The Martian Word War

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Stone was busy with paperwork. There was always paperwork. Even in a war on an alien planet, paperwork was inescapable. Being in command of a squadron that was still in the testing phase didn’t help.

It was with some relief when Rocky chirped in curiosity. Stone leapt at the excuse to stretch his legs.

The robot lead him to MESS (Martian Engineered Soup and Salad). Stone always thought the name rather forced. It was more of a pub, and soups and salads made up a very small portion of the menu. But it worked, and MESS was the unofficial hangout for most men on the base.

“Evening, Captain,” Peterson, the owner/bartender said. “Men are out on the sun patio.”

Stone nodded in appreciation, and headed out to the oddly lit sun patio. While the sides were open air, a glass ceiling stretched above. This was fairly common in restaurants these days. The adaptive glass could be adjusted to provide different levels of shade for individual tables. What made the patio at MESS so unique was that Peterson had installed a special adaptor. The ceiling wasn’t limited to just blocking out sunlight, but could focus it. The end result was bright rays scattered haphazardly over an otherwise comfortably lit area.

Peterson insisted it was just a gimmick, but when some of the members of the TIGER squads petitioned that it be recognized as an official recharge location (and the most optimal one on the base), he hadn’t looked terribly surprised.

All the men there were gathered around a long table. On one side, he saw Donovan, Lance, and the Warrant Officer from the 2nd TIGER squad, each bent over a laptop. Other members from the TIGER squads were craning to peer over their shoulders. The TIGERs paced around, ignoring the sunny spots that justified them being allowed there in the first place.

Sitting opposite from them were other soldiers. Stone did not immediately recognize them, but their uniforms identified them as members of the mechanized infantry. Three of them were also sitting in front of laptops.

Both sides were shouting at the other, but the six soldiers sitting ignored them, pounding furiously at their keyboards.

Carla was sitting at a smaller, round table a few feet away. She looked decidedly out of place, dressed more like a tourist than anything else.

She smiled as she saw him, and said in a loud voice, “I believe the phrase is ‘Officer approaching’?”

The quarrel broke away immediately, as everyone, including the six on computers, rose to face him.

“Good evening, sir!”

He returned the salute. “As you were.”

The six soldiers were sitting down before he had even lowered his hand.

“Private Leo, report.”

“Sir,” he said, attempting to sound serious despite the goofy grin on his face, “the mechanized infantry have challenged the TIGER squadrons to a word war.”

“If that’s the best debriefing you can give me, Private, I’ll have you cleaning the entire squad’s TIGERs with your toothbrush.”

Leo tried to rein in his smile. “Sir, yes, sir! Since we were removed from the front lines for the moment, Sargent Donovan thought he would try NaNoWriMo. He was falling behind on his word count, so Miss Lance suggested a word war to help him out. Corporal Tien overheard and challenged us on behalf of the mechanized infantry. Miss Schialla offered to officiate.”

Stone recalled Lance mentioning NaNoWriMo before. Was it November on Earth already? He found it difficult to keep up to date with the Earth calender when it had so little impact on him on Mars.

“What was the racket about?”

“Mr. Lorenzo,” Leo said, nodding at one of the typing infantry men, “felt Miss Lance had misclassified her novel.”

Stone stared at them in disbelief. Of all the things for soldiers to get in an argument about.

“Sir,” Mr.  Lorenzo said, looking up from his laptop, but not ceasing to type,  “space exploration simply isn’t enough to warrant classifying a work as science fiction anymore.”

Lance didn’t look up from her work at all. “It’s a character piece on a mining vessel to Io. What would you classify it as.”

“Contemporary. We’ve sent people out into space on mining expeditions. You can’t claim science fiction if you’re only using existing technology.”

“It’s the tropes,” Miss Lance insisted. “If-”

“You can’t hide behind tropes!” another one of the infantrymen cut her off. And it degenerated into a shouting match again.

Stone walked up to Carla, who was watching the entire thing with an amused expression. He bent over and kissed her before pulling a chair up to her.

“What’s your take on this?”

