31




I'd never heard a hairy bag of protoplasm call out my name before: "Fly!"
Looking down, I noticed something glistening on the floor near my boot. I was slow on the pickup because I had my priorities. First, the boot. That meant we still had our clothes and weapons. Second, we were back in gravity. So what if my back hurt and my arches complained? Gravity, sweet gravity. Third . . . third, there was some kind of problem. Liquid was leaking from the flesh bag. It was sort of a faded pink I'd never associated with blood. I took a closer look at the bag and recognized a human mouth. I'd never seen a mouth all alone before, surrounded by a wrinkled mass of skin sweating pink stuff. The little voice in the back of my head was about to give me hell for not being more observant, and for not thinking at all. Arlene saved it the trouble with a scream. I didn't blame her for screaming. I screamed too, the moment my brain started firing on all cylin- ders. The nitwit who came up with the idea that a strong woman should never scream had his head so far up his ass that daylight was a myth to him. S&R didn't understand what had happened. They asked what had happened to the other units. They meant Hidalgo-Fly, and Hidalgo-Arlene. We tried to explain that the dying thing on the floor was Hidalgo. S&R would always have problems with the idea of death.
Arlene and I were more acquainted with that idea. Even as the blob of protoplasm begged for us to "finish" it, we were simultaneously firing our zap guns. The two beams of heat crossed each other, carving the blob into smaller pieces that didn't talk. We kept at it past the point of necessity.
"Why did you send new unit away?" asked S&R. The Klave mind found what had happened intriguing. They may have thought Hidalgo had been trans- formed into something closer to them, a duality of some kind. I didn't know. I didn't care.
The officer, the man Arlene had once considered spacing out an airlock, had proved himself one of Earth's best. He'd been the leader of our fire team. We owed him what we had just done for him.
Funny thing. He'd fought his quota of monsters. A steam demon had taken his wife. He'd kicked butt with hell-princes and spiders. On Phobos he was a bud, helping take down the imps and the flying skulls and the superpumpkin. He was a veteran of the Doom War.
And a freakin' teleporter nails him. Shit. A bleeding technological foul-up. It made me so mad I saw Mars- red. We owed him more than putting him out of his misery. We owed him words, a proper farewell due an honorable man.
We gave him a different kind of farewell, worthy of a good marine. Our first Freds made the bad mistake of showing up just then. I didn't leave any for Arlene or S&R. The ray guns made my job too easy.
Yeah, right. Isn't technology grand? It fries Hidalgo and then gives me a push-button method of avenging him. We kicked ass. Nothing made me feel better. The guns were light, and they didn't need reloading. S&R mentioned they'd need recharging eventually, but they were good for a thousand kills per charge. I tried my best to use it up.
A few Freds fired off a few saucers. Their aim was not up to Marine Corps standards.
S&R aimed at the Freds' chests to get the brain right away. When I realized the aliens could feel pain I started aiming for the artichoke heads and the arms and the legs. Arlene reminded me that we had a mission to perform. That didn't help. I'd been inac- tive too long, bottled up too much. Now it was payback time.
We came across two Freds making love. I recog- nized the process from S&R's lesson. Their normal height was six feet. When one extended to over seven feet, it was ready to copulate; but only if another one was ready to be on the receiving end. The tall one would find a mate that had shortened down to under five feet. Then the tall one would insert its pyramidal head into the cavity in shorty's head.
They shared genetic information that way. The "male" turned bright red and the "female" turned a rich purple. A scientist would have found the demon- stration endlessly fascinating. I found it more reward- ing to interrupt the festivities by choosing my shots with imagination. Before they died, I'm certain these Freds felt some of what Hidalgo suffered.
While I was amusing myself, S&R and Arlene found the main computer and loaded the program. Then they found me in a room running with alien blood. The color reminded me of iced tea.
"What now?" I choked out the words. They tried to tell me the mission had been accomplished. This didn't cut it. We hadn't finished using our zap guns. "We have no ship any longer," sighed Arlene. She turned to S&R and asked if they had any suggestions. Those boys sure did. There were functional teleport pads on the base. In the immortal words of
S&R, "Gateways must go to Fred ships. Not safe to go."
The little voice in my head pointed out that we had run out of enemies to kill here. At no point did it bother me to think that I was failing to snuff out mind-consciousnesses or ghost-spirits. These alien monsters were dead enough for me.
I shouldered the burden of command. Sergeant Taggart had a plan. "Let's go!" covered both my strategy and my tactics.
We booked. In my rage I forgot the ship would be in zero-g. But the moment I felt that old free fall spinning in my stomach, I reminded myself that the wonderful ray guns had no kick and were perfect weapons for this environment.
Too bad they didn't make the trip with us. Neither did our clothes or equipment. Yep, it was as if we'd gone through the Phobos Gate again. Stripped nekkid. There was Arlene to port, her long, firmly muscled legs kicking slightly as if she were swimming. Kid sure had a nice ass. And there were Sears and Roebuck. Naked, they looked even more like Magilla Gorilla. But their feet were far more human than simian. I'd wondered about that.
"What do we do now, Sergeant?" asked Arlene. She didn't say it like my best buddy. She said it like someone who has been thinking more clearly than her superior officer.
S&R came to my rescue. "We had no choice but to be remaining baseless."
While I tried to decide if that counted as a pun, Arlene began to cry. That was so unlike her that it helped bring me back to a semblance of sanity. I noticed her hand on her neck. Then I realized what was wrong. Her last link with Albert had been wiped out--the second ring, the honeymoon ring. No way could S&R re-create it outside their own lab. We didn't have long to worry about that problem, however. The Freds on the ship soon noticed their stowaways-pirates-boarders. They had better aim than the ones at the base. They came clomping along the bulkhead in their magnetized boots, some below us, some above us. The saucers they were firing were coming closer and closer while we floated around, naked and helpless.
