Read Infernal Sky Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky (4 page)

“You trade in the old model you're driving for a new one.” Mulligan grinned; he was into the spirit of the thing now.

“Thanks to my superb driving skills—”

“You were weaving all over the road like a drunk on New Year's Eve,” Fly interjected.

“Exactly,” I agreed without missing a beat. “So we survived the surprise attack. I slammed the car into a row of garbage cans, and we wasted no time exiting the vehicle and returning fire.”

“I wondered what Corporal Taggart was doing all this time,” said Mulligan.

“Watching the rear,” said Fly. “Perhaps you've forgotten we were being chased.”

“So then what?”

“Good luck was what,” I told the master gun. “An abandoned UPS truck was parked on the side of the street. We made our way over to it, simply hoping it was in working order. Well, we hit the jackpot. Inside was a gun nut's paradise, a whole shipment addressed to Ahern Enterprises.”

“The bazooka,” said Fly. “Don't forget to tell him about the bazooka.”

Poor Mulligan ran out of beer. He was on his own now. “The hell-prince, as you call him, didn't fry your butts before you could use all this stuff?”

“Nope,” I said. “His second shot missed us by a country klick.”

“Then what happened?”

“We fried his butt,” I recounted.

“But . . .” Mulligan started a thought and came to a dead stop. He tried again. “We all know how freakin' stupid these things are, but I'm surprised that in all your encounters the enemy never has any luck.”

“I wonder about that myself sometimes,” Fly admitted.
“I wouldn't bet on my survival in most of these situations, but Arlene and I seem very hard to kill. That's why we're certain to be put back on a strike team.”

“What helped us that time,” I continued, “was that a bunch of pumpkins were in the vanguard of our pursuers.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Mulligan. “Your name for those crazy flying things. I remember your stories about how the pumpkins and hell-princes hate each other.”

“We learned that on Deimos,” Fly contributed.

“While the pumpkins and hell-prince wasted each other's time, we prepared the bazooka for the hell-prince. Between the pumpkins and us, we took him down. Which only left us with the problem of being surrounded by half a dozen deadly spheres. Fly and I used another trick that worked on Deimos: we stood back-to-back, and each of us laid down fire in a 270-degree sweep. That created the ingredients for a very large pie.”

“So then you checked out the contents of the truck.”

“Like I said, it was gun nut heaven. We did a quick inventory and took what was easiest to get at.”

Fly remembered a grim moment. “I opened one box expecting to find ammo, but it was a case of books defending the Second Amendment. I even remember the title,
Stopping Power
by J. Neil Schulman. The stopping power I needed right then could not be provided by book pages.”

“I had a moment of frustration, too,” I said. “I found the shipping form. It showed that the most inaccessible box contained a number of specialized handguns, including one I'd always wanted. There simply wasn't enough time to unload the truck.”

“What was the specialized gun?” asked Mulligan.

“Watch out,” Fly warned him, but it was too late. The master gun had asked the question.

“It's a Super Blackhawk .357 Magnum caliber sidearm. Looks like an old western six-gun, but there the resemblance ends. The only drawback used to be that it didn't conceal well, with its nine inch barrel. But in today's world that's no problem! Who needs to conceal weapons any longer? Anyway, you can knock something over at a hundred yards with this gun, but it helps to have a scope. Best of all, the Blackhawk has a transfer bar mechanism. If you have a live round under the hammer and strike it with a heavy object, it won't discharge. Isn't that cool? But that's not all—”

“Arlene.” Distantly I heard Fly's voice. “That's probably enough.”

“But I haven't told him about the cylinder. It doesn't swing out so as to empty the spent shells. All you have to do is flip open the loading gate, push the ejection rod—”

“Arlene.” Fly was using one of his very special tones of voice.

“Okay, okay,” I surrendered. “Where was I? Well, we were checking out our little candy store, but we didn't have much time.”

“So you hot-wired the truck?” Mulligan guessed.