“Under normal circumstances, I’d agree with Warrant Officer Lorenzo,” she said, “but Martian APVs aren’t nearly as interesting at the TIGER units, so I’m keeping that to myself.”

“Am I going to read about this on futuretech.com?”

“I doubt it,” she said, with a sigh. “They only put up with my fluff pieces for the little tidbits of actual tech I could put in them. That well is pretty much dried up, but a few other sites have shown some interest. Mostly government stuff. The human angle is good publicity. Did you know Eric is working on a children’s book?”

He glanced at Sargent Donovan, who was bent so low over his computer, his nose was almost touching the screen. “I did not.”

“Middle age stuff. I promised I’d help him with editing, and even finding an agent once he thinks he’s ready. He’s hoping he can get published by the time his daughter’s old enough to read it.”

“He’d better catch up on his word count, then,” Stone said, allowing himself a small smile.

The Stone Family Reunion

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“Uncle Mikey!” the four-year-old girl shouted, throwing herself at her uncle.

Michael dropped his duffel to catch her. He swung her around once before hoisting her on to his shoulder.

“Didya bring Rocky?” she asked, eagerly.

“Sorry, sweetie,” he told Carol.

“Awwww,” she pouted. “How come?”

Michael took a deep breath. “Regulations prohibit the transport of high grade robotic materiel on civilian transport systems.”

Carol, of course, didn’t understand any of that, but she thought official-sounding speech was hilarious, and she burst into giggles.

“Hey!” his sister, Laura, said in a mock-chiding tone. She had been watching from the elevators, but started towards her brother and daughter. “No military talk in front of the kid. You’ll get her hooked. One family member in the army is enough.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’ll endeavor to communicate according to civilian guidelines until I receive further orders.”

She punched him in the shoulder, even as Carol began to laugh again. He grabbed his duffel with his free hand, and they walked across the hotel lobby back to the elevators.

“Mom’s going to flip. She thinks you’re still up there, fighting rebels.”

“Technically, Mars is more below us right now.”

“Quiet, you. You should hear her going on about the Greenies. You’d think…” She cut herself short. “Sorry. Almost forgot. No talking about Mars while we’re here.”

Michael frowned as the elevators rose. “Mom and Jeff still aren’t getting along?”

“Jeff is firmly of the opinion that the mess on Mars is everybody’s fault. I don’t think Mom would care so much normally, but since you’re there… she’s taking it as a slight against you.”

“He still thinks she likes me better?”

Laura shrugged. “You know how Mom is. If any of us does something she can be proud about, she won’t stop talking about it. Between you running a TIGER squad, and me with Carol here… I think Jeff is more upset at himself than anything, but he’s always had a gift for deflection.”

“Uncle Jeff says I’m his favorite niece,” Carol piped up.

Michael smiled, wryly. “Good to know he hasn’t stooped to using new material yet. Didn’t he use that joke at your wedding?”

“I forgot about that,” Laura said with a laugh. She impersonated their brother’s voice. “’Michael’s always been my favorite brother, but now that Luke’s joining the family, I’m going to need to re-evaluate his standing.’ He repeated that to everyone who would listen to him.”

Carol started to squirm the moment the elevator doors opened, and Michael set her down. She immediately ran out into the ballroom towards an older, but still vibrant woman.

“Nanna!” she called out. “Nanna! Guess what! Uncle Mickey’s here!”

“So much for seeing how long it would take her to notice you,” Laura muttered.

A look of confusion passed over their mother’s face at Carol’s words. But when she saw Michael, it was replaced with pure elation. She ran to his side, embracing him with surprising strength.

“Michael,” she said, not letting go. “it’s so good to see you.”

“I couldn’t miss your seventy-fifth birthday. Not when the entire family is here.”

When she finally released him, she turned to her daughter. “And don’t tell me you weren’t in on this. It had to be your idea to keep it a secret.”

“Why, mother!” Laura said, in an overly-shocked voice. “How could you suggest such a thing?”

“Because Michael hasn’t got a deceitful bone in his body, but you and Jeff take to mischief like a duck to water.”

“I don’t get in nearly as much trouble these days.” A wistful smile crept over Laura’s face.

“That’s because Luke’s a sensible man.”

