Rhoda Morris sat patiently in the waiting room, reading a magazine. She had huge, liquid eyes in a face as dark as her husband's, but she was slender, graceful, and always immaculately groomed. She thought Mordecai was silly to insist on a complete physical—they'd had their annual checkups only four months ago—but he'd been insistent. She wondered what bee had gotten into his bonnet and why, for the first time ever, he'd insisted on complete neurological exams, but it wasn't worth a fuss.
She turned a page and felt a familiar pang as she saw an ad with a young mother and two pink-faced babies, for her inability to conceive was the one true sorrow of her life. She'd learned to live with it, but the pain seemed sharper in a setting like this, as if proximity to medical people made her more aware of what she'd been denied.
But she'd been given so much else, she thought, and turned the page firmly. She had Mordecai, and though he, too, regretted their childlessness, he was not a man given to bitterness. Even the loss of his foot, horrible though it had been at the time, hadn't embittered him . . . and it had ended his dangerous wanderings about the world's trouble spots. She'd learned, in time, to stop feeling guilty over her gratitude.
She finished the article and laid the magazine aside, wondering how much longer Dick Aston and his niece would be staying. She'd always liked Captain Aston, ever since the evening he'd personally escorted her to the hospital in Jordan. He'd been so calm and reassuring; only later had she learned that he'd saved Mordecai's life. It was strange how suddenly they'd arrived, but she was glad they had. In fact, she would be a bit sad when—
The door opened and Mordecai came in with the doctor. She looked up and smiled, and he smiled back.
"Well?" she asked cheerfully.
"Not a problem in the world, Mrs. Morris," the young doctor said, and she nodded placidly. Of course there hadn't been.
"I take it you're satisfied now, Mordecai?" she asked, opening her purse for her sunglasses.
"Of course I am, dear," he said, linking elbows with her as they headed for the door. She squeezed his arm against her side happily. Twenty-three years, and they still held hands when they walked. How many other couples could say that?
"Good." He held the door and she stepped through it. "Mordecai, we have to pick up a few groceries on the way home."
"Fine," he said, unlocking her car door and opening it for her.
"Tell me," she said, as he closed his own door, latched his safety harness, and slipped the car into the traffic, "do you know if Dick and Milla can stay for the concert next week?"
"I'm afraid not. Dick's being transferred, and Milla will be going home when he leaves."
"What a pity!" she sighed.
"Yes, dear," he said softly, and reached over to squeeze her knee. She looked at him in slight surprise, but he said nothing more. He couldn't, for her alpha waves lacked the critical spike.
CIA Director Stanford Loren was irked. The steady buildup to a fresh Balkan crisis had been bad enough. Aside from Al Turner and the President himself, no one seemed capable of really believing that the wreckage of what had once been Yugoslavia had even more potential as the spark for a global disaster than the continuing, interminable Pakistani-Indian grimacing over Kashmir. Just because none of the Balkan states had developed nuclear weapons of their own didn't mean they couldn't get them elsewhere, and he was uncomfortably certain that several of the factions were doing some intense shopping. The economic meltdown which had finished off the Yeltsin government and returned old-time central control to Russia had only increased their opportunities, and Yakolev hadn't had time to change that. But could he and Jared Armbruster get the rest of the Western world to take them seriously about it? Hell no! The Balkans were a European problem, as the French premier had just pointedly remarked, and the previous administration's unilateral decision to yank the US troops which had been mired down in Bosnia for over six years had deprived the present American government of any voice in solving it.
But then, on top of that, had come all that carnage in mid-Atlantic. Then a shooting war had caught every one of Loren's analysts flat-footed, and now the President had been bitten by some infernal health bug! The last thing Loren needed at this moment was to report to Bethesda for a complete medical exam, and he'd been tempted to put it off until the President forgot about it.
No such luck. The Surgeon General had called to remind him in person! So here he sat in a hospital room, waiting for the results he knew damned well would prove him perfectly healthy, if a tad overweight, when he needed to be out at Langley trying to make sense out of the world. Only in Wonderland on the Potomac, he told himself bitterly.
