26




I opened my eyes to a terrifying sight. A pulsing pole loomed over me, its mad eye blinking. There was a whirring sound, and I tasted copper in my mouth. And then something darted on the edge of my peripheral vision. It seemed to be circling, waiting to pounce.
Then the pole-thing moved out of the way so the flying thing could attack! I tried to move, but my limbs were immobile. I tried to shout for help but my throat was frozen. Right before the airborne object smashed into my face, I saw ... a face on a blue ball. A friendly face. A blue sphere. It was another of the blue spheres that had saved my life before. Now it was happening again. If this kept up, I'd think about taking some vitamins. I wasn't used to being an invalid.
The blue engulfed me, and I felt like a million bucks again. Then I could move all I wanted. I sat up and saw Corporal Arlene Sanders.
"Welcome back," she said. "Do you mind if I put on some clothes?"
"No, sir," she said. Was that a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth? I was definitely alive. The team looked one hundred percent. Whatever Taggart, Sanders, and Gallatin had been doing while I was laid up must have been good for them. They had so many things to tell me that formality would simply have gotten in the way. We were so far outside normal mission parameters that I realized the old adage of Gordon Dickson fully applied: "Adapt or die." The challenge was simply to keep Fly, Arlene, and Albert from interrupting each other as they took turns filling me in on the state of the mission as we ate our chow. Mother of Mary! What had we gotten ourselves into? I wondered how many incredible things I was supposed to swallow along with the red things that tasted like very old tomatoes preserved in vinegar. Fly assured me they'd promised new and improved food soon. Arlene and Albert seconded the motion. If a sergeant and two corporals believed that strongly in something, I was going to eat all the little red things I could right now.
Seriously, I was pleased and impressed by what they had done while I was subject to the tender ministrations of what Arlene called the medical ro- bot. Waking up to see something like that was not an experience to recommend.
No sooner had I gotten used to the medbot than along came Sears and Roebuck. I was glad they were on our side. I wouldn't want to blow away anything that looked the way they did.
"We are glad your unit is complete," they told us. I'd never had more unusual dinner companions. They ate little pyramids made out of some gelatinous substance. The pyramids were the exact same color blue as the spheres that kept saving my life. Arlene warned me not to eat any food that wasn't human-approved. She needn't have worried. Being fire team leader didn't mean I had to commit suicide. I wanted to hang around for the mission with our new alien allies.
The medbot wouldn't leave my side until it was convinced my recovery was complete. While we munched, it volunteered some information. "For samples of Homo sapiens, all of you are recom- mended for upcoming missions of a military nature." "We should hope so," I said.
"You are dopamine types." "Huh?"
"It is a neurotransmitter strongly linked to seeking out adventure. You have many exon repetitions of the dopamine receptor gene. The genetic link to the D4 receptor. . . ."
"Wait a minute," interjected Albert. "Are you saying we are chemically programmed to want to kick demonic butt?"
"Yes," said the medbot. Arlene clapped her hands. "This isn't one of those pussy robots that says things like 'It does not com- pute.' This one's got English down."
"And without even going to college," sneered Fly. "That's a cheap shot," Arlene threw back.
"Why do you do that?" asked the medbot. "Do what?" asked Arlene.
"Call me a robot. I'm not a toaster. I'm not a VCR. I'm not a ship's guidance computer."
Arlene raised an eyebrow and asked, "What are you, then?"
"Organic tissues. Carbon-based life, the same as you."
"What's your name?" I asked the barber pole. Its answer did not translate into English. I tried my hand at diplomacy. "Would you mind if we continued calling you, uh, medbot?"
"No. That's a fine name. Please don't call me a robot."
Sears and Roebuck got us back on track. "Your unit and our unit are ready soon go to war." Their English might need work, but the meaning was clear. We shouldn't quarrel among ourselves, even if we were the type to seek out thrills and variety.
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other. They sure as hell appeared to be one character looking himself over in the mirror. They reached some kind of a decision and left the table, saying, "We are going to elsewhere. We are returning to here."
While they were absent, an alien who could have passed for a dolphin on roller skates with one arm snaking out of its head scooted over with another course of the dinner. This stuff looked almost like Earth food. It could have been enchiladas.
"Who is going to try this first?" I asked. "Rank has its privileges," said Fly, the wise guy. A Mexican standoff. Arlene played hero and took the first bite. I wish we'd had a camera to take her picture. "That's horrible," she said, doing things with her face that could have made her pass for one of the aliens.
"I'll try it," said Albert, proving there really was love between these two. It's not like they could keep it a secret. He proved himself a credit to his faith. His face didn't change at all, but the words sounded as if they were being pushed through a very fine strainer: "That is awful, but familiar somehow."
"Yes," Arlene agreed. "I can almost place it." "This is not what I had in mind," Fly complained before he even tried it. "The mess was supposed to improve."
"It is a mess," agreed Arlene. While Fly worked up his nerve, I tried the food. It sure as hell didn't taste like an enchilada, but I recognized the flavor right away. "Caramba! No won- der you recognize the flavor. It's choline chloride." The worst-tasting stuff this side of hell.
