Escape Pod 770: The First Trebuchet on Mars

The First Trebuchet on Mars

by Marie Vibbert

If you come to Mars you need to know that in the twelfth century a French engineer named Trebuchet popularized a model of sling catapult with a counterweight. The Middle East had been using ‘em for centuries, and probably got them from the Chinese who’d been using ‘em for centuries before that, but this dude got the publicity campaign, if you follow my meaning, and so the device to this day is called a trebuchet.

I’m getting to the Mars part.

The first trebuchet on Mars was built by Jill Cooper out of some broken PVC structural elements, rubber tubing, and Mars-grown hemp rope. Jill invited everyone over to debut her treb. We’re usually busy in our own habitats, and it’s not an inconsiderable walk from one to another, but there’s not a lot of entertainment to be had on Mars. Everyone came, even Ned Taylor, our local fussbudget.

“You’re not firing it there,” Ned said. “What if you hit a habitat?”

“Be a lucky damn shot,” Jill said.

Ned said, “A thousandth of a percent of a chance is too much.”

“Don’t care about your dating life,” Jill said.

“Jill,” I said, with a sideways look at Ned, who was going purple in the face, “won’t hurt to aim it away from the valley.”

She sighed heavily and used her foot to spin the treb around so it faced the crater wall behind her habitat.

“That’s not a solution! What if debris flies back at us?”

Ned wouldn’t shut up until we trucked that treb all the way up to the top of the ridge and declared war on the next crater over. He still had a go, of course. Pushed his way to the front of the line, after Jill, who took the first few shots for demonstration purposes.

The trebuchet was four feet tall and lighter than my emergency kit, but Jill could chuck rocks clear across the crater with shocking accuracy. “Lower gravity and almost no air resistance,” she said. “Makes a difference!” She nudged the frame with her knee for fine-tuning. “See that little point like a Christmas tree on the far lip?”

When the little spire of rock crumbled, I looked over at Ned to see if he realized she’d been practicing on the thing before inviting us over and his fuss about where to throw was a little late. He didn’t.

Jill had been in this re-enactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, back on Earth. She was always trying to get people to make fake swords and bash around in their environment suits, which was all fun and games until someone cracked their facemask, and then the air just went out of it. The games, I mean.

Point is, Jill’s “Shire of the Red Seas” never got off the ground. Throwing boulders high in the thin atmosphere, though, that was something the entire colony could get behind. We played with that thing until half of us had only enough oxygen left to get back home.

Turned out, not everyone was happy with the demonstration.

Jill came in the next day to find Ned Taylor in her hab. He’d taken the throwing arm off the treb and was fiddling with the rubber tubing. He jumped up and, if Jill is to be believed, threatened her with the PVC arm. She reached behind her and picked up a stout stick of rattan she stored next to her airlock. (More on that, later.)

Jill clocked Ned good with that stick, right in the back of the head, and threatened to clock him again if he didn’t leave, so he did. He ran all the way to my habitat, ten miles away.

I guess I should have mentioned — I’m the sheriff for our little community, a position I obtained through insufficient reluctance.

It was a long walk to Jill’s hab with Ned complaining the whole way. I’d been just about to start dinner, too. Colony life is Spartan and you don’t get a lot to eat and you don’t eat very often, so you get cranky when you thought you were going to sit down with some nice hot soy and now you’re tromping across the red loam hungry.

Jill met us with cold civility and gave her version of events at the scene of the crime. She’d re-assembled the trebuchet while we were gone and made a big deal over the fact that she’d had to re-tension the spring.

First thing I asked, of course, was, “Why the hell did you have a rattan club in your habitat?” I hefted the pole, felt its smooth texture in my hands. “Had to cost a fortune to ship.”

“It’s just four pounds. I’m trying to grow rattan.”

Uh-huh. I hadn’t forgotten her let’s-hit-each-other-with-sticks game. “Rattan’s not the best crop to try. Most are doing better with hemp. Anyway, that’s no reason to bring a stick.”
“I’m studying how the material is affected by the temperature and pressure.”

“And impacts with Ned’s scalp?” I asked.

Ned asked, “Aren’t you going to arrest her?” He stood behind me like he was afraid Jill was going to have another go.

