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Jade Angel

Dena Bain Taylor

"You're always a child till your last parent dies,
then suddenly you're old."

—President David Hartwell
of the United States of America on Mars,
announcing the Last Flight from Earth

Xandri scanned the terrain through her retinal camera, frowning at the readouts scrolling down her peripheral field of vision. She wasn't seeing the Chimese dragon, so either intel had been wrong about the attack alert, or the Chimese had shifted operations.

Whatever the reason, she had no target. Just a cracked plateau, fogged by the perennial summer dust storm, that ran until it hit the white-hatted Coprates massif.

"Chill," she said.

"What is it, Icegirl?" The voice of her team leader, Captain Charles Scrill, was loud and clear. The last few missions, her com system had taken to randomly distorting sounds, but the tiny strip of duct tape jammed into her earpiece seemed to have done the trick.

"I'm bringing my eagle round. The Chimese aren't coming."

There was a brief pause. "Icegirl? Target is four o'clock, five klicks, coming off the massif. You should have visual." The worry in Chill's voice came through too clearly—she decided maybe she'd take the duct tape out.

"Incoming," her eagle announced happily. Its cheerful tones had been programmed on Earth by some idiot of a psych with a military contract to reduce combat stress. The sound broke whatever spell Xandri was under and she saw the Chimese dragon in the distance, ejecting Mars Terrain Vehicles—baby spiders—from its belly. Once they landed, they'd sprout legs and speed across the plateau to engage the American mama spiders guarding the Kennebunk Elevator, while the dragon turned back to its base on the massif. Now that the Chinese had lost the war with America on Earth, their Martian colony was starved for replacement parts for both systems and mechs. So they were focusing their dwindling resources on uSAM's two most vulnerable points. The Chimese cannabilized the spiders they couldn't keep running, and dropped the hulks down uSAM mining, infrastructure and terraforming shafts. And they targeted uSAM's cargo elevators every time supply ships arrived from Earth.

"Move in," Chill ordered. "Clear the little bastards out. Icegirl, take the fly."

Chill and the other two eagles in alpha strike team swooped down and across the plateau after the baby spiders, while Xandri peeled off to pursue the dragon. She almost had a lock when—this was the only way she could describe it—everything twisted inside her and out, and bounced back into shape like a flexiband. The dragon had vanished again. Only this time there was another dragon, a green one, heading towards the massif, at 10 o'clock, and her physical position seemed to have changed—she was somewhere else along the massif.

Even in her shock, her training kept her focused. "Chill!" she shouted. "Target has changed. I have visual on a second fly. Repeat, targeting another enemy craft!" She locked and fired. She missed. Unbelievable. Could the summer dust have compromised her twitchy targeting system? The Chimese weren't the only ones with parts problems. She was still absorbing her inexplicable failure and sequencing another lock and load, when the world twisted again, this time accompanied by a horrendous bolt of pain. When she pried her eyes open again, the second dragon was gone and she was back chasing the first dragon, which was now in range. She blinked her eyes furiously to clear them. She was hyperventilating, and the med readouts projected by her retinal camera were spiking right off the screen.

". . . girl! Respond!" Chill was shouting.

Her mind was still frozen, but her fingers were already busy, automatically keying in the firing sequence. "I have visual!" she shouted back. "Locking NOW!"

The eagle's long range lasers discharged, and the dragon exploded. Chunks flew into the massif it had almost reached. The fog spread the orange color of destruction across the whole Martian sky, making a beacon of defeat that would shine as far away as New Beijing.

The other three eagles had blown up most of the baby spiders, and the Kennebunk garrison had sent out beetlebots to sweep up the last of them. The baby spiders clearly got off their mechviruses before they died, though, because now the beetlebots were just spinning in circles. Still, the elevator hadn't been hit, and the Chimese had lost a costly gamble here. With a tip of their wings to the human mech crew already heading out to the stranded beetlebots, alpha team turned homeward to the Burroughs Eyrie overlooking uSAM. Xandri debated how much to tell Chill about what had just happened. She was already skirting a medical suspension to defrag all the biotech viruses she'd absorbed in a year-long combat rotation, and this was clearly way beyond a simple virus.

