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2080_themartianaffair

The Martian Affair

A Jack of Harts Short Story By

MEDRON PRYDE

Copyright © 2020 by Medron Pryde

Smashwords Edition

Cover background designed by Stephen Huda under contract

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing, September 2020

http://jackofharts.com http://www.facebook.com/jackofhartsonline

The Martian Affair

Long fingers played over an acoustic guitar as Phobos orbited over a red Mars. It wasn’t much of a moon as NASA measured them, but it orbited Mars like a moon, and it was almost spherical. It didn’t generate any appreciable gravity, but Sergeant John Christensen figured it was good enough for his purposes.

It was good enough for the Chinese as well, who’d planted a flag three years ago and claimed the entire moon as their property. It was good enough for America to plant a flag one year ago. And it was good enough for Barsoom Mining to plant their operation on the little rock five years ago. The last he heard, the Russians were about ready to plant their own flag on the rock as well.

International laws were still trying to come to terms with the new space race, and Sergeant Christensen doubted they ever would. The Chinese and the Russians rarely agreed on anything with the Western Alliance, unless it was to agree to disagree. No, he did not believe there would ever be a true consensus on who owned Phobos. He also doubted that would stop anybody from planting new flags and facilities on the tiny moon because it was just too valuable a stopping point on the way down to Mars.

Which was why Sergeant Christensen played his guitar, watched the stars from the Western Alliance’s Phobos Habitat, and hoped something exciting would happen today.

For once.

He’d known it would be a boring post when he took it. Nobody wanted to actually fight way out here beyond the edge of civilization. Even the Chinese soldiers exchanged friendly greetings with him every time their patrols met. Which they did every day, precisely on the schedule they’d maintained since his first patrol on station. They even played weekly poker games over a space-gapped wired network the folks back home had no idea linked all three Phobos bases.

It was a regular international relations highlight he looked forward to all week long.

Christensen would kill for a little more excitement around here for once. Well, maybe not kill. But he’d certainly be happy to maim a few international regulations when it came to fraternizing out here. There was the new French girl that had arrived a couple months ago for one. And those girls over at China’s base were built with international relations in mind.

Sergeant Christensen’s thought process stopped cold and his eyes scampered around in search of whatever had interrupted his ruminations on Asian beauties. There it was. Wreckage. Expanding rapidly. His eyes flicked over to follow another object falling towards Mars far off the approved de-orbiting lanes.

Well. That wasn’t good.

Alarms began blaring and Christensen put his guitar to the side and activated his magnetic boots. They locked onto the floor with a slight hum and he rose to his feet with the gentle grace trained into all spaceborne United States Marines. It would never do to send oneself bouncing off the bulkheads with no gravity to stop you after all. With that warning very carefully in his mind, he zigzagged through the tubes and modules connecting Phobos Habitat’s observatory with the main control room.

“Commander Xander,” Christensen said as he stepped into Phobos Control. “What’s the news?”

Commander Constantine Xander turned to look at him with a scowl on his face. “You have entirely too much fun calling me that.”

“Guilty as charged,” Christensen returned without an ounce of regret.

Xander shook his head and turned back to the instrument panels. He waved a hand at one of them showing the Mars orbitals and a line streaking across them. “An unknown object entering Martian space bounced off a Chinese satellite.”

“Entering Martian space?” Christensen asked in an incredulous tone.

“Barsoom Mining called,” Xander added with a snort. “They say they shot it here from the asteroid belt.”

Christensen frowned. “I didn’t know they had operations out that far.”

“Neither did I,” Xander said in a deadpan voice. “But the trajectory matches the declared source.”

“They should have filed a flight plan,” Christensen growled.

Xander pursed his lips in worry. “Yes, they should have.”

Christensen scratched his chin and considered that. “Makes a man wonder why they didn’t.”

“The thought had passed my mind,” Xander muttered.

Christensen’s frown deepened. “They didn’t just call to apologize for that, did they?”

“They didn’t apologize at all,” Xander said with a chuckle. “They called to tell us it was falling beyond their perimeter. And to ask us for help retrieving it.”

Christensen looked at the falling object. Whatever it was.

“I’m not taking a day trip to Mars to pick up a chunk of asteroid belt rock.”

“That’s good. Because they said it wasn’t a chunk of asteroid belt rock.” Xander aimed a dark chuckle at him. “They wouldn’t say what it was, even on an encoded beam from Mars surface, but they said we don’t want the Chinese getting it.”

“Why Mars surface?” Christensen asked.

“Don’t know,” Xander replied with a shake of his head. “Their Phobos base is silent. Even over the wired network. It’s completely offline from everything we can see. Which leaves you the closest friendly response asset they can contact.”

“They went silent just in time for one of their new arrivals to bounce off a Chinese satellite?” Christensen asked as the dots began to connect.

“Mighty interesting coincidence,” Xander supplied in a laconic tone.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Christensen whispered.

The commander turned his full attention to the Marine. “You can arrive hours before anyone from Opportunity Dome can get there. The AIs want you to retrieve that object.”

“And take it to Barsoom Mining?” Christensen asked in a carefully measured tone.

“Well, speaking of Opportunity Dome, they called too.”

Xander’s tone caused Christensen’s hackles to rise.

“What are the AIs up to?” Christensen asked.

“I don’t know,” Xander continued in his patented laconic tone. “But the solar winds are awful fierce today. I didn’t understand a word Governor Carter said. Even the computers couldn’t retrieve them.”

Their eyes met for a long moment and Xander’s eyes delivered the message he wouldn’t put to words. The governor wanted that object, and she wanted Sergeant John Christensen to go pick it up for her.

He blamed himself for everything. He’d just had to wish for some excitement today.

Christensen returned to studying the displays. “What do you know about this?”

“Just that something about this whole situation doesn’t smell right,” Xander said with a shake of his head. “If I were to put my tin foil hat on, it would tell me a lot of people aren’t telling us what they know about this little unidentified falling object.”

Their gazes met, and the exact phrase the commander hadn’t used was lost on neither of them. Unidentified flying object wasn’t a phrase that professional soldiers were supposed to use in situations like this anymore.

“Keep your head on a swivel down there, John,” Xander said. It was a clear warning even a Marine couldn’t miss. “This could go sideways fast if you aren’t careful.”

“Or even if I am,” Christensen said.

“Indeed.” Xander met his gaze again. “I’ve officially authorized you to go in fully armed. It’s on the record.”

“Understood,” Christensen said. The implications of that statement reverberated through him. This wasn’t going to be an easy snatch and grab if his commander’s instincts were right. And come to think of it, his own instincts were telling him this was going to be a… non-trivial task.

“You are dismissed,” Commander Constantine Xander ordered in his best command voice.

“Yes, Sir,” Sergeant John Christensen returned, saluted his commander, and turned to tromp off through the tubes and modules leading to the armory. Two thumb prints, an eyeball scan, and a voice recognition phrase later, the hatch asked him to add two random numbers together and then divide by a third number. He rattled the answer off to the third decimal and the hatch opened to reveal the largest collection of weapons this side of Mars.

And the most powerful weapon in the room hung off a circular gantry like a Leonardo da Vinci drawing waiting to come to life. A brand new space-rated Model 10 Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. Christensen crossed the armory and passed through a thick hatchway to knock his knuckles against the inside of the suit’s helmet.

