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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Masked Marvel in: The Everlovin’ End

“I can’t believe that you’re actually retiring, Masked Marvel,” Officer Bentley said. Rodger Burns, the Chief of Police, glared at the younger officer, but the man didn’t seem to notice.

“I’ve been at this crime fighting gig for over thirty years now,” the Masked Marvel, in his trade mark trench coat, fedora and mask, said, a grin on his face. “In my time I’ve faced down street thugs, super villains and Nazi’s. It’s time to step down and let a younger man take over.”

Now the Chief glared at the vigilante, who cleared his throat.

“But,” said the Masked Marvel, “You didn’t call me here to discuss my retirement. What’s the issue, Chief?”

The older man cleared his throat. Masked Marvel had worked with Chief Burns for fifteen years, back when he was just Sergeant Burns. The two had formed quite a friendship over the years, and Marvel would do just about anything the Chief asked him.

“Well, Marvel,” he said, stepping forward. “As you know, the city is putting on a massive New Years party in Landings Park. Well, we’ve received a note that some new villain is planning on ruining the festivities. So, we’re asking for your help, just this last time.”

He handed a large, manila envelope to Masked Marvel, who ripped it open and looked at the paper inside. It was pasted together out of letters from magazines. It at first seemed like a very amateur kidnapping note, but as he read, he saw that it was far more sinister.

“This is the time of the end,” he read out loud. “When the old shall be done away with to make way for the new. The party starts early this year, with two numbers: twenty-one, and 2.”

“There’s no signature,” the chief said, “but we received this with it.”

He handed over a playing card to Masked Marvel, who flipped it over and groaned as he looked at it.

“The Ace of Spades?” Marvel said. “Really? These so-called super villains today, don’t they realize that this stuff has all been done before?”

“I don’t follow,” Officer Bentley said, and the Chief glared at him.

“Years ago, I battled a playing card themed mad man named Ace of Spades,” Marvel said, almost off handedly. “He was insane and planned crimes based off playing cards to try and get the attention of another villain, the Black Swan, so he could ask her to marry him.”

“And it can’t be him?” Bentley asked.

“Of course not, Bentley,” the Chief said. “Didn’t you read those files I gave you?”

“Well,” Bentley said, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck sheepishly, “there were quite a lot of them.”

“Ace of Spades died,” Marvel said quickly before the Chief could hurt the young officer. “He fell off the top of Robbins Tower during our last battle.”

“Oh,” Bentley said. “Maybe it’s a new Ace of Spades?”

Masked Marvel nodded. Then, he looked up at the two cops.

“Not to sound offensive or ungrateful,” he said, “But why me? Couldn’t you ask a younger crime fighter?”

“Well, you did a pretty good job of keeping them all out of our city besides you,” the Chief said.

“Well, and Marvel Boy,” Bentley said.

“Mr. Marvel,” Masked Marvel corrected. “He changed his name several years ago, claiming he was no longer a boy. And he’s right. He’ll take over for me fulltime when I retire. So, why isn’t he here now?”

“Mr. Marvel is off in Ultra City with Captain Nobel working on another case,” the Chief said. “So that leaves just you.”

The Masked Marvel sighed. “Well then,” he said, “one last case. Let’s take another look at that letter.”

“It’s really amateur hour,” the Chief said.

Masked Marvel nodded. “The magazine letters… first, that doesn’t really fit the Ace of Spades playing card. This guy is way out of his league. Probably some thug trying to make a name for himself by taking on the legend. But let’s look at what it actually says. The ‘twenty-one’ is an obvious reference to time.”

“Nine PM,” Officer Bentley said.

“Right,” Masked Marvel said. “Which is in just an hour. But the fact that it’s spelled out in letters rather than just a number means something. Isn’t there a new club opening up tonight for the celebration?”

“Yes,” Officer Bentley said. “Club Twenty-One. We thought of that, though, and we’ve got officers watching the place now.”

“Good,” Masked Marvel said. “Let’s cover all our bases, though. Look at the last bit here. Two numbers, and the second is two. What could that mean?”

“Two locations to hit at 9?” the Chief suggested.

“A good guess,” Masked Marvel said. “And I think I have an idea what that means. There are, in fact, two Club Twenty-Ones in this city. The one tonight is the newest one.”

“That’s right,” the Chief said. “It’s actually based on the original Club Twenty-One, which was a real hot spot thirty years ago.”

“And the location of the original club is still there,” Masked Marvel said. “What is it now?”

“Last I heard, it was being used as a warehouse,” the Chief said. “Storage for a fireworks company.”

“That’s what I remember, as well,” Masked Marvel said.

“You guys really remember that kind of thing?” Officer Bentley asked. The two older men just stared at him and he lowered his gaze to the ground.

“Okay, it’s a place to start,” Masked Marvel said. “We need to figure out a plan of action. Normally, I’d send my partner to check out one building, but I seem to be partnerless tonight, so I’m going to have to ask your boys in blue to work with me tonight, Chief.”

“You got our cooperation, Marvel,” the Chief said without hesitation.

“Good,” Marvel said. “Now, as you already have men at the new club, I’ll go check out the old one. My gut tells me that the old site is his real target, and that the new club is a cover. Or that he may actually be trying to hit both at the same time, but that he’ll send men to the new club.”

“Why do you think that?” Bentley asked. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for a villain to hit a very public space? Lots of spectators?”

“That’s true,” Masked Marvel said. “But this villain isn’t looking for publicity, except where it covers his other actions. Publicity seekers are flashier, and tend to not announce their moves. No, this is either someone seriously mentally disturbed, or, like I said earlier, someone trying to gain a reputation by beating me. Which means he’s trying for something a little more subtle than blowing up a downtown night club.”

“Sounds good to us, Marvel,” the Chief said. “You still got your little communicators?”

“I do,” Marvel said, pushing back the sleeve of his trench coat and suit to reveal a wrist watch that had a speaker on it. “And I’ll be tuned into your frequency tonight, so I can keep in touch.”

“Will do, Marvel,” the Chief said. “Best of luck to you.”

****

When Masked Marvel hit the warehouse twenty minutes later, it was dark. But, he had expected that. If thirty years of crime fighting had taught him anything, it was that criminals rarely worked in the light. Not that the dark offered them much protection. Not from him, at any rate. He reached up to his mask and pushed a button, and the lenses over his eyes switched to a special night vision mode. Everything turned green, but he could see now, and better than the criminals themselves often could.

What he saw also didn’t surprise him. There were three men guarding the only door into the warehouse. They wore jumpsuits, black with a white spade on the left breast, and carried guns. Typical thugs. In all his years on this job, he never stopped being amazed that these insane super villains managed to find nearly armies worth of thugs and minions. He wondered if there were some kind of thug union, and they just called in with a uniform request.

He shook his head to clear it of use less thoughts like that. It was time to focus. Time to go to work. He shot a grappling line from his grappling gun and slid across it to the roof of the old Club Twenty-One. The guards down below didn’t even hear him. He went to the skylight, that used to be part of the club but that the new owners never bothered to get rid of. Personally, he enjoyed skylights. They gave entering a building a real sense of flair.

Looking through the skylight, he saw that there were only a few more costumed men inside, but they looked like they were setting up something among the boxes. It was time for that dramatic entrance. Taking a deep breath, Masked Marvel wrapped his jacked tight around him and jumped onto the skylight. The window made a great crashing noise, and the shards fell glittering in the moonlight towards the floor. The men below stopped what they were doing and looked up. Halfway down, Marvel let go of his jacket, and it flared dramatically behind him.

“It’s him!” one of the men said. “Scatter!”

Marvel smiled. He loved that reaction. Then, he landed, and as always, bent his legs on impact. Still, his back felt that landing a little more than normal.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered to himself as he straightened to face the thugs. Most of them had, in fact, scattered, but three had stayed behind. One of them pulled a gun from a sling on his back, a wicked looking rifle. The other two got into martial arts stances, and moved forward defensively. Masked Marvel smiled. It had been a while since he’d fought martial artists.

He took a defensive posture and let them come to him. They hesitated a while, hoping he would attack first, but like most thugs, they couldn’t wait long, and charged. A few quick jabs and kicks let him know that they were masters of their craft, but it was only one art. He had mastered six forms of martial arts before even starting his carrier fighting crime. These guys would be a work out, but nothing more.

He started with some simple parries, making them waist energy trying to hit him. Then he moved to his favorite martial art, judo. Using the momentum of one thug’s attack, he rolled the man over his shoulder and threw him into a pile of boxes. The next man charged forward before Marvel had fully recovered from that throw, so instead he crouched down and spun his leg around, tripping the thug. He then leaped onto him and gave a quick jab to the face that knocked the man out.

Spinning around, he saw that first though had detangled himself from the boxes and was in a defensive position. Marvel gritted his teeth. It was time to end this. He leaped forward with a kick that was easily blocked by the thug, but quickly followed up on it with some jabs to the stomach and chest. The other man backed off, but another spin kick knocked the younger man to the ground, and a quick kick to his head ended the fight. That was when the bullets whizzed by Marvel’s head. He spun and saw that the third thug was firing at him. Without wasting time, he ducked for cover behind some crates, and then threw down a gas bomb to cover himself.

He snuck around the edges of the boxes while the thug fired blindly into the smoke. Thankfully, the gunman was as much of an idiot that Marvel had grown to expect, and stood still while he fired away. A shirt circle around the boxes and he was behind the muzzle flashes. He closed both hands together into a double fist and clonked the other man on the back of his head, knocking him out.

He did a quick scan of he warehouse and saw that it was now unoccupied. Checking things out, it appeared that the three men inside were loading some of the fireworks into a truck outside that was marked ‘Lee’s Laundry.’ The two thugs that were guarding the door had apparently run off. He shook his head again. This was chump town stuff.

And stealing fireworks? What kind of criminal does that kind of thing? This Ace of Spades was letting him down. Still, if things were going as much by the stereotype this guy had been following so far, there would be a clue here somewhere to his next hit. A quick search of the van revealed nothing, but a search of the thugs revealed a matchbook with the logo of a place called the Card Sharp and a scrap of paper with a series of numbers on it, 12124 12 2200.

Marvel rubbed his chin. He knew the Card Sharp; it was a nightclub that specialized in dealing with super villains. It’s possible that this thug was hired through that place, so he figured it wasn’t really important. Still, he kept the matchbook. He had learned that there was no such thing as a useless clue. Then, he flipped on his watch and contacted the chief.

“Masked Marvel to Chief Burns. How are things at Club Twenty One?” he asked.

“Chief Burns here,” came the crackly voice over the speaker. “We found a group of thugs herein black jumpsuits that were setting up bombs around the club. Nothing dangerous, they mostly looked like incendiary devices.”

“Like they were trying to set the club on fire?” Marvel asked.

“Yeah, from the looks of it,” Chief Burns replied. “How are things at your end.”

“Some thugs here in the same costume,” Marvel said. “They seemed to be stealing some of the fireworks here.”

“Fireworks?” the Chief said in a voice of sheer amazement.