Laura laughed a full hearty laugh. “Luke was worse than Jeff and me put together, Mom. If Carol didn’t keep us busy all the time, I’m sure we’d be on the news at least once a week.”

“On that note…” their mother said, turning to Michael.

“Not now, mother,” he said.

“It’s my right as a mother,” she insisted. “I haven’t seen any articles on futuretech.com about your cat robot lately. Are you and Miss Schialla going through a dry spell?”

“You read futuretech.com?” Michael asked, incredulously.

“Only Miss Schialla’s articles. I know as long as she’s still writing about you and Rocky, the two of you must be doing well.”

“There’s only so many fluff pieces she can write about the TIGER squad, and the military is even clamping down on those lately.”

“Whatever. I want grandkids. Plural.”

“Cliché much, Mom?” Laura said. Michael noted, however, that one of her hands went to her stomach. Either she wanted another child, or maybe she had a second surprise for their mother today.

He smiled and turned away. Only to see a boy, not much older than Carol, staring intently at him. It was his cousin Jamie’s son.

“Tommy, right?” he said.

“Robby!” the boy said, clearly offended. “Tommy’s my brother! Are you really an alien?”

“I didn’t say that!” another boy shouted, running up. This was Tommy. He had to be almost ten. The brother’s bore a strong resemblance, but Michael mentally kicked himself for forgetting that it had been four years since he’d seen Tommy.

“I said he was fighting Greenies on Mars. I never said he was an alien. There aren’t any aliens on Mars, dummy.”

“Oh,” Robby said, looking a little disappointed. Then his face brightened up. “Did you bring anything from Mars?”

“That’s rude, Robby,” Tommy said. But his eyes went to the duffel at Michael’s feet.

Michael grinned and knelt down. He made a big deal about rummaging through the bag. “I don’t think I have anything you’d be interested in here. No, it’s just a bunch of robots.” He lifted out a small bundle of bubble rap removed the model TIGER unit from inside. “You guys don’t like robots, do-”

“It’s Rocky!” Carol shouted, racing over to him. “Can I see? Can I?”

He was suddenly surrounded by pretty much every cousin he had. Even the oldest, Bethany and Daniel, both teenagers, lingered nearby.

“Calm down. I’ve got one for every kid here,” he said. “But there’s a condition. My friend spent a lot of time on these, and she wants a holo-pic of everybody with them. So no running off.” He handed the first one to Robby, and started digging more out. “One at a time!” he said, as the children began to rush him. It had little effect.

Taking a deep breath, he barked, “AT-TEN-TION!” with as much authority as he could put in his voice. The kids immediately fell silent, and some of the older ones even stood more or less at attention.

Bethany helped line up her cousins as each of them got their model, and accepted her own with a gracious smile.

“Okay everybody,” Michael said, holding up the camera. “On the count of three, say ‘Thanks, Warrant Officer Lance.’”

SpaceDate

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Captain Stone tried to think of something to say. So far the date had been… well, he wouldn’t say it had been a disaster, so much as it hadn’t really been anything. Carla seemed nice enough, but they couldn’t find anything to talk about. They’d hit most of the basic small talk topics – jobs (she was a reporter for a tech news site), sports (she supported the new Martian Football League), weather (76 degrees and sunny, as scheduled). The conversation never seemed to click, and awkward silence crept back in after a few minutes while they poked at their food.

“So,” he said, scraping the bottom of his small talk barrel. “have you been on Mars long?”

“A few months. I’m still getting used to the gravity,” she said with a weak laugh.

Silence returned.

Stone wondered if he was just too military to date. He wasn’t used to be out on his own, and he didn’t like it. He usually had twelve trained soldiers to support him, not to mention thirteen robotic cats. When presented with something outside his proficiency, he could delegate it to subordinates better suited for the task, or send it up the chain of command until they found the right man for the job.

He was about to apologize to Carla for wasting her time, when she spoke.

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at her plate. “I’m not a very good date. I’m more used to interviews than conversations.”

He tried not laugh, but he couldn’t stop himself, earning him a dark look from his date.

