"Here we go, Admiral!" Dickle shouted, and the Osprey slowed magically, rotating its engines and sliding into a hover six feet above the slope. The LZ was flatter than Dickle had dared hope from the contours, but a hurricane of debris blasted up in the wash of her rotors.
Aston was the first man out the forward hatch, with Ludmilla on his heels. Three squads of First Platoon erupted right behind them, then dashed ahead, fanning out to secure the LZ—and put themselves between any hostiles and Aston and "Captain Ross."
Three more Ospreys had come in with Dickle, and their men spread apart, filtering into the trees and taking defensive positions. The rotor noise faded as the aircraft lifted to clear the LZ for the next quartet, and Aston looked at Ludmilla as they both heard the rattle and crash of fire . . . and the coughing roar of exploding ammunition and fuel.
The first Piranha was a blazing wreck, glaring in the darkness, but two squads of Marines filtered through the trees towards its killers. A second LAV edged around the flaming hulk, and a LAW glanced off its side armor and exploded harmlessly. Behind it, vehicle-mounted M2s flayed the night with fifty-caliber fire, covering the advancing infantry, and the heavier, coughing Mk-19 "machine guns" hurled over three hundred forty-millimeter grenades per minute. The diversion had been told to make noise, and it was doing just that.
Taggart cringed as the crump of mortars joined the distant din. What the hell was coming at them? And where was the Troll?! He hesitated, caught between the clamor of battle and the need for direction. His mind hammered at the Troll, but his master was not attending, and Taggart dithered a moment longer, then shouted for his second in command to take charge while he raced up the steep track to the buried fighter.
The last Osprey lifted away, and the rest of Company T was ready to move. The heaped Dragon reloads had been distributed, the scouts were out, and Major Abernathy waved his men into motion.
Aston and Ludmilla moved with strict noise discipline at the center of a protective wedge. It galled the admiral a bit, but he was too much of a professional to object, and Ludmilla hardly noticed. She had activated her passive sensor systems, and she was tasting the night.
Taggart's outposts weren't as well-concealed as he'd thought, nor as well-protected. Three were on forward slopes, and the flash and flight of their LAWs had pinpointed them. Nor had the sentries deployed infantry to protect themselves or prepared fall-back positions.
The Marines' support teams hit them with a short, savage tornado of mortar fire, and then the infantry swept over them in a savagery of grenades and automatic fire. No one offered to surrender; no one would have let them if they had.
Counting the crew of the first LAV, Slugger Force took nine casualties, three fatal, on the way through . . . and left thirty-five bodies in its wake.
Taggart stood in the fighter, breathing hard. The sound of battle was silenced here, but it haunted him still, and he drove his mind at the Troll without response, more frantic every second, until desperation made him bold. He pressed the button he'd been ordered to touch only in gravest emergency.
The Troll floated in sensual glory, tingling with the shock and crash of destruction. Asheville flamed against the heavens, streets littered with bodies and wreckage. Even the stubborn, bitter defiance of the city's defenders was a kind of perfection. It whetted the burning edge of his impatient fury, and it would make the ultimate ruin of their hopes even sweeter.
He'd been surprised when the new defenders suddenly appeared, and he chided himself for forgetting their transport aircraft. He hadn't expected them to react so quickly, and the polished efficiency with which they sliced through his rabble dismayed him.
But only for a moment. There was no room in his ecstasy for anything else. Even if these newcomers drove his creatures back, he could always whip them on afresh elsewhere. It was—
An alarm jangled deep in his brain, shattering his rapt contemplation, and a snarl of fury filled him as he roused from his dreams of death. How dared it? How dared it disturb him now?!
He gathered himself to lash out, and Taggart moaned in terror, falling to the floor and covering its head. But the blow did not fall. Before he could strike, the Troll felt its urgency—and then the reason for it.
A tsunami of ferocity washed over him. He was under attack! He was under attack! These crawling, puling primitives dared to attack him!
Rage shook aside the webs of his dreams, but not the blood-taste of their fury.
