Black Petals Issue #83 Spring, 2018

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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Door #2-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Inmate's Asylum-Fiction by Mark Joseph Kevlock
Nature Verses Nurture-Fiction by Donna J. W. Munro
Strange Music Follows Her Everywhere-Fiction by Hillary Lyon
Surviving Montezuma, Conclusion-Serialized Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Corpse Grinder-Poem by Alexis Child
El Cuero-Four Poems by Richard Stevenson

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SURVIVING MONTEZUMA, Chapters 15 thru 19

 

By Kenneth J. Crist, BP Editor

 

The battle joined

 

 

Chapter 15

 

 

Ten days passed all too quickly for the Marines of Rawdon’s Rangers, and then it was back to business. Most had spent time with their families on Earth and very few actually wound up in jail anywhere. Within a day of their return Billy pulled an inspection and failed them miserably. It was not that they were really that bad, but he didn’t want them to think him easy.

Soon, it was back to simulator training and constant drills and classes until they could carry out their duties, strip and assemble their weapons and find their battle stations in total darkness. Each day found them getting harder and better and more ready for the unknown time that lay ahead.

Billy was smart enough to know that they would soon chafe under the constant training and actually start to lose their edge. He hoped something would happen soon.

 

In the Trojan asteroids, two hiveships were dead, their occupants nothing but fodder for the deadly fungus they had brought aboard. Two more were in the process of dying, and the commanders of the remaining ships, twenty-eight in all, had finally realized that whatever was killing them was being spread from ship to ship. A conference with the plant life and an assessment of their situation prompted them to act. 483 million miles from the sun, the great hiveships eased out of the asteroid fields and set course for Earth. They were not as ready as they might have been, but felt that to delay any longer could be fatal.

 

Less than thirty days into his new command, Billy Hatcher was called to a conference in the main auditorium of Earth Station, in Section 2. Tripoli was still docked alongside the station, the enclosed hangar bays of the space station being too small to accommodate her bulk.

Billy made his way along corridors now familiar, through officer’s country, and, just before reaching the auditorium, was saluted by the same Lance Corporal he’d been with when the Glassie prisoners had been loose. They stopped and exchanged pleasantries, and the Lance inquired about Lieutenant Kinkaid. Billy told him she’d been reassigned to Pensacola, but carefully omitted any reference to her condition. He noticed a lot of officers going to the auditorium and broke away from the Lance as soon as he could without seeming rude.

As he entered the auditorium, with its curved floor and stadium seating, he realized that most of the brass from the fleet were there. He hadn’t been told what was going on but now knew it had to be something big. Before he could even get a seat, someone called the place to attention, and General Warner strode to the podium along with Admiral Price Duncan. Duncan was the Admiral of the Fleet, and Billy had only seen him once before in person.

As the officers were given permission to be seated, Billy grabbed a chair. Other than the sounds of the air circulation equipment, it was still as a church, as though every man and woman present were holding their breath.

“Gentlemen, Ladies,” the Admiral began, “our situation took an abrupt turn this morning, and I would be less than honest if I were to tell you that I am not concerned. We have detected a number of hiveships which have left the Trojan Asteroids within the last twelve hours. For those of you who are like me and had to look up where the Trojan Asteroids are, I’ll save you the trouble.” There were some smiles among the officers at the thought of the Admiral consulting a map of the Solar System. 

“They lie in the orbit of Jupiter, sixty degrees ahead and sixty degrees behind the planet. That’s a long way for them to travel to get here, so we have some time. At present, they seem to be in no hurry. They may still be breeding warriors. We don’t know. At any rate, they will almost certainly arrive within the protection zone of Earth and the inner planets before we have our new weapons ready. The worst part of the news is that there are twenty-eight hiveships.” There were gasps and groans from the crowd of officers as they began to realize how many letters of condolence they would soon be writing to families already strained by the loss of good young men and women.

“Yes. That’s a force larger than we’ve ever had to deal with before. But we also feel that this may be their entire force—all there is…at least near enough to Earth to be an immediate threat. At any rate, we have no choice but to fight, and I know that every one of you will instill in your personnel the urgency of winning the battle to come. Earth depends on us now, Gentlemen and Ladies. We must not fail. Bulletins will be issued from my office as to sailing and engagement orders. God be with you all.”

Billy remained in his seat as the giant hall cleared. So it was to start all over again, and so soon! He’d best find a vid-phone and call Marla. It could very well be the last time he got to see her face or talk to her. When the crowd at last cleared and he was leaving the auditorium, the Lance Corporal stopped him again, with a salute.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Lance, what’s on your mind?”

“Sir, I’ve got to get off this station...”

“I’m not sure I follow, son,” Billy said, suspecting cowardice. Did he want an assignment to Earth, where he could dig a hole and pull it in after himself?

“Sir, you’re the only officer I know and...well…sir, I’ve been stuck on this station almost two years pulling guard duty. The word is that the fuckin’ Glassies are comin’, and I want in this fight, sir. I wanna do my part. Guarding hallways and stuff is not what I was trained for, sir.”

Billy noted the Combat Infantryman’s Badge on the Lance’s uniform, along with a set of jump wings. “How long since you’ve been on a jump, son?”

“I’m current on the simulator, sir.”

“Not what I asked. How long since you’ve been on a real drop?”

“Well, I...well...I’ve never been on a real drop, except in jump school, sir.” The Lance was hanging his head now, examining the shine on his boots.

“Look at me, son. Get your head up and stand at attention!”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Just because you lack experience doesn’t mean you have no worth to our mission. What’s your name, troop?”

“Sir, Lance Corporal Jimmy Haynes, sir!”

Billy took out a pen and notepad and wrote down the Lance’s name. “And your serial number?”

The Lance gave it as Billy wrote it down.

“Well Haynes, have you ever heard the expression, ‘be careful what you ask for—you might just get it’?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve heard it.”

“You may well find that you’d have been better off staying here, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“Yeah, right. Dismissed.”

Billy headed back to Tripoli, thinking of ways he could Shanghai the Lance Corporal into his outfit. He had a couple troops still in the brig who probably wouldn’t make it out in time to sail with them...

 

Billy had to try nine times before getting through to Marla at Pensacola; the satellite feeds were that jammed up with traffic. When he finally did reach her, the picture quality was good, and the first thing he noticed was her tan.

“Yeah, I’ve been lyin’ on the beach a lot and gettin’ a lot of reading done,” she said.

“I don’t have time to read anything but manuals since I got this command,” he remarked.

“Oh, poor baby. You know you’re happy with it. You’ve always wanted your own outfit to run.”

“Yeah, well now that I’ve got it, I’m startin’ to find out what a pain in the ass it is.”

“You’ll do fine, Billy. I have confidence in you.”

“Well, we’ll see...”

“Any word on when you’re shippin’ out?”

“Uhnn, I really can’t discuss that. Soon. Very soon.”

“Billy, I want you to be careful.”

“Always, babe.”

“No, I mean it, Billy. I don’t want you playing hero. I want you back.” She was staring intently into the receiver now and Billy could see that furrow in her brow.

“I have no intention of doing anything stupid, okay?”

“I guess that’ll have to do.”

“Hey, I love you.”

“Love you, too, Marine.”

Just then, Billy’s phone beeped, and he said, “I’ve got another call, Babe; I’ll see ya when I get back.”

“Okay, ‘Bye.”

Billy took the other call. “Warrant Officer Hatcher.”

“Hatcher, Captain Thomas. Your request for that Lance Corporal has been approved, and we sail in one hour. Can ya get him by then?”

“One hour? Jesus, that’s quick. I’ll try, sir.”

“Good. Later...” the phone went to dial tone. Billy punched up the number of the operator on Earth Station. In a moment she answered. “Yes, I’d like to page someone throughout the station, please. Priority code? No, I don’t. Yes, he’s a Marine. Yes, he’s permanent party, assigned to the station. Jimmy Haynes, Lance Corporal. Yes. Extension 990? Thank you, Ma’am.”

Billy punched in the extension and listened to three rings before the phone was picked up. It was voice only, which meant that the video was switched off at the other end.

“H’lo?”

“Were ya asleep?”

“Yeah...who’s this?”

“Your new boss.”

“Huh?”

“Warrant Officer Hatcher, your new boss. Pack your space bag, troop. We’re goin’ to war.”

“For real, sir?”

“Yeah, Corporal. Your transfer came through and we sail in an hour. Report to me as soon as you’re aboard.”

“Thank you, sir! I won’t let you down.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

 

The Tripoli was a turmoil of frantic activity when Lance Corporal Jimmy Haynes made it aboard. Billy had called the guard post at embarkation and told them to expect the new troop, so he had no trouble. Other personnel had no trouble either, recognizing that he was new. The gawking expression on his face gave him away as he hauled his space bag through corridors, seeking the Rawdon’s Rangers duty area.

At last, he found the Warrant Officer’s quarters and reported in to Hatcher. Billy got him hooked up with Pete Davies to get him settled in and get the paperwork done. Twenty minutes later, they were underway.

 

The 22 million gross tons of Tripoli pulled slowly away from Earth Station along with her escorts and other troop carriers and battle cruisers. Invited to the bridge to observe their launch, Billy watched through the four-inch thick quartzite windows and on remote viewing screens the Louis B. Puller pacing them and Earth Station diminishing behind them. At a short distance from the station he could see construction going on, on new ships. One of these would be Montezuma II, he knew. Her construction had been approved by congress as soon as the loss of the original Monty was reported. She would be slightly bigger and much better equipped, being built strictly as a warship, rather than being converted from a commercial vessel.

