A Desert Called Peace:
The Amazon Legion
Kat and Kelly and Sergeant Hester ... and all the other Amazonas, past and potential
What has gone before (5,000,000 BC through Anno Condita (AC) 472):
Long ago, long before the appearance of man, came to Earth the aliens known to us only as the “Noahs.” About them, as a species, nothing is known. Their very existence can only be surmised by the project they left behind. Somewhat like the biblical Noah, these aliens transported from Earth to another planet samples of virtually every species existing in the time period approximately five hundred thousand to five million years ago. There is considerable controversy about these dates as species are found that are believed to have appeared on Old Earth less than half a million years ago, as well as some believed to have gone extinct more than five million years ago. The common explanation for these anomalies is that the species believed to have been extinct were, in fact, not, while other species evolved from those brought by the Noahs.
Whatever the case, having transported these species, and having left behind various other, typically genengineered species, some of them apparently to inhibit the development of intelligent life on the new world, the Noahs disappeared, leaving no other trace beyond a few incomprehensible and inert artifacts, and possibly the rift through which they moved between Earth and the new world.
In the Old Earth year 2037 AD a robotic interstellar probe, the Cristobal Colon, driven by lightsail, disappeared enroute to Alpha Centauri. Three years later it returned, under automated guidance, through the same rift in space into which it had disappeared. The Colon brought with it wonderful news of another Earth-like planet, orbiting another star. (Note, here, that not only is the other star not Alpha Centauri, it’s not so far been proved that it is even in the same galaxy, or universe for that matter, as ours.) Moreover, implicit in its disappearance and return was the news that here, finally, was a relatively cheap means to colonize another planet.
The first colonization effort was an utter disaster, with the ship, the Cheng Ho, breaking down into ethnic and religious strife that annihilated almost every crewman and colonist aboard her. Thereafter, rather than risk further bloodshed by mixing colonies, the colonization effort would be run by regional supranationals such as NAFTA, the European Union, the Organization of African Unity, MERCOSUR, the Russian Empire and the Chinese Hegemony. Each of these groups were given colonization rights to specific areas on the new world, which was named – with a stunning lack of originality – “Terra Nova,” or something in another tongue that meant the same thing. Most groups elected to establish national colonies within their respective mandates, some of them under United Nations’ “guidance.”
With the removal from Earth of substantial numbers of the most difficult and intransigent portions of the populations of Earth’s various nations, the power and influence of trans- and supranational organizations such as the UN and EU increased dramatically. With the increase of transnational power, often enough expressed in corruption, even more of Earth’s more difficult, ethnocentric, and traditionalist population volunteered to leave. Still others were deported forcibly. Within not much more than a century and a quarter, and much less in many cases, nations had ceased to have much meaning or importance on Earth. On the other hand, and over about the same time scale, nations had become pre-eminent on Terra Nova. Moreover, because of the way the surface of the new world had been divided, these nations tended to reflect – if only generally – the nations of Old Earth.
Warfare was endemic, beginning with the wars of liberation by many of the weaker colonies to throw off the yoke of Earth’s United Nations and continuing, most recently, with a terrorist and counter-terrorist war between the Salafi Ikhwan, an Islamic terrorist group, various states that supported them, and – surreptitiously – the United Earth Peace Fleet, on the one hand, and a coalition led by the Federated States of Columbia, on the other.
This eleven year bloodletting began in earnest with the destruction of several buildings in the Federated States of Columbia and ended in fire with the nuclear destruction of the city of Hajar in the unofficially terrorist-sponsoring state of Yithrab.
Prominent in that war, and single-handedly responsible for the destruction of Hajar, was Patrick Hennessey, more commonly known as Patricio Carrera, and the rather large and effective force of Spanish-speaking mercenaries he personally raised, the Legion del Cid, based in and recruiting largely from la Republica de Balboa, a small nation straddling the isthmus between Southern Columbia and Colombia del Norte.
Balboa’s geographic position, well-suited not only to dominate trade north and south but also, because of the Balboa Transitway, an above-sea-level canal linking Terra Nova’s Shimmering Sea and Mar Furioso, key to commerce across the globe, was in many ways ideal. It should have been a happy state, peaceful and prosperous.
It was also, unfortunately, ideal as a conduit for Terra Nova’s international drug trade. Worse, its political history, barring only a short stint as a truly representative republic following the war of liberation against United Earth, some centuries prior, was one of unmixed oligarchy, said oligarchy being venal, lawless, and competent only in corruption. Perhaps still worse, during the war against the terrorists, the security needs of the country had been filled by the introduction of troops from the Tauran Union to secure the Transitway and its immediate surrounds.
Carrera had learned well from the Salafi Ikhwan, however. The drug trade through Balboa was ended by war and terroristic reprisal to a degree that left the surviving drug lords quaking in their beds at night. The oligarchy was beaten through the electoral process and the final nails driven into its coffin – and into the heels of the oligarchs – when it attempted to stage a comeback in the form of a coup against the elected government and Carrera, its firm supporter. Carrera’s second wife, Lourdes – Balboan as had been his first, Linda, murdered with her children by the Salafi Ikhwan – figured prominently in the suppression of the coup.
The problem of the Tauran Union’s control of the Transitway remains, as does the problem of the nuclear armed United Earth Peace Fleet, orbiting above the planet. The Taurans will not leave, and the Balboans – a proud people, with much recent success in war – will not tolerate that they should remain.
And yet, with one hundred times the population and three or four hundred times the wealth, the Tauran Union outclasses little Balboa in almost every way, even without the support of Old Earth. Sadly, they have that support. Everything, everyone, will have to be used to finish the job of freeing the country and, if possible, the planet. The children must fight. The old must serve, too. And the women?
This is their story, the story of Balboa’s Tercio Amazona, the Amazon Regiment.
…a failure, but not a waste.
--LTC (Ret.) John Baynes, Morale
A phone was ringing somewhere. People – women and children mostly – screamed. Others, men and women, both, shouted. Their voices were distant, as if they came from the mouth of a tunnel. Runaway freight trains, having jumped their tracks and taken off into low ballistic flight, crashed into scrap metal yards, one after another. Over that was the sound of jet engines straining and helicopter rotors beating at the air.
With a barely suppressed shriek of her own, Maria Fuentes sat bolt upright in her trembling bed, her hand going automatically to her mouth to stifle the sound. As her eyes adjusted to the small light streaming in through her bedroom window, she realized that she wasn’t asleep any longer.
“It was a…” she began to say. She stopped, mid-sentence, when she realized that she could still hear the trains, the crashes, the screams.
“Mierda!” she exclaimed, as she threw off the light covers. “Not a nightmare. Shit. Oh, shit.” Maria felt nausea rising, mostly fed by sudden unexpected fear.
The phone, which had stopped ringing, began again as Maria raced for her baby’s – Alma’s – room. She stopped and picked it up.
“Maria? Cristina.” Centurion Cristina Zamora was Maria’s reserve platoon leader. “Alert posture Henrique. No drill.” Zamora’s voice was strained, nervous. Maria couldn’t remember ever having heard Cristina’s voice as anything but perfectly calm before. Not ever. She felt a fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Zamora’s upset? We’re so fucked.
“Not a drill?” she asked, pointlessly.
“No, Maria, not a drill. Alert posture Henrique.”
“Henrique? Okay, I understand.” ‘Henrique.’ Call up all the reservists, but only those militia who can be quickly and conveniently assembled. “I guess time’s more important than numbers, huh?”
“They don’t tell me these things, Maria. Later.”
The phone’s tone changed, telling Maria that Zamora had hung up.
Maria’s phone was already programmed with the necessary numbers to conduct an alert. She scanned through until she found the number for her assistant, Marta Bugatti. She pressed that button, then the button for ‘speaker.’ She placed the phone on her bed and, while the phone was ringing, pulled out her Legion-issue foot locker. A couple of flicks of the retainers and the top popped open. She was pulling her tiger-striped, pixilated battle dress trousers on when the ringing stopped and a deep voice – deep for a woman, anyway – answered, “Bugatti here, Maria.”
“Marta. Alert. ‘Henrique.’ No shit.”
“Oh, really? I would never have guessed!”
Unseen by Maria, a mile and a half from Maria’s small apartment, Bugatti shook her head in general disgust and then held her own telephone receiver towards the nearest window. On her own end, Maria could easily make out the sound of chattering machine guns.
Marta’s voice returned in a moment. “So what fucking else is fucking new? I’ll take care of it. I’ll…” Marta’s phone went dead.
“Marta? Marta? “ Maria pounded her own phone on the foot locker’s plastic edge in frustration mixed with fear. “Shit. Dead.” She closed the cell and tossed it on the bed. She thought, OK, Marta. You’re a bitch… sometimes. But you’re a lovable bitch and you’re my bitch besides. I’ll trust you.
Maria pulled on her boots, green nylon and black leather, tucked her trousers into them, and then speed laced them shut. She wound the ends of the laces around her legs and tied them to hold the trousers in place. From her locker she took her battle dress jacket. She was buttoning this as she started for her daughter’s bedroom.
She started, then stopped short at Alma’s door. My God, I am going to have to leave her, then fight; maybe die, too, and leave her forever.
Suddenly Maria felt even more ill. How can I leave my baby? Just as suddenly, she felt even worse. How can I abandon my friends, my sisters, my troops?
Bad mother; bad friend. Responsible parent; irresponsible soldier? Hero? Coward? None of those words mean a damn thing. Whatever I do, it’s going to be because I’m more afraid of not doing it than of not doing the other. I’m going to be a coward in some way, no matter what.
Had she been a different person, any different person, she might just have stood there, indecisive, until it was all over. But Maria wasn’t just anybody. The powers that be had selected her very carefully, then trained her more carefully still. They had even organized her unit very carefully, paying more than usual attention to the needs of single military mothers. With or without Maria, Alma would be all right. She knew that. But without her, her troops – her friends – might not. She had no choice, really. She’d made the decision years before.
I have to go.
Alma was still sleeping soundly in her little bed when her mother entered. Maria smiled as her sight took in her daughter’s few dozen pounds and few little feet of soft lines, dark lashes and curly hair. Maria marveled that not only was Alma hers, but that the baby wasn’t awake and screaming.
I could never hope to sleep with artillery flying anywhere nearby, not even in training. What makes it so easy for a kid?
Maria looked out the window from Alma’s bedroom. She couldn’t see much but the street they lived on, and not all of that. Streetlights illuminated the scene. So far as she could see none of Terra Nova’s moons had any noticeable part in that. Then the streetlights began to flicker out, leaving nothing but the moons’ light.
Below the apartment, people were running in the streets, most of them tugging on uniforms. Just about everybody was carrying a rifle, machine gun, or rocket launcher. A number of those who weren’t armed seemed to be trying to hold back someone who was. Somebody’s mother, wife, or maybe girlfriend was crying for him to come back. Maria couldn’t see where anyone did turn back though.
Returning to her own room, Maria continued pulling gear from the locker. Out came load bearing equipment, her helmet, her silk and liquid-metal lorica, the Legion’s standard body armor. Her centurion’s baton she picked up for a moment, then replaced it in the locker. Last came her modified F-26 “Zion” rifle.
She held the rifle in her hands for a moment, drawing some small comfort from its heft and weight. Then she slapped a drum magazine in, turned the key on the back to put pressure on the spring, and jacked a round home.
I hope Alma stays asleep. She hates to see me in helmet and body armor.
Fully clothed and armed, Maria slung her rifle across her back, walked back to the baby’s bedroom, then picked her up in her arms.
Alma almost woke up then, sucking air in with three gasping “uh…uh…uhs.” The mother waited a minute or two, holding her, stroking her hair and saying, “Don’t worry, baby. Everything will be all right, baby. Don’t worry, love. Mama’s here.” The child snuggled her soft hair into an armored shoulder and fell back, sound asleep.
Once Alma had fallen asleep again, it was out the door and down three flights of stairs. Maria didn’t bother with locking the door behind her; crime hadn’t been much of a problem in this part of the city for some time; current invasion excepted, of course.
Lance Corporal Lydia Porras, of the Tercio Amazona’s Dependent Care Maniple, affectionately called ‘the Fairy Godmothers,’ careened her van through the streets, barely missing men as they hurried to their duties in the dark. The Fairy Godmothers were not actually part of the Tercio Amazona, but seconded to it from a regiment of elderly and late enlistees.
Though Porras was in uniform, her vehicle was plainly civilian, both in color and design. Otherwise, it would certainly have been fired on by any one of the dozens of helicopters that swooped in from time to time to shoot at the soldiers in the streets.
Porras made a sharp left hand turn onto Maria’s fast-emptying street. She jerked the wheel left again to pull up to the apartment building, then slammed on the brakes to bring the van to a screeching halt. Porras killed the lights and listened for a moment for the sounds of one of the fearsome attack helicopters the Taurans had in such abundance. There was nothing or, at least, nothing she could hear over the rattle and crump of artillery.
Porras prayed, “Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, take pity on an old woman who has borne children. Take pity on children too young to die. Most importantly, Our Lady of Victory, grant it to us.”
Porras crossed herself and stepped out of the van. As she did so, Maria and Alma appeared in the doorway. Porras took Alma from her mother’s arms – well, pulled, actually; the mother didn’t want to let go – and placed the girl gently, sitting up, in one of the seats of the van, taking the extra moment to buckle the child in. There were a couple of other children there, too. One of the others, an older girl, turned sideways in her sleep to throw an arm around Alma. Porras smiled for the first time that night. Kids can be so sweet.
When one is young and alone and the call comes to fight, it really helps to know someone is going to take care of the kids. That was Porras’ job. She was a nice old biddy. Gray haired, wrinkled; but her eyes shone bright and her posture was immaculate. She had not volunteered for service until she had turned sixty-two years old, with grown children and grandchildren of her own. She’d gone to geriatric Basic Training then, and then volunteered for assignment to the unit.
Old Porras might have been. Steady, calm and reliable she was too. She was also a surprisingly good shot. Even so, Porras couldn’t hope to do what Maria and the others did; she was simply too old. Still, she certainly made it easier for them to do their jobs.
Alma loved her. So did Maria.
Filled with inexpressible feelings of pity, love, and fear, the old woman looked at Maria carefully, as if for the last time. Pretty girl, she thought, eyes glancing over Maria’s five feet, two inches of height, healthy figure, straight nose and large, well-spaced eyes. She placed a hand gently along the younger woman’s sculpted chin, saying, “Go with God, child. And be careful. I’ll guard your daughter with my life.”
Then, eyes clouding with tears, Lydia Porras jumped back into the van, slammed the door, and pulled away amidst screeching, smoking tires.
For Maria it was so hard to watch that van pull away.
Maria Fuentes hands trembled. She was frightened, damned frightened, and she had reason to be. Her country’s enemy had one hundred times Balboa’s own population; three or four times that ratio in disparity of wealth. Between their regular and reserve forces they had more people under arms than the entire population of her country. Weapons? Except for small arms and a couple of tricks there was no comparison. Technology? Sister, Balboa wasn’t even in the race.
But it’s not hopeless, she told herself, forcing her hands to steady down. We have some things going for us, too. Our weapons are generally decent and reliable. We have a better doctrine for battle and a much better one for training. We have damned good leaders.
And this is our country. We have no place else to go.
Tougher to measure were some softer factors: Heart, soul, a pretty good knowledge of their own country, and the fact that the enemy was arrogant – and might, with luck, sometime show all the stupidity arrogance entails.
Besides, the Taurans did have some place else they called home. And if they didn’t mind much making others bleed, they didn’t much like bleeding themselves.
Maria thought, If we’re going to make them bleed, we’ll have to bleed some ourselves.
She looked up at the sky and, with the streetlights gone, saw the thin crescents of two moons, Bellona and Hecate. Yeah, they’ve got more night vision capability than we do; they’d hit us at a time with minimal illumination.
She turned away from the direction in which Porras had taken Alma and, her mind on bleeding, faced in the direction she would have to go. She took the rifle from across her back and, weapon in hand, began jogging.
Left, right, left, right.
From the apartment building it was about a mile to the assembly point, the “hide.” This was a small restaurant in Balboa City owned by one of the other squad leaders in Maria’s maniple.
Left, right, left, right.
It is not, repeat not, fun to run, or even jog, in a tropical environment, when you’ve got forty-five pounds of combat equipment and ammunition dragging you down. It wasn’t fun for a man. For women it was worse. Maria knew it would become even worse than that after she picked up the rest of the ammunition hidden at the restaurant.
Left, right, left, right.
Maria heard the steady whop-whop-whop of a helicopter coming closer. Her army had more than a few helicopters, but none of them sounded like this one. She began to look around at her surroundings, desperately seeking someplace she could hide.
“Hey, Johanson, look left. Single grunt. Take ‘im?”
“Yeah, sure, why the hell not?”
The helicopter tilted left as its tail swung around to the right, bringing its weapons to bear. The target ducked and disappeared from view.
“Fire a couple of bursts. See if you can spook him out.”
In the recessed doorway in which she’d taken shelter, Maria pressed herself against a wall to try to blend in with the shadow. Her heart was thumping so loud in her chest that she was sure even the helicopter’s crew would be able to hear it.
Suddenly the shadow disappeared as the street was lit by the strobe of several dozen heavy machinegun rounds being fired. Against her will, Maria screamed. Again the helicopter fired and she pressed her hand to her mouth and bit down.
More than the sound, it was those solid streams of tracers lighting up the landscape that terrified her. She just tried to make herself smaller, even as she bit down on two fingers again so as not to hear herself scream out loud.
“Fuck it, Jo. If he’s still around, he’ll be wanting to change his pants before reporting to his unit. Call it a ‘Mission accomplished.’ We got shit to do. Let’s go look for easier meat.”
“Roger. Don’t like hanging around one place too long, either.” The chopper tilted right as Johanson flew it up and away from where Maria’s trembling form crouched unseen.
In combat, fatigue and fear are “mutually reinforcing and essentially interchangeable.” So Maria had been told in training. Her training cadre had even done their best to show her, and her sisters, how that worked. Nothing could have fully prepared her for the reality. She felt so weak from the terror of that helicopter that it took an effort of will just to start moving again. Once she did, though, it got better. She was even able to start thinking and stop just reacting.
Left, right, left, right.
Maria thought, The Taurans may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. They know we have to assemble to defend ourselves. I wonder what they....
The Tauran sniper should have had a spotter, and preferably a man for security. Under the circumstances, the desperate need to destroy the Balboans’ leadership before they could fully mobilize their not inconsiderable force of reservists and militia, spotters and guards had been dispensed with. His spotter, indeed, was also alone, someplace a mile or so to the west.
Alone, on flat roof overlooking one of the enemy capital’s major thoroughfares, the sniper carefully rotated the focus ring on his rifle’s scope as he tracked his target down the street. He’d begun to squeeze the trigger once, when the target was in an open space. But the target had disappeared behind a small truck before the rifle had fired. The sniper relaxed the pressure on the trigger, waiting patiently.
Ah. There he is again. The sniper gently slid the rifle over to bring it to bear on the target. He began to squeeze the trigger once again. “Keep your damned head still, asshole. Stop swinging like some bitch,” The sniper whispered. The trigger depressed….
The bullet passed by Maria’s head so closely she felt the wind of its passage. Sniper!
Even as her mind put a name to the threat, her body was diving behind the nearest auto. In falling, Maria scraped her right elbow on the concrete hard enough to rip her uniform and tear the skin beneath. She ignored it, except to think, in some distant part of her mind, My God, Centurion Garcia would kick my ass if he ever saw me do a dive like that.
Her body armor, tougher stuff, protected her breasts, as aramid fiber knee cups protected her knees. Her heart, which hadn’t ceased pounding since her brush with the helicopter, began to race: thumpthumpthump-thumpthumpthumpthump.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Maria cursed, even as she crawled to put the engine block and the right front tire of the car between her and where she thought the bullet had come from. It was better than nothing.
Unless, of course, the bullet didn’t come from where I thought. In that case, I’m probably toast.
She rolled over to her back, then slithered her posterior around. Trying to make the smallest target possible, Maria sidled her back to get her head flat behind one of the car’s tires.
Another bullet sent a cloud of broken safety glass raining down on her. Another and she heard a bullet ring off of the engine block then pass through the sheet metal of the body just over her head. Maria began to pray quietly.
Her back hunched against the tire, Maria looked to her left. The next nearest car was better than twenty-five meters away. She didn’t think there was any way she could make it before the sniper put a bullet in her. She knew, too, that he wouldn’t be picky, this time, going for a headshot. He’ll put one through my guts then shoot me in the head as I lay there on the asphalt. The lorica’s good for shrapnel and light rounds, not heavy, full caliber bullets. I’m pinned, but good. Worse, if all else fails he’ll probably eventually go for the gas tank. Then it’s going to be fricasseed Fuentes.
She began to pray a bit more fervently, whispering, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come…”
Next to the main door to Maria’s maniple’s headquarters there was a hand painted sign. She’d seen it a thousand times. The sign showed a duck trying to eat a frog, the frog’s legs sticking out of the duck’s mouth. The duck couldn’t eat the frog, though, because the frog’s front feet were wrapped around the duck’s throat, choking it, blocking its windpipe and gullet.
The caption on the sign said, “Never give up!”
She stopped praying to think, OK. ‘Never give up.
Maria took the drum magazine from her F-26 rifle, then tapped it against her thigh to make sure all the cartridges were well seated. She then replaced it in the magazine well. The magazine made a click as it seated, soft enough but seeming loud to her. Her finger flicked on the rifle’s integral night sight. Maria took one deep breath, crossed herself and prepared to get up and shoot back. She was NOT going to burn without a fight.
Even as her body tensed, she thought, If they could think of putting snipers on the roofs to block our mobilization, why couldn’t we have put people on the roofs to block the snipers? Or, at least, to keep the bastards busy?
“Quietly, Pablo,” the old man whispered with authority. “Don’t let the ammunition drag on the steps, boy.”
“Si, abuelo.” The grandson looked overhead, past where a lightly-built shed protected the stairwell that ran through the building from the frequent rain. He could see only one moon, and that a thin and weak one. Perhaps another was up; from where he was, Pablo couldn’t tell. In any case, he couldn’t imagine even the remotest possibility that anyone would or could hear anything over the ceaseless drumming of the artillery, the screaming of the jets, and the whoosh of light air defense missiles trying – usually in vain – to bring down an aircraft. Still, orders from his grandfather, more importantly orders from Legion Corporal (Med. Ret.) Vladimiro Serrasin, were not to be ignored. The old man was a veteran not only of the terrorist war, but even of the invasion by the Federated States, many years before. He was the boy’s hero.
The boy, himself a junior cadet with a slot waiting at one of the military schools, clutched the bandoleer tight to his chest.
“There, Pablo. See him?” The old man pointed to a soldier, enemy presumably, lying down on the sloping roof with his rifle aimed through a large open chink in the wall surrounding the roof.
“This one is good,” abuelo gave as his professional judgment. He had a tone of approval in his voice the boy found incongruous at best. “Good fieldcraft. From the ground only his target would have a chance to spot him. If he is as good a shot, that wouldn’t be a problem for him.”
Abuelo got on one arthritic knee, the rough gravel of the roof digging into it. Instead of showing a wince, a mild sneer crossed the old man’s face. The light machine gun he bore in his arms – an older and more primitive arm than the fancy F- and M-26s the Legion carried nowadays – went to his shoulder in a motion so smooth it was obviously long-practiced. The old man leaned into the shed that shielded the stairwell to the roof from rain. He took aim on the indistinct shape on the opposite roof. The old man inhaled, let the breath out, and began to squeeze….
Maria crossed herself quickly, then twisted up to one knee to bring her rifle to bear on the building from which she thought the fire had come. Even as she did so, a long, long burst of machine gun fire came from her left rear. She hadn’t been expecting it. The surprise ruined her aim. Her bullets hit the building opposite, but that was all.
She did not wet herself.
From the other side of the street came a scream that might have been heartbreaking if it hadn’t also been so satisfying. The machine gun fired again and the screaming stopped.
Mildly faint and more than a little nauseous, she slid down to rest her back once again against the tire
As Maria sighed her relief, she heard a laugh from overhead. Then an old man’s voice called out to her, “I once was young and brave and strong.”
Maria answered, loudly as she could, her voice still breaking with terror, “And I’m so now… Come on… and try.”
Then a young boy – he sounded all of thirteen or fourteen – shouted to the world, “But I’ll be strongest, bye and bye.”
“Go on, girl,” said the old man. “We can see for about three blocks. It’s clear that far, anyway.”
Maria shouted out, “Thanks,” then got unsteadily to her feet. Thankful to be alive and substantially unhurt, she resumed her jog again for the restaurant.
The restaurant wasn’t in, though it sat very near, the seediest part of the city, just south of Old Balboa. Though the septic-mouthed, genengineered antaniae had been eradicated from most of the capital, here their nightly cries – mnnbt, mnnbt, mnnbt – could be heard in the distance.
From the restaurant’s door came the challenge, “Delta, Oscar?”
Maria gasped out, “Lima Lima.” The challenge and password for the week spelled, “doll.” Had the sentry asked “Oscar, Lima”, Maria would instead have answered with, “Delta, Lima.”
“Go on inside, Sergeant Fuentes. The platoon centurion will be glad to see you. It’s a freakin’ nightmare, I’m tellin’ ya.”
Nodding, too out of breath for words, Maria brushed past the sentry and eased through the restaurant’s door. Sweat dripped from her chin to splash on the floor below.
Inside was a scene of boundless confusion and disarray. Tables and chairs had been pushed against the walls and windows for whatever cover they might provide. Women soldiers crouched low and indistinct amidst the tangle, their eyes searching out the windows for a threat. A six foot section of flooring had been torn away. From the hole flew metal and wooden boxes of what was plainly ammunition. Women soldiers ran to and fro, moving the boxes to where other armed women were breaking them open and passing the ammunition out.
To one side Maria’s platoon’s optio, what some armies would have called a “platoon sergeant,” spoke frantically into a radio. “What a nightmare! Half of us aren’t here yet! Dead, wounded, held up by traffic; I don’t know. Everyone is doing someone else’s job….No, I haven’t seen a trace of Zamora…. Yeah, yeah. I know. ‘Never to expect a plan to really work. After all, the goddamned enemy gets a vote, too.’… Roger, I’ll keep you posted. Out.”
The optio dropped the microphone to rest beside the radio. She took one look at Maria and said, “Sergeant Fuentes. Good to see you. Your people aren’t here yet. Go help Gupta drag the rest of the ammunition out of the hide.”
Obviously, there wasn’t time for questions. Maria did as she was told.
The ‘hide’ was that hole in the floor, normally kept hidden under a table, which held roughly three quarters of a ton of ammunition. The women all kept their personal load at home, of course, but that was mostly rifle and machine gun ammunition. The hide had enough for a real battle: mortar shells, anti-tank rockets, mines, demolitions, grenades. The hide had never been designed for highly complex and degradable ammunition, like the light, shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles. Those would have to come later, from elsewhere, if they did.
As she eased herself down, Maria wondered how many people had eaten at that table never knowing they sat above enough explosives to blow them half way to La Plata.
“Ouch! Watch where you put your feet, Sergeant Fuentes. That was my shoulder.”
“Right. Sorry, Gupta. Move a little so I can get down there with you.”
Whatever the origins of her name, Gupta was white and approximately blond. Once she’d stepped out of the way, Maria eased herself into the concrete-lined hole, then planted her feet on the floor of the hide and began to help. Some of the boxes took the two of them just to lift. She was struggling alone with a heavy crate when Marta stuck her face into the hole.
“We’re all here, Maria. I also picked up two militia types – Sanchez and Arias – on the way.” With that, Marta brushed off an hour’s stark terror.
Marta turned her head away and ordered, “Sanchez! Relieve the sergeant down in the hole.” Marta reached down a hand to help Maria climb out to make room for Sanchez.
Once back on her feet, Maria reached up to give Marta a quick hug. This was awkward as Bugatti was not only a head taller, but huge breasted to boot. Maria had to really reach.
“Good girl, Marta. Line ‘em up.”
Bugatti turned away and in that La Plata-accented Spanish that might as well have been Tuscan began to bellow to the troops.
After Marta had put the squad into a line Maria started her inspection. This was no time for parade ground bullshit. Sure, naturally she checked their ammunition, weapons, equipment, food and water. Mostly, though, she checked them.
“Your kids get picked up all right, Cat?” She asked of her machine gunner, Catarina Gonzalez.
For answer Cat just nodded her plain face on her stocky neck.
Scared, Maria thought. Don’t blame her. If I had three kids I’d be three times more frightened than I am. She patted Cat’s cheek for reassurances’ sake and continued down the line.
Cat’s ammunition bearer, Arias – a tall, slender, blonde girl – was next. Arias was so new the Maria couldn’t for the life of her remember the girl’s first name. While hands jiggled Arias’ canteens to check the weight of the water, Maria asked about her ammunition to cover the memory lapse.
“Fifteen hundred and ninety rounds, 6.5mm, four ball to one tracer,” Arias answered. “One thousand and sixty in my pack; five hundred and thirty ready.” Arias tapped the two large magazine pouches at her waist for emphasis.
Arias sounded frightened. Maria couldn’t.
Then she remembered the name. Maria squeezed Arias’ shoulder and said, confidently, “Vielka, don’t sweat it. You’re in good company. The best.”
Vielka smiled and relaxed just that trifle that said, Okay, Sergeant. I won’t be scared if you’re not.
While Maria checked her troops, the rest of the platoon showed up, a few at a time. The platoon leader, Centurion Zamora, arrived last of all.
Zamora pulled off her helmet to run fingers through sweat-drenched, long, coppery hair as the other Amazons gathered around. The centurion looked around at the platoon she loved and then fiercely pushed away the thought of what lay in store for them over the next several hours or days.
“Troops,” Zamora announced once they’d all been pulled together, barring only a few at the windows and one at the door, “troops, the country is under attack.”
Maria rolled her eyes Heavenward, thinking, What is it about higher leaders in the military anyway, that makes them need to restate the obvious? Ah, well, Zamora has other virtues.
“Our mission,” Zamora continued, “is to assemble, move toward the enemy Comandancia on Cerro Mina, attach ourselves to Second Legion...and fight as directed.”
“Those Tauran Union women who got raped and killed?” Marta asked.
Zamora shrugged, answering, “So far as headquarters knows, it never happened. But did they manufacture an excuse? That’s what I figure. Though who can understand a Tauran, anyway?”
Going to one knee, she pulled a map from a pocket, spreading it out on the floor where the troops could see. “Here’s our route.” A pencil traced a series of streets on a map. “Order of march is Second Squad, Headquarters, Weapons, First, and Third. The platoon optio will take up the rear. Move out in five.”
Maria was skeptical. Not all the ammunition was broken down yet. Pulling at a lock of hair, she said, “Damn, that’s not much time, Cristina.”
Zamora shook her head, though her hair was far too sweat-soaked to move with it. “It’s as much time as we have, Sergeant Fuentes. So it’s as much as we need.” I hate using that tone of voice with people I care for.
Maria’s face went blank as she answered, “Yes, Centurion.”
The order of march put Maria’s squad first. She told Marta to take up the rear of the squad.
Bugatti twisted her face into a mild scowl and answered, “And just where the fucking hell else would I be, Sergeant, sometime Centurion, Maria?”
Maria chucked her on the chin and led the way out. One by one, the rest of the squad followed, some of the women taking a last chance to stuff a pocket with an extra grenade or meal or drum of ammunition. As they assembled at the door, a light truck, in civilian paint but driven by a uniformed elderly man, showed at the door.
“Anyone here need a couple of anti-aircraft missiles?” the old man shouted out.
Maria passed the word back that the air-defense weapons were here. To the old man she said, “Just stand by. The crew will pick them up as they pass.”
“Wilco,” said the ancient.
Stomach flip-flopping as she slipped out the door, Maria began to move forward, hugging the sides of the street. There was the sound of firing ahead, the muffled patter of her soldiers’ booted feet behind. She often heard the distinctive sound of a missile being fired at some helicopter. Sometimes, when she passed through an open intersection and could look south or east, she saw tracers flying high in the air. I guess that’s what ‘a thousand points of light’ look like, after all.
About half way to Cerro Mina, Zamora answered the radio. After a half a minute’s conversation, she called a halt. The optio came running up to her.
“Change of orders,” Zamora announced. “We hold here until called for.”
“Any idea why?” the optio asked.
“Personally, since Tercio Gorgidas got the same hold order, I smell politics,” Zamora answered.
“Mierda!” exclaimed the optio, who then ran back and began directing the troops to find what cover they could in the halls and alleyways off of the street.
Maria took her squad – there were ten of them, all told – and hunkered down between the outside wall of a house and some bushes. Marta flopped down next to her, whispering, “If I were you, Maria, I’d tell Gonzalez to duck into one of those buildings and not come out for several days. I’ll carry her gun.”
Maria nodded her head for a moment, then shook it in negation. “I know. I considered that already myself. Gonzalez’s three kids. I don’t want them losing their last parent to be on my conscience. Still…no. We’ll need everybody soon, especially the machine gunner.” Besides, I like the idea of Alma being orphaned even less than I like the idea of it happening to the Gonzalez children.
The troops began sweating profusely as the sun first arose, and then climbed higher in the sky. Then the spot Maria had picked turned out to have been a good move on her part. The squad was on the wrong side of the street, shade-wise, and would have roasted but for the protection of the bushes. Even so, the building behind them absorbed and then put out a lot of heat as the day grew longer.
Some people, civilians, came out and gave the women cold drinks, snacks, whatever they had to spare. Considering that their country just might lose, and be ruined, it was probably more than they could spare. That made it better in more ways than one.
Curiously, none of those who ministered to the soldiers were healthy young men. Those not with the colors already were perhaps too ashamed to be seen by armed women heading for battle
It was a long, hot wait until Zamora received new orders. Marta filled the time with idle chitchat, mostly concerning the rumors that flew back and forth.
“Do you think the government’s really fallen?” she asked.
“The buildings may be in enemy hands,” Maria answered. “The President’s way too cagey to get caught himself, though. Not alive. He was a soldier once, too, you know.”
One trooper from the air defense team – they had to stay out in the open to use their missiles – stuck her head through the bushes and said, “I heard on the radio that the Taurans were being pushed back into the sea and that the boys of the military schools were on the attack.”
Remembering the other half of the machine gun team that had saved her from the sniper, Maria said that she thought it could well be true.
“C’mon, ladies,” Zamora announced, finally, once the sun was about halfway up the sky. “Enough loafing. We’re back on the job.”
In a way, the centurion thought, it’s better to go ahead despite what’s in store than to wait here, helpless.
It took a few minutes of shouting to get the platoon reassembled in the street. Then the women began to jog again, to move closer to the fighting, as civilians waved to them and cheered. Along their route Zamora’s platoon was joined by the others from the maniple, streaming in from the left and right. Maria almost felt sorry for the poor mortar rats struggling under their loads. Then again, they had a couple of mules to help out. She didn’t feel all that sorry for them. Besides, each of the Amazonas except for machine gun and rocket crews also carried a round of ammunition for the mortars. And seven pounds is not something to laugh at when you’re already toting over fifty.
They passed some awful things on the way. Bodies, of course, friendly and enemy. Some were uniformed and armed; some looked like civilians who had just gotten in the way. A couple were kids.
Maria thought of Alma for about the five hundredth time that morning. Please, God? Please help Porras keep my baby safe?
“Bring me a dozen eggs, child, and the side of bacon,” Porras told Alma Fuentes. The pan on the stove was already sizzling. To Cat Gonzalez’s eldest, Romeo, she said, “Be careful not to scorch the chorley bread in the toaster.”
Chorley was a grain either native to Terra Nova or possibly genengineered by the Noahs. No one was really certain. Growing, it resembled a sunflower that never reached more than a foot or so off the ground. Harvested, processed and baked, it made a yellow bread that was naturally buttery in taste.
“And turn off the television!” Porras shouted at another of the older children. There was no sense in letting them get upset with worry for their mothers.
The safe house for the children was Porras’ own. It was on the coast, far enough from the fighting that the children couldn’t hear much, if any, of it. Whatever she could hear, Porras still knew, at least in general terms, of the battle raging. She forced herself to remain calm, or as calm as she could, and kept the children busy with helping her prepare breakfast. Porras didn’t break out the government provided emergency rations. Time for that later...if things get hard.
“Abuela Lydia, where’s my mommy?” Alma asked from beneath soulful brown eyes.
“Child, do you remember this morning at all?”
“Not much,” the girl answered, shaking her head.
“Your mommy’s with the Tercio” – the regiment – “and I’m sure she’ll be back by this evening. Tomorrow night at the latest. And you and the other children will be staying here with me. Won’t that be fun?”
Alma nodded very deeply and seriously. “Fun,” she echoed, even while the child thought, I’m little; I’m not stupid. My mommy’s in trouble, isn’t she?
Before the platoons of Amazons reached the base of Cerro Mina they came to an open area filled with smoke, and bodies, and smells both unfamiliar and unpleasant. Marta nearly tripped over two of the bodies locked in what almost seemed an embrace. The knife of one was in the body of the other.
There was also a shot down helicopter, a Tauran gunship, with two burned charcoal lumps in it, their arms and legs pulled up like a baby’s in a womb. Those and their stench made some of the women gag a little.
Maria looked at the helicopter and wondered if it was the same one that had dogged her steps earlier. She hadn’t heard or seen a Tauran helicopter since the one that had tried to fire her up and wondered if that absence was because of the eventual and increasing distribution of the anti-aircraft missiles.
Marta took one sniff of the helicopter and started to gag herself. She bent over and deposited breakfast onto the asphalt.
The Amazons held up briefly just past that scene of battle, while their maniple commander, Inez Trujillo, went to find someone to report to. While waiting, Maria ordered her squad to take positions next to a couple of wrecked enemy armored vehicles. Yes, there were burned corpses in those, too. And, yes, they stank.
