Written by Allen Crowely
Story by Mike Acerra
Welcome to Lux Blox's tenth installment of Mars is for Misfits, the story of Athena Tripi, a tough and talented Sergeant in the Marine Corps who is put in the unlikely position of having to save not one but two worlds. Not caught up? Previous Chapter or Start from the beginning
“To unlock your potential genius, first imagine that you’re an idiot.
(The opposite is also true).”
Emancipating Childhood and Other Essays
Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas
October 31, 2045
The small fourteen-year-old lurched forward as he lugged his heavy backpack and large duffle bag down the grey ceramic school hall of D block. The crowd of students was quickly thinning as the first hour bell sounded.
This had been a day he’d been planning for months. It was supposed to be his biggest day ever. But in the past twelve hours another even bigger thing had landed right on top of it. Everything he’d visualized a thousand times was now moot.
Last minute change of plans had led to all night scheming and preparing for the heist of one organism and creating the counterfeit organism to leave in its place.
Going on no sleep would normally have meant a disastrous day at school for the ninety pound freshman. But his adrenaline was firing and something else he didn’t understand was also pushing him on, giving him an energy and confidence he’d never felt before. And it wasn’t from the V-pax his synthskin was providing to keep his metabolism stable. He knew what synthetic energy felt like. This was something completely different. He knew he leaned on the juice too much, like most people his age, and its toll was usually crashing for twenty hours on the weekend.
But there was no rest when your dad drops what could be the first life form on Mars on your kitchen table.
Today was presentation day in his entrepreneurship class. His project was something he had been working on for months in secret. And secrecy wasn’t easy, considering he lived in a cramped hab with his mom, dad, and sister.
They knew nothing of his project. They wouldn’t have approved. Mrs. Liebenow, his entrepreneurship and physics teacher was only partially in the know. She knew it was a device that utilized common mig welders to solve another “unrelated” problem.
The only person in the solar system besides Lincoln who even knew of what was in the black bag was Mr. Wells, his Welch patent lawyer. The fact that he had hired a lawyer was also a secret.
Now Lincoln had taken on another secret. One that some might consider to be more dangerous than his project.
This was more multitasking than even Lincoln was accustomed to. The elaborate plot he hatched only hours before, and the more difficult task of selling it to his older sister, was well underway .
Lincoln took the long way to physics class to catch his friend and to solidify the plan.
“Hey, Donatello,” Lincoln whispered as his friend came close.
Standing nearly a head taller than Lincoln, Donatello Randazzo outstretched his long arm and put his hand on Lincoln’s chest and said in a baritone voice. “That was a cryptic text you sent last night. How can I be of service?”
“I need you to get a key to the lab and give it to my sister before lunch. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, I got campus tech this period. I’ll make it happen. But you’ll owe me for this one.”
Lincoln looked around the hallway. The crowd was thinning out. He and the little creature in the backpack wanted to get out in the open and escape from the jar. The school seemed like a massive cage to Lincoln. He even felt constricted by his 2 millimeter thick synth skin, which he usually never noticed.
“I can’t show you now, but come to the lab for lunch. You’re going to want to be a part of this.”
Donatello nodded, “I expect it’s gonna be good.” He tapped his hand on Lincoln’s chest again.
Lincoln gave a little hop back and started to walk away. “I’ll see you in E-Ship. You’ll also want to see this.” He rapped his knuckle on the bag he was lugging, which made a metallic bell-like sound, and the two walked away in opposite directions.
Sheila couldn't concentrate on poetry. She liked reading the cards and answering the questions. Get eight out of ten right and move on to the next poem. She knew the kinds of answers teachers wanted. But her own thoughts on any poem seemed to always drift to biological allegories and symbolism. Today it took all of her energy and mental focus to keep from freaking out.
When the group circled up everyone knew the bent her comments would take. Inevitably someone in the outer circle would ask, 'If this wasn't about biology, what would it be saying?' Probably a fair enough question. Fortunately, Mr Dickenson, the facilitator, put Sheila in the outer circle today. She was free to drift off while kids born on Mars speculated about clouds and flowers in the writings of poets from Earth.
When class finally ended, Sheila was the first to burst into the hall, plowing straight into a boy who was blocking her way.
It was one of Lincoln’s nerdy friends. Danny or Donald or something.
“Watch where you’re going, kid!” She said attempting to push her way through the unusually tall freshman.
“Donatello.” He continued to block her way. Acting amused that she would treat him like your everyday freshman.