“I know,” Marvel said. “I can’t believe it myself. Something’s not adding up here, Chief. Incendiary devices at a club with people would scare some of them, but unless I miss my guess, people would have plenty of time to get out of the club before anything really bad would happen. And fireworks? What in the hell is that about? But, I have another clue, some numbers.”

He read the numbers to the Chief.

“I don’t get it,” the Chief said. “It just seems like a random string of numbers to me.”

“It’s an address,” Marvel said. “Well, and a time, too. 12124 12th street, at 2200 hours. Their next hit. I’m on my way there now.”

“12st Street?” the Chief said. “Nothing down there but a bunch of strip malls. What could possibly be down there this late at night on New Years Eve?”

“I don’t know, but I’m planning on finding out.”

****

The address turned out to be a single store, standing between two strip malls. It was a party supply store, the kind that sells piñatas and costumes and balloons and such. Marvel really scratched his head over that one. Was this Ace of Spades planning of putting on a party of some kind? And he had to steal the parts first? This whole thing was making less and less sense. But, in the mean time, there was another two trucks, with the same ‘Lee’s Laundry’ logo on the sides. One was driving away as the Marvel-mobile pulled up. He decided to let it go, but write down the license plate number. It appeared that the thugs were still filling up the second van.

“Chief, I got a van I need you to pull over, it’s got some stolen cargo in it,” he said into his watch. When the Chief replied, he gave the license plate number and a description of the van. He also asked the Chief to check and see if Lee’s Laundry was a real business. He expected that it wouldn’t be. After that was done, he got out of his car to take care of business.

He climbed into the roof of the building from the side, out of sight of the thugs coming in and out of the front door. There were six this time, two armed with guns and keeping watch while the other four pulled stuff from outside the store. He waited until the two outside were alone, then dropped a gas bomb. When he was sure they couldn’t see anything, he dropped down between them and two swift kicks to their heads ended any fight they might have.

“Earl?” a voice came from inside the store. “Did a fog bank roll in? I can’t see shit out here!”

“You’re not supposed to, punk,” Marvel said, grabbing the man from inside and punching him in the noise a few times before dropping him. Then he quickly moved into the store. A few seconds later, the other three men came around a corner carrying boxes loaded with party stuff. They quickly dropped them and moved into defensive positions.

“Remember what the boss said,” one said. “He wants the do-gooder alive.”

“Too bad I don’t have that same order,” Masked Marvel said, and then leaped into the three of them. He moved quickly, bobbing in and out of their swinging hands, causing two of them to hit each other and never land a blow on him. The third was confused, so Marvel took advantage and delivered an uppercut that pushed the man back. He shook his head and got ready to charge forward. Marvel shook his head. There was a time when that punch would have knocked that man out.

“Let me give you some advice, son,” he said as he blocked the other man’s wild swing and lifted him up against the wall. “Aging sucks. Avoid it if you can.”

With that, he smacked the man against the wall hard, which caused him to pass out from pain. Marvel dropped him to the ground and immediately started looking around for more clues. This time, there were inside the van. This time, it was a little more blatant than before. A menu to a caterer, with a 2300 written on it. He checked his watch. It was a little under a half hour away, and that address was across town. Thankfully, he could make that drive in the Marvel-mobile.

***

He made another call to the Chief to let him know where he was going next. The Chief informed him that they were chasing down the truck with the party supplies on it, but wouldn’t be able to get to the caterer in time. They had several other incidents popping up on the radar as people got rowdy as the night went on and the drinks were consumed. Marvel nodded, unsurprised. It was an unusual night crime fighting when he got real help from the police. Not that he didn’t like the police, its just that they had their jobs to do, and it usually fell to him to focus on one thing like this. Plus, super villains had a unique mind set that cops just weren’t trained in. He had lots of experience with them, and that made him the man to sick on ‘em.

But this particular super villain was a mad man the likes of which he had never seen. Fireworks, party supplies and a caterer? It really did sound like he was ripping off a massive party. What, was the only way he could pull a super villain party to rip it all off? It would make a kind of twisted logic in the eyes of some of his enemies. Black Swan, to name one. The Wild Goose would be another. Even Dark Laughter would do something like this, just to get a laugh out of how confusing it would all be. The big question to Masked Marvel was, if this Ace of Spades was throwing some big villain party, where would he be throwing it? Then, he could stop all this chasing around and cut to the final play. Not that he figured there was much left to this chase. What more could they want for a party? Nothing immediately sprang to mind, so he focused himself on the task at hand.

The caterer was located in a small industrial mall, where there were several one-story buildings and two two-story buildings full of offices. No doubt, this place also doubled as a café, and did most, if not all, of its business from these places. The expected van was there. This time, though, they were ready for him, and some gunshots went off from the roof of one of those two-story buildings, bouncing off the car. It was times like that that Masked Marvel was grateful his alter ego owned a massive company that did mostly military contracts. Bulletproof cars were fantastic in crime fighting.

He gunned the engine and drove straight at the truck, ignoring the guys on the roof. When he smashed into the truck, he leaped out and threw down another gas grenade. He was thankful that he always kept spares of those in the car. They were ever so useful. In quick succession, he battled his way through three of the same kind of thugs he’d already taken down. Then, something smashed into his face at great speeds, and caused him to step back a few steps. He blinked and shook his head, and when he looked back up, he saw a very large, muscular man in the same black outfit the other thugs wore. He looked like something escaped from the WWE, and he was carrying a baseball bat in one hand. It looked almost like a child’s toy next to him.

Masked Marvel winced. Big guys like this were always tough to take down. It could be done, of course, he knew several pressure points that would cause muscles to freeze or spasm in pain. But getting to those spots meant getting in reach of those meat hooks. And this guy was obviously fast. A point he proved by taking a swing with that bat, causing Masked Marvel to duck quickly. He hit the man with an upper cut, and felt like his fist hit a brick wall. It affected the large man, though, so he took the opportunity to roll to the side and get some moving room.

Ducking and weaving was his only real chance. This guy moved like a wrestler, too, trying for grabs or just swinging with that bat, making boxing moves a great defense. It also made a good offense too, allowing him to jab and attack back pretty quickly. In a few short minutes, the other man was covered in bruises and looking like he was slowing down. The problem was, Masked Marvel was feeling winded himself. He berated himself for that. There was a time when a guy like this wouldn’t even cause him to break out in sweat. Now, he was feeling his age, he had slowed down, and fighting this thug was starting to hurt.

He needed to end this, and quickly. He leaped up and bounced off the wall to his side, allowing him to land on the big man’s back. Quickly, he wrapped his arms around the man’s neck in an attempt to strangle him. The other man fought back by raining blows on his back with the bat, but Marvel held on for dear life. Eventually, the other man slowed down and finally, fell to the floor, unconscious.

The Masked Marvel stood up, his back cracking and popping, and he groaned.

“I’m too old for this,” he said for the second time that night. He was really looking forward to his retirement. He stretched and then looked around. That was when he realized the other thugs weren’t there.

“Damn,” he said. The big guy was just a distraction. He ran outside and sure enough, the truck was gone. It probably wasn’t running very well, but they had escaped. That would make it more difficult to find the clues he needed. He was convinced now that this Ace of Spades was having a get together of his super villain buddies. And the note at the beginning of all this was an invite for him. No doubt, he was to be the main prize. But if such a party was really happening, than he could potentially put away several super villains all at once. That was a prize worth the risk of a trap once he got there. Wherever there was.

That led him back to the question of clues. He started looking around, and eventually searched the big guy. He found a set of matches on that guys as well, the same logo as the other set he had. He sighed. He had been hoping to avoid the Card Sharp, but there didn’t seem to be any other choice. He had questions that needed to be answered, and if those answers could be found anywhere, it was at the Card Sharp. He hopped into the car and checked his watch. 11:15. forty five minutes away from midnight, when the party would no doubt really start. If they did trap him, no doubt right after that, they would start to terrorize this city. He gritted his teeth. He would be damned if he would let that happen.

****

The Card Sharp was a greasy little dive that was nearly indistinguishable from the strip clubs around it. He parked the car a few blocks away and hoofed it the rest of the way on rooftop. This place was not keep on skylights, but there was a convenient back door that he could access without anyone noticing from the roof. He leaped down and found himself face to face with a fat cook taking out the garbage. Without hesitating, Masked Marvel gut kicked the man into the wall and watched as he slumped to the ground.

“Sorry, mac,” he said, “but it’s probably better for you this way.

He made his way through the back door and through the kitchen. Apparently, the fat man outside was the only cook on staff at this time. Must not be a big crowd for the big New Years party. He didn’t even hesitate when he hit the outer door, and slammed it open.

“Okay, boys,” he said. “Party’s over.”

The few thugs in the room immediately stood up and drew knives and a few guns. There were only ten total, and he threw down a gas grenade.

“It’s the Masked Marvel,” one of the thugs said. “I’m out of here!”

“Tut tut, boys,” Marvel said as he moved through the room, staying out of the cloud. He quickly made it to the front door and locked it shut. “No one is leaving now.”

“Aw, don’t hurt us, Marvel,” one of the men said, in a sincere voice. “We ain’t done nothing.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I need some questions answered,” Marvel said. The gas cleared out, and one of the thugs, turning, spotted him and charged with his knife. Without hesitating, Marvel grabed the man’s arm and twisted it around behind his back. The man yelped and dropped his knife. Marvel made sure to position the man between him and the other thugs.

“Ask your questions, hero,” one of the thugs with a gun said. “I ain’t in the mood for a shootin’, but if I get to itch to do so, Maurice there ain’t gonna stop me.”

“A man hired some of you recently, to pull some big job tonight,” Marvel said. “Called himself Ace of Spades, no doubt. I need to know where he was planning his big party.”

“Yeah, I remember him,” another man said. “Tried to recrute me, too. But I turned him down. New villains can’t pay what I’m worth. He did get some of the newer guys, though. Said something about a big hoo-rah at the Sports Arena, the old one that ain’t used much anymore, in Old Town.”

Sports Arena, in Old Town. Of course that made sense. Large enough for a crowd, opened topped so he could use the fireworks, but ill-used, and unlikely to be the center of attention tonight. The cops would never even think to look there.

“That’s all I need, then,” Marvel said. “Thanks Gents, as always, it was a real pleasure.”

He walked his way back to the kitchen with Maurice held by the arm. Then, he tossed the thug to the floor, dropping another gas grenade and making his way out.

****

The Sports Arena had it’s lights on. That wasn’t something that Marvel had expected. That would draw attention. He got out of the car at the far end of the parking lot and made his way slowly towards the ticket booth. He could hear the sounds of a crowd. It sounded pretty big. Just what the hell was going on here? Did this Ace of Spades have hostages, maybe? He decided that he was tired of being in the dark, and just wanted this done and over with. If there was a trap, he figured he could escape from it. Everything else from this Ace of Spades was amateur hour, why not his trap too?

He walked into the arena and saw the biggest crowed he had ever seen in the place. Every seat was packed, and the people cheered when a spot light fell on him, his image showing up on the jumbotron.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed from the loudspeakers. “The man of the night. Masked Marvel.”

The crowed cheered again. What the hell was going on here? Then, a man stepped in front of Marvel. He wore an black suit and hat, similar to his own, but he had a full black face mask with a white Spade over his right eye. The Ace of Spades. Marvel took a defensive position.

