Armor

3,471
07.03.2019

Felix shrugged. "You really think it's all going to go like this?"

Dominguez nodded, understanding. "But there it is," he offered.

"Yeah," Felix replied. "There it is."

Ten minutes later the second wave appeared over the ridge. The order to fire was delayed until, once more, the runway was covered with their rush.

Then the same thing happened. Once more, in moments, it was over.

A five-minute delay occurred before the third wave. It, too, went as before.

The ants waited a full fifteen minutes before the fourth wave appeared. It did them no good. Again, thousands died. Quickly, easily, distantly.

When it was all over, the warriors stood staring at the mass of corpses and pieces of corpses before them. They shook their heads in amazement. How stupid the ants were, they said, to be willing to let so many be wiped out.

Felix listened, but heard no one remark on what it meant that the ants were willing to let so many die. To them it was merely stupidity. To Felix, it was… something else. Something alien. While it made the others laugh, it made him… what?

He realized, after a moment, that it frightened him. Terrified him, in fact, in a way that nothing before had.

"They just don't care," he mumbled to himself. No one else heard. No one would have paid any attention, he knew, if he had.

So ended the third hour of the drop.

Shoen's squad formed on the southeastern corner beneath the cannon platform. It had been forty-five minutes since the last wave. She was afraid to wait any longer. The number of ants still seen to be twitching in the piles was rapidly shrinking.

"We want the ones still alive if we can find them," she admonished the team. "Or just recently dead."

They nodded. With Felix in the lead, the five of them went over the wall.

They were lucky. The first pile they reached had ants still jerking spastically. Felix and Dominguez stood watch while Shoen directed Ling and Morleone where and what to cut.

"Damn!" gasped Dominguez, staring at the carnage before their eyes.

Felix agreed. "Damn."

When they headed back, Felix saw that Shoen's face looked pale behind her faceplate. Good for you, he thought.

The fifth hour began with the rotation of several groups back into the bunker for rest. All the scouts were in the first group. They were going out again, Felix was told, as soon as they returned. Felix eagerly accepted the opportunity, finding to his surprise that he had been looking forward to a shower all along.

Later, he sat dripping in the head, smoking and watching himself in the mirror. You sure got used to this in a hurry, he thought.

He found the mess with little trouble. He sat on a bench and sipped a mug of hot tea given him by an enthusiastic galley tech. At the next table several young warriors discussed their first-ever sight of ants. Some were beginning to feel a delayed reaction of nausea at the experience. Two said they wouldn't look the second time it happened. One said he felt sorry for all those poor ants. "I think I would have mutinied if I'd been one of'em," he offered. Felix left.

He wandered the passageways until he found the main hall. It was the largest room he had found by far. In it, several techs were aligning hundreds of seats and benches. On the far wall, a huge blank screen hung before the rows of empty seats. One of the techs explained that the Old Man was planning to address everyone later.

Felix picked a seat at random and sat down to smoke and think. He stared at the screen. He thought some more. He finished a cigarette and lit another. He thought. What was wrong with him?

His mind told him this was wrong. This was a lie. And his guts, his instincts, told him the same thing-there was a frailty here not yet seen.

But he couldn't get excited about it. He couldn't get… scared enough.

His thoughts drifted to Kent. He hadn't seen him on the wall watching the slaughter. Embarrassed, he figured. A lot was expected from "everybody's hero," but that didn't include a perfectly normal reaction to a perfectly abnormal dose of horror. He thought back to the easy tones he had heard from the man and of the handsome face he had met earlier in the drop bay. All of it fitted with what Forest had told him.

"No Engine in that guy," he muttered to himself unconsciously. "Too gentle. Too nice."

Again he thought of Forest and of how to best explain to Kent what had happened and what it had meant. What she had meant. If he could just show him how much she had…

"Dammit!" he gasped suddenly. He was crying again! What the devil was going on here? Come to think of it, what had been going on…

Because it had been happening for a while now. Ever since… when? Michalk, of course. Ever since Michalk.