“What do you want, Donatello? ”
“I really enjoyed your report on brine shrimp, Shiela.” He said her name in a slower and huskier voice. “I actually replicated your experiment and then changed some variables. In one I added a cold water algae , which actually increased the oxygen demand and got the solution temp down another 2 degrees.”
Sheila’s mind reeled. ‘Who the hell was this kid? He dropped the solution temp 2 degrees? How did he even get a copy of her biology report? Ugh! Lincoln.’
“Your brother asked me to give you this.” He offered her the key.
‘Oh shit’ came to mind to sum up all of her fears of Lincoln blabbing this thing to the whole school and getting them caught. “Uhm, thanks.” She took the card.
“I’ll see you in the lab at lunch.” He turned and walked down the hall.
She pocketed the key and looked left and right to see if she was noticed. No teachers or administrators in the hall and thankfully none of her friends saw her talking to a frosh. She called to the back of his head, “See ya later, Donatello.”
He didn’t turn around, but kept walking and put up his right hand.
“Dorks”, Sheila sighed, and hurried on to biology.
“You can pack up your things and start moving to the next class." Wally Liebenow said to the class of twenty-six freshmen and sophomores in her phenomenological physics class. She paused. "Except you four. You can rochambeau to see who goes first and start setting up your presentations."
The physics students packed up and began heading for the door as the room’s paneled walls opened in an accordion-like fashion, revealing another larger room with semi-circular elevated seating.
Three from the group who remained all looked at Lincoln and shook their heads. Nobody wanted to follow his presentation. "Awe come on guys,” Lincoln argued from his seat, “ I want to go first."
Ada clamored out of her bean bag to a standing position, folding up her laptop like origami and stuffing it in the pocket of her faded orange haversack. "No way buckeroo! You dig into these stupid e-ship first-prince projects like most of us dig into drone racing."
He stood and gave her a coy smile, "Hey, It’s physics for me, computers for you. We’re no different. I just want to go first so I can get it out of my head and learn something from your presentation."
Crick stretched out his legs and leaned back folding his hands behind his head. He was the kind of guy who’d do most of the work and not care if he got the credit. "Like you're going to learn something from our presentations."
"Maybe, computer science from her and … well yours is about genetics. I don’t know shit about genetics.”
Lincoln felt bad he couldn’t share with them the real reason he wanted to go first. Mostly it was because he wanted to get it over with so he could get to the lab and study the creature in his backpack. Most of the butterflies he’d usually have before giving a presentation to a big group were gone because the worm in his backpack had eclipsed what should have been his life’s greatest achievement.
Feynman stood. He shook out his arms like a wrestler before a match, “Let’s Rochambeau. If he gets it, he deserves it. At the quantum level we all get the same chance."
"Yeah OK. Let’s do it. For the record, Feynman, I don't like your logic of leaving this to chance." Linclon held out his hands, one flat, the other a fist above it. "Let’s do this!"
Nine slaps and three shoots later, Lincoln set up his project.
Ms. Liebenow made a quick visual scan of her entrepreneurship class. The class attracted an unusual mix of students. She had created the class to encourage a fusion of scientific thinking, creativity, and business. In the two years since the class’s inception, it had grown in popularity. The administration was not too happy with the class because they knew its popularity had to do with the peculiar teacher who ran it. As Mr Oliver, the school principal, was apt to say, “What good is a class, even a popular one, that only one teacher can teach”. The administration also griped that the class put an emphasis on a fawning view of rugged individualism and the Elon Musk cult.
She now held three entrepreneurship classes per semester, along with her normal load of phenomenological physics, which she co-taught with Chris Clemenza, the history of science, and four dimensional studies.
Today's class would be an assembly of all three of her classes, so the room was crowded with over sixty students.
“Good morning” her clear voice came from the walls as the room’s sounds became damped. “We have our first four presenters lined up already so let’s quiet down so we can start.”
Lincoln took a deep breath and walked onto the small stage and began. Now the room would give Lincoln the sound waves and muffle everything else.
“I’d like to start by saying that everything here was built with Martian materials. And thanks to Ms. Liebenow, who put up with me during the independent study class for physics where I designed much of this prototype.”
“Allow me to introduce MR. WAR, the Multifilament, Rotary Worm Action Rifle”.
He removed the cover and held the bulky prototype at port arms. He took aim at the small target on the presentation board and fired. A strange high pitch sound like fabric tearing was followed by the ting of a projectile hitting the target.
“This, my friends, is a working prototype of what will become Mars’s first home-made rifle.”
A hushed murmur was maintained by the sound dampening but Lincoln could hear the faint muffled sounds of expletives, accompanied by other welcome words like ‘cool,’ ‘awesome,’ and ‘wow,’.