After they docked the eagles, Xandri headed quickly for the lockers where the flight suits were stored, sloughing hers off as she walked. She was very aware that Chill was right behind her—she felt him at her back but ignored him, hoping to discourage him from the conversation she knew they were about to have.

"Lieutenant Kantu!"

She made a face but stopped and turned to face him.

"What in Chimese hell happened out there?" he asked. "What were you shooting at?"

"My eagle got hit by a tech virus," she guessed. "Took me a few seconds to purge."

"But you lost visual twice. And no one else in the unit got hit. Maybe I should be ordering you in for a medscan."

"It was a tech virus, not a bio," she insisted. "Obviously the hit was a local with a repeat code. Hey, there's nothing wrong." She looked around and saw they were attracting attention from two senior officers on the catwalk that ran round the hangar deck. "And I don't need you putting ideas in anyone's head," she nodded her chin toward the brass. She turned and kept walking. Chill walked with her but lowered his voice.

"You're a real magnet for locals, aren't you? Third since the start of Gemini."

She made no answer. The other two incidents had genuinely been the result of tech virus hits. This one smacked of a psych problem, which was definitely a career-ender. No Kantu had ever been medically decommissioned. They died on the field or went on to glory as leaders of their people.

She reached her locker, with x j kantu stencilled on the front, and finished stripping off her flight suit in dark silence. She secured it into its compartment. In a battle alert, she could release it and suit up in seven seconds.

"Look, I'm staying in your face here," Chill persisted. "I care about you, dammit, Xandri. We'll talk about this later."

"Yeah, sure," she said tightly, reining in an angry response, and slammed the locker door shut with the heel of her hand. As she turned her back on him and headed for the shower, he was already turning his back on her.

Once he was gone, she reversed her steps and returned to her eagle. She sat in the cockpit and played back the external data recordings. Nothing out of the ordinary, except nine seconds of uncharacteristic silence on her part.

But this wasn't just a hallucination. She knew real pain when she felt it. Besides, even if her brain was lit up like a xrismas tree from bioviruses, it could never dream up something like this. She needed to speak directly to the General, and the thought put a sour taste in her mouth. She checked the time on the wall comscreen—0800 hours. She hadn't seen him in over a year, but she knew exactly where to find him.

Xristian Jefferson Kantu stared with disapproval at the broken, overset yolks of his micken eggs. A two-hour, early morning strategy session with President Hartwell had soured his appetite for breakfast, and given him a nasty mood to enjoy it in. The news from Earth was worse than usual, and the fears that had cramped his stomach for months now tightened their clutch on his innards.

Fears for the world of his birth, which was fast degrading past the capacity for spaceflight. Fear that the hordes of Chimese would overrun uSAM once Hartwell announced the Last Flight from Earth. He kept it all bottled inside him—no one on Mars but he and Hartwell knew just how bad the future was.

A voice cut through his dark thoughts.

"General, sir." He felt the air move on a vigorous salute, but he didn't look up.

"Xandri," he said, without much warmth. The General was a man of fixed habits who compartmentalized his life, and his niece certainly didn't fit into the 0800 breakfast compartment. Not to mention that the last time they'd met, she'd accused him of letting her parents die when she was twelve. He picked up the antique silver knife and fork he always used—the gift of Thomas Jefferson to a beautiful slave who bore him a son, Xristian's ancestor—and attacked his mabbit bacon. He liked to eat as terran a breakfast as he could.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir. I have some intelligence I knew you'd want asap."

He raised his eyes and quickly assessed her. Bulkier with muscle, but tired and a little scared around the eyes. She looked like she was just coming off patrol. Her uniform was rusty with the dust that, these days, seeped through seals and housings too worn to stop it. Her voice was husky with the powdery tones of a fighter who'd breathed too much of it in the high adrenaline situations of combat. And tight with nervousness and residual anger.

