“FIRE!” commanded Prime Minister Norine Maciel.

With one word, then, Norine had begun the real war – Mars United versus the mothership. With the fate of human freedom hanging in the balance. No big deal, Norine told herself. She watched on the virtual cameras as their nuclear missiles sped to the mothership.

“The virtual cameras are really doing their job,” Weaver said. “I know it’s just a composite image of the missiles, but they look so real.”

“Definitely better than a standard shot from orbit,” Guen-hye agreed. “We wouldn’t be able to see anything.”

In the end, the Prime Minister had taken Falke’s advice, and fired the first shots, nukes from Phobos. Oddly, this action was postponed by almost half a day, because the mothership slowed as it came within range of their nukes. General Rainier suggested that the A.A. might be scared.

This Norine doubted. You don’t travel this many millions of kilometers just to lose your nerve. Every incoming ship slowed down to some extent, but this was…something else.

Norine wondered if they were slowing to somehow communicate with Aquinas in Olympus Mons. The idea was silly; they didn’t need to be in proximity to send radio communiques. Nevertheless, if her first shot wounded them without destroying them, they might well go down around Tharsis. But they couldn’t be planning that, surely.

Pablo had been as supportive as any husband she could imagine, but he did make one thing clear: he wanted both his daughters alive at the end of this.

Norine was working on it.

Falke and Samoset were uncharacteristically quiet. Norine looked at a screen that showed her generals gathered in the war room, watching the missiles. Maybe the nukes would hit the mothership dead-on and this whole thing would be over in a few minutes.

The Prime Minister marveled at the engineering. Here’s one of Mars’ two original moons, Phobos, their organic weapons platform, hundreds of kilometers from the mothership. Phobos itself moves so fast that it completes three rotations around Mars every day. So the engineers adjust for that, and even better, use it as a sort of slingshot. Next they have to calculate how to hit a target that’s a quadrant’s length away, hurtling through space at its own speed…truly astonishing. Granted, the mothership was a lot bigger and a lot closer than other targets. They couldn’t have done this with the asteroid belt.

Ten seconds to presumed impact. Nine, eight…

Everyone held their breath. Either way, this would be something. Either the mothership would sustain crippling injuries or…

Sure enough, the missiles were somehow pulled off-course, and moved around the mothership. They would travel through space until their engines ran out of fuel – not more than another half-hour.

Falke was livid. “Jībā! Jībā! Jībā! Jībā!

“General Hasan,” Norine called down to the war room. “Prepare the pre-set missiles.”

A general’s voice came back, “They’re ready whenever you are.”

“FIRE!” commanded the Prime Minister.

“After all this time,” Weaver mused, “all those sci-fi shows, someone finally invented a force field.”

“Not really,” said Samir Samoset. “It’s just concentrated magnetic energy. A real force field would make the missiles bounce off of it, or destroy the missiles on impact.”

Norine wished she could re-route the missiles that had missed but…as long as the mothership was closer than Phobos to the missiles, the A.A.’s jamming tech would work better.

“Sorry,” Falke said, “Madam Prime Minister.”

“For what?”

“We should have used the pre-set nukes in the first place. I advised you badly.”

“No, you didn’t. The on-impact nukes might have worked. It was worth a try, just so we could see their new tech for ourselves without any explosions to confuse it.”

“At this point,” answered Falke, squinting into a screen, “I’m ready to see some explosions.”

They all watched. Ten seconds to presumed impact. Nine, eight…

The deflection happened, and then the detonations. Nuclear explosions filled the dark space skies on either side of the mothership. The silent booms happened…a few seconds before nearing the target. The A.A. didn’t even need their deflection tech. The mothership flew through the atomic clouds in space.

“General Rainier!” Madam Prime Minister called down to the war room.

“Yes, Madam.”

“Damage report.”

“We…don’t think there was any damage.” She knew that from the monitors and scrolling stats. She just wanted to hear it from a live human.

Falke yelled, “Wángbā!!!

“General Hasan,” ordered Norine. “Next pre-set missiles ready?”

“On your command.”

“FIRE!”

Norine Maciel hated this. In one meeting, a colonel speculated that if M.U. was going to nuke at all, probably better to send all of its nukes at the same time. After several meetings, however, the consensus was that the deflection technology was probably quite energy-consumptive (as it was with bos), and that it was better to drain as much of the mothership’s power as they could. They’d eventually agreed to fire two missiles at a time…during Phase One.

The truth was that it was tricky to time a nuclear explosion to happen at just the moment of impact. Even when they seemed to get that right, the mothership was able to avoid the explosion. No wonder the A.A. weren’t bothering to waste their own missiles shooting Mars United missiles…wángbā.

Ten seconds to impact. Nine, eight…

The explosions again came near, but not near enough.

