Armor

3,470
07.03.2019

XV

Holly and I sat facing one another on twin loungers. Lya sat at a console between our feet. The suit sat propped at the other. Feeding circuits sprouted everywhere, linking the suit to a couple of other consoles which were keyed through a massive coiltape, Lya's board, and us. Today was the day.

"A couple of things," began Holly, all businesslike. "Firstly, the raw data." He reached over behind him and keyed something. A small screen lit up with light green letters against a dark green background. "Name: Felix, G. Age: 26. Current assignment and rank: Warrior Scout aboard the starship Terra in deep elliptical around A-9."

A-9? A distant bell rang somewhere. Something I'd seen on the vid? Lya helped me out with: "Banshee."

Oh. Yeah.

Holly cleared his throat. "More. This takes place-or rather, took place-almost exactly four standard years ago. Earthdate: July 4,2077."

That did ring a bell. Holly noticed my expression and nodded. "Yes. This is the Independence Day Drop, the very first invasion of Ant soil. Quite literally, mankind's first step into the Antwar."

Holly continued in that efficient way he had, briefly recapping the events surrounding that day. It was hardly necessary. True, I had gone to some trouble in past years to avoid having news of that insanity intruding into my life. But I knew about that day!

I remembered it clearly, remembered sitting fixated before the vid like probably every other human in the known worlds. There had been something so spectacular about the events of those first weeks. About the idea of it. Interstellar war! Ants eight feet tall! Of course it was madness. But in a race where most children grew up playing war-breathtaking fun. It was a good two to three months before I stopped beginning each day by tuning in news of the Antwar. And it wasn't until the end of that first year, that horrible first year which saw over two million people wasted, that I turned away, refusing to even listen to Antwar conversation.

That had been four years before. The Antwar raged still. I snapped back just in time to hear Holly's historical windup. He ended with a short explanation about why we… about why they. Fleet, had been unable to guide missiles in the Banshee atmosphere of poison and inscrutable magnetic fields. It was stuff I knew. Along with the fact that it, Operation Knuckle, the part involving our scout, was considered a brilliant military victory. Next came a brief recap of stuff I had missed in the few minutes Holly had already played from the record. Then he gave me the same pre-drop briefing Felix had received. Word for word.

When he saw my puzzled expression over his perfect recall, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said: "You'll understand in a minute."

I clamped down hard on a sudden impulse to shudder.

"Now," said Holly, "how do I know all this? The name G. Felix I got from Fleet records using his Fleet ID number. The number itself I got by reading it off the inside of his helmet. It's inscribed right between his twin holos. You'll see it."

That scared me. "I'll be able to see through his eyes?" I demanded, appalled.

"Not at first," said Holly quickly. "Never, really." He looked uncomfortable. His eyes stared past me at something within. He frowned, resumed. "The data is neither recorded nor delivered that way. It's not even vaguely photographic, Jack. But, after a few minutes… I can't explain exactly." He shrugged again. "You'll see."

I would see? Through the eyes, or whatever, of a dead man? This time I did shudder.

Lya shifted forward in her chair, moving quickly on. "There are a couple of anomalies. First, in the Fleet records. According to them, G. Felix wasn't even there at the time of this battle. Wasn't even moved to the forward zone until well over three months later."

I didn't get it. I said so.

Lya smiled. "Frankly, neither do we. Confirmation codes didn't exactly clear it up. They did, Fleet Center on Militar, I mean, come back with something about incomplete records on G. Felix and some sort of trouble with them, but that wasn't until months later, as near as we can determine. There was reference to a security code needed for further data. A rather high code, in fact."

"Too high?" I asked.

Holly smiled indulgently. "No. I have it. But I decided not to use it." He looked at the floor, smiled nervously. "Why bother, if I was about to get the truth for myself?"

Hm. Why indeed. Holly? Unless you didn't really want to know. Or maybe he didn't want to call attention to himself by invoking a high security clearance? Or unless he had no faith in getting the truth from Fleet at all…

"No faith," Holly had said that morning. "He had no faith!"

I searched his uneasily averted gaze. Was he, superpatriot Fleet scientist, beginning to have doubts? Something was making him all a-flutter. I shuddered again. That something would be plain soon enough.

"What's the other anomaly?" I wanted to know.

