It wasn’t late in the evening, but at high latitude on Thorsfinni’s World the sun was long down by the time the liberty bus clattered to a stop next to a vacant lot near the center of Bronnysund, the town outside the main gate of Marine Corps Base Camp Major Pete Ellis. The driver levered the door open and thirty Marines clattered off, whooping and hollering in unrestrained glee at their weekend’s freedom from the restrictions on behavior imposed by the Confederation Marine Corps during duty hours.
Well, most of the restrictions. They were required to maintain a certain level of decorum—at least, they were not to commit crimes, or get themselves injured badly enough to miss duty, or go anyplace from which they wouldn’t be able to return for morning roll call on the third morning hence. And it was only most of them who whooped and hollered; there was a loose knot of eight who were somewhat more restrained. The eight in question were the junior leaders of third platoon, Company L, 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team.
“So where are we going?” Corporal Bohb Taylor, second gun team and most junior of the corporals, asked when the other twenty-two Marines had scattered.
Corporal Tim Kerr, first fire team leader, second squad, and the most senior of the eight, simply snorted and turned to lead the way.
Corporal Bill Barber, first gun team leader and not much junior to Kerr, slapped the back of Taylor’s head hard enough to knock his soft cover awry, said, “Taylor, sometimes you’re so dumb I don’t know how you ever got your second stripe.” He turned to follow Kerr.
“Yeah, Taylor. What do you know about the Top that the rest of us don’t?” asked Corporal Rachman “Rock” Claypoole, third fire team leader, second squad, and not much senior to Taylor. He followed Barber.
“What do you mean, what do I know about the Top?” Taylor squawked.
“Blackmail!” Corporal Joe Dean, first squad’s third fire team leader and also not much senior to Taylor, hooted. “There’s no other way you could make corporal!” He laughed raucously.
“Which begs the question of how you made corporal,” Corporal Raoul Pasquin, first squad’s second fire team leader said with a loud laugh.
“Hey!” Dean yelped indignantly.
Corporal Dornhofer, first fire team leader, first squad, not much junior to Kerr, chuckled and shook his head. He and the other corporals fell in with Claypoole.
Taylor had to run a few paces to catch up.
A few blocks and a couple of turns later, Kerr shoved open the door of Big Barb’s, the combination bar, restaurant, ships’ chandlery, hotel, and bordello that was the unofficial headquarters of third platoon, Company L, 34th Fleet Initial Strike Team during liberty hours.
Twin shrieks barely preceded two young women, one blond and fair, the other brunette and swarthy, both beautiful by any standard, who flew across the large common room and flung themselves on the big corporal with enough force to stagger him back a couple of steps.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going, Kerr!” Corporal Pasquin shouted into the back of Kerr’s head. He raised his hands and pushed Kerr off his chest.
Corporal Dean helped keep Kerr upright and moving forward. The press of advancing bodies behind them forced Kerr and the others farther into the room.
Kerr barely noticed the hands and bodies holding him up and forcing him forward, he was too distracted by the four arms clinging to his neck, the four breasts pressed into his chest, the two mouths raining kisses on his face. He wrapped an arm around each waist and lifted, to ease the weight on his neck and shoulders.
“Way to go, Kerr!” Corporal Dean said, slapping Kerr on the back as he squeezed past and began looking for a table that would hold them all—and their girls.
“Some people,” Corporal Chan laughed, following Dean.
“Raoul!” shouted another girl, Erika, who sidled through the crowd to take Pasquin’s hand.
Another voice boomed out, “Vat’s all dis commoti’n oud ‘ere?” and Big Barb herself waddled out of the office to the rear of the large room and began plowing through the crowd like an icebreaker through pack ice. Freyda Banak wasn’t called “Big Barb” for nothing—she not only weighed more than 150 kilos, she carried her weight lightly when she wanted to move fast. She planted herself in front of Kerr and loudly demanded, “Who you tink you are, Timmy, hogging two a my best girls all t’ yersef?”
Their cheeks still pressed against his, Frieda and Gotta stopped kissing Kerr to look back at their employer. Kerr loosened his hold around their waists and they dropped down a couple of centimeters, but not all the way to the floor.
“B-but . . .” he began.
