She holstered her blaster slowly, turning away from the corona of fury crackling about the massive combat chassis. Awareness of victory pulsed deep within her, but it was a feeble, joyless thing as she dropped to her knees beside Richard Aston in a litter of fallen camouflage.
His body jerked and shuddered, and his face was soaked with sweat, his eyes blind above bared teeth locked in a snarl of agony. She knew the signs. She'd seen them before, and she lifted his head into her lap, staring down through her tears while bullets cracked above them.
He couldn't speak, but she hoped he recognized her as she pressed her fingers to his carotid. She held the pressure firmly, mastering his agonized shudders with gentle strength, until unconsciousness took him.
She knew she should maintain the pressure until death stopped the pain, but she couldn't. She knelt over him, sheltering him with her body, and her gentle fingers were ready to drive him back into the merciful dark.
She was still kneeling there when Gunnery Sergeant Morton Jaskowicz skidded to a stop beside her.
"Cap'n?" She raised her head slowly, cradling Aston protectively as she stared blindly up at the big, tough sergeant.
"Cap'n, we need you," Jaskowicz said, his rumbling voice strangely gentle against the crackle of weapons. "You're in command, Ma'am."
Her mind worked sluggishly. It was unfair. She'd come so far. Paid so much. The Troll's death should have freed her, not burdened her with fresh responsibility.
"Where—" She cleared her throat and made her voice work. "Where's Major Abernathy?"
"Major's out of it, too, Ma'am. Lieutenant Atwater's dead and Lieutenant Warden's hurt bad. I think Lieutenant Frye's still on his feet, but he's up-slope."
"I—" She broke off as a Marine corpsman slithered to a kneeling halt across Aston's body from her. His teenaged face was strained, but his hands were steady. Ludmilla stared at him for just a moment. Then the despair in her own face hardened into determination, and she nodded curtly.
"With you in a minute, Gunny," she said. "Get Third and Fourth Platoon moving this way. We'll set up a perimeter against the mountain. Tie in at either end of the tunnel—Second Platoon can cover us from above. Then find me a FAC team."
"Yes, Ma'am!" Jaskowicz took a fraction of a second to salute—something a Marine in combat never did—and dashed off through the darkness. As he vanished, Ludmilla turned to the corpsman.
"Do you have a hypodermic?" she asked calmly, and he nodded. "Good."
Lieutenant Spillers couldn't understand. The howling, blood-crazed demons who'd been attacking all night had vanished. Only scattered shots rang out as a handful of more stubborn invaders went on firing until they were flanked and finished by National Guardsmen moving with the cold skill of survivors. They'd paid cash for that skill, Spillers thought grimly. Rumor said the brigade had taken fifty percent casualties—closer to eighty among the junior officers—and Spillers believed it.
But what unnerved him most were the rioters who just sat or stood there, glaze-eyed and slack-faced, fingers twitching gently while spittle oozed down their chins. It was as if whatever had driven them had also consumed them, he thought shakenly.
Ed Staunton couldn't help himself. He had to keep ducking up to see what was going on, and he'd climbed up over his protective mountain just in time to see both fountains of light and fury erupt into the heavens.
That had to be it, he decided, his thoughts oddly detached and distant. That had to be the "Troll" thing Commander Morris had told him about. And that meant his "special weapons" would not be required . . . thank God.
But the sparkle and flash of small arms and heavy weapons continued to flare, and that looked like a nasty forest fire starting to the southwest.
"Romeo Team, Romeo One," he said. "Catcher, get ready. Bullpen, open your orbit and get clear." Catcher was VFA-432's call sign; they were equipped for general support. VFA-433—"Bullpen"—carried precision-attack weapons he judged would be less useful in the new situation below.
"Come on, Sneak Play," he murmured, orbiting high above the blazing firefight. "Talk to me, damn it!"
The Apocalypse Brigade was far more confused than its enemies. Most of its men had no idea Taggart was dead, few realized there were aircraft above them, and none had the least idea what the Troll was, where it had come from, or what had happened to it. But they did know they were trapped and under attack . . . and that their attackers had been badly hurt.
Their initial shock faded as they recognized how substantially they outnumbered their enemies. And then, on the heels of that realization, came a second: they must escape, and their vehicles were under the guns of Ludmilla's hastily assembling perimeter.
