Armor

3,483
07.03.2019

He drank alone.

Which was odd since he didn't have trouble with people. He had always managed to make acquaintances without much effort. And, despite what had happened, he still liked people. Recently, he had even grown to miss them again. Yet here he was, drinking alone.

Maybe I'm just shy, he thought to himself and then laughed at such a feeble attempt at self-delusion. For he knew what it was.

From his place at the end of the long bar he examined the others in the crowded lounge. He recognized a handful from training. Training was where it had begun. Where he had felt that odd sensation descending upon him like mist, separating him from all those thousands of others around him in the mess hall. It was a dull kind of temporal shock at first, a reaction reverberating from somewhere deep within him. He had somehow felt… No, he had somehow known that they all would die.

He shook his head, drained his glass. If be was in the mood for honesty he would have to admit that his chances were no better. No better at all…

He paid the credits for a full bottle and then paid the extra credits to take it out of the lounge. It was strictly against orders on a battle cruiser to have a bottle in one's personal possession. But on the night before a drop a lot of things were possible. And as the hour for the drop grew nearer, he noticed that his fellows were beginning to take their drinking more seriously.

Outside the lounge wasn't much better. Lots of bottles had been smuggled out tonight. The ship wasn't exactly a giant party, but there were enough get-togethers here and there, and enough legitimate crew business here and there, to make it almost impossible to find a quiet place to sit and think. After awhile he had settled into an idle rhythm of walking, sipping, smoking, and hunting.

After most of an hour of wandering about the corridors of the immense ship he found himself standing beside the center template strut of Drop Bay One. Drop Bay One was the largest single room in the ship and, since the Terra was the largest warship, the largest single room in space. It was over a hundred meters long and sixty wide. Around him in a checkerboard style were the little square spaces for drop assignment. From here it all began. Thousands of men and women would go into battle from this room. At the same moment, if necessary. The overhead was ten stories above him, criss-crossed with the immense cranes that lowered the equipment of war into position. A hell of a big room, he thought. Bigger even than the Hall of Gold back home where he bad first stood at age ten beside the boys and girls of the other nobles and watched the coronation. He and the other children had had a tendency to giggle, he remembered, and so had been placed at the far end of the Hall, away from the throne.

Enough of this, he said to himself. That's over for me now. It's far, far away…

He sighed, shook his head. He perched himself atop the center strut and lay down on his back and stared up at the distant overhead and didn't see it.

"Enough sentiment," he said aloud. "It's time for brainwork. Time, in fact, for a cold logical assessment of the situation." He took a sip from the bottle, lit a smoke, and laughed again. "Fact is, we haven't got a prayer."

Fact was, most everybody in Fleet nowadays was a rookie. Over sixty percent and rising. That meant six months of advanced training. Nine months tops in the military altogether. Not much hope there.

Still, the equipment was marvelous and many were surprisingly good with it. He remembered his astonishment at discovering clearly apparent aptitude for, of all things, the battle armor. Most found the power suits almost impossibly alien in practice and couldn't bring themselves to react in a sufficiently normal fashion. But he, and a few others, had taken to them easily, readily utilizing their potential as the long-sought key to a machine as extension of man's own puny form.

How odd, he thought, that he should have such bizarre talents. He, of all people, had fit with Fleet's hopes…

And from there his drunken thoughts slipped into the past like most drunken thoughts of terrified humans. He lay back on the template and blew smoke at the distant cranes. He sipped steadily from the bottle. He feared. The hours passed.

Lovers in niches surrounding the perimeter of the Bay took advantage of the sexually integrated warrior class. They rocked and moaned and grasped one another. It was a united, if unorganized, effort by each and all to push the tension-tant resent far ahead into the horrors of the future. After a while they would rest from their labors, draining the last of the bottles and lighting the last of the cigarettes. And before thoughts turned inward each and all would notice the glow of the cigarette coal coming from the lone figure who lay on the center template strut in the middle of the vastness of Drop Bay One. They would wonder what the tell it was he was doing there.

