Asheville was dying.
Jeremiah Willis winced as the crackle of small arms and machine guns battered his ears. The flaming town of Woodfin painted the sky crimson to the north, and General Evans's Guardsmen had been driven back along the east bank of the French Broad River to the line of I-240. His men had stopped every push towards the Beaucatcher Mountain cut, and they still held a rectangle of North Asheville from Merrimon Avenue east, but the entire area between Merrimon and the river billowed flame and smoke.
The remnants of the Asheville City Police were acting as guides for National Guard fire teams struggling to stem the tide surging in along Patton Avenue and West I-40, and no one was worrying about rioter casualties now. The Guardsmen were fighting to cover the police as they evacuated civilians from the path of the madness, and they were in no mood for gentleness.
Neither was Willis. His worst nightmares had never prepared him for this. This was no demonstration gone berserk, no simple riot. He didn't know what it was, but it wasn't that. There was a malevolence to it, a sheer, wanton compulsion to wreck and destroy—a terrible insanity so consuming it was like a guiding force.
He touched the M16 slung over his shoulder. It was decades since he'd worn a uniform, but he intended to be ready if the vandals wrecking his city got this far.
He almost hoped they would.
Lieutenant Curtis Spillers, NCNG, ducked as slugs whined off his M113's aluminum armor. He remembered something from a training manual; "No organized force is ever outnumbered by a mob," the writer had said. Under most circumstances, that might have been true—but not tonight. There was too much ferocity abroad in this flame-shot darkness.
More fire raked his armored personnel carrier. That was an M60, he thought grimly, wondering which of his comrades it had been taken from. Unless, of course, it was one of the Guardsmen who'd freaked out.
He poked his head up cautiously. More fire whined and cracked, but his disembarked infantry squad had spotted the muzzle flash on the second floor of an office building. Their fire was ineffectual against the sturdy art-deco facade, but it showed Spillers where it was.
He waited for a lull, then sprang up behind the M2 HB Browning machine gun. Unlike the Bradley M2s and M3s the regular Army and some of the other Guard units boasted, Spillers's brigade was still equipped with the old, reliable, but turretless M113 APC originally designed over fifty years ago. Unlike later designs, the M113 had been intended primarily as a troop taxi, not a fighting vehicle in its own right, and there was no armor for its gunner. But the .50 caliber weapon was a form of protection in itself, and Spillers grabbed the machine gun's spade grips and sprayed the building with steel-jacketed slugs bigger than his thumb that reached their target traveling at better than twenty-nine hundred feet per second.
Some of the brigade's other APCs had replaced their machineguns with Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers. A weapon like that would probably have been even more effective, but Spillers had no complaints. The big Browning vibrated like a jackhammer as his thumbs depressed the butterfly trigger, and the window frame blew apart. The wall shredded, vomiting dust and fist-sized chunks of brick and mortar, and he hosed it down, firing the short bursts his instructors had always insisted upon, while the infantry closed in and fired forty-millimeter grenades of their own. Explosions racked the room behind the window, and then sudden smoke billowed, fueled by the glare of burning gasoline. So the bastards had stockpiled Molotov cocktails up there, had they? Spillers smiled with savage satisfaction as a flaming figure flung itself through the window, screaming. It hit the street and bounced once, then lay still, but Spillers depressed his weapon and gave the body a burst just to make sure.
MAG-200 swept westward through the night, hugging the ground, and Spruce Pine's lights blinked at Lieutenant Colonel Dickle from the darkness. Their calm tranquility seemed utterly incongruous, given what she had learned during "Captain Ross's" briefing, but she kept her attention on her route, doggedly ignoring the scarlet heavens above Asheville.
"We've got General Evans, Sir." Colonel Tyson held out his hand, and the signals lieutenant handed him a headset with attached boom microphone.
"General, Colonel Tyson here. What's your situation, Sir?"
"Not good, Colonel." Tyson understood the fatigue and worry in the Guardsman's voice. An infantry brigade was a powerful formation, even when composed of reservists, but street-fighting had a voracious appetite. Large maneuver units were useless; it came down to junior officers at the platoon and squad level, alone in the howling madness. There were too many potential ambushes, too much cover for attackers, too little room to deploy. Indeed, Tyson felt a surge of admiration for the Guardsmen in Asheville. They'd done far better in an impossible tactical position than he would have believed possible.
"We've lost the extreme western part of the city, and it looks like they're trying to split us in half down the line of the French Broad," the National Guard general went on. "We're holding, but we're losing ground. We've got isolated incidents all over the city—small groups with firebombs and small arms, nothing like what's coming at us from the northwest—but the southern perimeter's been quiet so far." Evans coughed out a harsh laugh. "I don't expect that to last long. The crowd coming up I-26 is at least as bad as the one we've already got. They just punched a company of Guardsmen out of Hendersonville; they're burning it to the ground now."
