“Tell ’em that one,” rumbled Hank as he set his Mai Tai back on the bar. “The one about Hazy Jim and how he finally got back to Earth.” Big Eddy stretched his lanky body like he was looking to make more space inside it and glanced between Hank and the tourist couple seated in the palm fronds. They had dressed for the occasion in snappy Hawaiian shirts. She even had a plastic flower in her hair.
“Now, Hank” started Eddy. “You know these nice people came in here for their colony required doses of Vit-C and Vit-D and not for crazy stories that don’t end well.” Mrs. Entz spoke up, the curiosity clear in her voice “One of the colonists got to return to Earth?” Hank reached for his drink again, knocking back the nutrients that are essential to maintaining Human life on Mars. “Wahl, sure. In a way.”
“How’d he do that? Sure, thanks to the Musk Foundation, we get a round-trip in return for our social-media influencer status.” Mr. Entz spun a ring on his pinky and the tiny camera eye on the Flamingo Room pin on his bright shirt flashed briefly. “That one’s going on our Tiki Bar Blog. We’ve got elite status among the Vlergs.” He gave a little wink and a knowing nod. “You guys doing the work of keeping this place going… not so much. I mean about getting a return trip.” One quick slurp and his Zombie achieved zero extra liquid mass. “Tell you what, I feel like I could use another dose of Vit-C. Tell you what. How about you line me up another Zombie, and if you put an extra drop o’ Tink in it and a story, I’ll make sure there will be something extra for you in your end.” There’s that smile, little wink and nod again.
Eddy produced his shaker and jigger and commenced measuring rum. “Okay fine-sees then. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He jabbed a thumb Hank-wards. “You see that genius there? He survived.” A sly smile creased Hank’s pale face. His big fingers toyed playfully with the parasol in his Mai Tai mug. “Curiosity didn’t injure this Ocelot. I’ll tell ya, it was quite a ride.” Clearly the colonists had the tourist’s attention now.
“You see, Hazy Jim used to get bored quick.” Eddy was carefully metering the lime juice. “Punch me, Eddy. I need to feel something.” he used to say. “He kept getting in trouble for trying to do donuts in the surface rovers. He once managed to lock himself in one of the sun rooms for almost 24 hours. We called him ‘Lobster Man’ for a long time after that.”
“He just lived in kind of a haze, that’s why he’s been known as ‘Hazy Jim’ since.” explained Hank. “So, sounds like he didn’t take to living on Mars?” asked Edna. Hank gestured a few feet away to a wicker chair under a large sun lamp with a palm tree. “He used to sit in that chair and make up stories about Hawaii. He’d never even been there.”
“Somehow he managed to plant a secret avocado tree, that’s kind of restricted you know as the colony still needs to be careful with our limited supply of fresh foods. When they came and took it away, man you should have seen him cry.” Hank looked mournful. “Yeah, he missed God’s Green Earth, but he had years to go on his contract before any chance of a ticket out.” “That’s when the really crazy stunts came out of him.” Added Eddy. “‘I gotta get out of these tunnels, man!’ he used to say.”
“How about that time he decided to go hang-gliding? Imagine.” Hank stretched his arms out wide, making whooshing noises with his mouth. “How’d that go?” asked George between slurps on his straw. Hank worked on his own straw. “Jim figured, less air but less gravity. Just make the wings bigger. Almost worked. He got lucky. When he augured-in he found himself in a soft dust dune canyon close enough to get picked up by a rover.” Eddy refilled Hank’s mug with colonist-class pre-mix. “About that time I decided maybe I should hang around him more, maybe keep an eye on him some. For his own safety.”
“This place is a bit like living in a submarine.” spoke Edna quietly. Hank breaks in “…and drinking your own pee.” Hank tipped his mug towards the woman, who now looked at her own mug, a bit concerned. “They don’t like to tell you that, but ha’in’t much water on Mars.” Edna spoke up again, “Ok, I’m starting to see why a man might take some desperate chance to get back Earth. How did it happen?”
