The doctor turned to another woman, hurrying past. "Leclere," he called. "What happened here?"
Leclere was pretty. Not blonde, though.
She shrugged her shoulders. "That psychotech evidently worked with this man. He felt responsible for sending him down again and having this…"
Felix regarded the banks of flickering lights all around him. One of the magic gloves reappeared. It placed a clear nozzle into the suit beside his chin. It sucked and gurgled.
Leclere was still talking. "…screaming and shouting about how he'd already been through too much…"
"The psych?" asked the doctor.
"No," replied Leclere. She pointed a clipboard at Felix.
"This guy. The scout. Said he'd already had four major medicals and some ungodly number of… Hey, he's awake!"
"Four major medicals?" echoed the older woman, the Chief. She looked at the older doctor unhappily. "How's that possible?"
"It's not," the doctor assured her firmly. "It's not." Then he leaned forward over Felix and became fatherly. "Son, have you ever been in Intensive Medical before now? Do you recognize this room?"
Felix couldn't speak. But the Engine could still smile. It did. It seemed to scare them.
Good. He slept.
It was perfect.
He recognized the voices because he had gone to sleep hearing them. He recognized their problem the same way. It seemed a great deal of trouble to open his eyes and since he could already enjoy their uneasiness without it, he didn't.
He was a computer glitch and it wasn't anybody's fault. Still, something had to be done. His group, his A-team, had been reported wiped out so he, Felix, was too. Only he wasn't-his number was still in there somewhere in the other banks and that's why they kept calling him because they called everybody from those outfits that weren't there-why take them out of the computer? But anyway, that's how it happened. It's a tragedy and unfair but what are we gonna do about it when they find out? It'll be our necks either way, you know it will. Chief.
Chief agreed. Something had to be done. But what? the doctor wanted to know. Chief had an idea and the doctor didn't like it but how did he think the Chief felt about it? It's just that their only chance was in the records themselves. No option.
They decided to leave him with twelve drops instead of twenty. Five majors instead of thirteen. One major medical instead of five.
It was the only way.
Felix heard it all. He pronounced it perfect.
He became aware of days. Different meditechs came at different times and then all again. One day he awoke to a solid ceiling instead of the clear curved dome of Intensive Medical.
A meditech came to give him an explanation of his condition. There was a long list of injuries in it. Felix was enjoying watching the man's lips work-so elastic-when, suddenly, they stopped.
"You're not even listening," accused the irritated man. "Don't you even care?"
"Of course," replied Felix in a clear, strong Engine voice. There was a commotion in the corridor outside of his room. He heard the name Kent and opened his eyes as the shaft of light crossed toward him. There he was, huge shoulders silhouetted. A meditech stood beside him.
Something odd. They had stopped talking. They were staring at something beside him. The meditech ran off in a hurry. Felix rolled over on his side and saw the crumpled psychotech, blood still pulsing from his wrists.
Felix rolled back onto his back and closed his eyes. He needed all his rest if he wanted to kill ants.
He had to work out in secret because the physitech didn't understand and would make him stop. The physitech had never dropped and he didn't know the shame of a body that just kept failing.
He visited his suit often. It was fine.
In his new squad bay-they were always new-all the kids could talk about was the Masao being aboard. It was supposedly Top Secret. But everyone seemed to have found out about it the instant he had arrived. It was hard to hide an Imperial yacht, of course.
The ones who knew almost nothing about the Masao, either the planet or the man, enjoyed great status while telling about it to those who knew even less. Felix soon learned that this pattern was unavoidable. Everywhere he went.'the squad bay, the mess, even the gym, the same thing was going on: wide-eyed kids asking other wide-eyed kids if it was true what they said about the Masao. Did he really own the planet? That whole wealthy planet and all fifteen million people? Was it true they practically worshipped him? He could change anything the regular government did just like that? What's a samurai? Was that the same thing as being from Japan and how come everybody on Masao practically was Japanese?
Did everybody have to call him Great One? Even the captain?
When they asked Felix about it, the way they asked him about everything else, he just shrugged. Like always.
The screen at the foot of the bunk finally gave in. It was time.
"Good luck, Felix," said one of the kids.
Felix smiled at him. Then he made himself get up and go over and pat him on his freckled shoulder and thank him for it. Only then would he let himself leave. He did, hurriedly, but feeling good about what he could do through the sheer power of his will.
It was worse than a minor drop. It was a token drop. The Masao, they claimed, wanted to see Banshee for himself.
Felix stood at the end of the line of thirty regulars listening to the briefing while awaiting the imperial presence. The mission was officially a probe placement. Felix had heard all he was told before. He knew the purpose of the probe: to measure the shifting magnetic patterns of Banshee. He knew why it was important: once man could learn how the ants were able to change the patterns artificially, they could program their missiles to adopt to it. He even knew the essential truth about the probes themselves: they didn't work.
