Armor

3,469
07.03.2019

VII

I was thinking of the funeral.

The funeral. The one with presidents and ministers and secretaries of this or that, representing these or those, all decked out and solemn in black and respect. It was the biggest funeral ever, somebody had said. Everyone who was anyone, everywhere that was anywhere, had somebody, a Somebody, in attendance. Nobody wanted to miss the funeral. It was Kent's funeral.

Like most people I had watched it. It had been carried on the Fleet beam, no less, and perhaps had the largest audience for any event in history. Such a man! Such a hero! Everybody's Hero! I had felt pretty much the same way. I hadn't known any better.

What a man…

Funny the things you think about when you're tired and scared and only have a second or two to rest.

Which was all I had. Half stimules and half painers, I had managed to get Holly and me pretty much fixed up. Medigrips and medipacks everywhere over the cuts and contusions and abrasions. There was a disquieting, and possibly crucial, amount of blood over us. But I figured we would live until they killed us.

Lya called. I was too numb to think not to answer. She hated me, of course. And she blamed me. For Holly still being there, to begin with. Maybe for him ever being there. And I was a liar too, for not calling her back like I had said I would. True, true, all of it true. All of it and more. I smoked and listened in silence, staring not at her but at the view of Borglyn's console which he had so generously and sadistically continued to provide.

We were really screwed. They had the whole riverfront laid out, staked out. They were ready for us. They were waiting for us. They had us.

Shit.

Something in Lya's tone had changed, I realized distantly. I looked up to see the same tears and the same aching pain. But something else had been added. Resignation. Acceptance. Whatever we wanted to do…

Huh?

"…should have realized you would never give into them. And Holly… I guess I knew all along, from that first moment when we got here to the valley and he wasn't with us. He's just too good a man." She paused, whimpered, pulled herself together. She smiled weakly at me. "And you, too. Jack. You're both too good."

I stared. Then I mumbled something back about, well, t'weren't nuthin'. But I was thinking what I had thought long ago-how long ago? A month?-when she had first accepted me along with all the rest of the Jack Crow smoke. You're a fool, Lya. Still a fool to trust me. It made no difference that now, when it wasn't going to help, when it was far too late for that, that she could trust me. It made no difference that I would never leave him now. It made no difference that I was about to die with him and for him.

She was still a fool. So were we all.

I was about to key off when she said, no, there was someone else who wanted to talk to me.

Karen. Dry-eyed and stone faced and good-bye. Jack.

But too dry-eyed. Too stone-faced. It was on her, too. And because of that, I guess, as much as anything else, it sank upon me at last. It was over, over, over. We were dead.

"I lo… Good-bye, Jack," she said and I saw the tears coming at last.

I nodded, feeling my eyes heating up and leaned forward to key off. Her face became alarmed suddenly, and'she asked one last thing. She asked me to tell her that I wasn't doing this for her in any way.

I said I wasn't. Straight-faced and not lying much. Then I keyed off.

Borglyn began to laugh.

I looked up, startled, then furious. He was back at the console. He had been listening in.

"A peeping tom now?" I asked him. Snarled at him.

He continued to laugh. It was a deep, powerful laugh. Like the rest of him.

It unnerved me. But I lashed out as if it didn't, about how he might as well listen in to me while he could and then in on others later because he sure as hell wouldn't have anybody of his own from now on. Not unless you count the daughter of somebody he was beating to death in another room.

"She'll do it, Borglyn." I was really rolling now. "She'll do it to keep Poppa alive but she'll hate you. She'll want to throw up when those fat pig hands and that fat pig body… "

He cut me off with his raging. I had hit something.

"Don't give this to me, Pig. Give it to her. But don't expect it to keep her from vomiting into those blue eyes. You're dead and gray and laid open and she'll see it."

He was very quiet.

"Is it worth it?" I asked him and smiled ugly through dry caked lips. "Is it worth what you've done to be what you're gonna have to be for the rest of your life?"

He was still quiet. And something else. I remembered the look he had given me that last moment in the ship when he had laughed with such bitterness about Banshee. I had thought Banshee was destroyed and he had laughed in that way that looked like it hurt.

