The excited babble of engineers surrounding Shoen had been replaced by an excited babble of brass, their warrior suits boldly displaying the marks and colorings of their exalted ranks. Felix counted two full colonels and a major in the pack before Shoen turned to him and spoke.
"How long," she wanted to know, "before that Ant warmed up enough to fight, would you say?"
Felix considered a moment. "Three to four minutes after sighting."
The row of brass nodded at this, in unison.
Shoen continued, "Any idea how long it had been above ground?"
Felix shook his head. "None."
The row nodded at this as well. One of the colonels spoke up. "That's about right, isn't it? That checks?"
"Right," said the others, more or less in synch.
Shoen turned back to them. "It looks good to me, Ali. I think you should talk to the Old Man. Tell him you want to try it."
Ali, the colonel who had spoken before, nodded. "Won't hurt to ask him I shouldn't think. And I do think it's a good opportunity."
"Of course it is," Shoen assured him.
"Absolutely," assured someone else. Perhaps the other Colonel.
"It certainly should be suggested, in any event," said a third voice Felix couldn't place with a suit.
Colonel Ali hesitated one last moment, then nodded firmly. "Very well. I'll see him now."
"Good," declared Shoen. "Let me know what he says. I've got to get inside with my team."
With that, the group divided, the brass toward the command platform, Shoen and Felix toward the front of the bunker.
"That was Colonel Khuddar," Shoen offered in explanation. "He's senior staff officer and he's come up with something I'd like you to…"
She was interrupted by another engineer, this one bearing the same rank as her own, Lt. Colonel.
"Mind sharing the lock, Canada?" he asked brightly, gesturing toward the entrance to the bunker.
"Blackfoot!" she replied happily. She waved an arm toward the constructive frenzy. "It's beautiful, just like we planned it. You're a genius."
Blackfoot grumbled something almost inaudible in reply about everything going wrong that could and how she could only be so optimistic because she didn't know what she was talking about.
"But you're getting it done, aren't you? And on time?"
"Oh, yes," he replied distractedly, as though nothing could be less important.
The two of them continued to discuss the engineer's problems while they waited for the seal to open for them. Felix understood almost nothing that was said. When the seal parted, the three of them stepped inside the lock, a square featureless chamber with room for a dozen warriors seated and standing. The seal closed behind them. Sensors on the wall of the lock and inside each of their suits told them it was cycling.
Felix felt oddly uneasy. Though he had known about pressure locks and seals since Basic, knew, in fact, how to repair them in case of emergency, he had never been in one before. On Banshee, he had never thought he would.
Beside him, Shoen laughed, drawing his attention back to their conversation.
"But that's why you used Siliconite in the first place, isn't it? You wanted the sand more cohesive."
"Yeah," the engineer agreed sourly. "But now I'm cut off underneath."
Shoen shook her head. "What difference does it make, Blackfoot? You've already got your soundings. You got them up front."
"Well, sure, but…"
"And they were positive, were they not?" she insisted.
"Well, yeah, but…"
"But nothing. Blackfoot, you're a hopeless worrier like every other engineer. If soundings showed a firm foundation before the siliconite, what makes you think it'd be any different now? My God, the stuff can only make it firmer and you know it." She laughed again. "Only you would sound now, anyway."
He laughed. "Maybe you're right. Still, I wish I hadn't used the eighteen. Maybe fifteen. Then I'd still be able to get at least an echo reading of the formations. But this damn eighteen cuts off everything we… "
The opening of the inner seal interrupted the engineer. The three of them stepped through the gap into the bunker itself. Blackfoot left them at once on his own errands, with an over-the-shoulder wave meant for them both. Felix managed a small wave in return before hurrying to catch up with Shoen, already heading off in the opposite direction past a long line of people waiting to get out. Shoen turned around only once, to see that Felix was in step behind her.
"Stay close," she cautioned. "You could get lost in here." Felix believed her. Though clearly marked, the sheer number of passages was disconcerting. He figured it would take most of a Banshee day to see every nook and cranny, even if someone wanted to stay in there that long, which Felix most certainly did not. He hated the place, had hated it from almost the first moment. He hated it because it was a lie.
He and Shoen moved to the side of the corridor to make room for a man coming down the other way. Felix knew it was a man because he wore nothing more than a jumpsuit.