Lya shifted in her seat again. I really hated it when she did that. "Well, I'm not entirely certain there is one. It's just that…" She gestured to the coilreel recorder beside her board. "I was able to get a coil of Holly's experience. Some of it anyway. His vital signs-respiration, heart rate, acid level-were recorded along with Felix's. Using what I knew about Holly's history, I was able to filter the two apart. So we know how Felix's body was reacting as well. Nothing unusual there. But," she hesitated, "we also have both sets of Alpha Series brain tracks." She hesitated again. "Felix's were a little odd."

"How?" I asked bluntly, not bothering to hide my rapidly growing suspicions.

"Well, the Alpha resembles, on first glance, classic textbook symptoms of schizophrenia…"

"Great," I snarled angrily. "We're going into the brain of a raving…"

Lya held up a hand. "On first glance, I said. The pattern, after careful study, misses at several key points."

"Then he's not mad?" I prompted. "Or getting there?"

She looked very uncomfortable. But she managed a little something definite in her tone. "I don't think he is." She looked at me, her face impassive. "I can't be sure. But I don't think so."

"Then why tell me, goddammit?"

She looked genuinely surprised. "I thought you wanted to know everything?"

"Well, I don't!" I snapped. Then to soften it, I tried a small grin. It seemed to help; she relaxed somewhat.

And then, abruptly, it was time. One last check to be sure Lya's monitoring systems were properly keyed in. Another check to see that our deadman switches-to jerk us out in an instant-were functioning. The helmets were lowered over our heads, over our eyes.

My last glimpse was of the suit, sitting darkly beside us. It was an impulse I couldn't seem to resist. And then…

I went…

to hell…

PART THREE

PUPPY IN A WELL

I

I sat slumped on the lounger watching Lya escort the medicos to the seal. She was questioning them urgently under her breath, trying to make sure they had meant it when they had said Holly and I were fine. I looked over at Holly sitting across from me (slumped too) scratching at the residue of paste left on his upper arm from the medigrip. He looked terrible. He was pale and beat and still wet from the sweat. He looked like I felt.

But we were fine, I knew. No matter what the doctors said or thought or anything else. We were fine. I guessed.

The food on the tray they had wheeled in between us was getting cold or hot or whatever was supposed to happen when we hadn't touched it. Funny. We had been starving when we'd asked for it. The water was long gone though. First thing we had done was drain a pitcher apiece. I pulled out a cigarette. It shook violently along with my hand, either from sheer exhaustion or from the weight of… I dropped it on the tray, unlit.

Holly made some effort to sit straighter. Tried a smile, too. I wondered why he made the effort.

"Well," he began energetically enough, "that was some'brilliant victory'! And Felix was certainly there, despite the official record." He paused, seeming to run out of steam. He smiled again, this time a little embarrassed. "Well… I guess we can worry about the rest of it next time."

Our eyes met, held. I nodded. Not in agreement, but at what our mutual gaze had shared: there would be no "next time." No way.

I stood up slowly but steadily enough. "Tired," I said and headed for the seal. There was a clock on the wall above it. It said only a little over two standard hours had passed. I stopped, looked back at Holly.

He nodded. "It's right. It seems like it's long regular time. But it's fed to us pretty fast."

I thought about it. From the ship to… to being alone to the Knuckle and… all that happened there… Two hours!

"That's incredible!" I whispered and continued my old man's shuffle to the seal.

Behind me. Holly agreed that it was incredible.

Never felt less in tune with my surroundings. I usually hated that. But this time I was too tired to care. I marched numbly through the seals to my suite, idly counting the number of people I passed in the corridors. I caught myself doing it, stopped it, caught myself at it again. So I gave it up. If that's what my mind wanted to do… Passed twenty-three people altogether.

I went inside and fell into bed, exhausted. I had been up a little over three hours.

Woke up when the screen showed night outside. I lit a cigarette and sat up in bed. But I had to put it out before it was half-finished. I slept again.

Woke up to Karen getting in bed with me. She saw that I was awake and kissed me on the forehead, banging me gently on the tip of my nose with a nipple. Then she snuggled up with her bottom against mine and slept. Like a puppy. Me, too. More hours.

