Right, my bo, Julia thought, hearing her sister on her headset’s com. Of course it was obvious, but obvious doesn’t always present itself when you’re about seven seconds from landing splat on a concrete street.

With trained efficiency, Julia pulled her bo off her leg and pushed the button that extended the stick to its full length: two meters, enough to see the entire Applokia logo on its side. As it extended, Julia used the last of the momentum from her chute’s destruction to push her falling body toward two nearby buildings that – of the ones she could see – were nearest to each other. She placed her bo forward to bounce its tip off one building’s façade.

The bo landing on the Dupowme-made window had to hit the Mars-fine-plastic-glass just right; too much and she’d just crash into the window (whether it broke or not), too little and the building wouldn’t slow her at all. Boing; she bounced. The bo had absorbed just enough of her impact to slow her and allow her to bounce to the building across the street – where she now had to pull the same trick again. Boing; she did it again. Obviously this would be rather unlikely to work in Earth g, nor in Mars g had she not begun from a floating chute. Boing. Third time worked as well.

Julia knew she was going to get exactly one more bounce before she hit the street. Had to make it count: Boinnnng. Owwwww! Julia could feel that last one up her arms and into her molars. But the bounce gave her just enough counter-lift; she fell in an almost 45-degree diagonal line to the street and even used her bo to break part of her fall. She landed hard on the pavement with a dull thud. She’d be sore for days, but she could already tell nothing was broken. She laid still for a moment…then staggered to her feet.

“Wooooooooo!” the M.U. squadron erupted in cheers. “Julia! Julia! Julia!” they catcalled. Julia automatically looked around for her two gunners. One was floating to a nearby soft landing; the other was obscured by skyscrapers, out of sight.

“Julia,” Martina’s voice came over her com. “Can you hear me?”

“Y-yeah,” Julia replied, realizing she could barely take in breath.

“That was unbelievable. You are better than me.”

“Someone…check the…temperature in hell.” Julia heard some laughs on the com as she took another breath. “Martina, you…the pinball suggestion. You saved my life.”

“Hey ladies,” Al-Basani interrupted. “This thing isn’t over. Actually, it just began.”

Julia looked around to see herself surrounded by many of the milling civilians she’d noticed as she flew into town. These weren’t Binto office workers on a break; these were people with crude pistols, prepared for a fight. Half of them had miner’s bodies, like Kenyatta; they were the working class. This was why Julia hadn’t wanted to fly into Binto City; she absolutely did not want to hurt anyone. She was running out of options, however…

“Listen to me!” called out Julia as the circle of people tightened around her. “We don’t have to do this. I empathize with many of your concerns. Perhaps if we dialogue…”

An explosion rang out from high above. Julia swung her head to see one of M.U.’s planes destroying the top two floors of a government building about a block away. Dupowme debris fell to the street roughly 150 meters away from the crowd. Over the com, Julia heard her sister arguing with Chee, who barked something to the effect that they can’t interrupt the operation just because they’ve got three soldiers down.

In the crowd around Julia, eyes narrowed. A few people pointed guns at her and fired. Julia swung her bo in a controlled spin while pivoting on one foot like a ballerina. The bullets came very near to her, but their trajectories bent in arcs as they got close. Instead, the bullets hit other members of the crowd.

Even as the shots rang out, some in the crowd shouted “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” The shouters were vindicated when civilians cried out in pain.

One of the men wielding a gun said, “What the hell just happened?”

“She’s got one of the newer sticks, haven’t you heard?” said another man in the crowd. “It gives off some magnetic something that deflects the metal in bullets.”

“How about we just old-fashioned strangle her?” said yet another.

Julia swung her stick again, knocking out two Bintons. She planted the bo firmly on the ground and held it to swing her own body around it, knocking down two more. As she landed, another man rushed at her like a piledriver, faster than any man could run in an Earth-g sim. But Julia could use .38g as well: she planted her feet, took his weight as threw herself onto her back, and tossed him behind her and a little to the left, where he hit another charging man, knocking them both cold. Julia could hear M.U. planes raining down destruction on nearby buildings. “People, please,” said Julia. “I want to protect you, I swear.”

