The ship was 3.7 klicks long, and I walked
every damned meter of it, trying to find where all the creaks and groans were coming from. I wasn't sur- prised to hear the haunting noises; I expected nothing less nightmarish from the Fred aliens. They came to us as aliens in demonic clothing, playing to every Jungian fear that panicked the human race, from deep inside the collective whatever you call it--Arlene would know. Now their ship sounded like it was tearing apart at the seams ... or like the entire uni- verse was finally winding down. I walked down moist fungus-infested passageways that were too tall, too narrow, and too damned hot, listening to the universe run down.
Down and out. Mostly I walked the ship to keep some sort of tab on Lance Corporal Arlene Sanders, my ghost XO, who was falling apart on me. Nobody goes off the deep end on Sergeant Flynn Taggart, not without my say-so. But there was Arlene, sitting cross- legged on the observation deck (the "mess hall") at the stern of the Fred ship, staring at a redshifted eye of light that was all the stars in the galaxy swirled into one blob--some sort of relativity effect. She sat, unblinking, peering down the corridor of time to Earth today, which was probably Earth two hundred years or more ago.
Christ, but that sounds melancholy. Arlene hadn't changed her uniform in three days, and she was starting to stink up the place. I didn't want to inter- rupt her grief: she had lost her beloved ... in a sense; by the time we hit dirt at Fredworld, kicked some Fred ass, and got them to turn us around back to Earth again, about two hundred years would have passed for the mudhoppers. Corporal Albert Gallatin would be a century in his grave. He was as good as dead to her now.
Space is a lonely place; don't let anyone tell you different. The spacefaring surround themselves with friends and squadmates, but it only holds the empti- ness of deep space partway off. You can still feel it brushing your mind, probing for a weak point. We tried playing various games to stave off the loneliness; I came up with the favorite, Woe Is Me: we competed to see who could spin the most depressing tale of woe, me or Arlene . . . listing in endlessly expanding detail all the different reasons to just open a hatch and be blown into the interstellar void. I always won--not that I had that many more
reasons to despair than Arlene, but because I had more practice complaining about things.
"I left my true love behind," she would pine. "At least you had one!" I retorted. "All I ever had was a fiancйe, and I'm not sure I even knew her middle name." Sears and Roebuck, our normally jovial binary Klave pair, were no help; they locked themselves in their cabin and wouldn't come out. They couldn't even be coaxed out for a game of Woe Is Me! But lately Arlene was winning by default: she was too depressed to play. She just sat and stared out the rear window.
The Fred ship was roughly cylindrical, spinning for a kind of artificial gravity about 0.8 g at the outer skin; in addition, during the first days, we had a heavy acceleration pulling us backward as the ship got up to speed. This was a Godsend; I always hated zero-g, always. I always blew; I always got vertigo; I never knew which way was up, because there was no up. It was 3.7 kilometers long and about 0.375 kilome- ters in diameter, I reckoned. I had some mild dizzi- ness from the spin--my inner ear never really ad- justed to that sort of crap--but it was a damned sight better than the "float 'n' pukes" we rode from Earth to Mars, or up to Phobos.
For the last twenty-four hours, I had followed Arlene up and down the ship when she went wander- ing, through blackness and flickering light. The whole place tasted vile; most of taste is smell, and the stench got on the back of my tongue and stayed there. Arlene probably knew I was there, but she made no attempt to talk to me. Occasionally, I heard weapons fire; I thought she might be shooting up the "dead" bodies of the Fred aliens. I couldn't believe it; she knew they could still feel the pain of the bullets! Then I caught her discharging her shotgun into a man- shaped chalk outline she'd drawn on a bulkhead in a stateroom that once belonged to the ship's engineer, a Fred who was deactivated up on the bridge.
"What the hell are you doing, A.S.?" I demanded. "Shooting," she said, staring dully at me. She slid her hands up and down the barrel of her piece, getting gun grease on her palms, but she didn't notice. "You're shooting into a steel bulkhead, you brain- dead dweeb! Where do you think the bullets are going when they bounce off it?"