The curved railing around the Dome balcony was made out of something cheap that made a shoddy raucous clang when I gripped it with every ounce of strength in my hands, shook it, shook it, gripped it, gripped it hard! but I didn't scream. I did not scream for anyone else to hear. I just shook and strained and gripped until I could do nothing but collapse back on my heels and tremble.

Then fell back in a heap and stared through the railings toward the City. I didn't cry either. I wouldn't. But…

I took a long deep breath and let it out. I shook my head, held it still. I sighed. I looked up at the stars. They couldn't help me either.

Dammit, I had always been the toughest man I knew! Always. No matter how bad it got or hard or wrong or… stupid, sometimes. No matter how bizarre.

I had always known that. So the universe was a swallowing bottomless bitch-I was the toughest man'. Not strongest or quickest or smartest or, God knew, best. But toughest? Goddamn yes!

I sat up, leaning against the railing. I put my face in my hands and tried getting down to it.

Could I have done that? Maybe. Maybe I had already; there'd been a lot up to now. But… could I have done it the way Felix had? Which meant: could I have done it while knowing what was going on? While knowing exactly".

I wrenched my hands together in and out. I pounded my fists across the tops of my thighs. I didn't think so.

For energy I went to hate. In fear I went animal, to be the Fiend myself, instead of fighting it. Most times I needed nothing but the situation, true. But when it had gotten tight and taut and stayed that way… In the furnace, I had had to pick and duel with each flame. I was never able to face the fire roar. It didn't make any difference that it was the same fight. It didn't matter that the end was the same. But the knowing how bad it was and how bad it could be and, dammit!, what I was going to have to do over and over to get out… I had never faced that.

Still, I had always been the toughest man I knew. Now this Felix faced it all flat as hell, head on and… and knowing, all along, how dark. He was detached, sure, and serious and separate from the knowing. But all through there was the terror and, most of all, the reason for the terror clear in him.

Facing where he was and fighting too, like some kind of damned engine…

It would have ripped me apart.

It should have ripped Felix apart.

It hadn't.

I moaned, gathered my knees into my chest. Damn you! I wanted to shout. It's not fair! This is all I have!

Because it was getting to him. I could feel it in him. The fear was just as real as it should be. The sense of… hopeless despair, poured from the poor bastard! He knew! He knew how bad it was! And still he kept at it!

Goddamn him!

I sat there awhile until a little calmer. Holly had been right, of course. This man had died. There was no other way. There was no help for him because there was no faith in him and… no hope for him. And I felt bad about that. About the loss of somebody who was maybe… better.

But I shoved that all away-I had to-and concentrated hard on what I had to do. I had to do it.

I had to see more. Felix was going to die. He had to. But before he did, he was going to crack. And I was going to see it.

You see, I had always been the toughest man I knew.

Lya hated Felix's Alpha series.

"It's too great a separation between Motive and Emotional," she said, shaking her head at a screen glowing before her. She keyed away, shifting graphs and comparison charts and the like with impatience. She had seen it all before, of course. Had studied little else. Maybe she thought looking at it fast enough would help it make sense. At last she keyed the relay off with an irritated gesture. She shook her head again. "Too extreme," she said.

Holly and I looked at one another and smiled. She didn't know what "extreme" was. Yet. But she was about to. She had announced that next morning her intention to use the spare helmet. She'd be there "in person" next trip. Something about not being able, professionally, to accept the data before her. Not even with Holly's corroboration. It reminded me that she was more to the Project than Holly's better half. She was a full-grade Psyche-tech in her own right.

And maybe some of it was her "professional" skepticism. But I figured a lot of it to be the fact that Holly and I had survived it. On top of that she was feeling more than a little left out.

She could see it had done something to us. But she couldn't tell what. And we couldn't explain it. Holly couldn't, anyway. I had been quiet as I could get away with. I didn't want to think about it, much less talk about it and maybe have everybody know how I… hated.

Holly went to a lot of trouble to act like he wasn't feeling the pressure stamped so brutally across his face. He ignored his fatigue. He ignored his sudden lapses of concentration. He ignored his nervous fidgeting. Well, I could if he could.

But I wondered at his lack of reaction when Lya had announced her intention to join us. Not that I blamed him. Certainly I felt relief at spreading it a little more. No qualms from me. But Lya wasn't mine.

Is that why you fake it? I wondered, watching him brief her. Do you pretend it's nothing so you won't feel bad about sinking her in it, too?

