Armor

3,477
07.03.2019

"Huh?" He turned and stared at her faceless helmet.

"The Terra was hit. We haven't heard from her in… not in a long while, anyway."

"But the Transit…"

"Those are the jeep carriers. Automated. Robot pilots."

He stood there for a second or two before saying: "Damn."

"Uh-huh," replied the scout. "Damn. Well. I have a place I'm supposed to be. We've a rendezvous of sorts." She read dials. "It's not far."

She led the way through the maze, stopping often to check her bearings. Twice he thought he heard her mumble to herself, but said nothing to prompt her. They saw no one else for several minutes.

Suddenly she stopped.

"They've figured it out," she said, half to herself. "They've stopped shelling."

Felix listened, nodded. "They'll be looking for us."

"Yeah. Then we fight again. And then we move again. Then we fight."

"You've moved before?"

"Twice. It delays things a little, not much." She turned and faced him then, shoving out a gloved hand. "I'm Forest," she said. "Third Scout, Forward Group One."

"Felix," he said, returning the handshake.

"You want to hear it all? The whole deal? We won't have time later. Or maybe you don't care?"

He found himself smiling. "Maybe not. But give it to me anyway."

"Right." said Forest, leading off again through the maze. "First of all, it was easy."

Ten thousand warriors had made simultaneous Drop on the "wrist." They drove due north toward the Knuckle, arriving at the edge of the maze well within estimated time limits. They quickly arranged themselves within the classic semicircular battlefield pattern and waited for A, B, and C Assault teams to arrive. They had excellent communication with the Terra, good morale and, at that point, nothing to report.

An hour later, the Terra stopped transmitting abruptly, in mid-sentence. All efforts to reopen communications were to no avail. No one was really worried though. The weather, someone suggested. Two hours later, however, and all were getting awfully nervous about being alone. The idea of losing contact had, frankly, never occurred to anyone.

Nervously, all eyes turned to the Knuckle.

And, on cue, it opened…

The ants came in waves that were perhaps half as wide as the Warrior emplacements. They came right at the center of the humans' strength. Because of clever positioning, the ants in the front ranks were clearly visible long before they reached the trenches. Also, only one or two in ten actually carried the blasters, which were of dubious value anyway considering the length of time they must remain centered on a single target.

So it was just what the human commanders could have wished for.

The first wave was literally obliterated without a single human life being lost. Likewise the second wave and the third.

The commanders could find no evidence that the ants were trying to flank them, so they drew in most of the forces from each end of the emplacement, leaving only scouts at the edges.

The fourth wave came and went the way of the others. Then the fifth died as well and the sixth and the seventh and by now everyone was having a helluva good time killing ants. It was easy. More, it was fun.

The ants stopped coming for a while and everyone cheered until they remembered that they still couldn't talk to the ship. Until B and C teams straggled in carrying bodies and missing many more.

The officers got together and gave the warriors make-work to keep them from thinking too much and it worked for a while until there simply wasn't anything else for them to do and they got a chance to sit down and look at what they had done.

"That's when I knew," said Forest. "That's when a lot of people saw it."

It was the bodies of the ants. There were thousands of them. Thousands and thousands and thousands. There were more than the entire loaded complement, not just of the Terra, but of the entire wing. There were too many. Too damn many.

The next wave was more than a wave. It was a solid mass. The first attacks had been only scouting missions, they realized, as they watched the choking, boiling rush swarm toward them. Just scouts.

They called it the first assault. During its half-hour length, two thousand warriors died. One out of every five humans.

"What's incredible," said Forest, "was that we held at all."

But they did hold. Against that assault and against the next and the next. But by then all was a mass of warfare and death and smoke and blistered ants and ruptured plassteel and some officer got smart and called for troops to move back and dig in at another spot.

About then the mortars started falling, coming from the Knuckle itself and it got so bad that they moved again almost immediately.

"We weren't just retreating. We were running. But then we found a real good spot and dug in a little better than ever before. We had the best of the best left, you loiow. And plenty of power left. And we blew big holes in'em then. Big, big, holes.

"But, dammit, we were still gating chewed. We should. We were running. But then have just run like hell and I told'em so. But they wouldn't listen to me. Those idiot officers… Felix, they still didn't know what was going on. Not even then. They hadn't seen the fighting from up front like the rest of us. They still thought the Knuckle was a goddamn mountain fort."

