Armor

3,444
07.03.2019

"Yeah. Like you."

"Me? I protest that." I held up my glass of wine. "What do you call this?"

Lewis snorted, unconvinced, "A smokescreen is what I call it. Or propaganda. Nope, just make that prop. That, Mr. Crow, is a stage prop. I'd take a phony beard more seriously."

I sighed "Okay. I give. Get to your point, O Great Fisherman without fish."

He took a deep breath and, taking great care to pronounce each word clearly, said: "Point is, Crow, that you're not- among the many things you're not-a serious drinker. You are a pretender." He broke off, relaxing, and nudged Lya with his shoulder. "Didja notice how well I'nunciated that?"

"Lovely," replied Lya gravely.

He seemed delighted. "You really think so?"

"Absolutely, Lewis."

He smiled broadly. "Wanna hear it again?" That reminded me. "Lewis! You are Lewis, aren't you?"

"Course I am. Whadja think?"

"I mean, you're the same Lewis that runs this place?"

He shrugged. "Nobody runs this place that I know of." He paused, took a sip from his jug. "I do, however, own this rock. Have for a long time." He turned again to Lya. "Raised it from a pup. Boulder, to you. Yep," he continued, patting the turf fondly beside his leg, "boulder first, then he became, uh…"

"Bigger?" Lya offered.

"Right," he nodded. He eyed her with scrutiny. "Hey, you know an awful lot about this sort of thing for a hussy. So where was I? Oh, yeah. Boulder. Then a bigger boulder-all easy so far. But next comes the toughie when he got to be an asteroid." He shook his head. "Ugly, ugly, stage in life, let me tell you, is that adolescent asteroid period. No respect at all. No values."

"But with a will of iron," broke in Lya, "and the determination nation of a god…"

Lewis looked delighted. "Golly, that's pretty! Oh, yeah. With iron will and the determination of a god, I…" he paused, right index finger poised, "I did it." Lya clapped her hands. "Hooray! At last."

"The suspense was wrecking me," I remarked.

"Smartass!" sneered Lewis without rancor. "Smartass pretender-drinker!"

I turned to Lya. "Do I feel a challenge in the air? " She smiled. "Could be."

"Take your hands off my air," growled Lewis, "and accept, dammit."

"What do I get when I win?"

He frowned. "That's'if you win, I believe."

"Whatever. What do I get? "

Lewis reached for my cigarettes, lit one. "Why, the fish, of course! What the hell else?"

I shook my head as if to clear it. "I think I'm having a relapse."

"No excuse."

"Then what have fish got to do with… We are talking about a drinking contest, aren't we?"

"We are when you can keep up."

"Then what have fish got to do with that?" He exhaled a long stream of smoke. "Everything, Dummy. That's how you tell who won."

"How."

"We don't just drink. Crow," he said impatiently. "We drink and fish."

"At the same time?" Lya asked.

"Hell, yes. Drink till you catch one."

"You've been doing that without Jack," Lya pointed out.

"True," Lewis admitted. "But not fish-drinking. That was celebration-drinking. "

"What were you celebrating?" she asked.

"My last fish."

"How long ago was that?"

He sneered at her. "Hussy."

He stood up abruptly, swaying. He seemed confused.

"What's wrong?" asked Lya, concerned.

He scratched his head. "Can't remember… What was I about to do a bit ago?"

"How many guesses?" I asked.

Lewis shook his head. "No, really."

"Uh, challenge Jack?" offered Lya.

"Did that."

"Tell about raising the planet?" I suggested.

"Did that."

Lya winked at me. "How about stagger around dripping water?"

"Doing that," said he and I in unison and the three of us laughed.

Lewis cut short his laughter ahead of us with: "Aha!" "Aha, what?" prompted Lya.

He grinned, pointed in the direction of Karen. "Aha'm gonna see what read this girl to the grave." And he stepped awkwardly over me toward her.

I turned to Lya, getting to my feet. "Bout ready to go in?" She nodded. I started to gather up the mess around us. Her hand on my arm stopped me. I looked at her and saw that the tightness had returned to her features. I was amazed at how temporary an effect all the laughter had had on her capacity to worry. I squatted down beside her.

