Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beagle's Shorts

Peter S. Beagle: The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances (Tachyon Publications; 1997; ISBN 0-9648320-7-0; cover by Michael Dashow).

Made up of: Under the Zucchini (Patrica A. McKillip); Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros; Come Lady Death; Lila the Werewolf; Julie's Unicorn; The Naga; Pittsburgh Stories; Telephone Call; My Daughters Name is Sarah; Learning a Trade; My Last Heroes; D.H. Lawrence in Taos; The Poor People's Campaign.

Counts as thirteen entries in the 2010 Year in Shorts.

I recently received Mirror Kingdoms from Subterranean Press and was shelving it when I saw I had another collection by Peter S. Beagle...this one...and much to my embarrassment, I realized that not only did I have this collection but I had never read it.

Putz.

So I sat down and read it. Overall, an amazing journey!

Beagle is known more for his long works (A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn, etc.) than his shorter works. In fact, in the introduction to Mirror Kingdoms he talks about a very long dry spell for short works lasting years. So perhaps a can be forgiven for having overlooked this book.

Putz.

What really struck me about most of the stories were the fantastical elements. Or, how unnecessary they are because Beagle just knows how to tell a good story. Take the first tale in the collection, Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros (cleverly retagged to give the title a name). Forget the rhinoceros/unicorn that can spout philosophy. Strip away that fantasy element. What is left? A very moving tale about a bachelor professor who moves through life affecting students and having a relationship with another professor where neither can move towards a commitment. Until it is too late. Good stuff.

Luckily for you, if you cannot find this collection (it is even autographed by the author, you putz, how could you forget about this book for years?), you might be able to find Mirror Kingdoms easily. Which I am now reading, so it does not spend more than a decade on my bookshelves. Putz.

FTC Disclaimer: Despite being a putz and having the book on the shelf for several years, I actually bought it. What a putz.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Even More City Noir

Now that I'm about to re-watch the "restored" edition of the classic Metropolis comes the news of an even more restored version (coming in November 2010).

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Space Review

A couple of installments from The Space Review.

From the April 5, 2010 issue: Dwayne Day wonders if people will still flock to sites like Kennedy Spaceport once the big (government) launches are gone. Jeff Foust looks at the demand for launches in the commercial sector.

From the April 12, 2010 issue: Jeff Foust looks at the "maturing" NewSpace industry. Dwayne Day looks at current and future "space coast ghosts". Angela Peura tries to clear up what the "new direction" in space will be. Gemini on steroids? Jonathan Coppersmith also looks at the new direction and decides it isn't bold enough.

From the April 19, 2010 issue: Jeff Foust looks at the reset button. G. Ryan Faith also examines the new direction (still seems like there are more rumors than facts with all these articles). S. Alan Stern (a real rocket scientist) urges the diversification of the "spaceflight portfolio". Dwayne Day continues the Air Launched Sortie series (shades of the film Moonraker with that top illustration!). Finally, Jeff Foust on Leonard Nimoy's thoughts on NASA.
Born Under Punches

Yep, still here. See occasional updates under The Year in Books and The Year in Shorts.

Things have not gotten quieter since my father died. Since then my mother has had a broken furnace, a broken water heater (twice) and a broken septic system. Plus harassing telephone calls from somebody who got her name from one of the published obituaries.

Toss in some health issues with the in-laws. Shake well and toss in a aged dog who is getting more aged (16+ years, breed average 10 years) who has been to the vets twice this week and is now in doggy hospital. Toss in homework, book reports, projects, etc.

Life is busy. Just not busy online. But, yep, I am still here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog

"Well, the fact of the matter, Stephen," said Jack, staring at the cow, "the fact of the matter is that she refuses the bull. He is game enough, oh Lord, yes; but she will have nothing to say to him. Then he flies into a hellfire passion, bellowing and tearing up the ground; and we go without milk."
A Voice Crieth Out in the Wilderness

[Sophie said] "Tell me, how do you find [Jack], after all these weeks?'

'More worn than I could wish,' said Stephen, looking at her.

'Yes,' said Sophie, and she paused before going on, 'And there is something on his mind. He is not the same. It is not only the ships and all the business: besides, the invaluable Mr Adams takes a great deal of that off his hands. No. There is a sort of reserve...it is not that he is in the least unkind—but you might almost say a coldness. No. That would be an absurd exaggeration. But he often sleeps in his study because of the paper-work or because he is out late. And even when he does not he gets up at night and walks about until the morning.'


(Patrick O'Brian, The Commodore)

(Administrative Note: I am still around. I am still alive. However, family matters continue to wear me down.)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

By Special Request of the Colonel (III)

(Third installment of a forthcoming novel.)

Interlude

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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...

Chapter Seven

Ladies do not dothat 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 lapin 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.”

“0227?”

From everybody: “Gorgidas runs to break up the fun.”

“0230?”

“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.

“0235?”

“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.

“0236?”

“Inez and crew charge for the brew.”

“0246?”

“The suds are stowed in the laundry bags. Who says the Amazons are just young hags?” Yes, poetry was not their forte.

“0251?”

“Marta, Maria, Inez and crew are back in the ditch with a beer for you. Pull in security!”

“0253?”

“Crawl away home.”

“0307?”

“The beer in the bags goes down in the pits. The girls go to bed while the cadre have fits.”

“0310?”

“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...”

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Ansible!

The April 2010 issue of the one science fiction fanzine you just can't do without is...out.

Bruce Sterling has discovered that Hacking in the Computer World by 'Sandeep Gupta', published in 2004, is in fact a pirate repackaging of his very own The Hacker Crackdown (1992). 'Great re-skinning job there! Digging the new cover!' (Wired blog, 17 March) [LP]