I glanced over at the black suit, still propped into a sitting position beside the main console. What are you doing to us?

"…the personnel data confirmed Felix being there. I should have checked that first. But usually the medical records are better kept. The trouble is," and he paused and scratched his chin. It was already red where he had done it so many times before. "The trouble is that, after the Knuckle, there's no more data on G. Felix. Destroyed, they say." He looked up at us. To see if we wanted to snort, maybe. "Anyway," he went on, "a lot of other stuff did check out." He studied a screen recessed at his elbow. "I confirmed Forest, for example. She did exist. She did die." He paused, then looked up and smiled. "She did place runner-up to Kent at the Olympics, too."

Lya sat forward. "And you say Felix had never heard of Kent?" We both nodded, though the question wasn't really meant to be answered. She looked at me. "Jack, you've heard of Nathan Kent, haven't you?"

I nodded. "Of course."

She looked back at the screen. "Odd that Felix had not." She touched a key. "Maybe," she said, almost to herself, "he was lying."

Holly and I exchanged a small smile. "It was the truth, Lya," he said.

"But how do you know?"

I couldn't resist it. "You'll see," I said with a look of… well, an ugly look.

Lya caught the words and the look. She ruffled nervously. "Yes," she replied in a low voice. "I suppose I will."

Holly got upset when Lya asked him what further information he had gotten from Fleet about the battle of the Knuckle.

"Nothing more," he said shortly.

"Huh?" I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "That high a security clearance I don't have."

I laughed. I couldn't help it.

Holly smiled wryly. "Incredible, Jack. They expect me to come up with a solution to this morass they've created. But they lie to me about how they got there. Incredible!"

I laughed again. "Governmental," I amended.

This time his grin was a bit more convincing. He checked the clock, looked questioningly about at us. "Any last comments. Jack? Questions, Lya?"

Lya had one. She wanted to know about that recitation Felix had given. "That title you mentioned.'Guardian,' was it?" Holly nodded. "That sounds vaguely familiar. If you could remember what all Felix said, maybe I could have it scanned."

"I'll give it to you," I said.

She seemed surprised. Probably because I had offered little else. "Okay, Jack," she said, keying a coil. "Can you remember it all?"

Was she kidding? Word for word. I wanted to know about this… that man.

In a few minutes, with Holly and now Lya, beside me, I went to Hell again. The next day, after Lya had gotten over her first-immersion need for sleep, I went again. And again and again.

But Felix wouldn't die.

We, the three of us, slept and ate and rested and smoked and, rarely, chatted-all in perfect comfort. But once, and later twice, a day, we would put on these silly little helmets that looked like skullcaps and live and breathe and fear and despair within the very skin of a man rushing through a forest of gigantic mandibles and huge globular eyes, tearing through this forest, shedding and spraying its black blood, carving through it with blaze-bombs when he could or a blazer rifle while it lasted or, much more often, with bare armored hands that ripped and tore.

But he wouldn't die.

The absolutely incalculable pressure of Banshee and the killing and the… total alien nature of his new world… it grew and grew in him. We felt it, each of us. We felt him separate and fight. We knew his dispassionate talent for carnage. We knew his inner terror and revulsion. We knew them as different and as the same. We knew they were separating, these two people, from themselves. We knew they were getting farther and farther apart. And we knew there was no room for this.

But still he wouldn't die.

Fleet didn't seem to know that Felix was only a human being. Maybe they didn't know this because he wouldn't act like one. Maybe they didn't know this because his ID was stuck firm inside a computer glitch. Or maybe they didn't know because he never spoke when he wasn't dropping-we wondered a lot about what his life was like aboard ship. Or maybe they didn't know because… they didn't care. Because they sure as hell did not care; they just kept dropping him again and again and again and…

But he wouldn't die.

God, how I hated him.

And so, of course, did Holly and Lya. But I didn't know that then. Because I was too ashamed maybe, of my own hatred. Or maybe because I didn't care about them anymore. So more drops and more horror and more hate and Felix wouldn't, wouldn't, die.

Holly tripped on one of the suit's boots, splayed out in the passage between two of the three loungers. He spun about, furious, to see what it was that had interfered with him. When he saw it was the suit, he paused, thought far too long for spontaneity, then kicked the suit as hard as he could in the chest. The field wasn't on so there was some flex there, but it still hurt his foot a lot to kick plassteel. He groaned and hopped up and down for a few seconds. He didn't say anything when he noticed I was watching. He didn't have to. I knew it had been worth the pain to him.

