Armor

3,489
07.03.2019

Allie's arm jerked away as if stung. "And what if he does not?" he demanded in mock outrage.

Felix's grin broadened. "Then I'll break his legs."

"Hmph," sniffed the Masao. "Said Felix the Scout."

Felix laughed. "Of course, there is always blackmail."

"Blackmail? You dare to suggest the record of the Great One is impure?"

"Personally, I would not," replied Felix humbly. "But Labella might."

"Labella!"

"Now there's someone your mother would really love."

"How could you do this to your oldest and dearest friend? You bastard! I was only sixteen."

"That's the best part. Seeing as how she was sixty-something."

"She was not. She was… thirty-ish."

Felix threw back his head and cackled. "Are you kidding? Her wrinkles had wrinkles. You could draw a line between her nipples and get her navel."

"That's unfair."

"Unlikely, is what it was."

"You're very cruel. Labella loved me."

Felix shrugged. "You were a big tipper."

"Now that is unfair."

"I always thought so. Considering the quality of her act."

"Felix, don't you start on her dancing again. You just never understood. She was a very artistic…"

"Grandmother?"

Allie started to speak, but the laughter burst through at last. They howled awhile. Then Allie became quiet.

"You know, I think about Labella now and again."

"I should think so. You were going to give up your title for her."

Allie sighed elaborately. "I did love her. I had such passion for her eyes."

"That's hominess. For her thi…"

"You have no romance in you, you know that?"

Felix laughed. "My karma."

"Your karma's jammed," said Allie sourly.

Felix laughed again. "Now, to the money?"

"Oh, very well. Even though it's against my principles. But only in installments. I don't want you running off on me again."

Felix touched an armored hand gently to the other's arm. "I won't. Never again."

Allie looked at him. His eyes shone. "I know," he said shortly. Then: "I brought you a ship. It's small, but…"

"You knew?" cried Felix, amazed. And delighted.

The Masao nodded. "Let's say I feared."

Felix stopped, put an arm out to stop Allie. Then he placed his faceplate against his. "Thank you, Allie. For…" The tears ran warmly down his smile. "For coming to get me."

Allie blinked, embarrassed. He shrugged elaborately. "I had some free time…"

Felix laughed…

And it began. So quickly, it began.

The wind first. It swept over them without warning, pounding against them with rhythmic, pulsing, gusts. The sand sizzled against their armor…

The Transit Cone symbol appeared on his, and everyone else's, holos…

The CO's voice barked on Command Frequency: "Everyone in from the perimeter! Prepare for Retrieval…"

The Imperial Guard materialized out of a gust, collapsing around their master…

"Damn this wind," shouted Allie. "Come on!" he shouted and started to run. Felix and the Guard followed…

The CO again. "Transit Cone sighted. Everyone in on me. On the double…"

Felix and Allie arrived at the back of a pack of warriors. Seeing them, the warriors parted to let them by. The Transit Cone, ten meters away, shimmered clearly before them…

The CO again, in front of them as a gust receded: "Sir? If you'd care to go first?"

"I would indeed," replied Allie, stepping forward and motioning Felix to do the same.

"What's that?" asked a voice. Felix was not paying attention.

"Looks like a mountain," said another voice. Felix was just following Allie.

"Where?" asked a third voice. Felix automatically looked around.

"There!" said the first voice. And Felix looked where the man was pointing and froze…

The warrior was pointing to a hive.

It was the biggest Felix had ever seen. Kilometers away, it must have been thousands of meters high. But he did not think of that then.

He thought of Hive! Knuckle! Transit Beam! The Hammer! The Hammer!

"Allllieee!"

The first blast was awesome. It threw him off his feet. He crashed into the sand on his side. He could see nothing for the sand. Screams piercing, whimpering, unbelieving, filled his ears. He couldn't find Allie and he yelled for him but there were too many people yelling already and too many forms on his holos. He stood up and rushed forward and the second Hammer struck, flattening him face-down into the sand. And there were more screams and with them horrible sounds coming from all over of wrenching plassteel and bone and pressure escaping. "ALLLIIEE!" he screamed but he could hardly hear his own voice, much less any reply.

