Deputy Holden Mitchell rechecked the loads in his Ithaca Model 37 shotgun. He'd bought it with his own money rather than use the Remington 870s the rest of the Department were issued—and he hadn't added the disconnector. He had eight rounds of twelve-gauge available, and he could fire them as rapidly as he could work the slide. Once upon a time, he'd been willing to admit all the ribbing about paranoia he'd taken over his choice in weapons might have a point; today he wasn't. Afternoon sunlight spilled down on the double ribbon of asphalt, and the air was cool, but his face was grim as he listened to the radio traffic. He'd known all four of the deputies who'd just died a few miles north of his position.
Mitchell glanced sideways at his partner. Allen Farmer's face showed little sign of his thoughts, but Mitchell recognized the tightness around his eyes. He'd been a little leery when they first teamed him with a black man, but not now. Not until today, anyway. There'd always been a certain unspoken tension between them—an awareness of differences. It hadn't kept them from respecting one another and forming a firm friendship, but it was always there. Privately, Mitchell had resented Allen's unspoken assumption that anyone he met was a racist until proved otherwise. He'd never let it get out of hand, but Mitchell had known it was there.
And today, Holden Mitchell thought bitterly, he finally understood exactly why Allen thought that way.
A state cruiser screeched to a stop behind them, and a pair of state troopers trotted up to the two county cars parked nose-to-nose across the south-bound lanes of US 23. The north-bound lanes were blocked by a logging truck Mitchell had commandeered earlier in the day.
"What's going on back there?" Mitchell demanded of the senior trooper.
"Mars Hill's okay—for now," the trooper replied tersely. "But there's trouble in Asheville. Rumor is some of the Guard units started shooting at each other."
"Shit." Mitchell spat tobacco juice onto the pavement and squinted into the breeze blowing out of the north. What was keeping the bastards? "You all we get?"
" 'Fraid so, Deputy—till the Guard gets straightened out, anyway." The trooper was sweating, but his voice was level. "And I can't say I like this position a hell of a lot."
"You an' me both, Corporal, but the idea's to keep them away from the junction of Nineteen and Twenty-Three." He shrugged.
"Yeah." The trooper wiped his mouth and stiffened as the sound of engines came down the highway. "They told me you're the boss. How do you want to handle this?"
"Well, I'll tell you, Corporal, I'm s'posed to stop 'em, and I figure I'll just flag the bastards down—with this." Mitchell twitched the Ithaca, and the trooper gave him a thin smile.
"I can live with that," he said.
The Troll gave a mental shudder of pleasure as he tasted blood at last. The uniformed idiots who'd tried to block his hate-maddened humans had paid for their stupidity, and he had discovered something unexpected. The ecstasy of killing was even stronger this way, for he experienced it not just once but again and again, through each open mind.
He felt himself reaching out, fragmenting and coalescing, caught up in his own firestorm. It fed him, strengthened him . . . and woke a bottomless craving for more destruction. He rode with his killers, waving the bloody jacket of a county deputy and cheering.
They topped a rise, and there was another roadblock before them.
Mitchell saw the lead vehicle start down the evening-shadowed slot of the highway cutting. It was a van, crowded with people, and there were pickups and sedans behind it. He swallowed as he counted the odds, but he felt strangely disinclined to run from the rabble sweeping towards him.
"All right, boys," he said calmly, "spread out and get under cover."
The others obeyed with alacrity, and he noticed that the senior trooper carried an M16—the old A1 model rather than the A2 with its limitation to three-shot bursts—not a shotgun.
"Let 'em come in a little closer," Mitchell told himself softly. "Just a little closer."
The Troll fed the humans' frenzy, fanning it to furnace heat with his own rage. The surging, hating creatures charging down on the roadblock weren't a mob; they were no longer even human. They were extensions of the Troll, his weapon, vessels of his hunger, and they swept forward snarling.
