Armor

3,490
07.03.2019

"…electro-magnetic scattering of some time caused it to bleed off."

"Holly, I still don't understand you," interrupted Lya thankfully. "You say it's there and then you say it's been, what? bled off? Bled off where?"

"Bled off into the pod itself. Dear. It's on the inner surface of the pod shielding plate. But it's still intact. It's still there." She frowned.

"Then how can you get it off?"

He smiled indulgently at our inability to keep up with his racing brain. I imagined he had had much practice in his short but brilliant life. "But don't you see? That's what makes it such a fascinating problem! To draw it out of such an irregular surface while still maintaining its cohesive interval requires an ability to adjust to millions of split-second alterations of power level. We're talking about a tiny, tiny bit of charge here. And the smallest change in resistance factor-an imperfect allow on the shield plates, a drop of paint, even the fact that the surface is curved can make a difference. You see, if you draw it too quickly, the chain breaks and the electrons lose their cohesion. If you draw it too slowly, then the field halts for the microsecond required for it to produce its own field and… bingo! It's gone!"

"You mean you'd lose the record?" I prompted. "It would go blank?"

"Well, not blank. It would become a regularly interspersed pattern of dots and dashes which, for our purposes, is the same thing."

"Just like that?" asked Lya.

He nodded. "Just like that. Listen, I've seen six hours- that's six computer hours, mind you-turn static, coalesce, and pop across to a lab assistant's belt buckle. All before the computer-much less us-knew there was a problem. No matter how good your hardware, or how large your storage capacity given current limits, there are still too many bits with too many problems to allow for."

"I don't get it," I said and I didn't. "Then you're saying it can't be done?"

"No, no, no, no. Jack! I'm saying no computer can do it?"

"Then what can?" asked Lya, sounding as confused as I was.

Holly's face broke into a wide grin. His right index finger stabbed the air. "The brain!" he said triumphantly.

Lya looked at him. I looked at him. She and I looked at each other.

"That's absurd," she said at last. "No man can think as fast as your smallest relays; you told me that yourself."

"I said process," he replied with a tolerant but firm smile, "not think. Computers don't think. They simply sort."

"What's the difference?" Lya wanted to know.

"Four or five billion bits of data, for one thing."

"For the computer…" I interjected.

"No. For the brain!" he retorted. "We don't focus as well, true enough. And our data priority system is horridly uncontrolled. But whether you call it panicking or'going blank' or just stuttering, those are generally breakdowns in the delivery system, not the storage. The answer, and about two million others per second, is there."

"So the computers are more effective, Holly, which is the same thing!" demanded Lya.

"Yes, yes. But it. is we who do the programming for the effect we want. Computers are, in limited areas, much better devices. But we are vastly superior machines."

I took a deep breath. "Let me get this straight. You're saying that in order to suck this record out of that pod, it takes a zillion decisions every second which then require an equivalent zillion alterations in the… strength of the pull, right?"

"Right."

"And you say that no computer is fast enough and big enough at the same time…"

"Right now none are. Maybe later, they do marvelous things with fluidics these days…"

I waved that off. "Don't confuse me. And the only thing that can make those instantaneous decisions and the like is a human brain?"

"Right again. You see…"

"Just hold it a minute. Holly," I blurted, more bluntly than I meant. "I still don't get it. You're talking about all this… computing being done on an unconscious level?"

"Yes."

Lya looked unhappy. "But nobody could… How could you direct the focus of your unconscious mind to do this for you?"

Holly smiled again. It was infuriating. "Ah, there's the part where the computer can help. It's not so much a matter of concentration in the conventional sense. It's more a matter of frequency. It's just a problem of getting the two brain- wave patterns close enough so that they begin to work in harmony and…"

He stopped when he saw the shocked look on our faces. But he continued anyway, like a schoolboy trying to get in the rest of his excuse before being punished too severely.