"Isn't it?" asked Felix, puzzled.

"Felix," she said slowly, stopping and looking at him. "That is no fort. It isn't even a mountain."

"Then what is it?"

"It's a hive."

The warriors hastily erecting the fortification couldn't have numbered much more than twenty-five hundred.

"Where are the rest?" asked Felix.

"I guess this is it. Except for some stragglers."

"This couldn't… You mean you lost three-fourths of your entire force?" Felix couldn't believe it.

"Well, we had about twice this before the Transit idiocy. But the Hammer did a bad job on us. Hold on here, Felix. I'll see if I can find someone for you to report to."

She trotted off down the lines. Felix watched a squad of warriors demolishing large sections of the sandy ridges on either end of the barricade to inhibit encirclement. Another group was busy leveling the maze for about fifty meters straiglit out in front, to provide a flat killing area for the enemy to cross before reaching them. It looked, he thought, like they would be in a good spot in any normal encounter. But this was not normal. The ants were not… He shook his head briefly to clear his mind of the image of those waves and waves. He wondered how it had affected those around him. He watched them go about their duties in what seemed to be a trancelike liaze.

Forest reappeared. "Can't find anybody much. Colonel said you're with me for now. Right?"

"Sure."

She went to a stack of blazers surrounded by piles of assorted bits of equipment. She picked out two, handed him one.

"This blazer's almost empty."

"Yeah," she replied calmly. "I gave you the one with the juice in it. Clubs, Felix. Welcome to the interstellar Stone Age."

"I thought we had plenty of power."

"Not for blazers they tell me. Okay-we're the backup team for this area." She waved an arm at an area behind the barricade perhaps twenty meters wide. "The procedure is to let breakthroughs alone. The line warriors ignore them. We, that's you and me, are supposed to get them as they come through. Go for the head first. If you can't reach that, try for the thorax."

"What about the eyes?"

"The eyes are good, too. Yeah, I guess you must have done this once or twice before just to get here. Well, try not to look too bored, huh? You'll spoil it for me."

She laughed and started toward the barricade, waving for him to join her. "Come on. We're scouting some."

He wanted to say something that matched her bravado. He wanted to laugh with her while he could. Or just smile. But it was too far away from him already. Slowly, but with growing speed, he felt the Engine rise, felt it gather itself and surge forward to the front of his consciousness. And once again, he felt the rest of him begin to fade.

They stepped across the barricade of packed sand and dropped the two meters to the floor of the killing area. He looked about at the scarred pattern of the pulverized dunes made by the planted explosives. The entire area held a gritty, gray-black coating that made an unpleasant crunching sound under his boots. He saw that certain areas of the sand had been shocked into something resembling glass.

"Key the command frequency," she said as they approached the maze walls. "The CO wants to know what we see before everybody else does."

He nodded to himself and made the connection. She stopped when they reached the edge of the maze, gazing back and forth at the various possibilities. "We need some height," she mumbled as if to herself. She picked a narrow gorge that rose steeply and began to climb. He followed silently.

They followed the passage through several turns, always rising. Around a sharp bend, they came to an abrupt dead end. She turned and looked back in the direction they had come as if she could see through the walls. "Okay. This is probably far enough. Up we go."

With that she bent quickly into a crouch, seesawed her arms for balance, and leaped to the top of the far wall. Felix gauged the height. He leaped after her. He misjudged his leap and banged a thigh against the lip, sending a spray of sand into the air. But he was up.

"The world's greatest athlete," she said when he had knelt down beside her.

"What?"

"That's what they'd say on Earth if I could have done that without a suit. Look at the jump we just made. Seven meters easily."

Felix glanced down, nodded.

"You from Earth?" she asked.

"No," he replied.

"I am," she said cheerily. "Born and bred. Ever been there?"

"Yes."

She looked at him at last. She had noticed the change in him. But she felt the need to talk and began to rattle on again. It was all about her childhood on Earth and about her decision to sign up some six years before. Some of it was about some man, either a lover or relative, Felix was not all sure.

He wanted to listen, wanted to help her out. He felt her need acutely and knew it would be much better for her if he could manage to respond. Perhaps it would even be better for him. She was, after all, Third Scout for the Forward Group, quite a high rank. Perhaps she knew better. Mostly, though, he just wanted to help.

But this was a distant want, coming from a distant place where all his human thoughts were thrust during what he had come to think of as the Enginetime. The rest of him, the Engine, was scouting.

