Walsh's gaze wandered from the info transparency to the scratched, battered space pilot's helmet below his decorations in the office's showcase. The old, ugly thing had caused a lot of questioning looks in the past – it wasn't his own.
He read the short note again, couldn't really believe that it happened finally, after all those years – he had placed that order as soon as his rank was high enough to do it – and he'd had to wait so long.
Now he had to be fast.
A short look into the schedule and a personal dialed call to the GRS5's office: "Taxi job, Gooseman. Meet me at Hangar 1. Make a corsair ready to take-off for a flight within the Solar System."
The Ranger ship raced out of orbit. "Destination, Sir?" Gooseman asked from beside him.
"Aye." The fast corsair would need just about half an hour for the distance, but still the ST programmed a minimal hyperspace jump and did it in a few seconds. "Planetary coordinates, Sir?"
He didn't have to look at the charts. "54° 19' 37" North, 103° 28' 04" West."
"Are you sure, Sir?" Gooseman frowned. "That's in the Vastitas – the middle of nowhere."
"The coordinates are correct, Goose. Bring us down there."
The ST shrugged and called Martian Space Control for landing clearance outside inhabited areas.
The corsair landed in a big whirl of red dust that dimmed the blinding sunlight for a moment and then sank slowly back to the surface, covering the brilliant white vessel with a thin rust colored layer. Walsh took two breathing filters from his pocket and handed one to Gooseman. "Use it. You'll accompany me."
The ST frowned. "But Mars is already completely terraformed, Sir. We shouldn't need any breathing aids here."
"It's against the dust, Goose." Walsh adjusted his properly and continued, slightly muffled by the mask, while he opened the cockpit. "Smells like blood and dries your tongue. I don't want you to transform here." He climbed out and headed straight for the rock formation some twenty meters away.
The roofs had come down during their long burial under the dust and most of the outer walls were halfway collapsed. Already now dust piled up in the corners and along the wall fragments. The old base wouldn't last long in the Martian sun, would be buried again soon.
Though the dryness of the Martian plains preserved everything, the dust that swept a hundred kilometers per hour across the land scoured everything away. Only the metal frames of the furniture were still in the room, now to more than two-thirds open to the wind.
Walsh looked around, shoved his foot through the dust along the inner wall. He didn't need to pull up the dropped door to look at the sign. It was the right room. He scrutinized the walls for a silhouette. The remnant of a figure struck by the HEL that burned through rocks and roof. He couldn't find one...
"You've been here before, haven't you?" Goose's voice behind him was muffled by the dust mask. When he didn't answer, Gooseman continued "You knew the coordinates by heart. And this place is very old," he paused for a moment, "and was in a war." The ST pointed at the glazing of an energy cannon in the near rocks.
Walsh sighed. "The Siege of Mars, boy. I was stationed here and...
...the receiver crackled, spat scraps of words into the narrow chamber. Spike dropped his legs from the radio console and sat straight up, listening.
=...Wolven of EFC Sarato– ... landing coord– ... hear me? I'm alr– ...=
Spike, fumbling with enhancers and clarifiers, shouted: "Men. I've got a signal!! Cap–" He interrupted himself, remembered that they had buried their last commanding officer a week ago, now all here were about his age. "Boys!" The signal became clearer, and his eighteen comrades squeezed themselves into the tiny room. There had been many more of them when they had arrived here, but the battles had taken their toll. Spike increased the volume.
=–ome down. – Code Delta Bravo One Alpha. This is Lt. Aki van Wolven of EFC Saratoga calling any Earth Force Base within reach. Need landing coordinates. Can anybody hear me? I'm already running on reserve and need to come down. – Code Delta Bra–=
Spike reduced the sound level and turned for his comrades. "What shall we do?" he asked.
"It can be a trap of the colons," Shark muttered. "They'd do anything to find the last bases on Mars."
"The code's old but still valid," Jostler remarked, flapping through the tattered codebook.
"Because of the radio silence," Fury grimaced, "we can't call the Saratoga for confirmation."
Spice switched the sound back on.
=–ding coordinates. Can anybody hear me? I'm already running on reserve and need to come down. Please.= The voice sounded desperate now and fairly young, as young as they all were. =Code Delta Bravo One Alpha. This is Lt. Aki van–=
The pilots gathered in the small room talked all at the same time. "SHUT UP! EVERYONE!!" Hotshot's shout was accompanied by the well-known gesture of cutting the throat. "Colons or not, radio silence or not. The only question here is: do we risk sending coordinates to get that pilot down or not? The code's valid. So I say: yes, we do!"
"Hey, who made you the commander, eh?!" Buccaneer kicked against him.