"I believe the Chimese are field-testing a new shielding force that works on visual distortion."

He put down his knife and fork and quickly checked to make sure no one was listening. He needn't have worried. Around them the base dining hall buzzed with conversation, but no one ever came near the General's booth during his breakfast unless they had to or felt driven to commit career suicide.

"Go on," he ordered, gesturing her into the seat across from him. "I'm listening."

"I witnessed it on patrol, sir. I've come right from the docking bay."

"You witnessed it? And the rest of your team?"

"No one saw it but me, sir."

"Oh? And what did you see?"

"I was out with alpha strike team, chasing a Chimese dragon back from the Kennebunk Elevator to the Coprates massif." She told him what had happened, forcing herself to include the parts she knew were impossible.

"So a properly locked laser totally missed its target?"

"I didn't miss, sir. The laser hit but did nothing."

"And no one else on your strike team saw this second dragon."

"No, sir. They reported nothing. They were engaged against ground forces at the time."

"Does your instrumentation back you up?"

She paused. "No, sir." At the expression on his face, she leaned toward him and burst out passionately: "I can't explain this, but it's not a psych problem, I promise you. It was real!"

As a general in the Corps of Engineers, he had to give her report serious thought, because there were parts that made sense to him. His micken eggs had gelled stubbornly into their irregular shape, and he scowled at them while he cut into them. He ate in silence for several minutes while Xandri sat stiffly across from him. Neither mentioned their last encounter.

"We've had intelligence that the Chimese are trying to develop shielding as an effect of a Rierson field," he finally said. "Send a pulse through a nonlinear material like space. The pulse frequency stretches as it travels and creates a chirp. We've already tested an antichirp process where we send a time-reversed chirp, a scalar wave. The waves condense in a high-energy laser pulse that compresses into a shell membrane at a certain distance from the wave emitter. If we could build a stable scalar wavetrain emitter, we'd have an energy bubble that destroys a portion of whatever touches it and repels the rest. But we couldn't build one, so I know the Chimese can't do it, and in any case it wouldn't change the position of your eagle. So there's really no physical explanation for what happened out there."

"How do you know it so certainly, that the Chimese couldn't do it?"

"I've got intelligence."

Then she did what she always did, since the day he took her in and finished raising her because there was no one else to do it. She got angry and crossed the line and disrespected him. "With respect, sir, you don't fight them out in the field. You're in here, where things have solutions and the universe has laws. I've seen the Chimese pull plenty of mabbits out of their asses."

"That's enough, Lieutenant," he cut her off. He reined in his own flare of anger, trying to be fair to his brother's only child while the general in him refused to stand for the insubordination. "Leave it with me and I'll investigate."

At that moment, in Independent ForShing, DaQing opened the hatch of his coffin and slung himself up and onto the entrance sill. Someone had drawn obscenities on the hatch again—the war and the military were very unpopular among many of the ForShing Yan—but he had nothing left to clean it with. It hardly seemed to matter, anyway. Secretly, he too wished the military rulers of Independent ForShing would sue for peace with the Americans. He banged a cloud of dust off his boots and stored them in their cubby inside the entrance. He swung himself all the way in so he was sitting on his sleeping mat.

A dim light had flickered on when he opened the hatch, and he didn't turn it up now. Instead, he lay back with a groan of exhaustion and pulled Jiao's jade angel from its place at his heart. Her great-great-grandfather had been a high-ranking official at the Imperial Court, and he visited Queen Victoria during her Jubilee. He had the angel carved from a piece of ancestral jade while he was in London, and gave it on a gold chain to his beautiful young wife in Beijing. Jiao had cherished it. She loved the Western myths about these benign protective spirits who could also be mighty and terrible. But of course, the jade angel hadn't protected her.

DaQing lay with the little piece of stone crushed against his forehead, trying as he so often did for some magic to lose himself in time.

