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These were the best marines I'd ever served with. Corporal Taggart-Gallatin's plan was brilliant. I never would have thought of it. I doubted the aliens would have come up with it because they were so terrified of the thing they called a bile nozzle. While we suited up, we could see the space entity right next to the ship. It was difficult to distinguish the heads from the tentacles--if those were heads ... or tentacles. The new menace reminded me of the sea beast we'd encountered in the Pacific. I didn't see how either of these creatures could actually be alive. Their shapes shifted and changed when you tried to get a good look.
The largest of the bile nozzle's heads, which was right next to the ship, was a cloud of swirling colors in which one shape kept repeating itself: a crow's head, with a bright dot that bounced around where the eye ought to be. The damned head seemed to regard the ship like a tasty treat.
Sears and Roebuck insisted that the thing wasn't dangerous until part of it was inside the ship. Arlene's plan couldn't stop it from joining our little party, but she was one woman who could handle a gate-crasher. S&R insisted on coming with us. They didn't act as if they were the captain and we were under their command. Cooperation was more natural to them than command. A few years ago I thought Earth was the only inhabited planet. Now that I'd had my eyes opened to new possibilities, I didn't expect everyone in the universe to follow my military code. Only a martinet butthead would expect that.
The marines could handle this assignment, but S&R were probably afraid to remain inside. I couldn't blame them, because right before we cycled through the airlock, some damned thing materialized only a few feet away.
"Hurry! Go to outside," urged S&R. Fortunately the monster hadn't finished forming itself yet. When it became completely solid, we'd be the first items on its menu. According to S&R, the monster liked to start with carbon-based life forms as an appetizer. Then it would go to work on the ship itself.
Before we went outside, I had a good look at the face forming so close that I could have spit at it. Steam demons were handsome compared to it. Hell- princes would have been first choice for a blind date. The most hideous imp could have passed as Mr. America by comparison.
The eyes were the opposite of the glowing orb in the crow's head. All three were burning black dots, remi- niscent of a fire eater's. They were attached to a tube ending in an orifice that was apparently both mouth and nose. Yellow liquid dribbled out of the tube and sizzled against the side of the ship. An acid that sounded exactly like frying bacon! All this happened while the head was blurring around the edges as it struggled to complete itself. The thing made a snuf- fling, snorting sound.
"Bile nozzle" seemed an apt name. Arlene went first, kicking off from the bulkhead and hurtling out through the hatch. We exited from the starboard side of the ship. Seemed like a good idea, because the remainder of the monster was on the port side. We worked fast before the enemy could become curious.
Every time I used one of these transparent space suits I became a little less nervous about how flimsy they appeared. If Corporal Gallatin had been wearing one of the navy pressure suits when he had his accident, his lungs would have ruptured in the vacu- um. I was beginning to understand what Gallatin meant about faith. I too had faith in this alien technology.
We implemented Arlene's plan before the monster got wise. Our extra-vehicular activity consisted of attaching the portable reactor packs to the outside of the ship. Then we turned them on and let them do the work.
Slowly, oh, so very slowly, the packs began to turn the ship. We hovered in space like a hung jury. We were counting on one thing: that a creature which spent its entire existence in a weightless condition would have no familiarity with gravity. If our ship had been spinning it would have left us alone. If Arlene's theory proved correct, the bile nozzle would experience something brand-new: the with- drawal of an invitation. A subtle hint he should go elsewhere. Or go to elsewhere, as S&R would have said.
We were patched into the ship through our suits. Before the monster realized there was a problem, it made a kind of contented snoring sound. It didn't take much to get the creature's attention. The ship was spinning at 0.1 gravity when the snore changed to a howl of rage and desperation. Heavy thudding and liquid noises preceded its exiting the craft. We didn't witness the part reuniting with the whole. We saw something better: the huge creature--maybe a third the length of the ship--zooming off into infinity. From this angle we could see what passed for its back--a series of tubes boosting the cloudlike swirling mess that was the rest of it. Right before it went out of range, the mass seemed to grow solid into something I'd compare to a turtle's shell. If I ever met Commander Taylor again I'd recommend this thing for membership in the Shellback Society.
I never did find out why Arlene wanted the biggest goddam boot we could find.
When we were safe aboard, there were new trou- bles. S&R's ship was not designed to take such acceleration along its radial axis. The structure had sustained severe damage and was leaking air like a son of a bitch. There were so many split seams we would never be able to patch them all.
"We have no plan for to use airless ship," said S&R, "but not to worry."
Not to worry? Where had I heard that before? Oh, it was from Mad magazine. Alfred E. Newman looked just like the last president of the United States. A fire eater had turned him into toast. It was worse than any congressional investigation.
"Why shouldn't we worry?" I wanted to know. "Space suits," they answered.
"We've lost time dealing with this monster," ob- served Arlene. "There can't possibly be enough air in the suits for the remainder of the trip."
Both Arlene and Fly insisted that S&R had no sense of humor, but the sound that came out of the alien mouths sounded like laughter to me. "Not to worry," they repeated. "Enough air in belts for human life span!"
I wasn't the least bit surprised. We were ready to prove what tough guys we were. Marines! We could hold our breath longer than anyone, even those Navy SEALS on the Bova. We could hunker down in our suits as we slowly ran out of air . . . and not complain one time. Tough guys don't complain. We could take it. We'd die without complaint, because we weren't weaklings. We weren't some inferior form of life. We weren't civilians.