"Three days longer on duty than anyone else here is!" Hotshot snapped, clenching his fist. "You want to discuss it?" When Buccaneer remained silent, Hotshot turned for the others: "Anybody else arguing?" Nobody moved. "Okay. Spike, send our coordinates."
"Hope you know what yer doing, Hottie," Spike muttered, entering the code. "You only arrived first because you and your people live on that base."
Hotshot beside him grinned. "Yeah. The most boring neighborhood in summer holidays, pal, but it has proved to be useful today."
The fighter made a steep landing, and came to a halt in a great whirl of dust just in front of the hangar. They rushed out to guide it down and out of sight, but it didn't start to roll. Alarmed, they retreated till they saw the hasty hand signs of the pilot – no fuel.
"Must be dry to the bottom, if he can't even taxi that short distance," Iceman murmured behind his dust mask.
Ace indicated a whistle. "Wow. What a landing in circumstances like that. Let's go. We have to pull him inside before he indicates our position."
"If the colons don't know it already from that call," Buccaneer muttered.
"Oh, shut up, Buck. We'd be dead already if they did!"
Together they pressed against the landing gear. Hotshot supervised the maneuvering. At least, the foreigner seemed to be a good pilot: the descent into the rock carved hangar worked out smoothly.
The foreign pilot opened his cockpit and climbed out, both hands in plain sight, with his identification papers in the right, before the dust in the hangar had settled again. The helmet distorted his voice. "Who's the commanding officer here?"
Wolverine narrowed his eyes. "Identify yourself first. Then we'll see."
The surprisingly small pilot shrugged. "I thought you answered my call, so you'd know. Sorry. I'm Lt. Aki van Wolven." He stretched out a hand in the thick gloves that belong to the standard pressure suit.
"Not your name, your nick," Buccaneer grumbled. "Out here, we seldom know real names."
"Oh," the foreign pilot seemed to smile and unfastened his helmet, "I'm the Goose."
"Goose?" Buccaneer and the others hesitated a moment before they broke out in a heavy laughter.
"A big white bird for Christmas?" Hotshot grinned broadly. "And your ship's the EFC Duck Pond, right?"
"My ship," van Wolven put off the helmet with a jerk and continued in a no longer distorted, cold female voice, "was the EFC Saratoga. And it no longer exists!" She glared with brown eyes at the bunch of spacefighter pilots in front of her. "Who's your commanding officer and where can I find him? Now!"
Hotshot recovered first. "He was killed a week ago. I'm the oldest around here."
"Fantastic!" She pulled a sleeve across her dusted helmet and turned her eyes to the ceiling. "This is really my day." Some of the young men in front of her started to snicker again, seeing the painting on the front of her helmet. Aki ignored it.
"You are spacebased. Do you want fuel to get to another carrier?" Hotshot asked.
Lt. van Wolven sighed. "There are no carriers left above Mars."
In the lasting silence they even could hear the dust storm outside though the hangar was fifteen meters below the surface.
Less than two hours later...
...all hidden bases on Mars had gotten the order to defend civilian settlements within their reach at all costs to keep the enemy from getting a planetary base with food growing capacity." Walsh sighed again and looked at Gooseman. "For this place that meant Olympus Mons, the Tharsis Region and Valles Marineris." It was impossible to secure the area sufficiently without communication.
"All old settlements are in sheltered areas." The ST snorted. The fine dust had begun to creep into his dust mask. "Because of the dust shields."
"Yes, they terraformed the planet, produced oxygen and water, but they never got rid of the dust. The low energy shields are an acceptable solution. Except in war." He stared at the area where the dust was glazed by heavy laser fire. In his memory, Mars was always dust. The dust...
...has piled up to the knees again." Spike slouched into the 'casino'. They'd started long ago to call it 'the idiot's box' instead.
"Okay, pals. Let's keep Mars from inspecting our hangar and toilets." Shark got up, stretched, and threw his cards aside. "All of you." With a broad smile: "Except the ladies around, of course."
Goose dropped her cards and left her place, too. "No exceptions for me, boys. My ship's also in that hangar and you don't want to be sued for sexism, do you? So where are the shovels?"
"But that's nothing to do with sexism," Shark looked punished, "it's because our Christmas roast would become too skimpy if we let you shovel dust." Buccaneer and Spike grinned at his joke.
"Be careful, Sharky," Goose grinned maliciously, "my family lives near Amsterdam. We've got traditional recipes for all sorts of fish." Buck and Spike burst out laughing loudly, joined by the rest of the bunch.
