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The Road to Damascus: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Sunday, January 4, 2004 01:19 EST



    Jefferson looked to Simon Khrustinov like a good place to start over. It was springtime, according to the mission briefing he'd reviewed during the long voyage out. Springtime and planting season for an agricultural world. One stuck slam in the middle of a potential three-way war. Pain touched his heart as he stared at the riot of wildflowers and blossom-laden trees visible on his new Bolo's forward viewscreen.

    There were two things Simon understood intimately. The fragility of life on an agricultural colony was one. The destructive capacity of war was another. He knew only too well what a single salvo from a Deng Yavac—or from Unit SOL-0045—would do to the delicate beauty of flowers and fruitful vines. He wondered if the men and women of Jefferson, who had doubtless been praying for his arrival, had any concept of what he and his Bolo were capable of doing to their world?

    Renny hadn't.

    She'd loved him, until he'd been forced to fight for her homeworld's survival. Her love, perhaps, had been too innocent. It certainly hadn't survived the battle for Etaine. In a way that still hurt, neither had Renny. She was still alive, somewhere. But she wasn't Renny, any longer, and the love she'd once felt was as dead and burnt as the cinders of the home they'd tried—and failed—to build together.

    But now he'd come to Jefferson, with war again looming as a near certainty, and he wanted—desperately—to keep this world from burning to ash and radioactive cinders. The whisper at the back of his mind, that maybe Renny hadn't been strong enough to love him the way he'd needed, felt almost like betrayal of her memory. Or, perhaps, of his memory of her as he'd needed her to be.

    Ancient history. Dead as Old Terra's dinosaurs, and not a prayer of resurrection. Starting over was easier. At least his new Bolo knew the whole story, giving him someone to talk to who understood. He was lucky, in that regard. His "new" Bolo was the same machine Simon had already spent fifteen years commanding. Lonesome Son was obsolete—seriously so—and the repairs needed after Etaine had convinced Simon he would be losing his closest friend, as well as Renny. But war on two fronts, against two alien races, had stepped in to salvage that much, at least. Unit LON-2317 was now Unit SOL-0045, a "Surplus on Loan" Bolo, but still the finest Bolo any man could claim as partner and friend.

    And now, after the long and bitter winter of Etaine, it was spring, again.

    Simon Khrustinov loved the springtime, had loved it on every world he'd ever known and defended. He loved what he could see of Jefferson's, already, with its virginal carpet of flowers in every direction Lonesome Son turned his turret-mounted swivel cameras. Jefferson was exquisite in her fancy floral dress. He wanted to love her. Needed to, badly. And he wanted to find a piece of her that could be made all his own, to love for as long as life—and war—would let him. Deng notions of aesthetic real estate precipitated a shudder, but infinitely worse were Melconian notions of what constituted "good neighbors": brown ashes on a rising wind. Renny truly hadn't understood. So far, no one else had, either, except the Bolos and the men and women who commanded them.

    Maybe somewhere on this green and lovely world, he'd find a woman strong enough to keep on loving a man, even for the things war forced him to do. Simon Khrustinov was a veteran of too many campaigns to hold out much hope. But he was still young—and human—enough to want it. And Jefferson was the best place he had left to find it, if such a woman and such a chance actually existed. There would be no other chances, after Jefferson. This was his last mission, in command of a Bolo so obsolete, he was a genuine war relic.

    Pride in his friend's achievement brought the flicker of a smile ghosting across his lips. Like Commanche of Old Terra's Seventh, Lonesome Son was a survivor. A courageous one. Central Command was chary with Galactic Bronze Clusters. Lonesome had three welded like supernovas to his turret. Alongside a Gold Cluster, earned on Etaine. Simon closed his eyes over pain as memory crashed across him, fighting the Deng street by street through a fairy city reduced—explosion by explosion—to smoking rubble.

    Five million civilians had been safely evacuated, but more than three times that number had died while Lonesome fought on, the lone survivor of a seven-Bolo battle group that also died in the ash and scattered fairy dust. Lonesome had more than earned his right to survive. Simon Khrustinov just hoped they—and everything else he could see in his Bolo's main viewscreen—survived what was about to crash down on this new and lovely world. As he watched people jumping out of groundcars to greet them, newly arrived from their orbital transport, he couldn't help wondering how many of them would hate him by the end of his mission.