But not now. No help from that now, goddammit!

"And don't start on that damned war, Borglyn! A lot of people came through that war."

He was excited again. And angry. "You don't know anything about it, Crow!" he roared. "You… you damned adolescent! You don't know anything about what it was like, what it meant, how…"

His voice trailed off.

"I know one thing, Borglyn. I know it when I see it. And it's you."

His eyes went wide, confused. Vulnerable.

"You're the damned war, Borglyn. You and your punks are now. You see any other ants around here?"

He was quiet for a beat or two. Then he leaned forward to the monitor and spoke in a dead voice. Bright red dead.

"You're gone. Crow. Gone. I don't care if you try to give up now or not. Either way. I'm gonna see you stretched and bleeding."

And then I was standing up from my stool and yelling at him and shaking my fist at the screen and saying there wasn't much chance of that when he was in orbit and safe and hiding and… and still running away from the fighting.

Borglyn screaming back that, by God, he oughta come down there and show me just what the hell fighting really was…

And I shouted louder, shouted over his fury and outrage with fury and outrage of my own and more, with the fear the sight of him gave me. "You come down here. Pig, and I'll cut them off and bounce them on the bridge."

Goddammit! He was coming right now'. And he yelled at somebody to take her down and then he whirled back to glare at me and together, against each other, we reached up and keyed off.

Men are so cute.

I woke Holly. Borglyn was sure to lighten a bit on the way down. And it was never going to be a case of dueling pistols anyway. I was going to have to get to him on my own. But he would be there! He would be on the planet and in range of some kind of chance, some kind of scheme…

I laughed. The Plan had raised its throbbing head at last. Holly refused unless he could play too. He looked at me with those bloodshot darting eyes and refused. He was pale and shaking and hurt. But still he wouldn't.

"You're gonna have to have some support fire. Jack. You haven't got a chance without it."

"Dammit, Holly! I haven't a chance anyway. Stay out of it. Just show me how to blow what's left of the outer room and…"I got a bad thought. "What about after that? Will I be able to get the door open once I've blown the bastards in front of it?"

He smiled weakly. "The door will spring," he assured me. "I'll do it for you."

I stared at him. "No need. Just tell me how."

"No."

Damn! So cute.

It took a lot more painers to get him going again. That and stimules. On second thought, I took a bunch myself. Why hold back now? I loaded up on other things, too. On blaze pistols clipped on everywhere. And a rifle with extra charges and a row or two of concussion grenades. Not enough to get me across the river to the Coyote-there weren't enough in the universe to do that alone-but maybe enough for my little Plan. Maybe enough to get to one of the commandos wearing that open-air armor. Anybody could wear open-air. It wasn't like Felix's specially built black suit. And once I had that on, and with perhaps a break or two…

And then we were at the door, me loaded down with goodies and Holly equally burdened with two blaze-rifles and the medigrips piled around his leg and other places, making him walk bowlegged behind. I didn't want to waste any time on the off-chance that Borglyn would tell them I was coming out. I didn't think he would think of it. But still, I knew the people outside would never expect it.

I stood crouched before the door and nodded to Holly, by the panel. He keyed the blast. It shook the floor and the door. It blew, according to Holly, the outer room, floors and ceiling and gash and commandos down the hill toward or in the river. It was very loud.

"Now spring the door," I urged him. I didn't want to wait an instant for them to recover.

Holly nodded. He keyed the switch for "open." That's all it took. I snarled at him as I raced forward. He laughed and stumbled along behind.

The Plan was for me to rush out ahead to find cover. Then I would support Holly's exit against any resistance that might be left from the first blast. Holly could thereafter support my charge down the hill over the ridge.

We never had a prayer.

The blast had done its job well enough. There was no sign of the front chamber except for the huge chunks of masonry scattered about. As I leaped forward to the first boulder-sized one, however, I knew it was over.

