SIX MONTHS LATER

From a distance, the dogfight between Mars United and the separatists looked like a thousand microbes, as seen through a microscope, exposed to increasing heat. In other words, total chaos at 5,000 meters above Mars’ surface.

Bang! Smash! Whoosh! Crash! Jets roared around the sky, firing, dodging, and sometimes getting pulverized.

Technically, this was the way Mars United wanted it. M.U. had no chance in a battle fought in regulated formation. M.U. had to make the A.A. make mistakes, even hit each other sometimes. Mars United had to rely on the inexperience of most A.A. soldiers in .38g – to counter-balance its pilots’ inexperience, period. The newer M.U. pilots repeatedly demonstrated they could stop on a dime. They did not demonstrate that they knew what to do once they got there.

“Peterson! Pull up! Fazal, get over there for support! Egan, lay down cover fire! Come on, people, get your head out of your asses! Move!” It was Sapolu’s voice growling on the com.

All told, Mars United probably took down A.A. jets at a ratio of maybe two A.A.s for every one M.U. Not bad. But not even close to enough.

“You newbies are pathetic! Come on, Brielle, you have to fire when your pilot gets that close!” Martina Maciel would have been shaking her head – if it didn’t hurt to move it. Somehow, though, she found the strength to talk into her com mike. “Polan, stop staring at the action and get in there!”

After another round of chaotic warfare, the A.A. clearly had M.U. on the run.

“Well?!” Martina yelled into the com. “Stop lollygagging and do your rearguard! Don’t you dare give up just because most of your comrades are down!”

The last remaining M.U. pilots weren’t surviving because of skill – it was because they had been too afraid to get involved. Now the A.A. picked them off like flies.

“Shut it down, Sapolu,” said Martina with a grim finality.

“Martina, you know we have to…” Sapolu started.

“I said shut it down,” snarled Martina. Sapolu hit a few buttons, and the simulation ended.

The lights came up in the auditorium. The audience held 250 seats, every single one occupied by a new recruit. Each person shut off their holo goggles, took off their training gloves and turned their attention to the stage, where Sapolu sat next to Martina Maciel.

The Prime Minister’s daughter felt ready to kill someone. Probably the recruits were feeling lucky that she couldn’t get out of her wheelchair. “Two more weeks, people. Does anyone want to stand up and say they think they’re ready for the mothership to arrive in two weeks?”

Martina let a cemetery-like silence fill the room.

A green-haired noob said “I’m sorry.”

“…You’re pathetic,” Martina finally said. “I want all of you out of my sight, out of this room. You need to go home, you need to figure yourselves out, you need to get your head in this game. Or in two weeks you’re going to be enslaved or dead.”

Slowly, the recruits filed out, leaving Sapolu alone with Martina.

“They’re not that bad,” Sapolu finally said.

“You’re way too easy on them,” answered Martina.

“And you’re too hard.”

“And they’re not ready. I wonder why?”

“Martina, really. I’m glad I’m not one of your kids.”

That…hurt. Martina felt an involuntary rush of blood to her face that meant…no, she could still suppress the tears.

“Hey, Martina.” Sapolu put that big paw on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I was kidding. I’m sorry. Really.”

“No, no, you’re right. I’m not much of a mom.”

“I’m sure you’re a wonderf…”

“Will you just shut up and let me talk?” The room was even quieter than before, without the rustling of people. “In the last few months I’ve realized a few things. John wasn’t just the fun parent. He was the only parent.”

“I’m sure that’s…”

“Are you going to let me talk about this for the first time to anyone, or not?”

Sapolu half-smiled, in spite of it all. “Go.”

“I love my kids when they act like adults. When they don’t, I don’t. I can’t admit that to anyone because I’m supposed to be a loving mom, but I…just don’t feel it. I come here partly to avoid them, partly because I feel normal in the army. I have tried, but I see the natural way my father is with them, and I’m just…not.”

“Well, your paralysis hasn’t exactly been helping.”

“Drigo and I have the same rare, spine-crushed injury. That could have been a bonding experience. You know, making jokes about how we’ll never walk again.”

Sapolu’s lips tightened, shrinking his mouth into the size of a paper clip. “It’s not fair, Martina. What happened to him…and you…it’s not fair.”

It felt good to hear that. It just…did. “Thank you.”

“You trained your mind and body for everything.”

“Except a 30-meter fall without support.”

“You landed correctly, feet first then roll. Your instincts saved your life.”

“Some life.”

“Don’t say that. We need you.”

“…”

Sapolu stood, paced. “Azalea and Rhodes thought that vids of your big fall would serve as separatist propaganda. Instead, Aresians have rallied behind the Mars United government all the more because they correctly perceived that Azalea hadn’t played fairly.”

“Cold comfort.”

Sapolu leaned down again and gave her a mighty hug. As they broke, he kissed her lightly on the mouth. She tried to extend it and he recoiled.

“I’m gay, Maciel.”

“I know.”

Sapolu stood and looked at his holo-ring. “I have to go.”

“Where are you going?” asked Martina.

“I’m sure you’re a much better mom than you say, Martina.”

I’m really not, she thought. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Hey, I do have a life outside the Ten-Percenters, you know,” said Sapolu. “Can I help you to your…”

“No, I’m fine,” said Martina in a firm, well-worn tone.

“You’re sure there’s nothing else I can do for you?”

“Bye, Sapolu.” He left.

Within seconds, Martina found herself thinking about Rhodes again. She couldn’t help it. Rhodes was still out there. So was Azalea.

With their polled support now in single digits, Rhodes, Azalea and the other separatists had gone underground. Two weeks before the A.A.’s mothership was to arrive, new messages were few and far between. Even the Facrogle holo-scrolls had become anodyne war updates alternated with celebrity gossip.

Martina had found herself angrier than ever with Julia, and Senator Samoset, and every other unthinking pacifist. Not to say she hated every liberal. To the contrary, Martina noticed herself agreeing more and more with Jodie Weaver. They couldn’t simply return to how things were, or civil war would happen again. For the sake of motivating the recruits, they almost had to fight for the original promise of Mars, defined somewhat liberally.

Martina wheeled herself out of the auditorium, down the hall, to the parking lot. Her specially designed Airboeck Segway was parked right next to the door. As Martina carefully transitioned herself from her wheelchair to her Segway, she happened to catch Sapolu’s vehicle leaving the lot. There were two exits to this lot and Sapolu’s condo was better accessed by the other one…right?

Well, so Sapolu had a date. Big deal. Considering everyone in New Jerusalem might be dead within a fortnight, probably best, as the saying goes, to make hay while the sun shines.

But…she’d noticed that each Tuesday, she’d been having trouble reaching any of the Ten-Percenters. The last time they acted like this, they were planning a surprise party for her. But it wasn’t her birthday now.

Driving out of Armstrong, her arms and neck really hurt. Owwwwwwwwww. Wángbā, Martina thought. Are those doctors right? She’ll never walk again? She refused to admit that.

Maybe the stress was getting to her. She hated to admit that even more.

Martina drove out the wrong exit. She looked for and found Sapolu; maybe she suspected where he was going. Martina followed without getting too close. They moved steadily through the streets of New Jerusalem.

Finally, Sapolu arrived at his destination…the Mars White House.

Martina could have followed Sapolu just by showing the guards who she was. But it wasn’t time for that yet. Instead she paused for a moment, then turned in another direction.

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