"Not here," he said, gazing blankly at the western foothills. "Not on Banshee." For even in this supposedly deserted area, he had seen thousands upon thousands of ants.
The blazer-rifle lay at his feet, useless. It's barrel was warped from the heat of overload. The stock looked worse, crumpled and split from having been used in a way its creators had never intended-as a club. The suit had also been changed. The left shoulder was now dark green instead of black where a full twenty-second burst of heat ray had ruptured the thin outer covering of the plassteel. Other parts of the suit bore gray-brown splotches of the sands which had clung to the black ant blood which had clung to the armor. The splotches were mostly thin, irregular streaks, except for those on his arms. There a dense unbroken coating of sand covered the plassteel completely, from biceps to fingers. Many, many, ants.
Idly, he kicked at the remnant of his blazer and watched it for the long seconds it took to fall. He sighed. Incredibly, he had but 63 percent power remaining after a mere five hours on the planet.
Maybe they have figured it out, at that. And run away. I would.
He turned around and began the long difficult descent with the unhurried manner of a man with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
"I would," he said to the wind.
The warrior, a blonde woman, was dead. But the ant didn't seem to realize that-it kept killing her. Her body shimmered gruesomely beneath the blaster's effect, exposing a meter- long gash in the armor. Scattered randomly about her on the hard canyon floor were the remains of other warriors, some twenty-five in all.
A-team One, thought Felix from his hiding place at the far end of the enclosure. Now it's just me. I'm A-team.
He sighed. And then, Engine once more, he pulled his attention away from the carnage, away from the grotesque sight of his fellow humans, some halfway out of their armor, their swollen features fast-frozen in the thin alien air. He would not, could not, stare at them any longer.
Instead, he watched the ant. And waited. He had to. He needed power.
After only ten hours on Banshee, he was down to 24 percent of capacity. At that rate he had less than four left. Four hours until the Larvafern, deprived of laser-induced photosynthesis, would cease to emit oxygen. However, he needn't concern himself with that. He would be dead long before that. The ants would kill him first.
Two hours, perhaps. Two hours before the suit began to slow down. He would no longer be able to fight, no longer be able to dodge and duck. In two hours, he would no longer be able to run. They would have him. He would lie down somewhere. The weight of the armor would force him down. And in some canyon or gorge he would lie and wait, a helpless statue, for the ants. Shuffling slowly up to him and around him, gesturing to one another with heavy claws and snapping mandibles. They would prod him, poke at him, lean over and stare into his helmet, great gray globular eyes his last living sight.
And then, pulling together, they would split the plassteel like a ripe fruit and he would blow out dying, his scream falling about him like frozen ice crystals.
There was no question of hiding from it, no hope of a dignified sleep. Somehow they would find him as they always had before. Felix suspected they could detect armor by some natural process, given enough time. Never having any equipment-only a handful with blasters even-they must possess some inbred instinct. Whatever it was, it didn't matter. What counted was the fact that, so far, they had always, always, found him.
He needed power. He waited.
Three more ants, unarmed, appeared at the far end of the canyon. They gestured. The ant with the blaster stopped killing the dead girl and joined them. They left.
Felix was out of the shadows in seconds. He inspected the corpses. Armor that had retained its integrity, he had been informed, also retained its energy supply. He found a charred warrior and lay down beside it to make hip-to-hip connection. There was an instant's brief hesitation as the young man, recalling the constant fighting and fleeing of the past hours, screamed silently. Why?
Why continue? He was alone and lost and without hope. Why string it out?
The Engine ignored this, grasping the armored shoulders before him and muscling the corpse into the bizarrely sensual embrace of Connection. The Engine smiled as the power surged to 42 percent. The Engine refused to die.
A black warrior still carried twelve blaze-bombs. Felix removed nine, made Connection, and raised power to 60 percent.
A sergeant with a broken neck brought it to 71 percent. The CO's command suit brought it to 87 percent. Disgusted at gaining only 4 percent, he shoved the next corpse angrily away, refusing to recognize Dikk from the mess hall…
The last possible source was an Asian girl looking far too young to be there. Her legs were twisted under her back, forcing him to lie with his faceplate against hers. He gazed blankly at her delicate features, then made Connection. She screamed.
