It's 24 on Mars: a nonstop futuristic thrill-ride, all in one day, through the critical events which were the breaking point for the underclass of Martian citizens and precipitated a revolution to break the Martian colonists free from the formidable Sol System government. The formerly red planet—now in danger of again becoming red, blood red—would never be the same, nor would the human race. It was one day that changed the course of history for the Solar System, raging from hand-to-hand combat to piloted armored mecha suits clashing to an enormous space battle, with dedicated heroes on both sides of the conflict wondering if they were doing the right thing—and if they would live to see another day. And wondering, as well, if the spark of this new war, that would eventually reach across whole star systems, would bring them peace One Day on Mars.
When putting this bundle together, I partnered with Toni Weisskopf, publisher of Baen Books who gave us some of her best titles and authors, and she really wanted to feature a newer writer she was really impressed with. That guy was Travis Taylor, with his book One Day on Mars. – Kevin J. Anderson
6:25 AM Mars Tharsis Standard Time
Nancy peered through the viewport at the faint blue-green luminescent hue of the planetscape as it skittered beneath them at a few hundred kilometers per hour. To the north there were several geodesic domes giving off slight metallic glints each time Sol peeked through the smoky gray plumes being emitted from the exhaust portals atop each of the greenhouse gas factories. The smoke poured and rolled gracefully upward and mixed with the tropospheric breezes scattering the smoky plume's content across the planet's atmosphere.
The little plutonium reactors within each dome slowly crept deeper into the Martian soil, melting and vaporizing water ice, iron-rich soil, oxygen, and various forms of soot smoke into the smoky gray steam plumes boiling upward into the sky above the metallic domes. Occasionally, one of the reactors would reach a water-rich depth and the cloud would turn to mostly white steamy water vapor for a while. Those domes were very easy to distinguish from the others for weeks at a time.
Terraformer domes, Allison said directly into Nancy's mind.
"I know that. . . ." Nancy whispered softly, not wanting to disturb the calm moment, but still reflexively used audible speech.
Yes, of course, the artificial intelligence counterpart, or AIC, replied.
Nancy watched the domes pass behind the ship as new ones appeared over the horizon both to the northeast and to the south. There must be hundreds of them, she thought.
Seventeen hundred forty-one in this region. More in other regions, Allison responded.
Nobody likes a smartass, Allison, Nancy thought.
Each of the domes was at least the size of a large sports arena and perhaps taller. The exhaust stacks flooded the Martian atmosphere with greenhouse gases and oxygen and had been doing so for nearly a century. The atmosphere on Mars was dense enough to support life but not yet warm enough or oxygen-rich enough for humans to survive unprotected. In fact, there was almost enough oxygen to be similar to that of Earthly high altitudes like on Mount Everest, but there still remained far too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to safely breathe it. The Martian trees and grasses were slowly taking care of the carbon dioxide, but it would still be a century or more before Mars would be Earthlike enough to go outside without oxygen or scrubbers. Pressure suits had not been needed for decades, but heated environment suits and oxygen supplies or carbon dioxide scrubbers were still the common fashion of Martians, tourists, and of course the military.
Nancy, being from Virginia, had only studied about the Martian geology transformation industry. Being half Martian, on her mother's side, she had also heard stories firsthand from her mother of Mars and how wonderful it would be someday. Her mother had been from the southern glacial region, which was a hemisphere away at the moment, where the water ice was being heated by large space-based laser systems that were in non-Keplerian orbits about the planet's pole. Standard Keplerian orbits actually circumscribe a planet, but the nonstandard orbits of the space-based lasers allowed them to hover over a single Martian location while not being at the Mars synchronous orbital altitudes.
The spectacle of the large glaciers being melted away into shining clear sublimating pools of water by invisible laser beams from space was a story her mother had often told her as a child. The wild rainbows created by the quickly dissipating moisture clouds cast a beautiful chiaroscuro of light on the surroundings.
But those days of Mars had been gone for more than thirty Earth years. Once the Separatist movement started and one of the laser spaceships had been hijacked and in turn used to vaporize more than seventeen thousand American workers in the algae farms of the Elysium Planitia, the space-based Martian terraforming assets were removed. United States Naval Fleet warships had long since replaced them.
