"Well, that's it then, Drummond. Smith gives us no other choice," Palmer agreed. "We have to go planetside to clear up this damn mess. That jerk."
All the instrument readouts and panic bars were flashing on and off over the hull ofthe cramped flight cabin. A dozen red-alert programs were frantically signaling with reports of autodefensive activity, fighting off various probing scans that were sweeping the dark sky. Outside, the Earth hung "above" them as they crazily spun around it, their craft trailing spirals of jamming chaff. The bright crescent of the planet bounced back and forth across the top of the viewing port as the ship gyros mimicked the random pitch and yaw drift ofthe burnt Soviet Comsat that the ship had overtaken and replaced. Just past the dancing horizon lay the Moon, lit by occasional flashes from the huge firelight that raged on behind them. They had escaped in the fortuitous confusion, stealing a Spree craft and killing the insect pilot and crew. The surprise Dero assault had caught the Elohim off guard and a rout was in progress.
Spree numerals flickered on and off the navigation screens, their ultraviolet chicken scratchings producing a distracting, strobing accompaniment to the rhythm of the board keys underneath Palmer's tapping fingers. The bugs' inboard stealth gear was working so far. If it failed now, they'd both be fried so quickly they'd never have time to realize they were dead. He worked furiously, reprogramming the observation craft for surface landing. The Bohandas, being merely a vacuum launch, wasn't built for gravitational touchdowns but, with all its heavy military armor and wave shields, it should be able to hold out long enough for one suicidal reentry. Once down the well, it could never reach space again. As long as it brought them to the ground in one piece. Palmer finished his computations, shut off the flight recorders and turned to the Overman.
"I can't understand how Smith managed to let himself be captured," Vreedeez whined. He glanced over at his mutated companion, waiting for the completion beep signaling that the alien computer had finished translating his retum trip commands. He'd been making mistakes, had almost hit the command for a core dump, thinking it was an environmental stack.
The combat 'Phrane was wearing off Palmer could feel the payback for his week of Antisleep looping begin to settle in. His brainpan felt scoured, as if it had been filled with hot, dry sand. It was times like this that made Palmer almost reconsider his decision not to go for Gordon's offer of free glandscaping. It would have been handy to power-up to seven-speed and use a preprogrammed assassination chip back there at the Blood of Christ. Gordon paid through the nose for it, though. Literally. No doubt about that. G.G.'s trips to the Black Hospital left him with a little less Gordon each time and a little more "them." Gordon would never acknowledge the side elects either, but it was still an expensive set of tools, one way or another. Palmer would stick to his dmgs. At least you could come down.
"Our suicide spores should have activated automatically at the first official question, even if Smith couldn't set them oW himself. Say the Xists pulled out all his teeth, a few spores still collect in the arterial walls. Enough for 'death,' anyway. That asshole! I knew that homeboy couldn't do it! He'II sing for sure! I should have made him a Third Nostril when I had the chance. And I like him. Now we have to land on the friggin' White House lawn and go deal with Jones because Unibrow, of all people, says we still need Smith."
"We have use of him. The Dero came to create a diversion, so that we could confront Jones. And there is still the question of. . . Dobbs," Philo mused, his massive, clownlike head nodding in response. "How far gone is he? Will we have to terminate him?"
If things kept going in this direction, Palmer swore that he would wipe that idiotic smile from the Overman's swelled cranium. Ever since Philo's transformation, he had become worse than useless. Now all he ever did was smoke 'Frop and more 'Frop. He acted like he was superior to everyone else and knew things that better should be left unsaid. Throw in the white plastic complexion, a shit-eatin' grin that wouldn't stop, those space-spook eyes, and a skull the size of a medicine ball, and you had the first SubGenius Overman-Prime: Dr. Drummond. In spite of rumors Palmer had heard about size and shape changes in certain other external body organs, it was his opinion that, if this was the next step in evolution, you could keep it. There was even talk down in the Money Pits about Overwomen, though nobody could actually recall a sighting firsthand.
Philo had come a long way from the phone company.
"Yeah, sure. I'm not going to try to hit Dobbs. That's the craziest thing I've heard so far. Look what happened to Sterno. lvhat a fuckin' mess he was, couldn't even tell he had been human. Spread out over a whole city block. Yeech. Dobbs may be a traitor, but his biologic tantra can't be touched. If you want him dead, you pull the trigger. Count me out, you goddamned guinea pig."
"It's not Dobbs that is the danger. It is his Pipe," Philo answered, the foot-wide slash in his head shutting with a clack of huge teeth. They looked like they could bite through saddle leather.
