THE NIGHT OF THE TROLLS
BY KEITH LAUMER
ILLUSTRATED BY NODEL
The machine's job was to defend its place against
enemies—but it had forgotten it had friends!
It was different this time. There was a dry pain in my lungs, and a deep ache in my bones, and a fire in my stomach that made me want to curl into a ball and mew like a kitten. My mouth tasted as though mice had nested in it, and when I took a deep breath wooden knives twisted in my chest.
I made a mental note to tell Mackenzie a few things about his pet controlled-environment tank—just as soon as I got out of it. I squinted at the over-face panel: air pressure, temperature, humidity, O-level, blood sugar, pulse and respiration—all okay. That was something. I flipped the intercom key and said, "Okay, Mackenzie, let's have the story. You've got problems...."
I had to stop to cough. The exertion made my temples pound.
"How long have you birds run this damned exercise?" I called. "I feel lousy. What's going on around here?"
This was supposed to be the terminal test series. They couldn't all be out having coffee. The equipment had more bugs than a two-dollar hotel room. I slapped the emergency release lever. Mackenzie wouldn't like it, but to hell with it! From the way I felt, I'd been in the tank for a good long stretch this time—maybe a week or two. And I'd told Ginny it would be a three-dayer at the most. Mackenzie was a great technician, but he had no more human emotions than a used-car salesman. This time I'd tell him.
Relays were clicking, equipment was reacting, the tank cover sliding back. I sat up and swung my legs aside, shivering suddenly.
It was cold in the test chamber. I looked around at the dull gray walls, the data recording cabinets, the wooden desk where Mac sat by the hour re-running test profiles—
That was funny. The tape reels were empty and the red equipment light was off. I stood, feeling dizzy. Where was Mac? Where were Bonner and Day, and Mallon?
"Hey!" I called. I didn't even get a good echo.
Someone must have pushed the button to start my recovery cycle; where were they hiding now? I took a step, tripped over the cables trailing behind me. I unstrapped and pulled the harness off. The effort left me breathing hard. I opened one of the wall lockers; Banner's pressure suit hung limply from the rack beside a rag-festooned coat hanger. I looked in three more lockers. My clothes were missing—even my bathrobe. I also missed the usual bowl of hot soup, the happy faces of the techs, even Mac's sour puss. It was cold and silent and empty here—more like a morgue than a top priority research center.
I didn't like it. What the hell was going on?
There was a weather suit in the last locker. I put it on, set the temperature control, palmed the door open and stepped out into the corridor. There were no lights, except for the dim glow of the emergency route indicators. There was a faint, foul odor in the air.
I heard a dry scuttling, saw a flick of movement. A rat the size of a red squirrel sat up on his haunches and looked at me as if I were something to eat. I made a kicking motion and he ran off, but not very far.
My heart was starting to thump a little harder now. The way it does when you begin to realize that something's wrong—bad wrong.
Upstairs in the Admin Section, I called again. The echo was a little better here. I went along the corridor strewn with papers, past the open doors of silent rooms. In the Director's office, a blackened wastebasket stood in the center of the rug. The air-conditioner intake above the desk was felted over with matted dust nearly an inch thick. There was no use shouting again.
The place was as empty as a robbed grave—except for the rats.
At the end of the corridor, the inner security door stood open. I went through it and stumbled over something. In the faint light, it took me a moment to realize what it was.
He had been an M. P., in steel helmet and boots. There was nothing left but crumbled bone and a few scraps of leather and metal. A .38 revolver lay nearby. I picked it up, checked the cylinder and tucked it in the thigh pocket of the weather suit. For some reason, it made me feel a little better.
I went on along B corridor and found the lift door sealed. The emergency stairs were nearby. I went to them and started the two hundred foot climb to the surface.
The heavy steel doors at the tunnel had been blown clear.
I stepped past the charred opening, looked out at a low gray sky burning red in the west. Fifty yards away, the 5000-gallon water tank lay in a tangle of rusty steel. What had it been? Sabotage, war, revolution—an accident? And where was everybody?
I rested for a while, then went across the innocent-looking fields to the west, dotted with the dummy buildings that were supposed to make the site look from the air like another stretch of farm land complete with barns, sheds and fences. Beyond the site, the town seemed intact: there were lights twinkling here and there, a few smudges of smoke rising.
Whatever had happened at the site, at least Ginny would be all right—Ginny and Tim. Ginny would be worried sick, after—how long? A month?
Maybe more. There hadn't been much left of that soldier....
I twisted to get a view to the south, and felt a hollow sensation in my chest. Four silo doors stood open; the Colossus missiles had hit back—at something. I pulled myself up a foot or two higher for a look at the Primary Site. In the twilight, the ground rolled smooth and unbroken across the spot where Prometheus lay ready in her underground berth. Down below, she'd be safe and sound maybe. She had been built to stand up to the stresses of a direct extra-solar orbital launch; with any luck, a few near-misses wouldn't have damaged her.
My arms were aching from the strain of holding on. I climbed down and sat on the ground to get my breath, watching the cold wind worry the dry stalks of dead brush around the fallen tank.
At home, Ginny would be alone, scared, maybe even in serious difficulty. There was no telling how far municipal services had broken down. But before I headed that way, I had to make a quick check on the ship. Prometheus was a dream that I—and a lot of others—had lived with for three years. I had to be sure.
I headed toward the pillbox that housed the tunnel head on the off-chance that the car might be there.
It was almost dark and the going was tough; the concrete slabs under the sod were tilted and dislocated. Something had sent a ripple across the ground like a stone tossed into a pond.
I heard a sound and stopped dead. There was a clank and rumble from beyond the discolored walls of the blockhouse a hundred yards away. Rusted metal howled; then something as big as a beached freighter moved into view.
Two dull red beams glowing near the top of the high silhouette swung, flashed crimson and held on me. A siren went off—an ear-splitting whoop! whoop! WHOOP!
It was an unmanned Bolo Mark II Combat Unit on automated sentry duty—and its intruder-sensing circuits were tracking me.
The Bolo pivoted heavily; the whoop! whoop! sounded again; the robot watchdog was bellowing the alarm.
I felt sweat pop out on my forehead. Standing up to a Mark II Bolo without an electropass was the rough equivalent of being penned in with an ill-tempered dinosaur. I looked toward the Primary blockhouse: too far. The same went for the perimeter fence. My best bet was back to the tunnel mouth. I turned to sprint for it, hooked a foot on a slab and went down hard....
I got up, my head ringing, tasting blood in my mouth. The chipped pavement seemed to rock under me. The Bolo was coming up fast. Running was no good, I had to have a better idea.
I dropped flat and switched my suit control to maximum insulation.
The silvery surface faded to dull black. A two-foot square of tattered paper fluttered against a projecting edge of concrete; I reached for it, peeled it free, then fumbled with a pocket flap, brought out a permatch, flicked it alight. When the paper was burning well, I tossed it clear. It whirled away a few feet, then caught in a clump of grass.
"Keep moving, damn you!" I whispered. The swearing worked. The gusty wind pushed the paper on. I crawled a few feet and pressed myself into a shallow depression behind the slab. The Bolo churned closer; a loose treadplate was slapping the earth with a rhythmic thud. The burning paper was fifty feet away now, a twinkle of orange light in the deep twilight.
At twenty yards, looming up like a pagoda, the Bolo halted, sat rumbling and swiveling its rust-streaked turret, looking for the radiating source its IR had first picked up. The flare of the paper caught its electronic attention. The turret swung, then back. It was puzzled. It whooped again, then reached a decision.
Ports snapped open. A volley of anti-personnel slugs whoofed into the target; the scrap of paper disappeared in a gout of tossed dirt.
I hugged the ground like gold lame hugs a torch singer's hip and waited; nothing happened. The Bolo sat, rumbling softly to itself. Then I heard another sound over the murmur of the idling engine, a distant roaring, like a flight of low-level bombers. I raised my head half an inch and took a look. There were lights moving beyond the field—the paired beams of a convoy approaching from the town.
The Bolo stirred, moved heavily forward until it towered over me no more than twenty feet away. I saw gun ports open high on the armored facade—the ones that housed the heavy infinite repeaters. Slim black muzzles slid into view, hunted for an instant, then depressed and locked.
They were bearing on the oncoming vehicles that were spreading out now in a loose skirmish line under a roiling layer of dust. The watchdog was getting ready to defend its territory—and I was caught in the middle. A blue-white floodlight lanced out from across the field, glared against the scaled plating of the Bolo. I heard relays click inside the monster fighting machine, and braced myself for the thunder of her battery....
There was a dry rattle.
The guns traversed, clattering emptily. Beyond the fence the floodlight played for a moment longer against the Bolo, then moved on across the ramp, back, across and back, searching....
Once more the Bolo fired its empty guns. Its red IR beams swept the scene again; then relays snicked, the impotent guns retracted, the port covers closed.
Satisfied, the Bolo heaved itself around and moved off, trailing a stink of ozone and ether, the broken tread thumping like a cripple on a stair.
I waited until it disappeared in the gloom two hundred yards away, then cautiously turned my suit control to vent off the heat. Full insulation could boil a man in his own gravy in less than half an hour.
The floodlight had blinked off now. I got to my hands and knees and started toward the perimeter fence. The Bolo's circuits weren't tuned as fine as they should have been; it let me go.
There were men moving in the glare and dust, beyond the rusty lace-work that had once been a chain-link fence. They carried guns and stood in tight little groups, staring across toward the blockhouse.
I moved closer, keeping flat and avoiding the avenues of yellowish light thrown by the headlamps of the parked vehicles—halftracks, armored cars, a few light manned tanks.
There was nothing about the look of this crowd that impelled me to leap up and be welcomed. They wore green uniforms, and half of them sported beards. What the hell: had Castro landed in force?
I angled off to the right, away from the big main gate that had been manned day and night by guards with tommyguns. It hung now by one hinge from a scarred concrete post, under a cluster of dead polyarcs in corroded brackets. The big sign that had read GLENN AEROSPACE CENTER—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY lay face down in hip-high underbrush.
More cars were coming up. There was a lot of talk and shouting; a squad of men formed and headed my way, keeping to the outside of the fallen fence.
I was outside the glare of the lights now. I chanced a run for it, got over the sagged wire and across a potholed blacktop road before they reached me. I crouched in the ditch and watched as the detail dropped men in pairs at fifty-yard intervals.
Another five minutes and they would have intercepted me—along with whatever else they were after.
I worked my way back across an empty lot and found a strip of lesser underbrush lined with shaggy trees, beneath which a patch of cracked sidewalk showed here and there.
Several things were beginning to be a little clearer now: The person who had pushed the button to bring me out of stasis hadn't been around to greet me, because no one pushed it. The automatics, triggered by some malfunction, had initiated the recovery cycle.
The system's self-contained power unit had been designed to maintain a star-ship crewman's minimal vital functions indefinitely, at reduced body temperature and metabolic rate. There was no way to tell exactly how long I had been in the tank. From the condition of the fence and the roads, it had been more than a matter of weeks—or even months.
Had it been a year ... or more? I thought of Ginny and the boy, waiting at home—thinking the old man was dead, probably. I'd neglected them before for my work, but not like this....