Curse my insufficient reluctance. “Ned, you know I’d have to arrest you, too, for breaking and entering, and we don’t have a jail.”

Ned pointed around me. “She’s wasting community resources!”

Jill got up in my face to yell around me at Ned. “My treb is a community resource.”

“Calm down,” I said. “With the lack of a jail and all, can we agree that neither one of you will go near the other until the community meeting on Wednesday? We’ll put it up to a general vote what’s to be done with the both of you.”

“She hit me! I could have a concussion.”

Jill snorted. “How would you notice?”

I had a to put a hand on each of them and hold them apart. Not my favorite occupation. “Jill, will you surrender your weapon?”

“It’s not a weapon!”

Over Ned’s shouting, I said, “Circumstances disagree with you. I’m taking it.”

Jill stepped back and huffed at the roof. “Fine.”

I turned to Ned. “Do you need an escort back to your habitat for your protection?”

“What? No!”

“Then I’m going to leave now, with the weapon, and you two are going to steer clear of each other for three days. Got it?”

Grudging murmurs. Good enough.

I fastened my helmet and Jill cycled the lock for me. Two hours and I could have my boiled soy soup. I’d been experimenting with growing radishes and one had just reached gumball size. I had been planning on waiting for it to grow a bit bigger, but given my day I decided I was going to dice it up in my soup. I could hardly wait.

Of course that’s when the alarm went off.

The communication units on my suit, Ned’s suit, and Jill’s sleeve all started flashing red. We all froze where we were, which means Jill stopped cycling the lock. I stepped back into the hab and picked up the comm. “It’s Nguyen’s signal. Hey Tran, speak up; this is the sheriff.”

“Sheriff! Our dome has ruptured. We’ve lost pressure and air. Tell me you’re home.”

My habitat was the closest to Nguyen’s. The way we’re scattered about Xanthe Terra, I would normally be the only one within a half-hour’s walk. Different corps, big plans for giant domes, don’t ask me. The world is just impractical. “Hell. I’m on the north side, at Cooper’s.”

Ned and I exchanged worried looks. I put my comm on wide band. “Anyone near Nguyen’s hab?”
A peppering of negative responses, and then a gasping female voice. “This is Jordon Cameron.” Gasp. “I’m running. Got sealant.”

“Cameron can’t make it in time,” Nguyen said, and you could hear tears in his voice though he was trying to be calm. “She’s almost an hour away and we have only forty minutes of air. I should have repaired the recycler. I should have gotten more sealant after the last break, but it’s all gone. My wife’s trying to hold the tear, but it’s not enough. We’re on suit air.”

Radio is a wonderful technology. It lets you hear pleas for help you can’t answer. “Take it easy, Tran. We’ll figure something out. Breathe shallow. You know how. Talk as little as possible. Jordon’s a real good runner. Real good.”

Jill shook her head. She was looking at her comm, at Jordon’s position and speed.

“This is why,” Ned said, “We don’t need stupid trebuchets. Nguyen’s needed repairs for months now and there weren’t enough materials.”

Ned shouted this right at the comm on my arm. I turned away from him. “Jordon, girl, keep talking, let Tran know where you are, that you’re on your way.”

Jill picked up her helmet. With a face of stone she stomped to the airlock. I thought she was going to start walking all the way to Nguyen’s like a martyr. She came back, though, and grabbed the treb.

Ned and I followed out of pure curiosity.

By the time Ned got his helmet on and we got through the lock, Jill was dropping a bundle of solar cloth into the trebuchet’s basket. She squatted behind the thing and peered into the distance, wiggling the base back and forth.

Jill said, “Tran, I’m sending sealant and oxygen to your dome by trebuchet. Get outside and look north.”

“I’m on it,” Tran said.

With our suits on, we didn’t hear the sling fire, but we saw the silver solar cloth flash as it arched high in the starry sky.

“It’s not going to work,” Ned said.

“If you want to be useful,” Jill said, “Get binoculars and spot for me.”

“I don’t see it,” Nguyen said.

I turned on my visor’s magnification. “I’m not seeing anything.” I fumbled through the settings. I could see Nguyen’s habitat, on the horizon, but there was no way I could spot a package in the dirt. “There’s wind coming from the west.”

Jill turned her treb and cranked it back.