Felix, alone and unaware of their curiosity, wondered the very same thing.

Drop was just under four hours away when Felix rested the crewline. The turnout was sparse this morning. Not surprising considering the night before. He watched several people back out as the line advanced toward the food. As the smell grew stronger, their faces grew greener until at last they couldn't take it anymore. A broad-shouldered woman wearing a warrior patch and red eyes got so far as to actually have a plate of the heaping whatever placed in front of her before she vomited loudly onto the floor.

She looked around, wildly embarrassed, to apologize at all others in the line, but found only Felix left. Puzzled, she nodded to him and rushed out the door with her palm clamped firmly over her lips. Felix looked around and laughed. He was indeed alone in the chow line. The young woman had actually emptied the place out.

He wasn't surprised, but neither was he affected. He stewed over the crumbling clean-up crew and, to the cooks' amazement, ordered them to heap whatever it was onto his tray.

"I'm hungry," was the only response he would make to their pale faces.

Actually, he was just lucky. Two hours before the rest of the ship had reveille, be had been rudely awakened by the chief of Drop Bay One who had wanted to know just what the hell be was doing sleeping on the center strut. That early start had allowed him to miss the long lines at Medical for a little something for his stomach.

After be found an empty table a fellow from his squad bay, whose name might have been Dikk, appeared beside him. "Felix, right?" the man asked.

Felix nodded without interrupting his eating. That foamy something the meditechs had given him made him ravenous.

"Well, I'd be careful with all that food if I were you," said Dikk as be sat down. "It's supposed to be real bad for you if you're wounded. Like in the stomach, you know?"

Felix nodded that he knew and continued eating. He didn't want to say that he thought the idea of not eating before this battle was incredibly naive. As far as stomach wounds were concerned… Anything that could tear through battle armor would leave not a wound but a tunnel.

It wasn't that he didn't appreciate doctors. He did. He was impressed by their knowledge, dutifully in awe of their equipment. But doctors didn't make drops. Doctors didn't have to fight for days at a time without eating anything but what they could carry. Come to think of it, neither did he. Or at least he hadn't until today.

He looked over at Dikk's nervous face and at the hunched shoulders of the handful of others who sat about him in the mess.

None of us have had to fight yet, he thought. But maybe that part was not so bad. What was bad was that they weren't ready.

Something in his face must have made Dikk uneasy. He mumbled something and left the table. Felix realized he had never said a word to the guy. He had a sudden urge to get up and catch him, to ask him if his name really was Dikk after all…

But he didn't. He sat where he was and finished the plate and lit a cigarette and watched the silken plumes rise and twist.

A few minutes later his thoughts rose to him out of the daze of smoke and fear. "We're not ready. We're not even close." Then he started, looking around to see if anyone was nearby. To see if anyone else had heard him. For he wasn't at all sure that he hadn't said it out loud.

Felix stared at the black scout suit with the unsurprised attitude of one whose emotional spectrum has retreated to just two colors: frustration and disgust. Fear at this point could no longer be thought of as an emotion. It had more the consistency of gravity.

He sat down on the bench across from the now-gaping maintenance chamber that served as long-term lockers. When sealed, an elaborate testing system would commence. An amazingly varied series of forces-from hydro-thermal to magnetically directed laser probing-would come into play. The testing would continue on a more or less constant basis until the chamber was reopened. Most of it was to find a leak. Which was silly for a scout suit, thought Felix. After all, plassteel doesn't leak. You could vaporize it, warp it, tear it even (if sufficient forces were applied just right). But it didn't leak. And scout suit outer armor was 100 percent plassteel.

He snorted. Scout suits. A damn scout?

"Shit," he said out loud. No one could hear him inside his cubicle, so no one could appreciate his display of disgust.