"Now!" Mitchell shouted, and triggered his first round into the van. He heard Farmer's shotgun echoing his own, smelled the gunsmoke, and saw shattered safety glass sparkle through the sunset light like bloody rock salt. The corporal was firing semi-auto, deliberately, picking his targets, and the windshield of the pickup behind the van exploded. Klansmen and Nazis boiled out, and Mitchell stroked the slide with deadly smooth speed. Screams and shrieks answered as the Troll's minions were cut down by the merciless fire, and the M16 went to full auto. Writhing bodies and dead men littered the asphalt while others scrambled as far as the side of the cutting before they were shot down, and others crouched behind their vehicles, returning fire.
The Troll writhed in fury as his column recoiled. They were only humans, but they were his. Their pain and death was sweet, but not as sweet as the taste of their killing. He lashed them with his hate, whipping them forward.
"They're coming over us, Dispatch!" Mitchell yelled into his radio. "Where the fuck is the Guard?!" His cruiser sat flat on its rims, riddled with fire, and the State Patrol car belched inky-black smoke and flame. One trooper was dead, but the corporal was bellied down in a culvert, and his M16's flash suppressor glowed incandescent as it spewed fire into the mob.
"Pull back, Four-Two!" the dispatcher was shouting.
"How?" Mitchell laughed into the mike hanging from the driver's window as he fed fresh cartridges into his smoking shotgun.
"Help's on the way, Four-Two. Hang on!"
"Gotta go, Dispatch," Mitchell said, and rolled under the car beside Farmer, shooting into the gathering darkness.
When the National Guard M113s finally arrived, their crews counted forty-one dead and nineteen wounded in front of the burned out roadblock and found deputies Mitchell and Farmer lying side by side. Mitchell clutched an empty service pistol, and Farmer's empty shotgun, the butt smeared with the blood and hair of his enemies, was still in his hands.
Aston and Abernathy watched Lieutenant Colonel Clara Dickle, CO of Marine Air Group 200, squint at the map and calculate distances. She and her ops officer were engaged in a low-voiced, arcane conversation, but if they were uneasy about flying into the Appalachians in total darkness, they hid it well.
Abernathy, on the other hand, was visibly unhappy, and Aston didn't blame him. They had no clear idea of enemy numbers or weapons. All they knew was that Ludmilla thought their target looked like a typical Kanga-style encampment. If she was right, they could make certain assumptions; if she was wrong, those assumptions might prove fatal.
Abernathy's staff was as large as that of most battalions, and they'd known all along that planning time would be minimal, but they hadn't counted on anything quite like this. They were rising to the occasion, but no one knew better than they how problematical their ops plan might prove.
"All right, Admiral," Dickle said finally, "we make it forty-five minutes, give or take. I'll have that refined before takeoff." She paused and frowned, rubbing the map with a fingertip. "What worries me most, Sir, is where we'll put you down."
"I know." Aston thumbed through the map sheets for a large-scale map of Sugarloaf Mountain. "This looks like the best LZ we've got, Colonel," he said, and Dickle peered dubiously at the location. It was on the outer face of the valley's western wall, and the contour lines were discouraging.
"I know you can't set down," Aston said, "but this is a burn-off from last summer—nothing but a little scrub that's come back in. We can deplane from a hover, then go in on foot."
"What about the Herky-birds, Sir? We can't drop vehicles in there."
"We couldn't use them if you did, Colonel. Instead, I want them here." He tapped the junction of the valley road and NC 212. "It'll be a bitch to get them in, I know, but it's as close as you're going to make it."
"They'll be five klicks out, Sir, and that's line-of-flight, not ground movement," Dickle pointed out.
"Agreed. That's why I want you to be as noisy as you can about dropping them in. Flares, landing lights, the whole nine yards. They won't be a lot of use in the actual assault, but I want them dropped before the infantry comes in on the slope. With a little luck, they'll distract the bad guys from our LZ."
"I see." Dickle frowned some more, then nodded. "We can do it. I just wish we could put you closer to the objective, Sir." The projected landing zone was over a thousand straight-line yards from the nearest end of the horseshoe of enemy positions, and Dickle knew what was going on. She knew how critical seconds could be, and too much of that heavily overgrown thousand yards was up and down.
