Armor

3,466
07.03.2019

Lt. Fowler, second-in-command, introduced him to the "volunteer." "His name is Bailey, I believe," said Fowler, pointing. "He's a veteran. Four years."

Felix only dimly heard her. He was looking at the mass of silicon plaster being hurriedly applied to Bailey's suit by three medics. He took a couple of steps toward the group and peered down into Bailey's screen. There was a lot of blood in there.

Felix stepped back, choking with a sudden desire to gag. "I know," said Fowler. "But they say he should live just long enough to do the job."

"Does he… ?" Felix began, then found he had lost his voice.

"Does he know, you mean," asked Fowler. Felix nodded.

"Yeah. He knows."

"And…"

"And he'll do it. I told you. He's a veteran."

Felix looked at Fowler, looked away. "Is that what a veteran is?" he asked.

"Partly," said Fowler.

Felix, for no clear reason, nodded again.

"Come on," said Fowler brusquely, her voice returning to a businesslike tone. "It's time to show you the target."

Felix followed her back to the circle of officers that served as command center. They passed hundreds of warriors preparing to travel.

"Have a seat," offered Fowler. "And key your input relay. I'll show you the picture."

Felix sat, keyed the proper key. After a brief pause, his holos swelled and the three-dimensional topograchart of the Knuckle, appeared transmitted from Fowler.

The view was of the Knuckle's southern face. The side closest to their position, at a distance of perhaps 700 meters. Fowler's disembodied voice began to narrate: "This is from about the center of the maze. Rather imposing is it not?"

Felix grunted in response. The viewpoint altered. "This is from the nearest edge of the maze. Notice the sides still appear smooth."

Felix already had. Like a sculpture, he thought, gazing at the apparently sheer sides that seemed to have poured upward from the sandy soil. It was as if it had been molten ore at one time. How else could the smooth sloping texture be achieved?

The scene changed again. Now he could see the various sloping folds at the base. And something else: A black ovular hole less than 20 meters above the ground and partially obscured by a vertical ridge. He stared at the ridge-its edge looked sharp as a knife.

"That's your target, that black oval," offered Fowler.

"There are others that you can't see from this angle. But the computers think that this one goes almost straight through to the core underneath." A thin dotted line appeared on the screen, running a twisting course from the sand to the hole.

"That's your route," said Fowler. "Watch that ridge, it's as sharp as it looks."

"How?" asked Felix.

"I don't know," answered Fowler distantly. "But it doesn't matter. It will blow like everything else."

The scene changed again. Felix seemed to be in the air directly above the spikelike summit of the knuckle itself. The terrain at the base was clearly visible, as well as the beginning of the maze. Several small arrows appeared at various maze entrances.

"The cannon will be here," continued Fowler. "They won't actually damage the surface of the knuckle. But they should be able to clear a path for you people."

Another arrow appeared.

"This is your starting point. Key that."

Felix touched a switch. The arrow became a permanent part of his "map." He had done the same with the dotted line showing his route.

"Well, that's about it," said Fowler as she stopped the broadcast. "Have you got it all?"

Felix nodded, looked at her sitting on the ground beside him. "A lot of information. Why didn't the assault force have this?"

"They did. But they never had the right opportunity. Or," her voice became slightly hushed, "the right weapon."

"But we do," replied Felix with bitterness. "Bailey."

Fowler looked away. Her voice was a faint whisper: "Yes."

Then she turned back toward him.

"About your command. You're entitled to added rank. Would you like to be a Lieutenant?"

"Why?"

Fowler seemed to hesitate before speaking.

"Then you don't care about that?"

Felix thought about it. "No," he said at last.

Fowler hesitated again, then slid closer toward him on the sand conspiratorially.

"Felix, don't worry about the command part of it. We've found a vet to organize your bunch. He'll take care of most things. Just tell him what you want and let him do the ordering."

"What's his name?"

"Bolov."

Felix almost laughed. "Anything else?"

"Not that I know of, unless you have questions." He stared at the distant spire of his destination, almost completely obscured by a rolling cloud of sand.

"Just one question…"

"Why you?" prompted Fowler.

"Yeah," said Felix, his voice cold. "Why us?"

She breathed a long sigh into her mike before replying.

"Felix, who would you use? The rest of us just got here…. "

"You've made other Drops."

"But we've never touched an ant. None of us. And you, you and your people, are the three percent, the only survivors from an assault of 10,000 warriors."

"Maybe it's luck. Random chance."

"Not likely. Not in this business."

"Business? What business?"

"War."

"I don't believe that."

"Why? Is it too simple?"

Felix shook his head. "Too sloppy."

Several flashes lit the area. The light was joined by the hot, razor scream of Blazer cannon.

