(Previous chapter is here.)

Flying in formation with thousands of Mars United planes, Martina’s heart pounded like a Dupowme jackhammer. She’d seen such sights in simulations, but ain’t nothing like the real thing: 40,000 jets of the M.U. Army, 120,000 total soldiers. Every plane contained one pilot and two gunners. Each gunner was responsible for one side of the plane. Of course, the pilot could also take shots when she saw fit. They were a swarm of the nastiest insects on two planets, coming to trash the crops. Martina smiled as they flew westward, their sheer numbers almost blocking the pre-dawn light.

And what light! No simulation could properly capture the purplish sky and burnt-sienna twilight before a Mars sunrise; the ochre hues were all the more striking as they bounced off the red rocks below them. Martina and her comrades were flying through a part of Elysium that resembled what the planet looked like before humans showed up. In the violet pre-dawn, Martina was proud of how the valley differed from anywhere on Earth, with Mars’ endless succession of boulders and craters, the latter often too big to see in their entirety. This was her planet, her home. And these separatists were not allowed to take it from her, much less from everyone else.

Martina looked over at the plane just to her right, and saw her sister sitting stone-faced in the pilot’s seat. About what she expected. Martina believed that the Army was Mars United in a way nothing else was, not even New Jerusalem. The Army was the only federal institution with any teeth; the Big 12 hadn’t allowed anything else. Amazing how much power resides with who has the guns. The early scientists had mostly resisted the idea of turning Phobos into a weapons platform. What an irony! Phobos became the only thing preventing the Big 12 taking over the planet. Someone had to control the moon of nukes; someone had to speak for the planet outside the Big 12’s interests. Well, the truth was that the Prime Minister position did exactly serve their interests; the civil war of 2133 had been very bad for business.

Historically, Big 12 corps got cheap upvotes by demanding that the Army be disbanded, claiming that it wasn’t necessary anymore in a time of peace. The rural powers, like Dupowme, McPepsanto, and Binto, despised the army until they needed it, say, after a devastating dust storm. Martina knew they would never admit that peace had usually held during her adulthood because of the Army, because of the federal government, probably because a majority of Big 12 Senators spent most of their time in New Jerusalem. Instead, the rurals demanded military help for regional police, a devil’s bargain that the Senate should never have made. Julia once suggested that the rurals were fomenting crime in parts of Binto City just to get more Army equipment delivered.

The light had improved on her sister’s impassive face since the last time Martina checked. Julia donned her tinted goggles.

Martina didn’t like her sister always whining about the corporate nature of their government. Who else was going to pay for all this? Martina hated that joke about Mars being renamed Pluto, for plutocracy. Within limits, Martina believed what Lazio said – corporations took better care of their people than governments. They had more incentive.

“Valles at one o’clock,” came Chee’s voice over the com. Leland Chee was Active Air Commander, a fellow pilot, and a Ten Percenter in good stead. He had never disappointed Martina, not once. Their jets were moving west-north-westward, and fast, but not as fast as the planet rotated. Light mattered; their assault had to coincide with blinding sun in the separatists’ eyes.

“Into Valles,” commanded Chee. The planes banked slightly, pointed down, and descended into Valles Marineris before straightening out to ride the great chasma. If Mars was a basketball, Valles was the black groove in the middle after someone had cut that groove six times deeper than usual. Or at least that’s how Martina thought of it, since Valles was often as deep as six km, almost 200 km across, and as long as the United States from coast to coast. It really said something that a fleet of 40,000 planes could fit comfortably within the canyon walls. For the first time with her own eyes, Martina saw that the canyon floor was now covered in water, finally fulfilling the founders’ longtime promises. The jets were basically riding the equator, and the North Ocean never did get this far, but the rain and irrigation pipes sure did.

Back when Mars had almost no atmospheric pressure, the relatively thick air in Valles made it everyone’s first choice for settlement. McPepsanto spread itself around all the arable land, Binto set up shop on cliffs near the best mining areas, and Applokia and Airboeck, whose materials came straight from Binto, headquartered themselves on either side of the tremendous canyon. But the too-fast terraforming had changed everything; the swampy Valles floor was becoming far less arable, and the increased humidity had reversed the situation for human miners – instead of the most breathable part of Mars, Valles had become the least hospitable. Of course, McPepsanto and Binto still had rights to almost any Mars land that could be used for farming or mining, respectively, but transplanting their operations was expensive and time-consuming. Easier to declare war, Martina thought grimly.