Ms. Liebenow stood. The room became silent. She was now only heard by Lincoln. “Lincoln, you told me that you had a product that you could patent, that could demonstrate several principles of physics, and you said there could possibly be a large market on Mars. What you did not say, is that your product was a gun. Have you considered that guns are prohibited on Mars, not to mention in schools.”
“Rifle, to be exact, ma’am. And yes, I had considered this. But I also considered that the laws might change if the circumstances warranted it.”
Ms. Liebenow waved a single finger to dismiss the statement. “I’ll allow your demonstration, but you will leave that here at the end of class and there will be a discussion with your parents and the leadership here at school.”
“Yes ma’am, of course.” Lincoln responded, with only Wally hearing.
“I appreciate your love of science and your creativity, but building and bringing a gun to school is not appropriate.” She sat back down. “ I’m starting the presentation timer now. You may continue.”
The room now recognized Lincoln.
‘She was going to regret this’, she thought to herself. The administration has been nuts with all the separatist politics. The issue of gun rights is front and center, especially since the uptick in crime and the remote colonies and outposts have been self- policing. All she needs now is her smartest student inventing a gun in her class. But a voice in her head said - “there are no accidents in God’s providence.” It was her mother, always reminding her of Pope John Paul the second”s call to uniqueness. It seemed to gnaw at her now. This was a test of sorts. She knew Lincoln was special. She didn’t suspect it would manifest this way. But sometimes you gotta roll with these things.
With a loud “Uhm. Yes ma’am.” He fired the rifle again and pointed at the second cylinder. “Here we have the heart of the device, the multifilament rotary worm action. I've filed what's called a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. So this is actually patent-pending. I’ll show you more about that in a moment.”
Lincoln paused his presentation. A timid boy at the door held up a small piece of paper.
“Excuse me Ms. Liebenow, I have a note for Lincoln Tenderly.”
Lincoln tried to keep a poker face, but happiness and fear coursed through him at the same time. Remaining neutral seemed impossible. After what seemed an eternity of waiting for Ms. Liebenow to speak, she finally said, “That’s Lincoln right there, you may give it to him.”
“Or he'll shoot you!” Came the faint damped voice of a kid from the back of the room. The kids silently giggled.
Lincoln gave a quick thanks and read the note. “Got the keys. See you at lunch.” He crumpled the note and popped it into his mouth, eliciting a laugh from the class and a head shake from Ms Liebenow.
Amelia had come through, as he knew she would. The keys to the lab and the lockers inside were secured. Sheila could open the door; Amelia could open the lockers. They could set things up. He and Donatello would arrive with their unusual friend. They would solve the riddle of this creature that could live on Mars. They’d be heroes. He fought the urge to direct a smile to Donatello in the back row. His mind continued to race ahead to the next event but he worked to funnel his joy into the presentation at hand. He continued.
Lincoln put the rifle in the case and began explaining his patent pending process on worming the two inert filaments together into a helix that would combine into an explosive gel. Behind him an animation was projected of the interior of the action of his rifle and how it pulled ingredients from three spools to make a virtually unlimited rate of fire.
“You’re just about out of time Mr. Tenderly.” Ms. Liebenow advised him.
“Right. Let me sum up by saying, I looked at the historical problem of firearms from a first principal's perspective. Instead of conventional cartridges, which are made in a factory and normally have a primer, a casing, an accelerant like gunpowder, and a bullet, I thought, ‘why not make the action of the rifle manufacture the bullets instead?”
So the rifle actually processes the three filaments in the worm gear chambers. In Mr. War, nothing is ejected. Nothing is wasted. Everything goes out the end of the barrel. Mr. War uses materials readily available on Mars making it ideal for Martians in remote areas to enjoy the benefits that come with massive firepower at your fingertips.
I’m looking for investors for my patent pending process and product that will revolutionize life on Mars and other remote regions around the solar system.’” He followed the statement with a half bow.
Just then the door burst open and two coaches rushed in and tackled Lincoln as the class was applauding..Mr. Rassumussen, who everyone called Coach Raz, was the first one in the door. He rushed Lincoln with the intensity of his college sporting days back on earth. Mr. Otis, called Coach O, was right behind him adding his substantial mass to the newtons that pinned Lincoln Tenderly to the floor.
Confused, the students erupted into a cacophony of surprise, laughter, screams, shock, and protest.
There was really no struggle. Lincoln hadn’t even seen them coming. But now, pressed against the floor, he wondered how they found out about the contraband organism in his backpack and he dreaded how much trouble his sister would be in. She’d never let him live down his stupid plan.