“A bad way to die; poor men,” she said.
Wiping her mouth with a hand, Marta answered with a ruthlessness she didn’t really feel, “Fuck ‘em; better them than us or ours.” Still, she shook her head, regretting not the deed, but the necessity.
After several minutes Tribune Trujillo showed up in the open area near Zamora’s platoon. With her was some male tribune the women didn’t recognize. The man towered over little Inez. Muscular, narrow-waisted, and painfully handsome, he looked as if he could have made a pretty good living as a male model. Maybe he did. He and Inez shook hands good-bye. Then Trujillo began to walk – perhaps a little unsteadily – toward where Maria’s squad lay. Halfway there, Inez stopped and forced herself back to reasonable calm. Thereafter, she walked upright and with apparent confidence.
The other two officers and the eight centurions and optios in the maniple gathered around her while Trujillo spoke and gestured to the map and the buildings surrounding them.
Trujillo was nearly finished with her orders. “Our attack to seize the Taurans’ headquarters on Cerro Mina is to be ‘quick and irrespective of losses;’ that’s how important it is.”
“Supporting forces on the right?” Zamora asked. She already knew that one understrength maniple of the Tercio Gorgidas was going to be on the left. And that there might be – or might not; things went wrong in war – an artillery barrage to soften the hill up.
Trujillo shook her head. “I’d have mentioned it if there were going to be.”
Zamora sighed at those words. “Irrespective of losses,” she quoted. “Oh, well. At least our left will be secure. Maybe the TGs are mariposas. We’ve all got reason to know they are some tough mariposas.”
“Other questions?” Trujillo asked. There was some lip chewing, some head shaking. Of further questions there were none.
The officers and centurions saluted Trujillo and returned to their places. The Weapons Platoon centurion called her women and their mules over and began setting up the section for firing. As soon as the others saw the mortars begin to set up, they began filtering over by twos and threes to drop off their single rounds of ammunition.
Too soon Maria was crawling on all fours behind her platoon centurion, her squad following her. They passed through tight little alleyways and buildings; their inhabitants staring at them with wide, terrified eyes. A little girl came to stand near where they had to pass, making the sign of the cross at them. Maria flashed the girl her best smile; almost as if she wasn’t scared to death.
I guess she means well. And it’s nice to know someone cares.
The women crossed open streets with hearts pounding. The whole time they moved they heard artillery – their own, they’d been told – pounding the steep enemy held hill to their front. The blasts made their internal organs ripple in a way that was both fascinating and extremely unpleasant, the more so as they got closer. The sensation wasn’t entirely new to any of them as they’d all been shelled, deliberately, in basic training.
Eventually they stopped in a courtyard that abutted onto Avenida de la Santa Maria, also known as Avenida de la Victoria, the road that marked the partition between the part of the country under Balboan control and the part held for the last decade by the Taurans. Some of the machine gunners, the ones with the heavier .34 caliber belt-fed guns, were ordered into the buildings to support the attack. Cat and her drum-fed M-26 stayed with her squad.
Maria was scared to death. She didn’t want to kill anybody; she didn’t want to be killed either. The more she thought about it, the more frightened she became. It got so bad that she lay right down on the asphalt, pretending to nap and hoping that its steadiness would help her conceal from her troops how very afraid she was.
Marta wasn’t fooled. She sat down, cross-legged, and said, “Don’t worry, Maria. It’ll be fine.”
Foul-mouthed and occasionally insubordinate as Marta was, Maria was awfully glad of her company. She patted her leg and half agreed with her, “Fine. Yeah. Sure.”
In a way, having Marta there did help. Maria wasn’t quite so scared, anyway. She didn’t feel so alone. That had really been the worst part of getting to the hide, being all on her own.
Now she was with her tribe. Life was not so bad.
“What do you mean there’s no damned smoke available?” Trujillo cursed into the radio. “I can’t order my girls into that without smoke!…Yes, sir…Yes, sir…I understand, sir. Yes, sir, I’ll try.”
Inez handed the microphone back to her fire support sergeant, her Forward Observer. The FO just shrugged and said, “Can’t store the white phosphorus with the high explosive. We’ll have to wait for the WP to reach the guns.”
“We can’t wait. It’s got to be done now. Suarez promised to paste the hill good with high explosive before we go in. But we’re going in.”
“Oh, Christ,” the FO said. Smiling nervously, she added, “Funny, how you call on the only man who can help you, isn’t it?”
Trujillo, look at her watch nervously. “Yeah...funny.”
The FO looked up at the sky and said a little, hopeless, prayer; something to the effect of, “Lord, please make them run away.” No such luck, of course. The Taurans had their jobs, too.
Trujillo looked around at her command, nearly two hundred women of the Tercio Amazona. Her eyes sought out especially those who had gone through training with her back when the regiment was just a dream. They were her best friends; no difference in rank could ever change that.
Her eyes settled on Maria briefly. She smiled with warmth and a little sadness. As she turned her gaze slightly, the smile grew both warmer and sadder. Cat Gonzalez smiled back, encouragingly.
The tempo of artillery fire landing on the hill ahead picked up noticeably. Maria opened her eyes and stood up. Lying on the asphalt hadn’t really helped all that much, anyway. She put her arms out parallel to her body to bring her squad on line. Marta fell in behind the squad. It was her job to make sure nobody fell behind her.
“Fix...bayonets!” Trujillo commanded. Word was passed from soldier to soldier. “Fix bayonets...fix bayonets!”
Maria’s hands shook as she reached toward her belt. She pulled the bayonet out and fixed it on the end of her rifle. A steady click-click-clicking said the rest of the maniple was doing the same, putting a knife on the end of a modern rifle to turn it into something a caveman would recognize as a spear.
It was not silly, however many thoughtless amateurs thought it was. True, bayonets almost never killed anybody who could still fight. They were not supposed to. What they were supposed to do, instead, was to terrify the enemy into running away or giving up. They did that well enough, often enough, to justify keeping them in the inventory. Of course, part of the terror was in the way they really were used; to hack the enemy’s wounded into spareribs after winning.
Even though it is against the law of war to refuse to take prisoners, prisoners are almost never taken in a hotly contested assault. Then, too, speeding is against the traffic code.
Arias got down on both knees, right there on the hard pavement, crossed herself, and began to pray. She included the Taurans in her prayers. Another girl, from a different squad, was crying softly. No one but she knew exactly what or whom she was crying for.
Then it was time.
Trujillo handed the microphone back to her radio-telephone operator. The RTO held it to her own ear, listening. Then Trujillo looked at the F-26 in her hand, shook her head, gave a little “to hell with it” shrug and slung the piece across her back. The tribune took the eagle from its bearer and crossed herself.
There’s only one way to do this, to make sure they go up that hill…together. We’ve got a broad open street to cross. The way the trees are, they cover the enemy from sight of most of our supporting weapons but give them a perfect view of most of the street. On the plus side they couldn’t see us where we assembled on our side of the street, what with the trees, the walled courtyards, and the covered vestibules. The Taurans might only kill my girls a few at a time if we try to cross in ones and twos, but there will be a lot more time to do it in; a lot more rifles and machine guns for every second there’s a target – my women! – exposed. And there just isn’t any more time to wait. A chance at the headquarters for this whole sector? It has to be done, if it can be done, right away, right now. If we fail…
“What the hell? Captain! Captain Bernoulli. You need to see this, sir.”
Bernoulli – a stubby Ligurini, a Tuscan mountain trooper – leapt from hole to hole, sheltering from the now desultory incoming artillery. Reaching his machine gunner’s side, he hunched his short and stocky frame down next to the man who had summoned him. “What is it, Basso?”
Basso pointed at the street below. “Sir, it’s one of the locals. I think it’s a she and I think she’s giving a speech…right in my line of fire. Sir, do I have to shoot her?”
Bernoulli shook his head at the waste of it all. “Let’s wait a sec’. Maybe she telling them all to go home…no, I guess not. Shoot if he…or she comes any closer, Basso.”
“Yessir,” the mountain trooper answered, though he clearly didn’t like it.
On the far side of the street below, Inez Trujillo shouted, “On your feet, Amazonas!” Then she waited for the girls to rise, such as hadn’t already.
“Now...For your old parents and grandparents back in the City; for the children you have or hope to have; for your country...for YOURSELVES! The future is at the top of that hill! Follow me, you cunts!”
Holding the eagle high with both her hands, the tribune raced out into the street. She had made it more than halfway across before three things happened: the artillery stopped falling on Cerro Mina, the rest of the Amazons realized what she had done, and two enemy machine gunners on the slope simply shot her to pieces.
Perhaps if only one or two bullets had hit Trujillo the rest might not have followed as they did. But Inez was torn apart.
The women could see that she was dead, very dead, even before her body hit the ground. She didn’t even have time to cry out. Her head was nearly severed, misshapen by a bullet, too. Entrails spilling, her corpse sprawled on the pavement. In an instant she was transformed from a living, breathing woman into an obscenity.
One or two enemy bullets must have hit the eagle’s staff, because it fell to the asphalt in two pieces.
The rest of the women – those who could see – just stared for a moment, speechless except for one or two of the girls who screamed. Maria recognized Cat’s scream clearly. She looked again at the body, biting her lower lip, tears coming to her eyes.
Maria felt a horrible anger build in her. “They ruined her! They ruined her!” She tightened the grip on her rifle and screamed, “Ataque!” In the next moment she and her girls were charging across that street screaming like she-wolves and firing from the hip.
The other squads followed right along. Well, men and women both are herd animals.
More machine guns – rifles too, of course – joined those that had killed Trujillo. Maria vaguely saw – rather, felt – one long sweeping burst cut down the woman – more of a girl really, she was no more than eighteen – beside her. A spattering of angry hornets cracked the air by her head and two or three more Amazons – three, it was three – cried out and flopped to the ground behind her.
Marta’s chest hurt terribly where a bullet had struck her breast, penetrating both liquid-metal plate and silk backing to lodge in the soft flesh below. Still she crawled from one body to another trying to do whatever good she could. She stopped briefly by the still-breathing form of Isabel Galindo. Isabel had been an immigrant from Santander. Isabel had been lovely.
She wasn’t anymore. From whatever angle the bullet had struck, it had blown away most of her face and both of her eyes. Marta dropped her head onto the shallowly breathing chest and wept, briefly.
“I can’t help, Isi. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Got to get to the other girls.” She bent to give Isabel a kiss from bloody lips before crawling on.
She stopped briefly by Martina Santa Cruz. Martina had just joined the tercio a few months before. She wasn’t much past eighteen years old. She would never be nineteen. Marta crawled on.
Marta didn’t have to turn the next body over to know whose it was. “Oh, Cat, she moaned, “what about your kids?”
That was one friend too many. Marta collapsed, unconscious.
Maria didn’t know, of course, that almost every close friend she had in the world was wounded or dead or dying. She kept running forward, firing short bursts. She kept shouting for the others to follow.
There weren’t many others in her squad who could follow. Half of those who began that charge went down before they’d even crossed the broad street. Provided one didn’t mind stepping on the wounded, or making the odd short jump, it would have been possible to have crossed it and never set foot on pavement. Even if someone had tried to cross it without stepping on any bodies, they would still have stained their boots red.
The rest of them, the half left standing, reached the wooded slope and, firing from the hip, began to close. It was slow going up that hill. More girls fell with every step.
What few Amazonas Maria had left did what she did, dodging from tree to tree, firing ahead without bothering much to aim, mostly just trying to ruin the Taurans’ aim.
Then someone ahead of her reached a row of barbed concertina. The Amazon detached her bayonet to use with the scabbard to try to cut a way through. Together bayonet and scabbard made a good set of wire cutters; they were designed that way. Others had the same idea, of course. The Taurans concentrated their fire on those trying to cut through. They were hit, some wounded, some dead. Not one of them got more than thirty feet past the wire alive. The wire itself was draped with bodies hanging grotesquely by the barbs caught on their uniforms and in their flesh. Most were dead, but one woman who had been hung up on the wire kept trying to pick her intestines off of the ground and stuff them back into her torn belly. Her one good arm kept getting re-caught on the wire, forcing her to spill her organs back to the earth. She made a horrible keening sound – hardly human, really – the entire time.
That made Maria very angry, but in a very cold way. When she saw a pair of enemy soldiers come running up, she drew her rifle to her shoulder, leaned into a tree, took careful aim, and fired.
Her first target threw his hands into the air and fell back, dropping his machine gun. The other one stopped, foolishly, for a second or two. Perhaps he was stunned or confused; she didn’t know or care. He looked, maybe, eighteen. She shot him in the stomach. With a surprised look on his face, he dropped his rifle, clutched his hands at his midsection and sat straight down. He fell straight back after she shot him, again, this time in the head.
“Sergeant Fuentes,” someone gasped. It was Vielka Arias. She had Cat’s machine gun in her hands. Maria looked her over and saw that Vielka was hit, too, in the leg. She must have crawled all the way, dragging Cat’s gun behind her.
Maria flopped down to her belly beside Arias. Pointing with a finger, she said, “Good girl, Vielka! Now see those two bunkers?”
Vielka nodded deeply.
“Good. Good girl. I want you to use that gun to keep their heads down. I’m going to go for the wire. If I can cut through I’ll signal you to join me.”
Though Arias winced with pain, she nodded her understanding with great seriousness.
Vielka began firing, first at one bunker than the other, as Maria crawled forward, snakelike. As she crawled, she detached the bayonet from her rifle and the scabbard from her belt. These she linked together.
Once at the barrier, Maria started using her bayonet to gnaw her way through the barbed tangles. Vielka’s fire alternated, spitting first to one side of her, then to the other.
“Goddamit,” Maria exclaimed as her hand caught on a barb, tearing the skin. She continued her cutting, even so, her work slowed by the ripping barbs. Eventually, she found she had to rise to one knee to keep up her cutting.
Kneeling like that, the work progressed more quickly. Maria had made it about half way through when she felt a blow hit her, as if from a great fist. Something tore through her side and out her abdomen. Alma would be the only child she could ever bear with her own body.
Maria cried out in surprise and pain. As her bayonet-wire cutters flew away, she fell down again. Dimly she saw that there was the ragged lip of a shell crater nearby. She started to crawl for it.
After the first shock, her wounds didn’t hurt all that much. Then they started to burn like hellfire, especially the larger exit wound. Maria began to cry from the pain. As she lay there, sobbing into the dirt, the bullets continued cracking overhead. That was Vielka, still trying.
Zamora had been trying to make sense of the ruination of her platoon when she saw Maria fall. She didn’t think; she just raced for the writhing body of her friend. Bullets split the bark from trees where the enemy gunners sought vainly to bring her down. When Zamora’s helmet strap broke and her helmet flew off her head not even her longish, red, woman’s hair caused the fire to slow.
Something – luck or God or pulsating prong of perversity – was with her, however. She managed to dive to the ground next to Maria unhurt. She paused only for the briefest moment before taking a firm grasp of Maria’s combat harness.
Maria dimly felt the strong grip of Zamora’s hand on the back of her harness. She muttered, faintly, “No. No. Leave me here.” The muttering quickly turned to one long continuous scream as Maria’s body was dragged across the broken ground. The screaming grew to a crescendo, until Zamora dragged her across the rough lip of an artillery crater and down into its muddy, protective shelter. Then Zamora took off, leaping out of the crater like a deer.
A few others, all but one in pretty bad shape, joined Maria in the crater. The Amazons’ fire stopped, for all practical purposes, not long after Maria had been hit. One woman – a not so badly wounded one – crawled to the edge of the crater and fired her rifle until an enemy bullet blew her brains out the back of her head. The enemy stopped, too, for a while, then picked up firing again. Maria heard some woman call out to save her, that the Taurans were killing all the wounded. She dug her fingers into the compacted mud of the crater and tried to crawl out to help.
She lacked the strength. Halfway up the slope of the crater Maria passed out.
Somewhere up the jungle-shrouded slope bagpipes were playing Boinas Azules Cruzan la Frontera, Second Tercio code for “No quarter.” Down below, medics picked through the one hundred and twenty-odd female bodies littering the street and the hillside. Most, if not by much, were still alive…if not by much. Many could be saved.
“Sergeant…sergeant we’ve got a few live ones here!”
The man with three stripes and a Red Cross armband came over and looked down into the blood- and corpse-filled shell crater. He shook his head sadly, muttering, “Stupid women…brave women.”
Ahead, the sounds of firing told that Second Infantry Tercio was cleaning up the remnants of the Taurans atop the hill. Second had made its attack hours later, but in overwhelming strength – nearly four thousand fresh men, with substantial artillery support! When the men of the Second had seen the bloody pulp into which most of the women had been ground, they had gone berserk. There would be few if any enemy survivors on that hill. “No quarter.”
“Well don’t just stand around with your goddamned teeth in your mouths!” the sergeant said. “Separate the live ones and get them out of here!”
Overhead, at about twenty-five hundred feet, the streamlined shape of an airship wound its laborious way between La Plata, far to the north, and Secordia, way down south. Balboa’s Herrera Airport was a routine stop for such. Patricio Carrera stepped out of his armored limo and looked at the ship without much interest. He had more important work to do today to spare a thought for anything but that. Besides, if it mattered, Fernandez would have told me about it.
“The Senate is my creation, not my creature,” Carrera reminded himself as he walked up the building-wide stone staircase, toward the four dressed granite columns. Compared to a local, Carrera was tall at five feet, ten inches or so. He was also considerably lighter than the national norm, with a kind of piercing blue eyes that were essentially unheard of in the Republic of Balboa. Since this was the Senate House, the Curia, he wore dress whites, but devoid of nearly all decoration. Despite the light material of the uniform, in the short walk between his staff car and the portico he could already feel sweat building up on his back and sliding down. Balboa had a very hot climate.
The blazing sun shone on columns which held up a thirty foot deep portico. Past the columns stood the dressed but unpolished granite blocks of the front wall of the Curia, the Senate House. Centered on that, directly to Carrera’s front, were great bronze double doors. In front of those doors stood a liveried servant of the Senate, who was also a retired first centurion of the Legion’s Fourth Infantry Tercio.
To this man Carrera said, “Dux Bellorum Patricio Carrera requests audience with the Senate of the Republic.” He then took out and handed over his service pistol. That military officers should never enter the Curia while under arms, nor indeed be escorted by armed guards, was a tradition Carrera hoped to establish firmly and beyond question. The best way in his power to do that was to follow it himself.
There was no doubt that the audience would be granted. Otherwise, Carrera would not have come. Still, formalities had to be observed. The retired centurion took Carrera’s pistol, said, “Please wait here, Duque,” and then turned and walked through the doors to announce Carrera’s request.
Carrera then waited, patiently enough. It wasn’t a very long wait, a matter of mere minutes, until the man returned and said, “The Senate will hear you now, Duque.”
Raul Parilla, President of the Republic and, pro tem, Princeps Senatus, sat a curule chair facing the Curia’s long, tiled central aisle. The space was flanked by rising levels of marble benches holding a quorum of the roughly one hundred and forty senators. Behind him, to his left, stood a larger than life-sized loricate statue of “Dama Balboa,” the personification of the nation and the Republic. The statue’s model had been Artemisia de McNamara. Carrera had sent far and wide for a sculptor – rather, a team of them – to do Artemisia, and the country, full justice, and just as far for a one by one by three meter chunk of near-molasses-colored marble.
The space behind Parilla to his right was empty, though the Senate had some thoughts on whose statue should fill it. “Victoria should go there,” was the consensus, and Lourdes de Carrera’s name had come up more than once as the prospective model. Then, too, what the hell, since the sculpting team was just hanging around…
Carrera didn’t know about any of that, though Parilla and the Senate did. Fernandez, the chief of intelligence knew, too, but he knew nearly everything and told only a fraction of that. Indeed, Fernandez had made only one serious mistake the entire time he’d been chief of intelligence, though that one had been a doozy. All three knew why Carrera was at the Curia today, though few if any of the Senate knew.
And they’re not going to like any of it when they do know, Patricio, Parilla thought. Not a bit. We’re just not that “enlightened” a country. Pretty unenlightened, as a matter of fact. Barely out of the trees, truth be told. Why…
Parilla’s thought was interrupted by the opening words of Carrera, his friend, supporter, sometimes subordinate, and sometimes mentor.
One of these days, Carrera thought, I really am going to begin a speech to the Senate with the words, “Conscript Fathers.” And why not? I conscripted the bastards, didn’t I? Today’s not that day though. Maybe after the next war.
Instead, he began, “As I’m sure all of you know, I am the most progressive, the most enlightened, the very most multiculturally sensitive human being on the face of this planet.”
He kept his own face straight all through that opening but had to wait for the Senators to stop laughing before he continued.
“Exactly,” he said, and smiled as he said it. “So when I tell you I want to do two things that might strike less astute observers as progressive, enlightened, and sensitive, you gentlemen – and you, too, Mrs. Hurtado – will not be fooled. You, at least, will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those are the least of my concerns.”
He cast his gaze around, seeking eye contact with a few key members of the Senate. When he had caught the eye of one in particular, a dark-skinned veteran named Robles, Carrera asked, “Senator Robles, how old are you?”
“Thirty-nine, Duque,” Robles answered.
“How old is your wife?”
“Seventeen,” Robles answered, defensively. Fernandez had been sure he’d be defensive about his new wife’s age. “Why?”
Carrera held up and lightly wagged his right index finger. Please wait. You’ll know in a bit. And Fernandez knows everything.
“Fifteen days ago,” Carrera continued, “I had to witness the execution for mutiny of a senior tribune, aged thirty-seven, and a young corporal, aged nineteen. Both were male. When they joined we didn’t ask so they never mentioned that they were homosexual. Note, that there is no law or regulation against being homosexual, but there is a law against two people, conspiring together, to subvert good order and discipline in the Legions. That’s mutiny.
“The corporal was fairly new, but among the tribune’s decorations were three wound badges, the close combat badge, the Cazador tab, of course, and the Cruz de Coraje en Oro con Espadas.
“And, despite that, I had to have them both shot.
“No more,” Carrera said, shaking his head firmly. “I don’t want to have to do that ever again. Ever. Again.
“Because,” and Carrera’s finger shot out at Senator Robles, “Eros mocks Mars. Love knows no ages, nor sexes, nor conditions. It accepts no bars. And people brave enough to fight and maybe die for the Republic are not going to be dissuaded or deterred by our occasional firing squads. The most those do is encourage discretion.” He shrugged. “Usually… imperfectly.”
Carrera held his hands up, palms facing and parallel, roughly six inches apart, and said, “But, you know, deterrence always seems to fail by about that much.”
Senator Hurtado used her hand to hide an embarrassed smile.
“So what do you propose, Duque?” Parilla asked, though he knew perfectly well what Carrera intended. And really didn’t approve.
Speaking slowly and very deliberately, Carrera answered, “I want to raise a regiment – a small regiment, I think; not many will be suitable for the conditions I have in mind – of married male homosexuals.”
Someone – Senator Cardenas, Carrera thought – shouted out from the benches, “This is impossible, Duque! You are going to make us a laughingstock among the nations of the world. Raising a regiment of queers; married queers? Impossible. And I shudder to think what the church will say.”
Bright eyes flashing, Carrera answered, “It is possible, Senator. It’s been done. It can be done again. And I intend to do it.”
“But to what purpose, Duque? We don't need them. I don’t want them. They make my fucking skin crawl!” Cardenas shuddered.
Carrera hesitated before answering. “No pun intended, but I find them a little, ah, distasteful, myself. But, Senator, as I said, just two weeks ago I watched two good soldiers shot by firing squads for mutiny. Their crime was that they were of different ranks, fell in love and... did something about it. They weren’t the first we’ve had to shoot, either. You know that.
“They died well, those two. I want them to be the last. This is a way, a chance anyway, for them to be the last.”
Carrera looked around the Curia, gauging support. He didn’t think he had it. He said, “Senators...if it doesn’t work… what have we lost? Some money for training. A few buildings we could always use for something else. Some uniforms. Let me try this...please?”
“Besides, I need them for something else.”
“Eh?” Cardenas asked. “What? What else?”
Carrera’s eyes lit again as he answered, “I want to raise a regiment of women.”
Later, in his own offices beneath the Curia’s main floor, Parilla sighed, “They voted against you, Patricio. On both questions. No money for your Tercio Gorgidas or Tercio Amazona. Even Hurtado voted ‘nay.’”
“I’d be proud of them,” Carrera admitted, then scowled, “if I wasn’t so damned annoyed that they balked me.”
“What are you going to do?”
Carrera’s mouth twisted before he answered, “When I turned over the bulk of the Legion’s assets to the Senate, you know I openly kept quite a bit for discretionary funds.”
Parilla smiled. “Yeah, I told them you would. I think they were secretly relieved to be able to balk you without frustrating you. I also made you a deal, even against my better judgment.”
Carrera’s left eyebrow shot up. “What kind of deal?”
“If you can make these regiments worth a damn, on your own ticket, the Senate will recompense your discretionary funds.”
“Best you could do, huh?”
“Better than I really wanted to do,” Parilla admitted.
To sleep, perchance to dream.
I’d had it pretty plush as a little girl. I didn’t even suspect just how plush until much later.
My family lived in a big white stucco house, a few miles west of Punta Cantera. We had a maid, a cook, two cars. My mother needed the maid, too, given the sheer size of our house. Maybe by South Colombian standards we weren’t quite rich. Certainly we weren’t more than distantly connected to the oligarchy that ran Balboa from shortly after Belisario Carrera’s revolt against Old Earth until quite recently. Still, we lived better than about ninety-eight percent of the people of our country.
My earliest memory – and I can’t really remember how old I was then – was of sitting on my father’s lap watching television. Two men, one brown, one black, were fighting. I didn’t care about that, of course; sitting on daddy’s lap was better than playing with my dolls, trying on new clothes, or even ice cream or candy. I only paid attention to the fight because it seemed important to my father.
Suddenly the brown man on the TV threw down his hands saying, “No mas. No mas.” Daddy went into a towering rage at that, putting me on my feet so he could pace and fume. I remember him using words like “disgrace”, “ashamed”, and “coward.” He used some other words, too, that I’d never heard from him before. Come to think of it, I’d never heard some of those words from anyone before. I guess I must have been really young.
There were a lot of things on the television worse than that when I was young. I was maybe seven when I walked into the living room and saw my mother, even paler than she normally was, staring at the screen while biting her finger so hard blood started to drip. Mama was crying.
I asked what was the matter, but she just shook her head while continuing to stare at the screen. Then I looked and I saw the bodies, and the parts of bodies, and the blood.
At first I thought it must be a movie. But Mama never would have cried over a movie, not her. And, when I looked from the screen to her face, I saw tears running.
“Who would do this?” Mama asked of the air, her hands flailing about, helplessly. “Who would do such a thing? Even when we were invaded, twelve years ago, they tried not to kill regular people. This… monstrous… thing; they intended to butcher innocent folk.”
Then she realized I was really there and picked me up and carried me out of the room.
She was too late, of course. I already had an idea of what had happened. And I thought then, as I think now, that the most important lesson I’d learned since starting school was that when someone hits you, you have to hit them back. Hard. As hard as you can.
It was maybe a year and a quarter later before we finally did hit back. I got to watch that on television, too, with Daddy and my brother, Emilio. Mama wouldn’t watch. Emilio was enthralled. Daddy was mostly just interested.
I know now why the images on the screen were green and grainy. At the time I didn’t. I’m not sure Daddy did either. And there wasn’t really that much to see, just bright green flashes on a long steep ridge somewhere they called “Sumer.” I didn’t know where that was.
The man doing the talking seemed really nervous, and it was hard to make out his words over the other sounds. Sometimes he’d turn his camera around and show what was happening in the other direction, but when he did you could see even less, just the outline of a hill being lit up by flashing lights.
I fell asleep on Daddy’s lap before much of anything really happened.
It wasn’t so long after that that the country began to really change. Neither Mama nor Daddy were too happy with the changes.
What changes? Oh, I don’t recall that I’d ever seen a soldier in my life except on TV or at the movies. But, more and more as time went on you would see them everywhere. Some even came to school sometimes to talk to us. And they had parades in the streets pretty often, too.
In any case, I knew and cared little enough about all of that back then. My world was one of school, friends, beaches, parties and shopping. The latest hit love song was much more important to me than the fact that an army was growing around us.
The first time I ever really saw the Legion was when the Second Infantry Tercio paraded down Via Hispanica. It was on a day when my mother had taken me shopping for clothes at a boutique near the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora. We had only just arrived at the door to the store, I having delayed things by successfully talking mother into buying me a new pair of shoes at a different establishment as well as two new music discs at yet another.
Hey, helping Mama spend Daddy’s money was my job.
The parade itself was very well stage-managed, it seems to me now. Traffic was stopped in both directions for maybe half a mile. That was as far as I could see, anyway. Then smoke appeared as if by magic, a screen of billowing thick gray fog, all across the street. Someone started throwing these little bombs into the smoke. They whistled and then blew up, something like the sounds I’d heard on the TV, coming from Sumer. By that time, I was also able to recognize them from the war movies my little brother Emilio watched whenever he could. I, assuredly, had no interest in war in general or artillery in particular.
Then the pipes started, loud and shrill, and the first rank of the Second Tercio appeared, marching through the smoke and the explosions...as if marching into a fight. I think that was the effect they intended. It was...impressive. It impressed me, anyway.
When the boys went into their parade step – a sort of modified goose step, actually – people on either side applauded and the girls nearly swooned. Some of the men and boys marching really were handsome. And there was a power in their tread that I’d never experienced before.
I was fairly mesmerized for the moment. My mother just pulled me away into a store, tsk-tsking about what her father would have said had he been there to see it. No one, hardly, in our social class would dream of joining the military, back then, and certainly not an infantry tercio. We were all very much above that sort of thing. Mama’s whole family explicitly despised the Legions. Daddy’s was a bit more ambivalent about them.
My father was a businessman, self made for the most part. He’d started life with very little besides determination, some brains, some guts. I remember him, when I remember him, as being very handsome, very dark. My mother was a rabiblanca– a “white ass.” She had been something of a debutante, from one minor branch of an old, old family.
My mother’s family never liked my father. For one thing, he absolutely refused to take anything from them, a position my mother supported him in for the sake of his pride. For another, he just wasn’t from one of the old families that usually ran our country. That stain passed on to myself and my brothers and sister. Our grandparents never cared for us as much as they did the other grandchildren. Besides we were too dark from Father’s side of the family.
Still, Mother and Father did everything they could to make it up to us. We went on vacations regularly, attended the best schools in the City. Today I shudder to think of how much money they spent on me and my three siblings. We were probably as spoiled as any four kids growing up anywhere. And I? I was the apple of Daddy’s eye, certainly through age fifteen. Whatever I wanted, and I recall that once that had even included acting classes, I got.
Age fifteen? Yes, that’s when everything changed. The big change? I discovered boys. In particular, I discovered one boy.
Juan was simply gorgeous; tall, muscled and olive. He was curly haired, with green eyes framing a patrician nose. Yumm. His family was as old as my mother’s. Juan’s age? Eighteen. When you’re fifteen, eighteen looks very mature and attractive indeed.
I saw him first when I went with some friends to the beach at Santa Clara, east of the Ciudad. I was sitting under one of the palm-thatched huts that dot the beach, just chatting with my girlfriends, when Juan came into my view. He looked good in a bathing suit.
So did I; I guess. Juan came over to introduce himself and my girlfriends thoughtfully made themselves scarce. We talked, made some arrangements, met again in the City. Met again. Met again.
He could sweet talk a girl. I wasn’t short, he said; I was “perfection in miniature.” I wasn’t too dark, no, I was...let me think. Oh, yes, “the shadow of beauty on a moonlit night.” Oh, that was a good one. He told me I was beautiful, often enough, with enough of what sounded to me like sincerity, that I began to believe that to him I was beautiful, not merely pretty. I was his “Heaven and Earth. My eyes, his stars. My body, the paradise he yearned to enter.”
He said he loved me, too.
I decided Juan was the one. The usual thing – err, things, actually – happened. I won’t pretend I didn’t like it. Even the things I didn’t much like for themselves I loved doing with him...for him. I didn’t even mind that some of those things hurt.
But then the only slightly less usual thing happened.
“Madre de Dios! What is the matter with you, Maria?” My mother stood, arms folded, at the door to my bathroom where I knelt, head in the toilet.
I had hidden my pregnancy for a couple of months, too afraid to disappoint my parents. Rising to my feet, I answered, “Nothing, Mother. I just don’t feel well.”
“Yes...of course...you don’t feel well.” Uh, oh. Mother wasn’t buying.
She looked me over very carefully. Then she slapped me right across the face. “I wonder...do you suppose your bra is getting too tight, little one? Do you think maybe you need a larger size school uniform?” She hit me again, knocking me to the floor, then screamed, “Who was the boy, you cheap little tramp?” When I didn’t answer, she pulled me to my feet by my arm. Then she twisted my arm behind my back and bent it. I screamed.
She forced the truth out of me. I wasn’t as used to pain then as I later became.
Oh, sister, was there a scene at my house that night. Father screamed at me, slapped my face, too. He’d never done anything like that before, never even raised his voice to me. Mother had always disciplined the girls.
Mother, on the other hand, just cried continuously, moaning about the shame of her daughter being a “cheap puta.” It wasn’t until quite a few years later that I discovered from my sister that Mother had been three or four months pregnant with me when she’d married Father.
Daddy called Juan’s parents, demanding that he marry me. They said Juan denied being the father. They said that if Daddy couldn’t control his “little whores” it was no concern of theirs or of their son.
Naturally, my father went wild at that, but since Juan’s parents hung up and took the phone off the hook there was no one to take it out on but Mother and myself. Finally, I ran to my room in tears.
The next day I took off from school to find Juan, since his parents weren’t accepting any calls from me. I was so sure he would want to elope right away. There wouldn’t be any point in detailing all the places I looked for him. Suffice to say that I did find him. I wished I hadn’t.
He’d already found a new girl, was with her, in fact. No time waster was our Juan. When I tried to get his attention he turned his back on me. When I insisted, he said – and he said it out loud, so everyone could hear – that the baby could possibly be his, but since I would “go to bed with anybody the odds were against it.” Then he announced that he wanted nothing further to do with me because I was trying to pin this pregnancy on him. I ran out, again in tears.
The son of a bitch knew I’d been a virgin.
Well, my parents were no happier that I hadn’t gone to school. Still, the big thing was the baby.
“I am taking you to the doctor and you are going to abort that little bastard inside you,” Father said. So much for devout Catholicism.
“No, I’m not,” I answered. “It’s my baby and I’m keeping it.”
“Then you’ll keep it elsewhere,” Father threatened. “I won’t have your bastard in this house.” Mother said nothing. With Father in charge she was able to just keep crying.
“Then I’ll GO!” I shouted back as I stormed off to my room.
I went to bed that night broken-hearted. Even then, even with the exhaustion of tears, I couldn’t sleep. Juan didn’t want me, had used me and thrown me away like old toilet paper. Daddy and Mother were ashamed of me; so ashamed they wanted to destroy my baby. They’d do it too, I thought. They’d make me do it.
That I just couldn’t let happen. I might not have Juan. I might have lost my parents’ love. But I had my baby. Already I could see her – I was sure the baby would be a girl, see her smiling face, hear her laugh, watch her clap her hands in innocent joy. No. No one was going to take my baby away – or hurt her. I got up and began to quietly pack a few things: Some clothes, whatever little money I had saved when I wasn’t too busy spending it on clothes, music, shoes, or jewelry. I packed a family picture. I took, too, the emerald ring I’d been given on my fifteenth birthday, my quinseñera.
I also raided the refrigerator for half a dozen olives, the big gray ones that are about the size of a plum and are said to taste something like real Old Earth olives. Mother kept a couple of trees out back, green-trunked and gray-fronded, but those would have been too bitter. Standing in the kitchen, thinking of her olive trees, I considered for a moment taking some of the tranzitree fruit that grew in her garden as well. Green on the outside, red on the inside, sweet and deadly poisonous; the tranzitree fruit would have been a quick way out.
I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just my mess of a life at stake.
I crept out of the house, as quiet as a mouse, sometime before dawn. As quiet as I’d been, my little brother, Emilio, met me at the foot of the staircase.
“Are you leaving us, Maria?” he asked, a look of real twelve-year-old’s sorrow in his eyes. “Is it because you’re going to have a baby?”
I just threw my arms around him, trying very hard not to cry. Emilio had always been my favorite; ever since the day Mother had brought him home from the hospital. I loved my sister and other brother well enough. There had always been something special between Emilio and myself, though.
Emilio asked me to wait a minute while he ran to his room. When he came back he had about twenty-five drachma in his hands...that, and his favorite baseball glove. “Please take these, Maria. I know you don’t need the glove...but it may remind you of me. And you will need the money.”
I started to really cry then. I buried my face in his shoulder to muffle my sobbing. Then he started to cry without any shoulder to deaden the sound. I worried that we’d wake my parents.
I told him, “Emilio, I have to go. But I’m going to miss you most of all.”
“But how will I find you?” he asked.
“Don’t worry. Once I’m on my feet, I’ll find you.”
With Emilio’s little fortune in my purse, his glove weighing down my satchel, tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, I left.
I walked for hours through the city, switching my suitcase from hand to hand as I did. I was pretty naive in most of the ways of the world, but I knew I’d need money until I could find a job. So...no taxi. And I didn’t know the bus routes; I’d never had to take a regular bus before. Still, by noon I had reached my destination, an even seedier than usual part of the Rio Abajo Barrio. There I went looking for a room.
Finally, an apartment manager showed me something in my price range. “For what you can afford to spend, Miss, this is about as good as you’re going to find.”
