Armor

3,463
07.03.2019

V

The lifeship dropped me onto the little delta just across the river from the Project. Semi-firantically I began to unload my gear before it lifted again. I had plenty of time, over two minutes, but the possibility of that ship darting for the stratosphere while I still had one leg in the door was particularly vivid to me. It had happened once. I straightened up from my small pile of goods and fished for a cigarette. That says a lot about you, I thought to myself. Too damn many stupid things like that have been significant. I sighed, began to light up, and stopped.

On the bridge, less than three hundred meters away, there was a riot going on…

Over four hundred people, I estimated, refugees obviously, were storming the bridge from the city side. I left my stuff where it was and hurried over.

Nearing the mob, I saw that they weren't actually trying to shove their way across. They were just screaming and cursing and waving their arms. Then I saw the reason why they had stopped where they were. A group of people wearing Project tunics and carrying side arms stood on the far side blocking their way. And in the midst of them stood a rather thin, rather short young man with spindly arms and long brown hair that he kept nervously pushing out of his eyes. The Director, obviously Hollis Ware.

About the time I reached the edge of the crowd, the good young Doctor tried to blow it.

"All right," he yelled suddenly, stridently, into the afternoon air. "If that's what you want. I don't need them to speak," he added, gesturing over his shoulder to the poised guards.

The mob crackled boisterously, and expectantly, at this. The group of guards sagged visibly. So did I. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do.

I moved into the edge of the crowd without being noticed and shuffled about halfway through while Ware was making the foolish mistake of stepping across the bridge alone. The members of the crowd closest to him moved backwards off the bridge to give him room. But not far enough. The way they were set up, they could snatch him if they decided to, before he could get back.

Everyone settled down to hear what was being said. I listened carefully as well, to find out what it was all about.

It was all about food. The City, it seemed, didn't have any. The Project had a lot, more than they needed. And so on.

"…your lack of food is your doing. It is your responsibility, not ours." Ware was saying.

The crowd booed angrily at this. A barrel-chested fat man stepped forward. "Sure, sure, we talk about our kids starvin' and you give us this shit."

Loud angry agreement of this from the crowd. Fists waved, curses flew. But no surge forward. Not yet. The fat man, I noticed, had a bright red face from all the shouting and arm waving. He also had very little actual fat.

"How are a bunch of stupid words gonna help our kids," he added, as the angry cries peaked and dropped. The noise peaked again in responses. I noticed that he had actually turned to the people around him when he had said this. Under his red face, I saw, were two very calm, knowing eyes… There was a lot more going on here.

Ware didn't see it. He swayed backwards on his heels with every roar from the mob at his feet. He was blatantly nervous, close to fear, and had no apparent ability to hide it. But he hung in there. He wouldn't take that step back that his feet were itching for.

Another man stepped up to speak. Tall and thin, black hair shiny from lack of washing. He spoke in a nasal snarl. "All I know is that I come a long damn way to get here and now all I see is the same damn Fleet tryin' to screw me again."

The crowd thundered their approval and, under their cheers, the thin man exchanged a glance with the fat man, who nodded imperceptibly.

That tore it. Ware was being set up by a couple of pros. He had no idea and no chance. I moved closer to the bridge through a forest of shifting feet and waving fists.

Ware tried to respond as best he could. But he was hopelessly hamstrung. First, he plainly feared the crowd in general and the fat man in particular. And he was disgusted by the crowd. The latter was probably doing more damage. When you're way, way, down and know it, you sure don't like to have it broadcasted by the sneers from somebody who is up. And Holly did broadcast his disgust, try as he might to hide it. He found them filthy, worthless and just generally beneath him and they could tell.

They really hated the little guy.

And so, abruptly, he made it worse.

He had had enough of that line about starving children. When the fat man used it again. Ware snapped back with: "Maybe you shouldn't be spending all that time distilling liquor then. If you're really so concerned about starving children, try staying sober for a while."

Oh, they didn't like that. The surge began. Ware was forced to step back a few feet so as not to be trampled. But the crowd stopped there, not yet incensed enough to do damage. Which meant that they weren't yet sure that everybody would do it at the same time seeing as how he had obviously hit some kind of target with the last bit.

But the fat man knew. He knew that mobs, like unions, have an answer to that eternal question of who deserves what. They just ignore it and grab.

The fat man got them mad enough to ignore it.

