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The Road to Damascus: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Sunday, January 4, 2004 01:18 EST



    Kafari Camar stepped onto the broad sidewalk outside Madison Spaceport's passenger terminal and drew down a deep, double-lungful of home. She always loved the smell of spring flowers and fresh-turned earth. The cool, wet wind on her face was particularly welcome, today. The crowded and odiferous space she and fifty-seven fellow students had shared for the past eleven days might have been the best accommodations available on an interstellar freighter, but they'd barely been liveable. Even the students used to Spartan housing on Mali had complained.

    Most of the students were still in the terminal, busy off-loading duffles and sundry luggage, but Kafari had traveled light, as always. She carried even less than most of the students from Jefferson's rural areas, having decided to leave nearly everything behind on Vishnu. Clothes could be replaced. She wouldn't need most of her course disks again. The computer had belonged to the university and none of the trinkets decorating her dorm space had possessed sufficient sentimental value to burden herself with the job of carrying them. She had brought home nothing more than a shoulder pack and the contents of her pockets.

    It wasn't merely convenience that had prompted that decision. It was a survival habit, one that urban kids never seemed to understand, let alone master. Trying to travel with too much to carry, out in Jefferson's wilderness—or even on terraformed ranches bordering wild land—was asking to be killed in any of several messy and painful ways. Jefferson's wildlife was not always friendly. But she was so delighted to be home, she probably would have smiled even at a gollon, just prior to shooting its ten or twelve feet of teeth and claws and armor-tough scales.

    Kafari tilted her face to the wet sky, relishing the rain soaking into her hair, but after tasting the sweet water of home for a happy moment or two, she shook back heavy braids that fell like dark rainwater to her hips, and shouldered her pack. Time to get moving. She crossed the rain-puddled sidewalk and was the first student to reach the rank of robo-cabs waiting at the curb.

    "State destination," the cab's computer droned as she opened the door and settled herself on the worn cushions.

    "Klameth Canyon landing field," Kafari said, digging into her pocket even as the cab intoned mechanically, "Insert travel chit."

    She slid her card into the proper slot and the computer said, "Credit approved. Web yourself into seat."

    She tugged until the restraints clicked into place. The cab checked traffic control for clearance, then lifted smartly into the air, heading rapidly east toward the Damisi Mountains and home. She settled back to watch the scenery, but she was too keyed up to relax, and coming home was only part of the reason for it. The war news—and the tales pouring in from refugee ships landing at Vishnu—had grown so alarming, Kafari and many of her fellow students had decided to return home before things got worse.

    Several families had contacted students via SWIFT, asking them to return, while others had begged their children to stay on Vishnu, since the Concordiat feared a Deng breakthrough at Jefferson. Kafari's family hadn't called. Not because they didn't care, but because they trusted her judgment, and therefore didn't want to waste the money a SWIFT transmission would cost. At twenty-two, Kafari had already survived more critical situations than most urban kids would experience in their entire lives. She'd carefully weighed the pros and cons of the situation unfolding beyond the Void and booked passage on the next ship out of Vishnu. At least, she sighed, peering down at the ground whipping past, she'd got here ahead of the Deng.

    The cab had just veered north to bypass the restricted airspace over Nineveh Military Base when she saw it. Kafari sat bolt upright, eyes widening in shock.

    "My God!"

    It was a machine. An immense machine. A thing that dwarfed the very concept of machine. Even the largest buildings of Nineveh Base shrank to the size of children's stacking blocks by comparison. And more terrifying, even, than its sheer size, it was moving. Things that big were part of the immovable landscape, or should have been. Yet this immense structure was mobile. Faster than her aircab, in fact. Deep gouges showed as triple scars in its wake. The customs officials at Ziva Station had told them a Bolo and its commander had arrived, but Kafari had not remotely imagined just how huge humanity's most sophisticated engines of war really were.

    One salvo from any of its guns and her aircab would vaporize into component atoms, along with her backpack, the contents of her pockets, and herself. She held back a shiver by sheer willpower, then a blur of motion caught her attention. A whole squadron of fighter planes streaked across the Damisi's highest peaks, low to the deck and lined up on the Bolo in what was clearly a strafing or bombing run.

    About a hundred guns swung independently of one another, tracking each of the incoming aircraft. The squadron scattered in a chaotic dispersal pattern as pilots scrambled into evasive maneuvers. For just an instant, her stomach clenched and she thought they were all about to die. She wondered angrily why nobody'd warned the robo-cab—or the spaceport officials—about an incoming invasion fleet. Then she realized what she was seeing.


