Written by Allen Crowley and Mike Acera
“Everything is what it is because it got that way.”
― D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form
Welcome to Lux Blox's third 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.
One year earlier.
Tuesday, October 30
Amazonis Planitia, Mars
Jessup drove the Tesla Metaforá to his sister’s. The ten-meter-long Metaforá was a smooth six wheeled ride. Tesla provided the premium land transport vehicle for comfort with an independent suspension system unmatched by any other vehicle on Mars. Designed to carry a dozen passengers in upscale comfort it also had room for gear and roof mounts for more luggage. The sound system was amazing. Jessup hated it.
If there was any real work to be done this was not the vehicle. The Metaforá was a glorified hotel shuttle, not a work vehicle like his other three and it reminded him of what he had become. It was ideal for picking up the potential investors, corporate suits, and other new arrivals from the Jennings Tower tomorrow morning. Today he simply wanted to joyride to his sister’s hab. So, he punched it. There was nothing quite like pushing a vehicle to its limits. It was what he used to do for a living, testing equipment for the Boring company, SARSA, Caterpillar, and the likes.
The music swelled to a crescendo and dropped to the finale. A crackle of static broke the silence. “This is XM 76, Mars Free Radio, and I’m Jay the Space Jew Marsky, bringing you truth and beauty, baby. That was a classic from Antonio Salieri. Now for the real news, the news that matters to the folks that are working their tails off to make Mars a better world for everyone. ...” Jessup turned off the radio.
Marsky got it right sometimes, maybe most times, but his role as an outsider kept him at arm's length from corporate HQs on Mars. Jessup’s middling lunar contacts had graduated into those top positions here. He could typically get better info than Marsky for the cost of a whisky, any day. The smart suits trusted him and they knew he wasn’t going to broadcast what they shared. But he knew, like most everyone on Mars, that the news source that mattered to most Martians was word of mouth and real time metalinks. Today he just wanted music and scenery.
The cold dry beauty of Mars was rarely spoken of with gratitude or sincere appreciation anymore. It never got old to Jessup. He loved it. Outside the Metaforá the morning sun was still rising behind Olympus mons, casting one of the longest shadows in the solar system.
Several kilometers later he tried the radio again, “... and our morning Alien report with Mira Spakko is coming up. You don’t want to miss that ....” He clicked it off and shook his head. When he did want to hear talk, he preferred Marsky or Serena, and sometimes the other politico and conspiracy theory shows. Spakko’s alien conspiracy theories tired him out. There were always shimmering mirages in the distance and unconfirmed clues. The thought of mirages in the East reminded him of the way the sun dazzled off his home and against the crimson terrain and pearl grey sky and this morning’s conversation with Frank Gonzalez.
Frank, along with the rest of his crew from Little Venezuela, was applying finishing hand crafted work to the new addition of his adobe home. The foamcrete had been sprayed only last week. Frank’s olive-skinned cherub face took on fun house distortions through the glass block windows he was foamcreting into position on the Martian adobe. “Hello, Senior.”
“It’s Jessup, muchacho.”
“Yes, ok. Senior Jessup. If you’re going East be careful.” The man gave a rueful glance in the direction. “It’s no good East. Something is wrong. No one goes that direction.” Frank shook his head in his graphite helmet, exaggerating the distortions in the glass block.
Jessup had promised to be careful. He didn’t take Frank too seriously, but through the glass block his warnings of Martian boogeymen took on an added level of eerie silliness.
The Venezuelans were very practical people and it seemed there wasn’t anything they couldn’t build well and fast and they brought their own temphabs to live on site. But they were probably the most superstitious folks on Mars. They didn’t dig too deep. If the general feeling was not to go east because dreadful things happen out that way, then they didn’t go. Probably some of Spakko’s aliens.
He was, in fact, heading 700 kilometers East to the Paxton Massif on Axis road. His visit to his sister’s was long overdue. She told him the kids still celebrated Halloween and wanted to show off their costumes and what they’d been up to. The first couple of dozen kilometers passed. Steep jagged Dunes made of basalt. Millions of years of gentle winds carving a ghoulish dreamscape into the regolith. A third of earth's gravity made mountains and piles of sand steeper, pointier, giving even dust the appearance of fresh broken obsidian.
Little Venezuela was coming up in 75 kilometers. He’d have to slow down soon. He liked pretty much everything about his Venezuelan neighbors, even the things he didn’t like. They were some of his favorite Martians.
From the driver’s seat all he could see was Mars. Very satisfying. Not a soul around. Images of Lunar mining operations teased from the edge of memory ready to run in and block his line of sight. He breathed deeply and focused on the present and on gratitude for his life on Mars. That and getting out of the corporate mining rat race.
He tried the radio once more, “...Now as promised the sweet guitar virtuosity of Aurizio Solieri.” He let the music fill his ears and scanned the road ahead. .