The Glassie fleet had picked up speed and, if they hurried, they would join battle at about the orbit of Mars. The planet was swinging into position so that it appeared they would catch the Glassie fleet very near to it. It should provide the planet’s settlers with a hell of a fireworks show.

They had been underway less than an hour when the ship’s PA system announced, “Now hear this! Ship’s lottery has been held. All personnel with ID numbers ending in seven, report to crew’s mess immediately.”

Billy supposed this was for drug testing, to see what the troops had been using while in port. Since his ID number ended in seven, he would have to go down and piss in a bottle. Rank had no privilege in this case. Even the captain was required to report if his number came up.

When Billy got down to crew’s mess, however, he found an entirely different situation. As soon as roll call was finished and all “sevens” were present, each man was handed a small aerosol container, similar to a breath-spray. It contained the spores, they were told, of the fungus deadly to the Glassies. There were not enough aerosols to go around, so each man was to keep his handy. In the event of capture they were to release the spray as soon as they were inside the Glassies’ atmosphere containment.

There had not been enough time to perfect a missile delivery system for the spores, and they were sailing with weapons that were much the same as usual.

 

Chapter 16

 

“Pete, come to my cabin.” Billy Hatcher called his exec over their squadron paging system. There was a muffled “Yes, sir!” from the speaker above Billy’s desk and, a few minutes later, the Gunnery Sergeant appeared with a perfunctory knock at the door.

“Take a seat, Sergeant.” The gunny sat, looking at Billy expectantly.

“In a few minutes, I’d like you to assemble the troops in the squad bay. Full gear except combat suits. Standard inspection.”

“Yes, sir. We’re getting close, aren’t we, sir?”

“Yeah, gunny. We’re gettin’ close. Less than twelve hours now. We’ll be in Mars’ orbit in less than an hour. It’s time to get ‘em pumped up and make sure they’ve sent their letters and made any last wishes known.”

“Roger that, sir.” It was a depressing fact in their lives that a goodly percentage of them weren’t coming back.

Billy abruptly looked up at Pete Davies and smiled. “So, let’s get it done, troop.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” The Gunny leapt to his feet, struck a brace, then about-faced and was gone. Billy looked at his watch for the thirty-ninth time in an hour. He still wore the Lance Corporal’s watch that had been taken from him by the Glassies. It had been there with his suit when he and Marla had readied themselves to leave the hiveship.

He’d had ample time to contact the original owner’s family and send them the watch, but for some reason he hadn’t. He thought about his feelings for a moment, and decided that maybe he wanted there to be an end to this war before he sent the watch home. Even though it hadn’t been lucky for its first owner, maybe it might be for him.

With a sigh, he got to his feet and headed down toward the squad bay. His stride was still brisk and his shoulders straight, but his face had the look of a much older man.

“Tens-HUT!” Gunny Pete Davies did his usual fine job of being heard all the way to the far end of the squad bay, a hundred yards distant.

“Prepare the troops for inspection.”

“Prepare for inspection! All weapons open and safe! All lockers open and ready!” The noise was deafening for about thirty seconds as over five hundred troops opened weapons and lockers and scrambled to be in the correct positions by their racks. Then, once again, near silence.

“Sir, Rawdon’s Rangers ready for inspection!”

“Walk with me, Gunny.”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Billy walked the left-hand line of troops, strolling along, taking his time, every now and then pausing to check a detail of a man’s uniform or to speak with another. About halfway down the line he stopped in front of a female private. She was tall, almost six feet, and Billy could tell she worked out. She looked hard as nails. Billy came to attention and a split second later, snatched her weapon from her grasp. He spun it expertly in his hands, inspecting the breech, muzzle, slide and sling. He racked the slide, flipped off the safety, snapped the trigger and slammed it back into the big private’s hands.

“What’s your name, troop?” He bellowed.

“Sir! Private first class Lazinski, Alice B., sir!” She bellowed right back.

“Are you tough, Lazinski?” he hollered.

“Sir, yes, sir!” she screamed.

“Ever killed anyone, Troop?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Who’d ya kill, Lazinski?”

“Sir, a whole shitload a Glassies, sir. In my haste to be successful, sir, I failed to get their names.”

“What’s your favorite tactic for killin’ ‘em, Private?”

“Sir, I get ‘em ta bunch up an’ use the grenade launcher on ‘em. Blow the fuckers up, sir!”

“Outstanding, Private. You’re gonna get a chance to kill a lot more, here shortly.”

“Oorah, sir!”

Another last-word female, Billy thought as he stalked on down the squad bay.

Soon, his inspection complete, he and Gunny Davies walked to the center of the squad bay and Billy said, “Gunny, have ‘em stow their weapons and fall in here.”

“Stow your weapons, secure your lockers, and fall in on Mr. Hatcher!”

Again, pandemonium for a half minute, then Billy was surrounded by his troops.

“Those of you close here, sit on the deck. Everybody squeeze in so you can hear me.”

When all was quiet, he began. “The Harrier is a fierce bird of prey. There are thirteen species that inhabit the Earth, and God put ‘em there for a purpose. They feed on insects, frogs, snakes and small mammals. They clean up vermin. They fly silently, like an owl and drop on their prey. Kinda like we do.”

He held up a four-inch round shoulder patch. On it was a strikingly good reproduction of the Northern Harrier, screaming in a dive toward some insects that looked disturbingly like Glassie warriors.

“This is your new squadron insignia. These are not embroidered. We don’t have any way to do that aboard. These are silk screened on linen. I don’t expect them to hold up very well, but they’ll do for now. I had enough made that everybody gets one. I’d like to see them displayed on your uniforms when we engage the enemy. That’ll give ya something to do while we sweat out the next eleven hours or so. From now on, we’re Hatcher’s Harriers, and there is no outfit any better than ours. Let me say one more thing. You’ve already made me proud. I expect that when this is over, I’ll be even more proud. But make no mistake. This battle isn’t about pride. We’re past that point, now. It’s about survival, and not just ours. It’s about the survival of Earth. At this point, just let me say, Ladies, Gentlemen, you all know your duties, so good luck and Godspeed.”

“Tens-HUT!”

Billy strode from the squad bay trying to hold every face he’d seen in his memory. Some were only thirteen years old, and would die out here as well as any soldiers had ever died anywhere, maybe better. Some had hardly had the chance to live.

 

The Earth fleet took up orbit around Mars at a distance far enough away that as the Glassie fleet approached they would be on the opposite side of the Red Planet. The plan was to let the Glassies blow by Mars and then fall in behind, attacking from the rear, launching missiles first to try and disable their engines.

The plan went awry when the Glassies detected the Earth fleet from much farther away than was expected and split their forces into three groups. One group took immediate possession of the planet, forcing the scant population to remain in cover with constant aerial bombardment from low orbit and deployment of invasion troops. The other two groups came around the planet from two directions to attack the Earth fleet, catching it in a pincher movement and cutting off escape.

True to its namesake, a message was sent from the Louis B. Puller. The message from Chesty read, ‘The enemy is all around us. They won’t get away this time.’

 

Billy’s ship, the Tripoli, was among those sent to engage and destroy the Glassies that had captured Mars. They had less than a third of the battle group but nearly all of the drop ships and troop carriers. It was Billy’s second trip to defend Mars and, as they closed on the planet and readied their drop ships and weapons, he thought again of his last time here and of his best friend Norman Wahl, who was among the infantry troops Billy had dropped into the Canyons. Norman had not come back. He had been hit by ground fire while still airborne and his remains had been unrecoverable. Now he watched troops, younger than Norman had been, readying their grav-packs, the modern equivalent of the parachute, and wondered how many they’d lose today.

Just because Billy was now the squadron commander didn’t mean he wouldn’t be involved in the fighting. He would be flying as copilot with Gunny Davies, who was a drop ship pilot as well as Billy’s exec. The Tripoli would have the task of attempting to recapture the planet, or at least rescue and remove as much of the population as they could.

The Tripoli took up station in low orbit, less than a hundred miles above Mars’ equator, without opposition. The hiveships that had dropped troops to the surface had apparently dropped back, seeking higher, safer orbits, or had rejoined the battle above after disgorging their warriors.

Billy’s squadron of five drop ships was deployed along with the other squadron, Tripoli’s Tankers, the ten craft being dropped in several “sticks” to secure the steel refinery, the settlement of New Pittsburg, and the water plant near the South Pole. Unlike the Glassie’s last Martian invasion, they had chosen not to hide in the canyons but had gone directly to the centers of industry and population.

The soil of Mars had a high concentration of iron, locked up as iron oxide—the same thing as common rust. By a simple process of heating the oxide, oxygen could be driven off and captured. This was purified and compressed for breathing and the excess sold, as was a large portion of the steel produced. The steel, manufactured in a low-pressure, high-carbon atmosphere, was among some of the purest produced anywhere and commanded a good price. The population of fifteen hundred workers and family members lived in housing built under pressure domes. The water plant produced enough water from ice to sustain the colony but not enough to be wasteful. Every drop was recycled and the system required several huge insulated pressure tanks, heated to above freezing, to keep the water supply readily available.

As the drop ships of Hatcher’s Harriers fell away from Tripoli, Billy could see smoke rising lazily in the thin atmosphere, a grayish finger against the pale pink sky. They had drawn the refinery and living complex along with two ships from the Tankers. The other three Tanker drop ships would set their troops near the water plant, half a planet away.

From the back of the drop ship there was near-silence. Some of the ninety troops prayed and crossed themselves, fingering crosses and St. Christopher’s medals. Others stared stolidly at the walls and each other. At least one of the clones was asleep. Billy had piped their radio over the cabin speakers and had set it to scan nine channels. As Pete Davies took them down to their drop point, they listened to the radio traffic from the battle raging above.

