[free fiction] Olympus Mons Falls

Olympus Mons Falls

by Joe M. McDermott

For a while, the style for the new citizens of Mars was to change all their names. They abandoned the old Earth ethnicities for a new, mongrel heritage on Mars devoid of the racism and territoriality that plagued human history. Even people who wanted to travel to Mars caught the fever and changed their names, from the crowded city streets of Earth. Olympus Mons was the most popular name, boy or girl, for about ten year during the initial colonization phase, while terraforming was still in progress.

This Olympus Mons – or Ollie as his friends called him – was born to botanists living in a domed city while oxygen was still developing in the atmosphere. He had never set foot out into the fields of triticale and fenugreek and buckwheat that slowly terraformed the surface in his areas until he was nearly grown. He looked out at the wide plains, with the sweeping sky over his head, vast and beautifully rugged. The immense possibility, the sense of purpose and place, flowed through his veins like vigor. This was his planet, a future was being built here, and everything was connected to him, through him. He wanted out there, in the developing fields.

After college, he worked in an agricultural planning commission, where he met his wife on a strawberry farm cut into a canyon, where the winds were so ferocious she had to chop her hair short to keep it out of her face while she worked the vertical rows with elaborate pulleys and harnesses. Like him, her name was Olympus Mons.

Their children were conceived naturally, without altering their DNA to make them more adaptable to the planet surface and the hard life of settlers. At the time, it wasn’t a conviction that directed him and his wife. The procedure was expensive. She got a job in a recycling plant, monitoring the sorting line, while he was a terraformer, out spreading seeds and tiny microbes and insects to build up the biology that would someday support life outside of the bubble cities permanently. He spent more time in a suit than out of one. He wasn’t well-paid for it, but the work was considered honorable. At home, outside of his suit, he was given a place of honor at public gatherings. People cheered for him. He felt like he was doing something important, and he felt proud of his work. The planet was changing, and soon natural, unaltered people would be living out in the grasslands and rolling hills. Animals would roam in herds. Already, squatters snuck out of the bubble with stolen goods and cut a dangerous life out of the valleys with enough stable oxygen, where grassfires were rampant and rain was rare.

People fleeing persecution would go the most: People who had genetically altered themselves and their children to more-readily survive the surface, which had been rendered illegal after the first few years of extreme oddness. Olympus had encountered their kind before, and believed that it didn’t matter to him. He did his duty. He reported them when he found them, and let his superiors manage whether to let them stay or pick them up for their own safety.

If people had escaped into the fields, set up illegal farmholds beyond the perimeter of the established landings, beyond the safety zone, where terraforming actions were still taking root, out in the hills and far places, out where no one will keep them safe, let them be. Let them stay. As long as there was no fire burning there, their life was in their own hands. Ollie had struggled more than he ever thought he would with the squatters of the valleys, and had grown tired of even reporting them if they weren’t in immediate danger.

Driving up through dry country for a week to the research zone, the weather got hotter and dryer. It was the kind of hot and dry that crackled with electricity. Clouds were rolling in overhead, and it looked like a storm might alleviate the parched grass, but it might not rain, yet. It might just roll and tumble and fire off lightning bolts.

Ollie looked around for cover. He needed to get down low to the ground, place his face in the dirt and wait for danger to pass while the RAV’s safety protocol redirected electricity through it’s shielding into the ground. Men and women like him had died out on the plains, when lightning struck. After the strike, a fire, and he could survive that with his RAV’s emergency shield, and sweating it out. He slipped over a ridge and hopped off the RAV to get low to the ground. He watched the clouds passing above, roiling and churning in a mess of moisture high up above the hot, dry ground. Tornadoes, too, might come, but there was nothing to do but hope they soared around overhead. He saw, in the distance, a squatters’ hut, pulled together from bricks of impacted grass, and the remains of an abandoned civilian RAV. If the grass ignited, they’d be dead in a flash.

Ollie scanned the grassland for signs of movement.

