Written by Allen Crowley and Mike Acerra
Welcome to Lux Blox's sixth 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 Mind, Any Weapon”.
Slogan of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
One year later
On Route to Mars
Gunnery Sergeant Athena Tripi and Dr. Ben Geminus approached the lift that would take them on the final leg of their journey to the Proteus’s corona, the great domed eye that was the front of the vessel and the ship’s bridge. She was still reeling from the past hour’s discoveries.
Learning that you had been killed in action eighteen years ago is one thing.
But to learn that you had been put on ice, repaired while asleep, revived enroute to Mars, aboard a spaceship bigger than your hometown, that seemed to be made of conch shells, should have strained the limits of anyone’s imagination.
But oddly, it didn’t.
It was because of that other weird thing. The thing she felt in her mind ever since she woke up. She seemed to absorb the new into her, the way light seemed to get absorbed and become repurposed by the iridescent walls of the ship. And sometimes this new thing seemed to softly speak to her.
SOLA, the ship’s computer, had illuminated the route from the sick bay to the sub level of the Corona in the Proteus’s bow. More helpful than the confusing send off, “You’re not in the Congo anymore, Dorthy.”
As they walked their last steps on the yellow cobblestones the lifts’s emerald green door opened and out from its glowing mother-of-pearl interior sprang a small woman with huge mustard colored eyes and a quaff of midnight blue hair.
She wore a similar unitard as Athena, but instead the Space Force Prussian blue hers was a familiar shade of Marine Corps red. Embroidered on her mock turtleneck collar was the rank of Sergeant.
“Oh my God, it’s true. Hello Gunny! It’s an honor!” She shifted her gaze. “Dr. G, new orders from Captain Kazemi. I’m to take Gunnery Sergeant Tripi to report with our unit.”
Geminus shrugged, and replied, “Very well. Gunnery Sergeant Tripi, this is Sergeant Rama Montaigne.”
“Sergeant.” Tripi said, looking at the Sergeant and extending her hand.
Sergeant Montaigne met her hand with a firm grip and beamed at Tripi as if she knew far more about her than she should have.
“Thanks, Doc.” She stepped off the lift.
“Gunny, if we hurry, we can catch our Marines at combat training in Zulu Gym.”
“That’s a kilometer from here.” Said the Doctor as the lift door closed.
“Then we’d better make haste.” She said, looking at Tripi, and winking.
Tripi could not help but smile at the sergeant. There was something of the hellion about her.
Montaigne gestured, ushering Tripi to the revolving platform that was the precipice to the kilometer-long tube she had just traveled up with the doctor on an open lift.
“OK, Gunny. You’re gonna have to make a small leap of faith here. There’s another way to get around this ship besides walking, floating, or taking lifts. SOLA!”
“Yes, Sergeant Montaigne.” Replied the voice of a young girl as if she was anticipating the request.
“Set a helical course from our location to S7.”
“Course already laid and illuminated.”
Tripi could see a dazzling neon green line that spiraled along the cylindrical spine of the Proteus.
Sergeant Montaigne sprinted head-first down the cylinder following the curving green line as she went. Tripi gulped and leaped after her, the wind hitting her face as she began to quickly accelerate down the tube. All she could hear were her and Montaigne’s laughter and their feet pounding on the glass of the massive aquarium.
The central part of the spinning ship had none of the strong centrifugal forces that could be felt on the outer decks. But the spiral course illuminated for the runners allowed them to generate angular momentum, which in turn gave them ample footing and the ability to push off and generate more velocity.
Soon Athena Tripi was running faster than she ever had. She decided to catch Montaigne, who was about ten meters ahead of her. Tripi poured it on and soon was alongside her.
Rama looked at her and grinned. “What do you think? Fun, right?”
“We’re almost there. See how the line is changing to yellow? That means we need to slow down.”
The Marine’s shoes squeaked and slapped on the aquarium glass as they cut speed, scattering the school of yellow fish that had been following them. They stopped at an opening that was marked S7.
“Ok, now we take the lift the rest of the way.”
The two floated to a cylinder lift station like the one her and the doctor had come through further amidships. The lift rapidly accelerated and the effects of the centrifugal force of the spinning massive carousel pushed against the forces of acceleration pulling the opposite way. By the time they reached Zula deck Tripi felt her feet firmly on the floor.