“He’s been fighting his way here all night, folks, just for this moment,” Ace said into a microphone Marvel had missed before. The voice echoed through the loudspeakers. “Are you ready?”

The crowed got even louder and stomped their feet.

“What’s your game, Ace of Spades?” Marvel demanded.

“Game?” The man said. “No game.”

With that, he reached up and took of his hat, then pulled off his mask. Marvel jumped back a step in surprise. It was Mr. Marvel, his old partner.

“What?” Masked Marvel said. Then, he saw Chief Burns come out, and even Captain Nobel. They were all smiling.

“Happy Retirement,” they all said, and it was repeated by the crowd.

“What?” he said, still confused.

“It’s a retirement party, MM,” Mr. Marvel said. “We put all this on just to lure you here for a surprise party. Put on by the city, for you, their protector. Come on, enjoy some food and drink with two thousand of your closest friends.”

Marvel hesitated, then smiled. He thought back through the night and realized it all made sense. His smile broadened.

“I’m glad this was my last case,” he said. “Not only does it have a good ending, but I am just too old for this anymore.”

The End

Week 52!!!

This is it, folks! The big one! The LAST one! I made it! Down to the bitter end, the wire, so to speak, but I made it. The last story in my year long quest to post a story a week. It's been a fantastic ride, and I'll be writing up a blog post to discuss my thoughts on this on my new blog, I Must Be Remembering the Future. Check that out here, http://christopher-blanchard.blogspot.com.

Meanwhile, enjoy this last offering here, at least for now. I'll be keeping this blog open, and may post other short stories and flash fiction here as I write them. In the mean time, this project is officially done. And thank you all for sharing it with me!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bonus Story: Life and Times of Aries Webb, Epilogue

Here it is! The final part of my NaNoWriMo novel, the Life and Times of Aries Webb! I hope you all enjoyed it. I had fun writing it. :)

And with this post, that means I have one more story to write for this week, to be posted on Sunday, that will mark my 52nd Short Story, and the end of this entire project. Wow. Hard to believe. Stay tuned to see what get's posted! Meanwhile, enjoy the final bit of Aries Webb.

***


Epilogue

Aries looked down at his world from the top of Olympus Mons. How it had changed from his last climb. The city below was now larger, and other cities were close by. There were more clouds in the sky, and he could see water from the lakes that were forming on the planet. There were even a few patches of green here and there. Nothing so grand as a forest, but these were fields of lichen that could survive on the thin atmosphere of the red planet.

“Wow,” Zita said from behind him. “This really is a spectacular view. Thanks for bringing me up here.”

“No problem, honey,” he said. Being outside the domes, they were wearing their space suites, special ones designed for climbing. “I like to come out here when I need some place quiet to think. The last time I was up here was just before I ran for Governor of Mars.”

“Which, of course, lead to you being Prime Minster,” she laughed. “Its really too bad you couldn't’ come up here more.”

“Pressures of the job,” he said. “As you know, it was very difficult to get away from the desk.”

“Well, running a whole planet takes a lot of work,” she said.

“And time away from the important things in my life,” he said, turning to look at he. She smiled. She really was a beautiful girl.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” she said. “They’ll pass the vote. They have to. One man in power this long, and it starts to become a dictatorship and not a democracy. They learned that in America centuries ago, I don’t think we need to discover it ourselves for real.”

“Oh, I’m sure they will, honey,” he said. “I’m sure they will. It’s just a big deal, so I come out here to get some space.”

“Plenty of space here,” she said. “Look, is that Phobos?”

Aries looked up to where she was pointing in the sky to a bright star. “Yup,” he said. “I always loved looking at the moons in the day. It’s not often one can do that on Earth.”

“Yeah,” she said. She did like her home world, but the moon on Earth was just so much bigger and made for a stunning sight at night.

“Come on,” Aries said. “Lets finish setting up camp. I want to get to that dinner.”

“You mean before Anthony calls, right?” Zita said.

Aries laughed. “Are you kidding? He’s been calling me all day. I shut my phone off at the start of the climb. I told him to call you when the vote comes in.”

“Oh, great,” Zita said. “Thanks, Dad.”

The two laughed and returned to setting up camp.

****

“This speech is fantastic,” Aries said, looking over the words on his ePad. “Your best yet, Ho.”

The short, heavy set Chinese man bowed.

“Thank you, Minister,” he said in Chinese. “I thought that such an august and historic occasion needed something that would be remembered by future generations.”

“Well, this sure is it,” Aries said, switching to Chinese. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ll make a few minor changes. You know, just to make it more my own words, but nothing major.”

“Of course, Minister,” Ho said. “I would expect nothing less. I look forward to reading your revisions.”

“Thank you, Ho. That will be all,” Aries said.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Prime Minister,” Ho said, bowing again and leaving the room.

Aries sighed. Ho was probably the most talented speech writer he had ever had, but the man was so formal and trapped in outdated methods of formality that it often made it difficult to work with him. He looked at the speech again. It truly was a fine speech, one that would be quoted and reread by future generations. It was sometimes awe inspiring to see history in action. And Aries had been in his fare share of historical moments. He just needed to make a few minor tweaks to make it less formal and more him. He’d done this before, and Ho would be obviously uncomfortable, but agree.

“Knock knock,” came a voice from the door. “May I have a moment, Mr. Prime Minister?”

“I tried to stop him, sir,” Anthony said, pushing the man in the fancy business suit out of the way. “But you know how Charles is.”

“It’s okay, Anthony,” Aries said. “I have a few moments available to talk to Charles.”

Anthony nodded and left, closing the door behind him.

“So, to what do I owe this visit, Chuck?” Aries said, motioning for his visitor to take a seat.

“You know I hate it when you call me that,” Charles said. “And I’m just here for one thing. To congratulate you. I wasn’t sure that the bill was going to pass, to be honest. These people seem to want you to be Prime Minster for life, and maybe even pass the job onto your daughter when all is said and done. A real monarchy, right here on Mars.”

“Yes, well, you know that I never wanted that,” Aries said.

“Yes,” Charles said. “And as much as I admire you, and am glad you were there for Mars when we needed you, I do think it’s time for some new leadership for Mars. We can make it on our own now, do more than survive, and we need leaders that will think about more than survival.”

“I’m not the campaign trail, Charles,” Aries said. “There’s no need for rhetoric here. But if you’re here to get my endorsement, you already know my answer. I can’t. I won’t. This election, the first real election since we voted for independence, has to be unbiased. The people should choose their next leader, not me. That was the whole point of my bill in the first place. I didn’t just want to limit terms on the Prime Minister’s office, but ensure that the next Minister wasn’t someone hand picked by the last.”

“I appreciate that, Aries,” Charles said. “I really do. It’s honestly one of the reasons you made such a good leader. I was hoping, however, that you migth change your mind. Ah well. I’m still ahead in the polls, even if only slightly.”

“I wish you the best of luck, Charles,” Aries said.

“Any chance I can count on your vote?” Charles asked as he stood up.

Aries laughed and showed his friend to the door. He asked Anthony to cancel his next appointment so he cold have time to breath for a moment. Charles was a good man, he thought as he sat back down at his desk to work on the script. So was his opponent in the upcoming Prime Minster election, Mrs. Rebbecca Cho. Unlike Charles, she wasn’t a current member of congress, but she did have a lot of experience leading, being the current CEO of the Martian Technical Institute, still the largest employer on Mars. He would be happy for either one of them to take over after he left. Mars would be in good hands.

He just had to remind himself of that. It was so easy to believe that the world really was his, in the sense that he owned it. The passing of the bill and the upcoming election made him realize that getting away from Mars was a good thing. He needed some distance, some perspective. And he needed to find those things he had discovered were truly important.

****

“Come on, Dad,” Zita said, shoving some of her dad’s clothing into the large suit case. “It’s the right thing to do. You know it, I know it... even Uncle Bo knows it, and he’s literally a whole world away!”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve just... well, I’ve never left you alone before.”

“Dad, I spent an entire summer on Earth with grandma, remember?” she said.

“That was different,” he said. “You were with your grandma in her lab.”

“I’ll be with her here, in my house,” she said. “And granddad will be with his time time. I’ll be okay. I’m in High School, for Mars’ sake, I can take care of myself. I’ve even got a job lined up for the summer already, remember? I’ll be working at Solar Tech, making robots.”

“Robots,” Aries shivered. “I still hate the little things. Give me the creeps.”

“But, they do bring in a lot of money,” she said. “And I get to be in near the beginning of one of the biggest industrial trends since... portable music players!”

“I agree, honey, it’s all very exciting,” he said. “I’m just... scared. I’m scared. I hate to admit that do my own daughter, but there you have it. I’m scared.”

Zita closed the suit case and walked across the room to her dad. She looked him in the eye, and started to tear up. He pulled her close to him on the bed and hugged her.

“I’m scared too, Dad,” she said. “Everything is changing for me. Everything. I’m no longer living in the PM’s Mansion. Not that this place isn’t fantastic, but it’s just not home... it was always our place to go to escape. And then, in a few days, there will be a whole new Prime Minister. That’s pretty scary, you’ve been the Prime Minister my whole life. And then to top it off, you’re leaving. Finally leaving to do what it is you’ve probably wanted to do for a long time, something I’ve selfishly asked you to do since I was a little girl. You’re going to go get Mom, how ever long that takes you.”

“I’m going to be living with Grandma,” she continued. “And I’ll be starting High School. It’s scary. I don’t want you to go. funny that. You’re finally doing the one thing I always wanted you to do, go get Mom, and now I don’t want you to leave. I want my dad to be here when some of the biggest changes ever happen in my life. But at the same time, I know that what you’re doing is important. It’s always been important. I get that. I want you to go, because I still want you to find Mom. This is the right thing to do. It really is. And you and I, we’ll get over being scared, because we have to. Because we know that the other will be waiting for us at the other side of this, and we’ll have Mom with us and be a family again.”

Aries wiped the tears from his own eyes before doing the same from hers. He hugged his daughter close to him and kissed her on the top of her head.

“I am so lucky to have such a fantastic daughter,” he said. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Dad,” she said. The, she disengaged from the hug and stood up, trying to look serious through the tears still running down her cheek.

“Now, come on, you need to sleep,” she said. “Tomorrow is the day you officially pass over leadership of Mars to the new Prime Minster. And two days after that, you get on your ship heading to Earth. Lots to prepare for.”

“You’re almost as bad as Anthony,” Aries said. “But you’re right. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She smiled and left Aries to his thoughts.

“Good night, Dad,” she said.

****

“Well, I guess this is it,” Aries said, looking back towards the city from the window of the space port. “My list view of Olympus Mons.”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, Son,” Charles Webb said, slapping Aries on the back. “Or were you trying to be poetic? I never can tell.”

“I have never, in my life, been poetic, Dad,” Aries said, giving his dad a wry smile. The two walked away from the window to join Ju and Zita at the table. It wasn't much of a last dinner, eating at the space port diner, but it was better than nothing. He was grateful that his family joined him today.

“I don’t know,” Charles said. “You were pretty poetic when you first met Amelia.”

