Read Infernal Sky Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky (10 page)

Why was Hooker doing this? I wanted to rip off Hidalgo's neat Errol Flynn mustache and shove it down his throat. But I took a page from Arlene's book and arranged my face into an impassive mask equal to anything in a museum. Hooker scrutinized me throughout this ordeal. So did Arlene.

Finally hell in Hawaii ended, and we were dismissed. We had a lot to do before the final briefing. We had to go rustle up Albert and Jill. Turned out she could be part of the first phase of our new mission, if she wanted to be. She was a civilian and a kid, though, so no one was going to order her. And I was certain we would all want to say our good-byes to Ken. Mulligan, too.

I insisted that Arlene and I take the long way around to finding our buds. It may only be residual paranoia from my school days, but I felt better about discussing the teacher outdoors. They don't bug the palm trees this side of James Bond movies.

“So how do you feel about our promotions?” Arlene asked.

“Every silver lining has a cloud,” I replied.

“I could feel how tense you were in there about our new boss.”

“You weren't exactly mellow about Albert.”

“Mixed feelings, Fly. I'm weighing never seeing him again against his joining us on another suicide mission.”

“If Hidalgo has anything to say about it—”

“Let's talk, Fly. I know you as well as I know myself, and I think you're overreacting. Just because the man is a stickler for the rules doesn't make him
another Lieutenant Weems. Remember, Weems broke the rules when he ordered his men to open fire on the monks.”

She had a point there. Arlene had been on my side from the start of the endlessly postponed court-martial of Corporal Flynn Taggart.

My turn: “There's nothing we can do if this officer is a butthead.” I'd never liked officers, but I followed orders. It annoyed me a little that Arlene got along so well with officers.

“I'll tell you exactly what we're going to do,” she said, and I could tell she'd given the problem considerable thought. “You are too concerned over the details, Fly. I don't care if Hidalgo wants my uniform crisp so long as it's possible to accommodate such a request without endangering the mission. All I care about is that the captain knows what he's doing.”

“Fair enough, but I'll need a lot of convincing.”

Arlene chuckled softly. “You know, Fly, there are some people who would think we're bad marines. Some people only approve of the regulation types.”

“We saw how well those types did on Phobos.”

“Exactly.”

“Now we're going back. So stop holding out on me. You were gonna say something about Captain Hidalgo.”

She frowned. “Simple. While he's deciding if we measure up to his standards, we'll be deciding if he measures up to ours. This is the most serious war in the history of the human race. The survival of the species is at stake. My first oath of allegiance is to homo sapiens. That comes before loyalty to the corps. We can't afford to make any mistakes. We won't.”

I got her general drift, but I couldn't believe what I
was hearing. “What if Hidalgo doesn't measure up to our standards?”

We'd been walking slowly around the perimeter of the building. She stopped and eyeballed me. “First we must reach the Gates on Phobos. We weren't the greatest space pilots when we brought that shoebox from Deimos to Earth. You may be the finest jet pilot breathing, but we can learn a few things about being space cadets. We're just extra baggage until we're back on our own turf. That's when we'll really become acquainted with Captain Hidalgo.”

“God, who would've thought there'd come a day when we'd think of that hell moon as our turf!”

She gave me her patented raised-eyebrow look. “Fly, we're the only veterans of the Phobos-Deimos War. And the only experts.”

She was keeping something from me. I wasn't going to let this conversation terminate until she fessed up. “Agreed. So what do we do about Hidalgo if he doesn't measure up?”

“Simple,” she said. “We'll space his ass right out the airlock.”

*   *   *

“You don't have to go to Phobos, Jill.”

I appreciated Ken telling me that. “I want to go. Arlene and Fly wouldn't know what to do without me. Besides, they couldn't have saved me without you.”

“That's true,” said Fly.

