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The Road to Damascus: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, January 4, 2004 01:17 EST



    I track Enemy deployment as every perimeter alarm between Jefferson's primary and the edge of the Void screams out dire warnings. I have gone to Battle Reflex Alert, snapping my gun systems to live status as I await my Commander's return from his abortive tour of Klameth Canyon.  

    "Sonny, I've borrowed President Lendan's aircar. Send me visual VSR on the breakthrough." I flash schematics of Jefferson's star system to Simon's airborne transport, marking the point of breakthrough. "System-perimeter warning buoys are reporting three Deng heavy cruisers, four troop transports—"

    I halt as more buoys begin to scream news of a second breakthrough point, seventeen degrees above the system's ecliptic plane. "Four additional heavy cruisers breaking through at system zenith. Six more troop transports detected. Fighter squadrons are breaking loose from the heavy cruisers. I anticipate attacks against moon bases and asteroid mining operations within twelve point two minutes. I am sending a warning to in-system naval cutters to expect imminent attack."

    Simon swears, creatively. He knows, as I do, that the people on those asteroids and moon bases—and those in Jefferson's Home-Star Navy—are about to die. The cutters are no match for seven battle cruisers and ten troop transports, which also possess the advantage of high-velocity entry from their interstellar crossing. The Home-Star Navy's cutters are virtually stationary, with no time to build up speed for evasive maneuvers, let alone an attack run against the incoming ships. Without the heavy guns and high-g acceleration potential of a Concordiat naval cruiser in this star system, they are helpless and there is literally nothing we can do to help anyone in a space-based habitat.  

    I blame myself for not insisting that the off-world installations be evacuated, but Simon's next words are of some comfort. "There wouldn't have been time to get those people to safety on Jefferson even if they'd been ordered home the minute our transport made orbit. Dammit! That incursion's almost half-fleet strength. What the hell are the Deng doing here in such concentration? Notify General Hightower and track those incoming ships. I want to know their deployment pattern, second by second."

    No human can actually take in that much data that fast, but I have served with Simon long enough to understand his meaning. I send the warning to Jefferson's Chief of Defense. "General Hightower, we have a confirmed Deng breakthrough in two sectors. Transmitting coordinates and tracking deployment. Advise immediate civilian evacuation to shelters."

    In this, at least, Jefferson is more adequately prepared than many colony worlds. After the last Deng attempt to take this world, the government embarked on a massive building project to construct subterranean bomb shelters deep beneath the cities. General Hightower responds with the kind of calm that comes only from prior combat experience—decades of it.  

    "Understood, Sonny. Thank God we're actually deployed in the field on those joint-ops maneuvers you recommended. They didn't quite catch us with our jockey shorts down." The eerie sound of sirens comes through the audio pickup as the evacuation warning is given, ordering Madison's people to seek their assigned shelters. Within seconds, the scenario is repeated in every major urban center on Jefferson. If such shelters had existed on Etaine . . . There is no point in such speculation. I turn my attention to the deployment of the incoming Deng warships. 

    Both groups are moving at sub-light speed, but they have come in fast, as warships intending blitzkrieg invariably do. They are bleeding off some of their high-vee energy in braking maneuvers, but are still moving at sufficient speed, a Concordiat naval ship—even had one been available for in-system defense—would have had enormous difficulty hitting them, while providing a virtually motionless target for alien guns. Ducks on a pond. Or fish in a barrel. I do not like the analogy, as applied to myself, and never have. One good-sized rock, sent crashing into Jefferson from a ship moving that fast, and the battle for Jefferson would be over, along with every human life on this world. It is a grim business, to hope that the enemy intends colonization rather than outright destruction.  

    When Simon's transport appears in my sensors, I experience a moment of relief. I am capable of some independent action in battle, thanks to the rewriting of two key software blocks during my retrofitting, but most of the blocks have remained in place, leaving me unable to function on my own for anything but direct fire at an enemy that is actively shooting at me or at something I have been charged to guard. In situations requiring complex judgment, a human commander is essential to my battlefield effectiveness. Simon's return dispels the uneasiness I have felt since the moment of Enemy breakthrough out of the Void.  

    The military aircar sets down three point seven meters from my port-side tread. Simon emerges from the pilot's compartment and breaks into a run, climbing the access ladder rapidly as I open the hatch to my Command Compartment. I do not see the president's pilot. Airfleet One sits abandoned as I turn my attention to Simon's arrival in my Command Compartment.  

    "Okay, Lonesome," Simon mutters as he slides into his chair and slaps restraints closed. "Let's take a look at what we've got."