"Romeo One, this is Screwball. Come in, Romeo." Aston paused, crouched and panting just below the crest of the ridge. Moonlight gleamed on treetops below him, and he could see the crash and sparkle of combat to the west. There were flames, too. At least two vehicles burning—maybe three. They had to be his, he thought coldly, because they were behind the advancing muzzle flashes and explosions.
"Romeo One, this is Screwball. Come in," he repeated into his boom mike. There was a moment more of silence, then a voice replied.
"Screwball, Romeo One. Proceed."
"Romeo One, Screwball is on the field. I say again, Screwball is on the field. Set up the bleachers."
"Screwball, Romeo One copies. Going to burner."
Forty miles to the northeast, forty-eight Navy aircraft rocketed upward and streaked towards Sugarloaf Mountain.
The fifty men Taggart had sent rushing to reinforce the sentries were half a kilometer short of their positions when Slugger Force rolled over them.
Contributions were generous when the Troll "solicited," and ordnance depots were manned by humans, many of whom could be touched and recruited or manipulated. As a result, the Apocalypse Brigade had excellent equipment, but its men had no idea what was coming towards them, and they were far less experienced than Slugger Force with their night-vision gear. Nor were their scouts far enough out.
The Marines' quickly set ambush ran over them like a threshing machine; seven lived long enough to run.
Aston waved to Abernathy, and the bulk of Company T started down the mountain. Second Platoon and its attached Dragons and heavy weapons were already set up, with a better field of fire than he'd dared expect. Trees were a problem immediately to their front, but the critical fire zones were wide open.
"Dick," it was Ludmilla, speaking in his ear, "I'm picking up scan patterns. He can see us now."
"Slider, Screwball," Aston said quickly. "Grendel's eyes are open."
"Screwball, Slider," Abernathy responded instantly. "Affirm. People, watch yourselves. We may lose touch. Stick to the plan and—"
A wash of static drowned the major's voice, and Aston cursed. They'd known it could happen, especially since the Troll's people probably used his communications equipment and didn't have to worry about jamming at all. He only hoped the air cover remembered that and didn't panic.
"Backstop, Romeo One. We've lost contact with Screwball. Orbit at three-oh thousand, but keep your fingers off those launch buttons. Romeo Team, that goes for you, too."
Confirmations came back, and Staunton banked gently, circling the mountain and watching the pinprick flashes of light.
"What the hell?" Lieutenant Spillers stood erect in the hatch of his battered, smoke-stained APC for the first time in an eternity. The fire was slackening. In fact, it looked like some of the bastards were running!
"Very well, Blake Taggart," the Troll snarled. "You were correct to summon me. Return to your guards while I determine what has happened."
Taggart bowed himself out gratefully, running for his command post under the canopy of false treetops, and the Troll activated his scanner stations. He spotted the oncoming vehicles instantly, drawn by the pulse of their engines and their heavy electronic emissions, and his mind sorted through the possibilities. It was impossible for these crude humans to have guessed his own presence, so no doubt Blake Taggart's troops had been careless. They had drawn attention to themselves, and this was the result. The same humans who had cut through his rioters with such ease had dispatched some of their number to deal with what they thought was another rabble. Well, that was their mistake, he thought savagely. Now he would make them pay for it.
He blotted out their communications, depriving them of coordination, and sent orders to his own troops. The Apocalypse Brigade fell back, breaking contact, and then began to shift position as he peered through his scanners to guide its men into positions of advantage.
Captain Tom Grant, call sign "Slugger," knew he was in trouble the minute his radios went out. Captain Ross had warned them it might happen, and the Corps had a doctrine for communications loss, but it assumed the other side could be jammed, too. And that, he knew, was not the case here.
His attack slowed, and his perimeter expanded automatically to win more room for maneuver along the narrow road. Hand signs, runners, and flares were all he had now, and they weren't enough.
The Troll exulted as he sent a wave of LAWs and light machine-gun fire slicing into his enemies' left flank. The night was day to his sensors, and he watched camouflaged figures tumbling under the hail of fire. Ten went down in the first attack, and he waited for the others to break and run.
