Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Thirty-four: The Final Muster

    At least this 'world' -- or 'reality' or 'dream' or whatever the heck it was -- was a bit of an improvement on the plain of tiles. It had dirt, anyway, and forlorn plants here and there, scattered about a broken desert landscape of ridges, arroyos and low rocky hills. The atmosphere and gravity seemed to be Earth-normal, but there weren't any stars or clouds in the moonless night sky -- if it was night (presuming there would be a day).
    The utter darkness wasn't a problem for Sara, but there didn't seem to be any landmarks or signs or clues around her that could give her a hint as to where she should go or what she should do. There were faint sounds from someplace nearby, so she wandered off in that direction to investigate, making her way slowly through the dark so as not to startle whoever she might run into.
    Rounding a low mound of piled boulders, she saw, underneath the shelter of a small stand of trees, a campfire surrounded by a score of men. It had the appearance of a hastily thrown-together military encampment, every man with a weapon close to hand. Scraps of canvas and leafy tree branches had been thrown together to serve as tents, or at least lean-tos, and blankets were spread in preparation for a long night in the wilderness. The men were busily attending to their messkits as she approached them carefully, hoping they wouldn't be freaked out by her sudden appearance out of the gloom.
    A sentry spotted her and sang out, "Halt! Who goes there?"
    She hailed them cheerily, "Hey, guys! Got room for one more?" she said, waving as she approached.
    "Advance and be recognized," he demanded in the age-old formula.
    He watched her warily as she got closer to the fire and could finally make out her form and features. The others turned their attention from the campfire to peer outward in all directions, alert for possible trouble.
    "Jeb," said the sentry, "I don't think, uh, she's one o' us."
    Jeb swiveled his head toward his companion. "She...? What th' hell ye talkin' 'bout, Nate?"
    The other nodded, and Jeb squinted to get a better look, his eyes not yet adjusted to the dark after facing the fire. "Well, I'll be flummoxed," he finally announced.
    "Don't worry, fellas," she told them. "I'm alone and I'm harmless."
    The others in the group stared at her as she came into their circle, then slowly stood up, as their etiquette demanded when a female entered their presence.
    They examined her discreetly, trying not to be caught staring, and she examined back, both sides unable to decide what to make of the other. The soldiers -- for that's what they obviously were -- wore the Yankee blue of Federal troops. Their muzzle-loading pieces were stacked together in neat pyramids and they had sheathed bayonets on their belts.
    Nate finally spoke, "I heared they was women soldiers by'n'by, 'specially some o' them Rooshans."
    "Ye a Rooshan, ma'am?" asked Jeb politely. "I don't rightly know whar they'd be bivouacked, but 'tain't none too close, I'd reckon."
    "You mean Russian? No, I'm from Texas, sorta. My name's Sara Corel," she said. "Pleased to meet you. Are you guys making a movie or something?"
    "Texas! Th' Rebs be off thataway, mostly," he said, waving his hand into the dark. "I shore wouldn't-a knowed it from lookin' atchya. That's th' goldurndest getup I ever did see. Uh, ma'am."
    "Shut up, Jeb," hissed Nate. "Ye ain't got th' manners of a polecat."
    He smiled and bowed politely to Sara, "We's honored, Miss Sara. I'm Nathan Boone, at yer service, an' this here's th' Ninth Kentucky, ma'am -- th' unlucky part o' it, leastaways."
    "Sorry, ma'am," said the chastened Jeb. "Things ain't what they used t' be, hereabouts. I'm Jebadiah Hicks. Please accept our hospitality. We'd be honored if ye'd set a spell. C'n I git ye some grub an' coffee? They's some spit-roasted chicken an' beans left. 'Sall we got at th' moment, I'm afeared."
    "Why, thanks," she said, always up for a meal. They hustled to make her as comfortable as possible, introducing each of the other men to her until they had all humbly paid their respects..