From under his arm he took a wad of crumpled writ he had taped there before drop inspection. They still held inspection, even though everybody already knew it was suicide to carry personal belongings inside the perfect fit of battle armor. They bad shown that one to the troops over and over, always dwelling on the scenes of the surgical teams trying to remove religious medals crammed halfway through some idiot's rib cage. Of course one could wear jewelry on one's nose and such where there was some freedom of movement. And many did. But Felix's interest in a nose ring was the same as it was for a religious medal-none at all.

He produced five cigarettes from the writ and lit one and stared at the suit and thought about why he wasn't surprised he had drawn scout duty.

Training again, he decided, the source of many first clues. He recalled their excitement at his scores, at his times. They bad made him run the tight course twice more before they were convinced.

"Sure got the reflexes for this… uh, Felix, is it?" He had nodded. He should have caught on then. And later, when that same officer had called him into his own quarters and talked to him about "natural leadership abilities." Cigarettes were offered him. And something cool to drink for the first time in many days. He had accepted both and refused everything else.

He was furious with himself for not having been more careful.

The officer kept trying, kept spouting garbage, but Felix wouldn't budge. He knew it wasn't for him. Though capable of giving orders and probably having them obeyed, he was, of late, an uninspiring man. Not at all what a leader, a real leader, should be.

He sighed and puffed on the cigarette. Looking around he had seen several such men and women, he supposed. But though admiring of their energy, he had little faith in the potential effectiveness. With such a bunch, that kind of leader could likely get chewed in a battle long before decoration time.

And Felix wanted to at least try to live. No blaze of glory. No blaze at all.

So of course they had gone and made him a lousy scout anyway!

He sighed, resting his face in his hands.

His world shrank toward him. He panicked, as he always had before. Sweat poured down his face. His lips trembled. It was completely, terribly, dark.

He keyed the master switch with a dry tongue. Air, heat, light… life began again. For a moment he paused as he always did and simply breathed and stared. It was a foolish fear, he knew. But it was very real to him. Each time he felt the suit close about him, felt the armor seal itself about him, he also felt a deep inner terror that no amount of training could prevent. For with the simple fright of claustrophobia came something else: he feared the suit.

It was a machine. It did not care. It would work if told to. It would not if not. It was no serpent. It would not crush him. It did not crave his flesh.

But still he feared. And later simply breathed and stared and felt relief. This time, as at other times, the suit had chosen to obey him.

He examined the holos on both sides of the faceplate. They seemed far away, deep and wide in their illusion of three dimensions. Thousands of bits of information could be displayed on them. Maps of terrain. Known enemy locations. Distances and probable routes to Retrieval points. Many, many facts. They were blank now.

He worked the keys on the inside of his forearm and the holos showed him where he was: Starship Terra, Deck AA12, Warrior Section, Armor Vault One. He ran through the Function series. He matte exaggerated gestures with arms, legs, head. Everything worked.

He made Connection and watched the gauge swell as he and his suit drew from the very heart of the ship the thing that seemed in awesome abundance everywhere: Power. Power throughout the ship for thousands and thousands of different uses. And more Power in the combined form of Fleet. And even more from home. Power. Everywhere, sheer Power. Force. Might.

He thought of the tiny sparks that moved and thought and eased more sparks together to form and ease even more sparks, the strength of which would ease together still more, timer, sparks which, in proper conjunction, made Power. The tiny sparks would then ease beside Power. And together, with awesome brute force and intricate silken precision, wonders could be created. Wonders like the Starship Terra, whose marvelous stature and beauty could serve as man's ultimate loving gesture to the darkness which surrounded him-We are good. We are hopeful. We have built this. See her, the Starship Terra, the jewel of our being.

But jewels did not long shine when Power was still about. Not when any fool could reach it. Felix, deep within the jewel already, could rend and tear her. He could grind her workings to nibble, blight her glowing entrails. He could disembowel this jewel of Man. For he had Power.

Inside these layers of plassteel armor even a fool such as he, a dumb broken sonuvabitch with no future and a past he refused, could stomp the idol to clay.

