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The Road to Damascus: Chapter Five

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



    Kafari had never known such terror.

    She watched her uncle race across the landing field toward his aircar and wondered frantically if she would ever see him again. Major Khrustinov had already thrown himself into the president's aircar, shouting at the pilot to lift off even before he had the hatch completely dogged shut. She watched both aircars dwindle away, then noticed that her robo-cab had already left the field, doubtless on its way back to Madison. She wondered what in the world to do, now. Then President Lendan's voice broke into her stunned awareness.

    "Ms. Camar?"

    She tried to pull her scattered wits together. "Sir?"

    "Is there any shelter you could recommend? We're grounded without air transport and there won't be time for my pilot to come back for us, after delivering Major Khrustinov. There aren't any bomb shelters out here. You know this canyon better than we do." He nodded toward his bodyguards and his shaken energy advisor, Julie Alvison. She was trembling, her lovely face ashen. Even Abraham Lendan was alarmingly pale.

    My God, she thought dazedly, I'm responsible for the safety of the president . . . Rather than deepening her terror, the unexpected burden steadied her a little, gave her something concrete to do. "Alligator Deep," she said, barely recognizing her own voice.

    "Alligator Deep?"

    "It's a cavern, more of an undercut, really, about fifteen kilometers that way." She pointed north, down the long, snaking route through Klameth Canyon. "The original terraforming crews used it as a shelter. The entrance is full of jagged stone projections, like teeth. It cuts pretty deeply into the cliff, a hundred meters, at least. You'll have to cross the Klameth River at Aminah Bridge."

    "Hank, get us there, please," Abe Lendan said grimly.

    The president's groundcar driver took off like a man possessed by demons. The second bodyguard, in the car behind theirs, matched the wildly reckless pace centimeter for centimeter. Kafari had never ridden in a groundcar driven this fast. Farmhouses and pasture fences blurred dizzily, then whipped past and dropped away behind them. At the five kilometer point, one branch of the road swung across the river at Aminah Bridge. The car roared up the incline, went airborne for a split second at the top, then flashed across and skidded through the sharp turn at the base. Even with her seat belt in place, Kafari was flung against the president's shoulder. Julie Alvison was hurled against the side of the car with audible force. The violence of her landing left a massive red welt across one whole side of her face.

    Then they straightened out again and Hank put his foot to the floor. Maybe through it, they picked up speed so fast. Then an awesome noise cracked across the clifftops from somewhere far to the west. The noise rolled across the tops of the Damisi Mountains and rattled, echoing, against the canyon walls.

    "What the hell was that?" Abe Lendan gasped.

    Whatever it was, it came again. And again.

    "It's the Bolo," Kafari whispered. "It's s-shooting at something."

    Lots of somethings, from the sound crashing across an entire mountain range. She tried to peer through the side window, caught the edge of a blinding flash high above the western cliffs. Julie Alvison, ash-pale beneath the livid bruise spreading across her face, let out a breathy scream and pointed into the sky. "What's that?" she gasped, hand violently atremble.

    Kafari craned her neck, trying to see. A massive fireball was streaking down across the morning sky, trailing a long glowing tail of smoke and flame. It vanished behind the eastern slopes of the Damisi Mountains range. Nobody offered any guesses. Probably because they were all hanging onto the car seats and each other as Hank whipped through turns in the road. They went airborne on small rises, scraped the bottom of the chassis in the occasional dips in the road.

    It was part of a ship, maybe, Kafari theorized in jolted, jagged flashes between thuds and skids. A big one. Bigger than the freighter? How long would it take a ship to fall from orbit? Would a ship fall from orbit? Or just drift around as big chunks? Maybe it was one of the Deng ships trying to land? 

