Armor

3,475
07.03.2019

"Take more drinkin' than that!" suggested the first kid.

"I've got time," replied the older man, swigging some more. He broke off his chugging with another laugh and seemed to remember me. He offered the jug again, saying:

"What about you. Stranger? How's your imagination?"

I laughed, took the jug. "It needs a boost," I said, and tilted the jug back.

"Sounds like a bachelor," suggested the first kid as I drank.

"Drinks like a goddamned couple," growled the leader in mock irritation at my determined swallows.

That remark, for some reason, did me in. I exploded with laughter, spraying myself and everyone else with syntho. He made it even worse by adding, completely deadpan, that he "usually just swallowed it right on down" himself. But, he added while I convulsed with laughter, "I don't get out much and different people enjoy booze different ways."

I could not stop laughing. Maybe it was the liquor or maybe it was just my needing to laugh so bad. Or maybe it was just the man's infectious grin. Whatever it was, it was fun.

"Here, friends," he said, holding the jug high. "Here's to the Syntho Spraying Stranger!"

With that everybody drank to my toast and then applauded sloppily. I managed a small bow and was reaching for the jug to try again when the door to the saloon slammed open with a ragged crash. Everyone, even the suddenly awakened stableboy, turned toward the sound. In the doorway stood a huge beast of a man, drunk and swaying in the half-light. He peered down at us dazedly for a moment before focusing on the older horseman.

"Hey, you!" yelled the beast, pointing a finger. "Goddammit! Goddamn killed the whole damn deal for me!"

"Uh-oh, Lewis," said one of the kids, naming their leader. The name seemed to ring a bell, but before I had a chance to react, the beast was performing again. He launched himself down the steps toward us. Only he missed the first step and catapulted out into the darkness, landing face down and full-length in the mud.

Lewis took a step forward and, raising the jug again, offered another toast. "Gentlemen," he said formally, "I give you the groom."

The kids giggled, but their amusement had a somewhat dutiful tone to it. For whether Lewis seemed to have noticed it or not, the beast was clearly enraged. He picked himself up quickly out of the mud. Resting on his heels, he pointed a finger again. "Goddamn ranchin' crud," he said.

Lewis laughed delightedly, completely unoffended. The kids laughed too. They seemed more relaxed, as if it couldn't be serious as long as Lewis was not. I figured they were wrong, all of them. The beast was mad. Wildly drunk, perhaps. Barely focused, maybe. But still very…

Without warning, the man lunged to his feet toward Lewis and swung a truly gigantic fist in his direction. Lewis stepped back smoothly out of range, still laughing and relaxed. Not anxious, not even taunting. Just… good-humored.

The light from the open doorway dimmed as a young and, well, not pretty so much as… solid woman appeared. She took in the situation in a glance and shouted at the beast in a hard strident voice.

"Foss! My God! Are you psycho?"

Foss, the beast, froze halfway through another backswing and turned toward her voice. "Leave me alone, Del," he muttered sourly. "Goddammit, you told me no once already." And he made ready another punch in Lewis's direction.

Del refused to be ignored. "Foss!!" she barked again, stomping her hefty foot on the stoop. "What are you doing?"

"…kill me this rancher pig here…" mumbled Foss uncertainly.

"Who? Me?" asked Lewis with friendly innocence.

"Goddamn right, you," snarled Foss.

"Why?" asked Lewis, sounding genuinely hurt. "Hell, didn't turn you down!"

Foss lunged at him again. Lewis stepped easily aside, still calm and happy, holding the jug by the neck high over his head to keep it out of range of the fat droplets of mud the Foss's scrambling threw into the air. Foss lunged twice more, once trying to punch him again, once trying to grab the smaller man in a bear hug. He failed miserably both times.

It was a charade. Foss stomped and missed and Lewis dodged and smiled and Del looked worried and the kids giggled. But it was a lot worse than it appeared. It was still serious as hell. Foss was not harmless. In fact, he wasn't even that bad. Lewis just moved so smoothly that it looked that way. That and the way Lewis kept smiling made the whole thing appear to be a joke. It was great.

