Armor

3,478
07.03.2019

And his was the only name left.

He kept the horror out of his face when the replacements read this on their consoles. Trying to keep from running, he stepped quickly from the bay. Outside, in the corridor, be skipped toward the Infirmary.

This doctor was pleasant and understanding, refusing even to notice the tremor in his voice as he spoke of computer error. She only nodded and led him to the bed. "Those must really hurt," she said about the cysts. He nodded gratefully, managing a nervous smile.

The medics came soon and gave him salves and treatments and then a machine covered his body in an ultra-sheer, ultra-thin envelope, leaving gaps only at the necessary orifices.

At first he fought to hide his elation Then he was embarrassed by his needless fear. Then he was slightly ashamed at his attitude.

Later, when he realized that the envelope was designed to enable him to wear his suit despite his injuries, he was too numb to speak, too wobbly to stand.

In the cubicle, the Black Suit embraced him. Dully, he made Connection and watched the dials respond. Then he sat and wept openly.

Heedless, uncaring, Banshee awaits.

PART TWO

JACK CROW

1

The only other humans in the cell had already passed through the dispenser, which was good. I couldn't afford to deal with their notions of justice and rights of life and the rest. Not that I disagreed with them necessarily. But now I just couldn't afford them.

I got to the plate and stomped on it hard, holding my cone underneath the funnel. The puryn slopped obscenely out, filling my cone and spattering me with dozens of little gray flecks. The same gray as the dispenser itself, the walls, the floor. The same color as me, covered with weeks and weeks of unwashed Lynsalt dust and rotten puryn. I moved out of the line and sat down in a corner on my heels with my back to the wall.

Like I always did at "dinnertime," I scraped my hands clean as best I could with what was left of my fingernails. This time, like the last dozen or so times before, I knew it was useless. The layers were now too deep. The Lynsalt, the puryn, the stinking filth of the place were winning. Like all the other poor dumb bastards in there, my skin was giving it up to the gray.

But this time it was different. This time it was happening to me.

I coughed. Or snorted. Maybe I snarled. Then I took a greasy lump of puryn out of the cone with thumb and fingers and wedged it through my beard into my mouth so I would at least appear normal.

The dwarf was next, shuffling along warily between two Lyndrill, almost hidden by their towering gauntness. Their great height-almost three meters-made him seem even shorter. Their featureless gray bony faces made his face-all fat nose and bobbing whiskers-seem even more animated.

He became frightened as he neared the plate. His head twisted from side to side to cover all movements. His eyes darted pitifully about in their gray, dust-caked lids. He was a bundle of nerves as his cone was filled, so ready to bolt that the sound of the muddy stream erupting from the funnel made him jump.

He should have been scared. In that netherworld of Lyndrill giants and other madmen, he was the easy meat. And in prison, easy meat quickly goes.

The dwarf's impossible attempts to see all sides at once increased after he had actually gotten the food. He stepped away from the plate and stood in the clear place beyond uncertainly, as if expecting an assault from everyone at once. But apparently no one wanted to go to the trouble. Today had been a full day and we were all too beat to care. All but me. I still watched the dwarf. I watched him gradually relax, begin to breathe again. And then I saw the greater weariness descend on him as he again remembered that he would have to go through it all once again in three more hours. With his customary shuffle, he moved around the comer to his usual niche to eat.

With a last glance at the others for any signs of pursuit, I stood up, went around the same corner, and killed him by driving my gray boot through his gray face and into the softer gray beyond. Red blood.

I gathered up his cone before much could spill out. I had saved most of my portion-only pretending to eat before– and I took them both together for the maximum effect. Almost immediately, I felt stronger. Puryn will last three hours and three hours only. But if you take more, say twice as much, you'll have six hours of strength for that time. Six hours of prison strength, that is. Which was still only half as strong as I should normally feel.

I shook my head. I had no time to enjoy. There was more to it.