    Nearly three minutes after it vanished behind the mountains, a massive plume of smoke and debris rose above the clifftops. Then chunks of rock started falling. Hank paid more attention to the plummeting debris than his job and skidded them straight off the road. He fought the wheel and plowed his way back onto the asphalt. The car behind them slewed into the ditch, trying to avoid hitting them. The second car spun around, then tipped over, skidding sickeningly on its side.

    Then a massive chunk of sandstone—nearly as big as their car—smashed into the ground half a meter from their right fender. Flying shards caught the side of the car like shrapnel. The front passenger window broke like an eggshell. Debris peppered the whole right side of the car. More falling rock cracked the windshield. The glass spiderwebbed. The roof rang like a bell, dented in a dozen places.

    Somebody was screaming. Words took shape between sobs of hysterical terror, which Kafari finally realized were coming from Julie, the president's energy advisor. "What was that thing?" she was asking, over and over, between hiccoughs and shrill, panicked-animal noises. She was clawing at her seat belt, trying to reach the floor, but the belt had locked tight. She gave up and simply huddled as low as her harness would let her, trembling violently. Kafari was shaking pretty violently, herself. . . .

    The president's bodyguard had pressed one hand to his ear, obviously listening to a broadcast over his ear-piece. "I think," he said tersely, "that was part of a Deng ship, that thing we saw come down, not one of ours." Ori Charmak's face abruptly faded to the color of dirty snow. "But we're getting hammered. Hard. General Hightower says we've lost Ziva Station, Juree Moonbase, all the asteroid mines."

    Shock crashed across Kafari like a tidal wave, drowning out his voice. The whole space station? The entire moon base? Just gone? She was still trying to take it in when a black shape came arrowing down from the sky. Kafari screamed. A huge ship was dropping toward Klameth Canyon, moving fast.

    "Get off the road!" Ori shouted. "That's a Deng troop transport!"

    Hank skidded the car through a farmyard and rocked to a halt under the spreading limbs of a massive oak tree.

    "Out!" Ori snarled, bodily hauling President Lendan out of the car. As Kafari scrambled out, a group of farm hands began running toward the house, abandoning tractors and cultivators in the fields. Then something else big roared down the canyon, at treetop height. Dazzling beams of coherent light strafed the fields, cutting down anything moving: tractors, herds of panic-stricken livestock, people . . .


    Ori slam-dunked Abe Lendan into the ground and shielded the president's body with his own. Kafari ate dirt. More airborne fighter-craft shot past, toward the immense bulk of the Deng troop ship. The alien behemoth was settling to ground less than five hundred meters away. Oh, God, Kafari wept in sheer terror, oh, God . . . She dug her fingers into the dirt.

    Things were emerging from that ship. Immense, multijointed things. Bristling with guns. Looking like demons from the darkest reaches of hell. Yavacs, her brain gibbered. Those are Yavacs! Lots of them. And infantry. A black tide was pouring out of the troop ship, full of hairy, dog-sized creatures. Spindly, stiltlike legs sent them scurrying far too fast.

    Then a groundcar from a farmhouse a hundred meters from the Deng ship skidded onto the road. Somebody was making a run for it. Every gun on every Yavac in the canyon turned in a blinding blur of speed, shooting at the car. It disappeared in a blinding flash and roar. The echoes were still cracking off the canyon walls when the door of the farmhouse closest to them crashed open. A woman's voice shouted across the yard.

    "Inside! Quick!"

    Kafari hesitated only long enough to scream at her trembling muscles, then she was on her feet and running. The others were right behind her. She gasped for breath as she shot across the porch and staggered toward the open door. Kafari literally fell through the doorway. The president was right behind her. Ori threw Julie Alvison across the porch to reach the marginal safety of the farmhouse.

    "Get down!" the woman yelled, even as she slammed the door shut and threw herself to the floor. Kafari skidded across polished wooden floorboards. The buttons on her shirt and shorts dug scratches into the gleaming wood. She fetched up behind a hand-carved rocker with a quilted cushion in cheerful reds and yellows. Then white-hot hell erupted beyond the windows. Glass blew out, shattering in the overpressure of a massive explosion. Kafari's ears felt like they were bleeding.

