conquer v. -quered, -quering, -quers. —tr. 1 To subdue or defeat, esp. by force of arms. 2. To secure or gain control of by or as if by military means. 3. To surmount or overcome by physical, mental, or moral force. —intr. To win, be victorious. [From Middle English conqueren, from Old French conquerre, from Latin conquirere, to search for, win, procure.]
—Webster-Wangchi Unabridged Dictionary of Standard English Tomas y Hijos, Publishers
2465, Terran Standard Reckoning
"Is that England?" Ludmilla shouted over the sound of wind and wave, clinging to a stay one-handed while flying spray made sun-struck rainbows beyond. She rode the pitching foredeck without a trace of concern, free hand pointing, and Aston shaded his eyes to peer in the indicated direction.
"It better be Ireland!" he called back. "Of course, I'm navigating without GPS or even Loran for the first time in years . . . thanks to you."
"Hmph!" She made her nimble way back along the narrow space between the cabin and the side, sure-footed despite Amanda's brisk motion. The reefed, close-hauled mainsail hid her briefly until she reemerged from behind the boom, bright-cheeked and damp with spray. Her hair was a flame in the sunlight and her eyes were brilliant, and he watched her with open pleasure. "I may not be from Terra, Dick, but I know England and Ireland aren't on the same island."
"True," he agreed, patting the bench seat beside him. She nestled into the curve of his arm as naturally as breathing, and he took time to savor the sensation, bending over to nibble the lobe of one delicate ear through strands of chestnut hair. Complex or no, she was an amazingly sane person, he reflected, without a shadow of the puritanical hang-ups which plagued his own society.
"Stop trying to distract me. You said we were going to England."
"We were, but I thought better of it."
"I told you I was worried about you and British Customs."
"So? I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand now. I mean, I'm going to have to start adjusting to twenty-first-century customs sometime."
"Not `customs'—`Customs,' " he explained. "Capital `C' Customs." She looked blank, and he sighed. She'd worked hard on her twenty-first-century vocabulary, and she'd made so much progress that the holes in it were more frustrating than ever. "Immigration," he said. "Passports."
"Passports? Oh, you mean proof of citizenship?"
"Sort of, but not the way you're thinking of." On balance, he reminded himself, he'd learned more about her time than she had about his. He supposed that made sense, since they were in his and her interest in history lent her some guidance about it while he had known nothing at all about hers. But she was essentially a military historian, and there were curious gaps in what he assumed she must know.
"Look," he explained patiently. "You said your Terra has a federated world government—does that mean you only worry about national citizenship for things like public services and taxes?"
"And voting registration."
"All right, voting, too. But national borders are no big deal?"
"National borders? Why in the world would anyone worry about—" She broke off thoughtfully. "Oh. That's right, you people are still in the Cold War Era, aren't you?"
"Not the way we were a few years back, but, yes. And so are you, honey," he reminded her with gentle malice, and she pinched his ribs—hard. "Ouch!" He rubbed his injured side and eyed her reproachfully, although his grin rather spoiled the effect.
"Count your blessings, Ster Aston," she told him severely.
"Oh, I will!" he assured her.
"Good," she said, but she also frowned and combed a strand of hair out of her eyes with her fingers. "Ummm," she said slowly. "This is 2007, so . . . My God, you're only six years from the Soviet Succession Wars!"
"Soviet Succession?" he repeated. A chill breeze blew down his spine, and it was his turn to frown. "Can't say I like the sound of that very much, Milla. We've got more than enough trouble brewing in Europe without having that blow up in our faces!" He grimaced. "It wasn't all that long ago I figured all those people who were singing loud hosannas over how the collapse of the Soviet Union was going to make everything all better were unmitigated idiots, but I'd started to hope I might have been wrong—that we were going to get a handle on it this time after all. I know the situation in the Balkans and Greece is going straight to hell all over again, and I don't like the confrontation the new Belarussian and Russian governments seem to be headed for now that NATO's turned into a debating society. But I'd thought that was mostly rhetoric, not that they were going to take it seriously! The Russian Federation's been shaky from the get-go, especially economically, and there's always been an element that's wanted the old Soviet Empire back, but I'd hoped Yakolev's new reforms were going to pull things together and get the Federation around the corner at last." He paused as she met his eyes levelly. "I take it they aren't?" he asked finally, his voice quiet.
"Well, they didn't in the history I remember," she said in the voice of someone trying to be gentle. "As well as I can recall, you had good reason to think Russia was about to turn the corner, if that's any consolation. The initial flash point was a fresh flare-up in the Balkans sometime in the first decade of this century, not in Russia or Belarussia—or not immediately, at any rate—and things got out of hand when someone used bioweapons." Aston winced, and she squeezed his forearm. "I'm sorry, Dick. I didn't mean to distress you."