From its hook on the underway I took the slabpike. Before I could never have lifted it Even now it was heavy. Carrying it across my shoulders, I stalked away through the dust. Gii had caught his footpad in the belt that morning and would still be weak.

Weak, he was, but still no fool. He spotted the red glow to my eyes from the near-double portion of puryn the instant I appeared. He stuck a pawpad against the wall and reared up to his full Lyndrill height. Even in that dim chamber, his stature was awesome. Two steps closer and he recognized me. "You!!" he had time to shout before I swung the full weight of the slabpike down atop his archplate

Gii's eyecubes lost the glint of amused disgust they had held when first seeing an assault from a puny human. They became instantly opaque from the Lyndrill pain response. He screamed that terrible scream. He clawed frantically at his footpad, lost his balance, and fell against the wall.

I was already on him, scrambling along his length, lunging forward. His throat was open wide, gasping for air. I wedged the barbed end of the slabpike deep into the passage, felt it lodge tightly. I bounced to my feet and threw my entire weight against the free end of the pike.

The cartilage warped, split, then ripped. The screams peaked, ceased.

Even with what Gii had already eaten, there was still twice as much remaining as I was accustomed to. My eyes blazed crimson through the settling dust cloud.

Those who had come to watch faded quickly out of sight as the glow-and my strength-increased. Another puryn-rage is on, they thought, and nobody wanted to be next.

They were wrong. I was in no puryn fugue, to kill blindly and gorge myself until dead or ruptured inside. I was going out.

The saltbore clamps gave easily to my newfound strength.

But then I had trouble with the treads. Those few moments of futile fumbling drove me into such a rage that I finally grabbed up the saltbore itself, by drillbit and casing respectively, and threw it across the cell against the belt mechanism. I shoved the drillbit deep into the machinery, braced myself with feet and back, and keyed the power. Sparks flew, metal shrieked, grinding against itself. The belt drivers began to buckle as the saltbore tore into its center. The wall shuddered, then the floor. My back felt like it was breaking from the force of the saltbore torquing against it. Something, probably my back, had to give. But I couldn't let go. I might never have another chance, another day… another life.

"My skin is turning gray!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, just as the belt drive-and the supporting wall-erupted.

The saltbore casing saved me, shielding me from the flying debris. I shoved my way through the wreckage, hot metal and fused Lynsalt, and I was out. The brightness of the sun, of any sun, was a searing blow. It blinded me, staggered me. I almost didn't see the lumbering guard. Almost.

Guards were twice human size with shell-hides like rhinos' and looked just like what they were designed to be-invincible.

But they had stalks for their eyes. And I leaped up between those trunk-sized arms, planted my knees on his chest, and, grabbing a stalk in each grimy fist, yanked backward with all my might. They popped neatly out. The guard swayed, tripped, righted itself. Those arms clamped around my back like falling girders as the third stalk, undismayed by the streaming stumps on either side, swung toward me. I bit it.

I plunged my teeth into it. I shook my head from side to side. I think I screamed. The eye ripped loose. The guard fell, fortunately, backward. I disengaged myself from under neath his heavy paws and ran.

And ran and ran, tears streaming with relief. I was not only out, I was free.

Ahead, at the port, the ship was there. It was, after all. The sounds I had heard from deep within the mine were not, as I had feared, only the product of desperate fantasies. I had to stop once. The taste of that bile the guards used for blood made me heave and heave again. But I was up and running again before my stomach had emptied completely out. I was out! I was free! It was a ship!

It was Borglyn's ship.

At first I thought it was a standard Coyote. Bad for me. Though there weren't any Fleet warrants out on me, any Captain who was only half bright would know enough to order me held for questioning. Then the whole mess of extradition would begin. Different guards. Different cages.

But that looked pretty good at the time. Behind me the Lyndrill prison had come alive. Alarms, coded sound beacons, shouting… all could clearly be heard. They kicked up huge clouds of dirt as they ran. With a last quick glance over my shoulder, I stepped up onto the ramp of the Coyote and prepared to be arrested.