Felix vomited against his screens. Then he jerked as though electrocuted, throwing himself back and away. But Connection was made and her face stayed close to his, wide and screaming. He gagged and panted and, for just a moment, could not move.
Until at last he, too, screamed, a hoarse sound. "Shut up!"
She shut up. He paused, took a deep breath, and hit the stasis key. In seconds the helmet was, except for a fading odor, clean. He looked at the girl again, who was just then seeming to realize what he was.
"You… you're a man?" she asked timidly, like a small child.
"Yes," he replied, nodding.
"I thought you were…"
"You're a man," she repeated. "You're human."
"You're not the ants again."
"I thought you were…" she whispered and her eyes flared with growing hysteria.
"I'm Felix," he said quickly, trying to disrupt the momentum of her panic. "Scout, A-team Two."
Her calm firmed somewhat as she focused on this information.
"I'm Taira. Warrior. A-team… You said A-team Two? You're A-team Two?"
"I am," he replied impassively.
"Oh, thank God, thank God! We drought… I thought I was… alone! A-team One is… is…"
"Hit your tranq key," he said quickly.
"…they're all dead! All! The ants were… Oh, God!!"
He growled. "Hit your tranq!"
"Key your tranq! Now!"
She blinked uncertainly, obeyed from instinct. From just above. her elbow a tiny stream of compressed air shot against her skin, opening a pore and injecting the drug. Felix watched her pupils swell and contract as the tranq took effect. Taira blinked again, shook her head, blinked once more. Slowly, she pulled herself together.
"How many made it?" she wanted to know.
Felix ignored her. "Are you able to move?"
"No," she replied brusquely, businesslike at last. "My legs are broken."
Judging from her contorted posture, he could well believe it. "I suppose I could carry you," he mused aloud.
"How many are… What's your name?"
"Felix. What's your power level?"
"Uh… 84 percent. Pretty low."
He laughed dryly, felt the disgust welling. "Okay," he said. "Key your painers. It'll be a rough ride and…"
"Felix," she said slowly, her voice now as cold as his. "You're alone, aren't you?"
He met her gaze. He nodded. She stared a moment, then closed her eyes. She sighed loudly.
"Two hundred and four people," she whispered to herself. She opened her eyes. "Two left."
He said nothing. His eyes were blank.
"And you'll carry me?" she asked with more than a trace of bitterness.
"I'll carry you," he replied in an even colder tone that told her she was right to think what she thought.
She grimaced, taken aback. Then she relaxed. "All right, Felix," she said wearily. "I'll be all right here. Just g…"
"Freeze!" he barked suddenly.
"Oh, come now. Scout. I know what you think you…"
"Freeze!" he snapped again, looking past her down the canyon. "Ants!"
Just around the corner of her helmet, he could see the four ants coming back into the canyon. He was in a lousy position to see anything, but he was afraid to attract their attention by drifting. He settled for severing Connection, a slight movement. "Don't move," he said. "They'll come right by us."
"I can't move," she replied softly. "Where are they now?"
"Shut up!" he ordered bluntly, watching them shuffle across the hard-packed sand. The one with the blaster was trailing behind, he noted.
"Are they close? Do they see us?"
"Shut up!" he snarled.
Her tone of fear-and pleading-got through. He looked at her. His eyes relaxed a bit. He looked back to the ants. "They're coming right past us. You'll probably see'em when they go by. My view is bad. About twenty meters now…"
"How many are… ?"
"Four. Quiet. About fifteen meters, ten. The last one's back a ways. It's got a blaster. They're not looking at us. Five meters… There they go. See'em?"
"No. No, your helmet is… Yes! Yes, I see one! Don't move! Don't… Okay. Okay, it's moved off. I only saw one… and it's gone past."
"All right," said Felix in a dead voice. He took a deep breath. "Sit tight."