“No, I’m sorry,” he said, quickly. “It’s just that I was about to say the same thing, more or less. The whole dating situation is just too unstructured for me, I’m afraid.”

“Well, at least we’ve got something in common, then,” she said.

“To be perfectly honest, I only signed up on that website to appease certain family members. I hadn’t given it much thought until you pinged me.”

“Friends, in my case,” Carla said. “Lots of engagements and marriages and babies going around, and heaven forbid you’re single. It’s not like I don’t want to find someone, mind you. I like the idea of dating and everything, but in practice, it never seems to live up to the hype. But every couple of months I go on a date, if only to confirm that I still suck at it.”

She took a deep breath, then added, “And if we’re being completely honest, I was hoping that if this date went well, I might get a chance to see one of those experimental TIGER units.”

Stone nearly choked on the piece of steak he was eating. “How did you…” he spluttered, “You’re not supposed to… That’s classified!”

“Relax,” she said.

“How did you find out?” he asked. “If I’ve compromised myself…”

“You haven’t,” she told him. “Your SpaceDate profile makes it clear that you’re in a robotics division if you know how to read between the lines, but nothing beyond that. I used some of my contacts to get a list of the Captains in those divisions – which I have clearance to have – and cross-checked the dates you showed up in the news. Even with all that, I was only about seventy percent sure you were part of one of the TIGER squads.”

“Do you always investigate SpaceDaters before pinging them?”

“Not always, no. Just the ones I think might have access to interesting new tech.”

“So you’re one of those ‘always-on-the-clock’ types?”

She shrugged. “I guess so. Might explain my lousy dating life.” She paused for a moment, then asked, “So, since we’ve both established the date is going nowhere, I’ve pretty much lost any shot at seeing a TIGER, haven’t I?”

Stone chuckled. “You didn’t have a chance from the beginning. Regulations, you see.”

“Ah, a traditionalist. No showing girls your robot until the third date?”

“Something like that,” he said. His sister could have come up with some entendre-laden comeback, but Stone had never been much at wordplay.

“How about a human interest piece?” she asked. “No tech questions, just a look at how having a robotic companion affects the life of a soldier.”

“I’ll have to run it by some of the higher-ups.”

“They’ll love it. Showing that soldiers are people is always good press. And… this might sound silly, but… I think if we saw each other while we’re both just working, it might be a better ‘date’ than this one turned out to be.”

It didn’t sound silly at all to Stone.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Valentine’s Day on Mars

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“Honey, can you say hi to Uncle Mikey?”

The young girl on the holo-vid toed the ground nervously, not looking directly at the camera. “Hi, Uncle Mikey.”

“Now say ‘At ease, Captain Uncle Mikey,” the voice holding the camera said.

She giggled. “At ease, Cappan Uncle Mikey.” Captain Stone felt a smile creep on to his face as he watched his three-year old niece.

The camera turned around. The holograms blurred into a mess of light until a woman’s face came in to view.

“So, everything’s good here on Earth,” his sister told him. “Oh, and Mom wants me to bug you about finding somebody. She says Carol needs some cousins to play with.” She smiled impishly. “Bet you thought you were off the hook when Carol was born, didn’t you? So go bond with a hot, stoically beautiful female officer over killing some Greenies or something.

She kissed her fingers, then held them up to the camera lens. “We all miss you back here, and we’re all very proud of you. Oh, and when you send a reply, could you get some footage of Rocky in there? I know there’s restrictions on what you can send, but Carol loves seeing him. Okay, lots of love, and go give those Martian…” She paused, looking off camera. “Jerks some heck.”

The video winked out, and Captain Stone sat back in his chair, smiling. He wasn’t the sort of person who had doubts about fighting for his country, but his sister’s reminders of exactly what he was defending always gave him a warm feeling.

“You’ve got a fan, Rocky,” he told the TIGER curled up next to his desk. Rocky looked up with a quizzical chirping sound, then suddenly turned to look at the door.

“Come in,” Captain Stone said, before whoever Rocky had noticed could knock. It unsettled most people, but he maintained that it was a good reminder of the more subtle levels of a TIGER unit’s sensors. It was also a good deal of fun, but he’d never admit that on the record.