    A chill broke loose and tore its way down her spine, shaking her like a jaglitch with a horse in its teeth. She'd made it home ahead of the Deng, but she truly hadn't understood, until now, that the only thing standing between her family and brutal massacre was thirteen thousand tons of sudden destruction. Imagination quailed at trying to picture what it would look—and sound—like when the Bolo's guns discharged in full combat.

    That thing could incinerate every fighter in the sky, if it wanted to. Please don't let it want to. She craned to see through the transparent canopy as her cab veered sharply north, but she couldn't keep the fighters in view. Moments later, the aircab dipped into the entrance of Maze Gap, which was the safest way through the Damisi, even by air, and the rose-toned shoulders of the mountains blocked her view of the Bolo, too. Kafari drew a long, shaken breath, then leaned back against the cushions and relaxed one muscle at a time.


    She couldn't even come up with a word big enough to describe what she felt.

    Some emotions—like the Bolo, itself—defied all attempts to fit them into a preconceived notion of reality. Then she shrugged her fears impatiently aside. Kafari came from a long line of people who refused to let little things like terror rule their lives. You looked the world in the eye, took its measure, and did whatever was necessary, the moment it became necessary. After twenty-two years of meeting life head-on, she didn't see much use in changing, now.

    She did wonder, a little apprehensively, just how close to home the war would come, then decided it didn't matter. Jefferson was her home. As much as she loved Chakula Ranch, home was not a collection of paddocks, barns, or even the big house where she'd been born. Home was the earth, the sky, and the people living between them. That was what Kafari had come home to defend. Which piece of it she ended up defending was mere geography.

    The aircab took the winding turn through Maze Gap that would lead to Klameth Canyon, dipping and bumping as they encountered turbulent air at the edge of the weather front that had left Madison socked in beneath rain clouds. Then they shot forward into the thirty-seven-kilometer stretch of canyon that was Kafari's favorite place on any world and she grinned at the breathtaking sight. Canyon walls of rose sandstone towered almost three hundred meters above a broad valley that was home to the richest farmland on Jefferson. High mountain slopes and snow-covered peaks rose another thirty-six hundred meters above the tops of the canyon walls, rising in forested splendor toward the cool springtime sky.

    Kafari couldn't restrain a smile of delight at the sparkling ribbon of water where morning sunlight caught the Klameth River. Bisecting the long, snaking canyon that it had spent millennia carving out of the sedimentary rocks, Klameth River had once been one of Jefferson's wildest waterways, before the construction of the massive Klameth Canyon Dam. An immense amount of water still flowed through the dam's turbines, ensuring plentiful power for the canneries and processing plants in Lambu Cut, a feeder canyon that joined Klameth Canyon near its egress point into Maze Gap. Even with the reservoir and the vast irrigation system draining down its volume, the Klameth River was still the largest tributary of the Adero, which poured so spectacularly into the sea at Chenga Falls.

    But the early terraforming engineers had tamed the Klameth sufficiently to farm and ranch the entire canyon and virtually all of its feeder canyons, several thousand kilometers of land under cultivation, all told. Ranches with vast pastures full of cattle, horses, and sheep showed as vivid green splashes against the deep rose of the canyon walls. Delicate pink and white clouds marked the big commercial orchards. A dark patchwork of newly plowed fields sprawled in every direction, ready for the row crops Jefferson's farmers would be planting soon. Irrigation water sparkled in the early sunlight, where mechanical sprayers soaked the orchards and fields.

    More recent terraforming efforts had created dozens of small lakes and aquaculture ponds, allowing Jefferson's ranchers to cultivate Terran fin fish and shellfish. It was the shellfish—and the spectacular freshwater pearls her family cultivated and sold off-world, a commodity particularly prized by Malinese miners—that had paid for Kafari's education on Vishnu.

    One of the factors that had sent Kafari home had been her coldly logical conclusion that war would disrupt the economies of both star systems sufficiently, nobody was going to be interested in buying pearls, which meant the family could make much better use of its money than paying for an education she'd nearly completed, in any case. If necessary, she'd finish up the degree work by correspondence course.

    Her academic advisor had made an offer to do just that, adding gently that he'd secured a scholarship for her, as well, to pay the balance of her tuition and the cost of SWIFT transmissions necessary to send course materials and exams. They both understood exactly what that offer meant and why. With war brewing, she wasn't likely to return to Vishnu. Even if she survived, even if her family survived, the economic devastation following an invasion would destroy any chance she might have had to return and finish her education on Vishnu.

