Striking

At first Gana was thrilled to have Svana and Popit with her on the leafleting run to the Technical Natural Science side of the University. It was kind of a hike to get there from the central campus, involving a streetcar, two buses, and another streetcar, all because the old bridge was closed for repairs and the direct subway line was closed in order to add an extension to it. But even in the best of times it would be a longish journey, and it was good to have like-minded companions to help you keep track of petitions on clipboards and leaflets in banded bundles. The way across town was fun, they had a lot to talk about and Gana was also a wee bit interested in both Svana and Popit in ways that reached beyond the camaraderie of collaborating in the biggest student strike to come in forty years.

Not that she'd even so much as hint at it until at least after the great rally they were drumming up attendance for, though.

When they were on the streetcar, the second-to-last leg of their journey, before they would have to walk around the satellite campus, going from huge office building to immense laboratory and all around, the conversation turned to just who were the people they would be trying to convince today. That's when Gana started feeling a little less thrilled with Svana and Popit. It was normal to have some misgivings about the grad students doing science in the service of industry. But Svana and especially Popit were inclined to doubt the usefulness of coming over here at all.

"So why did you sign up for this, then?" Gana asked irritably. "If it's just going to be a waste of your precious time."

Svana and Popit passed a glance that Gana couldn't read, and then it was time to get off the streetcar and begin hiking around the technical side.

It was astonishing how much of this area was just plain inaccessible. Gana tried all her tricks to get into the bowels of the buildings. She was pretty good at getting past the NO ADMITTANCE signs and AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL notices, in general, but in some of these buildings, it was far worse than that, worse than locks and security guards. There just weren't any obvious ways to get to the labs.

If only these had been the buildings housing the classrooms and teaching labs, they could haunt the entrances and just grab students as they came out of their classes. But these were pure research over here, and there was never a crowd of scientists pouring through the doors all at once. After failing to explore much of the first several buildings, they hit the Lindeski Arboriculture Laboratories, not expecting much especially with that notorious name on it, but they found it was entirely open to their ramblings.

There wasn't much on the first floor but displays - a giant slice of tree with historical dates on it, some maps and drawings, and some cases that Svana called "taxidermy of plants." But when they went up the stairs, they found a wealth of labs, populated, though sparsely.

They showed everybody they found their leaflets and petitions, and got mostly polite but disinterested responses. But there was a graduate student on the top floor who not only took their leaflet but signed both petitions and even promised to come out for the rally if they would leave quickly so he could finish the thing he was working on "before his materials all thawed."

Svana came out of the lab with a decidedly hostile air, much more hostile than she had showed to any of the many people who had refused to sign the petitions. Popit just rolled his eyes. When they finally felt like their day was over and they headed out for the streetcar, Gana asked Svana what the story was. "That one guy who said he'd come for the rally this afternoon - what's wrong with him?"

"He's some kind of liar," she said. "You must see it. He's deep in bed with Lindeski: why would he ever come to our rally unless it was to sabotage it or spy on it?"

Gana didn't have an answer to that. She hadn't really thought about what that "Lindeski" name on the front of the building would have meant, politically.

Of course she knew who Strom Lindeski was. He was bad enough to merit a point of his own on the students' list of grievances. He was campaigning for a new term in Parliament on the platform of revisiting regulation as a concept and most especially he had it in for preserves, parks, and wild lands. He was a great advocate of the "higher good" theory that stated that the best use for any bit of territory was the most intensely profitable, all other factors to be discarded as irrelevant.

And that arboriculture laboratory building wasn't the only thing on campus with the Lindeski name on it.

Popit added, "That might be literal in his case."

At first Gana couldn't follow, but then she said, "Wait. What have you heard?"

Popit shook his head. "I didn't hear anything. I saw something. He has a tattoo on his arm, and it is a linden tree."

" . . .And? He's a tree botanist."

"There's a green and golden chain around the tree, and the initials SWL."

"You spent a long time examining the guy's tattoo," Svana said, giggling.

"Yeah, he was hot, but I was mostly curious about that tree," Popit said. "It took me a bit to figure out what the significance was."

"I still haven't figured it out," Gana said.

"You know how people get tattoos of their lovers' initials?" Popit said.

"But Strom Lindeski is seriously old, and that guy's only a little older than us!"

"Sugar daddy," said Svana.

Gana, Svana and Popit made it to Ostrakavsky Square an hour before the march was to start. One of these days Gana intended to work as a monitor on one of these rallies: but today, because she had gone leafleting all morning at the Technical side, she felt like simply attending this time. She watched the crowd filtering into the huge square from all directions, forming up at the north end in front of the Education Ministry under the uncountable colorful signs and banners.

As she turned to say a word to Svana and Popit, she was drowned out by a sound loud enough to be an explosion: but it wasn't. It was several hundred members of the Traditional Drummers Association commencing a complicated and melodic rhythm as they stepped out in front of the now-moving mass of people.

Gana walked past the groups as they slowly formed and even more slowly got into position and began moving out along the edge of the square.. It took a while. A lot of students passed by, arranged by major, ethnicity, several genders, and age - there was an "Older Students League" and even a "Younger students League." These really did look younger, like middle school age, but their banner proclaimed them to be University students. And there were students from several technical colleges, and from the high schools, and a large contingent of parents and preschool teachers with toddlers in tow. It wasn't just the students. There were unions and guilds and associations from all over the city and the country and even a few from elsewhere in the Consortium. There was a troupe of Streian dancers in their exotic clothes, but Gana thought they were most likely all born here, rather than being delegates from that country. In any case, she appreciated their leaf-green tunics and filmy pants, and the song they sang, which was in quite comprehensible Marezhky, was a pleasing thing, a little silly in the broad way it connected the health of the forest with the rights of workers and the poor, but infectious: where the Streian dancers marched, all their neighbors began to hum along with them.