Jiao the Golden, jade angel pressed by their lovemaking into the moist flesh of her breast where it lifts and falls with her gentle breathing, then tumbles free as she stirs and reaches for him again. He rises to her, takes her in his arms, prolonging the moment before he plunges his soul into her body. . . .

The magic never worked; here he was still. Their life together over, destroyed in the collapse of their apartment complex while he was out on patrol. Now he lived alone, in one of the tiny cubicles known as coffins, like a million others China had gratefully offloaded onto her ForShing colony, without worrying too much about its ability to terraform and build infrastructure, and to provide food and space for all those mouths.

DaQing tucked the jade angel back against his own breast and sat up. He ordered the light higher and pressed his thumb to his comscreen to access the specs General Han's aide had downloaded to him.

General Han had harangued him about the honor of the ForShing Yan, the honor of the General's illustrious warrior family, the honor of DaQing's own family, for he too was a Han. DaQing had been careful to stand rigid, apparently bursting with pride at being chosen to test fly the shield prototype.

But what did honor mean to him anymore? After everything China and Independent ForShing both had done to his life, to all their lives. To Jiao.

He shook his head to clear it of these thoughts. I'm thinking like an American. Everything is for me, me, me. The ForShing Yan need the resources of uSAM to survive, that's all I need to worry about now. The past has made the present, and it's only the future I can change.

He ordered the comscreen and the light off, and lay back down, forced his eyes closed. Flying from behind the dragon shield would be a strange new environment. He didn't know how external data might be distorted, didn't know how his instruments would interpret the shielding itself. He had two weeks' hard training in simulation before the test flight, on top of his missions. Best to sleep while he could.

Xandri left the dining hall, snagged a hook on the quad four elevator and rode up five levels to the Hub. The vidscreen was running a news item on the Great Lakes War. The Canadians had sabotaged New York's Tunnel 4 and collapsed the last ruins of the New York Public Library. At the Hub, she sat in the bar and had a few Martian beers to steady her nerves. At last, she rescued her shuttle from the extortionists at the dock office and caught the Sidestaff Airway west into uSAM, to the res pod she'd shared with Chill for the last three months. The shuttle shuddered heavily all along the airway; it needed new gyros but the cost of those had skyrocketed. America's victory over the Chinese on Earth two years ago had left her hard-pressed to resource her own needs, let alone keep up the steady stream of manufactured goods and parts her colony depended on. uSAM was suffering the legacy of the European colonial structure, which kept the Martian colonies supplying raw materials while America maintained a stranglehold on the highest level manufacturing processes. If only the Chimese had acknowledged China's right to cede its colony as spoils of war to the Americans. Instead, they'd declared independence and mired Mars in a war that neither side was well equipped to fight.

When she opened the door of the res, she saw Chill had murphied the kitchen and was chopping root vegetables on the counter. He wielded the knife heavily, and colorful chunks of carrot shot off like missiles. The two mabbits were lined up, twitching in a delirium of hope that a piece would lob through the air into their cage. Xandri picked a few up and slid them through the bars. At least someone should be happy, she thought, and turned to face Chill.

"Chill, stop chopping and listen to me."

Instead, he said. "You've got a real problem with trust, don't you? You brush your squad leader off when I question you and go directly to the general?"

She was amazed. "How did you know that? What did you do, follow me?"

"I was going in the same direction, yes," he answered stiffly, turning to her at last. "But that's not the point. The point is you won't tell me what happened out there."

It was true, she wouldn't, and she suddenly realized why. Back at the base, he'd threatened her with medical decommission. She couldn't trust him to be on her side if this came to a psych trial.

That's when she knew Chill had to go. Occam's razor. The simplest solution is the best one. The simplest life is the happiest one. "No, you're right. I won't. I can't. Maybe," she plunged on angrily, "maybe you should sign back on the residency board. This was a great arrangement when I wasn't on alpha team, but we should have split up when I got reassigned."

Her words hung in the air. "So this was just an arrangement to you?" he said at last, stony faced.