I was grinning myself, unabashedly delighted with Lewis. He just would not get angry, no matter how close Foss came. He simply refused. It was a talent I could use a little of myself. More than a little.

"Stop this, Foss!" shouted Del after it seemed to be going on forever. She came running down the steps toward us, scattering the kids who were still watching eagerly, their mouths now sagging open at half mast between laughter and concern-and ready to go either way. "Stop this!" Del repeated.

"I'm for that," offered Lewis, taking a swig.

Del pushed between the two, her hands resting firmly against Foss's muddy chest. Foss ignored her, shouting past her to Lewis.

"Shaddup, you sumbitch! If it wadn't for you. I'd…" He hesitated, glanced at Del, seemed to lose his resolve. "Well…" he trailed off.

"Well, what?" demanded Del. "What's this man done to you? I thought you just met him, for God's sake!"

"I knew him before this," he mumbled. Then louder, pointing his finger again: "I know about you, rancher shit! I know you!"

"What do you know, Foss?" asked Lewis pleasantly, "I know…" Foss hesitated again, looked embarrassed. But that only made him, on reflection, more angry. "I know that you're queering it for me and for… hell, for everybody. Riding around on some big horse all the time like some big deal and looking down and makin' us look like nothin' to… to her!"

Then he stood there, red-faced, looking stupid and huge. And sad.

Del took a deep breath. She let it out. Her voice was gentle. "That's insane," she said.

"Maybe," agreed Lewis as Foss lunged at him yet again, "but it's sincere as hell!" Lewis sidestepped Foss's charge neatly and smoothly, as he had all the others. Foss tried to correct his momentum in mid-slide, lost his footing, and collapsed once more into the mud.

He lay there, snarling and cussing under his breath. He was panting with the effort. Idly, pitifully, he tried to snag Lewis with the toe of his boot without standing up.

"You ever gonna stand still?" moaned the beast.

"Of course," replied Lewis easily. "But not here. G'night!" Gathering up his crew of kids with a wave, tossing a coin to the boy holding the reins, Lewis vaulted onto one of the horses and tried to make a clean exit.

But Foss was up as Lewis came past him. "I ain't finished with you yet!" he called, stumbling awkwardly onto the horses' path.

Lewis dodged a wild swing that had been aimed too low to do much damage anyway and pulled his reins out of range of Foss's groping. "I can always come back tomorrow, if you like," he offered over his shoulder as he slipped past toward the edges of the saloon door light. He reined up briefly and said cheerily, tilling the jug.

Foss looked suspicious. "You with him?" he toasted me briefly: "Here's to you Stranger. Take care," he said cheerily, tilting the jug.

Foss looked suspicious. "You with him?" he demanded sourly to me and, before I could think of a good answer, swung a fist at my chin.

I dodged that swing and another and then another while Del screamed, "Foss, you idiot!" But she did no good with my troubles either. Foss kept at me, lumbering with his arms open wide and better speed than I would have guessed he still had in him. I turned his arms away, slipped another punch, and… allowed him to trip over my ankle. But as he went down, his huge right arm lashed out, nearly snagging me. I felt fingers like plassteel tongs slip along my shinbone. Damn, but he was a strong one!

Instinctively, I positioned myself to finish it as he struggled to regain his footing. Instinct? Or was it just habit? Maybe it was preference…

"You know what you need. Stranger?" I heard Lewis ask from just over my shoulder.

"What's that?" I asked without taking my eyes off of my muddy target.

"You need a nice little horsey back ride in the fresh air."

"Think so?" I replied in a dull voice just as the beast and I matched stares. I tensed slightly, shifting my weight…

"Come on," urged Lewis gently, sounding more than a little… What? Disappointed?

And that shook me out of it. He had messed with the man for half an hour without a blow being struck and here I was… Here I was going to hurt somebody again. Wanting to? So I turned away and took a couple of steps and vaulted onto the back of his horse behind him and the six of us rode away out of range of Foss and Del and the ugly inevitable.

Not because Lewis had cared. Because Lewis hadn't given a damn about Foss. And not because it was the "right things' Not because it was right. Because it was… new?

