21




I've never been able to explain to Arlene why I'm so convinced there's a God. She lives in a world of logic and science. Mysteries bother her. They are problems to be solved; and she insists on a certain type of answer in advance. Her stubbornness only makes me love her more.
I'm not stupid. I realize the object hanging over my head is no angelic being. But lying on my back and watching the slow movements of the gossamer crea- ture with flashing jewel eyes I feel a deep calm. The butterfly things that flutter around its flower-shaped head are attracted to the eyes, as I am attracted. The gossamer being eats the small flitting creatures. This flying alien is no animal. It is a genius of its kind. But it pays no attention to me. If poor Dr. Ackerman had lived and joined us on this mission, he would have fulfilled his life's ambitions. The alien base contains a remarkable collection of geniuses; it was a sort of a galactic Mensa.
I haven't been able to find out where we are, but I'll keep asking. The only problem with this place is that most of the gossamer creatures completely ignore us. That's one development I never expected--aliens who are simply bored with us.
The bad part is how their attitude rubs off. I'm bored with us. If this keeps up, I'll lose my desire to shoot things. Never mind what that means for my career in the marines. We Mormons believe in a warrior god, warrior angels, warriors, but there's not a single fiery sword anywhere in this whole gigantic habitat. What's a fella to do?
I know. I'll make friends with some of the natives. There must be somebody in this burg who'll show a new guy a good time.
"It's good to have our bodies again," said Arlene over a cup of H2O and a plate of little red eyeballs. They weren't really eyeballs. But then, they weren't really red either.
"Not bad," I agreed. "I think I lost a few pounds." "Fly, there aren't any extra pounds on you." I shook my head. "Our vacation in Hawaii put a few extra pounds on the old carcass."
"Not that I ever noticed," she said in her friendliest voice. "You know, Fly, I feel as if I'm on vacation now."
So did I. It was hard to believe we were on an alien base God knew where. We were sitting at a table floating in the air between us. We were not in zero-g, but the table sort of was. I'd never sat in a more com- fortable chair. It altered its shape to accommodate my slightest move. We'd taken our pills and were now enjoying the best human dinner available to us. The only one.
"Captain Hidalgo is not on vacation," I pointed out. There had been a problem with him. The strange entity we called a medbot had told us that Hidalgo's brain and body were not yet in harmony, but they would be. Whenever we asked the medbot how much time it would take for Hidalgo to be on his feet again, the eye of the robot seemed to wink at us, and the thing produced equations in the air. To be honest, I wasn't completely certain it was a machine, but Arlene insisted it had to be.
Arlene understood one statement, which put her kilometers ahead of Yours Truly. She said that in quantum physics there is no such thing as absolute time; there is only time relative to the location and speed of the observer.
I'd settle for finding out how much longer it would take for Hidalgo to rejoin us. There was no one I could ask about when Albert might come out of his mood.
Arlene seemed to read my thoughts again. Maybe in this place she really could. "Albert's not on vacation either."
"At least he's all right." "Physically, yes, but I've never seen him in such a strange mood before."
"He told me he was meditating." She shook her head. "He told me he was trying to communicate."
"That may be the same thing with these critters. We could spend the remainder of our lives attempting to adjust and never get anywhere."
I remembered coming back into my body. When we had eyes again, I saw the naked forms of Arlene, Albert, and Hidalgo. We weren't alone. There were aliens with us, but my reactions were off. I didn't even worry about whether the aliens had weapons or were menacing us in any manner. I'd undergone a change in perspective unlike anything that happened when I Gate-traveled before. I perceived the naked bodies of my fellow human beings with a completely new objectivity. I figured the difference had more to do with where we were than how we arrived.
I didn't feel desire for Arlene. I wasn't judgmental about the bodies of the two other men. I didn't feel any locker-room embarrassment or competition. But I wasn't indifferent. I was curious about the human body, as though I were seeing it for the first time. I felt the same way about the aliens, whose strange forms were suddenly no stranger than the fleshy bipeds called human beings.
The oddity of the moment was the medbot, who was all the reception committee we rated. It looked like a barber pole with an attitude. When Hidalgo collapsed, none of us rushed to his aid. We were still in that weird frame of mind, which I can describe only as objectivity. For the moment there was no strike team of marines.
The medbot scooped up Hidalgo's prostrate form, but it didn't tell us anything about his condition. The weird thing was that none of us asked. If the room had been crawling with spider-minds, our trigger fingers wouldn't have twitched; there was nothing to aim anyway.
Slowly we had found ourselves again. It was like returning to a house you'd left in childhood and exploring each room again as an adult. Only this house was your own body. As we became less alien to ourselves, the real aliens seemed stranger.
Arlene had the guts to make the first move. Too bad she didn't accomplish anything.
"I've always said you're the bravest man I know, Arlene. I was still staring into my navel when you tried to strike up a conversation with the . . . others." "Well, you've always been a navel man," she said. Catching my expression, she added, "Didn't you hear the e, Fly? You're too much of a marine to fit into any other service."
Yep, we were back to normal. That didn't seem to be getting us anywhere in this galactic Hilton they called a base. Maybe we shouldn't be complaining. We were alive. The medbot had seen to that and had answered most of our medical questions. There were some questions it simply couldn't answer, though, about where and what and who and why. These were outside its field of competence. But I'd find someone to tell us where we were.
