Michalk opened his mouth to speak, closed it. He was silent for several beats. Then: "How many drops?" he asked, in a soft whisper.
"Nineteen," said Felix. "This is nineteen."
Michalk continued to stare. Maybe he doesn't believe me, Felix thought. Maybe he shouldn't. I know I don't believe it.
"How many majors?" Michalk persisted.
Felix sighed. He had no idea. Further, he had no interest whatsoever in dredging back to find out. He shrugged, said: "Some."
"Some?" parroted Michalk. "Most?"
Felix nodded. "Most," he agreed woodenly.
"Shit," whispered Michalk to himself. "I wonder where that puts you on the stat?"
Felix eyed him uneasily. There had been someone else, a long time ago it seemed, who had talked about stats. "You're a one, Felix," he had said. Now who was that? He shook his head. It didn't matter. He nudged Michalk.
"Huh? Oh. He died a minute ago."
Felix nodded. Down to five. "And Li?"
Michalk looked away, into the distance. "She's going. Too tough for her own good."
"Yes," Felix persisted, trying to keep a patient tone. "But how long?"
Michalk looked at him. "Soon," he said coldly.
Felix knew he wouldn't get any more. He slid down the dune to the others. He hesitated when he saw Goermann, the captain, sitting hunched over against the wall of the gulley which had been eroded at the bottom of the dune. Felix was certain the man had been sitting in the exact same position several moments before when they had last spoken. Was he dead? Or just gone.
A harsh scream-groan of anguished remorse blared quickly in his earphones and receded. Felix turned toward the other end of the gulley where a medico, his blue warrior suit long covered by the same blood and sand as the rest, knelt over the frozen, spread-eagled form of a warrior whose suit had gone into Traction Mode. Felix remembered the spinal injury that had triggered the Mode. He had dismembered-in passing- the ant that had been holding Li pinned down against a rock while another ant raked hulking mandibles across her back.
The Medico, Patriche, swayed slightly on his knees. Muffled rumbles of partially controlled grief slowly faded from hearing. With a last fond pat of a huge armored arm on the statuelike chest, the Medico stood and turned away.
So, Felix thought, down to four. Time to do it. He turned again toward the still immobile captain. Time to do it, he thought again. Even though he knew it wasn't going to work. He knelt down before him. Goermann lifted his head and regarded him in silence.
Felix cleared his throat. "Li and Gao are dead, sir," he said gently.
The captain continued to stare in silence.
"Captain?" persisted Felix. "It's time to…"
"Of course, uh… Felix. Of course," spoke up Goermann suddenly. "Of course. I was just… trying to think of an alternative… plan." His armored right hand raised up and settled comradely on Felix's equally insulated shoulder.
"Always good to have an alternative route, you know, in case something goes wrong."
Felix nodded. "Yes, sir," he said, willing to accept the other's pitiful stab at leadership, or anything else, to finish this.
"Haven't been able to think of a thing, though, uh-Felix. You seem to have grasped the situation precisely."
Felix nodded, rose to his feet. It was true enough. He had grasped that they weren't going to get through. The Captain rose as well, and called the other two over to run it through one last time.
"Now don't waste time and energy," the Captain reminded the other two, "trying to use your blazers in a pinch. We're out of blazer capacity, you both know that. But get it strong in your mind now. I don't want somebody trying to fire an empty gun at a crucial moment."
The other two nodded.
"Felix will pick the spot. Don't try to out-guess him." The other two nodded.
"And for God's sake, don't hold back on him. The only chance we have is to slam in behind him all together." The captain regarded them. "Is that clear?"
The other two nodded. They said it was clear.
Felix wanted to laugh. He knew-they all knew-that the other three, including the Captain, were going to hesitate at the last second and leave him alone with the ants. It wasn't simply the fear and revulsion they felt at ramming into a wall of two dozen monsters. It was… maybe Felix could do it all before they got there and they wouldn't have to… be engulfed.
"Felix? Did you say something?"
Felix looked up, saw that he had walked away from the others. Saw them looking at him. He hadn't realized he had said it out loud.
"Did you?" the captain repeated.
