Armor

3,473
07.03.2019

III

Eyes was beautiful in the starlight. It emphasized the richness of her hair, the soft delicacy of her skin, the Eyes, themselves. She seemed determined to have all that and all else she possessed carved up.

"We have guns," she insisted for the thousandth time. I sighed, dropped my cigarette and stepped on it. I glanced at the open hatch behind her, filled with dim light and the energetic sounds of the others arguing over whether or not I should be trusted at this late date. There was repeated mention of The Plan uttered with tones of faith better suited to a suicide pact. Which was what it would be. I wondered what they would think if they knew I couldn't care less. I glanced back at Eyes. I did care about her, maybe. But dumb is dumb.

"You have guns," I conceded at last. "But they have blazers. Also concussion grenades and mortars and open-air armor. Have you ever seen what can be done with that? They can peel this building apart."

"Buildings don't shoot back."

I blinked. From one bizarre to the next. From one child to another. Madness!

"Neither do dead people!" I barked angrily.

She stared, looked away. Her foot tapped impatiently. This was all decided for her long ago.

"Look. You gather up all your little guns and put them in a pile. Then you all line up behind them out of reach and wait for Borglyn to come. Then you smile at him. Then you give him the keys to the City."

"Then what?" she asked sarcastically.

"Then he won't kill you."

She opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by a particularly loud burst of arguing. She gestured toward the noise with a toss of her head.

"They don't trust you," she said.

"Fine."

She frowned. "I know what you're trying to do."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Oh, come on. Jack," she said with a conspiratorial smile. She squatted down in front of me. She put a feathery hand on my knee. "I know you're not as cold and hard as you make yourself out to be."

I stared at her. This was not happening.

"You haven't fooled me with this bit of yours-you never have."

"I haven't…" I echoed dully.

"Not a bit. I know you. Jack. I know that you care."

"Of course I do. That's why I'm trying to get you to…. "

"No, no. You care. Jack. You care about justice and you cane about right and wrong and you care about this thing turning out the way you know it should."

She really believed it. I could see that. I thought I saw something else, too. She believed they would win, of course. Because they were in the Right, by God! But she believed in more than that. She believed we would all live to see it. Casualties, of course. Strangers, mostly. Or the enemy. But, basically, all-and I meant all-would be well.

She believed it would be easy.

She was dead.

I took her hand from my knee and kissed it softly. "Good- bye," I said, with as little emphasis as I could manage. Then I stood up and headed back the way I had come across the roof tops.

She raised up slowly, watching me go. I could feel it building behind my back.

"Damn you," she blurted it out at last. "You're going to be that way to the very end, aren't you?"

I nodded. "I've seen'very ends' before."

The explosion of gunfire seemed to come from everywhere at once-the street below, the inside of the building, the surrounding roof tops. The answering blazers were silent but just as obvious in the eerie blue glows their arcing beams made on the plassteel walls across the way.

I had dropped to the deck with the first sound. So, thank God, had Eyes. The blaze aimed at her cut a neat hole in the top of the doorway instead of her nose. Two beams arced at me a second later, passing far too close overhead. I crawled over to a space underneath the protection of the meter-higher roof adjoining. More beams struck, from new and different angles, pressing my nose into the damp rooftop. Damn! They seemed to be everywhere.

The gunfire had cut the argument short inside. I heard boots stamping and the clicking of rifle business. I turned to the open doorway.

"Stay in!" I yelled to them.

No such luck. The idiots weren't convinced until their first three crusaders had been sliced apart. Eyes screamed as a headless torso plopped to the roof beside her. I thought she was a little late. Somebody offed the interior light, also a little late.

But still a good idea. I crawled rapidly through the darkness toward the entrance and cover. I found the way blocked. It was inconceivable, but the crusaders were using the cover of darkness to get out and fight.

I couldn't believe it. "You fools! You wanna die? We're pinned!"

They didn't even bother to acknowledge me. They simply crawled past, took up the first hint of cover in their way, and opened fire in every direction. Worse still was their reaction to the murderous crossfire that responded.