The sergeant doing the briefing ended it the same way as always. "Just stay the hell away from the damn things and let the techs do their work. Right? Right."
All heads turned at the appearance of the man at the entrance of the Drop Bay. He was an Imperial Guard and an incredible sight. He wore bright red armor with the Masao's crest emblazoned across the chest in white. He wore a white silk scarf around his helmet where his forehead should be. He wore two swords, one short, one long. He was beautiful. He spoke in highly dramatic, thickly accented, standard. "Be all aware: His Royal Highness, Alejandro Jorges Umemoto, Supreme Lord and Great One of…"
"Enough, Suki," said a strong and gentle voice. "Just let me in."
Suki sounded upset. He waved a hand abruptly at the entrance. "The Masao," he said shortly.
There were a few giggles in the ranks at Suki's expense. They stopped when he walked in. The Masao was wearing gold armor. Not that it wasn't plassteel, too. Not that it wasn't strong and utilitarian. It was. But it was also gold. The collective sigh was almost unanimous.
Behind the Masao, in two sharply stepping files, entered the remainder of the imperial guard. There were eighteen altogether. All wore the red, the scarves, the swords. One carried an extra two: the Great One's.
The captain in charge of the mission immediately fell all over himself trying to show not only the proper respect, but also that he wasn't really that undone by it all. What he succeeded in displaying was his almost paralyzing sense of intimidation. The Great One rescued him. Charming, and friendly, making a great effort not to appear mighty-while making it clear to all that the effort was a genuine courtesy on his part-he did manage to calm them down a bit. He even insisted the captain merely call him "Sir," a gesture which visibly shook his guards, even through their armor.
Next he started down the line, shaking the hand of each and every warrior. Almost no one present was aware of the true purpose of the guard that accompanied him down the line: to kill anyone insufficiently safe, courteous, or impressed. He wasn't needed. All were awed.
He didn't make it to Felix, at the end of the line. The sudden appearance of the ship's Captain himself stopped the greetings. A brief ceremony followed, with the skipper loudly and dramatically bestowing his prayers, faith etc. on the Great One's journey. The Masao handled it as if he had been accepting even greater honors all his life-which he had.
Then it was time to go. The scouts were called to point. Felix was with them. He stepped out of the ranks and took his place in front. The noncombatants fled the chamber. Felix found that he was trembling. But that ended when the familiar pattern of Transit Lights began. He tensed forward eagerly. He was ready for this. He was ready for nothing else.
Then the lights went to green and he stepped forward. It would be his twenty-first drop.
And his last.
Fleet seemed to be getting the hang of it. They had said no ants and there were none about. Felix approved of the glimmer of professionalism though personally, of course, he was disappointed.
He scanned the area. No wind now, but evidence of a recent storm was everywhere. There were no mazes. And what few dunes did exist were smooth sloping things rising and falling with gradual grace. The landscape rose gently eastward in broad, widely spaced humpbacks. In all other directions, vision was unobstructed for several kilometers.
It was a good team. The warriors spread out without having to be told, forming the defensive perimeter. The Imperial Guard was even better. Their circle around the Masao was completed many seconds sooner.
Felix found himself in the center of both rings along with the CO, the techs, and the Masao. He couldn't stand it. He offered to scout upslope while the first probe was being planted.
"Of course," replied the CO, as if he'd ordered instead of approved.
He went almost two kilometers. Nothing. No enemy, no ants.
"Shit," he mumbled and trotted back downslope. He was perhaps half a kilometer away from the rest of the team-they had just come into view below him-when he stopped short.
He didn't want to go back.
He turned around and looked back up the hill. That was where the ants were. Sooner or later. He looked back downslope. There was… what? Probes. A safe route, a quick route, then home. No ants. Just worthless readings and… and the Masao.
He didn't want to go back.
And he wasn't. He was actually turning away, toward Banshee and ants and oblivion, when the sudden bright glare off the gold caught his eye. He squinted. Then, seeing it, he gasped. His mouth went dry.
The Masao was coming up the slope.
There was another with him in a red suit. Suki, no doubt. Felix began to shake. The urge to flee was immensely strong. Anything. Anything! But not this…
Yet he stood still where he was. Even when, at fifty meters, Suki stopped to let the Masao approach alone. Even then, knowing what it must mean-even then, he could not move.
The Masao halted a mere two steps away. And during the brief silence before he spoke Felix could feel the Engine shudder. Then: "Hello, Felix."
He sighed. "Hello, Allie."
Allie stepped forward to join in the embrace. Felix stopped him short by thrusting his hand forward. Allie paused, looked at the black armored hand offered him, then slowly took it in his own.
Felix shook briefly, then dropped his hand. He had to moisten his lips before he could speak.
"Didn't waste much time, did you?"
"That's if you don't count the two years it took to find you," Allie replied with a laugh. He gestured about him. "Besides, I don't much like this place."
