After the crash course in Freds 101, the remainder. Prologue
"Why are there monsters?"
An exhausted woman looked at her little boy, who
had asked the question that was burning in her own
mind. His voice didn't tremble. She reached over to
wipe his face. They were not wearing camo right now,
and the smudges of dirt were only dirt. It wasn't right
for a ten-year-old to be a seasoned veteran of war, she
thought, but all of the human survivors on Earth
understood what it meant to fight for their lives
against alien invaders.
A long time ago, when she was ten, her only
question was "Are there real monsters?" What a
wonderful world that had been, a sane world where
nightmares stayed where they belonged, lodged in the
gray matter between the ears. Only in dreams would
you encounter giant floating heads that spit ball
lightning; angry crimson minotaurs; shambling hu-
man zombies fresh from their own death; flying metal
skulls with razor teeth dripping blood; ghosts colder
than the grave; fifteen-foot-tall demons with heavy
artillery in place of hands; obscenely fat shapes, only
vaguely humanoid, that could crush the life from the
strongest man in a matter of seconds; and, finally,
there was the special horror of the mechanical spider
bodies with things inside them that were far worse
than any arachnid.
There was no way to answer David, no explanation
for why dream shapes crawled across the land that
once was a country called the United States on a
planet called Earth.
She thanked God that her son was still alive. After
her husband died, there were only three of them.
Three. The number made her cry. They weren't three
She'd never had time to grieve over the man she
loved. The monsters didn't give her any time at all.
Her daughter, Lisa, had been thirteen.
At least her husband had died bravely, ripped apart
by the steel legs of a spider-thing. For a brief moment
the woman had caught a glimpse of the evil face
peering out from the dome mounted on top of the
mechanical body. She couldn't stop herself crying
out! Her husband couldn't hear her. But the spider-
thing heard everything.
She still blamed herself for that momentary loss of
control. Her daughter might have been alive today if
Mom hadn't freaked out and drawn the attention of
the mechanical horror at that instant. The sounds of
the monster were the worst part as it headed toward
the remaining members of the family. The heavy
pounding would stay in the woman's head forever,
along with the screaming of her terrified daughter--
right before the girl's head was torn off.
A human head makes a sound like nothing else
when it's played with and crushed.
She thanked God David hadn't seen what hap-
pened to his sister. But lately she found herself
wondering if she should ever give thanks for anything
again. Although she'd always been religious, she was
forgetting how to pray. She told herself it was like the
Book of Job: everyone was being tested as everything
was taken away. But the Book of Job didn't have
spider-things in it.
"I don't know why there are monsters," she said,
finally responding to her son's question. "These crea-
tures come from outer space. We've learned some
important things about them."
"What?" he asked.
She looked out the window of the basement where
they'd been hiding for the past week. It was a clear
night, and she could see the stars. She used to feel
peaceful when she looked at the night sky; now she
hated those eternal spots of fire.
"We've learned they can die," she said quietly.
"They are not what they appear to be. They're not
"Demons? Like the minister used to tell us about?"
She smiled and ran her fingers through what was
left of her son's hair. "They can't take you to hell,"
she said. "They can't do anything to your soul. Real
demons don't need guns or rockets. And, as I said,
real demons don't die."
David looked out the window for a while and then
said, "But they are monsters."
"Yes," she agreed. "We have to believe in them
now. But I want you to promise me something."
She pulled him close and tried not to notice his
missing arm. "There's something more important
than believing in monsters, David. Our minister
thought we were in End Times. He didn't even try to
fight the spider-things, except with his cross and his
Bible. But they can be fought with weapons. The
human race will prevail! If we have faith in ourselves.
I want you to promise that you'll always believe in
"Heroes will save us," he echoed her. The two of
them stood together for a long time, looking out the
window at the blind white stars.
"So how did you guys escape from that
death trap?" asked Master Gunnery Sergeant Mul-
"With one mighty leap, sir ..." I began, but he
didn't like my tone of voice.
"Oh, don't give me that, Corporal Taggart," he
said. "You guys are holding out on me. You can't tell
me you were trapped near the top of a forty-story
building in downtown L.A. with all those freakin'
demons after you, and then just leave it there."
When he said "you guys," he meant we didn't have
to call him sir. Not here, not now. "That's exactly it,"
I said with a big grin. "We left!"
"We probably ought to tell him," said Arlene sleep-
ily. She stretched like a cat in her beach chair, her
breasts seeming to point at the horizon. She'd left her
bikini top back at the hotel. The view was spectacular
from every angle.
For the last few days we'd been pretending that life
had returned to normal. Hawaii was still a stronghold
of humanity. On a good day the sky was normal. Blue,
blue everywhere, and not a single streak of bilious
alien green. The wonderful sun was exactly what it
ought to be--yellow, round, and not covered with a
new rash of sunspots. At least not today. We'd slapped
on plenty of suntan lotion, and we were soaking up
We weren't going to waste a good day like this. The
radar worked. The sonar worked. The brand-new
really good detection equipment worked, too. Every
detection device known to man was in use for sea and
sky. We almost felt safe. So the three of us decided to
play. The master gun was a great guy. Off duty, he
liked to be called George. He didn't mind being
Hawaii Base employed the services of a number of
scientists and doctors. I'll never forget Arlene's reac-
tion when they said that Albert was going to be all
right, despite his having taken a face full of acidic imp
puke. Best of all, he wasn't going to be blind. Once
Arlene heard that, she allowed herself to genuinely
relax. I was damned glad that our Mormon buddy had
pulled through. He'd proved to be one hell of a
marine all the way from Salt Lake City to the monster
rally in L.A. What was more, he'd proved to be a true
The docs said they could bring Ken back all the
way. Not that Ken had been exactly dead; but he
might as well have been when the alternative was to
exist as a cybermummy, serving the alien warlords
who had turned Earth into a charnel house. He'd
already helped us against the enemy by communicat-
ing to us through the computer setup our teenage whiz
kid, Jill, had thrown together in record time. Arlene
and I had used every kind of heavy artillery against
the demonic invaders, first on Phobos, then on
Deimos, and finally on good old terra firma. Jill had
taught us that a good hacker was invaluable in a war
That's why we were so happy when we landed at
Oahu and found not only a fully operational military
establishment but also a prime collection of scientists.
Arlene and I were warriors. Our task was to buy the
human race that most precious of all commodities:
time. Victory would require a lot more than muscle
and guts; it would require all the brainpower left on
the old mud ball. We needed to learn everything about
these creatures that had brought doom to the human
race. And then we would pay them back ... big time.
Yeah, Arlene and I felt good about the men and
women in white coats. For one thing, they said it was
okay to swim. It had been such a long time since I'd
plunged my body into something as reasonable as
cool salt water that I hardly cared about their reports.
If it didn't look like a pool of green or red sludge, that
was all I needed to know. The Pacific Ocean looked
fine to yours truly, especially today as we enjoyed
fresh salt breezes that would never carry a whiff of
sour-lemon zombie stench.
Jill had decided to spend the day working instead of
joining us. One of the best research scientists had
taken her under his wing. Albert had gone to town. Of
course, the "town" was every bit as much a high-
security military zone as the "hotel." (I'd never had
better barracks.) After what we'd all been through,
this place was heaven on earth. The other islands were
also secure, but they were not set up for the easy life
we enjoyed here.
As I took a sip of my Jack Daniel's, I reflected on
the miracle that I felt secure enough to risk taking a
drink. For the past month of nonstop hell, first in
space and then on Earth, I wouldn't have risked
dulling my senses for a second, or saturating my
bodily tissues with anything but stimulants. Earth
could still count on Corporal Flynn Taggart, Fox
Company, Fifteenth Light Drop Infantry Regiment,
United States Marine Corps, 888-23-9912. I was in
for the duration.
Glancing over at Arlene, I was pleased to see that
she was healing nicely. Even though we treated each
other as best buddies instead of potential lovers, I
wasn't blind. Even the flaming balls of demon mucus
hadn't burned out my capacity to see that PFC Arlene
Sanders had the perfect female body, at least by my
standards: slender but with well-cut muscles and with
everything in ideal proportion.
Sometimes Arlene did her mind-reading act. Now
she glanced in my direction and gave me the once-
over. I guess similar thoughts were going through her
mind. More than our bodies were healing. Our souls
had taken a beating. When we first arrived on the
island, and Arlene could finally accept that we had
found a pocket of safety, she had tried to sleep; but
she was so stressed out that only drugs could take her
under. Even then she'd wake up every half hour, just
as exhausted as before.
I wasn't doing too well when we first arrived, either.
But I was too worried about her to pay attention to
my own aches and pains. She said she'd never felt so
empty. She couldn't stop worrying about Albert. So I
told her all the things she'd said to me when I was
down. About how it was our turn to man the barri-
cades and we had to keep going, past every obstacle of
terror and fatigue and despair. Then I shook her hard
and told her to come out of it because we were on
vacation in Hawaii, dammit!
Master Gun Mulligan was an invaluable help
throughout this period of adjustment. He was an old
friend none of us had ever met before. You meet that
kind in the service when you're lucky. It makes up for
all the Lieutenant Weems types.
Of course, you should only tease a friend so far. The
master gun had every right to know how we'd pulled
off our "impossible" escape from the old Disney
Tower. He just had the bad luck to be caught between
Arlene Sanders and Fly Taggart in a game of who-
"All right," said Mulligan, half to himself, slipping
a little as he climbed out of his beach chair. He was a
big man, and he was right at the weight limit. He
didn't really have to worry about it, though. No one
would worry about the minutiae of military rules for
a good long time. If you could fight and follow orders,
the survivors of civilization as we know it would sure
as hell find you a task in this human's army.
Mulligan planted his feet firmly, put his hands on
his sizable hips, and gave us his personal ultimatum.
"Here's the deal," he said. "I'm going back to the
'hotel' to bring us a six-pack of ice-cold beer. When I
return, I have every intention of sharing the wealth.
That's what will happen if you make me happy. But if
you want to see a really unhappy marine, then don't
tell me how the two of you escaped from a forty-story
building with a mob of devils after your blood when
the two of you are in a sealed room, the only exit to
which is one window offering you a sheer drop to
"You've expressed yourself with admirable clarity,"
said Arlene. She loved showing off that college educa-
tion. Didn't matter to me if she ever graduated. She'd
picked up plenty of annoying traits for me to forgive.
"Yeah, right!" he said.
"We'll take your suggestion under advisement."
Arlene laid it on thicker.
"Bullshit!" said Mulligan, turning his back on us
and storming off down the beach.
"One, two, three, four," I said.
"We love the Marine Corps," he boomed back at
us, still headed toward his--and maybe our--beer.
"I think we'd better tell him," I said.
"He wants to know who the big hero is," she
replied. "So he can get an autograph." I noted that she
didn't say "his" or "her."
"You're on," I replied. God, it was fine to sit in the
sun, soaking up rays and alcohol, watching the gentle
waves rolling in to the shore, seeing an actual seagull
once in a while . . . and giving a hard time to a really
nice man who was a newfound friend.
Our moment of pure relaxation was interrupted,
but not by anything satanic. It was an honor when the
highest-ranking officer in Hawaii--and maybe in the
human race, for all we knew--strolled over to talk to
us while he was off duty. He wasn't our commanding
officer, so that made us slightly more at ease when he
insisted on it. The way Arlene blushed suggested she
would have worn the top to her bikini if she'd
expected a visit from the CO of New Pearl Harbor
Naval Base, Vice Admiral Kimmel.
"What are you two up to?" asked Admiral Kimmel.
We hadn't noticed him walking down the beach. He'd
come from the direction where the sun was in our
"Sir!" came out of our mouths simultaneously and
we started to get up.
"As you were, marines." Then he smiled and re-
peated his pleasantry as if he expected an answer.
"We were unprepared for your surprise attack,"
Arlene said to the commanding officer and got away
with it. He laughed.
The admiral continued standing. Sometimes rank
avoids its privileges. He took off his white straw hat
and used it to fan himself in the sweltering heat. His
thin legs were untouched by the least hint of tan, but
there was plenty of color, courtesy of his Bermuda
shorts and the tackiest Hawaiian shirt of all time.
When he was off duty, he wore this uniform to
announce his leisure.
"I'm glad someone of your generation knows the
history of her country," the admiral said, compli-
menting Arlene. "It's a strange coincidence that I
have the same name as the admiral who was here
when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. How much
of our history will be destroyed in this Demon War,
even if the human race survives? Guard what is in
your head. The history books of the future may be
written by you."
Arlene sighed. "When we go back into action I
don't think we'll be doing much writing, except for
"Signing off with famous last words," I threw in
helpfully. It suddenly occurred to me that I might
know something about the admiral that would be
news to Arlene, who was the acknowledged expert on
science-fiction movies and novels. It would be nice to
stump her right here and now on something impor-
Before I could get a word out, though, Arlene
smiled and said, "Fly, are you familiar with Admiral
Kimmel's book? He's a Pearl Harbor revisionist."
Damn! She had done it to me again, making exactly
the point I was about to make. With this final proof of
Arlene's telepathic ability, I decided in all future
combat situations to let her go over the hill first.
Especially if there happened to be a steam demon on
the other side.
Admiral Kimmel chuckled. "If I hadn't been
friends with the late president of the United States, I
would never have written that book," he told us,
remembering pre-invasion days. The president had
died when Washington was captured by the bad guys.
"He was the one who changed my mind about Pearl
Harbor," the admiral continued, "not my Japanese
wife, as many believe. I believe the evidence proves
that top officials in Washington withheld important
information from the commanding officers at Pearl
Harbor before the Japanese attack in December of
1941. Well, we don't have to worry about that sort of
nonsense in this war."
I nodded, adding, "There's no Washington."
As we talked, I noticed that Arlene became more
relaxed. We discussed our military backgrounds in the
days before the monsters came. I was glad we had a
man in charge of the island who had been a division
officer on a battleship, and a captain seeing action in
the Gulf before that. He'd been doing a shore tour as a
commander when the world capsized.
"There's a pleasant sight," he said, pointing at the
sea. There was a cloud on the horizon. A small white
He started to leave and then turned back, his face
suddenly as stern as a bust of Julius Caesar. His
mouth was his strongest feature as he said, "They
won't beat us. It's as if these islands have been given a
second chance. There will never be a surprise attack
here, not ever again. Let them come, in their thou-
sands or their millions. We're going to teach them that
we are worse monsters than they are. This is our
world, and we're not giving it up. And it won't stop
there. We'll take the battle to them, somewhere,
somehow. . . ."
He wanted to keep talking, but he'd run out of
words, so his mouth kept working in silence, like a
weapon being fired on an empty chamber after the
ammo is used up. We both felt the emotion from this
strong old man.
Arlene stood up and put her hand on his arm. She
helped him regain his composure. The gesture wasn't
regulation, but who cared?
For years I'd been asked why a rabid individualist
like me had chosen a military life. Some of the people
who asked that question understood that I wanted a
life with honor, especially after having lived with a
father who didn't have a clue. They could even
understand someone putting his life on the line for his
fellow man. It was individualism that confused them.
I became a marine because I believe in freedom: the
old American dream that had defied the nightmares
of so many other countries. Every Independence Day
I made a point of reading the Declaration of Indepen-
dence out loud.
I loved my country enough to fight for it. Now we
faced an enemy that threatened everything and every-
one on the planet. Any military system that had its
head stuck up its own bureaucratic ass was finished.
Now was the time to adapt or die. Now was the time
to really send in the marines!
"I almost brought you some iced tea," said
Mulligan, "with lots of lemon."
Arlene and I both grimaced. "He's getting mean,"
"A sadist," I agreed. We'd told the master gun
plenty about our adventures, and he had fixated on
the way Albert, Jill, Arlene, and I had passed our-
selves off as zombies by rubbing rotten lemons and
limes all over ourselves. The odor of the zombies had
forever spoiled the taste of citrus for me.
" 'Course I could let you have one of these instead,"
Mulligan continued, holding out two frosty Limbaugh
brews, one in each paw.
"The man's getting desperate," I said.
"Who goes first?" asked Arlene, ready to spill the
beans; and Mulligan hoped they would be tastier than
the typical MRE.
The admiral had left us. He looked like an old
beachcomber as he wandered down the beach. I
thought about what he'd said--how he'd tied the past
and future together with these precious islands as the
center of his universe. Maybe they were the center of
the universe for all humanity.
"Beers first," I volunteered, holding my hand out.
Mulligan looked as happy as Jill when I let her drive
the truck. He passed out the brews and settled his
considerable bulk back in his beach chair.
"Once upon a time ..." I began, but Arlene
punched me so hard it made her breasts jiggle very
nicely. With that kind of encouragement, I got plenty
"We had to take down the energy wall so Jill could
fly out of L.A. and get here," I began. "In the Disney
Tower we located a roomful of computers hooked into
a collection of alien biotech--"
"Yeah, yeah," Mulligan said impatiently. "I re-
member all that. Get to the window already!"
So I did.
We were too high. I'd never liked heights, but it
seemed best to open the windows.
"We took down the energy wall, at least," I had said
over my shoulder. "Jill must notice it's gone and start
treading air for Hawaii."
Arlene nodded, bleak even in victory. I didn't need
alien psionics to know she was thinking of Albert.
"The war techies will track her as an unknown rider,"
added Arlene, "and they'll scramble some jets; they
should be able to make contact and talk her down."
"Great. Got a hot plan to talk us down?" I asked
Arlene shook her head. I had a crazy wish that
before Albert was blinded, and before Arlene and I
found ourselves in this cul-de-sac, I'd played Dutch
uncle to the two lovebirds, complete with blessings
and unwanted advice.
Somehow this did not seem the ideal moment to
suggest that Arlene seriously study the Mormon faith,
or some related religion, if she really loved good old
Albert. The sermon went into my favorite mental file,
the one marked Later.
She shook her head. "There's no way," she began,
"unless . . ."
"Yes?" I asked, trying not to let the sound of
slavering monsters outside the door add panic to the
Arlene stared at the door, at the console, then out
the window. She went over to the window as if she
had all the time in the world and looked straight
down. Then up. For some reason, she looked up.
She faced me again, wearing a big, crafty Arlene
Sanders smile. "You are not going to believe this, Fly
Taggart, but I think--I think I have it. I know how to
get us down and get us to Hawaii."
I smiled, convinced she'd finally cracked. "Great
idea, Arlene. We could use a vacation from all this
"You don't believe me."
"You're right. I don't believe you."
Arlene smiled slyly. She was using the early-bird-
that-got-the-worm-smile. "Flynn Taggart, bring me
some duct tape from the toolbox, an armload of
computer-switch wiring, and the biggest goddam boot
you can find!"
The boot was the hard part.
The screaming, grunting, scraping, mewling, hiss-
ing, roaring, gurgling, ripping, and crackling sound
effects from beyond the door inspired me to speed up
the scavenger hunt. Hurrying back to the window
with the items, I saw Arlene leaning out and craning
her neck to look up.
"Do you see it?" she asked as I joined her. Clear as
day, there was a window washer's scaffold hanging
above us like a gateway to paradise. When the inva-
sion put a stop to mundane activities, all sorts of jobs
had been left uncompleted. In this case, it meant
quantities of Manila hemp rope dangling like the
tentacles of an octopus. A few lengths of chain, with
inch-long links, were even more promising than the
rope. The chain looked rusted, but I was certain that
it would support our weight.
The tentacles started above us and extended well
below the fortieth floor--not all the way to the
ground, but a lot farther away from the demons in the
hallway working so hard to make our acquaintance.
Arlene used the duct tape and the wiring to create a
spaghetti ladder that didn't look as if it would hold
her weight very long, never mind my extra kilos. But
we needed an extra leg up to get over to the ropes.
"Great," I said. "This looks like a job for Fly
Before I could clamber out the window, however,
her hand was on my arm. "Hold on a minute," she
said. "My idea, my mission."
The locked door was rattling like a son of a bitch,
and the thought of our entrails decorating the office
made me a trifle impatient. That was one kind of
spaghetti I could pass over.
"Arlene," I said, as calmly as possible under the
circumstances, "I have absolute confidence in you,
but this is no time to hose the mission. Let's face it, I
have more upper body strength and a greater reach
than you do, so I should go first." While I explained
the situation, we both worked feverishly to finish our
makeshift rope. Then I tied it around my waist.
Naturally I gave her no opportunity to argue. I was
at that window so fast she probably feared for my life.
A good way to keep her from staying pissed. I took
one mighty leap, making sure she held the other end
of the lifeline, and I climbed up and over, where I
grabbed hold of the nearest rope and started lowering
myself, groaning a bit at the strain and reminding
myself that I had all this great upper body strength. I
only wished I had more of it to spare.
Once I was on the ropes, I swung myself over to
where Arlene could reach them more easily. She
clambered out the window over my head and fol-
lowed my lead.
The annoying voice in the back of my head chose
that precise moment to start an argument. Damned
voice had a lousy sense of timing.
Getting tired, are you? Feeling a bit middle-aged
around the chest area? Old heart hanging in there? The
arms are strong from all those push-ups and pull-ups,
but how's the grip? Your hands are weaker than they
used to be, aren't they? You know, you haven't had
these injuries looked at . . .
"Nothing a blue sphere couldn't fix up," I mut-
Medikits aren't good enough for you, Corporal?
You'd rather trust in that alien crap, huh? And how do
you know that you and Arlene weren't altered in some
diabolical manner when your lives were saved in that
infernal blue light?
"I'm hanging from a freakin' rope and you choose
this moment to worry about that?" I shouted.
"Fly, are you all right?" Arlene called down.
"Okay," I called back, feeling like a complete idiot.
Normally I don't argue out loud with the voice in my
"Don't go weird on me now," she said. "If I fall, I
want my strong he-man to catch li'l ol' me."
"No problemo," I promised. "But I think we're
getting enough exercise as things stand." Well, at least
I'd convinced her I was playing with a full deck again.
As if life had become too easy for us, the door in the
office flew off with such force that it smashed through
what was left of the window and went sailing in the
direction of the freeway. The door was as black and
twisted as if someone had turned it into burned toast
and tossed it in the trash.
The first monster to peer out the window, if black
dots count as eyes, was one of the things Arlene had
wisely dubbed a fire eater. It must have only recently
joined the other pukes and taken care of the door
problem for them. In a flash it could solve the rope
problem, too, burning our lifeline to cinders. We
didn't have a fire extinguisher this time.
Fire Guy wasn't alone, either. He was the gate-
crasher, bringing with him a whole monster conven-
tion. They'd be pouring down the ropes after us like
molasses on a string if we didn't do something fast.
I stopped the story there because I wanted to finish
my beer, and because I had my eye on another can of
Limbaugh. The master gun had brought a six-pack, so
with the aid of higher arithmetic, I figured I had
another one coming.
"And?" asked Mulligan, fire in his eye; and the way
his mouth was working you could say fire in the hole,
"As the fire eater was getting ready to burn our
ropes--and you can always tell an attack is coming by
the way its skin bubbles and its body shimmers like a
heat mirage in the desert--I swung out and then
came in hard, kicking in a window with one try. In the
remaining seconds I pulled the rope taut and Arlene
shimmied down into my arms as tongues of flame
raced after her. But we'd made it to a much lower
floor. We had a twelve-story head start, so we
"Story is right!" thundered Mulligan. "I've never
heard so much bullshit!"
For one grim moment I wasn't at all sure I'd be
getting my second beer.
"Hold on," said Mulligan, guarding his
small ocean of beer as the larger ocean sent armies of
waves to die on the beach, "I'm not buying it. When I
was a kid, I was in the Boy Scouts. I carried the
heaviest knapsack on camping trips. I won all the
merit badges. I was a good scout, but other kids still
beat me up and teased me all the time. Do you want
to guess why?"
"Why?" asked Arlene, genuinely interested and not
the least bit annoyed by the mysterious direction the
conversation was taking.
"Partly because I was a chunky kid, but also
because I loved comic books. They thought I was
gullible or something. They thought I'd believe damn
near anything. But I'm telling you, Fly"--he turned
those cold blue eyes on me--"this story of yours is
"You believe the part about his starting to lose his
mind while he was on the rope, don't you?" asked
"Well. . ." Mulligan began.
"I left nothing out of my gospel rendition," I said.
"Especially not the verisimilitude," Arlene threw
"Huh?" came the response from both Mulligan and
"Still sounds bogus to me," concluded the master
gun, inhaling the rest of his brew.
"That's because it didn't happen that way," said
Arlene. "I'll give you the authentic version--for an-
"Yeah, right," the sergeant said morosely, but he
handed her a beer, and she started her engines.
"With one mighty leap . . ." she began.
George Mulligan groaned.
"Flynn Taggart, bring me some duct tape from the
toolbox, an armload of computer-switch wiring, and
the biggest goddamn boot you can find!"
He looked at me like I was crazy, but he did it. The
scaffold was our ticket out of there, but first we had to
get over to it. It made sense for me to go first because I
weighed less. The ledge was narrow and the chains
and ropes were sufficiently out of reach so that a
lifeline seemed like a good idea. At least it would give
me more than one chance in case I fell.
The sounds at the heavy reinforced door told me
two things. First, there was one hell of an enemy out
there. Second, the most powerful ones could not be in
front. A hell-prince would have huffed and puffed the
door down faster than a politician would grab his
pension. Even a demon pinkie could have chewed his
way through that door as if it was a candy bar. So the
wimps were up front, and this gave us a little more
While Fly was collecting the stuff, we received more
evidence supporting my theory. I heard screams that
I'd have recognized anywhere--the noise imps make
when they're being ripped apart. They were up front
and not strong enough to break through. It occurred
to me that this military-quality door dated back to the
time of Walt Disney himself. I was glad that Disney
had been a paranoid right-wing type, according to the
biographies. A more trusting sort would never have
installed the door that was saving our collective ass.
But it wasn't going to hold much longer.
"Got it!" Fly announced, trotting back with the
wire, tape, and boot. "What's your plan?"
I told him. I showed him. He nitpicked.
"I should go first because of upper male body
strength and a longer reach . . ."
"I weigh less! Besides, it's my idea. You're going to
be too busy to go first anyway."
He opened his mouth to ask what I meant, but the
shredding of the door provided the answer. Talons
appeared like little metal helmets, leaving furrows
behind them as they sliced through the last barrier
between us and them.
Grabbing his Sig-Cow, Fly started blasting through
the door before the first one even appeared. I saw that
my buddy wouldn't be able to help with the makeshift
rope so I tied one end to a heavy safe and the other
around my waist and clambered out the window
Luck was with me. Fly and I disagree about luck: he
thinks you make your own; I think you're lucky or
you're not. The ledge was so narrow that I couldn't
imagine Fly negotiating it. The stupid little lifeline
came apart before my hand was on one of those
beautiful, thick, inviting ropes.
I shouted my patented war cry, based on all the
westerns I'd seen when I was a kid, and jumped the
rest of the way. I knew I'd better be right about luck.
I swung far out and heard a long creaking sound
overhead, which was fine with me as long as it wasn't
followed by a loud snap. Just a steady creaking, as the
rope settled into supporting my weight. I didn't waste
a moment swinging over to a sturdy-looking cable
chain. I didn't trust the chain, so I tested it out. The
damned thing snapped, and I hung over L.A, like an
advertisement, glad for the rope. My left hand was
covered with rust. I would have thought that the chain
would outlast the rope, but maybe some of the links
were caught in a random energy beam.
A lot of stuff raced through my mind. I filed most of
it for future reference--if I had a future. The stuff
overhead reminded me of the last time I was aboard
ship--on the ocean instead of in space, I mean. The
only reason I wasn't splattered all over the street
below was that the window-washing equipment was
securely attached on the roof. I hoped no alien energy
burst had done any damage up there.
"Fly!" I yelled.
"Coming, coming, coming!" he shouted back.
There was no double entendre in either of our minds.
My bud would either be a fly on the wall out here or a
squashed bug inside.
He chose fly on the wall.
I made like Tarzan, or maybe I should say Sheena of
the Jungle, and swung over toward the window. The
scaffolding held. Fly held on. As he leaped out the
window, a red claw the size of his head missed
severing his jugular vein by an inch. I couldn't believe
I used to feel sorry for the Minotaur trapped in the
lair until Theseus came to put him out of his misery.
I'd never look at those old myths the same way.
We started down. The ropes wouldn't get us to
ground level, but half a loaf is better than none. If we
could descend below the monsters we might have a
chance to hoof it down to the street before they could
catch up with us. I was counting on their habit of
getting in each other's way and tearing each other up
when they should have been focusing on us instead.
Fly had it tougher than I did because he was
hanging like a piece of sacrificial meat directly outside
the window where the enemy was massing. He was
holding the rope with one hand, leaving the other free
to fire repeatedly at that rectangle of horror and
"Fly, I'll cover you if you climb lower," I promised.
Grateful for the time I'd spent rappelling down cliffs
in my high school days, I maneuvered so that the rope
was wrapped around me like a lonely boa constrictor,
freeing my gun hand. As I started firing thirty-caliber
rounds at the window, Fly slung his weapon over his
shoulder and used both hands to lower himself.
When he was safe enough--safety being relative
when you're playing tag with all the denizens of
hell--he yelled, "My turn to cover you!"
I made like a monkey and headed straight for
certain death. Fly kept up a barrage that was truly
impressive. The odds were at an all-time low, but as I
made it past the window, I was ready to rethink my
position on God. Fly and Albert had God. I had luck
. . . and a fireball that came so close it singed my hair.
Well, my high-and-tight needed a trim.
Fly ran out of rope and I joined him just in time to
see his very special expression, the one he only wears
when Options 'R Us has closed its doors permanently.
I couldn't help myself. I looked up. There is no
mistaking a fire eater. And this one was getting ready
to fry everything it could see.
The only hope was to break one of the windows, get
inside the building quicker than a thought, and then
haul ass down to the street. We had one chance.
Fortunately we'd brought along that really big boot.
"Aw, gimme a break, you two," begged Mulligan,
thoroughly beaten. "I don't care how you escaped
from the tower. It's none of my business. I'll never ask
He threw the remaining beers at Fly and me as if
they were grenades. The way the brews were shaken
up, they might as well have been.
While I pointed mine at the broad expanse of the
Pacific Ocean and fired off the white spray, Mulligan
changed his tone. He didn't sound like a wily old
master gun. He didn't even sound like a marine. He
sounded like a Boy Scout trying to requisition a last
piece of candy.
"Okay," I said. "I'll tell you the rest, from the point
where Fly and I have no disagreements about what
"Thank you," said our victim.
No sooner had Mulligan agreed to be a good
boy and let me finish my story than he changed his
mind. Just like a man.
"Uh, Sanders," he said.
"How about we do it a little differently this time?
I'll ask questions and you answer 'em. How's that?"
"Is that your first question?" I asked the master
"Arlene," Fly addressed me with his I'm-not-
worried-yet tone of voice, the one he uses right before
he tells me that I've gone over the line. He has a big
advantage in these situations: he seems to know
where the line is.
Mulligan just sat there grinning, waiting for a better
response from a mere PFC. "Okay," I said. "What do
you want to know?"
"Looks like I should've brought more beer," he
admitted. Fly still had some Jack Daniel's left, so he'd
be feeling no pain. All I had to get me through was
truth, justice, and the American way.
"When you reached ground level, you didn't
have any wheels waiting for you," Mulligan said.
There's no way you could've outrun a mob of those
"No problem," I told him. "I hot-wired a car."
He grimaced. "Now I suppose Corporal Taggart
will tell the story of how he was the one who--"
"No," Fly happily interrupted. "Arlene hot-wired
the car all by herself. Can't imagine where a nice girl
like her ever picked up such a specialized skill."
I gave Fly the finger and didn't even wait for
Mulligan to ask what happened next. "I drove like
crazy for the airport with Fly riding shotgun. I had the
crazy idea I could hot-wire a plane and fly Fly out of
"Thanks," said Fly.
"Let me get this straight," Mulligan returned to the
fray. "At that time you didn't realize the teenager was
still waiting for you."
"Jill," said Fly.
"Jill," Mulligan repeated.
I enjoyed this next bit. "We'd told her in no
uncertain terms that she was not to wait for us. We'd
risked our lives taking down the force field so Jill
could fly Albert and Ken to safety."
"So naturally she disobeyed orders," said Fly.
"You've got quite a kid there," observed the master
gun with true respect for Jill. Fly and I exchanged
"Jill is loyal." Fly spoke those words with dignity.
Mulligan steered the discussion back to my mono-
logue: "So you only had to drive to the airport . . ."
"Except we didn't make it in the first car. No great
loss, as it was an unexploded Pinto. Until it exploded!
A hell-prince stepped right out into the middle of the
street and you know what happens when they fire
those green energy pulses from their wrist-launchers."
"You trade in the old model you're driving for a
new one." Mulligan grinned; he was into the spirit of
the thing now.
"Thanks to my superb driving skills--"
"You were weaving all over the road like a drunk on
New Year's Eve," Fly interjected.
"Exactly," I agreed without missing a beat. "So we
survived the surprise attack. I slammed the car into a
row of garbage cans, and we wasted no time exiting
the vehicle and returning fire."
"I wondered what Corporal Taggart was doing all
this time," said Mulligan.
"Watching the rear," said Fly. "Perhaps you've
forgotten we were being chased."
"So then what?"
"Good luck was what," I told the master gun. "An
abandoned UPS truck was parked on the side of the
street. We made our way over to it, simply hoping it
was in working order. Well, we hit the jackpot. Inside
was a gun nut's paradise, a whole shipment addressed
to Ahern Enterprises."
"The bazooka," said Fly. "Don't forget to tell him
about the bazooka."
Poor Mulligan ran out of beer. He was on his own
now. "The hell-prince, as you call him, didn't fry your
butts before you could use all this stuff?"
"Nope," I said. "His second shot missed us by a
"Then what happened?"
"We fried his butt," I recounted.
"But . . ." Mulligan started a thought and came to
a dead stop. He tried again. "We all know how
freakin' stupid these things are, but I'm surprised that
in all your encounters the enemy never has any luck."
"I wonder about that myself sometimes," Fly ad-
mitted. "I wouldn't bet on my survival in most of
these situations, but Arlene and I seem very hard to
kill. That's why we're certain to be put back on a
"What helped us that time," I continued, "was that
a bunch of pumpkins were in the vanguard of our
"Oh, yeah," said Mulligan. "Your name for those
crazy flying things. I remember your stories about
how the pumpkins and hell-princes hate each other."
"We learned that on Deimos," Fly contributed.
"While the pumpkins and hell-prince wasted each
other's time, we prepared the bazooka for the hell-
prince. Between the pumpkins and us, we took him
down. Which only left us with the problem of being
surrounded by half a dozen deadly spheres. Fly and I
used another trick that worked on Deimos: we stood
back-to-back, and each of us laid down fire in a 270-
degree sweep. That created the ingredients for a very
"So then you checked out the contents of the
"Like I said, it was gun nut heaven. We did a quick
inventory and took what was easiest to get at."
Fly remembered a grim moment. "I opened one
box expecting to find ammo, but it was a case of books
defending the Second Amendment. I even remember
the title, Stopping Power by J. Neil Schulman. The
stopping power I needed right then could not be
provided by book pages."
"I had a moment of frustration, too," I said. "I
found the shipping form. It showed that the most
inaccessible box contained a number of specialized
handguns, including one I'd always wanted. There
simply wasn't enough time to unload the truck."
"What was the specialized gun?" asked Mulligan.
"Watch out," Fly warned him, but it was too late.
The master gun had asked the question.
"It's a Super Blackhawk .357 Magnum caliber
sidearm. Looks like an old western six-gun, but there
the resemblance ends. The only drawback used to be
that it didn't conceal well, with its nine inch barrel.
But in today's world that's no problem! Who needs to
conceal weapons any longer? Anyway, you can knock
something over at a hundred yards with this gun, but
it helps to have a scope. Best of all, the Blackhawk has
a transfer bar mechanism. If you have a live round
under the hammer and strike it with a heavy object, it
won't discharge. Isn't that cool? But that's not all--"
"Arlene." Distantly I heard Fly's voice. "That's
"But I haven't told him about the cylinder. It
doesn't swing out so as to empty the spent shells. All
you have to do is flip open the loading gate, push the
"Arlene." Fly was using one of his very special
tones of voice.
"Okay, okay," I surrendered. "Where was I? Well,
we were checking out our little candy store, but we
didn't have much time."
"So you hot-wired the truck?" Mulligan guessed.
"Hey, who's telling this story? The same good luck
that provided us with a UPS weapons shipment left
the key in the ignition and enough gas in the tank to
get us to the airport. Who knows what happened to
the driver? His ID was still on the dashboard--some
poor bastard named Tymon. Maybe he was zombified
and went looking for work at the post office. Anyway,
we hauled ass and made it to the airport in record
Fly jumped back in. "Where I would have paddled
Jill on her posterior, except that Arlene thought that
might be misunderstood. Besides, I could only be so
angry with someone who had probably saved our
"The force field was still down," I continued. "I
was surprised. Enough time had passed for them to
put it up again, but we were not fighting the greatest
brains in the universe. Ken seemed relieved that half
his work was done."
"Half?" asked my burly audience.
"Sure. Ken had been busy while he waited for us to
show up. He'd tapped into the system with an idea
that turned out to be very helpful."
"So what was Jill doing all this time?" he asked.
"We took off. She didn't want to wait any longer,
especially now that we could see imps and zombies
piling into other planes so they could pursue us."
"Jesus," said Mulligan. "According to what you
told me before, Jill had done okay; but it takes a lot
more than not cracking up a plane to survive a
"Jill was thinking along those lines herself," I said.
"I tried to cheer her up by reminding her of the skill
levels of the typical imp and zombie. As it turned out,
it didn't matter. No sooner was Jill out past the shore
than Ken solved the problem he'd been working on.
He raised the force field just in time to swat the enemy
planes out of the air like flies."
"Hey," said my best buddy.
"As a bonus, Ken hosed the password file so they
wouldn't be able to lower the field and follow us. We
realized we could actually relax for a while. Good
practice for our time with you, George."
"Now, that part I believe," said the master gun.
"Outstanding mission," was Mulligan's ver-
dict. "You two are a credit to the Corps."
"You've done all right yourself," I returned the
"Thanks, Fly," he said.
Meanwhile Arlene took a break from our company,
and from the extended trip down memory lane. She
ran into the surf. I shielded my eyes against the
glaring sun to watch her precise movements. Nice to
see her using her physical skills for fun instead of
taking down demons. The ocean beckoned me, too.
Mulligan gave it a pass.
