"What if I made that an order!" snapped the colonel, his voice fading slightly.
"Make it a threat if you like," Felix snapped back. "I ain't going."
There were several clicks and pops having nothing to do with the static. He assumed the press people were no longer eavesdropping. "Felix," said Khuddar, "go down that hole."
"Colonel," said Felix, "no."
There was a pause. A different voice sang out. "Return to the OP and stand by."
Okay, he thought. Why not?
It was the Old Man's voice, he realized at once. The Brigadier. Hammad-Renot himself. And he was making it a threat after all.
"If I have to get someone else," barked the CO, "it'll cost you. I can promise you that. Now, I want you to apologize, publicly, to Ali… Colonel Khuddar, and carry out your mission. Is that understood?"
Felix sighed. "I know what you want, if that's what you mean. No."
A pause. "Mr. Felix, is that you're final word?"
"No, it isn't," he snapped. He was suddenly furious, livid with rage. "Old Man, you shoot some other hero down that hole and you kill him. I know. I know ants and I know Banshee and I know you do not. So listen."
"Now, you just shut your…"
"How many drops you had. Old Man?"
A pause. Felix went on. "I've had twenty. You send somebody else and you kill him. I know it. You should know it. And when he doesn't come back-and you can be sure he will not-everybody else is going to know it."
Another pause, longer. The circuit severed.
A few minutes later, the five warriors manning OP One were recalled. Felix was told to stay put in the same breath. No explanation.
Half an hour later. Colonel Khuddar called. Even through the interference, Felix could tell he was making great effort to control his anger.
"Since you're not obeying any more orders, Mr. Felix, allow me to'suggest' you stay where you are until called. Which won't be, I'm reasonably certain, until our guests have departed. Can we expect your… cooperation?"
"Of course," replied Felix pleasantly. "When do they leave?"
"One last thing, Felix. A personal item."
Felix groaned. "Is it necessary?"
"I believe so," retorted the Colonel, his voice an icy whip. "This may be my last chance to tell you what I think of you…"
"Aw, well, Ali," Felix drawled. "I was hoping it'd be about those warriors you lost at the Dorm this morning."
Another click. Decisive. He was alone again. He sat.
When he saw Kent coming, he checked the time. Amazingly, over an hour and a half had passed. He blinked, considered. But he could not recall a single thought he had had during that period. He stood for Kent.
The apology was stumbling, but sincere. Felix's acceptance was equally sincere. But Kent kept apologizing.
"Every time I think about what I did, I throw up," he said.
"Don't you believe me?" asked Kent stiffly.
"As a matter of fact, I do," said Felix. "It's you." He sat, motioned for Kent to do the same. "Forest would say it's the best of you."
"It's not the me I want," said Kent unhappily.
"'You' want?" echoed Felix.
"Yes. Me. I want to be… more… Tougher, I guess."
Felix laughed again. "You were pretty tough a couple of hours ago."
Felix could almost feel the other man's face crimson.
"You know that's not what I mean," said Kent.
Kent shifted. "I want to be more like she was, I guess. Like you are."
Felix stared at a patch of sand between his boots. "Like her, maybe. Not me."
"You're a helluva fighter, Felix," insisted Kent. "You'd have to be… And, anyway, Canada saw you."
Felix laughed shortly. "Canada Shoen-combat vet?"
Kent laughed, embarrassed. "Well, she knows what she saw…"
"No, she doesn't!" Felix heard himself suddenly snap. "None of you…" He stopped, paused. Kent had tensed like a spring, he saw. "Aw, well," he began again. "So you want to be a combat soldier and you feel bad that you haven't been."
"Why shouldn't I?"
Felix eyed him. He shrugged. "I dunno." He glanced away, toward the Dorm. He looked back a second later. "But did it ever occur to you that you're the only one of us to ever put this hardware to decent use?"
There was another pause after that. A long one. Felix spent it wondering how he could have lost an hour and a half.
"I want to be a real fighter," Kent said suddenly.
"Huh? What's that?"
"You know, against ants and…"
"Oh, ho," growled Felix, his voice sounding bitter even to him. "You want to be a killer." He stood up. He looked at the other man. "That's what I really am, Nathan. I'm a killer. I don't fight'em. I kill'em. That's how I've managed it."
Kent stared upward at him. "What's the difference?" he asked gently.
Felix found he could not look at him. He turned away. "I don't know," he replied, not at all certain it was true.
They were quiet after that. Felix's mind was blank. Flexed blank.
Shoen called at the eighteenth hour.
"I'm supposed to tell you two to stand at parade rest."
Felix cocked his head. "I beg your pardon?"
"Has the service started?" asked Kent.
"About to," she told him.
Kent turned to Felix. "They're holding a memorial service for the nine we lost at the Dorm this morning."
They stood, clasping gloves behind their backs. After a few seconds, Felix sat down again.
"What's the matter?" Kent asked.
"What do you mean?" Shoen wanted to know.
"It's Felix. He sat down."
"I'm tired," Felix said quietly.
They heard Shoen laughing. "Don't blame you, Felix. Lots of folks up here would like to lie down after all the partying they've been working at."
