Just like that, the main phase, namely the air war, was over. About 34,000 of Mars United’s 39,000-odd planes had fallen, disabled, somewhere on the slopes of Mt. Sharp. Mars United had fought well. The Asian Alliance had lost more than their fair share; about 50,000 down, and another 26,000 or so heading back to the mothership and refuel.

The Asian Alliance still had about 25,000 to provide air cover for the ground melee on Mt. Sharp. When the last of M.U.’s rearguard departed, covering M.U.’s 5,000-odd who’d returned to Armstrong Air Base to refuel, the A.A. gathered in formation, left 5,000 to oversee Mt. Sharp, and sent 20,000 planes straight for Armstrong.

Guen-hye called over to the Prime Minister. “It looks like they’re following our plan with Melas.”

“Of course,” Falke replied. “It’s a great plan.”

“It’s Rhodes’s plan,” Samoset chided him, “to beat us with our own plan.”

The flock of angry A.A. birds descended upon Armstrong Air Base. That’s when Norine launched the surface-to-air missiles. They knocked out about 150 planes before their missiles went quiet, which wasn’t bad.

Everyone in the war room held their breath. The A.A. sensed that the surface-to-air attacks were over. Now they came on in earnest, bombs dropping all over Armstrong.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two nukes exploded in a way that seemed to rip a yellow-orange hole in the middle of the sky: ka-boo-ooooooooooooom. The bombs struck in the heart of the group of planes, utterly disintegrating thousands and damaging another few thousand enough to knock them to the ground.

The war room erupted as though the war was won. It hadn’t been, but at least Norine’s gambit had been successful. She reflected that she had been wise to keep this one a secret from whomever the traitor in the room was.

Weaver and Falke were applauding along with most of the generals. Samoset and Guen-hye were not, but that hardly proved anything. Samoset had been taking the pacifist position all along, Guen-hye the accommodationist.

The Prime Minister knew the A.A. wasn’t expecting nukes just then, and not just because Mars United had wasted so many others in the first phase. Who uses nukes above one’s own base where you’ve sent your planes to refuel? Norine Maciel, that’s who, she thought to herself. The trick was planning ahead of time, outfitting the returning human pilots and gunners in the surfeit of radiation suits lying around Mars. The Asian Alliance’s parachuting pilots and gunners had no such protection, and they howled on the way down from the radiation burning their skin. The suited soldiers picked them off easily.

General Hasan looked at Norine with widened eyes. “You just activated two nukes just outside New Jerusalem.”

“Yes, and I’ve already done the math.” Norine saw that the war room had become quieter than a church. “Everyone’s radiation level is set to triple; it will be as though every citizen just had an X-ray every day for a month. The water will now be undrinkable, and we all have to rely on filtering and emergency supplies until the next time it rains.”

Guen-hye almost stammered, “Are you…with another nuke…?”

“Out of the question,” replied Norine. “Too many of our civilians would die of radiation poisoning.”

Oltman had numbers: the blast had destroyed or immobilized about 7,000 Asian Alliance jets; 3,000 were damaged but still in motion; the other 10,000-odd had escaped the blast zone, and were now on their way to the heart of New Jerusalem. The men and women in the war room braced themselves for the walls to shake. The war room was several meters under the White House and would be able to survive several direct hits. They hoped.

In a chilling mirror image of the battle of Melas, the A.A. jets struck only government buildings and the buildings of certain corporations. So Chan-Ocha and Rhodes hadn’t been lying; they really weren’t going to flatten New Jerusalem, even after the nukes. Well, lots of conquering armies preserved cities. M.U.’s surface-to-air missiles struck back at the A.A., and the sky above New Jerusalem was a dazzling array of explosions, almost like fireworks. Norine well knew that these fireworks could cause debris that could fall and kill people, as it had in Binto City.

One missile brought down a jet which crashed into the opulent dome of the Mars Senate, making a gaping hole on one side of the cupola. This sight, seen on the war room’s screens, provoked a sudden dismayed silence. Then, a couple of A.A. planes launched real firepower at the dome, and it was leveled quicker than a strong tide destroys a sandcastle. The Senators were all safely squirreled away, but it was hardly pleasant to watch the devastation of the symbol of Mars’ democracy – if you could call it that, Norine thought to herself.