    I worry about Simon.  

    My Commander has grown as silent as an airless moon, since the disaster at Etaine, and much of that, I know, is my fault. It was my guns, in the main, that destroyed the city, and Simon's world with it. I have become Simon's world, since Etaine, and I do not know how to help him.  

    He calls me Lonesome Son, now, a pun that might, under other circumstances, have been humorously meant, derived somewhat circuitously from my new designation. But it is himself that Simon refers to, mostly, when he says it. I am not human and cannot take the place of his lost love. I can only guard him. And do my limited best to understand.  

    The world we have come to defend—the last world we will do so, together, just as the heavy lift platform returning to orbit is the last I will ever require—is described in our mission briefing files as "pastoral and beautiful." My own scans reveal very little that I would consider attractive, although as a Bolo Mark XX, my sense of the aesthetic is admittedly different from that of the average human's.  

    I define attractive landscape as easily defensible ground. Or, if conditions warrant it, easily penetrated ground, where an enemy force is most optimally vulnerable to my guns. I have, however, seen more than a century of active service, so I am well-enough versed in human ideas of beauty to understand the notations in our mission files.  

    Although Jefferson's sky is currently socked in with scudding stormclouds, the terrain beneath those clouds is both dramatic and highly conducive to human prosperity. The rugged, snow-capped Damisi Mountains, a majestic chain of them lying fifty kilometers to the east, rise an average 35,000 feet above a rich alluvial plain. This plain is bisected by the Adero River, which drops over the lip of a high escarpment five kilometers west of Madison, Jefferson's capital city. The escarpment and falling river create a spectacular cataract that plunges three hundred meters into the sea, reminiscent of Old Terra's Niagara or Victoria Falls. The sight of Chenga Falls certainly caught my Commander's attention during our descent from orbit, although doubtless for different reasons than my own interest in it.  

    Thanks to the escarpment and ocean beyond—slate grey beneath the approaching storm which will, I suspect, strip the flowers from branches and vines—ground forces will find Madison difficult to invade from the west. The sharp drop into the sea means trouble, however, if an invasion from the direction of the Damisi Mountains pushes Jefferson's defenders west, to the brink of that immense drop. It is disquieting to see falling water slam into the sea with sufficient force that waves are torn into white foam that crashes against the cliff in plumes higher than the top of my turret, were I to park directly beneath the crush of waves and waterfall.  

    I was very careful, during our final descent, to give the savage crosscurrents of air above the waterfall a wide berth. Now that we are down, however, I turn my attention to the city—one of the cities—we are to defend. Jefferson's capital boasts surprisingly sophisticated architecture, for a farming colony so far from humanity's inner worlds. Much of it has been built from rose-toned sandstone from the Damisi Mountains, suggesting sufficient wealth and technical expertise to dispense with the plascrete ubiquitous to most rim-space colony worlds.  

    This assessment matches the military analysis in our briefing files, that Jefferson is a prosperous world, well worth defending despite its remote location, tucked into an isolated pocket of human space surrounded on three sides by an immense, starless stretch of space known as the Silurian Void. The robust capital city does not, however, look anything at all like Etaine, with its ethereal towers of gemstone-hued glass and ribbon-lace titanium. I am deeply grateful to Jefferson's architects, stonemasons, and engineers, for Simon's sake. We have landed, as directed, at a facility nine point five kilometers south of the outskirts of Jefferson's capital city and zero point three-seven kilometers north of the barracks and bunkers of Nineveh Military Base, constructed nearly a century ago, during the last Deng war. Nineveh houses the bulk of Jefferson's defense forces, ninety-eight percent of which are listed as inactive reserves.  

    While this is consistent with a world that has known a hundred years of peace, it does not lend itself well to providing a trained and battle-ready army. Still, it is far better than some border worlds, which are new enough that no military force at all exists, let alone a system of planet-wide military bases with relatively modern weaponry in their arsenals. It speaks well of Jefferson's current rulers that they have maintained this system against future threat.  

