VERDUNN TO U-GOR
Mars art by Paul Privitera
By Rick Johnson
PART I: FRANCE
She sat there, cleaning her rifle, letting her boots dry as best they could in this miserable muck they called a trench. Trench foot killed more people than bullets and she had seen too many people drown in the mud of the trenches simply because they slipped in that same mud and by the time anyone noticed, a hundred men had walked over the body, pressing it deeper until they died. Sometimes she wondered how many people lay beneath. But mostly she wondered if she was going to get out alive.
This was her first campaign alone. Her friend, her mentor, her lover, Arinnatol, had been sent elsewhere and she almost resigned to avoid the separation. But then, she decided that she was no longer a young innocent girl who needed to be taken care of. She had proven that in the last ten years since she left Denmark back in the Bronze Age. Now she was in France, as they now called this land. The Great War! The War to End all Wars! As if that were possible. So long a mankind existed, there would be war. And the Vartanians had proved that War wasn't solely a human event.
The Captain was talking, trying to encourage the men, ignoring the mercenaries for he still believed that war was the occupation of nobility. Unfortunately, the nobility sent the peasantry to die for causes that were long past noble.
“We're going over again,” Vlad commented. He was Turkish, the son of a Romanian Janissary taken to fight for the Empire so considered himself to be a Turk, even though his name and race and ancestry were of a long-conquered people.
Estrith nodded and pulled her darned socks on, then her boots, then she began to collect her gear. Canteen of water, extra rounds, and even her gas mask. Few of the French had one of these, many trying to breath through broken wine bottles filled with charcoal and grass for the French had few masks to spare, and even fewer for the troops. And so they resented the Vartanian Mercs who always had the best and plenty of it. It was one of the reasons people joined, the regular soldier knew that his weapons and armor had been made by the lowest bidder who cut costs and increased profit by rushing substandard equipment to the front. But Mercenaries made certain that they had the best! Any suspicion otherwise would get their officers nailed to a post to be used for target practice by both sides.
Vartanian officers took care of their men because their own lives depended on it.
BUT, a merc was always the last to receive medical attention. And when captured, mercs were often executed instead of treated decently as prisoners of war. It was a trade-off. She got paid more and had better gear and plenty of food but she also got the worst jobs.
One of the Frenchies wandered over for there were two women in the Vartanian company. There had been three but the third died over the months that had whittled the Mercs from a hundred to half that number. The French were the worse for although their Company still contained a hundred men, all but one or two were new. Few survived the battles where an officer received his commission due to his Noble Birth and not his competence, where a new officer was a colonel because his father had been one and who learned his tactics from reading the Classics in school. These men still believed that the phalanx was the ultimate in warfare and so sent wave after wave of men into No-Man's-Land on a suicidal bayonet charge… suicidal because the Greeks and even Caesar never had to contend with land mines and water-cooled machine guns and clouds of mustard gas.
She knew that the phalanx didn't work for she had fought for Athens against other Greeks in their innumerable wars. When you had a thousand men carrying 10 to 20 foot spears in 60 pounds of bronze armor and carrying a three foot shield and no underwear, you may start out facing the enemy but as you advanced, survival dictated that you shift to the right for more protection. By the time the spears engaged, near a third of the phalanx was to the right of the enemy.
Her first days in Greece she had her thinner and lighter breastplate reformed to conform to her small breasts and smaller waist. Even then the hoplite never wore clothes, the cold or hot bronze (depending on when she donned it and how hot the sun was) holding to bare skin. She stared up at first, afraid to see, for in her native Bronze Age, the only time a woman was naked was when bathing and sex was mostly a lifting of the heavy skirts they wore to allow for access. Then when she dared to glance down, she was amazed at the variety of the male members. So many sizes and shapes! Finally she got bored and just looked at her fellow soldiers in the eyes.
The hoplites of Athens would laugh, commenting that amazons needed but one bulge in their breastplates for the Greeks saw a woman's place to be naked, on her back and making dinner for her man. In war.. they used the term ‘amazon’ as an insult.
In battle, though, she and her company were heavy troops who used the sword over the spear and so were looked as inferior. Until her first battle where she got separated from Anonnatol and fount herself facing a Spartan twice her size, or so it seemed. His first blow rent her shield and drove her to the ground which saved her for she sat there, legs spread, bare of any clothing between waist and knee. The Spartan stared at her lack of member, his heavy kopis raised but held. Estrith recovered and slashed with her shorter blade, causing the Spartan to drop shield and sword as he screamed for his lost member. She recovered, thrust, feeling her blade slide under bronze seeking his vitals. For the rest of the battle, she hid under her shield slashing at naked calves, thighs and phalli until she was alone, Anonnatol helping her to her feet. “What so low? Checking the Spartan men? Am I not man enough for you now?” he joked.