"Who else knows?"
"About you? No one but me."
"And you won't tell'em," Felix sniffed sarcastically. Allie's reply was soft with gentle hurt. "I wouldn't do that Felix. You should know that."
"All right. What are you doing here?"
"I came to get you."
"And take me back to… to…"
There was a pause. Felix stared at the sand.
"Felix, what are you doing in this place?"
"I see," Allie replied slowly. He took a frustrated step to one side, then back. "Yes, I had heard that. You're good at it?"
Allie strode forward and peered at him. "So tell me, old friend. Does it help?"
"Don't, Allie," Felix warned and took a step back.
"I don't think it does."
"You couldn't even say Golden just now…"
"So I don't believe you dare think of the rest of it…"
"…or of her…"
And Felix hit him. It was not a deadly blow. It was not even hard-this was Allie, after all.
But Suki came running anyway, drawing his long sword.
The blade glowed with the rich dullness of plassteel. Felix shoved Allie back and eagerly faced the charging guard.
"Who's the clown?" he called as belligerently as he could.
Allie threw up a golden arm. "Suki! Hold!"
The guard skidded to a halt. "But my Lord!"
"I am unhurt," assured his master calmly. "Leave us."
"You tell'im, Allie," snarled Felix, spoiling.
Suki whirled to face him again. "You dare to speak that way?"
Felix pointed a blunt black finger. "You won't believe how quickly I'll kill you," he said flatly.
Suki raised the sword.
"Hold, Suki!" commanded Allie. "Put that away."
Suki stared helplessly at him. He obeyed reluctantly. "Lord, how can you let him behave so?"
Allie patted his armored shoulder. "Suki, a Guardian Archon behaves as he will."
"Don't call me that!" Felix snapped angrily.
"It is what you are," replied Allie firmly.
Suki had dropped to his knees before Felix. "My Lord Archon, please forgive me. I didn't know!"
Felix stared at him. "Aw, shit! Just… just go away!"
Suki did not move. "I said'Go!'"
"You know he can't do that now, Felix."
Felix groaned. Allie was right. He did know that. "You can do it, though. You tell him, Allie."
"And shame him further?"
"Damn you, Allie!" he snapped. He hesitated, then stood over the kneeling samurai. He looked at Allie. "I don't remember what to say."
"Oh, come now, Felix" Allie snorted disgustedly.
"I don't," insisted Felix.
Allie peered at him. "Truly?"
Felix shook his head. "I don't remember."
"'Rise, loyal one, forgiven,'" Allie intoned.
Felix repeated it. Suki stood, bowed, and backed away without a sound. Felix watched him go. He turned back to his friend.
"Allie, you set that up. You set me up."
"Yes. I needed to know."
"Well, you found out."
"Yes. You buried it deep."
"Let it stay there, Allie."
The ominous tone touched Felix. He felt something tearing far inside. The Engine warped violently in and out of the shadows.
"Look at you! Look at what you've become. Wrapped up in that… that husk of yours. You look like a weapon."
"That's what I am, Allie!"
"Yes. But whose?"
"That's not the way it works, Felix!" He raised his gold-covered hands and clenched them into fists before Felix's faceplate. "Goddamn you, Felix!" he roared. "You are not dead! Stop acting like it!"
Felix lurched back as if struck. He knew it was coming. He saw it in his friend's angry eyes. And he knew there was no way to stop it. There was no protection, no armor-not for this.
"Angel is dead," said the Masao.
Felix sank to his knees like a rag doll. "No, Allie…"
"She's dead. Angel died."
"No, please…" He was gasping, his arms folded tightly across his stomach. He couldn't breathe.
"She's dead. Your wife is dead. She died in a freighter accident…"
He vomited, tried to crawl away.
The Masao followed. "It was a freak accident. It shouldn't have happened but it did."
"Please, no…" Felix gasped.
"Yes! Yes! You know it. You found the freighter yourself…"
"NO! You found the ship and you found her body! Or what was left of it after zero pressure had blown…"
"Noooooooo!" He rose back to his knees. His arms shot out from his sides, begging, beseeching. "Nooo-Noooo! Angel! Annngellllll…!"
And he screamed the scream again, that same scream from that same horrible ice-bloody sight. He screamed with his mind and he screamed with his soul and he could not stop, not to breathe, not to forget, not to live.
He fainted, the only way.
When he awoke, he was lost. He tried to rise but something held him fast. Something strong and gold-Allie! And it all rushed back in waves of pulsing agony and he wept as only once before he had. The golden arms curled around him, holding him, as his body jerked and heaved with each racking sob. He clung to Allie, trying to make it. And it helped. Even through the armor, it helped.
But he couldn't do it. He reached for the forearm panel to pop the suits. Allie's powerful arms, possessing all the leverage, clamped his arms too tightly. He struggled, but could not get them free.
"Oh, Allie, I want to die!"