For some reason, the fire monster seemed to have a. 1
As we hit the roof of Deimos, I looked up.
The pressure dome was cracked. Of course. That
made sense, the way things had been going. Next
thing you knew, thousand-year-old Martians would
come along and wink us out of existence.
Fly Taggart stared at the crack, and his eyes bugged
out like a frog. I wish he knew a bit more physics; if I
have one complaint about Fly, it's that he doesn't
hold with higher education. The crack was small, and
I could see it wasn't going to leak all the air out of the
dome in the next few minutes. Days, more like; days,
or even weeks. It's a big facility.
Then I looked past the crack and saw what that
huge Marine corporal was really staring at: we weren't
orbiting Mars anymore!
The entire moon of Deimos had just taken a
whirlwind tour of the solar system. I swallowed hard;
we were staring at Earth.
"I ... guess we know their invasion plans now," I
said, feeling the blood rush to my face.
Fly plucked at his uniform--Lieutenant Weems's
uniform, except he'd pulled off the butter bars--like
it had suddenly started itching, "Well at least we
stopped them," he said.
"Look again, Fly." The globe was flecked with
bright pinpoints of light, flares of explosives millions
of times more powerful, more hellish, than any we
had ducked or lobbed back here on Deimos. I
pointed to the obvious nuclear exchange blanketing
our home, dumping like a few billion tons of radia-
tion, fallout, and sheer explosive muscle on--on
everyone we had ever known. "Looks like they've
Fly suddenly latched onto my arm with a vise grip
of raging emotion. I tried to pry his steel hands loose,
while he hollered in my ear. "It's not over, Arlene!"
PFC Arlene Sanders, United States Marine Corps:
that's me. "We've already proven who's tougher. We
won't let it end like this!"
Right. Me and Fly and nothing but weapons,
ammo, and a hand with some fingers on it. We were,
going to jump from LEO down to the surface of the
Earth. Or maybe we'd drive the planetoid down and
land it at Point Mugu. I guess you couldn't consider
Deimos strictly a moon anymore, since it appeared to
We were stuck a mere four hundred klicks from
where we wanted to be: but that was four hundred
kilometers straight up. What's more, we were flying
around the Earth at something better than ten kilom-
eters per second--not only would we have to jump
down, we'd better do one hell of a big foot-drag to kill
that orbital velocity.
And after that we'd solve Format's Last Theorem,
simplify the tax code, and cure world hunger.
That last one was easy enough to fix. The problem
wasn't that there wasn't enough food; it was just in
the wrong places and didn't last long enough. I once
heard an old duffer say all we really needed was food
irradiation, Seal-a-Meals, and a bunch of rocket mail
tubes to plant the food in the center of the famine du
Rocket mail tubes . . .
"Fly," I shrieked, jumping up and down. "I know
how to do it!"
"Do what, damn it?"
Could we do it? I did some fast, rule-of-thumb
calculations: our mass versus that of a typical "care
package" from Mars, the sort they sent up to the
grunts like me serving on Deimos; the Earth's gravita-
tional pull compared to that of Mars--it's harder to
fly up and down off the Earth's surface than the
Martian surface. Maybe ... no, it would work!
"I know how to get us across to Earth, Fly. Did you
know there's a maintenance shed for unmanned snip-
ping rockets on this dump of a moon?"
"No," he said suspiciously.
Of course he didn't. He was never stationed here,
like I'd been. It was a garage where the motor-pool
sergeant kept all the mail tubes, the shipping rockets. I
had no idea why they were called "mail tubes"; we
send our mail electronically, as the universe intended.
"A one-way ticket to Earth," I summed up, trying
to penetrate that thick skull of his. "If we can find any
kind of ship, we go home and kick some zombie ass.
"All over again," he breathed, catching my drift at
last. "Well, hell, we're professionals at this now!"
We continued looking at the familiar blue-green
sphere of Earth, as the unfamiliar white spots ap-
peared and disappeared all over the globe. An old
piece of advice floated up from deep in my memory:
DON'T LOOK DOWN! We gazed upon white clouds
so beautiful that they reminded me of what we'd been
fighting to save.
Were we too late? Part of me hoped so, a part that
just wanted to sit down and rest.
We'd fought those damned, ugly monsters until we
were too tired to fight--and now it was looking like
we had to do it all over again.
All at once I noticed a sprinkling of the flares all
over California, my home state. "Oh, God, Fly," I
said, my stomach contracting.
"Yeah. Terrible." Jesus, couldn't my best bud think
of anything stronger to say when Armageddon came
to your hometown?
I shook my head. "You don't understand. That's
not what I meant. I mean I don't feel anything." I
trembled as I spoke.
Fly put his arm around me; well, that was more like
it. "It's all right," he mumbled. "It's not what you
think. There's nothing wrong with you. After what
you've been through, you're just numb. Your brain is
I let my head rest on his shoulder. "So my mind is
coming loose. What about body and soul?"
Right then and there I decided we needed a new
word to describe the state after you've reached ex-
haustion but had to keep going on automatic pilot.
Wherever that state was, Fly and I had been there a
long, long time.
I put my arm around Arlene's shoulders,
hoping she would understand it meant nothing but
friendship. Oh don't be silly, Fly; of course she
Where to begin? I was born at an early age, in a log
cabin I helped my father build. I grew up, joined
the UnitedStatesMarineCorpsSir!--went to fight
"Scythe of Glory" Communist leftovers in Ke-
firistan, punched out the C.O., was banged up in the
brig and sent to Mars with the rest of my jarhead
We up-shipped to Phobos, one of the moons of
Mars--well, now the only moon of Mars--and dis-
covered a boatload of aliens had invaded through the
used-to-be-dormant "Gates," long-range teleporters
from . . . from where? From another planet, God
knows where. Arlene and I battled our way into the
depths of the Phobos facility of the Union Aerospace
Corporation . . . who started the whole invasion,
turns out, by monkeying with the Gates in the first
It all rolled downhill from there. We ended up on
Deimos somehow--and I'm still not sure how that
happened!--and duked our way up one side and
down the other, killing more types of monsters than
you can shake a twelve-gauge at, finally ending up in a
hyperspace tunnel . . . you'll have to ask Arlene Sand-
ers (Exhibit A, the gal to my left) to explain what that
is. But when we finally killed everything worth killing,
we lucked into stopping the invasion cold. See previ-
ous report-from-the-front for full details.
In the end, we faced down the spidermind--the
handy nickname chosen for the spider-shaped "mas-
termind" of the invasion, chosen by Bill Ritch,
requisat in pace, a computer genius who helped us at
the cost of his own life.
Right before defeating the spidermind, I'd thought
there was nothing left in me. I was certain that I
couldn't have continued without Arlene, a physical
reminder of what we were fighting for, like old-time
war propaganda. While she breathed, I had to
breathe, and fight. Blame it on the genes. We'd had
the strength to go on against hundreds of monsters.
We weren't about to let a little thing like the laws of
physics stop us now.
Arlene couldn't stop looking at California, so I
gently led her away from the sight. "You know,
Arlene, I feel really stupid that I didn't think of the
shed; especially after using the rocket fuel to fry the
She blinked her eyes and rubbed them. I could tell
she was trying not to cry. "That's why you need me,
Flynn Peter Taggart."
So we went spaceship shopping.
Of course, there was the little matter of adding to
our personal armaments. We hadn't seen any mon-
sters for a while. Maybe we neutralized all of them--
but I wasn't about to count on it.
"Once, I was asked why I don't like to go out on the
street without being armed," I told Arlene.
"Must have been an idiot," came the terse reply.
She'd regained her self-control, but she was still acting
defensive. We were good friends, but that made it
easier for her to be embarrassed in front of me.
"No, I wouldn't call her that," I continued. "But
she'd lived a protected life; never came up against the
mother of all storms."
"What's that?" Arlene wanted to know.
"Late-twentieth-century street slang for when the
bad mother on your block decides it's time to teach
you a lesson. At such times, it is advisable to carry an
"Like this?" Arlene asked, bending down to re-
trieve an AB-10 machine pistol, her personal fave.
Every little bit helps.
"If my friend had one of those in her purse--" I
began, but Arlene interrupted.
"Too long to get it out. I like to carry on my
"Yeah, yeah. I was about to say if she had carried,
she might be alive today."
Arlene stopped rummaging through the contents of
a UAC crate and looked up. "Oh, Fly, I'm sorry."
"Sometimes you get the lesson only one time, and
it's pass-fail." I playfully poked the air in her direc-
tion. "Welcome back," I said.
"What do you mean?" she asked, squinting at me
the way she always did when I made her defensive.
"You can feel again, dear."
"Oh," she said, her body becoming more relaxed.
"You're right. One person means something. Well,
sometimes . . . if there aren't too many one persons."
"One's real. There's the body on the floor. A
million is just a statistic, no matter how much
screaming the professional mourner does."
She punched the air back at me. And she smiled.
We didn't talk for a little while. We continued gather-
ing goodies en route to the shed. It didn't take long to
locate; the good news was that it was large and
apparently well-stocked. It would take days to go
through all the crates and boxes; but if the labels on
the outside were accurate, we'd discovered a much
larger inventory of parts than I would have imagined
necessary for Deimos Base.
The bad news was a complete absence of ships in
any state of assembly. There was nothing to fly!
"Well jeez, I thought it was a great idea," said
Arlene. "Too bad it flopped."
Somehow it seemed immoral to give up hope while
standing inside Santa's workshop. I began examining
some of the boxes while Arlene kicked one across the
room; but that didn't bother me, she was never meant
for the modern age she was born into. She'd have been
more homey as a freebooter in the days of blood and
iron, when one physically competent woman did
enough in her lifetime to breed legends of lost,
Amazonian races of warrior queens. She had guts; she
had cold steel will. She didn't have patience, but what
I didn't think I would face death as well as she. I'd
go down in a very nonstoic way, kicking death in the
groin if I could only line up my shot.
I looked inside those boxes--big ones, little ones,
all kinds of in-between ones--and an idea grew in my
head, a few words slipping out.
"I wonder if it still might be possible to seize the
objective," I muttered.
Arlene heard, too. "Huh? What do you mean, seize
I was only half listening. The little voice in the back
of my head drowned her out with some really crazy
stuff: "It seems ridiculous, A.S., but it could work."
The stoic qualities of Arlene Sanders were
better suited to facing death than being irritated by
her old buddy. "Fly, what the hell are you talking
about?" She stomped to where I was going through a
box of thin metal cylinders, perfect for the project
growing inside my head.
"Yes," I said, "it really could work."
Using the special tone of voice normally reserved
for dealing with mentally deficient children and
drunken sailors, she said: "Tell me what in God's
name you're on about, Fly!"
I lifted my head from the box. "When I was a kid, I
wanted a car real bad. I mean real bad. Real real, bad
"Here we go down memory lane," she said with a
"See, I couldn't afford the car," I said, "but I
"Real real, bad bad?"
"I mean, I'd have taken anything with wheels and a
transmission. If I couldn't have a six, I'd settle for
four. Three, anything! But no matter how much I
lowered expectations, I still couldn't afford a vehicle."
"Is this going somewhere, Fly, or do I need to
hitchhike back home to Mother?"
"That's exactly right," I said. "I'm talking about
transportation. I couldn't afford a car--but I could
afford a spare part now and then, and you know how
this ended up?"
She put her hands on her hips, head tilted to the
side, and said: "Let me guess! You collected spare
parts, and collected and collected, and finally you
were able to build your own F-20! Or was it an aircraft
carrier? Amphibious landing craft?"
I ignored her. "I built myself a car. Had a few
problems; no brakes exactly, but it ran; and what a
powerful sound that baby made when she turned
Arlene finally saw where I was headed. Memory
lane dead-ended right here on Deimos. "Fly, you're
"No, I really built an auto . . ."
"You are insane if you think you can build a
freakin' spaceship out of spare parts!"
I literally jumped up and down. "You thought of it
too," I said. "Great idea, isn't it? We can build a
rocket and get off this rock."
She was very tolerant. "Fly, an automobile is one
thing. You're talking about a spaceship."
I looked her straight in the eye. "After all we've
been through, you going to tell me we can't do this?"
She looked me straight back. "Read my lips," she
said. "We can not do this."
"We have nothing to lose, A.S. It can't be any
harder than taking down the spidermind, can it?"
"You have a point there," she said grudgingly. "So
how do you propose we start?"
She was always annoyed when I used reality to win
an argument. I knew it was possible. But not without
"We need some tech," I said.
"Plans . . . then we can give it to our design depart-
"Don't tell me ... I'm the design department."
I smiled. "You're the design department."
"And what are you, Fly Taggart?"
We went looking for a manual. Ten minutes later we
found one in the most logical place, which was the last
place we looked, naturally: next to the coffee maker. I
tried to get Arlene to make us a pot of coffee, but she
stared at me as if I'd grown a third head.
So I made it myself; I'd forgotten that Arlene didn't
indulge, but that was all right with me. I figured since
I was the production line, I needed all the caffeine I
Next we inventoried everything we had to work
with. Our best choice was to make a small mail rocket
intended for one person, but capable of seating two, if
they were really chummy. I wrote a list of parts
needed and found almost everything within three
hours . . . except for a thingamabob. I knew what it
was really called, but I couldn't think of it. We spent
another hour searching, and though we didn't come
across it, we located more tools that would be of
immeasurable value; a screwdriver, a drill bit, a
magnifying glass, and a paper punch.
"Enough for now," said Arlene. "I'm sure the
thingamabob will show up before we finish. We'd
better get started ... I have no idea how fast the air is
leaking from the dome; we might have a month, we
might have a couple of days!"
I wasn't going to argue with an optimistic Arlene.
Hell, I hardly ever argued with the pessimistic one.
"We haven't looked under all the tarps," I said, "and
there are other rooms to check too. But there is one
more shopping expedition required before we start
work. We need enough food and water to hold us
through the job; and all the spare liquid oxygen tanks
and hydrogen tanks we can find."
Arlene nodded. We were in a race with a bunch of
air molecules, and they had a head start. In addition
to oxygen for fuel, we actually needed to breathe now
and again over the next few days. Weeks, whatever. It
would be cruel fate indeed if I screwed the last bolt
and hammered the final wing nut, only to keel over
from oxygen deprivation.
My brain was working overtime now: "The pres-
sure is dropping so slowly, we're not going to notice
when it gets dangerous. Can you rig up something to
warn us when to start taking a hit of pure oxygen?"
"And regulate how much we should take. Yeah, it's
a space station ... I don't think I'll have much trou-
ble finding an air-pressure sensor and rebreather kit."
She pulled a gouge pad out of her shirt pocket and
started taking notes. She thought of something I'd
missed: "I'll look for warm clothes too, Fly. The
temperature will drop as we lose pressure."
"Won't the sun warm us? We're no farther away
than Earth itself."
"We're underground. All this dirt makes a great
First day, we were good scouts, gathering supplies
for our merit badge in survival. I regretted that we
couldn't move what we needed to a lower level and
seal off one compartment. That would stretch survival
by another month. But hauling the tons of material
we'd need to build a rocket was impossible.
Arlene scrounged a generous supply of food, most
of it produced under the dome with considerable help
from the Genetics Department. After watching the
monsters produced assembly-line out of the vat, I
hesitated even to eat our own--human experiments
in recombinant-DNA veggies and lab-grown "Meet."
But Arlene wasn't queasy. She preferred the Deimos-
grown peas and carrots to the real delicacy, frozen
asparagus from Earth.
"I despise asparagus," she insisted.
"All right; so I hate okra." The slimy stuff was one
of my childhood loathings.
On the second day, we ran head-on into our first
lesson in Spaceship Construction 101: namely, trans-
lating the manual from "techie-talk" into English.
Here, what should we make of this?
The ZDS protocol provides reliable, flow-
controlled, two-way transmission of unenriched
fuel-cell packet deliverables from nozzle to sock-
et. It is a plasma stream (PLASM-STREAM) or
packet stream (SOCK-SEQFUELPACKET) pro-
tocol. ZDS uses the Union Aerospace Corpora-
tion double-sequencing directed stream format.
This format provides for nozzle, spray, and
extern-spray (socket) specification.
NOTE: see the definition for ZDS-redirect in
ACTIVE OR PASSIVE
Sockets utilizing the ZDS protocol are either
"active" or "passive." Nozzle processes must be
directed into passive (external spray) sockets.
They detect for connection requests from deliver-
able processes residing on the same or other
nodes of the fuel-cell packet path. Socket proc-
esses broadcast requests for active (directed
spray) nozzles. They sidestep nominal delivery in
favor of reverse-directed (acknowledging) packet
ALL CONNECTIONS BETWEEN NOZZLES
AND SOCKETS MUST BE SET TO DEFAULT
ACTIVE OR PASSIVE PROTOCOL DEPEND-
ING ON THE ANTICIPATED FUEL-CELL
PATH DELIVERY PROCESS.
WARNING! Failure to follow UAC active/passive
nozzle-socket connection protocols may result in
unanticipated fuel-cell path combustion with un-
I could translate the final warning pretty well: if we
didn't figure out what the hell they meant by
"active/passive nozzle-socket connection protocols,"
Arlene and I would become a rather spectacular
Arlene was better at figuring it out than I was; she
had actually taken engineering night courses during
her shore tours. I volunteered the use of my hands
and a strong back if she'd turn the technical gobbledy-
gook into the kind of instructions a Marine can
follow: "Put this part here! Tighten that bolt, Ma-
"Yeah, just like you to have the woman do all the
hard work," she said.
"Just remind me to clean the carburetor before I
work on the piston valves."
"It's not a car, you moron!"
"Huh. I guess in space no one can hear you make
metaphors." Amazingly, she didn't shoot me.
Unfortunately, the rockets used by the Deimos
facility--hence all the spare parts--were short-hop,
lightweight supply rockets, never intended to carry a
single human being, let alone two of us ... and never
intended to fight a gravity well like Earth's.
There were a couple large-bore rocket casings left
over from God knows when, back before we had the
MDM-44 plasma motors developed by Union Aero-
space, and this was the key: I figured I could hot-rod a
44 into & bigger cousin, cram it inside one of the old
casings, and have enough juice to fling us off Deimos,
burn into the atmosphere, and brake to a (messy)
landing Somewhere on Earth.
My main goal was to keep from blowing us up.
After frying our spider baby in JP-9 jet fuel, I had a
new respect for the stuff. It beat the hell out of salad
Arlene squatted on an uncomfortable stool translat-
ing technical paragraphs into something I could un-
derstand. My optimist projection was to finish the
task in ten days!
Reality dragged ass.
Starting our third week, we ran into the first serious
problem. Trying to jerry-rig parts we couldn't find
into configurations we couldn't figure out was a bitch,
and I insisted we needed to test-fire the motor when I
finally got a working model. We didn't have much
time, but the motor was life and death, a must test.
We'd spent two days painfully assembling it, and I do
mean "we." Arlene enjoyed an excuse to get off her
stool; besides, it was a two-man job.
We finally ended up with a sleek beauty two meters
long and a meter in diameter, almost small enough to
fit inside the old-model rocket skin. Just a few odd
pieces here and there where I thought I could super-
charge the system--or where I couldn't find the
correct part and had to Substitute butter for eggs. A
pair of start cables snaked into the machine from ten
feet away, where a switch box was connected to
twenty-seven fifty-volt ni-cad batteries.
I'd spent half a day welding steel bars together into
a framework, sort of, kind of approximating the
interior scaffolding in the mail tube. We bolted the
motor inside, mooring it securely to the deck plates.
Last, I attached a highly sensitive pressure sensor to
the forward edge to measure the thrust. I'd trust
Arlene to make the calculations and tell me whether
we would make it into orbit or not.
"Want to say a prayer?" she asked before I switched
"Yeah; I wasn't always in trouble with the nuns.
Maybe I can collect on a few good deeds." Arlene
stationed herself behind a bulkhead; I reached over
and flipped the switch, then dived behind cover.
Superheated gases rushed out the back with a
tremendous roar . . . and I could tell immediately it
was too much force; I'd tweaked my rocket engine too
But I couldn't switch it off! It was just a model,
designed to burn until the fuel was gone; no cut-off
The scaffolding strained, groaning like a dying
steam demon--whoops, remind me later--and I
knew what was about to happen. "Get your head
down!" I screamed. No use--she couldn't hear any-
thing over the roar of the engine and the scream of
steel twisting and ripping free.
The mooring tore loose with a horrible, grinding
noise that for an instant even drowned out the 44. My
beautiful, working rocket engine broke free, ate the
pressure sensor with one gulp, and smashed through a
dozen boxes of precious parts before making a smok-
ing hole against the nearby bulkhead, leaving a per-
fectly straight series of holes, like a cartoon.
Destroying a bulkhead on a doomed base, or
even some spare parts, was no cause for alarm.
Destroying the motor was something else again.
Arlene screamed something obscene, but I couldn't
hear her over the ringing in my ears. We got off lucky.
It could have struck the JP-9 and ended everything.
After we extinguished the fire and salvaged what we
could of the motor, Arlene looked at me humorlessly.
"Flynn Taggart, what deviltry did you do to those
"Can you rephrase that, after what we've been
through?" We were both a little punchy, getting by on
shifts of four hours sleep. But no spiderminds were
trying to kill us, no imps throwing a wrench in the
machinery, no hell-princes setting fires worse than the
one we'd just put out. It felt like we were on vacation.
All right, to fill in a bit: an imp is what we dubbed
the brown, spiny, leathery alien that throws flaming
balls of mucus. Hell-princes looked like the typical
"devil" from my troubled youth in Catholic school--
red body, goat legs, horns, and they too threw some-
thing noxious that killed you real dead; we pretty
much decided it had to be an example of genetic
engineering, since it was too close to a human concep-
tion of evil.
We had also killed demons, which I privately called
pinkies, that were huge, pink, hairy critters with no
brains but an awful lot of teeth; flying, metallic skulls
with little rocket motors; invisible ghosts; and an
unbelievable horde of zombies--spiritually, they
were the worst, for oftener than not, they were our
own buddies and comrades at arms, "reworked" into
the living dead.
But the granddaddy monster of them all was the
steam-demon, so called because it was a five-meter-
tall mechanical monstrosity with a back rack full of
rockets and a launcher where its hand should have
been. When it moved, it sounded like a steam loco-
motive and shook the ground.
None of that was important compared to one fact:
Arlene had completely changed her mind about build-
ing the rocket. "I'm sorry I ever doubted you," she
said. "I guess it is possible."
But now I was the contrarian. "We did all the
calculations right, A.S. We checked and triple-
checked everything . . . How could the engine be so
much more powerful than we thought?"
She smiled. "Because they obviously deliberately
understated the capabilities in the technical
literature--probably for security reasons."
"So all our calculations are worthless crap. How are
you going to fly this thing?"
She didn't seem overly concerned. "Fly, the vehicle
hasn't been built that I can't pilot."
"Um . . . well, this rocket hasn't been built, has it?"
"You know what I mean! If you build it, I will fly. I
"Hm." I didn't know what to say. I had no idea
whether she was or wasn't a hot-shot rocket pilot. We
don't get much call for that in the Light Drop Infan-
try. But now that she believed in the rocket, nothing
was going to stop us.
There were other motor parts, and we patched
together something I figured was eighty percent ready.
There was no time for better. The air was growing
thinner and the temperature was dropping ... the
crack in the dome was finally taking its toll.
The pressure dropped so gradually, we didn't even
notice. After a while I found myself panting for air
after climbing a ladder, and Arlene had to rest after
every heavy part she handed me.
Then a couple of days later, I realized my mind was '
wandering in the middle of a task. I focused, then
Arlene was able to maintain her concentration;
maybe being smaller, she didn't need as high a partial
pressure of oxygen. But both of us were getting mighty
When I saw Arlene shivering while working, I made
her throw on a couple of sweaters and did the same.
We wore gloves, except that I kept removing mine
because it interfered with the work. Then my hands
would turn to ice, and I'd put them back on to warm
up before taking another stab at attaching the fine
filaments that ran microvolts to the plasma globules.
Suddenly, the air-pressure sensor started screaming
its fool head off. Arlene and I exchanged a worried
glance, but we didn't need to be told twice. It was time
to start hitting the raw stuff, O2 neat. We took hits off
the same oxygen bottle, trying to limit ourselves to a
few breaths every hour or so, or when we started to get
dizzy or goofy.
But we just didn't have that much bottled oxygen.
Uncle Sugar packed a lot of air into a single bottle; but
even so, even at the slow pace we used it, we'd run out
of breathing oxygen in just a few more days. We had
more bottles, but we needed them for fuel mixing.
And of course we'd need to breathe more frequently
as the pressure dropped--paradoxically, it was drop-
ping slower now, since there was less pressure in the
dome to push the air out.
We stretched the bottles as long as we could, but
they ran out while there was still plenty of work left.
I'd done mountain climbing in my native Colorado
before joining the Corps; as the air grew thinner, I
tried to help Arlene deal with it. "Breathe shallowly,"
I said. "Rest, and don't talk except for the job."
The physical exertion wasn't any less, though. We'd
have to stop frequently, gasping and panting. We tired
easily and needed more sleep, but stayed on the four-
hour rotations, creating a cycle of exhaustion we
couldn't break. But sleeping longer would just make
the job take longer, and the pressure would drop lower
in the meantime.
Low pressure is insidious. There are obvious ef-
fects: exhaustion, trouble breathing, and cold. But
there are other symptoms people don't often think
about: your ears ring; it's hard to hear sounds (thinner
air makes everything sound muffled and "tinny"); and
worst of all, your mind can start to go. Our brains are
built for a certain barometric pressure, and if it's too
high or too low, we start getting strange.
Or in Arlene's case, hallucinogenic.
"Pumpkin!" she suddenly screamed, waking me
after two hours of my allotted four. She grabbed a
pump-action riot gun and pounded a shot over my
head, so close it made my skull vibrate.
"Pumpkin" was our name for the horrible, floating
alien heads--mechanical, I think--that vomited ball
lightning capable of frying you at fifty paces. I threw
myself off the table we used as a bed, figuring the
vacation was over: the aliens had found us at last!
But when I dropped to my knees, Sig-Cow rifle at
the ready, all I saw was the dark hole in the wall left by
my overly enthusiastic motor test of a week ago.
Arlene ran down the passageway ahead of me, firing
wildly; firing at nothing. But those bastard alien
"demons" could be fast! I had no reason to doubt my
buddy as I joined her, ready to do what we'd done
countless times during our assault on Phobos,
Deimos, and the tunnel.
Then she ran straight into the bulkhead like it
wasn't there, and I suddenly realized something was
seriously wrong with her.
She knocked herself out. I couldn't look after her
then; I had to make sure about the pumpkin.
Knuckling the residue of sleep from bloodshot eyes,
I ran like a mother down the corridor, eyes left, right
. . . not wasting a shot but ready for the enemy. For an
instant I thought I saw a flying globe and almost
squeezed off a shot. But it was a trick of peripheral
vision, just a flash of my own shadow.
A cul-de-sac at the end of the corridor finally
convinced me that there was no freaking pumpkin.
I stood for a moment, desperately trying to get
nonexistent air into my burning lungs. Then I re-
turned to Arlene, who groaned and panted as she
started coming to.
"Pal, honey, I hate to do this . . . but I've got to
relieve you of your weapon."
She stared uncomprehendingly.
"There was no pumpkin," I explained. "You're
suffering from low-pressure psychosis."
"Oh Jesus," she said quietly. She understood.
Sadly, she handed over the scattergun and her AB-10
I felt like the bottom of my boots after walking
through the green sludge. You don't relieve a Marine
of his weapon, not ever. By doing so, I'd just effec-
tively demoted her to civilian. And the worst part
was, even she realized now that she'd been halluci-
She was crying when we walked slowly back to the
vehicle assembly room, a.k.a. the hangar. I'd never
seen Arlene cry before--except when she had to kill
the reworked, reanimated body of her former lover,
"Hey," I said a few hours later, "can't we electro-
lyze water and get oxygen?"
Arlene was silent for a moment, her lips moving.
"Yes," she said, "but we'd only get a few breaths per
liter, and we need the water too, Fly."
"Oh." Not for the first time, I wished I knew more
engineering. I vowed to take classes when we made it
back home ... if there even was a "back home"
I started having unpleasant dreams, so I didn't
mind giving up more of my sleep allotment. It was
always the same dream, actually. I loved roller coast-
ers as a kid. They were the closest I could get to flying
in those days. I lived only five miles away from a
freestanding wood-frame monster. I thought I would
love nothing better, until they built a tubular steel,
I'd never been afraid on the old roller coaster. With
all the courage of an experienced ten-year-old, I'd sit
in the car as it slowly reached the top, the horizon
slanting off to my left, and pretend it was the rim of a
planet and I was an astronaut. As it went over the top,
plunging down a cliff of wood and metal, I made it a
point of honor not to hold on to the crash bar. I was
too grown-up for that!
I was always interested in how things were put
together and how they worked. So I asked about the
new roller coaster. A man who worked at the amuse-
ment park told me stuff he wasn't supposed to say,
stuff he knew nothing about--about how the forces
generated could snap a human neck like rotten cord-
wood, how the auxiliary chain that gave the car
acceleration had a lot of extra strain on it for an eight-
As I started up the first hill of the new ride, I
thought about what I'd learned. I didn't know it was
all bogus crap made up to impress a ten-year-old.
The first loop, I worried about centrifugal force
snapping my neck; the second loop, I sweated over
velocity tearing me out of my seat; the third loop, I
fixated on the damned chain coming loose; and the
fourth loop was reserved for a ten-year-old having
ulcers over the gears stripping. And then I threw up--
not a good thing to do when you're upside down.
I wonder if that bastard ever knew what damage his
As I grew up, I learned how real knowledge could
banish fear. You play the odds. You focus on the job at
hand. You don't want to mess up. The childhood
trauma was behind me ... until it came back now on
Deimos as I tried to grab a little sleep. Instead of rest,
I was back on that eight-loop metal monster, and now
it turned into the arms and legs of a steam-demon.
When the creature screamed at me and raised its
missile arm, I would always wake up; so I didn't even
have the pleasure of fighting or dying.
I didn't worry about my stupid dreams, though. It
sure beat fighting the real thing. Besides, I was getting
off easy compared to Arlene.
I knew things were bad when I tried to wake her up
and she stared with unblinking eyes, not seeing a
damned thing. I realized she was still asleep. I'd read
somewhere that it's risky to wake a person from a
trance state, and I didn't require medical training to
know Arlene was Somnambulist City.
There wasn't time to go hunting for a medical
library. A quick check of medical supplies produced a
Law Book, wedged between the surgical bandages and
antibiotics. I had to laugh. A text on medical malprac-
tice had made it all the way to a Martian moon, and
now, by way of a hyperspace tunnel, had almost
returned to Earth.
I wasn't laughing as I returned to Arlene. She
walked in her sleep, striking at the air in front of her.
"Get away," she said to phantoms only she could see.
"I won't leave you. I'll stay, I'll stay!"
If I shouldn't wake her, there seemed no
reason I shouldn't try to communicate. "Arlene, can
you hear me?"
"Quiet," she said, "I don't want Fly to hear you.
He's depending on me."
"Why don't you want him to know about me?" I
"Because you're evil," she said with conviction.
"You're all evil, you bastards."
She walked slowly down the corridor. So long as she
wasn't in danger of hurting herself, I saw no reason to
shock her out of it. "Why are we bad?"
"You scare me. You make my brother do bad
Up to that point I did not know that Arlene even
had a brother.
It was weird--I thought we'd known everything
about each other's family life. She talked about her
parents and growing up in Los Angeles all the time. I
was uncomfortable pursuing the matter, but I rationa-
lized away my moral qualms and decided to play out
the hand. "Who are we?" I asked again.
She swayed drunkenly, delivering a monologue like
those weird, old plays from previous centuries. "Bad
things in the air, in the night, making my brother
crazy. He'd never do bad things except for you. I
thought I'd never see you again . . . Why'd you follow
me into space, to Mars, to Deimos? When I grew up, I
thought you weren't real, but now I know better. You
followed me, but I won't let you get inside me; not
When Arlene had kidded me about going down
memory lane, I took it in good humor. But if we were
going to have to relive all the bad stuff from our
childhood as the air leaked away, I was good and
ready to say good-bye to Deimos now, rocket or no
rocket, instead of later.
In the meantime, what was I going to do about
Arlene? I couldn't let her wander the corridors, argu-
ing with ghosts from her childhood. With time short
and no way to send to Earth for a correspondence
course in psychology, I went with common sense.
"Arlene, we'll make a deal with you," I said. "We'll
stop bothering you and let you get back to Fly."
"In exchange for what?" she wanted to know, quite
"Because we've moved back to Earth, and you can't
touch us there."
"Fly and I are building a ship to take us to Earth,"
"Ha, we don't believe you two will get anywhere
near us. You'll be stuck on Deimos forever!"
"That's a lie!" she snapped, and stopped walking.
"We'll fight you again." She stared right at me. "We're
not afraid of your little genetic stupidmen."
"Big words!" I said.
She came right at me, fists raised, and started
hitting me. As I fended off her blows--not too
difficult, considering the difference in reach--I
yelled, "Hang on, Arlene, I'm coming to help you.
This is Fly, Fly!"
As I say, I never took any courses in psychology, but
I acted in school plays. And to steal a phrase, it
doesn't take a rocket scientist to go with the flow. I
gave myself a magna cum laude graduation as her eyes
came into focus and she recognized me.
"Fly? What happened?"
"We've been fighting monsters again."
She looked around the empty corridor and then
back to me. I didn't have to spell it out. "How much
longer can we take this?"
"Not a second longer than we have to."
Arlene started seeing weird colors after that--
auras, shadows, and things she wouldn't tell at first.
Sometimes she would put the tech documents down,
sitting quietly with her eyes shut until the colors went
It scared me plenty, but it terrified her. She was
losing her mind--and she knew it. So when I told her
the engine was eighty percent finished, Arlene urged,
"Fly, forget the other twenty percent. It's done! Let's
blow this popcorn stand."
I had to be honest. "A.S., there are still a few
systems I don't think are in really good shape."
"We can't wait. We've taken chances with worse
odds than that the whole time we've been on this
rock. Fly, I ... I stopped being able to see color
vision this morning. All I can see is gray--except
when I hallucinate a rainbow-colored aura. And my
peripheral vision is shot." She paused, licking her
lips. "And Fly, there's something else."
She came close and spoke softly, seriously. "I want
to confess something to you, Fly. What would your
nuns think of that? For the first time I'm really afraid.
I'm afraid I might kill you, thinking you're one of the
monsters. I couldn't stand that."
The little voice in the back of my head had whis-
pered that possibility when she first imagined the
pumpkin. It was a chance I was willing to take. Even
so, I was glad she, not I, stated the danger loud and
I sped up preparations, insisting that Arlene sleep
whenever possible. The air and pressure problems
were getting to me as well, but I handled them better
Of course, the problem with oxygen starvation is
that you are not the best judge of your own reason.
But the best chance for both of us was to finish the
And we were close, tantalizingly close.
I suddenly got the creepy crawlies. I recognized the
symptom: I was picking up the same psychosis as
Arlene. "All right," I acquiesced, "we go in the next
few hours. We have a chance, I guess; eighty percent is
eighty points better than zero."
We got busy. We drank water. We ate a last good
meal of biscuits, cheese, fruit, nuts. The Eskimos say
that food is sleep, by which I guess they mean if your
body can't get one kind of recharge, you might as well
take the other.
Arlene abandoned me to work out the telemetry
program that would (God willing) launch us, kill
Deimos's orbital velocity, dropping us into the atmos-
phere, then take us down, at which point she'd hand
over control to me to find a suitable spot to touch
down. Fortunately, it was basically cut-and-paste; I
doubt she could have written it from scratch . . . not
in the condition she was in. The hand of God must
have graced her, though she'd never admit it, for her
to keep it together long enough to patch it together.
As we prepared to leave, I kept running the basic
worries through my mind. The mail tubes were de-
signed for Mars, which has only a fraction the atmos-
phere of Earth and a much lower gravity; the specific
impulse developed by the rockets might not be
enough to overcome Earth's gravity as we spilled
velocity and tried to land. On the other hand, the
thick atmosphere might cause so much friction that
our little ship would burn up.
The launcher was a superconducting rail gun. Re-
minded me of the eight-loop wonder at the amuse-
ment park back in the Midwest. This time I hoped I
wouldn't throw up. At least this piece of equipment
didn't have an auxiliary chain ... so what was there
to worry about?
I grunted the launcher around to point opposite
Deimos's orbital path. The rocket controls were sim-
ple to operate, thank God; throttle, stick, various
navigational gear that I didn't really understand, and
environmental controls, all ranged around my face in
a tremendously uncomfortable position.
Then suddenly, a few hours before our scheduled
departure, Arlene totally freaked out.
At first I thought she was joking. She strolled up to
me and said, "Don't try to fool me; I know what you
"Yeah, a prize SOB," I said distractedly. A moment
later I was on my butt with Arlene's boot on my chest
and a shiv--a sharpened piece of metal--against my
throat. Looking into her eyes, I saw the blank look of a
zombie . . . and for a moment, Jesus, I thought they'd
somehow gotten her, reworked her!
But it was just the low pressure, or maybe slow
oxygen deprivation. I talked to her for five minutes
from my supine position, saying anything, God knows
what, anything to snap her back to some semblance of
herself. After a while she dropped the shiv and started
crying, saying she had murdered God or some such
I wasn't going to abandon her, no matter what; but
there was nothing in my personal rule book that said I
had to make it any more difficult. We had Medikits in
the shed. I gave her a shot. She struggled, coughed,
and turned to me. "Why can't we eat our brothers?"
she asked; then the drug took effect.
She'd be okay; in the mail-tube rocket, we've have
more pressure, and more important, more partial-
pressure of O2. She'd be all right ... I hoped.
I put her aboard the rocket, threw in a bag of
supplies, and squeezed in next to her. It was like being
in a sleeping bag together--or a coffin. I positioned
myself so I could reach all the controls, took a deep
breath and got serious.
Just before lighting the cigar, I remembered the
stark terror of riding in the E7 seat of an S-8 sub-
hunter "Snark" jet and coming in for my virgin
landing on an aircraft carrier. Trusting entirely to the
guy on the other end made me more nervous than the
idea of landing on a postage stamp. Well, this time,
for better or worse, I was the guy with the stick;
considering that I'd never flown anything but a troop
shimmy over some mountains, I almost wished I were
back in the S-8.
I threw the switches, pushed forward on the throttle
(oddly similar to a passenger airliner), and the rocket
slid along the tube, launching at ten g's. Arlene was
already out, of course, and missed the pleasure of
blacking out with me.
Suddenly, I discovered myself in a strange room, a
faint hissing catching my attention. Black and white,
no color ... I knew I should know where I was, what
all these things, this equipment around me, was.
I should know my name too, I guessed.
Then the sound cut back in; fly, someone said. A
command? Fly, fly--"Fly." It was me, my lips, saying
the word fly ... the name! Fly, me; my name.
Then I saw color and recognized the jerry-rigged
blinking lights and liquid-crystal displays of the mail
tube. I'd installed them myself; the mail doesn't need
to see where it's going, but we did.
Through the slit of a viewscreen, I saw deepest blue
with faint, cotton-candy wisps, strings flashing past. I
glanced at the altimeter--much too high for clouds.
Then something socked me in the face, like a 10mm
shell, and agony exploded across my face. At first it
was bilateral; then it focused right behind my eye-
balls, like God's own worst migraine. For a few
seconds I thought my head literally was going to
detonate. Then it faded as the blood finally
repressurized my cranial arteries and rebooted my
brain. I looked at the chronometer: the entire black-
out had lasted only forty-five seconds.
It could have been forty-five years.
A low groan announced Arlene's return to con-
sciousness. "Fly," she moaned, "good luck."
I was too busy to say anything. But it was good
having her back again. The calculations she'd already
worked out for our glide path were okay, and I used
the retros to get us on her highway.
As we came in, the ride got bumpier and rougher.
The interior of the little craft started heating up.
Being so close together made us sweat all the faster.
When it got over fifty degrees centigrade, beads of
perspiration poured into my eyes, interfering with
But the temp continued to rise. The mail tubes are
supposed to be insulated--but the skin on this one
was built for Mars.
In Earth atmosphere, we were being baked. The
temp boiled up past seventy degrees, and I was gasping
for air, every breath searing my lungs. My skin turned
red and I could barely hold the controls. Another
minute and we would be dead.
Fly!" Arlene screamed. "Blow the oxygen!
We'll lose it, but it'll heat up and blow out the
exhaust, cooling the interior!"
"Not again!" I said.
"We'll be low on air again!"
"Do it, Fly, or we'll fry."
We took turns making the other face unpleasant
facts. It was something like being married.
I did as she commanded. The cooling effect made a
real difference. My brain was still on fire, but at least I
could think again.
"So what systems still aren't working?" she asked
next, still gasping from each searing breath.
This seemed like an opportune moment to be
completely honest. "Now that you mention it," I
mentioned, "the only one I'm worried about is the
"The thingamabob would have come in useful for
landing. What do they call it? Oh yes, the aerial-
She sighed. If there had been more room in our
little cocoon, she might have shrugged as well. "By-
gones," she said. "Sorry for the trouble I caused."
