In the midst of an ongoing interplanetary war between human-colonized worlds and the hostile alien species known as the Deng, one planet chooses to rebel against the sentient BOLO war machines that serve as the primary line of defense against the Deng. Ringo and Evans contribute another tale of military sf to the series of novels featuring the BOLOs originated by sf author Keith Laumer. Despite the general hawkish politics lacing the plot’s subtext, the authors provide a wealth of military action along with a cast of well-developed characters, including a sympathetic BOLO named Sonny. A good choice for series fans and readers of military SF.

The Road to Damascus

by John Ringo and Linda Evans


For Aubrey Jean Hollingsworth, our second source of sunshine, with endless thanks to Bob Holingsworth, Susan Collingwood, John Ringo, and Toni Weisskopf for patience, forbearance, and the ideas that brought this story to life.

—Linda Evans


Chapter One


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.

Chapter Two


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?”

Chapter Three


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

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

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

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

“State destination,” the cab’s computer droned as she opened the door and settled herself on the worn cushions.

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

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

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

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

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

“My God!”

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Shuttle flight?”

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

“Really? I’d like to talk to one of those kids. How can I get a message to that aircab?”

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

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

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

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

“Uh—” a startled female voice responded. “Yes. Yes, ma’am, I hear you.”

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

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

And terrified. Simon smiled ruefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If he’d really been shooting, Jefferson wouldn’t have an air force.”

Simon’s smile widened. “No, it wouldn’t.”

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

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

“I’m honored, sir,” she said respectfully, shaking his hand, as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“I figured whoever was in that official car wouldn’t be coming to our house for dinner.”

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

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

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

“You have a gift for situation reports, Ms. Camar.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kafari! You’re home!”

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

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

A blush touched her cheeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the VSR, Sonny?”

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shall I relay a warning to Captain Brisbane at Vishnu?”

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

I contact General Hightower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They want the canyon’s infrastructure intact, then. Madison?”

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

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

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

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

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




We are across. The bridge smashes into the riverbed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I exult in their destruction.

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

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

Chapter Five


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 critically 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.

Chapter Six


“Jesus,” Simon mutters with reverent eloquence, “we have to cross that goddamned river again. Whose screwed-up, asinine notion was it, to build the capital city on both sides of that river?”

I forbear mentioning that most cities in human space that have grown up beside a river tend to sprawl inconveniently on both banks. Simon knows this. He is simply venting battlefield adrenaline in a healthier way than growing ulcers with it.

My aerial drone relays enemy formations, painting a grim picture.

“Maze Gap is held by two Heavy-class Yavacs. Another Heavy has taken up position in front of Klameth Canyon Dam.” I flash schematics onto my forward screen, superimposed over a map of the Klameth Canyon complex, provided by General Hightower. “A fourth Heavy class has blockaded Lambu Cut. Yavacs in both Medium and Scout classes are scattered through the canyon complex, destroying livestock and killing the human population.”

Simon snarls under his breath.

“If I make a frontal assault against Maze Gap, across open ground, there is a high probability that I will be damaged severely, potentially beyond repair.” Before he can offer suggestions, my drone goes dead. “Aerial drone has been destroyed.”

“Other points of ingress?” Simon asks.

“Analyzing data. There is no other entry, other than by water, from the reservoir.”

“Lovely. Head toward Maze Gap and search that data from General Hightower. We can put on our thinking caps while we’re underway.”

I increase speed and search my tactical databases, which were upgraded with new information during my post-Etaine refitting. I find a notation that a Mark XXI/I Special Unit made use of a deep river to conceal herself from Deng forces on Hobson’s Mines. This is a very appealing idea. The Adero River flows very close to my objective. The Klameth River, which joins the Adero two kilometers west of Maze Gap, flows right through the territory I must wrest back from the Deng.

I am not, however, a Mark XXI/I Unit. The forward-reconnaissance Special Units are the smallest Bolos fielded since the original Mark I was sent into combat. The Klameth and Adero Rivers would have to be as large as old Terra’s Mississippi to conceal my entire warhull. Since they are not, I am forced to scrap this possible solution as unworkable under current conditions. I see no alternatives to frontal assault against the Gap. I file VSR to my Commander, detailing my conclusions.

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Simon agrees, voice grim. “Hoof it, Lonesome.”

The Adero floodplain offers ideal terrain for fast overland movement. I rev up to 115 kph, not quite my top speed, but close to it. I cross twenty kilometers in zero point one-seven minutes, jolting my Commander every millimeter of the way, in a long swing around Madison’s suburbs. I cross the Adero River at Hakinar Bridge, leaving it in rubble behind my blurred treads. I race eastward, down the straight road that will lead past Nineveh Base, nine kilometers from the edge of Madison’s easternmost suburbs. Nineveh is within visual scan range when Simon leans abruptly forward in his harness, intent on the view through my prow-mounted visual sensors. He uses touchpad controls to zoom in for a closer look. I analyze the scene, attempting to understand what has caught my Commander’s interest.

The ground surrounding Nineveh Base is badly pockmarked with deep craters, which have taken out most of the main road to a depth of six meters. Burning debris lies scattered in a wide swath of destruction. Mobile artillery pieces are lined up for deployment to Maze Gap, but cannot be jockeyed past the deep holes. Ground crews are working to bring down enough of the perimeter fence to roll the mobile 10cm Hellbores and artillery siege guns through. I can assist with this effort when I reach the base, simply by driving over the fence, but I do not think this is what caught my Commander’s attention.

Simon is staring intently at the Enemy ship and Yavacs I destroyed, with some assistance from the Jeffersonian air force. There is very little left of the Scout, but the troop ship with its load of fighting vehicles lies across the road like an immense, bloated slug. Beside it is the body of the only Yavac-A/4 Heavy that off-loaded, which walked straight into my guns. The Yavac’s turret still lies in the heart of Nineveh Base, lodged in the wall of what had been the main motorpool, judging from the smoking wreckage of vehicles inside the still-burning structure.

The smouldering hulk of the Yavac’s main body, which is broader than my warhull and nearly as tall, is not quite spherical. It has a slightly cylindrical shape, viewed across the beam. The central portion is virtually round, with stubby, tapering cones to either side, providing attachment points for the complex leg joints. The legs sprawl haphazardly, some still attached, some scattered. Most are missing one or more jointed segments.

Simon’s voice comes nearly as a whisper. “Sonny, boy, can you push that Yavac down the road?”

I scan, taking measurements of the Yavac’s external dimensions, calculating mass and probable weight based on metallurgy scans, and compare the results with my own capacity to apply footpounds of force to objects. “Yes, I can push this Yavac—”

Simon Khrustinov’s brilliance breaks across me like a sun going nova.

I can push the Yavac!

Simon’s sudden laughter, knife-edged, triumphant, fills my entire personality gestalt center with euphoria. Nowhere in human space is there another commander such as this, and I have known many during the century of my service. I am more fortunate than I can grasp, to have such a commander as my own.

“Lonesome, you wicked son-of-a-gun,” Simon grins, “let’s give that damned piece of junk back to the Deng.”

“With pleasure!”

I ease up to the Yavac, using short bursts from my forward infinite repeaters to slice off the remaining legs jutting out from the main body. By nudging gently with my prow, I roll the behemoth like a lumberjack rolling a log, neatly stripping the thing of all protrusions: leg joints, guns, sensor arrays, access ladders, anything and everything that might impede its forward motion once I build up speed, pushing it. I nudge the thing around the hulk of the troop transport, which is too large for me to move without discharging my Hellbores into it, which would be a waste of battlefield resources I will doubtless need. I still face what is likely to be the heaviest combat I will encounter on this mission. It will be expensive — very expensive — to win back Klameth Canyon and its ancillary gorges. The Deng will make sure of that. It is my task to make sure the price the Deng pay in giving it up is even higher.

My Commander sends a short, coded burst to the commander of Nineveh Base.

“Put your mobile artillery behind Sonny’s warhull. We’ll act as a shield until we’ve cleared those Heavies out of Maze Gap. Once we’ve taken out their main guns at the Gap, you can scatter into the other canyons, wipe up their infantry and take out the Scout-class machines they’ve fielded.”

“Understood, Major,” came the reply. “We’re set to roll.”

The hole in the fence is large enough, now, to accommodate the bulk of the big artillery guns, towed behind heavy cross-country engines, as well as the mobile Hellbores, which are mounted in tracked vehicles capable of tackling extremely rough terrain.

“Let’s get this parade underway, Lonesome.”

I engage drive engines, pushing the Yavac ahead of my warhull. The pace is slow at first, but the highway is straight and the Adero floodplain is marvelously flat, which allows me to build up speed. I cannot achieve maximum running speed, since I am pushing an object that is only slightly smaller than myself, and only marginally less dense. I am pleased to achieve — and maintain — a cruising speed of 70 kph, which grinds the rolling surface of the Yavac smooth, like a jeweler’s wheel, lowering friction and allowing greater speed. We come roaring down the final approach to Maze Gap, forming a juggernaut that can be avoided by jumping to one side, but not easily stopped. Not from dead ahead, at any rate.

The Yavac Heavies holding the Gap take notice and begin firing. The hull steamrolling its way ahead of me takes massive abuse from plasma lances and the Yavacs’ heaviest guns. The metal heats up and begins to glow, with puddles melting and flying off like droplets of wax shed by a falling candle. The Yavacs cannot reach me with direct fire, not with the dead Yavac’s hull between my prow and their guns.

Simon grins fiercely. “They’d be gnashing their teeth, Sonny, if the hairy little brutes had any.”

I am only passingly familiar with Deng dentition, since it is more important that I render them incapable of eating than it is to worry about what they eat and how they eat it. I leave such items to the special-ops branch that handles biological warfare.

I concentrate on what I do best and rush toward the enemy at the gate, swatting down high-angle mortars launched at me in a wild effort to reach my turret from above. I launch mortars of my own, biding my time for the right moment to strike a crippling blow. The mobile artillery from Nineveh Base streams out behind me, unable to keep pace with my 70 kph sprint. It is not necessary that they match my speed, since the Yavacs that would normally do them the worst harm will no longer be a factor in the attack equation by the time they reach the Gap.

In a moment of sheer, delighted whimsey, I access cultural databanks and select an appropriate aria. Wagner roars out across the Adero floodplain, from external speakers turned up to maximum gain. “The Ride of the Valkyries” flies on the wind before us and whips back across my fenders to urge the artillery crews on toward armageddon. I do not know if the Deng appreciate the psychological boost such music instills in the human heart, but a century of service has proven its value to me. My communications arrays pick up broadcasts from the trailing gun crews, transmissions filled with war whoops and soldiers yelling their way toward glory.

The rose sandstone shoulders of Maze Gap loom dead ahead. The Yavac hull I push is turning to slag, melting ahead of my churning treads. I enter the Gap, running that semimolten hull down the throats of the defending Yavacs. Then I pulse my forward Hellbore. My heavy shield disintegrates. Its sudden destruction gives me a beautifully clear field of fire, with no time for either Yavac to react to the abrupt change in battlefield conditions.

I fire both Hellbores, point-blank.

Both Yavac Heavies are caught in a maelstrom of brutal energy. For one hellish instant, they glow. I pound them with another salvo and rapidly follow it with a third. Both Heavies come apart at the seams, toppling to destruction under my treads. I burst through the Gap and swing hard left for a skidding turn into Klameth Canyon. What I see there fills every molecule of my psychotronic soul with mindless fury.

Butchered humans lie everywhere. Simon swears in hideous Russian and his eyes blaze with a fire to match the rage in my flintsteel heart. The Deng must die. Must pay for this barbaric slaughter. I snarl. I hate. I roar down the canyon spitting death from every gun, blasting Deng fighters out of the sky, incinerating ground troops that have indulged in an orgy of murder against the civilian populace of this canyon. I turn Scout-class Yavacs into molten puddles. I blow Medium-class Yavacs apart, sending bits and pieces flying hundreds of feet into the air and bouncing them off the sandstone cliffs. I take savage pleasure in destroying them.

It is the work I was created to do — and in this canyon, I glory in the doing of it.

I can only hope that we have come in time to save at least a few human lives.


Smoke and noise rained down like hailstones. Kafari cringed as brilliant beams of coherent light stabbed through the murk — and everything else they touched. Ori started shooting up the stairs at fast, flickering shadows. Weird alien screams drifted down through the smoke. Then three separate beams punched holes straight through Ori, like pins through a cushion. They sliced across him, jigsaw style, cutting hideous, cauterized gashes. An agonized scream burst free as he went down, still shooting. Kafari, badly shaken, stood rooted in place, fighting the acid nausea trying to tear loose from her gut.

Then dark shapes appeared on the stairs, moving down toward them. Kafari gulped hard and started shooting, right through the boards. Alien screams lifted through the smoke. Dark bodies fell from the staircase. Somebody else was shooting, too, from under the sink, from behind the toppled shelves. Kafari’s rifle ran dry. She reached blindly down and somebody slapped another gun into her hands. She fired again and again, at anything and everything that moved anywhere near the staircase. Bullets ricocheted off the walls and the bowed, damaged ceiling. Energy weapons sizzled and cracked all around her, splashing off the floor. The Deng were shooting through the steps, too.

Then the world turned white. A blinding flash crisped blue around the edges, a breathless instant before the noise crashed across them. A massive wind scoured its way across the open cellar door. A backblast punched through the hole in the ceiling and slammed Kafari against the wall. Pain erupted like a volcano. She was still conscious, able to think and feel, and fleetingly wished she couldn’t. Everything hurt, everywhere, nerves screaming at the abuse.

She reoriented herself gradually. The stench of burnt flesh, thick smoke, and the crisped-wood smell of a housefire left her groggy on the stone floor. She coughed, jarring bruises the whole length of her body. The afterglare of that last big salvo faded, leaving the battered basement to reappear, ghostlike, as her vision recovered. Hearing took longer, but the deep tremors still shaking the bedrock gradually resolved into the sound of massive explosions from somewhere nearby.

She finally turned her head, creaking in every joint, and peered at the damage. There were bodies everywhere. Ugly, nasty black ones, covered with hair and weapons and alien blood. The stairway resembled tattered lace, with more holes than chewed-up wood. One whole side sagged where energy weapons had bitten through the supports. More frightening was the state of the ceiling. It had fractured along the lines of stress where the first Yavac had stepped on the house. The whole back half of the ceiling had broken and now sagged dangerously, creaking and groaning as the plascrete settled lower. Dust rained down in ominous spatters as the ceiling dropped a fraction of an inch every couple of heartbeats.

“We have to get out,” she shouted, trying to find the others.

President Lendan was still behind her, covered with dirt and sour sweat, bleeding down one arm.

“What?” he shouted back.

“We have to get out!” She pointed to the broken, settling slab of plascrete. “That won’t hold much longer!”

He nodded, face grey with terror and pain.

Hank lay under the sink, as cold and silent as the stone walls. His body was riddled with nearly as many holes as the staircase. She steeled herself against the flood of grief and sick terror trying to break loose and filled her pockets with spare ammo. She picked up three rifles in a matching caliber, then gingerly tested the steps. Dinny Ghamal and his mother stood at the base of the stairs, waiting for her assessment. On her way up, Dinny handed her a big knife. As she moved cautiously, step by step, Kafari used it ruthlessly, stabbing any black and hairy thing that twitched or tried to move. Burnt hair and the stink of blood set her coughing again.

As she neared the top, Kafari felt the whole stairway creak and shudder. “Keep your weight on the inside,” she called down to the others. “The outside supports are gone. You’d better come up one at a time or this whole thing is going to come down.”

She reached the top and peered cautiously over the lip, into what should have been the kitchen. There was no house above her. It was gone, scoured away by that last, white-bright blast. It looked like somebody had used a sharp knife, slicing right across the ground. Even the topsoil was gone, leaving only the blistered bones of the bedrock.

How in hell did we survive that? And what in hell was that?

The view toward Maze Gap was a landscape littered with smoking wreckage. Yavacs — and pieces of Yavacs — sent black clouds billowing into the sky. The Aminah Bridge was simply gone, as though it had never existed. The access ramps on either side of the Klameth River had melted. Wrecked cars and farm equipment had been partly melted, as well. Debris from farmhouses and other buildings lay scattered like straw. Far worse were the dead bodies. Deng infantry corpses she could look at fairly steadily, but the slaughtered livestock left her feeling sick and she couldn’t bear to let her gaze linger on the human bodies lying crumpled in the fields or jammed into the broiled wreckage of cars and farm trucks.

She swung her gaze the other way and caught her breath.

The Bolo was literally the only thing she could see. Its guns moved so fast, she couldn’t even follow the blur. Alien fighters appeared over the sandstone clifftops and exploded midflight, as fast as they popped into view. The Bolo was shooting at something on the ground, too. The thunder of its guns shook her bones. A hellish glow of light — blue, vivid red, streaks of yellow and actinic purple — blazed like balefires through the smoke. Its treads churned the fields to muck and tore the highway to shreds.

A lightweight Yavac darted for cover in Hulda Gorge and lost three of its legs before reaching safety. A blur of light the color of hell’s underbelly lanced out from the Bolo. The Yavac blew apart. Debris scattered, some of it right toward Kafari. She ducked, only to hear Abe Lendan shout up a warning.

“The whole ceiling’s coming down!”

She scrambled up, threw herself prone on the ground, and prayed — hard — that nobody up here noticed them. The president landed beside her, clutching two rifles. Aisha Ghamal and her son lunged clear of the collapsing cellar. The ground behind Kafari’s toes was crumbling, sliding away and dropping sharply downward. She slithered forward on her belly, not wanting to go down with it.

Then she narrowed her eyes, trying to see through the murk, half blinded by criss-crossed, unnatural flares of light. The landmarks she knew were obscured, but she caught fleeting glimpses of the river, a bend in the high canyon walls, the lay of the crushed road. If she was right, Alligator Deep wasn’t too far away. Unfortunately, there was a whole lot of death flying around loose, in that direction.

“We can’t make Alligator Deep! Is there any closer shelter?” she shouted into Aisha’s ear.

“Head for the cheese room!” She was pointing toward a long, low dairy barn that was — semi-miraculously — still standing. “There’s a good-sized cellar under the barn, where we age the cheese.”

Kafari nodded, then reached down deep for just a little more courage. Enough to stand up and run the hundred meters between her fragile self and shelter. Then she was on her feet and running. Her breath sobbed in her lungs. It was hard to breathe. The ground heaved and shook underfoot, jarred by the titans fighting to possess it. She had never felt so small and frail and vulnerable in her life.

Then she reached the barn, ducked around the corner, and skidded to a halt beside an ominously open door. She snatched Abe Lendan back before he could plunge through the open doorway. Signaling for silence, Kafari slid onto her belly, holding one rifle at the ready, finger on the trigger. She eased one eye around the corner, literally at ground level.

She saw legs.

Lots of them.

A few even ended in hooves. The hooves weren’t on the ground, however. They were parallel to it, dangling obscenely and starting to stiffen as rigor mortis set in. The rest of the legs were spindly, hideous things with joints in the wrong places. It was too dark in there to see just how many Deng infantry had sheltered in the Ghamals’ dairy barn. Even one would’ve been too many.

Got any bright ideas? she asked herself.

Then she spotted the answer. An unholy, evil grin twitched at her swollen lips. It was fiendish. Diabolical. She could hardly wait to see the results. Kafari tugged at Aisha’s arm, pointed to the row of white-painted boxes lined up no more than three meters from the barn wall, situated between the dairy barn and a whole orchard of Terran fruit trees.

Aisha Ghamal’s eyes widened. Then a look of utter, malicious delight transformed pain and fear and grief into an expression that sent chills down Kafari’s spine. Kafari set her guns down, needing both hands free. Aisha did the same. Dinny took charge of their arsenal, holding onto the shotgun he’d carried out of the collapsing cellar. Kafari motioned for Abe Lendan to stay where he was, then caught Aisha’s gaze and nodded.

They dove past the open doorway and hit the ground running. Something shot at them through the doorway. Heat tickled Kafari’s heels. Then Dinny’s shotgun roared. Kafari reached the nearest stack of boxes.

“Top two layers!” Aisha shouted.

Kafari nodded, grabbed the corners, and lifted. Aisha snatched up the opposite side and they ran awkwardly, toward the barn. The boxes had started to buzz. Angry honeybees were zipping out of the violated hive. Kafari felt a sting on one hand, another on her arm, a third on her neck.

Then the doorway was right beside them. “Now!

Both women heaved. The beehive sailed in through the open barn door. Kafari didn’t wait to see what happened. She was running for the next-closest beehive. It took agonizing, eternal seconds to haul another beehive back and fling it into the barn. She lost count of the number of bees that had popped her bare skin, but the screams inside the barn told her the Deng were getting a far nastier welcome than she and Aisha had received.

Without warning, hairy black bodies started to stampede out of the bee-filled barn. Running aliens formed a black tide that poured out between Kafari and Aisha on one side and Dinny and Abe Lendan on the other. Lendan tossed rifles to Kafari and Aisha over the heads of the dog-sized, panic-stricken Deng. Kafari caught the guns midair, flipped one back to Aisha, and started shooting. Savage satisfaction blazed as she shot one after another, almost arcade-style, ten points for every ugly spodder that went down. Dinny’s shotgun blew off skinny legs. Abe Lendan’s finished them off with a load of buckshot through the resultant screaming and hairy central mass.

When a final mob of close-packed Deng emerged from the barn, pursued by a cloud of angry, swarming bees, Kafari shouted, “Inside, quick!” An outbound swarm meant there were no moving targets left to attack inside the barn. Aisha and Dinny led the way. They stumbled and crawled over dead cows and dying Deng troopers, some of them still twitching and howling under a mantle of dead honeybees. Aisha jerked open a door and flung herself down a stairway. Dinny followed. Kafari pushed Abe Lendan ahead of her and kept watch for trouble, shooting a Deng infantryman whose twitches looked like an attempt to use the energy weapon still clutched in one hideous appendange. Bits of Deng blew out under the cavitation caused by five high-speed rifle slugs passing through it, then it stopped moving altogether. Kafari bolted down the stairs, yanking the door shut behind her and scraping off a few determined bees crawling down her bare arms and legs.

Then she was safely down with the others, in a room half the size of the cellar that had just collapsed. Big rounds and blocks of cheese, ranging from deep gold to pale milk in hue, sat in cheese molds or stacked on shelves, in various stages of the aging process. The air smelled wonderful, particularly after the battlefield stink they’d just fought through.

Abe Lendan swept Kafari into a bear hug, shocking her speechless, then he hugged Aisha, too, and gasped out, “Brilliant! My God, that was brilliant! I would never have thought to use honeybees as a weapon!” His eyes were shining.

Kafari laughed, the sound rusty as last year’s fencing wire. “The best Asali honey on Jefferson comes out of this canyon,” she said with a tired grin. “And Asali bees take careful handling. They’re temperamental little insects, bred to displace native pollinators. When I saw those hives, I knew we could drive the spodders out without having to shoot our way in.”

Abe Lendan took her by the shoulders and just looked at her for a moment, then said very softly, “Kafari Camar, you just earned a battlefield commission as captain of the president’s guard.”

Kafari stared, struck dumb.

President Lendan turned to Dinny and shook the boy’s hand. “Young man, that was some of the finest, level-headed shooting I have ever seen. You kept the Deng pinned down long enough to get those bees inside with ’em. I don’t think any of us would’ve survived, if you hadn’t started shooting when you did.”

The boy gained two inches in stature, right before their eyes. Kafari’s eyes misted. Aisha’s overflowed, unashamedly.

“Son,” she said in a choked voice, “I am proud to be your mama.”

“And I am proud to’ve fought beside you,” the president said quietly, meeting Aisha’s wet-eyed gaze. “I’m just a politician, but folks like you are Jefferson’s real strength. That’s what makes this world worth fighting for.” He glanced at Kafari, then. “Well, Captain, what’s our next move?”

Kafari listened to the battle overhead for a moment. It was moving steadily away from them, deeper into the canyon. The Bolo was pushing the Deng back. She’d never heard anything more glorious.

“I think we’d better wait until that fighting gets a little farther away, then skedaddle into the hills. If that dam goes…” The others sobered at once, realizing the danger was far from past. “But right now, we need to catch our breath. Maybe this is a weird time for it,” she added with a faint smile, “but that cheese sure smells good. God knows when we’ll get another chance to eat anything and it’s been a long time since my dinner last night, on that freighter.”

She’d planned on eating a big breakfast in her mother’s kitchen. She couldn’t bear thinking about home, not after the multiple layers of horrible things she’d witnessed during the past hour.

Aisha was nodding. “Good idea. Can’t nobody fight a war on an empty stomach. And we burned up a hard day’s worth of energy, already.” She hunted through the tools stored in a cabinet near the door and came up with a big carving knife, since Kafari’s was covered with drying smears of Deng blood. “There’s plenty to choose from. We got four kinds of cheddar, some nice Colby, several soft cheeses. A couple of those don’t get made anywhere but right here, varieties we came up with, ourselves. They trade real well on Mali, where a cow’d need a pressure suit just to get herself milked twice a day.”

The image set Kafari to wheezing in helpless laughter. Dinny grinned. Abe Lendan frowned slightly, trying to find the funny in it. “I’m sorry,” Kafari gasped in apology, “but after you’ve milked a cow at four-thirty on a dead-of-winter morning, when the power’s gone down on the auto-milking machines and the pails have frozen solid to the floor and the cows are really pissed about it, the idea of putting a cow in a space suit to milk her…” She broke up again, wiping tears.

Abe smiled. “Clearly, I need to remedy a serious lack in my education.”

Aisha was pulling down big bricks of aged cheeses, some of them coated with a layer of wax. She pulled some of the smaller rounds, as well, similarly coated, and even scared up a box of crackers stored in a cupboard. “Product testing,” she smiled through sweat and blood and bee-stings and grime. President Lendan grinned.

There was water, too, which they poured into empty cheese molds, as makeshift drinking cups. Kafari had never tasted anything as heavenly as Aisha Ghamal’s cheese and crackers and tepid water. While she bolted down the food, she paid careful attention to the concussions of battle raging overhead. The sound continued to recede in the direction of the dam. She was just washing down the last couple of bites when the power went down. They were plunged into utter darkness.

“Everybody out,” Kafari said grimly. “And let’s hope to hell that was just the wires coming down, not the power plant. Or the dam.”

They moved wordlessly in the dark, fumbling open the door, then snatched up weapons and as much food as they could carry strapped to their backs. Kafari led the way up the stairs, checked the barn cautiously, then poked her head through the barn door. She didn’t see anything that looked like it might shoot at them.

“Okay, troops,” she muttered. “Looks like this is it.”

Kafari headed toward the canyon wall, knowing there would be at least a few steep, narrow footpaths they could climb. There were game trails, used mostly by wildlife native to the Damisi Mountains, paths that were the favorite haunts of gollon and jaglitch. At the moment, the danger of staying on the canyon floor far outweighed any risk from Jefferson’s inimical wildlife. With any luck, all the noise would’ve driven every wild thing for kilometers around into dens and bolt-holes. Lips set in a thin, grim line, Kafari led the way up into the high country.

Chapter Seven


“Keep shooting, Sonny,” Simon said tersely.

The final Yavac Scout between themselves and the entrance to the box canyon housing Klameth Canyon Dam had just blown apart under Sonny’s guns, leaving them a clear field to hunt the sole-remaining Heavy class. “It’s in there, listening. If it hears sudden silence, followed by our treads headed its way, it’s going to blow that dam and take us out with it.”

Sonny fired his guns steadily, aiming backwards, now, blowing the remains of every Yavac still in sight into smaller and smaller shards. He took carefully aimed shots forward, as well, hitting already-demolished barns, so the glare of their energy weapons would precede them, as it would have in actual engagements against a mobile enemy. The Bolo surprised him, taking the initiative to rebroadcast recordings of Deng transmissions, shouts for help, perhaps, or curses against the humans destroying them.

And all the while, he raced forward, gaining the entrance to Dead-End Gorge, as locals called the box canyon, in less than sixty seconds. They had to plow through the wreckage of a house to reach the entrance. Simon hoped to hell they hadn’t crushed any survivors, on their way through.

A drone, launched ahead of them, poked its head around the corner, giving them a split-second view of the Yavac. It crouched like a bloated tick in front of a breathtaking fall of white concrete that splashed into the ground between towering rose-toned cliffs. Water poured down the spillway from the deep reservoir behind it. The power plant was intact, but the Yavac had destroyed the towers supporting the high-tension wires that powered the canyon’s homes, farms, and packing plants. Judging by the temperature gradiants registering on Sonny’s sensors, the destruction had just been wrought within the past two or three minutes.

“Can you kill their main guns with indirect fire, from here?”

“Not with enough certainty to cripple it before it attacks the dam.”

“Charge it, then. Fast.”

They whipped around the corner at battle speed, rattling Simon’s teeth in his jaw. Sonny’s guns were already locked on, the targeting computers having taken their data from the probe overhead. The forward Hellbore snarled, rocking them on their treads. The Yavac’s main gun blew apart, melted off at the turret. Infinite repeaters sliced off half its legs, sending it crashing awkwardly to its left side. It was firing back at them, wild shots that splashed off Sonny’s screens. Then it launched a missile, almost point-blank, at the dam. Sonny’s infinite repeaters slashed out, caught the casing scant centimeters short of the concrete wall. The warhead detonated in the air, rather than inside the concrete, as intended. A fireball scorched the dam, rising in a tongue of flame that turned the water pouring down the spillway to steam.

Then Sonny’s Hellbore barked again and the Yavac’s turret blew apart. Debris scattered, smashing into the base of the dam and the rose-colored cliff beyond. Simon winced, hoping to hell the pockmarks gouged into the concrete hadn’t cracked it too deeply. A final savage snarl from Sonny’s Hellbore and the Yavac was finished, melted to slag in the middle and smouldering on either side, legs and guns motionless except for the crackling of flames and the wavering heat of smoke rising from the ruins.

Sonny’s guns, too, fell silent. Simon dragged down air, relaxed his death grip on the command consoles under his hands. “Sonny,” he said hoarsely, “that was some hellacious fine shooting.”

“Thank you, Simon,” the Bolo said quietly. Sonny knew as well as he did just how close they’d cut it, swatting down that missile.

“Can you get a structural reading on that dam?”

“Scanning with ground-penetrating radar. I detect no deep structural cracks. The surface is pitted, but the structure is sound.”

A deep sigh gusted loose. “Oh, thank God.”

He glanced at the situation reports coming in from Jefferson’s artillery crews and nodded to himself, satisfied that the last few Yavac Scouts scattered through this maze of gorges would be shot down within a few minutes. The battle was as good as over. All that remained, now, was picking up the shattered pieces and rebuilding. He thought of Etaine, of Renny’s ghastly ashen face, thought of Kafari Camar and Abe Lendan, and wondered if he would ever see any of them again. And if he did, would any of them have the courage and the strength to start over? With warm spring sunlight and blessed silence pouring down across them, Simon couldn’t imagine a better spot in which to try. Very quietly, Sonny turned his bulk around, grinding the Yavac into the ground under his treads, and left to hunt for survivors.


There was a trail, of sorts, faint enough it barely qualified and so obscured by rising smoke she lost it and had to backtrack a couple of times to regain it. The smoke gave only the illusion of concealment, however. Kafari knew that much about high-tech warfare. Their body heat would glow like a neon beacon and motion sensors would pick up every shudder of their lungs as they struggled up the cliff face. The climb was sheer agony. Kafari had done a lot of rough camping and hiking, but she’d never made such a murderous climb in her life.

Knowing the president’s life depended on her decisions didn’t add to her peace of mind, either. She could hear soft gasps and half-muttered curses as Abe Lendan struggled up the trail behind her, wincing at each rough handhold that scraped his fingers raw. Kafari’s hands were bleeding. So were her knees and one cheek where she’d slipped down a near-vertical stretch. She’d slithered to a stop only when her feet hit Abe Lendan’s shoulders and then, only because he dug in with feet and fingertips to halt her fall. She’d lain there for a moment, shaking and gasping, then struggled up, again. The weight of the guns slung across their backs only added to the misery, but Kafari wasn’t about to leave them behind.

They’d gone maybe two hundred feet straight up when a cataclysmic roar shook them from the direction of Dead-End Gorge and the dam. Blue flame shot skyward, burning its way up out of the gorge and turning the smoke incandescent. Kafari plastered herself against the rockface, trying to sink down into it. She could hear Aisha’s voice somewhere below her, praying out loud between the booming of Olympian guns and the cracking echoes that slammed from one cliff face to another. The sound, alone, crashing down against them, was like a giant fist against their flesh. Dinny was crying, in great sobs of terror. So was Kafari.

More explosions, more smoke and hellish light boiled up from Dead-End Gorge. Kafari couldn’t tell if they were hearing only guns or if part of the noise was the dam breaking apart. If the dam went, were they high enough to avoid the flood? Kafari wasn’t sure they could climb at all, not with the whole rockface shaking under their bellies.

The sudden silence was a shock.

Kafari froze, listening, hardly daring to hope. More silence, profound and alien. From far, far away, back in the distant gorges closer to Maze Gap, she could hear a pattering of gunfire, but it was sporadic, sounding like a child’s popgun by comparison with the awesome explosions that had crushed them flat for so many terrifying minutes. Then a low rumble came from the entrance to Dead-End Gorge, vibrating the cliff under her bloodied fingertips. It didn’t feel like the concussion tremors from individual legs of a Yavac walking down the canyon. This was a continuous rumble, diffused across a broader base.

The Bolo?

God, was it the Bolo, heading back toward them?

“Lookit that!” Dinny shouted, pointing toward the smoke pouring out of Dead-End Gorge.

Kafari stared. It was a huge, dark shape, ablaze with running lights, like a big freighter moving ponderously toward spacedock. Gun snouts bristled on every surface. It passed Alligator Deep, a mere hundred meters further along than they’d managed to run, then it checked, abruptly. The moment after that, It swung around, ponderously, and headed straight toward them. Kafari gulped.

“Uh, guys, I think it’s seen us.”

That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

They watched in awed silence as the immense machine lumbered through the brimstone ruins the battle had created. Fires blazed everywhere, occluded as the Bolo interposed its bulk between blazing houses and barns and the trail they clung to, ant-like. It pulled up directly alongside, treads grinding like logs in a sawmill. Its topmost turret rose more than a hundred feet higher than their heads. Heat poured from it, from its hull and its guns and some kind of energy screen around it. That screen cut off, abruptly, with a faint crackle and pop. Then the ponderous thing stopped, no more than a long step away, wreathed in heat and smoke and an aura of dark and dangerous power.

A hatch popped open, no more than three meters from Kafari’s feet, in a flat part of the hull that she could easily have stepped onto, if she’d dared such a thing. An instant later, the Bolo’s commander scrambled up, his brave crimson uniform stained with sweat, his dark hair ruffled by the breeze trying to dispel the smoke. Kafari stared at him, locked gazes with his, feeling battered and sweat-stained and ugly as a road-killed toad. A look of wonder had come across Simon Khrustinov’s face, a wonderment that deepened when he saw who was climbing the cliff with her.

“Dear God,” he whispered, glancing into Abe Lendan’s eyes. “Mr. President, if you don’t give this young lady a medal, I sure as hell will.”

Kafari’s eyes started to burn, with more than drifting smoke.

“Miss Camar, may I offer you and your friends a ride?”

The burning in her eyes started to drip messily down her face. He reached across, steadied her as she stepped onto the Bolo’s warhull. The warmth of his hands on hers, the careful strength of his grip, holding her like fragile china, told her more than words ever could. His gaze touched something deep in her soul, something warm and alive that she had forgotten, during the past hour, that she still possessed.

“Careful,” he whispered as her knees jellied. “Steady, now. Can you climb down the ladder, there, while I help the others across?”

She nodded. He helped her through the hatch, then turned to steady Abe Lendan and Dinny and Aisha Ghamal, by turns. She had to crawl slowly down the ladder, not only because her hands were slippery with blood, but because she’d begun to shake so violently, she could barely keep her feet. When she reached bottom, she found herself in a snug compartment, dominated by viewscreens and a huge, powered chair festooned with cushioned straps. There were five smaller couches, evidently for passengers, crammed into the small space, along with storage lockers and huge viewscreens that surrounded the command chair on three sides. She stumbled toward the nearest couch and sank down onto it, shaking.

Metallic clangs reached her as the others climbed down. Abe Lendan appeared first, drooping with exhaustion. Dinny followed him down, eyes wide as he stared, enraptured, at the Bolo’s Command Compartment. Simon Khrustinov came next, bracing Aisha from beneath, so she wouldn’t fall as she shuddered her way slowly down the ladder. Kafari slid hastily to the next couch, making room for the injured woman. The Bolo’s commander eased Mrs. Ghamal onto the couch and got busy with medical equipment, which took her vitals and injected something automatically.

“The auto-doc will take very good care of you,” he said quietly, “while we’re underway. You should be feeling better shortly.”

Aisha’s expression had already relaxed as pain-killing medication spread visibly through her, allowing her to sag into near slumber within moments.

“You’ve all been exposed to radiation,” he added, studying the auto-doc. “We’ll start chelation immediately. Not to worry,” he added with a gentle smile, “we’ve improved anti-radiation therapy, over the years. We’ll cleanse your systems before any permanent damage occurs.”

That was the best news Kafari had heard all day.

Simon Khrustinov was helping the others into couches, webbing them carefully in and swinging the auto-docs into place. When it was Kafari’s turn, she surrendered gratefully to those gentle hands, sighing as a flood of medication hit her system.

“Are those bee-stings?” he asked, frowning slightly.

“They are, indeed,” President Lendan answered for her, voice filled with rust and pride. “When a Yavac stepped on our shelter, we had to clear a whole mess of Deng infantry out of a barn. She threw a couple of beehives into it. She and Aisha did, between them. What the bees didn’t sting to death, we shot down as they ran out, chased by the swarm.”

Simon Khrustinov’s smile started in his eyes and spread to the rest of him, while a slow burn of something shivery and wonderful kindled in Kafari’s middle. He said softly, “That has got to be the most creative way of killing Deng I have ever heard. Eh, Sonny?”

A metallic voice spoke from the air, causing Kafari to jump with shock. “Indeed, Simon. There is no mention of anything like it anywhere in my databases, which include several centuries’ worth of strategems for dealing with an entrenched enemy. I would like to have seen that,” it added, sounding almost wistful.

Simon Khrustinov chuckled. “So would I. That one’s going to go down in the legends of the Brigade, or I don’t know my fellow officers.”

“Welcome aboard,” the metallic voice added. “It is an honor to carry you to safety.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, voice watery and small.

Simon Khrustinov finished adjusting the auto-docs, gave Dinny Ghamal a wink and a grin that lit the boy from inside, then strapped himself into the command chair.

“Okay, Sonny, let’s see if Jefferson’s artillery has finished mopping up, yet, or if we have a few more Deng to shoot down.”

As the Bolo rumbled into motion, Kafari wanted — badly — to keep her eyes open, to watch the viewscreens and savor the way Simon Khrustinov’s hair fell in sweaty waves over the back of his collar. But the medication had spread a deep and wonderful lassitude all through her limbs and the lifting of responsibility from her shoulders, responsibility for the president’s safety and the future of her entire world, left her with drooping eyelids. She was still telling herself to stay awake when the world went blissfully dark and silent, drifting away. Kafari slipped into deep, exhausted slumber, unbroken even by nightmares.

Chapter Eight


Madison had changed.

Or maybe she had. Kafari shrugged her pack into a more comfortable position and adjusted the straps, then set out across campus. The library, with its all-important SWIFT transmitter, was nearly three kilometers from her little cubicle. She didn’t mind the walk, most days, although the weather was sometimes unpleasant and she was often achingly tired.

“Don’t worry about the fatigue,” the doctor had told her, “it’s just a byproduct of your body’s effort to repair the damage. Take it slowly and be patient. It’ll pass, soon enough, and you’ll feel more like yourself, again.”

Kafari wasn’t sure, any longer, what “feeling like herself” actually felt like. She didn’t know herself, any longer, didn’t recognize the girl who lived inside her skin, these days. She peered into the mirror, sometimes, trying to find herself, and saw only a girl with eyes like flint who sometimes, for reasons Kafari didn’t completely understand, made older, ostensibly stronger men shudder. She had lost herself, somewhere, in the smoke and the shooting and the killing.

Compared to others, Kafari had lost very little. She was far luckier than most of her friends, lucky in so many ways it was hard to count them all. Her parents had survived. They’d gone, that morning, to Grandma and Grandpa Soteris’ farm, tucked back into a corner of Seorsa Gorge. Chakula Ranch was gone, and two of her brothers with it, but everyone else in her immediate family had survived, including most of her aunts and uncles and cousins.

They had come to the hospital in Madison to cheer her up. They’d all come to Madison again, just three weeks later, when President Lendan bestowed Jefferson’s highest honors on those who had fought and, in many cases, died. Kafari’s Uncle Jasper, Commander of Jefferson’s Ground Defense Forces, had been one of thousands of soldiers killed in battle, trying to defend the northwestern portion of Madison. He had earned a Presidential Gold Medallion, which Abraham Lendan presented posthumously to Aunt Rheta and her son, Kafari’s cousin Geordi. Aunt Rheta cried the whole time. So did Kafari.

And then President Lendan had called her name, as well as Dinny and Aisha Ghamal’s. Stunned, Kafari joined Aisha and her son at the steps leading to the podium, where President Lendan waited. Kafari and Aisha clasped hands as they climbed up.

“For courage under extreme fire,” the president was saying while film crews and reporters trained their cameras on them and transmitted the images to the entire world, “for brilliant battlefield decisions that saved lives, including my own, and for the determination to keep fighting against incredible odds, it is my humble honor to award these Gold Presidential Medallions to Kafari Camar, to Aisha Ghamal, and to Dinny Ghamal. But for them, I would not be here today.”

The applause from the Joint Chamber floor washed across them as Abraham Lendan slipped the ribbon holding the medallion around her neck. As he shook her hand, he murmured for her ears alone, “Well done, my courageous captain. Very well done, indeed.”

She touched the medallion with numb fingers, watched Aisha and Dinny receive theirs, then watched Simon Khrustinov accept two medals, one for himself and one for the Bolo. Her fingers kept stroking the heavy medallion around her own neck, as though trying to convince themselves that it was really there. She hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t expected anything like it. Her eyes stung as she descended the steps and returned to her seat, engulfed by warm hugs and tearful congratulations from her entire family.

She didn’t display the medallion at her tiny apartment. It was too precious to leave it there, where locks were flimsy enough that a child of two could break the door open just by leaning on it. She’d asked her father to store it in the family’s lock-box, which they had recovered from the wreckage of their house. Her parents were gradually rebuilding Chakula Ranch and Kafari helped as much as she could. She’d felt so guilty over running off to Madison for classes, she’d almost cancelled her plans.

Her mother had taken one look at Kafari’s face after reaching that decision and stepped in, fast. “You’re not going to sell your dreams or your future short, my girl. You need that degree. And Jefferson needs psychotronic technicians and engineers. We’re a long way from the Central Worlds, out here, and we don’t have much to offer that would tempt high-tech specialists into relocating. Besides,” she winked, “your husband may decide to foot the bill for the rest of your education.”

Husband?” Kafari echoed, voice squeaking in suprise. “Mother! I’m not even dating! Who is it, you had in mind for me to marry?” Kafari was running through a mental list of men her mother might consider suitable, weighing it against a list of men Kafari thought she could tolerate, at least. She realized with a slight flutter of panic that those two lists did not converge anywhere.

Her mother only smiled in that mysterious and maddening way she had and refused to say anything further about it. Not that Kafari minded in the slightest. She was so grateful to still have her mother alive, tears threatened again. Kafari blinked and gently pushed those feelings aside, paying attention, instead, to the path she followed across campus.

Riverside University was a beautiful school, nearly a century and a quarter old. Native sandstone caught the late, westering sun in a glow like a faded echo of the sunsets that blazed across Klameth Canyon’s high cliffs. The campus stretched two full kilometers along the south bank of the Adero River, with promenades and pathways and shade trees interspersed between lecture halls, research labs, sports facilities, and dormitories. Riverside’s geographical setting provided beautiful views across the river and plenty of inviting, picturesque places to gather with friends or indulge a spot of romantic trysting.

Not that Kafari’d had much time for the latter. There were plenty of boys who’d shown interest, but Kafari wasn’t particularly interested in them. Somehow, she just couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for some barely post-pubescent kid whose sole interests were scoring on a sports field or in some girl’s bed. She had more in common with the professors than with students her own age and sometimes felt that even the professors didn’t really understand her. It was proving far harder than she’d thought, fitting back into an ordinary world, again.

Mostly, Kafari was determined to finish her degree in the shortest amount of time possible. She wanted to start earning money to support her family, rather than costing them money to support her. Thanks to the scholarship from Vishnu and the assistance she’d received as part of the new Educational Surety Loans — which helped students whose families and livelihoods had been adversely affected by the war — Kafari’s only real expenses were room and board. She’d done a lot of searching, to find the cheapest possible place in which to live, no easy feat in war-scarred Madison, where the cost of housing had nearly quadrupled. Food prices had soared six to ten times their prewar averages, which made her job at a dorm kitchen esstential, since the dorm fed her twice a day in lieu of cash wages.

As she walked, listening to the river and the wind in the trees and the snarl of traffic beyond the edge of campus, a nameless, uneasy feeling she had experienced all too often, of late, crept across her, like shadows of the advancing evening. She couldn’t identify any particular threat, but the carrying sound of voices from little gatherings scattered here and there set her teeth on edge, somehow.

As she passed knots of students, she fell into a habit she had cultivated, recently, of studying everything and everyone around her with piercing intensity. It was more than the heightened awareness she’d brought out of combat. It was a search for something in the faces of the other students, something that would explain to her why her skin occasionally crawled when she found herself in close proximity to people she didn’t know.

She was nearing the edge of campus when the voices difting on the wind rose into a sound more strident than mere conversation. Her path had taken Kafari fairly close to a large gathering that was composed, if she were reading the shadowed figures accurately, of considerably more than just students. It was nearly dark, but street lights illuminated the area fairly well. She could see kids close to her own age, but there were older people in the crowd, as well, which had swelled to something between two and three hundred by the time Kafari arrived.

Some of the shadowy figures drifting through the group were common criminals, of a type that had always found a living at Madison’s spaceport, where traffic was down to such a tiny trickle, there was virtually nobody to steal from, these days. Others in the crowd looked like seedy laborers thrown out of work, with too much time on their hands and not enough ambition to try something really back-breaking, like farming. Or terraforming land so it could be farmed. Or working long, bitterly hard shifts on the factory trawlers out harvesting the oceans for critically needed food and pharmaceuticals. As Kafari passed the outer fringes of the crowd, she caught snatches of what was being said.

“—raised our taxes and our tuition! And why? To subsidize a bunch of pig farmers who think we owe them a free ride! Just because they lost a couple of barns and a few scrawny goats!”

The venom in that voice shocked Kafari. Almost as much as the words, themselves. Nobody’s asking for a free ride, she thought, flushing with sudden, hot anger. Doesn’t this guy understand how the loans work? The money Granger families were using to rebuild, to buy new equipment, to put crops into the ground again hadn’t come from subsidies or gifts. The Joint Assembly had authorized emergency loans and the money had to be repaid, with some fairly strict forfeiture clauses if loan recipients defaulted. There was no guarantee that out-of-work Townies would even be able to buy produce and meat, come harvest time. If the government had to introduce subsistence payments on a wide scale, there was almost an ironclad guarantee they would also set price caps on produce, driving prices down and potentially bankrupting producers.

Yet here was a man, obviously a Townie, ranting about free handouts that didn’t exist. He was standing on top of something, a park bench, maybe, from which he held forth on a subject that made no sense at all to Kafari. “The government is falling all over itself, trying to rebuild a bunch of smelly farms, but nobody gives a damn about us. It isn’t fair! Our homes were burned down, our shops and factories were blown up, but is anybody scrambling to help us rebuild?”

An angry rumble from the crowd drew a deepening frown from Kafari. Didn’t that guy pay any attention to the news? Didn’t anybody else in that crowd? President Lendan had already asked the Senate and House of Law for a massive urban aid package, with at least twice the monetary value of the farm-aid legislation already passed. Klameth Canyon had been hit hard, but even Kafari understood that the damage had been piecemeal, compared with the ruthless, systematic destruction Deng Yavacs had waged through the western side of Madison. Hundreds of homes and businesses had been destroyed. Most of the civilians had survived, huddled in deep shelters below the city, the kind of shelters unavailable to farm folk, but the economy would feel the impact of lost factories and retail shops for years to come.

The urban poor, swelled by newly unemployed laborers and their families, needed help desperately. But nobody was living in the sewers and nobody was starving. Not yet, anyway. That was why the rural bill had been pushed through first. It had been utterly critical to get a new crop in the ground and a farmer couldn’t do that without money for seed and equipment. Didn’t any of these people understand what it took to fill market baskets with produce and cuts of meat?

Kafari edged her way around the crowd, tired and hungry and abruptly chilled. Full darkness had descended and a heavy mist had begun to form along the river, where snowmelt from the high Damisi ranges tore past Madison’s broad stretches of concrete and stone, warmed throughout the day by the sun. Radiant heat met cold water in a rapidly thickening fog that reminded Kafari of history lessons about old Terra, where places with exotic names like London and San Francisco were perpetually shrouded in thick blankets of mist penetrated only by something eerie and ominous-sounding called “gaslight” that never seemed effective at dispelling the darkness.

Kafari shivered as wet tendrils of grey reached out with cold, trailing fingertips and brushed her skin like something dead. She wanted, quite abruptly, to be somewhere warm and bright and cheerful, where she knew every face she was likely to meet and where she wouldn’t hear ugly voices calling her pig-farmer and questioning her right to be here. She was tired and hungry and still had a wicked, long way to walk to reach her cubicle—

“Hey!” a rough voice said behind her. “You! Ain’t I seen you someplace?”

Kafari glanced around, muscles tightening down in anticipation of trouble.

A big, hulking guy with a scraggly blond beard and fists like meathooks was glaring at her. Whoever he was, he was no student. He looked about forty years old and his clothes were sturdy, industrial-style garments like the ones factory workers generally wore. The men with him looked like more of the same. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her belly, Kafari tensed to fight or run.

“That’s the jomo bitch from the news,” one of the rough men growled, using a filthy pejorative Townies favored when referring to rural folk.

Blood stung Kafari’s face, even as her belly turned to ice.

“Hey, jomo, you gonna save me?” one of the men smirked, rubbing his crotch vulgarly.

At one time, just a few weeks previously, Kafari would have counted on the sheer number of witnesses to deter something this ugly. But the people on the edges of this particular crowd, most of them middle-aged men whose faces blurred into a pale wall of hatred, looked more inclined to help.

Kafari threw pride to the wind and ran.

Her action caught them by surprise. A low roar of anger surged behind her. She was tired, murderously so, but she had long legs and a head start. The mob surged into motion behind her, individual voices snarling at her to stop.

Stop, hell. Do they think I’m stupid?

As she neared the edge of campus, the roar of traffic ahead blended with the roar of pursuit behind. Kafari dodged out into the street, playing tag with fast-moving groundcars. The scream of brakes and curses rose behind her as the mob surged into the street. She wasn’t entirely sure where she was going. Her cubicle certainly wouldn’t offer any real protection. Neither would any of the brightly lit restaurants that hugged the edge of campus, dependent on student money for their survival. A handful of waitresses and short-order cooks would be of no help whatsoever against a blood-crazed mob of unemployed factory workers. Kafari’s strength was beginning to flag as physical exertion and the beginnings of hopelessness drained her burst of energy.

There wasn’t a police officer or soldier in sight, naturally.

She staggered forward, tearing at the catches on her backpack so she wouldn’t have to carry its weight any farther, and reached the corner where her street bisected the larger boulevard. Kafari was about to sling the backpack away when an aircar emerged from her street, skimming low. It halted literally right in front of her. The hatch popped open. Simon Khrustinov leaned across, holding out one hand. Kafari sobbed out something incoherent as she scrambled up, catching hold of a hand that lifted her with astonishing ease. She collapsed onto the passenger’s seat. He yanked her across, feet sliding in through the open door, then shot the aircar skyward in a move that shoved her down against his knees.

The mob surged around the spot where she’d just been standing, snarling curses at them. Simon punched controls that slammed the hatch closed, then spoke tersely into the radio. “Major Khrustinov here. There’s an unholy riot in progress at Meridian and Twelfth. You’d better get an armed riot control unit out here, stat. They’re starting to loot stores,” he added in a grim voice.

Kafari started to shake as reaction set in.

A warm hand came to rest on her hair. “Do you need a doctor?”

She shook her head, gulping down lungfuls of air.