Our house was six miles from the base, in the foothills on the other side of town. It was a long walk, the way I felt—but I had to get there.
Two hours later, I was clear of the town, following the river bank west.
I kept having the idea that someone was following me. But when I stopped to listen, there was never anything there; just the still, cold night, and the frogs, singing away patiently in the low ground to the south.
When the ground began to rise, I left the road and struck off across the open field. I reached a wide street, followed it in a curve that would bring me out at the foot of Ridge Avenue—my street. I could make out the shapes of low, rambling houses now.
It had been the kind of residential section the local Junior Chamber members had hoped to move into some day. Now the starlight that filtered through the cloud cover showed me broken windows, doors that sagged open, automobiles that squatted on flat, dead tires under collapsing car shelters—and here and there a blackened, weed-grown foundation, like a gap in a row of rotting teeth.
The neighborhood wasn't what it had been. How long had I been away? How long...?
I fell down again, hard this time. It wasn't easy getting up. I seemed to weigh a hell of a lot for a guy who hadn't been eating regularly. My breathing was very fast and shallow now, and my skull was getting ready to split and give birth to a live alligator—the ill-tempered kind. It was only a few hundred yards more; but why the hell had I picked a place halfway up a hill?
I heard the sound again—a crackle of dry grass. I got the pistol out and stood flatfooted in the middle of the street, listening hard.
All I heard was my stomach growling. I took the pistol off cock and started off again, stopped suddenly a couple of times to catch him off-guard; nothing. I reached the corner of Ridge Avenue, started up the slope. Behind me, a stick popped loudly.
I picked that moment to fall down again. Heaped leaves saved me from another skinned knee. I rolled over against a low fieldstone wall and propped myself against it. I had to use both hands to cock the pistol. I stared into the dark, but all I could see were the little lights whirling again. The pistol got heavy; I put it down, concentrated on taking deep breaths and blinking away the fireflies.
I heard footsteps plainly, close by. I shook my head, accidentally banged it against the stone behind me. That helped. I saw him, not over twenty feet away, coming up the hill toward me, a black-haired man with a full beard, dressed in odds and ends of rags and furs, gripping a polished club with a leather thong.
I reached for the pistol, found only leaves, tried again, touched the gun and knocked it away. I was still groping when I heard a scuffle of feet. I swung around, saw a tall, wide figure with a mane of untrimmed hair.
He hit the bearded man like a pro tackle taking out the practice dummy. They went down together hard and rolled over in a flurry of dry leaves. The cats were fighting over the mouse; that was my signal to leave quietly.
I made one last grab for the gun, found it, got to my feet and staggered off up the grade that seemed as steep now as penthouse rent. And from down slope, I heard an engine gunned, the clash of a heavy transmission that needed adjustment. A spotlight flickered, made shadows dance.
I recognized a fancy wrought-iron fence fronting a vacant lot; that had been the Adams house. Only half a block to go—but I was losing my grip fast. I went down twice more, then gave up and started crawling. The lights were all around now, brighter than ever. My head split open, dropped off and rolled downhill.
A few more yards and I could let it all go. Ginny would put me in a warm bed, patch up my scratches, and feed me soup. Ginny would ... Ginny....
I was lying with my mouth full of dead leaves. I heard running feet, yells. An engine idled noisily down the block.
I got my head up and found myself looking at chipped brickwork and the heavy brass hinges from which my front gate had hung. The gate was gone and there was a large chunk of brick missing. Some delivery truck had missed his approach.
I got to my feet, took a couple of steps into deep shadow with feet that felt as though they'd been amputated and welded back on at the ankle. I stumbled, fetched up against something scaled over with rust. I held on, blinked and made out the seeping flank of my brand new '79 Pontiac. There was a crumbled crust of whitish glass lining the bright-work strip that had framed the rear window.
A footstep sounded behind me, and I suddenly remembered several things, none of them pleasant. I felt for my gun; it was gone. I moved back along the side of the car, tried to hold on.
No use. My arms were like unsuccessful pie crust. I slid down among dead leaves, sat listening to the steps coming closer. They stopped, and through a dense fog that had sprung up suddenly I caught a glimpse of a tall white-haired figure standing over me.
Then the fog closed in and swept everything away.
I lay on my back this time, looking across at the smoky yellow light of a thick brown candle guttering in the draft from a glassless window. In the center of the room, a few sticks of damp-looking wood heaped on the cracked asphalt tiles burned with a grayish flame. A thin curl of acrid smoke rose up to stir cobwebs festooned under ceiling beams from which wood veneer had peeled away. Light alloy truss-work showed beneath.
It was a strange scene, but not so strange that I didn't recognize it: it was my own living room—looking a little different than when I had seen it last. The odors were different, too; I picked out mildew, badly-cured leather, damp wool, tobacco....
I turned my head. A yard from the rags I lay on, the white-haired man, looking older than pharaoh, sat sleeping with his back against the wall.
The shotgun was gripped in one big, gnarled hand. His head was tilted back, blue-veined eyelids shut. I sat up, and at my movement his eyes opened.
He lay relaxed for a moment, as though life had to return from some place far away. Then he raised his head. His face was hollow and lined. His white hair was thin. A coarse-woven shirt hung loose across wide shoulders that had been Herculean once. But now Hercules was old, old. He looked at me expectantly.
"Who are you?" I said. "Why did you follow me? What happened to the house? Where's my family? Who owns the bully-boys in green?" My jaw hurt when I spoke. I put my hand up and felt it gingerly.
"You fell," the old man said, in a voice that rumbled like a subterranean volcano.
"The understatement of the year, Pop." I tried to get up. Nausea knotted my stomach.
"You have to rest," the old man said, looking concerned. "Before the Baron's men come...." He paused, looking at me as though he expected me to say something profound.
"I want to know where the people are that live here!" My yell came out as weak as church-social punch. "A woman and a boy...."
He was shaking his head. "You have to do something quick. The soldiers will come back, search every house—"
I sat up, ignoring the little men driving spikes into my skull. "I don't give a damn about soldiers! Where's my family? What's happened?" I reached out and gripped his arm. "How long was I down there? What year is this?"
He only shook his head. "Come, eat some food. Then I can help you with your plan."
It was no use talking to the old man; he was senile.
I got off the cot. Except for the dizziness and a feeling that my knees were made of papier-mache, I was all right. I picked up the hand-formed candle, stumbled into the hall.
It was a jumble of rubbish. I climbed through, pushed open the door to my study. There was my desk, the tall bookcase with the glass doors, the gray rug, the easy chair. Aside from a layer of dust and some peeling wall paper, it looked normal. I flipped the switch. Nothing happened.
"What is that charm?" the old man said behind me. He pointed to the light switch.
"The power's off," I said. "Just habit."
He reached out and flipped the switch up, then down again. "It makes a pleasing sound."
"Yeah." I picked up a book from the desk; it fell apart in my hands.
I went back into the hall, tried the bedroom door, looked in at heaped leaves, the remains of broken furniture, an empty window frame. I went on to the end of the hall and opened the door to the bedroom.
Cold night wind blew through a barricade of broken timbers. The roof had fallen in, and a sixteen-inch tree trunk slanted through the wreckage. The old man stood behind me, watching.
"Where is she, damn you?" I leaned against the door frame to swear and fight off the faintness. "Where's my wife?"
The old man looked troubled. "Come, eat now...."
"Where is she? Where's the woman who lived here?"
He frowned, shook his head dumbly. I picked my way through the wreckage, stepped out into knee-high brush. A gust blew my candle out. In the dark I stared at my back yard, the crumbled pit that had been the barbecue grill, the tangled thickets that had been rose beds—and a weathered length of boards upended in the earth.
"What the hell's this...?" I fumbled out a permatch, lit my candle, leaned close and read the crude letters cut into the crumbling wood: VIRGINIA ANNE JACKSON. BORN JAN. 8 1957. KILL BY THE DOGS WINTER 1992.
The Baron's men came twice in the next three days. Each time the old man carried me, swearing but too weak to argue, out to a lean-to of branches and canvas in the woods behind the house. Then he disappeared, to come back an hour or two later and haul me back to my rag bed by the fire.
Three times a day he gave me a tin pan of stew, and I ate it mechanically. My mind went over and over the picture of Ginny, living on for twelve years in the slowly decaying house, and then—
It was too much. There are some shocks the mind refuses.
I thought of the tree that had fallen and crushed the east wing. An elm that size was at least fifty to sixty years old—maybe older. And the only elm on the place had been a two-year sapling. I knew it well; I had planted it.
The date carved on the headboard was 1992. As nearly as I could judge another thirty-five years had passed since then at least. My shipmates—Banner, Day, Mallon—they were all dead, long ago. How had they died? The old man was too far gone to tell me anything useful. Most of my questions produced a shake of the head and a few rumbled words about charms, demons, spells, and the Baron.
"I don't believe in spells," I said. "And I'm not too sure I believe in this Baron. Who is he?"
"The Baron Trollmaster of Filly. He holds all this country—" the old man made a sweeping gesture with his arm—"all the way to Jersey."
"Why was he looking for me? What makes me important?"
"You came from the Forbidden Place. Everyone heard the cries of the Lesser Troll that stands guard over the treasure there. If the Baron can learn your secrets of power—"
"Troll, hell! That's nothing but a Bolo on automatic!"
"By any name every man dreads the monster. A man who walks in its shadow has much mana. But the others—the ones that run in a pack like dogs—would tear you to pieces for a demon if they could lay hands on you."
"You saw me back there. Why didn't you give me away? And why are you taking care of me now?"
He shook his head—the all-purpose answer to any question.
I tried another tack: "Who was the rag man you tackled just outside? Why was he laying for me?"
The old man snorted. "Tonight the dogs will eat him. But forget that. Now we have to talk about your plan—"
"I've got about as many plans as the senior boarder in Death Row. I don't know if you know it, Old Timer, but somebody slid the world out from under me while I wasn't looking."
The old man frowned. I had the thought that I wouldn't like to have him mad at me, for all his white hair....
He shook his head. "You must understand what I tell you. The soldiers of the Baron will find you some day. If you are to break the spell—"
"Break the spell, eh?" I snorted. "I think I get the idea, Pop. You've got it in your head that I'm a valuable property of some kind. You figure I can use my supernatural powers to take over this menagerie—and you'll be in on the ground floor. Well, listen, you old idiot! I spent sixty years—maybe more—in a stasis tank two hundred feet underground. My world died while I was down there. This Baron of yours seems to own everything now. If you think I'm going to get myself shot bucking him, forget it!"
The old man didn't say anything.
"Things don't seem to be broken up much," I went on. "It must have been gas, or germ warfare—or fallout. Damn few people around. You're still able to live on what you can loot from stores; automobiles are still sitting where they were the day the world ended. How old were you when it happened, Pop? The war, I mean. Do you remember it?"
He shook his head. "The world has always been as it is now."
"What year were you born?"
He scratched at his white hair. "I knew the number once. But I've forgotten."
"I guess the only way I'll find out how long I was gone is to saw that damned elm in two and count the rings—but even that wouldn't help much; I don't know when it blew over. Never mind. The important thing now is to talk to this Baron of yours. Where does he stay?"
