The war had no drone phase. The A.A. hadn’t bothered to bring drones, knowing that it wasn’t worth the trouble of fighting off M.U. jamming signals.

Now, the dogfight between Mars United and the Asian Alliance resembled the vision of a thousand microbes, seen through a microscope, exposed to increasing heat. It was total chaos at 10,000 meters above Mars’ surface.

Only this time, it wasn’t a sim. This was as real as a heart attack.

“Peterson!” Martina barked into her com. “Two bogies coming around at 7 o’clock! Davis, move two clicks to your 9 o’clock, Kirchick needs you to run a few seconds of interference! Tai-Tai, get your nose up and get out of there, your gunner can hit them from behind!”

Struck planes plummeted to the slopes of Mount Sharp like moths falling from a bug-zapping bird-feeder. Per her mother’s orders, Martina was at a desk in the control center at Armstrong Air Base. The fully loaded dashboard let her see every part of this frenetic, hectic battle. Did it look like chaos because of all the desperate M.U. rookies, because of all the A.A. soldiers adjusting to 3/8ths g, or because everyone was using their deadliest weapons this time? A bit of all that. It was like watching cows in a tornado.

“Jankowski!” Martina yelled at one of her noobs. “Stop shooting indiscriminately, choose one jībā target. Hey! Mobuna!” she called to another gunner. “Just shoot the middle one, the others will separate if you hit him hard enough. Now!” She paused to make sure that worked, and it did. “See?”

One of Martina’s screens was trained on the entire ghetto area; if any jet flew in or out of it, she would see the blip. Still, she knew she needed to be closer to truly pursue.

Martina had brought her green-haired noob from class to Armstrong for just this moment. He was wearing a radiation suit and watching the screens, just like everyone else in this control center. “Maurice?”

“Yes, Colonel?”

“Take my ring. You know what to do from here.”

“Yes, Colonel.” He was afraid to disobey her. Good.

Martina had decided to take a page from her sister’s book and steal a training plane. Well, not that she had much choice; only training planes remained at the base.

With a hush softer than an Irish mist, Martina’s jet floated from Armstrong to the New Jerusalem ghetto, 10 km that passed without incident. Martina reckoned that no one from M.U. would notice, and even if they did, what were they going to do, stop her? Like Julia, she’d turned off her coms. And they couldn’t reach her through her ring, because the only one she now had was a brand-new one. Martina recalled telling Peoria she was too young for a thousand-dollar holo ring, but she sure wasn’t.

Now, Martina idled her jet on a rooftop…not just any rooftop, she well knew, but the one from where Azalea once looked down at her and her team. Okay, fine, that was a trap she should have seen. But Azalea wasn’t the only one who could set a trap.

Wángbā, the war wasn’t going well, Martina thought. Current rough count of planes: M.U. 34,000, A.A. 94,000. At this rate…Martina hesitated to check the scroll that reported at this rate.

But she did. And almost missed four A.A. planes that suddenly arrived in the ghetto…to escort a fifth one that popped out of a warehouse four blocks away. They began to fly away…

“NO!” Martina said aloud. Martina put her jet in gear and gave these A.A. planes full chase.

Rhodes is on that middle plane, Martina thought, surrounded by his lackeys. I don’t have to knock out all of them, just that one.

They saw her coming immediately. A.A. planes, unlike M.U. planes, were built for four – including tailgunners, two of whom rained down fire on Martina.

Martina preferred M.U. jets and their 120° gunners, but in this case Martina was flying an extra-thin, single-occupant jet, better to dodge their shots.

Three jets accelerated away, toward the mothership. The two ships nearest Martina gave up on their escort job, and just laid down fire. Martina took a few side hits, managing to stay in the air by dropping lower. Arrgh. Martina ignored the exposed-tooth-like pain creeping up her neck and arms. Rhodes was getting further into the sky, and Martina was getting closer to downtown New Jerusalem. Wángbā!

One of Rhodes’ escorts fired on a building, letting the rubble fall toward the many pedestrians staring from the street.

Shikata ga nai – no choice. She had to decimate the debris, and she did, for the most part. People saved, planes gone. Jībā. So much for the A.A.’s saintly insistence on fighting over non-populated areas.

Martina thought she could still catch the escaping planes, maybe…then she heard and saw an orange alert signal on her new ring. She’d programmed it before the battle to tell her when Al-Basani was executing the Trojan Horse plan. Is she doing it now because she knows Im busy? Martina asked herself.

Martina didn’t have time to program a percentage-contrast sim. Chance of catching Rhodes now had to be less than 10%. Chance of catching him with the Trojan Horse plan…more.

She turned her bird south.

The plan must have worked so far. Al-Basani would have peppered a few planes with holes while making some choice racist remarks over her megaphone. Some A.A. pilot would have decided to chase her, their military plan be damned. They all knew the lopsided ratio of planes; they knew they could afford a minor vendetta.

Maybe they knew it too well. Dashboard showed two additional A.A. planes flying after them, with the serious potential to ruin Chee’s plan.

But now Martina was about a kilometer behind them.

The idea was to fly, fly, fly to Lasswitz Crater – where the mothership wouldn’t have visual. Sure, they had other ways to track jets, but Sapolu would scramble those locally after the rogue jets disappeared into the basin. Sure, the generals might be suspicious. Or they might be over-confident. Or they might not be able to keep track of all their planes in all the tumult.