The suit was, of course, unmoved by the blow.

Lya's hatred was pseudoscientific as long as she could string it out. Talked about how the graphs and charts of Alpha series readings and the like just didn't fit. It was, she said, getting to be a "sore point" with her. Nobody laughed when she said this. Or paid much attention.

But one day, I did. When she was stalking back and forth on our break and mumbling to herself about this and that and I thought I heard the word "breakdown."

I asked her if she thought that's what Felix was going to have and she said: "Oh, he'll have a breakdown all right. At the rate he's going, he can't miss." Her voice was bitter, bitter, when she said this. But still I held my hand in front of my face so that no one would see the eager vicious look her words had sparked.

Another time, at the end of the "day"…

She slammed her fist angrily against one of her screens. We, Holly and I, looked up. She noticed our notice and got red in the face. "It's just," she began by way of apology, "that it's the most spectacular survival mechanism I've ever seen! And it's killing him!"

We didn't say anything. We just sat there watching her. No quarter.

So she went on with: "He's too sane, you know, to split completely. Too firm a grasp on reality. And the situation isn't real!"

Holly probably meant to be compassionate. But it came out bitter with: "It sure seems real enough to me." And a small smile.

"Oh does it?" she demanded, the hurt in her tone too plain. "This constant ant horror, the killing the dying-and never getting a break from Fleet, his own, our own people?" She stopped abruptly. Her chin quivered. "Who'd ever believe…"

And she sobbed.

The sound of that burned through Holly and me and we were silent and as unmoving as statues while she hurriedly, thankfully, regained control.

"I'm sorry," she said in a moment or two. "It won't happen again."

Not where we could see it, she meant.

It kept getting worse. Not as bad as that first time, not as bad as the Knuckle, not then. But the pressure was accumulating. It was building up in us. Because we knew it was in him.

We got weirder. We moved through the days like Zombies. Or like K Dick wireheads. But worse because we weren't even happy hooked up.

And because Felix wouldn't die.

Everybody else did, though. Or had or would. And that was one of the most disquieting and… disorienting… things. It was really so goddamned dreamlike. There were all new faces around him all the time and always dying. Slowly or quickly or quietly or screeching.

New players each time but always the same game.

And once through the mists of our shoddy little obsession, I remember thinking: Four years of this so far!

Goddamn us.

And Felix wouldn't die.

I awoke crying. In Karen's arms.

She was real good about it. She held me until the sobs stopped. Until I could stop shivering. She may even have rocked me a time or two. But it disgusted her. And as soon as I seemed to be okay, she got up out of bed, dressed, and left.

I didn't much care. No waking moments, however pleasant with her or barren without, could make up for the nightmares themselves.

I sat up and lit a cigarette. I couldn't remember what I had been dreaming exactly. But I had a damned good idea. It was always a bad night on those days when Felix had been seriously injured. And the day before had been one of the worst. Lya, with her medical background, had estimated that he had been hurt badly enough to be in intensive care at least three times. Or four, counting today. But he wouldn't die.

I was the first one down that morning, furious with Lya because today was the day she had insisted we discuss the science of what was happening to him. I was furious at this waste of time. For a sense of imminence had begun to be felt by each of us. Any day now. Any drop. Any ant.

But she would not continue, she said, until all the psychological and physiological and other ramifications starting with P were discussed. She wanted answers to this mystery.

It made me mad. Time was wasting. And it was so obvious anyway.

Looking impatiently around the lab I noticed a calendar. I sat up straight in my chair, astonished to see that over three weeks had passed since this had begun. Idly I wondered how many rendezvous I had missed with Wice. I thought two, but I couldn't be sure.

Holly came walking briskly in, hiding his anger better than I did. In fact. Holly had hidden his reaction to the whole experience pretty well. He had always been quiet, of course. Now he was quiet and surly, a small difference really. And cold, of course. But we had all become that. Even Lya, as much as she could. He sat down beside me and pushed a tape into the slot.

"Look at this," he said as he keyed it on. I did but I didn't follow the jargon of the local computer. I said so.

❮❯