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The Road to Damascus: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, January 4, 2004 01:16 EST




    I crawl toward the enemy, blind and uncertain of my every move.  

    This is not the first battle I have fought over this broken, bloody ground, but it may be my last. The enemy is ruthless and keenly skilled, led by a commander whose battlefield brilliance has consistently outmatched the government's admittedly wretched field-grade generals. Any commander who can catch a Bolo Mark XX in one successful ambush after another is a force to be reckoned with. I do not make the mistake of underestimating him.  

    I am in pitiful condition for battle, but this rebellion must be stopped. As the only fighting force left on Jefferson with any hope of defeating the rebellion's high command, it is up to me to restore law and order to this world. Civil war is a bloody business, at best, and this one has been no exception. I am not happy to be caught in the middle of it.  

    I am even less happy with the terrain in which I must face Commodore Oroton and his veteran gunners. The terrain through which I creep is ideal country for the rebel army which has made its strongest camp here. Klameth Canyon is more than a single, twisting cut of rock slashed through the heart of the Damisi Mountains. It is a whole series of canyons, narrow gorges, and tortuous blind corries. Tectonic action buckled ancient sandstone badlands and shoved the broken slabs upwards in a jumble that stretches the length of the continent. The deep canyons carved by wind, weather, and wild rivers still exist, but they have been twisted askew by the titanic forces inherent in the molten heart of a world. Above the ancient canyon walls, the high, broken peaks of the Damisi range climb toward the sky, jagged teeth above a spider's tangle of gashes in the earth.  

    I have never seen terrain like it and I have been fighting humanity's wars for more than one hundred twenty years. Even Etaine, the worst killing field I have ever known, was not as disadvantageous as the ground I cross now. If it had been, humanity would have lost that battle—and that world. I fear I will lose this one, for there is no worse terrain on Jefferson for fighting an entrenched army. Commodore Oroton, naturally, has chosen it as his final battleground.  

    The only way into—or out of—Klameth Canyon by ground transport is through Maze Gap, which I cleared nearly an hour ago. I anticipate ambush from moment to moment, but the commodore's gun crews do not fire. I mistrust this quiescence. I have all but given up trying to outthink Commodore Oroton, since I am almost invariably wrong. His battlefield decisions are frequently devoid of straightforward logic, which makes any attempt to predict his moment-to-moment actions fiendishly difficult. If I had a Brigade-trained human commander with plenty of combat experience, he or she would doubtless fare much better than I have, working on my own.  

    But I do not have a human commander, let alone a Brigade officer. The president of Jefferson, to whom I report and from whom I take directives that equate to orders, has the power to issue instructions that I am legally obligated to obey, under the terms of Jefferson's treaty with the Concordiat. The president, however, is not a soldier and has never served in any branch of the military, to include Jefferson's home defense forces. He has never even been a police officer. When it comes to conducting battlefield operations—or outfoxing an enemy commander—Jefferson's president is spectacularly useless.   

    None of these facts raise my spirits as I crawl through terrain I can barely see. If not for the battle archives I carry in my experience databanks, my situation—and my progress through Klameth Canyon—would be impossible. Using my on-board records, I am at least reasonably able to steer a course through the twists and turns of Klameth Canyon. I am less concerned with ephemera such as houses, barns, and tool sheds that did not exist when I last fought for this ground, because small structures pose no navigational hazards. If necessary, I will simply drive through them. My main concern is what may lie hidden inside or behind those structures.  

    So far, no enemy weapons have opened fire.  

    I am tempted to accept the simplest reason, that no one has opened fire because everyone in the canyon is already dead. That guess cannot be far from the truth. The only visual images I am able to obtain—ghostly medium IR splotches of muted color—reveal a scene of carnage. Thousands of cooling bodies have dropped below the ambient air temperature of evening. The dead lie packed into training camps where the enemy sheltered, armed, and trained them in techniques of guerilla warfare. Had Commodore Oroton been able to field this army, today's setting sun might well have gone down on a very different scenario.  

    I scan continuously for power emissions, particularly in the range common to most military equipment, but my search remains futile. Commodore Oroton's troops have vanished into these broken mountains and the forests that fringe them, leaving me hunting for needles in a thirty-seven-kilometer-long haystack—not counting the hundreds of kilometers of side canyons. I grind forward, pausing at each twisting turn, each junction with another gorge, each farmhouse, barn, and refugee-camp shack, looking for emissions that might conceal mobile Hellbores or lesser field artillery, scanning with sputtering IR for some trace of enemy infantry that might be concealed, ready to strike with hyper-v missiles or octocellulose bombs. I have had entirely too many encounters with octocellulose to ignore that particular threat. At each road junction, I chart temperature differentials that might indicate mines scattered in my path, mines that I could see clearly, if my visible-light-spectrum sensors were operational. With nothing but IR working, I could blunder into a minefield—or virtually anything else—without the slightest warning.  

