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Big Barb's, the combination bar, bordello, and ship's chandlers that served as third platoon's headquarters when the men were on liberty in Bronnysund, was jumping.
To start the evening out, Gunnery Sergeant Charlie Bass, along with Joe Dean, Rock Claypoole, and some others, had shoved three tables together in what they called the banquet room and ordered beer. Hours had passed, during which the other members of third platoon had trooped in by ones and twos, each new arrival greeted by loud cheers and hardy backslapping. Eventually almost the entire platoon was crowded around the tables, drinking, eating, and singing, as Bass held court at one end. Sitting nearby was Lance Corporal Chan, the unofficial honoree of the evening. Chan would soon be the newest corporal in third platoon, and Bass and the other NCOs were flexing their arms and clenching their fists in anticipation of the pinning-on ceremony. Chan sipped his beer happily, eagerly anticipating the sore shoulders that would plague him for a week after Captain Conorado pinned on the new chevrons.
Owen the woo perched comfortably on Dean's shoulder, glowing the bright pink of wooish contentment, rocking gently back and forth, seemingly taking in everything with his enormous eyes. Top Myer had taken good care of the woo while Dean was away on Havanagas, but he confided to the lance corporal upon his return, "Dean, the little bastard never got beyond light gray the whole time you were away. He missed you, lad!" Owen extended an appendage and snatched up a ceramic fragment from a stein someone had broken earlier. The fragment disappeared down Owen's gullet and stayed down. It seemed to like ceramics. Several Marines applauded, and Claypoole, who was watching the woo carefully, was sure the little creature appreciated the attention. Claypoole had not forgotten the corpsman's story about the woo shouting a warning when the Skinks attacked his aid station on Waygone. Though Claypoole had never heard the woo make any sound that could be interpreted as words, he believed the story.
Barmaids flitted in and out of the room, trays loaded with one-liter steins of Reindeer Ale. The women slapped away eager, groping hands and enthusiastically traded verbal barbs with the Marines, to everyone's great enjoyment. To be a barmaid at Big Barb's, a girl had to know English well and be able to think and move quickly, because after a few beers many of the patrons forgot who was a barmaid and who was a whore. But Big Barb's other girls were there too, matching the Marines beer for beer, joining in with the singing and holding their own in the repartee. To be a whore at Big Barb's a girl had to know some English, work fast, and move men quickly to the upstairs rooms and give them what they bargained for--and if they were really good, more than they bargained for. That's what kept 'em coming back.
But that night was special, not particularly because Lance Corporal Chan was anticipating his forthcoming promotion, but because it was one of those nights fueled by the magical chemistry of alcohol, companionship, and shared experiences. It was just one of those magnificent nights for drinking with friends. They'd worry about their heads in the morning.
Occasionally a Marine would get up, his arm around one of the girls, and drift out into the bar, headed for the stairs. Everyone cheered and clapped and shouted ribald advice to the pair, and those behind loudly ordered more rounds of beer to celebrate a comrade's good fortune.
Out at the bar, sailors from the ships in port crowded three deep. Someone had brought an accordion and another man a fiddle, and they wheezed and scratched lively sea chanteys. Men and women stomped onto the dance floor, shaking the boards with the pounding of their feet. The bonhomie was infectious: sailors wandered into the banquet hall and were made welcome at the tables with the Marines. And as Marines stumbled through the crowded bar to the rest rooms, they were swept into the arms of the dancers and whisked around the room, to the delighted cheers of the patrons.
But sometimes at Big Barb's it wasn't all just beer and skittles and a headlong rush to the private rooms upstairs . . .
A new girl was holding court, seated on the bar in the main room. Hilma was above average height, full-breasted and broad-hipped, with her hair a blond even that would have given Mother Nature pause to wonder whether that shade of yellow actually existed anywhere in the spectrum. Her laugh was full and nearly as brassy as her hair. A dense knot of Marines and fishermen surrounded her, eager to get acquainted. She laughed and sang and joked--and urged her throng of admirers to drink up and eat more. The men roared approval with each sound she emitted, every move she made. And her movements were many; exotic, graceful, and sexy all at the same time.