There were the Graduate Students: they had somehow come unmoored from the rest of the University contingents ("typical," Gana thought), and were marching side by side with several white-collar professional organizations and a sprinkling of unions. Gana prepared to go catch up with the students from her major, but she saw a familiar face there: that guy from the tree lab this morning, who was walking along with a striking woman with auburn hair and decidedly olive-bronze flesh, the two of them clearly happy to be here, among the balloons and cowbells and leaflets and signs decrying the sins of the University. Gana turned to get Svana and Popit's attention, but they seem to have wandered off and left her, so instead she decided to march with the grad students, and find out more about the lab guy and his vivacious friend.

"Hey! You're here!" she shouted, to be heard over all the competing sounds of the huge rally.

"Yeah, I said I would be," he said, smiling. "Name's Strom, by the way. And this is my colleague Leni - what did you say your name was? Anyway, this is the person who brought the petition around this morning," he added to his friend. Turning back to Gana, he said, "You should bring it by the lab again. You'd get more signatures."

"We weren't doing so well this morning. My name's Gana."

Leni's hazel-brown eyes were really quite bright as she looked at Gana. "Come around the lab tomorrow before lunch and I'll help you."

"Really? We weren't expecting so much from the Lindeski building . . ."

"Why not? We're all involved in the research that supports the points in the strike platform," Leni said. "Or did you think those ideas came from nowhere?"

"It's just our experience - people argue the weirdest things. And not a lot of response or participation from that side. And, well, Lindeski."

Their contingent started moving in earnest now.

"Oh, yes, the dueling Lindeskis," Leni said. "It's true that Strom has some of us and Bendek has the rest of us. But I can help you there, steer you away from Strom's . . ."

"Strom?" Gana asked, looking from the attractive Leni to busy Strom, who was wrapped up in his telephone at the moment.

"What?" Leni burst out laughing. "Not that Strom. Strom Lindeski, versus Bendek Lindeski. This Strom is definitely not in bed with that Strom."

Gana laughed too, saying, "Funny you should say that. My friend was speculating that this Strom was in bed with Lindeski, his exact words."

"He is," Leni said, winking. "But not Strom Lindeski. Nor Bendek, really. His honey's named Wallen."

"That's too complicated for me," Gana said. "I can only follow simple things like regressions."

" If you can follow regressions, you can follow the Lindeskis. Maybe you'll let me explain it to you later."

"Are you flirting with me?" Gana asked.

"Definitely," Leni said. "Am I too subtle?"

"No, it's just that I wouldn't expect you to flirt with me."

"Good, I've surprised you twice already. Or is that four times? You do like surprises, don't you?"

"I like good ones."

"I think I'm all about the good surprises."

Ahead of them, the Phone Bank Professionals for Peace and Justice broke out into a song, a pastiche of a grade school anthem originally about the beauties of the Marezhky landscape, now co-opted to support not exactly deathless words about the iniquity of the University governors. A bunch of mylar balloons worked its way loose from where it had been lifting up a broad banner and supporting it against the threat of sag, and gently rose against the perpetually-grey sky. Strom got off the phone. To Leni, he said, "Wallen won't come. He's insisting on finishing his paper instead. I told him campus is going to be closed on Monday, he could take advantage of the extra time."

"Not your boyfriend. That paper is urgent. Like all the others," leni laughed.

"Actually, it kind of is. He -"

That sound was not the sound of several hundred drums crashing together at once. It was the sound of an explosion. Many explosions.

Gana heard a little squeal come out of her, and other screams coming from scores of others. Leni reached out and pulled her, and Strom, away from the direction the sound seemed to be coming from - the South, the far end of the Square, where the ranks of cops were standing, bored and uninvolved the last time Gana had looked at them a few minutes previous.

"Tear gas!" Leni said. Gana saw where she was pointing: She was right. There was a grenade heading right towards them, trailing dark roiling -smoke? opaque gas?. The crowd shrunk back but the grenades were coming from two directions so it was hard to see where to go to avoid it. Backwards was not a real option: the people were too thick there.

Leni grabbed at Gana's hand again and thrust a wet cloth into it. It smelled strongly of vinegar. "Tie it over your face," she said. "It will keep the gas out long enough to get us out of here." She didn't explain anything more as she was tying another cloth around her own face.

Gana nodded and tied the cloth over her face. She looked around: Strom had pulled his shirt over his face and was attempting to get oriented to leave the square. It was nearly impossible. There were lines and lines of police in different uniforms on the opposite two sides of the square and behind them, people were backing up, but nobody could move fast. There was already a danger of stampede. The stench of the tear gas was penetrating the vinegar just enough to cause Gana's heart to race.

Remember the tear gas itself causes feelings of panic and disorientation, she reminded herself. But would remembering that be enough to help her keep her head?

Her peripheral version was alerted to the green and orange stripe of a monitor's armband.

She swivelled her head and saw that the monitors had come up in front and were moving people around. The monitors were wearing gas masks and handing out wet bandanas. They were giving directions with distorted voices. People were being given the choice to stay and peacefully resist arrest or to leave. But first, "Children and disabled and caregivers first," the monitors were saying. "Open up for them, pull around in front of them."