"Arlene, don't be ridiculous! I was having crazy
dreams and was about to go off the deep end myself.
You just went first because you're . . . smaller." It
occurred to me that we were having more of a
discussion than was wise under the circumstances.
"So how in hell do we land this puppy?" No sooner
were these words out of her mouth than Arlene
I figured we should try and set it down anywhere on
dry land. Live or die, I wasn't in the mood for a swim.
If we survived, we could get our bearings anywhere on
Earth--pick a destination and then haul butt.
We didn't have any time to waste. Thanks to our
stunt with the oxygen, the O2 to CO2 ratio was
dropping. I was in even less mood for us to become
goofy from oxygen deprivation after watching Arlene
go nuts before--thanks, Mr. Disney, but I'm not
going back on that ride.
I had to explain this to Arlene, but she was asleep
again so I explained it to the Martian instead. He was
a little green guy, about three feet high, and I was glad
to see him. "About time one of you showed up," I
said. "We always expected to see guys like you up here
instead of all this medieval stuff."
"Perfectly understandable," he said in the voice of
W. C. Fields. "These demons are a pain. But they're
welcome to Deimos."
"Why is that?" I asked.
"Confidentially, it's an ugly moon, don't you think?
Not at all a work of beauty like Phobos, a drinking
man's moon. Speaking of which, you wouldn't have
some whiskey on you?"
"Sorry, only water."
He was very offended. "You mean that liquid fish
fornicate in? We Martians don't care for the stuff. You
can drown in it, you know. Now ours is a nice, dry
planet, rusty brown like that car of yours after you
abandoned it to the elements. Mars is nice and cold,
good practice for the grave. Are you sure you don't
have any booze?"
I figured he was bringing up drowning just to scare
me. If Arlene and I didn't burn up in the atmosphere,
there was always a good chance of winding up in the
drink and drowning like the Shuttle pioneers had in
Besides, he'd raised a certain issue and I wanted an
answer. "Why does Phobos look better to you than
Deimos?" I asked.
"My dear fellow, Phobos is the inner moon of
Mars. Deimos was always on the outs even before
those hobgoblins hijacked it. The outs is a bad place
to be, and you are out of time and going to die and
betray Arlene and betray the Earth, you puny little
man with your delusions."
While he was talking, he was growing in size, and
sharp teeth protruded beyond his sneering lips; the
eyes flamed red, as the rockets flamed red, as the sky
was underneath and overhead all at the same time.
And I was screaming.
"You're one of them! You're a demon-imp-specter-
thing. You tricked me."
"Fly," said a comforting voice from behind the
Martian. "Fly, you're hallucinating."
"I knew that," I told her as the Martian faded from
view. "I knew it all along."
A quick check of the cabin gave a head count of (1)
myself, (2) Arlene, (3) no Martians. I checked again to
make sure. Yep, just two humans. No monsters. No
Martians. Not much air. Definitely not enough air.
"We've got to land this quickly," I said.
"Um ... if it's all the same to you, Fly, I can wait
until we can land it safely."
The atmosphere got thick enough that I pulled the
cord to extend our mini-wings. Instantly, we started
buffeting like mad, shaking so hard I thought my
innards would become outards. We rolled, pitched,
yawed--triple-threat!--and it was all I could do to
hang on to the ragged edge of Arlene's computer-
projected glide path.
The screen displayed a series of concentric squares
that gave the illusion of flying through an infinite
succession of square wire hoops. So long as I kept
inside them, I should go where she projected, some-
where in North America, she said; even she wasn't
But I kept cutting through the path, coloring out-
side the lines. I couldn't hold it! I'd yank on the stick
and physically wrench us back through the wire
frames and out the other side (they turned from red to
black when I was briefly on the meatball). The best I
could do was stay within spitting distance of my
proper course . . . and naturally, we were running too
hot, much too fast. We were going to overshoot our
mark--possibly straight into the Pacific Ocean.
I barely hung on, abandoning retros to guide our
two-man "cruise missile" by fins, air-braking to spill
as much excess velocity as possible. The ship started
shaking. An old silver tooth filling started to ache.
Arlene leaned back against the seat, muscles in her
jaw tightening, eyes getting wider and wider. I think
she was starting to appreciate the gravity of our
North America unwound beneath the window like
a quilt airing out on a sunny day. We were over the
Mississippi, sinking lower, falling west, descending
fast. Then we entered a cloud bank. We weren't there
"I know where we are!" shouted Arlene, voice
starting to sound funny from the breathing problem. I
placed it too. We'd popped out of the cloud bank
about 1ilometers due west of Salt Lake City. The
Bonneville salt flats were ideal for a landing--a vast,
dry lake bed, nothing to hit but dirt. Very hard dirt.
But we had a chance.
"Spill the fuel!" she screamed, right in my ear,
straining against the buffeting. At least we were low
enough that we could breathe. I yanked the lever,
dumping what little JP-9 remained in the tanks.
The cabin was getting hot again, the structure of the
rocket shaking like we were in a Mixmaster, and it
was now or never. "Hold on!" I shouted, thinking
how stupid it sounded but needing to say something.
Arlene screamed like a banshee--a much more
We came down fast and hard, finally striking the
ground at Mach 0.5. The ship shredded on impact,
skipping like a rock on the waters of a salt-white lake.
Then it rolled, and Arlene's elbow jammed into my
side so hard it knocked the breath out of me.
End over end we tumbled, and my brains, already
fried, scrambled so I didn't know dirt from sky. We
shed bits and pieces from the ship--only the titanium
frame was left, but still we kept rolling.
The ship finally skidded to a stop, on its side, with
me underneath Arlene.
For a good five minutes, felt like five hours, we lay
silently, dazed, wondering if we had made it or not
. . . waiting for the world to stop spinning.
"Are you all right?" Arlene managed to ask.
"I think we're alive," I said.
The fuel was completely spent, which was just fine
with me. No risk of fire or explosion. Now if we could
just get out of the thing.
Fortunately, the door on Arlene's side wasn't
jammed. In fact, it wasn't even with us anymore.
Arlene stumbled out, falling heavily with a grunt. I
followed somewhat more gracefully, which was a
We'd suffered no injuries, thank God; I didn't want
us to wind up sitting ducks. If aliens had taken over
Utah--a belief held by one of my old nuns many
years before the invasion--then we must be on our
guard. Someone, or something, would come to find
out what had just made a smoking hole in the salt lick.
We took a moment to enjoy being alive and in one
piece, enjoying the dusk in Utah, breathing the best
air we'd tasted in months. Then we took inventory.
The food and water came through. But the weapons
"You said we couldn't do it," she teased me.
"Never listen to a pessimist," I answered, adding,
"and the world is so full of them you might as well
give up." She laughed as she playfully punched my
arm, numbing me.
Astonishingly, Arlene's GPS wrist locator was still
working. That was one tough piece of equipment! I
thought maybe I should buy stock in the company;
then I wondered whether any companies still existed.
Maybe the monsters had done what no government
was able to do: end all commerce and starve the
She sat cross-legged and fiddled with the thing,
trying to get a fix on our exact position. The satellite
should have responded immediately, spotting us with-
in a meter or two.
"Getting anything?" I asked, listening to the sym-
phony of white noise coming off her arm.
"Nada," she said. "I'll bet the sat is still up there,
but the Bad Guys must have encrypted the signal.
Maybe so humans can't use them in combat."
"I wish they were all as dumb as the demons," I
"Yeah, one spidermind goes a long way. But who
cares, Fly? We've beaten the odds again. We're alive,
dammit!" She ran across the sand like a kid let loose
at the beach. Then she gestured for me to join her. I
ran over and grabbed at her. She threw me off balance
and I took a tumble in the sand.
"Clumsy!" she said, sounding as young as she had
when sleepwalking through her waking nightmare on
Deimos; but now was a lot more pleasant.
"We don't have time for this, you know," I said, but
my heart wasn't it.
"We don't have time to be alive, or to breathe air.
But here we are, still in one piece. God, I didn't think
we were going to make it. We got down from orbit
with nothing but spare parts, spit, and duct tape, and
our bare hands--hah!"
"Frankly, my dear, I had my doubts," I admitted. I
couldn't help running after her. She was right. We
kept coming through stuff that should have killed us
twenty times over. We weren't indestructible, but I
was beginning to believe in something I'd always
People who accomplish nothing in their lives al-
ways attribute the success of everybody else to good
luck or knavery. I believe you make your own luck:
"Chance favors the prepared mind." But in combat,
there are too many random factors to calculate.
Arlene and I were feeling cocky. We had plenty of
reason to be thankful.
"I wonder what the radiation level is here," I said.
"Do we have to know?" she asked, skipping. "It
didn't look like any bombs were going off in this
"Not while we were watching," I pointed out.
"There's no reason to nuke a desert. It's already a
"You nuke military bases, Arlene. And don't forget
the nuclear testing that's gone on in areas like this."
"Human wars, Fly; and human preparation for
war. Besides, we don't know for certain we were
seeing nuclear weapons going off; they could be some
other kind of weapon without fallout. Makes it easier
to take over later."
"Some of these beasties seem to thrive on radia-
She stopped playing in the sand and sat down. She
didn't say anything at first, as she poured sand out of
her right boot, but then had an answer for me as she
began unlacing her left one: "The radiation levels on
the base weren't healthy for humans, but they weren't
anywhere near what you'd get from a full-scale nucle-
The lady had a point. "You're probably right. You
can thank me for going to such lengths to bring us
down in this location."
"Ha," she said. "Pure luck. You brought us down
where you could."
"Skill and perseverance, dear lady. One of these
days, I'll explain my theory of luck to you."
For the moment, I was glad to join her,
sitting in the sandbox. I ignored the little voice in the
back of my head that worked overtime to keep us
alive. It said we didn't have a moment to waste; the
monsters of doom could be upon us any second,
burning away our little victory faster than the setting
Comes a time when you have to say the hell with it,
if only for a moment. Arlene and I had recently faced
the worst thing anyone can face, worse than the
monsters or dying in space. We knew what it meant to
lose your sanity . . . and come back to yourself again.
Arlene started whistling "Molly Malone." She'd
picked one of the few songs to which I knew the
words. I sang along. All that was missing was a bottle
of Tullamore Dew, the world's finest sipping whiskey.
As it was, our duet seemed to transform the lengthen-
ing shadows of dusk in Utah into the cool glades of
Ireland. I wondered if doom had come there. Were
there demons in Dublin? Did the men there see little
green leprechauns instead of Martians in their mo-
ment of madness? I wondered about the whole world,
and it was too much for me.
Right now the world was a stretch of desert in Utah.
What we could do for ourselves, for the human race,
for the world, would be determined here, as it had
been on Deimos, and before that, Phobos. We'd take
it one world at a time.
I lay back happily for a few moments, watching the
stars wink into existence in the darkening sky.
As night fell, we spotted a glow, due east. That was
the way to bet--Salt Lake City, I guessed. We gath-
ered together what had survived the crash and fol-
lowed the light. We took a break at nine P.M., another
"How long do you think this is going to take?" she
"Not sure, but I'm glad we brought the provisions."
The bag survived the crash just as nicely as we did. We
had water. We had biscuits and granola bars. We had
flashlights (which we wisely didn't use). But I sure as
hell wished we had some weapons, other than one
puny knife in the provisions bag.
We trekked at night and slept by day. Hell, I saw
Lawrence of Arabia. After Phobos and Deimos and
nearly splattering ourselves over old terra firma, after
all we'd survived, I'd be damned if we were going to
cash in our chips here. Hell, we could go to Nevada to
The water held out better than the food. We hud-
dled together in the cold during the day, when we
slept. We could have made a fire, but no point giving
away our location with unnecessary light. And there
was one thing about the situation creepy enough to
encourage caution, even though we hadn't run into
any trouble yet.
Arlene was the first to notice it: "Fly, there are no
"What do you mean?" I asked. We crunched along
in the night, heading toward a glow that seemed
barely bigger than it was three days ago.
"The night creatures. No owls . . ."
"Are there owls in the desert?"
"I don't know, maybe not. But there should be
something. No bugs. No lizards. No nothin'."
I thought about it. "If we've seen the collapse of
civilization, you'd expect wild dogs."
"There's no coyotes. Nothing. Even out here, there
ought to be something. Unless everything was killed
by the weapons."
"No, that can't be right. We'd be puking up our guts
by now from poison or radiation. That light suggests
somebody's still in business."
"I hope so," she said. "So you think that's Salt Lake
"Salt Lake City, Utah?"
"Unless it's wintering in Florida."
She was silent for a hundred paces; then she cleared
her throat. "Fly, I have to confess something to you.
"I sort of have a problem with the Mormon
Church," she said.
Making out her face in the dim light wasn't easy. I
wished we had a full moon instead of the sliver
hanging over us like a scythe. "You were a Mormon?"
"No. But my brother was, briefly."
"You blame the church for ... for whatever hap-
She shook her head. "No, I guess not. He had
problems before he joined the Church; had problems
when he left."
"Do you think he might be here?" I asked.
"Nah. We lived in North Hollywood. He left for
Utah when he became a Mormon; but after he left the
Church, I don't know what became of him. I don't
care if I ever see him again."
"I'll never bring it up," I said.
"There's another reason I'm telling you this," she
went on. "I became obsessed with Mormonism while
he was with them. I read books by them and against
them. I even read the Book of Mormon."
"Maybe that could come in useful," I suggested.
"I doubt it. It just makes me more prejudiced.
Look, Fly, if we find living human beings at the end of
this, we must stand with them and fight with them.
I'm promising you right now I won't discuss religion
with any of those patriarchal..."
She paused long enough for me to jump in: "I get
"Do you have any opinions abut them?" she asked,
"Well, I read an article about them having a strong
survivalist streak; that they stockpile a year's supply
of food and stuff like that. You'll get a kick out of this!
When I visited L.A. once, I took in the sights:
Disneyland, the La Brea Tar Pits, Paramount studios,
the Acker Mansion, and I even found time to go into
their big temple at the end of Overland Avenue.
There's an angel up top with a trumpet; I mistakenly
called him Gabriel."
"They must have loved that; it's the Angel
"Well, now I know."
"Heh. I used to drop the i off that name when I used
I took a deep breath. "Arlene, I'm going to hold you
to that promise not to talk theology with them."
"Scout's honor," she said.
"Were you ever a Scout?"
She didn't answer again.
We kept the flashlights off; the glow on the horizon
was the only illumination I wanted in that desert. It
was easy to follow the direction at night. We made
sure that we didn't waste opportunities.
"You're burning night-light," Arlene would say
when it was her turn to wake me up. Then she'd
snicker, Something amused her, but she didn't let me
in on it.
Turned out that we ran out of food, but we had
more water than we needed. It took us five days to get
to Salt Lake City, the center of what once had been
the Mormon world. And by God, it still was!
We lay on our bellies in some brush, shielding out
eyes from the sun, leaning against a side-paneled
"They're people!" marveled Arlene as we watched
hundreds of men on the streets in the early dawn.
They relieved other men who'd obviously been doing
the night shift.
"Where do you think the women are?" I whispered.
"Home, minding the kids. Mormons are so damned
"Arlene . . ."
We were in a good spot to see plenty, behind a
wrecked truck on a rise. As the sun crawled up the
sky, shafts of light came through the broken windows
like laser beams, one blinding me for a second. We
positioned ourselves to see more. There was plenty to
The streets of this garrison town had over a thou-
sand men with guns, and to my surprise I made out a
few women and teenage girls toting heavy artillery.
Arlene gave me one of her funny looks.
I didn't make her take back anything she'd said;
when a society is threatened, it will do what it must or
go down fast.
"You don't think they might be working with the
aliens?" asked my buddy. I had the same thought. But
they didn't act zombified, and we'd learned that the
monsters preferred human lackeys in that condition.
The spidermind had made only one exception when it
needed knowledge in the human brain of poor Bill
We had to make contact with these people, but I
preferred doing it in a way that wouldn't get us shot.
While I was formulating a plan, Arlene tapped me on
I turned and found myself staring down both bar-
rels of a twelve-gauge duck gun. It had gorgeous,
inlaid detail work running all seventy-five centimeters
of the stock and barrel. . . and it was attached to a
beefy hand connected to a large body with a grinning,
boyish face topping it off. Twenty-two, twenty-three,
"How do?" said the man. His buddy was a lot
thinner, and he held an old Ruger Mini-14 pointed at
He caught my expression and grinned at me as if he
could read my mind. Here was proof positive we were
facing honest-to-God, living humans: they had pride
in a good weapon.
"Hi," I said, moving my eyes from man to man.
"Good morning," said Arlene.
"Hey," said the other man by way of greeting,
noticing how my eyes kept drifting to his piece. "Took
me quite a while to get one of these," he said
"Beautiful weapon," I said, noticing that the beefy
guy was still calm.
The thin one nodded and said, "They are compact,
easy handling, fast shooting and hard hitting." He
paused, then added: "Don't you agree?"
Thunk. The penny dropped. They were testing us!
"Oh, yes," said Arlene, jumping in. The thin guy
looked at her a little funny and waited for me to say
"One of my favorite weapons," I said. "Hardly any
kick. Not like the bigger calibers."
Finally the big guy spoke again: "Jerry, these people
don't want a lecture."
Jerry squinted at him. "They're military. Look at
their clothes." We weren't asked to confirm or deny
anything, so we kept our mouths shut. Jerry had
plenty of words left in him: "They're interested in a
good weapon. Aren't you?"
He looked straight at me and I answered right away:
"I sure am, especially that one you've got."
Jerry smiled and went on: "Albert gets tired of
hearing me go on about what a good model this is.
They were even reasonably priced until they were
"Not a problem now," said Arlene. "I'm sure
there's plenty of squashed zombies you can take one
Whenever she spoke, the men seemed a bit uncom-
fortable. I had the impression she was getting off
Arlene looked over at me and winked. We'd fought
enough battles to read each other's expressions and
body language. Her expression told me that things
were looking up as far as she was concerned, but she
couldn't resist getting in the act: "I like an M-14," she
Jesus, it was like going shooting with Gunnery
Sergeant Goforth and his redneck buddies!
The men started to warm to her a little. "Good
choice for a military gal," said Albert. We all just kind
of stood there for a moment, smiling at each other,
and then Albert broke the ice by changing the subject.
He asked, in the same friendly tone of voice: "You
wouldn't happen to be in league with those ministers
of Satan invading our world?"
"We were wondering the same thing about you,"
said Arlene. I gave her a dirty look for that.
The beefy kid with the double-barreled duck gun
chuckled. "Don't mind her saying that, mister. It
shows a proper godly attitude. I hope you both check
out; I like you. We talk the same language. But we
can't take any chances."
They searched us both thoroughly, found the
knife, and impounded it. We were weaponless. In a
way, I was glad. These guys weren't acting like ama-
teurs . . . which meant they had a chance against the
"Okay," said the man with the bird gun, "we'll take
you to the President of the Council of Twelve."
Arlene grimaced, which told me she knew what he
was talking about; but she kept her promise. Not a
word came out of her about the religious stuff. The
title sounded impressive enough to tell me that the
Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints was
still in business big-time.
Maybe she was right, and they were a cult; but I
don't know any difference between a cult and a
religion except as a popularity contest. They had
survived, and we needed allies against the monsters.
I knew one more thing about the Mormons that I
hadn't mentioned to Arlene during our little chat in
the desert. A friend I trusted with Washington con-
nections told me that a good part of Mormon self-
reliance was to really prepare for every eventuality.
After their tumultuous history, extreme caution was
understandable. Result: there were a lot of Mormons
in the government ... in the FBI, in the various
services, in the CIA, even in NASA. God help anyone
who tried to play Hitler with the Mormons as the
Jews! The Mormons should be ideal allies against a
literal demonic invasion.
Arlene and I would find out soon enough.
As we were led through the streets of SLC, I
allowed myself to hope that Arlene and I had lucked
out by landing here. If I were still a praying man, I'd
burn candles and say a few Ave Marias that we
wouldn't find a spidermind sitting in the Mormon
Tabernacle . . . which loomed closer and closer, obvi-
ously our destination.
The people in the street gave us a wide berth as we
passed, but they didn't act unfriendly--just cautious.
No one acted like an idiot. I hoped it stayed that way.
Suddenly, a man on a big motorcycle roared over to
us and stopped a few inches away, kicking up dust. He
wore a business suit. "Hey, Jerry," he said.
"Hey, Nate," said Jerry. "Folks, this is my brother,
Nate. I'd introduce you, but I don't know your
"Now, Jerry," said Albert, "you know better than
that. The President of the Twelve hasn't interviewed
them yet. They should give their names to him."
"Sounds like they know your names already," said
the man on the cycle, taking off his helmet. These
guys were twins.
Although Arlene kept her promise about not dis-
cussing theological matters, she leapt into any other
waters that gurgled up around us. "That's a bad
machine," she said.
Nate proved to be his brother's brother: "You like
this?" he asked with a big grin.
"They have good taste in guns," said Jerry, spurring
them on. Albert groaned.
Nate was on a roll: "BMW Paris-Dakar, 1000
cc's ..." He and Arlene went on about the bike for a
Part of me wanted to strangle the girl; but another
part appreciated what she was doing. Putting the
other guys at their ease is a critical strategy. There
were a lot more men in the street than women, but our
captors--hosts?--remained respectful and polite in
Arlene's presence. A very civilized society.
". . . and the glove compartment can hold five
grenades!" announced Nate, topping off his presenta-
"That does it," said Albert. "If these nice people
are spies, why don't you just give them mimeo-
In the short time we'd been prisoners, I'd learned
that there was no genuine military discipline here. I
had mixed feelings about this. The good thing was
that I couldn't believe these casual people had been
co-opted by the invaders. They still talked and acted
like free men. Very loquacious free men!
As far as getting their president to cooperate with
us, it could go either way. In the land of the civilians,
the Marine is king ... or a fall guy. I was impatient to
find out which.
"Oh, I almost forgot," said Nate. "I have a message
for you. The President hasn't returned yet."
"You should have told us that right off," said Albert
peevishly. "We'll take them to Holding."
We entered the Tabernacle. It was nice and cool,
with a fresh wood smell that was clean and bracing.
The floors were highly polished. You wouldn't notice
anything different from the world I'd left on a court-
martial charge that now seemed to belong to a differ-
Arlene wasn't the only one with a lot of reading
under her belt. I didn't know a whole lot about the
Mormons, although I knew a bit more than I told
her--but I'd read the Bible all the way through,
enough to recognize things the Mormons took for
inspiration from what they accepted as the earlier
In addition, the nuns taught a little about compara-
tive religion, probably so we'd be better missionaries.
I remembered that God was supposed to have given
Moses directions for the construction of the Taberna-
cle. The structure was to be a house constructed of a
series of boards of a special wood, overlaid with gold,
set on end into sockets of silver. In other words, it
wasn't Saint Pete's, but it was no Alabama revival tent
either. The Mormons adapted the idea for a perma-
nent standing structure.
Right outside the Tabernacle were some more con-
ventional office buildings. We entered one, and were
led into an office by Albert. "I'll bring you something
to eat and drink," he said. I was hungry and thirsty
enough to settle for bread and water. A minute later
Albert returned with bread and water, then left us
"Damn," I said; "I was hoping for a more splendor-
I walked over to a small table, and picked up the
sole object on it: the Book of Mormon: Another
Testament of Jesus Christ. I felt puckish and decided
to tease Arlene a bit. I thought she'd pushed the
envelope too much, encouraging the more talkative of
"Bet you can't remember all the books in here,
She gave me that look of hers. "Will you bet me the
next decent weapon we find?"
"Deal," I said.
"Okay," she replied, and rattled them off: "First
and Second Books of Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom,
Omni, the Words of Mormon, Book of Mosiah, Alma,
Helaman, Third and Fourth Nephi, Book of Mormon,
Ether, Moroni. You're not getting out of this, Fly. I get
first pick on the next piece!"
"Damn!" I said, thoroughly impressed.
"Watch what you say near a holy place."
"Don't worry about it," came a third voice. Albert
had rejoined us without knocking.
"Don't you knock?" asked Arlene.
"As soon as you're no longer prisoners," he said,
closing the door behind him. "I just wanted you to
know that I don't think you're spies for the demons."
"We call them aliens," I said. The medieval termi-
nology didn't bother me when Arlene and I were using
it to distinguish the different kinds of monsters. It
seemed very different when talking to a deeply reli-
gious perseon. These things from space could be
killed. They were created by scientific means. In no
way should they be confused with immortal spirits
against which all the firepower in the galaxy would
"I understand," said Albert. "Would you mind
telling me who you are and how you came to be
"Won't the President ask us that?" I asked.
"Then why should we tell you?" asked Arlene.
"Because I don't have to be as cautious, and I'm a
"So you should tell us about yourself," I said.
"In time. You don't have to tell me anything either,
but you should consider it."
"Well," I said, thinking on my feet, "if we talk to
one Mormon, we should probably talk to the leader."
Albert laughed. "We're not all Mormons here," he
said. "Just most of us."
"Oh?" I said, unconvinced.
"Uh, I am," he cautioned. "Think about it. We're
fighting the common enemy of mankind. We don't
care if you're Mormons. We care that you can be
"Makes sense," admitted Arlene in a tone of voice
so natural that I realized she'd been subtly mocking
"I'm of the Church," continued Albert, "but Jerry
and Nate are Jehovah's Witnesses."
"I thought they didn't fight," said Arlene,
"They are not pacifists, but neither are they of the
Latter-Day Dispensations," he said as warning bells
went off in my head. I prayed I could count on
Arlene's promise to keep her trap shut . . . but she
pressed her lips pretty tight.
Albert was more succinct than his friends: "They
believe all the world's governments are works of the
devil. They won't fight their fellow man at the com-
mand of a state. But they can fight unhuman monsters
until Judgment Day."
"I get it," I said. "Draft protesters in World War
"But volunteers for this," Albert finished.
"What do you mean by, uh, 'dispensation'?"
He laughed. Apparently we'd fallen into the hands
of someone lacking in missionary zeal, for which I
was grateful. "The United States Constitution was
ordained by God. That's why we didn't like seeing it
subverted. We never know if a governmental person is
good or bad until we see where his loyalty lies. But
you two made a wonderful impression on the Wit-
nesses; I think you'll do fine with the President. If you
change your mind about chatting with me, you will
find me easily enough." He left us with the promise
we would see the President soon.
Three hours later we were led to the office of the
President of the Twelve. A clean-shaven, elderly man
with pure white hair, a dark tan, and a tailored suit
got up from behind a walnut desk and rested his
hands on his blotter. He kept his distance. He had a
judge's face, carved in stone. If we were assassins, he
was giving us a clear shot at him. But Albert and Jerry
continued to baby-sit, fingers on triggers.
Mexican standoff. He sized us up. We did the same
to him. He reminded me of a senior colonel in the
Corps, a man used to giving orders.
Finally, he coughed. "I'm the President here," he
"You make it sound like President of the United
States," I said.
He didn't seem to mind. "Might as well be," he
said, "under the circumstances. Who are you?"
We gave him name, rank, and serial number. Being
a gentleman, I let Arlene go first. Then he asked the
sixty-four-trillion-dollar question: "How is it you
come to be here?"
Arlene laughed and let him have it: "Fly, here--
that's his nickname--Fly and I single-handedly
kicked the spit out of the entire Deimos division of
the alien demons. They moved the Martian moon
into orbit around Earth, but we cleaned their clocks."
The leader of the Mormons said, "This is a time for
mighty warriors. We have many prophecies to this
effect. In the Book of Alma there is a verse that I find
indispensable for morale:
"Behold, I am in my anger, and also my people;
ye have sought to murder us, and we have only
sought to defend ourselves."
He smiled, pausing before continuing.
"But behold, if ye seek to destroy us more we will
seek to destroy you; yea, and we will seek our
land, the land of our first inheritance."
"Those words were spoken by Moroni. We must
gird our loins for battle against the ultimate enemy. At
such times as this even women must be used in a
manner unnatural to them. Do you know how much
Delta-V is required to move a moon, even one as
small as Deimos? Why should I believe you?"
I blinked, nonplussed by the change in subject.
Glancing quickly at Arlene, I saw she was controlling
her reaction to the "unnatural" crack, her face impas-
sive. Good girl!
"We, ah, fight the same enemy," I said.
"This is what you purport. You also claim to have
hopped out of orbit and landed on your feet. Pray that
we may prove both to our satisfaction. Until such
time, we must be careful. If what you say is true, you
will be able to demonstrate this to us on a mission.
Only then, if you earn our trust, will you"--he
pointedly stared at me, ignoring Arlene--"be allowed
access to our special wisdom. The audience is over,
and good luck to you."
I worried that Arlene might say something stupid
when I saw her mouth open and the danger sign of her
eyebrows rising faster than any rocket. Hell, I was
worried about myself. But we were ushered out of
there without any disasters.
"As far as I'm concerned," said Albert, leading us
back to our room, accompanied by Jerry, "you just
flunked spy school."
"I don't imagine a spy would concoct so ridiculous
a story and annoy the President so thoroughly."
I said nothing; privately, I thought that was exactly
what a spy might do. It worked, didn't it?
We felt tension leaking from the corridor, like air
escaping from the dome on Deimos. At least the
President was taking some kind of chance on us. He
didn't realize how big a chance he'd taken talking that
way to Arlene.
"We belong to the brotherhood of man," Albert
said. "If you think you have problems now, just wait
until people begin believing your story. Then we'll
start treating you like angels!"
I guess they believed our story, somewhat at
least. Fly and I were left alone at last when that rugged
stalwart, Albert Whatever, scurried off on some er-
Fly gestured me close. "We really should report in,"
he whispered in my ear.
"Report in? To whom?" A good question. If the
country were as devastated as we'd been led to
believe, there wasn't much of a military command
structure left to report to anybody.
If. . . I saw at once where Fly was coming from.
"How much do we really know about these guys?"
asked Fly, confirming my cognition. "Whose side are
"You'd have a hard time persuading me they're
demon-lovers," I said.
"All right . . . maybe. They're patriots. But are they
Wasn't much I could say to that. Fly had a point. . .
as patriotic and pro-human as these Mormons might
be, they still might be wrong about the extent of the
collapse. "You're saying they could be deluded by
their apocalyptic religion."
He raised his brows. "Mormons aren't apocalyptic,
Arlene. I think you're confusing them with certain
branches of Christianity. I'm only saying that they're
pretty cut off from information . . . the whole govern-
ment might look like it's collapsed from this view-
point; but maybe if we contacted somebody some-
where else, in the Pentagon or at least an actual
Marine Corps base, maybe we'd get a different pic-
"All right. Who, then?"
"Chain of command, Arlene. Who do you think we
I'm always forgetting about the omnipresent chain.
Usually, all I see are enlisted guys like me, maybe one
C.O.--Weems, in our case. I'm not used to thinking
of the Great Chain of Being rising above my head all
the way up to the C-in-C, the President of the United
States. Guess that's why Fly makes the big bucks (heh)
as a noncom, while I'm just a grunt.
"Um, Major Boyd, I guess. Or the great-grandboss,
"Hm . . . I'm betting this is a bit above m'lord
Boyd's head. I think we should take this up with God
Himself: the colonel."
"I agree completely. Got the phone number?"
"Yeah, well, that's the next problem. Surely in a
facility this size, there has to be a radio room some-
where, wouldn't you think?"
We did a lot of thinking over the next hour; we also
did a lot of quiet, careful questioning, staying away
from those obviously "under arms," questioning the
less suspicious civilians instead. But what we mostly
did was a lot of walking. My dogs were barking like
Dobermans long before we found anything radio-
The "compound" actually comprised a whole series
of buildings, different clumps far away, and included
a large portion of downtown Salt Lake City. There
were other buildings and residences all around, of
course; SLC is big. Well not compared to my old
hometown of L.A., of course, but you get the idea.
"The compound" might include two buildings and
not include the building in between them; it wasn't
However, we quickly discovered we were restricted
to a small, two-block radius surrounding the Taberna-
cle. An electrified fence cut that central core off from
the rest of the facility (and the rest of the city); guards
patrolled the fence like a military base; there were
even suspicious pillboxes with tiny bits of what might
have been the barrels of crew-served weapons poking
out, and piles of camouflaged tarps that might conceal
tanks or Bradleys. And the guards were as tight about
controlling what left the core as they were about what
I saw a lump that looked suspiciously like an
M-2/A-2 tank, state of the art; I turned to point it
out to Fly, but he was busy staring at the tall office
building at our backs. "What's that up top of that sky-
scraper?" he asked.
"Skyscraper? You've lived in too many small towns,
"Yeah, yeah. What's up top there? That metal
"Um ... a TV aerial."
"Are you sure? Look again."
I stared, squinting to clear up my mild astigmatism.
"Huh, I see what you mean. It could be, but I'm not
sure. You think it's a radio antenna, right?"
"I don't know what they're supposed to look like
when they're stationary, only what they look like on
the box we carry with us."
"Well, you have an urgent appointment, Fly? Let's
check it out."
"Sure hope they have a working elevator," he said,
surprising me; I thought after our experiences on
Deimos, he'd never want to look at another lift again.
There was an armed guard at the front entrance of
the building, which was a mere fifteen stories tall. . .
hardly a "skyscraper." The rear entrance was barri-
caded. The guard unshipped the Sig-Cow rifle he
carried. "Aren't you the two unbelievers who claim
they stopped the aliens cold on Deimos?"
"That's we," I said, "Unbelievers 'R' Us."
Fly hushed me. He always claims I make things
worse in any confrontational situation, but I just
don't see it.
"The President sent us on an inspection tour," said
Fly with the sort of easy, confident lying I admired so
much but could never pull off. "Supposed to 'famil-
iarize' ourselves with your SOPs." He rolled his eyes;
you could hear the quotation marks around familiar-
ize. "As if we haven't had enough military procedures
for a lifetime!"
The guard shook his head, instantly sympathetic.
"Ain't it the truth? Few weeks ago, you know what I
was? I was a cook at the Elephant Grill, you know, up
at Third? So what do they make me when the war
breaks out? A sentry!"
"You know this building well?"
"Well, I should! My fiancee worked here. Before the
"Look, can you come along with us, show us the
place? I come from a small town, and we don't have
buildings this size. You're not stuck as the only guard,
are you?" There were no other guards in sight; I'm
sure Fly noticed that as well as I.
"'Fraid so, Corporal."
"Fly. Fly Taggart."
"I'm afraid so, Fly. I can't leave. Look, you can't get
lost. It's just a big, tall square. See the Tabernacle
there? Anytime you get lost, just walk to the windows
and walk around until you see the Tabernacle. You
can't miss it."
"You sure it'll be okay?"
"You can't miss it. No problemo."
"Look, if I get in trouble, is there a phone I can call
down here on?"
"Sure, use the black phone near the elevator, the
one with no buttons. Just pick it up; it'll ring here."
"Thanks. This way? The elevators over here?"
The helpful sentry showed us how to get to the
elevators. They were actually behind some partitions;
we might not have found them ... for several min-
We climbed aboard, and Fly said in a normal
speaking voice, "Don't trust these elevators. May as
well start at the top and walk down, floor by floor,
familiarizing ourselves with the procedures. Then we
can report back to the President and tell him where
we'd do the most good."
To me, he used hand signals: Start top; find radio;
The antenna was atop the roof, of course; but that
didn't mean that's where the radio room would be.
We wandered around every floor, trying to look
official. Early on, I found a clipboard hanging on a peg
in the rooftop janitor's shed, where they kept all the
window-washing stuff. Fly took the clipboard and
made a point of officiously writing down reports on
everybody in every office, with me trailing along
behind looking like his assistant.
It worked; people tensed up, stopped talking,
worked diligently, and not a one confronted us to ask
us who the hell we were. It helped that Fly had been
inventory control officer for a few months. He stirred
them up and made them sweat.
Finally, twelve floors down from the top, we found
the damned radio room. Two operators, both civil-
ians. One had a pistol; we were unarmed, of course.
Fly strode in like Gunnery Sergeant Goforth on the
inspection warpath. "On your feet," he barked; the
startled operators stared for a second, then leapt to
their feet and stood at a bad imitation of attention.
"Classified message traffic from the President," he
snarled. "Take a hike."
"Sir, we're not supposed to--"
"Sir? Do you see these?" He angrily pointed at his
stripes. "Do I look like a God-damned pansy-waist
gut-sucking ass-kissing four-eyed college-boy officer to
"No sir! No--ah--"
Fly leaned close, playing drill instructor. "Try
COR-POR-AL, boy. Next time you open that hole of
yours, first word out better be Corporal Taggart."
"C-C-Corporal Taggart, sir! I mean, Corporal
Taggart, we're not supposed to leave."
"Did you hear what type of message traffic I said
"Classified? Sir--Corporal!--we're fully cleared
for all levels of classification."
"Do I know that, boy? You got some paper you can
"No, not on me."
"Then take a hike, dickhead. Go back and get
something from your C.O. We'll wait right here."
The man dithered, looking back and forth at the
door, the equipment, and his partner, a small, frail-
looking man who pointedly looked away, saying No,
way, bud, this is your call. "All right. You won't touch
anything while I'm gone, will you?"
"Scout's honor," sneered Fly. Was he ever a Boy
Scout? I couldn't remember.
The man slid sideways past Fly and almost backed
into me. I glared daggers at him and he split. After a
couple of seconds Fly turned to the mousy compan-
ion. "What're you still doing here? Get after your
Meekly, the man turned and darted out of the
"Fly, what's going to happen when they get across
the street and find out there's no message traffic from
"Well, we'd better hurry, A.S., so we're done before
they get back!"
Fortunately, they'd left the equipment on, because I
had no idea how to turn it on. It was some new,
ultramodern civilian stuff I'd never seen before. I
found a keypad next to a small LED display. At the
moment, it showed the frequency for Guard channel,
plus another freak above that.
I tapped at the keypad; they hadn't locked it out,
thank God. I typed the freak for North Marine Corps
Air Base, office of the SubCincMarsCom, Colonel
George Karapetian. It was no great trick remember-
ing it; I was the radioman for Major Boyd when we
were stationed on Deimos on TDS to the Navy.
I wandered all over the band from one side to the
other, looking for the carrier. Finally, I found it; it
was weak and intermittent, as if the repeaters were
blown and I was picking up the source itself. But I
boosted the gain, and we were able to pick out the
words from behind the snow.
I engaged the standard CD encrypter, digitally
adding the signal to a CD of random noise from
background radiation; they had an identical disk at
North--if we were lucky, they'd figure out that the
signal was scrambled and pull their encryption on-
"Corporal Fly Taggart, commanding officer of Fox
Company, Fourth Battalion, 223rd Light Drop Divi-
sion, to SubCincMarsCom, come in, Colonel
Fly broadcast the message over and over, and I
started to get nervous . . . both about the time and
about the lack of response. Finally, a voice sputtered
into life on the line. I recognized it; it was the colonel
himself, not some enlisted puke.
"Fox, connect me to Lieutenant Weems. Fourth
"Fourth Battalion, Weems is dead; I am in com-
mand of Fox."
"Who is this?"
"Corporal Taggart, sir."
"Corporal, give me a full report. Over."
Fly gave the colonel the verbal cook's tour of
everything that had happened to us in the past few
weeks. When he finished, Karapetian was quiet for so
long, I thought we'd lost the carrier.
"I understand," he said. "Now where the hell are
you? Can you get back here, like yesterday?"
"We're at a resistance center in Salt Lake City," Fly
said. Suddenly, I got an uneasy feeling in my stomach;
should we be spilling this much intel, even to the sub-
Commander in Chief of the Mars Command?
"Use rail transport," ordered Karapetian. "Get
your butts to Pendleton as fast as you can. We've got
to talk face-to-face about this. Got that, Corporal?"
"Good. Then I'll expect you tomorrow at--"
With a loud thunk, the entire system died. All the
dials, all the diodes, all the cool flashing lights.
I looked over my shoulder; Albert towered over us,
his face set in a mask of concrete. On one side stood
our friendly guard from the entrance; on the other
was the radio tech Fly had bullied, holding a remote-
control power switch in his hands.
I gasped; framed in the light, Albert looked like he
had a halo.
"I'm afraid you're going to have to come with me,"
"Where?" I asked.
"To the President. Only he can decide cases of high
treason against the Army of God and Man United."
With a heavy heart, I brought our two mis-
creant warriors to the President of the Twelve. I tried
to keep angry thoughts from my mind; judgment and
vengeance are the Lord's prerogatives, not ours.
Besides, I genuinely liked Fly Taggart, and I even
believed his wild story about fighting the alien de-
mons on Phobos and Deimos. And Miss Sanders,
now . . .
No, that's wrong. I had no right; I didn't even know
I brought them into the chamber of justice to find
the President and his mast already seated. He wore a
suit; I sighed a hearty prayer of thanksgiving to the
Lord that this was to be mast, not a court-martial; the
President would have worn his robe for the latter.
"Sit," I commanded, putting a heavy hand on each
prisoner's shoulder and pushing him into the waiting
"Who speaks for the outsiders?" asked Bishop
Wilston. He was a stickler for legalities.
