"What do we think it is, Delta?" she said, in a procedural tone.
"How'm I s'posed to know?" muttered Delta.
The tower, which was now shaped like an enormous monument, certainly didn't feel like a Charlie design. Its Signamancy was rudimentary, abstract...an eyeless woman with crossed arms. It dominated the skyline of Charlescomm now. It wore the Arkendish like a hat. It scanned as actively magical, but with no recognizable discipline. It didn't belong here.
"If not, it's a breach," Queenie continued, when Delta had no reply. "So what class breach are we talking? Come on."
Delta drifted over to the wall and set down the crude figurine she'd been holding. Large and small, these small stone carvings now adorned Topstation everywhere you looked. They were not units, just part of the new decor. Every single one of them was of a woman, most with grotesquely exaggerated female features.
"I know you don't know. Asking for opinions!" Queenie dapped her hands a couple of times. "Let's go!"
Queenie had some opinions right now.
Having opinions was supposed to come with the rank. Charlie had made them all Fox Forcers for different reasons (she most definitely had some opinions on that), and sure, nobody could think like Charlie. But they were all supposed to think. Right now, Delta wasn't. "Delta!"
The other Foxer gave her the courtesy of a single moment's eye contact, along with an are-you-an-idiot lip curl. "It's not a breach. The tower's still standing."
Queenie stared for a moment. "Don't sound too happy about it."
Delta rolled her eyes. "I just mean if an enemy could do this to the tower, then they could take it down. And us with it. Nobody attacks by...remodeling." She glanced at the Big Man in the wheelie. "Only a Ruler can do something like this. And he doesn't seem to be concerned. So it's gotta be his."
"You do it."
With the Arkendish unpowered and nobody handling switch duty, all incoming signals traffic was going ignored. That was ugly expensive. They were definitely in fiscal peril right now, if not physical. And associates network-wide would be panicking.
Queenie made a shooing gesture at Delta, and broke her' gram from Sally. "Get on switch and settle everybody down," she demanded. She floated back to her place by Charlie's side. "It's the only thing you're good for, anyway" she added under her breath.
Delta clucked. "One more thing than you."
Queenie ignored her, and took up Charlie's hand. His lovely, fragile hand. He was still Gardening. Real deep. Poor thing. A moment after Tondelayo he'd only said, "I need to..." Then he fell in, and he hadn't come out since. To Queenie, he felt so scattered in there that he probably didn't even know about the tower.
But Delta could still be right. Whatever it looked like, the change to Comm Tower might be his doing. Only the Ruler (or certain casters, mainly Dirtamancers, Signamancers, and Florists) could alter a city structure. And Charlie had been talking about doing it, ever since the attack on 40. Losing the powered connection to the Arkendish had disrupted normal operations for the whole side, not just him.
"But we can't just throw Shmuckers at the problem" he'd grumbled, when the option came up in conference a couple of times. "We'd lose everything."
As she understood it, since Charlie was not a Dirtamancer, his "upgrade" of Comm Tower wouldn't work like they needed it to. He would definitely wipe out Storybro, and the turns and turns worth of Ivan Poe's other Dirtamancy. Most likely, they wouldn't just lose all the permanent lighting and Shockmancy traps, but the channel-monitoring and other capabilities that the Arkendish gained from being connected to the tower. Comm Tower remembered things for the side. All of those memories—and the ability to remember anything new—could only easily be restored by Ivan Poe. That's why Charlie had gone to such extremes to retrieve the Dirtamancer. Held risked a lot of capital to save his capital. In Queenie's opinion, Tondelayo's mission had been at least as much about getting Poe here to fix the tower as it was about Firebaugh or the Arkenpliers or the guns.
So this mod to the tower might be part of Charlie's bounceback plan. He always had one. He did things ondish that they could never understand. Maybe he just needed to get this strung out to do...whatever it was.
But if Delta was right, it meant Delta was wrong. This wasn't the final accounting for Charlescomm.
Queenie hoped the new Comm Tower was listening and remembering this conversation. Because when Charlie came out of it, he was gonna have words for Delta."Y'know, if I have to be Fox Force One, I'll be Fox Force One." Queenie snipped. "Fine, I'm on switch. Go sell yourself to the low bidder."
Foxers didn't do ranks. They didn't give or take orders from other Foxers.
They had a duty roster, based on a mutual agreement about where their strengths met Charlescomm's needs. Conflicts of opinion were settled by Charlie, but those had been rare in the last few hundredturns. Even since losing Belle and Fifinella, they hadn't really disagreed about who would do what. Everybody knew where they stood. Queenie was the weakest of the Five (or Three, or Two) when it came to comms, and she had no particular skills at client management. So she rarely took switch, and never during daylight.
So maybe this was a brave thing she did, closing her eyes, arching her back to float, and letting her juice flow to her head, tuning in to that awful screeching rush of whistles, static, half-felt emotions, and stray spoken words. I am listening, she indicated to herself and the world. Charlescomm is open for business. How can we help you win?
But Kings and Queens, knaves and usurpers, sirs and madams, Foxers don't do "bravery" either. They just do "operational necessity."
Thinkspace enveloped her mind in featureless blackness. But this wasn't the usual comforting void of distraction-free thought, focused on a single subject. Queenie was flying blind in a rainstorm at night. Every switch query pelted and buffeted her. All those emergency flags flashed for her attention, like thunderbolts.
