Ronnie Babcock wasn't crazy about crowds. The babble of voices confused her; she couldn't stop herself from attempting to follow several conversations at once.
Being surrounded by hundreds of strangers made her feel simultaneously exposed and isolated. She always ended up alone in a corner at parties. Chilling at home with a book wasn't so bad, compared to being alone in a crowd. Feeling invisible.
Though worse than that, maybe, were the guys she seemed to attract. They tended to be short, aggressive, and ready with a line. That was a problem, especially if she'd been drinking.
Yet, in defiance of personal history, here she was, down on Peachtree Street, on a Saturday morning. . She'd wanted to make it for years, and now that she lived in Smyrna, there really wasn't any excuse not to. She'd taken MARTA to Peachtree Center, and had been out on the street for almost an hour, becoming acclimated to the noise so she could tune it out. She hardly even heard the tumult anymore.
She'd gotten time off from her burrito-making weekend job in Vinings, and Aardvark had told her to have a good time and get back with him next week. It was like taking a vacation without having a real job.
She looked at her new Forbidden Planet watch. She'd had to order it from Italy, for some reason, but it was worth it. Almost ten. It was still only warm instead of hot. The parade was set to start at ten; it'd make its way from Woodruff Park up to the Hyatt Regency where the Con was held. It would be a busy few days; lots she wanted to see, workshops to take, all sorts of things.
Somehow, she felt naked without a costume. Like a tourist. She'd decided against her black leather Emma Peel costume. She loved it, but it drew the wrong men, like flies to honey. Too hot, anyway, for Atlanta on Labor Day weekend. Shane had offered to sew her a new costume based on one of Peel's colored jumpsuits with strategic cutouts and zippers. He said he could use moisture-wicking synthetic fabric; he promised it would be "even better than being naked."
Or rather, "nekkid"; that's how he pronounced it. He'd said, "You'll feel that breeze in all the right places. Yes."
It was hard to get Shane to make eye contact, but there was nothing shy about his mouth. Ronnie was surprised Shane had even heard of Diana Rigg. Against her better judgement, she asked, "You like Mrs. Peel, do you?" Without hesitation he said, "I'd hit that like a historically accurate one-quarter scale steam locomotive on the Stapleford Miniature Railroad." It was amazing, sometimes, the assortment of facts that did and did not reside in Shane's head.
So she'd settled for denim shorts and a tee shirt. It showed Robby the Robot, and the Robot from Lost in Space, standing hand-in-hand (well, mechanical pincers together). Above them a Valentine heart contained the words, WARNING! DO NOT DENY OUR RIGHT TO LOVE!
So far, amongst parade participants and spectators, she'd seen costumed comic book heroes, comic book villains, endless variations on denizens from Star Wars, Doctor Who and a dozen anime series (played straight, played for laughs, or played for obscure in-jokes that she wasn't sure she got). Characters from moronic children's cartoons, unaccountably beloved by adults. Characters from endless time-sucking video games.
And she'd seen countless young people who somehow made her feel old at 25. She found herself missing college. Not that it was always happy; but at least, back then (two whole years) it felt like there was a reason for being where she was.
One night, in her first semester at ETSU, a combination of rum-and-Cokes and ten hours of nonstop D&D had distorted her sense of judgement to the point where, when Mark, a five-foot-six-inch Geology major with a wispy goatee whispered in her ear, "Let's go back to your dorm room and check each other for deer ticks," it seemed reasonable.
They didn't find any ticks, but she did get to check several items off her personal to-do list. At the cost of a sprained ankle; they were both inexperienced, and it was the blind leading the blind. (He was, in fact, practically blind without his glasses.) That relationship never really developed past the mutual exchange of virginity.
The next time involved homemade mead, a Hammer horror films marathon and an English major of medium height, named Troy. That one didn't work. The next one, and the next, and a few more ... they didn't work, not for more than two weeks as a personal record. She tried to think of each brief relationship as an adventure rather than a failure.
Hey, there went a whole group of Indiana Joneses. Male, female, fat, petite. The parade was definitely underway.
She'd had a habit, for a while, of sleeping with any reasonably intelligent guy who hit on her. The men tended to be enthusiastic in bed, but afterwards it felt like, once they'd crossed "Six-foot nerd girl" off their list, they were done. Every guy had a list. She'd never actually seen the list, but she knew it existed. Geoff, the stocky grad student who'd bought her all those Hurricanes at Poor Richard's, had told her so flat-out, after she woke up in his mobile home.
Waylon, her Art History professor, had told her he couldn't resist girls in glasses. She'd resented being desired for a stereotypical characteristic, and started wearing contacts.
