5




"Outstanding mission," was Mulligan's ver- dict. "You two are a credit to the Corps."
"You've done all right yourself," I returned the compliment.
"Thanks, Fly," he said. Meanwhile Arlene took a break from our company, and from the extended trip down memory lane. She ran into the surf. I shielded my eyes against the glaring sun to watch her precise movements. Nice to see her using her physical skills for fun instead of taking down demons. The ocean beckoned me, too. Mulligan gave it a pass.
As I watched Arlene's trim body darting in and out of the waves like a sleek dolphin, I marveled for the hundredth time that we were alive and together in a setting untouched by doom. After wading in a literal ocean of alien blood, I felt clean again in the cool ocean water. I discovered scratches and cuts and abrasions I didn't even know I had as the salt water caressed my body. Swimming stretched muscles that weren't often used in battle. I felt truly alive. Arlene was as playful as a kid as she waved and challenged me to catch up with her. I obliged. Time for upper body strength and a longer reach to help me in my hour of need. I poured it on and moved so swiftly that my hand found her smooth ankle before she could get away.
My buddy, my fellow warrior who was as good a man as any other marine, had delicate little feet! Not like those of any other PFC of my acquaintance. The admiral could have slapped together a World War II poster with Arlene's picture and a caption: "This is what you're fighting for." We were soldiers in what might prove to be the last battle of the human race. But I liked a human face to remind me why I fought. We splashed each other and played so hard that I swallowed a mouthful from Davy Jones's locker. And I kept finding excuses to touch the smooth skin of my buddy. There had been a subtle change between us after Albert came into her life, though.
I wasn't going to try to come between them. Just as I had steered clear of Arlene and Dodd, until her boyfriend unwillingly joined the zombie corps- beast all you can be. She and Albert both deserved whatever chance for happiness they could grab. We were marines. We didn't need to volunteer for the crazy suicide missions. We were assigned to them as a matter of course.
This vacation wasn't going to last. Looking toward the beach, I saw that Mulligan had finished his beer and returned to HQ. He wasn't the type to sunbathe on purpose.
"What time is it?" asked Arlene, pausing only long enough to spit salt water in my direction.
I made a big deal of lifting my left arm to show off my brand-new plastalloy wristwatch, spaceproof and waterproof. I checked the time. "According to the best naval time, it's late afternoon."
"Teatime." "Just about," I answered. "You know, it was about this time last week when they took the bandages off Albert's eyes."
"He beat them," she said, suddenly very serious, and I was with her all the way.
No damned imp with a lucky fireball had succeeded in blinding our big Mormon buddy. I was still pissed that Bill Ritch had been killed in similar circum- stances on Deimos. Well, the bastards didn't have any of Albert. The L.A. mission had turned out to be a mortality-free operation. Hell, we'd even rescued Ken Estes when the man could do nothing to help himself. The docs had him sitting up in bed, wearing pajamas instead of mummy wrappings, and he could talk again. A bona fide miracle. Then it was Albert's turn. "Fly," said Arlene, up close all of a sudden. "Yeah?"
"You're a great guy," she said, and kissed me on the cheek. She could always surprise me.
"What brought that on?" I asked. "You care about Albert," she said softly. "You care about Jill and Ken, too."
I shook my head. "Don't think that way," I told her. "You can't relax into--"
She put her hand over my mouth. It was her turn again: "You're not the only marine who can make command decisions. Soon the only people left in the world will have the will to sacrifice their loved ones if that's what it takes to defeat the invaders. Meanwhile, we can care for one another."
"You're not describing civilians," I said coldly. She started swimming for the shore, but then turned back, treading water, and completed my edu- cation: "There are no civilians any longer, Fly. Every survivor is a soldier in this war."
I gave her that point. After all, she hadn't said everyone was a marine. I could accept the idea that all terrestrial life-forms had volunteered for grunt duty on the front line. The whole planet was the front line. Floating on my back for a moment, I let Arlene's words wash over me. The heat of the sun and the cool of the water threatened me with sleep. We hadn't had very much of that in the past month. I'd always been naturally buoyant, but I wasn't going to risk taking a doze in the ocean. It would be funny if a guy who had survived spider-minds and steam demons drowned a short distance from his best buddy.
I swam to shore, where Arlene was waiting for me, pointing to something behind me. I looked around and for a moment thought she was referring to the cloud the admiral had noticed earlier, but it had vanished. She was interested in the black fin a hun- dred yards away from us.
"There's someone for your terrestrial army," I said. At the time I thought it was a shark.
"Do you think we'll ever get Jill to eat seafood?" she asked.
"I doubt it. Speaking of Jill, let's check up on her." I'm lonely. I'm bored. I thought when we got to Hawaii I'd find some kids my own age. Everyone here is either an adult or a little kid. Some of them don't even call me Jill. They call me "the teenager." At first they made a big fuss. The admiral gave me a medal. They were short on the real thing, so he used some old golf ribbon he'd won years ago, but it meant a lot to him, so I was polite. I was uncomfortable at the way everyone looked at me, but it was still kind of nice. The pisser was, no one would get off my age after that.