The door opened, and he looked up sharply, but the tart remark died on his lips as the President himself walked in.
"Good morning, Stan," Armbruster said, but there was a shadow behind his smile, and Loren hadn't known him for twenty years without learning to see beneath his surface.
"Good morning, Jared," he said cautiously.
"I know you think I've gone round the bend," Armbruster said, crossing to the window and looking out. "Would it make you feel any better to know that Hopkins and Turner are here, too?"
Loren frowned. Floyd Hopkins ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Al Turner was the deputy director (and real head) of the National Security Agency. Which gave the Director of the CIA furiously to think.
"So is Dolf Wilkins," the President added with a crooked grin, and Loren added the Director of the FBI to his astonishing mental list. "All for a reason, Stan. All for a reason."
"What reason?" Loren asked carefully.
"Stan," the President said, turning and crossing his arms, "I'm going to tell you a story. One I'm afraid I can't tell Floyd or Al. After that, I'm going to drop in on Dolf, but there won't be any record that I saw either of you. Interested?"
"Intrigued would be a better word."
"Oh?" Armbruster chuckled grimly. "Well, you'll be more than just intrigued by the time I finish, Stan."
"Looks like things are finally moving," Aston said as he paged through the folder in his lap.
"At last," Ludmilla threw in without looking up from her book. She was tipped back in a chair, reading a copy of The Marine Officer's Guide.
"Give us a break, Milla," Morris protested half-seriously. "You knew the first layer'd be the hardest to set up, but we're starting to make progress now. And every senior man we clear gives us that much more reach down to the lower levels."
"And that much more chance for a `normal' leak," Hastings said sourly.
"True," Morris agreed with a sigh. He lit another cigarette, and she glared at him.
"I'm going to tell Rhoda you're cheating."
"Snitch," he said, and took a deep drag. "And don't worry too much about leaks. People like Loren and Wilkins know how to keep secrets. It's the congressional side I worry about."
"Don't," Aston said, making a check beside a name in his folder. "The President isn't going to tell them." He chuckled nastily at Morris's raised eyebrow. "You hadn't heard? He decided last night. Just what we needed—a House Speaker with the wrong EEG and an IQ equal to his shoe size! I'm just as happy, though. This way Armbruster can brief all the oversight committees with the cover story, and we can get on with the real job without a lot of elected busybodies blabbing to the press."
"That's a pretty bitter view of your elected representatives, Dick," Ludmilla said, glancing up from her book at last.
"But a realistic one," Morris replied before Aston could. "Some of them—maybe even a majority of them, though I wouldn't want to get too optimistic on that point—are probably honorable human beings. But a bunch of them are neither honorable nor anything I'd like to call human, and a single asshole can blow any operation. What's that old saying? `Any two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead . . . unless he was a politician.' "
"Something like that," Hastings agreed. She looked over at Aston. "How's the strike team selection coming, Admiral?"
"Keep calling me `Admiral' and the first strike is going to land right on your head," Aston growled. She made a face, and he went on with a smile. "Not too bad, so far. We've got a Marine major with a head injury from a training accident last year. They ran lots of tests, and he's got a great, big, beautiful spike right where we need it. Looks like a good man, too."
"You're making it an all-Marine operation after all?" Morris asked interestedly.
"I may. I'm trying to find as many key people as I can without any new testing, and life'll be a lot simpler if they're all from the same branch of the service. And much as it pains me to admit it, Marines may be even better for this kind of operation."
"But how are you going to decide what firepower you need?" Ludmilla wanted to know. "We still haven't solved that one."
"Oh, sorry." Morris rubbed his forehead and smiled apologetically at her. "I should've told you. Admiral McLain's arranged for the Army to take a couple of obsolete tanks that were earmarked for scrapping out of the disposal queue and hand them over to us for testing purposes, instead. Of course," he added sardonically, "they don't know exactly what we'll be testing."
"All right!" Aston said, grinning. "How soon?"