There were two crewmen on ramp duty. A big one with white-blond hair and walrus mustache-and a short one with dark shiny hair and dark shiny eyes. The little one was going to be the problem, as the little ones usually are. Apparently lost in conversation, they hadn't notice me. As soon as I was on their ramp, though, they perked up. The big one seemed appalled by my putrid coloring. The small one, on the other hand, displayed a grin of amused disgust. "Good God, who the hell is that?" said the blond.

"You mean'what the hell is that?' " replied the shrimp.

I figured groveling would do it. "Kind sirs," I began plaintively, managing to both bow and scurry a few steps closer at the same time. "Help me, I beg you!"

The shrimp didn't buy it.

"Hold it there," he said.

"Who are you?" asked the blond.

I thought I caught a touch of sympathy in the blond's voice. I turned all my attention to him.

"I'm a man of Earth, same as you. I've been… kept here by these…"

"He's a damned escapee, Thor," snapped the short one.

"Look at him. He's covered with their salt. He's been in the prison mine."

Thor frowned. "They use a mine for a prison?"

"Of course, Idiot. This is Lyndrill! How'd you break out,'earthman'?"

The sneer he gave to "earthman" was his first major mistake.

"There was an explosion in the mine. I found the way open. I simply ran without thinking. Then I saw your ship. Please sir," I wailed, managing a few more steps toward them, "you must take me aboard. You cannot leave me in this place."

"Like hell we can't. Move it, convict. You're stinking up our ship," snarled the shrimp, and took a menacing step down toward me. That was his second major mistake. Or the third, if you count his coming that step closer. For that last step gave me a much better view.

This was no Fleet Coyote. Not with a crewman as sloppy as this. His robe was dirty, unwashed. His hair needed a good shower. His tunic was frayed about the collar. No officer, any officer, would let such slovenliness get by. Which left only one answer: There weren't any officers around to object. Mutiny, most likely. That, or outright theft. Whichever, this was no ship of Fleet. This was a pirate ship! That changed everything.

Thor eyed me for several moments in silence. Then: "I'm gonna call Borglyn, see if we can take him in."

The shrimp was furious. "Are you out of your mind? Why do yon want to get involved in this…? Uh-oh. Look here. I knew we should have kicked him off."

Both men looked past me at something. I knew what it had to be, but I turned around anyway.

Reinforcements had arrived. An even dozen guards-stood in a ragged semicircle at the base of the ramp. I shuddered. I had never seen that many of them altogether at one time. One was enough. Damn, they were big. Monsters.

They made no move for me up the ramp. They knew better. Awesome as they were to an unarmed prisoner, they were nothing against a starship. Almost anything aboard could be a monster eater. They simply stood there, waiting.

Thor took one look at them and stepped toward the interior of the hatch.

"I'm calling," he said.

"Don't be stupid," snapped the shrimp. "Borglyn doesn't want to be bothered with Lyndrill affairs."

Thor stopped, gestured at the line of guards. "They can't do anything to us," he said calmly.

"Yeah, what about the rest of the planet? Besides, this guy's not worth the effort."

"Well," said Thor slowly, turning back toward the hatch, "I'm not giving him to them."

"You're crazy, Thor. What are we gonna do with this gray scum, anyway?"

"Scum," in my present condition, was too true to be funny and his last major mistake. I took a couple of steps toward him and whispered so that Thor, just inside the hatch, couldn't hear.

"Listen to me, you slimy little pig," I croaked. "I know why you don't want me on board. You're sick of being the ship shrimp. You're sick of knowing there isn't a man on board who couldn't rip your balls off and shove'em up your nose."

Thor may not have heard, but the shrimp sure did. His eyes all but bugged out, his face got red, his chest expanded. I thought he was going to explode right there.

But he didn't. He waited'till he got his stinger out of its strap. Then he flew at me down the ramp.

The bastard was quick, very quick. Worse than that, he knew how to use a stinger. It may look like a club, but it's a whole lot more. Instant paralysis at best.