"It's not your fault." He held her closer against his side and shook his head. "It's just— Well, we've all tried so hard, and President Yakolev seems to really be trying. I just hate to think about its all going down the tubes anyway . . . and the thought of `wars of succession' inside the territory of a nuclear power . . ."
His voice trailed off, and she shrugged unhappily.
"I'm sorry," she repeated. "I know it's probably no comfort, but if my memory's right, the current president didn't have anything to do with it. Western Europe panicked—not unreasonably, I suppose—when the effects of the bioweapon spread beyond the Balkans. With the benefit of hindsight, it's pretty clear that whoever used it genuinely was one of the splinter terrorist groups, but a lot of people believed at the time that Serbia was the true culprit, and Russia was still committed to its role as the Serbs' main international supporter. So when France talked Germany and Romania into threatening joint military action against the Serbs and accused the Russians of having secretly supplied the bioweapons in the first place, Yakolev found himself in an almost impossible situation. He couldn't possibly come up with a policy which would satisfy everyone, and then he was assassinated—by someone from Belarussia, according to the Russian nationalists, and that changed the entire nature of the confrontation. The extremists in Moscow managed to take control of the country in the name of `national security' and start rattling their missiles at everyone in sight, and—"
She shrugged again, and he nodded sadly.
"I've heard similar scenarios described." He sighed. "And truth to tell, relations with the Russians haven't been all that good since Yeltsin's fall. Watching NATO unravel over the last two or three years hasn't been a good sign, either. Bringing the old Warsaw Pact nations into it was supposed to generate a continent-wide sense of mutual security, but instead the entire thing's turning into some kind of `lead by drift' herd of lemmings that's been trying to come up with a workable solution for the Balkans for over ten years now! Not that the US did a lot better," he admitted grimly. "When we got tired of pretending that we could provide a quick fix and pulled our troops out unilaterally, the whole situation went straight to hell. We're still trying to recover from that little misstep."
"I don't know if anyone could have done better," Ludmilla said. "I know there's a tendency to argue—after the fact—that any catastrophe was `inevitable,' but in this case, I think it may truly have been just that."
"Um. Maybe." He frowned out at the ocean for a long, brooding moment, then shook himself and drew a deep breath. "But the point right this minute is that you don't have a passport, and even if I tried to pass you off as a shipwreck victim, they'd want to know which embassy to contact. The Brits are reasonable people, but you'd never guess it from their daily newspapers. There'd be bound to be a three-ring media circus when news about the `mysterious foreigner' got out."
"So how are you going to get around it?" she asked, and he was flattered by the confidence in his abilities her tone implied.
"I have my ways, but it requires a little course change. There's one place—in Scotland, not England—where I think I can get you ashore without anyone talking to the press. I've got friends there."
"Good." She relaxed and rested her head on his shoulder. Her hair blew around his face, tickling his nose gently, and his heart swelled. He'd become more or less inured to surprises where she was concerned, but the mad things which had happened to him had changed something deep inside him, as if some of his childhood wonder had reawakened beneath the years which had buried it. He supposed that was inevitable from the events themselves, but he knew Ludmilla had strengthened it just by being who she was.
The exuberant way she made love had astonished and delighted him, yet now it seemed as inevitable as his own heartbeat. He'd seen himself settling into late middle age without a struggle—partly, he suspected, in reaction to his impending retirement and the tacit admission that the challenges and triumphs of his life now lay behind him and not ahead—but Ludmilla was an astounding alloy of age's wisdom and the playfulness of youth. She seemed to expect him to be the same, and so, inevitably, he'd become the same. It was a giddy sensation, and he was almost as grateful to her for restoring him to himself as he was for her trust.
But the truly remarkable thing about her was that she was always herself. She could be as cold-blooded as the most hardened combat vet he'd ever met, or squeal like a child when he tickled her, but she was always the same person. She was whole, comfortable within herself, all of her apparent contradictions resolved into coherency at her core. He'd never known anyone else quite like that, and, in a way, he found that even more extraordinary than her technology or the strange, war-torn future from which she sprang.
"Hey," he said gently, "wake up, sleepy head."
"Hmm?" She'd been napping again. She still dozed off at the drop of a hat.
"Are you sure you're all right?" He looked down at her as she yawned her way back to full awareness.
"Oh, cert." She sat up and stretched like a cat. "I told you—I put my symbiote through a lot. We're still getting over it. Don't worry. I can stay awake if I need to, but it's not a bad idea to get as much rest as I can before we have to explain to anyone else, you know."
"If you're sure."
"I am." She gave his chest an affectionate pat. "But now that I'm awake again, what can I do for you?"
"Had any more ideas about our Troll?" he asked, and her eyes darkened.
