Written by Mike Acerra
Co-written and Edited by Allen Crowley
“I must be mermaid
I have no fear of depth
And a great fear of shallow living.”
When Sergeant Rama Montaigne and Gunnery Sergeant Athena Tripi entered the Proteus’s mess hall, Athena gasped.
“I know, right?” Said Rama, who had looked at Athena to catch her reactions.
In the last 18 hours since being awakened from an 18 year freeze, all Athena had known was the inside of this strange and massive spaceship. From its central glass enclosed inland sea to its massive rotating sphere that created a kind of artificial gravity, the Proteus was a world full of wonder and surprises. And the ship's mess didn't disappoint.
The room’s shape immediately reminded her of ice fishing with her cousins in the sea caves of the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior when she was 12. The room was roughly shaped like an air pocket under ice and its interior looked like a sea cave that had been designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany while doing acid with Salvatore Dali. She found it strange that she would make such comparisons, since she hadn’t remembered being so familiar with the work of either artist.
The room’s translucent walls, floors, and ceilings melted into each other as light dreamily shimmered through pinks, oranges, and blue-grey pearl tortoiseshell surfaces like flocks of starlings as if they were made of frozen sea foam.
The normal breezy sound of the Proteus’s weather was replaced by a kind of distant steel drum music drifting in and out of a salty ocean tradewind.
Rama led Athena down a gentle ramp to the center of the room. There she saw what looked like an outcropping of granite that served as a buffet. In the rose and grey-green stone were shallow bowl-shaped depressions containing assortments of familiar and unfamiliar dishes. Athena spotted corn bread, chickpeas and taco shells along with brilliant green and red salsas and fresh cilantro and tomatoes.
“The kitchen is automated. It makes every cuisine you can think of. So if you request something it will take a few minutes. Otherwise the buffet is really great too. Especially on Taco Tuesday. Everything is fresh and grown on board. The fish and meat are synthetic but you can’t tell.” said Rama.
At the end of the buffet stood a short Marine chief warrant officer with a thick muscular build who was helping himself to some sort of casserole. The distinct bomb cluster on his collar had a modification Athena had never seen before. Rama gestured to the warrant officer.
The warrant officer put down his tray, which looked to be made of translucent alabaster. He looked at Athena like he was seeing a ghost.
“Gunny, this is Chief Warrant Officer Alvarez. Sir, this is.”
“Sergeant Tripi and I need no introductions, Sergeant. You probably don’t recognize me, Gunny, but I served in your battalion before the deployment to Africa. I was a Lance back then.” Said Alvarez, who smiled and patted his stomach to indicate that he had possibly grown since she’d last laid eyes on him.
Athena scanned Alvarez’s face and then looked into his dark brown eyes. Then it clicked.
“Son of a bitch.” She said, acting like she was lost for air. “I don’t forget my HOGs.”
Alvarez smiled. “I haven’t been called that in a long time.”
“I didn’t know you were a scout sniper, Chief!” Said Rama, grabbing a tray for her and Athena.
“He transferred to the 3rd Marine Raiders. Our fict didn’t give him enough action, if I remember right. Sir”. Said Athena, trying out the ‘sir’ for size.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t regret that decision, Gunny. I should have been with you guys.” Said Alvarez, his face turning red.
“Then you'd be dead too. It’s really good to see you, Spike.” Athena’s face then grew hot, as she felt a torrent of pure emotion run through her.
“It’s really good to see you too, Gunny.” Said Alvarez, apparently frozen.
In an instant Athena had reached out and bear hugged him, tears running down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry.” Is all she could get out through a sob.
“Are you kidding? You’ve been to Valhalla and back. You’ve earned it.”
They pulled away from each other and Athena grabbed the towel Rama was holding out for her.
“Thanks.” She said as she blew her nose.
“Come on, let’s get you some chow and sit with my crew.” Said the Chief.
They helped Athena out by pointing their favorite dishes at the buffet. Then Alvarez led them to an alcove in the back of the mess hall tucked away from the main room.
Seated around a large leaf-shaped table were five Marines in the same blood orange duty uniforms that Athena had changed into after her release from her short detention, and another wore the grey and blue utilities of a navy corpsman.
“Gunny, this is most of the crew of Raven.”
