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Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky

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To Arnold Schwarzenegger
(with no ulterior motives)

Prologue

“W
hy are there monsters?”

An exhausted woman looked at her little boy, who had asked the question that was burning in her own mind. His voice didn't tremble. She reached over to wipe his face. They were not wearing camo right now, and the smudges of dirt were only dirt. It wasn't right for a ten-year-old to be a seasoned veteran of war, she thought, but all of the human survivors on Earth understood what it meant to fight for their lives against alien invaders.

A long time ago, when she was ten, her only question was “Are there real monsters?” What a wonderful world that had been, a sane world where nightmares stayed where they belonged, lodged in the gray matter between the ears. Only in dreams would you encounter giant floating heads that spit ball lightning; angry crimson minotaurs; shambling human zombies fresh from their own death; flying metal skulls with razor teeth dripping blood; ghosts colder than the grave; fifteen-foot-tall demons with heavy
artillery in place of hands; obscenely fat shapes, only vaguely humanoid, that could crush the life from the strongest man in a matter of seconds; and, finally, there was the special horror of the mechanical spider bodies with things inside them that were far worse than any arachnid.

There was no way to answer David, no explanation for why dream shapes crawled across the land that once was a country called the United States on a planet called Earth.

She thanked God that her son was still alive. After her husband died, there were only three of them. Three. The number made her cry. They weren't three for long.

She'd never had time to grieve over the man she loved. The monsters didn't give her any time at all. Her daughter, Lisa, had been thirteen.

At least her husband had died bravely, ripped apart by the steel legs of a spider-thing. For a brief moment the woman had caught a glimpse of the evil face peering out from the dome mounted on top of the mechanical body. She couldn't stop herself crying out! Her husband couldn't hear her. But the spider-thing heard everything.

She still blamed herself for that momentary loss of control. Her daughter might have been alive today if Mom hadn't freaked out and drawn the attention of the mechanical horror at that instant. The sounds of the monster were the worst part as it headed toward the remaining members of the family. The heavy pounding would stay in the woman's head forever, along with the screaming of her terrified daughter—right before the girl's head was torn off.

A human head makes a sound like nothing else when it's played with and crushed.

She thanked God David hadn't seen what happened to his sister. But lately she found herself wondering if she should ever give thanks for anything again. Although she'd always been religious, she was forgetting how to pray. She told herself it was like the Book of Job: everyone was being tested as everything was taken away. But the Book of Job didn't have spider-things in it.

“I don't know why there are monsters,” she said, finally responding to her son's question. “These creatures come from outer space. We've learned some important things about them.”

“What?” he asked.

She looked out the window of the basement where they'd been hiding for the past week. It was a clear night, and she could see the stars. She used to feel peaceful when she looked at the night sky; now she hated those eternal spots of fire.

“We've learned they can die,” she said quietly. “They are not what they appear to be. They're not real demons.”

“Demons? Like the minister used to tell us about?”

She smiled and ran her fingers through what was left of her son's hair. “They can't take you to hell,” she said. “They can't do anything to your soul. Real demons don't need guns or rockets. And, as I said, real demons don't die.”

David looked out the window for a while and then said, “But they
are
monsters.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “We have to believe in them now. But I want you to promise me something.”

“What, Mom?”

She pulled him close and tried not to notice his missing arm. “There's something more important than believing in monsters, David. Our minister
thought we were in End Times. He didn't even try to fight the spider-things, except with his cross and his Bible. But they can be fought with weapons. The human race will prevail! If we have faith in ourselves. I want you to promise that you'll always believe in heroes.”

“Heroes will save us,” he echoed her. The two of them stood together for a long time, looking out the window at the blind white stars.

1

“S
o how did you guys escape from that death trap?” asked Master Gunnery Sergeant Mulligan.

“With
one mighty leap,
sir . . .” I began, but he didn't like my tone of voice.

“Oh, don't give me that, Corporal Taggart,” he said. “You guys are holding out on me. You can't tell me you were trapped near the top of a forty-story building in downtown L.A. with all those freakin' demons after you, and then just leave it there.”

When he said “you guys,” he meant we didn't have to call him sir. Not here, not now. “That's exactly it,” I said with a big grin. “We
left!”

“We probably ought to tell him,” said Arlene sleepily. She stretched like a cat in her beach chair, her breasts seeming to point at the horizon. She'd left her bikini top back at the hotel. The view was spectacular from every angle.

For the last few days we'd been pretending that life had returned to normal. Hawaii was still a stronghold
of humanity. On a good day the sky was normal. Blue, blue everywhere, and not a single streak of bilious alien green. The wonderful sun was exactly what it ought to be—yellow, round, and not covered with a new rash of sunspots. At least not today. We'd slapped on plenty of suntan lotion, and we were soaking up the rays.