The Louis B. Puller had been holed but was still under command and able to maneuver. The Glassies had made two attempts to board her and had been repulsed each time. Casualties were lighter than expected and she was holding her own. Two escorts, Sayonara and Bixby were blown up on the initial engagement, but two hiveships were also destroyed. It was reported but not confirmed that Mars Station, the near-duplicate of Earth Station, was under attack and not doing well. Billy listened to all of this intently, trying to assess his troops’ chances of being picked up, should they survive. Then they were approaching the drop point and Billy flipped on the jump-light. From the back he heard the jumpmaster’s command to “stand and check your partner.”

A hand tapped him on the shoulder and he turned and looked back through the narrow doorway and into the face of Lance Corporal Jimmy Haynes. The Lance grinned at him and saluted, then gave him a thumbs up. Seconds later, Pete switched on the “go” light and the back ramp slammed open to sub-zero cold and almost non-existent atmosphere.

Without turning on grav-packs, the troops tumbled out of the ship, activating their gravity gear only after they were clear. Some left it off and free-fell as long as possible to cut their exposure time to ground fire and to arrive first. Billy preferred to do it that way, too.

The gravity packs contained a small warp generator which would slow an average-sized man to a fall rate of fourteen feet per second in normal Earth gravity. Since Mars’ gravity was much less than Earth’s, turning on the gravity pack too soon would cause the wearer to float quite slowly to the Martian surface, making him an easy target. However, it would also give the wearer the advantage of maneuverability, allowing the soldier to “jink” from side to side, thus hopefully throwing off the aim of any gunners on the surface. Some of the troops chose the slower, “floating leaf” descent, while others chose the headlong “helldive.” The survival odds for both were about equal.

As soon as the troop bay was empty, Billy flipped the switch to close the ramp. It was then that the explosion came and he heard Pete Davies say, “Oh, shit!” On the panel, lights were flashing, indicating fire in at least two engines, and Billy pulled the red handles of the Halon fire system, knowing the engines were probably lost anyway. Their altitude was falling off and Pete was having trouble maintaining flight attitude, the nose of the craft wanting to rise. A stall was imminent and Pete wasn’t regaining control. On his headset, Billy heard him broadcast a “Mayday”, for all the good it would do. Right at the moment, everybody else was too busy to come pick them up. Then he heard Pete yell, “Eject, Eject, Eject!” and he reached above his head and pulled the face curtain down. There was an audible “Boom” as the canopy blew away, then Billy and Pete were rammed out into thin atmosphere and penetrating cold. They tumbled for a short ways, then their gravity units responded and their descent slowed. They were far enough from the settlement of New Pittsburg so that there was no ground fire as they settled quite gently to the rocky red surface of Mars. A few miles distant, their drop ship slammed into the ground, the sound barely audible in the thin air. There was no fire.

 

“Might as well get rid of these grav packs, Mr. Hatcher,” Pete Davies said. They had landed a hundred yards apart and immediately joined up with each other while nervously scanning the Martian terrain.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Billy answered, “they won’t do us any good now, so there’s little point in lugging them around.” He knew the gravity packs weren’t strong enough to lift them from the surface of Mars. Now, if they had been on the moon…

“Wish we had more in the way of armament, sir.”

“Yeah, me too, Gunny. Sidearms won’t do us much good against laser rifles, if the Glassies find us.”

“Uh, sir…there’s not much doubt that they will find us. We’re gonna have to go to the settlement. Our air will only last five hours and it’ll be sundown by then. The temperature will drop a hundred degrees when it gets dark.”

Billy hated it but Davies was right. They had no choice but to walk to the settlement in daylight if they wanted to live. There was nothing to keep them where they’d landed, so they set out walking as best they were able in the bulky combat suits. As they clumped along in their heavy boots, Billy thought about how best to approach the settlement. It probably wouldn’t make much difference anyway, he reflected. No matter what direction they came from, they’d stand out like a fly on a wall.

It didn’t seem like they could have traveled so far but they wound up engaged in a five-mile hike. At last, they came over a slight rise and saw the steel mill and settlement a half-mile distant. There were several holes clearly visible in the dome. The thinness of the air made details unusually clear. It appeared that there was little or no movement around the settlement and faint smoke could be seen. One of the stacks at the steel mill was down and, as they got closer, they could see bodies lying in the weak Martian sunlight.

They were surprised that they made it to the dome undetected. In a few minutes they were inside and taking in a scene of mass destruction. Marines in combat suits were scattered about where they had fallen, as were dead Glassies and numerous civilians. Billy saw women and children burned and blown apart. It looked like the Marines had done a good job of defending the place but were just overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of enemy. As they stood just inside the dome, nervously surveying the scene, Gunny Davies said, “Looks like they’ve gone, sir.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure, Gunny. Anyway, we need air and batteries and weapons, so we’d best get started lookin’.”

It took about fifteen minutes to locate tanks that were nearly full and batteries that were still fully charged. They only had to find the Marines that had died the quickest. They both secured pulse rifles for themselves and all the ammo packs they could safely carry.

“I suppose we should try to get some kinda body count, sir,” Davies said.

“Yeah, you’re right, Gunny. At some point we’ll be debriefed and we’ll need to know these things. We should scan all the ID tags we can, too.”

“Right, sir. I’ll count Marines and civilians, if you wanna count Glassies.”

Together, they set about their grim task, always keeping each other in sight as they worked. Billy startled the Gunnery Sergeant once, when he found a Glassie still alive, though obviously suffering. It regarded Billy from where it lay, softly singing the song of the rainforest. It knew it was dying and Billy was ready to let it continue that natural process, when it suddenly hissed and lunged at him. He shot it with his sidearm, ending its song as Davies jumped and brought his weapon up.

“At ease, Gunny,” Billy called, “I just had a live one over here.”

They spent a lot of time going through all of the dwellings that were still standing under the dome. Everywhere there was evidence of fires that had started, then gone out as they were deprived of oxygen. So the battle had been well under way before the dome was compromised and the atmosphere lost. At the end of almost two hours Billy said, “Whataya got, Pete?”

“I got sixty-six Marines, sir, and a hundred ninety-four civilians.”

“And I got three hundred eleven Glassies. Where do you suppose everybody went?”

“Yeah. We dropped six hundred an’ thirty troops here. And the population of New Pittsburg was supposed to be fifteen hundred.”

“Guess we can look over at the mill, but I bet we don’t find much.”

“You suppose they all got captured, sir?”

“That’s possible, Gunny, but if they did, I feel sorry for them.”

“Me, too, sir. I’d rather die right here than have some maggot suckin’ on me.”

They decided they would go check out the steel mill and continue their body count, and also see if they could find anyone else alive. As they reached the portal of the dome, however, Pete noticed something unnerving and called it to Billy’s attention.

“Sir, look at our tracks.”

Just at the entrance to the dome there were claw-shaped Glassie tracks partially obliterating their own.

“I think we’d better stay back inside, sir, where there’s more cover.”

“Good idea, Gunny. Let’s move back inside...”

Billy had no sooner spoken than a laser shot popped the plastic of the dome beside his head, easily piercing the clear material. Both Marines dived for the relative safety of the steel portal but, when they were safely inside, realized they were now trapped. There were fifteen Glassies coming at them from inside the dome and an equal number from outside.

“Been great knowing ya, sir,” Pete Davies said. “I don’t know about you but I’m checkin’ out right here. I don’t wanna be captured.”

“I’ll go along with that,” Billy said, thinking about Marla and his unborn child, a child he would now never see, “Let’s get this over with.”

Billy cracked the inside portal door and opened up with his pulse rifle, spraying explosive-tipped slugs at the forms of the combat-suited Glassie warriors. He watched his tracers and walked his fire into their midst, watching as they flopped and squirmed and scrambled for cover. Several lay dead or badly wounded after his first volley. Dimly, from behind him, he was aware of Pete firing and cursing as he blasted away at the Glassies coming from the outside.

Then the Glassies started pouring laser fire in their direction and holes started appearing in the doors and walls; bits of molten steel and plastic showered them. Pete turned to say something to Billy and Billy saw part of Pete’s faceplate blow out in a molten gobbet of hot plastic. In the thin air and low pressure, Pete dropped to his knees, slamming both hands over the hole in his faceplate. Billy groped in an outside pocket of his suit and found a meteor patch and got Pete to turn and sit while he applied it to the faceplate. Its tenacious glue soon stopped up the breach and the pressure in the suit was restored, but Pete could see little out of the shattered faceplate.

As Billy turned back to assess the location of the enemy and apply more fire, there was a blinding flash and a stunning detonation and, for a while, Billy knew nothing.

After a time, he became aware of being dragged over bumpy terrain. His suit must still be intact, he reasoned, or he would have been dead by now. Something had him by the feet in a painful grip and was dragging him somewhere. Captured. Fuck!

As awareness of his situation became more clear, his survival instincts kicked in and a big shot of adrenaline rammed through his system, clearing his head even more. Foolishly, he began to struggle and kick and shout, whereupon he was dropped flat on his back and pummeled and kicked into silence by several Glassie warriors. Then the dragging began again.

After a time, he was dragged into darkness and dropped. There was relative quiet for a few minutes, then a door opened briefly, admitting some daylight and slammed back shut. Billy really intended to just lie there for a few minutes and catch his breath but a voice in the darkness said, “You can open your visor, Mr. Hatcher, sir. It’s not really so bad in here, after ya get used to it.”

“Who’s that?”