They came from everywhere, recruited because they'd required little shaping. The Troll had touched them less deeply, bent them less terribly, than he'd been forced to do with those less inclined to violence. All he'd done was program them with fanatical loyalty to their leaders and their "cause," and his death had not impinged directly upon them. They honestly believed they were fighting for themselves, and Taggart's third in command was still alive. He was a hard, hating man, and he knew his enemies were hurt and bleeding.
Even if he hadn't needed the vehicles, he still would have attacked.
Ludmilla looked up as the first recoilless and mortar rounds came in. She'd hoped the enemy would break with the Troll's death, but she hadn't reckoned with the sort of men Taggart had recruited, and she ducked lower in her weapon-pit command post as mortars, machine guns, and covering Dragons from Second Platoon hammered back at their attackers. The unwounded survivors of the three oversized platoons which had come down the mountain would scarcely have made a single normal one, but they couldn't withdraw: there were too many wounded for the fit to carry.
"Slugger, Sneak Play!" She shouted into her mike, her voice fighting the crash of battle. "What's your situation?"
"Sneak Play, Slugger is stuck." If Grant was surprised to hear her instead of Abernathy or Aston, his voice gave no sign of it. "We're down to one LAV. Estimate sixty percent personnel casualties, and the woods are on fire."
"Slugger, can you take your wounded with you?"
"Affirmative, Sneak Play."
"Pull out, Slugger. Get clear as soon as possible. Inform me when you reach—" she crouched over her map card "—Victor-Four. Confirm copy."
"Sneak Play, Slugger confirms. Pull back to Victor-Four and advise."
"Luck, Slugger." She switched channels on her radio chest pack. "Romeo One, Sneak Play. Still with us?"
"Sneak Play, Romeo One. Glad to hear your voice. What can we do?"
"Stand by, Romeo One. We'll have targets for you—" She broke off as Staff Sergeant Ernest Caldwell tumbled into the pit with her. The other two survivors of his forward air control team were with him. "Romeo One, our FAC just turned up. I'm handing off to him." The rattle of incoming small arms roared higher. "I'm going to be busy." She turned to Caldwell as she reached for her blaster once more. "When Slugger gets clear, I want those woods hit with everything they've got, Sergeant. Burn them out."
She rose higher in the pit, listening to the cacophony of her men's weapons, her suit sensors and the Troll's dying glare showing her the enemy. She braced her firing hand on the lip of the pit, and her radio was back on Company T's tactical net.
"Here they come, boys," she said calmly. "We've got to hold them till Slugger gets clear—then the airedales can have them."
There was no more time for talk. The Apocalypse Brigade swept towards the Marines, muzzle flashes and the back-flash of recoiless rifles and rocket launchers lighting their positions like summer lightning.
Company T's survivors poured back an avalanche of answering fire, but the attack rolled in. Ludmilla picked a clump of enemies clustered around an M60 machine-gun team and squeezed the trigger.
Ed Staunton watched the bright, blue-white bursts explode below him and wondered what the hell made them.
Her blaster might have broken the attack, but the Apocalypse Brigade had once had energy weapons of their own and they knew its weakness, knew its targeting systems would lock on the first solid object in its line of fire—including trees and underbrush. They recoiled, but they quickly realized there was only one of it and began to work around her flanks.
"Skipper!" It was Jaskowicz, shouting into her ear as she sought fresh targets through the smoke. Flame roared everywhere she had used her blaster, but at least the wind was away from them. "Right flank's going, Skipper!" the sergeant shouted. "Not gonna last another three minutes!"
"Move the reserve squad in!"
"Already done it, Skip!"
"Damn!" She keyed her radio. "Slugger, Sneak Play. State position!"
"Sneak Play, Slugger is at Victor-Five," the reply came back instantly, and Ludmilla nodded. It would have to do.
"Get your heads down, Slugger," she told Grant, then turned to Caldwell. "Set?" He nodded.
"Do it," she said.
The world exploded.
The Hornets shrieked down like invisible demons, a long, endless line of them spilling napalm and cluster bombs, and the Apocalypse Brigade died. Perhaps as many as fifty escaped the attack and the forest fires and managed to sneak past what was left of Slugger Force as the Ospreys swept down into the vicious thermals of the fire-torn night to take Company T's survivors out of Hell.