    When she could see again, the president's car was gone. So was the tree it had been parked under. And so was most of the front wall. A ship of alien manufacture shot past, firing at something farther down the road. Kafari couldn't even breathe, she was so terrified. When the alien fighter moved away, the woman who had offered them shelter scrambled up, covered with dust and splinters and blood, but on her feet and moving.

    "Up, quick! We got to reach the cellar!"

    The ground trembled under strange, disjointed concussions. One glimpse through the broken wall showed Kafari a sight from deepest nightmare. Yavacs, walking down the canyon. On huge, missahpen metallic legs. Insects the size of houses. Hunting her. 

    "Move your ass, girl!" the farmwife snarled.

    Kafari broke and ran.

    They plunged down a long hallway toward a spacious kitchen, filled incongruously with the smell of fresh-baked bread. It smelled like home, like her grandmother's apron, like everything in the world she'd come home to defend. A boy of about twelve, eyes wide and scared in a dark and frightened face, had pulled up part of the kitchen floor. Steps led down into a cellar. Anything that resembled a hole she could crawl down and pull in after her looked good to Kafari. A whole pile of guns lay beside the open trapdoor. She felt better, just seeing them. With guns in their hands, they could at least go down fighting.

    The boy met his mother's anxious gaze. "Papa and the rest never made it, Mama." Tears rolled down his cheeks. The cast on one arm explained why the boy hadn't been in the fields with his older relatives.

    Mama's face didn't crumple. It went cold and hard. "Then grab yourself a rifle, Dinny, 'cause you're the man of this house, now. All of you, grab whatever you can carry, out of that stack."

    Kafari snatched up two rifles, a shotgun, and a pistol on her way down the cellar stairs. The staircase was a simple wooden structure, with planks for steps and open backs, but there were two handrails, well worn, and it was solidly constructed. More feet clattered down the stairs. The president reached safety, shadowed by his bodyguard. Julie Alvison, disheveled and looking ready to collapse, came down ahead of Hank, the driver. The cellar door swung shut above them, latching with a solid thump, then the boy, Dinny, helped his mother down and urged her to sit on the bottom step.

    Her face was grey from shock and pain, streaked with sweat and grime and blood where she'd been hit by debris from the collapsed wall. President Lendan moved to her side and peered critcally at her injuries. "Your name's Dinny?" he glanced at the hovering child.

    "Yes, sir. Dinny Ghamal. That's my Mama, sir, Aisha Ghamal."

    "Is there a first-aid kit down here, Dinny?"

    The boy brought a hefty box from one of the shelves. President Lendan found antiseptic and alcohol wipes. Kafari spotted a sink and a stack of towels and hastened to wet one of them. As she waited for the water to run hot, she studied the cellar. The stone shelter was bigger than she'd expected. The ceiling—and therefore the floor of the house—was reinforced plascrete.

    It was chilly, down here. The walls were all but invisible behind tall cupboards, their shelves lined with stored food and all the tools essential to keeping a large kitchen garden properly harvested and its bounty properly preserved. Jars of homemade jellies, pickles, and vegetables sat in colorful array beside crockery pots for storing sauerkraut, honey, even butter, according to the labels. Smoked meats hung from metal poles across the ceiling.

    Other shelves were stacked high with boxes of ammunition. Lots of ammunition. She saw both loaded cartridges and unassembled components: cases, primers, powder, lead and metal-jacketed bullets. One whole corner of the cellar was devoted to reloading presses. It reminded her—strongly—of her father's cellar.

    Always hope for peace, her father had told her years previously, when she'd asked about all the weaponry stored in the cellar, but be prepared for war. The Camar family—and the Soteris family, on her mother's side—had lost a lot of members in the last invasion. Kafari understood the compulsion to stockpile the means to fight back. Her grandparents on both sides could still remember the loved ones who'd died, driving back the Deng. She'd seen their photos, as a child, and the grave markers, too, having gone with her mother every year, as a child, to lay flowers in remembrance.