But, God, it was awful. I don’t mean merely dreary and dirty, though it was those things, too. The one window was cracked. There were cockroaches scurrying around the floor when the manager of the building turned on the one, bare, light bulb. And it stank, of grease, of dirty bodies...of sex, too. Nasty, you know. And it was the best of what I’d seen in my price range.
Well, I did some mental figuring. With the money I had I could afford this place for about six weeks and still eat once a day. I thought six weeks would be enough time to find something to do, some kind of work. Then I could get a better place.
I took the dump.
You can’t hold a fifteen year old, boy or girl, accountable for being dumb. The money lasted maybe three weeks. And I sure hadn’t found work by then.
I’m not going to talk about the next several months. Go ahead and assume the worst you can imagine. It was probably, in most ways, worse than that. But at least it wasn’t prostitution.
Eventually, my pregnancy began to show so badly I couldn’t get any kind of work, even the Barrio pimps weren’t interested. I lived off charity for a while. You cannot imagine how much that hurt, coming from my family, with my father – to say nothing of my mother.
Then came the big day. My water broke, I went into labor. One of the neighbor women helped me bring the baby into the world, there on my filthy mattress.
It was hard. The baby was big and I was...tiny...inside. Writhing in agony, I cursed Juan. I cursed my father. I cursed every man who’d ever lived. While I was at it, I cursed Eve.
Mr. Rios waited outside while his wife held me and helped me and comforted me. When Mrs. Rios held Alma to my breast, I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I still think so. I can’t imagine ever thinking differently.
Alma was fine and healthy. I got sick. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Rios and her husband I don’t think I would have made it.
After a few months – yes, that’s how sick I was – I was able to start looking for work again. Unfortunately, there were no jobs for little ex-rich girls with no skills, a tenth grade education and a baby to care for. Not unless they were in the new legions, and I was too young to join even if I’d wanted to. Not that the thought ever even crossed my mind.
I’ll tell you the truth: I considered going to work in one of the whore bars. I don’t suppose that I had any real skill at that sort of thing, Juan or no, but I’d been an eager learner. I might have become a whore, too, if my having been sick so long hadn’t made me – temporarily – pretty damned unattractive. I’m just as glad I never had to find out if I could have.
I did find work; as a waitress. It was hard work and the restaurant was hot. And me? I’d never worked a real job a day in my life before I got pregnant. And the odds and ends things I’d done so far didn’t require even as much skill as a busboy needed. I was also still weak from being sick so long.
My family had paid for dancing lessons for the girls, fencing for the boys. I thought I was pretty graceful. But I seemed to spill more food on the floor than I served the first few days I was there. The manager fired me after an unfortunate incident involving a large bowl of hot soup and someone’s trousers.
The next foray into economic independence was as a maid. Now, you understand, I couldn’t be a maid for any of my own people. My parents might have found out and died of shame. I still owed them something, I thought. So it had to be for some foreigners. And the Taurans were the most numerous foreigners around.
That first maid job lasted two days. It was for some old man who lived in Balboa and worked on the locks of the Transitway. He was Sachsen-born as I recall. He kept insisting I...well, it doesn’t matter, I wasn’t going to do it, not for him. Once he understood, out went Maria on the street again.
After that, I went to work for a Gallic couple, the Mangins. He was an officer, a captain, in their army. She was a housewife. They were really nice to Alma and myself. We lived in a little room underneath the house. It was even air conditioned and had its own bath. Life was not bad.
However, all good things come to an end. By the time I went to work for the Mangins they only had about a year left in the country. When they moved away, so did my job. Back to Rio Abajo I went. Still, since the job with Mangins had come with room and board, I’d been able to save almost six hundred drachma.
With the money I’d saved I was able to pay for some new clothes and a better room. The new clothes got me another job, this time working in a store on Avenida Central. I was on my feet all day, six and a half days a week. The Rios continued to care for my daughter. Whenever I could, I looked for a better job.
“Well, Miss Fuentes, your office skills aren’t really what we’re looking for. Still, you’re young. You can be trained. We’ll give you a try.” The speaker was Señor Arnulfo Piedras, a chubby, jolly-seeming man of about forty. He ran an office in a bank off of Via Hispanica.
I gushed, “Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you. I promise you won’t be sorry.”
“I’m sure I won’t,” he said, meditatively. “Please come back tomorrow at eight to begin.”
I left feeling some real hope for the first time in many, many months. As I walked past the rows of desks, I never noticed that none of the women working there would meet my eyes.
“Close the door behind you, Maria,” Mr. Piedras said, gently. I did.
Once the door was shut, his face went from gentle to a mask of utter fury. “Idiot!” he screamed at me. “Idiot! Can’t you do the simplest little thing right?” He waved a piece of typewritten paper in front of my face.
I stood there by his desk, speechless. I couldn’t imagine what I’d done so wrong. I’d only been working for about two weeks.
Piedras continued, “I gave you this job out of the goodness of my heart and this is how you repay me? Fool! Blunderer! Moron!” I still had no idea what he was talking about. Hell, I was too much in shock to even begin to understand what he was talking about.
Then he shouted, “You’re fired.” That hit me. I started to cry. I didn’t know what I’d done so wrong. What could I have done so wrong? My old job was already filled. I couldn’t even go back. I’d taken a better apartment, one I could only afford on my new salary. And he was firing me already. I had a baby to support.
At my tears, Piedras seemed to relent. His fat face softened. He put his arms around me as if to comfort me.
I stiffened as I felt him unsnap my bra, one handed. I think now that it must have taken much practice for him to learn to do that so easily. I soon found myself bent over his desk, face down, the sausage-like fingers of his left hand playing with my breast, the other lifting my skirt and tugging at my panties. When he had those out of the way he stuck a hand into his desk drawer.
I didn’t start to sob out loud until I felt him rub something, lubricant, I suppose, between my legs. He put a hand over my mouth to shush me. Then he raped me.
Alma looked up at my face from where she’d been resting her head on my chest. She asked, “Whatsamatter, Mama? Why are you crying?”
“No reason, baby,” I sniffled. “Everything’s fine,” I lied. “Just cuddle into Mama and sleep.”
It had gotten better at work, actually, over the past several months. Where Piedras had called for me two or three times a week to begin with, now there was another young girl for him to break in. I didn’t have to feel the swine inside me more than once every few weeks.
I’d stopped crying once I realized the fat pig enjoyed it. My only protest now was, if he forced me to my knees, to push him so far into the back of my throat that I threw up on him.. He didn’t enjoy that. After the first couple of times of cleaning my vomit from his trousers, he gave up on it.
He still usually pushed me face down onto his desk. After the first time I threw up on him, he took me...behind...to punish me, I suppose. He still did that from time to time.
Why didn’t I complain? Well, the first few times maybe I could have. Just maybe somebody would have listened, too. Then he’d have told his story. You know which story, the one about the little tramp who tried to seduce the boss. They would have believed him. And I’d have been fired. And maybe Alma would have starved.
But what about the law? Same thing; same ending. My country just wasn’t set up to protect women who were alone, women who didn’t have a husband, son, or father to protect them. Nothing is stronger than custom and that was ours at the time. I had no one. I was alone, nearly without rights. I was helpless.
I took showers all the time, but I never felt clean anymore. I was barely eighteen.
Things began to really fall apart again when the civilian government used the Taurans and our police force to try to get rid of President Parilla and Duque Carrera. Everyone knows how they failed to do so, how Lourdes Carrera escaped from captivity, got some help, then fought her way to a TV studio to rally the tercio of Volgans to save her husband. Then came the Revolution, along with a very large number of public executions. Then came the Tauran financial embargo. And with that, my job disappeared. Besides, Piedras had to make room for a new addition to his harem.
I had to find us a smaller place, no choice. Alma was too little still to understand why she had to leave her old playmates behind. I didn’t know how to explain it.
It was at about that time that I discovered that we were no longer a democracy, at least what I’d always thought of as a democracy. On the other hand, I was still too young to vote so I really didn’t give it much thought.
Also at about this time my sister and my mother found me. Forget the tears and recriminations, forget the money they offered me too. I was my father’s daughter, and I had my pride. Still, they would sometimes bring something for Alma that I could never quite bring myself to refuse. The poor baby had so little.
Well, my financial situation just kept deteriorating. The country as a whole was surviving the foreign embargo, but for those of us who were on the margins of society and weren’t in the Legion life got grimmer and grimmer. I thought about giving Alma up to my mother but couldn’t bear to be apart from her for the rest of my life. And Daddy most emphatically didn’t want me back.
I really didn’t know what to do. I was rapidly coming to the end of my rope. I had to sell my emerald quinseñera ring. I’m pretty sure I was cheated.
During one of the regrettably short stints I did as a waitress I caught a news program on TeleVision Militar, the military TV station. It seemed Carrera was officially adding a new organization to the Legion. I’d probably have forgotten all about it except that the Tercio Gorgidas was eventually, much later, to play an amazingly important role in my life.
There had been a lot of ceremony and drum beating, most of it quite meaningless to me. Parilla led the bulk of the men standing on the parade field through another ceremony that sounded suspiciously like a set of marriage vows, though the emphasis was maybe a little more on mutual support in battle than mutual support in life. Then the camera showed Carrera leaving his wife’s side and going to the microphone to speak. He opened a book on the podium.
I heard him say this: “The ancient Old Earth writer, Plutarch, tells us of an extraordinary military unit of ancient times, its life...and death. Listen: ‘Gorgidas, according to some, first formed the Sacred Band of three hundred chosen men....it was composed of young men attached to each other by personal affection....For men of the same tribe or family little value one another when dangers press, but a band cemented on friendship grounded upon love is never to be broken, and invincible; since the lovers, ashamed to be base in the sight of their beloved, and the beloved before the lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another...they have more regard for their absent lovers than for others present, as in the instance of the man who, when his enemy was going to kill him, earnestly requested him to run him through the breast, that his lover might not blush to see him wounded in the back.’
“ ‘It is stated that the Sacred Band was never beaten till the battle at Chaeronea; and when Philip, King of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, after the fight, took a view of the slain, and came to the place where the three hundred that had fought his phalanx lay dead together, he wondered, and understanding that it was the band of lovers, he shed tears and said, ‘Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything that was base.’ ”
On the screen, I saw Carrera turn slightly to send a dirty look to someone to his right rear. I later figured out that this someone was either a senator named Cardenas or a legate named Suarez.
After that, Carrera turned back to his audience and continued, “ ‘Gorgidas distributed this Sacred Band all through the front ranks of the infantry, and thus made their gallantry less conspicuous...But Pelopidas, having sufficiently tried their bravery at Tegyrae, never afterward divided them, but keeping them together, gave them the first duty in the greatest battles...thus he thought brave men, provoking one another to noble actions, would prove most serviceable, and most resolute, when all were united together.’ “ Carrera closed the book from which he’d been reading.
“Your tercio has a glorious ancestry; quite possibly a glorious future. Don’t fuck it up.”
TV Militar would never dare to censor anything Carrera or Parilla said.
The Gorgidas boys did a parade then, in front of the cameras. The people, men mostly, in the restaurant seemed to have mixed feelings. Many of them were in the reserve forces. Some, probably most, were thoroughly pleased at getting whatever mariposas had been in their organizations out of same.
One night, sometime later, I heard some heavy weapons firing from not so far away. (Not that I knew the difference at the time; though I know the difference now). This was followed by the sound of a crash and an explosion. I hid with Alma under the bed. The next morning we came out and everything seemed pretty normal, except that the neighborhood was buzzing over some Tauran helicopter that had been shot down the night before. Curious, Alma holding my hand, I walked in the direction of the crash.
Sure enough, just outside the walls there was a helicopter, wrecked and burned. It still smoked slightly.
I saw a man, tall for one of us, though not so tall for the ex-gringo I’d heard he was. Carrera was looking over the wreck as some medical people removed the bodies from it. I saw him lose his temper and strike one of the medics. I don’t know what for.
I kept watching. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as it turned out – Alma drifted away. I didn’t worry when I realized she was gone. Say what you want about the people of Rio Abajo. They may be poor but, at least since the Legion exterminated the criminals, they are basically decent, more decent than the richer folks I’d grown up with, a lot more decent than people like Piedras.
Then I saw Alma and I did start to worry...though panic might be a better choice of terms. She was running across the street directly toward Duque Carrera. I don’t know what you remember from that time, but Carrera had a damned terrifying reputation. When one of Carrera’s guards began to turn a rifle on my little girl, I nearly screamed.
But Alma just stopped in front of him with her hands behind her back.
Carrera squatted down and talked to her very softly for a little while. She took her hands from behind her back. She had made him a bouquet of flowers. He laughed, took the flowers, and scooped her up in his arms. He spoke to her for a little while then Alma pointed at where I was standing.
Oh, my God, I thought. He’s coming towards me.
“I take it this is your little girl, Miss...?”
“Fuentes, Señor. Maria Fuentes.” I guess he’d figured out from the lack of a ring on my hand that I wasn’t married.
He consulted his watch. “Well, Miss Fuentes, little Alma here has brightened up my day considerably. Would you do me a big favor and let me take the both of you to lunch?”
One does not refuse an invitation from someone who is not only the second most powerful man in your country, but also has a reputation Attila the Hun would have been proud to own. Still, it was the strangest thing to me, walking through the streets of the City, Carrera carrying my daughter, and all of us surrounded by big men carrying guns.
There was an ice cream shop and delicatessen not far away. When we went in the owner blanched. I suppose of all the people he ever expected to see enter his establishment, Carrera was probably the last.
He bought Alma a sandwich and then an ice cream cone. When I tried to refuse anything he insisted that I at least have a sandwich. He, himself, settled for coffee. Patting his stomach he said to me, “My wife overfeeds me. And I don’t get out as much as I used to. If I didn’t watch myself, I’d get fat.”
The memory of Piedras fresh in my mind, I assumed Carrera just wanted to bend me over a desk, too. I kept my eyes down on the plate while I ate.
I was wrong, by the way.
Carrera asked me a little bit about myself. I told him as little as possible, but I think – no, I’m sure – that he saw right through me. I mean, I really think he saw everything; maybe to include Piedras or someone just like him.
He thanked me for joining him for lunch. He said he almost never had a chance anymore to just sit down with someone and talk. He asked me about my work.
“Well...I’m sort of between jobs right now,” I answered.
He asked me about my hopes for the future, but I didn’t have any beyond seeing Alma grow up to a better life. Since I rather doubted that would happen, I told him I had no hope for the future.
After a while, I ventured a question of my own. “Sir,” I asked, “why did you and Presidente Parilla exterminate the opposition government?”
He put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair, his eyes staring into space. At length he answered, “Self defense, I suppose; they were trying to exterminate us.”
Seeing I didn’t understand, he elaborated, “The old, rump government tried to get rid of us on some trumped up drug charges. Many of my friends were killed; my new family threatened. My wife, Lourdes...” He stopped talking for a moment. I’ve never seen anybody with that much pure hate in his eyes, not even me in the mirror after a session with Piedras.
He continued, “Anyway...Lourdes saved us. You probably knew that. When our side had won out, Parilla and I determined never to let anything like that happen again. We stamped out the oligarchs to let the country start over fresh.”
“Mostly, it’s working,” he said. Then he looked at my threadbare clothing, looked at Alma’s too thin frame. He looked at my face and sighed. I saw then that his eyes really were beautiful, the color of the sky on a cloudless day, and surprisingly full of compassion.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “a lot of decent people have been cut out. We only have so much money to go around, despite some help from some friends who have the same enemies we do. There’s only so much we can do. By concentrating only on those with military power, we’ve left a lot of folks – people like yourself – without any recourse at all. This seems to be especially true of the women of the country. I’m sorry. There’s only so much to go around,” he repeated.
“God knows,” I told him, “I could use some help. One decent break, that’s all I need.” I didn’t cry, however much I wanted to.
He looked at me very intently. Then he asked me, if it were possible for Alma to be cared for, if I would be interested in joining up. He said he couldn’t do more for me than that, that the benefits of society were for those who benefited society.
When I hesitated, Carrera reached over and pulled Alma onto his lap. She immediately settled in nicely, still intent on her ice cream. He asked me “Don’t you think this beautiful little girl deserves every chance you can give her?”
Thinking of everything I’d already given up for Alma – wealth and position for her life, dignity (Piedras!) for what passed for comfort – I wanted for the moment to spit at him. I didn’t though. Instead I told him I might be interested. He gave me a card with an address and a phone number to call to reach one of his aides. He also wrote a little note on back and signed it, “C.”
Before leaving he reached into a pocket and pulled out some money, saying, “Buy her a birthday present from me.” He turned his body, too, so no one could see the money.
It was so...tactful. He could have said that I looked like I needed the money. I did. He could have made some kind of political capital from it, even. But he just wanted to do a nice thing for a nice baby girl, without embarrassing me.
Then he set Alma back down, paid the bill and left, his entourage of guards following in his wake.
He stopped and waved to Alma from the door.
That was pretty tactful, too, the way he’d let me know where to go. Anyone could see I couldn’t afford a phone. But I knew where his office was, if I really wanted to go there. Everyone knew.
Did I? I’d never even considered the possibility. Before Alma, before I was born, my future had been all planned out for me: finish high school, then go to the University; either in Balboa, Santa Josefina, Atzlan, or La Plata. After that, marriage, of course. Then a sedentary life as a housewife cum minor socialite. Oh, yes, and produce many grandchildren.
I was living a life a far cry from that. It was a dreary and hopeless life, too.
I thought about it for a few days. I’ll confess, I was scared – maybe terrified is a better word – of going into the Legion. Then, too, I was sick at the thought of leaving Alma behind, even if I knew she’d be well cared for. Which I didn’t know at the time, actually.
I asked around the neighborhood. Many of the men were in the Legion. They said it was hard, but there were a lot of advantages to going...and that it could be great fun. (I wasn’t too sure that my idea of fun and theirs precisely matched.) One of the men was in training to be a civilian machinist with his tercio footing half the bill, loaning him the rest at low interest. He could never have paid for that himself. Another had managed to open a small store with a veteran’s loan. There were different benefits for different jobs and levels of responsibility. The men didn’t know what was available for women.
I thought about what it might be like, to have a fresh start at a decent job, a decent life. Maybe I’d even be able to start my own business. I might not have finished my education but I wasn’t stupid or lazy. Okay, maybe a little stupid, but I was growing wiser all the time.
Finally, I worked up the nerve to go to Carrera’s office, at the Estado Major. He wasn’t in but, as he’d said, one of his aides was.
“Miss Fuentes?” asked the aide, a fairly youngish tribune, not too good looking. At my nod he said, “The Duque mentioned that you might be coming by. How can I help you?”
“Duque Carrera said something to me about – possibly – joining up.”
“Yes, that was my understanding. Do you have any skills now?”
I had to tell him that I really didn’t.
He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Most women who express an interest in the Legion do not. Don’t feel bad; usually neither do the men. That really doesn’t matter. We can teach skills provided that the student is willing to learn and worth teaching.” He stopped for a minute, scratched his chin, and then asked, “Tell me, Miss Fuentes, what, if anything, you know about the Legion and how women are utilized.”
Again I had to admit to having no idea.
“Very good,” the tribune said. “Then you should have few misconceptions to clear up. Basically, women are not really necessary. Sorry.” He didn’t seem to be.
“Oh, yes, they fill certain jobs that would otherwise have to be done by a man, but – if no women were available – we would use very old and very young men in those jobs...boys and pensioners if we had to.
“Essentially, women are cooks, clerks and medical personnel in medical units above the cohort level. Except for a very few who have special talents and skills needed by the Legion – lawyers, doctors, nurses, a few pilots and such – those have traditionally been the choices open to women.”
“However, because we have certain rigid requirements for moving up in rank that are – so far – dependent on qualifications that women have not yet been admitted to, there have been no women officers or centurions accessed in the last thirteen years. The couple of holdovers from before the invasion are kept on merely as a courtesy. They are not real officers anyway, but more or less administrative types. They are also frozen in their old ranks. There are a larger number of women warrant officers; those lawyers, nurses, doctors and such I mentioned to you.
“Also, you should know, the major benefits of service – the material benefits I mean, not the benefits of eventual full citizenship – are rank and job driven. Combat arms jobs – infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers, some military police, and air defense – have greater benefits in terms of civil education and job training. Officers and centurions are entitled to attend higher education at government expense when off duty, sometimes on duty. Women do not, so far, qualify for any of these.
“Women do qualify for government protected jobs upon completion of training but...the jobs for which they qualify are less desirable, by and large, than those that men qualify for. This is not because they’re women but because they are not eligible, so far, for positions of great hardship or responsibility.”
The tribune hesitated, looking me over. I have been appraised by a number of men over the years. None of them ever quite looked at me like that, as if I were a strong and healthy mule they were thinking of buying.
I knew what he was seeing: an olive-skinned female, with good teeth, fair muscle tone, somewhat short. If he thought I was attractive, it didn’t show.
At length, the tribune said, “There is one other possibility you might want to think over.” He reached into his desk, pulled out a color brochure, and handed it to me. “Duque Carrera has directed the raising of a female combat formation; a full tercio if we can find enough women who are both willing and able. If the program is successful, and if you join it, and if you finish your training, you would also qualify for all the same benefits as any man who joins.”
I really couldn’t see myself as a fighter. I told him so.
“You would know about that best, I suppose,” he answered. “But take this brochure home with you. Give it some thought. Even if you elect not to join the Tercio Amazona you might still want to try some other, female, branch of the service.”
“I have a child. Duque Carrera mentioned that she could be taken care of for me if I join.”
“That’s discussed in the brochure.”
The brochure was mostly in simple question and answer format.
- If I join the Tercio Amazona, will I be able to be married?
- The Republic takes no interest in whether or not its defenders marry, except that, after accession, marital or romantic relations may not generally be within the same regiment and may in no case be between any members of substantially differing ranks. Enlisted men and women (pay grades 1 through 3) may socialize privately only with other enlisted men and women. NCOs, Centurions, and Officers may associate only with service members of the same corps. Warrant officers are permitted social interaction only with other warrants. This is true whether you are on duty or off. The notable exception to this is the Tercio Gorgidas in which de facto marriage to another member, just prior to induction, is the rule. This partial ban on socializing does not affect organizational social activities nor does it cover marriages which existed before enlistment. In the latter case, however, married couples will almost never be permitted to serve in the same regiment.
- What about children?
- Dependents of members of the Legion who have been killed or crippled, in action or in training, qualify for a number of assistance programs, generally of the self-help variety.
- As for already-born children, while other female members of the defense forces do not receive much in the way of official direct assistance in caring for their children, mostly due to their being in densities within their tercios too low to make this practical, the Tercio Amazona will have a fully staffed dependent care maniple which will provide twenty-four hour care for your children while you are serving.
- Both Amazonas and other female soldiers may become pregnant and bear children. Non-Amazonas are authorized up to two eighteen month unpaid leaves of absence, which times do not count towards fulfilling their military obligation. Because the Republic does have an interest in strong and brave mothers bearing strong and brave children, Amazonas’ maternal leave may be taken in the dependent care maniple, if and only if there is an opening. That time will count toward completion of service and will be paid, though at a reduced rate. We do not pay soldiers who are not combat effective through their own choice at the same rate as others. The Tercio Amazona will have a thirty to sixty percent overstrength authorized to permit both a combat capable unit and adequate opportunity for maternal leave.
- It is within the contemplation of the Legion, but by no means certain, that members of the Tercio Amazona may be given the option of serving four years of active time, then being discharged to the militia or Home Guard to become mothers if they wish. This option is not available to you, now, and may never become available.
- How difficult will training be?
- No harder than necessary.
- After training what happens?
- The legions are primarily reservists. As an Amazona you will attend a fifteen week Basic Combat Training (BCT) Course. For your general information, male BCT is, at this time, twelve weeks. At least some of your class will then be selected for leadership training. The rest will be offered one or several job or training opportunities, though most will become infantry. You will, if you are given an option, at your own discretion, take one of these. If you are only offered one job, so be it.
- Also, after BCT and leadership training, if any, you will have a minimum ten year obligation as a reservist or in the militia. During your reserve time you will be required to attend weekend training, one long weekend a month from a Thursday or Friday night to the following Sunday or Monday night. In addition, the reservists of your unit will train thirty days a year in one lump period at the Centro de Entrenamiento, at Fort Cameron. The militia of the tercio will train together with the reserves for another seventeen days per year. A further eight days of individual training and administration are required and authorized. Additional time may be required of you, based on the needs of the Legion.
- The tercio dependent care maniple will look after your children, at a Legion facility or private home, for all the time you are training. As a special gratuity, your children will be cared for and fed at Government expense.
- How much will I be paid?
- You will receive normal recruit private rates of pay and allowances for every day you spend in your initial training. Thereafter, if in leadership training, you will be paid at the applicable rate for a trained private, or your current rank, whichever is higher.
- While in a reserve training status you will earn three months’ pay per year for up to three months’ training (the typical reservist actually spends seventy-seven days on duty, about half and half, weekends and weekdays). This does not include extra pay for special or additional training. This is only true for the next several classes of Amazonas. Once a healthy cadre is formed, most Amazonas will be placed in the militia echelon after BCT. They will only be called up for twenty-five days per year, normally, though more time may be required. Militia Amazonas will earn a minimum of thirty days pay per year.
- As mentioned above, there are also opportunities for extended courses of paid special training for those who qualify.
- See the table at the end of this brochure for applicable pay rates.
- What if I fail in training?
- If the circumstances of your failure are essentially disgraceful, you will be discharged from the Legion under other than honorable conditions, or worse. Those so discharged are entitled to no benefits.
- If the circumstances of your failure are not disgraceful, you will be given an opportunity to train for and finish your term of service in one of the positions reserved for women that are not as difficult as the Amazonas.
That last part frightened me. But then Alma told me she was hungry. All I had was the money Duque Carrera had given me to buy her a present for her birthday. I used it.
The next day I went back to the Estado Major and signed up for the Tercio Amazona.
The rain was coming down in sheets, though, given the season, those sheets flew horizontally rather than vertically. One could trace those sheets by the thick pattern of droplets moving in tight lines across the black asphalt.
Professor Rafael Franco, also Junior Centurion Franco, Tercio Gorgidas, eased his vehicle into the carport next to the three bedroom house he shared with his partner, Balthazar Garcia. The carport was no shelter from the rain being driven under the roof by the wind. With a sigh and a muttered curse, Franco opened the door. He was pelted then, immediately, and soaked before he’d gotten himself out of the car and the door shut behind him. There wasn’t any sense in running at that point; still muttering imprecations he walked to the door leading from the carport into the kitchen of the house. He fought the wind to close the kitchen door behind him. The house was quiet, still, except for the pounding of the rain on the tiled roof.
“Balthazar? Are you home?”
Garcia answered from the living room, “In here, Rafael.”
On his way to the living room Franco stopped to draw a beer from the refrigerator. He grabbed a piece of dried chorley bread from a tray. Beer held in one hand, he passed the bread to Garcia’s pet trixie, a magnificent gray and green archaeopteryx that his partner had, most unusually, taught to speak. Not that trixies didn’t have the capacity to learn, but most were more stubborn than the people who tried to train them. Garcia was an exception in that there were damned few people or trixies that could hold a candle to him for sheer mule-headedness.
“Up yours, cueco,” the proto-bird answered, as it held the chunk to its beak.
Of all the things, Franco thought, shaking his head, he could have taught that bird to say…Lord, why did I have to fall in love with someone with such a weird fucking sense of humor?
He continued on, taking a seat on a chair opposite the one where Garcia sat. Though no one would say that Garcia was much to look at, a hairy fireplug in approximately human form, Franco still felt his heart warm to see him.
“Weather too rough for fishing?” Franco asked.
“You just wouldn’t fucking believe it,” Garcia answered, with a shake of his head. After taking accession into the Tercio Gorgidas, and converting to reservist status from regular, Garcia had gone into the family business, running a forty-foot yawl out in the waters between the capital and the Isla Real.
Garcia looked at Franco’s soaked form and corrected, “Well…maybe you would. How was class?”
Franco shrugged eloquently, then elaborated, “ ‘One can lead a child to knowledge...’ ”
“ ‘...But one cannot make him think.’ I know,” Garcia finished. He went silent for a bit, searching Franco’s face. Finally, he asked, “Would you miss teaching so very much if you stopped for a while, maybe took a sabbatical?”
Garcia sighed. “Tribune Silva called here today. He wanted to know if you and I might be available for the next eight or ten months to run two or three Basic Training courses.”
“It would be a pay cut from my salary at the university.”
Garcia answered, “I know...for me, too. But I think we should consider it.”
Franco nodded. “All right. Let’s consider it. Firstly, why are you interested? I can see that you are.”
“You always could,” Garcia chided, with a smile. More seriously, he continued, “I was thinking about obligations, actually. No...not the ones the law or custom lay upon you...more the ones you feel.”
Franco sighed. When Garcia spoke of obligations – or worse still, of duty – there was really no reasoning with him. Mule-headed. Franco half resigned himself to eight or ten very uncomfortable months in a tent or shack. Still, he tried. “What obligations are you talking about? Something more than the two and a half months a year we already spend in uniform? Why? Who do you think we have to pay back?”
Garcia looked down at the ring on his left hand. Its mate graced Franco’s. “I really wasn’t thinking about paying anyone back...more of paying forward. Carrera and the Legion have given us a lot. You know they have: Marriage, legitimacy, a degree of acceptance we didn’t have before.”
“He gave us an opportunity not to be put against a wall and shot, you mean.” Franco retorted. “I don’t see where that makes us particularly obligated to him.”
Garcia smiled. “He’d have been right to have shot us, back when you were an adorable young corporal and I was your platoon optio who couldn’t keep his mind straight from thinking about you. It was hard, you know?”
“Yes, I seem to remember that it was,” Franco laughed.
“Asshole,” Garcia said with real affection. “You know perfectly well what I mean. Anyway, Carrera saved us from that, gave us the chance to be together in the Tercio Gorgidas. I think we owe him.”
Resignedly, Franco looked at the wall upon which hung his and Garcia’s helmets, body armor, weapons and centurion’s insignia. He asked, “What do you – and he – want?”
Garcia knew he’d won at that point, and more easily than he’d expected. Looking down at the floor, biting his lower lip contemplatively, he answered, “I’ll want you to start studying the problem. He needs us to train some women.”
Pity not! The Army gave
Freedom to a timid slave.
In which freedom did [s]he find
Strength of body, will and mind.
--Kipling, Epitaphs on the War
Lydia Porras’ van pulled up beside a large sign painted with the number seven and lit by a small spotlight. She showed her pass to one of the sergeants who directed her to a parking space not far away. Already more than two hundred – that was Porras’ guess – prospective amazons milled about in confusion, their voices raising a sound much like a swarm of insects. Lydia saw a few kindly faced, older non-coms trying to sort the mob into some semblance of order. She, herself, with a few folders tucked under one arm, went to stand very near the number-painted sign. More young women arrived in a steady stream, a very few of them already in uniform. She thought, Must be some girls who wanted a step up in life. Given the world as it is, I hope they can lift their feet that high.
A loudspeaker began to blare out names and instructions. Suddenly all talk from the women ceased. The non-coms continued to direct and sort them as best they could, being as gentle as they were.
I know this is all new, Lydia thought, but I have never seen the Legion let any group – even the rawest – sink to the level of a mob like this.
The loudspeaker blared, “Fuentes, Maria. Fuentes, Maria. Report to Load Ramp Seven. Fuentes, Maria, report to Load Ramp Seven.” Porras checked the photo on one of the files she carried one last time before beginning to look out for the mother of her new charge.
Ah, there they are. Lydia caught sight of a young woman, perhaps eighteen, carrying a baby girl on her left hip and a battered suitcase in her right hand. The girl looked…defeated…already, beaten down. Her face? Porras thought it might have been a very pretty one if it had shown the slightest bit of life – or joy in life.
Lydia walked up and introduced herself. In a warm, grandmotherly voice she said to the baby, “Well, hello, little one. You must be Alma. You and I are going to get along famously, I think. You see, I’m your very own fairy godmother.”
Alma opened her mouth into an “O” of wide-eyed surprise and asked, “Really?”
“Yes, indeed. And I bet I know what your first wish is.” Porras produced a huge lollipop. Whether that had been Alma’s first wish or not, one may well doubt. But it immediately became her first wish.
“Don’t worry about her,” Porras said to Maria as she took Alma in her arms. “She’ll be well cared for. My house has gotten to be too empty since my own children grew up and moved away.” She hesitated, and then said, “You know that the Legion doesn’t allow any communication from the outside during the first half of basic training?”
Before Maria could answer all other sounds were drowned out by a high-pitched roar. Seven hovercraft approached a long ramp that led up to the land adjacent to the pier. One by one, the hovercraft climbed the ramp from the sea to the land, before settling down at marked spots on the asphalt. As each settled, the sound pouring from it dropped down to a comparatively low whine.
Maria started to choke up. Porras saw tears begin to form.
“Why are you doing this?” Porras asked.
“For her,” Maria sniffled.
“Then do it; for her.”
Porras handed Alma back just long enough for Maria to give the baby a last hug. Maria gave the child back, then began to shuffle forward with the other women who – though she did not know it – were to be in the same platoon with her. The suitcase, Alma’s meager things, stayed behind.
Maria’s tears wet the asphalt where she walked. She wasn’t the only one crying.
A very short – almost tiny, actually – woman of about Maria’s age quietly sobbed onto the shoulder of a young man in uniform. The young man said to her, “Inez, don’t be a fool. I’m in the Legion. I know. It’s no place for a woman. Certainly no place for a woman I care for. Please don’t go. They won’t make you, you know. It’s purely voluntary.”
Unable to speak, the woman, Inez, just shook her head violently “no.” Then, with obviously pained reluctance, she turned and followed the rest of the women, drying her eyes as she went.
Across the asphalt and up a ramp, then a scurry to find some piece of the deck to stand on and call her own; Inez grasped the metal railing and tried not to think of home.
A horn sounded three times in warning, then the foot ramp whined its way up to the vertical. The engines of the hovercraft began to whine and strain. Inez gripped the railing tighter – very tight, actually – as the big machine lifted and began to turn back towards the ramp and the water of the bay past it.
It was late at night and, while one of the moons, Eris, was up and full, there was nothing to see but water and wave and the lights of the city, receding being them.
Maria wasn’t alone in staring backwards, at those lights, and implicitly at the life and loved ones being left behind. Once or twice she sniffled. A tiny girl next to her sniffled in what seemed to be an echo. Maria looked to see if she were being made fun of but, no, the tiny girl was, in fact, sniffling.
“I’m Inez,” the tiny one said, “Inez Trujillo.”
A tall, white, spectacularly-built woman noticed the sniffling and introduced herself to Maria and Inez, “Marta Bugatti. And, yes, I’m a bloody foreigner. Moreover, I’ve been in the Legion for a while, with the Classis.” The Classis was the Legions’ naval organization and it had seen some hard fighting over the years.
Almost uniquely, the woman, Marta, already wore legionary battle dress and had rank and some badges neither Maria nor Inez recognized.
In that La Plata-accented Spanish that might as well have been Tuscan, Marta, having noticed that Maria and Inez had glanced at her stripes, said, “Those come off as soon as we report in. Except for pay purposes, I’m a private for the duration, just like everyone else.” She then asked, “Are you crazy for being here or just foolish?” Marta smiled as she asked the question. She seemed cocky, somehow, and very self-confident.
Before either Maria or Inez could answer, all three of them had their attention diverted by a tall and slender, really stunningly gorgeous blond woman who had already gathered about herself an entourage. The three, Maria, Marta, and Inez, walked over to hear better. It was only later that they found out the woman’s name. It was Gloria Santiago.
“Just listen to me,” Gloria declaimed, over the hovercraft’s whining. “Stop worrying. This is going to be easy. Don’t fall for the men’s lies. We are smarter than they are. We are tougher than they are. Why, if a man had to go through childbirth, he’d cry like a baby. But we can and we do, all the time.” She didn’t look like she’d ever had a baby.
Inez muttered, “We’re not as strong as they are.”
Perhaps Gloria had overheard, though given the noise that seemed unlikely. In any case, she said to the crowd, “What difference does it make if men have bigger muscles? They have tinier brains. After all, how much of a brain can you stuff into something about six inches long and usually far, far too thin.” That raised a laugh; even Inez found it funny.
“And besides,” Gloria continued, “strength is overrated. I’ve seen it on TV; you all have. These days technology is what wins wars. And if men weren’t so stupid, they would realize that, too. Just let us show them.”
Gloria went on in that vein for some time. Eventually, Maria, Marta, and Inez lost interest and wandered back to where they’d been standing.
“Amazing,” Marta said, with disdain. “Imagine how seldom women would be hit by their husbands or boyfriends if they only knew that muscles don’t matter.”
Ahead loomed the Isla Real, its peak rising out of the sea. Lights beaconed from several places near the summit and one set seemed to stand several hundred meters above that.
“It’s a solar chimney,” Marta explained. “They saved a bundle by running it up the side of the mountain, but it goes straight up even from there. All the power for the island, enough for two hundred thousand people or more, so I’ve been told, comes from that. They’ve got it marked so that helicopters and airplanes don’t run into it at night or in fog or rain.”
“That’s right,” Inez observed, “you’ve been out there before, haven’t you?”
“A few times, yes,” Marta agreed.
“You were navy?” the tiny girl asked. “Why did you switch?”
“Bad memories,” Marta answered, then wouldn’t say more about it.
Their hovercraft began to veer, causing them all to lean to the side away from the turn. Except for the marking lights, there were no others to be seen. Then, suddenly, a battery of overhead lights, powerfully bright, came on to illuminate a large concrete pad. The hovercraft eased itself over a strip of sand, then came to a gradual stop before descending to land on the pad. The engines gave a last whine of protest at being put to rest.
