Armor

3,481
07.03.2019

Kent followed him. There were perhaps three ants in their path. Felix carved through them with his speed and his forearms and his fear. He heard Kent grunting behind him with efforts of his own. And then they were there in the corner. But he didn't know what to do, where to lead them next. Up onto the walls once more? But here was the hope. Here was the only way home and he didn't know what to do. He didn't! And the Engine…

The Engine would not come.

Dimly, he realized Kent was calling to him, pulling at him frantically.

"This way, Felix! This way, Felix!" he was yelling and Felix looked where he pointed and saw the squat little cube nestled against the outer wall of the bunker. A door? A hatch? Did it go inside?

And then the surge of ants hit them and he struck out at them, splintering their faded bodies and their poorly honed exoskeletons and their pale dead globular eyes-different somehow, shinier and slippery or…

"Felix! The hatch! Help me!" Kent shouted from very close.

He rocketed a fist through an eye into the brain case of the ant directly before him, killing it instantly, and jamming it up in the clattering hooves of the one behind it. He half-leapt into the air, scissoring his legs, and slammed first one then two boots up through the shattering hide of a gaping mandible. Then he spun about, his arms unfolding, and beheaded the one behind against his right wrist. Black blood gushed and sprayed high into the air.

But he was gone when it fell, jamming past the bodies of the dead and the reaching claws of the deadly… to Kent, who stood, miraculously, beside the open hatch, the handle of the hinged door in his hand. His other arm was out before him, blazing apart the rush with a pitifully translucent beam.

"Inside!" Kent yelled.

Felix nodded, already in the air. They dropped together into the darkness. The hatch slammed shut over their heads as they struck bottom, five meters below.

It was dead still. Absolute quiet. Absolute emptiness.

"Where the hell?" Felix asked.

"Don't you know?" asked Kent, bewildered.

"Just tell me, Kent!'Cause nobody else has! Right?"

Kent hesitated, taken aback briefly. Then he hurriedly explained: "This is the concussion cellar. In case of artillery. The air in here is supposed to compress instead of the walls of the bunker."

"Oh. Does it work?"

Kent shrugged. "It's new."

"Can we get inside the bunker from in here?"

"Huh? Yes! Yes, we can! I forgot! Here! Down the passage."

The chamber they were in was ten meters square. At the far end of it stood a heavy plassteel door. Kent reached to grasp its oversized handle.

"There's a passage behind here that leads to a… Shit!"

"What's the matter?"

Kent jerked at the door. "It's stuck."

"Perfect!" Felix snarled

"Wait a minute," gasped Kent. He took his glove from the handle and placed it flat against the door itself. Holding it so, he worked keys on the inside of his forearm with his other hand. Suddenly, he jerked back from it, banging into Felix.

"What's the matter?"

Kent looked at him. "Ants." He pointed a finger. "Behind the door. Lots of'em."

Felix stepped up, placing a hand on the plassteel. "Trying to get through, you think?"

Kent shrugged. "I guess. Something's jammed it."

Felix dropped his hand. "Is there another way?"

"No."

"Shit."

From somewhere overhead, a thunderous blast rang out. The floor of the chamber rocked violently under their boots. Sand rained from the high ceiling.

"About goddamned time!" Felix snapped happily.

"Reinforcements!" gasped Kent with equal pleasure. "Those are concussion grenades. We use them in the…"

A second blast rocked them, followed by a third and fourth in quick succession. The floor trembled crazily. The walls bowed inward, shimmering. The falling sand became a continuous cloud.

Kent laughed uneasily. "If they're not careful, they're gonna…"

A searing, bursting shockwave slammed them to the floor.

The walls across the chamber buckled and split, spewing a huge chunk of plastiform into the ceiling. The ceiling, already bowing, split in turn. Great plastiform beams tore loose from their moorings and crashed to the floor ail around them. Several holes burst open in the ceiling itself. Sand poured through in huge quantities, piling into cones that spilled toward them.

"Look out," Felix warned Kent as a chunk fell heavily to the floor just behind him.

"Oh God!" Kent screamed, pointing back the other way. Felix turned to look just as the great plassteel door exploded from its hinges. Ants boiled out of the choked passage toward them.

And then it was happening again and he lashed out at them, bashing them with his forearms or boots or the butt of the rifle. But without the Engine and its strength. Alone still and knowing it. Only his experience and his fear and the knowledge of nowhere else to go…

Kent, no killer, was awesome still. He obliterated them with the thunderous sweeps of his fists. He lifted chunks of plastiform and threw them. He threw beams, too. And sand. And much, much fear.