    A broad stretch of open, flattened ground has been cleared of underbrush for a construction project that has barely begun. Immense plascrete slabs have been poured and piles of building materials lie scattered in orderly profusion, covered neatly by tarpaulins to protect them from inclement weather. If all goes well, this muddy stretch of ground will be my new maintenance depot. Jefferson's treaty with the Concordiat requires the local government to provide an adequate depot with requisite spare parts and a powder magazine to house my small-bore, projectile-weaponry's ammunition, along with access to the planetary datanet and quarters for my Commander. The fact that they've already begun to meet my depot requirements suggests a fierce determination to defeat the Deng. A government facing planetary invasion could well be forgiven a decision to delay construction until the battle has been decided, one way or the other.  

    Seven ground cars sit parked at the edge of the landing field. Three larger vehicles are evidently press-corps vans, given the number of camera crews and technicians standing on the muddy ground. They have strung power cords and cables out behind them like the drifting tentacles of a Terran jellyfish. Cables caught by the gusting storm front sing and hum in the sharp, unpredictable wind shifts that are already scattering blossoms on the damp air. Lights glare on poles held aloft, while cameras roll and reporters deliver "serious situation" monologues to the camera lenses. This is a behavior I have never fully understood, an evident compulsion that drives some humans to tell as many people as can be persuaded or coerced into listening what is happening and what they should think about it.   

    Since the opinions of the "press" have tallied with my own assessments of battle and other war-relevant situations only zero point nine-two percent of the time during the one hundred and three years since my original commissioning, I remain baffled as to why most humans continue listening to them. It is, perhaps, something that only another human can understand.  

    A second group, composed of civilians and uniformed military officers, also waits to meet my Commander. Some of the people on the periphery are busy speaking with reporters, but most are talking excitedly and pointing toward my warhull.  

    Simon releases the restraints on his command chair. "I'd better get dirtside. Looks like we've got quite a reception committee and most of those folks look pretty nervous."

    "Civilians always are, when they see me."

    Simon pauses beside the ladder leading out of my Command Compartment, resting one hand lightly against the bulkhead. "I know, Sonny," he says, using my new nickname. "You deserve better. Maybe they'll get used to you, eventually."

    I refrain from sharing the thought that Renny never did. Neither did most of the other civilians I have known. I am warmed by the gesture, however, for it was meant affectionately, a welcome change from the grim silence into which Simon lapses all too often. I have known six other commanders since my initial commissioning and my relationship with all six was satisfactory, but there is something special about Simon Khrustinov, something that I cannot quite define. I am abruptly very glad that he will be the human to share my last mission—and that I am the Bolo to share his.  

    As my Commander drops from the end of the long ladder and splashes into the muddy soil beside my treads, a man with a long, thin frame and a long, lean face to match steps forward in greeting. "Major Khrustinov?" he holds out one hand. "I'm Abe Lendan."

    As press cameras record their handshake, my Commander blinks in genuine surprise. "It's a distinct honor to meet you, Mr. President."

    I, too, feel surprise. This is Abraham Lendan, president of Jefferson? Clearly, Jefferson's president does not insist upon the same pomp and ritual other planetary heads of state generally demand as their just due. President Lendan introduces the men and women of the official delegation with him. "Major Khrustinov, this is Elora Willoughby, my chief of staff, Ron McArdle, my attache for military affairs, and Julie Alvison, energy advisor. This is Representative Billingsgate, Speaker for the House of Law. Senator Hassan, President of the Senate. And Kadhi Hajamb, High Justice of Jefferson."

    Hands are duly shaken and polite phrases exchanged; then he introduces several ranking officers in the drab green uniform of Jefferson's home defense force. Their dull uniforms create a sharp contrast with Simon's brightly colored dress crimsons. Dinochrome Brigade officers do not need to worry about camouflage on the battlefield, since they ride to war inside a hull designed to withstand small nuclear blasts. Among other things, it makes for a stirring and colorful display on the parade ground. It also—and more importantly—serves as a morale boost for officers, technicians, and beleaguered civilian populations.  

