Dolf Wilkins looked up as Allison DuChamps entered his office. DuChamps, one of the Bureau's most senior female agents, was a pleasantly unremarkable-looking woman with a first-class mind and a levelheadedness that was almost infuriating—a combination which had served her well in the field—and head of the domestic terrorism unit.
Wilkins smiled and she smiled back, but only with her lips. Her dark, foreboding eyes touched him with a chill, and his own smile faded.
"What is it, Alley?"
"I think we have a bad situation," she said carefully. "Possibly very bad."
Wilkins stiffened. The Bureau had learned its lesson (yet again, he conceded) about overreaction, Big Brotherliness, and clumsy interventions brought on by panic attacks among its leadership, which was one reason DuChamps had been chosen for her job. If Allison was concerned . . .
"What?" he asked again.
"I've been reading some reports from domestic surveillance," DuChamps replied, "and there's a very strange—and ugly—pattern developing. One with the potential to do a lot of damage."
"Where and how?"
"The Southeast and racism," she said succinctly. "To be more precise, large-scale, organized, deliberately orchestrated racial violence."
"What?" Wilkins sat straighter. Organized racial violence had become less of a concern to the Bureau over the last decade. Oh, there were still bigots—of every color and creed—who were willing or even eager to resort to violence, just as there were occasionally horrific incidents in which they did just that. But society's tolerance was drying up, and that, as every good cop knew, was the true secret to controlling any activity: turn it into something society as a whole rejected. Judicious pressure from the Justice Department and the Bureau helped keep it trimmed back, though there'd been a few ugly flare-ups in various inner cities and the Midwest and Northeast, but compared to other motives for organized violence, racism had become very much a secondary worry.
That was his first thought; his second was that the South wasn't even where racist organizations remained strongest. In fact, the focus of active bigotry seemed to have moved north from the Sunbelt, especially into the decaying urban sprawls of the "Rust Belt." Southerners had taken the rap too often in the sixties and seventies. As a society, they'd learned a lesson which the rest of the country, having taught it to the South, seemed disinclined to learn for itself.
"Are you sure, Alley?" he asked finally, and she nodded.
"It surprised me, too, Dolf, but it's there. And the entire pattern is . . . wrong. I've never seen anything like it."
"Explain," he said sharply.
"I'll try. Look, we all know there are patterns for organized hate groups. National and regional groups grow out of long-standing, widespread prejudice and/or the need for some sort of scapegoat. A localized group can arise from those same pressures or from the emergence of some `charismatic' (if you'll pardon the term) local leader or from strictly local, and therefore, by definition, special circumstances. Or, in some instances, a single powerful individual or group of individuals can, by economic or other pressures, create an organization, in which case it's usually rather fragile and tends to fall apart once the pressure from those individuals eases off. And, of course, some groups become pure hate groups as the `purity' of their other political goals degenerates. Right?"
"Yes," he said a bit impatiently.
"All right. What we have here is a series of apparently isolated episodes, scattered over parts of nine states. The states in question have different economies, social patterns, and ethnic compositions. With a few exceptions, none have any recent record of large-scale, racially motivated hostility—certainly not on an action-oriented, organized model. Only portions of each state seem to be affected, with no abnormalities outside the affected areas. And, finally, there are very clear similarities between these widely scattered episodes. So much of one, in fact, that I'm tempted to say we're looking at a single group's MO . . . except that the activity seems to jump back and forth across racial lines like a ping-pong ball!"
"Huh?" Wilkins leaned back in his chair. "Are you sure there really is a pattern, Alley? You're not reading correlations into unrelated data?"
"I'm certain." She opened a folder and glanced at some scribbled notes. "The Civil Rights Division passed us a formal—and quiet—request from the Southern Governor's Conference to look into racial unrest in both Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia. Aside from those mail bombings a few years back, the area's been quiet for so long that I'm afraid we didn't assign it a very high priority at first, but then the facts started coming in, and not just from those states.