So nobody noticed particularly when the door opened and John Francis walked in. One of the many off-worlders who'd come to Thorsfinni's World to pursue the wild and freewheeling life of the fisheries, Francis had the build of a tugboat and short-cropped black hair above a moon face. He walked with a limp occasioned by an encounter with a trawler that wanted to occupy the same space he and a dingy happened to hold. Looking around just inside the entrance, Francis saw an open space at a table occupied by some acquaintances. He worked his way through the crowd and slowly, like a davit lowering a fragile cargo into a ship's hold, levered himself into the empty chair. The fishermen exchanged greetings. A harried serving girl popped up at his shoulder almost immediately to take his order for beer and brownies.
John Francis slowly shrugged off the satchel slung on his left shoulder. Moving just as deliberately, he opened it and withdrew a portable trid viewer.
"Were any of you at Einaar's Fjord on First Day?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "Rumbart Tomison ran his sprint-hover." He turned on the viewer and popped a trid crystal into it. "I had my cam with me, got some beautiful pictures." While he talked he fiddled with the viewer's controls, then turned it toward the other fishermen. "Look at this. He hit 225 kph in the half-K run. He let me into his pits and I got to work on the engine."
The others exchanged glances before they turned toward the viewer. They weren't ready to talk about the races just yet, but they knew they had a choice: listen to John Francis talk about the hovercraft sprints and watch his trids, or get up and leave the table. There wasn't another open table, so moving wasn't much of an option.
John Francis talked and talked and showed his trids of the previous First Day's sprints. His tablemates felt twinges of jealousy that they hadn't been there. He drank his beer and ate his brownies. Every time the laugh of the new girl, Hilma, cut through the din, he cocked his eyes toward her, and each time he did, his eyes glowed more brightly. Francis wasn't known as a ladies' man, so the fishermen who watched his sprints trids paid his glances no attention.
At length one of the fishermen in her circle broke through Hilma's mesmerizing spell long enough to announce that he was taking her upstairs. The announcement was greeted by an uproar of protest from the others.
"Excuse me," John Francis said to his tablemates, "I have to take care of something. You know how to use this; you can look at more pictures." Then he ponderously levered himself to his feet and heavily limped toward the bar, where a good-natured argument was in progress about the selfishness of the one fisherman who wanted to take Hilma away from the rest. Hilma, for her part, laughed about it with raucous delight.
Limp or not, no crowd could divert John Francis's progress. He waded through like an icebreaker in pack ice until he stood with his belly against Hilma's knees. He looked seriously into her face. She looked back and a laugh dribbled away before reaching full throat. Her broad grin melted into a sweetly timorous smile.
"Hi, sailor," she said softly, but not coquettishly.
"I'm John Francis," he said. "You're Hilma."
She nodded shyly. He backed just far enough to turn around without pushing her knees, looked out at the surrounding men, and said in a voice that sounded like the foghorn on the tugboat he was built like, "This one's mine!" He turned back to Hilma and offered his hands. She slid off the bar into his grasp, and he gently lowered her to the floor.
A hush fell over the bar and a way parted for them to the stairs. They went up. They didn't come back down.
The next time anyone at Big Barb's saw Hilma, she was on John Francis's arm, flaunting a wedding band on her finger.
Sometimes at Big Barb's everything wasn't just beer and skittles and a headlong rush to the private rooms upstairs.
"I have a song!" Corporal Raoul Pasquin shouted, standing up and waving his arms. The Marines listened attentively. That he could stand and wave his arms so soon after what he'd been through on Havanagas was a bit of a miracle in itself, but he was not the kind of Marine who'd let a few missing body parts keep him down very long.