Leni took Gana's hand and they folded back while two women hurried an older woman through, followed by two mothers with a twin stroller. Its rain shield was zipped up, but the women were both sobbing as they pushed their babies along.

They kept opening up and rushing through their more fragile comrades as they showed up, and then closing around them: to form a shield between themselves and the others. The tear gas grenades kept flying. As far as Gana could tell from her rising nausea, tearing eyes, inflamed skin and ragged breathing, the bandannas were soaked more in tear gas now than vinegar: nearly useless. But she didn't want to tear it off while the grenades were still coming. Every time another series of shots went off, she would look up to see where the grenades were headed, and duck to the other direction. Some of the grenades seemed to be going back in the other direction: people were throwing them away from the crowd. At each new round of explosions, there was always that anxious second when she wondered is it a real gun this time? Are they shooting us with live bullets now?

"Oh shit," Leni said. This grenade was coming in low and right at them. They all ducked away from it. Did it just change course? It was heading straight for Strom. Leni and Gana both dived for him, pushing him away, but it glanced off Strom's forehead, knocking him back.

He fell on his backside and sat dazed, slowly bringing a hand to his bleeding forehead. The grenade lay on the ground next to him, exuding smoky gas. Gana knew what to do. She ran over, pulling her shirt up over the bandana covering her face. with her other hand she reached for the grenade. It was hot. Holding her breath and fighting the urge to run away, she dropped her shirt from her face, ripped off the bandanna, and doubled it again to use it like a potholder to pick up the grenade. Extending as far as she could, she started to lob it back in the direction of the police."No," Strom shouted, reaching for it from where he was still sitting, swaying, on the ground. "I need that."

"What? It's still got gas in it."

"It chased me. It's not normal, I need it looked at."

"What the hell," Leni said, pulling a canvas bag out of her seemingly bottomless backpack. Then she pulled out a couple of plastic bags. "Wrap it up and stick it in there. It's almost done anyway."

Gana was wearing two shirts. Since the outer one was already soaked with the tear gas anyway, she wrapped the cooling grenade in the shirt, and then one of the canvas bags, then the canvas, and finally the plastic again. "I don't know how you're planning to get this home, guy," she said, "But if it's not ruined I want my shirt back, okay?"

Strom didn't answer. It looked like he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Leni called, "Help me get him to the medic tent." She had her arms around Strom's torso, but Strom wasn't helping much and she couldn't lift him. His face was striped in blood. She couldn't see how bad the wound on his forehead was.

The two of them could get him up. The crowd, which was dispersing as rapidly as possible considering that only two sides of the square were open to them and those were crowded with demonstrators, barely opened to let them through. There were four medic tents, Gana remembered, and they headed for the closest one. Strom was clearly embarrassed by needing both their help to walk, but if he had been stunned much harder he would have needed a stretcher and paramedics to get anywhere.

"Guy, I'd never have thought you were so heavy," Gana complained. "Here, can you hold on to this? I kind of need both hands for this." She shoved the bag at him.

"Never felt this heavy before," Strom mumbled, weakly taking the stinking bag. "Fuck! Wallen . . ."

"We'll call him when we get you to the tent," Leni said.

Gana looked over at Leni. She'd dropped her bandana too, and it was hanging around her neck. It was useless now anyway, soaked through with the gas, and in any case they were walking away from the concentration of the tear gas. All of them were covered in hives, and continually blinking away the irritating gas.

There was a line at the tent. Strom dropped to the curb and waited for the triage worker to get to him. He tried to dial his phone. He handed it to Leni, saying, "I can't see for shit and my thumbs don't work."

Leni dialed and handed the phone to Strom. Strom carried on a sub-audible conversation. Gana could tell he was annoyed. Leni caught her eye and smiled radiantly.

"You're enjoying yourself?"

"Yeah, kinda. I mean, it sucks that Strom got hurt, but it's been a while since I broke any laws, so . . ."

"You didn't break any laws today," Gana reminded her severely.

"You didn't, but I'm on probation," Leni said. "I'm not really allowed to come to these things for another eight months."

"What did you do?" Gana asked, shocked. This was one of those Technical-side grad students - really not known for their antisocial or adventurous qualities.

"Tell you later. After we get Strom settled we can go back to my place and get cleaned up. I'll tell you anything you want to hear, then." Leni sounded - and looked - lascivious. And desirable, for all that her hair was soaked and straggling, her face was broken out, her eyes red and tearing, and her clothes smelled so strongly of the gas that Gana had to consciously fight gagging.

"Okay, I'll come with you," Gana said. "How are you holding up?" she asked Strom.

"I've got blood in my fucking eyelashes and my boyfriend's mad at me," Strom said.

"It's not your fault that the cops fired on a peaceful demonstration," Gana said. "He's just being unreasonable."

"He thinks I should have gotten some warning from the trees," Strom said.

"What do trees know about police procedures?" Leni said, as if that was the only thing about Strom's statement that didn't make any sense.

"That's what I said," Strom said. "Probably he's just over-reacting because it scared him. But I'm scared too and I'm not blaming the wrong entities." He spat pinkish froth on the tail of his shirt. "Not talking anymore. It hurts and blood drips in my mouth."

The triage worker finally got down the line to where Strom was sitting. "You need stitches," she said. "We have an ambulance coming back in a few -"

"My ride will be here faster, probably."