Talked about how easy it was for Ware to talk like that and how he would sing a different tune and how (surprise) he couldn't possibly understand because he had never known what it was like to live in Sanction City so (ta dah) he had no right to judge what he didn't understand.

It was the standard line, but even so, the fat man was a master of it. He went on and on about how tough it was for them and how it was easy for Ware a couple of more times proving, by repetition, that he was actually saying something significant. Then he made the move.  He took a step up until he was actually standing on the bridge about a half step from Ware, intimidating the Director with his size, and asked the big question: "Just how long do you expect us to take this?"

And that was it, the big moment. The complete surge was coming. Mobwise, he had Ware in a hole. There was nothing he could say. And the next words from the fat man's mouth would start it all.

So I cut him off.

"You sure talk a lot," I began loudly, shouting over his next remark. I said it as belligerently as possible, moving the last step up to the pair as I did. The crowd turned to look.

"You sure talk a lot," I repeated, "about starving, for a man that's so fat." There were a couple of giggles from the fringes, quickly hushed. The fat man turned hard eyes at me.

"Maybe," I continued with deliberate leisure, "you're the reason the kids are hungry." I noticed then, that the unlit cigarette was still in my mouth. I lit it slowly and blew the smoke gently toward him. I felt the tall thin one move in over my shoulder. I had to do this now.

"Who the hell are you?" asked the fat man with red face and clenched teeth. He turned toward me raising his arms. He was furious. He had lost the peak of the mob. He had to do something about me in a hurry.

I smiled. "I'm Jack Crow."

Murmurs, eyes agape, shifting whispers drifted about. I loved it.

The fat man hated it. He had lost the initiative. But he was quick to reach for it again, starting with: "I don't care who you are, I…"

I cut him off. "Make your move, tubby."

He blanched, stared, made it.

I ducked under it and drove a foot deep into the place where the sun never shines. He bent over with a whoosh of breath. He grabbed for me, still tough, and I decked him. Then I turned slowly around to look at the thin one.

"I believe you're next?" I asked pleasantly, expectantly. The thin one stared at me, at the fat man. Back at me. He couldn't believe this was happening to him.

The guards saved him and, most likely me, by moving across the bridge at the first hint of violence.

"Clear the bridge," barked the leader. She turned to Ware, put a gloved hand on his shoulder. "Step back, Dr. Please." It was not a request. Ware stepped back, looking at me with the beginnings of a grin. I smiled back.

The rest of the guards formed a wedge on the bridge with blazers high and in view. "Back," shouted the leader. "Break it up and go home. Now."

The crowd, deflated, obeyed meekly. I felt a rough grasp and then a shove as I was encouraged to do likewise. I spun around to get into it with the guard who had shoved me, thought better of it, and turned to Ware.

"Wait," he said on cue. "This is Jac… This man is all right."

I smiled as warmly as I could. "So is this one," I said and offered my hand. As he took it I gave him the smooth lie: "That was pretty impressive. Dr. Ware."

His eyes widened. "You know my name?"

"Doesn't everybody?"

I was lucky. Lightning didn't strike me dead and Ware ate it up.

"Well, where did you… How long have you been here?" I mean…"

I sighed. He was like a goddamned eager puppy. I pointed down the riverbank to my stack of stuff. "I kinda hitchhiked in a couple of minutes ago."

"I didn't notice that," he said with wonder in his voice.

I shrugged, smiled. There was an uneasy silence. I coughed into it.

"Came to see you, in fact. Brought something you might like."

"Oh really?"

Now he really was like a puppy. He all but ran with me across the bridge to the other side. He had to keep restraining his legs from running as we neared my belongings. When we got to the pile I pointed but he had already seen.

"My God, an L-1625 Scout… I don't believe it." He was all over it in a second, poking and prodding. He uttered another gasp.

"And it's still got the recording pod," he said breathlessly.

"Oh, you noticed that, did you?" I asked with a smile, looking over his shoulder to see what the hell he was talking about. Recording what?

He straightened up and looked at me. "And you brought this all this way for me?" he asked with genuine amazement.

"All for you."

His ecstasy was overflowing. He didn't know what to say. Embarrassed, he looked back and forth between me and the suit. "You're… you're really Jack Crow?"

I nodded.

He stuck out his hand to shake again. I shook. Now I was embarrassed.

"And you're Hollis Ware," I added lamely.

He hardly heard me. He was watching the distantly retreating crowd.

"Damn," he said with a boyish grin, "you sure do make things happen, don't you?"

