Read Endgame Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Endgame

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1

T
he 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 surprised 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 universe was finally winding down. I walked down moist fungus-infested passageways that were too tall, too narrow, and too damned hot, listening to the universe run down.

Down and out. Mostly I walked the ship to keep some sort of tab on Lance Corporal Arlene Sanders, my ghost XO, who was falling apart on me. Nobody goes off the deep end on Sergeant Flynn Taggart, not without my say-so. But there was Arlene, sitting cross-legged on the observation deck (the “mess hall”) at the stern of the Fred ship, staring at a redshifted eye of light that was all the stars in the galaxy swirled into one blob—some sort of relativity effect. She sat,
unblinking, peering down the corridor of time to Earth today, which was probably Earth two hundred years or more ago.

Christ, but that sounds melancholy. Arlene hadn't changed her uniform in three days, and she was starting to stink up the place. I didn't want to interrupt 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 emptiness 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 fiancée, and I'm not sure I even knew her middle name.” Sears and Roebuck, our normally jovial binary Klave pair, were no help; they locked themselves in their cabin and wouldn't come out. They couldn't even be coaxed out for a game of
Woe Is Me!
But lately Arlene was winning by default: she was too depressed to play. She just sat and stared out the rear window.

The Fred ship was roughly cylindrical, spinning for a kind of artificial gravity about 0.8 g at the outer
skin; in addition, during the first days, we had a heavy acceleration pulling us backward as the ship got up to speed. This was a Godsend; I always hated zero-g, always. I always blew; I always got vertigo; I never knew which way was up, because there was no up.

It was 3.7 kilometers long and about 0.375 kilometers in diameter, I reckoned. I had some mild dizziness from the spin—my inner ear never really adjusted 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 wandering, 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 bulkheads, it was only a matter of moments.

Two minutes after I left, I heard the shooting start up again, but she denied later that she had fired her rifle again.

I returned to the bridge for a long face-to-face with the “dead” Fred captain. They're not like us . . . rather, we're not like them or the rest of the intelligent races of the galaxy.

A Fred alien, and everybody else except a human, can never die. Even when you shoot his body to Swiss cheese, so his blue guts and red blood dribble out the holes onto the deck, his consciousness remains intact. Blow his head apart, and it floats as a ghost, drifting like invisible smoke—still thinking, hearing and seeing, feeling and desperately dreaming. You can talk to them; they actually hear you.

The Freds and other races pile their dead in fantastic cenotaph theaters where they are entertained day and night by elaborate operas and dances of great beauty, all to keep the “dead” vibrant and interested until such time as they're needed for revivification—assuming there's enough left of the body and enough interest on the part of an animate Fred to pay for it.

I'd shot the captain nine days ago as he lay on the floor, reaching up to implement and lock in the preprogrammed course for Fredworld. Despite the best efforts of me and Arlene and our contractor-advisors Sears and Roebuck—a Klave binary pair who each looked like a cross between Magilla Gorilla and Alley Oop—we couldn't figure out how to change course or even shut off the engines.

I picked the captain up and sat him in the co-pilot's chair. Poetic justice; he had died bravely . . . let him see where he was going. Now I stood directly in front of the bastard so his dead eyes could drink me in. “God, I wish I could repair your wounds and bring you back to life,” I said, “so I could kill you all over again and again and again, and repeat the process until you told me how to turn this piece-of-crap ship around. But I
promise
you I'll obliterate your brain before I'll let you be recaptured and revived by your Fred buddies.”

I blamed the captain for Arlene's psychosis; I would
never forgive him for it and would kill him again if I ever got the chance.

Christ, where to jump in on this thing? I never know where to start to bring everyone up to date.

Sears and Roebuck had locked themselves in their stateroom, the double-entities shouting that we were all doomed, game over, pull the plug! God only knew where they picked up the expressions, but the sentiment was pretty clear: when we got to Fredworld, the most
logical
outcome was for us to be burned into a nice warm plasma by the batteries of heavy-particle weapons the Freds obviously had ringing their hellish planet.

I'm not a big fan of logic. Logic predicted that Arlene and I would be smoked during our last encounter 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 genetically 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 technologically; nobody else did it that fast! They came screaming in with demonic machines and genetically engineered fiends, thinking we would fall cowering to our knees, and conquest would be swift and brutal.

They weren't prepared for a technological society that no longer believed in demons. They weren't ready for the Light Drop Marine Corps Infantry; they weren't prepared for Arlene and me.

We triumphed, and I got another stripe, but now I was willing to bet a month's leave that we were driving into destruction. No matter how long your hand, the dice eventually turn against you.
At least let me take a few dozen of them with me,
I prayed.

But without Arlene I didn't have much of a chance, let alone much
reason
, to go on. Earth was dead to me now; when we got back there,
if
we got back, what would be left after three or four centuries? Would there be a United States, a Washington Monument, a United States Marine Corps? For all we knew, the Earth was “already” a smoking burnt-out cinder (“already” is a relative term, we've found out; by the time we get back, it will have happened a certain number of centuries in the past; that's all I can say).

Stars rolled past the porthole beneath my feet; actually, it was the ship that rotated, but everything
was relative. I followed Arlene as she traversed the ship. She set up her shooting range in the aft cargo-hold, a ways outboard (“down”) from the mess hall, seventy meters high and wide and nearly half a kilometer long. I was desperate—I had to snap her out of her zombie mode. I had to do something! So just as my redheaded lance corporal babe raised her M-14, I stepped out of the shadows directly in front of her.

It was an incredibly stupid thing to do—but I had no choice, no other way to get her attention. She almost squeezed off a burst anyway, because she just plain didn't see me. As Arlene squeezed the trigger, she realized the range wasn't clear. She screamed—like a
woman
!—and jerked the barrel to the left.

A single three-round burst escaped anyway. One of the bullets creased my uniform; it felt like she had whipped me across the arm with a corrections staff. It hurt like hell!

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