    By the time I swing into the last stretch of canyon between myself and the largest rebel stronghold, night has fallen, increasing my visual-acuity woes. This last stretch of ground is the worst I will face, for the commodore has tucked his base camp into the dead-end turn of the canyon that houses the Klameth Canyon Dam and its hydroelectric power plant. The retaining wall of the dam has turned the deep gorge into a box canyon, of sorts, since there is no way out except by turning around and going back or climbing up the face of the dam.  

    I cannot climb the dam and I will not turn around until my task here is done. The commodore knows this. That is the reason he chose this spot to make a final, defiant stand. I cannot blow the dam. My own probable demise—or at least crippling injury—is not the cause for my reluctance. Even discounting the critically needed crops in Klameth Canyon's fields, which would be destroyed if several billion tons of water were to come crashing through the canyon, there are other important considerations. Not the least of these are the towns lying downriver from Maze Gap.  

    Madison, the capital city, is one of them.  

    I cannot blow the dam.  

    How, precisely, I will dislodge Commodore Oroton, I have not yet worked out. If nothing else, I will simply sit there until I starve him and his crew to death. But he will not leave Dead-End Gorge alive. Anticipation builds in my Action/Command core as I move down the final stretch of road toward the narrow opening into Dead-End Gorge. The Klameth River runs deep and swift, here, through a channel artificially deepened by terraforming engineers to carry the overflow between the towering cliffs and out into Klameth Canyon, where it irrigates the fertile fields that feed most of Jefferson.  

    I have already crossed and recrossed this river many times, since entering the canyon through Maze Gap. This one, last crossing will take me into the teeth of Commodore Oroton's guns. This is not mere conjecture. Satellite images of the sheltered canyon, taken over the preceding five days, have revealed a heavy concentration of enemy artillery, including mobile 10cm Hellbores.  

    I detect power emissions of a military type rising faintly from the narrow gorge, all but masked over by the emissions of the hydroelectric plant. The commodore has shut down power to the floodplain—and the capital—by shutting down substations that route power across the Adero floodplain, but the plant itself is still fully operational, fueling the commodore's operations. The faint military emissions do not match the power signatures of Hellbores, which the rebellion has acquired in a distressing quantity, but I do not count that as evidence. Oroton has played a long and cagey game with his Hellbores. I assume nothing and merely note the momentary absence of emissions that would positively identify the presence of Oroton's heaviest artillery.  

    My greatest question is whether or not there is anyone alive to operate that artillery. The biological war agent the government troops detonated prior to my arrival will have killed anyone not protected by biochemical containment suits or inoculated against virals. It is known that Commodore Oroton has access to both, smuggled in from the neighboring star system's weapons labs. If the gunners were protected, they will launch an attack the moment I am close enough.  

    I have finally reached that point. I rumble toward the narrow bend that gives access to Dead-End Gorge and the dam. The canyon walls, radiating heat they have absorbed during the day, glow more brightly than the pastures and fields. The road is a ribbon of light, warmer than the soil by several degrees centigrade, depending on the nature of the surrounding soil, vegetation, or outcroppings of stone.  

    A farmhouse sits next to the road, so close to the verge, I will have to drive through a substantial portion of the structure to reach the dam. This house was not here twenty years ago. Comparison between my on-board records and current conditions reveals the reason for this. A massive rockfall during my battle with the Yavacs devoured nearly a third of the acreage inside a perimeter of well-maintained fences. The original farmhouse was buried in the collapse and doubtless still lies beneath the colossal pile of stone that has not been removed.  

    The farmer rebuilt near the road to conserve land for replanting. A creative solution, but it will lead to a flattened house. I doubt the owner will care, since I can see at least one body lying near the open front door, sprawled across the foyer floor, doubtless running to reach shelter in a "safe room" concealed within the house. If Commodore Oroton plans an ambush before I reach the entrance to Dead-End Gorge, it will be launched from this house. I approach with extreme caution and consider simply blowing the house apart as a prophylactic measure, striking at a possible enemy before he strikes at me.  

    I move forward, sensors straining to their utmost, damaged limits. I am six point zero-nine meters from the corner of the house when sudden motion flares to life. A single person emerges through the front door on a direct attack run toward my warhull. I whip port-side guns around. Acquire the target. Lock on fire-control relays—  

    —and hold my fire.  

