Written by Allen Crowely
Story by Mike Acerra
Welcome to Lux Blox's seventh 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
Chapter 7: Girls Go to Mars
“Formal education taught me to escape from prisons and outwit jailers. At the last bell I’d make a mad dash to creeks, forests, cemeteries, haylofts, and dark atticks. I wanted to turn over every stone, put my hand in every stream. After school I owned the world. But in twelfth grade the earth started to feel like one big school. So I looked up and shouted at the sky, “WHEN THE HELL IS LAST BELL?”
Admission Essay to MIT
Boys go to Mars
To get candy bars!
Girls go to Jupiter
To get more Stupider!
20th Century Schoolyard Rhyme
Most girls think it was written by a boy
WILLIAM S. COHEN SCHOOL
Waldtraud “Wally” Liebenow’s 6th Grade Classroom
A large flat ochre rock sat upright on a walnut tripod on a large ancient desk. At first it looked like any stone you might find. But it contained a fossilized alien-looking crinoid half submerged in its calcite prison. An inscription in the stone below reads:
“Under the plainest rocks you’ll find a bustle of life. Most teachers don’t look under rocks. And great teachers know rocks aren’t even rocks.”
-- Carmela Liebenow
“My goodness, did your mother teach as well?”
The woman he was addressing had spent an hour helping kids make 26 soda volcanos and had not had a chance to clean the plaster of Paris from her arms.
She looked over at the limestone and smiled.
“She was a teacher. In fact, I actually grew up in the teacher college she created with my father.”
An enormous cuckoo clock chirped eleven times on the wall behind her.
The man stared at the strange clock behind what he thought was an equally strange woman.
He did not like strange things.
He sat on an antique-looking wooden shipping crate. The exterior painted with things like “dangerous cargo”. “Live Animals”. “Do not place hands within!”
He was a big man, weighing in at about 300 pounds. His six-foot five inch frame showed few signs of being a former all-state basketball guard.
If Waltraub Liebenow represented anything to Sammy “Longshot” Simpson it was an obstacle to brush away in his clean sweep as the new principal.
“Miss Liebenow, we need teachers that follow the district and state guidelines. Your class seems more of a jungle and antique shop than a classroom.”
A myna bird in a cage echoed, “District and state guidelines, district and state guidelines!”
He looked at the black bird and felt his temples thumping.
“My children helped create this classroom.”
“Precisely my point.”
“It’s more their world than ours, Mr. Simpson.” Everyone called him Longshot but her.
“I want them to experience the power they have to effect it.”
“It’s not their school and it’s not their world, at least not yet.” He said, looking at the Myna bird half expecting it to chime in again.
“It’s our job to enforce the policies and practices that the state and regional boards have determined are best for the students.”
“Best for the students!” Squealed the Myna.
“That is annoying. Does it do this in class?”
“Actually, it doesn’t. He must really like you.”
Longshot Simpson had waited his turn. His wife told him, 'it was a smart move to be a gym teacher' instead of working construction like his father and brothers.
He obliged his wife and began his career in earnest. He enjoyed working as a gym teacher and coach. He took the night classes and earned his master’s in educational administration.
He put his time in and opportunities came along. Assistant principal for three years in Falmouth. Another six years as an AP in Bath. Ron Berns gave him his chance when Berns had a stroke at his mothers-in-law on Thanksgiving.
But Ron Berns was a hippy at a hippy school. A Maine hickory nut. He had recruited teachers from out of state. And the worst hire, in his estimation, that Ron Berns ever made was Waltraub Liebenow.
Simpson disliked her intensely. What made it worse was he didn't understand what agitated him more. Was it his feeling that she thought that she was better than him or that she might be correct?
He found himself staring again at the rock with the inscription.
“What does that even mean? ‘Rocks aren’t really rocks.’ Why would a “Great teacher” know that?”
“What Carmela was trying to get at is that we shouldn’t assume that things are what we call them. They aren’t their names. Nobody ever got wet from the word water.”
“I don’t follow. A noun is a person, place, or thing. When you say, “that's a rock.” everyone knows what you mean.”
“I agree that they think they know what you mean. But calling it a rock doesn’t tell you anything about the rock. Like calling a student a child doesn't tell us very much about that child, does it?”