Eddy leaned both arms on the bar. “You know how when Elon Musk’s ‘Mars Mining and Exploration Company’ discovered Martian Lava Worms… now there was money on the table so that’s when they invented the Rock Launcher. You probably toured that yesterday.” George rattled the ice in his mug. “Sure, that’s where those rails come down to the mountains with the Lava Worms to that big building and shoot them into space, right?”
“Right, so me and Jim are up on the side of the Pindus Mons works where the auto-diggers are cracking the big chunks out of the mountain and he’s looking at that big open hopper on wheels and that long rail down the big hill to the valley and even with our visors on I could see the wheels turning.” A husky hand set a small dish of salted peanuts in front of Hank. “For you señor.” Marigold’s voice was serious. Surprised, Hank asked “what did I do to deserve these?” “It is a hard story you are telling. Be sure to tell it right.” and with that the Mexican man vanished into the foliage as quickly as he had appeared.
Clearly surprised: “His name is ‘Marigold’…?” Edna blurted, forehead crinkled. “Sure is,” replied Eddie, “but that’s a story for another time.” “Well, don’t that beat all?” She turned to her husband. “Hon, did you get that?” The ringed fingers of George’s left hand were dancing about as if he was playing an invisible piano. “Just sent it out to the Vlergs, darl.” He leaned forward. “Say, are those snack peanuts I see in there?”
“Yes…” Hank leaned forward presenting the bowl to the tourist couple. “As our honored guests you should have them.” They both leaned back and shook their heads. “Oh no… Thank you, but no thank you.” The couple glanced at each other for a moment. Edna began solemnly , “We couldn’t possibly, we know what those mean up here. We know what it means to have a snack. We want you to have them.”
Hank held their gaze for a few seconds and then returned the dish to the bar in a spot in reach of both himself and Eddy. “Very well, thank you ma’am. I’ll share them with Eddy.” He selected a peanut, examined it for a moment and then chewed it quietly, eyes closed. Finished he took a breath and sat up. “Now where was I? Oh, yaas.”
He continued. We’re on the side of this mountain looking in this hopper car and I’m watching Jim trail his gaze down its track to the launcher long and slow, like he’s thinking about something. He turns to me and says, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Hank reaches for another peanut. “No Jim. I do not. Sex maybe? The way boobies float in zero-G?” “Not this time my buddy.” Jim pats the side of the hopper car. “How long has it been since you rode a roller coaster? How long is it gonna be?” Jim leans in close to me, and I can tell he’s got one of those wicked grins on his face. Ya know, like he’s got one of those ideas.
Just like that, he’s used one hand to vault over the side and into the hopper. “Jim, you’ve got the control box… right?” A giggle comes over the radio. “Sure do, good buddy. Are ready for some Earth Fun?” I start to freak out, I can already feel the sweats hitting me. “Are you nucking me? You want to end up in the launcher and out in orbit?” It doesn’t take but a moment and he comes back with, “Nah, don’t worry. We don’t have the mass those big hunks o’ Larva Lava have. Hopper’ll slow down and we’ll just jump out. Don’t think about it too long. I’m going with or without you.”
The bar has been pretty quiet. “So, what did you do?” asks George. Hank put his hands on his hips and regards the couple silently. “Well, I’m sitting there thinking. Fool me, I also left him with the authorizer for the rover. Figured it made him feel like he was in control of something. Cheezus, he’s going to get hisself killed for real this time. I’m sweating, looking down that longgggg slope towards that launcher, then the hopper, then back down the mountain and I’m biting my lip and all along Jim’s giggling over the comms.”
“Didn’t you try to stop him?” asks Edna? “With what? A stick? We’re on Mars! Then it comes to me. I’ll leap in too, and real quick like, I’ll just grab the control box out of his hands and we’ll be safe.” Hank’s making snatching motions with his hands. “So that’s what I do. Two hands, I’m over the side.” Hank’s miming all the movements. His audience is leaning forward, listening close. “Sure as shit, shinola and a shoe-shine that laughing bastard sets the hopper rolling down that hill.” Hank stands up and reaches for another peanut.