"Understood, General. What's the status at the airport?"
"The tower crew pulled out with most of the airline employees, but the lights are on and I've got one platoon out there, along with a few state troopers and the airport security force. It's not much, but so far they've only been hit by isolated bands. That won't last much longer."
"It won't have to, General," Tyson said grimly. "Our Apaches are over the field now, and the transports will be on the ground in ten minutes."
"We'll secure the airport and block I-26 at Airport Road, then move north up Twenty-Six. I'm going to try to swing west around the edge of the city. If I can keep anybody else from getting in, we should be able to squeeze out the trouble spots between us."
"It sounds good, Colonel," Evans said. "We'll be waiting for you."
"Luck, General," Tyson said, tightening his straps as the C-17 headed for the landing strip.
"And to you, Colonel."
"Romeo One, Pax Control. You are cleared, Romeo One. Be advised that Backstop is airborne at Virginia Beach. Good luck."
"Pax Control, Romeo One. Understood and thanks. Romeo Team, Romeo One. All right, children, let's go."
Commander Staunton released the brakes and felt his Hornet start to roll. Twenty-three more attack planes waited to join him, but none were as lethal as his. He tried not to think about that.
His speed hit a hundred twenty-five knots. He held her down a moment longer—he had plenty of runway . . . and those two white shapes under his wings—then eased back on the stick, and the attack fighter leapt into the rainy night.
To the south, the two F-14 squadrons of CVW-18 were already forming up. Theodore Roosevelt's aircraft had a score to settle.
Blake Taggart trembled, hands over his eyes, fighting to separate his fragile remaining self from his master's fiery ecstasy. The carnage the Troll had wrought frightened the ex-preacher—not because of what it was, but because of what it threatened to become. The tiny bit of him which was still himself recognized what was happening but saw no way to stop it.
The Troll exulted in the devastation like an addict in the grip of his drug, drinking in the destruction and bloodshed through thousands upon thousands of eyes and minds. The visceral hatred he had unleashed hung above the blazing city like a second pall of smoke, and it was the sweet incense of his vengeance.
He'd forgotten that this was only a test. He had decreed the destruction of Asheville, but his lust for murder and hunger for vengeance demanded more, flogging his puppets beyond themselves. Asheville blazed, but another swath of destruction burned against the night, marking the route of I-26 from the South Carolina line north. His creatures swept onward, killing, burning, and raping without the least awareness that they were only tools, and the perverse delight of cruelty possessed him like a demon.
Taggart managed to break free of the maelstrom at last and staggered out of the Troll's cavern. He slid down a tree, resting his forehead on his knees and breathing deeply. He could almost smell the smoke, even here, and it seemed to clog his brain with fire. He understood only too well, for he tasted the hot, sweet blood in his own mouth and knew the truth. Whatever else had happened, however much he had always longed for power of his own, he had been made over in the Troll's image. He was no longer an individual, could no longer even pretend that he belonged only to himself. Yet a fragment of selfhood remained still, urging him to separate himself from the frenzy which possessed his master.
Someone had to keep a grip on himself, he thought, and pushed himself to his feet. He managed to walk down the path almost normally, grateful that he had convinced his master to exclude the men from his mental link.
Taggart didn't like to think about what would happen if the Apocalypse Brigade caught the same blood lust which drove the mobs.
"Coming up on River Hill, Admiral," Colonel Dickle announced, and Aston poked his head into the cockpit. The sky above the crouching mountains to the southeast was bloody. "The Herky-birds are right on schedule. Your vehicles will be going in in about one minute."
The ready lights above the hatches lit, and the men of First Platoon, Company T, gathered themselves internally.
Colonel Tyson felt cold satisfaction. It had turned into a race, after all, and First Brigade had won it.
Tentacles of madmen had flooded up I-26, brushing aside the county and state roadblocks, and one rampaging column had curled out for the airport. But the first C-17s had landed twenty minutes before, and his paratroopers had moved into positions selected before leaving Bragg. The rattle of treads had cut through the clamor of the approaching mob as Bradley fighting vehicles and the LPM8 AGS—technically the "Armored Gun System," but for all intents and purposes light tanks—which had finally replaced the old, unsatisfactory Sheridans with which the Eighty-Second had been equipped for decades, headed for the perimeter. They were in their firing positions and the Apache gunships were waiting overhead when the glaring headlights swept down Airport Road.
