As their plane came within laser range of the mothership, Martina labored not to appear astonished. The crew on the mothership would have visual now, and she couldn’t afford to look as though she’d never seen the massive monster up close before.
It was a thing of almost-beauty, two city-sized teacups locked together at the rims, glistening with a black-silver metal alloy that sparkled better than polished obsidian. It had minor curved ridges all the way around it, an undulating pattern that was somehow pleasing and intimidating at the same time. Martina read that the first mothership was more of an enormous rocket that opened to reveal an ocean aircraft carrier, but that the Hollywood-inspired desire for a “flying saucer” was so powerful that people actually preferred – or feared, Martina wasn’t sure which – the double-teacup design.
The name of it, Anahita, was written in five sets of alphabets – Roman, Cyrillic, Chinese, Arabic, and its “native” Persian, in this case the Persian goddess. Why, Martina wondered, were ships always named for women, even back to antiquity? Because you don’t suspect our power until it’s too late, she hoped.
Martina kept an eye on her monitor screen as their plane’s energy reserves dwindled to 11%. There had been some debate amongst her, Sapolu, Al-Basani, and Goldberg about how many shots to fire off to deplete power just enough to hit the sweet spot between needing to return to the mothership and getting stranded out in the hinterlands. There had also been some debate about how much to hit the one gunner turret – enough to cripple Martina’s legs, but not so much that the ship wouldn’t make it back to the mothership. Had to be convincing.
Neither Sapolu nor Al-Basani nor Goldberg wanted Martina on the Trojan Horse. Back in the Lasswitz Crater, they didn’t sound convinced when she told them that the black wig had fooled most of the paparazzi in the past. Martina was offended when Goldberg accused her of hoping Wittgenstein would die; Martina had planned to hide in the Trojan Horse ship’s storage. When Sapolu lifted the jamming and the mothership called, Martina automatically went into her Plan B, telling A.A. command in perfect Mandarin that her impact injury had paralyzed her legs and she had to return to base. By the time she rung off and Sapolu and Goldberg had expressed their outrage, she could only apologize for not having thought to check with them first. She couldn’t help it if she didn’t sound penitent.
On their mothership approach, Goldberg was playing some kind of nouveau-reggo. And as sure as the sun will shine… sang the singer. Goldberg said on the intracom, “You see, Al-Basani, there’s good music coming from Mars.”
Al-Basani sighed. “That’s from foundational reggae.”
“No, it’s original!”
“Oh, just facrogle Jimmy Cliff.”
The singer sang …the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.
“Goldberg,” Martina said, “why do you still waste time arguing with Al-Basani?”
“You should talk!” he answered.
“None of you should talk,” Al-Basani said stiffly.
“It’s our com,” Martina replied, “We’re jamming it and anything else…”
“Yeah?” she answered.
“I’m in charge now.” Al-Basani cleared her throat. “You’re not going after Rhodes. You deviate from the plan one iota, and I’m gonna stick my bo in the base of your spine myself.”
Their little plane drifted into an airport-size cavern that was one of the mothership’s hangars. Other damaged jets floated in just ahead of and just behind them. Non-damaged planes formed a separate queue to restock their energy cells. As Martina had hoped, their jet didn’t stand out in any particular way. They alighted on the tarmac with a dull thud and rolled forward with the rest of the queue. A lower lieutenant stood on the runway and waved them to a parking place with a blessedly bored expression. All the rest of the “ground” crew walked around checking the hulls of the other ships, hooking up energy supply cables, restocking weapons parts, and the like. No one was paying them any special attention.
“I can’t tell who’s Russian and who’s Chinese and who’s Southeast Asian,” remarked Goldberg. “It’s like everyone’s Mongolian.”
“Or from Vladivostok,” said Al-Basani.
“To get this gig, you had to be of Vladian Stock,” cracked Goldberg.
“Does that feel like Earth g to you?” asked Martina.
“Nah,” said Sapolu. “That would feel far heavier than this. That’s our g; the A.A. chose not to waste power on artificial g this close to Mars. Just makes our job a tiny bit harder.”
Or a tiny bit easier, thought Martina. But then, Sapolu didn’t know the full extent of Martina’s plans.