An hour-long argument later, she left, and spent the day doing a series of aimless things fueled by watery beer and frustration. She returned late, and the night that followed was long and exquisitely awkward. Chill murphied the second bed and they tossed in the uncomfortable silence, each listening with resentment to the small sounds made by the other. In the morning, vowing to swear off relationships for the rest of her life, Xandri fled an hour before she needed to, which put her on deck just in time to receive orders to report to General Kantu.

Her uncle got right to the point.

"I checked your black box. Nothing supports what you claim. What's even more confusing is, our intelligence says nothing about a shield test. But all this worries me. If the Chimese ever manage to shield New Beijing, they'll launch their assault on uSAM the next day before cornflakes." She didn't know what cornflakes were, but got the point. "I've decided to move up the schedule for a prototype test of our own."


"A zero point energy weapon, based on quantum chromodynamics. We can easily adapt our eagles to mount it. The ZPE has twice the range of any of their missiles or l-g weapons, and it doesn't need a straight line of sight to lock on its target. Plus, its destructive power should be on the order of ten times anything we've got now. This will be our Hiroshima—the shot across the bow that ends the war. I've been very involved in the ZPE's development, and I need you to understand how this thing works. Because you're the pilot who's flying the mission."

"Sir! Thank you, sir!" Her heart drummed fiercely against her rib cage, but she stared rigidly ahead.

"Instead of energy transmission through space in the form of electromagnetic force fields, we transmit electrogravitational potentials through spacemass/timenergy. The ZPE is based on the action of zero point energy on subatomic particles in normal vacuum. All charges in the universe are jostled through interaction with the zero point energy field, causing matter waves to propagate and giving us spacetime. In Wheeler's spacetime foam model, the quantum mechanical state of the universe is a superposition of many different spacetime topologies. Processes that should serve to increase the cosmological constant instead drive the production of more and more complicated spacetime foam. What we've discovered is a way to explode a single unit of quantum foam—pop a single bubble."

"Isn't there a cause-and-effect action?" she asked. "A cascade of popping bubbles?"

"Analogies only go so far," he answered, a little impatient. "Ultimately, quantum foam isn't soap. The ZPE's internal architecture is the most elegant construct I've ever had the honor to see. It's the crowning achievement of quantum engineering." His eyes bored into her. "This weapon will save America on Mars. We'll defeat the Chimese with it, and then its practical applications will drive our society forward. And history will record that one Jefferson Kantu helped design it and another flew it. Congratulations, Captain. Report for training to Flight Level C at 0630."

Modifying her eagle to house the ZPE took over a week, a week of skirmishes both on and off the battlefield. Chill was living up to his name. Something had broken between them, and until he found another res she was living in a frigid zone. For a hot-tempered woman like Xandri, it was torture.

So she heaved a sigh of relief when zero hour arrived and she secured herself in her cockpit. She flew north, following the line of the New Jersey Gardens, where terran food plants grew in thick layers of mabbit shit and Martian soil. Beyond the controlled environment bubbles of the Gardens, the neonate Martian biosphere stretched to the horizon, a thin veneer of green fogged by red summer dust.

Her target was the Dragon Nest. In one blow, the Chimese were about to lose eighty percent of their dragons.

Six hours later she came into range, well outside the reach of any Chimese patrol, programmed the target coordinates, and fired her way into history.

The ZPE made the same jittering sound it had in simulation, but a nanosecond later, she felt the world do that shimmer-twist again, the one she had felt before she saw the green dragon. The same pain and sense of wrongness, the same spike in her meds to the top of the red zone, and the same return to normality.

Her retinal cameras were transmitting satellite images of the Dragon Nest.

No apparent signs of damage. This was impossible—had the thunderbolt of doom turned out to be a slingshot pebble?

Strangely, and in stark contrast to the satellite images she'd received just moments ago, there wasn't much to damage beyond infrastructure anyway. Every last hangar bubble was retracted and empty.

She turned her eagle around so fast she had to fight it for control, and she sped back toward uSAM over the blooming landscape. She was an hour out when the maydays started. By the time she got there the battle was almost over.

