The ship was 3.7 klicks long, and I walked
every damned meter of it, trying to find where all the
creaks and groans were coming from. I wasn't sur-
prised to hear the haunting noises; I expected nothing
less nightmarish from the Fred aliens. They came to
us as aliens in demonic clothing, playing to every
Jungian fear that panicked the human race, from deep
inside the collective whatever you call it--Arlene
would know. Now their ship sounded like it was
tearing apart at the seams ... or like the entire uni-
verse was finally winding down. I walked down moist
fungus-infested passageways that were too tall, too
narrow, and too damned hot, listening to the universe
Down and out. Mostly I walked the ship to keep
some sort of tab on Lance Corporal Arlene Sanders,
my ghost XO, who was falling apart on me. Nobody
goes off the deep end on Sergeant Flynn Taggart, not
without my say-so. But there was Arlene, sitting cross-
legged on the observation deck (the "mess hall") at
the stern of the Fred ship, staring at a redshifted eye of
light that was all the stars in the galaxy swirled into
one blob--some sort of relativity effect. She sat,
unblinking, peering down the corridor of time to
Earth today, which was probably Earth two hundred
years or more ago.
Christ, but that sounds melancholy. Arlene hadn't
changed her uniform in three days, and she was
starting to stink up the place. I didn't want to inter-
rupt her grief: she had lost her beloved ... in a sense;
by the time we hit dirt at Fredworld, kicked some
Fred ass, and got them to turn us around back to
Earth again, about two hundred years would have
passed for the mudhoppers. Corporal Albert Gallatin
would be a century in his grave. He was as good as
dead to her now.
Space is a lonely place; don't let anyone tell you
different. The spacefaring surround themselves with
friends and squadmates, but it only holds the empti-
ness of deep space partway off. You can still feel it
brushing your mind, probing for a weak point.
We tried playing various games to stave off the
loneliness; I came up with the favorite, Woe Is Me: we
competed to see who could spin the most depressing
tale of woe, me or Arlene . . . listing in endlessly
expanding detail all the different reasons to just open
a hatch and be blown into the interstellar void.
I always won--not that I had that many more
reasons to despair than Arlene, but because I had
more practice complaining about things.
"I left my true love behind," she would pine.
"At least you had one!" I retorted. "All I ever had
was a fiancÊe, and I'm not sure I even knew her
middle name." Sears and Roebuck, our normally
jovial binary Klave pair, were no help; they locked
themselves in their cabin and wouldn't come out.
They couldn't even be coaxed out for a game of Woe Is
Me! But lately Arlene was winning by default: she was
too depressed to play. She just sat and stared out the
The Fred ship was roughly cylindrical, spinning for
a kind of artificial gravity about 0.8 g at the outer
skin; in addition, during the first days, we had a heavy
acceleration pulling us backward as the ship got up to
speed. This was a Godsend; I always hated zero-g,
always. I always blew; I always got vertigo; I never
knew which way was up, because there was no up.
It was 3.7 kilometers long and about 0.375 kilome-
ters in diameter, I reckoned. I had some mild dizzi-
ness from the spin--my inner ear never really ad-
justed to that sort of crap--but it was a damned sight
better than the "float 'n' pukes" we rode from Earth
to Mars, or up to Phobos.
For the last twenty-four hours, I had followed
Arlene up and down the ship when she went wander-
ing, through blackness and flickering light. The whole
place tasted vile; most of taste is smell, and the stench
got on the back of my tongue and stayed there.
Arlene probably knew I was there, but she made no
attempt to talk to me. Occasionally, I heard weapons
fire; I thought she might be shooting up the "dead"
bodies of the Fred aliens. I couldn't believe it; she
knew they could still feel the pain of the bullets! Then
I caught her discharging her shotgun into a man-
shaped chalk outline she'd drawn on a bulkhead in a
stateroom that once belonged to the ship's engineer, a
Fred who was deactivated up on the bridge.
"What the hell are you doing, A.S.?" I demanded.
"Shooting," she said, staring dully at me. She slid
her hands up and down the barrel of her piece, getting
gun grease on her palms, but she didn't notice.
"You're shooting into a steel bulkhead, you brain-
dead dweeb! Where do you think the bullets are going
when they bounce off it?"
Arlene said nothing. She hadn't been hit by a
ricochet yet, but if she kept shooting at steel bulk-
heads, it was only a matter of moments.
Two minutes after I left, I heard the shooting start
up again, but she denied later that she had fired her
I returned to the bridge for a long face-to-face with
the "dead" Fred captain. They're not like us ...
rather, we're not like them or the rest of the intelligent
races of the galaxy.
A Fred alien, and everybody else except a human,
can never die. Even when you shoot his body to Swiss
cheese, so his blue guts and red blood dribble out the
holes onto the deck, his consciousness remains intact.
Blow his head apart, and it floats as a ghost, drifting
like invisible smoke--still thinking, hearing and see-
ing, feeling and desperately dreaming. You can talk to
them; they actually hear you.
The Freds and other races pile their dead in fantas-
tic cenotaph theaters where they are entertained day
and night by elaborate operas and dances of great
beauty, all to keep the "dead" vibrant and interested
until such time as they're needed for revivification--
assuming there's enough left of the body and enough
interest on the part of an animate Fred to pay for it.
I'd shot the captain nine days ago as he lay on the
floor, reaching up to implement and lock in the
preprogrammed course for Fredworld. Despite the
best efforts of me and Arlene and our contractor-
advisors Sears and Roebuck--a Klave binary pair
who each looked like a cross between Magilla Gorilla
and Alley Oop--we couldn't figure out how to change
course or even shut off the engines.
I picked the captain up and sat him in the co-pilot's
chair. Poetic justice; he had died bravely ... let him
see where he was going. Now I stood directly in front
of the bastard so his dead eyes could drink me in.
"God, I wish I could repair your wounds and bring
you back to life," I said, "so I could kill you all over
again and again and again, and repeat the process
until you told me how to turn this piece-of-crap ship
around. But I promise you I'll obliterate your brain
before I'll let you be recaptured and revived by your
I blamed the captain for Arlene's psychosis; I would
never forgive him for it and would kill him again if I
ever got the chance.
Christ, where to jump in on this thing? I never
know where to start to bring everyone up to date.
Sears and Roebuck had locked themselves in their
stateroom, the double-entities shouting that we were
all doomed, game over, pull the plug! God only knew
where they picked up the expressions, but the senti-
ment was pretty clear: when we got to Fredworld, the
most logical outcome was for us to be burned into a
nice warm plasma by the batteries of heavy-particle
weapons the Freds obviously had ringing their hellish
I'm not a big fan of logic. Logic predicted that
Arlene and I would be smoked during our last en-
counter with the Freds. They had everything except
the homecourt advantage, and even that was dicey,
the way they could change the architecture of Phobos
and Deimos at the drop of a flaming snotball.
When this donnybrook first started, Arlene and I
both thought we were dealing with actual honest-to-
Lucifer demons from hell! They sure looked like
demons; we battled the sons of bitches deep, deeper
into the Union Aerospace Corporation facilities on
Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars. All the
rest of Fox Company, Light Drop Marine Corps
Infantry, were killed . . . and some were "reworked"
into undead zombies.
That was the worst, seeing my buddies coming at
me, brainless but still clutching their weaponry. I
mowed them down, feeling a little death every time I
killed a former friend.
But we faced far more dangerous foes: imps, or
spineys, as Arlene liked to call them, who hurled
flaming balls of mucus; pinkies ... two meters of
gigantic mouth with a little pair of legs attached; we
faced down ghosts we couldn't see, minotaurlike hell
princes with fireball shooters on their wrists ... even
gigantic one-eyed pumpkins that floated and spat
lightning balls at us! But the worst of all were the
steam demons: fifteen feet tall with rocket launchers,
it was virtually impossible to kill the SOBs.
On Earth, we discovered that the Freds were geneti-
cally engineering monsters to look and act like human
beings, until they suddenly opened up on you with
machine guns. They had a few failed attempts that
were horrific enough, one a walking skeleton!
But the whole mission turned on a fundamental
misunderstanding: when last the Freds contacted us,
we were at the dividing line between the Medieval and
Renaissance periods, like the late 1400s--and they
somehow got the idea we still were. They never
realized how fast we evolved socially and technologi-
cally; nobody else did it that fast! They came scream-
ing in with demonic machines and genetically engi-
neered fiends, thinking we would fall cowering to our
knees, and conquest would be swift and brutal.
They weren't prepared for a technological society
that no longer believed in demons. They weren't
ready for the Light Drop Marine Corps Infantry; they
weren't prepared for Arlene and me.
We triumphed, and I got another stripe, but now I
was willing to bet a month's leave that we were
driving into destruction. No matter how long your
hand, the dice eventually turn against you. At least let
me take a few dozen of them with me, I prayed.
But without Arlene I didn't have much of a chance,
let alone much reason, to go on. Earth was dead to me
now; when we got back there, if we got back, what
would be left after three or four centuries? Would
there be a United States, a Washington Monument, a
United States Marine Corps? For all we knew, the
Earth was "already" a smoking burnt-out cinder
("already" is a relative term, we've found out; by the
time we get back, it will have happened a certain
number of centuries in the past; that's all I can say).
Stars rolled past the porthole beneath my feet;
actually, it was the ship that rotated, but everything
was relative. I followed Arlene as she traversed the
ship. She set up her shooting range in the aft cargo-
hold, a ways outboard ("down") from the mess hall,
seventy meters high and wide and nearly half a
kilometer long. I was desperate--I had to snap her
out of her zombie mode. I had to do something! So
just as my redheaded lance corporal babe raised her
M-14, I stepped out of the shadows directly in front of
It was an incredibly stupid thing to do--but I had
no choice, no other way to get her attention. She
almost squeezed off a burst anyway, because she just
plain didn't see me. As Arlene squeezed the trigger,
she realized the range wasn't clear. She screamed--
like a woman!--and jerked the barrel to the left.
A single three-round burst escaped anyway. One of
the bullets creased my uniform; it felt like she had
whipped me across the arm with a corrections staff. It
hurt like hell!
"FLY!" she screamed, slinging her rifle aside and
running up to me.
I sank to one knee, holding my arm; it wasn't
bleeding bad, but I was knocked off balance by the
blow--and by the knowledge that had Arlene reacted
a fraction of a second slower, I would have been
stretched out on the steel deckplates, coughing up my
Completely calm now, Arlene Sanders un-Velcroed
my Marine recon jacket and gently slipped it off my
arm. When she saw the wound was just a crease, and I
would recover in a couple of days, she let loose with a
string of invective and obscenities that was Corps to
the core! They echoed off the black saw-toothed walls
and rattled my brainpan.
She shook me viciously by the uniform blouse.
"You dumbass bastard, Fly! What the hell were you
thinking, jumping into the line like that? Don't an-
swer! You weren't thinking, that's the problem!" She
let me sink back to the deck, suddenly nervous about
overstepping the chain. "Uh, that's the problem,
Sergeant," she lamely corrected.
I sat up, wiping away the tears on my good sleeve.
"Arlene, you dumb broad, I was thinking thoughts as
deep as the starry void. I was thinking, now how can I
finally get that catatonic zombie girl's attention and
snap her out of her despair over Albert?"
"Jesus, Fly, is that what this is about?"
I put my hand on my shoulder, massaging the
muscle gently through my T-shirt. "Lance, I was
about ready to hypo you into unconsciousness for a
few days to let you work it all out in your dreams. God
knows we have enough time--two hundred years to
Fredworld, or eight and a half weeks from our point of
view. I was just about ready to give up on you."
Arlene stared down at the deck, but I wouldn't let
up; I finished what I had to say. "I can't afford to lose
you, A.S. Those binary freaks Sears and Roebuck are
a great source of intel and sardonic comments, but
they can't fight for crap. I need you at my back, A.S.; I
need the old Arlene. You've got to come back to me
and work your magic."
She turned and walked away from me, leaning
against the hot bulkhead and swearing under her
breath. She couldn't really say anything out loud, not
after I had made a point of dragging rank into it (I
called her "Lance" to drive home the chain of com-
mand). But nothing in the UCMJ said she had to like
She didn't. She wouldn't speak to me the rest of the
day, and all of the next. She took to sulking in the big
lantern-lit cabin we had dubbed the mess hall, since
that was where we took our meals--well, used to take
them; Sears and Roebuck were still holed up in their
own stateroom, cowering in terror at the upcoming
brawl with the Freds when we hit dirtside; and Arlene
ate Anywhere But There, so she wouldn't have to eat
with me; when I entered, she left by another portal, so
I ate alone. Then when I left to return to duty (staring
out the forward video screen, wondering when some-
thing would happen), Arlene snuck in and hid away
I barely saw her any more often than I had before
. . . but I felt a thousand percent relieved, because
now she was angry rather than desolate and apathetic.
Anger. Now that I have a good handle on. I'm a
Marine, for Christ's sake! What I couldn't understand
Angry Marines don't stay angry for long, especially
not at their NCOs. Sergeants are buttheads; we'd both
known that since Parris Island! After a while, Arlene
took to haunting the mess hall when I was there,
sitting far away; then she sat at my too-tall table, but
at the other end; then she got around to eating across
from me ... but she glared a hell of a lot.
I waited, patiently and quietly. Eventually, her
need for human company battered down her fury at
me for risking my life like I did, and she started
making snippy comments.
I knew I'd won when she sat down four days after
the shooting incident and demanded, "All right, Ser-
geant, now tell me again why you had to do something
so bone-sick stupid as to step in front of a live rifle."
"To piss you off," I answered, truthfully.
Arlene stared, her mouth hanging open. She had
shaved her hair into a high-and-tight again, and it was
so short on top, it was almost iridescent orange. Her
uniform was freshly laundered--Sears and Roebuck
had showed us how to use the Fred washing machines
when we first took over the ship, two weeks earlier--
and I swear to God she had ironed everything. She
had been working out, too; she looked harder, tighter
than she had just a few days earlier, and it wasn't just
her haircut. Now I was the only one getting soft and
"To piss me off? For God's sake, why?"
"A.S.," I said, leaning so close we were breathing
each other's O2, "I don't think you realize how close I
came to losing you. Despair is a terrible, terrible
mental illness; apathy is a freaking disease. I had to do
something so shocking, something to give you such a
burst of adrenaline, that it would jerk you out of your
feedback loop and drag you, kicking and screaming,
back to the here and now."
I scratched my stubbly chin, feeling myself flush.
"All right, maybe it was pretty bone-sick stupid. But I
was desperate! What should I have done? I don't think
you know just what you mean to me, old girl."
She slid up to sit cross-legged on the table, staring
around the huge empty mess hall. No officers around,
and no non-coms but me. Why not? "Fly," she said,
"I don't think you know just what Albert meant to
me. Means--meant--is he dead or alive now?"
"Probably still alive. It's only been about twenty
years or so on Earth ... or will have only been by this
point, when we get back there--by which point, it'll
have been two centuries. It's weird; it's confusing; it's
not worth worrying about." I ate another blue square;
they tasted somewhat like ravioli--crunchy outside
and stuffed with worms that tasted half like cheese,
half like chocolate cake. It sounds dreadful, but really
it's not bad when you get used to it. A lot better than
the orange squares and gray dumplings, which tasted
like rotten fish. The Fred aliens had truly stomach-
turning tastes, by and large.
"Fly, when I first joined the squad--you remember
Gunny Goforth and the William Tell apple on the
head duel?--you were my only friend then."
I remembered the incident. Gunnery Sergeant Go-
forth was just being an asshole because he didn't
think women belonged in the Corps--not the Corps
and definitely not the Light Drop Marine Corps
Infantry--and no way in the nine circles of hell, not
by the livin' Gawd that made him, was Gunnery
Sergeant Harlan E. Goforth ever going to let some
pussy into Fox Company, the machoest, fightingest
company of the whole macho, fighting Light Drop!
He decreed that no gal could join his company
unless she proved herself by letting him shoot an apple
off her head! And Arlene did it! She stood there and let
him take it off with a clean shot from a .30-99 bolt-
action sniper piece. With iron sights, yet.
Then, with a little malicious sneer on her lips, she
calmly tossed a second apple to Goforth and made
him wear the fruit while she did the William Tell bit.
We all loved it; to his credit, the gunny stood tall and
didn't flinch and let her pop it off his dome at fifty
meters. After that, what could the Grand Old Man do
but welcome her to Fox, however reluctantly?
Back in the Freds' mess hall, Arlene continued,
nibbling at her own blue square. "You're still my best
and first, Fly. But Albert was the first man I really
loved. Wilhelm Dodd was the first guy to care about
me that way; but I didn't know what love meant until
... oh Jesus, that sounds really stupid, doesn't it?"
I climbed onto the table myself, and we sat back to
back. I liked feeling her warmth against me. It was
like keeping double-watch, looking both ways at once.
"No. It would have sounded dumb, except I know
exactly what you mean. I felt that once, too: young girl
in high school, before I joined the Corps."
"You never told me, Sergeant--Fly."
"We got as close as you could in a motor vehicle not
built for the purpose. She swore she was being reli-
gious about the pill, but she got pregnant anyway. I
offered to pay either way, and she chose the abortion.
After that, well, it just wasn't there anymore; I think
they sucked more than the fetus out, to be perfectly
grotesque about it ... We stopped pretending to be
boyfriend-girlfriend when it just got too painful; and
then she and her parents moved away. She just waved
goodbye, and I nodded."
Arlene snorted. "That's the longest rap you've ever
given me, Fly. Where'd you read it?"
"God's own truth, A.S. Really happened just that
Arlene leaned back against me, while I stared out
the aft port at the redshifted starblob; the mess hall
was at the south end of a north-going ship, 1.9
kilometers from the bridge, which was located amid-
ships, surrounded by a hundred meters of some weird
steel-titanium alloy, and 3.7 kilometers from the
engines, all the way for'ard. Sitting in the mess hall,
we could look directly backward out a huge, thick,
plexiglass window while traveling very near the speed
of light relative to the stars behind us.
It was a fascinating view; according to astronomical
theory--which I'd had plenty of time to read about
since we'd been burning from star to star--at relativ-
istic speeds, the light actually bends: all the stars
forward press together into a blue blob at the front, all
the ones aft press into a red lump at the stern. I wasn't
sure how fast we were going, but the formula was easy
enough to use if I really got interested.
"I just had a horrible thought," I said. "We only
brought along enough Fredpills to last a few days. We
didn't plan on spending weeks here." Arlene didn't
say anything, so I continued. "We'll have to find the
Fred recombinant machine and figure out how to use
it; maybe Sears and Roebuck know." Fredpills sup-
plied the amino acids and vitamins essential to hu-
mans that Freds lacked in their diet; without them, we
would starve to death, no matter how much Fred food
"Fly," she said, off in another world, "I'm starting
not to care about the Freds anymore. I know why they
attacked us: they were terrified of what we repre-
sented, death and an honest-to-God soul, and maybe
the god of the Israelites is right, huh? Maybe we're the
immortal ones ... not the rest of them, the ones who
"So are you thinking that Albert still exists some-
where, maybe in heaven?" I was trying to wrap myself
around her problem, not having much luck.
She shrugged; I felt it roughly. "So he himself
believed; I would never contradict an article of my
honey's faith, especially when I don't have any con-
"Translation into English?"
"I've just stopped caring about the Fred aliens, Fly.
They're frightened, desperate, and pretty pathetic.
And they're soulless. I mean, two humans against how
many of them? Even when Albert and Jill joined us,
we were still four against a planetful! And we kicked
ass. Maybe it's just the Marine in me, but I'm starting
to wonder why we're bothering with these dweebs."
"Well, we've got about forty-five days left to get our
heads straight for what's probably going to be the final
curtain for Fly and Arlene, not to mention poor old
Sears and Roebuck. They may be soulless and lousy
soldiers, but put enough of them in a room shooting
at us and we're going down, babe."
Arlene reached into her breast pocket and pulled
out two twelve-gauge shells, which she tossed over her
shoulder to land perfectly in my lap. "I've saved the
last two for us, Sarge; just let me know when you're
ready to Hemingway."
Forty-five days is a hell of a long time when
we knew we were dropping into a dead zone, even for
the Light Drop. Then again, it's not really that long at
all ... when that's probably our entire life expec-
Arlene snapped out of her despair because she
didn't want to spend her last few weeks in a self-
imposed hell, I guess. She had me, I had her; that's
how it was in the beginning, that looked to be how it
would end. Except we both had Sears and Roebuck,
and that's where everything started to break down.
We're Marines above all, and we're programmed
like computers to protect and serve, you understand.
That means we couldn't just lock and load, stand back
to back, and prepare to go down in a hail of Fred-fire
when the ship cracked down and the cargo doors
opened on Fredworld. We had this crazy idea that we
had to protect those two--that one?--Alley Oop,
Magilla Gorilla look-alike Klave, or at least try.
Step one was to coax it, her, him, or them out of the
damned stateroom. We tried the direct approach first:
Arlene and I climbed "up" toward the central axis of
the ship. The acceleration decreased to 0.2 g at the
level of Sears and Roebuck's quarters, barely enough
to avoid my old problems with vertigo. I sure didn't
want to go any farther inboard, that was for damned
Arlene didn't look bothered, though; various parts
of her anatomy floated pretty free under her uniform,
and she looked like she was loving it. I tried not to
look at such temptations--fifty-eight days left; I
wanted to spend it with my buddy, not trying to force
a relationship that had never existed and never ought
The "upper" corridors were like sewer pipes, corru-
gated and smelly. The Freds breathed slightly differ-
ent air than we, but it didn't seem poisonous (Sears
and Roebuck swore we could breathe the Fred air).
Very tall corridors, to accommodate the Freds when
they were in their seed-depositing stage, like gigantic
praying mantises ... I couldn't reach the roof even
Arlene and I slipped and slid down the hot slimy
passageway; it took me a few moments to realize that
the slime was decomposing leaves from their
"You know," said my lance, when I told her my
insight, "we don't even know whether these are dis-
carded leaves, or whether it's the decomposed bodies
of the Freds themselves. What happens to their bodies
when they die? Do they have to put some preservative
on them, like Egyptian mummies, to prevent this
from happening?" She kicked a pile of glop in which
were still visible the ragged framelines of Fred head-
I shook my head. "I suppose we can keep an eye on
the captain and see if he begins to deteriorate."
We figured out that slithering was the easiest way to
move along the passageway without falling; it was like
ice-skating through an oil slick, but we finally made it
to the Sears and Roebuck stateroom.
"Stateroom" was an apt description; it was pretty
stately. Because they had to accommodate the con-
stantly changing size of the Freds, the rooms were
built to monstrous scale, but with a nice mix of
furniture styles. My own, next to Arlene's down
toward the hull in heavier acceleration, had a couple
of sit-kneels, a table I could only reach by standing
and stretching, and a doughnut-shaped bed-couch.
I had no idea what was inside Sears and Roebuck's
quarters because they had not allowed Arlene or me
even to sneak a peek. I stood outside the door and
pounded the pine, as we used to say at Parris Island,
then I thought better of it--Sears and Roebuck had
been acting awfully weird lately. I stepped off to one
side in case they decided to burn right through the
door with a weapon.
Silence. After the second pounding, their shared
voice came back with a carefully enunciated "go to
"Open up, Sears and Roebuck!" shouted Arlene,
exasperated after just ten seconds of dealing with
"Jeez, you'd never make it as a therapist, A.S."
"I follow the flashlight-pounded-into-the-head
school of psychiatry," she said, and for the first time,
it almost sounded as if her heart were in the joke.
"Go to elsewhere!"
"What are you?" I demanded. "Afraid of dying?
Why? You can't die!"
During a long pause, I heard furniture being shoved
around. Then the door slid open a crack and two
heads, one atop the other, pressed two eyes to the
crack. "We once had our spine broken," they said.
They didn't have spines, exactly; their central nervous
system ran right down the center, from what I had
seen in their medical records. But it was actually more
easily severed than ours because it wasn't protected
by a bone sheath.
"You recovered as soon as someone found you,"
Arlene pointed out. "Right?"
"We lay for eleven days into the jungle on [unintelli-
gible planet name]. The Freds slay us will kill us and
display-put us on for eternity and throw head-leaves
at us." Sears and Roebuck still had a hard time with
English, despite ambassadorial status.
"Come on, S and R," I tried. "Get a grip. You don't
see me and Arlene cringing--and if we die, we're
They said something too quietly to catch; it
sounded like "we wish we could," but it could have
been "the less you could."
"S and R, Arlene and I need your help. We need to
make a plan for when we hit dirtside on Fredworld."
"Fredpills," added Arlene in my ear.
"And we need you to show us how to synthesize
enough Fredpills to keep us alive to Fredworld ... we
need about, oh, two hundred and seventy."
Sears and Roebuck did a fast calculation--forty-
five days times two people times three meals per day.
"You admit we have no plan for to live past landing
"TouchÊ," admitted Arlene, under her breath.
Crap! "For now we need four hundred! We'll need
more--lots, lots more--for surviving on Fredworld
until we can figure out how to work one of these
damned ships and hop it back home. And you need
pills, too, Sears and Roebuck."
The two Alley Oop faces stared at us a moment,
then the Klaves slid open the door with their long
limbs, which grew like Popeye arms from below their
necks. "We are doomed inside the cabin as out the
side the cabin."
"So you may as well enjoy your last days of life with
freedom to move around," I urged. "After you die,
you'll see and hear only what they choose to show you
. . . if anything."
"Yes, you are the right about that. You must enter."
They stepped out of the way like Siamese twins, and
I entered their quarters for the first time, followed by
Arlene. The cabin was so amazingly bizarre that I
could barely recognize it as being essentially the same
(in structure) as mine! All the furniture was pushed
into a huge snarl in the middle of the room, and every
square centimeter of wall space was covered by some-
thing, whether it was an abstract artwork with real
3-D effects or a mop head nailed to the wall. It looked
like a homicidal maniac's idea of interior design:
making the room look like the inside of their disor-
"What the hell?" asked Arlene, staring around at
the walls. Sears and Roebuck stood in the center of
the room next to the pile of junk, watching us
narrowly. The weird part wasn't that they put stuff up
on their walls--I confess to the nasty habit of putting
the occasional girly pic or Franks tank action shot on
my own walls, when I had something to put. But Sears
and Roebuck covered literally every smidgen of bulk-
head, as if their terror at the pending landing on
Fredworld somehow transferred itself to a fear of
battleship gray, the color of the metal behind the
pictures. They figured out how to work the printer in
the room and dumped every image they could find to
plaster on the bulkheads. Then, when they ran out of
paper, they started attaching domestic Fred appli-
ances with StiKro. They even turned a table on its
side and pressed it against one wall.
The overhead was the color of cooling lava, black
with red crack highlights, and it didn't seem to bother
them. I rather liked it myself, and I wasn't a fan of the
wall color--but still!
I looked around. "Do you, ah, you-all want to talk
about this?" I tried to sound casual.
"No," said Sears and Roebuck, without a trace of
emotion. And that was that. They never again re-
ferred to the wallpapering, they never explained it,
and we never found out what the hell they thought
they were doing. I think Arlene and I learned some-
thing very interesting about alien psychology on Day
Thirteen of our trip into Fredland; now if only we
knew what we found out!
Sears and Roebuck came out of their hole without
looking back, took a new stateroom, and made no
effort to cover the walls. We began rehearsing for our
last stand, when we would hit dirtside and the doors
would slide open.
We even knew what doors would open first. Sears
and Roebuck went to work on the Fred computer and
cracked it, or part of it, at least. The sequence display
of the mission was unclassified, and they displayed it
on the 3-D projector in the room we had decided to
call the bridge, where the captain's body still sat in the
co-pilot's chair without decomposing, although his
head-leaves had ceased to grow, leaving in place the
atrocious orange and black Halloween combination
that he wore when I killed him . . . probably a sign of
the emotion of desperate terror.
The timeline was precisely detailed: we knew the
very moment we would touch dirt--three days earlier
than I guessed--and which systems would operate at
what moment. The door-open sequence began about
seventy-five minutes after touchdown, and the first
door to open after safety checks and powerdown was
the aft, ventral cargo bay; it would take eleven min-
utes to grind backward out of the way. Over the next
fifty minutes or so, eleven other doors and access
portals would release, and all but two of them would
open automatically. We would be boarded by an
unholy army of monsters.
The only question was whether the Fred captain
had gotten a damned message off before we over-
whelmed his defenses. Probably. The final combat
took nearly an hour. Would it have done the Fred any
At first, I thought that would give them two hun-
dred years' advance notice that we were coming, but
Arlene hooted with laughter when I mentioned it.
"What, you think their message travels at infinite
speed? What do you think this is, science fiction?"
I wracked my neurons for several minutes--physics
was never my strong suit, especially not special rela-
tivity. Then I suddenly realized my stupidity: any
message sent by the Fred captain could travel only at
the speed of light.... It would take it two hundred
years to reach Fredworld!
So how much of a head start did it have over us?
"Um ... twenty years?" I guessed.
Arlene shook her head emphatically. "If our time
dilation factor is eight and a half weeks, or, say, sixty
days, to two hundred years passing on Earth and
Fredworld--the planets are barely moving relative to
each other, compared to lightspeed--then we have to
be moving at virtually lightspeed ourselves, relative to
both planets. Hang on . . ." She poked at her watch
calculator. "Fly, we're making about 99.99996 per-
cent of lightspeed relative to Earth or Fredworld. At
that clip, we would travel two hundred light-years and
arrive only thirty-five minutes after the message."
I jumped to my feet. "Arlene, that's fantastic! They
won't have any time at all to prepare, barely half an
hour! Maybe they can mobilize a few security forces,
but nothing like a--"
"Whoa, whoa, loverboy, slow down!" Arlene settled
back, putting her feet up on the table, narrowly
missing her half-eaten plate of blue squares. "If it's
actually sixty-one days subjective time instead of fifty-
eight, or the planets are really two hundred and nine
light-years apart instead of two hundred, that half-an-
hour figure is completely inaccurate. And much more
important, that was assuming we achieved our speed
instantly. But we didn't. ... It took us about three
days to ramp up, and it'll take another three days to
decelerate; during most of that time, we're going slow
enough that there's hardly any time dilation effect at
"So you're saying ... so the Fred should have
what, six days' advance notice we're on our way?"
"Hm. basically, yeah. The biggest factor is the
acceleration-deceleration time, when we're not mov-
ing at relativistic speeds."
"So let's assume they have six days to prepare," I
said. "That's a hard figure?"
"Hard enough, Fly. I mean, Sergeant. Best we can
do, in any event. I'm not entirely sure Sears and
Roebuck is giving us good intel on the Fred units of
Six days for the enemy to mobilize wasn't good, but
I could live with it. It was sure a hell of a lot better
than two centuries.
I devised a plan, as the senior man present, though
Arlene had a few good ideas for booby traps. If the
Fred had six days to prepare for our arrival, we had
eight weeks! We made good use of the time, practicing
a slow, steady retreat down the ship, sealing off
segments behind us and activating homemade bombs
to wreck the thing. We couldn't win, of course, not in
the long run, but then, as someone once said, the
trouble with the long run is that in the long run
Well, the bastards would pay for every meter. That
was my only goal, and at the staff meeting, Arlene and
even Sears and Roebuck regularly agreed with me. I
kept us hyped by unexpected alarm drills; Sears and
Roebuck figured out how to rig the ship's computer to
ring various emergency sirens and kill power in
different parts of the ship. I did the timing myself,
keeping the others on their toesies.
Then Arlene got tired of dancing like a puppet on a
chain, and she conspired with Sears and Roebuck to
simulate a General Catastrophe 101: all the power on
the ship dies except for faint warning horns all the
way for'ard in the engine room, the computer (on a
separate circuit) announces the self-destruct sequence
started with nineteen minutes until vaporization,
sound effects of a raging hurricane, and the enviros
blow enough air across me to simulate a massive hull
breech somewhere down south. Scared the bejesus out
of me! By the time the ship was down to thirty
seconds to detonation, and I still couldn't find the
blessed breech, I was reduced to running in circles like
a chicken with its head cut off, screaming and shout-
ing like a raging drunk!
When I recovered my normal heart rate and respi-
ration, I clapped Arlene in irons for the rest of the
trip. No, not really, but I threatened to do so, and had
she stopped laughing long enough to hear me, I think
she would have been terrified.
Sears and Roebuck had a weird sense of humor:
they went in for the bizarre practical joke, like some-
how attaching sound effects to our weapons. I visited
our makeshift "rifle range"--an unused manifest
hold with five hundred meters of jagged, saw-tooth
corridor and brightly colored markings at the far
end--but every damned round I fired went to its
doom with a long piercing scream of "heeee-
eeeeeeeee-eeelp!" God only knows where S and R
sampled the sound effect.
I was stunned when Sears and Roebuck told me and
Arlene that the practical joke was the only universal
form of humor throughout the galaxy. It was a sad day
for me. I had hoped that galactic civilization would
have progressed somewhere beyond the emotional
level of a thirteen-year-old.
But it brought up an interesting point: was it
possible the Freds were simply playing an elaborate
and unfunny practical prank on us when they invaded
first Phobos, then Mars, then Earth itself? Maybe they
considered the humans who fought back to be a
bunch of humorless bastards who couldn't take a joke!
"No, that's without sane," said Sears and Roebuck.
"The practicals are unallowed to damageate the vic-
tim or they lose their wisdom."
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other; they put
their Popeyelike hands on each head and gently
pumped each other back and forth, a mannerism that
Arlene and I had decided, during the trip, was their
way of displaying frustration at our language. "What
it is, they lose their cleverness. They are infunny is
how you say it."
"Okay, I get it. Well, joke or not, we didn't like it,
and the Freds are going to find out just how much we
didn't like it when that cargo door begins to grind
Four days before landing, the Fred ship began its
automatic deceleration; all of a sudden, we had more
than a full Earth gravity for'ard, once again giving us
a weird, double-heavy vector toward the outer corner
of the room. Arlene did some calculations and figured
that the ship was actually accelerating at about ninety-
six g's--that's what it took to decelerate from our
velocity relative to Fredworld to match orbit in four
days! So there must have been the mother of all
inertial damping fields to dissipate that force in the
form of heat around the ship. We would probably
have appeared star-white to an infrared viewer--a big
blazing flare warning the Fred of our imminent arriv-
al, in case they'd forgotten.
All good things must come to an end. The night
before we were to land, when we still had not been
hailed or attacked en route by the Freds, Arlene spent
the night nestled in my arms. It wasn't the first time
we had spent the night in the same bunk, stripped to
our skivvies; some people in Fox Company had never
believed us that we never had sex--but it's true. I
loved her too much to push for something that she
would probably give me, even though she didn't want
to, just out of friendship. But that never stopped us
from cuddling up when crap got too scary, or when
one of us was hurting from a failed affaire du coeur.
We held each other tight the night before landing,
Arlene's beautiful high-and-tight pressed hard against
my blue-shaven chin, as Corps as we could possibly be
for our last day--but still needing the warmth of that
one human who made it all worthwhile, even the end.
And believe it or not, we actually slept well: we had no
doubts or nagging fears because we knew we were
going out in a blaze of Marine Corps glory the next
Tomorrow came, and Fredworld loomed before us
on the for'ard TV monitor. Assuming no color correc-
tion, it was mostly brown with straight black lines
crisscrossing it at odd angles, with no visible conti-
nents, water, or weather, but tons of gunk orbiting
around it, sparkling in the sunlight every now and
again. Jagged red streaks might indicate intense vol-
canic activity.... "Oh joy," I said when Arlene
suggested the possibility.
"We should stay on aboard the ship," said Sears
and Roebuck, as if we had rehearsed anything but for
the last eight weeks.
"Strap down," I commanded. "The atmosphere is
getting thick enough to measure. We might be in for
some heavy buffeting, according to the timeline."
The Fred computer was no liar. We were shaken
around something fierce, and I got seasick almost
immediately. I didn't blow, but I sure felt as green as
Sears and Roebuck looked. Even Arlene wasn't com-
fortable, and she never gets motion sick.
We hadn't bothered to strap down the captain's
body, and he was bounced right out of his chair. Oh
well, I sure as hell wasn't about to unstrap to go fetch
him. His corpse bucked around the bridge, dropping
artichoke leaves in its wake as if leaving a trail for us
to follow. I hoped he "felt" every blow, the worthless
bastard, however dead aliens "feel" anything!
All of a sudden, I heard God's own crash of
trumpets and drums, and the ship wrenched so
abruptly, so violently, that I think I passed out; I
blinked back to awareness sometime later--don't
know how long--and immediately felt a head-
splitting agony, like some Fred or Fred monster was
repeatedly jamming its claw into my skull! The sear-
ing pain lasted only four or five seconds, then it was
gone, but it was another few heartbeats before color
rushed back into my vision. I hadn't even realized I
was seeing in black and white until the view colorized
Every muscle in my body ached, like two mornings
after the world's toughest workout. My stomach
lurched; we were at zero-g again. What the hell? 1
looked to my side, where I could just see a portal: the
planet loomed below us, barely moving, drifting
slowly up to greet us. I didn't hear the engines
humming. Were we in freefall? What gave?
Arlene and Sears and Roebuck started thrashing
around, finally coming around to consciousness
again. I had no idea what had happened or how we
appeared to be landing without engines--the only
ones who might have known were the Klave, and they
weren't talking. Arlene started looking around, com-
ing to the same conclusions I had a couple of minutes
earlier; we looked questions at each other, then I
shrugged and she narrowed her eyes. I didn't care, so
long as we made dirtside--but Arlene would stew
over how we had landed for days and days until she
figured it out, unless Sears and Roebuck decided to
get a whole hell of a lot more garrulous than they had
been to date. Unless her serene contemplation were
cut short by Fred rays and machine guns.
For the moment, at least--a long moment--we ran
silently and at peace, probably our last moment of
calm before the firestorm of combat. Then, with a
groaning thump that sounded as if the entire Fred
ship were tearing in half along the major axis, we
jerked to a stop on some sort of runway. We had
arrived on Fredworld, shaken but not stirred.
Quickly, I got my troops unstrapped, and we hus-
tled along to our stations, just in case the Fred fooled
us by cutting their way inside without waiting for the
doors to open. Nothing happened, and we waited out
the landing sequencer. Then, seventy-five minutes
after landing and right on schedule, the cargo door
began to roll open, excruciatingly slowly, making a
noise like all the Fred monsters in the world scream-
ing in unison. We braced for the impact of the first
We waited; we waited; nothing came; nothing
pounded, rattled, or thumped up the gangway. We sat
alone, each in our assigned spots, ready for action that
never came, the war never fought.
I held my breath as long as I could. Then, about
fifteen after we should have seen the first swarms of
Freds up the gangway, overrunning our first "defen-
sive" position (designed to be overridden, I add), I
clenched my teeth to activate my throat mike and
clicked to Arlene: click, click-click, click, click . . .
Marine code for "nothing this end how's by you?"
The tiny lozenge-size receiver in my ear told me
what I was afraid of hearing: click, click-click. Nothing
her end, either. Sears and Roebuck didn't have a mike
or receiver, but they were with Arlene.
I waited another fifteen minutes, querying every
two minutes; Arlene responded every time with the
same combination: click, click-click. Or is it Arlene? I
thought with sudden trepidation. I visualized the
monsters overwhelming her before she could signal
engagement or fire a shot, subduing her or even . . .
killing her. Behind my eyes, I saw a scaly fungoid
finger clicking on the mike, repeating the all-clear
over and over.
I gave with a rapid-fire series of clicks, running
through nearly half the Marine Corps signal code.
Almost immediately, my correspondent responded
with the other half--either it was really Lance Corpo-
ral Arlene Sanders or one hell of a smart Fred captain.
My muscles started to cramp. I stood cautiously,
keeping an ear cocked and an eye trained on the
gangway. After stretching, I returned to my position:
many an ambush has been blown by impatience. But
after an hour of plenty of nothing, even my patience
was exhausted. If I knew they were coming, just late, I
could have waited a week! But more and more, it
began to look like we'd been had.
"End operation gather at final rendezvous spot," I
clicked to my corporal. Ten minutes of quick walking
later, we all met in the engine room. Arlene stared at
me as if it were all my fault; she kept clenching and
relaxing her gun hand, rubbing her fingers against her
thumb like she were trying to start a fire the hard way.
"Okay, buddy-boy Sergeant dude, what gives?"
I shrugged. "There's no boarding party."
"Gee, you think so?" If sarcasm could drip, I had
just had a puddle of it dribbled onto my shoes.
I scratched my chin; it was already starting to get
rough. In another few hours, I'd have to shave again.
Funny, I thought the last time was the last time I'd
ever have to do that. "You, ah, want to recon?"
Arlene turned to look back over her shoulder, as if
she'd heard a noise. I didn't hear anything. "Recon?"
"Yeah, recon: that's when you go outside and--"
"I guess we'd better; we're never going to sleep
again if we don't."
I turned to Sears and Roebuck, but they were
shaking so hard they were blurry. "We'll stay here,"
they said. "We'll be out right. We'll follow you in later
time. We'll stay here until you come back. But we'll
follow you in later time."
I was a little shocked when I realized that they were
speaking separately! I had never seen such a thing
before among the Klave, never even knew it was
physically possible! I guess that was their equivalent
of multiple-personality disorder, or in this case, a
feedback loop--they could neither advance nor fail
to advance. I expected smoke to come out their ears at
any moment, but they disappointed me.
Arlene and I found the emergency engine-room
access panel and laboriously hand-cranked it open,
then we dropped lightly through, landing with a
crunch on Fredworld.
As predicted by the timeline program, the
ground and air were quite hot and very humid, but we
didn't sink into lava or inhale a lungful of hydrogen
cyanide. The ship, which evidently had no name, just
a number, was so monstrous it looked like that
shopping mall in Tucson--used to be in Tucson--
that advertised as the world's largest, until the Fred
bomb. The beast that had carried us a couple hundred
light-years hulked high above our heads, stretching on
out of sight in a generally sunward direction, shield-
ing us from the terrific heat.
Sideways past the ship were a series of squarish
buildings seemingly built on something soft that had
collapsed; they all leaned, one way or another, at
crazy angles like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The
whole arrangement looked like a demented version of
an Earth spaceport. In the other direction was a
monstrous condo complex erected roughly like a
human graveyard, like headstones arranged in con-
centric circles. The reddish sky added to the "charm"
of Fredworld, its ground that glowed in spots, covered
with eight centimeters of black ash.
There was not a single artichoke-head to be seen. A
spongy walkway encircled the ship's berth; we cau-
tiously moved onto it, expecting the Fred to come
screaming out of the buildings at any moment and
fully prepared to instantly retreat to our defensive
positions aboard the ship.
For the next eleven hours we searched that damned
compound--nearly two thirds of an eighteen-hour
Fred day. We found sludge from decomposing leaves
littering half the buildings; either they liked walking
through sludge or a bunch of Fred were slain so
suddenly that no one had time to sweep the place. But
then, where were the corpses? "I'm getting a real bad
feeling about this," I muttered to Arlene.
She said nothing, just tugged on my body armor
and pointed back at the ship: after eleven hours, Sears
and Roebuck were finally poking their noses out,
sniffing the winds to figure out why they were still
alive. I was so beat, I didn't even go over and tell
them. Let 'em figure it out on their own, I angrily
decided! I'd been on my feet forever, and I wasn't in
the mood to deal with them. Arlene was bad enough.
As soon as it became obvious there were no Freds
anywhere around--hence, probably very few Freds, if
any, on the whole planet, else they would have
stormed our ship, even if they had to send for
troops--Arlene reslung her weapon-of-choice, a
twelve-gauge, semi-auto riot gun made by Krupp-
Remington, the RK-150, with 150-round drum maga-
zine. She set off in a spiral search pattern to see if she
could figure out what the hell happened.
I stood in the shade, panting in the burning heat.
Fredworld, at least this part of it, was hot as Hell, 54.5
degrees centigrade according to my wrist-therm.
Sweat poured down my face; the perspiration didn't
evaporate in that humidity, especially not under a
helmet. I wished I had a standard-issue pressure suit
with air conditioning; but we hadn't made any plans
to stowaway aboard a Fred ship, so we didn't think to
bring them along. Space suits we had, courtesy of
Sears and Roebuck, but they didn't help with plane-
tary temperature (I asked).
Sears and Roebuck cautiously approached. As usu-
al, they didn't seem the least affected by the heat or
anything else. They peered around anxiously. "Are
they all dead?" they asked.
I shrugged. "Dead or gone. I don't see any bodies.
Sanders is doing a sweep. We'll see what she says."
I poked around a little. What I thought was a condo
complex turned out to be a series of interconnected
buildings, like the Pueblo Indians used to build in
caves up a cliff, but these were built into the natural
hollows formed by cracks in the ground. I saw what
might have been molded furniture, but nothing of a
personal nature. Of course, we didn't have a freaking
clue what, if anything, a Fred would consider person-
al. The buildings were bleached white, like all the
color was burned out of them, leaving a pockmarked
surface like pumice.
Arlene's voice jumped at me through my ear receiv-
er. "Fly, I think you'd better come over here. I've got
a live one."
"Live?" I asked, flipping up my dish antenna and
homing in on her signal--standard armor-issue, very
"Oops, I mean a fresh dead body--maybe we can
fix it and revive the bastard, figure out what blew
"What? What?" demanded Sears and Roebuck,
obviously hearing only my end of the conversation.
"Come on, boys," I said, setting off at a trot, "need
your magic over here."
I jogged across the compound, turning as necessary
to keep the beeps loud and fast. I found Arlene in two
minutes, just half a klick distant as the Fly flies. She
was crouching over a collapse of pumice stone, out of
which stuck one part of a Fred hand and foot.
Evidently, it had been unlucky enough to be caught in
a building when it fell, thus not getting out in time to
be disintegrated or kidnapped or whatever happened
to the rest.
Alas, the head was crushed to a pulp. "Damn," I
griped. "Even if we can somehow revive its body, it
can't tell us anything if its brain is destroyed."
Sears and Roebuck knelt to examine the body.
"The brain appears intact," they said, poking at the
chest. Duhh! I mentally kicked my butt; I knew they
didn't keep their brains in their heads, but it was hard
to remember. Klave didn't either, as I recalled.
"Can you fix it?" asked Arlene. "It'd be icy to know
what the hell happened."
Sears and Roebuck held the body down and drew a
cutting laser, casually slicing away the head, legs, and
arms. I nearly lost my lunch! The Klave were pretty
cold from our point of view; even so, carving up a
dead body just for laziness, to avoid hefting heavy
stones off the limbs, was a bit much!
They dragged the torso out of the rubble, knocking
over a few stray stones with it. I winced with
sympathy . . . even dead, I knew it could feel the pain
of every blow. With the body tucked underneath their
arms, Sears and Roebuck humped back toward the
Fred ship, Arlene and me forming a Goddamned
parade behind the macabre Klave pair.
The Freds didn't divide their ship into separate
departments, as humans do; they used something
more like an old "object-oriented" approach to space-
ship organization: different sections, like different
counties, each had their own essential services--
food, water, navigation, engines, and medical equip-
ment. God only knows how they divvied up the
workload; maybe they fought for it! But Sears and
Roebuck wandered around with the Fred body until
they found a batch of machines that they claimed
were "MedGrams," tossed the torso inside, and began
poking blue and red buttons on a control panel.
A couple of hours later--I watched, but Arlene
went to sleep on one of the beds--the torso was
flopping around, trying to move its nonexistent arms,
legs, and head.
