Armor

3,479
07.03.2019

"Don't they farm this area in the usual way? Soil looks good enough."

"Oh, it is, I suppose. But we, that is, the greenhouse crew, don't trust it. Those agro folk are, by tradition, foulups. We keep the greenhouse going on earth soil for when something comes along and wipes out all their careful work. Then we'll save everybody's ass, if you'll pardon the expression."

I laughed. Interdepartmental rivalries were the same everywhere.

"Well, have you had to come to the rescue yet? Have they fouled-up?"

"Not yet," he replied, then added with a twinkle, "But the day is young."

I laughed again and waved him toward an armchair. "Have some coffee or something and sit down and tell me the rest of it."

He was quick to take advantage of my offer, seating himself gratefully across from me. He sipped from his mug.

"You mean you really want to know about why we are so wonderful? Or just why the agros are genetically inferior?"

I laughed and waved him off, "I do not. For the sake of argument, I will immediately concede the vast superiority, genetic and intellectual…"

"Don't forget sexual," he offered with another twinkle.

"All right, dammit. For your sake alone, I hereby declare that you guys are bloody supermen compared to the farmers. Okay?"

He nodded. "The least you could do."

"No doubt," I growled. "Now tell me about the rest of it. You say that Holly, Dr. Ware, is the Director of Project. That means he runs the thinking. And Karen… What's her last name, anyway?"

"Wagner."

"Okay. Karen runs everything else."

"Right."

"But who has the final say? Surely, Dr. Ware…"

"Oh, he's the final boss. That is to say, he's over her as far as Fleet is concerned. Course then there's Lewis."

"Who's Lewis?"

Cortez smiled. "Damned if I know, exactly."

I groaned. "You aren't being very helpful."

Cortez continued to smile. "I know I'm not. I don't mean to be vague. It's just that… Well, Lewis is an interesting story."

"Why not start it by telling me what he does around here."

"Lewis? Nothing."

"Nothing? I don't get it? Then what's he doing here on this planet?"

Cortez grinned delightedly. "He owns it."

I stared. "I beg your pardon?"

Cortez shrugged. "Just that. Lewis owns the place. The whole planet."

"But I thought this was Fleet territory."

"It's Fleet Space," he corrected. "And the planet, Sanction, was Fleet charted. But by the time anybody actually set foot on it from Fleet, Lewis was already here. He's the one who named it Sanction. First Citizen and all that."

"I see."

Cortez grinned again. "Maybe you don't yet. You see, the Project only leases this valley. It doesn't own a thing here. So, technically, Lewis is the real authority."

"You seem awfully happy about it."

He laughed. "Oh, I am. Everybody is. That is, everybody who's Crew is. The brass don't like it much."

"Fleet likes control."

"They do. But what they got here is… well, what they got is the Cityfolk. You know, the refugee settlement across the river."

"Hmm," I mumbled. "I had wondered about that."

"Yeah, so have the brass. You see, Lewis won't let anybody touch them. He won't even restrict their immigration except medically. And they keep coming."

"You like that?"

Cortez looked surprised. "Of course. Hell, how many Fleet Projects get to have a frontier town next door? Hell, I've done three years on places with no place to have fun but mercury lakes. Having that wide-open place is like a dream." "I thought they didn't like you guys, you Project people."

Cortez waved that aside. "Oh, it's just the brass that they don't like. They love having us come by."

I nodded to myself, wondering if Cortez really believed what he had said. Or maybe he just didn't know how deep the hatred was. What he probably saw as just being a regular guy was, and was certainly recognized by the refugees as, slumming."

"Just the same," I offered gently, "you'd best be careful when you go over there."

Cortez grinned mischievously. "Oh, we know they're all just a bunch of deserters and low-rents. But they're a lot of fun, just the same. And I don't think there's really a place for being a snob out here. I mean, we're all stuck out here just the same. We oughta try to get along. Besides, we aren't real Wild-West. No private blazers is Lewis's policy, so how much damage could two drunks do barehanded? Fall over is'bout all."