“I think she was overthinking things!” He started to giggle, trying to stifle a condescending affect that fell flat.
“Probably.” Wally said, and smiled.
“You’ll need to start submitting daily lesson plans. Follow the school guidelines. Teach the mandated curriculum expected for students at grade level. Is that too much to ask?”
“On the contrary.” Said Wally, as she looked at his hair and eyes.
For a moment, Longshot felt as though she was looking at him tenderly, which threw him off balance.
“Good. I think. What’s that odor?”
“Well, between sixth graders, a terrarium, and an aviary, you got lots to choose from.”
“Don’t you find that all these animals and plants and cuckoo clocks are distracting the students? God knows their attention span is low enough as it is.”
“The students care for and feed these plants and animals. They know their taxonomy and can tell you about the places they come from. They planted the blueberries last spring. Now we serve them in the cafeteria. They tend a two-acre farm across the street. These youngsters make things that do things. They sell what they grow. They read to the younger children what they write.”
“I have heard all about the things you are doing at Cohen. But these extras take time away from the business at hand. I see no evidence that these fun extras convert to higher test scores. The tests are going to be here before you know it. What have you done to prepare for the MGAP or the TerraSAT?”
The Myna bird screeched “BIZ nesss a Tand, BIZ nessss a Tand, Pruh Pear Em Gap. emmmmmgop. GAp.”
The bell rang in the hall and children began coming back into the room from recess.
Longshot had unwittingly given Wally a great gift. She now knew that her decision was a good one. He had failed the test.
He had also failed to notice what was plainly laid out on Wally Liebenow’s otherwise pristine desk: an acceptance letter to the Martian Educator’s Program.
She was already on her way to get candy bars.
The Tenderly Farm
Sheila woke with a pit in her stomach. It gnawed at her. Hands sore from being clenched, her body had assumed a tight fetal position. She remembered she had done something regrettable. She was shaking.
“Oh my god.” she groaned into her pillow. Nightmares filled the three hours she actually slept. She was in territory she’d never experienced before. Intense hunger, thirst, loneliness, and a grotesque pain. She was glad to be awake until the new reality crashed in on her. She had listened to Lincoln!
Last night it seemed like a decent idea. Especially coming from her little brother. Simply swap the sample jar with the specimen their dad had found yesterday with an identical sample jar. Take it with them to school and secretly use the school's equipment to learn more about it. Once home again switch the sample tubes back.
Simple. Why did all the problems with that plan elude her until now?
She heard the front airlock closing. It was too early for her dad. She got up and walked through the kitchen and to the front of the turtle bungalow. Through the hexagonal window she saw their Ford rover rolling out of the drive with its lights off.
It must have been her Uncle Jessup. He had taken the Ford and left the Tesla for mom and dad’s big adventure that day.
Sheila thought that the whole thing downright stupid. That her mom thought she could track down that thing's origin in a mountain range the size of the Rockies was crazy.
Her dad and Uncle Jessup couldn't talk her out of it. No surprise there. Her mom was hard-headed. It worried Sheila. She respected her mom in a lot of ways. She was a great scientist. But she could have moments of perfect confidence without a shred of evidence.
The lights in the kitchen turned on behind her and she jumped.
“You're up early. It’s only 4:30.” Her dad stood by the coffee maker in an old orange suit liner he used as pajamas. “Did you get your paper done on your Brainiac thing?”
“‘Brine-iac. And yes. But Mr. C is letting us hand them in on Monday since…”
“Since today’s Halloween.” His voice lifted.
“Did your brother get his work done? Looked like he waited till the last minute.”
Oh no, Lincoln let dad see him working last night. She tried to sound casual. “Yeah. We packed up our projects in the green bags by the east hatch.”
“Great! You know your mom and I will be out the best part of the day.”
She appreciated his enthusiasm for mom’s craziness. He totally supported her.
“Are you really going to look all over Lycus Sulci for where that thing comes from?”
“Well, not exactly. We are going to look for any clues to where it may have originated.”
“Why is mom so convinced of what that thing is? She hardly even looked at it.”
“I don’t have too.” Said Maggie as she walked by on the way to the storage lockers.
