Friday, February 25, 2011

Earth-349: The Haunted Tank

Earth-349: The Haunted Tank

by Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D.

Disclaimer #1: This story is inspired by a story in Superman #349, but is not limited by that story or any other.

Disclaimer #2: This story makes use of copyrighted characters owned by DC Comics, Inc., and other publishers. It is written for amusement only and is not intended to infringe or disparage those copyrights.

Disclaimer #3: This story is not recommended for persons under 18 or the easily offended.

Through her screen of dirt-colored cheesecloth, "Jeb" Stuart scanned the dusty landscape, eyes tracking in neat five-degree arcs in a fashion so long-practiced that she often found herself using it to walk across Baghdad city streets on leave.

Heavily-accented English came up from below. "What's it look like, Jeb?"

Stuart dropped down, leaving the cheesecloth canopy erected, sinking into the (relative) safety of the tank's interior and forsaking the (relative) cool of her lookout position. Aside from her leather football helmet, she wore only red cotton bikini panties, but was still dripping with sweat. Her gunner, Cpl. Yasmeen Farad, who had asked the question, wore less than that: only a scarf wrapped around her hips to keep from sticking ot her leather seat.

"It looks as flat as Prince Reo's butt."

"And about the same color, right?" asked the third member of the crew, Sgt. Fatima Aoud. She wore nothing around her hips at all (insisting that coverings would lead only to infections), just a sturdy brassiere that kept her generous breasts from resting sweatily on her chest.

Stuart raised an eyebrow. "Why, how would I know?"

The three tankers laughed.

The Stuart tank had served Allied forces well in the Second World War, but was declared obsolete soon after. But less prosperous, less industrialized countries could not be so choosy, and so some twenty-odd years after war's end there were Stuarts in service, defnding the Federal Republic of Mesopotamia against the Asranian invaders.

And with American tanks had come American "technical advisors" to train Mesopotamian tank crews. And surely there could be no better training exercise than to take a tank to the front and put it to work.

Lt. Jessica Elizabeth Bowen had been married to George Stuart for a week before it occurred to her that she was now J.E.B. Stuart, or could be if she so chose. Being a self-described "tank girl" from an early age, she definitely did so choose. When she heard that the Mesopotamians were buying mothballed tanks and needed experienced tankers, preferably women, to train crews, she used every angle she could to get an assignment there.

A chance to renovate and command a classic tank, plus the opportunity to see and assist the young republic of Mesopotamia? She'd have done just about anything to get the job.

She might have wound up in a Pershing, or even one of the Panzers the U.S. had confiscated after the war, but damned if she didn't wind up with her own little Stuart.

Mesopotamia had emerged from World War II as the only republic in the Near East, surrounded by hostile, backward states like Syria, Hejaz and Asran. The Mesopotamians were committed to creating a modern, free society. Not a copy of the Western nations but something new, something they called an "Islamic republic". At first nobody was sure what that meant, but their commitment to democracy and human rights struck a chord with many Europeans and Americans, and the new nation in an ancient country had received continuing support from governments and private charities.

Islam placed limits on interaction between men and women. Interpretations varied, but the basics were quite clear. The surest way to avoid trouble was to segregate the sexes, and means were found to do this without sacrificing efficiency or wasting the talents of either men or women.

Two separate education systems were set up. Separate housing for unmarried men and women was built in cities. Men went to male doctors, women to female doctors. Women rode in yellow buses, men in gray ones. The legislature was composed entirely of men, the judiciary of women (a feature of the Iroquois constitution which had not found its way into that of the U.S.).

Originally, the Mesopotamian armed forces were entirely male, but the population of young men was so severely depleted by the long war with the Asranian invaders that a new dispensation had to be made. Now most of the air force were women, and the crews of two-thirds of the navy's ships. And all of the tank crews. It was a sensible arrangement; an air base or a ship could be crewed entirely by women, with no men around to offend their modesty, and the same for a tank company.