If the sky was indigo-brilliant before, now it had to compete with the walls of Valles Marineris, and Martina reflected again that sims really didn’t do the place justice. Sims could capture the brilliant colors of the walls, which were at that moment a sort of swirling orange-yellow, like Earth’s Petra, yet despite 3D tech improvements, the sims could not quite communicate the sheer magnitude of being surrounded on three sides by miles and miles of pure rock. If there was a referent from Earth-based sims, perhaps it resembled Yosemite, though that place was small beer compared to Valles.

Martina didn’t want to sweep through these kilometers-deep canyons, because it gave snipers an easy crack at them. However, Martina knew the protocol: they had to assert authority, draw fire, and make it clear that M.U. controlled all of the planet including all of Valles. Still, their little air show above the farmland was guaranteed to antagonize citizens of McPepsanto at a time when M.U. could least afford to lose their support.

As they approached Binto City, Martina’s heart pounded. She didn’t want to die. Didn’t want to make her kids into orphans. If her plane was hit she could chute out. But on the ground, Melas’s weapons would be lethal, and hers wouldn’t be.

For a moment, Martina flashed on John, training typical noobs who’d grown up winning VG sims. “This isn’t fifty years ago, rookies, when air battles were all drones. Jamming tech has became too good in the years since. Sure, you can reverse jam, but it’s a little hard to play at crossing signals when you’re trying to remote control your drone in their airspace.” Ah, Martina loved it when John…“Yes, I know you’re brilliant in your living room, but if we give you a plane you can fly that way, the enemy can take it over and fly it that way too.” Well, Martina had just loved John.

Trying to get used to that past tense. “Martina?”

The voice on the com belonged to her friend Sapolu, a Samoan-descended 300-pound monster with a heart the size of his bicep. Like Martina, he loved men. He had personally painted his entire plane pink, to make some kind of point that Martina didn’t really understand.

“Sapolu?” answered Martina. “What?”

“Were you daydreaming?”

“Did I wander?”

“No, your plane is fine. I’ve just been saying Martina for a while.”

Martina clenched her jaw. “Uh, well, I was waiting for you to say Maciel.”

“I can’t say that now with your sister here, can I?”

“Touché.” Martina looked over at the plane to her right. “Julia? How we doing?”

“Still just like sims,” Julia said tonelessly. Martina wondered which sims Julia meant. Specifically…

“Focus, people,” came Chee’s voice.

Another voice said, “You ever see that in a sim?” The voice belonged to a feisty pilot named Al-Basani, Martina’s unofficial sister-from-another-mister, who had more cojones than most of the male Ten-Percenters.

As the dawn light finally broke, way off on the horizon, they began to appear, just like in the satpics: piles and piles of broken drones, a sort of garbage-art caldera that meant they were closing in on the perimeter of Binto City. The drone phase of the war had lasted less than a day. Hundreds of flying robots had fought hundreds of other flying robots, leaving a twisted pile of broken metal which seemed near-pointless to Martina, except for the few Mars United bots that drew anti-aircraft fire.

“It’s about time,” came the voice of Goldberg, another pilot and Ten-Percenter. “I was getting a little tired of a landscape more barren than Chee’s sense of humor.”

“How dare you.” Al-Basani laughed. “Chee has a sense of humor. It’s his sixth sense, which no one can find.”

“People of Melas,” came Prime Minister Maciel’s voice over the com, ending the widespread chatter amongst all the pilots and gunners. Martina looked at the holo of her P.M. and mother.

“I am speaking to you just after dawn on L.S. 141,” Madam Prime Minister continued, using the language of the Aresian calendar. “Eighteen hours ago, Mars United drones came into conflict with drones re-programmed by separatists. The drone phase of the war is over. The human phase is about to begin.

“We did not ask for this war. We did not initiate violence. Yet we will never shirk our constitutional duty to defend Mars United as one democratic republic, governed by laws approved by all of us. Three unprovoked attacks is too many. You, me, all of us cannot go on like this in fear of random violence.

