29




It was my fault. Good old Fly Taggart can't leave well enough alone. The mission was proceeding without a hitch. So what if I was pissed about being in zero-g again? Arlene was in her natural element. Hidalgo was doing all right. Only Yours Truly had a problem with it.
I was bored. We'd only been out from the base a couple of weeks, Earth standard time. We'd learned a hell of a lot about the galaxy in which the human race counted for one lousy enemy village. Talk about waking up and smelling the coffee. Finding out you're a member in good standing of the most ignorant "intelligent species" in the universe is depressing. At least it was to me.
So we were poured onto an alien spacecraft where we were about as useful as Girl Scouts at the Battle of the Bulge. While S&R upshipped us to Fred Land, there wasn't much for us to do except sit back and twiddle our thumbs.
I shouldn't squawk. Jeez, Arlene finally bedded down with the man of her dreams and then she ships out with the rest of us. My best buddy had a few quirks of her own, though. If she and Albert weren't going to be separated this way, I could imagine her putting off the moment of truth indefinitely. As it turned out, she never hesitated for a moment about following orders. Hidalgo had won her respect, but even if he hadn't, she would have come along for the good of the mission. I know Arlene Sanders.
I mean Arlene Gallatin. I'll never forget Albert ordering me to take care of her. So what else is new? The stupidest thing a soldier can do is wish away the tedium. He may receive a face full of terror. Trouble with me is I've never been a soldier. I'm a warrior. Which means I don't relish long periods of enforced idleness, especially if I'm floating around like an olive in the devil's martini.
Sears and Roebuck tried to find work for us. Trou- ble was that the shipboard routine was more auto- mated here than it was on the Bova. Of course, that's like saying there's less for an Apache warrior to do on an aircraft carrier than in a canoe. Aboard the Bova, the navy was in charge. Here the high technology was so high that no one needed to be in charge, except S&R. I don't know why I thought it could have been otherwise. Stupid human pride is not a monopoly of the Marine Corps, no matter what the pukeheads in the other services say.
There was one useful task. Someone had to prepare the program for insertion and figure out what we were going to do when we lifted the eight-week, forty-year siege and returned. One guess who was the least qualified member of the crew for that job! Not that I couldn't have stumbled through it. And my bud would have been the first to admit that Jill was more qualified than Hidalgo or her. (How I would have loved to pass that information on to my favorite teenager.)
I became so desperate that I hunted around for something to do. We had plenty of the special space suits but no need to go outside. I hinted to the captain that maybe one of us should take a look-see topside, but they saw right through me, as easy as looking through one of the suits. They did at least show me the weapons we'd be using at the Fred base. Ray guns! Honest-to-God ray guns. They required no mainte- nance whatsoever.
At least on the Bova there were books. I had found a copy of The Camp of All Saints. I didn't have a memory like Albert's, but I remembered the passage about how civilization is what you defend behind the gun, and that which is against civilization is in front of the gun. A good marine credo. I'd thought about that while we were on the hyperrealist base. It was strange having no weapons the entire time we were there. But nothing was attacking us. The subject never came up except with Albert, and he said, "There's no gun control where the mind is the only weapon." When we first arrived at that base, Albert may have thought he'd entered heaven. Before we left, Arlene did her best to convince him he really had. I was going to miss Albert.
Arlene showed me a copy of the letter she lasered her man. She crammed an awful lot in there. She is endlessly fascinated by S&R and their ship. I'm still depressed. I wish faster-than-light were possible. Whether we succeed or fail in upcoming missions, I have the sinking feeling we'll never see our own civilization again. If that's how it comes down, then the Freds and their demonic hordes will have suc- ceeded in ending my civilization for me.
"You've got to hand it to the Klave," said Captain Hidalgo. "The food is getting better."
He was right about that. The last batch of experi- mental food tasted almost like a passable TV dinner. Sort of a combination meat loaf and chocolate pud- ding. At least it was edible.
"Yeah, they're real pals," I said. Realizing how that sounded, I went on. "I'm not criticizing them. They're the only friends humanity has on this side of the ditch."
Arlene drifted into the conversation, "they were the official experts on humans. The other message aliens didn't have high enough security clearances to deal with us."
That was a revelation. "So the others weren't actu- ally bored to death with us?"I asked, attempting not to sound too autobiographical.
"Well, maybe they were," said Arlene thoughtfully. "What matters is why Sears and Roebuck became so interested in Earth. They had no idea why we were so different from them. We were considered counterbio- logical because perpetual consciousness is considered essential to the definition of intelligent organisms used everywhere else in the galaxy."
Hidalgo shook his head in wonder. "If it bleeds, it lives," he said. "The monsters must think we live just long enough to massacre us."
"Remember we're talking about how these ad- vanced beings view sapience," said Arlene. "We con- sider ourselves biological because we define a biologi- cal system as one that works like ours."
"These guys have a definition we don't fit," I volunteered.
"Right," agreed Arlene. "Let's say they have a more universal definition. Just as they have expanded our horizons, we've done the same for them."
