"No, no, no! Don't kill it!" cried the colonel. "I told you not to!"
Felix sighed, keyed the safety back on. "So you did, colonel. But I thought that, since you're…"
"Don't think, Felix. I'll tell you when."
Felix counted to ten.
"You didn't kill it, did you?"
"Still got it, then?"
"Colonel, there's no third way."
"Uh, yes. Of course. All right, Felix. I have you on my holos now. We'll be there shortly." There was a pause. "Felix, I want that ant."
"I want you to have it, Colonel," he replied flatly, keying off the frequency with a vicious snap of his chin and turning to…
The ant struck him so hard it unhinged his senses. He was unaware of the blazer flying from his grasp, unaware of spinning through the air, unaware of falling. Only when he slammed to the hard floor of the gulley behind the dune, some fifteen meters below his perch, did he react-in agony. He put a gloved hand to the back of his neck. He had landed there, a concussion that would have killed an unsuited man instantly and which should have broken his neck, but hadn't.
Why am I still alive? he had time to wonder before the shadow loomed over him and there was no time for anything but the struggle and maybe no time even for that for all was cloudy and indistinct, the ant hazy before him, but moving so quickly, hammering at him, smashing at his chest and faceplate but he couldn't seem to move so quickly as he should, as if he were in a thick mist that held him but freed the ant to rake and pummel him from side to side. My God! My God!
And then, suddenly, his eyes snapped into focus upon the coarse fibers of the ant's midsection swinging before him and the claws smacking down viselike onto his upper arms and the pincers… the pincers!
One of the pincers was already into the waist seam, it's curved, scimitar-sharp edge slipping into the narrow slot and sawing machinelike back and forth within it. The image froze him. The image, this image, of death-of Death, dammit!- seconds, moments away. The seam wedged through and splitting and him, Felix, all of him, his thoughts and memories and bones and intestines spewing out the tiny hole, pulsing crushed stone-frozen blood jutting…
"No! NO!" he shouted in a disgusted furious refusal. "NO!"
And he erupted. He had no purchase, no leverage, no position-the ant had all of those, leaning over and down upon him, claws and pincers wedging and tearing. But he had fear. He had that. Felix erupted with that. He shook and warped back and forth. He vibrated and wrenched. Up and down and back and forth, none of it enough by itself, but none of it alone. He dragged one leg loose, got a knee up, got an armored boot planted firmly. He lifted up off the sand, bringing the ant with him, and slammed back down against it.
The concussion tore one of the claws free of its grip. It tore the pincer clutching his waist seam off at the joint. Felix used his free arm to hammer at the ant's skull again and again and again and again and….
And then he was free from it and backing away, chest heaving. The ant stood erect, too, coming at him again. But free now and ready, he stepped inside of the arc of the sideswiping claws and pounded upward into the thorax with three rocketing forearms in a row. The ant staggered straight back and fell full-length into the sand.
All right! Felix thought, stepping forward to drive his boot into the brain case with a single, hurtling…
"Felix!" shouted Shoen from the far end of the gulley. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
He spun around toward her furiously, his chest still heaving. "What the hell does it look like?" he demanded.
There were two warriors with her as well as someone wearing one of those all-size p-suits. One of the warriors, he noticed, was holding his blaze-rifle.
"I told you not to kill that ant," she said angrily.
He pointed a shaking finger at the creature struggling to rise. "You shoulda told him," he snapped back.
"Felix, I told you I wanted it alive."
"He's all yours. Colonel," he replied stepping aside as it rose to its pads and lumbered toward them.
"Huh? Oh. Ling! Kill it."
One of the warriors raised an arm and blazed its head neatly off. It collapsed as if exhausted into a heap. Felix stared, unable to speak.
"All right, people, get to work," added Shoen. The others hurried past Felix toward the body. One of the warriors handed him his blazer.
"Here you go. Scout," he said pleasantly.
Felix nodded dumbly. He snapped the rifle into place on his back. He stared at the three busying themselves with the carcass. He stared at Shoen, walking easily toward him. He shook his head as if to clear it.
Shoen, looking at him, laughed suddenly, all trace of anger gone. She patted him on the shoulder heavily. "Easy there, Felix," she began. "I know it must seem a little…"
He shoved her arm angrily away.
She laughed again, turned to the others. "Is it all right? What you need?"
The tech wearing the p-suit looked up from her work.
"No damage?" insisted Shoen.
The p-suit shrugged. "Nothing important. Missing a pincer." Shoen regarded Felix once more. She seemed to be holding back more laughter with great effort. "What happened to its pincer, Felix?"
Felix forced his voice to stay calm and flat. "My guess would be birth defect, Colonel."