"Nothing," Felix replied. Maybe good-bye, he thought. He headed for his spot on the far left edge of the ridge. He looked back. The others were spreading out twenty meters apart. He was perhaps twice that distance away from the nearest of them, Patriche, to give him time to reach the greater speed of a scout. He sat down.
Maybe it wouldn't happen this time. Maybe the Engine wouldn't come.
He wasn't at all sure how he felt about that thought. He wasn't at all sure what frightened him more, being alone with no protection at all from the fear and from the ants, or that horrible sense of dropping away, that terrible vertigo that seemed to make him feel as if he but hung at the edges of himself, watching himself, his Engineself, perform. Watching it kill.
But when he thought of what he was about to do. When he pictured himself streaking down the dune toward the wall of ants waiting at the Cone, guarding his only route to safety… When his mind's eye pictured the massing and gathering and lumbering together of those huge stalking zombies, their grotesque mandibles groping for him, globular eyes rotating obscenely in dry sockets as big as his head…
And when he saw himself dart suddenly toward them, as he must do, and accelerate right at them, as he must do, and plow into them, as he must do… And when he knew it wasn't going to work. When he knew they weren't going to get through…
The sudden nauseating spasm doubled him forward onto his knees, his chin plate struck his chest with a grunt. He thought his stomach would pull him in half. My God! My God! You'd think it would get easier! But every time it's even more wrenching than before.
His head swam, the vertigo shifting him randomly in eddies of its own. He closed his eyes, gripped his sides with his elbows. He gasped.
"Felix?" sounded the captain's frightened tones. "Felix! Is there something wrong?"
He stood up, his muscles still taut but released. "Fine," replied the Engine.
"Very well," said the captain. Felix saw him raise an arm, saw the others acknowledge the preparatory gesture. A second later he saw the arm drop and he was up and over the ridge and flying down its side, his piston-driving boots tearing angrily precise gashes in the sand.
Bolov, thought Felix suddenly, in a last plaintive desperate attempt at irrelevance. It was Bolov who had said he was a one. Bolov!
The man I threw away.
And then he had receded with his fear and guilt, had slipped back into his cowering. The Engine was on the move.
Below, the ants reacted en masse, jerking to ghoulish attention. There were maybe thirty of them lined up side by side and they shifted and bulged toward the direction of his approach, massing for the collision. The bulge flattened abruptly, however, as the other three were sighted as well. The ants scrambled uncertainly for a moment before flattening out their line once more into a semicircle. Every approach was guarded, covered. Thus thinned out, the barrier they formed looked deceptively vulnerable, as if it were only a line of men and not exoskeleton horrors.
He brought himself to the right with a slight lean and an added burst of acceleration. He must go faster! Faster! And his legs flashed beneath him.
To his right the other three had already, prematurely, begun to veer in his direction. The captain was watching Felix so carefully he stumbled and almost fell. Patriche, he noticed, had already begun to slow up. Damn!
Only Michalk at the far end of their sweep, followed the plan. Head forward like a bull, he sprinted determinedly down the hill straight toward the ants.
Distantly, Felix wondered if it might work after all. The Engine, uncaring and unexpectant, chose that moment to dart viciously to the right in front of the others. He picked a spot to strike the mass, saw the ants swell in anticipation, accelerated harder, gritted his teeth, considered a fake back to the left, discarded the thought along with its image of tripping and sprawling into the nightmare at one hundred kilometers an hour, out of control and flailing as they leapt to absorb him, pouncing…
The last fifty-meter stretch of slope gave away abruptly to the flatlands, jolting his stomach but adding immensely to his speed. He strained even harder. Faster, faster, he must slam into them! Slam into them, tear them back and…
And, at 120 kph, the Engine did just that. At the last second he leapt forward, wrapping his limbs into a lethal torpedo, and hurtled into the first ant. It seemed to simply disappear before his faceplate, crushed flat. Behind the first were two others leaning toward him. Not bracing or preparing, but just ants, dumb stupid mortal things that simply reached for him, the thing they were here to want and Wham! he was through their splintering bodies, exoskeleton disintegrating in the alien air and he was tumbling to his left and his legs were rolling up over his head out of control and the next ants rushed before him and he struck them faceplate-first, the concussion so staggering that for just an instant he saw nothing but lights and patterns on his retinas and Wham!- Wham!-Wham! he crashed into the last, decelerating massively in a single second until silence and stillness for a precious half a moment.