Such power had thrilled him at first. Later, he was appalled. Now… now, he didn't care. Felix read a dial. It was time. He left.

The Briefing Room mirror created what was termed "Positive Psychological Feedback." It allowed a simple soldier to see what a monster he was in battle armor. Some psyches had felt it would have a negative effect on some warriors, particularly the females. It was a stupid notion, immediately overruled. All killers like to look the part.

They did. Two meters tall, they weighed six times their norm. Their armored powered hands could crush steel, stone, bone. Armored legs could propel the fastest around 100 kilometers per standard hour. The suit protected them as well, automatically and instantly distributing most concussions in an evenly expanding pattern from the point of impact to the entire surface of the armor. Standard warrior armor carried blaze-rifles on each sleeve. Hold the arm out, palm down, drop the wrist: blazerfire. Even plassteel would boil before it. The blaze-bombs clipped on racks on their backs provided not only an explosion, but spherical delivery of blazerfire in a single heartbeat.

And there were other gifts. They were, for example, complete. They carried with them all air, food, etc. Deepest ocean or vacuum. They needed no help from home for five standard days. Three, with a major battle a day. Only one, if always fighting.

The mirror helped. They were monsters, they could see that.

Felix took the blaze-rifle, the blazer, from the slot in the long row which had a number to match the one pulsing inside his helmet. He checked it for charge, attached it to his back. Scout suits, much smaller than standard issue, had no blazer capacity built in. Scouts carried rifles used by open-air troops for thirty years. Also, they had fewer blaze-bombs-only nine as opposed to the two dozen the warriors carried. Scouts must be fleet, must be able to realize their much greater potential for speed and agility. And, where warrior suits bore different colors for rank and group, all scouts were black. Flat black. Dull, non-shiny, space black.

Death black, Felix thought as he watched the five other scouts collect and attach their rifles. Then be followed them out of the armory alcove into the Briefing Room proper. The room held twenty-one warriors, group leaders representing two thousand line warriors and one assault commander. Each bore the broad colored stripings of rank and its attendant responsibility. As scouts had no effective rank, they likewise possessed no real niche in the line of command-Warrant Officers technically, but with no command in standard situations. Many enlisted personnel requested scout duty. They sought the partial privileges of officer rank and the chance for rapid advancement much-heralded by the grapevine. In truth, no scout advanced more than a step or two. Instead, they died. Even Felix's paranoid fatalism had not considered this. Though he had heard, as bad all, that the scouts' survival rate was considerably less than line warriors'.

"A lousy scout," he mumbled disgustedly.

The Briefing Officer's helmeted head glanced up at the muffled sound. He surveyed the ranks. There was no way to tell who had spoken. All were on Proximity Band. He returned to his briefing.

Paying attention at last, Felix was surprised to hear that the man had not yet begun to discuss details of the assault. Instead, it was a pep talk. Felix realized this alarmed him.

It wasn't the pep talk itself which made him uneasy. It wasn't the Briefing Officer. It was something in that positive, no-nonsense tone of his. Something…

He doesn't believe, thought Felix suddenly. He doesn't believe in the plan. He doesn't believe in us. But he'll be damned if he'll let us carry that. So he's trying to make us believe instead of him.

Felix admired the officer for his concern and for his effort. He also hated him for failing. The pep talk mercifully ended.

All right," snarled the Briefing Officer in his best Drillmaster manner, "it's time to get down to it."

On the wall behind him a large screen warped into light with a holo display of the target area. Felix noted the code on the tower corner of the image and keyed it onto his own holos. The map showed a peninsula some forty kilometers long jutting due north into a vast expanse of ocean. The peninsula terminated in a formation the shape of a large, three-fingered, hand splayed flat over the surface of the water. A choice spot, thought Felix, on Earth or Golden or any other human planet. Loads of sunshine and beach. The ocean frontage would supply fresh sea air to sweep leisurely across sculptured terraces where happy vacationers would collapse contentedly after along day of water sports and laughter. A choice spot.