Felix stood up, watching as the beams arced through the air toward the knuckle. But the beams landed short, in the maze itself.

"Right on time," said Fowler, standing beside him. "We'd better get started."

"What's this for?" asked Felix.

"The maze. We haven't got time to negotiate it. So we're leveling it up to the leading edge of the knuckle."

Felix nodded vaguely, watching giant shards of sand vaulting wildly into the air. Soon the entire maze was obscured by an enormous dust cloud.

"Come on," said Fowler. "The Major wants to see you before we go."

"How much time do we have?"

"About…" She broke off quickly, listening, Felix assumed, to some message he couldn't hear. "None," she said at last. "None at all. The ants are coming out." Together, they ran to the cannon.

The Major was two hundred meters east of the carnage standing off from the rest of his people watching the battle. Lines of warriors met the onslaught of the ants without the help of the barricade-at the mouth of the channel blown through the center of the maze. The ants, jammed together in the middle of the channel for some reason, were growing steadily toward them as rolling dead piles.

Felix was impressed. They were really holding. For now. The Major had been standing with ponderous armored arms crossed over his chest. He loosened one and pointed past the battle to the foot of the Knuckle just visible over the dust.

"That's the last spot we can see to cover you, Scout. See it? Looks like a saddle. Or a bench."

"Yes."

The Major looked at him. "We'll use the last of the cannon-fire to cover your approach down the side of the little highway we've made. But we won't be able to help you in there. That ridge blocks our line of fire. But the people you're taking should be able to hold'em off you long enough to… plant the charge."

"Yes."

"Do it, Felix," said Fowler from beside them. Her voice held muffled urgency alongside cheerleading. "Do it. We're all counting on you to…"

Felix regarded her blandly. "To what?"

Fowler shrugged uneasily. "To… to do the job. We're all counting on you."

"You mean you're all counting on me to throw Bailey down that hole, don't you?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Shut up, Felix," snapped the Major. "That doesn't help. And we can't hold them much longer."

Felix looked again at the line of blazing warriors. He saw them, then, as the desperate people they were. He felt the proximity of their panic. They're not heroes, he thought, they're stuck.

And he knew that they would never hold for his retreat. Once they reached the Hive, they would be alone.

His group was forming up beside them. A dozen warriors. Bolov.

Fowler faced Bolov. "All set?"

"Yeah," said Bolov, nodding shortly.

"They all know what to do?" she persisted.

"Yeah."

"What about Bailey?" Felix asked.

Bolov shrugged, looked at the sand between them. "I think we'd better hurry."

Felix nodded. "Okay. Where is he?"

Bolov gestured toward the warriors. "Teare's got him."

"You do it."

Bolov nodded. "Okay."

Felix sighed. "Better get him."

Bolov nodded again, turned to obey.

Felix regarded the warriors shifting nervously, all eyes on the battle. Or on him. He turned away.

The lines were still holding, the rolling twittering exoskeleton still coming on. He felt something he couldn't pin down.

Not eagerness, of course. And not simple excitement. Anticipation?

Bolov appeared carrying Bailey over a shoulder.

"You ready?" Felix asked him.

Bolov laughed shortly. "Hell, no!"

Felix smiled distantly. Yes. Anticipation. One way or another, it was finally about to stop happening to them all.

"All right, let's get down to it." He nodded to Fowler. "Give the word."

Fowler nodded, said something only she and the cannon crews could hear. There was a brief pause and then, with a searing scream, the remaining cannon fired. The main thrust of ants pouring through the channel died almost instantly as they were simultaneously broiled, sliced, soldered, by the intersecting hourglass beams.

Felix turned to the ones to follow him, met their joint gaze, turned away, and began the rush down across the blackened sand. He didn't look back to see if they followed, but loped firmly ahead at a pace a laden Bolov could match. The cannon ceased abruptly as he reached and passed the holding lines. He began to accelerate as the sand flattened out before him. Ant remains smoldered in his path, thinly scattered here to the side of the reeling main body. He glanced at the jumbled mass of enemy as he passed quickly alongside their length. He was drawing no obvious surge.

He chanced a little more speed.

He was almost to the next section of maze-and cover, past the last lines of remains, before he looked back to the others. They were right behind Bolov in the lead, stumbling up the slope.

Felix kept running, deftly avoiding the smoking ant refuse. He wanted to reach the base of the knuckle, perhaps even the bench itself, before the ants could reorganize their attack. The flashes of blazerfire from off to his right told him he had been too hopeful. The other holes, unseen from his position must already be emitting more ants.

Still, there was hope. The others were still firing, still standing fast against a certain powerful impulse to flee. And, if he couldn't see ants yet, they couldn't see him.

