"That was your first mistake," said Bolov.
"Maybe your last," added Obel. "Why'd you do it? You from Earth, huh?"
"Yeah," added Yin. "Your family in South America? You here to get revenge?"
Felix stared, taken back. "No," he said at last. "I'm not from Earth."
"Yeah?" asked Obel. "Then why did you sign up?"
Felix stared at him, hesitant. Bolov saved him.
"It doesn't matter now," he said. "He's here now. He's on Banshee, a scout, and fighting. Fighting damn good, too."
"A lousy scout," mused Obel. "A greener scout. Do you know where that puts you on the stat? at the very…"
"Cut that, Obel," growled Bolov. "That won't help anything."
"I figure he's got a right to know."
"Oh, is that what you figure? Shaddup."
"No," said Felix, resigned to it all. "May as well give it to me."
"It's the survival table, Felix," said Yin in a quiet voice.
"And…?" Bolov was hesitant. "Look, Felix, it's like this: They have this scale that gives the odds for survival for any given warrior on any particular Drop. They change for each Drop. Like, for a greener warrior it's a four."
"Four for ten," offered Obel.
Bolov sighed. "It means that there are four chances out of ten that he'll make it. A statistical survival rate of 40 percent."
Felix couldn't believe his ears. "You mean to say that only 40 percent survive their first Drop?"
"If it's a major Drop," added Obel quickly. "You know, an assault Drop."
"Look, Felix," explained Bolov. "There are two kinds of Drops; Major, an assault Drop. That means you're one of the first to hit. Then there's the Minor, or backup. The scale I'm talking about depends on it being a major with a casualty rate of at least 10 percent, and with all that being so, a greener warrior would be four on the scale if it was first."
"Course, it changes with each Drop," offered Yin.
"Year," agreed Bolov. "It gets better. Second drop rates a six. Sixty percent chance. Third is seven. Fourth is as bad as the first, though. It's four, too."
"Overconfidence sets in," added Obel. "Know-it-alls that figure it can't happen to them just because it hasn't yet. Forget to duck."
"Yeah," said Bolov, continuing. "Anyway, it's… uh, four for the first, six for the second, seven for the third, back to four for the fourth back to seven for fifth. Sixth, seventh and eighth are the best. They're all eight. Then it starts down again. Ninth is seven. Tenth is only five. You get tired, you know? Anyway it stops at ten. Nobody's ever made more than ten major Drops."
"And most Drops aren't majors," Yin reminded him.
"Most are just backups. Only one out of seven are majors because they rotate you that way. The odds are a lot better on backups. Nine for vets. Even greeners get eight."
"That's why greeners should always drop backups first," offered Bolov. "You get experience that way which helps you later on. It works out better, somehow. I don't really understand it all. But say you're like us and you do seven back-ups before your first major. The stat says you then get the same rating as if it were really your third major. You get a seven. See?"
"Vaguely," replied Felix, understanding a little. "How many Drops have you made, Bolov?"
"Me? Eighteen. But only three were rated as major and, really, only two of them were really bad. For the other fifteen, I was rotated to the rear where it's a hell of a lot safer. And there's lots more warriors around you, most times. Course, none of'em were this Banshee shit."
"So your odds would be…?"
"I'm at eight, now. We all are. We've got experience, the know-how, plus we get lots of rest."
"The more rest you get, the less chance of battle fatigue," added Obel.
"Hmm," said Felix, thinking aloud. "Then I'm at four."
"Uh, no," replied Bolov, a trifle embarrassed. "You dropped a scout. That's different."
"That's worse," said Obel.
"A lot worse," added Yin.
"Scouts never get better than six, no matter what. And since you're also a greener…"
"So I'm a what?"
"You're a one."
"One, Felix," Bolov said tiredly, sadly, as if pronouncing sentence. "That's one out of ten. A ten percent chance."
Felix stared at him, not speaking.
"You should never have been Dropped as a scout your first time," added Bolov hurriedly, consoling.
"Not as a greener," agreed Obel.
"You were robbed," insisted Yin.
Nobody said anything for awhile after that. Occasionally the other three would stare at Felix, awaiting some reaction. But Felix was long past reacting to any of it. Long past lots of things, he thought.
And then the line had brought them to the Can. There were only three spaces. Felix waited while the other three made Connection. And, just as he was about to step up. Forest appeared beside him.
"You're just now making Connection?" she asked, surprised.
"It was a long line."
"You don't have to wait in line. You're a scout. You get priority." She stepped in front of the warrior behind Felix and made Connection. "Being a scout is a lot different from being a warrior, my friend."
Felix sighed, made Connection beside her. "I've heard that," he said in a tired voice and watched his dials rise with the surge of power.