“So you’re going to throw equipment away now?” Ned said.

“Shove it,” Jill said, grunting as she got the trebuchet re-cocked. “Here it goes! Watch it, Sheriff.”

Good thing I paid for the premium suit optics. My heads-up locked onto the projectile and lit up its arc against the sky, outlining the habs in the distance as little yellow lumps. “You’re east of it,” I said. “Wait a tic… I can call up the degrees. Six degrees east of the target. Also you’re a hair short.”

Jill cranked it down again and jammed the firing pin in and laid the throwing basket out. It was in this sort of chute on the bottom. “Lots of friction and loose parts,” I said. “Like that chute. Introduces error.”

“Shut up,” said Jill.

“You won’t get this figured out in time,” Ned said. “She is aiming with her foot!”

I didn’t want to give Ned ammunition, but I couldn’t help asking, as our next shot sailed short, “You’re firing rocks for testing, right? Not canisters of oxygen?”

Jill’s noncommittal grunt didn’t calm me. This time the rock (I hope) flew to the far side of the Nguyen’s habitat.

Ned said, “You should be doing something, sheriff! People are dying while you play catapult.”

“Two degrees West, and about one hundred feet shy,” I said. “I hope I’m reading this crap right.”

Jill grunted again, and the arm swung. We watched the silver package fly like a suspended breath. Just before it vanished from sight, Jill said, “That’s my last O2 canister.”

I stared at her in horror.

“I see it!” Tran Nguyen shouted.

Jill stood up, panting heavy, hands on her hips, looking like she’d just invented gravity itself.

We all heard Tran and his wife shouting for joy. Jordon stopping for breath, saying she’d make her way more slowly, now, and try to pick up Jill’s canisters.

Ned didn’t say nothing. He turned, silently, and walked home.

And that is why, to this day, every Mars colony maintains a scale model of a medieval siege weapon.

Don’t ask me why we have a castle gate, though. Sometimes people just get bored.

Host Commentary

by Tina Connolly

About this story, Marie says: “I was a medieval reenactor for many years and one year trebuchet fever was all around. The CWRU medieval society built a treb and I came up with this story idea.”

And about this story, I say: Bwahaha. Marie always cracks me up and this was no exception. Making broad generalizations here, don’t @ me (or actually do @ me because I love talking about comedy), but the thing with comedy is it needs serious stuff to work. Not necessarily gloom and doom serious, but people you care about. If comedy is a release of tension, then you need to first have the tension in order to have the release. And one of the ways to get tension is to have people you care about, in a bad situation.

And how do you get people you care about? Well, in this case by making them real people, precise people, people who are ever-so slightly ridiculous in exactly the way that real live people are also ridiculous. Our brave heroic settlers have been plonked down in a good old fashioned yarn where fully the first 2/3rds of the story is occupied with the delight in this ridiculous situation; why here we have a thing of no use; never any use; no one can prove me wrong. So of course, like any good yarn, in the punchline we shall.

So the hilarious tone of Marie’s story got me invested in these people and I felt for them and their petty squabbles and then when I knew one of their friends was about to run out of air I was seriously like OH NO NOT TRAN. So I was laughing, but then I went down into real worry because they were real people and I was invested.

If we had not saved Tran, then the story would have been a tragedy. If we had saved Tran through a normal heroic rescue of Jordon running the whole way and making it just in time, then it would have been a positive story with a happy ending. But no. We are in a story of Marie Vibbert’s and therefore we have saved the day. . .with a trebuchet.

Our closing quotation this week is from Kurt Vonnegut, who said: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Thanks for listening! And have fun.

About the Author

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert is a web developer from Cleveland, Ohio with over 15 professional short story sales. Her work has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, Apex, Lightspeed, and many other places. She played for the Cleveland Fusion Women’s Tackle Football team and her favorite ice cream is Mitchell’s Toasted Hazelnut.

Find more by Marie Vibbert


About the Narrator

M. Darusha Wehm

M. Darusha Wehm is the Nebula Award-nominated and Sir Julius Vogel Award winning author of the interactive fiction game The Martian Job, as well as thirteen novels, several poems, and many short stories. Originally from Canada, Darusha lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending several years sailing the Pacific. They tweet @darusha and their website is

Find more by M. Darusha Wehm