"Jack…" she began.

I cut her off. "Lya, would you stop fretting?"

"But you will talk to him."

"I said I would. And I will. Relax. Holly's a big boy."

"But Jack," she said, her eyes pleading, "he's taking such a terrible risk!"

I sighed, patted her arm. "Well, he hasn't taken it yet." But he had. We heard Cortez's screams a second after that. He was bounding toward us across the meadow, slipping and sliding, falling once, waving his arms. We rushed to meet him. Through his panting and hysteria he managed to get out that Holly had been discovered lying unconscious on the laboratory floor, babbling incoherently. He was clutching some sort of plastic skullcap or something with all sorts of tubes and wires running out of it. Nobody had been able to pry his fingers loose from it. A seizure, the doctors had said. Catatonic.

Lya was already running back to the Dome before hearing all that Cortez had to spout. Karen, now wide awake, sprinted athletically after her. I gave it up after about a hundred meters. Damned bug still had a piece of me. I had to slow up to wait for Sanction to stop spinning.

Lewis appeared beside me, looking benignly helpful. "Here you go. Jack," he said and offered a shoulder. He was a good crutch, in considerably better shape than most drunks I had seen. But even with his help, it seemed to take forever to cross the field, enter the Dome, and work our way down into the lab. All the time the thought kept streaking through my mind that Holly, with his genius fried, would now be nothing more than the timid lad he had at first seemed to be.

As we stepped through the seal, I heard Holly's voice. He was sitting up on the workbench, surrounded by nervous faces. I broke loose from Lewis and rushed ahead to see him. Hot damn! He was alive, anyway…

"…no, really, really," he was saying to them. "I'm fine. A little weak, but…" He noticed my stumbling approach. "I'm okay. Jack," be assured me with a smite that contained equal parts of shyness and pride.

I was still worried. "I can see that. You look great, but…" How to put the next question?

He anticipated me. "It's still me. Jack." He turned to Lya, putting a weary arm around her shoulders. "Really. It's still me. I'm fine. Just a little tired."

The doctor was reading a gauge off a medigrip attached to Holly's other arm. "You're considerably more tired than that. Dr. You're near physical exhaustion." He pulled one of Holly's eyelids up with a thumb and scanned the pupil underneath. "And emotionally drained as well. I'd say."

Holly nodded vaguely. "Well, maybe a…" he began before pitching forward into Lya's arms, out cold.

The doctor was quickly reassuring. "He's all right," he said to Lya.

She looked about to faint herself. "Are you sure?"

The doctor nodded, gestured toward his gauges. "I'm sure. Just worn out, like I said. He'll be all right with plenty of rest and care."

"He'll get that," asserted Cortez importantly. "I'll see to it."

Lya smiled at him. "Thank you, Cortez. That's very sweet of you. Why don't you start right now." She nodded at Holly's still form, still crumpled between her and the tabletop. Cortez stepped to her side and the bunch of them managed him into a prone position. Lya stepped back. "Thank you, everybody," she said to us, "for showing such…" She froze at the sight of something over my shoulder.

We all turned around. Lewis was still standing at the entrance of the seal. His face was hard as stone, his muscles drum tight. He was staring at the black scout suit which had been propped into a sitting position in a chair beside the workbench, wires and tubes streaming outward.

Lya took a step toward Lewis. "Lewis? Are you all right?"

He turned slowly at the sound of her voice. He raised a trembling arm and pointed at the suit. "What… is… that??"

"That's a scout suit, Lewis. Holly's been using…"

"That, that's… WAR SHIT!" he shouted, livid with rage. "What' sit doing here?"

"But Lewis," protested Lya meekly, clearly unnerved by the incredible transformation of personality, "you knew this was a Fleet Proj…"

"I knew you were in Fleet! I didn't know you were Fleet, godammit!"

He turned and stared at us, fury and disgust rippling his features into a fist. Then he walked out.