Arlene said nothing. She hadn't been hit by a ricochet yet, but if she kept shooting at steel bulk- heads, it was only a matter of moments.
Two minutes after I left, I heard the shooting start up again, but she denied later that she had fired her rifle again.
I returned to the bridge for a long face-to-face with the "dead" Fred captain. They're not like us ... rather, we're not like them or the rest of the intelligent races of the galaxy.
A Fred alien, and everybody else except a human, can never die. Even when you shoot his body to Swiss cheese, so his blue guts and red blood dribble out the holes onto the deck, his consciousness remains intact. Blow his head apart, and it floats as a ghost, drifting like invisible smoke--still thinking, hearing and see- ing, feeling and desperately dreaming. You can talk to them; they actually hear you.
The Freds and other races pile their dead in fantas- tic cenotaph theaters where they are entertained day and night by elaborate operas and dances of great beauty, all to keep the "dead" vibrant and interested until such time as they're needed for revivification- assuming there's enough left of the body and enough interest on the part of an animate Fred to pay for it. I'd shot the captain nine days ago as he lay on the floor, reaching up to implement and lock in the preprogrammed course for Fredworld. Despite the best efforts of me and Arlene and our contractor- advisors Sears and Roebuck--a Klave binary pair who each looked like a cross between Magilla Gorilla and Alley Oop--we couldn't figure out how to change course or even shut off the engines.
I picked the captain up and sat him in the co-pilot's chair. Poetic justice; he had died bravely ... let him see where he was going. Now I stood directly in front of the bastard so his dead eyes could drink me in. "God, I wish I could repair your wounds and bring you back to life," I said, "so I could kill you all over again and again and again, and repeat the process until you told me how to turn this piece-of-crap ship around. But I promise you I'll obliterate your brain before I'll let you be recaptured and revived by your Fred buddies."
I blamed the captain for Arlene's psychosis; I would never forgive him for it and would kill him again if I ever got the chance.
Christ, where to jump in on this thing? I never know where to start to bring everyone up to date. Sears and Roebuck had locked themselves in their stateroom, the double-entities shouting that we were all doomed, game over, pull the plug! God only knew where they picked up the expressions, but the senti- ment was pretty clear: when we got to Fredworld, the most logical outcome was for us to be burned into a nice warm plasma by the batteries of heavy-particle weapons the Freds obviously had ringing their hellish planet.
I'm not a big fan of logic. Logic predicted that Arlene and I would be smoked during our last en- counter with the Freds. They had everything except the homecourt advantage, and even that was dicey, the way they could change the architecture of Phobos and Deimos at the drop of a flaming snotball. When this donnybrook first started, Arlene and I both thought we were dealing with actual honest-to- Lucifer demons from hell! They sure looked like demons; we battled the sons of bitches deep, deeper into the Union Aerospace Corporation facilities on Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars. All the rest of Fox Company, Light Drop Marine Corps Infantry, were killed . . . and some were "reworked" into undead zombies.
That was the worst, seeing my buddies coming at me, brainless but still clutching their weaponry. I mowed them down, feeling a little death every time I killed a former friend.
But we faced far more dangerous foes: imps, or spineys, as Arlene liked to call them, who hurled flaming balls of mucus; pinkies ... two meters of gigantic mouth with a little pair of legs attached; we faced down ghosts we couldn't see, minotaurlike hell princes with fireball shooters on their wrists ... even gigantic one-eyed pumpkins that floated and spat lightning balls at us! But the worst of all were the steam demons: fifteen feet tall with rocket launchers, it was virtually impossible to kill the SOBs. On Earth, we discovered that the Freds were geneti- cally engineering monsters to look and act like human beings, until they suddenly opened up on you with machine guns. They had a few failed attempts that were horrific enough, one a walking skeleton! But the whole mission turned on a fundamental misunderstanding: when last the Freds contacted us, we were at the dividing line between the Medieval and Renaissance periods, like the late 1400s--and they somehow got the idea we still were. They never realized how fast we evolved socially and technologi- cally; nobody else did it that fast! They came scream- ing in with demonic machines and genetically engi- neered fiends, thinking we would fall cowering to our knees, and conquest would be swift and brutal. They weren't prepared for a technological society that no longer believed in demons. They weren't ready for the Light Drop Marine Corps Infantry; they weren't prepared for Arlene and me.