“Lazinski, sir. Alice B. Remember, from the inspection?”

“Yeah, okay. I remember. How many did ya get, Lazinski?”

“Bout thirty, sir, give or take. Then they flash-banged us, an’ here we are.”

“Flash-bang, huh?”

“Yup. New weapon. Stun grenade. Not a new idea, just new for them.”

Billy cautiously opened his visor and nearly gagged at the stench. “Whew, Jesus, where are we?”

“In the hold of one of their shuttles. Just happens to be where they piss and shit, too, sir.”

 

It wasn’t long before they felt the acceleration of lift-off and knew they were on their way to a hiveship. There were about forty prisoners in the hold with Billy, mostly Marines, but some civilians, too. The Marines were grim and mostly silent, except for a few who had been wounded. The civilians were more vocal, hysterically questioning the Marines about where they were being taken, what would happen to them, and would they be killed, questions the Marines could not answer.

It was a short journey to the hiveship, then with much banging around and hissing of compressed air, they were docked, and soon the hold opened and they were marched out at gun point to meet whatever fate was in store. As they entered through the first stage of the airlock, Billy remembered his aerosol weapon and as they passed out of the lock and into the ship itself, he pulled it from his pocket and set it off, spraying it toward the floor and getting some on at least one of their captors. He could only hope the damned stuff worked.

Once again Billy found himself passing through tunnels lined with tough, ropy roots and vines, and the nightmare of capture began all over again. He was forced along with the others into a large chamber and everyone was made to strip. They stood or sat upon the floor naked, some of the civilians trying vainly to hide themselves, but most of the Marines not bothering.

Soon, the Glassies started removing them a few at a time. Billy was in the fifth group to be taken, along with Private Lazinski and Pete Davies and two civilians, a woman and her child. They were walked through a vast maze of corridors until they came to the one smooth, clean corridor that led to the queen’s chamber, and suddenly Billy knew exactly where they were headed.

When they arrived, he saw many people standing in line, being closely guarded by the Glassie warriors. At the head of the line, each person was brought up close to the queen, where they would stand for a moment, then they would collapse, to be scooped up by a Glassie and carried away.

The line was moving right along, and soon it was Billy’s turn. As he stepped before the huge, slug-like queen, he felt her mind probing his. He hurled up his defenses and felt the slick penetration as she deftly brushed them aside. His throat constricted as her mind reached into the center of his being and smashed his will as though it were a bug.

He felt himself lifted and carried away. His eyes saw everything that went past and he felt the claws of the Glassie pressing into his flesh, but had absolutely no means with which to resist. He could breathe, blink and swallow and that was about all. He was paralyzed as effectively as if he had been drugged.

When they arrived at the brood chamber, Billy’s mind recoiled at the sight of all the open chambers, a large, white larva in each, eagerly awaiting food. He was deftly slipped into a chamber with one of the slimy pale maggots and the chamber was sealed. As the limbless horror wriggled against Billy’s naked flesh, his mind shrunk away in revulsion and he felt, as though at a great distance, its sucking mouth attach itself to his side. Then the wonderful blackness rushed in and he knew no more.

 

There were times, to be sure, during Billy’s entrapment, when he had lucid moments. He would awaken and find himself half-immersed in a dream of Marla, a dream in which they perhaps floated naked in zero-gravity and loved each other, holding and whispering in the darkness. Then he might try to move and realize that something was wrong. He would open his eyes then and find the squirming white horror, the maggot, as large as a loaf of bread, still attached to his flesh, slowly sucking and devouring him. He would need very badly at that point to scream, but was unable.

His mind would recoil from the reality, and again and again he would plunge into blackness as a last, final defense against that which he could not bear.

 

Billy came awake yet again. No dream this time, though. Something had changed. His senses rebelled, even as he willed his eyes to open, his skin to feel, the pain to return. There was pain, to be sure, but it was diminished. His eyes opened and searched the dimness of the coffin-like chamber. The maggot was gone. It was no longer attached to his side. Then he saw it, down near his feet, and again his mind swooped away for a while, on a giddy trip through dimensions of blackness of its own creation.

When he again regained his senses, the white thing had not moved. He could see patches of gray on its blind, slug-like body.

The fungus.

It was his first reasoning thought since he’d been put in the chamber.

The fungus worked. It’s dead or dying. I am alone.

His mind swam back into darkness and he rested.

 

After an interval which Billy would never be able to accurately measure, he came awake again. He yawned and stretched, then felt the pain in his side and looked down to see the open, festering wound caused by the Glassie larva. Everything came back to him in a rush, but now he was able to move. He thrashed and fought, screamed and howled, stomping on the remains of the maggot that had fed on him and, at last, broke out of the chamber, sliding out onto the floor of the room. He got shakily to his feet and stood panting from his exertions, looking around.

Through the walls of semi-transparent brood chambers, he could see others moving, some fighting as he had, others barely able to struggle as they dealt with their own personal horrors.

From behind him, he heard a sound and spun unsteadily, expecting a Glassie warrior. Instead, he witnessed an apparition. There stood Private Alice B. Lazinski, six feet tall, blond hair stringy and matted, naked body pale as death, holding a pulse rifle. Her face was locked in an expression of horror that was the mirror image of what Billy felt in his heart and guts. She was keyed up to kill and he was ready to step aside and let her rock and roll, when it occurred to him that there were human civilians and other Marines in the line of fire.

“Wait, Alice...”

“Step aside, Motherfucker!”

“Private, wait...”

“Step aside, goddamn it!”

“NO! Lazinski! Stop! That’s an order! Don’t shoot!”

For the first time, her eyes looked at Billy and focused. She seemed not to recognize him at first, then the rifle sagged and her face broke into an expression of sorrow. She collapsed to the floor, sobbing, the rifle still held loosely in the grasp of one hand, her expression one of unspeakable horror and pain.

Billy went to her and sat down with her, cradling her head against his chest. At first she jerked and leapt at his very touch but, after a time, her weeping subsided. It would not be the last time one of them would cry. Soon they got up and began breaking open brood chambers, pulling out the occupants. Some were dead or too far gone to survive, but others were in relatively good shape, at least physically. Their mental condition would have to be evaluated and dealt with later. All bore wounds of one kind or another, most from the larvae that had been feeding on them.

In all, Billy and Alice pulled forty-four viable humans from brood chambers in that one room alone. There had to be other rooms and this same scenario might be repeated aboard every hiveship. Billy realized then that they were far from safe. He had no idea where they were located relative to the Earth fleet or if the hiveship they were in might become a target at any moment. There was no way of knowing whether any of the other hiveships had become successfully infected or even if this one was really dying. As soon as they were able, they would need to reconnoiter and evaluate just how deep they were in trouble.




Chapter 17


 


 


The dazed, exhausted prisoners soon left the brood chamber behind and, under the direction of Warrant Officer Hatcher, began exploring the great hiveship. At first they were fearful of encountering Glassies, but Billy had been through this before. As soon as he realized that there was no singing within the ship, he was pretty sure that the biological weapon he’d released had done its work.


It didn’t take long to confirm that everything aboard had suffered the same death as the larvae in the brood chambers. The rain forest of this ship appeared the same as that of the ship he and Marla had been aboard. Dead Glassies were everywhere, their bodies starting to decompose and that, along with all the rotting vegetation, made the stench incredible.


In their weakened condition, many of the prisoners had to be helped along; there were some whose minds were so far gone that they were completely out of touch with reality. They kept finding more brood chambers and breaking open cells as their strength would allow. In some areas, the humans had died along with the brood, but in others they rescued more Marines and civilians.


Soon, they found chambers where clothing and suits had been carelessly tossed, and they began dressing themselves in whatever they found. With the benefit of clothing came a return of dignity and that, too, brought strength. When they were able, they began eating whatever rations they could find in the survival packs of their suits. When there were enough of them, Billy broke them up into groups and set them to finding clothing, food and weapons. It would not be long before, in their weakened condition, they would need rest. He wanted them to have sustenance with them and some means of defending themselves.


Within an hour, most of Billy’s group was ready for sleep. Billy was dog-tired, too, but determined that guards should be posted. Alice located an empty chamber and they collapsed within it, most being grateful for some rest, with someone to watch over them. Billy and Alice stood guard over their group until she finally convinced him that she was okay by herself and he should get some rest. There were no beds and nothing to cover up, with but it made little difference. Billy rolled up an extra jumpsuit for a pillow and was asleep almost instantly.


 


He prowled the interior of the hiveship, looking for something. He didn’t know what it was but he’d know it when he found it. The human vermin were everywhere, sleeping, and he wanted to taste their blood, but time was precious and he must move on.


As he walked and looked, his mind wandered to other times and places. He was at Earth Station, tucked under blankets with Marla, whispering in wooly darkness as they made love. He was aboard Montezuma, listening to a hammer banging in darkness, ringing off steel with the same monotonous message. He was on Mars, under a pink sky, with feeble smoke on the horizon. Around his arm, he felt the grip of the space suit as it cut off circulation to his blown-off limb and sealed out the vacuum of space.


Then everything shifted and he was deep in a Martian canyon seeing humans drop from the sky, firing a laser rifle and watching them die as their suits ruptured. His memories included feeding in a chamber on a paralyzed human woman and relishing the taste of her flesh. The woman became Marla and from between her legs a baby squeezed out and he devoured that, too. As he ate it, the baby became a white maggot, the size of a loaf of bread; it said to him in perfect English: “You must die! You must all die!”