But as he jerked himself to his feet they were already reaching for him, crowding around him, groping, their mandibles clacking and clattering against the plassteel, huge globular eyes blocking out the ugly gray sunlight with ugly black menace. He bashed the flat of his armored hand through the thorax of one, slashed sideways with his elbow against a midsection, felt the splintering, twisted away underneath a massive looming mandible, gripped and jerked and tore loose a pincer wedged clinging into the waist seam, spun again out of still more grips, felt them close up behind him, all around him now.
Where the hell were they!! He was still five meters from the edge of the Cone! If they didn't back him up now…! They must come now! Now!
The most jolting collision yet was Michalk slamming into him from behind. Thank God-Thank God! "Michalk…" he mumbled to him or to himself, twisting again to his feet and vaulting forward through the two in front of him, straining forward, only a few meters away, they could make it, they could make it! He butted to his left, driving the side of his helmet into an eye, grasped the midsection before him, ignoring the pincers and claws slamming viselike against his sides, and lifted and pushed and shoved and strained a step, then two, then three.
Behind him he could hear Michalk grunting, and slamming forward, gasping and stomping and straining, straining to follow. There were no signs or sounds from the others.
He slogged forward, ignoring the brutal blows that rained against his sides, his head, ignoring the clutching clasping pincers, ignoring the looming globular spheres rolling monstrously before his eyes. Another step. Another. He strained and heaved and struck out and butted again and stomped sideways against a trunklike hooflike leg thrust upward at him, drawing him off-balance. Another step.
"Felix!!! Feeeeliiixxxx!" screamed… who? Patriche? The captain? "Feelixx!!!" sounded again, very close, and then cut off muffled by ants and fear and, lastly, horribly, by that most horrible Whumph! of air escaping a bursting, peeling, armored suit.
He twisted again, stomped again, strained some more and some more and whipped about breaking grips another step, clouting at last the pincer scraping his faceplate, growling and thrashing forward. The air filled suddenly with dust, a gusting blast of poisonous bile whipping the sand about him and…
The Cone was there. A step away at most. It shimmered briefly through the tangled, clutching, exoskeleton jungle. It was there. There! He could spin some more or, wait! he could spin all the way around and drive backward with the leverage-there were only these three holding him, the other ants reaching awkwardly and without purchase in their haste.
He spun completely about, ripping loose at least two grips. He dug his heels into the sand. He screamed.
Michalk… pieces of Michalk were strewn, stretched, entangled in the ants that had torn his suit open, ripped it open to their mandibles and pincers. They had blown him open into them. His eyes bad exploded outward through his faceplate. His skin had fast-frozen like burned tar.
Screaming again, Felix vaulted backward into the Transit Cone, dragging two ants with him.
Blinding Transit light. Then darkness, then the patterned heaving, but a shaking, shimmering, too, a shuddering as though his suit wanted to explode and…
The colt bright lights of the drop bay appeared overhead. He started to reach out for…
And slammed again to the metal floor. The ants! The ants were still on him! They had stayed on him and they were they were crazy! The beam, the ship, the Transit, something had driven them wild. They shook in mad, impossibly rapid convulsions, palpitating, vibrating into a blur. They were dead. They had to be. But they still held him! They were still clamped to him with pincers and claws and as they churned and convulsed, they slammed him against them and between them and up and down against the floor.
The pain seared through him as his body rocked between them. He felt muscles tear, felt his shoulder socket quake and throb and burst loose, felt his leg being twisted… thrown, snapping, against his shoulder blades.
His suit relented at last, popping outward into Traction Mode. But still the ants held and still they shook him in their spastic frenzy and still the pain grew and he was frozen into the mode, unable to fight back or crawl away.
White-faced techs appeared over him. "Get them, goddammit!" he screamed. "Get them!" And one of them held
out a tentative gloved hand toward one of the ants to pull it away but the massive corpse vibrated so it was impossible to grasp. The pain was swelling, breaking over his eyes, rushing to the top of his head, slamming into his forebrain. "Get them off." he screamed again.