"I'm not sure. Sometime tomorrow or the next day, I think."
"Where?" Ludmilla demanded. "It's got to be a secure place."
"Oh, we've found one that's plenty secure." Morris grinned. "There's a big underground chamber out in New Mexico. They dug it for the nuclear test series we carried out after the START II treaty finally crapped out, but the final two or three shots got scrubbed as part of the CPI nuclear reduction negotiations with China, Pakistan, and India last year."
"Sounds good," Aston agreed, then closed his folder with a snap. "Anything else from Loren?"
"He's got the cover crisis team in place. The plan is for the VP to take over with Loren as his `assistant.' I think Loren's a little pissed at being stuck over there, but he and Wilkins will make sure we get copies of anything they bird-dog for us. Frankly, they're more likely to spot something than we are, since they can use the whole security setup. But our team's the only one who can recognize what they spot."
"It'll just have to do," Aston said pensively. "I only wish we had some idea what the bastard is thinking about right now."
The Troll was exhilarated. At last, thanks to a penniless, embittered drifter named Leonard Stillwater, he'd found his final element.
It was a shame about Stillwater, the Troll chided himself. Something might have been made of it if he'd been a bit more careful. He would have to watch himself. The pleasure of raping human minds was addictive, but he must learn to ration it. Stillwater, for example, had held a promise its shoddy exterior and slovenly thought patterns had hidden until too late.
The Troll checked automatically on his servomechs as they completed the day's camouflage. His progress across the United States had been slower than expected, but that was not without advantages. He'd finally acquired enough data on the humans' primitive radar to build a crude but effective ECM system against it, and there had been time to gain more information.
The Stillwater human had given him the most astonishing data of all, and the Troll had stopped north of the Broken Bow Indian Reservation in the Quachita Mountains of Oklahoma to ponder. Such a lovely revelation deserved careful consideration.
It was odd, but he'd never really wondered how humans thought about other humans, and it had come as a shock when he ripped into the Stillwater human's brain and found the hatred festering at its core. So much like his own in so many ways, and in a human brain! Marvelous.
The Troll had never heard of the White People's Party, nor of the American Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan—not until his combat mechs brought him the hitchhiking Stillwater. It had been dirty and terrified, yet there'd been something about it, the Troll thought—a sort of mean-spirited, vicious defiance under its whining panic. Perhaps that should have alerted him, caused him to proceed more cautiously.
Perhaps, but the human mattered far less than the hatred the Troll had discovered. He'd recognized it instantly as yet another chink in the armor of his human prey—and one so well suited to his needs!
It would require care, but the unthinking hatred of minds like Stillwater's would lend itself to his manipulation, and their need for a leader to think for them would make it much, much easier.
He only had to find another Stillwater, one with more polish and the wit to understand what the Troll could offer it.
Nikolai Stepanovich Nekrasov enjoyed his position as the Russian Federation's ambassador to the United States. He would not have cared to admit it to many people, but he rather liked Americans. True, they were incredibly ill-organized, undisciplined, and spoiled, with more than their fair share of national chauvinism (a vice, he admitted privately, his own people shared in full measure). They were absolutely convinced that the political changes in his own nation were the direct result of their shining example, while its economic woes stemmed solely from a failure to emulate them properly. Possibly as a consequence, they retained a deep-seated distrust of his people which was matched only by Russia's suspicion of them. They were further handicapped by their ridiculous (and, in his opinion, naive) insistence that individuals were more important than the state, and their feelings were hurt with absurd ease if anyone even suggested that they were not universally beloved just because they enjoyed a material lifestyle most of the rest of the planet only dreamed of.
But he was willing to admit that, having been raised as a prototypical Marxist-Leninist new man, his own perceptions of them might, perhaps, be just a tiny bit flawed. And he also found them generous and polite, and, unlike many of his erstwhile comrades in the Party—good democrats all, now, of course!—he rather liked Americans' ingrained refusal to bow to power or position. The pre-Yeltsin Party would have understood Americans far better (and possibly even have remained in power, he thought), if its members could just have grasped that the European class system had never really caught on in North America despite the best efforts of its own leftist politicians.