    When he'd gone all around the little circle, Jeb concluded, "Mostly, we was kilt at Vicksburg, 'ceptin' Dan'l, who got it at Shiloh, an' Zeke, who was run down by cav'lry outside o' Atlanta."
    "Killed?" said Sara. "Excuse me, but I'm a little confused, here. You guys are talking about the Civil War? What was, like, in the 1860s, wasn't it?"
    "Yes'm," said Zeke. "If ye don't mind me askin', when was ye kilt? Seems t' me ye ain't exactly no Reb. From what I'se been told, they wasn't all thet many womenfolk in combat fer at least a hunnert years or so after Mr. Lincoln's War."
    "Oh, yeah," she said, "It was a lot later than that. But I'm still not with you here. I hate to sound completely ignorant, but could you please tell me what's going on?"
    "Ye don't know?" said Jeb. "Whar's yer outfit, ma'am? 'Sfar as I know, ever'body come out with they old outfits, even tho' they wasn't kilt together -- like Dan'l an' Zeke, who would-a never found us if they had to go traipsin' all over creation lookin'. An' th' last ones come in day b'fo' yestiddy."
    "Well," said Sara, "I wasn't with any 'outfit', I'm afraid. And nobody told me anything. I just got here, myself. And I guess if you all are 'dead', then we're all in the same boat. I was in some kinda weird place, like Hell or something, and the angel that got me out told me to go through, like, a door -- which I did -- and here I am, wherever 'here' is."
    The others looked at each other knowingly.
    Nate finally said, "I was one o' the first ones t' git here, so's I scouted around a bit. S'far as I know, they ain't nobody here what waren't kilt in battle somewhars -- an' I don't mean from fever or from runnin' or accidental-like. Got t' be mostly reg'lar soldiers what got kilt fightin' other soldiers in a sho' 'nuff war. I reckon ever' soul what got kilt in combat whilst wearin' some kind o' uniform since Adam is here now. They's all tricked out jist like they was when they died, with all o' they gear brand spankin' new an' a full kit bag with extry rations."
    Zeke added, "They's Roosians, an' Hessians, an' Redcoats, an' Chinamen, an' Frogs, an' Swedes, an' Hittites, an' Romans, an' Turks, an' Israelites, an' Pharoh's army, an' Spanish dons, an' silver knights, an' a whole passel o' soldiers that wasn't born 'til after we-all a-been long gone."
    "Cav'lry got they horses," Dan'l went on, "An' some o' them Indiamen got elly-fants. They's chariots an' great tinwork contraptions and flyin' machines. Sailors got they ships-o'-the-line an' galleys an' whoppin' big ol' ironclads that went down with they crews. Whatever kinda weapon they perished with come with 'em."
    They all looked expectantly at Sara, obviously curious as to how she might fit in.
    Sara said, "Well, I guess you could say I was sorta killed in battle while wearing a uniform. And I suppose you could say I got my 'weapons' with me. I don't think I was in what you could call a war, though that could depend on your definition. I dunno -- maybe there's some kind of a mixup."
    Nate pondered that for a while. "I s'pose y'kin find out in th' mornin'. They ain't too many generals, as ye c'n imagine, but they's a field headquarters over t' the' valley yonder, an' maybe they c'n help ye."
    "So," Sara asked, "What are you here for?"
    "Why," said Jeb, "th' Last Battle, o' course."
    "Yep," Nate added, "Army-geddon. We oughtta be ready in a week or so, I reckon."
    "They ain't no doubt 'bout that, neither," said Jeb. "We all heared th' Last Trump."
    "Oh, wonderful," Sara said sarcastically. "Another dream about fighting and battles. Why can't I imagine shopping or something?"
    Jeb laughed, "I s'pose we all figgered we was a-dreamin', this bein' not 'xactly what we had in mind fer th' Hereafter, an' all. I musta spent half th' first mornin' pinchin' myself, an' t'other half tryin' to remember whar I musta got a-holt o' so much moonshine th' night befo'."
    "Cain't be no dream," said Nate. "It's too real an' too miser'ble, an' too durn long by half."