The heavy machine-gun team saw another LAV brew up to the left, and the stutter and dance of muzzle flashes winked above them. Their own vehicle was essentially unarmored—a carrier for their weapons and little more—but they knew the penalty for bogging down in a fight like this. Their fifty-calibers raked the hillside and grenades exploded on the enemy position. Their attackers reeled back, abandoning their wounded, and wood smoke billowed above the crackle of flames and gunfire.
The Troll cursed as his minions retreated. He knew he shouldn't blame them, but he did. That hurricane of fire had surprised even him, but the need to destroy was upon him, and how could he do that when his tools died or ran so easily?
Aston and Ludmilla slithered down the slope in Sergeant Major Horton's wake, and First Platoon fanned out around them while they caught their breath and oriented themselves.
The sound of battle had become even more vicious, with heavier fire coming from both directions, and Aston and Horton looked at one another grimly. They knew what the sounds meant; Slugger Force had lost its radios, and the advantage had shifted to the Troll.
"There," Ludmilla said quietly, pointing. "The scanner post."
Aston stared at the weird latticework of aerials under the false foliage and saw a single, solid structure with a door facing them. He looked about, astounded that they'd gotten this far without being spotted, then nodded to Horton.
"Deploy the men. Then I want that place wrecked. Now."
"Sir! Ashley, set 'em up. Kiminsky, Sloan—this way."
He was away before Aston could stop him, vanishing into the undergrowth with his chosen corporals and slithering through the brush, more silent than a trio of snakes, while Master Sergeant Ashley positioned his men. Aston hadn't wanted Horton to get that far away from him; at the same time, he knew the sergeant major was the best man for the job. That was one of the problems with combat. The best men were always spread too thin, and too often it got them—
Small arms and grenades suddenly exploded to his left, and he fought an urge to duck. That had to be Dan and the other two platoons.
Abernathy cursed as the night erupted in fire and death. It was bad luck, plain and simple. He had no idea why forty or fifty hostiles should be moving around behind their own line so far from the fighting, but there they were, and they'd blundered right into his leading squad.
He stole one brief moment to watch the pattern of muzzle flashes in the undergrowth. There—those were his men. They'd broken down into fire teams around the 5.56 millimeter, belt-fed squad automatic weapons out of sheer reflex, and the SAWs were laying down a deadly fire. But they were under heavy fire of their own from two directions, and he gripped Lieutenant Warden's shoulder and pointed.
"Move the rest of your platoon up the slope and take them from behind!"
"Put your Dragons right here, Corporal. See that building?" He pointed at the distant loom of aerials, and the corporal nodded. "Take it out, Corporal."
The bulky launch tubes went up into firing position, assistants waiting to reload, but Abernathy had already turned away. He waved Lieutenant Atwater's Fourth Platoon into motion behind him and trotted straight for the closest weapon pit.
The Troll twitched in shock as the force he had pulled back to hook further out around his enemies' flank suddenly stumbled into a blazing wall of fresh attackers well behind his fixed positions. How had they—?
The cliff! They must have come down the mountain . . . but how had they known to do that?
Captain Grant watched one of the heavy-weapons vehicles vomit a ball of flame, taking half its crew with it. The forest was a nightmare of burning brush and weapon flashes, and Slugger Force was pinned right in the middle of it. He estimated that over a quarter of his men were down already.
He left his vehicle and started forward on foot. It was all he could do without radios.
Sergeant Major Horton exploded to his feet and slammed a size-fourteen combat boot against the door of the hut. It smashed open like a piece of cardboard—the idiots hadn't even bothered to lock it!
The observation was a distant thought as his hip-high M16/M203 blazed. The assault rifle laced the hut's interior with fire, and then the under-barrel launcher capped it with a forty-millimeter grenade.
There was no one in the structure—just a dinky little box with tentacles sitting on its wheels before a panel. His slugs punctured it in a dozen places, and it gouted sparks and smoke. More slugs went home in the panel it had been tending, and then the grenade exploded in the middle of it. He ducked back out of the way, and Kiminsky and Sloan tossed their satchel charges.