She staggered to the side then pulled him to her, removing nothing but helmet, now glad for the Greek custom of naked battle for it made his access easier. She had been taken in public before, Danish men often took slave girls and lovers in public, often on the table as their fellows ate next to the rape. But this was the first time she didn't mind people watching!
Six months later peace was declared and the Company time-jumped to another war.
Estrith's last charge over-the-top was, like them all, a disaster. But the mercs had hit the ground when the Maxim's opened up. Estrith watched dozens of French troops march blindly into the German machine guns to die without getting within range of the enemy. The mercs hugged the ground, found cover and sniped at the Germans. The French officers called them cowards, the mercs called themselves smart and remained alive.
“So, today we march to glory! This time we will push the Germans across the Rhine.”
“If that were possible, why are we still in the same trench that was dug at the beginning of the war? All that will happen is that you will die and be replaced by another fool from the provinces.” She replied as she laced her boots. Tie the lower loose, the upper tight!
“You know nothing of this war!” he spat.
“I know more than you.”
“Whore!” he spat as he walked away. “We go to glory!”
“Corpse,” she laughed back. “Not until the artillery ceases.”
“Estrith?” it was Vlad again, laughing quietly. “Try to not bait the French. Some day your life may be in their hands.”
“I know. But they are such fools.”
“And what are we?”
“Paid better. Besides, when the Vartanians found me, I was an old woman, dying of disease and starvation and the cold, my arthritis not even allowing me to feed myself. They made me young and healthy and gave me a new life. So I have few regrets these last ten years since I left Denmark a couple thousand years ago.” She had fought a dozen wars, time-skipping forward as her local-contracts ended. In Greece, she remained two years. In Crecy, she remained a month fighting for the English, In China, a year. Here, six months so far. Each war moving forward in time until she lost all respect for King and Country as she watched the stupid blunders made by fools who thought there was honor and glory in war. She had lost three sons in war with the Swedes, two daughters gang-raped by the Germans. Others lost to disease and starvation when the Winter over-lasted. So now, immune to disease and sterile (let others raise their brats, she was done with childbirth) she simply enjoyed what life gave.
Vlad laughed, “Well then, my pretty Dane, how about a quick one before we die?”
She laughed back. “Do we have time?”
“Only if we forgo the kissing you like.”
She led him to the back, “All women like to be kissed, but you are right.” She dropped her pants and bent over, unwilling to be barefoot or naked when the call came, then gasped at his entry. Sex in Denmark was never this good! At least these more modern men understood how to make a woman feel good. Her duty had been to make her husband happy and gather what she could on her own.
Soon enough, too soon, he finished, but remained to help her climax, a trait she enjoyed with Vlad. Then they pulled their pants as their Captain called, “If you are DONE, we have a war to fight!”
“Coming Captain.” Estrith laughed. “Get us out alive and I'll be on my knees for you.”
“I'll make you keep that promise, Estrith. For now, we flank right, snipers on the machine guns. Don't take chances.”
And so the whistles blew and the French climbed to their doom, the occasional soldier falling back dead and dying as the bullets took their toll. Less than half would live out this day, she thought.
She had once asked the Captain if there were Vartanian Mercs fighting for the Germans. “Of course” was the reply. “We fight for whomever pays us. But don't worry, The Vartanians make certain we never face each other.”
She moved forward with her squad towards the rubble of a farmhouse, now nothing but a pile of rocks. Both sides used it as a place for snipers, which is why it attracted artillery and why the Vartanians avoided it. Estrith preferred the safety of a shell-crater and the ejecta around the hole. This time, however, something went wrong.
She was about to settle in when the shell exploded. She never heard the whine, nor the detonation, but when she awoke, her head hurt and she heard only ringing in her right ear. Reaching up, she touched blood from her left. Probably lost her eardrum, but the endomorphs were kicking in and the pain had reduced to a dull throb. She managed to lift up enough to see the squad, what was left, dead. Stupid luck.
