Felix turned away and walked down the rows of casualties toward the Can. He was down to 37 percent power. He found a long line of warriors lounging about on the sand. He asked the first, found out that this was indeed the line to make Connection. He sat and waited.
He wondered why Forest bothered to argue with the Colonel. "Why waste your breath?" he thought. There really isn't any choice. The Colonel had to see that. "It's Banshee," Forest had said, as though that explained everything. Felix smiled slightly, bitterly, to himself. As far as he was concerned, it did explain it all.
They had moved three more times. Each time, after a short delay, the ants had found them and attacked. Each time, the attacks were the same. Walls of ants choking against the barricades, a seemingly endless supply. The lines would hold as long as they could. He and Forest and others would try to keep those that broke through from killing too many. Sometimes, not always, they did a good job. Certainly Felix was getting better. He had found that he no longer needed to think before acting. He only reacted, killing often two ants at once.
And if he had gotten quite good. Forest had become amazing. Never in all his life had Felix seen anything remotely resembling her reflexes. Many times she had managed to cover not only her own area, but his as well. She was absolutely phenomenal. A real-life killing machine.
He sighed. Not that it had been enough. Not that anything could have been enough.
For despite all their combined talents and all their combined resources, the ants were slaughtering them. Each attack was merely a holding action saved at the last minute by a hail of blaze-bombs which would temporarily demolish every ant in sight. But they were miming out of blaze-bombs. Soon, very soon, there would be nothing to throw at the boiling mass and they would all be engulfed.
They must get everyone atop the mesa.
Felix and Forest had stumbled across it. It was a squat, ovular plateau of sand rising some twenty meters above the desert floor. It had walls that were almost perfectly sheer on all sides. Only a slanting drainage path, carved from erosion, provided a route to the top. If they could get everyone up there, the ants would be forced to bunch together to attack them. No more than two abreast could scale that little path at a time. We could make it damned expensive for them, he thought. But of course, they can afford it. They have the bodies to spare no matter where we are.
But did they have the time? That was the question. Surely there was someone up there doing something about getting them off the planet. Surely there was a rescue operation being implemented. And if they could just draw it out a little more, if they could stay alive just a little while longer…
Or maybe not. Maybe there was nothing. No rescue, no reinforcements, no Fleet. Maybe they were all destroyed in space. Or maybe they all got smart and ran like hell.
Felix took a sip of water from a tube, spit it out into another tube. No. There had to be something. There had to be someone. Now that they had found the mesa, and some kind of chance. And not when they had gotten the break with the eclipse.
He looked up into the dark gray sky. The entire section of Banshee was currently in darkness. It was not full nighttime, more like dusk or dawn. Still, the effect was similar. It had become, even for Banshee, very, very, cold. It didn't bother warriors who could see in the dark with their suits and fight in absolute vacuum. But it, apparently, got to the ants. They had been obviously slowing down. Their movements, never graceful, were now almost ridiculous. They had become parodies of themselves with jerking, puppetlike gestures and slow-motion running. It helped a lot.
No. They had to be coming to get them. It couldn't all be going for nothing. Now now. Not with the mesa and the cold.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the warrior who had lined up behind him. Felix followed the pointing armored finger and saw that the line had moved along several meters while he was daydreaming. He got up and walked over to join the others.
As he sat down, be heard the warriors in front of him, all male, talking on Proximity band.
"…not like real night at all, y'see? It's just the eclipse. The place has got four moons, you know, and it's…"
"Whatyamean, it ain't night. Looks like it to me."
"Not to me. Not dark enough."
"Give it a little while. It'll get darker."
"No, it won't. It'll get lighter. It's just an eclipse, like I said."
"Well, that's just like this blasted planet."
"Earth has eclipses…"
"Got ants too, but I wouldn't rightly compare'em!"
"Hey, look here. It's our scout," said the one closest to Felix. "You are the one, ain't ya? Been working our end of the barricade last coupla fights?"