"There they are!" shouted a half dozen voices at the appearance of the various beams. Then half a dozen or more rose to charge each position, firing from the hip. Some of them actually yelled battle cries as they charged.

Some of them actually lived, too. But not many. It didn't matter. The doorway was positively choked with more storming out to take their places. Not once did they consider retreating. Not when twenty or more had died, not when the number of beams suddenly, inexplicably, doubled, not when the counter-charge was launched from all sides but one.

That one safe direction was for me. The building was at the very edge of the Maze proper. There was nothing between it and the woods but a handful of one- and two-story shacks. I figured the fall was worth it. The trouble was that I wouldn't actually be able to see where I would be landing. I could possibly fall the entire three stories.

No choice. I edged out onto the overhanging lip and paused for one last glimpse back.

It was horrible. The beams were coming from two dozen different directions at once. The crossfire was a solid mesh of maiming burning slicing…

Damn them! I thought. "Damn you!" I shouted.

Then I rolled over and dropped. I bounced on something three or four meters below but it was slanted and I fell some more, bouncing some more, badly and out of control and then I hit something very hard, hard enough to go out before the pain had a chance.

IV

I had many dreams, none remembered except the last, the nightmare. Borglyn was the source of it. His deep powerful voice was the instrument of his fear. I dreamed he was using it to describe in detail what would happen when the blazer he held to my temple was keyed. His voice rang with implacable superiority and with reasoned understanding of my fear and helplessness. He was almost sorry, he seemed to be implying, that he was going to kill me anyway.

It was horrible.

Then the pain woke me up and I found out most of it was true.

It was still dark, though without stars. Perhaps two hours had passed. No more. I was lying-I was crumpled, against a rusted sheet metal smokestack at the bottom of an even more rusted slanted rooftop. Almost everything hurt, but my head was throbbing with a ferocity all its own. I groaned and felt around to my crown for the lump I knew must be there, found it, groaned again. I tried pulling myself to my knees. Borglyn spoke again, from millimeters away.

I started, thrusting blindly away from the sound and trying to turn and face it at the same time. I fell again, hard. My chin snapped against the sheet metal with a rumbling thud, I groaned once more, wincing with the pain. I opened my eyes reluctantly, more to stabilize a wave of dizziness than to see.

But I saw. Borglyn was there, on the vidcom screen. I blinked, blinked again. It was the smallest I had ever seen him. It didn't help. Another voice emitted from the grille. Staring at Borglyn, and still groggy, I paid no attention to what it was saying. Then I recognized the voice as Holly's.

I sat up painfully and grabbed the unit soaking up every word. I didn't understand all the references. Much had apparently occurred in the time I was out, however. That was clear enough. For one thing, Borglyn's force was already on the planet, camped across the river from the Dome. For another, they were unopposed.

I glanced behind me at the kaleidoscopic jury-rigging of the walls of the Maze rising above my perch. There was no sign of movement anywhere along their length. No gunfire sounded. Either they had finally taken my advice and run away, or Borglyn had already gotten them.

Borglyn began to speak again. All the reasonableness from the dream was there. His tone was respectful, unhurried, and, still, implacably superior.

"I won't argue with you, Dr. Ware," he said with a patient and patronizing smile. "You and I both know your defense screens are gone. I suspect you even know how."

"I've a pretty good idea," from off screen, his voice a subtle mixture of bitterness and sorrow.

I felt like he had punched me in the stomach. I grabbed up the unit and fiddled with the dials. It was suddenly very important that I see his face.

"Yes," agreed Borglyn with a neutral nod of his huge head. "At any rate, you're helpless. And, as far as I can tell, alone."

I gave up the fiddling. Alone? No wonder he sent no image.

"But in a fort," Holly was pointing out.

Borglyn sighed. "True, Dr. Ware. Project Domes are forts. But without screens, medieval ones. You have no chance."

"We'll see," said Holly.

Borglyn sighed again. So did I. What the hell was going on? What could Holly be thinking of?

"Very well. Dr.," said Borglyn with a trace of impatience. "We will see. Or you will. Observe."