    The ships dropping down from system zenith deploy for fast attack runs. I track the battle formation as fighters strafe asteroid mining installations. Silent explosions mark the deaths of human personnel. The Deng are indulging a savage level of destruction, making no attempt to capture the mines intact. The nearest heavy cruiser opens fire on the moonbase. Home-Star Navy cutters return fire, attempting to hit the incoming cruisers. An energy lance touches the cutter above Juree Moonbase and the ship explodes, raining debris across the moon from lunar orbit.  

    Another cruiser smashes Jefferson's commercial space station and its defending cutter. The latter vanishes in an incandescent ball of gas and debris. Ziva Station breaks apart. Pieces spin away in a spectacular burst pattern. Broken chunks will come down over the next several weeks, but the freighter docked there is in far more immediate danger. The fifty-seven students who arrived in it have reached relative safety on the ground, but the ship and its cargo of high-tech weaponry—only partially off-loaded at the spaceport—are doomed.  

    The freighter attempts to run, wallowing in a frantic effort to elude the incoming warships. Ship-to-ship missiles streak almost lazily across the purple-black expanse of space above Jefferson's atmosphere. I can do nothing but watch, unable to reach the cruisers or the missiles to defend the freighter. Warheads impact and explode. The freighter breaks apart, spilling its contents to vacuum.  

    I rage. I track ships I cannot reach with my guns. Humans are dying and I am helpless, unable to grapple with the enemy. A third cruiser dropping from zenith takes down every orbital communications satellite circling Jefferson, depriving me of visual data in one fell swoop. Planetary-defense battle platforms return fire automatically, inflicting heavy damage to one cruiser before concentrated fire from the second cruiser's guns blow them to component atoms. In three minutes and twenty-seven seconds, Jefferson has been stripped of all space-based defensive capacity and every off-world installation has been reduced to rubble.  

    Having achieved such massive destruction, the Enemy's next move surprises me and even catches my Commander off-guard. The original battle group, which broke through at system perimeter, jumps out again on a vector that will take all three cruisers and their four troop transports straight to the Ngara system and its two inhabited worlds, Mali and Vishnu. Simon whistles softly. "So that's what they were up to, sending half a battle fleet across the Void. They plan to hit both systems in the Dezelan Promontory and open up a back door to our inner worlds."

    "Shall I relay a warning to Captain Brisbane at Vishnu?"

    "No. Not yet. Those cruisers haven't spotted us, Lonesome, and I'm not anxious to advertise our presence. Not until they're within range of your guns. We've got to warn them, somehow, though. You're right about that. Relay a message through General Hightower. Ask him to send a transmission to Vishnu from one of the commercial SWIFT units. One that's nowhere near Madison."

    I contact General Hightower.  

    "Understood," the aging general says harshly, comprehending immediately that the person who sends that SWIFT transmission will die for it. After a delay of one point zero-seven minutes, the general speaks again. "The Tayari Trade Consortium is transmitting now." A SWIFT broadcast races outward from a point on Jefferson's night side, drawing instantaneous fire from all four enemy cruisers dropping toward Jefferson's atmosphere. Damage to the Trade Consortium will be severe, but Vishnu and Mali have been warned. The Deng cruisers and troop transports arriving in Ngaran space will not have the advantage of total surprise. I experience a savage satisfaction that this is so. 

    Satisfaction turns to elation when two of the four remaining cruisers break off their attack run against Jefferson and follow the first battle group toward distant Ngara. Simon lets go a war whoop. "They think it's all over but the mopping up! Sonny, boy, it's time to go Deng hunting!"

    I experience a fierce thrill of anticipation. I long to close with the enemy. I intend to pay back the wanton destruction of human lives with deadly interest.  

    "Steady, Lonesome," Simon advises softly, gaze glued to the forward screen, "don't fire 'til you see the whites of their beady little eyes."

    This is, of course, impractical advice, since Deng eyes contain no white at all. Simon's meaning is clear, however, as is his reference to ancient Terran history. The unexpected exodus leaves only one fully functional heavy cruiser in orbit around Jefferson. The second ship, badly damaged by Jefferson's orbital weapons platforms, is drifting into the upper atmosphere, evidently unable to hold course. All six troop transports swoop into the upper atmosphere, descending rapidly.  