"You see, if your drawing field, your brain wave in this case, is on a compatible interval pattern, then all those adjustments would be made automatically. I admit there can't be a complete match-up," he added sheepishly, "since no two people have exactly the same frequency. Both sides would have to give a little…"

"Give a little," Lya shouted with outrage. "You're talking about allowing a machine to alter your brain-wave pattern to fit someone else's??"

"Only briefly," he insisted lamely. "And not very much. And it wouldn't really fit. I mean, you wouldn't be able to read his thoughts or…"

"My God, Holly…" I began.

"You're insane!" Lya finished. "It would drive you crazy." There was a pause before we all laughed at the absurdity of her remark. It lowered the tension level somewhat. But the issue, with all of its implied horrors, still hung before us.

"It might very well, you know," I said seriously. "It could cause all sorts of psychological damage. It might simply bum your ego away."

Holly sat up straighter in his chair. He looked offended. "I believe I have made allowances for such a problem. Special entry and exit procedures, for example."

"It's madness," muttered Lya bitterly. "It's… wrong."

"You're being emotional, Lya. And only because you can't think of any rational objections."

"All right, Holly," I said, rising to the challenge, "here's one: What if you're him in there?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"What if you became him? At least thought you were, anyway, as long as you were in there. You would be reliving- for the first time-and then forgetting afterwards."

He regarded me quizzically. "Complete submersion? Hardly likely, Jack. The brain is self, after all. You would conflict fast."

"There's still some'ouch' in that," I pointed out.

"Yes, but if you consider the…"

"That's just what you're not doing. Holly Ware!" blurted Lya angrily. She had become quite upset. I saw tears in the corners of her eyes. She was terrified by this. I didn't blame her. "When did you come up with this insane notion, anyway?"

He met her gaze without blinking. "Just now," he said in the absolutely unmistakable fashion of one who knows what he is and what he is doing and who also knows that he and he alone is qualified for it.

An interesting thing happened then: Lya backed down. It caught me by surprise, left me wondering if, in my own stereotypical haste, I had misjudged the young mad scientist. But then I had it. She was not giving in to his machismo. She was retreating before his expertise.

Holly was, after all, the genius.

"Well," she said after she had calmed a bit," I don't want to talk about this anymore today. I need a little time to get my feet bade on the ground. Ami I shall certainly dream about this tonight." The last came with a tiny self-deprecataig smile, a gesture which made the sculptured lines of her mouth seem even more delicate and frail than before. It was especially endearing, even for her.

Holly and I agreed with matching smiles of relief. We all went through the straightening and adjusting needed after too long at the table. We stretched, yawned, grinned. At the door turned to shake hands with Holly and found that I was doing it with a man I had not yet met. It was a man who seemed to me to be, at that time, the very best of Holly Ware. His grip was firm, his eyes bright, he locked more confident than I had ever before seen him. And more, he looked excited, hopeful, eagerly intrigued. Lya, despite her own buoyancy having apparently returned, seemed a faded shadow before the warmth of his creative glow. The image of those two at that moment struck something in me. It stayed with me, hanging before me, as I went through the seal and down the passage to my own suite. I couldn't stop thinking about the way her face had looked, set with gentle firmness, eyes lifted to him, half-turned to him, half-eclipsed as his moon.

Ami I couldn't stop thinking about something else, that there was little wonder that such women preferred the Hollys to me. The only time I ever looked that alive, I was probably killing.

Damn.

The lounge was dark. There was no sign of Cortex anywhere. I thought for a moment that I had stumbled into the wrong suite. Then I saw the light filtering through underneath the door to my bedroom and I froze, stock still, in my tracks. I could feel her.

I wanted a cigarette, but reaching for it seemed a noisy affair. Not loud enough for anyone to hear me from the bedroom-I wasn't worried about that. I didn't want to make, well, any sound. Absolutely still. Dead still, rock still. Bolted to the floor and long empty tubes for my arms… Long enough like that and it would all go away or better, much, much, better they. They? THEY? would come for me and take me out, lift me up and away and say everything is all right, of course you failed but you were only…

I shrugged mightily, violently, forcing my boots to make that horrible, rasping, barely audible shuffle across the carpet as I stepped up to the door and eased it open with my wet hand.