"Good, but I'll send someone to clean that and put a bandage on it anyway." She pulled her phone out and moved to the next person.

A few minutes later Gana and Leni were lifting and supporting Strom again as, washed and bandaged, he headed out to the street beyond the square, where Wallen was supposed to be arriving soon.

"Don't need you anymore," Strom said. Gana was inclined to argue, but Leni said "Fine" and stepped back. Gana followed, but only long enough to see Strom sway and hear him swear. They stepped back and caught him. He wouldn't have fallen all the way down, most likely, but it was clear that any walking to the corner was going to be much more unpleasant for him if they let him do it alone.

They only had to stand at the corner for three light changes before a small green car screeched to a stop in front of them. A familiar-looking man leaned over and stuck his head out the window. "I let you out of my sight for one day, Strom - did you look at the thing that hit you? Was it normal?"

"I have it in this bag," Strom said. "It's definitely not normal. It chased me."

"You know the stakes are getting higher every day," Wallen said. "Get in already, we don't want to stay here all day."

Unfazed by this odd exchange, Leni was opening the passenger's side door while Gana supported his elbow. Strom slipped into the car and let his head loll back as he struggled futilely with the seatbelt. Leni took the seatbelt from him and snapped him in.

"Thanks," Strom muttered. "For everything."

"I'll see you and your new stitches at the lab tomorrow," Leni said.

"Not tomorrow you won't," Wallen said. "We're going to my Grandfather's house for the day. Maybe you'll see him the day after," and then he squealed off in his car, leaving a black mark on the road.

"That was sufficiently strange," Gana said.

"I can explain some of that too," Leni said. "If you still want to come to my place, that is."

Gana grinned and they set off walking. Leni didn't seem to have much to say at the moment. The quiet allowed Gana to really feel all the irritations of the tear gas: her burning eyes, her chafed skin, the nausea, even the anxiety, though that was tempered by relief that they had gotten Strom out of there and now were on their way away from the scene themselves. She did worry about the people left behind. Did all the people with babies get out? All the old folks?

They went off to the north, rapidly passing from the elite neighborhood dotted with official buildings that ringed Ostrakavsky Square, through a middle-class neighborhood of old hotels converted to apartment buildings and old apartment buildings converted to hotels, and thence to a more worn-looking area, whose architectural ornamentation was largely weathered and in some cases broken. "I live - right about -here," Leni said, dragging her words out to coincide with landing at a steep front stoop in front of a peeling turquoise door. "Come on upstairs and we'll get cleaned up and fed and we can tell each other stories. I've got a washer in my kitchen."

Leni's flat was on the third floor and tiny, but she shared it with another graduate student. "He's in the field just now, he won't be coming home," Leni said. "So you don't have to meet yet another insane grad student today. You should strip those off, they're soaked in tear gas."

Gana paused. But Leni was already stripping her own clothes off and dropping them in a pile. She went on: "We should probably shower at the same time, so neither of us has to keep the stuff on our skin any longer. But it could go either way. We could have happy fun sexy times or we could just be businesslike and wash the tear gas out of each other's hair."

Gana paused with her shirt half off. Naked, Leni wasn't just striking - she was overwhelming. Not only was she beautiful, in a big-boned, generous way - she was astonishing: that olive color of her face gave way below her collarbones to a tapestry of emerald flowering vines and insects.

"Oh," Leni said, softly. "I thought you could tell I was a Zelnik. If it's a problem, you go first and I'll stay out of your way."

"It's not a problem," Gana said, pulling her shirt off the rest of the way. "I just thought - I thought it was an exaggeration about the pictures. I'm amazed."

Leni grinned. "Not an exaggeration. You should see on my brother. He has finches battling all over his chest and back."

"Can I touch?" Gana asked, moving forward.

"Yes, but the green bits don't really feel different from the rest," Leni said, straightening as she stepped out of her jeans. "And you should really get out of those clothes quicker, the longer they stay on you the more irritating they will be."

"Okay," Gana said, stopping to pull off her pants. She reached out to touch a more neutral spot, she hoped: a green image of an exquisitely detailed fly, midway between Leni's collarbone and her nipple. The nipple itself was too gorgeous to touch, at least at this stage. The areola was a deep reddish-brown, dissected by green lines that continued and curved to become the frilly petals of a double flower on the skin just beyond. Of course Gana wanted to kiss them, but it was just too much. So she stroked the little fly, and Leni was wrong, it did feel different, a little smoother, a little cooler, than the skin next to it. And Leni shivered a little, her nipples tightening. But that could have been from being touched at all.

"We need to get this crap washed off," Leni said. "Let me throw the clothes in the washer, and you can start the shower," Leni said.

"I thought we were doing it together."

"Sure, but you can get it started. You'll have the temperature right when I get it."

Gana discovered there was nothing altruistic about having Gana start the shower while Leni started the wash. The shower was cranky and when Leni showed up Gana was still fiddling with it.

"Just do this," Leni said, leaning over Gana to turn the handle. Her body was soft and warm against Gana's back. She was right. Finally the shower came out in the right strength, at the right temperature.

"I have two shampoos," Leni said. "A flowery one and an herby one."

"Of course," Gana said. "Though I'm surprised you don't just have a hunk of moss or tree bark or something."

"Are you teasing me for being a Zelnik or a tree botanist?"

"I don't know. I'm nervous and saying offensive things."