"Oh, no," said Fly, who had passed up eating the red balls while he waited for the "good stuff." We'd all had to take choline chloride as a nutrition- al supplement. It was part of light drop training. The others remembered it from then. I was still using it, or had been right up to departure. The stuff was used by bodybuilders; it was as good for muscle tone as it was bad for the taste buds.
"I wonder what's for dessert," Fly said hopefully. Sears and Roebuck returned with the final course. But it wasn't something to eat.
"We have bringing you space suits for your unit," they said.
"Why have you brought us suits?" I asked, unable to recognize anything like space gear. They were carrying one thin box that would've been perfect for delivering a king-size pizza with everything on it. "So you are going to your new spaceship," they announced. I wondered what I'd think of an alien craft. I already missed that old tub, the Bova. "Where are the suits?" asked Arlene.
One of them opened the box. The other pulled out what appeared to be large sheets of Saran Wrap. And all I could think was: I should've stayed in bed. I never thought I'd say this about an officer, but I was glad Hidalgo was with us again. He'd started out a typical martinet butthead. Now he insisted on being a human being. I guess if you drop an officer into a world of aliens and weird creatures, he has no choice but to turn human. The base must have been affecting me as well: Fly Taggart, the officer's pal!
Ever since we'd traveled over the rainbow I'd stopped worrying about Arlene's attitude toward Hi- dalgo. I'd worried what I would do if the guy turned out to be another Weems. Despite my complaining, I didn't think I could just stand by and let Arlene space a fellow marine. Didn't seem right somehow, even to an officer. I wasn't sure the end of civilization as we knew it meant open season on fragging officers. Any- way, it was ancient history now. We were a team in every sense of the word.
When S&R presented us with the high-tech space suits, it was a test for Hidalgo's command abilities. He'd been laid up for most of the tour of wonders, but he knew we weren't crazy when we briefed him. All of us had a moment of thinking S&R were
playing a joke on us. Hidalgo was in command. He had to decide that we were going all the way with our alien buds. We'd moved into a realm where ignorance could be fatal. The captain made the decision that counted, the same one we'd reached in our hearts and minds. Albert had the right word: "faith." We put our faith in the twin Magilla Gorillas.
Of course, we could rationalize anything. It wasn't until we were outside the base that I really believed the suits worked. We zipped up the damned things like sandwich bags that I prayed wouldn't turn into body bags.
Inside the airlock, we felt ridiculous. The transpar- ent material draped around us like bad Halloween costumes. Only two parts of the suit were distinguish- able from the Saran Wrap. The helmet was like a hood, hanging off the whole body of the material. The belt was like a solid piece of plastic. And that was it! "Where's the air supply?" asked Arlene. S&R said it was in the belt.
"Where are the retros for getting around?" I asked. Same answer.
"How about communicators?" Hidalgo wanted to know. Ditto. And ditto.
Only one question merited a different response. "How tough is this material?" asked Albert.
"Can be damaged," said S&R. Nothing wrong with that sentence. Just the chilling reminder that however advanced these suits were, they didn't eliminate risk. Once we were outside, the suits puffed up. We were comfortably cool inside them. Light was no problem, even though the sun was only a bright star at this distance. The base gave us all the light we needed. If we'd been in an orbit closer to home, we could have looked directly at old Sol and our eyes wouldn't have been fried. We were protected from all cosmic radia- tion. Hell, I wished PO2 Jennifer Steven could have one of these in her locker.
The first thing I noticed was a familiar constella- tion. Sure, the constellations were in slightly different locations in the sky. My sky. Fly sky. If there were picture windows in the base I would have figured out that we weren't as far from home as I thought. The second thing I noticed was the ship S&R had promised us. It was right next to the base, and it was a big mother. The light from the base outlined it clearly, like a spotlight. We could make out all sorts of details. There were black shadows crisscrossing the ice. Yeah, the ice. S&R had briefed us on all kinds of interesting details, such as the craft having an ion drive, the engine taking up most of the space. They'd neglected to mention that the entire ship was encased in a gigantic block of ice. The little voice in the back of my head made me promise to ask why when we returned to base, unless someone beat me to the $64,000 question.
S&R were carrying a small object with a box on one end and a tube on the other. They'd told us the little whatsit was actually a fusion-pumped laser torch. The rest of us carried nothing at all, so whatever could be done fell squarely on the shoulders of the dynamic duo. They reached the ice cube first and turned on their powerful toy.
We were busy mastering the use of the suits. It was hard to believe how much compressed gas was in those belts. When I snapped my right arm straight forward--in the same motion I would have used to knife somebody--the wrap became hard around the forearm. By twisting my hand I could activate the retros. Arm forward, suit forward. Arm back, suit back. Neat!
Albert was the first of us to master the suit. Go, marine! So he boosted himself over to help S&R. Arlene was next to get the hang of it well enough to join in. I had the idea that S&R didn't need any help. We were all along for the ride, to see the operation, and to become used to a higher-quality space suit. We could hear each other's voices as clearly as if we were back in the "cafeteria." Hidalgo said a word or two, but he wasn't trying to tell S&R their business. I didn't see any need to horn in. I hung back, taking the watch, in case a space monster showed up or some- thing.
When I heard the popping sound, I didn't realize it was inside Albert's helmet. I heard Arlene scream his name before I realized what had happened. There was debris making it hard to see. Then I pieced it together: Albert had been hit by the laser.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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