Upper lamp on lowest gain glowing down to white sheets and yellow hair and golden skin-so much gold for so little skin-and all of it, the gently rising flat tummy, the wide eyes closed or shielded or hidden, the positively dreamlike sweep of lines from throat to forehead and back again to the partial view of more yellow hair, but tufted, promising time: hair and more gold… all of it glowing back up into the lamp, shaming it. Shaming me.

I could feel her. From the doorway, I could feel her. And she was real! Karen was real, had been all along. This other thing, this vague dream, this fantasy, only now half- remembered of a ship of my own without cares or destination or, face it, purpose, this sloppy goal, was never as real as the vision of her exquisite promise in my bed.

I Stumbled out the door, easing my wet hand trembling from the plastic door. I sat, then lay on the couch my tubes and trembling neck. Why didn't I?

Why didn't I? A worthless sacrifice, a horrible choice. Even if it was real. Even if it did hurt. Or especially. Or not. I slept, my face feeling sunburned somehow. Blasted.

XII

I had horrible dreams that night that lasted years. Not true nightmares, really, not at first. But very odd, in a macabre, intriguing sort of way. There were many distorted figures lodged and packed into a room that was at the same time a-geographic. They and I stumbled around with staccato gaits, first windsome, then fierce, getting faster and faster until the whole Hang resembled some sort of spastic frenzy. By then I knew it was a dream, but that didn't help. It was a commentary on me, the daytime me, the message seemed to be. It was about the recent me. The lately irrational, emotion-taut me. Other me's too, I supposed, but in any case, too damn many me's.

It would only get worse. I would stretch to the frenzy. I would warp. So I woke up, fast as I could.

Cortez was sitting beside my bed. He smiled when I opened my eyes, the lids of which felt puffy, ponderous. It seemed I had been out two days with a raging fever. The muscular spasms had stopped hours before, now even.

The local bug, in other words, had struck.

"Welcome to Sanction," said Cortez with a wide grin, adding, "Didn't you feel it coming on?"

I ignored him. I hadn't, of course. But, God knows, I should have. Idiot.

It took me eight days, a full local week, to get over it. Mostly, I slept. Peacefully, for the most part. I did meet a couple of doctors. Or maybe just one as the only things I remember about either of them were youth, athletic postures, and greatly affected, pretend-deep, bedside voices.

Lya came often, cheerfully unconcerned for my welfare. "Everybody gets it," she reported gleefully. Holly came twice, ever-friendly but vague about progress with the armor. Cortez left only once, when Karen came.

She hated being there, hated looking at me as I was. She. was gone in minutes, again replaced by Cortez who entered looking like the gossip I supposed he was. I ignored him, tiling over into my pillow for my hourly nap. I drifted off wondering if I had not, in fact, learned more about her in these few anxious moments than in all of our previous hours. I thought I knew at last what she wanted from me.

It was nice to be able to just sleep instead.

I was sitting up smoking a cigarette on the morning of the eighth day when Lya canoe in and told me about the picnic. I didn't answer at first. I was still trying to get used to her appearance. I hadn't seen her in the past couple of days. She looked rotten. There were dark circles under her usually china-pure eyes. She was somewhat pale as well. And her movements seemed a bit shaky, hesitant, and uncoordinated.

Worry. And only one thing could make that one worry. I was anxious to ask her about him but I couldn't seem to get through her let's-be-cheerful-if-it-kills-us-me-him. It was all for her sake, of course, though I doubted she was aware of it and, to be sure, I got all the fussing over. Lya had a great time directing the expedition to the out of doors, insisting I be famed on a springsheet by two attendants-(me quite short, one quite tail-and laughing delightedly at the bouncing their mismatched gait gave me.