“Wait, wait!” said a green-haired woman in the crowd. For a fleeting moment Julia hoped this woman might be ready for a truce. Then the woman said, “Open up the circle and pelt her! Stone her to death!”

The Bintons threw knives, rocks, pipes, 2x4s, and other blunt objects at Julia. Using every move she knew, every instinct she had, Julia managed to dodge all of the blades and most of the objects – for six or seven seconds.

“Hey, stop!” someone yelled. “You’re hitting me!” Just as in sims, an individual could make a crowd suffer.

“Me too!” someone else said. The projectiles ceased for a breathless moment.

Julia knew what was coming. She held her stick in the air, spread her legs like a cat burglar, and braced herself.

“She can’t take us all!” a man yelled. “Rush her!”

As they advanced, Julia swung her bo and knocked cold the first three, at which point the rest of the dogpile pinned her down. Oof. That hurt. Ouch. Another blow hurt even more.

Oh God, the one sim Julia had always refused to do. Since she could remember, she had a terrible fear of men piling up on her, hitting, kicking, poking, pinning her down…in training, Julia dubbed it the “nightmare sim.” Martina had said that’s why Julia had to do it, that she’d never become a Ten-Percenter. Julia didn’t care. But now, this was no sim…

Julia felt the man just on top of her switch from weighty to dead weight. Had one of his fellow Bintons accidentally killed him? She instinctively rolled out from under him, only to see the bloody end of a spear-bo striking a nearby, different man in his neck.

From the way the spear-bo moved, Julia knew who was holding it: Martina, who pulled her out of the pile and tossed her about four or five meters away, not an especially difficult thing in Mars g. As Julia caught her breath, she watched Martina combine spear-bo swinging and relentlessly honed martial arts skills to lay waste to the rest of the dogpile. “Martina!” Julia called out. “Retract your spear! Non-lethal, remember!”

“You know they’re shooting at us, right?” Martina asked. Martina did sheathe the spear point back into her bo, but only so that she could use it to fight more effectively.

“Martina! Julia!” said a familiar voice. “We have to get out of here.” Julia looked: it was Nicole Giguere, one of her two gunners, approaching from a side alley, using her stick to ward off gunshots.

“Giguere, good to see you,” said Martina, finishing off two attackers with her roundhouse kicks. “Where’s Bustamante?”

“He made it to the ground, but…well, he didn’t make it,” Giguere said, her voice catching. “Girls, we can’t stay here.”

A new throng of pedestrians turned a corner and approached; there had to be dozens of them wielding guns, knifes, swords, torches and debris

“I don’t run away,” Martina snarled.

“Not up to you,” said Giguere sharply. “Orders from Chee. I have our new coordinates. Follow me, come on!” Giguere ran back down the alley through which she’d come.

Julia ran after Giguere and looked back at her hesitating sister. “Hey Martina, you’re gonna follow orders.” Martina pursed her lips and followed.

As the three women emerged on the other side of the alley, they heard an ear-splitting kaboom.! M.U. planes brought down the tops of the two buildings that they had just run between. Half of the buildings collapsed onto their pursuers…just barely giving Giguere and the Maciels time to use the 3/8ths g to leap from the scattering debris.

Giguere looked back with relief and said “Yeah!” She and Martina shared a high-five. Julia was stunned. She saw body parts bleeding over the dusty rubble. Never in her 21 E-years had she seen this many people hurt, maimed, killed. Tears welled up in Julia’s eyes. What happened to non-lethal?

“We have a ways to go,” Giguere said, standing. “And more of them are coming.”

“Come on, Jules,” Martina picked up her sister. “I didn’t chute down here to watch you cry at Bintons.”

“They’re people, Martina,” Julia pushed her sister’s hand off of her. “Like you and me!”

“What now?” Martina asked Giguere.