Or would that matter… Wouldn't they be able to detect his presence on the very walls of their hive? Would they actually have to see them?

With that thought, Felix leaped over the last rocky steps of the desert floor and pounded up the slopes of the Knuckle itself.

The footing was firm, the grainy surface perfect traction for his plassteel boots. He saw instantly that his proscribed route was unnecessarily cautious; he changed direction abruptly and climbed the slope to the bench in three giant powered strides. The others, he knew without looking, would follow his lead.

The bench was, for the time being, empty. The target hole loomed over him invitingly, only ten meters or so up the slope. The wall here was steeper than he had realized, but still easily navigable. Felix nodded to himself. It was going to work.

He turned and looked back, and the others were almost there. Bolov had dropped back a bit into the crowd to protect his irreplaceable cargo. Felix waved them exuberantly toward him, felt the rush of relief from those others who reached the bench and found it still empty. They turned too, and began to wave Bolov quickly forward. He heard their voices, exultant with unrestrained happiness, "We can do it. We're gonna make it."

And then Bolov was there on the bench itself and moving through the crowd, holding out Bailey toward him like some honored trophy, and then the nightmare began. There were screams and shouts and people pointing and firing their blazers at close range and the ants were everywhere, everywhere around them. Not from the saddleback, not from the multitudes, but from the target hole itself. Ten, twenty, fifty ants appeared in its mouth and slid, clawing and flailing, down the steep slope into them. Someone screamed again and Felix was knocked off balance as the ones closest to the attack tried to push back away. He fell to one knee, but dragged himself up quickly, yelling Bolov's name and trying to reach him through the panicking mob of warriors.

Dimly he heard Bolov respond and then he saw him through the jumbling mass. Bolov had dropped Bailey and was being pushed away from him by the crowd. Felix and Bolov slammed toward one another, reaching Bailey simultaneously, lifting him, staggering, toward the slope and the hole. A blazer struck the slope beside them and Felix screamed for the warriors to stop firing before they killed one another or him.

He stumbled and drove himself against the crowd toward the slope, punching through at last and leaning against it, with Bolov beside him, holding Bailey's legs in one arm.

Pandemonium. Warriors screaming and firing and trying to run all at the same time. Beams of Blazerfire struck randomly everywhere and Felix motioned to Bolov that they must climb the slope, must do it now while the slightest chance still remained. Bolov seemed to nod or at least seemed to understand for they started up the slope together, slipping and sliding and being jarred by the jostling, teeming warriors and then a mass of ants was upon him and he lost Bailey; he was covered, engulfed by the ants that slid down into them.

He struck out blindly, wildly, smashing, ripping exoskeleton, struggling to get his feet underneath him. Twice he struck not exoskeleton but plassteel and the thought of it made him shudder, cringing. He was up then, and Bolov was beside him and had Bailey and they shouldered through the ants and started again up the slope and there was a horrible agonizing scream as a flash of blazerfire split the air between them, carving a deep, irreconcilable hole through Bailey's faceplate.

"Oh, my God, my God…" shouted Bolov and he saw that it was not just from the shock of losing their only weapon but from pain as well. For the stray bolt of blazerfire had cut not only through Bailey but through Bolov as well. A pulsing, red-hot bubble had appeared on the inside of Bolov's shoulder. Felix stared in morbid amazement as the bubble rose and expanded and threatened to burst as it surely must. Bolov screamed again and clutched at his shoulder with his free arm and shouted over and over that he was dying, dying…

Felix had him then, dropping Bailey. He had his helmet clamped tightly to his side with his left arm as he launched them up the slope. His right arm stretched out high for some purchase, the fingers of his gloves clawing wildly at the grainy hive. He jerked and kicked and struggled and slid back some at every movement but somehow managed to get the two of them up the slope and away from the crowd.

They were several meters to the left of the hole itself, parallel to it and the ants couldn't reach them without slipping down. The few that managed to leap toward them he met with a resounding kick that shook them free of their grip on the wall and sent them sliding down into the roar of battle below.

Briefly, Felix noted the many who were already running away, with the ants hotly pursuing. And farther, he saw that the covering fire from the maze itself had long since halted. He was alone as he knew he would be.

He struggled and kicked out at another ant, sending it sliding and at the same time pushing himself and his cargo farther up the slope. Bolov was completely limp in his grasp, moaning loudly, unintelligibly. Felix grasped him with both hands and yanked him upward onto the slope beside him. He reached for Bolov's forearm and began to work the relays.