The image on the screen shifted. We were looking down over Borglyn's shoulder. Before him were arranged the numerous keys and screens of the Coyote's command console. Borglyn was still inside his ship, still in orbit overhead.

He turned toward the monitor and smiled a cold smile. "I trust you can pick up my screens on your own," he said, sweeping a hand along the console. "Let me identify them." He tapped a screen on the top row. "That is the planet, Sanction. This next one is the Dome from one thousand kilometers overhead." He dropped down a row. "The monitors relaying these images are at my commandos' camp-less than half a kilometer from where you are now." He worked a key. A screen showed a pan of the camp itself, an area newly blasted free of vegetation stretching at least one hundred meters from treeline to riverbank.

Every step had firepower.

"Those are the two hundred commandos that will come from you," Borglyn continued, pointing from screen to screen.

"They are as well-armed as Fleet can manage. Those on the right are wearing open-air battle armor. There are thirty of them-each and every one an expert."

I doubted that, but was damned if I knew what difference it made.

"Those large instruments in the rear, Doctor, are medium- range mortars. They are out of line-of-sight of your tactical blazer cannon and will, in fact, obliterate them when I give the order. You already know something of the one on the left." He leaned forward and worked a key. The screen above it swelled as the monitor zoomed forward. "That is the hole it has already blown in your… your fort."

I was squinting at a tiny screen showing an even tinier image and still the hole was clear. It was that big. God, Holly, get out of there!

The tour ended with Borglyn's terrifyingly off-handed inventory of his other miscellaneous killing tools. He listed the concussion grenades and the fully charged blaze rifles. But more than what he said, was the way he said it, as if they were just insignificant toys when he knew damn well they were a hell of a lot more.

And he knew Holly knew.

It was chilling.

"Still with me, Dr. Ware?" inquired Borglyn pleasantly.

"Yes," Holly replied shortly. Was that fear? Certainly respect.

But it sounded too much to me like fatalism.

Borglyn's smile dropped instantly. His manner became threatening. "And have you indeed seen?" he demanded, biting out each word.

Holly was too smart to answer that one. Or too scared.

Borglyn went on. "Well, I hope you do." He shrugged slightly; he appeared to be making an effort at maintaining his reasoned calm. But as he began to speak once more, it gradually slipped away to something ominous. Something ugly.

"I have been frank with you. Let me be more so. I want that Cangren Cell-you know that. I want it intact and working-you know that, too. But consider this: We are desperate people. Doctor. We have no fuel left for faster-than- light. Your refusal to cooperate means we must stay and fight you for whatever is left. And we will. One way or another, Sir, I will have you out of that Dome. Even if I have to land this ship myself and blast the can, the dome, the hillside behind it, and you. Doctor, to glass'."

Borglyn paused once more. He was breathing heavily with barely contained fury. His deep blue eyes, always incongruously troubling, shone with a depth of damn near tangible menace.

And one more time it reminded me of something I always seemed to forget when he wasn't around: he scared me. Not panic. Not quaking. But fear, yes. I genuinely feared the man, more than any other I had known.

I thought of Holly, in there alone and seeing it. Or maybe he didn't see it. Maybe he didn't know enough to realize how utterly lethal Borglyn was. Holly was still in there, after all.

Borglyn was calm again when next he spoke. "You have half an hour. Dr. Ware. Use it to…" His lips curled a cold smile. "…to assess. Then the real world will hit."

"I'll watch for it," blurted Holly suddenly. But it wasn't even faintly convincing. I felt that pain in my stomach once more.

Borglyn's voice went dead hard. "Then watch me kill you!" he roared and leaned up to key off the monitor. He stopped his hand. The cold smile returned. "No. You like to see, don't you?" he snarled. Then he keyed the sound off with a click and spun angrily away. Damn.

I had to get him out.

And I had to go in there with him to do it. Holly knew what I had done. I doubted he would talk to me at all if he had any choice. I had decided not to give him one.

