The stench was almost paralyzing all by itself.
Crawling through the waste pipes of the mothership was just about the most difficult thing Martina Maciel had ever done in her life. First, there was the diameter – exactly 50 cm. Her shoulders and hips were squinched to the point of vicious soreness. Martina wasn’t someone you typically accuse of poor planning. After learning about the Trojan Horse scheme, Martina got Chee to give up all he had on the ship’s layout. Through this, Martina learned all about the waste pipes, to the point of having one built. She had practiced squeezing herself through it. It was claustrophobic, all right, a feeling she felt despite having prepared for it.
But she hadn’t really prepared herself for the waste. She hated piss and shit, but she had changed diapers for two kids – it wasn’t that unfamiliar. Even old food wasn’t all that bad. The worst was other people’s vomit. Twice she came upon a particularly rancid patch of it – and twice she added to her problems with her own puke. Twice she pushed through it, as it caked her clothes and perhaps made her marginally more slippery and able to escape it. My God, my God.
Part of Martina wished that her hands were in front of her face, just to push away some of the worst of the slime. But she needed them at her side because her legs were useless, other than the holster that held her bo. Something had to move her through the wángbā tubes.
Martina tapped her fingers together, activating her ring’s holo, which popped up in front of her face. She felt like she’d been in this sewer for hours; it had been about 25 minutes. She knew she had hours to go.
Martina checked the map. She would have loved to have activated a live GPS that would have told her “you are here.” However, such a beacon would also serve to tell the A.A., “Hey, she is here.” Martina had to leave her ring on stealth mode until just the right moment – if that ever came. Anyway, she was pretty sure she knew where she was. The pipes had little bolted rings of attachment exactly every two meters, and Martina had been counting the rings. 87 rings meant she had “crawled” – really, squeezed – 174 meters. Well, only another 1800 meters to go. Jībā enormous mothership.
Whatever else happened, Martina couldn’t afford to make a wrong turn. That could send her hours in the wrong direction. She might not have the strength to go back. Heck, she might die right here, of exhaustion. The claustrophobia wasn’t helping. Her training had a simple way of overcoming that: exposure. Put soldiers in coffins for hours on end, and get them used to it. Did it really work? Martina hoped so. She’d endured it just as she’d later forced others to endure it. Others including her sister.
What was Julia doing right this minute? Martina asked herself. It was one thing to have a sister that always let you down. But Julia was so righteous about it, as though her little pacifist views were obvious, and Martina just hadn’t been enlightened yet.
Jībā. Okay, here was a right turn. Martina checked the map again. Yes, certainly a right turn. No doubt about it.
Oh, God, Martina felt so good just to bend her body for a second. She wanted to just linger here at this intersection in a 90-degree pose.
No, had to press on. Had to. It had been 112 rings to the turn. Should she start a fresh count, or keep the tally where it was? If she started fresh, she’d forget 112 eventually, wonder if it was really 121 or something. Okay, the next one was the 113th ring. Go.
Ultimately, Martina’s sister didn’t matter. Martina’s mother didn’t matter. Martina’s mother’s plan didn’t matter. At best, their little plan would allow Rhodes to escape with his life. And that just wasn’t acceptable.
Martina never went into a mission thinking that she would be killed, but she had to admit that the odds in this case weren’t great. She still didn’t know how she, or anyone, would explain this to Peoria and Drigo.
More shit hit Martina’s face. And that’s when it literally hit Martina – these men like Caesar and Genghis Khan and Napoleon – when we put them on pedestals, they have little choice but to shit on the rest of us. That’s what history is. A bunch of shit. It doesn’t stink when we learn it, but it should. When the teachers walk you through the video re-enactments, they should open the bathrooms and let the smell waft over us.
Would Peoria understand that?
Like a lot of people in her generation, Martina had listened to her grandparents talk about how Mars was supposed to be different, a second chance for humanity where we would get it right, but that we’d failed. Martina thought a lot of that was bunk. You couldn’t stop people from being territorial or greedy. Samir Samoset was naïve. War or almost-war was inevitable, whether the planet was named after Mars or Pluto.