"Still?" asked Kent.
"Sure. Up to about half an hour ago." She giggled. "The whole place is drunk, if you ask me."
Kent sat down. Next to Felix.
"Uh, Nathan? Felix? The service is on Command Three if you want to tune in."
Felix shook his head. "I'll pass."
"Me too," said Kent.
She sighed loudly. "I don't blame you. Pretty dreary. Felix? Whatcha been doing all this time?"
"Policing the area," he replied dryly.
She laughed. Then, abruptly, she groaned. "My God!" she exclaimed. "What was that? Did you two feel that?"
"Feel what?" asked Kent.
"I don't know. I guess it was an earthquake… or Bansheequake. Oops! There it goes again."
Felix was already to his feet and moving. The fear rushed like burning tendrils down the back of his neck and across his shoulder blades.
"Don't you feel it, you two?" she persisted. "You should. You're only about…"
"Canada!" Felix all but shouted. "Get to the…"
"Well, dammit!" she continued without hearing. "I can't believe you didn't feel that one…"
"Canada!" Felix barked. "Get inside. Get in the bunker!"
He began to run toward the fort. Kent seemed to get it at the same moment. He barely hesitated before following.
"Canada!" Felix called again.
"Yes, Felix. I'm here. You don't have to blast my ears…"
"Are you doing it? Are you going to the bunker?"
"Well, no. Why should…"
"Damn you, Shoen," Felix snapped. "You want to die?"
"It's just a tremor, Felix. Get hold of your…"
"Shoen!! That's no quake! Remember where you are! Remember what lives here! What lives underground! Get everybody inside!"
There was no reply. "Canada?" Kent called. "Canada! Answer!"
Her scream began as a low whimper, plaintive and childlike, before swelling suddenly, horribly, across the spectrum until it burst forth as the bloodcurdling cry of a grown woman gripped by ultimate terror.
"Oh, God-Oh-God-Oh-God!!! Felix-Felix!!! Ants, ants, ANTS-ANTS"
There was no one in sight as they streaked to the foot of the forward wall. Felix glanced briefly at Kent, rolling alongside. He had told the other man… Nothing to tell him. Don't panic at what you see. Nothing else could mean anything. Kent had soaked it up like a sponge.
"Jump onto the wall, not over it," Felix cautioned him one final time as they leapt side-by-side into the air. This is the only way home. He reminded himself.
He was unprepared for the sight. It stunned him. It staggered him. He could not, would not, believe it for the first precious idle instant.
Writhing slaughter swirled beneath them. It was jammed tight from wall to wall. It was a nightmare. Thousands of ants…
"Oh, my God!" Kent gasped, as though wounded already.
For the first few seconds it was hard to distinguish any detail. Then a warrior was spotted, then another. Over there a mob of fifteen or so wedged back-to-back and going down. Another smaller pack there… a group of fifty scattering… a lone suit, frozen in Traction Mode… another obscenely imploding… Blazers sweeping wildly, panicky, over their heads… The Main Seal was buried from sight behind the trembling horde fighting to enter it.
Wake up! he screamed to himself. React. Erupt!
But he only stared.
"There's thousands of'em! How? How?" Kent wailed.
Felix shook himself. He scanned, pointed. There were three roughly circular holes in the northeast corner of the compound. Ants poured from each. Faded ants, he saw then. The tired ones they had fought that last time. Weak and… But so many! So many!
"C'mon," he said to Kent and rushed along the top of the wall to the comer. He unclipped three blaze-bombs as he moved. He dropped the first two in the first two holes. The third was partially blocked by a bright orange engineer's p-suit, being dragged-carried struggling down into oblivion.
Felix hesitated but a moment on a man he could do nothing for, then dropped the third bomb into the darkness where the orange had just been. Kent looked sideways at him, then back down as the bombs blew. Sand, dust, ants, and quite a bit of orange material vaulted up from the shadows before raining back upon the collapsing sides of the holes.
"Not much," Felix muttered, almost to himself. "Something."
Above him, the barrel of a blazer cannon pointed into the sky. Hey! He hopped up into the cockpit, stomping down hard on the swivel bar. It rotated smoothly to the right and stopped, pointing down the length of the outer wall. He tried the other direction. The barrel stopped again, just as before. A safety measure, of course. He kicked the turret as hard as he could. Then he hopped off. He tried adjusting the gearing directly. He tried altering the mechanism underneath. He even tried lifting the entire assembly from its anchor. But it wouldn't budge.
"Here," said Kent, shouldering him aside and grabbing hold of each end. With a single heave, he ripped the turret, the chair and the cannon right up out of the wall. "Grab that," added Kent, indicating the ruptured foundation rod with a massive nod of his great blue helmet.
Felix grabbed it, planted his feet firmly, and tried to keep from being thrown into the killing by the violent torque of Kent ripping the cannon free from the rest with a single twist of his armored wrists. Felix knew he'd have to take the time to be impressed by that some day.