They were holding their own for several seconds and more. But it was a useless struggle with only one outcome, only one end, with the swarming upon them, pulling and tearing and raking at faceplates and seams, exhausted last- ditch struggles using energy as well applied to the screams equally certain to come…

"The hatch!" Felix shouted. "We've got to get back… !" Kent nodded. He heaved a long length of plastiform beam-so big Felix could not have lifted it-at the nearest swelling gang, flattening the first four outright. The two of them took advantage of the momentary pause to back up quickly to where the hatch had been.

When they got there it was gone.

"Oh, no!" Kent wailed.

In place of the hatch was a warped square of plassteel crammed awkwardly into a sunlit manhole. The grenades had blown their exit apart.

"Try anyway," urged Felix, shoving Kent forward. "Try jumping up through it." When Kent hesitated, he shoved him again. "Try, dammit! Come on! You can see the sky there."

Kent nodded, flexed his knees to leap… And another explosion staggered them. More plastiform, more sand, cascaded from the walls and ceiling. Felix righted himself with difficulty. The sand was almost thigh-deep now and it hampered his movements.

It hampered the ants as well, but not nearly so much. One vaulted forward at him out of the raining-pouring sand, its claws hammering at his helmet, its pincers snapping audibly for his middle. Felix threw himself back, threw a boot up. The boot struck at the ant's pelvis joint, snapping it cleanly. But the upper ant grasped him still, raking and reaching. He brought his palms up lightning-quick from his sides and slammed them into the eyes. They exploded. The ant slid off as he turned once more to Kent.

"I'm gonna try it," Kent yelled. "It's better, see?"

Felix looked up. The plassteel hatch was gone. An uneven square of daylight remained. He nodded. "Go!"

Kent went. It was a sloppy, uneven jump. The sand packed about his legs threw him off-balance. But he made it, his arms darting up and grasping the edges of the hole and raising him up.

Another ant slammed into Felix through the sand. He tore its head off in his hands and threw it at the one coming behind. His boot touched something hard. He reached into the soft powdery sand between his boots and pulled out a helmet-sized chunk of plastiform. The second ant, hardly delayed by the skull, died instantly, beheaded, as Felix drove the chunk against and through its thorax.

"Felix! Come on!" Kent shouted.

"Right!" he called back. He stepped under the hole, aimed his leap. Another ant piled into him from the rear. He struck out blindly with his armored elbow, slamming it pistonlike against the great skull repeatedly. He felt the grip of the claws slip once, twice, then fall away. He should have jumped then, right then. But he turned around instead, wary and fearful of more to come.

They were coming. Four abreast staggered-stumbled forward, claws stretched out and working.

He should have jumped then, too. Right then. He should have tried for the only way out. He should have known better. The Engine would have. But the Engine was gone. And Felix, left behind, could think of nothing but running. And he did, away from the ants, away from the hole.

When it was too late, when he was too far away to go back, he stopped and tried. He and the ants hurtled toward each other.

The chamber, by now nothing more than a half-filled cavern, pitched suddenly sideways, throwing him off-balance to one side. He heard a deep tremulous grinding and looked up to see an entire section of the ceiling collapsing upon him. He jerked spastically away, rolling on his side in the cloying sand. The section crashed into the sand less than a hand's width away from his hip.

Get up! Get up! he screamed inwardly. Move!

And he did, rising quickly but unsteadily. Too much! Too much at once and the ants… God! I'm so sick of…

"Felix! Felix! Where the hell are you!"

"I'm here!"

"I can't see you!"

Nor could he make out the hatch. It was almost completely blocked by the debris. And the ants… ? Crushed, he saw a second later. Some of them. How close they had been!

Then he saw the sunlight. The hatch! he thought and lurched forward.

But it wasn't the hatch. It was a thin fissure opened by the shifting cavern. But it was far too small. He could never…

He spun about as more ants clambered toward him around the remnants of the ceiling.

"Felix!"

"I can't get there!" he heard himself screech. Damn! "Get me a blazer," he yelled in a more controlled tone. "Or something."

"You can't get back up?" Kent persisted.

"Ants!" he gasped, wanting simply to sink to his knees. The shouting exhausted him. "They're between us."

"Felix, I'm coming to help."

The blatant sham of the tone touched him. He drew himself up sharply, feeling a hard and bitter grin tighten about his mouth.

No, you're not! But you've got to say it, don't you. Hero?

"Felix?" Kent called, from the sound not one bit closer.

"Yes, Nathan," he hissed.

There was a short pause. Felix used it to throw a chunk of masonry at an oncoming ant. The trouble was, he couldn't see at all. And the sensors were sharply localized by the Siliconite hanging in the air.

"Felix, do you want me to come?"

That too! He must let him off the hook as well! Great… Never mind. It's over. Do it.

"No, Nathan. They'd only get you, too. Save yourself."

"Well… If you're sure…?"

Felix threw his head back, cackling wickedly. Fuck you, Hero, he thought. Then he decided to say it.

