1




"So how did you guys escape from that
death trap?" asked Master Gunnery Sergeant Mul- ligan.
"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 the rays.
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 teased, either.
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 friend.
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 against monsters.
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- gives-in-first.
"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 certain doom."
"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 eyes.
"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 reports."
"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- tant.
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 cloud.
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!



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