Yet there were times, he thought, staring out the window of his embassy office, when these people frightened him. They had a ruthless streak, and they believed in effectiveness and decisiveness. Those were dangerous deities for an opponent to worship. It took a great deal to convince an American president to stop worrying about public opinion. The last two administrations had been devastating proof of that. But once a president did make that decision, there was no telling how far he might go. Worst of all, he could be virtually certain of widespread public support if his people perceived his actions as both determined and effective, and the ambassador had tried for over a year now to convince his own President that this American President truly was both determined and effective. It was unfortunate that so many hardline members of President Yakolev's cabinet—including Aleksander Turchin, Yakolev's Foreign Minister and Nekrasov's own boss—continued to think that the anti-American card was a winning one. Nekrasov understood his countrymen's resentment over the way in which their government had become in so many ways a pensioner of the last surviving true superpower, and his own temper tended to rise alarmingly whenever one of his American "hosts" got up on his or her high horse and began lecturing him on all the things which were wrong with his country . . . for which, of course, the lecturer of the moment just happened to have all the right answers. And "standing up" to the generally ineffectual policies of Armbruster's predecessors had been a cheap way for Russian governments teetering on the brink of collapse to win points for "showing strength," both domestically and in the international arena. The fact that it had also helped create, or at least continue, the steadily deteriorating Balkan situation by filling the Americans with so much frustration they had finally thrown up their hands in disgust and gone home like petulant children seemed to have escaped the attention of Turchin and his cronies.
Or perhaps it hadn't. Nekrasov had his own suspicions about where the Foreign Minister was headed. His carefully managed friendship with a currently disgraced ultranationalist general like Viatcheslav Pogoscheva struck the ambassador as an extremely ominous sign, but for the moment, at least, Yakolev needed Turchin's support back home. And so it went, Nekrasov thought glumly. It took only a handful of self-serving opportunists, sometimes only a single one, to set the work of scores of honest men at nought, and his country's democratic institutions were still young and vulnerable, still lacked the toughness and precedents to survive such cretins.
The familiar gloomy thoughts flickered through his brain, but today they were only a background, for he faced a far more urgent (and inexplicable) puzzle. Determined and effective Armbruster had proven himself over the last thirty months, but just what did he think he was doing now? From the moment he'd taken office, he'd worked to improve Latin American relations, and his efforts had born startling fruit. What was left of the Sandinistas were finally in full retreat, relations with Mexico and even Columbia had shown steady improvement, and he'd wrung potent domestic Cuban political reforms out of Fidel's successors by skillful use of economic concessions as the moribund Cuban economy obviously entered its final decline, yet—
He stopped that thought with a brisk headshake. Dwelling on Armbruster's achievements served no purpose, but it did give point to Nekrasov's current puzzlement. After all that, why should Armbruster suddenly deliver what amounted to an ultimatum which had to play right into the hands of his country's Latino adversaries? The United States had no compelling strategic interest in Argentina or the Falklands, and the whole world knew it, so why had Armbruster suddenly intervened so massively . . . and clumsily?
Nekrasov had the strangest impression that something was happening behind the scenes. He didn't think Armbruster's ultimatum was a put-up job; it was clear to him that the Britishers were winning handily and that a cease-fire would benefit the Argentinos far more than the Americans' allies. Not that Buenos Aires seemed to share his analysis. Still, however trapped by their own rhetoric the generals might be, they were military men (of a sort, at least); they had to know the truth.
And yet . . . and yet, in an odd way, the whole South Atlantic situation was only a side show. He couldn't have said why he was so certain, but he was. There wasn't a single scrap of hard intelligence to support his suspicion, and he knew his KGB "colleagues" privately derided it as no more than was to be expected from a pro-Western economic apologist like himself.
Still, he would feel better after he spoke to the President on Monday. He'd established a reasonably friendly adversarial relationship with Jared Armbruster, and he believed he could discover much the President hoped to keep hidden.