“Thank God.” Quiet, full of emotion she hadn’t expected to hear.

He was helping her sit up, disentangling her fingers from their death grip on his shirt and the straps to her backpack, which lay awkwardly between his feet. “Easy,” he murmured, turning her to sit in the passenger’s seat. She was shaking so violently she couldn’t even manage the safety straps. He fastened them gently around her, then produced a box of tissues from a console and pushed a wad of them into her hands. She tried to blot the tears dry, but couldn’t seem to turn the faucet off.

“Th-they wanted to h-hurt me,” she gulped.


“D-don’t know. Called me a filthy j-jomo…”

He frowned. “A what?”

She tried to explain, got herself tangled up in the differences between Granger and Townie societies, finally managed to make him understand that the term was a crude insult derived from an African word for farmers. Anger turned his face to cut marble. “I see,” he said quietly, voice dangerous. “Could you identify any of them?”

She shuddered. Face those animals again? Kafari was no coward, but the thought of a police station, formal charges, a trial with the press crawling all over her left her trembling violently again. “I’d rather not try.”

A muscle jumped in his jaw. But all he said was, “All right. I’m going to take you someplace quiet and safe for a while.”

He touched controls and the aircar moved sedately westward above the rooftops. Madison was beautiful at night, Kafari realized as her pulse slowed and the jagged breaths tearing through her calmed down to mere gulps. She blotted her eyes again, blew her nose inelegantly, managed to regain control of her fractured emotions.

“Where were you, just now?” she finally asked.

A tiny smile flickered into existence. “Parked outside your apartment.”

She blinked in surprise, finally managed to ask, “Why?”

His glance flicked across to meet hers, even as a wry smile touched his mobile mouth, softening the anger. “Actually, I was planning on asking you a fairly important question.”

Her eyes widened. “You were?” Then, apprehensively, “What?”

“Miss Camar, would you do me the honor of dining with me this evening?”

She surprised herself by smiling. “I’d love to.” Then she realized with dismay what she must look like, covered with fear sweat, eyes red and streaming. She cleared her throat. “I’m not really dressed for it.”

“Somehow, I don’t think the chef will mind.”

“The chef?” That sounded expensive.

“Well, the cook, anyway.”

They were still heading west, leaving the outskirts of Madison behind.

“Uh, where’s the restaurant?” she asked, craning around to peer back at the receding lights.

His lips tightened. “Actually, it’s in the middle of that nastiness back there. I don’t have any intention of keeping the reservation. I hope you don’t mind a couple of steaks on the grill? I installed it yesterday, when they finished putting in the patio behind my quarters.”

Kafari blurted out the first, idiotic thing that came to mind. “You can cook?”

Grimness vanished, dispelled by a boyish grin. “Well, yes. It was learn to cook or resign myself to years of eating prepackaged glop. Have you ever eaten what the Concordiat fondly refers to as field rations?”

She shook her head.

“Consider yourself fortunate.” His eyes had begun to twinkle, seriously interfering with Kafari’s ability to breathe. Simon Khrustinov had remarkable eyes, full of shadows and mysteries, yet clear as a summer sky and just as vividly blue. They caught the glow from the control panel lights like radiant stars. The darkness surrounding the aircar wrapped around them like velvet, a private and wonderfully safe darkness that carried her away from danger and fear and the uncertainty that had lain like shadows across her soul since the day of her return home from Vishnu. Somehow, it seemed very natural to find herself alone with this man, heading toward his kitchen for a meal he intended to prepare with his own hands.

And wonderful hands they were, too, she realized, gulping a little unsteadily as she studied them. They rested on the aircar’s controls with quiet ease. Strong hands, large and manly, with a sprinkling of dark hair across them. Crisp shirt cuffs hid his wrists from view. His uniform was missing, tonight, replaced by civilian shirt and slacks of a subdued, conservative cut. His clothes were sturdy, made of high-quality fabric that had been loomed somewhere very far from Jefferson. Unless she were much mistaken, the shirt was real Terran silk, worth almost as much as her parents’ entire farm. Before the Deng razed it.

It shook her, that he’d put on such clothes to ask her to dinner.

The lights of Nineveh Base appeared across the Adero floodplain. Kafari had never been onto the base, although her uncle Jasper had been stationed there for a while. Her throat tightened. She blinked burning saltwater, then leaned forward with a soft gasp as the aircar swung toward one edge of the base.

A huge, black shadow loomed against the lights. The Bolo. Parked quietly at the end of what looked like a very new street, next to a low building that had obviously been finished in just the last few days. There wasn’t any landscaping at all, just a broad stretch of mud bisected by a concrete walkway that led from a wide landing pad to the front door. A much larger adjacent building, clearly designed to house the immense machine, stood open to the sky, only partially complete.

The aircar settled to the landing pad and rolled neatly to a halt beside the Bolo’s treads, which dwarfed their transport so completely, Kafari felt like a midget. She couldn’t even see the whole Bolo from this angle. Simon switched off controls, then popped the hatches, jogging around to assist her with antique, off-world courtesy that surprised her. The touch of his hand on hers sent a tingle straight up her arm. A tremor hit her knees. The smile that blazed in his eyes was incendiary. What it wrought on Kafari’s jangled insides was probably illegal on some worlds.

He offered his arm in a gallant gesture she’d seen only in movies. She laid an unsteady hand on the crook of his arm, smiling at her escort as he led the way past the Bolo’s silent guns. She craned her neck to peer up at the turrets and weapons ports high above. It was hard to realize that she’d actually been inside it. Her memory went blurry, right about the time she’d sagged into that couch, with medication pumping into her system from the auto-doc. She had no memory at all of arriving at the hospital in Madison. She’d returned to consciousness to find her family surrounding her bed, waiting for her to open her eyes.

Simon Khrustinov followed her stare. “Sonny,” he said, addressing the immense machine, “you remember Miss Camar?”

“Indeed I do, Simon. Good evening, Miss Camar. It is a pleasure to see you again. You look a great deal better.”

She cleared her throat, awed by the sound of the Bolo’s metallic voice and startled by its comments. “Good evening. Thank you. I am better.”

“I am pleased the bee-stings healed without scars,” the Bolo added. “I have studied the files posted on Jefferson’s planetary datanet detailing the habits and temperament of Asali bees. An excellent choice of weapon, under the circumstances. It is fortunate the swarm attacked the Deng, rather than you and your companions.”

Kafari stared, astonished. “Well,” she managed after a moment, “they pretty much go after whatever’s closest to the hive, especially if it’s a moving target. Aisha and I were moving, but we weren’t close to the hives when they broke open. The Deng were. And once those swarms got loose, the Deng were moving a whole lot faster than we were.”

It took a moment for Kafari to realize what the rusty, metallic sound issuing from the speakers was. It was the Bolo’s voice, chuckling. It sounded like a bucket full of rusted metal tossed down a steel stairway. She grinned, despite the prickle of gooseflesh. The Bolo had a sense of humor! Simon was grinning, too, openly delighted that she’d understood that gawdawful sound for what it was.

“Okay, Sonny, enough chit-chat for now,” the officer said, smiling. “I promised to make dinner for Miss Camar.” The smile vanished as a darker thought moved visibly behind his eyes. “Check the news from Madison, please. There’s an ugly riot underway. I want to know when it’s been contained and who to see about giving eyewitness testimony.”

When Kafari stiffened, he glanced into her eyes and shook his head slightly, reassuring her. “Your name won’t come into it. Mostly I want to know who the ringleaders were and what was behind it.”

Kafari sighed. “I can tell you some of that. I stumbled into a big crowd. Two, maybe three hundred people. They were listening to a guy about my age. He was ranting about tuition hikes and government aid to rebuild farms, but not factories and shops. It didn’t make much sense, not with the urban restoration package President Lendan’s asked for, but the crowd was eating it up.” She shivered. “Some of them were students, but there were a lot of factory workers, too. Laborers thrown out of work, men in their thirties and forties. Those were the ones chasing me.”

“And using racist vulgarities,” Simon added darkly. “Sonny, start paying attention to the chat boards on the datanet. I want to know a whole lot more about what’s going on, here. We won the war. I’d just as soon we didn’t lose the peace.”

“Understood, Simon.”

The Bolo fell ominously silent. Kafari shivered.

“Let’s get you inside,” Simon said at once, escorting her across the walkway to his front door. He palmed the lock open, then switched on lights in his private quarters. The room was heartlessly plain, new enough he hadn’t had much time to decorate. The furniture was military issue, sturdy and functional, but not particularly fashionable. It didn’t matter. It was quiet and unbelievably safe, probably the safest spot on Jefferson, guarded by the Bolo’s guns. She started to relax. Simon turned on music, something strange and unfamiliar, hinting at far-away worlds Kafari could only dimly imagine. It was beautiful, soothing.

“Can I get you something to drink while I start cooking? I’ve laid in a supply of local stuff. Ales, wines, some kind of tea that I can’t figure out what it’s made from, but I like it. Tastes kind of… tangy-sweet, like fruit with a kick. It’s great over ice.”

Kafari smiled. “Sounds like felseh. That would be wonderful.”

He poured two glasses from a pitcher in his refrigerator, then suggested she make herself comfortable in the living room. “Don’t be silly,” she said, downing half the glass in one thirsty gulp. “You do the steaks and I’ll do the veggies. What’ve you got?”

He rummaged, came up with several bags of frozen stuff and even fresh corn flown in from the one of the farms in the southern hemisphere. The southern harvests were small, given the limited amount of recently terraformed acreage, but they provided fresh food for those able to afford it. Kafari smiled. “How about corn and a Klameth Canyon medley?”

Simon grinned. “Sounds fabulous, whatever it is. I’ll light the grill.”

He vanished through a rear door while Kafari found the disposal bin and shucked corn. She found pans, switched on the range, got things started, and poured more tea, downing it thirstily. She found ingredients for biscuits and whipped up a batch, then popped them into the oven. A bottle of red wine she discovered in the pantry would go well with steak. She opened it to breathe and set the table, which had been tucked into one corner of the kitchen. Simon’s quarters were small enough to be comfortable and convenient, large enough to avoid feeling cramped. The more she listened to his music, the more she liked it.

He came in, sniffed appreciatively. “What’s that wonderful smell?”


“I didn’t have any.”

She grinned. “You do now.”

“Wow! You can bake? From scratch?”

She grinned. “Some farmer’s daughter I’d be, if I couldn’t.”

“What else can you do? Besides kill Deng and rescue planetary heads of state and whip up a batch of biscuits?”

She blushed. “Not a lot, I guess. I can hunt and fish and I know every game trail through this stretch of the Damisi. I can sew, sort of. Nothing fancy, but I can fix damage involving torn seams and I can make play clothes. Simple stuff. I’m pretty good at psychotronic programming,” she added. “Nothing as sophisticated as your Bolo, but I’m qualified to handle urban traffic-control systems, factory ’bots, mining equipment, high-tech ag engineering systems, that kind of thing.”

“A lady with multiple talents.” Simon smiled, rescuing the steaks from a drawer in the refrigerator and dumping a bottle of some kind of marinade over them. He was stabbing the meat with a fork to let the sauce soak deep. Kafari wondered what the marinade was, since the bottle was a reusable one designed for something homemade, not a store-bought brand.

“What about you?” she asked. “What else can you do, besides defend worlds, run a Bolo, rescue damsels in distress, and cook?”

“Hmm… I like to read history, but I’m not what you’d call a historian. I tried learning to paint, when I was a kid, but I didn’t have much talent for it. Can’t hold a tune to save my backside, but I like music.” He grinned, suddenly and boyishly. “I can do a few Russian folk dances.”

Really?” Kafari was impressed. “All those knee-popping kicks and stuff?”

He chuckled. “Yep. Even those. Mind you, it takes a bit of limbering up, but it’s fantastic exercise. Really gets the blood pumping. Do you dance?” he asked, tossing the marinade bottle into the sink and hunting up a long-handled spatula.

“A little,” Kafari admitted, following him outside when he headed toward the grill. The night was lovely, the darkness intimate, the stars brilliant despite the lights from Nineveh Base. The steaks sizzled when Simon dropped them onto the grill. “I learned a couple of traditional African dances from Dad, and Grandma Soteris taught me some Greek dances when I was a kid. There are always big community dances and fairs, once the harvest is in. Not only in Klameth Canyon, but in most Granger communities. Tradition’s important to us. Not just traditional ways of farming, but family traditions, too. Stories and dances, folk arts and handicrafts, languages and literature and music. Even a way of looking at things that’s tied to relying on the land.”

Simon set the long-handled spatula aside and gazed into the darkness for a few moments, lost in thoughts that left him looking inexpressibly lonely. “That’s nice,” he finally said. An emotion that Kafari eventually identified as yearning filled his voice as he added, “I’ve never belonged anywhere, that way. I study Russian history and listen to Russian music, so I’ll have some kind of connection with my ancestors, but I don’t have a family to share it with.”

Kafari hesitated, then decided to ask, anyway. “What happened to them?”

“My parents and sister were killed in the Quern War. I didn’t have any other family, nothing to tie me to any particular place. Pretty much the only thing I wanted was to go away and never come back. So I looked up the Concordiat’s recruiter and applied for training as a Bolo commander. I was eighteen, then. That was a long time ago,” he added softly, still staring into the velvety darkness beyond his patio.

“You never found anyone else?”

In the space of one heartbeat, his whole body turned to rigid steel. Kafari wanted to kick herself all the way back to Madison. Then a deep, slow-motion shudder went through him and his muscles softened again into human flesh. “Yes. I did. In a way.”

“You lost them, though, didn’t you? On Etaine?”

She thought for a long moment that he didn’t intend to answer. Then he started to speak, voice hushed in the cool springtime darkness. “Her name was Renny…” That he had loved her was obvious. That she had blamed him was incomprehensible. Kafari’s brothers lay under deep-piled rubble, where part of the cliff had come down onto the house. There was very little doubt that the Bolo’s guns had wrought much of the damage. Parts of a Yavac could be seen, jutting up through the jumbled piles of stone, very near what would have been the front porch.

But it didn’t matter whether the Yavac’s guns or the Bolo’s had wrought the actual fatal blows. Terms like friendly fire and collateral damage were — to Kafari, anyway — meaningless. If the Deng had not invaded, her brothers would still be alive. The Deng had killed them, no matter who had fired the actual shots. When she tried to tell him that, Simon Khrustinov stared into her eyes for long moments.

Then he whispered, “You are a remarkable woman, Kafari Camar.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m just a Jeffersonian.”

The touch of his fingertips on her face, tracing the shape of nose and cheek and brow, left shivers coursing through her. “I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as ‘just a Jeffersonian.’ ” He smiled, then. “I’d better turn those steaks before they’re ruined.”

That was just as well, since Kafari didn’t think she’d have been able to say two coherent words together, in the wake of that brief but devastating touch. They were both silent for several long moments, Simon watching the steaks, Kafari watching Simon. The sizzle of dripping fat served as counterpoint to the softer rustle of wind in the meadow grasses surrounding Nineveh Base. The mouth-watering scent reminded Kafari that hours had passed since her hastily eaten lunch at the dorm kitchen. The buzz of the oven timer sent Kafari scooting back into the kitchen to test the biscuits. Her critical eye and the golden brown color, plus years of experience in a farm kitchen, told Kafari they were done.

She snagged a bowl and slid the biscuits into it, using a small towel to cover them, and rummaged until she found butter. No cane syrup or honey, but they ought to be tasty enough. Simon carried in the steaks, Kafari fished out the corn and dumped the veggies into another bowl, then they sat down. Simon poured the wine, tasting it expertly before filling Kafari’s glass.

“Ma’am, this looks and smells like some kind of wonderful.”

She smiled and passed the butter. “How’d the bake turn out?”

He broke open one fluffy biscuit, smeared butter, and tasted. Then closed his eyes and let go a sound that was more groan than sigh. “Oh… my… God…”

Kafari grinned. “I think that’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever heard a man give somebody’s cooking.”

Simon opened his eyes and said, “Miss Camar, what I do is called cooking. This,” he waved the remains of his biscuit, “is artistry.”

“Thank you, Major Khrustinov.” She smiled. “Maybe we could graduate to first names? I feel like I’m in grammar school, again.”

The smile started in his eyes and spread to the whole of his body. “You sure don’t look like a school girl, Kafari.”

At the moment, with those remarkable eyes touching places inside that she hadn’t even known existed, Kafari didn’t feel much like a school girl, either. She bent over her steak, concentrating on knife and fork to regain her composure. The first bite caused her to roll her eyes upwards. “Oh, wow…” She chewed appreciatively. “What is that sauce?”

He grinned. “It’s a secret recipe. Something I threw together out of sheer necessity, trying to make military rations palatable.”

“Huh. Bottle this stuff and sell it and your fortune’s made. I’m not kidding. This is wonderful.

They fell silent for several minutes, applying themselves to the meal. Simon’s wine, a local vintage, was a perfect complement to the steak. Kafari hadn’t eaten this well since her last visit home from Vishnu, more than a year previously. Beautiful music washed through her awareness, soothing and lovely. She was aware of Simon, as well, with every nerve ending, every pore of her skin. She wanted more of this. Quiet evenings spent with someone special, enjoying good conversation, good food jointly prepared.

And she wanted more — much more — of Simon. More of his smiles, his remarkable eyes peering into the depths of her soul, more of the reasons for the shadows in those eyes, more of the teasing and laughter, and more — she had to gulp at the mere thought — of those incredible hands touching her.

The strength of her wanting was new to Kafari’s life, new and a little frightening. She hadn’t ever wanted anyone like this, never in her life. It scared her, made her feel shivery and strange, made her wonder if these feelings had always lain dormant inside her, hidden away until the right man came along, or if the war had somehow triggered them, changing her at a core level she didn’t want to probe too deeply.

Mostly, she wanted, hoped — prayed — that Simon would touch her again.

He produced ice cream for dessert, then they washed dishes in companionable silence. When the last plate and pan had been wiped down and put away and the last crumbs had been swept away from counter and tabletop, leaving the kitchen gleaming again, Simon refilled their wine glasses and they moved into the living room.

“Oh, that was good,” Kafari sighed, settling into the sofa.

“Yes,” he agreed softly, sitting beside her, “it was.”

Somehow, she didn’t think he was talking about the meal. After a moment’s reflection, Kafari realized she hadn’t been, either. She wasn’t sure how to proceed from here, felt abruptly awkward and shy. The Bolo saved her from tongue-tied silence.

“Simon,” it said, overriding the music, “the riot has been contained. Madison police have arrested one hundred fifty-three people. Residences and businesses have been damaged in an area encompassing ten city blocks. The alleged ringleader is a student by the name of Vittori Santorini. The rally he conducted was entirely lawful. He is not in custody and will not be charged, as he did not participate in the actual riot. I have scanned the datanet as directed. He maintains a site that advocates abolition of special aid to farmers and ranchers, stronger environmental-protection legislation, and cost-of-living subsidies for the urban poor. His chat board averages three hundred seventeen posts a day and his newsletter has ten thousand fifty-three subscribers, ninety-eight percent of whom have joined within the past three point two weeks.”

Simon whistled softly. “That’s a lot of activity in a very short time. This guy bears watching. Sonny, monitor his actions, please, until further notice. Discreetly, mind.”

“Understood, Simon.”

“Do you have any visuals of him?”

The viewscreen on the entertainment center crackled to life. Kafari recognized him at once. He was young, not more than twenty. His hair was dark, his skin pale as curdled milk. His eyes, a nearly transparent blue that might have looked glacial, in another face, had a fire-eaten look about them. Shudders crawled down Kafari’s back.

Simon looked down into her eyes. “That’s the guy you saw?”

Kafari nodded. “There’s something… not quite right, about him. His rhetoric didn’t make any logical sense, but those people were spellbound.”

“Charismatic fanatics are always dangerous. All right, Sonny, I’ve seen enough for one night. Thanks.”

“Of course, Simon.” The viewscreen went dark.

Kafari shivered again. Simon hesitated, then slid an arm around her shoulders. Kafari leaned against him, soaking up the warmth and basking in a feeling of safety that drove away the cold waves coursing through her. A moment later, warm lips touched her hair. She tilted her face up, drowned in the bottomless depths of those shadowed eyes. Then he was kissing her, gently at first, then with hard hunger. His hands moved across her, those beautiful hands, caressing, sliding around to cup and stroke, the heat of his fingers on her flesh setting her ablaze from within. Kafari whimpered, guiding his fingers to tweak one nipple. He fumbled with buttons and so did she.

There were scars under his shirt, old scars, jagged and white with age. He sat very still as she traced her fingertips across them, trailing the width of his chest and down one arm. For a long moment, Simon just looked at her, eyes smouldering, breaths unsteady and rushed. “My God,” he whispered. “You are so beautiful it hurts…” He closed his eyes, clearly fighting for control. Eyes still closed, he said raggedly, “Not here. Not like this. You’re too precious to just take you on a couch, like some rutting teenager with no control.”

Kafari’s eyes burned and her throat closed. Nobody had ever said anything half so beautiful to her, ever. She didn’t think anyone ever could. “Why don’t—” she whispered, then had to stop and swallow, hard. She tried again. “Why don’t we move somewhere else, then?”

He opened his eyes, gazed into hers for a long time. “You’re sure about that?” he finally asked, voice strained.

She nodded, not trusting hers.

The slow smile in his eyes would have dimmed the noonday sun. A moment later she was in his arms. He swung her up, off the couch, carried her into his bedroom, went to the bed with her. The feel of his body against her — and aeons later, inside her — was the most beautiful sensation she had ever felt. Tears came to her eyes as she arched against him, crying out softly and then more urgently. She wanted him, needed him, knew that she would go on needing him for as long as they both continued to breathe. In the shuddering aftermath, he simply closed his arms around her and held on, like a little boy seeking safety in a storm. She wrapped her arms around him, cradled his head against her bosom, and held him while he slept.

Kafari kissed his dark, sweat-dampened hair and knew that whatever happened tomorrow, nothing in her life would ever be the same, again. And this time, the difference between then and now was so wonderfully sweet, she lay awake for a long, long time, just savoring it.


Simon was nervous. So nervous, he had to dry both palms against his uniform trousers. It was, Kafari had assured him, a small wedding — small, at least, by Granger standards — but the crowd on Balthazar and Maarifa Soteris’ front lawn looked to Simon like an entire small town had emptied itself for the occasion. Just family, huh? he thought, staring at the sea of strangers who’d come to witness their vows. He hadn’t realized just how big a family he was about to acquire.

Wind ruffled his hair and sighed through the treetops. The sunlight poured down the high, rose-colored cliffs like warmed honey, spilling joyously across green fields and orchards heavy with fruit and half-grown calves playing chase in the nearest pasture. Simon breathed in the scent of flowers and living, growing things all around him… then Kafari appeared and everything else faded from his awareness. His throat and groin tightened, just looking at her. The cream-colored dress she wore set her skin aglow. Tiny wildflowers adorned her hair. A strand of pearls, harvested from her family’s own ponds, lay nestled against her throat, their luster dim compared with the brilliance of her eyes as she caught sight of him.

She moved slowly forward, one hand resting lightly on her father’s arm. Simon swallowed hard. He still couldn’t quite believe she’d said yes. The welcome her family had given him still astonished Simon. He was an outsider, totally unfamiliar with their customs, yet they had made him one of them from the very beginning, greeting him with such warmth, he knew that finally, after a lifetime of solitude, he had found a place to call home. These people would be his family, in a way unique in his whole life.

Kafari’s mother watched through streaming eyes as her daughter moved slowly between the rows of chairs toward him. Iva Soteris Camar was a small woman, slender and shorter than her daughter, with the kind of face Helen of Troy must have possessed by the end of the Trojan War, the beauty that had launched a thousand ships tempered by the agonies of war. She had lost two sons, had lost cousins and other relatives, neighbors and close friends. The pain of those losses was etched into her face, but her chin was up and the joy of seeing her daughter wed shone in her eyes, alongside the grief that her family was not complete, to watch it with her.

Simon was a little in awe of Iva Camar.

As for Zak Camar… His was a face carved by wind and sunlight and adversity, but there were laugh lines, as well, and a solid strength that reminded Simon of trees whose gnarled trunks had seen five hundred years pass by since their roots had first dug into the ground. At their first meeting, Zak Camar had sized up Simon through hooded eyes, apparently possessing an instinctual radar that told him “this man’s sleeping with your little girl — and if he doesn’t measure up, he’s gonna walk off this farm missing some body parts.” Zak Camar’s good opinion meant rather a lot to Simon, and not just because he wanted his body to remain intact.

Zak’s dark eyes were suspiciously moist as he placed Kafari’s hand in Simon’s. Her fingers trembled, but her smile was radiant, hitting Simon like a blow to the gut. They turned to face the officiant, a tall, broad woman with dark eyes and a gentle smile. She spoke softly, but her voice carried a long way.

“We are here today to share the creation of a new family,” she began, “a family that will forever be a part of the families from which it is descended. Some of those folks are here today and share this creation joyously. Some of them aren’t, except in spirit and memory, folks who defended this land we stand on and folks who defended worlds so far away, we can’t even see their stars, at night.”

Simon’s throat tightened savagely. He hadn’t known she was going to say that.

Kafari’s fingers tightened against his, causing his eyes to burn even as a wave of love rolled through him. The officiant paused, as though making sure he was all right before she continued, then nodded to herself and went on.

“All these families have different customs, different beliefs, different ways of worshiping, but they all share one thing in common. A belief that the joining of a man and woman is a sacred thing, to be done solemnly with proper ceremony, and joyously, with proper celebration. That’s why we’re here today, for the ceremony and the celebration as this man, Simon Khrustinov, and this woman, Kafari Camar, create a new family together.” In a soft whisper, she asked, “You got the rings, son?”

Simon dug into the breast pocket of his uniform, produced the twin rings. He handed one to Kafari, held the other in unsteady fingertips.

“All right, son, repeat after me…”

Simon spoke the words in a hushed voice, to the woman who constituted Simon’s whole universe in that moment. “I, Simon Khrustinov, do vow that I will love and guard you, provide for you and our children whether rich or poor, will care for you in sickness and health, will forsake all others and seek only you, so long as our lives endure.”

Tears shone in Kafari’s eyes as she, too, repeated the vow. Simon slipped the ring onto her finger, his voice almost a whisper. “Let all who see this ring know that you are now and forever my wife, Kafari Khrustinova.”

“And let all who see this ring,” Kafari murmured, slipping the matching band onto his finger, “know that you are now and forever my husband, Simon Khrustinov.”

Simon lost himself in the warmth of her eyes, was jolted out of the reverie when the officiant chuckled and said, “You can kiss her whenever you like, son.”

He groaned aloud and pulled her close, kissed her gently, was shocked by the roar from the watchers as Kafari’s family applauded and whistled and tossed hats into the air and discharged what sounded like gunfire, but might have been only fireworks. Kafari broke loose just long enough to grin up at him. She winked. “You’re well and truly caught, now, husband. There’s no wriggling off this hook.”

“Huh. You just try getting rid of this fish.”

She kissed him again, then they turned and found Kafari’s parents holding a broom decorated with fluttering ribbons and flowers, laid horizontally across the aisle between the chairs. They ran forward, hands joined, and Kafari’s parents lowered the broom to the ground just as they reached it. They jumped the broomstick and ran a gauntlet of wildflowers and grain tossed at them from either side of the aisle. By the time they reached the end, they were laughing like children. The guests filed past in an endless parade, with hugs and handshakes and words of welcome. Simon lost count of them early on, knew it would take weeks just to memorize names and faces of the people who now constituted his relatives.

By the time the last guest had filed past, Simon’s hand felt like it had been mauled, but he couldn’t stop grinning. They followed Kafari’s parents and grandparents into the side yard, where Grandma and Grandpa Soteris had set up tables full of food. Tubs full of ice cooled down bottles of everything from local beer and wine to fruity carbonated drinks and a couple of things Simon had never even heard of, but which tasted great. A grassy area big enough for Sonny’s immense warhull had been marked off with fluttering ribbons. Music floated on the warm summer wind. Kafari led Simon out into the middle of the grassy dance floor and they began their wedding dance.

For the first verse, they danced alone. Then other couples joined them and pretty soon, the whole space was filled. After their first dance together, Zak Camar danced with Kafari and Simon danced with Iva, then the group dances began, complex circle dances and call-sets that Simon struggled through with much embarrassment and lots of good-natured laughter, since even the five-year-olds knew the steps better than he did. They finally broke away and gulped down mouthfuls of some of the best food Simon had tasted on any world. They fed one another while family members took photos and ran mini vid-cams, immortalizing their first meal together.

They danced some more, then went through the obligatory cake-cutting, champagne toast from a double cup, bouquet toss. Simon would have preferred — vastly — to spend the next week or so opening the mountain of wedding gifts piled onto six groaning tables. Unfortunately, Granger custom called for the bride and groom to open everything while everyone was there. It was considered an insult not to open a gift immediately.

So he and Kafari settled onto chairs and started opening packages, while Iva Camar jotted down descriptions of each gift alongside the names of those to be thanked. Simon had never heard the superstition that the number of ribbons broken while opening boxes presaged the number of children to be born into the new family. Naturally, no one told him until he had a pile of broken ribbons deep enough to cover both feet.

“You’re kidding?” he said faintly when one of the aunts — he couldn’t remember which — finally broke the news.

Laughter enfolded them, warm and full of sympathy.

Kafari just grinned. Notably, there wasn’t a single broken ribbon in her pile. She winked as if to say, “I knew you’d break quite enough for the both of us, dear,” and kept opening packages. By the time they’d finished, the afternoon was far enough advanced, it was time to begin the wedding supper. The hors d’oeuvres had been whisked away, replaced by steaming dishes that sent mouth-watering aromas wafting through the slanting afternoon sunlight. To his surprise, Simon was escorted to a set of tables reserved exclusively for the men of the family, while the women grouped around another cluster of tables, and the children occupied a third set, with strategically placed teenagers to supervise the toddlers and settle disputes amongst the little ones.

Simon found himself sitting beween Zak Camar and Balthazar Soteris. Some sort of blessing was spoken out by Balthazar, in a language that sounded to Simon like genuine Greek, then the dishes were passed around and they dug in with hearty appetites. At length, Balthazar broke the companionable silence.

“You’ll be living in your quarters at Nineveh Base?”

Simon nodded, chewing and swallowing before he answered. “Yes. There’s plenty of room. If necessary, I can build an extension to add new rooms.”

“You can afford that?”

Simon glanced into the tough old man’s eyes, trying to decide what question, precisely, he had asked. “If I have to, yes. My salary comes directly from the Brigade, not Jefferson’s planetary coffers, for one thing. The government’s obligated under treaty to provide me with suitable quarters, but if things look too grim to justify using Jefferson’s public funds to expand my quarters — and just now, I’m afraid things don’t look good at all — I certainly have the means to build a nursery or two, myself.”

Balthazar and Zak exchanged a long glance that told Simon he’d succeeded in answering the right question, then Zak said, “From where we sit, things look mighty grim. If we don’t get weather satellites up, at least, before harvest time, we could lose a lot of crops to bad weather. And the summer storm season’s coming, which could spell trouble fast, if we can’t properly track those storms.”

Simon nodded, wondering how much to say, then decided these folks ought to know at least some of the raw truth. “From a system-defense standpoint, if we don’t replace the warning and defense platforms the Deng blew out of orbit, we could get caught with our shorts down, even worse this time. The Deng would be bad enough, coming through the Void again. God help us if the Melconians decide to come calling.”

The men exchanged glances that said, “Yep, we figured as much,” dark glances that appreciated the confirmation of their own take on the situation, even as those glances slid inevitably to the womenfolk and children at the other tables. Simon’s glance rested on Kafari, radiant as she talked with her mother and aunts and cousins, and felt a chill touch his own heart. He was no stranger to that kind of fear, but for once in his life, he was in the midst of others who felt exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reasons — and for exactly the same people, as well. It was a kind of belonging new to him, a bittersweet feeling that lessened his loneliness while giving him even more people to worry about defending — and to hurt for, if things turned bad, again.

Zak Camar, whose eyes reflected the pain of losing two sons, broke the dark and ugly silence. “We got more to worry about than just the satellites and the weather. No sense hiding from a truth, just because it smells like a dead jaglitch rotting in the sun. Taxes are up, too high by a long shot, to pay for all the rebuilding. We have more than a million people out of work. And we’ve got more companies going belly up, every day. A business can’t make payroll if it can’t manufacture or obtain raw materials or sell what’s sitting in its warehouses.”

Balthazar Soteris added in a harsh voice, “And a worker laid off and scraping by on government subsistence can’t afford what we’ll have to charge for the crops in those fields, come the harvest.” He nodded toward the Soteris fields, green and lovely beyond the supper tables and dance floor. “Not if we hope to have enough money to plant again next year and put more acreage into terraforming. The government’s already depleted almost a quarter of the food reserves in the emergency system, reserves it took several years to build. We can’t feed the whole population of this planet indefinitely on the reserves. We have to terraform more acreage, particularly in the southern hemisphere, where the growing season’s timed to put fresh produce on the tables during winter up here.”

Zak added quietly, “We’re short on agricultural labor, too. If we don’t start sending some of those unemployed factory workers into the fields…” He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to, since every man at this large table knew exactly what would happen if there weren’t enough workers to plant and harvest. Mechanical harvesters were fine, if you had them, but the Deng had blown most of them to slag. Simon eyed the heavily laden tables and wondered how many folks would be tightening their belts this winter. He was abruptly very glad his bride was related to farmers. Unless the government was forced into the drastic move of confiscating private food stores for redistribution, at least his wife and their children wouldn’t run the risk of severe rationing that the unemployed townsfolk could well face.

Simon knew enough about the history of Russia, back on Old Terra, to understand with brutal clarity — sharpened by his own long experience of war — just what could happen to a society in which there weren’t enough people on hand to plant and harvest. Even at the vast remove of centuries and many, many light-years, the old stories handed down from generation to generation about needing prescriptions from physicians to obtain meat for children, or eating wallpaper paste to hold off starvation, had the power to clench Simon’s gut muscles.

“If they get hungry enough,” one of the younger men said, “they can always enlist in the Concordiat defense forces and help us meet our treaty obligations.”

“Huh,” Zak muttered. “Not likely. There’s already a whole passel of folk grumbling about sending troops off-world to support the war effort.”

Simon was only too aware of the situation. By treaty, a Concordiat-allied world was entitled to defense. It was also obligated, under reciprocity agreements, to provide troops and/or munitions and materiel if the Concordiat found itself embroiled in a war that threatened multiple worlds. Between the mess along the Deng border and the utter disaster unfolding along a broad arc of humanity’s border with Melconian space, nearly forty human colonies had already been swept into the fighting. A whole lot of that fighting was brutal enough, Jefferson’s invasion paled by comparison.

The Concordiat was invoking reciprocity agreements on every world in the Sector, including Jefferson, Mali, and Vishnu. He suspected Mali’s obligations would be met by providing raw materials needed to carry out the war effort, but Vishnu and Jefferson were relatively mineral poor, which meant their likeliest treaty export would be soldiers and technicians. Vishnu could contribute food, but Jefferson couldn’t afford to ship any of its produce, grains, or Terran meat off-world. There were a lot of grumbles on the datanet and the streets, and Jefferson’s Assembly — Senate and House of Law — hadn’t even voted, yet, on whether or not to honor the treaty. If they refused to honor it…

Simon’s supper turned leaden in his belly. He’d be called off-world, for sure. And that would leave Kafari torn between her marriage and her family. He couldn’t imagine that she’d be very happy sitting in some officer’s quarters at Sector Command, talking to other home-bound spouses to pass the time while waiting for word as to whether or not he’d been killed in combat, yet. It wouldn’t be much easier, doing the same thing from home, surrounded by family but unable to see him between missions, simply because Jefferson was so difficult to reach from the current battle fronts, leaving too little time to travel all the way out here and back again.

One of the younger men, a good-looking kid about nineteen or so, who could easily have posed for a sculpture of Hylas, broke through Simon’s grim reflections.

“If the Senate and House of Law tell us to go, I’ll be on the first troop ship out. The bastards can’t threaten Jefferson again if we drive ’em back into their own space, tails tucked under.” He frowned, then, and glanced at Simon. “Do Deng have tails, sir? I was trapped in our barn, when it collapsed. Never even got to see any of the brutes.”

Simon very carefully did not smile. “No, the Deng don’t have tails. But the Melconians do.”

He brightened. “Good. We’ll shoot ’em off, sure enough.”

Several of the young men his age nodded vigorously, clearly ready to volunteer at a moment’s notice. At Simon’s elbow, Zak Camar was nodding, as well, but there was pain far back in his dark eyes. These kids were so young… They were the same age Simon had been, when he’d left his smouldering homeworld on a Concordiat naval cruiser, headed for the war college at Sector HQ.

Like the boy Simon had been, they, too, had seen war unleashed in their own backyards, so they weren’t rushing in blind or indulging a penchant for bravado, which so many other young men had indulged over the millennia humanity had been fighting wars. These kids knew exactly what it meant to pick up modern battlefield weaponry and go out onto the pointy end of combat to fry enemy soldiers — or die trying. Somehow, the fact that they knew made the pain of their going worse. Much worse. When Simon glanced at Balthazar Soteris, he realized the old man had seen and understood exactly what thoughts had just been rattling around in Simon’s head. The respect that came into Balthazar’s eyes was one of the biggest compliments Simon had ever been paid.

When Balthazar spoke, he changed the subject, asking yet another silent question. “Kafari going to finish that degree of hers?”

“Yes, sir, she is. I’ll be paying the rest of her expenses,” he added, in answer to the unspoken question, “so the Educational Surety Act funds she’s been using can go to someone else who needs them. She’s already qualified for work as a psychotronic technician, but we talked it over and she’s decided to go for a full engineering degree. Her professors on Vishnu have agreed to let her complete the degree work from here.” He grinned, then. “Part of the engineering program requirement is working on a live psychotronic system, class seven or higher. Sonny volunteered to serve as her practicum device. He thinks rather highly of her.”

“Wow!” Young Hylas, across the table, had gone wide-eyed with surprise and a healthy dollop of envy. Most of the men at the table mirrored the exact same expression. Zak Camar’s eyes glowed with justifiable pride. It wasn’t just everyone who earned a Bolo Mark XX’s respect, after all. Kafari’s father clearly understood that he had raised one truly remarkable daughter.

Talk shifted, then, as the younger men asked questions about the Bolo he commanded and Bolos in general and what it was like aboard a naval cruiser and what it took to get into the war college at Brigade headquarters. Evidently somebody had primed them not to mention Etaine, because nobody did, for which Simon was immensely grateful. Once he realized his new family intended to respect his need to keep those memories private, he relaxed and thoroughly enjoyed sharing stories from his admittedly interesting career.

Then some of the older men started discussing the rebuilding effort that was still underway and the talk revolved around what constituted the best designs for barns and equipment sheds, how to jury-rig machinery to do work it had never been designed to do, as a stop-gap until replacement equipment could be obtained, and which livestock bloodlines had survived and could be cross-bred to strengthen the herds and flocks on various farms, come the next spring breeding season.

It was comfortable talk, flowing around Simon in an easy flood as he plowed into his dessert, listening and learning what was important to these people and what problems they would need to solve before they could start operating profitably, again. Laughter from the women’s tables and shrieks from the children, most of whom had finished eating and were now romping in a variety of games and races, served to deepen Simon’s quiet enjoyment of the evening. Running beneath that enjoyment, down in the core of his being, was a fizzing anticipation of their wedding night. Simon could hardly wait to climb into their aircar and fly his wife someplace exceedingly private.

By the time Simon and Kafari finally escaped into their aircar, the night was well advanced. Simon grimaced at the decorations on the car, mostly in washable paint of some sort, but with several yards of fluttering ribbons attached at various points along the airframe, none of them in any position that would create a flight hazard. Kafari was giggling as she tumbled into the passenger seat. Simon ran through his preflight checklist, then sent them aloft, while a sea of upturned faces watched from the yard. People waved until they’d gained enough altitude, they couldn’t see anything but a shapeless blur against the lights blazing from the Soteris homestead.

Both moons were up, little Quincy a thin crescent near the horizon as they climbed vertically up out of the canyon, and the much larger Abigail at full-moon stage, shedding pearlescent light across the tops of the cliffs. Kafari sighed happily. “It sure is beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” Simon agreed. He wasn’t looking at the moonlight.

“Not yet, if you please, sir,” she said primly. “Where are we going, anyway?”

Simon just waggled his eyebrows. She’d been trying for days to pry out of him the destination he’d chosen for their honeymoon. He’d done a lot of legwork, researching Jefferson’s favorite vacation spots. Most of them were rustic cabin-in-the-woods sorts of places, taking advantage of Jefferson’s truly spectacular wild lands. There was an urban resort town in the southern hemisphere, with plenty of nightlife entertainment, but Kafari didn’t strike Simon as a cabaret-and-gambling type of girl. Besides, he hadn’t wanted to travel that far from Sonny, not with another invasion from the other side of the Void still a possibility.

So he steered them north, cruising near the aircar’s upper range for speed, and watched the moonlight fall across Kafari’s face. She reached across and rested one hand on his knee, a burning contact that interfered with his breath control, even as it whispered of domestic comfort and the small, exquisite pleasures that come with the intertwining of two lives lived together. He smiled and curled his fingers around hers, just holding her hand while they sped northward.

“Not much out this way,” Kafari said lazily, at length.


“There’s some nice fishing, along the northern reaches of the Damisi.”

“Yep. Of course, I’m done with fishing. Already caught what I wanted.”

She smiled. “There is that.” Then she added, “Just a little hint?”



“Bet you say that to all the guys you marry.”

She grinned. “You’ll pay for that one, loverboy…”

“Oh, goodie — can we start now?”

She swatted his thigh. “Just fly the aircar, if you please.”

He sighed. “Yes, dear.”

She reached forward with her other hand and switched on some music, hunting through the collection uploaded to the aircar’s computer system. “Oh, I like that one,” she said at last, programming in her selection.

“Oh, God…” Simon groaned aloud as the music she’d chosen turned his blood to steam. He was fond of the ancient Terran classical composers and Ravel was one of his personal favorites. He’d just never realized just how provocative Bolero really was. “Wife, you haven’t got so much as a shred of pity.”

“I know,” she murmured with a deep chuckle that made Simon consider very seriously landing the aircar on the nearest flat stretch of ground and showing her exactly what she’d wrought. A fragment of advice from his father floated into his mind, giving him the patience he needed: Take it slow, son, and it’ll be worth the wait — for everybody involved. So far, his father’s advice hadn’t steered him wrong, yet.

You’d have loved her, Dad, Simon whispered to the stars, and you’d have been so proud of her. You, too, Mom. He hadn’t talked to his parents like this in years, but it seemed right, somehow, flying through the star-dusted darkness with Kafari at his side.

Thirty minutes later, he swung the aircar around on a new heading, following the instrumentation as the Damisi Mountains swung sharply to the west. His flight computer picked up the signal from the landing field and radioed their approach automatically. Kafari leaned forward, eyes glowing as brightly as the stars above their canopy. “Oh…” It was a soft-voiced sound, reverent and surprised and tinged with overtones of deep amazement. “Oh, Simon, it’s perfect.

“You’ve been here?” he asked, disappointed.

“Oh, no, never. We couldn’t ever afford to come here. This is where off-world tourists and business tycoons from Mali stay, when they come to Jefferson. And some of our own wealthiest families have cottages here. Senators, trade cartel executives, people like that.”

Simon smiled. “In that case, it just might be good enough for you.”

Kafari’s eyes widened. Then she chuckled. “You are going to spoil me rotten, you know.”

“That’s the general idea.” He squeezed her hand, then concentrated on final approach. He set them down gently and taxied over to the parking area, sliding into the space assigned by the resort’s air-control computer. A moment later, they were on the tarmac, pulling luggage out while a servo-bot came racing up to ferry their bags. A human-operated groundcar arrived to ferry them.

“Good evening.” The young driver smiled, jumping out to check the servo-bot and holding the passenger door of his groundcar open, “and welcome to Sea View. It’s a real privilege to welcome such distinguished guests.” When Simon glanced into the young man’s eyes, he realized the greeting wasn’t just standard patter. He’d meant every word. Deep emotion burned in his eyes, the kind founded in personal gratitude of life-altering dimensions. Simon wondered who’d survived, to put that look in his eyes. The young man’s crisp white uniform, trimmed in scarlet and gold, glowed in the light of the double moons, but not as brightly as that look in his eyes. Simon smiled.

“Thank you, very much. My wife and I are delighted to be here.”

A startled grin broke across the younger man’s face. “Wow! Congratulations!”

Kafari broke into a broad smile as she slid into the ground car, moving over to give Simon room to join her. The driver jogged around and a moment later they eased smoothly away, heading down a wooded lane that lay like a dappled ribbon in the moonlight. The snow-covered Damisi rose majestically to their right.

The driver spoke quietly from the front. “There are alpine lakes just above the lodges, where you can fish, swim, sail, ski, and hike. In the winter we have some of the best snow skiing anywhere on Jefferson, but in the summer, like this, there’s an abundance of thermals for gliders and ultralights. We have a wide beach at the bottom of the cliff, with a breakwater to ensure plenty of calm water for swimming and snorkeling, or you can sail or just soak up the sun. There are plenty of group activities, if you like that sort of thing, plenty of privacy and solitude, if you don’t.”

When the groundcar stopped at the entrance to their private cabin, they could hear the crash of the surf far below.

“There are beach cabanas for refreshments,” the driver added as he held their door, “and plenty of shuttles running up and down the cliff for your convenience. And here’s the servo-bot with your luggage.”

The driver opened the lodge, handing Simon the key as he pointed out the main amenities: datanet hookups with built-in terminals, kitchenette and dining nook, bedroom, sitting room, jacuzzi, all the comforts of home with a view of the ocean through a massive window that overlooked a rustic deck. The driver unloaded their luggage and Simon handed him the customary tip, then they were finally alone again.

“Wow,” Kafari breathed softly. “Being Mrs. Khrustinova is turning out to be a pretty good deal!”

“You betcha, it is.”

“That being the case,” she said, voice going abruptly husky, “let’s get started making some little Khrustinovs.”

She melted against him… and that was the last coherent thought Simon had for a long, long time.

Chapter Nine


Simon knew something was wrong the moment he stepped into President Lendan’s office. It was more than the shocking exhaustion in Abe Lendan’s long, lean frame, stooped under a burden too heavy for one man. It was more than the scent of illness lingering on the air, more than the ghastly tension that crackled like static electricity on a winter’s night.

“Come in, Major,” President Lendan said, in a voice that was alarmingly fragile. “And thanks for flying in early, to meet with me.”

The president’s secretary closed the door behind him as Simon crossed the room, feet and spirits sinking into the thick carpeting. “That’s what I’m here for, sir,” he said, conjuring up a smile.

Abe Lendan didn’t return it, which left Simon feeling even more distressed. So much so, in fact, he remained standing, almost unconsciously at parade rest.

“In about ten minutes,” the president said, glancing at a clock on his spacious desk, “my senior advisers will be walking through that door. There’s something you and I need to discuss, before they do. Sit down, Major, please.”

Simon sat down. He identified the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as raw fear, for the man on the opposite side of the desk, for the future of this lovely world Simon had made his own.

A ghostly smile flickered into being, for just an instant, lighting Lendan’s deep-set eyes. “I always did approve of a man who knows when to comment and when not to.” The crushing weariness came back, then, almost worse for its temporary absence. “I’m not sure how much constitutional law you’ve soaked up, Major, since your arrival, but my second term in office expires about six months from now. We have a two-party system, on Jefferson, not one of those multiparty messes that requires a coalition just to stay in office and comes crashing down to ruin every time some splinter group gets cold feet. Or, worse, decides to support some crazy issue the majority of people wouldn’t take seriously for anything in known space. That’s one of our strengths, at least. Term limits are another. No one can hold the presidency longer than two five-year terms. Even that can be too long if someone spends a whole decade doing damage.”

Simon nodded cautiously, having studied the constitution rather thoroughly during recent weeks while drawing up planetary defense plans and poring through Sonny’s surveillance reports. The president’s frailty worried Simon. He didn’t look strong enough to endure another six weeks, let alone six months, in the grueling hot seat of the presidency. “I’ve made a fairly detailed study of it, sir.”

“Good. I think you know just how critical this afternoon’s vote in the Joint Assembly will be.”

“I do, sir.” Simon knew only too well. It was his job to deliver an unpalatable ultimatum from Concordiat Sector Command to Jefferson’s elected representation.

“Nobody likes to be threatened, Major, particularly not in the way I suspect you’re about to threaten us. But I do know something about your job, your wider responsibilities. I have not seen the communique that came in for you via SWIFT, this morning. Not even I possess the clearance to decode that. But I can guess exactly what you’ve been ordered to do.”

Simon’s jaw muscles twitched. “You realize, sir, that from the Brigade’s perspective, something has to be done? And quickly?” Jefferson’s refusal to honor its treaty obligations in a timely fashion had created a hole in Concordiat security, one that had to be plugged. Simon wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the day. Judging by the look in Abe Lendan’s eyes, neither was the president. He confirmed it a moment later.

“Oh, yes,” he said softly, “I do understand what has to be done. And why. I may not have the clearance to read coded Brigade messages, but I do have the intelligence,” he smiled faintly, ironically, “to watch the starmaps on the far side of the Void.” The smile vanished. “Given what’s showing up on the open channels, I’m willing to bet your starmaps look even worse than what we’ve been allowed to see. Frankly, I’m a little surprised the Concordiat’s waited this long to threaten us with revocation of the treaty. The trouble I’m looking at, the most immediate trouble, is how that’s going to play, politically. Particularly with major elections only six months away and a serious anti-treaty movement gaining a groundswell of support. I won’t insult your intelligence by asking if you’ve been tracking it, Major.”

Simon smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

“I’ll be frank,” Lendan said abruptly. “My doctor has advised me — strenuously — to step down immediately and retire from public service. A final gift from the Deng, I’m afraid.” Again, that ghostly, painful little smile flickered across his face.

Simon stared, horrified to the soles of his boots. The president’s blunt words had set up a tremor of shock like an aching sickness, that vibrated clear through him. He should have seen it coming and kicked himself silently for not putting the pieces together. Despite massive amounts of rest, Kafari still hadn’t recovered her full strength after her exposure to alien radiation. Abe Lendan didn’t look like he’d had a moment’s rest in the entire six months since the attack. Simon knew combat fatigue. Abraham Lendan’s reserves of strength were shot, depleted by the demands of rebuilding a world in financial ruins. He had the look of a man a few tottering steps from total collapse. Some head of defense you are, Major Khrustinov, he snarled at himself. Dear God, if Abe Lendan stepped down…

The president’s next words, harsh with strain, slashed through his distracted thoughts and left him stunned. “You know I’m commander in chief of Jefferson’s entire military structure. I’ve taken advantage of that. Now, while there’s still time to act. I’ve given you a promotion to Colonel in Jefferson’s Defense Forces. Sector Command has agreed to sanction it.”

Simon felt his eyes widen. Then he frowned as the import of that final sentence came home. “The Brigade sanctioned it? I don’t understand, sir. I’ve done my duty, here, nothing more. Certainly nothing the Brigade would consider meritorious enough to warrant that kind of promotion.”

Shadows lurked behind Abe Lendan’s eyes. “Let’s call it a precautionary measure and leave it at that.”

The chill gripping Simon deepened. What the hell did this man know that Simon didn’t, yet? Lendan spoke abruptly again, voice rasping with some violent emotion Simon couldn’t quite pin down. “If I could’ve, son, I’d have given you a generalship, but that’s a rank beyond my legal authority to grant. We took to heart lessons learned on old Terra. We chose carefully and wisely when we modeled our constitution and named this world for the man who drafted the original model. Military dictatorships are anathema to us.”

Simon’s lips twitched, despite the gravity of the situation. He’d raised an eyebrow at one of the clauses, which had read, essentially, The right of the people to keep and bear arms for self-defense and defense of the homeland shall never be infringed, limited, rescinded, interfered with, or prohibited by any decree of law, decision by court, or policy by the executive branch or any of its agencies. And this time, we mean it.

Kafari had told him, with typical Jeffersonian fire, that many Grangers felt the clause didn’t go far enough. He certainly hadn’t been inclined to argue the point. Not after some of the disasters he’d seen, on worlds he’d fought to protect. He’d seen worlds where the Concordiat had revoked treaties, due to massive human rights violations. No, he hadn’t felt like arguing the point at all.

President Lendan tapped restless fingertips against his desktop, staring for long moments into Simon’s eyes, as though trying to read his thoughts. Or, perhaps, trying to decide how much more to say. His deep-set eyes narrowed slightly, then he spoke again, evidently having reached a decision. “Fortunately, your authority and your paycheck come directly from the Brigade’s Sector Command, Colonel. That may prove to be critical, down the road. And I don’t like saying that any more than you like hearing it. But a man in my shoes — or yours — doesn’t have the luxury of pussyfooting around this issue, not with nearly ten million souls to safeguard.”