The uSAM forces, ground and air, were battering at the Chimese dragon fleet. The missile impacts could be seen as a distortion of the visual field around the dragons, but none of the force was getting through. Could this have been what happened at the Dragon Nest? No, satellite imagery would have shown this effect. But certainly the Chimese had managed to shield their dragons, and uSAM had abruptly lost its one decisive advantage—the superior amount of functional weapons technology it had to throw at the enemy.

Xandri rushed to join the battle, her long-range lasers already contributing to the apparently useless barrage. The New Jersey Gardens were exploded into smoking ruins, and she could see the financial district, and the uSAM Trade Center itself, obscured in a puffball of flaming smoke.

Then she saw the green dragon and went after it. It didn't seem to be engaging in the action, just hovering near the battlefield like some angel of death. Xandri fired her laser arrays, which of course did nothing but attract the green dragon's attention, and it circled tightly to target her. With just seconds before it destroyed her eagle, she took the only option she had left—she fired the ZPE, hoping for a more destructive result this time.

With the discharge came the now-familiar wrench, but the result wasn't anything she could have expected.

The green dragon, the whole battle scene, had vanished. She was buzzing around a perfectly intact uSAM and Eagle Control was shouting at her to respond.

Two weeks after the inexplicable interference that blinded Dragon Nest's instrumentation for more than six hours, DaQing was ordered to report to the office of General Han.

"It was a field of tachyon disturbances on the scalar electrostatic potential level, generated through quantum chromodynamics, and it emanated from a source flying at two thousand km. Presumably an American eagle. What we do not understand is why the Americans did not follow through and destroy the Nest. We have decided it must be because this was an unintended effect and the pilot did not understand what happened." General Han stopped speaking, and there was a lengthening silence broken only by the sound of the General's terran crickets skittering across the floor of their cage. They were the only personal object in an office furnished with only the basics. In these interesting times, even those at the top of ForShing Yan society had to make do with little. "I regret to inform you," he went on, "our calculations show that the shielding you so successfully tested would not hold against this field."

DaQing's mind flashed back to the test flight. He'd never reported the American eagle he had on visual for nine seconds after he turned on the shielding, the one that had seemed to fire on him. He knew it would be regarded as a psychological lapse on his part, a pilot tricked by the shield's visual distortions and hallucinating. After all, they would argue, his dragon hadn't been fooled—the external data receptors showed nothing. He'd checked the black box on his return to Dragon Nest. His career would end and, without Jiao or any future he cared about, his career was all he had left.

"We had hoped we would be able to shield all of Independent ForShing," the General was saying. "Our engineers have the design, but we lack the materials. Still, we have plans, a small sacrifice in comfort by each of the ForShing Yan, and we will soon have enough to start construction. But now the Americans force us to move more quickly. We must attack the enemy before he realizes what he has built. Do you agree, captain?"

He was surprised to be asked his opinion. "Yes, General," he answered.

"Good. Building enough systems to shield all our dragons will take less of our resources and can be accomplished much sooner, before the end of summer. And you will be the one to lead the attack on uSAM. Congratulations, Colonel. We will destroy the enemy before he can destroy us." The general saluted him, and DaQing saluted back. The flag of Independent ForShing hung on the wall behind the general, a golden dragon encircling the red sphere of Mars, and he saluted that, too. It was a fire dragon, destructive, a dragon of war, and it had claimed him. There would be no peace now.

* * *

Xristian Jefferson Kantu had never seen skin so gray in so young a person.

"I was just about to die," Xandri said quietly. "It's a terrible burden, knowing how and when you die."

"We don't know any such thing. Here's what we think happened. Instead of propagating matter waves, we believe, but can't observe, that the ZPE's discharge creates minute timeshifts on a quantum level. It would be a random and diffuse phenomenon. But then Heckler's ironically named law of chaos comes into play, which dictates that the random cause-and-effect patterns and synchronicities initiated by random source phenomena will eventually cohere into an organized, discrete phenomenon. Because time is a constant to each observer but not to all observers, the new timeshift phenomenon is localized, with a ripple effect of variable extent. Localized to you. Felt earlier in time, even before you first fired the ZPE."