He had screamed when he had seen what they did to Michalk. Twice, he had screamed. Twice. Not in fear or pain either. But in surprise and, face it, the anguish of loss. He had liked Michalk, even in the short time he knew him. But how?

And what had that bit in the ship been about, anyway? Refusing to fight as if…as if he had a choice. As if he had somewhere else to go and something else to do. As if he were a real live person again.

Since being at the bunker, too, he had acted strangely. He had laughed with Dominguez. He had cried with the memory of Forest. How? How was he able?

He shook his head. He lit another cigarette. He had thought all such feelings long gone, long beyond his reach. But here he'd been, feeling like mad. Laughter and tears and…

And more. He had to admit it. There was more. The memory was returning. Of Her. Lately, he had caught himself… well, not exactly thinking about Her directly. Nothing so deliberate. Nothing so daring. But he had seen Her a couple of times. She had appeared, without conscious effort, full-blown and clear before his aching brain. All at once. She had been there. Maybe… Angel.

Then the pain hit him. It clutched at his middle, doubling him over in agony. He pitched forward in his seat, dropping the mug clattering onto the floor. The searing anxiety shot bolting up and down his spine. The pain, the Pain! As if no time had passed and nothing had happened.

Desperately, he forced his thoughts to blank. He must hold them there. Blank. Blank. Empty. Think of nothing. Don't, don't, don't let It out…

In a few minutes of long controlled breaths, he was safe. He could move. He stood up, ignoring the cup at his feet and the stares of the techs arranging the chairs. He headed back to the squad bay. Back to another shower.

Afterward, his face was pale and shaken in the mirror. It had been very close. Too damn close. It made him angry. "Fool!" he growled at himself. "Idiot!"

With a snort of disgust, he shook his head, shaking off the beads of water from the shower that were maybe tears as well. He stared angrily at his own reflection, stared hard. He must concentrate. Psyching… Psyching…

After a while, he felt it start to happen. He felt himself dropping away. Dropping back to nothing, to the nothing he had been and to the nothing he still needed to be. But he couldn't get all the way. He couldn't quite get back to where he wanted.

He couldn't quite get back to the Engine Felix. But he would, he told himself with bitter certainty. He would. He'd better.

Felix slipped carefully through the center of the maze toward the ridge and the Dorm beyond. He had left the walls ten minutes before with the rest of the scouts.

"Find out what's what," a Major Aleke had told him. "We don't want any surprises."

Felix had nodded and, finding himself in loose command of the other five scouts, had simply lined them up at quarter kilometer intervals and sent them off. He had ended up, by virtue of this system, with the center of the maze. He cursed at the effort involved. The others were surely far ahead of him by now. Railsmith, for instance, had the smooth edge of the killing runway and…

"Help! Help! Oh shit!" sounded from somewhere. From someone… Was it Railsmith? That would make it to his left.

"Help! Help! Blasters! Look out!"

Felix controlled the command prime band. He keyed it and spoke, trying to sound controlled.

"Who is this? Railsmith? Is that you?"

"Felix? Felix! Yes, it's me! Help!"

Felix cut him off. "Where are you, dammit?"

"At the Dorm! I'm here with… Oh, shit! We're coming back!"

"Well, do it then," he snapped angrily. Stupid jerk! He paused a moment, considering. Railsmith was to the left. He'd probably come straight back down the edge of the runway, sidestepping the piles of dead ants. Felix headed for the killing area to cut him off.

Other voices sounded alarms all up and down the lines. He interrupted their exclamations long enough to shout "Scouts in!" Unnecessary, of course. From the sound of them, they had been retreating when it had happened.

Cursing eloquently, he clambered over the last three walls of the maze onto the edge of the runway just as Railsmith and another scout appeared over the ridge in panicked flight. The other scout… Jiller, maybe, damned near died at Felix's abrupt appearance right in front of them. He dropped his rifle and skidded to a stop on his butt.