And then, as one, the ants stopped. Turned off. Run dry. Still. Dead. He was no longer churning.
He opened his eyes, not remembering when he had closed them. The tech was leaning over him, hands braced on knees and saying something about the medicos and the ants being dead and not to worry, just lie there.
He closed his eyes again, the pain thrusting him down into cool darkness. He fainted, his teeth still gritted tight, his last thought: Never again. Never, ever, again.
He awoke and remembered. It hadn't worked. Michalk… Michalk.
No one else had gotten through. No one else had gotten close.
But I got through. I got through. I always get through.
Felix remained an extra day in Intensive Medical because his nervous system had developed immunity to the standard formula propaderm. An alternative was found and administered, allowing time for the rebuilt musculature of his left thigh to set. When he suggested to a confused meditech that his several past exposures to the vitro may have caused the immunity, she merely laughed.
"You have any idea how many exposures that would take, Soldier? At least eight. Maybe ten."
She laughed, patted him on a cheek, and bounced jauntily away, missing his reply that it had taken, in fact, twelve.
There were no troubles with his broken bones. There never were.
He rode to debriefing in the Barrel, newly installed aboard the Terra. It was his first trip down the tubes. He hated it. It was not that he didn't appreciate the idea behind it. It did cut down the traffic of stretchers in the corridors. But when they strapped him into his conveyer pod, it reminded him of the worst of the nightmares about the suit.
The meditech awaiting him at Intelligence Station had been feuding with the steno before he got there. Felix provided more fuel.
"This is just what I've been saying, dammit!" said the meditech, his hands jammed angrily onto his hips. "This man should be given a lot more rest before having to submit to your… whatever it is you do that you think is so damned important that you can't even take the time to…"
"Ngaio, please!" the steno replied, arching her eyebrows in Felix's direction. "Can't we finish this at some other time?"
"Oh, sure!" snapped the meditech disgustedly, shoving the stretcher against her with a slap of his palm. "Excuse me for living!" he added and stomped away.
Felix, still strapped in, could only refuse to excuse him for now.
The steno was apologetic, profusely, off-handedly. Then she became businesslike, running through the Sole Survivor Questionnaire like a pro. Felix's replies were equally businesslike; he was something of an expert at this particular routine.
Noting the time it had taken to get through it, the steno smiled at Felix and said: "You're pretty good at this." She patted Felix on the shoulder and added jokingly: "You must have done this before."
"Twice before," Felix replied, a response that would have astonished the steno had she heard it. But then came the angry return of the Meditech, complaining that he simply could not, "in the best interests of the patient," allow this grilling to continue. The meditech plucked the cigarette out of Felix's mouth and refastened the straps. Then he wheeled the stretcher to the access plate and stood there, grumbling to himself.
"Ngaio?" came whispered at them from just around the bulkhead. "If you could just give me a second to explain…"
It took an hour. Felix stayed strapped, out of earshot, out of mind. Out of giving a damn where he was. He slept, awaking in the Barrel.
When Felix told them he wasn't dropping again, they sent for a fresh-faced, rather handsome, young psychotech who managed to destroy his own credibility with a single, breathtaking observation. "Whew! I had no idea these Starships were so big! I damn near got lost getting here."
Next he plopped down next to Felix's bed, patted him on his recently dislocated shoulder, and produced a cigarette.
"Mind if I have one?" he asked.
Felix not only didn't mind, he offered to install it. The psychotech's glamorous features registered his startled surprise for only an instant before sliding quickly and easily- like slime-into the humor-him smile reserved for only the maddest hatters. His first series of questions fitted well with the smile. Felix, stone-faced and trembling, refused at first to answer. But he eventually relented. He found the man incredibly patronizing, even for an idiot. But the veteran's need for easy trivial conversation welled up in him strongly.
The Psychotech left after half an hour, assuring Felix he would return the next day. On his way out of the ward, he managed to catch the eye of a meditech and request Felix's records. The meditech seemed astonished that the shrink hadn't had them all along.
The Psychotech clapped her on the shoulder and said that he never looked at the records first. "I look at the man," he added. "He is an individual, not simply a number."
Felix couldn't stop laughing for several minutes. Later that night, he awoke and laughed some more.
