The Rivers of Olympus


Terry Bramlett

The rare winter dust storm eased as Alonzo Green walked back to the work station. Occasionally, he wiped his visor to clear the rusty colored Martian sand from his visor. Green smiled. It's really there, he thought. Ultrasound had confirmed it. Water was beginning to run underneath the Martian surface in an underground river that had been frozen for over 500 thousand years. His smile turned into the grin of a child who had received everything he wanted for Christmas.

The dust thinned as he reached the station. At the hatch, he turned around for an unimpeded view of the Martian landscape that stretched out before him. Four huge volcanoes towered over the plateau. Green noted three of them only peripherally. Automatically, their names came to him: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, Ascreus Mons. In the center of his vision, not more than 300 kilometers away, stood the largest of the four.

Olympus Mons captivated him. The mountain jutted from the horizon to the thinnest reaches of the Martian atmosphere. White water vapor clouds surrounded the summit against the pink backdrop of the Martian sky. Green sighed. He could imagine indigenous Martians, even if they were only mankind's ancestors, worshipping the volcano if technology were ever lost after the Martian terraformation.

Green had gazed at Olympus often during the last two weeks he had spent here. But outside on an alien world for the first time, the view was transcendental. He felt close to something holy. Surely, he thought, the gods would live on a summit such as that. A voice on his helmet radio interrupted his thoughts.

"What in Hell are you doing out there?" Green recognized the voice of Reginals Foster, the only geologist who could have put together the funding for an expedition like this one on such short notice. Foster was convinced that an Olympus eruption was imminent. Green winced at the voice. Foster did not wait for a reply. "Get back in here, now!" Green punched the access code and watched the door open.

Once inside, he waited for the green light which indicated Earth normal air pressure and mixture had been reestablished in the chamber. The light changed from red to green and the airlock opened into the station.

"What kind of idiotic stunt was that?" Foster demanded. Green did not answer the short, round man with shocking orange red hair. Foster reminded him of a beer barrel with black horned-rimmed glasses. Foster glared at him, waiting for an answer.

Before Green could reply, a calm, deep voice spoke with a slight Southern accent. "Reginals, one of his instruments went out because of the storm. He had my permission to go to the remote site." Kelvin Stone stood slightly behind Foster to the left. Foster glanced at his longtime associate, then turned his glare back onto Green. Letting out a strong puff of air in disgust, he abruptly turned down the hall toward the observation lounge, wobbling as he walked.

Green watched Foster disappear around a corner and turned to Stone. "Thanks, but why did you tell him I had your permission?" He had not asked anyone's permission. When he noticed the temperature at the permafrost had risen to four degrees Celsius, Green had suited up and gone to the remote site to take the ultrasound manually. He did not think of any danger. All he knew was that if he was right, then water was flowing on Mars for the first time in 500 millennia.

Stone took a deep breath into his lean frame. "I told him that so he would go back to work on his calculations. He saw you outside on the monitors in the observation lounge and went apeshit. Woke me up screaming about your irresponsibility. And I was in the sleeping quarters at the time." Stone frowned at his younger colleague. "Alonzo, it was a damn fool thing to do."

"The ultrasound was out and -" Green stopped as he saw Stone's eyes narrow and freeze. He had learned to read those looks as a grad student in Stone's classes. This one said shutup, stupid.

Stone smiled as he continued. "You know why it was a damn fool thing to do?" Stone paused. Green knew better to say anything. Stone's smile had vanished. "Alonzo, we are the only living beings on this entire plateau. We are, at least, three thousand kilometers from the nearest human settlement. If anything had happened to you out there, neither Foster nor myself could have flown you out of here."

Green nodded. He knew one of the reasons, perhaps the only reason, he had been chosen for this hastily planned expedition was his ability to pilot the specially designed, single engine aircraft to be used for emergency evacuation. He had been given a one week cram course in a simulator designed to mimic the Martian atmosphere.

Stone's smile was back. "Well, what did you find?"

Surprised by the quick shift, Green stumbled over his words. "Uh, I, uh found water ..." He stopped. Stone waited, eyes twinkling, with the eagerness of a parent in anticipation of his child's first step. Green searched Stone's face, but could not find evidence of the verbal lashing the older scientist had just given him. That's it, he thought. Subject closed and I won't go outside again.

"Well, Doctor, what's the news?" Stone was grinning.

Green took a deep breath. "Subterranean temps are above freezing." Stone nodded for him to continue. "Water is flowing on Mars."