"But why a goose, anyway?" Hotshot asked across the noise. He took a bit of his field ration and made a face at the horrible taste of the synthesized nutrigen. They were limited to it, now that there were no carriers available. No carriers. No supplies. No relief. No mail. Nothing. "I mean, not like it's a mighty animal after all."
"Geese bring luck. Out here, I thought I'd need that – and I was right with it."
He raised his brows, mocking. "A modern girl like you and superstitious?"
"I don't think so. After all, I'm still alive because of my goose."
The room had become quieter now. Everybody was listening, expecting a story to be told. And Aki didn't disappoint them, when she began:
"During the last days before its fatal battle the Saratoga accommodated a lot of foreign pilots who lost their carriers. One day before the destruction one of them made a smart comment about my nick just like our going-to-be-a-shark fin soup here," she nodded toward Shark and some snickering across the room interrupted her for a moment before she could continue with a slightly cruel smile, "and caught me in a real bad mood. To make a long story short: I punched him in the nose and knocked him out. Needless to say, my flight commander wasn't pleased by the incident and he ordered me on a single long range patrol, almost as far as my fuel supply could last."
"And that is what you call luck?" Fury grinned broadly. "Hell, please, don't save that luck for me, then!" Some of his comrades snickered.
"I call it luck. Because when I reentered Martian space, the Saratoga was already under heavy fire. Before I could join the combat it exploded right before my eyes and took most of its fighters with it." She ground her teeth at the memory. "I'd likely be dead if I'd been onboard when the attack began." Her eyes glistened cold. "I knew there weren't other carriers left. Saratoga was the last. So I turned for the planet itself, descended in Phobos' shadow and called for landing coordinates. You know the rest." She snorted, spat out the dust that entered her mouth while talking – the air filters weren't strong enough to keep it outside the base without an additional dustshield which would reveal their position to the enemy – and her last words fell hard into the deadly lasting silence: "You see, without my goose I wouldn't be here."
After a moment, Hotshot took a shovel and went out into the scraping wind, soon followed by his comrades, to prevent once again their hangar entrance from being buried by the all-pervasive dust...
...that had been molten by high energy weapon's fire and finally had solidified to a glazed area where the hangar entrance once had been.
"What was that war for?"
The question got Walsh off his line of thought. "The Colonial Wars, Gooseman," he grumbled. "Remember your lessons at Wolf Den."
"We were taught how it was done, Sir," the ST reminded him calmly, "but why was it fought?"
Walsh closed his eyes at the simple question, felt the grinding dust between his lids. Present-day dust filters weren't any better than the ones back then. You were faster than I, boy, he thought sadly, you questioned your combat at seventeen. I was nineteen back then, as the others. We were young, reckless, and trained on the most snazzy fighters of our time. We didn't give a damn about the reasons as long as we could fly. Fly...
...any lower, Hotshot, and we'll rename you Hotass!= Rocket's voice came, snickering, via com. =You're almost at below zero altitude now.=
Their bunch of fighters raced through the narrowing canyon structures of eastern Marineris. They entered the Valles terrain in low flight dropping along Ophir- and Candor Chasma into the deep and ragged rift canyon of about three thousand miles length crossing Mars' surface between 30° and 110° latitude almost rectangular to the northern direction. Staying near zero-altitude, they were chasing colonial fighters approaching New Pigalle which lay at the narrowest point of Coprates Chasma at 53° West, 15° South.
During the last weeks the enemy directed its attacks more and more against the civilian population, concentrated the surface attacks on the larger, non-agrarian cities, destroyed dust shields, water-extraction facilities, important buildings. The radio silence was still on, only inter-ship-com was accepted, used fairly outside base area, and their last received order was unmistakably clear: defend civilian settlements.
=Better getting a hot ass by scraping surface than a hot head by receiving HELs down from orbit,= Hotshot shot back. =Don't you remember? We've got no protection up there any more!=
=Hey, boys. Shut up!= Goose's voice cut in. =I've got the jerks on the scan.= She cursed violently. =Seems we won't catch them out of town.=
=Wanna go shopping, sweety?= Ace commented.
=With one of you!? You can't believe I want to be seen with someone like you guys.= She rolled her fighter across a small ridge to dive into an even deeper canyon.
=Street fight of the sixties! Wowowowoooooooooooo!= Wolverine let out one of his deep howls and followed.
The colon, leaving Main Street, dived into El Greco Ave. and accelerated towards the main water reservoir below the city. The great, artificial lake supplied the drinking water for all citizens of New Pigalle and for the farmers that grew special crops on the outskirts of it.
It had to be stopped!
