Armor

3,486
07.03.2019

VI

Holly had no plan. He did have an arrangement of sorts. He started my tour with the Master Ground Control room, the safest room in the Dome, located in its exact center. Holly had managed to get some of each essential packed into this tiny chamber surrounded by consoles and screens.

He had blazer rifles, of course. Two new cases were stacked in one comer between equally new cases of blaze-bombs on the left and concussion grenades on the right. Against one wall he had a long hospital table and lamp, complete with all the medikits and medipacks on a shelf above. Cases of food were littered everywhere, enough for a couple of months at least.

I found his confidence alarming.

Other nooks had other things, books, changes of clothing, every coil from both his and Lya's files.

"You've got everything in here but the suit," I commented. He blushed. "The wheelchair wouldn't fit through the doorway."

I grinned. "You mean you actually tried it?"

"Sort of. Caught myself trying to jam it through without remembering going to get it. Unconscious, I guess. Or driven mad from the pressure."

I laughed. "I don't know. I wouldn't want it lost either." Holly smiled his gratitude. "Where is it?"

He led us out of the control room into a large rectangular room easily as big as my suite. It had an extremely high ceiling with beams running out of the wall behind us, down the length of the ceiling, and into the next wall. There were more supplies stacked about. More weapons, more food, more medical things. Against one comer was a desk. Holly's desk. In the far corner, sitting in the powered wheelchair, was the suit. It looked like an alert pupil, head up, back straight, arms folded in its lap.

I shuddered. "Every time I see it again…"

Holly smiled. "Yeah. Not like before though, you know?"

I nodded. I knew. We had always thought of the suit as Felix's killer.

"It wasn't a murderer after all," I mused.

Holly became thoughtful. "Wasn't it, though? I mean, what if Felix were still alive? Knowing what we do, knowing what it would do to him to wear it again, wouldn't we think of it as a murderer once more?"

I saw what he meant. "It is a murderer. Even Felix's murderer, given another shot. But it didn't do it!"

"You know, it feels benevolent. But only because it's powerless and we don't fear it. A killer with only one victim."

"And he got away," I finished.

"I don't know why we ever feared it so?"

I smiled sadly. "Probably the same reason he did. It worked too goddamn well."

Holly looked at me. "Or he worked it too well."

"Yeah. That, too." I pointed at the ceiling. "Where are we, exactly? I don't think I've ever been in here."

"This is the Complex central core. It bisects the width of the rectangle."

"Okay," I said uncertainly.

He laughed. "This structure is a rectangle. Those eaves that jut out at the four corners are attachments."

"Those big curved wings are just plugged on?"

"Yes. And they're very unstable. Which is good for me."

"Why is it good to be in an unstable building?"

"I'm not. I'm set up here in the core. It's entirely separate from the rest of the surrounding rooms. It's built that way for… well, for situations like this one. Or in case of earthquakes. The core shields the Cangren Cell."

"All right, but why is it good to have everything else shaky?"

"Because they can't attack me from the long ends without creating a barrier of nibble six stories heavy. They have to come right down this line." He pointed along the overhead beams. "And they have to come from only one direction, the riverfront."

"Because of the hillside in back?"

"Right. And when they try to come through here, they'll find three walls in their way. Come on."

We went into the next room, even larger than the last. At the far end, it grew alcoves from each side, making a "T." Along the wall of the "T" were several consoles.

"That's the outer wall," explained Holly. "Those are stations for the blazer cannon. Now, back the other way."

We retreated into the second room. Holly closed and sealed the door behind us and pointed to a small console on the wall.

"If they should manage to penetrate the outer wall into the room we just left…"

"Which they damn sure will," I pointed out.

"Well… if they do, I can come in here and hit these keys and seal off so thoroughly that that other room's ceiling could collapse and I wouldn't feel it."

"And then they'd have to start all over again?"

"Right."

"Minus the cannon."

"True. But their field of attack would be severely limited. They would be crowding into my killing area."