I thought about that as we rode easily out of the City. I thought about it as I drank, bouncing and jiggling and unsanitarily from the jug. But not much. I had never liked thinking about that part of me much. Never.

We passed through the lake of the square, scattering a couple of kids playing with something at the edge of the water. The horses made a lot of noise on the wooden slats that crossed the sewer/stream. Lewis spurred us into a canter across the next hundred meters and then pulled up sharply as we approached the main bridge across the river. He slid off in front of me. He tossed me the reins.

"Here you go, Stra… Hey, what is your name, anyway?" he asked.

One of the kids, pulling up beside us in a spray of muddy water, broke in: "I know you. Aren't you… Yeah! You're Jack Crow!" he exclaimed. The other kids loudly echoed this. "Don't you recognize him, Lewis?"

Lewis peered up at me. "Nope."

The kid looked embarrassed. "Well, he's heard of you though," he said quickly to me. "You've heard of him, haven't you?"

Lewis thought a minute. He shrugged. "Maybe," he allowed with a slow nod.

I'd have bet a hundred credits on the spot, a hundred credits I didn't have, that he hadn't.

"Why are we stopping here, anyway?" someone wanted to know.

Lewis brightened. "I thought I'd give you boys a chance to count sailboats while I take a small piss on the nice fish." He trotted around the buttresses as he spoke, opening up his fly. His voice faded as he descended to the river's edge. "Here, fish! Here, nice-little-fishies-that-won't take-my-hook! Here, you contrary little bastards! Come and gettt ittt!" From over the railings came the sound of him pissing merrily, the way he laughed, into the water. The kids and I sat there on the backs of the horses sipping from the jug and watching the swiftly passing current. The one who recognized me began a halting and involved question about some exploit or another be had heard that I'd done. He seemed embarrassed to be asking it. I let him be, thus avoiding the need to give a civil reply.

Lewis returned shortly. He hopped up onto the railing and motioned for the jug. I tossed it to him. He drank, frowned at the amount that was left, drank again.

"C'mon, Lewis," complained someone, "let's go."

Lewis shook his head sadly. "Ah, youth! What's the hurry? Didn't I promise you that puberty would come? Trust me."

Several of them laughed. So did I. But the impatient one was insistent. "How long are we gonna be here?"

Lewis shrugged. "Dunno. You in a hurry. Jack?"

"I've got an hour or so."

"Splendid. I'll see you young bucks later on."

In a few seconds they were all gone, even the ones in no hurry. It had been a dismissal.

"Take a load off. Jack," he said to me when we were alone, "and let me explain to you the real reason why I never catch any of these little fishies."

I slid off the horse and joined him on the railing. He handed me the jug. "Tell me everything about it," I urged.

He feigned shock. "Everything? You mean everything? Where oh where shall I begin? "

"How about the beginning," I suggested, burping softly. The syntho was getting to me.

"Nope. Not the beginning. I've been there already. It was worse then than it is now and I want to tell you. Jack, right now is a dark, dark time."

"What seems to be the problem?" I asked, all sympathy.

"The real problem. Jack? Or," he struck a tragic pose, "the REAL problem?"

I pretended to give it some thought. "The REAL problem," I said at last in a hushed whisper.

He eyed me narrowly, as if judging my trustworthiness. Then he glanced around us to be sure he wasn't overheard, just as if we weren't really half a kilometer from anyone. "The real problem with these fishies and me is: personality conflict."

I laughed.

"That's it," he said, "laugh. But I will bet you that I can prove to you right here and now, using logic, insight, and… syntho, that what I'm saying is true."

And damned if he didn't do just that. His way, anyhow. The man was an absolute marvel. Talked for over an hour the most convoluted, contrived and contradictory horseshit I had ever heard. I could follow maybe half of it and I can't remember any of it. But I do remember having a hell of a good time listening to it all. He never hesitated once during the entire lunatic harangue, never lost his place, never stopped grinning.

Or drinking. He pulled a fresh jug out of his saddle case and went to work on it like it was his first in a standard month.