And then it happened all over again as jets rained down hellfire on the Mars White House. Bit by bit, the columns and the balustrades tumbled to the ground. The walls in the war room began to shake. Rumble, rumble, like a major earthquake. All around her, generals were crouching, composing voice mails to their loved ones. Big men.

This was it, Norine thought. End of options, end of games, end of percentages. Goodbye, cruel worlds.

The room was shaking so badly that she could barely see the screen displaying Anahita as the mothership opened and the batteries came tumbling out.

The Trojan Horse plan had worked. Oh my holy God.

The generals stood up erect and looked as thought they couldn’t believe their eyes.

While the A.A.’s pilots and gunners were serving as effective air support for the ground skirmishes on Mt. Sharp, suddenly, Texrom batteries rained down, about half landing with an explosion as big as a small building.

Florian Falke looked at Norine. “You…kept this from us? From me?”

“Sorry, Florian. Colonel Oltman, I need to know how many batteries just left the mothership.”

The war room walls stopped shaking. The generals cheered again. The batteries weren’t hitting anywhere near downtown New Jerusalem, but the A.A. jets had received word, and stopped their attack.

Probably the A.A. jets were watching, on their screens, what everyone in the war room was watching. Batteries falling everywhere, exploding on the ground. A.A.’s cover planes suddenly maneuvered to avoid, and in the unfamiliar gravity, a few even crashed into each other.

Oltman announced, “193 batteries fallen altogether.”

Two Texrom batteries got really lucky and landed on planes directly, creating burning-husk-firestorms that looked like dying dragons.

Weaver said, “Now that’s a significant scare effect!”

“Did you know?” Falke asked her.

“No, and I don’t mind,” retorted Weaver.

Falke jutted out his jaw. “Not exactly good publicity for Texrom.”

“I guess the efficacy of the dump,” Senator Guen-hye mused, “was premised on Mars United having already lost the air war.”

“Well done, Madam,” said Samir Samoset. “The jets strafing New Jerusalem just turned tail and flew back to Mt. Sharp, using even more of their energy.”

“Hey look, Florian,” said Weaver. “Sapolu.”

They all got visual confirmation of Sapolu falling, chuting, and then landing on some A.A. plane. His body was unmistakable.

“Chee,” said Norine, “you know what I want.”

“Madam, I can confirm that Sapolu, Al-Basani, and Goldberg survived the dump.” Norine felt her blood rush to her face. Chee got sheepish. “To the best of our records, Martina didn’t jump. Whether she’s alive or dead, there’s…I’m sorry, but there’s no way to tell from here.”

Norine’s heart was in her throat. Why did Martina do things like this? On the other hand, was losing her daughter really so much worse than the dozens of new Mars United casualties she’d made with just the big battery dump? Norine could have armed her soldiers with advance knowledge, and a few might have avoided the worst of the Texrom batteries – perhaps by diving into caves on Mt. Sharp. But…there was still a traitor listening, somewhere.

Colonel Oltman was running all sorts of new simulations, generating new probabilities. They scrolled out on the war room’s screens. Chance of Mt. Sharp’s ecosystem recovering in a generation: 6%. Chance of further air attacks against the White House: 12%. Chance of New Moscow getting involved: 19%. Chance of the A.A. winning the war against M.U.: 49%. Chance of M.U. winning: 51%.

Upon the scrolling of that last one, the war room shook with its own explosion, as though Mars United had just won the Worlds Cup. Norine mused to herself that these people would probably celebrate just as prematurely at halftime of the real Worlds Cup. 51-49 was hardly overwhelming.

Norine looked at some harder numbers that interested her more. The A.A. was down to about 11,500 planes, and most of those damaged or low on energy. Except for a few rogues, they’d all returned to the mothership for maintenance and energy restoring. Norine had about 5,000 planes, and she liked those odds in .38g, but almost all of her pilots had been fighting for 36 straight hours. They needed rest, and that’s what they were getting.

If Madam Prime Minister trusted robots, she could send them straight to the mothership, but sims suggested a 98% chance that the massive double-teacup would find a way to jam them, destroy them, or take them over.