The only things left of the terraforming efforts were the algae farms, trees, and the atmosphere production domes. Mother Nature had begun to help out. As more and more influence from Earth appeared on Mars, other Earthly contaminations such as robust desert vegetation, cacti, and shrubbery had been popping up across most of the populated Martian regions. Earth tundra wildflowers spread across the wetter regions in the north, scattering red, yellow, and purple colors amidst the blue-green algae and brown sage. Undoubtedly, some Martian had thought it would be a good idea to plant Earth vegetation on the former red planet; in many cases the Earth vegetation adapted to its new environment quite readily. In a few cases, Earth conifer trees—not the genetic Martian hybrids—had been planted and survived.
But there was little vegetation visible from the altitude and speed of the supercarrier. The domes presently skittered by underneath while Nancy gathered as much of the Martian imagery in her mind as she could. There was some awe and nostalgia, of course, but she had a mission to do and a bird's-eye reconnaissance was always useful before an operation.
Nancy shifted the helmet of her suit unconsciously in her lap and fingered the carbon-dioxide scrubber intake hole. She hated waiting. To the far south she could see the first dome that was not producing an exhaust cloud. It seemed out of place.
"Nancy, this is Jack. Uncle Timmy says seven minutes!" a voice over the intercom said. "I'll meet you in the hangar."
Uncle Timmy, actually Lieutenant Commander Timmy Uniform November Kilo Lima Three Seven Seven, or UNKL377, the AIC officer of the U.S.S. Sienna Madira, had already relayed that information to Allison through the quantum membrane wireless, but Allison had been hesitant to notify her human counterpart that it was time to go to work. She seemed to be in the midst of a serene, halcyon moment and appeared to be contemplating life, her life—Allison had been monitoring her vital signs and had worked with Nancy long enough to judge her moods. Nancy was amazingly tranquil considering their current situation. But Allison and Nancy had been through a lot in the seven years since they had left the "Farm" in Virginia. The Farm, as it was affectionately known by its alumni, was better described as an advanced training camp for superspies being trained as special operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency. On the Farm Nancy and Allison had been trained in the fundamentals and some advanced tactics for handling the stressful situations of being an undercover agent. All training aside, after that ordeal in New Africa, there was very little in terms of danger and stress that seemed to shake either of them. Allison remained quiet for another moment.
Nancy stood and took one last look through the portal as more domes without the serene smoky gray plumes passed by underneath the supercarrier—more sign of the disruption of the Martian terraforming plan, a disruption of peace, a disruption of the American way of life. The steady gray smoke had seemed to have a power over her, as if it could calm the stormy winds of the planet beneath her and bring peace to her . . . to humanity. But it was a false tranquillity, because war had been an on-again-off-again fact of humanity throughout history. There were several of the domes ahead and southeast with smoke clouds rolling wildly from them, but these clouds were black and violent looking—foreboding of even worse times to come. Then the ship rocked to port and then tossed to starboard. Then it lurched and dropped over a hundred meters as warning klaxons and lights began to ring throughout the ship.
Ma'am, better hurry.
Right, Allison. Nancy pulled her helmet over her head and attached the life support seal ring with a twist, the faceshield still in the open position as she made her way to the elevator system. The upper-deck hallway of the supercarrier was dimly lit and the metallic features of a naval vessel were accentuated dramatically by the red and yellow flashing incident lights.
"Down ladder. Make a hole!" Nancy said as she slid down a small stairwell to the main hall that led to the ship's elevator on the forward port side. Two young female ensigns and an older male chief stood backs against the wall as she bolted down the stairs by them. Their reaction was more surprise than respect.
"General quarters. General quarters! All hands, all hands, man your battle stations immediately! Radar shows multiple ground targets with incoming surface-to-air defenses. Prepare for evasive!" Uncle Timmy announced over the 1MC intercom as well as directly to all AIC implants.