"Fu…"

And again, the cavern pitched. The entire center support system collapsed during the rocking. A single beam, jutting up at a slant from the floor, was struck just right by a falling block. The beam see-sawed wildly, a fulcrum, vaulting up out of the soft sand. It flattened two ants against the remainder of the ceiling.

Felix shook himself. He realized he'd been just staring. There was something he should be doing instead of just… "You fool!" he groaned disgustedly.

He'd been waiting for Kent to come anyway. "Fool! he said again. "Come on, damn you!"

He was urging no particular direction-he had no plan. He was just… calling the Engine. Beckoning. Beseeching. He moaned as he tripped over something he couldn't see and banged his chin. It didn't hurt, of course. He wasn't hurt. He was just falling apart, cracking like the goddamned bunker.

More ants stumbled toward him. He turned away. Distantly, he heard Kent's faint voice calling. The debris and the Siliconite had finally cut him off completely. He tried once to understand what Kent was saying. But it was too faint. Too faint and too late.

He remembered the fissure. He turned his head. It was there. Small and narrow-too narrow. They'd catch him up there, he knew. Sure as hell, they'd come up and pull him down and…

"Shut up!" he barked loudly. He stomped through the cloying sand to the sharp rays of sunlight. What choice was there? Sit and wait for'em? Not these bastards, he thought angrily, as though he both knew and disliked them personally. He paused beneath the fissure. The first part looked possible. He leaped and grabbed the edges. He pulled himself up, wedging past the first bottleneck with considerable difficulty. The Siliconite again. It made it hard to shove through. The sand was firmer, less yielding. He looked up. It got narrower. He'd never make it all the way.

What else, then? Pop his suit when they came? Damn. He planted his boots and wedged himself up past the second bottleneck. He stopped halfway through, caught. He'd hung up on something. He reached back and unclipped the culprit, his last blaze-bomb. He re-attached it on the other side.

Why'd you bother? he asked himself when he'd finished. Planning to end it that way? A blaze-bomb would do breathtaking things in this rathole, sure enough. Entomb him, for one.

"Dammit! Damn you! The goddamn ugly sky is right there. Move!"

And he lurched upward. He jammed himself up, kicking and twisting, carving ruts in the sand with the outline of his suit. In seconds he had to stop, exhausted. He looked up. He had come maybe two meters. He still had another seven or ten to go. He looked down. The ants had massed in place. Two were climbing atop others to try to reach him.

Which they would, of course. About sand, ants were practically overqualified.

Come on! Don't just watch them…

He strained and shoved himself up some more, feeling a prolonged shudder of claustrophobic panic when the narrowness stopped him suddenly. He couldn't move. It felt, even through the suit-which was insane-as though the entire weight, the entire crushing mass of Banshee held him. The planet had him, pinned at chest and back, waiting for the mood to strike and the cavern to shift… The suit would resist, resist, crumpling more and more before the planet would grow bored and slam him flat like two palms. Would he feel it? What would he feel? His organs spewing through his mouth, perhaps?

"Damn you, Felix."

And he flung himself up once more, either to pop loose or to jam irrevocably. One or the other.

He felt something touch his foot. He jerked it up, looking down. An ant was just below. But… it seemed to be jammed as well. Experimentally, he lowered his foot again. The ant strained its claws upward and… grazed the sole of the boot. Nothing else. It couldn't reach him yet.

Not yet. But it would. It would work its way free. And soon.

He arched, bucked, warping his spine and dragging at the Siliconite sheen. He thought he felt something give. He mustered his energies for one major push.

The land, the cavern, the walls of the fissure-all shuddered with the sudden tremor. The walls closed in on him. Just a bit. They stopped, shaking. Then they closed in a bit more. And then some more. Then it stopped. The last movement, the last shifting. The last hope. If he hadn't been caught before, he was now.

I'm dead, he thought and rested his faceplate against the sand. He closed his eyes. Odd how he could hear nothing, even with the sunlight on him. Siliconite was a great tool, all right. Like those concussion cellars. He sighed. I'm so tired, he thought.

And then he thought: Kent, you worthless, timid, everybody's hero bastard!

Oh, but why not? Why the hell not? If it had been the other way around, he'd have done the very same thing.

Except, of course, he wouldn't have, he realized with a mournful groan. He would've helped; that's what hurt. For Kent, Fleet's Kent, Forest's Kent, he'd have hopped down that hole swinging. In a scout suit, no less. Never mind the awesome might of Kent's custom-built.

But why? Why? How had this happened? How had lie folded so badly and…so quickly!

He glanced down. A second ant had joined the first. Not long now. He glanced at the time, shook his head, looked again. He had been alone almost half an hour! He was sure of it, because he remembered looking before when he had to stop and transfer the…

What an insane idea!