"They can speak for themselves," said the Presi-
dent, "this isn't a formal trial. I just want to find out
what the devil happened--and to find out whether
the devil himself was responsible."
"Or just the imp of stupidity," I said. The President
glared at me; but I learned my manners under his
predecessor, who would listen to even the youngest
child with a mind to speak. This new fellow was from
out of state and a personal mentor of our old Presi-
dent, may he rest in peace.
"You're rude," said the President, "but you may be
right. Corporal Taggart, as the responsible NCO, what
on Earth possessed you to start broadcasting all over
the globe from our radio room?"
"Well, um . . ." Fly looked distinctly pink. "It
seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Why are you so flipping surprised?" demanded
the woman. "Why shouldn't we report to our C.O.?
We just got back from a mission. What the hell did
For a moment I thought the President was going to
burst a blood vessel. We all turned in annoyance to
Fly; couldn't he control his woman? His team
He was not a stupid man; he spoke up quickly:
"Arlene is tired, upset--you know how women get."
Now it was Arlene's turn to turn angry-red, opening
and closing her mouth like she wanted to say some-
thing devastating but couldn't even find the words.
Wisely, she pressed her lips together and said nothing.
A soft answer turneth away wrath, says the proverb;
or again, Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is
counted wise. The President was mollified and chose
to take the question seriously.
"Private Sanders, if you will," she said, voice
betraying the seething emotion within. Her red hair
flamed like a burning house, setting off her green eyes.
"Private Sanders, the 'why' is because the entire
military structure of the erstwhile United States, from
top to bottom, has been co-opted by the demons. Our
former government has capitulated . . , they surren-
dered, to put it bluntly, two weeks ago."
"Oh, really! Maybe everybody but the Marines.
"Even the Marines," said the President softly. The
sudden change from loud and angry to quiet and cold
lent him an air of authority, as was befitting. I must
admit, the man had the mark of divine awe; the Lord
definitely moved through the President, when he let
"Do you two know what you've done?" asked the
bishop. "Even the broadcast itself might have been
traced. But to actually tell the forces of darkness
where we are . . . ! That passes understanding."
"Look, maybe I shouldn't have done that. But they
must already have known this was a pocket of resist-
Don't dig yourself a deeper grave, Fly, I thought
urgently. Outwardly, I kept my face impassive; no
need to draw the judges' attention to the attempt at
"But Corporal," said the President, voice at its
quietest and most dangerous, "they did not know that
you were here. If you still maintain that you and
your--your comrade aborted the division invading
through Deimos, don't you think you might have
incurred a special wrath, a wrath now transferred to
us? Perhaps they consider you Demonic Enemy Num-
ber One. Did that cross your mind?"
Fly remained silent. Good man. So did Arlene.
I stared at the woman; she was not at all bad-
looking, not what I would expect of a female Marine.
I had never served with one in my three years of active
duty service; she looked tough, but not like an Ameri-
In fact, the swell of her breasts and hips was quite
womanly; she would be a sturdy woman, well able to
bear many children and face the rigors of life under
siege. I could almost see her standing in a doorway,
babe in arms ... or lying bare on the bed, awaiting
Ow! My conscience hammered on my head. What
are you DOING, you godless sinner! Here I was, in the
presence of the representative of Jesus Christ Himself,
and I was mentally undressing this woman!
Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense to
me: for thou savorest not the things that be of
God, but those that be of men.
I concentrated on verses from the Bible and the
Book of Mormon, mentally reciting them so quickly I
lost all track of the trial and Miss Sanders.
When I blinked back, Fly and Arlene looked chas-
tened, humble. They clearly repented of their foolish
act and had found their way back to friendship with
God. Pride and Arrogance were banished--well, for
The President sighed heavily. "Go and be stupid no
more. And prepare for an attack, for surely one
arrives within an hour or two." He nodded to the
bishop, who, as General of the Armies of the Lord,
had primary responsibility for readying our defenses.
I already knew my station: Jerry and I manned the
dike west of the city, along with two thousand other
I had an idea. "Mr. President," I called. He turned
back, pausing at the door. "Sir, I'd like to suggest that
Taggart and Sanders be assigned to the defense along-
He stared at me, and I squirmed. "Any particular
reason? They've already had their chance and
"That, sir, is the reason. Let them atone for their
mistake. They may have cost the lives of righteous
men; let them at least stand beside those men and put
their own lives on the line. Let them be at peace."
I glanced at Fly and Miss Sanders, and was tremen-
dously relieved to see a grateful look on their faces. I
was right about them: stupid, maybe; but they had
honor, and they probably felt like children whose
rough play accidentally killed the pet dog. I sure
The President was a hard man; but he was a just
man--else the Lord would not have allowed him to
serve as President of the Twelve; the Father has His
ways of making His pleasure known. He shook his
head, but said, "I think you're too forgiving a man,
Albert; but you know them better than I ever could.
Take them, if your C.O. approves."
The bishop was smiling, though not in a friendly
way. "He'll approve," he prophesied.
Less than half an hour later we were at the line. I
took care to see that both Fly and Miss Sanders were
armed, so they would know we still extended our
trust. It was part of the healing process. And the
President's prophecy came true, albeit a little late: in
fact, it took the forces of darkness two hours to mass
and attack, not one.
Squinting into the distance, I saw first a column of
dust at the ragged edge of vision. We watched for
several minutes before even hearing the sound; you
can see a long, long way in the Utah desert, where ten
miles seems like one. The dust came from a column of
Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the same type in which I
had trained as a gunner before going to sniper school.
Thank the Lord they hadn't yet had time to scrounge
any M-2 tanks!
As they roared up, we surprised them: the antitank
batteries opened up at two klicks. In the still air, the
artillery captains had the eyes of angels; they dropped
the first load of ordnance directly on the advancing
line. The laser spotter-scopes helped.
Once the troops knew they were not up against
cowed, frightened refugees, they separated and ad-
vanced while evading. I took a risk, standing atop the
dike and focusing through binoculars mounted on a
pole. It was the BATF in the vanguard, as usual,
backed up by FBI shock troops. Reporting the battle
order over my encrypted radio, I saw the gold flag of
the IRS and realized we would doubtless have to face
flamethrowers and chemical-biological warfare shells.
The bastards. Regular Army filled in the gaps and
supplied most of the grunts--cannon fodder, as we
They brought a contingent of brownies and bapho-
mets, but no molochs, praise God. Probably didn't
have any nearby. But I'd bet my last bullet there'd be
molochs and shelobs aplenty before the week was out.
There were a few of the unclean undead, but most
of the soldiers, horribly enough, appeared to be living
allies of the demons. I hoped to spare Fly that
knowledge, that our own species would willingly
cooperate in the subjugation of men to demons from
another star; but maybe it was better he find out now.
I guess he realized how wrong he was . . . but it was
a horrible way to find out.
Contact was established a quarter hour later, on the
north side of Salt Lake City. Within a few minutes
battle was joined in my quadrant as well.
Fly and Arlene acquitted themselves admirably;
they were no cowards! I especially enjoyed watching
the girl in combat, too busy and scared even to worry
whether my interest was righteous or sinful. She loped
forward to the out perimeter and spotted for the
mortars; my heart was in my throat--if they spotted
her, that beautiful body would be blown to tiny pieces
Bombs and shells exploded left and right, but our
positions were secure; except for the occasional lucky
shot, the evil ones hit only stragglers. But I was very
glad for my earplugs; Fly had refused a pair, but
Arlene took them.
We threw back the initial blitzkrieg; the demons
simply weren't prepared for that savage a level of
resistance. They'd probably never encountered it be-
fore. Like the heroic Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, who
stood up to the Nazi butchers, without despair, we
forced the bastards back and back, until at last they
withdrew and formed a circle around our force, three
klicks back--out of range, they thought.
After two more hours passed without movement,
Arlene and Fly took a chance and returned to me.
They looked shaken. I wanted to put my arm
around Corporal Taggart, cheer him up; how could he
have known? But the gesture would not have been
appreciated. He stepped across the dead bodies of
righteous men to come to me; he knew what he had
done, and the last soul to forgive him would be
himself. He would probably carry guilt to his grave,
unless he found a minister to unburden himself.
I had the vague thought that he was a Catholic. I
would never condone such a perversion of the teach-
ings of Christ--in normal times; but in this world,
even to call oneself a Christian is a courageous step. I
hoped he would find a priest and confess; otherwise,
he might never give himself absolution.
"We seemed to have scored a temporary stale-
mate," he said, sounding defeated.
"We kicked ass!" argued Arlene.
"You're both right," I said, ever the diplomat.
"But how long can we hold out?" asked Fly. "A few
days? A week? Two weeks? Eventually they'll get
reinforcements and overrun us." He didn't add and
all because of me, but I could tell he thought it.
"Eventually," I agreed. "In about five or six years."
"Years? What the hell do you mean?"
I winked. "We've been preparing for this sort of war
for a long time, my friend ... we just never realized
we'd be fighting literal demons!"
"Jesus . . . who were you expecting to fight?"
The blasphemy angered me, but I let it slide. He
was an unbeliever and might not even realize what
he'd said. "Exactly who we are fighting; the forces of
Mammon. We'd hoped to avert the crisis by engaging
in the world, steering it toward the righteousness of
the Constitution ordained by God Himself in 1787.
We sent our members out into the world, joined the
Army, the FBI, the Washington power structure. We
increased our numbers within the IRS and even
within NASA. But in the end, all that effort bought us
only advance warning and some spies and saboteurs
within the enemy ranks."
Fly shook his head, dazed. He said nothing.
"Now we are the last stronghold in the continental
United States. There is but one major enclave left on
the planet for humans and the godly; there centers the
I chuckled. "Even if I knew, Fly, I wouldn't tell
you. Your interest rate on keeping secrets isn't very
high right now."
He smiled sardonically. "I guess I wouldn't tell you
either, if you'd just done what we did. What / did."
"We," corrected Arlene. "You were right the first
time. I stood right beside you and helped you report
He shrugged, neither confirming nor denying.
"Are there plans to get to the Resistance?"
"If there are, we haven't executed them yet. We can
send brief messages--too quick to triangulate or
decrypt. But we can't send people."
"There is some sort of energy barrier that prevents
us from leaving the continent . . . and at times, even
from leaving an urban center. Los Angeles has one;
you cannot fly from L.A. to anywhere else unless the
demons drop the wall--which they do only for their
own, of course."
"But if you go around the barrier?"
"We've tried; we can't find an edge. It seems to be
everywhere. What we need to do is find the source or
the control center and shut it off. At least long enough
to get our people out, join up with the Resistance.
Otherwise, eventually, we will fall; we have years
worth of food and medicine, but not decades worth.
And after a while they will mass enough troops
against us to overrun us in any case.
"Worst-case scenario, you two, we lose this city
after a four-month siege. That's if they throw every-
thing in the world at us."
"Are you kidding?" demanded an incredulous
Arlene. "What about missiles? Nuclear bombs
dropped from airplanes?"
"Our agents were heavily involved in the Strategic
Defense Initiative . . . remember?" I winked. "And
we have anti-air defenses too. We're not worried
about nukes; we're more worried about tanks and
undead soldiers. None of our defenses were erected
with molochs in mind."
"What you called steam-demons, I believe."
Suddenly, the radio phone buzzed. The radioman
answered, listened for a moment, saying a string of
"yessirs." He turned to me. "Albert, the President
wants to see your charges."
"Tonight. The captain says he has a mission for
them . . . something to prove themselves after their
incompetence ... no offense, guys; I'm just quoting."
"None taken," said Arlene, highly offended. My
eyes began to dwell longingly on her curves and swells
again, and I brutally forced my gaze to the dead and
wounded littering the battlefield . . . even their dead.
The corpsmen were already busy, collecting the casu-
alties for transportation to hospital.
"Got a time?" I asked.
"Eighteen hundred," said the radioman. I didn't
know his name, even though he knew mine; it made
I nodded. "Okay, you heard the man. Fly, Arlene,
start polishing your brass. We've got three hours
before your mission briefing. And guys?"
They waited expectantly.
"Try not to hose it up. This time."
Arlene Sanders flipped me the finger; but Fly just
looked down at his boots, brushing the mud off with
Arlene, Albert, and I sat in our little room
like old friends. "Albert, you were right," I said. "We
should have asked you before charging off to report to
"The fact that you had to sneak around and concoct
an absurd fairy tale should have told you something,"
he said, smiling faintly. I caught Arlene looking at
him with an interest I hadn't seen in her eyes since she
first began getting close to old Dodd. Could she . . . ?
Nah; that was a silly thought. Not with how she felt
about religion in general--and Mormons in particu-
lar. Not after her brother.
She spoke, her voice tight and controlled. "Albert,
can you tell us what on Earth happened? I mean here
"Gladly," said Albert.
Evidently, even with only half an invasion force,
the urban areas of Earth had fallen quickly. Albert
suspected that high-ranking U.S. government officials
and their counterparts in other governments, the
federal and state agencies and even the services
themselves--the U.S. Marine Corps!--actually col-
laborated with the aliens.
I guess there wasn't much argument I could make
. . . not after seeing living human beings on the march
against us in the siege. If I cared to climb up to the
roof, I could see them still. I didn't care to.
The monsters promised a peaceful occupation and
promised each collaborator that his own government
would be given the top command slot. A tried and
true approach, with plenty of terrestrial examples: it
worked for Hitler and Stalin; now it worked for a
bunch of plug-uglies from beyond the planets.
Naturally, the aliens screwed the traitors, killing
hundreds of millions . . . utterly destroying Washing-
ton, D.C., and demolishing much of New York, Paris,
Moscow, and Beijing. The Mormons knew the invad-
ers were really serious when all the stock exchanges
were wiped out in two hours.
"They control all the big cities now," Albert re-
"So at least some things will feel the same," said
Arlene. Our newfound friend laughed uproariously.
He was taking to Arlene's morbid brand of humor.
"What's the Resistance like?" she asked, hanging
on his every word. I started to resent her interest.
Maybe I was only her "big brother," but shouldn't
that count for something?
Albert turned up his hands. "How should I know?
We know only that they exist, and they have a lot of
science types, teenies. They're working on stuff all the
time . . . but so far, they haven't been able to shut off
the energy wall from outside--and the only way to get
to it from the inside is to mount an assault ... or
"Maybe that's what the President wants us to do," I
speculated; I don't think Albert had any more idea
than I, though.
Jerry joined us again; now he too was in a dark suit,
though still heavily armed with a Browning Automat-
ic Rifle. It reminded me of a "Family" war between
Mafia soldiers I began to feel distinctly underdressed.
"What about the countryside?" I asked.
Albert nodded and answered: "That's the local
resistance, such as it is. At least we are not alone. For a
little longer, at least."
Jerry volunteered a comment: "They seem more
interested in taking slaves from the rural areas than
conquering the territory."
Albert concurred: "It gives us a fighting chance,
they being so slow expanding their pale."
"What is this 'special wisdom' the President offered
to share before the attack?" I asked. "Can you give us
Albert and Jerry exchanged the look of comrades in
arms. "Don't worry about it," said Albert. "He's less
worried about what you know than what you see."
Albert insisted that Arlene and I rest and bathe.
The only choice offered was a cold shower, but that
was fine with us. We found clean clothes.
Then we got the "fifty-cent-tour" from Albert, the
tour that wouldn't get him in trouble.
Albert took us down to the hidden catacombs
they'd constructed beneath the Tabernacle complex.
The trip began with an elevator ride. The metal was
shiny and new. Everything was air-conditioned. The
doors slid open to reveal something out of the latest
James Bond movie. But somehow I was not surprised
at the vast complex they had constructed. We walked
under a gigantic V arch to bear witness to dozens of
miles of secret shelters. We were not taken behind the
locked doors to see the contents, but Albert told us
they had millions of rounds of ammunition, stores,
heavy military equipment, a whole factory, and more.
It was survivalist heaven.
"I wonder what kind of heavy equipment?" Arlene
whispered in my ear.
"Tanks and Humvees," I whispered back. "The rest
when he trusts us."
"I'm sure he'll trust us plenty after we've died for
the cause," she concluded.
"Can't hardly blame him." I could kick myself for
such self-pity, but I couldn't get my stupidity out of
We took a turn in the passageway and reached
another elevator marked for five more levels down.
"Jesus!" said Arlene, followed by: "Sorry, Albert."
He only shook his head. Even Albert was probably
cutting her some slack for being female. Arlene could
always sense a patronizing attitude, but she had too
much class to throw it back at someone working so
hard to play fair with her.
"Why would you have all this?" she asked.
He didn't hesitate in answering, "To equalize our
relations with the IRS."
"Man, all I had was Melrose Larry Green, CPA,"
"I'll let both of you in on something," he said,
"because it hardly matters today. All you saw today
were ground troops; but did you know the IRS had its
own 'Delta Force,' the Special Revenue Collection
We shook our heads, but once again I wasn't really
surprised. "In case of another Whiskey Rebellion?" I
"An interesting way of putting it," he said, and
continued: "They had an infantry division, two ar-
mored cav regiments, a hidden fast-attack submarine,
a heavy bomber wing, and from what I hear, a carrier
Somebody whistled. It was Yours Truly. If the
Mormons knew about that, could they have wound up
with some of it? This was an obvious thought, and
would make full use of an installation this size; but I
wasn't going to ask. Arlene and I were lucky to be
learning this much.
"How'd they finance it?" I asked.
"The IRS can finance anything?" suggested Arlene,
as if a student in school.
"Well, even they had to cover their tracks," said
Albert. "Jerry thinks they hid the military buildup
inside the fictitious budget deficit. Unfortunately, the
Special Revenue Collection Division was seized by
"Aliens," Arlene corrected, almost unconsciously.
This seemed a good moment to clear up the nomen-
clature: "Actually, Albert, we named the different
kinds of aliens to keep them separate. We call the
dumb pink ones the demons."
"How did the aliens get their claws on all that IRS
equipment?" Arlene asked.
"Hm. Because Internal Revenue was the very first
group to sell out Earth," he answered. This was
definitely not a day of surprises.
"Do we get to ride on the other elevator?" I asked.
"Later," he said. "And I'm sorry I can't show you
behind the doors."
"No, you've been great, Albert," said Arlene. I
could tell she was impressed for real, no joke. This
was rare. "Why don't you tell us about your checkered
"That's next on the agenda," he said, "and the
President will want to brief you on the mission, if he's
picked it yet."
We took the elevator back up to face the boss. I
promised myself that no matter how much I wanted
to do it, I wouldn't say, "Howdy, pardner."
Three more bodyguards surrounded the President.
These guys didn't seem friendly like Albert or Jerry.
He led us to the auxiliary command center (I sup-
posed the real command center was at the bottom
level of the complex), where we learned that the
nearest nerve center of the alien invasion was Los
Angeles. The monsters had set up their ultra-
advanced computer services and war technology cen-
ter near the HOLLYWOOD sign. I didn't want to ask who
sold out humanity there. I was afraid to find out.
The President didn't waste time coming to the
point: "Two highly trained Marines who fought the
enemy to a standstill in space, then floated down out
of orbit, would be better qualified to lead a certain
mission we have in mind than our own people. This is
assuming that we haven't been subject to a certain
degree of exaggeration. A man and a woman alone
could only be expected to do so much against hun-
dreds of the enemy."
Arlene was behaving herself, but it dawned on me
that I hadn't made any promises to keep my mouth
shut. This wasn't about religion. This was about
doubting our word after we'd swum through a world
of hurt to get this far.
I reminded myself that we needed this man; I
reminded myself we'd already hosed the job . . . but
stupidity had nothing to do with dishonor!
"If the two of you could get to Los Angeles," the
leader continued, "and make it into the computer
system, download full specs on their most basic
technology, and get it back to the United States War
Technology Center, it would aid our defense immeas-
"What's that?" I asked.
"The War Tech Center was created a few weeks ago,
hidden--west of here. You'll be told where when the
need arises. When you get the download."
I thought for a moment. It couldn't be as far as
Japan or China; Beijing and Tokyo were both de-
stroyed. He must mean Hawaii.
I couldn't resist being a smart-ass; the President
brought that out in people. "It's either Wheeler AFB,
Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station, or Barber's
Point Naval Air Station, all on Oahu," I declared.
"Do I win anything?"
"I love Hawaii!" said Arlene. "Great weather.
Hardly any humidity."
"But those prices," I answered.
It was a trivial little protest against the man's
pomposity and skepticism, but it made us feel a whole
"Please," said the President, his face turning posi-
tively florid. "As I was saying, if you can penetrate the
enemy stronghold and bring the specs to the U.S.
technology center, there are scientists there who can
do something with it. We have refugees from ARPA,
the Lockheed 'skunk works,' NASA, MacDAC, hack-
ers from many places." It sounded to me like the
President of the Twelve had been boning up on other
subjects besides theology . . . and finance. "Has Al-
bert told you about the force field?"
"He said something about an energy wall."
"You have to find a way to shut it off. . . otherwise,
you're not going anywhere. You get offshore about
fifteen miles, then call an encrypted message in. We'll
vector you to the War Technology Center."
''If we can pull this off," said Arlene in her serious,
engineer's tone of voice, "and a computer expert can
dehack the alien technology, we might come up with
shields against them. Defenses, something."
"The first problem is to crack Los Angeles," said
"Then we're your best bet," I said. "After Phobos
and Deimos, how bad can L.A. be?" Even at the time,
this sounded like famous last words.
"Yes, my point exactly," he agreed languidly, still
frosted; "how much simpler this would have to be
than the Deimos situation." He paused long enough
to annoy us again. "This is more than a two-man
operation." Translation: we needed keepers. Well,
that was all right with me. "You'll be infiltrating, so
we're not talking about a strike force here."
"Stealth mission," said Arlene.
"Two more people would be about right," I said.
The President's first choice was excellent. Albert
wanted to go. "By way of apology for being the one to
turn you in," he said, holding out his big paw of a
hand. I took it gingerly; he hardly had anything to
apologize for. He winked.
"If you'd been one fraction less of a hard-ass, I
wouldn't want you on this mission anyway."
"This is probably a good time to tell you about
Albert's record," said the President. "He was a PFC
in the Marine Corps, I'm sure you'll be pleased to
hear. Honorably discharged. He won a medal for his
MOS." Military operational specialty.
"Which was?" I asked Albert, eye-to-eye.
"A sniper, Corporal," he answered. "Bronze star,
Colombia campaign. Drug wars."
"God bless." said Arlene.
Albert was fine; we both dug Albert. Couldn't say
the same about the second choice, who Nate ushered
into the ops room: she looked like a fourteen-year-old
girl in T-shirt, jeans, and dirty sneakers.
"Fly," Arlene said, staring, "does my promise ap-
ply to bitching about personnel decisions?"
"Say your piece."
She shook her head in incredulity. "I'd never
have expected this kind of crap from this bunch of
"Uh, no offense," I mumbled to the President,
feeling pretty lame. My face flushed red-hot, as if I'd
just taken niacin.
He chose to ignore the editorial. "I hate sending
her. Unfortunately, she's the best qualified."
Arlene stared at the girl, a foxy little item ready to
stare back. "I never thought I'd say these words,"
Arlene began, "but there's a first time for everything.
"My name is Jill," she said defiantly.
"Okay, Jill. Listen closely. Please don't take offense,
but this is no job for a girl."
"I have to go," she said. "Live with it."
"Honey, I don't want to die with it."
"What's this joke?" I demanded.
"I told you. She's the best, uh, hacker, I think it is,
that we've got. But you deserve an explanation." He
turned to her and asked, "Do you mind if I tell
them?" She shrugged. He went on: "I apologize for
her sullen attitude."
I don't know about Arlene, but I didn't see anything
sullen about the kid. The President never seemed to
look directly at her but kind of sideways.
"Back in the life, before her family moved here and
accepted the faith, Jill was arrested twice for breaking
into computer systems. She served six months in a
juvenile detention center in Ojai; then her parents
joined the Church and moved here."
All the time he was talking, he kept sneaking
glances out of the corner of his eye. He seemed to be
looking at the top of her head. She was pretending not
to be interested but hung on every word.
"Jill was embarrassed and ashamed of her arrest
and conviction," the President said very slowly,
as if coaching, watching her all the time. "She was
locked up with a girl who was a prostitute and drug
"She didn't want to be a junkie-hooker," said Jill,
speaking about herself in the third person.
The President pretended not to hear. "She still
loves computers, but wants to be a security person
now." He took a breath, then concluded, "The aliens
killed her parents, and only missed her because she
was covered with blood and they assumed she was
dead. She was frightened by the aliens, of course--"
"I hate them," she piped in. "I want them all
"Good girl," said Arlene, half won over.
The Mormon leader approached Jill but was careful
not to touch her. At least he finally looked at her.
"You don't like your former hacker buddies, do you?"
"I hate them."
She was uncomfortable about talking but couldn't
keep the words from spilling out. "Because they don't
care about what happens to anyone else. They don't
give a rat's ass if they hack a hospital computer and
destroy a patient's records, by accident, or as a joke."
"Some joke," said Arlene.
"They'd only be upset if they did a sloppy job," the
girl replied, her voice monotonous. "They suck."
"God bless you, Jill," said the President. "And you
know what the aliens are?"
Jill sure did. "A million times worse. I've got to kill
Mother Mary, a regular little parrot! Did the Presi-
dent write the script out for her? I wondered. Or was
she just adept at ad-libbing what he wanted to hear,
what would get her on the job?
"Don't you think you should leave the killing to
Albert and this other man?" asked the President.
"That does it," said Arlene, hackles smacking the
"I'm sorry, but there's no alternative to taking her
along," said the President.
"That's not what I meant!" Arlene gave me her
special look. I sighed, but didn't shake my head or
give her the shut-up signal. I'd had about all of the
President I could take.
"Mr. President," she began, speaking slowly as if to
a child--I realized we still didn't know his name--"I
respect your beliefs, even though I don't hold them
myself. But we are in a situation where every able-
bodied individual must do his or her best. There are
armed women outside."
"Yes," he answered. "Adult women."
Arlene turned to Jill. "I apologize for doubting
you," she said. "I think you'll do fine." She glared
back at the President, who shook his head sadly.
I smiled, suddenly realizing we'd been had: he had
put on the whole "Mormon patriarch" act just to get
us to accept a little girl as a teammate! It was
masterful. . . and I didn't say a word to Arlene. Let
her keep her illusions.
"If you succeed," concluded the President, "you
will have redeemed yourself thrice over."
"And if we fail?"
"You'll be dead. Or undead. Either way, you'll
never have to think about your error again."
Gee. Thanks a lump.
"What weapon do you have?" Arlene asked Jill.
The fourteen-year-old picked up a slim box from the
table; took me a moment to recognize it as a
CompMac "Big Punk" ultramicro with a radio-
telemetry port. That was some nice equipment; did
she come with it, or did the President hijack it for
"You'll train her in the use of firearms," the Presi-
dent said, turned on his heel and walked away.
"I've fired guns before," said Jill.
Arlene touched the girl on the shoulder. Jill didn't
pull away. Arlene didn't talk down to her. In a casual
tone she asked, "Do you think there might be some
pointers I could give you, hon?"
The fourteen-year-old smiled for the first time. She
didn't answer right away. Then she said in a firm
voice, "Want some pizza?"
Now that she mentioned it, my mouth began to
I took my cue from Arlene and reluctantly
accepted the kid. The Mormon leader guaranteed the
girl's bona fides. Given the way he felt about the
female of the species, if he wanted Jill on this mission
that badly, that was good enough for me.
"Welcome aboard," I said, approaching Jill and
putting out my hand. I didn't expect anything, but she
surprised me by shaking hands and smiling. Smart
kid. She knew when she'd won a victory.
"Thanks." Jill sized each of us up, letting her glance
stay on me a little longer--not exactly pleased with
the effect, I noticed. "I won't let you down," she said
to all of us.
"How do you know?" asked Albert, but he wasn't
being belligerent about it.
"Yeah," said Jill, not losing a beat. "They talk that
way around here. I won't get anybody killed on
Arlene bent down and patted Jill on the head. The
girl didn't pull away, but acted surprised. Affection
was something new in her experience. I hoped she
would live long enough to experience a lot more of it.
But I didn't kid myself: once we entered Los Angeles,
the mission was everything, and we were all expend-
able. It had been that way since the first monster came
through the Gate on Phobos.
"Come on," said Arlene, taking Jill by the hand.
"Your training starts now."
Jerry had stayed with us after the boss sauntered
off. "There might not be time for that," he said. He
didn't say it as if he liked it. So far, the only person I'd
met who impressed me as something of a jerk was the
leader, and even he was no fool.
Arlene kept her voice even and calm. "We'll make
time," she said. "Training is not a luxury."
Looking at the man's face, I could see that he didn't
like arguing with facts. He shrugged and didn't say
"How about it, Albert?" I asked the other member
of our team. "What kind of time do we have?"
"Plenty," he said. "I've seen Jill shoot. She'll do
"Do I get a gun of my own?" asked Jill.
"Does she?" Arlene asked Albert.
"Sure as shootin'," he said, letting a moment pass
before we responded to his wordplay. He enjoyed the
We went to an aboveground arsenal. Seeing what
they kept up top made me more anxious to see behind
those doors downstairs. As it was, they wouldn't
notice the absence of Jill's weapon of choice, though it
was a little strange seeing the fourteen-year-old hold-
ing an AR-19 like she was used to it.
Jill noticed my expression. "We need all the fire-
power we can get," she said.
"You're right. Let's see what you can do with it."
And thank God she didn't have her heart set on an
AK-47. The kick would knock her on her butt. At
least the AR-19 was a small enough caliber.
There were plenty of places to shoot. We went to a
makeshift range where someone had gotten hold of
old monster movie posters. Jill chose one already
pretty badly shot up: a horns-and-tail demon from an
old British movie. It looked a lot like a hell-prince.
One of the horns was shot out, but the other was still
"I'll take the bone on his head," she announced.
She missed with the first burst, pulling up and to the
right; but she nearly shredded the target anyway.
Arlene went over and whispered something in her
ear. Jill smiled and tried again. This time the bursts
were shorter and stayed on target. The demon's
second horn was history.
"What did you tell her?" I asked Arlene. I always
appreciate a few well-chosen words.
"Girl talk," she said, arching her dark eyebrows.
"Kind of a shame to destroy these collector's
items," I observed when we ran out of ammo.
"No problem," said Albert. "We have hundreds of
these. The President used to visit the church in
Hollywood, and we have a lot of contacts."
"How did I do?" asked Jill, bringing us back to the
original point of the exercise.
"I thought I'd need to teach you something," said
Arlene. "Guess you're mostly ready. Mostly." The
day was shaping up nicely. We could do a whole lot
worse than Jill.
I was still in a good mood when we had dinner with
the President that night. They set a good table, and he
boasted how they could keep this up for a long time.
After dinner, Jill toddled off to bed in the female-
teens quarter. Albert wanted to spend time with an
older woman we'd been informed was an aunt, and I
managed to get Arlene alone in the presidential
Although night had fallen, the security lights in the
garden were bright, thanks to the generators of our
hosts. I saw Arlene frowning in thought. "Albert may
have an extra mission," she said, "scouting out new
converts for the Church."
I laughed. "Hey, don't make it sound so sinister. We
should ask any survivors to join us, male or female."
"Unless they've gone insane," she said, "and there
are parts of Los Angeles where it would be difficult to
"Well, I'm glad we have Albert and Jill with us."
She brightened. "Me too. That young lady im-
presses the hell out of me. Maybe she's lucky to be
going off with us to face demons and imps."
Arlene never lost her ability to surprise me.
"Lucky?" I echoed. "Why do you say that?"
"She's past puberty, Fly. They'd probably marry
her off to one of these ..." She didn't finish.
I recognized that the conversation was on the
slippery slope to more trouble than a barrel of pump-
kins. Arlene's prejudice against anything and every-
thing religious, and especially against Mormons, was
disturbing; the people in this compound, Mormons
and others alike, had done nothing to warrant such
anger. Time for a strategic retreat. "So, what do you
think of the President?"
"What do you think?" she threw it back at me.
"Well, as I've said before, you don't have to like
someone in power to recognize that you need cooper-
ation from the boss. This man is no fool; he's playing
his own game."
Arlene shook her head, but it wasn't because she
disagreed with me. "I always understand a leader,"
she said. "It's the followers who confuse me. This
man is a master of transferring authority. His follow-
ers won't argue with someone who says he gets his
marching orders direct from God."
"Yeah, but in the war we're about to fight, let's hope
God really is on our side. Or we're on God's side, I
She took a stick of gum out of her pocket, popped
the contents in her mouth, and gave forth with her
considered opinion: "Agreed. Any god, any goddess,
anything to give us an edge is fine by me."
I ignored the blasphemy. Honestly, she does it just
to needle me. "Where did you get the gum?" I asked.
"Jill," she said between chews. "Want a stick?"
"No thanks." Gum is not one of my vices. But I was
impressed with how quickly Arlene had been won
We went back in the compound, expecting to return
to the room we'd been in before. A matronly woman
we hadn't seen before greeted us. "Hello, my name is
Marie," she said. "I'm here to show the young woman
to the female quarters."
Arlene and I exchanged knowing glances. I think we
both did a commendable job of not bursting out
laughing. I couldn't remember the last time I'd slept
without Arlene taking watch. We'd already been
through the sexual-tension zone and popped out the
other end with the understanding that we were bud-
dies, pals, comrades.
But now we were back in the Adam and Eve
department. The only question that really mattered
was, did we trust these guys to keep us alive while we
slept? The fact that they were still here was pretty
"What kind of security do you have here?" I asked
She didn't understand. "Good enough to keep you
out of the henhouse," she answered with a slight
I rolled my eyes. That wasn't what I meant, but--
ah, skip it.
"See you in the morning," I said to Arlene.
For the first time in a long time, I was alone. Maybe
the President still had doubts about me, but they put
me on a long leash.
Suddenly I realized I didn't know where I was
supposed to sleep. The room we'd been in before
made sense. We'd been allowed to use it when we
freshened up, but we were under guard then. I wished
I'd thought to ask the woman if that was where I was
supposed to go.
I didn't know anyone in the hallways, but they
didn't pay any attention to me as I went past; they
weren't afraid . . . what a strange concept that had
become. I could have asked them about a men's
quarters, but I wasn't in a rush to have the old YMCA
experience if I could avoid it. If I wasn't going to bunk
with Arlene, then I wanted to be alone.
Privacy suddenly exerted a strong appeal: to be
alone without a hell-prince stomping on my face, to
sleep without worry of a zombie who used to be a
friend cuddling up next to me and sharing the rot of
the grave, just to enjoy silence and solitude, without
spinys fudging it up. Yeah, the more I thought of it,
the better I liked it.
I retraced my way back to the room. After the
corridors on Deimos, this was almost too easy. The
door wasn't locked. Then I noticed that the lock had
been removed. Now that I thought about it, there
were no locks anywhere. But the room was empty,
gloriously empty, and that was good enough.
I went in, closed the door, flipped on the light.
There was a miracle. The light came on. No conserva-
tion or blackout measures in this small, windowless
room. Which meant I could do something more
important than sleeping.
The book was where I'd left it. Normally, the Book
of Mormon would not be my first choice of reading
material; the sisters would not approve. Under the
circumstances, I was grateful to have it.
I started at the beginning, with the testimonies of
the witnesses and the testimony of the Prophet Joseph
Smith. This told the story of the finding of the gold
plates with the Holy Book written thereon. Reminded
me of the old joke about the founding of the Unitari-
an Church: a prophet found gold plates on which was
written . . . absolutely nothing!
As I read, I remembered an old Hollywood movie
about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, founders of
the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.
Hollywood . . . where we would be going. Hollywood
was in the hands of the monsters. Vincent Price
starred in the Mormon movie and also in a million
monster movies. I was sure this all meant something.
I started the first book, made it to the second and
the third; and kept reading until I reached Chapter
Five in the Book of Alma, Verse 59:
For what shepherd is there among you having
many sheep doth not watch over them, that the
wolves enter not and devour his flock? And
behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not
drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he
will destroy him.
That seemed like a good place to stop because I
doubted I would find a more agreeable sentiment
anywhere else in the Mormon scriptures.
Did you sleep well?" Arlene asked, winking.
"Not bad," I said. "I think it's the first night I
didn't dream about monsters."
The sun was up, the sky was clear, and for a
moment it was possible to believe that none of this
had ever happened. A dog ran by, a healthy mutt that
someone was feeding--not a sign of impending star-
vation, but perhaps an overgenerous use of resources.
"Guess what?" she said with an impish smile. "I
didn't dream about monsters either. But I did
Teasing was simply not Arlene's style. She really
surprised me. "Maybe that's why they segregate the
boys and the girls," I said. "To make everyone think
"We can't keep any secrets from you," said Albert,
joining us outside the main cafeteria.
"Except the ones that count," I replied, not alto-
gether innocently. I was still thinking about secrets
and closed doors, and an unknown, upcoming mis-
"Where's Jill?" asked Arlene.
"Already inside, having breakfast," he said. "We
should join her. Afterward, we'll receive our briefing."
It had been a long, long time since I'd eaten
pancakes, with real maple syrup yet. I didn't think I'd
be able to get coffee in Salt Lake City, but there was
plenty of it for those with the morning caffeine
monkey on their back. This was a pretty trivial
monster in the grand scheme of things.
And then we got down to business. We returned to
the ops room from the day before. The President was
waiting for us dressed in a conservative black suit. He
could've passed as an undertaker, not the most inspir-
ing image to send us off to California.
"The entire state of California is in enemy hands,"
he said, then led us over to a map of the relevant
states. Red lines marked all the existing train tracks.
"There used to be a high speed train between L.A. and
Salt Lake City. We destroyed the train to prevent the
aliens from sending us a cargo of themselves. I refuse
to refer to those creatures as soldiers. We also thought
the train might be used to send us an atomic bomb."
"Would they even know how to use the trains?"
"You fought them, didn't you? They can use any-
thing we can. Machinery is machinery. It offends me
how they used our own, God-given atomic weapons
against us. We are fortunate the radiation and poisons
have not contaminated this area. God has inter-
vened." Atomic, not nuclear; an interesting word
"We'll be going into radiation?" asked Jill. She had
not thought of this until now.
"You'll be entering undestroyed areas, and our
scientists tell us that the invaders have neutralized
much of the fallout in the areas they control."
Arlene interrupted, as usual. "When we fought
them on Phobos and Deimos, they were comfortable
with higher radiation levels than a human being; but
that doesn't mean they could survive H-bomb
For a moment I thought the President was going to
bite her head off, but then he controlled his temper.
"We have antiradiation pills for you to take and wrist
bands that will glow red if you get a near-lethal dose.
In addition, you'll have some protective gear if you
require it. And any weapons you can bear, of course."
"How do we get to L.A.?" I asked.
"Take the train," answered Albert.
"Great. How do we get to the tracks? I thought they
were all ripped up."
"Not all the track was destroyed," said the Presi-
dent. "You can take one of our Humvees south,
following the railroad track to a good spot for getting
aboard the train." Getting aboard. . . How easily he
breezed over that slight difficulty!
And another small difficulty. "Um . . . the aliens
are going to let us drive right out in a Humvee?"
Albert snorted. The President glowered at him,
then returned to the question. "Of course not. You'll
leave here and pass underneath enemy lines. The
Humvee is hidden in a safe location--Albert knows
where it is."
"Where you hid after blowing the tracks three
"Ah." Albert nodded, remembering the spot. Well,
that made one of us.
"Underneath the aliens," I asked, "you have a
"It's always wise to build in a way to expedite
escape," said Albert. "All our safe houses use them--
including this facility. Usually exit from a basement,
dive down thirty or forty feet, then continue a long
way, miles perhaps."
"How did you build all that without anyone
"We had a lot of time on our hands." He grinned.
"And a lot of members in street maintenance posi-
"You must ride the train into Phoenix," continued
the President, producing a pointer and stabbing
"Why Phoenix?" asked Arlene.
"The train that goes from Phoenix into L.A. can't
be stopped and can't be boarded; Phoenix is under
demonic possession. If you stow away before Phoenix
and escape detection, you might not be boarded.
Then it's smooth riding all the way into L.A." He put
down the pointer with a flourish.
Jill laughed. She sounded a lot older than she was,
listening to the scorn in her laugh; it suggested a
lifetime of frustration.
The President did not act as defensive as I would
have expected. "I know it's a long shot," he said. "I'm
open to any better suggestions."
"I wish I had one," said Albert.
I expected Jill to launch into a tirade, but instead
she kept her mouth taped.
"The plan sounds workable to me," I said. "Every-
thing is a long shot from now on."
At no point had anyone talked about who would
lead this mission; I suspected the President would
want his own man in charge, and I prepared myself
for an argument.
Then Albert surprised me: "Corporal Taggart is in
charge, of course." He surprised the President too,
who started to object, then bit off whatever he'd been
about to say. Leadership was clearly already deter-
The President allowed us to pick our own weapons:
a double-barreled scattergun for me, and a .41 caliber
hunting rifle with a scope for long-range work. Arlene
was back to her perennial AB-10 machine pistol and a
scoped .30-30. Albert surprised me by picking some
foreign-made Uzi clone I'd never seen before; I didn't
think a Marine would go in for that kind of flash. But
1 guess it wasn't really different from Arlene's AB-10,
though a bit bigger; and even that might give it more
stability in a firefight. Albert said he would just use
Arlene's .30-30 for any sniping . . . and Jill already
had her AR-19, of course.