The energetic guitar licks from the fifty-year-old recording seemed to go well enough with his velocity. The Tesla’s high beams pierced the umbra of Olympus Mons, revealing the faces on the dunes and hoodoos like a cosmic Rorschach for another species. He loved this planet.
The Tenderly Farm
The airlock cycled and Maggie gritted her teeth. Dean staggered in followed by a gust of dusty wind. The airlock cycled shut and the dust fell from the air in a slow swirly pattern piling on the floor. Dean's helmet came off with a pop. "What's red dusty and full of grit?” Dean smiled, red dirt showing in his teeth.
Maggie said nothing and stared at her husband.
Dean licked the dirt from his teeth and smiled again. “A Martian”.
“Why do you even think that's funny? You're only red and dusty because you haven't fixed the fouled-up scrubber unit in the airlock. If you're so full of grit get your helmet back on, get out there, and fix that. I'm tired of this dirt in the house”.
He sighed and loosened the buckles on his pressure suit. “I have it on my list, tomorrow after I fix the condenser in the Beta sector.
“Hold on! Don't take a step." she clapped her hands and said, "Dustbot" the small robot drove itself across the floor to her. She crouched and pointed at Dean's feet. "All that red dust by the airlock." With a whine of servos, the little bot zipped away and started sucking the dust from Dean's boots with its proboscis while the suction ports underneath pulled the dust from the floor.
“I want to show you something.” He lifted a finger to his lips. “After dinner when Jessup is here.”
“Well get cleaned up. He’s almost here.”
“How do you know?”
“Because dinner is almost ready.” Maggie smiled.
Dean gave her an odd look.
“I don’t know how he does it, but he’s got a knack. Go get cleaned up.” She spun on her toes and walked away toward the kitchen.
Jessup had already slowed the Tesla from one hundred and forty to thirty-three kilometers per hour ten kilometers back on his approach to the algae farms that surrounded the Tenderly place. Dust was the constant here, and the way he was driving kicks up enough dust to dirty every window and solar panel in a settlement. These farms, long trays of green, yellow, and red, covered in transparent plastic that only rose to 50cm, needed all the light they could get. In addition to algae the farms produce brine shrimp for protein production that went into human food and for other life sustaining uses on Mars.
Lots of scientist types had set up farms in this area. The soil was good for experimentation and their proximity to each other made it easy to compare notes. It had also made it easy for Jessup to pull a few strings and get his sister’s family on Mars. Two scientists with kids who wanted to grow food was just what the place needed; people with skills and a stake in success. He maneuvered the transport between the algae fields and rolled up to the Tenderly hab door.
The low gravity and his robotic legs made it an easy climb out of the Tesla and over to the hab exterior. This development had been built eleven years ago. Hybrid construction of Lux Tech modular skeletons and sprayed foamcrete skins. The result was what folks called turtle bungalows. He stepped through the hexagonal hatch and into the filthy airlock. He shook his head, so much dust. Busted scrubber.
Once inside the hab he took off his Husqvarna helmet. He noticed that some of the freezing Martian air and dust had followed into the hab. The warm air of the hab circulated around his torso. His jacket compensated. He unfastened the antique Carhart EVA jacket and stood in the foyer. “You need to fix that airlock”.
Dean hollered back from the bedroom. “Make yourself at home Jessup.”
Jessup slid off his steel-toed Timberlands. He didn't need to wear leather boots, but they looked damn good and he could leave them with the dust by the airlock. He wiggled his titanium toes and stepped over the dustbot as it scurried around the entrance. He looked up to see Maggie looking at him. "You know, I can fix this." He waved a hand at the airlock. Maggie patted Jessup’s chest. “Thanks, big brother, but Dean’s got it on his list.” They stood and looked at each other for a moment. “You’re early, dinner’s not ready.” She smiled.
I took the shortcut through the rough ground to stop by the hole so I could get the kids a Halloween gift. Probably drove a little faster today.”
“I’m sure they’ll love it. Sheila wants to update you on her latest project. And I’m sure Lincoln will want you to play his game.” She rolled her eyes and headed for the kitchen.
Jessup thought that’s probably the same way the mother of Marcus Aurelius rolled her eyes when he was playing chess with the stoics. Playing meant learning to these kids. They jumped into games and projects as a way to explore the world. Along the way they developed skills and more questions to explore. Well time to find out what they’re up to.
Jessup found Sheila in the back where he, Dean and Maggie had set up their home lab less than a year ago. She had turned it into her own mix of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab and Martian teen swank. Posters of scantily clad youngsters overwritten with semi-deep platitudes about digging deep and being yourself along with old illustrations of microscopic organisms, one exquisitely detailed example was hand drawn by Magg’s old boyfriend. A collection of troll dolls topped an assortment of oscilloscopes and imaging equipment. On the counter squatted a high tunneling microscope painted in pastel rainbow enamel, probably nail polish. Sheila crouched on the floor in a ball, like a doodlebug crustacean. She pulled wire through an elastic conduit shield.