It was, thankfully, a short trek, just three hundred or so alters along the riverbank to a grove of very Earthlike trees. If it had been much farther. I'd have gotten out of the springer and walked. I was still pretty weak, but I figured anything to be better than that bouncing seesaw.

It was a beautiful warm day. Bright sun and blue skies, the rains now long gone. It was a nice spot, too, beside a rancher's grazing stretching down from a low hill all the way to the edge of clear sparkling water. Damn, but it looked a lot like home.

I was still looking for a chance to ask about Holly, remembering that it had been quite a while since we had spoken. But before I got an opening there was the milling about spreading groundcloths and unpacking utensils and getting me prepped. The attendants left then, only to be replaced by Cortez, face glistening with sunscreen. He was helped by Karen, of all people, with the carrying of the food and liquor. She smiled pleasantly at me, said hello and the rest. She even went to the trouble to feel my forehead, a more token gesture than could be believed. Then she picked a spot a couple of trees away, cuddling up with a glass of wine and a shaded bookscreen and looking, well, perfect.

Others from the Project wandered by, snatching bites of chicken and sips of wine, a long procession which was apparently planned, since there were ample stores for the long afternoon. At one point there were a good three dozen people gathered around us, chattering, gossiping, giggling. I was left pretty much alone, either in deference to my health or my notoriety or, most probably, both. Just the same, I missed nothing, however juicy or dull. Lya, sitting beside me, was the favorite of all. Everyone stewed to chat with her. She charmed each of them individually and thoroughly and made it look easy. She seemed to know everyone by name, for one thing, which was damned impressive. Particularly since most of those in attendance were Crew, rather than the scientist- types she was usually around.

Occasionally I would break off from admiring the performance of Lya's social flair to check on Karen. Infinitely more beautiful than anyone else-and growing more so as the afternoon sun blazed multicolored in her hair-she was nevertheless left alone. It may have been her position that discouraged approaches. She was Boss to most of those people, after all. Or, for all I knew, she had the reputation of a loner or a bore or even a bitch. But I didn't think so. It was her beauty. Curled up on the grass reading, a glass of wine in her hand, she was more painting than real. Her face, in classic profile, was unusually calm and serene and framed with casual perfection by a few golden strands which had slipped free from the lucious whole flowing across her Sholders and halfway down her back. She was wearing a spotlessly white Crew jumpsuit. It provided the fundamental thread linking the necessary contrasts of blue sky/eyes, blonde hair/skin, green grass/trees.

The view was a painting. Angel descended among mortals. I was frankly grateful to be there at that instant. For all those who were not, however well or long they had known her or would, had missed it. I could not imagine she would ever, in her strident life, manage to repeat that breathtaking image.

It was her beauty that kept them away. It was intimidating! No woman could stand the comparison that side-by-side conversation would inevitably illuminate. And the men-how does one appreach and disturb the angel inrepose? Even should he wish to crack the crystal? Look. Touch not.

And everyone to be sure, looked. The gathering about Lya stared constantly with the oft-repeated turning of heads. The women snatched, or rather sneaked, glances. Brief, probing, envious. Some of the men followed suit, not wishing to be obvious, but many didn't care. They simply arranged themselves so that she was in easy view ami thereafter rattled conversationally along with people they never saw.

I leaned against my pillowed throne and did some serious storing of my own. Unmistakably Karen, but still so unlike her. It was her. It just wasn't her life.

If you could see this from my eyes, I wondered at her, the admiring hosts, the idyllic setting… If you could see you as I see you now, would it help? Would it reinforce your faith? Would it revive sinking dreams and hope? Or do you hate the beauty that has helped make your life just so?

I never could decide. No way to tell, of course, but I'd expect some of each. It would have cheered her, even thrilled her, to have seen herself then. It would have had to. It was simply too lovely.

