Aphelion Issue 236, Volume 23
February 2019
 
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The Martian Marathon

by David Wright





A sixty-five mile foot race along the Valles Marineris between Carter and Red Town. First run in the Martian Olympics of 2240, the race commemorates the famous run of Anatolia Shrlenko who outpaced Terran ops to warn Martian forces of an impending attack.


* * *

RITUAL

It looked like a marble, a fuzzy marble that changed colors before your eyes. Or maybe it was just that he began to notice that there was color there, an orangey-pink, where seconds before he saw only white. And then the polar cap appeared like a lopsided beanie and a darkish area grew in the middle. Perhaps more features would have appeared, like the Valles Marineris or the grand canals themselves, had there been more time, but after ten seconds, the fuzzy pink marble passed quietly out of the eyepiece and Eric's turn at Lowell's eighteen-inch reflecting telescope was over.

On the long drive home, Eric was quiet and thoughtful. "Dad," he began. "What was that?"

"What was what, son?"

"What was that thing I saw in the telescope?"

Marcus smiled. "That was Mars, son."

"Mars?" Eric echoed incredulously, his six year-old mind unable to connect the massive red planet that he had seen on the posters outside the observatory with the little pink dot in the telescope. They'd waited in line for three hours and stayed up until two in the morning to see a pink dot in an old telescope. It didn't seem to make sense.

"Why did we come here?"

"To see Mars."

"Yeah, I know, but…" Eric yawned. "…couldn't we see it on TV?"

"I wanted you to see where you were going. I wanted you to see it with your own eyes so that you would know that it was real."

It was the last and clearest memory Eric had of being on Earth with his father. The only other memories were vague impressions like half remembered dreams.


* * *

SHOCK

Why the Martian Marathon is 2.5 times longer than the standard Terran Marathon has as much to do with the theoretical limits of human athletic performance as it does to do with geography. As Martian gravity is 40% or two-fifths that of Earth, the theoretical gain in sports performance is 2.5 times. High jumpers on Mars can jump 2.5 times higher than jumpers on Earth, 6.23 m being the current Martian record. Martian baseball players can hit 2.5 times farther, or about 700 meters, even more with a corked bat. It follows, then, that a Martian marathoner should be able to complete 65 miles on Mars in the same amount of time that it takes a Terran marathoner to complete 26 miles on Earth. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

"Mom," Eric began heedless of the soy chunks still in his mouth, "why is Mars smaller than Earth?"

"I don't know why it's smaller. It just is. Why do you ask such questions?"

Eric thought for a moment and then began to cry. "Mars should be bigger than Earth." Eric was crying a lot lately, crying because the sky was pink instead of blue, crying because there were two small moons instead of one big one, crying because he couldn't see his father anymore.

Anatolia shook her head and made a 'tsk, tsk' noise. Then she got up and began to rinse the ceramics. She looked out the window. "Mars may be smaller than Earth, but its days are longer."

"Yeah, I know, but not much longer. Only thirty-eight minutes." Eric wiped his tears.

"And its year is almost twice as long as an Earth year."

"Really?"

"And its mountains are much bigger. Olympus Mons is three times bigger than the biggest mountain on Earth."

Eric was clapping his hands and giggling. "Hurrah for Mars!"

"You think that's something? That's nothing compared to this." Anatolia wiped her hands on the dish towel and pulled back the kitchen curtains. "You see that?"

Eric ran to the window and looked outside.

"That's the biggest hole in the solar system. It's bigger than the Grand Canyon. It's bigger than all Earth's valleys put together, and we live right in the middle of it."

Eric stared at the towering red cliffs of the Valles Marineris and walls of Red Town far in the distance. It was a view he had seen every day for the past two years, but now he saw it with new eyes and he felt something he had never felt before; he felt pride, red Martian pride.

"Wow!"


* * *

DENIAL

If a sprinter on Earth can run one hundred meters in 9.25 sec, as Arelios Franchetti did in 2180, then he should be able to run 250 meters on Mars in the same time or better, except that he can't. The best Martian 250- meter-sprint to date is still over ten seconds. Similarly, the Terran marathoner, Luke Xia Zulu, should have been able to run a Martian Marathon in 1:56:43, the same time it took him to run the 26 miles and 385 yards from Marathon to Athens in the 2238 Olympic Games, except that, he can't, or couldn't. In fact, in the inaugural 2240 Martian Olympics, this Terran favorite would have finished in just over three hours, far behind the pack, if he hadn't walked off the course midway, vowing never to run on Mars again.