Nobody moved for several seconds. Then came the collective sighs and all was activity again. Lya hovered over Holly mumbling rapid-fire questions the doctor gamely answered. Karen strode to the intercom and ordered a springer team to the lab and intensive hook-ups for Holly's sleeping quarters. Cortez and a couple of techs began clearing a path through the electronics for the springers to better reach the bench. I sat down heavily in a chair and lit a cigarette and pondered.

I took the opportunity moments later to add my superfluous assurances to those Lya had already heard while Holly was being loaded. Then I managed to evade questions put to me by the curious and morbid stopping by out of rumor. When Holly and most of the rest had gone, I stayed and talked briefly with the doctor, learning nothing new. Then, when he was gone, I helped the techs guess what should and should not be keyed off in the lab during Holly's absence.

When they left, I was alone. And so, with Holly safe in his bed and surrounded by professional concern and laymen's good intentions, I found the chance to betray him. In all the confusion I was sure to have several minutes alone with the security systems. It was a rotten act, to take advantage of him that way, but perhaps no worse than the act of sabotage itself which took a surprisingly short time.

A half hour later, only I knew how helpless Holly really was…

More still. She was waiting in my suite when I got back, flushed still with the excitement and the running and… the point of being there.

"How dare you leave me in there the other night…" she began, clutching my arm furiously.

Mad, guilty, upset too much, I clamped my fist around her upper arm to jerk her away, clamped too hard, and she moaned with the sudden pain and our eyes met and her lips parted and I knew what our point really was. As I had known for some time.

This was it. Strength on her. The clamping fist, anger and muscles together. Brute, from me. And she screamed when I threw her down and was upon her, ripping at the spotlessly white Crewjumpsuit and she struggled and kicked but writhed too. She surged into it. Maybe I did too. But both of us fell toward it, scratching and clutching and it got very, very, rough. Perfectly awful/awfully perfect…

And then laid flat out, pinned and twisting. Blood seeping from her nose and a shiner coming on and screaming at me for… begging me to make her beg and please/oh/please- YES, YES, tell her over and over what she really was! She loved to hear me tell her what she really was.

And I did. But damned if I really knew. Either of us.

It was spectacular and all-encompassing and it racked through me, shocking, stunning bolts of pleasure and pain. Both of us beating on her, abusing her, degrading the angel's exquisite form and yes, the angel herself and, of course, whatever was left of both of us and always, always, so damn rich with rippling ecstasy. So damn good, somehow. So damn rich.

So horrible.

Eventually, mercifully, we slept.

In the nick of time.

XIII

"He had no faith'."

Holly said it like he still couldn't believe it was true. He looked at me with all the wide-eyed incredulity of a child learning for the first time that "fair" has nothing to do with the real world. Shocked, hurt, more than a little frightened. Angry, too, and morally indignant. Demanding an explanation.

I had none. None, anyway, that would do any good to him right then. So I changed the subject: "I thought you said you couldn't read the guy's mind?"

"I couldn't. Not really. I mean, I couldn't tell when he was going to move until he moved or what he was going to say until he said it. But I… felt it when it happened. It was so close. So intimate."

"You mean emotions?" I persisted. "You could read those?"

"Not read them," he replied carefully. "Feel them. Or rather, feel him feeling them."

I glanced across the bed to Lya for some reaction. No luck. She sat as she had for the entire hour I had been there: hunched forward in her chair with her elbow propped on a knee, her chin propped in her palm, and her eyes staring dead blank at the floor. The only signs of animation came when she put out one cigarette in order to light another. But she was listening. Her face was drawn so tightly across her cheeks it looked like it should hurt.

I shifted back to Holly, looking skinny and out of place against the vast expanse of linen. Even his bedclothes dwarfed him, ignoring all but his broadest gestures. He was constantly having to drag his huge collar around to match the motions of his neck. And there was a lot of motion there. His eyes darted constantly about the room. From the ceiling to the walls to Lya to me and back again, pausing only when he had trouble choosing the right words. Then he would stare at the palms of both hands held plaintively before his face like twin viewscreens and his eyes would glaze and he would be back there, in the suit. In the War.

It was particularly eerie.

He wasn't away long this time. He dropped his hands on his lap. "He had no faith!" he said again, the same way as before.