Below them could clearly be seen the entire lengths of some two dozen passages in the maze. Bits and pieces of several dozen more were also in sight. It was a good spot for them.

Felix's eyes raked back and forth across the lines of curving passages, from left to right and back again. He would make two of these scans at a time. And then he would look upward at the most incredible sight he had ever seen.

He had no idea what the Knuckle was made out of. He supposed that it might very well be composed of the same sort of material used to make the ants themselves. He had read somewhere once about some forms of insect life that created their homes in this manner. He wondered if the same pattern would hold true for these ants, these three-meter-tall ants.

These monsters…

"Forest?" asked a sharp commanding voice in his earphones.

"Forest, here," she replied.

"You in position?"

"Yessir."

"All right. Look, the Can is coming down your way pretty soon. You need to make Connection?"

"Yessir. I could use it."

"What about the other scout with you? Felix is it?" Felix looked at her, nodded.

"Yessir. He needs it, too."

"Very well. One of you stays While the other comes back. Then rotate again. I want someone scanning the whole time. Got it?"

"Yessir. Will."

"Right. Out."

"Forest out. You want to go first?"

"It doesn't matter."

"I figured you'd say that. You sure turned into the quietest damn… Oh, shit. See it?"

Felix followed her gaze. He saw it. An ant. Then another and another.

"Colonel, this is Forest again."

"Right, Forest. You got something?"

"Yessir."

"Right. How many do you see?"

"About twenty or… No, make that forty or…"

"It's probably just a scouting party. Sit tight while I…"

"Eight, ninety… one hundred and fifty, seventy…"

"…mark the spot on the grid. Now, Forest…"

"Yessir? One ninety, two twenty-five, two seventy-five…"

"Forest, I want you two to stay put out of sight and wait until the main force arrives."

"Three hundred fifty, four hundred, call it five hundred… did you say something sir?"

"Yes, I did. Forest, are you paying attention?"

"Six hundred, seven hundred… I'm a listening. Colonel. You were saying something about this being a scouting party."

"That's right. Just scouts. I'm 90 percent sure…"

Felix watched some two thousand ants boiling throughout the maze almost underneath him and thought about idiot officers and running away.

"Colonel, this is Forest and I'm listening but I don't think you are. Three thousand, four thousand… You hear? Five thousand ants are in sight right now?"

"Now listen. Forest. You… How many did you say?"

"Never mind, Colonel, I'll tell you in person. We're coming back."

"Huh? Forest? What the…"

"Forest out," said Forest simply and Felix heard her cut him off. Felix did the same. They turned together and slid off the edge together. They landed easily on the floor of the cul-de-sac and began running back down the passage with Felix in the lead. He could hear her panting along behind him on the Proximity band, could hear her mumbling something about that "dumb-fuck Colonel" and he thought about how much he would have laughed if it had been funny.

They crossed the killing area with only four powered strides apiece and over the barricade and the warriors behind it. As they leaped over the rows of helmets, Felix heard a Warrior's deep bass voice muttering: "Sure as hell found us fast. What's their blinking hurry?" and then he was past and down. He turned and faced the barricade, gripped the muzzle of the blazer and took several deep breaths.

Forest was busy talking to the group leader and gesturing with her armored arms. The two seemed to reach an agreement. She laid a gloved hand on his shoulder and turned away toward Felix.

"We'll get the starfish first. They aren't really much. It would take two or three to match a blaze-bomb. But duck anyway. If one were to actually hit you as it detonated, it would split the plassteel."

Felix nodded, took more deep breaths.

"We've got a bigger area than most to back-up because we're Scouts and can move so quickly. I'll take the left for now, I guess. You all right?"

He looked at her, said nothing.

"Right," she said and moved into position. "Don't forget the starfish."

Felix was still wondering what starfish were when he saw them.

The air was suddenly filled with a cloud of what looked like six-spoke rimless wheels that arced gracefully against the sky from somewhere in the maze. Most landed short, in the killing area. There they had a harmless effect. But several did manage to get over the barricade and the sounds of the explosions were quite loud all of a sudden. There were some screams when it had stopped.

"Here they come,"

Felix lifted his helmet up. He saw the first wave.

– It had to be waves at first. The tight passages of the maze allowed little room for a full maneuver. Instantly the warriors began to blaze away at the open mouths of the tunnels. The bodies of the ants began to pile up and for a fleeting instant, Felix thought that they would get them all by killing the handful that could squeeze through effectively.