    They drop in formation, an arrogance they will soon rue. The crippled heavy cruiser continues to drift, its crew doubtless too distracted by the urgent need for repairs to play a role, yet, in the battle about to erupt in Jefferson's skies. The second cruiser disgorges fighters in a horde reminiscent of Terran wasps. The fighters race to provide covering fire for the troop transports, with their heavy loads of infantry and Yavac fighting vehicles. They drop into the thin, highly charged ionosphere on a direct course for Madison and the critical agricultural complex of Klameth Canyon. Even the functional heavy cruiser kisses the high ionosphere, dropping low enough to swivel its guns toward the planetary surface. It fires missiles at Madison's spaceport. I long to swat them down, but wait for Simon's command.  

    "Undamaged cruiser first, transports next. And as many of those missiles as you can take down. Stand by to fire . . . Now," Simon whispers gently.

    I fire Hellbores and infinite repeaters. The cruiser staggers, mortally wounded. The hull cracks in half and breaks open. The pieces plunge toward atmosphere, glowing like short-lived meteors. I have no time to celebrate, as I am too busy firing at the descending cluster of troop transports and missiles. I destroy three transports before they can scatter. I vaporize fifteen in-bound missiles on a vector for Madison's spaceport.  

    The second cruiser, damaged but still operational, opens fire despite its awkward position as it drifts out of control across Jefferson's upper atmosphere. I engage engines, racing forward, and evade all but one of the enemy's inbound shots. Y-beam energy strikes my defensive battle screen, causing a flare and surge of power as the screen absorbs the energy, glowing white-hot in the process. The screen converts ninety-seven percent of the energy washing across my stern into useable power, fueling not only several of my gun systems, but recharging the screen. This eases the terrific power drain necessary to maintain the defensive shield and power my main weaponry.  

    The damaged cruiser continues to pour fire into me, however. It becomes clear within ten point eight seconds that the commander in charge of its guns has fought Bolos before. Seventeen separate gun systems concentrate their fire onto one point of my defensive screen, heating it up to intolerable levels. Despite my attempt at evasive maneuvers, trying to relieve the terrific strain, the screen goes into overload, unable to absorb even one more erg. An energy lance punches through and eats a deep gash through my ablative armor. Pain sensors scream damage warnings.  

    I swivel and swerve, firing nonstop. A double blast from fore and aft Hellbores catches the cruiser across its bow. The wounded cruiser wallows lower, plunging into the ionosphere. It launches a cloud of missiles, more than a hundred, in snarling defiance of its own imminent destruction. A third punch from my Hellbores catches the cruiser broadside. Its entire stern shears away. The dying cruiser breaks up as spectacularly as her sister ship, raining debris across the entire western hemisphere as she disintegrates.  

    I fire into the hailstorm of incoming missiles, more than I can destroy as they scream toward Madison and its spaceport. I destroy ninety-three of them, but the rest reach their designated targets. Madison's spaceport sustains heavy damage. Manufacturing plants northwest of the capital explode and burn savagely. Three troop transports from the cluster that scattered, trying to evade my guns, remain airborne. Their fighter escorts have begun strafing runs on my warhull. I fire anti-aircraft missiles, infinite repeaters, and small-bore cannons at the incoming fighters. My guns belch death, filling the sky with incandescent flame. Fighters veer off, attempting evasive maneuvers. The transports drop like stones, using emergency thrust to reach the relative safety of the ground.  

    One transport vanishes into the Damisi Mountains, doubtless making a safe—and vexacious—landing in Klameth Canyon. A second veers sharply northwest and drops below the horizon line, doubtless intending to use the steep cliffs of the coastal escarpment as a screen. It will probably disgorge its load of infantry and Yavacs northwest of Madison. The third transport attempts to land near Nineveh Base. The base's anti-aircraft batteries open fire, raking the side of the descending transport.  

    The enormous ship staggers midair. Fighters buzz and swarm to its aid. Jefferson's home-defense fighters scream down from the Damisi Mountains, flying nap-of-the-earth in an eerie recreation of the wargames underway when the Deng fleet broke into Jeffersonian space. The human crews engage enemy fighters with air-to-air missiles, moving too swiftly for the intricacies of aerial dogfights, which belonged to a glorious but sadly antiquated era of warfare.  

    I know blazing pride in Jefferson's defenders when the untested air force sends a dozen enemy fighters to destruction. They crash spectacularly into the ground surrounding Nineveh Base. The wounded troop transport has made a safe landing, but the speed of my attack and that of the air force has forced its captain into the serious error of landing on the near side of Nineveh Base. This allows me to fire line-of-sight, virtually point-blank. Two Yavacs succeed in off-loading before I rake the transport with fire from my forward Hellbore. The ship disintegrates into a massive fireball that temporarily blocks my view of the base and its scrambling gun crews.  