“Raven?” Asked Athena, smiling at the group as she sat with her tray of fish tacos and a spinach salad.
“It’s like if an APC and a Starship had a baby.” Said Rama.
“A really ugly baby.” Said a lance corporal shoving a burrito into his mouth.
“Gunny Tripi, this is Corpsman Perera, Lance Corporal Hildegas, munitions tech, Corporal Willard, loadmaster, Corporal Samaroo, communications, Lance Corporal Jablonski, our top gunner and our commander, Lieutenant Saranteas. We haul an airborne SALT unit and can coordinate fire control ops, drone assaults and recon, and remote autonomy tactical operations.”
“With our drone army.” Said Jablonski- through another bite of his burrito. “Did they really wake you this morning?”
“I was in the gym today when you ripped the master sergeant a new ...”
“Jesus Christ, Jablonski. Didn’t your mother ever tell you to not talk with your mouth full.” Barked Alvarez.
“Have you been assigned yet, sergeant?” Asked Hildegas.
“I’ve been asked to train on pretty much everything for now.”
“Makes sense. You’ve got a bit of catching up.” Said the Lieutenant.
“How is this place even possible?” Said Tripi to no one in particular, craning her neck to scan the cavernous mess hall that was absent of all corners or any of the familiar angles and shapes found in structures in her past life.
“No doubt, right? And you waking up after twenty years must really seem pretty fantastic, sergeant.” Said Jablonski, who had now switched to speaking through pasta salad.
“These things practically grow themselves in space.” Added Corpsman Perera, whose Sri Lankan accent amused Tripi. She hadn’t met anyone from Sri Lanka.
“Most of the newer ships are actually printed in space using ferro-polymers, which are like plastic infused with metals.” Said Alvarez, still looking disapprovingly at Jablonski.
“Sometimes they’re just sprayed and shaped by magnetic fields'”. Said Lieutenant Saranteas, who sat at what could be construed as the head of the table.
“I got to see them being built when I was stationed at Lima Four, sir. It looks like magic.” Said Rama, who was so happy that Athena was seated at this table of Marines. Unlike in the gym, this group was composed of techies and some of the smarter Marines in the unit.
“Lima Four?” Asked Athena.
“It’s a space station at the L4 Lagrange, like a gravity balancing point making a triangle with the earth and moon. A lot of construction goes on there.” Said Rama.
“Why don’t you show her? ” Said the Lieutenant.
Rama’s shoulders sank. She swallowed her bite of fish taco. She then looked out into space in front of her and squinted her eyes in concentration.
Twenty centimeters above the table Athena could see a space station display slowly emerge. At a distance from the station what appeared to be a sphere with a cable attached to it was being whipped around. Behind the end of the cables a circular silvery line was being drawn in space.
“This isn’t even sped up. Those lines are ferro-polymers being extruded and solidifying.” Said Rama, still with a look of intense concentration.
Athena could see the enormous cylindrical form materialize and the cable whipped around in the blackness of space.
“My favorite is the spiders.” Said Jablonski, who Athena tried not to look at because of his gaping mouth of cornbread.
“Spiders?” Asked Athena.
“Show her.” Said the Lieutenant.
“Hang on, they’re coming up.” Said Rama, somehow controlling the display with no hands.
The image zoomed in on the circles that the cable had been drawing in space. As the image grew Tripi could make out movement. Hundreds of spider-like machines crawling along the ring.
“What are they doing? Asked Tripi.
“They’re weavers. They’re literally stitchen together a spaceship.” Said Samaroo, with a heavy Caribbean accent.
“You said most big ships are made this way, Sir?” Athena turned to Lieutenant Saranteas.
“Well the Proteus isn’t ‘most’ ships.” He replied.
“Yeah. Ain’t nothing like Proteus.” Said Corporal mouthful.
Rama’s shoulders untensed and the image disappeared as she took deep breaths.
“Here” she said to Athena, and took her hand and lowered it under the table. “Grab this and tell me what you feel?”
“This is getting good.” Blurted out Jablonski, spitting out a puff of cornbread.
Rama shot him a look with daggers in it as she placed Tripi’s hand on the leg of the table.
“My bad, sergeant.” Said Jablonski.
Tripi grabbed the mother of pearl colored table leg. At first she ran the leg through her grip. She felt an odd familiarity of its texture.