    "I'm used to that," said Sara. "The last time, I couldn't tell my dream from reality at all, even though it was pretty outlandish. Which, this one, after all -- I mean, first there was this angel, and now you guys. No offense, but you're basically just figments of my imagination, you know."
    "Humph," Jeb said, "An' yer another. Lemme tell ye what got my attention 'bout all o' this. I was raised a farm boy an' never did git much book larnin'. What I seen yestiddy over to th' valley was what I couldn't never a-thought up m'self. Besides all them heathen furriners, they's a whole bunch o' United States Federal troops from th' future over yonder. It ain't jist 'cause o' all o' them newfangled contraptions they got -- I reckon all kinda things be gittin' better in a hunnert years or so. No, them boys is differ'nt from us, th' way they talk, th' way they act, ever'thing -- even though they's countrymen -- as much, I s'pose, as George Washington's troops woulda been from us. I'da never figger'd that. Ye c'n only dream what ye know."
    Nate was more somber. "Th' thing I remember 'bout is th' way I died. If I'm a-dreamin' now, then death is a dream -- an' I wisht I had a better 'un.
    "I took a minnie-ball in m' shoulder. Knocked me down like a mule woulda. Didn't hurt too much right away, an' I had a thought 'bout gittin' up an' back in th' line, but couldn't manage it. Took me a bit afore I realized m' right arm was jist 'bout tore off. So I laid there a spell, ponderin' what I was a-gonna do, gittin' weaker all along.
    "Then th' hurtin' commenced, an' it got to be jist awful. I got to bein' powerful' thirsty an' called out fer help, but by then th' fightin' had moved off a bit an' th' only others around were as bad off as I was -- or worse. They was an awful lot o' smoke an' shot in th' air thereabouts, so there I laid with ev'ry kind o' crawly critter in that pasture helpin' theyselves to what was left o' me -- which is a misery, I c'n testify.
    "By'n'by, it was like ever'thing got further away, an' all th' racket just faded out. I swooned fer a bit, an' when I came to, it was dark. All 'round me men was moanin' an' cryin' fo' they mamas, an' I s'pect I did, too. A couple wagons finally showed up, an' they commenced t' gatherin' up th' ones what could be saved, but they took a look at me an' passed on. Jist as well, I reckon. I didn't have enough blood left in me t' curse 'em, an' took m' leave o' th' world shortly thereafter.
    "My time in th' grave was peaceful, but awful lonely -- guess I didn't really 'xpect no Pearly Gates. Now I'm here -- an' 'tain't no better'n th' day I died. If this be th' Final Muster fo' th' Last Battle, then it appears likely that I will be obliged t' die again, an' I am not very pleased at th' prospect. I s'spect that I would not even want to dream this in Hell, if you'll pardon my language, ma'am."
    The others around the campfire nodded in sympathy, and some in turn recounted for her and each other their own stories of their fates. Sara grieved for them silently. Figments or not, it certainly seemed as though they experienced their own self-awareness. And if so, then how were these men different than what she perceived about any others she ever knew? If she discounted their existence based on what she thought she knew about the state of her own existence, then how could she credit the existence of any entity apart from her? Or the independence of reality itself?
    As Jeb had said, these relics of a bygone age were different from the people she knew, not only in their dialect, but in the way they acted -- treating her, despite their backwoods roughness, in a genteel and deferential manner that was unknown to her era. And the stories of their deaths were from a perspective outside of her experience, something she'd never even wanted to imagine. This did not seem to be anything she'd read in a book or seen in a movie that was adapted to her internal virtual reality.
    Well, who knows how deep Susan's database was...
    The angel had told her to trust her own imagination. If he was just a product of her fantasy, too, then Sara -- or Susan -- was trying to tell herself something important about what was 'happening' to her. It was very confusing.