Falke was sulking. Norine knew it had nothing to do with “bad publicity” for Texrom, but was instead because he hadn’t been consulted on the Trojan Horse plan. Norine still couldn’t trust him, and the sulking proved nothing either way.

Guen-hye and Samoset weren’t consulted either, and weren’t celebrating now. Even while checking scrolling stats on their province’s soldiers, they eyed the Prime Minister, probably waiting for her to ask them for advice.

“Samir, can you come here?” Norine ordered. She showed Samoset a private feed of Pablo’s Mayan-Aztec bunker room from her holo-ring. “Can you look at this? Does anything seem off to you?”

“Besides those wall designs?” he smiled. “He might have…wait. Is this thing on a loop?” Peoria kept making the same motion, crossing the room in the same way each time…too perfectly.

“Keep this to yourself, Samir,” the Prime Minister whispered. “I believe there’s a mole here, and we don’t want them to know we know that my grand-daughter is a hostage.”

“Got it,” Samir whispered. “I’ll see what I can do, discreetly.”

As he walked away, the Prime Minister checked a different monitor on her holo-ring. Peoria was alive. Her heart was beating. Thank God. Norine had a feeling she knew what was going to happen. Norine wanted to cry out, at least to Chatterjee. But she dared not. If the traitor learned she was on to them, this whole thing would end badly. She had to at least feign ignorance for a little while. Norine guessed that it wouldn’t be much longer.

“Madam Prime Minister?” Weaver waved. “We’ve got confirmation…genuine call from Chan-Ocha coming in.”

Everyone cheered again. Norine heard someone say, “It’s a surrender!” And someone else say “He wants to surrender!”

“Shut up, you people.” Falke shushed the whole room. “This thing isn’t over. I don’t want to hear any of you during this call.”

Norine Maciel nodded at him, and gazed around the room, shutting them all up with her eyes. After a moment, General Chan-Ocha appeared on the video monitor for all to see. Next to him sat General Rhodes. They looked as though they were friends watching a buddy comedy. It was all the two men could do to keep from laughing aloud.

Chan-Ocha started disrespectfully enough. “Norine? Are you there?” the translation said.

“Yes, General,” was her terse reply.

“Have you contacted us because you’d like to surrender?”

Norine gave her room a look – as though to say don’t make a noise. To the screen she said, “I might ask you the same question.”

“Ha! I suppose you think you’ve hurt us with this little stunt.”

“You tell me,” replied the Prime Minister.

“May I ask,” said Rhodes, “whose idea was it to attack our batteries?”

“You may not,” sighed Norine.

“It just seems,” Chan-Ocha said, “…what’s the word in English?…feminine. If you manage to get your people on board, why wouldn’t you attack our control room? Or our computer system?”

“Too well-guarded. In the second case, too much designed redundancy, to guard against just such an attack.”

“Yes, but what’s the point, besides a few extra fireworks? At best you’ve slowed us down by a few days, while we wait for a solar-power recharge.”

“A few days is more than enough time.”

“Or is it?” Chan-Ocha chortled.

“Norine, I’m curious,” Rhodes volleyed, “why would you send your crippled daughter here?”

I didnt, she thought. Nor do I know what became of her. She wondered what exactly she had to say to get new information out of this man. Playing dumb was a decent default with most men. “I just…thought she was the best person for the job.”

Now Rhodes and Chan-Ocha laughed together, uproariously. Norine thought of another way to approach the question. “All right, what do you want for her?”

“Oh, we dohhn’t keep hostages,” said Rhodes, with a teddibly British inflection. “We don’t play the game the way you do. It must be hard to swallow the fact that she sacrificed herself for nothing.”

This could be a ploy, Norine told herself. I’m not going to believe it until I see my daughter’s body.

“Nothing, eh?” Norine said. “Is ‘nothing’ what you call your dead soldiers on Mt. Sharp when you speak to their families?”

Rhodes looked like he’d sipped old milk. “The point is that you’re still going to lose.”

“Really? Why haven’t you sent your planes to finish the job?”

“I might ask you the same question,” Chan-Ocha interjected.

“My pilots are resting. When they wake up, there’s going to be a full assault on your mothership.”