And really, there was no need to. The bunker was pressurized. It had air. It had heat. It had walls three meters thick built into it, not to mention the one surrounding it on the outside, with its half dozen blazer cannon and two hundred warriors to man them. Inside such protection, why shouldn't a man feel protected? Why shouldn't he feel… safe?
Just because this is Banshee, he told himself angrily, is not enough. The bunker exists, after all. It's here and strong and there is nothing careless about using it. There is no reason at all to feel that something will happen the instant the suit pops open. Popping it open is no signal. It will not bring ants. I will not die. Just because this is Banshee is not enough.
But, of course, it was. For him, for Felix, it was. Each new sight of an unsuited person chilled something deep within him. And he couldn't avoid the sense of the lie, nearby and malevolent and poised. He searched his mind for a specific cause for the fear but found none. Yet the dread remained, a swirling caress of paranoia and suspicion. He felt… lured.
Shoen led them, at last, to their destination, a door without a handle marked simply, "Ant Lab" at the end of a short hallway. Past this was a small alcove bearing jumpsuits and armor brackets on opposite walls. Without hesitation, she picked a set of brackets between two p-suits and backed snugly into it. Felix paused long and hard before picking brackets of his own and stepping between them. As he lifted his arms from his sides and slipped into place he discovered that he was panting like a small panicked animal. For just a moment, he didn't think he would be able to do it. He took a deep breath. He made one more irrational sweep of the tiny chamber for danger. He decided to go ahead and do it.
And suddenly, he had. He stood naked in front of the suit, wild-eyed and taut and expectant.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all. Except for Shoen, shrugging into a jumpsuit beside him and his suit hanging on the wall behind him, he was alone. No ants.
"Are you all right," Shoen asked.
"Fine," he replied shortly, grabbing a jumpsuit and putting it on. "Fine."
The lab was huge, several times larger than necessary. Only one comer was lit, giving the impression of a vast cavern. There were three techs in the corner of light, two of them bent over the single table, the third examining a row of dials on the wall. They turned at the sound of approach.
"Welcome to our little store, Felix," said Shoen. "Let me introduce you to everybody. First, there's…"
"Is this him?" blurted the nearest one suddenly, a thin young man with bright red hair. He stepped up to Felix and offered his hand. "You're Felix? Nice job! My name's Gavin and I sure want you to know I think a lot of what you do."
"Okay," replied Felix uncertainly while the young tech pumped his hand.
"I'm sorry," said another tech, a bald black woman as young as the first. She looked to Shoen nervously. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I told them what we saw, him fighting the ant like that."
"It seems your exploits precede you, Felix," commented Shoen with a grin.
Felix said nothing. He shook hands with the woman, who called herself something Geronis. The third tech, equally young, stepped forward last, shaking Felix's hand with slow deliberation while gravely insisting that nothing he could ever accomplish in a lab would mean as much as what Felix did with every drop. Felix didn't catch his name.
The introductions completed, the questions began at once. "I bet you've seen a lot of combat, huh?" asked Geronis. "What's it like?"
"Have you?" Gavin wanted to know. "Have you seen a lot of combat?"
Felix shrugged. "Some."
"Tell us about it," blurted at least two of them in ragged unison.
"Yeah. What's it like?" "Is it scary?" "Are you scared?"
"Is it hard to kill an ant?" "What does it feel like to kill one?" "What was it like the first time?"
Felix stared, unbelieving, at their faces, eager, excited, admiring. Those faces had noting to do with Banshee and nothing to do with him and he could… not… imagine… why they didn't know it immediately. Were they blind? Retarded?
Felix's expression dawned, belatedly, on Shoen. She hurried to rescue him. "Enough," she barked, clapping her hands for silence. "He's here to see the lab, dammit. Shut up and show it to him. We're on a tight schedule."
Meekly, they obeyed. There wasn't much to see. Four pressurized vats, tools and trays for dissection, some specimen jars. The explanation for each was lost completely, in the style of the questions, in the sound of three voices at once. Shoen was quicker to the rescue the second time. She gave him, in seconds, the only two pieces of information he actually needed to have.
"When you blaze the spine, make sure you get a section as long as your forearm," she said. "And when you bring it back, put it in there," she added, pointing to a slot on the largest vat.
"Is that it?" he asked.
"That's it," she assured him and led him outside to safety. The techs were still wishing them luck as they hit the door.
"They've given the team a pretty good place to rest," she said as they once again entered the main passage. "I'll show it to you and then I've got some people I've got to see."