Except it wasn't Earth and it wasn't Golden. It wasn't a human place at all.

It was A-9.

And the water wasn't water. It was poison. And the fresh sea air would kill an unsuited human in a second-more poison. And the sunlight did little human good in a place where the average temperature was -20 at high noon. And the breezes were a near-constant hurricane that drove the noxious atmosphere deep into the sandy soil, carving vast furrows into the land, forging riverbeds overnight, toppling mountainous formations in handfuls of years, and giving this nightmare place its name: Banshee.

Only the enemy thrived here. Still another reason, thought Felix, not to go.

"B-team," began the Briefing Officer, "will drop here on the western edge. They will drive northward in a clockwise manner to rendezvous with C-team, who will drive due south to meet them from the northernmost section, the tip.

"The B-team, C-team, rendezvous will take place here, four kilometers due north of the Knuckle." A tiny arrow appeared on the holo showing first the rendezvous point, then the Knuckle itself, a steep crag one thousand meters high in the exact center of the splayed hand.

"We expect only moderate resistance during this stage of the assault. The bulk of the enemy is concentrated around the Knuckle. Nevertheless, there is more here to cover on the western edge than the eastern. And for that reason both B and C teams will carry nine full groups and two scouts apiece."

A flood of hatred rose within Felix as the A-team insignia appeared on his ID screen. Simple arithmetic left only two groups for A-team. Only two hundred warriors for half the area.

"Now before you members of A-team get too excited-" too late in Felix's case–"we want you to know that there has been absolutely no evidence of enemy activity on the eastern side. None at all. Your job will be mostly sightseeing.

"So… you will be split up to cover the eastern half. One group, with scout, will drop here, on the far eastern edge. The other group, with scout, will drop here, ten kilometers south. The two groups will converge here, due east of the Knuckle, to await rendezvous with Assault Main, driving northward up the peninsula.

"Don't worry about the lack of back-up. As I have already stated, there is nothing there. You should spend a boring few hours simply waiting."

It was then, for Felix, it began. The hatred for the Briefing Officer had expanded to include his superiors, the Captain of the ship, the commanders of Fleet itself, and finally the thick-headed idiot humans who had undertaken something as asinine as interplanetary war in the first place. The hatred blazed brightly, then vanished. From somewhere inside came then a shock of all-consuming rage, the nova-like intensity of which startled even him. But then the rage was gone, too. It seemed to shoot away like a comet or a torch dropped flickering and shrinking into a bottomless well. What replaced the loathing and fury was something very different, something cold and distant and… only impersonally attentive. It was an odd being which rose from Felix and through him. It was, in fact, a remarkable creature. It was a wartime creature and a surviving creature. A killing creature.

From a distant place, the frightened Felix scanned himself. He recognized little. Still, what he saw was a comfort of sorts and he concentrated himself toward it, toward the coldness, the callous machine-like… The engine, he thought. It's not me. it's my Engine. It will work when I cannot. It will examine and determine and choose and, at last, act. It will do all this while I cower inside.

With furious concentration, that which kept him Felix gave itself as fuel to that which could keep him alive.

There was more to the briefing. More figures of time and distance, more numbers of men and probabilities of enemy. The Engine heard and made note. Felix, watching himself, fueling himself, psyching himself, felt disgust at all that was about to happen and all who had caused it. And once more felt the distance between himself and those about him. Again, as he briefly scanned their armored forms filling the chamber, he thought: They're all going to die.

It stood three meters tall and weighed, on average, four times more than a human being-damn near as much as a suited warrior. It had six limbs, two for walking upright and erect, four for work. The upper limbs, call them arms, were incredibly massive, hanging down one and a half meters from two titanic shoulder joints. The arms ended in huge, hulking, two-pronged claws twice the size of an armored human fist. The middle arms were smaller, approximately human size. Curved, two-pronged pincers here for delicate work. The legs were the size of tree trunks, ending with semicircular pads splayed flat to the ground. There were two knarled knobs on each. Each limb, upper, middle, and lower, had three joints.