Except for Dr. Forrest Ackerman. He was probably crazy, but he was nice to me. "You're a genius," he kept repeating. "I prefer the company of geniuses." He looked like Vincent Price from an old horror movie, complete with neat little mustache. I might not have remembered that movie except that the doctor considered himself a monster expert. "Let the others call them 'the enemy,'" he said, winking. "They're more comfortable with the old language. 'The enemy' refers to something human. We face principalities and powers. We're monster-fighters." I had no idea what he meant by principalities and powers, but at least he didn't talk down to me. There were a dozen computer jobs I could have taken now that I was a big hero; but I chose to work with Ackerman. For one thing, he'd asked me to. His research was interesting, and there was a lot I could do for him.
I didn't mind his interest in me, especially if I was going to be an assistant. But I didn't like the way he kept asking about the others. Albert, Fly, and Arlene had lots of military stuff to keep them busy. Ken was recovering in the hospital; whenever we talked, he tired out quickly.
"There is every indication that Ken is also a genius," Ackerman said, smiling.
"At least he's unwrapped." "What do you mean?"
"I was, uh, making a joke. He looked like a mummy when we rescued him from the train. When I look at him now, I think of a ... mummy."
"Yes, yes," he replied. "You and Ken were worth the sacrifices the others made."
"They were very brave." "Normal specimens," he said to himself.
People who talk to themselves are overheard some- times.
"What do you mean?" I asked. He looked up from his clipboard and blinked at me through his heavy black-rimmed glasses. "Sorry. I'm spending too much time in the lab. I only meant that if the human race is going to survive, we must harvest all of our geniuses."
I'd been called a genius ever since I was a kid. Sometimes I got tired of it. "What's a genius?" I asked.
He had a quick answer. "Anyone who can think better than his neighbor."
"There must be a lot of geniuses, then." He smiled. "Don't be a smart aleck or I won't show you my collection."
I'd always found it hard to shut up. "How do you know who's so smart?"
He placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder. I didn't hold that against him. He had no way of knowing I wasn't looking for a dad.
"Jill, the military keeps records. Sometimes I think it's all they're really good at doing. If your military friends had unusually high IQs or other indications of special mental attributes, we'd know."
"I thought a lot of records were lost during the invasion."
He laughed. It didn't sound as if he was enjoying a joke. "You should be a lawyer."
"No, thanks." "This base had thorough documents on military personnel of all the services before Doom Day." "Doom Day?"
"That's what we're calling the first day of the invasion. By the way, I notice you're trying to change the subject. You are a genius, Jill. You might find it interesting that your last name, Lovelace, is the same as that of Augusta Ada King Lovelace, an English mathematician who has been called the world's first computer programmer."
It was amazing how much trivia Ackerman carried in his head. While we were talking, I followed him into the largest laboratory I'd ever seen: an under- ground warehouse they'd allowed Dr. Ackerman to turn into his private world. Clearance was a cinch: he ran the lab.
I wanted to get him off the subject of my friends. The way he talked about them made me uncomfort- able. They'd been sort of ignoring me lately. At least that was how it felt. I didn't want to be disloyal to them when I was already pissed off. I wasn't a rat. Besides, maybe they were purposely giving me time to be alone. Arlene had said I could really be a pill when I was in one of my moods.
Well, why shouldn't I be? Albert and Arlene had a thing for each other. When they were like that they didn't want anyone else around, not even Fly. But lately Arlene was spending more time with Fly. They had this really gross brother-sister kind of thing going. When I first met them, I thought there might be something else between them. I quickly learned that was no way.
'Course I thought that might open the door for me to sort of find out if Fly would see me as anything other than a dumb kid or a computer geek. That went nowhere fast. No one can make me feel like a kid quicker than Fly Taggart.
"I don't care that civilization has almost col- lapsed," he told me one time when I let him see me dressing, or undressing--I forget which. "I have my own rules," he said. "My own personal code of conduct. A kid your age shouldn't even be thinking about such things. Now cut it out!" He said a lot more, but I tuned him out. Lucky for him that his personal code was exactly the same as that of other adults. He called it the "your actions" principle, or the YA rule for short.
Fly was just like all the other adults I'd known, except that he was a better shot. A full-grown man is telling me what I shouldn't be thinking about. Typi- cal! At least Dr. Ackerman didn't do that to me. But I sure didn't want him to pump me about my marine friends. I didn't want to tell him that I think Fly would rather fire a plasma rifle than make love to anyone. My opinion's none of Ackerman's business. I didn't want the doc to know that I'd rather be a scientist than a marine. That's probably no big secret. I don't want ever, ever, ever to be a marine. I hate the haircuts.



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DOOM. INFERNAL SKY
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