"The pipe, huh? I've heard it all now." Palmer was too exhausted to show his aggravation forcefully. He left his pod, reached for an empty equipment sack and began stuffing it with parts of the dead Spree pilot that floated about them. It wouldn't do to reenter without everything tied down. "Make this' quick, balloonhead," he snapped, plucking an iridescent bottle-green compound eye from the cloud of drifting, chitinous flesh. "Thank the stars these things don't bleed. Two minutes to descent sequence. lvhen the lights go green, get in the netting and don't forget your crash helmet this time. Now, what's all this about the pipe?"
"Not the pipe. Rather, the Pipe," stated Philo, fixing the perplexed Vreedeez,with a demanding stare and a matter-of-fact sigh. "Actually, its real name is unpronounceable in any Earth language. The Pipe is our tme enemy. It is an alien parasite, attached to Dobbs' teeth. At the end of the smoke stem is a taproot which is slowly growing into the forebrain and instituting its will there. You may have noticed "Bob's" behavior has become rather erratic in the last few months. If we cannot remove it, "Bob" is doomed anyway. The root will continue to grow; within a half year at the most, it will split Dobbs' head in two and release its brood of young. Killing "Bob" will be an act of mercy."
Palmer was beside himself. He started to reach for a coffin stick and then remembered that the cabin was loaded with pure oxygen at Philo's request. The better for the OverBrain to think with, or so he said. Palmer suspected it had merely made the lobe-head space-drunk. Just great, really fuckin' great, he thought.
"That's the stupidest thing I've heard so far," snapped Vreedeez. "All of our trouble with "Bob" comes from this . . . this thing? He's had a pipe in his mouth ever since I can remember. Decades! And the whole time it was the 'Pipe' we were talking to, not "Bob" at all?"
"The Pipe's race is more ancient than time. The oldest civilized recordings available to the Pan-Lógos Co-op mention myths conceming their entropic powers of universal dissolution and abstraction. Pipes have played a role in the end of every major cycle in mathematical space. They live in Chaos, thrive on dimensional distortion, vacation in the Skor. Numbers are less than nothing to them-they use No-Theory. A Pipe will twist, fold and spindle the fabric of time and energy, encoding existence to suit its own dark purposes, restarting creation over and over, shredding the pathways of causational surreality until some edited pattem of subatomic law 'pleases' it. At any given instant, they can pull the Vortex right from beneath our foot glands. The Pipes' motivations are unguessable, their intelligence opaque to the most intense scrutiny. No one in the known history of the Universe has ever succeeded in establishing communication with one. All past attempts have resulted in failure, with the most horrifying consequences for any 'lucky' survivors. The Stark Fist of Removal is as a gentle, loving caress compared to the touch of a Pipe.
"When JHVH-1 learned that one had reached our world and mated with Dobbs, He had no choice but to attack and destroy them both before this whole sector could be contaminated. The tiresome revenge plotting of that paranoid half-breed, Jesus, provided a convenient front so that JHVH-1 could move against this being. Those at the NEXUS, when informed of "Bob's" misfortune, tried to subvert the extermination mission and capture the target, to harness it for their own ends. They would have failed. The Pipe is the most dangerous life-form known, if 'life-form' is truly the correct term. It is not 'alive' as we know life. The sacrifice of the dozen sentient Earth races is a small price to pay when measured against the possibility that a Pipe would find conditions for reproduction favorable here. It did.
"We have all been manipulated from the first. Jones, Jesus, Unibrow, yourself, everyone: only pawns in the Greater Power's struggle to destroy the Pipe. Now it shows its birthing pattern, and so deception is discarded. Ifwe cannot remove the Pipe, we must kill Dobbs. The Council of None concurs with me in this. The Pipe is a parasite and will die along with the host. This is its one weakness: While pregnant, it is mortal, sharing all our laws of space-time and matter. If we cannot kill the Pipe, then JHVH-1 vlill incinerate half the galaxy to do the job. He has done this before; the titanic X-ray quasars dotting known space mark past extermination sites. We are his microscopic surgeons. If the Doktors fail . . ."
The OverMan fell back into the acceleration webbing, panting with the effort of his speech, and watched as Vreedeez stowed the sack beneath the telecommunications board.
It was the most Palmer had heard Phi'o ever say in a coherent manner. He felt strangely serene. Peaceful for the first time in years. Happy, even. He smiled at his old friend. Why had he ever doubted the obviously superior Homo excelsior? The Overman's story almost made sense. It sounded so . . . so right. If it was true- Yes ! It had to be true! Palmer checked the Bohandas' weapons banks. They would need every particle beam and plasma cannon on board to stay alive in the next half hour.
The lights on the dashboard changed to green and down they went.
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