The Reverend Blake Taggart slammed his car door and delivered a venomous kick to the front fender. It hurt his foot, but the deep dent made him feel a little better. Not much, but a little.
His cup was full, he told the darkness bitterly. He should have stopped in Muse and had the threshing sound under the hood checked, but the whole town had been closed up tighter than a drum. Besides, that would have cost money, and money was not in great supply at the moment.
He sighed and walked moodily around the car. He should have gotten rid of the gas-hog months ago, but it was the last vestige of his empire, and he hadn't quite been able to let go of it.
He unlocked the limo's trunk and opened a Gucci suitcase, got out a white silk handkerchief, and tied it to the TV aerial, and his expression was unhappy. If only he still had a driver he could have sat comfortably on his ass while he sent the poor bastard off for help; now he had to make the hike.
He growled a heartfelt curse and fumbled in the trunk for a more comfortable pair of shoes, then sat on the bumper to change.
He'd had such hopes, once. His message had seemed so perfect—it had certainly been lucrative enough! He'd begged his followers to support his ministry, and they had: right into a palatial home, swimming pools, a multimillion dollar Midwest television station. . . . Oh, yes. All the things he'd longed for growing up in the North Carolina hills had been his at last.
There'd been times, he mused as he tied his shoes, when he'd actually thought there might really be a God.
His clean-shaven, neatly scrubbed image—bolstered by his carefully maintained accent and the rolling hellfire and damnation of his self-taught, bigoted, street-preacher father—had carried him high in the world, and a carefully metered dose of intolerance and more than a hint of racism had given him teeth. "A Coughlin for the Twenty-First Century," one critic had called him, but his sermons had comforted his "flock." Surely if a man of God shared their feelings they couldn't be wrong!
But then that frigging reporter started after him and the wheels came off. Taggart ground his teeth in remembered rage. It had seemed so trivial, at first—just a single business deal which had intruded into the light somehow. Nothing to worry about. But the bastard hadn't stopped digging, and the more he dug, the more he found. Those deals with certain less than savory brokers. That questionable land speculation in Colorado—the little prick had burrowed through three separate dummy corporations to find out who was really behind that one. Then his connections with the Las Vegas casino and his women. Damn it, he was only human! He had the same sex drive as—
He chopped the thought off with a bitter laugh. It had been a mistake to try to buy the little fart off, but he'd had to do something! How was he supposed to know the son-of-a-bitch was recording the entire conversation?
The contributions dried up. His special brand of followers would tolerate a lot, but not that much. Truth to tell, he was pretty sure it was the hookers had done it in the end. His supporters might have stood for the land deals and the casino—he might even have been able to convince them that he hadn't known what his "business managers" were up to—but not the hookers. Hypocrisy only worked until you got caught.
He closed the trunk with a solid thunk and looked around the darkness again. He'd crossed US 269 a few miles back, and there was an all-night gas station there. The bastards probably didn't have an on-duty mechanic—nobody did, these days—but they'd have a phone and they'd know where he could find a wrecker. He shuddered at the thought of paying for it, but, he told himself with a bitter smile, perhaps the Lord would provide.
He ought to. He'd dropped His friend Blake Taggart deep enough into the shit already.
An inner alarm claimed the Troll's attention. That delightful mind he'd tasted as it passed had stopped. Why, it was practically motionless now, shining in his senses like a beacon of greed and resentment! He'd been certain it would sweep out of his range before he could do anything about it, but perhaps he'd been wrong.
He sharpened his mental focus, "listening" to its surface thoughts, getting a better fix on its location. Oh, yes, things were shaping up nicely. And this time, he reminded himself as he dispatched his combat mechs once more, he would be careful.
"Whiskey One, this is Sierra Three. I have incoming. Range to your position three-niner-seven, bearing oh-seven-four relative, altitude two-five-oh feet, speed seven-five-oh knots. I make it two with a trailer, but the trailer looks bogus. Could be a second pair tucked in tight. Over."
