A Lady Out of TimeBy: Caroline Hanson
Helen’s dog tags clinked against the china teacup, the sound like mocking laughter. She squashed a desperate urge to swear. Helen was a soldier, not by choice but because being in the military was mandatory. Once upon a time, women hadn’t been drafted. But the world had been at war for so long now, everyone was drafted.
Maybe that was why it pissed her off to be scolded over improperly pouring a cup of tea, because she’d never been taught how to do something so useless. Something so…girly. It almost seemed cruel—come pretend to be a lady and then go back to cleaning your gun and running five miles in full gear.
When the class was over, Helen rushed out to find her best friend Mary, who would be grabbing a quick smoke before the next class. After all, if you’ve got an 80% chance of being dead by thirty, why not smoke?
The smoking area was at the edge of the military base, the view consisting of loading bays and black asphalt tucked neatly behind a barbed-wire fence. Beyond the base were rolling, yellow hills. There was so little rain in California’s Central Valley that everything was dried up and had a burnt quality to it that Helen found more than a little depressing.
She liked green grass and trees, the vibrancy of life surrounding her. The Central Valley looked like nature had lost and was dying a slow, dehydrating death. Her gaze was pulled back to a line of camouflaged military trucks that were idling at the loading bay.
Eight black body bags were brought out, pulled up to the trucks on gurneys and hefted inside like unwieldy bags of trash. Fear flashed through Helen, and she thought about asking Mary for a cigarette. Seeing the body bags made her think cancer was the least of her problems.
Mary’s voice sounded urgent. “That’s thirty. Thirty body bags that have come out of there in the last week. What the fuck? And I haven’t heard a thing. You?”
A plume of smoke shaped vaguely like a dragon drifted in front of Helen, singeing her nostrils. “No.” Not that either of them were important enough to hear anything significant, but sometimes there were rumors. Helen hadn’t heard any, maybe that was even more ominous.
Mary continued to guess. “Tests of some kind. That’s obvious. With so many dead people, how come we haven’t heard anything?”
Helen pulled out her ponytail holder, gathering her shoulder-length dark-brown hair in her hands and putting it back up, just to have something to do. “I’ve spent the last three hours staring at maps of Victorian London. Do you know what I learned? It was crowded, and they could have used a city planner. Drinking the water was a bad idea. Why am I taking a damned history class? England belongs to the Nazis and has since 1948. And even if we were going to invade England, why would I have to know how to pour tea to do it?”
Mary shrugged and crushed her cigarette under her boot. “Where do you go next?” she asked.
“Umm. General Fox wants to see me.”
“What?!” She yelped so loud that Helen flinched in response. “Do you think you’ll get promoted? That would be amazing! Then I’d finally know somebody on the inside.” She rubbed her hands together gleefully, as if she were already coming up with plans for world domination. Or maybe free beer nights. That was more Mary’s angle.
“I just told you that I’ve been learning how to pour tea. There is no way that’s a promotion. If anything, it could be a demotion. Maybe I’m being moved to the mess-hall or something.”
“Potato peelers have good life expectancies. You’ll be bored to death, but alive.” The bell rang, and Helen was both glad and a little nauseous to get the meeting with the General out of the way. “I’ll tell you all about it later. And if it’s a promotion, you’re buying.”
“No, if it’s a promotion, you’re buying,” Mary said, her smile a little forced.
“Like it matters, I always buy.”
“And I love you for it,” Mary said, and she gave Helen a big hug. “You’ll be fine.”
Probably. But for some reason, Mary’s final words felt like a jinx.
Helen was shown into a large office where a nervous secretary held some papers and seemed to vibrate with agitation. General Fox, one of the big head-honchos and someone Helen had only seen from afar, was in front of her. She knew some of the missions he’d been on: taking out the Dachau Engineering Lab and the Nazi Headquarters in France. He was a big fish, and Helen wasn’t even sure she was a fish.
“Specialist Foster. You must be wondering why you’re here?” He spoke like a bulldog. And Helen had the suspicion that it wasn’t so much a question as it was the prelude to a speech. At least he was going to get right to it.