"Pick that up," growled Felix. Then, to Railsmith, "What is it? Blasters?"

Felix's calm appeared to offend Railsmith deeply. "Hell, yes, blasters. They've all got'cm. Everywhere! Never seen so many."

Felix resisted pointing out that Railsmith had never seen any before. Instead he tried getting something in the way of coherent details.

But that's when the heat ray struck them. "Holy shit!" screamed Jiller, jumping three meters straight up.

"C'mon, dammit," Felix snarled, dragging them sideways into the cover of a gulley. The two scouts started tearing down the length of it. "No, no!" Felix shouted. "Shoot them! Like this!"

Rifle in hand, he leaned around the edge of a dune and fired at the half dozen ants coming down the runway. All, he noted grimly, carried blasters.

"What's with you?" demanded Railsmith angrily. "You're so damned brave, are you?"

Good point, Felix thought. Then, "So let's get the hell back to the fort." He stepped back onto the runway. More ants had appeared over the ridge, firing blasters. "This way," he waved.

Railsmith stared. "They can shoot us that way! There's no cover! I'm going back through the maze."

Felix grabbed and held him. "C'mon, you idiot… The blasters can't stop us in time. They aren't blazers, dammit! Besides," he added, indicating the maze with a gesture, "they'll catch up to us in this shit."

Railsmith looked hesitant. Jiller looked frozen.

"C'mon," Felix repeated, waving them forward again. "I'll cover."

He stepped out around the dune once more and fired at the hurtling ants. The first seven crashed instantly to the sand, piling up the others behind. He waved the other two scouts on. "Run, dammit, while they can't shoot."

The scouts obeyed at last, streaking past him onto the Siliconite-packed runway. Felix provided another couple of seconds of covering fire. The ants were too jammed up onto themselves to require much more.

So eager, he thought grimly. They want us too much to even look where they're going.

Then he followed the other two. As fast as he could run.

Felix sat on a stool atop the Command Platform working the wand over the relief holo of the area between the bunker and the Dorm. Where he touched the tip of the wand to the surface of the screen, a star would appear, symbolizing every place the scouts had reported contact with blaster-carrying ants.

The brass standing over his shoulder as he worked moved quickly forward when he put down the wand. Somebody gasped when the full extent of the sightings was seen.

"Well, hell," said somebody Felix hadn't met, "they've got every approach covered."

"I didn't even know Dorms carried blasters," said somebody else, a captain, looking accusingly at Felix.

"They didn't tell me either," he replied dryly.

Major Aleke spoke up. "That's not the point. The point is: what are they trying to keep us from seeing. What are they hiding?" He looked around at the others. No one responded.

Colonel Khuddar was insistent. "Well? Anybody got an idea? Felix?"

Felix considered a moment. "Maybe nothing," he said at last. "They may just want to keep things tight while they bake reinforcements."

"I still think we'd better have a look," said the Major. He looked then, as did everyone else, toward the CO, Brigadier Hammad-Renot.

The Old Man was silent, as he had been since Felix's arrival. Felix found little hope in that.

"What do you say, Felix," insisted the Major. "How about taking a look?"

Felix met his gaze. "They don't like me," he replied carefully.

"Ah, c'mon, Felix," barked Khuddar heartily, slapping Felix's shoulder with gusto. "Those blasters are puny things. You know how long they gotta focus on the same patch of armor before the plassteel goes?"

Felix's voice was wooden. "How long?" he asked.

Khuddar hesitated briefly. "A long time," he said at last. "Believe me, a long time."

"Perhaps if the colonel would demonstrate the first run…" Felix suggested in the same wooden fashion.

He missed the colonel's angry reply. He was watching the major instead, who had sidled up alongside the Old Man. The others turned to watch as well. After a few seconds of the armored version of whispering, the major got his response: a short, decisive nod.

"All right, Felix," said the major. "Go."

Felix stared at him. "Are you kidding?"