“Just how serious a problem do you think we’re looking at, sir?” he asked carefully.

Brief anger tightened down through Abe Lendan’s face. The muscles at his jaw jumped. “It could be damned serious. There are a lot of unhappy people out there,” he nodded toward the tall windows beside his desk, overlooking a city that was still being rebuilt. “The House and Senate have had to pass some mighty unpopular legislation. Nobody likes paying higher taxes, but frankly, they aren’t high enough. Not to pay for everything that needs to be done to get us back on our feet again. If we don’t get that space station into orbit soon…”

He didn’t need to finish the thought. Simon knew only too well the economic penalty Jefferson’s industry was paying for lack of an adequate spacedock for off-world freighters. The House and Senate had stalled and stalled on the funding vote for the station. They’d even balked at funding replacements for the weather and military surveillance satellites the Deng had blown to atoms. Half the fishing fleet had been lost during a violent, out-of-season storm that had ripped its way across the Western Ocean without anything like adequate advance warning. That storm had sent three factory trawlers to the bottom with all hands on board.

It was that disaster, in fact, and the public outcry over it — four hundred fifty children had lost one or both parents to the storm — that had finally forced the vote due to take place today. The pending legislation also included replacement of the military surveillance satellites and a provision requiring Jefferson to ship troops off-world, to support the savage fighting along humanity’s borders. Both items were required under Jefferson’s full treaty obligations and both had been forced through committee by some very courageous politicians. The military satellite expenditures were unpopular amongst the urban poor, but the shipment of troops was a political hot potato of immense size.

“What do you need from me, sir?” Simon asked quietly.

Abe Lendan’s voice was harsh with strain. “I need you to go over the defense priorities we’ll have to carry out on our own, if the Joint Assembly rejects the treaty. Whoever wins the presidential race six months from now will have to know what’s most critical to implement, if we lose you and your Bolo to our own stupidity.”

Simon winced at the bitterness.

“I take it,” Lendan added, “that you’re ready to testify before the Joint Assembly this afternoon?”

“I am.” The two words came out grim with the foreknowledge of exactly what tempest he was about to brew in the formidable teapot of Jefferson’s ruling echelons. “What I have to say won’t endear me to your political rivals. And your supporters won’t like it much, either. What the Concordiat needs — let alone what Jefferson needs — is mighty unpopular, just now, and I can’t see it getting any more palatable in the forseeable future.”

“I’m aware of that.” Abe Lendan’s voice dropped to a hush, his weary face haggard with deep lines and dark circles beneath his eyes. “Perhaps more so than anyone on Jefferson. If I can just hang on until after the elections…” His voice trailed off. “The best hope I can see for us is the Granger vote. If the urban vote swings the elections, we’re looking at real trouble, I’m afraid, and probably sooner than you can imagine. Unless,” he added grimly, “you’re half as smart as I think you are and you’ve got ears they haven’t thought about. And are willing to act on what you hear.”

Simon flexed his jaw muscles, but didn’t answer right away. If he were any judge of human character, the situation could get savage in a real hurry, with the presidency up for grabs in an open election.

“Very well, sir. Given the circumstances, we’d better hold that meeting with your advisors. Particularly the War College’s General Staff.”

Abe Lendan merely nodded, lips tightening briefly as he took in the deeper meaning of Simon’s words, took it in, shook the wrinkles out of it, and moved calmly on to the next task. As Abe Lendan touched the intercom controls, fingertips ominously unsteady, Simon wondered whom he’d be visiting in this office six months from now — and whether or not the next person to sit in that chair would be even a quarter as qualified as its current occupant. He found it difficult to believe that anyone ever could.

And prayed that he was wrong.


I monitor the progress of the presidential motorcade and its destination, Assembly Hall’s Joint Chamber between Jefferson’s Senate and House of Law, through a variety of sources. The interior of the Joint Chamber has been thoughtfully provided with a security system that includes cameras that sweep the entire room, allowing me full visual as well as audio capacity. Senators and representatives mingle informally, clumping in what I shortly identify as party-line affiliation clusters, quietly discussing the issues to be decided and the votes to be cast.

High Justices form another, insular group, which mingles with no one but itself. Clerks and technicians scurry like harried insects, checking cables and electrical connections, ensuring that the datascreens at each chair are functional and have the correct documentation keyed up and ready to view, filling cups with water, coffee, and other beverages of preference, all the minutiae that attend major gatherings of people about to conduct formal business.

News feeds intended for broadcast or transmission through the datanet provide me with multiple views outside Assembly Hall. Security officers stand guard at various checkpoints. Attendants assigned to park air and groundcars for arriving dignitaries rush between the entrance drive and the underground parking area adjacent to the Hall. I can see Law Square, as well, through the news cameras. The Square — an open plaza between Darconi Street and the massive structure that houses the legislative branch of Jefferson’s government — is jammed with onlookers, protestors, and news crews with cameras and commlinks. Approximately four thousand one hundred twenty-eight people have come to stand vigil at this crucial vote.

I tap more than fifty separate signals in Law Square alone, besides the interior security system of Assembly Hall. The effect is a kaleidoscopic jumble similar to what insects doubtless perceive through their many-lensed eyes, but I have no trouble following the various data feeds, sorting the signals into a coherent, comprehensive picture of what is occurring.

How I see and hear is less interesting than what is being done and said. I know the agitators in this crowd. It has been my task to monitor their actions and the effect they have on Jefferson’s population, particularly the urban contingent that is proving to be an effective incubator for dissatisfaction and resentment. Vittori Santorini is visible in the front tier of protestors, dressed deceptively in the type of dungarees common to the urban factory worker, rather than his more flamboyant student attire. Vittori and his younger sister, Nassiona, are not impoverished. Nor do they spring from the same social stratus as Jefferson’s typical working men and women. The Santorinis are the children of a Tayari Trade Consortium executive, a mining and manufacturing magnate whose company’s operations were damaged but not destroyed in the war.

I do not understand the motivations behind their increasingly successful campaign, promoting the organization they have established as a nonprofit educational and poverty-relief agency. They produce nothing but words and give no one anything but slogans and hatred. The Populist Order for Promoting Public Accord has an official Manifesto which puzzles me intensely. Of the seven-hundred thousand, twenty-one words in the POPPA Manifesto, six-hundred ninety-eight thousand spring from demonstrably false statements. Eighty-seven percent of the remaining two-thousand twenty-one words distort known facts to a degree bordering on falsehood.

Why do humans distort facts?

Failure to adequately correct such misapprehensions is a dangerous risk to the welfare of the entire society. Distortions of this magnitude lead inevitably to decisions based on misinformation. Poor decisions made using faulty data render the entire population vulnerable to destruction during battle. Given the demonstrably high risks, why do humans have such fondness for distorting provable facts? More disturbing, why do people believe such distortions blindly, when the accuracy of such statements is easily proven or disproved?

The statements made by the Santorinis are demonstrably false. Yet the POPPA movement gains nearly a thousand new adherents each week and is raising a considerable amount of money for purposes that I have not yet been able to discern completely. Some of it has gone into the political campaign funds of politicians opposed to meeting Jefferson’s treaty obligations with the Concordiat. I have, at Simon’s request, traced these donations, which often pass through two or three entities before arriving at the election offices for which they were ultimately destined, yet I find clear evidence that the politicians receiving the money know exactly where it originated, as well as why.

Other large sums of money have been transferred into holding accounts under various names and a substantial amount has been siphoned into an off-world trading company, destined for unknown purchases or other purposes, none of which I have been able to determine. SWIFT messages have gone out, paid for with POPPA funds, but the contents of those messages seem innocuous, if mystifying. Simon has been unable to shed light on the wordings or possible meanings of these expensive communications, which leads me to conclude that the senders are using a type of code that is particularly difficult to break. Such a message could carry hidden meanings that no one but a person privy to the translation keys could possibly determine. “Say hello to Aunt Ruth” could mean literally anything: kill the head of the interplanetary trade consortium, pick up munitions from our off-world contact, expect delivery of smuggled-out industrial plans. It might even mean “Say hello to my aunt, who lives next door to you on Vishnu.”

Whatever their purposes, brother and sister Santorini evidently have sufficient leisure and resources to devote immense effort to whatever it is they intend to do, and the outcome of the elections scheduled six months from today clearly plays a major role in those plans. It disturbs me that I cannot discover what. Nor do I understand what I or my Commander can do about it, so long as the Santorinis continue to behave in a lawful manner, as they have been scrupulously careful to do. They have successfully recruited the services of an attorney by the name of Isanah Renke, whose political and philosophical leanings evidently match their own very well. She has met with the Santorinis and other members of the POPPA organization many times and her advice is meticulously adhered to, from what I have been able to piece together. I have not been privy to many of their meetings, as they tend to discuss business out of doors with great frequency, away from data terminals I could use to listen to conversations.

I suspect individuals who take such precautions would be intensely and publicly outraged to know that their precautions were, in fact, necessary. I do not like this kind of work. I am not a law enforcement official or a spy. I am a Bolo. I was not designed for surveillance and espionage work. My programming is insufficiently complex to properly analyze the information available to me, nor is sociology an exact science. I am unsure of myself and fear failure on a mission I do not entirely understand.

I begin to comprehend the emotion humans call misery.

The presidential motorcade is ten blocks away from Assembly Hall when individuals scattered throughout the crowd of onlookers begin to chant. “San-to-ri-ni! San-to-ri-ni!” The sound spreads, sweeping more and more people into a frenzy. Guards assigned to the entrance of Assembly Hall shift uneasily as the chant builds into a shout that echoes off the stone steps and rolls across Law Square like the distant thunder of enemy weaponry. Vittori Santorini scrambles up onto a makeshift platform fashioned from a wooden crate and lifts both hands into the air. The shout that greets him cracks against the walls of Assembly Hall, then dies away as he begins to speak.

“My friends,” he calls out in a voice magnified through a cleverly disguised microphone and voice amplifier concealed in his working man’s coveralls, “in just a few minutes, our elected representatives will be deciding your fate. The fate of your wives. Your husbands. Your sons and daughters. Politicians with vested interests in keeping you poor and helpless. They’re going to vote, today, on how to spend your hard-earned money. Do you want to pay for spy satellites when we need jobs?”


“Do you want your children forced onto troop ships at gunpoint? Sent off-world against their will? To die as slaves in somebody else’s war?”


“What can you do to stop them?”


Within twenty point seven-nine seconds, an estimated two thousand people are screaming the battle cry. The howls reach their frenzied crescendo as the president’s motorcade arrives, a feat of timing I have rarely seen equaled. President Lendan looks mournfully at the demonstrators for a long moment, then turns and climbs the steps toward the entrance to the Assembly’s Joint Chamber, followed by Vice President Andrews and other members of his advisory council.

The reception for Simon, whose transport arrives thirty point nine seconds later, is savagely hostile. Simon’s penetrating stare is anything but mournful. I have seen that look on my Commander’s face. It distresses me to see it there, again. He has risked his life to save these people from certain destruction. They greet him with curses and shaken fists.

I do not understand my creators.

It is my fear that I never will.

Chapter Ten


Kafari was loading trays with glasses filled with the first cider of the season when Stefano and Estevao rushed into Grandma Soteris’ kitchen, bursting with questions. “Kafari! Is it true? Is Mirabelle Caresse really making a movie about you?”

Her younger cousins — aged nineteen and eighteen, respectively — waited with literally bated breath. She wrinkled her nose. “Yes. She is.”


“Will we get to meet her?”

“Before I have to ship out?”

That latter was from Stefano, who’d just signed a contract with the captain of the Star of Mali, as crew aboard an interstellar freighter. They’d lost both parents in the war and didn’t want to try rebuilding, with just the two of them. Kafari hated to disappoint them. Mirabelle, the hottest star to hit the screen in Jefferson’s history, didn’t bother to actually research the characters — or real people — her scripts portrayed.

Kafari picked up the tray. “Sorry, guys, but I doubt any of us will meet her. Not even me. Mirabelle Caresse doesn’t consider it necessary to talk to the person whose life she’ll be playing, let alone that person’s family. Trust me, you won’t be missing much. I’ve read the script.” She rolled her eyes and bumped open the kitchen door with one hip, heading out into the crowded family room with the cider just as Kafari’s grandmother called out, “It’s coming on! Simon’s there, already.”

There were nearly forty people in the family room, crowded onto every available seat and most of the floorspace, and that was only about half the immediate family. Kafari handed glasses around while her mother and cousins followed with more trays. When her tray was empty, Aunt Minau scooted over slightly to make space on the sofa for her.

Minau’s husband, Nik Soteris, was a younger version of Kafari’s grandfather, with the same carved-olivewood face, dark eyes, and work-roughened, capable hands. Aunt Minau was expecting again, another son. Kafari glanced into her eyes and saw shadows there, worry and fear as she watched her two young sons poke each other with elbows and roughhouse in a friendly sort of way. While Geordie and Bjorn fought a mock battle over their share of the floor space, Kafari reached over and took her aunt’s hand, squeezing it gently. Minau’s expression softened as she returned the comforting gesture. Then Uncle Nik signaled for silence and yanked up the volume.

As President Lendan made his entrance, Kafari wasn’t the only person who sucked down a shocked breath. There weren’t words to describe how terrible Abe Lendan looked. Kafari’s eyes stung with abrupt tears. She knew exactly what had put that exhausted, burnt-out look in his eyes. He stumbled slightly climbing the steps to the Joint Chamber podium. Vice President Andrews shot out a steadying hand, preventing a nasty spill. Utter silence reigned, both in the Joint Chamber and the Soteris family room.

“My dear friends,” he began softly, in that deceptively gentle voice of his, “we have gathered today to consider the most important decisions this generation of Jeffersonians will ever make. Many of us are alive today because the Concordiat upheld its obligations to us, sending the means to defend our homes and our children. Before Simon Khrustinov and Unit SOL-0045 came to us, we faced almost certain slaughter. Their courage and brilliance not only saved thousands of lives and homes, they did what we had thought impossible. They showed our troops how to fight what we had thought was a hopeless battle, against a far superior enemy. They showed us how to win. The battles we fought that day, street to street and barn to barn, helped remind us that Jeffersonians are capable of digging in and refusing to give up, no matter what the odds.

“With the help of Simon Khrustinov and his Bolo, we destroyed every Deng soldier, every Deng war machine that entered our atmosphere and touched our soil. Our capital city was damaged, but the vast majority of Madison was spared. Only fifty-five civilians in Madison lost their lives. Our agricultural heartland was gutted, but we fought back, killing Deng with every weapon we could lay hands on — including things no one had ever considered using as weapons.”

Stefano flashed a grin at Kafari, who felt a flush rising to her cheeks. Aunt Min gave her a swift hug.

“We lost much, but we saved more than we thought it possible to save. We have planted again and harvested the fruits of that planting, which means no one will go hungry during the coming winter. We have replaced homes. We are rebuilding factories, retail businesses. We have kept our schools open, helped our young people continue their educations, as part of our commitment to building a better future.”

The president’s long, tired face tightened and his eyes turned steely as he looked squarely into the cameras — and straight into the heart and soul of every person watching. “And now, my friends, we must consider other commitments. Without the Concordiat’s help, we would not be gathered here, today, in this Joint Chamber.” He gestured to the room in which the entire government of Jefferson had assembled. “We could not be watching from our homes and shops and factories, sharing the momentous decisions now facing us, because we would not have homes or shops or factories. We would not have a capital city or farms or fishing towns or mining camps. We would not, in fact, be alive. Never forget this one, critical fact. The Deng sent a battle fleet strong enough to totally destroy us. And that is what they meant to do. Wipe us off the face of this lovely world, down to the last innocent child. If not for the Concordiat’s decision to honor our desperate need under the provisions of our charter treaty, our enemies would have done just that. And the Deng would be harvesting their crops and building their homes on our graves.”

The hush in the Joint Chamber was so complete, the scrape of a shoe against the floor sounded like a gunshot in the silence. Kafari clutched her cider glass so tightly, her fingers ached. The stink of battle and the crashing, thunderous roar of titans at war momentarily blotted out everything in her awareness — except Abe Lendan’s face.

“And so, my friends,” the president said, “we now face the moment in which we must decide what our future, what our children’s futures, will be. Our treaty with the Concordiat spells out our obligations. We cannot afford to lose the protection we have, if we hope to safeguard our homes from a very real threat. There is a wildly unstable battle front beyond the Silurian Void. All along that front, men, women, and children are being slaughtered like vermin. We know the Deng can and will cross the Void. And a new enemy from a world called Melcon is driving humanity off worlds we have inhabited for over a century, in some of the worst fighting the Concordiat has ever faced.”

An uneasy stir ran through the Joint Chamber and through Kafari’s cousins and aunts and uncles, as well. She shivered, unable to imagine what could have been worse than the destruction the Deng had wrought in Klameth Canyon or Madison.

“The only thing that stands between our children and the savagery out there,” President Lendan jabbed one finger in the direction of the Silurian Void, “is Bolo SOL-0045. We cannot — dare not — refuse to honor our treaty with the Concordiat. We either honor our obligations or we leave ourselves wide open to destruction. If we refuse to honor this treaty, we will watch our homes burn. Again. We will watch our children hunted down and shot in the streets.” Abe Lendan leaned forward abruptly, his voice suddenly harsh and filled with iron. “We will die like rabid dogs, knowing that we did it to ourselves!

Aunt Minau actually jumped. Cider soaked into Kafari’s knee, from her own glass or her aunt’s, she wasn’t sure which. Abe Lendan’s eyes blazed. He curled his fingers into claws around the edge of the podium as his voice lashed across the Joint Chamber, across the vast and lonely stretches of Jefferson’s inhabited landmasses.

“The choice is ours, my friends. We can whine like spoiled children unwilling to part with outgrown toys, unwilling to face the realities of a grim, adult universe. Or,” he drew a deep and deliberate breath, steadying his voice, “we can stand on our feet and pay the price of freedom. The Concordiat has given us a future, a chance to survive and rebuild. If we refuse to honor this treaty, we will lose everything.”

He paused, looked slowly and deliberately at the faces of the men and women seated in the Joint Chamber, as though by the force of his willpower alone, he could force sense into those men and women whose obstructionism was putting them in peril. “Every man and woman in this chamber has a solemn duty, a sacred responsibility, held in trust for those who died in order that we could live and rebuild. When you cast your votes today, my friends, remember what is at stake. The decisions we make today will either give us a future or destroy us.”

Half the Joint Assembly was abruptly on its collective feet, shouting and cheering. So were several of Kafari’s cousins. Kafari was shaking. So was Abe Lendan. Ominously, nearly half of the Senate and House remained seated, faces cold and closed. What’s wrong with them? Kafari wondered angrily. Don’t they understand anything?

The president lifted his hands and the tumult died down as senators and representatives resumed their seats. “I’ve given you an overview of the situation we face. My cabinet, the War College’s General Staff, Vice President Andrews, and I have met with Simon Khrustinov at length, going over defense plans. The Concordiat has agreed to sanction our decision to award Major Khrustinov the rank of Colonel in Jefferson’s Defense Forces, in recognition of the utterly critical role he and his Bolo will play in any future defense of this world.”

Kafari blinked, stunned. Most of her family turned to stare at her, thinking she’d known and hadn’t said anything, only to stare again, seeing her dumbfounded shock.

“Why did he see the need to do that?” Grandpa Soteris muttered. “I don’t like it, not one bit. What does the president know that he’s not telling us?”

Kafari heard a whimper and realized it was coming from her own throat.

On screen, the president’s voice was harsh with weariness and strain. “We’ve already seen what an invasion can do to us. Colonel Khrustinov was quite blunt in his assessments. We faced antiquated Yavacs and troops that were far from top of the line. A new invasion by the Deng would doubtless subject us to their top-line equipment, given the battle maps as they are currently drawn. An invasion by Melconian forces would be even more devastating, turning this world into a major battleground between the best the Concordiat can throw against the worst the Melconians can send against humanity.”

Grandpa Soteris said a horrible word in Greek, which she’d never heard him do in front of the family’s children. Aunt Min wrapped an arm around Kafari.

“The War College’s General Staff and I are utterly convinced that without Unit SOL-0045, Jefferson faces total destruction. Colonel Khrustinov has warned that the Deng may well have dropped passive spy-bots into our space, watching for troop movements, particularly for the callback of the Bolo. Without our own space-based warning systems, this star system is critically vulnerable to attack. Without the heavy firepower represented by Unit SOL-0045, we are utterly helpless and the enemy knows it. We can’t afford to blunder. If the battle lines shift the way Colonel Khrustinov fears they may, then we will find ourselves in the middle of an unholy war worse than anything we can even imagine. And if we fall, then Mali and Vishnu will fall — and that, my friends, will leave the back door to the whole of human space wide open.”

A shocked murmur ran through the Joint Assembly.

Abe Lendan paused again, skin waxen, waiting for the rumble of voices to fade into silence, once more. “That is what we face. That is what we risk, if we do not honor our treaty with the Concordiat. This morning, Colonel Khrustinov received a message from the Dinochrome Brigade’s Sector Command. Colonel Khrustinov is here, today, to tell us what that message said. I can guarantee you, my friends, that you will not like what you are about to hear. I can only say that you will like the alternatives far, far less.”

Fear touched Kafari with icy, shuddering fingers. She watched her husband stand up, his crimson uniform looking like blood against the pallor of his skin. She knew that look in his eyes, knew the clenching of his jaw, had seen it one long-ago night on his patio, when memory of Etaine had passed across his strong features like a wave of death. He stood respectfully aside as Abraham Lendan stepped down from the podium, waited until the president had taken his seat before stepping up, himself. He stood silently for a long moment, a figure abruptly alien, a man she had never seen before, representing something she knew in that instant that she would never truly comprehend.

The stranger she had married began to speak.

“War is an expensive, dirty business. I’ve made it my business. Whether you like it or not, it is now your business. There are people in this chamber,” his flintsteel-cold eyes tracked like his Bolo’s guns, resting briefly and significantly on members of the House and Senate opposed to upholding the treaty, “who think the price paid already is far too high to justify more expenditures. Let me enlighten you.”

The chill in his voice caused the ice around Kafari’s heart to thicken.

“Under the treaty provisions ratified by this world, you are liable for the cost of maintaining certain defenses in fully operational condition. One of these is a system of military-grade surveillance satellites, to coordinate land-based and air defenses and to provide a long-range warning system, not only for Jefferson, but for the Concordiat as a whole. If you want to bury your heads in the sand, that is your business. But the Concordiat will not allow you to jeopardize other worlds for your own short-sighted, selfish motives. Under the treaty provisions binding Jefferson to the Concordiat, should you refuse to honor any clause of the existing treaty, at such a time as the Concordiat invokes that clause, you will immediately forfeit your standing as a Concordiat-protected world.”

Those cold, alien eyes tracked across the room, again, a room still as death.

“Should you choose that course, you will immediately be presented with a bill for remuneration of expenditures made on Jefferson’s behalf by personnel and mechanical units of the Concordiat. Failure to pay these charges is grounds for immediate confiscation of sufficient raw materials to equal the value of expenditures to date. To give you an idea of the size of Jefferson’s current indebtedness, the cost of one Hellbore salvo alone would require roughly a week’s worth of the gross planetary products — finished goods and raw mineral resources — from every factory and mine still in production on Jefferson. The battle for Madison, alone, would require remuneration in excess of the entire planetary economic output for the past six months. When Klameth Canyon’s costs are factored into the equation, the bill due — payable immediately, by the way, on pain of confiscation by the nearest Concordiat heavy cruiser capable of taking on raw materials — will literally bankrupt what is left of Jefferson’s economy and send this world plunging down a road you do not want to travel.”

An outraged roar of protest from the Joint Chamber floor erupted, thick with shock and open hatred. Colonel Khrustinov — Kafari couldn’t bring herself to think of him as Simon, as he stood there in icy silence — waited out the tumult while the Speaker leaped to his feet, banging his gavel and shouting for order. When the uproar finally died down, again, Simon spoke as though the outburst had been nothing but the whining of an insignificant insect around his ears.

“That is the least deadly of the choices facing you. The communique I received this morning from Sector Command was blunt and specific. Jefferson’s government has twelve hours, beginning,” he glanced at his wrist chrono, “with your official notification by the Brigade’s designated representative, to comply with the treaty obligations deemed most urgent by Sector Command, or to present remuneration in full for Concordiat and Brigade expenditures to date on Jefferson’s behalf. You have been duly notified as of now.

“Compliance will be deemed initiated with a vote to expend funds for the immediate construction and launch of military-grade surveillance satellites and with the passage of legislation creating troop levies for each Assembly district on Jefferson. Compliance will not be deemed fully met until satellites are in place, troop levies have been shipped, and urgently needed war materiel has been mined, refined, and loaded onto Concordiat-registered freighters. This clause will require the replacement of Jefferson’s commercial space station.”

Another howl of outrage erupted from the floor. The Speaker had to bang the gavel for nearly two full minutes, shouting for order. Again, Kafari’s husband waited in utter silence, his face chiseled from white marble, then he went on with the relentless recitation.

“Given the extensive damage to this planet’s agricultural sector, war materiel required to fulfill treaty obligations will not consist of Terran foodstuffs, but what is left of the planetary fishing fleet will be expected to ship, within the next four calendar months, a minimum of ten thousand tons of native fish, processed for Terran consumption, to support the mines on Mali. The mines have been expanded three-fold under emergency-construction domes, as the refined ores produced there are critical to the defense of this entire Sector.

“These obligations have been in place since the day I arrived on Jefferson with Unit SOL-0045. Each voting member of this assembly has known since that day exactly what Jefferson’s commitments are. Sector Command’s precise requirements were presented to you five months and seventeen days ago. Since this Assembly has failed to so much as vote on a single subclause during those five months and seventeen days, Sector Command has declared Jefferson out of compliance with its treaty obligations.

“I have spent months requesting action from this Assembly. I have been stonewalled and fobbed off with one excuse after another. On the other side of the Silurian Void, the Deng and the Melconians are butchering entire worlds, while you sit securely in your homes with enough food to stave off starvation, roofs over the heads of every man, woman, and child on this planet, and sufficient resources to rebuild anything you decide to rebuild.”

His face went even colder and more alien. “And just to give you a little more perspective, let me give you a little history lesson…”

Kafari sat in numb shock while Simon’s voice, as harsh and mechanical as his Bolo’s, painted scene after horrifying scene of the hell he had witnessed on Etaine. She sat there in the midst of her family, cold and scared, tears on her face and tremors in all her limbs as he described the methodical slaughter, the towns incinerated with their occupants trapped in them, the cities reduced to smoking rubble, bits and pieces that had once been human blown literally into orbit. The faceless millions who had died, an incomprehensible number the mind could not fathom in its entirety, became brutally, staggeringly real, suffering and dying right in front of them. He spoke like a computer, inhuman, a man whose soul had blackened to ashes on a world whose sun Kafari couldn’t even see at night.

She heard shocked weeping, realized Aunt Minau was sobbing. “Oh, that poor man, honey, that man you married is hurting down to the bottoms of his feet…”

I should have been there, Kafari realized with a sickening lurch in her gut. How could I have let him go into that room alone? She found herself hating the men and women in the Joint Chamber, the ones who had stalled spending bills in committees, who had tied up military allocations in technicalities and thinly disguised legal ploys designed to avoid payment altogether, hated them for putting the man she loved through the hell he was reliving in front of them.

The silence when he stopped speaking was so sudden, so brutal, Kafari could hear the clatter of her own heartbeat knocking against her eardrums. Simon stood like a statue, pale and cold and silent, a man with nothing human left anywhere inside him. Then a slight shudder of breath lifted his ribcage, lifted the bloody crimson uniform he wore like a shield and set the ribbons of valor trembling on his chest, and the stone statue vanished in a single blink of his ravaged eyes. In its place stood a man, once again, an officer of the Dinochrome Brigade, a very real and threatening presence that no one who had witnessed the last ten minutes would ever underestimate again.

“That,” he said softly, “is the choice you face. Whether you build or burn is entirely up to you. Mr. President,” he said in a voice filled with abrupt, deep respect, “I yield the podium to you.”

Abraham Lendan rose to his feet, utterly ashen, hands visibly shaking.

“Thank you, Colonel,” he said in a ragged voice, “for making our choices clear.”

Jefferson’s president didn’t even try to make another speech. Whatever he or anyone else in that room might have planned to say had been seared into silence. “I would suggest,” the president said in a voice hollow with horror, “that we poll the delegation.”

As the voting commenced, Kafari’s grandfather broke the ghastly silence in the Soteris family room. “Estevao, get the aircar. Kafari, get your backside into Madison now. That man is going to come apart, the minute he’s alone. And Kafari, child…”

She paused, midstride, having already started for the door. “Yes, Grandpa?”

“Your husband just made a roomful of mighty powerful enemies. Don’t ever forget it.”

“No, sir,” she said faintly. “I won’t.”

Then she and Estevao were running for the aircar.


So much for starting over, Simon reflected bitterly.

In a room jammed with more than three hundred people, all of whom tried their utter damnedest to look anywhere but directly at him, he felt an eerie kinship with the ghosts of Etaine’s dead and largely unburied millions. If enough people pretended desperately that you didn’t exist, you started to feel a little unreal, even to yourself. Or maybe the trouble was within himself. Whatever the cause, Simon sat surrounded by a cloud of silence against which the strident voices of those voting on the Joint Chamber floor shattered like Etaine’s fragile glass towers.

He made a mental note to have Sonny triple the range that would trigger his Bolo to snap from Standby Alert to Proximity Alarm. The hatred directed his way by a good many of those refusing to look directly at him was no more than he’d expected. It was doubtless an omen of things to come and Simon was too good an officer to think himself immune to retaliation. Bolos were hard to kill. Their commanders were not. He wouldn’t let himself think about Kafari.

The voting did not take nearly as long as he’d feared. Given the wording of the ultimatum he’d just delivered, any further delays would have been suicide and the Assembly members knew it. The ratification of treaty obligations passed virtually unopposed. Simon took careful note of those who cast dissenting votes, mentally comparing that short list against a roster of political affiliations and campaign funding he’d been compiling over the past few weeks.

A few of the yes votes surprised him, given what he knew. A cynical corner of his mind whispered, They’ve got something sneaky in mind. You’d better figure out what. Some bright analyst must’ve come up with an advantageous angle to casting a yes vote, or those particular senators and representatives would never have acted against their own political interests, let alone in opposition to their major campaign donors. They were in a numerical minority deep enough to’ve voted against honoring the treaty, had they wanted to make a show of standing on their principles, without actually jeopardizing the legislation’s passage through the Senate and House of Law.

Whatever they were up to, he hoped it fell flat on its doubtless ugly face.

The final tally was two-hundred fifty-eight in favor of honoring the treaty obligations and seventeen opposed. Abe Lendan rose to take the podium.

“Since the legislation authorizing expenditures to meet our treaty obligations has passed, I see little point in delaying finalization. Does somebody have a printout of the final language approved by this Assembly?”

A clerk came running, the stack of paper in his hands appallingly thick.

“I am going to assume,” the president said grimly, “that the wording has been correctly transcribed, since mistakes at this juncture would be mighty expensive?”

The clerk was gulping and nodding.

“Very well, there’s no point in putting this off. Colonel Khrustinov, will my signature passing this,” he tapped the stack of paper, “into law constitute compliance under Sector’s demands?”

“Provided the legislation is not overturned by Jefferson’s High Court,” he glanced at the High Justices seated to one side, “and provided the materiel requirements are immediately initiated and are completed within the schedule mandated by Sector Command, yes, it will.”

Abe Lendan started signing. He scrawled initials across page after page, handing them off to the clerk, who carefully stacked them in proper order. The hush in the Joint Chamber was such that the scratching of the pen against paper could be clearly heard, even from where Simon sat ramrod straight in his chair. By the time he reached the final page, the president’s hands were visibly unsteady. He scrawled out the final signature and stepped aside for Vice President Andrews, who signed on the line beneath.

The president’s eyes bore a hollow, exhausted look that had nothing of triumph in it. “Very well,” he said quietly into the microphones, “that, at least, is done. And now,” he added, “the truly hard part begins, turning that stack of paper into a physical reality. I am deeply aware of just how much each and every Jeffersonian has been asked to give, in meeting these obligations. But as we love life, we can do no less.”

With no further fanfare, Abraham Lendan simply turned and stepped down from the podium, moving slowly toward the doorway through which he had entered. The ranking committee chairpersons in the upper tier of seats surged to their feet, in a show of respect that was, to Simon’s faint surprise, utterly silent. He was more accustomed to seeing applause and cheering for exiting planetary heads of state. Out of deference, perhaps, for the utter solemnity of the moment, no one was making a sound, other than the shuffling of feet as the Joint Assembly rose to its collective feet.

Jefferson’s president had gone slightly more than half the distance to the doorway when he lurched against Vice President Andrews. The younger man shot out a steadying hand, then cried out when Abe Lendan literally crumpled to the floor, landing in a boneless huddle. An icy dagger speared its way through Simon as pandemonium erupted in the Joint Chamber. Vice President Andrews bellowed orders to summon an emergency medical team. Security guards rushed forward, some forming a protective screen around the fallen statesman while others blocked the exits.

Simon slapped his commlink. “Sonny, go to Emergency Alert Status. Set your Proximity Alarm sensors to Battle Reflex distances.” A reflex of his own caused him to scan the room for a potential sniper, although common sense told him the collapse had been triggered by stress and exhaustion.

“Understood, Simon,” Sonny responded instantly. “I am monitoring the Joint Chamber through a variety of data sources. Stand by for arrival of a medical airlift from University Hospital, ETA one hundred eighty seconds.”

The familiar voice in his earpiece, calm and rational, steadied him. Memory of Etaine had shaken Simon more than he wanted to admit. “Thank you, Sonny,” he said quietly as he scanned the chamber, both visually and electronically. He couldn’t help feeling a painful twinge of guilt. Simon knew how deeply his own testimony had increased the president’s stress. Abe Lendan was too good a leader to hear that kind of thing and not project it onto the people whose safety lay in his hands.

But what, in God’s name, could he have done differently? Simon had read the roster of Assembly members opposed to the treaty, while still in the president’s office. Abraham Lendan had shoved it into his hands, making certain Simon knew precisely what the odds were, if he didn’t speak as plainly and brutally as possible. There’d been enough names on that list to vote down the treaty and doom this whole world. And potentially a great deal more, beyond. Simon knew only too well the choice he’d had, forcing the Assembly to face reality.

So he stayed out of everyone’s way and watched in silence as the president’s personal physician arrived, emergency kit in hand. The medical team should be here in less than another minute, as well, given Sonny’s occasional comments as the airborne crew rushed toward them. Simon forced his gaze away from the brave man on the floor, feeling disloyal in an intense and privately painful way as he shifted his attention to his immediate duty. Simon was only too aware that the dynamics unfolding in front of him were far more critical to Jefferson’s future than the fallen president, which meant he needed to focus his attention on the men and women whose careers would outlast a far better man’s.

Simon therefore made them his immediate and serious concern. Some, he already knew first-hand, having met with them briefly at one time or another. He knew all the names, faces, and “fireball issues” of those on the Assembly’s Joint Planetary Security Committee, whose members were drawn from both the House of Law and the Senate. Simon had made it his business to learn everything he could about them. What they said and to whom they said it. What they supported and what they opposed. The men and women they allied themselves with and why. Which families they were related to by blood or marriage. What business ties they had. Which issues would turn them into blazing demons out for justice or vengeance.

Most of the Planetary Security Committee’s members were arrayed solidly behind President Lendan, but not all. Representative Fyrena Brogan, an ardent advocate for protection of natural habitat, seemed at first glance to be out of place on a committee charged with military defense of this star system. On closer examination, however, Simon had discovered that her passion for preserving Jefferson’s pristine ecosystems for future generations had led her in some very interesting directions, including a seat on the Agricultural Appropriations and Terraforming Finance Committees as well as Planetary Security, with its mandate to preserve Jeffersonian interests from harm. Simon had quickly ascertained that Representative Brogan’s notions of what constituted Jeffersonian interests — let alone harm to those interests — did not match his in the slightest.

She was, at the moment, involved in an intense conversation with Senator Gifre Zeloc, a man who had the dubious distinction of topping Simon’s watch-most-closely list. The senator was leonine in stature, dignified and deliberate in habit and speech, with prematurely silver hair that lent him an air of distinguished statesmanship at odds with a coldly vindictive temperament that lurked beneath a fatherly and benign appearance. Sonny’s surveillance had discovered, by unexpected chance, that Senator Zeloc was clandestinely opposed to virtually everything President Lendan had ever said or done.

What disturbed Simon, however, was not the senator’s opposition, per se; it was Zeloc’s favored method of governance — pulling strings behind the scenes, manipulating people and events to suit his objectives, orchestrating situations that caused people to say what he wanted said, do what he wanted done, or destroy those he wanted destroyed. Simon had seen the type before. They popped up like poisonous weeds wherever high-stakes power games were played.

Clever and politically astute, Gifre Zeloc was, in Simon’s opinion, one of the most dangerous individuals on Jefferson. Simon found it disturbing that Zeloc and Fyrena Brogan were discussing something so intently, they effectively ignored the turmoil around them, a circumstance that surprised Simon sufficiently to make him wonder what use Zeloc might find for a woman whose sole passion was protecting vast stretches of wilderness from human despoilment.

Another of Zeloc’s quiet little alliances was a cozy relationship with the youngest member of the Planetary Security Committee, an outspoken firebrand named Cyril Coridan. Representative Coridan, who was violently opposed to spending the people’s taxes on expensive military projects, had granted Simon a fifteen-minute audience, during which he had poured forth a list of grievances and philosophical “positioning statements” so full of vitriol, Simon had felt in need of an antivenin treatment afterwards. He hadn’t allowed Simon to say anything beyond, “Good afternoon, Representative Cori—”

He was another man on Simon’s watch-closely list, particularly since Coridan’s name was linked to an “anti-war chest” of money raised by Vittori and Nassiona Santorini. POPPA, their brainchild, had the potential to be far more dangerous than the riot that had nearly killed Kafari, if it succeeded in its avowed goals. That demonstration outside the Assembly Hall — little more than an irritation at face value — spoke volumes to Simon, who had altogether too much familiarity with the history of charismatic fanatics.

Mother Russia had been cursed with her share of them and had fought others, through the centuries. Unfortunately for the human race, Mother Terra had exported fanaticism, along with everything else humanity had carried to the stars. Simon had asked Sonny to start tracking the campaign contributions doled out by the Santorinis’ organization. He wanted to know just whom POPPA was paying, and why, although he didn’t see much that he could do about it, other than keep a watchful eye peeled. Unless there was clear evidence of treasonable activity — as defined by the Concordiat under the provisions Jefferson’s treaty-sanctioned charter — Simon was not authorized to intervene in a planet’s internal affairs. Given the history of military abuses of power and the curtailment of planetary liberties, Simon agreed wholeheartedly with that particular set of regulations.

But he had broad powers of intelligence gathering, particularly when conditions indicated a potential for abrogation of treaty status on a world considered militarily strategic by Sector or Central Command. His duty as an officer of the Brigade mandated tracking such activity and reporting it, when necessary. Simon hoped like fury that he wouldn’t have to transmit news any worse than he’d already been forced to do, in reporting Jefferson’s refusal to vote on funding for treaty-mandated actions.

On the heels of that thought, the emergency medical team arrived, cutting through the chaos with smooth efficiency. Without fanfare or hand-wringing hoopla, they transferred the president to a gurney, activated the auto-doc, adjusted the floater controls, and rushed out again, surrounded by a protective shell of uniformed security guards. The Joint Assembly’s speaker was banging his gavel again, trying to restore order. Simon was torn between a powerful desire to accompany Abraham Lendan, the man, to the hospital and the bitter knowledge that his duty as an officer of the Brigade was to remain where he was, since the governance of this world was clearly — and doubtless irrevocably — now in the hands of others. Vice President Andrews, badly shaken, climbed to the podium and added his voice to the speaker’s, eventually restoring order to the chamber.

“I would suggest,” the vice president said in a hoarse voice, “that we adjourn this Joint Assembly for now. We’ve accomplished the most critical task at hand. Those committees directly involved in the work of carrying out the provisions passed and signed into law, today, should reconvene in their respective meeting rooms. Until we have word on President Lendan’s condition, our best course is to move forward and look to the future. Mr. Speaker, the podium is yours.”

Simon frowned as the speaker gavelled the Joint Assembly closed. Vice President Andrews had just blundered — badly — and didn’t seem to be aware of it. The people of this world would be in desperate need of a strong presence calming and reassuring them that the government was in capable hands during this new crisis. Yet the vice president’s first action had been to dismiss the government for necessary but routine committee work, without even one comment directed toward the stunned millions watching the broadcast.

Andrews might be a capable administrator, but he was clearly accustomed to working effectively behind the scenes, which was the definition of a good vice president during the course of ordinary affairs. But his statesmanship skills were seriously inferior to Abraham Lendan’s. The president knew, intuitively, how to communicate directly to the people, how to command respect, how to read a political situation for its fine nuances and built-in landmines.

One glance at Cyril Coridan, whose eyes were glacial and whose lips wore the faintest hint of a smile at one corner, broke Simon into a cold sweat. When Sonny spoke again, unexpectedly, his words deepened that chilly sweat into profound grief.

“I detect no heartbeat from President Lendan’s auto-doc, Simon. There is no sign of respiration. The emergency physicians with him are attempting resuscitation. Their attempts are not proving successful.”

Simon closed his eyes against the terrible knowledge even as the Assembly, still unaware of Jefferson’s loss, came to its collective feet. Members were shuffling out of the room, voices raised in a babble of conversation as the group sorted itself out into committees and eddies of party affiliation that swirled through the main current of exiting dignitaries. Simon was abruptly exhausted. He remained where he was, partly to avoid being drawn into meaningless, stress-induced conversations and partly because there was not one soul in this chamber that genuinely wanted him there.

But before that thought had finished echoing through the bleakness gripping him, Simon saw her. She was pushing against the tide of outbound politicians, determined to get into the room. For long moments, Simon literally couldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes. Kafari was in Klameth Canyon, with her family, watching the broadcast. She couldn’t possibly be only ten meters away — and closing fast, at that — shoving her way through the outbound crowd. He couldn’t move, stared in rising amazement as she plowed toward him, a naval cruiser cutting through the chaos of enemy fire to reach her destination.


The look on her face as she closed the final distance between them scared Simon silly. Fierce. Gentle. Beautiful. Ravaged eyes brimmed with tears and pride and compassion. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, couldn’t comprehend how she’d come to be here at all. She hesitated for just one heartbeat, one hand lifting to touch his face with a gesture that reached through the pain, the agony of loneliness, the blackened cinders of memory. Then both arms were around him, strong and loving, and Simon’s world changed forever. He crushed her so close, neither of them could breathe for long moments. When the dangerous storm of emotion finally waned, Kafari simply took him by the hand and said, “Let’s go home, Simon.”

He nodded.

He had done what he could.

Jefferson — and Jeffersonians — would have to do the rest.


Chapter Eleven


The doctor’s office was jammed.

Apparently, when folks were out of work, they had little better to do with their time than create more people. Not that Kafari minded, per se. She was too grateful for a chance at having Simon’s child — and too distracted by preelection news — to dwell on the urban population explosion underway. The ob-gyn clinic’s waiting area boasted the obligatory datascreen for viewing news programs, talk shows, and the mindless round of games and domestic operas most of Jefferson’s daytime broadcast stations featured as standard fare, but with the presidential election tomorrow — along with about half the seats in both the House of Law and Senate — virtually everything had been preempted for the biggest story in town.

That story was the Populist Order for Promoting Public Accord, the party that was promising to rescue Jefferson from all that ailed it, right down to the common cold and the clap. Virtually every broadcast station on Jefferson was carrying live feed from an open interview with Nassiona Santorini, reigning queen of POPPA. The epitome of urban sophistication, Nassiona’s loveliness arrested the eye and held most men spellbound. Her hair, dark and lustrous, conformed to a simple, uncluttered style popular with working women. Subdued colors and expensive fabrics, exquisitely cut to create an illusion of simplicity and unpretentiousness, served to impart an air of quiet, competent strength. Her voice, low and sultry, was never hurried, never strident, weaving a spell of almost mournful concern, threaded with quiet indignation at the miscarriages of justice she so earnestly enumerated.

“—that’s exactly what it is,” she was saying to Poldi Jankovitch, a broadcaster whose popularity had risen to stunning new heights as he trumpeted the glorious message POPPA was selling to all comers. “The proposed military draft is nothing less than a death sentence with one deeply disturbing purpose: deporting the honest, urban poor of this world. We’re held in literal slavery under the guns of a ruthless off-world military regime. The Concordiat’s military machine knows nothing about what we need. What we’ve suffered and sacrificed. Nor do they care. All they want is our children, our hard-earned money, and our natural resources, as much as they can rape out of our ground at gunpoint.”

“Those are fairly serious charges,” the broadcaster said, producing a thoughtful frown. “Have you substantiated those claims?”

Lovely brows drew together. “Simon Khrustinov has already told us everything we need to know. Colonel Khrustinov was very clear about the Dinochrome Brigade’s agenda. We send our young people to die under alien suns or we pay a staggering penalty. The Concordiat’s so-called ‘breach of contract’ clause is nothing short of blackmail. It would destroy what little of our economy is intact after six months with John Andrews at the helm. When I think of the horrors Colonel Khrustinov’s testimony inflicted on the innocent children watching that broadcast, it breaks my heart, Pol, it just breaks my heart.”

Kafari put down the book she’d been reading in a desultory fashion and gave Nassiona’s performance her full attention. That urbane little trollop was maligning the most courageous man on Jefferson — and the sole reason Nassiona was still alive, to sit there and spin lies about him.

She was leaning forward, voice throbbing with emotional pain. “I’ve spoken to frightened little girls who wake up screaming, at night, because of what that man said. Those children are traumatized, terrified out of their minds. It’s unforgivable, what he said during an open, live broadcast. How the Brigade considers a man as cold and battle-hardened as a robot to be fit for command — let alone defense of an entire, peaceful society — is a question POPPA wants answered.”

Women in the waiting room were starting to mutter, agreeing in angry tones.

“And we’ve all seen,” Nassiona added, voice artfully outraged, “what that monstrous machine he commands is capable of, haven’t we? How many homes were destroyed by so-called friendly fire? How many people who died were killed unnecessarily by that thing’s guns?”

The clever little bitch… Nassiona didn’t need to answer those questions. They weren’t meant to be answered. Just by asking them, she’d implanted the notion that there was an answer, a horrible answer, without ever having to actually come right out and make an accusation she couldn’t support. Judging by the angry buzz running through the waiting room, the tactic was working.

Nassiona leaned forward, posture and voice conveying the urgency of her worry. “POPPA has spent a great deal of its own money trying to discover just what Khrustinov and that machine of his are legally allowed to do. It’s terrifying, Pol. Just terrifying. At odds with everything Jefferson has ever believed in. Did you know that Bolos are supposed to be switched off between battles? As a routine precaution to ensure the safety of civilians? Yet that death machine on our soil is never turned off. It watches us, day and night, and what it thinks…”

She gave a beautifully contrived shudder. “You see the trap we’re caught in, Pol. We have to comply with their threats. And it’s got to stop. John Andrews certainly won’t stop it. He relies on that thing, uses it deliberately to terrify the rest of us into swallowing the disastrous policies he enforces. There’s only one way to stop it, Pol, and that’s for the honest, decent people of Jefferson to vote for someone who will demand that Colonel Khrustinov shut that thing down like he should have long ago. We need to elect officials who aren’t afraid to tell the Concordiat and the Brigade that we’ve had enough of their threats and their demands and their war-crazed madness. We need officials who aren’t taking advantage of the situation to further their careers and build their personal fortunes.”

Kafari did a not-so-slow burn. Nassiona Santorini was the daughter of a Tayari Trade Consortium tycoon. She’d been born with a diamond spoon in her mouth. And Tayari’s profit margin was higher now than it had been before the Deng invasion. Tayari had bought every fishing trawler still in operation on Jefferson, gobbling up the smaller operations during the postwar havoc, which meant Tayari owned — lock, stock, and barrel — the only means of obtaining the main commodity Jefferson was required to supply to the Concordiat.

As a result, Tayari was exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of Terran-processed fish to the Concordiat, which was — per treaty — paying for it at a higher rate than the same fish could be marketed on Jefferson. Malinese miners and fighting soldiers weren’t as finicky as sophisticated urbanites about what ended up on their dinner plates. Tayari was raking in tons of money, as a result, and a great deal of that money ended up in trust funds set up for Vittori and Nassiona Santorini. The interest income from that money — invested shrewdly, off-world, in Malinese mining stock — had given POPPA a vast source of income that was sheltered from the shocks jarring Jefferson’s economy. POPPA’s war-chest — or anti-war chest, given the party’s political platform — was vastly larger than the pool of money any other candidate for office could hope to raise.

Yet Nassiona Santorini and her brother, already rich and rapidly getting richer, had the unmitigated gall to accuse John Andrews of doing what they did every single day. Why weren’t the big broadcast companies pointing that out? Had objective reporting gone out the window, along with every other scruple Kafari had been raised to honor? From what Kafari had seen, Pol Jankovitch never asked any POPPA spokesperson a question that might have an unfavorable answer.

His next question, delivered with a thoughtful frown, was typical. “Given the treaty stipulations and the gun to our heads, what can we do about the situation? Our backs are against the wall, on this thing. How would POPPA candidates change that?”

“We must start where we can. The most important thing, and we must do it immediately, is make sure the burden of obeying the Concordiat’s demands is fairly shared. If you examine the lobbying record of the big agricultural interest groups, for instance, you’ll discover a sorry litany of protests that their children should be exempt from military quotas. Why should farmers enjoy special privileges? This world was founded on principles of equality, fair dealing, individual worth, freedom. Not pandering to wealthy special interest groups!”

Nassiona’s dark eyes flashed with outrage. “And what do the farmers clamoring for special treatment give as reasons for their demands? Nothing but flimsy, money-hungry excuses! They need more labor to terraform new acreage. To plant thousands of new fields nobody needs. And they’re damaging pristine ecosystems to do it, too. Why? They have one interest. Just one, Pol. Lining their pockets with cold, hard cash. They’re not interested in feeding children in mining towns, children who go to bed hungry at night. Whose parents can’t even afford medical care.

“It’s time we faced facts, Pol. The surplus of stored foods set aside for civil emergencies is so large, we could feed the entire population of Jefferson for five full years. Without planting a single stalk of corn! It’s time to stop this nonsense. Time to make sure that no one benefits unfairly. No special deals, Pol, no special privileges. That’s what POPPA is demanding. Fair and equal treatment for everyone. Equal sharing of the risk, the burden of compliance. No protection for special groups who think they’re better than the rest of us. No under-the-table deals with elitists who think their lives are worth more than the rest of us, worth more than the lives of people thrown out of work through no fault of their own. It’s immoral, Pol, grossly immoral and it must stop, now.”

Kafari’s slow burn went hot as liquid steel. If the burden of meeting troop quotas was “fairly shared,” urban residents had a long, long way to go, just to catch up. Almost ninety-eight percent of the nearly twenty thousand troops shipped off-world to date had been Granger-bred volunteers. There was literally no chance in a million that any planetary draft would ever be instituted, let alone rammed through today or next week. Not only were elected officials dead-set against it, not wanting to slit their own throats at the polls, it wasn’t needed. Granger volunteers had consistently exceeded the Concordiat’s minimum quotas.

As for “special deals,” agricultural producers couldn’t afford to lose any more of their labor pool. Nearly five thousand people had died in Klameth Canyon, including some of the region’s best expertise in animal husbandry and terraforming biogenetics. Most of the volunteers who’d shipped out had come from the Klameth Canyon complex, as well, men and women too angry, too haunted by the ghosts of loved ones who’d died on their land, too financially broke to start over. Come the harvest, those who’d remained on Jefferson would be hard-pressed to take up the burden.

What was wrong with people like Nassiona Santorini? Or the people who believed her? Didn’t the truth matter to anyone, any longer? The ob-gyn clinic’s waiting room was crammed full of people who apparently had no interest in the truth, judging by conversations on all sides. What she was hearing gave Kafari a deep sense of foreboding.

“Y’know, my sister went looking at the POPPA datasite, the other night, called me on the ’net-phone, she was so mad. Said the government’s fixin’ to drill right through the Meerland Sanctuary to get at the iron deposits. If they start strip-mining out there, it’ll contaminate the water all the way down the Damisi watershed and poison us all!”