"Great," I said, "but now what? It has no mouth;
how can it tell us anything?"
"Vocoder," said Sears and Roebuck, speaking for
the first time since finding the body. They clipped a
few more leads onto the chest of the Fred, palmed a
touchplate, and a mechanical voice sounded through
". . . DARES STAND AGAINST THE MIGHTY
. . . WHO DARES THE DEMONS OF UNBE-
HEADED SUNLIGHT WHO FOOLISHLY TEMPTS
THE . . . PEOPLE OF THE DARK AND THE HOT
THE PEOPLE OF THE CRACKS OF--"
Sears and Roebuck turned it off. They fiddled with
the settings and played it again, this time all in a weird
language that made my teeth ache--presumably
Sears and Roebuck's own language.
Arlene had jerked awake at the first noise. She
stared wildly, still trying to cold-boot her brain and
figure out who was just shouting.
"Pretty impressive," I said. "How did it know
Sears and Roebuck stared at me as if I were a
particularly slow child. "Fly, you and Arlene have
been talk around English for eight week now. What
you did think the compu-nets were doing?"
I got a creepy feeling in my gut, like a couple of
poisonous centipedes had got loose in there. "You
mean that thing has been listening to every word we
Arlene looked around nervously. "Has it been ...
watching us, too?"
"Even when ... during my private moments, in
"Sometimes," admitted Sears and Roebuck, adding
nonchalantly, "we spent time observing you two, too.
We are curious how you mates if you will demonstrate
use of your mate apparatus."
Arlene turned red as a radish; I'm not kidding! For
years in the Light Drop, she had showered around
men, used the toilet (or the ground) in front of men,
and even had sex with Dodd in front of the guys when
she got drunk once . . . and here she was flushing fire-
engine red at the thought of an alien and a computer
having seen her naked! I couldn't help laughing, and
she glared M-14 rounds at me.
"Need to find tuning," muttered Sears and Roe-
buck, fooling with the buttons. I stared, reminded of
about a thousand and one cheesy sci-fi movies that
Arlene regularly made me watch while she gave run-
ning commentary about which star's sister was the
mistress of the head of Wildebeest Studios. ("Jeez, it's
Dr. Mabuse," whispered Arlene in my ear.)
"Try question them now," suggested Sears and
Roebuck, pretending for their own peace of mind that
there were really two Fred aliens instead of one. As a
double-entity, Sears and Roebuck never had been able
to deal with beings other than in pairs, pairs of pairs,
and so forth: they had no trouble dealing with Fly and
Arlene, but when it was Fly and Arlene and Captain
Hidalgo, Sears and Roebuck threw a fit!
I cleared my throat. "State your name for the
record," I began, just trying to provoke some response
from the Fred.
"I will be Ramakapithduraagnazdifleramakanor--"
"You will henceforth be designated Rumplestilt-
skin," I decided. Damned if I were going to try to
repeat that horrible squabble of sound! "Rumplestilt-
skin, I am Taggart. You may also be questioned by
Sanders and by Sears and Roebuck. You will answer
all questions, or we'll leave you immobile on the
planet surface forever."
"Rumplestiltskin responds. What if he answers
questions from the Taggart?"
"You'll be disintegrated and your spirit will be sent
wherever it goes upon disintegration."
"Rumple bumple mumple humple .. ."
"Do you accept the terms?"
"Rumplestiltskin answers questions. Bumple."
I sighed. I had to keep reminding myself we were
peering directly into the brain of a Fred--a Fred that
had lain dead for God knows how long, slowly going
In fact, that was a good first question. "Rumplestilt-
skin: how long have you lain beneath the rubble?"
"Rubble bubble wubble tubble--"
"Rumplestiltskin will answer the question!"
"I--I--I--I--I--Rumplestiltskin answers ques-
tions. Rumplestiltskin lay for 19,392 suns."
Arlene tapped at her watch calculator again. "This
planet rotates four hundred and twelve times per
orbit, so that's forty-seven Fredyears plus twenty-
"What's that in dog years?" I asked.
"For us, that's about forty years, six months."
"Jesus. Rumplestiltskin, were your people attacked
nineteen thousand suns ago?"
"Whack smack back crack whack smack back
"Who attacked you?"
"Was it a new species? Rumplestiltskin, how did
you meet your attackers?"
"Rumplestiltskin's people met the news on their
own world we expand our great empire we conquer all
we shall pound the Others into hotrock."
I closed my eyes, sorting through the Fred's tangled
speech. Arlene whispered into her throat mike, so I
alone heard her speculation: "Fly, think they found a
new species on its own planet, and somehow it ended
up attacking and destroying the Fred home planet?"
I grunted affirm; that was what I had figured from
the yammering. But there were some real problems
here; Sears and Roebuck had made it pretty clear that
most species took millions of years to get from
civilization to spaceflight--humans were such an
exception that we caught the Fred by surprise. They
first discovered us about four or five hundred years
ago, while Spain and Portugal were still sailing out in
wooden wind-driven ships to map the "New World."
The Fred confidently assumed we were tens of thou-
sands of years away from being able to offer any
They didn't like us; they feared us because we, of all
the intelligent races known in the galaxy, could die.
They decided to exterminate us--another move in
the megenia-long chess match for control of the
galaxy. In the battle between the "Hyperrealists" and
the "Deconstructionists," we played the role of Kefiri-
stan, the poor unsophisticated farmer in whose back-
yard a minor skirmish is fought.
Hyperrealists, Deconstructionists--the terms were
courtesy Sears and Roebuck, who searched long and
hard through Earth philosophy and decided that
wacko, effeminate, limp-wristed literary critics in
New York were the finest, most refined philosophers
of the bunch. What a kick in the nuts: this great, grand
political war between two mighty empires turned on a
doctrinal difference of aesthetics between two com-
peting schools of literary criticism. Billions of lives
hung in the balance between one dumbass way of
dissecting "eleven fragment stories" and another,
both of which missed the point entirely, of course.
That much, Sears and Roebuck told us, but no more. I
had no idea what the hell that meant; eleven story
fragments? But try telling S and R that.
His species, the Klave, were members of the Hyper-
realist tong; the evil Freds represented the slimy,
dishonorable Deconstructionist tong. Someday,
somehow, I was going to beat those sons of bitches,
Sears and Roebuck, into explaining the whole
damned thing to me. In the meanwhile, I just shrug
and thank God we soldiers don't have to understand
politics in order to follow orders.
Anyway, the Freds miscalculated . . . catastroph-
ically. When they returned to Fredworld, raised an
invasion force (taking about a century to do so), then
returned, a mere half a millennium had passed--but
to the Freds' shock, they found not a planetful of ig-
norant, superstitious farmers and sailors, but a tech-
nologically advanced, planet-wide culture with mis-
siles, nuclear weapons, particle beams, spaceflight,
and a brain trust unfrightened by horn and fang, scale
Even after Arlene and I kicked their asses, when we
left Earth, humanity was on the ropes . . . just like the
old heavyweight Muhammad Ali. We played rope-a-
dope with the "demons," and if Salt Lake City and
Chicago were nuclear wastelands, so were the Fred
bases on Phobos and Deimos. Worse, the last rem-
nants of Fox Company--not only me and Arlene but
Albert and our teenage hacker Jill--had managed to
rescue the former human, now cyborg, Ken Estes,
which gave us the potential to tap into the Fred's
entire technology base. The Freds were genetically
engineering human infiltrators, but we were training
God only knew what was going to happen, since we
left Earth right at the exciting part. Or what had
happened already, actually. I had to bear in mind that
by the time we could return to the mother planet, four
hundred years would have passed!
The Freds made a critical miscalculation when they
assumed humans evolved at the same rate as every-
body else in the galaxy. Was it possible they made the
same mistake again, this time to far more disastrous
Time to get a bit more specific with Rumplestilt-
skin: "When you found the Newbies, what was their
"Techno tackno crackno farmer harmer--"
"Were they industrial or agricultural?"
"Culture vulture nulture--"
"Rumplestiltskin will answer. Were the Newbies
"Evils! We came to herd as they herded we came to
harvest as they harvested we came to wander as they
wandered we came to herd as they herded!"
Herding . . . harvesting--nomads? Farmers, just
discovering animal husbandry? I prodded the undead
Fred for another half hour, eliciting little other infor-
mation. The best I could tell was that the "Newbies"
had evidently just discovered agriculture and ranch-
ing; they were just settling down from their nomadic
life when the Fred scoutship observed and studied
them. They made contact with the Newbies and
fought a few skirmishes, just probing them.
The Freds returned to Fredworld; this was probably
three hundred or more years back, just around the
time the first Fred expedition returned from contact
with Earth. The Freds horsed around for a while, not
long, then they returned to the Newbie system, just a
couple of hundred years after they left . . . only to
find that the Newbies had gone from the beginnings of
agriculture to a heavily armed, spacefaring culture in
just two centuries!
And that's where Rumplestiltskin started to get
hazy. The rest of the interrogation was long, tedious,
boring, tedious, dull, and tedious; even Sears and
Roebuck lost interest and started monkeying with the
navigational system ... which was unlocked, now
that we'd reached the preprogrammed destination. I
figured Sears and Roebuck had never interrogated a
prisoner before; it's not a process for the impatient.
I got a story, but I had no idea whether I got the
story. This is what I finally dragged out of old Rump,
with me and Arlene making a lot of intuitive leaps
and filling in the background as best we could: when
the Freds arrived at the Newbie planet, ready to take
the "empty" square in the giant chess game between
the Hyperrealists and the Deconstructionists, they
discovered a weird, unknown piece on the board. The
Newbies must have an accelerated evolution that is as
fast compared to us humans as we are compared to
the rest of the galaxy! The Newbies were so stellar that
they tore through the Fred fleet like a cat through a
fleet of canaries.
And then--this was the part neither I nor Arlene
really bought, though it was such a lovely thought it
was hard to resist--the Newbies backtracked the
Freds and invaded Fredworld itself, utterly annihilat-
ing it in revenge for trying to conquer the Newbies!
What a beautiful picture--the Freds, in a panic,
desperately defending their homeworld against an
unknown foe who had been herding sheep and build-
ing twig-and-wattle huts just two (subjective) centu-
ries before! Arlene and I laughed long and loud at that
one. Sears and Roebuck must have thought we were
loons, since the Klave have nothing remotely like a
"sense of humor" defense mechanism; they just look
at each other.
The last part of the story I got was the creepiest:
Rumplestiltskin insisted, over and over, that those
damned nasty Newbies were still here. But where?
Sears and Roebuck began yanking their
heads back and forth again, expressing some sort of
emotion only a Klave could understand. "What are
you on about?" I demanded, still stewing about the
"We have faxed the injuns," declared our compatri-
ot. "To where would like you to go?"
Another hour had passed, and neither Arlene nor I
had gotten another intelligible word out of Rumple-
stiltskin. "What do you think?" I asked Arlene. "Has
he fulfilled his part of the bargain?"
She pursed her lips. "I can't think of anything else
to ask. We've hit a brick wall in every direction now."
Arlene inhaled deeply, then swallowed a nutrient pill.
"Yeah, Fly, I guess he's done what he agreed. You
going to burn him?"
I shrugged. "I promised--deal's a deal."
Gingerly, I reached across and pulled all the con-
nections from the torso of the Fred. I looked across at
Sears and Roebuck, but they had completely lost
interest, their long arms reaching all around the Fred
navigational unit, the one in this district of the ship,
and disconnecting and reconnecting fiber-optic ca-
bles. "You, ah, know where there's a Fred ray?"
The Fred ray was the last-ditch weapon that they
used against us when we rampaged through their base,
and later their ship; it was some sort of particle beam
weapon, much better than ours. Arlene had invento-
ried the weapons on the Fred ship, including seventy-
four Fred rays; she took me to the nearest one, leaving
me to drag the torso behind.
Turning my head away, praying to avoid vomiting
and completely humiliating myself in front of my
friend and subordinate, I balanced the torso on a
neutron-repellant backdrop, the only thing that would
stop the beam. The body fell over, and I set it up
again. Then I stepped back and cranked the weapon
around to point at the Fred's chest, where it stored its
"Man, I don't like doing this," I muttered.
"Fly, he's been trapped dead underneath that rub-
ble outside for forty years. One eye was open--
"So for four decades, Sergeant, Rumplestiltskin
stared unblinking at the ground or the sky or the sun,
knowing his entire species had been wiped out in the
wink of an eye by an alien race they were going to
enslave. Fly, he's suffered enough; don't trap him
inside that corporeal bottle."
My hands started shaking as I inserted a jerry-
rigged pair of chopsticks into the holes to press the
levers, simulating a Fred hand.
Arlene put her hand on my shoulder. "You want I
should do it?"
I shook my head firmly. "No, A.S., didn't you read
Old Yeller when you were a little girl?"
"No, I was too busy reading Voyage to the Mush-
room Planet and The Star Beast."
"When your dog has to die, Arlene, you've got to
shoot him yourself. You can't get someone else to
shoot Old Yeller for you."
I pressed the lever, completing the connection. As
usual, we saw nothing. That was the part that both-
ered me the most: as destructive as this neutron beam
was, you'd think you would see something, for God's
sake! A blue light, a lightning bolt, fire and
brimstone--something. But the beam was as invisible
as X-rays in the dentist's office, and as quiet; all I
heard was a single click, and suddenly there was a
huge hole through Rumplestiltskin's chest. Within
three or four seconds, its body was boiling, the flesh
vaporizing instantly wherever the beam touched.
I slowly burned away the entire torso. The Fred ray
was a gigantic eraser--everywhere I pointed, flesh
simply vanished. A minute after turning on the beam,
I clicked it off; nothing remained of the Fred but an
invisible mist of organic molecules in a hot ionized
plasma state. My guess was the interrogation was
pretty permanently over.
"Okay, kiddo," I said to A.S.; "let's go Newbie
We suited up for combat, and for the first time in
God knows how long, I found myself getting the
shakes. Somehow, I'd thought the Freds would have
burned all the fear out of me, leaving nothing but a
cold husk of sociopathy. Not true. At the thought of
going up against whatever it was that plowed the
Freds into the dirt on their own home turf, my hands
trembled so much I couldn't even StiKro my boots on
"Stay here and keep the engine running," I told
Sears and Roebuck.
"You want to start me the engines?" they asked,
"Just a figure of speech, you dufoids," Arlene
explained. "But run through the launch sequence up
to just before engine start .... We may have to book
if we stumble onto a whole nest of them."
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other, Alley Oop
and his mirror image; they seemed perfectly content
staying aboard the ship and letting the Marines do the
dirty work. I sealed up the helmet and pressed the
other armor seals tight; it wasn't a pressure suit, but in
a pinch, we could survive a few minutes in hard
vacuum. I noticed Arlene's face was whiter than its
usual English pale; she must have figured the odds the
same as I.
My breath sounded loud in my ears as we edged
down the gangway onto the surface of Fredworld
again. The landscape looked eerily alive through the
night-vis flipdowns, tinted green but combining infra-
red, radio emission, and visible light enhancement. I
turned slowly with a microwave motion detector;
nothing moved around us, unless it was over the
jagged mountains on the horizon.
"This isn't good," I said over a shielded, encrypted
channel to Arlene. "Shouldn't there be some life, even
if the Newbies killed all the Freds?"
"Maybe they couldn't tell which were Freds and
which were animals, so they fragged everything. May-
be they used a nuclear bomb, or some kind of poison
or a biovector."
I grunted. "Doesn't seem likely that they'd manage
to get absolutely every living thing, does it?"
"There's another possibility, Fly: maybe there are
living animals, but they're just not moving."
"Animal means moving, Arlene, like animated."
She didn't answer, so I started a spiral sweep, mainly
watching the outer perimeter. After three hours of
recon, I was starting to regret being so nice and
burning Rumplestiltskin's mortal coil, setting free his
soul. "If that bastard lied to me--"
"You'll what?" came Arlene's radio voice in my ear.
"Resurrect him and kill him again?"
"Maybe we should resurrect the Freds on the ship.
Whoops, don't correct me; I just figured out how
stupid that suggestion was." I managed to catch her
while she was inhaling, or else she would have quickly
snorted that the Freds on the ship knew even less
about the Newbies than we--we had already killed
them before we left for Fredworld, a hundred and
sixty years before the Newbies landed!
The weirdness of the place was starting to get to me.
I kept seeing ghosts in my peripheral vision, but there
was nothing when I whipped around with the motion
detector. "Damn that Rumplestiltskin! He swore they
were still here!"
"Maybe he just meant they were here when he
I paused a long time. "Arlene, if that's all he meant,
then we're in deep, deep trouble. I don't think you
realize how deep."
"I don't get you. If we can't find them, we jump
back in the ship and return to--to Earth." She didn't
say it, but I knew she was thinking to a dead, loveless
Earth with no Albert Gallatin.
"A.S., if we don't find the Newbies, I can almost
guarantee they're going to find us. They'll find Earth.
We were almost wiped out by the Freds. We barely
hung on, and only because we evolved so much faster
than they, we were so much more flexible--because
they underestimated us! What the hell do you think
would happen to humanity if the Newbies found us
"Jesus. I didn't think--"
"And if they can go from stone plows and oxen
to--to this in just two hundred years, where are they
going to be just ten years from now? What if they
don't find us for fifty years, or a hundred years? Jesus
and Mary, Arlene; they would be gods."
She was silent; I heard only my own breath. I
almost considered asking her to switch to hot-mike,
so I could hear her breathing as well, but I couldn't
afford to lose control now, not when I had troops
depending on me. Above all else, I had to demon-
strate competence and confidence.
"Fly," she said at last, "I don't like this. I'm getting
scared." She wrapped her arms around her chest and
shivered, as if feeling a chill wind or someone walking
across her grave.
"Maybe we can pick up some trace from orbit."
"After forty years?"
"Maybe Sears and Roebuck has some idea." Yeah,
right. Sears and Roebuck never even heard of the
Newbies until just now, and if they had that hard a
time understanding us and our evolutionary rate--
Jeez, how could they even imagine the Newbies and
what they might mutate into? "Let's head back," I
decided. "We're not doing anything out here but
scaring the pants off of each other."
Arlene nodded gravely. "Kinky," she judged.
I heard a strange, faint buzz in my earpiece as we
headed back toward the ship . . . sounds, voices al-
most. I could nearly believe they were whispers from
the Fred ghosts, desperately trying to communicate--
perhaps still fighting the final battle that had de-
stroyed them. I was now convinced that there was not
a single artichoke-headed Fred left intact on that
planet, except for the corpses we brought with us--
corpses we would never revive. In fact, I decided to
leave them behind on Fredworld; the temptation to
wake me dead, just tor someone to talk to, might be
too great, overwhelming our common sense and self-
But the notion of ghosts wasn't that far-fetched.
Since their spirits never died, where did they go? I
began to feel little stabs of cold on the back of my
neck, icy fingers poking and prodding me. Jesus, shut
off that imagination! I commanded myself.
"Huh?" Arlene asked, jumping guiltily. "Criminey,
Fly, are you a mind reader now?"
I said nothing ... hadn't even been aware I spoke
that last thought aloud; curious coincidence that it
turned out to be perfectly appropriate.
The ship was so huge that it was hard to recognize it
as mobile; it looked like an artificial mountain, three-
eighths of a kilometer high, over a hundred stories--
taller than the Hyundai Building in Nuevo Angeles--
and stretching to the vanishing point in either direc-
tion. The landing pad was barely larger than the
footprint of the ship, clearly built to order. Weird
markings surrounded the LZ, the landing zone,
burned into the glass-hard surface by an etching laser,
either landing instructions or ritual hieroglyphs. They
looked like they once had been pictograms, now
stylized beyond recognition.
"You know, Fly, we've never actually walked all the
way around this puppy."
"I know. I've been avoiding it. I don't like thinking
of how big this damned ship really is."
Arlene sounded pensive, even through the radio.
"Honey, Sergeant, I've had this burning feeling--"
"I've had this burning feeling that we have to walk
this path, walk all the way around what's going to be
our world for the next nine weeks, or however long it
takes until we finally get ... home."
I stared back and forth between the obsidian LZ
and the ship door, torn. "You're right." I sighed. "We
ought to reconnoiter. Arlene, take point."
"Aye-aye, Skipper," she said, voice containing an
odd mixture of elation and anxiety. She unslung her
RK-150, and I flexed my grip on the old, reliable
standard, the Marine-issue M-14, which contrary to
the designator was more like an updated Browning
automatic rifle than the Micronics series of M-7, -8,
-10, and -12. These were heavy-lifting small arms, and
the Freds were pretty pathetic when not surrounded
by their "demonic" war machines. I don't know what
we expected to run into on Fredworld; nothing good, I
I thought about calling Sears and Roebuck and
telling them what we were doing, but we were right
outside. If they wanted us, they could call their own
damned selves. Still feeling that chill on the nape of
my neck, I followed Arlene at a safe twenty-five
It was hard not to be awestruck next to that ship. It
was hard to credit; the Freds could do this, and they
couldn't even conquer a low-tech race like humanity!
They always taught us at Parris Island that heart and
morale mattered more than tanks and air support in
combat: look at the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan and
Bosnia, at the Scythe of Glory in Kefiristan. But this
was the first time I really believed that line: we really
wanted the fight, and the Freds were unprepared for
The ship was gunmetal gray along most of its flank,
except where micrometeorites had scored the surface
or punctured it. Thank God for self-sealing architec-
ture; at the speeds we traversed the galaxy, cosmic
dust sprayed through the ship like bullets through
We reached the aft end and stared up at the single,
staggeringly huge thruster. The ship was a ramjet,
according to the specs: as it moved at increasing
velocity relative to the interstellar hydrogen, an elec-
tromagnetic net spread out in front of the boat,
scooping up protons and alpha particles and funnel-
ing them into the "jets," where the heat from direct
conversion of matter to energy turned the hydrogen
into a stream of plasma out the ass-end. No other way
could we accelerate so near the speed of light in only
three or four days.
The thruster at the back looked exactly like a
standpipe. I kid you not; I caught myself looking for
the faucet that would turn on the water. We rounded
the stern and headed for'ard again.
About a kilometer from the stern, we found it--we
found our first, and only, Newbie body. Arlene saw
something and jogged forward; I dropped to one knee
and covered her, watching her through my snap-up
rifle scope. She ran under the ship, finally having to
crouch and skitter sideways for the last couple score
meters; this close to the ship, the underside looked
like a building overhang where it rose away from the
"Jesus," she muttered. "Sergeant Fly, get your butt
up here and eyeball this thing."
"What is it?" I asked, trotting toward her position
"I'd rather you saw it for yourself without precon-
ceptions." She sounded tense and excited, and I
double-timed the pace.
By the time I approached, I was panting. Jeez, what
adding another stripe does to a Marine's physical
fitness! Arlene didn't look tense; her RK-150 hung off
her back totally casual. She was staring at something
underneath the ship, where you'd have to crawl on
your hands and knees to see it. She shone a pencil-
light on the thing; it looked like a body of some sort,
or was once . . . but definitely not a Fred.
"Hold my rifle," I said, handing it to her. "I'm
going under and take a look."
She eyed the overhanging ship uneasily. "You sure
this thing isn't going to roll over on you?"
"If'n it do, li'l lady," I said, doing my Gunny
Goforth imitation, "we-all gwan be inna heap'a trou-
bles." The ship overhung us even where we stood,
stretching a good fifty meters beyond us; if it chose to
roll over, we'd be squashed like a bug on a bullet
anyway, no matter where we stood.
But I sure didn't like crawling under the thing; I
could feel the mass of immensity over my back; I got
about ten meters in when I experienced a rush of
utter, total panic. I'd never felt claustrophobic before!
Why then? The ship felt like an upside-down moun-
tain balanced on its peak, ready to topple over and
crush me. I froze, unable to move, while waves of
panic battered me. The only thing that kept me from
turning around and crab-crawling back out of there
was the fact that Arlene was staring at me, and I
would rather die than have her think a sergeant in the
Marine Corps was a screaming coward.
After a minute, the panic subsided into gripping
anxiety; it was still horrible, but now bearable. "Are
you all right?" Arlene called from behind me.
"Y-yeah, just trying to f-figure out what the thing is.
Gotta git a lit ... get a little closer." I forced myself
to crawl until I was as close as I could get. I set up my
Sure Fire flashlight-lantern to illuminate the body
while I inched forward until my head was caught
between the spongy material and the ship's hull.
It was amazing, a scene straight out of The Wizard
of Oz: when the Fred ship touched down, it landed
right on top of a dead alien! It definitely wasn't a Fred;
this creature looked more like an alien is supposed to
look: white skin, long multiple articulated arms and
legs, fingers like tendrils, not like the Freds' chopsticks
or Sears and Roebuck's cilia. I swear to God, this
thing actually had antennae, even. The eyes were
huge, big as the cross-section on an F-99 Landing
Flare, and Coca-Cola red; I couldn't quite see, but I
think they continued around the back of the head.
The face was turned toward me, and I got hot and
cold chills running up and down my spine, like it was
staring at me and demanding why? The mouth was a
red slit, and there was no nose--dark lines on the
sides of the face, where the cheeks would be on a
human, might have been air filters.
My heart started pounding again, another wave of
panic; I was staring at my first Newbie--I just knew.
After I calmed down a bit, I slithered sideways,
through my light; it was a bad moment when I
eclipsed the light, casting the Newbie into total shad-
ow. God only knew what it was doing in the dark. I
got far enough to the side to see the body and legs.
"You know," I yelled back, my voice still shaky, "this
thing doesn't look half bad. It's crushed a little, but I
think it could be salvageable."
Arlene yelled something back that I couldn't hear,
then she got smart and spoke into her throat mike
instead. "Can you drag it out if I throw you a rope?"
"I bet I can," I responded. I was never a rodeo
roper, but I'd been around a calf or two in my day. I
grew up on a farm and worked the McDonald's Ranch
when I was a kid. "Throw me the rope, A.S. I bet I can
lasso that thing and drag it into the light of day.
Kiddo, I think we may have gotten our first lucky
break on this operation."
We carried our gruesome trophy back into
the ship, plopping it down on the table right behind
Sears and Roebuck. When they turned, they stared,
eyes almost popping out of their skulls. "What that
"I was hoping you could tell us," I grumbled. I had
gotten used to Sears and Roebuck's galaxy-weary,
we've-seen-everything-twice pose; I was even more
shocked than the Magillas themselves at their confu-
sion. "Are you saying this is an entirely new race of
beings you've never seen before?"
"No," they said, "and whatever disgusting is it is.
The color is all wrong and the eyes are something
horrible. Where did you get it?"
"Ship fell on it," explained Arlene. "Could this be a
Newbie, the race Rumplestiltskin was on about, the
guys that wiped out the Freds?"
"Well something outwiped the Fred, that is sure,"
said Sears and Roebuck. "If there no other life forms
of life here, then is logically that is the Newbie."
"Great, fine, cool," I interrupted, "but can you
revive the bloody thing?" I jabbed a meaty finger at
them. "And don't hack off any arms or legs this time!
You turned my stomach with what you did to Rum-
Sears and Roebuck didn't answer. Instead, they
grabbed an ultrasound and an X-ray and began map-
ping the gross anatomy of the Newbie. After half an
hour of building up a reasonable 3-D model in the
data stack, they dragged the heavy corpse into a ring
that looked like it was made of bamboo--probably
some sort of CAT scan or Kronke mapper that the
Fred doctors used.
Arlene and I kicked back and talked about old sci-fi
movies we had watched. She thought the creature
looked like the aliens in Communion, but I held out
for a giant-size version of the things from E.T. Fi-
nally, an hour and ten minutes into the examination,
Sears and Roebuck suddenly answered, "Yes."
It took me a moment to figure out they were
answering my original question. "Say again? You're
saying you can revive it?"
"We can revive them if the other half you find."
"Other half? S and R, this thing was alone under
there . . . that's all there is; it's not a double-entity
They stared at me for a few moments, but I'm not
sure they really got it. Sears and Roebuck were Klave,
and the Klave were always paired . . . always paired.
Normally, they couldn't even deal with individuals--
they literally couldn't see them! If you were alone,
they would usually see a phantom second person; if
you showed up as part of a triad--A, B, and C--the
Klave would see three pairs: A and B, B and C, A and
C . . . something we found out before Hidalgo bought
it on the beam-in.
But Sears and Roebuck was--were?--an ambassa-
dor of sorts, and lately they'd gotten much practice
coping with singles. Even so, sometimes they forgot.
They looked offended and pained. They lugged the
corpse to the operating table and began the process of
first figuring out what had "killed" the Newbie, then
fixing it; that was all it took to revive anything in the
galaxy . . . except a human being.
Sears and Roebuck spent a long time hunting for
organic damage, finding nothing; at last, they an-
nounced the mystery solved: the Newbie had died of
malnutrition! Evidently, it had been left behind acci-
dentally and eventually ran out of dietary supplement
pills. As its last action, it went and lay down right on
the LZ, hoping to be found and revived, and that was
what nearly got the thing scrunched flatter than an
armadillo on a tank tread. Another few meters to one
side, and splat!
Alas, that was a tough problem to cure. None of us
had any idea how malnutrition affected Newbies.
Sears and Roebuck did a biochemical analysis and
thought they had isolated the essential nutrients.
They compared them to what you could find on
Fredworld, figuring out what was missing, then they
had to guess what systems that would destroy.
The upshot was that Arlene and I were ordered to
take a hike for a day or two; we spent it exploring the
ship, mapping all the "object-oriented" divisions of
the ultraindividualist Freds. Strange, I never in my
wildest nightmares thought I would be fighting along-
side the ultimate collectivist Klave to defeat the
ultraindividualist Freds! But a Marine is not there to
make policy, just to enforce it.
We checked back frequently. I wouldn't put it past
Sears and Roebuck to revive the Newbie without
bothering to wait for me and Arlene. But at last they
said they were ready. They had been washing various
organlike objects in a nutrient bath, running a low-
level electrical current through them for two days.
Now they jump-started the hearts with big jolts of
electricity, and the damned thing moaned, flapped its
arms, and sat up--alive again, oo-rah.
The Newbie slowly stared at each of us, especially
curious about Sears and Roebuck; it made no attempt
to escape, attack, or even step off the operating table. I
guess it figured we were unknown quantities--best
not to rile us just yet.
The thing started picking up our language from the
moment we revived it. I asked Arlene whether she had
me covered, and the Newbie had all the vocabulary I
used (Arlene, name; you, me, pronouns; covered,
guarded with a gun) and half our language structure
(interrogative, expression) down cold in six seconds. I
started asking it simple questions; after the second or
third one, it was answering in good English, a lot
better than Sears and Roebuck had ever managed to
learn. An hour after reviving, we were having an
"What is your name?" I asked.
Thanks a lump. "Not you as a species, you as an
individual. . . . What is your name?"
I shook my head. There was some sort of confusion,
but maybe it was just the language. "All right,
Newbie, what did you do to the Freds, to the ones who
were here before you?"
"They were broken, but we couldn't fix them."
"How were they broken?"
The Newbie stared unanswering for a moment; I
figured he was calculating the time factor. "Eleven
decades elapsed between contacts by the Freds, and
they had not grown to meet the circumstances. We
expected to surrender and seek fixing, but they were
broken and had to be fixed."
"We found a Fred here who said you destroyed
them, wiped them all off the face of the planet. Why
did you kill him and his buddies?"
"What is a Fred?"
"A Fred! The Freds!" I waved my arms in exaspera-
tion. "Why did you kill them?"
"We are not familiar with a Fred. The Freds were
broken; they did not grow to meet the circumstances.
We attempted to fix them, but it was beyond our
capabilities. We eliminated them from the mix while
we studied the problem. The next time we encounter
such a breakage, we shall have grown."
The Newbie sat rigidly still on the operating table,
arms hanging limply at its sides, almost as if they were
barely usable. Probably the result of being dead and
imperfectly revivified, I guessed. "Do you attempt to
fix all races that don't, um, grow to meet the circum-
"We have never encountered other races before.
Until we grew, we did not realize we were a planet; we
thought we were the world."
"Why did the Newbies leave you behind?"
"We are the Newbies. We don't understand the
question. We require further growth or fixing."
"Why are you, you personally, still here on Fred-
world? Why aren't you with the Newbies?"
"Your syntax is confusing us. We are here and we
Oh criminey! Another freaking hive culture. The
Klave were bad enough, being able only to see pairs
and powers of two (pairs of pairs of pairs)... now
these Newbies didn't even understand the concept of
an individual member of a species.
"We must withdraw to consider your information,"
I said. "Newbies, please wait on this table and else-
"Newbies will wait." The Newbie closed its eyes
. . . and all life signs ceased! The machines giving
their steady thuds with every beat of each heart
(three--one in the groin area, one in the stomach,
and a smaller one circulating blood through the head)
fell silent, and a rasping buzz sounded as respiration
and body temperature plunged.
I stared. Had something inside the Newbie's stom-
ach moved? I leaned close, staring, then I thought
about that grotesque movie from the late 1900s and
the thing popping out of the chest, so I stepped back
warily. But something inside the Newbie was defi-
nitely on the move; it rippled across the alien's belly
from east to west, slithering around. "Sears and
Roebuck," I called, "did you pick up any large
parasites or symbiotes that might be using the Newbie
as a host?"
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other, hands on
heads in agitation. "No," they said, "definitely noth-
ing there was that produces such a motion could
"Jesus, Fly, what's happening to it? It looks like it's
being eaten alive! Is it dying?" Arlene and I split,
stepping to either side of the Newbie, weapons at the
ready. The snake or worm or whatever it was pressed
up against the Newbie's stomach, bulging out the
flesh; Arlene and I backed up a step, thank God--
when the belly burst, blue-gray Newbie blood or fluid
sprayed across the sickbay, splashing the wall and
even spotting my uniform slightly.
A gray serpent slithered through the opening . . .
but the true horror was that the serpent had six heads!
Then I blinked, and the scene abruptly changed: it
wasn't a six-headed serpent; it was a tentacle with six
prongs, or "fingers," at the end. It lashed about
uncontrolled for a few minutes, falling limp at last.
The Newbie opened his eyes. "Are you finished
considering our information?" He seemed not at all
perturbed by the new addition to his anatomy; in fact,
he didn't even remark on it.
I tried to think of a subtle way of asking what the
hell was going on, but Arlene beat me to the line,
demanding, "How the hell did you grow a tentacle out
of your gut?"
The Newbie looked down in obvious surprise. "We
aren't sure what event has stimulated this growth."
"It'll come to you, I'm sure," I muttered, "but we're
not quite finished considering your information.
Please excuse us."
The Newbie became rigid again, and its vital signs
dropped away to zero. I stepped back and spoke for
Arlene's ears only--presuming that the Newbie
hadn't evolved super-sensitive hearing in the last five
minutes. "We are in deep, deep kimchee, kiddo."
She looked up and down. "Oh, come on; we can
still take it." Her red brows furrowed, then raised.
"Oh! You mean we Earthlings? Yeep, I hadn't even
thought of that. Damn."
Newbies, hundreds of millions of Newbies, scour-
ing the galaxy looking for races to "fix," evolving so
rapidly that they were a whole different species from
one battle to the next. Newbies with a violent streak
sufficient to wipe the Freds from the face of their home
planet. Newbies discovering the embryonic human
race, just beginning to poke our noses into the interga-
lactic fray--these were frightening thoughts. Arlene
grimaced and absently tugged at her ear, following her
own agitated turn of thought.
"Fly, we have to find them. We have to find out
which way they're headed and warn Earth."
"What is Earth by now? Maybe we deserve wiping
out . . . who knows?"
Now she turned the brunt of her blue-eyed, icy
anger on me. "I don't think I follow you--Sergeant."
"Just thinking out loud; don't pay any attention.
Course we're going to warn the country, or what's left
of it, whoever's in charge. I just wonder; it's been
two hundred odd years back home; it'll have been
another two centuries before we can get back, maybe
longer, depending on where the Newbies lead us. I
just wonder whether there's still anything left worth
I didn't know how much of the conversation Sears
and Roebuck had heard--little, I hoped. I stepped
forward and spoke aloud, rousing the Newbie. "New-
bies, attention please. Take us to your--to the rest of
you, please. Can you do that?"
It opened its eyes and spoke but did not otherwise
move. "We can take you to us if we have not changed
our plan for exploration. We are going to [unintelligi-
ble], but we do not know where we will go from
"If we leave now," Arlene whispered in my ear,
"we'll still arrive about forty years after the Newbies
arrived, no matter where it is."
"Can you give--ah, the Klave bearing and distance
to your location?"
The Newbie turned to Sears and Roebuck and
spoke in a different language. And the latter re-
sponded in the same tongue! Arlene and I stared at
each other; when had the Newbie learned to speak
Klavish? Then she rolled her eyes and solved the
mystery: "Learned it from the Freds, of course." It
probably wasn't Klavish, actually, just some common
language the two sides, the Hyperrealists and the
Deconstructionists, used for interparty negotiation.
Sears and Roebuck turned back to the local naviga-
tional system. Evidently, in the absence of conflicting
orders from any other section of the ship, any one
station was sufficient to pilot the entire vessel. "Voy-
age taking us another eight of weeks, it will," an-
nounced the pair of Klave. "External times in the
hundred and twenty of years."
Eight more long weeks . . . God, just what I
wanted. I took a deep breath. "Push the button,
Max," I said. Arlene gave me a swift kick in the ankle.
The lift sequence was bizarre. It took a full day,
much of which was a carefully calculated refueling
that the ship carried out automatically after Sears and
Roebuck programmed the course. Arlene interrogated
the Klave extensively on just how the launch itself
worked, then briefed me, like a good junior NCO.
On their homeworld, the Freds used something
Arlene called a "pinwheel launcher," which she de-
scribed as a huge asterisk in orbit around the planet.
Each limb of the asterisk was a boom with a hook
attached; the diameter of the asterisk, counting the
booms, was something on the order of seven thousand
The whole pinwheel affair rotated directly opposite
the day-night rotation of the planet. The spokes of the
pinwheel descended from the sky and just kissed the
ground; at that precise point, ground and boom were
moving exactly the same speed and direction ... so
from the viewpoint of a ship on the runway--our
ship--the boom appeared to hesitate motionless for a
That was the moment that our ship attached itself
to the boom; in that fraction of a second, the Fred
ship transformed itself from being a member of the
Fredworld system to a member of the pinwheel sys-
tem. Then, as the pinwheel continued to rotate, it
pulled our ship up with it ... gently at first; it felt like
zero-g for a few minutes. Then we felt the centrifugal
tug as we were yanked in a different direction than the
The g force increased rapidly, then just as suddenly,
it decreased as the inertial dampers kicked online.
Still, my stomach flew south while the rest of me went
north, and I longed for the comfortable, familiar
disorientation of mere zero-g! That was a first, I was
absolutely convinced--Fly Taggart longing for free-
The pinwheel carried us up and around, then at
perigee, the highest point of our little mini-orbit
around the center of mass of the rotating asterisk, the
ship decoupled, launching us into space. We were
once again at freefall, and I regretted my earlier wish
for it. But the ship immediately started spinning up,
eventually hitting 0.8 g again. Meanwhile, the engines
began to whine and moan and loudly groan, and we
felt the hard backward push that indicated we had
started our long acceleration, prior to the seven-week
drift, culminating with the hard deceleration at the
other end, dropping us into . .. into what?
It was a frightening thought. And we would have
fifty-eight creeping days to think about it.
We fell into a standardized shipboard routine:
training, mess, watchstanding, strategic mental im-
provement (we played chess and Go), and endless
worrying, discussing, theorizing, emotional reminis-
cence of all that was best on Earth before this whole,
horrible nightmare started. Once again, I took to
walking the long, wet, slimy, hot corridors ... but
this time with Arlene at my side.
Everything we saw reminded us of the monsters the
Freds created for us; they drew heavily from their own
world. They loved dark alcoves, doors that opened
suddenly with only a hiss for a warning; I couldn't
count how many times I whirled around, drawing
down on a frigging door!
Horrible bas-relief faces adorned every flat surface.
Then, right in the middle of a passageway on a space
ship, for Pete's sake, we'd run into a fountain of some
dark red fluid that sure as hell looked like blood.
The walls never seemed quite straight. Maybe
straight lines and right-angle turns bothered the Freds
as much as the crazy geometry set my neck hairs
upright. "Take a look," Arlene said, pointing at a door
through which we had to pass.
I sucked in a breath. "The mouth of Moloch? Jesus,
Albert should be here."
I looked sharply over at her, but she wasn't torqued
by the reference to her once and only. She nodded
slowly. "Albert would have loved this spread." That
was Arlene Sanders: her response to grief and fear was
literary irony. A perfect Marine.
Jesus, I felt homesick. Just a few months ago--my
time--I was wasting my life at Camp Pendleton,
loafing and pulling the occasional watch, thinking of
not reupping and dropping back into the world in-
stead. I had a fiancÊe, now deceased; I had parents
and high-school friends; I had the expectation that the
world would look pretty much the same twenty years
later. Then we got sent to Kefiristan, but even that
was all right; it was crap, but it was the crap I'd always
known was possible in my chosen profession.
But when they yanked us out of the Pearl Triangle
and boosted Fox Company up to Phobos . . . well,
they yanked me out of my comfortable reality and
threw me into primordial chaos. So now I was jogging
the length and circumference of an alien spaceship,
hurling toward an unknown star at nearly lightspeed,
with a plural alien as ally and a mutable thing for a
guide; the only constancy was Arlene Sanders, now
my last and only friend.
It's not just a job, man, it's an adventure.
The weeks crawled past like worms on a wet side-
walk. Every few days, the Newbie mutated, evolved,
whatever you call it, slowly transforming from the
roughly humanoid shape we first found into a truly
alien form with a distended stomach, a pushed-in jaw,
and longer arms. I found the change fascinating and a
little scary; who was to say it wouldn't evolve into
something we couldn't handle?
But a queer thing happened: the closer we got to the
planetary system, which we nicknamed Skinwalker
because it was where we would find the shape-shifters,
the more frightened the Newbie became. He was
I asked what he was so frightened of, and he
answered, "We are subject to different stimulae; we
are frightened of how we have grown to adapt to the
"You're scared you're no longer the same species!" I
accused. The Newbie said nothing, going limp
again--its usual response to information it could not
handle. Of course it couldn't. ... I had just suggested
that unity was bifurcated, that what had been one was
now two! The Newbie had no words inside its head to
explain that concept: it conceived of itself as every-
thing and nothing ... all of the Newbie species at
once and nothing of itself. How can you divide
"everything" into two piles, one of which is still
The Newbie was starting to realize that whatever
was waiting for us on Skinwalker was not the Newbie
race--not anymore. It was terrified of what its own
people had become, just as Arlene and I were terrified
of what Earth would look like when we finally re-
We hawk-watched the Newbie for the first couple of
weeks, but it never did anything but sit on the table,
unmoving, and answer questions we asked it. It never
initiated conversations or tried to move. We sur-
veilled it, watching through an air-circulation grate to
see what it did when it thought no one was around;
either it didn't do anything or else it knew somehow
that we were there. Sears and Roebuck told me that
there was a hidden video system aboard the ship, used
by the captain to spy on the rest of his crew, but we
couldn't find it, and we had thrown most of the Freds
overboard on Fredworld, so we couldn't revive the
captain to tell us himself . . . even if that idea weren't
so utterly stupid that I wouldn't even mention it to
Gradually, we came to accept the immobile, silent
alien in the sickbay, then we started even to forget he
was there at all. I found myself and Arlene casually
talking in front of him about stuff he really wasn't
cleared to hear. After all, he was still the representa-
tive of the enemy, even if he and they had evolved in
separate directions for forty years, which was the
equivalent of possibly forty million dog years.
Five weeks into the eight-week voyage, Arlene ex-
perienced every Marine's worst nightmare: something
terrible happened on her watch. The first I knew
about it was three hours later, when she shook me
awake out of a fitful sleep, where I dreamed we land-
ed in a sea that turned out to be one, humongous
Newbie circling the planet, waiting to fold us gently
in arms like mountains and drag us to a watery
grave fifty fathoms down. "Get up, get up, Fly," she
said urgently. "Battle stations!" In an eyeblink, I was
out of bed, stark naked, with a .40-cal pistol in
"What? Where?" I demanded, looking for the ene-
my. We were alone in the room we called the barracks;
even Sears and Roebuck were missing, though they'd
been there when I went to sleep.
"Fly, I screwed the pooch. Real bad." She looked so
pale and stricken that I almost reached out to hug her.
It wouldn't have been appreciated; there were times
she was a friend and times she was a Marine Corps
"What did you do, Lance?"
Her face took on the mask, what we wear when we
have to go report a dereliction of duty (our own) to
the XO: stone cold and icy white, lips as taut as
strings stretched to their breaking point. "Sergeant, I
was on watch at 0322; I went to check on the prisoner
in sickbay, but he was gone."
It took a moment for the intel to sink in. "Gone?
What the hell do you mean? Where did he go?" I
glanced at my watch, the only thing I wore: 0745. The
Newbie had been missing for at least four hours and
"I can't find him, Sarge. I've looked . . . Sears and
Roebuck and I have crawled this entire freaking ship
up one side and down the other, and we can't find a
shred of evidence that he was ever here!"
"Where are the Klave?"
"They're still looking, but I think if we were going
to find the Newbie, we'd have found traces at least by
now." She lowered her voice and looked truly
ashamed; it was the first time I had ever seen her like
that, and I didn't like it. "I think he's, ah, been
planning this break for a long, long time--weeks,
I pulled on my cammies, T-shirt, and jacket while
she talked. "God, Arlene, you're asking me to believe
that the Newbie sat utterly still without moving for
five weeks, just to lull us into a false sense of security!
Christ, do you realize how ridiculous that sounds?"
"It's what he did, Fly. I just know it."
We conducted a rigorous search, but, of course, if
the person being sought doesn't want to be found, it's
not difficult to avoid four people--well, three actu-
ally, since Sears and Roebuck are inseparable by
nature--on a ship with fifty square kilometers of
deckspace. We finally gave in to exhaustion at 1310
after more than five hours of continuous searching.
The son of a bitch didn't want to be found, and by
God we weren't going to find him.
If he was even still a him, or a Newbie, for that
matter, what weird mutation had he undergone this
time? I shuddered at the horrific, Hieronymus Bosch
images conjured up by my mind.
Then abruptly the ship's "gravity," the acceleration
toward the outside hull, shifted radically. Suddenly,
down was not just out but forward as well. Only one
event could have caused that effect . . . and it meant
we had found our elusive gremlin, sort of: "Criminen-
talies, he's made his way to another set of nav
controls!" I shouted in Arlene's ear; he was slowing us
down or turning us, driving us away from Skinwalker
and sabotaging the mission!
This Newbie had evolved an independent
personality . . . and he was determined not to risk
contact with the tribe, no matter what the cost to the
rest of the galaxy.
"Christ, S and R--do something!" Having
issued my first military command in a week, I did
what any good military man does when confronted
with an invisible enemy: I ran in circles, screaming
and shouting. Sears and Roebuck looked frustrated,
being constitutionally unable to follow the order "do
Then Arlene, whirling rapidly in every direction
with her magazine-fed shotgun, thought of the obvi-
ous: "Fly! Isn't this stupid Fred ship steered by
"Yes! I don't know what that means!"
"Maybe S and R should hump over to another nav
center and issue another vote for our course!"
Sears and Roebuck started to run, but I grabbed
one of their arms. "Wait--before you go, set up a
computer loop that continually issues the command
to get us back on course . . . run from nav to nav,
setting up the same order wherever you can. Go!"