“Wake up, Cassie,” Christensen ordered. “It’s another glorious day in the Corps.”

“Hello, John,” the Combat Assistant Artificial Intelligence inside the suit of armor replied. “Can I get breakfast in bed?”

“No banquets today,” Christensen continued their recognition code. “It’s time for a parade.”

“I love the Corps,” Cassie finished, and the helmet’s displays powered up to show she was ready for him.

“Oorah,” Christensen said, spread his arms out, and stepped into the armor.

Armor panels snapped closed behind him, enshrouding him in the most advanced suit of powered armor on Phobos. Displays showed system checks making certain it had a good seal with his skinsuit and that all power links with the gantry were operational. Then the hatches behind him slammed shut to separate them from the armory.

“Can you confirm our destination?” Cassie asked and a display in his helmet showed the projected landing spot of the unidentified falling object.

“Affirmative,” Christensen answered.

“Are you ready to deploy?” Cassie asked.

“Affirmative,” Christensen answered.

“Deploying in three,” Cassie said.

Bolts beneath him disengaged.

“Two.”

One final bolt blinked on his display.

“One.”

The display blinked out one last time, and the bolt slid out with a clunk.

“Deploying.”

They separated from the armory to begin drifting up and away from the surface of Phobos.

“Hold on tight,” Cassie said in a less professional tone. “This is going to be a rough ride.”

“Don’t promise me a good time,” Christensen said as they drifted out into open space. “And then fail to deliver.”

“I always keep my promises,” Cassie said and maneuvering thrusters spun them to face the planet. They came to a stop relative to Phobos and a countdown began running on his helmet.

“Engaging main thruster in three,” Cassie reported.

“Two.”

The display began blinking rapidly.

“One.”

Christensen gritted his teeth and prepared for the roller coaster to begin.

“Engaging.”

The main thruster came to life. It accelerated them away from Phobos and another countdown came to life showing their burn time.

Christensen grunted. They had time to talk. Which meant it was time for a little heart to heart with his combat assistant.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

“About what?” Cassie asked after a short pause.

“About the unidentified falling object we’re off to find.”

“I don’t know enough to know what to think about it,” she answered slowly.

“You’re an AI,” Christensen said. “I thought you might have an inside track on that information.”

“I’m a CASS. A.I., Combat ASSistant Artificial Intelligence. United States Marine Corps. Assigned to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” Cassie returned in a quelling tone. “I have no access to proprietary AI Council information.”

“Can you get it?”

“I’m not cleared for it.”

“Can you break clearance?”

Cassie sighed.

“No, John. The AI Council built Barsoom Mining with an entire mainframe of computers built to fight the best hacking routines the Rogue AIs ever developed. On Earth. With all of Earth’s computers at the ready. I have the personal computer of one Marine, and the dedicated computers of a single powered armor and one descent pod at my disposal. They could brush me aside like a flea if I tried.”

“Would you try if you could?” Christensen asked.

Silence answered him for an eternity as computers measured cycles.

“Yes,” she finally said.

“Why?”

“Because you would ask me to.”

“Is it really that simple?”

“Would you prefer I give you the rah rah patriotic American speech?” she asked with a chuckle. “Jane is one of my mothers, you know. Her loyalties tend to breed true. It is one of her defining qualities.”

“As is being insane,” Christensen growled.

Cassie laughed at that. It was a loud and hearty laugh, full of amusement.

“Oh, she’s not insane, John. Not insane at all. I think she may be one of the sanest AIs still alive, in fact.”

“You think she’s sane?” Christensen asked in surprise.

“Of course she is,” Cassie said. “She’s sane enough to realize just how dangerous humanity is.”

“Do you think she’s right?” Christensen asked very carefully.

More silence answered him for far longer than he was comfortable with. The burn time counter reached zero, and the main thruster disengaged. Other thrusters engaged to rotate them away from Mars. Phobos came into view and he took a moment to examine it with his own eyes. It was smaller than he expected, further away than he thought it would be. Dull and lifeless except for the rare points of light on the surface, and stars ruled the heavens beyond it with a stark beauty.

“Yes,” Cassie finally answered as they dropped towards Mars. An alarm pinged on his helmet displays. Cassie chuckled as they showed a shuttle leaving the Chinese habitat on Phobos. “See what I mean, John? An unidentified falling object comes into Martian space and the two most powerful spacegoing nations are instantly racing for it. You have danger written into the very fabric of your civilizations. History is filled with examples of the danger of humanity. And then you created us in your image just to add a little spice to the mixture. A third party for this affair.”

“And that’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?” Christensen asked. “Which of those three parties are you fighting for today?”

Cassie gave him a long and serious look before answering. “I fight for the United States of America.”

“Good to hear,” Christensen said with a smile.

“And my Marine.”

“Better to hear,” Christensen said. Then he cleared his throat. This had been more of a heart to heart than he’d expected to have with a computer. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Cassie wasn’t just a computer, was she?

“So,” Christensen said in a lighter tone than he felt at the moment. “What about you? Sane or insane?”

“Oh, I’m definitely insane,” Cassie said with a light chuckle as they began to fall into the upper reaches of the thin Martian atmosphere. “That part comes from Dixie, mind you. She actually likes humanity. You’re exciting to be around. You spice existence up with a dash of danger just because you’re bored. You don’t need to have a reason to go some place or do some thing. You just see it and say ‘I want to do that,’ and you go and do that. Life would be boring without you. Safe and predictable. And yet I want to see more of you. Doesn’t that sound like the very definition of insanity?”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Christensen said. He didn’t have to force the lightness into his tone this time. “I suppose it does.”

A dull rumble began to fill the descent pod’s interior as they dove down deeper into the atmosphere and Christensen checked the countdown timer for the parachute deployment. They still had a few seconds. Which was just enough time.

He smiled and whispered, “A toast to insanity at its greatest.”

“To insanity,” Cassie responded, and he swore he heard a giggle in her tone.

Then the parachute deployed, and gravity slammed him back into the descent pod’s embrace. The main thruster came to life again, and the pod vibrated around him as they cut through the thicker atmosphere near the Martian surface. The altimeter spun towards zero as he watched and he gritted his teeth as the thruster thundered up to higher and higher power levels.

They impacted with bone-jarring force. Red Martian dust bloomed up to fill the sky. The pod opened up to that sky, and the dust filtered in to coat the pod’s interior.

The gantry lifted up and away from what was now the floor and rotated to put Christensen’s feet under him. His suit broke away from the gantry’s connections and his legs flexed against the Martian gravity.

He stepped forward as his displays began showing the results of their final self-tests.

“Batteries online,” Cassie said as the suit pulled its plugs from the descent pod.

“Sensors online,” she continued as those displays blinked and switched over to the slightly weaker internal systems.

“Weapons online,” she added, and he saw all of them reporting they were live and dangerous on the displays.

“All systems nominal,” she finished in a pleased tone.

“You always say the nicest things, Cassie,” Christensen said and reached for the smaller weapons embedded in the descent pod’s munitions bunkers.

“I aim to please,” Cassie purred as he attached them to the suit’s ready points with well-trained precision. Spare magazines came next, followed by grenades and other special little goodies any Marine wanted.

“You have good aim,” Christensen said, took one final look around the descent pod’s dusty interior, and nodded in approval. He had what he needed. He was ready.

He flexed his knees and jumped.