...intending to invoke the non-response clause under Section VI, paragraph 2 if you don't answer immediately about the river blockade. How are they still able to get past our...just that yesterday was my thousandturn and I didn't hear from him, so it's more that I'm worried he's okay. I know things are super busy right now. But if he could just call and...BIG TICKET ITEM, Charlie. This one's white hot with a pink flower on it. Got the fattest mark here and I'm blowin' it if you don't hit me back right now...saying that if it wasn't for my horse, I wouldn't have spent those three hundredturns in the Magic Kingdom...SPECIAL OFFER! Am I even doing this right? Hello? SPECIAL OFFER! I'm trying to place an order with Charlie. SPECIAL OFFER! This coupon says I just have to concentrate on the wants SPECIAL OFFER! and you'll...
She could have handled any three, maybe four of these high-priority messages at once, but there were dozens and dozens, all forking through the blackness and leaving glowing afterimages that stacked up on top of one another. Even top level alerts began to lose their individual meaning, banorning lost in a branching web of hopeless Thinkamancy chatter.
Queenie began to feel numb. Switch was about setting priorities, so she tried to distance herself to take in the comms traffic as a complete whole, a system of thoughts and feelings and needs from within the side and without.
She found she could only pull back so far. She herself was a part of the great network of messages. The alert-flash afterimages followed common channels, which gathered and joined like the exposed roots of a mighty tree.
What she was seeing looked incomprehensibly complex, somehow almost...holy. But it was her job now to tame and manage it.
"How did Delta even do this?" she asked, in awe.
A flash of light seemed to spiral up the ropy bark of the great tree.
And how could she not do it now? The great tree seemed to complete her thought. What in a hex is the matter with that lil brat? Huh?
Startled, Queenie drew back to the limits of her connection. Was this...? Could this be Charlie talking?
She tried to locate her own feelings, lost as they were in the twisted fibers of the feelings of everyone else. No. It wasn't him. There was hardly any of his hum here, none of that manly ambrosia scent of Charlie's presence. The tree felt like its own thing, a Titanically big thing, alive with her own life and the lives of all the others it connected to.
"She's giving up,* Queenie thought, almost subconsciously answering the life-tree's question.
Well, she doesn't seem like a quitter ta me, said the tree, with an indignant crawl of lightning over its surface. A showy lil tramp, maybe, but not a quitter. Quitters never win! Level 9? She oughts brow that, come aahn now.
Queenie surprised herself with a single laugh at "tramp!' Definitely not something Charlie would have said. But however accurate the epithet, it actually made her want to stick up for Delta a little.
"I think...she thinks he's giving up. After Tondy," she said. "But I know he's not."
Who's giving up? said the life tree, in its woody, matronly voice. Oh! Charles, ya mean.
"Um." Charles? "Yes...Charlie. He's in there scheming, right? You're part of his big plan, I bet."
Somewhere in the last few moments, it had clicked for Queenie that this was Comm Tower she was seeing and talking to. Had to be.
Okay, well if I am it's news ta me, sugarplum. He's taking a lil nappy right now, but'cha know, we got a lotta unanswered mail comin' in here! Scads of it! My gosh. If you're not gonna do anything about than then maybe you better talk ta yer lil friend the floozy there and put her on the line, okay?
Queenie looked up and down the vast height of the glowing tree, peering high above, where its branches and leaves disappeared into black Thinkspace. It seemed both to shelter and to loom menacingly over her. The tower was a protector, but perhaps also a threat. A lil nappy...
"So...Delta can do a lot with the intra-side traffic, but ideally, Charlie's the one who would ultimately handle these client calls," she told the tree hesitantly. "A lot of 'em only want direct contact with Charlie. A brush-off's only gonna make them madder."
Oh, okay. You want me to wake him to then?
"No, no!" said Queenie hurriedly. It could do that? Charlie needed a serious amount of time to come up from Gardening, or even to disjoin and get offdish. "Bad idea."
Ya, he's hasn't been feelin' too good lately, has he? Poor lil guy.(sic) said the tree, with a deep and abiding resonance of concem in its (her?) tone. Whaddya think we can we do for him, huh? Chicken soup's always good, if he can hold it down. Maybe try some saltines and ginger ale first, ta see if it stays in his tummy. If it ends up on his tie, we'll know no soup.'
Queenie could hear her own worry for Charlie echoed in the tree's voice. She smiled at it. "That's...not really going to address the core issue, I think."
Oh what's his problem, then? Is he just moping, like your tramp friend seems ta think? If that's all, then I'll tell ya, maybe he just needs a swift kick in the pants.
"No, it's...he's Gardening." Queenie really hoped the tower-tree already knew what that meant, because it would be problematic to explain.
The tree considered this for a moment.
I don't think so, sugarplum. It doesn't even look ta me like he's been out in the sunshine in a good thousandturn. Maybe he does need ta go outside and play in the garden, ya know? But...
"No, I mean that he...has some, um needs he has to take care of."
He's special needs, uh huh, got it. said the tower tree. Like what? Whaddya mean by 'Gardening' sugarplum? C'mahn. Out with it.
So the tower didn't know. This left Queenie torn between her operational imperative to literally perish before divulging a Fox-level secret, and the overwhelming sense that the tower (whatever it was) sincerely wanted to help Charlie, and that she/it was maybe the only thing that could help him, at this point.
She was going to have to fly by the seat of her opinion.
"Well," the Foxer began slowly, "he was...dependent...on Flower Power, for a long time. And he...can't get that anymore. So when things get to be too much for him, he's got to use the Arkendish to sort of...break up his mind, temporarily. He has a channel for that. The Gardening Channel. It's not the same as Flower Power, but it gives him...relief sometimes."
The tree was silent for a moment, but then the whole of it—roots, branches and distant leaves—quivered.You. Mean. He's...on DOPE?!