=Increase altitude.= Goose, his wing-woman, came over the intercom. =I'll try to distract him into one of the turning lanes. Should get you the time to close in.=
He looked around, noticed the glistening of sunlight shining through the high curved windows of the big building ahead, and narrowed his eyes. =Go above, Goose. I'll take a short-cut!=
He pulled the throttle. His ship leaped forward toward the large house in Southern State style on Earth ahead. At the last moment before the impact he tilted. The high front doors shattered. The edge of his right wing slightly scraped across an expensive carpet. The back of the long hall reaching up three storeys was covered by a broad, elegant curved window wall – the pride of New Pigalle's glazier's guild – the green of a colonial vessel appeared at the outermost left. He pressed the trigger. The large glass plates exploded along with the colon behind them – diving through the ball of flames he tore into El Greco and rushed up to roof level with a rolled loop to meet his wing-woman.
Curtains burned behind him. A large holographic picture that showed Mayor Lee Chan, elected last week, at his assumption of office, melted. The frame was carved of Martian rock and could stand the heat of the spacefighter's exhaust gas and only the lower edge of it got covered with the molten plastic. New Pigalle's city hall would never be the same again.
In a side wing of the building, Mayor Chan carefully raised his head up from under his desk – there was never enough time between the alarm and the actual beginning of combat to enter a shelter – and stared through the smoke streaked glass wall between his office and the inner hall. "What color are our vessels again?" he asked, whispering to his still-shaking secretary: "Grey or green?"
"Grey, boss," she couldn't keep her shivering out of her voice. "Earth Force ships are light grey."
"Are you sure?"
"The colonial vessels are green to remind their pilots what they fight for, boss."
=Hotshot, you're insane!= came Goose's comment in a quiet moment while their ships rushed above the roofs. =Didn't your mother tell you to fly around the buildings?=
=Can't remember that. There was only a remark about warm underwear and clean socks. Is it related to tha–?=
Her yell interrupted him. =Two colons! At nin–= A laser beam flashed across Goose's cockpit, made her fighter spin downward. The vessel almost hit ground before she could stabilize it.
One of the antagonists exploded ahead of her as Hotshot's ship tore through the cloud of fire. =Goose? Are you okay?=
=Yup.= She checked her displays, saw the red flashing LED. =Cracked cockpit seal.= She accelerated towards her wingman. =As long as we don't leave atmosphere, I'm fine.=
=Good. There's still three of them missing. We've got to search downtown.=
=Fine. I always wanted to visit the artists quarter!= They dived down into another one of the steep streets of New Pigalle, crossing under one of the fragile pedestrian bridges. With the typical arrogance of a spacebased pilot Goose added: =Even at ground level it's great to fly...
Three of them hadn't returned from that mission.
Wolverine and Rocket were shot down. He himself had seen Wolverine's vessel explode into a ball of flames and smoke, scattering its wreckage across two flats of residential buildings.
Ace had gotten a puncture in his fuel tank. They'd received his com messages, had become witnesses of his struggle against reduced fuel supply and a cracked compass. He had lost his way without reliable position data in the arid, flat land. They couldn't lead him because of the radio silence and the lurking enemy above their heads. He had gone down somewhere in the desert. He hadn't had a chance of surviving the night: Martian nights in the Vastitas region still went down to temperatures around -90° Celsius, despite terraforming.
There were only eleven of us after that – with Goose. And the adrenaline of the constant battle kept us from thinking about it. He recalled the names of the losses after their last official commander's death and Goose's arrival: Buccaneer, X, El Magnifico, the silent Brazilian had never talked much, Starrunner, Jostler, Ramrod... "We were pilots, Gooseman," he answered finally. "We didn't care. We weren't directly confronted with the dying and we didn't really let on that it happened." Even on carriers pilots weren't allowed to visit the hospital stations. "We were kept away from the reality of war."
The ST's mouth twitched in irony. "Clean war, Sir?"
"Dirty as all wars are. But we were taught not to notice..." his voice died off again. ...until we discovered by a fly-over that Alba-3 had been struck by HEL shots. The pilots stationed there hadn't had a chance. Walsh still remembered the shock he had gotten when seeing the silhouettes of people dying in agony, burned into the glazed rocks where they had stood as the base was destroyed. We weren't prepared for it, boy. I wish you weren't, either. We...
...have two possibilities: to go on with our mission till the assholes up there follow our engine heat signatures to the hangar and glaze us as they did with Alba-3, or," Hotshot took a deep breath, "we go after their carrier."
The others just stared at him. "You're crazy. If we leave surface cover, they will melt us with their HEL before we even reach the stratosphere, let alone cross the thermosphere and enter orbit."
Aki at the other end of the table knitted her brows and drove the fingers through her short brown hair. "Not if we take-off right after they fired," she thought aloud, "HELs have a recharging time of approximately six minutes. At full speed it's possible to reach an altitude high enough to maneuver freely before they can fire again."