"Hold the elevator please." Nancy nodded to the Army lieutenant colonel in full tank mecha commander's armor that was holding the elevator open as she approached. "Deck zero please, Lieutenant Colonel." He reacted instinctively and defensively to Nancy's appearance at first. Then he must have recognized her or at least saw the American flag over her left breast pocket. No doubt the lieutenant colonel's AIC had been briefed of a possible interaction with an oddly dressed civilian on board. No doubt they had all been briefed with "you never saw her."
The colonel was part of the ground contingent that would soon be dropped on the Separatist Army after the Navy Aviators had softened them up from the air. His nameplate on his armor read "Warboys" and he was wearing a Martian algae field camo environment suit with tank mecha armor hardpoints and there was the typical mecha neuralinterface jack on his helmet. His visor was in the up position, putting off a slight glare from the yellow warning lights blinking in the elevator, but Nancy could read "Warlord One" painted on his helmet's forehead through the visor. His environment suit, not accounting for the mecha hardpoints, was standard-issue and state-of-the-art. The difference between the Army environment suit and the Separatist suit Nancy was wearing was never more obvious—like night and day.
Her suit was more worn, ragged, and just old-looking. Or at least that was how Nancy thought of it, because it just felt that way to her. If any members of her family even knew she was still alive and by the off chance could see her in the suit, they might remark how much like her mother she looked at the moment. But they didn't know she was alive, never would see her in this suit, and perhaps never see her again.
"Certainly." Warboys pressed the elevator button and caught himself as the ship lurched hard to port again. "Jesus H. F'n Christ! We must be getting goddamned hammered if the inertial controls are having this hard a time compensating." The Sienna Madira jerked hard upward again. "Shit."
"Probably," Nancy replied. Shit, she thought while trying to balance herself with a handhold on the elevator safety rail.
"Well, I just hope the bay plating SIFs holds. Last run we lost forty-nine percent of the drops before the tanks ever got out of the bay!" he said.
"High casualty rates, sir. Hope you fare better today." She nodded emotionlessly as the elevator door opened on deck two and the lieutenant colonel hurried out.
"Thanks. Good luck!" he grunted, and told himself that he had "never seen her."
"You too, sir." Nancy held her balance as the ship rocked again and the elevator door closed. The eleven seconds that passed before the elevator doors opened again on the hangar deck seemed like an eternity—a very bumpy eternity.
"Well, this is what we're here for." Nancy stepped through the elevator door, let out a long slow sobering sigh, and made her way toward the end of the hangar bay.
Yes ma'am, it is, Allison added.
The Ares-class aerospace fighters filled the hangar from one end to the other and the technicians, flight deck officers, and pilots were scurrying all about in T-shirts or coveralls of solid reds, greens, blacks, yellows, or oranges depending on their particular jobs. The scene was reminiscent of a fire ant mound that had been kicked over. Nancy allowed her mind to rest on that image for a split second. How likely would it be that she'd ever see a fire ant mound again? Hmm, had fire ants made it to Mars and did they survive there?
Where are you, Penzington? Navy Lieutenant Commander Jack Boland called on a wireless AIC-to-AIC connection.
Just got off the elevator. Be there in a sec.
Nancy picked up her pace to the end of the large fighter plane hangar. The room was approximately four hundred meters long and at least a hundred meters wide. There were rows and rows of Ares fighters lined up on each side of the hangar and there were more of them hanging from the ceiling. Techs and pilots were scurrying furiously about them preparing for the pending attack deep into the Separatist Reservation.
Stop, Nancy! Look out! Allison warned her by shouting in her mind. Nancy stopped to let an automated equipment lift full of munitions and power packs hover past in front of her. Had she not stopped at the pristine painted black and yellow caution stripe, the two ton lift would have flattened her and never looked back. Her mission would have ended before it had even started!
Thanks for the heads-up. Fortunately for Nancy, AIs communicated with each other and the lift's AI had warned Allison. She finally reached fighter bay 133 none the worse for wear.
"About time, Penzington. You ready?" Jack smiled down at her with the confidence of an ace naval aviator who had seen and lived through his share of bad scrapes.
