Armor

3,485
07.03.2019

"Well," said Railsmith after a while, "we're sure as hell killing'em! Doesn't that count for anything?"

Felix sighed. "It never has before," he replied blandly.

He began a four-hour rest period at the ninth hour. By 9:05, he was inside the bunker, outside his suit, and under the shower.

Dominguez was just reaching the squad bay when Felix emerged, dripping and smoking.

"Did you see all those people coming down?" the sergeant asked him.

Felix shook his head. "Who are they?"

"Dunno. Not warriors. Just p-suits. Allsize p-suits at that."

Felix nodded. "Volunteers."

"For what?" asked Ling from the far bunk.

Felix shrugged, smiled. "Well, we're out of ants…"

Shoen found him in the mess, stuffing his face.

"You'll get fat," she warned. Her face was glowing.

He smiled. "That's a deal."

"Look at this," she said and slid a two-dimensional hard copy of a computer holo under his nose.

"Lovely," he said.

She punched his arm. "Bastard. It's an x-ray of a snip."

"Okay."

"It's from that last batch you collected." She leaned over and pointed with her index finger. "Note these striations along the core. Here, too."

He nodded. "It looks cracked. Broken."

"Uh, huh. As though badly healed. But it's not. It's badly grown."

He got it. "It's working?" he breathed.

"Yep."

He looked at her smiling face. "It's really working!" he exclaimed.

She laughed. "It really is! Let's celebrate."

He laughed as well. "Walk on the beach? The poison is lovely this time of drop. "

"I've got a better idea. Let's go to the Old Man's press tour. It's in the main hall. I've just been there. Felix, you should see it. It's jammed with reporters."

He stared, remembering what Dominguez had said about the visitors. "You're joking. Here? On Banshee?"

She gestured about them at the bunker walls. "Well, hardly on Banshee. Come on!"

He did.

There were over three hundred people in the main hall. There were the Liaison Officers he had heard so much about but never seen, warriors rotated back inside for rest like himself, all manner of techs-and reporters. Reporters everywhere. They ran up and down the aisles between the vast sea of well-scubbed faces and freshly cleaned jump-suits shaking hands and gossiping. There were hearty greetings and heartier reunions.

Felix found that it bothered the hell out of him. Shoen had found them seats up front, just behind the top brass and assorted VIPs. She plopped down beside him only after several cheerful exchanges with superiors she didn't bother introducing to him. He thought it was just as well. He didn't feel like meeting anyone. It all seemed a little too eerie to concentrate.

She waved an arm in a broad gesture which indicated the vast throng. "Fleet's finest!" she proclaimed.

"I believe you," he said seriously.

Too seriously. She glanced sideways at him. "What's wrong?"

He frowned. "I'm not sure."

She was irritated. "You're not still sneering at us, are you? We did it, didn't we? What else do we have to do to prove our competence?"

He met her bitter gaze. "It's not that," he tried.

She sniffed. "I should hope not. Let me tell you something, Felix. Some of the finest minds of man are in Fleet. Some are in this room now."

Somewhere deep within him a bell rang. He sat forward in his chair. "That's it!" he whispered excitedly.

"What's it?" she asked suspiciously.

"That's the point. What are they doing here? What are they doing in Fleet?

She blinked. She was completely bewildered. "For such a good fighter… Felix? Are you antiwar? I mean… are you a pacifist?"

A pacifist?

Was he?

He thought back.

He shook his head a few moments later, said: "No."

She still wasn't happy. "It took you long enough…"

He looked at her. "It was a long trip for it."

Then the lights went down and the screen grew bright with the warm and winning smile of Brigadier Hammad-Renot.

Half an hour later, Felix decided the Old Man should have become a vid star instead of a soldier. Though when he really thought about it-about the stone-silent and unhelpful figure on the Command Platform-there was little evidence that he was a soldier at all.

In any case, the man handled the tour brilliantly. He had a genuine gift for using the vid. Moving about through the bunker with the monitors in tow, explaining what this was or that did, sliding jokes in and out without a scratch, he projected the model image of the humble soldier forced by his own excellence up through the ranks. He was terribly handsome as well, his huge screen face somehow capable of intimacy despite the vastness. Paternal, brotherly, and grand at will, he was, at the same time. The Commander, favorite uncle, wiseman, king, drinking buddy, and Dad. Sexy, too, Felix assumed, glancing at Shoen's upturned and attentive face.

When the tour was almost over, the star was "surprised" with a plaque of gold, silver, and plassteel for which all personnel had supposedly contributed. Felix had not, to his knowledge, contributed a thing. No one had asked him to. Perhaps, he thought ruefully, they solicit during briefing- another thing they hadn't bothered him with.