"Count your blessings, Colonel." Aston smiled grimly. "There's no telling what kind of SAMs they've got in there. And at least—"
He was interrupted by a quiet knock on the door and looked up as Abernathy's commo officer entered.
"Sir, Governor Farnam's just changed his mind about the Eighty-Second," the lieutenant reported. "It sounds like things are getting out of hand in the target area."
"Damn," Aston said softly.
"All right, people." Major Abernathy stood facing his officers and senior NCOs. "I know you've all heard rumors about what's happening in the target area. I'm here to tell you they're true. The last reports say there's heavy fighting along the northern and northwestern edges of Asheville. The Guard is doing its best, but they're not up against normal rioters. We, of course, know why that is."
He paused, watching the outrage in their eyes. It was strange, he thought, how professional American military men reacted to the notion that any hostile force might ever touch American soil. He often thought it was that belief in the inviolability of North America which set the US military apart from its allies. It gave them a certain naivete and parochialism, but also a sort of inner strength. Confidence. Perhaps even arrogance. Whatever it was, the notion that an invader was responsible for death and destruction in an American city brought it to fiery life, filling his men with pressure, the physical need to attack.
"Now for the good news," he continued calmly. "We believe we have satellite confirmation of Grendel's location." A ripple of almost-motion went through his listeners. "We are going in tonight, gentlemen."
A barely audible growl of approval arose, and Abernathy smiled thinly.
"We've put together an ops plan. I stress at this time that our information is fragmentary, and I have no doubt Murphy will appear on schedule." Someone chuckled, and the major grinned. "But we're Marines, gentlemen. When it hits the fan, we'll do what we've always done: adapt, improvise, and overcome." He paused for a moment, then nodded. "Captain Ross will continue the background brief and outline the ops plan."
He sat, and every eye followed Ludmilla as she crossed to a covered mapboard, twitched back the cover, and reached for a pointer. They'd seen the valley before, but not the carefully marked overlay showing the results of Jayne Hastings's reconnaissance photos. Nor had they known before this evening that "Captain Ross" was what the mission was all about; that it all came down to getting her in range for a single shot at the Troll. That information had prompted some radical revision to speculation about where she came from.
"This," Ludmilla said calmly, "appears to be a fairly standard Kanga encampment. If so, it should house between seven hundred and a thousand men." She faced them levelly as they digested the numbers, then continued, identifying scanner posts, the armory, barracks.
" . . . and these are the weapon positions." She swept over them with her pointer. "It's possible we'll encounter some energy weapons here, but our best estimate is that they can't have many. From the disposition, it appears their fields of fire are planned to cover approaches from the road at the southern end of the valley. This—" she tapped a grease-pencil star above the camp "—is probably an access tunnel to Grendel's fighter.
"Now—" she turned to another map "—this is our LZ. As you can see, it's about a thousand yards from the southern end of the encampment, just over seventeen hundred from the fighter access way, but the slope doubles that. It doesn't look like Grendel has his sensors or defenses set up to cover that approach, but we'll still be exposed to accidental detection, if nothing else, while we cover the distance. That's why the armored assault and heavy weapon platoons will start in along the road ten minutes before we come in. They'll make lots of noise to attract the defenders' attention while we come over the ridge."
Aston surveyed the assembled Marines. They looked grim, but it was the grimness of purpose and tension, not fear. He nodded to himself, watching them weigh Ludmilla's words, and knew Abernathy was allowing "Captain Ross" to handle the final briefing for a very simple reason: these men now knew she was the source of all their information. They deserved the chance to weigh her own certainty for themselves, and he saw them drawing confidence from her as she spoke.
" . . . once the CP's in place, Lieutenant Frye's heavy weapons platoon and Sergeant Sanderson's antitank squad will set up here," she was saying. "When Grendel realizes we're on top of him, he's going to counterattack, probably with one or more of his combat mechs. So get those Dragons set up early and nail them."
She paused as a hand was raised. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
"If he knows we're coming, Captain, how do we keep him from just flying out on us?" The question was reasonable, but the look in the lieutenant's eyes said he'd heard about the nuclear option, and she met his gaze squarely.