With a whine of a completely different pitch, the foot ramp went down on one side before settling to the concrete with a jarring clang. Up the ramp trotted a man, close-cropped, uniformed, bemedaled and just flat mean looking. He had a sneer of complete contempt engraved across his face. He carried a small portable loudspeaker in one hand. He pushed aside any women who didn’t clear out of his way quickly enough. Gloria went to her rear end with an outraged shriek.
The man stepped up to where Gloria had been sitting, then lifted the loudspeaker to his lips. “All right you stupid twats, get your fucking high heels off.” The man waited for all of ten seconds for the women to complete that task. “When I give the order you will have thirty seconds to clear your worthless smelly hides off this hovercraft. When you get off, the men standing below will put you into formation. Then Tribune Silva, your maniple commander, will speak to you. You will keep your foolish mouths shut. Now GO!”
Pushing each other and scrambling, the women crowded the single ramp. Many tripped and fell, to be trodden on by the others. At the concrete base, a number of non-coms, none of them with a kindly face, slapped and pushed and prodded the women into a single block. To the right, other groups were receiving much the same treatment as they debarked from their hovercraft. Being so far from the center, the men herded the women to their right. At the other end, women were being herded to the left. The end result was a mob of prisoners, surrounded by guards, standing fearfully before a dais that rose about ten feet off of the concrete.
A very handsome man – he introduced himself as Tribune Silva, and their commanding officer – walked briskly up the steps of the dais. Silva made a little welcoming speech – sort of a welcoming speech. Had they been asked, most of the women would likely have confessed that they had been made to feel more welcome. Silva then departed in a Legion vehicle, leaving the women to the none-too-tender care of their senior centurions.
Shocked though she was, Maria’s eyes widened as a huge bear of a man came to a halt in front of her. The man, she could plainly tell, was less than pleased with his charges.
“I am Senior Centurion Balthazar Garcia. You are shit. Introductions being finished, we will get on with business.”
Garcia began to walk slowly from one side of the group to the other, distaste shining in his features. He did not smile. He spoke dispassionately as he walked the line, commenting on each of the women. “Too scrawny... You’ll want to see the docs about getting a breast reduction, swabbie; those things are going to get in the way...No arse...Legs too skinny...Nose? Or is that a bus stuck on the end of your face, girl?...Stringy hair...When did you last douche, pigpen?...Bimbos. You! Bitch! Dry your silly fucking eyes. That’s right, sniveler. That’s right, crybaby...”
It was a ritual that hadn’t changed, couldn’t have changed, since long before the days when some Roman centurion had first taken charge of a group of new recruits. It made a sort of cruel sense, actually, though none of the women understood it at the time. There was only so much time – which is almost the same thing as only so much money, but harder to come by – any army could afford to spend on basic training. The kind of rule that Garcia was establishing cut down on the silly questions and complaints. That saved money and time. Since the time and money thus saved could be spent training soldiers to fight and live, it also saved lives.
It is often better to be insulted than dead.
Then, too, the best thing about beating your head against a wall is that it feels so good when you stop. A moderately kind word from someone who mostly tells you that you are animate pond scum means more than the same word from someone who routinely says that you are God’s gift to the world. It was deflation of the currency of praise.
Garcia went on in that vein for quite some time. He didn’t offer to fight any of them, as they did with the men and as the Amazons later would do on the first day of training. There wouldn’t have been any point to it, anyway. Not all eighty of Garcia’s girls together could have taken him on at that point. That would have taken training and mutual confidence they didn’t have even a notion of yet.
Once Garcia had finished engraving their faces on his memory he turned them over to someone else to get them on the buses, stomping away, himself, off into the darkness.
“I am Centurion, Junior Grade, Rafael Franco,” that someone else announced. Showing a smile neither friendly nor unfriendly, but ripe with anticipation, he continued, “You are going to be seeing a lot more of me than you are going to like over the next several months. Just to be up front with you, I do not like you. I do not care about you. You are just things. Someday, perhaps, unlikely as it seems right now, you may become more. For now, you are using up oxygen that you don't deserve. Keep your mouths shut and your ears and eyes open and we might – just possibly – learn to get along. Cross me and...well, don’t.”
“Now, you silly little girls, I know you are far, far too stupid to know your right from your left. Take my word on it; that bus over there is on your right. When I give the command ‘Right, Face’ I want you to turn those stupid looking things you hang in front of what passes for brains in the direction of the bus. Got it? Right...face.”
Marta ended up sitting next to Maria on the bus, near the window. She saw their destination first and said, simply, “Oh, shit.” They had arrived at Camp Botchkareva.
Maria looked. It took maybe two seconds after arrival for her to decide that Rio Abajo wasn’t so bad after all. The camp looked more like a prison than a school. It consisted of fourteen large metal huts, some open fields she couldn’t guess the purpose of, and about fifty or sixty tents. At the edge of the camp the perimeter was defined by a fence of triple concertina, rolled barbed wire, with two rolls along the ground and one resting above those two. Guard towers and searchlights were at each corner and the solitary gate.
“Off the bus, twats.” Franco, with help from a few others, pushed the women into a kindergartenish double line, that being about the limit of their ability at the time. Then he led them through one of the metal huts. There, their clothes and suitcases were taken from them and locked in tiny double-locked compartments. They left the hut bare-ass naked, with only a wallet to call their own.
Predictably, the sight of all that naked female skin had no perceivable effect on Franco or any of the other trainers. The Tercio Gorgidas was – mostly – homosexual. The Amazon candidates didn’t really exist for them, not as women, not as possible sexual partners, apparently not even as human beings.
There were, on the other hand, a few women in the group who seemed, no, not delighted, but... interested.
“Get your fucking eyes off me,” Marta told another woman, bunching her fists. That woman made some apologetic sounds and backed off, keeping her eyes carefully away from Marta.
Haircuts came next. As poor as she’d been, Maria had always kept her hair long. But, no, they didn’t ask how the women wanted their hair styled, although a few of the men in the Tercio Gorgidas did just that for a living when they weren’t on active duty. A smiling Franco watched over them as some men detailed to barber duty swiped their scalps clean. “Buzz ‘em, Pedro.”
When Maria looked in the mirror afterwards, she felt like crying, she thought she looked so ugly. Some women did cry. They stopped when they realized no one in a position to help cared in the slightest.
Before they were issued any clothing, the women were marched us into some mass showers, placing their wallets along a shelf on the way in. Most everyone in Balboa took cold showers, at least sometimes. It was no big deal in a place so hot. The water for these showers, it turned out later, was specially chilled to be icy. Maria screamed when they turned on the water. They all did.
Marta and Gloria complained out loud after the water was turned off. They were just swatted for their efforts and pushed on to the next station.
As the women left the showers, they were asked for their sizes. Each woman was then handed one sports bra, in approximately her size (Marta was a tight fit even in the biggest size they had; the man passing out the bras made a note of it), two pair of boxer shorts, physical training shorts, two pair of socks – not stockings – and running shoes. It wasn’t such a bad outfit; except for the boxers.
Franco gave the women a very few minutes to dress. Then he lined them up again and led them to their barracks. This was a long low arching metal hut with few amenities to speak of; three bare light bulbs and forty pairs of bunk beds. On each bed were a thin, useless pillow, a pillow case, two sheets, and a very light and unnecessary blanket.
“Gather ‘round, girls,” Franco ordered. The women, all of them still in something like shock, clustered in a circle. “Sit down.”
He began to pass out red felt-tip markers. When everyone had received one, Franco began to speak.
“Okay. I want you to take your markers and I want you to draw a dotted line just like the one I am drawing on my wrist.” Franco drew a six inch long series of red dots lengthwise down his left wrist. “Everyone done with that? Good. Now draw another one on the other wrist… Done? Good. Let me see. Very good. Now there’s no excuse.
“You see, women threaten suicide and even act it out rather frequently, but you fail so often to carry through that I am forced to question your sincerity and competence as a sex. Therefore…”
Franco turned toward the door. He tossed a package of razor blades to the floor on his way out. “Trujillo!” he called over one shoulder. “Collect up the markers in that box and put them by my office door. Anybody who wants a razor blade, just help yourself. ‘Cut along dotted line.’”
Marta and Maria stared at the package of razor blades slack-jawed for a few moments. All the women did. “Cocksuckers,” was all Marta said. Maria said nothing.
Since they knew each other’s names already, Marta and Maria gravitated to the same set of bunk beds. Marta asked, “Do you care which bunk you get, Maria?”
From Maria’s point of view the top bunk looked awfully high. Her doubts showed on her face.
Seeing those doubts, Marta said, “I can boost you up if you want the top. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
“I don’t care...”
“Let’s flip a coin on it.” They did, and Maria ended up on top, Marta giving her rump a push to get there. Most of the rest collapsed as soon as they could. None of them bothered to make her bed.
Some of the women, more than a few, cried themselves to sleep.
Maria’s last thoughts, as she drifted off, were of Alma. In her imagination, she pictured the life they could hope to have together if this Amazon thing worked out.
Garcia snickered as Franco distastefully told him about the women’s reaction to the razor blades.
Franco asked, “Was that really necessary, Balthazar? Poor girls.”
The senior centurion nodded, saying, “I think so. See…we’re going to be putting them under a lot of pressure, pressure worse than anything they’re used to. And we can’t watch ‘em all the time, not and let ‘em grow too. Eventually one of ‘em’s going to try a play suicide. Problem is, she just might succeed even though she won’t be serious about it. This way’s a risk, sure. But now, at least, there’ll be none of those ‘attempts’ that might go too far.”
Franco just shook his head doubtfully. “You’re the boss.”
Morning came incredibly early and impossibly loudly. One moment the women were peacefully asleep. The next they were sitting bolt upright, eardrums thumping from piped-in music. And – horror of horrors – the music piped in was from bagpipes. The next moment and Garcia, Franco, and eight other men were on them like gnats, big hairy gnats with muscles.
“Get up! Get up, you lazy little maggots. Dressed and outside for PT. You! That’s right, honey, YOU! Move your lazy, skinny ass!” A couple of quick pushes and Marta and Maria ended in a tangle of arms and legs, a mattress over them.
Half crawling, half running, the women made it outside. More than a few of them did so with stinging buttocks where an instructor’s baton had met with a tardy posterior.
Once outside, the two centurions, four sergeants, and four corporals began to push and prod them into some semblance of a formation. There followed a very brief class in “Assuming and Maintaining the Position of Attention.” That was possibly the easiest thing any of them learned to do at Camp Botchkareva. It was so easy, in fact, that the instructors called on some very tiny assistants to help them determine if they were doing it right.
Maria would hate sand fleas to her dying day. The little demons crawled up her legs, into her eyes and ears, inside her nose…more personal places, too. They bit her everywhere except for where her shoes covered her feet, each bite like the point of a tiny hot needle. And she had to just stand there and take it because, while the sand flea bites were painful and present, the instructors were infinitely menacing.
Maria had expected physical training to be worse, somehow, than it was. Not that it wasn’t hard, or that the women didn’t raise a sweat. It was and they did. And some of the women couldn’t do the exercises very well. Failure to exercise properly usually got a snarl, a whack on the fanny, and some direct, hands-on, correction, but no more than that. And the instructors didn’t have them try to do anything they really couldn’t. It was all “doable,” if barely.
After calisthenics Garcia ordered, “Assemble to the Right...Move.” The women crowded back to the shallow block formation they’d started in. Then it was, “Right... Face. Forward...March. Double Time! – that means run, you stupid twats! – March! Left...left...left, right, left.”
The run was worse than the exercises. It wasn’t fast; Garcia knew they were too new for that. But it seemed long to all of them and it was intentionally painful. The women’s newness made it more painful still, as none of them really knew how to keep in step, even though Franco called the cadence, “Left. Right. Left.” The women still kept tripping each other up.
“I’m sorry; I’m so sorry,” the girl behind Marta repeated every time her toes landed on one of Marta’s heels. Though Marta was concentrating on trying to keep in step, that woman’s toes continued to foul her up.
An instructor named Salazar trotted up. He whacked Marta’s thigh with a stick, hard.
“Get in step, dummy...Left, right, left. Your tits can do it. Why can’t you?” Then he whacked her again.
And the instructors let no one fall behind. They didn’t try to encourage anyone with kind words. They hit and kicked those who stopped trying until they were willing to try some more.
Two women simply stopped and lay down in the road.
“Diaz! Salazar! Take care of ‘em,” Garcia bellowed.
As the platoon rounded a bend, a brave soul might have looked over her shoulder to see Salazar kicking one of the drop outs while Diaz lifted the other to her feet by her ears. That brave soul might have seen the latter of the two drop right back to the dirt as soon as Diaz’s grip relaxed.
Neither of the dropouts was seen on the Island again. By the time the rest had returned from the run, those two had already been dishonorably discharged. The remainder heard later, and at the time believed, that the drop outs were paddled pretty badly before being thrown off the island.
Eventually the platoon turned around to head back to camp. All were pretty much nauseous as they passed through the front gate. After they halted and were dismissed, Marta immediately fell to one knee and began to throw up. Maria walked over and put her arm around Marta’s shoulders to help her back up.
Marta shrieked, “Get your fucking hands off me!” When she saw how shocked Maria was, she tried to apologize. “I’m sorry, Maria,” she said. “It isn’t your fault. I just can’t stand to be touched by anyone.”
Though he was nearby, Garcia either didn’t notice, or pretended not to notice, Marta’s outburst. He knew some things about Marta that the other women didn’t.
Marta and Maria were joined by another girl, Inez Trujillo, the tiny one, and her bunkmate, Catarina Gonzalez.
Inez said, “Come on, you two. Let’s go hurry and freeze. Garcia’s only given us five minutes to shower before breakfast. And I don’t know about you two, but I’m starving.”
They raced through the icy water as quickly as minimal sanitation needs permitted. Then, dressed again in the same sweaty clothes, they began a slow trot to breakfast.
Breakfast? Gloria, sitting at a nearby table, snorted at it, saying, “This is certainly not what I’m used to.”
Truthfully, it wasn’t anything special: hardboiled eggs, sausage patties, sliced cheese, bread and butter, fried chorley tortillas, some fresh fruit. There was also a broad, shallow bowl of the gray, plum-sized Terra Novan olives. It was believed they were native to the planet, rather than genengineered like the Noah’s Tranzitrees, Bolshiberries, and Progressivines.
To many, the sheer quantity of the food dished out was amazing. Maria, for example, after years of scraping pennies to try to feed Alma and herself, was shocked that the cooks gave them as much as they felt like eating, barring only the sausage, cheese and eggs, which were rationed.
Since no one had bothered to feed the women the night before, most of them fairly pigged out.
Cat, Inez’ bunkmate, took over dividing the rations. The way she did it reminded Maria a bit of her own mother, especially in the way she played favorites. Somehow or other, Cat seemed to have adopted Inez as her substitute baby. Maria noticed, anyway, that if there was an odd amount of one of the rationed items, it seemed to end up on Inez’ plate.
Maria didn’t complain. After all, Inez was the smallest and thinnest girl at the table.
There was a can of a thick, rough paste on the table. Gloria, several seats down from Marta, took a slice of chorley and then used her knife to spread some of the paste on it. Marta, who’d been around the Legion for a while, started to caution her but then decided, Screw the arrogant bitch.
Gloria took a bite, chewed twice, and then her mouth opened, panting, as her eyes widened. “Holyfuckingshit!” she gasped, reaching for a glass of water. “What is that?”
Marta smiled and answered, “Well, among other things…”
The morning of that first full day the women drew their equipment; all ninety-five distinct items required for the first five weeks of basic training. With a little help from the four corporals and one of the sergeants they managed to stow everything in their rucksacks. Later in the day, and with a little more help, they managed to put together the fifteen items that went into their load carrying harness: four empty drum magazine pouches (another magazine was generally to be kept in their rifles, when issued, or in a cargo pocket), two plastic one liter canteens with covers, first aid pouch with bandage, bayonet and scabbard, “butt-pack,” suspenders and belt.
Everything else was stuffed into the rucksacks including, at that point, the helmet, its liner, and its camouflage cover. In all, their Phase One BCT load was about forty-five pounds excluding water, food, and any ammunition they might be carrying.
Sergeant Castro brought out several rolls of thick green tape and, using Marta’s set as a model, patiently showed them how to tape all the metal pieces to ensure they stayed together...and didn’t dig into their skin.
“Look, girls,” Castro said, “no matter what we might call you, or how we might treat you, we’re here to help you. Don’t let it go to your empty heads, but yes, we’re almost always going to be pretty damned patient with the technical and tactical things you need to learn. After all, this is all new to you.
“On the other hand,” he intoned, “if you fail in any way that so much as touches on a matter of character or discipline, kiss your little butts goodbye. We really don’t assume you are precisely stupid…but you are, literally, ignorant. We are not assuming you are innately bad…but you have been poorly brought up. It’s fair to say that so far as your becoming soldiers goes, you haven’t been brought up at all. And you are weak, soft, and unrealistic. But don’t worry; we’ll fix all that.”
The women spent that first day, when they weren’t actively involved in fitting and stowing their gear, learning close order drill; “square bashing,” the instructors called it. The sun was hot, but water and rest breaks were fairly frequent. They knocked off just after sundown.
Marta and Maria had dinner together, facing each other over the table. Things had remained a little awkward between them since Marta’s outburst of that morning. Still, since they were bunking together, they tended to stay together.
Inez sat down next to Maria. Cat, who was the oldest of them, sat down next to Marta. They were all soon chatting just like old friends. It turned out that Cat was a widow. Her husband had left her with three kids – one just a baby – very little money, and no marketable skills. Only the Tercio Amazona offered her a way to have her kids cared for while training and earning a ticket to a better life.
Cat missed her babies terribly, she said. Then she reached over the table to rub Inez’ scalp, saying, “But I have a new one to take care of right here.”
Inez rolled her eyes and sighed, resignedly.
Since dinner was better than breakfast, and the mess hall blessedly cool after a hot day in the sun, the women lingered over it, in relaxed conversation.
It came as a considerable surprise, then, when they returned to their barracks and found the doors had all been locked, their packs dumped in a pile outside, and a cross-armed Centurion Garcia standing guard at the landing in front of the main entrance. The other nine trainers, likewise, stood at ground level with their arms folded.
“Girls, girls, girls,” Garcia chided. “The Legion gave you a clean barracks this morning. I looked at it about two hours ago and what do you suppose I found? Dirt! Filth! Disorder!
“Obviously, you people are not fit to live in civilized surroundings. You had time to clean the barracks after breakfast. You had time during the very frequent breaks you were given this afternoon. You had time after dinner. Obviously, you do not know or care enough to take advantage of time. Therefore, tomorrow your breaks will be halved. Tonight you will move into the tents where you will live until further notice. Platoon! Tench...’Hut! Squad leaders, put your filthy girls into the tents.”
And so the women moved, though every morning one of the corporals supervised them in cleaning and re-cleaning the barracks they couldn’t live in.
The sun was down but only one small moon had risen. Outside the camp, the nasty antaniae called out, mnnbt, mnnbt, mnnbt. From somewhere in the surrounding trees a trixie cawed on its nightly quest to kill and eat as many moonbats as possible.
By the faint light of the one risen moon, Maria, Cat, Marta, and Inez sat in the dirt outside the tent they’d been put in. It was dark in the tent; no lights, no beds either.
“It’s so damned unfair,” Cat said. “Why didn’t they tell us to clean the barracks? I don’t mind cleaning.”
“Because they wanted to put us in these tents,” Marta answered. “Men...just bastard men. They’re all alike.”
Maria had reason to share Marta’s opinion on men. To some extent, maybe, she did share it. She was too embarrassed to mention Piedras, though, so she just said, “Well, no matter how bad things look” – and those tents looked dismal indeed – “I guess things could be worse.”
Cat asked, “What do you suppose we have to do to get back in the building?”
Gloria must have overheard Cat. From somewhere inside the tent she answered, “Kiss those bastards’ asses, I imagine. That’s what they want.” Gloria had been a little bitter since early that morning when Centurion Garcia had knocked her on her posterior for trying to answer back.
Inez disagreed. “No. My brother – he’s a centurion candidate – told me. The Legion wants fighters, not ass-kissers. They want people who will do their duty. They want people who, even if they’re not sure what their duty is, will at least be thinking about what it might be. I think we’ll get out of these tents when Garcia decides we can and will do that.”
Gloria retorted, “You’re giving them too much credit for brains, Trujillo. They’re doing this because they think they can. It’s just spiteful meanness and envy. I might even call it abuse of power,” she finished, sullenly.
Inez answered, “I’ll admit, it seems like a pretty far leap from tents to training. And maybe I can’t quite see the connection either. But these men have been at this sort of thing for a long time. Maybe they really do know what they’re doing.
“Then, too, you know, we women tend to be forgiven our little transgressions in polite society. You must admit, this is a pretty good indication that we will not be lightly forgiven by the Legion, which is no kind of ‘polite’ society.”
Marta said, “I heard we are going to have to carry everything they gave us on our backs from now on. We don’t have any lockers here like we did in the barracks.”
“My brother warned me about this,” Inez commented. “When they did this to his basic training maniple, he said, ‘All the time we lived in the tents we had to lug everything we owned on our backs wherever we went. I got to where I hated my rucksack and everything in it.’”
Beyond harassment, that first week and a half of basic were pretty much taken up with close order drill, customs and courtesies of the service, military law, uniform and equipment wear and care, and – of course – physical training.
The women had about two and a half hours of physical training every day. In the morning they had an hour and a half of calisthenics and a run that usually left them puking. If at least a few girls didn’t throw up then the next day’s run would be longer, faster, or both. For evenings there was another hour of combatives. As training progressed they didn’t always do the morning sessions. They rarely missed the evening ones.
The men taught them to hit, gouge eyes, crush gonads...bite. They were also trained to a pretty fair standard with a knife. They learned to strangle, smash, break noses, and twist tendons...stab, jab, and slice.
Still, they weren’t men. They could never have learned to use the simple male techniques used in bayonet fighting. That took too much weight and strength. Instead, they were taught the older, more intricate, fencing variety of bayonet fighting. That, as with many things for the women, took up a lot more time than was available to the men going through basic.
“Thrust! Twist! Draw! Thrust! Twist! Draw!”
The swaying bag to Maria’s front seemed to mock her. For half an hour or more she had been trying to sink her bayonet solidly into one of the bullseyes painted on the side. To her left, Marta was having equal problems. To her right, Inez Trujillo was awkwardly trying to strike from below.
Corporal Salazar literally picked Inez up by her combat harness and shook her. The man had biceps thicker than Inez’s legs. “You worthless little midget! Do you think the enemy will all be runts like you? If you can’t go in low for the kill, go in high!” He shook her again before dropping her back to her feet.
Salazar then turned and slapped Maria across the face. “Put your heart into it, you stupid cunt. Hate that thing!” She nodded and tried again: Thrust, twist, draw.
Garcia’s whistle called a moment’s rest. He shook his head, perplexed. Those old bayonet fencing drills we’re using were meant for men. They depend on having a center of gravity a lot higher than a woman’s, more height and muscular strength, too. Ah, well, they’ll have to figure some of this out on their own. If they don’t, I just might let Salazar carry through on his threat to kill one of ‘em on the spot.
Again the whistle blew, signaling, “Break’s over.”
“Gonzalez, you dumb twat. Picture that sack as a man, coming for your kids. Kill ‘im!” Cat lunged...and missed.
Salazar turned back to Maria. “Idiot child! Try again.” She missed the bag completely.
Gloria, standing opposite, laughed out loud, right up until Salazar, with a fencing master’s grace, took two steps across the sawdust and laid her out with a single punch. He’d pulled his punch, too.
After that, Maria had a lot of trouble with Gloria, who seemed determined to make her into the platoon goat. Why this was so, Maria didn’t know. That it was so was patent.
Maria stood in line outside the mess, right behind Cat and ahead of Marta. The line stood at parade rest, the women coming to attention to take single steps forward as one of those ahead cleared the chow line and went to the tables. For those standing outside, there was no shade and the sun beat down on them. Worse, really, it reflected up from the gravel to ensure they were not just thoroughly but evenly roasted. Or perhaps there was another culinary term that would have suited better, given the near one hundred percent humidity.
The mess hall was air conditioned, not for the women but for the benefit of the cooks. Still, whatever the reason for it, it was blessedly cool. Usually, it was as silent as death. Today, the women in line could hear sounds that seemed almost happy. True, they’d done well enough not to be punished much today, but what changed the tone inside the mess Maria couldn’t guess.
She discovered why, when she finished passing her tray through the line. The very last thing slapped onto it was a small tub of ice cream.
“I haven’t had…” she started to mumble, before Sergeant Castro, standing at the end of the line, ordered, “Seat, woman.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” she said, then hurried to the dining area to find a place to sit. Unfortunately, the only open seat at the moment was beside Gloria. The latter took one look at Maria, another at the tub of ice cream.
Then Gloria said, “You’re fat; you don’t need this.” She took the ice cream and passed it to someone else, then crossed her arms as if daring Maria to do something about it.
Maria didn’t. She just took it.
“Oh...yes, love...yes...oh, please...harder, harder...oh, oh, oh!”
“Goddamned fucking sluts,” muttered Marta from the other side of the tent she shared with nineteen other women. “Don’t they know people have to fucking sleep? Will you two please SHUT UP!”
The lesbians ignored her. These two apparently had very little sense of shame, though if there were others they were more discreet.
The next morning, one of those two, Sonia, walked up to Marta and suggested that she was just jealous because she wasn’t ‘getting any.’
“What is it, Bugatti; do you want to join us? Well, maybe if you’re nice. Then again, maybe you already have a little something. Maybe...” Sonia looked at Maria and, then reached out a hand to clasp her breast.
Marta went for her like a berserker. Before anyone could stop it, Sonia was on the ground with Marta sitting on her, pummeling away with clenched fists. Maria felt a little ashamed – all right, more than a little ashamed – that she just stood there with her head lowered when the second lesbian, Trudi, jumped Marta from behind. Marta went down under flailing feet and fists.
It was another one of the girls who went to Marta’s aid. Cristina Zamora was easily the biggest woman in the platoon. Zamora was pretty enough, in a strong featured way, and with her shining coppery hair. She picked up Trudi and punched her four or five times in the face before dropping her to the dirt. Then she separated Sonia and Marta, slapping both of them senseless with fine impartiality.
“Freeze, bitches!” Garcia’s stone face gazed upon them. A few quick questions and he pronounced sentence. Marta, Zamora, Sonia and Trudi were given six hours extra duty each for disorderly conduct.
Then Garcia turned to Maria and asked, “Is this woman your bunk buddy?”
“Yes, Centurion,” Maria answered, shamefaced.
“And is it true that you failed to go to her aid when she was attacked and outnumbered?”
Maria’s eyes lowered. She hesitantly answered, “Yes, Centurion.”
Garcia’s voice dripped with contempt as he said, sneering, “For you, eighteen hours extra duty, to be accomplished in three-hour increments during and in place of the evening meal. Six days’ bread and water for breakfast and lunch. Six days’ restriction to your tent when not at meals, extra duty, or training.”
“Maria. Maria, wake up.”
“Shush. Shush. It’s Marta. Here, eat this.” She handed over a leg of chicken she had stolen from the mess hall.
“Marta?” Maria took the chicken, then stopped. She couldn’t eat it, no matter that she was famished.
“I’m sorry, Marta. You know, for...”
“I know. It’s my own fault for letting my temper get the better of me. I never think things through first. Now eat!”
Maria did as she was told. She always did as she was told. Juan, Piedras, Gloria…
She thanked Marta, over and over. She apologized, over and over, between bites.
“Look, skip it. You can’t help being what you are…anymore than I can.” Marta patted a wet cheek, took the gnawed bone, and crawled back to her own pallet.
“It isn’t just Garcia’s platoon, sir. We’ve all had problems to some extent.” The speaker, Ernesto del Valle, was a tall, distinguished-looking Senior Centurion. He rubbed the fingers on one hand across graying temples as he continued. “It’s true, the lesbians aren’t as naturally promiscuous as, say, we would be. But there are problems. They’re human enough. They do develop interests that not only are not requited, but can’t be requited. Fights, sir, lots of fights.”
“Frankly, I can live with lesbians, sir,” Garcia said. “What’s driving me crazy is the number of women who are just certain, deep down, that they can get to one of us. We’re having to be twice as shitty to all of ‘em as we should have to be to any of ‘em just to drive home the futility of the whole thing.”
De Silva, Tribune de Silva and a “shoo-in” to be Legate de Silva someday, placed his thumbs in the hollows of his temples and tapped his fingers on his brow.
“Tell me, Garcia…del Valle, are these women human”
Only Garcia answered, “Extremely human, sir.”
“As human as we are?”
Del Valle answered, “Yes, sir.”
De Silva raised his gaze to the three other officers, sixteen assembled centurions and sixty-two junior NCOs. “Anybody here ever have a crush on a straight? Hmmm? Raise your hands.”
About two thirds of the men present did.
“Right. They’re human, just like us. Our gender orientation doesn’t change theirs. And from their point of view we are the right gender. The same basic thing holds true for the lesbians. All the other women are the right gender from their point of view.”
Franco observed, “But, sir, you can’t separate them from us. Who would train them?”
“No, I can’t,” de Silva agreed. “You’re just going to have to be shitty to the women. But we can separate out the lesbians from the rest. And we will. Sergeant Major?”
“Put out the call. I need a centurion pair and four NCO pairs for an eighth platoon.”
On the tenth day of training the women trudged to the ranges, everything they owned on their backs, nothing to be left behind in the tents. At seven miles, the walk to the range wasn’t nearly as far – or done nearly as fast – as some of the later marches. Still, it was no walk in the woods. To their usual forty-five pounds was added another three in food, another nine in water. That was more, in Maria’s case, than half her body weight. Some girls had it rougher. Inez Trujillo, all four feet, eleven inches of her, had it particularly bad.
By this time, of course, the women had spent a good part of every day with their rucks on their backs. But this was different. Women walked funny. Women sling their hips differently from men when they walk. They’re made that way. And the rucksacks were made for men, even though the women had small-sized ones. There was no really adequate solution to the problem. Carrying a ruck simply hurt them more.
“Tough luck,” as Centurion Garcia said. “Builds character.”
Perhaps it did.
When they reached the bivouac area, they were given a chance to strip and clean themselves before pitching the tents. All were ecstatic at being able to remove the rucksacks. The straps had just killed their tits.
Marta was leaning against a tree, resting, when she looked at Inez and exclaimed, “Oh, damn!”
Maria followed her gaze and saw Inez, cupping a breast in each hand, rocking back and forth, quietly moaning. Through the spaces between her fingers the others could see two spots, bright red against the dull green of Inez’ T-shirt. Cat sat beside her, wringing her hands.
Marta and Maria stood up and went to her. They pulled her hands away and removed her T-shirt, then her bra. Marta said “I haven’t seen anything like this since...” Whatever she’d been about to say was lost as she didn’t continue.
Inez’s nipples were oozing blood where the straps must have rubbed her. They were just raw.
“I’m all right,” Inez said, through clenched teeth.
“Like hell,” Marta answered. “I’m going for a medic.”
“No! No, please. I’ll be all right.”
“Sure. Right. Okay. Maria, go clean her bra and shirt. They’ll be impossible to wear with dried blood and crud on them. Now...let’s see. Cat, help me...”
When Maria came back with Inez’ things she saw that Marta and Cat had bandaged the raw nipples and was working on the straps to her rucksack.
“The problem,” Marta told them, “is that these packs are made for the width of a man’s shoulders. With us...they push the other straps too far inward.” She meant the suspenders on the combat harnesses. “So...” And she held up the ruck to show them how she had reversed the straps to point out, rather than in. This would put them on Inez’ shoulders, leaving enough room that the suspenders weren’t forced across her tits.
Clever girl, Maria thought.
The rifle range was fun, even satisfying. And the women had to develop a whole new set of muscles. There was no reason to believe that men were naturally better shots than women as far as most of the factors in marksmanship go. But the women weren’t as strong and even a rifle requires some unusual musculature. The F-26, being heavier than most, required still more.
The girls spent literally hours just holding their rifle and squeezing off dry fires to build up muscle and control of the trigger finger. The technique was simple enough. An instructor would supervise as they took turns in teams of two. One member of the team would place a coin on the end of the rifle of the other, while the other was in firing position. Then the one with the rifle would s-l-o-w-l-y squeeze the trigger until the hammer dropped, or, to be technical, since the F-26 was electrically primed, until the connection was made. If the coin fell off, the woman needed more practice, and got it. They generally also received a large number of pushups, needed or not.
And every day they would march somewhere new. Or back to somewhere old. And they sweated and strained and were generally made miserable. Inez’ new strap arrangement caught on with the smaller girls. Soon all of the “little people” had reversed their rucksack straps. It was better, a little anyway.
Sweated? Among the ninety five items in their initial kit were two field uniforms and five sets of underwear – boxers – and five pairs of socks. A few buckets were made available for washing their own clothes but the supply of clean clothing never quite kept up with the demand. They stank.
But the instructors had thought of that. Women can get sick, inside, if they get and stay too filthy. No, not always, but the risks were much greater than for men. About two days after they’d arrived on the ranges a gynecologist showed up. She lectured them on the dangers and on what they could do to keep healthy. Maria’s respect for boxer shorts and sleeping naked under her mosquito net went up immeasurably.
After the gynecologist left, Centurion Franco said, “Good. Now you’ve been told. If you don’t listen and rot from the inside out it’s your own fault.” Most women listened. Some girls didn’t at first, lazy or maybe just tired. They paid the price, too.
Not that getting sick got them out of anything. Sick call was held in the field. If a woman was really hurt the odds were better than even that she would be recycled into the next planned class, doing scut work in the interim. If one of them was just feeling poorly...tough.
Feeling poorly? It was not widely known but women who live in close quarters seem to tend to get on the same menstrual cycle. Those were bad days; everybody bitching at everybody. Except the instructors, of course. The woman had learned that one never yelled at an instructor unless one had a burning desire to be beaten senseless.
A lot of the women thought it grossly unfair that they were treated so harshly when they had their periods. Actually, almost all of them thought so. On the other hand, though, not one could pinpoint what was so special about a period. If they could be made to march on blistered and bleeding feet, why not with flowing menses? If a bad head cold or the flu didn’t keep them out of training why should something more predictable and natural?
That, at least, was the way Centurions Garcia and Franco saw it. And their opinions were considerably more important than any woman’s at that point in time.
The women were provided with sanitary napkins, which was something.
“One thousand, two thousand, three thousand…down, bitch! Now roll. Rifle to shoulder. Suppress! Number two…”
The women were doing short rushes and low crawls interspersed with dry firing. These techniques were used to move forward against the enemy without giving that enemy time or calm to shoot back accurately. Doing the rushes and crawls for a little while isn’t so bad. Doing them for hours upon hours, as they had been, was painful.
Maria’s tits hurt like the devil from being pounded on sharp rocks. The scabbed sores on her elbows – which she’d gotten from holding up her rifle and herself on the firing range for endless hours – had torn open. Her knees were bleeding, too.
She nearly cried and blurted out, “Sergeant Castro, why do all of you treat us so badly?”
Castro didn’t answer immediately. He thought for a few moments then blew his whistle to call a halt. “Gather ‘round, girls,” he ordered. “And sit down.”
When the entire squad had gathered at his feet, he said, “Fuentes here doesn’t understand. She probably isn’t the only one. So listen: Once upon a time a bird way down south in Secordia procrastinated about flying north for the winter. By the time it got off of its fluffy little ass the weather had already turned. It made it about half way across the Federated States before its wings froze up. It was also starving because it hadn’t been able to find anything to eat. The bird fell to the ground, shivering and expecting to die soon.
“A cow came along and dropped a load right on our little friend’s head. Soon it was warm and happy, well fed, too. It stuck its head up and began to sing. A cat heard the singing, raced over, dug the little bird out of the cow flop, and ate it. Do you know the moral of the story, chica?”
Maria said she didn’t.
“Just this: Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy. Not everyone who digs you out of the shit is your friend. And when you’re warm and well fed, don't make a ruckus about a little bit of shit.
“Now back to work.”
“I wish there were some cheap way to chill that creek.”
Franco smiled. “Ice is rationed, Balthazar, as you know very well.”
“Mmmm. Yeah. But this is a special circumstance. Why, these women might get to like it out here in the jungle, if they don’t have to freeze just to be clean.”
Realizing that his partner was, in his own way, merely joking, Franco added his own sally. “They do seem to be having a pretty good time, don’t they? Are you sure you weren’t being over-generous what with giving them each a whole ounce of shampoo?”
“Maybe…but they did shoot well on the qualification range.”
“Well, yes, but a whole one ounce bottle? Each? Are you sure you’re not getting soft?”
Garcia shook his head, as if uncertain. “No…I don’t think so. It seems fair enough.”
Below the bank on which the centurions stood, their students joked and played and gamboled. Cat, a country girl originally, showed her squad how to wash their clothes on the plentiful rocks.
“When’s the chow due?” Garcia asked.
“About an hour, Balthazar.”
“Did you arrange for chaplain services?
“Of course. Even though it isn’t even Sunday. By the way…?”
“Don’t eat when you’re hungry, eat when you can. Don’t sleep when you’re tired, sleep when you can. Pray always.”
Franco couldn’t argue with those sentiments.
After washing their clothes, Inez, Cat, Marta and Maria took turns washing each other’s stubble. Of course, with so little hair, they really didn’t need help. It was a social thing, not a practical one.
Sitting on a stump, Maria spent her meager free time writing a letter for Porras to read to Alma. Even if the baby couldn’t contact her, she could at least let her know that Mama hadn’t abandoned her. Every few lines Maria would turn her eyes to her open wallet, just to stare at her baby’s photo. It was better than nothing.
Marta sat down besides the stump. “Do you miss her?”
“More than anything,” Maria answered. “She’s the only reason I’m here.”