    I launch a drone, which gives me a clear view of the two Yavacs that have reached the ground. One, a Scout-class, is of little immediate danger, but the other is a Yavac Heavy, prompting a snarl from my Commander.  

    "Go after that Heavy before it takes out the whole base!"

    I rush forward, redlining my drive engines to reach a vantage point from which I can fire at the Yavac without putting the human personnel and installations beyond at equal risk. I take fire from the Scout-class, which moves in a blur of speed on its jointed legs. A pulse from my infinite repeaters blows apart two of its legs, sending it crashing and maimed to the ground. A Jeffersonian fighter follows it down, firing missiles and 30cm cannons as it strafes the downed Scout. The hull explodes and burns fiercely, but the Yavac Heavy has not been idle.  

    It opens fire simultaneously on Nineveh Base and my warhull. An anti-aircraft battery simply ceases to be. Three Y-beam energy lances strike my starboard screen, concentrating all three beams onto one spot in another effort to punch through. The energy pouring into the screen fuels my infinite repeaters, which I use to good effect, taking out the Heavy's radar arrays and small-bore weaponry. But with three beams sizzling into my flank, the screen cannot hold. It fails again—spectacularly—allowing destructive penetration to the surface of my warhull. The terrific energy influx melts three 10cm anti-personnel machine gun arrays and splashes destruction across my starboard sensors and track linkages. I fire infinite repeaters, aiming for the leg joints, not wanting to expose this heavily populated region to more hard radiation than utterly necessary.  

    Jeffersonian fighters attempt strafing runs, but the lightweight aircraft are no match for a Yavac Heavy's guns. Five of the seven fighters burst into fireballs. Anger fuels my response. I open fire with my forward Hellbore, then rock on my treads, hit by return fire that digs another long gouge across my starboard side. Pain sensors scream warnings. I swivel twin turrets to bring both Hellbores to bear, delighting in the responsiveness of my retrofitted, independent double turrets, and fire again. The Yavac's turret shears off and goes spinning through the heart of Nineveh Base. I pulse both Hellbores again and the main body of the Heavy-class fighting machine explodes. It falls, ponderously, and burns out of control.  

    I swat down the remaining enemy fighters with grim satisfaction. In the momentary lull of noise, a distant sound of explosions from two separate compass directions washes into my awareness. I order my aerial drone to gain altitude.  

    "Madison is under attack," I report tersely, angling my drone to pick up the battle raging just northwest of the capital city. Clearly, the troop transport that eluded my guns has disgorged its lethal cargo. I also pick up frantic transmissions from the Jeffersonian air force squadron above the Damisi Mountains. I relay the fighter pilots' situation reports. "There is heavy fighting in Klameth Canyon. The enemy has blockaded Maze Gap. There has been no action taken against the Klameth Canyon Dam, but Deng infantry are pouring through the farmholds, slowed by intense fighting from the residents. Shelling from the Yavacs has been minimal, compared with attacks on other worlds."

    "They want the canyon's infrastructure intact, then. Madison?"

    I flash video feed from my drone to the main viewscreen. Yavac Heavies are advancing toward Madison's northwestern suburbs, firing virtually unopposed. General Hightower's artillery—including twenty-seven mobile 10cm Hellbores—and air-mobile cav units are rushing to defend the heart of the city. Other units attempt to delay the advance along the western perimeter, trying to deny the enemy a far-forward breakthrough that would effectively split our fighting forces in half.  

    Simon snarls through clenched teeth. "Klameth Canyon will have to wait. We've got to stop those Yavacs before they take out the whole city."

    I rush forward at emergency battle speed, firing high-angle mortars that arc above Madison's skyline. They drop cluster bombs amongst the enemy's infantry and Scout-class units, wreaking havoc as I rush toward the Adero River, which I must cross. Due to the short distance between the Damisi watershed and the capital city, the Adero River is swift, deep, and narrower than many rivers spilling across a floodplain. This creates a navigational inconvenience, since the riverbed is too steep and too narrow to lumber across it without risk of tipping prow-first into an attitude reminiscent of a duck diving for its dinner.  

    I therefore redline my engines, roaring down the main road from Nineveh Base toward the Hickory Bridge, which was built east of the capital to accommodate the heavy ore carriers, construction equipment, and freight trucks connecting Madison's industrial sector and spaceport to other urban centers, particularly the mining cities and smelting plants scattered along the Damisi Range. This bridge was constructed to handle a high volume of heavy vehicles. I hope that it will hold my weight just long enough to cross to the northern river bank.  

