match all the structures to her biologytext pictures no doubt, and unfortunately it had smelt terrible.

Looking up from her mud caked, dusty boots, she saw that they were standingin front of a door carved with a mock up of the Solar system, some pullies,and a cartoonish little professor heating a cup of tea over a Bunsen burner."Jed actually used to heat her tea like that, but when she insisted I dosom! ething about mine, I made her get an electric hot plate." Halliday declaredvirtuously, punctuating the statement by kicking the door. Music was audiblefrom within the room now, piano... no synthesizer music, odd, and catching.Benny rolled her eyes at herself as she realized the damned tune wouldprobably be in her head for the rest of the night.

Another kick to the door finally popped it open and Halliday... literally...waltzed in, although the music was completely inappropriate. Behind a synthesizerset with three keyboards and a set of electronic drums was a tall womanwith hair so inky black Benny rubbed her eyes in reaction, and silverygreen eyes. Like Benny, she wore a long black jacket. Unlike Benny shewore it over a rumpled white shirt and blue jeans, with a pair of scuffedup pointy toed boots. A pair of spectacles sat halfway down the bridgeof her nose, and when she caught sight of Halliday she proceeded to play'Peter Gunn.' On sight of Benny she switched t! o the opening theme musicfor 'Airwolf.' Noting Halliday's puzzled expression, the woman smiled.

"I just like the way it sounds... and it so happens that she remindsme of a pilot I used to know." Adjusting something, she left the synthesizerto play on its own, Making a half-hearted effort to smooth her shirt, shestepped up to Halliday. "You're late."

"Are you sure?" asked Halliday, looking just plain astonished. Jed repliedby drawing a watch out of her pocket and reading it. Then another fob watchfrom a different pocket. Then a third, and a fourth. Finally she declared,after examing a fifth watch,

"Absolutely, give or take twenty seconds." Halliday blinked. Jed blinkedback. Halliday broke the stalemate by grabbing the other woman by the collarand kissing her soundly.

"So?" she asked.

"What?" Jed replied, staggering back to her seat with a silly grin onher face. Halliday rolled her eyes and tried not to look insufferably pleasedwith herself, to very lit! tle avail.

"This here is Benton Basilas... you know, Ges' cousin. I figured we'dpick you up on the way to the house, instead of taking two trips and leavingthe poor woman all alone almost immediately."

"I see." Jed said gravely, straightening her glasses and standing upagain. "Let me just grab my case... oh," she stopped short on the way toher desk and walked hurriedly back to Benny. She held out one hand. Bennyblinked in bemusement. "Hello... pleased to meet you. I should have known,you look quite like your cousin." Another pause, and then Jed simply grabbedthe younger woman's limp hand and shook it vigourously. "Are you colourblindtoo?"

"N- no, I'm not." Benny blurted, finally getting her mouth into somethingresembling working order.

"Hmmmph. Must be a recessive gene, then." Jed grabbed a somewhat frayedlooking briefcase and popped it open. Tossing in several folders and slammingthe thing shut on top of more than a few corners, she stepped up to Hallid! ayand linked arms with her. "Well, let's be off then, oh love of my lifeand really quiet Benton Basilas."

The stairwell was meticulously clean, its steps already wellworn bythe passage of many feet. The number of each floor had once been neatlypainted on the landing in front of the door opening onto it, but the sevenwas gone and the six looked more like a 'C.' After that Benny didn't noticeanymore, as she ran bodily into someone else going upwards.

"Oh... so sorry... I was just..." Someone else was a tall, thin womanwith mostly red hair cropped close to her scalp and a pair of cobalt bluespectacles that hid her eyes. The trademark black jacket hung off her lankyframe, which was otherwise covered with a pair of terrible green trousers,a blue shirt, and a battered pair of high topped basketball shoes withday-glo yellow tops. Several cables and extension cords swayed about herneck, and her arms were full of a jumble of computer equipment.

"It's okay. I wasn't! exactly watching where I was going either." Bennyreplied kindly, feeling a bit badly for the other woman. Her expressionscreamed deer caught in headlights.

"Thanks..."

Jed raised an eyebrow. "I hope the various pieces of equipment semi-attachedto your person are being returned to where they belong?"

"Of course, of course. Only needed them for the duration of the betatest, remember?" The red head smiled hopefully and juggled her armloadof equipment.

"The beta test finally finished today? Why did I think it should havefinished a week ago?"

"Maybe, if I hadn't had to spend four days undoing the utter havoc wreakedby the newest batch of programming students. I still can't get the mainprinter to stop spouting out the core files in hexadecimal characters.Over four thousand pages of information, and the only way I can stop theprint out is still unplugging the printer. I knew having it come on automaticallywhen a print job was sent to it was going to be a pr! oblem..."

"Okay," interrupted Halliday. "I'm sorry old thing, but we've stillgot errands left to run. No doubt you'll find the mysterious troublesomeprint queue somewhere."

Unexpectedly, the other woman grinned. "Of course I will. I'm the greatest.See you later." With that she bounced up the steps, humming as she went.

"Who was that?" Benny asked in an astonished tone, unsure what intriguedher more, the cobalt spectacles or the high topped sneakers.