Jeb took off her helmet and mopped her brow. Holding the helmet, she looked it over. It was certainly getting plenty of wear out here; the gold was scuffed and patchy, and the leather had a couple of good gouges in it. No condition for the gold-leafed helmet from a tanker's dress uniform to get into (the late General Patton would have cried), but she wore it for luck, and hoped she would keep it with her for the rest of her time in Mesopotamia.

Officially, she was on "inactive reserve" status, in Mesopotamia on a student visa. She was drawing no U.S. Army pay, and accumulating no time-in-service or time-in-rank. Officially, she was wasting her time and hurting her career by taking a year off this way.

In practice, she and a couple of hundred other American officers had volunteered to be lent to the Federal Republic, in a program designed and approved (unofficially, of course) by President Robeson himself. When she returned to the U.S., she'd write a brief paper for the War College and, supposedly on the strength of this "scholarship", be given a commendation that would ensure her next promotion came promptly. Robeson's word, and his handshake, were a better guarantee than any official contract on that count.

She put the helmet back on and climbed back up to her perch.

The sky was a lifeless blue except for a patch of cloud off to the northeast. Jeb watched the horizon, keeping the cloud in the corner of her eye, hoping that the geenral would speak to her today.

After a few minutes, she noticed that the cloud had indeed taken on the familiar form vaguely suggesting the head, chest and arms of General Stuart, namesake of both the tank and herself. It had happened on her first patrol in Mesopotamia, and by now she was almost taking it for granted.

"Morning, General," she whispered. "See anything ahead for us?"

A soft voice spoke, not "in her head" as cliche would have it, but definitely not from the cloud, or from anywhere else she could tell.

<> the General said, <>

Some days the General would say something like, <>, or <>, but Jeb had learned that his more cryptic advice was often the most important.

"Thank you, General," she murmured as the cloud became merely drifting water vapor.

Below her, Jeb heard Yasmeen and Fatima speaking softly, assuming their Arabic would not be understood over the engine noise.

"Do you think she is mad?"

"Who can say? Is she not entitled to go a bit mad, having to stick her head up into the gray weather?"

Jeb snorted, amused. "Gray weather". Typical dry Mesopotamian humor, to call bullets and shellfire by such an innocuous name.

Okay, so the girls knew she talked to the General. She could live with that.

The tank lurched under her as though it had been kicked by Superwoman. She was tossed upward out of her seat, her helmet slapping against the canvas shade, then slammed down again.

Jeb dropped down into the tank, slamming the hatch.

"I think we ran over a mine," Yasmeen shouted as the tank stopped shaking and it became obvious that forward motion had stopped.

"Didn't think they had any anti-tank mines left," Fatima said as she rotated the turret, looking for a target.

Jeb shrugged. "Reo's boys are clever."

Something came rolling from the east. Fatima tracked on it, then relaxed when she saw it was a Mesopotamian jeep carrying four heavily-robed women. The tankers pulled their own abayas from under their seats and tossed them on, preparing to climb out and join their comrades in assessing the damage.

One robed figure climbed out and walked towards the tank, carrying something heavy. Jeb moved to raise the hatch, then froze. Something was wrong. Yasmeen felt it, too, and began swiveling the machine gun onto the robed figure, but it darted forward, getting too close for the gun to reach. Through a view slit, Jeb saw the intruder lift a cover from the basket, revealing a dozen antipersonnel mines, crudely wired together and attached to a detonator. It was a piece of garbage no self-respecting demolitionist would own up to, but it could easily destroy Jeb and her crew. It was probably similar to what had halted them.

The three in the jeep threw off their robes, revealing Asrani uniforms, and trained rifles on the tank.

Jeb looked at her crew.

"We can go out, or let them kill us in here."

"Cooking in a gasoline fire is a bad way to die, Jeb," Yasmeen said softly.

"Going with the Asrani might be worse," said Fatima.

Jeb shrugged.

"Let's live awhile longer. Something better might come along if we're alive to see it."

"Come out! Now!" the least-ragged Asrani called, in English. Most likely, it was their only common language; few Asrani spoke Arabic, and fewer Mesopotamians spoke Pursi.