Having said that, the bad guys didn’t always have to win. Norine proved that; she was one of the good guys. Martina’s mother represented a kind of leadership that maybe wasn’t new to humanity, but wasn’t exactly celebrated in a lot of history books either. It was a leadership that allowed for corporations and a government to thrive, but also respected the will of people. And it was slipping away. And then the lesson would become that tyranny always wins. And Rhodes would join these other charismatic shitters from history’s long pantheon of shit.
Not if Martina could help it, he wouldn’t. Someday Peoria would understand, if she was truly her mother’s daughter.
The minutes stretched into hours. Martina remained sane through keeping her tally. All that mattered was the tally. Another hundred. Then another hundred. Then another. Martina was tired, so tired. She wanted to collapse. But collapse meant death. And that wouldn’t exactly be the right lesson for Peoria or Drigo.
But Martina had to take breaks. The feeling at the base of her spine was like the pain of an icepick under a fingernail. When she rested, she turned over and positioned her mouth under one of the pipe tributaries that fed into her main pipeline. There she could breathe, at least a little, although the pressurization of the pipes would sometimes throw feces and urine into her face with the force of slingshots.
Why hadn’t she taken those dumb drugs? So she wouldn’t fall asleep. But now she just needed to rest her eyes. Just for a second…
Dreams came into her mind unbidden, like birds flying away from a gun noise. Flashes of Peo, Drigo, John, laughing, crying…
Wake up, Maciel. Wángbā.
She had to keep moving. How many minutes had she been asleep? How many hours?
Martina passed 900 rings. She could feel her back pain ease for a moment. Another 73 and she’d be there. She could now count by 20s.
At 916 she caught another putrid wave of sewage, reeking with smells of oil and charred animal flesh. She would have vomited, but her own stomach was empty now. She could taste odd chemicals in this one. Clearly this sort of passage wasn’t conducive to her health. But then, Martina wasn’t planning to live all that much longer.
Would Peoria understand? Martina had to stop thinking that thought. It was keeping her from her goal.
940 rings. Only 33 more. The last 10%. People always thought that the Ten-Percenters were the elite 10% of the Mars United Army; when they found out that the number was far smaller, they would accuse M.U. of getting its numbers wrong. But the numbers weren’t wrong.
The Ten-Percenters were named that because the last 10% of anything is the hardest. Anyone can do 90% of anything. But people get tired, they have other obligations, they look at 90% and decide it’s probably enough. Losers. Winners know it’s not enough. That’s what makes a Ten-Percenter – a person who pushes on until the job is done. For the first time in her life, Martina was really feeling it. The pain, the sacrifice, the effort.
Rhodes can take my legs, Martina thought, but he can’t make me a loser. Not without my taking him down with me.
960 rings. 13 more. Careful now. Don’t miscount at the end. A miscount will mean this was all for nothing.
Every part of Martina’s body was screaming in agony, especially her lower back, her overused hands, her squinched shoulders and hips. She had heard stories about flaying; she doubted that could feel any worse than this. She wanted to cry out for help from someone, anyone.
There was no one. Only her. In the belly of the beast.
- 972. 973. She had counted true. She was directly under a large tributary, the only one in the last five rings. This had to be it. She lay on her back, breathing hard for a few moments. She had almost grown inured to the smell of feces and vomit and chemical sludge, but somehow, arriving here brought it all back. She smelled herself: like something that had been bathing in a toxic waste dump.
Now, Martina would use her new ring’s tiny little laser one more time. The laser was wángbā as a weapon and depleted way too much of her ring’s power, but it would be enough – had to be enough. She had to be particularly careful. Martina would have loved to simply ascend the tributary, but it was far too narrow. She would have loved to widen it, but that was likewise impossible. If she tried, the metal would just come crashing down on her.
The day Chee gave up the mothership plans, Martina had realized what this phase would entail. She would have to slice out a space above her, next to the tributary. There, she would crawl into the wiry space between the plumbing and the bathroom above. In a house, such a space might well have been filled with concrete, but not on a ship like this that needed to be as light as possible.