“Our soldiers’ mission in Melas is anything but random. I am speaking to you now in the hopes that despite our fleet of approaching warplanes, no civilian man, woman or child need suffer.” Martina guessed that Julia liked that line. Their mother continued, “Our only targets today are those we have been warning you about for quite some time, the ones held by separatists: the Binto capitol, its occupied federal and corporate buildings, and the Space Port. Please, I beg of you now, if you are in any of these locations: flee. Flee now. Run away. You have enough time to safely get away, but only if you leave now. I say it for the last time: run while you can.

“God bless you, and God bless Mars United.”

“Treating them like children may not be the best idea,” said Al-Basani as her plane passed the mangled, broken drones. “Look at what they do with their toys.”

“I’ve seen better looking junk at a garage sale,” chuckled Goldberg.

Sitting in the front of the pack, Martina could now see Binto City in the distance…when she heard shots?!?! She’d expected to draw fire, but from ahead of them; these shots seemed to come from behind her. What the jībā? Weren’t those drones dead? “What is happening?” she said to no one in particular.

“Canyon walls,” growled Sapolu. “Drones didn’t get them all.”

“Fire from 6 o’clock!” shouted Al-Basani. The stats popped up on all of their screens, but Al-Basani still said incredulously, “They’ve scragged 14 so far?!…”

Several planes slowed, even turned a 180°, to help their fallen. As a few braked, others followed…

“Attention everyone!” came Chee’s voice. “Do not turn around. Carry on forward.”

Most of them did as commanded, including Martina and the other Ten-Percenters.

“Martina?” asked Julia, falling into line with her sister. “Are we abandoning our soldiers?”

“Not exactly,” said Martina. “Binto remote-controls a few drones and managed to override a few of ours, and of those they’ve managed to point a few weapons the right way. But that won’t even knock out a twentieth of our forces.”

“Five percent?” muttered Julia. “That sounds like a lot.”

“Their real hope was to disrupt our invasion.” Martina said through her teeth. “And we’re going to show them they failed.”

“Why was this a surprise?” asked Julia.

No one answered. Al-Basani and Goldberg weren’t bantering. Martina knew she’d seen M.U. sensors report every remote weapon and drone dead on both sides. If Melas possessed tech good enough to hide that, who knew what else had arrived at their Space Port without M.U. knowledge…Martina refused to think about that. Instead, Martina wanted to humiliate the people who, per intel, cheered when John died.

“Incoming!” announced Sapolu.

A speck in the distance became a buzzing beehive that became scores, no, hundreds and hundreds of planes. They sounded like Mars United planes, but they were commandeered by Binto. If Martina’s plane’s computer was right, and she hoped it was, this was Binto’s fleet at full force.

“Operation Spear-Point, go!” Chee commanded. “Go, go, go!”

The Mars United fleet held its grid-like formation for about the next thirty seconds. After enough fire rained, a true melee began, airplanes bouncing around Valles Marineris like so many molecules in an atom.

When Martina’s gunners managed to shoot their first target out of the sky, she briefly watched as the plane’s pilot and gunners chuted to the ground. Her control panel showed it, but she still enjoyed a quick visual confirm.

Whoosh!! Two planes spun close to Martina, missing her by less than a wing’s length. Re-focus, Martina said to herself. Martina dodged fire from left and right by going up.

Bringing down planes was the goal. Keeping the fight out of Binto City was the goal.

A prodigious smash! Martina winced to see two of her fellow pilots faked into one of the canyon edifices. “People,” she barked, “We don’t need to be this close to the walls!” They were less than 20 km from the wide open chasma around Binto City, but even here Valles opened up to a width of several kilometers, far more than they needed.

And wángbā, Martina thought, the sunrise-blinding advantage had come and gone like an errant asteroid.

A Melas plane swerved toward Martina, but she swerved under it. Nice try, guys, she thought. Martina and the rest of the Ten-Percenters had probably trained half of the Melas rebels before they’d turned. She had no intention of letting the students instruct the teachers.

“Hey Liba!” called Goldberg on the com. “Wasn’t that Solano, with his spiked blue hair?”