He found that he could no longer finish the stick of nutrite he had started chewing. He spit it into the tube. He rinsed his mouth out with water and spit that out too. Beside him, Forest was making noisy chewing sounds.
"I see you met our little trio," she said after a particularly loud swallow.
"Bolov, Yin and Obel," she said with a slight belch.
"What did they tell you?"
"Aw, shit," she muttered. "What did they say?"
"They said I was a one for ten. Were they right?"
"Well, yeah," she replied reluctantly. "Did that get to you?"
"Well, I can see how it could. But Felix, that's just a probability scale, you know, not a death sentence. It doesn't have your name on it. For one thing, it assumes average ability, average reflexes. And you're a lot quicker than that. Besides, you've already beat worse odds than that just by being here."
"You think so?"
"I know so. So do you. Remember A Team? Two hundred and four Dropped, only you survived. As a scout, yet. Far as I know, that's a first. You're some kind of record."
"Some kind…" he said, distantly.
"Never mind that stuff. What else did they have to talk about?"
He turned and looked at her. "They talked about you, as a matter of fact. About your athletic career. The armored…"
"Olympics," she prompted. "The Armored Olympic Trials."
"Yes. They seem to think you're pretty good."
"I am. Damn good. One of the best."
"They think you're the best they've ever seen."
"I probably am at that."
"They seem to think that you should have won that thing. One of them thought you'd been cheated. Were you cheated?"
"I was beaten. Badly. Cheated, huh?" She laughed softly, a pleasant sound. "What a lovely thought. Felix, I was never really in it. He slaughtered me."
"Kent, Nathan Kent. You've probably heard of him."
"No, I haven't."
"Really? I'm surprised. He's quite famous. Not just on Earth, either. He's recognized on sight on about a dozen planets, and his name is well known on about two dozen more. People care about him that aren't even sports fans. Everybody's Hero, he's called."
A warrior with corporal's markings appeared beside them. "What's all this about a hero?" asked a feminine voice. "Who's a hero?"
Forest laughed. "What for, Lohman? You volunteering?"
"Not a chance," replied Lohman. She sat down on the sand in front of them.
"Lohman, meet Felix."
"How do you do?"
"So who's the hero?"
"We were talking about Kent," said Forest.
"Oh, yeah," responded Lohman dryly. "He's a hero, all right. Everybody's Hero."
Felix found himself drifting, wanting to be alone. But he was determined to stay and try.
"I suppose every war needs heroes," he offered.
"Especially this one," said Forest and Lohman, in unison. Then they looked at each other and laughed. Felix managed a small grin.
"Well, we better take care of him. Can't lose him now," he said.
Lohman laughed again at this, but her laughter had an edge of bitterness to it. "Lose him? How? He'll never even see an ant."
Felix looked at her. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.
"Can't lose him," said Lohman sarcastically. "Not the darling of good old Earth. Hell, if something happens to Kent, the people back home are liable to figure out that we aren't invincible like the politicians have been telling them. No. They'll be real careful with Kent. Treat him like a newborn baby, instead of a warrior."
"That's not fair, Lohman," said Forest quickly. "He's doing his part."
"Really? By staging more phony demonstrations while people are getting killed? He's not a warrior anymore. He's a joke."
"He could tear you in half with ten percent power," said Forest evenly.
"Sure he could," snapped Lohman, undismayed. "He could wipe me out. But ants are the enemy. What's he done to them? Where do you think he is right now? He's so far away, he couldn't see Banshee with a star-probe." "I don't see why it should bother you," said Forest. "Oh yeah?" retorted Lohman. Then, suddenly, her voice became gentle. "Well, what I'd like to know is why it doesn't bother you, Forest. You did pretty well yourself, but all it gets you is the dirty jobs. Doesn't it bother you? Don't you ever wonder why you're stuck here about to die when the warrior with the best odds for survival in the Fleet will never get a bruise? Just because somebody decided he was gonna be our symbol?"
"Somebody didn't decide, everybody decided. Or maybe he decided it. He is the best, you know."
"I know," snapped Lohman. "That's the point."
"Lohman," asked Forest patiently. "Do you really think he has any choice about where he's sent? Do you really think he's a coward?"
"No, of course not. But just the same. I'd like to see him make a Drop."
"Suppose he did. We could all say: Lookee there, he's just a regular warrior like the rest of us. Would you like that?"
"Would you? Would you really?"
"I said, yes," snapped Lohman.
"Fine," said Forest, sitting up straighter. Felix noticed that she had become quite animated all of a sudden. "So you'd be happy for a while. But what if he bought it? What then? That would be pretty bad, wouldn't it?"