“It’s weird. Like oily, fuzzy. I can’t pin it down. And it’s cool.” Said Tripi.
“Now squeeze harder.” Said Rama, still giving the corporal a stern look.
Athena squeezed the slender curved leg of the table. At first she felt it give under the force of her grip. Then she felt something vibrate and then push back against her grip like an electric current. Tripi quickly pulled away and shivered.
“Jesus! What is that?”
Everyone at the table laughed.
“It’s fucking alive is what it is.” Said the Jablonski, through a mouthful of black pasta salad.
“This whole ship is made of this stuff. It’s all connected and moving and sometimes even changing.” Said Alvarez.
“It’s kind of like coral.” Said Rama.
“More like internal organs or connective tissue, actually.” Said the Lieutenant.
“She’s on board, you know. The one who built this thing.” Added Alvarez.
“She’s assigned to monitor the Proteus and consult with the ship's engineers.”
“Who?” Asked Rama.
“Doctor Gemma Haeckel.” Said Alvarez.
“I actually saw her last week swimming in the spine.” Added Corporal Willard, with his deep baritone West Side Chicago accent.
“She’s got this rebreather gill thingy on and I can see she was fixin something. So I knocked on the glass and waves at her and at first she ignores me.”
“Isn’t that the story of your life, Corporal?” Shot Samaroo, laughing.
Willard looked at Samaroo, closed his eyes, and then turned back to the table and continued. “I kept knocking. And then she turns and looks at me.”
“Oh boy, here it comes.” Said Hildegas.
“And she flipped me the bird. I shit you not.” Said Willard.
“I gotta meet this woman.” Said Rama.
“Wait, we can swim in there!?” Asked Tripi. Her mind flew a million miles away.
“I heard Haeckel’s some kind of wicken witch or something.” Said Hildegas.
“She’s a Terran, I heard.” Said Perara.
“Terran?” Asked Tripi.
“Terrans are kind of a cultish movement started by some Australian biologist, Killeen, thirty years ago. They believe that we’re all agents of Terran life, earth’s biome, and allegiances to nations is dangerously counterproductive to that mission. But they’re harmless, mostly.” Said the Lieutenant.
“Tell that to the folks at Sea of Storms.” Said Alvarez.
“Yeah, no shit.” Added Rama.
“The Proteus might be Terran tech, but it’s only slightly similar to the tech on the moon that blew up years ago.” Said the Lieutenant.
“This ship is like a portable earth. It’s an ecosystem.” Said Perera.
“We jogged on its ocean this morning, in fact.” Said Rama, now devouring her second fish taco.
“Exactly. It not only takes a good deal of earth with it, but it sustains this life and was created to exist in space. Some call her “the first space faring organism.” Said Perera.
“So why take it to Mars on a military mission ? It doesn’t sound like it’s a military ship.” Asked Athena.
“Yeah, no shit.” Said Jablonski.
“Actually this ship is pretty tough. It’s designed to protect itself. It has the ability to heal, reconfigure, and adapt. Basically, no one really knows what all this ship can do. I doubt even its creators do.” Said Alvarez.
“Sir, are you suggesting that the Proteus is made to improvise, overcome, and adapt?” Asked Hildegas.
“The ship’s a jarhead.” Added Jablonski, laughing at his own joke.
“Willard, quit staring.” Said Rama.
“Sorry, Gunny. I was just curious. I just realized you was able to look at Sergeant Rama’s imaging of Lima Four a minute ago.”
“It’s just that I heard that you’ve been ice since this morning. Yet your retix already working.”
Rama looked at Willard with a curled lip. “So?”
Alvarez chimed in. “So, what the corporal is pointing out is that we all know that when we were given our reticular enhancements we had to spend a good deal of time trying to use them and give feedback for calibration for it to work and not be uncomfortable.”
Athena raised her left hand. “Time out. You’all lost me. What enhancement are we talking about?”
“Gunny, try to visualize something . How about your first cover in boot camp? Do you have it?” Asked Saranteas.
Athena thought about the woodland camouflage Marine Corps ball cap with its distinctive points. She imagined it on her desk in her uncle’s house where she left it before her deployment to Africa.
“Ok. I see it.”