Edna breaks the silence.”…and…you grabbed him, right?” Hank shakes his head. “Yeah, I wish. Larva Lava hopper cars don’t have what you’d call a smooth ride. In a half of two seconds we’re both crumpled against the back wall bouncing up and down like rag dolls while that thing gathers speed. Sure, mine rail is a cheap and fast way to get your petrified mars worms down the hill, but it sure ain’t made for humans.” Hank starts waving his hands again. “All this time Jim’s giggling, he’s having a great time. I’m just hoping not to lose all the atmo from my suit. Dang, if the thing isn’t like a roller coaster you can take my left nut. We’re bouncing up and down, zipping down that mountain faster and faster. I can see that fool has smashed the control box. No chance of the e-brakes now. I’m seeing big black dots in front of my eyes … I must have passed out … then…” Hank sits down and reverently picks up another peanut and regards it slowly. “…then, that’s when things got bad.”
“The hopper flips over and we’re flying towards the running conveyer belt that runs to the launcher to orbit. Jim lands on the belt in front of me and I’m looking for something, anything to stop me before it’s too late but they don’t put safety rails in those things. I start crawling back towards the hopper, and I’m not making much progress because the damn thing is bouncing and moving faster than me. Jim’s pulling away from me, still giggling like mad. Damn, I wish they’d let us have cigarettes here.”
George is doing a tap dance with his ringed fingers again, rapt. “I hear a final WHOOP! out of Jim and the comm goes quiet. Totally quiet. Nothing. I pause for a second to look behind me, and it’s right there – the orbit slingshot. I have a half second to think FUCK YOU ELON MUSK! and then it’s POW!” Hank smacks his hands together, launching one off the other. “I’m gone like Long Tom Tomorrow. I black out from the G’s. When I wake up, I’m in space.”
“Say, what?” asks George. “You survived that?” looking askance. “It was a surprise to me, too.” Hank sits back down. “I’ve got this incredible headache when I come to and I’m slowly spinning. I’m seeing Mars. Then Jim. Then Mars. Then Jim. My atmo meter says I’ve got about 30 minutes of breathe time left so I do my best to calm down and I start punching every alert button on the comm before it happens.” “Before what happens?” asks Edna.
“Before we’re swept up by the orbiting slingshot that shoots the rocks out towards Earth, you know that. A big nudge in the right direction, on the right path and in a few years they are snagged by that net in Earth orbit. Or hit the moon, depending where Musk & Co prefer to pick ‘m up.”
“So, you’re here. Where’s Jim?” George asks. Hank picks up another peanut softly, chews it slowly. “That’s just the thing. Bradbury Base was alerted to anomalous behavior by the hopper just in time to be watching what happened. They could tell those two objects were not the rocks they would expect.”
“So,” Edna interjects “when you hit up your comms they came and caught you.” Hank nods, “yeah, just in time.” George perks up a questioning eyebrow, “but what about Jim? Wait. Jim didn’t turn on his comms.” He pauses. “Do you think he was…” “Dead?” Hank finishes the thought for him. “Well, I kind of hope so, but we’ll never know for sure.” The man looks into the distance for a moment.
“Jim finally found his way back to Earth.” Edna adds with finality.
“Yeah, yeah he did. Well, it’s a long trip. It’s gonna take a few more years.” Hank raises his mug. “Here’s to Hazy Jim.” The other three join in. “To Hazy Jim!” Down the hatches, all. George sets his drained mug on the bar. “Hey, I think I’m done in. I’m a lightweight, even back on Earth!” Edna chuckles, “if you don’t mind Hon, I’m ready to go too.”
George sticks out his hand for shakes all around. “Thanks for a great story, gents. Make sure this all goes on our tab.” Eddy nods, “Thanks for coming to Mars.” As the couple turns to leave Edna quietly takes something out of her purse and places it on the bar. Then they are gone.
Marigold appears out of the back. “Holy crap, you’re never going to believe this.” exclaims Eddy. “We’ve never had a haul like this!” follows Hank. Marigold comes in close for a look.
“Dios Mio!” he gasps. “Its chocolate!“