Stone's excitement for his former student was palpable. "Congratulations, Alonzo. Not many people get to say they are first at anything anymore." Stone winked at him. "Could be a Nobel down the road."

Green shook his head. "All I did was monitor temps. I just followed directions left by other planetologists. The reason I'm here is that I know how to fly."

Laughing, Stone said, "Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is more than enough. Ask Alexander Graham Bell. And he almost didn't get a patent." Stone shrugged. "Besides, you weren't picked only because you were a pilot. Foster and I wanted a hydrologist. We thought the volcanic activity might set the water flowing, if only in this localized area."

Stone took a deep breath and abruptly changed the subject again. Green always felt one step behind when he talked to this man whose mind shifted like the red Georgian clay from which Stone grew.

"Reginals has news also. One of the reasons he went apeshit when he saw you outside was that he believes Olympus will violently erupt in the next forty-eight hours." Stone seemed to pause for reaction, but Green realized the other man gazed out of the porthole behind him. Green turned to share the view. Olympus stood silhouetted against the darkening Martian sky. Watching the sun set, Alonzo Green felt his exhaustion. The adrenaline of his discovery and of being outside on the Martian surface had drained him. Stone seemed to sense his fatigue.

"Go get some sleep, Alonzo. By the time you wake up, Reginals will certainly have his final estimates of the 'big bang.'" The thin man turned and ambled toward the observation lounge. Green sighed and went to his bunk.

He dreamed of Texas. His fiancee, Dawn, fixed sandwiches as they picnicked on a hill just to west of the Austin city limit. Alonzo chewed on a blade of grass while he observed the panoramic view below him. The green, gently rolling hills spread out before him. At the horizon, the hills met the pink sky, he had seen on Mars. In the dream, the alien sky made sense as Olympus Mons jutted from the ground where Austin should have been. For a moment, confusion clouded his mind; however, calmness overtook him. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep feeling the warm Texas sun on his skin.

He felt a gentle shaking and smiled. Dawn must have lunch ready, he thought. The shaking persisted and, after a few seconds, it became violent. Green opened his eyes wide. Terror struck as he tried to remember where he was. He held on tightly to the bunk as it began to jump around the room. Earthquake, his mind screamed at him. Alarms sounded throughout the station. Green giggled nervously at the idea that the alarms were telling him to take cover. The quake stopped as soon as he thought about how long the shaking had lasted. Subjectively, the quake lasted for hours instead of the thirty or forty seconds of actual shaking. Green took a deep breath and let it out, slowly while trying to collect his nerve.

As he got up from the bed, he noticed that all of the alarms has stopped except for one. Green froze as he recognized the alarm. The terror he had felt in the quake was forgotten in the fear that possessed him now. The single alarm sounding in the distance was different. This alarm said there was a breach in the station itself. Somewhere, air pressure leaked out of the station and with the air pressure went the Earth normal air mixture. Green hoped the fail-safe systems had operated efficiently.

Green's fear caused him to react too fast. He jumped off the bed, forgetting that gravity was only forty percent of Earth normal. He hit the wall hard. However, he was right where he wanted to be. He tried to shake the fuzziness of fear from his mind as he scrambled into his pressure suit.

He checked the oxygen gauge after slipping on the helmet. Good, he thought, I've got about twenty minutes left. He did not want to use it until he had to; so, he left the visor up and the air controls off. Green punched a button on the side of the suit to activate the radio. "Doctor Foster? Doctor Stone?" The sound of his own voice startled him as he waited for a response. He tried again, noticing the shakiness of his voice.

No answer.

Green left the sleeping quarters and moved down the corridor toward the observation lounge. He saw no sign of cracking in the station's frame. The pressure and mixture of the air seemed normal, but the alarm for depressurization still blared all around him. Two thoughts impressed themselves upon his mind. The first thought was that he could suffer from hypoxia and pass out before he could close the visor and turn on the air. Green secured the visor and turned the dial for oxygen. Cool air circulated within the suit as he noticed how much he had sweated out of fear.

He wrinkled his brow as the second thought impinged upon him. No one had turned off the last alarm. The quake warnings ceased automatically when the shaking stopped. The air pressure alarm had to be shut off manually. Green reasoned that the other two scientists could be on their way to the leak just as he was, but he doubted it. He walked quickly to the main airlock, expecting to find the leak at that point in the station.

Green sighed as he inspected the main airlock. The seal was intact and the alarm still sounded around him. The station had been breached elsewhere. He hurried toward the observation lounge, passing the galley on the way. Except for pots and food strewn everywhere during the quake, the galley was fine. Neither Stone nor Foster were there.