I didn't say, just thought, about a lady I'd met once who, barehanded, blind drunk, pregnant and squatting to piss, could move so fast she could kill any two drunks, or four, "a half-second before they can die, by God!"

I lit another cigarette to hide a sudden desire to scream at him. But I knew it wouldn't have done any good. It would only frighten him, clam him up, and then I wouldn't be able to get any other information from him later on.

But, dammit! How could he be so blind? How could he miss the danger? How could he not feel it when he walked across the river? Maybe he had and just ignored it. Or maybe he was just too far apart from them. Too far apart from the idea of them and from the idea that being "stuck out here together" was a notion that didn't apply to the frightened desperate mass across the river who now and forever would think of this place, not as a backwater saloon to be used and forgotten, but as… home.

I started to say something then, to somehow try to get a bit of it across. But there was a soft gong from somewhere and a light appeared glowing on the ceiling.

Cortez set down his mug and keyed something on the underside of the table. There was a loud click, followed by the forming of a holo above the table surface. A man's head and shoulders appeared in the air.

"Who is… Oh, Cortez! Is he up yet?"

Cortez looked questioningly at me. Evidentially I was out of range. I nodded. Cortez looked at the display. "He's up."

"Good," replied the figure in the air. Could you tell him that Holly wants to see him. You know, Dr. Ware sends his compliments and all that sort of crap. And would he please come at his convenience?"

Cortez nodded, hiding his smile with a hand on his chin. "I know what to do. Where's he supposed to go?"

"The lab."

"Okay, I'll tell him."

"Thanks, Cortez. Out."

"Out," Cortez replied and keyed off. He looked at me.

"When is it convenient?" he asked with a smile.

"Now," I said firmly.

"Oh," he said quickly, abashed. "I'll get your clothes together."

"Thanks," I said at his rapidly retreating back. I put out the cigarette and leaned against the back of the chair with a sigh.

May as well get to it. Sooner I started, the sooner I could finish. And then, of course, the sooner I could start to forget what I had done.

VIII

The ship would never lift again. The Crew had made it a permanent fixture on Sanction by scattering windows here and there and brightening up the upper passageways with skylights. In order to maintain structural integrity in space, it would require the kind of tooling found only in Fleet Shipyards. I supposed it was no great loss. The ship had never had much control or power, requiring tractor steering the entire trip. Still it never failed to astonish me the way Fleet tossed about the taxpayers' money. And, of course, the changes were a definite improvement for its residents. It now seemed more like an office complex than a starship. More like part of the land than a tunnel that must be entered in order to get paid.

Cortez insisted on escorting me to Holly's workshop. It was lucky that I gave in. The place was huge. And despite the alterations, it still bore that twisting-turning efficiency of starships which is so confusing to newcomers. It took only a few minutes to make me confused. And not long after that I was practically light-headed trying to keep up with our gyrations. I stopped abruptly. I cannot stand to be lost. "Show me where we are," I demanded.

"Sir?" he asked nervously.

I relaxed, smiled, explained the problem. He nodded and squatted down. He began to carve a rude map in the furrows of the carpeting with his finger. "See," he began, "we've come down four levels and over this way, past two of the bulkheads. We've been traveling east the whole way." I shook my head. "Then why all the spiraling around?"

He grinned. "That's only the structural compression assembly. It's built into the lifts and into all the dropshafts and stairwells." He stood up. "It's a lot of bother, I know. And if you ask me, it's also a waste of good credits as long as we have the shield. But I will say one thing, when Fleet strands you in some God-knows-where for three years, they strand you safe."

I was still hearing the part about the shield. I asked what shield.

He looked surprised. "The defensive shield, of course. That's what I mean by compression assembly being a waste of credits. Nothing can get past that screen once it's in place. So we hardly need to be a fort to boot. And besides, I don't buy that structural compression idea anyhow. Conform doesn't bend. It cracks. I don't care how many knots you tie it into."

Cortez continued to complain as we resumed our previous pace. Trying to follow what he was saying was all the more difficult as he seemed to think I already knew what he was talking about. And after a while I decided that that was a very good way to leave it. For what I was getting seemed to be crucial to Borglyn's little scheme.