“Vot you mean, ‘B-but . . .’? Dere’s no ‘b-buts’ ’ere, Timmy. You led go a dem girls!”
“Big Barb,” Frieda said calmly, “you gave him to us.”
“And we intend to keep him,” Gotta finished just as calmly.
Big Barb glared from one to the other, then planted her hands on her hips and roared out a long, raucous laugh. “You right, girls,” she said, tears streaming down her face when her laughter eased enough for her to speak.
“Wha’s a madda you, Timmy, lettin’ dem two girls dangle like dat? Hol’ ’em up like a gennleman! Where you been? All we seen o’ Marines fer the pas’ few mont’s is dem base pogues. Dirty-fort FIS’ yust up ’n take off somewhere wid’out sayin’ noddin’ t’ us and we don’ know when we see you again, or if we ever see you again.” She quickly looked around and before Kerr could answer, asked, “Vhere’s Chollie Bass? I vant my Chollie!”
“He’s probably with Katie,” Gotta giggled.
“I don’ care no Katie!” Big Barb boomed. “Chollie don’ need no skinny voman like Katie, he needs a full-size voman!” She thunked a meaty thumb into the center of her own chest.
“I don’t think Charlie thinks Katie is skinny!” Frieda laughed.
“I don’ care vhat Chollie t’inks neider! Zomebody go tell him I’m ‘ere pinink avay to nodink, vaiting for him!” She turned her attention back to Kerr. “How many a you are dere ‘ere donight? I make sure you godda good table. Vell? Answer me!”
Kerr hesitated, unsure which of her many questions to answer first. Claypoole stepped into the breech.
“There are eight of us, Big Barb. The corporals.”
“Eight corporals?” She quickly scanned the room. “Vat’s de madda vit Corporal Doyle, vhy ain’t he ‘ere? He gid kilt vhereever it vas you vent?”
“No, no, Big Barb. Doyle’s fine. This is just the team leaders,” Claypoole quickly assured her.
“Chust da team leaders? ’Ow come Doyle ain’t no team leader? He’s a corporal. Corporals suppose t’ be fire team leaders, gun team leaders, so how come he ain’t?”
Claypoole opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of how to explain why a corporal was filling a lance corporal’s billet. He looked at Kerr. Yeah, Doyle was in Kerr’s fire team, let him try to explain it.
“Neber mine,” Big Barb said, looking around again. “You Marines make yer own rules, whedder dey makes sense or not. Come, I get you gut table. Give you back room. You,” she looked at Kerr, “come vit me. You,” she looked at Claypoole, “go gid de oders, bring dem along.” She did her ice breaker impersonation again, drawing Kerr and his happy burden in her wake.
Less than an hour later, the eight Marines and nine young women in the back room were seated around a large, round table digging into a medley of reindeer served “family style.” The table was filled with platters of reindeer—steaks, cutlets, a roast, chops, sausage, even a steaming bowl of stew. Other bowls held several varieties of potatoes, legumes, grains, squashes, and less easily identifiable foodstuffs, most of which were cooked with sauces or gravies. Spices and condiments were spread about, the full range near to hand for everybody.
For a while, all that was heard inside the room was the chewing, sighs, and belches of contented diners; they ignored the hubbub that came muted through the door. At length, most of the platters and bowls were cleared down to bits and crumbs—Marines fresh back from a combat deployment have prodigious appetites.
Dean belched loudly enough to make Carlala, a skinny, busty girl seated next to him hip to haunch, jump. “Ahhh,” he sighed, “that was great.”
“A lot better than the reindeer steaks we used to get here,” Dornhofer agreed.
“Very much so,” Kerr added. “What happened?”
“We have a new cook,” Klauda said as she moved from her chair to Dornhofer’s lap.
“She’s a fancy girl,” Erika said, casting a nasty look at Carlala.
“Oh?” Chan said meaningfully. “Then what’s she doing in the kitchen?”
“You’ll see,” Erika said haughtily. “And that’s not the kind of ‘fancy’ I meant.” She darted a look at Dean and made a show of shifting onto Pasquin’s lap.
The hubbub in the main room suddenly grew in volume.
“Oh, wow, look at that!” Lance Corporal “Wolfman” MacIlargie murmured, then let out a wolf whistle.