I had to jump sideways to avoid his first lunge. I teetered at the edge of the ramp a moment before regaining balance, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed the line of guards surge forward an eager step. I reminded myself that I'd be theirs on the ground. Not only did I have to win unarmed, but I had to do it only on the ramp.

His second lunge was wild but still too close. I felt the burning tingle as the stinger brushed past my cheek. I had to move. I feinted left, ducked another lunge, and slapped him twice on his left cheek. Slapping is better than fists and usually enrages enemies. The shrimp got so mad that his next swing of the stinger threw him off balance. I stepped in again as he fell to one knee. I blocked a hook at the wrist and slammed the butt of my palm under his chin. He squealed as his teeth cracked together. Then I backhanded him across the throat.

He was tough. Even as he fell he managed to graze my knee with a swipe from the stinger.

The pain seared up and down my thigh. I bellowed like some animal and lost it.

Maybe him personally, maybe the prison nightmare, maybe myself. Whatever it was, it was strong. I saw nothing, heard nothing, cared even less. Hate rode.

I broke his arm, the arm that held the stinger, twice. Once across my knee, once by just stomping on it. He may have screamed, then. He may have screamed all along, but I couldn't hear. I was too busy pulverizing his face and neck and chest and…

And then it was over and he lay there, half on and half off the ramp, covered with blood and gray Lynsalt. I stood over him, breathing heavily, until WHAM, and I was face-down on the sun-scorched metal of the ramp.

Thor had driven his foot halfway through my spine. I looked up at him, stunned, my head spinning, my back beginning to throb.

He was looking at what was left of the shrimp. His eyes were wide, aghast; his chest heaved.

"You filthy…" he blurted and kicked me again. He caught me just right, just under my left ear. I spun backward-in midair-into a full somersault, and crashed onto the other edge.

Dimly, distantly, I saw the guards, now directly beneath me and reaching, up for me….

I clawed, scrambled my way onto the ramp. I got a knee up onto the edge. I heaved.

Thor was waiting. I saw the black boot rear back, saw his weight shift, thought it finished.

"Hold it," shouted an incredibly deep and commanding voice.

Everyone froze. And I mean everyone. Thor, the guards, and me, still clinging to the ramp with two bleeding hands and a knee.

It took me a second to realize that there was no electronic speaker involved. It was simply the unamplified voice of Sar Borglyn, chief mutineer and pirate, commanding.

A few breaths later and all relaxed somewhat. And I, scared of everyone in sight but especially the guards, scrambled all the way onto the (safety) ramp. The guards paused a moment, then resumed their ragged formation at the foot of the ramp.

Borglyn found out what was what in a hurry, a way he had. I told him some smoke about being Benn Lawl, a missionary from the Church of Episcoblue to the heathen Lyndrill. Lawl had been a cellmate of mine, jailed, caged rather, for blasephemy, so I figured it was a pretty good story.

Borglyn didn't come near buying it. I thought he was going to toss me off right then. He would have, too, I think, but Thor saved me.

Thor didn't mean to. He meant just the opposite. Started sputtering furiously about poor little busted up Praun, the shrimp, lying there on the ramp. How I must have jumped him, how Praun was only trying to help and this "dirty scum jumped him."

Seeing the stinger already unstrapped and out as well as knowing Praun as he probably did, made it easy for Borglyn to see the lie in the ambush theory. Also, Borglyn was irritated at Thor for butting in unasked. He didn't listen long.

Then with a sharp "Shut up," that made everybody's mouth close, he walked down and looked at me.

Looking up from the position of a crumpled wretched heap was no way to meet Borglyn. To begin with, he was a real-life titan. Well over two meters tall, with long dark- brown hair and a dark-brown beard and a dark-brown star- tanned face, he had a bulk to him that was… well, ridiculous. He was damn near as big as a Lyndrill guard. In fact, everything about Borglyn was big. His body, his voice, his appetites, his plans.