We also took pistols, ammo, grenades, day-to-night
goggles--we had to be careful to conserve the battery
power, using them only when absolutely necessary; no
recharges--and one of the more exotic energy weap-
ons I never liked; not a BFG, which they'd never
heard of, but a gas-plasma pulse rifle. We packed food
and blankets and other useful items, including a
complement of mountaineering (or wall-scaling)
equipment: knotted rope, a grappling hook, crampons
and pitons, the usual usual.
The Humvee waited--God and Albert knew
where. Would we find it? Would it run if we did? I
tried not to think about such questions as, with great
solemnity, the President of the Twelve led us through
the inner compound to a small, cinder-block building
. . . and to the escape tunnel.
Other members of the community gathered
around us before we departed. Somewhere back in my
mind, I wondered why we weren't hearing a heroic
anthem to speed us on our way. Where was the brass
band? Where were the speeches? In my mind, I heard
fragments of the speech: "Never before have so few
faced so many in the defense of so few." Well, that
wasn't exactly right.
There were a large number of heavy barrels of fuel
oil in the building, seemingly stacked somewhat hap-
hazardly. A pair of soldiers approached one particular
barrel carrying an odd tool that looked like a giant-
sized jar opener.
They lowered the prongs over the barrel and pushed
levers forward, running steel rods through the lip.
Then they put their shoulders to the two ends of the
"jar opener" and walked counterclockwise. Rather
than tip over, the barrel unscrewed like a light bulb;
they lifted the heavy, false barrel from the narrow
tunnel, just barely wide enough to admit a single man
of my size.
Arlene took point. She tchked and winked at the
President and blew him a kiss; his face flushed bright
red. Then she held her AB-10 pointed straight down
and dropped out of sight. Albert followed, then Jill; I
We dropped into what looked at first like pitch-
dark; then, as our eyes adjusted, we found the slight
ambient light adequate to see a few meters ahead and
The light came from phosphorescent mold, and the
tunnel was deliberately carved to look natural, a
fissure meandering left and right but mainly going
straight northwest. It was wide enough for two
abreast, and Arlene and Albert walked the point--
Albert because he alone knew the route. I took tail-
end Charlie, leaving Jill reasonably protected in the
Before we started, I cautioned the crew: "From here
on, no talking, not even for emergencies. We'll use the
Marine Corps hand language; Jill, you just watch me.
They may have listening devices, hunting for tunnels.
Let's not make it easy on them, all right?"
The tunnel was cool and dark, a relief from the hot
sun of the Utah desert; at night, I hoped it would also
insulate us from the freezing overnight temps. We
could be underground for ... how many klicks?
Eight kilometers, signed Albert in response to my
Six passed by at breakneck speed . . . well, as
breakneck as you can get shimmying through under-
ground caverns with rough, natural-hewn floors in
limited light. Took us more than six hours, in fact, not
much of a speed record. But the end was in sight,
metaphorically speaking. We had just finished our
fourth rest and were ready to tackle the final quarter.
As Arlene ducked and stepped under an archway, I
heard a sound that chilled me to the marrow: the
startled hiss of an imp.
We were not alone.
Reacting to the sound, Arlene backpedaled; she
stuck her arm out and caught Albert on her way back,
knocking both of them to the ground.
The move saved their lives; a flaming ball of mucus
hurled past where they had stood but an instant
before and splattered explosively against the wall.
Arlene didn't bother rising; she raised her machine
pistol and fired from supine. I swung my shotgun
around and unloaded the outside barrel; between the
two of us, we blew the spiny apart.
It had buddies. As Arlene and Albert scrambled to
their feet, and the latter fumbled his Uzi clone,
swearing under his breath in a most un-Mormonlike
manner, I pushed Jill to the ground and unloaded my
second barrel, decapitating a zombie who wielded a
I cracked and reloaded; Albert finally got every-
thing pointed in the right direction and loosed a
volley of lead.
We had surprised the bastards, and now they
weren't even sure where we were shooting from. To
make things worse, the zombie troops had zeroed in
on the imps, catching them in a cross fire with us.
I pushed Arlene forward, and she charged, taking
advantage of the distraction. Yanking Jill to her feet, I
followed; but we were several steps behind our team-
Arlene broke left and Albert kept on straight, taking
after the two clumps of spinys--who made the fatal
mistake of turning their attention to their own pathet-
To my horror, I realized what this resistance meant:
the tunnel was breached; if the aliens knew about the
tunnel, then soon troops would come pouring down
the pipe, lurching directly into the heart of the last
human enclave for hundreds of klicks!
Albert must have realized the terrible danger at the
same moment. He took advantage of a lull to flash a
frantic sign: explosives--tunnel--blow up--hurry!
I got the message. The Mormons had intelligently
lined their own escape tunnel with high explosive; if
we could somehow find the detonator, we could
collapse the tunnel, saving the compound.
But how? Where? I doubted even Albert knew
where the nearest fuse lay--and wouldn't blowing the
tunnel blow us up as well?
But considering that it was I who brought this
trouble upon them, it was clearly my duty to do it...
even at the loss of my own life in the explosion.
But first we'd have to take care of these brown,
Arlene had gone left and Albert straight; but one
imp suddenly lurched out of the darkness to our right
out of nowhere. I caught it out of the corner of my eye.
"Jill!" I shouted, violating my own orders. "Look
Fortunately, like Rikki Tikki Tavi, she knew better
than to waste time looking. She hit the deck face first
as I unloaded both barrels over her body.
The imp landed nearly on top of the girl. If it had, it
probably would have crushed her to death: those
damned demons mass 1ilograms!
Arlene and Albert finished killing their targets, and
I started to relax.
Then I noticed what the imp I had just killed held
in its claws. Damn, but it sure looked suspiciously like
a satchel charge.
For an instant I froze, then that little voice behind
my eyeballs whispered, Fly, you know, standing like a
statue might not be the best career move right about
now. . .
"RUN!" I bellowed, bolting straight forward, pick-
ing up Jill on the fly. I ran right up to the imp and
right over it, gritting my teeth against the expected
It didn't blow up. Not until we had all made about
ten meters down the tunnel.
The explosion was loud, but not deafening; it was
the sequence of seven or eight explosions after the
satchel charge that rattled my brains.
We kept running like bloody lunatics as we heard
the loudest report yet. It sounded like it was directly
over our heads--and the tunnel began to collapse.
A million tons of rock and dirt crashed down on my
head, and something hard and remarkably bricklike
cracked my skull. I was hurled to the ground by the
concussion . . . and when I swam back to conscious-
ness, I found myself lying half underneath a huge pile
of collapsed tunnel roof. Had we been just a few
footfalls slower, we'd have all been buried under it.
A steel brace arched up from our position, slightly
bent. About five meters overhead I saw daylight; but
ahead of us there was only rubble.
"Congratulations," gasped Arlene, picking herself
up and choking in the dust. "You found the only door
frame for a hundred meters in each direction! You
sure you never lived in L.A., say during an earth-
No one was crippled; Jill needed first aid for a nasty
cut on her forehead, and I needed about five or six
Albert stared forward into the collapse, then up at
the sky. "Course correction, Corporal," he said. "I
think it's time we rose above all this."
We made a human ladder: I stood at the bottom,
then Albert on my shoulders, then Arlene on his.
Reaching up, she caught hold of the bracing beam and
held herself steady for Jill to climb like a monkey up
and out. She secured a rope and threw the end back
down for the rest of us.
Outside, the sun was just setting, a faint flash of
green in the western sky. The exploding, collapsing
tunnel left a long, plowed furrow running jaggedly
along the hard-packed dirt of the desert floor.
We hurried away from the site, found a rocky hill
and lay on our bellies on its top. When the stars
appeared, Albert sighted on Polaris, then pointed the
direction we should journey. "The ranch is another
four klicks yonder," he said. "We ought to be there
Three hours later we skulked onto the deserted,
burned-out ranch. Near the barn was a huge haystack.
Inside the haystack, covered in a yellow, plastic tarp,
was a surprise.
Ordinarily, I'd have rather run during the night and
holed up in the daylight; but the aliens were more
active at night. And more important, we were all
utterly spent. Arranging a three-way watch over Jill's
protest, we collapsed into sleep. Despite her threat,
Jill didn't awaken until Arlene shook her the next
The engine of the Humvee groaned into life, the
coughing gradually diminishing. The thing might
actually run, I thought. Jill almost jumped up and
down with excitement as the machine started to
move. She was a kid again, forgetting all the crap of
the universe in the presence of a new toy. The little
things that bothered her sense of dignity vanished.
She was why we would win the war against the
monsters, no matter how many battles were lost. And
no matter what happened to us.
"Here we go," said Albert, holding an Auto Club
map as if it were a dagger. He was a lot more dashing
than the President.
"Let's kick some monster butt," said the old
After two hours of a steady, off-road seventy kilom-
eters per hour, we'd seen no signs of the changed
world; but I knew this illusion couldn't last. While it
did, I enjoyed every minute of it. An empty landscape
is the most beautiful sight in the world when it doesn't
contain smashed buildings, burning remains of civili-
zation, and fields of human corpses. Of course, it
would have been nice to see a bird, or hear one.
There was a long line of straight road ahead, so I
asked Jill if she would like to drive the Humvee.
"Cool," she said. "What do I do?"
I let her hold the wheel, and she seemed satisfied. A
Humvee is a big horse, and I wasn't about to put the
whole thing in her charge. But she seemed comfort-
able, as if she had driven large vehicles before , . .
possibly a tractor?
Our first stop was for a bathroom break. That's
when I saw the first evidence that Earth wasn't what it
used to be: a human skull all by itself, half buried in
the dirt. Nothing else around it--no signs of a strug-
gle. But dislodging it with my shoe revealed a small
patch of clotted scalp still on the bone. The ants
crawling over this spot provided the final touch. What
was this fresh skull doing here all by itself?
"Ick," said Jill, catching sight of my find. I could
say nothing to improve on that.
"What's that odor?" asked Arlene.
"It's coming from up ahead," observed Albert.
It was the familiar, old sour lemon smell. . .
unmistakable bouquet of finer zombies everywhere.
As we resumed the journey, the terrain altered.
There were twisted shapes on the horizon made of
something pink and white that glistened in the sun.
They reminded me of the flesh blocks that might still
be pounding endlessly up and down on Deimos.
These were shaped more like the stalagmites I'd seen
in my spelunking days. They didn't belong out here.
The whiff of sour lemon grew stronger, which
meant zombies shambling nearby or rotting in a ditch
somewhere close. My stomach churned in a way it
hadn't since Deimos.
The sky altered as well. The blue slowly shaded into
a sickly green with a few red streaks, as if pools of
green sludge were leaking into the sky.
We were all quiet now, fearing that to say anything
was to ruin that last glow of quiet friendship before
the storm. I glanced at Jill. She wore a determined
expression better than the President of the Council of
Twelve wore his gun.
Arlene and Albert checked out the ammo and guns,
more for something to do. Jill was content to stay up
front and help drive the vehicle.
Arlene finally broke silence: "You know, Fly, they
gave us more than we can pack with us when we dump
the Humvee, if we're going to be able to stow aboard
the damned train when it slows down."
"Yeah," I said. "Take what you can."
Jill looked over her shoulder. "Can I help?" she
"We're doing okay," said Albert.
"You're not throwing out my machine gun, are
you?" she asked suspiciously.
Albert laughed, the first sound of happiness since
we crossed over into what I was already dubbing
Infernal Earth. "Honey, we'll toss food and water
before we let go of a good weapon."
"My name's not--" she started to say, then noticed
Albert's friendly expression. Context and tone of
voice made a difference. I wouldn't be surprised if we
weren't the first people in her life to treat her like a
There was the sound of an explosion to the west. "Is
that thunder?" asked Jill. She stared to the right, but
there was nothing to see.
"No," I said. "Someone is playing with fire-
"Something, more likely," said Arlene.
"Behold," said Albert in a low voice, obviously
speaking to himself, "that great city Zarahemla have I
burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof."
Jill suddenly surprised me by turning around and
facing Albert, asking: "Are you saying the monsters
are a judgment of God against the human race?"
"No," he said, "I think it is a testing."
Arlene had promised not to talk religion with the
boss. Now the circumstances had changed. Albert was
a comrade. She'd talk about anything to a comrade.
"Would you say what the Nazis did to the Jews was
a testing?" she asked angrily.
"The most important lesson from what Hitler did
to the Jews," he said calmly, "was that at the end of
the war, they were still in the world. I'd call that a
testing, one they passed by surviving when the 'Thou-
sand Year Reich' was destroyed. If they'd been de-
stroyed, it would have been a judgment."
Arlene fumed at Albert, but didn't say anything.
Obviously, his answer irritated her at some level, but
she couldn't think of an intelligent response.
"In space," she said finally, "on Phobos, we found a
giant swastika." She let her observation hang in the
air, waiting for the Mormon to respond.
"What do you think it means?" he asked.
Arlene sighed. "I don't know; except it's a reason
for me to hate them more."
"I would hate them just as much," said Albert, "if
you had found the cross up there, or the flag of the
United States, which I believe was also inspired by
God. A symbol used by aliens means nothing to me.
We know them by their fruits."
"Oh, fug," said Jill. "This is like being back in class.
Don't give me a test, Albert."
I figured it was a good time to move on. "I'm with
Albert," I said. "Symbols mean nothing outside of
their context. But I never expected to hear that from a
"I'm full of mysteries," he said.
I was glad for our little debate. It took our mind off
the fact that the sky kept changing. It was now
completely green. Made me think of fat frogs and
mold. The lemon stench was bad enough that it
seemed the same as back on Deimos and Phobos. I
had forgotten how after a while you get used to
anything and then you could ignore it.
Albert reminded us he was in charge of the map by
pointing out we were nearing the sabotage point. "I'd
say we're a mile away," he said.
"Let me take the wheel back, Jill." The kid didn't
argue, glad to say. I started slowing down the
"We need to tip it over on the tracks just past that
curve," said Albert. "We don't want to derail the
"Right," I said. "They should see it in plenty of
time after they come around the bend."
"Have you given any thought to how we're going to
tip this monster over?" asked Arlene. "It must weigh
a couple of tons."
"I sure have. That's why I brought along--Block
and Tackle in a Drum!"
She didn't seem to appreciate the humor.
No, really, A.S. I'm not joking."
"I'm not laughing."
I held up the drum.
Arlene squinted. "C-4? Plastic explosive?"
"Just a soupcon. A bit of spice for an otherwise
The others stood back at a safe distance as I parked
the vehicle next to the tracks, molded a goodly glob
on both front and rear left tires, then rolled it forward
until the C-4 was against the ground. I fused both
bunches with identical lengths of det cord, lay flat and
closed the connection.
Jill covered her ears; clever kid.
The Humvee is normally one of the most stable-
wheeled vehicles ever built; but even its wide body
and long wheel base was never meant to stand up to a
double charge beneath the left side. With a flash and a
bang, the C-4 did its job: the wheels blew off, but not
before the entire vehicle jerked into the air and rolled
along the longitudinal axis, landing upside down on
the rails. I held my breath as it skittered and spun--
but it came to rest still blocking the tracks.
I even had more C-4, just in case we'd needed a
"That wasn't too tough," declared Arlene, standing
with hands on hips, surveying the undercarriage.
"Of course you'd say that," I complained, "after
letting me do all the work."
"You! You mean you and Charlie Four!"
"What do we do now?" asked Jill.
"We guard the gear," I said, "and hurry up and
wait. Hey, welcome to the armed forces."
"Inconsiderate of the fiends not to post their sched-
ules for us," said Albert.
"Amen," agreed Arlene, to Albert's amusement. I
had expected her to say something sarcastic in reply,
but she patted him on the arm. They really seemed to
like each other. Maybe their argument over Judgment
Day was a test for each other.
The idea, of course, was for us to climb aboard
when the train stopped to clear the tracks. We'd stay
back until it started to move again; then we'd take a
running leap and catch the ladders, humping up to the
I was worried about Jill; I had no idea whether she
could make the jump; and if she missed . . . But she
was a wiry kid and looked like a tomboy. All the
same, I quietly removed everything heavy from her
pack, including her CompMac ultramicro; couldn't
afford to let her drop it under the wheels ... or drop
"Can I put my ear to the track and listen for the
vibration?" asked Jill. "I saw that in a movie."
"You don't think you'll fall asleep?" I asked back.
"It could be a long wait."
She assumed the position and managed to stay
down for a good twenty minutes before flipping over
and trying the other ear. Fifteen minutes after that
she decided that it could be a long wait and joined us
over by the stuff, around the hill.
"Why do they have to change the sky?" Jill asked.
"I don't know," said Arlene, "but it makes me
appreciate the night. At least we won't see the green
Albert passed around some beef jerky. We had
plenty of water and didn't have to worry about
rationing yet. We carried chlorine pills to purify the
water, which wouldn't help much if the aliens poi-
soned it with some nerve toxin.
Jill poked Albert. "Why do you think these are
demons if they can be killed?"
He looked at me, raising his brows.
"Don't give me a hard time," I said. "I haven't
discussed it with her. She can think for herself, you
"There are greater and lesser powers," he said.
"There is nothing wrong with viewing these creatures
as alien invaders as our Marine friends do. But we
believe they would not have taken on these guises
unless they were directed by genuine demonic
"Then why don't we exercise them?" said Jill.
Arlene smiled. "You mean exorcise, Jill."
"I like exercise better," I interjected. "Some of
these monsters seem out of shape to me. We should
capture one and PT the hell out of it."
"Speaking of which--" Albert began, but he didn't
have to finish. The train whistle was high and loud, a
lonely call from the remnants of our world. "I don't
think you'll need to place your ear to the track," I told
First, there was the rumbling. Then it came around
the bend, bigger than life, the engine the head of a
dragon, each car behind it a segment of spinal cord.
Thousands of tons rushed toward our little Humvee,
lying across the dark rails like a sacrificial offering.
"It's not slowing down," whispered Jill.
There was no way the man or monster in the engine
couldn't see the obstacle in the path of the train. The
natural reaction was to slow and stop.
Instead, they chose the unnatural reaction--
dispelling any doubts about what sort of creature was
driving. The monsters were among us.
The damned train sped up! The drone of the giant
diesel electric motors drowned out the world, sinking
our great plan beneath drifts of sand as if drowning in
that dry ocean.
Jill moved forward, still going to give it a try; but no
way would I let her commit suicide. I grabbed her arm
hard and shouted, "Back off, everyone!" If that behe-
moth came off the tracks, it could explode and
obliterate us like bugs. I had other plans, foremost
among them to stay alive.
We ran, the roaring of metal-on-metal and groaning
diesels directly behind us. We felt the impact of the
collision before we heard it, as the vibration tuning-
forked through the desert into the soles of our feet and
up to our hearts. The sound ripped through my head,
made my teeth ache, and squeezed my lungs with the
weight of the crash.
Bible stories ran through my head, the good old
King James version, with the Old Testament warnings
and massacres. Lot's wife looked behind her after the
Lord God told her not to. She was too curious for her
own good--my kind of woman. I couldn't resist a
backward glance either.
The train plowed through the Humvee like it wasn't
even there except as a sound effect. Pieces of our
transportation flew at us, and I realized there was a
certain wisdom to Bible stories. This crap could sever
our necks and smash us to pulp. You could actually
hurt an eye.
We kissed dirt, and something whizzed past my
right ear, but I had no curiosity to see what it was.
Finally, the dangerous sounds went away.
Standing up to see the remains of our vehicle, I
checked that my three buddies weren't bleeding or
buried under hunks of twisted metal. The receding
train reeled drunkenly from rail to rail, like an Iowa
farm boy with a snootful on his first night of liberty. I
half expected to see a fat, red demon riding in the
caboose, leaning out and giving us the finger. Then
again, a good number of these beasties lacked the
digits and dexterity to perform such a feat.
"So," said Arlene, after a long, dramatic pause.
"What's Plan B?"
Jill occupied herself spitting out a mouthful of dirt,
while Albert helped her to her feet. "Liabilities," I
said: "no Humvee; no train."
"We're alive; we still have our weapons."
"Feets do your stuff," said Albert.
"We'll hike into Phoenix," I said. "It's already late
afternoon. Better for us to travel by night anyway,
especially on foot."
"Great," said Jill, but when she didn't continue the
complaint, I let it slide. A little bitching from the
troops can have its salutary effects.
Whatever the green crap in the atmosphere was, it
didn't prevent the stars coming out, although the
twinkle was a bit weird. Footsore and weary, we took
our first rest stop at midnight.
"My first girlfriend lived in Scottsdale," said Al-
bert. "I always enjoyed Arizona."
"Was she a Mormon?" Arlene blurted out.
"No; I'm a convert. We didn't believe in much of
anything, not even each other."
"Why do you like Arizona?" asked Arlene.
"The desert is clean. The mountains are clean. And
best of all, there's no humidity."
"You sound like a travel folder," I said.
"Not anymore," he sighed.
"We'll get our world back, Albert," said Arlene.
An attack of commanditis seized Yours Truly: "If
we're going to save the Earth, then we need to sleep, in
shifts." I took first watch so everyone else could sleep,
but Jill joined me.
"I can't sleep," she said, "so don't try and make
"No, I'm glad for your company," I said. "I hate
wasting the rest of the night, and I'm not tired either.
When Albert and Arlene wake up, I'm thinking we
should move on."
"Fine with me," she said. "I think they're sweet on
I stared at Jill, wondering where the hell that
comment came from. I didn't say a word, but the
teenager had given me something to think about
besides how many rounds it took to put down a
Absolutely nothing else happened for four days,
except Arlene and Albert spent a lot of time arguing,
leaving me to debate computer ethics with the
fourteen-year-old net-cop of the month. Jill was down
on even the slightest infraction against privacy ... by
It was dawn on the fifth day when we arrived on the
outskirts of Phoenix. A number of buildings were
rubble, but some were still standing. We decided to
hole up in one of those. With weapons loaded and in
hand, we moved in. I was pleased to note Jill handled
herself well. This was good. If anything happened, I'd
be too busy to hold anyone's hand.
In the first alley we entered, we ran into an appetiz-
er of three pathetic zombies. Albert, Arlene, and I
acted so quickly that Jill didn't even get off a shot--
but it was her first contact with the enemy.
We rounded the corner and found ourselves in the
enviable position of staring at three zombie backs. It
was two males and a female; one of the males a
civilian, the other an Army sergeant, and the woman
used to be a cop in life.
Any qualms I had ever had about shooting women
in the back were burned out of me up on Phobos.
Phobos meant "fear," and fear was a marvelous
teacher. Without a word, I swung my double-barreled
shotgun up to my shoulder, sighted as if aiming for a
clay pigeon, and let fly with the outer trigger.
The living-dead female cop pitched forward with-
out a sound, her head vanishing in a haze of red and
green blood and gray brain matter. The other two
growled and started to turn, but the soldier-zombie
took two taps in the head from Arlene before he got
even halfway around. She kept her AB-10 on single-
shot; no sense wasting ammo.
The third zombie was armed only with a stick of
some sort; it looked like it used to be a gas station
attendant. It shambled toward us, unafraid, of course;
its only desire was to beat us into a bloody pulp and
perhaps eat the remains.
Jill whimpered and sank to one knee, fumbling her
AR-19 around. Her numb, nerveless hands shook,
and she suddenly had not even the strength to pull
back the T-bar and cock the weapon.
Well, no reason to dump a death on her conscience,
even a zombie death; she'd have plenty more chances.
Sparing her a friendly glance, I raised my shotgun
again, the outer barrel still unfired. But Albert beat
me to the punch, expertly firing a quick, three-round
burst that caught the zombie in the face, destroying it
instantly. The guy was good: he had literally fired
from the hip on rock 'n' roll and tapped it perfectly.
I stole a look; his face was grim, determined. I had
no trouble believing he had been a sniper.
The soup course consisted of five imps who were
attracted by the noise. Given the time of day, thinking
of breakfast would be more appropriate. Time to fry
They came shuffling around the corner, already
wadding up balls of flaming snot. One was a fast
mother; it heaved its flame wad before we could get
off a shot, and Arlene had to hit the deck to evade.
I heard a snik-click, as Jill finally ran the slide,
cocking the hammer and slamming a round into the
I discharged my remaining barrel, knocking an imp
to the dirt; it was still alive. I crabbed sideways,
cracking the breech and sliding two more shells
inside, while Albert fired short bursts, alternating
between the nearest imps. Each burst drove the target
backward a few steps.
Then a dead-eye spiny from the back ranks chucked
a mucus ball over the front ranks, catching Albert on
the shoulder. It splattered across his armor, still
burning, and he yelped and dropped the Uzi clone.
Arlene got to one knee, clicked the lever one notch
down, and began firing bursts at the still-advancing
imps. She focused fire on one imp at a lime, taking
One of them slid by us somehow; none of us saw the
damned thing. All of a sudden I turned and it was in
my face, hissing and screaming like death on two legs.
I backpedaled but took a piece of flame wad
in the face anyway. Blinded and agonized, I dropped
the shotgun to the pavement and grabbed my face,
screaming. I heard and felt the 1ilogram monster
looming over me, and I steeled myself to take a savage
swipe to the ribs.
The swipe never came. I heard the high-pitched
"rim shot" sound of the AR-19 discharging on full
auto, and the monster pitched forward against me. I
rolled to slip it as it fell; I sure didn't want to get
By the time I was able to blink my eyesight back,
the rest of the spinys were room-temp . . . and Jill
stood over the body of her very first kill, managing to
look simultaneously triumphant, sick, and scared to
"Congratulations, girl," I croaked, still grimacing at
the pain, "virgin no more."
"Thanks." She looked as ambivalent as she proba-
bly would in a couple of years, when she lost the other
form of virginity . . . unless I'm showing my age by
presuming she hadn't already.
My mistake; one of the critters wasn't quite dead.
When we huddled to assess damages, it leapt to its
feet and took off down the alley. Arlene, the Hermes
of the group, bolted after the thing, Albert hot on her
We raced the imp. I'd never seen one move this fast
before. Was it that this one had the sense to be afraid,
or had the genetic engineering made some improve-
The imp scooted around a corner. Arlene followed,
then Albert, and finally Yours Truly. Jill was some-
We spied an open door across the alley, and Arlene
and Albert made a beeline for it; but I noticed a
nearby trailer was rocking back and forth, as if
someone had just entered.
"Over here!" I yelled. I wasn't used to an imp doing
something as clever as opening a door to mislead his
pursuers before doubling back to his real objective;
but then I hadn't expected the imp on Phobos to talk
The door was locked, but a trailer door hardly
merited the waste of ammo. As I started to kick it, I
heard a familiar sound. Once you've heard the
humming-whizzing sound of a teleporter, you never
One good thump and we were in; a few sparks of
light hung in space over the rectangular piece of
metal. "Damn," I said.
"Shazam!" said Arlene.
"Huh?" asked Albert.
"Just making a little joke before your time," she
"Hey, I've had friends who take that stuff," Albert
countered. "It's bad stuff, ma'am."
"We'll get into the cross-cultural discussion later,
kids," I said. "Right now we have more important
problems. Like, should we follow this one or leave
well enough alone?"
"If we follow," said Albert, "it might put us in the
center of this thing."
"I think we shouldn't follow, exactly because it
might put us in the center of this thing," said Arlene.
They both had a good point. There was no ques-
tioning Albert's courage; but Arlene and I had the
I felt a disturbance in the Force behind me. Jill
squeezed in, her face hard, cheeks streaked where
she'd been crying. But she was in control, the mask
"Let's vote on it," she suggested, demonstrating
she'd picked up some vile, egalitarian habits from
"Sure," I said. "A show of hands for all those who
think we should follow the imp through the
teleporter." Albert and Jill raised their hands. "Now,
those against." Arlene raised her hand.
"If you vote with her, it's a tie," said Jill, proving
she'd taken some courses in the Higher Arithmetic.
"It's not necessary for me to vote," I said, "because
Arlene's vote counts as three. The nays carry."
"Oh!" exclaimed Jill, frustrated. Albert merely
"Let's put a guard on the grid," I said. "The spiny
could return with reinforcements: hell-princes,
"Maybe even a steam-demon," Arlene added. We
could tell that the new monster fighters weren't ex-
actly following the conversation.
"There's lots of different aliens," said Arlene.
"I know that," said Jill, a touch defensively.
"I'll take first watch," said Albert. "If we're not
going to follow, I'd suggest we hide out in the trailer
. . . but maybe that's not such a good idea. Instead of
teleporting, the--imp?--might drive up with a tank
column. Are we waiting until night before we leave?"
"On foot we'd wait," I said, "but in this truck, the
Bad Guys will probably just assume we're members of
the club. Who but a monster or zombie would be
driving in this region now? Besides, Albert is right; we
have to get out of here like now."
"Assuming zombies can drive," mumbled Arlene.
"If they have brains enough to shoot, they have
brains enough to drive," I said.
"Can I drive the truck?" asked Jill, eyes wide. "It
would really be cool."
I've created a Frankenstein's monster! I thought.
"Can you drive a stick?" I asked. She nodded. "A big
rig like this, double-clutching, multiple forward gears?
Have you ever?"
"Well, not this big," she admitted. "But I'm sure I
can handle it."
Normally, that wouldn't be good enough. But this
time, I wanted all three seasoned fighters in the back
in case the imp came back with a beastie battalion.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Maybe we can take the
truck and not be stuck with the damned teleporter." I
went back to it, crouched down and examined it
thoroughly. It was literally melded to the steel floor;
the only way to leave it would be to ditch the entire
trailer. But we still had to get to a place of safety
before we could stop long enough to unhitch cab from
"How about I go up front and look for the keys,"
said Jill, growing happier by the second. She wasn't
about to let this opportunity slip by her.
"I'm going with you," I said, praying the monsters
would not choose this moment to invade.
There were no keys in the cab, but I found a set in
one of those little magnetic holders outside, under-
neath the left front fender. This bothered me. If the
monsters were using the truck, why would they hide
the key? Or had they not even used this vehicle as a
vehicle since they attached the teleporter?
I didn't know how long we'd use the cab--maybe
only long enough to hop the next train, assuming we
could warp back to the original plan. But in the field,
no plan was any good that didn't adjust instantly to
reality. If the truck could get us a good piece of the
way, we should go for it. If it caused more problems,
then we could always switch back to playing hobo.
Jill opened the glove compartment and found a
map showing the most direct route to L.A.--good old
I-10; the best truck stops were marked for conve-
nience. The original driver had been most obliging. If
we were lucky, some of these stations might be
abandoned, with stocks of fuel waiting for us. I could
do without demonic attendants offering free human
sushi with every fill-up. I'd definitely go with self-
service, even if I had to shoot it out for the privilege.
Jill started the engine and I gave her a lecture about
reading gauges. As if I had any idea what I was doing!
But you can't let kids think you don't know.
This led right into a few more lectures about
overheating the engine, dust storms, fatigue factors,
and highway hypnosis.
At no point did Jill try to shoot me. Her self-control
was exactly what you demand of a good Marine.
"At least there won't be many cars for me to run
into," she predicted. If I didn't know better, I'd think
she wasn't trying to cheer me up.
"Go west, young lady," I said as a parting shot.
"Find us somewhere safe to park and disconnect. I
don't like hauling around this reinforcement roach
"See you later," she answered.
I returned to the back and caught Arlene grinning
like the Cheshire cat that just ate the bird store. Albert
seemed amused by something as well.
"You were up there a long time," she said.
"Looking for the keys," I answered solemnly.
"You took a long time getting back here since the
engine started," said Albert.
I wouldn't let them get to me: "Giving her a few
helpful tips, that's all. I'm sure she'll do fine." At that
precise moment the truck lurched forward and
stalled. Everything in the back shifted forward, except
for the teleporter pad. The teleporter pad was just
Arlene laughed. At no point did I try to shoot her; if
Jill could hold it, so could I. I'm trained, a
Jill finally got the hang of shifting--I suppose she
had had some training--and we were on our way. She
proved herself a teenager by driving too fast; then she
swerved suddenly, creating a new mystery to solve:
what the hell was she avoiding?
Being thrown around inside gave me motion sick-
ness; I hadn't felt this bad since the last time I was on
a friend's boat and got seasick. But I wasn't complain-
ing. Not me.
Besides, just about the time I would have risked
Arlene's mirth, the spiny sent us a Christmas present.
There was a brief moment of warning, the hum-
ming and the glow. We trained our weapons on the
spot, allowing for a split second of identification.
There was always the remote possibility of a human
escaping from hell.
Then the thing materialized. It wasn't a recruit for
humanity's army. And it wasn't a zombie, an imp, or
any other old friend. The bastards had sent us a new
There was something especially odd about the
appearance. This sucker wore clothes! He had on red
shorts and a white T-shirt. At a quick glance, it looked
like a living skeleton in lederhosen. There wasn't time
for a closer look--we already delayed firing a second
too long. The idiotic wardrobe threw us off.
The thing jumped at me, picked me up with one
hand and threw me at the wall. I rolled with the
impact and scrambled to my feet, still holding onto
my twelve-gauge; but before I could fire, the monster
had Arlene in one claw and Albert in the other. Thin
as it was, we were like rag dolls in its hands.
Jill was shouting through the partition, wondering
what was wrong. I would have loved to tell her, but I
was otherwise occupied, waiting for a clear shot.
The skeleton flung Albert down, but kept hold of
Arlene. The angle made Arlene a shield, so I started
maneuvering around, trying to maintain my footing
with Jill's increasingly panicked driving. As I tried for
a better position, the damned bone pile turned and
punched out Albert!
I mean, it hauled off and slugged him, and he went
down for the count. The stupid red shorts suddenly
seemed like boxing shorts. If the invaders were devel-
oping a sense of humor, I knew the true meaning of
Adding to the fun, Jill started swerving left and
right. Maybe she thought she was helping. She wasn't.
I heard a horrible crunching sound, and I was thrown
to the floor . . . but Red Skeleton remained planted as
if it had grown roots. Jill must have run into a car--
but from here, it was impossible to tell whether it had
been parked or was tooling down the road with Satan
himself at the wheel. At the moment, I didn't care
about anything except dismantling that freaking skel-
Back on my feet, duck gun in hand, I shouted loud
enough for Jill to hear: "Keep steady and keep going!"
I was afraid that if she came to a sudden stop, it would
be an advantage for Mr. Bones. I needed my opening.
Then the dumb monster gave it to me. He put
Arlene down so he could slug her. I let him place her
out of the line of fire, and the minute she was down, I
got in close to the thing and introduced its mouth to
both barrels. The mouth opened just like a human
one. I made sure it would never close again. I blew its
head clean off.
This slowed it down. Unfortunately, decapitation
was not the last word with this guy. He'd spent so
much time throwing us around like preteen sparring
partners, I hadn't even noticed the pair of rocket
launchers strapped to its back--until now. In its
death throes, Bones bent forward like a hinge and
fired a rocket from each tube.
Its head was pointing toward the front. . . and
that's where the rockets went.
The thing splintering into constituent bones, but
Arlene was up from the floor in time to scream "Jill!"
I was already out the trailer door and scuttling along
the running board before the echo died away.
The rockets blew through the front of the
trailer and the back of the cab, passing on either side
of a white-faced Jill while she was driving. Either side.
By some miracle worthy of every Holy Book ever
written, both rockets missed her.
"Jesus and Mary!" I shouted. I slid through the hole
where the cab wall used to be and sat down next to
Jill. She was white as cotton, shaking like an AK on
full-auto, gripping the wheel so hard I half expected
her to leave indentations. First Rule of Talking to the
Driver When the Driver is in Shock: "It missed you,
Jill; you're all right."
She nodded very slowly, but didn't speak. I tried
another tack: "Wouldn't you like a break from driv-
ing?" She nodded again. "Well, why don't you pull
over, uh, there," I said, pointing to a tree-lined side
street. There was nothing around here; we could pull
the plug on the teleporter trailer. Jill pulled over.
"Would you stay up here on watch while I return to
the others?" I asked.
She finally spoke: "Yes. I will. Fly." I patted her on
the shoulder, glad she'd addressed me that way. I
suspected she would be driving more conservatively
after this. I decided not to ask her about the car.
As Jill parked and sobbed, I crawled back into the
trailer. "Our new convenient, modern cab," I said,
"lots of ventilation makes it easier than ever to move
back and forth."
My attempt at gallows humor fell on adder's ears.
"Fly," said Arlene, voice shaking, "maybe we should
acquire another vehicle."
"Why?" I asked. She stared at me dumbfounded.
"Let's take a closer look at our new critter," I con-
On first contact it appeared to have no skin at all.
But close examination showed a thin layer of almost
transparent epidermis. Close up, it looked a man in
the terminal stages of starvation.
"I'd hoped we wouldn't see anything like this," said
Albert started to get the drift and asked: "You never
saw one like this in space?"
"No," I answered, "but we saw a place where they
manufactured creatures on an assembly line."
"And living blocks of flesh," said Arlene. "I'm
certain it was human flesh--experiments creating
"The evils of science," said Albert.
I saw Arlene tense up, but this time it was my turn.
"There's no putting that genie back in the bottle, my
friend. We master everything the universe offers, or
we're wiped out, another failed experiment. No happy
medium or ignorant bliss."
He held up his gun. "Maybe you're right," he said.
"This weapon would be black magic to Joseph Smith.
I should pick on the engineers instead of the scien-
tists. Some scientists say that some things we can do,
we must never do."
"Such as?" asked Arlene.
"Godless genetic manipulation," he answered.
"That's what we're fighting, isn't it?"
"Scientists who talk that way are the worst traitors
to the human race," said Arlene. "I don't really mind
religious people being afraid of new discoveries," she
said, "but scientists are supposed to know better. This
enemy's greatest power is biology. They've turned it
into a superweapon. If that means we have to learn to
use it ourselves, then we have to ... otherwise, we're
"You'd turn us into monsters like that?" asked
Albert, pointing at the dead one. "Or our children?"
"No, of course not," she said. "But why should you
object to genetically engineering angels?"
"Because they already exist and will help us in the
hour of need."
"Mexican standoff," I said. "This head-cutting is
officially declared a tie. Now, shall we return to the
matter at hand?"
"Well, Fly," purred Arlene, "whose turn is it to
name this sucker?"
"I'm sure it's yours," I lied.
She must have already decided, because right away
she said, "That's easy; a bony."
"Brilliant," I said. "Don't you think so?" I asked
"I guess," he said. "I guess we should be able to tell
"Albert, would you mind checking on Jill?" I asked.
He was happy to get out of there. As Arlene and I
started decoupling the trailer, I whispered in her ear,
"So what do you think?"
"I think they're getting closer to copying our real,
human form. Even the stupid clothes are a dangerous
advance. A goal of the aliens is probably to create
false humans; if they succeed, they can infiltrate the
areas not under alien control . . . like Salt Lake City."
"We can expect better frauds as time passes," I said.
"Now let's get to the next town along the railroad line,
hop a train, and continue to L.A."
Albert and Jill were glad to hear the new plan.
While Arlene and I were busy worrying each other,
Albert had helped calm Jill down to the point where
she insisted on doing whatever driving remained.
Fortunately, it was a sleeper cab for partnered
driving; we squeezed in, Arlene and Albert in the
back, me up front with Jill, and set off down the road.
We passed a score of alien patrols, but the truck must
have had the mark of the beast on the grill, for none of
them threw us a second glance.
The next town along the line was Buckeye. We
ditched the truck cab, then waited for night. We found
an alley and enjoyed the busy sounds of night life in
this modern world: troop trucks every few minutes,
the tramping of little zombie feet, screams of pain,
howled orders from hell-princes, and the occasional
earthshaking tread of steam-demons. Even more
soothing to our shattered nerves were mechanical
sounds that reminded me of the spidermind, evi-
dently a smaller model. I wondered if this one got
"Have you noticed an odd thing?" whispered
"You mean besides everything?" I replied.
"The aliens generally seem to know when humans
are around," she said.
I hadn't thought about it before, but the facts
supported her. "How?"
"Remember that lemony smell of theirs, right?" she
continued her line of argument. "What if we smell as
bad to them? They might detect us by the odor we
"Maybe they deliberately give the reworked zom-
bies that odor so they can tell them apart from living
"You know, A.S., if the aliens start manufacturing
infiltrators, they sure as hell can't smell like zombies.
That would be a dead giveaway." My heart bled for
the technical difficulties faced by the alien imagineers.
The importance of having Arlene and Yours Truly
on this mission was the background we brought with
us. Remembering how we had turned the monsters
against each other upstairs, I figured we could try it
again when the time came. In fact, it should be even
easier to turn the monsters against the new infiltra-
tors: they wouldn't smell wrong enough.
Meanwhile, there was the little matter of our imme-
diate survival and carrying on to L.A. . . . and that
meant hopping a freight as soon as possible.
"I have another plan," I told my loyal troops. I
hoped it would sound as good to me as I was about to
make it sound to them.