He was already looking at the suit again. But I was watching the crowd now. Watching and wondering how badly what was coming would hurt this man. This nice man.

"Yes," I replied at last. "I do."

VI

He marched me across the bridge with his hand on my shoulder and into the complex. The guards followed with my belongings. He gave me a whirlwind tour of the place, pointing me out to people like a long lost relative. There was an incredibly fast tour of his private workshop complete with running dialogue on the problems of statistical history that was, quite frankly, beyond my grasp. I saw corridor after corridor of laboratories and computer banks. I saw recreation areas and living quarters and the room I was going to have. I saw secretaries and assistants and crew. I saw his fellow scholars and their growth charts and their equipment. I saw Lya, saw Karen, saw that they hated each other.

We ate. Twelve of us sat around a beautiful mahogany table and feasted on fresh vegetables and wine that I was told was home. Sanction, grown.

I enjoyed most of it, faked my way through the rest. I also learned a lot about Holly.

First: he was as smart as the Coyote readout had said he was. A for-real genius. The other members of the academic staff were all much older than he was, all rather stodgy, in fact. They faked it better than I did. For clearly, they not follow the intricate workings of his brain. They spent a lot of time at the dinner table nodding sagely and sometimes in awe, sometimes in bewilderment.

But always hating the too-smart little bastard.

I also learned how to get along with Holly, as he insisted now that I call him.

He wanted to be in on things. Specifically, he wanted to be in on my things. I found that rolling my eyes at the stupidity of his fellows worked beautifully if I did it in such a way as to include Holly. When they asked the usual questions about me (anxious as hell to get away from Holly's theories) I would fake it in such a way as to say to Holly across the table: "You and I can talk about these things later, in private." Holly sucked it in like it was his last breath. After eating we went out on the terrace. I separated myself from the rest. I stood at the balcony, sipping and smoking. Sanction City glowed dully across the river. Waves of anger and hatred rose strongly into the sky.

Karen appeared at my elbow. She leaned against the railing, sort of uncoiling against it like a cat looking for a tummy rob. We stared at each other that way for a few seconds, my gaze blank.

"Did you really come here just to see Holly?" she asked at last in a husky tone.

"Really and truly."

"You've really heard of him?"

"Uh, huh."

"You know much about his work?"

"Not as much as I'd like."

She nodded vaguely at this, allowing her hair to slide lusciously across her cheek.

"How long will you be here?"

"That depends."

"On what, Jack?" She asked and rolled a smile across her shoulder.

There is a stench when somebody wants to fuck your name. It rolled across with the smile, on the way she had said "Jack."

I hated it, of course.

I wanted it, of course.

The way she had of sort of trembling with bursting sensuality…

"Are we fucking?" I asked bluntly. "Or just dancing? Or are we gonna dance now and fuck later? Nothing else will do, I'm a busy man."

She stood up straight and got red. Then white, reminding me, suddenly, of the fat man from the bridge.

"Make your move, Pudding," I added.

Her trembling was no longer the good trembling, but from fury against things women hate, like pointing out the obvious and laughing. She turned after a long hateful look, and stalked stiffly away. Her drink trailed liquid, unnoticed, on her white knuckles.

Across the terrace Holly stood red-faced himself, all but shouting at a crowd of younger scholar-types. Whatever it was that he was for, he was really for it.

The younger folk looked hesitant, but were smart enough not to buck the boss. The older folk had extended the nodding outside, mumbling echoes of his more vociferous remarks.

As I reached the edge of the crowd faces turned in my direction. Holly noticed this and followed suit. He looked embarrassed, suddenly, at his own intensity. He slipped out an arm to me as if for corroboration.

"Jack," he began, "Jack Crow. What do you think about fighting the Antwar?"

Uh-oh.

I froze. Holly did too along with everyone else.

"Not tonight," I blurted into the silence and added a punctuating burp.

Everyone laughed, hooting and hollering. I relaxed my suddenly taut shoulders and smiled. I had gotten away with it.

I dragged through the rest of the evening by drinking too much and, when absolutely necessary, relying on my store of meaningless but expected Jack Crowisms. Fortunately enough, the mood of this gathering was more inclined toward performance than most. No long silences while fat drunks awaited an exhibition of the "real, private" me.

Instead they took turns flashing their lore.

I learned from a biochemist the reason he and many others continued to prefer the old fashioned and acidic spirits over the physiologically harmless syntho. "Scotch and thuch… such, is-chemically, mind you-a better drunk," he assured me.