Quickly as a striking snake, his hand reached down and snatched the blaze-bomb loose. He held it firmly pressed against his faceplate. Exhilarated, sweat broke out.

No way, of course, he thought, grinning delightedly. Still, it was nice to kill a few.

"Yup," he said to the bomb, "killing them is better than getting peeled. In fact, killing them is better than not killing them. Killing them is fun."

The narrow gap between the two beneath him would require a little delicacy. No good to have it get hung up on them. Plassteel was very nice. But two meters away from a blaze-bomb, it was about as protective as cotton.

"Of course, it would unstick me."

Maybe it didn't matter. Thus confined, even from so far away as the cavern floor, the bomb would almost certainly kill him. Either with the blaze or the compression or by shaking loose the pinning walls, driving them suddenly together to squash…

"What the hell," he said, keying and dropping the bomb in a single motion. It fell cleanly between the two monsters. Well, that was something anyway.

The blaze killed the ants instantly. It also boiled their hides, fusing them into a single hurtling mass that rushed like an artillery shell up the fissure. Felix was aware of light, noise, and, finally, movement. Then all was dark.

Was he dead? It sure hurt.

He opened his eyes. The light streaming through from above was a searing on his retinas. His eyelids fluttered. He tried moving, found he could do that. So he looked and moved together and found out where he was-the last part of the fissure just below the surface. He was hanging-sagging- down into the crevice, too wide to slip through and fall. But… he had to have come that way.

The ants were everywhere, plastered to the sides of the fissure and, he noticed distastefully, to him. Mostly on his legs, but his back and hands and even his chest had ground ant packed on them. He was surrounded.

He propped a boot against the curve of each wall and raised himself erect. He examined the exit, glaring brightly and painfully. Not too far. He glanced again at that last narrow section between his boots. It wasn't wide enough for his helmet. He shuddered, turned back to the light. Better not to think about it.

It took him several tries to get a grip on the sides of the opening. The pain steadily increased in almost every area. And his muscles had begun almost immediately to tremble and knot.

Hurt bad, he thought dimly. Really, really, bad.

He began pulling himself up and knew at once he wouldn't make it. He was too weak. He was too tired. It hurt too much. He had no idea how much power was left in the suit-he couldn't read the dial. He tried marshaling a final effort. Nope. Falling. Colors flashed dizzily across his eyes, followed by rhythmic waves of feverish heat. Falling. Straight back, his grip going and lost down here…

Armored hands on his upper arms lifted him easily, miraculously, into the open air and sunlight. He squinted from side to side, vaguely recognizing the shapes of the warriors beside him. He nodded to them. He straightened up proudly. He crumpled, without warning, onto his heels. Alive. Even now. Even this. No pity.

"Felix!"

He recognized the voice. Forest? No. Shoen. Canada. Her shadow blotted out the bright light as she leaned over him.

"Felix, you made it! You made it! We thought you were lost! Nathan thought you were lost! Oh, Felix!" And she hugged him, awkwardly. Painfully. He groaned and tried to pull away. But she wouldn't let go. She hugged him again. "Oh, Felix! They should give you a medal, too."

The second shadow before him was Kent. He saw it hanging on the front of the great blue-chest armor. Even though it wasn't there, he saw it. It glinted in the sun.

Perfect.

Now was the time to pop his suit, he thought in a wave of scalding bitterness. And with that thought, the dark and the cold and the strength of both returned at last, slamming in from all sides at once, protecting and separating him once more.

With a vengeance, the Engine had returned.

He slept.

Shaking pain. Shaking and pain. He awoke only because he had to and there was the psychotech, red-faced and shaking his shoulders and screaming.

"I'm so sorry! So sorry'. Oh, God, I am! I am"."

Two meditechs dragged him away. He struggled with them to get back. "You don't understand!" he shouted at them.

A doctor-type bearing white-haired authority appeared. He tried to soothe him.

"You don't understand," the psychotech pleaded. "It's my fault."

"Nonsense, son," purred the Doctor. "The ants did this to him."

Felix smiled.

"No, no, NO! It was me!"

A third meditech pressed something against his arm. Almost at once, the man began to calm. His shouting fell to unintelligible mutters. Soon he was slumped between the two meditechs. They hoisted him away.

"See to it that he's looked after," the Doctor called to them.

"Yes, Doctor," one of them called back.

Felix realized he was still lying in his open suit. They must've just brought him up. White-gloved hands appeared overhead and fiddled around him. He couldn't see their owners. Maybe there weren't any.

A second doctor-type, older and female, appeared beside the first. The emblem over her left pocket was huge and colorful.

"Sorry, Chief," the doctor told her.

"Don't give it a thought," she replied soothingly. "These things happen in war."

Felix smiled again.

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