"You planning to open the door and shoot?"

He blushed. "There are other things. That room, both of these rooms and the control room alcove, are mined like crazy."

"They're in big trouble, all right."

He frowned. "I know they'll probably get through anyway…"

"Surely get through anyway," I corrected.

He frowned again. "What else can I do?"

"Are you kidding? Almost anything. Run away, for a start."

"I can't do that," he replied miserably.

I examined his face. "Holly, you're not scared enough."

"Ha!" he cried, a wry sad smile curling on his lips. He leaned against a wall and slid down it to the floor. "I've never been so scared in my life. I didn't know you could get this scared!"

"All right! Let's get moving."

"I can't!"

"Why the hell not?"

"Because this is the only chance of stopping him."

I blinked, stared, sat down abruptly in front of him. "Is that why you're here?"

"Why else?"

I shrugged. "I dunno. Principle of some sort. Desire for hero role. Or martyr's."

"No. This is just the best way."

"This is no way."

Holly leaned his head back and stared into space. "He must have killed a thousand people in the City this morning."

"They're dead. Gone."

"But others live here. And more are coming."

"And?"

"He'll have to be brutal, won't he? After what he did?"

"After the mortars, yes. He'll have to maintain. Fear over the hate."

"So it will get worse and worse and on and on. I've got to stop him."

"Holly, do you really think you can?"

"If I can't stop him, at least I can drain his arsenal. I can make him use up irreplaceable munitions. There will be a chance that someone will be able to overthrow him." He brought his head back to level and met my gaze. "You know, Jack? You're the only one who came."

"You locked everybody out, didn't you?"

"I had to be secure. I asked for volunteers first."

"I hadn't heard that part."

He blinked. "You mean that's not why you're here?"

"Not at all. Borglyn's won. I came to get you."

"Oh. Well, I won't go."

"You can't, I know."

"But there just isn't anyone else!" He stared at the floor between his boots. "I wish there was. Anything, just…" Three tears plopped loudly onto the polished floor. He sniffed, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry. I'm just so scared."

"Me, too."

He looked at me with such innocence and said. "Well, Jack, you ought to get started. It's going to start any minute."

I lit a cigarette instead of answering. I puffed and thought. Now what? He had a damn good point about the time. And he had a damn good point about what Borglyn would become. Dammit! I hadn't expected this. He didn't want to be a martyr. He had no interest in being a hero. He would have given up his role in a second, if… If there had been anyone else. But there wasn't. Only him. He was the only one who could make a difference. Not that he would. He wouldn't. He would die. But he was the only one who could, who might. He had to.

"I guess I'll stay," I said without thinking.

He looked surprised. I bet I did, too. "Why?"

I shrugged. "I won't leave without you."

"I could use your help."

"You sure could. You wouldn't have a chance alone."

"And with you?" he asked, smiling.

I shook my head. "Dead as dirt."

An overhead thunderclap, the first mortar, signaled the beginning. Holly leaped to his feet and ran to the door and unsealed it. "You know how to work a blazer cannon?"

"More or less," I answered without conviction.

There were six along the wall running across the top of the "T." Holly grabbed the third from the left. I took the fourth. I peered suspiciously at the console. A monitor, on the barrel most likely. I keyed the screen. It glowed brightly, receded, then coalesced on the river below. I grabbed the triggers and fired a burst at the water. It worked.

It worked on water. It worked on trees and on sky. But not on mortars. Borglyn had told the truth. There wasn't a target in sight. Damn!

Meanwhile, mortar shells were ripping the hell out of everything. Great holes appeared out of the smoke along the riverbank. The holes began working their way up the slope to us. Closer and closer, seemingly more and more'powerful. Distant concussions echoed from direct hits on the Complex.

Then they hit our wall, about five meters to Holly's right. The floor warped violently with the shock wave, tossing Holly up and back into the center of the floor. He bounced like a dead man. I rushed to him to see if he was as bad as he should be. He just rubbed his head and smiled. He was getting up to reman his cannon station when it just blew off the wall, console and all. We ducked no more than half a second after it had hurtled high over our heads.