“Is that meant to scare us?” Chan-Ocha answered. “Our mothership will pick off your jets. And we have more than twice as many planes as you do.”

“But almost all of your planes are out of power. And your solar-power recharge is going to take too much time.”

“It’s a shame, Norine,” Chan-Ocha said a little too histrionically, “but I think you’ve been caught in a translation issue. I said ‘at best you’ve slowed us down by a few days.’ That didn’t mean that you had slowed us down by a few days.”

The Prime Minister looked around the war room. Weaver furrowed her brow. Norine said plaintively, “I’m not following.”

“I didn’t think so,” laughed Chan-Ocha. He gave a head-signal to someone off-camera.

Though the war room’s central screens showed Chan-Ocha and Rhodes, a few peripheral ones showed New Jerusalem, Mt. Sharp, what was left of Armstrong Air Base…and the mothership, whose engines rumbled.

“It’s on the move!” shouted a dim-witted general, only to receive Falke’s most withering stare.

Norine thought to ask “Running away?” but she knew better than to set them up. Instead she remained silent.

The mothership flew almost due east. Rhodes looked into the monitor again. “Norine? Oh Noriiiine?”

“Yes?”

“Aren’t you going to ask us where we’re going?”

“Aren’t you going to tell me?”

“Since you ask, yes. I’ve always wanted to see Mount Olympus.” Norine waited for Chan-Ocha to continue, again. “It has so many features, you know? Highest mountain in the solar system, largest caldera this side of Jupiter. And that lava bed…generating enough geo-thermal energy to power every mothership in the Asian Alliance.”

Norine looked briefly at her closest advisers, then back at the screen. “If you even had an ED-210, you’d need days just to align it properly with the volcano, you can’t just…”

“Unless, Norine,” put in Rhodes, “There’s an ED-210 already there.”

The Prime Minister squinted at the screen. “What are you talking about?”

“Dr. Aquinas is alive, Norine,” Rhodes laughed. “And guess what? He still doesn’t like you.”

Chan-Ocha added, “We’ve had secret communications for months.”

“Years,” chuckled Rhodes.

“So what?” retorted Norine. “You’ve got an ally in a cave? Congratulations.”

“Not exactly,” said Rhodes. “He’s living with some 200 of his followers in the old Darwin snow globe. Inside the volcano. Hidden from your cameras.”

“Well, they must be starving. What are they living on, magma?”

“No, plants that they grow. Water that they recycle and reuse. Like the original settlers.”

“With what power?” Norine hesitated. “Solar? Wind?”

“No, geo-thermal. They’ve got an ED-210 in there.”

“But those things…have to connect…”

“He built a remote-control ED-210, never told you, and left it in Darwin,” Chan-Ocha laughed. “He wired the volcano before he blew it, all those years ago.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Secret communiques,” Chan-Ocha answered casually. “We used a frequency that you can’t check unless you’re specifically looking for it.”

“The important thing,” Rhodes chuckled, “is that we’re going to get our energy re-stocked, and we’ll be at full power within, oh, I’d say twelve hours. And then we’re going to end this little war of the worlds.”

Norine looked at General Hasan and made certain her voice sounded urgent. “Wake up all our pilots. Tell them they have to go now or never…”

“They won’t be in time,” laughed Chan-Ocha. “You should know the mothership flies as fast as they do. Let them come when we’re half-fueled and they’re half-asleep. We’ll send them right through the caldera, to the heart of the magma – to hell on Earth.”

Norine looked around at all the faces of the Senators and generals – they’d all turned white. She could practically see their stomachs twisting in knots. All except Chee. He threw his headset at the floor and ran out of the war room in a huff.

Was he going to get Peoria? Was the Prime Minister sure she could trust him?

“You tried, Norine,” remonstrated Rhodes, “Let’s face it, you gave it a good effort, for a woman. But in the end, you couldn’t defeat freedom.”

Right, thought Norine, so now we’ll all be dead or slaves. Impeccable logic, there.

“No final thoughts, woman,” Chan-Ocha leaned in, “for all the people watching out there? Or should I say, all the people, uh, period?”

The Prime Minister placed her finger near the “off” button and leaned her face to the edge of the camera lens. “I’ll see you in hell on Mars.”

 

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