Ken was sitting up in bed. He'd wanted to see us off from his wheelchair, but he'd been working hard and had tired himself. His face was a healthy coffee color again. When he was first unwrapped, his skin had been pale and sickly. They unwrapped him in stages
so for a while he had stripes like a zebra as his color returned. Now he looked like himself again, except for the knobs and wire things that they hadn't taken out of his head yet.

“I'm grateful to all of you,” he said. “Especially you, Jill,” he added, taking my hand. “But you're so young. You've been in so much danger already. Why not stay here where it's safe?”

“Safe?” echoed Albert.

“I should say safer,” said Ken.

Arlene brought up a subject that Albert and I had avoided: “Before we left Salt Lake City, there were people who thought it would be better for Jill to stay there.”

Ken coughed. He sounded really bad. I brought him a glass of water. “I feel so helpless,” he said. “You only need Jill's computer assistance on the first leg of the mission. If only there were some way I could help by long-distance.”

“You've put your finger on the problem,” Fly told him. “We can't anticipate everything we're going to need. Too bad Jill is the best troubleshooter for this job.”

“Just like before,” I reminded everyone. “You should take me to space with you, too.”

“That's not part of the deal,” said Arlene, sounding like a mother.

“We should be grateful for this time together,” Albert pointed out. He was right. The only people with Ken were Fly, Arlene, Albert, and me. The mission would start tomorrow morning.

“If only they had launch capability in the islands here,” Ken complained. “They should have been better prepared.”

“We're fortunate they have as much as they do,”
argued Arlene. “There's everything here except the kitchen sink.”

“The kitchen sink is what we need, and it's at Point Mugu,” said Fly. “Thanks to Ken, we have a launch window.”

“I never thought I'd do windows,” Ken rasped between fits of coughing. “I always say that when you take off for a body in space it's a good idea for your destination to be there when you arrive! It's also nice to have a crew to fly the ship. The primary plan to return Fly and Arlene to Phobos has all the elegance of a Rube Goldberg contraption.”

“I don't even feel homesick,” said Arlene. Everyone laughed.

Ken had paid us back big time for saving him from the spider-mind. He was smarter than I was about lots of things. I also realized he cared about me; but I don't think he realized how much I wanted to go with the others.

“There's a fallback plan?” Albert asked.

Ken smiled. “The less said about that the better, at least by me. Before you depart, I want to talk to Jill some more. I have some suggestions for her return trip.”

“I want to go to Phobos,” I said.

Every time I said that, Arlene repeated the same word: “No.”

Fly sounded like a father when he said, “Believe me, if there were any other way, I'd never dream of taking Jill back into danger . . . well, greater danger, anyhow. We do need her for this.”

“We're all needed,” said Ken in a sad voice. “We'll all be needed for the rest of our lives, however short they may be.” He looked at me again. “But I agree with you about one thing.”

“What?”

“It's important to fight to the end. Sometimes I forget that.”

“After what you've been through—” Arlene began, but he wouldn't let her finish.

“No excuses,” he said. “I've been too ready to give up. But then I think about the terrible things these monsters have done to us, and it makes me angry. We will fight. So long as there are Jills, the human race has a chance.”

I saw a tear in his eye. I was going to say something, but I suddenly couldn't remember what. Instead I went over to Ken and hugged him. He held me and kissed me on the forehead.

“You know, as long as we're all together again, there's a question I've been meaning to ask,” Fly threw out.

“Shoot,” said Albert.

“Bad choice of words around marines,” said Ken.

“Civilians,” said Arlene. She made it sound like a bad word.

Fly asked his question: “I keep meaning to ask one of the old hands around here: why are the masterminds behind the monsters called Freds?”

“I know, I know,” I piped up. “I heard that sergeant gun guy talking about it.”

“Master gun, hon,” Arlene corrected. When she didn't sound like a mom she sure came off like a teacher.

I finished up: “Anyway, that man said a marine named Armogida started calling them Freds after he took a date to a horror movie.”

“I wonder what movie it was,” wondered Arlene.

“Well, maybe we should start calling our heroic young people Jills,” Ken brought the subject back to
me. “I can't change anyone's mind, so let me say I hope your mission goes well.”