"You don't need to be nervous," Leni said. "We're only going to have happy sexy fun times if you're into it, remember? Also, I'm not sure how tree bark or moss are offensive. You're really a funny color yourself, by the way."

"Yeah, the full-body blush, I get it all the time," Gana said. "I don't know why. I'm not that pale."

"Depends on who you stand next to. Right now we look like a Primavera ribbon together, green and red."

Gana burst out laughing. "We do. We should tie in a knot." Oops, Gana thought: that was almost "tie the knot." Definitely not the right time to say that.

But Leni took it as simple sexual innuendo, fortunately. "After we wash this crap off, otherwise we'll make it worse. Would you scrub my head and my back?"

Leni's back was a curtain of insects diving downwards towards her buttocks, which had only one of the flowers, larger than the front ones, smack on her right buttock. Gana was soon absorbed in identifying the insects, which were detailed enough to name, though she only actually knew the names of a few of them.

"And these just grow here?" she asked.

"They do," Leni said.

"Miraculous," Gana said. "Um - I want to kiss them."

"Not until we get rinsed off. You don't want that crap in your mouth," Leni said.

"Considering that you've been seducing me for the last hour or more, you're being awfully pragmatic," Gana complained.

"Yeah, well, it's supposed to be pleasurable, not miserable."

Gana became industrious in her scrubbing, and Leni washed Gana too. Then, without Gana noticing how the change had taken place, they seem to have decided together that the tear gas was sufficiently washed away, because Leni was lingering over Gana's body, stroking away the running water, drinking drops off her jawline. And Gana was tracing the vines tendrilling around Leni's torso, by touch, following the smoother lines with her fingers.

Then the water turned cold.

"Yikes! Let's get out of here," Gana said. "Your bed?"

"Sure," Leni said.

Gana turned off the water. She didn't get the controls just right so they were blasted with one last shot of icy water, which Leni bore the brunt of.

"Ow!" Leni said, throwing a very large and fluffy white towel over Gana's head in mock revenge. There was only just the one towel to hand, but it was very large and promised to get them both dry enough for the purpose. But in the next room, Leni's phone was blasting the opening chords to a sprightly electronic song.

"Crappies," Leni said. "That's Wallen's ringtone. I'd better answer."

Gana shrugged and followed her, attached by the towel.

Leni didn't say anything for a while after the greeting. Then she said, "Yes, we'll be over. Take half an hour on the streetcar - oh, all right. Come and get us then."

She turned her phone off and turned to Gana. "We have like fifteen minutes for happy sexy fun times, or we can get dressed and just pout till Wallen gets here. He needs help with Strom."

"What's the problem? And what can we do about it?" Gana hoped she didn't sound petulant.

"Strom needs to do a major consultation with an elderly tree, because what happened today wasn't accidental. But he's still too shaky to walk in the forest without help, and Wallen doesn't want to do it alone. So he called me because he thinks it's partly my fault that Strom went there."

"None of that made very much sense, but it seems to me that we could do a lot in fifteen minutes and you could explain it afterwards."

Leni grinned. "I like horny girls," she said, tweaking Leni's nipples and grabbing her lips with her own. "Just a sec," she said. She set the timer on her phone and set it down, pulling Gana on top of her on the couch. "No time for bed," she said, though to Gana it didn't seem like making out for fifteen minutes on a couch was much different from fifteen minutes on a bed.

Leni's hands went everywhere, and Gana didn't have a fraction of a breath to get her own back before she found herself shuddering in Leni's lap. "Whoops," she said. "That was fast."

Leni smirked and pushed her off her lap. "Let me find you some clothes. Later I'll catch up with you."

"Thanks to easy-fit clothes, you don't look like you pulled something out of a charity barrel," Leni said. Gana had on a pair of brown yoga pants and a three-quarter sleeve olive tee.

"Is everything you wear tree colored? Is that because of your work or your biology?"

"Almost everything, and it's because of my hair color. Let's go downstairs and wait for Wallen and Strom."

Leni's phone sang out again while they were half way down the stairs. Leni didn't bother to answer. The green car was waiting at the sidewalk as they emerged. "Door's open," Strom said from the passenger window.

"So you're going to explain stuff to me now, right?" Gana asked as she clipped in her seatbelt.

"You didn't already explain?" Wallen asked, shooting Leni a brief irritated look before he pulled the wheel to turn out.

"We were busy," Leni said calmly. "Okay, so this is how it goes. Strom's a Stromnik. Actually, Wallen's family is full of Stromniks too. You know what a Stromnik is?"

"Like a leprechaun in stories, but that can't be what you mean. Little guys who are part of a tree and if you give them something green they have to grant you wishes."

"I'm not that little," Strom said. "And part of a tree is kind of metaphorical."

"He's spiritually bound to a tree," Wallen said. "The tree does kind of consider him to be part of it. But today we have to go and talk to a different tree, because our tree said so."

"I'm still waiting for that explanation to start happening,": Gana said cheerfully. "You're an interesting driver," she added, as they swerved around an oil tanker.

"That thing shouldn't even be there," Wallen muttered. "Okay, so you know how the Lindeski name is on everything? Especially on campus? That's half my family. Or part of it, anyway. Strom Lindeski, the member of parliament? Some kind of uncle cousin thing. And a Stromnik, actually. Himself. Bound to a tree."

"Wait, how does that work? He's all over the Consortium. He can't take his tree with him."