“I remember,” Ju said. She winked at Zita, and Aries rolled his eyes. His parents were trying to embarrass him in front of his daughter again. “He used to write these horrible love poems to your mother, and then throw them away before ever showing them to her. I don’t know that Amelia ever saw a one of them.”

“She saw one,” Aries said. “exactly one. And that’s all she is ever going to see. Those were horrible. I’m not a poet, never was.”

“Only one?” Zita said. “Dad, that’s a crime! It’s too bad you don’t have them anymore, I’m sure Mom would love to see them when she gets back.”

“Oh, she still can,” Ju said, and Aries looked at her sharply. “I rescued all the ones he had written at our house and saved them. I figured that any woman that could move my son to poetry deserved to see exactly what effect she had on the poor man.”

Zita, Ju and Charles all laughed, and after a few moments, even Aries joined in. It felt good to laugh, on the moment of his leaving. He couldn’t help but escape the feeling that this was somehow final, like he was never returning to Mars. He knew that wasn’t true, but he had only ever been off Mars a few times, and most of them were on diplomatic missions in his role as Prime Minister. And he hated traveling in space every single time.

They ate and laughed and told stories about Amelia to Zita, who had almost no memories of her mother. That saddened Aries, but she told him not to worry. She looked forward to making all new ones once Mom was back, even if it took another ten years to make it happen. Finally, the call for his flight came over the loudspeaker. He gave everyone hugs and kisses, and all four of them shed tears. He walked down the hall to the airlock of the space ship that would carry him away from his home to Earth, saying one more good bye as he did.

“I’ll be back, Mars,” he whispered. “And I’ll be bringing my other love with me.”

****

The last four days of the trip to Earth should have been very relaxing for Aries. All his calls to the new Prime Minister were done. All the arrangements had been made for meetings once he reached Earth. He had no more responsibilities except to enjoy himself. This ship boasted a pool and a casino, too, so he had plenty of diversions to entertain himself with. Instead, he spent the time concerned. He planed and plotted and grew concerned that things would fall apart. So he planned and plotted some more. Finally, he tossed all his plans aside, realizing that there wasn’t really anything he could do.

But he just couldn’t relax, either. He was so close. He knew where his wife we being held. He had contact with her father, the man in charge of her prison. His best friend, Bo Wu, was waiting for his arrival. There wasn’t anything he could do form the ship, but he wanted to do something! Entertainment, relaxing, they just seemed... wrong. At least, until he had Amelia by his side again. And so, the last four days of his trip were spent in unbridled anxiety and much pacing.

Finally, the trip was over, and the space ship landed. The Earth star port at Dallas was far larger than the one on Mars, and featured a full dozen landing pads, with ships leaving and returning all the time, as opposed to Mars’ two pads. He still had trouble with how much bigger things were on Earth. Then, he saw his best friend, a tall, bald Chinese man in a black trench coat and duster. He looked like a modern cowboy, which made Aries smile. He could remember the time when the young Chinese man embraced communism, and the thought of American cowboys would send him into tizzy fits. The two clasped each other on the back and hugged. It had been years since they had been face to face. After a few moments, they released each other, and Bo smiled at him.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get Amelia.”

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Life and Tiems of Aries Webb, Part 8: Fathers and Daughters

The lights on the large display in the Situation Room were bright, yet the room itself seemed dark. It was a contrast that Aries had never gotten used to, even through the war. He squinted in the dark, trying to see the people around the table as he sat down. Finally, he gave up and pulled out his glasses and put them on. He hated these things, but medical care was not quite up to standards just yet as the new nation struggled to get things in order. Strangely, the nation was easier to run when they were busy fighting a war. Aries had since come to realize that the real task of building a nation was only just now starting.

The four men and one woman that sat around the table represented the Prime Minister’s top military advisers, the leaders of the armed forces and the state police. They all stared at him with expectant faces. He always felt a little uncomfortable around these people. To a person, they were all older than him by abut twenty years, and all had more experience in military matters than he could ever muster. But, by fate, he was their leader, and they waited for him before marching.

“Report,” he said, trying to sound authoritative. It was something Bo had taught him. Military types liked a decisive leader.

“Sir, the dissidents have moved their operations to Schmidt, near the South Pole,” General Edwards was saying. He had once worked for the enemy during the war, but had defected to become a Martian citizen after the final battle. Now, he was Bo Wu’s chosen successor as the General of the Martian Army. “It looks like we have them on the run, and I’m confident that now that our air force is in full fighting shape, we can take them before they can cause any more serious trouble.”

“I would agree, sir,” the woman, General Marissa Payne said. “We’re at full strength and ready to go.”

“Has there been any further word from Atherton?” Aries asked. “Before we make our move, I want to be sure that he’s really with this group this time, and that it’s not another set up.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said. “We have had several visual confirmations by our intelligence operatives that Atherton is with this group in Schmidt. We can trap him in the South Poll and trap him for certain this time, sir. I’m positive of it.”

“Are we sure that this isn’t just another one of his traps?” Aries asked. Since the man had escaped capture and lead a guerrilla war against the Martian people, Zachery Atherton had set up the Martians at least three times.

“We’re positive it is, sir,” Edwards said. “But, our intelligence confirms that Atherton is actually there this time. And I’m pretty sure I know what the particular set up he’s trying to trap us with. It’s similar to one he used in South America. Knowing what he’s doing, I can maneuver around him.”

“Okay, make it happen,” he said. They all nodded, and then Anthony, his personal aid, came up to whisper in his ear that his next appointment was ready to meet in another room nearby. He sighed, thanked the military leaders and walked out the room. His day was only three ours old, but he was already exhausted.

“Anthony,” Aries said. “Have some strong coffee waiting at my next meeting, please.”

“It’s already there, sir,” Anthony said. Aries smiled.

“I don’t know what I would do without you, Anthony,” Aries said.

“I know, sir,” Anthony said. “I know.”

****

Zita came into the massive, state granted building that was her home. She had, in fact, grown up in the Prime Minister’s mansion, and so had never known any other home. But, she had it drilled into her head that this was a gift from the people of Mars, paid for by their taxes and hard work. It was, in fact, one of two homes so gifted to her and her father. This particular mansion was the official residence of the leader Mars, and would pass onto the next Prime Minister when her father stepped down. The other was a smaller place, though still large compared to the apartments most Martians lived in, that was their actual home. It was built three years ago by three construction companies as thanks for securing Martian freedom. Zita loved both houses, and understood what they meant to both her father and the Martian people.

But she hated coming home alone. Servants lived in the Prime Minister’s mansion, sure, and they took care of her fine, providing food and taking care of her clothing. Cho even helped her with her homework. But none of that was a good replacement for her father. And he was never home when she got there after school. Or was it?

“Honey?” she heard her fathers voice say from down one of the halls. “Is that you?”

“Dad?” she asked.

“Down here, in Office Two,” he said. She walked down the hall to what was called Office Two, so called because it was used for times when her dad, the Prime Minister of Mars, wanted to work but didn’t mind getting interrupted. Office One was a private office that even Anthony couldn’t interrupt him in.

“What are you doing home?” she asked, leaning on the door frame. “You’re never home this early.”

“Well, I had to escape all the meetings,” he said. “I needed to get some real work done.”

She narrowed her eyes some. “Real work?”

He held up his ePad, which was currently opened to a mail program.

“It’s a report from Uncle Bo,” he said.

Zita gasped. Her Uncle Bo had been searching for her mother, lost since the middle of the War for Independence about ten years ago. All they really knew was that she was a POW, taken in an attempt to convince Dad to end the war to save her. He hadn’t, of course, and Zita was still angry with him about that. Mars could have won its Independence some other time, with some other leader. She had been without her mother since she was three. And she blamed her Dad for that. But Uncle Bo had volunteered to go find her on his own, and any news from him included news about her.

“What’s he say?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I just got here a few minutes ago. I was about to watch it and find out. Come on, sit next to me, and we’ll watch it together.”

She pulled up a chair next to the big, metal desk and pressed the play button on the mail. Aries placed the ePad down on the table, and the video sprung up as a three dimensional hologram. It was new technology, developed by a new technology firm back in India on Earth. Zita was super excited that she and her dad were given advanced copies of the new ePads, she loved showing hers off at school. It was a perk to being the daughter of the Prime Minister.

“Aries,” the voice of Uncle Bo came through the speakers before the video fully realized. Then, she saw him, his hair starting to gray slightly at the temples. “And I hope Zita is there with you too. How are you, Little Princess?”

She smiled. Only Uncle Bo got away with calling her anything other than her name. Well, and Dad, who just called her Honey or Kiddo a lot. But Uncle Bo called her Little Princess, and that would always mean something special to her.

“So, I have some really good news, followed by some bad news, and both are related,” he said. “I’ll just get right into it. I found Amelia.”

That brought gasps from both of them. Uncle Bo usually didn’t talk out right about Mom, he usually spoke in code, and even in Chinese. Today he was speaking outright, and in English. That meant whatever he found, he wasn’t afraid of anyone else finding him. What was going on?

“She is being held in a POW Camp in California,” he continued. “It turns out that the US Government re-opened Alcatraz as a prison and is using it for Prisoners of War from both Mars and China. Lots of people are still in there. They kept it pretty hushed up, using the earthquake as cover for closing the park. But, I had been hearing rumors from my contacts in China that California was the place to find prisoners. I got here and started some snooping. I found proof about Alcatraz, and tried to plan getting on the island to confirm Amelia was there. Then, yesterday, I got this in my mail.”

The image on the screen shifted from the Chinese man to that of an outside scene. It looked like someone looking from a cliff of some sort, over an ocean or sea, and there was a city across it. Zita didn’t know where that was until she thought she recognized the bridge in the scene as well. It had to be San Francisco. A man moved in front of the camera than. He was older, in a starched and pressed military uniform showing general stars. He smiled, and it was a pleasant smile, not all what she was used to seeing on military people.

“Greetings, General Wu,” the man said. “I hope this message finds you well. I have it on good authority that you’ve been looking for me. Or rather, my daughter. Well, rest assured that she is here, and safe and sound. I’ve been making sure that she’s quite well taken care of. I truly wish I hadn’t had to take her away from her husband. Speaking of which, I’m going to assume that you’ll be passing this message along, so allow me to talk to my son-in-law.”

“Aries,” he said, and he smiled again. Dad stiffened a little, and Zita thought she heard him say ‘General’ under his breath. “Son before I begin, I want you to know that I admire you. I always have, which was why I was more than happy to let my daughter marry you. And especially in light of what you have accomplished up there. Impressive. I’ve had nothing but sympathy for you and your cause from the start. In fact, it was me that convinced the new president to end the war and sue for peace.

“But enough of that. You want to hear about Amelia, and no doubt some explanation about why, if I am so much on your side, I kidnapped my own daughter and took her away from you and that lovely granddaughter of mine. Well, that’s a little more complicated. See, when the war started, there was a lot of anti-China feelings in the US, and everyone thought of Mars as an ally of China, especially after that little stunt you pulled with Phobos. Brilliant, by the way. Anyway, no one was willing to let you win freedom for Mars if that meant you would just be working for the Chinese. And some up and coming officer here got the stupid idea that they could force you to give up if they kidnapped Amelia.