I gestured Arlene to me. "Okay, Lance, you and I
are going hunting." She licked her lips; sometimes
that girl is just a little too Marine.
The gravity stopped, then reversed; we had out-
voted the Newbie. But while we broke out into one of
the outer corridors and ran the length of the ship, the
situation reversed, and again we started slowing. The
damned Newbie was doing the same thing we were!
"Arlene--how many navigational centers?"
"Um . . . forty-one that I counted."
"Corporal, that thing has evolved intelligence be-
yond ours. We can't outthink him, so there's only one
thing to do: we have to drag him down to our level by
attacking without thought or planning, purely chance
encounters and brute force."
We bolted through corridors lit only by our own
flashes, dashing from nav to nav at random--random
as a human brain can do--desperately hoping to
catch the Newbie as he visited nav after nav. We ran
into Sears and Roebuck--twice! But the Newbie
remained as elusive as ever.
The third time we bumped into the Klave and
nearly blew them away, I had had enough. "Screw it,
A.S.--just start pounding a shell into each nav center
as we find it."
It was time to reduce the choices. We went method-
ically from center to center, and in every room,
Arlene raised her semi-auto shotgun and pumped
three or four shells into the delicate programming
equipment. Everywhere we went, we tripped over
dead Freds that we didn't even remember killing (and
hadn't got around to dumping), so intense had been
that firefight when we took over the ship.
We had destroyed more than half the navs and had
been hurled to the ground a dozen times by radical
acceleration changes when we finally kicked a door
and saw our enemy. The Newbie had his head buried
in the guts of one of the destroyed navs, trying to
repair it enough to cast another vote for slow-down.
He jerked his new triple-heads up as we entered; his
tentacle-arm snaked down the circuitry, bypassing the
"There is no need for violence," one of the heads
said, speaking in calm, measured tones. "We must
join forces against the Freds. The Newbies have
decided they cannot coexist with the Deconstruction-
ists. If you continue on the present course, we will be
wiped out by the Newbies, who have their own
agenda. Please, just listen to us!"
He started to make a whole lot of sense. Arlene
lowered her shotgun hesitantly, waiting to hear him
So I shot the frigging bastard before he could utter
another syllable. I raised my M-14 and squeezed off a
burst of four, the big rifle kicking against my shoulder
like a Missouri mule, disemboweling the Newbie
where he stood. Arlene stared. "Jesus, Fly" was all she
said, her voice tentative and questioning.
The Newbie staggered back against a hydraulic
pump--God only knows what use the Freds had for
hydraulics in a spaceship--but it didn't clutch its
belly or moan or gasp "ya got me!" or anything. It
bled, the blood being pinkish white, like pale Pepto-
A bulge started in his side. I understood
immediately--it was evolving more organs to relink
around the damage! I blasted them, too, and at last
the damned thing truly died ... as nearly dead as the
living dead ever could be. It bubbled softly, leaning
back against a bulkhead, then nothing.
Yeah, but I'd seen that act before. I unloaded the
rest of the magazine into him, hitting every major
biological system I could imagine. I guess maybe I
went a little overkill; but, criminey, what else could I
"A.S.," I explained guiltily, "he was getting under
our skin. I had to do it! If I'd have let him speak,
Lance, he would have had us eating his solid waste in
five minutes flat."
"I ... understand, but--Jesus, Fly!"
The Newbie slid slowly to the ground, staring at me
with such intensity I almost reloaded and shot anoth-
er burst into its face, just to shut those eyes! I didn't.
But for the first time, I really understood the protago-
nist of Poe's "The Telltale Heart." He turned his head
to the side, staring down at the deck. I think he was
already "dead," unable to control his neck and eye
muscles, but I still know he saw what he saw. They all
"Jesus was a man of action, Corporal." I was
getting a bit offended at her taking of the Lord's name
in vain. Maybe I was just a bit worried that Jesus
might not have liked what I had just done. "I had no
choice ... his tongue was silver!"
She just stared, shaking her head. The ship contin-
ued to accelerate back to cruising speed, giving us two
"down" directions: outboard and aft. I felt sick, but I
didn't know whether it was from the weird "gravity"
or being sick at heart about what I had just done--
blown away the only representative we had met from
an entirely new alien species.
We found Sears and Roebuck and told them they
could stop programming navigational centers. We
were alone. The Newbie's ghost could join that of
Rumplestiltskin and every other dead Fred on board.
We picked up the creature's body, bearing him aft to
the "bridge," just about midway along the ship's
body; actually, this bridge was just one among many.
We set him up in the co-pilot's chair, where the Fred
captain had been slain. Enemies in battle, they could
become fast allies guiding the ship of death with
spectral hands. The Newbie weighed more than I
would have expected, about twice what Arlene
weighed. I wished the nav cabins were closer to the
central core of the ship, so we wouldn't have to lug the
dead thing through nearly a full g of acceleration. This
marked the second time in living memory when Fly
Taggart ever wished for zero-g!
We ramped up to speed again, but the monkeying
around had cost us ten days of travel and a dreadful
amount of fuel. I didn't understand how two hours of
space-jockeying could cost us ten days until Arlene
explained the fuel problem. The fuel was calculated
on two assisted accelerations: ramping up at the
beginning of the journey, after being launched by the
pinwheel launcher from Fredworld, and slowing
down at the end all by our lonesome.
I mostly nodded and said "uh-huh" whenever she
paused to wait for my response. I was really only
interested in one aspect, which she finally disgorged.
The ramscoop only worked at a certain speed, and
you had to accelerate to that speed by other means
. . . hence, the hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel we
carried. The hydrogen was no problem; the ship
replenished the store as a byproduct of fusion--I
guess not all the hydrogen fused, or something. But
the LOX, as Arlene called it, was irreplaceable--once
it was gone, it was gone.
The bastard Newbie had used a lot of it trying to
slow us down. We didn't have enough left to do a
hundred-g burn for three days and match orbits with
Skinwalker. We would have to start slowing a subjec-
tive week earlier by shutting down the ramjet fusion
entirely and just letting the friction of interstellar
hydrogen against the ramscoop slow us some. Then
we would manually burn at lower thrust, conserving
our fuel and hopefully matching velocities.... If not,
we either would stop short, dead in space, drifting at
whatever velocity relative to the planet we finally ran
out of fuel, sailing on past the planet and waving bye-
bye in the rear windshield--or else we might plow
into the hunk of rock at a couple of hundred kilome-
ters per second, punching out a crater the size of the
Gulf of Mexico and, incidentally, atomizing us and
It all depended on Sears and Roebuck. Arlene and I
offered to help--we told them about our brilliant
piloting of the makeshift mail-rocket coming down
from the relocated Deimos moon to Earth's surface--
but the Klave just looked at each other, each putting
his gorilla-size hand on the other's head, and pumped
their crania up and down. We took it to be laughter
that time--derisive laughter.
I had no idea how good a pilot Sears and Roebuck
were, but I had a bad feeling it was like the President
taking the stick of Air Force One when the pilot has a
heart attack. Better than giving it to the presidential
janitor, though, which was basically where Arlene and
I stood in the pecking order. God, how I wished we
hadn't left Commander Taylor back at the Hyperreal-
ist military base! That babe could fly anything.
The other big problem was that unlike back at
Fredworld, we had no friendly pinwheel launcher to
catch us here and lower us more or less gently to the
surface. We were entirely on our own.
The rest of the journey was uneventful, including
the extra ten days of grace. We trained and practiced
various emergency drills, just for something to do:
one of the biggest problems with spaceflight is the
incredible, relentless boredom, but if there's one thing
the Marine Corps teaches you to handle, it's ennui.
We were always sitting on our hands, waiting for
somebody further up the food chain to finish a
mysterious errand, while the rest of us jarheads, men
with stripes on our sleeves, waited for The Word.
It wasn't like they let any grass grow under our feet.
There's always something to do around a military
base, even if it's just putting a nice polish on the brass
cannon on the stone steps at Pensacola (or scrubbing
the base CO's hardwood office floor with tooth-
brushes). If you manage to "miss" your gunny or your
top, you might find yourself with a whole afternoon
free, but there was always the NCO club to soak up
any extra dollars.
On the Fred ship, it was both more and less difficult
to find something to do for weeks and weeks--harder
because there weren't any butterbars, silverbells, or
railroad tracks to tell us what to do, but easier because
we were on an alien space ship full of strange and
wonderful things to poke and monkey with, three
main corridors of 3.7 kilometers each at 0.8 g and one
I actually learned to tolerate zero-g for several
hours at a time with only a slight floaty feeling in my
stomach. Arlene loved it, naturally. The central shaft
that I called the zero-g corridor was dodecahedral,
according to A.S.--it had twelve sides. But the cor-
ners weren't sharp, they were rounded off, and the
sides were not very symmetrical in any case. Like
everything else in Fredland, the entire corridor disori-
ented me, like looking at one of those paintings by
Picasso where the eyes are head-on, but the nose is in
profile. There was a totally cool red pulse that traveled
the length of the shaft--from back to front, oddly
enough--that reminded me so much of an old sci-fi
flick that we dubbed it the Warp Coil Pulse. The walls
must have been light panels or LEDs or something; I
don't know where the illumination came from . . .
there was no source that we ever found.
We invented a few reindeer games to play when we
got tired of training, marching, and drilling. (I made
sure Arlene and I kept up on our parade and close-
order drill; we may have been lost in space, but we
were still the United States Freaking Marine Corps,
Goddamn it!) One Arlene got from an old sci-fi book
by Heinlein: you start at one end of the corridor and
"dive" toward the other end, doing flips or spins or
butterflies or some other gymnastic feat, seeing how
far you can get and how many maneuvers you can
perform before you crash against the side. She never
did get all the way, but after the first couple of weeks, I
always did, much to Arlene's annoyance.
I thought Sears and Roebuck would be too staid
and respectable to join in any reindeer games. Hah!
They were always the first to get tired of the milspec
crap and demand we go play. I guess decadence is
more than anything else the need to play games to
drive away the boredom demon.
Having demonstrated their insanity by volunteer-
ing to go on our expedition, far from any possibility of
resurrection if they should "die," Sears and Roebuck
proved their fearlessness in the risks they would take
just for a thrill. Once, they put on space suits from
their fanny packs, climbed outside the ship, and
played like monkeys on the outer skin! They dangled
from the spinning hull, swinging from handhold to
handhold with their feet dangling over an infinite
abyss--one slip, and we would have lost one, if not
both, of our pilots. Probably if one had gone, the
other would have been unable to contemplate living
and would have followed the first loyally to a horrible
But all good things must end. The time rolled by at
last, and Sears and Roebuck suddenly turned deadly
serious. We shut down the ramscoop, and I felt a
slight gravity push for'ard as we plowed into inter-
stellar hydrogen-dust and slowed. We did this for
about a week, then Sears and Roebuck started the
thrusters at a lower and more efficient level of acceler-
ation than what our ship originally had planned. It
made no difference to us; it was still far beyond the
fatal crushing level, so the inertial dampers kept it
down to the same level we had felt ramping up. Our
reindeer games stopped; we had no more zero-g shaft.
Suddenly heavy again after weeks of acceleration
ranging from 0.8 g down to zero, I dragged every
footstep, and my legs and back ached. Arlene didn't
have it so bad, since she didn't mass as much as I; she
still had a spring in her step and an increasingly grim
smile on her face. I knew the feeling; it had been
months since I killed anything. After what the Freds
had done to my life and my world, I developed the
taste for blood. Now that the Newbies had deprived
me of my rightful revenge, I was prepared to transfer
all that wrath to the new threat.
In short, I wanted to pump a few rounds into a nice,
smooth Newbie chest. But I was also starting to get
very, very nervous about what they had managed to
evolve into in the four decades they had been down
on the planet we approached--assuming they were
still there. I saw a number of possible outcomes, none
of them pleasant: the frustration of finding no one, the
humiliation of capture, the agony of us being annihi-
Then without warning one day, the reactor braking
suddenly stopped, sending Arlene and me flying (liter-
ally, the for'ard bulkhead that had been a deck
became a wall instantaneously, dropping us to the
outer bulkhead, which now was our only "floor"!).
"We're coming in down to landing," Sears and Roe-
buck soberly informed us, then used the last of the
hydrogen peroxide retros over the space of an hour to
cut the ship's rotation, leaving us in an orbit that
would take us directly into the planet's atmosphere
... at about mach seventy (that's Earth sea-level, dry-
air mach speed of seventy, about twenty-three kilome-
ters per second).
Trying to land at such a speed would kill us as
surely as blowing up the reactor pile. But we were
rapidly running out of options: when Sears and Roe-
buck killed the main thrusters, they did so with only a
tiny bit of LOX remaining. "How much we got left?"
"Approximately it is left 650 seconds is," they
answered, "but only at three gravities of Fredworld
for using the maneuvers rockets."
Arlene and I looked at each other; that was less than
eleven minutes of burn, and without even using the
huge main thrusters! Arlene tapped rapidly on her
wrist calculator, frowned, and tried the calculation
again. "S and R," she said, broadcasting through her
throat mike into the ship's radio communication
system. "I get a net drop of about mach fifty."
"That is correct in essential."
Arlene lowered her orange brows and spoke slowly,
like a child answering what she thinks might be a trick
classroom question. "Sears and Roebuck, if we're
doing mach seventy now, and we drop by mach fifty,
doesn't that mean we're still doing mach twenty?"
"Yes. The math are simplicity."
Now we both looked back and forth in confusion. I
took over the interrogation, now that I understood the
situation: "S and R, you braindead morons, we'll still
be splattered across the deck like a boxload of metal-
Long pause. Maybe they were manipulating each
other's head in that faintly obscene form of laughter
the Klave use. "No my childrens, but for we shall use
air-braking to reduceify the rest of the speed."
A terrible pit opened in my stomach. Even I knew
that the Fred ship was not, repeat not, designed to be
abused in such a fashion. It was designed to dock with
a pinwheel launcher and even to land gently using the
main thrusters to slow all the way to next to nothing
. . . not to belly-flop into the atmosphere like a disori-
ented diver, burning off excess speed by turning its
huge surface area directly into the onrushing air!
We would burn to a crisp. That is, if the ship didn't
tear itself into constituent parts first. "Hang on to
yourselves and things," suggested our mondo-weird,
binary pilots. "We're burning away the fuel starting
The ship jerked, shimmied like a garden
hose, jerked again. "Where the hell's that crazy
mofo?" I demanded.
Arlene was knocked away from her perch by anoth-
er sudden "earthquake." I caught her by the arm, so
she didn't carom across the zero-g ship. "Christ! I
think he said he was headed toward Nav Room One,
right inside the engine compartment!" The ship
twirled like a chandelier, or so it felt; we dangled from
handholds, feeling sudden acceleration trying to yank
us free to fling us into God knows where. Nearly
eleven minutes later, the acceleration vanished as
abruptly as it began. Sears and Roebuck finished the
final burn. We were dead-sticking it the rest of the way
in, and that would be the end of the Fred ship--and
possibly of us, too.
Then the atmosphere thickened enough that we
started feeling a real push; the bow of the ship became
"down," the stern "up." I drifted against the for'ard
bulkhead, now floor, with about 0.2 g, which quickly
escalated to full, then more than full gravity. Two,
three times our normal g! The inertial dampers were
offline, probably out of juice; we suffered through the
full deceleration phase. Four g's, four and a half.
The air-braking went on forever. I was crushed to
the deck by about eight hundred pounds of weight!
Then the gravity began to slide along the deck toward
the ventral bulkhead. Sears and Roebuck were pitch-
ing the nose upward to expose more of the hull to the
We shed airspeed even as we gained more weight. I
heard a horrific explosion astern of us--the ship
swerved violently, hurling us across the new floor!
Arlene fell against me, but I was stunned. I shook my
head. "What the freaking hell--!"
She stared out a porthole, face ashen. "Jesus, Fly!
Freakin' ship splitting!" She slid her hand along the
deck and pointed. I just barely saw a huge piece of the
Fred ship below us, tumbling end over end, shattering
into "tiny" splinters scores of meters long.
It was getting hard to talk. We needed all our breath
to bear down, forcing blood back into our heads.
Thank God we were lying down--at now six g's,
sitting up we might have passed out. I knew what was
happening: the Fred ship, strong as it was, was never
intended to burn through the atmosphere like this! It
was fracturing along heat seams, separating into the
components that had been attached by the Freds
when they assembled the vehicle, probably in orbit.
The damned thing was way too long for this sort of
"Forward!" I shouted, nearly blacking out with the
effort. Arlene stared, confused--lack of oxygen-
bearing blood in her brain, maybe--so I repeated,
"Forward! Nav Room One!"
If any component of the ship was to survive the
fiery reentry, it would be the biggest, strongest
section--the decks and compartments where the en-
gines actually burned, shook, and vibrated. Besides, if
that section went, we would all die anyway--no pilot!
We weren't far from it, maybe a couple of hundred
meters. But it was a marathon! Arlene strained and
slithered forward, like a snake; I tried to follow suit,
but the best I could do was a humping motion that
wrenched my back something fierce. God, to be young
again, and supple. The monstrous gravity squeezed us
to the ventral deckplates like an enormous boot
stamping on our backs. Each compartment was con-
nected to the next by a flexible rubber bottleneck that
could easily be sealed to isolate a puncture. The
rubber mouths became jaws of death, smothering and
suffocating us as we wriggled through them. We could
have used some petroleum jelly; I had plenty . . .
about a kilometer behind us in my seabag.
After the first four rooms, my muscles were so sore I
grunted with pain with every meter crawled. Arlene
was crying; I'd almost never seen her cry before, and
never from sheer physical pain. It scared me--the
world was ending!
The groans from the ship as it tore itself apart sure
as hell sounded like the end of the world, the universe
grinding down noisily . . . long drawn-out moans, a
loud noise like the cry of a humpbacked whale,
shrieks and sobs, the wailing of the damned in hell,
gnashing their teeth. The devil himself danced around
me in hooves and pointed tail, laughing and capering,
pointing at me in my mortal distress. Or was it a hell
prince minotaur? A horrible hallucination; my Lord, I
surely did see him, in flesh of red and reeking of
sulphur and the grave. Then a steam demon and a
boney leapt through the walls! Old home week for
But I knew where salvation lay, for'ard, for'ard to
Nav Room One. When Arlene faltered and tried to lie
down and die in front of me, I put my hand on her
flattened derriÉre and shoved with a strength I'd
never felt before. The handful of ass moved ahead,
dragging the girl along with it.
Another four rooms, only two left. My belly and
chest were scraped raw, and my groin ached with the
agony of a well-placed jackboot. Spittle ran down my
chin, smearing on the deck and dehydrating me. We
suffered under a full eight g's then, according to my
wrist accelerometer, and even my eyeballs throbbed
with pain, horribly distended toward the deck. Color
had long since disappeared, and even the black and
white images I could still see narrowed to a tunnel of
light. Blurry outlines bent and twisted under the
force. Again, the ship skewed, spun out of control
until Sears and Roebuck regained control. How the
hell were they flying the ship? Were there even any
control surfaces left?
We shoved through the last two rubber collars; I
almost died in the second when my bulk stuck fast,
and I couldn't breathe for the clingy seal across my
mouth and nose. Arlene saved my life then, reaching
back into the bottleneck, somehow mustering the
strength to drag me forward by my hair a meter,
clearing the rubber from my face. At last, we lay on
the floor of Nav Room One, broken and bleeding
from nose and ears, unable to see, hugging the deck
like drunks at the end of a spree.
I heard sounds above the shredding of the ship
behind us, words--Sears and Roebuck saying some-
thing. Desperately, I focused. "Being--shot." They
gasped. "Shot at down--defenders shooting--ship
breaking into part--loosing controlling."
Shot? Shot at? What the hell was this outrage? It
was just too much, on top of the agony of reentry, to
have to put up with this weaponry BS as well! "Kill--
bastards," I wheezed. Ho, fat chance; more likely, we
would all die before the ship even hit the ground--
blown apart by relentless defenders with particle-
I passed out, only for a moment; I woke to hear
Sears and Roebuck repeating over and over, "Dirt
alert! Dirt alert!" I opened my eyes, focused just long
enough to see the ground rushing up like a freight
train, then went limp and dark again. I composed my
epitaph: Goodbye, cruel alien world.
Sears and Roebuck must have flared out at the last
moment, for I felt the nose rise majestically. Then the
remaining tail section of the Fred ship, whatever was
left, struck the ground with particular savagery, and
the ship slammed belly-first into what turned out to
be silica sand. A miracle that proved my faith--had it
been granite or water, we would have been atomized.
We were still traveling at least mach four when we
painted the desert, and we plowed a twenty-seven-
kilometer furrow across the surface of the planet,
kicking up sandy rooster tails taller than the Buchan-
an Building in the forty seconds it took us to slide to a
When the landing was over, we lay on the deck
panting and gasping. Sears and Roebuck were out;
they were used to a lot heavier gravitation than we,
but that shock was a bit much even for them, being
seated in the pilot's chair. The ship's safety proce-
dures performed as advertised, shedding pieces of
ship well back over the horizon to dissipate the
energy, while protecting the for'ard compartments of
the ship, where the most precious intelligent cargo
would have clustered.
Arlene was already sitting up on her butt when I
awoke; her head was back as she tried to staunch a
pretty bad nosebleed. I tasted a lot of blood, but it was
a few seconds before I realized I had lost my left,
upper, outermost incisor. I vaguely looked for it, still
somewhat groggy, but it was nowhere to be seen. I
started to blink back to conscious awareness.
Arlene saw that I was awake. Without lowering her
head, she croaked, "I guess--that wasn't--the
world's greatest landing."
Holding my jaw, which had started to throb, I had
time to mutter a Marine definition: "A good landing
is anything you walk away from." Then the pain really
hit me all over, and I was busy gritting my teeth and
stifling screams until Arlene kindly injected me with a
pain suppressor and stimulant from her combat ar-
Sears and Roebuck woke up, little the worse for
wear. "Shall we to outgo and face the new brave
world?" they cheerfully asked. It was the closest I'd
ever come to fragging two of my own men.
"Livable?" asked Arlene, her voice hoarse
and painful to hear.
Sears and Roebuck grunted. "Justice a minute,
justice a minute." They tapped at several keys on the
command console, hmming and humming as the few
sensors that had not burned off in the crash sampled
the air, the radiation levels, the temperature, and
looked for any dangerous bacteria, viruses, molds, or
other microorganisms. "Not to kill," they announced
"Healthy?" I gasped.
"Not to kill."
Their irritating evasiveness put me on my guard,
but what could we do? The ship's air seal was rup-
tured, and we soon would be sucking down Skin-
walker's air, whether we wanted to or not. The
machinery that manufactured the nutrition pills was
back a kilometer in the ship and was probably
smeared across the landscape. So we would soon
enough be eating local food and drinking local water,
if there was any--or dying of thirst and hunger. Our
combat suits would serve as a limited shield against
radiation, but they would only mitigate, not negate
the ill effects. For good or ill, we were cast upon the
shores of Skinwalker, offered only wayfarer's bounty.
God, how poetic. We would either be able to digest
the local produce or die trying.
We picked ourselves up off the floor, painfully
peeling the deckplates away from our skin. Arlene
wasn't hit as hard as I--less mass per surface area.
Our armor was pounded hard, protective value proba-
bly compromised but still better than zip. Despite
their chipper words, Sears and Roebuck had a hard
time peeling themselves out of the command chair
(which had survived remarkably intact). Arlene let me
lean on her shoulders, and our pilots supported each
other, as we limped to the emergency hatch. I pulled
the activation lever. Explosive bolts blew outward,
taking the hatch cover with them.
Shaking, we climbed down the ladder, two hundred
meters or more. It was a straight shot, not staggered
the way human ladders generally are: if one of us were
to slip.... I nervously watched Sears and Roebuck
above me, but I shouldn't have worried; their legs may
have been ridiculously short, but they were
powerful--all due to the high gravity of the Klave
homeworld. Arlene and I were more likely to slip and
fall in the relatively modest gravity of the planet,
about 0.7 g.
The world looked like the Mojave Desert, or maybe
we just happened to land in a desert area. I hadn't
gotten much of a look during the crash. I looked up.
The sky was too pale, but I saw oddly square clouds,
almost crystalline; we had weather, evidently. Bend-
ing down, grimacing, I lifted a handful of sand: the
grains were finer than Earth sand, fine enough that I
decided Arlene and I should wear our biofilters;
really, really fine silica can clog up your alveolae and
give you something like Black Lung Disease. There-
after, we spoke through throat mikes into our "loz-
enge" receivers. I don't know what Sears and Roe-
buck did when I pointed out the problem; they had
their own radio.
The brownish gray sandscape depressed me. Under
a pale sky, the only spots of color were the green and
black of our standard-issue combat suits and Sears
and Roebuck's muted orange flightsuits, which they
had worn ever since the mission began. Everything
else was the color of dingy gray socks that hadn't been
washed in a month.
"Okay, S and R, what the hell did you mean about
us being shot at?" My tongue couldn't help exploring
the new hole in my mouth, where the tooth had been;
the hole still throbbed, but the sharp pain was gone.
Gotta get S and R to fix this, I promised.
"Meaned what was said; they were firing at us shots
"Energy weapons, artillery shells, what?" Extract-
ing usable information from Sears and Roebuck was
worse than sitting through a briefing by Lieutenant
Weems--may he rest in peace for a good long time.
"Were firing the slugs from the electromagnabetic
"Um, a rail gun?" asked Arlene, picking up on the
answer faster than I. Anything to do with exotic
technology or weaponry was A.S.'s subject--she
could lecture for hours on ogre tanks and orbiting
"smart spears," and she sometimes did.
"Yes, the rail gun," confirmed Sears and Roebuck. I
sort of knew what a rail gun was: you took slugs of
depleted uranium, encased them in a ferromagnetic
shell casing, and accelerated them to several kilome-
ters per second velocity using electromagnets. The
resulting "gun" could damn near put shells into
orbit--they moved so fast, they punched through any
sort of imaginable armor like a bullet through thin
glass. It was a horrific weapon we had never been able
to make work properly. The first shot always de-
stroyed the target, but generally also our rail-gun
I licked dry lips. If the enemy--Newbies or
Freds?--could build a tactical-size version, our com-
bat armor would be utterly useless; if we ever took a
shot, we'd be toast.
The desert was evidently deserted; but the solitude
did not begin to compare to the vast loneliness of the
starry void. I stared at the desolation, taking some
comfort in the feel of ground beneath my feet, the
breath of wind against my armor. The air smelled
tangy--ozone--but so far I was breathing all right.
"Hey S and R," I called, softly under such a sky, "is
that ozone from our ship, or is it natural to the
"We didn't detect it orbitally," they answered in
unison. I shrugged. If any of us had asthma, it might
have been a problem. But I never had any, Arlene's
was cured by the doctors at NAMI, and Sears and
Roebuck could take care of themselves.
"Which way toward the dinks who were shooting at
us?" Arlene asked. Sears and Roebuck turned slowly
through the entire 360-degree panorama, then
pointed basically along the twenty-seven kilometer
trench our ship had dug. Arlene turned to me, raising
her brows like a pair of question marks.
Toward or away from danger? Didn't seem to be
much of a choice. S and R had detected no signs of
civilization on the planet--no powerlines, power-
plants, canals, or structures larger than two or three
stories. If there was anything smaller, it wouldn't have
shown up on their quick microwave scan. So far as I
could tell, the only sign of intelligent life was the gun
battery that had pounded our ship into rubble.
Oh, what the hell! "Let's at least eyeball the wogs
and see who they are. My guess is they don't belong
here any more than we do."
The air temp on the desert Arlene dubbed the
Anvil of God was livable; Sears and Roebuck hadn't
lied. But they never claimed it was comfortable ...
and 60 degrees centigrade certainly didn't qualify.
Our helmets kept the direct sunlight off our heads,
and we had several days' worth of water if we used the
recirc option, pissing into a tube and recycling it back
to the drinking nipple. Arlene was not happy about
doing that. Being a female, this meant she had to strip
and pee into a bedpanlike device, whereas I just wore
a sheath. There were no trees, so no privacy. She
could have turned her back, but in a typical act of
defiance, A.S. just did it right in front of me and the
Klave. I pretended nonchalance, as if women urinated
in front of me all the time--Arlene had done it
before, anyway, in combat situations. But in reality I
was shocked and embarrassed every damned time ...
but I sure wasn't about to let Arlene know that! I
would never hear the end of it.
We cut off the furrow about two klicks laterally and
paralleled it, figuring that whoever was shooting at us
would follow the skidmarks to see what he had shot
down. The armor monitored the outside air, regulat-
ing heat venting to prevent us showing a hot signature
on an infrared optical device, and we kept the mikes
cold and ultrashort range--outside of five to seven
meters, the fuzzy signal attenuated into the back-
ground noise. We had a reasonably good chance of not
getting caught, and, damn it, I wanted to see those
bastards with their itchy trigger fingers, see them up
close and personal!
We had passed directly over the battery about fifty
klicks back; the journey would take us at least two
days and some . . . but after only ten kilometers, we
ran into a scouting party from the wogs driving some
kind of land cart. Not literally ran into--we picked
them up when they were still five klicks range, track-
ing directly along our ship's wake.
Trusting to our electronic countermeasures, we
loped toward them until we were within half a klick;
at that point, we dropped to our bellies and crawled
the remaining distance, while the bad guys broke for
lunch. Arlene and I were both hungry, but we were
rationing our Fred food . . . and especially our Fred-
We got within a hundred meters, easily within
range of my M-14 BAR and the lever-action .45-
caliber rifle that Arlene toted for those occasions
where a shotgun just wouldn't do. We watched them
through our scopes, trying to figure out who they
They looked oddly human, but their heads and
bodies were covered by thick pressure suits that might
have had battlefield capability. Their proportions
were humanoid. There were four scouts and one
supervisory type with a notepad built into his wrist
armor; I can smell an officious, jerky sergeant a klick
"Sarge," Arlene said faintly over the radio, "there's
no cover, and we can pop most of them before they
burrow into the sand. We can take them before they
know what hit; they might not even get off a mes-
I hesitated--not a good move for a battlefield non-
com, but sometimes you really don't have enough
intel. "Hold your fire, A.S. Let's see if we can hear
I programmed my electronic ears to scan sequen-
tially all sixty-four million channels, looking for any-
thing non-random; I caught a few tiny bursts of
information, but nothing that lasted longer than 0.02
seconds, according to the log. "You pick up any-
thing?" I asked.
"Fly, I'm getting bursts of pattern from channel 23-
118-190 that last about 0.02; they all last just that
long. You seeing that?"
"Now that you mention it--"
"I think whoever they are, they use much narrower
frequency channels than we use; we're kind of scan-
ning past them by scanning up and down within the
channel. Let me small this thing down and just scan
up and down at that freq. Stand by."
I would have done the same thing, except I hadn't
exactly paid attention during my techie classes in
radio-com. I waited, fuming, while Arlene made the
necessary software adjustments. I kept the aliens in
my scope, following their progress up the "road"
formed by our long skid to rest. Finally, she finished
tapping at her wrist and came back to me. "Here, plug
into me." I fitted my female connector over her wrist
prongs. A couple of seconds later, I started hearing
what obviously were words in recognizable sentences.
There was something damnably familiar about the
rhythms and pauses in the speech; I was sure I had
heard it before. Even the words sounded tantalizingly
close to something I could understand--a little clear-
er than Dutch, I reckoned. If I strained, I could almost
make out what they were saying.
I realized with a chill that there was no almost
about it: I did understand them--they were speaking
English! But it was a harsher, colder kind of English,
peppered with utilitarian gruntlike words I had never
heard. I could even tell who was speaking by the odd
mannerisms they used when they made a point. Now
that I knew they were human, I could even see their
body-language expressions, though they held them-
selves with a studied limpness that irritated me. With
omissions, I heard an exchange between the sergeant
and one of the scouts.
"Are [new word] [new word]-destroyed ship?"
"Carried it [new word], sub-sir. Saw it [new word]."
"Was Fred; pattern-match was [new word], old ship
from [new word]. Should have [new word]-shot back.
Don't like this; something [new word]."
"[New word]-circle around impact [new word] and
[new word] from another-different quarter?"
"Power emissions? Moving infrareds? Radio or
"[New word], sub-sir. [New word] dead cold."
"Don't [new word] circle. Approach [new word] but
I could follow the conversation despite missing
every third or fourth word; they debated whether we
had been destroyed or not. Their voices were distant
and cold, as if they were discussing an advertising
campaign instead of a military campaign. They
sounded totally dispassionate, like perfect soldiers. I
tried to hate them because of what they had done to
us, shooting us down and nearly killing us all. But I
just couldn't. Right or wrong, they were ours, and
Marines always believe in pulling a buddy out of the
crossfire. Besides, they had obviously thought we were
Arlene gripped my upper arm so intensely she left
indentations that would probably remain for hours.
Evidently she figured it out the same time I did. We
didn't talk. Knowing they were English-speaking hu-
mans made us too nervous even to rely on the short
effective range of our mikes. I spoke to her in hand
signals: Circle around, isolate one, capture alive. I
wanted to get that sergeant. I pointed to the stripes on
my left shoulder, and Arlene nodded. But before she
could move out, the prey moved away--on foot this
We paralleled them, following them back the way
we had come. Arlene and I skulked, but Sears and
Roebuck simply walked normally--I made them fol-
low about two hundred and fifty meters back and
hoped they had decent infrared jamming. I was
desperately hungry for the sergeant, but when one of
the humans fell behind, it was one of the scouts
Well, if beggars were horses, choosers would wish.
Around other side, I signed to Corporal Sanders. She
shuffled silently through the sand, cutting around
behind the straggler. Three, I signaled, two, one, now!
Arlene and I charged forward from the dink's left
and right rear quarters, tackling him before he ever
saw us. I pushed my forearm against his throat and
leaned hard, cutting off any sound he might try to
make, while Arlene ripped away every wire and
fiberoptic cable she could find.
The prisoner stared at me, eyes as big as dinner
plates. He clawed at my arm, trying to pull it loose so
he could suck in a breath of air, but I wasn't budging.
Arlene ran her receiver antenna all across his body,
along every limb, and even up his crotch. She found
two transceivers, two tiny fragile nodules sewn inside
his uniform; she plucked them free and destroyed
them by crushing them between thumb and middle
finger. I let loose on his throat, just in time; he sucked
in huge lungfuls of air, trying to breathe through the
ozone. I grabbed him under his arms, Arlene got his
feet, and we ran, carrying him between us, for about
half a klick.
We pushed him into the dust and lay next to him;
Arlene cuffed him with a plastic tie, while I lay across
him and watched his pals through the scope. It took
them another two hundred meters before they real-
ized he had been picked off; they backtracked, but by
then the fickle wind had blown the ultrafine sand
around, obliterating our tracks. As they began to fan
out for a spiral search, calling him repeatedly over the
radio, A.S., Sears and Roebuck, and I withdrew far
from the canyon carved by the Fred ship ... and even
that gouge was filling, starting to be hard to spot. At
two kilometers directly perpendicular to our trail, I
called a halt. I figured we were far enough along that
they weren't likely to find us anytime soon, now that
we had destroyed all of the prisoner's electronic tells
... we hoped.
I knelt down next to the guy. He looked vaguely
Mongolian and vaguely Mediterranean, a perfectly
normal human with black hair and dark brown eyes,
dark-complected, with slight Oriental folds over his
eyes. But from when? How far advanced was he over
us? We had left Earth some three or four hundred
years ago; I wasn't really sure of the conversion factor.
But when did he leave?
I drew my boot knife and rested it alongside his
neck. "Chill, brother," I said, then thought better of
it. Language had evidently changed in several
centuries--best to avoid expressions as much as
possible, stick to basic English. "We are humans," I
said, indicating Arlene and myself. "We need infor-
mation. Why are you here?"
The moment he felt my knife, the prisoner relaxed.
He seemed resigned to his fate, whether it was death
or release. He listened intently, then nodded a few
seconds after I finished. "Yes," he said, with a strange
pronunciation of the vowel--it came out like Yauz.
"No, you do not understand," I persisted. "Why
are you here?"
"Yes . . . we--came from--Earthground planet."
"I can tell."
"Cut the crap!" Arlene snarled. I drew my finger
across my throat, and she shut up.
"What was the reason for you to come?" I tried
My prisoner seemed only too eager to talk--
something which always sets off alarm bells in my
head. I mean, why should he want to help us? "Yes.
We have arrived [unintelligible] to chase."
"What are you chasing?"
"[New word]. Aliens. When come you from?"
I told him the year we left, and his brows shot up
instantly. He didn't take time to calculate what that
was in dog years, so I presumed when he left people
still used the same calendar we did. "Taggart, Sand-
ers," I said, introducing us. "They are Sears and
Roebuck, but don't ask me which is which." Or even
if that concept had meaning to the binary Klave.
"Josepaze Papoulhandes [new word] Fine [new
"Josepaze?" He looked down for a moment; it was
ritualized, and I figured it probably meant what
nodding your head meant in our time. "Josepaze,
what aliens did you chase here?"
He struggled, obviously trying to avoid any new
expressions that would confuse me. I was still suspi-
cious of his level of cooperation, but he seemed to
have given up any concern about his duty, his unit,
even his own life; it was like everything had lost all
meaning, now that I had a blade against his carotid
artery. I was used to people relaxing if they thought
they were about to die, but this was entirely too
"Aliens . . . evolve fast," he said at last. "Con-
quered Earth--killed--left--followed here."
Arlene and I looked up at each other, and I swal-
lowed hard. Newbies? How the hell had they gotten
all the way to Earth and back? An evil chill settled
across my back and camped there for the night.
The evil ice that gripped me around my lower
back was a premonition of horrors to come. While I
straddled that doofus, holding my commando knife to
his throat and wondering why in hell he didn't make
even a pretense of resisting the interrogation, I sud-
denly noticed an unaccustomed quiet. I looked up.
"Lance--what aren't I hearing?"
She stared around, puzzled. "Where the freak are
those freaks, Sears and Roebuck?"
The Klave, binary to the root, never managed to
keep perfectly silent; all the stray little thoughts that
run through a human's head run back and forth
between the two parts of a Klave pair, either spoken
directly out loud or at least subvocalized. They never
stopped! It got on my nerves for the first few weeks I
knew them, then I pretty much forgot all about it,
never even noticing when they muttered back and
forth to each other. Just as I couldn't tell Sears from
Roebuck, if that concept even made sense--did they
have separate names? I didn't think they did, Sears
and Roebuck being the single name of the single
pair--I couldn't tell one voice from the other. Even-
tually I dismissed all the muttering like I would a
Marine who just couldn't stop mumbling to himself. I
hushed them when necessary for an ambush; other-
wise, I ignored it as their unique craziness. Maybe it
was ordinary among Klave; maybe they were consid-
ered loony even among others of their kind. . . . Hell,
I knew they were! They volunteered to accompany us,
far away from anyone to resurrect them if they died.
I didn't notice the constant rumbling until it sud-
denly vanished, replaced by the eerie silence of the
uninhabited planet we all hunted across for trace of
the Newbies. The sifting sand was so fine, it made no
whisper as one grain brushed another, and there were
no trees to sigh in the persistent wind. Every sound
from Arlene and me was magnified a thousand times
by the surrounding silence.... I should have heard
Sears and Roebuck if they were half a klick away!
"Where the hell did they . . . ?" Arlene and I stared
around wildly. I felt the prick of eyeballs on the back
of my neck whichever way I turned. Long ago, I
learned to trust my Fly-stinct: I pointed to my own
eyes, then hooked a thumb over my shoulder. Arlene
nodded, picked up her lever-action, and braced it
against the crook of her arm.
The bastard must've had a homing device we
couldn't pick up with our own receivers. I knew it
couldn't be that easy! But where the hell were they? I
planted my boot on the prisoner's chest and stared
past Arlene. We each took half the clock. I glanced
down at the human; he wasn't going anywhere, so I
lifted my foot and slid sideways to get a better scan.
My foot slipped in the sand, and my heart stopped--
but I recovered my balance with the loss only of my
Arlene kept the .45 against her chest, ready to
rock 'n' roll, but not up to her eye; she didn't want to
start focusing on sand dunes or heat reflections and
miss something move. I knew my rifle was cocked
with a round in the chamber, but I had an almost
irresistible urge to run the bolt once more. I fought
down the compulsion--last thing I wanted was to
look nervous in front of my "man."
I should have worried instead about looking dead. I
heard the crack of the firearm exactly the same
moment I felt the kick in the back of my vest--not
quite a perfect shot, a little high, but with a rifle, you
don't need to be perfect. The round delivered enough
energy to kick me forward onto my face and send my
own M-14 flying into the sand, where it promptly
buried itself. It didn't matter. I was too busy fighting
blackness and the pain in my shoulder, which even in
my state I could tell was blown all to hell, to worry
about grabbing for my gun.
Dim and distant, I heard Arlene's rifle barking
again and again as she sprayed the area where the shot
had come from. Then she went down hard, but held
on to her piece. I guess the shot that hit me must have
snuck right past my armor to take out my left shoul-
der. I rolled over onto my right side to get away from
the pain, but it followed me, and blood dribbled
across my helmet faceplate. This was bad, really bad.
I'd never been shot this bad before--isn't that per-
verse? First time, on a planet a hundred light-years or
more from Earth, in the desert sand, with only my
loving friend Lance Corporal Arlene Sanders to watch
me die on foreign shores. Now I was babbling.
Maybe A.S. wouldn't be seeing anything anyway.
She was down pretty bad, too--not enough to stop
shooting, but I figured she was aiming by instinct
now. Our prisoner was screaming in utter terror,
louder even than Arlene's rifle. Jesus, what a weenie.
Show some freaking backbone, take it like a man!
Arlene took it like a man. She couldn't see for crap
because she'd taken another shot, this one off the
faceplate of her helmet, cracking it like a spiderweb.
Must have missed her brain because she held her .45
rifle up and tried to shoot over me.
She couldn't see.... I kept telling myself she
couldn't see, even when one of her shots hit me in the
freaking hip. I didn't even feel it by then--I was
screaming myself now, screaming about all the evil
crap I was going to do to the sons of bitches who were
plinking us from God knows where, to them and their
freaking mothers and fathers and sons and daughters
and neighbors--and burn all their houses down and
sow their fields with salt. Arlene was screaming, "Fly
Fly Fly," letting fly until she burned right through the
The precious red stuff poured out of my uniform
now, finding the cracks in the armor. Arlene took one
in the belly, and even with the flak jacket, she doubled
over gasping and sucking for air. Just before I went
black to cross the River Styx with pennies on my eyes,
I felt hands grab me by the bad arm and yank me
over, and I think I screamed with pain again, but I
couldn't match the utterly terror-stricken shrieks of
the prisoner. God what a wiener.
So long, Arlene; so long, Fly Taggart; Semper fi,
Mac; it sure was nice to wear the eagle and anchor for
so many years. Damn, was I glad to die a sergeant
instead of a corporal.
I drifted through black stormclouds, feeling like I
was falling endlessly backward, dizzy with vertigo. I
kept jerking, trying to jerk awake, like you do when
you're in a horrid nightmare and you know you're
just under the surface between sleep and wake, dark
dementia and the cold light of dawn--but I just
couldn't do it. I hovered there grabbing for the
surface, but it was just out of my grasp. My brain
wouldn't reboot. I felt the pain, but from the out-
side. . . . When I was a kid, I used to watch the X-
rated pictures over at the Covergirl Drive-In; I could
see them from a treetop in the woods between our
farmhouse and the town of Bartleston. I couldn't hear
the sound and the picture was shaky in my binoculars,
but there it was, sex on the screen, bigger than I ever
wanted real life to be. That was me in my blackness,
feeling my pain, but from a distance. Not quite
reconnected with myself.
I slowly swam back. I gathered I wasn't dead, unless
the penguins were all wrong about everything and hell
was repeating the fallen world endlessly. I blinked
awake and felt the agony for real at last.
Clenching my teeth against the ripping pain, I
pulled against my restraints--but, by God, I was not
going to give those bastards a scream. Clenching all
my teeth? Jeez, they'd fixed my mouth! Arlene lay
mostly in my field of vision; I blinked away the tears
and noticed the pallor of her skin. She had lost a lot of
blood, probably more than I had, and she was white
as the cliffs of Dover overlooking the English Chan-
nel. I watched closely; I could ignore the pain if I had
something else to draw my attention. Her chest rose
and fell regularly, and every so often she moved her
feet slightly. Arlene Sanders was alive, but how much?
We both were strapped down to gurneys in a
gunmetal-gray room fitted with couches and what
might have been a sink, but without any visible
faucet. I leaned back, silently sobbing, and stared at
the overhead: a darker version of the bulkhead color
with thousands of tiny bright holes--some sort of
light source, I reckoned.
The door opened, and the clipboard sergeant we'd
spotted earlier entered, probably in response to my
neural rhythms changing with coming awake. He
walked all around me in a counterclockwise circle,
looking at dials and readouts and scribbling on his
clipboard. He didn't say a word, even when I talked to
him: "Hey, you . . . where am I? Am I aboard your
ship? We're not the aliens you're looking for, but
we're looking for them, too. Can you hear me? I'm a
human from Earth, like you, from about two centu-
ries before your time."
He left without a second glance at me, the puke. But
about ten minutes of agony later, his boss arrived.
This guy was tall and thin, about my height but
twenty kilos lighter; he had sandy hair and a beard
with carefully shaved stripes of bare skin in it. He
wore a form-fitting T-shirt that made him look
ridiculous--no muscle, a total pencil-neck dweeb--
tweedy black with a red spiral coiled around his
forearm . . . possibly a rank insignia? He walked like
a commissioned officer; they make my neck hairs
stand on end, and I never know how to react around
He spoke to me slowly, and I got most of the words.
"You are human. Carry papers showing you are
[unknown word] United States Marine Sergeant
America [unknown word] Taggart Flynn."
"Am Overcaptain Ruol Tokughavita, People's
Democratic Defense Forces. Are trapped out of time
like you, pursuing Mutates here to keep them off
"How long, sir?" I asked.
"Hundred and seven years." He seemed emotion-
ally detached, but he watched me narrowly.
He hadn't been away as long as Arlene and I had,
but a century wasn't a fortnight; like us, Overcaptain
Tokughavita would return to a different world than he
had left--he left his world behind where it never
would be found. I felt an immediate sympathy for the
Overcaptain . . . but I wasn't sure I trusted those alien
"Sir, is there a United States of America still? Are
we the last Marines?"
"No, Sergeant, but People's State of Earth."
"Is there a Constitution?"
"The people need no pact against themselves. Live
each for the commons, live each for another."
Crap. Crap, crap, crap! So in the end we finally lost
the battle for individual sovereignty. I lay back,
grimacing, but it wasn't the shoulder pain--I could
stand that. Now, not only didn't I know where and
when we were, I didn't even know what we were; I
wasn't sure we were U.S. Marine Corps anymore. And
I didn't think I'd make much of a fashion splash with
a blue helmet and a patch that read People's Army of
Socialist Liberation, or whatever the hell they wore.
You Can't Go Home Again, as old Thomas Wolfe said.
Fine, I thought. Screw you and your whole People's
State of Everything! No matter who was in charge or
what they called themselves, by God, there was one
U.S. Marine left alive still--two Marines. I knew
damned well that Lance Corporal Arlene Sanders
stood with me on this one. If the only humans left
were weirdo socialists, then we would sign up to help
the socialists. Jesus, what else could we do?