When the lift opened she was assaulted by the familiar smell of sweat and the thuds of bodies on mats. They entered the gymnasium. Once again, Athena was amazed by the scale of the ship. Zulu Gym spread out and disappeared past the curvature of the deck and overheads. The architecture was more muscular and mechanical than that of the passageways. The translucent iridescent arteries sprouted from the floors and went into the ceilings. She imagined the gym as a giant air bubble trapped in an otherwise living organism. In fact, the whole ship seemed to Athena to be mostly the strange other-worldy substance with only occasional reminders of familiar right angles, hatches, and other human amenities.
The room they entered was an annex off of the main gymnasium. It had a padded floor, a lower overhead of only 4 meters, and fixtures seemingly designed to train for styles of combat she was unfamiliar with.
It mostly looked like the Marine martial arts training in her other units which was a mixture of hand-to-hand and close quarters combat techniques. She found that every unit emphasized different aspects of the program. They were all supposed to instill mental and character development, including the responsible use of force, work ethic, leadership, and teamwork. For a lot of Marines, usually young ones, she found this kind of training to be more of an opportunity to smack each other around and test each other.
She had earned a green belt and loved the physical and mental training but never considered herself a natural warrior like some Marines. Delivering pain to others was not her first impulse. Though she knew when it was needed.
They stood by the lift door and watched about two dozen Marines practicing grappling moves, take downs, edge weapons, and disarming techniques. When heads started to notice the two new Marines Sergeant Montaigne sounded off.
“Marines, this is Gunnery Sergeant Tripi, formally of ANGLICO 4.”
“Holy crap. It’s Athena Tripi.” Said a thin redhead getting up off the mat.
“Who’s ‘Athena Tripi’?”
“She’s the one they took off ice. The one that got killed in Africa, like twenty years ago. She saved those kids.”
“That’s not how I heard it!” Another man, considerably larger than the others stepped forward. He was heavily muscled and wore the tattoos of a Pacific Islander.
“As I heard it, she got her unit killed playing hero.”
He continued past the group and straight towards Tripi with his arms folded, emphasizing his massive biceps.
“She went against direct orders and told her platoon to attack a Congolese unit that was already slated to be hit by an aerial assault.”
As the man approached her, he looked her in the eyes, but he kept addressing the room. Athena noticed his rank. Master Sergeant. She met his gaze with a deadpan expression.
“Yeah, I got it on good intel that the Gunny here would have been court-martialed posthumously hadn’t some politician stepped in and made a war-hero out of her to win an election.”
The man stepped into Tripi’s space. His arms remained clasped together, evidence that he assessed her as no threat. He was going to make an example of her to the others.
“We don’t need Marines that get their units killed.”
Athena was surprised that a calm had washed over her. Her breath steadied, her heart beat and time slowed. A vivid childhood memory prompted like a data file. For the fraction of a second, she was in her Uncle Rick’s backyard among the dismantled Harley Davidsons and Indians she helped him fix every summer in Vermillion, South Dakota. He was holding her hand. She was twelve years old.
“That’s all you got to do, Athena. Those two moves. But be fast, be deliberate, and don’t think twice.” Said her uncle.
A sensation came over here like the one in the sick bay and the run down the tube. Something, not her, guided her. She felt like a new part of her brain coordinated her actions.
The Zulu Gym incident, as it would come to be called officially, happened so quickly, that no two Marines had the same story.
When Master Sergeant Lance Pedigo put his face into Tripi’s face, she made a slight motion with her left hand that looked almost like she’d given him a caress on his cheek.
He recoiled, screamed in pain, and grabbed his face, Gunny crouched low to the deck.
Her right hand shot straight out latching onto the master sergeant’s groin. She then launched herself off the deck, somersaulted, her grip still locked on the master sergeant, flipping him.
Her feet slammed into the overhead, her gravity shoes gripped the ceiling and his head hit the deck.
Her left hand now joined her right as she lurched the master sergeant off the deck and began to spin him around like a hammer thrower.
Pedigo’s shrill shrieks were met with a flood of laughter by the otherwise stunned Marines. They rushed over grudgingly to end the engagement dodging the giant Marine’s flailing legs, as he hurtled through space.
“Give me some room.” Barked Hospital Corpsman third class Will Braddock, as the platoon wrestled the master sergeant from Gunny’s grip. He stepped toward the big man on the deck.
“She flicked his eye, doc!” Lance Corporal Fedorov grimaced.