“I caught wind, and took control of the operation mid-stream. That took a lot of my political capital, let me tell you. But it was worth it to protect my daughter. Now, ever sense then, I’ve been working on getting her freed and returned to Mars, especially now that the war is over. But, she’s scheduled to face War Criminal charges, though a date hasn’t yet been set. It’s a big bunch of bull hockey, if you ask me. They’re not planning on charging anyone held here. They're just going to keep them here and use them for information. I just hope that you understand that I’ve done and am still doing all I can to help her and you.

“Now, General Wu, back to you. I’m sending you all the information I can safely include in this message. Please, do not try and rescue Amelia here. If you try, weather successful or not, this place will become worse that it has ever been. It’s very difficult to get here without being detected, never mind get off again. I suggest holding off on any rescue attempts. Truly, Prime Minister and General, your best bet her is politics. Negotiate for her release. Offer something to the US that they want desperately, in return for all POW’s currently being kept at Alcrataz. Please, don’t do anything rash. Diplomacy is your weapon now.”

The old man paused, and Zita thought she saw a tear slip down his cheek.

“I must go now. If I can, I’ll send you what information I have. Good bye, and good luck.”

The scene turned back to Uncle Bo, who now had a worried look on his face.

“It’s the first real news we’ve had in a long time, Aries,” he said. “I’m not sure how you want to handle this from here, but I’ll start some preliminary scouting missions, see if maybe there is a way to do something. But in all honesty... I think the General is right. Getting her off there will be next to impossible. I’ll be waiting for your reply.”

And with that, the message ended. Zita turned to look at her dad.

“OMG, dad!” she said. “This is it! This is our chance to get Mom back. You can call the US government and negotiate!”

She expected him to be as excited as her. She expected him to maybe even call Anthony and set up the meeting now. She did not expect the reaction she did get. Her dad stood, his face drooping and sad. He looked at her like he was about to tell her the worst news ever. She could feel the tears coming. She shook her head before he started talking.

“Honey,” he started. “I can’t. I’ve already tried. I continue to try. But the truth is, we’re in such a tough financial situation right now, we have nothing to offer. Not even natural resources, really. We need most of what we’re mining ourselves, it doesn't leave much to sell. And we don’t have much in the way of anything else the US would want. I’ll keep trying, of course. I have to, and knowing about Alcatraz will help, but I doubt very much we’ll make much progress in freeing your mother.”

“No,” Zita said. “No! You have to do more, dad! We’re this close, you have to do something!”

He sat back down, slumping into it. She could tell by looking at him, he was defeated.

“I hate you!” she screamed at him. It felt like she’d been doing that most of her life. “I hate you!”

She stormed out of the room, slamming the door as she went. But it did very little to make her feel better.

****

“I just don’t know what to do, Mom,” Aries said to the hologram of his mother. He slumped down on his overstuffed office chair and sighed.

“She’s thirteen, honey,” Ju said. “They get rebellious at that age.”

“It’s more than just that, Mom,” Aries said. “She’s been like this since she was eight. She really does hate me, and I can’t blame her. I mean, I promised her I would get her mother back. It’s been eleven years, Mom. Eleven! Zita doesn’t even know what her Mom’s favorite perfume is, or what kind of dresses she wears. She’s never made cookies with her, or even know what the sound of her laughter is like. She only knows what she looked like eleven years ago. And Amelia... she’s been without her daughter all this time. We’re this close, Mom. This close. The finish line is in sight, and all I can see are the huge, gaping pot holes in my wait. I not sure there’s anything we can do right now that won’t cause another war.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something, honey,” Ju said.

“We’re broke, Mom,” Aries said. “We owe so much money to the European Commonwealth that it’s likely they’ll simply buy us and we return to colony status, just to a different country. I don’t really know if there’s really anything I can do at this point. And poor Zita... I’m at a loss on both counts, Mom.”

“Well, I never was really good with politics,” Ju said.

“Or money,” Aries heard his dad’s voice come from just off camera. He smiled at that old joke.

“Hush,” Ju said. “But I think I can do something to help you with Zita.”

Aries sat upright. “What?”

“Send her down here,” Ju said. “We’ve got a good set up here in South America, doing our research. Send her down here for the summer, and we’ll make her a lab assistant. She’ll be away from you for a while, spend some time with the family she does have, and maybe advance her knowledge of animal sciences.”

“She wants to be a vet, now,” Aries said, rubbing his chin. “This is a good idea, Mom.”

“I know,” Ju said, smiling.

“I’ll talk to her about it,” Aries said. “It should be her decision.”

“Good,” Ju said. “Let me know what she says.”

****

“I can be packed in an hour!” Zita said and jumped up to give her father a great big hug. Aries quickly leaned back and wrapped his arms around his daughter, both to hug her and to prevent her from falling to the floor. He smiled, and then he set her back down.

“You understand that you’re going there to work,” he said to her. “You’ll be there for the summer and you’ll be working on your zoology studies, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Are you kidding, Dad? I’ll be working with real animals, animals we don’t have here on Mars. I’ll be with Grandma and Granddad. This will be fantastic!”

“And you understand that I have to stay here, right?” he said at last.

That caused her to pause. “Yeah,” she said. “I wish you could come, though.”

“I know, honey,” he said, and gave her another hug. “I know. Me too. I may get some vacation time coming up in a few weeks, so I could be down there for a few days.”

“Yeah?” she asked. Her dad rarely got vacations, it seemed like the congress was always tasking him to get something or another accomplished.

“Yes,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. “Now, you go and play. You’re shuttle to Earth doesn’t leave for another four days, so your hour packing excursion can wait a few days.”

She smiled, hugged him again, and took off running. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends. Earth. A whole other planet, and the one that none of them had ever been to. The mother world, and she was going to see it. It was exciting!

And secretly, she thought that maybe she could find a way to free her mom while she was there.

****
Zita stepped off the small, personal jet onto what appeared to be little more that a dirt strip and a two-story building with a tower behind it. This was the landing strip where her grandparents were working? This didn’t look at all that interesting. She stepped off the plane and immediately squinted in the bright sunlight. The sky was a bright blue, far more brilliant and bright than at home, forcing her to dig into her jacket for her sunglasses. She understood now what Grandma had suggested she bring them with her. And the place was hot, too. She knew it would be, but she had never really experienced it before. All the domes back home were climate controlled to be a nice, even temperature, and it only varied in temperature in places where experiments or environmental needs required it. According to Dad, it would be another hundred years before Mars was terraformed enough that the domes could be removed and the world was more like Earth. Now that she was here, she wasn’t sure she ever wanted it to be like that.

But then she heard something that made her smile. It was the cry of birds. She looked around to see if she could spot any, and it took a while before she saw a few on the roof of the building. They were so bright and colorful that she wanted to cry. Eventually, one of the other passengers on the jet nudged her to get her moving down the ramp, and she apologized as she did so. She felt like such a tourist, but she couldn’t help it. Earth was just so amazing compared to Mars. Her home was just red dirt and rocks outside the domes, and inside the domes was mostly steel, plastic and glass. Oh, sure, there were parks and zoo’s, but on Earth there were forests and jungles, with real wild animals.

Such as the one she saw running towards her now. It looked like a cat, but it was gigantic, orange with black stripes and a white face. She froze on the stairs, as did the man behind her. It stopped just a foot in front of her, sniffing. She was sure it was going to attack and eat her. How unfair was that? Not even on Earth for a few hours, and she gets eaten by some giant cat.

Suddenly, it jumped on her with its fore paws, pushing her down to the stairs. Then, its mouth got right up to her face, and she closed her eyes awaiting the grizzly end. Her hart was thumping when she felt a wet, sticky tongue rub across her face. Then it did it again, and she could swear she heard the beast purr. She opened her eyes to see hat it was, indeed, licking her.

“Khan!” she heard a woman’s voice call. “Khan, bad tiger. Get down, get down you great brute.”

When she looked up, she saw her grandmother yanking on a collar on the cat’s neck.

“Welcome to the jungle, dear,” she smiled. “Come, lets bring this little escape attempt back to his cell. You can settle in there.”

Zita laughed at the ridiculous sight of her skinny, old grandmother manhandling a giant cat. She stood up and helped her mother wrangle the beast back to the buildings that she thought was the landing tower.

****

“He just doesn’t seem to care, Grandma,” Zita said, putting the blood sample into the rack, then bringing the rack to the freezer unit. “He hasn’t done a single thing to help Mom. It’s all been Uncle Bo.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Ju said. She sighed and shook her head, sitting up from her microscope and looking at her granddaughter. “Your father has been pursuing every avenue available to him to find your mother and get her free. Diplomacy and politics are powerful weapons in the right hand, and your father is very good at both of them.”

“I just sometimes think he doesn’t really care,” Zita said. “I mean, he spends far more time working on the problems facing Mars than he does finding Mom.”

“You say that like Mars isn’t important,” Ju said. “Or worth helping.”

“It’s not important,” Zita said immediately. “Not compared to finding Mom.”

Ju sighed and stared hard at her granddaughter. Zita cringed slightly. Ju sat up very quickly, causing Zita to jump slightly.

“Come with me, young lady,” Ju said. “I have something to show you.”

Zita swallowed, but got up and followed her grandmother out of the lab and down the hall. It wasn’t long before she realized that Ju was taking her outside, into the Jungle itself. Even though she had been here for a few weeks now, the jungle still made her nervous. It was so... wrong to her. Everything was closed in and crowded, and it was noisy there. Not in a mechanical way, like a city was, but more... random, chaotic. Creepy noises she couldn’t identify, sounds that seemed to come from no where, strange animals moving among the trees. And everything was so green. It was such an alien place to her, and she felt like she would never get used to it. The austere vistas and mountains of Mars were looking more and more appealing the longer she spent on Earth.

Once out in the jungle, Ju lead Zita down a series of twisty paths, so that in very short order Zita was lost. It was her worst area of study since arriving. The few other interns there had all claimed to have memorized the paths in the jungle for a mile around the complex in a matter of days. She didn’t really believe them, but still, not having memorized any of then in two weeks was beginning to bug her. They walked for what seemed like an hour, though when Zita looked at her phone’s clock, she saw that it was only twenty five minutes. Her grandmother stopped at a tree and pointed to it. Zita looked, but it really didn’t look any different than the other trees in the area. Of course, trees and plants were not her area of interest. That was animals.

“Up there,” Ju said, pointing to some branches in the upper parts of the tree, “Is a species of bird called the Caatinga Woodpecker. We need one of them brought back to the lab so we can get some blood samples from it.”

Zita breathed out, only then realizing she was holding her breath. This was the kind of work she had been doing since arriving. Maybe Grandma wasn’t going to yell at her?

“I want you to climb up there and get one of the birds, a young one if possible,” Ju said. “They put up less of a fight. You should find several nests, so take your time and pick the right one.”