Anatolia was waiting for her husband at their usual rendezvous, a lonely stretch of road just outside of the Martian city of Carter. She'd been waiting for over an hour, and her sense of panic was growing with every minute. She knew something was wrong, and that she should leave, get out of there before it was too late, but she could not. It had been over a month since she'd seen her husband, and her heart longed for him.

Eight years ago, she had met Marcus Rideau at the Martian embassy on Earth. He was a handsome young officer and she quickly fell in love with him. Shortly thereafter, Anatolia bore him a child and the family lived together in quiet anonymity. But when political tensions erupted on Mars, Anatolia was recalled. Her marriage became a matter of the direst political sensitivity. She was a Martian ambassador, after all, and could not maintain relations with the enemy.

Reluctantly, she returned to Mars with her questioning six year-old son in tow. Unbeknown to her, Marcus enlisted in the Terran ops so that he could follow his wife to Mars, and for a while, they were able to arrange the occasional clandestine rendezvous and keep in secret contact. But now, something had gone wrong, and Marcus was late.

The rover's radio erupted in static and with a sigh of relief, Anatolia answered it. "Marcus, where are you? What has happened?"

"Leave, Anatolia, leave!" The voice, although panicked and desperate, was undeniably her husband's.

"Why? What's wrong?"

"They're attacking! Leave immediately."

At that moment, as if to punctuate her husband's warning, an explosion shook the rover. Anatolia screamed. Out the rover's back window, she could see the city of Carter bursting into flames.

"Anatolia, are you there?"

"Yes, I'm still here."

"They can track your rover and radio from orbit. You'll have to go on foot. Make for Red Town and run. Run faster than you've ever run before."

"No, Marcus." Anatolia was crying. "What about our son?"

"Please, Ana. You must go now!" The radio suddenly turned to static.

"Marcus! Marcus!" Anatolia screamed into the rover's radio. She tried changing the frequencies, but it was no use. It was as if an invisible blanket of snow had fallen over the planet. If it was an invasion, the first thing the Terran forces would do would be to jam communications. Red Town would have no warning of the imminent attack. Her mind raced with a million thoughts at once. She had to make it to Red Town before them. She dropped the radio. She didn't remember leaving the rover, but she must have. She felt the heat of the burning city on her face. She took two steps into the forest before being thrown violently to the ground by another explosion. Anatolia looked back through the trees to see her rover consumed in flames. With tears in her eyes, she turned towards Red Town and ran.


* * *

ISOLATION

Many factors may contribute to the discrepancy between the theoretical athletic performance and the actual performance of the Martian marathoner. The Martian atmosphere is not yet identical to Earth's. Average temperature is ten degrees lower, although some tropical low points, like the Valles Marineris, are quite comfortable. Air pressure is ten to fifty millibars less and carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen levels seem to fluctuate daily. Martian dust, or fines, is also a factor, causing violent electrostatic storms and clogging airways and pores even at the microscopic level. Synthetic lung veils and dermablock creams, about as invasive as sun tan lotion, boast 100 % filtration, but runners are not entirely convinced. Apparently a century of terraforming and a Martian health care system next only to Sweden's, has not yet been enough to overcome four and half billion years of areology.

"Wake up, Eric."

It was his father's voice, a voice he hadn't heard in over a month. Eric was immediately filled with joy. He struggled to wipe the sleep from his eyes. He was vaguely aware of voices in the distance and a bright, hot light outside his window. His father was carrying him into a helicopter. Eric saw the blades whirring above his head. Eric saw his dad turn to the pilot and say something. He seemed angry.

"Dad?"

"Yes, son. It's okay."

"Dad? I was dreaming." Eric yawned. "I was dreaming I was back on Earth, living in our old house. But dad, I couldn't move. My legs, my arms, everything was so heavy and I was so weak. The kids made fun of me like they did when we came to Mars."

"It's just a dream. Nobody will make fun of you anymore. Try to go back to sleep if you can." Eric's dad seemed distracted. He kept calling mom's name into the radio, but there was no answer. Eric felt the helicopter lift off the ground and there was the sound of fire crackers outside.

"Dad, where are we going? Where's mom?"

"We're going to meet her. You'll see. Go back to sleep."

"I can't. It's too noisy."

Marcus turned back to the pilot. "Fly low over the Marineris and drop me about ten miles west of Red Town."