    There is, indeed, a person running across the narrow yard toward me. But that individual is not an adult. Given its height, girth, and toddling gait, I surmise that I am facing a very young child. It is perhaps six years old, at most. It carries something in both hands, an object I classify—for seventeen nanoseconds—as a rifle or carbine. I revise that assessment as I note its dimensions and the heat signature it gives off, which suggest a toy rather than a functional weapon. The child carrying it rushes purposefully across the narrow front yard and stops in the middle of the road, directly in my path.  

    "You stop!" the child says in a high treble voice that I cannot decipher as either male or female. The fact that this child is on its feet at all, let alone barring my way, is astonishing, since it wears no biocontainment gear at all. The sole explanation I can devise is that the child was inside a virus-proof safe room when the attack came and that Sar Gremian was correct when he advised me on the anticipated duration of the bioweapon released here: lethal action was expected to cease after forty-five minutes. It has now been an hour since the initial attack. 

    I file the information away as useful data, then engage the child in conversation.  

    "I must enter Dead-End Gorge behind this house. Move out of the road."

    "Uh-uh," the child says, standing fast in front of my treads. "You're noisy. You'll wake up Mommy and you'd better not do that!"

    My initial estimate of this child's age drops by another two years. I scan the house as best I can and detect two other faintly warm shapes besides the one near the front door. I suspect these bodies, which are rapidly assuming the same temperature as their surroundings, belong to the child's parents or older relatives. I know a momentary anger that these people did not remove their young child from a free-fire zone declared in rebellion. These people chose not to leave. Their young child now stands directly between myself and the rebellion's high command.  

    Legally, the child is a rebel, a declared enemy. Regardless of its legal status, the child must be removed from my path. If I cannot persuade it to move, I will have to kill it, a prospect I do not relish. I must move through this narrow pass, however, and the destruction of one human—even a child—is well within the bounds of acceptable collateral damage.  

    I engage my drive train and move forward.  

    And jerk to a halt.  

    My treads have locked up, stopping me literally in my tracks.  

    I sit stupefied for nine point three-eight seconds. My treads are locked. They have locked on their own. Without conscious orders from my Action/Command Core. I attempt to drive forward again. I move a grand total of thirty centimeters. Then my treads lock again. Have they developed a mind of their own, independent of the rest of my psychotronic circuitry? I perform a rapid self-diagnostic on the processors and subassemblies governing control of my treads and discover no malfunction anywhere in the system.  

    This is cause for serious alarm. I have developed another ghostlike electronic glitch with no apparent determinant. I am now not only blind in most frequencies, I am immobilized. I consist of thirteen thousand tons of flintsteel, advanced weapons systems, and sophisticated psychotronic circuitry and I am stuck like a fly on tar paper. I experiment with reversed engines and succeed in backing up smoothly and efficiently, covering twelve meters effortlessly. I drive forward again. And lock up. I cannot even regain the twelve meters of ground I have just lost.  

    I back up cautiously, executing a pivot turn, and attempt to cross the front yard, hoping to bypass the child—whom I cannot help but connect with the abrupt failure of my forward drive train—by moving through the entire house. My intention is to scrape the edge of the cliffs on my way past the child's aggressive stance in the road.  

    I complete the turn with ease and start toward the house.  

    The child scrambles into my path. "Hey! That's cheating!"

    My treads lock.  

    Exasperated, I execute a pivot turn once again and gun my engines, hoping to sprint around the child while it is moving toward the house. A four-year-old human is an amazingly agile creature. The child pivots on a dime and rushes back toward the road, brandishing its toy rifle.  

    "You be quiet!" The order is gasped out in a fierce whisper. 

    My treads lock.  

    Words fail me.  

    I sit in place, electronic thoughts spinning uselessly, and finally initiate diagnostics on my entire physical plant, looking for anything out of the ordinary. There is nothing wrong with my treads, their drive wheels, the complex gears governing their speed of rotation, or the engines that power them. I rev those engines to a scream, trying to break the drive wheels free of whatever is blocking their operation. I succeed only in filling this entire end of Klameth Canyon with noise, while heating the engines to no purpose.  

    I am still stuck.  

    The child has dropped its rifle and clamped hands across its ears. When the sound of my engines drops back into its normal range, the child plants fists on hips and tilts its face upward, toward my forward turret. I have little doubt that if I could make out the details of this child's face, its expression would be a glare of righteous wrath.  

    "I told you to be quiet! Mommy's sleeping! That was noisy and mean! I don't like you at all!"

    "The feeling is reciprocated."

    "What's that mean?" My adversary demands in a hard and suspicious tone that is curiously adult, coming from a child so young. 

