Armor

3,487
07.03.2019

So they crashed their shuttlecraft in the gorge or entire ships along the flatlands under the shale bluffs. Sometimes they left their empty ships in orbit. Sometimes the same orbit. The rare nightflashes of colliding bulkheads were the sources of much amusement as well as a small monthly lottery. Many, many died.

Many had lived though, and those folk hung together. Raw and bleeding and desperate, they tacked the tortured metal together and hammered at the bulkheads and welded and strained and fought and lived. Outer hulls became outer walls. Airlocks became doors. First one battered ship became two battered ships. And then three and then four. Beside it another equally ugly configuration began to grow the same way. And then another and another. The first clearing opened into another outer one and so on until there was formed the maze, the Maze! The Maze, of dirty heat-blasted metal and plassteel through which trod an ever-growing horde. The streets were almost always muddy. So, usually, were the people.

Primitive hydroponics kept them alive. Then came other things. And though they were never fully organized in any formal sense, bosses had appeared to make the attempt. The tough guys didn't last long. They rose up and seized control for awhile until stabbed or blazed or beaten to death by one-time clerical assistants or pharmacists or third-class drive- techs who had come a long way to be rid of such men and would damn well not accept them now.

There were major setbacks and major villains, but each and all were vanquished, trod into the mud of the maze by a deeper, mightier vitality that came from desperation and the will to live. Soon it was just a naked force bigger than the sum of its parts. Bigger and stronger and, somehow, more mature. Ready, at last, to evolve into something else: a City.

"And then," I said, interrupting, "came Wice."

The leader broke off his rhetoric and eyed me' narrowly. After a moment he nodded. "Yes," he said. "Wice. And his band of animals. And now the whole process has begun all over again."

I snorted. "The people seemed behind him on the bridge a few weeks back. Against the Project Director, no less."

"The people don't understand him. They don't know what he is. They don't see…"

"What you want them to see?"

There was a murmur of anger through the bunch holding me. A couple of them increased the intensity of their grips. Even the leader was affected. His poise busted at last.

"Wice and his crew are a band of cutthroats and hoodlums who would do anything to take control and hold it. Anything!" He stared angrily at me for several seconds before resuming. "We know that you know Wice, that you have dealings with him. But we had hoped that from what we had heard about you in the past and from…" he glanced briefly at Eyes. "…And from other sources, that you were not the type of man to be helping such a brigand. Not if we could make you see what he was. If you only knew…"

"If I only knew?" I shouted, appalled. "If I only cared, you mean!"

That froze him. He started to speak, stopped. He looked suddenly unsure, uprooted. He stared at me. "But if… What do you…"

"Finish this!" I barked. "One way or the other."

He continued to stare at me a long time. No one else. The rest couldn't look. They looked away. But the leader seemed welded to me.

Dammit, I knew what he was about. It made sense. Borglyn gave me a ship; Wice would hardly throw in for free. But who the hell was I to cut out his piece? I didn't blame this man. I didn't blame him on Eyes or his people. I wouldn't have stood for it either. They were right to oppose this sort of bullying. But, goddammit, that didn't mean they were Right!

He broke the gaze at last. He looked at his feet. The long fingers intertwined, writhing incestuously. He looked pale and pitiful and… damn him!

"Let him go," he said.

They did. Reluctantly, then warily, then carefully. I made no moves when they set me down. I even gave them a chance to back away before standing. The leader hadn't moved. I looked at Eyes, saw she had gone. They were just eyes now.

But when she saw me looking at her, They returned. In anger and disgust, her eyes became Eyes once more. And I knew why they had affected me so. I saw the dreams in them then. The Right-ness. And, more importantly, the conviction. The willingness about the necessary risks. Her life on the line.

But I had already made all of those decisions, dammit. I wanted my ship.

Gradually I became aware of movement all around me. I turned my head to see that everyone was leaving. The leader bad already gone. Soon there were only the two of us left there, staring at one another. And soon after that, only me. But not soon enough.

For before she left, she said, in a way I refuse to recall, "So you're Jack Crow." Then she spat. Then she left.

I wanted to kill her. I just stood there.

It took me half an hour to find out that the passage I had chosen to lead me out was a dead end. I kicked the web of Thermoflex blocking my path with a vengeance. I could have killed her then. I sighed, suddenly exhausted by my own anger, by the burdensome weight of it. "A perfect day," I muttered and turned back around. It took me another half an hour to reach the square once more. Only then could I think about finding Wice's lair.

His office had been straightened up somewhat, but he was the same old charmer. "What did you tell them?" he asked without preamble as I stepped through the door.