"Fact: five months ago there was no significant racist activity in the affected areas. Fact: a little over three months ago, local law enforcement people started noticing a marked increase in both recruiting by and visibility of racist organizations, predominantly white. Fact: about two months ago, there began to be a few widely separated incidents—more what you'd call ruffianism than anything else—mingled with vandalism, cross burnings, harassment, that sort of thing. Fact: once the first moves had been made by the white groups, nonwhite groups started popping out of the woodwork and shoving back. Fact: one month ago, there was a decided and very noticeable acceleration in the situation, almost like a controlled surge, from both sides of the racial line . . . and the rate of increase is still climbing."
She closed the folder.
"What we seem to have here, Dolf," she said very precisely, "is the blow-off of carefully concealed but long-standing mutual hatreds. I mean, these people are organized—on a cell basis, no less—on both sides, and they're heavily armed and turning more extreme, more violence-prone, almost in unison, no matter which side they're on." She paused, regarding him levelly.
"I suppose it's theoretically possible that the situation could have been this bad all along without our noticing, but I don't believe it. The more peaceful, process-oriented radicals would have given us some sign of it, and I simply cannot convince myself that the Bureau and that many local law enforcement agencies could all miss something like this. Besides, the pattern is wrong. It's geographic, but not regional; it's racial, but not limited to one or even a few racial groups."
Wilkins nodded, fighting a strangely mixed exhilaration and horror.
"Go on," he said quietly.
"I plotted the data on a map, Dolf," she said. "I mean everything: rallies, known financial contributions, confrontations, the whole shooting match. And when I did, I found a uniform, graduated density of events, like a ripple pattern, spreading out from a common center, going just so far, and then stopping." She waved a hand. "Oh, there are odds and ends beyond the edge of the pattern, but I think they're rogues—copycats, that sort of thing. I mean, there'll always be some nuts, and if they get the idea there's some sort of `wave of the future' coming, it's bound to bring them out of the closet in their white sheets and swastikas or what-have-you. The point is that outside the boundary the events are scattered. They don't plot. But inside it . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"Did you bring a copy of your map?" Wilkins tried to keep his voice as normal and professional as possible.
"Here." She produced a photocopied map and unfolded it on his desk, tracing the rough circle she'd scribed upon it. It was centered on the North Carolina-Tennessee mountains, Wilkins noted, reaching out to just beyond Atlanta to the south and Portsmouth, Ohio, to the north. DuChamps had marked its approximate center, and Wilkins's mouth went dry when he saw its location. A little north of Asheville, he noted with a queer sense of almost-calm . . . and very close to the site of the plutonium theft.
"See?" she said. "Why should rural West Virginia or southern Ohio exhibit exactly the same pattern as Atlanta or Columbia, South Carolina? And if Columbia's going crazy, why isn't Raleigh? Or Charleston? And do you see how the incidence just stops at the edge of the circle?" He nodded silently, and she went on with quiet urgency.
"There's something else I don't think many of the locals have had enough data to notice, Dolf. A new organization. It's so well hidden we still don't even know its name, but it's there, and its members use a really weird `secret' identification symbol: a skeleton on a white horse."
"A what?" Wilkins blinked in confusion.
"A skeleton on a horse," DuChamps repeated, then shrugged. "I know, it doesn't make any sense. Doesn't relate to any known group's symbology, as far as we can determine. Weirdest of all, it definitely seems linked to all this racial unrest, but it appears to be more of an anarchist group, and we've identified members from several different races. And," she added more grimly, "it's violent as hell. The North Carolina SBI seems to have lost a four-man undercover team that got too close to just one member of whatever it is."
She shook her head slowly, stroking her folder.
"I don't know what's going on, Dolf, but some one outfit is pulling the strings. There's a common thread, some strategy I can't quite put my finger on. You just don't get this sort of pattern without someone creating it. I couldn't prove it in court, but that's the only explanation that even half-way makes sense—only that's crazy, too!"
"Maybe, Alley," he said, then paused; Allison DuChamps did not possess the critical alpha spike. He cleared his throat. "Keep an eye on it and put your planning staff to work on an in-depth analysis and some sort of reaction plan in case worse comes to worst, all right?"