Then a full wall collapsed in a rush of sand and dust. And then another and then there was a single line of scurrying, swarming ants coming at the barricade.

The bodies began to pile up on the killing area. Different piles began to swell until it was all one long, wide pile. Then that pile began to swell and move and flow… closer and closer.

With astonishment, Felix counted five thousand bodies dead in his section alone. Thousands and thousands…

The ants made no attempt to protect or shield themselves. Only one in five carried blasters and those were ineffective at that range. But still they were advancing. Closer and closer. There were just too many targets.

Within moments, the mass had reached the barricade. And from there it stretched straight back into the openings of the maze without a break. The human Felix was stunned, awed by the sheer immensity of such numbers. A tiny thread began to well up, the only sane reaction.

The Engine, unsane, ignored it all. Instead, it leaped forward and drove the muzzle of the blazer into the left eye of the first ant to break through. Without waiting for effect, he turned and slammed an armored forearm into the thorax of an ant that had lost a claw in its rush. And then there was another to the left. Two to the left. And then one to the right. He swung the blazer, slammed it against enemies. He drove plassteel fists into eyes, alongside great staring skulls. He killed, rupturing and splintering exoskeleton, bursting those globular eyes, ripping and tearing limbs from their sockets, he killed.

And again and again… He killed.

He grappled a midsection, twisted about, and flung the ant back over the barricade. He turned to meet another and heard a click as the CO's override cut in: "Down-everybody-down-bombs-now-repeat bombs-now…"

Felix ignored the ants around him and dropped full length into the sand as two hundred blaze-bombs flew high and deep and landed in the center of the killing area.

The explosion, even with automatic mufflers, was deafening Felix started to rise. Someone shouted at him to hit it again. He hit it, just as the remaining warriors turned their fire inward toward him. The blazerfire scorched the air over his head, slicing the relative handful of ants around him that had gotten through. It lasted only a few seconds.

"All clear," said the CO's voice.

Slowly Felix rose, saw everyone had stopped firing. All seemed to be relaxing. He stood and stared, dumbfounded, past the barricade.

Dead ants, or rather pieces of dead ants, covered the entire killing area. Not a single living enemy was left. Instead, there was a twitching, squirming mass of crushed and burned ectoskeleton that stretched all the way to the mouths of the maze. The height of the stack brought it to just under the lip of the barricade itself.

Forest stepped up to him, gesturing over her shoulder at the carnage with a plassteel thumb.

"Ain't that something?" she said in a wry tone. She clapped him on the shoulder, turned away and looked out over the sight. He heard the beginnings of a dry chuckle.

And then, abruptly, she sat down. For a few seconds she didn't move. Then she looked up at him and gestured for him to sit beside her. On impulse, Felix obeyed. He peered hard at her face-shield, at the vague outlines of her face. He had expected her to speak again. Twice he thought she was about to. At last, he started to break the silence when he heard the sobbing.

She cried, and her great armored shoulders shook with the wretched agony of it. She cried and then cried some more. Then she simply lay down on the sand and shuddered.

Felix sat watching her framed against the broken alien bodies. He saw that her head was resting against the skull of an ant. He started to move it, then saw that he, too, was resting on the body of another. He looked around. The area was covered with the crushed parts of enemies, the sand drenched with their black spouting something. He shivered, stood up.

I can't lie on that, he thought. Dammit, I can't even lie down…

It was some time before he noticed the tears in his eyes. Because it was all going to happen again.

"It's a deathtrap," said the Colonel bitterly.

"It's all we have," replied Forest in a patient tone.

"There's no way down once we're up there. There's just that one set of steps…"

"…and only one place to defend."

"What if they decide to dig straight up through?"

"That will take awhile. Even for ants. Either way, we buy some time."

"I don't like it."

Forest snorted disgustedly, a harsh blast of white sound into Felix's earphones. "Dammit, I don't like it either," she retorted. "But there simply isn't any other place to go but the mesa. We ought to get started moving the casualties as soon as the able-bodies have made connection."

"I don't like it. I don't like not having any avenue of retreat."

The Colonel looked up at her then, startled. For perhaps five seconds the two stood there, commander and scout, and traded glances. At last the Colonel looked away. He sighed.

"It's a deathtrap," he said again.

"It's Banshee," said Forest, simply.

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