We weren't going to waste a good day like this. The radar worked. The sonar worked. The brand-new
really good
detection equipment worked, too. Every detection device known to man was in use for sea and sky. We almost felt safe. So the three of us decided to play. The master gun was a great guy. Off duty, he liked to be called George. He didn't mind being teased, either.

Hawaii Base employed the services of a number of scientists and doctors. I'll never forget Arlene's reaction when they said that Albert was going to be all right, despite his having taken a face full of acidic imp puke. Best of all, he wasn't going to be blind. Once Arlene heard that, she allowed herself to genuinely relax. I was damned glad that our Mormon buddy had pulled through. He'd proved to be one hell of a marine all the way from Salt Lake City to the monster rally in L.A. What was more, he'd proved to be a true friend.

The docs said they could bring Ken back all the way. Not that Ken had been exactly dead; but he might as well have been when the alternative was to exist as a cybermummy, serving the alien warlords who had turned Earth into a charnel house. He'd already helped us against the enemy by communicating to us through the computer setup our teenage whiz kid, Jill, had thrown together in record time. Arlene and I had used every kind of heavy artillery against
the demonic invaders, first on Phobos, then on Deimos, and finally on good old terra firma. Jill had taught us that a good hacker was invaluable in a war against monsters.

That's why we were so happy when we landed at Oahu and found not only a fully operational military establishment but also a prime collection of scientists. Arlene and I were warriors. Our task was to buy the human race that most precious of all commodities: time. Victory would require a lot more than muscle and guts; it would require all the brainpower left on the old mud ball. We needed to learn everything about these creatures that had brought doom to the human race. And then we would pay them back . . . big time.

Yeah, Arlene and I felt good about the men and women in white coats. For one thing, they said it was okay to swim. It had been such a long time since I'd plunged my body into something as reasonable as cool salt water that I hardly cared about their reports. If it didn't look like a pool of green or red sludge, that was all I needed to know. The Pacific Ocean looked fine to yours truly, especially today as we enjoyed fresh salt breezes that would never carry a whiff of sour-lemon zombie stench.

Jill had decided to spend the day working instead of joining us. One of the best research scientists had taken her under his wing. Albert had gone to town. Of course, the “town” was every bit as much a high-security military zone as the “hotel.” (I'd never had better barracks.) After what we'd all been through, this place was heaven on earth. The other islands were also secure, but they were not set up for the easy life we enjoyed here.

As I took a sip of my Jack Daniel's, I reflected on the miracle that I felt secure enough to risk taking a
drink. For the past month of nonstop hell, first in space and then on Earth, I wouldn't have risked dulling my senses for a second, or saturating my bodily tissues with anything but stimulants. Earth could still count on Corporal Flynn Taggart, Fox Company, Fifteenth Light Drop Infantry Regiment, United States Marine Corps, 888-23-9912. I was in for the duration.

Glancing over at Arlene, I was pleased to see that she was healing nicely. Even though we treated each other as best buddies instead of potential lovers, I wasn't blind. Even the flaming balls of demon mucus hadn't burned out my capacity to see that PFC Arlene Sanders had the perfect female body, at least by my standards: slender but with well-cut muscles and with everything in ideal proportion.

Sometimes Arlene did her mind-reading act. Now she glanced in my direction and gave me the onceover. I guess similar thoughts were going through her mind. More than our bodies were healing. Our souls had taken a beating. When we first arrived on the island, and Arlene could finally accept that we had found a pocket of safety, she had tried to sleep; but she was so stressed out that only drugs could take her under. Even then she'd wake up every half hour, just as exhausted as before.

I wasn't doing too well when we first arrived, either. But I was too worried about her to pay attention to my own aches and pains. She said she'd never felt so empty. She couldn't stop worrying about Albert. So I told her all the things she'd said to me when I was down. About how it was our turn to man the barricades and we had to keep going, past every obstacle of terror and fatigue and despair. Then I shook her hard
and told her to come out of it because we were on vacation in Hawaii, dammit!

Master Gun Mulligan was an invaluable help throughout this period of adjustment. He was an old friend none of us had ever met before. You meet that kind in the service when you're lucky. It makes up for all the Lieutenant Weems types.

Of course, you should only tease a friend so far. The master gun had every right to know how we'd pulled off our “impossible” escape from the old Disney Tower. He just had the bad luck to be caught between Arlene Sanders and Fly Taggart in a game of who-gives-in-first.

“All right,” said Mulligan, half to himself, slipping a little as he climbed out of his beach chair. He was a big man, and he was right at the weight limit. He didn't really have to worry about it, though. No one would worry about the minutiae of military rules for a good long time. If you could fight and follow orders, the survivors of civilization as we know it would sure as hell find you a task in this human's army.

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