There was something eerie about him too, his eyes. In the midst of that great flat face of that huge forehead and forest of beard were the two most exquisitely beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen on a human creature.

He was a handful.

He peered at me, bent over with massive hands on muscular thighs, and made a decision.

"Bring him," he said crisply.

Thor started to speak, thought about it, thought he would shut up and live instead-all in the one brief half-second glance he got from the boss.

But someone did object. A dry-hoarse croak erupted from below. It was the warden from the prison cage, on the scene at last.

It seemed that everyone else was there as well. All the various penal assistants to the warden, most of the major civic officials and quite a few spectators. The clearing at the foot of the ramp was a small field of long green robes fluttering in the breeze.

The warden was Lyndrill-eloquent. He began by welcoming Borglyn's "seeds" and promising prayers of virility. Borglyn was silent.

Only momentarily nonplused, the warden continued. He spoke of the great gulf between stars, the greater gulf between beings. He talked about the further greatness of communication and said he knew that Borglyn would agree. Borglyn was silent. Now a little nervous, the warden went on about sovereignty,

about different cultures and customs being included therein. The warden implied possible disfavor-Lyndrillwise-concerning beaches of that authority.

He meant me, of course. When Borglyn was silent about that, the warden stepped back.

The-call him Major-of the city then stepped- forward in his regal best. Gold trimmed his green robes. He carried a solid platinum hoop over a "shoulder."

The Major was Lyndrill-tough. He threatened Borglyn's ship. He threatened his men. He threatened his "seeds." Lastly, he threatened himself.

Borglyn stood there awhile in the ensuing tense silence, watching the Lyndrill. Then he took one step toward the throng and pointed a thick finger at the end of a thicker arm directly at the Major and said: "Go away."

And they went away. Every one of them. They didn't even have to think about it.

An hour later, in orbit, I stepped into the'fresher. Two hours later, now out of orbit, I stepped out. Except for a couple of spots, I was no longer gray. I was pink, actually, like a pinched baby, but still better than gray.

Borglyn called me into the captain's stateroom after I had eaten. He was surprisingly courteous, asking me all about myself and commiserating about my prison time. I spent well over an hour inventing a past. It became a lot of fun and, toward the end, terribly convincing as I got into the role. Throughout, Borglyn said little, merely nodding and agreeing or even chuckling at some instant escapade from my youth.

And then, after all my lies and all my talk and all the work involved, he leaned back in his chair at last and said, with a sickening smile: "Well, Jack, I'm glad you got that off your chest. Now, do you want a job?"

So he had known-all along he had known-that I was Jack Crow.

3

When Borglyn first gave me the deal, I thought he had lost it. The fear, the constant pressure, has gotten to him, I thought. His thinking is out.  I was about half right.

There was a lot of pressure involved. And a hell of a lot of fear too, for a man with his imagination. Never mind the mass murder of the officers, actually stealing the Coyote afterwards meant mutiny, the all-time favorite crime of the military mind. They do special things to mutineers.

"Not that I won't actually be ordered in for a trial, of course. The lucky arresting officer-meaning the captain of whichever ship might nab me-is given quite specific instructions to bring me into Militar."

He paused and lit a cigarette, looking like a photographic smear on a 3-D plate, little white dart.

"I'll never see Militar, though. On the way I'll have an accident. You want to hear about it? I know of one that took four days."

I told him I didn't want to hear about it.

"Just as well," he said, puffing. "Just as well."

He drifted off for a bit, staring and puffing. No doubt remembering details of the four-day goof. But he handled it well, I thought. Damn well. Not an inch of trembling. Long smooth deep breaths. In fact, he showed no sign at all of being aware of his position in about the deepest hole there was. It was impressive, the way he sat there smoking.

"So," he continued after a while, "to the problem." He swiveled around in his seat, leaned across the captain's desk and stared into my eyes. "The problem is fuel. We are just about out."

"Uh-oh," I said.