“Uncle Jessup!” The doodlebug shot bolt upright beaming with excitement.
He looked at the gangly stalk of a girl on the verge of womanhood. She’d been a kindergartner when he’d first met her ten years ago and now she bloomed to nearly six foot. She had her father’s dark features of a Torres Strait Islander, brown eyes and full lips. But her light tan mottled with freckles and auburn hair were all Maggie. She looked so perfectly suited for Mars; a hybrid like everything and everyone else on the planet.
“What’ve got for me ... this time?” he looked around at the family lab that had clearly become “her lab” now.
“Remember when you brought us that bin of old comm hubs? Well I pulled out the fiber optic cables and had an idea.”
“Dangerous things, those can be.” He smiled at her.
She finished the well-worn phrase. “Whether they’re bad or good!”
With a grin and a flourish of her long arm, she stepped aside to reveal a plexiglass tank that looked like the ant farms he’d had as a kid on Earth. But this was no ant farm. The tank was a terrarium displaying about a meter of regolith and sprouting from its top what looked like a frozen fountain. It was a small mount where thousands of fiber optic tendrils were splayed into the Martian atmosphere. They converged on the mount, disappeared into the regolith and continued down into a small cavern containing what looked like some syrupy solution.
“What am I looking at?” He stared in amazement. She was clearly ahead of him in science class.
“Take a guess?” She had a gleeful edge in her voice.
“Well you’ve managed to pull in sunlight through the fiber optic into this underground aquifer and the solution looks chalk full of organic compounds. How am I doing?”
“Yep. So far so good. But not just compounds. Look closer.”
Jessup walked closer to the two-meter-tall tank and crouched on his mechanical haunches. His 50 power implant lenses scanned the gooey soup in the cave cutout. “Are those sea monkeys?”
She laughed, not knowing what a sea monkey could possibly be. “They’re the hybrids I’ve been working on. Brine shrimp from the Omega sector. But I got the salinity up by seventy percent. I call them Briniacs.”
“Seventy percent!” He was truly astonished. The Dead Sea is only about 34 percent salt, and that’s nearly ten times saltier than the ocean. He had raised brine shrimp, well mail order sea monkeys, on Earth as a child. He understood the fascination. They could go dormant and live in extremes. They were Earth’s classic extremophiles. A reliable source of protein too. But what she had accomplished did not seem possible. That seemed too damned salty for life.
“Yep!” She replied, as if there was no reason to doubt that she could have done what adult researchers had failed to do for the past decade. “And the fluid is still viscous at negative 89 Celsius.” She winked, “And I think I can up it more.”
Jessup walked over to her, gave her a hug, and then looked at her and mustered his most soft and serious voice, “Hey Squirt. I’m truly impressed. That could be a food source for all of Mars and most of space too.”
Sheila’s eyes glassed up. This was not unusual for her. She got glassy alot. But it was also his way of acknowledging he had communicated the sincerity he felt.
“Sheila, Lincoln, Jessup, dinner’s on” Maggie called from the kitchen.
Sheila winced, “More algae, potatoes, and cochineal bugs.” Her phrasing told Jessup there may be more culinary than scientific curiosity motivating her.
Lincoln and Sheila dominated dinner conversation because they knew that after they were sent to finish homework and get ready for bed the adults would continue late into the evening without them. But they demanded at least two stories about Jessup’s and their mom’s childhood. Jessup would always deliver a fresh story they hadn’t heard before, unless they requested an encore telling of an old favorite, like when they snuck into Marmion Military Academy and programmed a spot light on the circuit of the parking lights to flash at the light sensor that triggered the evening lights. Essentially turning the campus into a strobe light. “That one was Jessup’s idea”. Maggie pointed out.
The favorite tale of the night was Jessup’s telling of when the Headmaster’s Coy Pond got filled with Bighead Asian Carp. “You should have seen the look on the headmaster’s wife's face when a carp leaped from the pond and into a trustee’s lap. That was Maggie’s idea.” He concluded.
Lincoln was last to leave. He gave his mom a kiss, his dad a fist bump and Uncle Jessup a hug. He whispered in his ear, “thanks again for the worm gears and springs.”
“Anything for you, LT. I’ll see about that Chiron, too. It won’t be easy. Might have to be a fixer-upper.”
Dean looked at Maggie.
“Jessup, he’s nine years old.” Dean gave Lincoln a stern look as he fetched a bottle of Red Tide, the local hooch made from fire algae. “Lincoln, did you ask your uncle for a milling machine after we told you not to?”