The main thing was the overall make-up of the Project Complex itself. It was a goddamned fortress. Heavy defensive screens were only the beginning of it (though I had never, in fact, counted on their being so powerful). After the screens came the shape of the dome itself, the structural compression assembly part. What SCA was, it turned out, was sort of a spring that ran connected throughout the outer bulkhead sealing in such a way as to allow the entire structure to compress when one side of it was attacked-like by heavy- bore artillery.

There was more. Eight blazer cannon where installed within the outer rim of the Complex, each controlled by the Master Ground Control in the depths of the inner dome where the Auxiliary Control Network had been when the ship was aloft. There were other things as well, blaze-bomb catapults and a couple of dozen remote-controlled blazers as well. Evidently some were useless, since the dome had been wedged into the foot of a small hill on its eastern edge. But that still left quite a nut to crack.

I had to get busy in a hurry. I could think of at least four major perimeter systems alone that would have to be disengaged. Of course the dome would still be a fort. But I doubted that would be enough to comfort any stragglers.

At last we arrived in the passageway outside of Holly's chambers. "He sleeps and works here both," Cortez told me. "Sometimes he eats here too, they say." Then he keyed the outer door and we were inside.

The waiting area was crowded with scientist types mumbling argumentatively around a conference table over which was strewn a bewildering array of computer printout viewers and chart screens. They looked up and eyed me rather drearily as we entered. It wasn't especially rude. Only the kind of look any non-scientist (read: mere mortal) would have received. Cortez smiled in their direction and crossed the room to another door. He punched a key out and then muttered something into the grille I couldn't hear. I lit a cigarette and tried to look like a partisan. Or at least a fan. Cortez rejoined me and spoke too softly for anyone else to hear:

"They don't look very happy, do they?" he said, nodding toward the others.

"What are they doing here?"

"Waiting to see the doctor. Looks like they've been here a while."

So we stood there. I smoked and stared at the ceiling. Cortez sat down. The scientists continued to eye me uncomfortably. It was more, I knew, than just the fact that I was a stranger. It was my pirate's reputation that offended their scholarly dignity. How odd, I thought, that men and women whose very careers revolved around being open-minded were so often stodgy late-century moralists. Unless, of course, it came to their latest theory.

After a few minutes one of them came over to me and began to speak rapidly in heavily accented standard about partial-waves and inertial development. It wasn't until several seconds after be had stopped that I realized he'd asked me a question and was waiting for my answer. I looked away, trying to be creatively vague and saw that Lya had just entered the room from the far side.

"Excuse me," I muttered to the man and stepped forward to meet her. She offered me her hand.

"Good morning, Mr. Crow," she said pleasantly.

I took her hand. It was firm and cool. "Call me Jack," I suggested.

She smiled. "How nice to have a choice. I'm afraid Lya is all I have to offer you. Trankien have only one name."

"How do you tell each other apart if you have the same name?"

"Oh, well, we each have a number as well."

"A number?" I frowned. "Not very romantic."

She dimpled. Delightful. "We make up for that in other ways," she replied.

Cortez grinned a knowing grin. "Well, I guess I can go now. See yon later, Jac… Mr. Crow."

"Cortez," I acknowledged stiffly, annoyed at his leering. Lya seemed not to notice. She tamed to the scientist type still standing there and waiting for the answer to his question.

"Dr. Angovitch, please allow me to take Mr. Crow from you."

Angovitch nodded the way people nod when they don't care what you are saying-they're just glad you stopped- and went right ahead with the amplification of his already too-technical questioning.

"Dr., please," she insisted with an arched eyebrow, "The Director is waiting."

At the mention of Holly's title, the man shut up as if be bad been switched off. He nodded formally, if a trifle stiffly, to each of us and joined the crowd back at the conference table. Lya smiled at his retreating form the way an indulgent mother smiles at a trying, yet not unloved, child. Then she tuned back to me, all brightness and hospitality again, and motioned us toward the inner door.

"Thanks," I said to her gratefully. "I really wasn't up to his conversational style."

She laughed. "It is a little early in the morning for shop- talk, I imagine." She glanced at me sideways. "Particularly after the night you just put in."