Rounding a small curve, he ran into an airlock that should not have been there. Green was confused for a moment, and then, it made sense. An emergency airlock had descended at the observation lounge, effectively sealing it off from the rest of the station. He knew where Foster and Stone were when the leak had occurred.

Frantically, he punched at the buttons on the airlock. A melodic computer voice said, "Access code, please." Green stared at the door for a moment. He had forgotten his fiancee's name.

"Dawn, you idiot," he said, making a mental note not to tell her of his lapse of thinking if he survived. Green punched in the code and stood back as the door swung open, slowly. Inside the airlock, he hit the buttons again with his code and heard the familiar hiss of the air being sucked back into the station from the airlock. Nothing wasted, he thought as the door to the observation lounge opened.

The lounge was dark. Green turned on the suit's head lamp and set the outer microphones at the maximum level he could set them without deafening himself with his own footsteps. He looked around and listened. A dim light off to his left caught his attention. One of the distant volcanoes erupted with the quake. He dismissed it. If it had been Olympus,` then he would have known. He started to continue his search, but stopped and looked at the distant volcano more closely. Green's eyes widened. "There's no window on that wall."

He picked a path to the wall with care, avoiding the general destruction left by the quake. Green found the reason for the air pressure alarm. A crack, two feet wide, had appeared in the wall of the lounge. The blackness of the Martian night, punctuated by the distant volcano, lay beyond the crack. He whistled at the crack, wondering if stress tests had missed a weak point in the structure. Small heaters automatically circulated warm air through his suit since the temperature of the room around him had plummeted to -125 Celsius when it was exposed to the Martian atmosphere.

Green glanced around the area trying to reconstruct where he was in the room. To his left, heavy equipment was scattered across the floor from the quake. He turned toward the rubble and started to take a step but stopped. "Oh damn." A pair of long, lean legs protruded from the mass of rubble. He bent down to move as much of the rubble as he could. Finding an arm, he took a pulse. Green sighed. He knew Stone was dead.

"Well, at least he didn't suffocate when the air ran out," he said, audibly. There was nothing he could do for Stone now, so he began to search for Foster. As he circumnavigated the room, he pictured where things used to be before the quake and the loss of the air mixture. Stone had been at his work station when he died. Foster's station next to Stone had not been deluged with as much equipment, but Foster's station was empty.

Green glanced at his own work station and was glad he had been sleeping at the time of the quake. All that equipment may not weigh as much on Mars, but its mass had not changed. Thinking he had heard a sound to his left, Green turned the head lamp in that direction. The light caught a glimpse of shocking red hair.

Foster moaned. Quickly, but carefully, Green made his way to the scientist. Foster sat huddled in a warm air blanket with an oxygen mask on his face. Above him, a sign read, "EMERGENCY." Green looked at the man with new admiration. In the midst of the quake and losing his air supply, Foster had the presence if mind to get to the only place that could save his life.

The plastic mask had frozen to Foster's face. Green's slight tugging could not remove it without taking chunks of skin and probably some facial muscle as well. Green knelt and looked at Foster while deciding on the best way to get him into the undamaged part of the station. An image of a frosted beer mug popped into his head. Green banished the thought and chided himself for being unfeeling. An idea formed in his mind.

Clearing a path as his went, Green walked to the airlock.

Punching a button the door opened automatically and he went back to the injured scientist. He pulled the tubes transmitting warmth and air out of the wall. Foster made a weak attempt to protest, but Green ignored him. He picked the short, round man off the floor and pulled him across his shoulders in an imitation of the fireman's carry and walked, slowly, to the door.

Once inside the airlock, he punched the button that closed the newly formed outer hatch to the station and began the process of repressurization. The green light came on and the door to the corridor opened. Green took Foster to the sleeping quarters and bundled the unconscious scientist into all the blankets available. He re-hooked the warm air and the oxygen mask. Foster had been marginally conscious in the lounge, but Green guessed that the sudden change in air pressure had been too much for the injured man.

Removing his helmet, Green leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. I really ought to check his injuries, he thought as he looked at Foster, wondering if they would survive. He thought of the airplane as he closed his eyes.

Green awoke with a start, surprised that he had slept. He looked at Foster and noticed the fierce reddening at the man's face. Frostbite, he thought. Green noticed Foster's uneven breathing. I've got to get him to the settlement and the doctor. He thought again of the plane store in a compartment on the outside of the station near the galley. Green hoped it had not been damaged in the quake. He checked the air gauge on the pressure suit he had slept in.