    The water had finally started to run hot. She wet two towels and handed one to President Lendan. He bathed Mrs. Ghamal's face and neck with gentle hands. Kafari blanched when she saw the blood and shredded cloth down the woman's back.

    "We need to get this dress off, Mrs. Ghamal," Kafari said softly. "Easy, now . . ."

    They eased the torn cloth down, then Kafari sponged away blood and dirt and splinters of wood and glass. Dinny brought a basin with more clean hot water, which helped immeasurably. As Kafari worked, wincing and biting her lip every time Mrs. Ghamal flinched, the older woman lifted her head.

    "You look familiar, child," she said, frowning. "You any kin to Maarifa Soteris, by chance?"

    Kafari nodded, having to swallow past the sudden constriction in her throat. She had no idea whether her grandparents—or the rest of her family—might still be alive. Kafari met the woman's dark, wounded eyes, said very softly, "She's my grandmother, ma'am."

    "I thought I knew those eyes. And those gentle hands. Your grandmama helped deliver some of my boys." Tears welled up, sudden and brutal. "My boys . . . they killed my boys . . ."

    She was dissolving into helpless, heart-wrenching grief. President Lendan put his arms around the distraught woman whose quick thinking and courage had saved all their lives and just held her while she sobbed.

    When the worst of the crying died down, Dinny quavered, "I'm here, Mama."

    She snatched him close and held onto him, still shaking with grief. President Lendan glanced into Kafari's eyes, then nodded toward the woman's lacerated back. They finished rinsing off the blood and debris, then cleaned the wounds with antiseptic. Kafari used tweezers to remove more shards, then dusted the injuries with powdered antibiotics and bandaged everything with compresses that Abe Lendan helped her tape carefully in place. They eased the remains of the dress back over the bandages. Kafari glanced up and found the president's driver looking like he wanted to help. She asked him to bring a glass of water from the corner sink.

    Kafari dug into the medical kit, then put a painkilling capsule on Mrs. Ghamal's tongue and held the glass to her lips, helping her swallow the medication. She blessed the foresight that had prompted Aisha Ghamal to include opiate-based medicines in her emergency pack. Only then did Kafari notice her own aching, stinging injuries, minor by comparison. A few bad scrapes and abrasions, one long, deep scratch down a thigh, bruises from shoulders to toes. All in all, luckier than she probably had any right to expect, given what they'd all just been through. I will never, as long as I live, she promised herself faithfully, daubing ointment on the worst of the scrapes, wear shorts and a camp shirt to another war. 

    Muffled weeping from across the room crept into her weary awareness. The president's staffer, Julie Alvison, had collapsed into a boneless puddle beside one wall. Her pretty face was swollen from weeping and the bruise that had spread across cheek and brow. The eye in between had swollen shut, a lurid shade of reddish purple. Kafari found another pain pill.

    "Here, swallow this. It'll help."

    The young woman gulped it down, then sat shivering against the cupboards. Kafari was cold, too, with a deeper chill than the cellar's damp. She'd have to do something about that, but there was a more pressing concern on her mind, first. She found a corner to call her own and settled down to study the guns, not just the four she'd carried down, but all of them. They felt good in her hands. Her father had taught her how to use firearms, the moment she'd been old enough to handle them. Those lessons had not been forgotten, not even during the intense years on Vishnu.

    Crouched on a stone floor that shook under the soles of her shoes, Kafari found herself opening the actions to check magazines and chambers, pulling ammo boxes down, matching up calibers and loading with hands that held remarkably steady. Her hands seemed detached, somehow, from the rest of her. She loaded the long guns first. The heavier rifles had more punch than the pistols, while the shotguns would provide a better chance of hitting something, if she—or someone else—had to shoot with an unsteady grip. When she finished loading everything, she tucked one handgun into the front of her khaki shorts, making sure the safety was engaged, then found President Lendan's gaze on her.