“They’re slowing,” said Samoset, “every time they see us shoot.”

“Can we adjust for that?” asked Norine Maciel.

“They would just speed up,” lamented Falke.

“Can’t we at least try to remote-detonate a nuke,” Chatterjee blurted, “instead of setting them to a timer?”

“If we can remote it,” Falke clenched his teeth, “then they can remote it when they’re closer to it…”

“I know, but what if we try? Maybe their remote skills aren’t as good as we think.”

“Move to Phase Two already,” suggested Senator Weaver. “Have them fly through a jībā obstacle course of exploding nukes.”

Falke’s thin lips got thinner. “I agree. It’s time.”

General Hasan’s com voice inquired, “I just need to know how many of the pre-set ones.”

“Why not all of them?” asked Senator Guen-hye.

“That’s 25% of all of our nukes,” retorted Weaver.

Norine hated that she was still facing backbenching and internecine squabbling from the Senators, even in the midst of a war, when she should have been given executive authority. But she never was quite given that authority, and she needed these people, if she was going to have a planet to govern after this was over.

“With a 25% chance of a hit,” said Samoset. “Interesting trade-off.”

“Those sims were based on theoretical deflection tech,” said Falke. “Now we’ve seen the real thing, does that change?”

“Checking on that, Senator Falke,” Colonel Oltman spoke up from the war room. “Running new sim based on the very small sample.”

“We should go down to the war room.” Samoset looked at the Prime Minister. “We’re obviously at war.”

“Soon,” said Norine. She wanted her movements to be unpredictable.            “Senators?” Colonel Oltman came over the com. “No percentage change. 26%.” Norine knew that number was based on just running a few sims. More sims and variation would take it to 24% or maybe 28%.

“General Rainier,” said the Prime Minister.

“Yes, Madam.”

“I want you to prepare Phase Two using all of our pre-set nukes.”

Norine watched on her war room screen as General Rainier looked down on her ring holo and tapped a few buttons. After all these years, it still blew Norine’s mind: an old woman pushing ring buttons could be ordering a pizza, or she could be ordering enough nuclear power to destroy Venus. The General said, “Prepared.”

“FIRE!” said the Prime Minister.

The missiles shot out of Phobos rapid-fire: dozens and dozens of missiles. Norine looked at the war room screen at the faces of her collected generals. Most were men, and it was like they were watching pornography. For them, violence was love.

A screen scroll explained that the mothership was now speeding up and weaving a little.

Ten seconds to first impact…but the first missile had already passed the mothership, the magnets deflecting it like the others.

And there they went, fireworks of nukes exploding one by one. The first few exploded well in the mothership’s wake. The programmers had predicted a possible mothership acceleration, and a few missiles got closer. The problem was that even the ones that were aimed perfectly were being deflected, and not exploding at the exact closest moment.

Then…the mothership unloaded its death ray and fired on a missile! Its laser incinerated the M.U.’s missile within a kilometer of the mothership. Then Norine read the scroll: it didn’t quite do damage.

Norine saw generals stand and cheer anyway. It was the best news of the battle thus far…the mothership at least used some of its battery power.

In the next minute or so, the mothership’s death ray hit two more missiles just before they were about to explode near the ship. It was a helluva fireworks display.

“Prepare the next wave!” shouted Falke.

“Another 25% of our nukes?” asked Chatterjee.

“Now more like 33%,” said Weaver. “But we have no more pre-sets. We send heat-seekers that detonate on impact.”

“I believe we should send the heat-seekers with remote operation,” suggested General Hasan from the war room. “I know the percentages are low, but…”

“Wait a minute, everyone,” said Samoset. “The mothership’s getting awfully close to Mars orbit.”

“That’s why we have to strike now!” answered Falke.

“The last time we talked about this window, we hadn’t seen the deflection tech in action.” Samoset used his ring to project a crude holo of what he meant. “My calculations aren’t pretty. If our missile gets deflected off of the ‘bottom’ of the mothership relative to Mars…the missile could plunge into our planet.”

“Samoset,” Falke rebuked him, “you know 95% of those explode upon atmospheric entry.”

“Maybe 97% now, with the latest increased millibars,” said Weaver hopefully.

“That’s still a 3% chance of nuking our own planet!” snapped Samoset.

The generals’ holos were looking at Norine as though to say, can’t you shut up the Senators? Norine knew the A.A. had given Chan-Ocha a free hand that she didn’t have. Just remind yourself, she said, this is what you’re fighting for…fighting by consensus. Sheesh.

“Madam Prime Minister!” Falke pleaded. “The mothership is approaching orbit, we don’t have time…”

“Senator Falke, this time I agree with you,” said Norine in a level tone. “General Hasan, prepare the heat-seekers that detonate on impact.”