As I looked at Fly and Arlene--they'd be first names to me for the rest of my life--I wondered if they felt the way I did. I've never met a sane marine. I'm not sure there is such a breed. That's why my wife divorced me. Damned civilian.
Arlene shot off one of her clever remarks: "A sufficiently advanced technology greatly reduces the number of cliffhangers."
So we'd come to this: we were a charity case in the custody of superior beings. We could kid ourselves all we wanted, but we were not as good as the aliens who ruled the galaxy. It was our good fortune to become pets to one side in a galactic war. The other side saw us as a nuisance.
Fly spoke for all humanity when he demanded to know more about that other side. "No more sur- prises," he told S&R. "You should have warned us about creatures like that bile nozzle thing. Did the Freds send it?"
"Not coming from the Fred," they assured him. "Just another creature who has received the Lord's precious gift of life," Fly sneered. "Well, it doesn't matter, now that we've kicked its butt. Fill us in on the Freds. What are they like?"
S&R hadn't fought the Freds all this time without picking up a bit of knowledge. Our alien allies weren't idiots. I was the idiot for not having requested this information myself. I feared that I was beginning to lose it. When the devils first appeared on Phobos and Deimos, it was a surprise to Fox Company. There was no briefing for Fly and Arlene. There was only survi- val. Before my fire team set foot on Phobos, I had pumped our fearless heroes for everything they re- membered about Phobos and Deimos. S&R were the duo to pump now.
The briefing consisted of projected images and a basic description of the main enemy, delivered in S&R's funny English. I gasped when I saw that a Fred head looked like an artichoke. Eyeballs were sprin- kled over their domes like raisins in a cake. The heads seemed a little small to me, but there was a good reason for this: The brains weren't in the heads; the gray matter was housed in a safer place, down lower, in the armored chest. There was room there for a very large brain. The arms attached to the chest were rubbery affairs with semiarticulated chopsticks for fingers.
"Avoid them sticking into you," said S&R. "The fingers?" I prompted. The image showed us just what those fingers could do. Contained in tough but flexible skin sacks, the chopsticks were hard and sharp. With a flick of its rubbery arms, a Fred could make any or all of its fingers opposable.
Moving on down the torso, we came to a waist so narrow I didn't see how it could support the weight it carried. Then there were two thick legs, each ending in a foot that was very like a human foot, except that it included one feature of a bird's claw: a toe in back, protruding from the otherwise human-looking foot. I wondered what S&R's feet were like, but I wasn't curious enough to ask them to remove their boots. Fly told us that the Freds wore tightly fitting boots. "Magnetized to them walking," said S&R. "They are not liking free-falling."
"How reasonable!" Fly blurted out, and then the reality hit him. "Shit. You mean their ships are zero-g too?"
"Same principles appliance," said S&R. "The same principles apply." Arlene corrected them this time.
"Tell me something else," demanded an irritated Fly. I didn't stop the sergeant, because I agreed with him. "Were you going to let us fight the Freds without giving us any background?"
"Humans like going to be surprised," answered S&R.
"Maybe humans like going into situations blind," said Fly. "Military men have more brains than that." And their brains are in the right place, I added mentally.
Then we reached the important subject: weapons. The Freds did not keep an armory on their ship equivalent to what even a self-respecting imp or zombie would pack. Basically they didn't expect to be attacked. Pride goeth before the fall.
Despite their confidence, every Fred carried a per- sonal weapon that was fairly nasty. S&R warned us to keep an eye out for that. The weapons looked like slingshots with more moving parts and used an elec- tromagnetic field to fire little flying saucers. S&R summed up: "We have no plan for to fight past making sabotage at Fred base. Other weapons they may be bringing to exteriorize."
"Do you mean exterminate?" asked Fly. The briefing improved my morale. I threw out: "Whatever you mean, Captain Sears and Roebuck, rest assured the United States Marine Corps always has a plan to kick butt."
After the crash course in Freds 101, the remainder of the trip was nothing to write home about. It was like the first part of the trip. The only difference was that we were wrapped in cellophane so we'd be nice and fresh at the other end.
All good things come to an end. All bad things come to an end.
"A teleporter ought to be nothing for you after your Gate problem," Arlene said, trying to cheer me up. The damage to S&R's ship provided an unexpected tactical advantage. We might never return to the message alien base, but now we had a nice decoy to distract the Freds while we used the teleporter. S&R sent the remains of their ship straight at a Fred defense satellite. We hated to see it go. It was a good ship.
Disembarking from a ship had never been easier. There was no damage to the airlocks. We were already suited up and ready to go teleport-hunting. All in a day's work.
I would have said that if you've seen one transmat- ter device, you've seen them all, but that wasn't true. This one didn't have a stone arch built over it with lots of weird crap carved into it, though.
I might have used my experience with the Gate on Phobos as an excuse for being superstitious, but there was no point. Much of what we'd seen since leaving our solar system made no sense according to our physics. So there was nothing for us to do but have faith in the engineering that worked. None of the amazing alien technology had let me down yet, except for one small Gate glitch.
I waited my turn and took a deep breath. Then I stepped forward to meet my destiny.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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