She blinked. "Oh. Well, that bunch you saw just now are liaison officers."
"Liaison officers… Observers?"
"Right. For… I don't know, different branches of the services. Subcommittees, that sort of thing."
He nodded. He looked at her. "And who are you?"
She blinked again. "I'm from Militar. Fleet Central."
He nodded again.
"But I'm no Observer," she added quickly. "I'm here because the bunker was partly my idea."
"Well, it came out of our office, anyway. Operations Analysis. It was my idea to have the ants checked after each stage of the battle." She squared her shoulders. "Those of us from my office have jobs here. We…"
"Us? Who else?"
"You saw some of them outside. Ali-Colonel Khuddar, he works with…"
"That guy's second-in-command. He's senior on the command staff."
"Right," she replied happily, pleased he had remembered- and totally unaware of his reaction."
"He's never seen combat? Like the rest of you?"
"I don't think so," she replied, thinking. "He's dropped before, though, I believe. No, I'm sure he has."
"What are you people doing here?" he asked in a calm controlled voice.
She looked surprised. "I told you. We… Oh, I see what you mean. This is Banshee, after all…"
"Well…" She looked very young suddenly. Childlike. Guilty? "You have to admit, though, this is the best chance most of us are ever gonna get to see combat. I mean, it's perfect here."
She looked impatient. "You know," she insisted matter-of-factly, "safe."
Felix stood atop the bunker wall facing due east. Below him was the killing ground, its smooth, Siliconite-covered surface sparkling in the morning sunshine. The area looked to be every bit as large as Shoen had said it would be. It sloped gently down from the foot of the wall for several hundred meters before beginning a long gentle rise to the top of the ridge-everything else had been blasted flat by the engineers. rounded mogul-like humps just before the top of the distant ridge everything else had been blasted flat by the engineers.
To his right and south-and likewise to his left and north-it was the same story without the slope. The sand, flat and open, stretched directly away from the wall for half a kilometer. Some cover did exist, however. Starting from about one hundred yards directly off the southeast corner of the fort, and stretching all the way to the ridge, was a typical Banshee maze.
Made of three- to seven-meter high ridges meandering randomly in any and all directions-as well as the various wind-carved gulleys and arroyos Separating them-the maze had been considered too great an obstacle to blast away. Besides, Shoen had assured him, it was so cramped and narrow as to be useless to the ants. They liked to attack en masse, in waves. The widest of the gulleys could handle no more than two or three ants abreast.
Scanning the area one last time, Felix had to admit that everything seemed to have been considered. The fort, with its back to the western sea, seemed ideally situated.
He turned his attention toward the inside of the walls. The last of the orange p-suited engineers were stepping onto the Transit platform. Both halves were being employed in the same direction to save time. They had been on Banshee almost three hours now. Soon the ants, even those still remaining inside the Dorm, would be warm enough for a full-scale rush.
Felix shook his head in awe. Only three hours. And they had a fort! Even with the bunker itself having been dropped pre-built, it was an astonishing feat. He would have thought the wall alone would have required at least a day or two.
A gust of wind rose quickly and fluttered past them. But no dust. Thanks to the Siliconite, their vision would never be obscured by rolling clouds of sand. Maybe they really had thought of everything.
Dominguez appeared beside him on the wall. "Do you know what the hell's going on?" he asked bluntly.
"What do you mean?" Felix replied.
Dominguez hooked an armored thumb over his shoulder toward the warriors in the courtyard, all two hundred plus of them, forming up.
"We're moving out, for chrissakes, Felix! Can you believe it?"
Dominguez shrugged, snorted angrily. "Ya got me, Man. They go to all this trouble to build this goddamned miracle out in the middle of nowhere, then leave it before it does anybody any good."
"Have you talked to Can… Colonel Shoen?"
"Shit!" snapped the sergeant disgustedly. "She's too busy hanging out with her chums up there to fool with anything as puny as life and death."
Felix followed the other man's gaze to "up there," the Command Platform. He could barely spot her warrior suit amidst several others of equal or higher rank. He was about to offer to talk to her himself when a Lieutenant bounded up beside them on the wall and gestured to Dominguez.
"You're Dominguez, right? You and your squad are moving with my group. Get formed up."
"Yessir," Dominguez didn't quite snarl. He dropped down to the courtyard to where the other warriors were already lined up for the leap-by-pairs over the forward wall. There was no gate. Only the ants would have required one anyway. The lieutenant eyed Felix a moment. "Who are you. Scout?"
"Oh," said the lieutenant. He watched Felix another few seconds, then bounded away without speaking.
Felix watched him go. Now what the hell…?