This was when I realized I could have done a better job of planning for contingencies. In the few seconds of life remaining, I gave some cursory attention to the ship. Details might come in useful in the next life, always assuming this death theory for humans was inadequate to cover the facts.
The ship was the same design as the Klave cruiser, but much longer. I'd guess it was 3.7 kilometers from stem to stern. The Fred spaceship had to be the largest cigar in the universe.
While we ducked little flying saucers, I quickly reviewed what I'd learned and deduced from S&R's briefing. They were too busy ducking to engage in dialogue, so I had to trust my memory.
S&R had never come right out and said it, but the Freds were more like humans than the Klave in one important respect--they too were individualists. This was carried to a lunatic extreme in the lack of cooperation among the demonic invaders. I'd lost count of how many times Arlene and I had saved ourselves by tricking the monsters into fighting each other. In a choice between slaughtering humans and trashing each other, hell-princes and pumpkins opted for the latter every time.
So if it had worked a hundred times before, why not try for one hundred and one? "Hand-to-hand com- bat!" I shouted. "I don't think they're that much stronger than we are." I was certain that none of us in this ship were as strong as S&R.
"Maybe we can grab one of their guns," suggested Arlene.
"No Fred guns can be used for going to kill by you," said S&R. It took a moment for their meaning to sink in--namely, that the weapons could be activated only by a Fred.
I set the example. Much as I hated zero-g, I'd spent so much time in it lately that I'd developed a knack for turning it to my advantage. A new form of martial arts could be developed in free fall.
Kicking off from the wall, I grabbed the nearest Fred and yanked that sucker right out of his magnetic boots. Momentum was on my side; it was my new pal. I threw the alien into two of its comrades. They didn't act like pals. If they had any brains in those big chests, they'd have reasoned out what I was doing, then extrapolated from it and cooperated with one an- other.
What an irony. Arlene and I were two of the most rabid individualists any collectivist could ever have the misfortune to meet. The Klave collective had thrown in with their antithesis, Homo sapiens, against a common foe.
Could the ultimate error of the bad guys be their deconstructionism? They took everything apart, leav- ing no basis for rational self-interest.
Food for thought. Philosophy to while away the time after we cleansed this ship of its owners. S&R were using a different fighting technique. They were mainly crushing their opponents, and ripping out whole portions of the chest area. Arlene and I were succeeding in making the Freds fight among them- selves.
Suddenly S&R called out a warning. The Fred coming up beneath me apparently wore an insignia S&R recognized as some kind of biological scientist, a med-Fred. When this one grabbed me and pulled me down, I could see that it understood something about our species.
Instead of jabbing its chopstick fingers toward my chest, where it might puncture my heart, it went for my brain, assuming the only real weakness of the Freds must also be a human weakness.
Never assume. It jabbed one of its killer fingers into the area where it had learned humans keep their brains--the head. But this alien's research was slightly inadequate. The needle of pain hurt like blazes, as it went through my cheek, but he missed my brain by the side of a barn door.
Then it was my turn. I ripped into his head like it was a piece of rotten cabbage. I think it screamed as I kept working down, down, down to the part of a living thing that can anticipate bad things before they hap- pen. I laughed. I was getting back to doing what I do best.
By some miracle we cleaned out the section we were in. Then we moved to the next. Although similar to the Klave ship in terms of engineering, the inside of this vessel was composed of separate compartments. As we floated from one section to the next, like angels of death, my theory received endless vindication: the Freds were not communicating with each other! We simply repeated the process until our arms and legs were so tired we had to stop. Then we resumed our attack, and still the pods had not communicated with each other. Only at the end did we encounter a different sort of Fred.
This one might have been the captain of the ship. He was the smartest, and he had a weapon that almost wiped us out. "Look out for the Fred ray!" S&R shouted in one of their clearest sentences, saving Arlene and me from the brink of destruction. We pushed each other out of harm's way. While we bounced off the bulkheads and bobbed around like corks in a bottle, a searing beam of white energy missed us and melted one wall of the pod. Fortunately the integrity of the ship's bulkhead was not compro- mised.
S&R took care of this Fred personally. Four strong hands took the cabbage apart. Afterward we discov- ered we should have taken this one down first. But how were we to know this particular artichoke had access to the ship's main computer? Damned thing didn't even look like a computer. Looked like a blender to me.
The top Fred had programmed the ship to go ... somewhere. There was nothing we could do to alter the program. We'd succeeded in killing all the Freds. But we were stuck on their Galaxy Express with a one- way ticket. Arlene was not happy about this.



Epilogue

I will never see Albert again. I'd reconciled myself to accepting him as a sixty-seven-year-old. I could have still loved him. At least we would have been together again.
But Fly had to take the mission to the limit. I saw that berserker look come over him after Hidalgo died, and I understood. I also knew we might not have come through alive without that fire in him. When I can think again, I'll tell Fly I understand. Now I can only feel my loss. By the time we arrive at our destination and turn around, Albert will have been in his grave for centuries. So I sit alone at one end of the ship while Fly sits at the other. The Fred ship has large picture windows.
I watch the stars contract to a small red disk at the center of the line of travel. Fly watches a similar disk, but his is blue. We do not talk. He searches for words that I do not want to hear.
We both wonder what the human race will do in the next several thousand years.
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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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