I searched her glance. Was she talking about the booze? Or the booze and Karen? Probably the latter. I didn't figure this one would miss something like that under her own roof.

"Well," I continued honestly, "it's never late enough for me as far as that stuff is concerned. He wanted to know a bunch of technical stuff about blaze-drive retrograde. Over my head."

She looked surprised. "But you developed the Blaze-Drive."

"I stole it," I corrected her. "Quan Tri developed it."

"Oh. I see."

"Do you?"

She smiled. It was a lovely smile. "No," she admitted and we both laughed again. "We have time for a quick tour before seeing Holly. That is, if you're interested in seeing our little shop. Are you?"

"Very," I answered which was true but dishonest.

A few minutes later she asked: "How technical would you like me to be?" and I answered: "As technical as you like," which was both untrue and dishonest.

So, of course, from that moment on I didn't understand a damn thing she was saying. Oh, I got the overall picture well enough, thanks to the briefing I had had back in the mutineer Borglyn's stateroom. And I suppose there was a thing or two about statistical history that I gathered up during those few moments among the computer banks. But essentially, the trip was only good for one thing-I discovered the seal into Master Ground Control. Trying to be subtle,, I couldn't ask many questions about it, particularly since I had asked hardly any questions about anything else. I did find out, however, that there was another entrance and that it was direct to the outer dome. I logged that with stars beside it. I would have to learn how to get down there without going through all of the other seals. And, come to think of it, that would be a better way to bring Borglyn's people in as well. Maybe the whole thing could be over and done with before anyone had a chance to argue.

It was nice being with Lya, too. Well, not completely. For it made me wonder why it was that this sort of woman never wants a man like me. The great women, it seemed to me, wanted the gentle Hollys of the universe. And Holly's being a better outlet for maternal instincts didn't explain it either, I admitted grudgingly, when I noted the way she kissed him when we found him at last at a workbench. She kissed him in the unmistakable style of a woman who wanted him as a man. And maybe also in a way to make me aware of that fact, I thought, recalling Cortez's foolish behavior a few minutes earlier.

I noticed all of this while my stomach was dropping. Before him, on the workbench, Holly had the black suit laid out all disassembled and… disembowled. Interface circuit sheets and piping and micronic lacing, each carefully tagged and colorcoded, seemed to have been blown, spewing, from the chest cavity. It looked like a corpse.

It wasn't a corpse and I knew that it wasn't, had known so since the first glance, however shaken I had felt, but still it looked… dead. Not inanimate. Not machinelike. Dead. I shuddered.

Lya noticed my movement. She nodded without taking her eyes off of it. "I hate that thing," she offered firmly. I nodded. So did I.

Holly, wearing a headset, had evidently not heard my approach. But when I nodded he must have caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. He turned to me and smiled and said, "Morning, Jack!" in that too-loud tone one has when feeling that irrational need to speak up over the level of earphones.

He waved a prodder key toward the suit. "Whadya think? Huh?" he asked cheerfully and, of course, loudly. I smiled dumbly. Lya moved toward him with an indulgent grimace, motioning at him to remove the headset. Holly hadn't yet noticed her approach. With a smile toward me, he playfully extended the prodder key until it contacted the edge of the unfolded micronic lacing. As it touched, the right hand jerked into an armored fist.

Lya gasped. We both jumped.

Holly, still smiling, looked back and forth between our two pale faces a couple of times before getting the message. "Oh, shit," he barked suddenly, as it dawned on him. He leaned back on his stool and un-keyed the power.

"Sorry if I startled you," he said, sliding off the earphones and extending his palm. We shook hands. He waved at the suit. "Damned impressive, huh?"

I nodded. "A little spooky, too."

Lya rubbed her arms briskly. "More than a little."

"So how's it going?" I asked. "Learn anything?"

He looked sheepish. "Having too much fun so far."

I laughed. "What about the recorder pod? Have you played the coil?"

He shook his head. "Something's wrong there. I'm having a lot of trouble with the display mode. I finally quit until I had a chance to fashion something with a more delicate touch than our standard gear. I'm afraid I might lose what little might be left otherwise."