I nodded, exactly as if I had any notion whatsoever. "Well, I've got to run," I lied, standing up. "See you… tomorrow, Holly. Lya."

Something in my uneasiness must have leaked through. Holly looked up at me, at me this time for the first time.

"No, Jack. Uh…" He glanced at Lya. "Tonight. Can you come back tonight?"

I noticed Lya watching me too. I nodded. "Tonight it is," I said and scooted too quickly out the door.

I hurried through the seals outside where the sun was shining and the sky was Earthblue and lovely, where there were horses and cattle-things on the meadows surrounding the western edge of the Dome. The guards on the bridge smiled at me and waved and said something unintelligible but nice. I took all of this in and relished it, filled my lungs with it. Got all the way across the bridge, sat down at the far end of it and got my cigarette lit before I let myself think.

On the other hand, I told myself furiously. Holly could be simply stunned. Instead of the vegetable he appeared to be. Or, maybe he was just stark raving mad, an improvement over being a carrot anyway.

Shit.

Or maybe it was just my usual guilt funk dripping those pitiful images. I made a command decision. I decided to forget about it. Holly was just tired out and a little disillusioned, that was all, by the reality of war vs. the flag waving. OK? OK. Besides, I was busy with traitor business. I had to see Wice.

I walked across the sewer bridge into the City. It was its usual teeming desperate self. People stomped or strolled or wandered about looking for spots to hide what little bits of their past lives they had dragged through the staggering jolt of getting this far. The maze was dry now, but miserably pock- marked with hundreds of hard and dusty footprint-craters. I limped and tripped alongside everybody else on my way to Wice's passage. I was about halfway up the gradually ascending length of it in about a tenth of the time it had taken me before in the rain and darkness and despair. It was more than just the physical conditions which made this day different, however. There seemed to be a new touch of something in the air, crisp and clean and… hopeful, maybe, the way the people clamored about. Like the rain had washed something away and what was left was good and purposeful and… And so feeling poetic and the like, I got a little careless.

A guy came suddenly hopping out of a narrow side tunnel moaning in pain and fluttering his right hand in the air.  "Damn-damn-damn-damn… damn!" he said to himself and then, apparently seeing that he wasn't alone, to me. Then he stopped his hopping long enough to hold his left thumb up and examine it critically. It was purple and, I assumed-yes, assumed-it was swelling.

"Can you believe it?" he asked. "This is the fourth damn time?"

I smiled, partly because of the way I was feeling and partly because of the way the guy was. Nice-looking man. Big,  broad-shouldered with long black hair that was maned, squared- off around his forehead. He was oriental. Earth-orient, that is. He had an easy, powerful voice.

"Seems like a lot," I agreed pleasantly.

"My dumb-ass helper," he added with a shrug in the direction from which he had appeared. "Idiot has no grip whatsoever." He shook his head and sucked briefly on the purple digit. He grimaced slightly.

I shrugged consolingly, made a step past him.

"Hey!" he said, brightening. "Can you give me a hand? It'll just take a second. Just help Idiot hold it in place long enough so that I can…"

And blah blah blah with me following him around the comer and, sure enough, there was a corner of one of the local throw-togethers exposed with this huge piece of what looked like plassteel heat shielding resting beside it that looked to have been carved out to fit the hole. Up above on the second "story" was this little guy with red hair, the Idiot, no doubt, leaning out of what had once been an escape hatch back during the time when this erector set used to be a star ship. And it looked all right. The redhead was in a good position to bold the piece of plassteel, if he leaned out the hatch, while the oriental on the ground could brad it in tight.

So I nodded and stepped forward and the oriental picked up one side and I reached for the other and the redhead stretched both arms down to get it and then I noticed that it really wasn't plassteel at all. It was that plastoform crap that was so popular because it was cheap and looked like plassteel and I thought: Well, hell, he oughta be able to just hold this with one hand…

And that's when the oriental hit me.

He was a big guy and it was a damn good blow, a forearm to the side of my head. I went down flat.

Then rolling away into position for the next shot and then there was red hair flying through the air onto me out that batch and be hit me as hard as the local gravity allowed for his fall-which was plenty-and before I got a good grip on him or the oriental who loomed over me or anything else, the sun was blotted out by many others crowding in for a piece.