    Kafari had left the office in tears, unsure whether to be profoundly grateful or to grieve for the loss of everything that offer represented. She still wasn't sure. The one thing she was sure of was the tremendous compliment to her talents and academic standing that offer represented. Dr. Markandeya had gone far beyond the strict call of duty to find a way to help her and she would never forget it.

    Kafari's aircab had just signaled the landing field's auto-tower for final approach when an override signal came through. The aircab slewed violently sideways in a sickening, high-g turn that slammed her against the safety straps. A gasp of pain broke loose as a government-issue aircar came screaming past on priority approach vector. It was headed toward the landing field, where a groundcar waited in the section reserved for high-ranking officials.

    "Huh," Kafari muttered to herself, rubbing a deep-seated ache across her shoulder and chest. "I wonder who's coming to dinner?" Whoever it was, chances were vanishingly small they'd end up at her house to eat it. Another shiver caught her shoulders. Whoever that VIP was and whatever they were doing at Klameth Canyon, dinner was doubtless the last thing on their mind. Officials from Madison didn't come all the way out here without a disturbingly good reason. And the only reason she could see for an official visit now was a scouting trip in preparation for war.

    Kafari thought about the damage one good salvo from a Deng Yavac would do to Klameth Canyon Dam and abruptly wished she hadn't thought of it, after all. The leaden feeling in the pit of her stomach had nothing to do with the aircab's abrupt course change back toward the landing field. Unless she were very much mistaken, war was about to come knocking on her family's front door.


    Simon's aircar was closing in for priority landing at Klameth Canyon field when they overtook a smaller aircar. It performed a sudden, wrenching maneuver to clear the approach lane. He caught a brief glimpse of the occupant, a young woman, it looked like, with long, dark hair. Then his own car flashed past and all he could see was the bottom of the other aircar as it slewed sideways.

    "That girl's going to have bruises," he muttered to Abe Lendan, who had insisted on escorting him personally for this tour of Klameth Canyon. "I've never seen a civilian aircar veer off that sharply. I wonder who she is."

    Abe Lendan frowned as he peered through a side window. "That's a standard commercial aircab. She's probably a student going home from that shuttle flight, this morning."

    "Shuttle flight?"

    "A freighter came in a few minutes ago from the Vishnu-Mali run. I saw a notation about it, since it was carrying a cargo of high-tech weaponry we ordered from Vishnu's weapons labs. A whole group of college kids came with it, traveling steerage."

    "Really? I'd like to talk to one of those kids. How can I get a message to that aircab?"

    Abe touched a control. "Jackie, can you patch a message through to that cab we just passed? Major Khrustinov wants to talk to the passenger."

    The shuttle pilot's voice came back through the speaker. "Of course, sir." She left the connection open, so they could hear. "Klameth Field, this is Airfleet One. Requesting commo patch to the aircab inbound to your commercial strip."

    "Patching to aircab commo system," a mechanical voice replied. "Connection made."

    "Hello, aircab, this is Airfleet One, do you hear me?"

    "Uh—" a startled female voice responded. "Yes. Yes, ma'am, I hear you."

    "President Lendan has requested a meeting with you. We're routing an override to your cab-comp, to set you down next to Airfleet One."

    "Really?" It came out a startled, little-girl squeal. "I mean, yes, certainly, ma'am, I'm honored."

    And terrified. Simon smiled ruefully.

    A moment later, their aircar settled in for a neat landing at the edge of Klameth Field. A waiting lackey hurried forward as their pilot popped the latches, opening the pneumatic passenger hatch. President Lendan's bodyguards exited first, then Simon slid out, followed by the president and his energy advisor, Julie Alvison. The aircab had changed course to follow them down. It settled to earth twenty-five meters away and the hatch popped open.

    A shapely pair of legs emerged, followed by a curvaceous young woman clad in khaki shorts and a comfortable, rugged camp shirt with lots of pockets. A glorious mass of dark braids mostly obscured her shoulder pack. She was tall, nearly as tall as Simon, with skin the color of dark honey.

    One of Abe Lendan's bodyguards—one of only two, comprising the smallest security detail he'd ever seen escorting a planetary head of state—performed a quick electronic and visual search, then escorted her over. The closer she got, the better she looked. Not pretty, exactly. There was too much strength in that face for conventional, doll-like prettiness. But she was strikingly memorable. African features, mixed with something Mediterranean, maybe. Jefferson's population was polygot, he knew that much from his mission briefing files, and the rural population was heavily weighted toward groups of African, Mediterranean, and Semitic descent, blended by generations of intermarriage. The effect of that blending was stunning, like a sculpture of Nefertiti, suddenly come to life.

