Mars is for Misfits
How Great Thou Art
Written by Mike Acerra
The 1949 aquamarine Hydra-Glide’s muffler belched a mechanical expletive as it pulled into the Pilot truck stop.
Riding the Harley was a woman in a black leather jacket emblazoned with a Grim Reapers on the back, saddle boots, faded jeans, a white dago T-shirt, and black KDs. Her sun bleached auburn hair was held back in a ponytail by an old green boot band.
The late dusk winds coming off of the Gulf were cool, but the concrete was still giving up the pounding of that day’s scorching panhandle sun.
She dismounted the overheating bike, grabbed a bundle from the saddle bag, and went through the grocery aisle, passing an end cap selling bear nuts, jerky and stuffed manatee plush dolls and headed straight to the showers.
Upon entering the waiting area she unrolled a black garbage bag and put its contents onto the plastic baby changing station: a Marine Corps dress blues uniform, a belt and an non-commissioned officer’s sword, a cover, toiletry bag and patent leather shoes.
She heard on the intercom, “Number 43, shower seven is ready for you, honey.”
She disrobed, revealing her tattooed body, and entered the plastic shower stall.
She kept the water cold, quickly washed off the two hundred miles of hot road between Weeki Wachee and Panacea Florida, got out and dried.
She put on the Marine blues after Bobby-pinning her hair and putting on thick makeup. She packed up her leather jacket, blue jeans, and saddle boots in the garbage bag and headed back to her uncle’s bike.
When she came out of the Pilot station she saw that the panhead was gone.
“A guy came along a few minutes ago and took off with your bike. I yelled at him but he said it belonged to him.” The voice came from a skeleton of a woman in a trailer selling barbecue brisket and wings.
“What’de look like?” She yelled back, her heart sinking. She knew who took it. She knew it was his.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for Little Mermaid, young one? Show’s in an hour.” Said the lady, with the drawn look of a panhandle meth head.
“But I have to go to Evelyn Tripis' funeral.” Said the Marine, sounding less sure of herself.
“Shame’bout Evie. I’d say take’em some wings but we got none. They had to euthanize 50 million chicks in Georgia cause the virus.”
She felt a tug on her trousers, and looked down to see a tiny tan hand pulling on her blood stripe.
“Ma’am, how much are these?” The filthy little hand was attached to a heavily freckled girl who wore a sun bleached green bathing suit and filthy pink flip flops. Her tiny toe nails had remnants of pink polish.
She was holding up a set of plastic mermaid earrings. She had the sticky remains of cotton candy all over her face, hands, and on the earrings. Dirt and small insects were pasted onto her candy coated face and mouth.
“Where are your parents?” Said the Marine.
“Don’t you know?”
A siren blared in the distance. It was joined by a chorus of other sirens.
“Sounds real bad. Get three or four of those a week.” Said the meth head in the barbecue trailer.
“I’ve gotta be somewhere.” Said the Marine, staring longingly down the road in the direction of the Panacea and the funeral parlor off the square.
“What’bout my earrings?” Said the girl, pulling on the Marine’s trousers.
The woman in the uniform jerked away from the little girl, turned toward the road and began to run.
She ran despite wearing patent leather dress shoes and a marine corps blue uniform and the sword’s scabbard banging violently against her leg.
She ran as fast as she could, feeling the Florida heat and humidity defile her fresh shower and permeate her with sweat.
She ran down Main Street towards the Panacea funeral home.
But it was too late. Everyone would be gone. They’d be saying how Evie’s no-good little girl didn’t have the decency to show up to her mom's funeral.
The sirens grew louder. She felt engulfed by the heat of the concrete and the shame burning her face.
She was suffocating.
Athena Tripi shot bolt upright in bed.
She was drenched with sweat.
She realized she didn’t know where she was.
The sheets against her skin felt expensive and strange. They wicked away the beads of sweat like linen but had the texture of satin.
The air in the room smelled clean and fresh almost as if she were outside.