As I watched Arlene's trim body darting in and out
of the waves like a sleek dolphin, I marveled for the
hundredth time that we were alive and together in a
setting untouched by doom. After wading in a literal
ocean of alien blood, I felt clean again in the cool
ocean water. I discovered scratches and cuts and
abrasions I didn't even know I had as the salt water
caressed my body. Swimming stretched muscles that
weren't often used in battle. I felt truly alive.
Arlene was as playful as a kid as she waved and
challenged me to catch up with her. I obliged. Time
for upper body strength and a longer reach to help me
in my hour of need. I poured it on and moved so
swiftly that my hand found her smooth ankle before
she could get away.
My buddy, my fellow warrior who was as good a
man as any other marine, had delicate little feet! Not
like those of any other PFC of my acquaintance. The
admiral could have slapped together a World War II
poster with Arlene's picture and a caption: "This is
what you're fighting for." We were soldiers in what
might prove to be the last battle of the human race.
But I liked a human face to remind me why I fought.
We splashed each other and played so hard that I
swallowed a mouthful from Davy Jones's locker. And
I kept finding excuses to touch the smooth skin of my
buddy. There had been a subtle change between us
after Albert came into her life, though.
I wasn't going to try to come between them. Just as
I had steered clear of Arlene and Dodd, until her
boyfriend unwillingly joined the zombie corps--
beast all you can be. She and Albert both deserved
whatever chance for happiness they could grab. We
were marines. We didn't need to volunteer for the
crazy suicide missions. We were assigned to them as a
matter of course.
This vacation wasn't going to last.
Looking toward the beach, I saw that Mulligan had
finished his beer and returned to HQ. He wasn't the
type to sunbathe on purpose.
"What time is it?" asked Arlene, pausing only long
enough to spit salt water in my direction.
I made a big deal of lifting my left arm to show off
my brand-new plastalloy wristwatch, spaceproof and
waterproof. I checked the time. "According to the
best naval time, it's late afternoon."
"Just about," I answered. "You know, it was about
this time last week when they took the bandages off
"He beat them," she said, suddenly very serious,
and I was with her all the way.
No damned imp with a lucky fireball had succeeded
in blinding our big Mormon buddy. I was still pissed
that Bill Ritch had been killed in similar circum-
stances on Deimos. Well, the bastards didn't have any
of Albert. The L.A. mission had turned out to be a
mortality-free operation. Hell, we'd even rescued Ken
Estes when the man could do nothing to help himself.
The docs had him sitting up in bed, wearing pajamas
instead of mummy wrappings, and he could talk
again. A bona fide miracle. Then it was Albert's turn.
"Fly," said Arlene, up close all of a sudden.
"You're a great guy," she said, and kissed me on the
cheek. She could always surprise me.
"What brought that on?" I asked.
"You care about Albert," she said softly. "You care
about Jill and Ken, too."
I shook my head. "Don't think that way," I told her.
"You can't relax into--"
She put her hand over my mouth. It was her turn
again: "You're not the only marine who can make
command decisions. Soon the only people left in the
world will have the will to sacrifice their loved ones if
that's what it takes to defeat the invaders. Meanwhile,
we can care for one another."
"You're not describing civilians," I said coldly.
She started swimming for the shore, but then
turned back, treading water, and completed my edu-
cation: "There are no civilians any longer, Fly. Every
survivor is a soldier in this war."
I gave her that point. After all, she hadn't said
everyone was a marine. I could accept the idea that all
terrestrial life-forms had volunteered for grunt duty
on the front line. The whole planet was the front line.
Floating on my back for a moment, I let Arlene's
words wash over me. The heat of the sun and the cool
of the water threatened me with sleep. We hadn't had
very much of that in the past month. I'd always been
naturally buoyant, but I wasn't going to risk taking a
doze in the ocean. It would be funny if a guy who had
survived spider-minds and steam demons drowned a
short distance from his best buddy.
I swam to shore, where Arlene was waiting for me,
pointing to something behind me. I looked around
and for a moment thought she was referring to the
cloud the admiral had noticed earlier, but it had
vanished. She was interested in the black fin a hun-
dred yards away from us.
"There's someone for your terrestrial army," I said.
At the time I thought it was a shark.
"Do you think we'll ever get Jill to eat seafood?"
"I doubt it. Speaking of Jill, let's check up on her."
I'm lonely. I'm bored. I thought when we got to
Hawaii I'd find some kids my own age. Everyone here
is either an adult or a little kid. Some of them don't
even call me Jill. They call me "the teenager."
At first they made a big fuss. The admiral gave me a
medal. They were short on the real thing, so he used
some old golf ribbon he'd won years ago, but it meant
a lot to him, so I was polite. I was uncomfortable at
the way everyone looked at me, but it was still kind of
nice. The pisser was, no one would get off my age after
Except for Dr. Forrest Ackerman. He was probably
crazy, but he was nice to me. "You're a genius," he
kept repeating. "I prefer the company of geniuses."
He looked like Vincent Price from an old horror
movie, complete with neat little mustache. I might
not have remembered that movie except that the
doctor considered himself a monster expert. "Let the
others call them 'the enemy,'" he said, winking.
"They're more comfortable with the old language.
'The enemy' refers to something human. We face
principalities and powers. We're monster-fighters."
I had no idea what he meant by principalities and
powers, but at least he didn't talk down to me.
There were a dozen computer jobs I could have
taken now that I was a big hero; but I chose to work
with Ackerman. For one thing, he'd asked me to. His
research was interesting, and there was a lot I could
do for him.
I didn't mind his interest in me, especially if I was
going to be an assistant. But I didn't like the way he
kept asking about the others. Albert, Fly, and Arlene
had lots of military stuff to keep them busy. Ken was
recovering in the hospital; whenever we talked, he
tired out quickly.
"There is every indication that Ken is also a
genius," Ackerman said, smiling.
"At least he's unwrapped."
"What do you mean?"
"I was, uh, making a joke. He looked like a mummy
when we rescued him from the train. When I look at
him now, I think of a ... mummy."
"Yes, yes," he replied. "You and Ken were worth
the sacrifices the others made."
"They were very brave."
"Normal specimens," he said to himself.
People who talk to themselves are overheard some-
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He looked up from his clipboard and blinked at me
through his heavy black-rimmed glasses. "Sorry. I'm
spending too much time in the lab. I only meant that
if the human race is going to survive, we must harvest
all of our geniuses."
I'd been called a genius ever since I was a kid.
Sometimes I got tired of it. "What's a genius?" I
He had a quick answer. "Anyone who can think
better than his neighbor."
"There must be a lot of geniuses, then."
He smiled. "Don't be a smart aleck or I won't show
you my collection."
I'd always found it hard to shut up. "How do you
know who's so smart?"
He placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder. I didn't
hold that against him. He had no way of knowing I
wasn't looking for a dad.
"Jill, the military keeps records. Sometimes I think
it's all they're really good at doing. If your military
friends had unusually high IQs or other indications of
special mental attributes, we'd know."
"I thought a lot of records were lost during the
He laughed. It didn't sound as if he was enjoying a
joke. "You should be a lawyer."
"This base had thorough documents on military
personnel of all the services before Doom Day."
"That's what we're calling the first day of the
invasion. By the way, I notice you're trying to change
the subject. You are a genius, Jill. You might find it
interesting that your last name, Lovelace, is the same
as that of Augusta Ada King Lovelace, an English
mathematician who has been called the world's first
It was amazing how much trivia Ackerman carried
in his head. While we were talking, I followed him
into the largest laboratory I'd ever seen: an under-
ground warehouse they'd allowed Dr. Ackerman to
turn into his private world. Clearance was a cinch: he
ran the lab.
I wanted to get him off the subject of my friends.
The way he talked about them made me uncomfort-
able. They'd been sort of ignoring me lately. At least
that was how it felt. I didn't want to be disloyal to
them when I was already pissed off. I wasn't a rat.
Besides, maybe they were purposely giving me time
to be alone. Arlene had said I could really be a pill
when I was in one of my moods.
Well, why shouldn't I be? Albert and Arlene had a
thing for each other. When they were like that they
didn't want anyone else around, not even Fly. But
lately Arlene was spending more time with Fly. They
had this really gross brother-sister kind of thing going.
When I first met them, I thought there might be
something else between them. I quickly learned that
was no way.
'Course I thought that might open the door for me
to sort of find out if Fly would see me as anything
other than a dumb kid or a computer geek. That went
nowhere fast. No one can make me feel like a kid
quicker than Fly Taggart.
"I don't care that civilization has almost col-
lapsed," he told me one time when I let him see me
dressing, or undressing--I forget which. "I have my
own rules," he said. "My own personal code of
conduct. A kid your age shouldn't even be thinking
about such things. Now cut it out!" He said a lot
more, but I tuned him out. Lucky for him that his
personal code was exactly the same as that of other
adults. He called it the "your actions" principle, or
the YA rule for short.
Fly was just like all the other adults I'd known,
except that he was a better shot. A full-grown man is
telling me what I shouldn't be thinking about. Typi-
cal! At least Dr. Ackerman didn't do that to me. But I
sure didn't want him to pump me about my marine
friends. I didn't want to tell him that I think Fly
would rather fire a plasma rifle than make love to
anyone. My opinion's none of Ackerman's business.
I didn't want the doc to know that I'd rather be a
scientist than a marine. That's probably no big secret.
I don't want ever, ever, ever to be a marine. I hate the
"You'll find this fascinating, Jill," Dr. Acker-
man promised as he led me to a massive table covered
by a gigantic plastic sheet. About the only thing
missing was an electrical machine buzzing and zap-
ping from one of the old movies.
"There are too many of them to be defeated by
firepower!" He sounded like the president of the
Council of Twelve from the Mormon compound. But
he didn't go on to talk about the power of prayer.
"After what your friends told us, we must face the
reality of an unlimited number of these creatures. The
bio-vats witnessed by Taggart and Sanders--"
"That was before I met them."
"Yes, we were briefed, you know. They saw those
vats in space--on Deimos, to be exact. The aliens can
replace their creatures indefinitely, and they keep
improving their models. So . . ." Ackerman had a
great sense of the theatrical, playing for an audience
that was only me. Reminding me of a stage magician,
he reached out with both hands and yanked the big
sheet off the thing on the table.
Large pieces of steam demon were spread out on a
heavy slab. The table had to be very strong to support
the weight. "It's not rotting?" I said, blurting out the
first words that came into my head.
"They don't decay naturally. The zombies decom-
pose, of course, because of their original human
tissue." He slipped a pair of surgical gloves on and
prodded the red side of the big chest lying there all by
itself. It looked like the world's biggest piece of
partially chewed bubble gum.
"There's no smell," I volunteered.
"No odor, right. Not with a cyberdemon."
"I forgot. You call them something else, don't
"Yes, well, we're standardizing the terminology for
official government science. Now take the cacode-
mons, for instance."
"You call them pumpkins. I confess I like that name
myself, what with the Halloween associations, but it
won't do for an official name."
"Do you have any cacodemons here?"
He shook his head. "They dissolve shortly after the
tissues are disrupted. When we try to secure samples
for analysis, we're left with only a test tube of liquid
and powder. So tell me, Jill, what do you make of the
cyber . . . er, the steam demon?"
"The name 'cyberdemon' makes sense," I agreed. I
didn't tell him what I thought of "cacodemon." "The
mechanical parts stick into the body so deep--"
"They are not attachments," he corrected. "Look!"
He pointed at the portion of the arm that began in
flesh and ended in the metal of a rocket launcher.
"Neither the arm nor the launcher is complete, but
the cross section shows the point of connection be-
tween the arm and the weapon. You see it, don't you,
Jill? You don't need a microscope."
The only other time I'd been this close to a piece of
monster was when the foot of a spider-mind almost
crushed me on the train when we rescued Ken. I
wondered what Ackerman called the spider-minds.
Anyway, seeing a cross section of a demon was a new
experience. "I don't believe it," I admitted.
"Seeing is believing."
The red shaded into silver-gray. There was no
dividing line. The rocket launcher grew out of the
"That's one for Ripley," he said.
"A little before your time. It means it's hard to
believe, but the evidence is right before you. When I
first started studying these creatures, I was most
puzzled about their weapons. Think about it. The
imps fire a weapon that's purely organic in nature."
"We call them imps, too. Well, sometimes spinies."
"Uh-huh. Your pumpkins do the same with their
balls of concentrated acid and combustible gas. Why,
then, do these larger creatures use weapons similar to
the artillery used by humans?"
I'd never thought about that. If someone is trying to
stab me with a switchblade, I don't wonder how he
It was Dr. Ackerman's job to wonder. "All these
military weapons seemed inappropriate," he went on.
"If they internally create bolts of force and can
project them, why develop appendages that require
"I get it," I said, excited. "It's like if you're God-
zilla, what do you need with a gun?"
"Perfect, Jill. You really are a smart kid."
I didn't want compliments. I wanted to keep the
discussion moving. "Are you sure they get their
bullets and rockets from somewhere else? Maybe they
grow them, too?"
Ackerman stopped what he was doing--bringing
up a computer display showing the monster's autopsy
report--and took his glasses off. He pointed at me
with them. "Right there you prove yourself worth
more than the people I've been working with. You can
help me, uh, interface with Ken, too. His doctor says
it will be a while before he gets back to normal, but
he's been so close to the problem that he understands
aspects of their biotechnology that no one else com-
I nodded. "Now I remember. Ken told us how the
rockets and guns and stuff were probably first stolen
from subject races. So if the gun is a separate thing,
then it's not grown by a demon."
Ackerman finished my thought: "But if it's at-
tached, then it's grown somehow. The original ver-
sion of the weapon must have been stolen first. Then
they modified it into their biotech."
He turned his back to me again and I noticed little
red and yellow stains all over it. I didn't want to know
what they were. Now he was excited as he said, "What
we need is a living specimen of one of the big ones."
He grinned. Maybe he really was a mad scientist. I
had to ask the obvious question: "Would you be able
to control it?"
"We already handle the living zombies we have
here. That sounds funny, doesn't it? Living zombies."
"You have live ones?" I nearly freaked when he said
that. Being in combat had turned me into a killer . . .
of the undead.
"Sure, but they're easy to control. They don't have
superhuman strength. You know that from fighting
"Have you fought them?"
"Well, no, but I've studied them."
"Trust me on this, Doctor--they're dangerous."
"But manageable. That's all I'm saying. If we had a
live cyberdemon, then we'd have a problem of con-
tainment. The same as if our mancubus was living. I
know you call them fatties."
"You have a whole fatty?"
"Fortunately it's dead. Unlike the specimen here,
he seems to be slowly decaying."
I laughed. "They smell so bad alive I don't see how
they could get any worse."
"The stench reminds me of rotting fish, sour grapes,
and old locker-room sweat. Come on. I'll show you."
He didn't need to take my arm, but I let him. He was
like a friendly uncle who wanted to show off his
chamber of horrors. We went past sections of flying
skulls laid out like bikers' helmets. I'd always wanted
"What do you call the Clydes?"
"We don't," he answered quickly. "We think your
friends were wrong to think they might be the product
of genetic engineering. They're probably the human
traitors who were given some kind of treatment to
make them tractable."
The fatty was behind glass and made me think of a
gigantic meat loaf that had been left out in the sun.
The metal guns it used for arms had been removed
and stacked up next to the monster like giant flash-
lights. He looked sort of pathetic without them.
"You can't smell it from here, but if you want to
step into the room ..."
"No, thanks." I turned him down, unsure if he was
kidding me. "Let's see the zombies."
I wish I hadn't asked.
He led me to the end of the warehouse, where I
finally saw some other people in white lab coats. For a
moment it had seemed as if the whole place belonged
to Ackerman and his monsters. We went out into a
corridor. I figured the zombies had been given a
special place of their own.
Like I said, what's great about scientists is the way
they refuse to talk down to kids. Ackerman started to
lecture, and it was fine with me:
"The most interesting part about studying zombies
is the residual speech pattern. We have recorded many
hours of zombie dialogue. Some of them fixate on the
invasion, speaking cryptically about gateways and
greater forces that lie behind them. Others pick up a
pattern from their own lives, repeating phrases that
tell us something about them. A final test group
doesn't speak at all. We are attempting to find out if
they retain any capacity to reason after the transfor-
"No," I said as strongly as I could. "The human
part of them is dead."
"I understand how you must feel," he said. "It's
easier for all of us if we assume we're not killing
anyone human on the other end of the gun barrel."
I shook my head. "You don't understand," I told
him. "I'll kill any skag who betrayed us. The traitors
are still human. I wouldn't have any problem pulling
the trigger on those creeps in the government who
helped the demons."
"All right, calm down," he said in a completely
different tone of voice. "I was really talking about
myself just then. It's easier for me to work on these,
er, zombies, if I think there's no humanity left."
Arlene keeps saying I can be a real pill, so I decided
to be that way on purpose. I asked, "What difference
does that make to you, Doctor, if they weren't gen-
iuses when they were alive?"
He laughed instead of getting mad. "You are smart,
Jill. I need to watch my step around you. I hope we'll
enjoy working together. We can start now. What's
your theory of why a few of the big monsters seem
able to reason?"
"You mean like the spider-minds?"
I didn't need to tell him what that word meant.
"Apparently all of them. Then there was the loqua-
cious imp whom Corporal Taggart reported encoun-
tering on Phobos."
He was on one of my favorite subjects. "We won-
dered about the smart ones when we were doing the
"What were your conclusions?"
I suddenly noticed how long we'd been walking.
"How much farther before we reach the zombies?"
"Not long. Just don't ask if we're there yet! It'll
make me think of you as a kid again."
"Is there a rest room I can use?"
"Just a few feet beyond the zombie pen." He
sounded impatient. "So what did all of you con-
"Whenever a normal, stupid one talks, there must
be a smarter one somewhere, sending the words."
"Like broadcasting a radio signal. We've been
working along the same lines. Do you think the
spider-minds do their own thinking?"
"They could be on the receiving end as well."
"So tell me about your zombies." I was truly
interested. We'd walked a good distance and still no
sight of the corpse-creeps.
"Well, we have a total of thirteen. We've run
identity checks. You know how impossible it is to
destroy information today."
"Yeah, the monsters can't rip a big hole in the Net,
even with their fat asses."
"They've slowed us down, but they can't stop us
"We'll stop them cold."
"Attagirl! Anyway, one of the zombies was once an
editor named Anders Monsen. He repeats phrases
from his profession. At least, that's what we think he's
doing. One of the women is Michelle DeLude, a
blonde. She keeps repeating how she must get to Las
Vegas in time for her wedding. Mark Stephens ran a
bookstore. Butler Shaffer was a law professor. Tina
Karos was a paralegal. She's the brunette. Both the
ladies were very attractive in life. Shame to see them
monsterized. The other eight were seamen stationed
right here in Hawaii. One was a huge man his friends
called Big Lee. Don't remember the names of the
Ackerman could have been a teacher. He made me
want to meet his special class of dead people. I was
looking forward to it ... until the door marked Maxi-
mum Security swung open and a large shape filled the
doorway, swinging a meat cleaver with which it
hacked off Dr. Ackerman's head.
I'll never admit this to Arlene, but for the first
time I doubt my faith. I don't want to be Albert the
agnostic. I have to write this out of my system. When
I'm finished, I'll destroy it and write her a real letter.
It might seem stupid to write to someone I could
speak to in person, but when I look into her green
eyes, I become tongue-tied. The way she arches her
right eyebrow and smiles with a smile as hot as her
flaming red hair, I just can't talk to her. She offers me
herself, and all I can do is tell her about my religion.
She was the first sight I beheld after the operation.
They did what they could for my face, but I didn't
need to look in a mirror to realize I had permanent
scars. My face still burns. It will burn forever from the
new valleys and ridges etched into my forehead and
cheeks and chin. I suppose there is consolation in not
being as ugly as an imp. Of course, I'll have a head
start if I'm ever turned into a zombie.
I know it's wrong to worry about my appearance
when I could have been blind for the rest of my life.
May God forgive my vanity.
Arlene won't let me be sorry for myself. She bent
over my hospital bed, smiling like an angel, and
kissed up and down the tortured flesh of my disfig-
ured face. "You'll always be my Albert," she whis-
pered so that only I could hear.
We've shared experiences few mortals will ever
know. We've faced down the wrath of a spider-mind.
We've tasted the brimstone of a fire eater. (I can't
figure out why the scientists here call those things
arch-viles.) Together we've spilled the slimy guts of
pumpkins and princes of hell. I was willing to wade
through a sea of blood with this woman. But when she
turned her face to me and offered me her high
cheekbones to touch and her full mouth to kiss, I
She must think I'm a fool. A woman who has
proved herself in a world of men, she is not squeam-
ish about the human body. Women tend to be more
matter-of-fact about the body anyway. They already
live in the sea of blood so it must seem very strange to
watch men deliberately embark upon that crimson
ocean. Does a foxhole really compare to childbirth? I
was brought up to believe that the highest destiny of a
woman is to bring children into the world. The church
reinforced these attitudes. I can respect a woman who
is a fighter but I can't shake the idea she's shirking her
responsibility as a woman. It's like if she dies on a
battlefield, she gets off easy. If she's an officer, she
exercises a trivial kind of authority compared to what
God intends for her to do with her children.
So here comes Arlene Sanders with her high-and-
tight, tossing back her head as if she had long hair
down to her waist, showing off her long neck and firm
jaw, and shouldering her piece with as much authority
as any man. Yeah, I'll pretend it's the day after
Halloween and help her blow away pumpkins. But I
won't touch her with my naked hand.
Intellectually, I don't doubt the Book of Mormon.
History shows that a life of marriage and children is
intended for men and women on this earth. When we
move away from that, we become miserable. When we
do our duty, we know a happiness of which no
hedonist can even dream.
I guess my problem is that I thought I'd been
tempted before. But the women who offered them-
selves to me for quick and easy sex were not women I
respected. They'd never stood up to devils from the
depths of space. They'd never encountered the now-
or-never choice of giving up your life for a buddy--
and surviving only because he'd do the same for you.
I'd met plenty of women who were into rock, but PFC
Arlene Sanders was the first who could really rock and
Turning down her offer hurts so much because if a
buddy asked for anything else, I'd come through
without giving it a second thought. How can she treat
the act of love so casually? I know lots of men who'd
jump at the chance offered by Arlene, but she proba-
bly wouldn't be interested in them. My usual lousy
luck--she's attracted to me because she knows I'll say
Even when I was a jock back in high school, there
were cheerleaders after me. Being big and muscular
has its advantages. The smart guys thought I was
stupid and left me alone. That was probably an
I want a family. I want a loving wife who will give
me children. It's that simple, but I can't make the
words come out. Words are fragile tools. When you
try to turn them into weapons they often break. I can't
write the letter to Arlene today. I don't have the
words. I pray that I'll find the words while we're still
In a world of real demons, there isn't any time to
waste. Nor is this a good time to question my faith
just because I suddenly discover I cannot govern my
passions. I might even have a future in which to raise
Once, when I was reading a book in the Mormon
library, I came across a line that stayed with me. I
don't remember the author, but he said: "Happy
families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhap-
py in its own way." I take that to mean that happiness
grows out of love. Love is based on your actions. So is
How do I tell Arlene that I want all or nothing?
Especially when she's already offered me more than I
deserve . . . And how can we make a decision for the
future in a world like this? My hell on Earth is a world
where Arlene is right and I'm wrong. Do we even have
a right to try to plan for the future? If we were the last
two people in a universe of monsters, there would be a
certain legitimacy in trying to make a life together, in
however brief a span was allotted to us. But our lives
are not our own. There is the Corps. One, two, three,
four, she loves the Marine Corps. She loves it more
than I do. So does Fly. There is that link between
We are under orders more severe than any monas-
tery could impose. Perversely, I have taken an oath of
celibacy that she has not taken. Arlene Sanders is a
worldly woman, whether on this planet or off.
But I am honest enough to admit that I have no
intention of changing. If it were proven to me tomor-
row that the Mormon faith is false, I would not
become a moral relativist. I would not treat human
relations as casual affairs. I take people too seriously
for that. I'd still believe in my morality even if no God
provided supernatural guidance.
I pray that one day Arlene will understand how
much faith I have in her. Suddenly I realize that I
can't write her a letter. I have to tell her all this in
person. Despite all my reservations, I must have the
courage of my convictions.
I'm going to ask her to marry me.
"Arlene, look out!"
The little voice in the back of my head just wouldn't
shut up about how stupid it was to go anywhere
without being armed to the teeth. Arlene and I hadn't
felt safe enough to go unarmed since the first day of
the Phobos invasion. We even kidded each other
about going to the beach without either of us packing
a piece. I wouldn't have minded seeing her with a nice
Colt .45 strapped to her and leaving its mark on her
nearly naked body. She's my buddy, but I still have an
Here we were in a stronghold of humanity. This was
one place where we didn't have to feel like the black
gang-banger surrounded by white cops in what a
police commissioner might refer to as a target-rich
environment. Here we could let down our hair--a
joke when you have a marine haircut--and go naked,
which has nothing to do with clothes and everything
to do with being unarmed.
Nothing threatened us on the beach, except maybe
that lazy shark we'd noticed right before coming in.
We didn't have any need of firepower when we went
through the security check. We simply needed our big
bath towels because the air conditioning was on full
blast inside. It was still our day of R&R, and neither
of us was in a rush to get back into uniform. I'd never
enjoyed wearing civvies more in my life.
We weren't expecting trouble as we went looking for
Jill. Ackerman's monster lab was a lot closer than
Albert, who'd "gone to town," and Arlene figured her
beau still needed time alone.
It wasn't until we went into the biology research
department that the old marine training kicked in.
Something just didn't feel right. Maybe it was not
seeing more people than we did. But when I noticed
the female lab technician from behind, I knew some-
thing was wrong. Her long black tresses were a tat-
tered mass stained with splotches of green. She had a
great figure, and something told me she'd never let her
hair go like that. Her lab coat was wrinkled and
disgustingly dirty, though I knew the admiral ran a
tight ship and wouldn't abide slovenliness.
Arlene picked up the pace and started hoofing it
over to the technician. As the woman started to turn, I
couldn't believe that Arlene wouldn't notice the
messy hair and the dirty lab coat. My best buddy
wasn't just a great warrior; she was female.
No sooner did I shout, "Arlene, look out," than I
realized I didn't need to worry about her. She went
into a roll that made her a less promising target than I
was. Marine, protect your own ass!
Turning sideways, I flattened myself against the
wall before the female zombie got off her first shot.
Arlene made certain she didn't get another. Zombie
reflexes suck. Even a woman in good physical condi-
tion would have had trouble stopping Arlene coming
up from the floor, right arm straight up like the Statue
of Liberty, and knocking the gun from the cold
leathery hand that was yet to get off a second shot.
The next few seconds proved to be the corollary to
"Practice Makes Perfect." We'd both become a little
rusty. There was no other explanation for Zombie
Girl getting away before Arlene could slam her hard
against the convenient back wall--providing plenty
of time for one of us to retrieve the gun from the floor
and pump lead into the leathery blue-gray face of our
This zombie lass moved very quickly, though--
faster than any zombie I'd ever seen. She also shouted
something very strange about having to get to court.
Then she darted through a door to my left before
Arlene could reach her from the rear or I could
approach her from the front.
"Those morons!" Arlene screamed. "What kind of
security do they call this?"
I was pissed too, but I had more sympathy for a
genuine blunder than Arlene did. Watching that bas-
tard Weems order the murder of the monks in Kefiri-
stan had softened me toward mere incompetence.
The science boys had to study everything they could
get their hands on. I didn't expect there wouldn't be
risks. But whatever had gone wrong, it was now a job
for people like Arlene and me.
She'd already picked up the piece from the floor, a
.38 caliber revolver. I liked the idea of acquiring more
artillery as quickly as possible.
A scream from the other side of the door brought us
back to immediate reality. Reconnoitering was a
luxury, and going to the armory was a vacation from
We went through the door together, me coming in
low and Arlene braced, pointing the gun ahead of
us--a beacon of truth with its own special kind of
flame. But she didn't fire right away. She was afraid of
hitting the woman that the zombie in the lab coat was
carving up like a Christmas turkey.
The victim stared at us without seeing what was in
front of her. The broken beaker in the zombie's hand
occupied the woman's full attention. Zombie Girl had
already cut her victim around her breasts and arms.
The angle made it impossible for us to alter the events
of the next few seconds. That was all the time the
She drew her makeshift knife in a slashing move-
ment across the white throat of the victim. The throat
didn't stay white very long. The lifeblood spurted out
so fast that it covered the hand holding the broken
glass, and it looked as if the zombie had spilled a
bucket of red paint over itself.
Arlene took a few lithe dancer's steps into the
room and placed her gun right up against the Zombie
Girl's head. This walking dead might be fast, but the
jig was up. Arlene squeezed off a round. Blood,
brains, and gore splattered back over the victim,
but the poor woman was past caring. She was still
twitching, but that didn't count. We couldn't save
"Too bad none of the scientists are around to
observe that," I said, pointing. A piece of zombie
brain continued to flop around on the floor with a life
of its own. I'd noticed this phenomenon before. It
seemed to apply only to the better rank of zombies,
the ones with a shred of initiative left.
"She was a fast one," said Arlene, nodding at the
woman we didn't save. "If I were wearing my boots,
I'd grind this to pulp," she sneered at the blue-green
brain matter that seemed to be trying to crawl away.
She didn't step on it. Instead, she wasted ammo.
I could relate. Quick as that, we were both back in
killing mode. Then we heard another scream--one
we both recognized right away. Jill!
"We've got to save her, Fly!"
Arlene had recognized our kid, too. We'd both
started thinking about Jill that way--as our responsi-
bility. We hadn't gone through all this crap just to let
her die now.
"Come on!" I shouted and headed toward the
When we returned to the corridor, another zombie
was waiting for us, a male. This was one of the
talkative ones. He didn't babble about the Gateways
and the invasion. Instead, he kept repeating, "Write it
over and resubmit." I didn't give him a chance to
repeat his mantra. Arlene had our only gun, but I
was angry at not having been in time to save the
woman in the next room. Sometimes I like to get
I felt the skin crawl between my shoulders as I hit
the blue-gray face with my right fist. Marines were not
meant to touch this reeking leather that once was
human skin, but I was too angry to care. The sound
of the nose cracking did my soul a world of good.
Unlike Arlene's prey, this one was slow. I could
have moved a lot slower, but adrenaline surged
through me as I did something I'd never done to any
of these bozos: I gave it the old one-two with straight
fists. No karate, no fancy side kicks, no special
training. I just pummeled that damned face in a
sincere effort to send it straight back to hell, where
"Fly!" Arlene was right behind me.
"Be with you in a second," I said.
"What about Jill?"
Shit. How could I have been sidetracked so easily?
There are certain drawbacks to being a natural warri-
or. "Take it," I yelled, resuming the twenty-yard
dash--thirty? forty?--to save Jill. I measured dis-
tance in kill-ometers. I didn't bother looking back as I
heard the solid, satisfying sound of Arlene putting a
round in the zombie's head.
Arlene stays in good shape. I never slowed down,
but suddenly she was running right beside me. We
found a dead guard slumped against the wall. Recent
kill. Blood still trickling down his arm onto his M1.
Dumb-ass zombies didn't relieve him of his satisfac-
tion. I grabbed the weapon without slowing down,
and then Arlene and I slammed through a pair of
unlocked doors, ready for anything.
Anything consisted of a zombie ripping open a
sawbones with the man's own surgical instruments. I
fired off six rounds of .30-06 little round scalpels that
opened up the zombie a lot more completely than
he'd managed to do to the doctor.
"I can save him," said Arlene, noticing the conve-
nient medikit at the same time I did. In Kefiristan,
she'd had plenty of experience treating abdominal
wounds. Before I could say diddly, she was on her
knees, scooping up the medical guy's intestines and
shoveling them back into the patient. Fortunately, the
guy had passed out; and just as fortunately Arlene was
really good at handling slippery things.
Jill was my responsibility--if it wasn't already too
late to save her. As if on cue, she screamed again. I
gave a silent prayer of thanks to Sister Beatrice, the
toughest nun I'd had back in school. She always said
the only prayers that are answered are the ones you
say when you truly want to help someone else.
I humped. I hurried. I tried my damnedest to
Jill was still alive when I got to her. I almost tripped
over the head of Dr. Ackerman, staring up at me with
a really surprised expression. I did slip in the blood,
and dropped the M1 as I careened right into the back
of the biggest freakin' zombie I'd ever seen. The creep
had cornered Jill and was trying to get at her with a
blasted meat cleaver. She was holding him off with a
metal chair, like a lion tamer. She'd taken shelter in a
tight corner, which gave her an advantage: he couldn't
swing the cleaver in a full arc, and she was able to
avoid him by sidestepping the blade.
I slammed hard into the back of her lion, and he fell
forward. Jill jumped out of the way and shouted,
"Fly!" That was all, just my name, but she crammed
so much gratitude into that one syllable she made me
feel like the cavalry, Superman, and Zorro all rolled
"Run!" I shouted, now that she had a clear escape
The brat liked giving me lip. It was hard to be mad
at her though, because she was trying to retrieve the
weapon from the floor. The big, hulking zombie was
slow, but he didn't seem interested in giving us all the
time in the world.
Jill leveled the M-1 at our problem and pulled the
trigger. Nada. Either Jill was doing something wrong
or the gun had jammed. Zombie was still fixated on
her, even though I was behind him again. Jill looked
at me with a hurt-little-girl expression as if to say I
gave up a perfectly good metal chair for a gun that
The bad guy still had his cleaver, and he had plenty
of elbow room now, so he could swing the thing and
add Jill's head to his collection. It pissed me off that
all my heroics had only made Jill's situation worse. I
did what I could. The big hulk was standing with his
feet just far enough apart so that I was able to kick
him in the groin. I wished I had on my combat boots
instead of sneakers. I wished he were alive, as the
dead ones are only mildly bothered by that kind of
action. But it was the best I could manage.
The big bearded mother turned his head. That was
all Jill needed. She held the barrel in both hands and
swung the weapon so fair and true that it was worthy
of the World Series. The wooden stock cracked
against the zombie's neck. He was thrown off-balance.
As he tried to turn his head, I heard a snap: Jill had
done something bad to his old neck bone. Good girl!
The zombie fell to his knees. Before he could get
out of his crouch I karate-chopped the back of his
neck. No time to play George Foreman now. So far,
Jill and I had merely slowed him down. Time for
something more permanent.
Jill had the same idea. No sooner did I body-slam
the hulk into a prone position than she yanked the
cleaver away from him and started swinging it at his
"Hey, watch it!" I shouted. "You almost hit me."
"Sorry," she said, almost as a gasp. But she kept
swinging that wicked blade at the peeling, rotten flesh
around the zombie's neck and head. I wasn't about to
tell her she didn't have the strength to finish the job.
The zombie wasn't getting up, and I intended to make
sure it stayed down.
As I retrieved the M1, I realized that no other
zombies were showing up to bother us. There was
something eerie about Doc Ackerman's head on the
floor, staring at us. (A marine isn't supposed to use a
word like "eerie," but it was freakin' eerie, man.)
I picked up the M1. So it had jammed for Jill. So
she'd used it as a club. It's not like she'd smashed it
against a tree. I cleared the bolt. What the hell, we'd
give it another try.
"Excuse me," I said to Jill, busily trying to return
the favor to the great decapitator. The meat cleaver
was a little dull. And Jill just didn't have the necessary
body mass. She offered me her hatchet. I declined.
I fired the M1 once, point-blank. The head came
apart like a ripe cantaloupe. The blood that poured
out was a brand-new color on me.
"The gun jammed," she insisted.
"I didn't do anything wrong with it!"
"I'm not saying you did. Knocking the gun around
probably unjammed it."
"Well, I just want you to know it wasn't my fault
that I couldn't fire it."
There were times when Jill went out of her way to
remind me she was a teenager. I really wasn't in the
mood for her defensiveness just then. God knew how
many more zombies were roaming the installation.
We had to get back to Arlene. And I was worried
about Albert. We'd become like a family.
At some moment in my military career I'd become
used to the stench of death. I could probably thank
the Scythe of Glory and their Shining Path buddies
for that. But I would never get used to the sour-lemon
zombie odor; and the strongest whiff of it I'd had in a
very long time scorched my nostrils as the head of the
dead zombie leaked at my feet.
When I threw up, I knew the vacation was over.
I am Ken. I once was part of a family. They're all
dead now. I once took long walks every day and rode a
bicycle. I swam. I ate food off plates and drank wine. I
sang. I made love.
Now I am a cybermummy. A Ken doll. They have
taken off the bandages and removed some of the
objects from my flesh, but I feel that the aliens have
made me less than human. Dr. Ackerman thought the
opposite; but I don't feel more than human. Dr.
Williams, the director, says they will bring me back to
normal, but I don't believe him. The director puts
nothing above the importance of winning the war. I
am more useful to him now where I am, remaining
what I am. The medical team tries to keep its findings
from me, but I can tap into all their computer
They say they can overcome my physical weakness
quite easily. They can stop feeding me intravenously
and slowly acclimate my system to regular food again.
Simple brain surgery would restore full mobility, but
there is a risk--not to me but to their project. The
alien biotech in my head could be altered or lost in the
course of getting me back to normal. So they take
Meanwhile, I am plugged into the computers and
confined to my bed, except when they risk placing me
in a motorized wheelchair. I do not complain about
this. I do not tell Jill when she comes to visit me. She's
my most frequent visitor. I don't complain to Flynn
or Arlene or Albert when they check up on me. These
are the people who saved me. They care about me. I
see no reason to make them worry.
Keeping my own counsel is a trick I learned when I
was very young. I don't tell anyone how much I want
to be the man I was. My favorite uncle used to take his
family to Hawaii for vacations. He'd tell us all about
it when he visited, and I wanted so much to come
here. The irony is that here may be one of the last
places on Earth where things are still as he remem-
bered, and I can't go out and see them while there is
I access all that I can on Hawaii. The screen flickers
and tells me that Hawaii is a group of islands stretch-
ing for over three hundred miles in the middle of
the Pacific Ocean. I bring up information on how it
was discovered by Europeans; and then I read how
it became the fiftieth state of the United States.
I remember my uncle saying the most popular fish
here is difficult to spell, and I find an entry for it,
and I realize my uncle was an honest man:
humumunukunukuapuaa. I read all about King Ka-
mehameha and envy how he could get around the
islands so much more easily than I ...