He glanced again at Shoen. There was nothing wrong with her. It was just Banshee. On impulse, he reached over and patted her hand. She smiled, trapped it with one of hers, and smiled warmly, scaring him.

"Want to go to a party?" Shoen asked him when the show was over. She had left him briefly to huddle with her colleagues. She returned with an impish expression.

"Where?"

"A party, Felix. There's a terribly festive, incredibly illegal party going on even as we speak. Shall we?"

He laughed. It was perfect. Of course these people would have a party afterward! He should have expected it.

Before he'd go, he insisted on returning to the main seal and to the monitor banks beside it. The techs on duty before the screens assured him no trace of ant activity had surfaced.

Further, there was no indication that any would appear. Felix nodded, allowed Shoen to lead him to the fete.

In truth, he hadn't expected trouble. He would have been greatly surprised had there been any. But that wasn't why he had gone to the monitors. He had gone to the monitors to warn himself.

Banshee. Ants. Death. Still.

Don't forget it, he thought to himself. He sighed. Was he being foolish? Was he… What the hell was he?

He tossed the thoughts aside with another sigh and hurried to keep up with Shoen, anxious to rejoin her friends and the glowing novelty of this, their very first, really and truly, official, Antwar Campout.

The party was indeed festive and most illegal and therefore a great success. It was held in a sealed-off section of the second floor, an area housing most of the Liaison Observers and other Fleet Names. Technically, it was for the press only. In reality, it was for Kent. It was a ceremony, a rite, held in his name for all. The high point of the evening, Felix soon learned, was to be the awarding to Kent of his first battle ribbons.

Felix loved the very idea of that. He noticed his own wide grin only when he caught himself laughing out loud at the sight of the forest of brass spread about the room awaiting the ribbon ceremony. His mysterious recklessness had returned, he noted dimly. But it didn't seem to matter. Not here.

"Everyone who is anyone is here," he said straight-faced to Shoen, only to find that she had left him to join a gaggle of the like-minded.

He shrugged and walked over to the bar and had a drink- his first since… Since when? Since that last night before. That first night Before. As he tasted the first sip of beer, the knowledge that he must return to duty in a mere four hours- and the horror of the chance he was taking-seemed not only distant and irrelevant. It was macabrely funny.

He forgot those thoughts, too. Half an hour later he was mildly drunk. He didn't care. He was having too much fun enjoying the crowd.

The food, too. Beside the bar was a long table covered with decorative knickknacks and, more importantly, many goodies. He had, on very first sight, officially designated the table as his all-time favorite Fleet Thing. He had remained within arm's length of it since that moment, sipping and munching and patting his happy tummy.

Not that the chow aboard the Terra was bad, because it really wasn't. It was famous, in fact, for being the very best to be had-aboard warships. Felix accepted this oft-repeated accolade without examination, though the image of gourmets making a culinary pilgrimage between warships did not come easily to him. On the other hand, he conceded, it was no sillier a use for faster-than-light than rending exoskeleton.

Even Hammad-Renot made appearances. Every half hour he would stop by just long enough to receive his due before assuming the truly perfect expression of the great leader who, though at heart a fun-loving fellow, was nevertheless far too dedicated to allow his personal needs to come before his noble suffering'neath the awesome burdens of command.

"Wish I could play hooky and stay," he would remark with a twinkle before leaving to return to unspecified duties.

But then, almost exactly half an hour later, he would return and do and say it all again. Felix wondered what the man did in the meantime. Watch the clock, probably. It made him a bit queasy at first. Later, he enjoyed even this.

But more than anything else, he loved watching Kent. He hadn't seen him since the trouble at the Dorm. He had assumed this was because of Kent's embarrassment at freezing up under fire. If so, he seemed to Felix to have gotten over it. Warm and friendly to all, tall and handsome, exuding twin auras of good will and unintentional physical intimidation, he really was everything Forest had said he was. The shyness was there, too, broadcasted by his pained efforts to conceal it. It was a genuine attempt, Felix knew, to be what everyone seemed to need him to be: the lion he resembled.

Felix smiled and sipped. He knew a thing or two about lions. And Kent wasn't in it. Nowhere near arrogant enough. It was Felix's firm conviction, furthermore, that it was no loss. None at all.

"Gentle is better," he whispered, tilting his glass at the handsome features across the sea of admiring officers and press.