Al-Basani brought the plane to a complete stop. The parking lieutenant walked away from them and over to another jet. A technician walked up to the ship and began inspecting it with her ring. Al-Basani, Goldberg, and Sapolu stepped out.
An A.A. soldier marched up to Al-Basani. “Chia-Chih!” His uniform indicated his rank, captain, but not his name. Continuing in Mandarin, he asked, “What happened here?”
“We took on some fire, got pretty beat up,” Al-Basani answered in Mandarin. Martina had always considered it half of a waste of time to learn other languages when everything was translated on your holo anyway. This was the first time their Mandarin training had really paid off. Al-Basani continued, “This one needs to see a doctor before going out again.”
“What, for that?” the captain asked in Mandarin as he looked doubtfully at Goldberg’s blood-clot-ridden shoulder. “That’s just a scratch.” Martina knew the captain had a point. Back in the Lasswitz Crater, another debate had been about just how bad Goldberg’s injury would have to be.
Sapolu pulled Martina out of the starboard turret as though he were lifting a large stuffed animal from a carnival display. He said in a stiff Mandarin, “She is going.” Of course, the Asian Alliance included soldiers who had to speak through translation holos, but those soldiers stood out, and the Ten-Percenters were trying not to. Sadly, Sapolu never learned much Mandarin.
“What’s your name?” the captain asked in Mandarin.
“Sapolu,” said Sapolu. As Sapolu was Samoan, they had thought he could bluff with his own name.
“Sapolu…” the captain scrolled through his holo-pad. Martina had been afraid they wouldn’t find his name if they checked.
“I can’t feel my legs,” Martina whimpered in perfect Mandarin. “I may be paralyzed. I have to see a doctor right now.”
Continuing his scroll, the captain said in Mandarin, “You’re not paralyzed, woman.” Woman, huh? Maybe the Chinese connotation wasn’t the same.
“You don’t believe my teammate?” asked Goldberg in Mandarin. Goldberg twisted Martina’s leg as though it were a bread stick. “Don’t you think if she were lying, she’d scream right now?”
The captain stopped his scroll and felt Martina’s leg. In Mandarin: “I suppose there is something wrong with this. She needs to go to sick bay.”
Sapolu walked right past him, carrying Martina like a pieta.
“We’re all going,” said Al-Basani in Mandarin. “If you delay us any further, I’ll be happy to tell General Chan-Ocha all about it.”
With that, they began a long deliberate walk out of the hangar bay, marching as inconspicuously as they could. Martina desperately wanted to look back, or at least whisper to Sapolu, but she waited for several minutes until they’d finally entered a corridor. They walked by cluster after cluster of nodding soldiers, but eventually had the corridor to themselves.
“Do you think they bought it?” whispered Martina in English.
“I doubt it,” grunted Sapolu. “Let’s not delay.”
“People,” Al-Basani whispered in English, “there are sensors everywhere.”
“Yeah,” remarked Martina in English, “but if allies share a second language, they always whisper in it. It makes sense. Hopefully we sound like Russians from a distance.”
Sapolu looked down at Martina. “What about the sense this is going to make after it gets picked up and translated?”
“If we’re trying to sound Chinese,” Goldberg offered, “my grandmother would have said to throw silverware down a staircase.”
“Raise your hand,” said Al-Basani, “if you’re surprised Goldberg’s grandmother is racist.”
The corridors were off-white and utterly non-descript. They were relying on the map projected by Martina’s ring. Sapolu looked at the map, then at her. “Why are you so obsessed with Rhodes?”
“I’m not,” Martina answered. “I’m hoping for Azalea too.”
Goldberg whispered to Al-Basani, “Know any good jokes in Chinese?”
“Yeah, you,” Al-Basani replied.
“Guess I walked right into that one,” whispered Goldberg. “You wouldn’t know anything about walking into traps, would you?” Al-Basani looked at him as though to say shut up, moron.
Sapolu’s arms felt like steel cables. Martina knew that if her plan worked, this would be the last time anyone ever held her. She felt thrilled and a little scared. He was eyeing her, trying to read her. She said, “I think you like this.”