He nodded without answering. His mind was elsewhere-on his newly discovered delight at being out of the suit. It really did feel marvellous, however frightening it had seemed at first. He flexed his toes in his sandals happily.
Shoen stopped abruptly in front of him, turning to speak. He stopped and waited. She, in turn, waited for a small group of people in jumpsuits to pass before speaking.
"Look, Felix," she began hesitantly, "I'm sorry about those kids in the lab. I know they seemed a little… Well, you must understand that for them this is all very…"
"Canada!" sounded from behind them enthusiastically. As they turned toward the voice they were surrounded by half a dozen fresh-faced young officer-types wearing jumpsuits too immaculate to be anything other than custom tailored. They looked like they belonged on the vid, he thought. Like actors cast as the Fleet's finest. Or, he added wryly, like students dressed up for a party with an Antwar motif. He shrugged uneasily, failed once more to catch most of the names Shoen threw at him. He was ignored for the most part. Canada and her exploits were the center of their attentions. And when they found out she'd seen "action"!
"Well, it was really my scout here, Felix," she added somewhat patronizingly.
"Tell us about it," urged a pretty captain with a thick Slavic accent.
Felix looked at her uncertainly. He had no idea what to say to her. He knew there must be a connection between doing it and talking about it later-it just seemed beyond his reach.
Others chimed in with their own urgings, interrupting one another in their excitement. The only response Felix was able to effectively offer was a nod to the oft-repeated question: "Seen much combat?"
Everyone of the group seemed to feel the need to ask that particular question. Everyone of them got the same nod. And, though few noticed, the same helplessly blank stare.
Mercifully, they tired of him. And Shoen had things to do. Soon they were alone. She didn't try to apologize this time. She only smiled nervously.
He met the other members of Sheen's team in the overly large quarters assigned to them for off-duty use-a huge rectangular squad bay holding seven bunks in a space meant for thirty. Ling he had met earlier-she had been the one who had actually killed the ant. The other warrior was a huge man named Morleone. "I gave you back your rifle, remember?" he asked as he shook Felix's hand.
Felix remembered, nodded.
Shoen looked around. "Where's Dominguez? Where's the sergeant?"
Ling shrugged. "Said something about needing more gear. He left as soon as we got here."
Shoen frowned at that. She ordered Felix shown the rest of the area-which meant nothing more than Morleone pointing to the door holding the head.
"Got everything you need in there," Morleone offered.
"Heads and showers." He shrugged his shoulders and vast muscles rippled. "Not like any drop I ever heard of."
Shoen spoke up sharply, almost defensively. "Well, okay. Wait here until Dominguez shows up. Then get back into your gear." She glanced at a clock on the wall. "We'll be seeing it all happen pretty quick. Sun's been up over two hours now."
"Howdy, Colonel," said a cheerful voice. Standing in the doorway was another huge man. He seemed, on first glance, to be fat. But, Felix quickly decided, it was only because of his enormous barrel chest. "You must be Felix," the man said, dropping a packing case heavily onto one of the bunks. He stuck out a hand. "I'm Dominguez "
Felix shook the hand while Shoen inspected the packing case.
"What have you got there. Sergeant?" she wanted to know.
Dominguez smiled broadly. "Cigarettes, mostly." He reached inside and selected one of the tubes at random. He looked at Felix. "You smoke?"
Felix nodded eagerly, catching the tube thrown to him. "Me too," echoed the two warriors simultaneously. Dominguez waved them toward the case.
Shoen looked unhappy. "Is that what you've been up to, Dominguez? I thought I told you to check out your quarters."
Dominguez smiled easily, unrepentant. "Oh, I did. Colonel. I did." He looked around at the room. "And they're just beautiful!"
Ling and Morleone grinned. Shoen tried not to, failed. Even Felix smiled. There was something lovable about the sergeant that was undeniable. Felix found himself liking the other man immediately, and then surprising himself by realizing it.
Dominguez stepped over to Felix, lit his cigarette for him, said: "So you're the bully?"
Felix stared quizzically, wondering what the man meant and, more importantly, why he was grinning again.
"What's the idea of picking on the Colonel's ant like that this morning?"
Felix laughed, shrugged, amazed by it all.
Dominguez continued. "I know your type, Felix. Always starting something."
Felix tried explaining how he got taken by surprise…
"Oh really?" interrupted Dominguez with loud skepticism. "You trying to tell us that an ant eight foot tall weighing a thousand or so pounds just kinda sneaked up on you when you weren't looking?"