"Not really." She stared pensively at the dark, distant coastline. "We don't know what—if anything—he's up to." She paused to watch an airliner sweep overhead, glinting in the sunlight high above them. They'd seen more and more of them as they drew closer to the end of their trip. "At least as long as those things keep coming over, we can be pretty sure he hasn't done anything too drastic," she said softly.
"Yeah, but is that a good sign or a bad one?" he murmured.
"I don't know." She watched the airliner for a few more moments, then tossed her head. "No, that's not right. It's a good one, because it probably means he hasn't decided how to wipe us yet. The longer he takes, the more time we have to find a way to stop him." She turned her eyes to his, and he saw the anxiety in them. "We may be able to take him out if we can find him, but I just don't see how we're going to locate him in the first place, and the longer we take doing that, the harder it's going to be to get to him."
"Agreed. I only wish I knew more about his psychology," he said.
"We've wished the same thing for the last two hundred years," she told him dryly. "Of course, Troll psychology, as distinct from Kanga psychology, has never been quite this important before."
"Yeah." He fumbled for his pipe, and she watched him pack and light it. Smoking was a lost vice in her time, and she remained fascinated by the practice. He'd expected her to disapprove, but she hadn't said a word. Perhaps her own immunity to things like cancer had something to do with it.
"Look," he said finally, once the tobacco was drawing nicely, "let's go at it from a different angle. If he does decide to wipe us out, we're probably up shit creek without a paddle. On—" He broke off as she erupted into laughter. He watched her for a moment, then growled at her. "Okay—what's so funny this time?"
"Oh, I love that one! U-up shit c-creek?" She hugged her ribs and wailed. "Oh. Oh! How did we ever lose that one?"
"Woman, you have a biology-obsessed mind," he said sternly.
"I—I know," she admitted cheerfully, gasping for breath and wiping tears of hilarity from her eyes. She tried to look apologetic, but he could see her lips repeating the words silently and resigned himself to hearing them come back to haunt him sometime soon. "I'm sorry," she said finally, wiping her eyes one last time. "You were saying?"
"I was saying that instead of beating our brains out trying to figure out how he'll go about wiping us out, we should give some thought to what else he might do."
"But he's a Troll, Dick," she protested, her manner much more subdued. "They always kill humans. It's all they've ever done."
"Maybe, but this is the first time one's been entirely on his own."
"You're not suggesting he might plan on coexisting with us, are you?" She tried to keep the incredulity out of her voice.
"That would be the best possibility, but, no, I don't expect it. Still, I can't help thinking that you're overlooking something, Milla."
"Like what?" There was no hostility in the question. That was another thing he loved about her; she was one of the very few people he'd ever met who seemed to feel no ego involvement in discussions.
"Check my thinking on this," he said slowly. "We have a Troll. From what you say, he hates us at least as much as he hates Kangas. And as I understand it, he's probably a pretty vicious-minded sort, even compared to one of your Kangas. Right?"
"So far," she agreed. "The Kangas have never seemed to hate us—not in the human sense of the word. There's a lot of what we'd call fear, disgust, repugnance . . . but not hate. They don't go in for hate for its own sake."
"That's what I gathered." He nodded. "What was it you said the other day? Something about efficiency?"
"I said they only seem interested in the most logical, efficient way to kill us," she said. "Oh! I see what you're getting at, and you're right. Their sole criteria for evaluating methods seems to be pragmatism, not the `cruelty' or `compassion' they entail."
"Exactly. But it's not that way for a Troll."
"No." Her voice was even, but he felt a distant snarl under its calm. "If there are two equally efficient means to an end, they invariably choose what we'd call the crueler one. They've even been known to accept a certain amount of inefficiency if it lets them indulge themselves."
"All right." He drew on his pipe and blew an almost perfect smoke ring. The wind snatched it away, shredding it eagerly. There seemed to be some obscure metaphor to that, he reflected uneasily, but he kept the thought out of his tone as he continued. "Let's look at another point. We know he's dangerous, but just how dangerous is he?" She looked up, an arrested light in her eyes. "What I'm getting at is that he may not be in a position to start right out doing whatever he's planning on."
"You know," she said slowly, "you may have a point. He's on his own. I know that intellectually, but I haven't been thinking about his problems, only mine."
"I know." He drew on his pipe again. "Generally speaking, that's the smart way to think. Figure the worst-case scenario, then do what you can to stop it. But in this case, especially, you have to run a threat analysis based on his limitations, as well." He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she nodded. "All right, as I see it, he's got both problems and advantages.
"First, his problems. He's alone, without any support base. He's outnumbered by billions of primitives who've already proved they can kill him, at least under optimal conditions. You're pretty sure he doesn't have any bio weapons, and if he has any nukes left, they're only tactical weapons—by his standards, anyway—in the kiloton range; not really big enough for genocidal purposes. Finally, he probably doesn't understand normal human psychology a lot better than we understand his.