The command frequency chattered into life with the order to move out. The leaping began. Felix watched in silence as almost the entire complement of warriors exited the fort. In seconds, only he, the cannon crews, and the brass jamming the Command Platform were left. Felix glanced back toward the bunker itself. The liaison officer Observers-or tourists, as he had privately labled them-were nowhere to be seen. He assumed they were waiting to see that it was, in fact, as safe around here as it was fun. Or perhaps they weren't even grounded. Felix knew there was another Transit area inside the bunker itself. He had seen the sign for it.
He watched the two lines of the warriors working up the forward slope toward the ridge. The leading edge of the formation was already passing through the moguls and out of sight over the ridge. Within another few minutes, the entire troupe would have reached the Dorm itself, only a quarter of a kilometer or so past the ridge.
It was insane.
Shoen appeared on the wall beside him a few minutes later. "You ready?" she asked.
He nodded. What else?
They hopped over the wall and started up the long slope to the ridge. The bootprints of the warriors ahead of them left only faint impressions in the Siliconite-coated sand. Felix stared idly at them as he trotted along, listening intently to Shoen's chattering tone to hear the reason for everyone leaving the safety of the fort. But Shoen was concerned only with providing him with blow-by-blow details of power plays among the young officers of the Staff.
Suddenly, Felix realized they were the same thing. He stopped.
"Let me get this straight: We're going out to the Dorm because your friend Ali wants to prove something to the CO?"
She looked at him. "Well, Ali is in charge of all the warriors. And how's he going to be able to show what he can do with them inside the walls?"
Felix stared at her a moment, then resumed trotting without a sound. They were almost to the top of the ridge before she spoke again. Her voice was plaintive, defensive.
"Felix, you just don't understand how tough it is for one of us to…"
"Shoen!" sounded sharply on the command frequency. "Hold up there for an extra hand."
They stopped and turned to face the now-distant walls. "I bet I can tell you who this is," said Shoen, sounding pleased.
A second later it was unnecessary. With the first sight of the huge blue warrior suit-larger by far than any other Felix had ever seen, and infinitely more impressive-there was no doubt in his mind as to who it had to be: Nathan Kent. He began by bounding, with ease, over the forward wall as if shot out of a cannon. He was running as he struck the sand some thirty meters down the slope. A second later he had already begun climbing up the ridge toward them at an easy gentle lope-and a speed Felix knew he could never hope to achieve.
He was awesome.
And beautiful, Felix thought, watching the blue suit hurtling toward him. The combination of state-of-the-art armor and athletic magnificence was a sight overshadowing every- thing else; the war, the ants, the man alone-nothing else had to do with the vision of excellence but the vision itself.
"Felix," Forest had told him, "it wasn't even close." Felix believed her.
Kent arrived. There was no indication that he was even short of breath. Shoen introduced them. They shook hands. Felix started to say something, decided against it. Not the time, he thought, turning and leading them the rest of the way.
Once over the ridge, the terrain became once more Banshee- like. A smaller maze covered the last few hundred meters to the Dorm. In silence, Felix led them through it, following the tracks of the preceding warriors. He never once turned to look at the two following behind. He knew about Shoen, he thought. And he could almost feel the presence of Kent.
He would have to tell him about Forest, about that last time with her-that was certain. But how to go about it? He had debated that with himself on and off from the first moment of meeting Kent in the drop bay. What to tell Kent about Forest… There was much to tell.
For one thing, Felix thought her to be the best armored fighter he had ever seen, himself included. And besides her skill, there was her bravery-no less considerable. Her value as a companion was no doubt well-known to Kent already. And though Felix doubted Kent would find the topic boring, however often it was discussed, there was much more to say. Much, much more.
She was very proud of you, friend Kent. On top of that she respected you-for what you really were inside. And something else. Friend Kent. Forest loved you.
Yes, she did. She loved you. The way it should be done and for always. Forever. To the very end. I know, for when she died saying so, it was in my arms.
My God! he thought suddenly, feeling the tears on his cheeks. I'm crying!
"How weird!" he blurted out loud, stopping short.
The other two wanted to know what he meant, what was going on. They weren't at all satisfied with his "Nothing."
And as they resumed the trip, he could sense their uneasiness. But he didn't care about theirs. His was plenty for the moment. What the hell was happening to him?
The maze parted at last, revealing the warriors deployed in the classic Fleet semicircle. Less than forty meters beyond their positions, the roof of the Dorm itself shone in the sun. Awfully close, Felix thought. Awfully damned close.
Shoen raced past him to the knot of warriors around her friend Ali.
"Is that it?" asked a shy and gentle voice from over his shoulder.
He glanced at Kent briefly. "That's it," he replied.
Kent was watching the Dorm. "I don't see any ants," he offered.