I grow tired of feeling sorry for myself. I don't mind
being useful. I'm not certain that's the same thing as
doing one's duty, but I don't really care. This could be
the last stand of the human race. But I hate the lies.
All the military is good at doing in a crisis is lying. I
would never talk about this with brave soldiers. They
don't want to hear about it. There is no point in
discussing it with cynical senior officers, especially
those who have decided to use me without being
honest about their intent.
I like my new friends. They have honor. They look
out on the world with a clean vision that no amount
of dirt or blood can obstruct. They think they are
fighting for individualism. For freedom. If the human
race survives, they will face a serious disappointment.
I have accessed the files. There are plans.
Perhaps I am closer to the future than those who
rescued me. I am trapped inside myself. Maybe some-
thing deep inside me died when I was in the clutches
of the invaders. Before they altered me, I would have
been horrified to discover human plans for a New
Eugenics to build the future. This is not a plan of the
human collaborators. The traitors have their own
genetic plans for "improving" that part of humanity
the new masters will allow to survive.
The New Eugenics is a plan devised by our side.
The good guys. The ones fighting the invaders. Who
knows? Maybe they will deliberately create more
computer adjuncts like me! It's a dead certainty that
they will begin making breeding decisions for the
survivors on our side. Warriors like Flynn and Arlene
will be spared this nonsense. They were born to die in
battle. They are too valuable to use in non-military
operations. I have accessed plans for them. They
don't know it yet, but their time on Earth is limited.
Very few people have their skill as space warriors.
Flynn is Flash Gordon. Who is Arlene? Barbarella?
Marines Taggart and Sanders will follow orders
even when it involves facing hundred-to-one odds
and near-certain death. I'd like to imagine some
bureaucrat, human or otherwise, telling them with
whom they should go to bed and how many children
they are expected to have. They will be spared this
future Earth that I believe to be inevitable, no matter
which side wins. Times of crisis are made in hell--
and made for the kind of man who has a plan for
Jill and I are to remain on Earth! If Albert is
fortunate, he will go with Fly and Arlene. He is too
religious a man to stay. Where would he turn when he
found out there's no side for him? Would he try to
return to Utah? He doesn't know about Utah yet.
He'll probably find out today.
They have a lot to cover today. The service for
Ackerman and his staff was held this morning. I
watched it on the monitor. So much has happened
First, the admiral will pretend there was a possibili-
ty of sabotage even though the video recordings show
that the killings were the result of simple carelessness
on the part of one of Ackerman's staff. Plain incompe-
tence led to the holocaust. Those tapes remain classi-
fied, naturally. The possibility of a traitor does more
for gung-ho morale than an admission of incompe-
tence. I can hardly fault our new leaders for being
students of history.
Besides, my friends will be receiving a big dose of
declassified material relevant to their next mission.
They shouldn't be greedy for too much declassified
material all at once. It causes indigestion. Besides,
their marine colonel will be giving them a nice
I should have a better attitude about this. The other
side is so terrible that we should forgive our own
shortcomings. Isn't that what they said when they
were fighting Hitler? The doom demons, as Jill likes
to call them, are perfect enemies. In the name of
fighting them, we can do anything we want. No, it
isn't fair to say we want to do terrible things. We will
win by any means necessary, as Malcolm X used to
By the time I joined Fly and Jill, I could
breathe easy again. It was Fly and Jill. He saved her. I
knew the big lug would. There was no way I could
have left a man bleeding to death when I had the
training to save him.
Of course, the navy's security forces were swarming
everywhere by then. I didn't mind that two of the first
of Kimmel's finest were Mark Stanfill and Jim Ivey,
my poker playing buddies (Fly wasn't in our league).
When everything's gone to hell in a hand basket,
personal ID can make the crucial difference in wheth-
er somebody panics and pulls the trigger. Ackerman's
facilities had been turned into a zombie cafeteria, and
that was enough to make anyone panic.
Fly, Jill, and I were hustled into a decontamination
chamber. After all the contact we'd had with these
creatures I almost laughed at precautions this late in
the game. Then again, I shouldn't criticize Hawaii
Base for being thorough. It would be a kick in the ass
if we defeated the enemy only to succumb to diseases
already coursing through our bloodstreams.
In the evening, I saw Albert at dinner. He was a
worse poker player than Fly because he couldn't keep
emotions from marching across his face.
"Arlene, are you all right?" he asked, noticing Jill's
smile a second later. "Are all of you okay?" he added.
"We're fine," Fly assured him, grinning.
"We needed the practice," Jill added.
"Stop giving him a hard time," I told the other two.
"Don't mind these kill-crazy kids, Albert."
"Hey!" Fly protested, still smiling.
"Seriously, Albert, after all we've done together,
this was no big deal." I noticed that other tables
frequently occupied by now were only half full. The
death toll hadn't been that high, considering the
surprise element. All the zombies were accounted for,
and wasted. (At least Ackerman kept good records.)
The only explanation for the sparse crowd was that a
number of our comrades had been put off their food
by a first sloppy encounter with the drool ghouls. So
we could have seconds if we wanted.
Albert sighed and joined us. The tables were set up
cafeteria-style, and our little group tended to gravitate
together. We were so taken with Ken that he'd proba-
bly belong to our little supper club if he ever ate solids
"I didn't hear about the zombies until I returned,"
he said almost apologetically.
"How was town?" asked Jill.
"I was shopping." Those innocuous words came
out of Albert freighted with an extra meaning. I
wasn't the only one who heard it.
We ate our Salisbury steaks in silence. I finished
and started to get up with the intention of depositing
my tray in the proper receptacle. I figured my figure
didn't really need the extra calories of seconds, after
all. Albert was only starting to eat, but he abandoned
his food. And Albert is a growing boy.
"Do you mind if I walk with you?" he asked. The
style was definitely not him. I couldn't help noticing
Jill's eyes burning into him. She sensed something
was up. Fly was busy paying close attention to his
"Sure," I said. For one moment I let wishful
thinking override the rational part of my brain. I
wanted to believe that Albert had changed his mind
about our sleeping together. I'd forgotten that where
this big, wonderful guy was concerned, the most
important aspect of sleeping together was the dream-
ing that went along with it--and the promises.
I don't know what surprised me more. That he'd
come up with a ring during his shopping expedition,
or that he put it to me with such direct simplicity:
"Arlene, will you marry me?"
I'd opened the door to this when I made a play for
him. If I had a half a brain, I'd have realized what my
interest would mean to a man of this caliber.
We stood together next to a perfect facsimile of a
World War II era poster proclaiming, "Loose lips sink
ships." He watched me closely, especially my mouth,
waiting for words promising his own personal salva-
tion or damnation. I'd have been happier if he'd
looked away. Suddenly I wasn't as brave as I thought I
"Albert." I only got the one word out. His expres-
sion spoke volumes. He'd certainly wrestled with all
the problems haunting me. I wouldn't even insult him
by bringing them up.
"That ring . . ." he began.
"It's beautiful, but I couldn't dream of accepting it
until... I mean, I need to think ..."
It was like one of those comedies where the charac-
ters talk at cross-purposes. Who would think a simple
gold band could present a greater challenge than
escaping from the Disney Tower?
"I'd like you to keep it," he said. "You don't have to
think of it as an engagement ring, or anything you
don't want it to be. I don't expect you to wear it, if
you're not sure. Arlene, you mean so much to me that
when you offered what I couldn't accept, I had to
respond in my own way. I had to let you know how I
Reaching out to take his hand was the easiest thing
in the world, until I felt the slight tremor in his palm.
It took all my courage to gaze into his eyes and say, "I
can't tell you now. You must understand."
"Of course I do."
"Thank you," I said and kissed him on the cheek.
His smile was a more beautiful sight than any golden
ring could ever be. "I'd like to have this," I continued.
"Is that right, I mean, before I ..."
He was too much of a gentleman to let me finish.
"I'd be honored if you keep it, Arlene, whatever you
decide. We need to get used to making our own rules
in our brave new world."
This was unexpected talk from my big, fine Mor-
mon. "Does your God approve of that kind of think-
ing?" I asked him.
He took my challenge in stride. "If those of my
faith are right, Arlene, he's everybody's God, isn't
he?" Then he returned my chaste kiss and left me to
my own devices.
The next morning, at the briefing for everyone with
a Level 5 clearance or higher, I proudly wore the thin
band of gold on the chain with my dog tags. Fly
noticed it right away. I'll bet he was as glad as I was to
be back in uniform.
Admiral Kimmel wore the face any CO puts on
when the situation is grave. So did the highest-ranking
officer the Marine Corps had in Hawaii, Colonel Dan
Hooker. When these men were officiating together,
the situation was plenty serious.
"We are investigating the possibility of sabotage,"
said the admiral. "Fortunately, quick thinking on the
part of men and women who weren't asleep at the
switch kept our losses low and neutralized the zombie
threat. The navy is grateful for the help we received
from marine personnel."
The two officers shook hands. The way these men
regarded each other, they put more into that hand-
shake than plenty of salutes I've seen in my day. It was
nice having officers who paid attention to details. The
same could be said of the man Admiral Kimmel
Professor Warren Williams was in charge of all the
scientific work being done in Hawaii. It was difficult
to pinpoint his area of greatest expertise. He had
degrees in physics, astronomy, biology, computer
science, and folklore. His motto was taken from the
science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein: "Speciali-
zation is for insects."
He had a sense of humor, too, which he now
demonstrated. "In his copious spare time, the admir-
al explains military terminology to me. I thought
'mission creep' is what we had yesterday when those
creeps got loose in Ackerman's lab." He earned only a
few nervous chuckles for that quip. The memory of
the dead was still too fresh.
He changed the subject: "In normal times my
position would be held only by someone with a
certain degree of military training. A year ago I would
have described myself as a militant civilian." This
won him a few more chuckles. "Not since World War
II have so many ill-prepared eggheads been thrown
into the military omelet. But when there's no choice,
there's no choice. I may have taken my first step
toward this job when I first learned about the top
secret of the Martian moons. I was suspicious of the
Gates the moment I realized that anything might
come through them."
He looked a little like Robert Oppenheimer. I could
imagine him working on the A-bomb. "The admiral
and I agree on how you can tell when you are in
perilous times. That's when people go out of their way
to listen to the advice of engineers." Only one person
laughed at this. Me.
He covered other material about the operations of
the base, but his eyes kept coming to me. I didn't
think he was going to ask for a date. Fly and I had
proved ourselves too often, too well. I figured we were
first choice for the director's punch line; and we'd
better not have a glass jaw.
He proved me right when the general briefing was
over and he asked to see the Big Four, as we some-
times jokingly called ourselves. I'm sure there were
adults at the base who resented a kid like Jill being
entrusted with material that was off-limits to them.
But if so, they kept it to themselves.
Jill's growing up fast. There's nothing wrong with
that. I know it bugs Fly when men old enough to be
her father start giving her the eye. She's tall for her
age. She has one of those pouty mouths that drive
men nuts. I don't worry about who kisses that mouth
so long as the brain directly over it is in charge. In
between spilling demon guts all over the great Ameri-
can West, I took Jill aside and gave her the crash
course in birds, bees, and babies.
Of course, she doesn't have to worry about any
sexually transmitted diseases. Medical science
marches on. But who would have thought that no
sooner does the human race eliminate AIDS than
along come monsters from space? In the words of the
late-twentieth-century comic, Gilda Radner, "It's al-
Anyway, Fly acts more and more like a worried
father where Jill is concerned. This can be a good
thing. It gave him that extra bit of fire when he saved
her in Ackerman's lab. But I don't know how to tell
him to let go when I can't solve my own personal
problems--Albert as a prospective husband.
Albert is a sensitive man, a shy man. I don't want to
hurt him. I'd rather eat one of my own mini-rockets
than make him suffer. But I've spent my life being
true to myself. Now I don't know if it's concern for
Albert that makes me hesitate to accept his marriage
proposal ... or if I fear commitment to a man I love
more than I do a roomful of lost souls, the dumb
name the science boys have given the flying skulls. If I
survive our final missions, and Earth is secure once
more, will I be willing to give this man children? I
don't even want to think about it. Yet I know that that
expectation is implicit in his proposal. To Albert,
marriage without trying to have children only counts
as serious dating. Maybe I'm afraid of asking Fly to be
godfather to my kids.
As the director led us into his inner sanctum, I felt
once again that the four of us had already formed a
strange family unit of our own. Maybe we were the
model of the smallest functional social unit of the
future--but make sure the kid has a good aim!
As I gazed at the gigantic radio-controlled tele-
scope, the long tube reminded me of a cannon, a
perfect symbol for combining the scientific and the
military. Williams stood in front of it, feet braced,
hands behind his back. He seemed more military at
that moment than the admiral and the colonel, who
stood over to the side, as if deferring to the scientist.
Before the director even opened his mouth I had
the sinking feeling that all our personal problems were
about to be put on the back burner. Again.
"Corporal Taggart," the director addressed
me. "How did you like your time in space?"
I'm always honest when no life is at stake. "I always
wanted to go, sir. If you know my record, you're
aware I didn't get up there in the way I intended."
"If ever a court-martial was a miscarriage of jus-
tice, yours would've been," volunteered Colonel
Hooker, looking directly at me. "One good thing
about wartime is that it makes it easy to cut through
the red tape. I enjoyed pencil-whipping that problem
for you, marine!"
"Thank you, sir."
The director returned us to the subject. "I bring up
the matter of fighting in space for a reason. We intend
to take the battle back to the Freds. We know that you
and PFC Sanders"--he nodded in Arlene's
direction--"have a unique capacity in this regard."
I knew that vacation time was over. I also wondered
who the hell the Freds were.
Williams let us have it right between the ears.
"Over a year ago, before I joined the team, this
installation received a coherent signal from space. No
other radio telescope picked it up. At first the men
who received it thought it was mechanical failure or
someone playing a joke on them. It could have come
from a small radio a couple of klicks away, but it
He took a moment to check the notes on his
clipboard. We all listened in rapt attention. I was
ready to learn something new about the enemy,
anything to speed up their final defeat.
"They analyzed the signal," he continued, "and
established that it was a narrow-beam microwave
transmission. There were variations and holes in the
message. We did a sophisticated computer analysis
using the Dornburg system, the best satellite-and-
astronomy program ever developed. We were receiv-
ing a complex billiard-shot message that had been
successively bounced off seven bodies in our solar
system on its way to Earth. When we connected the
various holes and occlusions, the result was an arrow
leading straight out of the solar system, a line that
could not have been faked. The message had to have
originated outside the orbit of Pluto-Charon."
The director smiled. "Sorry if that was a bit techni-
cal, but it reminds me of what Robert Anton Wilson
said: that if we find planets beyond Pluto, they should
be named Mickey and Goofy. Charon is so small it's
really only a moon of Pluto."
The admiral cleared his throat and stepped into the
act: "There was an unexpected snag in the, er, han-
dling of the data. The previous director decided not to
tell the government about the message. The members
of his team were divided in their sympathies as well."
Williams picked up the thread. "They were afraid
the military-industrial complex would turn the whole
thing into a big national security problem."
Arlene was standing right next to me and whispered
in my ear: "That sounds almost as bad as the Holly-
wood industrial complex."
"Hush," I hushed her.
The director continued. "The scientists spent
months decoding the signal, but they made slow
progress. Then they ran into a little interruption: the
"Duh!" said Jill in my other ear, so I hushed her,
Williams didn't hear their sarcastic remarks, and
the brass seemed to have been struck with temporary
deafness, which was fine with me. I hoped there
would be Q&A. I wanted to ask about the Freds.
Williams wasn't deaf, though. He reminded me of
the nuns when they caught us whispering during a
lesson. He frowned in our direction and became very
serious. "In the wake of the invasion, my predecessor
committed suicide. He blamed himself for not having
passed the information on to Washington. In his
defense, we might remember how certain agencies of
the government turned traitor and collaborated with
the Freds. Imagine selling out your own species to
things you've never seen, about which you know less
So that was it. The Freds were what they called the
alien overlords behind our demonic playmates. I
wondered how that name got started.
"I will never forget the traitors," Albert spoke from
depths of a personal suffering I hope never to experi-
ence. The director didn't mind this interruption. He
smiled and thanked Albert for his contribution.
That was all the invitation Arlene needed to get
into the act. "Did we ever break the code?" she asked.
"That happened after Director Williams took
over," the admiral volunteered.
"Many members of the original team are still here,"
the director quickly added. "They weren't held re-
sponsible for my predecessor's decision."
"We no longer enjoy the luxury of wasting our best
brains," Kimmel added.
"We broke the code," said the director, returning to
essentials. "The message was not what we expected.
The alien message was a warning."
"A warning?" Arlene echoed him. "You mean a
threat, an ultimatum?"
"No," Williams continued softly. "The aliens who
sent the message were attempting to warn us about
the impending invasion. You understand, don't you?
There are friendly aliens out there, enemies of the
Freds who warned us about these monsters who've
invaded Earth. There's more."
I could tell that he was enjoying this, but I couldn't
criticize him for his scientific joy. Part of his pleasure
came from the discovery of an attempt to help the
human race in its hour of need. But if he didn't get to
the point real soon, I was prepared to change my
evaluation of his character . . . sooner.
He continued: "These friendly aliens seem to be
saying they are the ones who built the Gates on
Phobos; but we're not certain of that. We are certain
that they are inviting us to use these Gates to teleport
to their base. We have the access codes. We even have
the phone number. I mean to say they've sent us the
teleportation coordinates. So the next step is obvious.
We think it would be a good idea if certain experi-
enced space marines delivered a return message--in
At first I was afraid they'd leave me behind. I'm a
marine, but I've never been off-planet before. Of
course, that shouldn't keep them from using me. No
one else in the solar system has the experience of Fly
and Arlene. They need two more people on the
mission. I might as well be one of them.
Arlene and I have agreed not to mention my
marriage proposal to the brass. We don't intend to
keep it a secret from Fly or Jill, though. There'd really
be no point to that. But I feel there was little point to
my proposal in the first place. I'm honored that she is
wearing my ring with her dog tags. I just hope it
doesn't end up hanging from her toe along with the
tag that goes there when a marine dies . . . and there's
enough of a body left for identification.
I never dreamed I'd go into space. Now they're
talking about our leaving the solar system. I don't
know what to think. The brass, in their usual sensitive
way, told me there's nothing to hold me on Earth
except the law of gravity.
Right after Director Williams dropped his bomb-
shell about the friendly aliens--and I'll believe it
when I see them--the brass told Jill and me they had
something important and personal to discuss with us.
Fly and Arlene were still reeling from the bombshell,
and the colonel wanted to see them privately.
So the director turned us over to a woman aptly
named Griffin, who took us to a little room where she
proceeded to give us a pop quiz. "Do you understand
seismographic readings?" she asked.
"They show earthquakes," Jill piped up. "Do you
understand decimal points?" she threw back at the
woman in her most sarcastic voice.
The woman named Griffin had a stone face worthy
of a Gorgon. She turned on a computer screen and
started bringing up charts and numbers. "I won't bore
you with the numbers," she said wearily. "Seismo-
graphic labs in Nevada and New Mexico detected five
jolts that could only have been the result of a nuclear
bombardment. The probable ground zero is Salt Lake
Jill and I looked at each other and saw our emotions
reflected in each other's faces. Jill tried so hard not to
cry that I couldn't stand it. I cried first, for both of us.
I thought about all those old comrades--Jerry,
Nate, even the president of the Council of Twelve.
They couldn't all be gone! I remembered two sisters
who seemed to have been touched by the hand of
God: Brinke and Linnea. I had helped them with their
study of the Book of Mormon. They couldn't be gone,
I hadn't admitted it to myself but until now an
ultimate vindication of my faith was my certainty
that Salt Lake City had been spared. That seemed to
be incontrovertible evidence of the hand of God at
work. We were, after all, the Church of the Latter-Day
Saints. The whole point was our belief that the time of
God's direct intervention was not over. His hand
must still touch the world, else how could we be
preserved after such a holocaust?
The Book of Mormon was still only a book, like the
Bible or the Koran or the Talmud. Surviving in a
world of real demons provided a sense of the super-
natural that could barely be approached by every
word of the First and Second Books of Nephi, Jacob,
Enos, Jarom, Omni, the Words of Mormon, Book of
Mosiah, Alma, Helaman, Third and Fourth Nephi,
Book of Mormon, Esther, and Moroni. The scientific
explanations carried only so much weight with me.
That we could witness today's events made every holy
text in the history of the human race seem more
relevant to modern man.
If the Tabernacle had just been nuked, however, I
needed to seriously rethink the prophecies.
Arlene looked fit and trim and beautifully deadly as
we went to Colonel Hooker's office. This was no time
for ladies first. I outranked her. I enjoyed outranking
a woman who was fit and trim and beautifully deadly.
The door was already open, and the colonel was
sitting behind his desk when I reached his threshold.
It had been a long time since I'd pounded the pines. I
stood in the doorway, raised my hand, and rapped on
the doorframe three times, good and hard.
Colonel Hooker looked up with a grim expression.
God only knew how many of us were left in the world.
The best thing about being a marine is the pride,
which gets back to the question of how a rabid
individualist chooses to serve. When you're a marine,
you choose; and men you respect must choose you,
and respect is a two-way street paved with honor. Pity
the poor monsters who got in our way.
"As you were," declared Hooker.
"Thank you, sir!" Arlene and I responded in
We went into his office, and he offered us each one
of his Afuente Gran Reserva cigars. They were big
suckers. Too bad neither Arlene nor I smoked. He lit
up and ordered us to become comfortable.
"I want to be certain you both understand the full
implications," he said. "This is a four-man mission.
The director has already pointed out your unique
qualifications. We might as well be frank about it.
This is not a mission from which anyone is expected
I glanced over at Arlene without being too obvious
about it. Her face was an impassive mask. She looks
that way only when she is exerting superhuman
control. It didn't take a telepath to read her thoughts:
Albert, Albert, Albert.
The colonel must have had a telepathic streak
himself. The next word out of his mouth was "Al-
bert." Arlene's mask cracked to the extent that her
eyes grew very wide. "Albert is my third choice for
this mission," Hooker went on. "I've chosen him
because of his record before the invasion and also
because he's a veteran of fighting these damned
monsters. Frankly, I don't think there are three other
human beings alive who have had experiences to
"Probably not, sir," I agreed.
"If I were superstitious," he went on, "I'd say you
lead charmed lives. We've come up with a mission to
test that hypothesis. It will take a bit of doing, but you
will have a ship and a navy crew to fly it."
"You said the marine operation is a four-man
mission," Arlene reminded our CO. I loved the fact
that she didn't say "four-person"--she never worries
about that kind of junk.
"You'll be joined by another marine, a combat
veteran," Hooker told us. I was glad to hear that.
"Only marines go on this one. But we couldn't find
anyone else with your particular background. Before
you get acquainted with the new man, I have a present
He reached into a desk drawer and took out two
white envelopes with our names on them. My turn to
be telepathic. The little voice in the back of my head
hadn't worried about this kind of stuff for a long time.
We'd been kind of busy staying alive and saving the
But as I opened that envelope and saw the three
chevrons of a sergeant, I felt a kind of quiet pride I'd
almost forgotten. Those thin yellow stripes carried
more meaning than I could have crammed into a
dictionary. Arlene held her promotion out for me to
see, trophies of war. A PFC no more, she had a stripe
now: she was a lance corporal. Both the promotions
carried the crossed swords design of the space ma-
Man, I felt great.
I didn't feel so great when I met the fourth
member of our team. He was an officer! After all the
big buildup about our unique status as space marines,
they go and saddle us with a freakin' officer whose
experience couldn't compare to ours, by their own
admission. After mentally reviewing every joke I'd
ever heard about military intelligence, I cooled off.
Some wise old combat vet once said not all officers are
pukeheads. Funny, I can't remember the wise old
Captain Esteban Hidalgo did bring some assets to
the mission. He was a good marine, with high honors
from the New Mexico war. That was on the good side.
Plenty of combat experience, but mainly against
On the debit side, there was everything else. In five
minutes I had him down in my book as a real
martinet butthead. Admittedly, five minutes does not
pass muster as a scientific sampling, but Hidalgo
didn't help matters by the way he started off.
"One thing you both need to know about me up
front," he barked out. "I don't fraternize. I insist
upon military discipline and grooming. I demand that
uniforms be kept polished and in good repair."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was as if the
past year had just evaporated. Never mind that the
human race was facing the possibility of extinction.
We had rules to follow. Throughout history there have
been examples of this crap. If an outnumbered army
starts to have success, it is essential that the high
command assigns a by-the-book officer to remind the
blooded combat veterans that victory is only a secon-
dary goal. Respect for the command structure is
I could feel Hooker's eyes on me, watching every
muscle quiver. Maybe the whole thing was a test.
Fighting hell-princes was a walk in the park, obvi-
ously. Defeating the ultimate enemy could go to a
fellow's head and make him forget the important
things in life, like keeping his shoes spit-polished. I
could just imagine us in the kind of nonstop jeopardy
Arlene and I had barely lived through on Phobos and
Deimos while Captain Hidalgo worried about the
buttons on our uniforms.
"I've studied your combat records," he said. "Ex-
emplary. Both of you. A word for you, Sergeant
Taggart. On Phobos and Deimos, you almost made up
for your insubordination in Kefiristan."
Why was Hooker doing this? I wanted to rip off
Hidalgo's neat Errol Flynn mustache and shove it
down his throat. But I took a page from Arlene's book
and arranged my face into an impassive mask equal to
anything in a museum. Hooker scrutinized me
throughout this ordeal. So did Arlene.
Finally hell in Hawaii ended, and we were dis-
missed. We had a lot to do before the final briefing.
We had to go rustle up Albert and Jill. Turned out she
could be part of the first phase of our new mission, if
she wanted to be. She was a civilian and a kid, though,
so no one was going to order her. And I was certain we
would all want to say our good-byes to Ken. Mulligan,
I insisted that Arlene and I take the long way
around to finding our buds. It may only be residual
paranoia from my school days, but I felt better about
discussing the teacher outdoors. They don't bug the
palm trees this side of James Bond movies.
"So how do you feel about our promotions?" Ar-
"Every silver lining has a cloud," I replied.
"I could feel how tense you were in there about our
"You weren't exactly mellow about Albert."
"Mixed feelings, Fly. I'm weighing never seeing
him again against his joining us on another suicide
"If Hidalgo has anything to say about it--"
"Let's talk, Fly. I know you as well as I know
myself, and I think you're overreacting. Just because
the man is a stickler for the rules doesn't make him
another Lieutenant Weems. Remember, Weems broke
the rules when he ordered his men to open fire on the
She had a point there. Arlene had been on my side
from the start of the endlessly postponed court-
martial of Corporal Flynn Taggart.
My turn: "There's nothing we can do if this officer
is a butthead." I'd never liked officers, but I followed
orders. It annoyed me a little that Arlene got along so
well with officers.
"I'll tell you exactly what we're going to do," she
said, and I could tell she'd given the problem consid-
erable thought. "You are too concerned over the
details, Fly. I don't care if Hidalgo wants my uniform
crisp so long as it's possible to accommodate such a
request without endangering the mission. All I care
about is that the captain knows what he's doing."
"Fair enough, but I'll need a lot of convincing."
Arlene chuckled softly. "You know, Fly, there are
some people who would think we're bad marines.
Some people only approve of the regulation types."
"We saw how well those types did on Phobos."
"Now we're going back. So stop holding out on me.
You were gonna say something about Captain Hi-
She frowned. "Simple. While he's deciding if we
measure up to his standards, we'll be deciding if he
measures up to ours. This is the most serious war in
the history of the human race. The survival of the
species is at stake. My first oath of allegiance is to
homo sapiens. That comes before loyalty to the corps.
We can't afford to make any mistakes. We won't."
I got her general drift, but I couldn't believe what I
was hearing. "What if Hidalgo doesn't measure up to
We'd been walking slowly around the perimeter of
the building. She stopped and eyeballed me. "First we
must reach the Gates on Phobos. We weren't the
greatest space pilots when we brought that shoebox
from Deimos to Earth. You may be the finest jet pilot
breathing, but we can learn a few things about being
space cadets. We're just extra baggage until we're back
on our own turf. That's when we'll really become
acquainted with Captain Hidalgo."
"God, who would've thought there'd come a day
when we'd think of that hell moon as our turf!"
She gave me her patented raised-eyebrow look.
"Fly, we're the only veterans of the Phobos-Deimos
War. And the only experts."
She was keeping something from me. I wasn't going
to let this conversation terminate until she fessed up.
"Agreed. So what do we do about Hidalgo if he
doesn't measure up?"
"Simple," she said. "We'll space his ass right out
"You don't have to go to Phobos, Jill."
I appreciated Ken telling me that. "I want to go.
Arlene and Fly wouldn't know what to do without
me. Besides, they couldn't have saved me without
"That's true," said Fly.
Ken was sitting up in bed. He'd wanted to see us off
from his wheelchair, but he'd been working hard and
had tired himself. His face was a healthy coffee color
again. When he was first unwrapped, his skin had
been pale and sickly. They unwrapped him in stages
so for a while he had stripes like a zebra as his color
returned. Now he looked like himself again, except for
the knobs and wire things that they hadn't taken out
of his head yet.
"I'm grateful to all of you," he said. "Especially
you, Jill," he added, taking my hand. "But you're so
young. You've been in so much danger already. Why
not stay here where it's safe?"
"Safe?" echoed Albert.
"I should say safer," said Ken.
Arlene brought up a subject that Albert and I had
avoided: "Before we left Salt Lake City, there were
people who thought it would be better for Jill to stay
Ken coughed. He sounded really bad. I brought him
a glass of water. "I feel so helpless," he said. "You
only need Jill's computer assistance on the first leg of
the mission. If only there were some way I could help
"You've put your finger on the problem," Fly told
him. "We can't anticipate everything we're going to
need. Too bad Jill is the best troubleshooter for this
"Just like before," I reminded everyone. "You
should take me to space with you, too."
"That's not part of the deal," said Arlene, sounding
like a mother.
"We should be grateful for this time together,"
Albert pointed out. He was right. The only people
with Ken were Fly, Arlene, Albert, and me. The
mission would start tomorrow morning.
"If only they had launch capability in the islands
here," Ken complained. "They should have been
"We're fortunate they have as much as they do,"
argued Arlene. "There's everything here except the
"The kitchen sink is what we need, and it's at Point
Mugu," said Fly. "Thanks to Ken, we have a launch
"I never thought I'd do windows," Ken rasped
between fits of coughing. "I always say that when you
take off for a body in space it's a good idea for your
destination to be there when you arrive! It's also nice
to have a crew to fly the ship. The primary plan to
return Fly and Arlene to Phobos has all the elegance
of a Rube Goldberg contraption."
"I don't even feel homesick," said Arlene. Every-
Ken had paid us back big time for saving him from
the spider-mind. He was smarter than I was about lots
of things. I also realized he cared about me; but I
don't think he realized how much I wanted to go with
"There's a fallback plan?" Albert asked.
Ken smiled. "The less said about that the better, at
least by me. Before you depart, I want to talk to Jill
some more. I have some suggestions for her return
"I want to go to Phobos," I said.
Every time I said that, Arlene repeated the same
Fly sounded like a father when he said, "Believe
me, if there were any other way, I'd never dream of
taking Jill back into danger . . . well, greater danger,
anyhow. We do need her for this."
"We're all needed," said Ken in a sad voice. "We'll
all be needed for the rest of our lives, however short
they may be." He looked at me again. "But I agree
with you about one thing."
"It's important to fight to the end. Sometimes I
"After what you've been through--" Arlene began,
but he wouldn't let her finish.
"No excuses," he said. "I've been too ready to give
up. But then I think about the terrible things these
monsters have done to us, and it makes me angry. We
will fight. So long as there are Jills, the human race
has a chance."
I saw a tear in his eye. I was going to say something,
but I suddenly couldn't remember what. Instead I
went over to Ken and hugged him. He held me and
kissed me on the forehead.
"You know, as long as we're all together again,
there's a question I've been meaning to ask," Fly
"Shoot," said Albert.
"Bad choice of words around marines," said Ken.
"Civilians," said Arlene. She made it sound like a
Fly asked his question: "I keep meaning to ask one
of the old hands around here: why are the master-
minds behind the monsters called Freds?"
"I know, I know," I piped up. "I heard that
sergeant gun guy talking about it."
"Master gun, hon," Arlene corrected. When she
didn't sound like a mom she sure came off like a
I finished up: "Anyway, that man said a marine
named Armogida started calling them Freds after he
took a date to a horror movie."
"I wonder what movie it was," wondered Arlene.
"Well, maybe we should start calling our heroic
young people Jills," Ken brought the subject back to
me. "I can't change anyone's mind, so let me say I
hope your mission goes well."
As I said, I appreciated Ken worrying about me. He
just didn't understand how important it was to me
that I go along. Fly promised I'd get to ride a
The last thing I needed was a brand-new
monster, fresh off the assembly line. For this, Fly,
Albert, Jill, Captain Hidalgo, and I had traveled all
the way to the mainland? For this, we'd taken a
voyage in a cramped submarine meant for half the
number of personnel aboard? (Of course, the sub
seemed like spacious accommodations after the shut-
tle we'd built on Deimos.) I mean, I was all set to
encounter new cosmic horrors when we returned to
the great black yonder. Arlene, astrogator and
monster-slayer--I'm available for the job at reason-
able rates! But none of us were prepared for what
awaited us in the shallows off good old California.
The military airfield at Point Mugu is about five
miles south of Oxnard. When we passed the Channel
Islands, Captain Ellison told us we'd be offshore--as
close to land as the sub dared--in about thirty
minutes. Of course he used naval time. After spending
years in uniform, I'm surprised I prefer thinking in
civilian terms for time, distances, and holidays.
The trip had been uneventful, except for Jill has-
sling me about what a great asset she would be to the
mission if we took her to Phobos. I finally got tired of
her and suggested she bug Captain Hidalgo. After all,
he was in charge. Too much of Jill and I thought our
marine officer might be willing to space himself.
Hidalgo handled Jill very well. He simply told her
that her part of the mission would be finished at the
base. He also reminded her that Ken had gone to a lot
of trouble to work out a plan for her return trip, and
she didn't want to let him down, did she? Then he
wouldn't listen to her anymore. In some respects
Hidalgo was more qualified to be a father than Fly
was. But that didn't prove that he had what it took to
save the universe from galactic meanies. That was sort
of a specialized field.
I'd never been aboard a submarine before. I dis-
liked the odor. In working hard to eliminate the
men's-locker-room aroma, they had come up with
something a lot worse, something indescribable--at
least by me.
The captain of the sub was a good officer. Ellison
was plenty tough and well qualified for the job. He
was almost apologetic when he explained how we
were expected to go ashore.
"You're kidding," said Albert.
"Surfboards," repeated Captain Ellison. "We have
four long boards for the adults and a boogie board for
the . . ." He saw Jill glaring at him and choked off the
word he was about to say. "The smaller board is for
Jill. It was especially designed for her body size."
"Neat," said Jill, mollified. "It's just like Fly prom-
"Why are we going in by surfboard?" I heard myself
Fly shrugged. He'd found out about it before Jill or
I had. That didn't mean he approved.
Hidalgo had a ready answer. "So the enemy won't
find a raft or other evidence of a commando raid."
I should have kept my mouth shut. I was the one
telling Fly to hold off on passing judgment. But I
didn't seem able to keep certain words from coming
out: "You think these demons can make fine distinc-
tions like that, the same as a human enemy in a
Captain Hidalgo believed in dealing with insubor-
dination right away. "First, this is a decision from
above, Lance Corporal. We will follow orders. Sec-
ond, there are human traitors, in case you don't
remember. They might be able to make these distinc-
tions. Third, we will not take any unnecessary
chances. Fourth, I refer you to my first point. Got it?"
"Yes, sir." I said it with sincerity. He did have a
point, or two.
When Jill got me alone--not an easy thing to do on
a sub--she said, "Hooray. We get to surf!"
"Have you ever ridden a board?" I asked.
"Well, no," she admitted, "but I've been to the
beach plenty of times and seen how it's done."
Oh, great, I thought.
"Have you?" she asked.
"As a matter of fact, I have. We've just left the ideal
place to learn. Hawaii. They have real waves there.
You can get a large enough wave to shoot the curl."
This was looking less and less promising. I ex-
plained: "The really large waves create a semi-tunnel
that you can sort of skim through. You've seen it in
"Oh, sure. But we won't have waves that large off
L.A., will we?"
She was a smart kid. "No, we shouldn't. We'll be
dropped near a beach north of L.A. This time of the
year, with no storms, the waves should be gentle."
Jill wasn't through with me. "How hard can it be to
hang on to our boards and just let the waves take us
She had me there. It wasn't as if we needed to show
perfect form and win prizes. We simply had to make it
to the beach. The equipment and provisions were in
watertight compartments. They'd float better than we
would. Each of us would be responsible for specific
items, and they'd be attached to us. All in all, getting
to shore should be a relatively simple matter.
Only trouble was that none of us had counted on
the appearance of a brand-new monster.
Actually, there had been intimations of this new
critter on the last day Fly and I had spent on the beach
at Oahu. When the admiral noticed the lone cloud
drifting in, there was no reason to doubt that we were
looking at a cloud. Later, when Fly and I noticed the
black triangle cutting through the water, we naturally
assumed it was a shark. We didn't pay any attention to
the sky. If we had, we would have noticed that the
cloud had disappeared. We might have wondered
When the sub surfaced as close to shore as Ellison
was willing to go, the Big Four gathered for our last
adventure. It was a strange feeling that Jill was not
going all the way. Hidalgo would replace her when we
reached the spacecraft.
I didn't want Jill to accompany us on a journey that
might be a suicide mission. On the other hand, I
didn't like the idea of leaving her behind in California
doom. Hidalgo had assured Big Daddy Fly and me
that the plan for Jill's return to Hawaii was foolproof.
Ken would never have said that, though the plan was
his. Guarantees like that are offered by fools.
The plan, however, hadn't taken into account the
fluffy white cloud descending toward the water as we
paddled around on our fiberglass boards. We were
outfitted in our wet suits, floundering around in the
calm area, waiting for some wave action. Fly was first
to notice the cloud coming right down to the surface
and then sort of seeping into the water. Not vanish-
ing. Not evaporating. "Seeping" was the only way to
describe the cloud as its color changed to a vague
green and it sort of flowed into the water.
"What the hell was that?" asked Fly.
"It's right in front of us," observed Hidalgo.
