"Yes," said Forest at last, averting her eyes as she spoke, "he was right." She turned away and started up the hill behind the last of the casualty bearers. "Come on. I'll explain the procedure." Felix followed.
At the halfway mark of the gorge, a broad, smooth-faced chunk of tightly packed sand formed a two-tiered landing of sorts. Forest stepped from the gorge onto the first, lower, section and stopped. Six warriors, evidently the actual volunteers, stood in a row, waiting. Felix eyed them curiously.
"This is our station," Forest began. "I figure they can only get to us in two ways. From the gorge directly, or by using that ledge there. " She pointed to an outcropping of sand which ran the lower length of the landing. "We'll try to hold them here first. If we can't, then we move up there to where they're loading. We only have one route to defend from there."
One of the warriors stepped forward. "Why not just start up there?" he asked in a high-pitched tenor.
Forest shrugged. "The CO wants us to try to stop them here, before they even get close to the helpless."
"Figures," muttered another, deeper voice
"Okay," said Forest calmly. "If it gets to be too much, we'll move in a hurry. Just remember to keep the escape route open. Don't let anything get behind you."
"Don't worry," said a third voice.
"Maybe we won't even have to worry about it," offered the tenor hopefully. "It's still pretty dark and it looks to me like they're moving'em pretty fast."
"Hey, yeah," said someone else. "We might get lucky at that. Look at'em up there."
"No," said Felix coldly. "Not up. Look down."
All turned to look in response to his statement. Below, the ants were steaming toward them from the edge of the maze.
"Okay," said Forest hurriedly. "You three get with Felix over there on the right side. Cover the ledge. And you three stay with me. We'll take the gorge. Get moving."
Felix stepped over into position. He stood stone still, and waited. The others in his group were considerably more animated.
"Wish we had our blazers working…"
"Lucky it's still dark. Look how slow they're moving…"
"Fast enough for me…"
"Damn, I haven't fought'em hand-to-hand before…"
"Just club'em with your fist. Give'em a taste of plassteel…"
"I don't want to encourage anything…"
There were several nervous giggles in response.
"Shut up," said the Engine firmly. And all were silent as they waited and watched.
The ants streamed steadily up the gorge, with only one in the lead. Forest, deciding apparently to take a chance, leaped down a few meters and clouted the lead ant on the side of the skull with the toe of her boot. The ant was caught off balance. It literally climbed upward into the blow. The right side of its skull caved in instantly. It slumped, twitching, into the path of the ants behind it.
"Hot damn," shouted one of the warriors beside Felix.
"See?" said Forest with a quick glance over her shoulder.
"There's nothing to it. Get ready. Let's hurt'em."
The warriors beside her took heart in her words and shuffled eagerly forward to help. They pounced on the ants as they appeared. One grabbed hold of a claw while another pounded awkwardly at the skull. That ant fell, and then another fell to Forest's forearm and then there was too much happening for Felix to continue to watch.
He met the first ant on the ledge with a wide swinging blow with the open palm of his glove against the left eye. The eyeball burst, streaming. Felix finished it off by simply shoving the creature backward off of the ledge with his foot. He grabbed an awkwardly groping claw from the second and dragged the creature forward into a thunderous forearm smash that shattered the thorax. Without waiting for the ant to fall, he turned to the next.
Beside him the other three plunged bravely forward. They slammed at the ants with their much more powerful warrior armor. They punched and kicked and gouged, missing often, sometimes way off balance. But in that limited area, the ants couldn't reach them en masse and their crude efforts were effective. Noting this, Felix elected to let the heavier, bulkier warriors match the initial brunt of the attack. He skipped back and forth between the three, lending a well timed blow to each individual struggle. The warriors had a tendency to become entangled with the grasping claws and pincers. But before the embrace could become lethal, Felix was able to step in and make the kill.
At first the warriors would verbally acknowledge his aide, but as the height of battle slowly grew, the acknowledgments were limited to grunts and then finally silence.