Bolov, seeing what be was doing, began to sob. He tried, feebly, to struggle out of Felix's grasp. But Felix held him firmly against the slope, slapping away his futilely waving arms. Grimly, he continued to work relays. He looked up once and saw that the mouth of the hole was less than three meters away and just beneath him. He was just in the right position, the ants couldn't reach him in time. If only they wouldn't know to toss Bolov away…

The last relay controlled the interior light of Bolov's suit and then Felix saw the man's face clearly for the first time, saw that he was perhaps five years older. Saw that he badly needed a shave, saw that he was weeping openly…

Felix placed the surface of his face screen against Bolov's. "You know what to do?" he asked in a cold, distant, tone. Bolov cursed him deliberately, soundlessly and Felix knew that he would do it. He nodded, almost to himself. He judged the distance to the hole, tensed his muscles. Bolov's voice stopped him cold.

"You, Felix," said Bolov calmly, hopelessly, "are a filthy human being." Felix saw the lips working, saw the tongue accentuate each syllable, and felt a weight upon him growing and growing.

But the Engine only nodded in agreement. And then it rolled over, holding Bolov with both hands, and flung him into the hive.

Felix was sliding, down into the mass of humans and ants and tearing himself away and through them and then he was sliding again down the slope of the saddleback and then he was running, running, across the blackened sand toward the maze. He leaped and turned and darted through the ants and the warriors. Some were alive, some were not. But he paid no attention either way.

He shouldered past several slower moving warriors and stomped wildly into the entrance of what remained of the maze. He passed more and more warriors as he reached the leveled area. But he didn't stop, didn't hesitate. The fear, and only the fear, controlled. The terror…

Past the blackened sand and to the slopes of the mesa, traveling now as fast as he could travel. Arms waving, eyes flickering, tears welling up in his eyes, he ran. And ran and ran and then he was up the mesa and crossing it and he thought that it was too late now, that Bolov would never be able to do it by now. He must be dead already.

But still he ran, the terror ruling all. He tripped at the edge of the mesa. He fell, at 100 kilometers an hour, he struck the sand and rolled. He carved deep ruts where elbows and knees dug into the sand. A great cloud erupted around him. He continued to slide across the last few meters and then he fell, completely out of control, down the long slope of the mesa.

As he struck bottom, Bolov ejected, and the battle, finally, ended.

He awoke, briefly to the sound of the Medic's impersonally soothing tones. He was told that Connection was being made. He was told not to move. He was told of his myriad injuries. He was told that Transit to the Terra was forthcoming. He was told that be had been found at the end of the last sweep for survivors, that he was, in fact, quite lucky.

But he heard none of it. Instead he only stared at the black sky above him. Night at last, he thought. And his eyes reluctantly closed.

The Doctor eyed the worst of the cyst-like bruises, the one that completely covered his right shoulder. "You can't wear a suit like that, no," he said.

Felix felt a surge of relief so overwhelming that the awful pain was momentarily eclipsed. He noted the Doctor's glowering, disgusted expression and felt his cheeks to see if they were red.

They debriefed him and fed him and were surprised to learn, from his recorder, that he was the one. They had surely thought the hero of the Knuckle suitable for martyrdom. They later became angry when he ignored their questions. They thought it was because he now thought himself to be too superior to respond. This belief intimidated one of the officers who marked his personal log with a negative entry. But Felix had been silent not from a sense of superiority, but from shame and suspicion.

They woke him up entering the bay. They laughed and joked and were nervous. Then they became hushed and reverent, when they found his lone sleeping figure at the end of the line of what they thought were empty berths. Quietly, they stowed their gear and crept out into the hall to talk. Out of respect for a Veteran.

The nightmare was odd, intangible even at the time. Some nameless formless fear was reaching out to him. It grew and swelled toward him until he admitted he was waking, that most of him had been awake for some time, and that the fear was not of some nebulous terror, but of his next Drop.

The rest of the bay was asleep. He pulled himself up out of his berth gingerly, wincing from the pain of the cysts. He padded back and forth between the rows of berths. He found he was repeating the doctor's words over and over again in his mind. It was reassuring, he found.

The lone head of a young man appeared over the edge of a berth. The two blue eyes followed his pacing. Felix stopped at last and stared back. But the young man was not embarrassed by this. Instead he spoke: "What's it like?" he asked.

Felix told him to ask someone else.

"Who?" replied the young man. "You're the only survivor from this whole group. The first one I've even heard of."

"You're some kind of first." Forest had said. How many firsts, he wondered, am I going to have to carry?

He left, just outside, away from the blue eyes. He wandered aimlessly about the corridors of the silent ship. After a while he realized he was naked and returned.

The blue eyes were closed, the boy asleep. Felix eased himself slowly into his berth. He slept almost immediately, the doctor's words his last conscious thoughts.

The console at the foot of the berth had called to Drop all "available combat personnel" from his squad, his group, his sector.

❮❯