"So where do the monsters fit into this?" asked Captain Hidalgo. A damn good question. Seemed like a long time since we'd had to blow away any hell- princes, deep-fry an imp, or barbecue a fat, juicy spider-mind.
"I've thought about that a lot," said Arlene. "The Freds understand humanity better than the Klave and the other message aliens. I believe the Freds are afraid of humans. Their ultimate goal is not to enslave but to wipe out humanity."
"They've made a good start," muttered Hidalgo. There was no arguing with that. Arlene did her best to lift our spirits, assuming we had any: "Sears and Roebuck are dedicated to saving us from the Freds. Their logic is sound. If we weren't a threat to the Freds they never would have launched a full-scale invasion."
I respected the way S&R thought. They didn't have a clue to what made us special, and neither did I. But we hadn't spent all this time swimming in sludge, muck, and blood to no purpose. We rated because we were hated.
That conversation was the high point of a whole day. Earth. Standard. Time. Twenty-four hours. Lots and lots of minutes. Being ordered to relax is hard enough. It takes a real genius to do plenty of nothin'. So, just like the rawest recruit, I wished something would happen to break the tedium. And something did. And I felt that it was all my fault. I didn't used to be superstitious. Or at least not very. But that was in the days before Phobos, before Deimos, before Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. Back when I thought Kefiristan was a problem.
Back when the universe made sense and I didn't believe in space monsters. I'm not talking about monsters that come from space. It was enough of a stretch to accept a leering red gnome stumbling through an alien Gate. However, some things should be impossible. Like the space monster that came out of nowhere--there was a lot of nowhere out here- and attacked the Klave ship.
At first I thought S&R were projecting an entertain- ment program. The three-dimensional object darting over our heads looked like a refugee from a Japanese monster movie. I'd never been into those when I was a kid, but when Arlene and I were going to movies together, she dragged me off to a whole day of Godzilla and Gamera movies sponsored by Wonder magazine. She'd picked up free tickets because she was a subscriber.
I didn't care for any of the films, but the images were too ridiculous to forget. Naturally I assumed- always a bad idea--that the thing on display, courtesy of S&R, was of the same kidney. It even looked like a kidney, but it had a shell, and several tentacles and heads stuck out of it at odd angles. At least it didn't have wings. Wings would've been really stupid. "Bile nozzle!" screamed Sears and Roebuck. I didn't know they could scream. They were so freaked that their stubby little legs started a running motion, even though it made no difference in zero-g. I sud- denly realized how fast these suckers could move at the bottom of a gravity well. Here their legs only looked funny, like hummingbirds' wings, as they became a blur. These guys were definitely upset. "Bile nozzle?" echoed Arlene.
"Closest in English," they answered, more calmly now that they were past the initial shock. Their legs slowed down, too.
I didn't think I'd ever be bored again. Not only were S&R aware of this flying space organ, they had a name for it. Just like in those Japanese movies where the kids automatically know the name of every over- sized sea urchin that has designs on Tokyo.
"The ship is attracting to bait," said S&R. "Inertial energy turns into heating."
God help me, I understood them perfectly. "From outside, this ship must look like a star," I said. "Unless . . . until we decelerate," Hidalgo re- minded himself as much as the rest of us.
"So that monster is chasing a small star," said Arlene. "What does it eat?"
"Anything," said S&R. "Not only carbon. Other chemistries! But only from the inside. We must go to away. We're already burning fuel now."
"There isn't any way we can fight this creature?" Hidalgo asked, his voice icy.
S&R had one of their periodic attacks of schizo- phrenia. One head nodded while the other shook. That didn't mean they intended the same meaning by those motions we did; but it sure fit the situation like a glove.
"No time for going to escape maneuvers," they said. "Bile nozzle already matching velocipedes." "Velocities!" I shouted. I couldn't stop correcting these guys, but I understood the problem. This ship was not a Millennium Falcon we could use in a dogfight or a monster fight. The ship used inertial dampers to get rid of the incredible amounts of energy we were using. At 100,000 gravities acceleration, S&R didn't want to make a trivial error that would turn us all into smears of jelly.
All that I understood. Bile nozzle was beyond me. Just outside the ship. And whether we sped up or slowed down, that thing was going to stick to us like blood on a combat boot.
"How will it attack?" asked Hidalgo. "Becomes one unit," said S&R. That could only mean the thing split into two. "Inside ship part." "I've got an idea," said Arlene with an eagerness that meant she had a damned good one. "How soon will some part of this monster be inside the ship?" "Going to now," said S&R worriedly.
She nodded, and I knew what the movement of her head meant! "Tell me, if we can hurt that part, how will the outside part respond?"
"Bile nozzle will go to elsewhere," said S&R. They sounded hopeful.
"Okay," said Arlene. I recognized her patented early-bird-that-got-the-worm smile.
"Out with it, marine," Hidalgo ordered, as hopeful as the rest of us.
Arlene said, "Bring me three space suits, every portable reactor pack in the ship, and the biggest goddamn boot you can find!"



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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