"Fuck off," I replied evenly.

"Is that a direct quote?" asked an unmistakably powerful voice from behind me. "Or simply more evidence of your sparkling personality. "

I spun on my heel and faced Borglyn, momentarily stunned once more by the sheer enormity of him. A for-real giant.

"Both," I snapped, gathering together quickly, as I always seemed to do in a pinch, my worst side.

Borglyn ignored my response, as he could well afford to. He motioned me to a chair and stood over me and talked strategy. And when the question came about the Dome defense screens… I could have lied, said that it couldn't be done. I could have simply turned the question aside, as I had before with Wice. But I didn't.

"It's done," I replied. "They're helpless."

Borglyn didn't stay much longer after that, just long enough to "thank" me for what I had done so far and to reiterate what Wice had said before about the uncertain timetable. He thought a couple of more weeks but he couldn't be any more definite than that. Then he left.

And why not? There was no need to stick around. He had what he wanted. He had gotten my assurance about the screens. And I had gotten the point of his being there, which was the knowledge that he could be there any time.

On the way back to the Project, I thought about what it had been like to have been hung in the air by those fat fingers of his. And I bristled, both at the remembered feeling of frustration and at the knowledge that it was just what Borglyn would want me to think about.

XIV

Holly wasted no time getting down to it. When I rang the secured seal to his lab he opened it himself with the manual key and then personally escorted me into his little briefing cubicle. There were several screens attached along the length of the conference table, each glimmering with rhythmically esoteric data. Lya was next door in an adjoining cubicle with a couple of screens of her own. She waved at me through the connecting window and flashed what I'm sure she thought was a cheerful and carefree smile. Her appearance was a considerable improvement over that morning. But the strain could not be hidden.

Idly, I wondered why she should even try to hide it.

"First of all," began Holly after we had sat down, "I want to apologize for being so uncommunicative this morning. I didn't mean to be so obscure. It's just that I didn't know how to express what I was feeling. And I… well. I'm sorry about it."

I grinned. "And what about scaring the shit out of me after the picnic? Not that I could care less if you burned out your teams, but the least you could do is try not to spring it on me."

Jack Crow Crap, but just the kind of compliment that Holly adored. He flushed a little and grinned shyly and glanced down at his hands folded on the table before him.

But all the boyishness was gone in the next instant as he continued.

"Secondly," he resumed, "I want to assure you that I'm fine. I was not harmed by the experience, however bad it may have seemed at the time. Neither physically nor mentally." He sat forward, made a steeple out of his fingers, and peered intently into my eyes. "I want to stress this. Jack. Every medico in the Project has been over my numbers and there's nothing wrong."

"Nothing that they can find, anyway," I amended.

He looked pained. He nodded reluctantly. "Yes. Technically, yes. However, I can think of no intelligent reason why one should simply assume damage without evidence, do you?"

I shook my head in response, amazed at the stem tone his voice had briefly assumed. A real Director of Project tone, that.

Holly seemed not to notice. "Thirdly, I want to report that the experiment was a success. Not only was it a success, but it worked better than I had hoped."

I frowned. "Well, that's one way of looking at it. There is a little matter of the catatonia."

He looked pained again. He started to speak, stopped, re-thought. Then: "I'm getting to that. Jack. But let me take it step-by-step, please."

"Of course," I said pleasantly. Inside I was thinking that there is nothing spookier than having someone "stress" to you how sane they are after having had a fitlike seizure a few days before.

What Holly did next was go over ground I knew already. Talked about how it was the magnetic drainage of the Record pulses off the coil which had caused the problem in the first place. Reminded me why this prevented a screen from being used to view it. Next he re-outlined how he had hoped that, using his own little helmet and his own mind, a commonality to the two separate brain-wave patterns could be artificially and temporarily induced. He had worried that it was either an impossible scenario to attempt the commonality at all, or that too much strain would result from the two different patterns conflicting in unison. But instead, a third thing had happened: A third field had been created "between" his pattern and the other. It bad been this third field which had provided the channel of reception. And this was a real boon. For not only did it allow him to "see" what was going on, but it had also allowed him to retain perspective over the process.

"That's what you meant when you said yon could feel him feeling his emotions?" I prompted.

He nodded vigorously. "Exactly. It gave me the immersion I wanted, but it also kept me a step back. Prevented the possibility of psychological conflict. "

"Something conflicted," I pointed out.

He smiled wanly. "Well, yes. There was a conflict of sorts. But not the kind that you-and Lya-had feared. It was not a conflict of psyche."

"Then of what?"