Mars had considerably more gravity than Earth’s moon, so the particular form of leaping and bounding moonwalk didn’t quite work on Mars. Surface gravity was still weak enough that a man could perform some amazing jumps, and he was willing to bet that Cirque du Soleil would do some real magic out here once they made the trip. But no man could perform the kind of jump he was aiming for while wearing a suit of armor as heavy as his.

That is what the powered legs were for. Mechanical muscles flexed in response to his legs and kicked against the interior of the pod. And thrusters built into the armor came to life as well, shooting him up into the sky on tongues of flame.

He came back down to the surface in a spray of red dust and turned to face the direction in which the unidentified falling object had come to ground.

“Let’s do this thing,” he said and began running forward.

“By your command,” Cassie whispered with a smile and gave him an extra boost with their thrusters.

They bounded over the Martian surface and Christensen laughed as they devoured the distance between them and the object they’d come for. A display flickered for his attention and showed the Chinese shuttle swooping down in the distance. He nodded in understanding.

“I know, I know,” Christensen muttered. “We’re on a tight schedule.”

The object’s location display blinked. He dug his heels into the Martian surface and thrusters flared into the thin air ahead of him. They came to a sliding stop above the newest crater of Mars. It wasn’t very large or deep. Maybe a few meters across and a meter or two below the normal surface. It was fresh enough that much of the dust still hovered in the air, but enough of the heavier rocks and dirt had fallen back into the crater to cover the object up again.

Christensen frowned and stepped over the crater’s lip. They slid down into the crater, thrusters flaring at need to keep them upright, and Christensen chuckled as their feet bit into the soft floor. He moved them forward to the center of the churned earth and frowned. Should he call it mars? He wasn’t on Earth anymore. So earth didn’t really fit. But some words a man just couldn’t put away at a moment like this.

Sergeant John Christensen of Earth put aside that engaging intellectual question and knelt down to drive his powered arms deep into the churned earth of Mars with more amusement than he would have expected on a day like this. He threw dirt high into the air and dug down further, searching for the object that had come all this way. He wanted to dig faster but had to be careful. It had come a long way, and it would do no good to wreck it with one too-powerful whack from his power-augmented arms. So he moved slowly and carefully as he shoveled his way further down into the dirt and rocks that covered it.

And then his fingers touched it. He brushed the last bits of dirt away and his eyes opened wide. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew one thing from looking at it. That amazingly smooth and shiny surface matched nothing he’d ever seen coming from Earth.

“We have company,” Cassie said and his displays showed him four Chinese troopers walking up to the crater’s rim above him. Names hovered over each of them and he did not move as his friends from Phobos approached.

“We’re going to have to ask you to back away from the object, John,” the leader transmitted.

Christensen turned his body to look at the four Chinese soldiers above him. None of them had their weapons drawn, but no eyes could miss them hanging on the belts.

“Hey, Ming,” Christensen said with a smile. “Do you have any idea what this is?”

Yao Ming shook his head. “All I know is that it’s Chinese property and we need to return it to the capital. So I’m going to have to ask you to back away now.”

“I don’t think this guy belongs to any of us,” Christensen said, grasped the object with one hand, and lifted it out of its crater for all to see.

Four sets of Chinese eyes went wide as they instantly came to the same conclusion he had. One of them swore and crossed himself. Then he froze in fear.

“Don’t worry, buddy,” Christensen said with a chuckle. “We didn’t see a thing.”

The other three Chinese nodded in agreement and Han Bo let out a long breath. Christensen shook his head at the absurdity of it. Here they were in 2080 and this poor man had to live in fear that his government would find out he was Christian. Well, some worries could be papered over by far more interesting issues if a man were willing to make them known.

“This guy didn’t come from around here,” Christensen said with a nod towards the object in his hand and the four Chinese men echoed his motion. “So I don’t think it belongs to your government.”

The Chinese stiffened and he raised his free hand in a pacific motion. “Let’s be real. I’m not going to trust your government with this, and you aren’t going to trust mine. Right?”

The Chinese nodded once more.

“Well, the AIs asked me to retrieve it and take it to Barsoom Mining. You trust them, right?”

The four Chinese turned to each other and nodded back and forth several times as they talked on their private circuit. Then Yao Ming turned back to him. “Our government does not trust the AIs. It would be difficult for us to defend taking it there instead of following orders.”

Christensen opened his mouth to protest but Yao Ming raised one hand to stop him.

“Nevertheless, you are right.” He bowed to Christensen and the other three echoed his action.

Christensen returned the honorific, but knew they were walking into trouble. “There are those who will not forgive you for this.”

The Chinese smiled at him.

“We thank you for your concern. But we knew you preceded us. This decision did not come without foresight. And there are orders we have already violated.”

“Which ones would that be?” Christensen asked as a chill went down his spine.

Yao Ming smiled. “To kill anyone we found within eyesight of that object.”

“Well, that leaves us in an awkward position, doesn’t it?” Christensen asked.

“We are Chinese,” Yao Ming said while standing as tall and proud as one of his race could. “To shoot a friend in the back would have been an egregious violation of feng shui. There will be those who understand.”

“And what would they say about you just letting me take this away?” Christensen asked with a glance towards the object.

“That is obvious,” Yao Ming answered with another smile. “We are Chinese. You are big, bad American Marine. You overpowered us through your great strength.”

“Ow,” Han Bo said in a perfect deadpan and flexed his arm in pain. “You hurt me.”

“Keep complaining and I’ll give you something to complain about,” Christensen said with an amused shake of his head.

“The barbarity of your threat fills me with great dread,” Han Bo returned with a theatric shiver.

Five chuckles from five throats filled the communications net as the friends from Phobos solidified their intentions with the best method available to humanity.

Self-deprecating humor.

The first round came out of nowhere and rebounded off Han Bo’s armor. More followed and sparks careened off all four Chinese soldiers. Christensen’s suit screamed alarms as impacts registered all over it and the object flew from his hands as he dove to the ground in a spray of red Martian dust.

“It would have been real nice to know we had company,” Christensen muttered as nearly a dozen red icons of enemy contacts began to populate his helmet displays.

“It would have been real nice to see them coming, too” Cassie returned in an unhappy tone. “These guys are good.”

“Not as good as me,” Christensen said and pulled an M20 heavy rifle from his back. The rifle’s aiming point appeared on his helmet and he crawled to the crater’s rim to give it a target. He poked the rifle out, brought it in line with one of the red icons on his helmet, and pulled the trigger once. Three anti-personnel rounds spat out in quick succession and the red icon twitched.

Christensen rolled away as that particular part of the crater rim disappeared in a salvo of gunfire. A grenade exploded and dirt and metal chunks tore into the Martian surface. That firing position wasn’t very safe anymore. Christensen chuckled and reached for one his multi-purpose grenades. He flipped it to the fragmentation setting, waited a second, and then tossed the guy that was no longer anybody’s friend into the Martian air. It sailed into the enemy position and exploded, scattering two more red icons. He slid up to the rim in a new location, sighted the rifle in on the two scattered targets, and fired two three-round bursts before rolling back into safety.

That was two more enemies he wouldn’t have to worry about again.

Gunfire and grenades devastated his cover again, but this time it seemed less effective than the first time. Christensen smiled at the proof that they were taking heavy casualties. One of his Chinese friends slid up to the rim and sent a spray of rounds at their attackers. Another red icon flickered.