"Sierra Three, Whiskey One copies." Commander Zachary Orwell, USS Washington's CAG, checked his PriFly screens and nodded. "Papa Delta Niner-Two is headed your way," he said. "Meet him on Tac Four, I say again, Tac Four. Over."
"Roger, Whiskey One. Sierra Three Out."
Four F-14Ds of VF-143, known as the "Pukin' Dogs" from the head-down griffin of their squadron insignia, swept their wings and sliced through the air at a thousand miles per hour. Commander Lewis Tobin, VF-143's CO, sat in the front seat of the lead fighter.
"Talk to me, Moose," he said.
"Just a sec, Skipper." Lieutenant Amos "Moose" Comstock was bent over his panel, watching his display alter as the Hawkeye known as Sierra Three gave him a direct data feed from its radar and onboard computers. "Okay, I've got the dope, Skip. How do you want to handle it?"
"Set us up head-on," Tobin directed. "We'll hang onto our altitude."
"Rog. Come around to one-three-four true, Skipper."
The Tomcat swung right and bored on through the sky, followed by its three fellows. Each of the big fighters carried two Phoenix missiles, backed up by three AMRAAM Slammers and a pair of AIM-9Q Sidewinders.
"Closing to two hundred miles, Skip. Want me to light up?"
"Do it," Tobin replied, his mind busy. Second Fleet had declared a one hundred nautical mile free-fire zone around Task Force Twenty-One to give ample coverage against the fifty-mile range of the late-model Exocet ASMs of the Argentine Navy. The bogeys' high speed looked a lot like the Dassault-Breuguet Super Entendard. The Entendards were older even than Tobin's venerable Tomcat and had been relegated to secondary duties years earlier. But the Argentine Air Forces' losses had been so severe that the elderly aircraft had been pressed back into service as their main Exocet attack platforms, with the dwindling supply of much newer Mirage 2000-5s covering them. But whatever they were, they weren't friendlies, and the rules of engagement were clear: anything that entered the zone was to be killed. Tobin had no real desire to kill people, especially not if it could be avoided, but anyone burning that much fuel in burner way out here at less than three hundred feet was hardly up for a check flight.
The fighter's radar went active, probing down the bearing supplied by Sierra Three.
"Got 'em, Skip. The Hummer was right—there's four of the little buggers. Range one-eight-four and closing. They're forty miles from the zone, and they ain't answering anybody."
"Go to TWS. Let's see if that'll warn the bastards off."
Unless the incoming pilots were sound asleep, their radar warning receivers must have detected the shift from search mode to track-while-scan. If so, they now knew there were Tomcats in the area with weapons locked on them. They might be willing to ignore the warn-off being transmitted by the ships of the task force, but would they ignore that?
They would. They kept right on coming.
"Papa Delta Flight, Niner-Two. Red Section has the leaders: I'll take the point man; Niner-Four, you take his wing. We'll go with Slammers. If the trailers don't break off, White Section will take them."
Acknowledgments crackled in his ears as the range continued to drop.
"That's it, Skip," Comstock said tautly. "They're inside the zone."
"Okay, Moose. Take 'em down."
"Roger. Flashing scope, Skip. Opti-launch coming up . . . now!"
A launch-and-leave missile dropped free, ignited, and flashed ahead of the big fighter at Mach Four.
"One minute to impact," Comstock reported as Tobin broke in a sharp turn to port. He wanted to position himself on the bogeys' tails if they should somehow elude Papa Delta Flight's missiles.
They didn't. The two lead planes hit the water in flaming pieces at almost eight hundred miles an hour, but the two in the rear never hesitated. They only squatted still closer to the waves and bored right on in until White Section blew them out of the sky.
Blake Taggart didn't have a clue what had hit him.
One moment he was walking angrily along the night-black highway; the next there was a weird flash of light, and then . . . nothing. Nothing at all, until he woke up here. Wherever "here" was.