"Of intensity." He leaned back in his chair and sighed, spreading his hands on the tabletop. "It was simply too strong. Even with the sense of detachment. Not that I felt I was being… sucked in or anything," he was quick to add. "It's just that the emanations were simply too powerful. They caused an overload."

I thought a minute. "Couldn't you simply turn it down?"

He frowned, shook his head. "We're on the lowest gain now. The trouble is, my helmet requires a certain minimum charge to function."

I nodded. "I see the problem."

He nodded in return, but rather unhappily. "There is one more possibility, however…"

"And that is?"

He looked reluctant. "Well, it could be that the intensity of reception is not due to the charge needed to power the suit. It could be that, well…"

"It could be," finished Lya from the doorway, "the fact that we are dealing with a very unusual man. A very unusual, highly dynamic man." She walked over and sat down in the seat next to me. In her hand was a coiltape. "Battlefield conditions produce inordinate stress in anyone, but in Felix…"

"You know what his name is?"

"Was, yes. It was Felix," Holly amended.

"Was?" I asked, surprised. "You mean he died?" Well, no wonder… !

"No," said Holly quickly. "He didn't die on me."

"But you think he will," I persisted.

Holly's smile was grim. He nodded. "I think so. In fact," he added, looking sad and very, very far away, "I can't conceive of any other possibility."

It was very quiet while we thought about that. Something in how Holly had said it, something about the… hopeless finality of it. Eerie. I caught myself staring out the window overlooking the main lab to the black suit propped into a sitting position alongside the main console. A menacing sight, sitting there just so. Menacing and sinister and…

I tore my gaze away, shoving such thoughts roughly back into the shadows where they belonged. I cleared my throat.

"Well, I can see why you're stuck, Hol…"

"Oh, we're not stuck!" he jumped to add.

"But if you don't have any way to turn down the gain…"

"We don't need to turn it down. There's another way to reduce the intensity." He glanced quickly at Lya, who met his gaze briefly, then looked away. "A way to halve it, in fact."

"What's that?" I asked, stepping into it.

They exchanged glances again. Holly made a determined effort to sit up straight and look me in the eye. "By adding another helmet and another… experimenter."

My mouth fell open. I closed it. So that was it!

I was too stunned to do much more than nod through the following offer. That and stare back and forth between their two intent faces while they fell all over one another in their efforts to assure me that there was no reason to suspect that there would be any danger involved. Hah!

There was more of the assurances. And then came the part about the great strides that could be made with such an experiment, reminding me that I had expressed interest in helping and how this would certainly be of more help than anything else I could do. Oh, yes: there was a mention of payment from the extensive Fleet funding.

So, could I think about it tonight and then let's talk again in the morning?

I said I would think about it.

Holly couldn't let it be. He talked about how he thought he had hit on something terribly important, something he couldn't explain altogether but something I would certainly understand when, that is… if, I decided to take part. And how he would especially like to have me and only me in on this, how he'd like to keep this experiment just among the three of us rather than involve others from the Project. Then more assurances.

I said I would think about it.

Lya insisted on walking me to the seal. Still more assurances, to start. Then honey-bull. The tone of voice with its quiet intensity, its brave conviction, and that look of Oh-I-know-I-can-trust-you-Jack-you're-so-strong-where-else-can-we-turn complete with the soft pressure of her hand on the crook of my arm and, incredibly, batting eyelashes. It was exactly the same crap she had used so effectively on me the day of the picnic, except…

Except then she had believed it. She had known what she was doing was right, had known her concern for Holly was justified, had known my warmth for him was genuine and appropriate to call upon. She had known she was doing the right thing. Further, she had known what she was urging me to do was equally right.

This time she knew no such thing. She was lying with each and every well-chosen word.

Why me? I kept thinking. Maybe it was the Jack Crow Bit. Maybe she thought that I could just dive through the wiring feeds running between us and snatch Holly by the scruff of the cerebellum and haul him out of a tight spot. Or maybe she just didn't want the other Project people involved on Sanction to know what a Mad Hatter her man had become. I said I would think about it.

And I did, in a way. Once I calmed down a little with a brisk walk through the seals to my suite. Once I had gotten over the urge to slap Lya's sanctimonious holier-than-lesser sacrifice all-for-my-man face. How dare that bitch! Screw up my head?