    I rush toward the southern end of the bridge at a smouldering one hundred twenty-two kilometers per hour. It is fortunate that no truck traffic was on the bridge at the time of attack. The entire span is empty. My treads scream their way up the approach. The concrete shudders under my treads. I reach the midpoint of the bridge as the support beneath my stern collapses. Simon lets out a wild yell.  




    We are across. The bridge smashes into the riverbed.  

    I unleash a barrage of bombardment rockets, high-angle mortars, and hyper-v missiles, raking the enemy's eastern flank with withering fire. As intended, my actions draw the attention of the Yavac Heavies away from the destruction of Madison's outlying homes and manufacturing plants.  

    I come under fire from three Yavac Heavy-class units, which shift their triangular formation to attack me, instead. I speed northward around the city, then drive forward in a maneuver that leaves the enemy exposed along the entire northwestern flank. General Hightower's ground-based mobile Hellbores smash the Deng southern flank, even as I open fire with my heavier 30cm Hellbores. Scout-class Yavacs topple and burn along the southern flank, but the three Heavies concentrate their fire on me, correctly judging me to be the far greater threat.  

    I lose a bank of chain-guns and several prow-mounted sensors, but these Yavacs are not top-of-the-line units. At Etaine, I faced state-of-the-art war machines. These are virtually obsolete, far older than I am. I charge, guns blazing. I destroy the leading Yavac Heavy, at the apex of the attack-formation triangle. I then plunge between the two remaining units at maximum emergency speed, one Hellbore aimed port-side, the other starboard. They do not expect this maneuver and spin their guns wildly. They cannot fire at me without risk of hitting one another.  

    I charge past, firing both Hellbores. Twin explosions lift both Yavacs off their jointed legs. Salvos from my infinite repeaters destroy those flailing legs midair. Their hulls smash back down with enough force to kill on-board crews. Another blast from my Hellbores finishes them off, silencing their automated gun systems. General Hightower's artillery has punched through the Enemy's southern flank. Deng infantry units have fallen into disarray. I pulse infinite repeaters and launch a barrage of anti-personnel mortars. The combined attack sends the Deng infantry into full retreat.  

    I fling myself forward and come among them like a lion among sheep. Scout-class Yavacs fall back, trying to evade my guns while providing covering fire to the retreating infantry. Human ground forces harass the entire southern flank, taking terrific casualties in the process. I destroy one Scout, caught with fatal hesitation between the twin threat from my guns and the mobile Hellbores of General Hightower's artillery crews. Other Scouts turn and flee toward their transport, visible now near the bank of the Adero River.  

    I crush Deng infantry into the mud and pursue the Scout-class Yavacs. I cross open, sloppy ground, overtaking the rear-most Scout. It crunches satisfactorily beneath my treads. The three remaining Scouts attempt to swivel their guns to shoot at my pursuing warhull, but this outdated Scout model was designed for frontal assault, not retreat. It is a fatal design flaw. I pick one off almost leisurely, then sight on the next and destroy it, as well.  

    The troop transport, accurately assessing the danger to itself, attempts lift-off, guns blazing as it launches itself across the Adero River, heading for Chenga Falls. If it drops below the escarpment, it will have an excellent chance of escape, moving northward or southward in a cliff-hugging flight that will protect it from my guns. I change course, pouring withering fire at the fleeing transport. It dodges, skips out across the river, hovers for just an instant above the spectacular fall of water—  

    A salvo from my forward Hellbore strikes solidly amidships. The transport breaks in half and plunges, burning fiercely, into the river. An instant later, the blazing debris is swept over the high falls and rushes downward to destruction. I turn my attention back to the sole remaining Yavac Scout, which has nearly reached the river. I fire infinite repeaters. The jointed legs flail like a crippled insect, then the entire vehicle runs straight off the edge of the high escarpment. So does the confused mass of Deng infantry, choosing the long plunge to the sea over a fiery death under my guns.  

    I exult in their destruction.  

    Then I remember Klameth Canyon. We have struck a crippling blow against the Deng's invasionary forces, but the battle is far from over. Simon's voice breaks the abrupt silence, harsh with stress. "Good job, Sonny. Damned fine job. Now shag your shiny flintsteel butt back to Klameth Canyon. Let's just hope there's somebody still alive, over there, to rescue."

    No answer is necessary. I turn and prepare to engage the Enemy once more.  

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