"We need more than that, Dolf," she said. "Recruiting rallies are starting to pop up—big ones, with some ominous alliances behind them. The KKK and the Nazi Party plan to formalize something called the `Appalachian White People's Alliance' at a joint rally in Asheville this week, and that's just the start of it. Rumbles of opposition rallies by nonwhite militants are already turning up, too, and if something breaks, we won't begin to have the manpower to deal with it on a reaction basis. We've got to put somebody inside, see if we can't get a handle on who's setting it up. And we've got to do it fast."
"I'm inclined to agree," he lied, "but give me a little while to think about it. And leave me a copy of the map, if you can."
"Certainly. This is your copy of my report." She laid the folder on his desk and headed for the door, then paused and looked back. "But, Dolf," she said softly, "don't think too long, okay?"
"Okay, Alley," he said, never taking his eyes from the map.
The door closed behind her, and he reached for his phone the instant the latch clicked. He punched in a long-distance number and waited, fingers drumming nervously on the desk, until it was answered.
"Commander Morris?" He spoke quickly, urgently. "Dolf Wilkins. Look, don't get your hopes up, but I think we've found Grendel. . . . Yes, that's right, found him. Well, within thirty or forty square miles, anyway." He paused and listened for a long, taut moment. "Bet your sweet ass I can," he said with a savage grin. "I'll grab Stan Loren and be there within two hours if I have to carry the damned plane on my back!"
A bevy of tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys swooped out of the hot September sun in a hurricane of dust and flying debris to disgorge the first echelon of Company T. The fixed-wing planes had come roaring in at three hundred knots, then slowed sharply and rotated their wingtip engines through ninety degrees to descend vertically. Side and rear cargo hatches opened before they touched down, and three fully equipped squads stormed out of each aircraft, heading for preselected firing positions. They carried their usual personal weapons, M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) machine guns, and an astoundingly high number of antiarmor weapons. In addition to extra issues of the single-shot Predator SRAW (Short Range Assault Weapon) which had replaced the AT-4 and the even older LAW (Lightweight Anti-Armor Weapon) as the standard light antitank weapon of the Corps, each platoon contained an extra antiarmor squad equipped with three Dragon heavy man-portable tank-killer launchers equipped with the new Superdragon II fire-and-forget missile upgrade which had become standard Army issue but had not yet reached the Corps.
Rear Admiral Richard Aston watched Major Abernathy's men deploy, racing through the waist-high grass while their aircraft lifted out to clear the landing zone. The moment the LZ was clear, C-130Js rumbled in just above the ground to drop palletized eight-wheeled LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles) with their turreted, twenty-five-millimeter autocannon, and the vehicles of an attached heavy machine-gun platoon from their rear-opening cargo doors. The vehicles landed amid the sounds of splintering pallets, and beyond them a second wave of Ospreys was already coming in with vehicle crews, more rifle squads, more ammunition, and still more antitank weapons.
He glanced at his stopwatch, then at Ludmilla. They'd managed to shave off another few seconds, but in a sense they were just marking time. They had no idea what sort of terrain or tactical situation would obtain when they finally found the Troll, so they were running standard exercises to keep basic skills sharp. They'd run several urban exercises, as well, but the strategy team all agreed that they were unlikely to find something as visually obvious as the Troll hiding in a city.
He looked up, frowning, as the whacking sound of fresh rotors came from behind. They were running the exercise without helos, so what—?
The Blackhawk transport came over a rise, headed directly towards them, then flared and settled like a giant, dust-breathing dragonfly, glittering in the hot sunlight under a whining halo of rotor blades.
Aston and Ludmilla turned curiously to watch the hatch open, but when a familiar, pudgy form in the uniform of a Navy commander jumped out their curiosity became tension. They glanced at one another and then, without a word, moved quickly to meet him.
Morris waded through the grass towards them, waving for them to wait where they were, and they stopped. He toiled over to them, sweating heavily in the heat, and his expression was taut.
"Mordecai! What are you doing here?" Ludmilla demanded before Aston could get a word in.
"It's Grendel," Morris said in a low, fierce voice. "We've got him, Milla! We've pinned the bastard down at last!"