He continued through the hiveship and at last came to an area where the tunnel he was in contained only a single plant root or tendril. He turned a corner and found heavy shielding and massive heat and knew it was the ship’s reactor, its power source. In a red cabinet on the wall of the tunnel was a perfectly ordinary fire cabinet with a fire ax inside. He opened the cabinet and took out the ax, feeling its weight. On the handle he read the words Louisville Slugger. He took aim and chopped through the single plant tendril and felt the heat from the reactor suddenly increase. Then, as he realized what he had done, a deep feeling of dread pierced his heart like an icicle of frozen liquid nitrogen and he turned to run. He was only a short way up the tunnel when the reactor reached critical mass and there was silent white light that ended everything.


 


 


Billy awoke from the dream feeling as if he had not rested at all. Across the chamber, Alice was asleep sitting against the wall. Everything was still and Billy thought back through the dream. It was almost as if he had the implant back. Maybe having had the implant had sensitized him somehow to the hiveships and the Glassies. At any rate, he knew what must be done and woke Alice Lazinski.


 


The tunnel was smooth, slick, and clean. It had taken Billy and Alice about two hours to find their way down here and he had warned her about what they were going to find, but she still stared and froze in place at the sight of the queen in her chamber. It appeared that the fungus had not reached down here at all, although there were no drones in attendance. The huge, slug-like queen was still laying eggs as they entered the chamber.


Billy felt her mind enfold his as deftly as a spider wraps up a juicy bug, and a tug-of-war began, with his sanity as the final prize.


 


He was going home at last, home to the double red sun and four moons of the home planet. The forests were deep and tall, cool with flowing water and huge blossoms. In the distance he could see yet another hiveship being built by the drones to carry warriors outward into the void.


He might go out again himself, but first he would choose a suitable living-place and rest and sing and feed. He would enjoy the mind-link and the feeling of belonging and continuity of the world and race that had always been and would always be.


The human vermin had been scourged from their one tiny system and no longer posed a threat, but there were others out there that might. Soon, he would go out again, but for now he would rest.


 


Private Alice Lazinski realized that the queen had somehow gotten control of Mr. Hatcher and, in truth, she felt some of what Billy was feeling, almost as if his mind was filled up with the horror and confusing thoughts that were boiling off the queen and she was getting what slopped over. When Billy began drooling and fell to the floor, she became alarmed, and when he stopped breathing, she saw her duty as surely as she had seen it on other occasions and in other theaters of combat.


Using a laser weapon she’d taken off a dead Glassie warrior, she aimed carefully and fired, burning the queen full of holes, watching as its skin popped and ruptured, spilling whitish blood and entrails onto the floor. She heard the screaming in her mind and answered it with her own screams as she held down the firing stud. When she was quite sure the queen was dead, she started on the eggs. When her laser weapon ran out of charge, she took Billy’s and finished the job. When the last egg was exploded, she waded back through the gooey mess and overpowering stench of burnt flesh and eggs to where Billy lay, breathing normally. She sat down beside him and looked around the queen chamber almost dazedly, then she turned away from Billy and vomited up an inadequate supper.


 


“Mr. Hatcher! Mr. Hatcher!” A figure ran up to Billy and struck a brace, rendering a salute. In the gloom of the hiveship tunnel, Billy could see it was a young Marine but could not make out any features. He returned the salute, though, almost as a reflex and asked, “Who is that?”


“Lance Corporal Jimmy Haynes, sir!”


“Haynes?”


“Yessir, alive and kickin’, sir!”


“Figured you for dead, Haynes.”


“Yes, sir and right back atcha. I got nibbled on some but I’ll be fine, now.”


“Well, that’s good Haynes. What have you got to report?”


“Sir, we’ve found their shuttle bays. All of their ships are intact. We can get out of here, sir!”


Billy’s brain felt mired in thick ooze. He wasn’t thinking very clearly but the word ‘shuttles’ caught his attention. “Fine, Lance, fine. Tell ya what. You start getting everyone assembled and out to the shuttle bay. I’ve got something I’ve gotta do...”


“Where are ya goin’, sir?” Alice asked.


“Back down below. I’ve gotta find their reactor.”


“Why don’t we just leave, sir?”


“Alice, the last Glassie ship I was on blew up shortly after I got off. This one may do the same. They may have some type of device that makes it go critical or maybe they send some kind of signal from another ship, but I’ve got this very bad feeling that we’re not gonna get off this thing if I don’t shut down the reactor.”


“I’ll go with you, sir.” It sounded like a chorus, as the Lance Corporal and the private spoke together.


“Negative, troops. I want you to get everyone to the shuttles. I’ll go below and do what has to be done.”


 


Billy moved downward through the bowels of the hiveship, always working toward the center of mass. The further he descended the fewer signs of habitation he saw. When he finally reached a section of tunnel that only had one tendril running downward along the wall, he knew he was close. He made a turn, then another, feeling heat increase and hoping the Glassies used shielding and not just distance as the safety factor on their atomic plant. If he got a lethal dose of radiation he would die in about two weeks, no matter what was done for him.


When he made the final turn, the reactor containment looked nothing like it had in his dream, but he was beyond caring. He was sure that in the dream it was all wrong. He knew that if he did not cut the plants’ only link to the reactor, the plant life aboard would detonate the reactor as its final act, either by itself or at the direction of another hiveship.


Of course, there were no fire axes. His mind had just made that up, along with the Louisville Slugger emblem on the ax handle.


He examined the reactor containment, walking most of the way around it, looking to see where the plant attached itself to the machinery. At last, he found what looked like the Glassie version of an electrical cabinet, and he observed that the plant tendril entered the left side of the box and didn’t come out. He didn’t have an ax but he did have a laser weapon. The tendril was thick as his arm and it took a few seconds to cut through; then it was done and it seemed that nothing happened. Of course, if it worked like any other atomic plant, there might not be any noticeable change right away. Besides, there was nothing else he could do here. Billy turned and ran back up the tunnel. He must get the shuttles away before all power was lost.


 


In the space around Mars the battles raged. Mars Station, unable to defend itself adequately, was soon lost to invasion. Mercifully, it was holed numerous times and hardly any of its inhabitants were taken for food.


The Louis B. Puller gave a good accounting of itself, destroying six hiveships by missile fire before again being holed and having to withdraw. The troop carrier Tripoli was caught after dropping ships to the surface of Mars and was cut nearly in half by Glassie laser fire as it left orbit. It was boarded and its troops fought valiantly, killing scores of Glassies before the troop carrier Adonis came to their relief, driving off the hiveship and rescuing survivors.


After three days, there was little left of the Earth fleet that was still operational or able to continue in battle. As for the Glassies, they were only able to field six hiveships. Those vessels headed toward Earth.


 


Billy Hatcher flew a Glassie vessel for the second time within a few minutes of leaving the reactor area of the hiveship. All the survivors they had been able to find were packed into two of the shuttles. Billy had given another Marine pilot rudimentary instructions on how the controls worked, and they launched into space as soon as they could get away. Unsure as to whether he had made the reactor safe, Billy wanted to be away from the hiveship for reasons of safety and also for reasons of his own. His second encounter with a Glassie Queen had shown him just how much his mind had been conditioned to Glassie control; the further he could be from their influence and environment, the better he would feel.


They had been away for less than an hour when they were hailed by fighters off the George Washington. The immense carrier had remained protected by its fighter escorts and was still in the area. Billy heard the lead fighter pilot on his suit radio, which was tuned to the guard frequency.


“Unidentified craft, unidentified craft, state your vessel and your mission.”


Billy keyed his suit radio and replied, giving his name and rank and adding that he was bringing in survivors. It became apparent that the pilot couldn’t hear him when Billy heard him call a second time.


“Unidentified craft, I say again, state your vessel and mission or turn on your transponder for ident.”


Billy tried again, giving much the same information as before.


“Unidentified craft, identify or you will be fired upon! I say again, please identify.”


Things were getting dicey and Billy was sure they were getting within range of the fighter’s weapons. It would be another few thousand miles before they could be seen visually but Billy knew the fighter jocks couldn’t afford to wait that long. At the speeds they were closing, Billy and his charges only had a few seconds to live.


“Tell everybody to turn on their distress beacons!” he yelled back over his shoulder.


“Sir, yes, sir!” Alice Lazinski responded, “Anything else, sir?”


“Ya might have ‘em pray.”


Soon, Billy’s helmet speakers were filled with the beeping of more than a hundred distress beacons all going at once. He knew the beacons would have a greater range than voice communications from a suit. He only hoped it would be enough.


“Scabbard Flight, this is Scabbard Leader. Hold fire, I repeat, hold fire.”


“Scabbard two, sir, do you think that’s wise? We’ll be within range of their lasers any second...”


“Turn up your guard channel, Lieutenant, and listen.”


“Sir…that sounds like suit beacons!”


“Correct, Lieutenant. And they’re coming from those two bogeys. I think we have some survivors to pick up.”


“Sir, it could be a Glassie trick. They might have some suit radios rigged to suck us in...”


“That’s a chance we’ll have to take, Lieutenant.”


“Can we take that chance, sir? To save a few Marines? What if it’s not...”


“They’d take that chance for you, Lieutenant. You’d best believe it. Now cut the chatter and let’s move in and see if we can get a voice confirmation.”


 


“Potomac Coin, this is Scabbard, do you copy?”


‘Potomac Coin’ was the current call sign for the George Washington, a reference to the tale of Washington throwing a dollar across the famous river.


“Potomac Coin, Scabbard, read you five by.”


“Roger, Scabbard flight requests you contact skipper for permission to launch a troop carrier this way. We have a hundred plus survivors, Marine and civilian, all in need of medical attention.”


“Stand by.”