"Felix!" Shoen called, waving him toward the group. Two of the other five scouts were already there. "You're being drafted," she explained. She indicated the other scouts. "Ali, Colonel Khuddar, wants you three to make a scan around the far side of the Dorm."
Felix nodded to the other scouts. "Right now?"
"Right now," she replied. "Report on Command Prime Frequency."
"Okay." He started off with the others.
"See you later, Felix," Kent called cheerfully.
Felix paused, regarded the huge blue suit. "See ya," he managed.
They found nothing new on the scan. The Dorm was situated in the middle of a large depression on a relatively flat plain between several sections of maze. It looked to Felix as though it had recently been unearthed from a covering windstorm. He couldn't see much more than the roof without approaching to the lip of the crater. One of the scouts suggested they do that very thing. Felix stared him into silence. It was plainly evident that neither of the other two scouts had seen Banshee, or ants, before. In fact, he soon discovered, none of the six scouts on the drop, besides him, had ever seen Banshee. None had ever worn scout suits before either. They were all from Militar, all green, and all thankful to Canada for getting them this chance to see "the real action."
Felix groaned. He sent them back to the colonel after the brief sighting and went to find his own squad. He found them arranged at the southern end of the semicircular deployment, crouched behind a short bluff of a dune that made up the farthest extent of the ant's unearthing efforts. Shoen wasn't there. Curiously enough, Kent was.
So was Dominguez, looking fretful even through his faceplate.
"Too goddamned close, Felix," he said at once.
"Hello again," offered Kent in the same pleasant tone as before. Felix nodded to Kent, agreed with Dominguez. He regarded the overall deployment.
"What's the idea, exactly?" Dominguez demanded.
Felix shrugged. "They want to see if they can contain the first charge right here using our own crossfire."
Dominguez stood up. "You're joking!"
"What's wrong?" Kent wanted to know.
"What's wrong???" Dominguez snapped angrily. Then, seeing it was Kent who had asked, he continued in a softer tone. "What's wrong is that we're too damned close to be just sitting here waiting for them."
"We've got'em in our crossfire," offered Kent hopefully.
No one replied.
"Well," insisted Kent, "don't we?"
Felix nodded reluctantly. "We do."
"But what've they got us in?" added Dominguez sourly. He regarded Felix. "This whole deal gives me the creeps." He gestured behind them. "No other cover either, see?"
Felix looked behind them. It was open for some fifty meters to their rear. The closest obstacle was the edge of the maze, a smooth sheer wall five meters high. Not too high for powered legs to clear, of course. And there was a gap there, he noticed. It was wide enough for a couple of warriors to use at one time. Still, all that open space to get there made it…
"Maybe we ought to pull back a bit."
"I'm for that," said the Sergeant.
"But Canada told us to stay here," protested Kent.
"And I meant it," said Shoen, appearing from down the long line of warriors. "What's this talk about pulling back?"
"We're too damn close, Colonel," said Dominguez firmly.
"Too close for what?" She waved toward the Dorm.
"Dorm's don't have any artillery."
"How do you know?" Felix asked.
She looked at him. "You ever heard of them having it?"
She looked at Dominguez. "Have you?"
"No," they conceded in unison.
"Then there's no reason to expect any." She paused, sat down in the sand. "Colonel Khuddar knows what he's doing."
Felix snorted. "False, Colonel. For one thing, he's never done this before. And for another…" He looked at her. "Your Ali is just a bit too eager for me."
She met his gaze. "Maybe he hasn't had much actual on-the-spot experience…"
"Any, you mean."
She ignored him. "But he's had the full benefit of all Fleet research on Dorms."
Felix laughed bitterly. "Fleet research thought these things were supply dumps the first time they dropped me. We stepped from the ship straight into six marching rows."
It was quiet for several seconds while they digested that. Then, "When was that?" Shoen asked.
"The Knuckle," Felix replied in a dead voice.
There was a sudden movement beside him. He turned to find Kent's massive blue helmet looming over him.
"You… You were at the Knuckle, Felix?" he asked, his voice an almost inaudible whisper.
Damn, Felix thought. Damn! Not this way.
"Yes…" Not Kent. Nathan. "Yes, Nathan. I was there."
He lifted a gloved hand to rest on the great shoulder… And the first explosion went off. Several more erupted immediately afterwards, a staccato barrage of noise and flying sand. Dominguez's order for all to hit the sand and stay flat was lost in the rolling thunder of the concussions and the bone-chilling screams of surrounding warriors.
In seconds, it was over, as abruptly as it had begun. Recall chimes sounded immediately afterward, filling the heavy silence.
"That's it!" shouted Dominguez to one and all. "Let's hit it home! C'mon!"