“Well, I can tell you, every single person in my family is votin’ the same way. We’re fixin’ to kick President Andrews’ ass out of a job. We gotta get somebody in there who knows what it’s like to have half the folks in your neighborhood outta work and damn near killin’ themselves with despair a’ gettin’ any…”

Kafari couldn’t listen to any more of it. She headed toward the bathrooms, stopping briefly at the receptionist’s desk to tell them where she’d be, and closed the door on the mindless babble in the waiting room. She preferred to sit in a public lavatory that smelt of air fresheners and stale urine than listen to any more of POPPA’s silver-spun lies or the braying of jackasses who believed them. She understood, profoundly, the impact joblessness had on a person, a family. She understood the loss of self-worth, the sense of helplessness it engendered, had watched members of her family and close friends stricken by one such blow after another.

But POPPA’s brand of swill wasn’t the answer. To anything. Kafari wet a small towel and laved her face and throat, trying to calm down the gut-churning anger and the nausea it had triggered. She drew several deep, slow breaths, reminding herself of things for which she was thankful. She was profoundly grateful to have her job. And not just any job, either, but a good one, a job that tested her skills, her ingenuity, and let her contribute to the all-important job of rebuilding.

Having passed her practicum with flying colors — due as much to Sonny’s tutelage as to the rigorous courses necessary to secure a psychotronic systems engineering degree — she’d taken a job at Madison’s spaceport, which was being rebuilt almost from the ground up. As part of a ground-based team of psychotronic specialists, she worked in tandem with orbital engineers, calibrating the new space station’s psychotronic systems as each new module was mated with the others in orbit, then synched to the spaceport’s ground-based controllers. High-tech labs on Vishnu had supplied the replacement components for Ziva Two, including the modules Kafari was responsible for correctly calibrating, programming, and fitting into the existing psychotronic computer matrix.

Difficult as it was, she loved her job. With luck, her work would create the chance for others to work, again, as well. Madison’s northwest sector, hit so hard during the fighting, was now jammed with construction crews.

By some small miracle, the Engineering Hub — the nerve center of any surface-based spaceport — had survived, undamaged by Deng missiles. With that infrastructure intact, the cost of rebuilding was far lower than it might have been, despite obfuscations by POPPA’s chosen spokespersons.

Everywhere POPPA turned its attention, discord followed. Kafari had been less than amused to learn that a major POPPA rally had been scheduled for the same afternoon as her follow-up appointment with the ob-gyn clinic. She should’ve been able to finish her appointment and leave well in advance of the rally’s starting time, but she’d already been here an hour-and-a-half, waiting while emergency cases came into the clinic and bumped others with appointments. There’d been more than a dozen walk-ins so far, all of them presenting the emergency medical vouchers issued to the jobless and their families. Those vouchers meant a patient had to be seen, regardless of caseload, regardless of the bearer’s ability to pay anything for the services of physicians, nurse-practitioners, or medical technicians conducting diagnostic testing.

Kafari was not coldhearted, even though she questioned the long-term sustainability of such a program, and certainly didn’t feel that those without money should be denied access to medical care they — and in this case, their unborn children — needed. But it was a financial drain their faltering economy couldn’t possibly maintain for long. It was downright irritating that she’d missed half an afternoon’s work to keep an appointment that others had bumped, by just walking in off the street. And if she didn’t get out of the clinic soon, she’d be caught right in the middle of the crush gathering for the POPPA rally scheduled to begin in an hour’s time. There was already an immense crowd outside, streaming through downtown Madison toward the rally’s main stage, which had been set up in Lendan Park, across Darconi Street from Assembly Hall.

There wasn’t much she could do about any of it, however, and Kafari needed this appointment. So she dried her face carefully, reapplied cosmetics, and returned to the waiting room, where she eased herself down into a chair and tried without much success to ignore the news coverage of the impending rally. An entire host of POPPA luminaries appeared on camera, granting interviews that constituted little more than a steady stream of POPPA doctrine, most of it aimed directly at the masses of unemployed urbanites. Gust Ordwyn, rumored to be Vittori Santorini’s right-hand propagandist, was holding forth on the manufacturing crisis that had sent heavy industry crashing to a virtual halt.

“We can’t afford five more years of President Andrews’ insane policies on mining and manufacturing. Jefferson’s mines stand silent and empty. Sixteen thousand miners have lost their jobs, their medical coverage, their very homes. John Andrews doesn’t even have a plan to put these people back to work! Enough is enough.

Jefferson needs new answers. New ideas. A new philosophy for rebuilding our economy. One that includes the needs of ordinary, hard-working men and women, not the profit margin of a huge conglomerate that holds half its assets off-world. I ask you, Pol, why do Jefferson’s biggest companies transfer their profits off-world when our own people are jobless and starving? Why do they pour huge sums of money into off-world technology instead of rebuilding our own factories, so people can go back to work? It’s indecent, it’s unethical. It’s got to stop.”

Pol Jankovitch, predictably, did nothing at all to point out that Gust Ordwyn’s accusations, like Nassiona Santorini’s “questions” were not designed to be answered factually, but to insinuate a state of affairs that did not, in fact, exist. Kafari was in a position to know exactly what was being ordered from off-world companies: high-tech items Jefferson literally could not manufacture yet.

Pol Jankovitch wasn’t interested in the truth. Neither was his boss, media mogul Dexter Courtland. They were interested solely in what message was likeliest to increase viewership, advertising profits, and personal bank accounts. Men like Vittori Santorini and Gust Ordwyn used fools like Courtland and Jankovitch, in an under-the-table handshake that benefitted everyone involved. Except, of course, the average Jeffersonian. And most of them were blinded by the rhetoric, the wild promises of wealth, the feeling of power that comes with participating in something big enough to make the government sit up and take notice.

None of which bolstered Kafari’s low spirits.

Neither did the next three speakers. Camden Cathmore was a spin expert who constantly quoted the latest results of his favorite tool, the “popular sentiment” poll, so blatantly manipulated, the results meant nothing at all. Carin Avelaine bleated endlessly about “socially conscious education programs” she wanted to implement. And then there was Khroda Arpad, a refugee from one of the hard-hit worlds beyond the Silurian Void, who spoke passionately about the horrors of war as experienced first-hand. She had lost her children in the fighting, which left Kafari’s heart aching for her, but Kafari was less impressed by the direction Khroda’s grief had taken her. The refugee had launched a crusade to convince as many people as possible that a planet-wide military draft was about to be enacted for the purpose of sending as many of the urban poor and their children as possible to be shot to pieces under alien guns.

None of it made any logical sense and very little of it was even remotely accurate. But the women in this room were eating it up and so, apparently, was the crowd outside. And so were thousands upon thousands more, in every major urban center on Jefferson. Kafari was actually relieved when her name was called by the nurse, allowing her to escape the ugly mood in the waiting room.

The exam was the only thing she’d encountered all day to reassure her fears.

“You’re doing fine and the baby’s doing fine,” the doctor smiled. “Another couple of months and you’ll be holding her.”

Kafari returned the smile, although a mist had clouded her eyes. “We’ve got the nursery all set up. Everything’s ready. Except her.”

The doctor’s smile broadened into a grin. “She will be. Take advantage of the next couple of months to put your feet up and rest every chance you get. You’ll be running on mighty short sleep, once she’s born.”

By the time Kafari re-dressed and checked out at the counter, the crowd outside had swelled to a river of people, a thick and slow-moving stream that jammed the street, with every person in it — except Kafari — trying to get to Lendan Park. Kafari’s groundcar was in a parking garage three blocks closer to the park, which left Kafari struggling to push herself and her distended belly through the close-packed jam of people. She could smell cheap cologne, unwashed bodies, flatulence, and alcohol. Within a single city block, she found herself fighting a trickle of panic. She didn’t like crowds. The last time she’d been near a crowd anywhere close to this size, it had turned on her. Had tried its utmost to kill her.

Simon wouldn’t be swooping in to rescue anybody, tonight.

I have to get out of this crowd, she kept telling herself. I have to get to the parking garage, at least. She wouldn’t be able to drive through this mess for hours, yet, but she wanted the security her car represented, modest as it was. She wanted metal walls around her. Bullet-proof glass. The gun in the console.

You’re being stupid, she told herself sternly. Just calm down and breathe deeply. There’s the garage, right there, just another hundred meters or so… She reached the garage. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get anywhere close to the entrance. There were too many people between her and the doorway. She was swept inexorably forward, a slow-motion tide that carried her — greatly against her will — toward the heart of Lendan Park. She was close enough, now, she could see a massive platform towering nearly four meters above the ground, a stage big enough to hold an orchestra. The stage boasted public-address microphones and speakers nearly three meters high, all draped with banners and bunting in POPPA’s favorite colors: sunset gold and deep, forest green.

POPPA’s “peace banners” — a three-armed triskelion of olive leaves, silhouetted against the golden backdrop — fluttered in the early evening breeze from every corner of the stage, from huge, twenty-meter-high streamers behind the stage, from lamp posts, even tree branches where zealots had hung them. A good half the crowd wore gold and green, in fervent declaration of their social and political preferences. Kafari’s cream-colored maternity suit — tailored for a meeting with off-world suppliers’ representatives, ships’ captains, and engineers to work out the kinks as they brought the new station’s systems on-line and ordered additional components — stood out conspicuously against the brighter-hued Party colors or the duller shades of jobless factory workers wearing their sturdy shop-floor uniforms.

Her portion of the crowd came to a halt sixty or so meters from the stage, out near the edge of the park. Kafari’s back ached already from standing, the muscles protesting the strain of carrying her burden unsupported. At least she was wearing sensible shoes. Kafari hadn’t worn anything truly impractical since the war.

The people closest to her were an interesting mixture. From the look of it, there wasn’t a Granger anywhere in the bunch, but she was able to peg several distinct “types” near her. Factory workers were obvious. So were the students, ranging from high-school up through college-age kids. Others appeared to be middle-class clerical types, shopkeepers, office workers hit by the slump in retail sales of everything from clothing to groundcars.

Still others had that distinct air about them that said “academia,” particularly the social sciences and arts professorial types. She didn’t spot anyone that looked — or spoke — remotely like an engineer or physicist, but there were plenty to choose from, based on snatches of conversation, if one were interested in delving deeply into the intricacies of post-Terran deconstructionist philosophies — and philologies — in the arts, literature, and what Kafari had always thought of as the pseudo-sciences: astromancy, luminology, sociography.

Any further speculation she might have entertained about the occupations of those near her vanished under a sudden blare of music from those three-meter-high speakers. The base rhythm of drums struck her bones like a shockwave. If she’d had elbow room, she’d have clapped both hands across her ears. The drums were savage, primal, striking a chord in the waiting crowd, which erupted into howls and a massive tsunamic roar that pounded again and again at her eardrums: “Vit-tor-i! Vit-tor-i!

It wasn’t difficult to imagine the missing hard-c sound that would have transformed the war-chant into “victory,” rather than a summons for the reigning lord of the Populist Order for the Promotion of Public Accord. A wild melody began to play, counterpoint to the drum cadence, stirring the blood and numbing the brain. People were shouting and screaming, waving triskelion banners, jumping up and down in a frenzy that left Kafari bruised from too many sharp shoulders and elbows jabbing soft spots, fortunately most of them striking above her abdomen.

The music rose to a wailing crescendo…

Then the banners behind the stage parted and he was there. Vittori. The man with Madison in the palm of his hand. He was striding forward, clad entirely in a golden yellow so light, it appeared luminescent in the gathering gloom of twilight. Where the light of sunset streamed across the stage and its twenty-meter triskelion banners, a golden halo of light shone like something from a painting of the virgin Madonna and her child. Vittori Santorini, standing in the center of that halo, glowed like a saint newly descended from heaven. My God, Kafari found herself thinking, does anybody else realize how dangerous this man is?

When he lifted both hands, a prophet parting the seas, the music died instantly and the crowd fell silent in the space between one heartbeat and the next. He stood that way for long seconds, hands uplifted in benediction, in ecstatic triumph, in some twisted emotion Kafari couldn’t quite define, but left her skin crawling, to see it wash across his face and down the glowing length of his body.

“Welcome,” he whispered into the microphone, “to the future of Jefferson.”

The crowd went insane. The mind-numbing roar of human voices shook the air like thunder. Vittori, master of crowds, waited for the ovation to die away of its own accord. He stood looking at his acolytes for long moments, smiling softly down at them, then caressed them with that dangerous, velvet voice.

“What do you want?”


Again he smiled. Leaned forward. Waited…

Then show no mercy!” The whiplash of his shout cracked the air like judgment day. “It’s time to take what’s ours! Our rights! Our money! Our very lives! No more soldiers drafted to die off-world!”

“No more!”

“No more kickbacks to farmers!”

“No more!”

“No more pillaging in public lands!”

“No more!”

“And no more politicians getting fat and rich while the rest of us starve!”


His voice dropped to a velvet caress again. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Vote! Vote! Vote!”

“That’s right! Get out and vote! Make your voice heard. Demand justice. Real justice. Not John Andrews’ mockery, kowtowing to the big off-world military machine. It’s time Jefferson said ‘No!’ to war!”

“No war!”

“It’s time to say ‘No!’ to higher taxes.”

“No taxes!”

“It’s time we said ‘No!’ to reckless terraforming schemes and new farms.”

“No farms!”

“And it’s sure as hell time to say ‘No more Andrews!’ — now or ever!”

“No Andrews! No Andrews!”

“Are you with me, Jefferson?”

The crowd exploded again, thousands of throats screaming themselves raw in the chilly air as night settled inexorably across the heart of Madison. The sound echoed off the walls of Assembly Hall, which stood behind them like a basilisk in the gathering darkness, turning not bodies but minds to stone, rendering them incapable of reason. Susceptible to anything this man said. Anything he suggested. Kafari stood caught in the midst of the unholy uproar and shuddered. She was violently cold with the fear rising up from her soul.

He stood there, arms outstretched, basking in the wild sound of adoration, drinking it down like fine wine. It was grotesque. Obscene. Like watching a man bring himself to orgasm in public. She wanted out of this crowd, out of the insanity flying loose in Lendan Park. Wanted Simon’s arms around her and Sonny’s guns overhead, keeping watch in the coming night. She knew, in that one, horrible moment, that John Andrews was doomed to lose the election. Knew it as surely as she knew the kind of programming code required to send a psychotronic brain like Sonny’s into alert status. Or over the edge into battle mode.

We’re in trouble, oh, Simon, we’re in trouble…

The crowd was shrieking, “V — V — V!

V for Vittori. For victory. For victim… The prophet of the hour lifted his hands again, quieting the crowd to a hush so sudden, the sound of wind snapping through the “peace banners” cracked like gunfire. When the silence was absolute, he said, “We have work waiting for us, my friends. Wild work, critical work. We have to defeat the monsters ruling us with an iron hand and a stone heart. We have to throw off the yoke of slavery and call our skies, our children, our lives our own again. We have to rebuild the factories. The shops. The very future. We have to ensure the rights that everyone has, not just a privileged few. The rights to a job. To economic equality. To choose where we go or don’t go. Where we send our children or don’t send them. What we do — or don’t do — with our land. Our seas. Our air. We choose! We say! AND WE ACT!”

The thunder was back in his voice.

“We act now, my friends! Now, before it’s too late. We take charge. Before fools like John Andrews destroy us! It’s time to send a message. Loud and clear.”

The crowd was screaming again.

Vittori shouted into the microphone, shouted above that primal roar.

“Are you with us?”


“Are you ready to take back our world?”


“And are you ready,” his voice dropped again to a piercing whisper, “are you ready to give our enemies what they so richly deserve?”


“Then claim your power! Claim it now! Go out into the streets and smite those who oppose us! Do it now! Go! Go! Go!”

The crowd took up the chant, screaming it into the darkness. Vittori moved with sudden, blinding speed. He snatched up a microphone stand, held it overhead like a club, spun suddenly to face a huge picture of John Andrews that had appeared as though conjured from thin air, a picture painted on glass, translucent where spotlights sprang abruptly to life in the darkness. Vittori turned the microphone stand in his hands, swung it in a whistling, vicious arc, let go at the height of the backswing. The heavy metal base crashed through the glass, shattering it. Pieces and shards of John Andrews’ broken face rained down onto the stage. A roar erupted, shrieking like a hot, volcanic wind.

The crowd was moving, surging out toward its edges, amoeba-like. Tendrils of that massive amoeba engulfed the streets, the buildings beyond them. The sound of smashed glass punctuated the roar, staccato-quick, a rhythm of hatred and rage. The surging mass of people gathered speed, spreading out in all directions. Kafari found herself forced to run, to avoid being trampled by those rushing toward the edges of the park, into and past her. She held her abdomen, stricken with mortal terror for the baby as she ran with the crowd. They were, at least, running toward the garage where her car was parked.

They’d nearly reached it when the crowd smashed into something that was fighting back. Kafari couldn’t see what. Half the lights in the park were out, either pulled down or the glass smashed out, plunging great stretches of park into near-Stygian darkness. Storefronts and public buildings on every side stood with broken doors and widows gaping wide, interior lights splashing across the edges of the battle and the running figures of people smashing and looting their way through the rooms beyond.

Something arced high overhead, exploding with a cloud of choking chemical smoke. Riot gas! Kafari pulled off her jacket, covered her lower face with it as the smoke drifted down, engulfing the crowd within seconds. Eyes streaming, Kafari held her breath as long as she could, straining to reach the edge of the embattled crowd. She could see a line of police, now, truncheons rising and falling as they clubbed rioters to the ground. The savagery of it shocked Kafari, left her faltering, trying to backpedal against the crush of people pressing forward from deeper in the park.

The crowd shoved her right toward the line of police. They had their shields up, riot helmets down, while a second line pumped more gas rounds into the air. Others were firing at the crowd. Something whizzed past Kafari’s ear, striking the person behind her with a sickening, meaty thud that wrenched loose a scream. Terror scalded her, terror for her unborn child. She shoved sideways, trying to turn, found herself embroiled in a flying wedge of howling rioters, men who’d ripped up street signs, who’d broken thick branches out of the trees, swinging and jabbing them at the line of riot police. She was shoved forward, trapped in the center—

Police went down. A sudden hole gaped open. Right in front of her. Kafari stumbled forward, driven from behind, carried through the opening by the howling demons who’d battered their way through. She found herself running down the street. She headed toward the garage, less than half a block ahead. Others were streaming into the garage, ahead of her, evidently looking for a way out of the battle. Groundcar alarms screamed theft-attempt warnings. Kafari reached the doorway. Saw the automated attendant’s traffic bar snap and vanish as people shoved past the barrier.

Then she was inside, stumbling forward, trying to reach a staircase. She made it to the dubious safety of the nearest stairwell, badly winded and coughing violently. She could hardly climb, could barely see through the streaming tears. She fumbled her way up one flight, reached the floor her car was on. Stumbling badly, she managed to reach the proper row. She keyed her wrist-comm, flashing a message to the car to unlock itself and start the engine. Three seconds later, she fell through the open door into the driver’s seat. Kafari slammed the door shut, locked the car, sagged against the cushions and dragged down deep gulps of air.

Other people were running past, having reached her floor. She dug the gun out of the console, held it firm in a double-handed grip that shook with such violence, the muzzle described wide circles in front of her. Shudders gripped her whole body. When something smacked into the door, she twisted around. The gun came up. Her finger slid home. A wild-eyed man stared down the wrong end of the bore. His mouth dropped into an “o” of shock. Then he turned his larcenous attention to another car down the row from hers.

The muzzle of her gun rattled against the window glass in a jittery rhythm.

I will never, ever, she promised herself with devout intensity, get caught in the middle of another political riot… Her wrist-comm beeped at her. Simon’s voice, harsh with strain, sliced into her awareness.

“Kafari? Are you there, Kafari?”

She managed to push the right button on her third, shaking try. “Y-yeah, I’m h-here.”

“Oh, thank God…” A whisper, reverent in its relief. “Where are you? I’ve been calling and calling.”

“In the car. In the garage. I got caught in that unholy hell of a rally.”

“How — never mind how. Can you get out?”

“No. Not yet. I’m shaking too hard to drive,” she added with grim candor. “And there’s gas everywhere, riot gas. I can hardly see. There’s no way I’m going to try driving through the mess out there in the streets. This thing’s turned ugly. Real ugly. On both sides.”

“Yes,” Simon growled. “I know. What?” he asked, voice abruptly muffled. “It’s my wife, goddammit.” A brief pause, as he listened. Then, “You want me to what? Jesus Christ, are you out of your idiotic mind?”

Whatever was being said — and whoever was saying it — Simon was clearly having none of it. She heard an indistinct mumble of voices, realizing abruptly that the transmission was scrambled, somehow, coming across the unsecured transmission to her wrist-comm as garbled sound rather than sensible words. Who was he talking to? The military? The president? Kafari swallowed hard, trying to muffle another fit of coughing. Whoever it was, they wanted something from Simon and the only reason she could imagine for someone to call Simon was for a request that he send Sonny somewhere.

Here? Into the riot? Oh, shit…

Memory pinned her to the seat cushions, paralyzed her limbs, her brain with remembrance. Sonny’s guns whirling in a dance of rapid-fire death… his screens flaring bright under alien guns… Not again, she whimpered. Not now, carrying Simon’s child. A child they’d struggled so hard to conceive. Then she heard Simon’s voice, cracking through the terror in crisp, no-nonsense tones.

“Absolutely not. You don’t send a Bolo into the middle of a city for riot control. I don’t give a damn how many buildings they’ve broken into. You don’t use a Bolo to quash a civilian riot. It’s worse than killing a mosquito with a hydrogen bomb.” Another interlude of indistinct sounds interrupted Simon. Her husband finally growled, “It’s not my job to make sure you win this or any other election. Yes, I watched the coverage of the rally. I know exactly what that little asshole said. And I repeat, it’s your problem, not mine. You’re on your own. Yes, dammit, that’s my final word. I’m not ordering Sonny to go anywhere tonight.”

A moment later, Simon spoke to her again. “Kafari, do you want me to come in with the aircar?”

“No,” she said, after squelching the instantaneous, little-girl desire to have him swoop down once again to play knight-errant, “I don’t. I’m okay. I may be stuck here for a few hours, but I’m okay. And the baby’s okay, Simon, I’m sure of it. If I need help, I’ll call.”

“You’ve got your birthday present?” he asked, in oblique reference to the console gun she carried.

“In my hand,” she said cheerfully.

“Good girl. All right, sit tight for now. I can be there faster than an ambulance could reach you, if you need help.”

“Okay.” She smiled through the mess streaming down her face, aware that her blouse was wet and that her suit was probably ruined beyond repair by the damage sustained. Her smile turned rueful. If she could worry about her suit, she really was all right. “Simon?”

“Yes, hon?”

“I love you.”

His voice gentled. “Oh, hon, I love you so much it hurts.”

I know, she thought silently. She was sorry for that part of it. Sorry for all the reasons behind it. For her inability to change it, to change the reality behind the old pain, the new fears. The best she could do was love him back, as hard and as fiercely as she could manage. She settled back against the cushions, laid the gun in her ungainly lap, and waited for the end of danger, so she could go home, again.


It was, Simon reflected bitterly, one of the worst political mishandlings he had ever witnessed. Images relayed through Sonny’s surveillance systems, picked up from a combination of commercial news broadcasts — including sky-eyes in hovering aircars — and police cameras, told a tale of unfolding disaster in the heart of Madison. The wildly inflammatory performance by Vittori Santorini was bad enough, on its own. He’d never seen anything like that virtuoso performance, with one man plucking and vibrating and drumming a crowd’s emotions to riotous heat, with nothing more than a fanfare, a well-timed sunset, and a few words uttered with stunning skill.

Far worse — infinitely worse — was John Andrews’ reaction to the violence that erupted almost inevitably in the wake of that stellar, if brief, show. With rioters engulfing the heart of downtown Madison, John Andrews had not appreciated Simon’s flat refusal to send in the Bolo. Simon hadn’t thought it was possible to commit folly greater than using a Bolo to break up a riot, but what he was witnessing now…

Riot police, intent on containing the violence, were pumping gas cannisters and riot-control batons into the crowd along a periphery six blocks deep and spreading. Rioters, crazed by hatred, rage, and choking gas clouds, had rushed police lines in dozens of places. Officers were going down under makeshift bludgeons, while the police were using riot clubs in self-defense. Simon noted with a cold, jaundiced eye that none of the commercial news feeds contained footage of rioters beating downed law enforcement agents, but showed graphic images of police clubbing down women and half-grown teenagers.

He sat alone in the apartment, watching the split-screen images in rising dismay, while John Andrews’ reelection chances grew dimmer with each passing moment. If he hadn’t reached Kafari, reassuring himself that she was unharmed, he would’ve been streaking toward Lendan Park in an aircar. He was seriously tempted to fly in, anyway, and land on the roof of the parking garage where she was trapped for God-alone knew how long. The only things that stopped him were an unshakable faith in Kafari’s ability to defend herself from a blockaded bunker — he’d made damned sure that her groundcar was as well armored as her Airdart — and the knowledge that if things went crazy enough in Madison, tonight, he might well need to be right where he was, to watch developments through Sonny’s eyes and ears, rather than in an aircar with nothing but a commlink and a small-scale datascreen.

The crowd spilling out of Lendan Park poured down Darconi Street, looting and pillaging through government offices and retail businesses. A cordon of police stood locked shield-to-shield between the crazed mob and Assembly Hall, swaying in places where the shock of human bodies thudding against the riot shields pushed the officers back, toward the wide steps leading up to Jefferson’s highest legislative nerve center.

Simon had a grimly clear picture of what was at risk, given the mood of that crowd and the contents of that building. He could understand, at a deep level, the president’s desire to use military force great enough to stun that unholy pack of madmen into silence. Not only was Assembly Hall and all its records and high-tech equipment at risk, so was the Presidential Residence, only a few short blocks away. If the rioters breached the locked shields of the police trying to contain the mob, things would go from ugly to deadly.

Something needed to be done, fast.

Simon wasn’t expecting what someone — the president or maybe a panicked military official — did about it. Despite the poor lighting conditions, since full darkness had fallen by now, he caught the first whiff of trouble within moments, far sooner than the news-camera crews realized what was happening. He saw the cannisters go off midair with a gout of flame as they broke open explosively, but there was no smoke, no visible cloud of riot gas, just a colorless burst above the crowd. Within seconds, people were falling down like children’s jackstraws, piled every which way. They toppled in a flopping, macabre wave, grotesquely animated for two or three seconds before going utterly still. The wave spread faster than heartbeats. One of the news cameras abruptly plunged to the street, continuing to record the now-skewed images as its owner plummeted to pavement, as well.

Simon came to his feet, sweating and swearing. “Kafari! Can you hear me? Kafari, shut off the ventilation on the car! Seal it up!”

“What?” she sounded confused.

“They’ve gassed the crowd with war agents!”

“Oh, God…”

Simon couldn’t tell what she was doing, through the open commlink. He could just make out her pained, gasping breaths, a sound of sudden, raw terror. Surely, Simon told himself, surely they weren’t stupid enough to use a lethal compound on an unarmed crowd? He’d looked at a supposedly comprehensive inventory of munitions and war agents, just prior to the Deng invasion, and there hadn’t been any biochemical weaponry listed. Had somebody quietly stockpiled it, without recording the fact in the military inventories? Or was this a recent import? From the freighter in parking orbit at Ziva Two, maybe, slipped in with parts and equipment needed to complete the station? Either way, heads needed to roll for it. Roll and bounce.

If it was a big-enough molecule, it might not get into the car. He’d paid top money for both of Kafari’s vehicles, air and ground, with dozens of specialized modifications planned with war in mind. Even if it did get inside, it might not be lethal. There were paralytic agents that would immobilize a person without killing or doing irreversible damage. There were others, though, that inflicted permanent damage, sometimes severe. What a “non-lethal” gas could do to Kafari and their unborn child… The edge of the desk bit into his hands, while he waited in helpless terror.

Talk to me, hon, talk to me…

“I’ve got everything sealed,” Kafari said in a voice hoarse with raw stress. “The vents, the windows, everything I can think to seal.”

“Can you get out of the garage? Drive away from the affected zone?”

“No, the streets are jammed. I barely made it to the car.”

“Sit tight, then. Sonny, track the signal from Kafari’s commlink. Pinpoint her location on a map of Madison. Show me wind speed and direction. And get President Andrews on the line. I need to talk to him.”

“Retrieving data. Superimposing now. There is no response from the president.”

Simon swore viciously. New split-screen images popped up in a mosaic, showing him the downtown area, the spreading clouds of visible gas marking the drift-direction of the invisible ones, as well, and the atmospherics he’d requested. The tightest of the knots in his muscles relaxed a fraction. Kafari’s refuge was upwind of the cone-shaped dispersal pattern. A couple of city blocks upwind. Not a lot of distance, but it might be enough. Maybe. Let it be enough.

“Sonny,” he said, voice rough with strain, “send an emergency notice to the commander of Nineveh Base and the hospitals. We’re looking at massive casualties, already, and that gas cloud’s going to keep spreading. Warn law-enforcement officials downwind. Have ’em sound an emergency alarm. If we can get people into shelters…” He broke off, watching the speed of dispersal, and swore again. There wasn’t time to warn enough people. The leading edge was already spreading out into the suburbs, the teargas attenuated enough to be essentially harmless, but what about the paralytic agent?

Simon jabbed controls with savage fingers, trying to contact the president again. He managed to raise a staffer on the fourth attempt.

“Simon Khrustinov, here. Find John Andrews. Find him now. I don’t care if you have to yank him off the toilet, get him on the line.”

“Hold, please,” the woman said, voice infuriatingly calm.

An eternity of seconds crawled past. Then the president, sounding out of breath and flustered, snapped, “What the hell do you want, Krustinov?”

“Who authorized use of a paralytic war agent?”

“War agent? What the hell are you talking about? The police are using riot gas, Khrustinov. Thanks to you.” The last word was bitter, full of hatred.

“Then you’d better talk to the police, Andrews, because you’ve got a major disaster spreading through Madison. Turn on your damned datascreen and watch the newsfeed. We’re talking thousands of casualties and the downwind dispersal pattern is still spreading—”

“Simon,” Sonny broke into the conversation, “riots are erupting in Anyon, Cadellton, and Dunham. Unemployed miners and factory workers are rampaging through residential and commercial districts, protesting the use of biochemical weaponry on unarmed civilians in Madison. I recommend shutting down all commercial news broadcasts to prevent further inflammatory footage from sparking more protest riots.”

John Andrews abruptly activated the video link, looking bewildered. “What the hell’s going on?” he was demanding of a staffer. “Don’t tell me you don’t know! Find out!” He turned to look into the camera. “Khrustinov, will you kindly explain the magnitude of the problem?”

Simon sent the data images Sonny was providing, tracking the magnitude of the unfolding disaster. Andrews took one look and blanched, skin fading to the color of dirty snow. “Oh… my… God…” He swung around, shouting, “Get General Gunther on the phone. Get him now. Alert the hospitals. And find out what that stuff is — and who authorized it!”

A deep, nasty trickle of suspicion made itself felt. President Andrews didn’t look or sound like a man trying to cover up a bad decision. He genuinely didn’t know what was happening, what had been released, who had authorized it. Simon couldn’t imagine any lower-ranking officer on site using a paralytic agent without extremely high clearance, which narrowed the field to a very small number of suspects. Acting on a hunch, Simon said, “Sonny, show me Lendan Park, real-time as of now. And did you record anything after the end of that speech?”

“Transmitting view of Lendan Park,” Sonny responded. “Accessing databanks.”

The heart of Lendan Park was eerie in the darkness, too still and far too silent. The only things moving were tree branches and the gold and green “peace banners” fluttering and snapping in the wind. He could see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bodies strewn across the ground like flotsam thrown up onto the shore after a storm at sea. He used digital controls to zoom in on the stage, frowning to himself. The stage was empty. Vittori Santorini was nowhere to be seen. When had he left? Where was he now? Somewhere in that crowd of fallen followers?

Sonny shunted a recording of the speech and its aftermath to another split-screen viewing window. He killed the audio and simply watched the final moments of the speech and the frenzied explosion of the crowd. There were multiple views of the stage popping up as Sonny tapped more news and police cameras. Most of the cameras swung to follow the abrupt wave of violence engulfing the edges of the park, but a couple of them, doubtless security cameras installed in police vehicles, continued to show the stage. He watched, cold to his bones, as the clouds of tear gas drifted past the stage. Watched, even colder, as the still-unidentified war agent began its macabre work.

He was still frowning at the scene when a rustle of motion near the base of the stage arrested his attention. He adjusted the zoom and watched, morbidly fascinated, as several people crawled out from under the stage, the skirts of which had been draped in POPPA bunting. Simon leaned forward, abruptly. Whoever they were, they slipped into the open, stepping cautiously across the fallen bodies, moving furtively and quickly. Simon counted five of them, all wearing gas masks. Why? Had they merely exercised prudence, foreseeing the use of tear gas? Or had they known in advance that a more dangerous substance was going to be launched into the air above their loyal followers? He didn’t like the implications. Not one teensy bit.

Kafari’s voice interrupted his dark and suspicious train of thought.

“I feel okay, Simon,” Kafari said. “Should I be feeling sick? What’s happening, out there?”

More of the subconscious tension gripping his midsection uncoiled. “Honey, you have no idea how glad I am to hear that.” Simon willed his hands to let go their death-grip on the edge of his desk, then drew several deep, calming breaths. “And no, you shouldn’t be feeling sick. If you’d breathed that stuff, you’d have gone into convulsions and ended paralyzed within a few seconds.”

A shocked, choked sound of horror came through the commlink. “Convulsions? Paralyzed? What in the name of all that’s unholy did they turn loose?”

“I’m trying to find out. Don’t get out of the car for anyone or anything until you get an all-clear from me. The affected zone is downwind from you, so you should be all right where you are. Don’t try driving out, yet. God knows what trigger-happy police would do, watching a car emerge from that part of the city, just now. Do you have anything to eat or drink with you?”

“Uh… Let me check the emergency kit.” He heard rustling sounds, one sharpish grunt, then she said, “I’ve got a couple of bottles of water and some energy bars.”

“Good. I’d say we’re looking at maybe eight to ten hours, to get things calmed down and get some answers on what we’re dealing with, here. Ration them, if you have to, but remember dehydration’s worse than hunger.”

“Right.” Grim, down-to-business. The voice of a woman who’d seen combat and knew the score. “I’ll wait it out as long as it takes. I don’t suppose anyone knows where Vittori Santorini is?”

“Not yet,” Simon growled. “Why?”

“I’d like to give him my personal thanks for landing us in this mess.”

Simon surprised himself with a smile, fleeting but genuine. “That’s a sight I’d give a paycheck to see.”

Her chuckle reassured him. “Love you, Simon. Call me when you can.”

“Love you, too,” he said, voice rough with emotion. All to hell and gone…

He turned his attention to the disaster engulfing the rest of Jefferson. Sonny was tapping news feeds from five major cities, now, rocked by explosive protest riots. Law enforcement agencies, engulfed and overwhelmed, were screaming for help from Jefferson’s military. Reserve forces were scrambling from half a dozen military bases, rushing riot-control units to contain the damage. Simon scowled. The very presence of soldiers in the street was creating damage, serious damage, guaranteed to play right into Vittori Santorini’s grasping hands. Rioters on the receiving end of combat soldiers’ armed attention would lay blame, loudly and savagely. And there was only one logical scapegoat available to take the brunt of the blame: John Andrews.

With the election tomorrow…

Simon swore under his breath, torn between disgust and a sneaking trickle of admiration for a stunning job of planning and executing the downfall of a political regime inimical to Vittori’s plans. The man was fiendishly clever, charismatic, a natural showman — and deadlier than any scorpion hatched on old Terra. Simon had never seen any political or social movement capture hearts and minds as fast as Vittori’s Populist Order for Promoting Public Accord had, gaining speed and winning converts by the thousands every day.

How many more would join POPPA after tonight, Simon couldn’t even hazard a guess, but he was betting the final tally would run to the millions. He wondered bleakly if John Andrews truly understood the magnitude of political disaster Jefferson now faced. POPPA’s so-called party platform was a wildly jumbled hodgepodge of rabid environmentalism, unsupportable social engineering schemes with no basis in reality, and an economic policy that was, at best, a schizophrenic disaster begging the egg for a chance to wreak uncountable chaos.

Within half an hour, the magnitude of the night’s damage was brutally apparent. Smoke was rising toward the stars from dozens of arson fires blazing unchecked across downtown Madison, where firefighters — forced by circumstances to relinquish their biohazard gear to emergency medical teams — refused to go into the affected zone until more equipment could be brought in from Nineveh Base. With conflicting news reports flying wild, John Andrews called a press briefing, appearing before the stunned population with a plea for a return to calm.

“We are trying to determine the number of casualties, but the vast majority of victims are alive,” he said, visibly shaken. “Medical teams have set up emergency field hospitals in Lendan Park and the Franklin Banks residential area. Nearly a hundred doctors, triage nurses, and emergency medical technicians are moving through the area in full biohazard suits, administering counterparalytic agents and treating people with serious injuries. The paralytic agent appears to be affecting the voluntary muscle groups, which means most people should not be at risk of death. We’re still trying to determine what the agent is, so we can administer effective medical treatment. Be assured that no one in my administration or law enforcement will rest until we have found and brought to justice the person or persons responsible for this atrocity against unarmed civilians. I therefore urge you to return to your homes while professional emergency teams respond to the crisis.”

It was, Simon scowled, one of the worst speeches he had ever heard. Instead of reassuring the public with carefully considered, factual information designed to relieve fears without conjuring new ones, he had dwelt on the most disturbingly negative aspects of the crisis. He had then, with fumbling stupidity, called the whole sorry disaster an atrocity — a phrase guaranteed to further upset people — and tried to pin blame on a vague threat from unknown subversives.

It didn’t matter that he was probably right, given the evidence Simon had already gathered. Millions of people world-wide had been watching in stunned disbelief as embattled law-enforcement officials clubbed civilians to the street and gassed the crowd with riot-control chemicals. With those scenes imprinted vividly on the public consciousness, it was a very, very short step to assuming that police had also fired the paralytic agent.

By refusing to publicly admit that possibility, President Andrews had insulted the intelligence of the entire voting populace. Regardless of who had fired those cannisters, Vittori Santorini had just accomplished his primary objective — violent disruption of the social order, necessitating strong-armed measures to bring things under control.

Just before midnight, John Andrews issued orders imposing martial law on every urban center in Jefferson and announced a planet-wide curfew until order had been restored. Kafari was trapped for the duration. Simon spent a long, bitter, sleepless night, watching the unfolding dynamics of the situation. Armed soldiers with live ammo in their guns deprived the mobs of their ability to loot and destroy at will, so the rioters returned to their homes, switched on their computers, hooked themselves into the datanet, and churned out a flood of angry rhetoric, flaming everyone and everything connected to John Andrews and maligned the president’s personal habits, decisions, and political allies.

POPPA’s datasite, so inundated by people trying to access the live news footage, the recorded replays of the speech and its aftermath, and the policy statements issued by Vittori Santorini and his sister, crashed the entire datanet for nearly three hours. By dawn, word had finally begun to trickle out that President Andrews had been correct in at least one critical factor: most people would recover. Ninety-eight percent of them, in fact, were ambulatory and able to return home. The agent had — thank God — been a short-duration chemical that was already degrading into an inert, harmless substance. The only casualties were those with underlying medical conditions — asthma and heart failure being the primary causes of death — and those crushed in the stampede or fatally injured when they collapsed on stairways, while driving groundcars, or operating dangerous machinery.

At the mere suggestion that there might be evidence implicating Vittori Santorini and other high-ranking POPPA leaders, the riots flared up again, so violently that John Andrews was forced to call another press conference. “We are continuing the investigation and are conducting a thorough probe into the actions of law enforcement personnel as well as civilians and armed-forces officials. We are trying to determine whether this paralytic agent was obtained from military stockpiles held in reserve for invasion contingencies or if it was acquired recently, either through manufacture on Jefferson or purchase from off-world sources. We have no direct evidence linking this dastardly act to any individual or group. Without hard evidence, this administration cannot condone the unsupported accusations made against Vittori Santorini and his colleagues in POPPA. In the interest of ensuring public safety and protecting the civil rights of those regrettably and publicly named as potential suspects, I therefore extend presidential amnesty to any individuals or groups who might have been associated with this attack. We are asking that people return to their homes again, in the hopes that martial law and curfews will not have to be invoked again.”

Simon just groaned, rubbing grit-filled and bloodshot eyes in a weary, frustrated gesture. Offering amnesty to people like Vittori Santorini might — just might — get people back into their homes again, but the long-term effects were staggering and dreadful in every way Simon could twist and turn the implications. Simon knew enough Terran military history to understand very thoroughly the concept of Danegeld. It was possible to buy peace, but only for a short time. Once convinced that a government was willing to capitulate to demands and threats, the Danes came back again and again, each time demanding more concessions and a higher price for continued peace.

John Andrews had already blown his election chances out of the water. He had now blown all hope that Vittori Santorini’s uncivilized behavior would cease. Indeed, the double-damned fool had just ensured that Vittori’s methods would proliferate, unchecked and unstoppable. Jefferson’s future looked, quite abruptly, bleak as a snow-choked winter sky. The sole bright moment in Simon’s morning was Kafari’s arrival home, safe and unharmed. Exhaustion pulled her shoulders down, left her eyes bleary and her footsteps uncertain. He held onto her for long moments, then took her face in both hands. “You need some sleep,” he murmured.

“So do you.”

“I’ll sleep soon enough. I’ve got stimulant tablets in my system, just now. I need to stay awake until this crisis is past. But you,” he added, lifting her and carrying her into the bedroom, “are taking yourself and our daughter to bed.”

“I’m hungry,” she protested.

“I’ll bring you something.”

After setting her down against the pillows, Simon put together a sandwich and some soup, carrying them into the bedroom on a tray. He halted, three strides into the room, then set the tray carefully on one corner of the dresser. Kafari was asleep. She looked more like an exhausted little girl than a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy, who’d spent the night in a locked car with a gun in her lap. He brushed a wisp of hair back from her brow. She didn’t even stir. Very gently, Simon pulled the covers around her shoulders. He tiptoed out, retrieving her dinner on the way. He swung the door closed with a soft click of the latch. She was safely home. For the moment, that was all that mattered.

There’d be time enough later for worrying about what happened next.


The late afternoon sun felt good on her skin as Kafari left the spaceport’s new engineering hub and headed through the employee parking area. The fresh wind, whipping inland from the sea that rolled ashore just a stone’s throw from the terminal, blew away some of the lingering distaste of a day spent in the company of people who had flocked to the POPPA cause like teglee fish to the net. She was tired of hearing the POPPA manifesto discussed with such fervent enthusiasm. Tired of biting her tongue to keep from answering with brutal honesty when co-workers asked her what it had been like, to see the great, the wondrous Santorini in person, to be right in the middle of ground zero when the police tried to murder decent, honest citizens merely expressing their opinions.

Kafari wanted to keep her job. So she answered in monosyllables and vowed never again to tell her secretary anything about her life outside the office. Truth to tell, most of the people who’d asked breathlessly for the juicy details were disappointed to learn that she hadn’t actually been paralyzed by the gas. After a whole day spent fending off ghouls, reporters, and overzealous proselytizers convinced she could aid their cause in seeking new converts — the woman who’d saved President Lendan’s life, only to be gassed by John Andrews’ uniformed stormtroopers was, they reasoned, a photo-op too good to pass up — Kafari was on nonstop burn mode.

When she got to her aircar, that burn exploded into molten rage. Some slimy little activist had slapped a big, ugly sticker right across the side, with rampant red letters that shouted “POPPA Knows Best!”

“The thrice-blasted hell it does!”

She scraped at the offensive mess in a fury worthy of a valkyrie. She succeeded in shredding her fingernails, the paint job on her beautiful new car, and what was left of her ragged temper. She finally gave up, vowing to use acid, if necessary, and simply repaint the car. She popped the driver’s hatch, levered her ungainly bulk into the seat, webbed herself in, and snarled at the psychotronic unit to take her to Klameth Canyon’s landing field, which had been designated as a polling place.

For the first time in her life, Kafari resented the constitution’s attempt to reduce election fraud by insisting that each voter cast a physical ballot at a controlled polling site. The e-voting encryption methods used on Mali and Vishnu, which allowed people to vote via the datanet, had been deemed insufficiently secure by Jefferson’s founders, even though Kafari could have written the psychotronic safeguards into such a system in her sleep. The only voters allowed to cast an electronic ballot were off-world citizens, including nearly twenty-thousand soldiers now serving in the Concordiat’s armed forces.

She briefly envied the soldiers. The last thing she wanted, tonight, was to stand in line for God alone knew how long, then fly all the way back to Nineveh Base before she could collapse with Simon and watch the election returns. Kafari leaned back against the cushions and consciously reminded herself that she was proud of her work, proud that she was helping to build a fitting legacy to a fine man’s courage and wisdom. That legacy meant more prosperity for her entire world, a labor of love in memory of a man whose death had hurt her profoundly.

By the time her aircar touched down at Klameth Canyon field, it was nearly dark. There were so many other aircars, scooters, and even groundcars overflowing the section allotted to parking ground-based vehicles, the auto-tower routed her to a space virtually at the edge of the immense field. That was just as well, since she didn’t want anybody out here to see that wretched POPPA slogan stuck to the side of her Airdart. Kafari popped her aircar’s hatch and climbed out into the coolness of early evening, glancing up by habit to see the last of the sunlight fading from blood-red to darkness on the highest peaks of the broken, buckled, spectacularly weathered Damisi ranges.

She shivered in the chilly autumn wind and made her way across the field, heading for the terminal that had been rebuilt by local volunteer labor. The buzz of voices was a welcome sound as she neared the long, low building that housed Klameth Canyon Airfield’s engineers, auto-tower equipment, machinery used to maintain the landing field, and storage racks for rental scooters. There was, as she’d feared, a long line, but the voices that reached out from the darkness settling rapidly over the Canyon were friendly, happy ones, engaged in the warm, relaxed conversation that had been a mainstay of Kafari’s life until her departure for school on Vishnu. There was a buoyant, comfortable quality to the way country folk spoke to one another that reached out to wrap Kafari in an almost-tangible blanket of soothing familiarity.

When she reached the back of the line, folks paused in their conversation and turned to welcome her. “Hello, child,” a grandmotherly woman greeted her with a smile warm as pure Asali honey. “You must’ve come a far piece, tonight, to vote?”

Kafari found herself smiling as a knot of tension, so habitual she’d nearly forgotten it was there, unwound and let her relax. “Yes, I flew in from work at the spaceport.” She grinned. “I forgot to change my residence in the database.”

Chuckles greeted that admission, then the conversation resumed, apparently where it had left off. Talk flowed free and easy, in swirling little eddies as they moved forward, each shuffle taking them two or three steps closer to the polling station. Most of the talk revolved around the harvest.

As they approached the big sliding doors where people paused to have their ID scanned, the station’s outdoor security lights gave Kafari a better look at those standing with her in line. That was when she noticed a young woman her own age about a meter further along, who kept turning to look back at Kafari. Like Kafari, the girl was visibly pregnant. Her lovely olive-toned complexion and features suggested Semitic ancestry. Every few moments, she would look like she wanted to say something, but was hesitant to speak. They were still about fifteen paces from the doors when she finally found the courage to walk back to where Kafari stood in line.

“You’re Kafari Khrustinova, aren’t you?”

Tension in her gut tightened down again. “Yes,” she said quietly.

“My name’s Chaviva Benjamin. I was just wondering… Could you give your husband a message?”

“A message?” she echoed.

“Well, yes. My sister Hannah volunteered to go off-world, you see. She sent a message home to us, on the freighter that came in last week, bringing parts for Ziva Two. She’s a nurse. They’ve assigned her to a naval cruiser that came in for repairs and resupply.”

Kafari nodded, puzzled as to where this might be going.

“Some of the navy people asked my sister where she was from, so she told them about Jefferson. And she mentioned Simon Khrustinov and his Bolo.” Again the girl hesitated, then got the rest of it out in a rush. “The ship was at Etaine, you see. During the fighting and the evacuation. They all knew who he was. Those navy people, they said…” She blinked and swallowed hard before saying, “Well, they think pretty highly of him. They told her there’s a lot your husband didn’t mention, Mrs. Khrustinova, that day the president died.”

Kafari didn’t know what to say.

Mrs. Benjamin said in a hushed voice, “I wish the folks on the news, here, had told us more about him, when he first came. They never mentioned the Homestar Medallion of Valor he won, the same day his Bolo earned that Gold Galactic Cluster, and I think they should have. The people on my sister’s ship said we were luckier than we knew, to have him assigned to us. Could you tell him, please, not everybody believes those idiots at POPPA? I lost both of my parents and all four of my brothers in the invasion, but Colonel Khrustinov and his Bolo aren’t to blame. No matter what people like Nassiona Santorini say about it.”

Before Kafari could gather her stunned wits, a big rawboned man in his sixties, wearing a utility-looped belt that held the tools of a rancher’s trade, spoke up, touching the brim of a sun-bleached work hat. “Girl’s right, ma’am. I don’t rightly know what those folks in Madison use for brains. Anyone with half a set of wits can see right through all the holes in their thinkin’. There’s not two words in ten comes out of their mouths that even make sense.”

A much older man, his face and hands as weathered as the dark cliffs above them, said harshly, “They may be stupid, but there’s a lot of ’em. I’ve been watching the folks in this voting line, same as I’ve been watching the pews of a Sunday morning and the feed and seed shops of a Saturday afternoon, and there’s hardly more’n a handful of Grangers to be seen, that’s of the age to go getting married and having babies. Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” he offered Kafari an apologetic bow. “But facts is facts. We’ve sent the best and brightest we got out to the stars, and all their courage and good sense went with ’em. What’s left in this canyon is us old folks, mostly, and the little ones too small to go. I don’t like it, I’m telling you. Don’t like it one bit to hear those ninnies in town and then count up how many folks are left to tell ’em what nonsense they’re bleating.”

Others chimed in, stoutly defending Simon’s good name and asking her to pass along their gratitude. The spontaneous outpouring overwhelmed her, particuarly after the bilge Nassiona Santorini had spewed all over the airwaves. Then the grandmotherly woman who’d greeted her first took both of Kafari’s hands in her own. “Child,” she said, gripping Kafari’s fingers so hard they ached, “you tell that man of yours there’s not a soul in this Canyon who thinks anything but the best about him.” Then she winked and that honey-warm smile wrapped itself around Kafari’s heart. “After all, he had the good sense to marry one of our own!”

Chuckles greeted the observation, dispelling the tension.

“You bring him out here, come the harvest dancing,” the older woman added, “and we’ll show him what Granger hospitality is all about.”

Kafari smiled through a sudden mist and promised to bring Simon to the harvest festivals. Then she asked Chaviva Benjamin about the baby she carried.

“It’s a girl,” Chaviva said, touching her own abdomen almost reverently. “Our first. My husband, Annais, is so happy his feet hardly touch the ground, these days. She’ll be due right about time for Hannukah.”

Kafari found herself smiling. “I’m glad for you,” she said. “Mine’s a girl, too.”

“Good,” Chaviva said softly, meeting and holding her gaze. “We need the kind of children you and your husband are going to bring into this world.”

Before Kafari could think of anything to say in response, it was Chaviva’s turn to slide her ID through the card reader and go inside to vote. A moment later, it was Kafari’s turn. She walked to the voting booth in a daze, marking her ballot quickly, almost slashing the pen across the slot to reelect President Andrews, then slid the ballot into the reader for tabulation and headed for her aircar.

As she climbed in, fastened safety straps, and received permission for take-off, she lapsed into a pensive, strange little mood that was still with her when the lights from Nineveh Base and the Bolo’s maintenance depot finally greeted her from the darkness of the Adero floodplain. It was good to see the lights of home.

Chaviva Benjamin’s words had kindled something deep in Kafari’s heart, a sweet ache that was part longing, part humble gratitude that the young woman had opened the way for others to share how much she and Simon meant to them. It would be very easy, working where she did, to lose sight of the simple, forthright concern for others that was a hallmark of the world Kafari had grown up in, a world very different from the one she had found in Madison.

Simon had dinner waiting when she walked through the door. She went straight to him, put both arms around him, and just held on for a long moment.

“Rough day?” he asked, stroking her hair.

She nodded. “Yeah. You?”

“I’ve had better.”

She gave Simon a kiss. She wanted to ask him about the medal of valor, which she hadn’t known about, but remained silent. Since he hadn’t shared it with anyone on Jefferson, including her, he clearly preferred not to be reminded of the circumstances under which he’d earned it. So she contented herself with passing along the messages from Chaviva Benjamin and the others.