The mothership had done Martina a slight favor by announcing its presence so ostentatiously, through all the smoke that was all that was left of Phobos. She could see it very clearly, receding into the distance like a comet. And…finally it was gone. Martina waited another minute just to be sure.

Now, Martina floored the engine and flew extra low to reduce wind resistance. She was practically kissing boulders.

About ten minutes later, Martina got visual of the lip of Lasswitz, which was hardly the deepest crater on Mars – that honor belonged to Hellas Planitia, as every Aresian knew – but it was fine for this purpose. It was close enough for the A.A. not to give up pursuit, but deep enough – maybe a kilometer – for Sapolu’s devices to keep everyone hidden from sensors. As Martina approached the crater, she saw what had to be the two extra A.A. bogeys. They were wobbling and gyrating, which meant that Al-Basani must have activated the next phase. Their pal was under attack, and they were responding.

Now it was time for Martina to respond to their wángbā response. She hoped she rose out of nowhere, guns blazing. Certainly the first bogey acted that way; it moved like it was standing still. She scored a direct hit on it, smashing it out of the sky and into the bottom of jībā Lasswitz.

That felt good. Though she noticed Sapolu’s plane had already gone down. Dumb pink thing.

The other pursuing plane turned on an almost-dime – not bad for an Earthling – and fired off several rounds at Martina.

But one-on-one? Come on. This was Martina’s world. Literally.

After a few seconds of dodging and parrying, Martina spun in midair, twisting herself in a somersault designed to have her finish pointing the wrong way. She hoped it looked like a mistake; she waited for him to over-commit to get her. Once he did, she did a quick circle over his head and blasted him into the crater wall.

Martina smiled. This was how it was supposed to be.

Then she felt a tremendous explosion, and her own plane falling from the sky. She felt her heart stop.

Martina chuted out just in time. She saw a jībā Mars crevasse below – no-no-no-no-no-pìhuà. She landed in a way she never had, her dead legs making her a sack of potatoes hitting the dirt. The crevasse was at least 10 meters deep – this planet so unlike the Earth sims, where everything was so small! Landing in the wángbā crevasse had hurt like licking carbon ice. If she had had working legs, she could have been out of it in five minutes. She reckoned that at this point she could crawl out of it in maybe an hour. She didn’t have an hour.

Luckily, Martina could still see most of the battle. Catching her breath, Martina saw smoke from the wrecked planes she’d just knocked down, perhaps 100 meters away. She couldn’t see the soldiers getting out of them, but they were firing their weapons into the air. Martina unsheathed her bo.

Looking up, Martina saw that the original pursuer was some kind of A.A. virtuoso. He or she and Al-Basani were trading shot after missed shot, spinning around each other like it was a ballet routine. Martina watched Al-Basani feign a move, and then lunge right into the enemy plane. Martina smiled. No one expects a kamikaze. Both planes broke apart, rendering both into falling scrap-heap. The crews of both planes parachuted out – in Al-Basani’s case, that was Goldberg and Wittgenstein.

Martina could see that Goldberg and Wittgenstein knew about the kamikaze in advance; they pointed their bodies straight at the falling enemy, who were drawing firearms.

“Thanks for the offer, buddy,” Martina’s com caught Goldberg saying to the soldier closer to him, “But I never get shot on the first date.” With his bo Goldberg managed to swat away the enemy’s gun just in time. Martina hoped the firearm would happen to land near her. No chance.

Even directing her falling, Al-Basani wasn’t quite close enough to any of the enemy, but as a soldier drew a weapon on Goldberg, she yelled, “This one wants a piece of the action!”

“Too bad, we’re getting our own room…” Goldberg twisted his bo and used it to pull close the now gun-less soldier, who reflexively punched Goldberg. It looked like it hurt. “Ouch! Well, you’re just my type, strong, silent, and with a sensitive back.” Goldberg flipped this puncher around his body just in time for his ally to shoot him in the back. He fell so limp that Martina could see he had died.

“Didn’t Mommy teach you not to shoot your own people?” Al-Basani said as she swung her bo into the shooter’s head, beating him unconscious. “Very poor manners.” And they all popped their chutes just in time, per training. They would land in maybe thirty seconds.

The other member of the enemy plane’s crew managed to shoot at Wittgenstein a couple of times before realizing that Wittgenstein’s bo was repelling the bullets. He adjusted his aim, firing at the chute’s ropes. That was low-percentage, but the enemy got lucky, and Martina watched as Wittgenstein took a hard fall for maybe seven or eight meters – was he unconscious? Was he shot?

Wittgenstein landed about ten meters from Martina, and she heard a gruesome snap. She called to Wittgenstein on her com, “Are you ok? Wittgenstein, talk to me!” Martina felt her heart freeze like a popsicle. If she’d had her legs, she could have caught him with her own arms.

And suddenly, there was a flurry of activity, as Al-Basani and Goldberg landed nearby at the same time that the crews from the other two planes ran up, guns blazing.

Martina couldn’t see most of the melee from her position in the crevasse. However she did glimpse Al-Basani fly through the air in a way that suggested that Sapolu threw her. She loved it when they used .38g moves on Terrans who didn’t know them.

Martina could hear bullets flying as well as bodies. She used her wrists to crawl closer to the edge of the crevasse. She cursed herself for being so useless. Finally she came to a place where she could see a bit of the action. And…it was over.

Goldberg wasted no time running back to Wittgenstein. “Witt!” he yelled. “Witt!”

Wittgenstein was dead.

 

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