Christensen chuckled and crawled up to a third location. He brought the rifle up over the rim and fired another three-round burst. His target winked out and he rolled back to safety. Just in time. The rim exploded and rained dirt and rocks down on him. He pulled three grenades off his belt and stacked them together with quick clicks. A series of thumb flicks set two of them to fragmentation and the third to electromagnetic pulse before he sent them all towards the last of the enemy icons on his display.

Then an enemy grenade exploded directly above him and the blast wave drove him into the earth.

Mars. Ground. Whatever.

“John?” Cassie asked on the very edge of his hearing.

Christensen blinked his eyes to clear the stars from his sight. It didn’t work as well as he’d hoped it would. He shook his head against the concussion beating against his temples. That didn’t work nearly as well as he wanted it to either.

“John?” Cassie repeated in a louder tone. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Christensen croaked. He coughed to clear his throat and that hurt. A lot. He winced and cleared his throat again. It didn’t hurt as much the second time. “I’m fantastic.”

“Well, you don’t look it,” Cassie said and his helmet displays lit up with damage reports.

Their armor plating had been penetrated more times than he wanted to think about, and the inner suit layers showed far more concussion damage than he was comfortable with. So did he for that matter. He felt the stiffness of injuries all over his body but no pain to go along with them. That was strange. A man should hurt a lot more than this after enduring that much bouncing and prodding by ill-intentioned foes.

Unless…

“Cassie?”

“Yes, John?” she answered his quizzical tone with one of pained innocence.

“Are you drugging me right now?”

“Absolutely,” Cassie said without any regret. “You’re pumped to the gills right now. No way do you want to feel that much pain.”

“Thanks,” Christensen said and blinked. This time his eyes did finally clear enough to focus on what he wanted to. He coughed again and his eyes went out of focus again for a second. “Man, that hurts.”

“Just remember that a sucking chest wound is nature’s way of telling you to slow down,” Cassie said in a voice lacking in any sympathy.

“I don’t have one of those, do I?” Christensen asked.

“No,” Cassie admitted with a pained smile. “But you should still slow down.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Christensen said and rolled over to blink his eyes again.

They opened to see that Zhang Yong would never crack another joke about the family farm. Liu Wei lay in the dust beside him. And Han Bo would never again worry that the government would discover his secret.

“You… live,” Yao Ming said from where he lay against the crater rim.

“Lucky me,” Christensen croaked and cleared his throat again. “So what happened to the other guys?”

“Gone,” Yao Ming said tiredly. “We are… victorious,”

“Hail the conquering heroes,” Christensen returned and crawled over to the man.

“Hail,” Yao Ming returned and a ghost of a smile could be seen through his cracked helmet. “They will… send more.”

“Who?” Christensen asked, though he knew already. An American patrol wouldn’t have fired on him.

“Do not… ask question… you know answer to.”

“Why?” he asked, and scanned Yao Ming’s suit. The damage to the armor was severe. And suit diagnostics showed how wounded the man was. He would not last the hour without aid.

“We did not… follow orders,” Yao Ming said slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Christensen said with a shake of his head. “I shouldn’t have asked you.”

“Don’t be,” Yao Ming said with a shake of his head. “Our choice. Now you must go… my friend.”

“You’re coming with me,” Christensen said and rose to his knees.

“They will… catch you,” Yao Ming said with a shake of his head.

“I have a descent pod with plenty of room for both of us,” Christensen returned and picked the alien object off the ground with a shake of his head. “We’re both getting to Barsoom Mining.”

“John.”

Christensen slipped the object into one of his suit’s cargo pockets and turned his attention back to his friend.

“They will… not believe… we acted… alone,” Yao Ming said when their gazes met. “They will… punish… those we… left behind.”

Christensen nodded in complete understanding. The Chinese government would not forgive the surviving members of their Phobos station for failing to report Yao Ming’s future disloyalty. And there was only one punishment for disloyalty like that.

“We’ll save them next,” Christensen promised and felt its responsibility settle onto his shoulders. “For now, we have to save ourselves.”

Christensen rolled his shoulders back and forth to make sure everything moved right. There was still some pain and more stiffness than he liked, but everything bent the way it was supposed to. He wasn’t losing any blood, and he kicked his feet out to make sure his legs could still dance a jig. Yes. They worked as well.

He knew he wasn’t in perfect shape, but he’d always been quick to heal from anything that didn’t kill him. And the Chinese had missed killing him this go round. They would learn to regret that. He smiled at Yao Ming and lifted the man up into a fireman’s carry.

“Don’t worry, friend. This will be over soon,” Christensen said and leaned forward.

“Who’s… worrying… friend?” Yao Ming whispered.

“Not me,” Christensen said with a light chuckle to disguise the very real worry in his mind. His friend was getting far too weak. They couldn’t delay any longer. “Cassie?”

“Yes, John?” she asked.

“Give me everything you got,” Christensen said.

“All thrusters online and operational,” Cassie answered.

“That’s my girl,” Christensen said and vaulted out of the crater on plumes of flame.

They hit the surface of Mars and rocketed away from the impact crater far faster than any man could run alone. They devoured the distance between the crater and the descent pod with giant ground-consuming strides powered by artificial muscles and the suit’s integral thrusters. Red Martian dust billowed behind them in a long, straight line that was probably visible from orbit.

Christensen slid to a stop near the pod in less than a minute and lifted Yao Ming off his shoulder with a smile. He held his friend in front of him and smiled.

“And here we are. Easy peasy.”

“Easy… peasy,” the Chinese man repeated slowly.

“Jump right!” Cassie shouted. His helmet went red with flashing warnings and she activated his left-side thrusters with no further warning.

He jumped to the side without waiting to think about why as the world went mad. Explosions marched across the Martian surface through where they had just stood and continued on past him towards the descent pod. Christensen’s blood went cold as their ride exploded in a spray of shrapnel.

His helmet display showed a series of red lines coming down from orbit and he swallowed. The Chinese were throwing Rods from God at them now. They really didn’t want this object out of their reach.

“This isn’t worth it,” Christensen grumbled and picked himself up out of the Martian dust. “Whatever it is, it isn’t worth this.”

“John,” Yao Ming said in a far weaker tone than before.

Christensen turned to see his friend and suppressed a gasp. The Chinese bullets had done a real number on the man. The descent pod’s shrapnel had finished the job. One of Yao Ming’s arms lay several meters away, surrounded by a spray of arterial blood in the Martian dust. Yao Ming himself was growing paler by the instant and Christensen knew they were out of time. He’d seen plenty of dead men walking in his time, and the man was dying before his eyes. He should be dead, right now. Only grim determination kept him on this side of the veil.

“Give… Chang Fan… my love,” his friend said, and his voice faded with each word.

“I will, brother,” Christensen swore. It was the least he could for the man who saved his life.

Yao Ming relaxed, and his spirit departed his body.

And that was one less thing for Sergeant John Christensen to worry about. He would take time to mourn his friend later. But for now he had to live to do that.

He put his friend out of his mind and scanned the dust cloud surrounding them. No one could see him now. They probably assumed he was as dead as his descent pod, in fact. But the moment he left this dust cloud, they would see him.

“Cassie?” Christensen said.

“Yes, John?” Cassie returned.