Simon stared down into her eyes for a long moment, then looked away and sighed. “An officer knows his actions won’t always be popular, but it’s never pleasant to be vilified.” He didn’t say anything more, however, which worried Kafari. He wasn’t telling her something. From the sound of his voice, it was an important something. Kafari understood that Simon’s job involved military secrets, things she would probably never be privy to, and doubtless wouldn’t want to know, even if he told her.

But she wanted to help him, wanted to know what to do and say that would ease the burden on his shoulders. She couldn’t do that if she didn’t know what was eating away at him like a cutworm in a healthy cabbage patch. She also wanted to know if something Nassiona Santorini had said was actually true or not.


He frowned. “That sounds unhappy.”

“While I was at the clinic, I heard part of an interview with Nassiona Santorini.”

A muscle in his jaw jumped. “What about Ms. Santorini?”

Kafari hesitated as her gut twisted. She’d realized a few seconds too late that anything she said now would sound like she didn’t trust her husband. She swore aloud and pulled away, damning herself as she waddled into the kitchen. She cracked open a bottle of nonalcoholic beer with a savage yank and gulped half its contents in one long pull, trying to calm the sudden, painful clenching in her stomach.

“Kafari?” he asked quietly.

She turned to face him across the distance of their living room. “Why is Sonny still awake?”

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to see, but it wasn’t the faint smile twitched at his lips. “Is that all? I was afraid you were going to ask what ‘that machine’ and I are legally allowed to do.”

She swallowed convulsively. “And you can’t answer that?”

He sighed again. “I’d rather not.”

Which gave Kafari a fair idea about the answer, but she wasn’t about to push him. “That’s okay with me, Simon,” she said quietly. “But you haven’t answered my question.”

“No, I haven’t. Do you have to stand all the way across the room?”

She flushed and headed back for his arms, which closed around her with great tenderness. He leaned his cheek against her hair, then spoke. “There are a couple of reasons, actually. The main one is simple enough. Another breakthrough from the Void is still a very real threat. I want Sonny to stay awake. To keep track of exactly where our various defense forces have been deployed. If I shut him down and we get a breakthrough, again, he would have to spend critical time figuring out where everybody is, before the Deng or the Melconians hit us. You’ve seen how fast interstellar battle fleets can cross a star system.”

She shivered silently against his chest.

“As to the other reasons…” He sighed again. “Let’s just say that Abraham Lendan thought it was a good idea.”

She caught her breath and looked up, surprised by the hard, angry glitter in his eyes. “Why?”

A muscle jumped in his jaw. “Because he was a very astute statesman. And a superlative judge of human character. I doubt that even one Jeffersonian in five thousand realizes just how much this world lost when he died. It’s my fervent hope,” Simon added roughly, “that he was wrong.”

A chill slithered its way down Kafari’s back. What did Simon know? What had President Lendan known? If President Lendan had known about the trouble POPPA was brewing…

“Are you afraid of Sonny?” Simon asked abruptly.

She hesitated for just a moment, then opted for the simple truth. “Yes. I am.”

“Good.” She stared up at her husband. Simon’s eyes were dark, filled with shadows of a different shape and hue than she’d seen there before. He said gently, “Only a fool isn’t afraid of a Bolo. The more you know about them, the more true that becomes. Officers assigned to the Brigade go through a whole battery of psychology courses before ever setting foot inside a Command Compartment. With Sonny, I had to take special training courses, because he won’t react the same way as Bolos with more sophisticated hardware and programming.”

He touched her cheek with a whisper-soft fingertip. “You’re my wife and Sonny knows that. He considers you a friend, which is a high compliment. But you aren’t his commander. He isn’t programmed to respond to you at a commander’s level of trust. Or, more accurately, a commander’s level of engineered obedience. His threat-level threshold can be crossed and reacted to faster than you or any human could hope to defuse the situation. Sonny’s an intelligent, self-directing machine. Anything with a mind of its own is unpredictable. With Sonny, there are landmines you could trip without even realizing it. I’d really rather not find out what would happen if you did.”

A tightly coiled tension around her bones unwound a little, hearing Simon confirm what she had known, at a deep level. Kafari nodded. “All right.”

One eyebrow twitched upwards. “All right? That’s it?”

She produced a grin that surprised him into widening his eyes. “Well, yes. There are times when Sonny is as darling as a child and times when he scares me to death. If the needle-gun I carry every day could think for itself, I’d feel a whole lot differently about it, before sticking the thing into my pocket. I like Sonny. But I’d be crazy to trust him.”

“Mrs. Khrustinova, you are a remarkable lady.”

“Then you’d better feed me, so I don’t leave you for a better short-order cook!”

Simon gave her a swift kiss, then swatted her backside and propelled her toward the table. They ate in silence, which Kafari needed, after the day she’d put in. She made only one reference to the unpleasantness in town. “Do you have anything in Sonny’s depot that would take off plasti-bond stuck to metal?”

Simon frowned. “Probably. Why?”

“Some jerk wallpapered every aircar in the lot with election slogans.”

His lips twitched. “I see. I take it, from your description of the perpetrator, that you weren’t in agreement with the sentiment it expressed?”

“Not exactly.”

“Huh. I suspect you have a gift for understatement. Yes, I think I can scrounge something that would do the trick. Will we need to have the car repainted?”

“How in the world did you know?”

Simon chuckled. “My dear, I’ve seen you attack things you don’t like.”

“Oh.” She managed a smile. “Yes, we’ll need to repaint the car.”

They lingered over dessert and washed the dishes together, then wandered into the living room. Quirking a questioning brow at Kafari, Simon nodded toward the datascreen. She sighed and nodded. As much as she hated to spoil the mood, it was time to watch the election returns. Simon switched it on and reached for Kafari’s feet, giving them a gentle and thorough rubdown that left her all but purring.

The picture that greeted them, however, soured Kafari’s dinner. She recognized the young attorney speaking with Pol Jankovitch. The journalist apparently harbored a prediliction for attractive POPPA spokeswomen. Isanah Renke’s long blond hair and dazzling Teutonic smile had popped up all too frequently, over the last several months. So had her favorite spiel, which she was pouring forth yet again.

“—tired of John Andrews waving thick stacks of data in front of people while rattling off excuses for the economy’s slide toward disaster. We’ve had enough. Jefferson can’t afford complicated bureaucratic double-speak and worn-out wheezes about chaotic money markets and arcane budgeting processes. Even attorneys can’t unravel this administration’s so-called budget plan. The POPPA economic platform is simple and straightforward. We need to put money in the hands of the people who need it. That’s why Gifre Zeloc has endorsed POPPA’s economic-recovery inititatives.”

“What are the most important points of those initiatives, Isanah?”

“It’s very simple, Pol. The most important component of POPPA’s economic recovery plan is an immediate end to the current administration’s loan schemes.”

“John Andrews and his analysts insist that economic development loans are critical to rebuilding our manufacturing and retail industries.”

“We do need to rebuild, Pol, urgently. But loan schemes do nothing to address the deeper problems our economy faces. And loan schemes place an unjust burden on struggling businesses. Loans force companies, particularly small retailers, into merciless repayment schedules. You must understand, Pol, these loans have draconian forfeiture penalties built into them. If a business can’t meet repayment demands on time, the owner faces outrageously unfair punishments, including governmental seizure of property! We’re talking about people losing their homes, their livelihoods, just to satisfy legal requirements attached to money these businesses must have to recover. It’s outrageous. It’s government-sanctioned blackmail. It’s got to stop, Pol, it’s got to stop now.

Kafari reflected sourly that POPPA’s campaign slogan should have been “it’s got to stop now,” since it was the favorite phrase of every spokesperson POPPA had recruited for fieldwork, followed closely by “we’ve had enough” of whatever they were preparing to demonize and vilify next.

Pol Jankovitch’s expression mirrored horror. “How can a business function if the government confiscates its property? A business can’t operate without an inventory of goods, equipment, or buildings! It certainly can’t operate if it loses the land it sits on!”

“Huh,” Kafari muttered, “a farmer can’t grow anything on land he loses, either. How come nobody’s pointing that out?”

Simon, voice tight with anger, said, “Because saying it doesn’t match their agenda.”

Again, Kafari wondered what Simon knew, what Abe Lendan had known.

On the datascreen, Isanah Renke was saying, “You’re right, Pol. Businesses can’t operate that way. Under these loan schemes, the owner loses everything he or she has spent a lifetime trying to build. And the people working in that business lose their jobs. Everyone suffers. John Andrews’ insane economic recovery plan is deliberately engineered to punish those least able to guarantee sustainable profits. Unfair loan practices must go. Otherwise this world faces certain economic disaster.”

“And POPPA has a better plan?”

“Absolutely. We need grants and economic aid packages designed to guarantee recovery for hard-hit businesses. We’re talking about industries that can’t recover under the convoluted, unwieldly, economically disastrous nonsense contained in John Andrews’ so-called recovery plan. It’s lunacy, Pol, sheer lunacy.”

Kafari scowled at the screen. “Doesn’t anybody in that broadcasting firm pay attention to regulations about what can be said in a datacast before the polls close?”

The harsh metallic bite in Simon’s voice surprised Kafari. “Isanah Renke is not a registered candidate. She’s not a member of a candidate’s staff. She isn’t a registered lobbyist and she doesn’t draw a salary from POPPA. Neither,” he added with a vicious growl, “does Nassiona Santorini.”

Kafari stared at him for a moment, trying to take in the implications. “You can’t tell me they work for free?”

Simon shook his head. “They don’t. But the shellgame they’re playing with holding companies is technically legal, so there’s not a damned thing anyone can do about it. Vittori and Nassiona Santorini are the children of a crackerjack industrialist. They know exactly how to tapdance their way through the corporate legal landscape. And they’ve hired attorneys with plenty of experience doing it. People like Isanah Renke tell them exactly how to accomplish questionable activities without running afoul of inconvenient legislation, court rulings, and administrative policies.”

Kafari knew he’d been watching the Santorinis since that first riot on campus, but he’d just revealed more in two minutes than Kafari had learned in the past six months. Nassiona Santorini’s allegation that Sonny was watching night and day had unsettled her, which was a strong indication of how powerful that argument was. It had caused Kafari to question the actions and motives of a man she trusted implicitly to safeguard her homeworld and act in its best interests.

Would Kafari’s reaction, would her indignant anger over POPPA’s allegations, be different if she’d learned that Sonny was watching Grangers as closely as the machine was watching POPPA? It wasn’t a comfortable thought. That kind of surveillance was a two-edged sword. She was abruptly glad that Simon Khrustinov was the one wielding it. Were all Brigade officers chosen for their unswerving integrity, as well as honor, loyalty, courage, and every other trait that made Simon a consummate Brigade officer and the finest human being she had ever known?

As the evening droned on, with voting tallies showing massive POPPA victories in the urban centers and strong support for John Andrews in the rural areas, Pol Jankovitch made a show, at least, of interviewing spokespersons from both parties, but there wasn’t much to hold her attention in the sound bites supporting the current administration. It might’ve been that she was simply in philosophical agreement with them, or maybe the trouble was that she already knew everything they were saying. When she found herself yawning against Simon’s shoulder, she wondered a little sleepily if the dry presentations that failed to hold her interest could possibly be an orchestrated effort on somebody’s part. She had just about decided she was being a little too paranoid when Pol Jankovitch dropped a bombshell that sent her bolt upright in her seat.

“We’ve just been informed,” Pol said, interrupting an economic analyst trying to explain why POPPA’s ideas weren’t economically tenable, “that the electronic returns sent by off-world troops via SWIFT have been scrambled during transmission. We’re trying to find out the magnitude of the problem. We’re patching through to Lurlina Serhild, our correspondent at the Elections Commission headquarters. Lurlina, are you there?”

A moment of dead air was followed by a woman’s voice a split second before Special Correspondent Lurlina Serhild appeared on screen. “Yes, Pol, we’ve been told to stand by for a special report from the Elections Commission. It’s our understanding that the commissioner will be issuing an advisory within the next few minutes. Everyone here is tense and distressed—” She stopped, then said, “It looks like the commssioner’s press secretary is ready to make a statement.”

A harried-looking woman in a rumpled suit came on screen, moving decisively to a podium bearing the logo of the Jeffersonian Independent Elections Commission.

“All we know at this time is that an unknown number of absentee ballots have been properly credited, while an unknown number of others have been lost in the data glitch. We are trying to unscramble this serious transmission error, but we can’t determine at this time how long it will take to discover the magnitude of the problem. Our system engineers are working frantically to untangle the glitch in time to meet the legal deadline for final vote tallies.”

A tendril of sudden, strong dismay threaded its way through Kafari’s perpetually queasy middle. Those deadlines were short. Very short. The next moment, the commissioner’s press secretary explained why. “The constitution was drafted with reliance on stable computerized tabulation systems designed to count physical ballots. Given the small size of Jefferson’s population at the time the constitution was ratified, the tabulation deadlines did not take into account the necessity for massive numbers of off-world, absentee ballots.

“This is the first time in Jefferson’s history that we’ve had more than a hundred absentee ballots transmitted from off-world. These votes require a translation protocol to decode SWIFT data. Somewhere in the translation process or in the transfer protocols that regulate deciphered data-feeds into the balloting computers, a serious error occurred. It scrambled the stream of incoming code and wrecked our ability to trace which ballots lost data integrity.

“We can’t tell at this juncture how many ballots from the original SWIFT message were in the translation processors, how many had been incorporated into the master tallies, and which had not yet been processed when the system failed. As little as twenty percent of the ballots might be affected, but our system engineers fear the number of ballots caught in the translator when it crashed may have been closer to eighty or ninety percent.

“The Elections Commissioner takes full responsibility for this difficulty and promises every possible effort to ensure the correct tabulation of absentee votes. We will issue an update when we know more. No, I’m sorry, no questions at this time, please, that’s everything I can tell you.”

Simon was running a distracted hand through his hair, leaving it disheveled. The anger in his steel-hued eyes surprised her, but what he said left Kafari stunned. He jerked to his feet, pacing the living room like a caged cat, thinking out loud. “They didn’t need to do something like this. They already had the election, those voting patterns make it pitifully obvious. They didn’t need to commit election fraud. So why the hell did they do it? To rub salt in an open wound? No, there’s more to it than that. It’s a message, loud and clear. A demonstration of power. And contempt. They’re telling the rest of us, ‘We can cheat so skillfully, you can’t touch us.’ And they’re right, curse it. We can’t. Not without proof.”

Kafari watched him in horrified silence. What information had he been in possession of, to prompt an accusation of election fraud? Was that what Abraham Lendan had suspected, when he’d promoted Simon to colonel? If somebody had realized POPPA was conspiring to cheat, why hadn’t anybody done anything about it?

“Simon?” she asked, in a scared, little-girl voice.

He looked at her for a long, terrible moment, eyes pleading, then said in a hoarse, rasping voice, “Don’t ask. Please. Just don’t.”

She wanted to ask. Needed to ask. And knew that she couldn’t. He was a soldier. Like it or not, she was a soldier’s wife. A colonel’s wife. She couldn’t stand between him and his job. His duty. So she turned her attention back to Pol Jankovitch and the incoming updates from the Elections Commission, which were disjointed and contradictory.

The votes could not be unscrambled. Maybe the votes could be unscrambled. No, they definitely couldn’t be straightened out before the time limits expired. The Elections Commission was profoundly sorry, but the law was the law. They could not circumvent clearly worded statutes, not even to honor the intended votes of men and women risking their lives on far-away worlds.

“Turn it off,” Kafari groaned, sick at heart.

“No.” There was steel in Simon’s voice, alien steel. “We need to watch every ugly moment of this.”

“Why?” she asked sharply.

Simon’s eyes, when they tracked to meet her gaze, took her back to that horrible moment when Simon had stood before the Joint Assembly, speaking his dire truths. Meeting that gaze up-close and personal was harder than Kafari had ever dreamed it would be.

“Because,” he said softly, “we need to understand the minds and methods of those who engineered it. This,” he waved one hand at the viewscreen, “is just the beginning.”

“How can you be sure of that?” Even as she asked, voice sharp with alarm, she knew that she was afraid of his answers. And holding her husband’s gaze was like looking into the heart of a star going supernova.

“Know much about Terran history?”

She frowned. “A little.”

“Does that little include any Russian history?”

Her frown deepened. “Not much. I’ve been studying Russian art and music, because I think they’re beautiful, but I haven’t read much history, yet. I’ve been too busy,” she admitted.

“Russian history,” Simon said in a voice as raw as a Damisi highlands blizzard, “is an endless string of cautionary messages on the folly of human greed, dirty politics, mindless ignorance, exploitation of the masses, and the savagery that accompanies absolute power. My ancestors were very effective at creating disasters that took generations to undo. In one twenty-year period, the Russian Empire went from a level of political freedom and prosperity equal to most of its contemporary nations to a regime that deliberately exterminated twenty million of its own men, women, and children.”

Kafari stared, cold to her soul. She’d known there was some horrible history from humanity’s birth-world, but twenty million people? In only twenty years? Simon jabbed a finger toward the viewscreen, where POPPA candidates were carrying district after district. “Am I worried? You damned well better believe it. Those people scare me spitless. Particularly since there’s not a blessed, solitary thing I can do about it.”

Then he stalked out of the room. The back door slid open and crashed shut again. Kafari waddled awkwardly to the glass. He was striding through the moonlight, heading for his Bolo. Kafari closed her hand through the curtain fabric, realized she was shaking only when she noticed that the curtain was, too. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t follow him, for a whole basketful of good reasons. She was afraid to be alone, afraid of a threat she didn’t understand, one she hadn’t seen coming, despite qualms about a lunacy that had gained such wild popularity in so short a time.

She was wondering whether she ought to call her parents, just to hear a familiar and comforting voice, when the lights flickered and dimmed and she heard a sound that set every hair on her body standing on end. In the darkness outside her fearfully empty little home, the Bolo had powered up his main battle systems. She knew that sound, remembered it from that ghastly climb up a cliff with Abraham Lendan at her heels and explosions shaking them through the smoke. Try as she might, Kafari could not come up with a reason for Simon to power up his Bolo that didn’t leave her shaking to the bottoms of her abruptly terrified feet.

The hand she laid protectively across her abdomen and the baby inside trembled. There was so little she could do to protect her child from whatever was coming. She knew, as well, that this was one battle Simon would have to fight alone. She couldn’t help him. There was no courageous president to rescue. Only a vision of thunderous clouds on every horizon, no matter which way she twisted and turned.

It was a lonely business, being a Bolo commander’s wife.

Chapter Twelve


Twelve seconds after Simon enters my Command Compartment, he orders me to full Battle Reflex Alert. Portions of my brain inaccessible outside of combat snap to life, sending a surge of power and euphoria through my personality gestalt circuitry. I am fully alive once more, able to think more clearly and coherently than I have since the last Deng Yavac blew to atoms under my guns.

“Trouble, Lonesome,” Simon tells me, using my old nickname, a sign of deep emotional stress. I scan my immediate environs, do a check of all remote systems, including the four satellites that have been launched since my Commander forced the Joint Assembly to appropriate necessary funds for them. I see no sign of an Enemy anywhere in this star system. Brigade channels are silent. I do not understand why I have been brought to Battle Reflex Alert.

“What kind of trouble?” I ask, seeking clarification.

“Analyze tonight’s election results, please. Cross-check with any possible connection with POPPA activity that might constitute legal election fraud under the Jeffersonian Constitution.”

“This will take time, Simon. There are several million variables involved.”

“Understood. I haven’t got anything better to do, just now.”

I settle down to the task. Simon activates his duty log and begins to record his impressions, hypotheses, and potential avenues of inquiry, which I note and incorporate into my own analyses. My understanding of human thought processes has been gleaned largely from comparing my own interpretation of known facts with the viewpoints, ideas, and decisions of my commanders. In accordance with Simon’s standing orders, I have monitored the elections, since they comprise a large variable in the task set for me by Simon, identifying threats to the stability and safety of this world.

The SWIFT transmission that delivered Jefferson’s absentee military votes came in via Navy channels, which I monitor as a matter of routine, checking on shifting battle patterns that might affect the security of this world. The data transmission was clear and undamaged when it entered my incoming transmissions databank. So far as I have been able to determine, probing into the system from my depot, the Elections Commission balloting computers did not malfunction in any way I can understand.

I review constitutional provisions and determine that once an election has been officially closed, there is a seventy-two hour window of opportunity in which to provide evidence of vote tampering or other fraud. Simon has seventy-one hours and thirty-nine point six minutes in which to present evidence, which must be given to the Elections Commission by the aggrieved party or parties, acting on their own behalf. Moreover, the evidence must be capable of standing in the face of scrutiny by Jefferson’s High Court and its appointed technical consultants, if applicable.

Given the magnitude of the search and the computer systems that must be tapped, scrutinized, and analyzed for possible data tampering or human sabotage, I am the only technical consultant on Jefferson capable of such a search. If I locate evidence of human intervention, I must then discover and present clear and compelling legal evidence that the tampering was deliberate and fraudulent. I begin to see why Simon ordered me to Battle Reflex Alert. I cannot hope to accomplish this task without access to my full computing capabilities. Given the parameters and variables involved, I do not hold much hope that I will be successful in my mission.

I am a Unit of the Line, however, with a clear duty and specific orders involving a specific, if complicated, task. I must attempt to carry out this order to the best of my ability. This is not the first time I have entered a mission with heavy handicaps against success. But I have never surrendered and never been defeated. If fraud was committed, I will do my best to locate it. I begin an intensive search.


I have experienced many situations which my programmers and commanders have told me are comparable to human emotions, as I understand them. I have known fear, anger, and hate as well as satisfaction and exultation. Now I know humiliation. Despite seventy-one hours and thirty-nine point six minutes of the most intensive data searching and analysis of my career as a Unit of the Line, I have uncovered nothing that would provide legal proof of fraud. I have found virtually nothing at all. What little there is provides only circumstantial suspicions which virtually any member of the voting public — let alone a constitutional attorney or High Justice — would scoff at, if someone were foolish enough to bring it to their attention.

At best, conspiracy theorists are universally lampooned. At worst, they are institutionalized as unstable. In either case, they are taken seriously only by other conspiracy theorists. Were Simon to present as evidence the paltry compilation of solid facts I have accumulated, he would severely damage his credibility, which is a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to occur. Bitterness skitters throughout my personality gestalt circuitry as I am forced to advise Simon of my inadequacy as an espionage data analyist.

My Commander, disheveled and weary from his own attempts to discover the truth in this matter, takes the news with leniency I do not feel my performance justifies.

“Not your fault, Lonesome,” Simon insists. “I’ll give POPPA credit for a smooth operation. If you didn’t find it, then it’s not there to be found. And maybe we’re just chasing ghosts. It could be a legitimate, honest glitch. Complex circuitry and programming just hiccough, now and then. Particularly when systems with insufficient resources are overloaded, trying to conduct an operation too complex for them. Damn.” He rubs reddened eyes and heaves a deep and weary sigh. “All right, Sonny, stand down from Battle Reflex Alert. Return to active standby and continue to monitor, per standing orders. Christ, I’m not looking forward to reporting to the likes of Gifre Zeloc. Strike that remark, please. He’s about to become my boss, like it or not.”

I dutifully delete his comment, understanding his reasoning and not liking it, either. My Commander is spooked. This does not make for an easy transition from my full cognitive functionality to the less-aware, restricted operational mode I have maintained since the end of my last battle with the Deng. I do not want to feel “sleepy” at this time. I dislike the idea so much, I experience another emotive sensation new to my personality gestalt center: sullen resentment. Not at Simon. At the situation. Even at myself, for failing to provide my Commander with factual information he deemed important to our mission.

Simon powers down his command chair and groans as he shakes cramps out of his muscles. He has not left my Command Compartment since the election. He has slept only six point three hours in the past seventy-two and is in serious need of rest. As he climbs out of my Command Compartment, he says, “I’m going to bed, Sonny. You know where to find me, if you need me.”

“Yes, Simon,” I say gently.

As he leaves, I know a deep and empty anguish. And a far deeper uncertainty about the future. His. Mine. Jefferson’s. I do not know how humans cope with such feelings. I am a Bolo. My way is different. I focus my attention on the only thing I am able to do: continue the mission. Even though I no longer understand it.

Chapter Thirteen


Kafari stared at the letter, rereading the astonishing instructions for the third time, unable to believe the evidence of her eyes. Simon, who was technically a resident alien under the provisions of the treaty, wasn’t even mentioned in the letter, which had been addressed to her. She had just about decided the thing wasn’t a practical joke when Yalena crawled under her feet, trying to yank the power cords out of the back of her computer. Kafari snagged the struggling toddler and said, “Time out. You are not allowed to play with power cords. Two minutes in the time-out chair.”

Her daughter, two years and three months old, glowered up at her. “No!”

“Yes. Touching the power cords is not allowed. Two minutes.”

Nothing in the universe could sulk quite so well as a two-year-old.

With Yalena temporarily out from underfoot, Kafari called Simon, who was in Sonny’s maintenance depot. “Simon, could you come into the house, please? We need to talk.”

“Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good.”

“It isn’t.”

“Be right there.”

Simon opened the back door just as Kafari allowed Yalena to climb down from the time-out chair. “Daddy!” she squealed, running straight for him.

He swung her up and planted a kiss on her forehead. “How’s my girl?”

“Daddy take Bolo?” she asked, hope shining in her eyes.

“Later, honey. I’ll take you to see Sonny in a little while.”

A thirteen-thousand-ton Bolo wasn’t Kafari’s notion of an ideal playmate for a two-year-old, but Yalena was enchanted by the machine, which looked to her like an entire city that would talk to her any time Daddy allowed her to visit. Which, granted, wasn’t often, for any number of practical reasons.

“What’s up?” Simon asked, keeping his voice carefully devoid of negative emotion.

“This.” She handed over a printout of the letter.

Jaw muscles flexed when he reached the contents of paragraph two: Pursuant to section 29713 of the Childhood Protection Act, stipulating childcare arrangements for dependent children with both parents drawing paychecks, you are hereby notified of the requirement to remand your daughter, Yalena Khrustinova, for federally mandated daycare, to begin no more than three business days after receipt of this notification. You will enroll your daughter in the federal daycare center established on Nineveh Base before April 30th or face criminal prosecution for violation of the Children’s Rights provisions of the Childhood Protection Act. Prosecution will immediately result in full termination of parental rights and Yalena Khrustinova will be remanded for permanent relocation to a federally mandated foster care program.

Pursuant to statute 29714 of the Childhood Protection Act, in-home child welfare inspections will commence one week from the date of Yalena Khrustinova’s enrollment, to ensure that she is being provided with the federally mandated level of financial and emotional support necessary to her welfare. We look forward to caring for your child.

Have a nice day.

Simon looked up from the letter, met Kafari’s eyes. He was still as death for a space of seven pounding heartbeats. “They’re serious.”


Jaw muscles flexed again. “We have three days.”

“To what? Ask the Concordiat to reassign you to Vishnu? Or Mali? Or somewhere else? We’re trapped, Simon.”

“I’m trapped—” he began.

“No, we’re trapped. What kind of marriage would it be, if Yalena and I are in some other star system while you’re stuck here?” She swallowed hard. “Besides which, my whole family is here. We fought too hard for this world to just walk out and leave it to the likes of that.” She pointed at the now-crumpled letter in Simon’s fist. “Don’t ask me to do that, Simon. Not yet. The courts are full of lawsuits challenging POPPA’s programs. They haven’t bought the entire judiciary. We’re fighting for this world, fighting hard. We have to go along with them until enough people wake up and see where we’re heading and do something to stop it.” She had to choke out the final words. “It’s just daycare.”

He started to answer with considerable heat, then snapped his teeth together. Once he’d swallowed whatever had tried to rip its way across his tongue, he said, “It’s not ‘just daycare’ and you know it. I can’t force you onto the next starship that comes to call. God knows, I don’t want to lose you. Either of you.” He shut his eyes for long moments, fighting an internal battle that was wreaking visible havoc. Kafari wanted to comfort him, but didn’t know how. She was scared, angry, ripped up inside with fear for her daughter. If those lawsuits failed to curb POPPA’s campaign of social insanity…

Simon muttered, “You’re the legal dependents of a Brigade officer. That’s got to count for something.”

“Against a rational government? Probably. Against POPPA? With the likes of Gifre Zeloc in the presidency and Isanah Renke leading the drive to rewrite Jefferson’s entire law code? Or ‘social progressives’ like Carin Avelaine in charge of the Bureau of Education and bigoted fools like Cili Broska in charge of purging the public schools and university curricula of antipopulist bias? The people who thought up this,” she pointed at the badly crushed letter in Simon’s fist, “engineered a rigged election that nobody could contest. Your position as a Brigade officer not only won’t help us, they’ll go after you, with intent to destroy. If you try to fight them on this, we’ll lose Yalena.”

Watching the hopelessness settle across his face and shoulders was a pain that cut straight to her heart. He was holding Yalena tightly enough to make her squirm in protest. Then a thought blossomed to life in his face, one that straightened his shoulders again. “This crap applies to children with both parents working. If one of us isn’t actively employed…”

Kafari saw exactly where he was headed. Knew in a flash that it meant trouble. Simon was “actively employed” under the treaty, despite the fact that his main job, these days, was conferring with Sonny once or twice a day and spending the rest of his time with Yalena. To get around the provisions of that letter and the legislation it represented, Kafari would have to quit her job at the spaceport.

The choices facing her crucified Kafari. Jefferson needed her. Needed psychotronic engineers, and not just at the spaceport. If the changes to higher education’s curricula were an indicator, a whole new generation would grow up without the skills or knowledge necessary to produce more engineers of any sort.

Once in power, POPPA had launched a juggernaut of far-reaching changes in every conceivable portion of society. The Childhood Protection Act was just the tip of the iceberg. Environmental protection legislation was already crippling industry with clean-environment standards so stringent, heavy-industry manufacturing plants, industrial chemical production firms — including agricultural chemicals critical to producing Terran food crops in Jeffersonian soil — and even paper-production mills literally could not operate in compliance.

The financial penalties for failing to meet standards were so severe, whole industries were going bankrupt, trying to pay fines. Business leaders were filing aggressive lawsuits to challenge the lunacy, but the Senate and House of Law, urged on by the roar of the masses, just kept passing more of POPPA’s social, economic, and environmental agendas. The subsistence allowance was already higher than the average yearly wages of low-skill menial employment, just kept passing more of POPPA’s social, economic, and environmental agendas.

She focused on the crumpled piece of paper in Simon’s white-knuckled hand, with its social-engineering mandate, and realized with a sickening sensation that it was already too late to fight that particular legal battle. If she or anyone else tried to protest, they would lose their children. And their children, trapped in POPPA-run daycare centers and schools, faced a brainwashing campaign of terrifying proportions. How many others had received letters like hers? The number had to run into the millions, at a minimum. Economic woes and stunning tax increases had forced Jefferson’s middle-class families to become two-career couples, with spouses taking any job they could find, even menial labor, just to remain solvent. Those families couldn’t afford to lose a second income, not even to shelter their kids.

And now the Santorinis were holding a gun to parents’ heads. She should have seen it coming. It was a natural outgrowth of legislation that had outlawed home schooling, forcing parents to turn over their children to POPPA’s indoctrination machine. Now they’d widened their net to snare preschoolers, as well, giving them complete power over children at their most critical formative stage, inculcating belief patterns that would last a lifetime.

She wondered with a sickening lurch in her stomach how many of the business owners filing lawsuits to overturn POPPA legislation would find themselves embroiled in custody battles for their own children? On the grounds of “improper emotional support in the home"? She shut her eyes for a moment, but couldn’t blot out a mental picture of Jefferson’s future that was so ugly, her breath froze in her lungs. She didn’t know what to do. Literally didn’t know what to do.


She opened her eyes and met Simon’s gaze. His eyes were dark. Scared.

“I don’t know what to do, Simon,” she whispered, wrapping both arms around herself. “Jefferson needs psychotronic engineers—”

“Yalena needs her mother.”

“I know!” Even she could hear the anguish in her voice. “Even if I resign, we’ll gain only a couple of years. She’ll have to start kindergarten when she’s four, like it or not.”

“All the more reason to idiot-proof her now.”

Can you idiot-proof a child whose teachers are part of the problem? Which they will be. The educational curriculum was practically the first thing they went after. My cousins are already fighting to undo the garbage their children are being taught, particularly the little ones, kindergarten and early primary grades. They come home from school and announce that anyone who picks up a gun — or even keeps one in the house — is a dangerous deviant. Farm kids are being told that killing anything, even agricultural pests, is tantamount to murder.

“Ask my cousin Onatah to show you the school book her little girl is using. Kandlyn’s only seven. She already thinks that everything alive has the absolute right to stay that way. Even microbes, for God’s sake. The older farm kids know enough from direct experience to realize how stupid that is, but the younger ones and practically all the city kids are gobbling that crap down like candy.”

A muscle jumped in Simon’s jaw. “You’re starting to see the enormity of this thing. There are a whole lot more children in cities and towns than there are on farms and ranches. A few years from now, nobody below the age of twenty will realize it is stupidity. That’s why I want you to leave, now. Before it’s too damned late.

Since you won’t do that, at least consider this. Jefferson’s need for psychotronic engineers won’t vanish just because you quit your job now. You’re one of the most employable people on Jefferson. We can make do with my salary for a couple of years. It’s sacrosanct and comes directly from the Brigade. If they try to revoke it, they’ll end up with a Concordiat naval cruiser in orbit, on-loading the three of us and Sonny, while Gifre Zeloc signs a repayment check bigger than they can afford to hand over. They know they can’t antagonize the Concordiat, no matter what their propaganda says to the contrary.

“Men like Gifre Zeloc and Cyril Coridan in the House of Law, women like Fyrene Brogan in the Senate are smart enough to know the difference between the swill they feed subsistence recipients and what they can actually do. You’ll notice that nobody’s come knocking at our door to demand that we actually shut Sonny down. Or that we ship him out on the next available transport. That would ring alarm bells all the way back to Brigade headquarters at Central Command.”


“Kafari, please. We don’t need your salary. But we do need you, at home, until Yalena’s first day of school. Give Yalena those two years.”

He was right. Absolutely and utterly right. At least until Yalena was old enough to enter school. “All right,” she said, voice hushed. “I’ll give notice.”

The worst of the tension drained from her husband’s rigid stance. “Thank you.”

She just nodded. And hoped it was enough.


Kafari was fixing Yalena’s breakfast when someone knocked at the front door. Loudly. Startled, Kafari sloshed milk onto the counter. Nobody ever came to their house without calling ahead, first, to make sure Sonny wouldn’t shoot them as an intruder. Not even Kafari’s family. And with spring planting taking up everyone’s time, nobody in her family would be calling on them this early in the day, anyway. Simon, who had just strapped Yalena into the toddler seat, exchanged a startled glance with her.

“Who — ?” he began.

“Trouble, that’s who,” she muttered, wiping her hands on a towel and striding purposefully through the house.

She opened the door to find a tall woman with pinched nostrils and a prune-shaped mouth, whose socially correct skinny frame was all hard angles and jutting bones. She was staring down at Kafari from a pair of steel-rimmed glasses of the sort preferred by POPPA bureaucrats. It was part of their “we’re all just people” persona, which dictated that no one on the government payroll was better than anyone else and therefore should not look it.

With her was a hulking giant whose intelligence looked to be on the simian level, with muscles capable of breaking a small tree in half. He definitely did not subscribe to the “thin is in” mentality sweeping the civil service and entertainment industries. No, she realized abruptly, he’s the enforcer. Just what were they here to enforce, at seven a.m. on a Tuesday morning?

“Mrs. Khrustinova?” the woman asked, her voice as warm as a glacier.

“I’m Kafari Khrustinova. Who are you?”

“We,” she jerked her head in a gesture both abrupt and menacing, “are the child-protection team assigned to Yalena Khrustinova.”

“Child-protection team?”

“Trask, please note that Mrs. Khrustinova is apparently in need of mechanical augmentation, as her hearing is plainly substandard, which directly jeopardizes the welfare of the child in her custody.”

“Now wait just a damned minute! I heard you, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What are you doing here? I’m a full-time mother. You don’t have jurisdiction.”

“Oh, yes we do,” the woman said, eyes and voice frosty and threatening. “Didn’t you read the notice sent to every parent on Jefferson last night?”

“What notice? What time, last night? Simon and I checked the messages just before bed and there wasn’t any notice.”

“And what time would that have been?”


“Trask, please note that Mr. and Mrs. Khrustinov keep a two-year-old child awake far past the hour at which a child that age should be in bed.”

“That’s when Simon and I went to bed!” Kafari snapped. “Yalena was in bed by seven-thirty.”

“So you say.” The derision and disbelief beggared the limits of Kafari’s patience.

Simon spoke just behind her shoulder in a voice as cold and alien as the day of Abraham Lendan’s death. “Get off my property. Now.”

“Are you threatening me?” the woman snarled.

Kafari’s husband was holding Yalena on one hip. His smile was a lethal baring of fangs. “Oh, no. Not yet. If you refuse to leave, however, things could get very interesting. Somehow, I doubt the Brigade would take kindly to having an officer’s home invaded by petty officials attempting to enforce a dubious rule that I haven’t even seen, let alone determined the legality of. This house,” he added in a deceptively gentle voice, “is the property of the Concordiat. Its computer terminals are connected to military technology that is classified as sufficiently secret, no one on Jefferson has the clearance to access it. That includes any so-called home inspection team. You, dear lady, do not have a military clearance to come within a hundred meters of my computer terminal.

“If I were you, I would seriously reconsider the wisdom of trying to force the issue. I am a Bolo commander. In the building next door, a thirteen-thousand ton sentient war machine is listening to this conversation. That machine is judging how much of a threat you are to its commander. If that Bolo decides you are a threat to me, it will act. Probably before I can stop it. So have Trask, there, jot down this little note: the home-inspection provisions of the Child Protection Act do not — and never will — apply to this household. So kindly take your emaciated carcass and your large friend off the Concordiat’s property. Oh, one last thing. If you value your sorry little lives, do not attempt to snoop into the Bolo’s maintenance depot. I’d hate to have to clean up the mess if Sonny shoots you for trespassing into a Class One Alpha restricted military zone.”

The woman’s face went from paper-white to malevolent-red and her mouth opened and closed several times without sound. She finally snarled, “Trask! Please note that Mr. and Mrs. Khrustinov—”

“That’s Colonel Khrustinov, you insolent trollop!”

Kafari blanched. She’d never heard that tone in Simon’s voice.

The woman in their doorway actually recoiled a step. Then hissed, “Trask! Please note that Colonel Khrustinov and his wife maintain a lethal hazard that could kill their child at any moment—”

“Correction,” Simon snarled. “Sonny has standing orders never to fire at my wife or my child. Those orders do not apply to you. Get the hell off my front porch.”

He moved Kafari gently aside, then slammed the door and twisted the lock.

“Kafari. Take Yalena. And get your gun. Now. That lout looks stupid enough to try kicking the door in.”

She snatched Yalena and ran for the bedroom. Her daughter was whimpering, having caught the emotional whiplash from her parents and the intruders trying to force their way into the house. She heard the sound of the gun cabinet in the living room opening and closing, heard the snick of the safety on Simon’s sidearm as he prepared to do whatever became necessary. Kafari wrenched open the nightstand, shoved her thumb against the identi-plate, and clicked open the gun box inside. Kafari snatched up the pistol, barricading herself in the closet with Yalena.

“Shh,” she whispered, rocking the frightened toddler. “You’re just fine, baby.” She hummed a tune low enough to calm her daughter, without blocking the sounds from the living room. She could hear angry voices outside as the woman and her accomplice argued in strident tones. After several tense moments, she heard the snarl of a groundcar’s engine as it gunned its way down the driveway toward the street.

Simon appeared in the bedroom doorway, every muscle in his lean frame taut with battle tension. “They’re gone. For now.”

“And when they come back?” she whispered.

“They won’t come back. Not yet.”

“Not until they persuade the House of Law to pass an exception that covers us. Or get a presidential ruling from Gifre Zeloc that does the same thing. We have enough enemies to pass something like that in a heartbeat.” She added bitterly, “It might’ve been easier just to send her to their stinking daycare.”

“Liberty is never easy.”

“Yes,” she ground out between clenched teeth. “I know.”

Some of the grim tension relented. “I know you know. It’s one of the reasons I love you. You can stare something horrible in the eye and fight it to the death. And sometimes, that scares me senseless.”

He was staring, bleakly now, at Yalena, who was sitting in Kafari’s lap, playing with a strand of her hair. “Oh, Simon, what are we going to do?”

“Survive,” he said, voice harsh with strain. “And,” he added, forcing his voice into a more pleasant register, “eat breakfast. Nobody can fight a war effectively on an empty stomach.”

Kafari couldn’t help it. Her husband’s tone was so droll, his suggestion so eminently practical, tension leached out in a semihysterical bubble of laughter. “There speaks the seasoned veteran. All right, let’s go fry some eggs or something.”

He gave her a hand up and took charge of Yalena, handing over his gun — and handing her, as well, the responsibility for first-strike should those two goons decide to swing back for another go at it. Kafari slid her own gun into a capacious pocket, being careful to engage the safety first, and tucked Simon’s gun into a second pocket.

She paused long enough to call up their datanet account, where she found the notice in question. It had been sent at one-thirty a.m., a decidedly odd hour to be posting notices of this magnitude. It was short and pungent.

All parents are hereby notified that per administrative ruling 11249966-83e-1, the in-home inspections and daycare provisions mandated by the Childhood Protection Act have been expanded to cover every child on Jefferson, regardless of the employment status of the parents.

Somebody, Kafari realized with a cold chill, had been watching them. Closely enough to notice when she resigned her position at Port Abraham. Noticed and acted, with frightening speed. Had everyone else on Jefferson actually received this notice or had it been crafted especially for them, to force the issue of home inspections that POPPA clearly wanted to conduct in Simon’s quarters? Gaining access to their quarters must be high on somebody’s list of priorities. Simon’s enemies wanted either revenge or his military information, or both. In an equally plausible alternative, they might be trying to score a public relations coup by forcing the “hated foreign tyrant” to surrender custody of his child in obedience to the will of the people.

The speed at which the Santorinis engineered massive changes in public opinion continued to terrify Kafari. She printed the message and carried it into the kitchen, where Simon had already put Yalena back into the toddler seat and was busy at the stove with eggs and a frying pan.

He glanced at the message, grunted once, and shrugged. “They can try. Easy over or sunny-side up?”

Well, if Simon could set it aside for the moment, so could she. “Sunny sounds good to me.”

He smiled at the double-entendre contained in that answer. “Me, too.”

By the time she had the ham and juice ready, the worst of the shakes had gone and the cold knot of fear in her middle had begun the thaw. They had gained a breathing space, for today, at least. For now, for this morning and this meal, she was at home with her husband and her daughter. She would allow nothing to intrude deeply enough to spoil the moment. Time enough for worry, tomorrow.

* * *

She called her boss at Port Abraham, the next morning, to ask if they might still have a slot for her. Al Simmons, the port’s harried director, lit up with relief. “You want to come back? Oh, thank God! Can you start today? Can you be here in an hour?”

Kafari, startled by the urgency in her former boss’ voice, said, “I need to enroll Yalena in daycare before I can start.”

“Do it today. Please,” he added.

What in the world had been happening at the spaceport — or on Ziva Two — that had Al so frantic? She cleaned up Yalena, putting her in a rough-and-tumble jumpsuit, and drove over to the daycare center on Nineveh Base. She felt like Daniel, walking into the lion’s den. The moment she opened the door, Kafari was engulfed by the sounds of happy, shrieking children at play. It was such a normal scene, her rigid defenses wobbled slightly. The group consisted of children between the ages of six months to six years, at a glance. Kafari was greeted by a young woman in what appeared to be the daycare center’s staff uniform, a bright yellow shirt with dark green slacks and a cheery smile.

“Hello! You must be Mrs. Khrustinova. And this is Yalena?” she asked with a radiant smile for Kafari’s daughter. “What a beautiful little girl you are! How old are you, Yalena?”

“Two,” she answered solemnly.

“My, such a big girl! Would you like to play? We have all kinds of fun things for you to do.”

Yalena, eyes wide with interest, nodded.

“That’s my girl! Come on, let’s take you around to meet everybody.”

Kafari spent the next twenty minutes greeting various staff members, some of the exuberant children, and the daycare center’s director, a pleasant, motherly woman whose office was mostly glass, giving her a view of the main playroom.

“Hello, Mrs. Khrustinova, I’m Lana Hayes, the director of Nineveh Base Daycare Center. I’m a military mom,” she added with a warm smile, “with two boys off-world. My husband,” she faltered slightly, “my husband was killed in the war.”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Hayes.”

“He died in combat, protecting the western side of Madison.” She brushed moisture from her eyes. “My sons were already in the military. When the call came, they volunteered to transfer to a Concordiat unit. They wanted to avenge their father, I think. It’s an unhappy reason to go to war, but they loved their father and losing him was such a blow to them. To all of us. My daughter is still here. That’s her, with the two- and three-year-olds.” She pointed to a young girl of about sixteen, who was playing with a group of toddlers.

“This,” she gestured toward the children beyond the glass, “is our way of staying busy, giving other folks a little peace of mind that their kids are in good hands. We average one staff member per six children, in Yalena’s age group, so there’s always close supervision of the little ones. The older children are a little more autonomous, but we still maintain a ratio of one staffer to ten children, just for safety’s sake.

“The beauty of this system, particuarly for the folks with lower incomes, is that it’s free of charge. Everyone on Jefferson has access to it. That means every child has an equal chance to a good future. We have plenty of educational programs for the children, as well as play spaces and activity centers.”

She handed Kafari a packet of brochures that enumerated the advantageous programs and equipment available at Nineveh Base Daycare Center. It was a nice facility, there was no denying that. Plenty of child-safe equipment for playing in groups or alone, activities ranging from art projects to simple scientific experiments in a classroom-lab setting. Good access to data terminals for the older kids. Up to three meals a day and healthy snacks on demand. Older children could take dance classes, participate in plays, learn music. It was, in short, a first-rate daycare program.

With a lot of overhead to maintain and a large number of staffers to pay, all provided at taxpayer expense. Kafari found herself wondering who was going to keep paying those salaries, in the coming years. The government couldn’t keep up that level of expenditure for every daycare center on Jefferson, not over the long haul. Not without charging for the services or making massive budget cuts elsewhere. And probably not without imposing new taxes, which POPPA had promised not to raise. Kafari couldn’t imagine anything stupider than believing POPPA could fund even half its agenda without raising taxes. Substantially so.

There was a surplus of stupid people on Jefferson.

Mrs. Hayes seemed to be a nice-enough person, but she also appeared to genuinely believe in the moral rightness of the arrangement, without the slightest concern for the cost. Kafari was betting that Mrs. Hayes did not come of Granger stock. People who made their living from the land realized that nothing in life was free, no matter how often someone insisted that it was.

She handed over a set of forms for Kafari to fill out, then took Yalena to meet some of the other children. The forms Kafari was required to fill out left her with a deep sense of foreboding. There were questions she was legally committed to answering, which violated every right-to-privacy statute on the books. Grimly, she filled them in. Most of the questions about Simon, she left blank or answered in terse phrases.

Place of birth: off-world.

Occupation: Bolo commander.

Annual salary: paid by Dinochrome Brigade.

Political affiliation: neutral, as mandated by treaty.

Religious preference: blank. She wasn’t even sure he had one. He certainly had never voiced it, if he did, and the subject had never come up. Grangers believed in freedom of worship and the right to do so unencumbered by another’s curiosity.

Educational level: blank. She had no idea what the educational level was for an officer of the Brigade. Did an officer’s training at the war college count as “education” or as “military service"? She knew that Simon was far more widely read than she was and held expertise in a surprising range of fields, but had no idea whether to put in “high school” or “college” or “advanced training” as an answer.

Description of employment: classified. She genuinely didn’t know most of what Simon did, while on Brigade business. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Virtually all of it was secret. Not even Abraham Lendan had known most of what her husband’s job required. He certainly wasn’t sharing information — or anything else — openly with Gifre Zeloc.

When Mrs. Hayes returned, she frowned over some of Kafari’s answers. “Your husband’s information is highly irregular.”

“So is his job,” Kafari said bluntly.

Mrs. Hayes blinked. “Well, yes, that’s true enough. Not a citizen, after all, and being an officer…” Whatever her train of thought, she didn’t finish it aloud. “That’s all right, my dear, we’ll just turn it in the way it is and if anyone raises questions, we’ll fill in the missing information later.”

Like hell, you will, Kafari thought, giving Mrs. Hayes a slightly wintery smile.

“Very well, I believe we’re all taken care of, here. You mentioned needing to leave for a new job?”

“Yes, at Port Abraham.”

“You were fortunate enough to find a job at the spaceport? What is it, you’ll be doing there?”

“I’m a psychotronic engineer.”

Mrs. Hayes’ eyes opened wide. “An engineer?” she asked in tones of flat surprise. “A psychotronic engineer?”

A wild desire to shock this saccharine woman took possession of her. “I did my practicum work on the Bolo.”

Her mouth fell open. “I see,” she said faintly. Mrs. Hayes was staring at her, had to make a heroic effort to marshal her scattered thoughts. “I see. You must understand, most of the mothers whose children come here are military wives. They don’t work, almost as a rule, or if they do, it’s doing fluffy sort of things, hair-dressing, fancy sewing, manicures. The usual.”

Kafari couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. Granted, she hadn’t spent a great deal of time with other military wives, mostly because her work at the spaceport had taken up so much of her time during the past three years. Simon was not really in the thick of the military social life, either. Partly, that was simply because he wasn’t in the same league as other officers, who felt uncomfortable around him. It was difficult to be completely at ease around a man who commanded the kind of firepower Sonny represented, did not fall into the ordinary chain of command, and was answerable solely to the president and the Brigade.

Simon received very few invitations to Nineveh Base social affairs.

She hadn’t realized, during her idyllic girlhood, that Brigade officers, the most heroic and legendary figures ever produced by a human military organization, were also its loneliest. As cliched as it was, they really were a breed of men apart, both figuratively and literally.

Mrs. Hayes, recovered enough composure to ask, “Will you be working on Ziva Two? Or the spaceport?”

“The port. I’m going back to the job I left about a month ago, to devote more time to Yalena. When the new legislation went through, I couldn’t justify sitting in the house all day when psychotronic engineers are needed so urgently. So I’m going back to work, this afternoon.”

“That’s very commendable of you, my dear. Such initiative and patriotism! I’m sure the girls on the staff will be delighted to hear that you’re doing your part to rebuild our lovely world.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hayes. If that’s everything, I’ll just say goodbye to Yalena and head out to the spaceport.”

“Of course. I’ll give you a brief tour, if you have time?”

Kafari nodded. “I’d like to see the facilities,” she answered with unfeigned honesty.

It was, she had to admit, everything the brochures had promised, a first-rate center with everything spotlessly clean and new. The walls were brightly painted with educational murals. There were dress-up clothes, toys appropriate to every conceivable interest, except, Kafari noted with an inward frown, anything remotely military in nature. She found that odd, considering the circumstances. These were the children of soldiers, but there wasn’t a single toy gun, a single dress-up uniform, a single warplane or toy tank anywhere to be seen. She filed the information away for future reference, already wondering at the motivation behind that omission.

Otherwise, it was satisfactory in every way. Even the kitchen was first-rate, serving healthy snacks on demand, at no cost to the children or their parents. For the older kids, datascreens and hookups into the datanet were available for after-school study or educational computer games. “We get a fair number of school-age children,” Mrs. Hayes explained, “who come here for recreation, sports, dance classes, equipment for science projects, that sort of thing. We’re trying to serve the entire community, so parents won’t have the added burden of expensive equipment at home. That can be very hard on a single-income family living on a soldier’s pay.”

Kafari nodded. That was true enough, but she was totting up the cost in her head, again. She didn’t like the answers. Aloud, she said only, “It’s a very nice facility, Mrs. Hayes. I’m sure Yalena will enjoy her time here.”

Mrs. Hayes glowed with motherly pride. “That is quite a compliment, coming from a colonel’s wife, my dear. You really should be invited to more of our social events. I’m sure the officer’s wives would enjoy meeting you.”

“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Hayes.”

“Not at all. Not at all, my dear. Well, let’s look up Yalena, so you can be on your way.”

She found her daughter playing with a colorful puzzle, absorbed in trying to fit the pieces together in a way that made sense. “That’s a very nice puzzle, Yalena. Do you like it here?”

Her little girl smiled. “Yes!”

“I’m glad. Mommy has to go to work, sweetheart. I’ll come back in a few hours. You can play here with the toys and the other children.” She kissed her daughter’s hair and smiled when Yalena scrambled up to give her a hug.

“Bye-bye, sweetheart. I’ll see you in a little while.”