    "You seem to be pretty comfortable around those." He nodded toward their little arsenal. "Were you planning to follow your uncle into a military career?"

    She shook her head. "No. I was studying psychotronic programming and calibration. My father made sure I knew how to handle guns. We still get gollon down from the Damisi highlands, even the occasional jaglitch. Especially when the mares have just foaled and the cattle have dropped their calves. A full-grown jaglitch can eat five, six calves in half a dozen bites, but you can take 'em out with a shot through the eye. A jaglitch has big eyes. Big enough, anyway." She was babbling and knew it, tried to steady her thoughts down, focused on the most important issue. "I can shoot well enough to take down a Deng infantryman, even a hundred meters out."

    "Ms. Camar, you have no idea how glad I am to hear that."

    He was shivering. Granted, it was pretty cold down here . . .

    Kafari frowned and started hunting through cupboards and storage boxes, not wanting to intrude on Mrs. Ghamal and her son just to ask. She finally found something that would do: a deep plastic bin that held camping equipment, including four wafer-thin survival blankets. She draped one around the trembling energy advisor, gave the second to Hank, who'd hunkered down in one corner, wrapped another around mother and son, and handed the fourth to Abe Lendan, who wasn't injured, but was the most important person in the room. The president smiled through a whole new batch of worry lines.

    "You seem to be one short, Ms. Camar, and you're hardly dressed for this temperature. Mind sharing?"

    She smiled with genuine relief. "Love to, actually."

    Kafari carried the guns over, for fast access, then crawled under the blanket and sighed at the sudden, comforting warmth. Ori Charmak, apparently immune to mere mortal discomforts, remained on his feet, one hand on his pistol at all times. He kept the other hand pressed to his ear.

    "Reception down here is impossible," he muttered at length. "Can't hear a damned thing."

    Kafari couldn't hear anything, either, but she could feel something. Solid rock trembled underfoot, with disjointed concussions as something heavy moved ponderously past the house, a whole procession, in fact, judging by the tremors. Plascrete vibrated overhead and jars rattled slightly on the shelves. She had almost stopped shivering when the whole cellar, and the bedrock under it, rocked violently.

    Julie Alvison screamed. Something big—really big—hit the house above them. Then an awesome noise drowned out the staffer's thin, sharp voice, a noise like the whole Damisi Mountain range falling down. Dust shook loose from the cellar door overhead. The plascrete ceiling actually warped, bowed downward by an immense weight.

    We've been stepped on! Kafari clutched at the rifles, which gave a probably illusory comfort that she could do something, maybe even protect them. Another violent concussion jarred through the cellar. There's a Yavac up there, walking through the house. Must be one of those Heavy-class— 

    A noise that dwarfed all noise in the universe crashed down across them. Hellish blue light bled through the cracks around the trapdoor. President Lendan shoved her down, tried to cover her with his own body. He'd also covered both his ears—far too late. They would all be deaf for life, however many seconds they had left to live it. Ears bleeding, Kafari panted in wild, animal terror. More concussions, more explosions . . .

    The sudden silence was a shock.

    It took several seconds for realization to sink in.

    We're alive. Oh, God, we're still alive. . . . Even the bodyguard was down, his lean face ashen. Kafari bit down on acid terror, forced herself to uncoil from a foetal ball, lifted her head to peer upward. Most of the metal bars across the ceiling were down, spilling hams and ropes of sausage onto the floor. But the plascrete ceiling, by some miracle of engineering, was still intact. The utterly inconsequential thought that flitted through her mind almost left Kafari laughing in hysterics: Whoever the building contractor for that ceiling was, I want him to build my whole house . . .