"I'll need more than five minutes," he thought out loud. "There should be enough O2 to get the plane put together and us to the settlement."

A strained, quiet voice answered him. "Doctor Green, we must leave, now." He turned to see Foster looking at him. The oxygen mask had fallen away from his face. "Olympus is ...," Foster struggled with the words, "" Foster closed his eyes and again lost consciousness. Green nodded at the injured man and got up to find enough air bottles for him to assemble the plane.

Hours passed as he worked on their escape. The ground shook a couple of times, but no major quake destroyed his work. Green had been overjoyed that the flimsy craft had survived the quake. He stopped working only long enough to change air bottles and check on Foster, who had continued to sleep. Green woke the scientist every two hours, but the scientist passed out again each time. The sun creeped up the horizon as the plane began to take shape and was high over Olympus Mons when he finished the assembly work. He fueled the Martian airplane with Olympus looming over his shoulder.

Inside the sleeping quarters, he found Foster trying to put on a pressure suit. Green went to help and they got the suit on him. "We need to get something to eat," Green told the older scientist.

"We don't have time. Olympus Mons could blow at any second," Foster said. "Doctor Green...," Foster hesitated, "...Alonzo, we don't want to be here when that mountain explodes." Green nodded. He had already made that determination.

He looked at Foster with concern. "Can you walk?"

Foster shrugged. "I'm going to try. You load the oxygen and I'll grab some food from the galley." Foster stood, unsteadily, and wobbled out of the sleeping quarters toward the galley. Green hesitated, but went to load the oxygen bottles into the plane.

By his second trip, he had enough to get them to the colony. The ground began to rumble, quietly at first, but with a crescendo that sustained itself with a shaking. Foster, Green thought.

Green ran to the airlock and went into the galley. Foster sprawled out next to a table that was bumping into him from the shaking. Green knelt over the unconscious man. "Foster, wake up." No response. He put Foster's visor down securing it and turned on the oxygen. He bundled the scientist over his shoulder and struggled against the shaking floor of the station. As they reached the airlock, a violent lurch threw them onto the Martian surface. Green cussed as he picked up Foster and started toward the plane.

Fear ran through him as he caught sight of Olympus Mons. Ash spewed from the summit. Green through Foster into the plane which had not moved during the quake. Green removed the rocks he had placed in front and behind the wheels and the plane began to roll without him. He grabbed the door as it rolled past and propelled himself into the plane on top of Foster. He did not have time to check on the injured scientist as he climbed into the pilot's seat.

He punched the code and the engine started. Looking ahead, Green studied the slight decline for any obstacles. Seeing none, he throttled up and maneuvered the plane down the makeshift runway. The shaking ground bumped the light weight plane, but did not impede its progress. He hit the optimal speed and pulled back hard on the throttle. Green held his breath. The bumping of the shaky ground ceased. He blew out hard. They were airborne. "We're up," he yelled. Foster did not answer.

Olympus Mons was visible to his left as the plane flew south. I don't want to bank toward that monster, Green thought. He turned away from the mountain and guided the plane into a northwesterly course. He was about to turn on the computer pilot when the world exploded to his right. Glancing toward Olympus, he saw that the top one-fourth of the volcano had disintegrated. Green could see lava flowing down the side of the mountain. He gave the small plane all the speed he could.

He fought for control of the plane as the sound and blast waves hit them. He lost some altitude, but was able to withstand the onslaught from the mountain. Most of the blast must have been directed away from us, he thought. He set the autopilot and had it adjust to the warm air currents generated by Olympus.

Green looked behind him at Foster. He could see evidence of breathing through the oxygen gauge on the pressure suit. He turned around and sighed in relief as the scientist seemed to breathing normally. An idea came to his mind and he took control of the plane.

He turned the plane slightly toward the edge of the plateau that overlooked a valley below sheer cliffs. Green yelled in excitement. Water blew out of the side of the cliff, much of it exploding violently in the thin Martian atmosphere. But he noticed that enough of the water reached the ground and began to flow in the ancient riverbeds. Olympus Mons' eruption, with its volcanic dust helping to greenhouse the atmosphere, would speed the efforts to terraform the red planet.

Green muted his exuberance when he heard Foster moan. He directed the plane toward the colony, remembering his duty to Foster. He smiled wishing Stone could see the flowing water and flowing lava on the Martian surface. Green increased his airspeed, leaving the rivers of Olympus behind them.


Copyright © 2000 by Terry Bramlett

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