"And those things aren't built to use against small, fast-moving targets." Hotshot added. "It's a chance."
"Except that we only know they fired when they've already glazed us!" Spike slammed his mug on the table and rubbed off the dust, that was already sticking on the edge. He grumbled. "I'm sick of this planet in my coffee."
"We can heat up the rocks some twenty meters off the hangar," Cyclops suggested, "the hangar's deep and isolated against EMPs. We'll lose the comps but we can start if we blow off the entrance seals."
Hotshot looked up. "There ought to be some chemex in the storage. But how should we heat the rock, eh?"
"We could dismantle an engine from one of our ships," Iceman looked concentrated ahead, "if we give it a full fuel tank and cover it with rocks leaving only the tubes open, it should work. But we lose a fighter for it."
"One of us will have to stay down here and will likely be hit by the next HEL shot before we can attack the carrier." Hotshot's mouth twitched. "I don't want to decide who."
"No need to." Goose said into the silence after his words. "My cockpit seal's cracked. My ship isn't fit for space."
"But that's no reason you should be the one to stay–" Spike began, but Goose cut him off.
Her voice was cold. She looked very composed. "It's my ship. My engine. I'll stay." And with a furious sparkle in her brown eyes the Goose added: "And you guys go up there and trash the piece of space junk that blew up my friends and comrades on the Saratoga!"
"Phew!" Spike swept the rust colored sweat off his forehead and straightened. "That's it. The ships are prepared, the explosives are placed and all we've still to do is cover this babe with dirt."
"Remember, we need access to the starter afterwards," Hotshot grinned behind his dust mask. "I'd hate it to have to dig it up again after we buried it because you forgot that we've still got to switch it on."
Spike snorted and took the first shovel of dust as Aki yelled from the hangar entrance: "Stop it!! Something's missing! Please... Wait!!!" She ran towards them, carrying a small can. Heavily breathing she stopped beside them. She opened the can and drew with some rough lines a big white goose on the engine's hull, patted the metal and turned to Hotshot and the others. "Okay, now it's finished." Seeing their amazed looks, she smiled, slightly bitter: "Did you forget? Geese bring luck."
...have been decorated for bravery and courage. But the only brave person I met in that war was never only mentioned...
Goose looked at the wall chrono when Hotshot entered the mess. "Dusk. Samantha's running now."
"Samantha?" Hotshot frowned and put his helmet next to hers on the table.
"A famous goose in an old western movie about a Quaker family in the civil war. Really bite-y beast," she explained roughly.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
Aki looked up, nobody else was there. She looked small, even in the low room. "How can I be?" she shot back with more fury than he had expected in her.
"No," she shook her head, "it's the only chance we have. My position isn't any worse than yours." That was a lie, they both knew it, but it was necessary. Silence stretched out between them. Then: "Why Hotshot?"
"Your comrades mentioned you didn't get your nick because of your flying abilities, but they didn't want tell me what you got it for." She spat out some dust slime. "I'd just like to know."
"Our flight trainer was the reason. Because my father's in the military, too, me and my family live on the base near Phoenix where our unit was trained. Flight trainer Osborne's house was only fifty meters away from ours." He shrugged. "Guess I broke to many of his windows as a boy. Anyway, he couldn't stand me and since he began each of our flight lessons with the same words: 'To make it absolutely clear: I don't like hotshots. If you want to impress me show me control and discipline!' it was obvious for my comrades that I–"
"–have to be Hotshot." Goose finished, faintly snickering. Then she grew deadly earnest again. "How long do you think it'll take till they shoot?"
"I don–" A heavy thunder rolled through the base. "NOW!" he shouted against the ringing in his ears, grabbed his helmet and ran on down to the hangar.
"Luck," her voice was faint in the loud rumble of running feet in heavy boots as the last Vastitas-39 spacefighter pilots raced to their ships. Six minutes to reach orbit. Six minutes. From now on.
The blast ripped off the hangar door and the ten fighters raced out in groups of two or three and leaped towards orbit. The record for a Martian orbit jump was 4 minutes 48 seconds, done by a pilot with special training and a perfectly checked spacecraft. Nothing of that applied here. But it was all the time they had.
Almost 8 G pressed Hotshot into his seat as he leaped straight away from Martian surface.
The inner features of the helmet cut in his cheeks and forehead. Damn. What's up with the thing?!
Black stars and red spots began to flicker before his eyes: the inertial damping field must have reached its limit. He glanced at the LED-display with the countdown in his lower viewfield.
39 seconds left. The density indicator showed still red: still stratosphere. Maneuvering here at escape velocity would tear the ships to pieces.