I stood up, ignoring my wobbly gait, and fell-jumped off the roof onto the soft ground below. I picked myself up about halfway, then had to sit down again. Vertigo. I had to blink my eyes several times before they would focus right. Damn! I didn't have time for a concussion.

I stood up slowly the second time and stayed up. I scanned the dark outlines of the trees before me. I could almost feel the commandos wandering through them. Too much weaponry and not enough targets. It would have to be the bridge route. Borglyn was sure to have them guarded, but anything was better than crowded woods.

I started off at an easy trot down along the outer perimeter of the Maze toward the river. The jumbled stacks of hovels looming over me were still silent and still. The City looked empty. Or beaten. Or both. Eerie. Where were the crusaders?

I had to slow down to a walk for a while to give my head a fighting chance. Fat lot of good to Holly if I conked again. Damn Holly, I thought suddenly. What the hell was he doing?

He had a plan, of course. A Plan. There had to be one. Something suitable for a spindly over-romantic would-be hero to pull out at the last second, no doubt. Something the Evil villain would never suspect.

Or probably, in the case of Borglyn, notice. I had to get in there.

I tried trotting again. It worked after a fashion. Faster, anyway.

So. I had to get in there and make Holly see me, make him tell me the grand scheme, make him see it wouldn't work, plus make him leave with me-all in half an hour.

I tripped on something and slid down on my butt. It hurt like hell. I reached back around and pulled out the culprit. I had landed on the comvid.

I was rearing back to throw it against the side of a shack when it spoke to me in Lya's voice.

"…oh please. Darling," she was saying, "it can't do anybody any good if you get killed."

She sounded awful. Her voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper. Despair and worry and fear, and exhaustion from them all, trembled within it. Then the screen flickered to life with her face and I saw it was even worse than it sounded.

I hit a key. "Lya? This is Jack."

She perked up. "Jack? Jack, where are you?"

"Outside the City."

Her eyes got wide. "The City? But… Oh, Jack. You've got to help Holly. He's in the Dome all alone and he won't come out and they're going to blow it up in just a few minutes. And he won't answer me."

"I'm going there now. Is he really in there alone?"

"Yes," she sobbed. "He's locked himself in and. Jack, the defense screens are down. He'll be killed."

I waited for her sobs to pass. "What happened? How did all this happen?"

She gathered herself together with effort, brushing back the tears and her hair and sitting up straight. Then she told me.

Most of it I knew, who Borglyn was and the like. And what he wanted. Other parts I had assumed. The ultimatum, the landing of the troops, the guarantees of safety for cooperative types. No one had believed Borglyn when he had first claimed to have "arranged" to sabotage the screens. The boards showed green.

Then had come the blast to match the hole Borglyn had already shown me. Shortly afterward, Holly had ordered everyone out. It wasn't until all were gathered in the valley at the Crew Quarters, that Lya had noticed he was missing.

"I called him at the Dome. And he said he wasn't coming and that he wouldn't let anyone else in and… and he hasn't spoken to me since. Jack, you've got to do something."

"I will. But why, Lya? Why did he stay? Did he tell you?"

She frowned and shook her head. "Just that he couldn't give in to that man, to Borglyn. Not after what happened to the Cityfolk."

I sighed. "What happened?"

"Oh, I didn't tell you that. I was so worried about… Well, they had guns. Jack! I don't know where they got them. And they attacked Borglyn's people."

"And got killed?"

"No! Well, yes, some of them. I guess a lot of them. God, Jack, those monsters have everything!"

"I know. What about the City?"

"Oh, well they all ran back there to hide. But Borglyn called them and told them to bring him all their guns."

"Did they?"

"Some did, I think. But most of them didn't. Then Borglyn said he was going to teach them a lesson and he started bombing them or… whatever he did to us."

"Mortars."

"Yes, mortars. He shot them all over the City. Said he was teaching them a lesson."

I frowned, looked up at the looming slums. Still ugly, but standing.

"Anyway," she went on. "Then they all came out with the guns and they took them, Borglyn's people did. But when they got back to the City, he started the mortars again."

"After they'd given in?"

She nodded. "He said the lesson wasn't over."

