Read Infernal Sky Online

Authors: Dafydd ab Hugh

Infernal Sky (8 page)

They have a lot to cover today. The service for Ackerman and his staff was held this morning. I watched it on the monitor. So much has happened since yesterday.

First, the admiral will pretend there was a possibility of sabotage even though the video recordings show that the killings were the result of simple carelessness on the part of one of Ackerman's staff. Plain incompetence led to the holocaust. Those tapes remain classified, naturally. The possibility of a traitor does more for gung-ho morale than an admission of incompetence. I can hardly fault our new leaders for being students of history.

Besides, my friends will be receiving a big dose of declassified material relevant to their next mission.
They shouldn't be greedy for too much declassified material all at once. It causes indigestion. Besides, their marine colonel will be giving them a nice dessert.

I should have a better attitude about this. The other side is so terrible that we should forgive our own shortcomings. Isn't that what they said when they were fighting Hitler? The doom demons, as Jill likes to call them, are perfect enemies. In the name of fighting them, we can do anything we want. No, it isn't fair to say we want to do terrible things. We will win by any means necessary, as Malcolm X used to say.

9

B
y the time I joined Fly and Jill, I could breathe easy again. It was Fly
and
Jill. He saved her. I knew the big lug would. There was no way I could have left a man bleeding to death when I had the training to save him.

Of course, the navy's security forces were swarming everywhere by then. I didn't mind that two of the first of Kimmel's finest were Mark Stanfill and Jim Ivey, my poker playing buddies (Fly wasn't in our league).
When everything's gone to hell in a hand basket, personal ID can make the crucial difference in whether somebody panics and pulls the trigger. Ackerman's facilities had been turned into a zombie cafeteria, and that was enough to make anyone panic.

Fly, Jill, and I were hustled into a decontamination chamber. After all the contact we'd had with these creatures I almost laughed at precautions this late in the game. Then again, I shouldn't criticize Hawaii Base for being thorough. It would be a kick in the ass if we defeated the enemy only to succumb to diseases already coursing through our bloodstreams.

In the evening, I saw Albert at dinner. He was a worse poker player than Fly because he couldn't keep emotions from marching across his face.

“Arlene, are you all right?” he asked, noticing Jill's smile a second later. “Are
all
of you okay?” he added.

“We're fine,” Fly assured him, grinning.

“We needed the practice,” Jill added.

“Stop giving him a hard time,” I told the other two. “Don't mind these kill-crazy kids, Albert.”

“Hey!” Fly protested, still smiling.

“Seriously, Albert, after all we've done together, this was no big deal.” I noticed that other tables frequently occupied by now were only half full. The death toll hadn't been that high, considering the surprise element. All the zombies were accounted for, and wasted. (At least Ackerman kept good records.) The only explanation for the sparse crowd was that a number of our comrades had been put off their food by a first sloppy encounter with the drool ghouls. So we could have seconds if we wanted.

Albert sighed and joined us. The tables were set up cafeteria-style, and our little group tended to gravitate
together. We were so taken with Ken that he'd probably belong to our little supper club if he ever ate solids again.

“I didn't hear about the zombies until I returned,” he said almost apologetically.

“How was town?” asked Jill.

“I was shopping.” Those innocuous words came out of Albert freighted with an extra meaning. I wasn't the only one who heard it.

We ate our Salisbury steaks in silence. I finished and started to get up with the intention of depositing my tray in the proper receptacle. I figured my figure didn't really need the extra calories of seconds, after all. Albert was only starting to eat, but he abandoned his food. And Albert is a growing boy.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?” he asked. The style was definitely not him. I couldn't help noticing Jill's eyes burning into him. She sensed something was up. Fly was busy paying close attention to his pineapple dessert.

“Sure,” I said. For one moment I let wishful thinking override the rational part of my brain. I wanted to believe that Albert had changed his mind about our sleeping together. I'd forgotten that where this big, wonderful guy was concerned, the most important aspect of sleeping together was the dreaming that went along with it—and the promises.