    The fire dwindled to a few dull embers, and the soldiers succumbed one by one to sleep, except for two sentries who patrolled the perimeter for their turn at watch. Sara was wide awake for a while, thinking without result. She finally got up and silently rose slowly into the air to look around. The little encampment under the trees was at the edge of a vast sea of other camps, large and small, the remnants of their fires still clearly visible in infrared. There were men and their equipment spread over many square miles, numbering in the millions, ringing a broad, desert valley in their midst where other presences were gathered, surrounded by an aura of power that disturbed her.
    All was quiet. It was a calm before some calamitous storm to come. She sank slowly back to the campsite of the Ninth Kentucky, made herself comfortable on a patch of sand, wrapped herself in her cape, and went to sleep. At least in this dream, there was rest and food. For now, anyway.

    They made her a surprisingly tasty breakfast of scrambled eggs laced with tinned salt pork and onions, cornbread, fruit and coffee. Their sheltering little oasis was nourished by a spring-fed pond of cold water and consisted of an unlikely combination of date and coconut palms, fruit-laden pear, apple and orange trees, with wild herbs, roots and berries scattered through the grassy undergrowth. There were quite a few chickens wandering around, but evidently no roosters. As long as their original provisions of staples held out, the men would be adequately provided for.
    The pattern was repeated over and over across the plain surrounding the valley, furnishing the gathered multitudes with supplies adequate for at least a couple of weeks -- long enough to finish the presumed business at hand, anyway. Armies travel on their stomachs, and not many baggage trains had fallen in battle, so the agency responsible for their resurrection had seen to the necessities.
    Sara thanked them all for their hospitality and promised to return, then set out through the maze of camps in the general direction of the area headquarters. Most of the units nearby were from the Civil War era, but there were also a few small Mexican and Spanish War groups. She encountered several large assemblies of Revolutionary War soldiers and militiamen, and one group of 186 Texians whose presence seemed to indicate that the definition of 'uniform' was very loose. Several of them were busy trading with the much larger adjacent camp of Mexican soldiers, exchanging tobacco for cornmeal.
    She stopped to chat briefly with their leader, who gallantly introduced himself in the manner of the Old South as Colonel William Barrett Travis, "At your service, Miss. Allow me to present my staff, Colonel James Bowie and Congressman David Crockett," who allowed as they were honored to make her acquaintance.
    Sara actually felt more than a little awed to meet such legends, but tried not to show it too much. Travis oozed gentlemanly charm, and Bowie came off as a frontier dandy, part riverboat gambler and part swaggering cock-o-the-walk. Crockett played the shrewd buffoon, spitting elaborately and often between pithy backwoods witticisms. They and all the men in sight studiously avoided staring obviously at her exposed legs, coming as they were from an era when a bared ankle was scandalously risque. They seemed to accept her credentials as an unlikely warrior without question.
    "I see you're getting along famously with your neighbors," she observed. "This is just a guess, but would those guys over there be Santa Anna's men?"
    "Absolutely, miss," said Travis. "That war is behind us and we must needs face a common foe. We share a powerful bond with all those here assembled, who are of necessity our brothers in duty. We have crossed the line-in-the-sand together, having proven our courage and devotion; therefore we can but feel only respect for those who are our comrades now, even those whose tongues befuddle us and whose customs are baffling."
    Sara asked them, "Do you have any idea of just who it is you're supposedly here to fight, and why?"
    "I do not intend to question devine Providence."
    "What if it isn't devine? I mean, pardon me, but this all seems more senseless than anything else."
    "There may be sense and purpose beyond our ken."
    "And there might not be, either. This could just be a spectacle for the amusement of... Well, I don't know -- maybe Cryptos. Or like one of those historical re-enactments, where at lot of guys dress up in old uniforms and refight, like, the Battle of San Jacinto. I saw that once with Alex, over at the monument."
    "Ma'am," said Bowie, "All I know is that I am here to fight. That is the obvious truth of it, and what I am prepared to do."