Three days later, the Psychotech returned to tell Felix ("It is Felix, isn't it?") that he had given his case a great deal of thought and had decided to have him transferred to a soft duty for the time being. Soft Banshee duty. "Like falling off a horse, you know. Got to get right back on."
That night Felix was told to return to his squad bay. He was told that the change meant nothing other than a shortage of beds for non-restrained psyches. Felix accepted the lie for what it was.
The next morning, his screen beeped him awake from the foot of his bed to inform him that he had been transferred to auxiliary duty as part of a squad due to drop the next day with Admiralty Staff. He was further informed that failure to report would result in charges being preferred against him for dereliction of something or other.
Felix slept the rest of that day and most of the next night. He awoke only once. He lay in his bed, staring at the overhead and smoking for almost two hours. He spoke once, just before rolling over and going back to sleep. "And do what?" he said to the shadows on all sides.
The psychotech was just outside the lockers to wish him off. He brandished a coil before Felix's face. Felix recognized his service ID number on the casing.
"I'm going back right now and go over every word of this. We'll talk when you get back." He leaned forward next, almost whispering. "Don't worry, Felix. A lot of people doubt themselves in the beginning. It's only natural."
Felix tried not to hate him as he tried not to hate individual ants. But, as with the ants, he failed.
In the drop bay, surrounded by aides, staff, and, to his astonishment, members of the press corps, Felix met Nathan Kent. It was to be his first drop. Kent asked Felix if he had dropped before.
Felix said that he had.
It was morning on Banshee.
The sun sat low on the horizon, shimmering sickly green through the foul atmosphere making long shadows and heat for the ant coming up the dune to kill him.
Felix stood alone atop the dune, a bluntly jagged mass of coarse and crusting sand, and regarded the lumbering monster. It was clumsy, even for an ant. Clumsy and slow and ridiculous. It was, of course, the cold. He turned and glanced toward the hated sun. It would be ant weather in a very short while. Less than an hour, perhaps. He returned his attention to the ant, slogging determinedly. His examination was born of an oddly surreal detachment macabrely imbued with great attention to detail.
Such as… How far away, at that instant, was the ant from being close enough to kill him? He figured thirty meters. Now twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.
How fast was it coming to kill him? Not very. The cold, still. Twenty-five.
How soon would it be there to kill him? Soon. A minute, maybe. Still twenty-five meters, he noted, as the ant stumbled against the slope.
How much difference was that morning sunshine making? An interesting question there, Felix decided. The staggering sluggish ghoul it was now could only kill him slowly. The skittering lunging ghoul it would become, on the other hand, could kill him… less slowly. He figured the ant would still be cold and slow by the time it arrived. There were only twenty or so meters left.
And how, while he was at it, would the ant go about killing him? Another interesting question. Fascinating. Would it, for example, simply stomp to the crest of the dune and hammer him to death by, say, bashing his faceplate into his forehead? Probably, Felix thought, at eighteen meters.
Or maybe it would just reach up and clamp onto his knees and drag him down where it could crush him to death by wedging the razor-sharp edges of its pincers into the seams of his suit. Might do that. Might do both. Hammer now and tongs later.
Ten meters. The ant had reached the last and steepest section and begun to heave ponderously up the pockmarked slope. It tripped. Both globular eyes rolled upward, the spinal shaft arched stiffly, the great skull-head tilled forward, and it fell. It fell straight back, in slow motion, like a huge tree. It slammed back-first with a dull thud, sending a great sheet of sand splashing into the air.
As it hit, the ant began twirling its claws for balance. Felix shook his head. "Dumb jerk," he muttered. "Now you've got twenty-five meters to go again." He smiled, for some reason, caught himself at it, stopped it. He sighed deeply. He knew what was wrong.
He didn't believe.
Still. After six months and twenty drops. After uncounted injuries and countless horrors. After all the killing-of the ants before him and the people around him. After all the pain, all the terror. Still, he could not fully believe it.
