Armor

3,460
07.03.2019

He held me there at eye level to him with the grip of a single hand about my throat. A single hand. And there was no trembling, no effort involved that I could see. No hurry to put me down again. He simply stood there peering darkly into my eyes and hanging me with the force from a single limb. Hanging me.

Years later, he let me slowly down. But he kept his paw about my windpipe.

"This is how easy it is for me to kill. It is this simple. Even for you. Remember this. Fear this."

He stared for a little while longer. Then he let go. A crewman appeared from somewhere and led me to my cabin. I didn't see him for three days. I was glad.

I stayed in my cabin as much as possible during the trip to Sanction. The crew made me nervous.

It's not that I really feared them. There was no obvious reason for that. They simply made me nervous.

They were scared, for one thing. Mutineers, after all, every one of them. No way to ever go home again. No future to speak of in the conventional sense. And totally dependent on Borglyn. And I got the definite impression that he hadn't let most of them in on his plans. As the days became weeks and on and on, the eagerness to know began to get to them.

What they did, of course, was to compete in their efforts to appear unconcerned. Gruff voices, too loud laughter, elaborate guises of disinterest, all eventually gave way to collective jeering at anyone showing the slightest trace of uneasiness. And then the jeering became rougher and the frustration now had an outlet: aggressive peer judgment.

They were getting ugly.

So I stayed in my cabin all the time except at meals. When I ate, I sat at the far end of the mess and appeared deaf to the too-boisterous horseplay and the accompanying sounds of battered bodies smacking face down onto the bulkheads. No matter what, I never took sides, never hinted awareness, even when the Amazon Drive tech bounced the little third-class sparks across the table and into the chair beside me.

It had to happen though, eventually. I had known it would. I guess I had hoped Borglyn had put me off-limits. At last, somebody just had to know who the stranger was.

"Who are you, anyway?"

It was the Amazon. She was sitting at the far side of the mess quaffing down the daily liquor supply with her cronies and generally showing how untouched she was by the grimness of a bad situation which could only get worse.

I ignored her.

"Hey, you, at the end there. I'm talking to you."

What I wanted to do, was slide the plate into the chute right then and just walk out. But there was too much left to make it seem natural. And to appear to be running… That would have been asking for it.

So I was stuck. Nothing to do but play it out slow, stalling all the way.

I ignored her again.

She stood up then, after a little mumbled urging from her mates, and came over to take it up personal. She sat down on the table less than an arm's length from my food.

"I'm talking to you."

I looked up at her. Drivetechs have to be big. During combat fire control procedures, they have to be able to lift whole modular assemblies out of the grid and replace them the same way-all within seconds. This one was about a head taller than me, weighing probably a third again more. I counted that and I counted her mood and I counted the strong possibility that she would feel like she had to show off a little with the others watching. I even counted her looks. It came up: all bad.

I continued to meet her gaze with a blank look.

"Who are you?" she wanted to know.

I appeared to think about it, said, "Nobody," and went back to eating.

I had hoped to sound innocuous enough that it would stick. But the audience at the far end wasn't having any.

They laughed. Not at me, but, daimnitall, with me. At her. I felt her tense uncomfortably beside me.

"Well, I can see that," she continued. "But what's your name. What are you doing here?"

I looked at her again, blankly as before. I shrugged. "Just along for the ride."

A loud guffaw from the far end. "I don't think he wants to tell you, Twala," somebody called. There was more laughter. That did it. I stood up, faced her.

"Maybe you ought to talk to Borglyn," I suggested as calmly and reasonably as I could.

But she was having none of that. Bullies worry about their public posture too much.

"I'm asking you, not him," she replied harshly.

I looked deep into her eyes and saw nothing there but anticipation and I remembered something somebody had once told me a long time ago. "Bullies don't want to fight you. They don't want to fight at all. They simply want to beat you up."

"I can't hear you," she said when I hesitated. Then she took a long stout finger and prodded me in the right lung with it. "Speak up."

"All right. I'm Jack Crow. Now move your finger while you still can. Now."

She moved it, eyes wide at the sound of my name. There was a long, heavy pause while they took that in. I dropped my plate into the chute and walked out. Whew.