Imsallah, that’s a bad look,” Al-Basani answered. “The harder you hit him, the nicer you’re being to him. He can only get better-looking.”

“Let’s see if those hair spikes wind up cutting his parachute cords,” Goldberg said sarcastically. “Martina, on your nine o’clock.”

Bam! Martina’s port-side gunner crippled a Melas wing.

Famously, the Ten-Percenters didn’t ordinarily use computers for navigation, targeting, or much of anything else. Martina saw it differently: the Ten-Percenters relied upon most other fighters to use computers. Despite well-documented problems with drones, in the heat of the moment most pilots and gunners preferred automatic guidance, partly because they were most accustomed to sims and VGs.

A monumental Sprooom! A jet came close enough for Martina to feel the heat of its engine on the glass of her window.

Cha-bang! Martina’s starboard gunner nailed an enemy poacher who was trying to knock off people outside the lines. Martina treated herself to a visual as the plane spun outside the perimeter and crashed into a high Valles outcropping.

Martina saw one frisky enemy and chased it. One problem was that the smarter Melas separatists knew how to use Mars’ gravity as well as anyone; they turned on a dime, flew sideways as long as needed, and turned death spirals into floating kamikazes. And they knew the terrain, which was all the more reason for M.U. to stay away from the distant walls.

Smash! Her target crashed into an M.U. jet like an albatross and a pelican colliding. Net gain: zilch.

Creeesh! A Melas plane took out an M.U.er who’d been hiding behind Martina. Wángbā, she told them not to do that. Their less experienced teammates were showing it. Martina wanted to say “See I told you it’s not like a sim or a VG didn’t I?” but this wasn’t exactly the moment.

Martina’s monitor highlighted her immediate engages, but her eye lingered on a pre-programmed yellow speck representing her kid sister. Whatever else happened, no way was Julia going to die. Turned out Julia was doing just fine, without any help from her sister…well, besides choosing the right gunners, Martina smiled to herself.

A horrific Boowaoomoom! A couple of clever Melas pilots just made two M.U. planes fly into each other. Wángbā! Their forces were doing way too well.

Martina ran interference for Al-Basani, who maneuvered three jets away from a cluster of circling planes so that Chee could pick them off like tin cans on a fence. Sapolu took a bad hit and had to chute to the ground; his fault for helping a couple of rookies out of a jam and maybe for having a pink jet.

Bam! Smash! Creesh! Cha-bang! “Chee,” called Martina on com. “The sky is clear enough. Just do it. Set the 2-on-1s now.”

“You’re right, Maciel.” After another minute of melee, Chee told the remaining pilots, “You have your 2-on-1s assigned on computer, now don’t deviate, do them quickly!”

One jet shoots, the enemy dodges, and an ally shoots where the enemy is dodging. Fundamental, and in this case it led to a few more M.U. casualties because it was so easy to read. Still, ultimately, if you had the numbers, it was unstoppable. After about a half hour that seemed like an eternity, Melas’s few stragglers scattered to the winds.

Martina took a deep breath. Without checking her control panel, she knew that this was only a victory because of proportion; she guessed that both sides lost about the same number of planes. M.U. started the day with about 40,000 planes, Melas about 12,000, and Martina’s dashboard confirmed her suspicion: M.U. now had around 30,000. It was a victory, yes, but not in the way they’d hoped. The Ten-Percenters should have done considerably better.

Sapolu was on the canyon floor with the other fallen warriors. Martina knew that the firefight on the ground was probably a tsunami of guns and bos, but she trusted Sapolu to survive it. He was better at that than anyone she knew. And anyway, Chee wouldn’t let her or other Ten-Percenters help him now.

“Operation ESP is a go,” Chee commanded. “Repeat, ESP is a go.”

That was all the soldiers needed to spring into action. The 30,000-odd jets set up formation and flew due northwest – for Operation Eliminate Space Port. Chee ordered certain pilots into the front lines. Formation was no longer based on rank, but instead on how much ammunition jets happened to have left. Chee had all the stats on his control panel. Martina and the rest of the Ten-Percenters were put in the middle of the pack, having just used healthy amounts of firepower. Then Martina sidled up a few rows.