He looked away from the ant and scanned the horizon. Endless dunes. Some were smooth, but most were stiffly crusted, with jagged edges and harsh crumbling bluffs, victims and creations of the searing erosive winds that could pack and jam even the largest of them together in a single day before blasting them flat in the span of another. Felix never recognized any place on Banshee, however often he might be dropped in a given area. There were always new dunes, new ridges, new mesas to be found. Even the damned sand could change. The geotechs had catalogued something like two thousand different grain patterns. And with the different colors and textures and formations of each, nothing ever seemed truly familiar.
So he never knew what footing to expect. Once, fleeing wildly and alone, he had leapt from atop one firm ridge and sunk out of sight into the next. It had taken him a long time to dig his way out. They had almost had him that time. Another time-fleeing again, alone again-he had come upon a wall of sand as smooth and strong as plastiform. His powered armored fingers had only just barely managed to carve the toeholds he needed to scale it. They had almost had him that time, too.
A kilometer to the west was a sea glowing a rich innocent blue between two towering ridges. The beauty of it offended him. For it held no water as man knew it. It wouldn't even freeze. Too much acid. Even the ants avoided it, the reason for dropping here.
Felix glanced down to see the ant managing, at last, to stand erect once more. It began, without hesitation, to clamber toward him once again. He watched it take a few lumbering steps. He couldn't be sure-it might be only his imagination-but it seemed more agile than before. The sun had barely moved; it couldn't be warm enough yet.
Still, it could happen very quickly and there was never any warning. More than once he had been surprised by sleepwalking ants which began needing thirty seconds to take as many steps but were suddenly, two seconds later, ten steps closer and on him and raking at his faceplate.
But this one, he decided after a moment, wasn't ready for that yet. Not quite done. What he ought to do, he knew, was change dunes. Pick one with a shaded approach that would keep the ant cool while it climbed. The ant wouldn't notice. Or care. It would simply come at him, directly at him, through sun or shadows or blazer fire. So Felix should move.
But he didn't. He just stood there where he was and watched the ant.
It was this sight, this creature, that he found hardest to believe. So damn big-half again as tall as a suited man. And incredibly strong, incredibly resolute, incredibly hard to kill. And it must be killed. There was no other way to stop it. It didn't care about fear. It didn't care about pain. It didn't care about death. It didn't care about anything but killing people.
But you really care about that, don't you? Felix thought. You love that.
Below him, the ant tripped again, this time on its own foot pad. It fell forward against the slope, driving its claws into the sand almost to the shoulder joints. It struggled a bit, trying to pull itself out but only shoved the mandibles deeper. For a moment it paused, staring at the holes it had made. It didn't seem to know what to do. Then it began to rock violently back and forth.
Felix snorted disgustedly. It was about the worst thing it could have tried. "But it'll work anyway. Won't it. Ant?" he asked. "Because you're so fucking strong." Felix smiled bitterly, without pleasure. "Too dumb to get out of the shade, but oh-so-strong! And so eager to get me somehow."
Anyhow. That was another thing about them. Ants didn't care what it took to kill people. Bashing them to death, burning them with blasters, peeling them piece by frozen piece from their armor-they didn't care how. Ants would kill other ants to kill people. They would kill themselves to do it.
And they didn't care how long it took, either. This ant would climb this slope as long as Felix stood atop it. It would climb and slide down and climb and fall down and climb and on and on, trying, trying, through this day and the next and the next. Until it had climbed the dune, or had dragged it down around it grain by grain or starved to death trying. A robot.
Less than a robot. Much less. Mindless. A wind-up toy. And yet…
Ants had tools. Elaborate, sophisticated tools. They made them, knew how to use them. And they had their hives and they had their blasters and…
"Hell!" Felix cried aloud, "you've got space travel! Star travel, in fact. You attacked earth." He stared at it, shaking his head. "Damn you, anyway!" he groaned, impulsively kicking the sand at his feet. A small shower cascaded about the ant. A small patch struck one of the eyes and stuck there.
The ant had managed to work free one of its claws. It used the curved edge to scrape the sand from its eyeball. It made a harsh rasping sound. Felix shuddered and turned away.
Command Frequency sputtered. "Felix?" asked a voice he recognized as Colonel… what? Shoen?
"This is Felix," he replied.
"Felix, this is Shoen. Have you still got that ant?"
"Killing him now," he replied with relief, reaching for his rifle at last.