    The president's mouth was moving, but she couldn't hear his voice, just a jumble of sounds that made no sense. Even so, she could have hugged him for joy. She wasn't totally deaf, after all. She finally made sense of what he was shouting.

    "Are you okay?"

    She nodded. "You?" She could barely hear herself.

    He nodded in return. Ori was pulling himself together, out in the middle of the floor. The driver had collapsed under the sink, which had pulled slightly away from the wall. Water was leaking from a cracked pipe. Most of the shelves were down, their brackets torn and twisted. Their contents had sprayed across the room like shrapnel. Glass lay everywhere. Cartridge boxes had spilled ammunition in a wild jumble, calibers mixed up ten ways from Sunday. Julie Alvison, trapped under a section of collapsed shelving, wasn't moving. Mrs. Ghamal and her son were under the stairs, which had, astonishingly, held together.

    At second glance, maybe not so astonishingly. The whole staircase looked like kerbasi wood, a native tree that gave virtually indestructible lumber, lightweight and tough. The Ghamals had been wise to seek shelter under it, lying pressed flat against the wall, Mom on top of the boy, protectively.

    Kafari crawled gingerly through the wreckage of the shelves, pulled very cautiously at the toppled boards covering Julie Alvison. The driver stared at her, wild-eyed, useless. When the other end of the heavy shelf lifted, she found Abe Lendan struggling with it, grim and filthy but still on his feet, trying to help. Her eyes burned dangerously. I am going to vote for this man every election for as long as humanity owns this ball of rock, she vowed, ignoring new bruises and cuts and stinging abrasions that had begun to make themselves felt.

    They dragged more shelving away, until Kafari got a better look at what was underneath. She was a farm girl, knew what death looked like. But the caved-in remains beneath those shelves, the blood in the long blond hair, the frozen, helpless terror . . . Kafari sat down in the glass and the spilled ammunition and started to cry. Silently. With a great tearing pain in her chest that might have been grief or fear or hatred—or maybe just a monstrous anger that this lovely, capable, intelligent being had been snuffed out far too soon, and Kafari hadn't been able to stop it.

    Somebody had their arms around her. She wanted to apologize, wanted to hide, wanted Daddy to come and make the awfulness go away. It struck home for the first time that she truly might never see her father again, or anyone else she loved. Even if she survived, odds were frightfully high that very few people in the Canyon would get out alive. When the thought came whispering from the back of her brain, she knew it for what it was: desperate hope.

    Maybe, that thought whispered, maybe Mama and Gran went shopping in Madison, like they do, sometimes, when things get to looking scary. Maybe they drove to town to lay in a few extra supplies for the tough times coming. Maybe, oh, God, maybe they're safe, somewhere, anywhere but here, in this Deng-spawned hellpit. . . . 

    It wasn't much, but any hope at all was better than thinking about what lay under those shelves, and imagining her loved ones there, instead. When she finally opened her eyes, Kafari realized who it was, holding her. Abe Lendan. Even ten minutes previously, she might have been embarrassed. All she felt, now, was grateful. More grateful than she'd felt about anything, in a long time. She sat up, scrubbed her face with both hands, tried to smile.

    Then she noticed the look in his eyes. No one had ever looked at Kafari that way. Like she was nine feet tall. Like she was made of flintsteel and fragile glass. Like she was someone he'd take a bullet for, and be glad for it. That look scared her to death, made her shiver, gave her the courage to pick herself up and face the nightmare, again. She watched him as his hands began to shake, violently. She swallowed hard as he bit down on it and held it inside, then shivered again when he spoke in a voice full of rust and exhaustion.

    "What do we do next?"

    Kafari tilted her face upward, studying the ceiling, and wondered how stable it was. Then she wondered if the cellar door could even be opened, again. The frame looked bent and the door had buckled, slightly. Great. We've been stepped on and blown up and now we're trapped? Of course, she wasn't real anxious to crawl out of this bolt-hole, just yet. There were still constant tremors underfoot, from the Yavacs walking down the canyon.