For several seconds their two pairs of eyes flickered about straining to see. They kept their bodies rock-still. Occasionally, they looked at one another. Once, Taira smiled. Felix looked away.
"All right," he said at last. "There they go. On my side." He felt her relax. "They're going away. It's okay." He found he had been holding his breath. He let it out in a rush. "Okay… okay, there they go. The one with the blaster is first. Now… the second. Good. There's the third right behind him." He glanced quickly at her, his lips forming a pale smile.
Her eyes shot wide with terror.
He was already moving when the claws clamped down on his shoulders, moving back from her and up. He struck out with a boot, hitting something. He kicked again, felt the claws quiver against the plassteel. He kicked a third time, striking solidly. He spun about, sprung free, and slammed a forearm into the hairy abdomen.
The ant loomed over him. He took a step back, retreating, but the ant closed, grasping his waist with its smaller middle pincers. One of the claws slammed thunderously against the side of his helmet. He ducked the following blow from the other claw and lunged forward. He planted a boot, quite randomly, atop one of the ant's footpads, pinning it in place briefly. Then he drove upward, slamming his open armored palm against the flat chinlike space below the mandible. The ant's head popped off.
Felix froze, staring unbelieving, as the gushing torrent of black blood erupted from the gaping spinal shaft. And then the ant fell backward. To his horror, he found himself being pulled along. The pincers still held him tightly to the ant. They landed brutally against the hard canyon floor. Felix twisted wildly, trying to break away. He stole a glance over his shoulder, saw the next one almost upon him.
He groaned. He wrenched back, got a knee against the abdomen, and lurched to his feet. One pincer tore loose from its grip. Another, still clamped to his waist, tore loose from its socket. Felix spun around, to meet the charge with at least…
The second ant crashed into him like a tank, knocking both of them rolling across the headless stump of the first. Felix spun himself on top and clamped an armored hand viselike around the thorax. He shouldered aside a grasping claw and drove a powered fist through the center of the right eye all the way to the brain case. The creature shuddered violently, then became still.
Felix planted his boots on the midsection and leapt forward to meet the rush of the third ant. But he was all wrong, too straight in the air. He collided full-faced with the hurtling ant. Even through his suit, the concussion shook him. The ant seemed to feel nothing. The pincers clamped onto his sides firmly, holding him fast while the upper claws pinwheeled in unison, bashing his helmet from side to side with tremendous force.
Felix felt himself rising helplessly as the ant lifted him off the ground. He had no leverage, no place to run or dodge and the claws kept slamming into him and he reached out, groping for those hideous eyes. But they were too far away, he couldn't reach, and the blows kept coming and his vision blurred… and he was losing it, losing all sense of what to do or how, losing, about to die.
And then the two of them, man and ant, were suddenly enveloped in the crimson beam of blasterfire. It was incredible. The last ant was boiling them both to kill him. He felt the intensity increase as it rushed forward to finish it.
Felix, encased in plassteel, could take it a lot longer. The arcing claws became erratic as they, and the rest of the ant holding him, began to literally fry. One claw fell to its side, useless. The other swung, missed, missed again. The ant slumped, stumbled to one side. He felt one boot, then the other, touch the ground. He braced them firmly, grasped the simmering-oozing form before him by thorax and pelvic joint, and lifted it high into the air. The pincers at his waist stretched, disintegrated. Still holding the ant high, he threw his weight backwards, twisting around, and buried the broiling monster directly into the source of the blaster-fire.
The heat ray ceased abruptly as the last ant staggered backward, clawing at the bubbling ectoplasm spattered about its skull and shoulders. Felix leapt forward and tore the blaster from a claw. He swung it mightily, in a long arc, and slammed it against a leg joint. Exoskeleton splintered loudly and the joint gave. But the ant flung itself forward anyway, against Felix, and the two of them banged to the ground atop one of the armored corpses.
The ant grabbed the blaster, triggering it into the sand below them. Holding the barrel away from him, Felix pounded his free forearm into the side of the thorax. The ant shuddered, stunned, but did nothing to evade another blow. Instead it tired to grasp control of the blaster, discharging it harmlessly all the while. On a sudden impulse, Felix moved the barrel within range of the other claw. The ant grasped it hungrily, both claws on it now, and still firing at nothing.