Another blast erupted. And another and another. All around him. Homing in, he knew. Homing in on the Transit Beacon and the people and Allie and… More screams and something flew past him, crumpling as it went and he knew what it must be but he didn't care-he didn't!-it wasn't gold.

And there he was, suddenly, on the ground before him, the Cone flickering dully off the gold. He rushed forward and grabbed and tried to lift as another blast struck and more screams…

"No!" Allie was screaming. "Let go!"

And he saw it then, saw the hole, saw the sand being blown out from between Allie's golden clenched fingers as they tried to hold it shut.

Seconds-only seconds-left!

"Allie! I'll carry you! Don't worry!" He reached down and tried to get a hold to lift the huge suit but it was an awkward position and he was so afraid of dislodging Allie's grip on the hole! The hole! My God, a hole! Seconds! Seconds'

"I've got you," he said and the next blast struck-damned close-and in that instant before he careened away he saw — through the glare of the blast, through the blinding sand, through the reflection of it all on Allie's faceplate-the fear. Allie was afraid.

And then he was crashing and tumbling through the air and the sand and bodies jounced obscenely past him and against him and the world was filled with the sounds of their terrors and their deaths.

Seconds-seconds-seconds…

Somehow he was back and leaning over him again. There was nothing else, nothing but this to do and this one to live, to make it. To live! Allie!

But the glove on the rip was weakened and opening, the head lolling inside the helmet.

"No!" he screamed! "NO!"

And he reached down and clamped his glove over his friend's and gripped with all his might. With his other hand he reached around and down and lifted him, weightless, up against him as a mother does her child, pressed against her chest and protecting. Allie's faceplate full on his own. Allie's eyes darted slowly and rested on his and he opened his mouth and ice formed immediately on his gums but he still managed to say "Felix…" before he died.

Three steps into the Cone. Unhurt by the carnage. Untouched by it.

Transit. The patterned lights. The Drop Bay and people everywhere rushing with waving arms and strident voices. Someone tried to take the golden suit from his arms and for a moment the urge to kill was strong and clear and pure.

But no. He relented, slid the shining gold to the floor and walked away. It may as well have been an empty suit. Allie was gone.

People pushed against him, shoving him back from the growing center of alarm and accusations. He moved when they pushed, stood still where they left him. He seemed to be there a long time, facing without seeing the cascade of movement and emotion. Then someone took him by the arm and led him firmly away. Someone big. In big blue armor.

Fine. He could walk. He could do that.

Through the corridors they went. They passed the door to the armor locker. They took a lift. They transferred to another. They began to walk faster, urged by the big blue glove on his arm. They were in a part of the ship he had never seen. He recognized it from the briefings and the rest but he couldn't seem to place it exactly.

And he was tired of walking, tired of the suit, tired of the urgency he could not match in their strides.

They stopped. The blue arm let go. He stood in semi- darkness watching as a black and white jumpsuit, Security, rushed forward yelling about unauthorized and wearing armor where they should not and the blue arm whipped out tendon- taut and the black and white was on the floor. What the hell?

He blinked and looked and… and Kent? Kent? Kent was coming toward him again, the determined iron look on his face. He had seen that look before, once before and… "No!" he blurted and tried to push out to protect himself.

But then the great blue fist rocketed up at his eyes, slamming against the faceplate and as he fell, he relaxed and let go. At last, at least, it was over.

PART FIVE

ARMOR

I

There was nothing more on the coil.

Holly kept checking, running it through as Lya and I sat there on our couches, stunned and staring. But it was no good. It was over and nothing could change it. Nothing could change the fact of it or the aura of obscenity it created. Kent had killed Felix. Kent!

After all he had been through and all he had had to become and become again, after all the bravery and… talent… and… After being the toughest man alive…

Kent, everybody's hero, had killed him.

Holly gave up after a while and sat back down. The medicos came in and fussed with us. We took it without speaking, without thinking. They pronounced us emotionally and physically exhausted. They said we must get to bed at once.