It got worse. Four blasts slammed against the outer wall within three seconds. The warping floor bounced us like babies about the room. Chunks of masonry crashed to the floor from high above. The sound of it was… Godlike.

It stopped suddenly, all at once. We got to our feet. Holly rushed to a panel on the wall and read some dials.

"Uh-oh," he said quietly. And was silent.

"Don't do that!"

"Huh? Oh, I think we have a lacing split here."

"That's bad?"

"The lacing is behind two half-meter layers of reinforced plastiform."

"What's behind the lacing?"

He made aface. "Mostly paint."

"Holy shit!" I cried, grabbing him and dragging him back from the front.

"It won't collapse, Jack."

"It will when the grenades hit it."

"What grenades?"

"They stopped the mortar barrage for something!"

"Shouldn't we be shooting'em as they run up to throw?"

"To do that, we would have to approach the guns. The guns are on the… "

Wham! Two, three, four-five-six. Pause. Three more almost at once.

On the floor from the first one. Holding my ears. Opening my eyes reluctantly, sure of seeing blood.

Smoke and dust were filling the room-thick and black and brown and gray, but I saw through it for just an instant, just long enough to recognize the river through a two-meter-high, meter-wide, gash.

They had pierced the first wall.

On impulse, I grabbed a concussion grenade from one of the scattered cases. I threw it, without looking, out through the smoke. Screams followed its detonation. I grabbed up three more and threw them, too.

Now was the time to go to the cannon. "Wait here," I said to Holly who lay sprawled and choking dust.

"No. No, I'm fine," he lied and thumped awkwardly head-first into a cannon station.

My cannon had been where the gash was. I stepped one over and keyed it up. I had a target for maybe a second and a half. Once he may have been where my beam struck.

"Dammit! barked Holly. He took his eyes off of his screen and frowned in my direction. "You know, I'd like to shoot back at least once. But unless it's a tree, there's never any damn target."

Bingo! "Shoot'em."

"Huh?"

"The trees?"

"Why?"

"They burn?"

'So?"

"They burn down."

We made a forest fire. It was quite an impressive blaze in no time at all. The far side of the river disappeared behind the wall of smoke. I decided to take a small chance. I stepped through the gash and looked around.

Chunks of plastiform were scattered all over the slope to the water. Much of it was from our wall, but the vast majority of the debris had been blasted from the walls on either side of the core. But no breaches, as Holly had promised. Instead of standing still for the punctures, and making an entrance, the other walls simply collapsed atop one another. One spot, repeatedly targeted, had a massive cone of masonry that seemed to have been torn through a good five meters. But the pile was right where the wall had been and just as obstructive.

I took another quick chance. I trotted around to the ground underneath an eave. Bootprints covered the entire area. "This is where they stood when they threw the grenades and made the gash. I stood in one of the spots and pressed myself against the wall. Out of range.

After forty-five minutes of waiting for something to scare us, we decided to get a bite to eat. I was starving. I hadn't eaten since… I wasn't sure. Not today or yesterday or…

Damn. Felix had been just yesterday. Damn.

Borglyn's programming was fun for a while. Mutineers and deserters weren't much at fire-fighting. They were damn good at trenches, though. They had two of them dug deep enough for the mortars long before the fire went out.

"Pretty far back, though," observed Holly.

He was right. Too far back to melt the barrels, anyway. Cannon are not made for distance. Then I saw what Holly meant. I didn't know much about artillery, but Borglyn had called them medium-range mortars. They were a kilometer away.

The question was answered as we watched. The crews began firing at us. We rushed to the outer room, ready to seal it off if need be. It wasn't necessary. It wasn't even dangerous. I sat in the gash, enjoying fresh air and a smoke and admired the splashes for half an hour. Not that they didn't have the range. They did. At least two shells whistled over the Dome. But no accuracy.