“Hey, who's telling this story? The same good luck that provided us with a UPS weapons shipment left the key in the ignition and enough gas in the tank to get us to the airport. Who knows what happened to the driver? His ID was still on the dashboard—some poor bastard named Tymon. Maybe he was zombified and went looking for work at the post office. Anyway, we hauled ass and made it to the airport in record time.”

Fly jumped back in. “Where I would have paddled Jill on her posterior, except that Arlene thought that might be misunderstood. Besides, I could only be so angry with someone who had probably saved our lives.”

“The force field was still down,” I continued. “I was surprised. Enough time had passed for them to put it up again, but we were not fighting the greatest brains in the universe. Ken seemed relieved that half his work was done.”

“Half?” asked my burly audience.

“Sure. Ken had been busy while he waited for us to show up. He'd tapped into the system with an idea that turned out to be very helpful.”

“So what was Jill doing all this time?” he asked.

“We took off. She didn't want to wait any longer, especially now that we could see imps and zombies piling into other planes so they could pursue us.”

“Jesus,” said Mulligan. “According to what you told me before, Jill had done okay; but it takes a lot more than not cracking up a plane to survive a dogfight.”

“Jill was thinking along those lines herself,” I said. “I tried to cheer her up by reminding her of the skill levels of the typical imp and zombie. As it turned out, it didn't matter. No sooner was Jill out past the shore than Ken solved the problem he'd been working on. He raised the force field just in time to swat the enemy planes out of the air like flies.”

“Hey,” said my best buddy.

“As a bonus, Ken hosed the password file so they wouldn't be able to lower the field and follow us. We realized we could actually relax for a while. Good practice for our time with you, George.”

“Now,
that
part I believe,” said the master gun.

5

“O
utstanding mission,” was Mulligan's verdict. “You two are a credit to the Corps.”

“You've done all right yourself,” I returned the compliment.

“Thanks, Fly,” he said.

Meanwhile Arlene took a break from our company, and from the extended trip down memory lane. She ran into the surf. I shielded my eyes against the glaring sun to watch her precise movements. Nice to see her using her physical skills for fun instead of taking down demons. The ocean beckoned me, too. Mulligan gave it a pass.

As I watched Arlene's trim body darting in and out of the waves like a sleek dolphin, I marveled for the hundredth time that we were alive and together in a setting untouched by doom. After wading in a literal ocean of alien blood, I felt clean again in the cool ocean water. I discovered scratches and cuts and abrasions I didn't even know I had as the salt water caressed my body. Swimming stretched muscles that weren't often used in battle. I felt truly alive.

Arlene was as playful as a kid as she waved and challenged me to catch up with her. I obliged. Time
for upper body strength and a longer reach to help me in my hour of need. I poured it on and moved so swiftly that my hand found her smooth ankle before she could get away.

My buddy, my fellow warrior who was as good a man as any other marine, had delicate little feet! Not like those of any other PFC of my acquaintance. The admiral could have slapped together a World War II poster with Arlene's picture and a caption: “This is what you're fighting for.” We were soldiers in what might prove to be the last battle of the human race. But I liked a human face to remind me why I fought.

We splashed each other and played so hard that I swallowed a mouthful from Davy Jones's locker. And I kept finding excuses to touch the smooth skin of my buddy. There had been a subtle change between us after Albert came into her life, though.

I wasn't going to try to come between them. Just as I had steered clear of Arlene and Dodd, until her boyfriend unwillingly joined the zombie corps—
beast
all you can be. She and Albert both deserved whatever chance for happiness they could grab. We were marines. We didn't need to volunteer for the crazy suicide missions. We were assigned to them as a matter of course.

This vacation wasn't going to last.

Looking toward the beach, I saw that Mulligan had finished his beer and returned to HQ. He wasn't the type to sunbathe on purpose.

“What time is it?” asked Arlene, pausing only long enough to spit salt water in my direction.

I made a big deal of lifting my left arm to show off my brand-new plastalloy wristwatch, spaceproof and waterproof. I checked the time. “According to the best naval time, it's late afternoon.”