Then Kent saw him looking and everything changed. At first Felix thought it had been his imagination. Kent's sudden paled expression couldn't be due to recognition, he thought. How would he know me outside my armor? It soon became apparent, however, that Kent did know him, knew, in fact every move he made through the crowd. Every few seconds or so, Felix would catch Kent watching him. He would always look away when their eyes met. But he would be looking again a few seconds later. Looking and drinking. He drank a hell of a lot, even-or especially-for a well- tuned athlete. Felix was becoming alarmed and he wasn't the only one. The first time Kent staggered, the entire horde seemed to bow with the shock of the sight.

Felix hated it. He wasn't equipped for it. He wasn't adequate. Not now. Not anymore. He left quietly, sliding unobtrusively out the door as the ribbon ceremony began.

Shoen caught him outside in the passageway.

"Where you goin'?" she wanted to know.

He said something about being on duty in two more hours and too much to drink and such.

She took a step closer and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Have you forgotten how to have a good time?" she asked.

He ignored the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He smiled badly. He said he hadn't forgotten.

Shoen eyed him suspiciously. "Are you sure that's true?" she demanded.

He paused. "Sure it's true," he exclaimed. He smiled again. He patted her on the shoulder. He walked away. And it was true, he said to himself as he entered the lift. He did remember. He did. He just wasn't sure that was enough.

He smoked and dripped, watching himself in the mirror on the far wall. He watched without passion. Numb. Tired. Suspended between. Somewhere out there were so many, many things. The horror of the ants. The legions of their dead strewn about on the sand. The memory of how it was done and of how it had been done in the past. The past. That was out there, too, hovering between the laughter of the child- warriors and their party and visions of killing ants one by black-bleeding one.

Kent came in. They stared at one another in the mirror. Finally, Felix indicated a spot on the bench before him and Kent sat there. He was holding a bottle. He offered it. Felix drank. Then he spoke. He told Kent about Forest. He told it straight through, without pause, without emotion. His voice echoed hollowly in the empty chamber. Kent began to cry. After a while, Felix did, too. But he didn't stop. He finished it. He emptied it out of himself with his voice.

Then Kent hit him.

No! No! he thought as he crashed backwards over the benches to the floor. It couldn't have happened! It wasn't possible! He peered uncomprehendingly upward at Kent, his mind racing desperately for an alternative.

There was none.

"I know what you think of me," groaned Kent, his voice rasping mercilessly. "You think I killed her because I… I didn't kill her. Who cares I loved her too maybe… Not like maybe I… I didn't… You bastard!" he screamed, and slammed his foot into Felix's side. "It doesn't mean I'm small!!!"

Felix cried out in pain, sharp, strident. Helpless again. He fainted.

Dominguez found him and questioned. Felix told him too much to drink, he was fine though. Dominguez watched his face a long time before answering.

"Sure, man," said Dominguez and helped him to his feet.

Felix was once more at Observation Post One when, at twenty-seven minutes into the thirteenth hour, the third attack began. It was pitiful.

The ants were, quite literally, pale imitations of their former selves. Their hides appeared unformed, almost translucent. Their awkward gait was barely sufficient to carry them up out of the darkness toward the waiting warriors. Fewer than two hundred ants appeared.

Felix glanced at the dozen warriors inhabiting the vastly enlarged OP with him. He decided their make-work project of expanding the OP might come in handy.

He tongued the Command Frequency and told them about the attack. Then he told them he and the dozen warriors, could handle it on the spot.

The reply was lost to him the first time. It was the Siliconite, he had been told, that was responsible for the gradual deterioration of communication. He waited a couple of seconds and tried again.

This time the voice from the Command Platform came through. Distorted, but coherent enough. "Go ahead," a bored voice advised him.

Suddenly, another voice grated onto the circuit. Felix recognized Major Aleke's businesslike tones.

"Don't attack! Repeat: Don't attack! Let them through. You hear me, Felix?"

"I hear you. Major. You want us to let them through?"

"Right?"

"Why?"

But there was no answer. Static, possibly. He told the others.

As they gathered up the gear and prepared to pull out, one of the warriors turned to Felix. "How come. Scout? What's the point of not killing'em now?"

Felix said he didn't know. But he should have seen it. It was the press. They had already taken vids of the battlefield, carpeted with blasted ants. They had gotten the warriors, too. And the bunker and the walls and, recently, Kent's ribbon ceremony. Now they were going to get a real-life ant slaughter.

Felix and Dominguez stood side-by-side on the wall among the jumble of reporters and tourists and watched the cannon crews toy with the last of the enemy.

"Holy shit!" Dominguez exclaimed suddenly. He slapped an armored hand against Felix's back. "We beat,'em, Felix!" he said, amazement in his voice. "We beat'em."