Staff Sargent Eric Donovan and Private Paul Leo entered the office, snapping to attention.

“At ease, men,” Stone said. “I believe you two have the night off, so what can I do for you?”

Sargent Donovan stepped forward. “I need your permission to use the ansible communicator, sir.”

The captain frowned. “I thought I had already cleared that.”

“Official regulations require me to present your signature.”

“All right,” he said, digging some forms out of his desk drawer. “Why didn’t we take care of this before?”

Donovan looked around. “Permission to speak freely, sir.”

“Granted.”

“The engineers usually don’t bother with the signature, since an officer has to schedule the time slot in the first place. I think Lieutenant Davis is leaning on them. You know how he feels about the TIGER units.”

Captain Stone sighed. “I can understand throwing red tape at me, but interfering with a man talking to his wife on Valentine’s Day.” He scribbled a note at the end of the form. “Make sure the engineers give you your full fifteen minutes, even if it messes up their schedule, and tell Eileen I said hi.”

Sargent Donovan took the paper with a smile. “Thank you, sir. I’ll be sure to pass that on.”

“Dismissed, Sargent.” Donovan snapped a quick salute before leaving the office. Stone turned his attention to Private Leo. The young man was the latest addition to the 3rd TIGER squad. His aptitude tests had gotten him assigned to Captain Stone just before they had been assigned to Mars six months ago.

“So, how can I help you, Private?”

“Sir, well, sir… I was wondering if… given what day it is, sir, if you would mind, sir… that is, sir, I was hoping I could ask-”

“Hold that thought, Private,” he said, cutting off the soldier’s rambling. “If one of my men were to ask me for permission to take a one of his squad members on a date, regulations would force me to advice against it. If the squad member was a superior – such as Warrant Officer Emily Lance – I would be forced to refuse outright.

“Not that it would matter, because Ms. Lance has had requests from half the men on this base, and quite a few of the civilians, as well. So unless the soldier asking had something to set him apart from the rest – a near perfect score on both the mechanical and electronic aptitude tests, for example – I am quite certain she would turn down the soldier in question.”

Private Leo’s grin threatened to split his face in half. “Yes, sir. Sorry for bothering you, sir.”

“If that’s all, you’re dismissed, soldier.”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

He was almost out the door when Stone called out. “Private?”

“Yes, sir?”

“If you were, hypothetically, to ask a TIGER squad warrant officer – not Ms. Lance, of course – on a date tonight, I’d suggest you make sure your Unit Seven is sparkling beforehand. I think most warrant officers would appreciate that.”

“Thanks, sir, I’ll do-” The soldier caught himself. “I’ll keep that in mind sir.”

Captain Stone managed to keep his face neutral until the door closed, then he burst out laughing. Rocky looked inquisitively at him.

“All right, Rocky, let’s make a recording. Your fans await.”

Tatical Inteligence Gathering and Espionage Robots

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Captain Michael Stone, of the 3rd Tactical Intelligence Gathering and Espionage Robot squad stepped out of his tent. His TIGER, Rocky, had been laying on his back on a small tarp laid over the dusty ground, but when he saw Captain Stone, he immediately rolled on to its feet, letting out an inquisitive chirping sound.

“At ease,” the captain said, patting the robot on the head. He chirped again, then sat down. He looked every bit like the giant cat he was named after, aside from the fact that instead of orange and black fur, he had Thermal-Chromatic Adaptive Plating. Even as he looked, the TIGER’s metallic hide shifted from the dull orange color of the ground to a deep green that matched his own uniform.

“To me,” he ordered, and the TIGER fell in beside him as he walked down the rows of tents to the noise that had first caught his attention.

Warrant Officer Emily Lance was standing at ease in front of an angry looking lieutenant. He paced back and force, kicking up orange sand every time he turned around. Ms. Lance’s face was perfectly neutral, patiently enduring the dressing down she was receiving. Only someone who had spent three months serving with her would notice the small tell-tale signs – the way she gripped her hands tightly behind her, for example – that indicated that it was only a lifetime’s worth of military discipline that kept her from telling the lieutenant just how stupid he was being.