"Of course it would be bad. I wouldn't want…"
"You're goddamn right you wouldn't," retorted Forest with a growing fervor. Felix looked at her. "And you know why, too, Lohman. Because he's not like everyone else and you know it. He's not. He is a symbol. He's everybody's symbol. And more. It's like… he's the kind of thing that we all… that's all of us put together to…"
"'He's the best of us,' " said Felix, reciting. "'The best of our best, the best that each of us will ever build or ever love. So pray for this Guardian of our growth and choose him well, for if he be not truly blessed, then our designs are surely frivolous and our future but a tragic waste of hope. Bless our best and adore for he doth bear our measure to the Cosmos.'"
"Hot damn," shouted Forest. "That's it. That's exactly it."
"Where did that come from, Felix?" asked Lohman, equally touched. "Is that a prayer?"
"Not precisely. It's part of a coronation ceremony."
"Coronation?" repeated Lohman. "You mean like royalty? Like a King?"
Felix wished he had kept his mouth shut, replied evenly. "A king in a way. The title is Guardian."
"It's beautiful," said Forest.
"Yeah," agreed Lohman. "But what's that part about choosing? You don't choose royalty. Don't people just have to okay it, no matter what?"
"No," said Felix. "They can refuse a potential Guardian before he assumes the title." He was lost, then, for an instant. In the past. "In his youth," he continued after a moment, fumbling somewhat.
The other two seemed to sense his unease.
"Sounds interesting," said Forest.
"Fascinating," echoed Lohman. "What planet did you say this was from?"
"I didn't," replied Felix curtly, deciding, suddenly, to end it.
There was a long pause while the other two exchanged glances. Finally, Lohman broke the silence.
"You're a strange one, Felix. What are you doing here anyway?"
Felix lifted his helmet and met her gaze as best he could through their two face screens.
"Fighting ants," he replied evenly.
"And what else," Lohman wanted to know.
"Fearing ants," he added.
"Hmm," said Lohman after a slight hesitation. "Well, I must be off. Nice meeting you, Felix."
And she was gone. Forest got up then too, mumbling something about some sort of duty.
Felix sat there alone and tried not to think but, of course, could not help it. He thought and he wondered and realized that he couldn't really conceive of what Forest had meant when she had spoken of Kent. He was totally unable to effectively associate what he was doing with symbols or inspiration or… love. For it was a form of love that he had seen in her voice. Perhaps, he thought, it's because I didn't start this with any of those things in mind. Or more likely, it's because none of those things have anything to do with me now. Maybe they never did.
He lay back prone on the sand and gazed up into the artificial twilight caused by the eclipse. In his mind he saw the names of Forest and Kent and Felix and tried to feel some sort of connection between the three of them, some common… something. A little while later he gave it up. And a little while after that, he decided that it didn't matter at all.
"I'm sorry, Felix," said Forest.
Felix said nothing. Instead he watched the retreating form of the Colonel, ambling up through the gorge past the jostling lines of warriors passing casualties head over head to the top. It was an awkward exercise. Battle armor was bulky and difficult to get a good grip on, even for similarly suited warriors. Those wounded who were awake helped as best they could, which was little enough. For some positions, though more convenient for the carriers, were quite painful for the cargo. The unconscious were worse, since suits were programmed to spread eagle when a warrior lost consciousness in order to keep the spine erect and avoid complicating possible fractures. This posture with arms and legs outstretched wide, made for a cumbersome package. Passing these people along, already a tricky piece of work, was further complicated by their potential delicacy.
Like dolls, thought Felix, as he watched the hurried loading. Mannequins, or cookies. That was it: cookies. Giant ginger- bread men.
The Colonel, he noticed, had stopped on the lower section of the landing. He was busily directing the loading, or attempting to. His blue and white striped arms, symbols of his rank, made exaggerated gestures to punctuate his instructions. No one seemed to be paying any attention to his orders, or even acknowledging his presence. Felix turned away, wearied by the sight.
"I'm sorry, Felix," repeated Forest. "He shouldn't have ordered you. He should have waited for you to volunteer."
He looked at her, looked away, said nothing still.
Forest persisted. "It's not that he's got anything against you personally, Felix."
"He said that," Felix answered at last.
"It's just that you're a scout, with a scout's ability to maneuver."
"He said that," Felix replied.
"Felix," said Forest with some emotion, "try to look at it from his point of view. We've got all these casualties to worry about, and you're damned good at this, you've got to admit and…"
"He said that, too. He said it all."
"Oh," replied Forest hesitantly. "Well, I can see how you must feel about it. He was wrong. He should have waited for you to step forward. He was wrong."
"No," said Felix in a tired voice, "he was right. I wouldn't have volunteered."
He turned then, and faced her squarely, closely, so that their faces were dimly visible to one another. For several seconds, warrior faced warrior, pragmatist faced fatalist, silently, eloquently.