"Where do I shoot? There're people in them and…"
Felix pointed to an area just in front of the main seal. A defensive formation of sorts had formed. But there were so many ants and so many who didn't know what to do and so many more without weapons, only p-suits that seemed to be tearing whenever he saw them, ripping and flapping and…
"Just there," Felix said shortly. "Protect the bunker door.
"But… but there's people! I'll kill them, too!"
Kent stared at him. Felix stared back, then pointed again.
He heard Kent sigh. But be pointed the cannon and pressed the key.
"Dammit!" Felix snapped. "We ripped the feeder loose, too."
"I can fix that," said Kent. "This suit of mine…" His voice trailed off as he concentrated his attention on something in a pouch under an armpit: A feeder line. He ripped the shattered ends of the other feeder free, then snapped his into its place. He touched the trigger key; a blue blazer beam shot forth. It was thick and bright and damn near as strong as the original.
From his suit alone! Felix thought in awe. Then he slapped the other man's shoulder and said, gruffly, "Shoot!"
He hated it, Felix knew. And he groaned whenever the beam swept over a human form, which was often, but he shot. Slowly, the pressure on the mob before the Main Seal began to lessen.
But on the wall itself, it began to get tight. They were the only ones on the wall, the only ones providing any outside help. The only ones giving hope. The ants rushed over one another to kill them. Felix got very busy trying to keep Kent alive long enough to do any good.
They clambered upward at them, piling atop one another, straining, arching up to the walkway. As they reached it, Felix began killing them. He shot them in two, between their globular eyes or sections, toppling their top halves over backwards, the blood spewing and staining. He killed with efficiency and with dispatch. He killed with the touch of experience.
But he was killing alone. And slowly, slowly, he was becoming aware of it.
He shot to his left and to his right and between his feet and when the rifle began to heat up he punched the toe of his right boot at a head and… it… lopped… off. Weaker ants! Weaker! Cheaper just to do it that way and he did. He kicked them and punched them or swung his rifle stock, shattering and bashing them.
They died in bunches.
But they came in greater bunches and it was starting to get very very tight and scary. All of them swarmed at him now, the real threat, and not at Kent, whose destruction was distant and uninvolved. Gradually his rifle cooled and he could use it again and he did, wondering how much power was left within it. But there was no time to stop and check. They came at him from both sides and in front-all along the wall now and surging at him. And still he killed them. But he was doing it alone.
The Engine had not come.
It hadn't come all along, not since that first one at the beginning of the drop, that first one that had surprised him. The Engine hadn't been there either. Where was it? Where are you? Help me! Lift me! Erupt, dammit! Erupt!
But it wasn't there. He was alone with just his body and his fear and he hated this, hated it as he always knew he would. He turned his head toward Kent for… what? Assurance? Shit! He snapped his head back to the job. He was alone! Okay! Okay! And he killed some more until the rifle stopped working and then he used the heavy end of it to cleave and bash and…
Then he saw that Kent was no longer shooting, had dropped the cannon. He clouted his shin alongside a clacking mandible mouth, leaped over several outstretched claws, and trotted along the top of the wall to Kent.
"It was draining me!" Kent explained guiltily.
"Don't worry about it, dammit!" he growled, slapping the other's shoulder as he passed. "C'mon!"
He led them again to the northeast corner and around it. Below, the swarming ants swayed with the change of direction like waving grain before a gust of wind. They want us so bad! he thought. We gotta get inside while there still is one.
It looked like they might have a chance to do it. Kent's brief attack had been devastating for a while. The ants had thinned noticeably. Clear territories were beginning to develop in the shifting crush below. But the number of blazers still working-always heartbreakingly small-had likewise diminished. They were still being overcome by the ants, still being killed, still being pulled apart.
They were still losing and they were still going to lose. But if they could get inside and use the protected Transit Cone…
He pulled them up short when they were even on the wall with the Main Seal. He turned to Kent.
"We've got to go down there in front of that seal and bust up that mob. Nobody can get in now. You see?"
Kent followed his gaze to the wedged bodies shifting below. Ants were swarming at them, dragging individuals away from the outer limits of the pack. The others seemed too panic- stricken to fight back They simply pressed closer to the seal itself, making it impossible for anyone to use it.
The only actual fighting being done was by the poor lost souls who were cut off in the surge of ants. They fought, mostly alone, and died, without hope of reaching the bunker itself. Yet the sheer numbers of ants these few drew to themselves could make it possible for the sheep at the seal.
"Okay," Kent said sharply, without conviction.
Felix paused the briefest moment and looked at him, peering through the clear faceplate to the pale face behind it. Kent was willing. But he…
This isn't for you, Felix thought.
Then he leaped off the wall into the compound. Kent followed.
At that instant, the fourth tunnel opened. Ants streamed up into the center of the compound five abreast.
The jamming horde before the Main Seal, now close enough for proximity band, seemed to fill their ears with a single mindless scream of horror.
"Felix! Felix, look!" Kent cried. "We can't…"
Felix knew what he meant; they were cut off. They'd never hope to reach the seal through this new surge. He pointed to a relatively clear space in the corner between the bunker's northern face and the northern wall. Not because he had hope or because he had a plan… it was simply a clear space and the ants were coming-so many! God! So many!