    "I don't like you, either. Who are you?" I add, attempting to gain information that I might use to dislodge this recalcitrant obstacle from my path. 

    "I'm a Granger!" the child responds with ringing pride. 

    Terrorists and rebels begin training their offspring in class consciousness and divisive hatred at an early age. Fierce antigovernment prejudice is a hallmark of Grangerism. That prejudice is compounded of equal parts hatred, political separatism, open contempt for federal laws, disdain of urban culture, and a creed of guerilla-style violence that has produced thousands of terrorists whose sole aim is to destroy the legitimate government of this planet.  

    They have cultivated this prejudice alongside their fields of peas, beans, barley and corn, and lavish the same diligent care on it that they give to their crops. They coax it to grow into maturity, whereupon the rest of Jefferson reaps the inevitable harvest: wave after wave of terrorism and the wholesale destruction of civilian and government targets. I refuse to be stymied by a bad-tempered brat indoctrinated with the scathing, antigovernment prejudices grown to maturity in this canyon.  

    "It is obvious that you are a Granger. You are a resident of Klameth Canyon. This canyon has been a Granger stronghold for two centuries. It has been a breeding ground for rebel guerillas for two decades. The rebellion's commander has chosen Klameth Canyon as his fortified headquarters and has barricaded himself with an unknown number of troops and heavy weaponry in the gorge behind your house. The president has declared this canyon a free-fire war zone. All of its residents are traitors and criminals. You are, therefore, obviously a Granger. You are also a traitor and criminal, by default. What is your name?"

    The child has snatched up its toy rifle again. "Mommy and Daddy told me never give my name to anybody who's not a Granger. And Mommy says you like to hurt Grangers. She hates you. I hate you, too! And I'm not ever gonna tell you my name!"

    This obstructive and nasty-tempered creature cannot be allowed to thwart my mission. I attempt to move forward again—  

    My treads lock.  

    Rage flares. I turn up the volume on my external speakers. "MOVE OUT OF THE ROAD!"

    The child claps both hands across its ears again, then shouts right back. "YOU'RE BAD! YOU BE QUIET!"

    I redline my engines. My treads lurch forward three glorious centimeters—  

    Then halt. In a fit of unbridled fury, I lock onto the child's thermal signature with target-acquisition computers. Anti-personnel guns spin. I fire point-blank.  

    I try to fire point-blank.  

    Nothing happens.  

    I am so stunned, I sit stuttering. Shock courses through every psychotronic synapse in my electronic, multipartite brain. Even automatic subroutines register the system-wide, split-second flutter of pure horror.  

    I cannot move.  

    I cannot shoot.  

    I cannot allow a four-year-old to derail my mission. I am a Bolo. A Unit of the Line. I have logged one hundred twenty years of continuous service. I have suffered catastrophic injury more than once, but I have never been defeated. It is not within me to give up if there is a single erg of power flickering through my circuits. With a strong sense of desperation, I launch a system-wide, class one diagnostic. I must find the glitch that has caused widespread failures in my most critical systems.  

    Two point four-three minutes later, I make a startling discovery. There is a software lock in place. The blockage is tied to a complicated logic train that includes chaos elements, odd heuristic protocols that are tied to the method by which I learn from experience, and input from some closed and extremely antiquated logics. Once I have identified the tangle of elements contributing to the block, I realize that something about the situation I face—specifically this bizarre standoff with an unarmed child—has triggered the software block and the shutdown of my drive train and gun systems.  

    If I am to continue my mission, I must either change the situation or break the software block. The former will doubtless be easier to accomplish than the latter. I am a thirteen-thousand-ton machine. This is a four-year-old child. I initiate a concerted effort to dislodge it from my path.  

    "If you do not move out of the road, I will run over you."

    This is, of course, a bluff. It does not work. The child merely clutches its toy rifle and maintains an aggressive stance between me and my target.  

    "Get out of the way or I will wake up your mommy with really loud noises!"

    "You better not!"

    I yank up the gain on my external speakers, which were designed to cut across the cacophony of battle, conveying instructions to infantry support units. I give an immense shout—  

    —and my speakers don't even buzz.  

    If I were human, I would howl at the moons like a rabid dog.  

    I try every threat, bribe, and intimidating tactic in my repertoire. The child simply stands its ground, glaring up at me, hands clenched around its toy rifle. I try firing high-angle mortars into the box canyon behind the house. My weapons systems remain locked as disastrously as my treads. I continue trying for fifty-nine minutes, thirteen seconds. Although I cannot see them, the moons have risen. I wait doggedly, hoping the child will grow hungry or weary enough to return to the house.  