The battle continued in this manner for several moments. Despite the lack of skill of the other three, Felix found that they were managing to hold their own. The ant bodies were stacking up onto the ledge, making further attacks more difficult. And when the bodies were used as stepping stones to reach them, Felix stepped down onto the ledge itself and heaved a large, twittering stack over the side. That effort brought a rousing cheer from all three of his fellows, a sound that the engine was no more aware of than it had been of the earlier sounds of gratitude.
It got tougher after that. The ants became more numerous, more insistent in their rush. The time to retreat would obviously have to come soon. Still, it would be awhile. And time was what counted. All seemed to be going well. And then the Hammer fell again.
Felix had managed to notice the transit beacon's flickering light a second before the concussion. He had thrown himself and one warrior to the ground and shouted for the others to do the same. But in the excitement of the struggle, the other two had merely looked in his direction, not really thinking about what he had said until it was too late.
The landing shook and rocked and skittered off to the side. A great cloud of sand splashed up the slope into the air around them. There were several horrible cries mixed in with the thunderous roar. Felix stood up as soon as the tier stopped shaking beneath him. Through the cloud of dust and sand he saw that Forest still had two warriors with her. He looked quickly around. His other two men were nowhere in sight. "Back up to the others," shouted Forest. "Get up there."
"But where are the other two? They were right here-" blurted the one man left from Felix's group, the tenor.
For answer, Felix hauled him to his feet, and shoved him stumbling toward the upper section of the tier. At the steps, the tenor turned to protest. Felix ignored him, lifting him bodily onto the next step. Forest beside him, was' similarly hurrying her charges.
"Move it," she urged in an icy tone. Then, "Oh, shit," as she turned back around to the edge.
The ants, only momentarily stunned by the blast, were now shuffling five abreast toward them across a recent break in the tier.
"Heads up, Felix," she said as she met the first ant.
Felix slammed a boot through the first ant, effectively stepping right through its severed midsection, and bashing the one beside it with a backhand blow to an eye. He spun around, freeing his foot, and jammed an armored elbow at a thorax. He took a step back, then leaned quickly forward and rammed his shoulder into another. He lifted the ant and flung it away from him into the paths of several others. He took another step back, then another.
The Hammer fell again.
The tier rocked mightily, ants and pieces of ants were catapulted through the air, some ramming him. He fell to the floor of the tier just as it broke loose from the face of the mesa itself. A crack appeared in its face. There was another quick jerk, the sound of more ripping sand, and Felix was flung into the crack.
Forest struck the wall beside him, tumbled sideways by the tilting sand. A half a dozen ants followed.
They grasped at him, scraping loudly against his face screen with their clattering pincers.
He shoved at them, grabbed at exoskeleton and twisted and heard the sound of it splintering. But there were so many and so little room and then he saw Forest was holding on to an ant that had fallen across his face and he took hold of it too and they both pulled and there was a snapping sound and the ant came apart. He struggled to his feet, felt the ground rumble beneath him. He held out a hand to Forest, saw that she was engulfed by claws and skulls. Again he grabbed one end and she grabbed the other and again there was that sound and again and again and then they were suddenly alone in the crack. Both on their feet now. Forest in front, as they tried to clamber out and once again, the Hammer fell. The tier they had vacated tilled wildly, shuddered and finally sheared loose completely, rolling and tumbling down the slope, crushing hundreds of bodies of the thousands of stunned ants that packed the gorge.
Together, they grasped the edge of the upper tier and heaved themselves up onto it. "Goddammit," shouted Forest breathlessly. She grabbed one of the able-bodied loaders who sat frozen, holding the floor of the tier for dear life. "Move it, goddammit. Move these people."
The warrior looked up at her, unmoving. Forest cracked her open palm against the side of the trembling helmet. "Don't you hear me? Get moving. You too," she added to the other loaders, each of whom had been likewise occupied with panic. "Who's gonna move these casualties?" she shouted, sweeping an arm toward the more than a hundred who still occupied the tier.
With painful slowness, the warriors began to react to her stinging words. They rose and grabbed at the injured and resumed their jobs. Forest was unsatisfied.