    "I hope my request to meet you didn't inconvenience you, ma'am," Simon apologized. He held out his hand. "Major Simon Khrustinov, Dinochrome Brigade."

    Her lovely dark eyes widened. "Oh! That was your Bolo my aircab passed? Doing wargames?"

    She surprised him into smiling. "Yes, Sonny's having the time of his life, playing cat and mouse with the air force."

    "If he'd really been shooting, Jefferson wouldn't have an air force."

    Simon's smile widened. "No, it wouldn't."

    "I'm Kafari Camar," she said, shaking his hand with a firm grip despite the nervous tremor in her fingertips.

    "Ms. Camar, it is a distinct pleasure. May I present Abe Lendan, President of Jefferson. He was kind enough to radio my request to your cab."

    "I'm honored, sir," she said respectfully, shaking his hand, as well.

    Simon was pleased that she maintained her poise. Good, solid self-confidence. The kind that bred survivors. He wanted this girl to survive. Very much, in fact.

    "You came in on the Vishnu-Mali freighter?" Abe Lendan asked.

    "Yes, sir. I took a look at all those refugees coming in, and the news reports from the other side of the Void, and decided I'd better come home. Fast."

    "I wish it hadn't been necessary. But . . ." There wasn't much point in his elaborating further, since every one of them knew the score. "Major Khrustinov would like to discuss some things with you, Ms. Camar, if it isn't too much of an inconvenience? Or did you have someone waiting to pick you up?"

    She smiled, a little shyly. "No, sir. I didn't want to waste my family's money on a SWIFT message or a long-distance call from Madison. There are always rental scooters available here, anyway. There was no need to pull anybody away from the spring planting, just to pick me up."

    "I'd be happy to have my driver drop you at your home, if you'd help us out with Major Khrustinov's questions."

    A startling smile turned her features radiant. "I guess I just lost that bet with myself," she chuckled.


    "I figured whover was in that official car wouldn't be coming to our house for dinner."

    Abe Lendan grinned. "I wouldn't dream of imposing, but it's a kind offer. After you," he added, gesturing toward his waiting groundcar.

    Simon fell into step beside her. "How was your trip home, Ms. Camar?"

    She shot an intent glance his way, then surprised him by answering the question he hadn't asked. "Tense and worried. The town-based kids are terrified. Even the students from Granger families are scared. Those of us who are Granger-bred at least know how to use rifles and handguns. That might help, if it comes down to shooting Deng infantry, although it would be pretty useless against a Yavac. But most of the Townies have never even seen a real gun, let alone fired one. It was us Grangers, primarily, coming home on that freighter. Seventy percent, maybe. Most of the Townies stayed on Vishnu."

    "You have a gift for situation reports, Ms. Camar."

    She gave him another radiant smile. "I had a good teacher. One of my uncles is a career military officer."

    They reached the presidential car, but didn't enter it, just yet. They were waiting for Lieutenant General Shatrevar to arrive, since the commander of Jefferson's ground forces had not only suggested this tour, but wanted to act as tour guide. The defense of this region would fall under his jurisdiction.

    While they waited, Abe Lendan joined the conversation. "Whereabouts does your family live, Ms. Camar?"

    "About a kilometer from the dam, under the Cat's Claw." She glanced back at Simon. "That's a local landmark. A spire of weathered sandstone shaped like a huge claw."

    Abe Lendan smiled. "I know it well. When I was a boy, my friends and I would come out here to race our scooters and go fishing in Klameth Reservoir. We'll be passing close to your house."

    Simon felt a twinge of loneliness, listening to these two people who'd never met, sharing a common bond of places fondly remembered. In the next moment, Kafari Camar startled him nearly speechless. She met his gaze, her own dark with concern, and said, "It must be very difficult, Major Khrustinov, to constantly move from world to world."

    He knew his eyes had widened. For a long, awkward moment, he had no idea how to respond. The burning wreck of Etaine flashed, ghostlike, through his memory, blotting out all else for several moments. Then he managed a strained smile. "Yes. Very difficult. But this is my last duty post. I've been assigned permanently to Jefferson's government."

    A soft smile touched something deep and virtually forgotten in Simon's heart. "I hope you like it here, Major."