"The fact that we're above him, I hope. He can't be immediately certain what weapons we have, and until he gets clear of his hide, he'll have to move slowly—a sitting duck for heavy weapons. We can hurt him under those conditions, and if Grendel runs true to form for a Troll, he won't risk it. He'll try to clear us off the slope with his mechs first. If they can't, he may come up himself, or he may try to fly out after all. But by the time he reaches that point, we ought to have air support, and then we can really nail him if he moves."
"With what, Captain?" The lieutenant wasn't waffling, Aston thought. He just wanted any suicide missions clearly labeled as such.
"With nukes, if we have to," Ludmilla said, and her level confirmation sent a wave of tension through her listeners, "but if we catch him within forty meters of the ground, we've got a good chance with Dragons or Mavericks. Above that, he can reconfigure his drive field to interdict conventional missiles; below it, he has to rely on active defenses, and over half of them cover his belly and stern, not his topsides." She paused. "Does that answer your questions, Lieutenant Warden?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Thank you."
"All right. Now, while Second Platoon sets up to cover the Dragons here, First Platoon, with Admiral Aston and myself, will move down here—" her pointer traced a line "—to reach the valley floor. We'll have to take out weapon pits here and here, then rush this barracks. From there, we'll have a good field of fire back towards the camp and I should have a clean shot at Grendel when he pokes his nose out. Meanwhile, Major Abernathy will shift his CP down the ridge. He'll move Third and Fourth Platoons, plus Lieutenant Atwater's antitank platoon, this way to cover . . ."
Aston watched officers and sergeants scribble notes. It sounded good, he thought. But, then, it always sounded good. The problem was that it never worked out quite the way you'd planned, and the real test was how well your men adapted under fire.
He ran his own mind over the operation. Sixty-forty in their favor, he thought. Maybe seventy-thirty if everything broke just right. Even if it did, their own casualties might be heavy. If it didn't . . .
He hid his own shudder as his mind filled with the image of a nuclear fireball—or far worse—in the heart of the North Carolina mountains.
Jeremiah Willis looked down from the sixth-floor window at the trucks and armored personnel carriers parked around the hotel. He would have felt happier in his own office, but the emergency command post had been set up here, three blocks from City Hall. It made sense. There was plenty of room, and the Patton Avenue-Broadway Street intersection gave ready access to any part of the city.
Not that it seemed to be doing much good, he thought grimly, lifting his eyes to the bloodred night sky to the west. He could smell the smoke, even through the air-conditioning.
"We're still holding on Nineteen and Twenty-Three," Brigadier General Evans said, "but they keep filtering past us down the secondary streets. It looks like they're flowing around towards Weaverville Road now, and there's a couple of hundred coming down Six-Ninety-Four, but Captain Taylor's got a rifle platoon and a heavy machine-gun section waiting for them at Merrimon Avenue." The general looked harried, and well he might. He'd started out with a full brigade of Guardsmen, but that impressive troop strength was stretched perilously thin by the city's sheer size, and the dense road net made it even worse.
"What about west Patton Avenue?" Chief Campbell asked. "Can you spare anything there?"
"I don't know." The general ran fingers through his hair, staring at his maps. "We've got a firefight going on out New Leicester Highway right now. What's your situation?"
"We're back almost as far as the post office," Campbell said grimly, "up against two or three hundred bastards with rifles and automatic weapons. I'm losing men, and I didn't have that many to start with. If they push us another six hundred yards, your boys on the highway could be cut off."
"All right," Evans sighed. "Al," he turned to his exec, "shake loose a platoon of APCs and send 'em out to stabilize the position."
"It's all I can give you, Chief Campbell," Evans said grimly. "The crowd coming up from the south is just as bad. The South Carolina Guard's holding them south of the state line on US 25, but they've just crossed it on I-26, and I can't weaken myself any more south of town."
"I understand, General.
"I'm sorry," Evans said gruffly and turned back to his commo section.