The body had three sections: shoulder, abdomen, pelvis. Each was covered with coarse, hairlike fibers spaced widely apart

The head, half again larger than a warrior's helmet, bore a dull globular eye on each side. The mandible-mouth opened in three vertical sections of varying width and shape. Closed, it resembled nothing so much as a smooth-sheened, toothless, human skull. The skin was not skin at all, but bone. Ectoskeleton. The muscles were inside. It was awesomely powerful.

It was the Enemy.

It was an ant.

It was called something else, something long and technical and dreamed up out of range. But scientific jargon had nothing to do with what men had felt when they saw it move, saw it coming. It didn't matter that it had no antennae and walked upright and was too, too, damn big. From the beginning, men had called it an ant.

Felix saw no reason to change that. He stood watching the holo of the enemy in the wall of the passage leading from the Briefing Room. The others had long since filed past. They used their last minutes before drop as a time to be with friends or check equipment or fight panic or yield to it and vomit or to pray with undreamed of piety. Felix, alone, watched the ant.

The screen on the back wall of Drop Bay Four was purely representational. It served no actual purpose in the mechanics of Transit. It merely informed the dropping parties of the various stages. First it would glow white: Attention. Next would come yellow: Transit beginning. Then the yellow would be interspersed with flashing bands of red light: thirty seconds. As the ten second mark arrived, the red bands flashed the countdown. They would turn slowly inward across the surface of the wall until a square had formed. The square would shrink, coalesce, brightly pulsing all the while… If all was well, the red square would turn bright green at the two second mark and the drop party would step quickly forward toward it.

Actually, they were trained to all but throw themselves toward the green square. "Try to bust that wall!" the Drillmasters had demanded. And they would try, surging forward en masse. But they never actually touched the screen, never even left their drop squares. Instead, they would Transit. To the next loom, to another Drop Bay, to another ship. To another world.

The presence of Banshee loomed uncomfortably as Felix entered Drop Bay Four and stewed through the others to the scout position at the very front of the formation. As he took his place, he appreciated at last the decision not to forewarn him of scout duty. One could do anything at all for a warrior's supposed sense of confidence-show him his high test scores, pat him on the back, tell him he was superhuman. None of it would affect in the slightest the growing sense of desperation that began the instant be realized he was going to be the very first of the bunch to touch down on alien soil. Given a few days' notice, the candidate would be, at the very least, hallucinating by drop time. Given a week, a basket case. Given two weeks-nobody would show up.

By springing the assignment on the morning of the drop, there was, presumably, too little time for such paranoia to develop.

Enough time for me, thought Felix sourly. But only a small part of him thought anything at all. The rest of Felix thought nothing. The rest of Felix was psyching, psyching. Becoming the Engine.

For no amount of reassurance, no amount of technical data, or surveillance figures or probability curves or anything else-however thorough-bad convinced him that he would not be slaughtered a split-second after Transit. And if they were to try for another year, the result would be just the same. Nothing they could say would make the slightest difference to him. For they. They, stayed put. They computed. They theorized. They were pleased at Their brilliance or stunned by Their failure. Perhaps even guilt-ridden at the result.

But from the ship.

Psyching… psyching…

Dimly, he had been horrorstruck by his fellow warriors' attitudes. Some had actually complained at being left out of the "big show." None of them, it seemed, felt as he did. They stood about talking, gesturing, laughing. A slight hint of nervousness, of course, but that was damn well not enough.

Are they insane? he wondered. They actually have faith in fools who would throw us into armed combat-by the thousands-after less than a year of training? Madness, he thought. But, again, only a small bit of him thought anything at all.

Psyching… psyching….

The wall, formerly a bland shade of confident blue, turned suddenly white. The hundred regulars assumed formation behind him.

"Attention," said the CO unnecessarily. His voice sounded deliberately bored.

Psyching… psyching….