The old man shook his head violently. "If the Baron lays his hands on you, he'll wring the secrets from you on the rack! I know his ways. For five years I was a slave in the Palace Stables."
"If you think I'm going to spend the rest of my days in this rat nest, you got another guess on the house! This Baron has tanks, an army. He's kept a little technology alive. That's the outfit for me—not this garbage detail! Now, where's this place of his located?"
"The guards will shoot you on sight like a pack-dog!"
"There has to be a way to get to him, old man! Think!"
The old head was shaking again. "He fears assassination. You can never approach him...." He brightened. "Unless you know a spell of power?"
I chewed my lip. "Maybe I do at that. You wanted me to have a plan. I think I feel one coming on. Have you got a map?"
He pointed to the desk beside me. I tried the drawers, found mice, roaches, moldy money—and a stack of folded maps. I opened one carefully; faded ink on yellowed paper, falling apart at the creases. The legend in the corner read: "PENNSYLVANIA 40M:1. Copyright 1970 by ESSO Corporation."
"This will do, Pop," I said. "Now, tell me all you can about this Baron of yours."
"You'll destroy him?"
"I haven't even met the man."
"He is evil."
"I don't know; he owns an army. That makes up for a lot...."
After three more days of rest and the old man's stew, I was back to normal—or near enough. I had the old man boil me a tub of water for a bath and a shave. I found a serviceable pair of synthetic fiber long-johns in a chest of drawers, pulled them on and zipped the weather suit over them, then buckled on the holster I had made from a tough plastic.
"That completes my preparations, Pop," I said. "It'll be dark in another half hour. Thanks for everything."
He got to his feet, a worried look on his lined face, like a father the first time Junior asks for the car.
"The Baron's men are everywhere."
"If you want to help, come along and back me up with that shotgun of yours." I picked it up. "Have you got any shells for this thing?"
He smiled, pleased now. "There are shells—but the magic is gone from many."
"That's the way magic is, Pop. It goes out of things before you notice."
"Will you destroy the Great Troll now?"
"My motto is let sleeping trolls lie. I'm just paying a social call on the Baron."
The joy ran out of his face like booze from a dropped jug.
"Don't take it so hard, Old Timer. I'm not the fairy prince you were expecting. But I'll take care of you—if I make it."
I waited while he pulled on a moth-eaten mackinaw. He took the shotgun and checked the breech, then looked at me.
"I'm ready," he said.
"Yeah," I said. "Let's go...."
The Baronial palace was a forty-story slab of concrete and glass that had been known in my days as the Hilton Garden East. We made it in three hours of groping across country in the dark, at the end of which I was puffing but still on my feet. We moved out from the cover of the trees and looked across a dip in the ground at the lights, incongruously cheerful in the ravaged valley.
"The gates are there—" the old man pointed—"guarded by the Great Troll."
"Wait a minute. I thought the Troll was the Bolo back at the Site."
"That's the Lesser Troll. This is the Great One."
I selected a few choice words and muttered them to myself. "It would have saved us some effort if you'd mentioned this Troll a little sooner, Old Timer. I'm afraid I don't have any spells that will knock out a Mark II, once it's got its dander up."
He shook his head. "It lies under enchantment. I remember the day when it came, throwing thunderbolts. Many men were killed. Then the Baron commanded it to stand at his gates to guard him."
"How long ago was this, Old Timer?"
He worked his lips over the question. "Long ago," he said finally. "Many winters."
"Let's go take a look."
We picked our way down the slope, came up along a rutted dirt road to the dark line of trees that rimmed the palace grounds. The old man touched my arm.
"Softly here. Maybe the Troll sleeps lightly...."
I went the last few yards, eased around a brick column with a dead lantern on top, stared across fifty yards of waist-high brush at a dark silhouette outlined against the palace lights.
Cables, stretched from trees outside the circle of weeds, supported a weathered tarp which drooped over the Bolo. The wreckage of a helicopter lay like a crumpled dragonfly at the far side of the ring. Nearer, fragments of a heavy car chassis lay scattered. The old man hovered at my shoulder.
"It looks as though the gate is off limits," I hissed. "Let's try farther along."
He nodded. "No one passes here. There is a second gate, there." He pointed. "But there are guards."
"Let's climb the wall between gates."
"There are sharp spikes on top the wall. But I know a place, farther on, where the spikes have been blunted."
"Lead on, Pop."
Half an hour of creeping through wet brush brought us to the spot we were looking for. It looked to me like any other stretch of eight-foot masonry wall overhung with wet poplar trees.
"I'll go first," the old man said, "to draw the attention of the guard."
"Then who's going to boost me up? I'll go first."
He nodded, cupped his hands and lifted me as easily as a sailor lifting a beer glass. Pop was old—but he was nobody's softie.
I looked around, then crawled up, worked my way over the corroded spikes, dropped down on the lawn.
Immediately I heard a crackle of brush. A man stood up not ten feet away. I lay flat in the dark trying to look like something that had been there a long time....
I heard another sound, a thump and a crashing of brush. The man before me turned, disappeared in the darkness. I heard him beating his way through shrubbery; then he called out, got an answering shout from the distance.
I didn't loiter. I got to my feet and made a sprint for the cover of the trees along the drive.
Flat on the wet ground, under the wind-whipped branches of an ornamental cedar, I blinked the fine misty rain from my eyes, waiting for the half-hearted alarm behind me to die down.
There were a few shouts, some sounds of searching among the shrubbery. It was a bad night to be chasing imaginary intruders in the Baronial grounds. In five minutes, all was quiet again.
I studied the view before me. The tree under which I lay was one of a row lining a drive. It swung in a graceful curve, across a smooth half-mile of dark lawn, to the tower of light that was the Palace of the Baron of Filly. The silhouetted figures of guards and late-arriving guests moved against the gleam from the collonaded entrance. On a terrace high above, dancers twirled under colored lights. The faint glow of the repellor field kept the cold rain at a distance. In a lull in the wind, I heard music, faintly. The Baron's weekly Grand Ball was in full swing.
I saw shadows move across the wet gravel before me, then heard the purr of an engine. I hugged the ground and watched a long svelte Mercedes—about a '68 model, I estimated—barrel past.
The mob in the city ran in packs like dogs, but the Baron's friends did a little better for themselves.
I got to my feet and moved off toward the palace, keeping well in the shadows. When the drive swung to the right to curve across in front of the building, I left it, went to hands and knees and followed a trimmed privet hedge, past dark rectangles of formal garden to the edge of a secondary pond of light from the garages. I let myself down on my belly and watched the shadows that moved on the graveled drive.
There seemed to be two men on duty—no more. Waiting around wouldn't improve my chances. I got to my feet, stepped out into the drive and walked openly around the corner of the gray fieldstone building into the light.
A short, thickset man in greasy Baronial green looked at me incuriously. My weather suit looked enough like ordinary coveralls to get me by—at least for a few minutes. A second man, tilted back against the wall in a wooden chair, didn't even turn his head.
"Hey!" I called. "You birds got a three-ton jack I can borrow?"
Shorty looked me over sourly. "Who you drive for, Mac?"
"The High Duke of Jersey. Flat. Left rear. On a night like this. Some luck."
"The Jersey can't afford a jack?"
I stepped over the short man, prodded him with a forefinger. "He could buy you and gut you on the altar any Saturday night of the week, low-pockets. And he'd get a kick out of doing it. He's like that."
"Can't a guy crack a harmless joke without somebody talks about altar-bait? You wanna jack, take a jack."
The man in the chair opened one eye and looked me over. "How long you on the Jersey payroll?" he growled.
"Long enough to know who handles the rank between Jersey and Filly." I yawned, looked around the wide, cement floored garage, glanced over the four heavy cars with the Filly crest on their sides.
"Where's the kitchen? I'm putting a couple of hot coffees under my belt before I go back out into that."
"Over there. A flight up and to your left. Tell the cook Pintsy invited you."
"I tell him Jersey sent me, low-pockets." I moved off in a dead silence, opened the door and stepped up into spicy-scented warmth.
A deep carpet—even here—muffled my footsteps. I could hear the clash of pots and crockery from the kitchen a hundred feet distant along the hallway. I went along to a deep-set doorway ten feet from the kitchen, tried the knob and looked into a dark room. I pushed the door shut and leaned against it, watching the kitchen. Through the woodwork I could feel the thump of the bass notes from the orchestra blasting away three flights up. The odors of food—roast fowl, baked ham, grilled horsemeat—curled under the kitchen door and wafted under my nose. I pulled my belt up a notch and tried to swallow the dryness in my throat. The old man had fed me a half a gallon of stew, before we left home, but I was already working up a fresh appetite.
Five slow minutes passed. Then the kitchen door swung open and a tall round-shouldered fellow with a shiny bald scalp stepped into view, a tray balanced on the spread fingers of one hand. He turned, the black tails of his cutaway swirling, called something behind him and started past me. I stepped out, clearing my throat. He shied, whirled to face me. He was good at his job: The two dozen tiny glasses on the tray stood fast. He blinked, got an indignant remark ready—
I showed him the knife the old man had lent me—a bone-handled job with a six-inch switch-blade. "Make a sound and I'll cut your throat," I said softly. "Put the tray on the floor."
He started to back. I brought the knife up. He took a good look, licked his lips, crouched quickly and put the tray down.
I stepped in and chopped him at the base of the neck with the edge of my hand. He folded like a two-dollar umbrella.
I wrestled the door open and dumped him inside, paused a moment to listen. All quiet. I worked his black coat and trousers off, unhooked the stiff white dickey and tie. He snored softly. I pulled the clothes on over the weather suit. They were a fair fit. By the light of my pencil flash, I cut down a heavy braided cord hanging by a high window, used it to truss the waiter's hands and feet together behind him. There was a small closet opening off the room. I put him in it, closed the door and stepped back into the hall. Still quiet. I tried one of the drinks. It wasn't bad.
I took another, then picked up the tray and followed the sounds of music.
The grand ballroom was a hundred yards long, fifty wide, with walls of rose, gold and white, banks of high windows hung with crimson velvet, a vaulted ceiling decorated with cherubs and a polished acre of floor on which gaudily gowned and uniformed couples moved in time to the heavy beat of the traditional fox-trot. I moved slowly along the edge of the crowd, looking for the Baron.
A hand caught my arm and hauled me around. A glass fell off my tray, smashed on the floor.
A dapper little man in black and white headwaiter's uniform glared up at me.
"What do you think you're doing, cretin?" he hissed. "That's the genuine ancient stock you're slopping on the floor." I looked around quickly; no one else seemed to be paying any attention.
"Where are you from?" he snapped. I opened my mouth—
"Never mind, you're all the same." He waggled his hands disgustedly. "The field-hands they send me—a disgrace to the Black. Now, you! Stand up! Hold your tray proudly, gracefully! Step along daintily, not like a knight taking the field! And pause occasionally—just on the chance that some noble guest might wish to drink."
"You bet, pal," I said. I moved on, paying a little more attention to my waiting. I saw plenty of green uniforms; pea green, forest green, emerald green—but they were all hung with braid and medals. According to Pop, the Baron affected a spartan simplicity. The diffidence of absolute power.