She stared at Zita in such a way as to indicate that the girl should start climbing right away. Zita blinked and nodded, then started to climb. It was difficult, given that she normally had time to get on proper protective gear and some climbing equipment, but Zita was young, limber and strong, so the climb was possible. After a sweat inducing ten minutes, Zita reached the first of the nests. The birds had been flying around her head for the past five minutes, crying at her loudly and buzzing her, but they never directly attacked her. She figured that they were not an inherently dangerous creatures, and getting the baby should be easy.

The first nest showed promise, too. It had four babies in it. She reached out her arm, and it was immediately bitten by the mother bird, who swooped down from seemingly no where. She batted at the bird and reached again, only to find that another bird had joined in the defense of the net. In short order, her hand had several red marks on it.

“They’re biting me!” she called down. “I don’t have my gear, this isn’t easy.”

“It’s not supposed to be, dear,” Ju cried back up. “Just get a baby out of the nest and start climbing down. They’ll leave you alone about half way down.”

Great, Zita thought. Grandma isn’t yelling at me, she’s punishing me by letting the birds pick at me.

She gritted her teeth and went back at it. She adjusted her position so she could use both hands easier, and made a new attempt to grab a bird. She jabbed quickly, grabbing one of the babies and yanking it out of the nest before the two birds protecting it could get to her. She used her other arm to start batting at them as they came at her. The pecked at her arm and hand more, but it gave her the time she needed to start climbing down. This was far more hurtful than the attempt to get the baby, as she needed her free hand to climb, and so was defenseless. She tired her best to only present her back to the attacking birds, and kept the baby close to her chest as she climbed back down.

Suddenly, though, the attacks stopped. She looked up and saw that the two birds had returned to the nest. They were still squawking at her, but they were no longer attacking. She wondered briefly why, but decided to be glad it was over and finished her climb down. She handed the bird to her grandmother, who was now wearing gloves.

“Go get washed up, see Dr. Landry, and then meet me in Lab 3 when your done,” Ju said, then marched off with the bird, leaving Zita standing there. She looked back up at the birds, who were still agitated and yelling. She couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t followed her to rescue their baby. She wold have followed herself and her grandmother to the ends of the world to get the baby back. But these two just stayed behind, yelling.

“Stupid birds,” she said, then went back inside.

****

“I don’t get it, Grandma,” Zita said, marching into Lab three. She had on clean clothes, as her last ones were getting a special sonic wash to get free of bird germs. Dr. Landry had lectured her long and hard about working without protective gear, until she told him that her grandmother had made her do it. Then he just laughed.

“Good,” Ju said. “Not getting things is the spark that motivates most scientists.”

Zita frowned. Sometimes, her grandmother was a very odd person.

“Why don’t you tell me what, specifically, it is you don’t get, dear,” Ju said after a few moments of silence.

“Those birds,” she said. “Why did they stop attacking? I mean, I kidnapped one of their children, why didn’t at least one of them keep coming after me?”

Ju looked up from her notes and turned around to face Zita. She was smiling.

“Come here, child,” Ju said. Zita almost rolled her eyes. When Grandma called her child, it meant she was going into teacher mode. “Bring your ePad.”

Zita grabbed her pad out of the bag and brought it to the table, setting it down where Ju indicated. Ju punched up a few commands on it, bringing up some of the cameras the research station had set up around the jungle. It had started raining out there, and everything was wet. This was something else different about Mars, but Zita liked the rain. It felt natural and wonderful and magical. It always made her smile.

When Ju set the pad flat on the table, the hologram technology took over, and the image because a three dimensional projection just above the screen. It was focused on the nest she had taken the bird from earlier.

“Tell me what you see,” Ju said.

“It’s the nest I was at earlier,” Zita said.

“Tell me specifics,” Ju prodded. Zita hated when she asked that. It meant she was missing something obvious to Ju.

“I see that it’s raining,” she said, looking more closely at the image. “And it looks like the two adult birds are both sheltering and providing food to the younger birds.”

In fact, it seemed to be a team effort. Hardly something one bird could do alone.

“Does that look like it could be done alone?” Ju asked, as if she could read Zita’s mind. She just shook her head. “Now, ask your question again.”

“Why didn’t the birds follow me?” she answered with a sigh.

“And the answer is?” Ju asked.

“Because they couldn’t,” Zita said. “Loosing one baby was hard, but they both had to stay behind to protect the other babies.”

“And do you know why I showed all this to you?” Ju asked, and Zita felt her heart skip a beat as she realized that she did.

“Yes,” she said. “Its like my dad with finding Mom. He wants to come down here after her, after the people that took her, but he can’t, because he has babies to protect back home. Me. And even Mars.”

Ju smiled and nodded. “Excellent,” she said. “No, go and get some sleep.”

Zita reached down to pick up her ePad and bring it back to her bag, shutting off the hologram.

“That really is a remarkable piece of technology,” Ju said. “The hologram thing. Where did you get it?”

“India,” Zita replied. “There’s a tech firm there that’s really in Mars and are big fans of dad. They send him new technology all the time. They...”

She paused, a light bulb going off in her head. She turned to look at her grandmother, who was confused by her granddaughter’s sudden excitement.

“Grandma! That’s it!” she said. “I know how to help Dad. Can I call him?”

****

Zita walked up to her dad and looked over the terrace at the new building being built below.

“Take a look, kiddo,” Aries said, giving her daughter a hug. “This is all your doing.”

Zita smacked her father playfully. “Not all my doing. You helped. A little.”

He laughed and hugged her tighter. She liked it. Things had been better with her had her dad since she returned to Mars two months ago.

“And I have more good news,” Aries said. “When word got out that this company was moving its headquarters to Mars, other tech companies started petitioning to move here as well, or at least set up plants here. We’re getting an influx of jobs opening here that will bring in money like never before. Mars will finally be able to start paying off its debts and actually getting something accomplished. You did good, honey. You did good.”

“No, Dad,” Zita said, squeezing her dad hard. “You did.”

The End

Week 51

Well, here we are, only one week away from the end of the whole year! I have to admit, when I started, I never thought I would make it this far. I never thought I would make it even past the first month. But, here I am, only one week away from finishing. Woo! I'm excited. So, enjoy Part 8 of the Life and Times of Aries Webb.

And next week, I'll be back one last time for the final story.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bonus Story: Life and Times of Aries Webb Interlude 3: Zita

“I hate you!” Zita screamed as she stormed down the hall way. “I hate you so much!”

“Honey,” Aries called after his petulant daughter. This was becoming a recurring fight with them. “Baby girl, come here. We need to talk about this.”

“No,” she said, stomping her foot down again. “No. You said we were going to get Momma! Now your saying that we have to stay here. I want Momma! I don’t want to be here anymore. I hate Mars, and I hate you!”

She slammed her door shut on her father’s face. He sighed and turned around to lean on the door.

“Baby girl,” he said through the door. “Talk to me. This is important, I need you to understand.”

“No!” she cried.

“I want to leave, just like you,” he said. “I want to go find Momma. But I can’t. I’ve been given no choice. Mars needs me, and they don’t want anyone else being leader right now. It’s up to me to set things up so it can run without me.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I want Momma, and you promised that we would go get her when the war was done. You promised!”

He sighed again. She was right, he had promised that very thing. At the time, it seemed like a realistic idea. Once the war was over, he could release Martial Law and return the government to the Ministry and Senate, back to the citizens of a now truly free Mars. They could elect a new leader. But the elections happened, and he was the only name on the ballot. No one else even wanted to run. The Ministry and the Senate, for the first time in their brief history, were united on this front. They wanted him to lead for the next full term, a full four years. His daughter would be a teenager by the time he was done with that, and he still didn’t even know where Amelia was. His heart was torn in three pieces. One for his wife, one for Mars and one for his daughter. How could a man make decisions like this?

“Honey,” he said, trying a different tactic. “I’m not giving up on Mommy. I still want to find her, just like you do.”

“Then we should go get her,” she said through the door. Oh, if only his little ten year old understood what it was she was asking.

“I would love to, but I can’t,” he said. “But, Uncle Bo has agreed to go.”

There was silence on the other side of the door for a few moments. Then, the door slowly opened, and Aires had to quickly stand up before he fell into her room.

“Really?” the little girl with tear stained cheeks said through the door. She looked so much like her mother, it almost hurt Aries. “Uncle Bo?”

“Yup,” Aries said, smiling. “He put in his resignation this morning. That means he quit. Just so he can go do this for us. Because he knows that I can’t, even though I want to.”

“Do you think that Uncle Bo can do it?” she asked, wrapping her arms around his waist.

He stroked her hair, a tear coming to his own eye. “I hope so, baby girl. I hope so.”

End Interlude

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Life and Times of Aries Webb Part 7: War’s End

Aries slammed the report down on his desk, causing Anthony to jump in surprise. It was another loss. The Americans had taken the water processing plant Allegheny Vallis. Though it was only a secondary water source for Olympus Mons, it was a major source for the smaller mining colonies Arsia Mons, and would make defending those colonies now a major priority. Those mines provided the Martian Army with much of the metal it needed to function. To top it off, Al-Qahira Vallis, a major food producer on Mars, was now under siege by General Atherton. The whole war effort was going to hell in a hand basket. Something needed to be done.

He signed the paper that Anthony was putting in front of him, and the dismissed his assistant. He needed to make an important decision, and he did that better when he was alone. His troops were spread thin, and their moral was done. Five years had passed since Amelia had been taken from him, five years and they still had no idea where she was. Bo had received a report that she had been taken off world, but he didn’t want to think of that. If she had been taken to Luna or worse to Earth, it was unlikely that he could truly rescue her.

He had to win this war. That had become linked to rescuing Amelia. Once the Americans had released his world, they could start getting things started on their own. He could even release the government from the Martial Law they had passed on him four years ago. With these responsibilities turned over to someone else, he could focus his attention on getting his wife off Earth and back home.

He reached across his desk and picked up another report. It contained only a letter, on which was a singular offer. He had turned it away out of hand at first, but now he had to seriously reconsider. If he accepted the terms, this could turn the tide of the war in his favor. Even though some allied countries on Earth had begun to put political pressure on America to stop the war on Mars, they just didn’t give up. Though they were stalemated against China, the government kept painting Mars as China’s ally, and thus wins here were wins against the Communists back there. And accepting this offer would only make those accusations true, at least in the eyes of the American government.

Still, he didn’t think he had any other choice. He re-read the letter again, just to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. Truth was he didn’t trust the offer. But it didn’t seem like there was anything missing. He called in Anthony and told him to bring in Bo.

****

“Has hell frozen over?” Bo said. “I can’t believe that you’re considering this for even an instant!”

“It’s a good deal,” Aries said. “We need the reinforcements this offer gives us.”

“At the cost of our soles?” Bo asked. “This is so far from being a good deal that I am beginning to question your judgement. More than normal!”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Aries asked. It had been a long time since the two of them really argued. Ever since being elected Prime Minister of Mars, and Bo made the General of the Army, the two hardly ever argued. It was a strictly business relationship, with Bo the General taking orders from Aries the Prime Minister. Today, though, Bo was letting all his anger out.

“It means some of your military decisions over the past few years have been really shitty,” Bo said. It was rare he used English slang like that, he preferred to swear in Chinese. “We’ve lost every major battle since Amelia’s capture.”