“Great. Now imagine it’s floating where Lima Four was a minute ago.”
Athena looked at the place over the bowls of pasta salad, chips and beverages where she had seen the weaver spiders a minute before. She imagined her cover in that place.
“Ok, got it’”
“Now, allow us to see it.”
She was about to show everyone the cover, but instead the thoughts she had moments before raced through her mind.
Suddenly she heard the people at the table and around the room gasp.
In an instant the entire mess hall was completely under twenty feet of seventy-two degree crystal clear water. Sunlight streamed from directly overhead. A school of long fish with narrow snouts swam between Alvarez and Rama.
Above everyone’s heads two mermaids put themselves into synchronized contortions as schools of mullet fish raced by.
Behind the Lieutenant could be seen dozens of children pointing and opening their mouths in silent excitement through a long wall of glass.
“What the hell is this?” Blurted out Corporal Jablonski. Bubbles shooting from his mouth.
“I know this. I went there when I was stationed in Pensacola. Is this Weeki Wachee?” Said Saranteas.
“Weeki whatsi?” Bubbled Samaroo.
“It’s a water show in Florida north of Tampa Bay.” Said Saranteas.
“Gunny, is that you?” Asked Hildegas, pointing at a third mermaid, who was now swimming over the table. Unlike the first two mermaids, who had green and blue sequined tails, this new mermaid had extravagantly colored tails and fins and was shockingly beautiful.
“When I was 17.”
“No shit. You were a Weeki Wachee Mermaid?” Said the Lieutenant, looking impressed.
Everyone was grabbing themselves and shivering.
“This is nuts.” Said Willard. “Mermaids in the mess hall, Lord almighty.”
Other people from around the mess began to stand up and walk towards the mermaids, who continued to perform their synchronized routine, contorting their bodies and rotating to music being piped in from an unknown speaker.
Athena felt a hand on her shoulder as Alvarez’s voice said into her ear, “Ok, try to stop it now.”
The next moment the room was back to normal, and floating over the table was a bleached Marine woodland camouflage cover.
“Madre Dios, what did they put in you, sergeant?” Shouted Samaroo, looking shocked.
Athena looked around the table and then the room. Everyone looked at her in astonishment.
“Obviously she was given updated tech.” Said Alvarez.
“Sir, I did scuba sims at Pensacola six months ago and they weren’t half that good.” Said Corpsman Perera.
“And how did she make us feel cold and wet?” Asked Hildegas.
“Gunny, I apologize for us talking like you aren’t here. What's going on is that we were just checking to see if your tactical viewer in your eye was already online. They are standard issues and allow us to share our field of vision.” Said Alvarez.
“But you’re obviously transmitting on a way bigger bandwidth than we are.” Said Lieutenant Saranteas.
“And you accessed not just our visual but our other senses.” Added Alvarez.
“I’ve played neuralink games that could sort of do that, make you feel shit like smells and touch, but not nearly as convincingly.” Sid Perera.
“I still feel wet!” Said Rama, laughing.
“All I know is that I want what’s in her head. “ said Jablonski, right before stuffing his mouth with burrito.
Athena’s attention drifted from the commotion she had created. All she could seem to think about was how much she wanted to swim in the spine.
Lieutenant Commander Thyfault, the officer of the watch, floated across the Proteus’s spherical mission bridge. A robotic metallic tentacle clamped behind him to his waist kept him stable and plumb and allowed him to move around in the weightless environment.
Thyfault wore the white uniform of the NASA/ESA Venus Colony Mission instead of the dark ochre-colored crew uniform of the Proteus. The transition from the VCM to the Mars Rescue Operation, nicknamed Mr. O, was harder for some than others. Having a mixed crew of civilians and various military branches didn’t help matters for a switch from a scientific mission to a military operation.
Six other crewmen, also clamped to robotic tentacles, served with Thyfault on the afternoon watch. The mission bridge was located in the bow of the Proteus. Unlike the Oculus, which was completely transparent, the mission bridge had no external portals and its inner surface was instead a massive spherical view screen. Even the hatch was part of this seamless screen.
The vantage point of the bridge’s view was variable, and was fed from outboard sensors and computer enhancements. External drones could also be tapped for vantage points, so the view from the bridge was almost anywhere the officer of the watch wanted it to be.