20 seconds. Red.
15 seconds. Red...
12 sec–. Green.
=Swarm out!= He bellowed into the com and pulled his fighter over its right wing, leaving the most likely line of fire, still accelerating at max. A blinding yellow beam shot down at Mars, lasted for almost half a minute before it faded. Good luck, Goose, he thought grimly, already taking a bearing on the starting point of the HEL shot. =Okay, boys. Coordinates set. Let's get rid of the bastard!=
They tore up through the thermosphere...
...the colonial carrier was the same model as the carriers Earth Force used, except that it was painted dark olive green. The fighter coverage was weak, most of the energy was obviously needed for the enhanced HEL that was – against all treaties and conventions in space warfare – used against surface targets, so that specific vessel couldn't carry a whole spacefighter squadron. But the smaller, swiveling laser board cannons were dangerous enough...
The LC battery swivelled round as he fired. To his right Spike's ship exploded with silent grace. Something crashed against his tail. Hotshot was slammed forward into the belts. His forehead connected with the main control panel. The skin of his forehead chafed at the ill-fitting inner features of his helmet. Blood poured down his face, into his eyes, across his viewfield, dripping off his chin. The impact caused his ship to spin violently. He couldn't stabilize it without seeing where he was going. Furiously he pushed the blood covered LED-viewscreen back and wiped the blood out of his eyes. He struggled to stop the spinning–
A blinding bright yellow beam burned through the remnants of his squadron, melted five of them to metal slick. Fortuna's smiling at me. Without the spinning I'd likely been in the line of fire myself. He ground his teeth and spat out the blood he smelled there. Those asses fire that goddamn thing at anything that's not green!
A blinking LED on his panel turned from yellow – reduced capacity – to orange – very reduced capacity, likely failure within two minutes. He swore. Only three were left, and that monster wasn't even slightly scratched. It would fire again...
A recharging time of six minutes. The thing's just fired and it's directly connected with the reactor. He rolled his ship around, directly in front of the HEL. Let's see how good your backflow blocking devices are! He pulled the trigger.
His ship, accelerated by the blast wave, fell toward Mars, spinning, tumbling. The cockpit was a mess of dead, red, and – the most positive signals – yellow blinking LEDs. He still felt blood pouring down his face, slowly dizziness crept into his limbs. The planet filled three quarters of his screen already. Hotshot cursed and worked hard on the merely sluggish functioning controls. He prayed to come down inside the settled area, near one of the large landing fields. Neither he nor his ship were in any condition for a fancy landing right now.
The massive shape of Olympus Mons rose ahead. His ship nearly cut off some of the radio antennae on the caldera's edge that belonged to the abandoned military base in the crater itself. The big scar on Mars' face appeared in his viewfield – Valles Marineris. If he could slow down the sinking and followed the beacon system, maybe he could reach the great civil spaceport on the plains above New Pigalle. If...
The surface raced below him, too close... No, he was too fast for his remaining height... His vision blurred. The great white markings indicating the spaceport's border appeared ahead... Military fighters weren't allowed to land there, to compromise civilian territory... The landing gear hit ground...
Hotshot clambered, nearly blinded by the blood in and on his helmet, out of the wrecked, already burning vessel and staggered away from it. Some civilian airfield workers came toward him. "Thing's gonna explode!" he yelled at them, stumbling. Mars began to rotate around him. The ball of yellow glowing clouds of the exploded enemy carrier between the two moons flowed apart. The main engine of his vessel burst in red and orange, scattering the wreckage across the runway. Something hit his shoulder. Mars leaped at him. Everything faded...
He regained consciousness in the brilliant white of a civilian hospital. Later he learned that it was the First Colonists Memorial Hospital at Marinera Spaceport. It took him a while till he was able to recognize the man standing at his bed from the holographs he'd seen during his training: General Dean Anderson.
"Awake finally, Lieutenant?" the chief commander of the Space Rangers asked kindly. He must have tried to salute since the general hurried to say, "No need to strain your injuries, boy. I don't take salutes from people who win my war for me."
"Win... the war?" his voice was dry and raspy. "It's over?"
"The rest belongs to the negotiators." One side of General Anderson's mouth twitched. "Your unit destroyed the enemy's flagship. They weren't able to regroup their forces before we shattered them. Your base is?"
"And who was the commander of your unit?"
"Captain Lowell. But he was killed shortly after the radio silence was imposed, Sir."
"Let me clarify my question: who commanded your unit when it performed the final attack? Who took the command after Lowell was dead?"
"I did, Sir. I was longer on duty than anyone else."
The general stared at him. "How much more, Lieutenant? You aren't any older than your comrades."