"Arion Adams, formerly some obnoxiously high rank Adams of the impromptuThrakian army we had in the last war." Jed dug into her pants pocket andpulled out a key, using it to open a small mailbox that proved to be jammedfull of papers and envelopes. "Do you see any red edged ones in there,love?" she asked Halliday. The golden haired woman leaned forward, peeringat the mess.

"Nope. There's some airmail, though. Bet some of it is from your sister."

"Some of it may even be from your bandy legged cousin out on! the Scottishmoors." drawled Jed. The air mail was soon pocketed, and they were on theirway again.

This time Jed clambered behind the wheel and Benny found herself forcedto choose between squeezing herself into the front seat or taking her chancesperched on the back with her luggage. Judging the fire to at least havebeing intermittent in its favour versus the frying pan, she climbed intothe back and found some more rope, securing herself firmly to the frontseat and her trunk. Her compatriots hadn't strapped themselves in as carefully,and in fact were arguing over the distributor cap, which somehow Hallidayhad misplaced. "The damned thing can't go without it, and you've left itsomewhere?" Jed blurted in outrage.

"Oh, and you've never misplaced anything." scowled Halliday. "It mustbe in your office, I'll just run and fetch it." she paused, tugging thebrim of her cap down. "Aye, I left it on top of your synthesizers."

"Wait, wait, wait..." Jed caught Halliday! by the lapels and leaned onher until she sat down again. "I'll get it." Satisfied Halliday would sitwhere she was instead of heading back into the building, Jed removed herlong jacket and settled it carefully on the cleanest part of the driver'sseat, which was precisely where the driver sat. Then she walked up to thebuilding, examined the windows and walls for a moment, then simply shimmiedup the drainpipe which ran just beside one corner. Reaching about halfwayup the wall, she clambered into a huge tree and climbed further upwards.Finally she walked out on a sturdy limb until she was directly across froma window with an orange frame. It was particularly noticable, since therest of the building was red brick, and the other window frames were asedate brown. Jed paused, momentarily nonplussed. "Toss me your swizzlestick then, Chris." Halliday obediently fished out her extendable stick.Only five tries were necessary before the two women were synchronized enoughfor ! Jed to catch the stick. The fourth was the most alarming, as Jed losther footing and fell straight down onto the tree limb, the shock of meetingthe thing so intimately rendering her temporarily windless.

Armed with the swizzle stick, as she referred to it, Jed deftly poppedopen the latch to the window. She disappeared through the window with theskill of a monkey, and soon emerged again with the distributor cap grippedin one hand. "Catch!" she sang out, dropping stick... still extended...and cap.

The required parts of the vehicle now retrieved, it was only a matterof minutes before they were on their way, the rickety old car careeningaround corners and lurching down hills, because Jed proved to like drivingextremely fast. Benny was soon gripping her hat with one hand and desperatelyclinging to the back seat with the other. Halliday had given up on keepingher own hat on and had tossed it to the floorboards, pinning it with onefoot. Instead she focussed on keepi! ng her spectacles in place.

"Do you think the bridge might be out?" Halliday bawled over the windand the car's protests.

"Why would it be? It hasn't been raining." Jed shouted back. Bridge?Benny thought to herself in horror. Spurred by her experiences of the morning,she added her own voice to the cacophony.

"Maybe we should make sure the brakes work before we get there?"

"Too late!" Halliday roared, and Benny didn't even wait to see whatwas happening. She dove as far down in the backseat as she could get andbegan asking the Goddess, a little plaintively,

"Hi there ma'am... are you mad at me?"

A resounding bang interrupted her train of thought, and then there wassilence.

"Ow."

"Two more aspirin, I think."

"Why is the gate shut?"

"I don't know."

"Who the hell shuts that thing? We never do before dark, sometimes noteven then."

"Probably the delivery people with Ms. Basilas' things."

"Good point. My nose is bleeding."

"Maybe we shou! ld hire a chauffeur."

"Can't afford it. Would make more sense to get a new car."

"A new car!?"

"At least let me get the hearse running properly, then we'll use itwhile you add shocks to this one."

"Hmmm. I could live with such an arrangement. I quite like the hearse."

"All right. Hey, where's Benton? Did we lose her somewhere around thelast bend, do you think?"

"Oh, I hope not, she's liable to be bitter."

The woman in question had one cheek pressed to the floorboards in theback of the car, her hat pulled down tight over her ears, wishing franticallythat something resembling normality would return to her life again. Toadd insult to injury, she had a cramp in her left calf, and was beginningto feel a niggling certainty she was stuck.

"Oh dear, there she is."

"Yes... I think we may have to unload the car before you'll be ableto move." Jed's voice, surprisingly close.

"Is it far?" called Benny, nearly deafening herself.

"Not at all. Just thr! ough the gates and down the lane to the front ofthe house."

Benny swallowed hard. "Is it flat?" she sounded close to tears.

"Quite flat... and Jed promises to drive slow... don't you, Teddy?"this was hissed in an undertone, which Benny could hear anyway.

"Yes, of course... can hardly drive at a decent speed with her headon the floorboards. I still don't understand why you like calling me Teddy."

"Because Jeddy sounds funny. Move along, Jeeves." Halliday holleredregally.

And so it was that Benton Basilas' first look at her new home was therocky drive she could see through a crack in the car floorboards, and thefirst look some of its other inhabitants had of her was her booted feet. 
 
 

On to Chapter Two

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