Willis watched the APC crews racing for their vehicles. At least the handful of Guardsmen who'd started shooting at their fellows had been eliminated, he thought coldly. There'd been only a few, but that had been almost too many. Evans had a right to be proud. His "weekend warriors" had almost broken—they'd never expected to face anything like this—but they'd rallied, and now they were fighting doggedly to save his city. Not that it looked like they were going to succeed.
"Jerry." He looked up as Campbell touched his shoulder. "Some son-of-a-bitch just firebombed Saint Joe's," the police chief said, and the mayor closed his eyes, thinking of fire raging through the city's largest hospital. "I've got a report from Bill McCoury, too. He says Biltmore House is on fire."
"Thank you, Hugh," Willis said softly, looking back out into the flame-struck night. "Do your best."
Patuxent River Naval Air Station was a beehive of activity. Pax River NAS was a test center at the southwestern tip of Maryland, home to some of the finest pilots in the Navy and Marine Corps, who spent their time pushing new aircraft and weapon systems to the limit. But the F/A-18 Hornets sitting on the taxi ways now belonged to VFA-432 and VFA-433, CVW-18's attack squadrons, based at NAS Oceana at Virginia Beach while they waited for the carrier Theodore Roosevelt to finish repairs in the Norfolk Navy Yard. Most of the pilots had no clear idea why they'd been staged through Pax River, but Commander Ed Staunton knew. He stood in a hangar door, hiding from the drizzling rain, and sipped a steaming mug of coffee while ordnance types fussed around his Hornet.
Staunton's thoughts were divided. He was an attack pilot by training and inclination, and this was the type of mission he'd spent years preparing to fly. More than that, he knew its target, and he wanted a piece of the bastards who'd wrecked TF-Twenty-Three and destroyed the Kidd. Oh, yes, he wanted a piece of them.
But the weapons on his aircraft's pylons frightened him. He'd never dropped a live one. For that matter, he didn't think anyone, anywhere had ever dropped a live one, and the thought of doing so on American soil, especially knowing there would be US Marines on the ground when he did—if he did—turned his belly into a hollow void around the hot, black coffee.
"Skipper?" He turned his head as his wingman, Lieutenant Jake Frisco, stopped beside him.
"Skipper, what the hell is going on?" Frisco's quiet tone clearly didn't buy the cover story, and Staunton wasn't surprised. The lieutenant was a sharp customer, not that it would have required a genius to figure out that what they'd been told so far was a pile of crap. The madness raging in the Carolinas was hardly the sort of situation one handled with two squadrons of Hornets, and Frisco pointed at Staunton's plane, his voice sharpening. "Why are they loading—"
"Jake, don't ask any questions," Staunton said softly.
"But, Skip, that's a—!"
"I know what it is, Lieutenant," Staunton made his voice colder. "Just keep your lip buttoned and pray we don't need them, all right?"
Something in his CO's quietly anguished voice silenced Frisco's protests. He glanced at Staunton once more, then nodded and moved away, his expression troubled. The commander watched him go, then turned his eyes back to his plane as the ordnance team finished its job and withdrew. The innocent, white-painted shapes under his wings seemed to whisper to him through the rain, promising him the power of life and death itself.
He turned his back, handing his cup to a passing seaman, and went to find his pilots for their final—and accurate—briefing.
Behind him, rainwater beaded the surface of the two B83 "special weapons" slung under his aircraft. Between them, they represented just over two megatons of destruction.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, fell behind as the C-17s rumbled westward at four hundred miles per hour. The slower attack helicopters had gotten off earlier, in order to link up with them as soon as they reached their objective, and the dim caverns of their bellies were quieter than usual as the elite paratroopers of First Brigade, Eighty-Second Airborne Division headed into combat. They'd prepared themselves mentally to fight in many places, but western North Carolina wasn't one of them.
Colonel Sam Tyson and his staff rode the lead plane in night-camouflage and blackface. Tyson knew the division's other two brigades were ready to follow his if needed, as was the 101st Airborne, their sister division in the Eighteenth Airborne Corps. He also knew that if they needed that much firepower, they might as well just hand the state over to the crazies and move away.