"Look, sir," the pilot called back over the sound of the whirring blades and the fire crackers, "this is highly irregular. We are way out of mission parameters here. If you continue in this course, I'll be forced to assume command and hold you under arrest." The pilot drew his pistol.

Marcus knocked the pistol onto the floor with the butt of his rifle. The pistol went off harmlessly but deafeningly loud. "Blast it, sergeant. How many scrapes have I pulled you out of? I'm not asking you to give up your career. Just drop the boy off somewhere safe and forget you ever saw me."

"But sir…"

"It's my family, John. What wouldn't you do to save your family?"

The pilot went silent. He nodded and the helicopter accelerated. Marcus looked back at his son. Eric was shaking from the night air. He couldn't help it. He felt his father wrap a silver blanket around him and hug him tight.

"I'm going to have to leave in a minute or two," Marcus said into Eric's ear.

"No."

"It's okay. Sergeant Bolton is going to fly you to Burroughs, you remember, where aunty lives. She'll take care of you for a while. You'll have a little vacation with your cousins, ride their horses. You like that. And then mom and I will come get you."

"Dad?"

"Yes, son."

"You're a Terran from Earth." Eric could feel the warmth returning to his fingers and toes. "And mom's Martian, but what am I? I was born on Earth, but I can't go back, and I'm not Martian, not really, not like cousin Argyre and Hellaspontes. I'm nothing."

Marcus rocked his son gently. "You listen to me, son, just in case I don't get to tell you this again. You're Martian through and through. From the moment you stepped your bare foot out of that orbiting elevator into the red Martian soil, you belonged to Mars."

Eric smiled. A moment later, his father was gone and he was alone in the back of a cold helicopter.


* * *

DESPAIR

The single most important factor for a Martian marathoner will always be gravity. The same 2.5 multiple that turns high jumpers and baseball players into supermen, turns marathoners into stumbling, awkward, uncoordinated fools. The frustrated Franchetti likened running on Mars to skating underwater. It just wasn't natural. Somehow, Martians were going to have to learn how to take this Olympian body, born and bred for millennia to run in one G, and turn it into a 0.4 G running machine. And this was going to take time, about a Martian century, in fact.

Fifty-three miles outside of Carter, about ten miles to Red Town, the Valles trail veered from the shore of the Marineris River to follow a dry creek bed next to the canyon wall. It was a lonely stretch, an ancient place where the evidence of the lifeless ages of Mars lay bare on the canyon walls exposed by mass wastage and intermittent periods of cataclysmic erosion. Just off the road, talus and river rock lay strewn together all around in a jumble of Noachian and Amazonian confusion. It was here that Anatolia found herself exhausted, bewildered and alone.

She was fighting the pain that had started in her lungs and had spread like cancer through every cell in her body. Having pushed herself beyond her limits, she faced doubt that she would ever make it to Red Town. She was a frightened animal that would run itself to death. She searched desperately for some last ounce of courage that could keep her going, but she could not find it.

There was a rustle in the bushes, and with a sigh of relief, Anatolia saw her husband emerge from the forest. He was fully dressed in Black ops regalia, complete with assault sniper rifle and stun grenades. It had always scared her seeing him dressed like that, and in her haunted dreams she had even seen him pull the trigger and kill. But she never asked him about it. Whatever he had done, she knew that he'd done for her and for their son, to be with them as a family.

Anatolia ran up to her husband and hugged him. "Marcus, what's going on? What's happening?"

Marcus squeezed her even tighter, holding her breathless for a long moment, and then pushed away roughly. "It's the war, Ana. You must make it to Red Town. Run with everything you have left, and don't look back. I'll hold them off as long as I can."

"No, I won't leave you." Anatolia clung onto Marcus with desperate strength. "I can't do it, Marcus, not without you."

Marcus tried to drag his wife away, but still she held on. "Anatolia, there's no time. They're right behind me, a mile, maybe less. They can hit us from here."

Anatolia buried her head in the slick poly-plastic of Marcus' armored chest. Marcus said nothing for several seconds. Gently, he held her head in his hands. At last, Anatolia surrendered to his gentle grip.

"Ana, you must trust me. Eric will be safe in Burroughs with your sister. When this is all over, you can . . . we can go get him. But you must go now. Run to Red Town, and don't look back."

Anatolia looked at her husband for the last time. There were tears in his eyes. Bravely, she turned again towards Red Town and ran.