At the same time, she had to admit he might not have gotten to first base with her if he didn't look so good in that long jacket and scarf. If it hadn't been the Winter Session, nothing might have happened. He smelled of pipe tobacco and whiskey, and was twice her age. And her professor. She probably shouldn't have slept with him at all. And he gave her a B in the course.
Wow, she thought. Look at all the Doctors. She was glad to see the parade of Doctor Who enthusiasts weren't just doing characters from the new version of the show; there were Doctors from the 1970s and '60s. Tom Baker's version of the Doctor was always her favorite. She thought, Everything I love happened before I was born. Hey, it's K-9!
Every so often she'd determined to take her fate in her own hands and make the first move; preferably with a tall guy she actually liked. That had failed either spectacularly or pathetically, enough times to make her believe relationships just didn't work for her.
Lamar Carmichael had been her eleventh strike. Funny; he was the reason she'd come to Georgia in the first place, but she'd hardly thought of him since kicking him so hard, right where it counted—in front of the . And in the testicles.
She felt bad about that, though she wasn't quite in control of herself at the time. There'd been a red haze, a roaring in her ears, and then her foot just lashed out and effortlessly struck home. As a momentary experience, it was actually better than some sex she'd had.
Including her abortive blind date with WillEm (counting Will and Em as one repulsive entity), that was twelve strikes. No, thirteen if she counted Wishes. Hell; throw in Paulo and make it fourteen, even though that had just been five strange minutes. He was kind of hot, though.
Okay, fourteen strikes; that was enough for a while.
The mental image she had once carried of her theoretical Mr. Right (or as she called him, Captain Future) had faded away to an amorphous grey blob, like rainclouds seen from the bottom of a wishing well. (A cheap wishing well, lacking the little wooden roof the good ones had.)
At least she hadn't slept with Paulo. (Note to self, she thought. If Paulo shows up again, don't sleep with him.) And Wishes had turned out to be the kind of friend where the pants stay on. Ronnie sometimes thought he might actually be a friendly asexual android from the future. His alleged girlfriend, supposedly still down in Mexico, must be something.
Even having a relationship with herself was problematic. She hadn't been able to look her vibrator in the face since the incident on the road trip, with that idiot Shane. At least she'd found out she couldn't actually die of embarrassment. Though she had sprained her right ankle, the same one she hurt that first time in her dorm room. It was still a little swollen.
She'd set some rules for herself. If a man whose eyes were the same distance from the ground as her cleavage came up to her and said, "You'll put somebody's eye out with those!" she'd turn and walk away. And no drinking. She'd written No Booze on her left hand, her drinking hand, to remind herself.
On her other hand she'd written Talk to people, and she was determined to give that a try.
Star Wars storm troopers were marching past. For some reason, one of them had bagpipes. Then her view was blocked, for the third time, by a woman's head She wasn't particularly sorry to miss the storm troopers; two out of six movies were any good, and the whole thing was frankly lackluster as space opera.
So she studied the head. It blocked her view like an occluding planet. Chick must be her own height, six feet. Thick black hair, kept up with a long lacquered pin. Probably a pain to get a brush through that stuff. The sunlight brought out glints of different shades. On either side of the head dangled earrings made of strings of little shells.
Tanned neck, broadening into an even more tanned upper back above a tee shirt. More than just tanned; a deep golden color like raw wildflower honey. The tee shirt was good quality too, in a deep purple; Ronnie wondered what might be on the front of it. She'd seen some good tee shirts today.
And a tattoo, right on the back of the woman's neck. Some circular red thing. She leaned a little closer. Not a tattoo, but body paint. The red was circumscribed by a silvery circle, glinting metallically in the sun. The disk wasn't solid red; there were what looked like reflected highlights, and a subtle gradation of red leading to the center.
Suddenly she knew what it was. She leaned in over the stranger's left shoulder, almost touching her. Her heart was pounding for no reason, like always when she was forcing herself to speak to a stranger. Get a grip, she told herself. It's just a chick. She inhaled, and smelled vanilla and warm skin.
She was having second thoughts about the small joke she'd planned. Her jokes always fell flat; besides, the girl had probably heard it ten times today. She went on from second to third thoughts, and took a couple of steps back. She'd lost momentum; too late. She put her hands in her pockets and imagined herself inside a glass tube, cut off from human contact. She felt as if she'd lost a friend, and felt ridiculous for feeling that way. She'd never had many female friends; maybe she'd just now missed out on making one. I'll always wonder.