He closed with what he referred to as "critical advice" on how to catch the local fish, which he never, or rarely, seemed to do himself. The finale consisted of a rousing demonstration of what songs to sing (and, vastly more important to him) or not to sing, while fishing. Had a rotten singing voice. Knew it. Didn't care. But I cared. It hurt to listen to him.

He said I wasn't a true fisherman. True fishermen, it seemed, didn't care about such frivolous details as musical notes. Not a bit. True fishermen care about volume. True fishermen "sang loud." Then he threw his head back to show me, cocking that awful noise muscle of his… and fell backwards into the river.

I was afraid he would drown, drunk as he was. And drunk as I was, I raced down around to the bank to help. He was okay by the time I got there. He was kneeling on the bank with his back to the water looking over his shoulder at the rushing current. On his face was a comic-opera expression of suspicion.

"Did you see who it was?" he asked, not taking his eyes off the water.

"What?"

"Did you see which one did it?" he insisted.

"Did what?"

"Pulled me into the water," he said gravely, looking at me at last. "Which fish."

A marvel. By the time he dropped me off at the dome I was semi-sober and thoroughly cheered. We had already said our good-byes and I was halfway up the ramp when his name finally sank in. Lewis! He was…

I turned around and searched the landscape for him. I heard him before I saw him, galloping lazily out of sight over the gentle grassy slope that rose away from the river and the city, and loudly practicing what he had referred to as "scream- singing." This was supposed to be the guy that owned Sanction?

Nooo… Couldn't be. There had to be another Lewis. Surely…

But, of course, there wasn't. He was it, that lightweight drunk. He was the owner, ruler, master, of everything in sight.

I laughed on my way up the rest of the ramp. And then I stopped laughing. Because it wasn't really funny. I suddenly appreciated Borglyn more than ever. For this place had been a perfect choice. It was just what he needed. Distant, alone, and utterly helpless.

No. It really wasn't funny at all.

XI

It was, I knew, incredibly stupid of me to feel as I did after that dinner with Holly and Lya. After all, it had gone very well for me. Perfectly well, in fact. Not only had their suspicions been relieved, they had ended up practically encouraging my little machinations. Hell, they had encouraged me! Without having any idea what I was up to! By the time that dinner was over they had opened up completely to me, given me free rein, unchecked and unhindered.

And why? Why did they welcome the wolf into their midst? Why did they succumb to such insanity?

Simple. They trusted me.

Madness.

But that wasn't what made me feel as rotten as I did. What really bothered me was not simply their trust. It was their faith. The two of them looked at me with it shining from their eyes. They looked at me like, well…

Like I knew what I was doing. Madness!

On a distant planet all but lost on the outskirts of the spread of Man, a man who is both highly disreputable and a total stranger suddenly appears and crowds you for company. He provides no explanations for his actions and no clue to his motives. He is at best a rogue, at worst a psychotic, and in any case a known powderkeg. Yet you not only accept his good intentions, you trust his aim! From this gypsy you expect… control.

Why? Why, from such as he, do you assume accuracy? From where do you sense this precision, anyway, the fable? Can no one imagine an incompetent Legend?

It started off predictably enough. The three of us sat eating and chatting alone in the main dining room. We smiled fiercely at one another while nervously pursuing a hundred avenues of small talk and in all ways avoiding until the last minute the point.

We talked about the food and how good it was and we talked about the food we missed, our favorite foods and our favorite places to eat our favorite foods. We talked about the rotten weather that had been about recently and about the good weather they had had before that and about the good weather we hoped we would get in the future. We talked about Sanction, me mentioning that I thought I had met Lewis, the owner, if it was the same guy. And they said oh yes it was in fact the owner I had met and oh yes he did drink a great deal, always had. Lya mentioned some gossip she had heard about Lewis's having been sent here by a wealthy and influential earth family who had been embarrassed by the scandal of having what was, face it, an alcoholic son. And we all agreed as to how that made some sense or it was a good story anyhow, ha ha and then Holly told me about the strange thing that happened when they got an uncontrolled mutation once and had to shut down the syntho vats completely. Seemed that Lewis had simply stopped drinking until the syntho was ready again, refusing to accept their offer of real liquor from the Project stores and thereby forcing himself to go over two standard months without a drink. And we all agreed that that was certainly unusual behavior for an alcoholic, yes it certainly was, by golly and then we sat there staring at one another and still smiling like crazy.