"But what is the timeshift phenomenon? Where am I going?"

"If the universe is an infinite layering of possible timecurves, with possibilities narrowing each time we make a decision, then the ZPE has breached the barrier between two of them and you are traveling through to an intersection where particular temporal realities are mutually inhabited. A future in which uSAM is destroyed, but not necessarily our future. If so, the time synch could be unstable, so there would always be the risk of getting trapped. Or maybe the ZPE has created a timeloop, a closed timecurve. In order to form, a closed timecurve would need two events within a normal timecurve—an initiating event and a terminal event—of such impact on spacemass/timenergy that they create a distortion that bends the curve in on itself and ultimately breaches the timecurve barrier at the point where the two events achieve mutual temporality."

"So the ZPE might be the initiating event."

"Or the terminal event."

They were sitting in his office, in the two carved wood chairs he'd had brought from Earth in the heady days when America could afford to shower her colonists with material goods. Xristian Kantu stood and paced, deep in thought. At last, he sat down across from her again and took her hand. She was shocked. He had never done this, not even when her parents died. She was even more shocked to find comfort in his touch now.

"How long do you think it will be before the American president announces the Last Flight from Earth?" he asked.

"What do you mean? Uncle Sam on Earth will always be there for Uncle Sam on Mars. Vincente-Riaz says it in every second speech."

"Basically, what America won in the Sino-American War was the right to preside over the end of the human era on Earth. Vincente-Riaz has already warned President Hartwell that we'd better get this war cleaned up and get ourselves self-sufficient in a hurry. Global climate change, environmental toxins, the VAIDS and brain flu pandemics—there are five billion fewer humans on Earth than there were a century ago and the birthrate is still dropping. We need a solution to the war up here fast, so Washington can concentrate on sending us the technology we'll need to stay alive once we're on our own. Otherwise we'll win this war just to die a slow death.

"You're experiencing other points on the timecurve, Xandri. Points in the future. We need to know more. We need to know the terminal event to ensure we win this war and establish a free Mars before the lifeline is cut. This isn't an order. It can't be. I can't force you to fly back to the Dragon Nest and discharge the ZPE one more time. I just ask you to remember that your name is Jefferson Kantu. Your heritage runs from great warriors, from Africa to America and now to Mars. I was modified as an adult to survive here; you carry this planet in your genes. And unfortunately, it seems the terran race dies with my generation. So one way or another, the future is yours."

Xandri gave the order to fire and the ZPE jittered. But she never knew if there was a spatial result because the temporal reaction kicked in. When she emerged from the time twist, she was in a dogfight with the green dragon. There was a ruined city in the distance, and she seemed to know it was New Beijing. A glance at her instrumentation sent a flare of panic up her spine. The time-twist had worked differently this time—only she seemed to have come forward, not her eagle. She was in a different bird. It too was fitted with a ZPE, but the instrumentation had been modified, and the ZPE was the only online weapons system.

She fired. The ZPE propagated matter waves that met the dragon's scalar shell, and though the shield deflected much of the energy, she could see that she'd done serious damage. But before she could change course to come in for the kill, the green dragon's missile took off her wing.

Eagle and dragon crash-landed a couple of kilometers from each other, but it was more of a land than a crash and both pilots walked away from the wrecks.

But there was nowhere to walk to. She realized with horror that she remembered, without having lived it, exactly what events brought them here. The near-destruction of uSAM. The arrival of the Last Flight from Earth. The failure of peace talks. Xristian Jefferson Kantu's team solving the ZPE problem so that the weapon propagated matter waves, not temporal ones. The final battle—eagles pitted against dragons until the eagles punched through the shield of New Beijing and destroyed it.

uSAM equipped its eagles with survival gear—an individual personnel bubble, coated with a solar micropanel array that provided plenty of energy for light and heat, to process oxygen, to create and recycle water and nutrients. There were nutrient concentrates, various useful chemicals and meds, even an entertainment library she could view on the vidscreen coating on the bubble's inner surface. Independent ForShing had long since stripped its dragons of any such luxuries as individual survival gear. Humans were replaceable, gear was not. So it was inevitable that the pilot of the green dragon should walk her way.