I learned from an ecological palaeontologist the name-easily a meter long-of the local disease responsible for Sanction having fish, insects, and rodents but not reptiles, birds, or amphibians.

I learned from an apparent score of local ranchers the difficulties of breeding herds from embryos. The "immigrants" -meaning, of course, the newly arrived lowrent Cityfolk as opposed to the newly arrived high class Countryfolk-had so far managed to both steal and eat almost everything old enough to graze.

I learned from an assistant statistical historian, one of Holly's aides apparently, that not one person associated with the Project-from the scientists currently staffing it to the scientists who had initially authorized it-had managed to grasp the Director's theories. No one else was smart enough to really follow it.

But they were, all of them, smart enough to know that Hollis Ware was smart enough. Or something.

Then it was over and I was shown to my suite. I peeled out of everything, took aim at the bed, and somebody tap-tapped on my door.

Karen stood swaying, so blonde and precious I could taste her skin. She took a deep breath.

"All right," she whispered. "No dancing."

"You mean fucking?" I asked cruelly.

She bit her lip. Her eyes were shining. She nodded.

I pulled her in and slammed the door.

VII

I woke up hearing Karen bitching away at some servant type in the anteroom. Something about trying to show a little decorum around the place for a change and how she would not accept having to apologize to the great Jack Crow himself about the slovenly attitude on this dreary planet and so on and soon…

The great Jack Crow, me, missed the rest of her tirade trying to find the edge of the bed. I had the great hangover.

A few minutes later, sitting up at last and drinking the morning-after goodie some gentle soul had left there for me, I heard the outer door close behind her. Immediately after came the sound of gentle laughter followed by the muttered grumblings of somebody who knew better than to take such incredible rudeness seriously. I smiled to myself, found something to wear, and stumbled into the next room to confront the victim.

It was a man. A rather nice looking guy, about forty or so. He was a couple of inches shorter than me with short blond hair and a beautifully cropped van dyke a couple of shades darker. He was wearing Crew garb. The name Cortez was stenciled over his left breast pocket. He was sitting on the arm of a chair, looking desultorily at his watch and tapping his foot with gentle impatience. I liked him right away.

I made some sort of noise and he all but leaped to his feet and stood staring at me apprehensively. I let him worry while I fished out a cigarette and lit it. Then I gestured through the smoke toward the door.

"She always such a bitch?" I asked

Cortez got stiffer, looking surprised. Then, abruptly, he relaxed. He smiled brightly and warm, a much better sight, and answered. "Always, Mr. Crow."

I nodded with understanding and took another drag. He gestured toward a chair. "Wouldn't you like to sit down?" he offered.

I waved him away. "I think I better just sort of stand here a bit," I said, gesturing toward my hungover head meaningfully. I leaned against the door jamb as if for support, though in fact the morning-after goodie had already done most of its job.

Cortez laughed pleasantly.

"Why do you take it?" I asked.

He looked at me, shrugged. "Well, you are Jack Crow, after all."

I sneered. "The great and famous Jack Crow, huh?"

He smiled. "The very one."

"Hmm. We'll get into that later on. But you still haven't answered my question. You said she was always a bitch."

"Well," he offered sheepishly, "she was always the Chief Administrator too."

"Oh."

"Yessir:'oh.' "

I sniffed the air. "Is that coffee?"

He stepped quickly over to the side table set against the far wall. "Yes. I just made it. Would you like some?"

"Please." I found that I was almost completely recovered. I sat down in one of the three armchairs surrounding a low coffee table. It was an awfully pretty room, I noticed, for a Fleet Project.

Cortez noticed my gaze as he sat the mug before me.

"This is the VIP room," he offered helpfully. "Only the brass rate this. The rest of us live in dormitories."

I nodded and sipped. It was good. "So what's this about her being the boss? I thought Hol… Dr. Ware was top dog?"

"He is. He's Director of Project. But she handles everything that doesn't immediately concern the research. There's quite a lot to do, you know, what with over five hundred Crew and families and the like."

"Hmm. Do all of you work on the research?"

He laughed. "God no. Most of us don't ever even come in here. This is my first time inside the ship since we grounded practically. Most of us are the support team. We keep the scientists fat and thoughtful."

"A noble cause, no doubt."

"No doubt," he replied, then added with a smile: "And it pays damn well, too."

I smiled in return. "What's your real job?"

"I'm hydroponics. I spend most of my time in the greenhouse at the far end of the valley."

    

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