I don't know what surprised me more. That he'd come up with a ring during his shopping expedition, or that he put it to me with such direct simplicity: “Arlene, will you marry me?”

I'd opened the door to this when I made a play for him. If I had a half a brain, I'd have realized what my interest would mean to a man of this caliber.

We stood together next to a perfect facsimile of a World War II era poster proclaiming, “Loose lips sink ships.” He watched me closely, especially my mouth, waiting for words promising his own personal salvation or damnation. I'd have been happier if he'd looked away. Suddenly I wasn't as brave as I thought I was.

“Albert.” I only got the one word out. His expression spoke volumes. He'd certainly wrestled with all the problems haunting me. I wouldn't even insult him by bringing them up.

“That ring . . .” he began.

“It's beautiful, but I couldn't dream of accepting it until . . . I mean, I need to think . . .”

It was like one of those comedies where the characters talk at cross-purposes. Who would think a simple gold band could present a greater challenge than escaping from the Disney Tower?

“I'd like you to keep it,” he said. “You don't have to think of it as an engagement ring, or anything you don't want it to be. I don't expect you to wear it, if you're not sure. Arlene, you mean so much to me that when you offered what I couldn't accept, I had to respond in my own way. I had to let you know how I feel.”

Reaching out to take his hand was the easiest thing in the world, until I felt the slight tremor in his palm. It took all my courage to gaze into his eyes and say, “I can't tell you now. You must understand.”

“Of course I do.”

“Thank you,” I said and kissed him on the cheek. His smile was a more beautiful sight than any golden ring could ever be. “I'd like to have this,” I continued. “Is that right, I mean, before I . . .”

He was too much of a gentleman to let me finish. “I'd be honored if you keep it, Arlene, whatever you decide. We need to get used to making our own rules in our brave new world.”

This was unexpected talk from my big, fine Mormon. “Does your God approve of that kind of thinking?” I asked him.

He took my challenge in stride. “If those of my faith are right, Arlene, he's everybody's God, isn't he?” Then he returned my chaste kiss and left me to my own devices.

The next morning, at the briefing for everyone with a Level 5 clearance or higher, I proudly wore the thin band of gold on the chain with my dog tags. Fly noticed it right away. I'll bet he was as glad as I was to be back in uniform.

Admiral Kimmel wore the face any CO puts on when the situation is grave. So did the highest-ranking officer the Marine Corps had in Hawaii, Colonel Dan Hooker. When these men were officiating together, the situation was plenty serious.

“We are investigating the possibility of sabotage,” said the admiral. “Fortunately, quick thinking on the part of men and women who weren't asleep at the switch kept our losses low and neutralized the zombie threat. The navy is grateful for the help we received from marine personnel.”

The two officers shook hands. The way these men regarded each other, they put more into that handshake than plenty of salutes I've seen in my day. It was nice having officers who paid attention to details. The same could be said of the man Admiral Kimmel introduced next.

Professor Warren Williams was in charge of all the
scientific work being done in Hawaii. It was difficult to pinpoint his area of greatest expertise. He had degrees in physics, astronomy, biology, computer science, and folklore. His motto was taken from the science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein: “Specialization is for insects.”

He had a sense of humor, too, which he now demonstrated. “In his copious spare time, the admiral explains military terminology to me. I thought ‘mission creep' is what we had yesterday when those creeps got loose in Ackerman's lab.” He earned only a few nervous chuckles for that quip. The memory of the dead was still too fresh.

He changed the subject: “In normal times my position would be held only by someone with a certain degree of military training. A year ago I would have described myself as a militant civilian.” This won him a few more chuckles. “Not since World War II have so many ill-prepared eggheads been thrown into the military omelet. But when there's no choice, there's no choice. I may have taken my first step toward this job when I first learned about the top secret of the Martian moons. I was suspicious of the Gates the moment I realized that anything might come through them.”