Then Holly spoke up at last. Speaking of Sanction, he began, and then talked about what a nice place it was, how Earthlike and so on. Lots of planets like that, Lya added and then we played the game of naming all the other places like that we could think of. How convenient for us, somebody said and we all laughed. I mentioned something about it bothering me, all those man places, how I thought it was a little spooky and we all laughed again, ha ha, stringing it out as long as we could to avoid that damned silence but still ending up staring and smiling for several seconds until Holly cleared his throat and talked about an interesting item he had read off the Fleet Beam on that very subject and I said, oh what was that? And he said it was very interesting, really, that it seemed there was some sort of religious cult that believed that all these planets had been designed just for us. Oh really? That is interesting-Yes, isn't it, these people think there is a trail of these planets and if we follow it to the galactic core we will find and meet the builders, meet God himself, I guess they meant ha ha ha! How about that?

Yes, how about that? Uh, huh…

I could see how nervous they were. More, I could see how embarrassed they were. And I could see that they wanted me to start it all off, had seen that in their eyes from the beginning. And I wanted to. I wanted to lead into it myself so that I would seem more upfront while at the same time controlling the discussion somewhat.

Only I couldn't think of anything to say. Not a thing. It was inexcusable. What I needed, and quickly, was an extremely plausible and not too elaborate lie or set of lies and why, for God's sake, didn't I have it ready? Why hadn't I taken the time to think of something instead of wasting my day with two different kinds of idiots, fighting idiots and drinking idiots, the way I had? Damn!

I had thought, initially, of trying to get Holly off alone to pull it off. I knew I would have a much easier time with him alone. He would have been even more nervous by himself. He would have been eager to glide past those anxious moments, perfectly willing to buy my non-answers. Anything to avoid turmoil. And damn near anything to keep palling about with the Great & Exciting & Romantic (and just a wee bit Notorious-for spice) Jack Crow.

But Lya would have squashed it all if we had left her out. Not that he couldn't have ignored his own doubts without help. It's just that he could never stand up to her actual opposition. If she wasn't satisfied, he couldn't be. Sooner or later-make that simply soon-we would be sitting there again with Holly reluctant to demand more and me reluctant to give it but both of us having to. By the strength of her will alone, she could force us to both do the one thing we dreaded most: get to the Point. Just what was I up to?

It wasn't that she didn't like me. She did. I liked her, too. But it was a bigger decision than that. I was an unknown, potentially destructive element in a situation already far too sloppy. And something else: the decision was her decision. For, if Holly was their focus, Lya was the Couple.

I sat there watching the two of them together, thinking about that and thinking about how, well, sweet they looked together. He was young and warm and brilliant. She was young and strong and wise. And, of course, lovely. They fit.

And all I could think of was the truth that would get me hung. Truth, a real burden against people who fit, especially for someone like me who hardly fit myself…

I had it then. If the truth was all I had, then that was all I could share. So share it I would. Generously, equitably… I'd give'em half of it.

I cleared my throat. Firmly. They saw the cue, sat up a little straighter, just managed to avoid the impulse to trade a brief glance. "Holly, you've been most kind and very patient. Both of you have," I added with a quick smile for Lya. She responded in mechanical kind without blinking a lash or easing back one bit. "But I know you want to know: just what does someone like me-interstellar pirate-want here?" They smiled a little at the pirate part. Not enough. "Well, the fact is. Holly," I continued and then stopped, took an obvious breath, shined what I hoped was a conspiratorial smile, and said, "…I can't tell you."

I saw them, felt them freeze, counted a single beat, then jumped in to thaw them out.