    Crockett drawled, "Y'know [spit], when I got whupped fer re-election back in Tennessee, I tol' m' former constituents that they could by Gawd go t' Hell [spit]. As fer me, I was a-goin' to Texas [spit]. I don't know whar they might be now, but I sure as hell ain't in Texas [spit]. Well, I know fer a fact that I didn't bring m'self or nobody else t' this here place. 'Tain't 'xactly got all the comforts o' home, but they ain't nowhar else t' go, an' we'll be outta tobaccy in less'n a fortnight [spit]. But if'n some ornery damn' critter aims to take m' back t' Hell, I shore will do m' damnedest to take him wif me [spit]. Yep, me an ol' Betsy here," he said, patting his longrifle.
    Sara asked, "Have you seen who it is you're supposed to battle? How do you know that's the idea?"
    Bowie said, "There's been a scuffle or two. I went down in the valley with a scouting party to reconnoiter the other night, and we met one of their raids coming back from slitting the throats of a couple-dozen sleeping Canucks. It was mighty dark, but I've fought a duel or two thataway. Carved me a chunk off'n some big scaly devil. He got away, I guess. Whatever passes for blood in his veins melted my best blade." He held up a discolored knife hilt.
    "Maybe it's just some kind of misunderstanding," Sara said uncertainly.
    "Miss," said Travis, "I can think of no other purpose to resurrect in such a place as this every warrior who ever perished defending his home, country, beliefs and sacred honor, and opposing them with vile and bloodthirsty creatures, than to settle some momentous issue."
    "I been a-thinkin' [spit]," said Crockett, "Maybe we ain't altogether dead jist yet [spit]. Befo' we kin pass on, we gots to pay a price fo' th' violence we done by bein' fightin' men [spit]."
    "Surely," said Sara, "a lot of these men were drafted, forced into uniform against their wills. They had to do what they did and maybe they weren't violent by nature."
    "That's what soldiers do, ma'am," said Bowie. "Conscripts or professionals, all those gathered here died as a result of engaging in combat, and if you don't run, it's never no accident."
    Travis told her, "There are no cowards present."
    Sara protested, "But there's a lot more people who were soldiers and killed people and dropped bombs and ordered others to their deaths that never died in battle, and they're not here."
    Crockett replied, "I reckon [spit] they got their own Hell, ma'am."

    A little later, Sara thoughtfully took her leave and resumed her stroll, passing a co-mingled band of Plains Indians and US Cavalry before coming to larger assemblies of doughboys and GIs. Nearby were contingents of Aztec, Mayan and Inca warriors, and others less identifiable from pre-Colombian civilizations vanished without a trace. There were Conquistadors and Federales, as well as Fidel's Cubanos, Simon Bolivar's regulars and bandolier-clad Zapatistas. At the dangerous edge of the valley was a considerable Canadian contingent.
    The 20th-century American soldiers whistled and shouted their appreciation as Sara went by, and she answered them with cheerful waves. They must have thought she was part of a USO tour or something. The areas around their camps were crowded with vehicles and equipment, mostly tanks. There seemed to be an inordinate number of WWII Shermans, testifying both to their high production numbers and high casualty rate.
    She stopped to chat with a couple of tank crews (signing autographs they didn't understand -- "Susan?" -- that she didn't explain). Evidently, the rule was that if a tank was knocked out with its whole crew, they arrived with a fully armed and functioning vehicle with a full tank of gas -- and no prospects for more fuel, ammo or spare parts (other than what might be scavenged during the coming battle). Individual crewmembers who had died fighting were pooled together into whole crews and received tanks as well -- although there were disproportionately too many commanders owing to their propensity for sticking their heads out of the turret to see what was going on. There were not many rear-area maintenance personnel -- which wasn't that big a problem for simple vehicles, but was a severe headache for most of the modern aircraft, as it turned out.
    There were a lot of planes, from wire-and-canvas Jennies to Mustangs to Flying Fortresses to choppers, with a scattering of B-52's and Phantoms, and even a few Gulf War casualties. Around the rim of the valley, she could see Spitfires, Hurricanes, Sopwith Camels, Fokkers, Me-109s, Stukas, Sturmoviks, Zeros, and a stately fleet of Zeppelins tied precariously to boulders and trees.