Behind her, spread in three neat evenly-spaced rows, were a dozen TIGERs, all laying on their backs. Their sides matched the tarp they were lined up on, which in turn was the same color as the ground, but their bellies were all a solid black. Beside each one, save Ms. Lance’s, a soldier stood at ease, although Stone could feel the tension in them. They were a tight-knit troop, and they were, perhaps a little more fond of their Warrant Officer than was strictly professional.

“Attention!” Staff Sargent Eric Donovan shouted as Stone approached. Like a finely tuned watch, the men turned as one to face him, raising their hands in salute. The lieutenant blinked for one confused moment as Ms. Lance turned away from him, before realizing what was going on and snapping to salute as well.

“At ease,” Captain Stone said, returning the salute. “Sargeant Donovan, could you brief me as to what’s going on?”

“Yes, sir. Ms. Lance and Lieutenant Davis were discussing the operating procedures for the TIGER units, sir. Lieutenant Davis did not agree with Ms. Lance’s analysis.”

Stone was tempted to make a snarky response about how well read Lieutenant must be to know more about the experimental new AI robots than the Warrant Officer responsible for their upkeep. It wouldn’t be professional to insult an officer in front of enlisted men like that, though. He must have spent too much time with his brother and sister over leave for him to even entertain thoughts like that.

“Lieutenant Davis,” he said, “If you have a problem with how I deploy my troops, bring it directly to me. Ms. Lance should only be approached on technical matters, and if that is the case here, I’d strongly recommend you concede to her vast knowledge on the TIGER units.”

Lieutenant Davis’s attempt at a neutral expression was not as good as Ms. Lance’s had been. “Sorry, sir. I merely wanted to know why these expensive scouting drones were just lying here instead of on patrol. The Greenies could attack any day now.”

His TIGER let out a low whistling sound. It wasn’t quite a growl, but it was as close as the TIGER could make, and it served its purpose well enough.

“Let it go, Rocky,” Captain Stone said softly, laying a hand on the robot’s back, then turning to face his warrant officer. “Ms. Lance, did you inform him that TIGERs are not to be deployed until they’re fully charged?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you explain that per safety protocols, during shipping they are drained down to standby energy levels?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how are their power levels right now?”

She pressed several buttons on the command center she wore as a bracer on her left wrist. “With the exception of units three and seven, all of them are between sixty and seventy percent of full power.”

“And units three and seven?”

“Just past fifty percent, sir. They took longer than the others in their initial mapping of the campsite, but they’re on schedule to reach full power within the timetable you gave me.”

“Then it seems this matter is settled. The TIGER units will be ready to begin reconnaissance at eighteen-hundred hours. Did you have any further questions, Lieutenant?”

He glared at Ms. Lance as if she were somehow responsible for this, before giving a sour “No, sir.”

“Then you are dismissed.”

Once the lieutenant had left, Captain Stone turned to face the assembled men. Ms. Lance stepped back beside her own TIGER.

“Sargent Donovan, is there a reason you didn’t fetch me when Lieutenant Davis began to interfere with operations?”

Donovan grinned. “I thought Ms. Lance could handle the situation, sir. Didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, either, sir,” he added.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that your unit was one of the two that came back late from exploring.”

He laughed. “You know how Belle is. She’s curious. Rocky was out just as long as she was.”

Unit one didn’t have his battery drained before shipping.” He stressed the first two words, but more out of formality than anything else. Robotic unit operators were not supposed to form attachments to their assigned units. At the same time, as part of the new TIGER units’ testing, he had been instructed to encourage his men to do just that. He couldn’t do it openly, though. The troop had given Rocky his nickname, and Captain Stone used it whenever he could pretend he didn’t know his men were listening.

Rocky walked over to where Ms. Lance’s TIGER, unit two (or Crystal as it was all but officially named) and chirped. Crystal opened her eyes and whistled back. She didn’t get up, but turned to look at her operator with such a plaintive look that Captain Stone was once again impressed by the amount of engineering that went into them.

“No,” Ms. Lance said, in the tone of a mother telling a child to eat her vegetables. “You can’t play until you’re finished charging.”