They'd hardly hit the ground when the hut became an expanding fireball in the darkness.
A fresh flare of fury rippled through the Troll as he felt his right flank scanner systems die, and then his remaining sensors saw the crude chemical rockets flashing towards them. He had less than two seconds to realize what was about to happen, and then he was blind.
Enough! He had suffered enough from these savages!
A snarling signal sent his combat mechs gliding out of the cavern.
He was too suffused with rage to wonder what evil chance had sent the enemy so unerringly after his scanners and jammers.
Company T's radios came back to life, and Captain Grant breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Slugger Force had been savagely mauled, but now the survivors were back in the net. The result was obvious almost immediately as the handful of surviving vehicles rumbled off the road into the trees, working as teams once more and flushing the enemy from cover.
Aston moved through the fire-sick night in a familiar half-crouch. His assault rifle stuttered viciously, and two men went down. Ludmilla was behind him, her fire seeking out her own targets, and all about them, First Platoon was on the move, swarming over fallen false-treetop camouflage to hit a cluster of weapon pits behind the crash of grenades. The barracks they'd chosen as Ludmilla's fire position loomed ahead, and he saw two Marines charge the wall. They rolled up against it, arms moving almost in unison, and hand grenades smashed through the windows.
Glass and debris blew outward, and a SAW gunner kicked in the door, hip-held automatic weapon hosing the interior on sustained fire.
They were moving, he thought hopefully, and so far their casualties weren't too bad. Maybe . . .
Blake Taggart crouched in the darkness, trying to picture what was happening. He'd never seen a fire-fight before, much less a night assault, and nothing less could have prepared him for the reality. It was all movement, muzzle flashes, and savagery, with no pattern he could grasp, but deep inside he knew the enemy was imposing his pattern on the chaos, and a sense of doom touched him.
No! He shook doubt aside. He'd been promised power! He was the anointed viceroy of the world! No one would take that from him. No one!
He darted a frantic look over his shoulder. There! The fire was heaviest on the left end of the line.
He punched a frozen gunner savagely to get his attention. The man jerked and saw his commander's pointing finger, then swiveled his otherworldly weapon and squeezed the trigger.
The night exploded. Half of Fourth Platoon vanished in a lick of blue-white fury, incinerated by the "light" power gun the Troll had given his men. Abernathy rolled away from the glaring scar in the mountainside, beating out the flames on his camo jacket as he tried desperately to spot the source of the fire. But like Ludmilla's blaster, there was no muzzle flash, no discharge to betray its location.
Ludmilla staggered. Her flight suit sensies were cranked up to full gain, trying to spot any communication between the Troll and its combat mechs, and the sudden energy surge was agonizing. She went to her knees, groaning, cursing herself for not considering the possibility even as she turned down their sensitivity. But at least she knew where the thing was.
Corporal Bowen went down beside her, a .50 caliber slug through his chest, and she snatched the laser target designator from his back, blessing the endless hours spent learning to use Company T's equipment. She laid the sight on the power gun's pit even as its gunner fired again. The energy bolt exploded against the mountain, killing more of her friends, and she keyed her radio.
"Romeo One, this is Sneak Play," she said clearly over the net. "I've got a target for you."
Ed Staunton stiffened in his cockpit. A woman? That was a woman's voice! What the hell was she—?
Then the call sign registered. Of every human soul in that inferno, "Sneak Play" had absolute priority.
"Sneak Play, Romeo One," he snapped. "Where?"
"Romeo, Sneak Play is prepared to laser paint. Target is a pit with heavy weapons."
"Roger, Sneak Play. Romeo One copies." He thought furiously for a second. All right.
"Romeo Four, Romeo One. Line 'em up, Freddy. Sneak Play's gonna light up a target for you. One round only. Confirm copy."
"Romeo One, Romeo Four copies one Maverick on the illumination."
"Sneak Play, Romeo One. Light up."
"Roger, Romeo One. Illuminating now."