"That's unnatural," shouted the sub's captain from
the conning tower. He was too decent a man to
submerge again until he knew we were all right.
"Maybe it's weird weather," suggested Jill quite
I could believe that. So much radiation and crap
had been bombarding Mother Earth that she might
have some surprises of her own. But after fighting the
alien denizens of hell, I was suspicious of anything
unusual. When I saw a shark fin appear right where
the cloud had joined with the ocean, I became a lot
By then Hidalgo and Albert had caught the first
wave. They were on their bellies, on their boards,
paddling with their hands. I'd told everyone to go all
the way in to shore without standing up. The boards
would keep even a natural landlubber afloat.
The rest of us caught the next gentle swell that
would take us toward the beach. That was when I saw
three fins circling the spot where the cloud had gone
into the water.
Naturally, I thought they were sharks. That was
adequate cause to worry. The fin of a surfboard and
its white underbelly looks like a fish. The paddling
hands and kicking feet attract attention, too. It wasn't
as if our team was made up of people who could surf
their way out of danger; and the waves weren't provid-
ing anything to write about.
"Shark!" I shouted. The others started repeating
the call. We would have continued thinking the fins
belonged to separate creatures if they didn't start
rising out of the water. What appeared to be long
black ropes writhed up out of the sea. Hidalgo and
Albert paddled furiously to change direction, but the
current continued drawing them toward the thing.
As the huge creature continued to rise, I expected to
make out more details. But it seemed to bring a fog
with it. The mantle surrounding the thing was the
same white as the cloud.
Within the mist, I could see fragments of recogniz-
able objects. A slight breeze was blowing in toward
the shore, but the fog didn't dissipate. The stuff hung
on like sticky cotton; but gaps did open up where I
could see more.
A claw. An eye. A large glistening red opening in a
larger dark surface that seemed to open and close.
Could this be a mouth? None of us needed to know
that answer all that badly. The entity constantly
shifted. I got a headache from trying to focus on it.
One moment the black surface seemed to have a
metallic sheen. The next moment the surface rippled
as only a living thing could do. All through my
attempt to see what we were fighting, the mist re-
mained a problem, changing in density but never
Most of our weapons were secured in the water-
proof packages, but Fly had put a gun in a plastic bag
and zipped it inside his suit. He got it out with
admirable speed and started firing at the whatsit.
He'd picked out a nice little customized Ruger pistol
for this part of the mission. He could be like a kid in
the candy store when let loose in a decent armory;
and Hawaii currently had a lot more in its arsenal
than ornate war clubs,
He felt better after he'd fired off a few rounds. I felt
better, too. Near as I could tell, the horrible inexplica-
ble thing from the sky felt absolutely nothing. Fly
demonstrated his skill, again, for what it was worth.
Although he was behind Albert and Hidalgo, his
bullets came nowhere near hitting them. Every shot
went right into the center of the roiling mass--and
probably out the other side if the monster had the
power to discorporate, which I was ready to believe.
Fly got off all his shots while lying on his belly and
hanging on to his board. He really is very good at
what he does.
Suddenly someone got off a shot that made a
difference. A sound of thunder from behind, a
whistling-screaming over our heads, and an explosion
that knocked all of us off our boards.
Ellison had the largest gun and he wasn't afraid to
use it. The shell struck the creature at dead center. I
wasn't sure this monster could be killed, but the
submarine captain's quick thinking made the new
menace go away.
Jill literally whooped for joy. She waved back at the
submarine, but I doubt they saw her. I barely saw her.
We were surrounded by mist from the explosion. So
much water turned into steam that I wondered if the
shell had set off something combustible in the mon-
ster. Maybe we were receiving residue from the sticky
cloud-fog stuff. One thing was certain: we wouldn't be
doing any scientific analysis out here.
Hidalgo performed his duty: "Everyone sing out!
Let me hear you."
"Sanders!" I shouted back at him.
"I'm here," Jill finished the roster.
"Name!" Hidalgo insisted, and then took a mo-
ment to cough up some water.
"I'm Jill. Sheesh."
"Last name!" Hidalgo insisted.
"Lovelace," she finally relented.
Meanwhile, the sun was climbing in the morning
sky. I was getting hot inside my wet suit. The sub was
now far enough behind us that it counted as history.
Before us was the future, where the breaking surf
became white spray to cover the white droppings of
seagulls. I'd never been so happy to see those scaveng-
er birds. Some things on the home planet were still
"What do you mean you hate zero-g?" Ar-
lene asked with genuine surprise.
"Just do," I said.
"You never told me that."
"You never asked."
Arlene was not an easy person to surprise. I wasn't
sure why the subject had never come up. I wasn't
deliberately holding out on her. Jill laughed--the
"You never cease to amaze me, Fly Taggart," Ar-
lene continued. "Here we've traveled half the solar
"Now, that's an exaggeration," I pointed out, un-
willing to let her get away with--
"Hyperbole," she explained, showing that she'd
been an English major once upon a time.
"Yeah, right," I said. "We've only done the hop
from Earth to Mars and back again."
"Some hop," Albert replied good-naturedly.
"Please, Albert." Arlene put her foot down. "This
is a private conversation."
"Private?" Jill echoed. "Inside here?"
"Here" was the cockpit of a DCX-2004. It had been
christened the Bova. From the outside, it looked like a
nose cone that someone had stretched and then added
fins along the bottom. But when you got closer and
saw it outlined against the night sky, you realized it
was a big mother of a ship. Even so, it was cramped
for four of us in a space designed only for the pilot
and copilot. Hidalgo was outside the craft, taking the
first watch. He'd warn us if a certain large hell-prince
woke up. He would also let us know if anyone showed
up who could fly this baby.
Plan A had worked fine so far. We were all alive. We
were in the right place. So what if the others--people
we'd never seen--were late? So what that they were
supposed to be here ahead of us? Plan A still beat the
hell out of plan B.
We figured it was only right to let Jill see the inside
of her first spaceship. She hadn't stopped hinting she
wanted to come along. We weren't going to lie to her
about having calculated the weight of our crew to the
last ounce. The ship's mass factor could accommo-
date Jill. There was even room if we didn't mind
being very crowded instead of only really crowded.
(Elbow room was already out of the question.)
Of course, all this would be academic if we didn't
get our navy crew. None of us could fly this tub.
Whether the crew showed up or not didn't change one
fact: Jill wasn't invited on the trip. It was as simple as
One advantage to showing her the interior of the
ship was that she could see for herself that there was
absolutely nowhere for a stowaway to hide. At times
like this I was grateful the bad guys hadn't figured out
how to manufacture itty-bitty demons. The pumpkins
were as small as they got. So if a guy was in close
quarters he didn't have to worry about Tinker Bell
with mini-rockets. Life was good.
The Bova was a lot bigger than the submarine. That
didn't mean we had any space to waste inside. Looked
to me as if the primary function of the ship was to
transport tanks and fuel. Human beings would be
allowed to tag along if they didn't get in the way.
Anyway, Albert had a ready answer to Jill's chal-
lenge about the lack of privacy: "When the CO is
away," he told her, "the men can shoot the shit." I
never thought I'd hear Albert talk like that, but then I
realized what a decent thing he'd done.
This could be the last time any of us saw Jill. Albert
was treating her like one of the men. She knew how
religious he was. For him to use that kind of language
in front of her meant something special. Jill smiled at
Albert. He returned the smile. They'd connected.
"Look, Arlene," I said, attempting to wrap up our
pointless conversation. "When they advertise the
honeymoon suites in free fall, I'm not the target
audience. I wouldn't try to make love in one of those
for free. On Phobos, whenever I went outside the
artificial gravity area, I had a tougher time from that
than anything the imps did to me. If the ones I
encountered in zero-g had known about my weakness,
it would have been another weapon on their side.
Hey, I don't like bleeding to death, either. That
doesn't stop me from fighting the bastards."
"No, Fly, it doesn't," said Arlene, touching my
arm. I noticed Albert noticing. He wasn't very obvi-
ous about it. I don't think it was any kind of jealousy
when Arlene was physical with another person. Al-
bert's affection for her was so great that he couldn't
help being protective.
"I never mentioned the weightless thing before," I
went on, more bugged than I'd realized, "because I
didn't want to give you cause for concern."
She switched from the tone of voice she used for
kidding around to the steady, serious tone she used
with a comrade. "I never would have known if you
hadn't told me," she said. "You're a true warrior, Fly.
Your hang-ups are none of my business unless you
decide to make them my business."
We sat there in close quarters, sizing each other up
as we had so many times before. She was quite a gal,
"What's it like?" Jill asked.
"What?" I threw back, a little dense all of a sudden.
"Being weightless," Jill piped in. She thought we
were still on that subject. Can't blame her for not
realizing we'd moved on to grown-up stuff.
Arlene returned to teacher mode. "Well, it's like at
the amusement parks when you ride a roller coaster
and you go over the top, and you feel the dip in the pit
of your stomach."
"Like on the parachute ride," Jill spoke from
obvious experience. "Or when you fall. That's why
it's called--what did Fly call it?"
"Free fall," I repeated.
"I don't mind that for a little bit," Jill admitted.
"But how can you stand it for--"
"Weeks and weeks?" Arlene finished helpfully.
Jill bit her bottom lip, something she did only when
she was thinking hard. Right now you could see the
thought right on her face: Do I really want to go into
"You become used to it," Arlene told her.
"Yeah," said Jill, not really looking at us. Like most
brilliant people, she thought out loud some of the
time. She was staring at the bulkhead, probably
imagining herself conquering the spaceways. "I can
get used to anything."
Then she looked at each of us in turn. First Arlene,
then Albert, then me. Finally the reality sank in. We
were going to separate, probably forever.
"You can't leave me," she whispered, but all of us
"We don't have any choice," Albert replied almost
"But you told me people always have a choice," Jill
wailed at the man she'd known longer than any other
adult. "You're always talking about free will and
"I don't want to split up," said Albert. "I'm wor-
ried about you, but I know you can take care of
"I don't want to take care of myself," she almost
screamed. The ship was soundproof, so she could
make all the noise she wanted to without waking the
demons. But as I saw her face grow red in anguish, I
wished Arlene and I were still arguing about zero-g.
Anything but this.
"You can't fool me," she said, addressing all of us.
If looks could have killed, we would've been splat-
tered over the acceleration couches like yesterday's
Then she let us have it with both barrels: "You
don't love me!"
It's not fair. After everything we've done together,
they want to get rid of me. I'm a problem to them.
They won't admit it. They'll say they want to protect
me. I'll bet everything in the world that's what they'll
say next. It's for my own good, and they don't want
me going into danger again. Blah, blah, blah, blah.
What can we run into in space that's any scarier
than the sea monster that almost got us when we were
surfing in to shore? What could be more dangerous
than when I was almost crushed like a bug when I
helped save Ken from the spider-mind and the steam
demon on the train? Or when I was driving the truck
and the two missiles from the bony almost got me?
(Poor Dr. Ackerman called those things revenants.
Boy, he sure came up with some weird names. He said
all the creatures were like monsters from the id. I
wonder what he meant.)
It's not just about danger. Everywhere is dangerous
now. Who says I'll make it back to Hawaii alive? Even
if everything goes according to plan, the return trip
will take weeks. I might be safer going into space with
them. But grown-ups don't want to have a kid around,
'specially not a teenager, so they lie, lie, lie.
They won't even admit how much they need me.
After we reached shore, we didn't simply walk to the
rocket field. I helped a lot. When it looked as if we
might not get in, Arlene reminded everyone of Plan B.
Ken was right. Plan B is a joke.
Plan B called for them to get on one of the alien
rockets as stowaways. I threw a fit when I heard about
that. They thought I was upset because they wouldn't
let me come along. And they think I'm a dumb kid! I
pointed out they could never stay hidden all the way
to Mars on something as small as a rocket.
Phobos and Deimos are very small moons, but they
are a lot larger than an alien rocket. Fly and Arlene
hadn't even managed to stay hidden on the Martian
moons. They'd told us about their adventures so
many times I could recite the stories backwards. If
they couldn't avoid the demons on Deimos and the
former humans on Phobos, they wouldn't be able to
stay hidden on a spaceship all the way to Mars--and
Arlene has the nerve to tell me not to think about
stowing away on this ship? She must think I'm really
I wonder if they're mad because Captain Hidalgo
agreed with me that stowing away on an alien ship
was stupid. He prefers taking his chances on one of
our own ships to "climbing into bed with the devil,"
even if we have to fly it ourselves. But then it was Fly's
turn to point out that without the navy guys, we can't
even try to take this ship up. He's done so many
impossible things already that I guess he knows what
a real impossibility looks like.
Maybe I'm better off without them. If they don't
want me, they don't have to bother with me any
longer. Getting here wasn't easy. Getting inside was
even harder. Who was it that jammed computer
systems and electronic devices? The person I saw
reflected in a window sure looked a lot like me! We
hardly ran into any monsters until we entered the
base. (Maybe they were all on vacation.) The ones
inside seemed to be asleep. I'd never seen them sleep
before. I didn't know they slept at all. Poor Fly and
Arlene were all set to shoot 'em up, but they didn't
have any moving targets this time.
I won't pick on Albert about this. He's not as much
a nonstop marine as they are. But I didn't think
Albert would ever leave me. Until now I was sure he'd
figure out some way for them to take me along. How
can he abandon me? We've been together since Salt
Lake City. I guess none of us expected to be alive this
Now I'm supposed to go back to Hawaii. I always
wanted to see Maui.
I wish they'd just tell me they don't like me
anymore, or that they never liked me. I never wanted
a family. I didn't mind being an orphan. But now I
feel what it's like to have a family. We've had some of
it. I don't want it to end.
I'm so angry I don't know what I want. They won't
see me cry, though. I won't let them see me cry.
I knew it would come to this. It would be my job
because I'm the woman, the adult woman. Fly be-
came so much like a real father to Jill that he couldn't
put his foot down. All he could do was spoil his
darling little girl, the apple of his eye.
So I have the thrill of playing Mom. Jill was born
difficult. It was completely against her nature to make
this kind of situation easy.
"We are leaving you here," I told her, "because we
do love you. It's time you have a reality check. You are
not a child. You are not a little girl anymore. You have
proved yourself to all of us. We know it. You know it.
This is no time to start acting like a little girl."
"Shut up!" I cut her off. This was no time to be
diplomatic, either. "Don't say one word until I've
finished. You were right about not trying to stow away
on an alien ship when we have other options. But we
wouldn't have let you join us in sneaking aboard an
enemy craft, and we won't let you come with us now
because we will be in combat sooner or later."
She stared at me with the kind of fixed concentra-
tion that meant only one thing. She was trying to hold
"You can do anything you want, Jill," I said, trying
my best to sound like a friend instead of Mommy.
"You're a woman. You can marry, have babies, take
up arms, join what's left of the real marines--the
ones on our side--and fight the traitors. Society has
been destroyed, Jill. You'll have a hand in shaping the
new society. You're staying behind on Earth. The rest
of us may never see home again. You're probably
more important to the future of mankind than we are.
But hear this: you cannot come with us! Do you
She looked me in the eye for several seconds. I
thought she wanted to kill me. Then she said very
slowly, "I understand."
I believed her.
I can see clearly in the moonlight, and I wish
for darkness. If I can see them, they can see me. As I
stare into the face of the minotaur, I remember how
my wife died: one of these things killed her. Our
families were so sympathetic. We had a big funeral.
The neighborhood we lived in wasn't a war zone yet.
She'd been caught outside in no-man's-land. For her,
it was no-Mrs.-Hidalgo-land.
We hadn't told our families we were getting a
divorce. We both came from strong Catholic families.
So we put off telling them, and then one of the
demons made our wedding vows come true--the part
about till death do us part. She hated me at the end,
with the kind of hatred that comes only from spoiled
love. It became so bad I couldn't even look at her
I was standing outside the DCX-2004, waiting for
our navy space crew, so this seemed like a good time
to be honest with myself. Colonel Hooker didn't know
what went on between my wife and me. I never told
him I was suicidal for a while. It wasn't something I
was proud of: I was suicidal before the minotaur
slaughtered her; I wasn't suicidal afterward.
Everyone was at the funeral, assuming a grief I
didn't feel; all of them assumed I'd devote the rest of
my life to avenging the woman I loved. A marine is
supposed to be at home in a world of hurt. There's no
personal problem that can't be solved by picking up
an M92 and doing your part for Uncle Sam. Right. Si.
But my military operational specialty was killing an
enemy that could shoot back. I wasn't prepared to
find out that my wife had aborted our child. Until that
moment, I had no idea how much she detested being
married to a marine. She said my loyalty to the Corps
came before my love for her and I'd treat our son the
same way I'd treated her.
I didn't know I had a son until after the abortion.
Then I looked at her with a hatred I'd never felt for
any human enemy, and a hatred I've yet to feel for
these devils from space. At that moment I felt like
apologizing to all the opponents I'd ever wasted.
I thought about killing her. I even started to formu-
late a plan. Then the monsters came, and our personal
problems went on the back burner for a while. I was
off fighting the war to begin all wars, and she was safe
at home, just waiting for a big red minotaur to turn
her into a taco with special sauce.
The timing on all this was interesting. If she'd had
the abortion after the invasion and said she couldn't
bear to bring up our child in a hell on Earth, I would
have been pissed but I might have been able to forgive
her. No, the timing was lousy ... for her. I was called
up right away, so I wasn't around for her to realize
how much I'd turned against her.
I was only a little suicidal on the mission against the
arachnotrons. Leave it to the military to come up with
a name like that. We called them spider-babies. We
called ourselves the Orkin squad. We did a fine job of
When I returned home and finally had it out with
my wife, the marital battlefield seemed like a restful
picnic. She gave me a bunch of feminist crap. I told
her she was a spoiled brat who obviously hadn't been
punished enough when she was growing up. I was
mad. She didn't like my attitude.
Then I saw a side of her that completely surprised
me. After you've been married to someone for years,
you'd think you'd pick up on the important aspects of
that person's character. I'd never had a clue that she
felt the way she did until she accused me of always
sucking up to the Anglos! She insisted that I was a bad
Latino. In her mind, I suppose that made her a
I'd never thought about my ethnic identity all that
much, even when I was growing up. I tried not to pay
attention to it. Sometimes it struck me funny the way
the American media always presented the problems
of the cities as black versus white, as though all the
colors in between didn't matter. Now we have new
colors to worry us--the bright colors of the scales and
leathery hides of the invaders. The devils.
Of course I had experienced my fair share of
prejudice. I first came to America as an illegal immi-
grant. I wasn't here for the welfare, but I wasn't
willing to wait in line forever. I came to America for
the dream. I came to work and go to college.
I met a young lawyer who was sympathetic to what
I was trying to do. Pat Hoin was her name, my first
Anglo friend. She encouraged me to take advantage of
one of the periodic amnesties when illegals could
become legal. I did just that.
She thought I might have a bit too much pride for
my own good. There was truth in that. Although I'd
grown up in Mexico, I came from a very proud
Spanish family. My father was so intent that I marry
"someone worthy" that he helped drive me away from
home. How ironic the way things turned out. He
finally accepted my wife. Then she turned out to be
The last time I saw Rita, we argued about anything
and everything. Nothing was too trivial. After she
exhausted the subject of my emotional failings, there
remained the cosmic threat of my snoring. She failed
to convince me that my snoring was on a scale with an
army of zombies shuffling through the old community
Somehow I had a last shred of feeling for her. When
I reached out to touch her for the last time, she
screamed that I was never to touch her again without
I stormed out of there, leaving the next move to her.
Here was the world coming to an end, and we couldn't
take a break from our own stupid soap opera. So when
I saw her face in the open coffin--they'd recovered
only the top third of her body, but that was the
important part for any good mortician--I looked
down at her with such a grim expression that her
sister, misinterpreting my solemnity, took me by the
arm and whispered, "You'll get over it. You'll find
someone else like her."
Only marine training prevented me from laughing
out loud. As was the custom of our families, we took
turns kissing her cold lips. It was the first time I'd
enjoyed kissing her in a long time.
Now I'm supposed to be back on the job, working
to save the human race. Well, why not? I don't
suppose we're any worse than this big, bloated mino-
taur snoring in front of me. Let's see, now, Taggart
and Sanders call it a hell-prince. The brain boys back
at HQ call it a baron of hell.
I know a minotaur when I see one. Wait a minute.
I've heard the others call it a minotaur, too. I know
Jill did. She's quite a kid. A bit sullen and stuck-up
but that's to be expected when you're fourteen. I kind
of like her. She's strangely honest. She could grow up
to be an honest woman. Anything is possible.
They have their chance to say their good-byes now.
If the navy doesn't show, we'll probably never make it
out of here alive. We'll try to stow away on one of the
enemy ships, however slight our chance for survival.
Our chances won't be good even if the navy space
crew joins us, but at least the odds will be worth
If we make it to Phobos, then Taggart, Sanders, and
Gallatin will become my headache. I wish I had a
different team. Their combat records are fine. I'm not
worried about that. I'm concerned about taking a
triangle on the mission. Sanders and Gallatin want to
screw each other's brains out. I'd have to be blind not
to notice that. The mystery is where the hell Taggart
fits in. I'm sure it's somewhere.
I don't need this crap on a mission. That's why I
have to be a hard-ass. I'm going to keep them so busy
that they won't have time to fool around. I'm not
motivated by what happened to me with my wonder-
ful, loving, faithful wife. I'm sure that's not it.
The mission is what concerns me ... us! It has to.
It's too damned important for lovesick marines to
mess up. However slim the chances for success, I must
guarantee maximum commitment.
Funny. Now that I'm thinking this way, the mission
just got a boost in the arm. My grandmother believed
in good omens. Up ahead, washed in moonlight,
tiptoeing around our sleeping monster, it sure looks
like the navy has arrived.
I'll never admit this to Fly but right at the end, I
almost cried. Jill finally stopped arguing. She came
over and hugged me. Then, without saying a word,
she did the same to Fly and Albert. I was stunned. She
stood in the open hatch, her back to us as if she
couldn't decide if she wanted to do something.
She turned around and said, "I'll never forget any
of you." Then she did the most amazing thing of all:
Jill saluted us.
Of course none of us returned the salute. We're all
conditioned marine robots. Mustn't ever break the
precious rules. There are rules about who and when
and what and where to exchange a precious salute. If
Jill took seriously my offhand comment about joining
the marines, she might earn the right to dress the way
we do and perform the rituals. Maybe she'd wear a
high-and-tight if she proved herself macho enough to
earn the right, like me. Like me.
I didn't return her salute. But I made myself say,
"Thank you, Jill. You are a true hero."
Then that spry little teenager walked out of my life.
As she clocked out, the new cast of characters clocked
in. Hidalgo came bounding up those same stairs like a
kid who's gotten everything he wants for Christmas.
For a moment, I didn't recognize him. It was the first
time I'd seen him smile. He had the face of a man who
believed in the mission. Absolutely.
He brought us a fine crew to pilot the barge. God
knows how they arrived here. I hadn't seen any of
them in Hawaii. When I asked where they'd been, I
was rebuked with my least favorite word in the
English language: "classified."
I didn't press the subject. I would have been happy
to press their uniforms if that was what it took to keep
everyone happy. They'd been outfitted with brand-
new flight suits, combat boots, inflatable vests, hel-
mets, gloves.... They looked a lot better than we
did. I'd have liked to know how they did it.
Fly's big grin reminded me of arguments we used to
have about luck. How he could live through what he
had and not believe in good luck was beyond me. The
moment we found all the demon guards asleep, I
started believing in luck again. I'll take good omens
where I can find them, too. Maybe the doom demons
are becoming careless when we can penetrate a base
so easily. That means we just might win the war.
The woman running the show inspired confidence:
Commander Dianne Taylor. She was five feet four,
weighing in at about one hundred pounds, with
beautiful hazel eyes. I felt that we'd traded in a young
female computer whiz for an older female space pilot.
There was another woman on board as well, the petty
officer, second class. For some time now, I hadn't
been the only girl among the boys. I loved the fact that
men with SEAL training had to answer to a female
"I'm a big enthusiast on the history of space flight,"
Commander Taylor addressed the latest member of
the Big Four. "This ship is the latest generation of the
old DC-X1 Delta Clipper. Basic principles remain the
"That's why we have faith in them," volunteered
"Exactly," replied our skipper happily. She was a
natural teacher. That could take some of the boredom
out of the trip. "The fuel is the same for the 2004 as
for the first in the series--good old hydrogen per-
I laughed. She raised an eyebrow in my general
direction and I answered the unasked question. "I was
thinking I could do my hair in it." She returned the
laugh minus some interest: she allowed herself a
"Or we can fuel up with hyper-vodka and have
martinis with what's left over," she suggested. "Well,
just as long as we all understand what the primary risk
will be in taking off."
"What's that?" asked Hidalgo as if he'd missed
Taylor pointed at the monitors on which we'd
watched Jill slip away to safety or death. We could still
see the recumbent forms of various hell-princes and
"When we begin our launch procedures," she said,
"they are going to wake up. And then our principal
goal in life will be to keep them from blowing us up."
"We'll do a cold takeoff," said Taylor. She
seemed to know her business, but I didn't like the way
she stressed that word, "cold." When I was a kid, the
first strong impression I had from television was of
the Challenger space shuttle blowing up. My parents
had rented a documentary on the history of space
flight. I remembered the white-porcelain appearance
of the craft in the early morning. A frosty morning,
the announcer told us. They'd never launched in such
cold weather before. Some of the engineers, it later
turned out, were concerned about icing. They were
worried about certain wires.
The green light was given. The shuttle blasted
off ... and into eternity.
I wondered what our naval commander had in
mind other than running a taut ship. She told us:
"Normally we'd give the Bova a half hour of foreplay.
A cold launch is when we start everything at once,
flooding the engines with liquid oxygen. The risk is
that the lox could pump through the lines so fast
they'll crack. The good part of this risk is that the ship
will be ready to launch in ten minutes. We are in the
period of our launch window. The weather is on our
side. The enemy is still asleep."
"Like you said, starting the ship will wake them
up," I said.
"That's right, Taggert, and that's why we'll take
only ten minutes instead of thirty to get ready. Those
plug uglies down there are going to investigate. I'm
hoping they're as dumb as they look."
"Yes, Commander Taylor," Arlene marveled, as
awareness dawned. "They may think it's their guys in
"Sure," agreed Steve Riley, joining us in the engine
room. He was Taylor's radar intercept officer. Of
course, he had to go through all that navy stuff with a
superior officer before joining in the conversation.
And they call us jarheads.
Riley had a neat little mustache, same as Hidalgo. It
twitched a little when he became colorful: "By the
time they realize we're not part of a scheduled bogey-
man flight, they'll be toast from our thrusters."
"Even dummies might figure it out with thirty
minutes to work in."
"So we don't give it to them," Taylor summed up.
"We could station a sniper in the hatchway in case
they wise up," Albert said.
"Too dangerous," countered the skipper. "They
might return fire."
"We're sitting on a Roman candle," I contributed.
Suddenly I was very glad we'd sent Jill away.
"We have another problem, too." Taylor generously
shared her apprehension with us--the mark of a good
leader. "Along with passing up the luxury of a thirty-
minute warm-up, I've decided not to use the start-up
"What's that?" asked Albert.
"You probably saw it when you were sneaking in
here. It's got a big plug the ship can use to get a charge
for the blastoff. You may have also noticed that one of
the cyberdemons is almost using it for a pillow."
"We call 'em steam demons," Arlene threw in
gratuitously. (She probably doesn't think I know a
word like "gratuitous.")
"I like that," said Taylor. "By whatever name, I
prefer that it remain asleep."
"How can we take off, then?" asked Arlene, ex-
changing glances with me, her fellow expert on seat-
of-the-pants rocket design.
Riley and Taylor exchanged meaningful looks
as well--pilot-to-copilot looks, how-the-hell-are-we-
"We can start off our own battery," said Lieutenant
"I'm no rocket scientist," commented Albert and it
took me a moment to realize our somber Mormon
had made a joke. "But won't that drain the battery?"
"Yes, it will," admitted Taylor, "but not to the
point of doom." It was funny how that word "doom"
kept cropping up in everyone's conversation.
"It'll be like we were on a submarine," said Riley.
That wouldn't be very hard for us.
"Run silent, run deep!" Arlene got into the drift.
"Yes," said Taylor. "We'll use a minimum of elec-
tronic devices in the ship. No radio broadcasts, no
radar, no microwave. You'll be eating your MREs
"What about light?" asked Albert.
"We have a good supply of battery-powered lan-
terns," Taylor said in a happier tone.
It didn't sound all that bad. I remembered the flight
from Earth to Mars when they took me up for my
court-martial. The trip was under a week. So what if
we had to do it this time sitting in the dark most of the
way? The trip might feel like an extension of our
Hawaii vacation. There was nothing wrong with rest-
ing up before going through the Gate on Phobos. God
only knew what we'd run into this time.
God only knew if we'd survive the takeoff.
The crew was the bare minimum, but it would do
just fine for our purposes. It also meant there were
enough acceleration couches for everyone. The Bova
was cramped enough as it was. Along with the skipper
and her copilot, we had Chief Petty Officer Robert
Edward Lee Curtis and Petty Officer Second Class
Jennifer Steven. Across the gulf of different services,
we felt like comrades. We were the same rank. There
were only three regular crew members.
Back to space for Arlene and me, though I never
would have believed we'd voluntarily return to
Phobos. I wondered what the chances were of passing
by Deimos on the way to Mars, now that Deimos was
a new satellite of Earth. Not our fault! We didn't drag
it out of the orbit of Mars. We only hitched a ride.
As we neared the countdown--what do you call a
countdown to the countdown?--I started to worry. I
blamed my anxiety on my stomach. Many portions of
my anatomy could make peace with zero-g, but my
stomach would always be a stubborn holdout. When I
finally admitted the truth to Arlene, I was speaking
for my stomach.
One member of the crew, Christopher Olen Ray,
was going into space for the first time, and the other
guys were giving "good old Chris" a hard time about
it. He couldn't have been older than his early twen-
ties. He was worried about the g-forces of the takeoff.
The first time is something to write home about. The
way I look at it, that part is over quickly. Weightless-
ness lasts and lasts when some rich guy hasn't spent
the money to keep your craft doing a full revolution
so that you can enjoy the benefits of centrifugal force.
If this continued, I'd risk a good thought for the
Union Aerospace Corporation. At least they were
willing to spend some of their filthy lucre.
For better or worse, Commander Taylor gave the
order to start the ten minutes that would feel like
eternity. The old tub made a lot of noise when it was
turned on. From my uncomfortable position on the
acceleration couch I had a good view of a monitor. I
saw the big ugly bastard right next to the ship wake
up. Hell, the retros were noisy enough to wake me
up. Hell-princes were so damned big that I found it
fascinating to watch the thing fight the gravity to
which we little humans are so accustomed. The pon-
derous minotaur stumbled as he got up, as if he had a
hangover. I laughed. Doom demons bring out my
Commander Taylor made sure that "all her babies"
were securely fastened into their seats. This marine
"baby" felt constricted by his safety harness. Then the
ship started to quiver as it came alive, the fuel
beginning to course through its veins. The vibration
shook me in the marrow of my bones.
Suddenly I couldn't tell if the roaring came from
the ship or the intercom, which was picking up sound
effects from our playmates outside. Were they pissed
off? Were they saying "Top of the mornin' to you?" (It
was past midnight.) After all this time, I still didn't
have a clue when these critters were happy or sad. A
roar is a roar.
We had ringside seats, but there was nothing we
could do if the monster squad decided to freak out.
The navy had its pet marines all trussed up. I didn't
like the idea of playing sitting duck, but I understood
that all we could do was stay put on top of our giant
On the screen, a large spider-mind scuttled over to
the hell-prince. I didn't like that. If Ackerman's
theory of broadcast intelligence turned out to be
correct, it didn't change the fact that the spiders were
the "smart" ones . . . and right now we needed all the
dumb ones the enemy could spare.
Time was on our side. We didn't have that much
longer to wait. I could hear Taylor and Riley running
through the checklist. They spoke with the kind of
precision that assured me we were in competent
hands. I'd hate to die because of someone else's
negligence. The little voice in the back of my head
whispered that I had Viking blood in my veins,
because I'd rather die with a battle-ax in my gut than
fouled up by some numb-nuts who meant well but
pulled the wrong switch.
As I heard the steady voice of the copilot announce,
"Minus three minutes," I felt pretty good about the
situation. These guys had a clue what they were doing,
all right. Once we were under way they'd put on their
oxygen masks and I wouldn't be able to listen in.
Passengers didn't need to wear oxygen masks back
where we were hog-tied, but there were emergency
oxygen tanks in case the ship lost pressure.
I couldn't keep my eyes off the monitor where the
big creeps were running around in search of some
kind of authorization. That was why I was so happy to
hear Riley say, "Minus two minutes."
"How you doin'?" asked CPO Curtis.
"Fine," I returned. I couldn't see much. If I
stretched my head at a really uncomfortable angle I
could make out Arlene's legs.
"We're ready to weigh anchor," he threw back.
"Minus one minute," contributed the copilot. I was
ready to believe we'd at least get off the ground. The
monitor showed the return of the spider-mind as it
pushed past the minotaur. The steam demon was
The intercom crackled with horrible screeching
sounds--probably some alien code. It gave me a
headache even before we lifted the Bova to greet the
stars. The most inspiring part of the blastoff was
watching the spider-mind get caught in the rocket's
bright orange flame.
As quick as the commander could push a button,
the demon guards were no longer a concern. Now it
was the monsters of gravity and pressure that
presented the obstacles. I felt them sitting on my
chest. I'd been spoiled by easy takeoffs from Mars.
Leaving the virtual nongravity of Phobos or Deimos
didn't even count. I'd forgotten how much rougher it
was to escape from the gravity well of the old mud
It hurt. I had to reteach myself how to swallow. The
pressure gave me the mother of all headaches. When I
tried to focus on anything, my vision blurred. The
vibration was outside and inside my head. Closing my
eyes, I thanked the sisters of my Catholic school
childhood for delivering Taylor and Riley.
We could watch our assent on television monitors. I
would have preferred a porthole. But the resolution
on the screens earned its description in the procure-
ment file: "crystal clarity."
Blasting off when we did was like rising up into the
endless night. Strapped to my couch, I could tell that
the Bova was leaving the atmosphere only by watch-
ing the stars stop blinking. They were steady, white
eyes spread out across the black velvet of space.
Arlene didn't think there was any poetry in my soul
because I never talked this way to her. She'd been an
English major once. I forgave her for that. What more
could I do? She rated head honcho in this depart-
ment. The best way to cover my ass was to keep poetic
feelings to myself.
It was good to think about anything other than the
physical strain of the liftoff. The boosters boosted. We
shook, rattled, and rolled. I thought about how much
work the commander and her radar officer must be
doing without the assistance of ground-based sup-
port. No one to ring up on the phone and ask about
bearing and flight plan. We were on our own.
The little voice in the back of my head chose that
moment to raise an annoying point: what if the bad
guys blew us out of the air? At no point in our
discussions had anyone considered that possibility.
Not out loud, anyway. Oh, well, as long as I was at it, I
could worry if it might rain.
An old filling started to ache in the back of my jaw.
Great, maybe I could find a demon dentist! The
shaking was starting to get to me. Intellectually, I
realized the ship was holding together. It takes a lot of
power to climb out of Earth's gravity well. Emotion-
ally, I expected all of us to fall out of the sky in a
I went back to thinking poetic thoughts.
And then it was over. The good part was over. The
vibration stopped. I noticed I was sweating like a
pinkie after fifty push-ups. Then all the weight that I'd
worked so hard to put on simply disappeared. Free
fall. Falling. Zero-g. Zero tolerance for zero-g. My
stomach started a slow somersault while I remained
Marine training to the rescue again! That, and the
fact I deliberately hadn't eaten before playing space
cadet. With applied willpower, I could put up with the
rigors of space for the little week it would take to
Then the voice of Commander Taylor pronounced
our fate. I heard it loud and clear. She wasn't using
the ship's intercom. That was one of the luxuries we
were giving up for this trip. But she had a loud voice,
and everything was wide open so the sardines in the
can wouldn't be lonely. Her words traveled the length
of the ship: "We made it, boys. Now hear this.
Reaching Mars shouldn't take longer than a month
and a half."
I wonder which star in the sky is their ship. I
may not be able to see it from this position, hiding
behind an old Dumpster and watching monsters play.
Their play is the worst thing I've ever seen.
Fly would be especially angry if he knew I'd already
thrown off Ken's schedule for my return. He'd scold:
"Jill, how could you be so stupid? Every minute
counts when you're using a timetable. That's why it's
called a schedule, you stupid bitch."
No, he wouldn't call me a bitch. I like thinking he
would. I'd like to think I bothered him enough he'd
want to call me bad names. I'm calling myself a stupid
bitch because I wanted to see the ship take off. I
waited until it was out of sight. Then I went the wrong
I had a good excuse for going the wrong way. The
monsters went ape when they realized the Bova wasn't
supposed to take off. The spider that was fried by the
ship's jets must have been important, because several
other spiders showed up and wasted all the minotaurs
in sight. They tried to waste a steam demon as well,
but the thing was too fast for them. I never thought
anything that big could run so fast.
While the monsters were busy killing each other I
was able to slip away. Everything would have been
fine if I'd been going in the right direction. As part of
the plan, the navy guys left supplies for me along the
return route. Ken planned the first leg of my trip to
cover the same ground they followed on their last leg.
When I found myself at a convention of bonies and
fire eaters, though, I realized I'd made a boo-boo.
They didn't notice me; but I could see them clear as
day. I wished the moon would go out so I could do a
better job of hiding!
Some of the monsters naturally fought each other,
but the bonies and fire eaters had a truce going. The
same couldn't be said for the demon caught between
them, one of the chubby pink ones Arlene likes to call
pinkies. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the thing. The
bonies--Dr. Ackerman called them revenants--were
all lined up on one side in a semicircle. The fire
eaters--also known by a really weird name, arch-
viles--were lined up on the other side, completing
the circle. A bonfire blazed between them.
The fire eaters could control their fire better than I
realized. They'd send out thin lines of flame that
would burn the pinkie's butt. He'd squeal. Fly always
said the pinkies made him think of pigs.
The pinkie would jump over the fire and run
straight for the bonies. They made a sound that was
half rattling bones and half choking laughter. They
couldn't use their rockets without spoiling the game.