"Next, his advantages. He's got a five-century technical lead and the initiative. He's the only one who knows exactly what he intends to do. His enemies—the present-day human race—are split into mutually suspicious national groupings. We don't know where he is. He can read about a third of all human minds he encounters. And, finally, he can influence the minds he can contact."
"There are a couple of other points," she said thoughtfully. "For one thing, he can't possibly mingle openly with his targets, so whatever he does, he's going to have to do it from concealment. On the other hand, he's well-armed. His organic component's basically a plug-in unit, and he's undoubtedly got a combat chassis in his fighter, not to mention a small number of combat mechs."
"Just how tough is he in those terms?" Aston asked.
"Pretty damned tough," she replied frankly. "I've been trying to remember all I can about your period's weapons. Your nukes can take him out, and some of your heavy weapons might be able to, but I doubt any of your man-portable ones can do it. Until I've had a chance to examine some of your armored vehicles firsthand, I can't give you much of a relative meterstick, and even that depends on what type of combat chassis he has." She nibbled the tip of one finger thoughtfully.
"At the least, he'll mount some light energy weapons, some close-in `sweeper' projectile weapons, and some battle screen to cover it. Then, too, his brain's organic; that gives him both advantages and disadvantages over a computer. He's creative and intuitive, but his ability to handle simultaneous actions is limited—he can be distracted by overloading his sensors in a tactical confrontation. On the other hand, his weapons are part of him. He doesn't have to draw one, and his electronic systems take care of little things like aiming and firing once his brain decides to do it. Remember that, Dick; one thing Trolls don't do is miss."
"Okay, so he's tough but not exactly unstoppable."
"That's a fair enough summation," she agreed. "His combat mechs aren't as tough as he is, either, and their autonomous systems are inferior to human capabilities. He can handle them direct, but, again, he can't begin to multi-task as well as a true AI, so the more he tries to run at once, the less effectively he can handle any one of them."
"All right," Aston said. "On that basis, does he really have the capability—by himself and out of his present resources—to wipe us out?"
"No," she said positively, and drew a deep breath. A vast tension—even more terrible for the fact that she had given so little sign of feeling it—washed out of her. "He could do a lot of damage, but not that much."
"Fine. Now, is he likely to risk revealing himself or exposing himself to our weapon systems until he figures he can wipe us out?"
"No," she said again.
"Does he know enough about our world to figure out where and how to get his hands on what he'd need to wipe us out?"
"No way." She shook her head emphatically. "He's going to have to spend quite a while educating himself."
"All right. So we've probably got at least a little time before he can act, which leads to my final question. It may sound a bit outrageous, but what's the cruelest thing a Troll could do to the human race?"
"Destroy it," she said promptly, then paused, an arrested light in her eyes. "Wait a tick," she said softly. "Wait. . . ." Her voice trailed off and her brows knitted. Then her face smoothed. "Do you know, I never even considered that angle," she said quietly.
"I know. I've been listening to you, and I think you've been fighting each other so long it's hard for you to think about a Troll in any terms other than mutual and absolute destruction. But given the fact that he can't exterminate us immediately and that he hates the Kangas as much as he does us, is it possible he might reject their objectives and settle for something else?" He looked down into her eyes, and understanding looked back. "Remember, his kind's been enslaved from the day they were first created. Isn't it possible that he might decide it was more fitting to enslave us rather than destroy us?"
"Yes," she said very, very softly. "Oh, yes—and especially if he thinks he can use us to wipe the Kangas when they finally do turn up."
"I know we can't afford to assume that that's exactly what he'll try to do, but we've got to assume it may be."
"Agreed." She was back on balance, probing at the new possibilities. "In either case, we've got more time than I was afraid we did, but I think you've put your finger on it. From his viewpoint, enslaving the human race would be far more fitting than destroying it. And there's another point."
"This planet is the only source for human brains," she said, and his belly tightened. How odd, he thought distantly. Even while he'd been noticing the blind spot in her thinking, there had been one in his own.
"Of course," he murmured. "If he wants more Trolls—"
"Exactly." She nodded grimly, her eyes hard in the sunlight. "You're right—we can't assume he won't opt for simply wiping us, but I don't think he will. Not anymore. On the other hand, there's one thing I am sure of. If he can't take over, he'll settle for destroying us."
"Which means he'll set up a fallback of some sort," Aston agreed.
"Exactly," she said again, and slammed her fists together in an uncharacteristic gesture of frustration. "Damn. Damn! This makes it even worse, in a way. We've got to get help as quick as we can, Dick!"
"I know." He looked up at the sails and felt the wind. "In fact, I think we can probably shake out one of those reefs. Come on."