There were high white and gold doors every few yards along the side of the ballroom. I spotted one standing open and sidled toward it. It wouldn't hurt to reconnoiter the area.
Just beyond the door, a very large sentry in a bottle-green uniform almost buried under gold braid moved in front of me. He was dressed like a toy soldier, but there was nothing playful about the way he snapped his power gun to the ready. I winked at him.
"Thought you boys might want a drink," I hissed. "Good stuff."
He looked at the tray, licked his lips. "Get back in there, you fool," he growled. "You'll get us both hung."
"Suit yourself, pal." I backed out. Just before the door closed between us, he lifted a glass off the tray.
I turned, almost collided with a long lean cookie in a powder-blue outfit complete with dress sabre, gold frogs, leopard-skin facings, a pair of knee-length white gloves looped under an epaulette, a pistol in a fancy holster and an eighteen-inch swagger stick. He gave me the kind of look old maids give sin.
"Look where you're going, swine," he said in a voice like a pine board splitting.
"Have a drink, Admiral," I suggested.
He lifted his upper lip to show me a row of teeth that hadn't had their annual trip to the dentist lately. The ridges along each side of his mouth turned greenish white. He snatched for the gloves on his shoulder, fumbled them; they slapped the floor beside me.
"I'd pick those up for you, Boss," I said, "But I've got my tray...."
He drew a breath between his teeth, chewed it into strips and snorted it back at me, then snapped his fingers and pointed with his stick toward the door behind me.
"Through there, instantly!" It didn't seem like the time to argue; I pulled it open and stepped through.
The guard in green ducked his glass and snapped to attention when he saw the baby-blue outfit. My new friend ignored him, made a curt gesture to me. I got the idea, trailed along the wide, high, gloomy corridor to a small door, pushed through it into a well-lit tile-walled latrine. A big-eyed slave in white ducks stared.
Blue-boy jerked his head. "Get out!" The slave scuttled away. Blue-boy turned to me.
"Strip off your jacket, slave! Your owner has neglected to teach you discipline."
I looked around quickly, saw that we were alone.
"Wait a minute while I put the tray down, corporal," I said. "We don't want to waste any of the good stuff." I turned to put the tray on a soiled linen bin, caught a glimpse of motion in the mirror.
I ducked, and the nasty-looking little leather quirt whistled past my ear, slammed against the edge of a marble-topped lavatory with a crack like a pistol shot. I dropped the tray, stepped in fast and threw a left to Blue-boy's jaw that bounced his head against the tiled wall. I followed up with a right to the belt buckle, then held him up as he bent over, gagging, and hit him hard under the ear.
I hauled him into a booth, propped him up and started shedding the waiter's blacks.
I left him on the floor wearing my old suit, and stepped out into the hall.
I liked the feel of his pistol at my hip. It was an old fashioned .38, the same model I favored. The blue uniform was a good fit, what with the weight I'd lost. Blue-boy and I had something in common after all.
The latrine attendant goggled at me. I grimaced like a quadruple amputee trying to scratch his nose and jerked my head toward the door I had come out of. I hoped the gesture would look familiar.
"Truss that mad dog and throw him outside the gates," I snarled. I stamped off down the corridor, trying to look mad enough to discourage curiosity.
Apparently it worked. Nobody yelled for the cops.
I reentered the ballroom by another door, snagged a drink off a passing tray, checked over the crowd. I saw two more powder-blue get-ups, so I wasn't unique enough to draw special attention. I made a mental note to stay well away from my comrades in blue. I blended with the landscape, chatting and nodding and not neglecting my drinking, working my way toward a big arched doorway on the other side of the room that looked like the kind of entrance the head man might use. I didn't want to meet him. Not yet. I just wanted to get him located before I went any further.
A passing wine slave poured a full inch of the genuine ancient stock into my glass, ducked his head and moved on. I gulped it like sour bar whiskey. My attention was elsewhere.
A flurry of activity near the big door indicated that maybe my guess had been accurate. Potbellied officials were forming up in a sort of reception line near the big double door. I started to drift back into the rear rank, bumped against a fat man in medals and a sash who glared, fingered a monocle with a plump ring-studded hand and said, "Suggest you take your place, Colonel," in a suety voice.
I must have looked doubtful, because he bumped me with his paunch, and growled, "Foot of the line! Next to the Equerry, you idiot." He elbowed me aside and waddled past.
I took a step after him, reached out with my left foot and hooked his shiny black boot. He leaped forward, off balance, medals jangling. I did a fast fade while he was still groping for his monocle, eased into a spot at the end of the line.
The conversation died away to a nervous murmur. The doors swung back and a pair of guards with more trimmings than a phoney stock certificate stamped into view, wheeled to face each other and presented arms—chrome-plated automatic rifles, in this case. A dark-faced man with thinning gray hair, a pug nose and a trimmed gray van Dyke came into view, limping slightly from a stiffish knee.
His unornamented gray outfit made him as conspicuous in this gathering as a crane among peacocks. He nodded perfunctorily to left and right, coming along between the waiting rows of flunkeys, who snapped-to as he came abreast, wilted and let out sighs behind him. I studied him closely. He was fifty, give or take the age of a bottle of second-rate bourbon, with the weather-beaten complexion of a former outdoor man and the same look of alertness grown bored that a rattlesnake farmer develops—just before the fatal bite.
He looked up and caught my eye on him, and for a moment I thought he was about to speak. Then he went on past.
At the end of the line, he turned abruptly and spoke to a man who hurried away. Then he engaged in conversation with a cluster of head-bobbing guests.
I spent the next fifteen minutes casually getting closer to the door nearest the one the Baron had entered by. I looked around; nobody was paying any attention to me. I stepped past a guard who presented arms. The door closed softly, cutting off the buzz of talk and the worst of the music.
I went along to the end of the corridor. From the transverse hall, a grand staircase rose in a sweep of bright chrome and pale wood. I didn't know where it led, but it looked right. I headed for it, moving along briskly like a man with important business in mind and no time for light chit-chat.
Two flights up, in a wide corridor of muted lights, deep carpets, brocaded wall hangings, mirrors, urns, and an odor of expensive tobacco and coeur de Russe a small man in black bustled from a side corridor. He saw me. He opened his mouth, closed it, half turned away, then swung back to face me. I recognized him; he was the head-waiter who had pointed out the flaws in my waiting style half an hour earlier.
"Here," he started—
I chopped him short with a roar of what I hoped was authentic upper-crust rage.
"Direct me to his Excellency's apartments, scum! And thank your guardian imp I'm in too great haste to cane you for the insolent look about you!"
He went pale, gulped hard and pointed. I snorted and stamped past him down the turning he had indicated.
This was Baronial country, all right. A pair of guards stood at the far end of the corridor.
I'd passed half a dozen with no more than a click of heels to indicate they saw me. These two shouldn't be any different—and it wouldn't look good if I turned and started back at sight of them. The first rule of the gate-crasher is to look as if you belong where you are.
I headed in their direction.
When I was fifty feet from them, they both shifted rifles—not to present-arms position, but at the ready. The nickle-plated bayonets were aimed right at me. It was no time for me to look doubtful; I kept on coming. At twenty feet, I heard their rifle bolts snick home. I could see the expressions on their faces now; they looked as nervous as a couple of teen-age sailors on their first visit to a joy-house.
"Point those butter knives into the corner, you banana-fingered cotton choppers!" I said, looking bored and didn't waver. I unlimbered my swagger stick and slapped my gloved hand with it, letting them think it over. The gun muzzles dropped—just slightly. I followed up fast.
"Which is the anteroom to the Baron's apartments?" I demanded.
"Uh ... this here is his Excellency's apartments, sir, but—"
"Never mind the lecture, you milk-faced fool," I cut in. "Do you think I'd be here if it weren't? Which is the anteroom, damn you!"
"We got orders, sir. Nobody's to come closer than that last door back there."
"We got orders to shoot," the other interrupted. He was a little older—maybe twenty-two. I turned on him.
"I'm waiting for an answer to a question!"
"Sir, the Articles—"
I narrowed my eyes. "I think you'll find paragraph Two B covers Special Cosmic Top Secret Couriers. When you go off duty, report yourselves on punishment. Now, the anteroom! And be quick about it!"
The bayonets were sagging now. The younger of the two licked his lips. "Sir, we never been inside. We don't know how it's laid out in there. If the colonel wants to just take a look...."
The other guard opened his mouth to say something. I didn't wait to find out what it was. I stepped between them, muttering something about bloody recruits and important messages, and worked the fancy handle on the big gold and white door. I paused to give the two sentries a hard look.
"I hope I don't have to remind you that any mention of the movements of a Cosmic Courier is punishable by slow death. Just forget you ever saw me." I went on in and closed the door without waiting to catch the reaction to that one.
The Baron had done well by himself in the matter of decor. The room I was in—a sort of lounge-cum-bar—was paved in two-inch-deep nylon fuzz, the color of a fog at sea, that foamed up at the edges against walls of pale blue brocade with tiny yellow flowers. The bar was a teak log split down the middle and—polished. The glasses sitting on it were like tissue paper engraved with patterns of nymphs and satyrs. Subdued light came from somewhere, along with a faint melody that seemed to speak of youth, long ago.
I went on into the next room. I found more soft light, the glow of hand-rubbed rare woods, rich fabrics and wide windows with a view of dark night sky. The music was coming from a long, low, built-in speaker with a lamp, a heavy crystal ashtray and a display of hothouse roses. There was a scent in the air. Not the coeur de Russe and Havana leaf I'd smelled in the hall, but a subtler perfume.
I turned and looked into the eyes of a girl with long black lashes. Smooth black hair came down to bare shoulders. An arm as smooth and white as whipped cream was draped over a chair back, the hand holding an eight-inch cigarette holder and sporting a diamond as inconspicuous as a chrome-plated hub-cap.
"You must want something pretty badly," she murmured, batting her eyelashes at me. I could feel the breeze at ten feet. I nodded. Under the circumstances, that was about the best I could do.
"What could it be," she mused, "that's worth being shot for?" Her voice was like the rest of her: smooth, polished and relaxed—and with plenty of moxie held in reserve. She smiled casually, drew on her cigarette, tapped ashes onto the rug.
"Something bothering you, Colonel?" she inquired. "You don't seem talkative."
"I'll do my talking when the Baron arrives," I said.
"In that case, Jackson," said a husky voice behind me, "you can start any time you like."
I held my hands clear of my body and turned around slowly—just in case there was a nervous gun aimed at my spine. The Baron was standing near the door, unarmed, relaxed. There were no guards in sight. The girl looked mildly amused. I put my hand on the pistol butt.
"How do you know my name?" I asked.
The Baron waved toward a chair. "Sit down, Jackson," he said, almost gently. "You've had a tough time of it—but you're all right now." He walked past me to the bar, poured out two glasses, turned and offered me one. I felt a little silly standing there fingering the gun; I went over and took the drink.
"To the old days." The Baron raised his glass.
I drank. It was the genuine ancient stock, all right. "I asked you how you knew my name," I said.
"That's easy. I used to know you."
He smiled faintly. There was something about his face....