"Where the hell's everybody else? Where are the other loaders?" she wanted to know.
Felix looked around, noticed there were only half a dozen warriors still remaining at the job. He didn't have to ask where they had gone. He knew. They had run away.
Emotionless, he picked up the crumpled form of a warrior and, despite her loud and painful protests, heaved her up onto the mesa itself. He grabbed another, this one unconscious, and cartwheeled its frozen form behind the first.
"Felix, forget that shit. C'mere," shouted Forest. "Ants…"
He turned just in time to see her deliver a hammer of her own, a crushing fist through the eye of the first of a half dozen ants that had appeared in the gorge beneath them.
Felix lived because he was shielded by the line of warriors between him and the edge.
He wasn't blinded because he happened to be looking away at the time. Still he saw the flash as though there had been nothing at all to obscure his view, and still he felt it, the worst pain he had ever experienced, as be was tossed far into the air, a helpless puppet. He flew perhaps twenty meters before touching the ground where he rolled and skidded and slid and when be finally came to rest he saw his power dials drop almost to zero.
He had time to lift an arm across his face to cover it from God's angry boiling gaze and then all was darkness.
The can was only a few meters in front of him, but the body was in the way. He knew he would never make it.
Still, he tried. He focused all his concentration on the muscles of his right thigh and, with incredible effort, managed to draw it forward underneath him. He was afraid to pull it too far, afraid he would overbalance and fall off his elbows. It had seemed to take hours to get them propped up beneath him. If he should fall now, he would never be able to get back up again.
He rested then, as much as he could with the weight of five hundred kilograms relentlessly trying to drive his body into the sand. The helmet was the worst part, he thought. Fifty kilos alone right there. I'd better not fall. If I do, the helmet will break my neck.
He took several deep breaths, then held the last one. He strained and heaved and tried to move his right elbow forward. The pain from his shoulders erupted again instantly, as he had known it would. But somehow he had forgotten how bad it was.
He screamed as bolts of agony lanced through his shoulders and down his back. For a moment his vision unfocused, his head swam wildly. Oh, God, don't fall… he thought desperately before he fainted.
Later, when he had awakened again, he decided that he was insane and that it was good. I have to be mad. I must be, to get this far. To make connection, I will have to be madder still.
He shut off his mind, then. He didn't want to carry these thoughts, or any others, further. I will stop thinking right here. At this spot, where I have reached resolve. And so, not thinking of the pain he must certainly feel, not thinking of the damage he was doing to himself, not thinking of the mere twelve percent power remaining, not thinking of the ants who would surely return…
Not thinking, he tried once more. This time the scream was shorter. He hadn't enough strength to do it properly.
When he awoke the next time, and tried again, his body refused. Amazed, he tried again, but his body would not respond. This is absurd. I have strength, still. I'm thinking. I must have some energy left. But he could make nothing move, no limb, no muscle.
He became angry. He strained and groaned, sweat streamed from his brow, mingling with tears and fogging the screen and at last something gave. But he was not truly moving, only shuddering with uncontrollable spasms. This made him even more angry. He threw himself against the inside of the armor, he rocked back and forth against it, he yelled at the top of his lungs…
He should have died. The fall should have crushed the life from him. But, in this at least, he and his body were united. Together, they refused to die. And then, still together, they slept.
Forest wanted to know where all the real Medics were.
"Dead," said the man monitoring Felix's physchart. "Vaporized. Like most everyone else." He tapped Felix's helmet. "You'll live… for a while. But I'd hate to have your shoulders. What made you try to crawl in a day suit? Most of the skin around your joints is scraped off. Are you crazy?"
Felix considered this. "Yes," he replied, and stood up. The pain doubled him over.
"Whoo… Watch it there. Give the painers a chance. Go sit down somewhere for a few minutes. Better, lie down for as long as you can."
"I'll watch him," offered Forest as she stepped up to his side.
"You're in worse shape than he is. You'd best watch each other."