She looked around for help, afraid her legs were gone, but they were just numb, as she sought help. Then she saw the cloud blowing towards her. Training took over and she pulled her mask free, stopped breathing, donned the rubber, covered the intake, sucked in as the mask collapsed, then when it failed to return, she knew the seal was good so she breathed out, confidant that she'd not blister her lungs. She started to move out of the crater for the gas settled in the low areas and would displace the air, causing her to die anyway when she saw the glint of a bayonet. The Germans were advancing through the gas, a bayonet attack preceded by the mustard gas. Those the gas left alive would face 18” of German steel at the end of a German Mauser.
She reached the rim, then pulled a corpse over her, hiding her mask and as much of her body as she could, twisting her legs in an uncomfortable position. Then she slowed her breathing and pretended that she was dead. Hopefully they'd be concentrating on the advance and not looting bodies.
It almost worked but one soldier pushed the body away and poked her with his bayonet, testing for life.
She must have reacted as the German poked again and again until she opened her eyes to face the other. She assumed that he was saying something but she was deaf so touched her ears and showed him blood on the fingers. He nodded and motioned for her to stand, she did, barely.
Then as she stood, trying to not fall over, another German searched her, finding her revolver then feeling her chest, stopped, repeated then grabbed her breast and squeezed!
Estrith wasn't a goddess, but normal for her time, barely a handful and not enough to sag, but it was enough. She saw the Germans talk then one motioned for her to head for German lines as he followed. They were taking prisoners, or maybe only females for she had heard what the Germans did to women they captured. Holding them down as the company took their turns until the woman died. Or shoving their bayonets up her twat then firing their rifles just before she bled to death. She planned her escape.
Like all Vartanian Mercs, she had been trained in Martial Arts of which the Germans and French were ignorant so as soon as she stopped hurting and could move well, she'd stumble and as the German reached to help her, she'd break his arm and punch to his windpipe. But that time never arrived.
Luck was with the Germans for the wind continued to blow the gas to the west and she was soon out of the cloud and walking under the clear sky. She eventually was given to a sergeant who had a number of other prisoners, two coughing blood. It would be a mercy to kill them before they drowned in their own lung blisters but a German medic was trying to help them anyway.
The sergeant spoke to her, so she removed her mask and pointed to her ear. He looked, called for a medic who came and after looking at her, spoke back, the ringing denying her their words for she spoke German well. Also French and English, the Vartanians having put that information into her brain before they landed.
Then the sergeant looked at her mask and held his hand for it. She gave it over because she had no choice and when he saw how good the make, he kept the mask for himself, giving her his own. At least she had some protection from the gas, though not as good as before. The German then motioned her to one side where she stood behind a fence with the others, all too shocked to resist.
Other prisoners were brought in, searched and placed into the cage, one was ordered to do something. With lowered head, the Frenchman unbuttoned his shirt to reveal breasts larger than her own. Another woman. The Sergeant stared then sent her to the cage, the woman buttoning her shirt in embarrassment.
Estrith went to her, took her aside and held her as she cried, Estrith had never pretended to be a man, but some women did for their own reasons.
Estrith awoke as the woman shook her, pulling her to her feet. The others were in line and it soon became clear that they were being fed, each prisoner being handed a steel plate, dull fork and spoon and cup (no knife) then they passed the table where a German put a ladle of stew into the plate and another poured water into their cups. Estrith took both with a smile and a ‘danka’ and sat with the other woman, her hearing finally returning, on the right. Her left hearing was gone until she could reach a Vartanian medical center.
“Who are you?” she heard the Frenchwoman ask as if from a distance through the ringing.
“Estrith Mormor of Denmark. I am a mercenary fighting for France. And you?”
“Claire deBois. My lover Pierre enlisted so I cut my hair to be with him.” She was crying a bit.
“You were never found?”
She laughed. “There is no privacy in the trenches but no one saw or cared to look. Until today.” It happened. Women would follow their lovers, pretending to be a man. Or they would assume male mannerisms, denying their gender to defend their country or for the excitement. It happened. In Greece, and in Troy, there were entire companies of women including the Amazons who helped Troy in the innumerable wars against Greece for control of the strait that led to the Black Sea. In Greece, with the lack of clothing, a woman dressed as a hoplite (they wore no clothes under their armor) would be instantly discovered as lacking the male member so they simply fought as women, to the anger of the men who saw women as best barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.
“I hear what the Germans do to women. It scares me.”
Estrith held her and tried to give some comfort. Although she had never been forced, she understood the act. “In Cathay, they say, ‘when rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it’.”