But afterwards, with time and doubt leaning so heavily on the memory and with that placidly desperate struggle of her vs. her… And some hate did exist, I felt certain, for the beauty. For the brand of having it.

I shook my head, shook it again. I found that I was no longer even looking at her, hadn't been in a while. The sun was no longer framing and she had moved position a little. Christ! I thought, has it come to this now? Too much wine and bug-eating drugs and afternoon sun and… Guilt was still about too, still leading me away from the point. I shook my head a third time.

Most of the party had wandered off. Two hours or so of sunlight remained. It was still pleasantly warm. Lya was encouraging, gently, the departure of her final moth, a stoutly muscular Asian woman seeking inside influence for a transfer back to her old position in the Project Dome Galley.

"The Agritechs know nothing about food," she complained in a shrill whine that had been installed, no doubt by mistake, in that massive chest. "They hate everything I fix."

From the way she strove to suppress a giggle, Lya was hardly surprised at this piece of news. Clearly, she found both the issue and the woman hilarious. But somehow she maintained her composure until at last free of the cook, sending her marching robotlike down the bank, short thick arms held firmly immobile at her sides.

Lya collapsed into helpless laughter before the cook had gone twenty meters. She jammed her peals of laughter against the comer of one of my pillows to muffle the noise. It was a compassionate gesture, and more than a little comical in itself. When she had resumed some semblance of control, she turned to me. I beat her to it.

"Let me guess," I said. "You're the one who had her moved out of the Dome in the first place."

She looked surprised, but nodded. A pixie's grin curled up. "Worst cook in the world," she said. And then the laughter bubbled out again. "She cooks like she looks!" she added before collapsing once more into hysterics, now unmuffled and bell-like.

Lya laughed so long and so hard she cried. I found that I was laughing as well after a few seconds, so joyous was the sound.  Cortez, asleep for hours, broke off his gentle snoring abruptly. He sat up, rubbed his eyes. "What's so funny?" he asked sleepily. Then, without waiting for an answer to that questioned-a wise move since it had only started Lya off again-Cortez asked another: "Anything left to eat? I'm starved. "He followed this by immediately rummaging through the stores, opening and closing food seals. Still half asleep, he was spilling everything. I lifted my leg to avoid a stream of some sort of purple fruit juice.

Lya, now relatively calmed, sighed, half-smiling at his childlike grogginess. I groaned audibly, having little of her: tolerance and even less of her tact. After some four bears of garden-party gobbling, I had yet to have my private moment. Lya and I refused to cater to this sloppy sleepyhead on top of that.

"Cortez," I said as calmly as I could, "there's no food. No more wine either. Why don't you run fetch some?" He frowned, scratched his head. "Now? I'd have to go all the way down to Storage. I don't know why… ?"

I cleared my throat. "Let me rephrase that: Cortez, you will run and fetch the wine. Dig?"

"Huh?"

"Understand?" I quickly amended.

He stared at me, at Lya, who was suppressing yet another giggle, and nodded. "Uh, yeah," he said. "I'll be right back." :

"Take your time," I added quickly. "Don't run."

Lya smiled at his retreating form. She sat up, stretching her over her head and yawning. She looked around.

"Is that about everyone?" she asked.

I pointed to Karen, still absorbed with her reading. "Must be some story," I offered. "She do that a lot?"

Lya shrugged. "I've no idea," she replied coolly, thus establishing, for my future reference, her lack of any connection with the other woman.

I, "Hmm. I see," I replied, no less editorially.

Lya didn't bite. The subject had already been dropped. Fine with me. I was plenty ready to get on with something.

"Now,"l began, "what's wrong with Holly?" She sobered visibly, her shoulders stiffening. "Is it the suit experiment?"

The look of concern on her face managed to both age her and compliment her at the same time. It reminded me of her depth and her value.

"Jack, he doesn't know what he's doing!" she blurted.

"Pretty bright chap, you know," I countered easily. "He's an expert at this sort of thing."