Sheila and Dean gave each other startled looks. Dean continued to make coffee. Sheila stood there.
“Jessup’s already gone.” Said Maggie returning with a note in her hand.
“I saw him leave in the Ford a few minutes ago.” Said Sheila, feeling a tug of annoyance toward her mom and dad.
“He told us he’d leave us the Metafora last night. He’s gone to see some old pal.” Maggie said, holding her hand to her head. “Sheila, can you grab me the bottle of ibuprofen?”
Sheila, welcoming a chance to move, spun on her heels, and headed down the hall to the medical cabinets. She decided to jump into her brother’s room.
Lincoln was under three layers of covers and she couldn't make out where he was. She kicked the biggest blob.
“What the hell!” A head emerged from the blob.
“Listen, evil-genius! Mom and dad are in the kitchen and we need to rethink your wicked plan.” “Huh? Oh yeah. It’s a wicked-awesome plan. Besides, it’s too late.”
“What do you mean, ‘too late’?
“I made the switch last night. The sample with the larva’s in my equipment case by the hatch.”
‘Why would he lie?’, she thought. “I saw it on the table where we left it last night! I even saw it moving.”
“What you saw, my sister, was a meal worm from my terrarium.” He smiled his cocky smile.
“Bull. It had mandibles and those same stripes-thorny things.”
“Oh yeah. Happy Halloween.”
She could hear the same enthusiasm in his voice as in her dad’s. “Seriously?”
“A little glue and your microdot pens and hair I found in the sink.”
“God, you’re disgusting.”
“We do what weez gots to do, sis.” He held out his hands, palm down, in a calming gesture.
“Well don’t say anything about this to your idiot friends.”
“Just meet me in the Lab at lunch and don’t be late.”
“You don’t be late!”
Sheila ran from Lincoln’s room to the infirmary and got the bottle of ibuprofen her mom had asked for. What could she say? Lincoln’s plan was on the rails now and picking up speed, but there would be no shutting it down once it catapulted into space.
Lincoln curled back into the ball he’d been in all night. He stared at a poster from the latest remake of Dune. The massive sandworm poised with its mouth agape in front of Paul Atreides. Why did he feel so differently this morning? Why did he dream he was so hungry, so thirsty, so horribly lonely?
When Dean returned from his morning rounds, he found Maggie and the kids already in Jessup’s Tesla. He could see that Lincoln was messing with the independent suspension system. The six-legged limousine rocked and contorted into the most ridiculous positions. The Metafora had a built-in airlock on the passenger side. At the Tesla, he could see Maggie scolding Lincoln. He smiled proudly at his dad and nestled the rover to the ground so he wouldn't have to step up into the airlock.
They followed their morning routine and drove to VL, Venezuela Libertada. The Tesla made the 70-kilometer drive on the axis road in under 20 minutes. VL was a small city of 25,000 inhabitants. One of four colonies established by the Venezuelan billionaire, Adrian Lanz. VL Served as the county seat and the location of the schools, because of its central location in Amazonis Planitia.
Even though the Tesla was self-driving, Lincoln’s begging paid off. Dean allowed him to drive until they approached the outskirts.
“Ok, let’s go over the plan again so we’re all clear.” Maggie invoked the voice she had used in pilot briefing rooms.
“We know. Don’t tell anyone about the bug thingy.” Said Lincoln.
“Your dad and I are going to see if we can find any clues as to where it’s origins are. We’ll call you if we run into any problem.”
“You do know that what you guys are doing is wrong on like twenty levels, right? And it could be really dangerous.” Said Sheila.
“Shiels, we can handle ourselves. And we’ll let the right folks know once we’re sure of a couple of things.” Her former military edge faded from her voice.
“Why did Jessup leave so early without saying goodbye?” Said Lincoln, without breaking his concentration on the road.
“He’s helping us get a jump on this thing too.” said Maggie “Your uncle used to actually be a big shot and has a lot of friends in high places.”
“I thought he was like a limousine driver or something.” Said Lincoln.
Maggie’s face turned red and her eye’s glassed.
“No, he’s not. You’re such an idiot, sometimes.” Said Sheila.