Felix reared back and slammed out with his forearm again to the completely exposed thorax. The ant shuddered again but kept both claws on the blaster. So Felix hit it again.
And again. And again. The creature slumped, sagged, as Felix pounded his target over and over with every bit of power at his command. After a while, the claws relaxed their grip, the gray eyes convulsed. The ant collapsed.
Felix clambered to his knees, dragged the blaster free from the lifeless claws… and froze.
For a long moment he didn't move. Then he gently lay the blaster on the ground beside him like in some somber ritual. He paused, then gripped the dead ant and dragged it to the side. He sat back on his heels and stared.
It had not been a corpse he had fallen upon. Not then. And the blaster-fire had not been, after all, harmless. Gently, carefully, he picked up Taira's armored arm and lay it across the gaping, smoldering, hole in the center of her faceplate. "Damn," he said softly.
It took him six more hours to travel eight kilometers west- ward for the terrain rose treacherously and there were many ants. He had only 49 percent power remaining. There were no blaze-bombs left. Idly, he wondered why he didn't care.
He sat down in a sand drift and machinelike. Enginelike, went through a communication check. For diversion, he decided to try the ship's beacon first. Nothing. Next came the Emergency Frequency. Nothing. Last came the Command Channel. Unexpectant, unhopeful, and, frankly, bored by it all, he keyed it on.
As if in response, the ground suddenly rocked beneath him from a tremendous explosion less than five hundred meters away. Before the rumbling echo could die, he heard, clear as a bell, a man's bitter voice saying: "I don't care about it, goddammit! You hear me? I don't care! And I ain't fighting ants any goddamned more! Fuck Earth, anyway!"
Felix stood up. He looked in the direction of the explosion, at the distant and majestic spire. He smiled. He was no longer alone.
He began to run toward the west. Toward the Knuckle.
The bands were jammed with a hopeless overload of garbled voices. There were frantic exchanges between warriors, impatient officers' directives, sergeants' flat commands. Underlying each was a growing tone of panic. It had been a sporadic chord when Felix first detected it. Now he heard it everywhere-a faint coating.
War sounds were also constant, rumbling, thundering waves of noise occasionally punctuated by another of those heart- stopping blasts that had first told him where he was. After each of these, the chattering would cease for several seconds. And despite himself, Felix would each time envision all having been killed by it. Then, seconds later, the chattering would begin again, a little more desperately.
He was homed in on the center of the transmissions, a point just south of the Knuckle. He had to stop often to check his bearings, for the terrain had made anything resembling a straight approach impossible. A seemingly endless series of eroded gulleys and draws produced what amounted to a maze of narrow alleys between random groupings of walls five meters high. There was no pattern to either level or direction. And there were many dead ends.
He had just completed another bearing check when he noticed he was no longer alone.
Two warriors stood shoulder to shoulder in a clearing a few meters in front of him. Felix stared at them, too delimited with their very existence to speak. By the time he had gathered his wits enough to call out, one of them was already speaking
"Don't try to stop us," said a man's nervous voice. It was the last thing he would have expected to hear. He took an instinctive step toward them, then stopped. There was something wrong with these two. They seemed to edge away from him, like children, like schoolboys caught… And then he had it: deserters.
"Don't try to stop us," said the nervous voice again.
"All right," replied Felix dully.
"We don't want to hurt you," said a second voice, equally as strident as the first.
"Then don't," answered Felix blandly.
The two exchanged glances, then stared at him some more. They were privates, he saw from their markings. They began to ease by him slowly, not trusting him.
"Don't try anything," warned the first.
"We don't want to fight you," said the second.
"We're going now," said the first.
For just an instant, they hesitated and Felix thought he had gotten through to them. But then they were gone around a bend and out of sight.
"Where?" he asked again. "Where will you go? This is Banshee!"
There was no reply.
He keyed a dose of stimule into his system. He had had another less than an hour before, but suddenly he felt very weary.