“Well, if you and your generals would follow my orders instead of changing my plans,” Aries said, “we wouldn’t be in this position.”

“Seriously, Aries?” Bo replied. “You really want to argue this? ,You’re idea of strategy is throwing troops at the enemy in the hopes of just wiping them out entirely. We’ve had no choice but to change tactics in order to try and make something useful of your orders. And even at that, we can’t pull miracles out of our asses. You need to give us something solid to work with. And now you want to accept aid from China? Troops in return for mining rights? That’s ridiculous. Not only is it a bad idea to give them a foot hold on our world, but it will turn public opinion on Earth against us and prove the Americans against us.”

Aries started to argue again, but stopped, his mouth open. He sighed, slumped his arms at his side and sat down in the chair behind his desk. Bo was right, and he just had to admit it. He was tired of all this.

“You’re right,” he said in a small voice that sounded as tired as he felt. “You’re right, I’ve fucked things up royally.”

“It’s not too late to recover,” Bo said, turning around to look at his friend. His voice also lowered. “We can still turn this around and pull out a victory.”

Aries looked up at Bo.

“I should have been letting you lead all this time,” he said. “It should have been you sitting behind this desk, not me. What the hell were we thinking? We were so young, and I was still in college. I would give anything to go back to that time, and just stick to my science. I could be a scientist now, studying the rocks and insides of Mars, instead of ordering men to their deaths.”

“Aries, listen to me,” Bo said. “We can’t think like that. What If’s and Maybe’s don’t do anyone any good. We’re here now, and I truly believe that we’re both right were we need to be. Mars needs us, and they need us to win this war. And we can do it. We just need to return to a basic strategy that was working for us in the beginning. We need to return to being defensive, make the Americans spend resources trying to get us. Eventually, we can make this war too expensive for them, and they’ll be forced to quit.”

Aries sighed again, and looked Bo in the eye. He saw an intensity there that he hadn’t seen before. Bo wasn’t just saying these things. He believed them.

“Okay, Bo,” Aries said. “Tell me what we do first.”

****

“Something has changed,” General Atherton said looking over his map of Mars. It was a holographic map that represented all the topography and terrain of the world, so that he could get a better look at thing. It was also covered in several red and blue dots, showing which sights and colonies were controlled by the Martains and which were controlled by the US.

“Indeed,” his Colonel said. He pointed to a red dot on the map that marked Eos Chasma, the place of the US Army’s latest defeat at the hands of the Martians. “They’re fighting defensively again, that’s whats changed. Our attack at Eos should have drawn them out, they should have wanted to chase us down to defeat us once and for all, where we could have continued to whittle down their numbers. Instead, they stayed behind, and never advanced. They used the terrain as they have never done before, finding features we didn’t even know were there to take advantage of us. They defended, and they did it so well that we were forced to retreat before we lost too many men.”

“And this is the third time in the past year they have done so,” Atherton said. He ran a hand through his hair, still dark brown despite his age. “This young general, Bo Wu. This is his doing. The leadership of the army has transferred back to him, it has to.”

The Colonel nodded his head. “That begs the question, sir. What do we do about it?”

The General rubbed his chin. “He’s conservative, this Wu.”

“Form every report we have, yes,” the Colonel said.

“Not just from that,” Atherton said. “From his actions. He conserves, his resources, his troops. He even waits to fire until we are almost on top of them. He knows this land, this world, like none of us do, even those of us that were born here. He uses that knowledge to his advantage, and does so very effectively.”

“Sir, you sound like you admire him,” the Colonel said.

“Of course I do,” Atherton said, still looking at the map. He circled the table that generated the computerized map on it. “He has proven himself worthy of my admiration.”

He paused, looking down at the hologram. Suddenly he jabbed his finger. “Here.”

The Colonel looked down at the map. “There? Sir, There is nothing at the Moreux Crater. Only an abandoned mine, not even usable as a base. It holds no strategic value at all.”

“Here,” Atherton said. “That is where we will draw them out. Wu will be expecting us to attack Arsai Mons.”

“As we should be,” The Colonel said. “Its a major farming center on Mars. We’ve talked about this attack for the past two weeks.”

“Yes, which is why we will not attack it, we’ll go to Moreux,” Atherton said. “We’ll draw them out. We’ll start marshaling forces, slowly at first, let them wonder what we’re doing. While that happens, and we’ll study the landscape. We’ll turn his tactics against him. We’ll make him attack us, and we’ll defend.”

“What if they don’t take the bait?” the Colonel asked.

“Oh, they will,” Atherton said. “They will see this as the opportunity to end the war once and for all.”

****

“He’s baiting us,” Wu said.

“Of course he is,” Aries said, looking at his own holographic map. “This is Zachery Atherton we’re talking about. He is the man that lead the US to victory in the South American conflict, and again in when the US aided Egypt in defending itself against Lybia. He’s a tactical genius, one of the most decorated Generals in the US. The only reason he’s not serving on the Joint Chiefs is he refused the posting.”

“And as a reward,” Bo said. “He was transferred to Mars, to live out the rest of his carrier. Kind of like putting him out to pasture.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t presented to him that way,” Aries said. “From what my dad said, Mars was a choice assignment when we were kids. Giving Atherton Mars would have been a kind of reward, even if it was the political equivalent of putting him out to pasture. Two birds with one stone.”

Aries looked at the map again. It was showing several blue squares moving towards the Moreux Crater. He just didn’t know why. There was nothing out there. It wasn’t even a good place to stage an attack, it was too far away from everything. They would know the moment he made a move. And yet, he was gathering forces there. Bo was right, of course. It was a trap of some sort, the problem was he just didn’t know what kind.

“Well, General,” Aries said, pointing to the map, “If we know its a trap, what do we do?”

“We spring it, of course,” Bo said.

****

“You see, Edwards?” General Atherton said to the Colonel as they watched the assembling Martian forces from the deck of the General’s temporary headquarters.

“Yes, I see that they took the bait,” the Colonel said. “But they are not attacking. They have set up a siege position, and even started putting in fortifications. They intend to wait us out.”

“But as you and I know, that won’t work,” Atherton said. He turned from the deck and walked back into the building. “We have supplies coming in through a way they will never figure out.”

“Can you be sure about that, sir?” Edwards asked.

“Positive,” Atherton said. “If they knew about this, they would have set up a supply base here a long time ago. It’s the perfect location for such a place, right in between three major colonies like this. We’re still getting supplies in as needed. We can hold out here for a year if we need to.”

Edwards nodded, but there was something about this whole thing that he didn’t like. Why didn’t the Martians build some kind of depot here, a station to sort shipments between colonies? The General was correct, this was the perfect place for it, especially with the secret they had discovered about it.

“Edwards,” the General said, sitting at his table to eat. “You worry too much. Come, sit. Chef prepared us quite the feast. Real Martian delicacies, from what I am told.”

Edward nodded again and sat. But he only nibbled at his food. Something about this was still disturbing to him.

“Oh, spit it out, Edwards,” Atherton said, waiving his fork at the Colonel. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, sir,” Edwards said. “There’s just something about this I don’t like. They have to know that we’ve set them a trap here. Why would they just walk into it?”

The General put his fork down and then placed both hands flat on the table. He glared across the table at Edwards. The Colonel had worked for the General long enough now to have experienced this before, and didn’t even flinch at the look that had cowed even presidants.

“I’m only going to explain this once, Edwards,” Atherton said, “so listen closely. They come knowing it’s a trap because they have no choice. If they want to end this war, and they do, the come to us. They will try to prepare for what we are going to do, but without knowing the secret of this crater, they will fail to be ready for the final attack. We will surprise them, and obliterate them. If I am very lucky, that young wolf, Wu, will be there. I wold love to see that man face to face.”

Edwards nodded. But it was clear from the look on his face that he wasn’t convinced. The General sighed.

“Edwards, if your questioning wasn’t so important to me, I wouldn’t put up with you,” Atherton said. “Ask your self this question. Have I ever lost a campaign? Individual battles, sure, but entire campaigns?”

The Colonel shook his head. That much was true about the General’s carrier. It did make Edwards feel a little better. This battle had the feel of the end of the war, he realized. Maybe that was what made him uncomfortable.

Maybe.

****

“Something is not right about all this,” Bo said.

“Is that why I came out here, to the front lines?” Aries asked.

Bo looked at him with narrowed eyes. Aries smiled. He had asked to come out to the field HQ Bo had set up, to give a talk to the troops. This battle just felt too important to for him to not be there.

“Listen to me,” Bo said. “We’ve been at this for, what, six months now? This siege should have started having some kind of effect on him. Instead, they stay hunkered down in there. Every time we probe their perimeter, we get a fight. No one is surrendering in order to get food. They’re getting supplies in there.”

“Air drop?” Aries asked, looking to the sky as if he expected to see jets fly by on his cue.

“No,” Bo shook his head. “I mean, sure, they have jets fly in, but our air force has pretty effectively cut that route off. The amount of stuff that gets through that way is minuscule.”

“The Air Force must be pretty happy about that,” Aries said. “Their first real victory in this war.”

“Yeah,” Bo said. “General Gomez has been bragging to me about his success this siege, as if I wasn’t somehow doing my part.”

Bo sighed, and flopped back into his chair next to the map. The map automatically zoomed out to its default view of the whole crater. Aries watched as the blue and red squares representing buildings and troops shrunk and turned into dots as the landscape expanded to cover a larger area.

Then, he saw something.

“Bo,” Aries said, circling the map. “Is it possible that the air drops are a distraction?”

“What?” Bo asked.

“The air drops,” Aries said again, leaning over and squinting at the map. “Is it possible that they are not really bringing in any supplies with them, they’re just distracting us with them?”

“It’s not just possible,” Bo said, leaning forward, “it’s very likely. I mean, they’re obviously getting in supplies somehow. I just don’t know how.”

“I do,” Aries said. “And to top it off, I know a very easy way to stop them.”

Bo grinned.

****

The tunnels shook around Colonel Edwards. More explosions. He would say that he knew it was too good to be true, but the truth was he’d been saying that for the past month. The Martians had discovered the tunnels. The tunnels the General had repeatedly assured him they did not know about, the secret they had used to get supplies to them from the few colonies they controlled. Now, one by one, the tunnels were being shut off, and the troops bringing in the supplies were being attacked. They were starting to enter a real siege here, and eventually, they would have to either attack or surrender. The tunnel stopped shaking, and he looked around. Where ever the explosion happened, it didn’t affect the supplies they already had stored here. That was good, at least. They could still hold out for several months on these supplies.

He left the cave to go find the General. He found the older man in his office as normal, looking over his communiques from Earth on his portable computer. He didn’t look happy when he motioned Edwards to move in.

“Those fools,” he said. “Those simpering, weak willed fools back on Earth don’t know what they are doing.”

“Sir?” Edward said. The General must have received new orders, but whatever they were, he wasn’t happy about it.

“Well, this new administration may think they know what’s best, but when I win this battle, and thus the war, I”ll show them,” the General said. He was ranting as if Edwards wasn’t even there.

“Yes, sir,” he said in reflex. This was a highly unusual state for the General to be in, and Edwards was beginning to worry that his leader was loosing it under all the pressure.