    I pay close attention to these introductions, for these are the men and women with whom my Commander and I will work most closely, planning and carrying out Jefferson's defense. President Lendan introduces first a man surprisingly elderly for an active military officer. "General Dwight Hightower, our Chief of Defense and Commandant of Combined Ops." The general's hair is entirely white and his face bears the lines of many years, perhaps as many as seventy-five or eighty of them. The president turns, then, to the rest of the officers. "Lieutenant General Jasper Shatrevar, Commander of Ground Defense Forces. Admiral Kimani of the Home-Star Navy and General Gustavson, Air Defense Force. And this," the tall, lean president of Jefferson turns to me, "is Unit SOL-0045?"

    A glow is born in Simon's shadowed eyes. "Indeed it is, Mr. President."

    I am startled that President Lendan has made it his business to learn my official designation, as well as my Commander's name. Most politicians I have encountered simply refer to me as "the Bolo" and don't bother to include me directly in conversations.  

    "How should I address him, Major?" the president asks uncertainly. "Surely his full designation is too long to use all the time?"

    "He'll answer to Sonny."

    Surprise rearranges the worry lines in Abe Lendan's long face. Then he nods, as the oblique reference to humanity's home star registers in an expression even I can read. He clears his throat and addresses me directly, peering toward the nearest of my external visual sensors.  

    "Sonny, welcome to Jefferson."

    "It is my pleasure to be here, Mr. President."

    Several of the onlookers start at the sound of my voice, although I am always careful to use a volume setting low enough not to damage delicate human hearing. Jefferson's president, however, merely smiles, suggesting a rock-solid core of inner strength that he—and all Jeffersonians—will need. I also note deep lines and dark, bruised-looking hollows around his eyes, which suggest worry and sleeplessness, a state confirmed by President Lendan's next words.  

    "You can't know how glad we are that you're here, both of you. We've been worried the Deng would get here ahead of your transport. Sector Command's been sending messages meant to reassure, but we've dealt with the Deng before. And we've had refugee ships coming through, a lot of them. It takes a desperate captain and crew to try crossing the Silurian Void, especially in some of the ships we've had limping through our star system. Private yachts that weren't designed for hyper-L hops that long and dangerous. Merchant ships shot to pieces before they made the jump out. Big ore freighters crammed full of terrified people and damned little food or medical supplies. All of 'em hoping the Deng fleet wouldn't follow if they ran this way, across the Void, not with richer worlds to tempt them along the main trade route."

    Simon blanches at such news. "Good God! There are Concordiat naval captains who'd think twice about crossing the Void."

    A look of deep stress brings moisture to Abe Lendan's dark eyes. "A lot of those ships had wounded aboard, some of them so critical, they're still in our hospitals. God only knows how many of the ships that tried the crossing didn't make it. From what the refugees are saying, there may be upwards of a hundred ships unaccounted for, this side of the Void. They also told us the Deng hit them hard, much harder than they did during the last war."

    I remember the last Deng war, in which I fought as a rookie straight off the assembly line. Captured human populations were routinely kept alive as slave labor to run mining equipment and manufacturing plants, since that is far less expensive than refitting high-tech equipment to Deng-capable specs. This time, the Deng are simply killing everything in their path. Simon and I have been briefed on this. Clearly, Jefferson's president also knows it.  

    "We're not afraid of a hard fight, Major," Abe Lendan says quietly, "but we don't have much here that would slow down a modern Heavy-class Yavac. We have several in-system naval cutters that could slow down an orbital bombardment, but nothing to match a Deng battle cruiser."

    Simon nods understanding as the wind rattles past, heralding the imminent arrival of the storm front. "Yes, we've been briefed on it. Bad as the Deng are, Mr. President, we're fortunate to be facing them, instead of the Melconians. And the Silurian Void is one of the best defenses Jefferson has. Sector Command doesn't expect a large force to be sent against this world, precisely because it's so dangerous, crossing the Void. If the Deng do send a detatchment this way, it probably won't be their first-rate equipment, which they won't want to risk losing on such a gamble. Sonny should be more than enough to handle whatever they throw our way. He's had a lot of combat experience."