Martina pushed her arm in front of her, putting her hand about 10 cm past the tributary. Her hand was shaking like a leaf; she had to adjust for that. She cut the pipe’s shell carefully, carefully, with her ring laser. If she cut too deep, she could cut one of the wires on the other side. She cut the outline once. The plate didn’t fall. She cut again. Still didn’t fall. That’s okay, she thought. Better to keep doing it by millimeters. Then, her laser punched through the pipe to the other side. In the glow of the light she could see wires and cables on the other side. Compared to how she’d lived over the last few hours, it seemed like another world.
She held her hand with her other hand. Careful, careful, now. Final 10%. She knew the plate was ready to fall. She made sure that it swung on a “hinge” that was on the far side, away from her. As it swung on its hinge, the whole thing came down. CLANG.
She hoped that hadn’t been heard. It was a big ship, full of odd clanging noises, right?
With effort, Martina hoisted herself into the wiry interior. Good thing there were no sparks from any of the cables…nice and modern. The maintenance corridor was about two meters high – designed so that people could come in here if needed. Martina had to reach the spot where the tributary pipe met the ceiling. If Martina had her legs, that wouldn’t be an issue, but as it was, she had to scale the wires and cables. She did, using her legs for the first time in months – as grappling hooks. She was careful not to put too much weight on them as she worked her way up through the spaghetti. They served as balance when she found a good spot, lingering just below the ceiling.
She could hear muffled voices. Were they in the bathroom, or near it? Two people wouldn’t be talking in a bathroom. So they were near it. If she revealed herself too soon, hours of crawling through shit would be for nothing.
The tributary pipe widened as it met the ceiling. Around it, the metal casing was held in by screw-bolts. Martina smiled. She wouldn’t need her laser. The ship had been designed so that the toilet could be removed and cleaned if need be. Made sense.
Martina gingerly unscrewed one bolt, opening a centimeter-wide hole into the bathroom itself. The muffled voices became slightly less muffled, but she still couldn’t understand them, other than to confirm that they were speaking Mandarin. She peered through the tiny hole. No one was in the bathroom right that moment. She considered waiting until someone had come and gone. On the other hand, that’s the sort of thing that sent more people to the bathroom. No, she would just have to work very, very efficiently from now on. She took a deep breath.
Martina methodically unscrewed the rest of screw-bolts. Now the toilet was propped up by nothing but the tributary pipe itself. No one had yet entered the bathroom, but that could change in a heartbeat.
Martina looked at the cables upon which her legs were resting. How odd that her legs were like a chair themselves, so close yet so inanimate. Anyway, the cables seemed firm enough. She took a chance and put her laser ring to the tributary pipe. The laser ring cut through it like butter. Suddenly the whole unit fell on to the cables. She managed to hold it in position, like balancing a safe on a coffee table. She heard a cable snap. Pìhuà. She tried to lower the toilet unit to the floor of the chamber carefully, but wound up falling right along with it. She and the toilet unit landed with a couple of thumps.
Martina wondered if anyone noticed. Hopefully, they were all too busy fighting a war. Of course, if they walked into the bathroom now, they might wonder why there was a big hole where the toilet had just been.
Martina looked down the electrical chamber and saw slight sparks about three meters from her. The toilet unit had severed connections when it fell. These cables would be connected to the computer system, and someone would learn that this one had broken. With any luck, the A.A. wouldn’t be able to spare anyone to fix it just now. But they would see a blinking dot on their monitors. Martina was running out of time.
Martina had to quickly climb up the cables again, which she did. She had more trouble settling her weight. Screw the settling, all she had to do was grab the rim of the bathroom’s open hole from beneath – and she did. With one hand, Martina hoisted herself into the toilet-less bathroom.
My God, Martina thought, I made it. I’m here. She pushed herself next to the door, on the side away from its hinges. She slid the manual bolt closed. Ah, now the “occupied” light would hopefully shoo away intruders. Despite that, Martina withdrew her bo and unsheathed its knife. If someone opened the door this second, she’d kill him and hopefully one or two more before she was killed.