He looked a little like Robert Oppenheimer. I could imagine him working on the A-bomb. “The admiral and I agree on how you can tell when you are in perilous times. That's when people go out of their way to listen to the advice of engineers.” Only one person laughed at this. Me.

He covered other material about the operations of the base, but his eyes kept coming to me. I didn't think he was going to ask for a date. Fly and I had
proved ourselves too often, too well. I figured we were first choice for the director's punch line; and we'd better not have a glass jaw.

He proved me right when the general briefing was over and he asked to see the Big Four, as we sometimes jokingly called ourselves. I'm sure there were adults at the base who resented a kid like Jill being entrusted with material that was off-limits to them. But if so, they kept it to themselves.

Jill's growing up fast. There's nothing wrong with that, I know it bugs Fly when men old enough to be her father start giving her the eye. She's tall for her age. She has one of those pouty mouths that drive men nuts. I don't worry about who kisses that mouth so long as the brain directly over it is in charge. In between spilling demon guts all over the great American West, I took Jill aside and gave her the crash course in birds, bees, and babies.

Of course, she doesn't have to worry about any sexually transmitted diseases. Medical science marches on. But who would have thought that no sooner does the human race eliminate AIDS than along come monsters from space? In the words of the late-twentieth-century comic, Gilda Radner, “It's always something.”

Anyway, Fly acts more and more like a worried father where Jill is concerned. This can be a good thing. It gave him that extra bit of fire when he saved her in Ackerman's lab. But I don't know how to tell him to let go when I can't solve my own personal problems—Albert as a prospective husband.

Albert is a sensitive man, a shy man. I don't want to hurt him. I'd rather eat one of my own mini-rockets than make him suffer. But I've spent my life being
true to
myself.
Now I don't know if it's concern for Albert that makes me hesitate to accept his marriage proposal . . . or if I fear commitment to a man I love more than I do a roomful of lost souls, the dumb name the science boys have given the flying skulls. If I survive our final missions, and Earth is secure once more, will I be willing to give this man children? I don't even want to think about it. Yet I know that that expectation is implicit in his proposal. To Albert, marriage without trying to have children only counts as serious dating. Maybe I'm afraid of asking Fly to be godfather to my kids.

As the director led us into his inner sanctum, I felt once again that the four of us had already formed a strange family unit of our own. Maybe we were the model of the smallest functional social unit of the future—but make sure the kid has a good aim!

As I gazed at the gigantic radio-controlled telescope, the long tube reminded me of a cannon, a perfect symbol for combining the scientific and the military. Williams stood in front of it, feet braced, hands behind his back. He seemed more military at that moment than the admiral and the colonel, who stood over to the side, as if deferring to the scientist.

Before the director even opened his mouth I had the sinking feeling that all our personal problems were about to be put on the back burner. Again.

10

“C
orporal Taggart,” the director addressed me. “How did you like your time in space?”

I'm always honest when no life is at stake. “I always wanted to go, sir. If you know my record, you're aware I didn't get up there in the way I intended.”

“If ever a court-martial was a miscarriage of justice, yours would've been,” volunteered Colonel Hooker, looking directly at me. “One good thing about wartime is that it makes it easy to cut through the red tape. I enjoyed pencil-whipping that problem for you, marine!”

“Thank you, sir.”

The director returned us to the subject. “I bring up the matter of fighting in space for a reason. We intend to take the battle back to the Freds. We know that you and PFC Sanders”—he nodded in Arlene's direction—“have a unique capacity in this regard.”

I knew that vacation time was over. I also wondered who the hell the Freds were.

Williams let us have it right between the ears. “Over a year ago, before I joined the team, this installation received a coherent signal from space. No other radio telescope picked it up. At first the men
who received it thought it was mechanical failure or someone playing a joke on them. It could have come from a small radio a couple of klicks away, but it didn't.”

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