“I’m not sure,” Giguere replied. “I swear this was where Chee said to meet.”

“I see what he meant.” Martina’s eyes tilted up and narrowed. “We have to climb these buildings.”

Julia understood Chee’s rationale. Here were two buildings close enough – about three meters apart – that the three of them could climb them, but the mob likely couldn’t, not knowing parkour or having bos. Every Dupowme building – maybe every building on both worlds – has divots, places where you can put your foot or your stick, at least every floor, which means every three meters or so.

“They’re here!” said a random male voice from around the corner.

“You guys go ahead,” commanded Martina. “I’ll cover you.”

Julia and Giguere began parkouring. Julia used her foot, sometimes her stick, to push herself to the next divot on the other side, then back again, zigzagging her way up the sides of both buildings. The two of them scaled the ten floors. About halfway up, Giguere had a scary slip, but caught herself with her bo on one building’s divot and a foot on the other’s. Just enough room. Julia helped her continue to the top.

What a view, Julia reflected. They were in the heart of Valles Marineris, with distant canyon walls as high as Mt. Everest. Much closer and all around them, neo-classical buildings, built with traditional Doric columns, lay in shambles, reduced to the state of the modern Parthenon in Athens. Unlike the Parthenon, these buildings were still smoking. Julia could hear distant screams of the wounded, and they hurt her like tiny knives stuck in her fingernails.

The Mars United planes were mostly gone from the center of Binto City. They had Sent their Abhorrent Message, Julia thought. She could still see the squadron, but they hovered far off in the distance.

That’s when Julia looked down and saw that Martina was not only parkouring, but carrying a man? Another thing you couldn’t do on an Earth-set sim; only possible in Mars g. Martina arrived on the roof and immediately began to dangle this thin red-headed man off of it.

“Where’s Rhodes?” she growled.

“I…I don’t know…” said the red-headed man nervously, looking back at the ten-story drop.

“Don’t even tell me that you were just some kind of spontaneous flash mob,” said Martina. “You were inciting that crowd on orders, now where is he?”

“I…swear…I don’t know…” he spluttered.

“Chee?” Giguere called on her com nervously.

“Martina, stop it!” said Julia. “This isn’t necessary!”

“Step away, little sister.”

“No, this is torture. Stop it!”

“I just want…” said the red-headed man, “a better…life for my kids.”

“Right,” replied Martina, “By turning the rest of us into slaves. Now where is Rhodes?”

“I swear, I don’t know!”

Giguere was still calling for Chee, without success.

“Martina!” yelled Julia. “Stop it! This isn’t a sim! You could kill him!”

“This is war, little sister!”

“Which we promised to fight humanely.”

“I’ll show you humane,” said Martina, and let the red-headed man go. He fell ten stories and crunched at the bottom.

“Martina!” Julia felt her whole body go cold. After Echus Chasma, Julia hoped she’d shamed her sister into never killing again – at least not directly in front of her. She wanted to vomit.

No. That’s not what she wanted. She wanted to make her sister pay.

Julia swung her bo to strike Martina, who parried it at the last minute. “How many more people are you going to kill in cold blood, Martina?”

“As many as it takes, for Mars United.”

Chee?!” Giguere shouted. “Are any of those planes going to fire on us?”

“That’s why you’re on that building.” Chee replied. “Those are the twin towers of BankBank in Binto. Their elevators are closed, per our request. They’ve been loyal to New Jerusalem.”

“So,” Julia asked her sister, “If everyone dies, you win?”

“Some things are worth fighting for, little sister.” They circled each other, bos drawn. “Don’t do this, Jules. I will make you regret this.”

Julia was vaguely aware that Giguere wanted to use Chee to stop them, but she couldn’t afford to take her narrowed eyes off her sister for a split-second.

“Chee?” asked Giguere. “Is anyone going to pick us up here?”

“Working on it,” said Chee. “Can you stay safe for three minutes?”

“That is very much in question.” Giguere seemed to move erratically, not that Julia had much time to notice. “Ladies, uh…” put in Giguere.