The medbot dodged only one question, when Ar- lene asked how come it spoke flawless English. "The English of this unit is not without flaw," it said fussily. When she came right out and asked how come it spoke English of any kind, it said, "Guild secret," and changed the subject back to our biological questions! We had plenty of those.
"How do you think this food compares to MREs?" I asked Arlene as she chomped down on one of the little balls that looked like eyes to me but reminded her of a different portion of human anatomy. "Heated or cold?"
"Cold, like we had on the Bova" "Better."
"Hot." She shrugged. "Close call. But I'm not criticizing the chef. We can eat this."
"The medbot says the provider of the feast wants to meet us. And he's not really a chef; he's more a chemist."
She took another healthy gulp of water. We'd both become quite fond of water.
"I'll meet with anyone," she said, and I nodded. When she addressed the various creatures surround- ing us at our arrival they had turned their backs on us--the ones who had backs--and wandered off. At first I thought we were being snubbed. But that wasn't it at all. The show was over. They'd seen what they wanted and had better things to do.
"Do you think the chef is one of the aliens who sent the message?"
"God, I hope so!" When someone as atheistic as Arlene invoked the name of God, I knew she was speaking from the heart. I felt the same way. What could be more pointless than traveling so far--and one of these damned aliens was going to tell me how far if I had to wrestle it out of him--and find no one on the other end who gave a flip?
"We know the chef helped the medbot work out the details of our body chemistry, so it's a safe bet he wants us alive."
The first thing we learned from the animated barber pole was that everyone on the base was a carbon- based life-form. For all I knew, there wasn't any other kind. So far, everyone we'd met was also the same on both sides of the invisible vertical line or, as Arlene would say, bilaterally symmetrical. I was grateful for two things: Earth-normal gravity and reentering the oxygen breathers' club! But that didn't mean we might not run into some other problems. Hidalgo sure did.
So it made sense that they'd kept all of us on ice, in some sort of limbo, until they were sure we'd be all right in the environment of the base. When Arlene and I went through the Phobos Gate to Deimos we were traveling between artificial zones that were terrestrial-friendly. That was good news for us. When you're naked at the other end, you better hope you can breathe the air and your skin can take it. I was damned glad they could handle human specimens here. I just hoped Captain Hidalgo would pull through.
"Don't you like the food?" Arlene asked, noticing that I'd left half my meal unfinished.
"It's okay. The truth is, I'm not really hungry. My stomach spent so much time in zero-g aboard the Bova that it's taking its time returning to normal. Plus I'll let you in on something."
"What?" she asked, leaning forward conspiratori- ally.
"Practice makes perfect. They'll improve at making food for us."
She stretched like a cat. "Fine with me," she said. "Who would have thought the hardest part of keeping us alive would be feeding us?"
The medbot had sounded proud when it rattled off the information. Their first analyses had told them most of what they needed to know, but not every- thing. They knew we needed calories, proteins, amino acids, vitamins, but they did not know the proper combinations or amounts! The big problem for our hosts was figuring out how to synthesize the amino acids we eat.
This was a subject about which I was plenty igno- rant. Ever since I started blowing away imps and zombies and ugly demons of all descriptions, my education had been improving. Fighting monsters must be the next best thing to reading your way through the public library. They both beat going to college, if I could judge from the usual butthead who thought he was hot snot because he dragged part of the alphabet behind his name.
The medbot was a bit technical in its non-flawless English but "Dr. Sanders" helped me pick up the basic points. The alien chef took some of his own food and injected it with human amino acid combinations. The first attempts were served to a high-tech garbage disposal. Arlene rambled a little about random com- binations of four amino acids, then reached her climax.
The ropy things on the barber pole began to throb, and out of the top came a bottle of white pills, a present from the alien gourmet. We'd have to take those pills if we wanted to live.
The pills were blockers. While experimenting con- tinued in the higher cuisine, the pills would increase the safety margin. Where had we heard that before? They would chemically block anything harmful. Without them we were doomed.
Naturally I wanted to meet our benefactor as much as Arlene did. We'd exhausted the possibilities of conversation with the medical barber pole. So when the medbot told us we could meet our favorite alien we were eager to tote that barge, lift that bale, swim the highest mountain . . . whatever.
The medbot's instructions were clear. "The next time you eat, stay in the place where you eat." So we did. We didn't have any important date to break. Arlene had tried to talk Albert into joining us, but his appetite seemed even smaller than mine. He was off meditating again. Seemed like brooding to me. I wouldn't call it sulking. Hidalgo was still under medical supervision. So Arlene and I were the ones who attended the great meeting between worlds. "Look!" said Arlene, stifling a gasp.
The chef was coming. The chemist was coming. The alien who gave a rat's ass about us was striding up the silver walkway, and he seemed eager to meet us. We could tell from his very human smiles. Two smiles, exactly the same, because he was a they- identical twins moving in unison. They were more than twins. They were mirror images of each other. Arlene started to laugh. I tried to shush her, but it was no good. "I can't help it," she said.
"Arlene, this is important. Put a sock in it." "I can't help it," she insisted. "They look . . . they look like Magilla Gorilla!"



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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