“Julia?” Martina asked. “How you doing?”

Her sister answered, “Been better.”


“Just…a lot of people dying down there.”

“Are you kidding?” Al-Basani laughed. “That’s war.”

“That’s right, war sucks,” Julia replied, “So why fight it?”

“War, what is it good for?” Goldberg cracked. “Absolutely everything.”

“Say it again!” Al-Basani chimed in.

Martina knew her sister was a pacifist, but she had hoped that she would keep that to herself during a war. Still, she felt she could trust Julia…until things got really, truly out of control. Way before Echus Chasma, Julia had refused to do the highest levels on certain sims. Julia claimed that in real life, she’d “negotiate, not assassinate.”

Naïve sister.

The Space Port appeared the moment they flew over the lip of the canyon. Operation Eliminate Space Port proceeded much more according to plan. Melas had saved a few anti-aircraft missiles for them, but that was to be expected. A few in the front lines went down from a few rogue drones.

Goldberg cracked that they converted the Melas Space Port into Mars’ latest big-ass crater.

“See that, Julia?” asked Martina on com as their planes pulled away from the space port. “No civilian loss of life. Melas knew we were coming.”

“Yeah, they knew what they’d earned,” added Al-Basani.

“We should go home,” said Julia.

Martina felt a twinge of anxiety. “What are you talking about?”

“Well,” Julia asked, “New Jerusalem now has the only space port on Mars, right?”

“WOOOOOO!” Goldberg yelled.

“Melas can’t trade separately with Earth anymore.” Julia continued. “They’re done. It’s over.”

“Julia!” Martina was sick of this. “You think separatism and terrorism should go unpunished?”

“Humanism is the only ism, Martina.”

“Everyone, Operation S.A.M. is a go.” Chee commanded. “That’s an order.” The planes turned and flew back into Valles, on course for Binto City.

“Hey Julia,” Martina said, “You’re gonna follow orders.” Martina’s jet turned to fly with the others. After what seemed to Martina a rather long moment, Julia’s did as well.

The point of Operation S.A.M. was to “Send A Message” by destroying the government buildings at the center of Binto City. As their air squadron approached it, Martina saw that her mother’s order had worked almost too well. In the heart of the government district, hundreds, no, thousands of people stood out in the streets, as though responding to a fire drill.

Perhaps they just wanted to watch explosions instead of holo-scrolls.

Chee ordered the Ten-Percenters into the front lines. Martina knew why. This wasn’t like fighting an enemy air squadron or leveling a space port. This was a scenario that only a few of them had trained for, requiring surgically precise shooting and maneuvering as low as possible. Or not quite: Martina had trained her teammates to remain at least 100 meters from the closest building, just in case one of them had to suddenly dodge.

Martina suspected a gun from every window. How the wángbā was she supposed to keep her sister safe? “Julia, get up here next to me.”

Her sister began, “I’m not in the Ten…”

“Are you questioning your superior officer?” Martina interrupted.

Julia brought her jet up from the middle.

“Maciel, where are you?” Chee called. “We need you on point.”

“You’ve got me,” Martina answered. “Al-Basani, cover my left flank. Julia, you got my right.” Martina fearlessly charged forward and fired upon the capitol dome. Not surprisingly, a few cannons emerged from the ground, shooting at Martina and her allies. M.U. managed to knock out a few of them…

…and a Melas plane snuck between two buildings on Julia’s right and blew her plane right out of the sky.

Julia and her gunners were successfully and automatically ejected from the plane as it took its massive hit. As Martina swung around her own turret, the Melas soldier shot at Julia’s chute. Martina pulled her triggers and blew his plane out of the sky – and watched as its equipment saved its passengers, as Julia’s plane had saved hers.

“What the wángbā?”Al-Basani saw the whole thing from above just as she turned to try to help. “Who shoots a chute?”

Julia was now reaching terminal velocity from about 300 meters above the street. Even Mars g could only help so much.

All strategy vanished from Martina’s mind. (Did this soldier know who Julia was? Then why aim at the chute and not at her head? Had he aimed and missed? gone in a flash.) Martina screamed into her com: “Pinball fall, Julia, Pinball fall! Your bo, Jules, your bo!”