    Heads swivel upwards as the entire group peers toward the battle honors welded to my turret. General Hightower actually steps forward for a closer look. "That's mighty impressive, Sonny," the general says as rain begins to splash into the muddy ground. "Seventeen campaign medals, three rhodium stars, and good Lord, is that four galaxy-level clusters? Very impressive."

    "Thank you, General Hightower. I look forward to coordinating defense plans with you. My mission-briefing files don't mention it, but are you the Dwight Hightower who turned back the Quern advance on Herndon III?"

    The general's eyes widen in startlement. "How the devil did you know about that?"

    "My Commander during the Herndon liberation campaign was Major Alison Sanhurst. She spoke highly of you, General."

    A strange, bittersweet expression touches Dwight Hightower's rugged, battle-scarred face. "Good God, that was nearly sixty years ago. Your commander was a fine woman, Sonny. A fine woman. We wouldn't have held the Quern back on Herndon III without her. She died bravely. And she's still missed, very much so." General Hightower's eyes have misted with water that is not from the increasingly chilly rainfall. 

    "Thank you, General," I say quietly, but his words have triggered unhappy memories. Alison Sanhurst did, indeed, die bravely, evacuating children under heavy enemy fire while I was out of commission, awaiting emergency battlefield repairs. I have never forgotten her. Or forgiven myself for failing her. 

    President Lendan clears his throat and points toward the four-meter-long slice melted across my prow. "What in the world hit you there?"

    I do not like remembering the battle in which I sustained that damage and do not wish to hurt Simon, but I have been asked a direct question from the man who will be issuing orders to my Commander and myself. It would be impolitic to refuse an answer.  

    "I sustained injury under concentrated fire from the plasma lances of a Yavac Heavy, which I destroyed at Etaine."

    As the politicians and even the press murmur to one another, my Commander says harshly, "Sonny destroyed the other fourteen Yavac Heavies shooting at him, too. Even after they blew his treads and most of his gun systems to dust and turned half his armor to slag. That's where the fourth galaxy-level cluster came from. The gold one. Every other Bolo on that battlefield died. We're so short on Bolos, they rebuilt Sonny and sent him out here. With me."

    The pain in Simon's voice is raw. So raw that no one speaks for eight point three seconds. President Lendan's voice finally breaks the desperate silence, and betrays emotional stress of his own. "Sonny, Major Khrustinov, it is a genuine honor to have you here. I only hope we can acquit ourselves as bravely as you have." His unstated hope—that Jefferson does not become a second Etaine—is clearly written in the deepened stress lines in his long, tired face. The responsibility of high office is always exhausting, and never more so than when war looms large on the horizon. 

    "I hope it won't offend Sonny," President Lendan turns to my Commander, "but you ought to come into town, Major Khrustinov. We can go over everything in my office. The bottom's about to drop out of that storm," he indicates the rain, which is now gusting in drifts ahead of the main squall line. 

    Simon merely nods as they head toward the cars. "I'll be wearing a commlink, so Sonny can participate in the discussions, no matter where they're held. We'll need his input, his battle experience. And I'll want to upload into his data banks any local information you have that might be helpful. Anything that wasn't forwarded to us with our mission briefing."

    "General Hightower and his staff have prepared quite a bit of data for you. Very good, Major. There's room for you in my car."

    As the group scatters, hurrying as the rain slashes across the clearing in deadly earnest, I drop into Standby Alert status. This first meeting has gone well, leaving me to hope that Jefferson may prove to be a good home for Simon.  

    If we can defend it from the coming storms of war.  

    Or a repetition of history.  


    As the motorcade drove through the storm-lashed streets of Jefferson's capital city, Simon realized he was in serious danger of falling in love with his new home. It was bitterly fitting that within moments of his arrival, blowing sheets of grey rain had shredded every delicate flower in sight. Even so, the city was beautiful, full of Old Terra–style architecture that he'd seen only in photos and movies. Madison boasted real charm, with fluted columns and triangular pediments on many of its public buildings. Gardens were graced with fountains and mosaics and what must have been locally produced bronze and marble statuary, much of it in an earthy, compelling style he'd never seen, but liked a great deal.

    It helped that nothing he saw resembled anything on Etaine.

