I couldn't believe it as I reached out to him. He called my name faintly inside his hood: "Arlene, Arlene . . ."
The alien suits were so advanced that they seemed like magic. But here was a grim reminder there was nothing supernatural about them. While S&R used the fusion-pumped laser torch, a high pressure bubble had ruptured. The explosion had compromised Al- bert's suit. I'd started to think the material couldn't be torn. Then, adding injury to injury, he was burned by the laser.
Sears and Roebuck switched off the torch as I held on to Albert. I saw him grimace through the hood and heard his choking gasp. Flecks of blood appeared on his face. I couldn't tell if the blood was coming up from his waist injury or if he was bleeding from his head. As he gasped, trying to catch his breath, I saw blood trickle from his gums. His face turned white. "Get that man inside!" Hidalgo ordered.
S&R didn't move as I grabbed Albert, doing my best to ignore his groans. Suddenly Fly was beside me, helping me. I could hear Hidalgo's voice, talking to the aliens.
"They've got him," he said. "You can resume the operation." S&R were as silent as the depths of space. I couldn't bother with that now. My hands were full. In a situation like this, the most dangerous thing any of us could do would be to panic. Fly kept repeating, "Take it easy," but he didn't need to. I willed myself to move slowly and carefully. We were still getting the hang of the suits. There might be features that would surprise us ... and spell Albert's death while we spun around trying to figure out which way was up. We coasted toward the open lock as if we had all the time in the universe. The lock was a port in the storm. Momentum could be a monster or a friend, so we didn't hurry, despite the irrational child deep inside me demanding instant gratification.
Floating to the hospital. First aid for a brave marine. We wouldn't let Albert die. Wonder what they do with corpses in the alien base? Do they jettison them? Do they recycle them?
No! I wouldn't let myself think that way. Albert had helped mow down zombies, smash spider-minds, blow away steam demons, kick bony butt, and eat pumpkin pie. No freakin' way was it going to end now.
All we had to do was race against time and pay attention to the laws of physics. We didn't have to run and duck, fire and fall back, or even take turns on watch. We simply had to fall through the quiet gulfs of eternity, sailing between the stars, aiming not at a barrel of poison sludge but at a black dot that grew in size until it became the open hatchway only a few feet away.
Piece of cake. We cycled through the lock. I was so worried about Albert that I barely noticed that his suit had already repaired itself. Unfortunately, the regenerative pow- ers of the Plastic Wrap did not transfer to human tissue.
"The blue spheres," said Fly as we stripped off our hoods.
"Yes! Oh, my God, you're brilliant. We've got to contact the medbot right away." In another minute I'd be babbling.
We humped back to the main section of the base as we carried Albert between us. We'd left his suit on. It might not be a cure-all but as it resealed itself it helped stop the bleeding.
Medbot found us! Its voice had always been pleasant. Now it was music to my ears: "Sears and Roebuck sent a message. Part of your unit has been damaged."
I slowed down, caught my breath, tried to be coherent. "We need your help. We need one of those, oh, you know--the blue spheres that help sick people."
"They are called soul spheres." "How . . . appropriate," whispered Albert, hanging on the edge of consciousness.
"Yes," Fly got into the act. "Like the one you used on Hidalgo."
The medbot's voice was unemotional but not a monotone. It could have been my imagination, but I thought it sounded sorry when it said, "That was the last one."
"What?" I asked, knowing full well what I'd just heard.
"This base is stripped down," it said. "We have all the necessities, but we are operating with a minimum of supplies."
All this time I thought we'd been in a transgalactic Hilton. This was their idea of roughing it? Maybe that was why we were having to thaw a spaceship out of a block of ice.
"This part of your unit will live," said the medbot. More music to my ears. "He will require a longer recovery time without a soul sphere."
I was afraid to ask how long. While I pondered the question, the medbot started to take him away. "Wait!" Albert called out weakly. "I have to tell them something."
"Whatever you have to say will wait, big guy," said Fly. "You just get on the mend."
"No, I've got to tell you this," said Albert, his voice growing stronger. "It'll save you valuable time dealing with Sears and Roebuck. Should have mentioned it to you earlier but the situation hadn't changed yet." "Later," said Fly as the medbot began carting my Albert away.
He told the medico to hold up a minute. He hit us with: "Hidalgo can talk to them while it's just them, the same as you did, Fly. But I found out something when I had them synthesize the ring for Arlene, because we interacted with other aliens on the base. There's a trick to getting along with Sears and Roe- buck. They think we're a group entity."
"I'd suspected the collectivism might go that deep," I admitted.