"Nonsense," she replied firmly. "No one's an expert at this. This is theory. Jack. And new theory, at that. It's never even been thought about seriously befine, much less attempted."

"You've tried to get him to stop, have you?"

She lanced at me briefly, teen away. She nodded.

"And he wouldn't budge, would he?" She met my eyes. I smiled. "Only on this," I added.

She smiled reluctantly in return. "How did you know that?"

I shrugged. "Well, I knew you ran the rest of it." She made a face, looking embarrassed. And, of course, damned proud.

I sighed and leaned back against the pillows. I fished a cigarette out and took my time about lighting it. She watched and waited.

Finally: "I'll try it if you want, Lya. I'll talk to him."

"Would you?" she asked, just as if she were really surprised at the offer.

"Of course I will. Only… I wouldn't count on much."

"But he thinks a lot of your opinion. Jack," she assured me.

I blew a smoke ring. "Funny. If I were as smart as him, I'd never give me a thought."

She smiled broadly, placating. "Well, Holly is that smart and he listens to you. You know he does."

I nodded. "I do. But I don't know why! He doesn't know anything about me."

"Of course he does!"

I shook my head. "Jack Crow stories don't count. We're talking aboat me."

She tilted her head to one side, as though she couldn't believe her ears. But ben voice remained amused. "Well, now. What happened to the smooth talker? Is this a confession or what?"

I laughed. "Well, I've been sick," I replied pitifully and we both laughed. "Okay," I said at last. "I'll go see him before we eat. He's been working at it all this time?"

She nodded. "Ever since the night you got sick he's worked on nothing else. He doesn't even go over the departmental reports."

"You know, Lya," I offered, "that's really a good sign. Probably means he's discovered something."

"Or thinks he has," she retorted bitterly.

I laughed. "Where's your composure, all of a sudden?"

She was not amused. "Where is his. Jack? What's the hurry?"

I shrugged. "He's on the scent."

She shook her head, stared at the grass. "Too, too fast."

"Too fast for us, maybe, but…"

"Too fast for anyone. Jack. I don't care who it is."

I took her shoulders in my hands and turned her toward me. I looked into her eyes. "Who it is, Lya," I said firmly, "is Hollis Ware. A genuine genius. An upper mind."

"Unhand that woman, you drunk!"

We spun around together to find the real drunk, the scream- singing fisherman Lewis, standing in the grass a few steps away from the water's edge holding a fishing pole in one band and the inevitable jug of syntho in the other. He was soaking wet. Lya and I looked at him, then at each other, and burst into laughter. All the tension was forgotten with the sight of that idiot standing there dripping water. And the hat he wore! I couldn't imagine where he had gotten it. I wondered idly if it was made of real straw.

He ignored our laughter, stomping up to us in a shower of droplets and peering down with mock-theatrical disapproval. "While the cat's away, huh?" he accused.

I noticed I still had my hands on Lya's shoulders. I dropped them quickly.

"Too late. Crow!" He snarled, pointing a finger. "I have already seen enough. You!" He yelled at Lya, making her jump. "You scarlet woman, you!"

Lya tried to look penitent but couldn't keep a straight face. Lewis shook his head in disgust. "That's it, laugh, you hussy. And you!" I jumped on cue. "You know what Holly Ware's gonna do to you when I tell him what I've seen?"

"Uh, no sir," I replied meekly.

"He's gonna take you into some comer somewhere and…" He broke off, thought a moment. "And think you to a bloody pulp." He straightened up, tilting his hat back on his head. He noticed Karen, "Now what have you done? My God, this girl has died reading."

I followed his gaze, saw that Karen had fallen asleep in front of her little screen. Something landed on my lap. I looked down. A wet fishing pole. Lewis plopped to the ground behind it. He eyed me narrowly. He was very drunk.

"Didn't catch fish one," he reported miserably. "Fell in the river to boot."

"Maybe you're not drinking enough," I suggested blandly.

❮❯