“Yeah, that’s gonna leave a mark.” replied the corpsman, who was trying to figure out how she was able to do an advanced zero-gravity combat move without training and do it against a steroidal blackbelt twice her size.
She remained standing, feet against the ceiling, looking at the Marines below.
They just stared at the upside-down woman who looked like she had just returned from dancing with her girlfriends. She had a grin and scanned the room like she owned it. She spoke in the deepest Pendleton drill instructor drawl she could muster,
“It’s a Goddamn pleasure, Marines. I’m Gunny Tripi. And I don’t believe in fair fights.”
“Oorah, Gunny Tripi!” the red head yelled reflexively.
“OORAH!” rang from the rest of the Marines of ANGLICO 7.
From that day forward the Marines of ANGLICO 7 wore eye pro and other forms of protection during martial arts training.
A friend will help you move.
A good friend will help you move a dead body.
And if he’s got a rocket - call him your best friend.
October 31, 2045
16°58’43”N, 153°46’56” W
Jessup was up before his sister’s family. He made some calls. He needed some good intel after the long strange evening of speculating on the end of Mars as they knew it.
He figured that the monster maggot, in the sample jar on Maggie’s kitchen table, probably fell from a Smurfit hauler on its way to the Grayton processing station in New Kiev. But New Kiev is 1200 kilometers away on the other side of Amazonis Planitia. He’d done Sherm a few favors so maybe that old hippie could return one.
He double-checked his suit, quietly went outside, threw his pack into the cab of Meg and Dean’s rover and drove out to the main road and headed to Sherm’s. Jessup had left his Tesla Metafora for Dean and Maggie. It was much better suited for cross country driving than their utility rover.
Maggie’s idea of looking for the origin of the hypothetical missing truck seemed ill-advised to Jessup without having more information. But very few of his contacts had picked up their phones. So hunches and educated guesses prevailed.
Still, he’d seeded enough messages that something would sprout up soon.
The Tenderly’s rover, an old Ford Super Duty Pioneer, was Jessup’s kind of vehicle. Built to be an extension of a person with work to do. Its four massive tires had independent motors for amazing traction over the roughest terrain and it could double for a tractor. It was more vehicle than Dean and Maggie needed on an algae farm. But now that things had changed he was glad Magg’s had this ride. It wasn’t made for the long haul, but it was just fine for the twenty kilometers to Sherm's place.
He passed over the ridge line of the small crater where Sherm lived. Unlike the turtle bungalows of most of the homesteads in this area, Sherm’s place was an abandoned science settlement. He had restored the now antiquated inflated bubble habs. Some recent additions caught his eye. A new antenna array. A couple of new Lux Tech farming modules, and much to his surprise, three new housing units.
He rolled the Pioneer to a stop in what looked like a recently graded parking lot. Jessup was glad to see the old stainless steel sign that he had laser cut for Sherm was still hanging on the front of the hab proclaiming, "Sherm's Shrooms"
He announced himself on the comlink and Sherm's jovial face bid him enter. The airlock led directly into an abandoned office. Sherm never worked there, and Jessup proceeded through the rear portal into the main house. There he was, in all his glory, reclining in his optic orange pajamas, in a room full of nostalgia from the previous century.
"Grab a Sacco and settle inz, man. What brings you over this early in the day?"
Jessup lifted one of the overstuffed bean bags and dropped it next to Sherm. “I need your help, Sherm.” He paused and quickly added,”By help I mean the Hydra.”
Jessup stood there.
Sherm looked at him funny while he lit a hand rolled dovetail joint.
"Are you sure you don't want some of this?” He smiled.
Jessup shook his head. His phone beeped. He pulled the device from his pocket and sat down. Royce Boykin was on the other end of the channel.
“I got your message. You used to drive a truck for Smurfit, right Jessup?”
“Royce, there’s not a company off Earth I haven’t worked for. What do you got?”
“Got a young man here who says he hitched a ride with a Smurfit crew headed to Greyton. He’s spouting some nonsense about monsters.” Boyco’s voice peeled away for a moment as he talked to his deputies. “Yeah, he’s saying some pretty weird stuff. I‘m thinking it’s Maritan Fever, but I’ve never seen it like this. Kid’s scared. Says the Smurfit crew were hypnotized by the monster that swallowed their Caterpillar 832M. An 832, Jess. Otherwise he’s not in too bad a shape. He’s dehydrated, got a little fever, probably oxygen deprived. He’s been out for too long. Says his rover didn’t make it to the outskirts of town. His suit was flat-lining when we found him. He walked in from somewhere, but he can’t even point in the direction. Thought I’d get your take before I called it in. Something doesn’t smell right here, Jessup. Figured you might provide some insight?”