Jeb pushed back the hatch and climbed into sight, tottering on her seat as she raised her hands.

"No covers!" the officer snapped. "Covers off first, no hiding weapons!"

"Bullshit," Jeb muttered, but complied, pulling her robe over her head and standing in just her helmet and panties for a moment before she began the delicate task of climbing off the tank, avoiding the hottest surfaces. On the ground, hands up, she watched her crew climb out, wearing only what they had in the tank. Yasmeen tembled, tears flowing, clutching the scarf around her waist, one arm over her breasts, but Fatima stood with arms raised, meeting the Asrani men's eyes better than Jeb could.

The officer grabbed Yasmeen's arms and pulled them over her head, laughing at her cry when the scarf fell away.

"Babylon whores," he sneered, moving on to Fatima. He snapped her bra but did not try to remove it yet. "You girls go to nice camp, have lots of big strong Asrani soldiers to protect you. You make lots of Asrani babies to make up for Asrani you murder."

He moved on to Jeb, knocking the helmet from her head.

"Blonde American whore. No babies for you. You, we take to Taharan, for the Shah. He want to add American soldier bitch to his collection, want one very badly. But his girls, he has them fixed. No royal bastards allowed."

Jeb thought of her crew in a rape camp, bred like animals at their captors' whim. She thought of her husband, and the children she wanted to have with him some day. She thought about how likely it would be, if she attacked this Asrani bastard, that they would all be killed, and how of the various fates they'd been offered today, a bullet was by far the most attractive.

"What, you mean little Prince Reo actually has seed in those little raisins between his legs?"

Calling the Shah "Prince Reo" (refusing to recognize his overthrow of his father, the old Shah) was almost as vile an insult as impugning their leader's manhood. The Asrani turned pale. Jeb was just bringing her knee up to his crotch when a gun spoke behind her.

Jeb flung herself to the ground, unthinking, tackling the Asrani officer. She tried to pin his arms, and found that they were limp; there was a red hole in his forehead. She groped for his sidearm, heard more shots, from a higher-pitched weapon, sat up with a pistol and found no living targets. Yasmeen, still weeping, held an Asrani Kalashnikov, standing over the dead men like some very modern symbolic nude.

They checked the men for signs of life, then pulled on their robes and went to work on the tank. The right tread was damaged, but they got it patched adequately to get them back to camp.

Just before they left, Fatima bent over the Asrani officer's body, studying his face.

"Leave it, Sergeant. Why do you want to look at that?"

Fatima said nothing, merely climbed into the tank. But half an hour later, she said, "Jeb, the first man was shot, and then Yasmeen grabbed a gun from one of the Asrani. She didn't shoot him."

Jeb felt a chill, but tried to shrug it off.

"So? Who did shoot him?"

"I don't know. But he was shot with a round from our machine gun. And none of us were in here."

"So what, so what, just shut up," Yasmeen snarled, barely controlling herself.

"Yes, Fatima," Jeb said wearily, "Say nothing more."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Woman Who Received Many Blessings

Once there was a woman who received many blessings in her life, so let us call her Deo Gratia. "D.G." is a suitable name for her.

D.G. received many blessings, but she was only allowed to keep two of them.

The first thing that happened to her was that she received the gift of life, and that is not a small thing.

She had a fiance who loved her and gave her two daughters. But first her fiance was taken from her, and then her girls.

She suffered for years from a terrible disease, but one day her doctor delivered two blessings: not only had her disease gone into remission, but her disease was one which, if it went away, it never came back.

This was an especial blessing because she was still young enough to have another child, now that she knew she would live long enough to raise it.

She had a boy, and then she learned that the disease which would never come back, had.

D.G. had another man, and he said he would marry her, but when it came down to it, he let her down.

She had a profession which brought her satisfaction and money, but there came a time when she could not work at her trade, so she worked at jobs which gave her too little satisfaction, and far too little money.

In the end, there were only two blessings which would not be taken from her:

First, her son. Even death would not separate them, because he would love his mother forever.

Second, all suffering eventually comes to an end.