I went to Borglyn.

"Yes," he said distantly, regarding the ash of his cigarette.

"I did hear something about it."

"And?"

"And it seems there is considerable interest. Seems Twala and her crowd have some doubt as to your having leveled with them. They're afraid you didn't."

"And?"

"They wanted my confirmation."

"Well, I hope you gave it to them."

"Why, no. As a matter of fact, I said nothing at all."

Dammit.

"Look, Borglyn, I'm not part of your crew. I'm not one of them and I want no part of them. Play your morale games with somebody else. Leave me out of it. Give me my meals in my room."

"Sorry," was all that he would say.

I slammed out there in a fury.

I don't like being used. I don't like having my name, no matter how ridiculous it may become, being used. I didn't like Borglyn, or his ship or his crew or his problems. And I had no desire to make it easier for him.

But that's just what I was going to have to do. Not enough, for his purposes, to just confirm that it really was me. No. Much better to have to make me prove it, to make me do the Jack Crow Pirate bit, really drive the message home that Borglyn isn't just wandering aimlessly. That he has big plans using big people. Give the crew a little faith.

And give me a lot of shit.

There was no reason not to get it over with right way. I went straight to the mess and, on cue, Twala & Co. were there and waiting.

I went straight to the mess hamper and grabbed a plate.

"Well, there you are, aren't you'Mr. Crow.' If that's who you really are."

I turned and faced her and wondered why this always sounds the same, always ends the same. Always is the same.

"What is it," I asked impatiently, belligerently.

She glanced briefly at her audience, then approached me in three quick steps.

"Why did you say you were Jack Crow before?"

"Why not?"

"Well, are you Jack Crow?"

"Am I?"

"Listen to me, you little skunk," she began, taking that last step into my airspace and towering over me, "I think you're a liar."

"So?"

"So I don't like liars."

And then, with infinite weariness, I delivered perhaps the dumbest, most worthless, line in all of human interaction: "So what are you going to do about it?"

When she kicked at me I smashed her instep. When she swung that massive arm, I broke it at the wrist and, for absolutely no good reason, at the bicep as well. And then because I was sick to death of it all, I picked out the biggest loudmouth in the crowd and beat the living hell out of him.

They all scattered then. It was left to me to take her to medical for the casts and Gropac connections. Then somehow she was all arms and legs and hair and thighs more than anything else. I tried because I felt I should try something. She moaned and strained to make it better than it was, feeling, at last, that it was something missing in her which it might very well have been. But, on the other hand, that's another part of the legend which is wrong.

So I held her for a while, or the other way around, nestled in those mammaries of surprising silkiness and warmth. Feeling bad. Feeling cheap. Feeling that I would get Borglyn back somehow.

The gong sounded for Sanction some hours later. We didn't move. She wasn't on and I knew we wouldn't land for hours. Then the claxon hit, general quarters and red lights pulsing in the passageways. Everybody moved at once. I ran for the bridge, buttoning up.

The Fleet ship wouldn't move.

For three days standard, she simply hovered there in orbit. I was getting itchy. The crew was getting scared. So was Borglyn, though I doubted anyone but me could see it.

To save scanning power, we hid on the near moon, the one that, like Luna, has a perennially dark side. Borglyn thought he might as well take the opportunity to show me my prize. He was going to have to before I started moving anyway. So we glided down easily beside. I pulled on a suit and walked over to give it the eye.

It was a mystery, really. No evidence of a crash. In such a small ship, such a long, long, way from home, you would expect to see something dramatic. But the landing had been exceedingly clean. Everything was intact.

It was an Arcstar Model Four, the kind used to ferry the brass between starships for face-to-face meetings of top security, as if the ants could give a damn what we transmitted anyway. And for its designated task it was wildly overqualified in the best spend-military-spend tradition. I believe it sold, completely outfitted, for about C18,000,000 in the civilian world.

Throw in another four or five million for tactical blaze capacity. A sweet deal for me.

Inside I saw the reason for the clean landing. The pilot and or crew had abandoned it some time ago, leaving it on scanner recovery mode. There was no telling how long it had drifted before the scanners picked this moon to land on. I thought about it a second. They had started selling these to the military at the beginning of the war… It could have been drifting for over four years then. Probably had.