“He’s not Smurfit?” Jessup looked into the distance.
“No. He’s a lineman for Musk County. Pattie Keane. I knew his dad. His Jeep was low on batteries so the Smurfit crew were giving him a tow as far as New Kiev, he says.”
“Don’t call it in. I’ll call you right back.” Jessup called from a different phone from a different pocket. “Royce, lock that guy up in the med ward, full isolation and containment. Have a doc give him a thorough physical. Top secret. You know the drill. No EM. Some unfriendly folks will be looking for him. I got a plan and I’ll call you back. And to save you from asking, I don’t know a damn thing. I got a crazy hunch maybe. Oh, and ... we never talked.”
Jessup put the phone in his pocket and got lost in thought.
“You know, for a guy who doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories, sounds like you’re embroiled in one Dadio.” Sherm looked at him while stubbing out the joint.
“Hey Sherm? There's a case of that whisky in it for you if you can get me to New Kiev in an hour on that jump rocket of yours.”
"W-whoa, Jay-Zip.Too lit. I already got my Halloween high started.”
Jessup weighed the situation. Speed was what he needed more than anything else now. Twelve hundred kilometers to New Kiev and he had to get there first.
“While I make a call, you think about this, Sherm.” He paused. “Do you want in on the biggest conspiracies ever on Mars, or to just speculate from the sidelines and phone it in to radio shows?”
Jessup placed a call on that second phone. If unscrupulous folks could only hack one channel at Smurfit, they'd want it to be the secure line of his former partner from Luna. Fortunately, he and Chester Humboldt had their own private codes from back in the days drilling in the sea of storms.
“Hello, Mr. Humboldlt, it’s Sheriff Vlad Boyko, over in New Kiev…”
Jessup hung up the phone and looked up for a positive answer from Sherm. His enormous yellow Sacco was empty, and Sherm was walking into the next room.
“I’ll take that as a yes! May I get a cup of that lazer proof coffee?”
“Help yourself, beaker’s on the hot-pad. New batch I'm experimenting with.”
Jessup poured the thick dark steaming liquid into a pristine coffee mug that was probably 80 years old, featuring the iconic “Soul Brother” logo associated with the band and the coffee shop from the 1960’s. “Man, Sherm. Maybe my taste buds have gone soft but this reminds me of drinking kohna on the big island.”
Sherm laughed in the other room. “High praise. I was kinda going for hints of Kohna, but didn't think it would transport you back to earth. Don't think I overdid it, do ya?”
“Good coffee is good coffee.” Jessup heard the shower start running.
Jessup enjoyed a good scan of the room’s decor. Mid Century Modern mixed with iconic sixties music art. It reeked of earth antiquities and marijuana, both were pretty scarce on Mars.
The shower stopped. “I still want a case of your whisky. It’s the real stuff. Real earth-grown-grain, stored in real wooden barrels. Nothing Martian hoochie-koo about it. Where do you get it?”
“I tell you that, I won’t get any more of your tin foil hat. Let’s just say, I’m a master-mason in the whisky import cabal.”
Husqvarna helmet on his head, breathing easy, his bag in hand, and driving his robotic legs forward, he moved steadily towards the dusty stainless steel insect with landing struts. Jessup tuned out Sherm, who chattered on about wanting more info. A moment later he traveled up the gantry. They buckled in.
“Sure you’re sober enough to fly this thing?”
“Actually.” Sherm paused and turned to look at Jessup. “I don’t think I’ve ever flown it straighter.” Without looking, Sherm flipped three iconic toggles overhead and keyed in the coordinates for New Kiev.
“Not really inspiring confidence, Sherm. I do more of a preflight check on my Tesla.” Jessup bit his tongue and pushed back any second guessing.
“We're going to be just fine.” The blast of the hydra’s engines started immediately.
Jessup squelched any last doubts as the vibrations rattled his teeth and the acceleration pinned him to his seat. He was on his way to New Kiev in a ballistic missile flown by a stoned mushroom dealer. He was not sure what treachery would meet on the other end of this journey. The list of baddies was short. Representatives from Smurfit, SARSA, Overwatch, and maybe even Avrom Alison could show. And all of them would want to cover up this mess and probably kill to do it. He decided to enjoy the ride.