They were waiting at the ridge, safe and secure and already firing, already filling the air with the arcing grenades. I spun around to yell at Holly to stop! "Stay where you are! Holly! I'm coming back in…"

But then it was too late. The first blasts hit and we both went down. I saw him slammed against a jagged cornice and lay stunned. I tried crawling toward him but then the air was full of blue beams and dust from the blasts. I felt a surge of heat along my thigh and jerked it out of the open. I couldn't get across the open space to him. I was cut off. But he was exposed! He was open to their fire and the blasts, without any protection at all but a difficult angle up from the ridge.

The ridges. The other side opened up about then. And then from two sides the air was filled with beams and grenades and dust and slamming rocking noise. I tried crawling back to him, curled up around myself to ward off the dust and rock that rattled against the surrounding rubble. But it was no good. No way to get back without being struck by the flying shards. No way to stay. No way to do anything. So I crawled and stumbled forward and things crashed into me, cutting and tearing and crushing and I yelled to Holly that I was sorry, sorry, so sorry that I wasn't going to make it to help him, I was dying and sorry and Holly? Can you hear me?

Suddenly moving quickly, sliding roughly across the broken stones. Holly? But Holly was there beside me, sliding along parallel and… What the hell? I strained to lift my head, to see who had us by our collars. But then he no longer did. We were inside the second room once more and he had dropped us flopping on the floor and turned to re-seal the door.

It was Lewis. It was the drunk. He was sober. I remembered the hatch.

He didn't bother to take us all the way back to the Control- room table. He left us lying where we were and used the medical supplies stacked against the wall.

"Lewis?" asked Holly suddenly.

I turned, surprised and delighted to see he was still alive. "Holly! You made it!"

He grinned, winced from the pain. "Why not? You did," he asked.

Then we both laughed.

Lewis did not. He didn't speak at all, in fact. He tended to us in grim silence, darting back and forth from body to body with grips and packs and an air of urgency. We weren't much help. Too tired and too hurt and, come to think of it, too amazed at being alive.

When it was over and we were going to live for another short while, he sat us up against the wall and gave us some water. Then he hauled over a chair and sat down and lit a cigarette and looked at us with that same grim expression, of a parent furious with naughty children, and asked: "Why?"

Holly tried to tell him. About Borglyn using mortars on the Cityfolk again and again and about how horrible that was and what it meant. About how Borglyn would be so hated now that he would have to be even more brutal later on and how, no, we didn't think we could beat him exactly, but slowing him down would surely mean something…

He interrupted once. In a cold tone he nodded at me. "All this for you, too?"

I nodded, feeling strangely embarrassed.

Holly seemed embarrassed, too. He went on, really wanting Lewis to understand.

"It has to be done, Lewis."

Lewis sighed. "It always does. Holly. That's no reason to do it."

"But all those people!"

"What about them?"

Holly frowned, stuck. He turned to me. But I couldn't think either. He turned back to Lewis.

"Lewis, there just isn't anyone else? Can't you see that?"

He stood up, walked a couple of steps. He puffed a puff. He looked down at us. "Shouldn't that tell you something?"

Holly faced him. "I just didn't see any way out, Lewis. I still don't."

Lewis frowned. "Don't you?"

"I don't," replied Holly in an odd tone.

I looked at him. Tears were starting from his eyes. I shook my head. What the hell was going on?

And then Lewis was there, right in front of us and crouched down and peering at us with eyes I didn't know he possessed and he said: "You can't? Neither of you? You don't see any way out?"

We shook our heads. And then Holly said, in a calm clear voice: "There isn't one."

Lewis dropped his face into his hands. He rubbed it hard. But then, when he lifted it back up, the grimness had gone. It was replaced with… what? Reckless abandon?

He smiled. "I was afraid you'd say that."

Then he stood up and stripped off his jumpsuit. He was naked underneath. I heard a groan behind me. I looked and saw that Holly was openly crying now. He must have known then.

But I didn't until Lewis walked naked to the far comer of the room and did something that only one human creature in all the universe could do. He touched his open palm to that of the black suit-and it opened.

Felix.

VIII

It couldn't be.

"I want to know how come you're not dead!" I demanded idiotically.

Lewis/Felix laughed. It was that same carefree abandon as before. Then he winked at me. "You got a couple of minutes?" he asked, indicating the door to the outside.