When the shakes came, an hour into the respite, I went to the head and sat them out. When I returned, I pretended not to see Holly having an even worse time. I could do that, had been doing it for him since it had begun. It was really getting to him. Too smart not to appreciate what could happen, he was also too sensitive to ignore it. A nice man.

An hour later, the fire was finally going out. I figured we had another hour yet to come. It was an exhausted, ragtag crowd across the river.

"You think it will matter to them?" wondered Holly aloud.

He was leaning against the wall as before, his head back and staring.

"Who?"

"The people who are left after."

"Under Borglyn?"

"Uh-huh."

"Depends on how well we do. On how much we make them work for it. There're only two of us, after all. Far as they might know, only you. If we make them treat us like an army, it'll be remembered."

"Do you think we can?"

"No."

"Why not? We've done pretty well."

"But we're out of trees."

He laughed shortly. "I would like this to count," he said wistfully.

"Well," I said encouragingly, "it would help if we could make them flatten the hillside. Or better still, land the Coyote."

"Should that be our goal?"

"Hell, no. We're either doing this to win, with the idea of trying to win, or it's masturbation."

"I'd still like to see the Coyote. You think we will?"

I had been pondering that. "We might," I said carefully. "But I don't think it will attack us. Nothing eats fuel like a Nova-blaze."

He nodded. We sat there, watching the smoke rise into the sunshine.

"Hey!" I blurted suddenly. "It's daytime."

Holly smiled. "Has been since it started."

I relaxed. "I suppose so," I mumbled.

What was I doing? Why was I here? I knew how it was going to end. I knew. But still I went along, on and on as if not really examining the madness would make it safer.

Holly. Sweet Holly. I knew why he was here. He felt he had to be. He felt he was the last hope and therefore responsible to try. I understood that. I understood those reasons. For him.

I did not understand those reasons for me. Yet here I was. Idiot.

There were a lot of things I didn't understand lately. Like that morning when I had…

"What?" he asked.

"I guess I was mumbling."

"Tell me," he said excitedly, sitting up and leaning forward.

I smiled. "It's not as much fun as that."

"Is it bad?"

"Mostly."

"About what you did?"

"No. About something else I did. This morning."

"What?"

"I killed Five people in the City."

He blinked. "Why?"

"I'm not sure."

"Why don't you just tell me what happened."

So I did. About Wice and about Northrup, the tortured fool. And about Lopes. About the other three.

"The thing of it was, I knew I was going to do it before I felt like doing it. Well, I didn't want to do it. I had no passion for that fight. But I knew I was going to do it because…"

"Because it was the right thing?"

"Oh, shit. I hope not."

"Afraid of becoming noble?" he asked, his eyes twinkling.

"That, too. But basically, that's the worst reason I can think of for killing. That it's the right thing to do. You kill out of outrage or fury or to keep from dying or something like it, that's fine. Hell, kill them rather than bother with them-or be bothered by them. But if you're killing them because it's the'right thing to do,' it's only because you've done so many wrong things up until then to make that spot. It's not the right thing to do. It's the best of the last of your choices."

"That's the longest I've ever heard you talk at one time."

"That's because you never ask me about my hair."

Later, I asked Holly about the eaves. He said fine. We set the last of the charges as the first bunch appeared from the right. I leaned out the hatch and shot one of them. The others flattened against the wall, out of range. Holly was all for blowing it right then. But I wanted to wait for the left-handers to show up, too.

When the first blaze-bomb rattled at us from the right, I acceded. Holly keyed the charge from the control room so we could see it better. It got everyone of them. But it kept falling and rolling, great chunks cascading over and over. When it had finished, we had a ridge of debris from the Dome to the river. It was five meters high at it's highest point.

"We've cut them off!" announced Holly with a cheer.

"No. They'll blow it open. But it got their attention."

We blew the second on the grounds that no one could be that stupid. It made another ridge. All the way to the river.

Hot damn.

So ended the second attack.