    Moving carefully, not wanting to sprawl into the jagged glass all over the floor, Kafari waded through the mess until she reached the stairs. She peered up at the buckled door, trying to see just how bad the damage really was. Both her ears were ringing, but she actually heard the sound of someone moving debris aside. She glanced around to see President Lendan using an ordinary broom to sweep up the worst of the spillage. The sight was so incongruous, a smile tried to rearrange her stiff, tear-swollen face and its crop of ragged scrapes and bruises.

    "We may be down here a while," he said, almost diffidently. "We can't sleep in broken glass."

    Her eyes widened. "You're planning to sleep?" Kafari wasn't sure she'd ever feel safe enough to sleep, again.

    He grimaced. "My dear, we are now soldiers—and the first thing a soldier learns, I'm told, is the value of sleep. Any time and any place he or she can get it. Somewhere up there," he nodded toward the bowed ceiling, "we've got a Bolo fighting on our side. That gives us—all of Jefferson—a fighting chance to survive. And that means I have to take the long view. I can't afford to collapse later from lack of sleep now. And neither," he added gently, "can you."

    She didn't understand, at first, what he meant, stood frowning at the quiet man with a broom in his hands, talking about the future of an entire world. Then her eyes widened and she got scared all over again. He expects me to keep him alive. Why me? His personal bodyguard is right there, trained and on his feet, again, ready to die— 


    She gulped. The bodyguard was trained to die for this man, but Abe Lendan expected Kafari—out of everyone in this cellar—to live. To survive. And he'd pinned his own hopes of survival squarely on her.

    "If there's something else I should do first," the president added, "just tell me what."

    She thought about it, started to speak, then shook her head. "I think you're right. Clear off the floor, so if we get knocked down again, we won't fall into a bunch of broken glass. We ought to try stopping that water leak, if we can," she nodded toward the sink. "And somebody should sort out that scattered ammunition. We may need to reload in a hurry and everything's so jumbled up, there's no way to know which cartridges go with which guns."

    "I can do that," Dinny Ghamal offered.

    Kafari turned to find mother and son on their feet, ready to pitch in. There was no need to ask if he knew how to sort by cartridge size, by whether the case was necked and how much, by the type of bullet seated in the case, by the headstamp on the base of the cartridge, and whether it was rimmed or rimless. Or even caseless, for some of the rounds that didn't require a case at all. He knew. So had she, at his age. She gave the boy a weary smile.

    "That would really help, Dinny. Thanks."

    He got busy. Aisha Ghamal met Kafari's eyes, nodded to herself, then started rummaging for tools with which to tackle their leaking water supply. Unable to determine whether or not the door could be opened, just by peering at it, Kafari started pulling down the few shelves still standing. She didn't want anyone else caught under their falling weight. Once they were down, she began sorting the mess. Food went into one pile, tools and equipment they weren't likely to need in another, and anything that looked remotely useful—can openers, camping gear, emergency candles and flashlights—into a third.

    They were very lucky in more than one sense: not only was their shelter intact, the power was still on. Part of the house was obviously still standing, Yavac feet notwithstanding, and the power lines were still up between here and the plant at the dam. It made her realize the Deng must be planning to occupy not only the canyon, but the buildings, too, a markedly unpleasant thought. The candles and flashlights made her feel better, however. As horrible as it had been, before, with Yavacs on top of them, shooting at what had probably been Jefferson's air force, it would have been far more terrifying in the dark.

    The unbroken ammo containers made her feel better, too. Those she sorted by caliber, putting each sorted-out stash next to the guns they could be used with, for fast reloading if things got interesting, again. She caught the bodyguard nodding his approval, then Ori helped her finish the job, although he kept one eye—and probably both ears—on the cellar door and President Lendan's location relative to it. It was something she would never have noticed, before, and realized grimly that her whole life would be broken into "before Deng" and "after Deng." At least it was starting to look like there might be an "after Deng" portion of her life.

