"Is that all?" asked his friend gently. "Just die?"
"And so you came here?"
"I… guess so."
"But you forgot you can't'just die.'"
"Why can't I?"
Allie held him tighter, cradling. "Because, despite it all, you are Felix and must be killed."
Again, he slept.
When next he awoke the sobs were much less devastating. His body could no longer support them perhaps. Soon they stopped. He lifted his helmet from Allie's golden lap and sat up. Several meters away, the warriors and guard were gathered into small groups, sitting and talking. And, obviously, waiting.
"I'm sorry," said Felix. "How long was I out?"
"Don't worry about it," Allie said gently. "You feel better?"
"Yes. I can't believe I could sleep. I just got up." He indicated the others. "Haven't they said anything?"
"But the drop…?"
"Forget that, too."
"But…" He stopped, seeing it. He faced his friend. "It was all a fake. The drop… all for me."
Allie nodded slowly. "Mostly," he admitted. "This is Banshee, however. And we are carrying probes. Of course they don't work."
"They never have."
"So I understand. Lovely war, this."
"How'd you do it? You said no one else knew."
"And they don't. No one here, except Suki, knows."
"Then how, Allie?"
Allie shrugged. "The master of the Terra was most cooperative. He gave me a drop of my own."
"He went along, without even knowing why?"
"I am the Masao."
Felix smiled. For some reason, he had always found his friend's astonishing arrogance endearing. He gestured toward the others. "And the CO?"
"Oh, much easier. Command Voice and all that."
Felix winced. "He's not a pet, Allie."
"Oh really? Then what's he doing here""
He laughed, started to say something else. But it came again, without warning, doubling him over, grinding up and out. He wept and wept.
He had been sitting and staring at nothing, thinking of nothing. He was numb, exhausted, wrenched flat. And, he realized with amazement, relieved. He didn't know exactly what it meant. He didn't want to know. Or at least he didn't feel like examining it. Beside him, sitting patiently and waiting, with his back to all, sat the Masao. Felix smiled-he had his legs crossed Bhudda-fashion.
All his life he had known this man. He was closer to him than any other human. Despite the fact that they were from two different planets and two different cultures, they had managed to stay in touch since infancy. Most of the major events in their lives had been joint ventures. Allie had been Best Man.
But what really, he thought, did they have in common? Only that their recent ancestors had been rich enough and tough enough and egocentric enough to establish favorite monarchies on the two richest planets in known space. Even in that respect the two were different. Felix had been but one of twelve candidates for Guardian. The Masao had been the Masao from conception. He had always known it and always loved it that way. Whereas, Felix…
Still, he loved him. In his short life, there had been only the two who had touched him. Now one.
He glanced at the time. Damn! Two hours here!
"Allie, we've got to get out of here. Call the ship."
"Suddenly you're in a hurry."
"I'm not. The ants are. They must've sensed us by now. They'll be coming."
"Fleet reports say no ants here. It's why I picked it."
Felix stared at him. "Fleet reports? I thought you'd been keeping track of this war."
"Hmm. I see what you mean. Fleet isn't here."
Felix laid a glove on his shoulder. "Let me tell you something, old friend. Fleet is never here. Call the ship."
"I can't. Well, I could, of course. But we need to go somewhere else to get picked up."
"Why is that?"
"Dammit, Felix. This is supposedly a probe placement. They pick us up at the end of the line when we've finished planting them."
"About ten kilometers, I believe."
The Masao eyed him with distaste. "I think I liked you better in my lap."
"About five hours. Plenty of time."
Felix stood up. "Let's get started."
"You trying to scare the Masao?"
"Allie, don't you understand? This is Banshee!"
"Oh! You mean this is Banshee…"
Felix tried to get angry. He failed. "Come on," he urged.
"Relax, my friend. We'll have you in the Hall of Gold in less than…"
Allie paused. He stood up. "You mean you won't go back?"
"Let's talk about it later. We've got to get these people moving."
"Very well," Allie agreed reluctantly. "For now. Suki!"
They were up and moving in seconds, a steady procession of two concentric circles. A good team. Felix only had one suggestion. He thought the probes ought to be left behind now that their purpose had been served. The CO treated the advise like an order. "Yessir," he replied respectfully and ordered the probes abandoned on the spot.
Felix stared at him. Now that he noticed it, all the others were treating him with equal deference. He caught them glancing his way occasionally, always taking care not to get caught gawking.
He accused the Masao.
Allie laughed. "I swear to you. I told no one. And Suki wouldn't dare."
"Well, I guess seeing that we knew each other…"
Allie laughed again. "Could be that. Could be your Command Voice."
"Buzz off, Allie."
"You can't still blame them," Allie insisted. "Besides, it wasn't their fault the freighter buckled."
Felix sighed. "It was their fault she was on the freighter in the first place."
They had been walking for over an hour. Allie had been on him the whole way. He turned his gaze to the others, marching steadily around them. No one had approached, no one had spoken. Their privacy was respected. Pure Masao, he thought wryly.