A minute went by, while the flight of four fighter craft stood off the two Glassie shuttles. Then the radio crackled with a reply.


“Scabbard lead, Potomac Coin. Launching Shenandoah forthwith to recover personnel. Also launching tenders to take captured vessels in tow.”


“Roger that, Scabbard Leader out.”


 


Billy Hatcher had never been aboard any vessel the size of George Washington. One of three space vessels converted from luxury-class liners, it was immense. Montezuma could have been fitted inside the GW four times, with room left over.


Manned by regular Navy personnel, the GW was the flag vessel of the Earth fleet and the Admiral was on board. Billy knew this because he was about to have a meeting with him. They were presently headed back toward Earth, the GW’s mighty engines causing a thrumming vibration throughout the entire ship. The remnants of the Earth fleet were literally chasing the last of the hiveships, trying to overtake them before they reached Earth.


Earth Station had been warned and Earth’s population anticipated yet another Glassie attack.


As Billy stepped into the Admiral’s outer office, he came to attention and saluted the Admiral’s exec, who was himself a captain. The tall, lanky Captain was picture-book Navy, dressed in deck tans and sharp as a tack.


“Warrant Officer Hatcher reporting as ordered, sir!”


“Stand easy, Mr. Hatcher. The Admiral’s in the head. Soon as he’s ready, we’ll go in. Coffee?”


“Is it real coffee, sir? Not that substitute crap?”


“It’s real coffee, Columbian grown. The Admiral likes it fresh-ground.”


“Then I’d like a cup very much, sir.”


“They tell me you’re the one who was trapped on Montezuma with Marla Kinkaid.”


“Yessir,” Hatcher said, taking a sip.


“Sounds to me like you’re a lucky guy. Not only to have been rescued, but to have been with Marla in the first place. I knew her from being stationed on Tripoli. Hell of a girl.”


Just then, the intercom buzzed and a female voice said, “Captain, the Admiral’s ready.”


“Bring your coffee, Mr. Hatcher. The Admiral won’t mind.”


Admiral Price Duncan was about Billy’s height and weight and looked to be in his mid-forties, although he was going prematurely gray and his face showed the strain of command.


His office was paneled in walnut and sported thick pile carpeting. Polished brass hurricane lamps cast a muted glow over a desk as big as a ground car.


Billy started to salute but the Admiral waved them to chairs. The Captain stepped to a sideboard and grabbed the coffee pot, refilling their cups all around.


“Lieutenant Hatcher,” the Admiral said, “let me welcome you aboard the GW and say I’m glad you’re safe and sound.”


“Thank you, sir, but begging your pardon, Admiral, It’s Mr. Hatcher. I’m a Warrant, sir.”


“Not anymore, Lieutenant. These orders came down this morning, as soon as the survivor list and the action reports were transmitted. You’re officially a “butterbar”, by battlefield commission. General Warner sends his greetings and a ‘well done’.”


Billy stood and saluted the Admiral and accepted a pair of old, beat-up second lieutenant’s bars.


“These were recovered from the body of Second Lieutenant Sheldon Murray after the second battle of Mare Imbrium. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor in that battle. He saved a company of Marines by charging a company of Glassies and allowing his men time to fall back and bring up heavy weapons. You’re to carry these bars until you are promoted…or until your own death.”


“Sir, yes, sir!”


“Now take a seat, Lieutenant. I want to hear everything you can tell me about the hiveship you were on and its demise. Don’t leave anything out...”


 


Billy talked for the better part of an hour. He described how they were captured, where they were taken and the horrifying ordeal of being packed into the brood chamber with a Glassie larva.


He described the actions of Alice and the others and how they’d killed the queen and how he’d cut off the plant’s control of the reactor.


The Admiral stopped him at this point to ask some questions.


“Lieutenant Hatcher, you say you cut off control of the reactor... Was there ever a detonation?”


“I don’t know, sir. My main concern was getting the survivors away to a safe distance. I couldn’t even say, sir, what direction the hiveship was going when we left it.”


“But you’re reasonably certain there was no one left aboard alive.”


“Quite certain, yes, sir.”


“Were there a lot of bodies? Humans, I mean?”


“Yes, a lot of bodies, sir.”


“And you checked vital signs on all those?”


“As best we could, sir, under the circumstances.”


The Admiral seemed satisfied then and asked Billy to continue.


When Billy was finished with his story, the Admiral leaned back in his chair and lit an old, worn briar pipe. Fragrant smoke filled the room as he thought for a moment, then spoke around the pipe stem. “Wish we could afford the manpower to go back and find that damned hiveship. I’d like to recover our dead. Besides, I’ve always wanted to see the inside of one of those things. But we can’t do that now. We’ve got enough on our plate as it is.”


“Sir?”


“There are six hiveships left, Lieutenant, and they lit out for Earth. We’re right on their ass, relatively speaking, but not close enough to engage them. Trouble is, they’re every bit as fast as we are and a bit more. It looks like they’ll get to Earth twelve to fifteen hours before us. They can do a hell of a lot of damage in twelve to fifteen hours.”


“Yes, sir. That’s for sure.”


“We’ve called Earth Station and told them what’s coming. Told them to batten down the hatches, so to speak and sound the alert around the world. Now all we can do is pray.”


 


 


Chapter 18


 


THE MARINE AND NAVY FORCES of Earth Station were prepared for the worst, but not for the Glassies to blow right past them without any attempt to engage.


The Glassies’ objective was once again the home planet of the humans; with their depleted forces, they couldn’t be bothered with a mere space station. If their attack on the planet was successful, they then could attack the space station on the way back out of this festering pit of humanity. They did, however, consider the military installations of the planet to be prime objectives and so attacked them in order to render them as useless as possible before dealing with the general population.


Marla Kinkaid, now Captain Kinkaid, was armed and standing by for base defense along with all other available personnel at Pensacola, even though her pregnancy was far enough advanced she was starting to show. If the world was inundated by Glassie attacks and everyone was exterminated, her baby would fare no better. She had a greater stake in the coming battle than most military people.


Base radar and communications was keeping them advised as to where the hiveships were and how soon they could expect to see some action. She was assigned to Headquarters building defense, but that could change at any minute. The Glassies had been reported to be within the orbit of the moon, so at least in theory they could start dropping attack and landing craft at any time.


Marla wondered again about Billy. He had sent her a message from George Washington, but communication time was at a premium and they would not risk direct voice or TV link, due to the danger of detection. They were sending everything by burst transmission, and what she had received had been somewhat garbled. She knew he’d been captured and that the biological weapons had worked wherever they’d been introduced into the hiveships. There was something about a brood chamber and another queen, but, even though she’d listened to it a number of times, she just couldn’t make it out. She didn’t know if Billy was in sick bay or still in the fight. And she had been unable to send anything back to him because their link was narrow-beamed and the fleet was on the move and concealing their location.


If she lived, she reflected grimly, and didn’t lose the baby, it still might not have a daddy.


 


Three of the hiveships had been infected with the fungus, carried aboard by prisoners. The Glassies had started getting the idea now and were practicing a form of infection control. Each warrior or drone that came down sick was forced at gun point out the nearest airlock. None of the individuals working below the rainforest level or who had been in contact with humans were allowed into the upper reaches of the ships.


Their precautions were working after a fashion. The infection was slowed somewhat and so far the giant trees had not suffered, but they were merely postponing the inevitable. They were a species with a great reproduction potential but with no medicine. They had no concept of disease or how it was spread and no term for ‘doctor’. They would all die eventually from the Brazilian fungus. It would just take longer. In the meantime, they could still fight and take down a lot of humans before they went.


 


Lieutenant Billy Hatcher sat in the huge squad bay, listening to the ninety or so troops that comprised the remains of Hatcher’s Harriers bullshitting and swapping stories as they cleaned and serviced their gear. Since he was not resident aboard George Washington, he didn’t have his own quarters. The Admiral had offered bunk space in officer’s country but he had turned it down. He was nervous and worried and needed the feeling of belonging and camaraderie that the squad bay offered.


It was horrifying that out of the entire squadron of Hatcher’s Harriers, there were barely enough troops left from the Martian drop to man one drop ship. The only drop ship that had been lost was the one he and Gunny Davies had been flying. The others had all returned and docked with Tripoli, just before she was cut to pieces by Glassie laser fire. Billy had learned that Tripoli had been scuttled, deliberately blown up to avoid having her hulk adrift in the shipping lanes around Mars. His troops had been temporarily absorbed into another squadron from George Washington—“Booker’s Broncos”—technically a recon and ranger outfit being bolstered with any combat Marines available. Billy was a Lieutenant without a command.


Captain Roland T. Booker had welcomed Billy to the Broncos with a handshake and a hearty clap on the back that had nearly laid him flat. He was still weak from his ordeal of providing food for an adolescent Glassie but the big black Captain seemed not to notice.


“We can use every hand we can get, Mr. Hatcher,” he had said, Billy having not been promoted at that time. “Your troops will certainly help us along toward our ultimate victory over the Godless heathen horde that much sooner, praise God.”


“We’ll do what we can, Captain.”


“His will be done, Mr. Hatcher.”


“Yes, sir!”


Since their first encounter, Billy had learned that the big Captain was a Southern Baptist. He was apt to be singing a hymn or praying at any given time. To each his own, Billy supposed but he’d never met an honest to goodness religion junkie before. It made him just a shade nervous.


From the far end of the squad bay, Billy heard voices getting louder and louder and came quickly to his feet. Probably another fight, he thought and I’d better get down there before they really hurt each other. Tensions were high and the men were nervous and easily set off. He ran down the squad bay, nudging other troops aside, until he reached the area of the disturbance. There he found Captain Booker, surrounded forty deep by his men.