“You’re in more pain than you’re admitting, Martina,” Sapolu whispered. “Also, I’m not happy with you, and not only for the reason you think. Our plan happens to be the best way for you to get what you want.”
“No, it isn’t,” whispered Martina. “First, this plan relies on someone whom I happen to know is very unreliable.” Goldberg heard that and rolled his eyes. “Second, even if it works, the target escapes.”
“Yes, but our side wins,” answered Sapolu.
“Not really,” Martina said. “Come on, were we wrong to go after Osama Bin Laden? Napoleon?”
“Napoleon died at Elba,” whispered Al-Basani.
“My point exactly,” whispered Martina. “He died a hero. They still have monuments all over France for him.”
Sapolu suppressed a chuckle. “You’re fighting against future monuments?”
“Yeah, she is,” said Goldberg. “And they’re pretty well-matched. Neither of them can walk.”
“That was below the belt…” said Sapolu, swallowing the last word as he realized it was poor taste.
“I told you the big guy had jokes in him,” said Al-Basani.
“My mistake,” said Goldberg. “Based on the smell I thought he had pinto beans.”
“Has it occurred to you,” whispered Sapolu to Martina, “That you have some issue against Rhodes using his personal popularity, but that you and your mother also use your personal popularity?”
“Of course!” she answered. “That kind of thing is inevitable. You can lead people to feast or famine.”
Lights began flashing from a soldier’s ring that Goldberg had stolen back at Lasswitz. “Chia-Chih?” said the incoming voice.
Goldberg spoke into his ring. “Sheh?” (Yes in Mandarin.)
A holo popped up right in front of Goldberg’s face. It was some lower-level major. “You’re not Chia-Chih!” the man said in Mandarin.
Al-Basani pulled the ring off of Goldberg’s finger and threw it on the floor. “Come on, guys!”
Now they scrambled. Within a minute, they came to a T-intersection. Goldberg unsheathed his bo. “Where are we going?”
Martina thought they’d have come to the energy bay by now. She looked at the plans on her ring’s holo and said, “I’m not sure…we should have seen it already.”
“Martina.” Sapolu’s tone was impatient. “Which pìhuà way?”
“Left,” she said with forced forcefulness.
The team began that way. Ten meters distant, they saw a phalanx of about a dozen armed soldiers coming around a corner. Martina gulped. “Uh, how about we go the other way?”
They turned around and began running down the other corridor. The hallway made a 90° turn to the left, and so did they…almost kissing a team of four soldiers. These had guns too, but at close range that didn’t help them. Sapolu dropped Martina like a sack of potatoes. Al-Basani did a boball move, bouncing off one wall and ricocheting, managing to push one soldier’s head into another. Sapolu teed his bo off one soldier’s chest, and managed to catch a second in the back of her head as he drew his bo back. All four enemies fell, unconscious, to the floor.
They had no time to bask in any victory. The footsteps of the first phalanx were still coming. Sapolu scooped up Martina, and the Ten-Percenters ran down the hallway.
That turned out to be a good thing when that group of soldiers rounded the corner and began shooting at them. The bullets were so far away that their bos had no trouble deflecting them. As the soldiers stopped shooting, Martina smiled.
Then Martina realized why they had stopped shooting. Another dozen soldiers were coming the other way.
Sapolu placed Martina next to a hermetically sealed door. Martina saw the Persian on the door – the only Persian she knew, because she’d memorized it for this moment. “Texrom Battery Room, guys. This is it!”
“Get us in there, Maciel,” Sapolu said gruffly. He and Goldberg and Al-Basani stood poised with their bos, ready for a melee-and-a-half, as Goldberg might have put it.
Martina noticed the slot in the panel next to the door and tried an ID card that she’d stolen from a soldier at Lasswitz. Miraculously, it worked, and they scrambled into the battery room, slamming the doors behind them.
Centuries of innovation and technological progress came down to this: a warehouse-sized storage facility of 440 refrigerator-size Texrom batteries each containing raw electrical energy, more than a billion volts per battery. The advantage of such a system was that it worked with every kind of source: nuclear, wind, solar, geo-thermal, fusion, coal, steam, you name it. You connected the wires to your source, and you could keep re-topping up the Texrom batteries. Most of the batteries were then in active use, made obvious by their flashing lights.
