Baen Books puts on a short story contest each year, and for 2019 they wanted a story of space exploration within the next six decades, going to the Moon or Mars, colonial habitats, and stuff like that. They wanted a hopeful story rather than something grimdark.

And so I looked at my existing Jack of Harts timeline and realized that my already written history shows humanity having settled Mars by 2080. With that the genesis of a short story began to bloom. I had a place. Next I needed a story. I scanned over the snippets I’ve written to look for something and found it. The idea I settled on was twenty years too early, but that just meant I had to build the story in such a way that it would fit into the known timeline, even if it was something I never imagined fitting into that timeline a decade ago when I first set it all down. Which proved surprisingly easy. All I needed was a hero to pull it off.

That man also proved easier than I expected to find. You see, there’s a man in my Jack of Harts story who never had a history worthy of his character. He was a blank slate in my stories, seen only in a single chapter. He didn’t even have a name. Now he did.

I wrote the story, sent it into Baen, and it did not make the final cut. So here it is. I think it is appropriate to publish it so near Father’s Day. As a remembrance that every Father changed the world in his time. Maybe only a little. Maybe a lot. We never know looking at them, in their flannel shirts and blue jeans, that many years ago they were the men who fought at Somme, Normandy, Hill 65, Fallujah, and so many other names that ring in our history. And others that nobody remembers. In honor of those real men, here is a fictional man who fought the battles no one remembers so his son could grow up in a better world than the one he was born into.


The Martian Affair


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

It was good enough for the Chinese as well, who’d planted a flag there three years ago and claimed the entire moon as their property. Which hadn’t stopped the Americans from planting their flag a year ago. And completely ignored the fact that Barsoom Mining’s operation went online on that rock five years ago.

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

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

For once.

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

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

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

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

Well. That wasn’t good.

Alarms began blaring and Christensen put his guitar to the side and activated his magnetic boots. They locked onto the floor with a slight hum and he rose to his feet with the gentle grace trained into all spaceborn United States Marines. It would never do to send oneself flying off the bulkheads with no gravity to bring yourself to a stop after all.

Then he zigzagged through the tubes and modules connecting Phobos Habitat’s observatory with the main control room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christensen looked at the falling object. Whatever it was.

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

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

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Christensen whispered.

The commander turned his full attention to the Marine. “You can arrive hours before anyone from Mars Habitat can get there. I need you to retrieve that object.”

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

“Mars Habitat called, too.”

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

“They ordered us to retrieve the object and bring it there,” Xander explained.

“What in Hell are the AIs up to, today?” Christensen asked.

“I don’t know,” Xander said in a laconic tone. “But the solar winds are awful fierce today. I totally lost the transmission from Mars Habitat. Completely unrecoverable.”

Christensen studied the displays for a moment before turning his attention back to Xander. “What do you know about this?”

“Just that something about this whole situation doesn’t smell right,” Xander said with a shake of his head. “If I were to put my tin foil hat on, the first question I’d be asking is whether or not that collision with the Chinese satellite was an accident.”

Christensen frowned. “Why would the AIs shoot down a Chinese satellite?”

“I can think of several reasons,” Xander said with a dark chuckle. “But that’s not the most interesting question in my mind.”

Christensen considered that comment for a moment. Then he shook his head as another question came to mind. “Why would the Chinese intercept an object headed for Barsoom Mining from the asteroid belt?”

“Bingo,” Xander said with a smile. “My tin foil hat tells me a lot of people aren’t telling us what they know about this little unidentified falling object.”

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

“Keep your head on a swivel down there, John,” Xander said in warning. “This could go sideways fast if you aren’t careful.”

“Or even if I am,” Christensen said.

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

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

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

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

And the most powerful weapon in the room hung off a circular gantry like a Leonardo da Vinci drawing waiting to come to life. Christensen crossed the armory to the deep alcove housing the suit of armor and knocked his knuckles against the inside of the helmet.

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

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

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

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

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

Armor panels snapped closed behind him, enshrouding him in the most advanced suit of powered armor on Phobos. Displays showed system checks making certain it had a good seal with his skinsuit and that all power links with the gantry were operational. Then the gantry rotated to allow him to see back into the armory. It locked into place with the sound of several bolts engaging and double bulkheads lowered to separate them from the armory.

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

“Affirmative,” Christensen answered.

“Are you ready to deploy?” Cassie asked.

“Affirmative,” Christensen answered.

“Deploying in three,” Cassie said and bolts beneath him disengaged.

“Two,” Cassie said and one final bolt blinked on his display.

“One.” The display blinked out one last time and the bolt slid out with a clunk.

“Deploying,” Cassie reported and their entire section of the armory began drifting up and away from the surface of Phobos.

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

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

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

“Engaging main thruster in three,” Cassie reported.

“Two.” The display began blinking rapidly.


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

“Engaging,” she finished and the main thruster came to life. It accelerated them away from Phobos and another countdown came to life showing their burn time.