"Been ready for about two years now. Let's get on with it." Nancy stepped up the rearward ladder into the backseat of the Ares. The little fighter was a sleek swept-wing craft with directed energy guns (DEGs) mounted on canards in the front just behind its blunt nose. The snub wings of the vehicle were only a few meters long, and at the swept-forward blue-gray wingtips were seven millimeter railgun cannons that fired a hundred rounds per second. On top and below each wing were rows of mecha-to-mecha missiles, each of them only a few centimeters in diameter and perhaps a meter long. The little plane had to have at least a hundred missiles on its wings. And underneath the belly of the fighter plane was a single larger missile with red-and-black radiation warnings painted on it. It, Nancy knew since it was her idea, had a special purpose.
Nancy glanced at the rows of skulls mimicking the Separatist banner insignia across the empennage of the fighter and reassured herself that Lieutenant Commander Jack Boland was the right man for the job. There were three rows with ten skulls each. The fourth row began with two little geodesic domes and nothing else.
"Jack, I understand that the skulls are Separatist fighters, but what are these domes?" Nancy eased herself into the backseat of the snub-nosed fighter and two crewmen began strapping her in.
"Don't ask. Freakin' politics!" he spat. "That is why I used to be the CAG." The fighter squad leader smiled. "One day, goddamned politics is gonna kill us all. You mark my words, Penzington. Mark my words."
Nancy wondered what the former commander of the air group had done to get demoted from the job. Obviously, there must have been some political backlash to whatever he had done. Were it important Nancy could get the files on the incident fairly easily, but it probably had no bearing on her present mission and therefore she didn't concern herself with it.
"Ma'am, you'll need to give me your ship and flag patches and any other tags, codes, and ID," a young chief in an orange jumpsuit and Mars red helmet standing on a scaffold beside the Ares fighter told her as he continued attaching her safety harness to her ejection system. The Sienna Madira continued to rock wildly from the surface-to-air defenses, bumping Nancy around inside the cockpit of the fighter a bit. She showed no emotion other than slightly chewing the right side of her lower lip.
"Thanks, Chief. Here, I'll not be needing them any longer," she replied, and held out her right arm for the tag-neutralization scanner the chief passed over her. There was no pain, tingle, or even the slightest tickle, but Nancy's identification as a U.S. citizen had just been wiped away from existence. Only a DNA sample analysis back at Langley could change that.
"Roger that. Good luck, ma'am."
Nancy just nodded and closed her faceplate. The scrubber kicked in and her oxygen supply read full and not being used—the scrubber was getting plenty of good air from the hangar bay.
"Good hunting, DeathRay!" The chief snapped a salute.
"Roger that!" Jack saluted back and the chief quickly climbed down the scaffolding.
Jack settled into the front seat, then pulled the hardwire connection from the universal docking port (UDP) of his Ares fighter and plugged it into the thin little rugged composite box on the left side of his helmet that made a direct electrical connection to his AIC implant via skin contact sensors in his helmet. The direct connection wasn't necessary, but functioned as a backup system in the case of enemy jamming of the wireless connection between the AIC and the fighter. The wireless connection was spread spectrum encrypted and almost unspoofable. Almost.
"Hardwire UDP is connected and operational. Lieutenant Candis Three Zero Seven Two Four Niner Niner Niner Six ready for duty," Jack's AIC announced over the open com channel. Then directly to Jack, Let's go get 'em, Commander!
Roger that, Candis!
Jack saluted the flight-deck officer and brought the canopy down. The harness holding the fighter lowered and detached, dropping it the last twenty centimeters to the deck with a slight squish feel from the landing gear suspension. Jack followed the flight deck sequence and moved in line for takeoff.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking," Jack said over the fighter's internal speakers. "Please make sure all trays are in their upright and locked position and all carry-on luggage is stowed away for takeoff. We'll be taxiing out to the catapult field and soon after will be flung into a hellacious shitstorm of anti-aircraft fire and enemy Gomers. Please sit back and enjoy the ride. If you intend to fly in the near future may we suggest you don't fly in the midst of a fucking war next time!" Jack laughed and looked in the rear view to see how his cargo liked his so clever and informative announcement. He couldn't be certain, but other than chewing on her bottom lip she looked as if she were taking a nap. Okay, humor wasn't the way to go, he thought.