Marta sighed, wistfully “She’s beautiful. I can’t have babies,” she added, sadly. “Do you think, maybe, when this is over I could watch her for you? Sometimes? Or maybe take her to the park...or something?”
Maria thought, Is this Marta I’m hearing with the fear of rejection in her voice? “Anytime,” she answered. “But why can’t you have a baby of you own?”
“I just can’t!” Marta stood quickly and walked away.
The sun was setting as an outraged shout rang through the camp. Franco trotted over to investigate.
When he returned, he told Garcia, “Someone’s stolen another woman’s shampoo.”
“You know the drill. Do it.”
Faster than one can imagine, the women were hustled out from their tents and into formation. Then Franco called the roll to determine they were all present. One by one they went back, with an instructor in attendance, and dumped out their rucks.
One girl, by the name of Rossini, was found with an extra bottle. The rest of the women were sent back to bed. Rossini spent most of the night tied to a tree.
The next morning the formed platoon was called to attention by Centurion Franco, who then reported and turned the formation over to Garcia. Garcia ordered, “Stand at…Ease.
“A soldier is first and foremost a selfless individual. He, or she, cannot be anything but that and still be worth much as a soldier. Recruit Private Rossini has failed to meet even the most minimal standards of selflessness. She is, in fact, a thief who stole something of considerable subjective value from someone who had no more than herself. For this, Rossini has been tried by court-martial, the centurions’ council sitting en banc, and found guilty. She is to be dishonorably discharged and her name struck from the rolls of your regiment. There is one little thing to attend to first, however.”
Garcia gave a command. The platoon formed in two lines, facing each other. At Garcia’s nod two corporals half dragged, half carried Rossini to one end of the double line. She stood, quivering, hands still tied behind her back. Her eyes were an eloquent – but useless – plea. She was clad only in T-shirt and shorts. Most of her skin was exposed.
“Remove your belts,” Garcia ordered. “As Rossini attempts to move between your lines you will strike her. I do not care whether you use the tip end or the buckle, but you WILL strike her…or join her.”
Most of the women held the metal buckle in their hands. A few – whether they were the meaner ones, or the ones most offended by theft, was not obvious – took the other end, swinging the metal buckles freely. The corporals and sergeants went to stand behind the women to make sure they didn’t slack off.
Garcia ordered “Begin.” Rossini was pushed – well, kicked, actually – into the gauntlet.
The details would be offensive. Some hit Rossini hard, some held back as much as they could while being watched. Most hit no more or harder than they had to. Still, a few women went out of their way to kick the culprit.
Rossini tried to protect her face, shielding it with her shoulder, but that only made her stumble and left her in the line of blows longer. Welts and cuts appeared on her face, neck, arms and legs. It was only luck that saved her eyes.
A belt tangled in her legs, causing her to fall on her face. She crawled with her knees alone those last ten meters, her face plowing the ground, just like the animal Garcia wanted the others to see her as. Finally, bleeding from multiple cuts, at the end of the line and of her strength, Rossini collapsed.
Garcia ordered the platoon to “Attention,” “Left and right… Face,” then gave the command, “Forward...March.” A sobbing Rossini, her head sideways on the ground, was left for some of the maniple’s headquarters people to kick off the island.
Garcia didn’t even order that she be given the rest of her uniform. She’d never wear those particular clothes again.
Four more women, including the one whose shampoo had been stolen, resigned that night.
Maria wanted to resign. She didn’t because, while she found the whole thing sickening (and back then she wouldn’t even have even hit Rossini were she not being watched herself), Marta and the others made her see the point.
“Look, Mari, Rossini was obviously untrustworthy,” Marta said. “I certainly don’t ever want to have to fight with her or anybody like her at my side. So she’s useless. And so the Legion booted her out.”
“Yes, sure, throw her out,” Maria answered. “But beat her? Like an animal? Worse, because we would never beat an animal like that.”
Inez added, “The gauntlet? Well, my brother taught me this about the Legion. The legal code is damned draconian, in theory. In practice, however, they only use formal corporal punishment on people they’re going to dump anyway – a cherry on the ice cream, because that kind of humiliation tends to make someone useless as a soldier even if they weren’t already useless. And using a deadbeat like Rossini states a myth that is very important to the military. ‘Soldiers and veterans are real people. Everybody else is essentially sub-human. See for yourself how this thing was just beaten like a dog, if you don’t believe us.’ It is difficult to see someone beaten like a dog and still think of that person as a human being.
“Besides, they were actually merciful with Rossini. A man who’d been caught stealing from comrades would have had the same punishment, in theory. But a man would have run between two lines of men; heavier, stronger, quite possibly meaner.”
“I doubt that Rossini was offended by the extra mercy,” said Cat.
Marta, who had been beaten more than once in her life by various utter bastards who had derived some considerable sexual pleasure from the beating, said, “It wasn’t a sexual thing. Our instructors are gay. They don’t see Rossini as a sexual toy. They barely saw her as a human being. They just wanted us to do and see the damage. And see her humiliation.”
Inez nodded. “My brother said that after an incident like this, you will never see another incident of theft reported the whole time of basic training.”
The sixty-six women remaining in the platoon trained next on special weapons: Machine guns, submachine guns, flamethrowers, grenades, demolitions. Of those weapons, most would, in latter days, remember the grenade range best. This was not because they liked it the best or because the grenades were the hardest things to learn to use. The engineering things, the flamethrowers and demolitions, were much harder physically. Only a very few women, it was found, could even carry and use a flamethrower with any effect. But learning to use the grenades properly made a certain impact on the mind.
It was a blessedly cool, rainy morning when Garcia led the platoon from Camp Botchkareva to the engineering and grenade ranges. The dirt firebreak that paralleled the paved road to the range area and the ground on the ranges stayed muddy, even though the sun had broken out about half way there. Still, it wasn’t all that bad. And, despite the rain, their uniforms were mostly dry by the time they started to train. Smelly, but dry.
The women sat in a semicircle around a low platform on which stood Centurion Garcia. While he addressed them, they wolfed down their breakfast from sundry cans and pouches. Between the platform and the women was a hole dug into the ground, perhaps two feet by two, three deep, and almost entirely hidden by grass.
“Grenades are made for a man to throw,” Garcia said, tossing a grenade up and down, one handed, as he did. “Oh, we could make them smaller and lighter for a woman but then they’d also be less powerful, so less effective. Besides which, it would be a lot more expensive to make them especially for women as the cost of a piece of military hardware goes up as the number purchased goes down. And, as anyone who has ever been around the military knows, if there were two models of grenade serving the same purpose, offensive, defensive, or screening, the supply system would deliver the women’s to the men and theirs to the women. That’s just how it works.”
He flipped a little wire tab off the thing, then nonchalantly pulled a pin. He lifted his thumb and a flat metal thing – a “spoon,” it was called – sprang into the air. Equally calmly, Garcia tossed the now fully armed and slightly smoking grenade into the hole a few feet in front of the platform, between it and the girls. He did it so calmly and nonchalantly, in fact, that the resulting explosion took the women completely by surprise, raising a chorus of frightened cries.
Totally unfazed, Garcia picked up another one, began tossing it up and down, too, and continued, “On the other hand, it is also damned rare for a soldier to actually have to throw a grenade all that far. If she’s in a hole and the enemy is attacking she can throw it about five feet outside and it won’t hurt her much beyond making her ears ring a bit. And if she’s the one attacking, ‘Get closer.’ That’s how you will be trained.”
Quicker than he had the first one, Garcia thumbed off the safety clip, pulled the pin, released the spoon, and then tossed the apparently live grenade into the midst of the women of his platoon. Screaming, they scattered in all directions. The practice grenade, painted up to look like the real thing, went off with a mild pop.
“Gets ‘em every time,” Garcia chuckled.
The women practiced for hours with blue-painted steel dummies. Then they practiced some more using the same dummies but with low powered fuses inserted that functioned like real grenade fuses. Finally, they were called forward one at a time to any of a half dozen circular sandbagged bunkers to use the real thing.
Garcia wore the nearest thing to a smile any of the women had ever seen on him as Catarina Gonzalez entered the pit. It wasn’t a frown, anyway, and that was something.
There were six grenades sitting on a table to one side. Garcia told her to take one. She did, and inspected it as she’d just been trained to do.
“How long is the delay on that grenade?” he asked.
“It will explode four to five seconds after I release the spoon, Centurion.”
“Plenty of time, don’t you agree, Gonzalez?”
Yes, she thought, except that quality control at the factory being what it is, the delay might be anywhere from three to seven seconds. Still, she wasn’t going to argue with him.
He continued, conversationally, “You know, Private Gonzalez, any fool can throw a grenade.”
“We, however, wish you bitches to become very special fools. Prepare to pull, Private.”
She did, both hands in front of her, one clutching the pull ring, the other on the grenade body.
“Remove the safety clip.”
Cat flipped it away with a thumb.
She pulled the ring away, still holding the spoon, the safety handle, down with the fingers of her other hand. She then went into the position to throw, one arm and hand stretched forward, the other – the one holding the bomb – cocked by the side of her head. She was already scared out of her mind by that little hand-held monstrosity. She was, however, rather more frightened of Garcia.
Garcia reached out with a beefy arm, lightening fast, and grabbed the wrist attached to the hand with the grenade. Then he said, “Gonzalez, when I give the command, ‘throw,’ you are going to release the spoon. That will release the striker to start the fuse burning. You and I will then count together to two...slowly. Then I will release your hand to throw the grenade....Ready? Throw.”
She froze. She would not, could not, release the spoon if she also couldn’t immediately get rid of the damned thing.
“Private, that grenade can only kill you. I won’t tell you again. Throw.”
Cat’s bladder let go, liquid running down her legs. But she also let go the spoon and, as soon as Garcia had counted to two and released her wrist, threw the grenade as far as she could. Along with Garcia, she fell to one knee and ducked her head to shelter from the blast. It rattled her, even so.
After the last bits of mud and rock had pattered down, Garcia pretended to notice neither Cat’s dripping trousers nor her quivering hands. He just said, “Good,” with his customary lack of enthusiasm.
The next two grenades she also “cooked off,” though on the last one Garcia did not hold her wrist. (Nor did she wet herself again.) Then the pair went forward and Cat threw two more around the corner of a trench. The little metal fragments made a pattering sound as they hit the wall of the trench opposite her.
“Okay, Gonzalez,” Garcia admitted, “You’ve done well so far. For this next one, the last one, I want you to crawl forward to that little bunker and put it through the firing port. But Private, this time, hold the grenade for a count of three after releasing the spoon. Got it?”
“Yes, Centurion.” Grenade in hand, Cat slithered forward, rolling to her back just as she reached the bunker. She flicked away the safety clip, pulled the pin, released the spoon and counted slowly and deliberately, “One thousand…two thousand…”
On three, no longer shaking, Cat calmly placed the grenade into the bunker, withdrawing her hand just as the explosion burst out of the narrow firing port.
Wet pants or not, she was damned proud of herself.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t embarrassed too. When Garcia told her to go back to the rest of the platoon she hesitated, looking down at her trousers. His gaze followed hers.
“Oh...I see,” he said. Then, not unkindly, “Gonzalez, do you think you are the first one to ever wet themselves doing something terrifying?” A sigh. “You are probably a little young to be learning this lesson. Let’s hope it takes. Anyway, start back to the platoon.”
She had just turned and started to reluctantly, shamefully slink away when Garcia bellowed. “You. Gonzalez. Halt, bitch. Drop! That’s right, down on your belly like a snake. You stinking reptile, you move like pond scum. You know how pond scum moves? I didn’t think so. It doesn’t. If you can’t walk like a soldier then get down there with the pond scum. Crawl, bitch!”
Garcia directed her into one of the little natural run offs that led from the pit to the waiting area, following her, insulting and cursing her, the entire time. Then he had her do short three-to-five second rushes from one scummy little hole to another. Some of the other girls watched with wide eyes. By the time he let her go, she may have been covered with mud and slime, but no one could tell if she was also covered with urine.
The last thing he said, before letting her go was, “And wipe that goddamned happy smile off your face, you stupid twat.”
With some difficulty, she did.
Perhaps Garcia was being kind. Perhaps he was trying to keep her from being needlessly humiliated. On the other hand, maybe he also wanted people to move faster on the range. Certainly nobody else dawdled there, that Cat could see, the rest of the day. Indeed, the women pushed themselves to finish the job as quickly as possible. This may not have been such a good thing.
Marta waited nervously for her turn to throw the grenades. Ahead of her, another woman from a different platoon was shaking pretty badly as she picked up the first grenade. Her instructor went through much the same “very special fools” speech that Gonzalez had heard from Garcia. (The speech went way back to the very beginnings of the Legion.) The instructor was very calm, but this did not stop the woman’s tremors. Still, she took her grenade, flicked away the safety clip, pulled the pin, and released the spoon. The instructor held her wrist while she counted “One thousand…two thousand” with a breaking voice. He released the wrist to let her throw; which she did. Right into the wall of the bunker.
The instructor’s eyes followed the grenade as it bounced off the front of the pit, to the back of the pit, and then to the front again before settling on the floor. Perhaps he’d been counting the seconds automatically. Whatever the case, he didn’t hesitate a moment. Pushing the woman towards the entrance, he threw himself down atop the bomb. It exploded, sending blood and flesh and bone out of his back to spatter pit and woman, both.
Marta screamed. The blood- and flesh-spattered woman stood, frozen, her face ghastly white where it hadn’t been speckled with bits of red.
Within moments another instructor, the dead man’s pair bond, entered the pit and fell, weeping, to his knees. He verbally flailed the woman, “You fucking stupid moron. You goddamned fucking incompetent murdering bitch. What makes you so goddamned important that my partner had to die for you? What?”
The woman had no answer.
Franco came and led the crushed man away.
Late that night, they marched the women back to their bivouac area (not Camp Botchkareva, with its icy showers). They sang, as they’d been taught to sing on their “slack time.” Given the events of the day, they sang mostly downbeat things:
“Come by the hills to the land where glory remains,
Where stories of old fill the heart and may yet come again,
Where the past has been lost
And the future has still to be won.
And the cares of tomorrow must wait
’Til this day is done.”
The women sang much of the time, and nearly all the time they were marching, scores of songs from the legionary songbook, plus a few of their own. In happier moments, they were particularly fond of the children’s song, Guillermo Hinchese (“With the razor’s gash he had settled her hash. Oh, never was crime so quick!”) and the more adult Sacred War. At first they were made to sing, but – after a while – they came to love singing together for its own sake. It was fun. Never mind that with every song they were being indoctrinated. Indoctrinating through song was so old a trick it was almost passé.
Marching away from the grenade range, between songs, Gloria fumed at length about all the explicit and implicit insults. She thought they should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
Sick of her bitching, Inez asked her, “Why? If we fail, we might cost them their lives. It strikes me as a lot to ask of someone, to take an extra risk for something that will do them no good at all.”
“Let them prove there’s a risk,” Gloria retorted, “before dumping on us.”
“They just did,” Inez answered.
First aid training came next, almost a whole week of it, and the Amazons were good at that, Centurion Garcia even said so. Although when he had them carry the instructors around on stretchers for a couple of hours they found that was much harder than carrying each other.
Resting her weary arms afterwards, Inez said, “I’m told that women in tercio medical companies have a lot of trouble with that. Enough trouble, says my brother, that it’s an open question whether they’ll continue to let women into male tercios as medics. I guess that’s one advantage of having a females-only combat unit. We won’t waste men’s time by having them carry light little burdens like us. Neither will we be overtaxing ourselves, maybe even killing our own wounded, trying to carry men who were just too damned heavy.”
At last, after not quite four weeks in the jungle, Phase One was over. The aspirant Amazons marched back to camp. As a reward, Garcia even let the girls use the barracks for a few days. The water in the showers was still icy.
“Up yours, cueco,” the archaeopteryx said from his perch in one corner as it worried with its beak a Terra Novan olive held clasped in one claw.
“Fucking bird,” Franco muttered, as he looked out of the tiny shack he shared with Garcia. From the window he saw a squad of women running in a circle, their rifles held over their heads. Their tramping feet raised a cloud of dust that had them all coughing and gagging. Above the suffering girls, in the background, high over the island, the continuous cloud around the mouth of the solar chimney loomed.
“God, I hate this shit,” he told his partner and boss.
“I know. Me, too.”
“Would you have volunteered us for this horror if you had known what we would have to do to them?”
“I did know. So did you. Deep down, you knew.”
“Maybe so,” Franco half-admitted. “Christ, why us?”
Garcia didn’t answer immediately. When he did, he said, “Because we can. And no one else could. Now stop your bleeding and tell me about third squad.”
Franco pulled his gaze from the suffering women. “Mostly, they’re coming along. The ones who have me worried are Bugatti, Santiago and Fuentes; our resident sociopath, feminist and wimp, respectively.”
Garcia chuckled low. “You know, for a really smart, book learned, university professor, you can be awfully dense sometimes.”
Franco looked at Garcia with something between shock and mortal offense.
“Oh, calm down. You’re young. You’re still learning.”
“So teach me, o ancient and mighty one,” Franco answered sarcastically.
Garcia thought briefly of a terrified young girl, holding a grenade in a trembling hand. “Just trust me, Fuentes is not a wimp. There’s steel inside there. Oh, maybe it isn’t Atacamas Mountains solid. Maybe it’s more like a...oh, like a rapier, I suppose. In any case, it keeps springing back. I think she’ll be all right.”
“Maybe you should have a talk with her,” Franco suggested.
“Maybe I will at that. As for Bugatti?” Garcia shook his head with disgust. “That poor creature has some tales to tell. Have you seen her file?”
It was Franco’s turn to show disgust. “I’ve read it. But do you really think she can overcome all that?”
Garcia shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. She’s trying though. And she’s doing better all the time. Why, she’s even learned to hide the fact that she wants to rip our throats out whenever one of us gives her a whack.”
Then it was Garcia’s turn to look worried. “You’re right about Santiago, though. She’s always been out for number one, hiding it behind her concern for ‘all women, everywhere.’ You would think she’d been a charter member of the National Organization for Upper Middle Class White Women. It’s getting worse, too. But I have a trick that might work on her.”
“Or might not.”
“‘Or might not,’” Garcia conceded.
Franco looked back out of the window. “Do you really think this is the best way to get the best out of a group of women?”
“That isn’t the point or the mission. We’re not trying to get the best out a group of women; we’re trying to get the best women out of the group. That’s a very different thing. And for that, this way works perfectly. It will be their job, later on, to figure out how to get the best from a group of women.
“Now...what about third squad’s children?”
Franco answered, “I spoke to Private Porras last night by phone. The Gonzalez children are doing well enough. The Maceira boy has a head cold, but is recovering nicely. Little Alma Fuentes misses her mommy and cries a lot.”
“Should we let Fuentes call home, do you think?” Garcia asked.
Shaking his head, Franco replied, “Leaving aside the fact that it’s against the rules...Yes, yes; I know you can bend the rules for good cause. Leaving that aside; I think it would be a very bad idea to let Fuentes’ mind start wandering to her baby. She has trouble enough being apart from her kid. You know; cries a lot when she thinks no one is looking.”
“OK, then. Little Alma can cry a little more.” Changing the subject, Garcia asked, “Are you ready to deal with the herstorian we’ve got coming out to lecture the girls?”
Franco smiled then. “Sylvia Torres? She’s mindless,” he snorted. “I not only know everything she ever wrote; I just might know everything she’s ever read. I knew her at the university, after all.”
“Good. Let’s make it memorable. Be nice to the woman, but give the girls what they need to recognize silliness when they hear it.”
“The song for the soldier is a war song;” it is not “I don't like spiders and
By the end of Phase One our strength was down by about twenty percent. It would probably have been a lot lower except that our cadre simply would not let us quit easily at this point and punished us if we tried. We were also a lot stronger, though the strongest of us still couldn’t have taken on the weakest of our instructors in close combat. Even the three or four strongest probably couldn’t have. But it was an improvement. Besides, we could shoot at least as well as an equivalent group of male recruits, and probably better. We could use the weapons that didn’t require any unusual physical strength as well as the men, even a little better in the case of tripod mounted .34 caliber machine guns. Garcia had said something about “natural rhythm” when he’d announced that. We had more trouble with firing the machine guns from their integral bipods or from the hip. And carrying them and a full ammunition load was always a pure bitch.
We still could not march as far as the men, as fast, while carrying the same weight. Actually, as a group we couldn’t even pick up the same weight to start to carry it.
In Phase Two of training they started messing with our heads even more than they had previously messed with our bodies. We can talk about that later.
We also got fresh haircuts. Yes, they buzzed us again. But, then, they issued us two more field uniforms, more underwear, and another pair of the lightweight boots each. Win a few, lose a few.
(We don’t do that anymore, in Amazon training, by the way. After the first buzz cut we don't say a word. But we keep the new girls even filthier than the Gorgidas did with us. As their hair grows, it gets and stays rotten. We leave them the shears, though. When they cut their hair on their own, we know we’re training them hard enough. Discipline is always better when it grows from inside.)
One day they marched us into a sort of tree shaded amphitheater surrounded by bleachers they used for a classroom. A pinch-faced, sort of dumpy woman walked to the lectern and introduced herself as Professor Sylvia Torres. She said she was there to teach us about the history of women in the military. She’d obviously never done a day in uniform herself, nor was her degree in history, let alone military history. And the way she wrinkled her nose at our stench didn’t precisely endear her to us.
It was obvious that this woman only partly approved of our experiment. She plainly disapproved of our being segregated. Though it was funny that she entirely believed in, and seemed to approve of, the original Amazons, who were entirely segregated except at breeding season.
“There is plenty of history to support the integration of men and women in the military,” she announced. “To begin, let us take the example of Lucille Brauer, a Federated States Marine who served aboard the FSS Charter during their war of AC 288. She had to keep the fact she was a woman hidden, true. But she did everything the men did, to include fighting in some of the most successful actions in which that ship engaged.”
Franco interrupted to ask, “Professor Torres, how did the Brauer woman manage to keep hidden her sex when it was a regulation of the Federated States Marines at that time for the commander to inspect each of his Marines for their health, buck naked, once a week? I’m just curious, you understand.”
“Professor Franco,” Torres answered, “I’m afraid the record is not specific as to what measures Ms. Brauer had to use.”
“Centurion Franco,” he corrected. “She was successful, though, in hiding her sex, you say. Hmmm. Interesting. Please excuse me for a moment, Professor. Stand up for a moment, Bugatti.”
Marta arose with a suspicious look on her face; her chest prominent, as always.
Franco spoke as if he really were interested in finding a solution to a problem that could be solved if he could only open his mind enough. Rubbing his face contemplatively, he said, “Maybe if we redesigned the body armor a bit...might be hot...but...yes, we could – possibly – do this. Thank you, Professor. Sit down, Bugatti.”
I joined the others in smirking. Trying to make Marta look like a boy was an obvious exercise in futility.
I don’t think Torres quite understood what Franco had just done to her, because she continued, unfazed, “As another example, we have the case of a Volgan tank crew in the Great Global War. This tank crew, composed of two men and two women, successfully held up the advance of an entire Sachsen army of eleven divisions for three days. This was not the Red Tsar’s propaganda, by the way, but came from Sachsen records. After the Sachsens finally succeeded in knocking that tank out, they found that the only survivor of the crew was a woman.” She smiled triumphantly.
Franco raised his hand again. “What were the relationships among those men and women, Professor?”
“They were married, Prof...ah, Centurion Franco.” She consulted her notes, briefly, then said, “They were, in fact, the Political Commissar of the unit, his assistant, and their wives.”
“Ah, then,” Franco said. “So they were married, like us in the Tercio Gorgidas. And the political cell of their unit, you say? That’s very interesting, too. Were they fanatics, do you suppose, Professor?”
“Well,” she answered, “their actions in battle would seem to indicate an unusual degree of commitment.”
“So they didn’t have any of the typical problems you get when you put men and women together. I see.”
Torres did not see, it seemed. “Problems?”
“Oh, you know. Problem Number One: ‘Won’t one of you big strong men help poor little ol’ me?’ Problem Number Two: ‘Private, how grateful would you be if you didn’t have to pull guard tonight.’ Problem Number Three: ‘You’re what! What will my wife say?’ That kind of problem. Tell me, Professor, what kind of tank was it?”
Again she turned to her notes. “It was a very advanced for the time heavy tank, I understand.”
“Ah. So women can crew a heavy tank. Very good. Do you happen to recall how heavy a tank it was?” She didn’t.
“Hmmm. I don’t know either,” Franco said. “I wonder, though, whether there might not be a problem with putting women on tanks today. Even heavy tanks in those days were much lighter affairs than tanks now. Shells were lighter. Tracks were lighter. Parts and engines were lighter. Today, I don’t know that any two women and two men living could adequately fight and maintain a main battle tank which is, at forty to seventy tons, two or three times heavier than its Great Global War counterpart. The tracks are too heavy, the shells are too heavy, everything is too heavy.”
She asked, “But don’t we have tanks that are lighter than that?”
“Well...sort of,” Franco admitted. “The Legions do have Ocelots. They’re pretty light; about nineteen tons. On the other hand, an Ocelot wouldn’t stand a chance against a real tank though it does give pretty good service as an infantry support vehicle. I’m sure women – or men and women mixed – could handle those without any technical problems whatsoever,” Franco concluded enthusiastically.
I guess Torres hadn’t ever given any thought to the technical differences between one type of weapon and another. I didn’t know myself. She seemed happy with Franco’s seeming agreement.
Moving on, Torres said, “Nor is the history of men and women being integrated in combat limited to heavy, high technology, weapons like tanks. Women of Zion, during their wars, gave good service themselves as infantry against the Arabs, mixed in units with men.”
Franco inquired, “How did that work? Were there any problems?”
“Well, there were a few,” Torres conceded. “It was discovered that men simply would not treat women like they would other men. When the women got into trouble there was an unfortunate tendency for the men to abandon the mission to save the women. I wouldn’t blame those boys too much. They couldn’t help it, even if it wasn’t hard wired in their genes, there was some strong cultural conditioning. Besides, it isn’t like straight young men have any brains.” We, even Franco, joined her in a laugh.
“Unfortunately, the women were soon –after about three weeks – removed from units with men and formed into their own, where they continued to do respectably well. This was still patently unfair. It wasn’t their fault that the men acted like that. Worse, today Zion’s women are not even allowed to drive trucks, because trucks go to the front and women are not allowed at the front.”
“I thought that Zion does still conscript young women,” Franco commiserated.
“They do,” she said, “but only if they haven’t gotten married. The drafted women make a pun of the initials for their service; apparently in Hebrew the letters can also stand for ‘We should have gotten married!’”
Franco asked, “Do you suppose that the Zionis do it this way at least partly to make sure that old maids of eighteen or nineteen have all the opportunity possible to meet a great many eligible young men so they’ll get married soon thereafter...to start working on the next generation of – male – cannon fodder?”
“I’m sure I don’t understand the workings of that kind of mind, Pro...Centurion Franco.”
I saw Franco shrug as if he didn’t understand it, either. “Well, it’s just a hunch, of course. But, if not, why not conscript young married women who are not pregnant? It surely doesn’t seem fair to me either. Do they have any other reasons?”
“Maybe one. It is believed,” Torres said, “that there are some cultures – and Arabic culture in particular – in which it would be an unpardonable shame for men to surrender to or run from women.”
It occurred to me that my own culture wasn’t too far from that.
She admitted, “The Zionis claim that when they put women in combat units, Arab units that otherwise would have given up or run away would stay and fight, driving up everybody’s casualties, if they even suspected there were women opposing them. But that’s old news. In the Federated States’ first war against Sumer, some decades ago, the Sumeri prisoners were glad to be guarded by military policewomen.”
Franco commented, “That’s vastly different from actually surrendering to women, of course. But there must have been some such surrenders since some of the Sumeris were equally glad to surrender to civilian camera crews. I have heard that some large numbers tried to surrender to passing aircraft. Still, I’m not sure that this proves anything... except maybe that beating an army that’s been pounded from the air for six weeks, and was rotten to start with, is not something on which to base a generally applicable theory. Still, it is an improvement, Professor, I agree.”
Torres continued on with a discussion about the apparently remarkable ability of armed forces to change character. That part of her discussion was in the same general vein, or at least had the same philosophical underpinnings: That the sheer raw power of armed forces was such that all they had to do was order their people to become something and they would become that thing. She said, “Armies do it all the time. This one should be able to do the same with you and men as easily.”
The last thing she spoke on at any length was concerning our unmitigated, inalienable right, as women, to get pregnant and have babies any time we wanted, at our sole discretion. She really didn’t like the idea of our being administered mandatory implanted contraceptives. Centurion Franco didn’t say a word about that.
The next morning, however, we had to do another road march, a fifteen mile hump.
Franco stood in front of the platoon and asked, rather blandly, who among us had agreed with the feminist speaker about our right to get pregnant. At first no one admitted it. He, promised us, Scout’s Honor, that there would be no retaliation, no personal punishment, against any who might express their honest view.
At that Gloria said, “I agree. You men have no right to tell us when we can, can’t, should, shouldn’t, or must have a baby.”
“Well, we have one honest woman in the group. Have we no more? Surely we must.” He coaxed us and cajoled us until he had fifteen women, about a quarter of what we had left by then, who would state that they believed that Torres had been right, that men had no right to tell us when we could and couldn’t, or should, or must, have a baby.
Franco agreed with them, said so plainly, even enthusiastically. Then he told them to drop their packs, rifles, load carrying equipment and helmets. He ordered them, very gently, out of the formation. He told them not to worry, they wouldn’t be punished, but just to stand by. At that time a couple of the corporals brought out fifteen or twenty long, thick poles.
Then Garcia came out, grinning broadly. You really had to know him at the time to know just how creepy a thing that was.
“Ladies,” he said, “it seems I’m going to be a daddy. Who would have believed it? Me?” he rhetorically asked of the women Franco had called out of formation. “For, you see, you are all now, for this day only, officially ‘pregnant.’ As such, in deference to your delicate condition, and out of concern for the health of your babies, you cannot be expected to – and I, as a mere man, will not ask you to – engage in any strenuous physical labor.”
The creepy grin changed to a frown. He tapped a finger against his own cheek, as if he had just realized the existence of an insoluble problem. “Still, we do have a range to go to. My, my. And we don’t have any buses or trucks scheduled. Hmmm, pity. So, sorry to say, you will have to walk to the range with the rest of us. But you needn’t worry about how your gear will get to training. Your fellow recruits have volunteered to carry it for you.”
Then he ordered the rest of us to string their gear on the poles, shoulder the poles, and, “Forward march.” We formed in three long columns with the “pregnant” women and the instructors marching in the center, Garcia up front and Franco walking the center and rear.
I cannot even begin to tell you how much that hurt. I was – we all were – already carrying as much as we uncomfortably could. Between the poles and the other girls’ gear we had maybe thirty pounds more than that. It was just too much.
Not that Garcia or Franco seemed to care. Their faces remained impassive as we stumbled along, tears mostly hidden by sweat, for fifteen miles. The poles probably weren’t the worst possible way of carrying that extra gear. But they did cut into our shoulders, scrape our necks, throw us off center so that our backs hurt. It was torture. It was intended to be.
The ‘pregnant’ women, all of them – even Gloria, who surprised me by it – begged to be allowed to carry their packs for themselves. Franco, marching next to our squad, was having none of it. When one of the girls tried to help us with the poles he rapped her knuckles with his centurion’s stick, hard, for her trouble.
“Sorry, chica, you can’t have a miscarriage on my watch. Garcia wouldn’t like it, caring and sensitive soul that he is.”
And even though they carried no loads, the day was still hot. They had to drink from the water the rest of us were carrying for them. They apologized, embarrassingly, sincerely and continuously, until Franco told them to, “Shut up! Stop bitching! You claimed the unlimited right. This is what it means; that someone else has to carry your load. Live with it.”
Gloria walked along miserably between Inez and Marta, myself and Cat. Inez and Marta took turns berating her.
“Oh, my,” said little Inez, straining more than most under the load. “Poor, poor Gloria. She’s so smart, she’s so big and strong and tough. She can figure out anything. Why, she’s even figured out how to have someone else carry her equipment.”
“And she didn’t have to flutter her eyelashes or look cute,” continued Marta. “All she had to do was get herself pregnant. We sure are the superior sex, with Gloria as our leader, showing us the way to the top.”
I confess, their verbal abuse of Gloria was becoming annoying. Cat finally got sick enough of it to tell them to shut up and leave her alone. Inez listened, though Marta still grumbled.
That march would normally have taken maybe six hours. It actually took just under ten. And each one of those was several times worse than any hour of marching with a normal load would have been. We tripped; we slipped; we fell. From the awkward walk, the extra weight, most of our feet were bleeding by the end of the day. I never before quite understood how bad Christ’s march up Golgotha must have been. (Though that wasn’t the worst march we ever did.)
We never even tried the old standby of, “Won’t one of you big strong men help poor little ol’ me?” It never worked with our instructors anyway.
When we’d reached the range, Centurion Garcia announced, “From this day forward any member of this platoon who goes on sick call will have her gear carried in this way by the others. To support this, each squad will carry two of these poles to all training sites, and in addition to their other gear.”
Three more recruits resigned that night. Two of them were from those whom Garcia had made “pregnant.” They were allowed to go to one of the non-combat positions for women in their home town tercios. I don’t know if any of them took that option.
We took to calling going on sick call, “getting knocked up.” The poles we called, for reasons both obvious and subtle, “pricks.”
Not everything they told us or did to us was anti-female, or even anti-feminist. I learned a lot about the military history of my sex. Maybe more importantly, I learned to think a lot more about the military history of my sex. Centurion Franco did most of that lecturing.
One thing Franco told us, more or less off the record, I’d like to repeat here. Of course, in training now we do tell the recruits that the Amazons might have existed but couldn’t be proved. It’s better that they not be disillusioned if someone ever really disproves their existence.
But Franco thought it fairly likely they had existed in some form. His reasons were partly technical, partly philosophical. Basically, Franco said, the Amazons, if they had existed, were horse archers at a time when horses could transport men only in clumsy chariots. The early horses were too weak in the back to support a man’s weight. Supporting a woman would have been possible centuries before horses were bred that were strong enough for a man but centuries after horses had been domesticated. This also corresponded, roughly, to the invention or introduction of the composite bow, which was – in legend – the Amazons’ weapon of choice.
Moreover, said Franco, the people who recorded the legends – the ancient Greeks – were simply not horse oriented, the area being a poor place to raise horses. They would be fairly unlikely to even have thought of putting women on horseback unless there was some crumb of fact or fact-based rumor to support it.
Lastly, he said that the legends were quite accurate in principle about what would be required to make female warriors, especially that voluntary giving up of their right breasts, an important part of a woman’s appearance and the symbolic reduction of their ability to nurture.
I’m still not sure if I buy it.
Franco told us, too, of some criticisms of military women that, he thought, were patently unfair. It seems there was an instance, thirty or forty years before the Tercio Amazona was formed, when women in the Federated States Army stationed in one of the hot spots around the planet had deserted their posts in overwhelming numbers because there was a chance that war might break out soon. Worse, much worse, men took off in droves to see to their wives and girlfriends.
“No wonder they did,” said Franco. “They’d never been trained for combat. Why, women at that time, in that army, didn’t even fire weapons in basic training. It’s perfectly understandable that they ran, though the men should have been shot.”
That was, obviously, not going to be a problem for us.
Naturally, at some point in time the question came up of our being raped if captured. Franco had a pretty good one liner for that: “Don’t surrender.” He didn’t let it go at that, though.
“Look,” he said, “young men have been having their bodies violated in battle for uncounted millennia. You tell me. In what way is it worse for you to be raped – in a place that’s reasonably suited for a somewhat similar purpose – than it is for a young man to have a sword, spear or bayonet driven through his belly? How is it worse for you to be raped than it is to be disemboweled by a shell fragment? How many women prefer death to submission to rape? Your own sex has already voted on the question and their answer has been that rape is preferable.”
I thought of lying under Piedras and tried not to weep. It hurt more that it had been true.
Don't get the wrong idea; we didn’t have these short lectures in any neat, antiseptic classrooms. There weren’t any outside of the camp. Mostly they weren’t even formal lectures, but just little bits of food for thought Franco would throw to us from time to time. Usually, they tended to come just before or just after we had to do something really miserable, painful, or dangerous.
Once, for example, near the end of basic, we did a thirty mile road march with full combat equipment and supplies in twelve hours. It was part of our graduation exercise. We knew that the equivalent march for the men was forty miles in fifteen hours, longer and a little faster. A lot of our training was like that: something less than the men had to do.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Did this “gender-norming” (that’s what they called it) mean we were inferior to men, that we could never be equal?
That depends, in large part, on what you think the purposes of physical training are in an army. Sure, some of it is building strength, stamina, and endurance. But that isn’t its whole purpose, nor even most of it. My sisters who died on Cerro Mina, and – later on – in other places, were equal to, better than, most men in every important way, even if they couldn’t march as fast. And that isn’t just regimental pride speaking.
Think about battle; I have. A terrifying thing, no? But what is terrifying about it? The chance of painful death or mutilation. The fear of failing your friends and yourself.
Think about fear; I have. I have known fear unimaginable when I was just a girl. I overcame it, as my sisters did. How? Discipline, dedication, determination, morale, courage... call it, “character.”
And that is what our physical training was mostly about; building those things – character building – through pain. We suffered on marches, we suffered on runs, our hands bled from digging. And all of this we did, essentially, to ourselves because – beyond a certain point, and corporals’ boots or centurions’ sticks notwithstanding – it just isn’t possible to make someone take one more step, dig one more shovel full of dirt, if that person won’t do it on his or her own. (I read later that the ancient Greeks and Romans almost never used slaves to row their warships because free citizens could and would do a lot more work on their own than a slave would under the lash.)