When Pasquin had joined 34th FIST from his old outfit, 25th FIST, he'd given every indication he was a problem child, and gotten off to a bad start at Camp Ellis. He and Dean had serious words just before they deployed to Society 437, but once there, and during the Avionian mission, Pasquin proved he could handle himself in combat and was accepted in third platoon as a trusted NCO. More important, on Havanagas, where the corporal had withstood vicious torture at the hands of the mobsters who'd been running the place, he'd proved to Dean and Claypoole that he was far more than a Marine corporal, more even than their fire team leader. He was a proven comrade, a man Marines could trust their lives to.
But the best proof that Corporal Raoul Pasquin was not the ass he'd started out as was that Owen the woo had taken a liking to him. Everyone was sure Owen could tell good from bad, and the Marines trusted his judgment.
So when Raoul Pasquin stood up, he was given a measure of respect. Dean and Claypoole shouted for silence. Bass gestured him to continue.
"I learned this song in 25th FIST," Pasquin said. "It's called 'Erika.' " He nodded at Dean's companion, whose name just happened to be Erika. "No offense to the beautiful lady here." Erika, who'd been leaning her head on Dean's shoulder, smiled and blushed. "It's just coincidence, Erika, and the song's not dirty or insulting." Several men loudly groaned their disappointment. Pasquin gave them the finger. "It was the unofficial marching song of 25th FIST," he continued. "It's an old song that's come down from the twentieth century or earlier. It's in a good march tempo. Here, listen . . ." He hummed a few bars. "Get it? Here . . ." He sang the first verse: "In the meadow blooms a tiny flower." Boom-boom-boom-boom, he stamped the floor with his foot to get the cadence. "And we call her Erika! Get it?" He took a deep breath and sang:
"In the meadow blooms a tiny flower / And we call her Erika. The bees cannot resist her power / Little Erika, 'Cause her heart is soft and sweet Her petals trim and neat / Dainty little Erika! In the village lives a tiny maid / And we call her Erika. She's prim and sweet and oh, so staid / Little Erika! Yet she lets us kiss her, but not too long And when we're done we sing this song: 'In the meadow blooms a tiny flower / And we call her Erika . . .' "
Pasquin's singing voice was not the best, but the tune was catchy, and as Pasquin warmed to his singing, he got better. Soon others began to join in, hesitantly at first and then with more confidence as they learned the words. Everyone at the table began to sing, and as they sang they stamped their feet at the appropriate place in the music--boom-boom-boom-boom!--like a base drum beating out the cadence. When they got to the name Erika, they shouted it out at the top of their voices so it rang in the rafters far above them. The real Erika's face turned brick red with pleased embarrassment, and Owen the woo actually began to sway in time to the music.
It was a soldier's song, the kind men far from home have sung since the dawn of warfare to keep up morale. But even if hearing it for the first time--as the men of third platoon were--its subject was familiar and dear to all men who've ever worn a uniform. Each man had known an Erika back home, or in a foreign town somewhere, or hoped he would someday meet an Erika. Young men need young women as much to comfort their souls as to relieve their hormonal urges, and "Erika" emphasized the gentler side of sexual relations. It made Claypoole think of Katie, back on Havanagas; and despite the real Erika snug against his side, Dean was reminded of Hway back on Wanderjahr. Every man at the table cast his thoughts back to some Erika, not thinking about sex with her, just wanting to relive the experience for a few moments.
But they were young men, and young Marines at that, and ten seconds after the music was done they'd all be thinking about the women around them again.
Pasquin jumped up on the table and led them in chorus after chorus. Between the Marines' singing and stamping their feet in the banquet hall and the sailors' dancing in the bar, the whole building shook.
A crash echoed through the building as the door to Big Barb's private office suddenly slammed open and she sallied forth, her vast bulk bouncing startled men out of the way. But the music and dancing did not slow a beat. She headed straight to the banquet hall. Big though she was, none of the Marines noticed her rolling down on them. Pasquin squawked in mid-verse as she grabbed him, one hand on the seat of his pants, the other by his shirt collar. She picked him up bodily and dropped him heavily into an empty chair.
Huffing and puffing with the effort, she waggled a massive finger at Gunnery Sergeant Bass. "Charlie!" she gasped, "vat you doing? Ve haf der erdquake, mine whole place comin' crashin' down!"