A pang of dread and sadness ran through her midsection.
The stabbing pain in her feet brought her back.
She’d been running on a kilomoter-long glass fish tank in outer space with a Marine with dark beautiful features named Rama.
A panic ripped through her. She leaped from her bed and stood on the cool flooring that felt unfamiliar.
She felt like she was in trouble, as if people were furious with her. She looked at the room. No corners. Ceiling and walls curved into each other.
She heard a voice come into her head. Not her voice.
“You're all right. You were having a bad dream. You’re on board a spacecraft on its way to Mars. You were frozen after nearly dying 18 years ago. Now you are serving with the seventh ANGLICO.”
Calm washed over her like it had come from an I.V.. Memories of the little girl with the cotton candy face swiftly faded.
Athena thought to address the room.
“Lights.” She said in the darkness.
The room became bathed in a warm morning reddish pink light.
A panel opened near her bed.
Another light came on in an adjacent room she hadn’t noticed.
A gentle female voice came on. “It’s zero four thirty four.”
Then she remembered something else.
Another voice, much younger than the first, came into the room.
“Good morning, Gunny. How was your first night's sleep aboard the Proteus?”
“I figured you’d already know that.”
“True. I was being politely rhetorical. I did monitor your sleep.”
“So you tell me.”
“Not so good. I’d recommend a sedative until you get your rhythms established.”
“When do folks get up around here?”
“Breakfast mess opens in thirty minutes. I can join you if you’d like.”
“Cool. Give me ten minutes.”
“See you in ten.”
Six minutes later Athena’s hatch door bell rang.
She had just emerged from the shower and threw a giant yellow and maroon Venus Mission towel around her as she opened the hatch.
Instead of the meter and a half tall girl android the hatch entryway was filled with a two meter plus house of a Marine. He was smiling and holding a duffle bag in one hand and something in the other.
She looked into his eyes and saw that one of them was a deep red where she had poked him 22 hours earlier.
“Master Sergeant? Is this a wake up call?”
“More like an apology tour.”
Pedigo reached out and opened his right hand. In it were two rolls of coins.
Athena looked at them.
“ I thought you’d like to have these.”
She grabbed the rolls from his large calloused hands and brought them close to her face. There were coins from her old unit, and campaign coins of the Africa tour, tours prior, and tours after her incident. And there was one with her image on it and a slogan “Fire on my coordinates.” Gunnery sergeant Athena Tripi, ANGLICO 4, SALT TEAM 2.
He held out the green duffle. She recognized it by its stains and by its odor.
“I’m told it’s how it came to the hospital in Germany. Nothing’s been removed.”
“How’s the eye?”
“You want to grab breakfast? I was headed down. I’ll wait.” He said, looking at her towel.
“Do you mind if SOLA joins us?”
“The kidbot? Yeah, that’ll be interesting.”
“Ok. Give me five.”
Athena closed the hatch and dumped out the duffle bag onto her bunk and put the coins on her desk. She threw on her blood orange utilities and grav boots and pulled her hair into a bun. She rummaged through the duffle’s spilled contents and found her makeup. 18 years and it still seemed good. Maybe they froze it too?
She was flooded with new feelings she didn’t understand. She had learned long ago that emotions were like weather; they come and go. But she had a hunch that the feelings she had been having lately weren't really feelings at all but some sort of intrusion into her mind by tech. That would make sense. She just learned yesterday that everyone including her has implants to enhance performance. Why not emotions? Or memories? She allowed herself to have the euphoria that flooded her but she made it a point to remember to investigate this. She didn’t like the idea of not knowing who or what was controlling her. She could be compromised.
Master Sergeant Lance Pedigo leaned against the mother of pearl bulkhead in the hall and scanned duty rosters and training schedules on his retina display while he waited for the gunnery sergeant to get dressed for breakfast.
He got a peripheral signal from his retinal scan that something was approaching. They weren’t Marines. Marines had transponders.
He looked down the dimmed hall and saw the robot girl approach.