We triumphed, and I got another stripe, but now I was willing to bet a month's leave that we were driving into destruction. No matter how long your hand, the dice eventually turn against you. At least let me take a few dozen of them with me, I prayed. But without Arlene I didn't have much of a chance, let alone much reason, to go on. Earth was dead to me now; when we got back there, if we got back, what would be left after three or four centuries? Would there be a United States, a Washington Monument, a United States Marine Corps? For all we knew, the Earth was "already" a smoking burnt-out cinder ("already" is a relative term, we've found out; by the time we get back, it will have happened a certain number of centuries in the past; that's all I can say). Stars rolled past the porthole beneath my feet; actually, it was the ship that rotated, but everything was relative. I followed Arlene as she traversed the ship. She set up her shooting range in the aft cargo- hold, a ways outboard ("down") from the mess hall, seventy meters high and wide and nearly half a kilometer long. I was desperate--I had to snap her out of her zombie mode. I had to do something! So just as my redheaded lance corporal babe raised her M-14, I stepped out of the shadows directly in front of her.
It was an incredibly stupid thing to do--but I had no choice, no other way to get her attention. She almost squeezed off a burst anyway, because she just plain didn't see me. As Arlene squeezed the trigger, she realized the range wasn't clear. She screamed- like a woman!--and jerked the barrel to the left. A single three-round burst escaped anyway. One of the bullets creased my uniform; it felt like she had whipped me across the arm with a corrections staff. It hurt like hell!
"FLY!" she screamed, slinging her rifle aside and running up to me.
I sank to one knee, holding my arm; it wasn't bleeding bad, but I was knocked off balance by the blow--and by the knowledge that had Arlene reacted a fraction of a second slower, I would have been stretched out on the steel deckplates, coughing up my own blood.
Completely calm now, Arlene Sanders un-Velcroed my Marine recon jacket and gently slipped it off my arm. When she saw the wound was just a crease, and I would recover in a couple of days, she let loose with a string of invective and obscenities that was Corps to the core! They echoed off the black saw-toothed walls and rattled my brainpan.
She shook me viciously by the uniform blouse. "You dumbass bastard, Fly! What the hell were you thinking, jumping into the line like that? Don't an- swer! You weren't thinking, that's the problem!" She let me sink back to the deck, suddenly nervous about overstepping the chain. "Uh, that's the problem, Sergeant," she lamely corrected.
I sat up, wiping away the tears on my good sleeve. "Arlene, you dumb broad, I was thinking thoughts as deep as the starry void. I was thinking, now how can I finally get that catatonic zombie girl's attention and snap her out of her despair over Albert?"
"Jesus, Fly, is that what this is about?" I put my hand on my shoulder, massaging the
muscle gently through my T-shirt. "Lance, I was about ready to hypo you into unconsciousness for a few days to let you work it all out in your dreams. God knows we have enough time--two hundred years to Fredworld, or eight and a half weeks from our point of view. I was just about ready to give up on you." Arlene stared down at the deck, but I wouldn't let up; I finished what I had to say. "I can't afford to lose you, A.S. Those binary freaks Sears and Roebuck are a great source of intel and sardonic comments, but they can't fight for crap. I need you at my back, A.S.; I need the old Arlene. You've got to come back to me and work your magic."
She turned and walked away from me, leaning against the hot bulkhead and swearing under her breath. She couldn't really say anything out loud, not after I had made a point of dragging rank into it (I called her "Lance" to drive home the chain of com- mand). But nothing in the UCMJ said she had to like it.