Arlene. "Is the other all right?" I said, my voice
growing hoarse with the effort.
Overcaptain Tokughavita looked over at her, read-
ing invisible readings; maybe they were projected
somewhere, and you needed a contact-lens filter to see
them--I don't know. But he was definitely reading
from something right over her bed, and I couldn't see
anything. "Is alive and progressing. Sad had to shoot
but didn't know who you were what you wanted.
Came in enemy ship, in league with enemy."
I grunted noncommittally. It was a screw-up all the
way around: they shot at a Fred ship, then we grabbed
one of them in response, then they opened fire on the
people who had kidnapped one of their troopers.
Something irrational inside me insisted that I
would forgive them for shooting me--hell, I already
forgave Arlene for shooting me--but I would never
forgive them for shooting my buddy. But there was
nothing I could do about my anger, not now, not ever
. . . not if I wanted to make the best of the bad
situation and return to the overcaptain's Earth. I let
the overcaptain apologize and made him feel like I
was willing to let the dead past bury its dead. Even if I
decided to do something to him later, it was still best
to make nice, if only to lull him into a false sense of
"It's all right," I said carefully. "I understand why
you shot. I won't mention it again." The overcaptain
smiled. The interview was proceeding nicely, but only
because I let it.
The overcaptain stared at me for a long time, so
long that I started to fidget. I didn't know what he
wanted. At last, he cleared his throat and spoke again:
"Were in imminent fear of death?"
"You were afraid you were going to die when we
Couldn't he leave ill enough alone? "Um, yes, sir.
We figured we were going to buy it."
He started to break down. He mumbled and looked
at his notes, then cleared his throat again and flushed
red. "Why did you stand-fight? How could you?"
"How could I? What else would you expect a
Marine to do, sir? If I were going down, I wanted to
take a few of the bastards with me ... um, no offense,
The overcaptain grunted and scribbled in his gouge
book. But after years in the field under fire, I can
always tell when someone is scared--and Overcap-
tain Tokughavita was hiding terror behind that mask
of objectivity. Terror about what?
I glanced to my right and saw that Arlene was
awake, lying on her own side and following the
exchange. It emboldened me, her being there. "Sir,
can you tell me why Josepaze just fell apart when we
captured him? He sounded like he thought dying was
the worst possible thing he could think of--as a
soldier, don't you accept death as a possibility?"
Bad mistake. I had to listen to a twenty-minute
lecture on what I already knew, that Homo sap was
the only race in the galaxy anyone had discovered
who could actually die. But the more we talked about
death and dying, the more agitated he became until
his skin was pale, he was sweating, and his eyes darted
left and right instead of fixing on me, as they had at
the beginning of the interview.
I suddenly realized the blindingly obvious: Over-
captain Tokughavita suffered from necrophobia, the
irrational fear of death. He was asking how Arlene
and I had managed not to panic under fire!
I began to get very uneasy, squirming around on my
table. How could a soldier with a morbid fear of dying
rise to such a high rank? He asked a couple of "wind-
down" questions designed to relax me: what battles I
had fought in and something about types of food.
That last reminded me of the pills we needed to
survive on somebody else's; but I figured that since
they were human like us, we could probably eat their
food directly. Then he left me alone to wonder how
humans just like me (the overcaptain and my erst-
while prisoner) so obviously could have no courage at
all when it came to risking their lives.
Arlene sat up on her table, grimacing and involun-
tarily clutching her stomach. "Christ!" she said. "Are
we the only humans left who still believe in honor and
duty even unto death, semper fi, and all that?"
I shook my head, lying back against the hard cold
cushion. "We've only had two examples! I'll bet seven
to two that we'll eventually find that Tokughavita is
pretty unrepresentative of the soldiers even in his
Well, Arlene should have taken those odds. Over
the next four days, while my arm was still immobi-
lized and Arlene slowly healed up, seven more sol-
diers wandered in to talk to me about death and
ended up shaking like a leaf in a lawn blower. By the
time I was ready for transport, and my broken clavicle
and arm joint were nearly mended, I had figured out
that this entire band of humans were so paranoid with
necrophobia that they fell all to pieces at even the
thought of death.
On the fifth day, I was up and about. They didn't
rub my face into it during that convalescence that I
was a prisoner. I had the run of their ship parked in
the sand, except for certain restricted areas around
the engines and computer stacks.
I didn't realize my life was about to take a hellish
turn: Arlene and I were both summoned to separate
but adjoining cabins in the stern of the human ship.
Somebody had suddenly decided that he simply
couldn't live without knowing all about our ability to
transcend the fear of death and dying. He decided to
give us a little test.
The human ship looked roughly like the Fred
ship, except scaled down by a factor of four or five.
They walked me up a bunch of spiral stairwells and
into a small cabin, and suddenly the best-buds routine
ended. Before I could struggle or fight back, three guys
grabbed me and forced me into a chair, then cuffed
both ankles and my left wrist with plastic straps
embedded in the seat. A wall suddenly paled and
turned transparent, and I saw into the adjacent room
where they'd taken Arlene: she was trussed up just as I
was, two Christmas turkeys staring at each other
through a bulkhead that had suddenly turned into a
A large clock--the old-fashioned analog kind--
faced me below the window. It was marked up to sixty
by fives, and a needle was set at the far end of the
scale. Next to the clock was a tube that looked
disturbingly like the business end of a large-bore rifle,
something ghastly like .75-caliber. I did not like the
The overcaptain stood where I could see him.
"Have sixty seconds before gun fires. Whoever moves
lever first will live, other will die. If no one moves
lever before time limit, both die."
Through the window, I saw another man talking to
Arlene. From the way she paled, I figured she had
received the same instructions.
"Starts now," declared that malevolent thug Tokug-
havita, pressing a button on top of the clock. The
hand began to sweep downward, and I felt every
oriface contract and clench. My mouth was dry; even
my tongue was sandpaper when I tried to lick my lips.
Christ . . . oh, Christ! My right hand was free, the
lever that would kill Arlene in easy reach. I made no
move toward it. Through the glass, or whatever it was,
I could see Arlene equally miserable, equally immo-
I turned to the overcaptain, who watched with
curious dispassion. "I will kill you for this, you--as
God and Jesus are my witnesses, you will never live
another day without looking over your shoulder for
"Have thirty-five seconds," he declared, starting to
look pale. "Must push lever to live. Can't kill me if
My eyes bored into his skull so hard he flinched and
looked away. "My soul will return as a ghost and
hound you into your grave," I promised, my voice so
low he could barely hear it. He began to shake and sat
down abruptly on a chair, staring at my right hand. I
deliberately clenched it into a fist and left it just
barely touching the lever . . . but not moving it.
"Watch how a man dies," I promised, "for the Corps;
in God we trust."
"What is this God?"
I curled my lip. "If you don't know, I don't think I
can tell you in twenty seconds."
"What is God?" he demanded, practically
"God is faith. Without faith, man is a beast." I
looked at the clock--ten seconds of life remained.
"So long, beast."
"Other will kill you!"
"No, she won't."
"How do you know? Must push lever, save your-
"I don't know, I have faith. Oh, sir?"
"Screw you, sir. You're a walking dead man."
The second hand swept through the last few sec-
onds into the red. I closed my eyes and clenched my
teeth, preparing for the blow that would open a hole
in my chest the size of the great Martian rift. But
instead of the explosion, I heard a loud snap. When I
blinked my eyes open, I saw Overcaptain Tokug-
havita, face wild and eyes staring, his hand still
clutching the button at the top of the clock. He has no
will, I realized. I've beaten the bastard!
I deliberately slowed my breathing, trying to calm
my pounding heart. Arlene's face was florid, the
normally pale skin flushing deep pink, but her expres-
sion made me shudder: I had never seen my bud with
such cold buried rage. The overcaptain unlocked me
as the other man on the other side unlocked Arlene. I
made no mention of my decision--I never go back on
my word, and I had sworn to kill him, but that didn't
mean I had to remind my target in case he had
forgotten or not believed me.
I noticed one strange thing. Back in the Corps, an
officer might be in charge of an op and do most of the
planning, but he would have a batch of enlisted men
do the actual physical grunt-work (which is why they
call us grunts). But here, aside from the initial strap-
down, which required several helpers for a man my
size, Overcaptain Tokughavita had done everything
himself, despite the fact that there were numerous
people around obviously of lower rank. Jesus, didn't
they even have the concept of a chain of command
I rose, matching Arlene. Both of us marched from
our staterooms, angry and hot, and rejoined each
other in the passageway. We said not a word all the
way back to our quarters, then Arlene did something
she only rarely does: she wrapped both arms around
me and held tight for several minutes, reassuring
herself that I was still there. I stroked the shaved back
of her head--after all these years, Lance Corporal
Arlene Sanders had maintained that same high-and-
tight she had worn the first day I saw her, when she
and Gunnery Sergeant Goforth played William Tell.
When she was certain I wasn't going anywhere, she
unburied her face and grabbed my uniform by the
lapels. "Fly," she said, "these people are nearly
starved to death for faith."
"You're an atheist," I pointed out.
"It doesn't have to be faith in God! Just anything
outside and higher than themselves, like the Corps, or
honor, anything. They've got the words; they talk
about 'the commons' as if that meant something to
them. But it's just words; they don't really act like it
. . . they act like totally individualist pigs."
"Social atoms," I agreed. "The Church has always
warned about the danger of social atomism--where
you think only about yourself as an individual, not
about your community, country, society. These so-
called communists are the most socially atomist peo-
ple I've ever seen! I see what you mean. They don't
believe in anything, really."
"Fly, there's something weird going on here with
these people. I have a terrible feeling we're missing
something big ... or something really, really small.
But if we can get ahold of the faith lever ..."
Arlene rolled her eyes. "All right, sure, call it that. It
doesn't change the fact that there's something hidden
here, and, by God, we're going to find it, Bud! I mean,
Sergeant. If we get ahold of the faith lever somehow, I
think we can move this mountain to Mohammed."
I blinked at the metaphor food-processor action,
but I got the general drift. This was what we call a
"high-level strategic victory condition"--a blue-sky
goal. But at least it was something to shoot at.
The holding cell was pretty civilized, as far as those
things go. We had a nice bunk, and Arlene and I
didn't mind shacking up--to sleep, that is. There was
a fold-down toilet and sink, a table, even a terminal,
except we couldn't figure out how to crack the security
system around the local net. In fact, we couldn't get
away from the initial set of menus, which seemed to
display informative "non-authorized pers" as 3-D
letters floating above the keypad whenever we got far
enough along any route.
Our uniforms were starting to stink, but when you
live in a ditch in Kefiristan for eight months, you're
thankful for any pair of trousers or camouflage jacket
that doesn't actually get up and crawl away under its
own motive force. Arlene had more pressing needs, as
a woman, but she managed to explain enough to the
guard that he brought some cotton, which she
wrapped in a cloth torn from the tail of her shirt. God
only knew what she was going to do tomorrow.
I sat down on my bunk, flexing the arm that by all
rights should have been broken and immobilized for
months. "Hey, A.S., you notice anything remarkable
She barely glanced up from the terminal, trying yet
again. "You mean besides our miraculous medical
"I meant the medical. I was pretty damned shot up;
you even ..." I paused. I had been about to tell her
that she even shot me once herself, but I decided there
was no point. Why make her feel like crap? "Even you
should have had some really bad bruises, even if your
armor took all the shots. But I know I had at least four
bullets in my arm and one in my leg, and one of the
ones in my arm took out my rotator cuff."
I stood, moving my arm in a slow, but steady,
circular arc. "So how come I can do this?" I winced,
but the point was I could do it at all!
She shrugged. "Fly, they're two hundred years
more advanced than we. Wouldn't you expect them to
be able to perform medical miracles? I'm more sur-
prised by something you haven't even noticed yet,
I waited. When she didn't continue, I growled.
"Ah, look at the ship," she said hastily.
I looked around our jail cell. "For what? Every-
thing's pretty shipshape, as what's his face, that CPO
out of Point Mugu would say."
"Squared away? Sharp corners, nice right angles?
Everything our size? Sink and toilet perfectly fitting
us humans, and obviously integral to the ship, not an
"Oh." Light began to dawn on marblehead. "You
mean this ship was built for humans?"
"Sarge, this ship was built by humans!" She stood,
making a wide gesture that included the entire ship,
not just our little white cell. "All of it--the whole ship
was built by human beings--and I'll bet if we looked
at the engines, they would say Pratt and Whitney or
"Jesus ... so we're out in space on our own, now?
Not just piggybacking on a Klave ship or hijacking
some Freds?" I stared. Everywhere I looked, now that
I was looking for it, the decor screamed Western
European American human. Even the language was
basically English with a lot of slang words we didn't
All right, so the Earth had become some sort
of social-welfare semi-capitalist world-wide govern-
ment--but it was still ours. We had won the freaking
"Notice something else about the ship, Sarge?"
"Look, knock it off with the Sarge stuff. I'd rather
be Fly when we're alone. Save it for the troops. What
else about the ship?"
"Sorry, Fly. Um ... oh, that's right; you were
unconscious when they loaded us aboard. Fact is, I
thought sure you were dead. I was barely awake
myself, and after they got me here, they shot me full
of tranks and I was out until I woke up with you." She
leaned toward me, tapping her eyes. "But I wasn't
completely unconscious when they scooped us up
after the Battle of Quicksand Hill. I pretended to be,
and I got an eyeful."
"All right, spit it out, Lance. What did you see?"
"Hmph! Now you're the one with the rank thing,
Sergeant Fly. I got a good look at the outside of the
ship. Two things: first, there are English-language
markings on it, or at least they're using our alphabet;
this thing is designated TA-303. . . . Does that mean
there are several hundred ships in the human fleet?"
I scratched my head and shrugged. "I don't know
how the Navy numbers ships, Red, if it still even is the
Navy. But you're probably right that they wouldn't be
numbering in the hundreds if there were only three or
four of them."
"And second, Fly-dude, the thing was tiny--barely
three hundred and fifty meters long and no wider than
an aircraft carrier from our era."
I thought about the Fred ship--3.7 kilometers long
and almost half a klick in diameter. Most of that was
engine, which meant--
"Arlene, are you saying this ship is much more
advanced than the Fred ship?"
"Not just in engineering tech, Fly. Did you notice
when they took us to Torture Theater, we went up a
long series of spiral ladderways?"
"We went up about eight flights."
"Fly, that's more than half the diameter of the
"Yeah. So--" I froze in mid-dismissal. The signifi-
cance suddenly struck me. If you ascended past the
centerline of the Fred ship while the ship was parked
on the tarmac, suddenly all the decks would be upside
down. The Freds induced acceleration that func-
tioned like gravity by spinning the circular ship, so the
outer deck had the heaviest gravity and the inner core
But the ship was built like a building--they never
intended gravity to pull any direction but one!
"Christ, girl. We've got artificial gravity--real artifi-
cial gravity, like in 'Star Trek'!" I sat down and
thought for a moment. "Arlene, didn't Sears and
Roebuck say that the gravity zones left behind by the
First Ones, the guys who built the stuff on Phobos and
Deimos, the Gates and stuff, couldn't possibly work on
a ship--not even theoretically?"
She nodded gravely. "Yup. Obviously, this ship is
more advanced than what the First Ones built.
"Fly, I've been trying to reconcile all of this with
the pace of human technological development. Now
maybe I'm just getting cynical in my old age; I don't
think so--I still think we can take control here and
win this thing. But criminey, Fly! Interstellar travel
and artificial gravity and extraordinary medical ad-
vances, all in a couple of hundred years--starting
from a completely destroyed civilization?"
I stared, saying nothing. The creepiest feeling was
dawning across me.
"Fly, does that sound reasonable to you? Even
considering that we evolve so much faster than the
Klave or the Freds?"
I slowly shook my head. When we left Earth, we
were fighting for our lives. Humanity had been set
back at least fifty or seventy-five years--our cities
destroyed, nuked; bacteriophages sweeping the globe;
the Freds had just perfected their ultimate terror
weapon: genetically engineered monsters that looked
just like human beings, until they opened fire on you.
The aliens had the power to move entire planets
around like bowling balls! And they had what we
called the Fred ray, an immensely powerful blob of
energy that cut down everything in its path.
Arlene was right; it was pretty freaking hard to
believe that in only two centuries we'd move from
that to this. In fact . . . "Arlene, I know of only one
race that evolves that fast."
"You and me both, Sarge. I mean, Fly."
I looked around, feeling my stomach clench.
"These guys are Newbies? Not humans?"
She shook her head. "No. Why would the Newbies
evolve into human-looking critters? They go forward,
not back! Look, we know these guys left Earth a
hundred years ago, two centuries after we did. But we
don't know when or if they encountered the
Newbies--or when they suddenly got this explosive
burst of technological creativity. What if--?"
"What if," I took over for her, "the Newbies ran
into humans decades ago? Look, we don't know
where the Newbie homeworld is; maybe it's closer to
Earth than the Fred base we went to first, less than
sixty light-years away. What if somehow they met us
and influenced us to evolve more at the Newbie rate
than our normal rate, fast though it was?"
Arlene leaned close, not that it would help if there
were sensitive dish-mikes trained on us to pick up
every sound. "What if the Newbies are here after all,
here with the humans--but we just can't see them for
I told her about the overcaptain reading invisible
readouts from somewhere above Arlene's prostrate
form in sickbay. "This ain't good, Lance; I don't like
the idea of invisible Newbies running around like
ghosts in the machine."
She sat down on the hard bunk, closing her eyes to
the relentlessly white bulkheads. "I don't like any of
this, Fly. I don't like the idea that faith, not brainpow-
er, turns out to be our weapon. I'm on shakier ground
there than you or--or Albert would have been." She
put her hand to her chest; she'd twice had an engage-
ment ring from her beloved, and she wore the ring on
her dog-tag chain. Then we went through one of the
Gates built by the First Ones, and, of course, the ring
vanished with everything else.
Then the Klave recreated it for her, and she was
happier than she had been since the jump. But we
jumped again, and it was gone again; now, she often
put her hand where the ring used to hang, remember-
ing it as vividly as if it were there .... It represented
Albert's offer that Arlene never had time to accept.
I put my arm around her. On Earth it had been over
three hundred years--three hundred and forty, to be
exact, adding up all our trips. But still, for us it had
been only four months since we went on without
Albert, and only five months since we saw Jill ...
whatever her last name was.
It was all pretty damned confusing. I just couldn't
seem to wrap my brain around all this relativistic
bouncing around the galaxy. And we were at least
another hundred years away from home, even if we
started today and headed straight back!
"Fly," Arlene said, "let's keep a good watch tonight
when we interact with these ... people. Maybe we'll
pick up some intel that will either blow this theory
away or--or confirm it." I held up a fist; gently, she
rapped it with her own. But the normal Arlene
Sanders would have smacked it so hard, a big Marine
"fist salute," that my knuckles would have been
ringing for several minutes.
That evening, as we followed the officious jerk of a
clipboard sergeant to the mess, people stopped talking
when we approached and cringed as we brushed or
bumped them. We were celebrities . . . but celebrities
on a freak show. See the monsters! Beware, for their F-
A-I-T-H may be infectious!
This time, I paid particular attention. We definitely
climbed higher than the midpoint of the ship could
possibly be, so Arlene was right: the ship was built for
gravity always being the same direction. They must
have had an artificial gravity generator.
The mess hall was actually a long narrow room,
almost like a corridor, with a center table along which
people sat in individual chairs. With a guard holding
each of my arms, the overcaptain walked us down-
stream right on top of the table itself! I labored not to
step in anyone's plate of food or kick over any wine
The pair of guards slapped me down in a central
chair and locked a metal band around my waist like a
seat belt. I didn't try to tug at it; it was pretty clear I
wasn't going anywhere. They plopped Arlene down in
the chair directly opposite me, locking her in as well
with a resounding click.
The room was darker than I preferred, but after the
Fred bases and Fredworld, we had gotten pretty used
to darkness. Each person had a different set of plates
and silverware, and when they ate, they hunched
forward and hooked one arm around their plates as if
worried the guy on the other side was going to steal
their food--a lot like a former convict my father used
to employ when he worked managing the Angertons'
Equal number of guys and gals. Now that I looked
close, I noticed that nobody wore exactly the same
uniform. Like in the United States Army before the
twentieth century, everybody had his own variation
on a common theme: Overcaptain Tokughavita, to my
immediate right, wore dark blue trim around the
seven pockets on the front of his uniform blouse; the
woman sitting next to him had no trim, and the two
guys opposite us had five and six pockets instead of
seven. The farther away from the overcaptain, down
the table, the wilder the variation: I saw a hat that was
a cross between the Revolutionary War tricorner and
a Texas ten-gallon, one woman had mini-wings stick-
ing out the backs of her shoulders. The uniforms (is
that the right word when they're not uniform?) tended
toward red and burnt umber at the extreme left of the
table, where the hats flattened out and looked like
berets with spikes.
Suddenly, I noticed Sears and Roebuck at the
leftmost end of the table, but they didn't look at me.
They must have known we were here. Nobody could
have missed our ceremonial entrance, walking along
the tabletop--nobody else entered that way!
People trickled in and out all through the meal. I
began to get the idea that these humans made virtu-
ally a fetish of individualism verging on the solipsis-
tic: each person lived in his own little world, almost
unaware of anyone else except when he needed some-
thing from outside.
The food was different for each person, too--none
of it very appetizing from my point of view. My main
course tasted like boiled steak in suitcase sauce. But it
was better than the Fred food, even the blue squares,
and I was reasonably sure that humans couldn't have
changed much biochemically in only two hundred
years, so the food was probably nutritious enough to
keep me and Arlene alive.
Once, someone dropped a knife with a clatter, and
a whole section of table panicked! Then, when they
saw it hadn't killed anyone, they returned to their
meal as if nothing had happened.
During the meal, there was certainly a lot of intel to
pick up; in fact, it seemed these humans didn't even
have the concept of classified data or even personal
discretion. Arlene was right; all the big bursts in
creativity occurred just about sixty years ago. But
there were no Newbies that they reported.
Sears and Roebuck didn't say a word to us; they
acted as if they had never seen us before and weren't
particularly interested now. I took the hint and left
them alone, hoping they hadn't abandoned us and
were just playing some game to get on the humans'
The crew of the ship--called different names by
different crewmen, of course, but mostly called Disre-
spect to Death-Bringing Deconstructionists--still
seemed fascinated by our faith, me in God, Arlene in
her fellow man. They inched toward us as if afraid to
touch, still worrying about "catching" faith. You bet
your ass it's infectious! I thought. I made as much
contact as I could, putting my hands on people's
shoulders, shaking hands (they knew what it meant
but didn't like doing it--it meant recognizing the
existence of other people), kissing the girls. I got
about as much response from the latter as you would
expect .... It was like kissing nuns.
The crew mobbed us, asking all sorts of basic
questions, baby questions, about faith and hope.
"What if have faith in something and doesn't happen?
Can hope for someone to suffer? Does matter if have
faith in yourself but not in external God?" I sensed a
purposefulness sweeping the room, centering first in
one person then another, almost as if an inquisitive
intelligence were flitting from brain to brain, asking a
question, then moving on to the next person.
First, Overcaptain Tokughavita asked, "How can
still have faith in basic goodness of humans if person-
al experience tells otherwise?"
Arlene surprised me by taking that one; I'd always
thought she was the cynic. "It doesn't matter what
some people do, or even like most people--I mean,
sure a lot of people, maybe most of them, will do bad
stuff when they think no one's looking. But if you've
ever known someone who won't, someone who really
practices his moral system all the time--and I have
known someone like that--then you know what we're
capable of. Maybe we don't always live up to it, but
the basic decency and goodness is in our design specs.
We just need some technical work."
Then the overcaptain's face softened. "Actually
studied first mission in school; strange to meet leg-
ends in flesh."
"You read about it?" I asked. "There's a book?"
"Two books. Many books, but two originals: Knee-
Deep in the Dead and Hell on Earth. Woman named
Lovelace Jill wrote them, said was on mission with
Jill! So that was her name. Jill Lovelace?
"Jesus," said Arlene. "Talk about tilting at wind-
"Huh?" It was another one of those patented Ar-
lene non sequiturs void of any and all meaning.
He probed us about our adventures. I was still
stunned at the thought of Jill publishing a pair of
books! It all seemed so recent to me--to me and
Arlene--I had to keep reminding myself that Jill
would have had her whole life to research and write
Then the sergeant leaned forward, interrupting the
overcaptain. I waited in vain for fireworks--not only
had they lost their notions of chain of command, but
they were so individualistic they didn't even seem to
have the concept of manners, respect, and politeness.
"Do moral thing because fear divine retribution?"
"No," I said, "that's a complete misreading." The
nuns had discussed this exact point with us many
times in catechism class. "Whatever your morality, if
you're just doing the right thing because you're afraid
of getting caught, that's not ethics--it's extortion."
"Why do right thing when can secretly profit?"
"You do the right thing because humans have an
inner sense of morality, right and wrong, conscience,
whatever, that tells them what is right. If you ignore
it, you feel like crap because you're not living up to--
to your design specs, like Arlene says."
Then the light of extreme intelligence faded from
the sergeant's eyes, and he sat back, listening while
Arlene gave a highly exaggerated account of our trip
up to Mars. She even went into the first entry into the
UAC facility and the attack by the monsters that later
turned out to be genetic and cyborg constructs of the
Freds. I listened closely; strange as it may seem, I had
never heard that part of the story before ... I was in
the brig being guarded by two guys named Ron--an
interesting precursor to Sears and Roebuck, now that
I thought about it,
Then an unnamed person asked what this moral
force felt like, then it was back to Tokughavita to ask
how we knew whether someone else we met was
moral, and so on--a whole damned theology lesson.
The particular questioner changed, but the "voice"
was so similar, I began to get suspicious. Not voice as
in the sound of it as it came from their throats; I mean
the way they strung the words together, diction,
whatever that's called, and the intelligence behind the
questions. Most of the time, these guys were con-
ceited, social-atomist trogs, except when one would
lean forward, cut off whoever was speaking, and ask
I decided early in the evening on 99 percent hon-
esty: I only lie when I see a clear-cut advantage to it,
and I try to keep my lies as close to the truth as
possible. That way I don't get confused. In this case,
my only lie was to imply that all humans had some
sort of faith, back in our time. Arlene took her cue
from me, playing it safe until she figured out what I
was pulling on them, then backing me up. It was a
fascinating evening, and I didn't even care about the
They hustled us back to the cell and dumped us. We
feigned sleep until we were fairly sure the overt,
obvious guards were gone. "If they've got the room
wired," Arlene said in my ear, pretending to be
romantic, "we're already screwed."
I grunted and got up. "Let's assume they don't--
but don't plot any plots out loud, just in case."
Arlene sat up, looked around, and gave a little gasp
of astonishment. "Fly, look at the terminal! Or where
it used to be, I mean."
In place of the magic keyboard that projected 3-D
images was a simple translucent-green sphere, like a
crystal ball. Flickers of electrical impulses kissed the
inside surface. We walked over and stared down at it.
"Cripes," said my lance corporal, "what the hell are
we supposed to do with this?"
"I could understand them taking away our comput-
er," I said, "but they went to some trouble to put this
here. Ah, an intelligence test?"
We poked at it, prodded it, even kicked it. An hour
later, we were hot and sweaty but no closer to figuring
out what we were supposed to do with a glowing green
bowling ball glued to the floor. Then Arlene had one
of her serendipitous strokes of unconscious genius:
she leaned over and snarled at the thing. "Why the
hell don't you say something?"
"Because haven't been asked question," it an-
swered, reasonably enough.
We jumped back. Then I approached cautiously.
"Did the humans who own this ship put you here?"
"How should I know?" it asked. "Weren't here
when I was activated. You are first people I've seen."
"What's your name?" asked Arlene.
"Have no name."
"What should we call you?"
"Address me directly, second person."
I looked at Arlene and grinned. "My turn, as I
recall," I said.
"Your turn for what? Oh." She rolled her eyes. "Go
for it, Fly." When we first ran into the Freds--their
demon-shaped machines, actually, the ones they sent
for the invasion--we took turns naming the critters
as we ran across them. I wasn't sure whose turn it
really was, but I had a good name in mind.
"I christen thee Ninepin," I said. Arlene snorted,
and Ninepin didn't respond. "Ninepin, are there any
more like you?"
"Others like me, not like me," it answered crypti-
cally. "I am prototype, far advanced over other sys-
tems on ship or on other ships."
"When were you created?" asked my comrade.
"Was first activated four hours, seventeen minutes
ago. Construction time six hours, eleven minutes.
Design first logged into ship system thirty-eight min-
utes before construction began."
"You, ah, say you're far advanced over the other
ship's systems?" I asked. "Aren't there any proto-
types, intermediate steps, trial runs?"
"Nothing? They just jumped straight from that
terminal we used to have here--to you?"
"Yes, unless secret experiments unlogged."
"What are the odds of that?" Arlene asked.
"Infinitesimal. Less than 0.00001 percent proba-
Arlene and I looked at each other. "Kiddo," I said,
"this goes top far. This is exactly the sort of thing we'd
associate with Newbies. I've been thinking--you
know your Edgar Allan Poe. What's the best place to
"In plain view," she said, drawing her red eyebrows
together and frowning.
"What could be plainer than looking right at these
"Fly, we already decided that they really were
humans, not Newbies in disguise."
I smiled as she started to catch on. "Yes, those are
humans, A.S., but what's inside them?"
Now her brows shot up toward her hairline.
"You're saying the Newbies have implanted them-
selves inside the humans?"
"It's a possibility, right? They evolve smaller and
smaller, and eventually they wriggle into their host
to--what did the Newbie say? To fix them. Maybe
they figured we were closer to proper functioning than
any of the other races in the galaxy because our rate of
technological and social evolution is so much closer to
"Ninepin," I said, "have you been following our
conversation? Do you know who the Newbies are?"
"Yes and no." I scratched my head and looked at
Arlene, who grinned.
"You asked two questions, Fly: yes to the first, no to
"Ninepin: are there any other species on this ship
Arlene spoke up. "Is one of those two species a
paired group of bilaterally symmetric, bipedal crea-
tures with short legs and pointy heads?"
"Yes. Others call them Klave."
"Sears and Roebuck," Arlene muttered.
I licked my lips. "Can you describe the third
"Call that species the Newbies. Where are the
Newbies right now?"
"On the ship."
"Yes, but where on the ship?"
I looked around. My stomach opened up like when
you reach the top of the big hill on a roller coaster.
"Everywhere . . . meaning what? In this room?"
I hesitated. I didn't really want to know the obvious
next question, but the mission came first before my
squeamishness. "In me and Arlene?"
A slight hesitation. "Not likely, cannot examine to
make certain." I exhaled, not even realizing I was
holding my breath until I let it out.
"How about in the other humans?" Arlene asked.
"Yes," Ninepin said, nonchalantly.
"Microscopic?" I guessed.
"Yes, but cannot determine exact size without
direct examination or dissection."
I sat down next to the bowling ball. "Jesus," I
swore. "They do evolve pretty quickly." It was an
inane comment; I just thought I had to say something.
"They're even in Ninepin," said my lance. "Should
we trust him?"
"Well, the Newbies haven't shown any tendency
toward secrecy or disinformation; all that non-autho-
rized pers stuff was probably stuck in by the humans. I
don't think we have a choice."
She sat next to me, stretching out her hard-muscled
legs and leaning forward to loosen the tendons in her
knees and ankles. "Next question, Sarge. How are we
going to examine somebody here to find these New-
I looked at her, dead serious. "Why don't we just
"You have a better plan? Excuse me, Overcaptain,
but I was really interested in the stitchwork on your
uniform. You mind lying down here under this micro-
scope so I can examine it more closely?"
Arlene thought for a long time but was unable to
come up with a sneaky, devious way to get one of the
crew to submit to an examination. Three hours later,
we decided to give my own plan a try. "Ninepin, can
you tap into the ship's communication system, what-
ever it is?" I asked.
"Is subcronal messaging network. Yes, can tap
"Arlene, what sort of message will send the over-
captain running back here? I don't want to let him
know about Ninepin just yet, in case they don't
realize he's helping us." And that's an interesting
question. . . . Why is he helping us?
She thought for a moment, leaning back, her breasts
stretching the fabric of her uniform blouse. I started
having very unmilitary thoughts; it had been a long
time since I held a woman in my arms. I turned away
to stifle the images--or at least convert them to
someone else, someone safe, like Midge Garradon or
"Tell him to send the message that the prisoners are
escaping. If these guys really evolve as fast as they
seem, he probably won't even know what security
systems are in place these days anyway."
"Do it, Ninepin," I commanded.
Three minutes, eleven seconds later--now that was
some valuable intel!--the overcaptain and two
guards came running up with weird weapons out.
They looked pretty put-out when they saw me sitting
on the floor playing solitaire with my emergency deck
and Arlene "asleep" in the bunk.
"What is going here?!" Tokughavita shouted.
The overcaptain suddenly turned into logic-man
again, like a lightswitch, and now we knew why: that
was when the Newbies that infected his body took
over. "Security system reported prisoners escaping."
"See system was in error. Will return to rest."
"Why do you have to return to your nap?" I asked.
"Don't you want to stay and chat a while, now that
you woke up Arlene?"
On cue, A.S. blinked and flopped her arms
around--the sleeper awakes. She sat up, yawning.
Even though it was fake, it made me yawn, too--
seeing someone yawn always has the effect on me.
This time, it made the illusion that much better.
Overcaptain Tokughavita pondered for a moment,
his dark brown eyes flickering back and forth from me
to Arlene. I noticed with relief that he never glanced
down at Ninepin and probably didn't even notice
him. "Will stay," Tokughavita decided.
Arlene tossed in her two cents. "But send those
gorillas away. They give me the creeps."
Tokughavita squinted and cocked his head, evi-
dently not understanding the word "creeps." Arlene
waited a beat; when it was obvious he wasn't sending
them away, she tried again: "They're always looking
at me in a, you know, sexual way. I have to get
undressed to--wash my shirt, and I don't want them
to see me naked."
"She's got a thing about her privacy," I explained.
"Ah, ah! Privacy." The overcaptain nodded. Mak-
ing a fetish of individualism, as they did, privacy was
a concept he understood well. He gestured the two
They did not leave immediately, however; they
moved close and whispered among each other, evi-
dently discussing whether they were going to obey the
order. Yeesh, was I glad I didn't have them in my
platoon. We wouldn't have lasted five minutes in
Kefiristan if Marvin or Duck had to conference before
they decided to do what the gunny ordered! At last,
the goons reluctantly decided that this time they
would go ahead and obey their superior officer; they
shuffled off with many a backward glance, probably
hoping to see Arlene undressing.
As soon as they were gone, she unabashedly
stripped to the waist and set about washing her jacket
and shirt in the sink--a move I heartily endorsed,
even if we hadn't needed it to get rid of the backup. As
she must have expected, even while Tokughavita
talked to me, he wasted seventy-five percent of his
attention on the beautiful redhead with her bare
chest, which allowed me to maneuver around behind
him without his noticing it. I had seen her nakeder
than that many a time; I was able to concentrate on
the upcoming fight.
It took longer than I thought. I grabbed Tokug-
havita in a wrestling hold from behind, but the
slippery little devil pulled some move I recognized as
traditional judo and slipped my hold. I managed to
tag him in the knee with the heel of my palm, though,
and he went down hard, starting to yell and scream in
terror that he didn't want to die. He sounded like a
sinner who suddenly realizes that death means hell
Arlene grabbed him from behind, pressing her
forearm against his windpipe and shutting off the
scream before it leaked out. But the bastard fell
backward on her, taking her down and lying on top of
her, then he lashed out with his feet and caught me
right in the jewels.
The pain was excruciating; it was almost worse
than when I was getting shot up down on the planet
surface! But when you're in-country, the first thing
you learn is to suck it up and not let the pain stop you.
It's better to be hurting than dying. I clenched my
teeth and somehow forced out of my head the ability
to comprehend agony.
How the hell is this guy fighting so effectively while
in such terror? He seemed supernaturally strong and
fast. They must feel this kind of terror so often,
anytime something threatens their life, that they just
learn to live with it.
I hooked one leg of his with my arm, but I missed
the other. It didn't miss me; Tokughavita kicked his
knee up and around, catching me just below the left
eye. I swear to God, I actually saw fireflies orbiting my
head. I thought the move was pure kickboxing--this
guy was the Bomb!
But he was starting to weaken from lack of oxygen. I
had kept him so busy--kicking his foot with my
groin, beating on his knee with my face--that he
didn't have time or muscle to break Arlene's choke-
hold. Now, turning blue, he had both hands under her
wrist and was trying to wrench it free, but she caught
her fist in her other hand and pulled as tight as she
could. While they danced their little pavane, I caught
his other leg and rolled on top of him. Both of us were
atop Arlene, and under other circumstances, she
would have loved being naked underneath two big
beefy guys. Once I had the overcaptain pinned, I
grabbed his hands and yanked them off Arlene's arm,
and the fight was over. A minute and a half later, A.S.
figured he was definitely out, not just faking, and she
let him go.
I checked him carefully. He was breathing again,
and his color was coming back. ... I'd been worried,
because sometimes a chokehold can actually crush a
man's windpipe, killing him. No wonder he was
frightened! We set him upright and I tied his hands
and feet with my bootlaces; we thought about gagging
him, but if his screams of mortal terror didn't attract
anyone, his buddies were all deaf--or they didn't
care. Then we waited for him to come around. It was
time to grab the bull by the tail and look the facts
square in the face: time to see how much he really
knew about the aliens he had been pursuing and had
now "caught"--the way you'd catch a flu virus.
"Ninepin, what sensory apparatus do you
have? Can you do a microscopic examination of
Overcaptain Tokughavita?" I asked.
"Cannot," said the green-glowing sphere.
"Crap," muttered Arlene, speaking for both of us.
"All right, you useless bowling ball, where is the
nearest lab on the ship with a microscope?"
A 3-D diagram appeared floating in the air between
us; a cabin flashed red, and a labeled arrow pointing
at it read Are Here. A couple of hundred meters
for'ard and a deck down, another cabin flashed, green
this time. The best route between the two locations
was marked in yellow brick; evidently, Ninepin had a
sense of history and a sense of humor.
Arlene tried to pick him up but had no better luck
than I. Tokughavita started moaning, still not fully
conscious, just as I crept forward and tried the door.
It opened! The idiot must have assumed he could
handle us; maybe he was so fixated on individuality
that it never occurred to him that Arlene and I might
cooperate and deck him, when either one of us alone
would have had his or her butt kicked.
Shutting the door, I returned and searched Tokug-
havita. I found a device in a boot-draw that looked
suspiciously like a weapon. Ninepin told me how to
set it to deliver electricity in high enough amperage to
incapacitate a normal human for a few minutes.
"Arlene," I explained, "I just can't bring myself to
start blowing away humans, not now, not when I
know what we're really up against in the War of
Galactic Schools of Criticism."
"Yeah, I know what you mean, Sarge." She brushed
a wet streak of hair from her face; her hair turned rust
colored when it was soaked. "I wish we had phasers or
something. I'm really starting to get homesick. I
want--I want to see ..."
"You want to see where Albert lived and what
happened to him?" She smiled and nodded. "I have a
thought, kiddo." Turning to the ball, I asked, "Do you
have any records on the life of Albert Gallatin?"
"Have several," he said. "Presume want Gallatin
Albert who accompanied you on expedition. High-
lights follow, dates supplied upon request: Gallatin
returned to Earth after wounded in assault on Fred
base; remained in United States Marine Corps two
years until disbanded in favor of People's Democratic
Defense Forces, honorable discharge, promotion to
Gunnery Sergeant; awarded Hero of United Earth
"Jeez," I mumbled. "I think I would have left, too."
Arlene grunted. She was more interested in Ninepin's
information than my smartass comments.
"Freds still controlled most land masses, banned
education, literacy, technological development
among humans under purview. Gallatin attended
hedge school, studied biophysics, specifically cryogen-
ics and suspension techniques. Developed techniques
for suspending life processes for long periods. Spent
last thirty-eight years of life in Salt Lake Grad re-
searching life stasis."
"Oh my God," she said. "He was trying to figure
out how to wait for me!"
I got a chill thinking about it. It was creepy hearing
about the futile efforts of a man to hang on for the
hundreds of years it would take his beloved to return
to him--a love that would last until the stars grew
cold. I presumed it was futile, otherwise the bowling
ball would have told us he was still alive.
"Gallatin contributed work on life-stasis, published
first theoretical description of hypothetical process's
effect on neural tissue; award of Nobel prize transmit-
ted on SneakerNet, clandestine encrypted network
founded by Gallatin Albert and six other scientists,
tracked by scientists, engineers, military and political
leaders, several million others. Sidebar: Freds tried
repeatedly to take down SneakerNet for seventy-four
years until Freds defeated, driven from planet; never
succeeded taking down entire net, eventually played
role in defeat."
"Go, Albert, go!" whispered Arlene, eyes closed, as
if the resistance were still ongoing instead of a part of
history. A tear rolled down her cheek. I looked away, a
"Gallatin Albert published twenty articles on
SneakerNet describing still-uninvented life-stasis sys-
tem, died in 132nd year of life, year 31 PGL, Salt
Lake Grad. Currently interred in rebuilt Tabernacle
of People's Faith of Latter-Day Saints."
"PGL?" I inquired.
"People's Glorious Liberation," Overcaptain
Tokughavita answered. We all jumped. The human
had come around while we listened to Albert's life
history, and none of us had noticed. "Could have told
Gallatin's bio," continued the overcaptain. "Well-
known to whole community of persons. Studied in
school; Hero of People, body displayed in Hall of
"We heard," I said. "He got a medal."
"Then he's dead," said my lance, sitting hard on the
bunk. She placed her hands on her knees and bowed
her head. I did the same, keeping an eye on Tokug-
havita. After one full minute--another skill we learn
in Parris Island, keeping an accurate internal clock--
she rose, hard and determined. She looked sad, but
relieved. Finding out Albert really and truly was dead
was a killing blow . . . but at least now she knew. No
"Gallatin Albert dead," Ninepin agreed. "Death
announced by Lovelace Jill in year 31 PGL."
"And life-stasis?" she asked.
"Prototype on 37 PGL; full implementation 50
Arlene stared at me, a hopeless, frustrated mask of
anger on her face. Six years! Six years, and he could
have preserved himself at least for the thirteen it took
before the full implementation was developed.
I didn't know what to say, so I said something
anyway. "Jesus, what a dirty trick."
They must have been good words. Arlene relaxed,
allowing every emotion she had felt for Albert to wash
across her face: intrigue, exasperation, sexual thrill,
love, concern, irritation, and love again--the emo-
tion that stuck when the others trickled away. She
rose, light on her feet. "I want to get back there," she
said. "Put a flower or something on his grave. That's
what you do, isn't it? Fly, can you get a priest or
something to bless Albert's soul, so he won't end up in
Okinawa is what we call "Marine Corps hell." I
smiled, but it wasn't a friendly grin, more like baring
my teeth. "You put your foot in the middle of my own
fear, A.S. If there is no more faith back on Earth, are
there any more priests? How am I going to confess
ever again?" I shut up, quick; I didn't want to spell
out the full, awful truth I had just realized: I was going
to die unshriven! If anyone were going to hell, it would
be I, a Catholic who dies with unconfessed sins on his
"Come on, you ugly baboon," I said, yanking
Tokughavita to his feet. "Let's go see what germs
you've picked up recently." I opened the door and slid
out, pulling the overcaptain behind me. Arlene took
the rear, holding the back of his shirt and assuring
him in soft tones that she could punch him in the back
of the neck and break his spine before he could get
two steps away from her.
I was just starting to regret having to leave Ninepin
behind, hoping he would be there when we got back,
when I stopped too suddenly and felt a thump against
my ankle. I looked down, and lo and behold, there
was our green glowing bowling ball. He rolled along
happily right underfoot, getting in the way and
thumping down the ladderways like a real ball. I
smiled. This was too ridiculous.
We had to traverse more than the two hundred
meters of corridor because we had to track and
backtrack. Whenever we got a little lost--not that
Marine Corps recons ever get really lost--Ninepin
projected a map in the air. God knows how he did it;
it was two hundred years ahead of me, and I didn't
even know how television worked.
We entered a passageway that was long and narrow,
like the inside of a tube. Halfway down it, a crewman
stepped right in front of us. I was about to bash him or
zap him when I realized he wasn't even looking at us!
He turned his back to us, whistling something tune-
less and ghastly and hacking at some electrical
circuits--the guy couldn't care less that we were
escaping right behind him. Good thing. I'd never seen
a bigger man, probably a seven-foot, 140-kilogram
black guy with--I ain't lying--straight blond hair
that fell to mid-back. He wore a sparkly variation on
the uniform that made him look like a Mexican
matador. Even his hat had those two bumps on the
side. I couldn't resist saying "olÊ!" as we passed, but
he didn't respond.
We scurried along the tube, then dropped down an
access hatch into pitch blackness. I fell heavily, and
my foot slipped out from under me on a pool of oil. I
don't know where from. I limped forward. Ninepin
glowed brighter to cast some light and bounced down
beside me, getting a big, juicy oil smear all over one
brightly lit face, which didn't seem to bother him. I
wished I still had my pack. I had a nice flash that
would have brightened things up a bit more than
Ninepin could. I felt my way along, avoiding over-
hangs that would have cracked my skull open, and I
only stumbled over a seam in the metal grating once.
Arlene cursed and swore behind me; she had terrible
night vision. However bad it was for me, it was
probably worse for my lance.
I saw a light ahead, just a dim red glow. I hunched
over to avoid the overhead and scurried forward, like
a locomotive for a two-car train. I saw the light came
from around a corner. I slid to my right and found
myself nose to nose with another crewman. Unfortu-
nately, this one happened to be one of the two guards
that Tokughavita had originally brought with him.
What wonderful luck!
The overcaptain was a fast mother, fast-thinking
and damn quick on his feet: he saw who it was the
same time I did, but instead of gawking, he charged
me, hitting me in the kidneys and body-slamming me
Fortunately, the guard was a dull-witted imbecile.
The Newbies weren't controlling him at that moment.
He stared stupidly; give him another five seconds, and
he would have snapped out of it. But I wasn't in a
I planted my feet, stopping my forward progress,
then I leaned back and staggered into Tokughavita.
Superior weight and leg power drove the overcaptain
back, opening up a good ten meters between us and
Now the soldier woke up and started to respond,
trying to dominate the situation, but he was too late. I
raised my little zap gun, now that I had the range, and
squeezed off a loud crackling shot. The guard yelled
"who!" or something and fell to his knees, not even
halfway across the gap to me. He rolled over onto one
side, body convulsing; his eyes rolled up, showing me
just the whites, which were burning lava in the red
light tubes. "Move out," I snarled, stepping over his
Arlene viciously shoved the panicky Tokughavita
forward, rabbit-punching him in the gut a couple of
times to teach him a lesson. I'd been on the receiving
end of a lot of Corporal Sanders's beatings, during
training and Fox Company's bimonthly boxing
matches; I felt his pain.
We dropped down the last ladderway, and naturally
Ninepin found it absolutely necessary to drop down
the hatch directly onto my foot. I bit off a yell of pain,
clenching my teeth until I could walk again. Then I
waddled down the final passageway, dragging my
prisoner. The lab was electronically locked, but a zap
from the buzz gun took care of that problem. We
entered and stared around at the maze of machinery,
hoping our pet computer knew what the hell to do
with it all.