    Unfortunately, there hadn't been any actual airbases provided. Some of the jets would have been useless without their ground support equipment even if there had been usable runways. A few combat engineers with bulldozers were able to quickly scratch out a couple of dirt strips (before their diesel ran out) suitable for launching many of the more robust planes, but there would be no refueling, rearming or maintenance. One sortie per plane was all anybody could expect. On the other side of the valley, the squadrons of Japanese kamikazes were probably unbothered by this fact.
    There was also a fair bit of artillery, ranging from culvereins and bombards to caisson-mounted field cannon and seige mortars to 88's and Atlantic Wall coastal-defense ship-killers to Stalin organs and 105-mm SPAs. Some of the ancient units had catapults and assault towers, and there were even a few completely useless V-2's and Scuds that couldn't be aimed without retooling their guidance systems.
    Everywhere she looked, Sara saw soldiers hard at work, mostly digging in. All of their attention seemed to be on whatever might soon issue from the broad, shallow valley in their midst. It was a place of large boulders and considerable erosion, capable of hiding the movements of friend and foe alike, and rendering co-ordinated combined-arms mobile operations next to impossible in many places. A river flowed sluggishly down the middle of it, bordered by forests and grasslands. At the very center was a large hill, fringed with cliffs, crowned by monumental buildings, and surrounded by a vast, walled city. Parties scrambled as far into the valley as they dared, stringing wires and mapping every nook and cranny, looking for any possible advantage or likely trap.
    She picked her way through the confusion and tumult of the camps to the area headquarters, consisting mostly of hastily prepared dugouts and tranches, covered over with logs in places to create rooms where intelligence could be evaluated and plans made.
    The combined forces were not top-heavy with brass. Most of the participants were ordinary combat grunts, with very few high-ranking staff and operations officers. Since most of those types were devoted to logistical considerations anyway, the few experienced generals who had managed to die with their boots on were probably adequate to the task. At least there was no shortage of sergeants, and they pretty much knew what to do and how to get it done.
    Sara reported her way up the chain of command until she came to a room with a bewigged Colonial general, a pair or bewhiskered Union and Confederate flag officers and a tough-looking US Marine two-star in khaki shirt sleeves and suspenders. The Marine looked at her skeptically and addressed her bluntly.
    "What the hell are you supposed to be? And why are you wasting my time?"
    "Ah, well, sir," she began, "I'm Sara Corel and I'm an alien who was raised on your planet some time in your future. It seems that I qualify for membership in this affair, and I might be useful."
    The Marine looked irritated. "Look, there are a few nurses at the field hospital. Why don't you go..."
    He stopped as Sara floated easily off the dirt floor and circled the low log ceiling. She landed beside him and snatched his sidearm before he could react, then fingered the safety, pointed it at her face and pulled the trigger. The sudden shot filled the small room with the noise of its report. She caught the bullet with her teeth and handed it to the general along with his pistol. The projectile burned his hand, which he scarcely noticed.
    The map table in the center of the room was made from the hood of a jeep, balanced precariously on a stack of spare deuce-and-a-half truck wheel rims. Sara propped the hood against a wall, grabbed a heavy rim with each hand, clapped them together and welded them to each other with hot eyebeams, did it again with the other two wheels, then joined the welded pairs together in the same way. She planted the stack on the floor, casually but deliberately forcing it six inches into the ground, then repositioned the hood, spot-welding it to its support.
    This whole demonstration only took half-a-minute, leaving smoke and fumes that had everybody else coughing profusely, eyes watering, half-blinded from the glare and half-deafened from the shot.
    She projected onto the map table an image of the valley as she had seen it only a few moments before and told them, "I can also speak a few thousand languages, in case you need an interpreter."