Probably not, sir, Candis replied.
The fighter two in front of him was "at bat" and eased into the catapult field and almost immediately disappeared out the open end of the bay. The one directly ahead "on deck" began to follow suit. Jack was "in the hole."
"Fighter one-three-three call sign DeathRay, you are cleared for egress. Good hunting, Lieutenant Commander Boland!" the control tower officer radioed.
"Roger that, tower. Y'all just keep the beer cold and DeathRay will be back soon enough." Jack eased into the "on deck" spot as the fighter "at bat" vanished in front of them.
"Here we go, ma'am. Y'all hang on," Jack told his passenger.
"Roger that, Lieutenant Commander Boland. I'm hanging on." Nancy swallowed hard and gripped her harness a little tighter until her knuckles turned pink and white.
"Fighter one-three-three you are at bat and go for cat! Good hunting, DeathRay!" the catapult field AI announced.
"Roger that. One-three-three has the cat! WHOOO! HOOOO!" Jack screamed, and was thrust hard into his seat.
The catapult field took about one thousandth of a second to grasp that there was a matter field inside it. That matter field, Jack's Ares fighter, was not there when the original magnetic and repulsor field lines were put in place, and the superconductor field coils would do just about anything to stay the way they had been originally. The end effect was that the catapult field did the only thing it could do. It expelled the little snub-nosed fighter craft out the aft end of the field at over three hundred kilometers per hour. Without the inertial dampening controls of the fighter the occupants of the craft would have been accelerated against their seats and restraints so harshly that they would have been turned to a bloody mush. From zero to three hundred kilometers per hour in one tenth of a second is considerable acceleration, indeed—eighty-five Earth gravities! Even with the inertial dampening controls the occupants of the fighter felt more than nine gravities for a few seconds.
"What a rush!" Jack shook his head and squeezed his thighs and abdominal muscles as tight as he could. He grunted as the overwhelming g-forces subsided and there was no longer anything to worry about but the sky full of anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes. He forced the throttle full forward, pushing the fighter to over two thousand kilometers per hour. It took about seven seconds to reach top velocity while conducting evasive maneuvers, and again there were massive g-forces to deal with as well as a hellstorm of anti-aircraft cannon fire. His thigh harnesses squeezed tighter around his legs, forcing blood from them. He flexed his stomach muscles as hard as he could and yanked the fighter left as an anti-aircraft missile zipped past them to the right.
Candis! he screamed in his mind.
Got it, Jack! the AIC replied and almost as immediately the DEGs pulsed with a bright green flash of high-intensity light focused on the missile. The missile ablated and flew apart, pounding the Ares fighter with shrapnel at a delta velocity between missile and fighter of over seven hundred kilometers per hour. The shield microplating did its job as multiple spitwangs rang through the fighter.
Seppy Gomer, Jack! On our six at angels twelve!
"DeathRay! DeathRay, this is EvilDead . . . you've got a Gomer on your six, copy!"
"Unh! Got it, EvilDead!"
Jack pulled the fighter up and fired the pitch spindrive bringing the nose of the fighter one hundred and eighty degrees, flying backwards and upside down but still maintaining the fighter's current trajectory.
"Copy that . . . Gomer on six!" Jack grunted over the net. Holding down the railgun trigger, he tracked back across his pursuer's flight path with sudden death. The railgun bolts ripped through the blue-gray Separatist Gnat fighter, spinning it wildly out of control just before the g-forces tore it apart into a cloud of shrapnel.
Thirty-one, he thought
"Great shooting, DeathRay! Now get off your ass and get the fuck out of here! EvilDead out!" the CAG officer and number one pilot ordered him.
"Roger that, Lieutenant Commander," Jack replied, and switched to the internal com. "Hold on back there!" Jack yelled, and yawed the fighter to the left, firing at other targets of opportunity as Candis pointed them out in his mind's eye.
Nancy held on.