Layered atop this hardware were the retinal interfaces of the bridge crew, who could customize and share their virtual workstations.
“Sir, an encrypted transmission is coming in from Mars Overwatch. It’s for the Captain.” Said Space Force Specialist Moses Chiduben.
“Sergeant Gorgias, notify Captain Kazemi that we have received an updated report from life support.” Said Thyfault.
“Notifying Captain Kazemi of the report update from LS, aye.”
The Captain would not want any communication with her that could be used later against her. An updated report from life support was code for we received a message from Overwatch and have not acknowledged receipt. A report from engineering, a call from Houston. Medical was Lunar One. And telemetry was the President.
Lieutenant Commander Thyfault had learned Captain Kazemi’s style of playing loose with protocols and working the system. He knew that she would want to dictate the terms of if and or when a caller knows whether their call was received or not.
“Sir, I’m receiving unusual reports of anomalies from multiple personnel.” Said Tech Sergeant Chu, who shared a three dimensional projection of the Proteus with hundreds of red dots signifying the crewmembers reporting the anomaly.
“What kind of anomalies are they reporting, Sergeant?” Said Thyfault, moving to his station to look at the projection.
“It’s some kind of a neuralink disturbance, I think, sir.”
“SOLA, what do you make of this?”
SOLA’s child voice came on the squawk box. “It’s signal source is a neuralink in the ship's mess, Commander.”
“How can that be? We’re getting hundreds of reports ship wide.”
“It’s definitely a nueralink transmission, Commander. Registered to a Marine gunnery sergeant Athena Tripi, sir.” Said Chu.
SOLAs voice returned, “confirmed, the signal’s range can be explained by its power signature, which is similar to my own. It’s a multi-phased carrier wave with encryption authoring and C-Cubed, command and control protocols.”
“What does that mean, SOLA?” Asked Thyfault in a scolding tone.
“It means that Gunnery Sergeant Tripi’s tactical reticular viewer can interface the neuralink cloud and override other users' privacy settings and seems to be doing it automatically’” said the AI.
“Sir, I think the only reason why we haven’t detected it on our own links is because we’re shielded on the bridge and run on an independent neuralink cloud.” Said Chu.
Just then the rear hatch, where a cluster of stars had been, recessed and then swung open, revealing an enraged Captain Kazemi.
“Thyfault, why the hell am I under water and surrounded by goddamned mermaids!” Yelled Kazemi, as she entered the bridge.
“Captain on the bridge!” Specialist Chiduben sounded.
“Ma’am. We’ve learned that it’s a ship wide transmission coming from someone's haywire neural link transmitter.” Said Thyfault.
“Isn’t that impossible? How am I even getting it if I didn’t authorize it? And give me a better assessment than ‘haywire’ Commander.”
Kazemi shot herself across the bridge to Tech Sergeant Chu’s station and grabbed onto his tentacle. Around her the crew could now also see blue green water and three large fish swimming with strange long noses around the Captain.
“What kind of fish are those?” Whispered Chu to Sergeant Gorgias.
“They’re gar. I actually used to harpoon them when I was a kid.”
Suddenly a life-sized mermaid appeared above Kazemi’s head, waving and smiling, and then it all vanished.
“The transmission has ended, Captain.” Said Specialist Chiduben.
“Who was transmitting this?” Barked the captain to the whole bridge.
“It was a Marine in the mess hall, ma’am.” Shot back Ensign Cottermare, who had been quietly manning the engineering station and taking in the action.
“What Marine?” Kazemi shot back.
“The gunnery sergeant who came out of cryo today. Gunnery Sergeant Athena Tripi.” Said Thyfault, retreating to his station at the back of the sphere.
“SOLA!” Shouted the captain into the air.
“Yes Captain.” The young girl's came through the intercom.
“Tell Doctor Geminus, Marine Brevet Major Kahn, and this Gunnery Sergeant Tripi to be in the bridge conference room, immediately.”
“Summoning Doctor Geminus, Brevet Major Kahn, and Gunnery Sergeant Tripi to the bridge conference room, Aye aye, Captain.” Said SOLA.
“And get Wollin up here too. Son of a bitch!”
“Yes, Captain. Summoning Chief Engineer Wollin, aye.”
“And SOLA, Attend in person.”