It was probably also inevitable that they didn't try to kill each other. What was the point? He wasn't green up close, of course, just a man. Han DaQing, a flight colonel like herself.

Time passed. Xandri's gear included a satellite communication device, and the satellites continued orbitting the planet, doing their job. But there were few survivors on the ground to communicate with. Periodically, the two established contact with small pockets of either side, but the distances were prohibitive. They'd likely die before they found each other. And here too, what was the point? Could they establish a small settlement that might survive their lifetimes, especially with the areoforming process well established and beyond human interference anyway? Probably. But there were clearly not enough of them to survive as a race.

It wasn't long before she and DaQing became lovers, for reasons that began in desperate denial of the truth and ended in the gut-level recognition that love was all they had left. Eventually, they had said everything to each other they could think of saying. Idle conversation loses its interest when every breath drawn is an exercise in futility. They knew every detail of each other's histories, values, and beliefs. They even exhausted suicide as a topic of discussion, having agreed that if she became pregnant, it would be time to crack out the poison capsules from the medkit. Certainly, they early on exhausted their understanding of the physics behind Xandri's continuing presence here.

"Every breach has been different," she pointed out. "The first happened before I even fired the ZPE, maybe a ripple effect backwards, Xristian thought. That one and the next sent me and my eagle forward and brought us back, although the first return wasn't initiated by anything I did, and the second happened when I refired the ZPE. This breach defeats me completely. I'm living in a temporal paradox—my body came forward, so where is the Xandri who engaged you before I arrived? And if I do cross back, will some Xandri still be here with you? And will there be a pullback this time, so I can warn both sides and change all this? Maybe Xristian guessed right about the instability of the time synch, and I'm trapped. Was it the creation of the ZPE that created this timeloop with this terminal event? Or has it revealed our own timecurve? Or forced us into another one? I don't know the answers to any of this, or what I could do to initiate a pullback. There's no ZPE to fire this time, that's the one thing I do know."

Winter came in its time. One night, when both moons were down and the stars twinkled faintly in the thickening Martian atmosphere, they lay huddled together on the bubble's sleeping mat. They were watching old entertainment on the vidscreen. They'd long since watched anything that interested them, and they were down to ancient "science fiction movies." This one featured a big beefy man who started up an alien terraforming array on Mars that, in the space of a few minutes of action-packed sucking and blowing, transforms the planet into a clone of Earth.

They laughed at the absurdity. But Xandri ordered the "movie" off before the names of its fictional and long-dead terrans started scrolling down the screen.

"That'll be us someday," she said wearily.

"Flicking a switch and saving Mars?" DaQing asked with amusement.

"No. What I meant was, whatever life-form dominates in the Mars we've created, we'll be the dead alien technology they'll have to puzzle over."

For some reason the date/time display at the bottom of the otherwise darkened vidscreen caught her eye. They hardly ever thought about calendars and timepieces.

"It's my birthday," she said, realizing with a shock what the date was. "I'm twenty-one. I can vote to elect the next president of uSAM."

He laughed, and sat up to unfasten the jade angel that always hung round his neck, the one that had belonged to his dead wife. He reached down and fastened the gold chain round her neck. "Isn't democracy wonderful. Well, then, you must have a present. Besides, if you ever do get pulled back, General Han will accept it as proof of your story because it will also be hanging round my neck."

She kissed him to thank him, and the kiss lengthened, turned passionate. She felt a protective glow from where DaQing's body pressed the jade into her skin. It was a very hollow promise, under the circumstances, but the hope offered by angels has always been just a matter of faith.

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