They seemed to have picked up a trick from human
bullies on a playground. They used sticks to beat and
prod their victim. One had an actual pitchfork he'd
probably stolen from a farm. When the pinkie turned
to run away from his tormentors the bony poked him
in the ass with the pitchfork. If it hadn't been so sick, I
would have laughed. But there was nothing funny
about the pink demon finally falling right into the
center of the fire where he grunted and squealed and
died. I wondered if the bonies and fire eaters would
I wondered if they ate.
As they gathered around their roasting pig, I snuck
away. If I could retrace my steps to the base and work
my way around the perimeter, I might be able to pick
up the route that Ken had mapped out for me. If I
believed any part of what Albert did, and God was
looking down, my only prayer was to get back on
track. If the monsters were going to kill me, I wanted
to be doing what I was supposed to before they ripped
out my guts.
When Arlene gave me the big lecture about growing
up and taking responsibility, she didn't say anything I
hadn't already figured out myself. I could have said it
better than she did.
Growing up was about dealing with fear. One night,
when Arlene and Albert went to the supermarket in
Zombie City to find rotten lemons and limes, Fly and
I had a long talk. He asked me what I'd be willing to
do in a war. He wanted to know if I'd be willing to
torture the enemy, even if the enemy happened to be
I never stopped thinking about the questions he
asked. When I disobeyed his orders about the plane
and refused to fly to Hawaii without Fly and Arlene,
I'd grown up. I wouldn't let down my friends. That's
all there is to it. On the Bova, I felt they were letting
me down. It was easier for Arlene to tell me she didn't
want me coming along because I'm not trained than
for her to say she loved me.
Fly and Arlene just don't know how to say they love
somebody. Albert knows how. I'm learning how. I'll
bet all the ammo in the universe that Fly and Arlene
will never learn. But it doesn't matter. I love them.
Even though they're gone, I won't let them down.
So as I look up at the night sky, wondering if they
are one of the stars, I promise them that I won't get
myself killed until I'm back with the plan. I'll be a
good soldier. Just so long as I don't have to do the
really weird stuff.
"Back on Phobos again--where a zombie
once was a man!"
"What the hell are you doing?" asked Arlene.
"I'm singing," I said.
"That's not singing," she disagreed.
"It's official Flynn Taggart caterwauling," I said.
"No, it's singing," said Albert, venturing where
angels feared to tread.
"Are you making a wise move?" Arlene asked her
"Probably not," he agreed wisely. "But I recognize
the song Fly has made his own. He's doing a zombie
version of 'Back in the Saddle Again.'"
"Thank you, Albert," I said. "When I invited you
to join the Fabulous Four, I knew I was selecting a
man of exquisite judgment."
"That's not exactly how I remember our little
adventure in Salt Lake City," Arlene corrected
I had the perfect answer for her: "Back on Phobos
again . . ."
"Cease and desist, Flynn Taggart," she said, putting
her hands over her ears. "We're not even on Phobos
yet. Can't you wait and sing it there, preferably
without your space helmet?"
"You can't fool me." I was firm. Besides, I'd already
waited close to a month and a half--a lot longer than
I'd originally planned on spending in this rust bucket.
That had something to do with the fact that fuel was
in short supply these days, thanks to the aliens, and
something to do with the kind of orbit we were using,
which made the usual one-week jaunt to Mars six
times longer, which had driven me to singing. "We
did not leave Phobos in shambles, like Deimos. There
may still be air in the pressurized areas."
Arlene interrupted: "Along with pinkies, spinies,
"And a partridge in a pear tree." I wouldn't let her
change the subject. "The point is that if the air's on, I
"The one weapon we didn't think of," Arlene
agreed at last.
"Do we have any idea what the Phobos situation is
like?" asked Albert, real serious all of a sudden.
"No," I said, ready to postpone my performance.
"But whatever it is, it will be more interesting than
one more second inside this ..." I stopped, stumped
for a good obscenity.
"In the belly of the whale," Arlene finished for me.
She was getting biblical on me.
"I'm ready for battle," Albert admitted, almost
I took inventory of our section of the deluxe space
cruiser, letting my eyes come to rest on my last candy
bar. I'd used up my quota of Eco bars, the ones with
the best nuts.
"Know how you feel, marine," I said to Albert.
"We're all getting antsy. That may be the secret of
preparing a warrior to do his best. Drag ass while
delivering him to the war and he'll be ready to kill
"With a song if need be," contributed Arlene. I'd
found a new Achilles' heel in my best buddy: my
singing voice. Maybe she had a point. I could just see
a pumpkin deliberately smashing itself against a wall
to escape from my perfect pitch. An army of imps
would blow up a barrel of sludge themselves and die
in glop and slop rather than let me start a second
verse. Yeah, Arlene might have something there.
I didn't elaborate on any of this because our fearless
leader chose that moment to join us. All the marines
were awake on the bus. That was what it felt like--a
The little voice in the back of my head could be a
real pain in another part of my anatomy. It reminded
me that this situation was strangely similar to a time
in high school when three of us were the only ones
awake in the back of the band bus--I was in the band;
I played clarinet.
I was interested in a certain girl who happened to
prefer a friend of mine. Her name was Noelle; his
name was Ron. Bummer. But we had a nice three-way
conversation going when our teacher suddenly came
to the back of the bus. Old man Crowder. We called
him Clam Crowder because he looked like something
you'd pull out of a shell, and you wouldn't get a pearl,
either. He just wanted to make sure that nothing was
going on that was against the rules. The darkness of
the spaceship, the kidding around of three friends, the
arrival of the man with the rule book--all that was
enough for me to be unfair to Captain Hidalgo. Time
to snap out of it.
We no longer lived in a world of high school
football games. Now the pigskin only covered ugly
pink demons who didn't need a rule book to spoil a
I hadn't been able to stop thinking about Arlene's
potential threat against Hidalgo, that she'd get rid of
him if he got in the way of completing the mission. I'd
never heard her talk like that before. I had known how
daring she could be from the first time I met her,
when she went at it with Gunny Goforth to prove she
was enough of a "man" to wear her high-and-tight. I
knew how smart she could be from Phobos where she
left her initials on the walls for me, a la Arne
Saknussen from Journey to the Center of the Earth, so
I'd realize whose trail I was following.
Put smart and daring together and you have a
combination that spells either patriot or traitor. I'd
studied enough history to understand that it could be
difficult to tell them apart. When your world is up
against the wall, you have to make the tough choices.
It's priority time. No one ever likes that.
Even if Hidalgo happened to be a martinet butt-
head he was still our CO. Whatever chances we had
for a successful mission rested on his shoulders.
That's what pissed off the dynamic duo of Arlene and
me. I wanted Hidalgo to be good. I didn't want him to
screw up. I wanted him to be a man I could trust, a
As I sat with my back to the wall, and watched the
captain's profile as he chatted amiably with Arlene, I
wondered what he would do if he realized how she felt
about him. Maybe he'd shrug and just get back to
doing his job. A man who does a good job doesn't
have to worry about his back unless treacherous
skunks are around. There were none of those under
"Do we know which Gate to use?" Albert asked
I almost answered. Had to watch that--chain of
Hidalgo answered: "You remember the director
gave us the access codes and teleportation coordinates
for one of the Gates." He smiled at Arlene and me.
"You heroes need to work out among yourselves our
best route to the right Gate once we land. Command-
er Taylor will get us as close to it as is humanly
For a brief second I thought he was being sarcastic
when he called us heroes. Arlene and I could be
telepathic at times like this. The same thought flick-
ered in her eyes. The next second the feeling passed--
for me, at least. Hidalgo had spoken straight from the
"You men," he said, and Arlene warmed up at that,
"are the valuable cargo on the Bova." Same as the way
we treated Jill as a case for special handling on the
road to Los Angeles. "When we hit Phobos, I'll need
the best intelligence you can provide."
"Conditions may have changed," said Arlene.
"Yes. Or they might be the same as when you left.
Whatever they are, you two are better acquainted
with the situation than any other humans alive."
I was glad that Arlene was participating in this
discussion. "When you came over, we were discussing
whether there'd still be air on the different levels."
"We'll wear space suits regardless," said Hidalgo.
"If everything goes according to plan, we have no idea
what's waiting for us on the other side."
"It's a mission of faith," Albert pointed out, and no
one disagreed. "We must assume those on the other
side will have the means to keep us alive. We can only
pack so many hours of air. If we find ourselves under
pressure we could save some of our own air for what's
on the other side of the Gate."
"We'll be under pressure even if there's air," Arlene
joked, reminding us about the doom demons.
"Maybe not," said Albert. "The devils may have
abandoned Phobos Base."
"Sorry to burst your bubble, Albert," I said. "I'm
surprised Arlene didn't remind you of what we dis-
covered about the Gates. No matter what you take
with you, you wind up naked on the other side. So
you're dead right about having faith in the aliens on
the other side."
"True," said Arlene. "That's been our experience.
But we'd feel foolish if we didn't prepare and then
found out for the first time that a Gate trip doesn't
mean a strip tease." My buddy had a point.
"We've been lucky up until now," said Hidalgo.
"We know the enemy has ships going back and forth
between Phobos and Earth. The Bova uses a TACAN
system, beaming out a signal showing them the bear-
ing and distance of the ship. We may be the low-
budget special, energy-wise, but we're not flying
I hate flying blind.
"Are they using Deimos for anything?" asked Ar-
"Not so far as the director and his team have found
out. You two did such a good job of wrecking it that
they may have given up on it."
"Outstanding," said Albert. 'Course he was looking
at Arlene instead of me.
"We've been fortunate not to run into the enemy,
but space is big, isn't it?" The way Hidalgo said that
made me wonder if he was making a joke.
The next moment he did! "You know, Lieutenant
Riley told me a funny one," he began. I noticed that
he'd been pretty chummy with the radar intercept
officer, but why not? Same rank attracts, especially
between services. I'd hit it off with Jennifer, the PO2.
I rarely called her by her last name.
Whatever the reason, it was good to see Hidalgo
being human, even if we had to listen to his joke:
"How can you tell the difference between the offense
and defense of a doom demon? Give up? You can't
tell any difference because even when we're kicking
their butts, they're still offensive."
Discipline and duty pay off. I made myself laugh.
There should be medals for this kind of service.
After the officer joke, Hidalgo left us alone. I was all
set to resume my song, figuring anything would go
down well after that joke.
Arlene headed me off at the pass. "Albert," she said
quickly, "have you found any good books to read in
the navy's box?"
"Lots of old books," he said. "The one I've read
twice is Bureaucracy by Ludwig von Mises. He wrote
about freedom when the only threat to it was other
human beings. He said capitalism is good because it
'automatically values every man according to the
services he renders to ... his fellow men.'"
"No friend of socialism, is he?" asked Arlene.
Albert didn't hear the playfulness in her voice. He
gave her a straight answer. "The book was written
during World War II. He uses Hitler and Stalin as his
two perfect models of socialism in practice."
Arlene was up on the subject: "They didn't kill as
many people as the demons have, but not for lack of
I contributed my bit. "Back at Hawaii Base I
overheard a female lab tech say what has happened is
good for the human race because the extermination of
billions of people has made the survivors give up their
petty selfishness and band together for the common
"Jesus Christ!" said Arlene.
I noticed Albert didn't even wince any longer when
she talked that way.
"Not everyone fights for the same things," said
Albert with a shrug. "We do."
"Close enough," I agreed.
"Let's have a toast," said Arlene. "Something bet-
ter than water."
"I have something," said Albert. While he pushed
off in the direction of his secret stash (Paul had given
him some good stuff), Arlene went over to her couch
and dug out a book she'd been reading from the box.
She'd always been very adept at maneuvering in free
fall. I stayed put.
When she got back, I admitted, "I wish they had
more of those magnetic boots so they could spare me
"The navy doesn't have enough for its own person-
nel," she reminded me. "Just be grateful we have a
skeleton crew or there wouldn't have been accelera-
tion couches for us."
"Yeah, tough marines don't need luxuries like a
place to park our butts. We don't need internal
organs, either. Just stack us up like cordwood in the
back of the bus."
"You know what I mean. What do you have in your
"Cyrano de Bergerac," she announced, holding a
volume up. "I didn't expect to find my favorite play in
the navy's box. Since I don't have Albert's memory, I
want to read you the ideal passage for my toast."
While she flipped the yellowing pages, Albert re-
turned bearing gifts--a soup-bag. His big grin told me
the content of the bag was anything but soup.
"Found it!" chirped Arlene. While Albert prepared
the nipple we would all use to partake, she read to us:
" 'I marched on, all alone, to meet the devils. Over-
head, the moon hung like a gold watch at the fob of
heaven; Till suddenly some Angel rubbed a cloud, as
it might be his handkerchief, across the shining crys-
tal, and--the night came down.'"
She cleared her throat and said huskily, "May we
bring down the eternal might of space upon the
As I took a sip of Burgundy wine, I felt that we were
the Three Musketeers ready to fight the demon pukes
... in whatever form they might take.
Fly was right. We were back on Phobos again,
where a zombie once was a man. We didn't see any
zombies this time. I was glad about that. They re-
minded me of Dodd. It's bad enough losing a lover
the normal way without seeing him turn into a
shambling travesty of someone I once loved. In my
nightmares I still heard him calling: "Arlene, you can
be one of us."
They say you can't go home again. But you can
return to hell if you're crazy and you deliberately take
a one-way ticket to Phobos.
The crew of the Bova had acquitted themselves
admirably when it was time to deliver their cargo to
the infernal regions. Phobos is so small that it's a real
challenge to a space pilot. Deimos was a tougher port
when it was still in its orbit around Mars. It was an
unseemly rock covered by protrusions that could rip a
ship if you miscalculated the angle or speed. Phobos
was much smoother and rounder--more what we
Earthers expected of a moon.
"How can they call something only ten miles long a
moon?" Taylor asked as she did the painstaking
maneuvers to rendezvous with Phobos. We were only
a few miles away, matching orbits with the little black
patch blotting out the stars. I counted myself fortu-
nate that the commander had agreed to let me come
up front to watch us "return." Our new pukehead
friends kept joking that Fly and I were coming home.
All the kidding may have made it easier to swing the
invitation for Albert and me. He was as happy as a
kid as we stood together in the hatchway and saw
what the skipper saw.
There was no need to strap down when the gravity
field of Phobos was virtually nonexistent. The artifi-
cial gravity areas produced by alien engineers had no
effect on the rest of this glorious piece of space rock,
especially not to Commander Taylor who had to do
the stunt piloting.
Back in the UAC days, her job would have been a
lot easier. The boys on the ground would send up a
shuttle and bring us down without the ship even
needing to land. Now the idea was to keep from being
seen. There didn't seem to be any lights or activities
on this side of Phobos. A good sign. I was hoping that
if the moon hadn't been abandoned we might at least
have reached it during a period when most of the bad
guys were away. I wanted to laugh at the thought of a
skeleton crew of ... bonies.
The Big Four didn't need all this special attention.
We were willing to hop down. Paratroopers of the
Infinite! We could suit up and use mini-rockets to
come in like mini-spaceships. With a bit of luck we
wouldn't smash ourselves to a fine red spray--an
appropriate death with Mars hovering over our heads,
like the god of war.
Now for the first time Commander Taylor allowed
herself to be testy with her marine passengers. "This
is no time for a gung-ho kamikaze operation! The
mission is a failure if you die before you meet what's
on the other side of the Gate. We know how impor-
tant your mission is and that the Bova is expendable.
Why do you think we carted a few UAC goodies along
just for you? Finding UAC stuff isn't easy anymore
but you need every advantage. And remember that we
will remain in this area until you return. If Phobos is
too dangerous, we'll wait farther out. When any of
you return from the mission, you will be greeted by
someone ... unless all of us are dead. Meanwhile,
you will have the safest passage to Phobos that it is
within my power to grant. Now not another word
about paratrooping in."
She'd made such a big production out of it that I
took my chance for Albert to finally see a space
skipper do her stuff; and I wasn't averse to getting an
eyeful myself. The landing took a full hour once
Taylor was in position to touch down ever so gently on
the moon. I wasn't nervous, even though "Phobos"
Hidalgo took command with grace. I was starting to
feel more comfortable about him. I wasn't sure what
had changed. He'd had us keep our gear in top
condition aboard the Bova, but he hadn't been neu-
rotic about it. Plus there was only so much exacting
inspection he could do in the near-dark.
Hidalgo was beginning to assume his proper place
in the pecking order as the fire team commander. The
problem he had was that this position should have
been held by the team member with the most combat
experience. For this war, that narrowed down the list
to two living marines: Fly and me. Next came Albert
because he'd fought the monsters with us, close up
and dirty. When Colonel Hooker saddled us with
Hidalgo the test immediately became: is he an asset or
extra baggage? I liked traveling light.
This was the last place for a know-it-all to try to
assume command. Fly and I had the most firsthand
information and we were still shooting in the dark
most of the time. Hidalgo asked the right questions.
He listened. Even though we'd never had the oppor-
tunity to train together to the point where we could
operate as one perfect fighting machine, three of us
did have this seasoning. With some applied intelli-
gence, Hidalgo could be the brain.
Fly and I had worked out the route. Captain
Hidalgo sent us in doing a simple echelon formation,
with Albert taking the point. Then came Fly, then
Hidalgo, and I brought up the rear. I kind of liked it
that my beloved and I were doing all the security
sweep area between us.
Albert was a good marksman and he had a brand
new Sig-Cow. He rilled out his space suit better than
the rest of us. We'd worried there might not be one to
fit him, but the mission had been too well planned for
that. Naturally, Albert's suit was at the bottom of the
Seeing him from behind was like watching him
grow in height as he looked up at Mars. The distant
sun didn't illuminate the scenery too well, but the
Bova would light our way as we searched for the right
facility. Mars looked more orange than red to me; at
least it did in this light. I'm sure that Albert would
have loved it if it had been the color of a spoiled
pumpkin--pie, that is.
It felt strange to deliberately reenter hell.
Half-normal gravity returned. The lights were on.
My heart sank, and not from putting on weight all of a
sudden. Since the gravity zones were still functioning,
I figured the enemy must still be around. This conclu-
sion might not have been entirely rational, though.
The gravity zones had been operating long before the
enemy arrived. It was possible the things couldn't be
turned off. Call it woman's intuition, but I figured the
red meanies would have trashed everything somehow
if they didn't need it anymore.
The next second I was proved 100 percent right. I
hate it when that happens. I saw the flying skull before
anyone else did, zooming in at four o'clock.
Thank God we had our radios on. We'd discussed,
and rejected, the possibility of maintaining radio
silence for security and only talking by putting our
helmets together. If we'd been that paranoid, the
others wouldn't have heard me. In space they hear
you scream only when your radio is on.
Albert nailed the sucker before it could chow down
on the material of his pressure suit. We hadn't had
time to find out what currently passed for air here.
The .30-caliber slugs did the job, and the skull
skidded over to the nearest access-tube ladder. Down
I wasn't the least bit surprised when a moment later
Fly announced, "The test is positive. We can breathe
"Remove helmets," Hidalgo ordered calmly. The
suits were well designed for our purposes. The hel-
mets hung in back, leaving our hands free so that we
wouldn't be impeded while we added to the body
count. Or head count, as the case might be.
"If everything's as we left it," I blurted out after my
first gulp of base air, "we can expect a lot of opposi-
tion before we reach the Gate."
"Take it easy, Corporal Sanders," said Captain
"Yes, sir." He was acting as if he knew his business.
"We'll handle them," he said. "That's why we're
armed with state-of-the-art boom sticks." Another try
at humor. This had started with his friendship with
Lieutenant Riley. I didn't know how long it would
last, but I kind of liked it.
Hidalgo gave the orders. We followed. Of course,
the orders were based on our accurately locating the
We encountered no opposition for the next fifteen
minutes. We did find a functioning lift that appeared
to have been repaired with pieces of a steam demon. I
didn't like the idea of using it but Hidalgo made the
decision. Halfway down the shaft I could see through
a ragged hole in the wall that the ladder I would have
gone down ended in a tangle of spaghetti.
The makings of a reception committee waited for
us at the bottom. If the skull had contacted them
before we wasted it, they might have caused us some
trouble. By this time, I thought I'd seen it all. I was
Occupying the center of the room was an almost
intact spider-mind. All that was missing was the head.
In the smashed dome on top, where normally resided
the evil brain-face, two spinies were doing something.
They almost seemed to be laughing, and I could
understand why Fly called them imps.
They were eating. When one of the imps looked up
from his meal, I could see gray and red splotches on
his brown face. Bits of gore dripped off the white
horns sticking out from his body. Then he lifted one
of his claws, and I saw what was dripping from it.
I was grateful Captain Hidalgo had ordered us to
remove our helmets. I couldn't help throwing up, a
reaction that surprised me. Why should my stomach
churn at the sight of imps devouring a spider-mind?
I'd seen far worse things happen to human beings and
not lost my cookies.
I guess I'd reached a new level of disgust, though I
didn't think there was anywhere lower. The imp saw
us at about the same moment we saw him. Instinc-
tively he threw one of his patented fireballs, but he
forgot he was still holding on to a dripping chunk of
spider tissue. The gory piece of bug brains caught fire,
and the imp was scorched by his own flame.
By now the other imp figured out what was happen-
ing. He was smarter than his brother and did some-
thing I would have thought impossible. The spider's
gun turret rotated in our direction and started spitting
out its venom: 30mm rounds.
We would have been in trouble if it had been an
actual spider-mind. But we had one of Commander
Taylor's presents. While I zigged, Fly zagged. Albert
and Hidalgo did their part by staying alive. The show
belonged to Fly.
I never thought I'd see a BFG 9000 again, the
crown jewel of UAC's weapons division. Three blasts
would take care of a fully operational spider-mind.
One blast proved more than sufficient for the imps
who had themselves a great tank but weren't properly
trained to use it.
"Praise the Lord!" shouted Albert.
"And pass the ammunition," said Fly, sweat bead-
ing on his forehead and a big grin growing under-
"Better than a chain saw," was my on-the-spot
"Regroup," said Hidalgo. "It'll be a shame to lose
that fine weapon when we go through the Gate."
Albert tried for optimism. "Maybe we could leave it
on the other side for when we return?"
"We could never risk that," answered the captain.
"This place is crawling with vermin. We don't want
them to get their claws on this weapon."
None of us said aloud the obvious: If we return.
The plan we'd made with the Bova was "no news is
bad news." By now they knew we weren't alone on
this rock. We'd continue observing radio silence be-
tween ourselves and the ship.
Fly summed up the situation. He's always good at
doing that. "We've seen this place when it was crawl-
ing, Captain. Right now it's almost deserted. I don't
have any idea why or how long it will last, though. It
could be swarming again by this time tomorrow."
"Commander Taylor and Lieutenant Riley know
the risks," he said, which struck me as a little odd.
Seemed to me that the primary subject on the table
right now was the fire team.
"Then we're enjoying good fortune," said Albert--
a bit pompously, I thought. A problem I've always
had when I fall for someone is that I become hyper-
critical. I think Fly has this problem as well.
Hidalgo gave us the word, and we moved on. I was
astonished that I hadn't fired my plasma rifle yet. But
it's wrong to wish for such things. I'm just supersti-
tious enough to believe that you get exactly what you
My opportunity to test my weapon came with the
appearance of a new monster. I hate new monsters.
This one I mistook for a pumpkin. There were plenty
of similarities: big round floating head, one eye, a
gasbag with satanic halitosis.
The differences, partly obscured by a sudden
change in the light, were most annoying. We might
have become a little lazy. We had the best weapons,
and the opposition was thin. Seeing a round thing
come floating around the corner seemed almost too
easy. One lousy pumpkin. Who was going to lay dibs
on it? Who would have the pleasure of hosing it?
Hidalgo's reflexes might have been a little off, as
well. He hadn't experienced Phobos when the shit
storm came down nonstop. Even so, he got off a shot
with his Sig-Cow. Some of the shots connected.
He'd succeeded in getting the thing's attention. It
returned fire. I expected the usual: lightning balls. But
this one had a surprise in its gullet. We were treated to
a stream of flying skulls pouring out of its mouth,
each one as nasty as the one Albert had shot out of the
sky a short time before.
But now the sky was full of them.
The colors started shifting. That was a new
trick. The corridor went from normal light to blue
and then red, distracting us just enough so we
wouldn't notice that this pumpkin was something
other than a pumpkin. As its single eye focused on
me, my only thought was that here we had a larger
than usual pumpkin. As it vomited out the first flying
skull, I still didn't understand what was happening. I
had the dumb idea that it had eaten one of the smaller
heads and couldn't keep it down. (Down what?)
As a second and third skull came zooming out of
the ugly mouth, I started to read the picture. The first
skull reached me before I could bring up the BFG. I
heard Arlene shout, "Fly," just as I did the next best
thing to shooting the little bugger: I kept it from
taking a bite out of my shoulder by swinging around
so that it collided with my helmet. There was a metal-
on-metal sound as it dented the helmet and bounced
off, making itself a perfect target for Hidalgo, who
Around about now we lost count of the skulls that
filled the narrow corridor. It looked as if we'd
knocked over a basket of candy skulls from Mexico's
Day of the Dead celebrations ... but there was noth-
ing sweet about our tormentors.
Hidalgo froze for a few seconds. That was all. A
brief moment of battlefield shock. If we lived, I could
count on Arlene chewing my ear about it. And I could
hear myself answering that we hadn't scored all that
high in the reflexes department on this one. If we
"I'll try for the pumpkin!" I shouted. The BFG
9000 would do the job--if I could just get a clear
shot. The problem wasn't finding an opening through
the skulls--the blast would pulverize them--the
problem was to make sure that Albert was outside the
field of fire.
Meanwhile, the others didn't need to be told to
eliminate the flying skulls. No problem. There was
only a zillion of 'em. Hidalgo proved himself worthy
of command yet again. He didn't say a word. He was
too busy blasting away with his Sig-Cow, taking down
Arlene provided Albert and Hidalgo with a helpful
safety tip: "Don't let them bite you!" She shouted this
over the sound of her plasma rifle. She almost took
down the main problem with her first blast, which
went through three skulls. But this particular pump-
kin was smart. The damned thing floated back around
the corner where we'd first sighted its ugly mug. Then
it kept spewing out skulls from its more protected
position--a clever move, I had to admit.
Of course, the solution was obvious. I realized that
I didn't really need a clear shot for the BFG if I could
just see the target area. I blew away the entire wall and
destroyed the ugly. Then, just for good measure, I
pulled the trigger again. As the debris settled, I
realized that I'd dropped half the skulls with those
two shots, and the others were bumping into
each other in the dust-filled air. This finally set-
tled a question for me: the bastards didn't have ra-
The little voice in the back of my head insisted we
were in too close quarters for using a weapon like the
BFG. I couldn't hear anything else because of the
ringing in my head, so I argued with the voice,
reminding it that once upon a time I'd done a much
crazier thing--I'd used a rocket launcher in an en-
The voice didn't have a good answer to that, and by
then I could hear Arlene cursing a blue streak. She
was bent over Hidalgo, her medikit open. Albert
stood over the two of them, blasting the remaining
skulls out of the corridor. I felt a little dizzy but
managed to stumble over to rejoin the human popula-
tion of hell.
At least one of the skulls had reached the captain
and ripped up his throat something fierce. Hidalgo's
torn space suit had a whole new meaning now:
walking body bag. Arlene was doing what she could,
but there was damned little hope for the captain. It
looked as if we'd be finishing the mission sans officer.
The way Arlene was feverishly working on Hidalgo it
was hard to believe she'd ever talked about spacing
his ass out an airlock. There's no substitute for being
in combat together.
The last skull was either down or had flown the
coop, but Albert remained on guard. I was grateful
that the colors had stopped shifting, and I wondered if
the light show had been part of this superpumpkin's
powers. Whatever the facts might be, I'd become
distinctly prejudiced against round things that floated
through the air. They seemed to live in a permanent
condition of zero-g. That was enough reason to hate
them right there.
As we milled around helplessly, watching Arlene try
to close the wound in Hidalgo's throat, I noticed
Albert tense up. He raised his Sig-Cow to fire at
something that was drifting in the air behind us.
Naturally, I assumed it was another skull.
The last thing I expected to see this side of paradise
was a blue sphere drifting toward us. A gorgeous,
beautiful, welcome blue sphere. One of those miracles
that had saved both my life and Arlene's. A blue
sphere that Albert was seconds away from blowing to
"No!" I shouted, pushing his arm at the same time.
Good thing I acted as I spoke. It was too late to stop
him from pulling the trigger, but I spoiled his aim.
I couldn't remember if Arlene or I had told Albert
about the blue spheres. It was pretty likely we had.
But in the middle of a fight you don't expect the new
guy to hesitate on the off chance it's not an enemy
coming to say hello. It was only dumb luck I was
saved the first time I encountered one.
Luck. Back to luck. How in the name of all the
saints did this baby show up at the precise moment
Hidalgo needed it? Arlene and I had just run across
ours. This one was making a house call.
"It's a good one," I told Albert. "Like an angel. The
blue spheres can heal us."
He lowered his weapon, and I gestured for Arlene to
step back. Not one to waste a precious second, Albert
reloaded. I moved out of the way, too. The blue
sphere descended on Hidalgo, who wasn't the least bit
worried; he'd blacked out from loss of blood.
The sphere burst the moment it touched him,
making a popping sound like a cork coming out of a
bottle. The color became darker as it spread, changing
from sky-blue to a rich purple. Hidalgo was sur-
rounded by a violet haze that became a glistening
liquid on his body and then seeped through his pores.
The ugly hole in his throat closed like two lips pressed
together, and his face flushed as new blood pumped
through his body.
A few minutes later he opened his blue eyes and
regarded us with surprise. "What happened?" he
Arlene did her best to tell him.
He gratefully sipped water from the canteen she
passed to him. "Incredible," he admitted, speaking
more slowly than normal. He sat up against the wall.
Albert continued on his watch.
"We need to move," I said, once again possibly
usurping his prerogatives. I remembered how sleepy
I'd been after receiving the treatment.
"Let's get a move on," he said, struggling to his
feet. "How far do we have to go?"
"Only a few klicks," said Arlene.
We moved out, Albert leading the way again. Hidal-
go, growing stronger with every step, asked the obvi-
ous question as his brain began firing on all cylinders
again: "The blue balls didn't seek the two of you out
when you were here before, did they?"
"No," Arlene and I said in stereo.
"Then why would this one deliberately come to my
We walked in silence. We had no ready answer.
Only more questions. Then I had a thought. That
"When it happened to me, it bugged the hell out of
me," I told Hidalgo. "Even though mine didn't go out
of its way to save my butt. There was an important
piece of information I didn't have then."
Arlene smiled. The old lightbulb clicked on right
over her head. "The aliens who sent the message," she
"Right," I continued. "It never made sense that our
enemies would fabricate these incredible monsters
and then throw in a few Florence Nightingales to
patch us up. Now I know better. The blue spheres are
not here courtesy of the Freds."
"The good guys sent them," marveled Arlene, the
same thought taking up residence in her cranium.
"You were right to call them angels," said Albert.
Hidalgo nodded. "If that's true, then they must
want all of us to make this trip." Unconsciously he
stroked his own throat, where there was not even a
We reached the Gate without encountering any
more opposition. The creepy critters had been busy
playing architect again. I should have expected some-
thing like that, considering how they were constantly
altering the appearance of the different levels.
The Gate was decorated in a sort of late neo-satanic
style. All they'd left out was gargoyles. If they wanted
that last touch, they only had to look in a mirror. The
basic addition appeared to be a huge stone doughnut
jammed into the ground so that it formed a doorway
with the grid right in the middle. All sorts of weird
crap was carved into it.
The monsters had no taste at all. Guess that goes
with being a monster. The dips had put two horns on
top of this horror, one on either side of the "head."
Adding insult to injury, they had placed two big
stupid eyes on the semicircle of stone in relation to
the horns so that even the dumbest grunt would pick
up on the subtle idea: a giant demon head with the
Gateway for its mouth.
I was prepared to laugh out loud, but I thought
better of it. Chortling didn't seem like a very nice
thing to do while a good friend was freaking out.
"Moloch!" Albert screamed. His eyes were wide,
and he was foaming at the mouth.
As a top fire team, we still had a few bugs to iron
Albert was too good a man to lose his grip
now. As his commanding officer, I couldn't stand by
and let him dissolve into a puddle. The team needed a
This was always a danger when taking command in
a dicey situation. The survivors could bond too much.
I had realized the truth of this when I stopped feeling
suicidal. After they pulled me back from my own
dipdunk and told me how the blue angel had saved
me, I was so grateful that I said a prayer. I did this
silently, of course. That way I know God heard me.
I could truly understand Gallatin's reaction to the
sight of the graven image. My parents took me to a
horror film when I was only six, one of the dozens of
movies about the Aztec mummy. The monster didn't
really frighten me; but the sight of young maidens
being sacrificed by evil priests gave me nightmares for
a week. Their idol looked like Moloch.
As I grew older, I began seeking out the image of
Moloch. I found it in the old silent German movie,
Metropolis, and it showed up in a frightening picture
about devil worship. But I'll never forget how effec-
tively it was used in the movie they used to make the
transition from the old series, Star Trek Ten, to the
new one, Star Trek: Exodus.
These strange creatures we fought were apparently
able to crawl inside our minds and extract the most
terrifying images from the human past. Fighting
mirror images of your own nightmares had to be bad
for morale. Sergeant Taggart and Lance Corporal
Sanders were watching me as I watched Gallatin.
Taggart started toward him, but I gave the order not
to touch him.
"Gallatin," I said, keeping my voice low. "Snap out
of it, marine."
He seemed to hear me as if I'd called to him across
a vast gulf. His eyes were glazed. But he stopped
making noises ill befitting a marine.
"Look," I said, pointing at the ground. "There are
no human bones here. There is no fire in the maw
waiting for human slaves to shovel in human food."
There was, in fact, a solitary skull staring at us with
empty sockets, but even the blind could see there was
nothing remotely human about it.
Gallatin calmed down. "I fouled up, sir!" he said in
his old, strong voice. I was damned glad. If words
didn't work, the next step would have been to trade
punches. Gallatin was no coward. He would never cut
and run. If he went nuts and stayed nuts, he'd have to
be put down.
"This is the Gate," said Fly, checking his coordi-
"Why do you think they dressed it up for Hallow-
een?" I asked anyone who wanted to answer.
"It's what they do," Sanders volunteered, keeping
her eye on Gallatin the whole time. I didn't blame
her. So far, their feelings for each other hadn't inter-
fered with the mission. If there was a time for her to
blow it, this would have been it.
"Gives me the creepy crawlies," I admitted.
"It's Lovecraftian," added Sanders.
"Oh, no," said Taggart. "Just don't say it's el-
If I hadn't returned from the dead, thanks to the
blue angel, I would have put a stop to the banter.
Normally I'm a stickler for protocol, but death had
provided me with new insight. (Sanders said I was
only near death, but I know better.) We weren't on
such a tight timetable that we couldn't spare a few
minutes. Up to this point, Taggart and Sanders had
been our guides, but once we stepped through that
portal, they would be no more experienced than the
rest of us. No one had a clue what to expect. We had
orders. Hope was allowed.
"I'd never describe that as eldritch," she threw back
at Taggart. "I'd only observe the lurid shimmering
about the base of the stygian masonry; and how
overhanging our fevered brows leer abhorrent, arcane
symbols threatening our very sanity with portents of
an unwholesome, subterraneous wickedness."
"Well, okay," Taggart said, surrendering. "Just so
long as you don't describe it as eldritch."
This moment of R&R was no excuse to lay off work.
Since the Marine Corps had failed to provide us with
eyes in the backs of our heads, I ordered a modified
defensive diamond. Half of one. All four of us
couldn't very well cover the four cardinal directions.
Two of us had to prepare for the trip. Then we
switched the duo.
My pressure suit was torn around the neck where
the skull-thing had bitten me. Taggart's helmet was
damaged but still usable; the dent in the side did not
prevent his getting it over his head, and the faceplate
wasn't cracked. The only suit likely to leak was mine.
At my query, Taggart repeated his belief that the suits,
weapons, and everything else not of woman born
would not make it through. The preparations might
be a waste of time, but I wasn't going into the
unknown leaving anything undone. We'd be foolish to
Making bets was another thing entirely. The odds
were entirely on Sergeant Flynn Taggart's side. That's
why I asked one last time what it had been like for
him the last time he went through a Gate.
He reported: "I retained consciousness, sir. You
don't worry if your equipment is still in your hands
because you don't have any hands. There's no sensa-
tion of having a body at all. Then suddenly pieces of
you come back. It's like you think of them and you're
whole again; or maybe it's the other way around. Hard
"Were you awake and standing when you reached
the other side?"
We'd covered the same ground before, but we
weren't under attack at the moment. I liked going
through the checklist one last time. And now our time
I gave the command. "Move it, marines!" We
humped into the mouth of Moloch.
At first there was a sensation of moving, of motion,
a light drop, or a dropping into the light ... but it's
hard to see without eyes. We had no hallucinations,
though. Our minds were our own. You can just say no
to hallucinations, but you need a tongue to say no.
Know what I mean?
ESTEBAN HIDALGO: Does anyone hear my voice? I
hear it, but I don't have ears. You didn't say we could
communicate while traveling through the Gate, Ser-
FLYNN TAGGART: Never traveled in a group before,
sir! Arlene and I went separately on the Gate trip
from Phobos to Deimos. The Gates are different from
the short-hop teleports.
ARLENE SANDERS: You can say that again, Fly!
HIDALGO: I've never experienced either. Which do
you prefer, Sergeant?
TAGGART: I'm not sure, sir! Anything that doesn't
require using a stupid plastic key card to pass through
a secret door is fine with me. Last time I was on
Phobos, I really hated that.
HIDALGO: This is annoying enough for me, Ser-
ALBERT GALLATIN: I like being here.
SANDERS: Albert? You don't feel you've been sacri-
ficed to Moloch?
GALLATIN: The opposite. This is wonderful. It's
better than sex.
SANDERS: Well, I'll grant you it's up there.
HIDALGO: What do you think about that, Sergeant
TAGGART: About what, sir?
HIDALGO: Do you think this disembodied condition
is better than sex?
TAGGART: Nothing is better than a clearly deline-
ated chain of command, sir!
HIDALGO: Is that sarcasm, Sergeant?
TAGGART: No, sir!
HIDALGO: I don't like this experience. How much
longer do you expect it to take?
SANDERS: May I answer that, sir?
HIDALGO: You are both veterans of Gate travel,
SANDERS: Time has no meaning here.
TAGGART: There is no here here.