I had experimented with the hallucinogens years-decades- before alongside the rest of my once contemporaries. Luckier than most on account of not really ever believing that this mental masturbation was the Way, or the Path or whatever else they were calling it at the time. Seeing it, knowing instinctively that it was a brain teaser and nothing more. A trip for people who couldn't afford to travel. But even with that to back me up, there had been a time or two…

So I knew better. Life was tough enough. Climbing down into that hole with Holly and his tubes wasn't the same as the rushing chemical thrill. And maybe-well, probably, if Holly felt so-there was something of great scientific value to be found. But it was that same hole, no matter how I got there, the hole where the creature lives, the monster, the fiend who comes terrifyingly quick, slipping up at you out of the muck, grinding his teeth, popping his jaws eagerly, clawing at your clean flesh with gnarled hands sporting gritty black talons and… using your face to know where it hurts the most.

Bullshit! And for somebody else to boot. A risk for another means sacrifice for another. And even if I wanted to-which I sure did not-where was I gonna fit it in? Too many risks already, wedged tight. And the jamming of it all still coming up.

Madness!

Cortez was nowhere in sight when I reached the suite. By now I knew what that meant. From the bedroom I could hear the faint hum of the'fresher. Her clothing. Crew jumpsuit, boots and things, were piled in the corner of one of four chairs surrounding a small table. On the table itself sat her viewscreen. I wandered over to it, idly wondering what she read. A bit fretful, too, of finding something else I might have to live up to. The screen was off but the tab was on, the reference sequence glowing softly and efficiently in red.

I cringed. Fleet ID'S are fifteen-digit numbers. And I had only seen this one once before… I hesitated, then pushed restart, and found myself staring at the official Fleet dossier of one John Jacob (Jack) Crow. I blinked, stared, stood there trembling. I felt… invaded.

I hadn't heard the humming of the'fresher stop. Her voice from the bathroom door whirled me around.

"I had to know," she said in a small apologetic voice. She leaned against the sealjam as if for support, idly wiping at the remaining flakes with a towel.

"Had to know what?" I growled, my voice hoarse.

"I had to be sure!" she whispered intently. Pleading.

"Sure of what!"

"That you… that you'd go through with it."

"Through with wha…" I began and then, of course I knew what she meant as I remembered what we both remembered. I knew as I saw the tear swell and sink and slide down that horrible purple bruise beneath her eye.

I ordered food for two to be delivered to the outer room. We waited in silence until we heard it arrive. I went out to fetch it, blazing down Cortez's questioning look with a glance. I brought it back into the bedroom, wheeling the trolley up to the edge of the bed where she sat still wrapped in the towel. I pulled up a chair for me.

And we ate. For close to three hours, we ate. Usually there was far too much food brought to me. But not that night. I stuffed myself; Karen stuffed herself. We stopped. I smoked. She drank wine or simply toyed with the stem of the goblet. Then we ate some more. Ravenously. Almost desperately. Until we could not take another bite. Then we stopped until we could.

And always in silence. "Music?" she asked once and I nodded, stood up, and keyed something neutral. It was the only word spoken between us the entire time. The music was a good idea. It gave us something to almost do while we sat between feasts.

Sometimes we looked at each other. Not often.

Over two and one half hours later, it was gone. Choked and still hungry; drunk and still thirsty. I stood up slowly, my head reeling with the wine, and went into the bathroom. There was nothing else to do. The feast was over.

I stayed in there a long time. Too long, really, to be healthy. I felt skinned when I came out. But that wasn't so bad either.

I didn't know if she would still be there or not. Didn't know what it meant either way. She was there, under the covers. Her hair was spread like  dawn across the pillows. I noticed the music was gone and the lights were dim. My cigarettes had been placed on the bedside console. I got in beside her. She slid toward me, tucking in.

After a while, perplexed by my inability to feel where my skin left off and hers began, I became a louse. Said something idiotic and provocative about seeing her dossier. Her answer was to lift her head and rest her chin on my chest and peer at me until I was forced to meet her gaze.

Then she said: "I'll tell you anything you want to know." It was not a qualification. It was not defensive or evasive or in any way devious. I knew that. I knew it. But…

"All right, goddammit, tell me about it," I dared, lighting a cigarette.

And so she did tell me about it. All about it. I lay looking at the ceiling and seeing the pictures formed by her words and by the way the small of her back shuddered beneath my palm. Her voice was invariably gentle. Timid sometimes. Sometimes matter of fact. There was bitterness too, of course. And sadness and regret and wicked touches of irony. But never laughter. Not once that… a rich kid, happy little girl wearing pinks and blues and whites because those were the favorite colors of her Daddy. She wore black for the first time at twelve, at his funeral.

… the vacuum time. No brothers or sisters. Only Mother, who cried and drank in rooms with the lights out.