“Teatime.”

“Just about,” I answered. “You know, it was about this time last week when they took the bandages off Albert's eyes.”

“He beat them,” she said, suddenly very serious, and I was with her all the way.

No damned imp with a lucky fireball had succeeded in blinding our big Mormon buddy. I was still pissed that Bill Ritch had been killed in similar circumstances on Deimos. Well, the bastards didn't have any of Albert. The L.A. mission had turned out to be a mortality-free operation. Hell, we'd even rescued Ken Estes when the man could do nothing to help himself. The docs had him sitting up in bed, wearing pajamas instead of mummy wrappings, and he could talk again. A bona fide miracle. Then it was Albert's turn.

“Fly,” said Arlene, up close all of a sudden.

“Yeah?”

“You're a great guy,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek. She could always surprise me.

“What brought that on?” I asked.

“You care about Albert,” she said softly. “You care about Jill and Ken, too.”

I shook my head. “Don't think that way,” I told her. “You can't relax into—”

She put her hand over my mouth. It was her turn again: “You're not the only marine who can make command decisions. Soon the only people left in the world will have the will to sacrifice their loved ones if that's what it takes to defeat the invaders. Meanwhile, we can care for one another.”

“You're not describing civilians,” I said coldly.

She started swimming for the shore, but then turned back, treading water, and completed my education:
“There are no civilians any longer, Fly. Every survivor is a soldier in this war.”

I gave her that point. After all, she hadn't said everyone was a marine. I could accept the idea that all terrestrial life-forms had volunteered for grunt duty on the front line. The whole planet was the front line.

Floating on my back for a moment, I let Arlene's words wash over me. The heat of the sun and the cool of the water threatened me with sleep. We hadn't had very much of that in the past month. I'd always been naturally buoyant, but I wasn't going to risk taking a doze in the ocean. It would be funny if a guy who had survived spider-minds and steam demons drowned a short distance from his best buddy.

I swam to shore, where Arlene was waiting for me, pointing to something behind me. I looked around and for a moment thought she was referring to the cloud the admiral had noticed earlier, but it had vanished. She was interested in the black fin a hundred yards away from us.

“There's someone for your terrestrial army,” I said. At the time I thought it was a shark.

“Do you think we'll ever get Jill to eat seafood?” she asked.

“I doubt it. Speaking of Jill, let's check up on her.”

*   *   *

I'm lonely. I'm bored. I thought when we got to Hawaii I'd find some kids my own age. Everyone here is either an adult or a little kid. Some of them don't even call me Jill. They call me “the teenager.”

At first they made a big fuss. The admiral gave me a medal. They were short on the real thing, so he used some old golf ribbon he'd won years ago, but it meant a lot to him, so I was polite. I was uncomfortable at
the way everyone looked at me, but it was still kind of nice. The pisser was, no one would get off my age after that.

Except for Dr. Forrest Ackerman. He was probably crazy, but he was nice to me. “You're a genius,” he kept repeating. “I prefer the company of geniuses.”

He looked like Vincent Price from an old horror movie, complete with neat little mustache. I might not have remembered that movie except that the doctor considered himself a monster expert. “Let the others call them ‘the enemy,' ” he said, winking. “They're more comfortable with the old language. ‘The enemy' refers to something human. We face principalities and powers. We're monster-fighters.”

I had no idea what he meant by principalities and powers, but at least he didn't talk down to me.

There were a dozen computer jobs I could have taken now that I was a big hero; but I chose to work with Ackerman. For one thing, he'd asked me to. His research was interesting, and there was a lot I could do for him.

I didn't mind his interest in me, especially if I was going to be an assistant. But I didn't like the way he kept asking about the others. Albert, Fly, and Arlene had lots of military stuff to keep them busy. Ken was recovering in the hospital; whenever we talked, he tired out quickly.

“There is every indication that Ken is also a genius,” Ackerman said, smiling.

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