He stared harder at me, his eyebrows raised. "Uh-oh? The man says'Uh-oh'? I describe what is quite possibly the most tenuous situation in the galaxy and that is all he has to say? Well, I suppose the prospect of a particularly nasty death at the hands of some lucky crew is nothing to the great and famous Jack Crow. The fact that I am being actively sought by every ship in Fleet, most of which have forgotten the damned Antwar in their eagerness to slice me apart, should be of at least passing interest, even to a man who moves stars… how did you so cleverly put it?…'Move stars the hell outta the way.' Even to such a superman, my situation should rate just a little goddamn more than uh-oh. Care to try again?"

I said nothing, wincing, in fact, at that quotation. I had said something like it at the time. But I was pretty well frayed at the edges and it infuriated me that that was the only thing I said that the Presswave people thought to broadcast. Show business.

"Nothing to add, eh?" continued Borglyn. "Very well. I suppose it was too much to ask to have you actually impressed with the gravity of the situation as it stands. So allow me, if you will, to try to bring it on home to you.

"I'm being hunted. I don't like it. I'm also running out of fuel and therefore running room. I don't like that. I will have fuel, Mr. Crow. I will obtain it. And, unless you wish me to rip you limb from limb and then stuff you bodily through an access tube, you will help me obtain it. Is that pretty clear so far?"

I nodded. It was clear all right.

"How nice. We're communicating. Now, as to the'how' of it; The only Cangren Power Cell available to one in my position is at some Fleet Scientific Colony which are, as you may know, completely self-sufficient fuelwise. My intention is to travel to one of these places, the remotest location available, for obvious reasons, and make Connection.

"Normally, of course, I could neither beg nor borrow such fuel for a mutinous craft. And the possibility that I could simply take what I want from a fully self-contained Project Complex is essentially nonexistent. As soon as I appeared overhead, they would simply button up the complex and that would be that. I doubt that even a fully loaded Coyote could pierce their defenses without totally annihilating the Can inside.

"So what to do? I will trick them, of course. Or, rather, you will trick them. You, Jack Crow, will make yourself known to the members of the Project. You will use your rather romantic notoriety to ingratiate yourself into the complex itself. And at the proper moment, you will render it defenseless from the inside. Is that clear, Mr. Crow? Are we still communicating?"

"Yeah."

"Wonderful. Now what, you might ask, is in it for you? What indeed, besides a grateful lack of excruciating pain, is your prize? Simple. I have an eight-man Sledcraft waiting for me in a safe place. If you do as I say, exactly as I say, you may have it. It will be yours, Mr. Crow, to wander about with as you will. There will also be an appropriate amount of credits logged into its banks directly from the treasury of this ship. I've checked the banks aboard, and it's quite a hefty sum. And if I can't make use of it, there's no reason why you should not.

"So, there is the proposition, famous and great Jack Crow. What shall it be?"

He was kidding, of course. Who really needs to choose between being rich and being dead? Between being anything and being dead?

"I've given your proposal considerable thought," I began.

"Good, good," he replied, nodding.

"And I've decided to join your little team."

"I'm so glad."

"Here's to the partnership," I said, lifting my brandy glass high.

"Oh, we can do better than that," he said with an uneasy smile.

More quickly than I would have thought possible, he was up out of his seat and around to my side of the desk. He held the flask in one hand. With an elaborate flourish he filled my glass to the brim. Then beckoning me to rise, he touched his glass to mine and gestured for me to toss it off in one gulp.

I took a deep breath, placed it to my lips and drank. It burned in my throat and in my mouth and after a few seconds, in my stomach as well. But I was determined to give as good as I got. I closed my eyes to cap the streaming tears and continued to swallow.

And then I couldn't anymore. I couldn't drink, couldn't swallow, couldn't breathe. My throat was clamped tight by a monstrous rock-hewn vise that deflated my windpipe in an instant. In the next instant I was rising slowly into the air where I'simply hung. I opened bulging eyes and stared at the dead eyes of Borglyn.

❮❯