The suits made it impossible to lean on one another, but the feeling of mutual support was strong between them as they shuffled slowly past the rows of warriors collapsed around the medical area. Felix crossed toward a likely spot, but Forest said, "No. A little farther. I want to show you something." So they continued on past those that were wounded and past those that were dead and farther yet, past those who could no longer be distinguished as warriors.
Like a slag heap, thought Felix, glancing briefly at the fused hunks of plassteel strewn about the sand.
They reached the edge of the mesa, where the sand was glazed slick and black by an ugly film.
"Do you know," asked Forest as they gently lowered themselves, side by side, to the ground, "what thermonuclear means?"
Felix looked around him at the hellish landscape. "I do now," he said. Only then did he notice the shiny newness of Forest's suit. He looked down at himself. The black plassteel had been scoured clean by the same wall of sand that had flung him so far.
"You noticed that, have you?" asked Forest, following his gaze. She chuckled dryly. "Good as new."
He smiled slightly, briefly. "Why did they wait so long?"
"Who? The ants? They didn't do this. We did."
"Us? I didn't know anyone carried atomic weapons."
"Hell. We are atomic weapons." She swept an arm about her wearily. "A suit did this."
"Overload. Somebody keyed every relay at once, and then tried to eject. Any warrior suit can do it."
"I didn't know."
"You aren't supposed to. No one is. It's a way to go that might be too dramatic to resist. Can you imagine what this would have done to the inside of a starship?"
"Hmm. But still, what about accidents?"
She shrugged, a bulky gesture. "Shouldn't be too likely. The odds against it happening randomly are enormous, or so I'm told. Makes sense. Some suit functions would be contradictory to others. Who would key every one of them at once and try to eject at the same time?"
He looked at her. She returned the look, glanced away. "I found out about it at the Olympics. Sounds silly, I know. But there are lots more things a suit is required to do in competition. When I qualified, one of the wardens took me aside and warned me."
"Martinez was there. As a yeoman. He must have found out somehow. Sounds like him, anyway. Crazy guy, Martinez. We got in a lot of trouble together. See we were bunked in the same tract, right across the quad from each other…"
She stopped talking suddenly, then sat up and began to cough. It was a horrible, choking sound, the sound of something terribly, irrevocably, wrong.
Felix moved toward her as she slipped down again, still coughing. She tried to reach her panel, but failed as the spasm intensified.
"Painer… key… painer," she managed to gasp.
He picked up her left forearm, found the panel. He fumbled with the keys from his opposite perspective before locating the switch and activating it. Slowly, too slowly, her coughing subsided. He leaned close to her and waited for her eyes to open. When they did, she smiled at him. It was not a smile he would have wanted, it was wistfully sad, heartbreakingly tragic.
"I don't blame Martinez," she said at last. "Being carried off by those bloody… I'd do it myself if a scout suit had the capacity." She noticed his position, still looming over her. "Don't worry, Felix. It's not as bad as it sounds." He nodded, sat down beside her. They both knew she was lying.
For awhile there was no sound but the uneven rush of her tortured breath against her microphone. Then she rallied a bit, managed to speak.
"Poor, poor, Marty…" she began but choked it off quickly when she heard the break in her voice. Felix winced when he heard her stifling sobs, surprising himself. Why be surprised? he thought. What's not to understand? No matter how brash she was before, this would have to terrify her now. Who wants to die?
From somewhere deep within him, a tiny voice answered, "You did." He ignored it.
Her sobbing, now beyond control, turned to weeping. He looked away from her, gazing at the distant spire of the knuckle. It was getting light again, he noticed. Soon the ants would be back at full strength and…
He noticed the slope, suddenly, for the first time actually seeing it and realizing what it meant. This entire end of the mesa had been collapsed by the explosion. Instead of a single narrow route to the top, the ants now had a smooth, black ramp that rose at an easy, convenient angle. My God, they could come up that a thousand abreast. And, of course, they will.
"What a silly choice for a symbol," said (blurted) Forest abruptly.
