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 popped it.
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 lived.
"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 his quota.
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- dar.
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- closed area.
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 kingdom come.
"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 asked.
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 aid?"
We walked in silence. We had no ready answer. Only more questions. Then I had a thought. That happens sometimes.
"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 said.
"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 scar.
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 out.

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