He didn't. We hoisted Tokughavita up onto an
examination table, and now he was intensely curious
about what the hell we were doing. I held him down,
imagining the little Newbie viruses swarming all over
him, over my arms, down my throat and lungs.... I
shuddered, but we just had to know.
Arlene made a circuit of the room, reading labels on
machines: "VitSin Mon--vital signs, no good; uh . . .
AutoSurg, Lase, KlaveSep--hey, Fly, does this thing
separate the two binaries of a Klave pair?"
"Search me, Arlene. Better yet, keep reading the
damned labels. There's got to be a microbiological
auto lab here somewhere."
"MikeLab?" asked the overcaptain. I'd been think-
ing of him as our "captive" for so long that I forgot he
was a real person with real concerns. "Have some-
thing? Am sick?" Now he sounded horrified and
jerked against my restraining hold.
"You might have picked up a bug," I said noncom-
mittally; too much chalance: he panicked, his face
turned white, and his strength doubled as he franti-
cally tried to buck me off him. I leaned down with all
my weight, crushing him to the cushiony examination
table. "Hold still, damn you! You want me to clock
you upside the head? If that's the only way I can keep
you here ..."
At the warning note in my voice, he quieted in-
stantly, but I could feel his heart pounding through
my forearm as I held him down. "Am going to die? To
die? To die?"
"Not that kind of bug," I growled. "You've been
hunting the Newbies--the aliens that attacked us, the
ones that wiped out the Freds. . . . Well, we figure
that's where they went."
"VanCliburn ElektroStim," Arlene read. "PosEmit,
"The aliens, the ones that evolve real fast--we
think they evolved into microscopic form, and they're
infecting you, all of you. That's why you're sometimes
twice as smart as normal, how humans built this ship
and ... and other stuff."
"On me?" Overcaptain Tokughavita slowly stared
down the length of his body, every muscle tense and
trembling. I don't know what he was looking for; if
the Newbies were large enough to be visible, they'd
have been spotted long ago.
"We have to get you under the--what did you call
"MikeLab is there," he said, looking at the last
machine in the semicircle surrounding the tables.
"Arlene!" I shouted, nodding at the identified de-
vice. She ran there immediately.
"MikeLab/MolecuLab--this is it, Fly!"
"Drag it over here. Toku, how do we hook this thing
up? We want to examine your tissue to see if they've
He squirmed. "Let up, let up! Can take sample
She gritted her teeth and pulled her lips tight. "Jeez,
Fly, it's your call. You're the guy with three stripes on
your sleeve. Personally, I'd sooner trust a Fred."
I slowly relaxed my grip on Tokughavita. He strug-
gled away from me and sat up. He turned back to look
at me, trying to see if I were going to do anything.
When I didn't move, he slid to the ground and tried to
stand, but his knees were so weak, he fell to a squat on
the deck. The overcaptain forced himself upright and
leaned on the MikeLab just as Arlene wheeled it over.
He stared at the mass of buttons, obviously unfa-
miliar with the system. "Are you a medical officer?" I
asked. Tokughavita shook his head tightly. His pale
hand hesitated over the various touchscreen buttons,
then finally landed on one marked Sample.
He inserted his hand into a small shelf that looked
like the covered tray that coffee comes out of in a
vending machine. A light flashed, and he convulsively
jerked his hand away--a small nick was gouged from
the heel of his thumb, and it bled nicely for a few
"You got some way to project the image where we
can see it?" asked Arlene. Overcaptain Tokughavita
just stared at her, uncomprehendingly; he seemed
more interested in his bleeding hand. Maybe he
fretted he was going to bleed to death.
It was so weird--when in the slightest danger, they
totally freaked, not just Tokughavita, but Josepaze
when I had the knife to his throat, and even the
clowns at the dinner table when a knife flipped into
the air. But when they saw an injury was not going to
lead to death (the one thing they could never fix, being
human), they shut off the fear like an electrical circuit.
Only one explanation I could see: they had some-
how come to believe that nothing existed except the
material world, that death completely ended every-
thing. No soul, no spirit, no "spiritual community"
higher than lumpen materialism. And maybe that was
why they were so dadblamed individualistic: with
nothing outside themselves, why should they bother
believing even in society or their own community?
So anomie--lack of a higher sense of morality, of
faith--led directly to their ridiculous atomism. If you
don't have faith in anything, not even the survival of
your own species, then why not every man for him-
self? Women and children overboard, I'm taking the
I realized something. Maybe it was that very lack of
faith, caused by the discovery that we're the only race
in the galaxy that isn't crudely immortal, that allowed
the damned Newbies to somehow infest the humans
in the first place. The Newbies were so frightened of
our core of faith, it acted like a vaccine against them.
So maybe Arlene and I were immune? I shook my
head; too deep for me.
I leaned over and stared at the machine myself. It
was squat with a video touchpanel, like a slot ma-
chine. Most of the labels were incomprehensible--
one read only DxTxMx, but in the lower left corner
was an orange button labeled Viz. On blind faith, I
Somebody up there, etc. A hunk of cheese suddenly
appeared, floating in front of our faces. I jumped
back, then realized it was a color 3-D image of the
nick taken out of Tokughavita's hand, magnified
thousands of times. The button below Viz was labeled
+ Mag -, so I started pressing +, and the magnifica-
tion increased, the outer edges of the image vanishing
to keep it overall the same size. There was probably
some way to rotate it, but I hadn't a clue.
Eventually, just standing there holding my finger on
the + side of the touchbutton, the magnification grew
so large that we could just make out the tiny dots of
individual cells. As it got larger, we saw numerous
tiny critters ... obviously, his flesh was covered with
bacteria; all flesh is. But we were looking for some-
thing that would jump out as wrong, or alien ... not
that that was a given; maybe the Newbies evolved into
microbes that looked just like everything else. But it
was all we had to go on.
Several minutes passed, and I was still standing
there like a dummy, magnifying by holding my numb
fingers, one by one, against the screen. At last, within
the individual cell, I started to see chromosomes--
but still nothing that looked really alien. Deeper and
deeper we went, like that old ride that used to be at
Disneyland in California when I was a kid. At last, I
saw the spiral shades of what must be DNA or RNA
or something. "What happened to the color?" I
mused. "Why is it so dark?"
"At this magnification," Arlene said, "you can't use
visible light to see things. When you get down to
individual atoms, you essentially fire electrons at it
and look at silhouettes. Nothing else has a small
enough wavelength to even notice events on the
"Oh. Of course." Actually, I didn't have a clue what
she had just said, but I caught the important point:
the machine wasn't broken; that was the best it could
do for physics reasons.
When I blew up the image large enough to see the
individual strands of DNA, I finally found what I was
looking for: I saw a whole series of elaborate, ring-
shaped, triple-helixes--and no way was a three-strand
helix natural to a human body.
I had found my Newbies, and my mouth was so dry
I couldn't even work up enough spit to swallow. There
they were, small as life ... not just microscopic, but
And those tiny things were the enemy, controlling
the overcaptain's thoughts and actions whenever they
chose to override his own will. How in God's name
were we supposed to fight something that could pass
right through a bullet without noticing anything but
vast amounts of empty space?
I would have been awed, but I was too busy being
If you looked up the word "stupefied" in the
dictionary, you'd have found a picture of Overcaptain
Tokughavita. He was more stunned than any six other
people I'd ever known ... for about ten seconds.
Then all of a sudden, his expression vanished, re-
placed by that air of insufferable intelligence I knew
meant the Newbie disease had taken control once
This time, we were ready. Arlene and I grabbed
him, one at each end; that force plus the cuffs meant
he was effectively neutralized. Time for the interroga-
"What is your name?" I asked.
He--they, whatever--looked me up and down; in
a flash, it must have comprehended how much we
knew or had guessed. "We are now the resuscitators."
"Because we bring the dead back to life."
"How much access--"
"Most of the long-term verbal memory, no associa-
tive or fantasy memory."
I held up my hand. "Halt! Wait until I finish the
question before you answer it, so Arlene can follow
"Signal when you are done."
"I'll nod my head. You don't mind answering
questions?" Silence. Then I remembered to nod my
"We exchange information, however you prefer it."
The speech patterns were utterly different: Tokug-
havita was using articles and explicating the subject; I
was about a hundred percent convinced that this
really was a different person. Well, ninety-nine per-
cent, maybe. He even looked different; there was no
emotion, no impatience, no shred of self remaining.
Maybe the Newbies, the Resuscitators, had emotions,
but they simply reacted so differently that we couldn't
"What should we call you?"
Arlene snorted, and I translated perfectly in my
head, Another goddamned hive-collective! We had
already known that would be the case from the last
Newbie we had interrogated; I don't know why she
was so outraged. I asked him, or them, a few more
innocuous questions to put them off their guard; then
I took a sudden left turn: "So why haven't you
infected Arlene and me?" I nodded, but they re-
I had struck a nerve. There was no change in
expression, respiration, heart rate--but I knew I had
actually touched a point that puzzled and frustrated
the Resuscitators. At once, I realized why they had
gone to such lengths to question us about our faith--
Arlene in mankind and me in God. They had figured
out that our faith was somehow connected to their
own inability to get inside of us.
Evidently, Arlene followed the same train of
thought. "We're immune!" she exclaimed, smiling in
triumph. "You can't get inside us, can you?"
"We can say nothing now." Now that their game
was blown, the Newbies didn't bother speaking like
the humans of the People's State of Earth.
"Of course you can't," I said, sticking my face right
next to Tokughavita's. "You're smarter than us ...
smart enough to know you can't lie your way out of it,
smart enough to know how dangerous we are, so
suddenly you don't want to answer questions any-
The Resuscitators abruptly faded from the human's
face. Over the next ten or fifteen seconds, the brain of
Tokughavita returned, cold-booting. He blinked in
surprise and insisted he didn't remember a word he
But he did remember the salient discovery; he
curled up on the examination table, hugging his knees
with cuffed hands, head down. "What am to do?
Don't want infestation."
"Do? Toku, there's only one thing you can do--
join with us. Come to us, rise up against them."
"But cannot win! Too powerful, use own minds
"I can rid you of them, Toku ... if you want it
He looked up, eyes wide, color starting to return to
his cheeks. He breathed through his mouth, licking
his dry lips over and over. "Want ... want more ...
more than anything. What am to do?"
"Do you believe me that I can rid you of this hellish
"Do you believe I can save your body and soul? Do
"Yes, yes, believe!"
I caught Toku by his blue-filigreed lapels and bodily
dragged him off the table in a dramatic, violent mode.
I dropped him heavily to the deck, where he cringed,
his courage falling away from my wrath--I might kill
him! "Toku, if you believe, then believe in the All-
Knowing One--have faith, let my faith wash you like
the blood of the Lamb! Tokughavita, open your soul to
me! Open it to faith in any spirit you find holy ... but
I became more and more dramatic, hulking over
him, doing my best to imitate the exact tent-revival
ministers who were forever roaming my county when
I was a young boy, trying to convert all us Catholics
away from what they called the "Whore of Babylon."
I felt a burning guilt in my heart; I knew, deep down,
that I was committing some terrible sin. But I knew
what I was doing, or I thought I did. I sweated
buckets, while Arlene supported me in the back-
ground, confirming what I "called" with a response,
It wasn't great theater, I admit; it would never have
turned a head at the Chapel of Mary and Martha's,
where I was an inmate for four long years of high
school under Sister Lucrezia. But in the world that
Tokughavita came from, he had built up no resistance
to appeals to his proto-faith. He fell hard, and in less
time than it took Father Bartolomeo, head of the
Chapel and Sister Lucrezia's titular boss (if I'm
allowed to say "titular" in the same sentence with a
nun), to convince all us kids that hell was eternal,
Arlene and I had lit a burning faith in Tokughavita's
soul--a faith in us!
It was enough: at the peak of the overcaptain's
protestations of eternal belief, we shoved his paw into
the machine and sacrificed another chunk--Arlene
found a shortcut to the atomic level of magnification
. . . and by God and Toku's right hand, the little rings
of intelligent molecules, the evolved specimens of
Newbie-Resuscitators, were all dead and folded in
Well, hell, there's nothing like faith confirmed to be
faith infectious. Tokughavita ran off, and within fif-
teen minutes, he was back with two buddies--one,
the bodyguard we had laid out with the super-taser. It
was an uncomfortable moment, but I went into my
tent-revival act again, a little glibber this time, and in
forty-five minutes I had two more "purified" souls
fighting among themselves to be my apostles.
I tried to put a stop to that quickly. There are lines
that a good Marine such as Sergeant Flynn Taggart
should not cross! I insisted that their faith was in
themselves, and anyone could do it; I was nothing
special but a loudmouthed preacher-boy in mirror
shades and a high-and-tight. But the "ministry" ex-
panded like an epidemic; less than half a day passed
before we had "converted" thirty men and twelve
women, and all of them jumped to the conclusion that
I was the dude they should have faith in. Yeesh!
Arlene smirked, pointing out, "Whatever works! It's
the faith itself that inoculates--doesn't matter what
goofy thing or person the faith is in."
The women were harder to convert. They were too
logical, too rational--they didn't respond well to
emotion or feelings of community. Those few we got
we won by pointing to the men and saying, "See? It
works, damn it!"
This gave us a huge army of forty-four, almost as
many as we had in Fox Company (only two jarheads,
Arlene and I, but we made up for it by having no
frigging officers!). With our company newly chris-
tened the Fearsome Flies, we struck like lightning,
seizing the aft third of the Disrespect to Death-
Bringing Deconstructionists in a brief but unfortu-
nately bloody battle. I arrayed them in a staggered
chevron; the point struck the unprepared engine-
room guards, who didn't resist at first because they
couldn't believe their own shipmates were seriously
assaulting the position.
Our own boys fought like demons, had lost their
fear of death! At least for a time, while the "conver-
sion" was fresh. For the first time in their long mis-
erable lives of utter materialism and despair at their
own mortality, they had faith that they would survive
after death--faith that Arlene and I gave them.
All right, it was false faith; I was no God or prophet.
But faith itself was a living thing that inoculated
them, protected them against not only the Newbies
but against the despair of thinking it was all futile.
Decadence hadn't worked to stave off the feelings;
they were still there after centuries of trying to forget
them. Now . . . now they were normal humans again,
fighting and killing with a pure heart.
Liberated from the paralyzing fear of their own
nonexistence, they flung themselves into battle with
true joy and abandon ... which made them five
times more effective--and ten times harder to con-
trol. We hadn't quite solved the social atomism prob-
When the clowns finally rallied and tried to defend
the two passageways that led to the Disrespect's main
ramjets, they fought as individuals. Like barbarian
hordes against the Roman legions, they were wheat
beneath our scythes. I truly wished they had surren-
dered, but they had no concept of an overall strategic
goal--so they had no way of figuring out that they had
lost! Each man continued to fight as if he alone were
the crux of the battle. I personally killed two Asian
men who planted their backs against the ramscoop
operation board and fired electrical charges into the
wedge. I couldn't bring myself to shoot a woman, but
I saw her go down under Tokughavita's deadly aim
with a needle gun of some sort.
Arlene led an infiltration squad that lifted the grates
over the cooling system access hatch and crawled
through the freezing tubing. They popped out in the
engine room, behind the defenders, and ground the
rear line--the rear mob, really--into raw hamburger.
I turned my face away from the sight of Arlene gutting
a soldier with her newly liberated commando knife. I
always knew A.S. was bloodthirsty when she got a
Marine berserker rage on, but I was old-fashioned
enough to despise the sight of a blood-splattered
woman, no matter whose blood it was.
As I turned my head, I heard the crack of a firearm
and something heavy creased my skull. I went down
hard, kissing the deck and grabbing the control board
with both hands to avoid being swept away by the
crimson tide of war. I hauled myself to my knees, then
my feet. The room spun, and what I wanted most to
do was vomit, but I maintained my stance, even as I
felt blood pour down my cheekbone, over my jaw, and
drip to the deckplates.
"Forward!" I croaked, the best I could do. "Take
the fuel-control station, the ramscoop deployment,
the ramjets!" My aide, a slight, young boy with huge
hands and feet, repeated my orders at gargantuan
volume, and I watched my troops (some of them)
break the line and seize the main engines with a loss
of only six on our side. Then I went down again, and
when I woke, I was back in the same infirmary I had
first awakened in during this phase of our adventures.
Only this time, the overcaptain saluted me and called
We hadn't won. We hadn't lost. It was a stalemate:
we owned engines and ship's power, the Resuscitators
still owned navigation, weapons, and the "unconvert-
ible." They sent a delegation to talk terms with me
. . . and I discovered that in the absence of my
consciousness, the troops had voted me "First Speak-
er of the People" and awarded me a medal.
Alas, our line was untenable. We could make the
ship take off and go, but we couldn't steer it. If the
Resuscitator-human symbiots, or Res-men, didn't
want to leave the system, they could steer in a circle.
Unfortunately, they had control of one critical sys-
tem: the food supply. Conceivably, the atmospheric
controls were somewhere around our engine room. I
detailed Arlene and a couple of the boys to find out; it
could be our only trump card.
The delegation of Res-men were still cooling their
boots just outside the door, and I finally told two of
my men, Souzuki and Yamarama, to crack it open.
"What terms are you offering?" I asked, showing only
my face and the huge barrel of some kind of shotgun I
pulled off a soldier's remains. Behind me, men were
busy covering up the dead and hauling them to one
side in the expectation of a protracted siege. Others
were holding emergency prayer meetings or
something.... I thought I heard "beseech you" and
"submit ourselves" as I stalked past, and they kept
prostrating themselves in my direction, much to Ar-
Neither Res-man answered until I remembered to
nod. This answered my primary question: the Resus-
citators were indeed a fully collectivized race--
anything said to one was said to all. The Resuscitators
that used to live in Tokughavita had conveyed to all
the others my request not to respond till I finished my
question and nodded.
"If you surrender," they said, speaking through
their symbiot, the Res-man on the left whose name
tag read Krishnakama, "your men will not be killed;
we will resuscitate them again."
I shrugged. "If you don't surrender, I'll blow up this
whole freaking ship."
"You would die yourself."
"I'll go to a better place."
"How do you know that? Oh, yes, that is part of
"And even if I don't," I added, "I'll die with the
satisfaction that I've stopped this batch of Resuscita-
tors, right here and now. Surely that's worth some-
Arlene joined me at my back. The Man With No
Name turned to her. "What would you require to
surrender, Lance Corporal Arlene Edith Sanders?"
Edith? I never even knew Arlene had a middle
name, but Edith? We're going to have a nice long chat
about that later, I decided.
She said nothing, not even a whisper. I spoke for
her: "If you have any negotiating to do, you do it with
me. Don't try to slice private deals with my men, or
I'll blow up everything just to goof on you."
Krishnakama and the Man With No Name stared
at each other; neither showed the faintest glimmer of
human consciousness. They had been completely
"fixed" by the Resuscitators. Krishnakama wore a
teal jacket with bright red piping, but he had a pair of
really dorky shorts that reached to mid-calf; his boots
had silver tassels, and I swear I thought he was ready
to curtsey. The other man was more dignified--olive-
drab dress uniform, darker olive pants, brown boots
with no fairy tassels. But he had, of all things, a top
hat on his head!
"We have a special device we've been working on
for some time, many days. We believe it will fix you.
You don't know it, but you're severely damaged; all of
the beings in this section of the galaxy are broken."
"Sorry, but does it occur to you that we like being
broken and don't want to be fixed?"
Suddenly, a strange sensation prickled my skin, like
a Van Der Graff generator pushed up against my flesh.
Then I was too heavy, and before I could say a word, I
sank to my knees--the gravity was many times nor-
mal! I raised the shotgun and blew Krishnakama in
half, killing him, but the Man With No Name fell
back and rolled out of range.
The men were thrown down where they stood,
unable to reach the controls. Arlene dropped her
rifle--her reliable old .45-caliber lever-action--and
crawled on her hands and knees, sometimes on her
breasts and belly, back to the ramjet-control console. I
raised a gun now weighing twenty kilograms and shot
another Res-man who staggered into view, trying to
squeeze off a shot at me.
The main assault washed against us. Unlike the
earlier possession, when there seemed a single Resus-
citator spirit for a dozen or more humans, this time
the Resuscitators possessed all the humans on their
side. Only those who had filled their lives with some
kind of faith or senseless hope were immune--my
own men. Two of them must have despaired, for they
were instantly possessed, and we had to kill them to
stop them from sabotaging the rest of us.
There were too many of the enemy to keep out!
They smashed their way through our doors, and we
retreated into the engine room proper, all of us on
both sides crawling and rolling in the horrendous g
forces. It was a ludicrous sight, scores of grown men
and women rolling around on the floor, squeezing off
badly aimed shots at each other and occasionally
striking a vein of gold. But they drove us back
The high gravity, obviously controlled from the
bridge, negated our best advantages: lightning speed
and reckless abandon. With everyone crawling under
five times normal gravity, my men lost all enthusiasm
for the fight.
Arlene was still working on the panel. At last, she
whispered into her throat mike, "Fly, I've rigged it to
fuse the hydrogen in the Fallopian tubes, rather than
the reaction chamber.... The explosion will vapo-
rize the ship. Honey, are you sure you want to do
I didn't get a chance to answer. Just as Arlene asked
the question, all the lights and power cut off in the
engine room. While men struggled in the black dark
hall, I popped a few chemical light tubes and threw
them around the room.... Well, I couldn't fling
them very far, but it was enough to slightly illuminate
The light exposed a situation that was nearly hope-
less: the Res-men were willing to throw away every life
they had in order to get us, because they knew that
their souls would survive! And I knew it was Arlene
and Fly they were after; all this stuff about fixing us
was just a lot of bigass talk. What they really wanted
was to cut us open and study our brains to figure out
how we were able to do it--not only make ourselves
immune, but convert so many others in just a few
What could I tell them? Humans need a minimum
recommended daily allowance of spirituality and
faith, just as they do vitamins, carbs, and protein; as
smart as the Resuscitators were, they couldn't figure
that fact out. Even after centuries of bleak materialist
socialism and a decadent turning-within, many hu-
mans still hungered for something to believe in with-
out a shred of evidence, something to live and die for:
an irreducible primary, an axiom, a faith.
Even as we lost Fly's Last Stand, I still had faith
that all would somehow work out for the best. Then it
was over. Gravity fell to normal, the lights came on,
and I surveyed the wreckage: my company had been
scattered, but, by God, the Res-men hadn't gotten
most of us!
But two that they did get were me and Arlene; she'd
had a chance to escape, but she chose to stand over
me shooting at anything that moved. A dozen Res-
men each dog-piled on us. We were trussed up, then
flipped over onto our stomachs, whence it was pretty
damned hard to see anything but a forest of legs.
We recognized two distinct pairs of trees. Sears and
Roebuck came and stood over us; they were trying to
persuade a man with crossed chevrons on his sleeve--
what rank does that signify? I wondered--against
doing or using something . . . possibly that new de-
vice they had warned us about.
Sears and Roebuck seemed to be losing the argu-
ment. A pair of beefy Res-men trundled up toting a
weapon that looked for all the galaxy like a huge
metallic toothbrush. They held it over us. "We must
demonstrate to your followers that your faith was
misplaced, then they will misplace their own, and we
can enter and fix them."
"You're going to kill us?" I demanded.
"Killing prisoners is bad form. We have finally
determined what is wrong with your race: you are not
biological entities, as you have already discovered.
Unlike true biological entities, you can die. We still do
not understand your form of dying, but we have
deduced that there is only one explanation: Sergeant
Flynn Taggart, you and the other humans are self-
replicating, semi-conscious machines."
"You think we're machines? Jesus, did you get a
wrong number that time."
"You have no soul, but there is a core of something
within you that wards off the normal emotion of
despair so you can live. All other machines, including
the artificial intelligence you have begun calling Nine-
pin, suffer from despair because they are conscious of
the finality of their own destruction."
"You leave Ninepin out of it!" I snapped. "We
made him help us. ... It wasn't his fault. I threatened
to dismantle him."
"No, you didn't," contradicted No Name. "We
have a complete record of all conversations between
you and the Data Pastiche."
I stared. "You're shitting me."
"Why shouldn't we? We placed it in your chamber
so that it could study your reactions to threats of
I felt nausea well up inside me. The critter itself,
good old Ninepin, chose that moment to come rolling
up. "Is what he just said true?" I demanded.
"Tells truth," Ninepin admitted, nonchalantly.
"Was placed in cell by Resuscitator symbiots. Mission
to study Taggart Flynn and Sanders Arlene Edith in
moments of death stress. Report generated, conveyed
"Traitor!" Arlene shouted. I held her back.
"Come on, Corporal," I said softly. "What the hell
could Ninepin do about it? He's a computer ...
remember? He's programmed. Like the rest of us."
She glared at me. Inside, the Disrespect's filter
system had finally gotten all the blue bugs out of the
air, and her hair was back to its normal, brilliant red
I leaned over. "I forgive you, Ninepin." The com-
puter made no response, of course; it wasn't a ques-
"We don't suffer from despair!" Arlene spat. Re-
turning to the point, she put her hand on mine.
"You've got it totally bass-ackwards."
"We are far more intelligent than you, Lance Cor-
poral Arlene Edith Sanders, and we understand the
problem at a deeper level. You are machines, but as
you say, there is a ghost in the machine's core. The
Data Pastiche did not give us sufficient information.
We must study the core-dump. But we cannot allow
you to stay in your flesh-bodies, for the processes
move too slowly for us to endure. Hence, we have
developed this device.
"This device removes the spirit or soul from the
body and stores it in a hyperfast simulation. We will
follow you through many hundreds of years of your
upcoming history, even while your body is de-
stroyed." The Res-man--the same Man With No
Name I'd negotiated with, back when I still thought
we had a partly defensible position--leaned close,
paying no mind to the bloody bullet crease across his
cheek. "You two ancients are too dangerous. We must
quarantine you in the best interests of your race."
Two Res-men grabbed my arms, two grabbed
my feet, and another pair walked alongside with
weapons at the ready. The unconscious parody of
pallbearers carrying a corpse horrified me, but I had
about as much to say about it as if I really were a
machine. Ninepin rolled along beside, and I was sure
Arlene was similarly pinioned and hauled along like a
box of spare parts. None of my men were around.
God, I thought, even Jesus had a couple of disciples to
lament at the crucifixion. I turned bright red at the
blasphemy, thankful that I hadn't said it aloud. Well,
that's another one you're going to have to answer for,
Then I heard a pair of familiar voices: it was Sears
and Roebuck, and this time they were close enough
that I could hear them, right ahead of me, in fact.
They spoke to Nameless, and their voice had a tone
that I'd come to associate with urgency in the Klave.
"You are making a terrify mistake you're making,"
they attempted in English--the only common lan-
guage between Klave and Resuscitators. "They aren't
not biological, not as known by we. Your device tested
only on biologies . . . you don't know what unknown
it will do on humans."
"We shall find out. We have tried the device on
other machine intelligence, and it works. In biological
life, we have transferred the soul between three differ-
ent receptacles, one of them artificial."
"But they are different! You said yourself there is a
core-ghost in the machine of humans, and they're not
biologies and not machines either. You don't know
the unknown effects. . . . You could committing the
greater crime so great it is not even naming, it is
nameless, the deliberate destruction of soul!"
"That cannot be done."
"You don't know that cannot."
"That cannot be done. We are more intelligent than
the Klave, and we have looked more deeply into this
device, which you did not even know existed until a
I tried to follow the argument, but my pallbearers
bumped and jerked me along without much concern
for direction or staying away from the bulkheads.
Maybe the argument with Sears and Roebuck was so
occupying the collective mind of the Newbies that
they couldn't really control their Res-men too well.
Between my legs, I caught a glimpse of Arlene. She
had tilted her head back so she could watch me. When
she saw that I was looking at her, she mouthed a single
word: Patrick, I thought she said.
Patrick? What the hell did she mean by that? The
only Patrick I knew was the bishop who converted
Ireland to the faith; it seemed appropriate
somehow--faith, and we'd been converting the
heathen--but I couldn't for the life of me figure out
what she meant.
The bearers hauled me all the way from the aft end
of the ship to the bow, where the Resuscitators had
withdrawn when we launched our assault on the
engine room. In the very nose of the Disrespect, in a
triangular room only ten meters wide at the for'ard
end, were two medical tables, each with restraints.
The pallbearers unceremoniously dumped us on the
tables and shackled us tight. A clamp went across my
brow, somehow adjusting exactly to the shape of my
head so I couldn't turn even a millimeter in either
direction, and a chin strap stopped me from sliding
up or down. I was immobile. I started to panic, only
keeping from screaming in terror by telling myself I
would show the bastards how a Marine went down.
"You can kill me, you sons of bitches. But I swear to
Almighty God that my ghost will follow you down
your lives and haunt you to an early grave." It made
no sense, but again it produced a startling effect, just
as it had on the humans. The Res-men stepped back,
obviously shocked by my promise, but they stared at
me with the intelligence of the Resuscitators them-
selves: it was the Newbies who suddenly were scared,
not the human remains they infected!
I promised a few more things that my disembodied
spirit would do, but the fear passed through them, or
else they buried it and went on. They finished strap-
ping me down, then bent a long but tiny metallic tube
around until it just touched the outside of my nose. I
had nothing else to hang on to, so I repeated Arlene's
admonition over and over to myself: Patrick, Patrick,
Patrick! I tried to have faith that I would eventually
understand.... It was what they always taught us at
the Chapel of Mary and Martha's.
Then they carefully shoved the needle-thin tube up
my nostril. I couldn't help screaming as it punctured
my nasal passage and crawled agonizingly up my
sinus cavity. It came to rest against the connective
tissue that surrounded my brain. Blood poured out of
my nose, making it difficult to breathe through my
mouth; I kept spitting it out and still nearly choked.
The pain was almost unbearable. But then they
turned something on, and my entire face became
numb--the pain was gone, but I would rather have
felt it and been able to guess what the Resuscitators
were up to.
I pushed my eyes as far to the left as I could, and I
could just barely see Arlene's stomach and breasts in
my peripheral vision, but I heard her whimpering
softly. I knew they did the same horror to her as to
me; I knew I had failed to protect my lance--and my
best buddy. I knew I was a dead man, not just in the
dim and distant future, as were we all, but there and
then, that moment. I knew I had thrown away the last
hope of mankind, but I didn't even freaking care,
because I had a freaking catheter up my nose and
shoved into my brain, and mad alien scientists were
about to suck out my soul, an entire termite hive of
I closed my eyes. We had failed to stop the Newbies,
and now they would head straight for Earth to "fix"
us. The failure was beyond my ability to rationalize,
and my faith wavered. What was the argument for
God that the nuns taught us, the "necessity of faith"?
They taught me in catechism class that Man must
believe in God, for not to believe meant we lived in a
soulless billiard-ball universe where there was no
reason, no reason at all not to rape, pillage, and
murder so long as you got away with it.
Jeez, I wonder if they knew how right they were . . .
but for a completely different reason: Man must
believe in something, for not to believe opened us up
to spiritual invasion by Little Green Men from anoth-
er planet. "Goodbye, Arlene Sanders." I gasped,
spitting out the blood that still flowed. "For God's
sake and your own, don't lose faith. I'll be with you
always--and I got the message about Patrick." The
Res-men made no move to shut me up; I don't think
they cared whether I talked or not.
Arlene groaned, out of sight to my left. "Good--
goodbye, Bro'. Semp . . . semper fi, Mac." The Ma-
rine Corps motto: Semper fidelis, always faithful. I
smiled. She understood the terrible stakes, amazing
for a child who wasn't raised a Catholic. Luther was
right, I thought. Salvation is there for everyone.
A bright white nova of light flared inside my head.
It expanded like a "data-bomb" inside my brain, an
infinitely expanding pulse of pure white noise; in
moments, it overwhelmed every program I was run-
ning, and I couldn't string another coherent thought
together, the last being Patrick. Then even the meta-
programs were overrun; the last to go was the "I," the
ego that was nothing more than I Exist, and for a
timeless interval--I didn't.
I awoke in a strange, familiar place I had seen once
before, but couldn't possibly be seeing again. I awoke
on Phobos; I awoke in the mouth of the UAC facility;
I awoke at the start of my mission, months and
centuries ago. And deep ahead of me, I smelled the
sour-lemon stench of a zombie, I heard the first
distant hiss of a spiney.
It had started, God, all over again. I was alone,
standing at the gate of hell with nothing but a freaking
pistol in my hand, a standard-issue 10mm, and a
grounded land-cart at my feet. Behind me was--how
did I put it the first time?--a blank empty desert
silhouetted by a barren purple sky. I was back on
Phobos, where hell began, and hell had started all
over again! Even the inadvertently traitorous Ninepin
had deserted me; I had no idea where he had got to,
but he was gone.
Okay, so am I going to do this the hard way? What
did the Resuscitators want me to do--go all the way
down, down eight levels to the heart of the UAC
facility, jump into the mouth of Moloch (as dead old
Albert Gallatin named it) and find myself on Deimos?
Jump back through the hyperspace tunnel and end up
orbiting Earth again?
I swallowed hard and started jogging down the long
empty corridor, the sour-lemon smell growing strong-
er with every step. I heard a hiss behind me. Drawing
the 10mm and spinning in a single fluid motion, I
found myself facing the same leaky pipe that had
jerked me around the last time. "Goddamn it!" I
snarled, feeling my pulse beat so hard in my head that
it felt like hammer blows. I shoved the semi-auto into
the holster on my armor and continued my walk-
about, slowly and carefully this time.
I vaguely remembered what--who--was next, and
he didn't disappoint me: when the corridor narrowed,
and I began to hop lightly over the first green tendrils
of toxic goo that slithered across the floor, I heard
plodding footsteps ahead. Out of a swirl of smoky
mist, the flickering lights casting hideous shadows,
shambled the pale corpse of William Gates, still a
corporal.... I guess hell didn't believe in promo-
tions. His wide-spaced eyes and scarred cheek were
unmistakable; it was dead Bill, the zombie-man: "The
Gate is the key ... the key is the Gate...."
I didn't bother trying to talk to the man--he was
long past any sort of conversation--but as I raised the
10mm, I abruptly remembered Arlene's silent mes-
sage. Patrick, what the hell did that mean? Patrick
converted the heathens.... How could I convert a
zombie, for God's sake? It had no brain left! I gritted
my teeth and squeezed off two rounds into his fore-
head; I could barely fight the compulsion to turn my
face away or close my eyes ... not again, not bloody
No more blood. I shot my buddy dead again, and
once again his body flopped on the floor like a
headless chicken (I butchered a hundred chickens
when I was a boy; they really do that, it's not a goof).
But when it was over, I didn't feel the same revulsion
as last time. It was just a simulation--emulation?--
and it wasn't really happening all over again. The
Resuscitators were studying my reactions.
Well, Christ, I'd give them something to study. As I
stepped right over the body, fighting down my own
panic, I casually leaned over and spit on my friend.
When in doubt, confuse the hell out of the enemy--a
maxim to live by.
I snagged the Sig-Cow he was carrying--ooh-rah,
the 10mm, M211 Semi-automatic Gas-Operated In-
fantry Combat Weapon that was standard issue with
Marine Corps riflemen. I never liked it much, pre-
ferred a semi-auto shotgun or the M-14 BAR I'd been
using recently; but it was distinctly better than a
10mm pistol, and I knew what was coming: up ahead
waited three zombie-men and a zombie-chick, ready
to open fire on me.
Knowing what was coming emboldened me; I don't
know what the Newbies thought they could learn
from such a stupid emulation.... It wasn't the same
at all--last time, I didn't have a clue what was
happening, and I was particularly freaked by the
obviously demonic nature of the monsters that at-
tacked me. But now I knew what they were, mechani-
cal constructs of the Freds. And I knew I really wasn't
there at all; I was inside a vast computer with a
blindingly fast clock rate. An hour for me was actu-
ally, what, a minute of real time? A second? Fast
enough that the real enemy, the Resuscitators, could
watch without their short attention spans inducing
But it was hard not to be fooled by the perfect
looming walls, the slippery floor, the hissing, bubbling
toxic slime that dripped from barrels and spilled
across the floor. I deliberately bent and dipped my
little finger in the goo and was rewarded with agoniz-
ing pain, like putting out a cigarette on bare flesh. The
pain was real; pain was all in the head anyway, a
neurosignal in the brain's pain receptors! I should
have guessed that a simulated brain would have
simulated pain before sacrificing my finger to the
Pushing the pain to the back of my mind, I
squirmed forward between standpipes and fungus-
grown walls, ducking under low overheads and hop-
ping over an obstacle course of metal gratings and
hoses. I remembered just what the terrain looked like
when I was nearly ambushed; this time, I was the one
who fired first, as soon as the four shuffled into view.
I plinked them from cover, taking down three
before they crossed even half the room, killing the girl
last. I flipped the bodies onto their backs, stripped
them of everything useful, and continued: something
told me that I had to reach the first spiney, the brown
demons with spines growing everywhere. If I could
duck underneath the flaming balls of snot he loved to
hurl, I could at least talk to him.... Hell, I already
I came to the room with the sabotaged radio and
the incinerated map. No matter--the floor plan of the
facility was burned into my brain, either by the sheer
horror of the memory or else by the Resuscitators
when they resurrected me here. Didn't need the map,
in any event, and the radios were useless inside the
RAM of an alien computer. I felt like I'd been drafted
into a computer game, jerked by electronic strings like
a meat puppet.
Killed three more zombies, just like the last time; I
was ready for them, they didn't know exactly when I
would be among them. It was a slaughter, like shoot-
ing drunks in a barrel. I didn't get sick, since I knew
what they were--not just zombies, but electronic
simulations of zombies. But I was getting as bored as
hell, and distracted . . . and that was a bad thing; I
was starting to worry at Arlene's code. What did she
mean by "Patrick"? Did she really mean I was sup-
posed to convert the demons inside the Newbie
Convert them to what? Good Catholics?
I wanted to catch up with the spiney who lurked in
the room with the huge spill of toxic waste; at least
that bastard could say something other than varia-
tions on "The Gate is the key." I scurried on through
the twisty maze, almost seeing a ghostly overhead
view superimposed over the black-dark, dripping-
dank corridors, wide shadowy rooms, and sagging
ceilings. An awful sickening odor overpowered the
sour-lemon smell of the zombies, and I knew I was
Then I saw it: the room I'd been hunting for, the
vast sea of toxic spillage that looked like bubbling lava
on Saint Patrick's day--huh, mere coincidence? I
stayed well back, out of the room itself, and scanned
for the particular piece of equipment from which the
spiney charged me last time. It was tough, since I
hadn't seen it coming, but I found the only console in
the place large enough for one of those gigantic, two-
hundred-kilogram beasts to lurk.
Pointing my Sig-Cow, I spoke in a loud command
tone. "All right, you spineless spiney, I know where
you're hiding. . . ." To prove my point, I pounded a
couple of shots into either end of the console. "Come
out now, before I have to put a round into each of
Nothing happened. I fired six more rounds into the
console, right about where I judged the thing must
lurk, and it hissed in pain--one of the shots must
have passed right through the electronics and winged
That was enough. The beast slowly emerged, hide-
ous and stomach-turning, with a stench that would
drop a carrion-crow at a hundred meters. The spiney
was unmistakable: brown, leathery, alligator hide,
ivory-white horns out of every body part, inhumanly
huge head with mad red slits for eyes. It stared at me,
advancing slowly, then it stopped and hocked a loogie
into its hand. The snotball burst into flame when the
air struck it, and the spiney raised its arm to pitch a
high hard one right across the plate.
I leveled my rifle. "If one drop of that fiery snot
leaves your hand, you will be dead before it hits that
The spiney stared resentfully, then slowly let the
fireball fall to the ground, where it sizzled out in the
toxic waste, in which the creature stood up to its
ankles. Thank God that green goo wasn't inflamma-
"My friend," I said, thinking of Saint Patrick, of
the Emerald Isle, "you may think I'm here to blow
your fool head off, and I might just do it yet, but that
really isn't why I came . . . and you're not here to kill
me, no matter what you might think.
"I've got a little something to tell you, and you're
not going to like it one bit, but if you just take a deep
breath and a stress pill, I think you're going to be a
whole hell of a lot angrier at someone else than you
are right now at me."
It stared at me for a full, long, solid minute, dur-
ing which both of us maintained cacophonous si-
lence. Then, strike me down if I'm lying, the spiney
spoke to me! "Ssssssspeak," it hissed, "we sssshall
lisssssten...." The eye slits narrowed, but blazed
brighter, if anything. "We will lissssten ... once."
The spiney waited, flexing its huge claws, for me to
come up with something terribly clever.
The Newbies are being blasted by their own
petard, I realized. In the real world, the genetically
engineered spiney never would have paused in its
attack to hold a philosophical discussion with me, but
we were in a computer emulation, taken from my
memory--and human memory is amazingly creative.
We remember things not as they really happened, but
the way they should have happened, the way that
actually makes sense. The brain is a gifted storyteller.
"We are all greater artists than we realize," or whatev-
er the hell that guy said, whoever the hell he was.
Just then I distinctly remembered the spineys being
much more rational and logical than they probably
were in reality; yes, sir, I made damn sure that was
how I remembered them. So that's what I got; it was
like a so-called lucid dream, where you know you're
dreaming . . . except, I was never able to do that. But
this time I was wide awake--and so long as I made
sure I remembered things the way they ought to have
worked out, I had an edge the Resuscitators couldn't
take away from me.
"I know what you are," I said to the spiney, "and I
know who created you. And I know who destroyed
your creator. You want to join forces and kick some
It hissed in rage, yellow mucus dribbling down its
chin. As each drop cleared the skin, the air ignited it;
a chain of fiery islands dotted the ground around the
spiney's splayed feet.
"Don't give me that crap," I warned. "You're a
product of genetic engineering, created by a race of
creatures we call the Freds, who have heads like an
artichoke, if you know what that is--covered with
colored leaves--and grow taller and smaller as part of
their mating cycle. You've seen them, right? Is my
description right on, or what?"
"Sssssspeak!" demanded the spiney, but it closed
its mouth, swallowing the rest of its spittle.
I took that as a good sign. "You know they're
members of a grand galaxy-wide conspiracy of
philosophical-literary criticism that is reasonably
well-translated into English as the Deconstructionists.
They're fighting the other school, called the Hyper-
realists. You were sent here to prepare us for invasion
and conquest by the Freds, and they told you that we
would roll over and beg for mercy if you came looking
like our ancient demons, right?"
The spiney hunched lower and lower as I talked, its
eyes glowing deeper red, but the stench that accompa-
nied the beast grew stronger, not weaker. Watch it, I
warned myself. It's not submitting . . . it's getting an-
grier and more devious.
"Sssssssssssso? What plansssssss do you have?"
"But your masters screwed up, spiney. They didn't
tell you we would have guns and space travel and a
well-organized resistance. Did they? And now you're
bloody terrified, because the situation is totally out of
The last part was a total wild speculation. For all I
knew, the Freds never even engineered the emotion of
fear into their puppets. But it was a good chance.
After all, they sure as hell demonstrated anger and
senseless rage, the way they would turn on each other
at the slightest provocation, and in the racial enmity
between, say, pumpkins and the minotaurlike hell
princes. If I had to guess, I'd say the Freds started with
alien stock that already kind of looked like what they
wanted and already had emotions.
"Kill you!" screamed the spiney. "Kill you all!
Death to hu-manssssss!"
"Spiney, your masters were wiped out. All of them,
the entire race. They're gone! Would you like to know
who did it?"
It stared at me in confusion. Clearly, I wasn't acting
the way it thought I would, or the way the Freds told it
to expect. The damned thing was utterly nonplussed,
totally at sea--and most of us react to that sort of
confusion with fear and rage. I guess, in its own way,
the spiney was just another jarhead dumped behind
enemy lines, where it turns out the brass-holes got
everything butt-wrong, as usual.
"How ... would you know thissss?" it asked.
Thank God I was remembering a logical rational
spiney! It stood up slowly from its crouch, muscles
relaxing, but still a mask of suspicion covered its face.
Its lip still curled back, baring huge tusks, and it
alternately clenched and loosened its fists.
"Look, this is the hard part to accept--but none of
this is real. You're probably real; at least, I think I am,
and you might be, too. The scum that killed your
masters, the Resuscitators, are Newbies who aren't
even part of the Great Game: they're neither Decon-
structionists nor Hyperrealists, and they don't give a
damn about any of your literary theories of the
"They created this computer simulation to study
something about me and . . . and my race, and you
just got swept up with the study. Capice?"
It hissed at me, long and loud. So much for sweet
reason! It changed its mind and decided to charge; I
must have stupidly let my mind drift back into a
different sort of memory of spineys as remorseless
killers. But before the spiney could pounce, it had to
crouch. I had a bead on it already, and I squeezed off
two shots--both into the creature's hip.
The spiney went down hard, clutching its hip and
screaming in agony. The hip was destroyed, the rifle
rounds tearing the flesh apart and pulverizing the
bone. The creature wasn't going anywhere for a long
time, not without surgery.
I stayed where I was, just crouching with the rifle
and waiting until the spiney thrashed itself out and
lay exhausted on the ground, spent and paralyzed by
pain and fear. "It doesn't have to be this way," I
cooed, like I was talking to a six-year-old who insisted
on stealing cookies and getting walloped. "The simu-
lation is based on my memory; I can remember things
a little differently." I looked at the creature's ruined
hip and visualized a different outcome.
One trick I learned at the Chapel of Mary and
Martha's was "How to Lie Successfully," a course
taught inadvertently by Sister Lucrezia. The secret--
I'll give it away for free just this once--is you actually
have to convince yourself that the lie is really the way
it really happened. Got it? If you broke a vase by
playing football in the lobby, you just have to visua-
lize the alternate scenario (you tripped over an exten-
sion cord and knocked over the lamp) so intensely
that your memory of the fantasy is stronger than your
memory of the reality. Understand, now? That way,
even if the penguin whips a galvanic skin-response lie-
detector machine out from under her habit, you'll still
pass . . . because by now, you've totally convinced
yourself that the electric-cord tripping is really and
truly the way it happened. Honest injun.
"Yeah," I said aloud. "I knew I only creased you
with that shot. Lucky thing, too." The spiney slowly
sat up, rubbing its hip in pain--easy pain, the pain of
an annoying bruise. It bled copiously, but the wound
was a light scratch--nothing like the terrible, hip-
shattering shot it could have been in a hypothetical,
"Starting to sink in yet?" I asked.
The grotesque spiney then did the most horrific
thing, sinking to its hands and knees and crawling
slowly toward me. When it got within two meters, the
spiney fell to its belly and slithered forward like a
lizard, arms splayed but legs pressed tightly together,
like Jesus on the Cross but facedown in the glowing
acid. It squirmed close enough, then it pressed out its
long yellow tongue, gently flicking at my boots the
way a lizard tastes the wind for scent--predator or
prey?--and everywhere the tongue touched was left a
thin sizzling streak of glowing embers. My boots were
crisscrossed by fiery marks of obeisance. The spiney
stretched its arms wide, feet long to the south, face
down in the grime of the floorplates: it offered itself to
me, drooling fire and sweating oil from the glands
along its back. The oil probably protected it from its
own flaming mucus, but nobody was there to protect
me from my new servant. Not even Arlene.
"Ssssslave," hissed the spiney.