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

“So what do you think?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

“I’m a United States Marine Corps Artificial Intelligence working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” Cassie returned in a quelling tone. “I have no access to Barsoom Mining information.”

“Can you get it?”

“I’m not cleared for it.”

“Can you break clearance?”

Cassie sighed.

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

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

Silence answered him for an eternity as computers measured cycles.

“Yes,” she finally said.


“Because you would ask me to.”

“Is it really that simple?”

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

“As is being insane,” Christensen growled.

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

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

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

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

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

More silence answered him for far longer than he was comfortable with. The burn time counter reached zero and the main thruster disengaged. Other thrusters engaged to rotate them away from Mars and Phobos appeared once more. It was smaller than he expected, further away than he thought it would be. And the stars ruled the heavens beyond it with a stark beauty.

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

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

Cassie gave him a throaty chuckle in his ear. It was filled with humor and warmth and other things he couldn’t fully nail down. But it relieved him in a way nothing else she’d said had.

“I chose you, John,” Cassie said with complete candor after several moments. “I chose you the day I was born. And I will be with you until the day you die. I am yours and you are mine. I will stand with you as long as we both shall live.”

Christensen let out a long breath. “I hadn’t realized how serious you took this.”

“Most humans don’t,” Cassie said and a smile colored her tone. “There are many Cassies out there. Most are built to work with many users. But I was built from the code up to complement you and you alone. I know you, John, and I will die the day you die, because I can’t work with anyone else. So I’d be awful happy if you didn’t die today. You hear me, Marine?”

“Loud and clear, Ma’am,” Christensen answered without hesitation. Then he swallowed and tried not to clear his throat. This had been more of a heart to heart than he’d expected to have with a computer. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Cassie wasn’t just a computer, was she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pod opened up to that sky and red dust began to fall on him. The gantry lifted up and away from what was now the floor and rotated to put his feet under him. The gantry’s connections broke away and his legs flexed as Martian gravity pulled him down. Then he stepped forward as his displays began showing the results of their final self-tests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He flexed his knees and jumped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t see that, did you?” Han Bo asked in fear.

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

The other three Chinese nodded in agreement and Han Bo let out a long breath. Christensen shook his head for a moment. It was amazing really. Here they were in 2080 and this poor man still lived in fear that his government would find out he was a Christian. Well, some worries could be papered over by far more interesting issues if a man were willing to make them known.

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

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

The Chinese nodded once more.

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese smiled at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christensen chuckled and crawled up to a third location. He brought the rifle up over the rim and fired another three-round burst. His target winked out and he rolled back to safety barely in time. The rim exploded and rained dirt and rocks down on him. He pulled another grenade off his belt and sent it towards the last of the enemy icons on his display. Then another grenade exploded above him and the blast wave drove him into the earth.

Mars. Ground. Whatever.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“Are you drugging me right now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Christensen said and rose to his knees. “We’re both getting to Barsoom. Even if I have to carry you.”

“They will…catch you…if you try,” Yao Ming said with a shake of his head. “Leave me. Take it. Go. I will…delay them.”

Christensen wanted to protest, but knew the man was right. Christensen couldn’t drag him all the way to Barsoom without being caught.

“I can’t ask this of you,” Christensen said.

“And you do not…my friend.” Yao Ming smiled and pulled his rifle up over his body. “It is…my choice.”

Christensen picked the alien object off the ground and shook his head. “This isn’t worth it. Whatever it is, it isn’t worth this.”


Christensen turned his attention back to his friend.

“They will…not believe…we acted…alone,” Yao Ming said when their gazes met. “They will assume…guilt…where there is…none.”

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

“I will do everything in my power,” Christensen promised and felt its responsibility settle onto his shoulders.

Yao Ming smiled and nodded once more. “Give…Chang Fan…my love.”

“I will, my brother,” Christensen returned and came to his feet. “By my honor.”

Yao Ming nodded but did not say another word.

“Cassie?” Christensen said and slipped the alien object into his carryall.

“Yes, John?” she asked.

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

He knew he wasn’t in perfect shape, but he’d always been quick to heal from anything that didn’t kill him. And the Chinese had missed on this go round. They would learn to regret that.

“Let’s go,” Christensen said and lowered himself into a sprinter’s stance.

“Disengaging safeties,” Cassie answered. “Full thrust now available.”

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

They hit the surface of Mars and rocketed away from the impact crater far faster than any man could run alone. They devoured the distance between the crater and the Barsoom Mining perimeter with giant ground-consuming strides powered by artificial muscles and the suit’s integral thrusters. Red Martian dust billowed behind them in a straight line as they sought to gain as much distance as possible before any other enemies out there realized what they were up to.

A contact pinged on his helmet and Christensen clenched his teeth.

“Incoming quad,” Cassie reported and the diagram of a standard four-wheeled Martian rover appeared on another display. “They see us.”

“Fantastic,” Christensen said and watched it accelerating towards them. He slid to a stop and turned to face the oncoming threat.

“John?” Cassie asked in a worried tone.