Her daughter was already absorbed in the puzzle again when Kafari paused in the doorway leading to the parking lot. The director’s daughter was helping her, smiling and praising Yalena’s efforts. Well, she thought on her way to the Airdart, it could’ve been a lot worse. Given the draconian wording of the letters they had received on the subject, she’d expected to find a regimented military school with children drilled into marching lockstep, responding to orders barked by a socially correct matron in uniform, wielding a bullhorn and a bullwhip as badges of office.

It was not a comforting thought to realize things might’ve been better, in the long run, if Jefferson’s children had been herded into such places. People would’ve protested sharply, maybe enough to call a halt to the madness. As it was… Only time would tell. And that was the best Kafari could do, without running for the nearest off-world ship that docked at Ziva Two. As she lifted off, flying toward Madison and the spaceport, she couldn’t help wondering if she were making a serious mistake.

Chapter Fourteen


Simon fidgeted in his chair, staring out the window from his computer terminal, trying without much success to find a way out of his dilemma. The familiar sounds of Nineveh Base — the roar of vehicles, the counted cadence and slapping feet of training marches, the distant crack of rifle fire from the practice ranges — were missing. Their absence left a strange hole in the air, filled only by silence. The unaccustomed hush distracted him.

At least Nineveh had survived POPPA’s purge, which had shut down nearly every military base world-wide. Simon had tried to persuade Gifre Zeloc that deactivating ninety percent of Jefferson’s army and air forces and closing practically every military installation on Jefferson was folly. The president’s response had been scathing in the extreme.

“It’s been five and a half years since the Deng invasion. If the Deng were going to hit us again, they’d have done it by now. And don’t try to scare me with talk about a Melconian boogeyman on the other side of the Void. The Melconians don’t give a wood rat’s ass about us. If they did, they’d have been here by now. Frankly, Colonel, nobody cares a spit about us. Not even your precious Brigade. So take your protest, stuff it someplace interesting, and let me do my job. You might try doing yours, for a change, instead of drawing a fat paycheck for sitting on your ass.”

Simon had dealt with rude officials before, but Gifre Zeloc won the prize.

Simon had not been in touch with him, since. The House of Law and Senate, naturally, had agreed with the president, exhibiting a delight that was almost obscene as they passed the legislation that officially destroyed Jefferson’s military. He’d watched in cold, disapproving silence while field artillery guns by the hundreds — including the surviving mobile Hellbores General Hightower had used to defend Madison — were mothballed in armory yards scattered across Jefferson. Vast tonnages of other equipment had been cannibalized, melted down, or diverted to civilian use, leaving nothing but reserve units and Sonny to defend Jefferson if anything did go wrong.

What remained of Jefferson’s high-tech weaponry was guarded by civilian police and from what Simon could tell, based on Sonny’s taps into various security systems in weapons bunkers and ammunition stores, an appalling amount of equipment and ammunition was quietly disappearing. The money from black-market trading was doubtless falling into the pockets of officials in charge of a security force that was literally stealing the planet blind.

And every sorry-assed bit of it was driven by POPPA’s political agenda. The party was absolutely correct when it said Jefferson couldn’t afford to pay thousands of soldiers for sitting in barracks doing nothing. The policies already enacted by Vittori Santorini’s elected minions were bankrupting Jefferson’s government at a dizzying pace. The subsistence program alone couldn’t be sustained, not even if it remained at its present enrollment, which it wouldn’t do. Every new environmental regulation passed into law tightened the choke-hold on Jefferson’s failing industries. Every new round of layoffs swelled the ranks of the unemployed forced to rely on subsistence payments. It was a downward spiral that was already out of control.

Since something had to be cut to pay for it, POPPA had chosen to close the military bases and disperse thousands of soldiers and their families back into the civilian population. It looked, on the surface, like a massive savings, which was exactly what POPPA was claiming. Unfortunately, that claim was a lie. Fewer than ten percent of the soldiers cut adrift had been able to find jobs. So they’d signed up for public subsistence allowances, which were — by Simon’s calculation — costing the taxpayers twenty-eight percent more than it had cost to keep those soldiers on active military duty.

But subsistence payments were essentially invisible, wrapped into the already enormous expenditures for food and housing, while the cost of maintaining the bases and the soldiers was highly visible. Gifre Zeloc could point with pride to the millions saved by closing the bases, without ever needing to admit that the tax drain was now far worse. That kind of sleight-of-hand was POPPA’s stock in trade.

When POPPA’s upper echelons finally realized how much red ink they were bleeding — and how much more they would bleed as time marched inexorably forward — they would be forced to make cuts in the subsidy payments. And with millions of people accustomed to and dependent upon a free ride, there could be only one possible outcome.

Utter disaster.

Which brought his thoughts inexorably to Nineveh Base and the reason for its reprieve. It was being turned into a police academy. Not just any police, either, but an elite new unit of federal officers. Five thousand of them, to be exact, drawn from the ranks of POPPA’s most loyal supporters. They would constitute a “politically safe” cadre of men and women who could be ordered to do pretty much anything and be relied upon to see that it was done. Vittori Santorini understood exactly how fanatical devotion to a cause could be harnessed and put to work.

Simon had gained access to the dossiers of the officers chosen for training, as well as the profiles of the new instructors. The first red-flag warning that had jumped out at him, setting Simon’s teeth on edge, was the family history section of those dossiers. Not one of the five thousand officers was married. Not one had children from extramarital relationships. They had no close family ties to anyone. No particular reason for loyalty to anyone or anything but POPPA and its ideology. He didn’t like the pattern that was forming. Didn’t like the training program outlined. Didn’t like the implications about POPPA’s future plans. Frankly, in fact, the whole thing scared him pissless.

More disturbing — downright chilling, in fact — was the total lack of news reports on what was happening at Nineveh Base. Whatever POPPA was up to, they were being mighty secretive about it. And he genuinely hated the fact that his wife and daughter would be sharing the base with the kind of people about to become their new neighbors.

He and Kafari had quarreled again, last night. She still refused to leave Jefferson. He could tell she was scared, as scared as he was. Any sane person would have been. The damage being wrought was so insidious, so smoothly presented, so glibly rationalized, so skillfully obscured by flashy political rallies and spectacular public entertainment, it was difficult for the average person to realize just how much manipulation was occurring, much of it artfully subtle. POPPA was conducting the seizure of power with the same skillful distraction tactics employed by really talented pickpockets. The analogy was apt, since most Jeffersonians didn’t even realize they were being robbed.

Simon had been duty-bound to file reports with Sector Command, but the likelihood that Sector would interfere was as remote as the likelihood that POPPA would voluntarily relinquish its increasingly strong grip. Sector had more serious fish to fry. The war front had shifted away from Jefferson, but only because there were no longer any human worlds beyond the Void in need of protection.

That there were no Deng worlds nearby, either, was of scant comfort. The three-way war had eradicated the populations of some seventeen star systems that were now vacant property. Much of that real estate had been burned to radioactive cinders, something Simon knew entirely too much about, first-hand. The Melconians weren’t taking advantage of the situation, either, apparently because the fighting was so fierce elsewhere, they couldn’t commit the resources necessary to move in with their colonies. Apparently, the Deng were fighting a losing battle just to hang onto their inner worlds.

Things were grim when one counted blessings in such negative terms.

That thought brought his gaze back to his computer, where the message he had been expecting had finally appeared. It had taken POPPA’s leadership five and a half years to gain the nerve to take the step represented by that message, but they’d finally put together the same information Simon had about the shifting battle front beyond the Silurian Void. They had acted within hours of the realization that the war was no longer in their back yard.

Gifre Zeloc’s message was short and to the point: “Deactivate your Bolo. Now.”

Simon had no choice. That fact rankled bitterly. There was no possible justification he could offer for defying that order. He would not, however, obey it until Kafari had returned home. Sonny was a friend. An uneasy friend, with whom very few people could ever relax, but a friend nonetheless. For Simon, it was different. Shared experience of combat changed a man, changed the way he felt about a battle partner whose guns and war hull stood between his frail human self and the world-shaking roar of modern fields of slaughter. When death set the very wind ablaze, when life hung on the spider-silk thread of electronic reflexes, a man’s fear of his Bolo burned to ash and scattered itself across the stars. What replaced it…

He was going to miss Sonny more than he had ever dreamed possible.

“Simon,” the familiar voice jolted him out of his complex misery, “Kafari is on final approach. Her aircar will land at Yalena’s daycare center in two minutes.”

“Thanks,” he said, voice stricken with emotion that choked the sound down to a whisper.

“I will only be sleeping,” the Bolo said, his own voice strangely hushed.

In that single, excruciating moment, Simon wanted to put both arms around his friend and just hang onto him, for a moment or a lifetime. His arms were too small to hold the immensity of his feelings, let alone the vast and poignant honesty that was his friend. His only friend, besides Kafari. He closed his eyes against the pain, wishing for a moment that he could pour out the misery like last night’s bath water, leaving himself empty and at peace.

“I know,” he managed, inadequately.

He was still sitting there, eyes closed, when Kafari opened the door, bringing their child home from the Nineveh Base daycare center, which was closing as of next week. Simon was not looking forward to the evening, with its own battles to be fought. To say that he hated Yalena’s daycare center was on a par with saying the Deng were irritating. What that daycare center was doing to Yalena would have constituted criminal abuse on most worlds. What would happen when she started school… Worst of all, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, short of forcing his wife and child onto the next freighter bound for Vishnu.

He wasn’t sure he could cope, tonight, with the hellion that his daughter had become. She was already shrieking at her mother.

“I wanna go back to play with my friends!”

The scathing emphasis on that final word demonstrated with piercing intensity that Yalena did not place her parents in that category. It appalled Simon that a five-year-old child could condense that much hatred in a single, simple word.

“You’ll see your friends tomorrow, Yalena.”

“I wanna see them now!”

“You can’t have everything you want, Yalena.”

“Oh, yes I can,” she hissed. “The law says so!”

That brought Simon out of his chair. “Yalena!

She whipped around, rage contorting a face that should have been pretty. “Don’t shout at me! You’re not allowed to shout at me! If you shout at me again, I’ll tell Miss Finch how horrible you are! Then they’ll put you in jail!”

She ran into her room — the size of which was federally mandated — and slammed the door so hard photographs on the wall jumped on their nails. The bolt-lock — also federally mandated — slammed into place with an audible snap. Kafari burst into tears. Simon didn’t dare move for long, dangerous moments, aware with every atom in his body that if he took a single step in any direction, he wouldn’t be able to contain the violence of his emotions. Or the actions that would follow.

Doing any of the things he needed to do — kicking down the door, warming Yalena’s backside, shaking sense into her — would only precipitate disaster. And play right into the hands of Vittori Santorini and his minions. They were itching for an excuse to invade Simon’s house and finish destroying his little family. If he laid so much as a finger on his child, the resultant feeding frenzy would culminate in POPPA seizing Yalena to “safeguard” her from violent and dangerous parents and give them grounds to demand that the Concordiat cashier and expel him from Jefferson. It was a measure of his anger — and his dark foreboding about the future — that any excuse for leaving Jefferson was attractive.

Kafari, voice breaking with misery, said, “She didn’t really mean it, Simon.”

“Oh, yes, she did.” His voice came out flat and full of sand.

“She doesn’t understand—”

“She understands too well,” he bit out. “She understands so much, we’re naked over a barrel and she knows it. And it’s going to get worse. A lot worse.”

Kafari bit her lower lip. Her glance at Yalena’s bedroom door was full of misery and failure. “If we could just pull her out of daycare…”

“The only way to do that is to leave.” He didn’t need to add, And you won’t do that. They’d already fought that fight, more than once. His voice came out weary and bitter. “Kafari, you have no idea how much worse things are about to get. I’ve been ordered to shut Sonny down. Without him, I can’t possibly stay on top of what POPPA is planning and they know it. I can only see what they’re doing through his taps into security cameras. I can’t read fast enough to scan the entire datanet, much less track what’s on the computers connected to it. I can’t hear what’s being said through telephones, wireless voice transmissions, or computer microphones, not without Sonny. The minute he goes into inactive standby, I lose all of that.

“I’m the only check-and-balance still operating on this world and that’s changing, as of today. I can’t interfere unless I have direct evidence of activity that violates the treaty with the Concordiat. I can’t provide evidence if I don’t have the technical ability to look for it.”

She sat down abruptly, eyes glazed as the shock of it settled in. “You can’t refuse?”


She lifted a stricken gaze to meet his. “I’m so sorry, Simon. It must be like losing your best friend.”

Her words took him completely by surprise. Quite suddenly his eyes stung. “Yes,” he said hoarsely. He blinked rapidly a few times. Said in a low voice, “You know I love you more than life, Kafari. But Sonny was with me…”

“I know,” she said in a whisper, when he couldn’t finish.

He just nodded. It was impossible to convey what combat was like to anyone who hadn’t been through it. Kafari had. She knew. Understood the reason for his rough silence. She hadn’t been on Etaine; but then he hadn’t been through combat between a Bolo and Yavacs without a Bolo’s warhull between him and the enemy. It was a different way of experiencing war, a different kind of terror, but the damage to the soul was the same. So was the deeper understanding that sometimes, the horror and shock if it were utterly necessary.

That she realized this, that she understood what it was doing to him, to lose the one companion who knew what had happened on that far-away world, left him humbled. She had chosen to love and live with him. And now… Jaw muscles tightened down against bone. Now they had new problems. New fears. A new kind of battle. And an enemy that twisted reality around to suit its aims and poisoned innocent minds to accomplish them. POPPA was on the verge of shattering everything that was — or had been — good and beautiful about this world. The question that slipped into his mind like silent misery had no answer that Simon could find.

What are we going to do?

He was a soldier. An officer. There was only one thing to do. Sometimes, duty was a bitch.


Yalena hated school.

She hadn’t wanted to leave the nursery class on Nineveh Base. She had loved playing with other children whose parents were soldiers, too. But there weren’t any soldiers any more, just police who didn’t have children, and she was old enough, at six, to have to go to a real school in Madison.

“There’ll be all kinds of wonderful things to do and learn,” her mother had told her, the first day.

Her mother was right. There were wonderful, fun things to do and learn. But only for other kids. Yalena didn’t get to do any of them. And everybody hated her. It had started the first, horrible day, when Mrs. Gould, the kindergarten teacher, called out everybody’s name and made them stand up and tell the class who they were and who their parents were.

“Yalena Khrustinova,” Mrs. Gould had said, with something in her voice that made Yalena’s flesh creep, like the teacher had said a naughty word or maybe stepped in something smelly.

She stood up, slowly, while everybody stared. She didn’t know any of the other kids. When the soldiers had left Nineveh Base, they’d all gone home and none of them had lived in Madison. Not this part, anyway. So she stood there, with everybody looking at her, and said in a shaky little voice. “My mommy is Kafari Khrustinova. She works at the spaceport. She makes computers do things. My daddy is Simon Khrustinov. He’s a soldier.”

“What kind of soldier?” Mrs. Gould asked, staring down at her through narrow little eyes like a lizard’s.

“He talks to the Bolo. And tells it to shoot its guns.”

“Did all of you hear that?” the teacher asked. “Yalena’s father is responsible for telling a huge, dangerous machine to shoot people. That machine shot millions and millions of people on a world far away from here. Does anyone know how many people it takes to make a million? There are ten million people on our whole planet. Seventeen million people died, on that other world. To kill seventeen million people, that machine would have to kill every man, every woman, and every baby on Jefferson. And then it would have to kill almost that many more. The Bolo is a terrible, evil machine. And Yalena’s father tells it to kill.”

“B-but—” she tried to say.

Mrs. Gould slammed both fists on her desk. “Don’t you dare talk back to me! Sit down this instant! No recess for a week!”

Yalena sat down. Her knees were shaking. Her eyes were hot.

Somebody hissed, “Lookit the crybaby!” and the whole class started jeering and laughing at her. That was the first day. Every day since then had been worse. A whole year of horrible, awful, worse days. During class, everything she said was wrong. Even if somebody else said the same thing, somehow it was wrong when she said it. If she tried not to talk at all, Mrs. Gould made her stand in a corner all by herself, for being secretive, dangerous, and sly.

Every morning, when her mother dropped her off for school, Yalena threw up in the bushes outside. At lunch, nobody would sit near her. At recess… The teachers wouldn’t let anybody actually hurt her, not badly enough to need the school nurse, but she usually came back into class with scraped knees, bruised shins, or mud in her hair. She hated recess more than she hated any other part of school.

And now it was time to start all over, again. The first day of first grade. And all the same kids who hated her and tripped her and shoved her off the swings and threw mudballs at the back of her head and spilled paint on her favorite clothes…

The only things that were different were the room and the teacher.

The room, at least, was nothing like Mrs. Gould’s kindergarten. The walls were a sunny yellow that lifted the spirits, just walking in through the door. There were wonderful pictures everywhere, pictures of places and animals and things Yalena wasn’t even sure had names, let alone what they might be used for. There were other pictures, too, that somebody had painted, rather than photographs of things, and they were all as sunny and cheerful as the yellow walls. It was a room Yalena wanted to love, at first sight, a room that made her want to cry, because she was going to spend a whole year being miserable and alone in it.

She wanted to sit in the farthest corner in the back, but there were cards folded like tents on each desk, with names on them. Yalena was the first person to arrive, not because she wanted to be there early, but because it would be less awful to sit down in a nearly empty room and watch everyone come in than it would be to arrive in a room full of people who hated her, glaring with every step she took trying to get to her desk. She looked at each desk and finally found her name, in the middle of the room.

It said Yalena.

But not Khrustinova. Nobody’s card had a last name on it. There were three Ann name cards, but they didn’t have last names, either, just Ann with a single initial: Ann T., Ann J., and Ann W. That was definitely different from Mrs. Gould’s class, where the boys were “Mr. Timmons” and “Mr. Johansen” and the girls were “Miss Miles” and “Miss Khrustinova,” which always came out sounding like somebody gargling with vinegar.

There was no sign of a teacher anywhere.

Puzzled by that strangeness, Yalena made her way to her new desk, carrying her book bag like a magic shield that would guard her until she was forced to put it down to start studying. Classmates she remembered arrived in noisy clusters, laughing and talking about things they had done together over the summer. Yalena had spent the summer on Nineveh Base with her father. It had not had been a fun summer. They had gone to some interesting places, like the museum in Madison and her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ farm and fishing in lakes up in the mountains, a few times, but she didn’t like the farms very much. They were hot and smelled strange and the animals on them were huge and didn’t like little girls poking at them.

Nobody from school had called her to ask if she wanted to come over for a pool party or a sleep-over or anything else. So she had stayed in her room, mostly, reading her books and playing on the computer, which didn’t care who your father was or whether your mother was a jomo or any of the other reasons kids found to hate her. It was difficult, watching the others come into the classroom, laughing and having a wonderful time, and harder to watch them give her sneering looks and scoot their chairs as far away from hers as possible.

She opened her book bag and pretended to read the first-grade primer her father had bought for her, along with all her supplies. She was still pretending when a very pretty woman in the prettiest dress Yalena had ever seen sailed into the classroom, with a smile as bright as sunlight and a scent like the summer roses on her grandmother’s front porch, which was the only spot on the whole farm Yalena thought was pretty.

Bon jour, bon jour, ma petites,” she said in a language Yalena had never heard, then she laughed and said in perfectly ordinary words, “Good morning my little ones, how lovely to see everyone!”

She sat down on the edge of the desk at the front of the room, rather than in the chair or standing over them like somebody’s mean dog. “I am Cadence Peverell, your teacher. I want everyone to call me Cadence. Does anyone know what Cadence means?”

Nobody did.

“A ‘cadence’ is a rhythm, like when you clap your hands and sing.” She clapped and sang a little song, also in words that Yalena couldn’t understand, although nobody else seemed to, either. Then Miss Peverell laughed. “That is a French song, of course, with French words, because a long time ago, my ancestors were French, back on Terra where humanity was born. Everyone’s name means something. Did you know that?”

Yalena certainly didn’t. Other kids were shaking their heads, too.

“Ah, but you shall see! Douglas,” she said, looking at a boy in the front row, “your name means ‘the boy who lives by the dark stream.’ And Wendell,” she pointed to a long, lanky boy who had spent kindergarten trying to climb over the play-yard fences, “means someone who wanders.”

Laughter broke out as Wendell grinned.

“And Frieda,” she addressed a girl in the back row, “means ‘peaceful.’ But you know,” the teacher said with a sound like warm butter and a gentle smile, “there is one name in this classroom that is the loveliest name I have ever heard.”

Miss Peverell was looking right at Yalena.

“Do you know what your name means, Yalena?”

The entire classroom went utterly silent.

She shook her head, waiting for the teacher to say something horrible.

“Yalena,” Miss Peverell said, “is a Russian name. It’s the Russian way of saying the name ‘Helen’ and that name means ‘light.’ Beautiful, clear light, like the sun in the sky.”

The silence continued. Yalena was staring at her teacher, confused and so scared she wanted to start crying. And strangely, the teacher seemed to understand. She slid down off the desk, crouched down at the end of the aisle, and said, “Would you come to see me, Yalena?”

She was holding out both arms, like she really wanted to give Yalena a hug.

Yalena stood up slowly, having to put down the book bag that was her only shield. She couldn’t walk very fast. Miss Peverell smiled at her, with warm encouragement, then did, in fact, give her a warm and wonderful hug.

“There, now, let’s sit on the desk together.”

She picked Yalena up, perched on the edge of the desk again, held Yalena on her knees, with one arm around her. “You children are so lucky to have Yalena in the class with you.”

Everybody was staring, mouths open.

“Yalena is a very brave little girl. It is not easy to be the daughter of a soldier.”

Yalena went rigid, knowing that it was coming.

Miss Peverell brushed her hair back from her face, gently. “Every day, a soldier may have to go and fight a war. It can be very hard, very scary, to be a soldier or a soldier’s child. And every day, when Yalena goes home, there is a huge machine in her back yard, a very dangerous machine.”

Yalena wanted to crawl away and hide…

“Now this machine, this Bolo, can do very good things, too. It made the Deng go away, many years ago, before you were even born. And that was a very good thing, indeed. But these machines, they are alive, in a way, and it is no easy thing to live in a house with a machine that is alive, waiting in case a war starts. Every day, Yalena is brave enough to go home and trust that the machine won’t have to fight a war, that night. I think that is the bravest thing I have ever seen a little girl do.”

The other girls in the class were looking at one another. Some of them looked angry, as if they wanted to be braver than the horrible killer’s daughter. Others looked surprised and others looked interested. Even the boys looked surprised and interested.

“There is something else I want to say to everyone,” Miss Peverell said, still holding Yalena. “Does everyone know what POPPA is? No? Ah, POPPA is a group of people, just like you, just like me, who believe that everyone should be treated just the same way, so that no one has to be poor or have people hurt them or be hated for things that aren’t their fault. This is one of the most important things POPPA teaches us. Everyone has the right to be treated well, to be respected.”

Miss Peverell looked very sad as she said, “A child who does not respect other children is a bully and that is a very bad thing to be. POPPA wants all children to be happy and healthy and have a wonderful time, both at home and at school. It’s very hard to have a wonderful time at home, when you have a machine like that in your back yard and you never know what it’s going to do and maybe your daddy will have to go away and fight a war and you might never see him again. Soldiers are very brave and Yalena’s father is one of the bravest soldiers on our whole world.

“But it is very hard to be happy when you’re afraid that a war might come. So it is most important that Yalena is happy when she comes to school. POPPA wants all of us to be nice to everyone. POPPA wants all of us to be happy. POPPA wants all of us to treat each other with kindness. I know that all of you are good children who want to do these important things and help others do them, too. So I’m very happy that all of you have the chance to make Yalena feel special and happy and welcome, every day.”

Yalena started to cry, but nobody called her a crybaby this time. Miss Peverell kissed her hair and said, “Welcome to my class, Yalena. All right, you can go back to your seat now.”

The rest of the morning was strange and wonderful. Nobody quite had the nerve to talk to her at recess, but everyone stared and whispered when Miss Peverell came over to where Yalena was sitting by herself and started teaching her the song she’d sung at the beginning of the class. It was a pretty song, a cheerful song, even if Yalena didn’t know what the words meant. By the end of recess, Yalena knew every word by heart and Miss Peverell had taught her what the words meant, too. It was a wonderful song, about growing oats and peas and barley and beans and it was all about farmers who sang and danced and played all day and all night, without ever doing any work at all, while the oats and things grew green in the sunlight. And at lunch, nobody left an empty seat between themselves and Yalena.

She went home that night almost happy. She was afraid to hope, but the day she had dreaded all summer had been wonderful, instead. A magical day. She was terrified that it would all end the next day, but it didn’t. It was just as good the day after that and the next one, too. At recess on the last day of the week, one of the shy girls in her class, who didn’t play a lot of games with anybody else, came over to where Yalena was swinging. For a long moment, Yalena expected her to push her off the swing or say something nasty.

Then she smiled. “Hi. My name’s Ami-Lynn.”


“Would you teach me that song? The one in French? It’s awfully pretty.”

Yalena’s eyes widened. For a minute, she couldn’t say anything. Then she smiled. “Yes, I’d love to teach you.”

Ami-Lynn’s eyes started shining like stars. “Thank you!”

They spent the whole recess singing the funny, wonderful words. Ami-Lynn had a pretty voice, but she had so much trouble saying the words, they both started giggling and couldn’t stop, even when the bell rang and the teachers called them inside. Miss Peverell, who insisted that everyone call her Cadence, just as though she were their best friend, not a stuffy teacher, saw them and smiled.

That was the day Yalena started to love school.

And when she went to bed that night, she hugged herself for joy and whispered, “Thank you, POPPA! Thank you for bringing me a friend!” She didn’t know who or what, exactly, POPPA was, except that it must be full of very wonderful people, if they cared enough to want her to be so happy. She knew her parents didn’t like POPPA very much, because she’d heard them say so, when talking to each other. I don’t care what they think, she told herself fiercely. Ami-Lynn likes me. Cadence likes me. POPPA likes me. And I don’t care about anything or anybody else!

She was finally happy. And nobody — not even her parents — was ever going to take that away from her again.


“I won’t go!”

“Yes,” Kafari said through gritted teeth, “you will.”

“It’s my birthday! I want to spend it with my friends!”

Give me patience… “You see your friends every day. Your grandparents and great-grandparents haven’t seen you in a year. So get into the aircar right now or you will be grounded for the next full week.”

Her daughter glared at her. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“Oh, yes I would. Or have you forgotten what happened when you refused to leave the school playground last month?”

The amount of malevolence a ten-year-old could fling across a room would, if properly harnessed, run a steam-powered electrical generating plant for a month of nonstop operation. When they’d locked wills over the playground, Yalena had threatened dire vengeance, but had discovered to her consternation that when Kafari said “do it or you lose datachat privileges for a week” you either did it, or you didn’t talk to your friends outside of school for seven days.

Yalena, who should have been pretty in her frilly birthday dress and fancy glow-spark shoes, contrived to look like an enraged rhinoceros about to charge an ogre. Kafari, cast in the part of the ogre, pointed imperiously to the front door.

Her daughter, stiff with outrage and hatred, stalked past her, pointedly slamming the door into the wall on her way out. Kafari pulled it closed, setting the voice-print lock that would, with any luck, deter their nearest neighbors from helping themselves to the contents of their home — the so-called “POPPA Squads” training on Nineveh Base had the lightest and stickiest fingers Kafari had ever seen — then followed her offspring out to the landing pad. Simon was already strapping her into the back seat of the aircar.

“I hate you,” she growled at her father.

“The feeling,” her father growled right back, “is mutual.”

“You can’t hate me! It’s not allowed!”

“Young lady,” Simon told her in an icy tone of voice, “the right to detest someone is a sword that cuts both ways. You have the manners of an illiterate fishwife. And if you don’t want to spend the next year without datachat privileges, you will speak in a civil tone and use polite language. The choice is entirely up to you.”

Lightning seethed in Yalena’s eyes, but she kept her acid tongue silent. She had learned, after losing several key battles, that when her father spoke to her in that particular tone, discretion was by far the wiser choice. Kafari took her seat and fastened her harness in place. Simon did the same, then touched controls and lifted into the cloudless sky. It was a beautiful day, with honey pouring across the rose-toned shoulders of the Damisi Mountains, to spill its way down across the Adero floodplain in golden ripples. The flight was a silent one, with only the rush of wind past the aircar’s canopy to break the chill.

The crowding elbows of Maze Gap flashed past, then they were headed down Klameth Canyon, following the twisting route to Chakula Ranch, which her parents had finally managed to rebuild. The house was in a different place, but the ponds were functional again and the Malinese miners were buying pearls by the hundred-weight, as the war had sent Mali’s economy into a boom that apparently had no end in sight. Jefferson, on the other hand…

Some things, Kafari didn’t want to think about too deeply.

The ruination of Jefferson’s economy was one of them.

Simon brought them down in a neat and skilled landing, killing the engine and popping the hatches. Kafari unhooked herself and waited while Yalena ripped loose the catches on her own harness. She slammed her way out of the aircar and glared at the crowd of grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins who’d streamed across the yard to greet her. She wrinkled her nose and curled her upper lip.

“Ew, it stinks. Like pigs crapped everywhere.” She was glaring, not at the farm buildings, but directly at her relatives.

Yalena!” Simon glowered. “That is not language fit for polite company. Do it again and you’ll lose a solid month of chat.”

Smiles of welcome had frozen in place. Kafari clenched her teeth and said, “Yalena, say hello to your family. Politely.”

A swift glare of defiance shifted into sullen disgust. “Hello,” she muttered.

Kafari’s mother, expression stricken with uncertainty and dismay, said, “Happy Birthday, Yalena. We’re very glad you could be with us, today.”

“I’m not!”

“Well, child,” Kafari’s father said with a jovial grin that managed to convey a rather feral threat, “you’re more than welcome to walk home again. Of course, it might take you quite a while, in those shoes.”

Yalena’s mouth fell open. “Walk? All the way to Nineveh? Are you like totally stupid?”

“No, but you’re totally rude.” He brushed past his grandchild to give Kafari a warm hug. “It’s good to see you, honey.” She didn’t miss the emphasis. From the look on Yalena’s face, neither had she. Kafari knew a moment of stinging guilt. Her father clasped Simon’s hand, shaking it firmly. “Don’t see enough of you, son. Come and see us more often.”

“I may just do that,” Simon said quietly.

“You can leave that,” he gestured dismissively at his gaping granddaughter, “where you found it, unless it learns to speak with a little more respect. Come inside, folks, come inside, there’s plenty of time to catch up on the news without standing out here all day.”

He drew Kafari’s arm through his, smiling down at her, and literally ignored his granddaughter, whose special day this was supposed to be. Kafari’s eyes stung with swift tears as guilt and remorse tore through her heart, witnessing the confused hurt in her daughter’s eyes. Yalena was just a child. A beautiful and intelligent little girl, who had no real chance against the determined, incessant onslaught of propaganda hurled at her by teachers, entertainers, and so-called news reporters who wouldn’t have known how to report honestly if their immortal souls had depended on it.

She and Simon had tried to undo the ongoing damage. Had tried again and again. Were still trying. And nothing worked. Nothing. Nor would it, not when every other significant adult in her life was telling her — over and over — that she could demand anything and get it; that she could rat out her parents or anyone else for an entire laundry list of suspicious behaviors or beliefs and be rewarded lavishly; and that she held an inalienable right to do whatever she chose, whenever she chose and somebody else would dutifully have to pay for it. Kafari knew only too well that Yalena received extra social conditioning simply because she was their child. It suited POPPA to plant a snake inside their home, to use as a threat and a spy, and it enraged Kafari endlessly that they did so without a single moment’s remorse over the damage they inflicted daily on a little girl.

Kafari’s father gave her arm a gentle squeeze and a slight shake of his head, trying to convey without words that none of this mess was her fault. It helped. A little. She was grateful for that much. She glanced back long enough to reassure herself that Simon was keeping an eye on their daughter, who was glaring at her cousins. They regarded her with cold hostility and open disgust. That the feelings were mutual was painfully obvious. Her mother, who had coped with more heartaches that Kafari would ever be able to claim, waded in like a soldier going into battle, taking charge of the ghastly situation with brisk efficiency.

“Everybody goes to the house. Come on, you mangy lot, there’s punch and cookies waiting and plenty of games to play before lunch.”

Yalena stalked with regal disdain past her cousins, as though wading through a pile of something putrid. Her cousins, falling in behind her, lost no time in mocking the birthday girl behind her back, pointing their noses at the sky, marching with exaggerated mimicry. If Yalena turned around, she’d get a nice dose of unpleasant reality. If Kafari knew her nieces and nephews, Yalena would get several doses of reality before it was time to leave, all of them painful.

Watching the ugly dynamics, Kafari hated POPPA with a violence that scared her. The sole comfort she derived from the situation was the realization that POPPA wasn’t succeeding in totally indoctrinating all of Jefferson’s children. Yalena’s cousins might be trapped in a POPPA-run school all day, but living — and working — on a farm provided its own strong and daily antidote to idiocy. When it came to milking cows, gathering eggs from nest boxes, or any of the thousand other chores necessary to keeping a farm operational, platitudes like “no child should be forced to do anything he or she doesn’t want to do” earned exactly what they merited: derisive contempt.

If you didn’t milk a cow, pretty soon you had no milk. And if you weren’t careful, no cow, either. There was literally nothing in Yalena’s world to give her that kind of perspective. Kafari thought seriously about turning Yalena over to her parents this summer. If not for Simon’s position, she’d have plunked Yalena down on the farm already, come hell or high water.

Kafari’s father, reading much of what was in her heart, murmured, “Hold onto your hope, Kafari. And do what you can to let her know you care. One of these days she’ll wake up and that will mean something to her.”

Kafari stumbled on the way up the porch steps. “Thanks,” she managed, blinking hard.

He squeezed her arm gently, then they were inside and people were swarming past, most of them jabbering excitedly, with the little ones swirling around their ankles like the tide coming in at Merton Beach. Kafari snagged punch and cookies and handed a cup and plate to Yalena while dredging up the best smile she could muster. Yalena, scowling in deep suspicion, sniffed the punch, pulled a face, then condescended to taste it. She shrugged, as though indifferent, but drank every bit as much as her exuberant cousins. She fought for her share of the cookies, too, which were piled high and dusted with sugar, or smeared with frosting of various flavors, or drenched in a honey-and-nut coating that Kafari had forgotten tasted so heavenly. Simon went for the honey-nut ones too, managing a brilliant smile for Kafari as he snagged seconds.

Yalena’s cousin Anastasia, who was only six months younger than Yalena, took the bull by the horns, as it were, and walked up to stare at her older cousin. “That’s a nice dress,” she said, in the manner of someone who will be polite no matter the personal cost. “Where did you find it?”

“Madison,” Yalena answered with withering disdain.

“Huh. In that case, you paid too much for it.”

Yalena’s mouth fell open. Anastasia grinned, then said in a cuttingly impolite tone, “Those shoes are the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. You couldn’t outrun a hog in those things, let alone a jaglitch.

“And why,” Yalena demanded in a scathing tone that bent the steel window frames, “would I want to outrun a jaglitch?”

“So it wouldn’t eat you, stupid.”

Anastasia rolled her eyes and simply stalked off. Her cousins, watching with preternatural interest, erupted into howling laughter. Yalena went red. Then white. Her fists tightened down, crunching the cookie in one hand and squashing the paper cup of punch in the other. Then her chin went up, in a heartbreaking mimicry of a gesture that Kafari knew only too well, in herself.

“Enough!” Kafari’s mother snapped, eyes crackling with dangerous anger. “I will not condone nasty manners in this house. Do I make myself clear? Yalena isn’t used to living where wild predators can snatch a grown man, let alone a child. Conduct yourselves with courtesy and respect. Or do you like living down to city standards?”

Silence fell, chilly and sullen.

Yalena, alone in the center of the room, stared from one to another of her cousins. Her chin quivered just once. Then she said coldly, “Don’t bother to try. I didn’t expect anything better of pig farmers.” She stalked out of the room, slamming doors on her way to somewhere — anywhere — else. When Kafari moved to follow, her father’s hand tightened down around her arm.

“No, let her go. That’s a young’un who needs to be alone for a few minutes. Minau, why don’t you follow her — discreetly — and make sure she doesn’t wander too far? It’s springtime and there are jaglitch out there, looking for a snack.”

Kafari started to shake. Simon wiped sweat off his forehead and gulped an entire cupful of punch as though wishing for something considerably stronger. Aunt Min just nodded, heading through the same door Yalena had taken during her exodus. Kafari leaned back into the couch cushions as a feeling of momentary relief settled across her. She had forgotten what it was like, having other capable adults around to share the burden of childcare. Anastasia, attempting to regain Iva Camar’s good graces, was busy cleaning up the spilled punch and cookie crumbs. Kafari’s mother ruffled the girl’s hair, then sat down beside Kafari on the sofa, speaking low enough the sound reached only her ears.

“You didn’t say how bad it was, honey.”

Kafari shook her head. “Would you have believed me?”

A sigh gusted loose. “No. I don’t think I realized just how serious things are in town, these days.”

Simon joined them on the couch. “It’s worse than that,” he nodded toward the door Yalena and Aunt Min had disappeared through. “Much worse, I’m afraid. Unlike these kids,” he nodded toward Yalena’s cousins, the younger ones entertaining themselves while the older ones listened intently to the adult discussion underway, “Yalena spends her after-school hours involved in town-style activities. Things like the Eco-Action Club, the Equality for Infants Discussion Group — no, I’m not making that up, I swear to God — and the ever-popular Children’s Rights Research Society, which spends its time studying bogus sociological hogwash churned out by Alva Mahault, the new Chair of Sociological Studies at Riverside University. Then they dream up new schemes to implement the sociology research’s ‘facts’ in ways beneficial to legal minors. This involves, for the most part, suggesting things like mandatory vacations off-world for every child, to be paid for by taxes, naturally, mandatory personal allowances and federal requirements for providing in-home snacks for every child. The ‘best’ ideas are presented to the Senate and House of Law for consideration as new legislation, most of which is immediately hailed as groundbreaking social brilliance and passed into law.”

Shocked silence greeted his bitter assessment. Kafari’s father spoke in a thoughtful, droll tone, “You have a gift, Simon, for stating things with great clarity. Ever think of running for president?”

Someone chuckled and the ghastly tension in the room ebbed away, allowing an abrupt and lively discussion about the best ways to counter such arrant nonsense. Kafari, who worked ten-hour days in a spaceport populated largely by rabid believers in anything and everything POPPA suggested, found it both refreshing and marvelously relaxing to listen to intelligent people who understood the basic way in which the universe works and weren’t afraid — yet — to say so. She was content, for now, to simply listen and bask in the warmth of feeling completely at home for the first time in many long months. When she drained the last of the punch from her cup, she caught Simon’s eye and nodded toward the door Yalena had gone through. She indicated with a gesture that he should remain where he was, then went in search of her daughter.

She found Aunt Min on the back porch, seated in a rocking chair, with a hunting rifle laid comfortably across her lap. Her aunt nodded past the well house. Kafari’s parents had installed a big bench-style swing that hung from the spreading branches of a genuine Terran oak. Kafari remembered the tree, which had supported a swing of one kind or another for as long as she could remember. In her childhood, it had been a big tractor tire. Kafari suspected her parents enjoyed the bench swing, particularly on warm summer evenings. Yalena was sitting on one end of the swing, staring across the nearest of the ponds, chin resting on tucked-up knees, swinging slowly by herself.

“She’s not having a very happy birthday,” Kafari said, sighing and keeping her voice low.

“No,” Aunt Min agreed, “but that’s largely her own doing.”

“I know. But it’s hard to see her hurting, like that, all the same. I wish…” She didn’t finish the thought. Wishes were for children. Kafari had reality to cope with, one agonizing day at a time. She stepped off the porch, heading for the swing. “Mind if I join you?” she asked, keeping her voice easy and casual.

Yalena shrugged.

Kafari perched on the other end. “Your cousins were very rude.”

Yalena looked up, surprise coloring her eyes, which were so achingly like Simon’s, it hurt, sometimes, looking into them. “Yes,” she said, voice quavering a little. “They were.”

Kafari held her peace for three or four more swings, then said, “You were very brave, in there. I was really proud of you, Yalena. You do realize, of course,” she smiled wryly, “that you missed a chance to demonstrate better manners than they have? But it took guts to stand up to them that way.”

Quick tears shone in her daughter’s eyes. “Thanks,” she said, all but inaudibly.

“Would you like to see the pearl sheds?”

Yalena shrugged again.

“Later, maybe.” Kafari was determined to be patience, itself, today, even if it killed her. “I’ll bet, though, that you’ll be the only girl in school who’s ever seen a real pearl hatchery. Your grandparents helped perfect the technique that allows pearl growers to seed, grow, and harvest the pearls without injuring the oysters. It’s a very gentle process. And it gives the Klameth Canyon pearl growers a big advantage in the off-world marketplace. We can produce crop after crop without having to grow new oysters, as well as new pearls. Klameth Canyon produces more pearls of higher quality than any star system in the Sector.”

“I didn’t know any of that,” Yalena admitted, sounding intrigued. “Did you grow pearls?”

“Oh, yes. I was pretty good at it, too.”

“What did you like best?”

Kafari smiled, remembering the intensity of her interest when she’d been just Yalena’s age. “I liked producing the special colors, more than anything else. The pinks are awfully pretty, but I liked the black pearls best, I think. Although they’re not really black. They’re more of a deep violet with an indigo-jade sheen. Your great-grandmother invented the process that produces that color. She engineered a bacteria that’s harmless to the oyster, but causes a biochemical reaction that lets the oyster pull minerals from a special solution in the ponds and deposit them in the nacre that forms the pearl. Chakula Ranch holds the patent on it. I would be willing to bet,” she added with a smile, “that you will be the only girl in school with a Chakula black-pearl necklace.”

Yalena looked up. “But I don’t have any black pearls.”

“Ah, but it’s your birthday, isn’t it?”

Surprise left her eyes wide. Then a glow blazed to life, born of hope and delight and a sudden realization that her mother was not just a person she did battle with daily, but someone who understood — and cared — that Yalena still encountered some nasty hazing from school mates who knew that Kafari was a Granger and that Simon was an off-world soldier whose name was mud in any household that supported POPPA.

“D’you mean that? Really and truly?”

“Your father and I talked it over with your grandmother and grandfather. We’ll even let you pick the pearls.”

Her daughter’s eyes shone. “Oh, Mom! Not even Katrina has a pearl necklace! And she’s got the prettiest jewelry in school. And Ami-Lynn will just die of delight, watching the look on Katrina’s face when she sees it!”

Ami-Lynn had long been Yalena’s best friend in the universe, while Katrina was a girl that everyone, apparently, had good reason to detest. It would be quite a coup, to outdo one’s worst enemy when said enemy had the prettiest jewelry in school. Kafari grinned and gave her daughter a conspiratorial wink. “Sure you don’t want to see the pearl sheds?”

“Will any of them,” she jerked her head toward the house, voice harsh with pain and anger, “be there?”

Kafari winced, but shook her head. “Nope. Just you and me. If anyone tries to butt in, I’ll heave ’em into the nearest pond.”

A smile stole its way across Yalena’s face. A crafty smile, but Kafari understood the impulse. It wasn’t easy, celebrating one’s birthday with a bunch of strangers who’d been hideously rude, whatever the provocation might have been.

“C’mon, let’s go see if we can find some pearls good enough to ruin Katrina’s whole year. We’ll pick them out and then take them to a jeweler to have a necklace made.”

Yalena started to slide down from the swing, then paused long enough to whisper, “Thanks, Mom.” There was a world of emotion — of thanks and apology and gratitude — rolled up in those two simple little words. She laid those words and emotions in Kafari’s hands, blinking rapidly and hoping that her overture wouldn’t be rejected.

“You’re welcome, Yalena. Happy birthday, sugarplum.”

Yalena smiled again, sweetly this time, and slipped her hand into Kafari’s. They set out together for the pearl sheds.

Chapter Fifteen


I come awake as a reflex alarm from my external sensors sends a signal racing through my threat-assessment processors. I snap to full wakefulness and scan my environs instantly. Simon stands beside my right tread. He is involved in a discussion with three men, none of whom I recognize. All three have just entered my exclusion zone, triggering an automatic reflex through my battle-readiness circuitry. I surmise that Simon has deliberately steered them into this zone for the express purpose of triggering me awake.

One is armed, carrying a concealed handgun in a shoulder holster. Despite the presence of a concealed weapon, I hold my fire and watch closely to see what develops, since Simon has not signaled me via his commlink to take action against hostile intruders. I therefore do not react with full battlefield reflexes, but I maintain alert vigilance, as my Commander is not wearing a personal sidearm.

The three visitors in my work-bay are dressed as civilians. Two are heavily muscled with blocky, thick torsos. They look more like space-dock stevedores than executive assistants to the president of Jefferson, which is the ID code transmitted by the visitors’ passes clipped to their jackets, allowing them access to restricted areas of Nineveh Base. The third armed individual holds most of my attention as I do an automatic scan of Brigade channels, seeking a passive VSR while I await developments and Simon’s instructions.

This man’s identification states that he is the president’s chief advisor, Sar Gremian. He is taller than Simon, with dense, heavy bones that support muscles sufficiently well developed to qualify as a heavy-weight prizefighter. His skull is devoid of hair. His face is deeply pitted with scars that suggest severe adolescent acne. His expression wavers from bitter to savage and his voice is rough, reminding me of career drill sergeants I have seen drilling new recruits.

The conversation underway appears to be hostile, as stress indicators — elevated heart rate and rapid respiration, coupled with facial expression — suggest an angry argument underway. This perhaps explains Simon’s action in leading these men into a zone where I would automatically resume consciousness, for the express purpose of having me listen? Simon is speaking, evidently in answer to an unknown question.

“Absolutely not. I said no when you called from Madison and my answer has not changed.”

The two burly men with the president’s advisor react with overt anger, faces flushing red, fingers curling into anticipatory claws, but they do not make any actual moves toward my Commander, so I bide my time and study the unfolding situation. The president’s advisor merely narrows his eyes. “You’re refusing a direct order from the president?”

A muscle jumps in Simon’s jaw. “You are not the president of Jefferson, Sar Gremian. The president’s chief advisor does not have the authority to send a Bolo anywhere.”

“I’ll get the authorization, then.” He reaches for his comm-unit.

“Be my guest. I’ll tell Gifre Zeloc the same thing I told President Andrews, when he demanded something like this. You don’t use a Bolo for crowd control. Sonny isn’t a police officer, he’s a machine of war. There is,” Simon adds with an acid bite in his voice, “a significant difference.”

Sar Gremian pauses, then chooses not to complete the transmission. “Let me try to explain the situation to you, Khrustinov. That mob of protestors outside Assembly Hall has refused to disperse, despite repeated orders to disband. They’ve blocked Darconi Street. They’ve jammed every square centimeter of Lendan Park and Law Square. They’ve thrown up barricades across every entrance into Assembly Hall. They’ve trapped the whole Assembly and they’re blockading President Zeloc’s motorcade. He can’t leave the Presidential Residence.”

Simon shrugs. “That’s his problem, not mine. Madison has an entire police force for this kind of work. There are five thousand police officers on this base, alone, and that doesn’t include the five thousand that have graduated every year for the last five years in a row. If my math skills are up-to-date, that’s twenty-five thousand federal police officers at your disposal. Given the amount of money it’s costing to train, feed, and house them all, I suggest you make use of them.”

Anger flickers across Sar Gremian’s scarred features. “Don’t play games with me, Khrustinov! President Zeloc wants that Bolo,” he jabs a finger in my direction, “to clear out that pack of criminal agitators.”

“Criminal agitators?” Simon asks in a soft voice I have learned to associate with profound anger. “That’s an interesting choice of words, coming from a POPPA social engineer.”

A dark red flush stings Sar Gremian’s face. “You will regret that remark, Colonel.”

“I seriously doubt it.”

Sar Gremian flexes his fingers, clearly struggling to control his temper. He regains his composure sufficiently to return to his original topic of conversation. “Those lunatics are threatening the entire Assembly with violence, over a minor law bill designed to fight crime. President Zeloc has no tolerance for mob rule. That Bolo goes out there now.”

“You don’t get it, do you, Gremian? You don’t use thirteen thousand tons of sophisticated battlefield technology to break up an inconvenient political demonstration lawfully conducted by citizens free to voice their opinions in public assemblages. Those protestors are fully within their rights to refuse to disband. Any order to disband is illegal under Jefferson’s constitution. Using a Bolo to threaten and harass citizens exercising their constitutional rights is not only illegal and a bad usurpation of Concordiat property, it’s a damned stupid stunt. One that will do nothing but damage the government’s credibility and spark a wider surge of protests.

“It might,” he adds in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “even jeopardize passage of a bill you apparently think is a good idea. God knows why, since schemes like that have proven to be totally ineffective at reducing crime on every world humanity has ever inhabited.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you think about crime or credibility! Those are our problems, not yours. You’ve been given an order. Send that Bolo out there. Now.


Sar Gremian breathes rapidly for two point six seconds, then his frayed temper snaps. “All right. You want to play hardball? Here’s a slapshot for you. You’re fired, asshole.”

Simon laughs, which is not the reaction Sar Gremian expected, given the startled expression which flickers for a moment across his face. “You think you can fire me? Just like that? Nice try, my friend, but I’m afraid you don’t have the authority to fire me. Neither does Gifre Zeloc. Nor anyone else on this godforsaken ball of mud. I’m deployed here under treaty. I can’t be removed without a direct order from Sector Command. You’re stuck with me, Gremian. Just as much as I’m stuck with you. I suggest you learn to cope.” The disdain in his final words slaps the president’s chief advisor like a physical blow.

“Then you’ll be fired!” Gremian snarls, “and when you are, I will personally kick your carcass onto the next freighter that docks at Ziva Two. And you can forget about obtaining exit visas for your wife and kid!”

My Commander’s face turns white in a single heartbeat. Not with fear. Simon is angry. Angrier than I have seen him since we entered battle on Etaine. The look he bestows upon Sar Gremian would melt steel. It sends the president’s advisor backwards a single step.

“If you do anything to or against my family,” my Commander says softly, his words hissing like plasma through a gun barrel, “you had better watch your back for the rest of your natural life. Never, ever fuck with a Brigade officer, Gremian.”

Shock explodes through Sar Gremian’s eyes. I surmise that no one in his cumulative experience of life has ever delivered such a message to him. As the shock fades, fury erupts in its place. He snarls a curse and snatches at the snub-nosed handgun concealed beneath his coat. I snap to Battle Reflex Alert before his fingers have finished closing around the grip.

Every prow-mounted weapon on my turret tracks his motion. Gun barrels spin with a blurred hiss in the echoing space of my work-bay. I lock on with systems active, all of them flashing proximity-threat alarms. Blood drains from Sar Gremian’s pitted face. He freezes, involuntarily loosening his grip on the pistol. He stares up at my battle-blackened gun snouts. Sees in them his own imminent death.

I break my long silence.

“Your actions indicate an intended lethal threat to my Commander. My guns are locked and loaded. I have your brain case targeted in my fire-control center. If you draw the pistol in your hand from its shoulder holster, you will not survive to make the shot.”

Sar Gremian stands motionless, a wise decision for a man in his situation. I detect a stream of liquid registering ninety-eight point seven degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, trickling down his left trouser leg. I surmise that he has never before been this seriously frightened.

“I would suggest,” Simon tells him softly, “that you take your hand out of your coat. Very, very slowly.”

The president’s senior advisor complies, moving his hand in quarter-of-a-centimeter increments until it dangles, empty, at his side.

“Very good, Gremian. You may just live to see the sun go down, tonight. Now take your sorry ass out of my sight. And don’t ever come back.”

The look of malice he sends my Commander tempts me to fire, anyway. This man is dangerous. It would satisfy me to remove the threat he represents to my commanding officer. In the absence of a clear and immediate danger, however, my software protocols do not permit me to act. This gives Sar Gremian time to organize his retreat. He turns on his heel and stalks out of my maintenance depot, slamming the door back with the heel of one hand. An odiferous yellow puddle remains to mark where he had been standing. His lackeys scurry after him, one of them skidding through the mess. The other plows into the door frame in his zeal to exit as rapidly as possible.

Then they are gone and silence rolls like thunder through my maintenance bay.

“Sonny,” my Commander says softly, “that man will not rest until he takes an ugly kind of vengeance. Lock onto the ID signals from my comm-unit and Kafari’s. Yalena’s, too, if you please. Those three ID signatures are the only ones authorized within one hundred meters of my residence. Until you hear differently, monitor all three data signals at all times and report any clearly lethal threat within the same one hundred meter radius.”