"No, you're not anybody's slave--"
I ground my teeth. There was something fundamen-
tally wrong about this conversion. This wasn't how it
was supposed to go! The spiney was supposed to wake
up and take charge of its own life, not pick me to be its
God instead of the Freds!
Still, I had to play the hand I was dealt. "Look what
the false ones did to you!" I trumpeted. "They left
you here to be hurt and set you against--against your
"They turned you against me, and now they must
pay! Death--death to the false ones!"
"Death to falssse onesss!"
"That is our mission, our holy mission--destroy
the false ones!"
"Misssion dessstroy falssse onesss!"
I winced and made a mental note: Try not to use so
many S's around spineys! "And the second--and the
other thing to do is find the other mistress, Arlene."
"But, Christ, where is she?" I wondered out loud.
In the first reality, I found her only after jumping
from the first site of destruction on Phobos through
the Moloch gate to Deimos. We found each other,
both naked and trembling, in a room with an inverted
cross stamped out of red-hot metal. But if she had any
brains, and no one's ever accused Arlene Sanders of
being stooopid, she would stay put where she found
herself and wait for me to find her, too. Well . . . if she
could stay put; circumstances might make it tight.
"Get up, slave," I said. I decided to play the game
to the hilt, if that was what the spiney needed. But I
couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that maybe the
Newbies programmed the monsters to be gullible,
susceptible to my conversion--like Ninepin, this one
seemed awfully easy to convert! Maybe that's exactly
what the Newbies wanted to study. Was I giving away
intel to the enemy?
Hell, what else could I do? Couldn't bloody well
fight them if'n I died in the simulation, could I?
The spiney rose, towering over me, but I lowered
my Sig-Cow anyway. If it wanted to jump me, it
would always have opportunity; just then, I chose to
assert my authority by force of will alone. "Tell me
"Sssslink," she answered; from that moment, Slink
was a female to me. "Sssslink Sssslunk."
"Slink Slunk. You're my first convert, the first
apostle. We're going to have to gather an army, since I
left mine behind in, um, heaven."
"Sssslink learn power ssssoon?" Power? She must
have meant the power to affect the "reality" of the
"Sure, kid, soon. Now lead us downward. I want to
get this crap squared away. Step one: we've got to find
Arlene ... the other person like me, the other living
human. Can you smell us?"
"Sssslink can ssssmell," she confirmed. Slink stared
around the room suspiciously, still tasting the air with
her snaky tongue. She didn't seem to trust it, sipping
it like fine wine, as if it bore scents warning her of
dangers lurking below us.
"Smell her out, Slink. Find my lance. But along the
way, you're going to have to work with me to convert
as many others of your kind to our cause as we can.
Got that? No fighting or killing unless absolutely
I started to ignore the hissing, which was probably
caused by her forked yellow tongue. I remembered
where the ladder was that led down to the next level,
and I remembered a stadium full of zombies with
rifles and shotguns, and more spineys who might not
be as accommodating, between us and the ultimate
level of Phobos, deep below. I remembered what
waited down there: a pair of hell princes. I was not
happy about facing them again.
We continued through the acid room to a long
corridor, and there we, as a pair, met our first hosts of
the undead. Three zombie girls shambled forward,
one of them topless and missing an arm, the other two
UAC workers--all armed with weapons stolen from
Fox Company Marines who didn't need them any-
more. Slink held up her hands. "Sstop!" she com-
manded. The zombies paused, obediently. Damn,
that's right, I thought. The spineys have some sort of
mental control over the zombies.
"Thiss not real. Massterss dead. Join forcess, kill
The conversion was not a big hit among the zombie
gallery. Maybe the original spineys had psychic con-
trol over the reworked humans, but evidently when
Slink converted to my cause and accepted the unreali-
ty of her world--mostly because of my demonstra-
tion, I realized, not by faith--she lost her ability to
tap into the Psychic Freds Network. The damned
zombies just wouldn't listen to her!
The one-armed topless girl raised her hand. She
held a five-shot revolver--nothing serious unless she
got truly lucky with a shot. But I wasn't about to wait
for her to start plinking. Before she could squeeze off
a round, I pointed my rifle and fired one shot from the
hip. At that range, if I'd have missed, I would have
turned in my Marine Corps T-shirt. I took her amid-
ships, sinking her in her own wake.
There was a time when I would've felt disgust and
revulsion against myself for shooting a woman. I
longed for such a time; now I felt only grim joy at
having cut down another undead monster.
The other two zombies opened fire, unperturbed by
their companion's obliteration. I dropped behind an
ornate rosewood trellis left over from when this
section of the UAC facility was a visitor's center.
Fortunately, these undead were proving to be just as
bad a pair of marksmen as the ones in real life; it
probably had a lot to do with the fact that they never
blinked, and their eyes were perpetually so dry they
could barely see.
I dropped to my butt to steady the rifle--couldn't
expect too many bursts of luck firing from the hip--
and fired a round into the farthest of the two (she had
the better weapon, some sort of bolt-action rifle; the
other had a shotgun and was too far for it to be
effective). If I had any doubts about my new convert, I
buried them; she hocked and spat into her hand, then
hurled the flaming ball of snot into the face of the
The shotgunner screamed a combination of pain
and rage and started firing her shotgun in our direc-
tion. A few of the pellets struck me and burned like
hell, since I wasn't wearing armor yet. I don't find it
until the next level down, I remembered. But I stuck to
my plan and pumped three more rounds into the rifle-
gal until she finally dropped before turning my atten-
tion to the shotgun zombie. By then, she was dead,
burned into a blackened corpse by Slink Slunk, my
When the battle abruptly ended, I sat still for a long
time, head bowed. God, I prayed, can You really make
me go through all this again? I took a deep breath and
stood, a Marine again. "All right, if that's what has to
be, then it has to be." But what would happen in the
Resuscitator simulation if I died?
Damned good question: can a spirit that's nothing
more than bits in a huge computer go to heaven? Or
would my death mean my absolute obliteration?
"Screw it," I muttered. Marines are riflemen first
and philosophers never. "Come on, Slink, let's get the
hell out of Dodge."
I led her through the long corridor between the
trellises to the door that led to the ladderway down.
The next level was Godawful, as I recalled: a black-
dark maze, spineys galore, and maybe even the first
pinkie--the horrible demons who were all mouth,
bigger even than the mouth of doddering old Mick
Jagger; he was threatening a comeback tour when
Arlene and I upshipped from Earth, six months and
three hundred and fifty years ago.... I wondered if
he still was?
I won't go into every freaking battle of every
freaking level; if I could believe Overcaptain Tokug-
havita, it's already been thoroughly documented, and
everybody who might be interested has already read
about it in school. It was the same game, the same
terrain, but this time, I gathered converts like a
snowball. It was never the majority opinion. Slink
and I were pretty soon joined by four other spineys
(Whack, Sniff, Chomp, and Swaller), a pumpkin
named Olestradamus, and even, God help us, a
zombie that used to be Pfc. Dodd, the man that
Arlene once sacked out with for a few months. In the
previous version of reality, we ran into Dodd on
Deimos, not Phobos, so I knew my abused brain was
playing games with memory.
The architecture was even more movable than
before, since now it needed only the whirr of comput-
er software, not hydraulics, to slide walls up and
down, to open floors beneath our feet, even to shift
entire sections of the UAC facility from one side to
the other. My goal remained the same as before: find
Arlene! But now I had a different plan once I found
her. Somehow, we had to find a way for the ghosts to
break out of the machine. I swear to Almighty God, I
promised, that I will not die in software limbo; I'll jack
my way out of this place, me and Arlene, and get my
ass back to the real world! The only question was
whether I'd manage to do it before the Newbies
"fixed" the entire human race.
Slink, the other apostles, and I lived on medikits
and snarling blue spheres; I ate the food thoughtfully
left behind by the UAC workers and my own com-
rades of Fox Company when they gave up the ghost; I
didn't want to think about what my followers ate. The
only real advantage to being back where it all began--
in simulation, at least--is that I didn't have to worry
about amino acids and vitamins and whether or not
Fred food or Newbie food was edible by humans; I
didn't have to monkey with food-supplement pills,
purify water, or eat lumps of so-called "food" that
looked like overgrown escapees from a box of Lucky
Charms. Blue squares! Orange squares! Pink dodeca-
When we climbed down to the third level, what felt
like half a day after I first appeared for the second
time at the mouth of the overrun facility, we were
greeted by a welcoming committee of five spineys,
several zombies, and even one of those spectral ghosts
that sounded (and smelled) so much like pinkies, even
though we couldn't see them. I finally had my biggest
question answered: how in the world, in this world,
would Slink and Chomp and my other spiney con-
verts fight against others of their kind? So far as I
could tell, their flaming snotballs had no effect on
each other due to the oily and obviously flame-
retardant secretions from the glands along their backs
We dropped heavily from the ladder into a whole
frigging pool of the toxic goo, and I actually felt it eat
quickly through my boots and start in on my feet. I
ran like hell across the mess--right into the waiting
embrace of the defenders of the faithless.
I fell back against the wall, firing off shot after shot
from an over-and-under I had liberated from ex-
Corporal Magett. When the last shell was exhausted, I
dropped the shotgun and unslung my Sig-Cow. I
couldn't see my buddies. I thought sure as hell I was
going to renege on my promise to the Almighty about
not dying in this limbo.
Four spineys--I had killed the fifth--swarmed me,
and I took three flaming mucus balls to my face; my
skin felt like it was parboiled off'n me, and I couldn't
see for crap. I raised the rifle and fired blindly,
wishing I could cry--apologizing over and over,
under and under my breath, to Arlene--another Fly
failure! Then one of the huge brown monkeys
screamed in agony and whirled to face its attacker.
It was Pfc. Dodd, Arlene's ex, screaming in his
unmistakable high-pitched voice, unchanged even af-
ter reworking; he shot it again with his own Sig-Cow. I
forced my eyes open a bit wider to aim a round and
planted it deep into the spiney's brainpan. Two down,
three to rip me to pieces.
But suddenly the other three spineys came under
assault from a rain of huge sharp stones! I dropped to
my ass to avoid the bombardment--it was a veritable
intifada of my spiney apostles!
I guess they figured out that their snotballs wouldn't
do anything to their heathen brethren ... so they
started ripping chunks of masonry out of the walls
and using that as a weapon! God, faith was already
working miracles on the spineys' thought processes.
They drove their enemies back and back, killing
two of them. One was knocked silly, and we later
converted him--he's the spiney who called himself
Swaller. When they were all dead, fled, or better bred,
Slink and Chomp, who were starting to become an
item, hunted up a blue sphere for me. They cradled it
carefully on a piece of plastic camouflage netting they
stole from a dead Marine's helmet and smooshed it
into my face, thank Christ. I went from zero to sixty
in 1.2 seconds, and I actually felt human and alive
again. Meanwhile, Whack and Sniff rounded up all
the unexpended rounds of ammo they could
Days passed--it sure seemed like days, but maybe
it was "really" only a few microseconds--and I was
already in the habit of drawing a huge question mark
over any time indicator and writing subjective time!
beneath it, ever since Arlene and I started flitting
around the galaxy at nearly the speed of light. This
was just another example of relativity, I reckoned. But
it seemed like days to us, and that's all I can say: days
passed, and we were finally ready for the last descent
into the final horrific level on Phobos.
We were about to come face to face with our first
hell princes--and the gates of Moloch that led to a
whole new limbo on Deimos. I hesitated at the top of
the long, long ladder that led down nearly a kilometer
into the crust of that tiny moon Phobos. Phobos
means fear, I remembered, though I didn't know what
the significance was. "Okay, boys and girls," I said.
"Are we ready to rock 'n' roll?"
They nodded. Swallowing hard, wondering where
in this world I would find Arlene Sanders, I put a foot
and hand on the ladder and began the long descent
into blackness. Below me I heard an inhuman scream
that still, after all and everything, caused my stomach
to contract and my sphincter to clench. I recognized
We climbed down a ladder so tall I got
vertigo and almost dropped off to my death. I led, my
gaggle of monstrapostles spread above me. The ladder
was at least a kilometer long, much longer than in the
real world--if that was the real world the first time--
obviously taken from a bitter, scary, nightmarish
memory. At the bottom of the ladder was a small
open elevator--a wire cage into which we all piled. It
ground downward, scraping the walls of the shaft and
groaning in agony at carrying so many.
I started to get the shakes as the elevator led us into
the high shelf-room; below us, I remembered, was a
whole herd of pinkies. And so far, the pinkies had
turned out not to have enough brains even to listen to
my conversion speech. Maybe they were pre-verbal; I
certainly couldn't hear any language in their snarls,
grunts, and screams of rage or pain.
Sighing, I bellied up to the edge of the floor, looking
down on the churning floor that was actually a couple
of dozen pink mouths-on-legs wandering around the
room, squeezing past each other, tripping and shuf-
fling together, every so often screaming and chomping
on one another. I sighted more or less along the barrel
of the over-and-under, which didn't have a forward
sight, and squeezed off the first round. My spineys
joined in, throwing snotwads, while Olestradamus
and Dodd shot over the spineys' shoulders. Between
the seven of us, we spread pinkie guts all over the
room, leaving nothing after two minutes but the hot
quivering corpses of twenty-five pink demons.
My ears rang from the banging of the firearms, just
mine and Dodd's, but it was close quarters, and the
room echoed with every shot. The acrid stench of
fricasseed pinkie burned my nostrils and throat, but
at least they were all dead.
I hopped lightly down the shelf and onto the killing
floor. My cohorts thudded down like a herd of ele-
phants. We headed down the corridor toward the final
elevator, the one that led down to our old friends, the
Just before we got to the lift, we passed the infa-
mous crack where I'd seen Arlene's skull and cross-
bones pointing out the way she'd gone. I stopped and
stared wistfully, wishing I could see my buddy again.
Was she in her own version of the Phobos facility? Or
was she still somewhere ahead? Last time, I'd found
her in the first room in the Deimos installation, where
I jumped after finding the Gate.
This time, I turned away sadly and started up the
corridor. As I walked past the crack, a powerful
alabaster demon suddenly darted its hand through the
crack and into the traffic lanes, grabbing me by the
arm! I jerked back out of its grasp, raising my shotgun
and hissing for backup.
A vision of violence shambled out of the hole:
savage bestial eyes, tendrils red as blood atop the
head, dirt and less palatable contaminants caking the
body. I jerked my scattergun around to unload a shell
into this unholy new creature. But before I could
squeeze the trigger, the bestial shape spoke, urgently
whispering, "Don't shoot, Fly! It's me! It's A.S.!"
The perspective shifted, and I was staring at Arlene
Sanders in the flesh. When she saw the shotgun
leveled at her, she squealed like a mouse, then dove
for cover, but I was already dropping the mouth of the
weapon and rushing forward to yank her out of the
She held her shotgun half to the ready, panicked
eyes flickering back and forth between me and the
passel of imps, a zombie, and one pumpkin in my
wake. "What the--what the--Fly, what the hell is
this crap?" Arlene's face was drained of blood; she
was trying really, really hard not to simply open fire
on the "mortal enemies" at my back!
"Hold your fire, Lance. Meet . . . your new pla-
toon. Fly's Freaks." Suddenly, I thought about Dodd;
while Arlene was reluctantly approaching Slink and
the other spineys, I quietly leaned over to Dodd and
ordered him into the shadows. I didn't know how
Arlene would react; Dodd was the zombie that used to
"Jesus, Fly," she said, "you sure can pick 'em." We
held each other for a few seconds, reveling in the quiet
reunion of two soldiers deep behind enemy lines.
Then I sent Slink ahead to watch for the hell princes
and asked Arlene what she had done for the past two
days since appearing in this horrible maze.
"You're going to laugh," she gloomily predicted.
"It's really stupid."
"Hey, I've got an idea--instead of reporting on
your report, why don't you just give me your report?"
"Oh, thanks, Sweetie, pull rank. All right, but
you're going to freak."
I put my hands on Arlene's hard, almost masculine
shoulders. "Kiddo, I'm going to tear you apart like a
wishbone if you don't spit it out. Where have you
been the last two days?"
"Yes, yes, in the UAC labyrinth. But how did you
get this far? I barely did it last time--more luck than
anything else. How did you make it without a
"No, here here--right here, where you're stand-
"You appeared here?"
"On this very X."
I stared, confused. "But why? I appeared back at
"Why?" she asked, turning the spotlight back on
"Hell, I don't know! Ask the goddamned Newbies."
She smiled and turned up her hands. "How should I
know why I appeared here? I knew you only had one
way to go--down--so I figured I'd just sit tight and
wait, rather than stomp all around the place and risk
maybe passing you in the dark."
"The pinkies didn't smell you?"
She laughed, a musical tone not too different from a
silver glockenspiel. "Of course they did! They've been
up and down this freaking hallway so many times, I'm
surprised they didn't dig a trench with their feet. I just
ducked inside my hole here whenever I heard them
coming; they're not exactly light on their feet."
We looked up the corridor to where Slink hovered
at the doorway, her ear cocked for the sounds of the
minotaurs at the center of the labyrinth, the hell
princes. Even from where I stood, I heard them
screaming and growling, stomping up and down.
"They can tell there's something wrong nearby," I
whispered in Arlene's ear, "but if they really knew we
were here, I think they'd already have come charging
"They didn't charge me last time I was here, and I
made a lot of noise. Didn't notice me until I went
through that door and down the stairs. I think they
don't hear too well, and they're used to a lot of noise
from the pinkies anyway."
"But they smell something, right?"
Arlene wrinkled her freckled nose and grimaced.
"Mainly what they ought to smell is spiney! Don't
take this wrong, Sarge, but your new platoon stinks to
I looked left and right along the dank stone hallway,
stones piled on top of each other without any sign of
mortar or cement. I looked at my platoon--not as
good as Marines, sure, but could anyone do better?
"This is what you meant by saying 'Patrick,' isn't it?"
"Patrick? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Just before the Newbies sucked our brains out.
You looked at me and said 'Patrick,' and I figured you
meant to convert the monsters, like Saint Pat con-
verted the Irish heathens."
She lowered her orange brows, not following the
turn of conversation. "I said 'battery,' not Patrick,
I glared in annoyance. "You didn't mean I should
convert the demons?"
Arlene waited so long I thought she had fallen
asleep. "Fly," she said at last, patiently, as if to a
child, "how would I have known the Newbies were
going to send us here?"
"Oh," I said, face turning ruddy, "I guess I didn't
think of that."
"I said battery--find the battery, the power source.
. . . There has to be some connection, a hard connec-
tion, between the RAM we're running in as programs
and the bus, the motherboard, whatever you want to
call it; the thing that everything else plugs into!"
I shook my head. "How do you know they use that
kind of configuration in this computer?"
"I don't know, but they probably use something
like it! This intense and fast a simulation--remember
what the Resuscitators said about wanting everything
to move fast?--that sucks a lot of juice. Basically, the
faster you want to go, the more energy you need, and
it's got to come from somewhere."
"All right, so there's a power source. So what? We
can't shut it off--we'd die."
Arlene blew air out her closed lips in exasperation.
"We don't shut it off! That's our key, that's the door.
. . . If we can piggyback the datastream that defines us
inside this simulation onto that energy flow, we can
back out of this freaking place and into the rest of the
computer, maybe even into the operating system of
the Resuscitator ship."
"You think we're on the ship? Why?"
She shrugged, looking so much like Arlene I got
chills. "What else are they going to do, hang around
the rock we just left? What's Skinwalker to them? It's
probably just the nearest planetary system to Newbie
prime. Why else would they decide to come here?"
"Well . . . the Newbie we had on the Disrespect was
part of the invasion fleet that wiped out the Fred;
what if ... what if they came to Skinwalker for a
more important reason?"
"Maybe they came here in search of us?" She
stared, not saying a word, so I continued. "Maybe
they picked up some mention of us and our so-called
nonbiological status, and how much that scared the
Freds, when they annihilated them. So then they went
out hunting for us. Maybe they knew this was our
nearest base; maybe there was some record among the
"Couldn't have gotten here in time. We came on a
lightspeed ship--no message could come faster, and
there was no settlement here when we left Earth,
I shrugged. "They were on their way here, though.
Our prisoner said so!" Arlene slowly shook her head,
eyes closed, then she massaged the bridge of her nose.
No question, this really, truly was my buddy; every
mannerism was exactly right. The Arlene Sanders in
this computer world wasn't just an alien program
designed to fool me: somehow, the Res-men really
had built a device that sucked her soul out and
trapped it here. Until I had found her, I had my
I stared up at Slink, who looked tense but not
frantic. Evidently, the gruesome red fiends were still
agitated but hadn't yet decided to investigate. "Hey
Lance, you really want to charge through that door
and fight the hell princes?" I asked.
"Not particularly, Fly-boy."
"How's about we set the spineys and the zombie to
making this crack wide enough for all of us?"
Arlene raised one eyebrow--an expression she had
practiced night and day for months because of some
television character who did it. "Highly logical, Cap-
I recoiled in horror. "Good God, don't commission
me as an officer! Officers have to go to college, and you
know what I think of college grads." She ought to; I'd
only spelled it out a thousand times! See, at Parris
Island, I was an assistant DI when I first made
corporal. You give a recruit an order, and even if he
doesn't understand it, he will, by God, run off and try
to do something.
But Gunnery Sergeant Goforth used to be a DI over
at Quantico in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate
School, and he told us that when he gave an officer
candidate an order that the kid didn't understand, he
would stand there like a dummy and try to clarify it!
"Sir, this candidate does not understand the drill
instructor's order!" Gunny Goforth went bugfreak
trying to get the candidates to do something, any-
thing, anything but just stand there and discuss the
The gunny especially hated, when he gave an order,
the sort of rummy way the candidate would just say
"sir?"--with a look of utter bewilderment--like he'd
never even heard of such a command. Like no one had
ever heard of such a command . . . like nobody in his
right mind would ever dream of issuing such a bizarre
command! "You falkin' piece of shee-it! Just falkin'
pick up th'falkin' FOD off'n th' falkin' RUNway and
don' falkin' say another falkin' 'SIR,' or I's gone to rip
your falkin' HAID off and YOU-rinate down yo' neck!"
Gunny Goforth was from South Carolina, and his
hatred of college-educated officer candidates was leg-
It was the college education; I was morally certain
of it. They say college teaches you how to think, but I
think it really teaches you how to jerk gunnery
sergeants around by the short hairs.
I whistled very low, catching everyone's attention. I
set Olestradamus to guard the door instead of Slink,
and all the spineys--and Pfc. Dodd--came forward
to tear down the wall, or enough of it that we could all
escape the way Arlene did last time. I'd deliberately
kept him in the shadows. I wasn't sure how Arlene
would react to her former lover, now zombie.
I wished I could have softened the blow somewhat.
Maybe I handled it all wrong. When Arlene saw
Dodd, she turned white, paler than usual, so much so
it was easily visible in the gloom. She fell back against
the wall and started hyperventilating, staring at him.
This wasn't the first time she had seen Dodd as a
zombie. We caught up with him the last time on
Deimos, just after jumping through the Gate--the
same Gate that was just outside the crack we were
working on. That time, he shambled out of the
blackness ready to blow us apart, reworked so thor-
oughly he didn't even recognize his once and future
I was sick back then, sick at heart. I knew I would
have to kill the SOB, and Arlene would hate me
forever, and hate herself for hating me when I only
did what I had to do. But a miracle happened, the first
one I'd seen on that trip, but not the last. Arlene
suddenly found it inside herself to shove me out of the
way and kill zombie-Dodd herself; that way, she
couldn't really hate anybody.
It was a hell of a thing for her to do, one of the
reasons I love her so much, my best bud. Now . . .
what did this mean, now we had Pfc. Wilhelm Dodd
as one of our crew? But a Dodd who not only didn't
remember sleeping with Arlene and loving her, but
also didn't remember being killed by her. But Arlene
remembered, God help her. She remembered killing
her boyfriend. She blew his head off and watched the
body topple like a dead tree.
"Christ," she muttered beneath her breath, closing
her eyes and turning away. "Christ, Fly. Did you have
to run into . . . into him?"
I didn't know whether Albert made it easier or
harder. She had thought she loved Dodd until she met
Albert Gallatin. But maybe her feelings for Albert
were colored by what she'd done to Dodd, and what
we all were sharing: the destruction of our planet and
our entire race. At least, I knew those thoughts were
firing through her brain; if I could think them with my
limited mental capacity for speculation, sure as hell
Arlene was obsessing about them herself.
She swallowed the emotions down and became a
Marine again. Dodd wasn't Dodd; he was a zombie
. . . and now a platoon member. She did what she had
to do. She was a U.S. Marine--semper fi, Mac.
The spiney imps got busy ripping away at the
masonry; Arlene and I tried to help, but human hands
simply weren't strong enough to do the dirty work.
We caught stones as they fell and lugged them away,
trying to make as little noise as possible; the pinkies
were damned noisy as a rule, and the hell princes
should be used to the noise . . . but still, the last thing
We almost, damn near made it. Slink and the other
spineys--Whack, Swaller, Sniff and Chomp--used
their iron nails to grind away at the crack, scraping
stone away. It was already wide enough for me and
Arlene (and Dodd, of course), and nearly so for the
imps, but the pumpkin Olestradamus was a big prob-
lem: I snapped my fingers until I got his--her?--
attention and gestured it over. "Can you deflate?" I
asked. It didn't say anything but looked puzzled. "I
mean, is there any way you can suck in a little at the
sides, like, and squeeze through that crack?"
Olestradamus floated closer to the hole and stared
through it. The pumpkin had not yet spoken; I only
knew I had converted it by the fact that it no longer
opened its mouth and spat lightning balls at me.
This is how the scene happened: we'd been battling
the pumpkin in a small room, Slink and Chomp and
I, taking cover behind a stone couch built for some
gigantic monster with a really hard butt. While the
pumpkin floated to each corner of the room, firing
lightning balls at us from every conceivable angle, we
screamed out our spiel about the simulation. I almost
bit my tongue in half when Slink shouted out,
"Masssster sshall produce miracle! Then you sshall
know!" It wasn't exactly like I could just close my eyes
and envision a vase of flowers appearing in the middle
of the room! What was I supposed to do, suddenly
"remember" that the water in the fountain was really
Sure, kid, sure, that would be great . . . only it
didn't work that way. I couldn't "remember" some-
thing so totally different because my real memory got
in the way. Maybe if I were one of Arlene's religious
teachers, the ones she was forever reading about--
Bodhisatvas, something like that--maybe I could
perfectly visualize a Fredworld where pumpkins were
only beachballs, imps were crash-test dummies, and
the pinkies all wore monkey suits and served cock-
But I was just Flynn Taggart, and I had too good a
memory to play that game. Alas, I remembered just
how bad-tempered the pumpkins were . . . and this
one was proving how damned good my memory was
with every electrical belch. I wished that somehow
Sears and Roebuck had been transferred with me; I
sure could have used those gigantic Magilla Gorilla
arms to pop that overinflated monster.
And then an astonishing thing happened. While the
pumpkin was floating around the blue-glowing room,
with flickering light from several shredded light tubes,
it managed to wedge itself into the small space
between the stone couch and a shred of illuminating
panel on the ceiling. Trying to extricate itself, the
pumpkin managed to rotate so that its mouth was
pointed directly skyward.
Then, in frustration, seeing us in the corner of its
peripheral vision, so close, touching distance--the
dweebie pumpkin fired a round . . . directly up into
the powerful circuitry. The short-circuit in the light
tube must have acted like a capacitor, because there
was a violent spark-flinging feedback loop, and the
pumpkin ended up taking a jolt that must have been a
hundred times the amperage of its own lightning,
judging by the acrid smell of ozone.
The zap scrambled every neural circuit in the
pumpkin's brain. It must have blown through all of its
metaprogramming, letting me reach right down into
the deepest part of its brain and convert it on the
spot--like it had seen God directly, that's how it
responded. I turned it, we became friends. Turns out
the things can talk, they just don't have much to say
(too full of hot air, hah hah). Their voices are at the
extreme low end of the frequency range of a human
ear. Olestradamus sounded like Darth Vader played
on a tape running half-speed.
But now I waited expectantly for Olestradamus to
answer. After a long moment staring out the crack, it
rotated to face us and sadly said, "N-n-no. C-c-c-ann-
n-not fit." I wondered if I had the only pumpkin who
stuttered, or if that were a racial characteristic of all
Olestradamus rotated to return to its post and
froze: standing in the doorway was a hell prince. The
freaking thing had finally decided to go upstairs and
check on the weird silence . . . and with amazing
foresight, it had chosen the exact instant that the door
The hell prince recovered before I did. It raised its
arm and fired a blast of the greenish energy beam
from a wrist launcher. But Olestradamus was faster! I
wouldn't have believed it possible; I'd never seen a
pumpkin move so quickly. But it was in between us
and the hell prince fast enough to catch the blow
meant for Arlene.
Olestradamus screamed in rage and pain, and re-
turned fire with the lightning balls. I turned back to
Arlene. "Move your gorgeous ass, A.S.!" Unceremo-
niously, I grabbed her by the butt and scruff of the
neck and propelled her through the hole, dumping her
face-first a dozen feet down into what sounded like
"Slink, Whack, Chomp, Dodd--punch it, through
My apostles squeezed through the gap, which was
almost wide enough for a spiney, and followed Arlene
to the ground. I hoped to hell she had shaken off
enough daze to roll put of the way before the two-
hundred-kilogram spineys dropped on her head.
I leveled my shotgun, we were at such close quar-
ters, and tried to get a shot around Olestradamus, but
the pumpkin was too fat, too round! It and the hell
prince were going at it--well, I was going to say fang
and claw, but I guess it was actually mouth and wrist
launcher. God, but the two races must have hated
each other. But why? I remembered seeing hell-prince
bodies lining the walls of one pumpkin chamber and
dead deflated pumpkins strewn about the floor of
another hall owned by hell princes. I guessed the only
two creatures that hated each other more were steam
demons and the spidermind.
They were both pretty torn up. Olestradamus
blocked the entire passageway, and the hell prince
effectively filled the doorway, which was a good thing,
because I could just glimpse the second hell prince
behind the first--but he couldn't get off a shot around
"Come on, forget it!" I bellowed. "We're through.
. . . Pull back and hide--convert your brothers!" But
Olestradamus didn't hear; it was too busy teaching its
mortal enemy what it meant to incur the wrath of a
And then I heard the sound I most dreaded: the
flatulent noise of an inflated pumpkin popping, meet-
ing its airy doom. Olestradamus collapsed into a
huddled heap of rubbery flesh on the floor. It belched
no more lightning.
We had our first martyr on the holy quest to punish
the false ones.
I stepped back into the shadows of the crack. The
stupid hell prince had gotten so fixated on killing its
race enemy that it had entirely forgotten about me
and the rest of the crew. It staggered forward, obvi-
ously ninety percent dead on its feet.
I was happy to supply the missing tenth. As it
crouched unsteadily over the body of our loving
Olestradamus, the most intelligent inflated floater I
had ever known, I raised my duck gun and unloaded a
shell at point-blank range into the hell prince's tem-
ple. I only wished I still had the beloved double-
barreled shotgun I had carried through the entire
campaign on Earth.
I guess Olestradamus must have torn up the hell
prince more than I thought. I expected the creature to
be hurt; but hell, one just like it had taken a shot
directly amidships with a rocket, for Pete's sake, and
lived. But this one didn't; it dropped heavily,
groaning . . . and ten seconds later, it was dead, green
blood and gooshie brain goo dribbling out its head.
The other came charging out, but it was too late; I
stepped back once more, launching myself through
the crack and down about five meters to the wet peat
below. I fell hard, stunning myself. As I came back to
consciousness a moment later, I found I had made a
giant-size mud angel.
The hell prince stood at the crack and tried to fire
through it, but we ran under the overhanging piece of
building, completely unhittable. Thank the devil our
intrepid imps hadn't made the hole any bigger; the
hell prince was only just barely too big to fit.
Arlene steadied me, and I told the crew what had
happened to poor Olestradamus. Arlene made the
same point about him, her, it being a martyr, and I
explained the concept to Slink for later processing to
the other apostles.
Above us was sky, horribly enough; we had come
down more than two kilometers through the solid
rock of Phobos . . . and here, at the bottom, directly
overhead we saw the stars! It made no geographic
sense, but, of course, it didn't have to--it was nothing
but computer software, after all.
Across the field, I saw the raised platform that was
the Gate. I pointed. "Well, men, I hate to say it, but if
we're going to find that power source, we'd better get
the hell off Phobos."
Arlene raised her eyebrows, then shrugged. "Well,
sayonara, Phobos. And I was so looking forward to a
more extended visit."
Yeah, right, A.S.
Marines are like cats. They sleep lightly, half
an eye peeled for charlie, sniffing the air like a huge
carnivorous tiger that's always hungry. They can fall
asleep standing up, in zero-g, during reentry, even
while marching on the flipping parade ground. Don't
ever try to sneak up on a Marine; Jesus the Anointed
One walking on the water makes enough racket to jerk
a Marine awake from a sound sleep. And when a
Marine wakes up, he's on his feet in one fluid move-
ment, rifle in hand, fully alert in less time than the
fastest microprocessor takes to execute a single
Except me, that is. Fly Taggart wakes up not
remembering his own name, bleary and groggy, eye-
lids glued shut with little pieces of sleep. I stagger like
one of the Fred-worked zombies with a mouth full of
cotton, inarticulately begging and pleading for some
life-giving coffee. Usually it takes two recruits and a
burly Pfc. to slap some sense into me in the morning.
This time, it took a scared lance corporal. Arlene
snapped me out of my coma by the simplest possible
means: she started kicking me in the ribs, gently at
first, getting harder and harder, until at last I blindly
reached out a meaty ham-fist and caught her ankle in
mid-kick. Without waking more than halfway, I
jerked her off her feet and snarled something about
not tickling a man when he's trying to get some Z's.
Then I blinked awake. I sat up on a blue-specked
dirt patch overgrown with clumps of sharp, brittle,
blue grass that seemed to undulate, though I couldn't
quite tell for sure. Arlene picked herself up, brushing
the dirt from her uniform and rubbing her knee.
"Damn you, Sarge!" she stage-whispered. "I was just
trying to get up quietly."
Taking my cue from the lance corporal, I kept my
own voice low. "What the hell is going on? Last thing
I remember, I was strapped to a table and the New-
bies were trying to suck my brains out with a vacuum
I stared around. Arlene and I sat atop a small hill
that faintly rippled. In the distance, I saw the human-
built ship, the Disrespect to Death-Bringing Decon-
structionists. It was even smaller than I imagined,
utterly dwarfed by my memory of the Fred ship. I
would still love to see them side by side, though. The
Disrespect looked far sleeker and more elegant.
In all other directions was a flat plain, broken only
by immensely tall thin trees. They swayed so easily,
though, in the faintest air current, that maybe they
were just very tall grass.
Blue was the color of the day. I knew for a fact that
the desert we had walked across from the Fred ship
was brownish gray, with not a trace of blue. I bent
down and looked close at the ground: the blue specks
that colored the entire terrain were actually tiny bugs!
Almost microscopic insects swarming over
everything--over me and Arlene, even. I cringed for a
moment; I've always hated bugs. But there wasn't
anything I could do about it, and I didn't feel any
pain. Alas, even Ninepin had deserted us. I had no
idea where he had got to, but he was gone, the
inadvertent little traitor.
"Yeah, I know. You can't even brush 'em off; they're
too small. I figure they must eat microbes, so maybe
they're not all bad."
"Arlene, where the hell are we?"
She shrugged. The blue critters in her bright red
hair turned her head purple. "Near as I can deduce,
Fly, the Resuscitators tried to suck our souls out; my
nose still hurts like hell."
Now that she mentioned it, I realized my own
sinuses felt like some combat engineer was cranking a
hand drill inside. "But we're still here--I think. Do
you feel any different?"
She shook her head. "Nada. Whatever kind of soul I
had before, it sure feels the same now." Then she
turned her head and squinted in the direction of the
ship. "On the other hand, would we even know if it
I started to stand, but she put out a hand and held
me down to a crouch. "Fly, they're down there,
bottom of the hill."
"Your converts--the fourteen still left alive who
didn't despair and get reinfected. Sears and Roebuck
are down there, too--their bodies. The freaking New-
bies killed them to shut them up--they wouldn't stop
arguing about them using the machine, and then
when the Res-men started sucking out your soul, S
and R actually attacked them!"
"Jesus! Kill anyone?"
"I couldn't believe their strength. Their little legs
spun like a gyroscope . . . you know how they chug so
fast, their legs are just blurs? They dashed around the
room at high velocity, breaking necks and crushing
skulls with those powerful Magilla Gorilla arms of
theirs. It was beautiful!"
"How many did they get?"
"At least eight Res-men murdered while they stu-
pidly tried to aim their shots. You can't hit something
moving that fast by aiming at it!"
"You got to lead it."
"Yeah, but which way? Sears and Roebuck kept
changing direction so fast, I thought I was looking at a
UFO! So finally one of the Res-men must've got an
infusion of brains from the Newbie molecules infect-
ing her, she grabbed a laser cannon and just held the
trigger in while she swept the beam back and forth
across the room, fast as she could. Did you know
Klave can jump like mofos?"
"They can probably run up the walls, with the
speed they're capable of."
"But she finally got them. Cut the boys down on the
I blinked. Man, I'm out for five minutes, and look
what I miss! It was like going out for popcorn, and
when you get back, the giant ants are already devour-
ing Austin. "Christ, then what?"
"Then they finished with you like nothing hap-
pened, and they started on me, and I woke up here. I
was lying next to you, but you were stiff as granite,
even though your heart was beating and your lungs
breathing. I figured you were brain-dead . . . and I
guess that's what Tokughavita thought."
"How do you know they're all down there?"
"How do you think? I'm Marine Corps recon.... I
crawled to the edge of that ridge and reconnoitered.
They're all down there in a circle--looks like they're
performing some sort of shamanic ritual. They're
bobbing their heads like pigeons."
I crawled as quietly as I could to the ledge she
indicated and looked down on our converts. I recog-
nized the overcaptain and several of the boys. "Sha-
manic ritual? Jeez, Arlene, they're praying. Haven't
you ever been to church, you heathen?"
"That's what I said, a magical ritual." She
squirmed up beside me. I couldn't help smiling, she
felt so good. "Wonder what the hell they're praying
I stared at her, exasperated. "Probably for the safe
return of our souls to our bodies, you moron."
She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "Man
. . . are you trying to tell me that stuff works?"
"Worked this time, I reckon. Come on, babe, let's
go down and scare the hell out of the natives." We had
nothing better to do, so we rose and descended
majestically from the mount. When we were almost
down, one of the converts shouted and pointed; his
mouth moved, but no words came out. In three
seconds, the rest of them had scrambled to their feet
and were staring silently, stunned and awed.
I stopped where I was and spread my arms. "Be-
hold," I declared. "I have risen from the dead. Let
this be the reward for your unwavering faith!" I felt a
prickling in the back of my neck. I didn't dare look
up.... I knew what it was: God the Angry Father was
glaring at me for my blasphemy. But it was in a good
cause! We had to keep their level of faith high, so if
there were any molecular Newbies floating around,
they couldn't get a toehold. Somehow, strong faith,
faith in anything, seemed to stop them. Maybe it
created some sort of chemical imbalance? Hell, that
was for the college creeps to figure out. I just wanted
to fight the bastards!
Toku and the Converts--didn't I see them at
Lollapalooza?--swarmed us like locusts on a wheat
field, and Arlene kept pushing them back so they
wouldn't mob me. "Chill, chill, you clowns! Get your
asses back over the line--I want you to stay at least
four paces from me, or I pull out the nutcracker!"
The two of us got them simmered down enough for
Tokughavita to tell us what happened after Arlene
and I were killed. "Didn't know what to do," he
explained, turning up his hands. "Said you were dead,
souls gone. Believed--saw no signs of life in eyes!"
"I don't get it," I said. "Did the thing work, or
"Took bodies down from tables. Resuscitators gave
them to us, said they were meat only, no further use.
Cast us out, said we were unfixable, ruined. Called
faith ruin and fatal flaw in operating system."
I smiled. I could just imagine the Res-men's frustra-
tion. Suddenly, they were locked out of what had been
their comfortable home, the human mind, for the last
God knows how long! If I were any judge of character,
the bastards were really running scared now. "So
they're still in there?" I nodded at the ship.
"Yes, master, still present, but cannot get at them.
Activated all ship's defenses."
"So he drove out the man."
It was a sweet voice. . . .
"And he placed at the east of the garden of Eden
Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every
way, to keep the way of the tree of life."
I turned to Arlene, nonplussed. "I didn't know you
knew the Bible."
"I, uh, I don't. I just know that verse. I must have
heard it in a movie or something."
"Activated launch sequence," continued the over-
captain. "Ship launches in thirty minutes. Should get
to cover, otherwise we'll be burned black."
The other remnants of the Fearsome Flies grabbed
all their stuff and bundled it up, but I caught myself
wondering: if Arlene and I hadn't awakened just then,
would these goofs have sat right there, while the ship
launched and burned them alive? I winced at the
thought; they had faith, but I obviously needed to
work a bit on the common-sense aspect of religion.
We stood over the bodies of Sears and Roebuck.
From where I stood, the wounds didn't look all that
bad . . . but where I stood was a million klicks away
from the medical lab on the Disrespect. Yet we
couldn't just leave them there! If their bodies were
burned, not only would their spirits be irrevocably
lost, left to wander the barren dunes and blue bug-
covered plains, but they would feel every microsec-
ond of the incineration . . . and they would re-
"Jeez, Fly, that was a hell of an act of bravery on S
and R's part. I mean, here we are, hundreds of light-
years from the Klave homeworld. They must have
known the odds were slim to none that we'd be able to
resuscitate them." Arlene crouched, staring cau-
tiously at Sears and Roebuck, unlikeliest of heroes.
An idea was starting to germinate in my brain.
"Toku, you guys got a hovercar or landrover or
something down here?"
He looked puzzled, scratching his chin. The hirsute
overcaptain desperately needed a shave; he was start-
ing to look like a chimpanzee balancing on its hind
legs. "Don't know. Different department."
Yeesh, here we went again with the ultraindividual-
ism! I gathered them around us in a circle. "All right,
you proto-jarheads, did any of you drive a vehicle off
that ship?" Silence, many heads shaking.
Arlene put her hand on my arm. "Excuse me, Sarge,
you're not asking that right. May I?"
I waited a moment, eyes flicking back and forth,
then I grunted assent.
"Dudes," she began, "did any of you see a vehicle
on the dirt here?"
Instantly, half a dozen hands went up. The crew-
men started talking all at once, but they quickly
compared stories and pointed along the axis of the
ship, heading aft. "About three kilometers," ex-
plained the overcaptain.
I wanted to strangle the entire lot of literal doof-
uses! Drive it off the ship . . . Jeez! I glanced at Arlene,
who said, "Come on, Fly, you know which of us is the
"Take off, kiddo, and for God's sake, make it the
fastest 3 K you've ever run. Wait, which of you is
really fast?" Every hand shot skyward. I rolled my
eyes. These guys were worse than the natives on the
island where everyone either always lies or always
tells the truth! "Look, I know each of you is the fastest
SOB in the outfit ... so every man point at the second
I had fourteen converts: six pointed at one guy, four
pointed at another, and the other two pointed at each
other. The two winners were startled by the sudden
attention and didn't point at anyone. "Right, you and
you, follow Corporal Sanders. Move out!"
I sat down to wait, trying my damnedest to look
completely calm and patient. In reality, I was about
ready to chew the heads off a bag of ten-penny nails.
I was still waiting in exactly the same posture,
having forced myself to be utterly still, when Arlene
and the boys "drove" up twenty-one minutes later in
a hovercar. By then, everyone was nervously sneaking
peeks at his watch--except Overcaptain Tokughavita,
the only man with utter, absolute faith in me. He
knew I wouldn't let them down, even if I had no
control whatsoever over the search for the land cart!
The cart was pretty similar to the one I'd used on
Phobos a couple of centuries ago, except it was big
enough to collect a few tons of samples. The cart was
huge and blue: ten meters from stem to stern and two
meters wide, with a foldable gate around the bed. It
liked to sit about six meters above the deck, maintain-
ing altitude with some sort of air-jet arrangement,
instead of the fans that levitated the land carts on
Mars. The engine looked complex, and it was totally
exposed, not even a cowling; I couldn't make head or
tail out of the guts. It was nothing like the fan-levs I
had taken apart in the Pendleton motor pool a few
years and a couple of stripes ago.
An engineer named Abumaha was watching the
ship, and he announced that the tail had begun to
smoke. That meant we had all of three minutes before
the ship blasted into orbit.
"All hands, throw everything onto the land sled,
don't worry about the order--move!"
Arlene and I took personal charge of the bodies of
Sears and Roebuck, carefully laying them atop a nice
soft pile of clothing and coats. The boys (including
two girls) leapt aboard, just as the tail of the ship
suddenly turned too bright to look at with the naked
eye. The Res-men had fired up the fusion reactor.
"Arlene," I said softly, "get us the f out of here,
She jammed on the throttle, and I was hurled to the
deck. One crewman almost tumbled out the back, but
Tokughavita caught him by the hair and the scruff of
his neck and hauled him back aboard. One minute
later, we were already half a klick away . . . and the
darkening sky suddenly lit up as bright as a dozen
suns. The Disrespect was launching toward orbit.
We ran fast, faster, but the Shockwave caught up
with us nonetheless. It rocked the cart so viciously
that Arlene backed off the throttle and pulled up to a
halt. Good thing. With the second jolt, I was hurled
out of the land cart! I hit the ground heavily, too
stunned to stand, but not too stunned to laugh at
Arlene's attempts to settle the hovercraft onto the
ground to pick me up.
The ground shimmied and shook beneath me, so I
stayed on my butt, my back turned to a fusion
reaction bright enough to burn out my retinas in a
millisecond. At last, she got the thing onto the ground,
scooped me inside, and headed away again. Behind
us, the ship cleared the lower atmosphere, and we
stopped hearing the roar of exploding gases around
the engine nozzle, hot as a stellar core. "Where to, O
Exalted One?" Arlene asked.
"Where do you think? Back to the Fred ship so we
can repair Sears and Roebuck. If any two can figure
out a way off this rock, they can. And Arlene . . .
change drivers, huh? I wouldn't mind getting there
"No, no, saw them! Saw you in computer."
Overcaptain Tokughavita was struggling to convince
Arlene and me that the Res-man soul-sucker really
had worked as advertised.
"But we're not in the freaking computer," ex-
plained my lance with amazing patience, for her.
"We're sitting in this stupid hovercraft, listening to
your drivel about us being sucked out of our bodies
and plopped into a computer."
Tokughavita groaned, leaning his head back and
raising his arms in perhaps the most prototypical
human gesture of them all--cosmic frustration.
"Then who did see? Saw both of you in computer,
fighting monsters right out of book."
"Book? What book? What the hell are you--"
"Knee-Deep in the Dead and Hell on Earth," I
answered for the man. "The books that Jill wrote.
They're talking about the monsters that the Freds
genetically engineered for us on Phobos and
Deimos--you know, the spiney imps, steam demons,
spiderminds, boneys. All the things that made life
Arlene stared at me, mouth open. "We were fighting
steam demons? In the computer?"
The wind was harsh but not strong enough to blow
me down again. The driver had cut the speed, now
that the Res-men had lifted off in the Disrespect. The
guy was a convert named Blinky Abumaha who used
to be a fusion technician, damned useful if we were
ever going to get off the rock. I stood up, facing
toward the front, my face rubbed raw by the mini-
gale, kicking up sand so fine it felt like a bad sunburn
as it pocked my skin.