“Come, Edwards,” The General said, suddenly standing. “It’s time for this charade to end.”

The general walked out of his office and down the hall. The building was temporary, of course, made from pre-fabricated walls and bolted together on the field. They were solid armor, and good protection from anti-personal weapons, but they wouldn’t stand up to artillery fire. Still, they were more comfortable than a tend, and allowed the General his luxuries, such as his desk.

“How many of the tunnels have they shut down?” the General asked.

“About half, sir,” Edwards said. “And it looks like they’re not done yet. I don’t know how they found them, but it looks like they’re taking them down one by one.”

“And how many of our troops were lost in those tunnels?” Atherton asked, never looking at Edwards as he marched down the hall. He looked like a lion stalking its pray.

“Approximately ten thousand men are on those tunnels right now,” he said. “Assuming that they shut down all the tunnels in the next two hours, which seems likely, we’ll loos them all.”

Atherton nodded, as if expecting to hear that news. “Order those troops on their way here to stop and return to HQ. No need to loose those troops for good. We won’t need them anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said.

“Then, I want you to order a platoon to secure one of those tunnels,” Atherton said. “They seem intent on taking these tunnels down one at a time. Find out which one is their last target and stop them from taking it down. We can still use it to launch our attack.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said, and rushed off to deliver the orders. He found himself feeling excited. This was the General Atherton he had served with in South America and Africa all those years ago. Bold, decisive and always with a plan. If anyone can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, it would be Atherton. After delivering the orders, Edwards returned to his own office in the make shift headquarters. His desk was just as portable and austere as the rest of the building, but it served him. He sat at the computer terminal to check his own communiques and then prepare for the battle ahead.

****

“Thank you, Captain,” Bo said to the man, who saluted and walked away.

“Reports from the scouts?” Aries said, practically jumping up and down to read the note over Bo’s shoulder.

“I knew it was a mistake to let you stay here,” Bo said, and then unfolded the report and began to read.

“They found it, didn’t they?” Aries asked again, turning away from Bo and pacing around the table that was the only piece of furniture in the room besides the two chairs.

“Seriously, are you the Prime Minister, or a six year old?” Bo said, trying to read the report.

“And they don’t know about it,” Aries said, as if he didn’t hear Bo. “Or if they do, it’s not guarded.”

“I would know all this for certain if you wold just let me read the report,” Bo said.

“It’s perfect,” Aries said. “We can leave a contingent of troops out here as bait and net at the same time, and send most of our forces through the tunnel to catch them by surprise.”

Bo ignored him this time, reading the report. It had a lot of details on it regarding the specific volcanic shaft that Aries had been talking about. Aries finally stopped pacing and waited for Bo to finish waiting, his arms and feet constantly moving.

“It looks like you were right,” Bo said at last, tossing the report on the table. Aries didn’t even look at it. He grinned at Bo. The general sighed. He really was a little boy sometimes.

“Okay,” Bo said. “This is the part where you tell me how you knew about this tunnel? Even with your descriptions, our scouts had the devils own time finding it.”

“Geology lesions,” Aries answered immediately. He had obviously been waiting for this very question to come up.

“Geology lesions,” Bo said with a sigh. Aries was obviously enjoying this, and wanted to drag it out as long as possible.

“Yeah,” Aries said. “When I first went to university, my Geology professor decided we needed hands on experience rather than a lot of book learning, so we took a lot of field trips. And I mean a lot. We traveled all over Mars to various interesting sights. Climbed mountains, looked inside craters, and even checked out several volcanic shafts. Including this one.”

“Well,” Bo said, crossing the room and tapping his finger on the report folder. “Do you know what this means?”

“It means I have outsmarted Zachery Atherton,” Aries said.

“No, you ninny,” Bo said, resisting the urge to smack his best friend upside the head. “It means that we’re about to win the war.”

****

“Are we all prepared, then?” Atherton said.

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said. He looked rather distracted to the General, though.

“What’s the matter, Edwards?” Atherton asked.

“Er... nothing, sir,” Edwards said, then looked towards the gathering troops. “Our men have secured tunnel four, the last remaining tunnel. We’re working on digging a branch line to the rear of our opponents outside the crater. We should be ready to launch the attack in as little as four hours.”

“Excellent,” Atherton said. “Excellent. Start gathering the men. I want to give them a speech. A speech on the dawning of a historical battle is fitting, isn’t it? Maybe someone should record it, for posterity. In fact, that’s an excellent idea. Colonel, get someone to record this speech. I’m going to prepare it, I want to give it in one hour.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said. He watched as his General walked back into the building that housed his office. Edwards shook his head. He was beginning to fear that Atherton had lost his mind.

****

“Are your troops all set?” Aries asked Bo. Bo nodded. “Good. I’ll only give a quick speech. They’ll expect it, seeing as how I’m here and all.”

Bo only nodded again. Aries was serious now, and Bo almost preferred it when his friend was the smart-ass he was a few hours ago. But this was a serious moment. A solemn moment, even. After today, everything changed. This would be the deciding battle, one way or another. Either Mars would finally be truly free, or the US wold win, and all their work would be for naught. Bo wanted to be hopeful, and believe that this battle would lead to freedom. But, he was a realist, and a General. Battle plans had a tendency to go to pot when confronted with a live enemy. That was why they were the enemy, after all. And this particular enemy was lead by a highly decorated American General, who was something of a hero back on Earth. What right did little Bo Wu, rebel and upstart, have to take on, never mind hope to defeat, Zachery Atherton?

“Bo, were you listening to me?” Aries asked, snapping Bo out of his revere.

“Uh...” Bo hesitated, then sighed. “No, sorry. I was thinking about the battle ahead.”

“I said I need some advice,” Aries said. “I need to know what to say to these men. This could very well be the end of the whole war.”

“You don’t know what to say?” Bo asked, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “You, the man who has had the media wrapped around your pinkie before you were even born? Mr. I sway public opinion just by showing my face on the news? You can’t figure out what to say?”

“This is different,” Aries said. “The media is one thing. Even addressing the populace is different. These men, these boys... they’re our people. They’re about to put their lives on the line, maybe give the final sacrifice, for our freedom, our Independence. This isn’t something I am saying to convince people that the hard times we’re going through now are for the greater good, or to negotiate a deal with a foreign power. Or even to try and get some positive press for me and our cause. No, this is far more important than that. This is history. And I’m not going to be the one making it, these men are. I think it’s important that they know that, and that I, personally, and very proud to have been here, simply to see them, to shake their hands, before they make that history.”

Bo just paused and stood staring at Aries right then. This was one of the things he loved about this man. Those things were not just pretty words or rhetoric. These were things Aries believed in, with all of his being.

“I think you should just say that,” Bo said.

Aries paused. Then, he nodded.

****
“Pull back, pull back!” Bo screamed as the enemy troops poured out of the tunnel they were unable to stop. He had expected an attack from that front, but not one as strong as it had been.

“We’ll take up defensive lines near the crater lip,” he said to the captain at his side. “Move platoons six and nine over to the left, and try to flank him as they come through.”

His aid nodded and ran off to deliver the orders. Bo sighed and raised binoculars to view the rest of the battle. As expected, things were going to shit and fast. The troops sent through Aries’ secret tunnel had yet to emerge, and while Bo held the terrain advantage, Atherton still had the advantage of numbers. Making this a pretty much even match for the time being. The only thing going his way was that Aries had gotten away before the fighting started. Wouldn't do to have the Prime Minister killed in the field.
Aries had better be right about those tunnels, Bo thought. Because if he’s not, and we lose those troops down there, this battle is over right now. And we’ve lost.

****

The explosion went off behind Atherton as he watched the fight outside the crater through his ePad. He dropped to the ground and scrambled for cover behind a large outcropping of rock. Colonel Edwards was at his side a second later, as were several soldiers that served as his guard. As soon as he realized that he was cowering under a giant rock in front of his soldiers, he stood up and shook himself off.

“Someone find out what the hell that was,” he shouted. He turned his binoculars towards the direction of the explosion. “What the hell?”

“It looks like... enemy uniforms?” Edwards was next to him, his own binoculars to his head. He had adjusted the magnification to full zoom, but the resolution got a little shaky at this level.

“Armor,” the General said. “Enemy armor. They’ve found a way to penetrate our position, and they brought armor with them!”

“Withdraw,” the Colonel shouted into his radio. “For a protective circle aroudn the general.”

Immedatly, the closest platoon did just that. The fighting was happening right in their front yard now, and it was very obvious that this was not going to go well for them. Edwards looked over at Atherton, but all he saw in the man’s eyes was anger.

“Push forward,” Atherton said.

“What?” Edwards said, unsure he heard the command correctly. A push would be suicide.

“Push forward,” Atherton said. “Attack. Counter attack them, damnit! Platoons five and six are on the other side of the ridge, attack them from the rear.”

“Those platoons are engaged with the enemies outside, sir,” Edwards said. “And a push from us out be suicide.”

“Give me that,” Atherton said, grabbing the radio from Edwards. Then, he was yelling into it for the attack to happen, spittle flying out of his mouth in his rage.
The Platoon hesitated to act, though, looking at the Colonel for confirmation. Atherton’s rage grew. How dare these men disobey him. He was the general, not Edwards! Then, amidst the din of battle, Atherton heard the quiet noise of a gun cocking right next to his ear. Slowly, he turned to look at the gun, and then followed the arm holding it to Edward’s grim face.

“Edwards,” Atherton said, glaring at his aid. “This is treason.”

“No sir,” Edwards said. “Its obeying orders. See, I got the same communique this morning that you did, the ones from Earth and the President. They ordered us to leave Mars, that the Earth was officially surrendering the planet to Prime Minister Webb, and that they would recognize the serenity of Mars from here on out. A similar letter was surely sent to the office of the Prime Minister. I didn’t do anything about it at first, because there was still a chance you could win this battle and get the enemy to surrender to us. But now, with our army facing defeat... surrender is the only option we have right now that doesn’t end with all our men dead.”

“Traitor!” Atherton bellowed. The madness was quite clear in his eyes now. “Those fools back on Earth don’t know what they are doing. These rebels can’t get away with this, or others will try and do the same! I have never lost a battle, you hear me? Never! And I don’t plan to start now!”

Edwards only nodded to some nearby soldiers, who took the General under custody. He then picked up the radio, and gave the order to surrender. This battle was over.

And with it, so was the war.

****

“Colonel Edwards,” Bo said, accepting the saber offered to him by the US army officer apparently in charge of the enemy army. “I accept your surrender.”

“Thank you, sir,” Edwards said.

The two stared at each other for a few moments, not quite sure what happened here.

“So,” Bo said. “I guess this is it then. The war is officially over.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said. “It most certainly is.”

“You’ll be something of a hero here on Mars,” Bo said. “For stopping Atherton like that.”

“I’m not a hero, sir,” Edwards said. “I’m just a soldier.”

Bo nodded, understanding that statement more than Edwards could ever understand.

“Still,” Bo said. “If there is anything we can do for you, Colonel...”

“There is one thing, sir,” Edwards said.

“Name it,” Bo said.

“Do you happen to have a form for requesting citizenship?” Edwards said.

Bo laughed.

The End