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" means "fear."
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 pile.
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.
"Look out!" 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 it went.
I wasn't the least bit surprised when a moment later Fly announced, "The test is positive. We can breathe the air."
"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 Hidalgo.
"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 correct Gate.
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 wrong again.
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- neath.
"Better than a chain saw," was my on-the-spot report.
"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 wish for.
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.

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