Shoen laughed again, a pleasant, breathy sound. "I see," she replied, reaching forward and pulling the pincer loose from his waist. "And what do you suppose this is?"
Felix glanced down. "Lodge pin," he said.
Shoen laughed again. She tossed the pincer away.
"Got it, Colonel!" cried the p-suit, holding something in the air for them to see. Felix stared. The tech held a length of ant spine between her gloved hands. It twisted and turned in her grip like a beheaded serpent.
"Great," replied Shoen. "You three hurry up and get that back to the Bunker."
"Have they dropped it yet?" asked one of the warriors, Ling, the one who had blazed the ant.
"They will have by the time you get back." The Colonel looked at Felix again. "You oughta come, too, Felix. Should be quite a sight."
Felix only stared at her. She laughed again.
"Colonel?" called the tech. "Aren't you coming?"
"No. You three go ahead. I'll stay here with our scout."
She waved them off. "Felix, you really don't know what's going on here, do you?"
"You usually sleep during Briefings, do you?" Felix took a deep breath.
"What Briefings are those. Colonel?"
"Don't tell me you haven't been Briefed, Felix…"
"Must've been ten Briefings on this drop. There were two on the bunker alone."
She looked at him. "Felix, they wouldn't have dropped you without a Briefing."
"Of course not."
"That would be insane."
"They'd never do it."
Now she stared at him. "Are you telling me… ? But, why? Why would they do that?"
He shrugged. "Why not?"
She wanted more. Under her repeated urging, Felix gave it to her. He told her, without detail, of how he had been both assigned and dropped within twenty-four hours. No briefing. No explanation. No option.
Shoen found it incredible.
Felix shrugged again. "Welcome to Banshee."
Shoen stared at him. "But, Felix, I've never heard of such a… Hold it a second," she said suddenly, cocking her head. For the next few moments she was silent, conversing, no doubt, on a frequency he didn't receive with brass he didn't know. She broke off at last. "C'mon, Felix. I've got to get back to the Bunker. They've got another snip for us."
"Spinal section. C'mon. Uh…" She hesitated.
Felix pointed across the dunes. "That way."
"Of course," she muttered.
They set off for the original Transit Area with Felix in the lead. It took longer than it should have for Shoen kept stopping and looking around her. Felix studied her carefully each time she did this, furiously hoping for some sign of purpose. For any sign of any kind that would tell him that she was not what she appeared to be: a tourist.
After several stops and much rubbernecking he gave up. She was Lt. Colonel Shoen, his boss, and a rookie. She had never been on Banshee before. The realization chilled him. Halfway there she stopped abruptly, said "Dammit!"
He stopped beside her and waited, not at all sure he wanted to know.
She looked at him and shook her head. "Dammit," she said again. "They've dropped it already."
He took a chance. "Dropped what?"
"The bunker, of course."
Felix sighed. "Of course."
"You don't know about that either?"
She stared at him, gloved hands on armored hips. "Felix, what are you doing on this drop? Why are you here?"
"Therapy," he said, remembering the psychotech.
"I don't know. Colonel. I really don't. Tell me about the bunker."
They started walking again, side by side, up the long sloping edge of a dune. When they reached the top, Shoen pointed a heavy armored arm and said: "That's the bunker. Quite a sight, isn't it?"
Less than a quarter of a kilometer away, on the broad flat beach beside the poison sea where he had first dropped, where before there had been nothing but flat sand and nervous warriors, was a building.
Felix stopped dead still when he saw it. It was indeed quite a sight. Felix shook his head. A building. A man-made building, on Banshee.
"It's huge," he breathed, half to himself.
Beside him, Shoen laughed. "Ten meters high, twenty meters deep, twenty meters wide. It's got walls three meters deep and three stories. It could house our mere two hundred and fifty warriors and scouts…"
"House? What do you mean, house?"
She laughed again. "It's got pressure integrity, Felix. You can go inside that thing and take off your suit and grab a meal and a shower. What do you think?"
Felix looked at her. He decided not to say what he thought. Instead, he asked: "Why?"
Something in the measure of his appalled disgust leaked through to her. She studied him for a moment uncertainly. Then she told him what he should have been told before, what the drop was all about.
"Felix, we're here to count ants." When he said nothing to this, she added quickly: "Of course, there's more to it than that."
But there wasn't, he saw after awhile. There wasn't. She only thought there was. She and Fleet and… the rest of the fools running the war.
Surprisingly, he had already had a few clues. They had dropped him along with three other scouts and some thirty other warriors that morning at dawn with instructions to head due east and look for what had come to be called a Dorm. Felix had known about Dorms. He had known about them for a long time now, ever since they had thought of them as supply dumps for the ants. And when he had, with the others, stepped over that last dune and seen that low squat structure sitting innocently in the sand, the full measure of that nightmare, that first nightmare, had come back to him. Of dropping that very first time in those rows and rows of scurrying, jamming ants and firing blindly in terror at everything and anything until his blazer had overheated and his mind had over-amped.