"You look well in the uniform of the Penn-dragoons," he said. "Better than you ever did in Aerospace blue."
"Good God!" I said. "Toby Mallon!"
He ran a hand over his bald head. "A little less hair on top, plus a beard as compensation, a few wrinkles, a slight pot. Oh, I've changed, Jackson."
"I had it figured as close to eighty years," I said. "The trees, the condition of the buildings—"
"Not far off the mark. Seventy-eight years this spring."
"You're a well-preserved hundred and ten, Toby."
He shook his head. "You weren't the only one in the tanks. But you had a better unit than I did. Mine gave out twenty years ago."
"You mean—you walked into this cold—just like I did?"
He nodded. "I know how you feel. Rip Van Winkle had nothing on us."
"Just one question, Toby. The men you sent out to pick me up seemed more interested in shooting than talking. I'm wondering why."
Mallon threw out his hands, "A little misunderstanding, Jackson. You made it; that's all that counts. Now that you're here, we've got some planning to do together. I've had it tough these last twenty years. I started off with nothing: a few hundred scavengers living in the ruins, hiding out every time Jersey or Dee-Cee raided for supplies. I built an organization, started a systematic salvage operation. I saved everything the rats and the weather hadn't gotten to, spruced up my palace here and stocked it. It's a rich province, Jackson—"
"And now you own it all. Not bad, Toby."
"They say knowledge is power. I had the knowledge."
I finished my drink and put the glass on the bar.
"What's this planning you say we have to do?"
Mallon leaned back on one elbow.
"Jackson, it's been a long haul—alone. It's good to see an old ship-mate. But we'll dine first."
"I might manage to nibble a little something. Say a horse, roasted whole. Don't bother to remove the saddle."
He laughed. "First we eat," he said. "Then we conquer the world."
I squeezed the last drop from the Beaujolais bottle and watched the girl whose name was Renada, hold a light for the cigar Mallon had taken from a silver box. My blue mess jacket and holster hung over the back of the chair. Everything was cosy now.
"Time for business, Jackson," Mallon said. He blew out smoke and looked at me through it. "How did things look—inside."
"Dusty. But intact, below ground level. Upstairs, there's blast damage and weathering. I don't suppose it's changed much since you came out twenty years ago. As far as I could tell, the Primary Site is okay."
Mallon leaned forward. "Now, you made it out past the Bolo. How did it handle itself? Still fully functional?"
I sipped my wine, thinking over my answer, remembering the Bolo's empty guns....
"It damn near gunned me down. It's getting a little old and it can't see as well as it used to, but it's still a tough baby."
Mallon swore suddenly. "It was Mackenzie's idea. A last-minute move when the tech crews had to evacuate. It was a dusting job, you know."
"I hadn't heard. How did you find out all this?"
Mallon shot me a sharp look. "There were still a few people around who'd been in it. But never mind that. What about the Supply Site? That's what we're interested in. Fuel, guns, even some nuclear stuff. Heavy equipment; there's a couple more Bolos, moth-balled, I understand. Maybe we'll even find one or two of the Colossus missiles still in their silos. I made an air recon a few years back before my chopper broke down—"
"I think two silo doors are still in place. But why the interest in armament?"
Mallon snorted. "You've got a few things to learn about the setup, Jackson. I need that stuff. If I hadn't lucked into a stock of weapons and ammo in the armory cellar, Jersey would be wearing the spurs in my palace right now!"
I drew on my cigar and let the silence stretch out.
"You said something about conquering the world, Toby. I don't suppose by any chance you meant that literally?"
Mallon stood up, his closed fists working like a man crumpling unpaid bills. "They all want what I've got! They're all waiting." He walked across the room, back. "I'm ready to move against them now! I can put four thousand trained men in the field—"
"Let's get a couple of things straight, Mallon," I cut in. "You've got the natives fooled with this Baron routine. But don't try it on me. Maybe it was even necessary once; maybe there's an excuse for some of the stories I've heard. That's over now. I'm not interested in tribal warfare or gang rumbles. I need—"
"Better remember who's running things here, Jackson!" Mallon snapped. "It's not what you need that counts." He took another turn up and down the room, then stopped, facing me.
"Look, Jackson. I know how to get around in this jungle; you don't. If I hadn't spotted you and given some orders, you'd have been gunned down before you'd gone ten feet past the ballroom door."
"Why'd you let me in? I might've been gunning for you."
"You wanted to see the Baron alone. That suited me, too. If word got out—" He broke off, cleared his throat. "Let's stop wrangling, Jackson. We can't move until the Bolo guarding the site has been neutralized. There's only one way to do that: knock it out! And the only thing that can knock out a Bolo is another Bolo."
"I've got another Bolo, Jackson. It's been covered, maintained. It can go up against the Troll—" he broke off, laughed shortly. "That's what the mob called it."
"You could have done that years ago. Where do I come in?"
"You're checked out on a Bolo, Jackson. You know something about this kind of equipment."
"Sure. So do you."
"I never learned," he said shortly.
"Who's kidding who, Mallon? We all took the same orientation course less than a month ago—"
"For me it's been a long month. Let's just say I've forgotten."
"You parked that Bolo at your front gate and then forgot how you did it, eh?"
"Nonsense. It's always been there."
I shook my head. "I know different."
Mallon looked wary. "Where'd you get that idea?"
"Somebody told me."
Mallon ground his cigar out savagely on the damask cloth. "You'll point the scum out to me!"
"I don't give a damn whether you moved it or not. Anybody with your training can figure out the controls of a Bolo in half an hour—"
"Not well enough to take on the Tr—another Bolo."
I took a cigar from the silver box, picked up the lighter from the table, turned the cigar in the flame. Suddenly it was very quiet in the room.
I looked across at Mallon. He held out his hand.
"I'll take that," he said shortly.
I blew out smoke, squinted through it at Mallon. He sat with his hand out, waiting. I looked down at the lighter.
It was a heavy windproof model, with embossed Aerospace wings. I turned it over. Engraved letters read: Lieut. Commander Don G. Banner, USAF. I looked up. Renada sat quietly, holding my pistol trained dead on my belt buckle.
"I'm sorry you saw that," Mallon said. "It could cause misunderstandings."
"He ... died. I told you—"
"You told me a lot of things, Toby. Some of them might even be true. Did you make him the same offer you've made me?"
Mallon darted a look at Renada. She sat holding the pistol, looking at me distantly, without expression.
"You've got the wrong idea, Jackson—" Mallon started.
"You and he came out about the same time," I said. "Or maybe you got the jump on him by a few days. It must have been close; otherwise you'd never have taken him. Don was a sharp boy."
"You're out of your mind!" Mallon snapped. "Why, Banner was my friend!"
"Then why do you get nervous when I find his lighter on your table? There could be ten perfectly harmless explanations."
"I don't make explanations," Mallon said flatly.
"That attitude is hardly the basis for a lasting partnership, Toby. I have an unhappy feeling there's something you're not telling me."
Mallon pulled himself up in the chair. "Look here, Jackson. We've no reason to fall out. There's plenty for both of us—and one day I'll be needing a successor. It was too bad about Banner, but that's ancient history now. Forget it. I want you with me, Jackson! Together we can rule the Atlantic seaboard—or even more!"
I drew on my cigar, looking at the gun in Renada's hand. "You hold the aces, Toby. Shooting me would be no trick at all."
"There's no trick involved, Jackson!" Mallon snapped. "After all," he went on, almost wheedling now, "we're old friends. I want to give you a break, share with you—"
"I don't think I'd trust him if I were you, Mr. Jackson," Renada's quiet voice cut in. I looked at her. She looked back calmly. "You're more important to him than you think."
"That's enough, Renada," Mallon barked. "Go to your room at once."
"Not just yet, Toby," she said. "I'm also curious about how Commander Banner died." I looked at the gun in her hand.
It wasn't pointed at me now. It was aimed at Mallon's chest.
Mallon sat sunk deep in his chair, looking at me with eyes like a python with a bellyache. "You're fools, both of you," he grated. "I gave you everything, Renada. I raised you like my own daughter. And you, Jackson. You could have shared with me—all of it."
"I don't need a share of your delusions, Toby. I've got a set of my own. But before we go any farther, let's clear up a few points. Why haven't you been getting any mileage out of your tame Bolo? And what makes me important in the picture?"
"He's afraid of the Bolo machine," Renada said. "There's a spell on it which prevents men from approaching—even the Baron."
"Shut your mouth, you fool!" Mallon choked on his fury. I tossed the lighter in my hand and felt a smile twitching at my mouth.
"So Don was too smart for you after all. He must have been the one who had control of the Bolo. I suppose you called for a truce, and then shot him out from under the white flag. But he fooled you. He plugged a command into the Bolo's circuits to fire on anyone who came close—unless he was Banner."
"It's close enough. You can't get near the Bolo. Right? And after twenty years, the bluff you've been running on the other Barons with your private troll must be getting a little thin. Any day now, one of them may decide to try you."
Mallon twisted his face in what may have been an attempt at a placating smile. "I won't argue with you, Jackson. You're right about the command circuit. Banner set it up to fire an anti-personnel blast at anyone coming within fifty yards. He did it to keep the mob from tampering with the machine. But there's a loophole. It wasn't only Banner who could get close. He set it up to accept any of the Prometheus crew—except me. He hated me. It was a trick to try to get me killed."
"So you're figuring I'll step in and de-fuse her for you, eh, Toby? Well, I'm sorry as hell to disappoint you, but somehow in the confusion I left my electro pass behind."
Mallon leaned toward me. "I told you we need each other, Jackson: I've got your pass. Yours and all the others. Renada, hand me my black box." She rose and moved across to the desk, holding the gun on Mallon—and on me, too, for that matter.
"Where'd you get my pass, Mallon?"
"Where do you think? They're the duplicates from the vault in the old command block. I knew one day one of you would come out. I'll tell you, Jackson, it's been hell, waiting all these years—and hoping. I gave orders that any time the Great Troll bellowed, the mob was to form up and stop anybody who came out. I don't know how you got through them...."
"I was too slippery for them. Besides," I added, "I met a friend."
"A friend? Who's that?"
"An old man who thought I was Prince Charming, come to wake everybody up. He was nuts. But he got me through."
Renada came back, handed me a square steel box. "Let's have the key, Mallon," I said. He handed it over. I opened the box, sorted through half a dozen silver-dollar-sized ovals of clear plastic, lifted one out.
"Is it a magical charm?" Renada asked, sounding awed. She didn't seem so sophisticated now—but I liked her better human.
"Just a synthetic crystalline plastic, designed to resonate to a pattern peculiar to my E.E.G." I said. "It amplifies the signal and gives off a characteristic emission that the Psychotronic circuit in the Bolo picks up."
"That's what I thought. Magic."
"Call it magic, then, kid." I dropped the electropass in my pocket, stood and looked at Renada. "I don't doubt that you know how to use that gun, honey, but I'm leaving now. Try not to shoot me."
"You're a fool if you try it," Mallon barked. "If Renada doesn't shoot you, my guards will. And even if you made it, you'd still need me!"
"I'm touched by your concern, Toby. Just why do I need you?"