HIDALGO: I was afraid you'd say that.
TAGGART: Since we don't know how far we're travel-
ing, or how fast, there is no way to calculate anything,
GALLATIN: Permission to speak, sir?
HIDALGO: Tell you what. While we are in this
whatever-it-is, we can drop all formalities. No one has
to call me sir. Now, what did you want to ask me?
GALLATIN: If we encounter God, should we address
him as sir?
HIDALGO: In case the answer is no, I'm more com-
fortable with dropping the formalities. Did you hear
HIDALGO: You are good at following orders.
HIDALGO: I'd like to thank all of you for saving my
TAGGART: It was the blue sphere.
HIDALGO: Perhaps you willed it to appear.
SANDERS: That's occurred to me, too.
HIDALGO: Strange to be brought back from the dead
by a creature I didn't see.
SANDERS: While you were unconscious, you didn't
see the face on the sphere.
HIDALGO: I was dead. I saw the light. The sphere
had a face?
TAGGART: I wonder if any of our hosts at the end of
this journey will have a face like that? It didn't look
like any of the doom demons.
TAGGART: We call them that sometimes, after we
found out the invasion was called Doom Day.
GALLATIN: Did you feel that?
SANDERS: Can we feel anything?
GALLATIN: I felt something warm. I feel as if I'm
back on the Bova . . . weightless. Must have a body to
SANDERS: Wait. I feel something. But it's cool, not
warm. I feel as if I'm in free fall, also.
HIDALGO: Maybe our journey is nearing its end.
NOT HIDALGO-TAGGART-SANDERS-GALLATIN: Your
journey ended a long time ago. You wouldn't be
having a conversation if you were in transit.
HIDALGO: What? Who's that?
TAGGART: That's not a voice.
SANDERS: It's not an identity--not one of us.
GALLATIN: Are you a spirit?
NOT HIDALGO-TAGGART-SANDERS-GALLATIN: We are
the reception committee. You had a long journey, a
long sleep. You are only now returning.
TAGGART: But we are experiencing what happens
toward the end of Gate travel.
NOT H-T-S-G: No, you are remembering the sensa-
tions accompanying the transitional state. The jour-
ney is over. You have arrived. To reassemble, you
must begin with your last memories. You must be
aided through the psychotic episode.
HIDALGO: Psychotic . . .
NOT H-T-S-G: The fantasy. The death fantasy. Do
not concern yourselves. Reassembly is.
HIDALGO: If we have arrived somewhere, may we be
NOT H-T-S-G: Here the many meet and diplomacy
greets. The True Aesthetic welcomes you. Sirs, sirs,
TAGGART: Something tells me we've been talking on
a party line.
I've never been able to explain to Arlene why
I'm so convinced there's a God. She lives in a world of
logic and science. Mysteries bother her. They are
problems to be solved; and she insists on a certain
type of answer in advance. Her stubbornness only
makes me love her more.
I'm not stupid. I realize the object hanging over my
head is no angelic being. But lying on my back and
watching the slow movements of the gossamer crea-
ture with flashing jewel eyes I feel a deep calm. The
butterfly things that flutter around its flower-shaped
head are attracted to the eyes, as I am attracted. The
gossamer being eats the small flitting creatures.
This flying alien is no animal. It is a genius of its
kind. But it pays no attention to me. If poor Dr.
Ackerman had lived and joined us on this mission, he
would have fulfilled his life's ambitions. The alien
base contains a remarkable collection of geniuses; it
was a sort of a galactic Mensa.
I haven't been able to find out where we are, but I'll
keep asking. The only problem with this place is that
most of the gossamer creatures completely ignore us.
That's one development I never expected--aliens
who are simply bored with us.
The bad part is how their attitude rubs off. I'm
bored with us. If this keeps up, I'll lose my desire to
shoot things. Never mind what that means for my
career in the marines. We Mormons believe in a
warrior god, warrior angels, warriors, but there's not a
single fiery sword anywhere in this whole gigantic
habitat. What's a fella to do?
I know. I'll make friends with some of the natives.
There must be somebody in this burg who'll show a
new guy a good time.
"It's good to have our bodies again," said Arlene
over a cup of H2O and a plate of little red eyeballs.
They weren't really eyeballs. But then, they weren't
really red either.
"Not bad," I agreed. "I think I lost a few pounds."
"Fly, there aren't any extra pounds on you."
I shook my head. "Our vacation in Hawaii put a
few extra pounds on the old carcass."
"Not that I ever noticed," she said in her friendliest
voice. "You know, Fly, I feel as if I'm on vacation
So did I. It was hard to believe we were on an alien
base God knew where. We were sitting at a table
floating in the air between us. We were not in zero-g,
but the table sort of was. I'd never sat in a more com-
fortable chair. It altered its shape to accommodate
my slightest move. We'd taken our pills and were now
enjoying the best human dinner available to us. The
"Captain Hidalgo is not on vacation," I pointed
out. There had been a problem with him. The strange
entity we called a medbot had told us that Hidalgo's
brain and body were not yet in harmony, but they
would be. Whenever we asked the medbot how much
time it would take for Hidalgo to be on his feet again,
the eye of the robot seemed to wink at us, and the
thing produced equations in the air. To be honest, I
wasn't completely certain it was a machine, but
Arlene insisted it had to be.
Arlene understood one statement, which put her
kilometers ahead of Yours Truly. She said that in
quantum physics there is no such thing as absolute
time; there is only time relative to the location and
speed of the observer.
I'd settle for finding out how much longer it would
take for Hidalgo to rejoin us. There was no one I
could ask about when Albert might come out of his
Arlene seemed to read my thoughts again. Maybe in
this place she really could. "Albert's not on vacation
"At least he's all right."
"Physically, yes, but I've never seen him in such a
strange mood before."
"He told me he was meditating."
She shook her head. "He told me he was trying to
"That may be the same thing with these critters. We
could spend the remainder of our lives attempting to
adjust and never get anywhere."
I remembered coming back into my body. When we
had eyes again, I saw the naked forms of Arlene,
Albert, and Hidalgo. We weren't alone. There were
aliens with us, but my reactions were off. I didn't even
worry about whether the aliens had weapons or were
menacing us in any manner. I'd undergone a change
in perspective unlike anything that happened when I
Gate-traveled before. I perceived the naked bodies of
my fellow human beings with a completely new
objectivity. I figured the difference had more to do
with where we were than how we arrived.
I didn't feel desire for Arlene. I wasn't judgmental
about the bodies of the two other men. I didn't feel
any locker-room embarrassment or competition. But
I wasn't indifferent. I was curious about the human
body, as though I were seeing it for the first time. I felt
the same way about the aliens, whose strange forms
were suddenly no stranger than the fleshy bipeds
called human beings.
The oddity of the moment was the medbot, who
was all the reception committee we rated. It looked
like a barber pole with an attitude. When Hidalgo
collapsed, none of us rushed to his aid. We were still
in that weird frame of mind, which I can describe
only as objectivity. For the moment there was no
strike team of marines.
The medbot scooped up Hidalgo's prostrate form,
but it didn't tell us anything about his condition. The
weird thing was that none of us asked. If the room had
been crawling with spider-minds, our trigger fingers
wouldn't have twitched; there was nothing to aim
Slowly we had found ourselves again. It was like
returning to a house you'd left in childhood and
exploring each room again as an adult. Only this
house was your own body. As we became less alien to
ourselves, the real aliens seemed stranger.
Arlene had the guts to make the first move. Too bad
she didn't accomplish anything.
"I've always said you're the bravest man I know,
Arlene. I was still staring into my navel when you
tried to strike up a conversation with the . . . others."
"Well, you've always been a navel man," she said.
Catching my expression, she added, "Didn't you hear
the e, Fly? You're too much of a marine to fit into any
Yep, we were back to normal. That didn't seem to
be getting us anywhere in this galactic Hilton they
called a base. Maybe we shouldn't be complaining.
We were alive. The medbot had seen to that and had
answered most of our medical questions. There were
some questions it simply couldn't answer, though,
about where and what and who and why. These were
outside its field of competence. But I'd find someone
to tell us where we were.
The medbot dodged only one question, when Ar-
lene asked how come it spoke flawless English. "The
English of this unit is not without flaw," it said fussily.
When she came right out and asked how come it
spoke English of any kind, it said, "Guild secret," and
changed the subject back to our biological questions!
We had plenty of those.
"How do you think this food compares to MREs?"
I asked Arlene as she chomped down on one of the
little balls that looked like eyes to me but reminded
her of a different portion of human anatomy.
"Heated or cold?"
"Cold, like we had on the Bova"
She shrugged. "Close call. But I'm not criticizing
the chef. We can eat this."
"The medbot says the provider of the feast wants to
meet us. And he's not really a chef; he's more a
She took another healthy gulp of water. We'd both
become quite fond of water.
"I'll meet with anyone," she said, and I nodded.
When she addressed the various creatures surround-
ing us at our arrival they had turned their backs on
us--the ones who had backs--and wandered off. At
first I thought we were being snubbed. But that wasn't
it at all. The show was over. They'd seen what they
wanted and had better things to do.
"Do you think the chef is one of the aliens who sent
"God, I hope so!" When someone as atheistic as
Arlene invoked the name of God, I knew she was
speaking from the heart. I felt the same way. What
could be more pointless than traveling so far--and
one of these damned aliens was going to tell me how
far if I had to wrestle it out of him--and find no one
on the other end who gave a flip?
"We know the chef helped the medbot work out the
details of our body chemistry, so it's a safe bet he
wants us alive."
The first thing we learned from the animated barber
pole was that everyone on the base was a carbon-
based life-form. For all I knew, there wasn't any other
kind. So far, everyone we'd met was also the same on
both sides of the invisible vertical line or, as Arlene
would say, bilaterally symmetrical. I was grateful for
two things: Earth-normal gravity and reentering the
oxygen breathers' club! But that didn't mean we
might not run into some other problems. Hidalgo sure
So it made sense that they'd kept all of us on ice, in
some sort of limbo, until they were sure we'd be all
right in the environment of the base. When Arlene
and I went through the Phobos Gate to Deimos we
were traveling between artificial zones that were
terrestrial-friendly. That was good news for us. When
you're naked at the other end, you better hope you
can breathe the air and your skin can take it. I was
damned glad they could handle human specimens
here. I just hoped Captain Hidalgo would pull
"Don't you like the food?" Arlene asked, noticing
that I'd left half my meal unfinished.
"It's okay. The truth is, I'm not really hungry. My
stomach spent so much time in zero-g aboard the
Bova that it's taking its time returning to normal. Plus
I'll let you in on something."
"What?" she asked, leaning forward conspiratori-
"Practice makes perfect. They'll improve at making
food for us."
She stretched like a cat. "Fine with me," she said.
"Who would have thought the hardest part of keeping
us alive would be feeding us?"
The medbot had sounded proud when it rattled off
the information. Their first analyses had told them
most of what they needed to know, but not every-
thing. They knew we needed calories, proteins, amino
acids, vitamins, but they did not know the proper
combinations or amounts! The big problem for our
hosts was figuring out how to synthesize the amino
acids we eat.
This was a subject about which I was plenty igno-
rant. Ever since I started blowing away imps and
zombies and ugly demons of all descriptions, my
education had been improving. Fighting monsters
must be the next best thing to reading your way
through the public library. They both beat going to
college, if I could judge from the usual butthead who
thought he was hot snot because he dragged part of
the alphabet behind his name.
The medbot was a bit technical in its non-flawless
English but "Dr. Sanders" helped me pick up the
basic points. The alien chef took some of his own food
and injected it with human amino acid combinations.
The first attempts were served to a high-tech garbage
disposal. Arlene rambled a little about random com-
binations of four amino acids, then reached her
The ropy things on the barber pole began to throb,
and out of the top came a bottle of white pills, a
present from the alien gourmet. We'd have to take
those pills if we wanted to live.
The pills were blockers. While experimenting con-
tinued in the higher cuisine, the pills would increase
the safety margin. Where had we heard that before?
They would chemically block anything harmful.
Without them we were doomed.
Naturally I wanted to meet our benefactor as much
as Arlene did. We'd exhausted the possibilities of
conversation with the medical barber pole. So when
the medbot told us we could meet our favorite alien
we were eager to tote that barge, lift that bale, swim
the highest mountain . . . whatever.
The medbot's instructions were clear. "The next
time you eat, stay in the place where you eat." So we
did. We didn't have any important date to break.
Arlene had tried to talk Albert into joining us, but his
appetite seemed even smaller than mine. He was off
meditating again. Seemed like brooding to me. I
wouldn't call it sulking. Hidalgo was still under
medical supervision. So Arlene and I were the ones
who attended the great meeting between worlds.
"Look!" said Arlene, stifling a gasp.
The chef was coming. The chemist was coming.
The alien who gave a rat's ass about us was striding up
the silver walkway, and he seemed eager to meet us.
We could tell from his very human smiles. Two
smiles, exactly the same, because he was a they--
identical twins moving in unison. They were more
than twins. They were mirror images of each other.
Arlene started to laugh. I tried to shush her, but it
was no good. "I can't help it," she said.
"Arlene, this is important. Put a sock in it."
"I can't help it," she insisted. "They look . . . they
look like Magilla Gorilla!"
Alone. Silence. He drifted.
It was different than before; he had not been alone
before. Now there were no voices. The last words had
been a metallic voice complaining there was a slight
problem. Now there was nothing.
Then there was sound. He heard her plainly. His
dead wife was paying him a visit. Rita. She was dead.
Sliced and diced by a steam demon back on Earth.
She couldn't be here.
"Esteban," she whispered in the dark, as she used
to do when she woke up before him shortly before
"You're not here," he told her. It was the first time
he'd heard his own thoughts since he was cut off from
the others and placed in this true limbo.
"You've summoned me."
"You're a dream," he replied morosely. "I don't
want to talk to you. I want to meet the aliens."
"But I'm the alien, Esteban. The only alien you've
ever really confronted."
"No, I've fought aliens. Red devils. Shot the grin-
ning skulls and been ripped by their razor-sharp
"You felt my teeth first. Felt my lips."
"Go away. Leave me alone, you traitor. I must
return to my men. To my men and Sanders. They
need me. I must complete my mission among the
Rita's voice was like a song he'd heard one too
many times. "I was your friend."
"Never that. You were my wife."
She was sad. "You didn't try to be my friend. I
thought you didn't love me. So I didn't want to have
your alien growing inside me."
Anger filled his mind, and he was nothing now
except his mind. Cold. Hot. The desire to hurt. To fire
a chain gun. To wield a chain saw. To fire a rocket that
would obliterate all memories of his marriage. The
steam demon hadn't been able to do that.
"Please leave me alone," he pleaded. "I must
concentrate on the mission. Discipline. Responsibili-
ty. Command. Must return to the team. Save the
Earth. Destroy the enemy. Save . . . loved ones."
"Love," she repeated. "Part of love is forgiveness."
"You killed our--"
"You murdered the--"
"Dead!" She shouted the last word. "Like our alien,
I'm dead. You'll be dead too, if you don't open
yourself to new experiences. You must know what
you're fighting for. You can't just fight against, other-
wise the blue sphere shouldn't have bothered saving
Hidalgo heard himself say, "I was bleeding to
death. Why should I be saved and finish the journey
only to die at the moment of success?"
He felt his tongue move in his mouth. He felt his
throat swallow. He had a body again. Now if he could
only find out what they had done with his eyes so he
could open them.
"I'm sorry, Fly," I said, finally regaining control.
After encountering so many terrible faces, I was
shocked to see something so friendly and funny. I
stopped laughing. But the aliens still looked like
To describe one was to describe the other. The
heads were large, like a gorilla's, with huge foreheads.
The eyes were wide-set. The nose was cute, like a little
peanut. Their hair was walnut-brown. They had a
kind of permanent five-o'clock shadow, like the cari-
catures of the first president of the United States to
have his name on a moon plaque: Richard M. Nixon.
Their complexion was a yellowish green; maybe they
had a little copper in their blood.
Their bodies were massive and looked strong. The
arms were a bodybuilder's delight. They were longer
than a human's; I'd bet they were exactly the right
proportions for a gorilla. Then again, I might still be
trying to justify my reaction; the forearms bulged too
much for the simian comparison. They were exactly
like cartoons--I thought of Popeye the Sailor and
Alley Oop. I couldn't figure out how Fly had kept
The big chest seemed even larger compared to the
narrow waist. I couldn't help noticing a detail that Fly
would probably miss: the tailoring of their clothes was
first-rate. They wore a sort of muted orange flight suit
with lots of vest pockets. Except for all the pockets,
the suits were surprisingly similar in design to
standard-issue combat suits, Homo sapiens model.
Some of the aliens didn't wear clothes at all, or if they
did, I couldn't tell. It was reassuring to find these
similarities to ourselves in our new-found friends.
They even had cute little combat boots so I couldn't
check on how far the gorilla comparison actually
There was no doubt about these guys being friends.
"Welcome to you," they said in unison. All that was
missing was a reference to the lollipop guild. There
was some serious English teaching going on here.
"Are you brothers?" Fly asked before I could.
"We are of the Klave," they said.
"Can you speak individually?" I asked.
"Yes," they said in unison.
I was good. I didn't laugh. While I was working to
keep a straight face, Fly took command of the situa-
tion. He stood up from the relaxichair, which seemed
to sigh as he departed, and touched one member of
the dynamic duo.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"We are of the Klave."
He repeated the procedure with the next one and
received the same answer. Then he followed up:
"That's your race? Your, uh, species?"
Magilla number one looked at Magilla number two.
I think they were deciding which one would speak so
we wouldn't suffer through the stereo routine again.
One of them answered: "The Klave R Us."
The other took his turn. "Going to a trillion less.
Coming from a hundred more."
A general would like slightly better information. I
joined Fly. He was on one side of them so I took the
other, effectively bracketing them. Now we had a
mÊnage Á quatre.
I touched the one nearer to me and asked, "Do you
have a name separate from the other?"
"Separate?" he asked. Apparently there were some
problems with the English lessons.
"This part of we?" asked mine. I nodded.
They put their heads together. They weren't doing
any sort of telepathy. These guys were whispering the
same sentence. Sounded like a tire going flat.
Then they looked up at the same time. Mine spoke
first: "After looking to your special English ..."
"Americanian," Fly's gorilla picked up the sen-
"We are giving ourselves to a name," mine finished.
Then we stood there like four idiots waiting for
someone to say something. We'd succeeded in getting
them to speak separately, but now they played
sentence-completion games. What the hell, at least
they gave themselves a handle: "We are Sears and
Roebuck. We are your friend. We will take the battle
to all enemies, and together we fight the Freds."
Alone. Silence. She drifted down deserted streets.
In the late afternoon the temperature dropped
quickly. Jill put her windbreaker back on, but she was
still cold. She didn't like coffee, but she was glad to
have the hot cup in her hand; and she needed the
caffeine. Swirling the remains in the Styrofoam cup,
she looked thoughtfully at the light brown color that
came from two powdered creams. But it still tasted
bitter, just like coffee. At least she had managed to
find food in the abandoned grocery store.
The sun was at a late afternoon slant, making
objects caught in the light stand out from their
surroundings. She was grateful she had sunglasses.
She was less grateful that she was lost. Something
had gone wrong with Ken's plan. He'd talked the
captain of the sub into meeting her, but only if she
arrived on schedule. She hadn't. The sub was long
gone by now. Captain Ellison couldn't be expected to
endanger his crew any longer than necessary.
Left to her own devices, as usual, Jill worked her
way back to L.A., where the first sight greeting her was
a zombie window washer. The thing saw her with its
watery eyes and began shambling in her direction,
brandishing a plastic bottle full of dirty water. Jill was
fresh out of ammo.
She hated to run, especially from a zombie, the very
bottom of the monster food chain. But running was a
lot better than being groped by those rotting hands
with the jagged yellow fingernails. So she hauled ass.
A normal zombie might not run very fast. This one
didn't have the energy to do anything but curse. It
wasn't until Jill was three blocks away that she
wondered if maybe the creature really wasn't a zom-
bie. The thought that some homeless person had been
missed by both sides in the war made Jill's skin crawl.
Jeez, it was possible. The zombies might not notice
a bum, especially if he'd been sleeping in the right
garbage and had a sour odor on him. The big mon-
sters might assume he was a zombie, and any humans
coming through the area would think so too.
The idea made her literally sick. She threw up and
covered herself in an odor like that of sour lemons,
which would be useful if she needed to pass for a
zombie herself. She looked bad enough. She hadn't
slept in days. The circles under her eyes and the
graveyard pallor of her skin gave her a living-dead
She didn't like the sick feeling in her gut. A drug-
store sign beckoned. She went in, hoping to find
something that would settle her stomach.
Jill wasn't so exhausted that she forgot to take
precautions. She took out her piece even though it was
empty. Always a chance she could bluff her way out of
trouble if she encountered a human foe.
The first tip-off was the clean floor. An abandoned
store would have been a disgusting mess, but this
place was spotless. Broken windows had been
boarded up. She felt like kicking herself that she
hadn't picked up on so obvious a clue from outside.
Then she heard low voices. Unmistakably human.
Not broken bits and pieces of language repeated
without meaning. Whoever they were, they sure as
hell weren't zombies. For one thing, zombies didn't
listen to really bad classic alternative rock.
What sort of people were in enemy-occupied terri-
tory? They could only be guerrillas or traitors. She
examined her surroundings more closely. The origi-
nal contents of the store shelves were missing. She'd
made a bad choice as far as her stomach was con-
Large boxes stood in place of a drugstore's normal
stock. Shafts of light from the setting sun slid past the
boarded windows and illuminated the box next to her
knee. She looked inside and saw that it contained
bottles of a nutrient solution made from hydrogen
She almost whistled but stopped herself. It would
be a good idea to find out if the voices belonged to
friend or foe. She had a sinking feeling they were the
enemy. This stuff could be used in the monster vats,
or in some stage of the creatures' development.
She'd find out while there was daylight. For all of
her adult accomplishments, Jill was little-girlish
enough to tiptoe without making a sound. On little
cat feet, she crept over to an air vent where she could
hear the voices much better.
Two men were talking in the next room. She
couldn't see them, but she heard every word, loud and
"The masters say we will inherit the Earth," said
the deeper voice.
"They've already taken care of the meek," replied
the higher voice, snickering. He sounded like Peter
Lorre out of an old horror movie.
Jill didn't need them to spell it out: these were
human traitors. The real McCoy. These dips hadn't
crawled out of any vat. She was shocked that these
human bad guys couldn't come up with a better name
for the Freds than "the masters." Really . . .
"I was at the general's briefing," said the deep
voice. "He told us the resistance is so desperate
they've started a propaganda campaign to convince
people that the masters have enemies elsewhere in the
"Yeah, I heard that, too." The other one snickered.
"The masters are the only life besides us. They've told
us. Except for life they create, of course. That's why
we're so important to them; we're the only other
intelligent life in the galaxy."
Jill had heard enough. Fly had often asked what she
would do if she got a crack at human traitors. She'd
wondered about that, too. Now she had her chance to
Dr. Ackerman thought Jill was a genius. As young
as she was, she already knew there was a reality
beyond cyberspace, and that reality was just as impor-
tant when it wasn't virtual! She had many interests--
like chemistry, for instance.
While Tweedledumb and Tweedledee continued
stroking each other, Jill checked the contents of the
other boxes. The enemy was using this drugstore as a
place to stockpile . . . everything Jill needed to make
The traitors were still chatting and playing their
lousy music, making enough noise to cover the
sounds of Jill's makeshift chemistry set. They didn't
even hear her setting up the portable battery-powered
fan next to the vent. She combined the ingredients
and started them cooking. Then she stood well back
from the deadly cyanide gas, covering her mouth with
a rag she'd found in the crate with the fan.
The last words she heard from the traitors came
from the deep voice before it wheezed, coughed, and
choked. "The masters say the Earth is the most
important place in the galaxy to them right now," he
said, "and we're in the center of the action."
As Jill left the drugstore, she looked up at the
darkening sky. "You're on your way to Phobos now.
After that you'll go so far away I'll probably never see
any of you again. I did those two creeps for you.
Good-bye, Albert, Arlene . . . Fly."
"Earth is not very important."
"Come again?" asked Arlene.
Sears and Roebuck didn't pick up on her hurt tone.
They were simply answering my question with unfail-
ing honesty. I wondered if all the Klave were like this.
"They're not passing value judgments, Arlene," I
said. "If the facts offend our pride, it's not their
If looks could kill, my best buddy would have fried
Fly on a stick. "Don't patronize me," she said--
which was the furthest thing from my mind. "I was
surprised, that's all. Why would the Freds produce a
ton of damned monsters and flood our solar system
with them if Earth is not important?"
"Don't ask me, Arlene. Ask them."
We turned to Sears and Roebuck. They said noth-
ing. So Arlene carefully repeated her diatribe for
them. Boy, did they have an answer.
"Earth is skirmish-zoned. They don't care go to
humans. Galaxy is setting for whole game. You'd call
galactic diplomacy by other means. No war goes to
Earth. Your space is too small. Earth is move in game.
All are having you here because you matter. All parts
matter to the Klave. Whole game matters to the . . ."
He used a word to denote the Freds. There was no
English equivalent, and a Klavian word slipped in. To
human ears, it was noise.
"Is it only the Klave who fight the Freds?" asked
Arlene. Sears and Roebuck understood well enough
when we spoke of the enemy. For whatever alien
reason, they didn't call them Freds. I hoped I could
persuade them to start using all our words if only so I
wouldn't have to listen to a sound that put my teeth
In answering Arlene, they used another nails-on-
the-blackboard sound to describe the larger group of
aliens of which the Klave formed only a small part.
"All here are opposed to %$&*@@+."
"Please," said Arlene, "could you call them Freds?
That's a word we can understand."
"Freds," said our new pal.
"See, that didn't hurt." I thanked them.
"Sears and Roebuck are real gentlemen," said Ar-
S&R smiled. It was great finding aliens who could
smile even if it happened to be their version of a
frown (for all we could tell). We didn't ask. We didn't
want to mess with it. They were in there pitching.
They made another noble attempt in their peculiar
English to give us an education in galactic history.
I never dreamed there was so much going on behind
the attack on humanity. Suddenly the zombies, imps,
demons, ghosts, flying skulls, pumpkins, superpump-
kins, hell-princes, steam demons, spider-minds,
spider-babies, fatties, bonies, fire eaters, and weird-
ass sea monsters all seemed trivial in the grand
scheme being laid out for us. The monsters we fought
were bit players. And why not? Humanity was a bit
player in the galactic chess game being played out by
the Freds and the message aliens.
And suddenly it was clear why we hadn't been
greeted by a brass band and presented with a key to
the city when we arrived. We were not big time. But it
was also evident why we had been invited. We were in
the bush leagues, but at least we were in the game.
Turned out it wasn't only the old mud ball that
didn't rate star treatment. There were a lot more
important bases than this one. I shook my head. I was
just a poor old Earth boy on his trip to the big burg.
This was the galactic base to me, even if it happened
to be in the boondocks.
When I told Sears and Roebuck how I felt, they
looked at each other as if they were checking out a
reflection in a mirror. Then they said, "You will be
informed soon-time about location. You won't go to
boondocks, in your words."
They returned to their main theme. Once again I
was impressed that the Klave seemed concerned
about all life victimized by the baddies. So it made
sense that we did rate special treatment from Sears
and Roebuck. They were the most noble aliens on this
whole colossal alien base, but they looked as if they'd
just stepped out of a kid's cartoon.
A cartoon I had somehow missed when I was
growing up. Arlene was younger than I was, but she'd
seen a lot more popular entertainment. She asked me
why I was so culturally deprived. I knew how to shut
her up: "I was busy preparing mentally, physically,
and spiritually for my role as cosmic savior. I had no
time to waste time on frivolous media entertain-
ment." That showed her.
I couldn't wait to find Albert and tell him the good
news. As soon as Captain Hidalgo was on his feet
again, he'd have to be briefed. Our mission was a
success, after all. We'd found aliens who didn't want
the Freds to occupy our solar system. It might not
mean any more to them than a village or town in one
of Earth's major wars, but we at least counted at that
level. We rated Third World treatment by superior
The little voice in the back of my head suggested
that Director Williams would be more amused by this
discovery than either Admiral Kimmel or Colonel
Hooker would be. Hell, I'd like to see the faces of the
human sellouts if they heard where they rated in the
cosmic scheme of things.
Then that old mind reader Arlene asked S&R the
googolplex-dollar question: "So what are you guys
An hour later, by Earth standard time, we still
hadn't grasped what S&R were trying to get across.
Their odd syntax wasn't the problem. We weren't
picking up on the concepts.
We finally received assistance from an unexpected
quarter: Albert joined us; he came swimming through
the air. Not really, of course. It only looked that way.
The base had gravity zones and free-fall areas. What-
ever the Freds could do on Phobos, the message aliens
could do better! Albert was simply taking the escala-
tor. He had drifted up near the ceiling of our section.
Then he slowly drifted down on a transition-to-
gravity escalator! That's what it was. He moved his
arms and legs as if he were doing the breast stroke,
grinning at us the whole time.
I hoped he was over his sulk or pout or whatever it
was. I didn't buy the meditation bit. He seemed eager
to rejoin his buds. And he'd picked a good moment to
meet Sears and Roebuck.
The moment Albert touched down, he took out a
little purple ball and squeezed it. A duplicate of
Albert appeared. I'd seen those toys before. We
thought we had virtual reality on the old mud ball.
The doppelganger matched Albert's movements per-
"What's this about?" I asked.
"Trust me," he said. "I'll tell you later." For the rest
of the time he was with us, his three-dimensional
image aped his movements a few feet away.
Arlene shrugged. So what if Albert was playing
games to deal with his boredom? She made the
introductions: "Sears and Roebuck, I'd like you to
meet another member of our team."
The Magilla Gorilla faces grinned more widely than
I thought possible. Looked as if their heads were in
danger of splitting open. "We encountered these unit
in times going before," they said.
Well, I'd be dipped in a substance they recycled
very effectively here at the alien base. I may have
judged Albert's meditations too harshly. He waved at
S&R, and both of them waved back.
"We're discoursing the wordage but not reaching
home plate," said S&R.
Albert helped himself to a glass of water from our
table. "You must have asked them for background,"
Arlene playfully pulled at Albert's sleeve. He
seemed very comfortable in the shimmering robes
he'd selected. The designs looked slightly oriental to
me. "Have you talked to them before?"
"Do you understand what the war is about?" she
Albert sat in one of the chairs we'd vacated. "Near
as I can make out, they're having a religious war."
S&R had mentioned diplomacy. It would have been
nice if that word had registered on Arlene. She
snorted when Albert said the r-word. "I'd expect that
from you," she said with disdain.
"Arlene!" I jumped in.
"It's all right, Fly," Albert jumped right back. "I
can understand why Arlene would react that way."
"Excuse me," she interjected, but despite the words
she didn't sound polite. "Please don't talk about me
in the third person when I'm right here."
Albert wasn't in a mood to back off. "We've been
doing that with Sears and Roebuck, and they're right
The man had a point. S&R politely waited for one
of us to address them directly. Otherwise, they didn't
budge and didn't make a peep.
Albert regarded Arlene with a strong, steady gaze
I'd never noticed from him before. I definitely needed
to rethink my views on meditation.
"Arlene," he began softly, "it might not be possible
for us to understand why these advanced beings are in
conflict. They have such advanced technology and
powers that they can't possibly need territory or each
other's resources. The war is some sort of galactic
chess game. It may not be possible for us to grasp the
root reasons for the war. I think the best we can hope
is to make a good analogy. With my beliefs, the best I
can do is compare the situation to two different
branches of the Southern Baptists, or, say, the Sunni
Muslims and Shiite Muslims. From the inside, there
is a huge chasm. From the outside, the distinctions
may seem insignificant. If you find my analysis unac-
ceptable, we will say nothing more about it, but I
would like basic courtesy, if possible."
For the first time in their relationship, Albert gave it
to my best buddy good and hard. At least, it was the
first time I ever noticed. Albert allowed himself to use
a patronizing tone. I thought Arlene had it coming.
Apparently so did she. "I'm sorry, Albert," she
said. "Your explanation helps. You know how impa-
tient I am, but that's no excuse to be rude."
"Thank you," he said.
This seemed like a good time to pick up the ball and
run with it. "Sears and Roebuck," I addressed them.
"Yes?" they replied.
"Did any of the conversation we just had help, uh,
clarify the problem? Unless you weren't listening, that
is. We weren't trying to have a private conversation
right in front of you."
"Well, you know what I mean. Private! I mean, you
have such a large English vocabulary . . . however
you picked it up."
"Free-basing," they said. We all did a big collective
"Huh?" So they tried again: "Data-basing. We draw
on large dictionary stores. Private is the lowest rank in
the Earth army."
"Yes, well," I floundered around. "We'll return to
that subject at a later time." I stared at their comic
faces. They stared right back. "I've forgotten what I
asked you," I admitted.
"Religion unclear going to object-subject," said
Sears and Roebuck. "We are sorry we fail the expora-
"Explanation," I corrected them without thinking
about it. Jesus, I was becoming used to their sen-
tences. "I don't mean to criticize you," I continued,
"but we're not getting anywhere. Thanks for trying to
"Criticize," said S&R. "Movie critics. Book critics.
Art critics. Science-fiction reviewers ..."
Albert saw the direction before I did. "Is that it?"
he asked, eagerly. "Do you have aesthetic differences
with the Freds?"
"War going on to hundreds of thousands of years,"
said S&R. "Go to planetary systems change. Different
races are subjects, objects."
"How did it begin?" asked Arlene, suddenly as
enthusiastic as Albert.
"You call them books," said S&R. "The Holy
"Texts," I did it again, almost unconsciously.
"Texts," they said. I felt like giving them an A-plus.
"Books are twelve million years old. The Freds disa-
gree with us."
"With the Klave?" I asked.
"All of us. Not only Klave-us, but all that are here
us. We bring you for going to the war."
"Literary criticism," marveled Arlene. I wasn't
about to forget that she'd been an English major for a
Albert clapped like a little kid who'd just been given
the present he always wanted--understanding. "The
two sides are literary critics, conquering stellar sys-
tems to promote their own school of criticism. I love
it. It's too insane not to love. What is their primary
disagreement over the twelve-million-year-old
S&R gave us one of their best sentences: "The Freds
want to take the books apart."
Arlene screamed, but it was a happy kind of
scream. "Oh, my God," she said, "they're deconstruc-
"You'll have to fill me in on what that
means," Fly whispered in my ear.
I was still reeling from the implications of what I'd
blurted out. I looked at Fly with the blankest stare in
my repertoire. "You mean deconstructionism?" I
I wasn't about to admit to the great Fly Taggart that
I had very little idea. I didn't complete my college
work. I was afraid that if I started collecting degrees
in the liberal arts it would handicap me for life in the
real world. But I'd picked up a few buzzwords. Time
to bluff my way through.
"Deconstructionism is what it sounds like," I said.
"Professors of literature take apart texts and examine
"How's that different from what other professors
do?" Fly wanted to know. He was so prejudiced
against the typical product of our institutions of
higher learning that I wondered why he was pumping
me at all. I'd become the official exception to his
belief that college damaged the mind.
One more comment and I'd exhaust my store of
information on the subject: "Well, they come up with
different meanings than the authors intended." I'd
shot my bolt. Before Fly could ask for elaboration and
examples, I threw myself on the mercy of the aliens.
"I'm sure Sears and Roebuck can take it from there,"
I said, "with all the information about our world
they're carrying in their handsome heads."
"Nice try," said Albert as he endeavored to keep a
straight face. I wouldn't put it past him to know
plenty about the subject, but I'll bet he was still sore
about my sarcasm earlier. Dumb Arlene! Dumb.
Besides, what we really needed to know was what was
in those old books, if we could understand them at all.
Sears and Roebuck did not rescue me. Their heads
were full of information about our language, but they
had a talent for confusion at the most inappropriate
times. Like now.
"Deconstruction," they said, "is the article 'de'
preceding the noun, 'construction,' as in deconstruc-
tion of a house."
Great. They were doing a Chico Marx routine! Fly
and Albert both lost it about then and broke out
laughing. Well, if they could laugh at Magilla Gorillas,
so could I. Our alien buds didn't join in, but I don't
think they were offended. They didn't understand our
humor. Not surprising, really. Humor is the last part
of a culture to be internalized by an outsider, if even
then. If there was such a phenomenon as Klave
humor, we were just as unlikely to pick up on it.
Albert came to the rescue. I wondered how much
time he'd spent with S&R while I thought he was off
brooding. He made it simple: "We're talking about a
literary theory. The Freds have one. Your side has
another. If you look up deconstructionism in a histo-
ry of literature you will probably find an opposing
theory that might describe your side in this galactic
With a little nudge in the right direction, S&R
could work wonders. "Justice a minute," they said.
"We learn with going to photogenic memory. Decon-
struction is not what we said. We understand the
It was my turn to whisper in Albert's ear. I wanted
to be friendly with the big lug and make sure I was
forgiven. "I can't decide if Sears and Roebuck are
harder to understand when they think they under-
"Amen," he said. I was at least half forgiven.
"We know what the Klave are being in the war,"
The suspense was killing me, even if Fly's eyes were
beginning to get that special bored look right before
he started rocking and rolling.
"You are what?" I prompted S&R.
"We are hyperrealists," they said. "We leave books
"And you leave worlds alone," Albert finished,
pleased at the direction our conversation had taken.
S&R were on a roll. "When your unit is restored, we
go to Fred invasion base and continue your part in the
war. We will fighting with you."
It took a moment for me to realize what they were
talking about. Our unit included Captain Hidalgo. I'd
never thought we'd travel these incredible distances
only to pick up two new members for our fire team. I
wondered how Hidalgo would deal with this develop-
"How far away is this base?" asked Albert.
I almost chided Albert but caught myself. How
could we ask the distance to the Freds when we didn't
know where the hell we were? I couldn't understand
the reluctance of the aliens to give us the straight of it.
Could Albert be trying to trick S&R into revealing our
Whether intended or not, that was the result. "The
Fred base is two hundred bright-years away," they
"Light-years," Fly corrected them. If he kept this
up, he might have a great career ahead of him ... as
I figured it was my turn. "That doesn't tell us how
far the Freds are from our solar system."
S&R answered immediately: "Two hundred light-
While I marveled at another passable reply from
our hosts, Fly picked up on the content. "Excuse me,"
he said in his I-really-can't-take-any-more-surprises
voice. "What did you just say?"
