“Thank you, Sargent,” said Lieutenant Maris. “These observations are indeed troubling. Keep a close eye on them. That'll be all. Dismissed.”
Zales saluted, turned on his heel as Maris returned his salute, and walked out, closing the door behind him.
“What a gunghole,” Maris said to nobody in particular, since he was in the room by himself. Still, he thought, the military needed gung-ho men like Zales. Zales had pointed out that the numbers didn't add up, as Maris had seen shortly after the first rocket had launched, and had come to the conclusion that the Venusian mathematicians were idiots. Maris didn't think so.
He picked up his tablet and continued working on the Venusian fleet's trajectory that he'd been working on when Zales had knocked. It was a puzzle. It was apparent that the ships weren't headed for Mars or Earth, and he had a hard time figuring out where they really were going, and had little idea at all where or why. Not any idea that made any sense, anyway. So he studied the math.
He doubted they would hit the sun, as Zales had insisted they would.
Private O'Brien came in the building as Zales left Maris' office. “Mornin', Sarge,” he said. “Did you see the game last night? It was really a good one. Musial made the best play I've ever seen!”
“Good morning, O'Brien. No, I got busy. You're going to be kind of busy today yourself. Here, watch this.” He turned on the holoscreen, and the Venusian dictator was giving a speech to his planetmen.
“Fellow Venusians,” Washington said in Venusian as the Martian translation crawled across the bottom of the screen. The translation was a necessary redundancy, as part of Zales' and his men's jobs were to be fluent in Venusian.
The Venusian leader continued. “You have all seen the news reports of the uprising in southern Venus. The situation is under control. The traitor Zak and a hundred of his fellow conspirators have been executed for their sabotage. Zak is still alive, hanging on a cross outside the palace. Repairs of the affected facilities are underway, and the affected provinces are under martial law...”
Zales switched off the screen. “Martial law! The stupid Venusians don't seem to realize that Washington owns them and they're all slaves! The ‘unrest’ is worrying enough as it is, but watch this.” He switched the screen back on, and a primitive rocket filled the screen as it lifted off from the surface of Venus, exploding several minutes later.
“We lasered that one from the satellites, and several more, but two got through and actually destroyed two of the satellites we have orbiting around Venus. Two satellites doesn't change our capabilities, but...”
“Yeah, I see,” said O'Brien. “Galaxy! Deja Vu. This is how the last system-wide war started. Do you think that the idiots are planning to attack again?”
“Yes, it's a distinct possibility. I'd say yeah, they're being stupid again.”
“What did the Lieutenant say about the ones that didn't try to reach the satellites?”
“He didn't say anything to me, but I'm sure he'll pass it up the chain. Keep your eyes open!” he said, putting on his coat.
“You bet, Sarge. That is a bit worrying, even though I don't see how they could possibly be a threat. They don't even have fission bombs, let alone fusion bombs. Sure, they vastly outnumber us but it will never get as far as hand to hand. Their primitive chemical rockets are way too slow to be a threat. They won't get anywhere near Mars before they're destroyed.”
“Well, O'Brien, you saw the feed from yesterday; they're overpopulated. Sending a few thousand ships full of thousands of troops each to Mars would ease their overpopulation problem a lot more than an orchestrated civil war on Venus. The problem is, we lost a lot of good people and equipment the last time.”
O'Brien cringed. “You know I'll keep my eyes open. See you tomorrow, Sarge.”
“See you,” said Zales as he walked out.
Johnson was at work manning the screens. “G'mornin', Larry. Venus is up to no good again.”
“Yeah, Zales told me we lost two satellites. With all the redundancy we have, two won't matter and we'll have four to replace those two on their way to Venus in a week.
“What's on the screens, anyway, Greg? Looks like there's a new screamer outside the palace. Is the other one quiet yet?”
“Yeah, no sooner did the first one shut up than they nailed up the new one,” Johnson said. “The first one tried to kill Washington, but I don't know what the second one did.”
“I don't know, either. Washington gave a speech saying it was a minister that sabotaged part of the power grid, but I saw Washington cut that guy's head off. Galaxy, but those Venusians have a lot of blood and it really squirts when they get decapitated. I don't know who they nailed, or why, though.”
“Probably some poor stooge that was just following orders. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't, tortured to death either way.”
“Oh hell, look at that, they're launching another rocket. A big one, too.” He pressed a button on his console.
“Maris here, what's up, boys?”
“Rocket launch, sir. Should we shoot it down?”
“Where's it headed?”
“We don't know, sir. Washington's really being secretive.”
“Is it manned?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“How big is the crew?”
“Let it go, if it's headed here EL2 will take it out.”
One of the screens showed the rocket about to lift off, another showing the base commander, a Colonel, watching the launch on his own screen. The huge rocket lifted gracefully off of the launch pad and exploded half a minute later.
Zales walked back in. “Forgot my cobblobbers. Hey, did you guys just shoot down a rocket?” he said, seeing the flaming debris from the explosion raining down on one of the screens.
“No, Sarge,” said O'Brien. “Lieutenant’s orders were to let it fly. It must have had mechanical problems.”
“Yeah,” said Zales, “their junk is junk, all right.
The Venusian Colonel put his pistol in his mouth and closed his eyes tightly before pulling the trigger.
“Stupid ghouls,” O'Brien said. “I wonder who the new screamer's going to be? It sure won't be that one!”
“What difference does it make?” Zales said. “The only good Venusian is a dead Venusian.”
“I don't even like the dead ones,” O'Brien said. “It turns my stomach when one dies.”
“Huh?” Zales said. “Why?”
Johnson said “Excuse me, Sarge, can you watch my screens for a minute? I forgot my lunch and need to call home.”
“Sure, Johnson, go ahead. But be quick, the wife wants me on time tonight.”
“Why?” O'Brien said. “Galaxy, Sarge, because it's fucking disgusting. They all die of natural causes. Disgusting. Just disgusting,” he repeated, not caring about what Zales' wife wanted.
“Natural causes?” Zales said, puzzled.
“Yeah,” said O'Brien. “Natural for a Venusian, anyway. It isn't like any of them ever die of old age. I feel like Williams, I want to hack. I don't know what's worse, the dead Venusian or the one that kills him. Or her,” he said, thinking of the horror Williams had seen, which he had seen countless times himself.
“I never figured you for somebody with a weak stomach, O'Brien,” Zales said.
“I'm not, but Sarge, I hate this damned job.”
“Why don't you resign?”
“The job needs to be done. It sucks, but somebody has to do it. Might as well be me. Better than playing zooterball. Hell of a lot more important, too.”
“Johnson... or was it Williams? Anyway, one of them asked me why I was so gung-ho the other day. That's why. It's important and we need to do it right. By the book.
“Look, O'Brien, you're a good soldier and you're due for a promotion. I'll talk to Maris about it tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Sarge, I really appreciate that!”
“Don't mention it. I mean, really. Keep it under your shoe, OK? Don't even say anything to Dennis.”
“Well, yeah, Sarge, sure. I won't say anything to anybody. Galaxy but I hate this job.”
“Me, too,” said Zales. “Keep that under your shoe, too. What's taking Johnson so long? My wife's going to be furious if I get home late again.”