"Not collectivism," said Albert. "They're part of a true collective. A completely different thing! They can only understand group entities formed from powers of two--pairings of individual entities. They really can't understand three people operating as a unit." So that was why Albert brought the holopicture of himself when he joined our session with S&R! But surely they must have realized it was some kind of virtual reality trick. Or maybe S&R just perversely refused to deal with unacceptable combinations. A cultural thing.
"You require medical attention," said the medbot. It sounded testy. Considering the absence of blue spheres, we weren't going to hold up Albert's surgery any longer. The barber pole hurried away, pulling Albert along on a pad.
"So here you are," said Captain Hidalgo, coming over to us. He was accompanied by S&R. "I hope Corporal Gallatin recovers," he said, watching the receding forms. "They did miracles with me, so I'm sure he'll be all right."
This seemed like a good time to test Albert's theory. Fly, that old mind reader, started the ball rolling: "Sears and Roebuck, would you mind telling us why your ship is encased in ice?"
S&R became agitated. They did the looking-at- each-other bit, but they started shaking their heads. They weren't in unison with each other.
Finally they tried communicating with the three of us. "Fly and Arlene, the ship was put into icing as part of ice comet going from cometary halo so avoid- ing detection." Then they started all over. "Fly and Esteban, the ship was put into icing as part of ice comet going from cometary halo so avoiding detection." Then: "Arlene and Esteban, the ship was--"
"Thanks, that'll do," said Fly. "We'll tell the others."
Captain Hidalgo had the aspect of a man whose brain had been sent out to the cleaners and had received too much starch.
Arlene took it like a man. She should have been happy. Captain Hidalgo had made an intelligent command decision. I would have to be left behind. I'd live. I'd be fine in several months, by Earth standard time. The mission couldn't afford to wait for my recovery. Hidalgo had needed only a few days to heal. He was the CO. I was baggage.
And while I grew old, Arlene would stay young. Maybe that was as it should be. For all her guts and strength, she made me think of a vulnerable child. I'd always wanted to be a patriarch, and now it looked as if I'd at least look like one by the time I saw her again. If I saw her again.
I could have predicted it before she said it: "You're the man I want to marry. You're my man."
I believed the latter. I had faith that she believed the former, so long as they were only words. As she stood by my bed and we held hands, I performed the simple calculation in my head. I'd be sixty-seven years old when she returned.
"I love you, Arlene." "That's not what I want to hear you say."
I squeezed her hand and told her, "I know you really love me, Arlene. That doesn't change what you are--a helluva marine who will do her duty, no matter what."
The others were waiting to say their farewells. "Call them in," I said.
"No. Not until we've settled something." Probably just as well that we weren't planning nuptials. This woman wasn't obedient. She crawled right on the bed with me. I guess you could call it a bed, even though it was a lot better than most. Sort of an overbed or superbed.
"Arlene?" I tried to get her attention. "Just because I'm laid up doesn't mean the rules have changed." "What was that about 'laid'?" she asked, smiling wickedly.
"Arlene." "Albert."
"You're not going to ask to make love again, are you?"
"You will make love only to your wife," she breathed into my ear.
"That's right." "All right."
I'd been through so much lately that I no longer trusted my hearing. My eardrums still ached from my adventure outdoors. "Arlene, what did you just say?" "I said yes, you big dope. I'm accepting your proposal of marriage."
I wanted to shout yippee and dance a jig. Couldn't do that, so I settled for crushing her in my arms and kissing her. This was no brother-sister kiss. While we caught our breath, my brain started firing on all cylinders again. "But what about the mission?" I asked.
She put her head on my chest, and I ran my hand over her red carpet. Then she lifted up her face and drilled me with the most beautiful emerald-green eyes in the galaxy. "I'm still going," she said. "But we'll have time for the honeymoon."
"How long?" I dared ask. "Six days," she said softly. "Captain Hidalgo says we'll have six days. We can count on it. He'll be marrying us."
I kissed her again. "You won't wear the silly G-string and pasties, will you?" I asked.
"How could I? That stuffs back on the Bova." She nibbled my ear.
"But Sears and Roebuck can synthesize anything," I protested.
Her lips fluttered over my eyelids and came to rest on my left cheek. "They can't synthesize everything." Her voice was muffled against my skin.
"Well, I would sort of like you . . . natural, you know," I confessed, emphasizing my point by licking her all-natural neck.
"I'll be the girl next door," my wife-to-be promised. "Need I ask if you've picked a best man?"
We both laughed. It's not as if we'd give Fly Taggart any choice. I considered the merits of asking Sears and Roebuck to whip up a tuxedo for the ultimate marine. There was something about S&R's name that inspired the idea.

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