"Now just a second there. Scout…" began somebody. The major cut him off with a gesture. "Go, Felix. Right now. That's an order."

Felix stood up. He sighed. "It would be," he said.

Felix had decided to use the gap in the ridge they had used to flee the Dorm that first time. He couldn't make the best sighting from there, he knew. But neither could he make the best target.

He clambered over a wall, pausing before dropping to the gulley on the other side. He looked back instead. The network of the maze sloped away from him. It looked like something rats should be running through, not people. Almost, he thought with a shudder, as if the ants had planned it that way. He dropped over the wall into the next gully. He examined the next crusted wall of sand, as always, higher than the last one. He sighed. He figured he had no more than two or three more to climb before he reached the gap.

He leaped, without further hesitation. No sense waiting for them to sense his presence, assuming they hadn't already.

Two walls later he got lucky. The last wall, complete with gap, was below him. Through it he could see the top of the Dorm itself. There was an ant there, too. He unclipped his blazer and killed it, then dropped into the gulley and looked through the gap.

An ant looked back at him.

Felix gasped and leaped back, firing from the hip. The ant, and two more behind it, were blazed down. The edges of the gap were immediately illuminated by bursts of blasterfire coming from the direction of the Dorm. He couldn't, wouldn't, take a chance on looking through it now. Perhaps if he leaped quickly to the top of the wall itself?

From opposite ends of the gulley, ants appeared firing blazers. He fired in both directions, slicing them apart. More blasterfire struck him, this time from the top of the wall he had just exited. How the hell did it get up there? he wondered wildly, firing. That's where he had just been.

More blasters erupted from the ends of the gulleys. There didn't seem to be any place else to go. Felix leaped back up onto the next wall alongside the ant's body. The gulley beyond was filled with them, all carrying blasters, all firing upward.

He unclipped a blaze-bomb and dropped it amid them, then tore off running down the top of the wall as it blew. The wall ended suddenly. He leaped to the next. It collapsed beneath his weight, needlessly cushioning his fall and half-burying him in the process.

Blasterfire hit him from all directions, the ends of the gulleys, the tops of the walls… Shit! They were following him along the tops of the walls!

He threw blaze-bombs in all directions. He fired at a lone ant blasting at him from what he hoped was the direction of the killing area and home. His blazing cut the ant in half. He hopped, running, over both halves and ran wildly past them.

Twenty seconds later he had managed the smooth killing area. He ran down the runway, sidestepping the thousands of bodies, toward the fort. It took him another twenty seconds, but he was soon safely behind the walls.

No one liked his report. He could understand that.

The colonel eyed the pitifully meager data Felix had added to the screen. He tapped an armored finger on the surface. "It looks bad," he commented thoughtfully.

Felix leaned forward and tapped his finger beside the colonel's. "Better here than there," he said pointedly.

They sent him away. Gruffly. Angrily. They said they would call him when they needed him. Felix said he was afraid of that.

An hour later he was back in the maze, perched atop a wall some hundred meters or so into it. The sighting was only slightly more extensive from this point of view than from the walls of the fort-and considerably more dangerous-but the brass had insisted.

"We want all the extra warning we can get," the Colonel had told him.

That I can get, he amended. But only to himself. Fatheads, Felix thought from his perch. What was the point in building the goddamn bunker in the first place if they were going to send people out of it every chance they got? And for what? He was able to Scan maybe thirty approaches more from where he was than the lockouts on the wall could see. But the nature of the maze screened at least that many. They could be close and coming from almost any direction without him seeing them.

Shit, he thought. Fatheads.

Still, he had to admit he enjoyed talking to them. Needling them. He was worried some about damage he might be doing to Shoen's career. But not enough to stop it. Frankly, he thought with a grin, he was having too much fun.

He caught himself. Fun??? What's got into me, anyway?

"Ants," reported a voice he didn't recognize-one of the other scouts similarly perched. "Southeast from the bunker. Anybody else see'em?"