"Three days, Sir."
"And you were able to hold it?" Anderson laughed heartily. "Three days. Boy, that's great." He shook his head. "Now recover from your injuries, and prepare yourself for a lot of ceremonies. You maybe haven't noticed so far, but you're going to get more decorations than I have," he smiled, satisfied, "and a promotion. We were able to rescue six of the flight recorders of your unit – including yours. Everything's already examined. You're going to jump quite a few ranks after the Board's debates are finished, Lieutenant."
"Sir, what about my comrades?" he asked, already getting dizzy again.
"I'm sorry, none of them made it."
"And was our base inspected, Sir? It's possible that–"
The general shook his head. "No, Lieutenant. The autumn duststorms were rather strong this year. Vastitas-39 is buried under at least fifteen meters of Martian sand."
...because the plaques and memorials and lists had been embossed, written and published long before I was able to leave the hospital, nobody knew that you'd been there with us. Nobody wanted to hear the truth afterwards. Walsh still searched the ground, lost in his thoughts. They decorated me. They promoted me, assigned me to one of their newest and considered most important new projects. They posthumously conferred medals for bravery to all of the others. But they didn't even want to mention that you'd been there, too.
The personnel of the hospital treated him like any other patient there – and there were quite a lot – the second HEL shot had hit urban territory and a lot of civilians were wounded. Two days later he found his personal belongings in a paper box below his bed. The battered helmet lay on top, still covered with his dried blood. It looked like the dust that had stuck to every humid point at the base: cups, dishes, sweaty shirts, the showers...
I'm sorry, you were wrong, Aki, he thought sadly, a goose doesn't bring luck.
He rubbed with the sleeve of his hospital coat across the crusted helmet, involuntarily looking after his equipment, and then stared in shock at the picture, painted in white lacquer on the front of the helmet. He must have grabbed the wrong helmet in the chaos after the first shot.
The glinting of a tiny metal object next to the bedstead caught Walsh's attention. He picked it up, wiped the dust off it and stared at the stamped letters. "Gooseman, wait for me at the ship."
He watched the ST stomping back through the dust and clenched his fist around the old dog tag before he turned for the wall again, pulling out the tiny tool he had brought along in his jacket pocket. "You were right, Aki," Walsh said faintly, thinking of the battered helmet with the rough painted white goose on it and looked over at his son, waiting for him near the corsair, "more than you ever knew." The tiny laser flamed up, burned words into the wall above the shattered metal frame. "And I never believed I was going to need it that badly."
The words wouldn't be readable for long: if the place wouldn't be buried again, the dust storms would erase the words soon. While the Ranger corsair lifted up, the first wave of dust scraped across the glazed letters:
THE FOLLOWING FILES COULD BE FOUND IN THE DATABASES OF EARTH FORCE:
The Heros of Vastitas-39 (in alphabetical order)
Lt. Matthew "Rocket" Charles, dead
Lt. Nicholas "Starrunner" Chesterfield, dead
Lt. Gabriel "Ramrod" Ericsson, dead
Lt. Xander "Mirage" Harriman, dead
Lt. Jan "Ace" Heller, dead
Lt. Neal "Yeah" Jameson, dead
Lt. Frank "Buccaneer" Kastner, dead
Lt. Steven "Hellfire" Keller, dead
Lt. Remy "Jostler" LeBeau, dead
Lt. Anatol "Daemon" Levin, dead
Lt. Kirk "Wolverine" McQueen, dead
Lt. Winston "Cyclops" McTavish, dead
Lt. Myles "Shark" O'Connor, dead
Lt. Gregorij "X" Ogareff, dead
Lt. Rodrigo "El Magnifico" Parlac, dead
Lt. Michael "Fury" Shellerton, dead
Lt. Adrian "Spike" Ryan, dead
Lt. Joseph "Hotshot" Walsh, decorated
Lt. Thomas "Iceman" Zoran, dead
List of Casualties – EFC Saratoga – 2060-10-02 (Excerpt):
Lt. Aki "the Goose" van Wolven, Fighter pilot category A
the descriptions (visualization and names) of Martian geography are based on the following sources:
B. Yenne: _The Atlas of the Solar System_ Exeter Books, New York, ISBN: 0-671-08926-9 and NASA Photojournal.
Alba Patera: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation between the Tharsis Volcanoes and the Vastitas Borealis, center is app. at 110 degrees West, 40 degrees North. A patera (Latin for shallow dish or saucer) is a volcano of broad areal extent with little vertical relief; a fossa is a linear depression. Alba Patera has a 100-km-diameter caldera at its center surrounded by a fracture ring. In total, the approximately 1,200-km-diameter Alba Patera far exceeds any other known volcano in areal extend; it covers eight times the area of Olympus Mons (the highest volcano in the Solar System) but reaches only about 6 km in height. The patera lies directly north of the Tharsis bulge, which encompasses the most intensely and most recently active volcanic region of the planet. The fossae of the Alba area are fault-bound graben that can be traced south through Tharsis bulge and therefore likely formed by upwarping of the Tharsis bulge as well as the coeval upwelling of Alba Patera magma.