However, that was hardly her desired outcome. She wanted Rhodes. And she would only get one chance. She listened at the door.
Martina heard voices chattering in Mandarin. Her Mandarin was better when she could see people’s expressions. She perhaps understood two words out of every three.
Well, what did Martina expect? She was the one who’d planned to sneak into the bathroom of the ship’s control room. There had to be at least 20 people on the other side of the door, just as there were now in the M.U. war room under the White House. What now? Open the door and hope no one noticed? Ridiculous. Charge out, bo blazing, and hope to get lucky? The truth was that her cockamamie plan had always relied upon low-percentage final-stage outcomes.
Someone banged on the door. Martina grunted in a male-like fashion – most of the A.A.’s generals were, of course, male. The someone seemed to walk away.
Martina opened her holo to check her map of the control room. There were two unisex bathrooms, each off to the side; probably Rhodes was sitting somewhere near the room’s middle.
Martina’s ring was giving off a softly blinking yellow pulse on one side. Somehow, after hours in the muck and mire, Martina forgot what that meant. She clicked the yellow and a holo appeared in front of her face.
Oh, right, an unfinished message to her kids. It said “Dear Peoria and Drigo, no matter what, I love you. Your mother, Martina.”
Martina’s eyes lingered on that. Was that really the best she could do? What if these really were the last words they ever read from her? Should she recapitulate her whole shit analogy?
She knew she didn’t have time for this, but she banged out some more text anyway. After “I love you” she typed “I realize this isn’t going to make sense, but your grandmother and I don’t always agree. And Rhodes not only killed your father. He tried to kill the dream of a peaceful, united Mars. As long as he lived, his example served to thwart that dream. And your mother couldn’t allow that. For your sake. For your sake.”
Martina felt tears streaming down her face. Shut up, she told herself, they’ll hear you. Oh God. God? Are you there? What should I do?
Martina looked at her holo screen. She went to “add recipients” and included “Mom.” She was very careful not to click “Send.” The second she did, her ring would light up like a forest fire on the A.A. radar, and they would shoot enough holes into this bathroom to make the door into Swiss cheese. “Oh, Mom,” Martina whispered to herself. Quiet, Martina, was her next thought. Oh, they’re jabbering, they can’t hear me…
“Quiet!” someone in the control room yelled in Mandarin. “I can’t hear Rhodes,” the same person continued. “Go ahead.” Martina remembered the voice as belonging to General Chan-Ocha.
“I said, what if this is a trap?” It was Rhodes in Mandarin. The hairs on Martina’s neck stood on end. Despite being covered in toxic sludge.
“If Aquinas tried anything, he’d be killing himself,” replied Chan-Ocha in the same language. “After all his years in exile, I’m sure he has excellent survival instincts.”
“I’m not,” replied Rhodes. “I’ve never trusted him.”
“Well, afterward, you can go ahead and kill him,” Chan-Ocha answered – if Martina was translating correctly. “Kill everyone in his snow globe if you want. But right now we need him.”
Martina was pretty sure she knew where Rhodes was now. All she had to do was open the door, crawl about five meters, and kill him. Yeah, right, no problem.
When she came out of the bathroom, their guns would be trained to aim at about head and chest-level. She had been training herself for months to scamper like a gorilla. If her arm strength held out, if they were initially confused…she might get as far as halfway to Rhodes before taking bullets. The trick was not to let the shots bother her. The trick was to keep going, even full of bullet holes, all the way to Rhodes. And slice his throat ear to ear with her wángbā dying breath.
She heard Chan-Ocha say, “We’re about to pass the point of no return. Are we agreed, then, Rhodes?” Rhodes didn’t say anything, but Martina assumed he’d nodded when Chan-Ocha said “Do it!” presumably to someone else.
The point of no return, Martina thought. If they were passing it, that meant that Martina had to as well. Oh, God, Martina thought. God, life, I’ve loved you…
She thought, I can’t do it. Not to Peoria and Drigo. I can’t.