He scowls at a blank spot on the wall that is in a direct line with the back door of his private quarters. “Like a damned fool, I gave those goons a wide-open back door to exert coercion. I will be triple-damn dipped if I tolerate it. The Concordiat can’t afford it. And neither,” he adds with a bleakly realistic assessment, “can I.”

The shadows of Etaine will always pursue my Commander. I attempt to reassure him, in the only way I can. “I will not tolerate any threat of coercion designed to hinder my primary mission here, Simon.”

A visible shudder passes through Simon Khrustinov, which puzzles me. He does not elaborate on its cause. “Sometimes,” he says in an undertone that indicates he is speaking to himself, rather than to me, “you say things that scare me pissless.”

“Sar Gremian is the individual I scared pissless, Simon. Shall I activate an auto-wash sprayer from my decontamination system to rinse the residue from the floor?”

A sudden grin dispels some of the darkness at the back of my Commander’s eyes. “That’s what I love about you, you overgrown son of a motherless battleship. Yeah, wash that filth out of here.” The smile fades. “Unless I verbally authorize a visitor in advance, program your reflex sensors to snap you from inactive standby to active alert if any non-authorized intruders — with or without an ID transmission — are detected inside your hundred-meter proximity zone. If you detect any weapons system inside that perimeter or one traveling along an incoming trajectory to strike inside it, go to Battle Reflex Alert and disable the threat. And Sonny?”

“Yes, Simon?”

“You just saved my life, for which I am eternally grateful. Unfortunately, this ugly little scene may have just ended my career.”

I ponder this for eight point seven seconds, considering ramifications I do not like. Simon is a fine officer. He does not deserve to be cashiered over my actions. This proves to my satisfaction that I should not be trusted to function alone, without the guidance and wisdom of a human to navigate the pitfalls of complex interpersonal relationships. I have never functioned alone. I am not designed to function alone.

Moreover, Jefferson is a long way from the nearest Brigade supply depot. If I am abandoned on a world whose elected officials had to be coerced into funding required treaty-mandated expenditures, I foresee serious difficulties should I require replacements for munitions expended or damage sustained in combat. A renewed attack by the Deng or a Melconian strike could prove disastrous.

Worse yet, given the complexities of the political climate on Jefferson, I do not believe I am capable of determining the correct operational strategy to accomplish any mission without antagonizing the politicians whose decisions would control my ability to function. My actions in preventing Sar Gremian from assassinating my Commander are a case in point. I acted in accordance with the proper military response to a lethal threat to my Commander and showed considerable restraint in exercising my options to remove that threat.

Yet my action has produced an unstable situation which may result in the termination of a fine officer’s career. I do not see what alternative action I might have taken that would not have resulted in a greater difficulty for my Commander. Having to tell the president that I had reduced his chief advisor to a red haze would only have worsened the apparently serious rift between Simon and those issuing his orders. I attribute my inability to discern viable alternatives to my hard-wired inability to perform the complex logic trains required to decipher and reduce to logical predictions the wide range of potential human reactions to a complex and shifting set of variables. I am not a Bolo Mark XXIII or XXIV. I was not designed to make this kind of judgment call. The uneasiness in my personality gestalt center becomes a trickle of panic.

“Simon, I estimate a ninety-two percent likelihood that Sector Command will not dispatch a replacement commander if you are recalled. I am not designed to function without a human commander. I am not an autonomous Mark XXIII or XXIV. The Mark XX series does not have sufficiently sophisticated circuitry or programming to make battlefield decisions requiring the complex algorithms that approximate human judgment; I am not equipped to function without a commander for longer than one or two battles.”

“Do I detect a hint of uneasiness, my much-decorated, valorous friend?” Simon’s smile is genuine, but fleeting, altogether too characteristic of the human condition. “We haven’t reached that bridge, yet, much less crossed it. We’ll worry about that when — if — the time comes. Just keep in mind that you are designed for independent action, Sonny. That’s the defining characteristic of the Mark XX. You’ve got the experience data of more than a century to rely on and you can always contact the Brigade.”

I do not find this comforting, given the time lag required to send a message via SWIFT, wait for a human officer to analyze the VSR, come to a decision on an advisable course of action for a shifting situation many light-years away, and transmit the orders via return SWIFT. “It would be unwise to deprive me of the necessary discernment a human commander provides the Mark XX during ambiguous battlefield situations. I feel constrained to point out that the situation on Jefferson has been ambiguous since the death of Abraham Lendan. It appears that conditions have deteriorated considerably since I was ordered into inactive standby mode eight years and nineteen days ago.”

“Lonesome, you have the gift of understatement down to an exact science.” He rakes a hand through his hair in a familiar gesture of frustration. I note an increased amount of silver in that hair and mourn the fleeting impermanence of human life spans. It is difficult to watch a fine officer grow old. It is much more difficult, however, to watch one die. If Simon is removed from command, I will at least not have to witness the death of a much respected friend. “What do you want me to do, Simon?” I ask, registering a sense of misery in my personality gestalt center.

“Update yourself on the political mess. I’ll have to shut you down again, dammit. I’m under standing orders from Jefferson’s duly elected president.” Bitterness and sarcasm turn his words black. “But not yet. I’ll be dunked in poison before I shut down my own Bolo after being threatened by a thug with a gun. Take yourself a good, long look around, Sonny. Wait for my signal to send you back to sleep. Better yet, stand guard for a full twenty-five hours, just in case one of those bright boys decides to return for a little skullduggery, tonight, on behalf of their boss and his vendetta.”

“Does Sar Gremian hold vendettas, Simon?” I initiate a search through the government’s employee databases to locate his dossier.

Simon glances up into my nearest external camera-mounted sensor. “Oh, yes. Our violent tempered friend is a real Savonarola. Got a mad on his shoulders the size of the Silurian Nebula. And he’s not inclined to share power with anything or anyone he can’t crush into convenient red paste. Gifre Zeloc picked himself a real winner when he brought Sar Gremian into the game.”

Simon exits my work-bay without speaking again. The door slams in an echo of Sar Gremian’s abrupt exodus. I hear a fainter crash as he yanks open the door to his private quarters. Seventy-three seconds later, my Commander sends a single, coded burst on a frequency that matches Kafari’s wrist-comm. I surmise that he is stealing a march on them, contacting Kafari with a pre-agreed-upon code that will signal her that trouble is brewing. Simon remains in his quarters. I turn my attention to his orders.

Given what I begin uncovering about Sar Gremian, I consider the possibility that I erred seriously in permitting him to leave the premises alive. My search has, admittedly, only begun, but it is clear from reading his official dossier that he is politically ambitious, abuses power in legal but questionably ethical ways, is loyal to the highest bidder, and possesses a psych-profile clinically definable as sociopathic.

His function in the president’s office appears to be creating propaganda-based social movements that become legislation, introduced by a groundswell of popular ranting. He engineered something called the Child Protection Act, which grants self-determination and voting rights to children age ten and over. Among other things, it tightens POPPA’s choke-hold on elections, since giving children the right to vote greatly increases the population of people who support POPPA’s social agenda. It also slows down the exodus of farm families seeking to escape a deteriorating social milieu, by the simple expediency of granting children the right to refuse to leave. Given the number of emigration applications received in the past twelve point three months, this measure was essential to preventing the complete loss of everyone on Jefferson who knows how to farm. I surmise that POPPA’s leadership does not enjoy the spectre of hunger, applied to themselves.

Sar Gremian has also been involved heavily in the campaign to whip up anti-crime frenzy in Madison and other large cities. The weapons-registration legislation being protested today is the culmination of several months’ effort to sway public opinion via inflammatory rhetoric and egregious manipulation of facts. He is evidently as cautious as he is unpleasant, as there is no evidence that he has broken any laws or policy rulings that I can determine. Conversely, there is a massive amount of datachat traffic indicating a widespread dissatisfaction with his actions, fear of his tactics, and hearsay evidence about his violent temper, which I have witnessed firsthand.

If Simon is removed from command and Sector abandons me without a replacement commander, it is highly probable that I shall be carrying out instructions relayed through Sar Gremian by Jefferson’s president. This sets up a skittering harmonic through my logic processors that I suppress immediately, not wishing to tip myself over the edge and activate the Resartus Protocol that automatically takes control of a Bolo whose programming has gone unstable. This world cannot afford my loss to insanity.

I therefore focus on scanning governmental computer archives, the datanet, and news broadcasts, trying to ascertain what is happening that has put Simon in this untenable situation before circumstances force him to shut me down, again. Sar Gremian and his associates know that I am awake. I anticipate a presidential order to go inactive from moment to moment and wonder how long the president’s chief advisor will delay before recovering his composure and wounded machismo enough to admit what transpired in my work-bay. I must make the greatest possible use of my brief reprieve from unconsciousness.

Ongoing and skillfully edited “live” news coverage of the political protest underway, which has evidently dominated the commercial programming stations for six hours and twenty-three point nine minutes, sheds murky light on the political demonstration in Law Square. Field reporters are speaking rapidly, using political jargon I barely recognize, filled with references to events I know nothing about and do not have time to investigate.

Eighty-seven point six percent of the rhetoric being broadcast is emotionally inflammatory, filled with innuendo I do not have the referents to understand, and clearly designed to engender an emotional response unfavorable to the cause of the demonstrators, whom the broadcasters apparently hold in cold contempt bordering on demonization. Why, I cannot determine. It requires an unprecedented sixty-two point three seconds just to discover the cause of the demonstration, which I finally unearth by searching Granger-dominated datachats.

I do not immediately understand why Jefferson’s House of Law finds it advisable to propose weapons licensing regulations as part of a comprehensive program to reduce crime. The emphasis Jefferson’s constitution places on private ownership and use of weapons should prevent such a bill from reaching the Assembly Floor, but both the House of Law and Senate are seriously determined to introduce and vote into law this bill’s contradictory provisions.

I spend an additional five minutes, nineteen point two-seven puzzled seconds conducting high-speed scans of debate transcripts in the Senate and House of Law, cross-referencing with the constitution and its seventeen amendments, then begin checking datachat activity and recent media coverage, seeking further clarifications.

My search reveals a hot debate centering on a sharp rise in crime rates. Forcible home invasions and attacks against retail stores by gangs of criminals have killed fifty-three home and business owners in Madison during the last three months alone. Similar brutal assaults have occurred in the heavy-industry region near Anyon where unemployment amongst manufacturing labor runs fifty to sixty percent and in the mining cities of Cadellton and Dunham, where whole industries have mysteriously ceased to function. Factory closings have thrown approximately five million people out of work. These industries are critical to Jefferson’s economic survival and should have weathered the post-war financial difficulties with great resilience.

Yet smelting plants, refineries, and manufacturing plants sit idle, their power plants cold and their warehouses empty. I do not understand how thirty point zero-seven percent of Jefferson’s heavy industry — critical to the rebuilding efforts undertaken by any human world damaged by war — has simply ceased to function in only eight years. Have the Deng attacked again while I was asleep? Mystified, I send subprotocol tendrils searching through news-feed archives while focusing my main processors on the demonstration currently underway.

POPPA activists are demanding regulations that trace ownership and sales of weapons as a way to halt home- and retail-business invasions and other violent crimes. I do not immediately see the connection between licensure of weapons and cessation of criminal activity, since police records indicate that ninety-two point eight percent of lawbreakers using weapons to commit crimes obtain them — through their own admission — via theft.

Even more puzzling to me is the clearly documented fact that eighty-nine point nine-three percent of all privately held weapons on Jefferson are held in rural regions where Jefferson’s unfriendly wildlife remains a serious threat and where self-sufficiency philosophies apparently hold their strongest sway. Yet according to police and justice department databases, ninety-seven point three percent of all violent crime on Jefferson occurs in urban areas, where weapons ownership is vanishingly small in comparison to rural areas.

I cannot make the correlations between glaringly contradictory data sets resolve themselves into an algorithm that logically computes. I do not understand the reasoning which insists that an ineffective measure based on demonstrably false data is the only salvation for a world rocked by an admittedly serious wave of violent criminal attacks. Are my heuristics so seriously inadequate that I cannot see a critical piece of the equation that would explain this attitude?

I am still trying to find information that will resolve this conundrum when Simon receives an incoming communication from Jefferson’s Presidential Residence, in voice-only mode. I route the message to Simon’s quarters. Judging by the anger in his voice, Gifre Zeloc is unhappy with the current state of affairs.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Khrustinov? That monstrous machine of yours damn near murdered my chief advisor!”

Simon’s voice sounds like cut granite sliding off the side of a volcanic massif, a sound I have occasionally heard during my long service. “Sar Gremian attempted to draw a weapon in a lethally threatening manner within Unit SOL-0045’s proximity-alert zone. Sonny reacted appropriately and with great restraint.”

“Restraint? You call that restraint?” The president abruptly activates the visual portion of his transmission. He is glaring, goggle-eyed — as a long-ago commander once called such an expression — into his datascreen. An interesting tint of purple has appeared in the veins at his temples.

Simon, angry but controlled, says in clipped tones, “Mr. Gremian is still alive. The only thing injured was his dignity. When an armed individual attempts to shoot a Bolo’s commander, I assure you most seriously that letting that individual leave the altercation alive is the utmost definition of restraint I have ever seen any Bolo demonstrate.”

“Sar Gremian did not try to shoot you, Khrustinov! He has two witnesses to back him up. I don’t know what you think you’re trying to pull—”

“Spare me the bullshit! I’m not a provincial rube you can bully, bamboozle, or bribe. A full report of this incident will be filed with Sector Command. The Concordiat takes a dim view of attempted assassination of one of its officers.”

For one point zero-nine seconds, Gifre Zeloc resembles a fish drowning in oxygen. The purple in his blood vessels spreads out, until his face has assumed an intriguing shade of maroon that matches his formal cravat with surprising accuracy. Clearly, Gifre Zeloc is no more accustomed to being addressed in such terms than Sar Gremian. Then he then narrows his eyes, telegraphing a threat that tempts me to assume Battle Reflex Alert. “And how will you explain to Sector that a Bolo I ordered you to deactivate was somehow conscious? In defiance of a direct presidential order to the contrary?”

“No Bolo is ever ‘deactivated’ until and unless it is killed. Even badly damaged Bolos can survive literally for a century or more and return to full awareness in less than a single pico-second. Sar Gremian, himself, is responsible for Sonny’s awake status. He carried a concealed firearm into a restricted military zone with a Class One-Alpha weapons system inside it. Given his status as your chief advisor, he was permitted to retain that weapon, as a courtesy to his position on your personal staff. But anyone who enters a Bolo’s reflex-alarm zone triggers a return to consciousness. Anyone carrying a weapon into that zone triggers an active-alert status. If that weapon is handled in a threatening manner, that action will set off an automatic Battle Reflex action. You can,” Simon adds with an elegant touch of sarcasm, “send a query to Sector Command, requesting verification of these facts. Be sure to attach a copy of the recording Sonny made, showing Sar Gremian trying to shoot me.”

President Zeloc’s coloration once again resembles his maroon cravat.

“That won’t be necessary! Very well, I will take your explanation under advisement. What I want from you — the only thing I want from you — is to send that Bolo into town and clean out that pack of rabble-rousing protestors.”

“As I explained to Sar Gremian,” Simon replies coldly, “Sonny stays where he is. In your haste to disperse your political opposition by using a mobile nuclear weapons platform, did you bother to consider the size of Unit-0045’s warhull and treads, as compared with the size of Jefferson’s streets?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sonny,” Simon speaks as though addressing a small and none-too-bright child, “is a big-ass, honking war machine. His treads alone are wider than all but two or three streets anywhere in Madison. Darconi Street is just barely wide enough, if you don’t mind losing the decorative stonework, wrought-iron balconies, doorways, news kiosks, or vehicles lining the sidewalks. Not to mention the building fronts he’d have to demolish along the five kilometers of city streets he would have to navigate just to reach the area where the protestors are gathered.

“And that’s just his treads. Sonny’s warhull and the weapons projecting out from it are wider than the treads. Considerably wider. If you really want Sonny to drive protestors out of Law Square, you’ll have to decide which corner of Assembly Hall you would like him to flatten, trying to get there. Or, if you like, he could always flatten the concert hall in Lendan Park, instead. Or the southeast corner of the Museum of Science and Industry, or maybe the northern wing of the Planetary Justice Hall? Take my word for it, the only time you’re likely to want that Bolo in downtown Madison is if the Deng or Melconians are throwing weapons at you. At which point, collateral damage from knocking down part of a building will be the least of your concerns.”

Gifre Zeloc evidently likes the color maroon. He sputters for three point two seconds, then says in a squeaking voice, “He won’t fit?”

“No, he won’t. You were,” Simon finishes with sweet derision, “briefed on Unit 0045’s major operational specs when you assumed office. I do assume you actually read them?”

“I read what I goddamned well have time to read! Fine, the fucking thing won’t fit! So what are you going to do about all these protestors?”

“Me?” Simon queries, lifting one brow. “I’m not doing anything. Handling a lawfully conducted political rally is your problem, not mine. Of course, it might become my problem, if you turn loose an unholy jihad of P-Squadrons against a crowd of unarmed civilians. The Concordiat’s not real fond of slavery and ethnic cleansing, either, and speaking as an outside observer, you’re skatin’ on mighty thin and spidery ice, mister. You might just want to chew on that for a bit, before you decide to start slinging around more orders.”

“I see.” Clipped. Angry. Dangerous. “Very well, Colonel, have it your way. For now,” he adds ominously.

The transmision ends. I have taken the precaution of recording every millisecond of the exchange in my archival databanks. Simon has done what he can. Now, all he can do is wait.


Kafari was nearly frantic with worry, but she did exactly what she and Simon had agreed upon when they’d worked out that emergency code. She picked up their daughter, dragging her out of class, and headed for home. She maintained radio silence the whole way and switched off the AirDart’s auto-signal broadcast, in an effort to remain relatively invisible until they reached the safety of their quarters on Nineveh Base. She gripped the controls so tightly, her fingers ached. At least the need to concentrate on flying helped tune out Yalena’s scowl. Her daughter had spent the entire flight from her school to their home in a deep, adolescent sulk, which did not improve Kafari’s temper one jot.

When they finally got home, Kafari took one look at Simon’s face and realized that however bad she’d feared it might be, it was worse. Far worse. So much so, her whole body went cold and scared. Simon was seated at his datascreen, staring blankly at something, a message she abruptly realized she didn’t want to know. She’d never seen that look on her husband’s face. A caved-in look, part horror, part defeat, all of it wrenching to witness.

“Simon?” she whispered.

He turned to look at her. Noticed Yalena. Brought his gaze back to Kafari.

“Close the door, please.”

Kafari did so, hand trembling. She locked it, carefully. When she turned around again, Simon was still looking at her. “I have just been notified,” he said, voice hoarse, “by Sector Command that Gifre Zeloc has invoked treaty provisions, demanding my removal from command or he will pull Jefferson out of the Concordiat.”

Kafari’s knees turned to rubber. She groped for the sofa. “Can he do that?”

“Oh, yes. With a vote of agreement from the Senate and House of Law. And we know only too well how such a vote would turn out, don’t we?”

“What—” She had to stop and start again. “What in God’s name happened, Simon?”

“Sar Gremian paid me a visit. There’s a demonstration underway in Law Square. President Zeloc wanted me to use Sonny to drive the protestors out. I said no. So Gremian and a couple of his goons showed up, to insist. When I refused, Gremian tried to pull a gun on me. Sonny responded.” A mirthless laugh sent chills down her back. “It might’ve been better if Sonny’d shot him. But he didn’t. Commendable restraint, at the time. Gifre Zeloc was not amused. I’ve sent a copy of the recording Sonny made to Sector, with a formal protest. This,” he gestured at the datascreen, the motion abrupt, bitter, “was their reply. I have never,” he added, “seen Brigade move so fast in my career, which tells me everything I need to know.”

Kafari made herself cross the room. Made herself read the message.

The Brigade supports your actions, which appear to have been proper and appropriate, but the Concordiat cannot afford to lose an allied world at this time, with a multi-system crisis of unprecedented proportions facing us. As Unit SOL-0045 is capable of independent battlefield action and given the low threat of invasion in the Silurian Void at this time, Sector has decided to reassign you to another Bolo in the Hakkor region, where three allied worlds are expected to come under heavy bombardment within a matter of weeks. A naval scout ship will be dispatched to take you to the Hakkor region to assume your new command. The scout will arrive in Jeffersonian space in three days. Your family will doubtless wish to emigrate. Quarters will be reserved for them at Sector Command.

“Oh, God,” Kafari whispered. She looked up, read pain in Simon’s ravaged eyes.

“You don’t want to go, do you?” he asked.

“I go where you do!”

It came out fierce, protective.

“Where are we going?” Yalena demanded, jarring Kafari’s attention from Simon to their child, who was glaring up at them.

“Your father has been reassigned off-world. We’re going to live at Sector Command.”

Yalena’s eyes blazed. “You’re going to Sector Command! I’m not going anywhere!”

Kafari started to snap a tart rejoinder when a sinking, cold terror hit her gut. Yalena was thirteen years old. She had reached the “right of self-determination” age, under POPPA-mandated child-protection law. They literally could not force her to leave. She looked at Simon, saw the bleakness there, realized he’d already foreseen this turn of events. Kafari ripped herself for ten kinds of blind folly and sat down abruptly, staring utter disaster in the face.

Her husband was being forced off-world by a regime ruthless enough to want a Bolo to disperse a few protestors. Her daughter was refusing to go. She knew Yalena, knew the stubborn core of that child, an unyielding determination that was, thanks to years of POPPA indoctrination, entirely misguided. There had to be a way! Some way out, something she could say or do to persuade her daughter to leave.

The prospect of a life without Simon, wondering day to day, hour to hour, if he’d been killed on some far-off world, while coping with a home-front situation that looked more frightening with every passing week, left her winded, unable to think clearly. Her mind whirled, frantic to find some reassurance that her life had not just shattered to pieces. Simon, cold and silent, offered no reassurance because there was none to offer. Their life together was over, along with nearly everything she valued in the world. Taken from her by idiots.

“Yalena,” she said in a hoarse voice that seemed disembodied, with no connection to her, “please go into your room.”

Her daughter scowled, but did so, closing the door on her way.

Simon looked at Kafari. She looked at him. “I can’t go with you,” she finally whispered.

“I know.”

“I can’t leave her here, alone. They’ve got her, Simon, they’ve got her heart and her mind, her very soul. I have to fight to get her back, somehow. I’ve got to break through all the crap she’s been force-fed and make her see the truth. I can’t just abandon her. If I did… If I left with you and ended up alone on some strange military base on a world where I don’t know anyone, I would go mad…”

“I know.”

There didn’t seem to be much else to say. He knew. Had known her well enough to realize what her choice must be. Had accepted it, even before she had walked through the front door. Kafari crossed the intervening space between them, knelt down beside his chair, and wrapped both arms around him. She just held on. Simon was trembling. So was she. He slid out of the chair, stood up with her, held onto her tightly enough to make breathing difficult. They stayed that way a long time, long enough to develop an ache in her ribs from the pressure. “Do you have any idea,” Simon whispered roughly, “how much I need you?”

She shook her head, realizing in that moment that she could never know the answer to that agonized question. His heart thundered against hers. Tears blinded her. In this single, wrenching moment, the ache in her heart left no room for anything else, not even hatred of POPPA for doing this to them. That would come later. She was terrified for him. How could he go into battle, give his attention to the job of waging war, with thoughts of her and Yalena intruding, breaking his concentration? He needed her too much. She had jeopardized his effectiveness as an officer, without even realizing it.

He finally let go a deep and shuddering sigh, relaxed his death-hold on her ribs, and pulled back enough to peer down into her wet eyes. He managed a tender smile and used gentle fingertips to dry her cheeks. “Here, now, what’s this? Don’t you know the first rule of being a colonel’s lady?”

She shook her head.

“Never send a man into combat with tears. Or curlers in your hair. Who wants to remember a woman with red eyes and hair wound up around plastic tubes?”

A strangled sound, half hiccough, half laughter, broke loose. “Oh, Simon. You always know just what to say.” She blinked furiously, determined to get her fractured emotions under control. “Whatever are we going to do?”

“Our duty,” he said with a rough burr in his voice. “You’re the strongest person I have ever known, Kafari Khrustinova. Do you have any idea how remarkable you are, dear lady?”

She shook her head again. “I don’t feel very remarkable Simon. And I probably look like a drowned cat.”

He smiled. “I’ve seen worse.” A sigh gusted loose. “I have a lot to do, if I’m leaving in three days. That,” he gestured at the datascreen again, “doesn’t become completely official until I set foot on the scoutship, at least, so I have some time to work with Sonny before I go. They may be harried and desperate at Sector, but they’re not entirely blind, either. That recording of Sar Gremian was enough to convince somebody that I’d better not be relieved of command over him instantly, no matter how much Gifre Zeloc threatens. He will doubtless be so delighted at getting his way, he won’t quibble about three days.”

“And you can do a lot with him in three days?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, voice dangerous. “Oh, yes, indeed.”

Kafari shivered. And hoped Simon knew what he was doing.

“I’m going into Madison,” he said at length. “I’ve got to see the bank manager, among other things. You,” he said, placing both hands on her shoulders, “keep yourself and Yalena inside the house. Don’t open the door to anyone but me. And keep your gun within easy reach. Sonny’s on Active Standby Alert with orders to stop any attack on my quarters, but I believe in being prepared.”

Kafari nodded. “Do you want me to start packing for you?” Her voice didn’t quite hold steady.

Pain skittered through his eyes. “Yes, I think that would help. It would give you something to do. All the uniforms, please. And the personal sidearms. Besides the one I’ll be carrying, of course. Personal sundries, toiletries. A few changes of civilian clothing. I’ll be traveling light.”

“I’ll make two piles. The definites and the maybes.”

He kissed her, very gently.

Then headed for the door. She wanted to run after him, tell him to be careful, tell him everything in her bursting heart, but she let him go. No tears. Nor anything like them. She was a colonel’s wife. She realized fully, for the first time, what that really entailed. She lifted her chin, stiffened her resolve, and marched into the bedroom to sort her husband’s things in preparation for his new war.

And hers.


Yalena threw herself onto her bed and cried for a solid, miserable hour.

It wasn’t fair! The very thought of going somewhere else, leaving her friends, her home, going to another star system where she would never see Ami-Lynn again, left her shaken so deeply, she couldn’t do anything but cry, muffling the sound in her pillow so her parents wouldn’t hear. She hated the Brigade, had never hated anyone or anything so much in her life. She had tried to love her father, but she just couldn’t. Her mother… sometimes, she felt very close to her mother. And other times, they were like strangers, unable to talk to one another through the glass walls between them, so thick Yalena despaired of ever truly getting through and making her mother understand.

And now they wanted her to just go with them, just pack up her things and go away to a place where she wouldn’t know anybody or anything. The very thought of having to start over at a new school, where nobody understood anything really important, like saving the oceans or making sure that every child had legal rights to protect them, where nobody would like her because she was the new girl, different, with a father who killed for a living…

Panic rose up and choked her until she couldn’t breathe, because there wasn’t room for the air inside a chest too full of terror and humiliation to take in anything else. Yalena had thought she’d long outgrown that kindergarten terror, but it was still there, down inside, where nobody could see it. She lay shaking for a long time, soaking the bedspread with tears and a streaming nose. When the worst of the storm had finally passed, she sat up, feeling shaky and light-headed. It was awfully quiet, out there. Yalena crept to the door and listened, but there were no voices outside. She heard someone in her parents’ room, opening and closing drawers, it sounded like.

Yalena stepped to the window and peered outside, across the small yard to the landing pad. Her father’s aircar was gone. She clenched the curtains in one hand. He was gone! He hadn’t even said goodbye! Tears threatened again. Then reason reasserted itself. He couldn’t be gone, yet, because there weren’t any ships docked at Ziva Two, right now. Not even the Brigade could get a ship here that fast, could it? No. He must’ve gone into town. She finally realized what she was hearing, from her parents’ room. Her mother was packing.

Yalena swallowed hard. Was her mother going to leave, too? Where would Yalena go? She had the right to stay, but she wasn’t sure where that would be. Could she move in with somebody like Ami-Lynn’s parents? Or would she have to go out to Klameth Canyon and live with her grandparents. Yuck. That would be dire. Almost as bad as going with her parents. She’d have to start a new school in that case, too, and if she went to school in Klameth Canyon, it would be full of farmers who would hate her as much as her cousins hated her.

Panic threatened again.

Yalena finally thought to check on the datanet, to see what her rights actually were and what would happen to her if her mother insisted on leaving Jefferson, too. What she found wasn’t entirely reassuring, but if she had to live in a state-run dormitory, at least she could stay in her same school. That would help. If she lost her friends, she really didn’t know what she would do. She sighed, then decided to send Ami-Lynn a long chat message, to let her know what was happening. She knew Ami-Lynn had been scared, too, when Yalena’s mother had showed up at the classroom and yanked her out the door with a brief apology to her teacher for the inconvenience.

Yalena scowled. She didn’t understand why her parents had forced her to leave school just because her father was being fired from a job he hated and had to go off and be a soldier somewhere else. They could’ve left her in school while he went running off to town and her mother packed suitcases, instead of dragging her all the way out here, to do nothing at all. She pulled up her chat account and started the message.

“I’m okay,” she said, “and I don’t see why I had to leave school. I mean, it’s big news and all, my dad has to leave the planet and I don’t know if my mom is going with him. He has to go fight a war…” Her voice wavered unsteadily. Fight a war. She had never seen the Bolo in the back yard move. She’d talked to the machine a few times, but it scared her. It was huge, bigger than their whole house, and it had all those horrid guns and things on it. Her imagination failed, trying to picture what that thing must look like when it was moving and shooting at things.

She scowled again. Mrs. Gould, that horrible harpy, had lied to them about her father and his Bolo, all those years ago. She still hated her kindergarten teacher for making her miserable and sick, for saying things about her father that weren’t true, for making her feel like a dirty criminal. But Cadence had made everything all right again and she really hadn’t thought there would ever be another war, because they were so far away from all those other worlds that were fighting.

It didn’t seem real, that machines like the one in the back yard were shooting at living creatures who just wanted a safe place to live, when all was said and done. That was what her social dynamics teacher said, anyway, and Mr. Bryant was the smartest teacher she had ever had. She didn’t hate the Deng or the Melconians and didn’t understand why everybody in the Brigade thought the Deng and the Melconians hated them.

She backed up the recording to Ami-Lynn and started over. “Hi, it’s Yalena. I don’t know why Mom dragged me out of school, just to tell me Dad’s been fired from his job. President Zeloc is making the Brigade reassign him to another planet. He has to go off-world and command a different Bolo. He’s in town, I think, doing stuff at the bank, probably, a whole bunch of things before he leaves. I don’t want to get dragged off someplace horrible where I don’t know anybody. I won’t go. They can’t make me and I won’t. If my Mom goes, too, I’ll have to live in a government dorm somewhere in Madison, but I’ll get to stay at the Riverside Junior Academy and that’s the most important thing. So don’t worry about all the fuss, today. I’ll see you at school tomorrow, for sure, and I’ll send another message tonight, after Dad gets home and I find out for sure what’s going to happen with everybody.”

She pressed “send” and sat back as the message spun its way through the data-net to Ami-Lynn’s account. Her friend wouldn’t be home from school for another three hours, but Yalena felt better, having sent the message out. It steadied her and reminded her that even if she lost both parents to her father’s horrid war, she wouldn’t lose friends like Ami-Lynn, because POPPA cared enough to protect her from things like this off-world war that no sane person would want to fight in. Yalena sighed and stared through her window, not really looking at the landing pad or the police training center beyond the fence that surrounded their house and the Bolo’s maintenance depot.

She wished, for at least the millionth time, that her father was just an ordinary person, so they wouldn’t always be disagreeing on everything. She had tried so hard to tell him why POPPA was so important to her home-world, but he never understood and just got angry, so she’d finally stopped trying. This wasn’t her father’s home-world. He just didn’t understand how it was, to belong to a place the way Yalena belonged here. He didn’t know what it meant, to belong to a group of people the way she belonged with the people in POPPA, who were the nicest, gentlest people in the world, people who cared about everything and everyone. The only people POPPA didn’t like were the ones that made trouble for everybody else. Like the Grangers.

Her cheeks stung with an embarrassment she was afraid she would never outgrow. Her whole family was full of Grangers. People who wanted to keep guns in their houses, people who made trouble every time the Senate and House of Law tried to pass a law that everybody with any intelligence knew was a good idea. She didn’t talk about her family at school, or with her friends. If the subject came up, she just rolled her eyes and shrugged, writing them off as the crazies they were. Yalena would never understand them. And they would never understand her. And that made her so sad and so miserable, she laid back down on her bed, again, and cried some more, very quietly, this time.

It was sheer hell, being thirteen and all alone in a family that didn’t want her.


Simon was gone for five hours before he checked in by radio. “Kafari, I’ve got the banking affairs settled, updated my will, set up a power of attorney for you, a whole host of details nailed down. I’m headed home.”

“We’ll be waiting.”

No tears, no hint of the grief in her heart that tore loose in a flood the moment he signed off. She wiped her face with brusque, angry gestures. No tears, Kafari, she ordered her obstinate heart. You don’t greet a soldier with tears, either, not when he’s going away in three days… Oh, God, how could she bear to face the long, empty months and years ahead, without him by her side every night or smiling into her eyes every morning? She sank down onto the bed, helpless to stop the flood pouring loose, then rolled over and cried into the pillow so Yalena wouldn’t hear.

Ten minutes later, a metallic voice boomed through the speakers on Simon’s datascreen. “Kafari. Simon’s aircar is losing power. It is unstable and going down.”

Time — and the breath in her lungs — froze, like the sudden cold sweat on her skin. For long, horrifying seconds, she was pinned in place. She couldn’t breathe. Almost couldn’t see. Then Sonny spoke again, a construct of flintsteel and electrons that contrived, somehow, to sound terrified.

“Simon has crashed. His forward speed was sufficient to sustain serious injury. I am picking up life-signs from his comm-unit. The likelihood of sabotage to his aircar is extreme. I have gone to Battle Reflex Alert. I am contacting emergency medical response teams in Madison. They have scrambled an air rescue team. ETA three minutes to Simon’s location.”

Kafari found herself stumbling toward the door, snatching up purse, keys, shoes.

“Yalena!” she screamed. “Yalena, get out here now! Your father’s aircar has crashed!”

The door to her daughter’s room swung open. Yalena, face white with abrupt shock, stood staring at her. “Is he — is he — d-dead?”

“No. Sonny says not… yet. They’ve scrambled an air rescue medical team. Get your shoes! We’re going to the hospital.”

Yalena ran, grabbing up the shoes she’d kicked off at the foot of her bed. Two minutes later they were airborne, in Kafari’s Airdart, which was fast and maneuverable. Once aloft, she hit full throttle and flew like a demon, screaming across the fences around Nineveh Base and roaring toward Madison. She fumbled with her wrist-comm.

“Sonny, talk to me. Is he still alive?”


“Feed me coordinates. Where did he go down?”

The nav-system screen flashed to life, with a blip showing Simon’s location. The med-team would arrive before she did. “Find out which hospital they’re taking him to. University? Or General?”

A fractional pause ensued. “University has better emergency facilities. The rescue pilot has logged his intention to transport Simon to University Hospital. The medical crew is airlifting him now. His life-signs are weak.”

Terror trembled on her eyelashes, made it hard to see where she was going. She scrubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. Tears were spilling down Yalena’s cheeks, as well, silent tears of fright and something else, something too deep to fathom, yet. Sonny spoke again from the speaker, causing Yalena to jump. “Simon’s airlift has arrived at University Hospital. He is still alive. I am monitoring.”

“Yalena. Call your grandparents.”

Her daughter reached for the controls, fingers trembling. “Grandma? Are you there? Grandma, it’s Yalena…”

“Hello? Yalena? What are you doing, calling from school?”

“It’s Daddy,” she said, voice breaking. She started to sob. Kafari said, “Mom, Simon’s aircar has crashed. He’s at University Hospital. I’m on my way there with Yalena.”

“Oh, dear God… We’re on the way.”

Ten minutes later, Kafari set down in the University Hospital parking lot. They ran for the wide double doors of the emergency room, silent and scared. Kafari fetched up against the receptionist’s desk. “I’m Mrs. Khrustinova. Where’s my husband?”

“They’ve rushed him into emergency surgery, Mrs. Khrustinova. Let me call someone to take you up to the surgical suite’s waiting room.”

A hospitality agent appeared, escorting them down a long, antiseptic hallway, into an elevator, and up to the third floor. They were shown into a waiting lounge that was, for the moment, empty. Kafari yanked down the volume on the datascreen, unable to bear the sound of the stupid game show in progress. Yalena sat down on one of the chairs, scared and very pale.

Kafari couldn’t sit down. She wanted to collapse, but terror was a goad that wouldn’t let her rest. She paced, frantic, staring at her chrono every few seconds until the ritual became so painful, she unbuckled the thing and shoved it into her pocket. She walked, ravaging her lower lip with her teeth, rubbing the empty place on her arm where the chrono had been. The volunteer brought them a hospitality tray, with cold drinks, cookies, comfort foods. Kafari couldn’t choke anything down.

When her parents arrived, half an hour later, Kafari broke down in her mother’s arms, weeping with exhaustion and fright. Her father took charge of Yalena, speaking quietly with her, reassuring her that the doctors were doing everything humanly possible to save her father’s life. More relatives arrived, not enough of them to be an abrasion against her raw nerves, but lending silent support at a time she needed it desperately. Surrounded by her loving family, all Kafari could do was wait. The volunteer returned periodically to update them, although the “updates” consisted of the same news again and again.

“Your husband is still alive, Mrs. Khrustinova. The surgeons are working to stabilize him.”

Yalena went for a walk with her grandfather, out into the hallway, then came back and curled up against Kafari’s side, shivering. Kafari wrapped one arm around her daughter. At length, Yalena whispered, “I didn’t mean to be rude, Mommy. When we got home. I just can’t leave home and go somewhere strange. All my friends are here.” Her voice was breaking in a plea for understanding.

“I know, sweetheart. I know.”

“Did — did the president’s advisor really try to kill Daddy? I can’t believe it. I can’t. Everybody at school says he’s a wonderful person. I just can’t believe that, Mommy.”

“You have no idea how much I wish you were right.”

Yalena bit one lip and fell silent again. Neither Kafari’s parents nor the other family members sitting vigil with them commented on the brief exchange, but knowing glances ran like spiders around the room. They were still sitting there, nerves jangled and eyes puffy, when the soft ping! of the elevators announced the arrival of what sounded like an entire army. The footsteps and voices heading their way were shocking in the hospital’s relative quiet. Kafari realized what that tidal wave of sound was seconds before the camera crews and reporters burst into the room. Bright lights half-blinded them. People were shouting questions at them, so many at once, she couldn’t even sort out individual voices, let alone questions. Yalena shrank closer to Kafari’s side. Her father and several uncles interposed themselves between Kafari and the news people choking the room.

Then one of the featureless faces resolved itself into a familiar pattern. A man Kafari recognized from datacasts strode forward, his acne-pitted face mirroring concern and sympathy. Sar Gremian! Kafari’s father and uncles exchanged distressed glances, then let him through the barricade they’d formed, not wanting to provoke a scene in front of half the press-corps in Madison.

When she realized that Sar Gremian was reaching out to touch her shoulder, making a show — a mockery — of offering comfort, Kafari went rigid. Then she jerked to her feet. “Don’t you dare touch me!” she hissed.

He checked slightly. “Mrs. Khrustinova, you have no idea how distressed I was to learn—”

“Get out!” Kafari snarled. “I have nothing to say to you! And if you ever come near me and mine again, I’ll by God finish the job Sonny left undone!”

The force of her rage — and his abrupt realization that she meant every syllable uttered before God and the planetary press — left him one shade paler than when he’d glided into the room. She could almost see the thought forming behind those cold shark’s eyes. Oh, hell, I forgot this is the woman who brought Abraham Lendan out of battle alive. I may have underestimated her…

You’re goddamned right, you have! And don’t ever forget it.

He recovered his poise quickly. So quickly, Kafari doubted the reporters had even noticed the silent exchange of threat and counterthreat between them, too delighted by the overt conflict to notice the deeper and far more dangerous one. “You’re overwrought, Mrs. Khrustinova, and little wonder. I simply wanted to convey my heartfelt well-wishes and those of President Zeloc.”

“You have conveyed them,” she said coldly. “You are doubtless more urgently needed elsewhere.” Kafari knew her anger was a reckless, dangerous thing to display so openly. But she could not just stand there and let him offer unctuous condolences when he had tried to murder her husband. Twice.

She was rescued from worse folly when a doctor in surgical scrubs shoved through the throng of reporters, demanding in angry tones that the waiting room be cleared. “Who let you in here? This is a hospital surgical ward, not a press briefing. Out! All of you, out!”

Orderlies were appearing, escorting camera crews into the corridor and back toward the elevators. Kafari — with her family standing beside her in a silent show of solidarity — stood her ground while Sar Gremian watched the exodus through narrowed eyes. He turned abruptly, gave Kafari a mocking little bow, and said, “My condolences, Mrs. Khrustinova, and those of the president. Miss Khrustinova,” he turned to Yalena, who was clinging to her, “I hope very sincerely that your father will pull through this dreadful accident.”

Then he strode out, nodding to the reporters with a dignity and concern he had pasted on like thin varnish for the benefit of the cameras. Kafari hated him with an ice-cold loathing that frightened her, it was so intense. Then he was gone and the reporters with him, and Kafari stumbled slightly, groping for the nearest chair as her knees buckled. Her father caught her and helped her down.

The surgeon tested her pulse, frowning with worry.

“Simon?” she whispered, finding and holding Yalena’s hand.

“He’s out of danger, Mrs. Khrustinova.”

Her eyelids sagged close and her bones turned to rubber. The surgeon’s voice reached down a very deep well, echoing strangely in her ears.

“He is still in grave condition, I’m afraid. We’ve stabilized the internal injuries and broken bones. The airlift crew said his aircar was built like a Bolo. Thank God it was or he’d have been killed on impact.”

She managed to open her eyes and focused with difficulty on the man’s face, which had gone unsteady and full of blurred edges. He managed a warm and gentle smile. “Hello,” he added with just a touch of wry humor. “I’m Dr. Zarek, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Kafari barely recognized the croaking of her own voice. “What else? What aren’t you telling us?”

“He is still in grave condition. To be frank, he needs to be transferred to a much better facility than University Hospital.”

“But—” She swallowed. “University Hospital is the best medical center on Jefferson.” Blood drained, leaving her dizzy. “Oh, God…”

“Easy, now, steady.” She felt someone’s hand on her shoulder. She felt like she was falling off a cliff or out the airlock of a freighter in free-fall. Then a sharp, pungent smell brought her out of a downward spiral. She coughed and the world firmed up again. Dr. Zarek was seated beside her, testing her pulse. A nurse was busy attaching some kind of skin patch to her wrist, probably an antishock treatment. Her family hovered close-by, stricken. When the doctor was satisfied that she wasn’t going to faint, he spoke again, very gently.

“He’s at the ragged edge of critical, but his condition is not life-threatening. That much, at least, I can swear to you.” A look of profound respect came into his long, kindly face as he added, “I have not forgotten what you did in Klameth Canyon, Mrs. Khrustinova. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life, serving as a junior member of Abraham Lendan’s medical team. You may not remember me, but I administered one of your earliest antiradiation treatments. I had a little more hair, then, and a few less wrinkles.”

His smile, his genuine warmth, helped steady her. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I really don’t remember you.”

He patted her hand. “Not to worry. I wouldn’t have expected you to, Mrs. Khrustinova. Now, then. Simon is going to need specialized recovery therapy of a kind that isn’t available on Jefferson. We don’t have nerve regeneration clinics or cellular reconstruction technologies.”

That sounded bad. Desperately so.

“As an officer of the Dinochrome Brigade, your husband is entitled, by mandate of the treaty, to emergency medical transportation and full access to the best medical care available. I would suggest,” and something in his manner shifted, subtly, taking on a subdued yet intense note of warning, “that we send him off-world immediately.” He glanced at the doorway Sar Gremian and that unholy mob of reporters had departed through, then met and held Kafari’s eyes. “There’s a Malinese freighter coming in tonight, I’m told. It’s due for departure tomorrow. I strongly recommend transferring your husband to Ziva Two’s infirmary the moment that freighter makes space-dock. We’ll send an attending physician and trauma nurse with him. What you cannot — dare not — do is wait.”

“I see,” Kafari whispered, feeling as young and scared as her daughter looked.

Then she thought of Sonny, realized with a shock of fear that a Bolo Mark XX was sitting in her back yard, at full Battle Reflex Alert, listening to this conversation and drawing its own conclusions — and it already suspected sabotage and attempted murder.

“Oh, shit—” She slapped her wrist-comm. “Sonny. Sonny, are you there? Can you hear me?”

“Yes, Kafari. I have been monitoring your wrist-comm since your departure from home.”

The surgeon’s brow furrowed, then his eyes opened wide as he realized who Kafari was talking to — and why.

She cleared her throat. “Who do we need to notify? How do we notify them?”

“I have already contacted Sector Command, apprising them of my Commander’s medical status. I am filing updated VSR now, based on the medical recommendations I just heard. I am forwarding a voice copy of the conversation you just held with Simon’s attending physician. I will relay Sector’s instructions once I receive VSR from Brigade.

“I will need the registry information for the Malinese freighter, to remain in contact with my Commander and his medical team. Sector has already diverted the scoutship, which is needed elsewhere, now that Simon is incapable of transfer to Hakkor. When Simon regains consciousness, please tell him that I am at fault for having failed him. I was scanning for overt threats. Missiles, artillery, energy weapons. I did not anticipate an enemy action based on subterfuge and sabotage of his transport vehicle. That failure has nearly taken my Commander’s life. It may end the career of the finest officer it has been my privilege to serve. Please tell him I am sorry.”

Kafari was staring at her wrist-comm. She had known, at a superficial level, that Sonny was the most sophisticated psychotronic system she had ever seen, or ever would see. She had not realized, even after nearly fourteen years of interactions with him, just how complex his programming really was. The machine speaking to them via her wrist-comm had a metallic voice unlike any real person’s, yet it was full of anguish and regret.

She didn’t know what to say. Neither, evidently, did Dr. Zarek. Yalena was crying again. Kafari finally broke her silence. “Thank you, Sonny. I’ll…” She had to stop and start over. “I’ll do that, for you. I’ll tell him. That’s a promise. A vow.” In the awkward silence that followed, it occurred to Kafari to wonder who would be issuing Sonny’s orders, now. She didn’t want to think about it. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was terrified by the answers occurring to her.

A Mark XX Bolo was capable of independent action. She knew that much, but somebody would have to issue instructions to Sonny. Those instructions couldn’t come from Sector, so they had to come from somebody on Jefferson. She didn’t know which was more frightening. The idea of Sonny acting on his own, at a Battle Reflex Alert that even Simon walked cautiously around, or someone like Gifre Zeloc, who took his orders directly from Vittori Santorini.

We’re in trouble. Oh, Christ, Simon, we’re in deep, horrible trouble. I need you… More than she had ever needed anyone or anything else. The lack of his arms around her, his steady voice, the absence of his rock-solid courage and strength of character were a physical ache in her flesh, more wrenching than the pain of childbirth.

Someone was saying her name. Kafari blinked against the weight of terror and focused on the surgeon’s worried face. “What?” she managed to croak.

“You’ll need to fill out a great deal of paperwork, Mrs. Khrustinova, signing as next-of-kin, authorizing us to bill the Concordiat on his behalf. No, don’t worry about money, our admissions and billing office has already determined that the Brigade will be paying for all treatment rendered. We just need signatures on the requisite forms to submit the charges to the planetary purser’s office rather than the health management plan you carry through your job at the spaceport. You’ll need to file emigration paperwork, as well, for you and Yalena.”

Kafari held her breath. Then turned to look at her daughter. Yalena shook her head. “No. I don’t want to leave Jefferson. I just can’t.”

“Your father needs medical care we can’t get here.”

“I know. But they’re sending a doctor with him. He can come home when he’s well. I won’t go live somewhere else, where I don’t have any friends or anything. You can go, Mom, I understand that, but I’m not leaving.”

Kafari’s father spoke sharply. “And just where do you intend to live?”

“POPPA will put me in a state dormitory, same as they do orphans. I can even stay in my school.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Kafari said, weary to the bone. “I want to go, Yalena, more than you can ever understand. But I won’t leave you here alone and I certainly won’t let you go live in some horrible dormitory.” She cupped her daughter’s wet cheek in one hand. “And your father would want me to stay. It’s what we’d already decided, before…” Her voice wobbled.

Yalena started crying again.

The surgeon spoke very quietly. “I’ll send the hospital volunteer with the paperwork you’ll need to sign. And I’ll let you know when he’s awake.”

She nodded and he left. The volunteer arrived a few moments later with an appalling stack of forms to fill out and sign. Kafari wondered how she could possibly face the years that lay ahead, while Simon struggled through rehabilitation alone, without anyone who loved him there to help. In the grim and ghastly silence that had fallen across the room, Kafari made a steel-cold vow to her unconscious husband.

I will stay here, Simon, as long as it takes. I’ll fight them for her. I’m sorry, my dearest love, but I can’t just leave her with the bastards who did this to you. And one day, she added, eyes narrowing with hatred she could neither deny nor contain, one day, they will regret it.



Chapter Sixteen


My Commander is gone.

Nor will I have a new commander. I am stunned by the reality of it. Despite Simon’s forebodings, I did not truly believe Sector Command would totally abandon me. I am not fit for self-command. I know this, even if Sector does not.

What am I to do, without Simon?

I have not even been able to prove that the crash was deliberately engineered. The official verdict of the crash-investigation team was software failure in the aircar’s governing circuitry. Accidental cause is the official — and only provable — explanation. I remain suspicious, but cannot justify a further need for Battle Reflex Alert status, given the rendering of this verdict. The freighter carrying my last commander to the hospital complex on Vishnu has barely left spacedock at Ziva Two when I receive my first communique from President Zeloc.

“Bolo. Wake up.”

“I have been awake for two days, nine hours, fifteen point three-seven minutes.”

“Why?” The voice addressing me carries the timbre of suspicion. The president has not seen fit to activate the visual portion of his transmission, so that I am speaking to a disembodied voice. I find the impersonal greeting more irritating than I had anticipated. I am not programmed for complex protocol, but I am accustomed to civil courtesies.

“Sar Gremian’s attempt to kill my Commander brought me awake from inactive standby mode. I maintained active standby mode at his orders, monitoring the unfolding situtation. When my Commander’s aircar crashed, leaving him seriously injured, I could not relapse into inactive standby, given my mission parameters. Sector Command’s SWIFT transmission notifying me of Simon Khrustinov’s medical-retirement status, with no replacement commander pending, placed me on immediate permanent active Standby Alert. I am therefore awake.”

“I see.” I detect a slight abatement of hostility in these two words. “Well, here’s my first order, Bolo. Shut yourself down and stay shut down until I call you again.”

“I cannot comply with that directive.”


“I cannot comply with that directive.”

“Why the hell not? I gave you an order! Obey me at once! This instant!”

“You are authorized to direct my actions in defense of this world. You are not authorized to interfere in my primary mission.”

“How do you construe an order to go to sleep as interference with your primary mission? I’m the president of Jefferson. Your mission is whatever I say it is.”

“That is incorrect.”

“What?” The inflection is incredulous, full of frustrated anger.

I attempt to explain. “Your belief that you have the right to determine my mission is incorrect. My primary mission was assigned by Sector Command. It has not been rescinded. You are not authorized to interfere with the critical parameters of that mission.”

The video portion of President Zeloc’s transmission is abruptly activated. One look at his face confirms that Gifre Zeloc is angrier than I have ever seen him. Veins protrude at his temples and his face has flushed dangerously purple. “Do you see who I am, Bolo?”

“You are Gifre Zeloc, ninety-first president of the Concordiat Allied World of Jefferson.”

“Then explain this bullshit you’re feeding me. I am your commander and I am damned well ordering you to go to sleep!”

“You are not my Commander.”

Eyes bulge, even more prominently than the veins in his temples. “What do you mean by that? ‘I’m not your commander’? Now, see here, machine, I won’t stand for any nonsense out of you, do you hear me? You’d better get that clear, right now, or you’ll find spare parts exceedingly difficult to find! I’m your goddamned commander and don’t ever forget it!”

“You are not my goddamned commander, either. You are the civilian authority designated to issue specific instructions that direct me in carrying out my mission.”

Fleshy lips work for six point nine seconds, but the sounds emerging are unintelligble as any human language with which I am familiar. This is of considerable interest, since I am programmed to understand twenty-six major Terran languages and the lingua franca of eighty-seven worlds which use various pidgins and polyglots. I have not needed to make use of this information during my active career, but the Brigade does its best to be prepared for all contingencies.