"You think some of it's been lost?"

He shrugged. "It's years old, after all. Easy to lose your foundation charge in all that time. Passing through all those different fields."

I frowned. "Well, I'm sorry. Holly. I had no idea."

"Oh, no-no-no," he said hurriedly, appalled at the notion of my unease. "It's wonderful. Jack. Really. Even without the coil it would be. And I'm sure I can tease out something of value. It's just a matter of tuning the output patterns." He glanced guiltily at the cluttered workbench. "I should have been at it hours ago instead of… well."

"Instead of playing soldier," offered Lya dryly. But gently.

He grinned a shy grin, hid his hands in his pockets. Then, with a determined shrug, out they came once more. He faced the workbench with studied will.

"I'll get started right away. Soon as I do a little rearranging." He began to sort through the tangle.

"Holly," called Lya with quiet emphasis. "We didn't come here to make sure you were working. Dear."

He missed the signal. He nodded without turning. "Just take a second…"

Lya smiled her exasperation at me rather than hide it. "Holly," she tried again.

"Oh, there's no problem," he assured her in the same absent tone. "It's just a matter of constructing a baffled relay…"

She sighed and gave up. She put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. Her voice held the unmistakable shade of a cue; one damn well not to be ignored.

"Well, you don't have to do it right this instant. Besides, it's lunchtime and you've been wanting to talk to Jack since yesterday-you know you have. Holly-and I think it's a good time for the two of you to get acquainted."

Holly had turned red at her words. He looked sheepishly at me again. Like a little boy meeting the star of the vid instead of an all-universe brain. I smiled encouragingly in return while admonishing myself never to get the two personalities confused. He may be a kid. But he was the smartest one I had ever seen.

Lunch was awkward. Holly away from his lab was pure adolescent where I was concerned. He stumbled and started and in all ways looked the part of somebody with a million questions burning inside but afraid to ask them for fear of looking as awkward as he felt. It made me nervous.

I knew what he wanted, of course: Jack Crow Stories. But I wasn't really up to that, for some reason. I made do with the tails of tales and a little name dropping. Some of it was true.

As soon as I could, I tried to get the subject back onto Holly's work and my alleged fascination with it. Not to mention my eagerness to help.

"What made you so interested?" asked Lya in an innocent tone I couldn't quite be sure of.

I mumbled something in return, moving quickly to: "The thing is. Holly, I'm not sure if I can be of any help at all. This is all pretty technical to me." Which was a good way to avoid substance (and complicated lies) while sliding in a complimentary and admiring tone toward Holly.

Holly loved it, launching into a long and unconvincing diatribe about how he could always use what he referred to as "conceptual help" which meant, essentially, thinking up areas of research instead of concentrating on specific data as only a trained tech could do.

He was full of shit. But he meant well, I knew. And, clearly, he did seem to believe that having me around was going to be worth his while, if only so he could gawk at me.

His lack of specific conviction on the subject of my usefulness made everyone a little nervous. So we broke up the meal soon after that. He gave me a tape explaining the general areas in which he was currently involved. "Not too technical, really," he hoped more than meant. But I accepted the tape anyway and promised to get right at it.

"Fine," he said. "You think maybe we could talk at dinner? Not about shop," he added quickly. "Just in general. Sort of social."

"I'd love to," I said with sincerity and so we got through lunch without any of us having to break down and actually face the questions that counted. Such as: Just what the hell was I doing there? How did I get there? How long was I going to stay? What was going on? in other words.

I went through the motions because they suited my plans. Holly did because he loved having me around. Lya… well, she didn't buy it, I could tell. But she didn't seem particularly suspicious, either. Not yet.

But she'd want to know soon. Sooner than Holly. And probably a lot sooner than I wanted to tell her.

I dropped the tape off in my rooms without a glance. "Then I headed outside, wandering lost only briefly, until I found the main seal. Security on the outer dome pointed me in the right direction. So I headed back across the bridge, toward the city and the refugees and, among them, my contact with Borglyn. Toward, in fact, exactly what in the hell I was doing there.

    

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