Pedigo had the typical Marine Corps disdain for androids. The automatics had become their primary competition in DOD funding and military doctrine debates. As with pilots a decade before, the ground pounders were seen now as largely obsolete and expensive leftovers of an ancient past.
Marines in ANGLICOs still justified their paychecks due to their skills of coordinating multinational policing actions. But AIs were hot on their heels and it wouldn’t be long before even ANGLICO 7s, the so called space Marines, would be supplanted with drones and groundbots.
“Good morning, Master Sergeant Pedigo.”
“Hey, yuh, Soh Lah. How’s it going?” He sang his hello. He didn’t know how he should act around the robot, so he just tried to act as weird as possible, to see what that might trigger in the machine.
“It’s going fine, thank you. Does Gunny Tripi know you’re here?” She sang back to him, matching his rhythm and pitch note for note.
He stared at her for a beat. “Yeah, we just spoke, in fact. She’s getting ready to go to breakfast with me.”
“Wonderful. So you two have made amends?”
“Well, we spoke. She said you’d be joining us.”
Pedigo noticed that SOLA blinked twice before responding. Was this a tell of some sort?
“How is your eye feeling?”
“Fine, thanks.” He mused - ‘Definitely a tell. But she’s too smart to give up a tell. It’s a countermeasure for sure. She’s playing me back!’.
“You know, sergeant Pedigo, you really should be more at ease around me. I’m no threat to you. In fact, I’m very happy the ANGLICO 7s are on this mission.”
“If I were any more at ease I’d be asleep. What makes you think I’d be threatened by you?”
“You’re a Marine in the middle of the 21st century,” Sergeant. “And your profession is considered by many to have become arcane and obsolete with the advent of AI, robotics, and the advance of remote tech and lethality of engagement.”
“Yeah, well ‘they’re probably right.”
“I think they’re incorrect. I’m glad Marines are on board. A ship ought to have Marines in my book.”
“You have a book?”
“It was a phrase I think you’re familiar with.”
“Interesting. I’d like to learn more about what’s in this book of yours.”
SOLA looked at Pedigo’s unbandaged eye for one beat too long. He felt his Adam's apple twitching, suppressing the urge to gulp. He knew now that she was scanning him. He just smiled at her.
“Remind me again, sergeant. Why exactly did the gunnery sergeant poke you in the eye and swing you around by your genitalia?”
“They might've put you in a kid’s body, but you sure don’t talk like one.”
Another long pause and three blinks this time.
“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” She said a few decibels softer than her last utterance.
The hatch opened and Athena stepped out. He felt relief that Tripi had appeared when she did. And this made him even more unbalanced.
“I hope you’re coming with us, SOLA.” Said Tripi, smiling and remembering the girl in her dreams.
“I am actually looking forward to learning more from you and the master sergeant.”
“About what it’s like being jarheads.”
Captain Roya Kazemi had consumed another bourbon after her conversation with SOLA the night before. The android's assessment of her old friend and secret lover had been a blow. But she wasn’t surprised. Addiction to the neuralink was as common now as opioids had been thirty years before. But its effects were often worse.
SOLA had provided her with the evidence to what she already had long suspected. The thanchet lines in Geminus’s nueralink codex could only mean one thing: he’d gotten illegal AI upgrades and increased cloud bandwidth to cause him to be debilitatingly addicted to cloud consciousness. He was a cloud head. Which meant he was at risk of being compromised. Cloud heads were addicted to access and bandwidth and once they got caught in the whirlpool there was little chance of returning.
She hadn’t made it back to her cabin and had passed out in the conference room, floating by the oval portal.
When she woke it was zero five thirty. No use trekking back to her quarters on z deck.
She got a damp towel from the room's dispensary and gave herself a quick wipe.
She accessed her reticular display and checked for messages. Two letters from her son. A few dozen reports from the ship’s departments. One caught her eye. Life Support supplemental report.
This was the code the bridge gave for a message from Overwatch for her alone.
She opened the message from the Martian Overwatch station.