"By God," said Felix as it also dawned, "you're right. We did. We really did."

The two of them thought about that in silence awhile until Shoen appeared beside them.

"I want a sample or two as soon as possible," she said. Dominguez laughed. "Hell, Colonel, it's possible right now," he said and hopped over the wall. The battle, such as it was, was still going on and for one heartstopping instant, Felix thought the man would get a cannon in his back. But the crews spotted him in time and held their fire. Then Dominguez proceeded to take three samples of ant spines before the eyes of mankind. There was much cheering when he hopped back over the wall carrying the snips. Reporters converged on him as if magnetized. Felix and Shoen laughed, applauding awkwardly with plassteel palms.

Felix spent the early part of his fifteenth hour of the drop on a solo scan of the area surrounding the Dorm. He found no ants, no signs of them. He was alone. On his way back he found an ant blaster. On impulse, he retrieved the heat weapon.

Inside the fort, the reporters went crazy over the alien instrument of terror. The brass, seeing the possibilities, decided to debrief their scout while surrounded by vids. Felix went along, telling before the crowd what he had just finished saying to the brass alone: no ants. He was amazed at how many different ways Major Aleke used to draw the session out. But he played along. "No ants" was reported many ways.

Later, they wanted an interview inside the bunker. Felix knew better than to expose his face. He declined, answering questions in his suit instead. The first interrogator sought patriotism.

"I bet you'll be glad when Banshee is ours, won't you." Felix said that would be good.

"Aren't you excited by the prospect?"

"I guess." Felix replied. "But I wouldn't want to live here. Would you?"

"Living here afterward is hardly the point of the fighting, soldier."

"I hope you're right," replied Felix with apparent earnest. Another reporter wanted to come along on the next scouting mission. Felix asked her if she wanted to die.

"What do you mean?" she scoffed. "There aren't any more ants, are there ?"

"I didn't see any," he corrected.'But you're wearing a p-suit. You don't need ants to get killed in that."

"huh?"

"You could cough a hole in that."

She looked alarmed. She fingered the material with concern. "You really think so?"

Felix really thought so. "It's a towel," he assured her.

She walked away looking fretful.

Given an hour off, he went indoors and took another shower. Shoen was there when he stepped out. They talked while he dried. It was only when he started to go that he saw it.

She blocked the door. "You knew what I was up to at the party, didn't you? That's why you ran off."

He didn't know what to say. He didn't…

"I had thought it might be a little war injury or some such," she said with a cackle, blatantly eyeing his nakedness.

He looked at her, becoming conscious for the first time of her appearance. Blonde hair, blue eyes, beauty. Canada. He touched her face.

"Before that," he said gently.

Then he shuffled quickly past her, unwilling to summon more.

"Again?" he asked.

"Again," Colonel Khuddar assured him. "We've already got the OPs manned. But we want another run at the Dorm itself. You've got the experience. You've got the job."

"Yessir," he replied. Why not? There was nothing else to do. And they wouldn't be leaving, the Old Man had announced, until the eighteenth hour.

"Our job here," he had announced with classic drama, "is done."

Evidently, Felix's was not. He hopped over the wall and trotted the length of the runway to the ridge. When he reached OP One, he was given the unsurprising news that nothing had happened. Khuddar had told him to check in when he reached the OP. He did.

"Very good, Felix," said the Colonel with great deliberation. Even through the grinding static, Felix gathered they had an audience. The press, he figured. "Now make another turn around the Dorm perimeter, if you please."

Felix was pleased to do that. Why not?

He reported again when he'd finished. Still nothing to see.

"Very good, Felix," sounded, crackling, once more from Khuddar. "Now if you would. I'd like an eyeball of the immediate area in front. Inside the crater."

Okay, he could do that. Why not? And he did. The area in front of the dark and gaping triangular entrance was absolutely smooth, absolutely flat.

Felix reported the neatness of the ants.

"Very good, Felix," intoned the Colonel one more time. Then, "How about taking a look inside?"

Felix shrugged. How about it? Just a quick little… He froze. He had actually taken a step to do it. He peered into the darkness looming over him. The bunker had been a good idea after all. The drop had been one of the easiest he could remember. The party had been fun. But no more. Not one step more.

Unconsciously, he backed to the edge of the perimeter, his eyes still riveted on the blackness, on the depth of it. Every instinct told him that first step through would be that one step too many.

Suddenly, the idea of doing it, of almost having done it, clutched him. His mouth went dry. He trembled.

He refused.

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