Of course, I wanted to tell them and of course there was something in the works, but then I was sure they had suspected that, knowing me as they did (sigh). I followed that crap with more crap just like it on the principle that lots and lots of nothing can sound like something. And then on to the obligatory truth part about how I wouldn't want to do anything to damage their situation ami how I didn't expect that I would but that (also obligatory) I would certainly understand if that was unacceptable to them, I certainly would, and if they wanted me to stay oat of their way and move to the City all they had to do was say the word and out I'd go, yes sir!

I had to go through it all again before they had a chance to really consider it, more lots and lots of nothing, while never missing an opportunity to look shy and a little embarrassed by the need for secrecy and, most importantly, intimate. Intimate in the sense of acting like they understood what it was like to be me since they were so exciting and knowing themselves.

Stringing that out, layer upon layer, until the rhythm was right for my secret, personal confession that I really hated to burden them with-it wasn't their problem, after all.

Holly jumped to assure me that I could speak freely, snatching at his cue. Lya echoed his assurance, snatching at hers. Only the bolt of lightning, which should have torn through the ceiling of the dome and splattered my lying teeth on the dining-room table, but didn't, missed its cue.

"…the other reason I want to stay with… with you… is that, well, I hate the City, Holly. I hate those people. I've spent too much of my life with people like that and with you it's… It's nice. And I'm just so tired of pounding the fools who are always out trying to test themselves against Jack Crow."

I gave them a minute to enjoy the compliment and have fun pretending to feel an understanding sorrow before:

"And I am interested in your work. Holly. And I do want to bear whatever you will take the time to explain to me, though I know there's nothing more boring than trying to explain things to a layman…"

"On the contrary. Jack," he said quickly. "I…"

"C'mon, Holly," I said with a wave, "you don't have to pretend with me. I know the last thing you want is an audience," knowing damn well he wanted nothing more in the whole wide universe.

"On the contrary, Jack," he repeated, "I'm terribly flatteed by your interest. I just hope I won't bore you."

"Not a chance, Holly. I'm the sponge type."

"I do think we have a few projects of interest in the works. And, without getting too technical…" he began, before becoming too technical almost at once.

It didn't matter. I was only half-listening. The other half was waiting. For Lya.

Because it wasn't over until she said it was. So I sweated. Holly had already bought it all, luxuriating in the brotherhood of anything even faintly man-to-man.

I had thrown in the part about wanting to stay with them for her, mostly, figuring she would demand, in lieu of facts, something personal at least, before being satisfied. But was she? I could damn near feel her probing gaze, which had strayed not one inch from my eyes the whole time. She's not buying, I thought at last, mustering more sugarcloud to float toward her, when suddenly she relaxed. And I knew I was in.

I could turn and look at her then, and smile. She smiled back. It was a sweet smile, a warm smile, and, incredibly, an "I'm-sure-you'll-do-tbe-right-thing" smile. Madness!

But I don't know what I'm doing! I shouted from my mind to hers. How can you? you stupid bitch! Your faith in me is insane!

But her gaze didn't even darken. She had decided. And that was that.

I shuddered, passing a hand over my eyes. It was so stupid to feel this way! What was I upset about, anyway? Winning, for crissakes? What the hell Guilt for deceiving her? For being able to? Dammit! Forget it! Go on, go on! It's a done thing. A completed task. Go on!

"As regards the armor?" I blurted blindly, interrupting Holly in mid-esoterica.

"Why, yes," he said, surprised. "I was just coming to that. You do follow this, don't you?"

I didn't hit him. I just clamped down and tried to slide into his voice, into the sense of what he was saying. Long slow deep breaths.

I bolted suddenly upright as, out of the blue, I realized what it was he was suggesting.

"But Holly, the one thing that anybody, that everybody knows about battle armor is that no one but the owner can wear it. You'd be crushed!"

Holly smiled, completely unconcerned. "Oh, of course I would. Jack," he replied happily. "I know that. I'm not planning to wear the suit. Not even the helmet. But, Jack," he added, looking excitedly at me and leaning forward across the table eagerly, "what if I could use routing feeds to another helmet!"

I stared at him. "Why?" I asked.

He looked surprised. "The record. Jack! The record is there!"

"Then why not just play the coil?"

"Because it's not on the coil, like I've been saying…" Oh.

❮❯