“I cannot do that. Those .. monsters crushing me under their hairy bodies.”
“If you fight, they will beat you, break your teeth and limbs. Relax, close your eyes and think of Pierre, then endure. You will be sore, but alive and unharmed.”
The Sergeant entered, guarded by two soldiers, though none of the prisoners had the strength to resist. Then seeing her, came forward and spoke in very bad French, “You Vartanian?’
“I am, and I speak German if that will help. What will you do to us?”
“Why are you helping the French when your fellows are fighting for us?”
“We are mercenaries. We fight for whomever pays us.”
He laughed, “It will be interesting to see your people fight our Vartanians. What is your name and nationality?”
He wrote the information in a book, asked a few more questions then asked, “Do you care for this woman?”
“As much as I care for anyone. She needs a friend.”
“Good, we are sending you to a camp for women. Since you speak French and English and German, you will be in charge. Follow orders, keep the women in line and no harm will come to anyone.”
“We will not be raped or shot?”
Angry, he snapped back, “We are not savages. Unlike the British who castrate German prisoners and tie German woman for the pigs to violate. No, you will not be harmed.”
She stopped him from turning away, “Sergeant, thank you for your kindness, and for the record, the lies you tell about the British are the same lies it seems the French tell about you.”
He smiled back and said, “Thank you. Please get your charges ready to march. The train leaves in a few hours.”
The march to the train was not long, maybe an hour and they were not allowed to rest for fear that they would miss the train. Then, as the prisoners were being herded into a boxcar, she was pulled aside by a soldier, “You, go there!” she spoke slowly as would a man who believed that simple words spoken slow and loud would be understood.
She nodded and left, ignored by the Germans save an occasional glance by the wounded Germans who were also on that train, only in the nicer cars.
Momentarily, her plans for escape were thwarted when she saw the uniform. A Vartanian officer who motioned her over. “Report!” he ordered, his voice polite but firm.
“Estrith Mormor, late of the 24th. Recently assigned to the French Army at Verdunn.” No Vartanian saluted an officer. You saved that for the Masters.
He nodded, then listened. Officers had a wireless implanted in their skulls so they could send and receive information easily. “You are listed as dead and your Company also save a dozen survivors. So it seems that you are being reassigned. I have ten men going to Barsoom next week. Are you interested?”
“Barsoom? I don't know the place. It sounds like Africa.”
“Hardly. The humans call it Mars. I'll have a file sent to you but until then, I'll give you my room in that hotel over there. Don't get lost. Dismissed.” He turned away to confer with some German officers who seemed to think that she was with the Vartanians fighting for Germany, not France. But you always had a choice. She was offered a chance to see another planet, but she could refuse and resign or refuse and request another assignment or refuse and go to the POW camps. She had time, a week.
Estrith returned to the prisoners and sought out Claire. “Claire, I was freed by one of my officers, I can free you. But there is a price! You can go to the camp with the rest of your countrymen or you can go with me to fight another war, for other masters.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, “The Czechs, the Russians?”
“Neither, Claire, I was born in Denmark almost three-thousand years ago. I was dying, an old woman when the Vartanians found me. I thought that they were the trolls from the Eddas come to take me to the ice Giants. But they are from another world, a star so distant you cannot see it in the sky and they offered to make me young and healthy again if I would fight for them. For the past ten years of my life, I am seventy-six, I have been fighting as a soldier, moving forward in time to this day. But my Company is gone and I am offered a chance to join another one, go to Mars to fight. I can take you if you want. But the choice is yours.”
“Mars? 3,000 years? It sounds like your head is hurt in the explosion. But if it will get me out of this cage and someplace safe, I'll pretend to believe you. Better than gang-raped by the Germans.”
“Then come, perhaps we can get a hot bath and decent food.” Estrith led Claire to the hotel, not knowing why she did that.
There wasn't much in the hotel. But the Vartanian had food and clean clothes delivered and when she asked for a bath, the management, an old woman whose husband and son had died in the trenches, told her, “We have no hot water but I can fill a tub for you.”
Estrith nodded then examined the officer's room. Officers made certain that they had better gear than anyone, it was one of the perks for living so long, you learned how to bend the Rules. You couldn't have anything that could not be made locally, but if you had lived a half-century with the aliens, you could probably build a blaster or phase-cannon from what you found in Ancient Egypt. And Estrith found the tube. Claire laughed when she saw it, “it looks like a man's member,” she commented, not even blushing and for the inexperienced, it could. It was about five inches long with a rounded bulb at one end and of a silvery-metallic color. Well, It COULD be used that way, possibly even had been by the officer. You lost a lot of your inhibitions and prejudices when you served aliens who cared not the race or species of those they recruited. For a woman who once thought that anyone born outside her area of Denmark was a savage animal, she had come to accept almost anything.
