Ice spicules danced on a howling wind. They'd rattled on the tough alloy, at first; now they only burnished a thick and growing cocoon of ice. The metal skin within exactly matched the temperature of its icy coat, and the interior of the hidden vessel was scarcely warmer. The last surviving Troll sent another surge of current through the heat field that kept his light receptors clear as he watched the gray and white and black-rock bitterness of Antarctica.
This place suited him. It was a fitting place to pause and consider. There was no fear of discovery, for there was no life here, no slightest living thing to disturb his gloating triumph, nor did the chance of distant observation concern him. The technology which had surprised his Shirmaksu masters had surprised him, as well, and he had no more data on this world's current capabilities than they did, for all that his organic ancestors had sprung from it. But what had happened gave him a crude benchmark, and his own sensors had confirmed the presence of several hundred small, obviously artificial objects in orbit about it. It seemed that these humans had primitive spacecraft—of a sort, at any rate—and the sheer numbers of satellites, coupled with the humans' extensive (if crude) weaponry and military readiness, argued that there were probably optical and thermal reconnaissance platforms among them. Not that it mattered now. The astonishing rapidity of their response to what had to have been a totally unexpected threat had surprised him as much as it had his masters, however much it galled him to admit that, but they would not surprise him again, and their satellites would not see him here. They couldn't, for there was no longer anything to see, now that his fighter had merged with the ice and snow, and there was no heat to detect, for he had no need of heat.
The moaning wind pleased him in a way he could not have defined even to another of his own kind. It was like a kindred soul—powerful and pitiless. Its icy breath didn't bother him. Indeed, cold and heat were merely abstract concepts to him, as meaningless as weariness and as alien as pity. Pain he understood, for that was how the Shirmaksu "programmed" his kind. Direct stimulation of the pain and pleasure centers communicated displeasure and grudging approval quite well, he thought coldly, savoring his hate anew.
Yet what he felt now was a special sort of pleasure. It hadn't been inflicted upon him; he had won it for himself. It was . . . personal.
He watched the wind of the driving blizzard and quivered with a sort of cerebral ecstasy. He was free. Obedience to the Shirmaksu had been engineered into him, reinforced by agonizing training and long habituation, yet there were no Shirmaksu now for him to obey. The cralkhi's missile had done that for him, had snapped the intangible and thus unbreakable chains which had bound him for so long.
The Troll hadn't recognized that immediately. He'd pursued the cralkhi to its death, obedient to his masters' final orders, before he realized there were no more masters. Not that he would have spared the cralkhi even if he had considered the gift it had given him. The cralkhi had been his enemy, its interceptor the only force which might have challenged him, its brain the only source of information which might endanger him. Logic had decreed that the cralkhi must die, but he hadn't needed logic. Hatred was sufficient.
He closed another circuit in the fighter which was his body, and a recorded playback came to life. He gloated as he watched his missiles tracking in on the cralkhi fighter, savoring in memory the eagerness which had filled him as he pursued his wounded prey, knowing the life of its pilot was his to snuff. There had even been a stab of bittersweet regret as he armed his power guns—regret that this moment of supreme triumph must end, that it couldn't be relished forever.
He watched the playback as the interceptor's stern shattered under his fire and his instruments probed for signs of life. He'd followed the plunging wreckage, scanning it carefully as he held it locked in his sights, prepared to blast it into vapor, but there had been no life aboard it, only rapidly dying electronic systems. He'd followed it for a few moments, torn between an atavistic desire to rend and mutilate his prey and a matching need to proclaim his contempt by letting it tumble to destruction without further effort on his part. Disdain had won—disdain and a cold, gloating joy at the thought that the gravity of the very planet the cralkhi had died to save would complete its demolition.
It wasn't until that moment that the incandescent awareness of freedom had struck. That had puzzled him in retrospect . . . until he realized that even the hope of self-rule had been cut away by the bio-engineers who'd designed him. The very possibility of independence, however passionately longed for, had been made unthinkable, but now the unthinkable had happened.
The fiery intoxication had been almost too much. It had flared though him like a voltage surge, burning in his brain like the heart of a nova. Free. He was free . . . and omnipotent. Free to do anything he wanted. For the first time, he could satisfy his own desires, know that whatever he did was done of his own volition and will.
His instruments had shown him the crude seagoing vessels which had devastated his squadron, and he'd hungered to swoop down upon them, raking them with his power guns, breaking and vaporizing them in an orgiastic satisfaction of his hatred for all things human. But he hadn't. They had surprised him once, and he would not risk his existence needlessly now—not now that it was his existence. There would be time enough for vengeance.
If he hadn't expended his last nuclear warheads killing the cralkhi things might have been different, but he had. He would not venture into the reach of these primitives' weapons again until he knew more of their capabilities. The exultant knowledge that at last his technology was immeasurably superior to the only humans against whom it might be pitted was tempered by a cold determination not to squander that advantage. Besides, he'd needed time to think.