And we did. Still without speaking, without saying good- bye or good night, we went. Lya, I remember, was weeping softly, almost silently. I could not. It wasn't sadness, I felt. Not exactly. Not remorse. It was disgust.

I stumbled back to my room, still dazed. Fucking Kent!

That one fact managed to say more about the whole filthy mess, the whole filthy war, than anything else. To me, it was the war.

I found my suite empty. I slid out of my clothes and stood there, wondering what to do. Then I saw the bed and remembered. I sat down on it. The mirror was across from me and I stared at myself without recognition or purpose.

Fucking Kent…

I slept.

And then I was waking, badly and slowly and still dulled. I looked up to find Cortez shaking me awake.

"Leave me the hell alone," I growled and turned over.

He shook me again. I spun around, lashed upward and snatched him by the collar of his Crew jumpsuit and gripped hard. His eyes bugged.

"It's Wice," he hissed. "Wice sent me."

I stared. "You? You're in on this, too?"

He nodded quickly. Like a squirrel. I sighed and dropped my hand. "Tell him later," I said tiredly. Then I noticed the clock. It didn't seem right. "What time is it?"

"Almost morning," said the squirrel. "And…"

"And what!"

"And the City is burning."

II

Project Security was on full alert. No one was allowed to leave or enter. All this from the squirrel.

"What're you gonna do?" he asked as we strode down a corridor.

I stopped, eyed him with disgust. "Go away."

He went. I made sure he wasn't following, though I couldn't imagine him having the nerve to try. Then I made for my exit. I went through the place, down more corridors, down a lift, and into the lab area without seeing a soul. I found the hatch next to the circuits I had rigged earlier. I could betray Holly twice from the same spot.

Though I wasn't thinking of it as that. I wasn't thinking of it at all, or of anything else, as I popped the hatch and slid out into the darkness. Just get across the river without being blazed in the back. I keyed the hatch to re-open.

The bridges were out, of course. The Security there was deep and alert. But they didn't see me slip around the comer of the dome and into the river. And if they heard my splashing, they weren't certain enough of its meaning to fire. I crossed without trouble; the water was warm.

The City was not burning. Too much plassteel and hull for a conventional fire. But the dark shadow of looming smoke meant that everything else was probably gone. I couldn't see much else. The approach I was forced to take led me through undergrowth and tall trees that blocked the outline of the Maze. It also blocked my view of the stars, any sort of trail, and tiny little bushes about ankle high that repeatedly jammed their nettles into my boots. I found a clearing by tripping and falling forward into it. God, but I hated the outdoors.

I was just rising to my knees when he appeared. He was tall as me, heavily armed, and wearing full open-air battle armor. A commando.

"Cale?" he whispered in my direction, then reached for his pistol before I could mumble the lie.

I kicked him in the face twice, in the forehead and right cheek. He dropped like a rock. I stood over him, gasping and waiting unnecessarily for his response. If I hadn't seen that armor…

I knelt beside him and looted. He had all the goodies. Grenades, a comvid, blaze charges. It was Fleet stuff. It was Borglyn's stuff.

Today was the day, it seemed.

I took the pistol and a single charge. I clipped the comvid to the loop at my waist. On impulse, I reached over and drained the power from the armor. Then I threw the rest of the extra charges into the trees. It was as good as tying him up-that stuff was heavy.

I never considered wearing it myself. Never.

No one else popped up in the long half-hour it took me to make my way to the edge of the city. And after awhile I had managed a fairly decent rate of progress. More importantly, I felt sure I could retrace my steps.

The main square was apparently deserted. I hated the idea of strolling across so open an area but the Maze was made of less forgiving terrain than the woods and I knew only the one way to get to Wice. I took a deep breath rich with smoke and trotted across to the other side. Nothing happened.

Minutes later I had climbed the passage and the building at the end. The guard that loomed at me from the shadows acted like he was expecting me. He led me through the lair without speaking until we stood before Wice's broad door. He knocked in an obvious pattern and waited. The door opened.

"Crow," he said shortly.