"I don't know, Mordecai," Aston said unhappily, rubbing his bald pate while he stared down at the map on which Morris and Jayne Hastings had further refined Allison DuChamps's data. They'd narrowed the possible area to a circle no more than ten miles across and plotted it on a large-scale topographical map, but it was a rough ten miles. "Okay, I agree he has to be more or less in here—" he tapped the circle in which the lines connecting various incidents all crossed "—but look at it. It's all heavy forest, the road net stinks, and once we start a systematic search, he'll be up and away before we can stop him. If we knew exactly where he was, things'd be different, but going in blind . . ."
His voice trailed off and he shook his head, and Morris wiped sweat from his face silently. It was sweltering in Aston's command trailer, and his own elation had dimmed as the admiral took him step-by-step, remorselessly, through their meager data. The information represented a tremendous breakthrough—the first real break they'd had—but Dick was right. Morris admitted it unhappily, but he admitted it. He and Wilkins had been too exhilarated to look for difficulties, but Aston was a professional's professional. He knew that Murphy's was the first law of military operations.
The intelligence officer sighed and ran fingers through his sweaty hair, frowning as he, too, stared down at the map. Now he understood why Loren had seemed less euphoric than the FBI director and himself. The CIA man's ex-Ranger background meant he was more accustomed to operations mounted in trackless wilderness without street signs, and he'd seen more clearly what Aston faced.
Still, they knew roughly where he was. . . .
"If large-scale searches are out, what about small ground parties of Troll-proof recon troops?" he asked finally.
"That may be the way we have to go." Aston sighed. "And we've been training for just that, but I'd hoped to avoid it. That's a damned big area, and we've only got so many men, Mordecai. Besides, if we send people in on the ground, Grendel's likely to spot them before they spot him, especially if he's well hidden. If he does, they won't have the firepower to stop him. They can't—not if they're supposed to be unobtrusive. So if there's hard contact between us and him, we're going to lose a lot of people and he'll probably bug out before we can get the main force in place."
"All right," Morris said, "suppose we set up an air umbrella before you go in? A squadron of F-16s from Shaw—or, better yet, F-15s from Langley—could fly top cover and nail him if he took off, couldn't they?"
"I don't know," Aston said thoughtfully. "Milla?"
"It's worth trying," she said slowly, "but he's faster than anything we've got, and he can accelerate faster, too. With a small start, he could simply outrun your missiles, and his antimissile systems are pretty good, as well. Then, too, he'd have an excellent chance of fighting his way through several dozen of your best fighters head-to-head—unless you arm them with nukes. And with chemical warheads, you'd have to use heavy surface-to-air missiles to do him much damage, because your air-to-air missiles just don't pack enough punch."
"Their SAM versions knocked down his wingmen," Morris pointed out.
"True, but you fired hundreds of them." She wiped her damp forehead, and Morris hid a grin. At least her symbiote didn't keep her from sweating. "And the real reason they worked wasn't their power but the tactical situation. They took the Kangas—and Grendel—by surprise, because none of them expected any threat from such primitive technology. Even then, they wouldn't have worked if they hadn't been moving at such high velocity that their drive fields were all focused forward and couldn't interdict. Not to mention the way atmospheric friction tore them apart once their hull integrity was breached." She shook her head. "No, it's going to take something at least as heavy as a Patriot to damage his hull significantly, assuming he's not configured to interdict. And, frankly, your SAMs would be dead meat against his active defenses unless we can fire enough to saturate his tracking capability."
"And we don't happen to have a couple of dozen Patriot batteries already in the area," Aston pointed out to Morris. "Which means we can't count on taking him out once he gets airborne even if he hasn't come up with some way to screw our tracking systems over. We've got to catch him on the ground, someplace we can close in with enough heavy weapons to deal with his mechs and catch him on take off, when his drive field can't interdict."
Morris nodded, his expression unhappy. Ludmilla had briefed them all on the Troll's flight systems. Fighters didn't mount battle screen because they used their n-drives to intercept incoming weapons, but the Troll couldn't configure his drive field to do that until he was at least a hundred meters off the ground. Up to that point, he could be hit—assuming they got through his active defenses—but the window would be only seconds wide.