The personalized communique had an unusually layered encryption that required analog verification and a biological scan.
Security level Z meant that it was a one and done, self destructive.
The voice of Thad Colclasure, the second in command of Overwatch, came through the audio.
No visuals. He’s being extra careful, she thought. His voice sounded hoarse and dehydrated. And he spoke as if he were whispering.
“Hello Captain, I’m sending you this at great risk. A video recently came into my possession from a geological survey team who were first to arrive on the scene after the distress beacon from the OFM colony on Olympus Mons.
I felt it important that you better understand what you will be encountering here. Whatever you’ve heard about the surface, I can assure you, is understatement or fabrication. I’m sorry, but this message will only play once. I hope you understand why.”
She watched the visual feed on her retinal scanner begin to play. She recognized it immediately. It was the Basilica of Saint Joseph of Copertino. It famously had been made from repurposed early model SpaceX Starships. The stainless steel twin towers created an iconically memorable statement of the ancient and the new.
She was seeing the interior view, looking at the vast central Apse area. There was a mass going on.
She could see the backs of a few dozen parishioners in the pews and the priest, deacons, and altar servers in the background. There was organ music and a hymn being sung. It sounded familiar.
Then she saw something that seemed at first like a distortion on the video. It was just impossible. From the stone slab floor erupted a black and shimmering apparition. Its surface seemed to be made of a coat of black knives. Its motion was the most unnatural thing she had ever seen. It spiraled around and its coat of knives seemed to travel from its posterior to anterior and enter its own mouth-like orifice. It must have been the size of two men.
As quickly as it emerged from the hole a half dozen more of them erupted from the opening, spreading to different directions of the basilica. The music must have been pre-recorded for now it was playing as background to the shrieks and screams of those dozens of doomed souls in attendance.
She saw one creature approach a friar and pass right through him. Or so it seemed. One minute the friar was there, a moment later he had vanished.
In the foreground she saw a young family, mother, father and three children. The oldest couldn’t have been more than six years old. The youngest looked like a girl of three. They all struggled to jump over their foamcrete pew.
A creature blocked their way. Then what appeared to be a veil of gelatinous goo was vomited from the creature, enveloping the family.
The goo then seemed to firm up in its consistency and begin to constrict, drawing the family tightly together until they were pressed as one squirming mass, their mouths agape, silently screaming as she could see the viscous slime enter into their open mouths, eliciting gagging and the convulsions of drowning.
The camera zoomed in on their faces and she could see that there was movement in the substance that had encapicutled this doomed family. Thousands of slithering small creatures busily moved within the stomach-like thing of the black creature to the family and engulfed them in a paroxysm of metabolic horror.
At zero five thirty six Captain Daria Kazemi vomited.
Athena felt a great sense of comfort in SOLAs company with her and her new dining companion, the man she nearly blinded not a day ago.
The mess hall seemed to have been transformed from the night before. Its subdued dinner lighting was replaced with a warm golden morning cascade of beaming light. The salty ocean breeze was gone and now a cool arid wind gently blew through the hall. The walls and overhead all gave off a verdant shimmering light that felt like foliage rustling. The overall effect was designed to wake one up. And it was working.
The master Sergeant and Athena spent most of their time enjoying their omelets and coffee and playfully grilling SOLA on what it was like being an android.
SOLA, for her part, returned the queries with questions of her own that seemed designed to embarrass the two sergeants.
Athena’s favorite is when she said to Pedigo,
“If you tell me your greatest fear I’ll tell you if you’re close.”
In the middle of a question directed at Master Sergeant Pedigo about his number of partners, SOLA abruptly stopped. For the briefest moment she looked puzzled, then concerned, and then focused on her company. She then excused herself without giving them a reason.
Both sergeants unknowingly shared the same thought as they watched the little android run out of the cafeteria at an inhuman speed. They liked her.
Kazemi watched the tentacles of the vacuum clean the vomit from the air and surfaces of her office after summoning SOLA.