Felix laughed again with the others.
"What'd it do. Scout, tiptoe?" demanded Dominguez, spreading his arms into the air and hunching over. His face screwed up, his eyes bugging out, he pranced several steps around the room in a hilarious imitation of a tiptoeing ant. Ling, Morleone-even Shoen-were soon roaring with laughter.
Incredibly, Felix found he was laughing right along with them. And for those brief moments, he simply luxuriated in the sensation. Gratefully, blindly… It made no sense. But it had been so long.
And then it was over and he and Shoen were heading back through the corridors to the lab and their armor. Once more they were assaulted by a gang of young fresh faces loudly greeting Shoen as the old friend she apparently was. And once more they turned to him, besieging him with questions about the ant, about all ants, about fighting them. About killing them.
He endured it, nodding, nodding. The contrast, between these Up and Coming and Dominguez was inexplicably striking. He wasn't sure exactly why, but their questions-and their eagerness to question-left him cold and… closed. He didn't like being around them, didn't like anything about them. But the reasons for his feelings were as much a mystery as his instant affection for Dominguez. Normally, Felix knew full well, he didn't notice people at all, much less have emotional reactions to them.
There is something very odd here, he thought to himself, glancing at the passage overhead. Something wrong. The drop itself… this bunker, these people. Me. Especially me. I feel…
And that, of course, was it, he realized suddenly. He felt. He felt…
"Ah, c'mon, what was it, Felix? Exactly how much combat have you really seen? How many drops?"
Felix looked at the man who had asked the question, disliking him at once. He was somehow too snide and too cynical and too… My God? Envious?
"This is twenty," Felix snapped without thinking, shouldering past the man and continuing his way down the passage.
It was very quiet behind him. He walked several steps, then considered stopping. He wasn't at all certain about where everything was and Shoen…
Then she was there, by his side. "Here," she said, pointing to a cutoff he recognized as the lab hallway.
He looked sideways at her as they entered the alcove holding their suits. She didn't speak. But she didn't seem at all displeased.
He glanced at his suit, a sudden revulsion surging at the thought of putting it back on and then… Just the thought of wearing it seemed enough. He leaned against the wall and lit the other cigarette he had brought from the squad bay.
"That was pretty good," she said suddenly. He looked at her. She was nodding with satisfaction. "Garrel Brunt is an ass."
He half-smiled, waiting patiently.
"I don't blame you a bit for saying that to him," she continued. "'Course, he'll just go look you up now. He can do it, too-he's got the pull to check most records. And you'll hear from him again, loudly, no doubt, and in public, no doubt. He hates looking like a fool."
Felix got it. "You mean that last guy?"
"Right. Brunt. I loved that look on his face when you told him twenty drops." She laughed lightly to herself. "The rest, too. They didn't believe it either-but what could they say? What if it was true? Ha!" She laughed again, smiling at him. "I don't blame you a bit, really. Must get awfully tired of hearing that same question. Bet you've heard it a lot, huh?"
He shrugged. "Never so much as today."
"Really?" she asked. She looked thoughtful. "Maybe it makes sense. These guys would be awfully curious about combat, since none of them ever should've seen any. Or mostly none." She looked at him suddenly, grinning.
"How many drops have you really had?"
"Twenty," he replied absently. "But what are they doing here if they…"
He stopped when he saw her face.
Her voice was very deliberate. "Did you say… do you mean to say that you really have dropped twenty times? On Banshee?"
He nodded. "Counting this one."
He sighed, dropped his cigarette on the floor. "Okay."
"No. I mean it. That can't be."
"Because… Well, because it… it just can't be! How long have you been here? "
She stared at him, then looked away, staring still. "Garrel Brunt's going to drop dead when he reads that." She looked back at him, a wan smile trying bravely to rise. "He's going to wish he'd never even seen you, or even come here, for that matter."
"Call me Canada," she said quickly.
He glanced at her, couldn't read what he saw. "Okay. Canada. Tell me. You said this guy Brunt, and most of the others, would never see combat? You mean if they hadn't come here?"
"Then what are they doing here?"
She shrugged. "They're here to see combat."
"I don't get it. If they don't have to fight, why would they want to?"
"They don't. Most of'em don't. They just want to… well, see it. From the bunker."
She peered carefully at him. "Do you understand?"
"I think so." And maybe he did. Or was beginning to.
"Felix, I know you think this is…"
"Who are they?" he asked bluntly.