He sighed and tried to get comfortable. Whoever had designed these canvas-and-metal seats had to be a sadist, he thought for perhaps the ten-thousandth time in his career, but at least they shouldn't have to jump in. At last report, Asheville Airport was still clear of the violence.
Dick Aston leaned back against the Osprey's vibrating fuselage, eyes closed, feeling Ludmilla beside him. She wore her flight suit under her camouflaged BDUs and body armor, and her hair was tucked up under her helmet, her face blackened like his own.
The Ospreys were a vast improvement on the clattering helos he'd used so often before, he thought distantly. Twice as fast, too. His mind filled with their swift passage through the night sky, leaving the light rain which had enveloped Lejeune behind as they sped west toward Spruce Pine. Almost three hundred miles from Lejeune, Spruce Pine was where the final leg would begin.
He visualized it in his mind. They would fly low, using the mountains to hide from whatever sensors the Troll might have. From Spruce Pine, the Ospreys would head for Relief, North Carolina, then down into the valley of the Nolichucky River, directly over the site of the plutonium raid, to River Hill, Tennessee. Then they would turn down Tennessee 81, overfly the town of Carmen, North Carolina, and swoop east up the side of Sugarloaf into combat.
At the same time, MAG-200's C-130 Hercules transports would bore straight west from Spruce Pine, down the line of US 19, then lift up and over the ridges to the southern face of Sugarloaf to drop Company T's vehicles. The Herky-birds were a bit faster than the Ospreys and had a shorter route, but Colonel Dickle had planned the coordination between the two insertions with clockwork precision. It was what came after that worried Aston.
He was too old for this. The thought beat in his brain. He should stay home and let Dan run the operation, but he couldn't. He trusted Abernathy's ability completely, but he just couldn't.
Partly, he knew, it was what had lured him into the special forces in the first place. Pride. Call it arrogance or the need to excel; by any name, it was a driving compulsion to be the best, to do something that mattered with the best men in the world, and beside this mission, anything he'd ever done was insignificant. He supposed it was much the same compulsion that sent overaged matadors into the bullring to find their deaths.
But he knew that was only one reason, and perhaps the least of them. The real reason sat quietly beside him, her darkened face serene, while the hope of his planet rode on her hip.
The plane bored on into the darkness, and Richard Aston was afraid. For himself. For his planet. And, most of all, for Ludmilla Leonovna.
Ludmilla glanced at Dick, taking in the closed eyes and calm expression. She'd known many warriors in her time—indeed, for fifty subjective years she'd known little else—but none had impressed her more.
Perhaps it was because she hadn't let herself come this close to any of the others, for deep inside her, something railed against his mortality—railed as it had not in many years. Ludmilla Leonovna was no hothouse flower, but she knew how much she owed to him. He'd saved her life and, even more importantly, believed her and made others believe.
He was hard and deadly, as much a killer as she, yet within his armor he was gentle and vulnerable. She remembered his eyes when she first offered herself to him—the look of disbelief, the fear of rejection, the determination not to "take advantage of her." She'd meant only to thank him, to seal their friendship with a brief affair, for Thuselahs had learned the hard way not to give their hearts to Normals.
But she'd forgotten that lesson, and it would cost her dear. Even if they both survived this night—and it was very likely they would not—she would lose him, and then she would be alone again. Alone in this alien world, this universe not even her own, with the aching sorrow of her loss.
She knew he sensed her feelings, and she also knew how hard it was for him to accept her presence in combat. In her own time and place, women had soldiered for centuries; in his, they were only starting to feel their way into those roles. And he came from an even earlier military, one in which it was still unquestioningly accepted that women were to be protected, shielded from the brutality of war. How many men of his time, she wondered, could have accepted her not just as an equal but as a warrior in her own right? That she'd seen even more years of combat than he meant nothing beside the emotional gulf he'd made himself cross.
Which was why she hadn't told him that the Troll could detect and track her blaster the instant the touch of her hand brought it to life.