We waited for another truck to go by before settling
down to the conference. It was easy to size up the
strengths and weaknesses of our little foursome. Jill
was brainy but callow; Albert was forthright, strong,
reliable, stalwart, and no dummy. But he had yet to
show the special kind of intelligence and instincts
needed for command (another reason for the Presi-
dent of the Twelve not to press about who would
command this mission). Arlene was cynical and so-
phisticated, the best woman soldier I'd ever known.
But at some deep level she lacked a certain badness
that was so much a part of Yours Truly that I didn't
have to think about it.
The reason for me to be in charge was that I
wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice all our lives if I thought
it would make a difference in winning a crucial battle
in this war. Arlene could make the same decision, but
she'd hesitate where I wouldn't. In a strange way, I
was the safest of the adults to befriend the teenager
because no friendship or emotional ties would cloud
my military judgment. With all that Arlene and I had
faced up to this point, I counted myself fortunate that
we had survived. I was also glad that I hadn't needed
to be a perfect bastard. Yet.
The truck passed, and they waited to hear the plan.
"You all know that we must infiltrate the train station
and stow away on an outgoing train. The risk will
increase once we do this. Let me point out that until
we reach the enemy computers, Jill is the only one not
expendable. After she retrieves the data, everyone is
expendable, so long as one of us survives to get it
through to the War Technology Center. Get it out to
Hawaii; they'll find you."
"Yes," said Arlene calmly. Albert nodded. Jill
stared wide-eyed as my words registered.
I continued: "I noticed a number of abandoned
grocery stores as we were working our way in. I don't
know if zombies still eat human food, but I doubt it.
And I'm certain the monsters don't."
"Maybe the aliens can't digest what we eat," said
"Well," mused Arlene, "they can eat us; and we are
what we eat." She was being her usual, grisly self; but I
was the only one who smiled.
"Whatever," I said. "So here's the plan. Albert, you
buzz to one of these stores and collect all the rotting
lemons you can."
"I get it," he said. "That'll smell like those zombies
we gunned down . . ."
"Like all zombies," said Arlene.
". . . and confuse their sniffers," he finished his
thought. "Arlene--would you come with me?" He
paused, as if surprised at what he'd said. He looked at
me, remembering our informal chain of command.
"Is it all right if she comes with me?" he asked. "I
mean, if it's okay with her." He stared at her a little
"I was going to assign you one of us," I said. "So
long as there are four of us, it's crazy for one to go off
alone. We'll always pair off when we have to sepa-
"I'd like to go with Albert, then," said Arlene in an
even tone of voice, betraying nothing.
"Fine," I said. "Jill and I will wait here until you
return. We'll assume you've run into trouble if you're
not back by, hm, 2200." Among items I was grateful
for, we still had functional watches. Who gave a damn
what day of the week or month it was any longer? The
importance of a wristwatch was to coordinate ac-
Jill and I watched as A&A checked their weapons
and moved out. They ran across the open space,
Arlene first, Albert bringing up the rear, and then I
could breathe again.
"When do we move out?" asked Jill.
"In a moment. We're still safe here."
The word "safe" triggered something in her. "I
hadn't thought about it until what you said, but I
don't like being more ..."
"Critical to the mission."
"Uh-huh. Critical. It feels weird."
"Don't worry," I said. "After you've done your
hacker bit, you have permission to die with the rest of
us." I tried for a light tone of voice but the words
"I'm not afraid to die," she said.
"I know you're not. You did great in the truck, the
way you kept driving. I'm proud of you." Her whole
body relaxed when I told her that.
I figured she could handle some more of my deep
thoughts. Arlene and I had been through so much
together that there were things I could say easier to
the new recruit: "Cowardice is usually not the prob-
lem in war, Jill. Most people have more guts than they
realize. Most can be trained to do all right."
"What's the problem, then?" she asked through
I looked up and down the alley. We were still alone,
and it was a pleasure to hear the sounds of demonic
industry muffled and distant. The danger was at arm's
length, a good place to keep it as long as possible.
"In a way, we're lucky to be fighting monsters."
"Lucky?" she half shouted.
"Keep your voice down!"
"Fighting monsters makes it easy. Up to now, all
the wars on Earth have been between human beings.
That's much harder."
Her face scrunched up as she pondered what I said.
It was like watching thoughts march across her face.
"I could never hate human beings the way I hate the
demons," she said.
"You're lucky to feel that way," I said.
"How does fighting monsters make it easier?" she
threw at me. "They're harder to kill than people."
"We don't take any prisoners," I said. "We don't
have to worry about any of that. And if we did take
one, we don't have to decide whether we should
torture him. Hell, we don't even know if they have a
nervous system like ours."
"Torture?" she asked, wide-eyed again. Then she
thought about it. "I could torture them."
"To get information?" I asked.
"To pay them back for what they've done."
"Could you torture humans if they'd done the same
"I don't know," she said. "What kind of torture?"
Looking at her, I remembered an officer who briefly
passed through Parris Island as my class officer before
moving on to Intelligence, maybe even the CIA (who
He took a whole slate of medical courses, though he
had no interest in being a doctor. He had a weak, limp
handshake. He probably couldn't fight his way out of
a revolving door. He scared the living crap out of me.
I figured I'd given a fourteen-year-old enough to chew
on for one day.
"Any kind." I didn't elaborate.
"I think I could torture any humans who join the
aliens," she said.
"Then you're home free," I said. "I don't think the
enemy is doing any recruiting except for zombies."
She brightened. "And we know what to do with
them, don't we, Fly?"
"We sure do." I tried out one of my playful punches
on the kid's arm, like I did with Arlene. She pulled
away at first, then sort of apologetically punched
back. She gave off all the signs of having been abused
once. By human beings, probably. Human beings
always confuse the issue.
Now it was time for us to hurry up and wait.
I kind of felt bad leaving Fly and the kid to go
traipsing off with this geek.
The first time I saw Albert, I thought he was a trog.
Maybe it was the way he held his weapon against the
head of the only other man in my life besides Wilhelm
Dodd who's ever been really worth a damn: Flynn
Taggart, corporal, United States Monkey Corps. As I
joined this Mormon beefcake on the grocery store
expedition, I found myself sneaking glances at his
profile, and finding strength where I'd first suspected
I've always loved strong men. That's how I remem-
ber my father. He died when I was only ten, so I may
not remember him with complete objectivity. But
that's the way I want to think of him. I grew up
defending his memory against my brother, who acted
like a snot and said Dad deserted us.
I hadn't thought about my family since the invasion
began, except when Fly got me going on my brother
and the Mormon Church. I'd be happy to keep it out
of my mind and off my tongue, except that Albert
asked me: "You don't like Mormons much, do you?"
We were in an alley outside a likely grocery store,
taking a breather. Zombies were unloading bread
from a bread truck, an eighteen wheeler. Bet the boxes
didn't contain bread; and I wasn't sure I wanted to
know what was really in them.
"I have a problem with all institutional churches," I
said. "It's nothing personal." Of course, it was per-
sonal and I'm not a very good liar.
"If you don't want to talk about it, I'll understand,"
said Albert diplomatically. The big dork had some
Maybe I should talk to him. Fly and I were so close
that we couldn't verbalize everything there was be-
tween us. He had a little-boy quality that was attrac-
tive in a friend but definitely not what I wanted in a
lover. Maybe it was part of the Mormon conditioning,
but Albert projected father qualities.
The one time I let myself be talked into therapy,
back in college when my family was exploding, I
dropped hundreds of dollars to be told what I already
knew. My ideal male friend would be the brother I
never had. Fly was just what the doctor ordered. My
ideal lover was Daddy. The therapist was a Freudian
so he didn't have much imagination.
The women's group I hung out with for one sum-
mer had a lot more imagination. It wasn't my fault
that the experiences of my youth fit the Freudian
pattern better than they did the theories of the sister-
hood. It just came down that way.
So I saw the concern in Albert's face, a guy who
wanted to be a pillar of strength to some All-
American Gal, and it was hard not to cut him some
slack. Here we were, huddled down together in a dark,
smelly alley, ready to save the human race from all the
denizens of hell, and poor old Albert was concerned
about how I felt about his religion.
A more elemental kind of man would just be trying
to put the make on me, arguing that the human race is
near extinction and let's make love while we can and
think about the future instead of the self, babe.
Not Albert. Not Fly. In completely different ways,
both these men were gentlemen. And Jill was a fine
young lady. I could have done a lot worse in choosing
companions for Armageddon.
"Albert, I won't lie to you again. I do have a hang-
up about the Mormon Church; but it won't affect us. I
respect you, um, in spite of it."
His voice was polite, if a little frosty: "Thank you. I
won't pressure you about it."
Well, if I could tell Fly some of it, I didn't see why I
couldn't talk to the big Mormon. Again the thought
came to me that I could get more off my chest with
this relative stranger. As close as I was to Fly, my
platoon pal, there was a reticence with him I could
If I said to Fly that "there are some things you
wouldn't understand," he'd stare at me with his what
the hell are you talking about expression and make me
feel like a silly, emotional girl; he wouldn't do it
deliberately, but the result would be the same.
The truth was there were certain things I didn't
want to share with Fly. The reasons were emotional;
and those were never good enough reasons for him.
"Albert," I said, feeling the shape of his name as I
spoke it for the first time from a quiet place inside, "I
want to tell you about my brother."
"I'll listen; but you don't have to if you don't--"
"He was never really what you'd call a real man; I
mean, I don't think he would have made a good
Marine. Had the bad luck to be really pretty . . . not
like a guy; I mean a girly-man kind of pretty. You
know, delicate features, pale skin, long, beautiful
lashes like a girl."
"Yeah, right. When I was twenty, I outweighed him
by ten pounds--I mean, five kilograms . . . gotta be
"Ow. That can be rough."
"It got worse. A lot of the older guys in the
theater--he did stage-crew stuff for the Spacelings--
they kind of came on to him. Real aggressive, gay
stuff; sometimes the theater can get like that, and
anybody who says it can't never did theater in L.A. or
New York. I don't even know if they were serious, or
of they just wanted to freak him; but Buddy--"
"Heh, blame him for that. He was named Ambrose,
so he called himself Buddy. Buddy got real scared that
he was, you know, gay. It wouldn't have mattered if he
were; he would've said, 'Hey, like, that's it,' you
know? But he wasn't. He wasn't really anything; so he
"I don't know what to say. I've never had that
problem. I've always known I was a flaming hetero-
"So he kept always trying to prove his manhood
. . . you know, shoving little girls around, sticking his
zinger in any doughnut hole he could find. He even
once ..." I hesitated.
"With you?" asked Albert, suddenly too perspica-
cious for words. Damn it.
"It was pathetic; really negative zone. I took him
down so fast he cracked the sound barrier between
vertical and horizontal. And it wasn't too long after
that he fell in with a bad crowd and suddenly decided
he would convert to Mormonism."
"What were you before that?"
"What do you expect? 'Sanders,' Episcopalian, as
close to the Church of England as you can get in the
"How long did he stay with us?"
"Eight months; he moved to SLC, moved back to
Hollywood half a year later. I think he showed up at
the Overland church a couple times, then found a new
savior: a drug called tank. Ever hear about it?"
"Nope. 'Fraid I'm not up on the drug culture . . .
not from the using perspective. Your brother's prob-
lems are his own making," said Albert. "Would you
fee! the same way about the Catholics or Lutherans or
Baptists, if he used them as a rest stop on the road to
That made me smile. "Albert, I had no idea you
were so eloquent! I admit I'm prejudiced; when I'm
thinking about it, I'm pissed at all organized religion;
but only the Mormons cut into my guts like that. I
think church enables aberrant behavior."
Albert laughed, and I had to admit I sounded
pompous. "Temples too?" he asked.
"Oh, right," I said. This man had debated at some
point in his life. "All religion, especially the ones that
pretend not to be. They all say theirs is a way of life or
an ethical system or a personal relationship with
God--it's only the other guy who has a religion."
"Arlene, I'd like to ask a favor of you. Please don't
tell Fly about our talk. I like things the way they are
right now between all of us. I don't want to do
anything to distract Taggart from doing the fine job
"I keep confidences. You listened to my story, that's
He shifted his bulk against the wall so he could sit
more comfortably. "You mentioned your brother
getting involved with drugs. So did I, from the other
side. I don't like to talk about being a Marine sniper;
it's a private thing between me and the Lord. But one
week, I was assigned to kill a woman who was
suspected of being the primary money launderer for
the Abiera drug cartel in Colombia."
"No great loss," I said, far too quickly.
He moved closer, as if he thought the monsters
might overhear and report his confessions to Satan
Central. "Arlene, I said she was suspected, not
"Oh," was all I could think to say. I said it with
"I'd never killed a woman before. They call it
termination, but it's killing. I don't make it easier by
playing with words."
"There goes your career in the military," I said,
liking him better all the time. "So you were to
terminate this woman with extreme prejudice because
she was a suspect."
He nodded, unable to speak for a moment. "Strong
suspect. But I had a lot of problems with it. It went
against my moral learning."
I was having an attack of sarcasm and couldn't keep
it bottled up. I hit him with: "Killing all the suspects
in the hope you get the target? The Church of Central
Intelligence makes that a sacrament."
"No, I mean killing a woman. In the end I decided
if I couldn't justify killing her, then how could I
justify killing a guy who was supposed to be a
renegade colonel from Stasi? I did him the month
"Now who's playing with words?"
"Killed him the month before. He was training
Shining Path terrorists to be sent over to Kefiristan to
help the Scythe. It came down to one thing: either I
trusted my superiors knew what they were doing, or I
He wanted to be frank with me, but the words
choked in his throat. I helped him along. "You killed
her," I said.
"I killed her, yes. I still think she was guilty."
Suddenly, I chuckled. He looked at me as if I'd
completely lost my mind. "No, no, Albert, it's not
what you think. I'm laughing about all the trouble
America went to trying to protect fuck-ups like my
My use of the past tense brought both of us back to
the immediate nightmare. "I think we're all sinners,"
he concluded. "We all deserve to die and be damned;
we earned that fate when we disobeyed the Lord.
Which is why we need the Savior. I take responsibility
for the blood on my hands, even if I let Him wash it
clean. I don't blame the Church, the Marines, my
parents, society, or anyone or anything else."
"We have a difference there, my friend," I told him.
"I blame God."
"Then you blame the nature of things."
"Yeah, I guess I do. 'The nature of things' is waiting
for us beyond this alley with claws and horns, light-
ning and brimstone. My only regret is that I won't
meet God when I have a rocket launcher." I knew I
was getting worked up and discussing religion; but I
was talking to a human being, not the President of the
And really, Arlene Sanders, are you sure you're not
trying to wash away the blood on your hands, the blood
of a whole compound of innocents who might die
because of your stupid mistake, sending a radio mes-
sage to co-opted Colonel Karapetian? I shuddered and
shut off the thought.
"You can't blow up God, Arlene," he said in an
annoyingly tolerant tone of voice. I expected my
blasphemy would get more fire out of him.
I tried one last time, while I still had my mad on:
"He made Himself flesh once, didn't He? If He'd do it
"I think you'd find the cross a heavier weapon to
carry than a bazooka, Arlene. Somehow I don't see
you nailing anyone to a cross."
I almost told him about the row of crucified hell-
princes the pumpkins had used to adorn Deimos and
how I'd happily do the same; then I made myself shut
up instead. I'd said enough. More than enough. The
quiet, easy way he was dealing with my outburst told
me that Albert was a man of faith so strong I couldn't
crack it with a BFG. Besides, I had the feeling he
would start praying for me if I didn't cool it.
"Thank you for telling me about Colombia," I said.
"There's no one I'd rather talk to than you, Arlene.
Now let's get back to work."
Damn if I wasn't becoming attracted to honest
Albert. For the first time in weeks, I thought about
Dodd, my guy, who was zombified; my lover
whose body I put out of its misery.
A small glimmer of guilt tried to build up into a fire,
but I doused it with anger. We all had our problems.
We were all human. I was sick and tired of thinking
about all the things I did wrong or could have done
better. Humanity was not a weakness; it was a
strength, and our job was to win back our world, and
damn it, why did I hesitate to think "lover" when I
thought about Willie? Was it because it had the word
"love" in it?
Darling Dan's Supermarket was the next battlefield.
The zombies finished unloading the crates of whatev-
er and drove off in the bread truck. Now the coast was
"Come on," I said.
"Right behind you," he said.
We slipped into the supermarket through the
back delivery door and worked our way toward the
front. Lights were flickering on and off with the same
irritating strobe effect that Fly and I had to deal with
on Deimos so friggin' often. Maybe these guys weren't
sloppy, slovenly, indifferent creeps; maybe it was
some kind of aesthetic statement. All I knew was
flickering light gave me a headache and made me want
to unload a clip at the first refugee from Halloween
who happened across my path.
"Come on," said Albert, a few steps ahead of me
I loved symmetry as much as the next guy. "Right
behind you," I quoted. It was the next best thing to
dancing with him.
Inside the main part of the store, the fluorescent
lights were on and burning steady. But the refrigera-
tion was off, and there was a rotten smell of all kinds
of produce, milk, and meat that had been let go before
"Ew," said my Mormon buddy, and he hit the
center of the bull's-eye. The meat smelled a lot worse
than the bad vegetable matter. And oh, that fish!
If I hadn't been wide awake on adrenaline--
compared to which caffeine is harmless kid stuff--I
would never have believed what I saw next. Nothing
on Phobos or Deimos had the feeling of a fever dream
compared to the spectacle of...
"Hell in the aisles," breathed Albert.
The grocery store was as busy as a Saturday after-
noon in the good old world. Mom and Dad and the
kids were there. Young lovers wandered the aisles.
Middle-class guys with middle-sized guts in ugly T-
shirts pushed shopping carts down the center aisle
with no regard for who got in the way. Nothing had
changed from the way it used to be ... except that
everyone was dead.
Zombies on a shopping spree. Eyes never to blink
again. Mouths never to form words, but to drool foul-
smelling, viscous liquid worse than anything in an old
wino's stomach. Hands reaching out to grab anything
or anyone that fell in their path.
The sour lemon odor was so concentrated that I had
trouble breathing and Albert's eyes were watering; my
throat was filling with something unpleasant.
The nearest zombie to us had been a big man once,
a football player would have been my guess. Thick
blue lines stretched across his face; I couldn't tell if
they were veins or grooves or painted on. Next to him
stumbled the remains of a cheerleader whose long
hair she'd probably taken good care of a long time ago
in the world lost way, way back ... in the previous
month. The zombie girl's hair looked like spiders had
tangled themselves up in their own webs and died on
These two were the best-looking zombie couple.
The nearest family was disgusting; especially the
thirteen-year-old boy (what had been a thirteen-year-
old boy). Part of his head was missing. It looked
melted, as if a big wad of caramel had been left out in
the sun and gone bad on one side.
A thin, bald man looked like a scarecrow with a
laughing skull on top. His right cheek was missing and
the few teeth that hadn't fallen out on that side made
me think of kernels of uneaten corn or keys on an
Two zombie Girl Scouts carried filthy boxes in their
pale hands. One dropped a box and several fingers
spilled out. A man dressed as an undertaker fell to his
knees and shoveled the fingers into his mouth where
they stuck out like pale worms. A dead priest groped
at the attache case of a dead account executive over a
pile of fish left to rot on the floor. The zombie odor
was so pronounced that I could barely smell the week-
"Are you all right?" asked Albert. I nodded but
didn't look at him. "You're staring at them."
Albert's words were like an echo from Fly. My old
buddy always gave good advice, like not focusing on
any details that wouldn't help the mission. But this
was the first time I'd seen so many of these human
caricatures this close when I wasn't engaged in taking
"I'm okay," I whispered, pulling Albert back in the
shadows. "We're doing fine. The stink in here is so
bad they couldn't smell out live humans to save
"Lives," he finished my inappropriate image.
"Let's get the lemons and get out of here."
There's never any arguing with good sense. But as
we took another look-see, the zombie density inside
the store was worse than a minute ago. "Where the
hell are they all coming from?" I asked.
"Probably," Albert agreed.
The scene was becoming even more surreal. Zom-
bies pushing baskets up and down the aisles, grabbing
cans and boxes of junk food (which would take a lot
more than the end of the world to go bad). Some of
the zombies were engaged in what seemed to be
purposeful activity, moving items from one shelf to
another and then back again.
They didn't eat any of the groceries. They seemed
caught up in the behavior of the past, as if the
program had been so hard-wired into their skulls that
not even losing their souls could erase the ritual of
going to the grocery store.
And then suddenly the lights went out. Whatever
had kept the generator going was defunct. "What do
we do now?" asked Albert.
"Take advantage of the situation," I said. "This is
fortuitous. We should have put the generator out
ourselves. We can pass easier for zombies if they don't
see us. They're too stupid to do anything about the
If there is ever a Famous Last Words Award, I'm
sure that I'll receive sufficient votes to make the final
ballot. No sooner had I made my confident assess-
ment than flickering, yellow light filled the store.
Dozens of candles were lit. I could imagine Fly saying,
in his I-told-you-so tone of voice, "If they can still
shoot their weapons, they can do a lot of other
It was bad enough when Fly was right so often in
person. Now I was carrying him around in my head to
tell me when I made a mistake!
Not everything the zombies lit was a normal can-
dle. Some gave off a heavy smell of burning butter or
fat. I didn't want to think about some of the items
they might be using for torches.
"I wonder how long before they burn the store
down," said Albert.
"They haven't yet," I said. "Let's get those lemons
and get the hell out of here!" As we went out into the
throng, my heart was pounding so hard that I worried
some of the creatures would hear it. Then they
wouldn't need to smell us out or see our TV-
commercial-smooth complexions to turn us into
today's lunch special.
Matches still flared as zombies looked for items to
light up. A "Price-Buster" banner suddenly caught
fire and went up in flames. It didn't set anything else
on fire. For the first and probably last time in my life, I
was grateful to be among zombies at that moment.
Real, live human beings would have freaked and
caused a panic more dangerous than a fire. The
zombies didn't care. And of course they didn't bat an
To be fair to Fly, he never overestimated zombies;
he just didn't want me underestimating them. For
what Albert and I had to do now, we had to count on
zombie stupidity. I made my way over to a pile of
hand baskets and took one. Albert stuck behind me a
lot closer than Peter Pan's shadow.
I passed him the basket and noticed that his hands
were shaking. I sure didn't blame him. In fact, I had
the strong feeling that he'd be doing a lot better in full
combat against the monsters. With his religious back-
ground, bodies of the reanimated dead had to be
If I remembered correctly, and I always do, the
Mormons had a more old-fashioned idea of the body.
One thing I could give Fly's nuns--the Catholic
Church didn't make you worry about what happened
to your body in a war zone if your soul was in good
shape. The more spiritual the faith, the more popular
I figured it would be in the atomic age, where we can
all be zapped out of existence in the pulse of a
Albert's fear sort of made me more daring.
After I got my award for Famous Last Words, I'd use
it to join Psychos 'R' Us. This situation was so insane
that I started to think it might work.
We turned a corner and saw a zombie-woman
sitting on the ground. She had two candles, a bag of
charcoal, and a cigarette lighter; four items, two
hands. She couldn't decide which two items to hold.
So she kept picking up two of them, dropping them,
and picking up another random pair.
I looked over at Albert and tried a little telepathy.
As usual, the results were nothing to worry the
neighborhood skeptics. Since Albert wasn't picking
up on my silent message, I stepped forward and
waited for my opportunity. The next time the
zombie-girl dropped her candle and lighter, I simply
reached down and picked them up.
Now that I'd solved the zombie's quandary, she got
up and stumbled vaguely down the aisle with the
other candle and the charcoal. I started to pass the
lighter to Albert, then changed my mind and gave him
the candle, which I lit. I preferred keeping the thing
that actually made fire.
Playing somewhere in the back of my head were all
those old horror movies where the one thing monsters
fear is fire. When I was a kid, sneaking those movies
late at night when everyone else was asleep, I never
thought I was boning up on documentaries. At least I
hadn't used a hammer and stake yet in fighting these
bastards; but I intended to keep my options open.
We staggered down the aisle, trying to look suitably
undead, and headed for the produce section. We
quickly grabbed plastic bags and filled them with the
most disgusting remains of lemons and limes we
The limes weren't even a little green any longer;
they were dull gray with black splotches. Although the
lemons were still yellowish in spots, the other colors
were dark and unwholesome. They were the sort of
colors I preferred ignoring.
Other zombies began gathering around us and just
standing there. Maybe our purposeful actions were
too purposeful. Did these idiots have the brains to
recognize nonzombie behavior?
I tried to think and look stupid, but that wasn't
what was required. Pretending to be mindless is much
more difficult. I let my mouth hang open and tried to
work up a good supply of drool. Albert picked up on
the idea ... the fact I found him immediately con-
vincing shouldn't be taken as a put-down. But, man,
did he look the part when he put on his goggle-eyed
The act seemed to help a little. Some of the zombies
left us alone and found other things to stare at. One
large black man--what had been a black man--
dressed as a high school coach, continued to block our
way, staring at the basket of rotting produce instead of
us. He started to get on my nerves. When I moved
either to the right or left, he shifted slightly . . . just
enough to suggest he was willing to block us if we
wanted to move up the aisle.
We might very well want to move up the aisle
because the crowd was starting to press in behind us,
cutting off that avenue of escape. I couldn't remember
if we had closed the door behind us when we sneaked
in the back. Other zombies could be coming in that
way, dead feet shuffling forward, guided by dead
brains to regain a fragment of the living past.
A sound came out of nowhere. It was so strange that
I didn't even associate it with the walking corpses
hemming us in. It was sort of a low mewling sound,
coming deep from within chests where no heart beat.
A humming, rasping, empty, lost, mournful, aching
sound ... a chorus of the damned calling out to any
living humans left in the world, as if to say:
Come join us; life's not so good! Come and be with
us. We are lonely for company. You can still be
yourselves. The habits of a lifetime do not disappear
only because life has spilled out. If you loaded a
weapon in life, you can still do it in death; the routine
will survive; all that will be burned away is the constant
worry to prove yourself, make distinctions, show pride.
Judge not; there is no point when you're dead.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to take my 10mm and
start firing, and keep firing until I'd wiped them all
from the surface of the Earth. Aboveground was for
the living! The dead belonged underground, feeding
the worms, who still had a function to perform.
The zombies were the pure mob, devoid of intelli-
gence and personality. Staring at them in their own
flickering candlelight, trying to pass, reminded me
how much I hated Linus Van Pelt, who said he loved
mankind, it was people he couldn't stand. Earlier, I
read a book by H. L. Mencken, who said he had no
love for the human race as a whole, but only for
Individuals. The whole point of evolution. Individ-
uals. The only justification for the American revolu-
tion, for capitalism, for love. There were only two
individuals in this cemetery that used to be a grocery
store, and I was one. The other gestured at me that the
basket of rotten citrus was full and we should be
leaving, if we could find a path through the wall of
pale, stinking, shambling flesh.
Albert took the lead. He picked up one of the limes
and threw it up the aisle. It was a long shot, but it paid
off when an ancient memory reached out fingers like a
groping zombie and touched something in the coach's
brain. He turned and shambled after the lime like it
was a thrown ball.
We followed in the wake left by the big zombie
pushing through the crowd. By the time the coach
reached the lime, he had forgotten about us, which is
saying it stronger than I intend. We were merely a
series of impressions, of light and sound distracting
the zombie for a brief moment.
The front door beckoned. It was standing wide
open, so we didn't have to worry about the power. A
fire was burning somewhere down the street, marking
the path we would take if we made it outside.
Our last obstacle was the long line at the checkout,
believe it or not. A zombie-woman stood at the cash
register, responding to old job conditioning as the
others had fallen into the role of shoppers. She stood
behind the counter, banging on the keys of the register
with a clenched fist. The sight was too much, too
friggin' bizarre even after all that we had seen. I
laughed. It wasn't very loud, and I managed to choke
it off at about the half-chuckle point.
But it drew attention.
Maybe the shred of a brain that still functioned
inside the ex-cashier's head was back from its coffee
break, but she stopped banging the keys and looked at
me. Then she opened her mouth, disgorging a cock-
roach that had been making its home there. A gap in
her neck revealed the probable entrance to the bug
Then the bitch made a sound. It was a brand-new
sound, a kind of high wailing that drew the attention
of the others. She was doing a call to arms, and the
wandering eyes, listless bodies, jerking limbs, and
empty heads responded.
They finally noticed us.
"Run!" I shouted, and I didn't have to tell Albert
twice. There weren't very many between us and the
door. Albert used his bulk to good advantage, and
while he cleared the path I readied the AB-10.
I waited until we were through the door before
spinning around to take care of business. Sure
enough, some of the zombies of higher caliber fol-
lowed us through the door. I expressed my admiration
for their brain power by answering with my machine
It felt good to be killing them again. Most of the
zombies in the grocery store didn't have weapons, but
the ones who followed us outside were armed. I
always thought there was a link between intelligence
and defending yourself; apparently it even applied at
this almost animalistic level. The zombies returned
Albert saw I was in trouble and ran back to me, Uzi
ready. "Keep running, it's all right!" I shouted as he
took down a pair of Mom and Dads who took turns
unloading the family shotgun in our direction. As
they collapsed in a heap, other zombies I had shot got
back up, fumbling with their weapons. Before they
could get off another round, zombies coming up
behind them fired, and the bullets tore into the front
line of zombies. We booked.
The "Fly" tactic worked its magic; the front rank
spun to return fire against their clumsy compadres. By
the time we got behind a row of munched cars
"parked" by the curb, the zombie melee was in full
A bunch of spinys appeared from somewhere and
had their hands, or claws, full trying to stop the melee.
"Good job," I said in Albert's ear.
"The Lord's work," he said, smiling. "I didn't
know they were such a contentious lot." He quoted a
line, I don't know if from the regular Bible or the
Book of Mormon: "Satan stirreth them up continu-
ally to anger one with another."
"You said it, brother."
We had to get back to Fly and Jill; they'd be able to
hear the ruckus and would wonder what hornet's nest
we'd stirred up. And it was nearly 2200.
I thought about Albert as we made time. There was
a lot more to this beefy Mormon than I'd first
expected. Fly and I had done all right when he joined
our team, or we joined his. I'd bet on all of us, even
The reasoning part of my brain ran the odds and
concluded that we were screwed. It had done the
same on Deimos where Fly and I had beaten the
odds so often as to give a bookie a nervous break-
down. That was with just two top-of-the-line hu-
man beings against boxes of monsters. Now with
four of us, we had the boxes of monsters badly out-
Albert and I entered the alley that felt like home
after the grocery store. One advantage of fighting
monsters was not having to worry about identifica-
tion and who-goes-there games. There was a certain
gait to a running human that the zombies lacked.
They forgot a lot about being human.
Fly sighed and shook his head, somehow managing
to say "I can't take you anywhere!" and "welcome
back" simultaneously without speaking a word. We
were together again.
Damn, I was glad to see Arlene again. After
all we'd been through together, survival was getting to
be a habit. If reality took her away from me in blood
and fire, I wouldn't mourn until I'd finished avenging
her on the entire race of alien monsters. If by some
miracle I was still alive when it was over and she
wasn't, I would mourn for the rest of my life. Maybe
she felt the same, but I couldn't afford to think about
As Albert dropped the grocery basket of rotting
lemons right in front of Jill--who made one of her
patented "ick" sounds--he tossed a quick glance
back at Arlene, and it seemed to Yours Truly that the
aforesaid returned it with interest. Compound inter-
est. Well, stranger things had happened, especially
lately. But I would never have imagined any chemis-
try between . . . well, it didn't bother me if something
were cooking between them. All that mattered was the
mission, I told myself.
"That caterwaul was you?"
"Like the good old days," said Arlene, "when we
were young and carefree against a bloodred Mars
filling up the sky."
"Huh?" said Jill.
"Uh," said Albert.
When Arlene waxed poetic, she was a happy camp-
er. "Mission went well, did it?" I asked. "All right,
let's apply the beauty treatment."
Albert bravely set the example, squashing several of
the lemons and a lonely lime between his big hands
then applying the result to his face. Arlene followed
suit, and I, after taking a deep breath, dug in. There
were plenty to go around. Then I noticed that Jill was
"You're going to have to do this," I told her in my
"Yeah, yeah, I know," she said, only the second
time she'd pulled the sullen bit around us. I could well
imagine her giving this treatment to the President of
the Twelve full-time. I wouldn't fault her for that.
"It's not that bad," said Arlene, rubbing one down
the side of her own leg. Staining camo wear was a
"Okay, okay," Jill said, picking one up and tenta-
tively applying it to her nose. "It's gross," she said
with heartfelt sincerity.
"Here, let me help," I said, becoming impatient. I
took a lemon in each hand, squeezed, and then began
rubbing the results in her hair.
"Hey!" she said, backing away.
"No time to be belle of the ball," I snapped,
continuing the operation on her face.
"Hey!" said Arlene, coming over, taking one of the
lemons out of my hands and brandishing it under my
nose as if it were a live grenade. "What do you think
"Doing my bit for truth, justice, and the American
"Uh-huh," said Arlene, reeking of a lack of convic-
tion. "Fly Taggart, I need to explain this to you so that
you will understand." Smiling pleasantly, Arlene
stomped on my right foot.
While I was digesting all the implications of her
argument, she whispered in my ear, "She's a woman,
not a child."
"Don't treat me like a child!" Jill chimed in, as if
she could hear.
"Don't act like one." I leaned close, ignoring
Arlene, and spoke to Jill as I would to one of my
squadron Marines who was acting out. "Listen up,
ma'am. When you've got a set of butter bars, you can
start thinking and making decisions. But until then,
you do what / say, and / say this stuff is going on now.
"We've done your hair and face; next step is the rest
of your body. You want to do that yourself, or do you
want to give me a thrill by having me do it?"
She stared, then took the lime I held out. Test time
was over for now.
We finished applying the lemons. Jill made faces
but did fine; I hoped she wouldn't stay pissed for the
rest of the mission. Arlene lemoned the backs of the
rest of us where we couldn't reach, and then I did the
same for her. After that, we bid farewell to our alley
and moved out.
Albert took point and led us toward the railway
station. I took the rear. Fortunately, now that we
smelled like zombies, we could walk openly and carry
our weapons. We rounded a corner and found our-
selves in a mob of the previously mentioned. I could
see Arlene start to tense up--understandable after
what she and Albert encountered at the grocery store.
But a moment later she was putting on a good act,
probably better than mine.
For a moment I worried about Jill's performance:
arms straight out like a bad copy of Frankenstein's
monster, legs too stiff and jerking as she walked . . .
too exaggerated. She'd never make it on the legitimate
stage. But the zombies didn't seem to notice.
We passed through an archway and suddenly we
were surrounded by imps, hell-princes, and bonys,
with those damned rocket launchers strapped to their
backs. I watched the bonys walk with a jerking
motion so bad I could imagine strings pulling them as
if they were the puppet skeletons I'd seen in Mexico
during their "Day of the Dead" festival. If I hadn't
already seen one in action in the truck, I'd think they
were fake. One thing: they gave me new appreciation
for Jill's performance as a zombie.
Then came that lousy moment when the Forces of
Evil unveiled yet another brand new, straight-off-the-
assembly-line monster. This one wasn't inadvertently
funny in the manner of the bonys. This one was just
The word fat barely described the awfulness of this
sphere of flesh. We passed close enough to smell years
of accumulated sweat, a neat trick considering how
new the model had to be. The thing made me think of
a planetoid trapped in Earth's gravitational field, only
this hunk of flesh comprised fold upon fold of nause-
ating, ugly, yellow, dripping, flaccid chicken flab.
Of course, that was only a first impression. As it
came still closer, I decided that it was a lot worse than
I first imagined.
All I could think of was a gigantic wad of phlegm
carved by flabby hands into a semblance of the
human form with two beady pig's eyes sunk deep into
the grotesque face. At the end of each tree-trunk arm
was a massive metal gun, starting at the elbow.
In a choice between being blasted by those guns or
touched in any way, there was no contest. I could
imagine a lot of names for the thing, and I was sure
Arlene would have some ideas; but I wanted Jill to
have the honor of naming this one. She'd probably
come up with a better name than the different terms
for excrement unrolling in my mind.
There were plenty of other monsters and zombies
through all this, more than enough to keep us all on
our toes and plenty scared. But this thing was just too
much for my stomach.
The two steam-demons looming up before us were
more dangerous; but there was something almost
beautiful about them in comparison. They were well-
shaped, with good muscle tone showing on the parts
of them that were flesh instead of machine. Even their
metal parts seemed clean and shiny compared to the
dingy, rusty-looking metal tubes sticking out of that
fatboy. I knew I was in trouble when I started making
aesthetic judgments about the monsters.
I didn't like the way the zombies hemmed us in. I
pushed left and right, trying to lead my troops out,
but always shying away from the vigilant hell-princes
and bonys; they kept getting underfoot. . . whenever
I'd try to ghost, there they were.
It took some moments for the penny to drop: we
were being herded like cattle. By the time I realized it,
it was too late to get out; the zombie mass funneled
together, headed toward a large building. My heart
went into overdrive, and I was already starting to
calculate the odds of bolting, when Albert leaned
close and rumbled into my ear, "Here's some luck--
they're driving us into the train station."
I looked, and by God if he wasn't right. They were
putting us on a bloody train!
A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord
directeth his steps.
The only possible fly in the ointment would be if
the damned train were headed east; but I had a gut
feeling it was headed straight into Los Angeles.
We couldn't avoid the steam-demons; they were
standing at the boarding ramp to the open cattle car
that was already starting to fill. Well, we'd decided to
take the first opportunity to get aboard, and this
surely was some sort of sign.
Those old nuns of mine were receiving a lot of
prayers from me lately. I could never imagine saints
or angels; so when I got in one of these moods, those
withered souls in black and gray habits played across
my memory. I used to think the nuns that taught me
were ugly old crones. With what I'd been seeing lately,
they had taken on a new beauty in my mind's eye.
My prayer was simple. Don't let fatboy get on with
us, please; pretty please with a Hail Mary on it.
It was easy to stay together; there wasn't any room
to be separated. We were packed in like the Tokyo
subway at rush hour. Of course, I realized that if we
were separated, we'd have the devil's own time trying
to get back together.
When all this was over, I thought I might give
religion another shake; as the door to the cattle car
closed, I saw that we weren't going to have to put up
with fatboy: it got onto another car.
"It's open in the back!" said Jill in surprise. At first
I made to silence her for fear we would attract
attention, but there was so much noise going on
around us that our words wouldn't be noticed over
the roaring and growling filling the narrow space. We
were being pushed toward the rear of the car, where
instead of a solid wall, there was an arrangement of
vertical wooden posts with horizontal metal slats
running through them.
"That's some window," Arlene commented.
"I see that none of you were brought up around
livestock," I said caustically. "It's a cattle car."
With a grinding sound, the train started forward
with a great lurch, throwing us into our rearward
neighbors, who growled and pushed us back. The
former humans who were now zombies did not be-
have nearly so well as humans would have; some
responded to being jostled by firing off a few shots.
"Great!" shouted Arlene.
"If this escalates, we'll be wiped out in here!" I
"What can we do about it?"
"Nothing!" I admitted. Time again to trust to luck.
The nuns must have been working overtime, because
the shots suddenly ceased. I glanced over and saw
Albert with his eyes closed, moving his lips silently. I
supposed that if praying was going to save us, this was
a job for the pro.
Jill grabbed the back of my pants; it was a good
idea--I grabbed Arlene, and she caught Albert.
We traveled past several small towns that evidently
held little of interest. The night sky had a weird glow,
but I still preferred it to the return of day, if that
sickening green sky was waiting for us. It was too dark
to make out details, but occasionally we saw fires
burning on the horizon, funeral pyres to mark the
passing of humanity. We finally came to a violent stop
and there was more jostling. Our luck was still with
us; the gunshots did not resume.
"Damn, I wish we could see through the door," I
said. Behind us was a splendid view of a smashed
building and a nice stretch of barren countryside; but
heavy sounds in front of us indicated some action.
"The designers must not care if the cows are well-
informed," said Arlene.
As if in answer to my request, the heavy wooden
door in the side of the train was pushed open to
unpack some zombies, and we were greeted by a sight
you don't see every day. A contingent of steam-
demons was being herded by a spidermind. They were
guarding what appeared to be a truck dolly in which a
human form was wrapped up in bandages from head
to toe. There was a slit for his eyes, but that didn't
help tell us anything about the man or woman
propped up on the dolly; we could only assume this
was a human because there were straps across the
figure--a dead giveaway that he was a prisoner.
The sight made me remember Bill Ritch. The only
human they would take care to preserve with his mind
intact was a human with knowledge they needed and
couldn't extract without destroying . . . which meant
that here was someone else we should either rescue or
kill. He couldn't be left in the hands of the enemy,
giving them whatever they needed. They marched
forward out of sight, the steam-demons tramping in
eerie, mechanical lockstep.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Arlene
bellowed at me.
"Loud and clear!"
"They've got their tentacles on another of our tech
"Listen up!" I screamed. "Have plan!" They gave
me their undivided attention, easy to do in such
cramped quarters. "Grab guy! Run!"