“Listen up!” he shouted, “We have our orders!”


Silence descended, broken only by the far-away thrumming of the GW’s engines.


“Pensacola Naval Space Training Station was attacked about forty minutes ago. There has been some loss of life but they are reportedly holding their own for now. We will execute a drop within the hour to assist and relieve them. Full battle suits, in spite of the fact that we will be operating in our own atmosphere. Rumor has it that the Glassies may have some type of gas weapon. Look to your gear and be ready to answer horns.”


There was a pause and many of the troops started to turn away, when the Captain’s voice cut through the rising babble of voices.


“Any of you men who would like, may remain for a few minutes and pray with me.”


To Billy’s own surprise, he stayed.


 


One thing they were not short of was pilots. Since Billy’s flying skills would not be needed, he elected to suit up and fight. What else could he do? His future wife was at Pensacola, his future child in her womb. If she hasn’t already been killed, he thought, then pushed the thought aside. Not possible. If Marla was dead, I’d feel something.


He sat with the rest of the troops, loading and checking his pulse rifle, wiping excess oil, checking the functioning of its grenade launcher for the fortieth time. He was in his coveralls, his battle suit arranged on the deck in front of him. Well, it really wasn’t his suit. His suit was in a Glassie hiveship adrift somewhere in the cosmos. He still had the suit he’d borrowed to get away, found in a pile of suits, one of any number that had belonged to someone who didn’t make it. This suit fit him well enough but bore Corporal’s chevrons and the name “P. Jones”. He had debated painting out the name and rank and adding his own, then decided the hell with it. Let Corporal Jones fight another day. If they lost this time, there would likely be no one to bury them or attend services.


The horn wailed a piercing blast, making Billy jump and wiping all morbid thoughts from his mind.


“Now hear this! All drop-ship pilots to your craft! All combat troops suit up! Drop will commence in eleven, repeat, eleven minutes!”


God! Eleven minutes! Billy jumped to his gear and started struggling into his combat suit, starting with the heavy boots and working his way up. By the time he’d locked on his helmet with the visor open, he had a good sweat going. He checked all the suit’s systems and found everything in order. He picked up his weapon and shuffled forward with the others, out of the squad bay and into the launch bay, where the five gleaming drop ships sat, vapor already coming off their hulls in the areas where the liquid oxygen storage tanks had just been topped off. He glanced up at the front cockpit and saw the pilot harnessing in and checking his switches, preparatory to start-up. Then a burly sergeant, unaware of his rank, told him he’d best move his ass, troop. Billy moved his ass.


It seemed he had barely squeezed himself into the ruggedly built seat along the side of the hull, when the power hatch whined shut and sealed. He was still struggling with straps when the guy (or woman) next to him reached over and helped him get buckled in.


Then, without warning, there was the nauseating feeling of falling and they were clear of the George Washington, riding one of the most expensive carnival rides ever built down to probable death and grinning at each other like complete idiots. Soon the pilot checked their fall and they heard the engines spool up into a hypersonic whine as power was applied and they roared into atmosphere. They encountered turbulence for a while and the drop ship shuddered and bucked through the thick air, its heat shield glowing with friction, until at last their speed dropped off enough for normal flight. During their transit into atmosphere they had circled half the planet and now their pilot turned on his PA system.


“Jumpmaster, thirty seconds,” he calmly advised. He can afford to sound calm, Billy thought, since he’s going right back upstairs to Big Mama.


“Stand up! Check your partner! Load and lock weapons!” the jumpmaster hollered.


Billy stood and turned to the trooper on his right and they checked each other’s gear, then loaded their weapons, spanking the magazines into place and loading a stick of grenades into the launchers. Billy’s knees were trembling, not with exertion but with excitement and fear.


Then there was a loud clack of clamps unlocking and the rear ramp began opening with a hydraulic whine, showing a larger and larger slice of daylight.


“Stand by!” the jumpmaster shouted.


Billy felt one more time for the activation switch of his grav-pack, on which his life would depend shortly, just so he would be sure and find it under stress.


Then the drop-ship rocked and bucked as it was slammed by ground fire and at the same instant, the green jump light came on.


“Go! Go! Go!” The jumpmaster was in the doorway leading onto the ramp and everyone was crowding forward, practically shoving each other out into the empty air of their home planet. Too quickly it was Billy’s turn and he felt the clap on the shoulder and slight shove as the jumpmaster urged him forward; then he leapt into the screaming wind and tumbled with the rest, human confetti headed for the party below.


They jumped from just under ten thousand feet and Billy spread out and arched to stabilize himself. He had yet to turn on his grav-pack and noticed many of the others also “helldiving” to avoid exposure to ground fire. Below, in the hard sunshine of the Florida coast, the huge complex that was Pensacola Naval Space Training Center sprawled in all directions. Their drop had been an accurate one—they would land right in the thick of it.


Billy could see buildings burning and overturned vehicles and wrecked aircraft and spacecraft scattered on the parking ramps. Soon, he could see figures running and also sprawled where they had died, some human but many more Glassie. Then it was time to slow his descent. He clicked on the grav-pack and slowly turned the dial, feeling himself slowing gradually until his rate of fall was as slow as he could make it. He closed his visor and prepared for the landing, going over in his mind, knees flexed, feet together, roll, and if there’s fire, stay down.


Then the ground rose up and smacked him and he sprawled in a heap like an overturned beetle, until another Marine racing by gave him a hand getting up. He took his weapon off safe and they started looking for Glassies.


So far, no enemy fire and that was good. The radio crackled, “Sullivan, take your squad and go through those barracks to your right! No, other right, dipshit!”


“Benson, pick three volunteers and go secure those classrooms by that hangar!”


“Lieutenant Hatcher, where are ya?”


“I’m with Benson, sir!”


“Okay, leave ‘em and join Sergeant Wayne’s bunch by the fuel dump. They’re gonna assault the headquarters complex.”


“Roger that!” Billy replied, wondering where the fuel dump was. Probably over there, where all the red trucks said, ‘Oxygen’, ‘Hydrogen’ and ‘No smoking’. Duh. Billy’s mind seemed unable to keep up with all that was going on. Just as he moved out to run to the fuel dump, he heard a smacking sound behind him, and turned to see the troop he had jumped with on the ground, a smoking hole through his guts and his legs shaking, trying to run. Billy started to turn back but another Marine waved him on, shaking his head. The man was already dead or so close as not to matter.


Something incredibly hot flashed past the side of his helmet and he hit the ground rolling. Another white-hot beam danced past and he saw where that one came from. Right over there, inside the doorway of that hangar! Billy aimed and fired but pulled the wrong trigger, sending a grenade instead of the intended pulse rifle slugs. The grenade went cleanly in the door and exploded, blowing two Glassies and a crew-served large laser cannon out into the open. Both of the creatures started to get up, but Billy was quick and this time found the right trigger, lacing them with thirty caliber slugs that pierced, then exploded, sending guts and stringy liquids flying. Both Glassies flopped on the concrete, their legs kicking feebly as they died.


Billy was up and moving again, zigging and zagging to the fuel dump, where he joined up with thirty other Marines.


“Nice shootin’, son!” It was Captain Booker, hunkered down with his radioman and some maps.


“Thank you, sir!”


“In a few minutes, we’re gonna go take those HQ buildings back!”


“Roger that, sir!”


“They were among the first buildings overrun when the Glassies landed. We don’t know if there’s anyone left alive in there or not.”


 


High above Earth, in the reaches between the planet and the moon’s orbit, six Glassie hiveships came under concerted attack from fighter craft launched from the remains of the Earth fleet and from Earth Station. The responses from three of those hiveships seemed sluggish, in fact almost a token resistance only. They were destroyed by missile fire, no prisoners being taken and no boarding attempts made. It was almost certain that any number of humans perished with their demise but it was not to be helped. There were not sufficient personnel to make up boarding parties, every available military person capable of bearing arms being engaged in saving the planet.


 


Marla Kinkaid sat in the darkness and wished this whole battle thing was over. Regardless of the outcome, she hated the waiting the worst. She and seven other officers were in a basement storage vault under the main headquarters building. The door of their hideout was closed but not locked and it was built in such a way as to blend into the paneling. So far they had not been found, but she knew that unless rescue came soon, they were all dead. It was only a matter of time before the Glassies would search them out and fry their asses.


She and the others had fled to their present location when the Glassies had become too numerous for them to continue to try and hold the building and when their ammo had run out. She had been afraid the Glassies would merely burn the place down around them but things had been relatively quiet for about half an hour.


They could tell the enemy were still in the building. They could hear them upstairs, trashing the place. She would have thought they would have wanted to collect artifacts and information. There were file cabinets up there filled with documents that would be of interest to almost any enemy, but not to the Glassies. Apparently, they knew all they wanted to know about the human race: where they lived and how to kill them.


Marla had suffered a minor wound when a Glassie laser shot had hit the sergeant right next to her. He had been killed almost instantly, the laser beam entering just under his breastbone and cooking his lungs and heart; the heat had also cooked the firing mechanism of his rifle. It had fired itself empty, spraying slugs all over the inside of the offices. She had been struck, either by a bullet fragment or some other debris, just below the side of her right breast, losing a fair-sized chunk of meat from her rib cage and probably cracking a rib. It had bled like crazy for a while and still hurt like blue blazes. She was pretty sure she’d shocked the young corpsman who’d treated her with her colorful swearing, but that didn’t matter, really. He’d died moments later when he forgot what he was doing and stood up in front of a window. Some of his brains were still clinging to her uniform.