In the drop bay I found the suit. I had never seen one up close before, but anyone would know what it was. It was the black sheen worn by the guy in the Vidshow, the scout who never reported back. But unlike the show-business type, the scars and imperfections on this one were real. The poor bastard who wore this thing had been through it for a fact. The left shoulder was particularly discolored, suggesting a many-second exposure to an ant blast.

I felt myself shuddering. It might have been for the lot of the almost certainly dead owner. It might have been for the whole war.

Damn. Interstellar war… Who'd have thought that we could be so stupid?

The speakers crackled next to my ears.

"Well, what do you think. Jack?" asked Borglyn from the Coyote.

"It's dead."

"Well, of course it is, dammit." He sounded exasperated.

"What would you expect. Do you have any idea how far away we are from anything at all?"

"Activate the board."

"Like hell… I haven't got power to spare for that. I'll give you fuel when I get mine and not before."

"Activate it," I insisted. "This could be a null bank as far as I know. You could spare enough juice to let me see if it's capable."

He was silent, thinking. I could hear his heavy breathing from those huge lungs. "All right, just a minute," he said after a while.

There was a brief pause and then the panel flickered. It flickered again, flashed on strong and glowed. I went through the check.

She was, as I had expected, fine. Except for power, she was ready to go. And for a brief instant, my frustration at not being able to lift then and there was so great as to be physically painful. What a ship… To be aloft and on my own and… well, aloft. There was so much left to do.

"While I'm at this business of showing good faith, I may as well go all the way. I heard him giving orders for a simultaneous relay transmission. Lo and behold, the treasury light beacon responded. I keyed the display and sat down on the pilot seat with a thud. 024,000,000 and change had just been transferred over.

Wow.

If I had been at least willing to go along with Borglyn before, now I was damn near eager. Hell, I was eager. To hell with mutinies and Fleet regs and the rest of it. With this ship and all those credits… Hell, I might become the great and famous Jack Crow I had read so much about.

I hadn't realized I was laughing out loud until I heard Borglyn sourly order me to cut it out and return. Without hesitation, I obeyed. On some impulse, I grabbed up the suit and carried it with me.

It was an offhand, thoughtless gesture. An icing deed to go along with my mood. And, incredibly, the singlemost important action I had ever undertaken.

But no one knew that then. Certainly not me. I was too busy planning and grinning, grinning and planning.

When I cycled back in, I heard the Fleet ship had driven away. We moved in immediately.

In the hours before landfall, Borglyn gave me what little he had on the project director. He read to me from the display.

"Hollis Ware, 31 standard, a list of the schools he went to. A long list. Hmmmm. Seems the man is a genius. "

"That would explain his youth."

Borglyn's eyebrows lifted. "What do you mean?"

"He's pretty young to be in charge of a Fleet Project."

"Hmm. Is that a big deal?"

"Pretty big. Essentially lord of all he surveys."

"Very interesting. Still, he's not the Fleet."

I lit a cigarette from the box on his desk. "Close enough. That Fleet ship could have been the last for a long time. That's why they have colonies like this. It saves money. You have to sign on for a three-year stretch. And during that time…"

"The Director is all-powerful. Yes. I see. And he's a young man."

"A young genius," I corrected.

Borglyn nodded vaguely, lost in the possibilities. I changed the subject.

"What's the specialty?"

"The what?"

"The purpose of the project. What are they studying?"

"Oh. Says here he's a statistical historian. Never heard of it. Uh, let's see…'projections of optimum conditions for specific permutations as regards to…' What the hell is all that supposed to mean?"

"Here," I offered, "let me."

I stood up and went around to the other side of the desk to check the screen for myself. Borglyn grumbled his irritation. He was already angered at the thought of losing any of the trappings of "Captain."

But I worked myself in there anyway, reading the display over his shoulder while he went through an elaborate ritual of lighting his cigarette, pretending not to be interested, and trying to keep up with the speed of the scan. All at the same time.

I read for several minutes, nodding to myself and occasionally muttering "I see" under my breath. Not because I really saw. Most of the stuff was as much beyond me as it was the mutineer. I only did it because I knew it would make him feel a little less invulnerable. I had not, would not, forget the incident with Twala.

