20




Albert was too good a man to lose his grip now. As his commanding officer, I couldn't stand by and let him dissolve into a puddle. The team needed a leader.
This was always a danger when taking command in a dicey situation. The survivors could bond too much. I had realized the truth of this when I stopped feeling suicidal. After they pulled me back from my own dipdunk and told me how the blue angel had saved me, I was so grateful that I said a prayer. I did this silently, of course. That way I know God heard me. I could truly understand Gallatin's reaction to the sight of the graven image. My parents took me to a horror film when I was only six, one of the dozens of movies about the Aztec mummy. The monster didn't really frighten me; but the sight of young maidens being sacrificed by evil priests gave me nightmares for a week. Their idol looked like Moloch.
As I grew older, I began seeking out the image of Moloch. I found it in the old silent German movie, Metropolis, and it showed up in a frightening picture about devil worship. But I'll never forget how effec- tively it was used in the movie they used to make the transition from the old series, Star Trek Ten, to the new one, Star Trek: Exodus.
These strange creatures we fought were apparently able to crawl inside our minds and extract the most terrifying images from the human past. Fighting mirror images of your own nightmares had to be bad for morale. Sergeant Taggart and Lance Corporal Sanders were watching me as I watched Gallatin. Taggart started toward him, but I gave the order not to touch him.
"Gallatin," I said, keeping my voice low. "Snap out of it, marine."
He seemed to hear me as if I'd called to him across a vast gulf. His eyes were glazed. But he stopped making noises ill befitting a marine.
"Look," I said, pointing at the ground. "There are no human bones here. There is no fire in the maw waiting for human slaves to shovel in human food." There was, in fact, a solitary skull staring at us with empty sockets, but even the blind could see there was nothing remotely human about it.
Gallatin calmed down. "I fouled up, sir!" he said in his old, strong voice. I was damned glad. If words didn't work, the next step would have been to trade punches. Gallatin was no coward. He would never cut and run. If he went nuts and stayed nuts, he'd have to be put down.
"This is the Gate," said Fly, checking his coordi- nates.
"Why do you think they dressed it up for Hallow- een?" I asked anyone who wanted to answer.
"It's what they do," Sanders volunteered, keeping her eye on Gallatin the whole time. I didn't blame her. So far, their feelings for each other hadn't inter- fered with the mission. If there was a time for her to blow it, this would have been it.
"Gives me the creepy crawlies," I admitted. "It's Lovecraftian," added Sanders.
"Oh, no," said Taggart. "Just don't say it's el- dritch."
If I hadn't returned from the dead, thanks to the blue angel, I would have put a stop to the banter. Normally I'm a stickler for protocol, but death had provided me with new insight. (Sanders said I was only near death, but I know better.) We weren't on such a tight timetable that we couldn't spare a few minutes. Up to this point, Taggart and Sanders had been our guides, but once we stepped through that portal, they would be no more experienced than the rest of us. No one had a clue what to expect. We had orders. Hope was allowed.
"I'd never describe that as eldritch," she threw back at Taggart. "I'd only observe the lurid shimmering about the base of the stygian masonry; and how overhanging our fevered brows leer abhorrent, arcane symbols threatening our very sanity with portents of an unwholesome, subterraneous wickedness."
"Well, okay," Taggart said, surrendering. "Just so long as you don't describe it as eldritch."
This moment of R&R was no excuse to lay off work. Since the Marine Corps had failed to provide us with eyes in the backs of our heads, I ordered a modified defensive diamond. Half of one. All four of us couldn't very well cover the four cardinal directions. Two of us had to prepare for the trip. Then we switched the duo.
My pressure suit was torn around the neck where the skull-thing had bitten me. Taggart's helmet was damaged but still usable; the dent in the side did not prevent his getting it over his head, and the faceplate wasn't cracked. The only suit likely to leak was mine. At my query, Taggart repeated his belief that the suits, weapons, and everything else not of woman born would not make it through. The preparations might be a waste of time, but I wasn't going into the unknown leaving anything undone. We'd be foolish to assume anything.
Making bets was another thing entirely. The odds were entirely on Sergeant Flynn Taggart's side. That's why I asked one last time what it had been like for him the last time he went through a Gate.
He reported: "I retained consciousness, sir. You don't worry if your equipment is still in your hands because you don't have any hands. There's no sensa- tion of having a body at all. Then suddenly pieces of you come back. It's like you think of them and you're whole again; or maybe it's the other way around. Hard to tell."
"Were you awake and standing when you reached the other side?"
"Standing, sir!" We'd covered the same ground before, but we
weren't under attack at the moment. I liked going through the checklist one last time. And now our time was up.