When it had all been over, in seconds, he alone had survived.
I am A-team, he had said to himself. There had been no one else to say it to.
And that had been only the beginning. After that had come the Knuckle and Forest and Bolov and other things that Dorms, the mere sight or thought of them, always brought back to him. And he had reached for his blaze-bombs as always, not wanting to remember or consider or anything else, just wanting to destroy this one as he had destroyed all others he had seen since. To destroy it quickly and move on and… and nothing else. Just not remember.
But the Captain that morning had stopped him. "We don't want it blown," he had said to Felix and to everyone else there. "Is that clear? We want it intact."
Felix had looked at the Captain as he had looked at Shoen and asked: "Why?"
And now he was finding out. Or at least he was getting an answer of sorts: to count ants.
Specifically, to count the ants in a Dorm. Fleet had learned that ants came in two packages. Hives and Dorms. Hives were the main outposts, the main threats, of course. It was from the Hives that the ants directed their assaults on the humans, both on Banshee herself and in space. The Hives were the main targets. But the Dorms were important, too. They did, in fact, serve as supply dumps of sorts. Supply dumps of ants. Thousands and thousands of ant eggs or larvae or whatever was used were stored in these Dorms throughout Banshee. They operated as support for Hives or, rarely, alone.
What Fleet wanted to know now, was their capacity for support. Their exact capacity. How many ants could be built before the supply would run out? That was the reason for the Bunker.
"There are no other ant outposts in this area," explained Shoen as they worked their way toward the activity. "Our job is to sit tight and wait for the ants to attack the bunker. Then we kill them and count them." "They'll keep coming."
"Of course they will. And we'll get that bunch too. And the next and the next. But how long can they keep coming alone? There's nothing around here to help them. Sooner or later they are bound to start feeling the pressure, either in numbers, or in quality."
Felix nodded, seeing it. "That's why you want samples of the spinal cord."
"Exactly, Felix. Very good. We know the normal standards. When shoddy work starts showing up, we'll have a good idea how much they can take. So it's not just to count ants. It's to find out how they build them so damn quickly."
They had reached the last of the dunes. They started across the edge of the beach, circling toward the sea to avoid the construction. A huge machine surrounded by a dozen workers wearing bright orange p-suits was being set up along the perimeter.
"Watch this," said Shoen with some satisfaction. Felix obeyed, stopping beside her. Ready to accept anything by now.
The machine started up with a horrendous roar and a huge cloud of sand. Almost at once, the cloud began to settle. From atop the machine, which was now rolling slowly forward on huge treads, a nozzle had appeared. It was spraying some clear substance into the atmosphere that seemed to cause the dust to coalesce. Soon the cloud of sand was all but gone.
"Siliconite 18," Shoen explained, "a sand clotter. It keeps the dust out of the air and makes certain the foundation of the bunker is firm enough to hold it."
Felix nodded, barely listening, entranced by the incredible sight before him. From the back of the machine, a wall was appearing. It was like some bizarre magician's trick, an optical illusion. The front of the machine sucked in the sand. The back of it emitted that same sand in the form of a five-meter-tall, perfectly smooth wall.
Shoen chuckled beside him. Can't have a fort without a wall, can you?"
Felix looked at her. She pointed an armored arm. "The wall will go all the way around the fort in a square, protecting all three sides not covered by the sea. We'll have blazer cannon mounted on top with crossfire covering a killing area of a million square meters. Something, huh?"
But what he was thinking, what he had been thinking all along, through all of her explanations and enthusiasm, was that none of this had really answered his question. None of it really told him: Why?
He shook himself suddenly, angrily. Why should it, dammit? Why this time instead of any other time? What was the matter with him? The why of it made no more difference than the insanity. This was Banshee! He shook himself again. Banshee! Remember it!
"Felix? Is there something wrong?"
He looked at her. "No."
She wasn't satisfied. "Something on your mind?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is there something about all of this you don't like? If there is, tell me. I really want to hear your opinion."
She turned away from him. She seemed embarrassed. "I saw what you did with that Ant." She turned back to him quickly. "Oh, just the last part of it. You were free before we had a chance to do anything. Really!"
He shrugged. "I believe you."
"Do you really?"
He stared at her. "Of course."
"Good. I'm glad. Because, well…"
He didn't want to hear this. He didn't want to hear any of it. He said something about her being expected inside.
"Oh," she said, rebutted. "Right." And the two of them continued on to the bunker in silence.