He realized Allie had been talking. "What?" he asked.
His friend sounded exasperated. "I said you can't go on blaming a whole people for a mistake made by a few."
"Allie, those few didn't just err, they defaulted. You know how long it took me to run away? Three months. I planned for three months and my bodyguards still almost caught up with me. Angel lost hers, without planning, in three minutes. That's a breakdown in commitment. The guards simply didn't care enough about her to do their duty."
"All right," Allie conceded. "Perhaps you're right…"
"No'perhaps' about it."
"Okay, okay. You made your point. But you're still blaming the planet for it?"
"Allie, the guards were just indicative. They never accepted Angel-no one ever did. They never gave her a chance."
Allie shrugged. "She was an Earthwoman. Your people resented it."
"Goddammit! My mother was from Earth! So was yours. They never had any trouble."
"That was a long time ago. Partner. They were there from the start. They were very old and revered. Mine still is."
He grinned, looked sideways at his friend. "Still beautiful, too?"
Allie laughed. "By Imperial decree."
"I always loved your mother."
"She loved you. She's missed you."
They were quiet for several steps. "Angel left me a note before she left. Did I tell you that?"
"She said she was afraid she was holding me back."
"She didn't know. Even then, she still didn't know how much I… I…" His voice cracked. He fought the churning.
"Do you want to stop?" Allie asked him.
"We can. We've got plenty of time."
"No," he said firmly. "I'll be all right." He looked at Allie through his tears.
Maybe I will, he thought.
An hour later they had covered over half the distance. The landscape had gradually changed. They were on a long broken plain apparently unaffected by the storm. Crusted dunes were everywhere around them. In the distance, foot-hill-size drifts could be made out.
Allie tried patriotism.
"The people need you," he said.
Felix sighed. "They have a Guardian now. They have Tasp."
"You know about that? Well, you have bothered to keep up then."
"No. But who else could it have been?"
"Well, it wasn't."
"You would be better."
"What's wrong with Tasp? Don't the people like him?"
"Of course they do. He's a good Guardian."
"But he isn't you." Allie stopped suddenly, looked at him carefully. "They wanted you."
Felix matched his gaze. "I wanted Angel."
Another hour. The team sat or lay sprawled around them in the sand. They were making very good time. Allie voiced concern about arriving early.
"If we have to wait two hours there, won't it be just as bad?"
"Aha," laughed Felix. "I have scared the Masao."
"Don't be impertinent."
Felix laughed again. "Yes, Great One." And he went on to explain that it was location, not timing, that counted. He was explaining about the three-hour safety margin surrounding Retrieval when it hit him. He stopped and stared at his friend, seeing him, really seeing him for the first time. And, more importantly, really believing he was here.
He sat forward and threw his arms around his chest and held him close. They were silent for several seconds. Then they broke away. Allie peered closely into his faceplate.
"You're back," he said.
Felix smiled. "Yes."
"This is really you again."
Felix laughed. "It always was."
"Some of you," Allie corrected.
He nodded. "'Some of me' still, Allie. It's been… very bad."
"Whatever. I think it's incredible. In four hours-after two years of being… whoever it was you were."
Felix shrugged. "I was already on my way. He was dying."
"And that is… what?"
"Exactly. A what. As opposed to a who."
Allie shook his head. "I don't get it."
"Good. It's just something that… well, it kept me alive."
"If that's what you call living. The life you had is…"
"Allie, once and for all-I'm not going back. Never."
The Masao sighed loudly. He lay back in the sand. "All right." He tapped the toe of a boot against Felix's armor. "I hope your next suit is more fun."
Felix shook his head violently. "No. No more armor for me. I don't…" He stared at something in the distance, not seeing it, and wondered how he had possibly done it at all. He shook the thoughts away. "I don't know what I'd do if I had to fight again. No more armor for me."
Allie shrugged. "I wasn't talking about fighting especially. But it's still armor, whether you admit it or not. It's still something you hide in." He sat up. "Felix, you came here to hide in there. But everything you were hiding from was in there with you. That's the trouble with armor. It won't protect you from what you are."
"And what is that?"
"What you'll do."
"When it counts."
Suki approached and bowed.
"Speak," said the Masao, standing up.
"Lord, the officer in charge reports the scout…" He looked at Felix, embarrassed. "That is, one of the warriors. He was sent ahead, over the next hill. He reported Retrieval Proximity."
"Hot damn!" said Allie happily, slapping his golden palms.
"Damn near," Felix agreed.
"Lord? Then I can tell them we can begin at once?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, Suki, by all means. At once. Let's get the hell out of here."
"Yes, Lord!" Suki agreed happily, bowing and backing away.
Felix stood up too. Soon the procession was again on the move. They marched in silence over the hill. Soon each had the Retrieval Beacon flickering below his holos. Only a few hundred yards to go.
Allie matched steps with him, throwing an arm over his shoulders. "So tell me: what are you gonna do? How are you going to live?"
Felix grinned. "The Masao will be pleased to provide the necessary luxuries."