A Hornet sliced down out of the heavens as a thin, coded laser beam flashed invisibly through the dark. It touched the housing of the power gun as it ripped off a third blast, killing twenty more Marines, and high above, a single AGM-65E air-to-surface missile separated from Romeo Four and dove for the beckoning laser.
Nine seconds later, Blake Taggart, Viceroy of Earth, was blown to bloody fragments by a two hundred fifty-pound blast-frag warhead.
The explosion trembled through the earth to the Troll, and he felt Taggart's mind die. It was only a human, but they had been deeply linked for many months, and the sudden loss was agony. Hurt roared through his brain as his first combat mech slid from the access tunnel on anti-gravs, distracting him from the quick three hundred sixty-degree scan he'd planned upon. Instead, he sent the mech raging towards the spot where Taggart had died.
The hostile fire ringing Slugger Force faltered as Marines slid through smoke and flame like vengeful devils. The men of the Apocalypse Brigade died or fled, and what was left of the decoy attack shook itself out into some sort of order and probed cautiously after them.
"Target left!" somebody shouted, and Major Dan Abernathy watched the Dragon team slew their launcher around. He rolled up on an elbow, conscious of the waiting pain as one of his men worked on his shattered left leg. Funny. He didn't remember being hit.
The Dragon belched sudden flame, roaring away through the dark, and his eyes flashed ahead to its target. There! So that was what a "combat mech" looked like.
He barely had time to register the weird curves of its form before the Dragon crashed home and a ten-pound shaped charge slammed the alien war machine to the ground.
So they could be killed. The thought came in a queer little voice deep within him, and on its heels came the pain.
The Troll roared with mental fury as his mech went dead. Those hairy primitives were destroying his irreplaceable equipment!
Yet even through his fury, he began to feel a tinge of doubt. The invaders were dying, but they were hurting him. Hurting him badly. What else could they do to him? For the first time he began to regret the delay in completing his bomb.
Staff Sergeant Leroy Sanderson saw the explosion of the combat mech from his perch high above, but one of his teammates was already punching his shoulder. Another machine floated before them, rising silently, glinting blood and gold with reflected fire, and he laid his sights with care.
There! The Troll "looked" up from his second combat mech. Aircraft! There were aircraft above him! A cold stab of fear touched him at last, but he refused to panic. Instead, the mech tracked the nearest warplane, locked its sights, and fired.
Commander Staunton never found out who shouted the single blasphemy as Romeo Twelve vanished in a terrific ball of blue fire that came right out of nowhere. It could have been him. He'd never seen anything like that—never even imagined its like! Whatever the hell it had been sprayed the hapless Hornet over the heavens in molten droplets, and there was no chance at all of a chute.
Another explosion winked far below him, almost in the same instant. He barely noticed it, and he never knew it marked the death of the machine which had killed his pilot.
The Troll noted the death of his second combat mech, but he was almost calm now. He'd determined that the aircraft were easy targets and also that his light armor could be killed. Very well. He had three light mechs left, but he would not waste them.
He made rapid calculations from the data his mech had garnered before it died. There was a way. He could blast every one of those aircraft from the heavens in a single paired salvo if he did it properly, and the ridiculous chemical explosives which had killed his light armor would be powerless to stop him.
He sent commands to his fighter, and a panel opened. His organic component disconnected quickly from the flight controls, and the smoothly efficient machinery transferred it to the waiting combat chassis parked beside the medium combat mech in his forward hold.
"Romeo One, Screwball," Aston snapped, watching tears of flame weep down the heavens. "Romeo One, come in!"
"Screwball, Romeo One," a shaken voice said, and he sighed in relief. The odds had been against that being the nuclear-armed aircraft, but . . .
"Romeo One, Screwball. Get your ass out of the line of fire. Watch yourself. We may need you."
"Roger, Screwball. Romeo One copies."
Commander Ed Staunton's Hornet peeled off to put a mountain peak between his weapons load and whatever had killed Romeo Twelve.
"Sweet suffering Jesus! What the hell is that?"