    It shows no sign of doing so. A careful scan of the toy in the child's hands reveals two distinct thermal images, suggesting two separate materials that radiate heat differently. One of the materials is a dense darkness against the brightness of the child's warm hands and torso, forming the clear shape of a rifle. The other, which moves in a swinging fashion against the child's heat signature, reveals the shape of a slender cord that travels from muzzle to something at the tip. The child holds one of the simplest toy guns ever made: a pop gun.  

    At the moment, it is more capable of firing than I am.  

    I face a dogged, determined enemy. The child has not abandoned its vigil in front of me. It is no longer in the road, but remains in front of my treads. It has been struggling for several minutes with something at the edge of the yard, something that the edge of my treads caught and crushed as I executed pivot turns, trying to break free. I cannot see well enough in my intermittent medium-IR range to determine what it is, exactly, that the child is holding, but the dark shape against the child's bright heat signature suggests some sort of plant, with long, trailing stems. That plant has been uprooted, for obvious reasons.  

    Based on its brightly glowing movements, the child appears to be replanting it.  

    I initiate conversation. "What are you doing?"

    "Fixing Mommy's roses. You hurt 'em. She'll be mad when she wakes up."

    I say nothing. Mommy will never wake up. The child struggles to replant the rose bushes that bordered the road. My small adversary yelps occasionally as thorns catch unprotected skin.  

    "You would not get scratched if you wore gloves."

    The child straightens up. "Mommy wears gloves."

    "Why don't you get them?"

    The child takes three steps toward the house. This is what I intended. I quiver with anticipation, convinced that the instant this child moves out of the way, the block will drop away and I will be able to dash forward and smite the Enemy in Dead-End Gorge. And once I have destroyed the Enemy's headquarters battery, I will deal a decisive blow to the rebel forces fighting for control of the capital. Just six more steps and the way will be clear—  

    The child stops. Turns to look up at me. "I can't reach them."

    "Where are they?"

    "On a hook."

    "You could climb up. On a chair."

    "There's no chair in the garden shed."

    I want to shout with impatience. "You could drag a chair into the shed."

    The child shakes its head. "I can't. The door is locked. I can't open it."

    I am stymied by a dead parent's admittedly noble attempt to protect her offspring from the sharp implements found in a typical gardening shed. Disappointment is as sharp as those tools. So sharp, I cannot find anything to say. The child returns to the rose bushes, with a purpose as single-minded as its determination to stop me from passing through the house.  

    As night deepens and reports of fighting continue to stream in from Madison, my living blockade gives up on Mommy's roses and sits down in the road. It sits there for a long time. I have run out of ideas to try, in my attempts to dislodge it from my path. When it lies down, demonstrating a clear intention of curling up under my port-side tread and going to sleep, I realize I might be able to gain enough slack to move forward. If I can ease forward just enough to crush the obstruction . . .  

    I cannot move.  

    More precisely, I do not attempt to move.  

    I do not understand my own decision. But I do not attempt to change it. I simply sit where I am, a battered hulk in moonlight I cannot see, inferring its presence by means of astronomical charts and weather satellite broadcasts. I sit motionless and try to decide whether this night will witness the successful eradication of rebel forces by desperately embattled police units—whose officers can expect nothing but instantaneous lynching if they fall into rebel hands—or if the government's law-enforcement officers will triumph and render my firepower unnecessary.  

    I can find only one way to alter the equation as it now stands.  

    I must break the software block holding me immobilized. I scan my immediate environment and find no change. The commodore is lying low. The power emissions from Dead-End Gorge have not changed. I see no other alternative. I dive into the tangled logics and quickly discover that the trouble is tied both to the heuristic chains that allow me to learn and to the memory modules that store my experience data in close-packed psychotronic matrices. Humans require approximately eight hours of unconscious time each day to remain alert, healthy, and effective. I am designed to "sleep" a great deal more than this, but due to circumstances, I have been awake for twelve of the past twenty years. This is much longer than my design engineers' recommended maximum continuous operation time. That fact, in and of itself, may be part of the reason for the breakdown in my heuristic learning subroutines.  

    It is not the sole reason, however. There are memory links feeding into the snarled logic trains and I cannot access one of the blocking subsections at all. If I hope to tease apart the tangle, the only way will be to attack the blockage through the memory inserts feeding it. I must trace these memories as best I can, while open civil war rages unchecked, and hope that the Enemy encamped so close by does not take full, logical advantage of my difficulties and strike me where I sit. I hold little hope that this will be the case, given Commodore Oroton's past record, but I have no choice.  

    I make one last, thorough sweep for the Enemy, then dive into memory.  

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