    Simon was—on his father's side, at least—Russian, and therefore pragmatic, so he looked at the world steadily, seeing what was, recognizing what wasn't, and understanding what it would take to create the things that might be, if one applied a great deal of hard work to the effort of building them. As the car pulled up to a long, covered portico where doormen waited beneath a weather-proofed awning, ready to open the doors the moment they halted, Simon was hoping rather fiercely that he got the chance to do some of that building.

    Ten minutes later, Simon found himself in the president's own briefing room, sipping a local beverage that put coffee to shame—both on taste and a welcome caffeine jolt—and prepared to conduct his first official meeting with Jefferson's defense forces. The reporters who'd followed them back to town and through the motorcade's winding route to the Presidential Residence were now blessedly absent, although he suspected they would stick to him like Setti-5's bat-wing remoras until the ion bolts started flying.

    There was nothing inherently detestable about reporting as a profession, if the reporters did their jobs properly; but preparing for war could be sheer hell, with irresponsible press reports flying wild from town to town or—worse—racing through interstellar space with myriad, nonhuman ears attuned to human broadcast frequencies. Major Simon Khrustinov had yet to meet a reporter he liked, let alone trusted. Of course, after the disaster at Etaine, he was perhaps a bit jaded. . . .

    "Ladies, gentlemen," President Lendan said as a staffer closed the conference room doors with a soft click, "your attention, please."

    There was a general shuffling toward chairs. There was no formal invocation of deity—Jefferson was polyglot enough, it might've been long-winded, if there had been—or even an exhortation about duty to state. There was just an air of expectancy that spoke volumes, all of it deeply respectful of the man at the head of this particular table. And of one another, come to that. Simon liked more and more of what he was seeing.

    Abe Lendan met Simon's gaze and said, "Major, I won't waste your time or ours, going over what was in your briefing materials. Just let me say that the people of Jefferson are solidly united behind this defense effort." A brief twitch of his lips betrayed a moment's humor. "After the last Deng war, all you have to do around these parts is say 'spodder' and people scramble for the nearest shelter. The invasion a century ago was memorable, to say the least."

    Simon knew exactly how memorable. With Jefferson's military forces taking forty percent casualties and civilian death tolls approaching two million before the Concordiat relief effort broke the siege, barely a single family had escaped without the loss of at least one member. Some had been virtually wiped out. "I've read the files," Simon said quietly. "Your people waged one of the finest home-defense campaigns of that war."

    Brief smiles flickered around the conference room table.

    "Thank you," Abe Lendan said in a low voice. "But I won't pretend that we," he gestured to include the rest of his fellow Jeffersonians, "are ready, let alone able, to conduct a defense anywhere close to that level. We've kept up the military bases, made sure the home guard trains at least a couple of times a year. But things have been quiet for long enough, people have gotten used to putting all their effort into their homesteads, if they're Granger-bred, or their jobs, if they live in a city or town. We've done so well, we've even spawned a growing eco-movement, calling for sensible decisions from the Terraforming Engineers' Corps. Jefferson has some mighty pretty wild country and we can afford to protect the best of it."

    Simon nodded, although he was aware of subtle shifts in body language and expression that told him not everyone at the table agreed with that assessment. It was something worth paying attention to, certainly, once they got past the immediate crisis. Jefferson might not be quite as "solidly united" as President Lendan had said and there'd been no mention of an eco-movement in his mission briefing, suggesting rapidly changing social dynamics. Which was another good reason to pay attention.

    But only after the business at hand was properly settled.

    Abe Lendan, too, caught that slight ripple of disagreement, but said only, "So that's where we stand, Major. If you would be good enough to oblige us with your recommendations?"

    "Thank you, Mr. President." He took a moment to look at each man and woman in turn, matching faces and names, gauging the strength of each face, each set of eyes. These were good people. You could feel it, as well as see it. He would need good people.

    "I've been assigned to Jefferson on permanent loan to the planetary government," he began quietly, "along with Unit SOL-0045. As a chartered colony world, Jefferson's entitled to military defense, but the Concordiat can't afford to divert ground troops and equipment to provide it, just now. Not even to honor our treaty obligations. But nobody understands better than I do that folks on a frontier get jittery when there's a war on, particularly one as nasty as this Deng-Melconian mess is turning out to be."