Felix did. He said so. They were halfway across the maze and coming fast. "Looks like some of'em are sweeping for a southerly assault."

He stood up unsteadily, tracking the bouncing skullheads in the distance.

Major Aleke cut into the frequency. He sounded breathless. "Felix?"

"Felix."

"Ants?"

"Ants."

"What else?"

Felix barely hesitated. "Just ants so far. Scouts in!" With that he cut the circuit and scrambled back toward the bunker.

Felix knew better than to report to the Command Platform in person. After gathering all information from the other scouts, he sent Railsmith along with it. Then he looked for a seat among the scores of alerted warriors scrambling along the wall to watch.

Dominguez appeared in front of him. He grabbed hold of Felix with both armored hands and held him still. He placed his faceplate against Felix's.

"'Just ants so far?'" he echoed.

And they both began to laugh. To giggle, really. Helplessly, they collapsed together. They laughed and laughed.

What's got into me? he thought, trying to catch his breath.

Six hours and forty-five minutes into the drop, the second attack began. It came from two directions at once, without pause between the waves. The main runway held the bulk of the attackers. The southern wall fought off the rest. Altogether, there were half again as many ants the second time. Wave after wave after wave.

It didn't help. The ants were running into instant death, as before. It was brutal. It was ugly.

It was short.

Half an hour after the attack the order came to go out for another specimen. Some lieutenant brought the message. Like Kent, Shoen had been absent for quite a while. Felix and Dominguez went alone, leaving Morleone and Ling on the wall.

There were ample targets. They found several ants not only alive, but apparently uninjured. They were tangled in the bodies of their dead, strung like jungle undergrowth in their path. From this grotesque trap, they managed to collect six ideal samples and return to the walls in less than five minutes flat.

They sent Ling into the bunker with the spines. Felix informed the gunnery crew chief about the live ants. Thereafter, warriors took turns manning the cannon for signs of movement. Great fun was had watching the ants extricate themselves painfully, only to have their exoskeletal hides boiled away after two steps.

The eighth hour order for "Scouts Out" meant, essentially, Felix and Railsmith. Since no activity-other than that among the dead and dying-had been sighted, they were sent ahead of the other scouts on a "quick run" up the runway itself to the ridge for a sighting.

Felix was automatically dubious. But he followed the predetermined route, leading Railsmith up the slope between the piles of dead and the edge of the maze. He took a lot more time than the brass had wanted, however. Surprises meant a lot more outside the fort than just a report to the Command Platform.

He needn't have bothered. They found nothing at all until they reached the Dorm itself, and little there. Only a handful of ants were in sight, wandering aimlessly about outside the entrance. Felix was sure they were spotted, but, though three of the ants carried blasters, no effort was made to attack them.

"Hard times in Antland," commented Railsmith with happy relief while Felix reported the situation.

"Stay put and watch," was the word that came back to them minutes later. They obeyed without comment, sitting down  side-by-side against a dune less than a hundred meters from the perimeter of the Dorm.

Soon they were joined by five warriors bearing shovels, Siliconite cylinders, and a case of blaze-bombs. Felix and Railsmith got out of their way.

Ten minutes later. Forward Observation Post One was ready. It consisted of a curved, sheltered bowl from which sightings could be made in safe, seated, comfort. Then the five warriors left to build Ops Two and Three farther down the line.

"Looks like that's it," remarked Railsmith when they were alone once more.

"What do you mean?" Felix asked.

"The ants are finished," He replied. Then, when Felix was silent, he added: "Don't you think?"

Felix considered a moment, said: "No."

"Ah, c'mon, Felix! After all this?"

Felix nodded. "And more."

Railsmith was astonished. "You really think there's something to worry about?"

"I don't know," Felix admitted after a moment. Maybe I'm just tired, Felix thought and keyed a stimule. Railsmith was probably right. Almost certainly. But…

Was it just too easy? Was that it? And what was wrong with it, if it was? They were sure due! Still, he felt uneasy. And oddly depressed.

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