Arlene rolled her eyes, unimpressed.
"How--move?" shouted Jill.
While we considered the strengths and weaknesses
of our position, the monsters took the bandaged figure
toward the front of the train. Although we couldn't
see very well, it was easy to figure out what happened
The train started up again, having received its
"Forward!" I screamed. "Make path!"
Jill wriggled her hand slowly out to where she was
able to extend her fingers and ... the best way to
describe it was that she goosed the zombie-woman in
front of her. The nervous system of a zombie isn't
great shakes compared to when it was alive, but there
were sufficient sparks left to kindle into fire.
The zombie-woman didn't jump or make any sort
of exclamation; but she did move forward with suffi-
cient force to dislodge the smaller male taking up
space right in front of her.
Jill let Albert get in front of her. He had a lot of
mass and widened Jill's narrow opening. The ob-
jective was clear: push forward to the connection
between the cars. With the speed of a snail we
inched forward. I figured that so long as we didn't piss
off any of them enough to shoot at us, we were doing
Just about then, one of the zombies took a potshot.
I didn't see any particular reason for it; but what was I
doing, trying to apply reason to zombie behavior?
The bullet struck another zombie in the throat, and
it went down gurgling. We were packed so tightly, like
Norwegian sardines, that further attempts at argu-
ment by projectile would probably annihilate the
population of the cattle car.
Jill drew the small .38 caliber revolver we'd given
her and looked scared and determined both at the
"Hold your fire, Jill!" I shouted. She didn't make
me repeat it. The zombie with the itchy finger kept
firing wildly and suddenly connected with a point
where a metal slat and wooden post came together. A
heavy zombie near to the point of impact fell back
against the weakened spot and suddenly went right
through, leaving a huge hole big enough for even
Albert to fit through.
"New plan!" I bellowed.
By now the train was up to speed again,
smoking along at 300, 3ilometers per hour. At
this speed, the wind could be considered a refreshing
deluxe feature for the typical bovine passenger. As I
attempted to squirm through the opening, I quickly
learned that a typhoon-strength head wind could slow
down the most dedicated Marine.
The main thing was not to drop my shotgun as I
climbed on the sill, leaned out into the hurricane, and
stretched up until I reached the railing along the
outside top of the train. I hoped the zombies wouldn't
pay any attention to this latest change in their envi-
ronment. At some level they were still human enough
to resent this ridiculous crowding, or they wouldn't be
exchanging shots. Maybe our team would rate zombie
gratitude for giving them elbow room.
While standing on the sill, leaning forward into the
wind, holding the railing, I reached down to help
Arlene. Her slim, dry hand slipped into my sweaty
paw, and I noted that it was cold. Arlene always had
trouble keeping her extremities warm. I hoisted her
out and up to the roof, where she hooked her legs to
hang on so she could lean back down. Then Arlene
helped me take care of Jill.
I didn't blame Jill for being terrified. But I was
surprised when she started shaking. Or maybe it was
just the train rocking violently back and forth. I guess
this would be an experience to write home about, if
there were still a home. No matter how brave and
grown-up this fourteen-year-old wanted to be, she was
having one wild-ass situation after another thrown at
her and had to handle each without benefit of
The terror in her eyes didn't prevent her doing what
she had to do, and I didn't pay attention to the tears.
The angle was bad, but Jill weighed almost nothing--
and I heaved a sigh of relief as I finished handing her
up to Arlene.
Albert was a problem. He was a big guy and not as
gymnastically oriented as Yours Truly. Arlene and Jill
attached webbing to the railing, then attached it to
Arlene. The webbing is extraordinarily strong, able to
hold tons before ripping. We didn't go into hell
without taking some decent equipment! No way was
Arlene going to fall with that stuff on her.
Now Arlene and I could help Albert up. It was a lot
easier than blowing away a steam-demon.
We might even have enjoyed our time on the roof if
not for the hurricane head wind. It smelled a whole
lot better than inside.
We lay on our bellies, and a ferocious gale battered
us. But we weren't blown off; in fact, we could stand
shakily, leaning into the wind. I figured there must be
some sort of air dam up front, otherwise, 3ph
would have swatted a standing man off the top of that
train like finger-flicking a fly.
"Listen up!" I shouted against the gale. "Single-file!
Forward! Slowly! Don't fall!"
Arlene put her mouth right up to my ear. "How far
"Two hours--dawn--rescue human or kill him!"
"What?" screamed Jill, clearly horrified. She was
plenty loud enough to be heard. There was no need to
explain to two old soldiers like Arlene and Albert. I'd
stopped thinking of Jill as a young teen, but there was
no getting around the fact that she was a civilian.
"Death better than fate!" God only knew how
much she heard, but she clenched her teeth and said
nothing more. The brutal arithmetic inside my head
could wait for another time; I hoped she would never
have to decide who lives and who dies. Sometimes I
There was nothing else to say. Besides, we'd all be
hoarse from shouting if we didn't shut up.
I went first; it was my party. I set the pace nice and
slow. It took nearly a quarter hour to crawl the length
of the train; fortunately, the track through Arizona
was pretty straight. But the natural swaying of the cars
could still hurl any of us to certain death; the rails
were laid for cargo, not passengers.
I looked back frequently; we didn't lose anybody.
Next stop: Relief City! Two cars ahead was the flatcar
with a complement of one spidermind, one steam-
demon, and one human wrapped like a Christmas
mummy and strapped down tight. The spidermind
was between us and the human, the steam-demon on
the other side.
It occurred to me that these superior examples of
alien monster-building might sniff us out better than
the lesser breeds; and the wind did a lot to erase our
lemon odor. In our favor, we were way downwind.
The wind was so damned loud, I didn't think they
could hear us either.
I gestured to Arlene. Time for the Deimos veterans
to do their stuff. We crawled closer, where I could see
a very narrow gap between the cars . . . too narrow
for the adults.
I noted the fact that the spidermind was so big, a
couple of its right feet dangled limply over the side of
the flatcar . . . and that gave me an idea.
But it was too narrow for the adults. Only Jill could
Oh man, this was my nightmare come true. It was
never supposed to be a walk for the kid--but this?
Throw the raw recruit, not even driving age yet, into
the meat grinder against a spidermind and a steam-
demon? It was criminal . . . homicidal!
But what were the options? Not even Arlene could
squeeze into that slender space; she probably out-
weighed Jill by forty pounds. They were like two
different species, and thinking of me or Albert down
there was a joke.
Feeling my gut clench, as well as another part of my
anatomy, I said to myself: Time for the recruit to do
The levity didn't work. I still felt sick.
We crawled back and huddled with the others in the
gap between two cattle cars full of zombies, where we
could hear each other, at least. I felt like a class-A
creep giving Jill her assignment; but nobody else
could do it. Anyway, the kid seemed eager, not afraid.
She'd make a good Marine. Did I say that before?
This time, my plan had more details: Jill would
shimmy down into the tiny gap between the two cars,
using some of the webbing. "Just like Spider-man!"
she said. Well, whatever. We'd use all the positive
fantasy images floating in her mind. She had to
believe in herself absolutely to pull this off.
If they spotted Jill, she'd be dead meat, and the rest
of us with her. Once she made it into the gap, she
would very carefully loop the webbing several times
over the nearest limb of the spidermind and pull it
tight--without allowing the spidermind to notice it
was being hobbled. She would attach the other end of
the webbing to the titanium grappling hook the Presi-
dent had included in Albert's gear. We could do that
before she started out. We'd lose the hook and some
of our webbing, but with luck, we'd lose the
spidermind as well.
"If she makes it that far," I said, wrapping up, "she
drops the hook to the ground beneath the wheels and
ducks, waiting for it to catch on a tie or something."
"And that gross bug gets yanked off!" she said,
grokking the plan immediately. "Gnarly idea, Fly!"
I let her savor the image of the alien brain scattered
across the countryside. Slamming into the car behind
at better'n 300 per ought to do the trick nicely, and
"Spider-ma'am" would defeat the spider creep with a
thick dose of poetic justice.
Now all we had to do was make it work.
While Arlene and Albert prepared the hook and
line, Jill let me wrap it around her waist. She asked
me to do it personally. That meant a lot to me. Then I
gave her a gentle push forward and hoped Albert's
God wouldn't choose this moment to desert us. I put
in a good word for Jill with the nuns as well.
Jill climbed down the side of the car we were on,
two cars back from the flatcar. So far, so good. I
climbed down after her.
We crept forward at wheel level, crawling alongside
spinning death so slowly, it made our previous trek
along the roof seem like a drag race. Mother Mary, I
thought, please don't let there be any fence posts too
close to the tracks!
We very carefully worked our way around the
wheels; but if we were any higher up the train, the
spidermind might have us in its sights. Hunkering
down at wheel level, we were hidden by the side of the
There was enough light to keep Jill in my personal
viewfinder every step of the way. I imagined her
knuckles were white. Mine sure as hell were. I kept
pressed right up against her back, my arms on either
side of hers to make sure she didn't slip. We finally got
to the edge of the flatcar; now the show was entirely
Jill's, and all I could do was hang and wait.
Cheese and rice, I felt like a weenie when he
took me outside the train. I swore myself I wouldn't
eff-up any more. For the mome, Fly respected me, and
Arlene too. I didn't care so much about Albert, but he
was all right for one of the LDs.
Now was my chance to prove to everyone! Maybe I
almost wrecked the truck when those missiles went
through, and maybe they don't know how close they
came to being hosed. But if I pulled this off, I'd make
up for everything! Plus I'd pay back one of those
crawly bastards for what they did to my mom. And
He was right, the slot was a tight fit, even for me;
but I could wiggle through. I don't know what they
would have done without me for this. As I slid along, I
got grease on me. Gagged me out at first, but then I
was glad, cuz it made me more slippery. Huh, like to
see one of those wimp LD girls do this! She'd faint,
and the human race would lose the war.
Suddenly, I saw a thin, silver thing sticking over the
edge. Got wide on the end. I didn't recognize it at
first, seeing it so close up. Then I gasped--it was a
spidermind foot! It was bigger than I thought. It was
bigger than / was!
The end of the foot fluffed out like bell-bottom
pants, like my grandparents wore, like on the Brady
Bunch. God, I was glad they didn't live to see the
monsters kill their children.
I stretched, flipping the webbing, trying to loop the
foot; but I couldn't reach that far! That PO'ed me--I
was going to dweeb-out just cuz my arms weren't like
Then the leg twitched. I screamed and jumped--
I slipped down, banging my knee and barely catch-
ing the edge of the flat thing . . . my face was an inch
from the tracks.
Oh Lord--the wind blew off the ties, freezing my
cheeks, and I smelled smoke. I think I even . . . well,
peed my pants. Shaking like a leaf, I hauled myself
back up. I spared a glance back at Fly; he looked like
he might have peed his pants too. I shrugged--sorry!
I'm sorry, but hacking systems would never seem
serious after this. Just a toy. This was real. I knew I
was taking a big chance, but there was no way else to
reach the foot: I rested my knee on the bed of the
flatcar and stretched higher, and then I could reach
The spider moved again! I wasn't able to get back
down before the leg pinned me back against the
firewall of the car behind. I was stuck like a fly in the
I didn't make a sound; I could barely breathe, but I
didn't panic this time--I didn't have any you-know-
what left. It didn't know I was there ... so I hung.
It would kill me the second it realized I was there,
same way I'd crush a bug; I was still alive because I
was hidden from view by the huge leg itself. 'Course,
it might kill me without ever knowing I was there; if it
put its weight on that foot, it would pulverize me.
The place where it had me firmest against the wall
was at my knee. The upper part of my body could still
move. I still had a good reach. So I did what I came to
do. I didn't let myself think what would happen if I
I passed the webbing four times around the leg. My
heart froze each time. I was in Girl Scouts once; the
only thing they taught me that I still remember was
how to tie a square knot. I tied the best buggin' square
knot of my whole life!
Great. What next? Next you die, girl.
I thought I would cry, but my eyes were dry. My
mouth was parched and my heart raced, but that was
all. When I thought about all the stupid things we cry
about, like boys and grades and losing a best girl-
friend, it seemed strange I didn't cry then.
Then something happened inside. I felt calm for the
first time since I saw the monsters. I didn't mind
dying if I could take one bastard with me. A big one.
I unslung the grappling hook and let it dangle
between the cars. Pinned against the wall, I wouldn't
be able to duck down. Once I dropped the hook, the
spider would be yanked to a stop as the train kept
moving, and I would be crushed to a grease smear.
Thought about my new friends. Thought about
what if Fly had kissed me. Thought about wishing I
was anywhere else. Then I let go of the hook.
I didn't know what was going on with Jill,
couldn't see a thing. She fell and screamed, and I'd
popped around and seen her half under the track;
then the spidermind shifted and I had to leap back.
Now I didn't dare show myself--I'd get us both
I thought Jill would have finished by now. I'd bet
money she wouldn't lose her nerve. Either she was
still waiting for an opening, or something had gone
Then I heard the heavy thud and metal-scraping
sound that could only be the hook dropping under the
train. It bounced up and down, over and over, while I
waited and waited and waited for that big mother
with the brain and the legs to be yanked into oblivion.
What happened next was so stupid and unlikely, it
was like crapping out ten times in a row: the damned
hook bounced up and hooked onto the train itself!
The little voice in the back of my head I hadn't
heard from recently chose this moment to speak to
me in the voice of an old kids' science show: So,
Flynn, what have we learned from today's experiment?
Well, Mr. Wizard, we've learned that if the train is
moving at the same speed as the spider-bastard, abso-
lutely nothing will happen!
I humped back hand over hand, ducking down to
check under the train, looking for the hook. Saw it! I
slid through the train's shock absorbers. Time for
more help from the nuns. If we hit a bump, the shocks
would slice me in half. Suddenly, the train itself
seemed like one of the monsters.
I made it through, then slid along the undercarriage
on my back across the covered axles, under the train,
until I could reach the flippin' hook. The damned
thing was caught on an Abel.
I reached for the sucker and succeeded in touching
it. Yep, there it was. Touching it was a cinch. I could
touch it all I wanted without falling onto the track and
being ground to hobo stew.
Getting it loose was the problem.
Once upon a time, I won a trophy in junior high
gymnastics; there were only five of us, but I was the
best in that class. I thought I was pretty hot stuff that
day. Looked to be the moment for an encore perfor-
I went looser with the legs, increasing the possibility
of falling but giving me a longer reach. I didn't want
to perform this trick more than once.
Not only did this stunt run the risk of my becoming
part of the track, there was the extra worry of losing
the duck gun dangling precariously from my back.
Not having my weapon could be as close to a death
sentence as getting run over by the Little Train that
I got my hand around the hook, heaved, and yanked
it free. I did a war whoop worthy of a Comanche . . .
then I shut my eyes--I hate the sight of my own
bloody, mangled corpse--and dropped the thing to
This time the law of averages was enforced by the
probability police. The hook caught on a spar and
held. I gripped my perch and braced for impact.
I clenched my whole body as the webbing
tightened--then the freaking stuff broke. It wasn't
supposed to do that! The end whipped like an enraged
snake, lashing across my back. But I didn't let go.
I waited for the sound of that massive body being
yanked to its doom. Still there was plenty of nothing.
This was becoming irritating. But there was some-
thing: despite the howling of the wind and the ma-
chine pounding of steel wheels on steel rails, I heard a
high, piping squeal. It sounded like a scream from
As I began clambering back through the shocks and
up the side of the train, I heard explosions. Something
was happening. I climbed faster ... to be greeted by
the scene of the steam-demon shooting its missiles at
the spidermind. The latter was at a disadvantage,
listing as it moved, badly off balance.
The webbing had torn one leg off the monstrosity. It
didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what
happened next. Losing a leg would put the
spidermind in a bad mood. It wouldn't be philosophi-
cal about it. No, it would fire a burst from its guns at
the only target in sight: the steam-demon.
For all their power, these guys had a weakness as
deep as the ocean. Conquerors and masters need
My primary goal now was to find Jill and get her
out of here; but I didn't see her from this angle. She
was probably still hugging the other side of the flatcar
where she had lassoed the spidermind's leg.
The train hit a bad bump, exactly the impact that
would have left me beside myself when 1 was doing
my Tarzan of the shocks routine. The two monsters
took the bump personally and increased the ferocity
of the battle. I realized the high piping sound was
from the spider--it probably made the noise when it
lost its leg. The steam-demon emitted more human-
The wind seemed to be picking up, but neither
contestant paid any attention to the weather. As I
watched the spidermind tear up the steam-demon
with a nonstop barrage from the Gatling gun, I
remembered how difficult Arlene and I had found
taking one of these down before. The demon was
nothing compared to the other.
But if there were a cosmic bookie keeping tabs on
this one, the final decision was still in doubt. The
steam-demon followed the optimum strategy for his
position, firing missile after missile at the robot
exterior to the spidermind's brain. Cracks were begin-
ning to appear.
I stayed put, praying for the best possible outcome.
By the time the spidermind's brain case finally ex-
ploded, the steam-demon was so ripped it could
barely stand. Under the circumstances, things were
working out better than the original plan. After all, if
the spidermind had been eliminated as intended, we
would still have had to contend with the problem of
While I was congratulating myself on the turn of
events, the train took a sudden turn and the tottering,
cybernetic creature nearly fell off the flatcar. That
would have been the perfect climax to the duel of the
Dawn started to streak the horizon with a sickening
shade of green. The improved light made it much
easier to pick out details of the local terrain; such as
the high rock gorge we were just then passing over,
thanks to a narrow bridge. This would be a splendid
place for the steam-demon to take its final rest. The
perfect end, as I'd already thought, to the perfect
battle. Then I could find Jill and congratulate her on a
mission well done.
The only flaw in this scenario consisted of a single
claw--the claw the steam-demon used to grab hold
and save itself as it fell right next to me. Right next to
It was bad enough seeing the demon this close up.
Far worse . . . it saw me. As weak and near death as
the thing was, it recognized a living human a few
inches away. Very slowly, it raised its missile hand.
It was slow; I was a whole lot faster. I back-drew my
double-barreled shotgun and fired both barrels, one-
handed, squeezing both triggers simultaneously.
Quite a kick. The blast tore off its entire hand at the
wrist... the gripping hand.
The steam-demon plummeted off the car to the
ground, exploding noisily as it got off one last missile
shot that went straight up through the track ahead of
the train, in between the rails, right on a curve in the
The train didn't bother slowing as it rolled over the
missile-damaged point. I could imagine a cartoon
demon with an engineer's cap, throwing back a shot
of the good old hooch and not worrying about the
condition of the track ahead.
As we passed, I saw in greenish daylight growing
brighter by the minute that part of the inside rail was
bent up from the blast. If it had been the outside rail
instead, we would have plunged into the gorge. The
President of the Twelve would've needed to audition a
"Jill!" I howled. "Jill!" Climbing up to the flatcar
was easy, but I suddenly had a cramp deep in my
back. It was so bad that it paralyzed me for a moment.
I wouldn't let something like that stop me now. I
twisting around trying to loosen up, still calling, "Jill,
Where the hell was that kid? I was starting to
I reached the end of the flatcar, looked down . . .
and saw her there, gazing up at me with wide eyes.
"You all right?"
She nodded, but not a word came out. Maybe she
was suffering from shock. I reached down and she
took my hand. I didn't care about the twinge in my
back now. I hauled her up.
"Great!" I said.
"Oh." She still seemed not entirely sure.
I grabbed and hoisted her. Now my back felt fine,
and for a crazy moment the sick-o green dawn looked
I put her down. The mummy and we were alone on
the flatcar now.
A warm glow spread through me, not unlike the
warm jet of a hot tub. My old voice spoke, something
good for once: The debt is nearly paid.
What debt? Oh. The debt of my stupidity in bring-
ing assault onto the enclave.
"Wait here." I could have sent her up the ladder to
signal the others to join us, but she had earned a rest
as far as I was concerned. Her vacation from hell
might not last longer than a few minutes, but I wanted
her to enjoy every second before I ordered her to face
death yet again. I got them myself, bringing them to
the cacophonous flatcar.
Arlene and Albert looked as exhausted as Jill, and
as tired as I felt. Next time, we'd fly.
Arlene bent over and began unwrapping, revealing
the face of another human in a world where being
human was something special.
Huddling against the forty or fifty kilometer per
hour wind that leaked around the engines and air dam
ahead of us, remnants of the 3ph hurricane two
meters either left or right, we crouched over our
mummy, staring. We saw the features of a black man,
mid-thirties. As we shifted him around on the plat-
form, I estimated his weight at about sixty-four kilos.
Not a bad weight for 1.7 meters.
"What done him?" Jill shouted. A good question,
though I could barely hear her small voice over the
roar of train and wind. Computer and electronic jacks
were all over his flesh, stuck like pins into a doll. He
was unconscious. There were so many jacks, he'd
probably be in extreme pain if awake.
Arlene pulled the lid back from his right eye,
revealing a cloudy white orb, so completely glazed
over that you couldn't make out a pupil. Even after
encountering a who's who of monsters, fiends, and
other denizens of hell, something really bothered me
about seeing this helpless man before me.
He didn't reek like sour lemons, thank God. He was
I still hadn't discussed with Jill or Albert what
Arlene and I had mulled over--namely, the possibili-
ty that the Bad Guys were trying for more perfect
human duplicates. Practice makes perfect. We had no
idea how the zombies were created. Sometimes I
thought they really were the reanimated dead; but
other times I could buy the idea they were trans-
formed while still alive. However the enemy was
doing it, the lemon stink was a by-product of dealing
with real human bodies.
If the enemy ever made perfect human copies from
scratch, there would be no lemon smell, or anything
else to give them away.
Arlene tried various methods of waking up the
man, even slapping him in the face, but nothing
worked. She looked at me and shrugged.
Jill reached out and gingerly touched one of the
jacks sticking out from the man's flesh. She managed
to look crafty and thoughtful, even with her red hair
whipping around her face like a brushfire.
She fingered the jack again and scowled.
Then Jill looked at me and mimed typing on a
keyboard. She raised her brows. What. . . ? I blinked;
light finally dawned on marblehead. She wanted to
hack this guy's brain?
Well why the hell not?
We all crowded around the mummy, making a
windbreak for Jill. Leaning so close, I could actually
make out a few words. "Need--jack--find out
what--wants to fight--can't promise it'll--might be
the break . . ."
I couldn't hear everything, but I got the gist.
The real question was what on earth was inside that
brain that was worth the protection of a spidermind
and a handful of steam-demons? Back on Phobos and
Deimos, the alien technology we had seen was differ-
ent, biological somehow. They used cyborgs, combi-
nation biological-mechanical, like the spidermind it-
self. Was that what this dude was, some sort of link
between humans and alien technology?
Or the other way around?
Well, whatever. We weren't going to find out any-
thing in a wind tunnel. . . somehow, some way, we
simply had to get this guy off the damned train.
Somehow I doubted we could just ring the bell and
say "Next stop, conductor."
I hoped the cybermummy would be enough of a son
of a bitch to join us when we unwrapped him.
"Vacation over!" I bellowed over the gale. "War
on!" Arlene gave me a dirty look, so I knew that the
awesome responsibility of command still rested on
The man seemed physically manhandled and
bruised, but not seriously damaged, except for their
attempt to transform him into an appliance. The
question was, how would we get him off the train?
If we waited until we rolled into the station in L.A.,
I could imagine a slight difficulty in persuading a large
contingent of, say, steam-demons into helping us with
our cargo. The absence of the spidermind from the
flatcar would take a bit of explaining as well. We
lacked the firepower to make our argument com-
"Suggestion," rumbled Albert. It was hard to pick
out his words; the timbre of his voice was too close to
the throb of the engines, and he wasn't a good
shouter. No practice, probably. I only caught some of
what he said and wasn't too sure about what I did
"Father--trains! Trick or treat--Jill's age--
incorrect car--aggravates--emerging break . . . !"
I stared, trying to parse the incomprehensible
"plan." Trick or treat? Jill's age aggravates the emerg-
Or was that brake--emergency brake! Something
about an emergency brake.
He tried again: "Couple of cars!" he hollered.
Couple of car. Cars? No, car ... couple-car.
I smacked my forehead. Decouple the car. Which
must activate, not aggravate, the emergency brake.
Jesus and Mary! What a nightmare; a loud one!
That seemed like a plenty good plan to Yours Truly.
Hauling the mummy up to the semiprotected roof,
we staggered overhead toward the last car; that's the
one we would decouple. The train was going as fast as
before, but we humped a lot faster along the roof this
time. Killing the spidermind and steam-demon
worked wonders for our self-confidence. Jill's attitude
was so changed that I could probably dangle her over
the edge, holding onto her ankles, without her show-
ing a quiver, though I was glad we didn't require such
There were three cattle cars, which we had to pass
by creeping along the sides, centimeters away from
staring zombies. I thought sure they'd start shooting
at us--what a time to die! At least the demons
wouldn't keep their mummy.
But the reworked humans merely stared with malig-
nant stupidity. They'd been given no orders, you see
. . .just like bureaucrats at the Pentagod.
When we reached the last car, an enclosed cargo
car, I looked down through the slatted roof to see that
the interior was stuffed with zombies. As expected.
Albert slid down between the cars in search of the
emergency decoupler. After checking it, he climbed
back up and shouted, "When?"
Another good question. We didn't want to be stuck
in the middle of the desert. If we hung until the
suburbs of L.A., we should be able to hold our own
combatwise and be close enough to supplies, shelter,
and other transportation.
I tried to remember the L.A. geography. "River-
side!" I shouted. That is, assuming the train passed
through Riverside. If not, any eastern bedroom com-
munity would do.
Seeing was considerably easier in the daylight, even
in the pale green light. For the moment, I didn't even
mind the greenish hue of an alien sky. Get rid of these
damned invaders, and we could look up at the natural
color of blue minus the gray haze for which L.A. was
famous. It would take a lot of work increasing the
population to get everything back to normal, but it
would be a satisfying challenge.
"Single!" hollered Albert. Why was he telling me
that? "Single in couple!" Whoops--signal when he
should decouple the car. He climbed back down.
Arlene tossed me a faint nod and half smile, then
gingerly slithered down the ladder and joined him.
Fly was too good a friend for me not to be
honest with him. But I was so surprised how fast
things were going that there wasn't anything for me to
say. Who could talk in this breeze, anyway?
Fly, like most guys, made certain assumptions
about women. When we decided just to be friends, I
expected a certain strain. But we were pals, buddies,
comrades. I liked it that way.
But bring another man into the picture, and there
are consequences. Fly was a big brother. He never did
take to Willie; and I don't think he ever thought
there'd be the slightest chance I'd ever fall for a
religious dude--especially a Mormon!
"Fall" was a bad image. I squeezed down between
the surging cars, watching the river of brown streaks
racing below us as the ground sped past. Albert stood
on the metal tongue-thing that held the cars together;
he kept switching his grip back and forth as the cars
shimmied. I never realized they moved that much.
I was falling for Albert. Crazy, buggin', retarded.
Nothing short of the end of the world could have
brought this about.
One "end-of-the-world," order up! Maybe we could
reverse what had happened and give the human race a
reason to go on living. Survivors. Those who refused
to go down until the fat monster sang.
On Phobos, I thought I might be the only human
being left alive in the universe. Then on Deimos, I
thought Fly and I might be the only two human
However few there were on Earth to stand against
the invader, all that mattered was that Fly and I were
no longer alone. And looking down on the wide
shoulders of my new friend, I hoped I'd be "un-alone"
in other ways too.
Drawing near, I saw his lips moving, reciting words
that could have been from the Bible for all I knew.
Some kind of prayer, I reckoned; it seemed to calm
him, give him courage. Guess there's some good in
religion after all, if you knew where to look.
I wondered if he had the entire Book of Mormon
memorized, or just the "good parts," the passages
that suited his prejudice? I knew, somehow, that
Albert wasn't like that--maybe the first guy I ever
met who guided his lifestyle by his faith, instead of
the other way around.
He stopped, looked up at me and smiled. With an
opening like that, he could hardly blame me for taking
the next step farther down the ladder.
"Albert!" I shrieked. He said something, but I
couldn't hear him. I was probably embarrassing him.
That was nothing new for me when it came to
interpersonal relationships. "I find you really attract-
ive!" I bellowed romantically, secure in the knowl-
edge that he couldn't hear a damned word. Then I
shut up and listened to the train wheels.
"Something mumble something," he said. Damn,
he was embarrassed. But he pressed on, as brave with
me as he'd been with the monsters. Now why did I
make such a comparison? Typical, Arlene, I said to
myself; always your own worst critic.
I don't mean to make you uncomfortable, I silently
mouthed into the maelstrom.
He shook his head and shrugged, which might have
meant, I don't have the faintest idea what you're
saying . . . but I preferred to interpret it as Nonsense,
darling; my religion is really important to me, but so
are you--and I know how you feel about it,
He had me there. I didn't want to say anything right
then. Physical combat can be so much easier than the
other kind! I listened to the steady rhythm of the train
wheels pounding in my skull like a .50 caliber ma-
chine gun, drowning out even the 3ph typhoon we
rolled through. The irregular rattling sound of the
coupler, waiting for Albert's hands to reach down and
seize it, sounded like ground-to-air artillery.
I looked at the ground unfurling beneath us like a
giant banner; then I looked up at blurs that might be
trees or telephone poles, shading a dawn green as a
lime before it rotted and became zombie lotion.
"I can't give you what you want," I said at normal
speaking volume. Even I couldn't hear me.
He said nothing, but looked up shyly at me.
I liked him calling me beautiful. With his eyes, at
least. I liked it a lot. Being honest came more easily
now that we were both admitting our mutual attrac-
tion. Well, you know what I mean--this wasn't
exactly the best spot for a romantic conversation; but
I knew what he would be admitting if I could hear
It wasn't only that I had problems with his religion;
I didn't like any of them. I don't like turning over
moral authority to a bearded ghost that you can't find
when everything blows up.
Besides, we might not be compatible in other ways.
Hah, how pure Arlene that was! Telling the man I
wanted all the reasons why it would never work. I was
grateful that it was so noisy down here that Fly
couldn't hear a word. Time to shift from negatives to
"But Albert, we could give it a try," I said, not
caring that I was basically talking to the wind and the
wheels. He wasn't even looking at me at the moment,
concentrating on keeping his balance and not losing a
finger in the metal clacking thing.
"We could, like, date. You know, spend a few nights
together, if we live through this. Who knows? Some-
thing might happen."
Again he left me to contemplation of the train and
the terrain. He was obviously struggling over what I'd
said. It was pretty obvious that four forces were
fighting in him at this moment: morality, manners,
moi, and volume-comma-lack of.
Finally he worked up his nerve, craned his neck
again where he could look me in the eye and said,
"Something rumble something question mark?"
Now that was a conversation stopper. But I only let
it stop us for a moment. "You mean, you're a virgin?"
I asked, incredulous.
He tilted his head to the side; was that a yes?
"But you're a Marine!" I howled in amazement.
I burst out laughing at my own outburst. The
Church of the Marine loomed larger in my mind than
any competing firm.
Of course, there are Marines who remain loyal to
their wives or abstain from sex for religious reasons.
Hey, fornication is not part of the job description!
Amazing, but true. Still, the odds were against the
clean-living Marine. "You ever heard the phrase,
'There are no virgins in foxholes'?" I asked.
He watched my animated, one-sided dialogue--it
wasn't really a monologue--in puzzlement, tortured
soul that he was. I couldn't give up that easily. What
about the various ports and landing zones he must
have visited on his sea tour? Bombay, Madrid, Ma-
nila, Hong Kong, Calcutta, Kuwait City!
Albert smiled at me again. Progress! I had an
admission. I knew how I would conduct the cross-
examination: "So tell me, Mr. Marine Corps sniper,
did you never visit any of the local sex scenes? The
cages of Bombay that hang over the street, where you
have sex with a pross in full view? The port-pros in
Manila? The Hong Kong sex tours, where a soldier
with a few bucks in his pocket can visit a dozen
knocking shops in a day and a half? Kefiri City, with
more glory holes than any other . . . ?
You don't know? Uh, you place your you-know-
what through a hole in a wall and somebody on the
other side does, you know.
Yeah, maybe it was morals. Maybe he just didn't
want his gun to turn green and fall off.
The angle was probably tough on his neck, but he
swiveled his body a little so he could almost face me.
"Something jumble something interrogative?"
Me? Well no, not exactly. He stared at me awhile
longer. No, those places tend to be attractions for a
male Marine. What would I do with a glory hole, for
Heh, I could work the other side, theoretically. All
right; he might have been naive in some ways, but he
was a man of the world in others. The contradictions
in this big man appealed to me. He contained multi-
I reached out and touched his cheek, glad he didn't
pull away. I was afraid he might have been ready to
write me off as a Marine slut. No dice; I was a
responsible girl. . . responsible behavior in today's
world meant carry extra loads and sleep with both
eyes open. To quote everybody's third-favorite weird
German philosopher, Oswald Spengler:
Life, if it would be great, is hard; it demands a
choice only between victory and ruin, not be-
tween war and peace. And to the victors belong
the sacrifices of victory. For that which shuffles
querulously and jealously by the side of the
events is only literature.
Hey, that could be our first date! We hurl quota-
tions at each other from thirty paces!
Riverside was coming up fast, so I took
another look down at Arlene and Albert. They
seemed to be carrying on a deeply meaningful conver-
sation, though the Blessed Virgin only knew how they
could possibly hear each other over that racket. It
seemed impolite to stare, so I focused my attention on
the horizon. There was a war to fight, a war to fight.
"Albert! Now!" I boomed at peak volume as the
town raced up to greet us. Albert and Arlene started
yanking on a lever atop the coupler. They heaved
again and again, until I thought we'd be cruising into
Grand Central before they got the bloody thing un-
hooked. Then it cracked open and the cars separated
with an explosive bang.
The pneumatic brakes activated automatically,
slowing the loose car we were on while the rest of the
train sped on, oblivious, impervious. I wondered if
the aliens would even notice that a car was missing.
We destroyed the spidermind; did they have enough
initiative even to count?
We braked toward a stop, more or less terrifyingly.
The rails screamed, the car rocked and rolled. Jill held
on for dear life, looking as green as the sky. Arlene
and Albert kicked back, cool to the max. I was too
busy watching everybody else to notice whether I was
cool or freaked: I didn't want one of my crew to fall
under the wheels and be crushed to death without me
being instantly aware of it.
I couldn't bring myself to abandon the car without
expressing an opinion on the zombies sardine-canned
below. I positioned myself and fired a bunch of
rounds through the roof slats. This riled them up, and
they behaved in the approved manner. They attacked
each other with mindless ferocity.
As the car came to a complete stop, Albert and I
managed the cybermummy between us quite easily.
We hopped down and bolted for cover in an alley.
The streets of Riverside were like the valleys of a
lost civilization or the canyons of a mysterious planet.
We beat cleats up and down to throw off any alien
Although deep in the heart of enemy territory,
surrounded by more monsters than at any other time
since returning to Earth, it was a relief to be off the
train. I didn't know about the others, but I was
for solid ground underfoot again.
There was no way to tell what were the mummy's
requirements for life support. Perhaps with an IV he
could survive indefinitely in his present condition;
but there was no way for us to be certain without
Meanwhile, Arlene and Jill took point and tail,
respectively. We were at the part of the mission where
we were truly interchangeable, except for the necessi-
ty of keeping Jill alive until she could do her computer
trick. Nowhere was safer than anywhere else.
We whisked through street and alley, avoiding
patrols of roving monsters. We ran, carrying the
mummy like old bedclothes between us. Putting the
mummy down for a moment, Albert pointedly asked
of Jill, "Are there any safe houses around here?"
Digging into her pack, Jill produced that small,
portable computer, the CompMac ultramicro, more
compact than any I'd seen before.
"Where'd you get that?" asked Arlene.
Jill answered with a lot of pride: "Underground
special--built by the Church. You can get inventions
out fast when you don't have to worry about FCC regs
and product liability lawsuits."
She called up her safe-house program and then told
all of us to look away. I doubted that I'd turn to stone
if I didn't comply. Anyway, I complied . . . and lis-
tened to her type in about thirty characters--her key
code, obviously. When she was finished, I looked at
her again as she scrutinized her screen.
She nodded and pressed her lips firmly together, a
sure sign in my book of Mission Accomplished.
"There's a safe house about a mile from here on
Paglia Place," she said. Then she called up a map of
Riverside and showed the rest of the route the pro-
"I see a problem with part of this," said Arlene.
"The route goes within a couple of blocks of an old
IRS field office where I used to deliver papers while I
was a courier."
"Courier? What for?" asked Jill.
"For two years of college."
"Minimum wage. Fifteen per hour, OldBucks."
"No, I mean what degree!"
"Oh. A.A. in engineering and computer program-
ming," answered Arlene, embarrassed. I could imag-
ine why. Arlene's degree must seem awfully trivial
compared to what Jill had picked up on her own.
Jill nodded. "Hip," she said, without dissing my
pal, for which I was grateful. The gal was a pretty
grown-up fourteen-year-old, astute enough to recog-
nize that Arlene was very touchy about only going to a
two-year college. She couldn't afford any longer.
We followed the revised route Arlene traced.
I had some advice that nobody wanted to hear:
"Fly's prime directive is not to use firearms unless ab-
Jill was the first critic. "But Fly, it's not like they're
"Using martial arts might only entertain them,"
Arlene added. "I'm not even sure a shiv would bother
them, assuming you can find their ribs to stick it
"Is everyone finished?" I asked, a bit impatiently.
"I'm not getting all liberal; I mean the wrong noise at
the wrong moment could bring down a horde on our
"Oh, why didn't you say so?"
I wished there were a quick course I could take in
monster aikido; failing that, I'd settle for learning
where they kept their glass jaws, so a quick uppercut
could do the trick.
We padded up dark alleys and narrow streets,
trying to stay out of the sun. After a couple of klicks,
Arlene suddenly stopped cold. When the Marine
taking point does that, it's time for everyone to play
Living Statue. We froze and waited.
Jill, for all her fighting instincts, didn't have the
training. She started to ask what was wrong, but I
clamped a hand over her mouth. Arlene continued
facing forward but gestured behind her for the rest of
us to backtrack. We did it very slowly; whatever it was
hadn't noticed us yet, and I aimed to keep it that way.
We backed up about a hundred meters before she let
out her breath.
"Remember the fatty we saw back at the train
depot?" she asked. "We just bumped into its older,
We'd been so busy that I never got around to getting
her to name that mobile tub of lard; but I instantly
knew the creature she meant. I'd hoped that maybe
the thing was an exception to the rule, an accident
rather than a standard design. I preferred fighting
monsters that didn't make me sick.
"I thought it was a huge pile of garbage," Arlene
Blinking into the darkness ahead, I finally made out
a huge shadow shifting among the other shadows. The
thing roused itself with the sound of tons and tons of
wet burlap dragged across concrete. It stood to a
height of two meters, only my height actually, but
weighing at least four hundred kilos. The density and
width of the thing was incredible.
The fatty--if we lived through this one, I hoped I
could talk Arlene into a better name--made slush-
slush sounds as it moved. It was probably leaving
something disgusting behind it, like a snail track. In
the massive, shapeless, metal paws that encased or
replaced its hands, the fatty held some kind of weird,
The thing wasn't facing us. It stood sideways, trying
to figure out from which direction had come the noise
disturbing its repose. Then it turned away from us,
giving us an unobstructed view of its mottled, dis-
gusting back. It made a horrible, rasping noise that I
guessed was the sound of its breathing.
I pointed in the other direction . . . but just then we
heard stomping feet approaching up the block that
way. A troop of monsters. Just what we needed!
They were led by a bony. If we didn't know how
dangerous it could be, it would seem sort of funny,
leading them with that jerking-puppet gait.
There was nothing amusing about being trapped
between a fatty in front and the Ghoul Club behind,
between hammer and anvil, with no side streets or
doors to duck into.
Albert sighed. I watched his shoulders untense. He
unslung his weapon with casual ease, as though he had
all the time in the world; which in a way he did. He
was ready to die for the "cause," whether that was us
or the rest of whatever.
Me, I was ready to live for mine.
Jill's face went utterly white, but she didn't give any
indication of bugging. After the flatcar, she was a
seasoned vet. Like the rest of us, she had that special
feeling of living on borrowed time. She clutched the
ultramicro to her chest, more upset about failing than
dying. She contemplated our mummy with regret;
she'd never get the hack of a lifetime!
Arlene whispered "Cross fire" a nanosecond before
it occurred to me. Darting into the middle of the
street, we had the bony in our sights. It stopped and
immediately bent at the waist and fired its shoulder
rockets. I hit the deck and Arlene dodged left. The
rockets sailed over my head, one of them bursting
against the big, brown back of the fatty.
Enraged, the fatty located the source of this scurril-
ous, unprovoked attack. It raised both arms and fired
three gigantic, flaming balls of white phosphorous at
The center ball hit, but the other two spread,
striking other members of the bony's entourage, fry-
ing them instantly.
The surviving members were no happier than the
fatty had been earlier; they opened fire, and the bony
forgot all about us, firing two more rockets at fat boy.