You see, it wasn’t all that important that we couldn’t march as far as men. It was that they had to march farther, faster, than we did to suffer as much; to build as much character.
Franco told us, after that march, “Sure we created different standards for you than men have. You’re easier to hurt. You don’t need as much effort for the same pain.”
That was true enough, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Moral considerations may be three times more important, but they aren’t all-important. There are some objective factors that go into the equation, as well. It’s a balancing act, I suppose. So far as I know, we are the only army, at least in recent times, that has found something like a proper balance where women are concerned.
I’ve since had a chance to read about some other armies and how they tried, and generally failed, with making real soldiers of women. Naturally, the Tercio news letter, Hippolyta, has articles on just that in almost every issue. You should read some of them.
Although, to be honest, Hippolyta can be pretty damned smug when comparing foreign failures with our success. Still, we do have some reason to be a little smug.
Take Secordia, for example. About thirty years before us, they opened up all branches of their military service, and all organizations, to women, including the infantry. A great blow for women’s rights? Not exactly. You see, Secordia had previously unified their armed forces. There was no separate navy, air force and army. So a women supply clerk in what had been the Secordian Navy could easily find herself moved to be a supply clerk in an infantry maniple of the Secordian Highlanders, and some did. No big deal, you think? Try to imagine yourself as a plump, comfortable supply clerk on a plump, comfortable ship. Then put yourself out in a Secordian winter in an unheated leaky tent, or maybe no tent. They had some serious morale problems.
And when they tried to put women right into the infantry? Oh, sister, was that a disaster! The Secordian trainers didn’t gender norm anything for those women. One hundred and one women started infantry training. Ninety-eight failed outright. Of the other three – the ones who had to go through the course twice to pass – only one passed and she – maybe because she was the only woman in her unit – left as soon as her enlistment was up. Frankly, I have a sneaking suspicion that the male Secordian soldiers may have eased up on that one woman who made it to ensure that they wouldn’t be forced to gender norm anything, while discouraging any more women from volunteering. And no, repeat no, women volunteered to become regular enlisted infantry in Secordia after that fiasco for years.
They had a little more apparent success with putting women in artillery and armor. I say “apparent” because the success was more apparent than real. Want to know how many women actually ended up serving guns and tanks in the regular Secordian Armed Forces? Exactly...none. They did fire direction computing for the artillery – a dead end job, by the way, in a really modern army, though it still has some future in ours. In the armored corps they drove light armored cars, not real tanks. They did not do the heavy work. And they were mostly despised by the men because of it.
Despised by the men? Maybe not as individuals. But certainly the professionals down south were disgusted enough by having women thrust upon them without any real thought having been put into the very real problems those professionals knew they would have. Complaints were loud and unceasing. So was more than occasional active sabotage of the women in their military.
That wasn’t a problem for us. Since our men didn’t risk having their worlds turned upside down by women warriors, they could help us rather than trying to ruin us. And, in retrospect, I must say that they really did help us...if only to help ourselves.
Other armies had been more pragmatic; and more successful. The Cochinese, during the war there, had made considerable use of women, even as infantry. Not being subservient to the politically and socially dogmatic and militarily ignorant, the Cochinese had put the women in their own – all female – companies. They’d done pretty well, too, as long as they lasted. They took casualties, naturally, and women willing to fight are fairly rare, hard to replace. Pregnancy was a big problem, too, one we’ve solved partly by stringent social pressures and partly by requiring that women serving and not on maternity leave have implanted contraceptives.
Do I seem unsympathetic? Look, I was a woman serving in a combat organization where there were no men to take up the slack left by a pregnant woman. And I couldn’t.
Garcia was sometimes almost human to us. I don’t mean just to an individual; I mean to us as a group.
We had movies, some nights, when we were out on one of the ranges. No, we never got to see a movie we really wanted to see. As a matter of fact, if they showed us one, it was almost a sure thing that it would be something we really, really didn’t want to see.
One I remember, in particular, began with a horrifying landing on a hostile beach. They didn’t even show us the entire thing; just the first thirty minutes or so. It made me sick; and I wasn’t the only one.
Garcia had the projector shut off about the time that someone began to throw up noisily. I didn’t blame her; the sight of a man carrying his own ripped off arm in one hand while he tried to continue attacking was just too much.
Garcia stood in front. Of us he asked, “What do you suppose it takes; to do something like those men did?”
Marta stood to attention and answered, “Being dropped on a hostile beach with no way back and no choice, Centurion.”
“Bullshit. Sit down, Bugatti.” She sat.
“Women are supposed to be more emotional, less logical and rational, than men. Is it true, Trujillo?”
Inez stood and answered, “Centurion, I don't know how we’ve managed to pull off that little piece of propaganda for so long. It’s a bald-faced lie. Oh, sure, we can get away with showing our emotions more readily than men do, as readily as we feel like, as a matter of fact, without anyone thinking worse of us for it. Proves nothing. Truth is, we can be, and usually are, damned cold-hearted bitches, very logical and very rational.”
I thought that was kind of funny, coming from Inez. If there was anybody in the platoon you could count on not to be a cold-hearted bitch, it was generally her...or Cat.
“‘Very logical, very rational,’” Garcia parroted. “Shouldn’t a soldier be rational, Trujillo? Better yet, you...Fuentes. Shouldn’t you be rational?”
“I...I don’t know, Centurion.”
“Fair enough. A soldier should be rational, some would say. Up to a point, sure. But ‘a rational army would run away.’” He paused, meditatively. “Okay, that’s not quite right. A rational ‘army’ might not run away. An army entirely composed of completely rational soldiers, however, surely would. Go back to that movie. Did it make sense for those men to get off those boats under fire, then stay in the line of battle, with death or mutilation staring them in the face every second, when there was a perfectly rational alternative, namely surrendering as fast as they could; hiding, at least? Maybe refusing to even get on the boats?”
“It must have, Centurion, to them, at the time.”
Gloria added, “Centurion, a few days ago you told us that an army that runs suffers more loss than an army that stands and fights.”
“Yes, Santiago. And it’s true. If an army does run its losses will probably be greater than if it had stood fast. But they’ll be greater among those who were slower in deciding to run, and slower in running. A really rational soldier, in a really rational army, knowing his or her comrades are also more or less rational, knowing they’ll run at some point – and probably sooner rather than later – is left with only one choice, to run first and let the enemy kill the others so he or she will have time to get away.”
Inez stood up again. “But they usually don’t, Centurion. Why not?”
“Men usually don’t,” he corrected, “because being relatively irrational and knowing their comrades are as well, they can afford to wait a little. Almost any man or women might make the decision to run. Normal men will wait longer, irrationally long. Often they’ll stick it out long enough to win over the soldiers of an army that are just that much more rational than they are.”
He sent us to bed then.
How were they going to make us usefully irrational? Garcia and Franco took care of it in three ways. First, they ran out anybody who was notably selfish, or even notably less than selfless. We had twice monthly peer evaluations. The cadre actually took into account our views on each other. If enough of us marked another woman down as deficient, she generally didn’t have long left in the unit. Getting “knocked up” more than once, and then only with really good reason, usually meant a ticket home...out of the tercio, anyway.
The other way was subtle. That it was also fairly vicious goes without saying. It revolved around food.
Sometimes Garcia would issue the food for the next day – maybe one hundred and fifty pounds worth – to four or five of us. He would forbid anyone else to so much as touch the rations, it all belonged to the ones selected. We weren’t allowed to break it down or help carry it. So if the rest of us were going to eat, a few girls had to put themselves through hell, lugging our food...selflessly.
Garcia gave those girls an exemption from the peer evaluations for a while so they could throw the food away, some of it or all of it, if they weren’t willing to carry it.
The other way was meaner still. He would occasionally chop off food for a day or two, then issue double or triple rations to those who had performed well, none to those who had done poorly. He did not make us share. In fact, he told us not to, making the point stick once by withdrawing the rations from a girl he caught sharing.
Well, we shared our food anyway, on the sly, and he smirked behind our backs, I strongly suspect.
The point? When someone who is famished will still, irrationally, share food with you or carry it for you, there is a better reason to believe that same someone won’t run out on you when the bullets start flying.
It was really rather clever, all things considered. Still, we figured out how to deal with it until Garcia made resort to an even nastier variant on the trick.
We were standing in formation one morning (you might be surprised how much time you can spend just standing around, in the military), all of us ready to head for the horizon. We really weren’t looking forward to it, especially as some nasty brand of influenza had been making the rounds of the island and many of us were sick.
Franco called the platoon to attention, then turned around to make the morning report to Garcia. “Centurion, all present or accounted for.”
Garcia ordered, “Post!” Franco marched to a place behind the platoon. ( My eyes were locked dead ahead. It wasn’t until some months later that I discovered where, precisely, it was that a junior marched to when the leader called, “Post.”)
Garcia then ordered the platoon to open ranks. Once we had, he sauntered along each rank, never saying a word but looking at each of us intently. Sometimes, as with me, he’d feel a forehead for temperature. After he had finished with the last rank he ordered us to close up again.
“Ladies,” he began. He usually called us “twats,” or “cunts,” or “bitches.” I had a feeling that “ladies” was going to turn out a lot worse. “Ladies, I have here six cases of rations. This is, as I’m sure you’re aware, your entire ration for the next two days.” He stopped, somewhat melodramatically. “Privates Nuñez, Galindo, and Miranda, you are to carry two cases each...unless some other should volunteer to carry those two cases in your stead. Without any help from anyone else.”
He had named the three weakest and sickest among us, the bastard.
“Fall in prepared to march in five minutes. Fall out.”
We fell into a sort of gaggle. Isabel Galindo said, weakly, “I’ll carry my own. Take care of Lara and Edi.” Little Trujillo looked Galindo up and down carefully, then nodded and said, “I’ll carry Edi’s. Who’ll take care of Lara’s?”
Marta spoke just before Cat did. “I will.”
Cat said, “Dear, I’m in better shape than you. Let me.”
“Maybe so, Catarina. But I’m still stronger. It’s mine.”
I think my faith that these were women I could count on in a pinch went up a notch right about then.
We discovered some other interesting things about ourselves, too. There’s an old saying: Women have no friends, only rivals. It ranks, for truthfulness, right up there with an equivalent man’s saying: Never introduce your girlfriend and your best friend. Truth, but maybe not the whole and universal truth.
Because there on the island, with no men to compete over, we did develop into real friends, some of us.
Have you never noticed how women of merely moderate attractiveness will often gravitate around the leadership of the really beautiful ones? (Maybe that’s not true in every country, but it’s true enough in mine.) And the beautiful ones will be glad to have the merely pretty ones around, because it makes them look even more beautiful by comparison. You might wonder what’s in it for the merely pretty. Simplicity itself: They get a little glamour and if they want they can have the cast-offs. I wonder if men will ever realize that the human race is just one big experiment in selective breeding run, since inception, entirely by us.
We didn’t work that way, though. Who’s beautiful when her head is shaved, she’s covered with mud, wearing rags, and stinks? Who’s beautiful without men to admire her? Nobody. So who takes charge? Those who have an ability that’s based on more than looks.
Not everybody got the message right away. I only did, myself, after getting some help from a friend.
“Centurion. Private Fuentes, Maria; reporting as ordered.”
“At ease private.” Garcia stood in front of me and looked me up and down, carefully, like a surgeon inspecting a diseased organ. Then, without any warning at all he slapped me, right across the face, hard enough to knock me to the floor.
“On your feet. At ease....Why do you suppose I did that, Fuentes?”
Though I’d managed to get to my feet, and automatically back to attention, I was literally speechless. I didn’t answer.
“I asked a question, Private.”
I started to blubber, “I don’t know, Centurion.”
“All right...maybe you really are dense. Your file says no but...you could be. I’ll help you. What did I just do?”
“You hit me.” For no reason, you bastard. Piedras, at least, had reasons.
“Did it hurt?”
“Does it still hurt?”
I had to answer, “No, it doesn’t...not as much anyway.”
“Good...good. Now think back a bit. This morning, Santiago dumped a handful of sand and rocks down your drawers. Almost everybody laughed at you. I saw it. Did that hurt then?”
“Does it still hurt?”
“What hurts more; your face from my slapping you, or your insides from Santiago’s being shitty to you?”
I took too long about my answer, he knocked me down again, then picked me up, one handed, and set me on my feet.
“Do you recall when...what was that cunt’s name...oh, yes, Ramirez. Do you recall when Ramirez made fun of you for being such a midget?”
I remembered...too well. Again, almost the whole platoon had laughed at me. That still hurt.
He let me stand for a bit, then asked, “What hurts you more now?”
He was raising a hand already when I blurted out the answer, “That does! Ramirez and Santiago.”
“Very good, Fuentes. You can make value judgments.”
Then he grew quiet, contemplative for a while. “What I’m trying to show you, Fuentes...to drive into your little recruit pea brain...is that physical pain goes away fairly quickly. It isn’t always something to be avoided. But pains of the heart? They last and last. I want you to leave now and think about this: If you cannot stand up for yourself, you do not have what it takes to stand up for your regiment or your country. Dismissed.”
I thought, still think, that I was about to be booted. I left there feeling absolutely miserable. It wasn’t enough, it seemed, just to follow orders. I wasn’t good enough. I was going to be washed out. Too weak. Too accommodating. Too... cowardly. No good. Worthless. A poor woman and a poor mother. A failure...failure...failure.
I can’t even find the words to tell you how much that hurt.
There are six leadership positions for the recruits in a training platoon, recruit platoon leader, recruit platoon optio, and four squad leaders. The cadre rotated them every few days to a week, or – more typically – until you screwed up badly enough to be relieved.
Gloria was the seventh or eighth one to fill the platoon leader’s slot in my platoon. When Centurion Garcia announced her name I would almost swear she had an orgasm. Power does that to some women; some men, too, I understand.
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Gloria, though. I was getting ready to pack my bags, emotionally if not in fact. I was sitting on Marta’s bunk, the lower one, contemplating my misery while looking at a picture of the child I was failing.
“Fuentes, go clean the latrine,” she said to me one day after we had been allowed to move back to the Quonset huts.
I didn’t answer her, just kept staring at my one picture of Alma.
“Fuentes, you nasty little puke, go clean the latrine.”
I’d had that duty the day before. Curiously, none of Gloria’s favorites had pulled anything nasty since she’d taken over. Without thinking, I said, “Stuff it up your ass, bitch.”
Now if Marta had told me, or Inez Trujillo, I’d have done it, even in the mental state I was in. For one thing, neither of them – nor probably any of the other girls – would have spared her special friends.
She walked up to me as if she wanted to paste me. I ignored her. But then she pulled my picture of Alma from my hands, tearing it.
I tell you, I saw red. It must have shown on my face because Gloria started to back up. She never got far enough away. I sprang to my feet and punched her first, right in the solar plexus. Good training tells. She went ass-down to the floor, gasping like a beached fish. But I didn’t stop. I kicked her with booted feet five or six more times. As she fell back completely onto the floor and tried to twist away, I kicked her in the kidneys, just as I’d been trained. She didn’t have enough air in her lungs to scream, though her face contorted as if she were trying. Another kick rolled her onto her belly. Then I jumped on her back.
Marta and Inez pulled me off of her after about the fifth time I smashed her face onto the concrete floor.
When Garcia came in he took one look, gave Gloria and myself both three days bread and water, then relieved her and appointed me the next platoon leader.
I cannot tell you precisely why, not even now, but I felt good. I mean really, really good after that. It felt so great that I laughed for long enough that the others began to look at me strangely.
I lasted as platoon leader for five days, which was about average. I might have done better if I hadn’t been so damned hungry.
We marched or ran pretty much everywhere we went. The only time we rode trucks or buses was when there wasn’t time to walk. You may think that was hard on us. Sometimes it was.
Other times, though, times when we didn’t have to carry anyone else’s gear, or had time enough that the pace was more like a regular walk, it was positively enjoyable. We sang: “...If I can’t get a man then I’ll surely get a parrot, and it’s oh, dear me, how would it be, if I died an old maid...” Or maybe “John Henry” or “Todo por la Patria”. Sometimes more warlike songs, too: “...In the streets of the City, the enemy’s falling, and trixies are crying out, ‘arriba Patria’.” We had a bunch of really dirty songs, too, but I won’t repeat them.
Another song we were very fond of was an old, old one. I understand it came here from Old Earth and somehow managed to survive and stay in currency over the centuries, maybe with some changes here and there. It was “Apoyate,” to the extent that these songs even have titles. Sometimes, when our tails were really dragging on a long run, Marta, Cristina or one of the other, stronger, girls would jump out of the formation and begin to sing, “Call for the tercio, we’ll give you a hand...”
It can really pick you up, when you hear a couple of hundred other human voices crying out, “Apoyate, when you’re not stro-ong, mi hermanita, I’ll help you carry on...”
It makes you wonder, sometimes, about how much of physical strength is really mental attitude. Anyway, that was a private song. We never sang it where men, outside of our instructors, could hear us. It was only for each girl to strengthen every other...because we never knew just when anyone of us might need a little help.
Still, for me, my greatest help was the thought of a little girl back in the city who needed me to succeed.
The singing was fun. But if you didn’t want to join in, usually nobody made you. You could be together on a march, but you could also be alone if you wanted, even in the company of a couple of hundred sisters. And the cadre generally didn’t harass us on the march, so long as we kept up. I think – no, I know – that that was so we would learn to like to march.
And, once your feet, shoulders and back toughened up, there was so much to see and hear on a march.
Once, about halfway through a twenty kilometer hump, I heard a sort of...buzzing from the ranks in front of me. I didn’t know what it was until I turned a curve and saw it: A waterfall landing in a grove so green I may never see its like again, the water laughing as it splashed on the rocks at its base. A pair of green, gray, and red trixies – gorgeous things – sat on a rock next to the pool, preening themselves.
You know, it’s easier to love your country when your country really is beautiful.
One time, I remember too, we marched past a group of young men who were probably about halfway through their own training cycle. Hairless, smelly, and dirty as we were, they still watched us march by with the expressions of a group of starving tigers, looking in a butcher shop window.
Out of pure meanness we sang the sexiest, filthiest, song we knew. It had some really great sound effects, notably that of several hundred women faking an orgasm...in cadence: “Uhh… Uhh…. Oh... Ah... Uhh… Uhh… Oh... Ah!”
The meeting was in one of the larger conferences rooms at headquarters, on the Isla Real, near the airfield. The trainers from the Tercio Gorgidas had come in two buses, which remained parked outside the white stone building that had once been headquarters for the entire Legion. There was also a lot of what had been senior officer housing there, too, in the same general area. Most of that was filled by tribunes and sergeants major, now, what with most of the senior positions having moved to the mainland.
On the parade field the headquarters and housing surrounded, a lone Cricket light airplane waited with the engine running on idle. That was Carrera’s.
Carrera said, “So give me the truth; how are the women doing?”
The cadre from the Tercio Gorgidas sat quietly at first. They were loath to admit to Carrera, their Dux Bellorum, that they had problems.
Seeing their reticence, Carrera changed his inquiry. “Fine. Tell me what’s going well.”
Centurion del Valle answered first. “They’ve become good shots.”
“About twelve percent better than an equivalent group of men,” del Valle said. “But that didn’t come free. It took a lot more time and ammunition to get them there...a lot more. Even more than that for the machine guns.
“So? That would be true for men, too, if we’d spent the time and ammo,” del Valle finished.
Carrera frowned. “Can they handle the machine guns, Centurion?”
“Sure...on the tripods,” del Valle answered. “Firing from the bipods or hip shooting?” He put out a hand and wriggled his fingers. “So, so...at best. And when we load ‘em down with a full combat load; guns, tripods, spare barrel and ammunition? It takes three of them to carry what two of us can. And those three have a tougher time of it.”
Carrera wrote something in a note book. “What about if we changed their weapons from 6.5 millimeter to something smaller, say 5.5? We could buy them special weapons that would be lighter, couldn’t we?” Carrera didn’t wait for an answer. “No...I suppose not. Then they’d be the only ones with those calibers. Make resupply kind of tough. All right; what’s the real problem?”
Franco stood to answer. “Sir...sir, we hate this shit! And we don’t know what we’re doing, not really. So we’re gay? We don’t hate women, any of us. We had mothers, sisters...women we’ve loved. And we are sick to death of being so damned...rotten to these girls.”
Carrera answered, “Tough.” Franco shrugged. Garcia reached up a hand to pull him back to his seat, then stood himself.
“Sir, what my partner just said? It’s true enough. We’ll all be happy when there are enough trained women that we can turn it all over to them. But what’s really getting us is that we’re failing. What works for men just isn’t working right for them. They’ve formed little cliques and friendships, yes. But they’ve got no esprit, no sense of being part of an important community that’s greater than any individual. They’re just little groups and pairs of friends. Oh sure, they look from the outside like they’re bonding the way soldiers should. They sing well together, for what that’s worth. But they don't seem to feel like a maniple of men would towards each other. Or if they do, we can’t tell.”
“Could they fight?”
“No, sir. Not yet. Maybe never.”
“Crank up their training.”
What does not destroy us, strengthens us.
It seemed that Size Did Matter.
No matter how the Gorgidas trained them; no matter how hard the women tried; it looked like they were never, never, never going to be quite (read: nearly) as strong as even an average group of men. They couldn’t march as far; as fast; or carrying as heavy a load. All the will in the world didn’t make a gnat’s ass of difference. Technology didn’t help much either; it’s a truism that, in total, modern high technology had not succeeded in reducing by so much as half an ounce the load on a foot soldier’s back, just the opposite. Caesar’s centurions would have mutinied over some of the loads a foot soldier of the late 20th and early 21st centuries had to carry on Old Earth, and things had not turned out any differently on Terra Nova. Too intent on seeing only what it wanted to see, modern, egalitarian feminism simply refused to see that.
Still, there were some compensating factors.
When the final scores were tallied it turned out the women actually were better shots, on average, than men. That wasn’t entirely a natural phenomenon. Their ammunition allocation had been twice that of male recruits. The women spent about twice as much time on the rifle range as the men did. This was true for all classes of training ammunition: the women had twice as many hand grenades to throw, twice as many anti-tank rocket rounds, twice as many pounds of demolitions.
Carrera had put out the word before the tercio had even been formed: if the women couldn’t carry as much they had to make better use of what they could carry. And that meant more training, which meant more ammunition for training.
He had helped them in other ways too. All the men were issued jungle boots; canvas, plastic and leather. Carrera spent a lot of money on lighter weight footwear for the women, more or less high top sneakers, though they looked about the same. Their rucksacks? The same story. The rest of the force made do with standard, heavy packs. After the first few weeks, the women were given better; the latest in carbon fiber frames with hip belts to take some of the load off their shoulders.
Still, there wasn’t much that could be done with most of the equipment. Radios were heavy, a big surprise for those who’d never carried one for twenty miles. The same was true for night vision devices and the batteries to run them. And Carrera was adamant; the women were not going to be assigned men to do the heavy work for them; it was all on themselves, sink or swim.
Machine guns? They had what everybody else had for a light machine gun; the M-26. This was a good gun though it went through ammunition at an incredible rate. The Amazons had to have them, or something just like them. A real machine gun can be made lighter but it needs to fire a heavy, high power bullet to do its job. Putting a heavy bullet in a light machine gun makes it damned hard to fire, nearly impossible to keep on target. And if men had trouble controlling the M-26 – and they sometimes did – it could only have been worse for women, being not as heavy or strong, to control something that, being lighter, kicked even worse.
The heavier .34 and .41 caliber machine guns were almost impossibly heavy, between themselves, their tripods, and their brass-cased ammunition. Of course, the .41 caliber guns were too heavy for men to tote, also.
Water weighs the same for everyone. And the women needed about as much of it.
The biggest thing Carrera did to help them was, eventually, to make their squads and platoons bigger than the men’s. Fourteen or more women per squad compared to eleven for the men, not even counting the overstrength the Tercio Amazona would have later on to allow some women to take maternity leave.
Of course, since an infantry unit’s firepower is mostly in its heavy weapons, and since the Amazons had just the same number of heavy weapons as a man’s unit did, one could say that they weren’t such a bargain. The government had to pay an Amazon squad almost thirty percent more than it did a squad of men, for no greater firepower.
But all the things done to try to cut down on the women’s load just compensated – and that only partly – for lack of physical strength. If they were going to make it in a traditionally male world – the world of war – they had to be stronger in character than men to make up for being weaker in body. And firepower wasn’t everything…there’s heart, too.
“Cocksuckers,” Marta said, under her breath as she lifted another shovelful of dirt out of the fighting position she and Maria were building. She meant the corporals, sergeants and centurions, of course. “How many fucking holes do they fucking think we have to fucking dig to know how to dig a fucking hole?”
Not more than two hundred meters away both Franco and Garcia, along with five or six sergeants and corporals, were clustered around a big bunker, a real concrete bomb shelter. A couple more corporals stood to either side of the platoon position. These corporals, likewise, were just lounging around. The cadre were leaving the women pretty much alone, just watching quietly from a distance.
Later, all the women would curse themselves for not catching the hint that something really special was planned. In fairness though, most were too tired to think about much besides the blisters on their hands and their aching backs. These were much more significant than some holes, maybe eight inches in diameter, that dotted the ground they were digging into. Even the heavy-duty cables that ran from the big bunker to the holes remained unremarked.
The women were supposed to be preparing to defend against an attack by tanks, supported by artillery. They’d even been issued anti-tank munitions and mines – training types that wouldn’t really kill a tank but made a flash and bang and some smoke – and some dummy satchel charges.
With a grunt Cat and Maria dropped the log they’d been carrying next to Maria’s and Marta’s fighting position. They would much preferred to have chopped up their “pricks” for the overhead cover. There was no chance of that, though.
Maria had heard Marta. It would have been hard not to have heard. She took a labored breath before answering; “How many? I guess until we do it right.”
Cat and Maria then turned back towards the woods to get another log for the hole Cat shared with Inez.
“Cocksuckers,” Marta repeated.
Over her shoulder, Maria called, “That’s no big secret, Marta...and this distinguishes them from you and I precisely how?” Cat giggled.
Marta just grunted with the strain of another load of dirt.
When Maria came back, she took Marta’s place on the shovel while Marta and Inez went for more logs. The women spent the better part of the day like that, switching off digging and cutting and carrying. Eventually, they had all built pretty fair fighting positions. They even had solid overhead cover.
It was just after an early evening chow that Centurion Garcia blew his whistle and called them together.
Marta figured that it would be just another ass chewing for not building their positions as perfectly as Garcia thought they should be.
Marta was wrong.
“We have a special treat for you today, ladies,” Garcia began. All the women shivered when he said it. “Ladies” meant something very bad was in store.
“In about ten minutes you had better be in those holes you dug, and you’d better pray your overhead cover is good. Because we’re going to shell you silly and then some tanks are going to try to crush those little logs and bury you alive….of course we’ll dig you out if there’s time but…..”
He blew his whistle again and those corporals on either side of the platoon began to run through the area. A couple of jeeps followed. The corporals were pulling igniters and tossing charges to either side. Some of the corporals were placing smaller charges – maybe one pounders, or a little more – on top of and around every fighting position the women had built. Some charges were on fuse delay, others they hooked up to leads running from the thick cables.
“No,” Garcia answered the unasked question. “I said ‘shell’ and I meant with real artillery. The other stuff is cheaper, though, so we’re supplementing the shells with regular demo charges. Now get to your holes. And remember what you’ve been taught about taking out tanks.” Beckoning to his followers, Garcia began to walk nonchalantly to the big bunker.
Maria and Marta exchanged wide eyed looks. Then the women ran for their lives.
“And don’t move my demo charges,” Garcia called to their fleeing backs.
Maria and Marta were almost to their holes when the first shells landed; maybe one hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred meters to their front. There were only three of them, three shell bursts spewing ugly, ragged columns of earth into the air. Even though muffled by subsurface detonation, the blasts made Maria’s insides ripple in a way that was both indescribable and very, very unpleasant. The sensation made Marta want to throw up, and she was used to having her internal organs pushed around some.
By the time they had squeezed through the rear entrance ports and fallen in a tangled heap at the hole’s muddy bottom there were another six explosions – closer; they could feel that. Then came nine more, closer still. After those three volleys, each one getting closer to them, a different firing battery took over. The women neither knew nor cared who was pounding them. In fact, the first had been 85 millimeter guns. The ones who took over fired 122 millimeter shells, nine per volley. These last were also firing on delay fuses: they went off after sinking a few feet into the ground. If one had actually been permitted to land near one of the women’s holes the dirt sides would have been blown in on them which would probably have proven fatal.
The cadre did this to give the women the illusion of fire coming closer and closer. In fact none of the guns ever fired any closer than seventy-five meters. Which was still dangerous. Part of the danger was mitigated by having the guns fire from the side, parallel to the women’s line of fighting positions.
Unseen, Garcia nodded to Franco. Franco turned a safety key in a large metal battery box and began flipping little switches. With each flip of a switch one or a number of demolition charges started going off around the women. In their holes they cried and quivered and vomited and – more than a few – shit themselves. Marta screamed when a one pound charge atop the little bunker went off. So did Maria.
Once the demo charges had almost all been fired the guns split their fire so that half was falling behind the women, half in front. Then, as the last of the demolitions, the ones that were on slow burning fuses, were going off, all the fire shifted to fall behind them.
By then Marta had started to cry, great hopeless wracking sobs. She blubbered a lot of things, too, that she probably wished she hadn’t…private things. She took a sniff and sobbed too about the smell of feces wafting up from her soiled uniform.
The really bad part, though, was when she tried to run away.
Marta didn’t just have bigger breasts than most; she was big in general, strong, too. Maria saw her start to scramble out of their hole. For a minute – it seemed like an eternity but may have been only half a second: a minute is fair compromise – Maria just froze. Then she grabbed Marta’s combat harness and held on for dear life: Marta’s.
Marta fought, she struggled. She called Maria just about every name in the book.
Hanging onto Marta’s combat harness, Maria screamed, “Stupid bitch, I am NOT letting you go out into that!”
Finally, Marta just collapsed, sobbing again, saying over and over that she was sorry. And the two held each other, there in the bottom of that muddy stinking hole in the Earth, as the “barrage” seemed to roll on past them.
Between blasts Maria bantered in Marta’s ear, “You know how time flies”…KABOOM… “when you’re having fun? Well”… KABOOM….”it can really drag when”….KABOOM….. “you’re having no fun at all”…. KABOOM…. “This barrage can’t”…KABOOM…. “have lasted as long as five minutes, maybe six at the outside”…..KABOOM…. “but it seems longer doesn’t it?” Marta paid no attention.
Then Maria heard the tanks... barely.
Tanks are impressive, no doubt about it. And any soldier who wants to die in her sleep will treat them with a healthy respect. But they can be beaten. The women had already been taught how.
“Yes,” that instructor had told them the previous week, “tanks are bigger than you. They’re faster than you. They’ve got more firepower than you. And they’ve got a lot more protection than the shirts you girls are wearing.”
“But let me tell you a little secret: tanks – their crews, I mean – are as afraid of you as you are of them. Trust me, I’m a tanker. I know.”
The instructor looked over the platoon and singled out Inez, it was always a great entertainment for him to see how it was the little ones who liked tanks the most. “Come up here, young lady.” All the others gaped in disbelief when he reached a hand down to help her up. That was something their usual instructors would never do, implying as it did the possibility those girls really were human beings.
“Young lady,” the instructor asked, “how thick is the armor on top of this tank?”
Inez looked at him uncomprehendingly.
“Well, reach in through the hatch and try to feel how far apart your hands are when the armor is between them.” She did and then announced that the top armor was no more than a half inch thick. He had her do the same with the side of the turret, which was several times thicker, but still not all that thick.
“That’s the first weakness: our real armor is only in front. On the sides, the rear, the top deck; the armor is positively weak. Oh, sure; it’s good enough to keep shell fragments and bullets out. But a shaped charge in the hands of a good grunt will blow a hole right through; causing our wives and children to receive a ‘With deepest sorrow’ letter from Presidente Parilla. That’s why we insist on having our own infantry in close support; to take care of enemy grunts; at least keep their damned heads down.”
“That should give you a hint. What’s the first thing you have to take care of to defeat tanks? You, girl.” He pointed at Maria.
“The enemy’s infantry?” she ventured.
“Right in one. But why?”
“So they can’t shoot us when we go after the tanks.”
“Almost right, chica. But your answer implies that it’s their guns that protect the tanks. That’s only partly right. I’ll give you another hint. What’s the most important part of your body when using your rifle?”
He gave her a few seconds to think. She went down the list of organs and senses but rejected most of them outright. Finally Maria had it narrowed down to her trigger finger and her eyes, then decided that eyes were more important. She said so.
“Just so Private...?”
“Fuentes, Centurion. Maria Fuentes.”
“Private Fuentes. You are just right. Because that is the big weakness on the tank. We can’t see shit from inside those things. Strip off our infantry; cut out most of our eyes; cut out the ability to get precise fire in small doses to protect ourselves.”
She didn’t really pay perfect attention to what he said next; she was marveling that a man in uniform and authority had just called her something besides bitch or twat, or lady in a tone that implied the same thing.
“... are particularly vulnerable. That’s something that hasn’t improved a bit since the Great Global War. The same charge – satchel or land mine – that would break the treads on a tank of sixty years ago will do the same to a tank today.
“And the engines? We aren’t submarines. Tanks require oxygen in vast quantities to keep the engines going; oxygen that has to come from the air around us. Cut that off; we stop dead. Then you can kill us; because a tank that isn’t moving is dead meat to good infantry.
“Okay, move into the classroom behind you.”
Maria hesitated…which the centurion saw. “Something bothering you, chica?”
She stood to attention, hesitated, then asked, “Centurion…how come you are so…ah…polite to us? No one else has been.”
He smiled briefly, then answered, “You aren’t going to my unit, girl. So I have nothing against any of you. So what does a little politeness cost? It might be different if there was some chance that you women might be mixed in with regular, male organizations. I understand that in the armies that have tried that there is often a vast resentment of women soldiers on the part of the men, partly because the men end up doing nearly twice as much heavy work, and partly because some women will…ah…sell themselves, frankly. But you girls? You’re not going to harm me or mine any.”
“Yes. Now trot your cute little buns into the classroom.”
“Si, Centurion.” She smiled fetchingly; the habits of a lifetime die hard. The Centurion smiled back until a warning glance from Garcia, standing nearby, turned his face to a scowl.
“Now GO, girl.” Maria went.
In the classroom the women were shown a film, Hombres Contra Tanques. Men Against Tanks. This work showed a number of interesting ways to earn a medal for valor, most likely posthumously. Then the women had to go through a number of those ways themselves, using small charges, gasoline bombs – they were told those were called “Molotov Cocktails” – mines and more formal anti-tank weapons.
Inez had taken considerable interest in the film. Cat had said, “Uh, uh.” Perhaps she thought she had a choice.
The girls waited in holes for tanks to run over them, then leapt up to toss satchel charges on their decks. Yes, they were very, very small satchel charges, with several pounds of dirt added to make them as heavy as the real thing. As the charges were heavy, it took a fair amount of practice to learn to swing them just right by their straps.
In pairs they used ropes to pull practice mines back and forth across the ground to line them up on a tank that was moving forward. They manufactured and then tossed live Molotov Cocktails on towed tank hulks’ back decks. This usually didn’t work.
This was, by no means, the toughest drill taught them.
Franco, serving as coach, squatted in a ditch by the side of a dirt road.
Next to him, Inez Trujillo lay panting. A pair of tanks waited around a bend in the road, a few hundred meters away, revving their engines menacingly. She was scared nearly witless.
In her hands, clutched in front of her, she had a twelve pound sticky satchel charge. It, too, was mostly dirt, not explosive. Tanks are too expensive to blow up as training aids.
She reminded herself, The trick is that the tank can’t see mierda. So the hunter waits until it’s within twenty meters. Then, in the three seconds you have between the driver losing sight of where you will be and the tank crushing where you have been, you leap into the middle of the road and lie down right in front of the monster. Timing things carefully, you pull the igniter, stick the bomb to the underside or suspension of the tank, let it finish rolling over you, then, covered by the dust cloud, roll back to the ditch before the following tank can see you.
Franco made a call on a small radio he carried. The menacing mechanical roar around the bend picked up and was joined by the squeaking of treads, worse than an infinity of nails on an infinity of blackboards. Inez spotted the long barrel of a tank pushing past the trees. Her tremors grew worse, exacerbated by the shaking of the ground from the metal monster’s roll. She saw the barrel swing over towards her, roughly parallel to the road. There was still more squeaking as the tank pivot-steered at the bend. And then the barrel – all she could really see – was moving in her direction.
As the tanks neared, the little pebbles by her dirt-pressed face began to jump up and down. That vibration grew steadily worse. Then the muzzle of the tank’s cannon was about twenty meters from her position. Inez braced herself for her leap.
Franco slapped her ass and shouted, “Go!”
Inez made a nimble, quick jump onto the road, then flopped to her belly and rolled. The roll was uneven, deliberately so, to get her in line with it and with the tank’s movement. She ended up on her back, precisely as she should have. Frantically, she tore away the tape that covered the sticky part of the satchel charge. By the time she had that off, the tank’s treads had enveloped her, grinding the dirt to both sides. She pulled the ring of the igniter and was rewarded with a crack more felt than heard, followed by a small puff of smoke. Shaking, she slammed the charge, sticky side first, against the hull. Then the tank was past her and, gasping for breath, she made another leap for the ditch, hitting and rolling into its warm embrace. A few seconds later she heard the muffled boom that said her charge had gone off.
Franco patted her shoulder. Leaning down next to her ear he shouted, “Good job, girl!”
Exhaling, Inez thought, Damn; that was fun.
Standing atop the tank, Garcia had seen everything but what had gone on underneath it. He thought, Fine, character-building exercise this is. Though as a combat technique it strikes me as barely better than nothing.
