Major Daniel Abernathy, USMC, Commanding Officer, Company T, Provisional (reinforced), blinked on sweat and tried not to smile as he watched Admiral Aston and "Captain Ross" running side by side in front of him. It was hard.
The admiral was no spring chicken, but he certainly didn't run like an old man, either. His nondescript gray sweats were soaked with perspiration under the hot sun, but he was moving well. Very well, Abernathy thought, with the easy rhythm of a man who knew exactly how to pace himself. A man accustomed to pushing himself to the limit, and wise enough to know that limit when he reached it.
Captain Ross—Abernathy seldom allowed himself to think of her by any other name, and no one else in Company T except Sergeant Major Horton knew she had one—ran along the packed beach beside him, in one of her outlandish shirts, this one bearing a flame-eyed skeletal horseman, a long scythe gleaming over his shoulder. It was strictly non-reg, of course, not that anyone was likely to complain. At the moment, she was as sweat-soaked as the admiral, but she ran with an infinite endurance Abernathy found almost unnerving. She needed two strides to match each of Aston's long, loping ones, yet she gave the impression that she could go on doing it forever.
They always ran together, and she always ran the admiral into the ground, yet there was absolutely no competition between them. With any pair of Marines Abernathy had ever known, enlisted or commissioned, there would have been a rivalry. Friendly perhaps, but always there. Not with these two. It was as if they were beyond that. Indeed, Abernathy felt a bit daunted when he looked up and saw the two of them watching his men train. Their eyes were so similar, so knowing, as if each of them had seen the same thing a thousand times and felt an identical kindly tolerance for the brash, tough young men doing it this time.
But, then, he reminded himself, Captain Ross was not what appearances might suggest, and her relationship with Admiral Aston was no one's damned business but their own. They were utterly discreet—they had to be on a teeming military post like this—but Abernathy knew they were lovers, and he was pretty certain Sergeant Major Horton did, too.
Under other circumstances, Abernathy might have been tempted to object. Certainly his professionalism had been offended when he first realized Aston was sleeping with his aide, but no longer. Those two were one of the most effective teams he'd ever seen, and whatever their private relationship might be, it never colored their actions on duty.
Well, practically never, he amended, smiling as he remembered Captain Ross's first day on the pistol range. She'd nearly wet her pants the first time the admiral squeezed off with his .45 auto, and only later did Abernathy realize that, for all her combat experience, she'd never heard a firearm discharged. But Admiral Aston had known, and his face-cracking grin had told Abernathy he hadn't warned her deliberately.
With her extraordinary strength and reflexes, she'd seemed to levitate as the explosive crash blasted over her, and Abernathy understood instantly why Aston had cleared the range of everyone but Captain Ross and Abernathy himself. Her reaction would have been a dead giveaway that, whatever she was, she was not a Marine captain.
But she was, Abernathy had found, a natural shot. Recoil had bothered her a lot the first day, but she'd settled down quickly. Like the admiral—or, for that matter, Major Daniel Abernathy, US Marine Corps—she preferred the .45 to the nine-millimeters the US military had adopted. Unlike the admiral, however, she preferred the polymer-framed SOCOM .45 to the old 1911 variants, and by the end of the second week, she was pushing Aston, himself a past national pistol champion, hard. Her groups were consistently tight, her first magazine regularly blew the X-ring right out of her target, and her combat range scores were incredible. She'd set a new post record—unofficially, since no one but Abernathy and Aston had been witnesses and Horton had acted as range officer. It was her speed, Abernathy thought. That blinding, smoothly flowing speed . . .
Not that there hadn't been problems. She'd insisted on training with every weapon Company T was issued, but though she'd become skilled and deadly with all of them, the men had been uneasy when they realized she'd be coming along when the mission finally went down. None of them were idiots; they knew she was much more than their officers chose to admit, but she was such a little thing, and whatever the official position might be, "No women in ground combat" remained the effective Corps policy.