Candor Chasma: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation, part of central Valles Marineris at 75 degrees West, 5-7 degrees South, lay southwest of Ophir Chasma.
chemex: (fiction) chemical explosives, collective name for stuff like Semtex and TNT.
colons: (fiction) colonialists, rough slang for the enemy. The mining colonies in the asteroid belt and on some of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons rebelled against the price-fixing dictated by the Earth's Board of World Leaders. They demanded free trade for their goods and sectors on Earth and Mars of their own to establish ground trade and grow the food they need to trade on their own. The BWL didn't accept the first and couldn't agree to the second. The result: war.
Coprates Chasma: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation, part of eastern Valles Marineris at 52 - 67 degrees West, 12-14 degrees South, among the deepest parts of the rift canyon system.
EFC: (fiction) Earth Force Carrier. The fighters designed for intra- and extra-atmospheric battle back in those times weren't capable of interplanetary flights (they couldn't load enough fuel for distances that large). The faster and stronger engines (a human-made forerunner of the hyperdrives, they produced too dirty (likely radioactive) exhausts to enter planetary atmospheres. So the space ships of those days were split in two types: big carrier vessels crossing between the planets and also capable of (though relatively slow: flight durations likely some months or even years) interstellar flights, and fighters and shuttles for near space and atmospheres.
EMP: (nonfiction) ElectroMagnetic Pulse, destroys computers and electronics, the effect was first discovered at nuclear tests, later it showed up that it could be done with highenergetic lasers as well as with atomic bomb explosions.
HEL: (fiction) High Energy Laser – weapon system for interplanetary spaceships like carriers, connected with the main reactor a full powered HEL has an energy output of at least 15 TeraWatt and can be used in space against other vessels and down from orbit against targets like bases. Because of its electromagnetic pulses it's generally not used against cities since it eliminates all computer activity in the striked zone and would destroy the systems vital for conquerors, too. The system's greatest weakness is a recharging (and cooling) time of approximately 6 minutes after it fired.
High-G acceleration: (nonfiction) acceleration of an air- or spacevessel more than three times stronger than the acceleration caused by gravity at Earth's surface (simplified explanation)
Olympus Mons: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation; Gigantic Olympus Mons is found in the Amazonis Planitia. Rising 15 miles above the surrounding plain, this volcano is the tallest mountain in the Solar System.
Ophir Chasma: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation; part of central Valles Marineris at 72 degrees West, 5-6 degrees South, lay northeast of Candor Chasma. see also: Valles Marineris. Ophir Chasma is the northern most one of the valleys connected with Valles Marineris. It is a large west- northwest-trending trough about 100 km wide. The Chasma is bordered by 4 km high walled cliffs, most likely faults, that show spur-and-gully morphology and smooth sections. The walls have been dissected by landslides forming reentrants; one area on the north wall shows a young landslide about 100 km wide. The volume of the landslide is more than 1000 times greater than that from May 18, 1980 debris avalanche fro Mount St. Helens. The longitudinal grooves are thought to be due to differential shear and lateral spreading at high velocities. The landslide passes between mounds of interior layered deposits on the floor of the chasma.
Phobos: (nonfiction) the bigger one of Mars' moons.
Stratosphere: (nonfiction) on Mars: altitude between 22 - 80 miles
Thermosphere: (nonfiction) on Mars: altitude between 80 - 140 miles
Valles Marineris: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation; a huge rift canyon system on Mars, more than four times deeper than the Grand Canyon on Earth its among the most fascinating geological formations in the Solar System. The entire canyon system is more than 3,000 km long and averaging 8 km deep, extending from Noctis Labyrinthus, the arcuate system of graben to the west, to the chaotic terrain to the east. The connected chasma or valleys of Valles Marineris may have formed from a combination of erosional collapse and structural activity. Layers of material in the eastern canyons might consist of carbonates deposited in ancient lakes. Huge ancient river channels began from Valles Marineris and from adjacet canyons and ran north. Many of the channels flowed north into Chryse Basin.
Vastitas Borealis: (nonfiction) Martian geological formation; part of the wide dusty plains around the martian north polar cup. Reaching down to the equator till about 50 degrees North.