Gloria couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t get out into the road. Once, even, Garcia had to rip the sticky bomb – it did have half a pound of trinitrotoluene in it – from her hands and toss it away, hunching one shoulder against the blast as he fell back to earth.
Few noticed that Garcia threw his own body over Gloria’s before the explosive went off. Then he hauled her to her feet and slapped her to the ground with a curse.
Long after the rest of the women had passed the test, Garcia was still working with Gloria. Exasperated, he finally ended up having her lie right down in the road, with him standing on her back, while the tank rolled upon them. At the last second he would jump aside.
She still wouldn’t, or couldn’t, ignite the bomb and stick it to the tank.
Time ran out before Garcia gave up.
The best part was when the instructors let the women ride the tanks on the inside. That Centurion-Instructor had told the truth, they saw: Tankers were blind compared to infantry. Sure, the latest ones might have been able to see right through fifteen feet of sand to spot a hot tank engine. They couldn’t see a cool foot soldier behind a tree or a wall, or in a trench. The women learned; the women saw. And when they had to use those little vision blocks? Once a foot soldier got within fifty or sixty feet of a tank, or it got that close to them, the tank couldn’t see them. It was as if the tank were like a man, a quadriplegic, whose head and eyes are locked straight to the front and on the level.
And they learned that even if a tank could see them it couldn’t depress the main gun or the coaxial machine gun.
An instructor said, however, “Don’t get too cute, girls, because it can still run you over in the open, and the muzzle blast from the main gun can kill or maim, knock the hell out of you, anyway. But even a small hole in firm soil – the smaller the better, actually – can protect you from that somewhat.”
The roar of the tank engines grew noticeably louder. “Marta,” Maria shouted, “Marta, come on. Get ready! The tanks are coming.”
Marta looked blankly for a moment, then asked, “Tanks?”
“Tanks,” Maria shouted again, then slapped Marta’s face.
That got through to her. Her face came alive. She reached for her rocket launcher and started to stick her head up to fire.
“No! Wait! Let them pass. You can take ‘em from the rear.”
Marta nodded her understanding, whispering, “That would be nice for a change.”
Both women crouched down in their hole with the roar of the tanks’ engines and the squeal of the treads drawing ominously nearer. The tanks began firing their machine guns – at the ground between the positions, but also right over their heads. Some girls later swore they had heard bullets strike the berm in front of their hole! They were right.
One hundred and twenty-five millimeter shells from the tanks’ main guns buried themselves in the dirt between positions before exploding with gut crunching force. The sound grew so loud the girls could barely stand it. It wasn’t as loud as the artillery had been, but it was somehow much more personal.
Then the hole became very dark. “God, the damned thing’s right on top of us!” Maria gripped Marta to give her a little comfort, and perhaps to take some, too. “You would never have gotten a kill with a frontal shot! Let it pass,” Maria shouted again. Why not? The tank couldn’t hear her.
But it didn’t pass, not right away.
“We’re right on top of them, Sergeant,” announced the tank’s driver over the intercom.
“Good. Pivot steer! Let’s give ‘em the time of their lives.”
With a chuckle, the driver began twisting the tank back and forth, side to side, grinding Maria’s and Marta’s position in on them.
“Teach them to be a little more careful about camouflage in front of their position, won’t it, Sergeant?”
“Yeah…teach ‘em a few other things too.”
“Sergeant?” the gunner asked.
“If they had been better camouflaged from in front I couldn’t have fired the main gun without maybe killing them.”
“I knew where their positions were, Pablo,” the tank commander said. “We watched as they were building. I wouldn’t have let you hit a hole, or even get too near one. The grinding is punishment for bad camo.”
Beneath the thrashing treads, dirt and bits of wood filtered down onto Marta and Maria. They coughed in air made suddenly rank with diesel fumes and dust. When a log fractured, it made a crack they could feel in their bones more than hear with their ears.
After another eternity of terror the tank moved on, more dirt flying from behind the treads and splattering down on them.
“Now, Marta! Now,” Maria screamed. Marta hesitated not a moment, she wanted revenge for what they’d just been through.
Marta risked a quick look to their front. (Yes, risked; bullets had been flying overhead.) Maria guessed there hadn’t been any more tanks or supporting infantry, because Marta turned around and fired almost immediately. The boom and flash of the backblast was followed by a shriek of frustration. A miss.
Maria handed over another rocket from their little store of them. Marta twisted it onto the front of her launcher and took aim again. The backblast sent more crud and smoke into their position.
“Give me another one,” Marta demanded. Maria passed over the last rocket. This time Marta was very careful; Maria could see that from the deliberate way she loaded and the deliberate firing stance she took. This gave Maria time to join her, just her head sticking up from the hole. They saw the tank that had just savaged them moving away. It was firing its machine gun off into the distance.
“Easy and careful, sister,” Maria shouted in her ear. Marta nodded, took a deep breath, let some of it out, and fired.
The rocket sped straight and true. It hit the tank right on the back grill. A big column of orange smoke filled the air behind it.
From the command bunker Franco noticed the tank had been hit. He radioed the crew to tell them so…and to tell them how.
The tank slewed to a stop, the hatch flying open. One by one the turret crew emerged. Then they were joined on the back deck by the driver. Marta and Maria, and the tank crew, just stared at each other for a minute, a degree of disbelief on all five faces. One of the tankers – Maria guessed he might have been the TC, the tank’s commander – began to applaud. The rest of the men joined him. Marta blushed scarlet when they shouted out, “Well done, girls! Well done.” The tank commander threw them a ragged and friendly salute. Then, with a wave, the men reboarded their tank, cranked the engine, and drove off.
Just about then the Centurion’s whistle blew. Marta and Maria ran to where the platoon was assembling. Before they fell in on Garcia they heard a sound – again, barely – that made them look behind. Inez Trujillo was sitting on Gloria, slapping her repeatedly, back and forth, across the face, while Cat looked on with disapproval on her face. It was sort of funny; this little thing beating on someone more than a head taller. None of the cadre interfered in the slightest.
Heart doesn’t come easy.
That night Marta approached the girl who had saved her life. “Maria, I’m sorry for what I said to you. And…I’m sorry for collapsing like that.”
“It’s okay, Marta. Everyone has their...little moments. And your vocabulary was certainly…ah…. enlightening.”
Marta said nothing for a while, just kept staring down at the ground.
“I learned the vocabulary in the biggest and best whorehouse in the capital of La Plata,” she said, eventually. Then it all came out in a rush. How she’d gotten pregnant at fourteen, been thrown out of the house, met a pimp. Done everything.
“I lost the baby, the ability to have a baby, when a customer beat me up, but by then it was too late to do anything else. I was...contaminated. Maria, I learned to hate myself even more than I hated my customers.
“I learned to loath every part of me. Drugs? Oh, yes. Huánuco, mostly. Some marijuana and hashish. Opium. A lot of alcohol. When I was twenty I tried to figure out how many people had had a piece of me. It was over seven thousand. I wondered what could be left of me, with so many having taken a little away each.
“Then a recruiter came from the classis. He wasn’t looking for sailors, not where I worked, but for sea whores to service the fleet off the coast of Uhuru, during the anti-pirate campaign the Yamatans paid for. I went with another girl, my special lover, Jaquelina.
Seeing the confused look on Maria’s face, Marta added, “Yeah, I can go both ways. But I wasn’t in love with Jaquelina because she was a girl but because of the person she was. We both signed up because we figured we could get away from the pimps; make a bundle; and maybe we could start over fresh somewhere.
“Anyway, they needed some girls who were really obviously girls to be bait on a small boat. Jaquelina and I signed up, mostly for the bonus they offered.
“We ended up fighting, because our boat took a bad hit. We got a couple of medals…”
“You’ve got a medal?” Maria asked. Marta just nodded.
“Anyway, eventually my lover was killed.” The woman’s voice broke for a moment. She swallowed to get control of it. “I tried to stick it out with the classis, but the memories were just too bad. So, when this came up, I volunteered for it to get away from those memories.
“If I’m killed here it won’t be so bad. Nobody will miss me. But I can’t fail. Thank you, for helping me not fail.”
Marta started to cry again. Maria began to gather her into her arms, saying, “Marta, I would miss you. I’m going to hug you now. If you yell at me or push me away, I will punch you in the face and then hug you. Understand?”
Marta stiffened at first at being pulled into Maria’s shoulder. Then she relaxed, softening into the other, while continuing to cry.
What the women needed wasn’t just individual heart; they needed something called esprit de corps. Men get it; develop it easily, in fact. After all, the boy gang is one of only two spontaneously occurring human organizations.
And that was one area where the Gorgidas cadre couldn’t help much. They knew how to build it in a male unit, straight or otherwise. It’s pretty easy for them. Take any average group of males (well, Franco had once told them not any group; in much of the world men usually couldn’t develop real esprit de corps; most of them were not capable of even conceiving of loyalty to someone or something who isn’t a blood relation or a body of blood relations); put them in positions of fair equality, give them competent leadership; add stress, misery, danger and excitement to taste: voila – esprit de corps. Having them compete against other groups of men helped quite a bit, too.
“The big advantage,” Franco had said, in one of his frequent, informal lectures, “that men have is that they’re much more emotional, far less coldly rational, than women are.
“Women don't really like to compete at, so to speak, manly things. What does conquest mean to them? What does being better at something than someone else mean, if it isn’t innately womanly? How does it make any of you more of a woman that you can march, shoot, destroy? Not your job, so to speak.
“And it isn’t,” he continued, “that women are incapable of loyalty to something besides themselves. They are loyal: To children, almost always, husbands, usually, parents, generally, societies and nations…that’s slightly less common but by no means unheard of.
“Most modern feminist literature tends to ignore the whole question. Instead, feminists – like Sylvia Torres, for example – want to concentrate only on individual achievements, abilities, and strengths. Which is why those views are useless…to you. Note they never seriously talk about women’s weaknesses. It’s as if they can’t even conceive of the difference between battle and peacetime pursuits. Perhaps they really can’t understand that battle is a social event, conducted by groups, and in which the cohesion of groups matters much more than individual prowess.
“Worse, it’s as if they – like many of the men in the world – can’t even conceive of the benefits and need of that peculiar form of semi-insane groupthink: Esprit de corps.”
Not all lectures were informal.
The women sang with feeling, “Miseria, Miseria…” as they filed into the dank and musty shed. Under its shade, buttocks pressed down uncomfortably into the rough wood chips intended to cushion the fall of the women as they learned to fight hand to hand.
Franco spoke. “You girls know a little more now about battle than you did once. Let me tell you some more.
“A man is not braver than a woman is; ‘She who faces death by torture for each life beneath her breast.’ The Catholic Church has lists of female martyrs miles long.”
He made a hand signal and a picture of a young girl, hanging, neck broken, frozen with shirt ripped off and breasts disfigured ,shone from one wall.
“Rather more recently, there was this girl. We don’t know her name. We do know she was hanged by the Sachsens during the Great Global War for sabotage. She was captured, tortured, and then hanged because she wouldn’t give any up information. That was bravery equal to any man’s.
“But, unfortunately, she proves not a damned thing about women’s bravery in battle; in groups.
“None of you have been to war,” Franco observed. “I have. Twice, actually, against both the Sumeris and the Pashtians. So trust me in this. Imagine a battle between a group of women and a group of men. Remember this is not a drill. Bullets are flying; shells scattering razor sharp shards of steel in all directions. People are screaming; some in anger, more in pain.
“There are a few individuals – men and women both, transcendentally motivated – who ignore all that, fight on despite danger. There are also some who cower and hide; and you can’t really blame them, though you just might have to shoot them later. For the rest, though – the relative sheep, like most people – they only stay the course because they care about their comrades, and their comrades’ good opinions, more than they care about themselves.”
Franco turned and pointed to Gloria. “Chica, when was the last time you cared if somebody thought you were brave…or tough….or disciplined? Do not answer. Just think about it. Women are far less likely to care about someone’s opinion of them when that opinion does not concern something that is essentially womanly.”
He concluded, “More than lack of physical strength, more than health, far, far more than courage; it is this that is your greatest obstacle.”
To give the cadre credit, they did try to find the key. And they did run off any girls who seemed incapable of eventually making their unit their primary source of self-identification. They also, naturally, dumped those whose lack of competence could degrade the unit, thereby making it considerably more likely that the rest of the women would develop esprit. They let stay none of the slackers, nor that one thief, nor those who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn to shoot...nor those who were too afraid.
Once, the Cadre even let the girls see a male infantry training maniple at close range, just for a few hours. They wanted them to see how things were supposed to be.
That was very strange to the women. The men were jocular, content with themselves and with each other. And they exuded a sense of mass brotherhood the girls had never seen or felt before. They knew, in a way that the women didn’t yet, that any man in that maniple could count on any other to fight by his side, and never to desert him.
The cadre tried all sorts of things, some quite bizarre, to help the women learn the way things were supposed to be. Once, for example, they showed a movie, entitled Kirti, dubbed into Spanish, about a tercio of Hindu soldiers in the Federated States Army during their Formation War.
The girls – most of them – thought it was a pretty good movie, actually, though very sad at the end. A number cried when all the great characters they’d learned to like as the movie progressed were killed in a hopeless, desperate attack, an attack they’d volunteered to make. The story, they were told, was mostly true.
That evening, after chow, they had discussed it with Franco.
He said, “It was, in fact, the battle actions of this mostly Hindu regiment that had led directly to massive opening up of military service to Hindus, which had gone a long way towards winning the war for the side that did so. Of course, the world being the way it is, the Hindus remained in their own units for nearly a century after that.”
Inez commented, “Seems kind of unfair, Centurion….keeping them apart like that. Bound to lead to worse treatment. The movie showed us that.”
“Yes, Private, so it seems. Would the world have been a better place, would even those Hindus have been better off, if they’d been integrated with whites from the beginning, but had failed in battle because they didn’t like or trust one another? Would a statement in favor of racial integration have been worth maybe losing that war?”
He answered his own questions. “I suppose that depends on whether an aesthetic principle is more important than the success of an ultimate good.”
Gloria Santiago sat miserable and alone on the front steps to the barracks Other soldiers passed without speaking The last of her “friends” had been downchecked by the rest of the platoon on a peer evaluation the day before That woman was already on her way to a non-combat training unit.
Gloria’s eyes were bloodshot, her body sore and bruised Her once fair skin was dry and scratched. Worst of all, her spirit was very nearly broken.
I just don’t understand it, Santiago thought. This world is so different, so strange. And I’m no good at any of it. Even those damned little bitches Trujillo and Fuentes can beat me up. It’s so unfair... nothing ever prepared me for this.
Santiago stood up and began walking away from the barracks to the nearby woods. She wanted to be alone in fact as well as spirit.
From a hundred meters away Corporal Salazar saw her slinking, spiritless walk. He began to follow her to the woods.
May all our citizens be soldiers, and all our soldiers citizens.
--Sarah Livingston Jay
They couldn’t give it to us; it had to come from inside; inside ourselves.
I can’t speak for everybody; not for all the Amazonas. I can only tell you what I felt; what happened to me.
You remember how Centurion Garcia had made a bunch of us “pregnant,” making the rest of us carry their gear. Well that was imposed; we hated him every step of the way. And most of us, by this stage in our training would almost rather drop down dead than “get knocked up.” Certainly we wouldn’t ask to see the medics over little discomforts, as we might have if some other women hadn’t had to carry our load for us if we did.
I wonder, though, if we’d have been so reluctant if there had been some young men around to carry our gear for us. It’s just possible they wouldn’t even have minded, stupid boys. I sometimes think that men are overgrown babies whose spoiling of us often keeps us from quite growing up ourselves.
Or maybe we keep each other from ever quite growing up.
One impossibly late night after another impossibly long day I went to bed (not a real bed, of course, just my tacky air mattress under a strung out poncho). I was feeling a little poorly, nothing definite, just a general feeling of inner rottenness. But by morning I really was sick: dizzy, throwing up, a fever, too. I still don’t know what it was that got me, influenza, bug bite, or reaming rod of randomness.
Unfortunately, we had another road march – heavy packs – scheduled for that morning. To add injury to insult, I had to carry the machine gun. I couldn’t; I just couldn’t.
The cadre had been dropping girls right and left of late. Less than half of those who had started were still with us. The rest were, like me, pretty much at their limit.
Curiously, again like me, it had also become extremely important to all but a tiny number of those remaining to complete training. Whatever it was: unwillingness to go home as failures, a real need for the benefits that went with service, some stirrings of pride in being soldiers, I don’t know.
In my case I had to finish training... for Alma’s sake.
I think Marta noticed me first, throwing up outside the perimeter. She came up and asked me, gently, what was wrong. I threw up again and started to cry for Alma; and for the life I’d hoped to build for us. I knew I’d never make the march. I’d be a failure. And they’d boot me out.
She held me a minute or two, kissed my forehead. She told me it would be all right. Then she took my machine gun, throwing it up on her shoulder with a grunt. In a few minutes Inez Trujillo came up, she and the rest of the squad. With hardly a word they took my pack apart; splitting up my gear among them. They hung the empty pack on my back. Trujillo told two of the girls – Isabel and Catarina – to help me. They got on either side of me and put my arms over their shoulders.
If Garcia even noticed or cared he never let on. He just called us to attention, gave us a “left face,” took his position at the front, and ordered us to march.
The first few miles were bad, but I still had a little strength in me; just enough to keep going. The next nine or ten miles were worse, because I didn’t have that strength left by then, but I couldn’t drop out after having let the other girls put themselves through hell having to carry me for the first few miles. Funny thing, pride, no?
I don’t like to think about that march too often. It was bad. Half the time I was nearly delirious. Most of the rest I was puking. The girls helping me didn’t say a bad word even when I threw up right on them, though the stench made them start to gag, too.
Now you might say those women did nothing special; that if they hadn’t taken my gear willingly, Garcia would have made them. That’s true, they had to carry my equipment if I couldn’t.
But they didn’t have to carry me. That they did on their own.
It’s hard not to love a group like that.
There was a funny upshot of that incident. Without a word of explanation Garcia had us turn in those miserable poles, the “pricks,” the next day. They were carried away on a truck. He never reissued them. We never gave him cause to.
Fortunately, we spent the next four days in the same general area, learning how to conduct raid, ambush and reconnaissance patrols. We did make some cross-country moves, but they were fairly short moves; without heavy packs.
Mostly, they left me behind to help secure the Objective Rally Point, or ORP. That’s the last position where your patrol – usually squad or platoon sized – stops, short of the actual place where you set up the ambush or do the recon or raid.
If I hadn’t been sick, it might have been fun. I know most of the other girls thought it was. Though, by then, they would probably have to be considered a little weird. Being in the ORP wasn’t so bad. Still, I was usually alone.
Actually, I hoped I was alone. There was always the chance of a snake showing up to keep me company. I hate snakes. And the antaniae? The moonbats? I am frankly scared to death of them. The thought of one crawling into my sleeping roll with me is enough to pull me to my feet, shivering, no matter how tired I am. As soon as I was remotely able to keep up I insisted that I not be left behind in the ORP anymore. If the other girls thought that was because I was tough, I did nothing to disabuse them of the notion.
It was early one morning, following a less than fully successful ambush and while we waited for chow, that I cornered Trujillo. The others, especially Marta, Cat and Isabel, I’d already expressed my gratitude to.
“Inez... thank you,” was all I said.
She just shook her head, as if she didn’t quite understand.
“For carrying me. For getting the others to carry me.” I looked down at the ground, ashamed, actually.
“Wouldn’t you have done the same for us?”
I don’t know if I would have before, I really don’t. But I nodded, as if I was certain I would have.
“So what’s to thank? We’re in this together. We help each other.”
The subject was a little uncomfortable. I changed it. “Why are you here, Inez? I mean... I joined to try to build a better life for myself and my daughter. But why did you join?”
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” was all she said.
“There was a man,” I reminded her, “back when we first got on the hovercraft to come here. He was something special to you? A boyfriend? A lover?”
She looked confused for a minute, then started to laugh. “Lover? Ricardo is my brother! He’s in Third Tercio. He’s probably at Centurion School now.”
“Are you going to try for that? Centurion, I mean.”
“I’ll take what they offer me, if they offer me anything,” she answered.
“They will. You’re different from the rest of us, different from me, for example.”
“Maria,” she said, with a subtle smile, “do you think we carried you and your gear because we thought you were worthless?”
I really didn’t know what to say to that.
Somewhere nearby artillery was falling and exploding. Garcia paid it no mind, though it made the rest of us pretty nervous.
He said, “Many armies spend an inordinate effort, I understand, on limiting the effects of friendly fire. We don’t spend much. We’re soldiers. We’re there to be killed if the country needed us to be killed. We’re there to win, even if doing so gets us killed.
“You might not expect it to be true, but it is true, that the infantry only inflicts twenty or thirty percent of all casualties in battle. We take, on the other hand, about ninety percent of the casualties. Who kills us? The enemy artillery. Who among us does the killing? The machine guns. What kills or suppresses the machine gunners? Your own artillery.”
Garcia pulled a tetradrachma coin from his pocket and flipped it to illustrate. “Now you have a choice. You can stay so far behind your own supporting artillery that there is no chance of any of your own being hit by it. If you do, the enemy machine gunners will be up and firing when you attack. Two years into the Great Global War, there was an attack. Twenty-five thousand Anglians were killed, as many more wounded, on the first day alone, by a few dozen machine gunners that hadn’t been suppressed or destroyed by the Anglian artillery.”
He flipped the coin again. “On the other hand, you can follow your own artillery so closely that you take some losses in dead and wounded from your own side. Quality control at the factory – or lack thereof – ensures that if you follow a barrage closely, some shells will fall short among your own troops. But then, you can be on top of the machine guns, shooting, stabbing, hacking and blasting before they have a chance to mow your people down.”
His face took on a somber, serious cast. “How sad for those killed by their own side’s artillery.” The frown disappeared, replaced by a rare and ghastly grin. “How grand, however, for those likely much larger numbers not killed by the enemy machine guns. And the dead don’t really care what killed them.
“We go in for the second approach, taking losses to ‘friendly fire’ somewhat more philosophically than the world norm. It takes a lot of discipline, though, and that means a lot of training. Some of that can be inferential training, general discipline building. It’s better, though, if the training is a little more direct and pointed. Move out.”
I was scared to death. Garcia wasn’t just flapping his gums about following a barrage closely. He wanted us to do it.
“Madre de Dios! Did you see that?” Marta stopped short, slack-jawed, to see a woman sail about fifteen feet into the air, arms and legs fluttering. The woman landed, stunned, it appeared, but otherwise fairly whole, a few meters from where a delay-fused shell had gone off not too far from under her feet. The woman was lucky the shell had missed her head before burying itself in the ground.
“Don’t think about it,” Cristina Zamora shouted. “Just keep marching forward. Forward!” Zamora was acting platoon centurion for the exercise.
About seventy-five meters ahead of where Marta and I stood, a wall of flying dirt moved relentlessly up a steep hill. They were firing delay fuses, but that was the only safety measure I could see, that kicked up a visually impressive amount of dirt and rocks with each burst.
We resumed walking forward, firing short bursts either from the hip or, shoulder held, aiming with the F- and M-26’s neat little integral optical sight. Look, anything you can throw at the enemy to keep his head down is worth the effort. Besides, walking is a lot faster and less exhausting than doing little three second rushes. In battle, an exhausted Amazona is a fear-filled and useless Amazona.
As we neared the top of the hill, the shell fire shifted a last time and redoubled in intensity. Zamora spoke into a radio, then shouted, “Wait for it!”
The delay fused high explosive was replaced by a dozen rounds of white phosphorus. A cloud of smoke enveloped the hilltop.
“Adelante las Amazonas!” We charged, screaming and firing all the way.
For whatever reasons, and each of us probably had her own, we did develop something like esprit de corps. Or, rather, most of us did. A few couldn’t. Life for them became very hard, because, as the overwhelming bulk of us still remaining bonded together, the others were left out in the cold. Some were encouraged into the group by that. Others just shut down before being washed out.
Probably no one suffered more from this than Gloria. I guess she was so used to being the center of attention that she just couldn’t take being cut out. Cut out, however, she certainly was. Oh, she tried to pretend that she felt what we felt. I’ll tell you something, though; we women are much better judges of character than men are. Gloria fooled no one.
She took to hanging around one of the Corporal-Instructors, Corporal Salazar. Salazar’s partner, Sergeant Castro, noticed, eventually. I remember a screaming match that ended only when Centurion Franco knocked them both silly.
It was about that time that Gloria stopped being put on shit detail.
I guess Salazar wasn’t entirely gay. Eventually, he and Gloria were caught engaged in... shall we say... an indiscretion. Maybe the worst part is that Castro’s the one who caught them. Maybe, if Castro hadn’t been so upset, he might have kept it to himself. He was a good man, ordinarily, a lot kinder than most.
Some of us were selected to sit in on the courts-martial, just to witness, not to sit the board. Salazar just sat, mute. Gloria kept begging for the chance to resign. It was too late. Castro wept a lot, as quietly as he could. I felt sorry for him.
The two were each charged with mutiny and aggravated fraternization. Salazar was further charged with aggravated abuse of office (improper sexual relations) and adultery; Gloria with conduct tending to contribute to the demoralization of the Legion and adultery. (Did I mention that the partnerships in Gorgidas were treated as legal marriages in the Legion?)
The evidence was pretty damned overwhelming. Castro had seen them. There was some semen from Salazar on Gloria’s uniform. It had obviously not been rape, though Gloria tried to claim it had been. I think what ruined that defense is that Gloria still had her teeth and, under the particular circumstances, could have been expected to use them to considerable effect, had it really been rape or, more technically, forcible sodomy. Besides, we were supposed to be real soldiers, ready to fight and die. How could one of us hope to claim rape if she’d been conscious but hadn’t fought to death or, at least, incapacitation or been physically overwhelmed by sheer brute force? What was true of civilian women could never really be true for us.
Mutiny? When two or more soldiers combine to suborn good order and discipline in the armed forces, that is mutiny. Salazar and Gloria made two. They were certainly... ah... combined, at the time. The predictable effect of sexual relations between people of substantially different ranks is to suborn good order and discipline. We are responsible for the predictable effects of our actions just as if we intended them. There was no evidence put on that Salazar or Gloria had any defensible reason to believe this would not be the effect if discovered, nor that they would not be discovered (though disbelief in discovery was no defense anyway). So: Mutiny.
The penalty is death. As a matter of fact, failure to report or suppress a mutiny by any means – including summary execution – is also punished by death. I guess poor Castro didn’t have a lot of choice. If he’d shot them both on the spot he’d probably have been commended.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. When the verdicts and sentence came back they were, “Guilty
on all counts” and “Death by Musketry,” respectively. It took less than twenty-four
hours for Carrera to confirm the sentences. There was no appeal, certainly not to
an ignorant civil court. The President of the Republic could have intervened, had
he so chosen. He did not so choose.
We made up the firing squads ourselves, for Gloria, while the Tercio Gorgidas provided the one for Salazar. They were picked, not volunteers. None of us would have volunteered, even if we didn’t like Gloria. We couldn’t refuse the order, either. Some tribune from Gorgidas that I’d never seen before commanded both. The firing squads stood nervously in ranks as the prisoners were marched out of their cells. I understand that of the twelve rifles, two had only blanks in them. That was so the girls and gays who’d been picked to execute the sentences could console themselves that – just maybe – they hadn’t really been shooting.
The sky was that shade of deep blue you see just before sunrise. Many times in training I had thrilled to wake up, stand and stretch, and feel the planet come alive around me at just that hour. I didn’t feel any thrill now, though. Those of us not in the firing parties stood in formation to one side to witness. I shook. I doubt I was alone.
Salazar took it fairly well. He marched out to the wall under guard but also under his own power. He stumbled, once, but that was just the darkness. Salazar shook his head “No” when he was offered the blindfold (a mistake, by the way; people who are going to shoot you in cold blood get nervous if you’re looking at them. Nervous people don’t shoot well.).
Gloria had to be carried; tied, and screaming all the way. While Salazar was allowed to stand, and given a cigarette to smoke (yes, we really do that for these things), Gloria was trussed up to a stake. She kept squirming, though. A sergeant pasted aiming markers over each of their hearts, after bending his head to listen for the heartbeat. Salazar shouted out to Castro, “I’m sorry!”
Some large flood lights were lit on the order of Tribune Silva. The Gorgidas tribune shouted, “Ready,” and the firing squads lifted their rifles parallel to the ground... “Aim,” and the muzzles shifted imperceptibly... then “Fire!” There was a sound like a single shot, but longer.
I saw fluid (blood, I suppose) and bits of flesh shoot from out of their backs to spatter against the wall behind them. Salazar was thrown back against the stake, then fell to the ground. The impact of the bullets twisted Gloria half way around her stake. She slumped against the ropes that bound her to it. They were both still breathing; we could see that by the flood lights. Salazar seemed unconscious but alive. Gloria was trying to scream, but only blood and an occasional faint “coo” that was probably her best effort at a shriek, came out of her mouth.
The junior tribune ordered the firing parties to, “Order arms.” Then he marched to Salazar and shot him, once, in the back of the head, behind his ear. Unlike the members of a firing squad, there are no blanks for the officer commanding them. If you can’t kill you have no business being an officer. Salazar convulsed, then stopped breathing. The tribune walked a few more steps, took aim, and shot Gloria the same way. Her body shuddered violently but the cooing that passed for shrieking stopped. It was a mercy.
Garcia marched us away. We didn’t sing as we marched. I know I felt sick. I doubt I was alone in that. That night Marta cried herself to sleep on my shoulder.
Castro hanged himself from the limb of a tree a week later.
Was it right, what they did to those two? I’ve asked myself that question for many years now.
It was such a small thing in itself; what Gloria and Salazar did, I mean. Oh, sure, one or two of us might have pulled an extra shit detail because Gloria had been selling herself for consideration. (Or maybe it would be better said – more charitably said – that she’d been given consideration for giving herself. Didn’t matter, the effect was the same in either case.) Still, I’d have gladly pulled an extra detail or two if it would have spared me having to watch their deaths. I didn’t like the bitch, not even a little bit, or Salazar either. But I sure didn’t want them dead.
Franco called us together after Castro hanged himself, to talk to us. He was ready to puke himself; you could see that. Maybe he was talking to convince himself; I wouldn’t know. But there were tears in his eyes. I am certain of that.
“I remember an old line,” he began, “something about military justice being to justice as military music is to music. It’s both true and false. For one thing, military music can be of a fairly high artistic order, if art is that which causes emotional catharsis. Listen to Beethoven’s Yorckische Marsch sometime, if you don’t believe me; or Boinas Azules Cruzan la Frontera played on war pipes.
“The saying is true, though, in another respect. Military music serves primarily the cause of battle and so does military justice. It is concerned with the rights and privileges of individuals only to the extent that they may also serve the cause of battle. Battle in turn serves the cause of the country. The country, too, has an interest in winning as cheaply as possible, in terms of human life. Next generation’s quota of cannon fodder has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it?
“Well doesn’t it?” He sounded imploring. I think maybe Salazar may have been a friend. Or Castro… maybe both.
“So maybe the question isn’t whether it was just to have shot those two for such a trivial affair. Maybe the question is whether it would have been injustice to the country – which is to say, injustice also to the country’s soldiers, which is to say you and I – not to have shot them.
“Maybe you think the Court should have been lenient. Let’s suppose the court-martial board had been lenient. Suppose – despite the evidence – it had not found them guilty of mutiny. They could have received sentences of between twenty-five years, for Gloria, and forty years, for Salazar, on the other charges alone; all of that, by the way, being at hard labor, or until they died of it. Prison in this country is roughly analogous to state slavery, after all.”
Franco paused, as if not sure to continue. He did continue, though.
“Well, maybe Salazar wasn’t the only one of your trainers capable of having an interest in a woman. Hell, I used to have a girlfriend myself. Yeah, it was a long time ago. These things are often relative, not absolute. And maybe Gloria wasn’t the only one of us who might have... given herself for consideration. So, don’t you see? We had to shoot them. We had to.”
I thought about that then…I do so still. Truthfully, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done what Gloria did. Yes, it was that rough sometimes. In fact, the only ones in my platoon I am sure wouldn’t have were Inez Trujillo and Cristina Zamora – they were just too completely soldierly and decent – and Marta. Though she had her own reasons.
“Does it matter,” Franco continued, “if a leader is sleeping with a troop? Does it make a difference to an armed force that its leaders are treating some of its troops unfairly because they are sleeping with others? Will those troops being discriminated against have equal faith in their leaders when they suspect that those same leaders care a lot more for some other troops than they do for them? When we’re talking about instincts and feelings, does it even matter if the suspicion is valid or merely conjecture?
“There is some justice in equally shared dangers in war. How does a soldier take it when she might be going on an exceptionally dangerous night patrol so some other troop can warm his or her squad leader’s bed that same night? How about the third or fourth time they have to go on a really bad mission that ought go to the squad leader’s playmate?
“Oh, yes. Of course, once a war starts we’ll forget all the unofficial lessons we learned in peacetime about our leaders and the way they do business. Right. Of course.
“And I’m the Queen of Anglia.” Franco shook his head.
“No, Salazar betrayed you and us, both. It was maybe a small betrayal, but it was real. And you would have lost faith not just in him, but – to an extent – in all your leaders, then and in the future, if he’d gotten away with it.”
I suppose he was right about that. No, I know he was.
“And the woman? She was actually fairly capable in a lot of ways. She was quite bright. Her political instincts were obviously pretty high, too. She’d sure known where to give – or sell – herself to the greatest effect. Imagine if she’d actually made it past training. Imagine a unit of the tercio led by her. Who might have been next on her list of acquisitions? What would the rest of the girls have felt if Gloria had made high rank based on de facto prostitution while they struggled along just trying to be good soldiers? How long would the rest of you have kept trying, do you suppose?
“Then, too, she’d also betrayed Castro, another soldier; a comrade, who had a right to expect loyalty from any other soldier in the Legion. Forget about Castro killing himself a week later. Even if he hadn’t committed suicide, he would never again have been the same soldier he had been.
“A pretty good one, by the way. A decent human being, too.”
I think about those executions quite often, even now. I’m sorry they had to be done. I’m not sorry they were done.
Of course, the Legions have nothing against sex, per se. I have it on pretty reliable authority from a woman who knew Duque Carrera in much his younger days that he was something of a satyr. Presidente Parilla was worse. Most male leaders are married and many keep a mistress, too. There’s no law against it. Most Amazon leaders are married or living with someone of an appropriate rank. And the Legions absolutely only care about adultery that really is to the detriment of good order and discipline; with a comrade’s spouse or partner, typically, or an underling. A trooper can screw the world and the Legion won’t care unless it hurts the Legion.
Get caught screwing someone you oughtn’t, however, and go to the wall. No excuses.
And if there’s no chance of your ever going to go into a battle, you have as much right to comment on that as a man does to comment on a woman’s right to an abortion. Some, not much.
So, yes, we can play, more or less like real people. That doesn’t mean someone can play with us without permission, though.
Last of all the clothing issues they made to us, we were issued our parade dress uniforms. The uniform is still the same, even after all these years. Kilts.
I’ve always thought that made sense. They’re warlike. It can’t be said that kilts are really either masculine or feminine. They look good on both sexes. And they are distinctly more flattering to women than shapeless skirts or baggy trousers. I understand Carrera (one of his aides, I imagine, on his – our – behalf) applied all the way to Taurus for a particular tartan – that’s the pattern of plaid – for us. Carrera even went ahead and changed our unit name from Thirty-sixth Tercio Amazona to Thirty-sixth Tercio Amazona (Montañera) in case the Highlanders might object to kilts on other than highland troops.
We did, by the way, get some mountain training, though we honestly weren’t anything like as capable as Fifth Mountain Tercio. I’m sure there are women out there who could match the Montañeros, or even outdo some of them, in mountain climbing, just as there are women who can run, ski, swim, what have you, better than the average man. Do you have any idea how much time those world class women athletes, or any women who excel at some physical activity, have to spend on their sports? Even the naturally gifted ones we like to hold up as examples spend most of their waking hours in exercise. That just isn’t practical for a soldier; there’s too much else to do.
The other thing is that kilts – light ones, like ours – are very practical and healthy for women in a hot, muggy climate like we have. The uniform included all the other items of regalia that go with kilts, basket weave handled dirk high among them.
Towards graduation from basic we were allowed a couple of thirty-six hour passes. It isn’t generous and isn’t intended to be. What it really is, is a half reward and half re-assimilation into civil life for those not going to go on to a leadership school. None of us knew, as of yet, who would be going on- and upward, though we made some educated guesses.
A thirty-six hour pass doesn’t get you much. You’re not allowed to leave the island, even though you could make it to the City and back in theory. But you can catch a movie that isn’t either propaganda or training, you can eat a civilized meal at one of the three or four little towns on the island, you can visit the museum at the main cantonment area. You can go swimming or sunbathing on one of the beaches. You can even go dancing, there are a couple of clubs for the recruits, beer only. You can phone home, if you’re willing to wait an hour to get to a pay phone.
I called Porras to speak to Alma.
She asked me in her little voice, “Mommy? Is it really you?”
“Yes, Baby,” my heart leapt, “Yes it’s me.”
We couldn’t talk long, there being a long line of women behind me waiting to phone their own loved ones. But I did get to find out that Alma now knew her ABC’s, could add up to five plus five, and really, really wanted to know if the Gonzalez children could live with us when I came home.
A half dozen of us elected to go dancing one Saturday night. Trujillo was somewhat reluctant, but went along to keep an eye on us. She was like that.
We boarded a bus – one ran around “Perimeter Road” every fifteen minutes – and headed for Main Post, near the airfield. It stopped probably thirty times outside one or another of the little camps, like Botchkareva, that littered the island. The bus dropped us off right outside the Enlisted Club there on Main Post.