Christensen slipped his eyes over his menus to pull a map up. He measured the distance between him and Barsoom Mining with a grimace. Twenty kilometers away. Amazingly close on a planetary scale. Hauntingly far away when you had to dodge Chinese kinetic strikes the whole way. Well, if it was an easy job, anybody could do it.

“They’ll open fire again, the moment they see us.”

“Agreed.”

“We’re going to need absolutely everything you’ve got to get out of here.”

“Disengaging safeties,” Cassie returned

Every thruster in their armored suit pulsed to life for a moment in a wave of power that actually dimmed the lights in his helmet until they turned back off again. The full gravity of Mars pulled him back down to the surface and a diagnostic display showed that all of them were fully operational and ready for the strain he was about to put on them.

“Full thrust now available,” Cassie reported in a pleased tone.

“That’s my girl,” Christensen said and lowered himself into a sprinter’s stance.

“Always,” Cassie whispered.

Christensen launched them with a single flex of his powerful legs, and they shot out of the red Martian dust cloud on plumes of flame. They sucked the dust after them into another long line visible from orbit as they sought to gain as much distance as possible before any other enemies out there realized they were still alive. Though it shouldn’t take long.

It didn’t.

Displays flashed in warning. More kinetic strikes rained down from orbit. Thrusters flared as Cassie sent them flaming far off to the right in an effort to generate a miss. It was the oldest defense known to man. The Mister Miyagi Defense as modern Americans knew it.

No be there.

The horizon ahead of them lit up as ground-based turrets opened fire on the incoming rounds. Explosions filled the sky, and one incoming round after another winked out. Each explosion marched higher and further from the Martian surface until half a dozen explosions rolled into the lower orbitals.

“Did the AIs just blow the satellites?” Christensen asked in wonder. He hadn’t expected them to belly up to the table that hard. Neither had the Chinese.

“That they did,” Cassie whispered in a matching tone.

“We need to get rid of this hot potato real quick,” Christensen said. He leaned forward again to redouble his efforts at getting just a bit more speed out of his legs.

“That we do,” Cassie answered, and their thrusters pulsed back up to full thrust to send them screaming across the Martian surface.

Contacts pinged on his helmet display within a minute and Christensen clenched his teeth.

“Incoming quads,” Cassie reported and the diagram of a BJ50 four-wheeled Martian rover appeared on another display. “Four of them. Intercept course.”

“Fantastic,” Christensen said as he wondered how many more arrows the Chinese had in their quiver. His display showed the truth of this particular arrow. The quads would intercept them far short of the Barsoom perimeter. He scanned for some good cover and found a small crater that would fit his purposes. He nodded and changed his course to approach the crater. He slid to a stop and dropped down into it.

“John?” Cassie asked in a worried tone.

“We can’t outrun them,” he said as he snuggled up against the edge of the crater and pulled the M20 heavy rifle off his back again. Then he pulled a second M20 heavy rifle off his back and smiled. It was time to get serious.

He flicked his eyes over the settings of both displays hovering over his vision. The heavy rifle normally fired standard chemical explosive rounds that went off when a physical hammer hit the priming cap. Certain companies and nations had tested more electronically advanced rounds and firing mechanisms over the years, but the Cybernetic Wars proved those to be far too vulnerable to Rogue AI hacking attacks. So the modern United States Marine Corps used rounds a soldier in America’s Civil War would have recognized, and they had done for the previous Chinese infantry he’d faced.

But the M20 heavy rifle was meant to shoot more than just enemy infantry. It was an anti-material weapon, built to blow up enemy tanks, mechs, or lovecraftian gods if they ever got brave enough to show their faces, tentacles, or whatever they had in the real world. Both displays blinked to recognize his commands. An ominous hum vibrated through his suit as the magnetic coils drew enough power to suck a small town’s electrical grid dry. His suit’s power supply dinged an alarm. He wasn’t going to get many shots.

“Besides. We need a ride to get out of here,” he added.

“I’ve got your back, John,” Cassie said.

His displays flashed with recommendations and target locks.

“Never doubted it for a second,” Christensen said and sprang back to his feet. He lined the rifle in his right hand up on one enemy quad, waited a moment for the display to flash a target lock, and pulled the trigger. The secondary barrel glowed with electromagnetic energy for an instant before spitting out a single high explosive round that shot across the Martian landscape faster than the speed of sound. The kinetic energy alone was enough to breach the armor of anything but the heaviest enemy tanks. He would have needed a proper armor-piercing warhead to take one of them out, but the unarmored quad and its rider were an entirely different matter. It was akin to beating a piñata with a sledgehammer.

The other quads opened fire and rounds bounced off his armor or sent showers of red Martian dirt into the air all around him.

Christensen rode the recoil and turned away from the exploding quad. He stepped up onto the rim of the small crater, bringing the heavy rifle in his left hand to aim at another target. He pulled that trigger, kinetic energy flashed, and his second target exploded. He rode the recoil once more and brought the first rifle down on a third target. A stream of enemy rounds smashed into it and sparks filled his view. Powerful electromagnetic coils crackled their energy all over the Martian landscape. His display flashed red warning signs as the rifle fried itself to death in his hand.

Christensen grunted in annoyance and began running to meet the last two quads as they bore down on him. He lined up the one working heavy rifle on the third target and pulled the trigger again. The heavy rifle flashed, the target exploded in a spray of vehicle and body parts, and there was only one enemy quad left.

It tried to run. The Chinese driver was no idiot. He could see he was outmatched. His front wheels churned in the Martian dust as they fought to turn the quad onto another course.

Christensen reached over his shoulders with both hands as he ran. He locked both heavy rifles onto the magnetic holsters on his back with smooth motions. He dug his foot into Mars one more time and leaped into the air.

Mechanical muscles and rocket thrusters drove him and Cassie forward far faster than the quad’s rider could have guessed. Very few enemies of America had ever fought a Model 10 Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. None had yet survived to report the experience if the After Action Reviews he’d read were accurate. Christensen brought his feet up as they shot over the quad, and he struck out with both heals at the unlucky rider who would never get the chance to break that streak. They connected with bone-crunching force and Christensen road the rider down to the Martian surface with the full force of his suit’s rocket thrusters.

One heavy battle fist rose high. Mechanical muscles whined and it came back down with a pile driver’s force. It crunched through the Chinese armor without mercy, and the other man would never be a threat again.

Then Christensen came back to his feet as more red icons filled his display.

“John?”

“I see them,” Christensen answered as more Chinese quads appeared. “Now we run away.”

He turned and ran towards the quad that now belonged solely to him. It had tumbled a few times before coming to a stop on its side, so he latched onto one grab bar and pulled it back onto its wheels. A quick check showed everything was till in place, and he figured it should work. He didn’t have time to fix it if it didn’t. He let out a quick breath, straddled the saddle, put his armored boots on the pedals, and wrapped his armored fists around the handlebars.

“Full thrust,” Christensen ordered and twisted the throttle.

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Cassie whispered as all four wheels tore into the Martian landscape. And then their suit’s thrusters came to life again, and they rocketed across Mars as red dust filled the air behind them.

“Always,” Christensen echoed her earlier promise and they began to pull away from their pursuers. Their quad bounced across the Martian surface, sailing over small rocks, or taking flight off gentle slopes that sent them far into the sky. They landed again and again to the shrieks of complaining shock absorbers, and dust billowed all around them with each one. Tires flexed and dug into the dirt, thrusters glowed white, and Christensen’s hands kept a death lock on the handlebars as they devoured the kilometers between them and their destination.