Sergeant Major Horton looked in the indicated direction. "That" was bigger than two M1 tanks, rumbling out of the ground like a surfacing whale, and the flicker and flare of explosions and flames glittered on its bronze-colored surface. He didn't know what it was, but, from Captain Ross's descriptions, he knew what it wasn't. It was no light combat mech . . . and it wasn't the Troll either.
A hissing sound slashed at his ears as a ghastly burst of green light erupted from whatever it was. Screams at its heart marked the death of a Dragon team, and a terrible, shuddering vibration hammered Horton's nerves. The bodies of his men were twisted and grotesque, tortured and writhing as whatever it was ground the life slowly and hideously from them, and he swallowed bitter-tasting bile.
Fear was an icy fist about the sergeant major's heart, freezing his blood, but he started to crawl. Not away, but toward the launcher.
Aston saw it all, and he also saw Horton crawling towards the launcher. He didn't know what it was either, but he didn't think the sergeant major had a chance in hell of stopping it with a Dragon. But if he did, he'd need a loader.
"Milla! Trouble at the tunnel!" he snapped into his radio, and he was already scuttling across the smoking ground in Horton's wake.
Ludmilla paled as the whickering flash of the neuron whip crackled through her sensors. Dear God, she'd been wrong! She'd assumed the Troll would have only light armor, but he had at least one medium mech, and nothing Company T had would stop that monster!
She shuddered at the thought of the whip. The Kangas had rejected it as inefficient, but the Trolls loved it. It went after nerve tissue and incapacitated its victims instantly, but death took long, terrible minutes, and it was lethal up to twenty meters from its point of focus. Its effects were far slower at the greater range, but they were no less certain or agonizing. Not even a Thuselah could survive a direct hit, and they had a less than even chance of surviving a near miss.
The thoughts flashed through her mind in an instant, and she slapped her flight suit's power switch, killing her suit sensors instantly. She turned to run up-slope, seeking a position to take the mech from the flank, and then her heart seemed to stop as she saw Horton . . . and Dick.
Alvin Horton reached the Dragon and lifted the bulky tube to his shoulder while a corner of his mind worked with almost detached precision. He remembered generations of boots, remembered beating into their heads that their object was to kill the other guy, not die gallantly. He'd always sworn that whatever happened, he would never go out pulling a John Wayne, but sometimes a man had no choice.
He heard someone shouting his name from behind him, recognized Admiral Aston's voice, but there was no time to think about that. He knelt beside the writhing, sceaming bodies of his men, rocked up on one knee, rested the launch unit on his shoulder, and captured the alien vehicle in his sights.
Aston saw Horton moving like a man on a training field, saw the combat mech rumbling towards him, saw the sergeant major take the time to do it right.
The launcher belched fire, sending its missile roaring down range, and it was perfect. The screaming weapon hurled itself directly at the enemy's bow, slashing in to take it dead center, and exploded in a terrible burst of light.
Which left the armored monster totally unmarked.
Horton didn't even stand up. He only reached down for a fresh bird, fighting to reload the two-man weapon single-handedly even as the leviathan ground straight towards him, and Aston hurled himself to his feet. Bullets shrieked past him, but he ignored them, running desperately to help the sergeant major.
And then that dreadful emerald light tore the night apart once more. It struck directly on Sergeant Major Alvin Horton, outlining his convulsing body in a hideous corona, and it reached out past him. Some corner of Aston's brain saw it coming, almost like a tide racing across a mudflat. Then it was upon him, and the universe vanished in an incandescent burst of agony.
Ludmilla saw the Dragon explode. She saw the sergeant major fall.
And she saw Dick Aston convulse as the edge of the neuron bolt hurled him to the ground in twitching torment.
The Troll exulted as humans died under the fire of his mech while his own chassis rumbled down the tunnel. Together, he and the mech would wipe the heavens clean and he would escape. He could always start again elsewhere, and this time he would finish his bomb before he did!
He was still in the tunnel when an alarm woke to clangorous life.
Ludmilla Leonovna planted her feet wide in a marksman's stance. Bullets cracked and whined about her, but she did not notice. Her face was wet, but she blinked her eyes furiously clear of tears. And then she reached for her blaster, drew . . . and fired in one clean, flashing movement.