Tyson wasted no time calling on the mob to surrender. When the first rounds of blind fire spattered his men, they raked the packed civilian vehicles and captured National Guard trucks with a tornado of automatic fire. The Apaches' thirty-millimeter chainguns and the twenty-five-millimeter chainguns and co-ax machine guns of the Bradleys had been particularly effective, he thought grimly, but the high-explosive and white-phosphorous rounds from the M35 105-millimeter main guns of the LPM8s had been even more spectacular.
The bloodied survivors had broken and run, abandoning their dead, and the night sky behind the colonel reverberated with the whine of jet engines as his brigade's second echelon came in.
He gestured to his clerk for his map case and bent over the cards, rechecking his planned route. It was time, he thought, to kick some ass.
Jeremiah Willis crouched behind the charred hulk of an M113. No one knew how the small party of rioters had gotten that close, but their Molotov cocktails and the LAWs and AT4s they'd taken from dead Guardsmen had cost General Evans dozens of APCs and trucks. Every raider had been killed, though, and Willis had shot two of them himself. He was shocked by the satisfaction he'd felt, but he could not—would not—deny it.
The rioters had smashed switching stations, transformers, and power lines as they rampaged through his city, but the flames backlit them as they came in. Willis popped up and ripped off a long burst at a dimly seen figure sniping at a Guard machine gun team. He had no idea if he'd hit the sniper, but the shape disappeared.
Fifty-caliber tracers raked the paving of Patton Avenue, flaring down from the top of the hotel to drive back another knot of rioters. Or perhaps they were only civilians trying to flee. The gunners couldn't tell, and no one could or would take chances. Not anymore.
He heard the rattle and crash of battle from his left. One of Evans's lieutenants was leading a company-level attack down O'Henry Avenue and Haywood Street in an effort to retake the I-240 overpasses. The drive had started out under a captain, until a bullet through the head stopped him.
The Mayor of Asheville made himself watch his front, throttling the need to look south and wonder where the Eighty-Second was.
"Tango Leader, Tango Two-Seven. We're going in."
Lieutenant Colonel Dickle nodded with satisfaction. Right on the dot, she thought. No more than a couple of seconds early.
The C-130 pilots roared in south of Sugarloaf, making themselves appear loose and relaxed while their breathing slowed and their nerves tightened. They swept down the highway behind the brilliance of their landing lights under a glare of illuminating flares, bare yards above the ground. The huge rear cargo doors were open, and the dark shape of an LAV-25 Piranha slid from the lead plane. The fourteen-ton armored vehicle crashed to the ground on its shock-absorbing pallet, and suddenly the night was full of splintering sound as vehicle after vehicle slammed to earth.
It was over in seconds, the C-130s clawing up and away while Ospreys nestled in among the vehicles with their crews. Marines raced from the planes, throwing off tie-down chains, starting engines, testing internal systems. The clatter of charging handles racketed over shouts of command as automatic weapons were cocked, and then they were moving, rumbling up the twisting macadamized road into the featureless dark.
The flares died, and no gleam of light came from the vehicles. It wasn't needed. Drivers and gunners, faces grotesque behind low-light level enhanced-imaging optical systems, peered cat-eyed into the night, straining for the first glimpse of their enemies.
Taggart lurched up as the first report was radioed in. It was impossible! How could anyone have guessed?
Shock held him for just one moment as his brain fought to understand how it could have happened, but then he shook off his paralysis. The "how" didn't matter, only the "what," and as his brain came back to life, he wasted no time congratulating himself for posting sentinels on the access road despite the Troll's dismissal of the need. He shouted orders, and the alarm flashed through the encampment. The men of the Apocalypse Brigade tumbled into their prepared positions, and a fifty-man response team moved quickly to support the sentries.
Only after the men were in motion did Taggart realize that he had felt absolutely no response from his master.
"Tango Leader, Tango Two-Seven. Slugger is down. I say again, Slugger is down."
"Roger, Two-Seven. Tango Leader copies. Good work, Ken."
Dickle watched the pavement rushing past beneath her. It was marvelous how good night-vision devices had become, she thought almost absently, then nodded sharply as the lights of Carmen, North Carolina, appeared before her.
She swung to port, settling on her new heading, and Sugarloaf Mountain loomed against the starry heavens like a wall.
The first LAW exploded out of the darkness like a meteor. The fire-trailing rocket just missed the lead LAV, and the Marine gunner swung his turret, raking the trees with his co-ax machine gun. The armored vehicle's rear hatch crashed open, and a rifle squad deployed towards the source of the LAW just as a second rocket slammed squarely into its turret.
The LAW warhead performed exactly as designed, and PFC Jordan Van Hoy of Trenton, New Jersey, became the first Marine fatality of the Battle of Sugarloaf Mountain.