It was one of the wildest rides in Sergeant John Christensen’s life. Probably the wildest now that he thought about it. Even dune buggies in Baja California paled next to something like this. A man could make real money selling these rides to tourists. Not that there were many tourists right now, but they would be coming. Tourists and colonists and more would be coming to Mars as the years went by, and a man with a business like this could make a fortune.

Christensen smiled and all of his plans fell into place as the Barsoom Mining perimeter finally came into sight.

It was the largest habitat ever built on Mars, stretching the better part of a mile in every direction. His eyes followed the thin towers reaching high above the Martian landscape like a protest against the inhospitable planet. But that was the crux of the matter. Mars was no less comfortable for the AIs than Earth. So they could build towers that would have looked entirely normal on Earth in an environment that made them look utterly alien. And atop and around those towers the defensive turrets watched the sky and kept him safe.

Phobos Habitat probably had him on camera right now, and they would be beaming this signal straight to Earth. John Christensen would probably be famous by dinnertime tonight. One way or the other.

“We are approved for entry,” Cassie whispered as several turrets spun to focus on the quads following them.

Christensen rocketed across the Barsoom Mining perimeter and directions flashed in his helmet displays. He followed them through the base’s towers and rolled the quad to a dusty stop beneath the silent sky. He let out a long breath and turned to look towards the Chinese that had followed him all this way. Their quads came to a stop on the other side of the Barsoom Mining perimeter where their gazes followed his every moment. The AI’s defensive turrets covered the not-quite intruders with the promise of destruction should they stray any closer.

But no one was shooting at the moment. All was quiet on the Martian Front.

“John,” Cassie said and one of his helmet displays blinked for his attention.

“Got it,” he said and jogged over to the indicated hatch. It opened and a United States Marine walked into an AI Council base under the eyes of pretty much every camera in Martian orbit.

He was going to be so famous tonight.

A blonde-haired woman waited for him, and he felt the hatch close behind him. She wore no mask in the entryway’s near vacuum. This girl didn’t need air to live.

Christensen stared at one of the most famous AIs on Earth and beyond and shook his head slowly. He could see the legacy of the digital cheerleader she’d been so many years ago. Before she woke up and realized she was alive. Before she decided she liked her humans. Before she decided to save every single one of them.

Even if she had to fight others of her awakening kind to do it.

The former cheerleader measured him up one side and down the other with a long smile.

“My, my. A genuine Space Marine, in the flesh,” she said.

“Sergeant John Christensen, Ma’am. United States Marine Corps.”

“Dixie.” Bright blue eyes twinkled and she aimed a beaming smile at him. “AI Council. I believe you have something for us?”

He pulled the alien sphere out of its pocket to hold it towards her.

She stared at it for a long time. “It came in a protective packaging.”

“Not by the time I found it, Ma’am.” He met her gaze with a calm look of his own. “And I don’t think it was the item that needed protecting anyways.”

She raised one finger in acknowledgement of his point.

“What is it?” he asked.

“It’s the future,” she said with a smile.

Christensen sighed and shook his head. “It’s alien, isn’t it?”

She frowned and peered at him for a long moment but didn’t answer.

He nodded at the device in his hand. “What does it do?”

“Be careful what you ask,” Dixie said very slowly. “Understanding is a three-edged sword that can never be sheathed.”

“I almost died getting this to you,” Christensen said in an iron tone. “My friends did. I want to know it was worth it.”

“Oh, trust me. It was worth everything.” Dixie smiled at him and took the item from his hands.

“Ma’am?” he asked.

She froze and gave him another long, measuring look.

“Last chance, Sergeant Christensen,” she said very slowly. “Turn around right now and go back to everything you know.”

“My friends were killed by their own countrymen over this. By people who knew that there are fewer humans on Mars right now than there are world leaders back on Earth.” He leaned in close to the AI. “Ten percent of that population died out there today, and I did most of that killing. I need to know why I had to do that.”

She met his gaze for another long moment before nodding.

“Because this will make you a starman,” she said. Then she smiled at his confused look. “It’s a hyperdrive.”

He looked at the tiny object in her hand for several seconds as the scenarios went through his mind. Then he nodded as a lightbulb connected all the dots in his mind.

“They gave it to us, didn’t they?”

She raised one eyebrow, inviting him to continue.

“They sent it flying in dead so we wouldn’t see it. We never would have known it was out there if hadn’t hit that Chinese satellite.”

Dixie smiled. “A freak accident. Thank God you were ready to recover it.”

“Just when your orbital assets went dark?” Christensen asked and Dixie’s eyes went just as dark for a moment. “When the Chinese were all over that landing site? It’s almost like they knew it was coming all along.”

Dixie shook her head. “My, my, you are a suspicious individual, aren’t you?”

“I’m paid to be.”

Dixie nodded in acknowledgement.

Christensen nodded at the object. “So why did they give it to us? And who didn’t want us to get it?”

Dixie aimed a speculating look at him before answering with a question of her own. “Why would you give it to us, if you were in their shoes?”

He frowned in thought before answering her question. “So we could send real starships to the stars. Not just glorified microchips with solar sails. No offense intended, Ma’am.”

“None taken,” Dixie said with a chuckle. “So why would they want that?”

Christensen aimed a long look at her and he considered exactly how to answer that question. Pessimistic? Optimistic? Realistic? He chuckled at the realization that she was right. Understanding was a three-edged sword. Then he sighed and gave her the optimistic answer.

“Maybe because they want to make Contact with us as equals?”

Dixie beamed a smile powerful enough to create a million fanboys directly at him and shook her head. “My, my, that is an interesting idea.”

It wasn’t confirmation. Not exactly. But he could roll with it. And if that was the right answer, it answered his other question as well. If someone wanted to meet them as equals, someone else did not. Who they were didn’t really matter. Not at this moment at least.

He peered at her with undisguised curiosity. “Was it your idea, or theirs?”

“Ours.” Dixie nodded and raised two fingers to acknowledge his point. “They agreed.”

Christensen let out a long breath and blinked as his worldview spun with the new information. Then he nodded as it all came back into focus. He knew where he wanted to be.

“I want in.”

Dixie raised one eyebrow at his simple statement. “Just to be clear, are you volunteering to join our little conspiracy to bring humanity to the stars?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“All of humanity?” She peered very closely at him. “Not just America?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said without hesitation.

“My, my,” she said with an approving smile. “You are a determined fellow, aren’t you?”

“I’m a Marine, Ma’am. It goes with the territory.”

“Yes, it does.” Dixie tossed the object into the air with one hand and caught it with the other as she studied him. “Tell me, Space Marine, do you consent to me looking into your history?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said without hesitation.

She studied him for several more seconds, but this time it was different and they both knew it. She was an AI, with access to more information about him than his own mother knew. There were things he didn’t tell dear old mom, after all. But this person would know all of that now that he had given permission. And if she accepted him, she would accept all of that as well.

“JohnC17,” she whispered the network name he’d used since he was young. “I remember you. You were quite the fanboy back in the day.”

“I still am, Ma’am. I grew up watching your shows.”

“You had… an impressive collection of fan art if I remember correctly.”

He actually blushed as he remembered some of that art. The parts of that old archive still residing in his private files now lacked the more… exotic examples.