Blue-white lightning etched the valley rim against the sky as the first full-power blaster bolt in Terran history struck home.
"Ground force battle screen has one great weakness." Ludmilla could hear the long ago instructor's dry, lecturing tone in her mind. "Unlike deep space battle screen, it cannot reach into other dimensions due to the Frankel Limit of a planetary body. Therefore, it cannot protect against an attack delivered through multi-dimensional space."
Eighteen hundred tons of explosive energy struck the combat mech's frontal armor, concentrated into an area only two millimeters across. Armor that would have withstood a ten-kiloton area blast was paper under that focused stiletto's fury, and the plasma ripped into its heart. It happened so fast the eye could not see it, the brain could not record it, and then there was only a mounting pillar of terrible fire as the war machine spewed itself into the heavens.
How?! How?! He'd killed the last of them himself!
But only a human from his own time could have fired that weapon, and that meant . . . that meant these primitives knew everything! The whole time he'd plotted and spun his webs, they'd known! They'd been searching the entire time, hunting him—waiting for him to reveal himself so their informant could kill him!
He writhed in exquisite torment. They knew, and there were too many of them. Whatever his individual power, however subtly he could bend and shape their minds, there were simply too many of them for him to conquer if they knew to hunt and fear him, and that meant his freedom, his omnipotence, had been a charade. Because that other being from his own time had lived, he would forever be a hunted animal on this putrid planet, with no hope of conquest, no choice but to destroy it, for they'd been warned.
And worst of all was the bitter, bitter realization that it had always been that way. That he had only thought it was different. That his power was hollow, an illusion he'd forged for himself.
His tenuous hold on near-sanity snapped. His dream had been stolen. Worse, it had been revealed as only a dream. As self-deception. He should flee, and he knew it, but he couldn't. Only vengeance mattered now.
Ludmilla holstered her blaster and sprinted. She had to get clear of her present position before the Troll himself emerged and spotted her. She fled through the light gravity of the motherworld, and her flashing feet carried her towards the twitching body of the dying man she loved.
Even in his madness, the Troll retained his cunning. No human could match his reaction speed. He noted the disappearance of the blaster from his sensors, but he knew what to look for now, and no one but his enemy could kill him without using nuclear weapons and killing his enemy, as well. He hugged that thought to him with hating, hungry fury, and fed power to his treads, grinding from the tunnel in a billow of dust.
If the human drew its weapon again, it would die before it could aim. If it did not, he would simply kill and kill and kill until the laws of chance sent the killer of his dream into death.
Ludmilla skidded to a stop as the Troll emerged at last. Half again the size of the medium mech it loomed, dark and evil, squat on its treads, and its weapon ports were open.
She knew what it must be thinking, and she was afraid it was right.
It halted, scanning its surroundings, ignoring the rockets bursting against its battle screen, and her hand hovered a millimeter above her blaster. She dared not touch it. She must find some sort of cover, something to give her a fleeting instant of advantage. It was the only way.
And then the Troll started forward.
The enemy was hiding. Madness gibbered in the Troll's mind, and it ground the rich leaf mold under its cleated treads.
It was headed straight for Dick!
Logic told her he was already dead; only the dying remained, and it could not come soon enough. But logic was a cold, dead thing. She didn't consider it. She didn't think at all, and her hand moved.
Surprise. It was a fleeting thing, but the Troll felt it. Surprise that its enemy should stand boldly before it and activate its weapon.
Perhaps it was that brief moment of astonishment, or perhaps it was the fact that Ludmilla Leonovna had heavy-grav reactions and a cralkhi's neural impulses, moving at more than human speed. Or perhaps it was a combination of both those factors and the blind workings of fate.
The blaster rose with the deadly, fluid grace Dan Abernathy had seen on the Camp Lejeune combat range. It was a single, supple movement, and her finger squeezed the trigger stud before she even realized she'd drawn.
The Troll had time for one last emotion: disbelief. Disbelief that any human could move that quickly. Even a cral—
A sliver of pure energy blew him into infinity.