Lance Corporal Dave “Hammer” Schultz didn’t bother looking to see what had drawn MacIlargie’s admiration; he’d seen her as soon as she stepped through the kitchen door. She was a full-bodied woman in a starched white shirt-jacket, closed all the way to the throat, over black pants. The heels of her black shoes were high enough to lift her a bit above average height. A white cap restrained her mass of lustrous chestnut hair. She held her head high, and her aristocratic face turned neither left nor right as she wended her way between the tables filled with eating and drinking—but mostly drinking—Marines. Two kitchen helpers followed her, guiding a covered cart. The woman was old enough to be the underaged mother of the youngest Marines in the room, or the younger aunt—or at least older sister of nearly any of them. But that didn’t matter to the Marines.
The woman yelped and spun about with her hand raised to slap whoever had just pinched her bottom. Only to be confronted by four grinning faces, any of which could belong to the offending hand. She dropped her hand, gripped the bottom of her shirt-jacket with both hands, and jerked it down. She flung her head high, spun about, and, as regally as possible, stalked off. Guffaws, whistles, and raucous laughter trailed her.
She was pinched twice more and propositioned four times by the time she reached the door to the room where third platoon’s corporals were luxuriating in postprandial bliss, and hustled inside to what she fully expected would be relief from the unseemly harrassment she’d undergone in the common room. She barely remembered to leave the door open long enough for the two kitchen helpers to wheel their cart into the room.
“Hey, baby,” Pasquin shouted as soon as he saw her, “come on over here! My lap’s big enough for two!” He held out a welcoming arm. Erika knuckled him in the ribs, but that only made him laugh.
The woman’s palm tingled, and she began to raise a hand—now she knew who to slap—but noticed several faces leering at her, and lowered it without striking.
She again adjusted the fall of her shirt-jacket, held her head re- gally high, and announced, “I am Einna Orafem, the new chef at Big Barb’s—”
“Chef? Did she really say ‘chef?’ ” Dean crowed.
Einna Orafem managed to ignore Dean’s boorishness and went on as though he hadn’t spoken. “I have been given to believe that you—gentlemen—are special patrons of this dining salon.”
“Patrons? Dining salon?” Barber hooted.
Once more, Einna Orafem ignored the rudeness of the remark and went on. “I have come to see if the modest repast I prepared for you met with your satisfaction.” She looked at the empty platters and serving bowls. “Judging from the state of the table, I take it it has.”
There was a brief pause as the Marines translated for each other: “She wants to know if the chow was any good.”
“Hey, babe, that was the best feed I’ve ever had in this slop chute!” Taylor called out.
“Honey, you can stuff my sausage any day,” Chan yelled.
“No, it’s your sausage that’s supposed to stuff her . . .” The rest of whatever Claypoole was saying was cut off by the finger Jente quickly pressed across his lips. Unlike the other young women around the table, Jente wasn’t one of “Big Barb’s girls.” She was from Brystholde, a nearby fishing village from which many young women had come to a blowout party Brigadier Sturgeon threw for his FIST when they returned from a major deployment against Skinks on the Kingdom of Yahweh and His Saints and Their Apostles. First Sergeant Myer had strongly admonished the Marines of Company L that the village women were “nice girls,” and were to be treated the way they’d want their sisters treated. Of course, Top’s warning could not stop Jente from latching onto Claypoole and behaving just like one of Big Barb’s girls—but only with him. Claypoole didn’t realize it yet, but Jente saw him as prime husband material.
“Come and join us when Big Barb lets you off kitchen duty!” Pasquin called to Einna Orafem’s brilliant red face.
“Here is a dessert I prepared specially for you,” the cook managed, waving a wavering hand at the cart.
The helpers opened the cart and joined her in a hasty retreat to the kitchen. But first they had to run the gauntlet of the common room.
“Wazza madda, dolly,” someone shouted, “didn’t they want what you were offering?”
“Yours ain’t good enough for them corporals?” another Marine shouted.
Uproarious laughter broke out at the comments.
“She’s the cook,” Schultz growled.
Everybody close enough to hear his growl shut up.
Jente was the only one fastidious enough while gobbling the dessert to really notice what it was.