That wasn't what I meant. I said so. Holly helped. He asked about Kent.

"Kent's dead," was the uncarefree reply.

"I know that. He died on Banshee. But what I…"

"He didn't die on Banshee. He died on the Terra."

We looked at each other. I went this time. "Lew… Felix? Is it Felix?"

He nodded. " Of course."

"We thought Kent killed you."

He frowned. "He saved me. They killed him."

"Who?"

"Fleet," he said in a dead voice and knelt down to fiddle with the suit. It had sprung, spread-eagled open, off the wheelchair onto the floor.

In a hurried voice. Holly told him what we meant, why we had thought what we thought. When he got to the part about immersing, Felix cringed.

"You really did that? You went through the whole thing with me?"

Holly said we had. "Except between drops. But everything in the suit."

Felix shuddered. "Still…" He shuddered again, made an effort to regain his former humor. "I hope you guys had more fun than I did," he said and laughed.

We didn't know what to say. We didn't want to say anything. But we had to know. Holly told him about being there when Kent had struck him and then everything going blank, the Alpha readings dropping out of sight.

Felix smiled. "I can see your problem. But all that happened was that Kent popped my suit when he hit me. I guess he was afraid I would struggle or something. As if it would have made any difference. Damn! but that man was strong."

We nodded, watching in silence as he continued to both talk and work the suit.

"Then he put me in a ship. It was… He'd stolen it from someone I… "

"From Allie?" Holly prompted.

Felix looked at him, surprised. Then he nodded slowly. "That's right. You know everything. The whole story."

I really wanted to disappear. But Holly didn't seem the least bit embarrassed.

"Everything in the suit," he said.

Felix nodded back. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and regarded it lovingly. Then he tossed it away.

"Kent put me on the ship and sent me off, still in his armor the whole time. When they tried to find out what was going on, he blocked them." Felix stared, remembering. His voice was very quiet when next he spoke. "I saw what happened from the port. They cut him in half." He shrugged, almost violently. "But I was long gone by then. To here."

"And all this time…?" I wondered aloud.

He smiled. "All this time. Have I got water? I notice I've got everything else."

Holly nodded. "Fully operational."

I looked at him. "Why?"

He blushed, looked at Felix. "I suppose you think that's sick."

Felix grinned, then laughed, then giggled wildly, almost falling over. "Holly? How the hell would I know?"

Then he lay down in the suit. And it closed over him. Then they both stood up.

It was terrifying.

"Is…is it all right?" Holly stuttered.

The black helmet nodded. The amplified voice was harsh and deep. It echoed loudly. "It hurts. I'm out of shape."

He walked loudly and heavily over to the seal and paused with a huge black finger poised over the panel. "Just key it open?"

Holly nodded.

I tried to pull myself up, slipped back down. "Felix…?"

"What?" boomed back, not unpleasantly.

"Uh… nothing. Later."

"Later," he echoed. I couldn't read it.

He sighed loudly, electronically. "I wish you could smoke in here." Then he pushed the key and the door opened and he was gone. We heard the blasts begin almost at once. The door, set to close behind him, cut out everything afterward.

"Come on," shrilled Holly, stumbling across the floor to the Control room. "I want to see."

I followed. So did I.

It took us a long time to clamber inside and get the panel working. Our own monitors were long evaporated by battle. And Borglyn had cut us off before. So we missed a lot of it. But Holly managed to jump into Borglyn's signal anyway. We tried several angles, but none of them got what we wanted.

Finally, we managed to get our old perspective, from the monitor over Borglyn's shoulder. We could see what he could see. It was great.

Felix was incredible.

He was everywhere at once. Borglyn couldn't keep track of him cleanly from his monitors. There were just scattered images. Bodies flying through the air… blaze-bombs or grenades exploding with no one around… blazers cutting off abruptly, shattered and bent… Felix steaming right at the monitor as he reached the edge of the river and leaped across it, all twenty-something meters of it…

Then the main camp scurrying about and the mortars going off and somebody yelling in a high-pitched strident tone of growing terror that there were no targets, where the hell was he and…

"Omigod! There, there, there'."