… hope and a stepfather at thirteen. Raped at fourteen. No trial. Divorce instead. They moved. Moved again. A short remarriage. A long second divorce… spectacularly beautiful at sixteen. A first fiance. Another. Two more. At seventeen and one half, a husband. "Mentally unbalanced" an exceptionally generous description. Long separation burdened by guilt but tinged throughout as well by brief flashes of genuine terror. Divorce, at last, followed on cue and as advertised, by the tragedy, sick and loathsome and out of her hands but still… His funeral left to her by his family who begged and pleaded and then used her symbolic resumption of the role as an excuse to blame and accuse.

… finishing school near the top of her class-never any trouble there at any time for she is bright and curious and somehow inherently hopeful.

… joining Fleet a month later. A month after that, still in boot camp, raped a second time. Trial serves to both exonerate him and brand her as angel-haired slut, a blatant lie but a common fantasy in the courtroom.

… powerful military types crossing wires to get her transferred their way. When the last string is pulled, the last favor cashed, she finds herself on Capital Earth where she is promoted, pampered, and eventually raped again. There is no second trial. More promotions instead. And a transfer to Militar, itself, hub of Fleet. Corridors of power.

… picking and choosing, now. Not rape. Not love. Not enough.

… her second military rapist, the general who spouted promotions, has died in the Antwar. He dies rich. Dies guilty too,  his will mentioning her a Fleet scandal. Karen laughs at hushed whispers and gestures just out of the comers of her eyes-she had planned to kill him some day but this does nicely. Tense negotiations in conference room surrounded by leather-bound precedents. The children sitting on either side of their bewildered, wooden mother, their eyes blazing hatred and envy for the lustre of her blonde hair and for what they assume to be the comparative richness of Karen's relationship with their cold, calculating, career-minded Father. They want to kill her but they sit still (as per lawyer's orders) for the money.

… another transfer. More promotions, often due to her considerable merits. She rises always. Higher and higher. Feeling like two people but the promotions are something after all, aren't they.

… tries a couple of times and nothing. Never knowing which of the two cared or could care. And if she doesn't know, the poor men… Transfers away from it twice, once too soon, once far too late. But, either way, gone from it.

… a year before trying again. Too little to matter. Another promotion, though. Rising Is.

… to her mother's deathbed. Terminal prognosis she is told. "No hope for me," says Mother, adding macabrely that she had been "born again." She urges baby to repent.

… but this sanctimonious bastard Padre, who never misses a chance to touch her, however chastely, during her devotions makes her ill. And she tells him so. Stung, he informs Mother that Baby's penance is as insincere as the scarlet paint of the harlot she is.

… dies Mother, slowly and badly, refusing to admit her sinful daughter to the end, on the advice of her priest.

… over a year later, pinched with the hardness of despair, she tries again and it… almost… works!

His name was Leslie and he was a lovely man who loved her dearly. In return she felt a genuine… affection. She felt a true… warmth. And safe. She felt safe. At the crucial moment, she told Leslie all.

He ached with the jolt of her life. He wept.

Also, he questioned, over and over. Then he accused.

Then he raged, then denounced, then beat her. Then he went.

Soon after came another, most important, promotion. Along with it came an offer to be number two on a Fleet Project. A three-year stretch on an unknown but earthlike place. Dr. Hollis Ware. The offer is an honor at her age, but no less than she deserved, one way or another. Still, she didn't want to go, to strand herself three years where she could not rise. She put off the decision for weeks, caught between the allure of being, for once, legit and with the tantalizing momentum of Rising Is. Without being aware of it, she dreamt of another choice.

Then Leslie returned, providing just that. He was tearful and contrite and ashamed, but filled with protestations of hope. She knew his love for her, his heartbreaking devotion to her, was genuine.

The next day, in secret, she signed with Holly. The next month, without warning, she went aloft to Sanction. It was, she felt, doing the best thing for the lovely man. He was so sensitive, so easily hurt.

He had brought his parents along with him, to meet her. She slept at last on my soaked shoulder. I smoked. Sometime in the middle of it she had said: "I know it was all my fault. I guess I'm just no good, like Mother said." I smoked and heard that still, still expecting to bleed to death from the grinding rasp of those words. I felt numbed by the Vice.

And then she did an amazing thing. She stirred in her sleep and laughed. Giggled, really, like a little girl. A sweet safe beautiful little girl who knew only the blue of the sky and green grasses and party dresses of pink and blue and white. I reached over carefully and keyed off the last of the light. I doused my cigarette. I lay there. For hours, it seemed, I lay there, my eyes burning in the dark.

The next morning, bright and early, I went down and saw Holly and did the one thing I had been so certain I would never do: I volunteered me.

So bizarre…

❮❯