    Another thing that helped was remembering the lightning speed of the Bolo's guns. She'd had only the one, brief glimpse of it, engaged in wargames against the air force, but that glimpse had made a deep impression. It also helped to recall the Bolo's commander. There was something about him that inspired confidence, although she wasn't quite sure what, exactly, it was.

    Maybe his eyes, which had looked this kind of hell in the face, before, and had lived to tell about it. It was comforting to know that a human could survive this kind of hell, although admittedly he'd done so inside thirteen thousand tons of flintsteel with a traveling nuclear arsenal on board. She hadn't understood Simon Khrustinov's bottomless, shadowed eyes, before, but she did, now. And she understood, as well, that those eyes—and the man behind them—were far braver than the brave red uniform he wore.

    I want to tell him that, she realized as she worked, and I want to tell him how grateful I am that he was willing to come here. To risk that kind of horror again, for us. People he didn't even know, yet. It was important—to her, anyway—that someone tell him. She was trying to think of ways to say it when a rumble like distant thunder—only much louder—shook through the basement. She spun around. More concussions shook the bedrock underfoot, from the direction of Maze Gap. Aisha Ghamal glanced into Kafari's eyes for one short, grim moment, exchanging a whole conversation's worth of worry, fear, and determination in that single look. The president's driver moaned aloud and tried to crawl under the sink Aisha was still trying to fix.

    "The sound isn't the same," Dinny said suddenly.

    "You're right," President Lendan agreed. "It isn't."

    Rather than individual explosions—Kafari couldn't imagine what else could make that much noise and shake that much solid bedrock—they were hearing a blurred, unending sound that created one long, hideous tremor. It made the bottoms of her feet feel ticklish and uneasy.

    "Dinny," she asked abruptly, "how much of that scattered ammunition have you separated out?"

    He gulped and stared down at half-a-dozen piles of cartridges carefully sorted from the surrounding chaos. "Maybe a third of it."

    "We'd better move those piles. Put them over there, where the guns are. If it comes down to shooting," she nodded toward the firearms laid out beside the stairs, "I don't want our ammunition in the middle of an open floor."

    She started moving the guns back into the corner under the stairs, which was the most sheltered spot in the cellar, while Dinny scooped up double handfuls of loose cartridges, setting them down beside the correct firearms. Her gut muscles clenched painfully as the explosions moved closer. Abe Lendan listened for a moment longer, then abandoned his sweeping to help. The tiny hairs at the back of Kafari's neck were standing on end. She had to fight down a trickle of panic deep inside.

    They were nearly done when Kafari heard it. A new sound. A nerve-shattering, high-pitched chittering sound that filtered down through the cracks around the cellar door. The chittering got louder. Much louder. Kafari stood frozen under the stairs. Abe Lendan, who'd just scooped up another load of ammunition, crouched like a terrified gargoyle out in the middle of the cellar floor. The explosions were loud enough, now, to shake dust off the toppled shelves. That dreadful, chittering roar was nearly on top of them.

    Ori moved so suddenly, it shocked Kafari. He snatched the president up by his belt and shirt collar, lifting him completely off the floor, and literally threw him into the "safe" corner, under the stairs. Abe Lendan sprawled past Kafari, arms and legs akimbo. He landed in a heap against the wall, swearing in rough, pain-riddled tones. Ori had drawn his sidearm and crouched at the ready beside the lowest step, weapon pointed directly at the cellar door. Kafari decided that was a genuinely fine idea and lunged for the loaded guns. She snatched up a rifle and rolled into position under the stairs, putting herself between the president and whatever was making that ghastly sound.

    She racked the action back and pointed the rifle upwards, aiming through the open backs of the steps, between boards. Her hands were sweating and shaking, which spoiled her aim. The ghastly chittering sound was right on top of them—

    —then the whole cellar door blew out.

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