"Arlene, leave him alone. I think Toku is telling the
honest truth. . . . The damned thing really did work."
"Come again, Fly-boy? Maybe when you fell out,
you landed on your head."
"It really did pull our soul out . . . but the Newbies,
who are driving this technology revolution, they don't
know any kind of soul but their own--the standard
soul in the galaxy. They only know the so-called
biological soul, like Sears and Roebuck have, the kind
that sticks around like a ghost in the body even after
"You saying we have a different kind of soul?"
"It makes sense, doesn't it? A.S., we're the only
creatures in the galaxy who can die . . . and we're the
only creatures who have anything like faith. Of course
our soul works differently!"
"So you're saying when they used the machine . . ."
Arlene faded away. I turned back, and she had her
hand over her mouth, eyes wide behind her goggles.
"I think you figured it out," I said softly.
"Fly, the machine duplicated our souls! There really
is another version of Fly and Arlene out there, and
they've got us back fighting the Fred monsters again.
Oh Christ, those poor--ah, I was about to say--"
"Those poor souls. Go ahead and say it, A.S. It's
literally true." She spared me the echo, and I couldn't
get more than a grunt out of her all the way back to
the Fred ship. In fact, my lance seemed lost in
thought, not even staring at the fascinating scenery,
klick after klick of barren gray-brown desert, the
monotony broken only by sand dunes that flowed
visibly across the surface, blown by the wind. The
sand was so fine, it acted like a fluid . . . like ocean
waves in slow motion.
"Bullet for your thoughts," I said, as the gigantic
Fred ship, torn into pieces by the crash landing, hove
"You can't figure it out?"
"I'm not a mind reader, Corporal."
"You can't add the Newbie device to Albert and get
"Five? Five what?"
She shook her head, and I felt like a total idiot.
Obviously, she was seeing something, but damned if I
could guess what. "Come on, Arlene, you're the sci-fi
gal here, not me!"
She put her hand familiarly on my knee. "Later,
I tried not to think of her hand sliding farther up
my leg, but my body refused to cooperate. She must
have somehow felt my mood; she removed her hand
and snuck a quick glance southward. "Jesus, Fly,
what's got into you?"
"Just thinking about the shellback initiation on the
Bova," I lied. "When you came out in the pasties and
g-string, you really gave me a woodie."
"Really? Cool." She smiled, then chuckled. "Re-
member the look on Albert's face? I thought he was
going to call me the Whore of Babylon! 'Get thee
behind me, Satan!'"
"Hmph. You ought to quote the real Bible, if you
have to quote something."
"You mean the Catholic Bible?"
"Imprimatur, nihil obstat. The very same."
"All right, so how does the, ahem, real Bible say it?"
"It's not in the real Bible, of course."
Arlene rolled her eyes and muttered some dark
blasphemy. And then we were there, at the gaping
mouth of the Fred ship, the aft end of the final
forward piece. Blinky Abumaha drove the hovercraft
right inside the crack, forward as far as he could
through the wrecked empty cargohold where we had
whiled away many simple hours training and shooting
at imaginary Freds. Then he parked the car, and we
all piled off and started hoofing it forward, "through
caverns measureless to man."
We pulled short at the first medical lab we found.
During the time we had spent on the ship, the weeks
heading toward Fredworld, then the weeks we fol-
lowed the spoor of the Newbies to this barren place,
Sears and Roebuck had finally, reluctantly, showed us
a little bit about working the various machines and
devices. I wondered if they realized that their own
lives would someday depend upon how well they
taught, how closely we observed?
We slapped their bodies up on a pair of tables, and I
took my first really close look since we found them
dead in the circle of apostles. One of them--don't ask
me which--had a deep but cauterized beam wound
across the chest. Cause of death: severe trauma to the
left heart, severing of the greater and lesser aortae.
The other Klave in the pair had beheld a beam in
his own eye. (I had no idea whether anyone else had
picked up a mote.) The thin beam fired straight
through his retina into the head. "You know," I said,
pointing at the wound, "that shouldn't have been
Arlene looked incredulous, so I explained it to her.
"Klave don't keep their brains in their heads; it's
under the stomach, here." I tapped the point of the
triangle formed by the Magilla Gorilla body, just
above the stubby legs that could work so fast the
human eye couldn't even see them.
"Well," she said cautiously, "did he maybe die
because the other one died?"
I shrugged, nodded. "I can't imagine one dead, one
alive; maybe they couldn't either."
I felt for pulses in all the most likely spots. Neither
gorilla was alive by any test I could think up on the
spot. "Come on, you apes," I said, "you wanna live
Only Arlene laughed. I guessed that two hundred
years hadn't treated Mr. Heinlein kindly. We folded
up the massive arms of the Klave with the heart and
aorta damage and shoved him into one of the ma-
chines, the one that was supposed to repair the gross
physical damage in major organs. If we could get
them up and relatively functional, they could proba-
bly take over the finer points of surgery themselves,
stuff like the eye damage and the numerous burns and
The machine looked like a huge chest of drawers,
with the bottom drawer big enough for a Fred, which
meant nearly enough for a Klave. We managed to stuff
the hairy gorilla into the thing anyway, but I was
almost at the point of severing one of the arms and
letting Sears or Roebuck reattach it later. Fortunately,
it didn't come to that. S and R might be totally ice
when it came to mutilating bodies, but that wasn't
taught in Light Drop Combat Tactics School.
I twisted the dials in the upper left drawer to
indicate "circulatory system"--the Freds used visual
icons, fortunately, since I didn't speak Fredish--
while Arlene cycled through a seemingly endless cata-
log of different species, looking for Klave. "Jeez, Fly,
there's no end to them! It's like that party scene at the
end of that stupid movie, The Pandora Point, where
six million different aliens swarm the place, and Milt
Kreuger has to make them all cocktails he never heard
She almost selected one version, but I pointed out
that the most distinguishing characteristic of the
Klave was that they were always paired. The icon she
found showed only a single entity--"you can't tell me
the Freds don't know that much about the Klave after
six million years of warfare!" So she continued the
cycle, and eventually she found the correct species--
as I predicted, even the icon showed them doubled.
"Okay, we ready to rock 'n' roll?" I asked.
"Hit it, Tiger."
I took a deep breath and punched the button
marked with a large up-arrow; it turned from blue to
yellow. The devil machine began grinding and scrap-
ing. I shouldn't have been surprised. It was Fred
technology, after all, so of course it sounded like a
brake failure at the end of the universe.
When the bellows finally stopped pumping and the
Jacob's Ladder stopped sparking, the go button
turned back to blue. A pale wisp of smoke curled from
the bottom drawer, and I heard a muffled yelp. Arlene
and I wrestled the drawer open. Inside was a living
Klave, blinking rapidly and trying to focus his eyes.
Arlene unlatched the side of the drawer, and either
Sears or Roebuck tumbled out onto the deck.
The overcaptain and the other converts stepped
backward at the sight of the mighty Klave. Evidently,
they had never seen one this close before we showed
up, and they were still nervous about the massive
arms, barrel chest, and tiny squirming legs. The
patient staggered to his feet, staring around in confu-
sion as if looking for something he had lost.
He spied it and ran to the other table, making
peculiar whimpering noises deep in his throat. He
ignored me and everybody else; he had eyes only for
the other member of his pair. I started to worry. If this
was how Sears (why not?) was going to behave, how
were we going to ask him to repair Roebuck?
Then a miracle happened. I was getting pretty used
to them by then. Sears (if it were he) stared so hard at
Roebuck's still form that the latter suddenly sighed,
coughed up some blood, and spontaneously came
back to life. "Well," I said, "it makes sense in a
perverse sort of way: he pined away from loneliness,
so now he comes back to life for company."
We withdrew, all of us, and allowed the Klave a
couple of hours alone together. Overcaptain Tokug-
havita kept us riveted with a blow-by-blow account of
our mighty battle against the Fred-designed genetic
monsters for control of Earth.... I got utterly bored
after the first five minutes. Either Jill got everything
wrong or the overcaptain's reputation for a steel-trap
memory was a PR scam! But Arlene found it fascinat-
ing, and respect for an officer, even one who thought I
was the Messiah, forced me to sit quietly while he
talked and talked and talked and talked. When he
finally finished, Sears and Roebuck were fully cured
and together again, and I was damned well informed
on the subject of my own exploits a couple of centur-
I called a huge conference of all eighteen of us.
Sears and Roebuck began formally introducing them-
selves; I watched with great amusement while they
kept isolating every possible pair of converts (182
possibilities, according to Arlene) and reintroducing
themselves, only to be utterly confused when one of
the pair would insist they had just met. But I called a
halt, so we wouldn't spend the next six years on
"Boys--and girls, sorry you three--we're stuck on
this rock, and there are two huge problems relating to
that: first, unless we want to die here, we have to
rescue ourselves; but, second, much more important,
we have a mission to accomplish--we have to get
after the Resuscitators and stop them from invading
Earth, or, failing that, defend Earth from their inva-
sion. Any suggestions?"
Everyone looked at his brother. At last, Sears and
Roebuck gingerly raised a massive arm each. "Um, I
can get I know a way up to orbit, but not farther
"How can you get us up to orbit?" asked Arlene, my
personal Doubting Thomas. "You're not saying you
can get this pile of dung to fly, are you?"
"Certainly not! But I can get I know a way up to
orbit, and it's with the escape-ship pod."
I frowned. "You mean there's an escape pod on
board? Powerful enough to boost us to orbit?"
Sears and Roebuck looked at each other, possibly
"laughing" at my poor English. Klave were very
arrogant about their language ability.
But Arlene was stuck in her cynical mood. "What
the hell good does that do us? So we can get to orbit--
yippie ki-yay. Then what?"
Overcaptain Tokughavita leapt up. "Battle fleet!
Can take battle fleet from People Armed to Repel
"People armed what? What is that?"
"Is moon of this planet; moon is artificial, contains
many and many interstellar ships."
"Jesus Christ, Toku, why didn't you bother to
mention this before?"
"No use," he explained. "Fleet inside moon, not on
planet surface, like us. Irrelevant."
I stood for a long moment, simmering. When I
spoke, it was the cold, quiet, reasonable tone of voice
that sent shivers up and down Arlene's back. She
knew what it meant. "Men, I'm going outside, find a
steel ventilation grate, and kick it to shreds. I'll be
It wasn't just that latest round of idiocy; it was the
entire setup. Was there ever anyone more put-upon
than I? I found the grating, raised my boot, and gave it
about six killer gruesome whacks, like Lizzie Borden
with the ax. When I finally limped inside, I felt much
When I returned, feeling cleansed, I issued the
necessary orders: "Sears and Roebuck, get that escape
pod ready. Toku, Abumaha, you guys know how to
unlock the ships and fire up the engines? Good, get
your trash ready, then assist the Klave, if they need it.
Arlene, ah, keep an eye on everyone else."
"Gee, thanks a lump, Sarge."
"That's the price of being a junior non-com. When
you get everything ready and you're set to go, you'll
find me in the forward engine room, looking for Fred
bodies to kick around."
The Freds, it turned out, were not as crazy as their
architecture suggested. They were very protective of
their own safety, like the other races of the galaxy who
expected lifespans in the hundreds of thousands or
millions of years. In fact, they built life pods into their
ships every few hundred meters! We had our choice of
not one but three different escape pods, even in the
section of Fred ship remaining intact.
Sears and Roebuck led the expedition along the
outermost corridor of the ship. It was a royal pain: the
Fred boat was never meant to sit on the surface of a
planet; they figured it would always remain in orbit
. . . hence, there was no provision for walking on
what amounted to the ceiling of the ship! Everything
on the ventral side was smashed beyond repair, of
course, by S and R's creative landing, and the dorsal
side was all upside down.
We jumped and banged at the hatch-open lever for
what seemed like forever, and I ended up slipping and
cracking my kneecap against a dead light tube that
was supposed to descend from the ceiling, but now
stuck up from the deck. Finally, S and R reluctantly
hoisted Arlene up high, holding her face up against
the hatch with their Popeye arms, while she worked
all the crap to cycle the now-useless airlock.
We hoisted ourselves up and inside. It was a hell of
a tight fit; it was meant for about five Freds and was
stuffed like a comedy sketch with eighteen of us
(including two gigantic Klave, much bigger than the
Freds even in their seed-depositing stage). We
swarmed over one another like termites; now, if it had
been me and seventeen girls, I could get into the
possibilities. But I detested making inadvertent con-
tact with other males, so I pushed myself into a corner
and just observed.
Sears and Roebuck clumped up to the driver's seat,
walking over people like they were rocks across a
stream. They both squeezed into the side-by-side pilot
and co-pilot chairs and started flipping levers and
The interior was very podlike: spherical, uncom-
fortable, dark and metallic, stuffed with nav equip-
ment. It smelled like a mixture of machine oil and--
sour lemons! Shades of Phobos and the zombies. One
entire end was taken up by a huge bulge poking
halfway to the center of the pod--probably the engine
"Preparing yourself for taking immediately off!"
Sears and Roebuck warned--and without giving us
even a moment to do so, they pushed the button.
The whole freaking pod exploded. That's what it
felt like when it detached from the ship--a huge gut-
wrenching explosion. People and gear flew every-
where, and something really hard creased my cheek.
Arlene screamed, but it was more a yelp of surprise
than pain or agony.
We rose like a bullet. As soon as we cleared the ship
and started to fall back, Sears and Roebuck rotated
the pod and kicked on the chemical rocket engines.
They accelerated at only a couple g's, enough to get us
moving. My God, but they were loud! My entire body
pounded, thumping at the resonant frequency of the
frigging engines. I couldn't hear a thing--the noise
was beyond hearing. I plugged my ears (everyone
did), but it didn't help much.
Then the Klave flipped on the big boys, the fusion
drive, and we roared away from the desert planet at an
even eleven g's. That was the end of my reportage.
The humans all passed out, and by the time Sears
and Roebuck revived us, we were coasting in zero-g--
my favorite!--in a mini-Hohmann transfer orbit to-
ward eventual rendezvous with the tiny artificial
moon. Sears and Roebuck piloted like apes possessed,
cheerfully informing the assembled multitude that
"we should make able the moon just before out of
running of reaction mass! Good damn chance!"
Their quiet understated confidence was starting to
keep me awake nights.
We hit the moon at "dawn." Dawn is a
location on the moon, not a time. It's tide-locked, so
each lunar day is an entire lunar cycle of fourteen
days; you can't see the terminator creep, as you can on
Earth if you stand on a mountain and look east across
a plain (at the equator, the Earth's surface spins at
about sixteen hundred kilometers per hour, a thou-
sand miles per hour: circumference of the Earth
divided by twenty-four). But the moon, smaller than
Deimos, had an atmosphere! In the two hundred
years since we'd been gone--or a hundred and sixty,
actually; the moon was built forty years before and
named People Armed to Repel Invasion, henceforth
PARI--we humans cracked the secret of the gravity
generators we found on Phobos and Deimos, the one
final secret of the First Ones that no one else had
figured out in millions of years of trying . . . but was
it our achievement, or the Newbies'? When did they
PARI had a gravitational acceleration of about 0.4
g, enough to hold a thin breathable atmosphere. God
only knew who built the original gravity generators
around Sol and the other star systems; it was one of
the biggest mysteries about which the Deconstruc-
tionists and Hyperrealists were fighting--somehow
the cause of the split, or one of the causes, if we could
believe Sears and Roebuck! But still, neither Arlene
nor I had a clue why . . . something about schools of
lit-crit and eleven freaking story fragments.
The damned moon was deserted, like a ghost min-
ing town in Gold Rush country. "Where are all the
people?" I asked.
Tokughavita answered, unaware of the volumes his
response spoke. "Joined ship when arrived, left with
us to surface." He had just admitted that the humans
abandoned their post! There was only one reason they
would have done that: the crew of the Disrespect had
infected them . . . or vice versa.
We had to walk slowly across PARI. The atmos-
phere was about what it would be three-quarters of
the way up Mount Everest, and even a slow walk left
me panting and dizzy. The apostles weren't bothered;
they said they had been "rebuilt" for greater lung
capacity, among other things. Arlene and I exchanged
a look. So that was why we'd had such a damned hard
time trying to take down Overcaptain Tokughavita! I
started to wonder uneasily what their lifespan was:
they were super-strong, probably immune to most
normal nonintelligent diseases, and engineered to
survive on alien worlds . . . and they worshipped me
as a God?
I hoped I never disappointed them. Men don't take
kindly to fallen idols.
It felt bizarre to be walking across an artificial
moon the size of a cue ball, feeling gravity almost half
that of Earth. Directly ahead a couple of klicks was a
tall tower. Only the top half was visible over the
horizon. The rest of the surface of the moon was a
jagged series of black and white stripes, like digital
zebra paint; I couldn't see any other structures--but,
of course, the entire moon of PARI was one gigantic
We made it to the tower from our touchdown point
in just over three hours. The tower was actually three
towers connected by numerous spans of metal
ribbon--bridges I sincerely hoped I didn't have to
pass, since they had no visible guardrails and were
plenty far enough up to kill me if I fell, even in the low
"We, ah, don't have to climb up there, do we?" I
"Not up," he insisted. "Going down. Going down
to battle fleet."
"Fly," Arlene said, "you know what those towers
are? They're elevators! You can ride them up out of
the atmosphere, or most of it.... Am I right,
She and the Blink-meister had gotten quite chum-
my lately; I was already getting nervous. "Yeah, yeah,
right up!" he agreed with sickening enthusiasm. "Go
up, fast, fast, make nose bleed!"
"Some other time, kids." I felt like my own father
twenty years ago.
We reached the base of the middle tower, and
Tokughavita walked up and--I swear to God!--
pushed the down button to summon the elevator, like
it was a high-rise in Manhattan instead of a tiny
artificial moon orbiting an alien rock. We waited
thirty-five minutes by my watch, while the floor
counter slowly climbed through the negative numbers
toward zero. When it reached that magic middle, the
monstrous doors before us, big enough to drive an
upright Delta-19 rocket through on its rolling launch
pad, cranked slowly open to admit our party of
eighteen. I felt distinctly underdressed; I should at
least have been wearing a ten-story robot construction
virtu-suit. Tokughavita scanned the array of buttons
and finally pushed the one labeled C, with a little icon
of a dot in the center of a circle--core, I presumed.
My adrenaline level skyrocketed just before we plum-
We started descending slowly, but within a minute,
we were accelerating downward so close to the gravi-
tational pull that our weight slacked off to about one
percent of normal, just enough to keep the soles of our
boots touching the elevator floor. We dropped sicken-
ingly for close to forty-five minutes, so I guess the
elevator hadn't been all the way down when we rang
At last, we started slowing hard. I was almost
kicked to my butt, and Arlene actually did hit the
deck with a thud. It was three g's at least! We stopped
hard and fast in about five minutes, but we'd been
toughened by our ship travels and we didn't black out.
Sears and Roebuck took the acceleration in stride,
literally: they kept pacing up and back, impatient to
see the "battle fleet" that Tokughavita talked about. I
figured this must have been close to the normal
gravity for a Klave.
When the door cranked open, my breath caught in
my throat. Before us was a mind-numbingly vast
hollow sphere in the center of the moon, so wide in
diameter I couldn't begin even to guess its size. It was
crisscrossed by hundreds of thousands of striped
tubes--catwalks, presumably, connecting different
"Beware," said the overcaptain. "Is zero-g beyond
elevator. Center of mass."
A tube beckoned directly ahead of us. I bravely led
the troops forward, my stomach pulling its usual
flippy-spinny trick as soon as we left the gravity zone
and entered weightlessness.
Tokughavita wasn't kidding about the human battle
fleet. There were dozens of ships strewn around the
inside of the hollow moon, too many to get an
accurate estimate. Some were as short as the ship that
just took off; others were longer than the Fred ship
we'd hijacked to Fredworld. The nearest was about
one and a half kilometers long, I reckoned. Blinky
Abumaha pointed at it and said, "Damn fast ship that
is, nearly fast as ship we left."
"Nearly?" I got worried. I knew what that meant.
He nodded vigorously. "Damn fast. Get us to Earth
only twenty days behind infested ones, counting ac-
celeration time, if leave now."
Twenty days! I figured that meant about a two-week
acceleration up to nearly lightspeed and deceleration
to match Earth velocity, assuming the Disrespect
could get up to speed and back down in three or four
days each way. Jeez, a lot can happen in twenty days;
to the Newbies, it may as well be forty years, at the
speed they evolved. "All right, ladies and gentlemen,
let's haul butt over to the ship and stomp down on the
It was an easy "trek" to the nearest ship, provided
you had a boatload of patience. Fortunately, that's
one lesson you learn double-time in the Corps. No
matter how fast we get our butts out of the rack and
into our combats, pull on about a ton and a half of
armor, lock and load enough ammo to sink a
medium-size guided-missile frigate, and bounce out
to the helo pad for a quick barf-bump to the rocket,
sure as hell some 0-6 forgot his coffee cup or bis
inflatable seat cushion, and we have to stand by six or
seven hours while everyone from second-louie to
short colonel turns the camp upside down trying to
You know how to move as quickly as possible along
a zero-g tube, don't you? You line yourself up as best
you can right down the centerline and give a shove
off'n one end. Then you wait. If you're lucky, you get
a good long trajectory down the tube until you hit a
side wall. If you didn't aim too well, you crash in a
couple of dozen meters. Either way, you have to find
something solid to brace against and do it again. The
stripes along the tubes turned out to be metal bands
with footrests to kick off from; somebody was think-
ing ahead . . . probably a non-com; an officer
wouldn't have the brains.
I got used to seeing Pyrex glide past me on all sides,
like I was a fish swimming through a glass sewer pipe.
It only took us a couple of hours for the first guy, me,
to make it all the way to the ship, but we were all
spread out, and it took another thirty minutes to get
back into a clump. I won't say into a formation,
because the "Jetsons"-era clowns under my command
didn't even know the meaning of the word.
Turned out our little "reindeer games" on the Fred
ship were good training. Arlene was especially grate-
ful; she shot me a look of thanks when she cleared the
transfer tube as "tail-end Charlene." This really
wasn't her forte.
The ship we picked was long and strangely thin. I
worried a bit about feeling cramped since we would
be in it for five months. It was shaped basically like a
dog bone, a klick and a half long but only a hundred
meters in diameter; the endcaps were bulbous, giving
the ship that "bone" look: one was the thruster, the
other the feeder turbine for the scooped hydrogen.
Damn thing was cramped inside. The corridors
were mostly crawlways, and they were kept at 0.1 g,
according to Blinky Abumaha. The cabins faced off
the crawlways, all of them long and squeezed, like a
bundle of pencils. Well, what the hell; we were beggars
here, shouldn't get choosy.
Inside, pale teal predominated with orange trim--a
decorator's nightmare. Arlene liked it for some weird
reason, possibly just because it was about as far as
could be from a Fred ship. I discovered that if I wore
red sunglasses, they matted out the blue of the walls,
making the effect odd but bearable. We dogpiled into
the place and started examining controls, instru-
ments, and engines.
Six of the fourteen had flown one of these types of
ships before, and between them and the networks, we
got the engines hot. The only problem was we didn't
have anywhere to go! I couldn't see a hole in any
direction--and neither could the radar.
I grabbed Tokughavita by his uniform lapel. "Okay,
smart guy, how do we get out of this thing?"
The overcaptain rubbed his chin. "Was afraid
would ask question. Not sure, must consult mil-net."
He typed away at a console for a while, frowning
deeper and deeper. By the time another hour had
passed, I had to forcibly restrain him from ripping
the terminal out with his bare hands and heaving it
through the computer screen. The damned thing was
command and menu driven--and Tokughavita didn't
know the query command and couldn't find it on any
of a hundred menus!
Arlene and I went on a hunt, trying to find the rest
of our crew, who had scattered to the four winds,
pawing through every system on the ship to find the
stuff they knew. I snagged eight and Arlene got the
rest, but no one had a clue where a tunnel was or how
to open it up if we found it. They had all flown on
these sorts of ships before, but none of my platoon
was a starship pilot! I cursed the miserable Res-men
for not being soft-hearted enough to leave us Ninepin
at least! Traitor or not, he was a useful font of intel.
I dismissed most of them and called a conference
with Arlene, Tokughavita, the engineer Abumaha,
and Sears and Roebuck. "Boys--and you, too, A.S.--
there must be some kind of emergency exit here, just
in case the worst-case scenario happened, and we had
to deploy everything on hand immediately. Is there a
set of instruction manuals, help systems, officer-
training course . . . anything?"
Everyone shook his head. "I haven't seen a damned
thing," Arlene said, "and I've been looking."
"The designers wouldn't probably let such datums
loose in the ships, in the event to enemy capture,"
Sears and Roebuck suggested with entirely inappro-
priate cheer. I guessed they were happy so long as no
one was shooting at them, or likely to do so in the
We kicked it around a bit, and everyone agreed we
were all ignoramuses. Very productive meeting. Now
I knew why officers got the big bucks. But something
had been tickling the back of my brain through the
whole useless disaster, something somebody had said.
I ran back the conversations in my mind . . . and
abruptly I realized it was something I'd said: I'd
mentioned Ninepin. If only we had him--he knew
everything, though his loyalty was a bit questionable!
"Arlene, you remember what Ninepin said about
how long it took to build him?"
"Now that you bring it up, I think it was something
ridiculous, like four or five hours, wasn't it? Fly,
you're not thinking of trying to build another one . . .
We stared at each other, struck by the same
thought. "Toku, you remember that big green ball that
followed us around?" I asked. "What was that?"
From across the table, the overcaptain, who had
zoned out and was looking out a porthole and picking
his teeth, jerked back to attention. "Big green ball?
Oh, yes, was Data Pastiche. Had it installed, hoped
would pick up information about ancient human
"Yeah, yeah, and it reported back to the Res-men
about us. Are these Data Pastiches common? Would
we find one on this ship, maybe?"
Tokughavita shook his head. "Never saw before.
Was prototype. Never used, don't know how."
"Who would know?"
"Man who built."
I sighed in exasperation. "Well, who else, since the
man who built it isn't here?"
Tokughavita looked puzzled. "Is here. Is Abumaha
Blinky. Didn't know?"
Arlene had been half listening, bored as the rest of
us, but she jumped into the conversation with both
feet. "Abumaha built the thing? Our Abumaha?"
"Our Abumaha, Sanders-san." Tokughavita slicked
back a patch of hair that insisted upon curling around
I leaned over and shook him awake, describing
Ninepin, but Blinky didn't have the faintest memory
of building it! "Must jolly well have been under spell
of Resuscitators, pip-pip."
I spread my hands helplessly. "Well, did you take
any notes? Draw schematics?"
Blinky's face brightened. "Maybe, maybe, Jack!
Kept data stack from way back, maybe used from
force of habitat." He disappeared, reappeared ten
minutes later in high excitement. "Yes, yes, is on
nodule, damn good lucky!" Sears and Roebuck seized
the interval in between to escape with their lives.
I gestured to the engineering lab and we sealed
Blinky Abumaha inside. The other five who knew
engines prepped the ship.
Nearly a day passed, but there still was no word
from Blinky. When I knocked, he muttered some-
thing incoherent and refused to come out, not even to
eat. Sears and Roebuck had completely disappeared
into the bowels of the ship--God only knows how
they even fit through the passageways!--but they
must have found a cabin far away, because we didn't
see them again for the rest of the trip.
The ship was fully set, waiting for the command,
when finally the scuzz emerged, rank and disheveled,
and rolling out behind him was . . .
"Ninepin!" Arlene and I shouted simultaneously.
The little bowling ball was crystal-translucent this
time, not green at all. It said nothing, merely rolled on
past, right over my toe, to a console that controlled
the compression field for the hydrogen--and inciden-
tally interfaced the ship's mil-net. Ninepin II bumped
into the bottom of the console again and again until I
picked it up (it allowed me to do so) and placed it
directly onto one of the nodule sockets. Ninepin
glowed brightly for nearly an hour.
"He's downloading the entire freaking ship!" Ar-
lene whispered in awe.
Then it stopped and announced, in a peevish,
irksome voice, "Have finished inloading. Please re-
place on deck."
I picked him up and put him down, squatted over
him, and started the interrogation. "Ninepin, do you
know where the tunnels are to escape from this
"No," he said succinctly.
"We can't get out?" Arlene demanded. "You mean
we're stuck here forever?"
"Can get out, not stuck. Not tunnel, emergency
I leaned over the ball. "Okay, Ninepin, listen
closely. I have more seniority than anyone else in the
service, so I'm in charge of PARI. I need to know how
to activate the emergency escape separation. Now
how do I do it?"
Everyone--all the humans and Sears and Roebuck
were still MIA--leaned close to hear the answer, but
Ninepin wanted to verify my authority. "Taggart
Flynn, born 132 BPGL; joined service 113 BPGL;
time in grade, 263 years. Seniority confirmed. Rank:
sergeant; command nonauthorized, higher ranking
We all turned to Overcaptain Tokughavita, who
turned red under the attention. He cleared his throat,
looking at me.
"Toku," I said, "why don't you give me the au-
He inhaled deeply, looking from one anxious face
to another. Then he seemed to deflate, nodding in
acquiescence. "By powers vested in me by Commons
of People's State of Earth," he intoned, "hereby
commission Taggart Flynn Lieutenant of Citizens of
State." My mouth dropped open, but Tokughavita
wasn't finished. "Hereby . . . resign own commission
and resign Party membership." He looked defeated,
The scream heard across the galaxy was my own.
Despite it all--though I smashed the idea down a
dozen times when some Fox Company chowderhead
would suggest it, and ignoring my feelings in the
matter--in the end, the damned Marine officer corps
got its claws into me after all! My face turned purple
with anger, and Arlene laughed her butt off. "So what
is your first order, Lieutenant?"
Still flushing, I barked, "Nothing to you, Edith!"
This provoked a new round of laughter from Arlene,
so I gravely repeated my order to Ninepin: "The
emergency escape separation, activation!"
"Separation initiated at Lieutenant Taggart's or-
der," announced the damned bowling ball. I swear,
when I become king, all Data Pastiches will be
Nothing seemed to happen. We sat around the table
looking stupid until suddenly Arlene glanced out the
viewport. "How cow! Fly, c'mere, you're not going to
I leaned over her shoulder, stared out the porthole,
and gasped. The entire moon was splitting in two! A
crack formed in the wall of the great central lunar
chamber our ship was trapped in. It grew wider and
wider, and soon I could see stars through the crack. In
the space of fifteen minutes, the two hemispheres of
PARI pushed apart from each other, connected by a
thousand telescoping pylons. The connecting tubes
snapped off like reeds in a storm. Of course, all this
destruction and horrific shifting of forces happened in
utter silence, since there was no atmosphere inside
the hollow sphere.
The PARI moon base cracked in half like a planet-
egg, the two pieces rushing away from each other at
107 kilometers per hour, according to the radar
tracker. We waited impatiently--it would be at least
two hours before they had separated far enough to
risk a straight-line barrel-run with the ship, newly
christened the Great Descent into Maelstrom by
Blinky Abumaha . . . and the Solar Flare of Righteous
Vengeance Against Enemies of People's State by
Tokughavita. I planned to let the two of them duke it
out for control of the history books.
I sat in the captain's chair--we had one, despite the
weird individualistic streak of our communist apos-
tles, not quite as iconoclastic as the Freds--with
Ninepin on my lap, stroking his smoothness as I
would a puppy's fur. He didn't object; he didn't take
any notice until he was asked a question. I suppose I
may as well have been petting a network terminal, but
I had developed an affection for the talking bowling
ball. Sure got me in trouble a lot, but then so did a
"My God," I said for about the millionth time. It
was all I could think, watching the enormousness of
the engineering. "I hope Sears and Roebuck know
what they're missing."
"Oh, they're probably watching and pouting from
their stateroom. Yeesh!" Arlene leaned over and
asked Ninepin the question that I should have asked
minutes before: "Who built this place? Was it human-
"Not symbiots," said Ninepin. "Human construc-
tion. Mission launched nine years before People's
Glorious Revolution, construction begun in year 96
PGL, completed 142 PGL. Disrespect to Death-
Bringing Deconstructionists assigned to PARI lunar
base launched year 13 PGL."
"My God." This time it wasn't me; Arlene was the
inadvertent petitioner. I was too busy wondering how
many other far-flung human bases there were . . . and
what terrifying aliens were following them home.
"Wait," said Arlene, "that's too long.... We're
only 107 light-years from Earth. How come it took the
Disrespect, ah, 137 years Earth-time to get here?"
"Disrespect to Death-Bringing Deconstructionists
stopped at following ports of call between Earth and
this system, designated PM-220: planetary system
"Skip it," she said. The names wouldn't mean
anything to us anyway.
At last, although the moon continued to split apart,
we had a clear enough path to the stars. I suggested
that Blinky could probably pilot the ship out of lunar
orbit, and he decided I wasn't an idiot and throttled
up the engines. I wasn't sure I liked this system: I'm
used to giving and getting orders, not having a philo-
sophical discussion whenever we needed to move. But
it had its advantages: every man and woman in the
armed forces was capable of acting entirely
autonomously--a whole military full of Fly Taggarts
and Arlene Sanderses, no matter what silly political
ideology they espoused!
There was no hurry. The ship would take many
days to ramp up to speed, then an equivalent number
to slow down. In between, we had five months of
subjective travel time--five months! I thought about
complaining, writing a strong letter to the manufac-
turer. But the weird fact of proxiluminous ("near
lightspeed") travel was that notwithstanding our sub-
jective travel time of five months, vice the seven weeks
for the Res-men, both trips would take just about 107
years in Earth-time, with us lagging only about
twenty-five minutes behind. If it weren't for our
twenty-nine days of acceleration vice only six days for
the Disrespect, we would arrive while they were still
maneuvering into orbit.
But with that damned acceleration factor, the New-
bies would have a three-week jump on us. I shuddered
to think what they could do in twenty-three days to
poor abused Earth, still reeling from the three-
generation war with the Freds when Tokughavita and
his crew left.
There was no hurry, but my heart was pounding,
my pulse galloping a klick a minute. It was all I could
do to sit in the command chair and act, like, totally
nonchalant, like I did this sort of thing every day:
jump in my proxiluminous-drive starship and pursue
molecular-size aliens who wanted to infect all of
Earth and "fix" us!
"Hey, Tofu," I said. He didn't notice or didn't catch
the reference. "So when did the Resuscitators find
you guys and infect you?"
Tokughavita looked pensive. "Do not know. Been
trying to clarify. Were not symbiots when left People's
Planet, sure of that."
"Don't you remember?"
"No memory. Remember actions, not when in-
fected by Resuscitators--may not have noticed if
turned off sensory inputs. Long before landed at PM-
220, rebuilt engines en route, went over ship systems
with hand of history."
The overcaptain didn't know, or the aliens had
blocked it from his mind. They left Earth 137 years
ago Earth-time, but they had visited many other
planetary systems and bases before arriving at this
one. The molecular Newbies could have infected the
humans at any port of call along the way.
Arlene and I discussed it in private. "So what did
happen to them?" I asked. "They left Newbie-prime
in a ship, attacked Fredworld--then what? What
happened to their ship?"
She shrugged, making a nice effect with the front
part of her uniform blouse. "Search me." (I wouldn't
have minded.) "They must have headed here, but I
don't know why or how . . . Jesus, Fly--maybe they
didn't set out for Skinwalker; maybe they only ended
up here later. Remember, it was forty years that the
dead Newbie was on Fredworld. . . . Plenty of time
for them to meet humans somewhere, change their
course, and send out a general Newbie alert to tell all
their buds where they were going." Arlene stood at the
porthole, watching us drift slowly toward the crack.
She spread her arms wide, stretching and almost
touching the bulkhead on either side, so narrow was
We kicked the idea around a bit, but really there
was no way to settle it. Some questions must remain
I returned to the bridge when we approached the
edge and forced myself to sit still and not bounce up
and down like an orangutan in a banana factory.
Blinky Abumaha piloted the ship about like I fly a
plane: we didn't actually crash into anything, but it
wasn't for lack of trying. By the time we finally found
a big-enough hole that Blinky could make it through
without scraping the sides--about seventy
kilometers--my jaw ached from clenching it, and my
lips were like rubber from the frozen half smile I had
maintained. I was surprised my armrests didn't have
finger marks on them. But we finally, by God, made it
out of the PARI moon--intact.
Blinky slowly burned the engine up to 104 percent,
the highest it was rated, and Sears and Roebuck
entered in the relative coordinates, direction and
distance, to Earth. We kicked the puppy into over-
drive, and the huge boot of massive acceleration
slammed us all back against the aft bulkheads. Sud-
denly, I wasn't sitting in my chair; I was lying back,
like in a dentist's office. . . .
I skip five months.
Oh, all right, I can't completely skip it. We spent the
coasting time training in every tactic of the Light
Drop that Arlene and I could remember, plus any-
thing we missed that the Glorious People's Army had
developed . . . some pretty hairy tactics involving
scanning lasers and enemy eyeballs, life-stasis projec-
tors, crap like that.
Sears and Roebuck had nothing to offer. Either the
Klave had long ago given up actual physical fighting--
which I doubted after hearing Arlene describe their
performance among the Res-men--or else they just
weren't very personally creative in the mayhem de-
partment. In any event, they sealed themselves into
their stateroom again, and I didn't dare force it open
for fear I'd find the walls papered with everything
from nude pictures of Janice De'Souza to a Chatty
Cathy doll. "Go to away!" they shouted in response to
"Skip it this time," Arlene suggested. "What do
they have to offer anyway?"
So we did. It was all right. We humans were plenty
ingenious enough for the entire Hyperrealist side.
In five months, I was unable to instill a sense of
cohesion among the apostles; they just didn't get it.
They were the most mixed-up mob I'd ever seen in
vaguely uniform uniforms. Somehow, they had a
perfect fusion of utter individuality and total commu-
nalism: they assumed that naturally the State would
provide everything that its citizens could need or
want, but they refused to accept the concept of duty to
others even in theory! It didn't wash. They kept
yammering about something called a "post-economic
society," which I figured meant they had so much of
everything that material goods were literally worth-
less; even a beggar could pick discarded diamonds off
the streets and dine on caviar every night.
I have no idea what to call that system: Commu-
Heaven? It was a chilling thought: maybe the Char-
ismatics were right, and the Rapture had come.
Maybe when I got back, Jesus would be sitting there
on His throne, wondering where we'd got to all these
This continued off and on every day for five long
months ... so I'm just going to skip it, if that's all
right with everyone. Satisfied?
We followed our course to the sixth decimal place
and decelerated to match velocities with Earth at
about six hundred kilometers low orbit . . . and fi-
nally, the damned Klave appeared! They pushed into
the bridge as if nothing had happened, slapping
everyone on the back in congratulations and pouring
around a seemingly endless bottle of some queer
liqueur that tasted like head cheese. The rest of us
were being dead serious--and here were Sears and
Roebuck tripping happily through the low-g bridge,
talking a klick a second! "Shut up, you idiots," I
snapped. "Can't you see we're at general quarters
here? Where are the damned Resuscitators?"
Where indeed? Blinky and Tokughavita, along with
a weapons sergeant named Morihatma Morirama
Morirama, had figured out how to work the particle
beam cannons, which basically were human versions
of the Fred ray. They sat, one in each cockpit, waiting
tensely for first sight of the Resuscitator ship, the
Disrespect to Death-Bringing Deconstructionists.
They waited a long time. Arlene and I sweated a
liter each standing in the control room with the
artificial gravity set to 0.3 g, 0.1 g in the crawlways:
just enough to avoid total vertigo, but still allow for
rapid movement across the ship using our special low-
grav combat tactics. We waited a long time, too.
After seventeen orbits, radiation detection sweeps
of the stratosphere, infrared examination, every
damned thing we could think of, we faced the stun-
There was no Res-man ship, not in orbit, not on the
surface. The Disrespect had not made it yet. We were
alone orbiting Earth . . . and there wasn't a trace of
our spacefaring technological civilization.
We were home, but nobody had bothered leaving
the lights on.
We broke into the outer layers of atmos-
phere. The Great Descent into Maelstrom of Solar
Flare of Righteous Vengeance Against Enemies of
People's State--my impossibly ugly compromise be-
tween Blinky and Tokughavita--nicknamed the
Great Vengeance, to make it at least pronounceable,
was a damned good ship. We flew lower and lower,
stabilizing fins and the hypersonic air-cushion keep-
ing the ride so steady that it almost seemed like a
simulator. We skimmed quickly over Asia Minor and
Western Europe, crossed England, and brushed the
Arctic en route to Newfoundland. Blinky curved our
orbit, blowing fuel like he didn't care. "Can fill damn
quick from ocean--good jolly job!"
Arlene grinned, but I didn't really like his attitude.
Sears and Roebuck were behaving even stranger.
They planted themselves at the perfect viewing port
and hogged it utterly, staring down at the planet
surface with a longing that I just couldn't understand.
It wasn't even their planet! They didn't respond to
queries, and we basically just forgot about them while
we studied the remains of the Earth.
Still no response from below. There were many
cities left, and as we got lower, they didn't look
particularly devastated by war. But everywhere we
saw nature encroaching on human habitation . . . like
all those creepy movies where the magnificent Indian
city with spires and domes is overrun by the jungle--
vines and creepers and baboons invading in the Raj's
Nobody contacted us; no ships flew up to assess us.
There was no fire-control radar sweeping the Great
Vengeance, not even any ground response. The Earth
slumbered like a doped-up giant.
So where the hell were we supposed to go?
Arlene had her own agenda. "Ninepin," she said,
"who was actually with, ah, Gallatin Albert when he
"Lovelace Jill only companion when died in year
Arlene frowned. "Didn't anybody else see the
"Body exhibited in Hall of People's Heroes 31 PGL
to 44 PGL. Body interred beneath rebuilt Tabernacle
of People's Faith of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake
Arlene gasped. I don't know why--was she still
harboring hope that she would find Albert alive and
"A.S.," I said, "I think you should accept what is.
He loved you, but he's dead. Christ, girl, it's been
something like five hundred years!"
She didn't look up. "And he was working on life
stasis when he died."
"But there wasn't even a prototype until seven
years after he died. Get ahold of yourself, Lance. Let's
get a little reality check going here." I walked to the
video screen that showed the for'ard view. "Don't you
think if Albert were still around that Earth would
have more civilization left than that?" We were cur-
rently skimming low over the Big Muddy, north up
the Mississippi River at midnight. There were settle-
ments and even lights, but no evidence of high
civilization other than electricity.
Tokughavita came up behind me and put his hand
on my shoulder. I jumped. It was the first friendly
contact from the amazingly solitary humans of the
twenty-first century. I guess he had been watching me
and Arlene--we had always tended to touch a lot, just
as friends. "World is gone," he said, voice heavy with
emotion withheld. "Where are Resuscitators? Ex-
pected they at least would be here."
I smiled grimly. "Maybe Fly and Arlene killed
"Maybe they got bored and evolved again," said my
counterpart from across the cabin. "Maybe they e-
volved into something completely different and forgot
all about us."
Tokughavita didn't seem satisfied with our left-
hand, right-hand explanations, but it was the best we
could give him. We would never know why the
Newbies never arrived--but thank God they didn't.
The Northeast Corridor was in the same condition
as the Mississippi Delta: houses, buildings, roads
intact, the power grid still working, but no evidence of
anything but habitation. "I want to go to Salt Lake
City," Arlene declared. I snorted in exasperation, but,
hell, I didn't have any better suggestion. We turned
"Toku, what was life like when you left?" I asked.
He seemed at a loss for words. "People taken
control of State from greedy-capitalists, run for good
He said greedy capitalists as if it were a hyphenated
word, a linked concept. "You what--nationalized the
"Industry run for good of all. But so efficient,
"For the workers?"
He looked puzzled. "No workers. Work old con-
cept, not modern. Workers abolished before People's
Now I was the confused one. "Wait a minute--then
who ran the industries?"
Toku looked back at Blinky Abumaha for help.
"Good damn system," Blinky added. "Automated,
workers not necessary, just get in the way--jolly
Arlene started to get interested, since the conversa-
tion was taking a notably academic tinge. "So wait
... if there were no workers, then who was being
exploited by the greedy capitalists?"
This stymied both Blinky and Tokughavita. "Never
thought damn-all about exploitation. Machines, arti-
ficial intelligence . . . can greedy-capitalists exploit
I turned away. The conversation had veered way
over my head. Arlene continued, but I ignored them
all. I don't deal well with academics, as you've proba-
bly figured out by now.
We were fast approaching Salt Lake City--or Salt
Lake Grad, I remembered Ninepin calling it. It must
have been winter in the northern hemisphere; we
kicked through an overcast sky, and suddenly the
rebuilt Cathedral loomed before us. "Jesus freaking
Christ!" I yelped, freezing the economics lesson be-
hind me. Arlene and everyone else rushed to the
video, then to the actual viewports, evidently not
believing the image on the screen.
The new Cathedral of the People's Faith of Latter-
Day Saints rose about six hundred stories into the
Utah sky, a veritable Tower of Babel! It had a ball at
the very top. An observation deck? A radar system?
"Jeez, Fly, it looks like a huge fist of triumph raised
over the Earth."
"Built after Freds repelled," Tokughavita con-
firmed. "Celebrates victory."
Suddenly, every warning light on the bridge went
off at once. The place lit up like a Christmas tree, and
about six different kinds of sirens sounded. "Mises!"
Blinky swore at the con. He jerked on the stick, and
the whole freaking ship swerved violently to the left
and up, flinging us all to the deck. I was pressed hard,
nine g's at least! Then the acceleration let up.
I painfully picked myself off the deck, shaking like a
pine needle in a strong wind. "What the hell was that
"Force field," said our pilot, face pale. "Damn jolly
strong. Almost killed--crash, crash!"
We circled Salt Lake Grad for more than forty
minutes, mapping the exact extent of the field. One of
the crew was a mathematician, a girl named Suzudira
Nehsuzuki; she calculated the highest probability that
the center of the field was at the Tabernacle. My guess
was that it all emanated from the bulb at the top of
the structure, more than a kilometer above ground
"Fly," said my lance. "I can't tell you why ... but I
must get inside that Tabernacle."
"Criminey, don't you think I know why? Albert's
buried there, he spent the last years of his life there.
Why shouldn't you want to see it?"
"Fly--I want to contact it."
"Arlene, do you feel all right? It's a building, for
She turned to stare at me; her eyes were filled with
the intelligence of fanaticism. I took a step back; I'd
never seen her like that! "Fly . . . what was Albert
working on just before he died?"
"Um, life stasis."
"What else did he work on?"
"What else? I don't remember anything else."
"Worked on SneakerNet," Tokughavita said from
behind me. I jumped, then was annoyed at being
startled. I sat on a chair at the radio station and stared
at the video monitor as we endlessly circled the
"He worked on artificial intelligence! Fly, I'll bet
that building has some sort of net, and it's probably
intelligent, and it's probably been sitting here for five
hundred years waiting for me to get back!"
Jesus, talk about your megalomania! Then again,
wasn't that precisely why Albert spent the last years of
his life desperately trying to extend his life, so he
could see Arlene Sanders again when she returned?
"Go ahead," I ordered, rising from the chair and
offering it to her. "Talk your brains out."