The moment they entered, Sapolu grabbed the nearest battery, ripped out the wires connecting it to the floor, and pushed it in the direction of the door. Goldberg and Al-Basani did the same.
The two batteries formed a sort of perfect wedge – just in time. Now Sapolu positioned himself on the batteries’ side opposite the doorway, and leaned in at the pressure point. The enemy soldiers would have to break him down. Unfortunately, from what they could hear, that’s exactly what the soldiers were determined to do. “Guys,” Sapolu growled, “Hurry.”
Goldberg and Al-Basani unsheathed their bo blades, and with those they scrambled around the large room, severing Texrom batteries’ connections to the walls. Martina worried about time – how many could the two of them possibly disconnect before the soldiers got through the door?
Martina knew that wouldn’t matter if she failed at her task. Dragging her useless legs along the floor, she’d reached a wall, perpendicular to the entrance’s wall, where the room’s controlling computer sat. She’d turned on their computer, but she learned right away that she couldn’t log on with the stolen A.A. ring or badge. She had to decode this thing and fast. On her ring, she brought up holos of some common encryption breaks – the so-called “hacker holo screen.”
“Martina!” shouted Sapolu.
“That isn’t helping,” she said impatiently.
“Neither are you,” answered Sapolu. The A.A. soldiers were pushing their bos through a small gap they’d made and using them as levers. Sapolu couldn’t hope to withstand that kind of concentrated force much longer.
“Working on it.” Martina hated hacking. If her legs were working she would have traded places with Goldberg or Al-Basani in a heartbeat. Hacking was one of the parts of training she’d liked least.
Martina had no time to try a thousand passwords. She guessed that this room was generally manned by grunts who were at that moment refueling jets. The geeks who programmed this computer wouldn’t have trusted the room’s usual employees to remember their own passwords. They would have left at least one easy workaround. Martina just had to find it. Ctrl-shift-F10? No. Moving the mouse to one of the corners and re-configuring settings? No. Going into DOS and opening the system? No, no. Maybe her ring was showing her too many.
“Martina?” yelled Goldberg as he sliced open battery wires. “How’s that robot porn you’re watching?
“Funny,” she said.
“You know,” said Al-Basani, pushing one battery over to Martina’s back, “Someone wouldn’t have to make bad jokes if someone else was logged in.”
Porn. Martina scrolled down the hacker holo, remembering that there was a trick that forced older computers to reveal their porn. She found it, and amazingly, it worked! Or did it? It changed the login screen to a photo of a lovely woman as naked as the day she was born. Martina knew the woman.
It was her.
Well, it was actually Martina’s face plastered onto some repository of gruesome hourglass-y plastic surgery. What a sick puppy this user must be, Martina thought. But she was still at square one, with nothing on the screen but her photo-shopped picture and no way to know…
Wait a minute.
Martina returned to the regular login screen and typed “MartinaMaciel” as password. In the moment that she finally saw the real controls come on, the Asian Alliance soldiers burst through the doorway.
“Don’t shoot!” a soldier yelled in Mandarin. “Texrom batteries are combustible.”
Goldberg and Al-Basani gave up on cutting wires; however many they’d done would now have to be enough. As they finished, eight soldiers advanced on each of them, using rifles as clubs.
“Kids,” said Goldberg, “That’s hardly a fair fight.” He swung his bo, landing knockout blows on two, pushing aside two more, and dodging the other four.
The A.A. soldiers still weren’t accustomed to Mars g; Al-Basani pressed her advantage, jumping farther than this lot guessed was possible, repeatedly knocking out the guy behind the guy who thought he was her target. While they distracted the front lines, Sapolu pushed a battery over to a place just in back of Martina – so that she wouldn’t be shot.
Now Sapolu joined the fray, using the spare g to throw soldiers into each other. Sapolu even flashed Martina a smile when he and Al-Basani and Goldberg seemed to have taken out the first phalanx. But more kept coming through the door. Goldberg dashed over to Sapolu and brought down two soldiers with a mighty bo swing. Al-Basani skittered from the top of battery to top of battery; as soldiers pursued her, she swung her body around to bang their heads together.