"Not bound like ropes and chains," Strom said. "More like bonded, like a dog and its master." Was there a bitter undertone to Strom's words?

"Uncle Strom is pretty unnatural in general, though. He's a tree person, and yet he can't wait to sell the forest off for profit." Wallen veered off on to the highway entrance without signaling, ignoring the honks behind him.

"I knew that part. It's one of the planks in our platform. Divest relations with the Lindeski Foundation, and cut off their access to University laboratories and projects. Which is why my friends don't trust you guys. Because you're tied to Lindeski."

"Like I said, there's Lindeski and Lindeski," Leni said. "I wish I could say that the Bendek Lindeskis and the Strom Lindeskis canceled each other out, but they don't. They just act independently at the moment."

"Today Uncle Strom's people tried to cancel out my Strom," Wallen said. "That grenade that hit him was a robot, programmed to find him and take him out. It would have been so tragic, a one-in-a-billion accident, but why was he resisting arrest and committing vandalism in bad company anyway? is what they would have said, and Uncle Strom would have been ahead."

"Wait, what?" Gana asked. "I saw that grenade, it looked just like the others. They were all flying around and everybody was moving everywhere, how could they do that? How could they count on hitting the right target anyhow?"

"Uncle Strom doesn't care too much about a few bystanders. As witness the mudslide at the Black River headwaters last year." Wallen pulled the car off the highway onto a small road that meandered across flat fields towards a line of woods in the distance.

"They did that on purpose?" Gana asked, horrified. "Wasn't that like five hundred deaths?"

"Three hundred and ninety-seven. No, he didn't mean for the mudslide, or the deaths, but he's made it clear he thinks that the price is not too high for the profit. It wasn't the money from that operation that he cared about: after paying damages, the Black River headwaters project itself came out in the red. It was all the rule changes and precedents he got in the process of running the project the way he wanted. The point is that now public lands can be sold or leased for ridiculously cheap and also that the rules for what you can do on them don't mean anything. That's what he's playing for. The ability to do whatever he wants, wherever he wants to."

"But -" Gana bit her lip. "Wait, doesn't being a Stromnik involve some sort of identification with trees? Like psychologically, or something? Can he just chop down trees like that?"

"The human mind is a wonderful thing," Leni said. "He can do anything he decides to do. He can think anything he decides to think. He can feel anything he decides to feel."

"He doesn't chop down any trees himself, actually," Strom said. "And anyway, I could remove a tree under some circumstances. It's not always murder. It depends on the composition of the habitat the tree is in. And other things. I'd have to have a long conversation with representatives from the area, though. And it would be difficult to explain to the tree. Probably I'd have to get its clone well established before the first tree came down."

"I don't know what to say to that," Gana said. "Whenever I start to understand what's going on, you say something absolutely inhuman and I'm back to the beginning."

"Now you know what it's like being friends with a Stromnik," Leni said. "Anyway, what are we doing today? Why did you need us?"

"Strom's still too shaky to walk safely where we're going. We're going to talk to my uncle's tree. It's on really uneven ground."

"We'll be trespassing, won't we?" asked Leni, with some relish.

"Depends on how you look at it," Wallen said. "I choose to look at it as public lands with a historical connection to my family history that I am visiting with my boyfriend, his best friend, and her girlfriend."

Gana and Leni looked at each other and cracked up simultaneously. "I guess it won't hurt anything to call us girlfriends for the day," Leni said.

"What?" Wallen asked. "You were all over each other on the stairs back there."

"We kind of just met," Gana said. "I think you both have to get off at least once, and possibly have an official date or at least lunch together, before you're really girlfriends. But hey, I don't mind."

"Good to know you set the bar so high," Wallen said drily.

"Hey, we were bound together for life before I even liked you," Strom said, but it sounded almost like he was sleep talking.

"Exigencies of the struggle," said Wallen. "Anyway, here we are." He had pulled up at a turnout in front of a tangle of skinny second-growth trees. There was a gated path into the forest. But both the gate and the path were untended: The old baroque gate hung open, there being not much need to bar the path, which was so overgrown as to be nearly impassable.

"Is it far?" Gana asked.

"Not really," Wallen said. "But you can see why I need help getting him through this crap. what I'm thinking is two of us support him and one goes a couple feet ahead to push the mess out of the way."

"What, don't we have a machete somewhere?" Gana asked.

"We're not using a machete in this land," Strom muttered as he struggled to his feet. "It's not fair and it's not safe."

"It's okay, nobody's cutting things here," Wallen said as he walked around the car and put his arms around Strom's waist. He butted the door closed with his hip and gestured to Leni with his head. Len slipped an arm under Strom's armpit and pulled herself up straight.

"Gana," Wallen said, "do you feel comfortable going ahead and pushing branches and crap out of the way? It's not as bad as it looks. Last summer the path was cleared and you could take a car on it."

"You drove a car into that?"

"No, Uncle Strom did. The point is, the crap in the pathway is all tender and it shouldn't be too hard to push it out of Strom's way."

"Is it okay if I break branches?" Gana asked. "I should know before I start."

"Yeah, but not too many, okay? No need to call attention to ourselves."

Passing through the gate caused the hairs on Gana's neck to stand up: it was just an uncanny place, too quiet for a springtime day: no birdsong. The light was angled so that it glared right through the lower branches and bore into Gana's skull, but it was cool enough, especially as she passed through, to raise goosebumps. From outside the gate the path had looked almost completely impassable, but once she started walking on it, it didn't seem so difficult. When she came to a branch that reached out across the path, she stopped, pulling it back and away from the others as they approached.