Not far behind her, she could hear the occasional sounds of gunfire. She wondered if one of those sharp blasts had come from her husband's sniper rifle and if the bullet had found its mark in the soft flesh of another human being. She shuddered at the thought, but then a more horrible thought struck her. What if they were hunting him now as they were hunting her? Surely they were. It did not matter that he was protecting the woman he loved. He was a traitor to his own people, to his own planet. They would find him and kill him, just as they would soon kill her.

Anatolia felt a new strength well up from deep within her. It wasn't fear. It wasn't rage. She would never find a word for the feeling she had at that moment, but whatever it was, she would not stop running and she would not look back. This was a race that she simply had to win.


* * *

AFFIRMATION

During the rebellion of 2230, Carter was attacked by Terran special ops under cover of a Phoebus' eclipse, but one Martian woman, Anatolia Shrlenko, who had been out in her rover at the time of the attack, escaped. Abandoning her rover (which was fortunate as it was tracked by satellite and bombed minutes later), Anatolia began running due East along the Marineris River to the rebel controlled Red Town. It was also fortunate that Anatolia was such an accomplished Martian runner as she reached Red Town a full ten minutes before the Terran special ops, who were also on foot. As it was, the Terran forces were ambushed at Red Town, held for ransom and the rebellion played out largely as it is described in the history books--bloody, cruel, inevitable.

The train ride from Burroughs was long and boring--nothing to see but orange cliffs and the river. Eric's mom hardly said a word the whole trip. Eric had been on his cousin's horse when mother came to get him. He'd been having fun. At first, he was happy to see her. He hugged her and kissed her like he always did, but he didn't really want to leave. He'd been living with his cousins in Burroughs for nearly a year, and he liked it there. Aunty even said that she would buy him his own horse one day. And now mom was taking him away. It didn't seem fair. Eric put up a fuss, even started to cry. It wasn't until mom said they were going to see dad that he finally gave in. But that was more than two hours ago, and now he was tired and hungry, but mostly bored.

"Are we there yet?"

"We're almost there, dear. Just a few more minutes."

It was a lie. The train didn't stop for a long time after that, and when it did, Eric suddenly realized he had to go to the bathroom.

"Why didn't you go before when the train was moving? We have to get off now." Mother groaned and pulled on Eric's arm so hard he thought it would come off. "Come on." She struggled through the crowded train of exiting passengers and Eric thought of the salmon he'd seen swimming the wrong way up the Marineris River. They were like two salmon, he and his mother. He wished dad was with them. He could push his way right through that crowd of strangers. Eric had never seen his father do anything like that, but he knew he could.

Finally, they reached the back of the train car, but just as mother was opening the bathroom door, a man in a bright blue uniform and hat stopped her.

"Excuse me, ma'am, but all passengers must now exit the train."

"No, you don't understand. My son really has to use the bathroom. He'll only be a minute."

The man stepped in front of the door. "I'm sorry, but that's impossible. This train runs on a tight schedule. If we're late in Red Town, we'll be late all the way down the Marineris Line. You're son will have to wait until he gets through the term—" All at once, the man stopped talking. His face became strange and he was looking straight at Eric's mother as if she were Santa Claus.

"I beg your pardon. Are you...? Are you Anatolia Shrlenko?"

"Yes," mother said simply.

The man suddenly looked much smaller than he had a moment ago. He put his hands together as if he were about to pray. "Please accept my sincerest apologies."

Mother motioned towards the bathroom door. "Can he...?"

"Oh, of course. And don't worry about a thing." The man pressed the communicator button on the wall. "I'm calling the engineer right now. He'll hold the train."

Eric went into the bathroom, but he could still hear the man in blue talking to his mother outside. "You take all the time you need. I'll call down the line and tell them we'll be a little late. Can I get somebody to take your bags? Here, let me take that."

Eric's mother never said anything about the incident as they walked through the train terminal into Red Town. She acted as if the whole thing was pretty much normal, and so Eric took it to be just so. However, he did wonder how the man in blue knew his mother's name. Did the man know his father too?

Later that afternoon, after they'd dropped off Eric's bags in the rust-colored apartment that was to be his new home, Eric and his mother took a taxi to a large stadium in the middle of town. He'd already asked his mother a dozen times when they were going to see dad. She always answered with the same words: "We'll see him soon, dear." Now when he asked her, she said nothing. There were tears in her eyes.

"What's wrong, mommy?" Eric took his mother's hand.