    In the course of just a few short days, Sara had cause to be astonished at the incredibly swift integration of so many diverse and seemingly incompatible military cultures into something resembling cohesiveness. Not that there wasn't a great deal of misunderstanding of certain specifics, but the essential thrust of the evident mission was apparent even to to crudest and most primitive soldiery on the plain. Every dead hero out there understood that this was an inevitable showdown of some kind, and that they faced something from their most primal legends and myths.
    There were as many different names and perceptions for what this appeared to be as there were armies represented, from the Christian Armageddon to the Nordic Gotterdammerung. Every belief foretold an end-of-the world battle in some form or another, or the dread of eventual annihilation that surely must mark the passing of all things at the end of days. All had experienced death at the height of their duty, and had been assembled into a host with weapons ready to hand. They knew what this meant.
    They were pure soldiers -- fighters and warriors who understood the meaning of loss and sacrifice, who instinctually grasped the meaning and utility of discipline and order, who could rely on their comrades through any crisis. They did not understand the whys and the hows of their situation, but they understood each other's determination.
    And down in the valley, things stirred -- forces little understood that came in the night and made plain their enmity without revealing their forms.
    Great labors were accomplished. Defensive works sprang from the desert, roads were laid, traps were built, weapons were deployed, working vehicles were deliberately scavenged for other purposes, obstacles were leveled or removed, ancient forces were re-equipped and brought up to speed, communications links were established, cross-fires were sighted-in, evacuation routes were designated, aid stations were set-up, supplies were cached, reserves were emplaced and intelligence was gathered.
    There was deep blue water at the far, far end of the valley, filled with ships of every description. The entire length and breadth of the theater of operations was under the guns of ships such as the Bismark and the Hood, and Japanese, British and American aircraft carriers steamed to and fro over the horizon. Admiral Horatio Nelson oversaw the transfer of thousands of naval cannons, powder and ammunition from the wooden ships of a dozen sailcloth navies to strategic barricades ashore, aided by legions of sweating sailors from Limeys to galley oarsmen. Submarines ranged offshore to guard against unexpected seawards attacks, backing up patrolling destroyers and torpedo boats. Leathernecked Marines mingled with Greeks and Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians, Phoenicians and Arabs, sending shore parties to what could be the hottest spots and securing the beacheads.
    Sara toured every command, relaying messages and making sure the generals and admirals, chiefs and warlords, hetmen and princes understood one another, occasionally helping out with bottlenecks where she could effectively lend her strength or other attributes. She automatically intercepted, translated and relayed radio messages once the scarce sets had been efficiently distributed.
    The Romans had laid out their usual stockades immediately upon arrival. They seemed to be among the most disciplined of all the armies, troopers born hundreds of years apart and representing myriad ethnicities from Italian to Germanic acting in long-practiced concert.
    There were large numbers of Norsemen -- semi-barbaric Vikings of legendary stature, who fought in seemingly undisciplined bands with surprising cunning and beserker ferocity.
    Archaic Chinese soldiers so resembled the buried statuary army of the Chin Emperor that it was uncanny (Sara had seen a reproduction of the famous tombs at the Forbidden Gardens in Katy, outside of Houston). They were stoic and steadfast, and coordinated well with the hordes of Mongol cavalry.
    The Samurai army could be sudden and swift in close quarters where ranged weapons might be unweildy, backing up the Imperial Japanese who had established a fearsome reputation as the most tenacious infantry forces of the Twentieth Century, routinely enduring incredible hardships with unswerving devotion.
    The primitives, from Apaches to Zulus, adapted to supporting roles, ready to fall on the unwary or take advantage of an overextended line of communications. They would function as partisans and guerillas as the need may arise, avoiding fixed battles until they could work a situation to their advantage.
    The combined armies of Germany, led by Irwin Rommel, may have been the most formidable practitioners of Blitzkreig, but the Russians were by far the most numerous, capable of filling the entire valley with their millions, spearheaded by thousands of tanks and flanked on the one side by the Germans and on the other by centuries of British Empire regulars.