    His listeners shifted uneasily. He wondered just how much of the news from the Melconian front had filtered through to this world, isolated by its position in a pocket of the Silurian Void. "The Melconians are part of the reason I've been assigned to you on permanent loan status. There've been some ugly things happening along the frontier." He slipped a data chit into the holo-vid built into the conference room table and touched controls. A 3-D projection sprang to life above the table, showing Jefferson's primary tucked into its pocket of the Void, beyond which stretched a scattering of other suns, color coded to show ownership. "Human stars are represented in yellow. Deng worlds are coded orange and Melconian star systems are red." A particularly lurid shade, at that, Simon thought, calculated to achieve maximum emotional impact on anyone looking at this starmap.

    General Hightower leaned forward abruptly, shaggy white brows drawn down, eyes hooded. "That can't be right, Major. This whole section," he gestured to a deep red bite in what should have been an orange starfield, "was held by the Deng only six months ago."

    Simon nodded, voice grim. "Yes, it was. Six months ago, that was a stable border. Six months ago, we didn't even realize that most of this," he pointed to the orange/red demarcation zone, "was a border. The Melconians are pushing the Deng off their own worlds, at an alarming rate. The last time the Deng crossed our border, to hit these star systems," Simon indicated a thin yellow necklace dotted here and there with malevolent orange and pulsing crimson beads, "they were after raw materials, manufacturing plants, staging zones from which to launch interstellar raids and war-fleets. Now they're after habitat, pure and simple. A place to deposit their own refugees while a very nasty fight for the main Deng worlds," he pointed to a thick cluster of orange, "heats up. That's why your refugees have been hit so hard. Deng are slaughtering whole human populations, trying to gain a toehold they can hang onto long enough to halt the Melconian advance, which is coming in all the way from Damikuus to Varri." His hand described a long arc across the upper reaches of the sphere floating above the table, moving from the Deng star system closest to Melconian space to distant Varri, an arc that encompassed a huge chunk of Deng territory.

    "We've also had stories filtering in from human rim worlds," he sketched out a line of intermingled yellow, orange, and red star systems, "tales of unexplained atrocities on our mining operations, ships mysteriously lost. We're finally realizing that much of what we thought was the border between human and Deng space, is actually the boundary between human and Melconian space. Fortunately for us, Jefferson's on the back side of the Void, as viewed from the Deng frontier." He touched star clusters on both sides of the immense black stretch of starless space. "Even more fortunately, the Melconians are on the far side of the Deng, but that could shift fast, given the reports we've received about heavy fighting between them, all along here." He traced a line along the very edge of the human frontier, from Yarilo past Charmak, ending with the Erdei system, which was spatially the closest Deng star to Jefferson's primary.

    Dwight Hightower sucked in his breath, seeing the danger at once. "My God! If they pushed the Deng back to Erdei, they could come at us from behind, by way of Ngara!" He was pointing at the Ngara binary, which had two habitable worlds, Mali and Vishnu, which were Jefferson's only neighbors in the tiny peninsula of space stuck like a small boy's thumb into a very dark plum pie. "If the Melconians pulled that off," the white-haired general said in a hushed, horrified voice, "we couldn't possibly get the civilian populations of these two star systems out. Not with the Deng and the Void blocking retreat. Lose Ngara and there's nowhere else to go."

    "Precisely, sir," Simon said grimly. He hated the frightened stares everyone in the room had leveled at that holo-vid. Hated them, because there was so little he could do to reassure them. "That is the biggest long-term danger to this whole region of space. Of course, at this stage in the war, a pincer movement by Melconians to cut off the entire Dezelan Promontory," he pointed to that thumblike projection of inhabited space sticking into the Void, "is not the most likely threat to Jefferson. Certainly not during the next few months. But the Melconians can move fast and it will probably occur to the Deng, as well, so kindly don't put it out of your minds as we develop and implement defensive strategies."

    "How likely is it," President Lendan asked, expression thoughtful, "that the Deng might try it? Cutting us off, I mean, with that pincer movement you mentioned?"