Still, she opened her other hand and Claire ran to hug her for the surprise. A simple bar of soap!
“Watch!” and Estrith set the phallic-like object into the tub of cold water. By the time the women were naked, the water was steaming hot. Claire wanted to wash outside and soak, so as to not soil the water but Estrith laughed, “The Vartanians have marvelous devices. This one will keep the water clean and hot. We can pour mud into this tub and five minutes later, it will be clean enough to drink.” Then she entered and sat with a moan of pleasure. “I so missed a hot bath. In Denmark, we bathed but once a year, if that. Now I cannot see how I lived without one.”
Claire joined immediately, the water clouding as the women washed themselves and each other, then as quickly clarifying. “Let me wash your hair, I so miss my long hair.” She said. Her hair was short as a man's while Estrith had cut her knee-length hair to her shoulders, then let it grow to halfway down her back.
Estrith enjoyed the sensation of having someone massage her hair and lost herself in the sensual delight when she felt something. Claire was caressing her back with her breasts. Estrith definitely felt something moving there. She moved forward, then felt them again, “Claire?”
“Do you not like the feeling, my dear?”
Estrith had been with enough men in Denmark, some she married, some for only a night, others for less time but the last ten years, though she had seen lesbians and men love each other, she had always been with but a single man and never a woman. “I, I've never…” To the Greeks who encouraged homosexuals, lesbians were seen as perverts who were stoned to death. The English and her own Danes weren't any more accepting.
Her hair was raised and she felt lips, soft and gentle lips on her neck and shoulder. A gentleness she had never before experienced save with Arinnatol who made her realize that sex was more than push in and spurt and leave. This felt… nice.
She felt a tongue explore the ridges of her ear, and moaning she barely heard Claire whisper, “do you want me to stop?”
Taking silence for assent, Claire explored Estrith's neck and shoulders then she felt hands move down. Her first kiss with a woman was long and .. different. Lacking the forceful insistence she had come to expect and enjoy from a man, .this was a tease. Soft, gentle, often barely touching, Estrith could well understand why some Amazon women took female lovers in Troy.
“So powerful, so much like a man, My Danish love, we will not give each other sex, but I WILL make love to you.” and Claire left the tub, pulling Estrith with her. “A bed, a real bed with clean sheets! What a wonderful life you live to have such in a time of war.”
“My Vartanian Masters keep us comfortable.” Estrith tried to explain then felt the taller woman press naked flesh to naked flesh.
Estrith explored, finding that she enjoyed the sensation of kissing bare skin as much as being kissed, feeling her hardened nipples graze skin. Arinnatol had come from a nation where women went bare of hair so had had hers removed for him. All save her womanly area. And she found that the sensation of her bare skin against Claire's not so bare (shaving of anything was impossible in the trenches) to be a bit disconcerting. So suggested, “Claire, would you mind if we removed your excess hair. If I am to be with a woman, I want to feel her lovely skin.”
Claire touched, lightly, Estrith's legs, caressing their smoothness and agreed, “If my skin can be as soft as is yours, by all means. Have you a razor?”
Laughing, “No, we use other ways,” and she searched the officer's kit for what she needed. “I doubt he will object.” The device was small, a large disc with a flattened side that Estrith pressed against Claire's skin. A slight humming appeared and Claire laughed, “It tickles.” Then as Estrith worked her way up, the giggles turned to moans. “It feels like.. like…. Like I am leaning against an automobile engine. Don't.. don't.. don't stop! Then Claire grasped the other's hand and pressed tight as she shuddered.
“That isn't supposed to happen,” Estrith smiled, “but I can see why. Now your arms and we can begin anew.”
“What of you?”
“My hairs will never return for I used a different manner. But men like their beards at times so .. now kiss me again.”
When done, Claire commented, “Yes, my love, I prefer men, but sometimes a woman's touch ca be such a refreshing change. Do you not agree?”
“Come her and kiss me, you fool.” And she fell asleep, holding the other, relaxed and feeling safe for the first time since she had arrived in France.