In her peripheral vision she saw something short and bright red, coming up fast. It was a man in a red-shirted Star Trek uniform. (C. 1968; the original show.) He was possibly five feet seven; slightly chunky, slightly bearded. Without breaking stride, he glanced sideways at Ronnie's breasts, constrained in a jogging bra: "Nice!" He stepped up to the black-haired woman and pressed his finger to the circular red design on her neck. "Bzzzt!"
A rushing as of mighty waters filled Ronnie's ears; a red haze clouded her vision. Even as the black-haired girl was turning around, Ronnie found herself taking two long strides forward, putting her hand to the man's throat. She bent at the knee, pivoted, and put him over her leg and onto his back on the sidewalk, her knee holding him down, her hand still on top of his trachea.
"Whoa!" He stared up at her, looking more astonished than upset. Ronnie's heart felt like it would pound out of her chest.
She stared hard at him. "You can't just push a woman's buttons that way!" Her voice sounded distant, like someone else's.
Aardvark, this is your fault, she thought. Not only had he taught her the move, but the weeks of handling stones and bricks with him had given her more upper-body strength than she'd ever had.
No, it wasn't Aardvark's fault, it was hers. Maybe I'll laugh about this later, she thought. In jail. Oh, my God.
She took her hand off the man's neck. He didn't move; he was grinning like a naughty child. "Put your feet on me!"
"Put your feet on me! I'm your property now!" He twisted his head and yelled to passersby: "This woman owns me!"
A ten-year-old girl dressed as Harry Potter was filming them with her phone. The man asked her, "Can I have a copy of that?"
Girl-Harry laughed. "You're a funny man!"
Ronnie snapped at her, "No he's not!" She yelled down into his face, "Stop enjoying this!"
The redshirt's gaze went past her. "Sweet wine! Look at those ta-ta's!"
Ronnie felt a hand on her shoulder. It was the black-haired girl, leaning over her, leaning down close to her ear. A soft voice said, "He's learned his lesson, I reckon."
The man said, "No I haven't!"
Ronnie stood up. He bounced to his feet, said, "You've made me very happy," and abruptly grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth. Then he dashed off, pulling a cellphone from his pocket. Ronnie heard him shout into it, "Beam me up, I just got womanhandled! Ha, ha!" And he was gone into the crowd.
Ronnie stood there, her hand to her mouth. The day had taken an odd turn.
The little Harry Potter girl was still filming, and still laughing. Ronnie turned her back to the annoying kid and found herself face-to-face with the black-haired, honey-skinned woman.
She wasn't often able to look another woman in the eyes on the same level. They were almond-shaped, dark brown eyes, almost bronze, as if they had flecks of metal in them. So much more interesting than the drab hazel eyes Ronnie was used to in the mirror.
The girl's jaw was just a little too wide, her mouth a bit too generous. Her nose too long, her eyebrows too emphatically dark. The mouth widened in a smile, showing white teeth with a slight gap in front, and it struck Ronnie that all the wrong-sized features, taken together, made a hell of a good face.
She felt a little dizzy. With the heady violence over, she was coming down from her adrenaline rush. Without thinking she put her hand on the other woman's shoulder to steady herself, looking down and breathing deeply. Wow; really a fine tee shirt. A big Blake's 7 logo. Nice.
And she could see what Mr. Redshirt was talking about; the tee was a little snug, enough anyway to make it clear the girl didn't care for bras. Ronnie had never felt comfortable in public without one.
The woman put her arm around Ronnie, lending her support. In her soft voice she said, "C'mon then, let's find a chair, have a sit-down." As they started walking, she said, "I'm Cherie."
They found space on one of the benches at Peachtree Centre. Ronnie said, "I'm so sorry for making a scene."
"No worries." The woman put out her hand, and Ronnie shook it. Good grip.
"I'm Veronica. Ronnie. Babcock."
Cherie said, "It's not a button, you know." She pointed to her neck. "Back there."
"Oh, right. I know. It's HAL 9000 from 2001." Ronnie was feeling a little better. "When I was behind you in the crowd, I was going to say, 'Open the pod bay doors, HAL', but I figured you'd probably heard that like ten times today—"
Cherie laughed and suddenly hugged her. Wow, thought Ronnie. I think her breasts could beat up my breasts. Her friends Parmie and Moira were both huggers, but they were also both at least seven inches shorter than her; she wasn't used to going breast-to-breast like this.
Cherie said, "You are absolutely the first person today to get that! I had to hold still for half an hour while they painted it."
Ronnie finally recognized the voice. "You said your name is Cherie?"
"Yeah; Cherie Beamish. Lovely to meet you."
"Ah, do you know a guy named Lamar?"