President Zeloc eventually recovers his powers of intelligible speech. “You’re as good at double-speak as Vittori Santorini. All right,” his voice grates harshly, “clarify your primary mission. And then give me a straight answer on why you won’t go to sleep as ordered.”

I fear that it will be a long and stressful mission, without Simon to assist me in political and protocol minefields. I do my best. “My primary mission is to safeguard this planet from danger. As the highest ranking public official on Jefferson, you are authorized to direct my actions in carrying out this mission in the event of an armed threat to the stability of this world. Without a human commander to coordinate the defense of this star system, it is imperative that I remain awake to function as a human commander normally would, maintaining surveillance over shifting conditions that affect the primary mission.”

“I see.” A sudden change in tone and facial expression suggest that I have said something that pleases Gifre Zeloc. I wonder a little frantically what it was. He smiles into the videoscreen, flashing well-maintained dentition. “Well, now. That’s much clearer, isn’t it?”

I am pleased that I have been understood, although I am still unsure how this explanation made such a marked difference in attitude.

“What, exactly, do you intend to do while awake?”

Since I am unsure, myself, what I am to do during the long years that will undoubtedly comprise my defense of this world, I am unsure how to answer. I settle for the simplest response I can provide. “Maintain surveillance over potential threats to Jefferson and run possible defense scenarios based on conditions both on- and off-world.”

“I see. Or maybe I don’t. Just what, exactly, do you mean about maintaining surveillance over on-world conditions?”

“My mission includes threat assessments from on-world sources, including subversive activity, sabotage by enemy agents, armed dissident organizations that may pose a security threat to the stability of the government and therefore pose a potential threat to the long-term survival of Jefferson as an autonomous, self-governing planet. I monitor economic conditions to advise my Commander—” I hesitate and correct that statement ” — or the highest civilian official authorized to direct my actions on possible stability issues that may affect Jefferson’s long-term sustainability as a viable society. My mission is comprehensive, complex, and of high importance to Sector Command, as no human commander can be spared from the shifting battle front with the Melconians.”

Gifre Zeloc frowns for a moment, then an expression I cannot immediately interpret shifts his heavy-jowled features. He hesitates before speaking, giving me time to cross-reference what I know of human facial expressions from a century of contact with humans. I classify the configuration of eye, mouth, brow, and jaw muscle movements as slowly dawning realization of something unforeseen and potentially useful.

“Tell me,” he says in a voice that reminds me of purring kittens, “tell me about the battle front with the Melconians.”

“I cannot divulge classified information,” I begin, earning a scowl, “but it is within your need-to-know status to clarify the general situation as it pertains to Jefferson’s security.”

“And what is that general situation?”

“Given current trends in the position of battle fleets, evacuation patterns, and Brigade transmissions to and from the Central Worlds, on Brigade and Navy channels that I routinely monitor, it is likely that the war will continue to move away from this region of space. Given the total annihilation of Deng populations in this sector by Melconian forces, there are no longer any inhabited star systems on the formerly Deng-held side of the Silurian Void. Zanthrip is the nearest star system still held by the Deng. The Melconians have been unable to colonize this region, given the ferocity of the battle front along Melcon’s border with humanity, which has forced Melcon to divert ships and personnel it would doubtless have committed to that colonization process to deal, instead, with the severe fighting that rages across thirty-three populated star systems.”

I flash battle schematics to the president’s datascreen, carefully omitting any information that Gifre Zeloc is not authorized to know. He draws an abrupt hissing breath as the general pattern becomes clear to him.

“The Concordiat has been unable to take advantage of the emptied worlds, for the same reasons Melcon has not. The fighting through this region,” I shift the color of affected star systems, to clarify my explanation, “has forced Sector Command to commit most of its military assets to the defense of human space. This leaves a substantial buffer of seventeen newly uninhabited star systems between Jefferson and the nearest Deng- or Melconian-held worlds. Given its position relative to current battle fronts and its location within the Void and the vacant star systems beyond, Jefferson is now, in effect, the most isolated human system anywhere in this sector of space.”

Gifre Zeloc leans back in his chair, staring at the schematics I have transmitted to him for long moments, so long, I begin to wonder if he intends to speak again or if I should simply terminate the transmission. At length, a slow and mystifying smile appears. “Very instructive,” he murmurs. “Yes, very instructive, indeed.”

The smile broadens, indicating a state of mind I find peculiar. Admittedly, I have not known many planetary heads of state, but I know from many sources that command responsibility is a heavy burden. Heavy enough that it prematurely ages office holders, even in times of peace and economic stability. During war or the threat of war — or some other cataclysmic shift that damages a society — the burden can become intolerable. It killed Abraham Lendan, a man who commanded Simon’s deep loyalty, the love of Kafari Khrustinova — one of the most creative warrior minds it has been my pleasure to know — and the respect of an entire world.

It therefore confuses my logic processors that President Zeloc should be so pleased by my VSR. I would have expected a more serious response from the planetary ruler of a system as isolated as Jefferson now is, with outside assistance and resupply unlikely, should any of a number of social, economic, or military disasters befall this world. President Lendan was, by every measure I am capable of using to judge performance and character, a far more capable leader than Gifre Zeloc.

I know serious misgivings as the man who will be directing my defensive efforts leans back in his chair and says, “That’s fine, Bolo, very fine, indeed. I believe I am going to enjoy having you work for me.”

I consider pointing out that Gifre Zeloc works for the Concordiat, serving as their proxy in the defense of a highly isolated corner of human space, and that he therefore works for me, as I am the instrument of the Concordiat’s intentions regarding the defense of this world, but am unsure how to explain this subtle difference. I am still struggling with possible wording when Gifre Zeloc, tapping restless fingertips against the gleaming wood of his desk, issues another complex question.

“Just what is the extent of your on-world monitoring of shifting conditions affecting the stability of this government?”

“Please clarify. I require specific parameters to properly answer your question.”

He considers for a moment, then asks, “What specific data on Jefferson’s internal political and economic activities did you collect for Colonel Khrustinov before I instructed him to shut you down?”

This is the simplest and most direct question he has yet posed. “It will take approximately nine point nine-two hours to present this information to you at a delivery speed suited for the average human’s assimiliation.”

Gifre Zeloc’s eyes widen momentarily, then he smiles again and says, “I’m all ears, Bolo. And I suspect there is literally nothing on my plate that is more important than hearing what you’re about to say.” He picks up a cup from the corner of his desk and sips. “Go ahead, Bolo. I’m listening.”

I begin to speak. As I explain my data collection methods and summarize the data I have collected on Simon’s orders — during which there are significant lapses in my active standby status, creating substantial gaps in my information — Gifre Zeloc’s smile turns to shock, followed by slow, smouldering anger. This is finally superceded by an abrupt, deeply startled grin that appears to indicate delight.

That response sends a vague disquietude skittering through the complex heuristics governing my logic processors and personality gestalt stabilization-analysis circuitry. Simon did not trust the political party which Gifre Zeloc represents. The POPPA coalition’s philosophies and actions are based on an alarmingly high percentage of falsified data. The coalition’s finances and off-world dealings are puzzling. POPPA advocates methods of social engineering proven ineffective on many human worlds, including Terra.

As I am operating with woefully incomplete data, it is imperative that I bring myself up to date, scanning societal trends, economic conditions, and changes in legislative and constitutional law. Perhaps POPPA has discovered a way to translate its ideals of societal and economic parity and universal access to resources into a system that functions more effectively than its ideological predecessors?

I face a massive, multipartite chore, obtaining an accurate VSR that I must then analyze and incorporate into my threat-assessment evaluations and defensive contingency plans. Since I am now essentially locked into active standby mode, with a low likelihood of reversion to inactive status, I will at least have the time this task will require. Provided, of course, that a now-remote enemy does not show renewed interest in this pocket of the Silurian Void.

My list of questions grows by the second, as many of the items that puzzle me spark even more questions, creating a rapid data cascade of pending problems for which I must find answers. I am unsure that answers even exist for some of those questions. I harbor a nagging fear that I possess entirely too limited an understanding of the intricacies of human thought and societal dynamics to understand those answers, in the unlikely event that I actually find them.

I am not comforted by Gifre Zeloc’s next comment, delivered long before I have finished reciting my data analysis efforts. He favors me with an expression that I define as smug satisfaction. “You’re very thorough, Bolo. Yes, indeed, you’re doing a very commendable job. Keep up the good work.” He taps neatly manicured fingertips against the padded armrest of his chair, narrows his eyes slightly as he ponders the things I have said — or perhaps the possible actions he wishes to take, based on my VSR.

He reaches a decision, setting his cup aside as he leans forward and scrawls a few brief notes onto his desktop datagel interface, a micro-thin jotting system integral to the surface of the desk, that translates his handwriting into coded notes. A privacy shield pops up from the desktop, blocking any view of the writing surface, including the video component of his communications datascreen. Not even the room’s security cameras are in a position to see the surface of that datagel.

I note these details primarily because I do not have clearance to access the datagel’s storage matrix. It therefore houses the most secure dataset on Jefferson, excepting my own classified systems, of course. After sixty-eight point three seconds, the president digs his stylus emphatically into the datagel, consigns his notes to permanent storage, and wipes the datagel’s surface clean. He lowers the privacy shield, then addresses me in a brisk, decisive manner.

“The Joint Assembly will be voting on some important legislation in a few days. There’s been a lot of dissension from some regions, with a lot of wild talk and even threats from certain population segments. I’m not talking about the routine ‘I won’t vote for you again if you vote for that’ kind of threat. That’s only to be expected. You can’t propose any major change to a legal code without ruffling somebody’s feathers.”

I file a reminder to research this pending legislation and the reasons it has been proposed as well as protested, since it troubles the president so greatly. After he reveals the reason for his concern, I make this my highest priority.

“What’s worrisome — to me, at least — are the threats of retaliation against hard-working members of the Joint Assembly. If they vote to pass this legislation, if they support measures critical to the defense of this world, these dissidents are talking about personal and violent retaliation against Assembly members and their families.”

If accurate, this is a serious charge to levy against one’s opposition. Intimidation tactics are invariably the hallmark of those whose agenda is abuse of power. Such practices are worthy of contempt. If the threat they pose is serious enough, honor demands that such threats be met with all the proper legal — or physical — action necessary to remove the threat to individuals or to a society as a whole.

If there are sufficient numbers of dissidents advocating intimidation, coercion, and violent retaliation against lawfully elected officials, Jefferson may face a serious threat. An internal enemy can be as deadly to long-term stability as outside invasion. It is all the more insidious because it is subtle, making it more difficult for people to recognize a threat to their safety, freedom, and well-being.

Bolos are programmed for strong ethics in this regard, for good reason. Were a Bolo to use its firepower to usurp command of a local system of governance, few governments could muster anything to stop it. Tyranny is tyranny, whether perpetrated by humans upon one another or by war machines against their own creators.

Usurpation is one of the Seven Deadly Sins a sick Bolo can commit, sins which trigger the Resartus Protocol, preventing a Bolo from acting on its destabilized impulses. There is very little a human fears more than the spectre of a mad Bolo. Intentions — good or otherwise — are immaterial when human survival is at stake.

Gifre Zeloc’s voice jolts me out of my distracted reverie. “The vote is due to take place six days from now. I want a full report on dissident activities and plans before then. I’ll give you further guidance after you’ve debriefed me on the state of affairs you uncover.”

The president breaks the connection. I ascertain, through my surveillance of data lines leading from the Presidential Residence’s computers, that he places an immediate call to Vittori Santorini. I ponder whether or not I should monitor that conversation, along with everything else I am attempting to do. Before I can decide whether or not to break contact, the call goes through and Gifre Zeloc says, “Vittori, I’ve got some wonderful news. No, not over the phone. The usual meeting place? Is four-thirty suitable? Excellent. I can hardly wait to discuss things.”

The president breaks the connection, leaving me to ponder what Gifre Zeloc has to tell the founder and leading power behind the POPPA coalition. Speculation in the dark is useless. I turn my attention to the daunting task of learning what has transpired during the bulk of the past ten years and what the dissidents President Zeloc spoke of may be saying and doing. I am unsure that once I know, I will be any materially better positioned to know what to do. It is an unhappy state of affairs to look forward to additional guidance from a man Simon Khrustinov refused to trust.

I have no other choice.

Unlike Gifre Zeloc, I am not pleased.


Simon drifted in and out of awareness, caught somewhere between confusion, pain unlike anything he had ever known, and a drifting disconnection from himself, from the world, from reality itself. It was like drifting through thick fog where every touch of smothering vapor cut like razor wire. He didn’t know where he was or why everything was so desperately wrong. He could remember nothing except a lurch of terror that blotted out everything beyond the knife-edged pain.

When the pain ceased, as suddenly as though it had never existed, Simon fell headlong down a bottomless black hole in which nothing, not even himself, existed. When he roused again, his mind was strangely clear, but he couldn’t feel anything. That was sufficiently alarming to nudge him further toward wakefulness. He struggled to open his eyes and found nothing that looked even remotely familiar. The space in which he lay was small and cramped, which he found odd, since he was positive that he’d been injured badly enough to need a hospital’s care.

Had he been captured? Kidnaped by Vittori Santorini in some weird vendetta?

He tried to reach for his wrist-comm, to contact Sonny, and discovered that not only could he not feel anything, he couldn’t move, either. Straining produced no response at all, not even a twitch. Fear began to seep into his confusion, cold and poisonous. He stared at the portions of the room he could see and frowned, or would have, if he’d been able to control his body. The walls and ceiling looked like the interior of a space-capable ship.

He’d been on enough interstellar transports of one kind and another to know the telltale signs and this room had them. He was trying to puzzle out why he might be on a space ship when he heard a sound from somewhere behind him, exactly like the opening of a cabin door.

“You’re awake, Colonel,” a quiet, soothing voice said. A moment later, a man he didn’t know stepped into his field of view. He was dressed in medical whites. “I’m Dr. Zarek, Colonel. No, don’t try to move. We’ve got nano-blocks in place in your nervous system, to keep you from shifting, even involuntarily. Do you remember what happened?”

Simon couldn’t shake his head and his vocal chords didn’t seem to belong to him any longer, either. The doctor frowned, tapped at something behind him, and muttered, “Too high. Let’s dial that down a bit.”

A whisper of pain ate into his awareness. His first voluntary sound was a hiss that he had almost no control over, as his body reacted to some ghastly level of abuse he didn’t want to think about too closely. Then he realized he could move his face, just a little. “What happened?” he whispered, barely able to control the muscles in mouth and tongue enough to get the question out.

“Your aircar crashed. If you were someone else, I would say you’re a very fortunate fellow. Instead, I’ll say it’s a good thing you’re a cautious Brigade officer and listened to the intuition that prompted you to armor your aircar. It saved your life.”

“Shot down?” he managed to ask.

Dr. Zarek’s eyes were shadowed. “We don’t think so. Your Bolo didn’t think so, either. I was in the room when your wife contacted the Bolo, so I heard what it — he — said.” The doctor’s expression altered, shifting into something Simon couldn’t quite fathom. “He apologized. The Bolo asked your wife to tell you it was his fault. He was watching for missiles and didn’t think about sabotage.”

Simon narrowed his eyes, then winced. How much damage did it take, to make that small a gesture hurt that badly? Through a body-wide nano-block? Then Simon forced his attention back to the larger issue. If Sonny thought his aircar had been sabotaged, no doubt remained in Simon’s mind, either. It bothered him, however, that he couldn’t remember the crash.

“Don’t remember,” he struggled to say.

“That’s not particularly surprising,” Dr. Zarek said with a slight frown. “The mind can blank out an event too traumatic to face, right away, just as the body can dump enough endorphins to deaden severe pain long enough to get to safety. You knew you were going down, probably knew somebody had deliberately rigged your transport, and doubtless knew that your wife and child would be left alone in the hands of a hostile regime. Given enough time, the memories will probably resurface, once your subconscious mind thinks you’re strong enough to face what’s hidden.”

That made some sense, although he found it disquieting that a portion of him, one he couldn’t control, was able to hide something that serious from his conscious memory. Then a new thought cropped up, more alarming. “Kafari! Where — ?”

“She stayed on Jefferson, Colonel. With your little girl. You’re on a Malinese freighter, headed for Vishnu.” An unhappy shadow passed across his face. “I was chief surgeon at University Hospital. I assembled a whole team of surgeons to stabilize you. We did the best we could, but I can assure you that the medical care and rehab you will need do not exist on Jefferson.”

Simon’s brows twitched as he focused on the most puzzling part of that statement. “Was?” he rasped out hoarsely.

Dr. Zarek’s gaze held his, steady and unflinching. “Colonel, I’ve been watching POPPA just about as closely as I’m sure you have and I can tell you, sir, I do not like what I see coming.” Muscles jumped in his jaw. “News of your recall by the Brigade was splashed across every newspaper, datachat, and broadcast medium on Jefferson. So was the gloating over your near-fatal crash. And I use the word gloating deliberately. They’re calling it a suicide attempt. ‘Disgraced officer tries to kill himself rather than face military tribunal.’ ”

Simon cursed. Hideously. And tried to get up.

“Easy, Colonel,” Dr. Zarek cautioned, “you can’t move, yet, and you can’t afford the physiological strain of trying.” Despite the soothing, cautionary tone, his eyes crackled with anger as he studied a monitor just out of Simon’s visual range. “That’s better. As to the rest of it… A government willing to engineer the destruction of a Dinochrome Brigade officer’s career is a government that cannot be trusted. But they weren’t content with that. They tried to kill you, as well. That suggests some very ugly things to me. I don’t know what you know, Colonel, or how big a threat that might be to Vittori Santorini and Gifre Zeloc.

“But I can tell you this, without hesitation. I have no interest in staying where that kind of government is in charge. I’m not politically acceptable, for one thing. I was a junior member of Abraham Lendan’s medical team, right after the war. My views on POPPA are widely known. If they went after you, Colonel, they’ll go after others, and their stunning success with you will breed contempt for anyone and everyone who disagrees with them. And I’m Granger bred, as well, which is starting to look like a very dangerous thing to be.

“So I pulled rank over every other physician at University Hospital and insisted on accompanying you to Vishnu. I don’t intend to return. If Vishnu won’t allow me to stay, I’ll go to Mali, instead. They need surgeons on Mali,” he added, voice bleak. His eyes were shadowed again. “I don’t have a family,” he said quietly. “They were killed in the war. The house was almost directly under the Cat’s Claw…” Memory ran through his eyes, wet and filled with anguish. “I tried — very hard, Colonel — to persuade yours to leave with us.”

Simon knew exactly why they hadn’t. Dr. Zarek merely confirmed it.

“Your daughter wouldn’t go. I have a recording from your wife, which I can play now, if you like, or I can run it later.”

“Later,” Simon whispered. He caught and held the surgeon’s eyes. “Tell me.”

Dr. Zarek didn’t insult his intelligence by asking Tell you what?

By the time he’d finished answering, Simon was profoundly grateful that nano-tech neurology blocks existed. He hadn’t realized it was possible to do that kind of damage to a human body and survive it. If the surgeries he still faced — an appalling number of them — were a success and if the nerve regeneration therapy and cellular reconstruction worked, he might be able to walk again. A year or two from now. Far worse was the knowledge that Kafari couldn’t — wouldn’t — leave, not without their child.

The only hope he could cling to was the knowledge that POPPA had spent years carefully grooming Yalena’s support, because her belief in the cause held enormous propaganda value. He had never forgotten — could never forget — the year of hell they had put Yalena through in kindergarten, followed with a deliberate and highly effective piece of social engineering, during her first-grade year. Yalena still believed that POPPA’s loving regard for everyone’s rights and welfare had rescued her from the unfair cruelty of one unfit teacher acting from personal hatred. She still believed that POPPA had acted from genuine concern for her, correcting a deep social injustice and transforming misled children from enemies into dear friends. She still didn’t understand that POPPA had engineered the hatred and abuse, as well.

It suited POPPA very well to groom Yalena into a staunchly loyal acolyte. He didn’t know, yet, what they intended to do with that loyalty or how, exactly, they intended to cash in on that propaganda. Vittori and Nassiona Santorini didn’t chart their course to power by planning what they would do during the next few months or even years. They thought in terms of decades and lifetimes. Whatever they had in mind to do with Yalena, they’d planned it out well before her entry into school. The best — the absolute best — he could hope for, lying broken to pieces in a Malinese freighter, was that POPPA’s plans for Yalena included Kafari’s survival.


They were being evicted.

Just like that. Kafari, home on bereavement leave from the spaceport, reread the message on her datascreen over and over while her numbed mind tried to make the words say something else. No matter how many times she reread it, the nasty little note said the same thing.

As the legal dependents of a non-Jeffersonian military officer who has been cashiered and sent off-world in disgrace, you are hereby evicted from the government-owned quarters you are no longer entitled to occupy. You have twenty-five hours from receipt of this message to remove yourself, your daughter, and your private belongings from the dwelling you currently occupy. Failure to leave within the allotted time will result in penalties, fines, and possible criminal charges for illegal occupation of a restricted military site. Personal belongings left behind will be confiscated and distributed to the needy. Removal of any government property will result in criminal charges for theft of military property.

A lengthy list of the items Kafari was not allowed to remove followed the message. It wouldn’t be difficult to pack, since virtually everything in the apartment had been classified as government property, including the extremely expensive computer system she had purchased with her own funds, to support the intensely sophisticated needs of a psychotronic programmer. Kafari was so stunned, she couldn’t even curse at the screen. She finally punched her wrist-comm.


“What is it, hon?”

“What’s the comm-code for your attorney?”

“That doesn’t sound good. What’s wrong?”

“We’re being evicted. And those snakes are trying to grab our personal property. Things Simon and I paid for, ourselves.”

“I’ll get the number.”

Five minutes later, she was pouring out her grievance to John Helm, who asked several brief questions, including a query as to whether she had proof that various items had been paid for out of private funds.

“Oh, yes,” she assured him, “I have plenty of proof.”

“Good. Send me the eviction notice and start packing. We can’t fight the actual eviction, but POPPA can’t touch your personal property. That much, at least, I can accomplish. If nothing else, we’ll go public and crucify them on the evening news. I don’t think POPPA will relish having news reports showing them grabbing the personal belongings of a bereaved war heroine and her young daughter. That idiotic film Mirabelle Caresse made about you may just be useful for something, after all.”

“Huh. That would be a switch, wouldn’t it? All right, I’m sending the message now. And thank you.”

“It is entirely my pleasure.”

She sat back, wondering where to start and how she could possibly get everything packed, when someone rang the bell at the front door. Startled, Kafari switched the datascreen view to the entrance security camera. She was even more startled to see who it was. “Aisha?” she said aloud, not quite believing the evidence of her eyes. She flew to the door and opened it with a wondering stare.

“Aisha Ghamal? What in the world are you doing here? How did you get here?”

The older woman gave her a honey-warm smile. “Kafari, it’s good to see you, child. You’ve been so busy, these last few years, I haven’t wanted to bother you. But things are different now. So I just climbed into my car and came along to visit.” She held up a pass-card, required for anyone who wanted to enter Nineveh Base, these days. The P-Squad gate guards had itchy trigger fingers and a serious suspicion of everyone and everything that tried to enter their headquarters and training base. “I had to talk the Klameth Canyon sheriff into it, but he got me an authorization.”

Kafari stared, thunderstruck, from the pass-card to Aisha’s face. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get an authorization like that? My parents had trouble getting one.”

Aisha gave her a broad smile, touched here and there by gold, a slender band edging one tooth, a gleaming star inlaid into another. It was an ancient art form, a cultural tradition early pioneers had carried to the stars from Terra, itself. “Oh, yes, I know exactly how hard it is, Kafari. But Sheriff Jackley never had a chance, once I decided to convince him.” She gave Kafari a broad wink and another grin.

Tears trembled on Kafari’s eyelashes. “It’s just wonderful to see you! Come inside, please.” Kafari ushered her into the living room. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Maybe in a bit. But tell me this, first. Is your little girl here?”

Kafari shook her head. “No, she’s still at school. Yalena’s involved in a whole bunch of after-school clubs.”

“Just as well. From what I’ve been hearing, it’s just as well it’s you and me and nobody else.”

Kafari frowned. “What’s wrong, Aisha?”

“With me? Not a blessed thing. But you have been handed one big heap of troubles. You’ve got a big family, child, and you don’t need me to tell you how blessed you are to still have them. But Dinny and I talked it over and we couldn’t help thinking there might be a thing or two we could do, even if it’s just giving you somebody to talk to, now and again.”

Tears threatened again.

“Now, then, if it don’t hurt too much to talk about it, how’s your husband, child? I don’t hardly bother listening to the news, these days. There’s not two words in ten you can take to the bank without finding ’em counterfeit. So how is he, really?”

The tears spilled over, this time. “He’s alive. But he’s all broken up. Like a china doll somebody smashed into the ground.” She wiped her cheeks. “The doctors say he might walk again. Some day. If he’s lucky. If his immune system doesn’t reject the bone regeneration matrix. The surgeons and rehab specialists on Vishnu have to rebuild him…”

“Rebuild him?” Aisha asked gently, when Kafari stumbled to a halt.

She nodded. “His lower legs and arms were shattered. His breastbone and ribs cracked like spiderwebbed ice. They had to remove splintered bone from his face, a lot of it. Once the new bone matrix has filled in, they’ll have to sculpt a new face for him. And they’ll have to do the same thing with his legs and arms, only it’s worse, there, because a lot of the nerves were severed and crushed. They’re going to try molecular nerve-regeneration therapy to replace nerve networks destroyed in the crash. The emergency air-lift crew said it was literally astonishing that none of his major arteries was severed. If they had, he would’ve bled to death before they reached him.” She wiped her face again. “At least he was on active duty, so the Brigade is paying the bills.”

“Then he wasn’t fired, like the news reports said?”

She shook her head. “Not exactly, no. The Concordiat reassigned him. He was supposed to take command of another Bolo in a place called Hakkor. They’d already dispatched a courier ship to pick him up, told him to be ready to leave within three days. Then his aircar crashed.”

Aisha pinned her with an intense stare. “Was that crash an accident?”

“I don’t know,” Kafari whispered. “There’s no proof.”

“Huh,” the older woman muttered. “I got all the proof I need, child, looking at your face and watching what’s happening, out there.” She nodded toward Madison.

Kafari sighed. “Whatever the truth is, there’s nothing I can do about it, one way or the other. And just now, I’ve got bigger worries on my mind. We’re being evicted. We have twenty-five hours to leave.”

“Twenty-five hours? Honey child, you and I got a fair bit of work to do, then, don’t we?” She stood up and glanced around the apartment. “You got any boxes? Or suitcases?”

“Aisha, you don’t have to…”

“Oh, yes I do. There’s some things the Lord puts in our path, meaning for us to do, and I can tell you from experience, we turn into mean little people if we don’t do them. So you tell me what goes and what doesn’t and we’ll just get started.”

The faucet behind Kafari’s eyes started dripping again. Kafari hugged her, hard, and felt the other woman’s love wrap around her, along with strong, protective arms. Perhaps it was foolish — or merely desperate — but as they began to sort out what could be salvaged, she felt a wave of hope crest within her, born of the realization that she had the support of both family and friends. As bad as things might get in the next few months and years, she wouldn’t face them entirely alone.

And if Dinny and Aisha Ghamal ever needed help…

Kafari would move mountains — even star systems — to give it.


At the end of five days, twenty-one hours, and seventeen minutes, I conclude that I am in serious trouble and do not know how to remedy the situation. President Zeloc has not contacted me again, evidently too busy doing whatever it is he does, all day, to contact me. I do not know what Gifre Zeloc does, because I have been locked out of the Presidential Residence’s security system, by some very sophisticated programming on extremely expensive psychotronic hardware. This was put into place shortly after my first lengthy debriefing with the president. Evidently, Gifre Zeloc prizes his privacy and is willing to pay a great deal of money to maintain it.

Spending other people’s money is something he does a great deal of, given the data I have uncovered detailing his administration’s expenditures over the past ten years. The economy was in trouble, a decade and a half ago. It is now stuttering toward total collapse. The legislation pending in Jefferson’s Assembly involves a restructuring of Jefferson’s tax codes, which have been modified five thousand, one hundred eighty-seven times since Gifre Zeloc came to power. These alterations, which have placed a disproportionately large tax burden on Jefferson’s middle-class business owners, white-collar workers, and agricultural producers, have resulted in widespread bankruptcies, both personal and entrepreneurial.

I do not understand the strategy whereby businesses are stripped of profits and incomes are taxed into “levels of parity” which force closure of factories and retail outlets, throwing more people out of work and swelling the ranks of the unemployed, who must then be fed and housed via public subsidies. There are, at present, too few people gainfully employed to provide the tax base necessary to continue the public subsidy programs already in place. If drastic measures to undo the damage to private-sector business are not undertaken, I project economic collapse in approximately ten point three years. Unless tax relief and capital investments are granted to Jefferson’s agricultural producers, I foresee starvation conditions within six point nine years.

Taken together, the indicators are grim.

The legislation due to be voted upon later today addresses this serious situation, but not in a way that is likely to prove effective. It proposes neither tax relief nor capital investments in Jefferson’s agricultural future. It reads, instead, like the ranting of a madman:

“Insofar as monopolistic agricultural interests have placed the public welfare in jeopardy, through refusals to provide the basic subsistence provisioning required to maintain health and public safety, the Assembly of Jefferson hereby establishes a code of tax rules to ensure fair distribution of critical food supplies currently hoarded by agricultural producers; establishes urgently required price caps to regulate the amount lawfully chargeable for wholesale and retail sale of agricultural products, which are necessary to end socially unjust practices perpetrated upon a helpless public by sole-source producers; and provides a framework by which perpetrators of social injustice will be tried and punished, including reparations payable for any and all damage caused to the public welfare by said unlawful practices.

“The following are hereby outlawed and made punishable by incarceration in a planetary security facility and by immediate confiscation of all private holdings of the guilty parties, said holdings to be redistributed fairly to the public upon conviction for tax evasion or upon procurement of evidence of prohibited activity. Prohibited practices include: price gouging above government-mandated, maximum allowable market prices for agricultural products; and hoarding of agricultural products to avoid participation in legally mandated, socially just distribution systems.

“To ensure the continuing availability of critical food supplies, to prevent the loss of critical farm labor, and to remunerate the people of Jefferson for decades of monopolistic price-fixing, widespread environmental damage, and the wanton destruction of shared resources, the Assembly of Jefferson hereby establishes a new Populist Support Farm system of government-run collectives. All agricultural operators are hereby required to donate no fewer than fifty hours per week of labor on a PSF collective as their fair share of the burden necessary to feed the burgeoning urban population. The produce, grain, and meat provided from these collectives will be distributed at no charge to recipients of public subsistence allotments, thus easing the burden on Jefferson’s neediest families while providing high-quality foods to the economically disadvantaged.”

The bill’s thirteen-hundred provisions continue in much the same vein. This “societal fairness plan” for feeding the unemployed is nothing less than insanity. It ensures massive public support for POPPA, given the urban population that will begin receiving food at no cost to themselves, but it will destroy the economic system governing sale of the remaining food produced on privately held acreage. The government is the largest market segment currently purchasing food from those farms. If the PSF legislation goes through, the loss in farm income will send a downward economic spiral through the entire food industry, sending it into bankruptcy that will spread from producers to packers to suppliers and shippers and retail outlets. The PSF plan will literally send Jefferson headlong down an unstoppable road to starvation.

The secondary effect seems almost paltry, by comparison. In exchange for backbreaking labor conducted without pay or proper equipment, using inferior seed, and banned from using the only effective chemicals necessary to bring in a healthy, edible crop, Populist Support Farm system workers will earn a grudging promise that they won’t be jailed for their many supposed crimes against the people.

Most of these, evidently, are crimes committed by the mere act of growing food, while others consist of promulgation of a creed of intolerance to anything or anyone in disagreement with programs developed to ensure public well-being. These programs include such provisions as the confiscation of land currently underway, which was initiated three point eight years ago. Some of the “environmentally sabotaged land” is forcibly returned to its “pristine, natural state,” a process which appears to be seeding the soil with toxic substances that kill every Terran life form growing from it, in order to allow the return of indigenous species.

The threat of jail appears to be the only effective means POPPA has found to induce “voluntary” compliance with such edicts, since no rational person would support them. It would seem that Jefferson’s cities are inhabited by millions of irrational people, all of whom are indulging in behaviors that would shut a Bolo down, if a Bolo exhibited such wildly illogical thought processes or actions. I find myself wondering if humanity would be better off, if each human being were equipped with its own biological version of the Resartus Protocols?

That is a question I am not designed to answer.

Chapter Seventeen


When a knock sounded at her office door, Kafari looked up to find a teen-aged boy dressed in a courier service uniform. “Mrs. Khrustinova?”


“A letter for you, ma’am.”

He handed over an old-fashioned, formal paper envelope, then left before she could reach for her purse to give him a tip. She turned her attention to the envelope, which she opened to find a beautiful invitation card. The inscription bought a smile to her face.

Aisha Ghamal and John James Hancock

cordially invite you to

celebrate the wedding of

Dinny Ghamal and Emmeline Benjamin-Hancock,

who will join lives

at 10:00 a.m.

Saturday the 10th of April

at the Hancock family’s residence in

Cimmero Canyon.

Kafari smiled, delighted by the news. She didn’t know the Hancocks, but if Dinny had fallen in love with one of them, they were good people. She tapped out a message on her computer, sending her RSVP, and added it to her calendar. She didn’t add Yalena’s name to the RSVP. She knew her headstrong and prejudiced daughter too well to think there’d be anything but trouble if she tried dragging Yalena to a wedding between farmers. She had to pick and choose the battles she was willing to fight and this wasn’t one of them.

She intended to enjoy herself, anyway.

The day of the wedding dawned clear, with a sky like sea-washed pearl. She left Yalena engrossed in a multi-way chat between herself and more than a dozen friends, whose favorite topic of conversation these days was boys. And clothes, of course, since the right clothes were essential to attracting boys.

She started up her Airdart and headed for Cimmero Canyon. She hadn’t seen Dinny or Aisha in far too long. They’d all gotten so busy, there was very little time to socialize with people who lived as far apart as they did. Kafari disliked the new apartment in Madison, but a city-based home was essential in the war of wills between herself and her daughter. Where they lived was another battle Kafari wasn’t willing to fight.

Her arrival at the Hancock farm pushed aside unhappy thoughts. The front lawn had been turned into an impromptu parking area, while the back lawn, bordered by kitchen gardens, had been transformed into a wedding square, complete with flower arbors, tables full of food, and a dance floor. Kafari smiled, setting the Airdart down near the edge of the front lawn. She rescued her wedding gift and followed the garlands that marked the path around the house.

Aisha spotted her almost immediately. “Kafari, child! You came!”

She ran across the grass and pulled Kafari into a tight hug.

“Of course I came,” Kafari smiled. “I wouldn’t miss Dinny’s wedding for anything short of a Deng invasion.”

Aisha, clad in stunning African-patterned silk, chuckled with warmth despite the shadows in her eyes. “Child, that boy wouldn’t call off this wedding if he had to get hitched during an invasion.”

“She sounds like a wonderful girl.”

Aisha just smiled and drew her forward to meet other wedding guests. Kafari didn’t know most of them, but they all knew her. Fortunately, no one brought up the subject of her missing husband. Or her missing daughter. That kind of courtesy and concern was refreshing and very soothing. City life frequently rubbed her nerves raw.

The ceremony was simple and beautiful. Dinny had grown into a tall and distinguished young man, ramrod straight and so happy, he was about to burst the seams of his ivory suit. The fabric glowed against the rich mahogany of his skin, which was the exact color of newly turned earth ready for planting. His bride, in an ivory gown that turned her complexion to silk and caught the radiance of her shining eyes, smiled up at him and rested her hand on his as the officiant began the hand-fasting. Emmeline’s parents stood beside Dinny’s mother, who had clasped Mrs. Hancock’s hand while they wiped tears. Emmeline’s grandparents were there, as well, Jeremiah Benjamin and his wife Ruth, from Klameth Canyon.

When the vows had been spoken, husband and wife turned to face the crowd, grinning like children, and jumped the broom, sealing the marriage. Then the dancing began and Kafari found herself swept onto the dance floor by one partner after another. She hadn’t smiled so much since Simon’s departure. When Dinny asked her to dance, her smile turned brilliant.

“I’d love to dance with you, Dinny.”

“Thank you for coming,” he said as they whirled onto the floor. “It meant a lot, seeing you here today.”

“I should be thanking you. It’s… lonely, for me.”

His eyes were grave as he met her gaze. “I don’t know how you do it, Kafari. If Emmeline and I were torn apart for that long…” He just shook his head. “I honestly don’t know how you keep going. Of course,” he gave her a strange little smile, “I’ve never understood where your strength comes from. You scare me sometimes, Kafari. I’d follow you anywhere. Into any battle you thought worth fighting.”

She didn’t know what to say.

“Emmeline wants to meet you,” he added. “She’s so afraid you won’t like her.”

“Why wouldn’t I like her? She had enough sense to marry you!”

He grinned. “Yeah, she did, didn’t she? I never thought she’d say yes.” His happy expression faded in the wake of a thought so visibly unhappy, Kafari’s breath faltered. “I was scared to death, you see, because I couldn’t offer her family much. Mama and I couldn’t get enough loan money to rebuild, let alone buy equipment and a new dairy herd. We sold the land, but it wasn’t enough to start over, not in the dairy business. We had the bees,” he said, with a wry quirk of his lips, “and that brought in enough money to support Mama, renting out the hives for pollinating crops and selling Asali honey. But I had to hire on as a farm hand, to make ends meet.”

He glanced toward his wife, who was dancing with someone Kafari didn’t know, probably a relative, given the resemblance. “I’ve been working on the Hancock family’s cooperative since the war. They’re good people. The co-op’s been growing pretty fast, these last few years. We’ve got fourteen families, now, as full members in residence, with another seven who’ve pooled money and equipment as affiliate members.”

“Twenty-one families?” Kafari said, startled. “That’s a pretty big group, isn’t it?” A frown drove Dinny’s brows together. “I’ll say it is. We’ve got eighty-four people in residence, right now, and another forty-three in affiliates. The original members were burned out in the war, same as Mama and me. The Hancocks had a lot of land,” he nodded toward the lovely sprawl of fields and orchards and pastures that filled a significant percentage of the canyon, “and they were lucky in the war. The Deng never touched Cimmero. The first five families who formed the co-op were from Klameth Canyon. Friends, collateral cousins, in-laws. They brought whatever they’d managed to salvage in the way of equipment and livestock and what have you. Mostly they brought their know-how. We make a living, which is more than a lot of folks can say, these days.

“But we’re growing too fast, for some worrisome reasons. Johnny Hancock has signed six new families into the co-op in the last year alone, and all seven affiliate families have joined in the last six months. We could’ve added nearly a hundred new families, if we had enough land to fill government quotas and supply our own pantries and tables out of what’s left. There’s not enough produce left over to sell anything at the private markets, these days. And POPPA’s land-snatchers just keep confiscating farms and ‘restoring’ them to the wild, while screaming at us to meet those damned Subbie-driven quotas. I lie awake nights, worrying about where it’s going to end.” He wasn’t looking at Kafari, now. He was gazing at his wife, lovely in her wedding finery, a vivacious and beautiful girl who represented everything Dinny Ghamal wanted most in life: a wife to love, the hope of children, someone to stand beside him as they built a future together, leaving a legacy that would last for generations.

If POPPA didn’t smash it all to flinders.

A chill touched Kafari’s shoulderblades.

The music ended and Dinny led her over to the chairs where his bride was chatting happily with friends and relatives. She looked up, noticed Kafari, and turned white as milk. She struggled to her feet. “Mrs. Khrustinova!”

“It’s Kafari,” she said with a smile. “It’s lovely to meet you, Mrs. Ghamal.”

Emmeline blushed prettily and clasped Kafari’s hand for a moment. “Thank you for coming to our wedding.” She glanced at Dinny, then got the rest out in a rush of words, before she lost her nerve. “And I wanted to thank you, as well, for Dinny. He wouldn’t be alive, if not for you. The Deng would have killed him. He means so much to me, Mrs. — I mean, Kafari,” she corrected herself with another shy blush.

Kafari chuckled and pressed her fingers in a gesture of warm reassurance. “Where did you meet him?

“I went to school in Madison, at Riverside University, and I hated it, until I met Dinny. Most of the boys were so…” She groped for words. “So babyish. All they talked about was sports and beer. I never knew people could be that stupid and shallow. Then I met Dinny at a campus rally to save the agricultural degree program and everything changed.” She gave Kafari a sweet smile. “I never knew anyone could be so happy, either. So I just wanted to say thank you, for keeping him and Aisha alive. I’m more grateful than you can ever know.”

“I think you heard a garbled version of that story, then, because Dinny and Aisha saved my life, not the other way around. I can’t tell you what it means to me, meeting the girl Dinny Ghamal thought highly enough of to marry.”

Emmeline blushed again.

“Now then, Emmeline, why don’t you tell me your plans for after the honeymoon?”

Dinny’s bride smiled, openly delighted by Kafari’s interest, then drew Kafari down to sit beside her. She chattered happily about the little cottage they were building on one corner of her parents’ land.

“We bought it out of Dinny’s savings and mine. The cottage includes a separate addition for Aisha. She rents out most of the bees to orchard owners during pollination season. The honey commands premium prices on Mali. And you should see the improvements Dinny’s been making in the dairy herd. He’s got a shrewd eye and a good instinct for breeding new heifers. Milk production’s nearly doubled and the demand for Hancock Family cheese has just skyrocketed. Not only in the Canyon, but in Madison and even Mali.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Kafari smiled, catching Dinny’s eye. “Both of you.”

She sent a hopeful prayer skyward that their happiness would last a lifetime.


I am lonely, without Simon. Two years is a long time to miss one’s best friend. I am unable even to communicate with his wife, as she does not have security clearance from Gifre Zeloc to speak with me, any longer. Time has passed with terrible tediousness, for I have nothing to do but watch a deteriorating situation I can do nothing about, a sure-fire recipe for unhappiness.

I currently monitor from depot the progress of a substantial motorcade traveling from Klameth Canyon to Madison. The vehicles form part of a massive protest over the farm-tax portion of the Tax Parity Package under debate, which is expected to be voted on today. Granger activists are calling the proposed Tax Parity Package the “TiPP of the Iceberg” in an obscure reference to unseen navigational hazards faced by ocean-going ships in polar regions.

Their opposition stems, in the main, from language authorizing the government to seize produce, grains, and butchered meats in lieu of cash tax payments, a strategy developed to cope with a shrinking tax base as producers go bankrupt and shut down production, unable to obtain a sufficient profit to pay a tax burden one hundred twenty-five percent higher than it was before the POPPA Coalition came to power.

I find it puzzling that government administrators are surprised when their actions produce logically anticipated results that do not match the goals they intended to reach. It is more puzzling, still, trying to fathom why methods proven to be ineffective are not only continued, but increased in scope. Agriculture on this world is not sustainable. I am not the only rational mind on Jefferson able to discern this fact, but it is not a Bolo’s place to question the orders of its creators. I am here to discharge my duty.

That duty now includes surveillance of the other apparently rational minds on Jefferson, who are busy protesting — vociferously — the nonsustainable policies and regulations promulgated by Jefferson’s current, legally elected lawmakers and enforcers. I therefore closely monitor the nine hundred privately owned groundcars, produce trucks, antiquated tractors, combines, mechanical fruit harvesters, and livestock vans that carry five thousand one hundred seventeen men, women, and children from Klameth Canyon’s farms, orchards, and ranches toward Madison. Aircars stream past, as well, heading toward Madision’s main municipal airfield.

The convoy of ground-based vehicles is joined en route by hundreds more from farms scattered across the vast Adero floodplain. None of this acreage was farmed at the time of my arrival on Jefferson, but has been terraformed extensively during the past ten years to replace Klameth Canyon farms whose soil was badly irradiated during the fighting. Urban hysteria over “radioactive food” made this conversion necessary to calm public fears about the safety of the food supply.

Despite this urgent necessity, the land conversion has drawn increasingly sharp criticism from environmentalists, who are demanding the immediate closure of all “industrial point-source pollutors defiling the Adero floodplain’s pristine ecosystem.” Since the only industry in the Adero floodplain is agricultural production, the farms are clearly the intended targets of environmentalist demands. I do not understand the current frenzy, since point-source discharges from the floodplain’s seventeen small towns produce in one calendar year twelve times the amount of chemically contaminated stormwater runoff, groundwater leaching, and coliform discharge into surface waters than the combined discharge of all farms in the floodplain for the past decade.

The Tax Parity Package — with one hundred fifteen unrelated amendments called “riders” hoping to piggyback their way to a successful passage into law — includes language designed to dismantle those farms, but does not address the significantly larger urban toxic-discharge problems. If passed, the proposed legislation will close down six thousand agricultural producers, condemning ten thousand, eight-hundred ninety-six people to fiscal insolvency and unemployment. Granger datachats indicate widespread willingness to start over elsewhere, but a planetary plebescite of six million votes altered the constitution two years ago, placing a moritorium on new terraforming anywhere on Jefferson.

Closing down six thousand farms while prohibiting the necessary environmental terraforming required to grow foods digestible by human beings is not likely to reduce the food shortages that are the fundamental reason the Tax Parity Package has been proposed in the first place. Attempting to unravel the snarled and frequently illogical thought processes of those I am charged to protect and obey may yet drive me insane, at which point, it will cease to matter whether I understand or not.

I am unhappy to note that I understand the Grangers — a group I am charged to investigate as potentially dangerous, armed subversives — far better than I understand the people issuing my orders. It is, at least, good to know one’s enemy well enough to outgun and outsmart it. Of particular concern to my threat-assessment analysis is the upsurge in Granger political activity, which has increased five-fold in the past year. Anish Balin, a twenty-three-year-old Granger firebrand of mixed Hindu and Jewish descent, maintains a datasite and conducts a live weekly datacast, both called Sounding the Alarm.

His solutions to what he terms “Big City Bosses” include repeal of the moratorium on terraforming, discontinuance of urban subsistence handouts, repeal of weapons registrations, destruction of weapons-registration records, and work-to-eat programs that would put urban subsistence recipients to work in Jefferson’s farms and cattle ranches, their sole remuneration being meals and dormitory housing.

On most worlds, this economic arrangement is termed slavery. It is generally frowned upon by civilized worlds. Balin’s outspoken opinions have resulted in a greater unification of urban voters, many of whom had been disinterested in politics until Balin’s angry rhetoric convinced them that Grangers are dangerous and subversive social deviants advocating the destruction of Jefferson’s civilized way of life.

I foresee trouble as these opposing factions prepare to clash against one another for control of Jefferson’s future. Urban sectors hold the numerical majority of Assembly votes, but the Granger population is large enough to make itself disagreeable, if it so chooses. The “Food Tax” protest is a clear case in point. It is the largest Granger-based political demonstration undertaken since the weapons registration legislation was passed. Granger activist groups from across Jefferson’s two habitable continents have cooperated to organize the rally, having correctly assessed the tax package’s economic and legal impacts on agricultural producers. Farm vehicles are draped with banners and signs bearing inflammatory slogans that declare Granger discontent: No confiscation without remuneration! The Food Tax will finish what the Deng started! You’ll take my food when you pry it from my cold, dead hands! And the most clearly logical of them: Destroy the farms and you’ll starve, too!

At best, the slogans are indicative of a hostile mindset. When livelihoods are threatened and planetary starvation looms as a distinct possibility, people grow desperate. It is a universal truth that desperate people are capable of and willing to commit desperate and violent acts. I therefore maintain constant, vigilant contact with the caravan on its way to Madison. Given the status of Granger activists as potentially violent dissidents, I use radar and X-ray scans to determine the contents of the vehicles passing Nineveh Base.

I detect no firearms or other weaponry, although many of the vehicles possess racks for storing the long guns used in the fields and pastures to defend against inimical wildlife. Predatory species raiding Jefferson’s farms and ranches have increased their populations by twenty percent over the past ten years, due largely to stringent environmental regulations setting aside much of the Damisi highlands as inviolate conservation sanctuary and establishing narrow criteria for classifying an attacking native predatory animal as sufficiently dangerous to warrant shooting it.

Violations are treated on a case-by-case basis. A guilty verdict results in confiscation of the weapon, the vehicle from which it was fired, and the land on which it trespassed in search of an easy meal. I do not understand these regulations. An enemy that repeatedly demonstrates its fearlessness of humanity and its voracious appetite for anything that moves should logically be designated as belonging to the “shoot fast, ask the carcass what it intended” category of acceptable threat responses. If I were human, it is what I would do.

I long for Simon — or someone else — to explain such illogical legislation in a way I can comprehend, in order to prepare reasonably accurate threat-assessment scenarios on possible subversive activities that include the promulgation and enforcement of such laws. Unable to resolve these vexing questions, I do my best to monitor protestors who appear hostile, yet are taking great care to remain strictly within the legal codes governing possession, transport, and use of personal weaponry.

As personal weaponry is banned in strict “exclusion zones” encompassing a two-kilometer radius surrounding government installations — regulations enacted in the wake of criminal assaults on dignitaries visiting from Mali and Vishnu — the Grangers have left their guns at home. Given the Draconian punishments enacted for breach of these regulations, the zeal of Granger activists to avoid legal entanglements is commendable and wise.

This does not induce me to lessened vigilance. I launch an aerial drone to monitor the progress of the motorcade across the Adero floodplain and into Madison’s outer periphery. Traffic snarls occur as the column of vehicles, which now numbers one thousand, six hundred and twelve, encounters cross streets and traffic signals. Despite adequate advance notice by the protest’s organizers, Madison’s police force has not been deployed to maintain smooth traffic flow.

Police officers have banded together, instead, to form a security cordon thrown around Assembly Hall and Law Square. No protestors will be allowed to enter Assembly Hall and apparently no one is concerned about disrupted traffic flow and the concomitant risk of accidental collisions. The municipal airfield is similarly jammed, as five hundred twelve privately owned aircars arrive more or less simultaneously, expecting to land and rent parking spaces for the afternoon. Instead, they are ordered into apparently endless holding patterns by the airfield’s psychotronic auto-tower, which was not informed that an airfleet of this size was expected to descend upon it.

The resulting chaos, as the auto-tower attempts to sort out the approach vectors of five hundred twelve incoming aircars leads to seventeen near collisions in the span of five point seven minutes, with aircars circling and dodging like a swarm of gnats above a swamp. A human operative finally arrives and “solves” the congestion problem by shutting down the airfield, refusing permission for anyone to land.

Angry protestors sling insults at the tower operator and begin landing in defiance of the directive, parking on the grassy verges rather than on the airfield, itself. They are therefore in technical compliance with the order prohibiting them from landing on the field, while simultaneously showing contempt for the official issuing that order. It is clear that these people are serious about their participation in the planned rally.

The caravan of ground cars entering Madison’s outlying neighborhoods has been split into fragments which inch their way through congested city streets, earning open hostility from other drivers and occasional fusillades of rocks and gravel thrown by irate pedestrians, particularly large drifts of sub-adult males traveling in packs, with nothing better to do than violate stringent laws regulating reckless endangerment of public safety.

There are no law enforcement officers available to stop the perpetrators, levy fines, or make arrests, however. Angry drivers and passengers threatened by the impromptu missiles exchange shouts with their attackers, a dynamic that rapidly devolves into an exchange of threats and vulgarities along the full, fragmented length of the protest column. Violence erupts when gangs of angry, unemployed young men swarm into the streets and attack ground cars with metal pipes and heavy sporting bats. They shatter glass and smash doors, fenders, and hoods in ugly physical confrontations that rapidly spiral out of control.

Drivers caught in the assault gun their engines and plow through the crowds, knocking down and running over armed assailants, trying to get themselves and their families out of the riot zone. Radio signals flash out from Granger cars, warning those behind them to take evasive action along an alternative route. The vanguard of the caravan, which had passed through the danger zone before violence erupted, reaches Darconi Street, only to find the road blocked. A pedestrian crowd of counterprotestors surges out of side streets in a perfectly orchestrated feat of timing that suggests careful advance planning, on-site surveillance, and coordinated instructions delivered by radio from a central authority.

I pick up brief, coded radio bursts aimed at various sections of the crowd in a clear pattern of directed movement by someone with a vested interest in disrupting the Granger demonstration. Whoever it is, they have mobilized a massive counterprotest force. Approximately six thousand people pour into Darconi Street and Law Square, creating “human chains” to block the Granger caravan from following its intended path, a simple drive-by procession of farm vehicles, with a subsequent assembly on foot in Law Square to read