But she'd surmounted that, too. Company T contained an extraordinary number of vets and "lifers," including such a high proportion of senior noncoms that other unit commanders were grumbling about "poachers." Out of them all, she'd challenged Gunnery Sergeant Morton Jaskowicz, a big, mean mountain of a man from the Pennsylvania coal country whose last duty had been as an unarmed combat instructor at Pendleton, to a "friendly" match. Abernathy had been horrified, but Aston had refused to let him quash the idea.
She and Jaskowicz had ended up in front of the more doubtful members of the company, who had confidently expected Little Miss Smartass to be sent to the showers in a hurry. At first, she'd been almost passive . . . or looked that way. In fact, she'd evaded everything Jaskowicz tried to do, slithering away from him like a greasy, hard-muscled snake until she convinced him he would have to go all out to take her, despite her small size. But once she'd convinced him and everyone knew she had, she'd put him away in six seconds flat with a combination Jaskowicz had never even heard of.
Then she did the same thing to the four next-toughest Marines present to prove it had been no fluke. Company T had spent twenty-four hours in shock, but there were no more muttered comments about the proper toys for little girls after that.
She'd taken everything in stride with equal professionalism, including quickie jump training, though Abernathy had been amazed to find that the mere notion of jumping out of an airplane terrified her. She turned pasty-faced, sweat-popping white every time she went up, but she never let it stop her, and her determination had delivered the coup de grace to any lingering doubts Company T might have harbored. These men knew all about fear, even if they never admitted it, and they respected what it took to conquer a terror as deep as hers.
She and the admiral reached the end of their run and slowed to a jog, moving in circles to keep their muscles from tightening, and Abernathy passed them at an easy lope. Another half mile and then a shower, he thought, followed by the regular afternoon briefing.
He only hoped there would finally be some news of the Troll.
Aston felt his breathing ease and his heartbeat slow. He'd never expected to train this hard again, though he'd certainly never intended to wither away into overweight old age, and it felt good. It had been rough for the first few weeks, but he felt at least ten years younger now. Which, he reminded himself, was still too old for what he was preparing to do. Better, but still too old.
He wiped his face and bald head with the towel from around his neck, then handed it to Ludmilla. She was breathing only slightly harder than usual, and he was sure his ego would have been crushed if he hadn't known she'd grown up in twenty percent more gravity than he'd ever felt and possessed a symbiote that cleaned fatigue products out of her blood as fast as she could generate them.
She smiled at him, but he knew she was worried. That was fair enough; he was worried to death himself. Four months since the bloody raid, and not a peep out of him. A ton of plutonium was an awesome threat, and when Ludmilla had explained just what the Troll could do with it, Aston had felt physically ill with terror for the first time in many years.
He had no idea what the "Nova Cycle" was, but anything which needed a sequence of thermonuclear explosions just to initiate it—especially the sort someone could put together with that much fissionable material—had to be horrific. He'd asked Ludmilla what it did, but she'd refused to be specific beyond the obvious: if it went off, there would no longer be an Earth. He sometimes wondered if she knew how to build one of them herself, for her explanations often struck him as more general than they had to be, as if she was afraid to give the children any noisier toys than they already had.
But if passing time was gnawing at them all, the men were shaping up nicely. "Company T" was closer to a battalion than a company, with four rifle platoons (each with two extra rifle squads and an attached antitank squad), not three, plus two armored assault platoons, a vehicle-mounted heavy weapons platoon, three FAC teams, and an entire extra antitank platoon. Every man was Troll-proof, and all had been briefed on what they were up against—in general terms; none had yet been told who or what Ludmilla really was—and confined to post for the duration. Aston had no fear that any of them would deliberately tell a soul, but accidental slips were another matter. He was gratified to find that his Marines (he'd come to think of them as "his" from a very early point) were as security-conscious as he was. They'd done a lot of bitching, but that was a Marine's God-given right and not a single real complaint about security measures had reached him.