"Gotta be him, Obel. There's only two scouts. This one and Forest. What's your name. Scout?
"Hello, Felix. I'm Bolov, that's Yin and Obel." Felix nodded at each of them.
"Yin's the Colonel's aide. He was just telling us the latest."
"Yeah," said the one called Obel. "What's gonna happen now? Forget the rest of that eclipse crap."
"Well," began Yin, "Felix already knows. He and Forest found the place where we're moving to, the mesa."
"Ah, shit," said Obel. "We moving again?"
Felix nodded. "The Colonel agreed?"
Yin laughed harshly. "What choice did he have? Just after you left, he began to get down to it with the staff. Gonna be as soon as everybody hits the Can."
"What's this mesa?" asked Bolov.
"It's a big hill with only one way up. We're gonna hide up there and make the ants come and get us."
"What about the wounded? We got more than three hundred warriors that can't move on their own."
"We're gonna carry them up there."
Obel snorted. "What happens if the ants come in the middle of this?"
"That's what the Colonel was worried about. But his Flank figured a way. Seems there's two sets of… kinda steps… up to the top of the mesa. We're gonna move everybody halfway up first. Then we can take a little more time moving'em the rest of the way up."
"What happens to the ones waiting on the steps?"
"It gets tricky there. Colonel's gonna ask for volunteers to defend the steps just below the landing while the rest of the moving is going on."
"Oh yeah?" began Obel. "Count me out."
"What's the matter, Obel?" asked Bolov sarcastically.
"Don't you want to be a hero?"
"Fuck it. You volunteer."
"Like hell. This looks to me like the kinda deal where somebody always gets left behind. They got anybody yet, Yin?"
"She's volunteered for this? Hasn't she had enough?"
"She's had more than enough, if you ask me," replied Yin bitterly. "And she didn't volunteer. Colonel just put her in charge of getting volunteers."
"He volunteered her himself, huh."
"That's about it. She was mad as hell, too. She said, I didn't volunteer for anything. Colonel,' and then he started that same old shit about needing only the best warriors and how she's the best around and how she owes it to her fellow warriors and…"
"That's enough," groaned Obel. "I know the rest."
"That's what Forest said, too. Said she didn't want to bear it. Walked away from the sonuvabitch."
"But she's gonna do it, isn't she?" asked Bolov in a tired voice.
Yin nodded. Equally tiredly, he replied, "Oh, yeah. She'll do it. She always does."
"Stupid woman," offered Bolov. "She's gonna let that Colonel kill her yet."
"Him or somebody else. Seems they always find a way to stick it to her," said Obel angrily.
"Every shit duty that comes along, they ask for Forest," added Yin.
"Why?" asked Felix, suddenly interested. "Why does she always get those duties?"
Bolov exchanged glances with the other two. He shrugged. "She came in second."
"Yeah," said Yin. "If she'd won, she'd be the one floating from star to star making demonstrations and meeting the rich and famous."
"Instead of Kent," added Obel.
The three men nodded in unison. It had meant nothing to Felix.
"What are you talking about? Second at what?"
"You kidding? the Armored Olympics. On Militar…"
"She met Kent himself in the finals…"
"Hell, she's famous. Or should be…"
"At least she's famous to all the GO'S in the Fleet."
"Fat lot of good it does her," said Bolov. "Second is just good enough that the CO's call on her in a pinch. But not good enough that anybody else cares. Felix, I bet you never knew that she was the same Forest who met Kent in the finals, did you?"
"No," began Felix. "In fact, I've never even…"
"See what I mean?" interrupted Yin. "Only the CO's keep track of that sorta thing."
"Especially our CO," said Obel.
"Can you really blame him?" suggested Bolov. "She's the best around."
"She's the best there is," said Yin firmly.
"Well… Kent's the best there is, Yin," said Obel.