I gave the command. "Move it, marines!" We humped into the mouth of Moloch.
At first there was a sensation of moving, of motion, a light drop, or a dropping into the light ... but it's hard to see without eyes. We had no hallucinations, though. Our minds were our own. You can just say no to hallucinations, but you need a tongue to say no. Know what I mean?
ESTEBAN HIDALGO: Does anyone hear my voice? I hear it, but I don't have ears. You didn't say we could communicate while traveling through the Gate, Ser- geant Taggart.
FLYNN TAGGART: Never traveled in a group before, sir! Arlene and I went separately on the Gate trip from Phobos to Deimos. The Gates are different from the short-hop teleports.
ARLENE SANDERS: You can say that again, Fly! HIDALGO: I've never experienced either. Which do you prefer, Sergeant?
TAGGART: I'm not sure, sir! Anything that doesn't require using a stupid plastic key card to pass through a secret door is fine with me. Last time I was on Phobos, I really hated that.
HIDALGO: This is annoying enough for me, Ser- geant.
ALBERT GALLATIN: I like being here. SANDERS: Albert? You don't feel you've been sacri- ficed to Moloch?
GALLATIN: The opposite. This is wonderful. It's better than sex.
SANDERS: Well, I'll grant you it's up there. HIDALGO: What do you think about that, Sergeant Taggart?
TAGGART: About what, sir? HIDALGO: Do you think this disembodied condition is better than sex?
TAGGART: Nothing is better than a clearly deline- ated chain of command, sir!
HIDALGO: Is that sarcasm, Sergeant? TAGGART: No, sir!
HIDALGO: I don't like this experience. How much longer do you expect it to take?
SANDERS: May I answer that, sir? HIDALGO: You are both veterans of Gate travel, Lance Corporal.
SANDERS: Time has no meaning here. TAGGART: There is no here here.
HIDALGO: I was afraid you'd say that. TAGGART: Since we don't know how far we're travel- ing, or how fast, there is no way to calculate anything, sir!
GALLATIN: Permission to speak, sir? HIDALGO: Tell you what. While we are in this whatever-it-is, we can drop all formalities. No one has to call me sir. Now, what did you want to ask me? GALLATIN: If we encounter God, should we address him as sir?
HIDALGO: In case the answer is no, I'm more com- fortable with dropping the formalities. Did you hear that, Fly?
TAGGART: Yes. HIDALGO: You are good at following orders.
TAGGART: Yes. HIDALGO: I'd like to thank all of you for saving my life.
TAGGART: It was the blue sphere. HIDALGO: Perhaps you willed it to appear.
SANDERS: That's occurred to me, too. HIDALGO: Strange to be brought back from the dead by a creature I didn't see.
SANDERS: While you were unconscious, you didn't see the face on the sphere.
HIDALGO: I was dead. I saw the light. The sphere had a face?
TAGGART: I wonder if any of our hosts at the end of this journey will have a face like that? It didn't look like any of the doom demons.
HIDALGO: Doom? TAGGART: We call them that sometimes, after we found out the invasion was called Doom Day.
GALLATIN: Did you feel that? SANDERS: Can we feel anything?
GALLATIN: I felt something warm. I feel as if I'm back on the Bova . . . weightless. Must have a body to feel that.
SANDERS: Wait. I feel something. But it's cool, not warm. I feel as if I'm in free fall, also.
HIDALGO: Maybe our journey is nearing its end. NOT HIDALGO-TAGGART-SANDERS-GALLATIN: Your
journey ended a long time ago. You wouldn't be having a conversation if you were in transit. HIDALGO: What? Who's that?
TAGGART: That's not a voice. SANDERS: It's not an identity--not one of us. GALLATIN: Are you a spirit?
NOT HIDALGO-TAGGART-SANDERS-GALLATIN: We are the reception committee. You had a long journey, a long sleep. You are only now returning.
TAGGART: But we are experiencing what happens toward the end of Gate travel.
NOT H-T-S-G: No, you are remembering the sensa- tions accompanying the transitional state. The jour- ney is over. You have arrived. To reassemble, you must begin with your last memories. You must be aided through the psychotic episode.
HIDALGO: Psychotic . . . TAGGART: Episode?
NOT H-T-S-G: The fantasy. The death fantasy. Do not concern yourselves. Reassembly is.
HIDALGO: If we have arrived somewhere, may we be informed where?
NOT H-T-S-G: Here the many meet and diplomacy greets. The True Aesthetic welcomes you. Sirs, sirs, sirs, sirs!
TAGGART: Something tells me we've been talking on a party line.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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