And at least Armbruster's South Atlantic adventure had generated enough confusion to cover the military reshuffling Aston and McLain had deemed necessary. There was some curiosity about "Company T" now, but it was fairly mild, and no one had even asked any questions while they were setting it up. The strange plethora of EEGs had passed virtually unnoticed, as well, and so had the intense, high-level discussions between Washington, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Moscow.
Aston had begrudged the time Ludmilla had been forced to spend telling her story firsthand so many times, but in the event it had been worthwhile. She'd used up the full charge of one blaster magazine demonstrating it to prime ministers, premiers, and generals on three continents, but it had put any doubts to rest. He wished to hell that they'd been able to share their information a bit more widely, too. He didn't much care for the French or the Chinese, but he had serious qualms about the decision not to tell them about the Troll. Finding and killing the Troll was likely to take all the resources they could pull together, and whatever he might think of France or China—or, for that matter, what they might think of the US—he couldn't quite rid himself of the thought that they had a moral right to know about a threat like the Troll which could well be hidden somewhere on their territory.
Yet Armbruster had decided not to inform them, and Aston knew too much about the security risks involved in telling those two governments anything to try second-guessing the President's call. The French, for example, were involved in a vicious game of internal partisan politics, and their recent, strident anti-American sentiments would have made the possibility of a leak—probably from someone who knew only a part of the story and thus could have no idea what damage he or she could do—extremely high.
The Chinese were another case entirely, and Aston knew Armbruster had come within a hair's breadth of telling them despite the current international antagonism between the PRC and the US. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately; Aston couldn't quite make up his mind which), every attempt to get copies of the required EEGs had failed, for no one had been able to think of a way to obtain them. So Beijing knew nothing about the Troll, although Taipei did (which had the potential to make things enormously worse, of course), which meant that he could look for a hiding place in one of the largest nations on Earth without the local authorities having the least idea that they should be hunting for him.
It also meant that Yakolev and Armbruster had quietly agreed that if the Troll did turn out to be hiding in Chinese territory, the US and Russian Federation would launch a joint nuclear strike on his location. Both were fully aware of the horrible risks and the potentially horrendous loss of life entailed in any such strike, but both also agreed that the destruction of the Troll must be accomplished at any cost . . . and that they dared not risk sharing the information which might avert such a strike with anyone whose mind they weren't certain the Troll could not read.
As if God were trying to offer some form of compensation, however, they'd been very lucky with the EEGs in most of the other nations on their list. Only in Japan had both the prime minister and his assistant failed the test, but the Emperor and the chief of the Japanese Defense Force had passed. Still, Aston was almost amazed that the secret had stood up, though, to be fair, no more than a few hundred people on the face of the planet knew it. Not a single legislature had been informed, and he was quietly certain that at least one highly placed West European statesman's fatal "heart attack" had been arranged by his own government when, despite the most rigorous pre-briefing screening, he proved a poor security risk.
On the operational side, Company T was but one of several strike teams, although it was the only one which had been briefed on its real mission. The tight-knit circle of allies and enemies who had come together to meet the threat agreed that the plutonium theft indicated that the Troll was in North America, so Company T had been designated the primary strike force. The others were basically backups, and he had no idea what cover stories their superiors had concocted for them.
But all of the intricate cooperation and planning was useless without a target, and they had none. Four months had flowed past without a single additional clue to the Troll's location, plans, or status.
The Honorable Jeremiah Willis, Mayor of Asheville, North Carolina, hated Raleigh. A month—even three weeks—ago, that hadn't the case, but it was now. He'd been to the state capital three times in the last two weeks, and each meeting had been grimmer than the last.
"Governor," he said, speaking for himself and the mayors of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Charlotte, "we have to do something! This . . . situation is about to get totally out of hand. It's a nightmare."
Governor James Farnam nodded slowly. His face was lined with fatigue, and State Attorney General Melvyn Tanner looked equally worn and harassed.
"Mayor Willis," the governor said heavily, "I couldn't agree with you more, but what, exactly, do you suggest? The State Bureau of Investigation is working overtime, but the `situation,' as you put it, is as confusing to them as it is to us. They don't have the manpower even to ask the right questions, much less find answers."
