13




"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 little eavesdropper.
"You never cease to amaze me, Fly Taggart," Ar- lene continued. "Here we've traveled half the solar system together."
"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 that.
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, Arlene Sanders.
"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 space?
"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 heard her.
"We don't have any choice," Albert replied almost as softly.
"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 stuff."
"I don't want to split up," said Albert. "I'm wor- ried about you, but I know you can take care of yourself."
"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 pumpkins.
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 dense.
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.
Poor Fly. Poor Arlene.
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 long.
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." "Then why--"
"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 back tears.
"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 understand?"
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.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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