The stooge at the door peered at me, nodded me through, closed the door behind me.

There were five of them in Wice's office. Or six, counting the poor fool lying moaning and bleeding on the floor. All but the fool turned toward me as I entered.

Wice nodded. "'Bout time," he growled. "Again," he said to one of the others standing over the fool.

The man, huge and heavily muscled, was taking off a shirt soaked with sweat. "Okay," he said resignedly, dropping the shirt on the back of a chair. Then he leaned over and slammed his fist into the fool's kidneys. The fool warped like a beached fish and screamed.

"What the hell are you doing?" I demanded, striding forward.

The man without the shirt stood up quickly, warily on guard. I ignored him for Wice.

"If you ever showed up when you're goddamned supposed to, you'd know!" Wice snapped back angrily. "Borglyn's gonna…"

"Wice!" I interrupted impatiently.

He stopped, looking at me, really looking at me for the first time. He sighed. "Where've you been. Jack?" he asked with evident hurt in his voice.

Incredible. Between us lay a man waiting to be tortured some more. But all Wice could do was pout. I remembered what he'd told me about being at my piracy trial, the pride he felt at being there. He gaped like a disillusioned child.

"Later," I said shortly with a brusque wave. I sank into the easy chair. "Tell me."

"Well, for one thing, today is the day we…"

"I figured that. What's this?" I pointed to the man on the floor.

Wice shrugged. "Some pilgrim came in a coupla weeks back with a whole carton of rifles. The locals got'em."

"How?"

He looked at the floor. "He gave'em the rifles."

"To stop you?"

"Yeah."

"These people don't like you, Wice," I said on impulse.

It struck home. "I don't give a shit," he snarled unconvincingly.

I stared. A child. He was a child. He motioned the puncher forward. "Again, Lopes."

"Wait a second," I said to Lopes, then turning to Wice before he could protest, "Who is this guy anyway? The one with the guns?"

Wice shook his head. "No. But he knows where they are. He knows all of it, where the leaders are and everything. And he's gonna tell it all."

I stood up, forcing my muscles to laxness. "Wice," I began calmly, "this is only going to make it worse. They'll never accept you after…"

"They'll accept Borglyn."

"But Borglyn…" I began and stopped, suddenly, seeing it all at last. "Borglyn was never just coming for fuel. He's coming to stay, isn't he? He's coming to take over."

Wice's mouth was open. "You didn't know? You really didn't know?"

I didn't answer. I was too busy wondering if I had known all along. It wasn't a Fleet planet, after all. It was Lewis's planet. Borglyn needn't fear the might of avenging starships. He could roll over the drunk-in his sleep-and he would own it all. Maybe he wouldn't even bother with Lewis. Or maybe Lewis wouldn't care. Maybe both.

It was the tension in the room that brought me back to them. They were all standing very, very still and watching me. I think they knew before I did.

Certainly Wice did. "Jack?" he said quietly. His voice was almost pleading.

I met his gaze, still not decided. Hell-still not truly conscious of the decision before me. I never was. But I reached for the blazer just the same.

I lived because I was fast and because Wice maybe hesitated an instant and because two of them didn't really believe I would do it until I had and because the two who did reach and fire were the kind of men who enjoyed watching torture and had waited to be fodder all their lives. I lived because they died, because I killed each and every one.

The fool on the floor had a name-Northrup. He knew a lot about the place. When he was able to move, he showed me Wice's secret exit onto the rooftops. He was very agile, darting from one oddly leveled crag to the next. He was also very happy. And talkative.

I Just wait'til he got me back to the others, was the gist of it. And how delighted they would all be when they found out I was on their side. Just knowing they'd be fighting alongside the great Jack Crow would be a big help.

I was silent, letting him think what he wanted. As far as I was concerned, I had done too much fighting already. Too damn much. The idea of switching sides, of taking sides as if there was doubt… No. It was over. I could give them some help though and I intended to. With a little advice: Run.

Run away, far away, and hide. Run now, right now. Don't think about it or consider or ponder or make any more speeches-move! Run!

Because Borglyn could not lose.

❮❯