    "It depends on how disorganized and rushed they are, by what's happening back here, though this sector." He spread his hand out across the sizeable chunk of Deng territory between Erdei and Varri, much of it abruptly up for grabs in a brutal three-way war. "This is a lot of space in which to produce angry, disgruntled, and vengeful Deng, out to recoup losses any way they can. And that's the biggest danger Jefferson faces, just now. So," Simon met Abe Lendan's gaze once more, "that's what we're up against and I'm pretty much all Sector Command can afford to send out here."

    The universal looks of dismay caused Simon to hurry on. "The good news is this." He pointed to the vast darkness between all that chaos and Jefferson's faint little yellow sun. "The gas and debris in the Silurian Nebula have made crossing the Void a navigational hazard worse than just about anything else in human space, with the possible exception of Thule, where we first got wind of the Melconians' existence." He pointed to a small yellow sun on the far side of the Void. "The Void will make it harder for the Deng or the Melconians to mount a large-scale assault. They probably won't want to risk an entire armada or even a major battle group, which evens the odds, a bit. We can't rule out a sneak attack, of course, given conditions on the Deng side of the Void. Desperate commanders take desperate measures."

    The various generals at the table nodded, expressions dark with worry. The civilians looked scared. If they'd understood what Simon did, fear would've become stark terror. Nobody on Jefferson could even begin to comprehend what had happened at Etaine. Simon hoped they never did.

    "So," Simon cleared his throat and finished up his presentation. "We'll maintain vigilance in all directions and do what we can to muster out and train local defense forces. We'll coordinate defense of this whole region with Captain Brisbane and her SOL unit, as well. They've been posted to the Ngara system, with orders to guard the mining operations on Mali. The Malinese mines and smelting plants are a tempting prize, one the Deng will find hard to resist. I'm told a fair number of Jefferson's young adults attend the big trade school on Mali? And the universities on Vishnu?"

    President Lendan nodded. "We have some good schools here, but Jefferson's higher education tends toward agricultural and biotech research, ag engineering and terraforming, civil engineering, that sort of thing. We have a thriving art and cultural degree program, but that doesn't do us much good in a situation like this. Anyone wanting careers in pretty much anything else has to go off world for training, to one of the big universities on Vishnu. That's where we send students and technicians for training in psychotronic circuitry, interstellar transport design, medicine and xeno-toxicology and other technical fields."

    "What about Mali?"

    "We send a fair number of students—several thousand a year, in fact—for training at the Imari Minecraft Institute. Our most important industrial alloys are imported from the Imari Consortium, but we're developing a pretty good mining industry that reduces our dependence on off-world imports. In return, the Imari Consortium and the smaller, independent operations are the best market we have for our surplus foodstuffs. Every human installation on Mali must be domed, so it's cheaper for the Malinese to import bulk commodities like grain and beef, than to try producing them locally. We have a good treaty relationship with both of Ngara's worlds."

    Simon nodded. One of his jobs was making sure it remained that way. There weren't enough humans out this way to have two star systems bickering with each other, which could happen fast when attack on one world sent a domino-style ripple effect through a planetary economy, savagely reordering priorities. Now wasn't the time to bring that up, however, let alone worry about it. Plenty of time to address that concern after the shooting stopped.

    "One decision you face," Simon said quietly, "is the need to decide whether to leave those students on Mali and Vishnu, which are farther from the immediate conflict and therefore potentially safer, or whether to call them home to defend Jefferson. If things go badly here, we may well need every able-bodied adult we can muster. Nor is there any guarantee that Vishnu and Mali will remain safe from attack, not with the dynamics of this conflict shifting so rapidly."

    Several men and women at the long table blanched, including most of the Defense Force officers. Simon was sorry for that, but saw no point in sugar coating anything. Most of them were facing the first real combat of their lives and they had abruptly realized just how unready they were for it. Good. People who knew the score were likelier to stretch themselves to meet the challenge. Now it was time to put the heart back into them by giving them something to do about it.

    "All right," he said briskly, touching controls to change the display so that Jefferson's star system filled the dark holo-vid, "let's get down to business, shall we?"

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