Things started happening pretty fast after that. The trouble was, the whole thing had been damn near a blur all along. From the beginning when the squirrel woke me up to Wice to… no more Wice and then no more Crusaders and then no me for a couple of hours. To crazy Borglyn to crazy Holly.

Now crazy me.

They came in the third wave moments later. They came to the ridges we had made by blowing the eaves down the hill. They didn't blast them, though. They just stood behind them, out of sight and out of range, and threw things at us. They didn't bother with catapults or launchers. They hauled out the people wearing that open-air armor. Their artificial muscles were plenty. They threw concussion grenades and blaze- bombs, which I had expected. And smoke, which I had not.

Idiot.

They had us anyway. We had no place to go. Only one place from which to fight back. The smoke wouldn't hide us from them. But they could use it. And they did.

"Get ready to blow this first one!" I yelled to Holly as the first half-dozen blasts rocketed masonry along the front wall.

"Can't we wait?" Holly yelled back gamely, running to another cannon console.

"No!" I screamed back. "No! We can't stay in this forward room! We've gotta go back to…"

"Look! They're coming up at us!" he said, ignoring my cussing and firing away with the cannon.

But the smoke bombs hit then, cutting off most of our effectiveness. And then the first of the grenades hit, rocking us back and rocking the wall itself. Through the dust and smoke coming in I saw it waffling back and forth on either side of the gash. It was crumbling and warping and shaking…

And then coming at us as something hit it just right and a five-meter-wide section just folded back, just lifted up and folded back from the gash toward us. We were already down, blasted down and bouncing, me screaming for Holly to get back, goddammit, before…

Too late. That section of wall, folding and crumpling and collapsing, disintegrated from the force of another blast and then those pieces blew apart from the force of another and then one of those smaller pieces-a tiny one no larger than me-shot forward across the floor and over him.

"Holly!!"

And I leaped forward to help him, to get him back and get him away from the commandos I knew damn well would be coming up the hill from those ridges through the smoke. More grenades and blaze-bombs and then blazers and then hand-to-hand with that… Damn! With the ones wearing armor!

"Holly!" I screamed again and tried to get through the smoke and the blasts that wouldn't stop coming, wouldn't stop shaking me and throwing me about. The chunks of wall were rolling through now, from the gash and the inside of the wall and from the ceiling, falling and smacking horribly close by.

"Holly!" Then there he was beside me, the blood streaming and he lifted his head and gave me sort of a half-smile that he was all right but he damn well wasn't and I cussed at him or maybe at me and then they hit us face-to-face.

I shot one. Two-four-five. The cases of grenades were there and I grabbed and threw with such urgency and terror that I didn't bother to key them to blast, just threw them and heard them scream and saw them drop back out of sight. Then I had a second and I used it to key the next batch of three or four. I tossed the rifle to the side and grabbed for Holly. He moaned as I lifted him off the floor but there wasn't anything I could do about that right then. The people outside hadn't thought we were still in there that close and they were sure to drop back and throw much, much more.

And then the blasts were there, right there, at the area almost directly in front of the gash. Soon they would be coming all the way through. I tightened my grip on Holly's shoulder, ignoring his cries, and hauled him back, stumbling, toward the next inner door. We were almost there, almost through it all the way, when two or three or a thousand seemed to hit all at once and the blast threw us forward, punching us limply through the air and the doorway. I heard Holly scream again, knew what must be happening to him, felt the hurtling chunks rake across my back and shoulders. A small something tore across the back of my neck as I lifted up to key the door shut and sealed and safe. The blood, the screams and the pain, the pains…

The door slammed shut, locked, and sealed itself automatically. For the moment, it was over.

Holly screamed as I dragged him the length of the second room to the Control room. The screams were strident and searing and they echoed off the floors and the ceiling and those beams. I ignored them and got him into the Control room and up onto the hospital table and slapped a medigrip on the worst of the spots, his broken-shattered leg where the bone was white and stark. Then I did something to put him out. He went. Then I collapsed.

❮❯