The Pensacola battle so far had been a ghastly mess; Marla had only been through one worse, when Montezuma had been destroyed. Of course, in that case, she’d been in her quarters and had seen none of the deaths as they actually occurred and only had to deal with one injury: Billy’s arm.


As she thought of Billy she prayed that he was alive and somehow they would be together again. She was pretty sure that the Glassies were going to lose this engagement. Their numbers were too few and they had no concept of the way things really were on good ol’ planet Earth. Even if they defeated the military, much of the civilian population was armed with weapons that went clear back to gunpowder.


Faintly, she heard the popping sound of grenades at some distance and wondered who’d got themselves in the shit now and how long they’d last.


 


The basement area where Marla and the others were hidden was the communications center. It came to the attention of the Glassies because of the radio equipment, some of which was left on. Not that they wanted the equipment or were interested in the radio traffic still coming across from troops on the base and from conflicts above. They just wanted something they could smash.


In the process of tearing up everything in sight, they at last noticed the door of the vault and their sense of smell did the rest. They smelled fear and went to it, as a needle of a compass is attracted to a magnetic source. They first tried to rip the door open but the humans were holding it from inside. Then they stood back and put a few laser shots through it and heard the satisfying cries of the weak, stupid humans as they crowded back away from the door. Their cries were like the sounds of the aphid-like creatures of their home planet, the ones that were their favorite food. In a few seconds, the door was open and the humans seized, to be taken to the hiveship. There they would provide food for young warriors.


 


Captain Booker had managed to assemble thirty or so troops to assault the headquarters building. Because of the heat and the fact that there had been no gas used anywhere, he allowed them to dump their combat suits and strip to their fatigue uniforms. Just as they were about ready, he heard one of the troops shout, “Hey, Look!”


From their position of cover, they all turned and looked in time to see two Glassies marching seven human prisoners out of the building and up the ramp of a shuttle sitting right in the parking lot. Billy recognized Marla, even at this distance, even though her shape had changed since he’d seen her last. It was her walk and the way she held herself as much as anything else.


He knew that if the Glassies got her to a hiveship, she would be placed in with one of their larvae and there was no way that he would allow that. He was up and running before he had even completed that thought or taken any time to assess the situation. The ramp of the Glassie craft was already closing and its engines were starting when Billy began his run and from behind him he could hear voices shouting, voices of command. He ignored them.


He really had no plan in mind other than to save Marla from the horror of being paralyzed and eaten alive. Vaguely, he already knew he would cause her death right here, right now, rather than let the unthinkable happen to her.


It was near a hundred yards to the parking lot; in Billy’s condition, he shouldn’t have been able to run it at all. He was sufficiently charged up, scared and in fear for Marla that he ran it in about eleven seconds, but even then he could see he was going to be too late. On top of that, there were Glassies firing at him now, from the headquarters building. Laser shots were humming past, some hitting the grass and setting it afire, others zipping on by to strike other objects or diffuse harmlessly into the air.


Just as he reached the parking lot, a close shot of hot coherent light struck the curb he had just crossed, blowing out chunks of concrete, one of which struck his heel with enough force to cut through his boot. He continued on, limping. As he dimly started hearing the sounds of covering fire coming from the troops behind him, the Glassie shuttle started to lift off.


Billy stopped, dropped to one knee and fired his grenade launcher, sending a high explosive projectile into the intake of the nearest engine. The result was immediate and in a small way, spectacular. The explosion didn’t breach the hull but it did shut down the engine and blow away most of the enclosing structure on that side. The shuttle, being like most aircraft and spacecraft, was designed with more than one engine and needed them all, especially during takeoff. It faltered, wobbled, and then fell back to Earth, a distance of perhaps ten feet, landing hard on its skids and bouncing and sliding to a shaky halt. Immediately, the ramp began deploying from its side as the access portal opened.


Billy shot the first two Glassies that came through the portal, riddling them with explosive tipped bullets and watching them tumble to the ground. Then those that were left inside the shuttle started firing back. Marines scrambled for whatever cover they could find, but Billy ran toward the shuttle and managed to get under it, in a position where he could not be seen by any occupants. He ducked around behind a landing gear strut and waved to the other Marines, motioning them back. They were already holding their fire because of Billy’s close proximity to the shuttle.


As the Marines fell back, Billy remained hidden, waiting out the rest of the shuttle crew. Soon, three more Glassies tumbled out of the craft and turned quickly to assess the damage to the engine. Billy shot all three without any warning from his position behind the strut. Then he waited a little longer. After a few minutes with no activity, he waved up some troops and they went aboard, cautiously covering each other, commando style. They needn’t have bothered. There were no more Glassies aboard.


Billy raised the hatch into the lower hold, ignoring the stench, and peered down inside. The first thing he saw was Marla’s face, looking back.


“Hey, Ell-Tee. How ya doin’?”


“Billy?”


“Yes, Ma’am! That would be me!”


She scrambled to her feet and came to him and, as he helped her up and out of the hold, she noticed his rank and shoulder patch.


Lieutenant Hatcher. Hatcher’s Harriers? My, Billy, you’ve been busy.” Then she threw her arms around him and planted a very firm kiss, slightly off center, on his mouth.


“I take it you two know each other?” a major asked dryly, from behind Marla.


Billy struck a brace and answered, “Sir! Yes, sir!”


The major smiled and said, “Carry on then, Lieutenant. Captain.” He returned their salutes and stepped down from the shuttle to meet Captain Booker.


“C’mon, let’s get you out of here,” Billy said to Marla.


“I beg your pardon, Lieutenant Hatcher. We still have some Glassies to chase the hell off this base,” she said.


“But...but, Marla,” Billy sputtered, “you’re...you’re pregnant. You shouldn’t...”


“Thanks for the kindly thoughts, Daddy, but if we don’t survive, this guy doesn’t, either.” She patted her stomach for emphasis.


“She’s right, Lieutenant Hatcher,” Captain Booker said, “we need to get these people weapons and get this base secured.”


“Aye, aye, sir!” Billy responded. He quickly moved the rescued group back and out of harm’s way until he could get them armed. By then, the final assault on the headquarters building was under way and they joined in on the room by room search at the end of the battle.


By late in the day, there was no more contact with the enemy anywhere at Pensacola and troops were being picked up to be taken to other areas of conflict. Captain Booker slyly assigned Billy to the small garrison of combat Marines left to secure the Training Station.


Once again, Billy and Marla found themselves being treated for wounds together. His badly bruised heel was lacerated and needed stitches. Her injury was more serious and the medical staff insisted she stay in the hospital overnight. The next day dawned much brighter.


 


Chapter 19


 


 


A month after the last Glassie hiveship was destroyed by the heavy cruiser Manassas, a wedding was performed outside the base chapel at Pensacola. The chapel itself was still in ruins but there was a grove of trees to the side and the weather cooperated. The groom wore the Marine Corps dress blue uniform, but the bride opted for a wedding dress of ankle length with lace sleeves and bodice. It was the first time Billy had ever seen Marla in a dress, and he found his heart pounding at the altar, both from nerves and with his love for this woman he had been through so much with.


Billy had been promised a shore station as soon as he got finished setting up and training his next squadron and training his replacement. By then, he would be a father and they were already looking at houses near the base.


Their vows repeated, Billy and Marla Hatcher made their way through well-wishers and thrown rice, to escape in the little electric car she had purchased when she first came here. There would be no reception, as personnel didn’t have time to party. There was too much to do. Billy was lucky to get enough time off for a honeymoon.


No one doubted that the Glassies would be back someday, maybe next year, maybe not for a hundred years or more. A strong military would be needed and Billy would remain a part of it as long as they would let him.


He and Marla went to a motel on the beach to begin their married lives and to get reacquainted after his absence.


 


As they pulled alongside the new troop carrier, Billy was amazed at how much had already been completed. His new command would be aboard this vessel and even though today was its dedication day, welding arcs could be seen flashing and sparkling all over her hull. She was airtight now and pressurized and at 14:00 hours he was to participate in her Christening and dedication services.


He and a number of other officers and some family members went aboard and wandered through the spaces and compartments of Montezuma II until it was time for the service.


Her ship’s announcement system warbled for the first time and her Bo’ sun made his call, “All hands hear this. All hands lay to the bridge for ceremonies.”


Billy joined the others on her immense bridge. It was larger and more elaborate than the original on Montezuma and more modern in design. After all, this ship was designed as a fighting vessel right from the start, rather than being a conversion.


Billy gazed around the bridge as others milled around waiting for the ceremony to begin. Once again he was to sail aboard Montezuma, as drop-ship squadron commander. He would make the shakedown cruise, then go on to his shore assignment.


On the aft bulkhead, directly behind the dual helmsman’s position, Billy noticed a huge bas-relief sculpture done in bronze. He moved closer to examine it and, suddenly, as it all came into focus, he realized that the sculpture was centered around the original coat of arms that had gone missing from the salvage of Montezuma. It was surrounded by three large laurel wreaths, each leaf engraved with the name of someone lost on the ship.


At the bottom were two small plates inscribed with his name and Marla’s and labeled “Survivors.”


Billy reflected that they were indeed survivors and that they had been very lucky. Then, over the announcement system the Marine Corps Hymn began to play and Billy took his place with the officers of Montezuma II.                                                         


 


The End




 

 

Kenneth Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, Kansas, wrote the SF serial (starting in BP #76)  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA  (+  BP #78’s “Those Other Guys,” “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75, “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73, “The Weeping Man” for BP #72, “Pebbles” for BP #71, “The Diner” for BP #67, “New Glasses” for BP #61, “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.

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