He tried to sit up, but his muscles refused to obey. Part of his brain told him that should frighten him, but he felt only a dreamy wonder. He stared up at a blank metal ceiling, breathing slowly, and something scuttled around the inside of his skull like a spider's dancing feet.
"Welcome, Blake Taggart."
The voice came from all around him—a queer, dead-sounding voice. Mechanical, he thought dreamily, and cold, and it echoed inside his head as well as in his ears.
"Your kind has not treated you well, Blake Taggart," the dead voice went on. "I have seen in your memory how they turned upon you."
Taggart felt the familiar visceral rage. It bubbled within him, yet for all its familiarity, it was different now, stronger than ever, as if his resentment had been honed and sharpened while he was unconscious. As if the last vestige of acceptance had been stripped away by a surgeon's scalpel, leaving only the cold fury of betrayal. He tried to speak, but his lips and tongue were as dead as the rest of his muscles.
"If I choose to help you, Blake Taggart," the slow, grinding voice said, "you can regain all you have lost, and more. You will have your vengeance . . . and I will have mine. Do you understand, Blake Taggart?"
The paralysis left his vocal cords. He made a strangled sound of surprise when he discovered that fact, then swallowed a mouthful of saliva.
"W-What do you mean?" he asked finally, then grunted as anguish lashed his nerves. It vanished almost before he could feel it, but he swallowed again, harder, as he recognized its warning.
"I am generous, Blake Taggart, but not . . . patient. You will do well to remember that. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he whispered. Then, louder, "Yes!"
"Better," the voice said. "Blake Taggart, I require a human assistant with certain talents. You may be that assistant."
"For what?" It was odd how unafraid he was, as if his churning anger armored him against fear. Yet it was more than that, too. Somehow the voice was preventing him from fearing, he thought, but that meant nothing beside his sudden eagerness for the vengeance it promised him.
"That will become clear," the voice replied, "if you have the strength to endure my mind touch. I have learned all I may from your unconscious mind; now you must open fully to me, willingly." There was a weird, horrible sound, one Taggart recognized only slowly as laughter. "You may die, Blake Taggart. Yes, you may well die. But if you live . . ." The voice trailed off tantalizingly.
Taggart stared up at the metal ceiling and wondered just how much the voice had already done to him. His lack of fear, his fiery eagerness to avenge himself, his sharp, bright hatred—those were his, but they'd been strengthened. He knew they had, but he found that he did not care.
"Sure," he said. "Come ahead."
It was a pity Mordecai couldn't be here, Aston thought, looking around the huge cavern, but the Argentinos were showing more balls than brains, and McLain had preempted Morris for his nominal function.
He looked at the two hulking M60A3 battle tanks, and even to him it seemed absurd that anything as small as Ludmilla's blaster could damage them. He turned to her, reflecting that she looked younger than ever in her brand-new uniform. Was that because he knew how old a Marine captain ought to look?
"Ready?" he asked, and she nodded calmly. "Any special precautions?"
"Just stand well back," she said, and checked her weapon settings as Aston joined Jayne Hastings beside the tripod-mounted camcorder behind her.
"Now," Ludmilla continued when they were out of the way, "I know what sort of power settings I need with this—" she lifted her blaster slightly, finger clear of the firing stud "—to take out most Kanga combat mechs, and also the setting to kill a Troll combat chassis. By seeing what effect those settings have on your armored vehicles, we'll all be in a better position to estimate what weapons your strike teams need, Dick."
"I just can't quite believe that—" Hastings indicated the blaster "—can really zap a tank, Milla. I'm trying, but . . ." She shrugged.
Ludmilla glanced back at her and dimpled suddenly.
" `O, ye of little faith,' " she murmured, and raised her weapon.
Once again, the blaster did absolutely nothing. Its complete silence, Aston thought, grew more uncanny, not less, each time he saw it, but there was no lack of other noise.
A blue-white flash, no larger than the palm of his hand, burned with eye-tearing brilliance on the right-hand tank's glacis, directly under the gun. A wicked, whickering crash battered his ears like bottled thunder, and then there was silence . . . a silence broken only by the seething hiss of steaming metal.