The hut was only a one or two bedroom affair, without a door. It was shelter against the wind and rain and little else. Beside the hut, patches of dirt had been built up and converted into a sickly-looking garden. There was a reservoir of water dug into the hill, with muddy, red water that wasn’t going to be safe to drink for plant or man with all the minerals in it. The beans were old and nearly dead. The green leaves had wilted in the drought. Only the eggplant looked any good, but it wasn’t a natural color.

The RAV could get him there quickly, but it would also put him up on high ground, where lightning would seek him out in the rush. He scanned the hut for any sign of life. If people were in there, they needed to get out fast in case of a grass fire. The compressed straw bricks would produce huge amounts of smoke, even if the heat didn’t kill. Hopefully, they were smart enough to go somewhere below the hills, but above any potential flash flooding if it rained hard.

He saw movement. A young girl came out of the hut carrying a watering can. She shielded her eyes and looked up at the sky. She saw him, and dropped the can. She ran back inside the hut.

Ollie hopped onto his RAV and rushed over with the hot air crackling on the RAV’s shielding skin. He screeched to a halt and hopped down, into the hut.

“Hey, who’s here?” he shouted. “Where are you hiding?”

The hut was poorly lit, and took a moment to reveal itself in the darkness. There was a simple table, some pallets on the floor, and a small networked solar generator humming with enough energy to keep a small computer running on a sunny day. It had been dragged inside, though, out of the weather.

“I saw you,” said Ollie. “Listen, we might see a wild fire any minute now. This place will go up like a torch, and there won’t be anything left. You need to come with me until the storm passes. We’ll wait outside near the RAV, where I can shield you.”

nonetheless

The girl peeked up from behind the generator. She had orange eyes, like a cat, that glowed neon in low light. They had no pupil, at all. On her face, she had whiskers, like a cat. She was GMO. “Dad said to stay here until he got back.”

“Where is your dad?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay, but it isn’t safe right now. Can you come to the RAV for a moment, until the storm passes, and then I’ll take you home?”

“I’m not supposed to leave.”

Thunder rumbled outside.

“You don’t even have a basic lightning rod!” he shouted. “This is a death trap!” He swooped around the generator and snatched her. The girl squealed and wriggled to escape, but Ollie had been a father of small girls before, and he knew there was a time and place for negotiation. It wasn’t time, with the thunder rolling, and the grass primed to burn. He placed her on the seat of the RAV and looked around the horizon. There was smoke, out there. The wind would carry it where it carried it. She didn’t stop screaming for help.

The table crashed down on him from behind, and sent him tumbling. The girl squealed and ran back into the house. Ollie looked up to see a boy with completely black skin – ebony black, unatturally black – and deep red eyes. The boy was scowling at him. “Keep your hands off my sister, earthling!”

Ollie looked over at the hills. “I don’t care that you’re squatting. I don’t want to take you anywhere. I don’t want to do anything to you, just to get you through the fire in one piece. Look, there’s a grassfire coming any minute in this weather!”

Thunder rolled again. Each time it did, it meant a fire might be starting again on the rolling plain of drought-ravaged triticale, roaring towards them on prevailing winds.

“We don’t need your help!”

Ollie stood up, but the boy menaced him with the table. “Where’s your parent?”

Lightning struck the house. The straw bricks evaporated into smoke and flaming wreckage. The girl screamed inside, and the boy was blown over the RAV from the explosion. The RAV tumbled over and something snapped. Ollie fell, too. His ears hurt from the blast. He did not stay down, long. The girl would be in the heart of the fire, and grass fires were too deadly. Past the ruined cabin, there was the reservoir of water, barely a pond, and it would have to do, for now. Ollie ran, snatching the dark boy by the wrist, and dragging him forcibly. The boy was younger than his sister, and far too strong for his age, but he was also in shock, and it was more apparent than before that Ollie meant to help. She was screaming under a smoldering brick, and it burned Ollie’s hands to throw it aside. Underneath, her skin was glowing like charcoal where she had been cooked.