They came on slowly. Strom was trying to do his own walking but it was making things more difficult rather than easier. When they got just ahead of Gana, she carefully let go the branch she was holding and slithered past them to find the next obstacle, which turned out to be something growing up from the middle of the path: a tender bit of scrub, not woody, easy to bend down by stepping on it, and it didn't spring up again.

And so on. Their progress was really slow, partly because Gana had to push around so much vegetation - every meter of progress held at least one obstacle - and partly because of the awkward way that Strom, Wallen and Leni were moving. Gana wondered if they wouldn't make better progress if they just let go of him and followed along beside in case they needed to catch him, or if, conversely, Strom just gave up and let them carry him. How badly hurt was he, anyway? Gana didn't know.

They came to a fork in the path. The right fork was nearly flat, the left went upwards onto a steep bank. "Go left," Wallen said behind her.

"I was afraid you'd say that," Gana said.

This was more difficult because the path was narrower and the undergrowth was more persistent. The path grew steeper as they rose. Finally Strom said, "Let go of me," and dropped to his hands and knees to crawl up the path. This was easier for Gana also though it meant leaning right over him sometimes to hold branches out of the way.

After Wallen stopped arguing with Strom they worked out a plan where he and Gana and Leni leapfrogged ahead and kept the path clear, with at least one person behind Strom to watch out for him. There was a bad moment after fifteen minutes of this, where it looked like Strom was going to collapse altogether. Wallen, who was in front at the time, doubled back and laid his hands on Strom. Something happened. It was as if the silence in the forest intensified and took on color - a yellowish color, if it had really been there.

After a moment of this Strom pushed Wallen's hands away and said, "Enough, let me go on." Wallen puffed but stepped behind and Strom went forward a little faster than before.

Leni caught Gana's eye and said, "That's not just a concussion he's dealing with, I guess."

Strom said, "No, there was something else in that grenade besides the tear gas."

Wallen was panting with the effort of moving so slowly in such a distorted posture. "That's - why we're visiting my Uncle's tree. None of this makes sense."

"How much farther is it?" Gana asked, lifting a thicker branch up and over Strom's crawling form. It was brittle, and she could feel some of its fibers snapping. "This is breaking, is that bad?"

"As long as we don't break many of them, it shouldn't raise too much interest," Wallen said. "I don't think Uncle Strom is expecting me to visit out here."

"How far?" Gana repeated.

"Not far now, it should only be a few minutes."

"Close," Strom said.

There was nothing to say, then, and nothing to do but forge ahead, scrambling forward when it was her turn, collecting scrapes and bruises from the intruding branches slapping at her as she pushed them away from Strom.

She didn't need Strom or Wallen to tell her when they were there. She knew. There was a large clearing, for one, and for another, the tree that dominated it - not at the center, quite - was very clearly the oldest tree around. It was the tallest by many meters. Only from the very entrance to the clearing, and by leaning very far back, could she even see the top of it. It was well leafed out, but hadn't begun to bloom yet.

And it was clearly ancient. The scars of centuries were visible in its gnarled bark and its high branches.

Knowing the tree was bound to Strom Lindeski, Gana would have been unsurprised if it held an air of malevolence. But it didn't. It was just a tree.

"Up." Strom got into a squat but apparently could not get higher by himself. He was pale and covered in sweat. Between the butterfly bandages on his forehead some drops of blood had seeped out of his wound. Leni bent over and hauled him up, and Wallen closed in from behind, and the three of them swayed drunkenly the last ten meters till Strom collapsed against the rough bark of the tree. Wallen kept a hand on Strom's back, but Leni patted him gently as if to test his stability and backed away.

"Come on," she said to Gana. "Let's get out of the way for ten minutes. We're only a distraction right now."

Gana would have asked, but looking over at Strom and Wallen she felt that Leni was right, that even standing here was an intrusion. The look on Strom's face was almost ecstatic, and the look on Wallen's was embarrassingly intimate. So she let Leni lead her back down the path a ways to where there was a fallen log, velvety with green moss, and she joined Leni on the log. Leni, having got her here, looked like she wasn't sure what to do next: like she had an idea of what she wanted to do but no clear notion of how to go about it or whether she ought to. Gana was pretty sure what that was.

"Time to catch up, then?" she whispered in Leni's ear, making her shiver and giggle as if she had been tickled.

"Sure, okay," Leni said, lifting her hands to Gana's shoulders.

Gana tried a couple of positions, but it always felt strained, as if they were going to fall off the log on to the ground. The ground offered no comfortable place to curl up together: it was all sticks and bark and uneven.

"Here, let's get up," Gana said, spying a big broad tree trunk across the path, She stood up, offering her hand to Leni, and drawing her across to the trunk, she moved her gently against it, and began to kiss her, bracing them against the trunk with one hand while slipping inside Leni's pants with the other. "What I want," she said between kisses, "Is to go down on you but that's not happening right here and now."

"Too bad," Leni said. "But I'll take what I can get."

"Good attitude." There: she was beneath all the layers, molding the shape of Leni's mons, her fingers seeking and encircling the clitoris. "Are you really sensitive? Should I be taking care, here?"

"Not usually," hissed Leni. "But - woof - slow down, okay?"

"This better?" Gana asked, lightening the pressure.