"You wouldn't get past the first sentry post without help, Jackson. These people know me as the Trollmaster. They're in awe of me—of my Mana. But together—we can get to the controls of the Bolo, then use it to knock out the sentry machine at the Site—"
"Then what? With an operating Bolo I don't need anything else. Better improve the picture, Toby. I'm not impressed."
He wet his lips.
"It's Prometheus, do you understand? She's stocked with everything from Browning needlers to Norge stunners. Tools, weapons, instruments. And the power plants alone."
"I don't need needlers if I own a Bolo, Toby."
Mallon used some profanity. "You'll leave your liver and lights on the palace altar, Jackson. I promise you that!"
"Tell him what he wants to know, Toby." Renada said. Mallon narrowed his eyes at her. "You'll live to regret this, Renada."
"Maybe I will, Toby. But you taught me how to handle a gun—and to play cards for keeps."
The flush faded out of his face and left it pale. "All right, Jackson," he said, almost in a whisper. "It's not only the equipment. It's ... the men."
I heard a clock ticking somewhere.
"What men, Toby?" I said softly.
"The crew. Day, Macy, the others. They're still in there, Jackson—aboard the ship, in stasis. We were trying to get the ship off when the attack came. There was forty minutes' warning. Everything was ready to go. You were on a test run; there wasn't time to cycle you out...."
"Keep talking," I rapped.
"You know how the system was set up; it was to be a ten-year run out, with an automatic turn-around at the end of that time if Alpha Centauri wasn't within a milli-parsec." He snorted. "It wasn't. After twenty years, the instruments checked. They were satisfied. There was a planetary mass within the acceptable range. So they brought me out." He snorted again. "The longest dry run in history. I unstrapped and came out to see what was going on. It took me a little while to realize what had happened. I went back in and cycled Banner and Mackenzie out. We went into the town; you know what we found. I saw what we had to do, but Banner and Mac argued. The fools wanted to reseal Prometheus and proceed with the launch. For what? So we could spend the rest of our lives squatting in the ruins, when by stripping the ship we could make ourselves kings?"
"So there was an argument?" I prompted.
"I had a gun. I hit Mackenzie in the leg, I think—but they got clear, found a car and beat me to the Site. There were two Bolos. What chance did I have against them?" Mallon grinned craftily. "But Banner was a fool. He died for it." The grin dropped like a stripper's bra. "But when I went to claim my spoils, I discovered how the jackals had set the trap for me."
"That was downright unfriendly of them, Mallon. Oddly enough, it doesn't make me want to stay and hold your hand."
"Don't you understand yet!" Mallon's voice was a dry screech. "Even if you got clear of the Palace, used the Bolo to set yourself up as Baron—you'd never be safe! Not as long as one man was still alive aboard the ship. You'd never have a night's rest, wondering when one of them would walk out to challenge your rule...."
"Uneasy lies the head, eh, Toby? You remind me of a queen bee. The first one out of the chrysalis dismembers all her rivals."
"I don't mean to kill them. That would be a waste. I mean to give them useful work to do."
"I don't think they'd like being your slaves, Toby. And neither would I." I looked at Renada. "I'll be leaving you now," I said. "Whichever way you decide, good luck."
"Wait." She stood. "I'm going with you."
I looked at her. "I'll be traveling fast, honey. And that gun in my back may throw off my timing."
She stepped to me, reversed the pistol and laid it in my hand.
"Don't kill him, Mr. Jackson. He was always kind to me."
"Why change sides now? According to Toby, my chances look not too good."
"I never knew before how Commander Banner died," she said. "He was my great-grandfather."
Renada came back bundled in a gray fur as I finished buckling on my holster.
"So long, Toby," I said. "I ought to shoot you in the belly just for Don—but—"
I saw Renada's eyes widen at the same instant that I heard the click.
I dropped flat and rolled behind Mallon's chair—and a gout of blue flame yammered into the spot where I'd been standing. I whipped the gun up and around into the peach-colored upholstery an inch from Toby's ear.
"The next one nails you to the chair," I yelled. "Call 'em off!" There was a moment of dead silence. Toby sat frozen. I couldn't see who'd been doing the shooting. Then I heard a moan. Renada.
"Let the girl alone or I'll kill him," I called.
Toby sat rigid, his eyes rolled toward me.
"You can't kill me, Jackson! I'm all that's keeping you alive."
"You can't kill me either, Toby. You need my magic touch, remember? Maybe you'd better give us a safe-conduct out of here. I'll take the freeze off your Bolo—after I've seen to my business."
Toby licked his lips. I heard Renada again. She was trying not to moan—but moaning anyway.
"You tried, Jackson. It didn't work out," Toby said through gritted teeth. "Throw out your gun and stand up. I won't kill you—you know that. You do as you're told and you may still live to a ripe old age—and the girl, too."
She screamed then—a mindless ululation of pure agony.
"Hurry up, you fool, before they tear her arm off," Mallon grated. "Or shoot. You'll get to watch her for twenty-four hours under the knife. Then you'll have your turn."
I fired again—closer this time. Mallon jerked his head and cursed.
"If they touch her again, you get it, Toby," I said. "Send her over here. Move!"
"Let her go!" Mallon snarled. Renada stumbled into sight, moved around the chair, then crumpled suddenly to the rug beside me.
"Stand up, Toby," I ordered. He rose slowly. Sweat glistened on his face now. "Stand over here." He moved like a sleepwalker. I got to my feet. There were two men standing across the room beside a small open door. A sliding panel. Both of them held power rifles leveled—but aimed offside, away from the Baron.
"Drop 'em!" I said. They looked at me, then lowered the guns, tossed them aside.
I opened my mouth to tell Mallon to move ahead, but my tongue felt thick and heavy. The room was suddenly full of smoke. In front of me, Mallon was wavering like a mirage. I started to tell him to stand still, but with my thick tongue, it was too much trouble. I raised the gun, but somehow it was falling to the floor,—slowly, like a leaf—and then I was floating, too, on waves that broke on a dark sea....
"Do you think you're the first idiot who thought he could kill me?" Mallon raised a contemptuous lip. "This room's rigged ten different ways."
I shook my head, trying to ignore the film before my eyes and the nausea in my body. "No, I imagine lots of people would like a crack at you, Toby. One day one of them's going to make it."
"Get him on his feet," Mallon snapped. Hard hands clamped on my arms, hauled me off the cot. I worked my legs, but they were like yesterday's celery; I sagged against somebody who smelled like uncured hides.
"You seem drowsy," Mallon said. "We'll see if we can't wake you up."
A thumb dug into my neck. I jerked away, and a jab under the ribs doubled me over.
"I have to keep you alive—for the moment," Mallon said. "But you won't get a lot of pleasure out of it."
I blinked hard. It was dark in the room. One of my handlers had a ring of beard around his mouth—I could see that much. Mallon was standing before me, hands on hips. I aimed a kick at him, just for fun. It didn't work out; my foot seemed to be wearing a lead boat. The unshaven man hit me in the mouth and Toby chuckled.
"Have your fun, Dunger," he said, "but I'll want him alive and on his feet for the night's work. Take him out and walk him in the fresh air. Report to me at the Pavillion of the Troll in an hour." He turned to something and gave orders about lights and gun emplacements, and I heard Renada's name mentioned.
Then he was gone and I was being dragged through the door and along the corridor.
The exercise helped. By the time the hour had passed, I was feeling weak but normal—except for an aching head and a feeling that there was a strand of spiderweb interfering with my vision. Toby had given me a good meal. Maybe before the night was over he'd regret that mistake....
Across the dark grounds, an engine started up, spluttered, then settled down to a steady hum.
"It's time," the one with the whiskers said. He had a voice like soft cheese to match his smell. He took another half-twist in the arm he was holding.
"Don't break it," I grunted. "It belongs to the Baron, remember?"
Whiskers stopped dead. "You talk too much—and too smart." He let my arm go and stepped back. "Hold him, Pig Eye." The other man whipped a forearm across my throat and levered my head back; then Whiskers unlimbered the two-foot club from his belt and hit me hard in the side, just under the ribs. Pig Eye let go and I folded over and waited while the pain swelled up and burst inside me.
Then they hauled me back to my feet. I couldn't feel any bone ends grating, so there probably weren't any broken ribs—if that was any consolation.
There were lights glaring now across the lawn. Moving figures cast long shadows against the trees lining the drive—and on the side of the Bolo Combat Unit parked under its canopy by the sealed gate.
A crude breastwork had been thrown up just over fifty yards from it. A wheel-mounted generator putted noisily in the background, laying a layer of bluish exhaust in the air.
Mallon was waiting with a 9 mm power rifle in his hands as we came up, my two guards gripping me with both hands to demonstrate their zeal, and me staggering a little more than was necessary. I saw Renada standing by, wrapped in a gray fur. Her face looked white in the harsh light. She made a move toward me and a greenback caught her arm.
"You know what to do, Jackson," Mallon said speaking loudly against the clatter of the generator. He made a curt gesture and a man stepped up and buckled a stout chain to my left ankle. Mallon held out my electropass. "I want you to walk straight to the Bolo. Go in by the side port. You've got one minute to cancel the instructions punched into the command circuit and climb back outside. If you don't show, I close a switch there—" he pointed to a wooden box mounting an open circuitbreaker, with a tangle of heavy cable leading toward the Bolo—"and you cook in your shoes. The same thing happens if I see the guns start to traverse or the anti-personnel ports open." I followed the coils of armored wire from the chain on my ankle back to the wooden box—and on to the generator.
"Crude, maybe, but it will work. And if you get any idea of letting fly a round or two at random—remember the girl will be right beside me."
I looked across at the giant machine. "Suppose it doesn't recognize me? It's been a while. Or what if Don didn't plug my identity pattern in to the recognition circuit?"
"In that case, you're no good to me anyway," Mallon said flatly.
I caught Renada's eye, gave her a wink and a smile I didn't feel, and climbed up on top of the revetment.
I looked back at Mallon. He was old and shrunken in the garish light, his smooth gray suit rumpled, his thin hair mussed, the gun held in a white-knuckled grip. He looked more like a harrassed shopkeeper than a would-be world-beater.
"You must want the Bolo pretty bad to take the chance, Toby," I said. "I'll think about taking that wild shot. You sweat me out."
I flipped slack into the wire trailing my ankle, jumped down and started across the smooth-trimmed grass, a long black shadow stalking before me. The Bolo sat silent, as big as a bank in the circle of the spotlight. I could see the flecks of rust now around the port covers, the small vines that twined up her sides from the ragged stands of weeds that marked no-man's land.
There was something white in the brush ahead. Broken human bones.
I felt my stomach go rigid again. The last man had gotten this far; I wasn't in the clear yet....
I passed two more scattered skeletons in the next twenty feet. They must have come in on the run, guinea pigs to test the alertness of the Bolo. Or maybe they'd tried creeping up, dead slow, an inch a day; it hadn't worked....
Tiny night creatures scuttled ahead. They would be safe here in the shadow of the troll where no predator bigger than a mouse could move. I stumbled, diverted my course around a ten-foot hollow, the eroded crater of a near miss.