She didn't. She wouldn't speak to me the rest of the day, and all of the next. She took to sulking in the big lantern-lit cabin we had dubbed the mess hall, since that was where we took our meals--well, used to take them; Sears and Roebuck were still holed up in their own stateroom, cowering in terror at the upcoming brawl with the Freds when we hit dirtside; and Arlene ate Anywhere But There, so she wouldn't have to eat with me; when I entered, she left by another portal, so I ate alone. Then when I left to return to duty (staring out the forward video screen, wondering when some- thing would happen), Arlene snuck in and hid away from me.
I barely saw her any more often than I had before . . . but I felt a thousand percent relieved, because now she was angry rather than desolate and apathetic. Anger. Now that I have a good handle on. I'm a Marine, for Christ's sake! What I couldn't understand was despair.
Angry Marines don't stay angry for long, especially not at their NCOs. Sergeants are buttheads; we'd both known that since Parris Island! After a while, Arlene took to haunting the mess hall when I was there, sitting far away; then she sat at my too-tall table, but at the other end; then she got around to eating across from me ... but she glared a hell of a lot.
I waited, patiently and quietly. Eventually, her need for human company battered down her fury at me for risking my life like I did, and she started making snippy comments.
I knew I'd won when she sat down four days after the shooting incident and demanded, "All right, Ser- geant, now tell me again why you had to do something so bone-sick stupid as to step in front of a live rifle." "To piss you off," I answered, truthfully.
Arlene stared, her mouth hanging open. She had shaved her hair into a high-and-tight again, and it was so short on top, it was almost iridescent orange. Her uniform was freshly laundered--Sears and Roebuck had showed us how to use the Fred washing machines when we first took over the ship, two weeks earlier- and I swear to God she had ironed everything. She had been working out, too; she looked harder, tighter than she had just a few days earlier, and it wasn't just her haircut. Now I was the only one getting soft and flabby.
"To piss me off? For God's sake, why?" "A.S.," I said, leaning so close we were breathing each other's O2, "I don't think you realize how close I came to losing you. Despair is a terrible, terrible mental illness; apathy is a freaking disease. I had to do something so shocking, something to give you such a burst of adrenaline, that it would jerk you out of your feedback loop and drag you, kicking and screaming, back to the here and now."
I scratched my stubbly chin, feeling myself flush. "All right, maybe it was pretty bone-sick stupid. But I was desperate! What should I have done? I don't think you know just what you mean to me, old girl." She slid up to sit cross-legged on the table, staring around the huge empty mess hall. No officers around, and no non-coms but me. Why not? "Fly," she said, "I don't think you know just what Albert meant to me. Means--meant--is he dead or alive now?"
"Probably still alive. It's only been about twenty years or so on Earth ... or will have only been by this point, when we get back there--by which point, it'll have been two centuries. It's weird; it's confusing; it's not worth worrying about." I ate another blue square; they tasted somewhat like ravioli--crunchy outside and stuffed with worms that tasted half like cheese, half like chocolate cake. It sounds dreadful, but really it's not bad when you get used to it. A lot better than the orange squares and gray dumplings, which tasted like rotten fish. The Fred aliens had truly stomach- turning tastes, by and large.
"Fly, when I first joined the squad--you remember Gunny Goforth and the William Tell apple on the head duel?--you were my only friend then."
I remembered the incident. Gunnery Sergeant Go- forth was just being an asshole because he didn't think women belonged in the Corps--not the Corps and definitely not the Light Drop Marine Corps Infantry--and no way in the nine circles of hell, not by the livin' Gawd that made him, was Gunnery Sergeant Harlan E. Goforth ever going to let some pussy into Fox Company, the machoest, fightingest company of the whole macho, fighting Light Drop! He decreed that no gal could join his company unless she proved herself by letting him shoot an apple off her head! And Arlene did it! She stood there and let him take it off with a clean shot from a .30-99 bolt- action sniper piece. With iron sights, yet.