The smoke and fire was immense. The scope of the damage was immeasurable in the heat and choking flame. He hefted her up and jumped into the little patch of water in the burning grass. With both children there, the girl screaming in pain, the boy holding her and silent, Ollie reached for his satphone hookup.

“Mayday mayday mayday. Refugee services required.”

The phone said nothing back. Exasperated, Ollie threw it into the water. He could barely breathe. The water was shallow, barely up to his waist. Both children stood easily in the water, together, without danger of drowning. The radiant heat and the smoke choked everything.

Olympus Mons gazed out at all that fire and death. The lightning streaked across the sky. A smattering of rain fell that would only fuel the heat with steam. He ducked under the filthy water, and came back up for air, bobbing and coughing as the air filled with smoke. The worst passed, but it would take a long time for all the dead grass to burn out and cool. It was still burning. It was all still burning.

“What are you two doing out here?” He shouted. “What city are you from?”

The boy snarled. “You’re just going to send us back!”

“What?”

“Dad said…!”

The black sky matched his skin. The moaning girl’s blood flickered. Ollie peeled clothes off his back to use as a face mask. He thought better of it when he considered the girl’s injuries. He heard his RAV sending an alarm.

The fire was so hot, Ollie felt his skin bubble where it was exposed. He pulled down into the red water and imagined these children, ungrateful for their salvation. The girl stopped moaning and became very still.

“Let go,” said Ollie. He reached out his hand and grabbed at her arm.

“Stop!”

“I need to check her wounds!”

His own children had shown him blood, crawled weeping to him. his own would tremble towards him, showing their wounds. Baby goats would appease the sure hand of a healer. These ungrateful children had less consideration for their savior than a goat.

“I said, let go of her.”

“She’s my sister.”

“Let go!” Ollie shoved a hand in anger onto the boy’s head, almost a punch. He pulled at the girl’s leg, hard. She screamed. Good, he thought. If she was screaming she was still alive.The boy pulled hard back, and kicked under the water with his own jagged boots. The two fought then, over the girl. The children would not obey. The boy was engineered to be strong: a farmer’s modification. Their father had paid much for this strength. The smoke was too thick to think straight. They had to fight over her. They had to bend and turn and punch, each pulling at the girl. She screamed.

Surrendering to the smoke, more than the child, Ollie let go and ducked into the water. He came up for air, choking on the smoke, concerned that he would never breathe right again after this terrible fire. He should have stayed with the RAV and watched the children burn. The girl was going to die without emergency care, and the boy was a monster.

The boy had a bruise swelling one of his eyes shut, and he was coughing and coughing.

“Where’s your mother and father? Where are your people?”

“Dad said not to talk to strangers.”

“Don’t you get that I’m trying to help you? She needs help!”

The girl was so still, but still breathing. The smoke had not dissipated and the air was hard to breathe.

Olympus Mons figured their father must have abandoned them, returned to the city, maybe even to earth, itself, where five years in an induced coma on a flight was a small price to pay for a return to the mother, away from these hard hills. Alone, then, the children would scrape a miserable life out of the rocks. Death would come by fire, by flood. Their suffering would be greater, still, if they were not taken in, adopted in the bubble, and led away from these lonely hills.  The thought came to him, then, rising in him from the same place that snapped a goat neck when the creature was wounded beyond healing, and nothing could be done for it but to ease it down, that the girl was going to die and the best thing to do was help her along that she might no longer suffer. Perhaps, if the boy was determined to live alone in the hills of triticale, than he, too, would starve here, and better to end it before the hungers came and the perugula and ricketts and scurvy. Before disease set into his weakened flesh, to end his suffering. What father would drag his children out into a desert squat? What father would leave them here in a wildfire alone?

“Does your father have a satphone? We need to call him, so we can get your sister to a doctor.”

The boy pulled to the edge of the pond, but the ground was still smoldering, and too hot even for good boots, much less to carry the girl. An idea, once had, cannot be let go. The darker the idea, the harder it is to abandon into the subconscious.

“Do you even have a father?”