She ‘felt ‘ that she wasn't alone. Ten years of warfare gave the survivors that instinct but when she started to move, she heard a male voice, ‘stand down’ in Vartanian and she relaxed instantly. She was programmed to that command so obeyed. Still she opened her eyes and saw the officer whose room she occupied staring at the two. Then he turned to the washroom and closed the door.
She was asleep when she felt the bed creak and glancing around, saw that the officer had entered the bed next to her, he wearing his undergarments, then almost instantly, the officer was asleep. Sighing, Estrith fell asleep again in the overly crowded bed.
The next morning she awoke as the bed moved, not as in someone getting in or out, moving as in sex! She rolled over to see that her lover of the previous night was now underneath the officer and apparently enjoying the experience. Well, never one to watch, Estrith left and sought the privy, killing time until the sounds ceased, then she returned to ask, “Done?”
Claire stretched, mumbled, “yes,” and pulled the blanket over herself. The officer left for the privy and commented, “I'll be back, we can discuss your actions, past and future, when I return.”
“Great!” she thought. “I was between so if he wanted sex, he could have rolled over onto me. Instead, he walked around the bed for Claire. Either I am in trouble or he has specific tastes in women.”
Estrith spent the time picking the room up, getting dressed and trying to look busy until the door opened. “Tell me about her,” he ordered.
“You should know, you were just fucking her,” is what she almost snapped. But she was still a soldier and answered, not at attention but while cleaning her boots, “She was a prisoner taken in the same battle as was I. I felt sorry for her and when you pulled me from that cage, I returned for her.”
“The French don't enlist women.”
“She cut her hair and disguised herself to follow her lover. I guess he died recently.”
“She's a bit overly passionate for a recent widow?”
“Some people seek life to counter the fears of death. Am I in trouble?”
“Hardly,” he laughed. ”I was just curious when she came to me after so obviously being with you. Have you considered my offer for Barsoom?”
“No sir, I'd like to see the report if I may.”
“It should be here soon. In the meantime, are you interested in joining our German contingent? You have a week before you leave.”
Sighing, she replied, “Sir, I've seen my friends killed by the Germans. I'd rather not desecrate their memory by aiding those who killed them. Besides, I am deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the other and probably have a mild concussion.”
“Understandable. I'll have a medic waiting for you. What are you going to do with her?” he motioned to the woman fast asleep in his bed.
She lowered her boot and walked to the bed, touching the short hair, “I talked to her about enlisting. She doesn't have anything left here. I don't know if she will agree or not.”
“Recruitment bonus?” Mercs with the Vartanians got a bonus for enlisting others, a bonus that increased with the skills and value of the new enlistee.
Turning, “I hadn't thought of that, sir. I just… I wanted her out of that POW camp.”
“Barsoom will NOT be an easy war. After you read the papers, you may wish for No-Man's Land and the gas attacks again.” He looked down, she had seemed much prettier last night and earlier this morning. “I'll arrange for transport to the Ship for you two. If she fights, we'll have her mind wiped. In the meantime, I have a meeting with the German command. At least I get to report that we are no longer helping the French.”
He was leaving when she called, “Sir?”
“Where are you from?” Unless you were a Vartanian, you came from someplace and sometime on Earth. Usually.
He laughed, “I'm a Lyran from the Hyades. Anything else?” Lyrans were descended from Cro-Magnums abducted by the Reptilian Cylons as slaves. They had fought for their own freedom and lost which explained his appearance. Cro-Mags were superior humans before they interbred with Neanderthals to produce the mongrelized modern human race.
“No sir. Thank you for the room and bath.”
This time he smiled, “No problem, I wasn't using it.” He was gone before Estrith remembered that she never asked his name.
Estrith returned from the Common Room with a meal. It wasn't much, the best food being shipped to the front for the soldiers, but there was onion soup with a few vegetables gathered from the roads. No meat though. But it was hot!
“Wake up! She shook Claire who jumped and struck, Estrith stepping aside because she had expected the blow. “You're safe.”
She sat, the blanket falling from her naked body, then she grimaced, felt beneath the blanket and snapped, “Damn! Was I raped?”
“Hardly, from what I saw, you pursued him.”
“An officer of my Army. This is his room.” She avoided mentioning that the officer was fighting for the Germans.
Claire began to eat the soup, still naked, with the passion of one who was half-starved, which she probably was. “where are we?” she managed between mouthfuls.
