Arion Adams sighed. Few people realized her computer progrmming aspirations were nil, and that what she did was actually all hobby. Hard to tell nowadays. It had proved impossibly expensive and complicated to do the required software licensing and get the stuff in the main language they needed, which was the curious language linguists in the rest of the world were falling over themselves to study. The most they could agree on was that it was nonIndo-European, it sounded nothing like Finnish or Hungarian, and seemed to sort of fit Etruscan. Arion snorted at the thought. They made it sound as if language was a piece of clothing, and if only you tried it out on enough people it would fit.
She rewrote a few lines of code which finally removed the unfortunate hexadecimal print queue. And then there was the archaic Greek dialect they used when dealing with the Greeks, in which Lesbos was still pronounced Lesbos... not Lesvos. And Turkish with such heavy accents sometimes the Turks gently suggested switching to another language for negotiating, because listening to an Amazon speak Turkish was like trying to read a thickly calligraphied mosque wall after only just becoming fluent in the language it was written in... when speaking.
Arion paused, rubbing at her right hand, which was cramping uncomfortably. Shutting down the program she had been using, she returned to her first task, which was working on a bit of slight of hand in the fiscal department. Picking up the phone and making triumphant use of speed dial, she waited patiently through five rings before someone picked it up.
"A. Adams Corporation."
"So formal, Waldbilling. I have a little job for you."
"Yes, Doctor Adams... as always. Only a little job, ma'am?"
"Definitely. How's year end going?"
"Excellently, and you'll be pleased to know I have managed to put the various government authorities through the wringer. For awhile they seemed to think they could grab the Amazon Nation in general by the conjones, let alone us."
"Conjones... is that the right word?"
"It sounds fairly correct."
"Mmhmmm... and you pointed out, no doubt, that we don't have conjones to grab."
"Ah, Waldbilling, you make me happy. How about the other thing?"
"A sizable cheque to allow the addition, with comfortable salary of Benton Basilas to the Academy faculty has been sent, together with a bit of funding for paper chasing and the rest. X. Adams was quite generous... has she seen the young Basilas?"
"And is she smitten, or some other ridiculous thing? So much money on a completely untried person who is popularly denounced as a maverick."
"Oh, I doubt it. X. Adams is such a cold calculator." Arion's voice tightened with sarcasm. "She knows a good investment when she sees one."
Sensing the rebuke, Waldbilling backpedalled gently. "I meant no offense, Doctor Adams. It is just an unusual action in response to a highly unorthodox situation."
"Waldbilling, we're Amazons, we have no idea how to be orthodox." Arion replied drily. "Anyway, I'm glad things have been going well. Do you need anything from me?"
"Just some idea where to send your papers, Doctor Adams."
"My office, as per usual, Waldbilling. That will do." Arion hung up crisply, then turned back to her paper on the results of soil testing at a strange dump site everybody in Southern Europe denied existed. Of course, that had nothing to do with the fact it was radioactive enough to make the Incredible Hulk glow in the dark.
"Mmmm... do that again."
"Can't, too tired."
"Since I spent eight hours fixing the brakes on my car."
"Well... I guess I can live with that this time. Now the contraption you call a car stops on a dime, and I can stop reaching for heart medication every time you get behind the wheel."
"This from the woman who thinks speed limits tell you the minimum required speed."
"No I don't... I just drive a little faster than most people."
"Yeah... no other way to drive during the war."
"Hmmm... I suppose. We didn't have vehicles most of the time, and when we did we had no petrol."
"You were lucky. You know why I got nicknamed Angelos?"
"Tell me." Chris had heard the whole story a thousand times, and this abbreviated version about five hundred. These were among the very few types of reruns she could tolerate. Always.
"Because I had to drive the only jeep, and I carried the messages... hey, didn't you just say you were tired?"
"Hush... you were just complaining."
"Sure, but, I don't want you to wipe yourself out... and if you're really tired..."
"Not that tired."
Benny shifted in her seat again, looking at her watch impatiently. The chair was straight backed, made of some hardwood and painted a terrible shade of brown. A small case sat beside her, just big enough to hold a notebook, pad of paper, a few pens, and any papers she found herself stuck with at the end of the day. Yesterday there had been no chance to do anything, between her adventures in navigating the house and completing repairs on the two cars in the garage. Halliday had the brakes and the shocks working, to Benny's relief, but today they would be using the hearse, since it was raining again as if it intended to produce a new sea around Mount Ararat.
According to her watch, they should have left for the Academy nearly twenty minutes ago. At one point Benny had considered trying to raise them. Then she had sat down and thought very hard for a few moments, and come to the conclusion such an act would be unwise. After all, they were lovers. They adored each other. They were supposed to be washing up and getting dressed to leave. They were running unexpectedly late. The implications were obvious. Benny knew herself to be as luckless in the sex department as she had in the employment department the past few years. But she had two eyes and a penchant for thinking too much which often kept her butt out of embarrassing situations, like walking in on people doing intimate things to each other, or overhearing, or something.
Sighing again, Benny pulled off her hat and turned it about slowly in her hands, gazing at the faint chalk marks still remaining after years of wear. '$50' the marks sketched out. It had a rich red lining, and a neatly embroidered label reading 'Long John's Hat Emporium.' The store mascot had been a tiny pirate, complete with parrot and wire cutlass. At Christmas time the store's owner wound a few little coloured lights around it, and perched a bigger, insulated outdoor bulb on the crown of his hat, and played a piratical version of 'Merry Christmas.' The silliness of it all had appealed to Benny. Halloween had been even more impressive.
Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of her cotenants, both neatly dressed and quite flushed. "Shall we?" Jed boomed merrily, and with that they piled into the hearse and made their way out of the garage. This time the gate was wide open when they got to it, and after a moment or two of debate, Halliday clambered out of the hearse and closed it. The padlock was huge, old, and rusty, and she ultimately got it shut by beating it with a pitted and scarred cricket bat she dug out of the trunk. The rain was steady and pounding now, and whenever the hearse slowed it drummed like heavy fingertips on the car roof. It was noisy, but not too unpleasant, Beeny thought. Until she looked over at Jed from her position in the backseat.
The tall woman looked pale and sweaty, and was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Halliday had slid over and wrapped both arms around her, whispering something in her ear. Benny was bewildered for a few moments, and then a quiet clue tapped her on the forehead. Sometimes in the nasty, smelly apartment building she had lived in in Canada, the elevator had gotten stuck. No big deal. The main reason Benny even knew was the position of her door, which was right in front of the elevator doors. When the elevator had gotten stuck in the middle of the night, tennants were often forced to resort to activating the fire alarm, as the caretaker refused to get up otherwise. The fire alarm wasn't a bell, but an awful, wailing siren like the ones signalling the armourers enemy fire was incoming, and their guns had better be loaded. The first time it had gone off, Benny had been out of bed and standing in the middle of her flat in confusion, so disoriented by her sudden wakening she was looking for an antiaircraft gun in her living room. After that, she had reacted much the same way every time it went off as Jed was now.
It was lousy feeling, but Benny did see a bit of
gentle goodness in it. During the war, it had saved her life. In that
dingy building, it had done the same.
Three floors down, and she had been startled to hear someone bellowing vigourously for help. The man was pounding on something too, from the sound of it. Popping open the floor door and sticking the box in it to hold it open, Benny had located the man's room almost immediately. It was on the same side as the fire four floors above, all of which were now aflame, if the yellow tongues licking at some of the open doorways were any indication. Most people had already gotten out, but for whatever reason this guy hadn't. The air was stunningly hot, and Benny soon discovered one reason the man couldn't get out. The walls and his door handle were impossible to touch.
Benny looked up and down the hall, and cursed when she saw the fire extinguisher was gone. Calling to the man she'd be back for him, she had hauled in the bigger extinguisher from the stairwell. Later she would be unable to explain how she had lifted it at all, let alone swung it hard enough to break open the trapped man's door. He had come flying out of the room, the other fire extinguisher still gripped in his hands, its bottom scarred from pounding it on the concrete inner wall. He had stared at her in shear wonder.
"How'd you do that?" he had blurted. "You're a bloody smurf!"
Benny hadn't bothered to answer, just pushed him towards the stairwell. Soon they were almost at the groundfloor, along with Benny's precious manuscripts.
"Wouldn't it be easier to dump that?" the man had asked.
"Would you dump a life's work?" Benny had shot back.
"Would you leave your balls behind?" Benny had snapped at him, rather more bluntly and coarsely than she usually would have done.
"No!" the man had squawked in shock.
"Then you shut up while I keep the things I care about the most from getting toasted."
Benny tipped her head to the side. Her apartment had been half gutted. On the upside, she had saved someone's life, and her manuscripts. Her picture had also wound up in the paper, more because she was standing outside on a cool fall night with a box of papers and nothing on but a t-shirt and boxers. It had mortified her to see it the next morning, but an ex-officer had recognized her from the serial number printed on her underpants, and sent the best help he could think of. Three boxes of clothes from stores.
Hence her clothes today: black jeans, black vest, olive drab shirt and tie, and olive drab socks. Benny blinked. No wonder Halliday and Adams thought she was colour blind. Pretty much the only colour she wore besides black was green.
"Hello? Hello? Ms. Basilas, are you all right?" Halliday was looking at her with concern now. "You're not having bad memories of a creeping barrage of popping shells, are you?"
"No, no..." Benny smiled a little. "I was remembering a fire in the building I used to live in actually... because of the fire alarm. Sounded like a raid siren."
Jed took a deep breath and let it out. "I don't get rattled by my memories too often any more, but every now and again something will get my number." she turned to look at Benny. "You're not having too much trouble with that sort of thing are you?"
"No. I got lucky." Benny smiled a little, and unconsciously ran a thumb over a tiny hematite carving of a bear she wore on a leather thong around her neck. Her companions nodded quietly.
The rest of the drive to the Academy was quiet, all three women lost in their thoughts. Benny's attention turned back to the road and the buildings on either side of it as they drove past the laboratory buildings and deeper into the campus. They were approaching a large stone building, its facade ornamented with spiralling snakes and swooping birds. A large statue carved from mottled black marble stood in front, depicting a tall woman, a bow gripped in one hand, the fingers of the other tangled in the fur of a wolf. A sinewy mountain cat was pressed up against her other leg. Eeerily enough, the statue had been carved with a faint smile on her face, and her gaze seemed to follow them as they drove past the little montage.
"Where are we?" Benny asked, still staring back at the unnerving statue.
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