"More to the point, perhaps," Aston went on, "we're all agreed that we're only going to get one clean shot at him—if we're lucky. Once he knows we're on to him, he'll redouble his security measures, at the very least; at worst, he'll go for the quick kill and simply blow the planet up. So we have to catch him when he's vulnerable, and to do that, we have to know where he is. Which is only another way of saying that we can't search for him without risking alerting him, but that we've got to know where he is before we warn him in any other way."
"Maybe." Ludmilla licked sweat from her upper lip and ran her fingertip over the mountainous terrain, frowning. "I know we'd hoped for some sort of physical sighting, but this may actually be better. He must be pretty well hidden—probably underground; they like that—and we haven't had any search activity in the area. So he must know we haven't spotted him, and when we do turn up, he's going to spend a few minutes wondering why we're there."
"Which would be all very well if we knew where he was," Aston objected, but his face was intent, as if he sensed some thought working itself out behind her eyes.
"Maybe we can figure that out," she said softly, turning to Morris. "Mordecai, is there any sort of aircraft which would normally fly something remotely like a search pattern in that area?"
"Hm?" Morris thought for a moment, frowning, but it was Abernathy who provided the answer.
"Sure," he said. "Forestry Service planes buzz around the national forests and parks all the time." Morris and Aston looked at him with surprised respect, and he chuckled. "Hey, I'm a California boy. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley—little place named Exeter, just below Sequoia National Park. They do surveys, aerial mapping, hunt for pot growers, watch for forest fires, all that sort of thing."
"Yes, they do," Morris said slowly, "and the Southeast's been dry again this year. I bet they're keeping a real close fire-watch."
"Good." Ludmilla looked at Aston. "I've half-expected something like this. That's why I was so glad to get my flight suit back together."
"Why?" he asked tensely.
"Because the sensies work. I can wear it and ride around in one of these Forestry Service planes. Even if he's buried himself, he'll have set up detection posts. Why not? Your technology wouldn't even recognize one of his scan beams."
"But yours will," he said flatly, and frowned when she nodded. "No, Milla. We need you to handle your blaster. I let you talk me into jump school because we might have to go in by chute, but if you go mucking around up there with twenty-fifth century technology and he spots you—"
"I'll use passive systems," she said calmly. "Everything else will be powered down to a shielded trickle charge. He'd have to be within a hundred meters to pick that up, and that's assuming he knew to look for them in the first place. Which he won't, because I'm `dead,' right?"
"Just so you don't get that way for real." He tried to speak lightly, but she heard personal as well as professional concern in his voice, and her eyes smiled at him.
"All right," he said after a moment, "how close can you pin him down?"
"Well, with a little luck I can place his scanner sites, at least, to within . . . oh, twenty meters. The area he's protecting with them should give us a good idea where he is, and if you put up an air umbrella that knows where to look, you'll at least double your chance of catching him as he lifts."
"All right," he sighed again, after a long, silent moment. "I don't like it, but I don't see any way around it, either. So where do you think he is?"
"I suspect he's right here," she said, tapping the map. Aston craned his neck and looked over her shoulder. Her finger rested on something called Sugarloaf Mountain. "Right in the middle of Mordecai's area with this nice valley right at the top, see? There's even a road of sorts, connecting to state highway—" she bent closer to the map "—Two-Twelve, and it looks pretty heavily forested in there. Good cover."
"You may be right. But he could be in one of these side valleys, too."
"I know. But that's where he is, Dick. Somewhere on this mountain."
"Agreed," he said, giving himself a mental shake and banishing his feeling of dread. "All right, Mordecai, get us a Forestry Service plane. We'll put a pilot we know the bastard can't read into it to be on the safe side, and we'll have Jayne see what kind of satellite pictures she can hunt up, too." He turned to Abernathy. "Major, alert the troops. I want a full gear inspection by eighteen hundred."
"Yes, Sir," Abernathy said crisply.
"Mordecai—" Aston turned back to the commander "—get back to Washington and tell Admiral McLain we need a fighter umbrella—a distant one. See if he can set it up out of Langley or Pax River; they're both outside the Troll's reach, but they can get there in a hurry. But stress that I don't want them mission-briefed ahead of time. Find the senior man with a good EEG and put him in charge, then brief him so he can set up an ops plan, but don't let him give it to the troops until just—"
He broke off as he realized Morris wasn't listening to him.