“Behind German lines, in a German hotel. Don't worry!” Claire had stiffened. “We're safe for now. My officer, you earlier lover, promised to have us taken away from here.”
“Good. I don't remember much. I guess I was shell-shocked. I don't know what was real and what was a dream or hallucination.”
Not knowing what to do she took a chance and lifted Claire's face, “I was real!” and kissed her.
Smiling, the Frenchwoman laughed, “I'm glad. I think I thought he was Pierre, or maybe I just wanted him to be. You must think I am a slut!”
“No, just someone in pain. I washed our clothes while you were… busy, but you shouldn't wear your uniform around here. I'll see if he has something you can wear and not attract attention.” While Claire finished her meal, Estrith found some underpants and t-shirt and a pair of pants that needed mending. “Put these on, you won't attract as much attention if they think you are Vartanian.”
“You said that before, who are these Vartanians?”
She sat on the bed, using a crust of bread to soak the remaining soup and ate it. “I was maybe sixty-six when they found me. HE found me. It was a hard Winter and my family had to choose, feed an old woman who could no longer work or feed their children. So I was put into a cave to die so my great grandchildren could live. Arinnatol found me. He had been in a fight with my kin and was seeking a place to hide until the Vartanians could pick him up. He saw me and decided that an old woman shouldn't die alone and stayed with me. Then when the Vartanians arrived, I thought they were Trolls from the Eddas. We prayed to Odin and Thor who fought the Frost Giants and Trolls. I offered my life for his and the creature offered me a life.
“They come from a world so far away I cannot see it in the sky. They also gave up war among each other and now travel the stars selling themselves as soldiers.
“They made me young and healthy and I've fought for them these past ten years.”
“So, you are .. what? Seventy-six? You look damn good for an old woman.”
“They keep me young so long as I fight for them.”
“Monsters from another world hiring people to fight each other. Sounds .. sick!”
“Not quite. They have teams. V-San hunt and kill vampires. Zeds kill undead-zombies, others stay in space to keep other aliens away from Earth. What I do is just… well aggression is innate in most species. This allows them to be aggressive and not destroy themselves with planet-busters. It's not a bad life.”
“And why do you offer this to me?”
“I felt sorry for you.”
The two stared, then Clair offered, “Just so you know, last night was important to me too.”
“Just so you know, I'd never done that before.”
“Really?” she laughed. “In the trenches you had a reputation as a whore who'd lay with anyone.”
“Not anyone.” She replied. “I am old enough to know what I want and to not fear the scorn of people I don't care about. I like sex, now. So why not? I cannot become pregnant and am immune to disease so it’s fun. And,” she kissed Claire, tenderly, “I really did enjoy last night.”
They napped, then when she awoke, the report was on the table.
Estrith tossed the book to Claire who awoke with a start. “The report is here.”
Groggy, the Frenchwoman rubbed her eyes and mumbled, “How do they come and go without our knowledge?”
“They probably weren't really here.” The Dane laughed. Any race that could cross the vastness of space and time wouldn't be concerned with a hotel door latch.
Claire picked the book, a decent size but less than a few dozen pages, and opened it. She read, then flipped pages, stated at the photos and drawings, then offered it to the other. “Is this a joke?”
Estrith glanced over the book, printed in Italian but obviously a brief history of the Italian Renaissance, complete with photos of the more famous art from that time. Sitting next to her friend.. or lover… she'd have to settle that soon, the older woman said, “watch!” then closed the book. Estrith stroked the cover, gently, to give the book a chance to react, then opened it to find the contents different.
“Mother of God!” the other swore. “How?”
“It keeps the unwelcome, ignorant of us.” The book was in a language unfamiliar to anyone on Earth and showed a photograph of the planet Mars, of such clarity that Claire supposed that it must have been taken with the most powerful telescope known. Flipping through the book, Estrith explained, “Codes can be broken by anyone with the key. Languages cannot.”
“This chapter tells a bit about the planet, called Barsoom by its inhabitants. Gravity .37 Terran… that means you will weigh… (Estrith glanced at Claire's body, emaciated by the privations of war and calculated…) perhaps 40 pounds total! Air is thin, temperature warm to hot during the day but cold at night. Food mostly poison… here is a list of what we can safely consume. Biology, strange, all the animals have six, eight or ten legs.”
“They look like giant bugs!”
“Elephants have thick legs to resist the gravity of Earth. On Mars, a gazelle can grow to the size of an elephant with little fear of shattered limbs. Here, sentient life.”