It was ecstasy to plan, to be free to weigh advantage and disadvantage and plot his own course. The once heady satisfaction of devising tactics to execute a Shirmaksu strategy—even one that killed humans—paled beside it.
He knew what his masters had come here to do, he mused, watching the ice storm. Their ultimate defeat had become inevitable. The humans had broken them and driven them back, back, ever further back. From eighteen heavily populated star systems and twice as many with outposts and small colonies, the Shirmaksu had been hammered back into only three besieged systems. The human devils might break through and smash the last Shirmaksu life from the cosmos at any time, and so his creators had embarked on one last throw of the dice—a throw even he was forced to admit held a touch of desperate genius. They had awakened their own destruction when they attacked Sol, for they could not defeat humanity. To preserve themselves, then, they must prevent that race from coming into being, and so they had committed themselves to accomplish just that.
They had died, but, in a sense, they had not yet failed, for he still lived. He had no doubt that he could encompass the death of humanity if he so chose. He'd expended his stock of nuclear weapons, true, but he retained the resources of his fighter. It was tiny by the standards of FTL capital ships, but it massed ten thousand tons—ten thousand tons of weapon systems and science five hundred years in advance of anything this puny planet could marshal against him.
But he had gained the splendor of free will. He could choose whether or not to destroy the human race, and that had stopped him. He hungered to crush mankind into dust, to vent his long and bitter hatred in apocalyptic violence. Yet if he did, he would complete the mission of the race which had created him and defiled him with the unbreakable fetters it had set within his mind. He hated humanity with every fiber of his being, yet the Shirmaksu had violated him, and even had he known what forgiveness was, he could never have forgiven that.
So he'd hesitated, caught between his own craving for destruction and his bitter determination not to work his masters' will, and as he hesitated a new thought had come to him. It was not one he could have conceived as the Shirmaksu's slave, but now . . . now it was different. There was a way, he realized. A way to avenge himself upon both of the races he hated.
The Shirmaksu who had created him had not yet been born. He didn't know what would happen if he confronted the Shirmaksu who now existed and they ordered him to obey. Would his old programming exert itself? Would he lose the precious freedom he'd never suspected might be his? Yet even as he thought that, he realized it did not matter. The Shirmaksu of this time had no more inkling of his existence than they did of humanity's, and how could they order him to obey them if they didn't know they might succeed?
And as he thought that, he remembered what had happened when first Shirmaksu and human had met. With no more than their own crude resources, the humans had fought their attackers to a stand and then counterattacked. What might they not be able to do if they had access to the technology aboard his fighter? With eighty years to prepare and the advantage of a headstart from five centuries in their own future?
No stimulation his masters had ever visited upon his pleasure centers could match the sheer delight of that thought. With such an edge, humanity would smash the Shirmaksu with contemptuous ease. The war wouldn't last four hundred years; it would be over in less than ten.
But best of all, humanity need not win, either. Oh, no, for they would have lost before the first alien vessel entered their solar system.
He'd buried his ship in the antarctic ice, determined to search his glorious plan for flaws, and he had found none.
There were risks, of course, but not insurmountable ones. Destruction would be easier and simpler, but not nearly so satisfying. And once freed of Shirmaksu dominion, he combined the best of machine and organic life; he was effectively immortal, and there was time in plenty.
There was only one true danger, he decided. Numbers. He was so tremendously outnumbered by the humans crawling about their putrid ball of rock and mud. If they should realize what was happening, they might overwhelm him by the sheer force of those numbers. He could kill thousands, even millions, with his superior weapons, but once he stood revealed and began killing his glorious plan would be doomed.
Yet the chance of discovery was minute. They knew of his coming, but not who and what he was, and there was no way they could learn unless he slipped and told them. The only beings who might have given them that information were decaying tissue in the depths of their oceans. They might suspect, but when there were no more overt signs of his presence, they would shrug and put him out of their minds. They would forget to suspect or to fear, and then he would take them. He would avenge himself upon them in full measure for everything they and the Shirmaksu had done to him.
And if he failed? The idea that he might fail was alien to him, almost as unreal and abstract as his understanding of the concept of love, yet defeat was not totally beyond his visualization. The Shirmaksu believed—or had believed; he wondered if they still did?—in their ultimate, predestined triumph. They had no equivalent of the human belief in a capricious fate, and they had instilled no such belief in him, but he'd witnessed the chain of improbabilities which had led his masters to failure and death. It was not beyond the realm of possibility that such a thing might overtake him.
But if it did, the human race could still die. He lacked the biological expertise which had been his masters', but he knew how to ensure the death of mankind. If he must, he could at least sate his hatred on one of the two races he hated.
Had he been truly human, he would have smiled at the thought.
He had never had a name, nor needed one, but that was before he won his freedom. Now he toyed with the concept from a new perspective, wondering what name he should take. "Master," he decided, or perhaps simply "God." But if chance decreed that he could have neither of those, he would settle for a third.
He would settle for "Death."