At last I went back around to my seat and sat. I lit another cigarette and stared at the smoke as if immersed in the contemplation of all that wonderfully intricate data. The fact was that I had understood maybe one word in ten once it had gotten down to specifics. But I had learned a couple of things. One: it was a relatively new and fascinating field of study; and Two: Hollis Ware would have to be a genius to understand it, much less found it as the banks had said.

"Well," asked Borglyn irritably after he could no longer stand the suspense, a time span of perhaps twenty seconds. Before I answered, I filed the memory of his impatience in a safe place.

"Ware's working for Fleet."

"I know that much, goddammit," he snapped angrily.

"No. I mean the real Fleet. The fighting arms. He's involved with the Antwar."

"Really? How so?"

"From what I could understand, it seems he's trying to determine why our casualties have been so high."

Borglyn stared at me for a second, then burst into wild, deep uncontrollable laughter.

He laughed and laughed until his face got red and tears formed at the corners of his eyelids. At last he settled down into the occasional chuckle stage where he could talk. But even then he didn't speak, lost in his own thoughts and staring into space. Every few seconds his eyes would shine and the comers of his cavernous mouth would twist up, remembering.

I had time to take in the tone of all that. There was more than a little sadness in his hilarity. And an unsettling amount of bitterness. I wondered then, for the first time, what had happened to make him lead a mutiny. And why, despite the expected problems, the crew seemed more righteous about their previously violent actions than I would have thought possible. I thought about all of that and then I thought for the fiftieth or two hundredth time how glad I was that I had no part in the Antwar or the ants.

"All that money," he said at last. "All that money and time and all those people to boot. All to answer that question. To find out something any Grade Ten Under-Tech could have told him."

"What's that? Why are we having such terrible casualties?" He looked at me with a sudden, heart-stopping sobriety. He looked right into my eyes, but he was seeing something I knew I would never see, never hear him tell.

"I'll tell you why. Jack. Because no one, I mean NO ONE, at fleet has the slightest idea of what they're doing. And every poor son-of-a-bitching one of us knew it."

I sat silently, taking in not just what he had said, but the… painful… way he said it.

"There's a little more to it than that, of course," he added after a moment.

"There always is," I replied, almost to myself.

He looked quickly at me, nodded slowly, almost suspiciously. "Yeah. There always is at that. But that's the meat of it, what I told you. That's…" And then he was gone again. "That's the meat."

We spoke little more after that. He went over my cover story a couple of times. We talked about communications and timetables. He gave me the name of my contact in the refugee village called "Sanction City."

I mentioned that I wanted to take the suit along.

"What suit?" he asked.

"The scout suit. Y'know, the black one I brought back from the sled."

"Oh," he said unhappily, "I ordered it spaced."

"What?" I cried, aghast. "You mean it's gone?"

"Gone or going. What difference does it make?"

"Call'em. See if you can stop it. I want to take it with me."

Borglyn, clearly uneasy, nevertheless obeyed. He got on the horn and located the suit, a scant two minutes or so before it was to be ejected. On my insistence, he ordered it placed in the lifeship.

"What the hell do you want with that thing?" he growled after he had finished.

"It's an offering for Ware. Just the kind of thing an historian type would find interesting."

Borglyn frowned. "I doubt that."

"It's better than nothing," I countered. But I was puzzled. Why was he so cavalier with such an expensive-hell, irreplaceable-piece of equipment? I asked him.

The answer came in that dead-sober, grinding way he had when he talked about the war. "This ship is out of the war business. At least out of the Antwar business."

Then he made a gesture which clearly told me to change the subject. I did. We parted.

He had given me the only answer that interested him. If he could have gotten his bulk into that suit himself, he wouldn't have. It was the war, to him. It was the ants. This blood- thirsty criminal, so eager to kill when it suited him, so enamored of pseudo-sadism, was terrified of the ants. I filed that away too.

Twala, bless her endless thighs, was there at the lock to wish me off. Looking like an overgrown schoolgirl and acting worse. I had to stand on tiptoe to kiss her good-bye.

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