“Jeez, I didn’t mean it in a bad way. This Tesla’s awesome, but it’s kind of a limo, isn’t it?”
Dean chimed in. “Your uncle Jessup’s best talent is people. He thinks he’s a machine guy. And he knows his stuff for sure. But he’s a people person.”
“God, I’m not.” said Sheila as she slithered in the smooth synthetic leather seat. A wave of sleepiness ran through her.
“People skills are learned too. Just have to put in the time and effort, like any skill.” Said Dean, as much to Lincoln as Maggie as he monitored the farm sensor tablet.
“When can I tell my friends about the maggot?” Said Lincoln, keeping his eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel.
“Stop calling it that. It’s gross.” Said Sheila with her eyes closed. She pulled her yellow hoodie over her face to keep the orange morning sun out of her eyes. .
“It’s called an L-phage.” Said Maggie.
“Why L?” Asked Lincoln.
“Well, people developed it on the moon. So, L stands from Luna.”
“Wouldn’t that make this one an “M-phage”?
“I guess it would if someone developed it for this environment. But an L-phage would be able to survive on Mars with little modification.”
“But why ‘phage’? Aren’t phages viruses?” Asked Sheila, starting to take interest in the conversation.
“Well, we called them phage because they were created to devour regolith and ore.”
Like “Phagein” Greek for ‘to devour’. Added Sheila,
Lincoln looked at Sheila, crossed his eyes, and said, “Duh.”
“Lincoln, let me take the controls, we are nearing the city.” Said Dean and he adjusted the captains swivel chair and took the wheel.
“We’ll pick you up after the carnival. Say around twenty-two.” Said Maggie.
The Tesla rolled into the school parking lot.
“Why is your gear so heavy?” said Dean and he handed it off to Lincoln in the Tesla airlock.
“I have my project in it. A lot of metal.”
“Cool. Show it to me this weekend.”
“Will do.” Then he whispered, “And please be careful. Mom is acting kind of weird.”
“Oh, you noticed. Don’t worry about us. And have some fun today. It’s Halloween!”
“I’m not feeling it this year.” Said Lincoln as he spun around hoisting the heavy green bag over his shoulder. He headed towards the front entrance to Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas.
Escuela Anna Katherina Vivas was a superb example of the new Venezuelan/Martian craftsman style. It was partly submerged into the side of a small crater and enveloped in a web of intricately carved Smoke-crete domes. It was grounded in the soil yet reached for the sky. The school was Venezuela Libertada’s pride and joy.
Lincoln hopped onto a rust colored conveyor belt that whooshed him into the school’s speed air locks. He centered himself on one of the circles. Inside the first aperture, a clear cylinder came down from the ceiling. It sealed itself to the surface of the conveyor belt. A blast of air filled the cylinder, pressurizing to Terran-sea-level or one atmosphere. The belt carried Lincoln, in his cylindrical cage, through a series of doors. This regulated the transition into the school's interior. When it worked, a person didn't have to stop as they transited in and out of the building. Well, apart from getting screened for E-suit seal leaks.
When Lincolns’ cylinder rose up, he took off his head dome and walked to his usual spot. He stowed the green bag and its precious cargo into his locker and closed the door. On his way to his first hour class he stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the hall. A group of students who were walking behind him and not paying attention plowed into him.
“Watch where you're going, ‘Stinkuhn Tenderloin” The group of three seventh graders cackled and walked on.
Lincoln was still frozen. He turned and looked at the locker. The chills of the previous night ran through him anew. “What the hell is this?” He said aloud to himself. He walked back to his locker and unzipped the green bag. He pulled his father's Pyrex heat-sealed sample jar out to look at it. There was the little larva with its barbed mandibles.
“Are you lonely? Why am I talking to you? Why the hell do I care?”
The phage larva seemed to look directly at Lincoln and not turn away. It had stopped digging. It seemed to know that this was futile. Now it was staring at Lincoln, as if expecting a response.
“Ok, you can come with me.” Lincoln knew he was quite capable of taking bugs to school on his own volition, but it seemed like the maggot was a willing participant. He took the pyrex and slipped it into a backpack and went to his first hour class.
He was going to be late. But that was alright, Ms. Liebenow was cool.