Felix, half-buried by the cascading sands, dragged himself out and up to his feet. Around him everyone was fleeing wildly toward the maze. Everyone who could. A dozen steps away, a warrior's suit arched stiffly before suddenly bursting outward. He shuddered and turned away.
Kent was there, standing still as a statue and looking over the rise. Felix turned to follow his gaze and froze himself. A solid wall of ants was boiling up and over and down toward them.
"Let's move it," he shouted. He grasped Kent's armored shoulder and tried to shake it. It was like trying to budge the bunker itself. "Come on," he all but screamed, standing with his faceplate before the other man's. Still, Kent wouldn't move.
Felix glanced over his shoulder; the ants were almost there. "Goddammit!" he raged at the blue suit. "Move!!" And he slapped his hand against the side of Kent's helmet. Apparently without thinking, Kent hit him back, a backhand to his chest. Felix somersaulted backward into the sand.
When he shook himself alert once more, Kent was gone. He looked up. The ants were not.
"Dammit!" he groaned and started running, just beyond the outstretched reach of the first of many, many claws. Ahead of him, he saw the blue suit reach the first wall of the maze and vault over it. Five meters over it. Awesome, he thought again.
But then all thoughts were lost to his flight. The ants had almost cut off his retreat. He bore down hard, slamming his boots into the soft footing and accelerating at ultimate intensity. He crossed the last few meters to the maze in seconds, mere steps ahead of the closing mass. He darted through the gap in the first ridge blindly, clipping an edge of the wall in his haste, sending him tumbling off-balance. Still careening, he slammed into the next wall. "Idiot!" he grumbled furiously to himself.
And then he was up and running again, no less blindly. For the ants were through the gap almost as quickly and piling up against one another in their attempts to follow him down the gulley. He kept on, not bothering after that one glance over his shoulder to check their progress. He followed that gulley until it came to a dead end and leaped over the obstruction. He followed another gulley awhile, leapt again, leapt some more. Ran…
At last he reached the killing area where he could achieve full speed. Ahead of him, the last of the others were already clearing the walls of the fort into safety. Behind and above him, the ants were boiling into sight over the top of the ridge and down the long smooth runway to the bunker. Felix ran like hell to beat them to it.
Twenty last steps away, he noticed one of the gunners pointing a cannon just over his head at the ants he knew were just behind him. The gunner looked too damned itchy…
He pointed a shaking finger at the figure above him. "Hold your fucking fire!" he screamed at the top of his lungs.
The gunner's hands jerked, as if stung, from the triggering keys.
Felix took two more steps and launched himself for the top of the wall. Too hard, he realized in the air. "Dammit!" he cursed as he glided ungracefully past his target and crashed onto the smooth hard surface of the inner courtyard.
Two large warrior's hands hauled him roughly to his feet. Dominguez.
"You in a hurry?" asked the sergeant dryly.
Felix laughed shortly. "You still here?"
Dominguez shrugged. "It's a living."
"Fire!!" blared out on Command Frequency. "Fire all cannon!!"
They looked at one another, then bounced back up onto the wall. Most everyone else was already there. Felix had to wedge himself in between warriors to see. He almost wished, a few seconds later, that he hadn't. He had seen slaughters before-primarily at the Knuckle, but often since. Nothing had prepared him for this sight.
The cannon were cutting the ants in half. From one end of the killing area to the next, ants were being literally cut in two by the huge beams of coherent light. It happened too quickly for them to hide-even if such would occur to them. It happened too quickly for them to regroup or dodge and dart or, ultimately, threaten the fort in any way. The three cannon on the forward wall arced back and forth against the front ranks of the teeming horde with breathtaking efficiency. Piles of dead and twitching ants began to grow, to jam up the ones racing up from the rear. Because of the blockage in front, the gunners began directing their fire farther back into the ranks. Secondary piles began to form.
Thousands of ants, enough to cover the entire killing area, the entire runway of it, had stormed over the ridge towards them. Two or three thousand at least, Felix estimated. Perhaps as many as five. In a very few moments, all were dead. All. They never had a chance.
Never cared about one, he thought, watching the last few on the fringes of the mass being obliterated. Even the last stragglers had been intent on but one thing: attacking.
"Incredible," said a young warrior beside him. He turned to Felix. "I had no idea it was like this," he added.
Felix smiled coldly. It isn't like this, he wanted to say. At least it's never been before. And what… What if it really isn't now?
"Hold your fire!" sounded at last.
The cannon stopped, the people crowded even more tightly along the wall to see. There was a pause, and then a long ragged cheer erupted from the ranks. Felix found himself standing next to Dominguez once more. The sergeant hooked a thumb toward the mass of dead.
"How about that?" he asked.