Principal Oliver had followed the coaches in like a public relations representative, moving at a quick pace and tugging on the lapels of his suit. “It’s alright class, you’re safe. No one is going to get hurt.”
Lincoln wondered how they could possibly have known about the phage. No way Donatello said something. Had his parents figured out that he swapped it for a mealworm? Seems unlikely.
“What is the meaning of this!” Ms. Liebenow boomed at the direction of the stage, startling the principal and coaches, who continued to hold Lincoln to the floor and the principal addressed her.
“Ms. Liebenow, we received a report from an office aide that this student had brought a gun to this class”. He then paused and pointed in prosecutorial triumph at the mound of coaches on top of the small boy. “We arrived to hear him talking about revolution on Mars. We took immediate action.”
“You’re an idiot” someone shouted in a very low voice under their breath like a cough, and the kids in the room snickered. Mrs. Liebenow had dropped the sound dampening.
“I think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding.” Ms. Liebenow stated in her ever calm and clarifying tone. This is a presentation for a physics-based product to be made and sold on Mars. No hostage taking, no revolution. No one is in danger. Though I suppose I can see how it could be misinterpreted.”
The coaches pulled Lincoln to his feet.”
While Coach Raz held Lincoln in a bear hug, Coach Otis grabbed the gun case from the floor. “What were you thinking, Tenderly, putting the entire school at risk?”
“What?” Lincoln was doubly confused now.
The students began to cajole the principal and the uproar only subsided after he and the two coaches and their prisoner left the small auditorium. Before Coach Raz had dragged him out of the room Lincoln managed to locate Donatello in the back of the room and lock eyes with him. He glanced at his backpack that was slung on the chair next to Donatello and shot him a bug eyed face. Donatello nodded and quickly put it into his own backpack
Less than twenty minutes into Sheila’s biology class her worst fear came true. She was escorted to the principal’s office by Coach Raz. He only told her that it was concerning Lincoln's activities. This didn’t bode well. ‘Oh shit’ raced through her mind for the second time today. The phrase summed up all her fears of having listened to Lincoln’s crazy plan. Who else besides the Donatello kid had he told, even worse, shown the larva to? But why this much drama over bringing a bug to school?
“Come in, Ms. Tenderly.”
“Hello Mr. Oliver. What’s up?”
Oliver’s impish grin turned upside down. “ What’s up is your brother made quite a stir this morning. He put students' lives in danger.“ He stared at her, as if waiting for her to break down and acknowledge her brother’s crime on que.
Sheila suspected he was being overly dramatic. Of course, Lincoln had put students in a dangerous situation. That little critter they brought to school could probably breach a seal with those mandibles. But how did Mr. Oliver know about that? He was no biologist. So who would have told him enough about the phage larvae to show this much concern?
“We know quite a bit about your brother’s illicit activities Ms. Tenderly. What can you tell us about them?” Mr. Oliver would have turned a spotlight on her face if he’d had one.
Best to play dumb, she thought., “I mean, like he’s been getting into trouble as long as I’ve known him. One more year of separation and I would have been out of high school before he got a chance to ruin my reputation.” She gave a long sigh.
“So, you consider him a troublemaker?”
Mr. Oliver was trying to get her to say something incriminating . “No, no more than any big sister considers her little brother a troublemaker. In that sense, I guess I do?”
”Did you know nothing about Lincoln bringing something dangerous to school? Nothing about “Mr. War?”
Mr. Oliver paused as if this should mean something to her. Now she was truly baffled. Had Lincoln named the larva ‘Mr. War?’ What the hell? She just stood there, staring, not knowing what to say. Not fathoming what néw depth of idiocy her brother has plumbed.
“So you had no knowledge that your brother had built this thing in your hab?” He said, looking at something behind his desk.
‘Oh my God ‘ she thought. ‘Had the principal confiscated the phage from Lincoln?’ But why did he say “build”?’
“Built what thing?” She blurted out.
With a grand flourish, principal Oliver reached behind his desk and hoisted her brother's kit bag onto his desk. “Recognize this bag?”
“Yes.” She was cooked. He had the phage.
“Were you aware of what Lincoln was carrying in this kit bag?”
“I thought it was his fall project he’d been working on.”
The principal unzipped the bag while staring into Sheila’s eyes. He then reached in and with two hands pulled from it a contraption she partially recognized.
Sheila stared at the silver and black object on the principal’s desk. She’d seen drawings of this in Lincoln’s room but thought they were just drawings from the video games he and his friends play.