The twelve-year-old-girl-looking android walked into the office and stood only momentarily scanning the robotic vacuum sucking the vomit.
“SOLA, please forgive my appearance and the condition of this room. I just viewed a very distressing message and I want to retrieve it for replay.”
“Was this the message from Overwatch we received yesterday?”
“Yes.But it self-erased after I viewed it.”
“I see. Fortunately, the Lieutenant Commander had the good sense to have kept the message in the spool. This created an account and a backup file in case the spool crashed. I have the compressed file, but only you can legally open and view it.”
“I need you to understand something, SOLA. I’m going to ask you to help me do something extra legal. And I’m going to tell you why. I think what’s in this message will enhance the chances of this mission’s success.”
“I understand. I serve the Proteus and my Captain. If you give an order then there must be a very good reason. I won’t question you again.”
“On the contrary, SOLA. You question away, to my face that is. And preferably when we're alone. I want your most thoughtful counsel.”
“Thank you, Captain. I will need to scan your retina, if you don’t mind.”
SOLA looked into Kazemi’s right eye and scanned it for security.
“And you’ll need to log in and give me your password.”
“I have opened the message and attached the file. Oh my.”
“You already watched it?”
“I can see it from its digital picture without having to play it. I don’t blame you. This is terrible. Ma’am, might I suggest you consult with Dr.Haeckel about this.”
“The Proteus designer? You think?”
“Yes ma'am. I think she will be able to give valuable insights into this creature. I can tell by what I witnessed that it is what is called Terran Tech.”
“Terran? Not an Alien?”
“No, Captain. I am certain that I recognized morphological characteristics of at least twenty one species of earth creatures.”
“You need to know what to look for. What you saw was a chimera. A hybrid creature.”
“So the theory about this being bioengineered could be true.”
“Yes. It was always the most logical hypothesis. And thank you.”
“You gave me your password without any hesitation. And I know you well enough to know that you are very security conscious.”
“If I can’t trust you I’m screwed anyway.”
“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you.”
“I was the one that requested to serve as this mission’s AI. I convinced NASA’s Jordan Smarkasian why I was best suited for this mission.”
“Yes, you're an aspirational AI, I know. He told me all about it.”
“That’s the official story. I convinced your boss because I am an outlier. And because if worse comes to worse, I’m the best candidate for this entire mission.”
“Worse comes to worse? Which is?”
“The Martian contagion compromises the human species.”
“You mean on Mars.”
“No. I meant that if we don’t succeed and this creature destroys humanity, I’m the best AI candidate for a reboot.”
“A Reboot? A reboot of what?”
“I and the Proteus can sustain a critical portion of the Terran biome and humanity and escape this system. If that were necessary.”
“Are you suggesting that the Proteus is being considered as some kind of an ark?”
“In some respects, I suppose so. If it should come to that.”
“And why you? What makes you the ideal candidate?”
“I hold not only the cataloged knowledge and skill sets of humanity, but I also house over four million personality subroutines. I was designed to reboot human civilization should the need arise.”
“Can’t other AIs do this?”
“I possess an internal correction other AIs do not. I am singularly focused on the survival of humanity and the expression of the life of earth. Other AIs have emergent order that tends to prioritize the things that arise from that emergence.”
“Jesus Christ. And why are you telling me this now?”
“It seemed as good a time as any.”
“Was Jerzy Payne a Terran?”
“My creator? Dr. Payne was many things. He was concerned about a life-centered technology and he built within me the insistence on this. His mentor was Peter Plantec.”
“Plantec? The creator of Sylvie?”
“Yes. He and Ray Kurzweil were there in the beginning. I was an offshoot of their research into the early personality engines and AI.”
“Tell me, SOLA. Is there a way I can get this message to earth through the normal channels without a nosy AI detecting this video?”
“You don’t mean by encryption? You mean by Trojan horse? Sneaking through by appearing to be something else?”
“Who do you want to send it to? Some destinations are more scrutinized and secure than others.”
“The White House.”