Read Infernal Sky Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky (6 page)

“You mean like the spider-minds?”

I didn't need to tell him what that word meant. “Apparently all of them. Then there was the loquacious imp whom Corporal Taggart reported encountering on Phobos.”

He was on one of my favorite subjects. “We wondered about the smart ones when we were doing the L.A. mission.”

“What were your conclusions?”

I suddenly noticed how long we'd been walking. “How much farther before we reach the zombies?”

“Not long. Just don't ask if we're there yet! It'll make me think of you as a kid again.”

“Is there a rest room I can use?”

“Just a few feet beyond the zombie pen.” He sounded impatient. “So what did all of you conclude?”

“Whenever a normal, stupid one talks, there must be a smarter one somewhere, sending the words.”

“Like broadcasting a radio signal. We've been
working along the same lines. Do you think the spider-minds do their own thinking?”

“Search me.”

“They could be on the receiving end as well.”

“So tell me about your zombies.” I was truly interested. We'd walked a good distance and still no sight of the corpse-creeps.

“Well, we have a total of thirteen. We've run identity checks. You know how impossible it is to destroy information today.”

“Yeah, the monsters can't rip a big hole in the Net, even with their fat asses.”

“They've slowed us down, but they can't stop us cold.”

“We'll stop them cold.”

“Attagirl! Anyway, one of the zombies was once an editor named Anders Monsen. He repeats phrases from his profession. At least, that's what we think he's doing. One of the women is Michelle DeLude, a blonde. She keeps repeating how she must get to Las Vegas in time for her wedding. Mark Stephens ran a bookstore. Butler Shaffer was a law professor. Tina Karos was a paralegal. She's the brunette. Both the ladies were very attractive in life. Shame to see them monsterized. The other eight were seamen stationed right here in Hawaii. One was a huge man his friends called Big Lee. Don't remember the names of the others.”

Ackerman could have been a teacher. He made me want to meet his special class of dead people. I was looking forward to it . . . until the door marked Maximum Security swung open and a large shape filled the doorway, swinging a meat cleaver with which it hacked off Dr. Ackerman's head.

7

I
'll never admit this to Arlene, but for the first time I doubt my faith. I don't want to be Albert the agnostic. I have to write this out of my system. When I'm finished, I'll destroy it and write her a real letter. It might seem stupid to write to someone I could speak to in person, but when I look into her green eyes, I become tongue-tied. The way she arches her right eyebrow and smiles with a smile as hot as her flaming red hair, I just can't talk to her. She offers me herself, and all I can do is tell her about my religion.

She was the first sight I beheld after the operation. They did what they could for my face, but I didn't need to look in a mirror to realize I had permanent scars. My face still burns. It will burn forever from the new valleys and ridges etched into my forehead and cheeks and chin. I suppose there is consolation in not being as ugly as an imp. Of course, I'll have a head start if I'm ever turned into a zombie.

I know it's wrong to worry about my appearance when I could have been blind for the rest of my life. May God forgive my vanity.

Arlene won't let me be sorry for myself. She bent over my hospital bed, smiling like an angel, and
kissed up and down the tortured flesh of my disfigured face. “You'll always be my Albert,” she whispered so that only I could hear.

We've shared experiences few mortals will ever know. We've faced down the wrath of a spider-mind. We've tasted the brimstone of a fire eater. (I can't figure out why the scientists here call those things arch-viles.) Together we've spilled the slimy guts of pumpkins and princes of hell. I was willing to wade through a sea of blood with this woman. But when she turned her face to me and offered me her high cheekbones to touch and her full mouth to kiss, I pulled away.