Most of the menacing looking device seemed to made of Lincoln’s plastic construction toy, Lux Blox. The black and grey shiny pieces covered much of the exterior. She also recognized parts of their mig welders. In the middle was a metallic something she had seen Lincoln discussing with her uncle the night before. Something about worm gears. And on the other end was something that must have been made in the sintering foundry. It resembled the barrel of a gun of some sort. And there plainly written in stenciled lettering was “M.R.W.A.R.”
“And you'd never seen this before?”
“What is it?”
“A gun. A gun. What do you think I’ve been talking about?”
“We don’t have any guns. Nobody has guns on Mars. They’re illegal and who would waste cargo space to bring one?”
“Don’t play dumb. I just told you he built it. He brought it to school today and presented it in his Entrepreneurship class’s fall projects.”
She mulled it over. "Well that makes sense.”
“It “makes sense”?”
“For a smart kid, Lincoln just forgets to think sometimes. He likes to build things. Especially if he can demonstrate some mechanical principle. That's kind of what he does, like all the time. He builds tons of things in our tool shop at the farm. We can’t keep up with all of the things he creates."
"You don't think building a gun is rather serious?"
“Well sure”I do”. I'm sure Lincoln doesn't. He probably wants to explain how expanding gas can create kinetic energy or something like that. He probably doesn't even think of it as a weapon." She was now in full bullshit mode. Even she marveled in how stupid she sounded.
“I think the name “Mr. War `` would beg to differ with you.”
“It’s plainly an acronym. Probably for the technology.”
"So, you know nothing of this gun or holding his class hostage?"
“Nope. And I don’t believe Lincoln held the class hostage or would ever point this thing at a person.”
She still couldn’t fathom that she was being questioned about Lincoln’s physics project instead of about the creature they brought to school that could possibly destroy the planet.
"Oh brother, I knew he'd foul this up." She blurted out. New strategy.
“Foul what up exactly, Ms. Tenderly?”
“The Halloween Party tonight?” If I don’t get to go because that little jughead brought his toys to school, he’s getting a beating from me. That’s all I’m saying.”
"You don't seem to be taking this very seriously."
"Oh, I'm sure it's serious to you, sir. A kid brings a gun to school. Yeah, serious. I get it. But to Lincoln it's just another physics experiment. I understand that you think you have to do what you have to do, Mr. Oliver. Me, I'm just seriously ready for lunch. I have low blood sugar. Can I go now?”
The principal studied her for a long moment. He didn’t like this girl or her family. He thought her mother was especially strange. Maybe they’re part of dark Mars, the radicals that want independence. That would figure.
“The authorities will want to ask you and your family more questions when they arrive.”
“You called the ‘authorities’?”
He then smiled and opened the door.
Once she was out of eye shot of Mr. Oliver Sheila raced to the lab. One quick stop to grab her lunch from her locker, she really was hungry. Then she cut through the corridors as fast as she could until she reached the lab.
She froze. The door was open. She touched the key in her pocket. This smelled like a trap. Was the gun thing just a ruse to see if she’d come here? Ruse or not, there was too much at stake and she was committed. She walked in.
The worktable was configured with a microscope, a sonogram, multiple resonance imagers and a variety of test kits. Donatello and a frosh girl stood on opposite sides of the table. Both were geared up in lab coats, gloves, and respirators with face shields. She was taken aback. Donatello slid a box of gloves along the table to her. The girl approached her holding open a lab coat for Sheila to step into. Donatello slid a filter mask with a face shield to her along the work bench. On the table Sheila could see the jar with the phage inside. One look among the three and they knew why they were there.
Maybe her brother was a genius after all, the administration would be tied up all day with his ‘bring a gun to school prank’. The lab was theirs. She looked at the girl, "Lock the door."
"What about Lincoln?"
"He's keeping the administration out of our hair so we can get to work."
Donatello snorted. “Oh my God. Lincoln’s project was a stunt?”
She turned to the girl, "I'm Sheila."
"Duh, Queen of the Brine Shrimp. I'm Amelia. Biologist. Drone Pilot. At your service."
"Oh, you're Amelia." a flash of Lincoln saying something stupid about being a drone so she could fly him. Sheila registered Amelia’s look of curiosity about the comment. “Your reputation precedes you.”
“Really, as a biologist?”
“Actually no, as a drone pilot.” Sheila started donning the protective gear to change the topic. “Let’s get to work.”
Donatello looked at her and gestured with an open hand to the phage in the jar on the table, "We waited for you."