The two looked at the photos for a very long time. “Those green monsters are hideous!” Claire whispered. “Like giant bugs!”
“But the Red Men look human enough. Here is a footnote: ‘it is believed that all human life on Barsoom originated on Earth. -D. Valdron!’ I hear that is not unusual. Our officer, in whose room we reside, was born a thousand light years from Earth, but his ancestors came from Earth, abducted by reptilian Cylons dozens of thousands of years ago.”
“Like some novel by Jules Verne!”
“Probably more true than you can imagine. Here is the interesting part. It talks of a king, Hin Abtol, who sought to conquer Mars until he was stopped by the Emperor and Warlord of Helium. Hin Abtol outlawed marriage to encourage more babies until the population of one of his provinces, U-Gor, became so overpopulated that they ate all the food and turned to cannibalism to avoid starvation.”
“Very much. The current Queen, his widow Sanoma Tora, is hiring mercenaries, to enter U-Gor and exterminate the cannibals created by her dead husband. This is our task, IF we agree.”
“This is all very difficult to take in. I must still be suffering shell-shock. We are to leave our nations and world to traverse the distance to Mars to fight an army of cannibals to free this kingdom for a woman whose husband created that monstrosity?”
“At least we will get paid more by Sanoma Tora than we did by France.”
“I hope her generals are more intelligent than are the French!”
“Look here. No gas, no machine guns, revolvers and rifles allowed but mostly swords!”
“Swords? What in heaven's name for? If these (she pointed to an aerial photo of a hoard of cannibals overrunning a group of Red soldiers) are such monsters, why not strafe them from the air with bi-planes?”
Estrith read then replied, “Tech-Laws. We must disguise ourselves as Red Men and Red Women and use local weapons so as to not reveal the existence of alien lives. The Red Men prefer to fight with swords, so must we.”
“This does not sound like your Vartanian Masters are any smarter than the French and British.”
“Smart enough to stop fighting each other.” Estrith laughed. “But there is no law that forces us to go. Vartanian Mercenaries are volunteers only. We can refuse to go.”
“Then what? A German Prisoner of War camp? Or just prison?”
Estrith kissed the woman, then enjoyed the touch enough to kiss her again. “Neither. You return to French lines to resume your disguise and I decide if I wish to resign and be a civilian again, or seek another war.”
“And your decision?”
Estrith fall back, enjoying the feathers in the mattress. It would be so easy to never leave this delicious bed. “I'm going!”
“But why, cheri?”
“I think it is because in my former life, I was property. Property of my father. Property of my husband. Property of my sons. Property of any man who wished me for a night. But with the Vartanians, I am free! I can be what I wish, love whom I wish, and I get to see so many things that I never dreamed existed. I spent my entire sixty years of life within a dozen miles of the house in which I was born. Since then I have seen Greece, Troy, China, places I never knew existed. Now I can see other worlds, know that the lights in the sky are not just pinholes in the fabric of the night. BUT, mostly because I have a choice!”
Claire lay over the Dane, then looking into her eyes, said simply, “Then take me with you.”
The pair waited in a large field well behind the German lines as the others arrived. The Lyran (now that she knew, she saw the differences between him and Earthly humans), five more Mercs who had fought for the Germans, a couple farm-boys who chose this life over the trenches and one German soldier on crutches, his face and body ravaged by gas and bullet. Claire stared with hatred even when Estrith jabbed her. “Save your hatred for those who would kill us, not former enemies who will now fight by your side.”
Before she could reply, the shuttle arrived. No, appeared, for it faded into view a dozen feet above the field as it landed. The Mercs moved up the lowering ramp, Estrith pulling Claire as she joined them, laughing all the time. There was a bond among soldiers, even soldiers who had fought each other, a bond that no civilian could understand. The Lyran herded the new recruits whose fear and awe was thick enough to cut with a knife.
They sat, Estrith helping buckle Claire in after setting their few personal items in a box in the back. Then there was a brief moment of movement followed by nothing for some minutes. Movement returned and there was a slight thud as the shuttle landed and when the hatch opened, they were in a very large bay that held fighters of a type that Claire could not even dream of.
The Lyran Captain waved Estrith over and instructed, “Take them to Med-bay for cleaning and repairs. While they are in the tanks, find them rooms and teachers. We'll program the language while they heal but the weapons training will take real-time.”
Estrith nodded, recognizing that she had just been promoted and began to gather her charges.
TO BE CONTINUED ON MARS…..
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