Cherie raised her black eyebrows. "What, Lamar Carmichael?"
"Little lying rat-faced mongrel, but a good dancer?"
"That's the one."
Cherie's smile was huge. "You're the Ronnie that kicked Lamar in the family jewels!" She laughed. "I was hangin' around the wrong park completely, like a dork, while you were giving him the business!" She grabbed Ronnie and kissed her on the cheek. "Wicked!"
"Is that good?"
"Too right. Here, let's have a feed and a bevy, and you show me your schedule and I'll show you mine. You're here for the Con, right?"
"Yeah, absolutely." Ronnie dug out her highlighted con schedule and glanced at her watch. She was supposed to be heading for the panel about the Cassini probe, but lunch sounded like a great idea.
She stood up, and noticed for the first time the edge of some kind of design, peeking out from the edge of Cherie's neckline. She pointed. "What's that, another painting?"
Cherie looked down. "No, that one's a tattoo. Got it done in San Francisco. Guess what it is." She smiled up.
What she could see looked like the upper part of some cartoon animal. "Um, it's a Tasmanian Devil."
"Wrong! Surely you don't think I'm Tasmanian?"
"No! God, no, of course not. Are you?"
Cherie laughed. She seemed to laugh a lot. "No, New Zealand."
"Right, that's what Wishes thought."
"Oh, that's a long story."
"Well, tell me sometime."
"Well, I will. So it's not a Tasmanian Devil?"
"Here, have a peek." For a second, Cherie lifted her shirt up. The design covered most of her left breast.
"Jesus, Cherie!" Ronnie looked around. "Damn it, there's that little Harry Potter kid again." The little girl was staring at Cherie wide-eyed, both hands over her mouth.
Cherie got up, laughing. She took Ronnie by the arm, and they took the stairs down to the food court. Ronnie turned her head and murmured directly into Cherie's ear, "It's the Monster from the Id. Forbidden Planet."
"That's good, you know the old movies."
"I have old-fashioned taste when it comes to the future."
They got jambalaya and compared their Con schedules. Ronnie was hitting a lot of things listed under Science, Space, and Skepticism. Cherie's schedule included more headings like Tolkien, Dark Fantasy, and Paranormal Events. There wasn't much overlap.
Cherie looked at her for a long time. Ronnie played with her cornbread, trying to put the right words together. What she wanted to say was, Forget my schedule. I want to hang with you.
Cherie wadded up her own schedule and tossed it at a trash can. It went straight in. "Let's be mates, right? I've got three days free. Let's you and me be each other's backup." She pulled out a blank copy of the schedule. "Got another paper right here."
They started from scratch and this time there seemed to be a lot of events they agreed on. Ronnie agreed to try Filking, just once; Cherie said she'd go to a Skeptical panel with an open mind. Ronnie, mentally gritting her teeth, made a date to go to a panel about alleged psychic phenomena and their use in fiction.
"So, Ron, you're not into God and all that?" Ronnie found she liked "Ron". She'd shortened her name from Veronica when she was ten; it'd taken years of work to get her parents to go along with it. Nobody had ever given her a nickname before.
Usually when someone asked Ronnie about her religious beliefs (which seemed to happen a lot in Georgia), she gave a short, diplomatic speech she'd long ago memorized. But to Cherie, she just said, "Nope. Stone-cold atheist."
"D'you not believe in anything, then?"
"I believe in lots of things. I believe in New Zealand, down there on the other side of the world, even though I've never seen it."
"Come down and see it, Babcock. I could show you."
"Thanks, Beamish." Ronnie grinned; she felt her mouth stretching like it hadn't in a long time. Her cheeks would get sore if this kept up; she didn't care. She reflected that not having a man wasn't so bad. Having friends without the tension and distraction of sex was definitely easier. "Hey, maybe we'll run into Lamar this weekend. He's probably here, chatting up some other girl half a head taller than he is."
"Wouldn't that be something, Ron? Do you think we should give him another chance, then?"
"Another chance to do what? Nah, not really. You can if you want to."
"Well, how about givin' him another kick in the family jewels?"
"No, no, I shouldn't have done that. Poor impulse control."
Cherie grabbed Ronnie's left hand and gently pulled it open, to show the note she'd written to herself, No Booze. "Is drink a problem? I'll help you stay out of pubs. Bars, I mean."
Ronnie shook her head. "Not a problem, not unless I'm surrounded by horny, geekish guys with no social skills. Which describes every Con I've ever been to."
"No worries. I'll watch out for you, and if worse comes to worst, you can use that judo again. That was a beaut. That was like Emma Peel."