Meanwhile, my crew were very, very busy lying on
their bellies and kissing dirt for all they were worth,
hands over heads. All except me: I kept my hands free
and rolled onto my back, shotgun pointing back and
forth, back and forth, like a fan at a tennis match.
I didn't want to call attention to our little party, but
neither did I want us to be noticed by a smarter-than-
average monster who wanted to spill our guts to
celebrate its position on the food chain. I wished it
were still night.
The bony ran out of rockets before the fatty ran out
of fireballs. The bone bag blew apart into tiny pieces,
white shards so small they could be mistaken for
hailstones, were this not Los Angeles.
The fatty kept firing. There were plenty of troops
left to take out, and the walking flab seemed to have
an inexhaustible supply of pyrotechnics. Maybe he
got his stuff from the same shop used by the steam-
At last, any troops left intact were no longer mov-
ing. The fatty kept firing for a while into their inert
When it stopped, nothing moved anywhere in
sight--assuming those little pig eyes could see very
far. We lay as still as we could; I wished we could stop
the sounds of our breathing. A lump of congestion
had settled somewhere in my head, and I wheezed on
every second breath, but I was afraid to hold my
breath for fear I would start coughing.
Of course, the monster's hearing might not be any
great shakes. I could see small black holes on either
side of his lard-encrusted head. If those were ears,
they seemed minuscule. I lay still, rationalizing and
wheezing, hoping the thing would do anything
except--except exactly what it did next.
The fatty was badly shot and cut up, like a giant,
spherical hamburger patty that had fallen apart on the
grill. It rumbled and began to shuffle directly for us. If
the monstrous thing stepped on one of us as it passed,
it would be a messy death.
I decided if one of those massive feet were
about to descend on any one of us, I would open fire.
There might be a military argument for letting one of
us die if the others were passed over, anyone but Jill,
but--forget it. Not like that!
As fat boy stumped slowly in our direction, I
realized with a sinking feeling that it was another
genetic experiment copying the human form. The
whole design was clearly functional, another killer-
critter. But if they could make creatures this close to
our basic body type, then they could do copies of us in
As these thoughts raced through my mind, the thing
took one ponderous step after another, coming closer
and closer--allowing for inspection of its nonhuman
qualities. The skin was like that of a rhinoceros. Feed
this lumpkin an all-you-can-eat buffet (with a dis-
count coupon), and it might top out at half a ton. The
bald head looked like a squashed football; the beady
eyes took no note of us as it came within spitting
distance. It had to be nearsighted. Now, if it were deaf
and unable to smell, it might just miss us.
Good news and bad: if fat boy continued walking a
straight line, it would miss us all. Alas, Jill's
ultramicro lay directly next to her, and the fatty was
about to step on this critical piece of equipment.
There wasn't time for anyone to do anything,
except for Jill. All she had to do was reach out with
her right hand and grab it. I saw her raise her head
and start to move her hand, but she froze. What if it
With only a second to spare, she worked up her
nerve and yanked the computer out of the way before
the monster would have crushed it flat. By waiting so
long, she solved her problem--the fatty couldn't see
its own feet. The bulk of the vast stomach obscured
Jill's quick movement.
Fat boy slogged on without further mishap.
I was ready to heave a sigh of relief, clear my throat,
maybe even enjoy a cough or two. Jill started to get
up. Arlene and Albert weren't moving yet, waiting for
the all-clear from Yours Truly. I almost gave it when a
blast of machine-gun fire erupted behind the fatty.
I was too damned tired to curse. We could use a
short rest before taking on new playmates!
The fatty wasn't happy about the turn of events
either. It screamed with a sound more piglike than the
The bullets sprayed in a steady stream, so many
that some were surely penetrating that thick hide to
disrupt vital organs--however deeply those organs
were hidden underneath a stinking expanse of quiver-
As the machine gun cut the monster to ribbons, I
heard bug-wild, crazy laughter, the kind made only by
a human being. The laughter continued, the bullets
continued, until at last the fatty made the transition
from hamburger to road kill. It made a wet, flopping
sound, collapsed into itself and died.
We weren't playing statues while this was going on.
Guns at the ready, firing positions, we faced . . . what
looked like another human being. A very large human
I almost called out, but I checked myself. Despite
my gut-level joy at seeing another human, my innate
suspicion held me back. After all, some real, live
humans cooperated with the alien invasion. Sure, this
guy shot the fatty; maybe he was on our side. But we
couldn't be sure of that; and if he didn't come into the
alley, he wouldn't see us. The alley was in deep
shadow, hidden from even the pallid green light of a
Unfortunately, Jill was not a Marine. She was a
young girl, and like most teenagers, she sometimes
acted on auto pilot.
"You're human!" she yelped. Then she stopped
suddenly, hand over her mouth, as if trying to push
the words back inside. She realized what she had
done. As to the consequences, she'd learn those in the
next moment. So would the rest of us in the black
The figure lifted a hand to its head and flipped back
a visor over its helmet. The face underneath seemed
human enough, from what I could see. He wasn't
smiling. Jill made as if she might run, but she was
thinking again. She wouldn't lead him back to us.
"It's all right, little girl," he said, scanning, trying to
locate her. "I won't hurt you." He took a tentative
step in her direction, and she held her ground, not
making another sound.
Silhouetted against the light gray wall of a
carniceria, he was an impressive sight. But whose side
was he on? This deep into enemy territory, we
couldn't let anything compromise us, not even com-
mon sense or basic instincts.
Fighting monsters was so black-and-white that
there was something clean about it. This man was not
a monster. Were we about to have the firefight of our
lives, a new ally, or a Mexican standoff?
He didn't have a flash; probably figured he wouldn't
need one in the daylight, such as it was. In the dark
alley, however ...
Silently, slowly, I slid my pair of day-night goggles
out of my webbing and slipped them on, flicking the
switch as I did so.
Now I could make out more of his gear: .30 cal
machine gun, a belt-fed job; backpack full of ammo;
radio gear; a flak jacket that screamed state-of-the-art
body armor; and a U.S. Army Ranger uniform, staff
sergeant. "Come on out, little girl; let me see you. It's
all right." He raised his hand as if scratching his chin
stubble . . . but a crackling sound followed by a rum-
bling voice made it clear that he was talking into a
I also saw one more twist: he had a pair of dis-
tended goggles himself on his helmet--night-vis gog-
gles, they had to be.
When Jill said nothing, he reached up for them. My
heart pounded; as soon as he put them on, he would
see all of us crouched in the shadows.
As if she sensed the danger--or maybe she knew
she'd blown it and was trying to redeem herself--Jill
stepped forward into the faint illumination reflected
from the dragon-green sky by the pale wall of the
Mexican meat market. "H-Here I am, sir," she called.
"Are you alone?" he asked.
Jill was a trooper. "Yes sir. I'm alone, sir."
Slowly, the man lowered his machine gun right at
her small, narrow tummy. The universe became a still
picture of the man, the gun, Jill. . . and my hand
tightened on the trigger of my avenger.
"Take it nice and easy," he told Jill. "You're comin'
to meet the boss."
"Who's that?" she asked, her voice firm.
"We'll get along a lot better," he said, "if you get it
through your head right now, bitch, that you don't ask
"What if I don't want to go?" she asked.
"Then I'll drop you where you stand," he answered.
The machine gun had not shifted an inch. "Now
move it or lose it," he said.
Jill moved all right, slowly and deliberately so he
wouldn't suspect anything. The gun followed her, and
the sergeant turned his back to the alley; and I guess
that's what she intended all along, for she took a dive
as soon as his body blocked the line of fire.
I needed no second chance. Mister Mystery Ranger
didn't have the proper attitude toward "little girls."
Not by a long shot.
Unloading both barrels into the guy's back got his
attention. Arlene opened fire with her AB-10. Be-
tween the two of us, we gave him a quick and effective
lesson in good manners.
He staggered, but managed to turn around. That
armor of his was something! He started firing wildly
while Arlene and Albert pumped more lead.
I slammed two more shells home into my trusty
duck-gun and let them go into the son of a bitch's
The fancy headgear cracked like a colorful Easter
egg and spilled out its contents. Surprise, you're dead!
None of us moved for at least a minute, listening
for the sound of more aliens attracted by the noise.
There were no footsteps or nearby trucks, but we did
hear sporadic gunfire in the distance. Probably zom-
"Jill," Arlene called out. Jill returned with an
expression that could only be described as sheepish.
The girl was covered in dust but didn't have a scratch
"I'm sorry," Jill volunteered; "I feel like a total
dweeb." The apology didn't save her from Arlene.
"That was a stupid mistake! You could have iced us
Defiantly, Jill turned to me, Daddy against
Mommy. I didn't say a word, didn't stop Arlene,
didn't change expression. Sorry, kid--I'm not going
to undermine my second just to save your ego. I didn't
think it was that dumb a mistake; she was just a kid.
But Arlene had chosen to make it an issue . . . and
whatever I thought, I'd back her to the hilt.
Jill started to blink, angrily holding back tears. She
turned to Albert, but he was suddenly really busy
wiping his gun barrel. Well--about time she learned:
no hero allowances, and I guess no kid allowances,
"All right," she said, voice quavering. "What do
you want me to do?"
Arlene stepped close, lowering her voice so I could
barely hear it. "There's nothing you can do. You owe
me, Jill; and before the mission is over, you are going
When Arlene stepped back, Jill's eyes were wide.
The bravado and defiance were gone. She was scared
to death ... of Arlene Sanders.
The shock treatment seemed to work. Jill focused
on something more important than her own short-
comings. "God, is the mummy all right?"
While Albert and Jill went to check out our recruit
from the bandage brigade, I did an inventory on the
soldier with the lousy manners.
Arlene joined me. "Was he a traitor?" she asked of
the inert form at our feet; "or did we just kill a good
"Or worse, A.S. Is this that perfect genetic ex-
periment we've been half-expecting ever since Dei-
"If he's Number Three," she said, "we'll have
to--to give him a name." She kicked the side
of the machine-guy with her boot. "I'll call him a
"Clyde?" I asked, dumbfounded. "That's worse
than fatty! It's just a name."
"Clyde, "she declared, with the really irritating tone
of voice she only uses when she makes up her mind
and can't believe anybody would still be arguing.
"But Clyde?" I repeated like a demented parrot.
"Why not Fred or Barney, or Ralph or Norton?" I
suspected that I might be spinning out of control.
"For Clyde Barrow," she explained . . . and I still
didn't get it. "You know," she continued with the
cultural-literacy tone of vice, "Bonnie Parker and
Clyde Barrow--Bonnie and Clyde!"
"Oh," I said, finally ready to surrender. "Jesus H.,
that's really obscure!"
At the precise moment that I invoked the name of
the Savior, good old Albert decided to rejoin us,
reinforcing a theory I've had for years that if you call
on the gods, you are rewarded with a plague of
believers. Not that I was thinking of Albert as part
of a plague just then. The plague was out there, be-
yond us, where it belonged--in the heart of Los
I thought you had a Christian upbringing,"
said Albert, annoyed at Yours Truly for the blas-
"Catholic school," Arlene answered.
"Oh, that explains it," said Albert, which / found a
Further discussion seemed a losing proposition. So
I resumed investigation of the Clyde. Which re-
minded of the earlier discussion about nomenclature.
"Hey, Jill," I called out. "We decided to name this
bastard a Clyde."
"A Clyde?" asked Jill in the same tone of voice I
had said "Jesus H."
"What a dumb name!" I decided to put her in my
will. Make fun of my religion, will they?
I went back to my close study of the Clyde. As I'd
noticed before, he appeared fully human, if a bit
large. Frankly, I didn't think he could be a product of
genetic engineering; the results had been too crude up
to this point. Most likely, he'd been recruited by the
I was sorry the man was dead, because I'd like to
kill him again. It made me furious that any human
would cooperate with the subjugation of his own race.
I kicked the corpse.
Arlene was a good mind reader. "You think he's a
traitor," she said.
"What else could he be?"
"You already suggested it."
"What's that?" asked Albert. Jill was all ears, too.
The time had finally come to lay all the cards on the
"We've been considering the possibility that the
aliens might be able to make perfect human dupli-
cates," I told them.
"He could be one," said Arlene, pointing at the
man. "Maybe the first example of a successful geneti-
cally engineered human. First example we've seen,
"I don't buy it," I said.
"But what makes you think it's even possible?"
asked Albert, obviously disturbed by the suggestion.
Arlene took a deep breath. "On Deimos we saw
gigantic blocks of human flesh. I'm sure it was raw
material for genetic experiments. Later, Fly and I saw
vats where they were mass producing monsters."
"In a way," I interrupted, "even the boney and the
fatty are closer to being 'human' than the other
genetic experiments--hell-princes, steam-demons,
"And now they've succeeded," said Arlene, looking
"Hope you're wrong," I said. "It's too much of a
quantum leap, Arlene. Even the clothes are too good!"
"You have an argument there," she admitted.
"Those stupid red trunks on the boneys were awful."
We looked at the spiffy uniform on the man.
"He talked like a real person," Jill observed. I
hadn't thought about it before, but everything about
his manner of speaking rang true, even the threaten-
ing tone at the end. If he hadn't been such a total
bastard, I wouldn't have enjoyed killing him so much.
Making a monster was one thing; cobbling together a
first-class butthead was a lot harder, requiring tender
"OK," said Albert. "He looks, walks, talks and
smells like a human being. So maybe he was one."
"Whatever he was, he's good and dead; and that's
what matters right now," I tried to conclude the issue.
The way Arlene kept looking at the man meant that
she couldn't shake the disturbing idea that he was a
synthetic creation. I didn't doubt that they could do
stuff like this in time. My objective was to prevent
them having that time.
Arlene shuddered, then shook her head hard, as if
dislodging any nasty little critters that might have
snuck in there. "Well, if they did make him, he's only
a staff sergeant. There's a lot of room for progress
before they hit second lieutenant and start downhill
Albert laughed hard at that. She gave him an
In a way, it was kind of strange to nit-pick over
which was more likely to be true: human traitors or
human duplicates. Either possibility was disturbing.
I let my mind wander over the uncertain terrain
where treason sprouts like an ugly mushroom. If U.S.
armed forces were cooperating with the aliens, were
they under orders from the civilian government? Had
Washington caved in immediately to become a Vichy-
style administration? And what could the aliens offer
human collaborators that the humans would be stu-
pid enough to believe?
I didn't doubt for one second that the enemy
intended the extermination of the human race as we
knew it. Zombie slaves and a few human specimens
kept around for experimental purposes didn't count
as species survival in my book.
I must have been carrying worry on my face,
because Albert put his hand on my shoulder and said,
"We needn't concern ourselves over the biggest possi-
ble picture. One battle at a time is how we'll win this
war. First, we destroy the main citadel of alien power
in Los Angeles. Then we'll stop them in New York,
Houston, Mexico City, Paris, London, Rome--ah,
Tokyo. . . ." He trailed off. Already quite a list, wasn't
"Atlanta," said Jill.
"Orlando," said Arlene. "We must save the good
name of the mouse on both coasts!"
"You know," I mused, "I wonder how much of the
invasion force Arlene and I destroyed on Deimos."
"Oh, at least half," boasted my buddy; but she
might not be far wrong. We killed a hell of a lot of
monsters on the Martian moons. Each new carcass
meant one less demonic foot soldier on terra firma.
"You know," said Jill, her voice sounding oddly
old, "I could kill every one of those human traitors."
"I'm with you, hon," I agreed; "but you've got to be
careful about blanket statements like that. Some were
threatened, tortured. Hell, some could have been
tricked. They didn't go through what we did on
Deimos! They might have been told that the mass
destruction was caused by human-against-human and
now these superior aliens have come to Earth with a
plan for ultimate peace."
"I'll bet YOU were a pain in your High School debate
society, Fly Taggart," said long suffering Arlene. "But
you know damn well what she means!"
"Put it down to my practical side, if you want," I
said. "I like to know the score before I pick a play."
Albert added a note. "Anyone can make a terrible
mistake and still repent before the final hour."
"It's possible," I said.
"I'm sorry I made that crack about your growing up
The two atheist females acted suitably disgusted by
our theological love-fest. "The girls don't believe in
redemption of traitors, Albert," I said.
"I'll pray for anyone," he said; "even traitors."
"Fine," said Arlene. "Pray over their graves."
While we failed to resolve yet another serious
philosophical issue, Jill squatted over the corpse. In a
very short time she'd become hardened to the sight
and smell of carnage. Good. She had a chance to
survive in the new world.
"Are you all right?" Arlene asked.
"Don't worry about me," Jill said, following my
example and kicking the corpse. "They're just bags of
blood, and we've got the pins. It's no big thing."
No one was joking now. Arlene looked at me with a
worried expression. This was no time to psycho-
analyze a fourteen-year-old who was doing her best to
feel nothing. This sort of cold attitude was par for the
course in an adult, a mood that would be turned off
(hopefully) in peacetime; but hearing it from a kid
The words just out of her lips were the cold truth we
created. Do only the youngest soldiers develop the
attitude necessary to win a war? Until this moment, I
wouldn't have thought of Arlene and myself as old-
fashioned sentimentalists; but if the future human
race became cold and machine-like to fight the mon-
sters, then maybe the monsters win, regardless of the
Recreation time was over. Jill went to the
cybermummy and started to lift him; he was really
too heavy for her to do alone, and we got the idea.
Albert helped her, and Arlene and I returned to battle
readiness. The next goal was obvious: find the
safehouse. We couldn't make good time sneaking
through the dark carrying a mummy.
We were only ninety minutes away. All we ran into
along the way was a pair of zombies, almost a free
ride. I popped them both before Arlene even got off a
"You have all the fun," said Albert. "This guy is
starting to weigh!"
"You don't hear Jill complaining, do you?" asked
Arlene. Jill said nothing. But I could see the sweat
beading on her forehead and her breathing was more
rapid. Arlene noticed, too. "Jill, would you like to
switch with me?" she asked.
"I'm all right," she said, determined to prove
something to someone.
Jill managed to hold up her end all the way to the
door of the crappiest looking rattrap in a whole block
of low rent housing. She heaved a sigh of relief as she
finally put down her burden.
This stretch of hovels didn't seem to have been
bombed by anything but bad economic decisions. The
house was one-story, shapeless as a cardboard box
with a sheet of metal thrown on top pretending to be a
roof. The yard was a narrow stretch of dirt with
garbage piled high. It looked worse than any apart-
ment I'd ever seen and gave the scuzziest motels a run
for the money, if anyone with a dime in his pocket
would be caught dead there.
The final perfect touch was a monotonous cacopho-
ny of dumb-ass, psychometal "music" blaring
through the thin walls.
"Let me take it from here," Albert volunteered.
"Be my guest," I said.
He knocked on a flimsy door covered with streaks
of peeling, yellow paint; I half expected the whole
structure to crash down in a shambles. I figured we'd
wait a long time before any denizens within roused
themselves. Instead, the door opened within a few
It was like stepping back in time to the late twenti-
eth century, when post-punks, headbangers,
carpetbangers, and other odd flotsam of adolescent
rage had their fifteen minutes.
There were two young men standing in the door-
way: one was blond, the other was darker, black-
haired, and possibly Hispanic. Rocko and Paco, for
Rocko didn't say anything, staring at us with glazed
eyes, mouth partly open. The only good thing to say
about them was that there was simply no way they
had been taken over by alien invaders! Even monsters
know when to give someone a pass.
"May we come in?" asked Albert.
"Stoked," said Rocko.
There seemed no alternative to going inside; there
was no escape rocket in sight. Albert braved the
cavern of terrible noise first, then Arlene, then Jill
with our buddy. There was nothing left but for me to
go inside and witness . . .
The living room. The place was stuffed with what
looked like the world's largest and bizarrest crank-lab.
There were chemicals of various colors in glass con-
tainers balanced precariously on the ratty furniture. A
large bottle of thick, silver liquid looked like it might
be mercury. I wondered if these guys would blow us
up or poison us.
Jill laid the still-wrapped cybermummy on the
ground. Then Albert stepped forward. Without saying
a word, he flashed a hand-signal. I recognized it: light-
drop hand signals, based partly on American Sign
Language, heavily modified.
Earth, said Albert.
Man, responded Paco.
I blinked. Albert flashed a thirteen-character com-
bination of letters and numbers, and Rocko re-
sponded with another. I raised my brows ... a hand-
All of a sudden, Rocko's demeanor changed as his
face melted into a different one entirely. He gestured
to Paco, who closed his mouth. Both suddenly looked
fifty IQ points brighter.
Rocko went to the stereo, a nice, state-of-the art
system out of place in these surroundings, and turned
down the music. "Let's talk," he said, voice still
sounding like a stereotypical carpetbanger.
Things got too weird for Yours Truly. While Rocko
rapped in a lingo full of terms relating to drugs and
rock'n'roll, he produced several pads and pencils,
enough for each one of us. The real conversation took
place on the pads, while the duo spoke most of the
mind-numbing nonsense, occasionally helped out by
Albert and Jill, who could talk the talk better than
Arlene or I.
The only part of the conversation I paid attention
to came off the pads.
Our hosts filled in more details of this Grave New
World. Rocko was actually Captain Jerry Renfrew,
PhD, U.S. Army and head of one of the CBNW
(chem-bio-nuke warfare) labs. His buddy was Dr.
Xavier Felix, another chemical warfare specialist.
But why did they pretend to be crystal-meth
Innocuous, no threat, explained Felix with a
Civilian DEA, Felix wrote. Pose crank cooker stuck
fake crim recs into Nat Crime Info Cen comptrs.
There was a noise halfway between a scream and a
laugh. It was Jill, and she was jumping up and down.
Out loud she said, "I haven't heard that group since I
was a kid!" The music was still blaring in the back-
ground, even though reduced to a volume that didn't
turn the brain to cottage cheese.
On paper, Jill wrote: I did that!!!!! Mightve done
Too young, challenged Renfrew, erasing her apos-
Judge/book/cover, argued Felix, added a circle slash
around the triplet, the international no-no symbol.
We passed all the notes around to everyone; but
each person got them in more or less random order. It
took me a while to make sense out of the jumble.
When everyone had seen a note, Felix or Renfrew
touched it to a Bunsen burner. The notes were written
on flash paper, and they vanished instantly with a
According to Dr. Felix, the DEA, under alien
control, was still staffed by traitorous humans, even
now. They went hunting for people who could pro-
duce the "zombie-brew" chemical treatment used to
rework humans into zombies.
They specifically hunted for the more sophisticated
drug-lab chemists. It made sense that Captain Ren-
frew and Felix, both infiltrating from opposite ends,
would come together.
When Felix's hand needed a rest, the captain jotted
down: lab I headed one of few not overrun. He escaped
with all his notes and some of his equipment, grew his
hair long, and returned to alien territory to infiltrate.
Felix was already undercover, already infiltrating
the alien operation, and that's where it got tricky:
DEA knew Felix was really an agent; but they thought
he was spying on the aliens for DEA--who were
cooperating with the aliens in exchange for the prom-
ise of all drugs off the street.
In fact, Xavier Felix was a double-double agent,
really working for the Resistance . . . unless he was a
triple-double agent, or a double-double-double agent,
in which case we were all sunk.
Don't aliens investgt horrible noise? I wrote.
They allowed themselves to laugh out loud. At any
point in the music discussion, a laugh fit like a corpse
in potter's field.
Evidently, excessive noise was not a problem aliens
cared much about.
Something was torquing me off. After wrestling
with myself, I finally wrote it. How humans make
zombie brew, help aliens evin infiltrating?!?!
Renfrew stared, absently correcting something on
my note. Don't know what. He looked wounded, in
pain. Delib scrwng up recipe. Neurologic poison slow
kills drives mad. Makes useless.
The captain bent over me and read along. He
flipped his own sheet over and added: we're only hot
chems. Others druggies cooks FDA that kind of crap.
Everyone else seemed satisfied, so I dropped it. I
was the only one, I guess, who spotted the Clue of the
Horrible Admission: even if they were screwing up
the brew so the zombies died or went mad--weren't
they still turning humans into zombies in the first
How did they live with that?
We showed them more about the cybermummy.
They had the reaction of any scientist with a new toy.
If there were a solution, they were going to bust
humps finding it.
They took us into the basement, where the music
from upstairs was merely loud, not ear-splitting. I was
surprised a house in Riverside had one, especially this
piece of crap. Then it hit me like a bony's fist: they
probably dug it themselves. Whatever the case, we
were in the hands of impressive dudes.
"You can talk quietly down here without fear of
surveillance," Felix whispered.
"Hooray," said Arlene, but kept her voice low.
"Amen," said Albert.
We left Felix and Renfrew and went downstairs,
where we rested a moment. I was so tired I felt like the
marrow in my bones had turned to dust; or maybe I
was having trouble breathing down there. Without
intending to, I dozed off on a thick leather couch.
When I came to, the others were unwrapping the
mummy. It was embarrassing to have passed out like
"You okay, Fly?" Arlene asked over her shoulder.
"Yeah, must have been tireder than I thought," I
said. "Sorry about that."
"No problemo," said Arlene, yawning. "I'll take the
next nap. You up to joining us?"
I nodded and moved in for a closer look.
The cyberdude was the same as before, still a young
black man turned into a computer-age pin cushion.
Earlier, we removed enough bandages to see his face.
We uncovered his head and saw it was completely
shaved, the smooth dome covered in little metal
knobs and dials.
As Albert and Arlene continued unwrapping, Jill
took a step back. The man wasn't wearing anything
but the quickly unwinding bandages. As they started
unwrapping below the waist, our fourteen-year-old
hellion got embarrassed. Oceans of gore she could
take without batting an eyelash, but a nude young
man was enough to make her blush.
I was deeply amused and grateful I woke up in time
for the entertainment--Jill's reaction, I mean, not the
guy. The more nonchalant she tried to be, the more
fun I had watching. She actually turned fire-engine
red, her normally pale cheeks matching her hair.
I noticed Arlene noticing me noticing Jill. Ah,
"It's nothing to get worked up about," she told Jill.
"Maybe Jill should leave the room," suggested
"That's her decision," said Arlene.
"I don't want to go back upstairs with the . . .
chems," she said. "At least we can talk down here."
"Don't let them tease you, hon," Arlene said.
"Most everything you're told about sex when you're
growing up is a lie anyway."
"You mean what they're told in school?" Albert
"I was thinking of the lies they hear at home," said
Arlene, instantly regretting the reference. We didn't
want Jill constantly fixating on the slaughter of Mom
But the more serious tone affected Jill positively.
She went back to the table and helped finish the
unwrapping. She didn't look south more than about
five or six times. Seven, tops. Being a professional, I
was trained to notice details like eye movements.
"What time is it?" Arlene asked, yawning again.
She definitely deserved some sack time.
"Ask Fly," said Jill, "he's got the cl-cl-clock."
"Why didn't they have our conference down here,
where we could talk, instead of using the pads?" asked
I shrugged. "Aliens might think it was weird if
'customers' come over and the cooks disappear down
into the basement with them."
"Won't they think it just as strange if the customers
"Well, let's hope not."
I turned to Jill. "Earlier, you said you might be able
to communicate with him on a computer, through
one of those jacks. What's the next step?"
She went back to examining the body with the
proper detachment. "Can you do it?" I asked.
"Yes and no."
"Care to explain?"
"Yes I can connect, if you get me the cables I need.
One has to have a male Free-L-19, the other a male
Free-L-20, both with a two-fiber mass-serial connec-
tor at the other end."
I sure hoped somebody else knew what the hell that
meant. "Where do you think we can get all that?"
"Try upstairs; if they don't have any, try Radio
Shack or CompUSA."
After writing down the kind of jacks required, I
took the list upstairs and showed it to the chem guys.
They didn't have what we needed, but the captain
produced an Auto Club map and pointed out the
nearest Radio Shack.
Kind of reassuring that L.A. still had its priorities.
Back in the basement, I asked who wanted to go.
And the result was predictable: "I'll go," said Jill.
"Anyone but Jill," I said. "Maybe I should--"
"Why can't I go?"
"I know there's not much to do in Riverside except
shop," I admitted, "even before the demons came.
But we've been through this already, Jill. We're still in
the you're-not-expendable period."
"I'll go," said Albert.
"Fine," I said. "Now Arlene can get some sack--"
"I'll go with him, Fly," said Arlene.
"But you were yawning only a moment before!"
"I'm not tired now," she said, real perky.
I did what anyone in my position would do. I
shrugged. If Arlene had surrender papers for me, I
would have signed them on the spot.
Lately, I thought I was overdoing quotations
from the Book. I'd never had so vivid a recollection
for the Word until the world changed. I'd found time
to read the scriptures once more in the new era, and
now the words stayed with me, perhaps because the
altered world made the tales of the Book seem more
The original Mormons were condemned not only
for taking multiple wives, a behavior that might have
been cause for sympathy instead of resentment. What
upset other Americans of the nineteenth century was
the claim that God would reveal a whole new history
to newly chosen saints. The concept of Latter Day
Saints was more offensive to the Christian majority of
that time than any personal behavior or economic
My favorite Bible passage was John 21:25, the end
of the Gospel According to Saint John, and it should
have been the perfect shield against such prejudice;
but most Christians pay little attention to the Word:
And there are also many other things which Jesus
did, the which, if they should be written every
one, I suppose that even the world itself could
not contain the books that should be written.
They liked those words just fine in theory; practice
was something else again. The portions where the
Book of Mormon disagrees with established Christian
practices didn't help either. People got really upset
when they were told they were not merely wrong, but
diabolically wrong, on the subject of baptism.
Hell. Arlene and I were about to go back into hell.
We were trying to save living babies from burning in
the hell on Earth. She was a good friend and comrade.
I liked her a lot and hoped I would not witness her
death. But since becoming bold about her sinful
interest in me, she was making me uncomfortable. I
would find her a lot easier to deal with if I weren't
tempted by her.
Or if she would consent to. . . Jesus! Give me
strength! Am I really ready to contemplate holy union?
I grimaced; it was a very big step, a life commitment,
and I was too chicken to think about it yet. I didn't
feel much older than Jill!
My soul was troubled because I did desire Arlene. A
verse from Nephi kept running through my mind, like
a public service announcement:
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in
thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm
of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that
putteth his faith in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed
is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh
flesh his arm.
"A buck for your thoughts," Arlene said, standing
very close to me. We were taking our first rest stop in
an alley. Lately, I was coming to feel safer in alleys
than in open spaces.
"I was remembering a passage from the Book."
"You want to share it with me?" she asked. I looked
deep into her bloodshot eyes, the prettiest sight in the
world, and there was no mockery or sarcasm. I wasn't
about to tell her how hard I was trying to resist
temptation and that right now I spelled sin beginning
with a scarlet letter A.
But there was an earlier passage from the Second
Book of Nephi that spoke directly to any warrior's
heart. I quoted it instead:
"O Lord, wilt thou make way for mine escape
before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path
straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stum-
bling block in my way--but that thou wouldst
clear my way before me, a hedge not up my
way, but the ways of mine enemy."
"Good plan," said Arlene.
She touched my arm, and I felt relaxed instead of
tense. "Albert, what if I told you I'd be willing to
study your religion to see what it's about?"
I wasn't expecting that. "Why would you do that?"
I asked, probably too suspicious. In the Marines, I got
too used to being sucker-punched by antireligious
"I'm not promising to convert or anything," she
told me, "but I care about you, Albert. You believe in
these things, and I want to understand."
"Cool," I said; but I was still suspicious of her
She dropped the other shoe: "So if I'm willing to
study what you believe, would you be willing to relax
a little and we could get together?"
I'd expected more subtlety from someone as intelli-
gent as Arlene, but then again, Marines were not
famous for an indirect approach. I had to close my
eyes before shaking my head. I couldn't make the
word no come out.
"I don't mean to make you uncomfortable," said
"You may mean the best," I told her, "but it doesn't
matter what we do or say. Unless we're married, we
can't make love."
"You mean we can't even fool around?" she asked.
"I mean we can't have sex together unless we're
I could tell by her expression I was a more surpris-
ing phenomenon than the spidermind. "You're kid-
ding," she said. "Not even touching?"
"Not sexual touching." I wished she'd let up!
She looked away from me, almost shyly. "I'm only
talking about a little fun."
I tried a new tack. "How can you think of fun when
the world is dying?"
"Seems like a good time to me," she said. "We
could use a break."
"Arlene, any sex outside of marriage is fornication,
even just touching. That kind of touching. The sin is
in the thought."
She mumbled something. I could have sworn she
asked, "How about inside marriage?" But she turned
away and pretended she hadn't spoken. I suppose
Arlene was as freaked about the thought as I was.
I didn't think I was making the best possible case
for my faith, but God isn't about winning a popularity
contest. He doesn't have to.
"Albert, if you ever feel differently, I'll be there for
you." I could tell she'd run out of things to say. At this
moment, I probably seemed more alien than a steam-
demon or a bony.
Fortunately, the rest break was over. I pointed to
my watch and Arlene nodded. We could return to the
far less dangerous territory of fighting monsters in
hell. At least I knew what to expect from them.
Nothing else stood between us and the Radio Shack
except the corpses of some dead dogs. We broke into
the abandoned store, kicking in the inadequately
padlocked door. We used our day-night goggles to
hunt through the darkness, not wanting to use a
betraying light. A number of large spiderwebs were
spun across a wall of boom boxes, proof that one
Earth life form might survive the invasion un-
changed. I was surprised that the store didn't seem to
have been looted . . . but then, what for?
"We should be able to find the jacks for Jill," said
Arlene, who giggled right afterward. It took me a
moment to recognize what was funny.
She was right, though. In the store's unlooted
condition, we found the jacks very quickly. She
pocketed them and headed for the front of the store,
but stopped at a counter. Something had caught her
eye; I couldn't see what.
"I need to ask you a question," she said.
"Do you love someone?"
"That's a very personal question."
"That's why I'm asking," she followed up. "Do
She deserved an answer. "Yes, but she's dead."
"You never made love to her?"
"She died before we married."
"Thank you for telling me," she said. "I'm not
trying to probe you, Albert. I've succeeded in reveal-
ing too much of myself. Now let's get back before I say
something else stupid."
She went out the door, and I glanced at the counter
to see a demo music CD of Golden Oldies, led off by
Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does it Better." I'd
never heard the song but I could imagine the subject
matter. Jesus help us; was this a divine retribution? I
shuddered; I hadn't seen any rainbows since the
We didn't exchange another word on the way back.
Her expression was grim, hard. She was probably
angry with herself for opening up to me without
finding out first how I really felt. Nonreligious people
usually had this trouble with us. We really meant it.
No wonder we came off like nuts. How could I tell
Arlene that she was probably allergic to nuts?
I let Jill take the next nap on the couch. For a
crazy moment I envied the mummy for sleeping so
long. Jill didn't seem all that rested when Arlene and
Albert returned, but any sleep had to be better than
Jill asked if there was any coffee, and it turned out
that the chems stored it in the basement. Hot-tap
coffee helped bring her around, and with dark circles
under her eyes and still yawning, she got to work on
the man who was no longer a mummy but still plenty
She attached the necessary wires, brought up her
ultramicro and started hacking. I still had my doubts
that this would actually work; but the more excited
Jill became, the more I was converted.
Then she said the magic words, "Yes, yes, yes!" and
got up to pump her arm and strut like a guy. I doubt
that sex will ever give her that much excitement.
About a minute passed while she fiddled with the
TracPad, listening to handshaking routines on the
audio-out. She gave the first report: "I've made con-
tact with his brain at seventeen thirty-two. His name
is Kenneth Estes."
"Does he know where he is?" I asked.
Jill hesitated, and then spelled it out: "He thinks
he's dead and in hell."
"Can we talk to him?" I asked.
"Yup," said Jill. "I can type questions, and you can
read his answers. But you have to scan through the
random crap; it's a direct link to Ken's brain."
"All right, you interpret," I replied. "The first thing
is find out who he is and why he's important enough
for demon gift-wrapping."
Arlene sat up on the couch where she'd almost
dozed off. This could well be too interesting to miss.
Albert sat in a chair, but he was wide-awake. Jill
tapped for a long moment at her tiny keyboard, using
all ten fingers, much to my surprise. I thought all
hackers were two-finger typists, it was a law or some-
thing. She read the first part of the man's story:
"As I said, his name's Ken Estes. He's a computer
software designer slumming as a CIA analyst. Low-
level stuff, not a field agent or anything. He was born
"No time for the family background," I inter-
rupted. "Keep him focused on how and why he
became a cybermummy."
Somewhere, water was dripping. I hadn't noticed it
before, but it was very annoying while waiting for Jill
to pass on the messages in silence. Finally, she spoke
again: "When the aliens landed and started the war,
Ken was told by his superiors that the agency had
developed a new computer which the operator
accessed in V.R. mode."
"What's V.R.?" Albert asked.
"Old term; this guy's in his thirties! Virtual Reality;
we call it burfing now, from 'body surfing,' I think."
"Oh, the net," said Albert.
"We'll go back to school later," I jumped in. "Get
on with it, Jill!"
"High-ranking officers within the agency induced
Ken to accept the implants 'for the good of the United
States.' Told him he'd be able to help fight the aliens.
Instead, it turned out they were traitors within the
Jill stopped for a moment, swallowing hard. She
took another sip of coffee before continuing. We were
back to her deep disgust for human traitors. She made
herself read on. She wouldn't be guilty of dereliction
The high-ranking officers had cooperated with the
aliens, joining a criminal conspiracy against the coun-
try they were sworn to defend--and incidentally,
against their own species. Ken "told" us more
through Jill: Company 'borged me, attached me to
alien net, one not part conspiracy waited too long, tried
to save killed conspiratora-tora-tora befora took him
out. . .
"How did the aliens intend to use him?" I asked.
Jill asked, and the answer came: Hoped him conduit
betwalien biotechputer netputer and webwide human
"Jeez, it's like a sci-fi James Joyce," I said. "From
now on, you interpret, Jill. It gives me a headache!"
"We live in a science fiction world," said Arlene,
wandering over from the couch, wide-awake, as Ken's
tale unfolded. "Fly, I'd like to ask a question," she
"Be my guest."
"Jill, would you ask him how much of the alien
technology was biologically based?"
Jill asked and passed on: "Ken says that all the alien
technology is biotech, except for stuff they stole from
subject races, like the rocket technology for the flying
"Yes!" exclaimed Arlene, as excited as Jill at a
moment of vindication. "We've been on the right
track all along, Fly. The original enemy went as far
with biological techniques as they possibly could.
Perhaps the first species they conquered lived on the
same planet, but had a mechanical technology they
were able to adapt to their own use. Eventually, they
conquered the Gate builders; we monkeyed with the
Gates, turned them on, and the invaders poured
through. That would explain why in any choice be-
tween organic and mechanical, they always opt for the
"And it would also explain why our own technology
shows up in odd places," I agreed, "and why they use
"They're pragmatic," said Albert. "Their study of
us proves that, these demonic forms they take."
I tried to get the show back on the road: "Jill, can he
tell us how they communicate with one another?"
There was a long stretch before Jill helped us out
with our immediate communication needs. "He says
it hurts to think about this, but he will. He ...
realizes we're free. I've told him a little about us and
... he does want to help."
"Tell him we appreciate anything he can do," I said.
Another moment passed and he answered the ques-
tion beyond my expectation: "There are neural path-
ways integrated into the computers. Psi-connections
carry all the orders. The aliens don't need to tell their
slaves what to do! They merely think the orders, but
it's different than merely thinking. No word. Project?
"Does Ken know where the commands originate?"
"He doesn't understand the question," Jill an-
"Uh, I'm not asking if he knows where the ultimate
leaders happen to be right now. But does he know
how the chain of command functions for the inva-
Jill's forehead showed some extra furrows as she
passed on my thoughts, probably doing some translat-
ing along the way. Finally, Ken passed on a detailed
report, filtered through Jill.
"Question is meaningless; no hierarchy."
"Hive culture? Collective?"
"Nope; they just. .. huh? Uh, they just all do the
same thing. The aliens themselves; the slaves--I
think that means everyone not part of 'the people'--
fight like crazy. That's why they're not 'the people.'"
"Can Ken issue commands?"
"Fly, that's what he was made for! Receive alien
commands and convey them to human systems."
"I mean, the other way 'round?"
She tapped, stared. "He doesn't understand the
question. It's like he's not allowed to think about it or
see the question. Some sort of protected-mode thing
firm-wired in. Wait, he's talking again . ..
"This 'invasion fleet' is actually an exploration
fleet. Highest-intel aliens are the entities inside the
spiderminds. Send out fleets, probe, when feasible
conquer alien worlds, no reason other than raw pow-
er. Well, Ken can't understand the reason, if there is
"Slave masters with an expanding empire, but more
interested in finding new genetic material to absorb
into their web-of-life--which is how they think of
it--than they are in having new individual slaves . . .
especially short-lived, contentious slaves."
Jill stopped talking and took off the headphones,
rubbing a hand across her forehead. "Are you all
right?" asked Arlene.
"Little headache. I'll be all right," she said.
"You need to stop?" I asked.
"No. Hey, I just had a brainstorm! If we could get
Ken jacked into one of the alien terminals and
override the safeties, we could sabotage their net!"