Then, with a little malicious sneer on her lips, she calmly tossed a second apple to Goforth and made him wear the fruit while she did the William Tell bit. We all loved it; to his credit, the gunny stood tall and didn't flinch and let her pop it off his dome at fifty meters. After that, what could the Grand Old Man do but welcome her to Fox, however reluctantly? Back in the Freds' mess hall, Arlene continued, nibbling at her own blue square. "You're still my best and first, Fly. But Albert was the first man I really loved. Wilhelm Dodd was the first guy to care about me that way; but I didn't know what love meant until ... oh Jesus, that sounds really stupid, doesn't it?" I climbed onto the table myself, and we sat back to back. I liked feeling her warmth against me. It was like keeping double-watch, looking both ways at once. "No. It would have sounded dumb, except I know exactly what you mean. I felt that once, too: young girl in high school, before I joined the Corps."
"You never told me, Sergeant--Fly." "We got as close as you could in a motor vehicle not built for the purpose. She swore she was being reli- gious about the pill, but she got pregnant anyway. I offered to pay either way, and she chose the abortion. After that, well, it just wasn't there anymore; I think they sucked more than the fetus out, to be perfectly grotesque about it ... We stopped pretending to be boyfriend-girlfriend when it just got too painful; and then she and her parents moved away. She just waved goodbye, and I nodded."
Arlene snorted. "That's the longest rap you've ever given me, Fly. Where'd you read it?"
"God's own truth, A.S. Really happened just that way."
Arlene leaned back against me, while I stared out the aft port at the redshifted starblob; the mess hall was at the south end of a north-going ship, 1.9 kilometers from the bridge, which was located amid- ships, surrounded by a hundred meters of some weird steel-titanium alloy, and 3.7 kilometers from the engines, all the way for'ard. Sitting in the mess hall, we could look directly backward out a huge, thick, plexiglass window while traveling very near the speed of light relative to the stars behind us.
It was a fascinating view; according to astronomical theory--which I'd had plenty of time to read about since we'd been burning from star to star--at relativ- istic speeds, the light actually bends: all the stars forward press together into a blue blob at the front, all the ones aft press into a red lump at the stern. I wasn't sure how fast we were going, but the formula was easy enough to use if I really got interested.
"I just had a horrible thought," I said. "We only brought along enough Fredpills to last a few days. We didn't plan on spending weeks here." Arlene didn't say anything, so I continued. "We'll have to find the Fred recombinant machine and figure out how to use it; maybe Sears and Roebuck know." Fredpills sup- plied the amino acids and vitamins essential to hu- mans that Freds lacked in their diet; without them, we would starve to death, no matter how much Fred food we ate.
"Fly," she said, off in another world, "I'm starting not to care about the Freds anymore. I know why they attacked us: they were terrified of what we repre- sented, death and an honest-to-God soul, and maybe the god of the Israelites is right, huh? Maybe we're the immortal ones ... not the rest of them, the ones who can't die."
"So are you thinking that Albert still exists some- where, maybe in heaven?" I was trying to wrap myself around her problem, not having much luck.
She shrugged; I felt it roughly. "So he himself believed; I would never contradict an article of my honey's faith, especially when I don't have any con- trary evidence."
"Translation into English?" "I've just stopped caring about the Fred aliens, Fly. They're frightened, desperate, and pretty pathetic. And they're soulless. I mean, two humans against how many of them? Even when Albert and Jill joined us, we were still four against a planetful! And we kicked ass. Maybe it's just the Marine in me, but I'm starting to wonder why we're bothering with these dweebs." "Well, we've got about forty-five days left to get our heads straight for what's probably going to be the final curtain for Fly and Arlene, not to mention poor old Sears and Roebuck. They may be soulless and lousy soldiers, but put enough of them in a room shooting at us and we're going down, babe."
Arlene reached into her breast pocket and pulled out two twelve-gauge shells, which she tossed over her shoulder to land perfectly in my lap. "I've saved the last two for us, Sarge; just let me know when you're ready to Hemingway."
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