Felix was great!

Borglyn, on the other hand, was terrified.

"Lift! Lift, goddammit!" he yelled to one and all and the Coyote began to rise.

One of his henchmen, in the Control room with him, said something about running scared and the sumbitch not being able to hurt a starship anyway.

Borglyn hit him, a loud back-handed smack across the face. "You said he'd never get across the river! Lift!"

But the ship was already rising, a few meters up already and then I heard Holly hiss beside me, "No!" as we both saw the black suit still coming, loping incredibly fast across the ground. And I knew what he meant. I knew what he feared.

And Borglyn knew what to do.

"All tacticals," he yelled to unseen crew around him. "Discharge them all at once. Now!"

On the screens the wall of fire blocked the sight of everything as it swept down across the camp, boiling the mortars and the commandos and the land and everything else.

Then the view was eclipsed by interference as the Coyote vaulted suddenly upward into Sanction's sky.

I just sat there.

But Holly evidently could not. He began to furiously work the keys, trying blindly, desperately, to restore our view. He almost got it a couple of times, though not well and not clearly. And our fix on the monitor we wanted was clearly lost. We got random snowy pictures from all over the ship, corridors and bulkheads. No sound. No pattern. And no hope. The ship was pulling out of our range.

But that was the least of it anyway. I reached a hand over and lay it gently on Holly's. I couldn't stand to see him torture himself, or me, by trying for…

He went stiff when the screen went sharp and clear.

I looked where he looked.

The image was from the outer portside monitor. It showed the length of the outer hull illuminated against the backdrop of daytime Sanction. And silhouetted against that, right in the center of it…

The black suit had one plassteel hand gripped vise-tight on a warp bleeder conduit. The other was clenched into a black fist that hurtled toward the monitor's single eye.

And then all was dark.

EPILOGUE

We have never found the Coyote, of course.

Sure, it took us a long time before another ship came and we could even begin the search. And space is big and the ship was out of fuel anyway, so it doesn't make much difference. But still we looked.

So do the people from Golden. Yes, they showed. About a month later. Reluctantly, we told them the story from the beginning when we found the suit until the end when we lost it. And we said we understood how reluctant they must be to want to spend much time searching for the remains of the dead and fuel-less hulk. That we would be staying and if anyone ever reported anything we would be sure to let them know.

They looked at us like we were crazy.

"The Archon was not seen to die, is that not correct?" the representative asked Holly.

Holly said that, yes, that's true, but… There was no fuel. Not to mention the terrible damage the ship undoubtedly underwent. "I mean," Holly blustered on, red-faced, "There was a battle we didn't even see."

The Rep eyed him coolly. "But the Archon was not seen to die?" he asked again.

Holly looked at me and shrugged. "Well, no," he replied.

The rep nodded, "So. We shall continue the search."

And they have. They stop by here now and again.

A couple of other things:

We're not a part of Fleet any longer. In no way. They're mad about it. Fuck'em.

We traced the rumor about "Lewis's" rich-kid past to-surprise-Lewis himself.

We have a growing colony. A government. Holly and I are on what they call the Council of Elders. But they don't call us much.

Lya is pregnant with her second. Her first is a girl with her looks and Holly's brain.

Karen is not pregnant and won't be. Yes, we're still together. But we are not, repeat: not, happy. But I guess we'll keep at it anyhow.

I never saw Eyes again.

The Antwar continues.

What about me? Besides the fact that I'm getting fat and thoughtful? Not much else. Both traits are, understandably, fulfilling.

What I eat is everything. What I think about…

The past, of course. My life and what it's meant and what it will mean from now on. And Felix. I think about Felix a lot.

And about the Masao and what he said, about there being no protection from what you are and all. And I think I may have something to add:

There is no protection from what you want.

Hell, they keep searching, which is dumb enough. But when I think about the certain look in that Rep's eye, in all their eyes when they drop by to question again and again. And when I think about all of it-from Golden, to Banshee, to Sanction…

When I think about it, I wonder.

Dammit, I cannot help but wonder:

Are you there, Felix?

Are you there?

❮