Now I could see the great moss-coated treads, sunk a foot into the earth, the nests of field mice tucked in the spokes of the yard-high bogies. The entry hatch was above, a hairline against the great curved flank. There were rungs set in the flaring tread shield. I reached up, got a grip and hauled myself up. My chain clanked against the metal. I found the door lever, held on and pulled.
It resisted, then turned. There was the hum of a servo motor, a crackling of dead gaskets. The hairline widened and showed me a narrow companionway, green-anodized dural with black polymer treads, a bulkhead with a fire extinguisher, an embossed steel data plate that said BOLO DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION and below, in smaller type, UNIT, COMBAT, BOLO MARK III.
I pulled myself inside and went up into the Christmas tree glow of instrument lights.
The control cockpit was small, utilitarian, with two deep-padded seats set among screens, dials, levers. I sniffed the odors of oil, paint, the characteristic ether and ozone of a nuclear generator. There was a faint hum in the air from idling relay servos. The clock showed ten past four. Either it was later than I thought, or the chronometer had lost time in the last eighty years. But I had no time to lose....
I slid into the seat, flipped back the cover of the command control console. The Cancel key was the big white one. I pulled it down and let it snap back, like a clerk ringing up a sale.
A pattern of dots on the status display screen flicked out of existence. Mallon was safe from his pet troll now.
It hadn't taken me long to carry out my orders. I knew what to do next; I'd planned it all during my walk out. Now I had thirty seconds to stack the deck in my favor.
I reached down, hauled the festoon of quarter-inch armored cable up in front of me. I hit a switch, and the inner conning cover—a disk of inch-thick armor—slid back. I shoved a loop of the flexible cable up through the aperture, reversed the switch. The cover slid back—sliced the armored cable like macaroni.
I took a deep breath, and my hands went to the combat alert switch, hovered over it.
It was the smart thing to do—the easy thing. All I had to do was punch a key, and the 9 mm's would open up, scythe Mallon and his crew down like cornstalks.
But the scything would mow Renada down, along with the rest. And if I went—even without firing a shot—Mallon would keep his promise to cut that white throat....
My head was out of the noose now but I would have to put it back—for a while.
I leaned sideways, reached back under the panel, groped for a small fuse box. My fingers were clumsy. I took a breath, tried again. The fuse dropped out in my hand. The Bolo's IR circuit was dead now. With a few more seconds to work, I could have knocked out other circuits—but the time had run out.
I grabbed the cut ends of my lead wire, knotted them around the chain and got out fast.
Mallon waited, crouched behind the revetment.
"It's safe now, is it?" he grated. I nodded. He stood, gripping his gun.
"Now we'll try it together."
I went over the parapet, Mallon following with his gun ready. The lights followed us to the Bolo. Mallon clambered up to the open port, looked around inside, then dropped back down beside me. He looked excited now.
"That does it, Jackson! I've waited a long time for this. Now I've got all the Mana there is!"
"Take a look at the cable on my ankle," I said softly. He narrowed his eyes, stepped back, gun aimed, darted a glance at the cable looped to the chain.
"I cut it, Toby. I was alone in the Bolo with the cable cut—and I didn't fire. I could have taken your toy and set up in business for myself, but I didn't."
"What's that supposed to buy you?" Mallon rasped.
"As you said—we need each other. That cut cable proves you can trust me."
Mallon smiled. It wasn't a nice smile. "Safe, were you? Come here." I walked along with him to the back of the Bolo. A heavy copper wire hung across the rear of the machine, trailing off into the grass in both directions.
"I'd have burned you at the first move. Even with the cable cut, the armored cover would have carried the full load right into the cockpit with you. But don't be nervous. I've got other jobs for you." He jabbed the gun muzzle hard into my chest, pushing me back. "Now get moving," he snarled. "And don't ever threaten the Baron again."
"The years have done more than shrivel your face, Toby," I said. "They've cracked your brain."
He laughed, a short bark. "You could be right. What's sane and what isn't? I've got a vision in my mind—and I'll make it come true. If that's insanity, it's better than what the mob has."
Back at the parapet, Mallon turned to me. "I've had this campaign planned in detail for years, Jackson. Everything's ready. We move out in half an hour—before any traitors have time to take word to my enemies. Pig Eye and Dunger will keep you from being lonely while I'm away. When I get back—Well, maybe you're right about working together." He gestured and my whiskery friend and his sidekick loomed up. "Watch him," he said.
"Genghis Khan is on the march, eh?" I said, "With nothing between you and the goodies but a five-hundred ton Bolo...."
"The Lesser Troll...." He raised his hands and made crushing motions, like a man crumbling dry earth. "I'll trample it under my treads."
"You're confused, Toby. The Bolo has treads. You just have a couple of fallen arches."
"It's the same. I am the Great Troll." He showed me his teeth and walked away.
I moved along between Dunger and Pig Eye, towards the lights of the garage.
"The back entrance again," I said. "Anyone would think you were ashamed of me."
"You need more training, hah?" Dunger rasped. "Hold him, Pig Eye." He unhooked his club and swung it loosely in his hand, glancing around. We were near the trees by the drive. There was no one in sight except the crews near the Bolo and a group by the front of the palace. Pig Eye gave my arm a twist and shifted his grip to his old favorite strangle hold. I was hoping he would.
Dunger whipped the club up, and I grabbed Pig Eye's arm with both hands and leaned forward like a Japanese admiral reporting to the Emperor. Pig Eye went up and over just in time to catch Dunger's club across the back. They went down together. I went for the club, but Whiskers was faster than he looked. He rolled clear, got to his knees, and laid it across my left arm, just below the shoulder.
I heard the bone go....
I was back on my feet, somehow. Pig Eye lay sprawled before me. I heard him whining as though from a great distance. Dunger stood six feet away, the ring of black beard spread in a grin like a hyena smelling dead meat.
"His back's broke," he said. "Hell of a sound he's making. I been waiting for you; I wanted you to hear it."
"I've heard it," I managed. My voice seemed to be coming off a worn sound track. "Surprised ... you didn't work me over ... while I was busy with the arm."
"Uh-uh. I like a man to know what's going on when I work him over." He stepped in, rapped the broken arm lightly with the club. Fiery agony choked a groan off in my throat. I backed a step, he stalked me.
"Pig Eye wasn't much, but he was my pal. When I'm through with you, I'll have to kill him. A man with a broken back's no use to nobody. His'll be finished pretty soon now, but not with you. You'll be around a long time yet; but I'll get a lot of fun out of you before the Baron gets back."
I was under the trees now. I had some wild thoughts about grabbing up a club of my own, but they were just thoughts. Dunger set himself and his eyes dropped to my belly. I didn't wait for it; I lunged at him. He laughed and stepped back, and the club cracked my head. Not hard; just enough to send me down. I got my legs under me and started to get up—
There was a hint of motion from the shadows behind Dunger. I shook my head to cover any expression that might have showed, let myself drop back.
"Get up," Dunger said. The smile was gone now. He aimed a kick. "Get up—"
He froze suddenly, then whirled. His hearing must have been as keen as a jungle cat's; I hadn't heard a sound.
The old man stepped into view, his white hair plastered wet to his skull, his big hands spread. Dunger snarled, jumped in and whipped the club down; I heard it hit. There was flurry of struggle, then Dunger stumbled back, empty-handed.
I was on my feet again now. I made a lunge for Dunger as he roared and charged. The club in the old man's hand rose and fell. Dunger crashed past and into the brush. The old man sat down suddenly, still holding the club. Then he let it fall and lay back. I went toward him and Dunger rushed me from the side. I went down again.
I was dazed, but not feeling any pain now. Dunger was standing over the old man. I could see the big lean figure lying limply, arms outspread—and a white bone handle, incongruously new and neat against the shabby mackinaw. The club lay on the ground a few feet away. I started crawling for it. It seemed a long way, and it was hard for me to move my legs, but I kept at it. The light rain was falling again now, hardly more than a mist. Far away there were shouts and the sound of engines starting up. Mallon's convoy was moving out. He had won. Dunger had won, too. The old man had tried, but it hadn't been enough. But if I could reach the club, and swing it just once....
Dunger was looking down at the old man. He leaned, withdrew the knife, wiped it on his trouser leg, hitching up his pants to tuck it away in its sheath. The club was smooth and heavy under my hand. I got a good grip on it, got to my feet. I waited until Dunger turned, and then I hit him across the top of the skull with everything I had left....
I thought the old man was dead until he blinked suddenly. His features looked relaxed now, peaceful, the skin like parchment stretched over bone. I took his gnarled old hand and rubbed it. It was as cold as a drowned sailor.
"You waited for me, Old-Timer?" I said inanely. He moved his head minutely, and looked at me. Then his mouth moved. I leaned close to catch what he was saying. His voice was fainter than lost lope.
"Mom ... told me ... wait for you.... She said ... you'd ... come back some day...."
I felt my jaw muscles knotting.
Inside me something broke and flowed away like molten metal. Suddenly my eyes were blurred—and not only with rain. I looked at the old face before me, and for a moment, I seemed to see a ghostly glimpse of another face, a small round face that looked up.
He was speaking again. I put my head down:
"Was I ... good ... boy ... Dad?" Then the eyes closed.
I sat for a long time, looking at the still face. Then I folded the hands on the chest and stood.
"You were more than a good boy, Timmy," I said. "You were a good man."
My blue suit was soaking wet and splattered with mud, plus a few flecks of what Dunger had used for brains, but it still carried the gold eagles on the shoulders.
The attendant in the garage didn't look at my face. The eagles were enough for him. I stalked to a vast black Bentley—a '70 model, I guessed, from the conservative eighteen-inch tail fins—and jerked the door open. The gauge showed three-quarters full. I opened the glove compartment, rummaged, found nothing. But then it wouldn't be up front with the chauffeur....
I pulled open the back door. There was a crude black leather holster riveted against the smooth pale-gray leather, with the butt of a 4 mm showing. There was another one on the opposite door, and a power rifle slung from straps on the back of the driver's seat.
Whoever owned the Bentley was overcompensating his insecurity. I took a pistol, tossed it onto the front seat and slid in beside it. The attendant gaped at me as I eased my left arm into my lap and twisted to close the door. I started up. There was a bad knock, but she ran all right. I flipped a switch and cold lances of light speared out into the rain.
At the last instant, the attendant started forward with his mouth open to say something, but I didn't wait to hear it. I gunned out into the night, slung into the graveled drive, and headed for the gate. Mallon had had it all his way so far, but maybe it still wasn't too late....
Two sentries, looking miserable in shiny black ponchos, stepped out of the guard hut as I pulled up. One peered in at me, then came to a sloppy position of attention and presented arms. I reached for the gas pedal and the second sentry called something. The first man looked startled, then swung the gun down to cover me. I eased a hand toward my pistol, brought it up fast and fired through the glass. Then the Bentley was roaring off into the dark along the potholed road that led into town. I thought I heard a shot behind me, but I wasn't sure.
I took the river road south of town, pounding at reckless speed over the ruined blacktop, gaining on the lights of Mallon's horde paralleling me a mile to the north. A quarter mile from the perimeter fence, the Bentley broke a spring and skidded into a ditch.