The boy sneered over his shoulder. “We weren’t born in vats. When my father returns, he’ll kill you.”

With sadness, then, Olympus heard the hollowness of the threat in the boy’s voice. He heard the empty living of orphan children, who would never willingly integrate into a bubble. They were waiting for a parent that was gone forever. The girl began crying, softly.

“Come here, boy,” said Olympus. “I will be your father. I will take you home.”

The boy spit over his shoulder. He ran his hands along his sister’s burns. The brackish water would only make her injuries fester. Her gentle sobs came at the edge of unconsciousness. Still, not yet. There are other ideas, yet.

The time it would take for help out here was too long. He figured he would have to carry her on the RAV toward pickup, over bumpy trails and more risk of fire.

“Come here,” said Olympus, as if they were his children. “Right now.”

The boy looked up at Olympus Mons in anger. He let go of his sister and balled his fists in anger. “I’m coming all right,” he said.

Olympus stood with his arms wide. He gestured with open palms. “Come here, now.”

The boy stepped forward like a boxer measuring an opponent. As strong as the boy was, he was still only a boy, and Olympus had been working in the hard places for decades. The boy swung and struck, but Olympus enveloped the boy, and held him close. Then, without thinking, and frightened of himself that he was doing this, Olympus leaned back down into the water. He was stronger. He had leverage. The miserable child wrestled and splashed, face down. From a great height, Olympus Mons watched himself doing this. The smoldering hills, the dying girl, and the first fat drops of rain from the thunderstorm all indifferent to this great despair and judgment passed upon the lost boy. The emptiness of judgment consumed Olympus. He looked up into the rain until the stillness came. The rain fell. It was a shock to be so calm and in a beautiful rainstorm on the plains of Mars where rains are still a rare and precious thing and no one knows what climates will come exactly after the soil builds and accumulates organic life.

The girl whispered and attempted to speak. She pulled herself out to the smoldering ground like a wounded dolphin.

Olympus released the boy. What tension he held, so amazingly tense, the release of it unlocked a flood of adrenaline. He became terrified in a burst. He looked down at the dead boy floating in red water.

The girl was looking over her shoulder at him. She was terrified of him. She would be screaming for help if there was anyone to hear. Perhaps her lungs were too damaged. Perhaps she was already doomed to die from lung damage on these burned plains. Olympus recovered his sat phone. He shoved it into a pocket. The girl was so scared. He didn’t want her to suffer.  He didn’t want to cause any pain. The sat phone clicked and buzzed in alarm. It wanted him to check in and speak.

“Everything is fine. I survived the fire. I am going to finish the run.”

He walked over to his RAV. He flipped it over and checked the lights and buttons. It was undamaged. He thought to look back, but he hated the girl so much. He didn’t even want to look at her, burns and broken pieces and the exoticism of genetic modification. She was not human to him. She was not even really alive. He hated her so much he had to leave her instead of ending her life. He would rather leave.

In a week, he was home. His wife saw the change. She said nothing.

He wept in the night just once. She pressed her hand upon his back and asked him why.

Olympus Mons, the husband, retired from work in the fields. He sat in a cramped cubicle monitoring rainfall patterns from the satellites.  From the sky, he watched the triticale grow, seed, and die above the dried-up pond.

The girl lived. She had lived and rebuilt her little hut in the hills with whomever came to save her. From the satellites, he saw her standing over a garden. It festered like a wound in his eye. He watched for months this hut in the wild.

He dreaded her. He dreaded everything about her.

Secretly, he considered a voyage back to earth. Five years in a coma, to a world that knew no one with his name. A world as old and scarred as could be would not blame him for such a sudden descent from the heavens.

Never return to the triticale fields. Never return to face the open sky and nothing between the sun and his neck but a hat.

Around him protesters demanded that geneticists abandon the sons and daughters to keep everyone human. Among the innovative botanists and biologists this was seen as a foolhardy prohibition based on superstition. Ollie saw a petition among the crowd to banish them all to Europa, and leave Mars for homo sapiens. He signed his name.

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