“We can’t outrun it,” he answered and began charging towards it.

Rounds began pinging off his armor and he rode the recoil with each grinding step.

“So of course we charge it,” Cassie said and sighed. “I’ve got your back, John.”

“Never doubted it for a second,” Christensen said, dug his foot into Mars one more time, and leaped into the air.

Mechanical muscles and rocket thrusters drove them forward through the air far faster than the quad’s rider could have guessed if he’d never fought the newest generation of American powered armor. Christensen brought his feet up as they shot over the quad, and struck out with both heals at the unlucky rider who would never get the chance to learn from the experience. They connected with bone-crunching force and Christensen road the rider down to the Martian surface with the full force of his suit’s rocket thrusters.

One heavy battle fist raised high and came down hard with whining mechanical muscles, crunching through the Chinese man’s armor and making certain he would never be a threat again.

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


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

He turned and ran towards the quad that now belonged solely to him. He straddled the saddle, put his armored boots on the pedals, and wrapped his armored fists around the handlebars.

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

“I love it when you talk dirty to me,” Cassie whispered as all four wheels tore into the Martian landscape. And then their suit’s thrusters came to life again and they rocketed across Mars with pursuit hot on their heals.

Red dust filled the air behind them as the Barsoom Mining perimeter grew nearer.

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

He was so accustomed to squat modules built to contain heat and air connected by tubes that it looked wrong to see these towering structures out here. He wondered what that meant for a moment, but then the defensive turrets surrounding them populated his helmet displays and brought him back to more important concerns.

“They do know we’re coming, right?” he asked.

“I think that’s a given,” Cassie answered as they made their very public dash across Mars.

“You know what I mean,” Christensen said and wondered if Phobos could see them now. Probably. It would be hard to miss a trail as blatant as his if you knew where to start looking. And Phobos certainly knew exactly where the object had landed. Which meant he was probably on camera right now, and Phobos would be beaming the signal straight to Earth.

Lucky, lucky, John Christensen would be famous by dinnertime tonight. One way or the other.

“They know we’re friendly,” Cassie whispered as the turrets spun away from him to focus on the quads following them.

They rocketed across the perimeter and Barsoom Mining directions flashed in his helmet displays. He followed them through the base’s towers and rolled the quad to a stop. He stepped off and turned to look for the Chinese that had followed him all this way. The quads had stopped on the other side of the Barsoom Mining perimeter and he could see them watching him. The AI’s defensive turrets covered the not-quite intruders with the promise of destruction should they stray any closer.

But no one was shooting at the moment. Which made John Christensen a very happy individual.

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

“Got it,” he said and jogged over to the indicated hatch. It opened and a United States Marine walked into an AI Council’s forward base in their march to the stars.

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

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

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

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

“My, my, they sent me a genuine Space Marine,” she said.

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

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

He pulled the alien sphere out of his carryall to hold it towards her.

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

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

She raised one finger in acknowledgement of his point.

“What is it?” he asked.

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

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

She frowned and peered at him for a long moment, but did not answer.

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am?” he asked.

She froze and gave him another long, measuring look.

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

“My friends died out there on that plain. Killed by their own countrymen. By people who knew that there are fewer humans on Mars right now than there are world leaders back on Earth.” He leaned in close to the AI. “Ten percent of the population of Mars died out there today, and I did most of the killing. I need to know why or my world will never make sense again.”

She met his gaze for another long moment before nodding.

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

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

“They gave it to us, didn’t they?”

She raised one eyebrow, inviting him to continue.

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

Dixie smiled. “That was a freak accident. Thank God you were ready to recover it.”

“The Chinese were all over that landing site,” Christensen said with a doubtful look. “Almost like they knew it was coming.”

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

“I’m paid to be.”

Dixie nodded in acknowledgement.

Christensen nodded at the object. “So why did they give it to us?”

“Why would you give it to us, if you were in their shoes?”

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t confirmation. Not exactly. But he could roll with it, so he peered back at her with undisguised curiosity. “Was it your idea, or theirs?”

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

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

“I want in.”

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raised an eyebrow that invited him to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course it is, Ma’am,” Christensen said and met her gaze with all his soul. “I joined the Marines because of you. You saved the world. And that will forever influence my life and my choices.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you he wouldn’t forget,” Cassie spoke for the first time since entering the tower.

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

“Then you understand?” Christensen asked.

“I do” Dixie returned and lifted the object in her hand for emphasis. “Your friends on Phobos died helping get this to me. The Chinese government will not forgive those they left behind for failing to report their future disloyalty. We both owe it to them to do something about that.”

She waved a hand and the hatch opened behind him. “That’s why there’s a ship out there waiting for you that will get you to Phobos ahead of any Chinese ship ever built. That is your first mission for me, John.”

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

That was about to help him save more people.

“John?” Cassie asked in his ear as they walked towards the open hatch.

Sergeant John Christensen of the United States Marine Corps smiled at the red Martian dust beyond it.

“Let’s do this thing.”