The crowd worked well together, each getting a good grip on me and lifting me up off the ground making me helpless and, worse, making me know it. They hustled me around a owner and then around a couple others, the passage getting narrower and narrower until we stopped in this tight square claustrophobic little area surrounded on three sides by three stories of maze, crooked and ugly and seeming to lean in on us.

They had me. Absolutely goddamn had me. No one broke his concentration or loosened his grip or looked like he was going to. Two on each leg, two on each arm. One held the back of my head against his chest with two huge hands, the thumb of the left one painted purple.

Shit.

Shit because they had me, really had me and I hated, loathed, was repulsed… sickened by having hands on me without my consent. And double shit because I had been so utterly fooled and, come to think of it, triple shit.

Because not only did this group know how to handle itself against an enemy, they knew how to handle themselves against me. This wasn't a shake-down or a robbery or any other sort of thug-mugging gang. This was the execution of a plan dreamed up by someone who used well-trained, or at least well-drilled, disciplined people who knew just how good I was and who weren't taking any chances.

"Bring him here," said somebody I couldn't see. And they did, all eighteen legs of them spiraled around so that I might face the man who had spoken. He stood on a jutting piece of webform a couple of meters over our heads. He looked about fifty, which meant nothing, of course. Still, I had the impression that his appearance was "natural," non-cosmetic. Which would have made him a couple of decades younger than me.

But I only noticed those details in passing, the way I noticed his well-worn tunic and his beard and the unusually long thin fingers on the hands hanging clasped before him. For beside him, stood Eyes. Clean now and, amongst her folk, safe. Long brown hair tucked into something functional. Logging-things on the legs of her pants. Simple tunic like her father's… was it her father who stood at her side? I never found out.

She looked strong and capable and lovely and well worth the fighting that had gone on for her sake. Still Eyes, too. Hers shone in the sun.

"You must forgive us," began their leader, opening his hands in an expression of regret, "for having treated you in this fashion. But your somewhat lethal reputation has preceded you."

"Is that supposed to be an apology?" I snarled.

"It is."

"That the best you can do?"

He stiffened. So, in fact, did a couple of the ones holding me. Eyes, I noticed, showed no reaction at all. She was still waiting.

"I assume," be began again, "that your statement implies release." He paused, wiped his brow clear of a lock of sandy-gray hair with one of those long fingers. "Quite understandable, of course," he resumed. "Even reasonable, under normal circumstances." Those hands clasped together again and he peered forcefully into my eyes. "You, sir, are hardly normal circumstances, even for us. If I were to have you set free, how many of your captors would be killed or maimed or otherwise handicapped before they could get free?"

I grinned, shrugged. "Three."

He nodded. "At least three, Mr. Crow. At least." His hands separated again, palms upward. "So you see how my hands are tied."

I laughed. I had to. So, apparently, did everyone else. At the absurdity of the situation. And at our own, each and everyone of us. So bizarre… So often.' Eyes, sparkling, laughed herself beautiful. I forced my thoughts and my feelings and… and me, away from the idea of that.

The leader had resumed. "…do hope you won't be too uncomfortable while I say what little I have to say. In any case, I…"

"Get on with it," I snapped, hating buddy-buddy while being held.

That cooled'em off instantly. We all got a lot more tense. The muscles on the hands that held me grew more taut.

Good. This was not fun, dammit.

"Very well, Mr. Crow," said the leader stiffly. "I shall indeed get on with it. First let me tell you a little bit about who we are." He spread his hands wide to indicate, not just the immediate throng, but the City itself.

And then be gave a speech. It was a pretty good one. And he didn't ease up much, either. He really did tell me who they were. And what.

They were crewmen and women from the starships or couples with girls and boys of draft age or merchants fleeing the growing restrictions of wartime. They were Societies Against the Loss of Something or Other. They were people who had pushed off into the unknown one step ahead of Fleet expansion or two steps ahead of prison. They fled the loss of freedom, the courts, their wives or husbands, their past.

Most simply fled the Antwar. Quite a few were deserters. Each had, or had been, deserted.

❮❯