22




Alone. Silence. He drifted.
It was different than before; he had not been alone before. Now there were no voices. The last words had been a metallic voice complaining there was a slight problem. Now there was nothing.
Then there was sound. He heard her plainly. His dead wife was paying him a visit. Rita. She was dead. Sliced and diced by a steam demon back on Earth. She couldn't be here.
"Esteban," she whispered in the dark, as she used to do when she woke up before him shortly before dawn.
"You're not here," he told her. It was the first time he'd heard his own thoughts since he was cut off from the others and placed in this true limbo.
"You've summoned me." "You're a dream," he replied morosely. "I don't want to talk to you. I want to meet the aliens." "But I'm the alien, Esteban. The only alien you've ever really confronted."
"No, I've fought aliens. Red devils. Shot the grin- ning skulls and been ripped by their razor-sharp teeth."
"You felt my teeth first. Felt my lips." "Go away. Leave me alone, you traitor. I must return to my men. To my men and Sanders. They need me. I must complete my mission among the friendly aliens."
Rita's voice was like a song he'd heard one too many times. "I was your friend."
"Never that. You were my wife." She was sad. "You didn't try to be my friend. I thought you didn't love me. So I didn't want to have your alien growing inside me."
Anger filled his mind, and he was nothing now except his mind. Cold. Hot. The desire to hurt. To fire a chain gun. To wield a chain saw. To fire a rocket that would obliterate all memories of his marriage. The steam demon hadn't been able to do that.
"Please leave me alone," he pleaded. "I must concentrate on the mission. Discipline. Responsibili- ty. Command. Must return to the team. Save the Earth. Destroy the enemy. Save . . . loved ones." "Love," she repeated. "Part of love is forgiveness." "You killed our--"
"Love." "You murdered the--"
"Alien." "You're--"
"Dead!" She shouted the last word. "Like our alien, I'm dead. You'll be dead too, if you don't open yourself to new experiences. You must know what you're fighting for. You can't just fight against, other- wise the blue sphere shouldn't have bothered saving you."
Hidalgo heard himself say, "I was bleeding to death. Why should I be saved and finish the journey only to die at the moment of success?"
He felt his tongue move in his mouth. He felt his throat swallow. He had a body again. Now if he could only find out what they had done with his eyes so he could open them.
"I'm sorry, Fly," I said, finally regaining control. After encountering so many terrible faces, I was shocked to see something so friendly and funny. I stopped laughing. But the aliens still looked like cartoon characters.
To describe one was to describe the other. The heads were large, like a gorilla's, with huge foreheads. The eyes were wide-set. The nose was cute, like a little peanut. Their hair was walnut-brown. They had a kind of permanent five-o'clock shadow, like the cari- catures of the first president of the United States to have his name on a moon plaque: Richard M. Nixon. Their complexion was a yellowish green; maybe they had a little copper in their blood.
Their bodies were massive and looked strong. The arms were a bodybuilder's delight. They were longer than a human's; I'd bet they were exactly the right proportions for a gorilla. Then again, I might still be trying to justify my reaction; the forearms bulged too much for the simian comparison. They were exactly like cartoons--I thought of Popeye the Sailor and Alley Oop. I couldn't figure out how Fly had kept from laughing!
The big chest seemed even larger compared to the narrow waist. I couldn't help noticing a detail that Fly would probably miss: the tailoring of their clothes was first-rate. They wore a sort of muted orange flight suit with lots of vest pockets. Except for all the pockets, the suits were surprisingly similar in design to standard-issue combat suits, Homo sapiens model. Some of the aliens didn't wear clothes at all, or if they did, I couldn't tell. It was reassuring to find these similarities to ourselves in our new-found friends. They even had cute little combat boots so I couldn't check on how far the gorilla comparison actually went.
There was no doubt about these guys being friends. "Welcome to you," they said in unison. All that was missing was a reference to the lollipop guild. There was some serious English teaching going on here. "Are you brothers?" Fly asked before I could. "We are of the Klave," they said.
"Can you speak individually?" I asked. "Yes," they said in unison.
I was good. I didn't laugh. While I was working to keep a straight face, Fly took command of the situa- tion. He stood up from the relaxichair, which seemed to sigh as he departed, and touched one member of the dynamic duo.
"What's your name?" he asked. "We are of the Klave."
He repeated the procedure with the next one and received the same answer. Then he followed up: "That's your race? Your, uh, species?"
Magilla number one looked at Magilla number two. I think they were deciding which one would speak so we wouldn't suffer through the stereo routine again. One of them answered: "The Klave R Us."
"How many?" The other took his turn. "Going to a trillion less. Coming from a hundred more."
A general would like slightly better information. I joined Fly. He was on one side of them so I took the other, effectively bracketing them. Now we had a mйnage а quatre.
I touched the one nearer to me and asked, "Do you have a name separate from the other?"
"Separate?" he asked. Apparently there were some problems with the English lessons.
"This part of we?" asked mine. I nodded. They put their heads together. They weren't doing any sort of telepathy. These guys were whispering the same sentence. Sounded like a tire going flat. Then they looked up at the same time. Mine spoke first: "After looking to your special English ..." "Americanian," Fly's gorilla picked up the sen- tence.