"Kent. Nathan Kent. Everybody's hero." She laughed softly, gently. Her voice had a dreamlike languor to its rhythm. "I remember the first night away from the compound. He had to buy a meal for all the final qualifiers. The people recognized him and rushed away from their food to surround him. They cheered and applauded and they all tried to touch him. And he looked at me in the middle of all this and… You know what?"
"He was so bewildered. Completely lost. And later we talked and I knew he felt bad because he hadn't known what to do or say.
"Oh, he was charming enough. He couldn't help that. And funny, too. He made everyone laugh. But he wasn't… It's just that they wanted so much from him and… he wanted to do it for them, wanted to be a certain way for them. But… when he tried to be what he thought he should be, it came out as rudeness, like some sort of arrogant…"
She moved, to change position, he thought. But he saw her key another painer.
"He was shy. So shy. And it was so tragic. Because he wanted to be the leader. But he was shy instead. And loving and gentle and he could be hurt so…"
She broke off. She sat up. She peered at him. "I told the Colonel to order you. I used you because I didn't want to be alone on that landing and I knew you were too smart to volunteer. I lied. I blatantly used you to save my life."
"Yes," he replied with soft firmness.
That seemed to exhaust her. She lay back down. She was having trouble breathing.
"I loved Kent, Felix. I loved him so, I thought I would die. Did I ever tell you that?"
"I knew I must have," she said and died.
Felix couldn't believe his ears.
"That's ridiculous," he said.
The Major who had replaced the now dead Colonel as CO, looked up suddenly. "Is that what you think?" Was his surprisingly calm reply.
Felix noticed that the other members of the command staff were also watching him. He ignored them.
"I have no command experience," he said. "This is my first Drop."
"Your first Drop," repeated the Major idly, as if even then he couldn't believe it. "Yes, I had heard that. Remarkable."
Felix peered quizzically at the Major, at the others, wondering why he couldn't seem to get through.
"Get someone else," he said abruptly.
"There isn't someone else," said the Major. "All your officers are dead."
"Get a non-corn then," persisted Felix. "A sergeant."
"Don't say no, just do…"
"No," said the Major flatly, his voice now carrying an edge.
"Why not? Why can't you just?"
"Because you're the one they want," blurted the Major suddenly. The anger in his voice now bristled.
"What?" asked Felix, equally angry. "Who wants?"
"The warriors. Your warriors."
Felix was disgusted by this. "They don't even know who I am.
"Not your name, maybe. But they do know who you are. And they want the scout."
Felix stared at the Major, at the others.
"This is insane."
"Yes," replied the Major firmly.
"You're out of your mind."
The Major, finally, had had enough.
"I'm out of officers, Felix. That's what I'm out of. Now you just stand there and shut up while I give a couple of facts of war: One. Of the 642 survivors from your original assault force of ten thousand, only 285 are combat ready. Got that? Now… Two. Of the twenty-three hundred you Dropped with, over six hundred died the first minute because of those goddamn ant missiles homed in on the Transit beacon. That so-called Hammer of yours. Of the remaining sixteen hundred or so, more than three hundred lost effective suit function or were killed outright when that maniac blew his suit. Three. Of the people that leaves me, only ninety percent are combat warriors. The rest are medical, supply, and maintenance types. Which leaves a grand total, if you can count, of less than fifteen hundred available combat personnel. Four. The Terra cannot pick us up for another eighteen standard hours. Five. This damned mesa can't be held with what we get for one hour, even at night. And last, but not least… Six. The sun is coming out… now."
Involuntarily, Felix followed his gaze toward the lightening sky.
"And so, Felix-who thinks that this is insane and who is dead right about that, anyway-what the hell are we gonna do?"
We're going to die, Felix thought. But he couldn't say that. Or maybe, he thought again, he should. Why shouldn't he? He looked again at the Major standing there aggressively a few meters away and thought about the man's tone, about his fear. He said nothing, finally. He simply met the Major's piercing gaze.
After a few seconds of this, the Major broke the silence. "Well, I'll tell you. Scout, what we're gonna do. In less than one standard hour, we will assault the Knuckle en masse"
"Assault…?" repeated Felix dully.
"Attack, Felix. In one hour, we attack."