"Mordecai?" Aston cocked his head and followed the direction of Morris's eyes. Ludmilla had just taken off her jacket, and the commander was staring at her as if at a ghost. "Mordecai!"
"Just . . . just a minute, Dick," Morris said softly. He was still staring at Ludmilla, and she looked back with a puzzled expression.
"Milla," he asked quietly, "where did you get that shirt?"
"This?" She looked down, stroking the silk-screening, and Abernathy and Aston looked at her in puzzlement. It was the one with the skeletal rider, and they'd seen it many times without noting anything extraordinary.
"That," Morris said. "According to the FBI report, there's a screwy anarchist group with an interracial membership turning up. Not many members actually spotted, but they're spread all over the affected area."
"So?" Aston asked.
"Their emblem," Morris said softly, "is a skeleton on a white horse."
There was silence, and Ludmilla rose slowly, reaching for the FBI report. As she stood, Morris started visibly and reached out quickly. Her eyes widened, but she stood motionless as he grabbed the bottom of her shirt and stretched it out, reading the lettering.
"My God, my God!" he whispered. "No wonder I didn't think of it. It's not from my book—it's from yours!"
"What in hell are you talking about, Mordecai?" Aston demanded.
"This." He turned the lettering and read it aloud. " `The Fourth Horseman,' " he whispered. Aston looked blank, but Abernathy straightened with a jerk. "The rider on the pale horse," Morris went on. "The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse." He looked up and met Aston's eyes.
"Death," he said quietly.
There was total silence, then Aston cleared his throat.
"All right, M&M. When you talk to Admiral McLain, tell him to make sure at least some of the air cover's armed with nukes."
"Nukes?" Morris stared at him, frowning in protest. "But what about the ground force? We can't use—"
"You damned well can," Aston said harshly. "We can't fuck around with him, Mordecai. If this son-of-a-bitch gets off the ground, we'll lose him. Either he'll go to ground all over again—this time knowing that we're at least partly onto him—or he may just be pissed enough to set off his bomb. So if I tell you to, or if whoever's in charge upstairs sees the bastard taking off, nail him. Understood?"
There was another long silence, then Morris nodded reluctantly.
"Master, I think it's a mistake," Blake Taggart said to the featureless panel which hid the Troll. "We know they're ready. Why risk it now?"
"It is illogical to assume that what has not been tested will function as desired," the Troll replied coldly. Deep within himself, he was amused to be preaching logic to a human after all the endless years in which the Shirmaksu had prated of it to him.
"But it's too soon, Master," the Blake Taggart human argued stubbornly, and the Troll felt a grudging respect for the creature's courage. Or was it simply that it sensed his own dependence upon it? No matter.
"It is not too soon." The mechanical voice was even harsher than usual, and the Troll smiled mentally as he felt the human's fear. It had argued too long once before, and days had passed before it even began to forget the anguish that had earned it.
"Blake Taggart," the Troll went on more evenly, "the plan requires increasing violence as the election nears, but it must be controlled, directed. I must know that I can begin it when I wish and aim it as I will, and also that I can call these vermin to heel when I must. Much depends upon that, and I will not rely on a tool I have not tested. Besides—" the hideous sound of trollish laughter grated in the control room "—a foretaste should improve the panic. And this town of Asheville is perfect. Close enough to watch with my remotes, small enough for an excellent laboratory, yet large enough to determine how well our tool fares against one of your urban centers. And I do not care for this Asheville, Blake Taggart. Its leadership has proved too hard to touch, to control, and it is close to my base. No, I will destroy it."
"Destroy it?" Taggart was alarmed. "But that would take—"
"More strength than I have recruited here. Yes, Blake Taggart, I know. My creatures are already on the move—not all, but enough."
"In that case, why not call in the Brigade? We don't know exactly what will happen, but it might be better to have some of our own people handy—people we can trust to do exactly what they're told, not just what you can suggest to them indirectly."
"Yes," the Troll mused. "Yes, Blake Taggart, that may be an excellent idea. Summon them all. We will test your mobilization plan, as well."
"I will, Master," Taggart said.