“Prepared.”

Before any Senator could speak, Norine commanded, “FIRE!”

More missiles shot out of Phobos, in pairs again. The missiles kept deflecting. Wángbā, Norine thought, Rhodes’ jībā confidence was justified. There had to be something! If they waited until Phobos came within laser range…but that worked both ways. The A.A.’s death ray was certainly as powerful as anything M.U. had.

Many minutes passed without a single explosion. Jībā, the mothership was moving into orbit. Norine Maciel decided it was about time to go down to the war room, at least to save her own neck.

Norine noticed on one screen that people were stepping into the streets of New Jerusalem, looking up. Surely the mothership couldn’t be that big, that visible, yet? No…it was Phobos. The people of Mars United were watching missiles leave their planet’s moon’s platform. This was one of the three times in a day where Phobos was at its most clear from the city.

“Jībā!” Falke was yelling. “The missiles just keep flying off in all directions.”

All directions? Or…Norine squinted at a couple of maps. “General Hasan? What are those two missiles doing? The ones over Xanthe?”

“Over…?” General Hasan punched up buttons. “Oh my…Fuzhou! Williams! Answer me please!”

“This is impossible.” Guen-hye stood straight up as she realized what was about to happen.

“They seized these two, sped them up, and…” Weaver stood up as well. “My God, no…”

They all heard a scratchy voice coming from Phobos. “Yes, General?” The moon platform was barely manned; almost everything was done with robots and remote signals. They needed two people there for this exact reason, in case someone had to counter-jam local jammers. But that required actually doing the counter-jamming…

“Two of your missiles missed the mothership.” General Hasan was sweating; Norine could see it even on a virtual screen. “They went around the planet and are coming your way. You have to order your computer to take them over…”

“Yes,” said the lieutenant on Phobos. “I guess we were distracted with firing, counter-jamming their jamming, but…okay, now we’ve got them.”

“Oh thank God,” exhaled Weaver.

There was no change in the missiles’ position on radar; deceptively quickly, they were still heading straight for Mars’ closer moon.

“Now turn them, quickly!” Falke commanded. “The computer won’t do it right, you have to do it manually.”

“But not into Mars!” Samoset added.

Shut up Samoset!” Falke snarled. “Wángbā 3%, they only have seconds!”

“Driving those things isn’t my specialty,” came back the reply. “Fuzhou, stop launching missiles, they need us.”

Norine Maciel cried, “Hurry!!”

The two missiles slammed into the small moon, detonating on impact and exploding, silencing the two lieutenants forever. For a moment, a cemetery-like silence. Then, by design in such an emergency, the missiles triggered the many other nukes that were on Phobos, causing the entire moon to explode in a fearsome paroxysm of power.

All of New Jerusalem saw the terrible explosion with their naked eyes. Norine felt her heart fall into her shoes. This was a moon of a planet. This had lasted for millions of years, until this moment.

“The wreckage…” Samoset stammered. He was more agitated than Norine had ever heard him. “The fireball, is it…?”

“I…actually did the calculation 30 seconds ago,” Colonel Oltman piped up from the war room. “It’s a comet now, not so different from the bigger asteroids we threw into Mars decades ago.”

“But Oltman, they planned those,” said Guen-hye, whose jaw was agape. “And the planet was nearly empty anyway. Can this fall on New Jerusalem?”

“No. Phobos’ natural momentum is still considerable. The parts that don’t burn up will land…uh, near Elysium.”

Unlike a comet, Phobos was leaving the mother of all vapor trails. And like everyone else who could see the sky above New Jerusalem, Prime Minister Norine Maciel saw the black speck that was the mothership move toward that nuclear discharge. Of course, Norine realized. Rhodes didn’t want to hit us with Phobos. Instead, the megalopolis-sized ship would emerge through the smoke like a horror villain. Or a hero.

As the mothership entered Mars’ atmosphere, it looked like one of the old bio-domes falling to the surface. The “bottom” of the ship resembled the bottom of a tea kettle on the boil, a massive flickering of flame and combustion.

“This was my fault.” Chatterjee’s shoulders were shaking. “I wanted us to use those missiles…”

“Oh give me a break, Chatterjee,” scoffed Falke. “You’re not making military decisions. Samoset, you just had to tell them not to steer the missiles into Mars, didn’t you?”

“Falke, that’s low, even for you,” replied Samoset. “You’re the one who…”

“Stop it, all of you,” said the Prime Minister. “The mothership – Binto, Applokia, Airboeck, and the A.A. – had this planned the whole time. They slowed and waited for Phobos to be in position for this show. They did this. And they will pay for it.”

And of course, Norine walked right into it. And history would blame her for this. If anyone on Mars lived to write it.

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