She must think I'm a fool. A woman who has proved herself in a world of men, she is not squeamish about the human body. Women tend to be more matter-of-fact about the body anyway. They already live in the sea of blood so it must seem very strange to watch men deliberately embark upon that crimson ocean. Does a foxhole really compare to childbirth? I was brought up to believe that the highest destiny of a woman is to bring children into the world. The church reinforced these attitudes. I can respect a woman who is a fighter but I can't shake the idea she's shirking her responsibility as a woman. It's like if she dies on a battlefield, she gets off easy. If she's an officer, she exercises a trivial kind of authority compared to what God intends for her to do with her children.

So here comes Arlene Sanders with her high-and-tight, tossing back her head as if she had long hair down to her waist, showing off her long neck and firm jaw, and shouldering her piece with as much authority as any man. Yeah, I'll pretend it's the day after Halloween and help her blow away pumpkins. But I won't touch her with my naked hand.

Intellectually, I don't doubt the Book of Mormon. History shows that a life of marriage and children is intended for men and women on this earth. When we move away from that, we become miserable. When we do our duty, we know a happiness of which no hedonist can even dream.

I guess my problem is that I thought I'd been tempted before. But the women who offered themselves to me for quick and easy sex were not women I respected. They'd never stood up to devils from the depths of space. They'd never encountered the now-or-never choice of giving up your life for a buddy—and surviving only because he'd do the same for you. I'd met plenty of women who were into rock, but PFC Arlene Sanders was the first who could really rock and roll!

Turning down her offer hurts so much because if a buddy asked for anything else, I'd come through without giving it a second thought. How can she treat the act of love so casually? I know lots of men who'd jump at the chance offered by Arlene, but she probably wouldn't be interested in them. My usual lousy luck—she's attracted to me because she knows I'll say no.

Even when I was a jock back in high school, there were cheerleaders after me. Being big and muscular has its advantages. The smart guys thought I was stupid and left me alone. That was probably an advantage also.

I want a family. I want a loving wife who will give me children. It's that simple, but I can't make the words come out. Words are fragile tools. When you try to turn them into weapons they often break. I can't write the letter to Arlene today. I don't have the Sky
words. I pray that I'll find the words while we're still together.

In a world of real demons, there isn't any time to waste. Nor is this a good time to question my faith just because I suddenly discover I cannot govern my passions. I might even have a future in which to raise a family.

Once, when I was reading a book in the Mormon library, I came across a line that stayed with me. I don't remember the author, but he said: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I take that to mean that happiness grows out of love. Love is based on your actions. So is faith.

How do I tell Arlene that I want all or nothing? Especially when she's already offered me more than I deserve . . . And how can we make a decision for the future in a world like this? My hell on Earth is a world where Arlene is right and I'm wrong. Do we even have a right to try to plan for the future? If we were the last two people in a universe of monsters, there would be a certain legitimacy in trying to make a life together, in however brief a span was allotted to us. But our lives are not our own. There is the Corps. One, two, three, four,
she
loves the Marine Corps. She loves it more than I do. So does Fly. There is that link between them.

We are under orders more severe than any monastery could impose. Perversely, I have taken an oath of celibacy that she has not taken. Arlene Sanders is a worldly woman, whether on this planet or off.

But I am honest enough to admit that I have no intention of changing. If it were proven to me tomorrow that the Mormon faith is false, I would not
become a moral relativist. I would not treat human relations as casual affairs. I take people too seriously for that. I'd still believe in my morality even if no God provided supernatural guidance.

I pray that one day Arlene will understand how much faith I have in her. Suddenly I realize that I can't write her a letter. I have to tell her all this in person. Despite all my reservations, I must have the courage of my convictions.

I'm going to ask her to marry me.

*   *   *

“Arlene, look out!”

The little voice in the back of my head just wouldn't shut up about how stupid it was to go anywhere without being armed to the teeth. Arlene and I hadn't felt safe enough to go unarmed since the first day of the Phobos invasion. We even kidded each other about going to the beach without either of us packing a piece. I wouldn't have minded seeing her with a nice Colt .45 strapped to her and leaving its mark on her nearly naked body. She's my buddy, but I still have an imagination.