Anatolia went down on one knee and looked into her son's eyes. He was crying too, although he didn't know why.

"I wanted to show you something, Eric. I wanted to try to explain something to you, but now I don't think I can." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Your father... the man who was your father died while saving my life and yours."

"No, mommy." Eric wanted to argue with his mother, but he was crying so hard that he couldn't speak. His mother hugged him tightly.

"I'm sorry, dear. I wanted to tell you before, but there was so much suffering. I just couldn't bear it. I should have told you a long time ago. I'm so sorry, baby."

"No, mommy." Eric found his voice at last. "It's not your fault, mommy. I love you." They cried together for a long time after that, and then Anatolia brought her son to a memorial statue in front of the stadium. There stood his father, the soldier, cast in solid iron forged from the iron mines of Red Town. The plaque beneath told his story--the story of a Terran traitor, and a Martian hero.


* * *

RENEWAL

Ritual, shock, denial, isolation, despair, affirmation--these are the first six stages of a marathon. The seventh and final stage is renewal, without which no great human undertaking, whether national or personal, has any meaning. Mars is currently undergoing a cultural revolution of sorts, boycotting Terran Corporation products, forming new Martian political parties. Some are calling it the second rebellion, but it is hard to nail down what they are rebelling against. There is no violence, yet, and no overt lawlessness. There haven't even been any significant demonstrations. It is almost as if a few Martians have rediscovered some latent gene of self-control and are telepathically transmitting it to the rest of the Martian population. There is very little the Terran multinationals and their puppet governments can do about it. After all, if a Martian suddenly decides that he can go through life without the latest fashion or gadget from Earth, there's no law that says he has to buy it.

.

The Martians waited for the sunrise that would strike into the Valles Marineris like dragon fire. They waited, as they had done hundreds of times, for the behemoth gecko to peak its massive eye over the Valles wall and lick the red Martian rocks with light. They never spoke in the timeless pause before dawn--a silent ritual chiseled from ten long years of Martian planetary conflict, but the runners' minds raced with jumbled anticipation.

In moments, Eric would be running again. His breathing would regulate and his pores would break into a gentle sweat. He would pass like an insect by fifty-foot boulders and thousand-foot rock arches that jutted from the canyon wall. He would run over grassy wildflower meadows and through pockets of pine forest. Another twenty minutes of hard running and he would reach the rocky shore of the Marineris River and the torrential noise of ninety thousand tons of flowing water. Here the trail followed the man-made Martian waterway for fifty miles as it pounded relentlessly through the gaping wound in the side of Mars, the only real Martian canal visible from Earth.

Deep into the heart of Mars his paces would take him, rhythmic sandy footfalls, undulating over the same dusty red trail his mother had run a decade ago. In the final leg, the route would veer from the river to the canyon wall and time would stop until the walls of Red Town would spring up to greet him. He would enter the New Tyrr Stadium with its polyfab walls nano-dyed in rustic Martian red, and the sound of the spectators would be deafening, unlike anything that had ever filled an arena, hippodrome or Olympic stadium on Earth. It would be as if the entire Valles Marineris, all 3500 kilometers of it, were a colossal, natural amphitheater broadcasting the epic contest to the four corners of the Martian globe. This was the Martian Marathon, the most famous stretch of red dust on Mars and the most important annual event on the face of the planet.

As he waited in the shadow of the canyon wall, he thought again of the personal tragedy that had spawned a new culture, a new nation, a new world. He thought of his parents--two ordinary people who wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life with the ones they loved. He thought of the hopes and dreams of the thousands of others that had died since them, and the final peace that was forged in their blood. He knew in that moment that it was worth it. It was all worth it.

There was a flash as bright as lightning, and dragon fire burst out upon the canyon walls, painting the darkness with luscious, golden color, and descending in seconds to the green valley and raging Marineris below--a drop of nearly four vertical miles. This was the awesome power of the Martian sublime that dwarfed anything seen on Earth. This was what got Eric up at four in the morning, what gave him the strength of mind and body, gave him the faith that a world could be made and that he could make it. This was what made him one with Mars. He stood on hallowed ground, and he was not alone.


THE END


2014 David Wright

Bio: Mr. Wright is a writer and English teacher living on Canada’s majestic west coast.  His short stories have appeared in more than a dozen publications including Aphelion, Neo-opsis and Pulp Corner.  His latest novels are available at Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

E-mail: David Wright

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