As I said, I appreciated Ken worrying about me. He just didn't understand how important it was to me that I go along. Fly promised I'd get to ride a surfboard.

12

T
he last thing I needed was a brand-new monster, fresh off the assembly line. For this, Fly, Albert, Jill, Captain Hidalgo, and I had traveled all the way to the mainland? For this, we'd taken a voyage in a cramped submarine meant for half the number of personnel aboard? (Of course, the sub seemed like spacious accommodations after the shuttle we'd built on Deimos.) I mean, I was all set to encounter new cosmic horrors when we returned to the great black yonder. Arlene, astrogator and monster-slayer—I'm available for the job at reasonable rates! But none of us were prepared for what awaited us in the shallows off good old California.

The military airfield at Point Mugu is about five miles south of Oxnard. When we passed the Channel Islands, Captain Ellison told us we'd be offshore—as close to land as the sub dared—in about thirty
minutes. Of course he used naval time. After spending years in uniform, I'm surprised I prefer thinking in civilian terms for time, distances, and holidays.

The trip had been uneventful, except for Jill hassling me about what a great asset she would be to the mission if we took her to Phobos. I finally got tired of her and suggested she bug Captain Hidalgo. After all, he was in charge. Too much of Jill and I thought our marine officer might be willing to space himself.

Hidalgo handled Jill very well. He simply told her that her part of the mission would be finished at the base. He also reminded her that Ken had gone to a lot of trouble to work out a plan for her return trip, and she didn't want to let him down, did she? Then he wouldn't listen to her anymore. In some respects Hidalgo was more qualified to be a father than Fly was. But that didn't prove that he had what it took to save the universe from galactic meanies. That was sort of a specialized field.

I'd never been aboard a submarine before. I disliked the odor. In working hard to eliminate the men's-locker-room aroma, they had come up with something a lot worse, something indescribable—at least by me.

The captain of the sub was a good officer. Ellison was plenty tough and well qualified for the job. He was almost apologetic when he explained how we were expected to go ashore.

“You're kidding,” said Albert.

“Surfboards,” repeated Captain Ellison. “We have four long boards for the adults and a boogie board for the . . .” He saw Jill glaring at him and choked off the word he was about to say. “The smaller board is for Jill. It was especially designed for her body size.”

“Neat,” said Jill, mollified. “It's just like Fly promised.”

“Why are we going in by surfboard?” I heard myself ask.

Fly shrugged. He'd found out about it before Jill or I had. That didn't mean he approved.

Hidalgo had a ready answer. “So the enemy won't find a raft or other evidence of a commando raid.”

I should have kept my mouth shut. I was the one telling Fly to hold off on passing judgment. But I didn't seem able to keep certain words from coming out: “You think these demons can make fine distinctions like that, the same as a human enemy in a human war?”

Captain Hidalgo believed in dealing with insubordination right away. “First, this is a decision from above, Lance Corporal. We will follow orders. Second, there are human traitors, in case you don't remember. They might be able to make these distinctions. Third, we will not take any unnecessary chances. Fourth, I refer you to my first point. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.” I said it with sincerity. He did have a point, or two.

When Jill got me alone—not an easy thing to do on a sub—she said, “Hooray. We get to surf!”

“Have you ever ridden a board?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she admitted, “but I've been to the beach plenty of times and seen how it's done.”

Oh, great,
I thought.

“Have you?” she asked.

“As a matter of fact, I have. We've just left the ideal place to learn. Hawaii. They have real waves there. You can get a large enough wave to shoot the curl.”

“Huh?”

This was looking less and less promising. I explained: “The really large waves create a semi-tunnel that you can sort of skim through. You've seen it in movies.”

“Oh, sure. But we won't have waves that large off L.A., will we?”

She was a smart kid. “No, we shouldn't. We'll be dropped near a beach north of L.A. This time of the year, with no storms, the waves should be gentle.”

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