There was a kilted Amazona that I didn’t know except by sight waiting outside. She wasn’t in tears, but you could tell by the sound of her voice that she really wanted to be, and might have been but for her training. Inez asked what was wrong.
“I came here by myself,” she said. “And they... grabbed me” – she pointed to her buttocks and breasts – “and laughed about it. Bastards.”
“I see,” Inez said, without inflection. “I see.”
She turned towards the main door to the club, took a deep breath, and walked forward. We followed her in. She must have known we would.
Do men really act that way with a little beer in them? There were two long lines of staggering drunkards, one on either side of the hallway. Through some wide doors I could see a number of privates lined up along the top of the bar. They were making gestures and echoing commands that, I’d guess, were what troops about to jump out of airplanes did. Not far from the bar someone had pushed together four tables in the shape of a shallow ‘T’. A chair sat on the leg of the ‘t’. One really inebriated sot – he was probably eighteen or nineteen – was waving napkins in his hands. One by one a bunch of the others, arms outstretched like airplane wings, would run up to the long top of the ‘t’ and either do a belly flop and slide along it (someone had thoughtfully poured beer over the surfaces of the tables to make them effectively frictionless) or veer off and rejoin an almost unbelievably stupid looking circle of others, all of them likewise imitating planes.
I really shouldn’t criticize those boys. I once, years later, took my girls to a male striptease. Women can be, if anything, at least equally silly under the right circumstances.
I’d guess that the word had gone out that the Amazonas were on pass. The boys along the corridor were waiting for us. I won’t repeat their comments, they were demeaning and, under the circumstances, very, very unlikely.
The boys began to chant and clap their hands in time. Unfazed, Trujillo walked forward as if they weren’t even there. She walked, that is, until one of them tried to reach a hand under her kilt. (Old joke: Is anything worn under a kilt? Answer: No, everything is in perfect working order.)
I’m pretty good with a knife. Inez was something else. She had drawn her dirk and slashed the boy’s arm nearly to the bone in far less time than it takes to tell about it. One-armed, she pushed the gasping boy against the wall, then pinned the offending hand to the paneling with the dirk. Then she stood there in the middle of the hallway, arms folded and calm as could be, and asked, “Who’s next, boys? You?” she pointed at one with her chin. “How about you two? Why not all at once? Come on, you’re big and strong, you can take on little ol’ me. Of course, it might get a little messy.”
By that time the rest of us had our dirks out, stroking them, and were standing close behind Inez.
I have never seen so nonplussed a group of slack-jawed, bug-eyed men in my life. It must have come as quite a shock.
Finally, one of them, maybe a little less drunk than the rest, said “Cortizo, get an ambulance for Hernandez. Don’t call the MP’s.”
To us he said, “You are obviously not who we were waiting for. Pass, Ladies.” His voice added the capitalization.
Inez pulled the dagger from the wall, cleaned it on the boy’s uniform, and resheathed
it. He fell to the floor when she released his shirt. Then we walked into the dance
Barbaric, no, having to actually fight for one’s dignity? Why shouldn’t Inez have left it to the law to preserve minimal respect for our persons? Weren’t we entitled?
Sister, in this world you’re not entitled to anything that isn’t bought and paid for, and then only if you can defend it. I have no doubt that we could have called the MP’s. I also have no doubt that we could have ruined the lives of some young men whose only fault was stupidity and immaturity. (I’m glad we didn’t. A number of those boys gave all they had, later on, for our good and the country’s. You can forgive a lot in someone who died for the country... and for you.)
Then, too, if we had, they would have despised us for it. Maybe that boy Inez slashed and pinned hated us afterwards. Or maybe not, men are funny about wounds. They often don’t mind a scar or two. And they’ve got a sense of justice, most of them, that can accept being slugged when they deserve it. But hated or not, those boys at least knew we were like them, soldiers, warriors.
I think Inez did more for us in that moment than anyone ever had or would.
The dancing itself was pretty uneventful. Only a few boys had the courage to ask one of us. I can’t recall that any of us declined. But, much like them, we were mostly too bashful to ask. Silly, no?
Some of them had a drinking contest going on, off in a corner. They didn’t invite us and we had no interest in joining. We did, however, watch as – one by one – the boys passed out, semi-comatose. I didn’t envy them their hangovers in the morning.
Though the spirit of the competition I found intriguing. We didn’t do that sort of thing.
“I’m telling you, Balthazar, I quit. I’ve had it. Santiago was the last straw.” Franco’s eyes glistened with tears.
“Up yours, cueco. Up yours, cueco,” the trixie shrieked from its perch.
Franco glared at the thing with hate.
Garcia said, “Oh, stop whining about it, will you? She’s dead, Salazar’s dead...worst of all, Castro’s dead. But they’re dead. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s over.”
“No, it isn’t. It will never be over. I knew, Balti. I knew before they were caught. And I did nothing. It’s my fault.”
Garcia shrugged, irritably. “Okay. Fine. Have it your way. It’s your fault. I can’t for myself see how, since if you really did know, then they were already guilty and just waiting to be caught, tried and executed. But, if so, so what?”
It had been a rhetorical question. Both men knew it. No answer was needed. To cover the silence Garcia pulled a bottle and two glasses from his desk drawer. He poured for both of them, then pushed a glass to Franco.
“You know, in a way, I knew it too. Oh, no, not that anything had happened. But I knew it would, that something would.” He reached into a different drawer and pulled out a mid-sized file.
“These are the last peer evaluations from before the executions. Read them. No, no, forget the rule. Just read them.”
Franco read. “My...the girls really didn’t much like Miss Gloria, did they?”
“Nope. I should have realized they’re a pretty sharp crew, some ways, taken the hint and dropped her then. But I didn’t.”
“Because I had hope for her, that’s why. Or maybe, since I’d already put a lot of time into her, I didn’t want to lose my investment. Or perhaps I thought there was a chance to return the lost lamb to the fold. Maybe all those things; maybe something else.”
“I don’t care,” Franco said. “I still want out.”
“Permission denied. If you did fuck this up...or if I did...we owe these girls something now. And we are going to see they get it. Now drink up, then go walk the barracks.”
It wasn’t until after Franco had left that Garcia poured another drink and downed it quickly. He wasn’t the kind to cry but, God, if ever I had reason to…
Ladies do not do that sort of thing.
--Victoria I, Regina Imperiatrixque
It had begun to feel so good to be an Amazon, a sister among sisters. Family.
By the time the women were being given passes there were a bit over two hundred of them left, out of nearly six hundred who had started. That represented pretty heavy attrition, and a heavy expense on the part of the Legion. What were left, though, were pretty much pure gold. All the dross had been removed though, naturally, only after first being carefully crushed.
The eight remaining cadre in Maria’s platoon, Sergeant Castro and Corporal Salazar being dead, didn’t let up on them even a little bit. But, so it began to seem, they didn’t have to apply much pressure anymore, either. And, with eight of them for the twenty-seven women left in the platoon, the troops were given personal attention probably unequaled in any army, for either men or women.
They had become quite sharp, those girls, very clever. They knew they were, too.
Each one had gotten to the point where she could navigate in a pitch black jungle, alone – with no one and nothing to guide her beyond a map and compass – and still find her way to within a few meters of where she was supposed to be. Some of them could adjust an artillery or mortar shell almost into a enemy’s lap in three rounds, often two. They could – because they did – keep the same frozen position under a little bush so perfectly that once someone actually took a leak on one girl’s back and never knew she was there. (She knew he was there, though.) All but the very least graceful could slip between two alert sentries without either of them hearing her. They had become very good at emplacing and camouflaging mines and booby traps. They could also shoot, strangle, stab, chop, blow up, burn....destroy; all the womanly skills.
Many restrictions had been relaxed. Still the troops were absolutely not allowed to have alcohol in their tents or – when they were permitted to use them – barracks. It became a challenge, of sorts, because there was a beer machine not two hundred meters distant from Maria’s platoon’s hut. The entire area, to include around the machine, was patrolled by Gorgidas privates and corporals, day and night. One whole platoon had been given eight hours’ hard duty for trying to get some beer from the machine and into the barracks. Getting at that beer machine had become a matter of pride.
It was arguable whether the Seventh Platoon girls had ever put as much planning into a tactical mission in the field as they did into the mission to raid that beer machine. Eighth Platoon, the pure lesbians, found out what they were planning and insisted on joining in.
“Fine,” Inez said, when the two representatives from the Eighth had shown up unannounced. “We needed a distraction anyway. You’re it.” The two girls from the Eighth just nodded. They were Sonia and Trudi who had formed a pair bond and would be, effectively, married upon graduation.
The women had built a terrain model, an earth, moss and stick representation of the compound, not far from the barracks, in the woods and out of sight of the cadre. The leaders of the enterprise, and the two lesbian girls, had crawled on their bellies to get to it the night before the raid. Four ponchos were snapped together and lay over them to keep in the meager light from the red-filtered flashlights.
It can, and did, get awfully hot with nearly a dozen people crammed in like that. This was the final rehearsal.
“All right,” said Inez. “One last time...the time is 0210.”
“H-Hour. Teams A and B are down in the pits,” they chanted, softly. ‘Pits’ was slang for under the barracks. “We crawl like worms to the drainage ditch....Team C digs the hole!” They had seen something like this poetic mnemonic technique in one of the war movies the cadre showed them in a steady diet, usually with snide comments for spice.
So what if it wasn’t good poetry? They were soldiers, not poets.
Inez pointed with a stick at a couple of twigs laid over a long indentation in the model. “0222?”
“We’re under the bridge that spans the ditch.” Earlier the girls had, in fact, timed how long it took them to low crawl to the ditch – twelve minutes – under the guise of practicing their craft on their own initiative.
Sonia and Trudi whispered together, “Eighth Platoon begins to brawl, a lovers’ spat that breaks some walls.”
From everybody: “Gorgidas runs to break up the fun.”
“Inez and the chicks await in the ditch. Maria and Marta head for the switch. Security!” Maria’s job, and Marta’s, was to cut the lights in the compound. There was a breaker box on a light pole not far from the footbridge. They also had an extra lock to make sure the cadre couldn’t turn the lights back on any time soon. The rest of Team A, Cat and Isabel, had left and right look out: “Security.”
“The lights go out. A new fight breaks out. Eighth can’t tell among friend or foe. Gorgidas, sadly, takes many a blow.” The women giggled a little over that line.
“Inez and crew charge for the brew.”
“The suds are stowed in the laundry bags. Who says the Amazons are just young hags?” Yes, poetry was not their forte.
“Marta, Maria, Inez and crew are back in the ditch with a beer for you. Pull in security!”
“Crawl away home.”
“The beer in the bags goes down in the pits. The girls go to bed while the cadre have fits.”
“Mission complete ‘til next we meet.” They planned to leave the beer under their barracks overnight, then drink it when the cadre weren’t expecting anything.
Inez smiled. “Good. Very good. But there’s one last thing. You know how revenge isn’t so sweet if the person you rape doesn’t know he or she has been raped? Well.....”
0210. H Hour. No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
It started well enough. Faces painted black and green, all the raid team crawled without problem, though not without effort, to the ditch, then hid themselves in a tight cluster under the footbridge. A funny thing, adrenaline; they reached the footbridge almost ninety seconds early, then waited nervously for Eighth Platoon to begin their part.
From the direction of the barracks, “You lying, cheating bitch!” reverberated through the camp. That was Sonia! This was followed by a scream and the sound of breaking glass. The volume quickly rose to a crescendo of violence.
Marta snickered, “Say what you want about those girls; they can act!”
The raid team heard the pounding sounds of men’s feet on the little footbridge. The guard had abandoned the area near the machine. So far, so good.
“Come on, Maria. Isabel and Cat, go!” Marta tugged Maria to her feet, quite unnecessarily. While the other pair split to right and left, Marta and Maria sprinted for the breaker box. Maria carried an iron bar in her hand. Marta had the spare lock.
The sound from the Eighth Platoon was just beginning to die down as the pair reached the box. Not a lot of time left. Maria pushed the bar part way through the lock and twisted. It held until Marta threw her weight into the problem. Both hearts thumped when the metal of the lock split with an audible crack.
“Do you think they heard? If they did, we’re screwed,” Maria commented.
“Not likely,” Marta answered. “And not by them.”
The two had never seen the inside of the breaker box. It had two levers inside. Marta reached into it and flipped both of them. All the flood-lights died, but so did every light in the camp, including the lights emanating from the beer machine.
“Fuck!” Marta returned one of the levers to its upright position. The floodlights came on; the beer machine sat dead. Marta fumbled and brought the machine back up; but the floodlights were still on. With a curse she turned the floodlights off again.
What had sounded like a fight in Eighth Platoon’s barracks turned into a riot. Men’s shouts were intermixed with women’s.
“Sounds like a lot of fun.”
Inez and her crew padded past, almost silently heading for the beer machine. Marta and Maria dropped to their bellies and watched as best they could by the dim light of the beer vendor. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, when they saw Inez start thumping her head against the machine.
Maria had a sudden blinding flash of the obvious. “‘Exact change’,” she said. Marta looked at her quizzically. “Inez’s team only has single note bills to feed to the beer dispenser. If my guess is right, we’re fucked.”
“No we aren’t.” Marta grabbed the iron bar and began to sprint to join the other team. Maria followed.
“Screw it,” Marta announced when they reached them. “Like Inez said, the point is to get the beer and get away with drinking it, not to avoid being punished later on. We can prop the door shut for long enough to do that.”
The machine was secured shut by another lock, no better than the one on the breaker box. Into this Marta pushed the end of the bar. With both girls leaning on it, the lock split. The door swayed open.
Inez thought about it for a moment. “As for the lock...that lock is cheap. We’ll take six less beers than we planned on and leave the extra money to pay for a new one.”
The other grunted their assent. They were sneaks, and proud of the fact. They weren’t mere vandals or thieves.
To Maria, Inez said, “You and Marta go back per the plan. We can handle the rest...and, Marta, good thinking.”
As it turned out breaking the machine open saved them a lot of time over feeding bills into it one by one. It was much quieter, too. All the raiders reassembled in the ditch nearly three minutes early. Then they crawled back to the “pit” under their barracks where a hole was ready made to throw in their soiled uniforms, along with the all-important beer, and bury them. Team C, Zamora’s girls, with ponchos laid to keep the tell-tale dirt off, buried the loot while the rest of the raiders cleaned up – quietly – and crawled back to bed, to pretend to sleep.
It was daylight before anyone else figured out even a part of what they had done. The cadre hadn’t figured out quite who, of course. It could have been any platoon, or even all of them together.
Unfortunately, it was pretty obvious that Eighth Platoon had been in on it up to their ears. They were given a mercilessly shitty day, one harking back to the first days in training. But – good girls – none of them ratted.
About noontime, some one of the cadre found the broken lock for the beer machine. They found the money that had been left, too, and duly reported it. Everybody else’s day rapidly became miserable, too.
The Gorgidas searched high and low. All of the barracks were ransacked; the troops’ personal effects also, such as they had. The cadre looked in every nook and cranny of the place. Zamora’s people had camouflaged the stash well, however. The cadre didn’t notice anything amiss. Perhaps part of the reason that they got away with it was that their stash was in such an obvious place.
The cadre did find the terrain model on which they had done the planning out in the woods nearby. (Inez: “Shit! Big mistake. Forgot. Damn! Always erase your terrain model before going on a mission.” Zamora: “Don’t sweat it, Inez; everybody makes mistakes.”) The diagrams on it led almost straight to the guilty platoon, though it could have been any of three others, plus the Eighth.
Oh, did the cadre torture the women from those five suspect platoons. Grass drills, pushups, running laps with their rifles held overhead...and that nasty trick where the women got in position for pushups and, when the sergeant blew his whistle, threw their arms to the side and head back, thereby letting gravity beat their tits against the gravel…over and over and over again. Ouch.
This lasted till long after midnight. Finally, the cadre grew tired of it and sent them to sleep.
Of course, some of the women didn’t go to sleep. After lights out, and with aching muscles, Zamora’s team crawled below to retrieve the beer. One bag went next door to the Eighth, while the others were divided out among the raiding platoon, one beer per girl. They had a few to send to each of the other platoons, too. Six of them crawled on their bellies to deliver the beer. An apology? More of a victory statement.
They had the beer. They had won. But then, go figure, they were all too afraid at first to open them. Maria’s sat on her chest, unopened, while she lay in bed.
“Fuck ’em,” someone finally called out. “They can only kill us; they can’t eat us.”
Marta bellowed, “Too tough! Besides, they wouldn’t like it if they could.”
Some other girl yelled out, “Hell, they wouldn’t know what they were doing if they did!”
From Eighth Platoon, across the maniple street: “None of them do, gay or straight!”
Then someone else, yelled, “In Caaay-dennnnce...Pop!”
There was a barrage of beer tabs being pulled, escaping gas, and giggles. (Well…. men giggle, too, sometimes.) It seemed like hundreds of pops; though there were only about two score left between both platoons by then. Maria popped hers with the rest; then laughed for many, many minutes. The beer was too warm, but more delicious than any she could ever remember, then or after.
A pleasant woozy feeling engulfed Maria; half beer, half victory. She saw something, something she would never be quite sure of. Still, she thought she saw a shadow on the window by her bunk, a shadow that looked a lot like Centurion Garcia. The shadow seemed...somehow...to be smiling.
Inez had told them, “It wouldn’t be right for us to hide what we’ve done. It would be...cowardly. So every one of us is going to leave her empty can at the foot of her bunk, precisely centered. Zamora, you stand at one end and line them up by sight, just like it was a parade field. Then we’ll take whatever unopened cans are left and place them in a neat pyramid just outside Garcia’s office, a gift to our trainers.”
It was an article of faith to the women that Garcia never really smiled. And, indeed, they’d never seen him really smile with mirth, not once. But he came in the next morning, took one look at the empties, another at the pile outside his door, then went into his office. But even with the door locked, and despite what sounded like his best efforts to strangle himself, they could still hear him laughing ‘til he nearly cried.
When he finally emerged, stone-faced as usual, he held a lock and key in his hand. Swinging the lock around his index finger, he announced, to no one in particular, “I happened to notice, as I came in this morning, that the vending machine over by headquarters needs a new lock. Take care of it....and...tidy up the barracks, filthy girls. Meanwhile, I have a small wager to collect from Centurion del Valle.” He dropped the lock and key to the floor, bent to pick up two cans, then left, whistling some martial tune.
Maria thought then, as she was to think later, damned shame he’s not straight; he’d probably make a fine father.
But Garcia was to die, too, and all the children he ever had were the Amazons, that first crew and the sisters who followed. But then, they were pretty good kids, who followed in their old man’s footsteps.
Graduation exercise..."the wringer.”
Oh, that wasn’t the official name. No one ever called it by its official name. To one and all, male and female, it was simply, “the wringer.”
It began about one on a rainy morning. The Amazons stood in the rain, covered only by their wide-brimmed jungle hats, helmets slung by their straps on their canteens. Ponchos were really superfluous: they could be wet from the rain, or they could be wet from sweat and then stink besides. Just plain wet was better. But the training schedule had said: “Uniform: Field with ponchos.” So thus it had to be.
Garcia, similarly clad, called the roll. It was a ceremonial thing. He called, “Fuentes, Maria?” She answered, as she had to in order to take the test, “Private Fuentes; willing and able, Centurion.”
No test, no graduation. No graduation and she could either resign or do the whole damned last month and a half over again. Worse, she would have to do it with some girls she didn’t even know.
On their backs the women carried a scaled down load: full water and ammunition, but only minimum essential equipment and only one ration apiece. “Food would be provided,” they’d been told. They had also heard through the rumor mill that “food would be provided” really meant that some food would be provided... intermittently ... maybe... if they did well.
The first part of the test was a march, thirty miles in twelve hours, combined road and cross country. No big deal, really, especially with a reduced load. They could all do that, they figured, if not quite standing on their heads.
A training unit’s own cadre wasn’t allowed to lead them on the march. It was a test of how well the cadre’d done as much as it is of how good the recruits were. Instead of the usual cadre, the School of Infantry on the Island had a testing board. They would set the pace, noting any who fell out.
Before turning the platoon over to those SOI men to lead the march, Garcia told the platoon to, “Stand at ease.” Then he said, simply, “Good luck, troops.” He hadn’t ever called them “troops” before, never before called them anything but in a tone of voice that meant “twat” – and that unusually pejoratively. Perhaps it meant something to him when he finally did. It surely meant something to the girls.
Garcia then called them to attention, did a smart about face, reported to the testers, “Seventh Platoon, Training Maniple, Tercio Amazona, ‘willing and able.’” Then he’d marched off to the side.
The tester – his stick said he was a senior centurion though under the poncho no one could see his name tag – showed them a map of their route. It wound through the Island then stopped near the ocean on the east side. When they’d had a chance to see their route, the tester ordered them to, “Right....Face,” then, “Forward...March.”
The first few miles weren’t bad. Maria noticed, though, that her socks were wet with the falling rain. No problem for the first few miles, but, when the testers inevitably picked up the pace, she began to blister. Within the first ten miles, her feet were just areas of bleeding, oozing pain. Every new step was an agony.
She had a chance to change her socks midway through. She had to peel them off carefully because almost all the skin and callus of her feet had been torn off. Dried or tacky blood stuck the socks to the open flesh. Each little toe was deeply abraded. It made her a little sick. It was one thing to see someone else bleed; she’d gotten used to that. But to see the damage to her own body? Yech!
She wasn’t the worst off among them, either.
It was a horror to pull new socks on over the wounded flesh. The foot powder she put on in a vain effort to control the damage burned. There was neither time, nor materials, for more than that. She screamed out loud in pulling her boots back on. Struggling back to her feet was pure hell, every muscle in her legs screaming in protest.
The next fifteen miles represented roughly thirty thousand individual steps for each of them. Each individual step meant effective vivisection of uncountable raw nerves as the material of the socks (even the dry socks they’d put on were soon soaked with blood and crud) and the boots rubbed against their poor tortured feet. Then the long drawn out flash of burning pain as they set one foot down was followed by pain of a slightly different quality as they lifted the trailing foot for the next step. Like crucifixion, hard marching varies its agonies so one can never quite grow used to them.
Unlike their own cadre, the men leading the march did apparently feel sympathy for them, did see them as real women, real people. They couldn’t slow the pace; a standard had been set they were under compulsion to have the Amazons meet. Nor were they allowed to help the females carry anything; that would have been a violation of training regulations so gross as to call for a court-martial. Instead, they – some of them – suggested the girls give it up, fall out and fail. “It’s better than what you’re going through,” they said. There was a truck trailing the column to carry those who couldn’t make it.
Couldn’t make it? The Amazonas? Oh, no. They could and would, bleeding or not. Just as they’d called encouragement to each other, they heaped scorn on those men who suggested they drop out.
They were proud of each other that none of them took the testers up on that truck. They all knew pain by then, some them knew the pain of a long and difficult labor. All pain ends, in time.
Inez whispered, “But pride...pride lasts forever.”
In time, the road march portion of the test ended. For so long as she lived each woman would always recall the joyful cries of the leading ranks as they shouted, “The sea! The sea!”
It took rather longer for the pain to go away.
There was food, water (blessedly cool) and medical care waiting for them as the march ended. The medics did what they could to bandage the damaged feet. But, when the entire foot is wounded, bandages can’t help much. Still, the antibiotics they layered on were probably an aid in the longer term. Infection in tropical Balboa could be dangerous.
The women slept well, more or less dead to the world, before beginning the next phase. That wasn’t so bad; a lot of tests of individual skills and small unit tactics. They did as well as an equivalent group of men, perhaps a bit better. This phase took three days, time for their feet to partially heal. Then came the next-to-last phase, the “sickener.” The “sickener” was weighed very heavily in selection of leaders but failure to complete it wouldn’t cause failure in the course. It was almost optional.
That, too, was a march, only across country. The Amazons went by hovercraft to the real jungle, a godforsaken place near the western border, in the La Palma jungle. The trip across the bay was really wonderful, very fine. Everyone was in great spirits, singing and laughing. Why not? It was almost over. And they had graduated.
They didn’t know how long this “sickener” was to be, or how fast they had to go. Still, they thought, it couldn’t be as bad as what we’d just been through, even with our feet still in ruins.
They’d have thought right, too, except for one little thing or, rather, one class of little things. Those sat on the ground in front of each Amazon. They were steel, four pointed, and big enough that they couldn’t be fit into a rucksack.
Each weighed about thirty pounds. It had sharp edges, designed to dig into the shoulders. It was also uneven, cleverly designed so that there was absolutely no way to carry it in a reasonably comfortable and balanced position. Just to add insult to injury, the son of a bitch had loose pieces of steel inside to rattle around and make a most annoying racket. Its official name was “Nausea Inducer, Steel, Four-point, Projecting, Class B (female).”
They each had their own, to carry and to name. Trujillo called hers a “bitch.”
They picked up the “nausea inducers” and moved to the start points. Each of the women had a map and a compass. They also had a point in the jungle, two to three miles away, to which they had to navigate. No two girls both began at, and had to find, the same points. There wasn’t any company on this one, no one to help them in mind or body. Each girl was on her own, for most of them in a way they hadn’t been in their lives.
“You ready to go, chica?” the sergeant asked Inez when she reported to her start point.
“ ‘Private Trujillo, Inez, willing and able,’ Sergeant.” she echoed.
“Very good, Private Trujillo. From this point you will navigate on your own, without assistance or encouragement, carrying one ‘nausea inducer,’ to a point on your map as marked. There, you will be given a new map with a new point to navigate to. I can’t tell you how many points there are to your course, so don't ask. I can’t tell you how far the course is, so don't ask. I can’t tell you how fast you have to go, so don’t ask. Any questions?” He smiled, not precisely evilly.
“No, Sergeant. That pretty much covers everything.”
“Yes, it does. Private Trujillo, I mark the time as 06:48 hours. Good luck. Go.”
Between the condition of her feet and that horrid chunk of steel on her shoulders, she couldn’t run. She moved out as quickly as she could while still keeping her balance. The “bitch” ensured that she would not always be able to keep her balance.
It wasn’t all that hard finding the first point. She fell a few times; her “bitch” cut into her shoulders continuously. Still, it wasn’t too hard.
At the first point, another sergeant checked Inez’s name off of a roster, then handed her another map, taking back the old one. “A bit slow, Private Trujillo. I don't think you’re going to make it.”
Inez didn’t bother to answer. Throwing her bitch back on her shoulders, she half-trotted even further into the jungle before slowing down to a more practical speed
Even before reaching the third point – of who knew how many? – her bitch had actually succeeded in taking her mind partly off the puffed up bloody terror of her feet. The way it cut into her shoulder, wore down her arms, dug into her back or chest when she lost control of it (which was happening with increasing frequency) – above all, the goddamned rattling of steel on steel right into her ear – she began to really feel sick to her stomach with frustration.
Nausea Inducer? Oh, yeah.
At the third point the grader, this one was a corporal, said to her, in a voice dripping with concern, “Girl, you look like you’ve had about enough. Why don’t you knock off and take a break? There’s some coffee here, food. You can rest your feet and back for a bit and think about whether it’s worth keeping this shit up.”
Inez answered, “With all due respect, Corporal, please give me the next map and please, please...Fuck Off!”
She didn’t know it at the time – wasn’t thinking all that clearly, anyway, actually – but troops were allowed a certain latitude of expression on a “sickener.”
The corporal laughed, not unkindly. “Here you go, chica. But it won’t get any better.”
She looked at the map. It showed her she could follow the very ridge she was on for two and a half kilometers, then descend two hundred and fifty meters to a creek. From the creek she could go a very short distance north to a small bridge. From the bridge she could shoot an azimuth – take a direction with the compass – and walk, maybe run, less than four hundred meters to the next point. She re-shouldered her bitch and took off.
“Oh, the dirty, dirty bastards,” Inez muttered.
The ridge was fine. The creek had been there. She had, in fact, followed it for a while, frankly not paying enough attention. There was no bridge. They’d given her a doctored map. She didn’t know anymore exactly where she was. She’d been counting on that bridge.
Trujillo suddenly felt sick, sick, so very sick. I am going to lose time. I might fail. I don’t even have to be doing this. She sat by the side of the creek and wept for a while.
Great things, tears. A man might not have wept. He also might have given up right then; no outlet for frustration. Inez didn’t give up. She dried her face of tears and sweat, picked up that horrid chunk of steel, and walked as quickly as she could back to the last place she’d really known where she was, a spot beside the creek at the base of the ridge. Then she inflated her rubber air mattress and paddled herself and her “bitch” to the other side of the river.
As Inez was sitting her tiny frame on the air mattress to deflate it she had a borderline brilliant thought. She got off of the air mattress immediately and blew a little more air into it. Then she took some cord and tied the mattress so it cushioned the bitch.
Oh, it was hot and sticky after a while. But it dulled the sharp edges and – blessed relief! – dulled the damned noise. She took another compass bearing and began a fast walk uphill to the fourth point.
At the fourth point two sisters from different platoons sat with hanging heads and downtrodden expressions. The sergeant there offered them some cool water. They refused.
“Why don't you join them Private...Trujillo?” he asked. “They’ve done the smart thing. You look like a smart girl. You should join them, give up on this shit.”
The girls wouldn’t meet Inez’s eyes.
She didn’t trust herself to say much of anything to the sergeant beyond, “Map, please, Sergeant.”
The next two points, numbers five and six, were uneventful. She took the piece of map that led to point seven and looked at it. _There is no way I am going to reach it – even near it – before sundown. She didn’t mind sleeping in the jungle, except for the snakes, and the unthinkably nasty antaniae, but she’d never been out there completely on her own before. She was pretty sure she didn’t like the idea.
The corporal at the point tossed her a single ration before she departed. As he did so he said to her, “You’re doing okay. Don’t listen to the ones who tell you different. And don't tell anyone I told you.”
“Thank you, Corporal,” she said, and meant it. “I won’t.”
She made it about halfway to point seven before night fell, pushing on to use every last bit of daylight available.
Inez didn’t bother putting up a poncho to sleep under. She put up the net against the mosquitoes and the moonbats. She also had a can of bug spray and doused herself liberally with that, then rolled up in her poncho to go to sleep.
Snakes and moonbats notwithstanding, the jungle is really not an especially dangerous place. But it can sound that way. Between the howling monkeys, the occasional splash in any nearby body of water, the cries of all manner of wildlife, a person can lay awake all night with worry. And, while the septic-mouthed antaniae gathered, with their cries of mnnbt-mnnbt-mnnbt, they rarely attacked anything that wasn’t terribly young and weak.
As Inez was starting to drift off she felt a certain warmth at the corporal’s few kind words of encouragement.
Then she sat up with a start. She knew.
The son of a bitch had just said those things to lull me into complacency. I’m not doing “Okay.” No one in my shape could be doing all that well.
She was up in a flash, stowing what little bit of her gear she’d broken out. Her compass she set by the filtered glow of her flashlight. Then she shouldered the whole stinking load and began to weave her way as close to point seven as she could, given the fact that she tripped about every third step.
She remembered something Garcia had once said just before a much shorter navigation exercise, “By the way, did I mention that, while you’re safe enough in the jungle at night – if you stay in one place – there are any number of things out there that will kill you if you blunder into them?”
Trujillo was scared to death at each step she took. Every time she reached a hand out to grab a vine it was an act of will to make herself touch it; snakes hang from trees, too.
I don’t like snipers or snakes.
The sun arose the next day to find one terrified, exhausted, scratched and generally bruised Inez. Nor did she dare to take a break. A few hours later she came to point seven. There was a centurion manning that point.
“Private Trujillo, this is not bullshit. Your next point is seven and one half kilometers away. It is probably not your last one. You are moving too slow to meet the standard. I suggest you hurry.”
“Just what the hell do you think I’ve been doing, Centurion, dawdling?” She just took the map without another word. God, it really is nearer to eight klicks away.
Inez alternated walking and semi-jogging with only the briefest of halts to check her bearings. The heat and humidity were nearly unbearable. How does the weather god know when it is most miserable to rain, most miserable to shine? He must read our training schedules.
With the pace, the load, her previous exertions – and some blood loss, too – she began to feel faint. She kept pushing on but she only barely kept on course.
Finally, she saw it, off in the distance and in the open; a jeep with a couple of troops lounging around. She fixed that image in her mind and concentrated on putting one foot in front of another. She staggered; she fell. But she just kept getting up to push onward. The jeep seemed impossibly far away.
As Trujillo drew closer she saw that were more people there, laying on the ground, unmoving. Closer still and they showed as girls, more than half a dozen of them. She couldn’t help thinking that whatever it was they said or did to the women at that point it was enough to make a large number of them quit. She began to cry again. But she kept walking.
Inez fell to her hand and knees. The damned bitch came loose from the air mattress to gouge her back and make a long ugly scrape down one arm. She stopped briefly to pick it up, then staggered back to her feet. She held the bitch by one hand, the air mattress by the other. Still weaving from side to side, she barely discerned that the girls that had been flat on their backs were sitting up. Some dim part of her mind might have registered the fact that they didn’t look defeated.
She fell again and crawled.
At the edge of a little clearing she got up on both knees, then swayed to her feet, and said, “Private Trujillo, Inez. May I have the next map, please?”
Cristina Zamora came up and put an arm around her, holding her up and squeezing her tight in shared triumph. “No more maps, Nezi. You made it.”
Not everybody did. Almost two thirds had given up before reaching the end, or let someone convince them that they were doing just fine and slacked off thereafter. They would graduate. They had missed an honor, though, and the chance to become leaders.
Not everyone who didn’t make it quit or failed. Three were dead. One fell into a ravine and broke her neck. One died of heat stroke. Another...well, they never found her body, though they found her pack and nausea inducer. She probably drowned, or was eaten. Or both. Most likely, both.
Some time later, when Inez was in charge of a group of fighting women, when she was all alone, scared, tired and miserable, when she had to win a fight first with herself to make herself go on before she could make anyone else do so, she had cause to remember that “sickener.”
The test wasn’t quite over. They spent two days searching for the bodies though they only found two of them. Then, after a few hours rest they moved to a broad river and waited for transport. The same hovercraft came back to take them back to the island for their graduation exercise. This was nothing much, a series of platoon attacks on an ‘enemy’ strongpoint, using live ammunition. The only reason they did it was so the President and some of the Senate, plus Duque Carrera – and, via TV, the rest of the population – could watch them go through their paces.
After that they went back to barracks, cleaned up, and turned in such of their gear as belonged to the training base. The uniforms, rifles, and individual equipment were theirs to keep forever. They even had a full two days to recover and rest; that, and prepare for graduation parade.
In the old days, before the Legions had begun transforming themselves from a regular force of mercenaries or, depending on one’s definitions, auxiliaries, into a national army, the Isla Real had been home to approximately fifty thousand soldiers and their families. Now, the bulk of those regulars had moved to the mainland to provide the cadres for reserves and militia formations, and even the numbers of troops present had shrunk to under twenty thousand, mostly people in training plus maybe five thousand regulars with their families present.
Even so, a large percentage of those that were there had turned out to watch the official formation of the Tercio Amazona and the graduation parade of its first members. Carrera was there, along with a select committee from the Senate and his wife, Lourdes. The president was not there.
“And so,” Carrera asked of Senator Cardenas, chief of the select committee, seated next to him on the reviewing stand, “will the Senate pay for the two tercios? Now that you’ve seen them?”
“We’ll…pay for them,” Senator Cardenas agreed, with bad grace. “But the special uniforms and the statue are on you.” He pointed with a chin at a bronze, life-sized statue of a woman. The work suggested a beautiful bone structure but with skin roughened by the chisel. She sat atop a rock, clad in partial abdominal armor of an extremely archaic design. The woman was grasping weapons – bow, spear – in her hands. Her upper body was exposed, leaving her breasts bare. Except that she didn’t have breasts. One of them, the right one, was excised, as if by a rude scalpel and fire. Only the bronze simulacrum of scar tissue remained.
“Very good,” Carrera said, genially. “I wanted the kilts and the statue to be my personal gifts, anyway. My thanks to the Senate. And now…”
He stopped speaking as the pipes and the drums of the training base band marched out from the right as the reviewing stand faced and onto the close-cropped, emerald green parade field. The band was followed by eight tiny platoons of about twenty to twenty-four women each.
The women were dressed in kilts, with white ruffled shirts and light waistcoats above. Their feet were encased in heavy shoes, with hose held up by garters over their calves. Atop their heads each woman wore a Glengarry, cocked to the right, ribbons hanging down free behind. It had never been made a part of their dress uniform, but each of the women had, apparently by mutual agreement, posted a large red flower over her left ear.
Lourdes bent her head to whisper something in her husband’s ear.
Carrera nodded, looked at the flowers and smiled, mostly to himself. Good, very good. Then he stood to receive the report.
The band counter-columned off to the left as the platoons of women left-wheeled to face the reviewing stand. The Adjutant for the training base took the report from Tribune Silva, then turned and reported to Carrera, “Duque, all present for the induction onto the Legion’s rolls of the Thirty-sixth Tercio.
“Post the orders,” Carrera said, then stepped away from the podium.
“Pursuant to Legionary Headquarters directives of…”
While the adjutant was speaking, Carrera stepped off the reviewing stand and looked around at the front of its base. There, carefully tended, were some extensive flower beds. He ignored what was going on around him, while he selected out a particularly large and beautiful red blossom, then plucked it, leaving six or more inches of stem.
He walked to the statue, and waited, listening for the adjutant to say, “…the Thirty-Six Tercio of Mountain Foot, Amazonas, is formed and called to the colors.”
On the word, “colors,” Carrera stuck the red blossom behind the statue’s left ear.
Then, still smiling, he walked back to the podium, took it over from the adjutant. He gave Lourdes a wink and began, “My beautiful bitches…”