The war sounds increased as he grew nearer. The great blasts had continued as well. The floors of the gulleys ware being filled by the cascades of sand pouring down from atop the shaken walls. He must be getting very close. He leapt easily over a particularly large deposit and hurried down the widening passage beyond. And then he was surrounded by perhaps a dozen warriors stomping past him from the opposite direction. He held out a hand to stop them. A heavy warrior's glove slapped it away.
"Get out of the way, damn you," shouted someone. "Can't you see the beacon?" The group disappeared the way he had come without slowing.
Dismally, Felix considered the possibility that the entire assault force was now composed of deserters running away from this battle only to encounter, inevitably, more fighting. Each would, in turn, flee from the new battle, only to run into another and another. For where, on a hostile planet, can a warrior desert to?
He noticed the Transit Beacon for the first time. Beacon? Why, he wondered, would they run away from that? Transit was the only way home. He raced off toward the source, the way he had been headed all along.
He dashed around a corner of the maze and collided head-on with something coming the other way. It was another black suit.
"Come on! Get up!" cried the other scout, a woman. She grabbed his shoulders and tugged.
Felix leapt to his feet unaided. "Go on, if you want," he said disgustedly. "I won't tell anyone."
"huh?" asked the other scout, genuinely puzzled. "Tell who? What?"
"Never mind," Felix answered, starting off again toward the beacon.
The scout stopped him with a gloved hand on his arm. "Are you crazy?" she asked.
He shook his arm free. "Are you?" he retorted angrily. A split-second before the shock hit them, he saw it coming. And then he was flying sideways in the air against the side of one of the embankments which was already crumbling as he hit it. Great chunks of sand fell down upon him, covering him. He struck out wildly, shoving at the sand, trying desperately to keep from being buried, from disappearing beneath it forever, trapped and held by Banshee herself, fop her children the ants and more sand fell on him and around him and the ground trembled with a terrible sense of fragility and then it was over.
He sat on the floor of the gulley, buried in sand to his waist. Directly in front of him, the other scout's helmet bobbed abruptly into view with a hissing rush of sand. Felix got to his feet and helped dig the rest of her out. "What was that?" he asked.
"Another goddamn tank. What else?" she replied bitterly.
"A tank…? he repeated dully.
She looked at him closely. "Don't you know?" she asked. "Where've you… Uh-oh! Another beacon."
Felix saw it on his own holo. The beacon was quite near this time.
"Damn!" she exclaimed. "It's right on top of us! Come on!" She made a step in the direction she had been traveling before-away from the source.
Felix hesitated, bewildered.
"Move!" she commanded desperately and he found that he was already moving with her, blindly following.
They raced down several passages, careening wildly around comers, bouncing off walls, until they slammed together against the solid bank of a narrow cul-de-sac.
"Shit!" she spat bitterly. "Another dead-en…"
This blast was closer. It was much worse. They thudded back and forth against the walls of the cul-de-sac like insects shaken in a bottle. The walls swayed, warped, bowed outward at them… but held. They were not buried.
It took him a moment to clear his head. He found her on hands and knees at the base of the wall across from him. "What the hell is that?" he demanded.
She raised her helmet slowly to eye level and regarded him for a beat. Then: "You really don't know?" she asked in a quiet, thoughtful, tone. "Where have you…? Who are you?"
She sat up. "A-team? We thought they were all dead."
"Huh? But you just… Oh. You're it, huh?"
"Yeah." He paused, seeing it all, briefly, once more.
"Tell me about the tanks."
She straightened, rose slowly to her feet. "The ants get the Transit Beacon somehow. They home in on it. I don't know what this is they're using. Not like their mortars, obviously. Some kind of rocket, maybe. They don't have any exhaust, though. I've seen'em. More like a streamer…
"Anyway, we all run like hell when we see the beacon indicators'cause we know what's about to happen. Now you do, too. The Hammer is about to fall."
Involuntarily, Felix glanced upward. "Why don't you just tell the ship to stop Transit?"
"What ship is that?"