S&R said, "Two hundred light-years."
"That's the distance from this base?" Fly asked.
S&R nodded. They'd at least picked up one of our
human traits. "The distance from our solar system?"
he nailed the coffin shut. They nodded again.
Fly sounded so calm and reasonable that I feared
for all of our lives. This was worse than when he
found out about the month and a half of travel time
on the Bova.
"Just so I'm absolutely clear," he said, "regarding
the location of this galactic base, we are located
If Sears and Roebuck had seemed like cartoon
characters before, the impression was even more
pronounced now. There was one word they had
apparently missed in their extensive study of the
English language: "oops."
S&R didn't hold back any longer: "We are past the
orbit of Pluto-Charon."
"Why didn't you tell us this before?" I asked.
"Need to know," they said. "Hidalgo part of your
unit will be returned to you soon, and unit completes
"It was getting about time to tell us anyway,"
Albert translated helpfully.
"Let me get this straight," said Fly, oblivious to all
other subjects until he was satisfied on this one.
"We've been convinced of the relative unimportance
of the Earth in the big scheme of things. So it comes as
a shock to learn you have this space museum parked
just outside our insignificant solar system."
I thought Fly was laying it on a bit thick. I would
have told him to take a stress pill and calm down ...
if we'd had any stress pills. S&R didn't seem clued in
to human frustration.
When Fly calmed down, S&R attempted to explain.
One thing I'll say for my pal, when he finds out he's
been off the wall on something, he takes his medicine
like a trooper. Hell, like a marine.
Naturally, we all believed we'd traveled many light-
years to get to this base. Nope. Wrong about that. We
thought it a strong possibility that we'd been in transit
for many years, Earth standard time. Nope. Wrong
again. Several other assumptions were shot down in
flames as well. I remembered the director saying there
was no way to pinpoint the location of the secret base,
and I recall Jill teasing him about that. How desper-
ately Warren Williams wanted to unlock the secrets of
The poor man would probably be as disappointed
as Fly to learn that there is no such thing as faster-
than-light travel. Many people have never imagined
otherwise, but most of them would not imagine a
galactic war with a myriad of alien races either. Up to
this moment on the gigantic galactic base--which
happened to be parked in our own backyard--I
would have thought a galactic war must prove the
existence of FTL.
I'd grown up reading all of the great SF writers.
E. E. Doc Smith and his inertialess drive. John W.
Campbell Jr. and a dozen clever ways to get around
Einstein's speed limit. Arthur C. Clarke with a bag of
tricks the others had missed. The discovery of a
galactic war without faster-than-light travel blew my
mind more completely than the spider-mind carcass
Fly and I had plastered all over Deimos.
S&R finally succeeded in explaining the reality to
us. Fly wasn't even all that much of a science-fiction
fan, and he took the news really hard. It must have
been all those Star Trek shows that not even he could
have missed seeing. Or maybe it was just his romantic
sense of adventure. We felt as if we'd traveled across
the universe, and then we find out we're next door to
the old neighborhood. Albert didn't seem bothered at
all. There are no articles of faith about FTL outside of
It was hard work extracting facts from S&R, but
they were ready and willing if we were. Reality was
like this: first of all, there is no such thing as hyper-
space. Hyper kids like Jill, yes. Space, no. Everything
happens at relativistic velocities. When we went
through the Gate on Phobos, the trip took us almost
seven and a half hours by Earth standard time,
traveling just under light-speed as beams of coherent,
The galactic chess game stretched out over millen-
nia. We hadn't asked yet, but I was ready to bet the
farm that some of these suckers lived a freakin' long
time. It almost had to be that way. Otherwise how
could individuals maintain interest in their blood-
It had taken the Freds more than two hundred of
our years to reach Earth in the beginning! This was
my idea of long-range planning. This was my idea of
an implacable foe.
These guys got off by critiquing twelve-million-
year-old books and fighting over which important
commentator correctly interpreted them! Jeez, I won-
dered how many alien races had been exterminated
because of a bad review? At times the struggle had
erupted into full-scale warfare. It didn't make Fly,
Albert, or me feel any better to learn that now was a
relatively calm period with only occasional brush
wars along the borders.
Millions of rotting human corpses were almost
overlooked. The monsters sent by the Freds to either
end or enslave mankind were just one more move in
the lit-crit game. As we painfully pieced together the
story of life in the galaxy, I had the weird feeling that
the Freds took the human race more seriously than
any of the "good guys." Oh, we'd connected with
S&R. Maybe the entire Klave operated at their high
level of ethics and decency. But even so, the best we
could expect from our allies was a chance to be
The Freds had sent hundreds, thousands, maybe
millions of their demonic monsters to clean humani-
ty's clock. Simple human pride made me feel for the
first--and I hoped the last--time that the Freds were
a worthy foe. They must be scared of us. The decon-
structionists thought we might deconstruct them. The
hyperrealists were busy with their own shit.
"I love you."
Arlene touched my face and said, "You didn't have
to do this."
I thought I'd never get her alone. Then Fly obliged
me by wandering off with Sears and Roebuck. They
were still trying to explain to him why we exist in a
sub-light Einsteinian universe. Arlene was too de-
pressed to want to hear the details just now.
Besides, I could turn off my Albert-projector right
now. It was disconcerting to watch myself. I wasn't all
that vain, and I didn't want to watch myself all the
time. Of course, I'd had a very good reason for
bringing the device. I'd spent time with S&R first and
picked up a lot about their peculiarities. I could tell
Arlene and Fly about that later. Shop talk. Business.
Meanwhile, something more important concerned
me: my opportunity to be alone with Arlene! Our
little spat was forgotten as she held up her gold ring. I
think I saw the hint of a tear in a corner of her eye.
The ring was attached to a necklace.
"How did you manage this?" she asked. The origi-
nal ring had vanished along with everything else when
we went through the Gate.
"Sears and Roebuck," I said. "We couldn't ask for
better guardian angels."
She nodded in acknowledgment. "How much time
did you spend with them before Fly and I met them?"
She chuckled. "You don't like giving away the
details of your surprise."
"You can figure it out. Sears and Roebuck have
more tricks up their sleeves than only synthesizing
food for us. They synthesized the ring when I asked. I
only had to give them the details. I didn't ask for a
new set of dog tags."
"I'll live. Tell me, did you make any attempt to
distinguish Sears from Roebuck?"
"Didn't seem worth the trouble."
"I know what you mean. Did you ask them to keep
the ring a secret until you could surprise me?"
"No. Once they made the ring, they gave it to me.
Now it was my business. Besides, I'm not sure they'd
be very good at keeping secrets. They don't seem to
have a privacy concept."
"I was wondering about that. I don't think they
understand our concept of individuality, either. The
Klave sounds like a collectivist society."
"Or more than that," I added.
"Yeah. I wonder how far the collectivism goes. It
would be interesting to find out."
She stopped, waiting for me to say something. I
merely regarded her and listened to my heart beat.
Then I deliberately looked away. We were standing
close together over by the rail next to the floating
table. Overhead an aquarium drifted, the sea crea-
tures within swimming lazily. My soul felt a great
peace. I was finally witnessing strange things from
other worlds, and I didn't have to destroy anything. I
didn't have to take out the trash. I didn't need to fire a
rocket overhead and spill fish guts all over my lady
I was tired of shop talk. I waited for Arlene to bring
the subject back to us. The ring did it. Her eyes went
from mine down to the gold circle in her hand and
then back up again.
"This means the world to me," she said. "The
universe." She said it as if she meant it.
I wished she had long hair instead of a high-and-
tight. Hawaii Base had a barber, dammit! With long
hair, a strand would occasionally fall into her eye and
I could brush it out. She brought out my fatherly side.
I wouldn't violate my beliefs for her, but that didn't
make me sexually repressed. Whenever appropriate, I
intended to remind her of my proposal.
She didn't make it easy. Fly kept saying she was the
bravest man he knew. The comparisons to a man were
most appropriate. She had the morality of a typical
modern man. My problem. Her problem.
"Albert," she said huskily, "have you reconsidered
"Arlene, have you reconsidered my proposal?"
She started to respond but left her mouth open in
mid-response. She looked cute that way. Then she got
the words out: "You used the p-word."
"Who would marry us?"
"Captain Hidalgo is the captain of our 'ship.' The
medbot says he's recovering."
"I can just imagine how he'd react if we asked him
to tie the knot."
I disagreed. "The captain has grown a lot on this
mission. He's a better man. His horizons have ex-
"Be hard not to change out here," she joked. I
didn't laugh. There were times to be serious and this
was one of them. "Arlene, will you marry me?"
I could tell she was disappointed in me. We were
playing a game where I wasn't supposed to be so
direct. It was okay for her to suggest any number of
lewd acts, and that was acceptable. There was one
rule, actually: I wasn't supposed to use the p-word.
She wasn't Fly's tough guy this time, not when she
used my least favorite line of modern women: "It
wouldn't be fair to you." I don't think there has been
a woman since time began who believed that particu-
"I don't believe in fair. I believe in promises. You're
a woman of your word. You honor your commit-
ments. We both know that. You're afraid to make a
commitment you doubt you can keep."
"Then why do you keep asking me?"
I shrugged. "We belong together. I feel it in my
She sighed. "We can't plan for the future."
I took her by the hand, and she made a fist over the
ring. "Arlene, marriage isn't about planning for the
future. It's a promise that can last five minutes or fifty
years. Be honest. You're not afraid we won't have
enough time together. You're afraid we'll have too
She pulled away so quickly the necklace dangling
from her fist got caught on my thumb. It looked as if
we were attached by an umbilical cord . . . and then
we were separated.
She sounded like a little girl when she said, "I love
you, Albert, but don't ever tell me how I feel. Or what
I'm afraid of."
We'd faced the worst demons together. We'd
sprayed death and destruction among the uglies from
the deep beyond. But the gulf between us was deeper
and darker and scarier than a steam demon's rear
This time we were rescued by Sarge--good old
Flynn Taggart. He was back from his latest S&R
He was cheerful, at least. "If this keeps up, I'm
trying out for a new career as translator to the stars.
Captain Hidalgo will be with us in time for dinner.
Sears and Roebuck have laid out the plan to me."
"Shouldn't they have waited until dinnertime for
our briefing?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Not these guys, Albert. They
figure what they say to one of us goes for all. I don't
believe there are any ranks among the Klave."
We waited for Arlene to say something. We'd gotten
in the habit. I must have upset her more than I
realized. She didn't contribute. So I asked, "Do you
think the captain will want us to be good marines
when he's restored to us?"
I didn't mean to sound sarcastic. I had nothing
against the captain. Arlene could vouch for that . . .
when she wasn't pissed with me. But Fly took it as
"His call, mister! The captain is in command."
"Yes," Arlene finally spoke up. "Hidalgo is respon-
sible for accomplishing the mission. We must do our
best to support him."
Fly and she exchanged looks. There was a bond
between them that nothing could ever weaken, includ-
"What did you learn from Sears and Roebuck?" she
Fly told us.
We would accompany S&R on a little junket to the
Fred base. The mission objective was some kind of
super science weapon capable of initiating a resonant
feedback that would wipe out all the computer sys-
tems of the bad guys.
Sounded good to me, but there was a hitch. The
enemy base was twenty light-years away, and it had
been hammered into all of us that Star Trek was
wishful thinking. There were only slow boats to
The journey would take twenty years! Then it
would take another twenty years for the feedback
virus to be transmitted to all the Fred computers. The
virus could only be installed on the system at the
base. I wished we had Jill with us.
I had earned passing grades in school. I'd made
change when I worked a cash register for my first real
job. I could add numbers. Forty years!
"We'll spend the rest of our lives on this mission," I
"No," said Fly cheerfully. "That's what I thought,
too. It's not going to be that bad. We may not have
FTL, but we do have access to ships that travel fast
enough for our purposes. The trip will only be a few
weeks of subjective time, even though it will count as
"What will Jill look like by the time we get back?"
We took a moment to mull that one over. Then Fly
resumed his presentation on how to save the universe
in one simple lesson. The plan sounded a lot more
feasible than some of the other things we'd done.
We would leave the ship in orbit around a moon
outside the Fred detection zone. On that moon was an
experimental teleportation device based on Gate
technology. We could use the experimental
teleporter--theoretically, and by the grace of God--
to reach the Fred base without the need of a receiver
pad on the other end. As we'd discovered on Phobos,
teleporters let you keep your gear. The plan ought to
As it turned out, the message aliens, the hyperreal-
ists, had first discovered the Gates some three hun-
dred thousand years ago and had been doing improve-
ments ever since. Yes, discovered. No one knew who
originally invented the Gates. The estimates for the
oldest ones were the kind of numbers that give me a
headache. There was an astronomer on TV who used
to talk about "billions and billions" of years.
So what if this mode of travel had a few bugs in it?
So did the American transportation system--the best
the Earth had ever known.
I threw out a question: "Did you find out how the
Freds took our guys by surprise? That's been trou-
bling me ever since Sears and Roebuck started giving
out with the history lessons."
Fly picked up a red ball from his unfinished meal
off the floating table. I couldn't stand the taste of
those things and hoped they'd come up with some-
thing better real soon now.
All of a sudden he had a devilish expression. "I
wonder if I could throw this all the way up to the zero-
g zone you used to coast in, Albert."
"Probably, but it wouldn't be polite."
Arlene agreed with me. "Don't do that, Fly."
"Well, they must have a remarkable garbage-
disposal system," he said, "but I haven't see it work
"Let's not find out it consists of enslaved marines,"
Arlene suggested wisely. I was glad to see her sense of
"Point made," he said, popping the sphere into his
mouth, and making a face before he swallowed. "I
should've pitched it. Let me answer Albert. These
aliens have a very interesting idea of a surprise attack.
I wouldn't want to hire any of them as taxi drivers.
Takes too long to get a cab now. They take forever to
change anything! Once they achieved civilization it
took millions of years for them to make the same
amount of progress we did in--I don't know--say,
ten thousand years?"
Arlene whistled. "Slow learners."
"Yeah," Fly continued. "Which is one reason the
Fred attack took them by surprise. Sears and Roebuck
say the attack came a lot sooner than expected--only
thirty thousand years after the good guys established
their observation base."
"Just like yesterday," I threw in. "So tell me, Fly,
do you know what sort of opposition we may expect
on our new mission?"
"Yes, Albert. After describing to Sears and Roebuck
some of our adventures, like how we took down the
spider-mind on the train, they said one thing."
"We're all ears," hinted Arlene, doing herself an
"They said, 'You ain't seen nothing yet!'"
I opened my eyes to a terrifying sight. A
pulsing pole loomed over me, its mad eye blinking.
There was a whirring sound, and I tasted copper in
my mouth. And then something darted on the edge of
my peripheral vision. It seemed to be circling, waiting
Then the pole-thing moved out of the way so the
flying thing could attack! I tried to move, but my
limbs were immobile. I tried to shout for help but my
throat was frozen. Right before the airborne object
smashed into my face, I saw ... a face on a blue ball.
A friendly face. A blue sphere. It was another of the
blue spheres that had saved my life before. Now it was
happening again. If this kept up, I'd think about
taking some vitamins. I wasn't used to being an
The blue engulfed me, and I felt like a million bucks
again. Then I could move all I wanted. I sat up and
saw Corporal Arlene Sanders.
"Welcome back," she said.
"Do you mind if I put on some clothes?"
"No, sir," she said. Was that a smile pulling at the
corners of her mouth? I was definitely alive.
The team looked one hundred percent. Whatever
Taggart, Sanders, and Gallatin had been doing while I
was laid up must have been good for them. They had
so many things to tell me that formality would simply
have gotten in the way. We were so far outside normal
mission parameters that I realized the old adage of
Gordon Dickson fully applied: "Adapt or die." The
challenge was simply to keep Fly, Arlene, and Albert
from interrupting each other as they took turns filling
me in on the state of the mission as we ate our chow.
Mother of Mary! What had we gotten ourselves
into? I wondered how many incredible things I was
supposed to swallow along with the red things that
tasted like very old tomatoes preserved in vinegar. Fly
assured me they'd promised new and improved food
soon. Arlene and Albert seconded the motion. If a
sergeant and two corporals believed that strongly in
something, I was going to eat all the little red things I
could right now.
Seriously, I was pleased and impressed by what
they had done while I was subject to the tender
ministrations of what Arlene called the medical ro-
bot. Waking up to see something like that was not an
experience to recommend.
No sooner had I gotten used to the medbot than
along came Sears and Roebuck. I was glad they were
on our side. I wouldn't want to blow away anything
that looked the way they did.
"We are glad your unit is complete," they told us.
I'd never had more unusual dinner companions. They
ate little pyramids made out of some gelatinous
substance. The pyramids were the exact same color
blue as the spheres that kept saving my life.
Arlene warned me not to eat any food that wasn't
human-approved. She needn't have worried. Being
fire team leader didn't mean I had to commit suicide.
I wanted to hang around for the mission with our new
The medbot wouldn't leave my side until it was
convinced my recovery was complete. While we
munched, it volunteered some information. "For
samples of Homo sapiens, all of you are recom-
mended for upcoming missions of a military nature."
"We should hope so," I said.
"You are dopamine types."
"It is a neurotransmitter strongly linked to seeking
out adventure. You have many exon repetitions of the
dopamine receptor gene. The genetic link to the D4
receptor. . . ."
"Wait a minute," interjected Albert. "Are you
saying we are chemically programmed to want to kick
"Yes," said the medbot.
Arlene clapped her hands. "This isn't one of those
pussy robots that says things like 'It does not com-
pute.' This one's got English down."
"And without even going to college," sneered Fly.
"That's a cheap shot," Arlene threw back.
"Why do you do that?" asked the medbot.
"Do what?" asked Arlene.
"Call me a robot. I'm not a toaster. I'm not a VCR.
I'm not a ship's guidance computer."
Arlene raised an eyebrow and asked, "What are
"Organic tissues. Carbon-based life, the same as
"What's your name?" I asked the barber pole. Its
answer did not translate into English. I tried my hand
at diplomacy. "Would you mind if we continued
calling you, uh, medbot?"
"No. That's a fine name. Please don't call me a
Sears and Roebuck got us back on track. "Your unit
and our unit are ready soon go to war." Their English
might need work, but the meaning was clear. We
shouldn't quarrel among ourselves, even if we were
the type to seek out thrills and variety.
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other. They sure
as hell appeared to be one character looking himself
over in the mirror. They reached some kind of a
decision and left the table, saying, "We are going to
elsewhere. We are returning to here."
While they were absent, an alien who could have
passed for a dolphin on roller skates with one arm
snaking out of its head scooted over with another
course of the dinner. This stuff looked almost like
Earth food. It could have been enchiladas.
"Who is going to try this first?" I asked.
"Rank has its privileges," said Fly, the wise guy.
A Mexican standoff. Arlene played hero and took
the first bite. I wish we'd had a camera to take her
picture. "That's horrible," she said, doing things with
her face that could have made her pass for one of the
"I'll try it," said Albert, proving there really was
love between these two. It's not like they could keep it
a secret. He proved himself a credit to his faith. His
face didn't change at all, but the words sounded as if
they were being pushed through a very fine strainer:
"That is awful, but familiar somehow."
"Yes," Arlene agreed. "I can almost place it."
"This is not what I had in mind," Fly complained
before he even tried it. "The mess was supposed to
"It is a mess," agreed Arlene.
While Fly worked up his nerve, I tried the food. It
sure as hell didn't taste like an enchilada, but I
recognized the flavor right away. "Caramba! No won-
der you recognize the flavor. It's choline chloride."
The worst-tasting stuff this side of hell.
"Oh, no," said Fly, who had passed up eating the
red balls while he waited for the "good stuff."
We'd all had to take choline chloride as a nutrition-
al supplement. It was part of light drop training. The
others remembered it from then. I was still using it, or
had been right up to departure. The stuff was used by
bodybuilders; it was as good for muscle tone as it was
bad for the taste buds.
"I wonder what's for dessert," Fly said hopefully.
Sears and Roebuck returned with the final course. But
it wasn't something to eat.
"We have bringing you space suits for your unit,"
"Why have you brought us suits?" I asked, unable
to recognize anything like space gear. They were
carrying one thin box that would've been perfect for
delivering a king-size pizza with everything on it.
"So you are going to your new spaceship," they
announced. I wondered what I'd think of an alien
craft. I already missed that old tub, the Bova.
"Where are the suits?" asked Arlene.
One of them opened the box. The other pulled out
what appeared to be large sheets of Saran Wrap. And
all I could think was: I should've stayed in bed.
I never thought I'd say this about an officer, but I
was glad Hidalgo was with us again. He'd started out
a typical martinet butthead. Now he insisted on being
a human being. I guess if you drop an officer into a
world of aliens and weird creatures, he has no choice
but to turn human. The base must have been affecting
me as well: Fly Taggart, the officer's pal!
Ever since we'd traveled over the rainbow I'd
stopped worrying about Arlene's attitude toward Hi-
dalgo. I'd worried what I would do if the guy turned
out to be another Weems. Despite my complaining, I
didn't think I could just stand by and let Arlene space
a fellow marine. Didn't seem right somehow, even to
an officer. I wasn't sure the end of civilization as we
knew it meant open season on fragging officers. Any-
way, it was ancient history now. We were a team in
every sense of the word.
When S&R presented us with the high-tech space
suits, it was a test for Hidalgo's command abilities.
He'd been laid up for most of the tour of wonders, but
he knew we weren't crazy when we briefed him.
All of us had a moment of thinking S&R were
playing a joke on us. Hidalgo was in command. He
had to decide that we were going all the way with our
alien buds. We'd moved into a realm where ignorance
could be fatal. The captain made the decision that
counted, the same one we'd reached in our hearts and
minds. Albert had the right word: "faith." We put our
faith in the twin Magilla Gorillas.
Of course, we could rationalize anything. It wasn't
until we were outside the base that I really believed
the suits worked. We zipped up the damned things
like sandwich bags that I prayed wouldn't turn into
Inside the airlock, we felt ridiculous. The transpar-
ent material draped around us like bad Halloween
costumes. Only two parts of the suit were distinguish-
able from the Saran Wrap. The helmet was like a
hood, hanging off the whole body of the material. The
belt was like a solid piece of plastic. And that was it!
"Where's the air supply?" asked Arlene. S&R said
it was in the belt.
"Where are the retros for getting around?" I asked.
"How about communicators?" Hidalgo wanted to
know. Ditto. And ditto.
Only one question merited a different response.
"How tough is this material?" asked Albert.
"Can be damaged," said S&R. Nothing wrong with
that sentence. Just the chilling reminder that however
advanced these suits were, they didn't eliminate risk.
Once we were outside, the suits puffed up. We were
comfortably cool inside them. Light was no problem,
even though the sun was only a bright star at this
distance. The base gave us all the light we needed. If
we'd been in an orbit closer to home, we could have
looked directly at old Sol and our eyes wouldn't have
been fried. We were protected from all cosmic radia-
tion. Hell, I wished PO2 Jennifer Steven could have
one of these in her locker.
The first thing I noticed was a familiar constella-
tion. Sure, the constellations were in slightly different
locations in the sky. My sky. Fly sky. If there were
picture windows in the base I would have figured out
that we weren't as far from home as I thought.
The second thing I noticed was the ship S&R had
promised us. It was right next to the base, and it was a
big mother. The light from the base outlined it clearly,
like a spotlight. We could make out all sorts of details.
There were black shadows crisscrossing the ice.
Yeah, the ice. S&R had briefed us on all kinds of
interesting details, such as the craft having an ion
drive, the engine taking up most of the space. They'd
neglected to mention that the entire ship was encased
in a gigantic block of ice. The little voice in the back
of my head made me promise to ask why when we
returned to base, unless someone beat me to the
S&R were carrying a small object with a box on one
end and a tube on the other. They'd told us the little
whatsit was actually a fusion-pumped laser torch. The
rest of us carried nothing at all, so whatever could be
done fell squarely on the shoulders of the dynamic
duo. They reached the ice cube first and turned on
their powerful toy.
We were busy mastering the use of the suits. It was
hard to believe how much compressed gas was in
those belts. When I snapped my right arm straight
forward--in the same motion I would have used to
knife somebody--the wrap became hard around the
forearm. By twisting my hand I could activate the
retros. Arm forward, suit forward. Arm back, suit
Albert was the first of us to master the suit. Go,
marine! So he boosted himself over to help S&R.
Arlene was next to get the hang of it well enough to
join in. I had the idea that S&R didn't need any help.
We were all along for the ride, to see the operation,
and to become used to a higher-quality space suit.
We could hear each other's voices as clearly as if we
were back in the "cafeteria." Hidalgo said a word or
two, but he wasn't trying to tell S&R their business. I
didn't see any need to horn in. I hung back, taking the
watch, in case a space monster showed up or some-
When I heard the popping sound, I didn't realize it
was inside Albert's helmet. I heard Arlene scream his
name before I realized what had happened. There was
debris making it hard to see. Then I pieced it together:
Albert had been hit by the laser.
I couldn't believe it as I reached out to him. He
called my name faintly inside his hood: "Arlene,
Arlene . . ."
The alien suits were so advanced that they seemed
like magic. But here was a grim reminder there was
nothing supernatural about them. While S&R used
the fusion-pumped laser torch, a high pressure bubble
had ruptured. The explosion had compromised Al-
bert's suit. I'd started to think the material couldn't
be torn. Then, adding injury to injury, he was burned
by the laser.
Sears and Roebuck switched off the torch as I held
on to Albert. I saw him grimace through the hood and
heard his choking gasp. Flecks of blood appeared on
his face. I couldn't tell if the blood was coming up
from his waist injury or if he was bleeding from his
head. As he gasped, trying to catch his breath, I saw
blood trickle from his gums. His face turned white.
"Get that man inside!" Hidalgo ordered.
S&R didn't move as I grabbed Albert, doing my
best to ignore his groans. Suddenly Fly was beside me,
helping me. I could hear Hidalgo's voice, talking to
"They've got him," he said. "You can resume the
operation." S&R were as silent as the depths of space.
I couldn't bother with that now. My hands were full.
In a situation like this, the most dangerous thing any
of us could do would be to panic. Fly kept repeating,
"Take it easy," but he didn't need to. I willed myself
to move slowly and carefully. We were still getting the
hang of the suits. There might be features that would
surprise us ... and spell Albert's death while we spun
around trying to figure out which way was up.
We coasted toward the open lock as if we had all the
time in the universe. The lock was a port in the storm.
Momentum could be a monster or a friend, so we
didn't hurry, despite the irrational child deep inside
me demanding instant gratification.
Floating to the hospital. First aid for a brave
marine. We wouldn't let Albert die. Wonder what they
do with corpses in the alien base? Do they jettison
them? Do they recycle them?
No! I wouldn't let myself think that way. Albert had
helped mow down zombies, smash spider-minds,
blow away steam demons, kick bony butt, and eat
pumpkin pie. No freakin' way was it going to end
All we had to do was race against time and pay
attention to the laws of physics. We didn't have to run
and duck, fire and fall back, or even take turns on
watch. We simply had to fall through the quiet gulfs of
eternity, sailing between the stars, aiming not at a
barrel of poison sludge but at a black dot that grew in
size until it became the open hatchway only a few feet
Piece of cake.
We cycled through the lock. I was so worried about
Albert that I barely noticed that his suit had already
repaired itself. Unfortunately, the regenerative pow-
ers of the Plastic Wrap did not transfer to human
"The blue spheres," said Fly as we stripped off our
"Yes! Oh, my God, you're brilliant. We've got to
contact the medbot right away." In another minute
I'd be babbling.
We humped back to the main section of the base as
we carried Albert between us. We'd left his suit on. It
might not be a cure-all but as it resealed itself it
helped stop the bleeding.
Medbot found us!
Its voice had always been pleasant. Now it was
music to my ears: "Sears and Roebuck sent a message.
Part of your unit has been damaged."
I slowed down, caught my breath, tried to be
coherent. "We need your help. We need one of those,
oh, you know--the blue spheres that help sick
"They are called soul spheres."
"How . . . appropriate," whispered Albert, hanging
on the edge of consciousness.
"Yes," Fly got into the act. "Like the one you used
The medbot's voice was unemotional but not a
monotone. It could have been my imagination, but I
thought it sounded sorry when it said, "That was the
"What?" I asked, knowing full well what I'd just
"This base is stripped down," it said. "We have all
the necessities, but we are operating with a minimum
All this time I thought we'd been in a transgalactic
Hilton. This was their idea of roughing it? Maybe that
was why we were having to thaw a spaceship out of a
block of ice.
"This part of your unit will live," said the medbot.
More music to my ears. "He will require a longer
recovery time without a soul sphere."
I was afraid to ask how long. While I pondered the
question, the medbot started to take him away.
"Wait!" Albert called out weakly. "I have to tell
"Whatever you have to say will wait, big guy," said
Fly. "You just get on the mend."
"No, I've got to tell you this," said Albert, his voice
growing stronger. "It'll save you valuable time dealing
with Sears and Roebuck. Should have mentioned it to
you earlier but the situation hadn't changed yet."
"Later," said Fly as the medbot began carting my
He told the medico to hold up a minute. He hit us
with: "Hidalgo can talk to them while it's just them,
the same as you did, Fly. But I found out something
when I had them synthesize the ring for Arlene,
because we interacted with other aliens on the base.
There's a trick to getting along with Sears and Roe-
buck. They think we're a group entity."
"I'd suspected the collectivism might go that deep,"
"Not collectivism," said Albert. "They're part of a
true collective. A completely different thing! They can
only understand group entities formed from powers
of two--pairings of individual entities. They really
can't understand three people operating as a unit."
So that was why Albert brought the holopicture of
himself when he joined our session with S&R! But
surely they must have realized it was some kind of
virtual reality trick. Or maybe S&R just perversely
refused to deal with unacceptable combinations. A
"You require medical attention," said the medbot.
It sounded testy. Considering the absence of blue
spheres, we weren't going to hold up Albert's surgery
any longer. The barber pole hurried away, pulling
Albert along on a pad.
"So here you are," said Captain Hidalgo, coming
over to us. He was accompanied by S&R. "I hope
Corporal Gallatin recovers," he said, watching the
receding forms. "They did miracles with me, so I'm
sure he'll be all right."
This seemed like a good time to test Albert's theory.
Fly, that old mind reader, started the ball rolling:
"Sears and Roebuck, would you mind telling us why
your ship is encased in ice?"
S&R became agitated. They did the looking-at-
each-other bit, but they started shaking their heads.
They weren't in unison with each other.
Finally they tried communicating with the three of
us. "Fly and Arlene, the ship was put into icing as part
of ice comet going from cometary halo so avoid-
ing detection." Then they started all over. "Fly
and Esteban, the ship was put into icing as part
of ice comet going from cometary halo so avoiding
detection." Then: "Arlene and Esteban, the ship
"Thanks, that'll do," said Fly. "We'll tell the
Captain Hidalgo had the aspect of a man whose
brain had been sent out to the cleaners and had
received too much starch.
Arlene took it like a man. She should have been
happy. Captain Hidalgo had made an intelligent
command decision. I would have to be left behind. I'd
live. I'd be fine in several months, by Earth standard
time. The mission couldn't afford to wait for my
recovery. Hidalgo had needed only a few days to heal.
He was the CO. I was baggage.
And while I grew old, Arlene would stay young.
Maybe that was as it should be. For all her guts and
strength, she made me think of a vulnerable child. I'd
always wanted to be a patriarch, and now it looked as
if I'd at least look like one by the time I saw her again.
If I saw her again.
I could have predicted it before she said it: "You're
the man I want to marry. You're my man."
I believed the latter. I had faith that she believed the
former, so long as they were only words. As she stood
by my bed and we held hands, I performed the simple
calculation in my head. I'd be sixty-seven years old
when she returned.
"I love you, Arlene."
"That's not what I want to hear you say."
I squeezed her hand and told her, "I know you
really love me, Arlene. That doesn't change what you
are--a helluva marine who will do her duty, no
The others were waiting to say their farewells. "Call
them in," I said.
"No. Not until we've settled something."
Probably just as well that we weren't planning
nuptials. This woman wasn't obedient. She crawled
right on the bed with me. I guess you could call it a
bed, even though it was a lot better than most. Sort of
an overbed or superbed.
"Arlene?" I tried to get her attention. "Just because
I'm laid up doesn't mean the rules have changed."
"What was that about 'laid'?" she asked, smiling
"You're not going to ask to make love again, are
"You will make love only to your wife," she
breathed into my ear.
I'd been through so much lately that I no longer
trusted my hearing. My eardrums still ached from my
adventure outdoors. "Arlene, what did you just say?"
"I said yes, you big dope. I'm accepting your
proposal of marriage."
I wanted to shout yippee and dance a jig. Couldn't
do that, so I settled for crushing her in my arms and
kissing her. This was no brother-sister kiss.
While we caught our breath, my brain started firing
on all cylinders again. "But what about the mission?"
She put her head on my chest, and I ran my hand
over her red carpet. Then she lifted up her face and
drilled me with the most beautiful emerald-green eyes
in the galaxy. "I'm still going," she said. "But we'll
have time for the honeymoon."
"How long?" I dared ask.
"Six days," she said softly. "Captain Hidalgo says
we'll have six days. We can count on it. He'll be
I kissed her again.
"You won't wear the silly G-string and pasties, will
you?" I asked.
"How could I? That stuffs back on the Bova." She
nibbled my ear.
"But Sears and Roebuck can synthesize anything,"
Her lips fluttered over my eyelids and came to rest
on my left cheek. "They can't synthesize everything."
Her voice was muffled against my skin.
"Well, I would sort of like you . . . natural, you
know," I confessed, emphasizing my point by licking
her all-natural neck.
"I'll be the girl next door," my wife-to-be promised.
"Need I ask if you've picked a best man?"
We both laughed. It's not as if we'd give Fly Taggart
any choice. I considered the merits of asking Sears
and Roebuck to whip up a tuxedo for the ultimate
marine. There was something about S&R's name that
inspired the idea.
If I write this letter quickly enough you may
receive it before too many years elapse. Sears and
Roebuck gave me the idea. The same technology
that makes Gate travel possible, not to mention
this incredible spaceship, allows me to use the
sub-light post office. The laser messages don't
move much faster than the ship at max, but
remember how fast the ship is moving! If we'd
been crazy enough to send a message ahead of us
to the Fred base so they could roll out the red
carpet, we would have arrived about a half hour
after they received the message.
"Sub-light" is a term that doesn't do these
speeds justice. Traveling an inch an hour is under
the speed of light. Both the Freds and our guys
can travel right up to that speed. S&R's ship will
reach a maximum speed of 99.99967 miles per
hour, relative to the Earth. Isn't that incredible?
Gate travel without the Gate.
I wish you could have seen the ship from the
outside when we finished melting off the ice. I
swear it looked just like a cigar. Fly didn't pick up
on my reference to Frank R. Paul, the science-
fiction artist from the 1930s who created a lot of
stogie spaceships. That style went out of fashion
in the 1950s when the flying-saucer craze started.
I suppose there are only so many shapes and
forms possible. The human race has expended so
much energy trying to conceive of every possibili-
ty that we couldn't help but get a few things right.
By the way, I meant to say this to you before, so I
better do it now: I do believe there is every bit as
much imagination and intelligence in religion as
there is in science fiction. There'd have to be. It's
just that what you take as revelation I assume to
Before the demons came, I thought the uni-
verse was pretty dull and predictable. It only took
seeing my first zombie on Phobos to change my
mind about that. Forever.
Like this ship, for instance. I love it. Poor Fly
hates it. He can't stop bitching. I don't mean
complaining. I don't mean kvetching. I mean
He was spoiled by the artificial gravity on the
base. I sort of regretted leaving the Bova. Zero-g is
great for my tits. I forgot you don't like that word.
Breasts, I mean. When it comes to outer space,
the female body is simply better designed than
the male. Why do you think God did that to you
poor guys? Sorry, you know I'm only kidding.
Oh, I told you Fly was complaining, and then I
went off on a tangent without telling you his
problem. The Klave ship is a zero-g baby, just like
the Bova. If feet could talk, mine would whimper
for joy. I could spend my life in free fall. You
know how I feel about that after our honeymoon.
I'm so glad we found that sealed compartment in
one of the zero-g areas. You needed to keep off
your feet, darling.
When Fly found out he'd be living in zero-g
again, his first words were "Oh, man!" You know
how irritated he becomes. Even so, Hidalgo con-
vinced him that the ship is brilliantly designed.
It's two kilometers long. Well, you already know
that. We could see this was no dinghy when it was
in the ice. It has a central corridor connecting all
the engine pods. There are no real compartments.
Sears and Roebuck don't believe in privacy. The
Klave would be Ayn Rand's nightmare.
Anyway, there is no provision for spinning or
any other artificial gravity. There is a very good
reason for this. S&R told us there can be no
gravity generators on their ship like the ones they
have on the base. It's flat-out impossible. The
gravity maker where you are makes use of exist-
ing properties of matter. They say it's impossible
for a ship accelerating to near light-speed to use
one of these devices. Mass increases, you know,
as far as physical measurements are concerned in
our local area. The Klave ship is increasing suffi-
cient gravity on its own. In other words, if they
used the gravity generator, it would be impossible
to accelerate to the necessary speed. So thanks to
these laws of physics, my feet and breasts win
while Fly's stomach loses.
Don't I write wonderful love letters, darling?
Would you enjoy hearing some more technical
staff? Or would you rather devour every word of
my wildest fantasy? Well, I don't want to add to
your frustration. So I'll tell you more about the
The chairs--yes, we have chairs--can be put
in any position within the ship. They will be on
the ceiling when we decelerate. Fly keeps saying
they're not as comfortable as what we had on the
base. You see, I wasn't kidding about our big
tough marine being spoiled.
S&R are proud of their ship. Until now I didn't
realize they were capable of pride. Unless I'm
losing my mind, they are easier to understand
when they are bragging about the ship. I may be
imagining their pride, but I'd make book that the
Klave have no concept of sentimentality, any
more than they do of privacy. The Klave do not
give ships names. I suggested they call this one
the Kropotkin, after my favorite collectivist, a
left-wing communitarian anarchist.
A quick aside: did you know that S&R come
from a planet with a heavier gravity than Earth?
Imagine the backaches they must have under 1.5
gravity. No wonder they like a zero-g ship.
Back to the subject of the ship, here are a few
more specs. It takes three to four Earth-standard
days for us to accelerate to the max, then three to
four more days to bring this sucker to a full stop.