"Shit," said Yin with sudden anger. "Friend of mine was there for the whole thing. He told me all about it. She was robbed. She shoulda won it, but the brass wanted a three-time winner."
"I don't believe that," said Bolov.
"Me either," said Obel. "You can't beat Kent."
"My friend was there, I'm telling you.
"Oh yeah," said Bolov. "Who is it? What's his name?"
Yin managed to look stubborn even through his face screen.
"She was robbed," he insisted.
"Well," said Bolov with a trace of bitterness, that is the way her luck usually goes."
"Yeah Can you imagine that?" said Obel, musing. That she's stuck here getting the worst of the shit because of some cheat while Kent spends his time showing off?
That would be something," admitted Bolov. "If it were true."
"It is true," insisted Yin again,
"I don't know, Yin," replied Bolov. "She's awfully good…"
"She's the best I've ever fought with, true. But to beat Kent… ?"
"Hell yes, she's better'n Kent ever was.
"Nobody's better'n Kent," said Obel firmly.
"Forest is," retorted Yin.
"Ah Yin. You only say that because you know her, said
"Fuck that. She's the best," replied Yin. He looked at Felix "What do you think, Felix? You've fought with her. Right with her. You think she can beat Kent, don't you?"
All three stared at him.
"Nathan Kent, who else-…"
"Three time Class One Armor Champion Nathan Kent.
"Never heard of him."
They stared again
"You're kidding. You've never heard of Nathan Kent?" asked Bolov.
"Where've you been?" asked Obel,
"Out of touch, I suppose."
"Where you been posted? Were you a starprobe or something?" asked Yin with a laugh.
"No " replied Felix seriously. "Nothing like that."
"What were you?" asked Bolov, equally serious.
There was a long silence while they stared again. In a hushed voice, Bolov finally broke the silence.
"Felix," he asked slowly, "how long have you been in the fleet?"
"Nine months? You're a greener?" asked Yin, amazed.
"He means," added Obel quickly, "is this your first Drop?"
Felix nodded, "This is it,"
"Holy shit," breathed a stunned Bolov. "On Banshee."
"But… but you're a scout. How could you be a scout?"
Obel wanted to know.
"I just drew it."
"I don't believe it," said Obel with finality. "That sort of thing just doesn't happen. "
"It might," suggested Bolov quietly. "They needed a lot of people fast. This is a full-scale war, after all."
"But scout duty?" wailed Obel. "For a man with less than a year? A greener?"
"How long have you guys been in?"
"Eight years," said Obel.
"Nine years," said Bolov,
"Five years," said Yin.
It was Felix's turn to be amazed. "You mean this is… your career?"
"Hell, yes," said Obel.
"So you've… done this before?"
"Fought before?" asked Yin. "Sure we have. Fought the Barmi on Silo."
"And the Zee's. Don't forget them," added Bolov.
"How could I," replied Yin dryly.
"Hell," blurted Obel, importantly. "My very first Drop was Ervis Three…"
"But you were back-up then…"
"Yeah, yeah," drawled Yin. "We know you've been around. We've all been around."
"Had to have. That's why we're alive and talking about it" said Obel. "You can't match experience."
"Felix has," replied Yin with a short laugh.
"So far," admitted Bolov, "it's incredible."
"Why is that?" asked Felix.
"Felix, you ask around. I bet you a month's credits that you're the only greener still alive."
"I'd bet more than that," muttered Obel. "And as a lousy scout, too. I still don't see how he got stuck with that."
"Maybe he volunteered," offered Yin.
"He's not that stupid," replied Obel.
"Maybe he wants to be a hero," returned Yin. "Some do. I bet he did volunteer."
"Bet he didn't," replied Obel.
"Which is it, Felix?" asked Bolov. "Are you stupid…?"
"…Or just unlucky…"
Felix smiled slightly to himself. "I didn't volunteer for anything."
"You volunteered for the goddamn war, didn't you?" prompted Bolov.