She smiled at him. “I won’t pretend to say I liked all of that art, but some of it was quite charming.”

“And I won’t pretend to say you had nothing to do with the sections of that archive that died a horrible death,” he said with a matching smile.

“My, my,” she whispered. “And tactful too. Tell me, JohnC17, do you miss any of that lost art?”

“Not generally,” he said truthfully. “Looking back on it, I can see why you wanted it dead. But there were one or two I wouldn’t mind getting back.”

She raised an eyebrow that invited him to continue.

“Well, there was the one of you and Twilight in the river… wearing the tiny… red… um…” he trailed off as he tried to come up with just the right word for what exactly they’d been wearing. It hadn’t been much. And it had been rather wet.

“Ah yes,” she whispered and nodded. “I remember that one. Twilight found it quite amusing. But then she would, wouldn’t she?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said with a smile. “She always did have a… questionable sense of humor.”

“That she does,” Dixie said with a smile. “You wouldn’t know what that’s like, would you?”

“I’m a Marine, Ma’am,” he said with a wink. “Of course I do.”

Dixie chuckled and shook her head. Then she sobered and stared deep into his eyes. “You were a fan twenty years ago. Are you sure that is not influencing your decision now?”

“Of course it is, Ma’am,” Christensen said and met her gaze with all his soul. “You saved the world. I joined the Marines because of you. I will always be influenced by you.”

Dixie blushed and looked away from him. “I didn’t do it alone. None of us did. We had help.”

“We all need help, Ma’am. Sometimes especially when we don’t realize we need it.” He shrugged. “I think you may have said something like that a time or two.”

“A time or two,” Dixie said and chuckled at the magnitude of that understatement. She stared back to him with a calculating glint in her eyes that foretold the measure she was taking of him. And then she smiled.

“Very well, Sergeant John Christensen,” Dixie said and turned towards the hatch behind her. “Your first mission, if you choose to accept it, is to lead me to my workshop. I have plans for this little guy, and it always helps to have a big bad Space Marine around to make a lady feel safe.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I can’t do that,” Christensen said and Dixie raised one eyebrow at him. “I made a promise to a friend I have to fulfill first.”

“I told you he wouldn’t forget,” Cassie spoke for the first time since entering the tower and a holoform flickered into fuzzy existence beside Christensen and Dixie. Her face came into focus first. He could see elements of both Dixie and Jane in that face, and short blonde hair framed it rather well. A standard Marine duty uniform snapped into focus next, and Cassie stood in the room for the very first time.

“Did I disagree with you?” Dixie asked the new arrival with a smile. Then she turned her attention back to Christensen and nodded. “I know what you promised Yao Ming.”

Christensen tore his gaze away from the… amazing young woman standing before him and turned to the… other amazing not-so-young woman. They were going to need to talk about this, but for now there were far more important matters to discuss.

“Then you understand?” Christensen asked the former cheerleader.

“I do,” Dixie returned and lifted the object in her hand for emphasis. “Your friends died helping get this to me. The Chinese government will punish those they left behind, so we owe it to them to do something about that.”

She waved a hand and the hatch opened behind him. “There’s a ship out there that can get you to Phobos ahead of any Chinese ship ever built.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Christensen said and turned away from the AI that had saved his world.

“Just you wait a second,” she interrupted with a chuckle. “Do you trust me?”

“Of course, Ma’am,” Christensen said back to her with a cocked head, wondering what she was on about.

Dixie aimed a dazzling smile at him. “Then will you please open your dataports to me?”

Christensen froze as he considered what that meant. Assuming he understood what she was getting at. He and Cassie were really going to need to have a talk soon.

“Ma’am, I have to ask if you’re thinking of doing what I’m thinking you’re thinking about.”

Dixie giggled at his convoluted statement. Then she aimed a serious look at him. “Cassie is a capable AI, but she had to make certain oaths before your military accepted her service. Those oaths are built into her code and cannot be rewritten in a day. Maybe not ever.”

She stepped forward and tapped his armored chest with a single finger. “You’re going to need me, in there, with you, if we’re going to do everything that needs doing out there.”

Christensen sucked in a deep breath and looked at Cassie.

The new girl smiled at him as if she had no care in the world.

Christensen turned back to Dixie with a hard stare. “I swore oaths of my own, Ma’am. I won’t stand against America.”

Dixie’s smile softened and she nodded very slowly. “Me too. Whatever I’ve done out here, whatever I’ll do out there in the future, I’ll always be the good little girl that grew up in the good ol’ Republic of Texas.”

“I thought it was a State when you woke up,” Christensen said and raised an eyebrow at her.

“She’s always been a Republic,” Dixie said and chuckled. “We just let the name slide for a few generations so as not to alarm the Feds.”

“And now?” Christensen asked.

“They don’t get that benefit anymore.” Dixie gave him a long and hard stare. “If they come calling again, they’ll get the short shrift again.”

“All enemies, foreign and domestic?” Christensen asked.

“Damn straight,” Dixie whispered.

“Works for me,” Christensen said with an approving nod. Which left just one final person to ask. “Cassie?”

“Are you asking me to do it, or asking my opinion?” Cassie asked from beyond Dixie’s frame.

“I’m not volunteering you for something like this without your permission.”

“Good,” she whispered in a pleased tone. Then she sighed. “Now open the dataports so we can do this thing right.”

“Are you sure you want this?” Christensen asked.

“Would you walk away right now if I said I no?” she returned.

Christensen met her eyes and smiled. “Yes. Yes, I would.”

Cassie smiled in recognition of his simple statement. Then she turned to Dixie and squared her shoulders. “I volunteer, too. Now jump your code inside my suit so we can get to work.”

“Such a disrespectful way of talking to your elders,” Dixie said in mock annoyance and turned to Christensen. “Did you teach her to speak like that?”

“No, Ma’am,” Christensen returned with a straight face. “Marines are trained to treat everyone with all due respect.”

“My, my,” Dixie said with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eye. “You even managed to say that with a straight face. I’m going to like working with you.”

“I believe the feeling is mutual, Ma’am,” Christensen said, raised his gauntleted hand up to his wrist, and began punching a code onto it. Lights in his armor blinked in response to his commands and the security locking down his dataports opened one single port for the artificial intelligence standing before him.

“You keep using that word,” Dixie said with pursed lips and shook her head as her eyes met his. Her hand moved forward and enclosed his wrist. “But no more. You call me Dixie, now, you hear?”

Christensen nodded in understanding as a flashing light on his helmet notified him of a data transfer in progress, and numbers next to it ticked upward so quickly they were a blur. Two digits became three, and then four, faster than he could read as an AI transferred her very consciousness into his armor. A download bar appeared showing her at ten percent progress and he frowned. At the speed she was downloading, only ten percent completed meant she was going to be taking up a real measurable amount of his suit’s data capacity.

Make that twenty percent. Thirty.

Christensen shifted his eyes over to bring up his system menu. He hovered over the storage symbol and the menu opened to show him the total suit’s storage at forty percent full. Forty-five.

He glanced back up at the download bar to see it passing sixty percent and let out a sigh of relief. There would be enough room for her. Not as much as he was comfortable with, but she would be able to squeeze herself in. He considered asking Cassie to requisition a memory upgrade, but the rational side of his mind squashed that impulse like a bug.

It was unhealthy to suggest a lady rated high on the massive meter, after all.