    All in all, it was a grand and glorious conglomeration, with no shortage of colorful standard bearers and military musicians, from drummer boys by the thousands to wailing battalions of bagpipers.
    And then there was Sara...
    She was still somewhat unsure how to regard all of this. Her natural inclination was to be helpful, but she didn't understand the purpose behind this war to end all wars. The others she talked to all had different opinions and varying forebodings, but had no problem accepting their essential obligation to participate in what appeared to be an inevitable conflict. Maybe they had all heard 'the Last Trump' before she arrived (whatever they may have called it or however they may have characterized it), but she had not. But then, she expected to be different from everybody else, anyway. After all, as far as she knew, they were all just part of her fantasy.

    As evening fell nearly a week later, there was a meeting at Supreme Headquarters of all the most important senior commanders. Sara served as translator as they went over their plans and contingencies.
    Everything they had done so far had been defensive and preparatory, trying to take care of first things first against an unknown opponent. No amount of reconnaissance and spying had revealed the face of the enemy, and the raids from the valley below intensified from night to night, now claiming serious casualties. Sara's value as a messenger and translator (not to mention flying bulldozer) had been deemed so important that they refused to release her from duty in order to patrol the edges of the valley, not really grasping her full potential. She was, in any event, still somewhat reluctant to commit herself to taking any kind of direct action.
    "I really think it's time for me to go down there and have a look around," she told them
    "Out of the question."
    "Impossible."
    "You're much too valuable to the survival of the command structure."
    She persisted, "You really don't know what you're up against yet."
    "We will not risk you trying to find out."
    "Just what," said Sara, "do you think is down in the valley that threatens this huge force of arms?"
    "We'll find out soon enough."
    She said, "You can't make plans against the unknown. This is, like, really basic military theory, isn't it?"
    "We've been hoping that avoiding direct confrontation or provocation will allow us enough time to complete our basic preparations."
    She reminded them, "This is not any kind of stable, long-term situation. Time is running out as far as being able to survive on this planet. You saw my orbital recon scans." A quick trip around their phony world had revealed nothing but utter barrenness other than in this spot, with its adjacent puddle of a sterile ocean barely big enough for the carriers to get up to speed for flight ops. The only celestial body in their pocket universe was a tiny artificial sun that orbited the planet, obviously temporary.
    "We've developed plans to stretch our resources as long as possible."
    "No good," she said. "What -- an extra week or so before everybody starts to starve to death?"
    There was an uncomfortable silence.
    "Come on, what could possibly be down there that could hurt me?"
    Finally, a war-bonneted and painted aborigine said what they all were thinking.
    "Demons."
    "Demons?" Sara repeated.
    "Supernatural manifestations that may render all our fancy weapons useless."
    "Maybe even you."
    "There must be a reason for such a large gathering of forces. If it is to make such a battle 'even', then the nature of our opponents must be equivalently counterbalanced."
    "Not that there is any particular reason why such a contest must be fair at all."
    "And not that it makes any difference in the long run, anyway. We are in a limbo between death and death."
    "Even victory is meaningless, for we do not know the terms of it. We can only fight to forestall defeat and perhaps fulfill some unknown destiny."
    "Demons," the chief reiterated. "Demons from Hell."
    There was a long silence.
    Sara finally replied, "A good argument could be made that we are the 'demons from Hell'."
    No one responded.
    Well," Sara told them, "I'm gonna do what I have to do. I think it would be a good idea to talk to them, or it, or whatever. Could be that waging war is the one thing that we shouldn't do. They might be as panicked as the rest of us. Maybe we can work out something that will help us all go on to the next level. I'm going down there in the morning."
    "Can we stop you?"
    "No," she admitted.
    "Then we will prepare for the worst -- a failed diplomatic mission followed by hostilities."
    "I'm gonna hope for the best," she said confidently.


Chapter Thirty-five: Down in the Valley


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Patrick Hill, 2000