"We are giving ourselves to a name," mine finished. Then we stood there like four idiots waiting for someone to say something. We'd succeeded in getting them to speak separately, but now they played sentence-completion games. What the hell, at least they gave themselves a handle: "We are Sears and Roebuck. We are your friend. We will take the battle to all enemies, and together we fight the Freds." Alone. Silence. She drifted down deserted streets. In the late afternoon the temperature dropped quickly. Jill put her windbreaker back on, but she was still cold. She didn't like coffee, but she was glad to have the hot cup in her hand; and she needed the caffeine. Swirling the remains in the Styrofoam cup, she looked thoughtfully at the light brown color that came from two powdered creams. But it still tasted bitter, just like coffee. At least she had managed to find food in the abandoned grocery store.
The sun was at a late afternoon slant, making objects caught in the light stand out from their surroundings. She was grateful she had sunglasses. She was less grateful that she was lost. Something had gone wrong with Ken's plan. He'd talked the captain of the sub into meeting her, but only if she arrived on schedule. She hadn't. The sub was long gone by now. Captain Ellison couldn't be expected to endanger his crew any longer than necessary. Left to her own devices, as usual, Jill worked her way back to L.A., where the first sight greeting her was a zombie window washer. The thing saw her with its watery eyes and began shambling in her direction, brandishing a plastic bottle full of dirty water. Jill was fresh out of ammo.
She hated to run, especially from a zombie, the very bottom of the monster food chain. But running was a lot better than being groped by those rotting hands with the jagged yellow fingernails. So she hauled ass. A normal zombie might not run very fast. This one didn't have the energy to do anything but curse. It wasn't until Jill was three blocks away that she wondered if maybe the creature really wasn't a zom- bie. The thought that some homeless person had been missed by both sides in the war made Jill's skin crawl. Jeez, it was possible. The zombies might not notice a bum, especially if he'd been sleeping in the right garbage and had a sour odor on him. The big mon- sters might assume he was a zombie, and any humans coming through the area would think so too.
The idea made her literally sick. She threw up and covered herself in an odor like that of sour lemons, which would be useful if she needed to pass for a zombie herself. She looked bad enough. She hadn't slept in days. The circles under her eyes and the graveyard pallor of her skin gave her a living-dead appearance.
She didn't like the sick feeling in her gut. A drug- store sign beckoned. She went in, hoping to find something that would settle her stomach.
Jill wasn't so exhausted that she forgot to take precautions. She took out her piece even though it was empty. Always a chance she could bluff her way out of trouble if she encountered a human foe.
The first tip-off was the clean floor. An abandoned store would have been a disgusting mess, but this place was spotless. Broken windows had been
boarded up. She felt like kicking herself that she hadn't picked up on so obvious a clue from outside. Then she heard low voices. Unmistakably human. Not broken bits and pieces of language repeated without meaning. Whoever they were, they sure as hell weren't zombies. For one thing, zombies didn't listen to really bad classic alternative rock. What sort of people were in enemy-occupied terri- tory? They could only be guerrillas or traitors. She examined her surroundings more closely. The origi- nal contents of the store shelves were missing. She'd made a bad choice as far as her stomach was con- cerned.
Large boxes stood in place of a drugstore's normal stock. Shafts of light from the setting sun slid past the boarded windows and illuminated the box next to her knee. She looked inside and saw that it contained bottles of a nutrient solution made from hydrogen cyanide.
She almost whistled but stopped herself. It would be a good idea to find out if the voices belonged to friend or foe. She had a sinking feeling they were the enemy. This stuff could be used in the monster vats, or in some stage of the creatures' development. She'd find out while there was daylight. For all of her adult accomplishments, Jill was little-girlish enough to tiptoe without making a sound. On little cat feet, she crept over to an air vent where she could hear the voices much better.
Two men were talking in the next room. She couldn't see them, but she heard every word, loud and clear.
"The masters say we will inherit the Earth," said the deeper voice.
"They've already taken care of the meek," replied the higher voice, snickering. He sounded like Peter Lorre out of an old horror movie.
Jill didn't need them to spell it out: these were human traitors. The real McCoy. These dips hadn't crawled out of any vat. She was shocked that these human bad guys couldn't come up with a better name for the Freds than "the masters." Really . . . "I was at the general's briefing," said the deep voice. "He told us the resistance is so desperate they've started a propaganda campaign to convince people that the masters have enemies elsewhere in the universe."
"Yeah, I heard that, too." The other one snickered. "The masters are the only life besides us. They've told us. Except for life they create, of course. That's why we're so important to them; we're the only other intelligent life in the galaxy."
Jill had heard enough. Fly had often asked what she would do if she got a crack at human traitors. She'd wondered about that, too. Now she had her chance to find out.
Dr. Ackerman thought Jill was a genius. As young as she was, she already knew there was a reality beyond cyberspace, and that reality was just as impor- tant when it wasn't virtual! She had many interests- like chemistry, for instance.
While Tweedledumb and Tweedledee continued stroking each other, Jill checked the contents of the other boxes. The enemy was using this drugstore as a place to stockpile . . . everything Jill needed to make cyanogen.
The traitors were still chatting and playing their lousy music, making enough noise to cover the sounds of Jill's makeshift chemistry set. They didn't even hear her setting up the portable battery-powered fan next to the vent. She combined the ingredients and started them cooking. Then she stood well back from the deadly cyanide gas, covering her mouth with a rag she'd found in the crate with the fan. The last words she heard from the traitors came from the deep voice before it wheezed, coughed, and choked. "The masters say the Earth is the most important place in the galaxy to them right now," he said, "and we're in the center of the action." As Jill left the drugstore, she looked up at the darkening sky. "You're on your way to Phobos now. After that you'll go so far away I'll probably never see any of you again. I did those two creeps for you. Good-bye, Albert, Arlene . . . Fly."



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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