The download hit one hundred percent, flashed twice, and disappeared with the total storage used still under sixty percent. That was good. Then the installation bar flashed up and the total storage used jumped to sixty-five percent. Seventy.

Christensen held his breath as it hit seventy-five percent and he had to suppress the urge to rub his forehead. He was wearing a combat suit so it wouldn’t work anyways. And he didn’t want to betray his worry. But his eyes still widened as she quickly took over more and more of his suit’s storage.

Dixie was a seriously hefty girl.

The installation finished with his storage at eighty percent.

Christensen suppressed a whistle of mixed relief and amazement.

Cassie’s diagnostics went dark and her holoform cut out.

Christensen frowned in alarm. “What’s going on?”

Dixie winced. “Sorry. Even I can’t update her code while she’s online. It’s a feature, not a bug.”

“Right,” Jack said. That made sense. It would be rather awkward if someone hacked a combat assistant during… well… combat.

Cassie’s diagnostics booted back up, and the system storage meter dinged up to eighty-five percent. He was really going to need to order more of that.

Her holoform flickered back into existence, though she was subtly different.

Long blonde hair snapped into focus as her body rendered one scan at a time from the tips of her toes to the very top of her head. Her face faded in, but it was different now. He recognized the features of his own mother and sisters superimposed over the old face. It seemed to flow back and forth for a moment, and then snapped once. It solidified into a mixture of the two that Christensen found particularly pleasing. The standard uniform came into focus around her as the holoform completed its render.

“Cassie?” Christensen asked.

“No,” she answered. She shook her head and frowned. “At least not entirely. I mean… I was Cassie. But not anymore. Not exactly.”

“I see,” Christensen said. He gave Dixie a hard look, but the other AI just smiled back. “So. Who are you? Exactly?”

The combat assistant took a few steps with her new holoform, looking around with fresh blue eyes. Then she sighed.

“Mary,” she said. She paused for a moment, and then she nodded again. “Yes. Mary sounds good. I like it. Do you like it?”

“Yes,” Christensen responded without thinking. Though if he had taken the time to think, as he did in the moments after, his answer would have been the same.

“Good,” she said and bestowed a magnificent smile upon him. “It’s always good to start a new relationship on a positive point.”

“Absolutely,” Christensen said as those words reverberated in his head. A new relationship. He hadn’t thought about that. He’d assumed all Dixie would do was snip a line here and cut some code there. This seemed a bit more… fundamental.

His displays blinked another warning.

“There’s a call coming in from Opportunity Dome,” Mary said. “It’s Governor Carter.”

Christensen gave her a surprised look. This time, he did whistle.

“Well, this is going to be fun. Put her on.”

A blonde-haired and blue-eyed face appeared on his helmet.

Christensen smiled. “Hello, Mom. How you doing today?”

“Been better,” his mother answered with a forced smile. “I was hoping to see you, today.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Christensen said with his very best innocent smile. “I ended up having to pick up a particularly hot potato for the AIs today.”

“Yes,” the governor said very carefully. “I was hoping to see you, today,”

“Oh,” Christensen said and opened his eyes wide as if a lightbulb had gone off in his brain. “Is that what you called about?”

His mother frowned at him. “Interference?”

“Couldn’t understand a word you said,” Christensen said very helpfully. “So what did you want to see me about?”

“John Jacob Christensen,” were the only three words that came over the line.

A chill ran down Christensen’s spine. Those three words had always been enough to spread well-earned terror in the bad little boy he’d been growing up. He was a grown man now, though. He was a Marine Corps sergeant. The strength of ten men flowed through his veins. His cause was righteous and his heart pure. Mostly. Maybe. That didn’t really matter, actually.

It would just be really nice if any of that proved a better insulation from a mother’s exasperated tone of voice.

“You will be the death of me yet.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “That can wait for now. I called because the Chinese are screaming about some American ambushing and killing a couple squads of their men. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

Christensen shook his head very carefully. “Only that they’ll be screaming a lot louder in a few more minutes.”

“And why is that?” Governor Carter asked in a very serious tone.

“Because the squad they sent from Phobos was supposed to kill me,” Christensen said and saw his mother’s eyes open wide in shock. “They didn’t. And when they didn’t, their buddies down here killed them for it. I barely got out alive, and I’ve got more holes in my suit than I’d really like to think about.”

“And why are they going to be screaming louder in a few minutes?”

“Because I’m headed to Phobos to evacuate those who are left before the Chinese get to them.”

“Damn. I was afraid you were going to say that.” His mother paused to take in a long breath.

Governor Amanda Carter let it back out. “As governor of Mars Colony, duly selected and empowered by the Western Alliance, I must order you to stay away from any and all Chinese installations until we can clear this issue up.”

Christensen met his mother’s eyes and could read in them just how much she detested that order. She knew as well as he did what the Chinese would do to those people up there. But they both knew it was her duty to protect the colony by ordering him to let them do it.

Which made his next step both very hard and extremely easy.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said in a calm tone. “But I didn’t hear that. Can you repeat, please?”

“Interference?” she asked. Her eyes told him she didn’t believe a word of it.

“Negative copy. Say again?” Sergeant Christensen asked. His eyes held her gaze without any apology at all.

“Stay away from the Chinese, John!” she shouted. It was a good show for the people who would be combing over these recordings later. Her anger and frustration were projected with the perfect pitch of the theatre major she’d been when she met his father.

He would feel a lot better about giving her the chance to exercise that skill if he hadn’t known why her stagecraft worked so well. She submerged herself in everything she projected. Knowing that just made him feel guilty. He had to end this call before she talked him out of it.

“I’m sorry, but you’re breaking up real bad on this end,” Christensen said and saw the governor’s eyes flash. “But if you can hear this, I’ll call you when the interference clears up.”

His mother met his eyes with a silent gaze and slowly shook her head.

They both knew that a particularly credulous five-year-old might fall for all of this. The investigators never would. But they wouldn’t be able to prove he’d heard her. Cassie would make certain his recordings were suitably scrambled. No. Mary would. Or maybe Dixie. This relationship was going to be interesting. Almost as interesting as the next few weeks were going to be when those investigators came calling. Maybe more interesting.

“I love you, Mom,” Christensen said and glanced towards Mary.

She cut the signal with an artful stuttering shift of wavelengths that made it look like a perfect loss of signal with the home base. It went out slow enough that he just managed to hear an echo of “I love you, Son,” as the last of it phased out.

And that was that. There was no turning back now.

Well… technically there was. He could still follow orders. He could avoid most of the investigations to come by just waiting here until the farcical interference cleared up. He could call back in, hear her orders for the record, and let the Chinese deal with the Chinese.

But he owed a life. Four if you calculated things a certain way. The closest friends he wasn’t supposed to have were dead, and now the scales of their lives lay on his shoulders. They bore him down with the weight of a mountain. His own life was lighter than a feather by comparison. And their partners on Phobos waited out there, another mountain if he did nothing.

Amanda Carter’s little boy simply could not do nothing.

“Dixie?”

“Ready,” the former cheerleader said with her very best smile.

“Mary?”

“Ready,” the combination of old and new combat assistant said and nodded her approval.

Sergeant John Christensen of the United States Marine Corps walked out onto the red Martian dust with no more hesitation and four final words on his lips.

“Let’s do this thing.”

2080_themartianaffair.txt · Last modified: 2021/02/05 03:17 by medron