"Brilliant idea," I said. "Why didn't I think of
that?" I winked. "Maybe we could sabotage their
entire technology base."
"There's a problem. When he's connected to the
net, there are built-ins that override his human voli-
tion. The monitor can't take over the CPU."
"It can if it has its own chip set and special
programming," muttered Arlene.
"The program that shuts off his brain must have a
'front end' somewhere in his brain," Jill said--to
herself, I presumed. "If I can find it, I can disable it,
or I'm not Jill Hoerchner."
"Are you?" asked my pal.
Jill glanced over at her and added, "I'd need a quiet
place where I can be undisturbed for several days.
Days, not hours."
There were several hundred questions I wanted to
ask Ken; but we heard a loud noise from upstairs. It
didn't sound like more of the headbanger music. It
sounded like heavy feet thumping around upstairs.
Maybe it was aliens coming to pick up their supply of
I was pissed that the chems hadn't warned us when
these "guests" would pay them a visit; then I realized
that the aliens wouldn't stick to any kind of set
program. All the more reason for the captain and the
doctor to maintain their act.
Very quietly, Arlene flicked off the one light in the
basement ceiling. We sat in the dark. We heard raised
voices; the chems were denying that they'd seen a
human "strike team" or a human wrapped in ban-
I heard the telltale hiss of imp talk; I held my breath
. . . there were a lot of feet tramping around up there.
A new kind of voice spoke next, a grating, metallic
monotone. It sounded like a robot from an old sci-fi
movie, or something speaking through a vocoder.
Once this voice entered the conversation, our hu-
man allies sounded frantic. I had a bad feeling about
this. Good agents would put on a believable act. Good
agents would stick to the part, right to the point of
death. But were they?
The next sound we heard was all too familiar: a
powerful explosion shook the house, followed by the
smell of fire from above. Before we could even think
about acting, there was another explosion, and now
smoke began to drift down the wooden steps to our
We listened to the alien storm troopers start tearing
the place apart. They'd convinced me of their sinceri-
ty in trying to find us. I huddled the others and said:
"The bastards will find the basement. Our only hope
is if the cooks dug an escape tunnel, one that exits
Keeping the light off didn't make it any easier, but I
hadn't noticed a tunnel when we could see. If my pipe
dream produced a real pipe, the opening would be
hidden anyway. We rummaged through spare equip-
ment, desperately trying not to make noise. The stuff
was mainly metal, so the process wasn't easy.
The chems had stored their chemical stuff in the
basement. Tanks of volatiles, glassware, a fire extin-
guisher, jars and jars of chemicals (and I was grateful
the glass was thick). There were plenty of shelves and
books. And nowhere behind any of this did we find a
We hunted the walls, shaking bookcases that might
be doors, checking fireplaces for hidden holes, any-
thing at all! I was about to give up when my hands
came to rest on a bookcase that seemed bolted down,
unlike the others.
I started tugging on various books to see if one of
them was a trigger mechanism. Two things happened
simultaneously. First, I found a book that wouldn't
move. Never had I been happier to find something
Second, with a triumphant howling, the imps found
the trapdoor and flung it wide, letting light pour into
We froze; I was a statue holding up the bookshelf;
Albert stood nearby, holding the naked Ken in a
fireman's carry; Jill was part of that tableau, holding
her CompMac ultramicro, still jacked into Ken; and
Arlene was on the other side of the basement room, in
the gloom. Of the five of us, Ken did the best job of
playing dead, but he had an unfair advantage.
A thing dropped down the open trap.
This baby looked vaguely humanoid--oh, they
were keeping at it--but definitely alien. The yellow-
white, naked body maintained the hell motif so
popular with the invaders. No obvious genitalia. The
arms and legs were unusually small and thin. The
most outstanding feature was the way the skin rippled
like bubbling marshmallows over an open fire. I
wondered if this might be one of their enslaved races.
As it came closer, it dawned on me why the spindly
limbs were irrelevant to its effectiveness in battle. The
new monster was hot. I mean, fires-of-hell-make-
your-eyeballs-pop hot. No wonder the skin rippled
from the amazing heat. He was like a mirage in the
desert made into burning sulfur-flesh, the most "hell-
ish" creature yet.
There were books on the shelf right next to it. They
burst into flame from his proximity, lighting the
room, and the wood of the shelf charred right before
our eyes. Maybe it was an optical illusion, but it
appeared that actual flames danced along the thing's
skin. The little voice in the back of my head started
shrieking: Saved the best for last! The trouble with the
little voice was that it was so damned optimistic.
As the living torch moved closer, I saw its eyes
weren't really eyes--more like a ring of flaming dots
so bright that it hurt to look at them. I wondered how
we might appear to this creature; I also wished I had a
barrel of ice water to throw on the uninvited guest.
The others were as confused as their fearless leader.
Arlene was able to fire off a short burst from her AB-
10. The thing didn't even react, but Arlene's machine
pistol became so hot she had to drop it. Then the fire-
thing moved between the others and Yours Truly,
focusing on me.
Having cut me off, the monster put on a little magic
act. It was so bright, I couldn't turn away, no matter
how painful. . . and I watched its body actually con-
tract, becoming brighter as it squeezed together--like
it was about to explode.
Training took over, the healthy respect we were
taught for all kinds of explosives. I had no desire to
become Marine flambe.
I dove to the side, screaming inarticulately; every-
one got the idea, falling flat, trying to cover himself.
Fireboy exploded, a blast lancing out and disintegrat-
ing the bookshelf where I had stood a moment before.
Albert threw himself over Ken's body, then left Ken
on the floor and grabbed his Uzi clone. We had all the
light we could use.
The big Mormon opened fire. The big gun actually
sounded soft compared to the horrific explosion from
the alien, but the result was the same as with Arlene.
Did the thing generate a heat field around its immedi-
ate body surface, heat so intense that bullets dissolved
before getting through?
One good plan was growing in my head: run away!
This was a much better plan than it sounded. Rising
shakily to my feet, I could see quite clearly the tunnel
we'd been trying to find. The shelf I'd been exploring
had indeed covered the exit, and the explosion had
done a superb job of open sesame. I considered how to
rescue the others, or at least Jill and Ken. The mission
wasn't a burnout case yet.
For some reason, the fire monster seemed to have a
thing for me; it targeted me again. I recognized the
telltale signs. Looking right at me (if those black dots
counted for eyes), it began to contract, powering up
for another burst.
Before I ended my career as a piece of toast, Arlene
came to the rescue. She got right behind the monster
and opened fire from behind. Having learned her
lesson about wasting bullets on this guy, she used the
Never discourage initiative, that's my motto!
She sprayed the thing, snarling, "Goddamned fire-
eater!" It was the best name she'd invented in quite a
The monster screamed. The fire extinguisher was
actually extinguishing the fire! This suggested a whole
new approach to dealing with the monsters: properly
labeled household appliances could restore Heaven
Arlene kept pouring the foam on the fire-eater, who
was making a sound somewhere between a screeching
cat and sizzling bacon. If the Marine Corps were
around after we'd saved the world, I'd recommend a
special medal for Arlene as master of unconventional
weaponry: first the chainsaw, now the safety equip-
I have the highest possible regard for women who
save my life.
"Move out!" I bellowed to one and all, issuing one
of my favorite orders. Everyone liked the idea just
fine. Except for one imp, that is, without the brains to
avoid tough Marines who had just stopped a monster
compared to which an imp isn't fit to light cigars.
Imps aren't generally all that bright, of course, so I
don't know why I was surprised. The ugly little sucker
dropped through the hole and threw a flaming wad of
snot that I refused to take seriously. On the other
hand, one of those wads cashed the chips of Bill
Ritch. The thought made me doubly mad, so ...
I returned fire with my double-barreled, thinking
how I actually preferred an honest, all-American duck
gun like this one to the fascist, pump-action variety.
Yeah! The imp split down the middle, the guts making
a Rorschach test. Better than a riot gun, no question
We hauled ass down the tunnel as I ran our list of
liabilities. There was only one, actually, but it was big.
If we'd gotten the shelf open and closed behind us,
we'd have a decent chance right now. However, all the
monsters in the world knew where we'd gone, and the
hordes would be hot on our heels.
Reinforcing this idea was the hissing, growling,
slithering, wheezing, roaring, shlumping, and thud-
thud-thudding a few hundred meters behind us.
There was nothing to do but run like thieves in the
Arlene brought the fire extinguisher with her; God
knows why, unless we ran into another of our brand-
new playmates. Albert and Jill were strapped, so their
hands were free to carry Ken. Poor Ken. The way he
was getting knocked around, bruised, and cut, he
would have been doing a lot better if the bandages had
been left on. If we got out of this, I promised to buy
him a whole new body bandage.
The tunnel, winding snakelike, was terribly narrow,
lined with raw earth and occasionally propped with
wooden braces. The little voice in the back of my
head insisted we were perfectly all right, so long as the
passage wasn't blocked. This was the same voice that
always told me to leave the umbrella home right
before the heaviest rainfall of the year.
Now, it's not like we hit a real cave-in. If we had,
we'd simply have died right there. But a partial cave-
in we could deal with.
Albert threw his massive frame at the wall of dirt,
and it shifted. We were slowed down by Jill and
Arlene pushing Ken through, while Albert yanked
from the other side. I guarded the rear with the
shotgun loaded, ready for bear. No bears.
A few feet ahead, we hit the outside of a huge pipe
and found a hole buzz-cut right through it. We opened
it, and I wished I'd left my olfactory senses back on
"Ew!" said Jill, another unsolicited but insightful
Sewer main. We were assailed by the odor of
"Dive in, the offal's fine!" said Arlene cheerfully.
The sound of our pursuers only fifty meters back
made the idea a lot more appealing. We could hear
their raspy breathing.
We ducked into the sewers, very careful that Ken
shouldn't accidentally drown. We'd come this far
together, and he was starting to feel like a member of
As we ran we heard the last sound anyone wants to
hear underground: the roar and whoosh of a rocket. I
crashed into the others, making Albert drop Ken.
Something heavy, smelling of burnt copper, whizzed
over our heads; a nasty little rocket that just started to
curve, heat-seeking, but couldn't quite make the turn.
It blew a hole in the pipe instead.
And I'd thought the tunnel smelled bad before!
I shook the dust out of my eyes and coughed, then
lifted Jill from the ground. Tears were pouring down
her face, but she wasn't crying; my eyes were watering
too. Albert jerked Arlene to her feet, and they both
checked on Ken, who was lying facedown with a pile
of dirt on his head.
Jill opened his mouth, shoveled the dirt out, and
made sure he hadn't swallowed his tongue. He
coughed, and Jill got to her feet, handing Ken off like
a sack of wheat. I loved watching a fourteen-year-old
do what was considered criminal in the previous
world: act like an adult.
"Over here," yelled Albert, pointing to a small
hatch leading to a cramped corridor. The monsters
were big; they'd have a hard time following.
Albert went first, probably not a good idea. I
preferred Jill and Arlene in front. If we were am-
bushed from behind, the girls might still get through,
and Albert and I could hold off the Bad Guys; the
mission would go on.
But it was too late to do anything about it now. At
least we knew that anywhere Albert went, the rest of
us could easily follow. I brought up the rear, hanging
back to delay, if necessary.
The corridor walls were lined with pipes. When I
caught up with the others, they were trying to open a
pressure hatch at the far end. I brought bad luck with
me--the sound of another rocket.
Albert and I dived left, Arlene and Jill right, taking
Ken with them. Our actions confused the heat-seeker:
it turned partially starboard, exploding and rupturing
several pipes. Again we had the fun of choking and
gagging on a huge burst of methane.
Albert grunted as he turned the difficult pressure
hatch; we heard the gratifying sound of metal grinding
against metal. He didn't open the portal a moment
Looking back, I saw imps, zombies, and one bony.
That answered the question of who'd been firing
rockets. Bringing up their rear was either another fire-
eater or the one Arlene had sprayed with the foam. If
the latter, he'd be looking for payback.
Arlene stepped up, fire extinguisher pointed, ready
for round two. I suddenly remembered something
from my raucous high school daze. "No!" I shouted.
"Get back! Get through the hatch right now!"
Coming out last, I slammed the hatch shut and
spun the wheel. "That's not going to last," said
"Won't need to," I said, backing away. "Everybody,
get way back!"
Albert's face was a mask of puzzlement; then it
dawned on him what was about to happen.
"Hope you all really like barbecue," I addressed the
troops. "Hey, Arlene. Remember when they built the
"Yeah . . ." she said, scowling, still confused.
The mother of all gas explosions rocked us off our
feet, blowing the hatch clean off its hinges; the flying
metal could have killed any of us in the path.
I staggered to my feet. It didn't take a lot of nerve to
go over and check on the results; just a strong stom-
ach. Nothing survived that explosion, not even the
As I peered into the maw of hell, I saw nothing left
of the alien pursuers except shreds of flesh and a fine
mist of alien blood. And of course the lingering odor
of sour lemons.
"What happened?" asked Jill, stunned. At least, I
assume that's what she asked; all I could hear was a
long, loud alarm bell.
I'd counted on the fire-eater; thankfully, it was hot
enough to set off the methane.
Jill was completely recovered from being stunned.
She jumped up and down and shouted something,
probably some contemporary equivalent of yowza.
We old folk were still a little shell-shocked as we
continued along the sewer. After several twists and
turns, it dawned on us we were lost.
Arlene had a compass, and now was the time to use
it. "We've got a problem," she said; I was just starting
to be able to hear again. "It shows a different direc-
tion every time."
"Electric current in the pipe switches," I said.
"Take averages, figure out a rough west."
No matter where we were and what was happening,
the watchwords must be "Go west, go west." We'd
find the computer in L.A., so the President had told
us; hope he knew what he was talking about. There,
we guaranteed a reckoning the enemy would long
We continued westward until we finally
emerged several klicks from where we'd entered.
Night was falling again. We'd had a busy day.
"Transportation," Albert pointed out. We beheld
an old Lincoln Continental, covered in some kind of
crud halfway between rust and slime, making it
impossible to determine its original color. It probably
had an automatic transmission; the mere thought
made me shudder.
Albert went over and opened the unlocked door.
There was no key. "I'll bet it still runs," he said, lying
down on the seat so he could look up at the steering
column. He did violence to the crappy housing and
started fiddling with the wires. A moment later the
engine coughed into life.
"You hot-wired the car," said Jill, impressed.
"Sure," he said.
"I'm surprised you'd know how to do that," she
"Why?" he asked, getting out of the dinosaur.
"Was that part of sniper training?" Jill wanted to
"Part of my troubled youth."
"I wish more Mormons were like you," she told
"The Church was good for me, Jill," he told her. "It
turned my life around."
"Which way were you facing?" she asked jokingly.
"Toward hell," he said.
"You're still facing that way," observed Arlene,
"every time you take a step."
"Yes," he agreed, "but now I'm able to fight it. I'd
rather blast a demon than give him my soul."
We'd had this conversation before. I preferred
opting out this time. Arlene didn't mind a dose of
deja vu, apparently, but then, she was sweet on the
guy. "They're aliens," she said.
"Sure," he agreed. "But for me, they're demons
One man's image of terror is another man's joy
ride. Speaking of which, the old Lincoln was enough
of a monster for me. I was half sorry it still ran. A
quick look at the gas gauge told the story: half a tank,
plenty to make it to Los Angeles.
One thing about an old family car: there was plenty
of room for our family, including Ken propped up
between Jill and Arlene in the backseat. I was happy
to let Albert drive. I rode shotgun.
Albert flipped on the lights in the twilight and
triumphantly announced, "They work!"
"Great," I said. "Now turn them off."
"Oh, right," he said like a little boy caught playing
with the wrong toy. We drove along without lights,
heading toward the diminished glow of Ellay.
"Do you have a new plan?" Arlene asked.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, I saw that Jill was
sleeping. "Of course," I said. "Always. I think we
should hijack a plane, elude any pursuit--"
"Yeah," Albert interrupted. "I wonder if they have
any aircraft? I haven't seen any."
"Maybe they're using zombie pilots," Arlene com-
mented hopefully. Zombie pilots would not have fast
"So, as I was saying," I continued, "we take our
plane and hot-tail it to Hawaii. There we find the War
Technology Center and take them Ken. With help
from Jill, we plug Ken into the bionet and crash the
whole, friggin' alien system."
"Good plan," said Albert.
"Ditto," said Arlene.
It was good to be appreciated. With a proper
respect for Yours Truly, I might yet help Arlene to find
God. I was certain that Albert wouldn't mind that.
"Wonder if there'll be monsters at the city limits,"
said Albert at length.
"Don't see why they'd have that much organiza-
tion," I answered, "after what we've seen. What do
you think, Arlene?" I asked, glancing into the rear-
view mirror again. She'd joined Jill in the Land of
Nod. Given the condition of Ken Estes, the backseat
had become the sleeping compartment of this particu-
"The girls are taking forty," commented Albert
with a touch of envy.
"How are you holding up?" I asked.
"Driving in the dark without lights keeps the old
"I know what you mean. But if you can use some
relief, I'll spell you."
He risked taking his eyes off the black spread of
road long enough to glance over. "You're all right,
Fly. I see why Arlene respects you so much."
"She's told you that?"
"Not in so many words. But it's an easy tell."
We both tried to discern something of the road. The
horizon was bright, in contrast to the darkness right
in front of us. It was that time of day. I rubbed my
eyes, suddenly starting to lose it.
"Why don't you take a nap?" he suggested.
"No. Should at least be two of us awake, and I want
to make sure you're one of them."
Exhausted but too wired to sleep, we made it into
Los Angeles at night. We didn't run into any monster
patrols on the way. Maybe they were saving up some
real doozies for us at the Beverly Center.
At the outskirts of the city, zombie guards shuffled
back and forth in a caricature of military discipline.
Even a zombie would have noticed our approach if
we'd had the headlights on. Score one for basic
Albert took a side road, but we ran into the same
problem. "How long do I keep this up?" he asked.
"All night, I'd say, if I hadn't prepared for this."
"I didn't throw out the lemons we didn't get around
to using before. I wrapped them in plastic wrap from
the MREs. We still have them with us."
"To borrow from Jill, ick!" he said. "Who's been
carting around that rotting crap?"
"Just for that, Fly, you get to wake the girls." The
man knew a thing or two about revenge.
We parked and I woke up Jill first. Then I let Jill
risk tapping Arlene on the shoulder. Some tough
Marines you wake with kid gloves--or better yet,
with a kid. Arlene came to with a start, but she was
good. Very good.
The night air felt pleasantly cool. As we spoiled it
with spoiled citrus, Jill asked, "What about Ken?"
"Lime and lemon him too," said Arlene. "We've all
got to be the same to the zombie noses."
"So, walk or ride?" asked Albert.
"Don't see any reason to give up these wheels
before we have to," I said, amazing myself, consider-
ing how I regarded the old Lincoln. "With the win-
dows down, we ought to pass."
"I look dead enough to keep driving," said Albert.
We all piled back in, thought rancid, graveyard
thoughts, and rolled.
As we approached the first zombie checkpoint, I
started worrying. There hadn't been any other cars
around. But we'd seen a fleet of trucks with zombie
drivers back in Buckeye. I'd have felt a lot better if we
weren't the only car.
Suddenly we were rammed from behind. A truck
had hit us. It didn't have lights. One good view in the
side mirror revealed a zombie driver. "Don't react," I
hissed to everyone, fearing a volley of gunfire at the
wrong moment. Everyone kept his cool.
"We weren't hit very hard," I said. The truck was
barely tooling along, at about the same slow approach
speed we were doing. "Everyone all right?" I asked
While I received affirmatives, the zombie driver
demonstrated some ancient, primitive nerve impulse
that had survived from the human days of Los Ange-
les. The fughead leaned on his horn. All of a sudden, I
completely relaxed. Getting past the checkpoint was
going to be a cinch.
"Shall I take us in, Corporal?" asked Albert, obvi-
ously on the same wavelength.
"Hit it, brother," I said.
The truck stuck close to our bumper through the
totally porous checkpoint. After that, we just drove in
typical L.A. style, weaving drunkenly between
zombie-driven trucks, leaning on our horn, all the
time heading for the ever popular LAX. I wanted to
give the airport the biggest laxative it had ever had
with Lemon Marine Suppositories. Cleans out those
unsightly monsters every time!
We dumped the car in one of the over-
crowded LAX parking lots. Lot C, in fact. There was
real joy in not worrying about finding a parking place,
and an even greater pleasure in not worrying about
We only had to hop a single fence to get where we
were going, in the time-honored tradition of hijack-
ers, and Ken didn't weigh very much. A thought
crossed my mind. "So, uh, one of us knows how to fly
a plane, right?"
"Better than flying it wrong," Arlene said.
"No time for jarhead humor," I said. "Gimmie an
"Funny," said Arlene, quite seriously, "but I was
about to ask the same question. Really."
We both looked at Albert. "I'd been planning to
take lessons, but I never got around to it," he admit-
"How hard can it be?" I asked, recalling the words
of an old movie character.
We infiltrated the refueling area for the big jets, and
I found the perfect candidate: an ancient C-5 Air
Force transport, which could easily make it all the
way to Hawaii. Assuming somebody could drive it.
Everyone was already doing a good zombie perfor-
mance, although I still thought Jill was overdoing it.
Ken was propped between Albert and me, and we
were able to make it look like he was stumbling along
with us. We prepared to tramp up the ramp, joining a
herd of other zombies.
A pair of Clydes waited at the entrance. Damn the
luck! We could pass for zombies among zombies, but I
wasn't at ail sure about these guys,
They were disarming each zombie as it entered the
plane. It was a perfectly reasonable precaution, con-
sidering how zombies acted in close quarters when
they were jostled, pushed, pulled ... or damn near
anything else. I couldn't blame the Clydes for not
wanting the plane to be suddenly depressurized, but
the idea of being disarmed was not at all appealing.
We did some shifting around, then hit the ramp
with myself in the lead, the other four right behind
me, four abreast with Jill and Ken on the inside. Jill
did as good a job as I had of keeping Ken's end up.
This makeshift plan could work if the Clydes were
Sure enough, they barely paid attention as we
simply took our heavy artillery and tossed them on
the pile outside the plane. Bye-bye, shotgun. This left
us with nothing but the pistols hidden inside our
We stuck close to each other, lost in the zombie
mob, as the plane started to taxi; then we worked our
way up front. The Clydes were in the back, huddled
and talking about something. By the time the plane
lifted off, giving me that rush I always get from
takeoff, we were close enough to the front that we
could duck behind the curtain leading to the cockpit
door. I took it on myself to give it a gentle push.
The door opened inward, revealing a pair of imps
hovering over a strange globe, another product of
alien technology, bolted to the floor. The monsters
appeared to be driving the plane through the use of
this pulsing, humming, buzzing ball. It gave me a
headache just looking at it; biotech made me need a
Pepto-Bismol. The glistening, sweating device was
connected to the instrument panel.
The imps' backs were to us. They were so preoccu-
pied with their task, they didn't even turn around
when we entered. I closed the door quietly and locked
From the cockpit I saw Venus ... we were going the
wrong way, due east!
This simply would not do. I pointed at the imps,
and then at Arlene. She nodded. We stepped forward,
pistols in hand, and the barrels of our guns touched
the back of imp heads at exactly the same instant.
The little voice in the back of my head chose that
instant to open its fat yap and suggest that Arlene and
I should say something to the imps, on the order of,
"We're hijacking this plane to Hawaii. We never did
have a proper honeymoon!"
But there was no way to give an imp orders, other
than Fall down, you're dead! We'd simply take over
the plane. After we killed the imps.
I'm certain that Arlene and I fired at the same
moment. The idle thoughts passing through my mind
couldn't have affected the results.
But something went wrong.
The imp Arlene tapped went down and stayed
down. She put two more bullets in him, almost by
reflex, to make certain that the job was good and
done. I should have been able to take care of one lousy
imp, after the way we'd exterminated ridiculous num-
bers of zombies, demons, ghosts, and pumpkins.
One lousy imp! At the closest possible range! The
head turned ever so slightly as I squeezed the trigger.
Somehow the bullet went in at an angle that didn't
put the imp down.
Turning around, screaming, it flung one flaming
snotball. One lousy snotball. I dived to the left. Arlene
was already out of the line of fire, on the right, taking
care of the other one. Jill crouched, fingers stuck in
her ears, trying to keep out the loud reverberations of
the shots in the enclosed space. Albert could have
done the same.
But Albert froze. As much of a pro as he was, he
stood there with the dumb expression of a deer caught
in the headlights, right before road kill. Maybe Albert
had a little voice in the back of his head, and it had
chosen that moment to bug him. Or maybe it was
such a foregone conclusion that these imps were toast,
he'd let down his guard, taking a brief mental rest at
precisely the wrong moment.
The fireball struck him dead-center in the face.
I remembered losing Bill Ritch that way.
It didn't seem right to survive all the firepower this
side of the goddamned sun, and then cash in on
something so trivial. It made me so mad, the cockpit
vanished in a haze of red. It was like I'd mainlined
another dose of that epinephrine stuff from Deimos.
I dropped my gun and jumped on the imp, beating
at it with my fists, tearing at it with my teeth. I was
screaming louder than poor Albert, writhing on the
floor holding his face.
Hands were on me from behind, trying to pull me
off, little hands. Jill was behind me, yelling something
in my ear I couldn't understand; but the part of me
that didn't want to hurt Jill won out over the part that
wanted to rip the imp apart with my fingernails.
Letting go seemed a bad idea, though; there'd be
nothing stopping it from tossing the fireballs to fry us
all. Then I heard Arlene shouting something about a
"clear shot," and I suddenly remembered the inven-
tion of firearms.
The caveman jumped out of the way to give Cockpit
Annie the target she wanted. She pumped round after
round into the imp's open mouth. He never closed it.
He never raised his claw hands again.
Of course, while we were encountering these diffi-
culties, there was a commotion outside. I guess we
had made a bit of noise.
One of the zombies tried the door. The lock held for
now. Sanity returned, and I helped the blinded Albert
get up, casually noticing that he hadn't taken any of
the flaming stuff down his throat or nose. He might
In the distance we heard gunshots and curses. The
Clydes must have been forcing their way forward,
shooting any zombies in their way. Suddenly, I was
grateful that the plane was a sardine can of solid,
"Okay, moment of truth," said Arlene, the mantle
of command falling on her there and then. It's not
something I'd wish on my worst enemy. "Who's going
to fly this damned thing?" she asked in the tones of a
demand, not a question.
The gunshots crept close. We had perhaps a minute.
"I will," said Jill in a small voice; but with confi-
dence. I remembered her stint in the truck with some
trepidation. Then I remembered how she stayed be-
hind the wheel after a missile tried to take her head
"You didn't tell us you could fly one of these," I
said, getting my voice back.
"You didn't ask," she said. It sounded like one of
those old comedy routines, but without a laugh track.
It wasn't funny.
"Jill," I said, "have you ever flown a plane before?"
"Kind of? What the hell does that mean?"
A zombie threw itself against the door, where
Albert still moaned. He braced himself, still fighting,
still a part of the team.
She sighed. "Okay, I haven't really flown; but I'm a
wizard at all the different flight simulators!"
Arlene and I stared at each other with mounting
horror. I hated to admit it, even to myself, but my
experience bringing down the mail rocket--with a
high-tech program helping every mile of the way--
probably qualified me less to fly the C-5 than Jill with
"All right?" I said to Arlene.
"Right," she answered, shrugging, then went to
hook up Ken.
I helped Jill look for jacks on the glistening biotech.
She was more willing to touch it than I was. She found
what she needed and plugged Ken into the system.
The operation went smoothly; he'd been designed for
Jill called up SimFlight on her CompMac and
tapped furiously, connecting it to Ken, then to the
actual plane. A moment later she spoke with that
triumphant tone of voice that rarely let us down:
"Got it! We have control!"
The gunshots suggested the Clydes were getting
closer, and more heavy bodies were beginning to
throw themselves against the cockpit door. I was
about to make a suggestion when Albert beat me to it.
He was down but not out.
"Godspeed," whispered Albert, still covering his
eyes. "Now, why don't you purge all the air from the
Raising my eyebrows, I silently mouthed "daugh-
ter" to Arlene, but she shook her head. Albert obvi-
ously meant it generically. He was much too young to
be her real father.
Faster and faster, Jill typed away . . . then the rag-
ing, surging sounds behind the door grew dimmer and
dimmer, finally fading away to nothing. Modern
death by keyboard. We were already at forty thousand
feet and climbing; up there, there was too little air to
sustain even zombies. And Clydes, human-real or
human-fake, had a human need for plenty of O2.
"Well done, daughter," said Albert. He could hear
Having come this close to buying it, I could hardly
believe we were safe again. A coughing fit came out of
nowhere and grabbed my heart. Arlene put her arm
around me and said, "Your turn to sleep again." I
didn't argue. I noticed that Albert was already
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care . , .
I felt too lousy, and too guilty somehow, to stay
under for long. Less than a half hour later I was awake
again. Jill had turned around, crossed the coastline,
and was over the ocean. All was well with the world
... for a few seconds longer.
"Holy hell, we're losing airspeed!" she suddenly
screamed, jerking us all awake. "We're losing alti-
It's always something.
The engines strained and whined, making the
noises they would if headed into a ferocious head
wind. But there was no wind. With a big fooooomp,
one engine flamed out. Jill wasn't kidding about the
quality of her simulator exercises; she instantly dived
the plane to restart it. Then she headed back, circling
around to try again.
"Stupid monster mechanics," I yelled. "Dumb-ass
demon dildo ground crew! How the hell do these
idiots intend to conquer the world when they can't
"Shut up!" Jill shouted. I shut up. She was right. I
could be pissed off all I wanted after she saved our
Two more tries and she was white-faced. "It's some
kind of field," she said. "We can't go west."
"So that's how they're conquering the world," said
Arlene calmly. I took my medicine like a good boy.
Jill set the auto-pilot to continue circling,
hoping no one had noticed the deviation yet. She
typed away, accessing the biotech nav-com aboard.
Then she smiled grimly. "Listen up," she said.
We sure as hell did; the mantle of command was
hers while we were in the air. "Guys, we're going to
have to dump you off at Burbank." She said it like
Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell where the devil himself
is imprisoned in ice, spending eternity chewing on
Judas like a piece of tough caramel. I'd made good
grades in my lit. courses.
"What? Why?" demanded Arlene.
"The force-field switch is located in the old Disney
tower, near the studio."
"Is nothing sacred to these devils?" I asked.
"Night on Bald Mountain," said Arlene, "part
"Sorry. No choice."
Jill altered course and headed northeast. We didn't
speak for the rest of the short flight. None of us could
think of anything worth saying.
Finally, Jill was bringing the plane low over Bur-
bank International Airport. "Can you do a rolling
stop?" I asked. "Slow down to about fifty kilometers
per hour, then turn it into a touch-and-go?"
"Uh," she said. After thinking about it, she contin-
ued: "Yeah. Why?" I let the silence speak for me. She
gasped and said, "You're crazy if you're thinking of a
"I'm thinking of a roll-out."
"What the hell," said Arlene. "I'm crazy too."
Jill shook her head, obviously wondering about
both of us.
She cruised in over the airport, ignoring the stan-
dard landing pattern and dodging other planes, which
answered my question about lousy zombie pilots.
We were low enough that the passenger cabin was
pressurized again. Arlene and I went aft, picking our
way over a planeful of zombies and two Clydes that
were examples of the only good monsters. Jill kept
calling out, "Are you ready?" She sounded more
nervous each time. We reassured her. It was easier
than reassuring ourselves.
"Open the rear cargo door!" Arlene shouted so that
Jill could hear. We hit the runway deck hard, bounc-
ing twice; the C-5 wasn't supposed to fly this slow.
The rushing wind made everything a lot noisier. But
we were able to hear Jill, loud and clear, when she said
the magic word:
We did just that, hitting the tarmac hard. I rolled
over and over and over, bruising portions of my
anatomy I'd never noticed before. I heard the sound
effects from Arlene doing her impression of a tennis
ball. But I didn't doubt this was the right way to
disembark the plane; couldn't risk a real landing.
I got to my feet first. Jill was having trouble with her
altitude. "Jesus, no!" shouted Arlene at the sight of
Jill headed for a row of high rises.
"Lift, dammit, lift!" I spoke angrily into the air.
There wasn't time for a proper prayer.
At the last second, bright, blinding flares erupted
from under both wings, and the C-5 pulled sharply
upward. A few seconds later we heard a roar so loud
that it almost deafened us.
"What the hell?" Arlene asked, mouth hanging
"Outstanding!" I shouted, fisting the air. "She must
have found the switch for the JATO rockets."
"Jet-assisted takeoff!" I shouted. "They're rockets
on aircraft to allow them to do ultra-short-field take-
"I didn't know that plane would have those."
"She probably didn't either," I said, so proud of her
I wished she could hear me call her daughter the same
way Albert had.
We watched until Jill became a dark speck in the
sky, circling until we could get the field down.
We tucked and ran, jogging all the way to the huge
Disney building; the Disney logo at the top was shot
up--somebody'd been using it for target practice.
"Ready?" I asked.
I took a deep breath; pistols drawn, we popped the
door and slid inside.
My God, what a wave of nostalgia! It was like old
times again . . . back on Phobos, sliding around cor-
ners, hunting those zombies!
Up the stairwells--couldn't trust the lifts . . , I
mean the elevators. Any minute, I knew I'd run into a
hell-prince--and me without my trusty rocket
launcher. Thank God, I didn't.
We played all our old games: cross fire, ooze-barrel-
blow, even rile-the-critters. The last was the most fun:
you get zombies and spinys so pissed, they munch
each other alive.
Every floor we visited, we looked for that damned
equipment. Nada. We climbed higher and higher; I
began to get the strong feeling that we'd find the field
generator way, way up, fortieth floor, all the way at
It'd be just our luck.
We took Sig-Cows off'n the first two zombies we
killed; better than the pistols, even though they were
still just 10mm. The next one had a beautiful, won-
derful shotgun. I'd take it, even if it was a fascist
"Like old times," I said.
"Back on Deimos," she agreed.
"They die just as easily. I like my new toy."
"Hold your horses, Fly Taggart," she said. "Haven't
you forgotten something?"
"A certain wager."
No sooner did she mention the bet than I did
indeed remember. There was only one thing to do.
Change the subject: "Those zombies were probably
the least of our troubles, Arlene. We can settle this
"No way, Fly! I jumped out of a plane for you, and
you're gonna pay your damn bet." When she got like
this there was nothing to do but surrender. All the
demonic forces of hell were like child's play compared
to welshing on a bet with Arlene Sanders.
"Well, now that you mention it, I do have a vague
recollection," I lied. "And that Sig-Cow looks like a
mighty fine weapon at that."
"Good," she said. "You take the Sig-Cow. The
shotgun is mine."
We resolved this dispute at just about the right
moment, because a fireball exploded over our heads.
We were under bombardment by imps. Now the new
weapons would receive a literal baptism of fire.
Blowing away the spiny bastards, up the fifth floor
stairwell, I turned a corner and found myself nose-to-
nose with another Clyde. This close, there was no
question: it looked exactly the same as the one we'd
killed in the alley in Riverside, the same as the two
who'd disarmed us getting on the plane.
There was no question now: they were, indeed,
genetically engineered. The aliens had finally made
their breakthrough . . . God help the human race.
He raised his .30 caliber, belt-fed, etc., etc.; but we
had the drop on him. He never knew what hit him--
well, it was a hail of bullets and Arlene's buckshot,
and he probably knew that; you know what I mean!
But now I had my own weapon; she looked envious
. . . but she'd had her pick. The bet was paid.
As a final treat, thirty-seven floors up--Jesus, was I
getting winded! I felt like an old man--we were
attacked by a big, floating, familiar old pumpkin.
It hissed. It made faces. It spat ball lightning at us.
I spat a stream of .30 caliber machine-gun bullets
back at it, popping it like a beach ball. It spewed all
over the room, spraying that blue ichor it uses for
"Jesus, Fly," said my partner in crime, "I'm going
to lose my hearing if this keeps up."
"That machine gun! It's almost as loud as Jill and
"What's that?" I asked, grinning. I was delighted
with the results of my belt-fed baby.
She gave a "playful" punch on the arm, my old
buddy. I yelped in pain.
"Where's an uninjured place on your body?" she
"That's a very good question. I think tumbling
down the airstrip eliminated all of those."
"Same here," she said. "But you can still make a
great pumpkin pie." She kicked at the disgusting
remains on the ground.
"Shall we find the top of the mouse house?" I
"After you, Fly."
In battlefield conditions, a proper gentleman goes
ahead of the lady. If she asks, anyway. I was happy to
oblige; but the nose of my machine gun actually
preceded both of us.
At the very top we found a prize.
The door wasn't even locked. Inside was a room full
of computers hooked into a new collection of alien
biotech. This stuff gave off a stench, and some of it
made mewling sounds like an injured animal. I
wished Jill could be with us, plotting new ways of
becoming a technovivisectionist.
"Got to be it," said Arlene.
I had trouble making out her words, not because my
hearing was impaired, but because of the noise level.
My machine gun contributed a good portion of it. So
did Arlene's shotgun. And there were several explo-
sions. A nice fanfare as we blew away unsuspecting
imps and zombies tending the equipment.
I picked up a fiberglass baton off the body of an ex-
zombie guard and used it to bar the door. I expected
more playmates along momentarily. The idea didn't
even bother me; not so long as I could buy us some
Arlene waved the smoke away and began fiddling
with the controls on the main console. She frantically
started flipping one push-switch after another, look-
ing for the one that would kill the field.
"There has to be a way of doing this," she said, "or
finding out if we've already done it.
"What makes you so sure?"
"Well, what if the aliens wanted to fly to Hawaii?"
I nodded. "I can just see a pinkie in one of those
"Damn! I wish we had Jill and Ken with us."
"Defeats the whole purpose, A.S. They're ready
and waiting, forty thousand up, ready to blow for the
islands as soon as we cut the bloody field."
"Most of the switches require a psi-connection to
activate, and I can't do that!"
By now there was a huge contingent pounding on
the door. The fiberglass bar was holding them ... so
far. These sounds did not improve Arlene's psycho-
logical state or aid the difficult work she was trying to
"I'm not getting it," she said. "I'm close, but I'm
not getting it. Damn, damn, damn . . ."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Hold the door. Hold the door! I'm sure there's one
special button, but how will I know it even if I find
As if to mock her, the entire panel went dark right
then. She looked up and saw . . .
Me. Me, her buddy. Fly Taggart, technical dork,
first-class. In my hand I held a gigantic electrical cord
that I'd sliced in half with my commando knife. I
knew that knife would come in handy one day.
"When in doubt, yank it out," I said with a smile.
She tried to laugh but was too tired for any sound to
come out. "Did you learn that in VD class?" she
I was saved from answering her because the door
started to give way under the onslaught. Then the
shred of a feeble plan crept into my brain. I ran across
to the windows and smashed them open.
We were forty stories high, looking straight down
on concrete, but it seemed better to open the windows
than leave them closed.
"We took the energy wall down, at least," I said
over my shoulder. "Jill's got to notice it's gone and
tread air for Hawaii."
Arlene nodded, bleak even in victory. She was
thinking of Albert ... I didn't need alien psionics to
know that. "The War Techies will track her as an
'unknown rider,'" added Arlene bleakly, "and they'll
scramble some jets; they should be able to make
contact and talk her down."
"Would you say the debt is paid?"
I didn't have to specify which debt. Arlene consid-
ered for a long time. "Yeah," she said at last, "it's
"Great. Got a hot plan to talk us down?" I asked
She shook her head. I had a crazy wish that before
Albert was blinded, and before Arlene and I found
ourselves in this cul-de-sac, I'd played Dutch uncle to
the two love birds, complete with blessings and un-
But somehow this did not seem the ideal moment
to suggest that Arlene seriously study the Mormon
faith, if she really loved good old Albert. A sermon on
why it was better to have some religion, any religion,
lay dormant in my mind.
Also crossing my mind was another sermon, on the
limitations of the atheist viewpoint, right before your
mortal body is ripped to shreds. Bad taste, especially
if you delivered it to someone with only precious
seconds left to come up with a hot plan.
She shook her head. "There's no way," she began,
and then paused. "Unless . . ."
"Yes?" I asked, trying not to let the sound of a
hundred slavering monsters outside the door add
panic to the atmosphere.
Arlene stared at the door, at the console, then out
the window. She went over to the window like she had
all the time in the world and looked straight down.
Then up. For some reason, she looked up.
She faced me again, wearing a big, crafty, Arlene
Sanders smile. "You are not going to believe this, Fly
Taggart, but I think--I think I have it. I know how to
get us down and get us to Hawaii to join Albert."
"And Jill," I added. I nodded back, convinced
she'd finally cracked. "Great idea, Arlene. We could
use a vacation from all this pressure."
"You don't believe me."
"You're right. I don't believe you."
Arlene smiled slyly. She was using the early-worm-
that-got-the-bird smile. "Flynn Taggart. .. bring me
some duct tape from the toolbox, an armload of
computer-switch wiring, and the biggest, goddamned
boot you can find!"
Last-modified: Thu, 04 Dec 2003 05:14:09 GMT
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