Yellow light appeared at the edges of the screen. It flowed smoothly toward the center in what the psychs had called "color comfort pattern."

"Look alive," said the CO. Someone coughed directly into his microphone. There were several nervous titters. "Shut up, there," said the CO.

Psyching… psyching…

Red bands began their pulsing march across the screen.

"Good luck, ladies and gentlemen," purred the even-toned voice of the Transit Control Officer.

"Go get'em!" urged someone else in the booth.

"Don't worry," assured a warrior, a fierce female voice.

"Shaddup!" growled the CO with a nervous edge to his tone.

Psyching… psyching…

As the red squared formed and pulsed, Felix, against all orders and procedures, reached behind his back and disengaged his rifle. He held it in front of him at the ready, safety off. Someone cleared a throat to speak, possibly to object, to chew him out, to….

But it was too late. The red square flashed to green and all were moving forward and there was loud breathing from some and no breathing at all from most and stunned shock from the inhabitants of the Transit Control Booth when they saw that the lead man, the scout, had goddamn near hit the far wall and…

… and ANTS! ANTS EVERYWHERE! –

Felix fired and fired, the blue beam slicing through the exoskeleton like it was butter and long stiff tentacles slammed into his faceplate as he collided with their hurtling bodies and he tripped on one, still firing, and felt himself fall and, in a desperate lunge to remain upright, brought a plassteel leg forward with such brutal speed that the toe of his boot tore completely through the stumbling ant's midsection. Black fluid spouted but Felix was already gone…

Slamming forward into them, firing wildly about, he had to get, to get out of them, had to, had-to… Mandibles flashing by him and at him, tree-trunk arms and legs and claws crossing in front of him… Most didn't seem to know he was there and the few who saw and reacted were blazed down or passed by but still there were more to come and more still, rows and rows of them, he'd been dropped right into them and the overworked blazer was signaling frantically of over- heating that he swore he felt right through the goddamned plassteel and still there were more-he must keep moving, he must and then-

Then he was through them and past them and in front of him was a long dune of that sand. Without conscious thought he leapt over it with a quick, powered, leap. The dune was perhaps three meters high. His leap carried him perhaps half that distance above it and he was down again, blazer ready, spinning around to cover all directions at once but… He was alone.

No ants here at all. He was in what looked like a dry river bottom and he was alone. He blinked, straightened up from his crouch, took an instinctive step back toward the way he had come.

And the ants appeared. First one, then three, then nine, a dozen, all clambering over the dune toward him. He blazed them all, severing limbs, melting giant skulls. More came and he blazed them, too, and then more and more from each end of the dune and he was having to swing the gun back and forth to cover them all and it was getting to where he could just barely get the ones at the far ends and then one vaulted at him from the center and he ducked and flashed blazerfire and the headless torso careened into him and he ran.

He stomped madly down the riverbed. The dune, he now saw, was a ridge of sand forming one wall of the bed. He looked for a break, thought of leaping again. But wouldn't that make him a target? Wait! Was he a target now? He twisted to look back over his shoulder.

Dozens of ants rushed toward him, jamming the narrow passage with their writhing flailing legs and heavy swinging arms and huge claws… Globular eyes bore down on him…

The Engine Felix skidded to an unexpected stop, took careful aim, and killed them.

There was no place for them to go, no cover to hide behind. They were all jammed together, all headlong urgency and targets doomed. Only when he had gotten them all- forty, eighty, two hundred twitching bodies?-only then did he think to notice that none of them, not a one, had been armed.

He stared at the remains for a moment. He had been told to expect blasters, heat rays that could, eventually, boil his suit on his back. There was nothing here. He ran on.

A gap in the ridge appeared. But it was on the wrong side, back toward the ants, and he thought he should just rush past or maybe sneak by or maybe leap over the opposite wall. Instead, in his indecision, he ran into the open without altering his stride.

