11




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 vet's name.
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 humans.
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 what's sacred.
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, too.
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- lene asked.
"Every silver lining has a cloud," I replied. "I could feel how tense you were in there about our new boss."
"You weren't exactly mellow about Albert." "Mixed feelings, Fly. I'm weighing never seeing him again against his joining us on another suicide mission."
"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 monks."
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." "Exactly."
"Now we're going back. So stop holding out on me. You were gonna say something about Captain Hi- dalgo."
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 our standards?"
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 the airlock."
"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 you."
"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 there."
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 by long-distance."
"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 job."
"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 better prepared."
"We're fortunate they have as much as they do," argued Arlene. "There's everything here except the kitchen sink."
"The kitchen sink is what we need, and it's at Point Mugu," said Fly. "Thanks to Ken, we have a launch window."
"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- one laughed.
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 the others.
"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 trip."
"I want to go to Phobos," I said. Every time I said that, Arlene repeated the same word: "No."
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."
"What?" "It's important to fight to the end. Sometimes I forget that."
"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 threw out.
"Shoot," said Albert. "Bad choice of words around marines," said Ken. "Civilians," said Arlene. She made it sound like a bad word.
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 teacher.
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 surfboard.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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