“Shut up, Giguere!” said both the sisters at once.

“Uh, I’m just thinking you might want to see this…”

Julia was circling her sister, preparing to attack, when she happened to be close enough to the side to see what Giguere saw…a swarm of ninja-like soldiers climbing up the side much as the three of them just had. All of them were bearing bos.

Oh wángbā, thought Julia.

“This is good,” said Martina, also peering down. “We knew the real soldiers would show up at some point. Better us than anyone else. We can knock them all right off this jībā building.”

Why was Martina always so pìhuà bloodthirsty? Julia wondered. She behaved this way long before John was killed, even during the lowest-setting sims exercises.

Julia also wondered at her body, which didn’t even feel sore. Real adrenaline beat the jībā out of Pharealth-brand adrenazine.

“Let’s get near the corner,” said Martina. The opposing platoon was seconds away. “When they get here, we all jump the three meters to the other building. Then when they try to follow, we swat them down to the street.” Her sister was smart, Julia thought…

…but this platoon was just as smart. About thirty Melas soldiers came over the precipice; about ten more alighted on the other building, positioning themselves just at the edge. Everyone held their sticks at the ready.

“Uh,” Martina whispered, “Never mind what I just said.”

“Yeah,” Julia said dryly. “We figured.”

The Melas soldiers stepped gingerly around the roof, making a half-circle around Giguere and the Maciels – with the empty half being one of the three sides of the roof not near the BankBank building’s twin.

Julia thought, great. These separatists know what they’re doing.

“Well, well, well,” said the group’s apparent leader, a lithe, sinewy, East-Asian-featured woman. “I’ve got both the Prime Minister’s little kids here. Too bad I’ve never been much of a babysitter.”

“You better hurry up and take your shot,” said Martina. “Or M.U. will blow up this roof with all of us on it.”

“I highly doubt that, Princess Maciel.”

“I’ve been hearing that jībā all my life,” Martina snorted. “But you’re the one fighting for royalty.”

“No, Princess, we’re fighting for justice. Ask your sister.”

On sister, she lunged and almost caught Martina off-guard. They got caught in a sudden one-on-one battle of bojutsu, their sticks striking off each other’s so fast as to look like dueling helicopter blades.

Julia swallowed hard. This woman was as good as Martina – and there were forty of her. The other soldiers advanced, separating Giguere and Julia from Martina, and from each other, quicker than a hawk diving for a mouse.

Giguere began to fight, but she didn’t have the bo skills to fend off a dozen. Within a matter of seconds (jībā!), Julia heard Giguere knocked off the building.

Nicole Giguere screamed all the way down. Julia heard a sickening crunch and a more sickening cheer from the crowd below.

Julia well knew that if she were to spend even another half-second thinking about that, she’d be joining Giguere. Well, why not? Was her own life really worth even two of theirs? But some incomprehensible self-preservation instinct caused her to parry a couple of thrusts, step on a couple of faces, and lift herself above three other charging Bintons. She sprung off of them and landed in the middle of the roof.

Julia tried the “carousel,” where one sticks a bo vertically, holds its top, and swings in a circle, using one’s feet and opponents’ faces to keep aloft…but they caught on quick, grabbed her leg, and began pummeling her.

Julia got hit again and again. Her arm might have been broken by one stick. She compartmentalized the pain as in training, shutting it up in a room in her house. Julia heard what she thought was her own voice screaming in agony, only to realize that that was Martina.

Julia swung her bo in a wide, whirling sweep, like a cheerleader’s baton, just to clear out some space. The Bintons knew that move; they kept their heads low and sticks ready for her stick’s whirl to slow. What they didn’t seem to expect was for her to suddenly stop her bo and stick it on the floor like a pole vaulter; for her to pole vault over them (thank you, Mars g); for her to land on the base of the spine of the woman leading the fight against Martina.

Whoever this leader was, this wasn’t exactly her first time in a fight. Julia’s leg struck the woman’s back, and even as that made her fall, the woman grabbed Julia’s calf and spun her around so that Julia actually hit the roof before she did. Wow.