It was terrible-terrible, awful-awful… Ants still, more ants still in columns and rows and marching and they saw him and turned toward him, so many seeing and turning at once like they knew him personally and expected and as they burst through the gap he was past it with powered kick and stride. Coming for him-that was bad, very bad, but what was worse was that sight, that terrible-terrible, awful-awful sight, that split-second sight back along their horde to where he had been and where the others were still. The ants were swarming over the others, the dead and dying warriors, his fellows, his humans, being peeled open and apart by too many claws and pincers and mandibles snapping, plassteel shredding and no one getting a chance to fire enough to stop the peeling, shredding, swarming mandibles with globular eyes…

They were all dead or all dying back there.

The riverbed turned, bent to the left and then the right and he came to another gap-on the wrong side again-and ground to a stop, staring-stunned-shocked…

Six endless rows of ants poured up from out of a squat cubic structure sitting half-buried in the sand. Those are supposed to be supply dumps! They told us they were only supply dumps!

From behind him came more ants boiling around the bend and he blazed them at first but his blazer got immediately hot-Oh-oh, overload!-and he thought of running and he thought of leaping out of the riverbed and he thought of using a blaze-bomb and it was already in the air, a line drive straight into the crowd at the bend. He dropped and flattened himself and it blew.

They died, the ants. The ridge walls, narrow here, crumbled and closed the riverbed off. But the other gap! He turned and through the new gap they were coming-so many. He threw another blaze-bomb into the ranks and it blew as he crouched, ants flying everywhere but still more and more from the cube in the sand, globular eyes, and he aimed more carefully and missed-too much adrenalin-but the next bomb flew true with a slight arcing trajectory only meters above their heads and down into them and right into the mouth of the cube, right on the upward sloping ramp, and blew just right.

The sides of the entrance disappeared outward. The roof kicked high, lifting and opening and then falling and shattering and then the whole damn cube collapsed on itself.

Another blaze-bomb over his shoulder to the other ants already out and coming and he was off and running again. The riverbed veered to the left and left again and dropped downhill. He was accelerating, really moving now. And when he burst out into the open space beyond and accelerated even harder, harder, to the best he had, he knew he had lost them. They couldn't keep up and he was safe now, for now, but alone and the only one left and he concentrated hard on the vision of the collapsing cube and what he could do to them instead of that other vision, that terrible-awful sight of peeling plassteel and what they could do to him.

Alone on a hostile planet, Felix the scout, the soldier, the Engine, the killer, ran.

He ran and ran and ran.

Felix stood on the uppermost tip of a sand-blasted crag which rose three hundred meters above the desert floor. He stood with his black-helmeted head thrown back, his arms hanging limply at his sides, his legs braced far apart. His eyes peered intensely into the gray-yellow sky. Inside the helmet he worked frantically at the Emergency Recall key between his teeth.

After several moments he changed frequencies again, as be had done countless times before. And as before, there was no response.

Not on the Emergency Recall.

Not on the Command Channel.

Not on the ship's beacon.

Nothing. There was nothing

He lowered his head and gazed, unseeing, at the breathtaking drop millimeters away. He had to admit it. He was just what he appeared to be. Just what he had been every second since, from the first few moments after Transit to now, standing alone atop this majestic, totally alien, peak. Alone. He was completely and utterly alone.

He had hoped the altitude might make a difference to communications. He had hoped to climb above those blinding torrents of sand and any interference they might have caused him. But perhaps the sand had already done its job. Perhaps it had managed to infiltrate the suit and jam the relays. Or maybe it had that blaster-fire or the impact of those bludgeoning claws. He doubted the last. Despite it all, he was physically unharmed. The suit had held. It was probably the interference from… what? The sand? How?

Could be the magnetics, too. Something wrong with them here, they had said. Irregular, shifting, the polar interval was never where it was supposed to be. It was why missiles wouldn't track.

"Unless they've figured it out, too," he muttered at last, voicing it outright. Unless they, too, those masters of warfare at Fleet, had discovered what he had known for hours: they had no chance.

None at all.

    

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