When S&R said the ship moves relativistically, I
asked if the Klave were more like cousins or
brothers and sisters. They didn't get the joke, but
Hidalgo howled with laughter.
We've learned a lot of things that would inter-
est you, beloved. First, here's something had been
bothering Fly all along. Why did the Freds attack
Earth in the first place? What was their motiva-
tion? The most they can extract from human
survivors is slave labor, and slaves are expensive
to maintain; it's more economical to use ma-
Fly and the captain and I wrestled over these
problems before we laid them out to Sears and
Roebuck. There are no natural resources that
can't be obtained elsewhere, and more easily, I
would think. S&R told us how their side figured
out that the Freds were eventually going after
Earth. They did this by analyzing the Fred pat-
tern of play up until that point. Of course, such an
analysis wouldn't indicate why the Earth was
chosen as a target in the first place.
During the tens of thousands of years when the
good guys were in orbit around the Earth, watch-
ing and observing, they did their best to compre-
hend the attraction of what Fly calls the old mud
Hidalgo suggested there might have been a
Fred observatory on Earth for even longer. For
this insight, S&R pronounced us a most logical
unit. That turns out to be why the hyperrealists
only risked a small base and a single star-drive
ship, the one that brought them to Earth.
S&R admits that there is something strange
about us humans, other than the problem of
dealing with us in odd-number combinations. I
never thought of S&R as understanding subtlety,
because that seems to go with the concept of
privacy, but they hinted there is something very
strange about human beings. Apparently this
amazing discovery fit right into the plans of the
Freds. S&R didn't want to tell us what it is!
We played a trick on Captain S&R. Once we'd
convinced ourselves that the ship was safely on
automatic pilot, Hidalgo, Fly, and I surrounded
the spearmint twins in a triangle and began firing
rapid questions. The questions didn't really mat-
ter. Fly asked who won the World Series. Hidalgo
wanted to know if the Soviet Union would have
toppled without a nudge from Ronald Reagan. I
wanted to know what the outcome would be of a
fight between one spider-mind and ten pumpkins.
S&R couldn't figure out who the hell was
talking to them. They were so totally freaked at
being assaulted by three entities at a time that it
wouldn't have surprised me if they'd left the ship!
Let's face it, Albert, we were torturing our new
friends. But it's not as if we had any choice. We
had to have that information.
With all of us talking at once, S&R couldn't
figure out the proper pairings of two. It must have
been like finding themselves in the middle of an
Escherian geometrical figure that cannot exist in
the real world, or in this universe, anyway. S&R
collapsed as if we'd let the air out of them and
Fly and Hidalgo started a swearing contest. If
we'd killed them, we'd buggered the mission and
any hope for Earth. Fortunately, all we'd done
was give them a splitting headache--like in the
old TV commercials where your head hurts so
much it takes two of you to feel all the pain.
We got what we wanted--except maybe we
didn't want it after all. When S&R recovered,
they told us all they knew. Humans, it turns out,
are different from every other intelligent species
in the galaxy. You'll never believe what the differ-
ence is. Then again, maybe you will.
Hidalgo spoke for all of us when he asked, "So
what? Who doesn't?"
We didn't want to hear the answer about all
intelligent life forms except us. I've never been an
egalitarian, but the news didn't seem fair.
When a member of an intelligent species other
than Homo saps is damaged beyond repair, the
body becomes totally incapacitated, the same as
us, but it doesn't end there. The individual (and
here we may even refer to S&R as individuals) is
still conscious. If the body is totally destroyed,
that consciousness remains. We would call it a
These ghost-spirits are easily and consistently
detected. They commonly jump into new bodies
as they're being born--on those rare occasions
when there is a birth. As soon as the physical
components mature sufficiently to allow commu-
nication, they indicate who they were in the
previous incarnation. Then they can pick up
where they left off.
When I learned this, I naturally thought of our
many arguments in the time we've known each
other. Maybe we aren't as far apart as we think.
My materialism has run into a brick wall of the
spirit. Your general faith may be stronger with
this knowledge, but the details must disturb any-
one with orthodox convictions. I never did ask
you if you were bothered by the nearest English
translation of the name of the life-saving entities:
Even though S&R weren't deliberately holding
anything back from us, it was difficult to piece
together everything I'm writing you. Sometimes
it seems as if they're starting to master our
language, but then out come the fractured sen-
The ghost-spirit-consciousness is freed only
when the body is totally annihilated. Naturally
Fly asked them what they meant by "totally."
Neither Hidalgo nor I desired to learn that partic-
ular fact. We were still reeling from the discovery
that our mortality was unique to humankind. Fly
acted as if he was in the market for an alien body
and wanted to check out the mileage.
S&R answered that total annihilation occurred
when less than eight percent of the original body
mass was chemically dispersed, but there were
different rules for different individuals. I'm not
sure how this applies in the case of the Klave
collective, but for other species they take an
especially useful specimen and destroy the body
before the final death rattle, thus freeing the
ghost-spirit to be reincarnated and to continue
working that much sooner.
You'd think that would be sufficient to conquer
death. But wait, there's more. S&R had described
the way the system worked, stretching back into
the dim mists of time. But science marches on,
even with slow evolvers. Techniques were devel-
oped to repair almost destroyed bodies. Dead
people could be revived in their original forms. In
all sorts of ways, the aliens of our galaxy defeated
death before we ever encountered our first doom
Mortality simply didn't occur to them. Why
should it have? They had all sorts of ways to deal
with the limbo of endless waiting. They didn't
need to deal with death. This was true of both the
good guys and the bad guys. They collected their
dead and arranged them in temples and theaters
where they staged elaborate entertainments, de-
bates, classes, lectures, and you-name-it to keep
the "deceased" occupied. This was necessary
because there are not enough births to accommo-
date the soul supply. So untold number of con-
sciousnesses remain in a death trance until a
body becomes available.
Albert, you were closer to these creatures in
your certainty that consciousness goes on forever.
My atheism is inadequate to describe their reali-
ty. But from our point of view, the human point
of view, this seems a victory for me. I'm not
happy about it. They say no one ever fully dies,
I can hear you answering me right now. I
imagine your mouth pressed to my shoulder,
forming the word that resolves all these problems
for you: God. What will you say when I inform
you that no other intelligent species in the galaxy
has a belief in gods or God? Only we do, Albert.
Only the human race.
At last I have a faith as deep as yours, beloved.
We've made a contract together, and I intend to
live by it. That's why you had such a struggle
talking me into it. When I make a plan, or agree
to someone else's, I stick to it. I don't change it on
a whim. A contract is a sacred trust.
So I know what I believe in at last. It isn't
religion. It isn't God. It's you, Albert dearest. You
are the meaning of my life.
Your faithful Arlene
It was my fault. Good old Fly Taggart can't
leave well enough alone. The mission was proceeding
without a hitch. So what if I was pissed about being in
zero-g again? Arlene was in her natural element.
Hidalgo was doing all right. Only Yours Truly had a
problem with it.
I was bored. We'd only been out from the base a
couple of weeks, Earth standard time. We'd learned a
hell of a lot about the galaxy in which the human race
counted for one lousy enemy village. Talk about
waking up and smelling the coffee. Finding out you're
a member in good standing of the most ignorant
"intelligent species" in the universe is depressing. At
least it was to me.
So we were poured onto an alien spacecraft where
we were about as useful as Girl Scouts at the Battle of
the Bulge. While S&R upshipped us to Fred Land,
there wasn't much for us to do except sit back and
twiddle our thumbs.
I shouldn't squawk. Jeez, Arlene finally bedded
down with the man of her dreams and then she ships
out with the rest of us. My best buddy had a few
quirks of her own, though. If she and Albert weren't
going to be separated this way, I could imagine her
putting off the moment of truth indefinitely. As it
turned out, she never hesitated for a moment about
following orders. Hidalgo had won her respect, but
even if he hadn't, she would have come along for the
good of the mission. I know Arlene Sanders.
I mean Arlene Gallatin. I'll never forget Albert
ordering me to take care of her. So what else is new?
The stupidest thing a soldier can do is wish away
the tedium. He may receive a face full of terror.
Trouble with me is I've never been a soldier. I'm a
warrior. Which means I don't relish long periods of
enforced idleness, especially if I'm floating around
like an olive in the devil's martini.
Sears and Roebuck tried to find work for us. Trou-
ble was that the shipboard routine was more auto-
mated here than it was on the Bova. Of course, that's
like saying there's less for an Apache warrior to do on
an aircraft carrier than in a canoe. Aboard the Bova,
the navy was in charge. Here the high technology was
so high that no one needed to be in charge, except
S&R. I don't know why I thought it could have been
otherwise. Stupid human pride is not a monopoly of
the Marine Corps, no matter what the pukeheads in
the other services say.
There was one useful task. Someone had to prepare
the program for insertion and figure out what we were
going to do when we lifted the eight-week, forty-year
siege and returned. One guess who was the least
qualified member of the crew for that job! Not that I
couldn't have stumbled through it. And my bud
would have been the first to admit that Jill was more
qualified than Hidalgo or her. (How I would have
loved to pass that information on to my favorite
I became so desperate that I hunted around for
something to do. We had plenty of the special space
suits but no need to go outside. I hinted to the captain
that maybe one of us should take a look-see topside,
but they saw right through me, as easy as looking
through one of the suits. They did at least show me
the weapons we'd be using at the Fred base. Ray guns!
Honest-to-God ray guns. They required no mainte-
At least on the Bova there were books. I had found a
copy of The Camp of All Saints. I didn't have a
memory like Albert's, but I remembered the passage
about how civilization is what you defend behind the
gun, and that which is against civilization is in front
of the gun. A good marine credo. I'd thought about
that while we were on the hyperrealist base. It was
strange having no weapons the entire time we were
there. But nothing was attacking us. The subject never
came up except with Albert, and he said, "There's no
gun control where the mind is the only weapon."
When we first arrived at that base, Albert may have
thought he'd entered heaven. Before we left, Arlene
did her best to convince him he really had. I was going
to miss Albert.
Arlene showed me a copy of the letter she lasered
her man. She crammed an awful lot in there. She is
endlessly fascinated by S&R and their ship. I'm still
depressed. I wish faster-than-light were possible.
Whether we succeed or fail in upcoming missions, I
have the sinking feeling we'll never see our own
civilization again. If that's how it comes down, then
the Freds and their demonic hordes will have suc-
ceeded in ending my civilization for me.
"You've got to hand it to the Klave," said Captain
Hidalgo. "The food is getting better."
He was right about that. The last batch of experi-
mental food tasted almost like a passable TV dinner.
Sort of a combination meat loaf and chocolate pud-
ding. At least it was edible.
"Yeah, they're real pals," I said. Realizing how that
sounded, I went on. "I'm not criticizing them.
They're the only friends humanity has on this side of
Arlene drifted into the conversation, "they were the
official experts on humans. The other message aliens
didn't have high enough security clearances to deal
That was a revelation. "So the others weren't actu-
ally bored to death with us?"I asked, attempting not
to sound too autobiographical.
"Well, maybe they were," said Arlene thoughtfully.
"What matters is why Sears and Roebuck became so
interested in Earth. They had no idea why we were so
different from them. We were considered counterbio-
logical because perpetual consciousness is considered
essential to the definition of intelligent organisms
used everywhere else in the galaxy."
Hidalgo shook his head in wonder. "If it bleeds, it
lives," he said. "The monsters must think we live just
long enough to massacre us."
"Remember we're talking about how these ad-
vanced beings view sapience," said Arlene. "We con-
sider ourselves biological because we define a biologi-
cal system as one that works like ours."
"These guys have a definition we don't fit," I
"Right," agreed Arlene. "Let's say they have a more
universal definition. Just as they have expanded our
horizons, we've done the same for them."
"So where do the monsters fit into this?" asked
Captain Hidalgo. A damn good question. Seemed like
a long time since we'd had to blow away any hell-
princes, deep-fry an imp, or barbecue a fat, juicy
"I've thought about that a lot," said Arlene. "The
Freds understand humanity better than the Klave and
the other message aliens. I believe the Freds are afraid
of humans. Their ultimate goal is not to enslave but to
wipe out humanity."
"They've made a good start," muttered Hidalgo.
There was no arguing with that. Arlene did her best
to lift our spirits, assuming we had any: "Sears and
Roebuck are dedicated to saving us from the Freds.
Their logic is sound. If we weren't a threat to the
Freds they never would have launched a full-scale
I respected the way S&R thought. They didn't have
a clue to what made us special, and neither did I. But
we hadn't spent all this time swimming in sludge,
muck, and blood to no purpose. We rated because we
That conversation was the high point of a whole
day. Earth. Standard. Time. Twenty-four hours. Lots
and lots of minutes. Being ordered to relax is hard
enough. It takes a real genius to do plenty of nothin'.
So, just like the rawest recruit, I wished something
would happen to break the tedium. And something
did. And I felt that it was all my fault. I didn't used to
be superstitious. Or at least not very. But that was in
the days before Phobos, before Deimos, before Salt
Lake City and Los Angeles. Back when I thought
Kefiristan was a problem.
Back when the universe made sense and I didn't
believe in space monsters. I'm not talking about
monsters that come from space. It was enough of a
stretch to accept a leering red gnome stumbling
through an alien Gate. However, some things should
be impossible. Like the space monster that came out
of nowhere--there was a lot of nowhere out here--
and attacked the Klave ship.
At first I thought S&R were projecting an entertain-
ment program. The three-dimensional object darting
over our heads looked like a refugee from a Japanese
monster movie. I'd never been into those when I was
a kid, but when Arlene and I were going to movies
together, she dragged me off to a whole day of
Godzilla and Gamera movies sponsored by Wonder
magazine. She'd picked up free tickets because she
was a subscriber.
I didn't care for any of the films, but the images
were too ridiculous to forget. Naturally I assumed--
always a bad idea--that the thing on display, courtesy
of S&R, was of the same kidney. It even looked like a
kidney, but it had a shell, and several tentacles and
heads stuck out of it at odd angles. At least it didn't
have wings. Wings would've been really stupid.
"Bile nozzle!" screamed Sears and Roebuck. I
didn't know they could scream. They were so freaked
that their stubby little legs started a running motion,
even though it made no difference in zero-g. I sud-
denly realized how fast these suckers could move at
the bottom of a gravity well. Here their legs only
looked funny, like hummingbirds' wings, as they
became a blur. These guys were definitely upset.
"Bile nozzle?" echoed Arlene.
"Closest in English," they answered, more calmly
now that they were past the initial shock. Their legs
slowed down, too.
I didn't think I'd ever be bored again. Not only
were S&R aware of this flying space organ, they had a
name for it. Just like in those Japanese movies where
the kids automatically know the name of every over-
sized sea urchin that has designs on Tokyo.
"The ship is attracting to bait," said S&R. "Inertial
energy turns into heating."
God help me, I understood them perfectly. "From
outside, this ship must look like a star," I said.
"Unless . . . until we decelerate," Hidalgo re-
minded himself as much as the rest of us.
"So that monster is chasing a small star," said
Arlene. "What does it eat?"
"Anything," said S&R. "Not only carbon. Other
chemistries! But only from the inside. We must go to
away. We're already burning fuel now."
"There isn't any way we can fight this creature?"
Hidalgo asked, his voice icy.
S&R had one of their periodic attacks of schizo-
phrenia. One head nodded while the other shook.
That didn't mean they intended the same meaning by
those motions we did; but it sure fit the situation like
"No time for going to escape maneuvers," they
said. "Bile nozzle already matching velocipedes."
"Velocities!" I shouted. I couldn't stop correcting
these guys, but I understood the problem. This ship
was not a Millennium Falcon we could use in a
dogfight or a monster fight. The ship used inertial
dampers to get rid of the incredible amounts of energy
we were using. At 100,000 gravities acceleration, S&R
didn't want to make a trivial error that would turn us
all into smears of jelly.
All that I understood. Bile nozzle was beyond me.
Just outside the ship. And whether we sped up or
slowed down, that thing was going to stick to us like
blood on a combat boot.
"How will it attack?" asked Hidalgo.
"Becomes one unit," said S&R. That could only
mean the thing split into two. "Inside ship part."
"I've got an idea," said Arlene with an eagerness
that meant she had a damned good one. "How soon
will some part of this monster be inside the ship?"
"Going to now," said S&R worriedly.
She nodded, and I knew what the movement of her
head meant! "Tell me, if we can hurt that part, how
will the outside part respond?"
"Bile nozzle will go to elsewhere," said S&R. They
"Okay," said Arlene. I recognized her patented
"Out with it, marine," Hidalgo ordered, as hopeful
as the rest of us.
Arlene said, "Bring me three space suits, every
portable reactor pack in the ship, and the biggest
goddamn boot you can find!"
These were the best marines I'd ever served
with. Corporal Taggart-Gallatin's plan was brilliant. I
never would have thought of it. I doubted the aliens
would have come up with it because they were so
terrified of the thing they called a bile nozzle.
While we suited up, we could see the space entity
right next to the ship. It was difficult to distinguish the
heads from the tentacles--if those were heads ... or
tentacles. The new menace reminded me of the sea
beast we'd encountered in the Pacific. I didn't see how
either of these creatures could actually be alive. Their
shapes shifted and changed when you tried to get a
The largest of the bile nozzle's heads, which was
right next to the ship, was a cloud of swirling colors in
which one shape kept repeating itself: a crow's head,
with a bright dot that bounced around where the eye
ought to be. The damned head seemed to regard the
ship like a tasty treat.
Sears and Roebuck insisted that the thing wasn't
dangerous until part of it was inside the ship. Arlene's
plan couldn't stop it from joining our little party, but
she was one woman who could handle a gate-crasher.
S&R insisted on coming with us. They didn't act as
if they were the captain and we were under their
command. Cooperation was more natural to them
than command. A few years ago I thought Earth was
the only inhabited planet. Now that I'd had my eyes
opened to new possibilities, I didn't expect everyone
in the universe to follow my military code. Only a
martinet butthead would expect that.
The marines could handle this assignment, but
S&R were probably afraid to remain inside. I couldn't
blame them, because right before we cycled through
the airlock, some damned thing materialized only a
few feet away.
"Hurry! Go to outside," urged S&R.
Fortunately the monster hadn't finished forming
itself yet. When it became completely solid, we'd be
the first items on its menu. According to S&R, the
monster liked to start with carbon-based life forms as
an appetizer. Then it would go to work on the ship
Before we went outside, I had a good look at the
face forming so close that I could have spit at it.
Steam demons were handsome compared to it. Hell-
princes would have been first choice for a blind date.
The most hideous imp could have passed as Mr.
America by comparison.
The eyes were the opposite of the glowing orb in the
crow's head. All three were burning black dots, remi-
niscent of a fire eater's. They were attached to a tube
ending in an orifice that was apparently both mouth
and nose. Yellow liquid dribbled out of the tube and
sizzled against the side of the ship. An acid that
sounded exactly like frying bacon! All this happened
while the head was blurring around the edges as it
struggled to complete itself. The thing made a snuf-
fling, snorting sound.
"Bile nozzle" seemed an apt name.
Arlene went first, kicking off from the bulkhead and
hurtling out through the hatch. We exited from the
starboard side of the ship. Seemed like a good idea,
because the remainder of the monster was on the port
side. We worked fast before the enemy could become
Every time I used one of these transparent space
suits I became a little less nervous about how flimsy
they appeared. If Corporal Gallatin had been wearing
one of the navy pressure suits when he had his
accident, his lungs would have ruptured in the vacu-
um. I was beginning to understand what Gallatin
meant about faith. I too had faith in this alien
We implemented Arlene's plan before the monster
got wise. Our extra-vehicular activity consisted of
attaching the portable reactor packs to the outside of
the ship. Then we turned them on and let them do the
Slowly, oh, so very slowly, the packs began to turn
the ship. We hovered in space like a hung jury. We
were counting on one thing: that a creature which
spent its entire existence in a weightless condition
would have no familiarity with gravity. If our ship
had been spinning it would have left us alone.
If Arlene's theory proved correct, the bile nozzle
would experience something brand-new: the with-
drawal of an invitation. A subtle hint he should go
elsewhere. Or go to elsewhere, as S&R would have
We were patched into the ship through our suits.
Before the monster realized there was a problem, it
made a kind of contented snoring sound. It didn't
take much to get the creature's attention. The ship
was spinning at 0.1 gravity when the snore changed to
a howl of rage and desperation. Heavy thudding and
liquid noises preceded its exiting the craft.
We didn't witness the part reuniting with the whole.
We saw something better: the huge creature--maybe
a third the length of the ship--zooming off into
infinity. From this angle we could see what passed for
its back--a series of tubes boosting the cloudlike
swirling mess that was the rest of it. Right before it
went out of range, the mass seemed to grow solid into
something I'd compare to a turtle's shell. If I ever met
Commander Taylor again I'd recommend this thing
for membership in the Shellback Society.
I never did find out why Arlene wanted the biggest
goddam boot we could find.
When we were safe aboard, there were new trou-
bles. S&R's ship was not designed to take such
acceleration along its radial axis. The structure had
sustained severe damage and was leaking air like a son
of a bitch. There were so many split seams we would
never be able to patch them all.
"We have no plan for to use airless ship," said S&R,
"but not to worry."
Not to worry? Where had I heard that before? Oh, it
was from Mad magazine. Alfred E. Newman looked
just like the last president of the United States. A fire
eater had turned him into toast. It was worse than any
"Why shouldn't we worry?" I wanted to know.
"Space suits," they answered.
"We've lost time dealing with this monster," ob-
served Arlene. "There can't possibly be enough air in
the suits for the remainder of the trip."
Both Arlene and Fly insisted that S&R had no sense
of humor, but the sound that came out of the alien
mouths sounded like laughter to me. "Not to worry,"
they repeated. "Enough air in belts for human life
I wasn't the least bit surprised. We were ready to
prove what tough guys we were. Marines! We could
hold our breath longer than anyone, even those Navy
SEALS on the Bova. We could hunker down in our
suits as we slowly ran out of air . . . and not complain
one time. Tough guys don't complain. We could take
it. We'd die without complaint, because we weren't
weaklings. We weren't some inferior form of life. We
As I looked at Fly and Arlene--they'd be first
names to me for the rest of my life--I wondered if
they felt the way I did. I've never met a sane marine.
I'm not sure there is such a breed. That's why my wife
divorced me. Damned civilian.
Arlene shot off one of her clever remarks: "A
sufficiently advanced technology greatly reduces the
number of cliffhangers."
So we'd come to this: we were a charity case in the
custody of superior beings. We could kid ourselves all
we wanted, but we were not as good as the aliens who
ruled the galaxy. It was our good fortune to become
pets to one side in a galactic war. The other side saw
us as a nuisance.
Fly spoke for all humanity when he demanded to
know more about that other side. "No more sur-
prises," he told S&R. "You should have warned us
about creatures like that bile nozzle thing. Did the
Freds send it?"
"Not coming from the Fred," they assured him.
"Just another creature who has received the Lord's
precious gift of life," Fly sneered. "Well, it doesn't
matter, now that we've kicked its butt. Fill us in on
the Freds. What are they like?"
S&R hadn't fought the Freds all this time without
picking up a bit of knowledge. Our alien allies weren't
idiots. I was the idiot for not having requested this
information myself. I feared that I was beginning to
lose it. When the devils first appeared on Phobos and
Deimos, it was a surprise to Fox Company. There was
no briefing for Fly and Arlene. There was only survi-
val. Before my fire team set foot on Phobos, I had
pumped our fearless heroes for everything they re-
membered about Phobos and Deimos. S&R were the
duo to pump now.
The briefing consisted of projected images and a
basic description of the main enemy, delivered in
S&R's funny English. I gasped when I saw that a Fred
head looked like an artichoke. Eyeballs were sprin-
kled over their domes like raisins in a cake. The heads
seemed a little small to me, but there was a good
reason for this: The brains weren't in the heads; the
gray matter was housed in a safer place, down lower,
in the armored chest. There was room there for a very
large brain. The arms attached to the chest were
rubbery affairs with semiarticulated chopsticks for
"Avoid them sticking into you," said S&R.
"The fingers?" I prompted. The image showed us
just what those fingers could do. Contained in tough
but flexible skin sacks, the chopsticks were hard and
sharp. With a flick of its rubbery arms, a Fred could
make any or all of its fingers opposable.
Moving on down the torso, we came to a waist so
narrow I didn't see how it could support the weight it
carried. Then there were two thick legs, each ending
in a foot that was very like a human foot, except that
it included one feature of a bird's claw: a toe in back,
protruding from the otherwise human-looking foot.
I wondered what S&R's feet were like, but I wasn't
curious enough to ask them to remove their boots.
Fly told us that the Freds wore tightly fitting boots.
"Magnetized to them walking," said S&R. "They are
not liking free-falling."
"How reasonable!" Fly blurted out, and then the
reality hit him. "Shit. You mean their ships are zero-g
"Same principles appliance," said S&R.
"The same principles apply." Arlene corrected
them this time.
"Tell me something else," demanded an irritated
Fly. I didn't stop the sergeant, because I agreed with
him. "Were you going to let us fight the Freds without
giving us any background?"
"Humans like going to be surprised," answered
"Maybe humans like going into situations blind,"
said Fly. "Military men have more brains than that."
And their brains are in the right place, I added
Then we reached the important subject: weapons.
The Freds did not keep an armory on their ship
equivalent to what even a self-respecting imp or
zombie would pack. Basically they didn't expect to be
attacked. Pride goeth before the fall.
Despite their confidence, every Fred carried a per-
sonal weapon that was fairly nasty. S&R warned us to
keep an eye out for that. The weapons looked like
slingshots with more moving parts and used an elec-
tromagnetic field to fire little flying saucers.
S&R summed up: "We have no plan for to fight past
making sabotage at Fred base. Other weapons they
may be bringing to exteriorize."
"Do you mean exterminate?" asked Fly.
The briefing improved my morale. I threw out:
"Whatever you mean, Captain Sears and Roebuck,
rest assured the United States Marine Corps always
has a plan to kick butt."
After the crash course in Freds 101, the remainder
of the trip was nothing to write home about. It was
like the first part of the trip. The only difference was
that we were wrapped in cellophane so we'd be nice
and fresh at the other end.
All good things come to an end.
All bad things come to an end.
"A teleporter ought to be nothing for you after your
Gate problem," Arlene said, trying to cheer me up.
The damage to S&R's ship provided an unexpected
tactical advantage. We might never return to the
message alien base, but now we had a nice decoy to
distract the Freds while we used the teleporter. S&R
sent the remains of their ship straight at a Fred
defense satellite. We hated to see it go. It was a good
Disembarking from a ship had never been easier.
There was no damage to the airlocks. We were already
suited up and ready to go teleport-hunting. All in a
I would have said that if you've seen one transmat-
ter device, you've seen them all, but that wasn't true.
This one didn't have a stone arch built over it with
lots of weird crap carved into it, though.
I might have used my experience with the Gate on
Phobos as an excuse for being superstitious, but there
was no point. Much of what we'd seen since leaving
our solar system made no sense according to our
physics. So there was nothing for us to do but have
faith in the engineering that worked. None of the
amazing alien technology had let me down yet, except
for one small Gate glitch.
I waited my turn and took a deep breath. Then I
stepped forward to meet my destiny.
I'd never heard a hairy bag of protoplasm call
out my name before: "Fly!"
Looking down, I noticed something glistening on
the floor near my boot. I was slow on the pickup
because I had my priorities. First, the boot. That
meant we still had our clothes and weapons. Second,
we were back in gravity. So what if my back hurt and
my arches complained? Gravity, sweet gravity. Third
. . . third, there was some kind of problem.
Liquid was leaking from the flesh bag. It was sort of
a faded pink I'd never associated with blood. I took a
closer look at the bag and recognized a human mouth.
I'd never seen a mouth all alone before, surrounded
by a wrinkled mass of skin sweating pink stuff.
The little voice in the back of my head was about to
give me hell for not being more observant, and for not
thinking at all. Arlene saved it the trouble with a
scream. I didn't blame her for screaming. I screamed
too, the moment my brain started firing on all cylin-
ders. The nitwit who came up with the idea that a
strong woman should never scream had his head so
far up his ass that daylight was a myth to him.
S&R didn't understand what had happened. They
asked what had happened to the other units. They
meant Hidalgo-Fly, and Hidalgo-Arlene. We tried to
explain that the dying thing on the floor was Hidalgo.
S&R would always have problems with the idea of
Arlene and I were more acquainted with that idea.
Even as the blob of protoplasm begged for us to
"finish" it, we were simultaneously firing our zap
guns. The two beams of heat crossed each other,
carving the blob into smaller pieces that didn't talk.
We kept at it past the point of necessity.
"Why did you send new unit away?" asked S&R.
The Klave mind found what had happened intriguing.
They may have thought Hidalgo had been trans-
formed into something closer to them, a duality of
some kind. I didn't know. I didn't care.
The officer, the man Arlene had once considered
spacing out an airlock, had proved himself one of
Earth's best. He'd been the leader of our fire team. We
owed him what we had just done for him.
Funny thing. He'd fought his quota of monsters. A
steam demon had taken his wife. He'd kicked butt
with hell-princes and spiders. On Phobos he was a
bud, helping take down the imps and the flying skulls
and the superpumpkin. He was a veteran of the Doom
And a freakin' teleporter nails him. Shit. A bleeding
technological foul-up. It made me so mad I saw Mars-
red. We owed him more than putting him out of his
misery. We owed him words, a proper farewell due an
We gave him a different kind of farewell, worthy of
a good marine. Our first Freds made the bad mistake
of showing up just then. I didn't leave any for Arlene
or S&R. The ray guns made my job too easy.
Yeah, right. Isn't technology grand? It fries Hidalgo
and then gives me a push-button method of avenging
him. We kicked ass. Nothing made me feel better. The
guns were light, and they didn't need reloading. S&R
mentioned they'd need recharging eventually, but
they were good for a thousand kills per charge. I tried
my best to use it up.
A few Freds fired off a few saucers. Their aim was
not up to Marine Corps standards.
S&R aimed at the Freds' chests to get the brain
right away. When I realized the aliens could feel pain I
started aiming for the artichoke heads and the arms
and the legs. Arlene reminded me that we had a
mission to perform. That didn't help. I'd been inac-
tive too long, bottled up too much. Now it was
We came across two Freds making love. I recog-
nized the process from S&R's lesson. Their normal
height was six feet. When one extended to over seven
feet, it was ready to copulate; but only if another one
was ready to be on the receiving end. The tall one
would find a mate that had shortened down to under
five feet. Then the tall one would insert its pyramidal
head into the cavity in shorty's head.
They shared genetic information that way. The
"male" turned bright red and the "female" turned a
rich purple. A scientist would have found the demon-
stration endlessly fascinating. I found it more reward-
ing to interrupt the festivities by choosing my shots
with imagination. Before they died, I'm certain these
Freds felt some of what Hidalgo suffered.
While I was amusing myself, S&R and Arlene
found the main computer and loaded the program.
Then they found me in a room running with alien
blood. The color reminded me of iced tea.
"What now?" I choked out the words. They tried to
tell me the mission had been accomplished. This
didn't cut it. We hadn't finished using our zap guns.
"We have no ship any longer," sighed Arlene. She
turned to S&R and asked if they had any suggestions.
Those boys sure did. There were functional teleport
pads on the base. In the immortal words of
S&R, "Gateways must go to Fred ships. Not safe to
The little voice in my head pointed out that we had
run out of enemies to kill here. At no point did it
bother me to think that I was failing to snuff out
mind-consciousnesses or ghost-spirits. These alien
monsters were dead enough for me.
I shouldered the burden of command. Sergeant
Taggart had a plan. "Let's go!" covered both my
strategy and my tactics.
We booked. In my rage I forgot the ship would be in
zero-g. But the moment I felt that old free fall
spinning in my stomach, I reminded myself that the
wonderful ray guns had no kick and were perfect
weapons for this environment.
Too bad they didn't make the trip with us. Neither
did our clothes or equipment. Yep, it was as if we'd
gone through the Phobos Gate again. Stripped
nekkid. There was Arlene to port, her long, firmly
muscled legs kicking slightly as if she were swimming.
Kid sure had a nice ass. And there were Sears and
Roebuck. Naked, they looked even more like Magilla
Gorilla. But their feet were far more human than
simian. I'd wondered about that.
"What do we do now, Sergeant?" asked Arlene. She
didn't say it like my best buddy. She said it like
someone who has been thinking more clearly than her
S&R came to my rescue. "We had no choice but to
be remaining baseless."
While I tried to decide if that counted as a pun,
Arlene began to cry. That was so unlike her that it
helped bring me back to a semblance of sanity. I
noticed her hand on her neck. Then I realized what
was wrong. Her last link with Albert had been wiped
out--the second ring, the honeymoon ring. No way
could S&R re-create it outside their own lab.
We didn't have long to worry about that problem,
however. The Freds on the ship soon noticed their
stowaways-pirates-boarders. They had better aim
than the ones at the base. They came clomping along
the bulkhead in their magnetized boots, some below
us, some above us. The saucers they were firing were
coming closer and closer while we floated around,
naked and helpless.
This was when I realized I could have done a better
job of planning for contingencies. In the few seconds
of life remaining, I gave some cursory attention to the
ship. Details might come in useful in the next life,
always assuming this death theory for humans was
inadequate to cover the facts.
The ship was the same design as the Klave cruiser,
but much longer. I'd guess it was 3.7 kilometers from
stem to stern. The Fred spaceship had to be the largest
cigar in the universe.
While we ducked little flying saucers, I quickly
reviewed what I'd learned and deduced from S&R's
briefing. They were too busy ducking to engage in
dialogue, so I had to trust my memory.
S&R had never come right out and said it, but the
Freds were more like humans than the Klave in one
important respect--they too were individualists.
This was carried to a lunatic extreme in the lack of
cooperation among the demonic invaders. I'd lost
count of how many times Arlene and I had saved
ourselves by tricking the monsters into fighting each
other. In a choice between slaughtering humans and
trashing each other, hell-princes and pumpkins opted
for the latter every time.
So if it had worked a hundred times before, why not
try for one hundred and one? "Hand-to-hand com-
bat!" I shouted. "I don't think they're that much
stronger than we are." I was certain that none of us in
this ship were as strong as S&R.
"Maybe we can grab one of their guns," suggested
"No Fred guns can be used for going to kill by you,"
said S&R. It took a moment for their meaning to sink
in--namely, that the weapons could be activated only
by a Fred.
I set the example. Much as I hated zero-g, I'd spent
so much time in it lately that I'd developed a knack
for turning it to my advantage. A new form of martial
arts could be developed in free fall.
Kicking off from the wall, I grabbed the nearest
Fred and yanked that sucker right out of his magnetic
boots. Momentum was on my side; it was my new pal.
I threw the alien into two of its comrades. They didn't
act like pals. If they had any brains in those big chests,
they'd have reasoned out what I was doing, then
extrapolated from it and cooperated with one an-
What an irony. Arlene and I were two of the most
rabid individualists any collectivist could ever have
the misfortune to meet. The Klave collective had
thrown in with their antithesis, Homo sapiens,
against a common foe.
Could the ultimate error of the bad guys be their
deconstructionism? They took everything apart, leav-
ing no basis for rational self-interest.
Food for thought. Philosophy to while away the
time after we cleansed this ship of its owners. S&R
were using a different fighting technique. They were
mainly crushing their opponents, and ripping out
whole portions of the chest area. Arlene and I were
succeeding in making the Freds fight among them-
Suddenly S&R called out a warning. The Fred
coming up beneath me apparently wore an insignia
S&R recognized as some kind of biological scientist, a
med-Fred. When this one grabbed me and pulled me
down, I could see that it understood something about
Instead of jabbing its chopstick fingers toward my
chest, where it might puncture my heart, it went for
my brain, assuming the only real weakness of the
Freds must also be a human weakness.
It jabbed one of its killer fingers into the area where
it had learned humans keep their brains--the head.
But this alien's research was slightly inadequate. The
needle of pain hurt like blazes, as it went through my
cheek, but he missed my brain by the side of a barn
Then it was my turn. I ripped into his head like it
was a piece of rotten cabbage. I think it screamed as I
kept working down, down, down to the part of a living
thing that can anticipate bad things before they hap-
pen. I laughed. I was getting back to doing what I do
By some miracle we cleaned out the section we were
in. Then we moved to the next. Although similar to
the Klave ship in terms of engineering, the inside of
this vessel was composed of separate compartments.
As we floated from one section to the next, like angels
of death, my theory received endless vindication: the
Freds were not communicating with each other!
We simply repeated the process until our arms and
legs were so tired we had to stop. Then we resumed
our attack, and still the pods had not communicated
with each other. Only at the end did we encounter a
different sort of Fred.
This one might have been the captain of the ship.
He was the smartest, and he had a weapon that almost
wiped us out. "Look out for the Fred ray!" S&R
shouted in one of their clearest sentences, saving
Arlene and me from the brink of destruction. We
pushed each other out of harm's way. While we
bounced off the bulkheads and bobbed around like
corks in a bottle, a searing beam of white energy
missed us and melted one wall of the pod. Fortunately
the integrity of the ship's bulkhead was not compro-
S&R took care of this Fred personally. Four strong
hands took the cabbage apart. Afterward we discov-
ered we should have taken this one down first. But
how were we to know this particular artichoke had
access to the ship's main computer? Damned thing
didn't even look like a computer. Looked like a
blender to me.
The top Fred had programmed the ship to go ...
somewhere. There was nothing we could do to alter
the program. We'd succeeded in killing all the Freds.
But we were stuck on their Galaxy Express with a one-
way ticket. Arlene was not happy about this.
I will never see Albert again. I'd reconciled
myself to accepting him as a sixty-seven-year-old. I
could have still loved him. At least we would have
been together again.
But Fly had to take the mission to the limit. I saw
that berserker look come over him after Hidalgo died,
and I understood. I also knew we might not have
come through alive without that fire in him. When I
can think again, I'll tell Fly I understand.
Now I can only feel my loss. By the time we arrive
at our destination and turn around, Albert will have
been in his grave for centuries. So I sit alone at one
end of the ship while Fly sits at the other. The Fred
ship has large picture windows.
I watch the stars contract to a small red disk at the
center of the line of travel. Fly watches a similar disk,
but his is blue. We do not talk. He searches for words
that I do not want to hear.
We both wonder what the human race will do in the
next several thousand years.
ðÏÐÕÌÑÒÎÏÓÔØ: 42, Last-modified: Thu, 04 Dec 2003 05:14:42 GMT