"Yeah." Leni bit her lip and leaned back, her knees spreading. "Like that." Her hands fidgeted around the base of her belly. Gana thought for a moment. Then she dove her head down and mouthed Leni's shirt, using her lips to stimulate Leni's nipple (without soaking her shirt).

"Yikes," said Leni, arching her back, nearly knocking them both over.

"Caught up, did you?" Gana asked, as Leni nodded her head speechlessly, her cheeks as red as Gana's even through the olive skin.

They stood there, leaning against each other and the tree, for a moment before Leni said, "This is totally not the most comfortable makeout location I have ever experienced. I bet the boys are done now anyway, let's go back."

They walked back to the clearing, hand in hand now, though there were places on the path where that was awkward and one of them had to slip behind the other to get through. When they got there Strom was just pushing off the tree, staring at Wallen with the same wrung-out look he might have had if they had been energetically fucking in there instead of leaning against a tree doing nothing.

"We should go," Wallen said. "It's going to be a long slog down that hill."

"All right," Leni said.

This time they concentrated on keeping all the companions in front of Strom so they could break his fall when he slipped. He didn't really look like he was in any better shape than he was when they started up the hill. He didn't go down to his hands and knees, though.

As they reached the fork in the trail Leni froze. "I hear something," she said.

"Me too," said Gana.

"Oh shit," Wallen said. "Strom, can you run?"

Strom looked like he was listening to something different from what the others were listening to. "I guess I have to," he said.

"Don't worry about breaking branches anymore," Wallen said. "They already know we're here."

Gana took that as an order, and ran ahead, stomping on everything that grew up in a way to block Strom, pushing everything else back. This time only Wallen supported Strom, while Leni and Gana both went ahead, switching positions so that one was always going forward when the other was holding a branch.

It was difficult to see what was behind them, but Gana could hear them. Whoever was coming was not taking care with the branches at all. There was the constant sound of snapping wood along with thudding footsteps gaining on them. Strom and his companions were taking this part of the path much faster than they had come up it,. but the unseen followers were gaining on them. At last they came to the gate.

It was closed.

Gana and Leni threw themselves at it and tugged as hard as they could. It wasn't locked, but it only moved slowly and incrementally, squealing and screaming as they pulled. Holding the gate for Wallen and Strom, Gana looked back and saw - men? heavily armored, and what were they holding? Gana didn't know one rifle from another. They swung the rifles into position, and Gana had only time to think "oh shit" before the noise and Strom and Wallen stumbled through the gate and Leni and Gana after, falling to the car, grabbing at the doors. Wallen had a remote key for the car, apparently, because the doors unlocked as they grabbed for them and scrambled into the seats. Wallen hesitated long enough to get Strom in the door and then ran round to get in, starting the car abruptly, not waiting for the others to get settled or even make sure the doors were closed. Strom didn't get his closed till they were several meters down the road.

"Who were they?" Gana asked.

"They must be connected to my uncle, but I've never seen anybody just like them before," Wallen grunted out as he took the road at speeds it was not fit for. Strom fumbled with his seat belt and gave up.

Leni, who had got hers done, undid it again so she could lean over his seat and buckle him up. "No point in going to all that effort to get you there and back safely and then have you die in a crash," she said. "Wallen, they were on foot, we're on the highway now and in the clear, you can afford to follow the traffic laws now. Slow the fuck down."

"Uh, okay," Wallen said. "Sorry. I've never been shot at before."

"I have," Strom said. "This morning."

"So what did the tree say?" Gana asked.

"Mostly that it doesn't much care what happens because tree nature is something ineffable blah blah," Strom said bitterly. "It doesn't seem to even care that its very own Stromnik is responsible for clear cutting at Black River or any of the other stuff. But it confirmed that the drone was meant for me. I asked it why, because crap, I'm just a goddamned graduate student and I study bark beetles for god's sake. Fuckers."

When Strom didn't elaborate on this, Leni said, "Well, did it tell you?"

"What? Oh yes. It's stupid. Uncle Strom wanted to get me out of the way because of our tree. You know I said this tree up here doesn't give a shit? Not every tree feels that way. My tree has definitely taken a side. So Uncle Strom apparently thought the way to take it out of the running was to incapacitate its people. Kill me, and traumatize Wallen. But that wouldn't have stopped Wallen or the tree. They'd just find a new Stromnik."

Wallen glared at him briefly.

"Put your eyes back on the road, you're a bad enough driver without staring at me," Strom said. "You know it's true."

"You think I don't love you?"

"No, I think you're dedicated to fighting Uncle Strom and no matter what happens to me, you'll keep going forward," Strom said. "Meanwhile, did anybody ever eat lunch? I'm starving and we still have to get to the robot repair shop to have the drone analyzed."

"Why? Don't you already know everything you need to know?" Gana asked.

"You never know everything you need to know," Strom said.

"Let's go to lunch, then" Leni said. "How about Osvaldo's?"

"Osvaldo's is fine with me," Gana said, smirking. It wasn't the best, or even the cheapest, but people were fond of taking dates there just for the cozy, almost-private booths.

Wallen sighed. "Okay, we'll do that," he said.

"Sure," said Strom, smirking in the direction of the back seat.

"Let me see," Leni whispered into Gana's ear. "What did you stipulate? Both have to get off at least once, and have an official date or at least lunch together? Does this mean what I think it does?"

"Maybe," Gana said. "But maybe I should find out why you're not allowed near demonstrations before I commit myself. So if you want to go forward, I think you have some talking to do over lunch."