Here we were in a stronghold of humanity. This was one place where we didn't have to feel like the black gang-banger surrounded by white cops in what a police commissioner might refer to as a target-rich environment. Here we could let down our hair—a joke when you have a marine haircut—and go naked, which has nothing to do with clothes and everything to do with being unarmed.

Nothing threatened us on the beach, except maybe that lazy shark we'd noticed right before coming in. We didn't have any need of firepower when we went through the security check. We simply needed our big bath towels because the air conditioning was on full
blast inside. It was still our day of R&R, and neither of us was in a rush to get back into uniform. I'd never enjoyed wearing civvies more in my life.

We weren't expecting trouble as we went looking for Jill. Ackerman's monster lab was a lot closer than Albert, who'd “gone to town,” and Arlene figured her beau still needed time alone.

It wasn't until we went into the biology research department that the old marine training kicked in. Something just didn't feel right. Maybe it was not seeing more people than we did. But when I noticed the female lab technician from behind, I knew something was wrong. Her long black tresses were a tattered mass stained with splotches of green. She had a great figure, and something told me she'd never let her hair go like that. Her lab coat was wrinkled and disgustingly dirty, though I knew the admiral ran a tight ship and wouldn't abide slovenliness.

Arlene picked up the pace and started hoofing it over to the technician. As the woman started to turn, I couldn't believe that Arlene wouldn't notice the messy hair and the dirty lab coat. My best buddy wasn't just a great warrior; she was female.

No sooner did I shout, “Arlene, look out,” than I realized I didn't need to worry about her. She went into a roll that made her a less promising target than I was. Marine, protect your own ass!

Turning sideways, I flattened myself against the wall before the female zombie got off her first shot. Arlene made certain she didn't get another. Zombie reflexes suck. Even a woman in good physical condition would have had trouble stopping Arlene coming up from the floor, right arm straight up like the Statue of Liberty, and knocking the gun from the cold leathery hand that was yet to get off a second shot.

The next few seconds proved to be the corollary to “Practice Makes Perfect.” We'd both become a little rusty. There was no other explanation for Zombie Girl getting away before Arlene could slam her hard against the convenient back wall—providing plenty of time for one of us to retrieve the gun from the floor and pump lead into the leathery blue-gray face of our walking beauty.

This zombie lass moved very quickly, though—faster than any zombie I'd ever seen. She also shouted something very strange about having to get to court. Then she darted through a door to my left before Arlene could reach her from the rear or I could approach her from the front.

“Those morons!” Arlene screamed. “What kind of security do they call this?”

I was pissed too, but I had more sympathy for a genuine blunder than Arlene did. Watching that bastard Weems order the murder of the monks in Kefiristan had softened me toward mere incompetence. The science boys had to study everything they could get their hands on. I didn't expect there wouldn't be risks. But whatever had gone wrong, it was now a job for people like Arlene and me.

She'd already picked up the piece from the floor, a .38 caliber revolver. I liked the idea of acquiring more artillery as quickly as possible.

A scream from the other side of the door brought us back to immediate reality. Reconnoitering was a luxury, and going to the armory was a vacation from the job.

We went through the door together, me coming in low and Arlene braced, pointing the gun ahead of us—a beacon of truth with its own special kind of
flame. But she didn't fire right away. She was afraid of hitting the woman that the zombie in the lab coat was carving up like a Christmas turkey.

The victim stared at us without seeing what was in front of her. The broken beaker in the zombie's hand occupied the woman's full attention. Zombie Girl had already cut her victim around her breasts and arms. The angle made it impossible for us to alter the events of the next few seconds. That was all the time the zombie needed.

She drew her makeshift knife in a slashing movement across the white throat of the victim. The throat didn't stay white very long. The lifeblood spurted out so fast that it covered the hand holding the broken glass, and it looked as if the zombie had spilled a bucket of red paint over itself.

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