Jessup pointed to the bottle of blood brown spirits. “I told him that I would only find him one he’d have to fix. It’s a long shot, but it’ll be a great project for him. The kid wants to make a new world. Who are we to get in his way?”
Lincoln ran out of the room with a devious grin on his face.
Shaking his head, Deal filled three pieces of glassware with the red liquid. He put down one in front of Jessup and one at his own place.
I want to show you two something.” Dean pulled a thick glass cylinder from his backpack and placed it on the table in front of them.
“A soil sample?” Said Maggie, accepting her Red Tide in a graduated cylinder.
He pushed the container across the table to her. “No, more than that.”
Jessup wondered how often algae farmers brought home soil samples and eyed the beaker suspiciously.
Maggie took the container and turned it around in her hands. “It’s been therma-sealed? You don’t want me to open this, do you?”
“Absolutely not, and I used the centimeter-thick Pyrex for a reason. It’s a regolith sample from the Omega sector. Give it a little shake.”
Jessup sipped the ethanol from the old beaker and laughed at his sister turning the container and studying the dirt inside. He carried the dinner dishes to the sink. He turned around and leaned there looking at the pair of scientists, such curiosity, such interest ... in dirt. He knew there was more to it than that. Their interest was in ‘life’ and in growing it in the dirt so that people could live here. He’d let them figure out their part and by the time they were done he’d have figured out combines and crews to harvest the stuff at scale.
Jessup nearly dropped a slippery plate as Maggie shot back in her chair and gasped.
Dean scooted his chair closer to Maggie. “There, look at that. You saw it too!?”
“It’s alive in dry soil. Wow, that’s a robust shrimp. Excellent.” Handing the heavy jar back to her husband.
“Ahh. Look again, Dr. Tenderly.”
Maggie reached over and grabbed the container and this time brought it closer to her face. “Wait, that’s a larva of some sort. It looks like….”
She set it down on the table and stared off into space as if she were remembering something from long ago. Terror swept over her cream-colored Dutch Irish face and then she went even more pale. Jessup thought she was going to vomit.”
“What’s wrong, Magg?” Said Jessup as he put down the dishes. What could have shaken his sister? She was made of basalt when it came to things like this.
“It’s him.” Staring at the wall on the far side of the hab living room.
Dean studied what could only be fear in her eyes. “Who? What’s him?”
Jessup took a deep breath. He knew and he didn’t like it.
“Him.” She stammered.
“No way.” Dean looked back and forth between Magg and Jess. He hadn’t even considered that a possibility.
She placed the jar on the table and slid it back towards Dean. “What else could it be?”
“So, it’s not alien.” said Dean, hope dissipating from his voice.
“Seriously?” She gave him a sardonic look. “You’ve been listening to Mira Spakko again, haven’t you?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just saying. Can’t rule it out.”
“Like Hell I can’t. I know his work. This has Avrom Allison’s signature all over it.”
The three of them stared into the container watching the slight movement in the sand for a long moment.
“What’s that?” Sheila startled them and marched straight over to the table peering into the container.
“Sheila, under no circumstances can we tell anyone about this”
Everyone looked at Maggie.
Sheila spoke, “What are you talking about? Isn’t this like the whole reason why we’re here? To discover things like this?”
“This isn’t really the kind of discovery you think it is.” Maggie shook her head.
“UGH, it’s an unidentified lifeform that can live on Mars. What am I missing?”
“What's going on? Did I hear ‘Unidentified Life form?’ No way. Can I see?” Lincoln came running into the room and slid to a dramatic stop in front of the plexiglass container. He put his face up against the glass and peered in. “Are those mandibles? Freaky! What’s it trying to do? Bore through the glass?”
“Oh my God.” Maggie put her hand to her forehead, stood, spun around, and walked to the other side of the hab. Lincoln kept his eyes glued to the jar, but Sheila watched her mom walk away.
Dean spoke matter of factly, “Your mother thinks she may know who engineered this, uhm, thing.”
Sheila glanced at Jessup and sat down at the table. “Wait. Is this related to that V’rom guy mom worked with?”
“Who’s V’rom, mom?” chirped Lincoln.
“Her first boyfriend” Jessup drawled, as if lost in memory.
“Gross!” said Sheila and Lincoln looking at each other through opposite sides of the sample container.
“That’s enough, kids.” Said Dean. “Don’t you have homework projects to do?”
“No, that's OK Dean. They have a right to know.” Maggie returned to the kitchen. A serious expression rode on her face. “They didn’t get to choose, coming with us to this place. We owe it to them that they should know what’s going on.”
“There’s something going on!?” The children half asked and stated simultaneously then winked at each other.
Jessup, who had mostly been watching the conversation, spoke deeply from where he leaned against the sink, "Yep, things on Mars are about to get dangerous."