"Governor," it was Cyrus Glencannon, Mayor of Charlotte, "I don't even know if law enforcement is the answer." He frowned, his black face tense. "So far—so far," he repeated "—we only have a handful of confrontations, and the local authorities seem to be dealing with them pretty well. It's what's coming that scares me."
"Scares all of us," Mayor Willis interjected. "I haven't seen anything like this since . . . since before some of the people in this room were born! It's like a throwback to the forties!"
There was a glum silence of agreement. What had started as a trickle of racial episodes—a trickle particularly agonizing to Southern leaders—had grown steadily more numerous . . . and uglier. As Glencannon said, there had been no more than a score of known incidents, and most of them had been of the ugly intimidation variety rather than true violence, but there was a vicious ground swell. It had spread slowly from Western North Carolina, but now it enveloped half the state. Membership in lunatic-fringe organizations like the KKK and the American Nazi Party had risen steeply, and the tempo was increasing.
So far, the rest of the country was scarcely aware of it, but the men in this room knew. They were not alarmists, yet they were frightened. Badly frightened. The unrest had come out of nowhere, with absolutely no warning, and the first signs had been so scattered that it hadn't occurred to local authorities that they might involve other jurisdictions. Only in the last two weeks had the incidents begun to coalesce, and now they were moving like a gradually accelerating freight train. It was only a matter of time before the public became generally aware of them, and what might happen then did not bear thinking of.
What the rest of the country might think was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to the anguish in this tense room. Their state, their cities, and, above all, their people were falling prey to an old, ugly hate they'd thought they were defeating—and they seemed helpless before it.
"Gentlemen," Farnam said, "believe me, I understand. And it's not just us. Every Southeastern state north of Florida is involved, and none of us has any idea why it's happening. We're asking the Justice Department to put the FBI on it, but I don't really expect them to find the answer either. The economy's strong. There's no special hardship to bring out the worst in people. It's like it just . . . appeared out of nowhere." He saw from their expressions that he'd told them nothing they didn't already know, and his face darkened with rage.
"Goddamn it!" He slammed a fist on the conference table, and his curse was a mark of just how distressed he was, for he was a devout Southern Baptist who abhorred profanity. "We were on top of it! We were making better racial progress than any other part of the country! What in God's name went wrong?"
It was a strong man's desperate plea for enlightenment, and no one had an answer at all.
"It goes well, Blake Taggart?" The Troll's voice had become very nearly human in the past several months of conversation with his minion.
"Very well, Master," Taggart said with a grin. He scarcely noticed any longer that he used the title the Troll had demanded of him. There were moments when he worried—fleetingly—that the Troll's insanity was infecting his own brain, but they were increasingly less frequent, for his master's nihilism had begun to send its strange, dark fire crawling through his own veins. He was becoming the Troll's Renfield; he knew it, yet it scarcely bothered him. He'd discovered the controls the Troll had set within his own brain and body, and, strangely, they didn't bother him, either. The operation had become something greater than he was, and the power he would wield as the Troll's viceroy was sweet on his tongue.
"Good," the Troll said, and the still-hideous sound of its laughter echoed in the buried fighter. "My candidates will do well this November, Blake Taggart."
"I know they will, Master. We'll see to that." And Taggart's laughter was almost as hideous as his master's.
The Troll was pleased. This human was worth every moment invested in it. It had a brain of vitriol and venom, and his judicious alterations had only made it better. And it was cunning. The Troll had anticipated building his power base out of the Leonard Stillwaters of the United States, but Taggart had shown him a far more productive use for them.
It wouldn't have occurred to the Troll to use the humans who hated to win control of those who did not. He admitted that. But Taggart had taught him much about these easily led sheep.
The Troll could touch no more than a third of the minds about him. His experiments had shown him how to completely control any he could touch, but to dominate even one totally required his full attention . . . and left its owner a mindless husk when he was done. What he most desired were willing slaves, but barely five percent—seven at the most—were as susceptible to corruption as Taggart itself, and to make specific changes even in those few required individual time and effort. Yet he could "push" at every open mind when they slept, influencing them gradually, bending them subtly to his will. He could reshape their perceptions and beliefs as long as there was even the slightest outward stimulus to drive them in the desired direction.