    It was, he realized, more than just a polite phrase. She meant it. The innate warmth with which these people had welcomed him deepened Simon's determination to defend this world, even as it worsened the aching fear that he would leave yet another beautiful place in ashes. It would be far better, far safer, if he refused to let himself care too deeply for any of these people, at least individually, until the danger was past.

    Fortunately, he was saved from further comment by the appearance of a military-issue aircar. It came arrowing in from the opposite direction Airfleet One had come, since General Shatrevar had left Madison the night before, putting in motion phase one of their defense plans at various military bases scattered across Jefferson's supercontinent. The aircar landed neatly and a moment later, Shatrevar was striding toward them. Simon heard a gasp at his elbow and turned to see a shocked expression on Ms. Camar's face. Then the general saw her and broke into a delighted grin.

    "Kafari! You're home!"

    She ran forward with a cry of welcome. "Uncle Jasper!"

    He swept her into a rib-cracking embrace. "Why in the world didn't you call? Oh, never mind, that's not important now." He held her at arm's length for a moment. "Honey, you just get taller and prettier every time I see you." He glanced their way and added, "I see you're keeping good company, as always."

    A blush touched her cheeks.

    "That's my fault, actually," Simon offered. "I wanted to talk to one of the students off that freighter, this morning. Your niece has been very helpful, debriefing me on the situation among the off-world students."

    "Glad to hear it. You'd have to go a long way, Major, to find a better, more reliable source of information."

    Her blush deepened, but she smiled as he snaked an arm around her shoulders and headed their way. Shatrevar shook hands, then they piled into the president's groundcar. One of the bodyguards, a lean and preternaturally alert man the president introduced as Ori Charmak, rode with them, while the other rode shotgun in a second vehicle. Once underway, they got down to serious business.

    "There's a lot of terraformed land on Jefferson," Shatrevar began as they left the airfield and headed down a broad, well-maintained road that paralleled a swift-moving river. "But this is the biggest stretch of land under cultivation in this hemisphere and it's protected from the worst ravages of weather, which is why early terraforming engineers chose to build farms, orchards, and processing plants here. Most of the food supply for Madison comes from this canyon system and that hydroelectric dam is critical to the whole region. Most of the small towns in the Adero floodplain rely entirely on power generated at the Klameth Canyon Dam. Even Madison would be hit hard, if we lost that generating capacity."

    "All of which makes this canyon a prime target." Simon nodded.

    General Shatrevar's niece swallowed hard, then gazed unhappily out the window. Simon also studied the terrain with a critical eye, trying to decide whether the Deng would be likeliest to blow the dam and let the resulting flood sweep away farms, crops, food animals, and people, or whether they would attempt capturing the dam intact, for their own electrical power needs. Deng weren't particularly interested in Terran foods, but the houses and outbuildings would serve as adequate shelters for thousands of Deng warriors—and, eventually, thousands of Deng families, too. It was always cheaper to use an existing structure, even one not entirely suited to the size and shape of the invaders, than it was to build from scratch.

    Jasper Shatrevar pointed out the route heavy produce trucks followed each harvest season to reach the packing plants, which had been built in a feeder canyon, out of sight from the picturesque beauty of the main canyon. Simon was leaning forward to peer into the side canyon when the commlink attached to his belt began to scream. His gut tightened savagely. That was the emergency alarm. A proximity warning that the enemy was within his Bolo's sensor range. Simon swore aloud, hating the fear that radiated with sudden intensity from the civilians in President Lendan's car. Even Jasper Shatrevar had gone white. Simon slapped the commo circuit wide open.

    "What's the VSR, Sonny?"

    "We have Enemy breakthrough out of the Void. Deng warships. Receiving comp from System-perimeter warning buoys. Advise immediate scramble of all defense forces."

    "Roger that, Sonny. Continue to monitor Enemy movements. General Shatrevar, head back to Nineveh Base. President Lendan, I need to commandeer your air transport, stat, to reach Sonny. There may not be time to get you back to Madison, even by air. We're fifty kilometers out and Deng warships can cross planetary distances fast."

    "Understood, Major." President Lendan pressed a control on the arm of his seat, fingers shaking slightly, and spoke to the driver. "Turn us around, Hank. Get us back to the landing field. Put your foot down and keep it there."

    The car swung around in a wrenching turn and headed back the way they'd just come. The look in Kafari Camar's dark and beautiful eyes tore at him, but there was literally nothing Simon could do to reassure the girl. She'd come home to defend her world. In all too short a time, she'd be doing exactly that. The best he could hope for was an intense, heartstick prayer that she was still alive when the smoke cleared.

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