Martina envied her partners: they were doing the job she truly loved. On the other hand, now that Martina had had 30 seconds inside the system, none of them would be in this little drama for much longer. Martina glanced and saw that some of the Texrom batteries were still connected to the wall with large, fist-thick cables that her teammates had avoided as too difficult to sever. Martina chose the longest thick cable that was near her, activated her new ring’s tiny laser, and cut into the cable. What a crap laser; it took at least five seconds to finally sever it. Martina firmly put her bo into its leg holster, withdrew forensic-style gloves from her pocket, and put them on her hands. Sapolu furrowed his brow at this, but he was too far away to ask.
The Asian Alliance soldiers finally got into position – in a half-circle around Goldberg and Al-Basani and Sapolu. Six of them had rifles trained on them, and were now unlikely to hit each other.
“If you shoot,” Al-Basani said in Mandarin, “And miss, and hit one of these Texrom batteries, it might explode.”
An A.A. soldier said in accented, contemptuous English, “Not planning to miss.”
“Hey, sphincter-face!” called Martina in English from her side of the room, as she peered out from behind the one shielding battery and tied the newly loose, thick cable to her waist.
“Yeah?” this soldier answered, turning his gun’s barrel in Martina’s direction.
“Nobody’s gonna miss you either.”
Martina used her bo to press the “Enter” key on the keyboard, and one entire horizontal corner of the room opened up, like the jaws of a massive whale separating.
At 10,000 meters above Mars, the effect is roughly the same as a commercial plane opening 10,000 meters above Earth: total de-pressurization, the sudden whooshing vacuum that sucks everything out into the sky. Martina indeed whooshed out of the ship – and her cable held.
The M.U. generals had done their homework: never in history has any ship, plane or large vehicle been built without the ability to dump its fuel payload. In this case, the stuff was heavy and combustible, and one never knew how much easier it might be to land or get out of trouble without it. This mothership had never deployed its fuel dump hatch in quite this dramatic a manner. Suddenly, all of the soldiers fell out of the floor, shouting curses as they began the ten kilometer fall to Mars, followed by scores of sliding Texrom batteries. Was it hundreds? Was it enough? No way to know now.
Al-Basani and Goldberg and Sapolu fell out as well, but Martina well knew they were wearing chutes. That was part of their plan. What was not part of their plan was that Martina had no intention of using hers.
Martina flickered around the outside of the mothership like a spider clinging to its web in a wind gust. The cable she’d chosen turned out to be a little too long; she had to find and secure a hand-hold before she passed out from the pressure. She saw an inset bar that was part of ship maintenance and knew it was her best hope. But the 10,000-meter winds were whipping her in the opposite direction.
She let herself get tossed onto one surface and used all her arm strength to push off of it the other way, to the inset bar. She made it by a cat’s whisker.
As Martina dangled there with one hand on the bar, she used her other hand to untie the cable. When it finally came off she breathed relief – as much as was possible with this little air. At least the cable couldn’t whip her back into the sky.
My God, what the pìhuà am I doing? Martina asked herself. Six months after a fall that would have given anyone else lifelong acrophobia, she thought, I am clinging to a city-size ship 10,000 meters above the surface of the fourth planet from the sun; wángbā, I can see that surface curve from here.
God, it was freezing. Martina felt the aching not only in her fingers, but all over the half of her body she could still feel. She could let go. Counter-intuitively, she might actually have a better chance of survival if she let go. Her chute would work, but two hours ago she’d learned that landings aren’t exactly easy without legs. And where would she land, a battlefield?
Martina needed to remember the map that she’d memorized before. There was a hatch up here, and it had to be one of two manhole-sized circles she could now see. Which one? She tried to read the markings – the Persian was way too small and indistinct to read from her handhold.
She could feel her fingers start to give out. No.
Then Martina got lucky. Her hatch opened. It looked like a lid popping off a can. But she knew it was bigger, especially when she saw what came out of it.
What is that, two meters away? she thought. Just wait for the wind to change and you can push yourself with your bo. Adjust for your hands feeling frozen. Place your bo in just the right divot. Now, wait. Wait, wait, wait…
She pushed herself off the ship.