Julia looked over at Martina, both of them panting, lying on the roof. Martina’s face looked like it had been pushed into a fisherman’s tacklebox. She was bleeding from more parts of her body than there were names for.

“Thanks…for…help,” Martina said, not lifting her head. “But…I…got…her.”

“No, you don’t,” answered Julia. Julia knocked back a couple of Bintons with her bo, stood, lifted Martina, and threw her off of the building. Another move one couldn’t do in an Earth sim.

Julia took a couple of expected hits, and then actually used the momentum from a third one, assisted by another pole vault, to throw herself off of the building as well.

The sisters were back in the three-meter crevasse between the two BankBank buildings. Martina had managed to stop herself about three floors down. Julia saw this and bounced herself down with some pinball stick use.

“Thanks, Jules,” Martina said. “But…you know I don’t retreat.” Already, some of the ruthless Melas brigade was on its way down.

“This isn’t a retreat,” Julia answered flatly. “This is a lure. Our reinforcements are below.”

Martina smiled with a Why didnt you say so? expression. Julia pushed her sister gently off of her perch and followed her down the two walls.

They landed on the street about five seconds ahead of the approaching Bintons. Martina said, “Where are they?”

“Come on!” said Julia. “This way!”

The working-class “bystanders” returned, but they seemed like chump change after that pack of trained assassins. Julia and Martina took a couple of rocks to the torso, and kept running. There weren’t any reinforcements that Julia knew about. But that lie was the only way to save her sister’s life. Maybe now that Chee had heard it on the com, he would make it come true. For about two blocks, the sisters ran up and down piles of debris that were taller than them.

Julia slipped on something and fell. Martina stopped to help her up. As it turned out, Julia had slipped on a bleeding face of a dead man.

“Oh my God.” Julia turned to look at him; he looked so young. “Oh wángbā! No, God, no!” She began to tear up.

“Oh, get over it,” said Martina. “I don’t want to see Echus Chasma all over again.”

“Shut up, big sister,” said Julia. Until today, she felt that Martina’s coldness made her a better warrior. For the first time, Julia realized she, Julia, was just as good as her sister, without being so rapacious.

“Julia!” yelled Martina. “Where are the reinforcements?”

“I have no idea!”

“You never did, did you?”

Julia looked around the whole debris area – blood everywhere. The jībā message had been sent, all right. Just the way Martina liked it. But it didn’t have to be that way, Julia was more convinced than ever.

More Bintons were coming – the trained soldiers. Julia saw them coming on two fronts. Julia knew she couldn’t fight anymore, and besides, why did she deserve to live over all these other people? She threw down her stick.

“What the wángbā are you doing?” Martina picked up her sister’s bo and thrust it into her face. “Everyone dies. But years later, they only talk about the ones that died for the right reasons.” Julia looked crossly at Martina. “Death is inevitable. Glory is not.”

Julia took the stick reluctantly, braced herself for death…and then the cavalry really did arrive. Pouring into the streets came hundreds of M.U. warriors bearing their own sticks. It was a rout.

Martina began to chase after the Bintons. “Oh no you don’t.” Al-Basani stopped her. “You and your sister have done plenty. And you’re bleeding like carved tomatoes. You’re going to sick bay right now.”

“You don’t give me orders,” retorted Martina. “You need my help.”

“Someone thought you might say that,” answered Al-Basani. “Here.” Al-Basani thumbed her ring. A holo of Prime Minister Norine Maciel appeared, looming over all their heads at double-size.

“Martina and Julia Maciel,” the Prime Minister said, “As your commander-in-chief I order you to stand down. You’re in no condition to keep going, and right now your help would only hurt us. Well done soldiers, now we’ll take it from here.”

Julia wanted to collapse; instead she forced herself to take one more look at the dead bodies under the battle debris. Maybe some of those Earth priests were right. Maybe God wasn’t watching Mars.

 

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