I sat for a moment taking deep breaths to drive back the compulsive drowsiness that was sliding down over my eyes like a visor. My arm throbbed like a cauterized stump. I needed a few minutes rest....
A sound brought me awake like an old maid smelling cigar smoke in the bedroom: the rise and fall of heavy engines in convoy. Mallon was coming up at flank speed.
I got out of the car and headed off along the road at a trot, holding my broken arm with my good one to ease the jarring pain. My chances had been as slim as a gambler's wallet all along, but if Mallon beat me to the objective, they dropped to nothing.
The eastern sky had taken on a faint gray tinge, against which I could make out the silhouetted gate posts and the dead floodlights a hundred yards ahead.
The roar of engines was getting louder. There were other sounds, too: a few shouts, the chatter of a 9 mm, the boom! of something heavier, and once a long-drawn whoosh! of falling masonry. With his new toy, Mallon was dozing his way through the men and buildings that got in his way.
I reached the gate, picked my way over fallen wire mesh, then headed for the Primary Site.
I couldn't run now. The broken slabs tilted crazily, in no pattern. I slipped, stumbled, but kept my feet. Behind me, headlights threw shadows across the slabs. It wouldn't be long now before someone in Mallon's task force spotted me and opened up with the guns—
The whoop! whoop! WHOOP! of the guardian Bolo cut across the field.
Across the broken concrete I saw the two red eyes flash, sweeping my way. I looked toward the gate. A massed rank of vehicles stood in a battalion front just beyond the old perimeter fence, engines idling, ranged for a hundred yards on either side of a wide gap at the gate. I looked for the high silhouette of Mallon's Bolo, and saw it far off down the avenue, picked out in red, white and green navigation lights, a jeweled dreadnaught. A glaring cyclopean eye at the top darted a blue-white cone of light ahead, swept over the waiting escort, outlined me like a set-shifter caught onstage by the rising curtain.
The whoop! whoop! sounded again; the automated sentry Bolo was bearing down on me along the dancing lane of light.
I grabbed at the plastic disk in my pocket as though holding it in my hand would somehow heighten its potency. I didn't know if the Lesser Troll was programmed to exempt me from destruction or not; and there was only one way to find out.
It wasn't too late to turn around and run for it. Mallon might shoot—or he might not. I could convince him that he needed me, that together we could grab twice as much loot. And then, when he died—
I wasn't really considering it; it was the kind of thought that flashes through a man's mind like heat lightning when time slows in the instant of crisis. It was hard to be brave with broken bone ends grating, but what I had to do didn't take courage. I was a small, soft, human grub, stepped on but still moving, caught on the harsh plain of broken concrete between the clash of chrome-steel titans. But I knew which direction to take.
The Lesser Troll rushed toward me in a roll of thunder and I went to meet it.
It stopped twenty yards from me, loomed massive as a cliff. Its heavy guns were dead. I knew. Without them it was no more dangerous than a farmer with a shotgun—
But against me a shotgun was enough.
The slab under me trembled as if in anticipation. I squinted against the dull red IR beams that pivoted to hold me, waiting while the Troll considered. Then the guns elevated, pointed over my head like a benediction. The Bolo knew me.
The guns traversed fractionally. I looked back toward the enemy line, saw the Great Troll coming up now, closing the gap, towering over its waiting escort like a planet among moons. And the guns of the Lesser Troll tracked it as it came—the empty guns, that for twenty years had held Mallon's scavengers at bay.
The noise of engines was deafening now. The waiting line moved restlessly, pulverizing old concrete under churning treads. I didn't realize I was being fired on until I saw chips fly to my left, and heard the howl of richochets.
It was time to move. I scrambled for the Bolo, snorted at the stink of hot oil and ozone, found the rusted handholds, and pulled myself up—
Bullets spanged off metal above me. Someone was trying for me with a power rifle.
The broken arm hung at my side like a fence-post nailed to my shoulder, but I wasn't aware of the pain now. The hatch stood open half an inch. I grabbed the lever, strained; it swung wide. No lights came up to meet me. With the port cracked, they'd burned out long ago. I dropped down inside, wriggled through the narrow crawl space into the cockpit. It was smaller than the Mark III—and it was occupied.
In the faint green light from the panel, the dead man crouched over the controls, one desiccated hand in a shriveled black glove clutching the control bar. He wore a GI weather suit and a white crash helmet, and one foot was twisted nearly backward, caught behind a jack lever.
The leg had been broken before he died. He must have jammed the foot and twisted it so that the pain would hold off the sleep that had come at last. I leaned forward to see the face. The blackened and mummified features showed only the familiar anonymity of death, but the bushy reddish mustache was enough.
"Hello, Mac," I said. "Sorry to keep you waiting; I got held up."
I wedged myself into the co-pilot's seat, flipped the IR screen switch. The eight-inch panel glowed, showed me the enemy Bolo trampling through the fence three hundred yards away, then moving onto the ramp, dragging a length of rusty chain-link like a bridal train behind it.
I put my hand on the control bar. "I'll take it now, Mac." I moved the bar, and the dead man's hand moved with it.
"Okay, Mac," I said. "We'll do it together."
I hit the switches, canceling the pre-set response pattern. It had done its job for eighty years, but now it was time to crank in a little human strategy.
My Bolo rocked slightly under a hit and I heard the tread shields drop down. The chair bucked under me as Mallon moved in, pouring in the fire.
Beside me, Mac nodded patiently. It was old stuff to him. I watched the tracers on the screen. Hosing me down with contact exploders probably gave Mallon a lot of satisfaction, but it couldn't hurt me. It would be a different story when he tired of the game and tried the heavy stuff.
I threw in the drive, backed rapidly. Mallon's tracers followed for a few yards, then cut off abruptly. I pivoted, flipped on my polyarcs, raced for the position I had selected across the field, then swung to face Mallon as he moved toward me. It had been a long time since he had handled the controls of a Bolo; he was rusty, relying on his automatics. I had no heavy rifles, but my pop-guns were okay. I homed my 4 mm solid-slug cannon on Mallon's polyarc, pressed the FIRE button.
There was a scream from the high-velocity-feed magazine. The blue-white light flared and went out. The Bolo's defenses could handle anything short of an H-bomb, pick a missile out of the stratosphere fifty miles away, devastate a county with one round from its mortars—but my BB gun at point-blank range had poked out its eye.
I switched everything off and sat silent, waiting. Mallon had come to a dead stop. I could picture him staring at the dark screens, slapping levers and cursing. He would be confused, wondering what had happened. With his lights gone, he'd be on radar now—not very sensitive at this range, not too conscious of detail....
I watched my panel. An amber warning light winked. Mallon's radar was locked on me.
He moved forward again, then stopped; he was having trouble making up his mind. I flipped a key to drop a padded shock frame in place, and braced myself. Mallon would be getting mad now.
Crimson danger lights flared on the board and I rocked under the recoil as my interceptors flashed out to meet Mallon's C-S C's and detonate them in incandescent rendezvous over the scarred concrete between us. My screens went white, then dropped back to secondary brilliance, flashing stark black-and-white. My ears hummed like trapped hornets.
The sudden silence was like a vault door closing.
I sagged back, feeling like Quasimodo after a wild ride on the bells. The screens blinked bright again, and I watched Mallon, sitting motionless now in his near blindness. On his radar screen I would show as a blurred hill; he would be wondering why I hadn't returned his fire, why I hadn't turned and run, why ... why....
He lurched and started toward me. I waited, then eased back, slowly. He accelerated, closing in to come to grips at a range where even the split micro-second response of my defenses would be too slow to hold off his fire. And I backed, letting him gain, but not too fast....
Mallon couldn't wait.
He opened up, throwing a mixed bombardment from his 9 mm's, his infinite repeaters, and his C-S C's. I held on, fighting the battering frame, watching the screens. The gap closed; a hundred yards, ninety, eighty.
The open silo yawned in Mallon's path now, but he didn't see it. The mighty Bolo came on, guns bellowing in the night, closing for the kill. On the brink of the fifty-foot-wide, hundred-yard-deep pit, it hesitated as though sensing danger. Then it moved forward.
I saw it rock, dropping its titanic prow, showing its broad back, gouging the blasted pavement as its guns bore on the ground. Great sheets of sparks flew as the treads reversed, too late. The Bolo hung for a moment longer, then slid down majestically as a sinking liner, its guns still firing into the pit like a challenge to Hell. And then it was gone. A dust cloud boiled for a moment, then whipped away as displaced air tornadoed from the open mouth of the silo.
And the earth trembled under the impact far below.
The doors of the Primary Site blockhouse were nine-foot-high, eight-inch-thick panels of solid chromalloy that even a Bolo would have slowed down for, but they slid aside for my electropass like a shower curtain at the YW. I went into a shadowy room where eighty years of silence hung like black crepe on a coffin. The tiled floor was still immaculate, the air fresh. Here at the heart of the Aerospace Center, all systems were still go.
In the Central Control bunker, nine rows of green lights glowed on the high panel over red letters that spelled out STAND BY TO FIRE. A foot to the left, the big white lever stood in the unlocked position, six inches from the outstretched fingertips of the mummified corpse strapped into the controller's chair. To the right, a red glow on the monitor panel indicated the locked doors open.
I rode the lift down to K level, stepped out onto the steel-railed platform that hugged the sweep of the starship's hull and stepped through into the narrow COC.
On my right, three empty stasis tanks stood open, festooned cabling draped in disorder. To the left were the four sealed covers under which Day, Macy, Cruciani and Black waited. I went close, read dials. Slender needles trembled minutely to the beating of sluggish hearts.
They were alive.
I left the ship, sealed the inner and outer ports. Back in the control bunker, the monitor panel showed ALL CLEAR FOR LAUNCH now. I studied the timer, set it, turned back to the master panel. The white lever was smooth and cool under my hand. It seated with a click. The red hand of the launch clock moved off jerkily, the ticking harsh in the silence.
Outside, the Bolo waited. I climbed to a perch in the open conning tower twenty feet above the broken pavement, moved off toward the west where sunrise colors picked out the high towers of the palace.
I rested the weight of my splinted and wrapped arm on the balcony rail, looking out across the valley and the town to the misty plain under which Prometheus waited.
"There's something happening now," Renada said. I took the binoculars, watched as the silo doors rolled back.
"There's smoke," Renada said.
"Don't worry, just cooling gases being vented off." I looked at my watch. "Another minute or two and man makes the biggest jump since the first lungfish crawled out on a mud-flat."
"What will they find out there?"
I shook my head. "Homo Terra Firma can't even conceive of what Homo Astra has ahead of him."
"Twenty years they'll be gone. It's a long time to wait."
"We'll be busy trying to put together a world for them to come back to. I don't think we'll be bored."
"Look!" Renada gripped my good arm. A long silvery shape, huge even at the distance of miles, rose slowly out of the earth, poised on a brilliant ball of white fire. Then the sound came, a thunder that penetrated my bones, shook the railing under my hand. The fireball lengthened into a silver-white column with the ship balanced at its tip. Then the column broke free, rose up, up....
I felt Renada's hand touch mine. I gripped it hard. Together we watched as Prometheus took man's gift of fire back to the heavens.