Aston stared at the damaged tank, momentarily stunned despite all of Ludmilla's warnings, then made himself walk over to it. Ludmilla and Jayne followed him as he bent over the glowing hole, careful to keep his hands away from its heat.
A small, perfect circle had been bored through the five-inch armor, and he climbed up on the tank and peered down through the opened hatch. There was some internal damage, but not as much as he'd expected; almost all the power had been expended on the glacis, and surprisingly little splash had been flung about the driver's compartment.
"Well?" He climbed down with a thoughtful expression as Ludmilla spoke. "Can your weapons do that, Dick?"
"I think so. The latest TOWs certainly can, but they're vehicle-mounted. I'd say the Predator—that's our newest man-portable antiarmor weapon—can do it, too."
"Good." Her face was calm, but her voice was taut. "But that's the easy part. A Troll's armor can take a lot more damage, and he carries battle screen."
"You mentioned that before," Aston said. "Just what is it?"
"Think of it as a force field that interdicts incoming fire. Warship screens can absorb multimegaton explosions, but even a heavy Troll chassis isn't big enough to carry screen that powerful. The important thing to bear in mind about it, though, is that it can be overloaded locally by a lot less destructive energy than the entire screen can handle. We use sequenced attacks to do that to ship screen, then punch a missile through the weakened spot, but I doubt we can do that to the Troll because it takes such fine coordination. So we'll have to try to punch through with a single shot—and this is what kind of energy it will take."
She herded her friends back into position and changed the settings on her weapon while Jayne slipped a filter over the camcorder's lens.
"Cover your eyes," she said levelly, and squeezed the trigger again.
The whiplash sound was far worse this time. The crackling roar was more protracted, with sounds like secondary explosions, and Aston was devoutly grateful that the tanks carried neither fuel nor ammo. The acrid stench of burning paint and molten metal assailed him, and raw, bitter heat pressed against the hands over his eyes.
Then the noise ended.
"All right," Ludmilla said, and he lowered his hands.
No one said a word as the two twenty-first-century humans stared in awe at what had been a tank. Waves of heat shimmer danced above it, and the entire frontal plate glowed—white in the center, shading to bright cherry at the sides. The gun quivered, then drooped slowly to full depression, hanging on its trunnions, for the pulse from Ludmilla's weapon had cut the elevation actuator in half, sheared through the hydraulic system, and burned clear through the gun tube just in front of the breech. Aston knew it had, because he could see it through the two-foot hole in the frontal armor.
He circled the smoking tank in silence. The blast of energy had torn completely through it—right through the heart of the transmission and the big, 750-horsepower diesel—and then gouged a nine-foot pit in the cavern wall twenty feet beyond it. He turned slowly and saw Jayne staring at the wreckage in shock.
"That," he said, "is just a bit more than the best we can do, Milla. By a few thousand percent, I'd say."
"I was afraid of that when I saw how much damage I did on low power." She holstered the blaster, and the little whisper as it went into its nest was loud against the quiet hiss and ping of cooling steel and stone.
"My God." Hastings shook her head slowly. "What do we do now?"
"I don't know," Aston said somberly. "I can organize teams to take out your combat mechs, Milla, but this—?" He shook his head slowly. "Maybe if we hit it with a shit pot of TOWs. . . ."
"You can't do it that way, Dick," Ludmilla said. She stood beside him, looking at the carnage she'd wrought. "You can't sequence them tightly enough, and even if you could, he's almost certain to have set up a fallback by the time we find him. I don't know what it'll be, but I do know we have to take him out with a single shot, one that'll kill him before he can suicide and take the entire planet with him."
"We can't, Milla. I'm sorry, but we just can't."
"I know." She smiled crookedly. "I half-suspected you wouldn't be able to. But—" she met his eyes levelly "—I can."
She laid a hand on the butt of the holstered blaster which only she could fire, and he wanted—wanted more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life—to tell her no. To tell her that he didn't need her. That he wouldn't risk her.
But instead, he nodded silently.