Felix was grateful for the silence. It was not that he feared her confessing no combat experience, for he knew that already and knew what to say upon hearing it. And if she went further, if she told him she was nervous and uncertain, he would know what to say. Even if she went so far as to tell him, outright, how scared she was, he could handle it. He had heard it before, from many others. He knew the noncommittal mouthings that were required from him in reply and he could give them to her as easily as he had given them to everyone else. But if she went further still, if she took that next step, he was lost. If she asked him to help her…
He hated it when they asked him that. He hated it because he always said he would-what else could he tell them? What else was there to do but say. Yes, I'll help you? What else was there to do but lie?
For this was Banshee and the ants were coming for them as they always came and there would be too many as there always were and they would come so quickly-too quickly, it would all happen too damn fast for anyone to help anyone else or even think of anything but the horror of it and the desperate all-consuming need to escape it. And even if someone wanted to help her, wanted her safety so much that he would turn his back on the rampaging slaughter, would open himself to it for her sake… Even if someone cared that much, even if he cared that much, even if he did… The Engine did not.
Shoen stopped just before they reached the crowd and stuck out her hand. "My name's Canada, by the way. Since we're going to be spending a lot of time together, we might as well introduce ourselves. Canada Shoen."
He took her armored hand in his. "Felix."
"Just Felix?" she asked. "No other name?"
Not anymore, he thought, but said only: "Just Felix."
"Oh," she said, still gripping his hand as though she wanted to say something else but didn't know what. "Oh," she said again, dropping his hand a moment later.
Felix said nothing either, though he knew what he wanted to say, knew damned well.
"I can't help you," he wanted to say. But he didn't. He never did.
Everyone seemed to know Shoen, many by her first name. Dozens of voices called out to her when they arrived in front of the bunker. Several of the people wearing the bright orange p-suits-engineers, it turned out-dropped what they were doing and rushed over to her, blurting out progress reports and enthusiasm. It didn't seem to Felix that they felt the need to inform her so much as they seemed to need someone to share their excitement.
Shoen was eager to do that, recognizing each and every one of them on sight, and, more importantly, understanding the significance of each breathless announcement. She tried, at first, to keep him up with it all. He was introduced to far too many strangers in the first several seconds. He had little hope of recalling even a third of their names, and no hope whatsoever of understanding their individual functions. After a few moments, he gave up, turning away from Shoen & Co. and simply staring at the bewildering chaos of construction. Shoen barely noticed his absence, becoming caught up in the momentum almost at once. Within seconds, Felix noted absently, no trace of her earlier uncertainty remained.
But he paid little attention to her group. The sheer spectacle of the rising fort enthralled him. There were at least three other wall-builders that he could see from where he stood, all in use. The comers of the walls had already been erected in place and atop them, more orange suits swarmed about installing what Felix recognized as blazer cannon. Another team of engineers were working on the walls themselves. Half of them worked their way along the top of the wall behind the machine, carving an indented walkway. The other half worked along the bottom of the walls, running power leads for the cannon and what appeared to be a huge command platform erected entirely of plastifomi just behind the midpoint of the main wall. The platform had room for fifty people, bulky warrior suits and all, with three separate stairways to get them up there and a broad thick open-air roof to shelter them.
Another platform, this one only a meter tall, had been built in the center of the compound. It was circular, perhaps five meters in diameter, and bisected in the middle by a small wall of its own. Two separate Transit Cones shimmered faintly on either side of the wall, from which figures were being constantly dropped and retrieved, respectively. Also in the compound proper were several plastifomi cubes, geometrically alligned, in which were placed a wide variety of equipment. Felix recognized a great deal of it, the Cangren Cells, the emergency allsize p-size, the extra blaze rifles, the spare parts for the cannon, some tools. But that left a vast array of paraphernalia Felix had never seen before. He couldn't even guess their purposes.
Felix glanced at the dial of his drop timer glowing faintly beneath his holos. He was surprised to see he was less than two hours into the drop. Less than two hours since he and the other members of the forward group had touched down at dawn. During that time he had managed to find the Dorm, chart much of the maze of dunes protecting it, scout for, find, and fight an ant, and return, with Shoen at his side. A busy enough morning, to be sure.
But nothing, he thought, next to this. He watched as the engineers connected a cannon-bearing corner from each side with simultaneous arrivals of twin wall-makers. Amazing. Less than two hours ago there had been nothing here at all and now a walled fort was all but finished-would be finished, in fact, in moments, before his very eyes.
All told, there were at least a thousand figures present. And, except for the group of some two hundred warriors formed up to one side, all were busily working engineers. They were like parts of a single elaborate machine, he thought, gazing at the teeming orange multitudes. "Or ants," he muttered, "building a hive."