Taggart had provided that stimulus. He and the Troll had made a painstaking survey of state and local political figures in the upcoming elections, selecting the ones who would be most amenable to manipulation once in office. Many of those individuals were already likely to win in November, but others were likely to lose. So the Troll had thrown his own influence into the scale to support "his" candidates.
Many—indeed, most—of those candidates would have been horrified if they'd known of the Troll's existence or what he planned for them, but that was satisfactory. Once they were in office would be soon enough to begin reshaping them, and, in the meantime, he could amuse himself to good effect with their more corruptible fellow citizens.
He was working strongly, if subtly, upon all the ethnic groups caught within his net, and he'd been delighted by what Taggart called "the domino effect." Hatred begat hatred, making it ever easier for him to stir his cauldron of prejudice and bigotry. It would take only a tiny push to tip that cauldron and spill its poison across the land, and the Troll intended to provide that push.
But not everywhere. He would use his Pavlovian monsters with care, for they were the tool with which he would prod and chivvy those minds he could not warp directly. Where his chosen candidates were already firmly in power, there would be little or no violence. Where his selected pawns were only shakily in control, there would be violence which they would contain, and a thankful population would return them gratefully to office. And where his future tools were the outsiders, there would be carnage . . . carnage for which the current officeholders would be blamed.
Oh, yes, it would be lovely. The Troll could hardly wait to light the fuse, especially in the areas where "his" politicians were the challengers, for it would be there he could indulge himself. There he could slake his appetite for destruction—for the moment, at least—with the sweet knowledge that humans were killing humans for him. He would set his puppets in motion and savor the exquisite cunning which used them to torment and enslave themselves.
In the meantime, he'd culled a force of the most hate-filled and destructive. Taggart called them his "Apocalypse Brigade," and the Troll was amazed that he hadn't seen the need for them himself. His combat mechs were few in number and far too noticeable to employ where they might be seen or reported.
His humans were another matter. More fragile and less reliable, yet able to go anywhere and programmed into total loyalty. Their numbers were still growing, but he had over nine hundred already, and the contributions he could "persuade" other humans—many of them wealthy—to make had armed and equipped them well by the primitive standards of this planet.
They knew nothing of his existence. Indeed, they believed they followed Blake Taggart, and, in truth, Taggart understood them even better than the Troll who had created them. It was Taggart who grasped the inner workings of their twisted psyches and had designed an emblem to focus and harness their driven, destructive energy. But they would do the Troll's bidding, for Taggart would order them to do whatever he desired. Already he had tested them in small numbers, in isolated areas, upon travelers and others who would never be missed, and the cruelty and savagery he had instilled in them pleased him.
They pleased him, yet the need to touch so many minds was wearing. His creators had given him an electronic amplifying system of tremendous power, but it was his brain which produced the original signal. The power supply of his fighter pushed his mental patterns outward, hammering at the humans about him, yet he'd underestimated the time requirement, and for the first time in his tireless life, he felt fatigue. His brain was organic; unlike a computer, he wearied eventually of concentration and required rest. And, also unlike a computer, he could do but one thing at a time, however well he might do it. The need to concentrate upon the task at hand—and to rest from it—had delayed his bomb badly.
But that, too, was acceptable. He had made progress—not as much as he'd hoped, for the technical data on the construction of weapons, as opposed to their employment, were guarded by Shirmaksu security codes he could not break easily. But they could be broken with time. He had most of what he required now, and once the design was completed, his servomechs could fabricate and assemble the components in a very few days.
Not that he expected to need the bomb. Things were going well, very well, and surely if any human on this benighted planet had possessed the wit to search for him, it had given up by now. Besides, he thought with a wicked, hungry happiness, anyone who might have hunted him would be occupied with other matters very soon.
Like the wildfire waiting to consume its land.