I looked again at the stacks. It didn't make sense. Then I reached the end of the perimeter and made the turn inward toward the main square."

"Goddamn!"

"What, Jack?"

I explained to her that I had just found the lesson.

There was no main square. The land was there. Even some of the puddle. But what made it a square, the buildings which  surrounded and enclosed it, were gone. Gone. So was most of the far side of the Maze. A square kilometer at least. The only section still intact was the perimeter I had been following. And nothing, nothing at all, was moving. No one.

"Did he kill everybody?" I muttered.

"Jack?" called Lya.

I ignored her, still staring. Then I laughed.

"Jack?" she called again. "Are you laughing?"

"No," I lied, though I soon stopped. It wasn't funny, but… I had slept through it. It was too terrifying to be anything but funny. Damn, I thought next, I must have been in a coma. I felt the back of my head again. The lump felt bigger to my trembling fingers.

"Of course!" I cried, seeing what must have happened. "Holly decided to defend the Dome after this."

She nodded glumly. "That's right. Jack, can you… is there anything you can do?"

"I have a way to get in," I assured her. If Holly hadn't closed it, I amended to myself.

I started my trotting again. The small bridge across the creek-sewer was just ahead and intact.

"You've got to get in and stop him. You've got to make him listen."

"I'll try," I puffed, tromping loudly across the small span and on to the river.

"You've got to. He won't listen to me or anyone else from the Project. Lewis was the only one he talked to, and that was hours ago."

I snorted. "Lewis! Great!"

"Oh, no. Lewis is very concerned."

I had to stop. I leaned over and braced my hands on my legs. "I'm sure," I managed to reply.

"He is. Jack. You don't know. He's very worried. He said he'd rather give the planet away then have Holly Killed."

"Then why doesn't he?"

"He tried. Borglyn wants the Dome. But Lewis did say he could have it-he didn't care."

I smiled. Now that I could buy.

I looked at the sky. Dawn was coming fast. How many minutes left? I forced myself to stumble ahead, clutching my stomach tightly with a forearm to keep it where it should be. I stopped when I heard the river. I lifted the Comvid and whispered into it. "I'm turning you off, Lya."

"What's the matter?" she all but shrieked.

I slammed the volume control. "I'm at the river. Guards will hear you. I'll talk to you again when I get across."

She probably said okay. I keyed off and dropped the unit to the ground. Then I crept slowly forward until I could just make out the outlines of the bridge. I didn't bother to locate the guards I knew must be there. Instead I cut off at a diagonal to the riverbank. The water was still warm. It seemed to clear my head.

Less than a minute later, I was sliding the hatch open. It was very dark inside, much darker than the false dawn outside. I felt my way along slowly, my arms stretched out in front like a sleepwalker, until I found a wall to follow. I had gone maybe ten meters when lights, blaring and blinding, flashed into life overhead. I groaned, covered my eyes with my hands.

"What do you want?" said a stem voice from close by, Holly's.

I moved my hands and squinted enough to see the blazer pointing my way.

"Holly," I said as calmly as I could.

"What do you want. Jack?" he repeated.

"I want to know what you're doing in here."

"Why?"

"Why not?"

He stared awhile, determined to be firm and hard and angry. But he hated it and had to fight himself to do it.

He took a deep breath. "Get out," he said harshly, waving the barrel back toward the hatch.

"No."

His eyes widened. "I'll shoot you."

"Okay."

A beat. Another. The gun slumped with his arms. Tears pooled in his eyes.

"Jack, how could you?"

My own eyes began to sting. "I don't know," I said at last. And I didn't.

He looked at the floor. His chest shook. I thought I would die.

Something. Not "sorry." Not enough. Something…

"Holly, one thing." He looked up at me as though he expected more bad news. I swallowed. "Holly, it was before. I couldn't have afterwards."

He understood at once. "Before?" he echoed uncertainly.

I nodded. He made a half smile. He waved me down the corridor. I followed behind him, wondering if from now on the rest of our lives would be divided the same way-before and after Felix.

❮❯