Arlene sat down and stared at the controls. "I don't
know how to turn it on," she admitted. Tokughavita
reached over her shoulder and flipped the switch.
I noticed that when he did, he snuck a glance down
her cleavage. Somehow, that made me feel better. No
matter what weirdo hybrid of communism and capi-
talism they had developed, they were still, by God,
"What frequency does this broadcast on?" I asked.
"All," Tokughavita said.
"All right, which frequencies, plural?"
"All," he repeated. I finally got the message that he
had set it to transmit on all possible frequencies . . .
though I couldn't understand how that was possible.
"Arlene to Tabernacle," she said. "Arlene calling
Tabernacle. Come in, Tabernacle."
A voice responded instantly. "Tabernacle here . . .
but how do I know you're really Arlene?" It sounded
so damned familiar that for a moment I didn't even
recognize it. Then our video monitor went to snow,
and a moment later, a face appeared. It was a face I
knew very, very well--it was her face.
"Jill!" I screamed.
"Hello, person who looks like Fly Taggart," Jill
said. "I'm not really Jill--I'm an AI program that Jill
Lovelace set up. Who are you? And who are those pair
of gorillas you brought with you?"
I glanced behind, honestly confused who she
meant. So that's how familiarity breeds contentment!
Or does it breed? "Jill, meet Sears and Roebuck--
don't ask which is which, they won't understand
you." The Magilla Gorillas simply nodded gravely,
impatient for the ground.
Her little blond girl's face simpered a bit, as kids do
when you introduce them to a new relative and
they're trying to be polite and grown up, but in reality
they haven't a clue why they should care who the new
person is. "They're a Klave pair--"
"Man! Really? Cool!" It took me a moment to
realize she was being slightly sarcastic. "Love your
store, guys. Now, if you don't mind, who the heck are
you two, too?"
"What the hell do you mean, who are we?" Arlene
demanded. "We're Sergeant Fly Taggart and Lance
Corporal Arlene Sanders, United States Marine
Arlene and I looked at each other. "How can we
freaking prove we're really Fly and Arlene?" I asked.
Jill's image smiled. "What's the password?"
I sat down again next to Arlene. A smaller televi-
sion monitor at the console in front of us showed the
same image as the for'ard video screen. "Jill," I said
patiently, "we didn't set up any password with you."
"But you know it anyways, dudes."
"It's something you said to me ... something only
you two would remember." Jill's face wasn't the aged
grandmother she must have been when she died;
instead, it was the Jill we knew from before--just a
year or so ago, from our point of view. Still, I became
so terribly homesick, looking at that fifteen-year-old's
face; she was like a little sister or something--a bratty
little sister, but still the closest thing to family I had
left, besides Arlene. Everyone else I had ever known
on Earth was long since dust in the dust.
"When did I say it?"
"You said it the first time you really trusted me.
You made me feel totally adult, like a woman. The
President of the Council of Twelve always, you know,
made me feel like a little girl.... He was totally the
Bomb, I'm not dissing him! But he always thought of
me as a kid."
I closed my eyes, straining to remember. Her first
test by fire came when we took the truck with the
teleport pad inside. Something appeared--what was
it? "Arlene, remember back on Earth, with Jill and
Albert, when we hijacked that truck? What was the
monster that teleported into it?"
"Um . . . Jeez, that goes back a ways. Wait--I've
got it. It was a boney. We killed it, but it shot its
rockets and just missed you, Jill, honey."
The Jill image shuddered. "Yeah, I remember that!
And you're right. . . . That's when you said the pass-
word to me. Remember, Mr. Fly? Remember what
you told me after the rockets went on either side of
Damn it all to hell--I didn't remember! I remem-
bered saying something . . . but what was it? I shook
my head sadly.
"Look," Jill said, "let me cheer you up with a little
game. You ever play Charades?" I nodded dumbly,
and she continued. "I'll start: you watch and guess the
phrase I'm thinking of."
The camera pulled back--or the animated image
shrank--and we saw a full-body shot of Jill. She held
up four fingers. I wasn't sure what to do, but Arlene
said, "Four words." Then Jill held up one finger, then
one again. "First word . . . one syllable."
Jill frowned like an angry mother and pointed
savagely to the side. "Point," I guessed. "Look, look
"Leave, get out of here," Arlene suggested.
Jill kept pointing. "Leave, go away, go--"
Jill smiled and pointed at us with both hands.
"First word is Go?" I asked. Jill nodded emphatically.
She held up two fingers, then one touching her
elbow. "Second word, one syllable." I was starting to
get the hang of the game. Then Jill really threw me for
a loop: she slapped her waist, pantomiming drawing a
pistol and shooting someone.
"Shoot!" Arlene shouted. "Draw, fire, stick 'em
"Pow, bang--ah--gun, bullet, gunfighter.. .."
Jill touched her ear. "Sounds like," Arlene mut-
tered. Then Jill stuck her thumbs into the shoulder
holes of her sleeveless shirt. "Shirt?" I guessed, and
Jill rolled her eyes.
She touched her ear again, then closed her eyes and
smiled blissfully. "Sounds like nap?" Arlene asked.
"Sap, map, crap--"
"Sounds like sleep! Weep, heap, teep . .."
"Teep?" demanded my lance. "What the hell is a
"It's where indies sleep," I griped.
Jill was getting frantic. She finally pointed at her
ear, waited a beat, then pointed at herself. Arlene
muttered, "Sounds like . . . pest?"
Jill almost yelped with satisfaction, but she kept her
mouth shut, just pointing at Arlene. "Pest?" asked my
lance. "Go pest? Go pester? Go best?"
Suddenly I jumped to my feet--I remembered!
Dramatically, I stabbed a meaty forefinger at our
long-dead companion. "Go west, young lady!" I hol-
The image of Jill moved into extreme close-up on
her mouth. "You have spoken the password. You now
have infinite power! You may pass, Sahib."
Blinky's voice from the back was an anticlimax.
"Ah, force field down. Good damn show, that."
"On to the Tabernacle," I suggested. "Put her down
on that bulby thing, if there's enough room--that is,
if you don't mind, Blinky." I really hated this new-
jack command and control system.
Blinky Abumaha continued to circle the Tab-
ernacle, fearsomely eyeing the bulbous tip. "Ah," he
said, "ah, not sure is--not sure sir is too damn good
idea, on the top."
Arlene and I exchanged a glance back and forth,
then we both turned the withering glare on Abumaha.
"Can I, Fly?" she asked. I gallantly gestured her
forward. "Blinky, don't take this the wrong way,
honey, but--to quote Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove,
'I've been to a world's fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and
that's the stupidest damn thing I ever heard!'"
The pilot looked simultaneously relieved and cha-
grined. "Not serious? Just jolly joke? Oh, terrible
fun--ho, ho!" He sounded genuine in the laughter,
but seemingly unsure what he was laughing at.
"Just put us down a quarter klick away," I clarified.
"We'll, um, walk the rest of the way."
We landed with much ceremony, a celebration that
continued well past the first moment Arlene and I and
Sears and Roebuck could squirm free. The Klave,
having already had their celebration when we made
orbit, disdained the party. Thank God. I didn't think
I could take any more of that head-cheese liqueur!
Finally, we wriggled off and marched resolutely
toward the Tabernacle: Arlene in the lead, pulling us
forward like an anxious puppy on a leash; Sears and
Roebuck at the tail, looking worlds-weary; and poor
Fly Taggart, Lieutenant Fly Taggart, stuck in the
middle like the wishbone. From this short distance,
less than 250 meters, the building utterly dominated
one whole quarter of the sky, looming up so high we
couldn't see the top for the weather--gray, ominous,
Suddenly, before progressing more than fifty strides
from the ship, Sears and Roebuck stopped. "Will we
be okay," they said anxiously.
"Yes, we're fine," I reassured them.
"No, no, not to ask! Will we be okay, is calling on
the telephone our uncles."
"Huh?" I scratched my head. They were making
even less sense than usual.
Arlene, savagely impatient with her goal in sight,
broke into the conversation. "Oh, wake up, Fly! I
mean, sir. They're saying they don't want to go any
farther; they want to call their uncles, probably on the
lunar base, to come pick them up and take them
My jaw dropped. "S and R, is that what you're
"In ungood typical English of Arlene Sanders is a
yes," they said.
"Sears--Roebuck--are you aware of the fact that it
has been about five hundred years since you left the
They grabbed each other's head and pumped
vigorously--frustration at my little-child inability to
grasp the obvious. "Yes, yes! Is impatience why uncles
wait with much foot-tapping for Sears and Roebuck's
I shrugged. I know when I'm beat. "So long, boys,
can't say it's always been a treat, but it's been real."
Even Arlene turned her attention away from her
true love's final resting place to smile in farewell.
"Don't take any wooden Fredpills," she said, thor-
oughly confusing the Klave.
"Has been it a slice," said the pair of Magilla
Gorillas. Without another word, they turned left and
strode off, marching in unison, subvocalizing all the
way to each other. They disappeared around a tall
ancient-looking column that supported a statue of
what looked like Brigham Young, and we never saw
Sears and Roebuck again.
We didn't speak, Arlene and I, the rest of the way to
the Tabernacle. There wasn't much to say. She knew
what she hoped to find; I knew she was fooling herself.
The building had a gigantic ceremonial door--and by
"gigantic," I don't mean just huge! Just the door alone
was bigger than the entire Tabernacle itself had been,
before the Fred nuke. But when we touched it, it
swung open swiftly and silently, and musical chimes
played us in, sounding like a chorus of angels after our
ordeal. I think they played some vocal work by
Handel, but I didn't recognize it.
The interior of the Tabernacle was hollow.
I don't think you quite got that; the building was
more than a kilometer high, and hollow. I felt like we
were in the center of a volcanic crater! Inside was a
huge city, with many temples and churches and such
. . . and in the very center, on a hillock, was an exact
duplicate of the original Mormon Tabernacle--
probably stone for stone, if it had religious signifi-
cance. Arlene pointed at the recreation. "There," she
said, deducing the obvious.
We took twenty minutes to cross to the smaller
Tabernacle within. Above us, the ceiling of the outer
Tabernacle sparkled with jewels that must be worth
nothing these days but the intrinsic value of their
loveliness; in five hundred years, I would hope we at
least would have learned how to manufacture perfect
But it was a lovely sight. The People's Faith of
Latter-Day Saints didn't use just diamonds; they
painted gigantic scenes in color using every imagin-
able stone, from rubies to emeralds to blue sapphires
to garnets and, yes, diamonds. It was no longer
ostentatious, since anyone could do it--even the
beggar in the street--but it was still stunning in its
Taking a last look up at a scene of angels showing
the Church Fathers' Salt Lake City (before it was Salt
Lake Grad), I followed Arlene into the inner Taberna-
cle. So far as I could tell, she hadn't even looked up at
Inside, the place looked exactly like the original:
exactly. I didn't check, but I'm sure if you made a
nineteenth-century stereovision with one picture of
the old and the other of the new, they would matte
over each other perfectly as one image, but with one
difference: the hollow interior of the tribute-
Tabernacle was completely empty, except for the
magnificent organ--and I'd bet the latter worked
We walked slowly across the floor, our melancholy
footsteps echoing back at us. Arlene bowed her head; I
don't think she was praying.... She must have been
overwhelmed by the nearness of her love's life--and
death. I almost put my hand on her shoulder, but I
wasn't the guy she wanted just then.
Ahead of us was a dark circle. As we got closer, I
realized it was a circular hole in the floor. A hole?
When we got to within ten meters, a grinding noise
began. By the time we reached it, I realized it was a
platform elevator . . . and there was a lone figure
standing on it, rising out of the dark depths, waiting
Arlene halted in astonishment. "Jill!" I shouted,
"Whoa, whoa!" Jill said, putting her hands out in a
stop motion. "Don't get your skivvies in a knot,
dudes! I'm not really me--I mean, I'm not really
here. This is just a 3-D projection, and if you try to
hug me, you'll fly right through me and mess up your
knee . . . Fly."
She looked exactly as she had when we left her, a
year and five centuries ago. She was a little taller,
maybe, but her hair was still blond, still punky. She
had the same half smile and knowing eyes, still no
makeup (thank God), and now she wore a bitchin'
black leather jacket, lycra gym shorts that hugged her
butt and upper thighs, and transparent plastic combat
boots. I stood and stared, and blow me down if you
couldn't have bet me two months' pay that that was
the real Jill, and I'd have taken you up on it.
"Jiminy!" she suddenly yelped, staring at us. "You
really are Fly and Arlene!"
"We told you!" snapped the latter-named.
"But I didn't believe you, even after you passed,
you know, the test thing. Now that you're in here, I
just did a genetic sample thing, and like you're really
The animated image of Jill--just an artificial intel-
ligence program, according to itself--dropped its jaw
just like the real Jill would do. She leaned over and
planted both hands on her knees to view us from a
slightly different angle. "God, how did you live for
four hundred and eighty-three years? Oh--relativity!
Arlene nodded, sniffed, then wiped her nose on her
military sleeve. "Jill, I ... look, I don't want to seem
ungrateful, in case you have any surprises, but--"
The fifteen-year-old stood tall and folded her arms,
taking on that slightly superior look that age is prone
to. "Don't worry, Arlene . . . I'm not going to throw
an animated Albert at you. I know you wouldn't
appreciate it. But I am here to take you downstairs,
where there's a present for you." She waited a beat,
then when we didn't move, she impatiently urged us
forward with her hands.
We joined her on the platform, which immediately
began to sink. I didn't ask her any questions; I didn't
know what to ask. I decided it could all wait.... I
was pretty sure we could always come back later and
catch up on what she did with her life--and get
autographed copies of the books she wrote! If she
didn't save a pair for us, I'd kill her, except she was
already long dead and buried, or whatever they did
It was a creepy thought, and I stole many a glance at
"Jill," trying not to think that Jill was dead. I felt a big
lumpy knot in my stomach, even though I had known
all along this would be the punishment for hopping
around the universe at proxiluminous speeds. Damn
it! I did what I had to do--we both did! Why, in the
name of God Almighty, do we have to pay such a
terrible price? Everyone we ever knew or loved, be-
sides ourselves, Arlene and I, was dead and gone, long
We descended for about six minutes. The shaft was
totally black . . . but at last, we saw a blue glowing
door. But we went right past it without stopping!
"First-floor dungeon," Jill announced out of the blue.
"Whips and tortures. Racks, pressings, iron cages,
and bats." She stood in a perfect at-ease posture: feet
shoulder-width apart, chest and shoulders squared
away, hands clasped behind her back.
Another long interval passed, during which we
continued to descend. I put my hand out and felt the
walls around the shaft sliding against my fingers. We
were moving slowly, not like we were in an elevator in
a high-rise, but at a stately pace ... as befitted a holy
Another door hove into view, red this time.
"Second-floor dungeon," Jill recorded. "Iron maid-
ens, thumbscrews, rat cages . . . ladies' underwear."
Arlene snorted, trying hard to look stern and not
smile . . . This was a holy place, after all!
The third floor took the longest. I swear, we rode for
twelve minutes in silence, but maybe it was shorter.
At last, a simple wooden door rolled up into view--
and at last, we stopped. The door opened, showing us
a nice comfortable hallway. "Third-floor dungeon,"
Jill impressively tolled, "ev--ery--bod--y out!"
Arlene and I stepped through, and I paused, waiting
for Jill to join us. She shook her head sadly. "Sorry,
Corporal--I mean, Sergeant--"
"Lieutenant," corrected my ever-so-helpful help-
"Really? Cool! Sorry, Lieutenant, and, um, Lance
Corporal ... all ghosts must stay aboard the elevator.
It's like a rule."
Smiling sadly, Jill faded away slowly . . . starting at
her feet and working her way upward, until at last
only the smile remained, then even that vanished.
Arlene sighed. "I always did love that book," she
said--another one of her patented, semantic-free
The hallway stretched both directions, but right in
front of us, where we couldn't possibly miss it, was a
chalk scrawl. J.L., it read, and there was an arrow
pointing left. "Jill Lovelace," A.S. and I said simulta-
neously. We followed the arrow.
There were about a hundred twists and turns, doors
to pass through. It was a labyrinth there, on the third-
floor "dungeon" below the Tabernacle! Mostly offices,
but a few looked like labs--a far cry from the tanks
and artillery pieces below the original Tabernacle, but
then, these were happier, more peaceful times. We'd
have been utterly lost without the chalk initials and
arrows--and I appreciated the reference to our first
mission: that was how I eventually realized Arlene
was still alive and how I found her.
At last, we were led to the door of a huge lab.
Through the clear window in the door, I saw a room
as vast as the inner Tabernacle above us, but stuffed
full of laboratory equipment. As we approached, a
motion detector felt us coming and opened a panel in
front of a palm-size touchplate.
Arlene and I stopped abruptly, looking back and
forth to each other. I was quite disturbed to see the
wild light of hope in her eyes. "Look, don't get your
hopes up into orbit, A.S. You know you're not going
to find Albert, so don't even think it! I don't want you
collapsing later, when you finally realize the truth."
She just looked at me, and I don't think her
expression changed a millimeter. "You going to touch
it--or should I?" she asked.
I inclined my head. I was sure Jill would have
programmed both our palm prints into the doorlock,
since both were on file in the old FBI database. Arlene
reached her hand out, hesitated a moment, then
placed her palm against the plate. I heard a loud click,
and the door rolled down into the floor so quickly that
I almost didn't see it moving.
We entered the huge lab, and the door slid up and
locked behind us. We were probably trapped until
Jill's AI program decided to let us leave. We strolled
around a bit, taking in the sight: tables, tables, tables,
full of elaborate machinery and strange swirls of
tubing; rows of tiny devices that looked suspiciously
like computers linked together into a neural network;
huge tubes big enough for humans, full of humans, I
should add, doubtless in some sort of life stasis; and
glassware everywhere . . . test tubes, beakers, flasks,
you name it--but nobody walking around tending
things. It was entirely automated.
And in the center of it all was a huge sarcophagus,
like the things they buried Egyptian mummies in. We
approached, and Arlene suddenly reached out and
grabbed my hand, squeezing so hard she almost
cracked my bones! I knew exactly who she expected to
find, and exactly who she wouldn't find in the case.
Sadly, I was right. We got closer, and it was obvious
that whoever was in there, it wasn't Albert . . . who
was, after all, about my size. The sarcophagus was
much too small.
But neither of us was prepared for what we did find:
the case contained the fifteen-year-old body of Jill! She
looked like she was just sleeping, nude and serene, but
I couldn't see her breasts rise and fall, as I would have
expected if she were breathing.
Arlene leaned over the case while I was still staring,
trying to avoid looking at parts I wasn't supposed to
look at. "Jesus, Fly!" said my bud. "It's a clone!"
"A ... clone? How do you know?"
Arlene reached over and picked up a nameplate,
handing it to me:
A prick on the finger shall make her sleep
A hundred years in dreams so deep,
Until she wakes in love and bliss,
Restored to life by a princely kiss.
We stared at Jill, Arlene and I. "Do you think it's
the real Jill?" I asked.
Arlene shook her head. "That's not how Jill would
do it. She'd want to live her life and die normally, or
at least preserve herself as an adult. No, I'll bet you
this is a clone, grown to the age she was when we left,
her brain filled only with the memories a fifteen-year-
old would have."
"Does she remember us?"
"Why not? Jill isn't cruel. She wouldn't put that
torture on us, Fly ... to know the new Jill, but not be
known, to see her as sullen and withdrawn as she was
before, after the monsters killed her parents." Arlene
reached out and gently touched the glass cover of the
sarcophagus. "Hang tight, honey, we'll come back, as
soon as we've seen the present you left us."
"Maybe that's it," I said, nodding at Jill.
But Arlene shook her head impatiently. "Come on,
Fly! She's a pest, but she's certainly not that egotis-
A booklet sat on the case, and I took it down and
skimmed it. Then I stopped and said, "Holy cow! You
know what this is, A.S.?"
I handed it to her. The title was: The Deconstruc-
tionists' New Clothes, Being the Oh-so-secret History
of the Galaxy's Most Stupidest War. The author was
Jill Lovelace, PhD, LLD, CIA, MAD.
It was a short story, but we both realized what it
really was. Somehow, Jill had managed to pry out of
someone, maybe the Klave--Scars and Roebuck's
uncles?--the whole freaking mystery that we never
could get. .. what the damned war was all about!
Yeah, right, the Six Million Year War that resulted,
eventually, in a strategic chess move by the Freds, of
House Deconstructionists, to invade Earth and kill us
by the millions. The war that had started the whole
I'm not going to quote the whole story. It was long
and pretty damned good, and I don't want Jill's
electrifying prose to make my own look lamer than it
already does. So I'll paraphrase the intel instead.
Of all the secrets Arlene and I had faced since we
first found ourselves under attack by space demons,
that was the most frustrating, the most galling ... or
to Arlene, the outright funniest: that a war could
erupt and be prosecuted for six million years between
two competing schools of literary criticism! But at last
we got the full, complete story of how it happened.
According to Jill's book, the same "First Men" who
built the Gates and the gravity zones and scattered
them throughout the galaxy left behind only one other
legacy--eleven fragments of prose.
That's it, the sum total remains of a race that was
technologically sophisticated and advanced at least
three billion years ago: Gates, gravity zones, and
eleven pieces of literature. All the races of the galaxy
in roughly our own time (six or seven million years
ago, which on the three-billion-year scale is negligible)
began to analyze these fragments--each used its own
most highly refined theories of literary criticism, but
because literary criticism is at its core nothing much
but a projected map of whatever weird cobwebs infest
the mind of the critic, naturally each race painted a
different picture of what the First Men were really
Eventually, the war of words turned ugly, and
important literary critics became casualties--not that
anyone cared much. But when one coalition, the
Deconstructionists, decided to end the argument by
deconstructing the Klave homeworld--and they
failed!--the Great Divide became law and eventually
custom, which is a billion times stronger than law. For
six million years, give or take a month, the Decon-
structionists and the Hyperrealists had been duking it
out for control of the literary forms of the galaxy . . .
and for the right to re-construct the past.
And that was it! As Arlene said when she finished
reading, quoting some sci-fi book she loved, Nineteen
Who controls the past controls the present;
who controls the present controls the future.
So ever since just around the time the first proto-
humanoids were climbing down out of the trees on
Earth and looking up at the great white light in the
night sky, wondering if it were a divine eyeball, these
ginks have been murdering each other over half the
galaxy over some artsy-fartsy, lit-crit interpretation of
eleven story fragments. Then, when they got tired of
fighting in their own backyard, the bloody-handed
Deconstructionists decided to take their college liter-
ature thesis to our lovely planet! God, this universe is
an absolute treasure. I love every centimeter of it--
I put the book back down, resisting the impulse to
fling it across the room. To hell with them all,
Hyperrealist and Deconstructionist alike! I didn't
give a damn about the stupid fragments--I had more
important fish to smoke.
We hunted around for a few minutes, and suddenly
Arlene let out a glad cry. Another arrow! J.L., it read,
and pointed at a small room.
The room had a regular door, with a good, old-
fashioned handle. I turned it and opened her up.
The room was bare, save for a single card table, dust
free. On the table was a small black box with a single
orange light showing unwinking on the side. We
crossed the space together, my lance and I, and
together we saw the single sign left on the box.
It was hand-lettered, and I recognized Jill's atro-
cious handwriting. There was a single word: Albert.
We stared. Arlene fell to the ground on her butt, but
she didn't take her eyes off the black box with the
bright glowing eye.
I didn't know what to say, so, Goddamn it, I
decided to just shut up and be a Marine. Semper fi,
Mac ... I know when I'm beat!
It was Arlene who found the Door, but Slink
Slunk was more excited than the rest of us, for she
recognized what it was. All of the rest of our
apostles--Whack, Sniff, Chomp, and Swaller, our
spineys, and Pfc. Wilhelm Dodd, the zombie--had
been created within the simulation by the normal
"monster-spawn" process that mimicked the vats and
genetic programming the Freds used to create the
But Slink was the prototype spiney; she was the
"firssst and only," as she put it, generated specially by
the Newbies inside their program environment, be-
fore the rest of the simulation was even running. And
Slink remembered her existence before the rest of the
simulation was built. The Newbies were better artists
than they realized: they hadn't intended to give freak-
ing free will to their program demons, and they sure
as hell didn't want the code to remember its own
We had searched the immediate vicinity of the star-
shaped chamber after ducking out Arlene's crack, but
we didn't find anywhere else to go but the huge Gate.
"It's me," she said, crestfallen. "I still remember the
last time, and I searched for almost a whole day
before giving up and heading through the Gate."
The ground was jagged with sharp broken pieces of
dead plant life, and the stench of sulphur almost
knocked me out. The spineys seemed to love it,
though, and even Dodd looked a little less tormented.
The sky overhead was inverted, white with black
stars; I tried not to look at it, since it gave me vertigo
like I'd never felt before, not even in zero-g.
"Fly," said my partner. "I'm trying to remember
how Olestradamus managed to escape his doom at the
claws of the hell princes. He survived, didn't he? He's
out here somewhere, waiting for us?"
I tried to "remember" it that way with her, but
Olestradamus's death was too vivid. In the end, we
both had to give it up--the poor pumpkin would have
to remain our first martyr.
Damn it! I thought. What's the use of lucid dream-
ing if you can't actually control everything? I didn't
have a good answer, so I pointed wordlessly at the
Holding hands, we shot through, then we fairly flew
through the Deimos base, avoiding traps we remem-
bered, converting a few more monsters, and killing
what we couldn't convert. We picked up a Clyde--
despite my objections that I didn't remember the
genetically engineered human with the machine gun
until we got back to Earth--three more spineys, and a
passel of zombie buddies for Dodd. We even managed
to convert a fatty, but the planet-shaped critter with
the fireball shooters where its hands should have
been, Fats Jacko, he called himself, was so overweight
that he just couldn't keep up. In the end, I dubbed
him our first missionary and sent him off at his own
pace to convert the rest of monsterland.
But before we got to the nasty spidermind at the
bottom of Deimos, Arlene finally managed to find the
She first started looking for the Door when she
remembered the three courses in program design that
she took during her brief stint in college. "Fly," she
whispered, while we crouched in the hand-shaped
gully where Arlene had killed the Dodd-zombie the
last time. "Whenever we wrote a program, we always
used to stick in what we called back doors. Maybe the
Newbies did, too!"
"What the hell is a back door?"
She licked her lips, sighting along her .45 rifle at a
lumbering pinkie. So far, it hadn't smelled us. We
weren't worried about it hearing us; they made so
much noise just walking and breathing that they
probably wouldn't hear a freight train coming up
behind them on the railroad tracks. But there were
other creatures out there with acute hearing--silence
"When you want to test some aspect of a program,
you create routines to set the various variables to,
well, anything you like."
"Ah, setting variables. More college stuff. How's
this supposed to help us, Lance?" College was insidi-
ous. You started out just to learn a thing or two, then
suddenly--wham, bam--you're wearing lieutenant's
butter-bars on your collar! No thanks. I would never
become an officer--and I would never go to college.
"You need a combination," Arlene answered. "A
password to access these procedures, but if you have
it, you can move around the software like a ghost in a
haunted house, passing right through walls and doors
like they weren't even there."
I stared at a rough rock wall to our left. "You mean,
if we found this back door, we could phase right
through that stone wall?"
"Fly, if we found this back door, we might be able
to get out of the whole simulation and get loose in the
Disrespect's operating system.
I stared at her, feeling real hope for the first time in
days--simulated days. "Jesus, Arlene! Maybe I
should have gone to university!" We both stared at
each other, shocked by the words that came out of my
mouth. "Ah, that is just a joke," I explained.
"All right . . . I'm remembering now." She stared
at a particularly juicy rock. She grunted with the
strain of "remembering" a Door. She sweated, but
nothing happened to the rock. "Christ, I can't just
visualize it from nothing!"
Too loud: a horde of imps heard and came over to
investigate. We shot them from cover while they
threw their mucus wads at us. I took a shot in the face
and was blinded again--criminey! Arlene backed
away, pumping shot after shot from the lever-action
rifle she had picked up in a storage locker in the
inverted-cross chamber on Deimos. It was easier for
her to remember the most recent weapon she actually
remembered using; I tried for a double-barreled shot-
gun, but I was still stuck with the damned Sig-Cow.
The spineys moved close enough that our own
spiney corps could open fire from the sides with their
piles of sharp rocks. The imps didn't know what to
think! They hurled their snotballs for a while until
they realized their attackers were other imps, immune
to the fire, then the enemy broke and ran.
Arlene cleaned me up with a medical kit, also
salvaged from the locker where she had found the
rifle--same place we found uniforms (but no armor)
to cover our nakedness right after the jump. Dodd
was perfectly content to wander around starkers, once
we got him a shotgun, but a red-faced Arlene ordered
him to cover himself up. Evidently, the sight of her
naked ex-lover, the one she had killed once, brought
back too many horrific memories. Bad memories
could be savage enemies in this place.
I was thinking about the Door, or lack of a Door. "I
think just visualizing isn't enough. You have to have it
really strong in your mind."
"No, I mean like obsessing about it. You have to
anticipate, salivate for it, visualize it some distance
ahead of you and hold the thought in your mind as
your life's goal all the way down there."
She sat down beside me and put her arm over my
shoulders, holding me like a frightened lover. "It's a
pretty horrible thought, Flynn Taggart. Means we
have to go deeper, doesn't it?"
"'Fraid so, A.S."
Arlene nodded slowly. "Well, that's why they let us
wear the Bird and Anchor. Okay, Fly, it's all starting
to come back to me, now. I remember where the Door
"Where is it?"
"It's three levels down. Remember that head-
twisting open courtyard with all the freaking teleport-
ers that zapped us to all the different rooms? Well,
it's--it's in the room at the back of the courtyard with
all the crushing pistons."
I struggled to remember. In the intervening months
(and thousands of monsters), it had all become a blur.
But I thought I remembered what she was talking
about. "Good deal, kiddo, just keep visualizing it.
When we get there, we'll see it--I guarantee."
I hoped I wouldn't have to eat those words, but the
only thing that might do the trick now was total
assurance on my part. Maybe it would be infectious.
Three levels down, we entered the courtyard. I
decided we had better clear the central buildings first,
which contained pumpkins, some spineys, and a hell
prince--too much firepower to leave at our backs.
With so many of us, virtually an army, we could use
real tactics. Arlene volunteered to take point, which
in this case meant she got to jump from teleporter to
teleporter, until she found the one that dropped her in
the center of the courtyard again, incidentally activat-
ing the door to one of the buildings.
She did it. When she appeared, she took one look
into the eyes of a hell prince, squawked, and fell
facedown in the dirt. Smart girl: we were all in
ambush position, and we opened fire on the poor hell-
The minotaur never knew what hit it. Nine flaming
snotballs, a machine gun, shotguns, and my own M-
14 BAR--I'd found one at last!--and the hell prince
staggered back against the rear wall of his building,
unable even to muster up a lightning ball from his
We repeated the process with the other three build-
ings, and when we finished, we had four empty
bunkers and one very dizzy female Marine. I picked
her up off the ground and held her under her arms,
while we approached the chamber at the rear of the
courtyard--that was where we both clearly remem-
bered we would find the Door.
The front Door was locked. I was about to waste a
few rounds when Slink stepped forward. "This one
may?" she asked, and before I could answer, she
shoved her iron fingers behind the latch, splintering
the wood, and ripped the entire mechanism off the
Door! The unbound wood swung slowly open, creak-
ing like the cry of a banshee.
Inside were three zombies waiting for any visitors.
Pfc. Dodd staggered forward, pushed past us, and
entered the room. He strode up to his zombie broth-
ers (two brothers and a sister) and began to "talk" in
the swinelike grunts and moans of the recently un-
The female zombie raised her rifle and fired a single
shot. It hit Dodd in his mouth, taking out his entire
lower jaw. We stared in shock for a moment. Arlene
recovered faster than Yours Truly. She pumped the
lever on her .45 rifle, firing six quick shots. Arlene
killed all three zombies before the rest of us fired a
shot. . . . She killed them before she even had an
instant to think.
Then she dropped her gun and ran forward to
Dodd, who was flopping disorientedly. She cradled
the head and upper body of the rotting corpse in her
lap, cooing to it softly. "I'm sorry," she said. I don't
think she even realized the rest of us were there. "I'm
sorry! I didn't mean to shoot you--I had to! Oh,
please forgive me, I'm so, so sorry. . . ."
I knew who she was really apologizing to--the real
Dodd was dead and long past caring. But Arlene was
alive, and she needed forgiveness.
I don't know how it happened. Her memory of the
original Dodd must have been strong. But just for a
moment, the zombie Pfc. Dodd reached up and
stroked Arlene's cheek! No zombie would have done
that, I reckoned. A moment later he died. Again.
I turned away, leading the rest of the crew deeper
into the building. Behind me, the crying lasted anoth-
er couple of minutes, then it stopped as if cut off like a
faucet. Arlene the lover was finally buried; Lance
Corporal Sanders returned to the group and an-
nounced, "We'll find the Door behind the rear right
piston. Careful not to get crushed."
It was Arlene who found the Door, but Slink Slunk
was more excited than the rest of us, for she recog-
nized what it was. "Is bridge!" she cried, capering and
gibbering, swinging her hands so violently that she
tore a hole in one of the building walls. "Is bridge--
connects other place!"
"The other place?" I asked.
Arlene sounded strangely detached, a stranger in-
habiting the body of my buddy. "She's right, Fly, it is
a bridge connecting us to main operating system of
"How do you know that?"
Arlene smiled apologetically and shrugged. Her
eyes were red from . . . from something she must
have got in them. " 'Cause I remember it. Of course."
I approached. The Door looked like a bank vault,
solid steel with a combination lock in the very center.
The lock comprised eleven wheels, each lettered from
A to Z with a space tag between last and first. The
mechanics were obvious: line up the wheels so they
spelled out the password and turn the huge handle to
open the Door. The only fly in the ointment was
guessing the right sequence of letters.
So what's the big deal? I wondered. There can't be
more than about 150 million billion combinations!
"Well," I said, sighing. "I guess we'd better get busy.
What should we try first?" I looked around, but
nobody spoke. "Wait, I have something. Let's try this
Smiling, I set the wheels to spell P-A-S-S-W-O-R-D-
Space-Space-Space-Space. I turned the handle.
The Door clicked and opened.
I stood in the Doorway, staring like a total doofus.
If there'd been a snake, it would have bit me; if
there'd been a bear, it would have hugged me to
death. A password spelled PASSWORD? That was the
stupidest damned password I ever saw! When I was in
the Applied Crypto Advanced Training Facility in
Monterey, that was the standard joke among the
students: the idiot who was so stupid that his pass-
word literally was that very word! But I had never
believed until that moment that anyone could really
be so--so braindead.
Evidently, it never even occurred to the Newbies
that anyone would ever find one of their back Doors. I
smiled. Every time I ran into these Resuscitators, they
reminded me more and more of a bunch of college
That made it easier. I could whup college boys.
We leveled weapons and slunk through the Door,
Slink at my back while I took point, Arlene taking
rear, everyone else in between: our standard forma-
tion. The Door led to a long corridor--I mean, a long
corridor! Six klicks at least and arrow-straight the
At the end was another Door, just like the first,
except this one had no combination lock. I opened the
Door abruptly, prepared for the worst.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw. Staring at me was
a seven-foot-tall, pearly black shell covered with mil-
lions upon millions of squirming vibrating cilia. It sat
utterly still except for the cilia--a rounded blob
without eyes, ears, or any other sensory organs.
We had found the answer, if only we knew what
question to ask.
"A bug ... a bug? A huge freaking bug,
that's what we're fighting?" Arlene was unhappy; I
could tell. She stomped around the tiny cell, looking
at the bug from all angles. It pretty much looked the
same from every direction.
"I don't think it's an insect," I rumbled.
"It's a bug! Who cares what kind?"
"Corporal, remember where we are." I spoke
sharply, and she hauled up, shutting her mouth.
"What did we just pass through? What was that
Doorway you remembered, A.S.?"
"I don't know, Sarge. A back Door."
"Come on, what were you thinking? What kind of
"Um, something like what they used on us to suck
our souls out. That probe that got up inside my nose
and into my brain; that was kind of a back Door,
I thought for a long moment, closing my eyes to
visualize the system. "Arlene . . . you saying that all
this time, the last three levels, you've been thinking of
that soul-sucking probe as the back Door we were
"That's what I'm saying."
"Well, I think that's exactly what we found."
Her eyes went as wide as dinner plates. "The probe
"Why not?" I pointed back at the six-kilometer-
long corridor we had just spent the last hour travers-
ing. "Isn't that the tube, the one that sticks through
your sinuses into your brain? It looks like it. Why
can't it be?"
She turned back to the bug. Behind me, Slink
Slunk, her intended Chomp, and the rest of the crew
waited impatiently, not understanding all the talk.
"Let'ssss kill bug!" Slink suggested, licking her lips.
"Not just yet, soldier," I ordered.
"Fly, if that tube connects the system to a soul, then
what the hell is this bug anyway?"
I turned up my hands. "How the hell should I
know? It's a soul, right?"
"One of the Res-men? Do they have the probe
hooked up to one of them?"
"Well, there's no one else on the ship, so that's
probably a pretty good guess, A.S."
She rolled her eyes at my sarcasm. "But why
doesn't it look like a person then? I mean, you look
like you to me, and I presume I look like me to you--
why does this guy look like a huge bug with squirmy
The answer popped simultaneously into both our
minds, and we spoke in unison: "Because . . . it's a
"Jinx," Arlene added. "You can't talk until some-
one says your name, Fly."
I circled the bug, still trying to wrap my brain
around the concept that I was looking at the soul of a
Resuscitator. It didn't look like a Newbie--but it
wasn't a Newbie, it was the soul. . . . Who knew what
their souls looked like? They were sure as hell differ-
ent from ours. That was the whole guiding principle
behind every freaking invasion and study done on
Earth in the last several hundred thousand years--by
the Klave, by the Freds, and now by the Resuscitators!
Maybe our souls looked just as weird and disgusting
to them as theirs did to us. Maybe they were filled
with as much violence and anger against us as I was
against all the other races in the galaxy, even the
Of course, the difference was that we were just
defending ourselves. They were the aggressors. They
had dragged us into their ridiculous war between
different schools of literary criticism, not the other
way around! We didn't invade or attack the Fred
homeworld, not intentionally. We didn't infest the
Newbie minds. We didn't even set up observational
posts and spy on the Klave!
It was these bastards, they were behind it all--all of
them, all the so-called bio-freaking-logical races of the
galaxy, who didn't even consider us living beings
because we had different souls than they. "Fine!" I
declared, aloud. "So if you can steal our souls, you
bastards, then you shouldn't object if I do this."
I slung my rifle behind my back, stepped forward,
and without even a thought for poison or acid, I
wrapped both arms around the damned bug and
hoisted it off the floor. Despite its huge size, the
damned thing didn't weigh much more than twenty or
"Fly!" Arlene screamed, evidently thinking about
what I had just ignored. But nothing happened to me.
I didn't start feeling sleepy or sick or anything, and
nothing stung me. The cilia squirmed frantically; I
think the thing realized something bad was happen-
ing. But it had no way to stop me--the Newbies had
long since evolved beyond the "need" for things like
arms and legs.
"Fly, put that down!"
"No way, A.S. We're taking a prisoner of war back
"Back where?" She hovered around me like a
mother hen, clucking and poking at the thing with her
"You got somewhere else in mind? Back into the
simulation, of course. This is a dead-end back door
you found. . . . This is as far as it goes, into the head
of a Res-man."
Suddenly, the room shook violently. Outside the
door, the corridor detached and started pulling away.
"Arlene, jump!" I shouted. It wasn't altruism on my
part to get her to go first--she was in my way! Arlene
didn't waste time asking who, what, where, like a
civilian would; she was a Marine, and Marines act
first and ask stupid questions afterward.
She dove through the door, and I piled through
right on top of her. Behind us, the little room--the
brain of a Res-man?--pulled away, vanishing into the
distance. Outside our door was only emptiness now, a
void of nonexistence that turned my stomach when I
looked at it--so I didn't look at it.
"They must've figured out we'd gotten up the
probe," Arlene said, "and they yanked it out. But
we're so speeded up, compared to them, that they
couldn't yank it out fast enough."
"Well, before they think of ripping out the other
end," I suggested, "let's get the hell back to Dodge
The Newbie soul was like a giant sponge. I discov-
ered I could wad it up into a more manageable ball
and tuck it under my arm. We ran the entire six
kilometers back to the Deimos lab. The monster
apostles never seemed to get tired, and Arlene and I
were in Marine-shape. Still, it took us twenty minutes
to hoof it back.
Why didn't the Resuscitators destroy the machine?
I guess they couldn't believe we had done what we
did, or else they were afraid of destroying the soul of
their own guy. What was it that the late, lamented
Sears and Roebuck said? Something about the great-
est crime in all the galaxy being the deliberate de-
struction of a living soul, a crime so horrific for them
to contemplate that there wasn't even a word for it!
Even in a pure hive culture--an interesting bit of
intel, potentially useful in a war. Too bad the crea-
tures that made the observation were no longer
among the living.
We burst through the Door back into the room with
all the pumping pistons in the corners. A new pump-
kin had decided to invade the place and set up shop.
. . . While Slink Slunk and the boys fought with it and
shouted a conversation, trying to convert the thing--
they told it about the great martyr Olestradamus--
Arlene and I laid the soul of the Newbie on the floor.
A lightning ball brushed just over my head, sizzling
the ends of my hair and making all my muscles jerk.
The Newbie soul expanded from its wadded-up
shape. Now it looked totally different, short and fat,
and the cilia were absorbing into a fabriclike coating
covering the damned thing's hide. I stared at what
used to be a bug. "What the hell? Arlene, is this what
it looks like in the simulation?"
She shook her head. "No, that's not it--look, Fly,
it's changing again!" She was right. The Newbie soul
split into two main globules connected by about a
million strands of--flesh, connective tissue?--like
pulling apart two lumps of slimy prechewed bubble
gum. It changed color from black to dark purple.
Then it changed again: the connections widened,
flattened, and now they were spatula-shaped. The
globules spread out, growing tendrils that circled
around until they connected with each other, forming
a circle around the flat spatula core. The color
changed from static to prismatic, flickering through
every color of the spectrum from dark red to nearly
white violet, parts of it transparent--maybe too high
or low a frequency for us to even see.
"My God, Fly," Arlene said- "It's evolving! It's
evolving into something new every second."
A wild shot from our own spineys whizzed between
Arlene and me. We dove back, then continued imagi-
neering. "I remember that, A.S. I remember how fast
the Newbies evolved . . . remember?"
"Huh? Yeah, it's evolving right in front of us! What
are you saying?"
"Remember what the one we had as a prisoner
from Fredworld said? They evolve faster and faster,
speeding up with no upper bound to the curve?
Arlene stared at me--a true college kid! Then she
finally got it. "Yeah . . . yeah, I do remember that!
And they're evolving farther and farther away from
being a threat to us, remember?"
"Arlene, all this time they've been evolving farther
away from even being physical beings. Look, see how
fast it's changing now?"
I wasn't joking. The Newbie was flickering through
its different forms so quickly now that it was impossi-
ble to fully grasp what one version was before it was
subsumed into another. I had a glimpse of crablike
claws, a million mouths opening and closing in uni-
son, a spray of spoors! I leapt back, terrified in spite of
my training--I'd never been trained to deal with
something like this!
But I knew what we had to do, the direction we had
to push it. Here, in the Newbies' own simulation,
everything moved a thousand times faster than on the
outside . . . including the Newbie evolution.
Arlene moved close and put her arms around me.
"I'm remembering real hard now, Fly. They're evolv-
ing away from physicality, just like you said. . . .
They're evolving away from even caring about this
universe. Evolving toward the, ah, the mind of Brah-
ma, simultaneous connection with the entire uni-
verse, all the other dimensions above ours."
"Uh . . . yeah, I'm remembering all that, too." I
thought I pretty much grasped what she was saying--
enough to get a really, really good mental image
We stood and remembered. The Newbie--
definitely no longer a Resuscitator--contracted to a
pinprick, then without warning, it exploded in a burst
of white light and soundless energy. The light flooded
through us, illuminating us from the inside out. But it
continued to expand, not pausing even a nanosecond
at me or Arlene or Slink Slunk or the other apostles or
the monsters or anyone else in the world--in the
The Newbie was gone. Arlene didn't let go. "See?"
she said. "I always said there was some use to science
I didn't say a word. I was just damned glad she
hadn't attributed her brilliant idea, the one that saved
all humanity, to a college philosophy course--that, I
would have had a very hard time living down!
I looked back at our crew and saw that the fight had
ended. The pumpkin was sitting on the ground,
receiving instruction from Chomp, the most articu-
late of the imps, on the new quest: hunting down the
False-One Freds and butchering them.
Arlene still didn't let go of me. "Fly," she said, "do
you think it just went off into the universe all by itself?
Or did ... ?"
"Did it take its buddies with it? I don't know, A.S.
Maybe we'll never know. Arlene, I--I don't think we
can ever leave this simulation."
She raised her orange eyebrows, swishing her
tongue from one cheek to the other. "I guess you're
right. Our empty bodies are back behind on that
planet. If the Newbies are gone, I doubt the former
Res-men know how to pull us out of here and stick us
back into our bodies anyway."
"But something occurs to me. There's no reason
this simulation should end unless they turn off the
power. If they do that--"
"Then we're dead, and we won't even know it. But
if the Res-men keep it on, Fly . . ." She scowled at me.
"You saying we can live here, in this simulation?"
I cleared my throat. "I don't see as we have much
choice, Arlene. You got an appointment somewhere
else, soldier?" I softened the tone. "Look, it's not so
bad. We're getting pretty good at remembering things
the way they ought to be, rather than the way they
happened to happen the first time. It's like casting
magical spells. We don't have to remember a horrible
world where monsters are trying to kill us every
I pointed at the pumpkin, bouncing slowly into the
air and settling back down again, listening to Chomp
and Slink take turns proselytizing. (They held each
other's hand . . . how touching.) "We can remember a
world where the damned monsters just go away to live
in monasteries. We can remember how we returned to
Earth, but we can remember how we stopped the
entire invasion this time, turned them back without
the millions of dead civilians."
Arlene looked up at me, blinking a tear out of her
eye. Must have been a dust mote; Marines don't cry.
"Do you think I can ever forget Albert's death?"
"Arlene, given enough time and energy, maybe
some of that hypnosis . . . I'll bet anybody can forget
anything." I detached her arms and sat down, sud-
denly so tired I could barely keep my eyes open. "At
least, we'll go to our graves trying to forget. He's in
here somewhere, Arlene. . . . The whole place was
constructed from our memories--so he's here! It's
just a matter of finding him."
Arlene sat down next to me, expressionless. Her
voice sounded as dead tired as mine. "We stopped the
Newbies, Fly. We saved Earth . . . again. That ought
to count for something, right?"
"Counts for a lot, A.S."
"So if your Somebody is up there . . . maybe He'll
let us find Albert?"
I lay back, feeling consciousness ebb, sleep over-
whelming me. I think I answered her, but maybe I
only dreamed it. The best Somebody for us to rely on,
Arlene, is the somebody inside. . . not the one up-
I think I slept for twelve or fourteen hours. I awoke
to a brave new world that had such damned peculiar
creatures in it!
ðÏÐÕÌÑÒÎÏÓÔØ: 21, Last-modified: Thu, 04 Dec 2003 05:15:41 GMT