During Space Week in October we called for entries for a Short Story Competition based on Mars. We received some stellar entries (pun intended) and our judges Science Editor Neasa McGarrigle, Literature Editor Conor O’Donovan, and Space Expert Niamh Shaw had a tough decision. The winner will be published here on December 25th but, in the meantime, we thought that Connor Caler’s entry In the Shadow of Olympus Mons deserved an honourable mention. Enjoy reading it.
Connor Caler is a movie buff, a bibliophile, and an outdoorsman living in Seattle, WA. He has a degree in Bioengineering and is working towards a Masters in Mechanical Engineering.
In the Shadow of Olympus Mons
By Connor Caler
Stuffing his copy of Dune into his pack, Thomas took a moment to look out the window. Well, it wasn’t actually a window, just a monitor with a live feed from cameras on the hull. All the same, the Red Planet loomed closer, pushing the black backdrop of space to the edges of the screen. Thomas tapped and zoomed in on Olympus Mons. Hidden somewhere in its shadow was his new home. He looked on, strange and exciting feelings welling up within. Here, was the frontier of mankind. Here, he would make his name.
For years his father had filled Thomas’s mind with stories of explorers like Hudson, Boone, Amundsen, and Cousteau; scientists in the vein of Newton, Tesla, Einstein, and so many others. All men who helped discover Earth and unveil her complexities and nuances. Wanting to stand on their shoulders, Thomas’s father had become an engineer, hoping one day to build machines and devices no one had yet imagined. Instead his son Thomas had been born, and a new world opened up to him, one where it was more important to instil curiosity, be a guide through the world, and to raise a young man who found purpose and meaning in life.
Tears welled up in Thomas’s eyes. His father used to sneak into his room late at night to resume reading their recent science fiction or fantasy story. Nonchalantly sipping his coffee the next morning he’d groggily tell Thomas’s mother that he must not have slept well. With a wink and a smirk aimed across the table he’d ask what Thomas wanted to do for the day. Off the family would go on some adventure: hiking to a waterfall, visiting a museum, going to the movies, or flying kites in the park and staying late to stargaze.
That’s when Thomas first saw the Red Planet. Mars was at opposition as Thomas’s father pointed over his shoulder, directing his gaze. “Just think,” he’d said under his breath. “The few hundred people there have a head start on us. We’ll catch up soon enough.”
The Mars landscape now dominated Thomas’s window. He could feel the gravity increasing as he sunk further into his acceleration couch. Thomas closed his eyes; if airplane descents on Earth made him nauseas this surely wouldn’t be any better. Thinking of his father gave him heart though. Thomas could feel his presence next to him as the small human colonies came into view.
0km – Mars Datum
The ship set down on the Martian surface and Thomas exhaled deeply. Gripping his pack, strength flowed back into his arms and deep into his soul. Standing up suddenly, Thomas left his room and filed into the procession of disembarking passengers. “Soon, Dad.”
Stepping off of the ship was an experience he would not forget. Never before and never again would he feel the awe of encountering the monolithic stature of Olympus Mons, diminishing his existence as it brooded 21 kilometres above the colony. For what seemed an age Thomas stood in its astronomical wake. How could something so colossal be conquered? He thought back to all of his father’s historical muses and understood what they too must have felt at the start of their journeys. Fear of the unknown. Self-doubt. Yet there they were, teetering on the edge of discovery. It started with one step, one thought. With resolve Thomas shouldered his pack and strode on.
Their fellow Martians cast curious glances as the team drove from the settlement in the direction of Olympus Mons. Most of the team was comprised of mountaineering men and women Thomas had hired to keep a resupply of oxygen, food, and water at their basecamps. The road ahead would be long and arduous. That is how life is for an explorer though.
The team slept under the cockeyed gaze of Phobos and Deimos. Restless, Thomas left the tent to stare back. He marvelled how far they had climbed. Their trek had been gruelling and an extra helping was yet to come. Into the red dusk Thomas whispered, “Hey, Dad. I’m higher than Hillary ever was.”
“I need you, Dad.”
Spent and exhausted, Thomas fell to his knees. The few remaining climbers, now close friends, decided to make camp and set up a small shelter to rest—their wills, almost spent, just pilot lights within.
Thomas awoke. He stumbled from the shelter and lay stretched out in the ash and rock. He opened his eyes and spied an unassuming dot amongst the stars. Almost all of his memories were made on that dot. Who he was and who he had become. He was taken back to the nights stargazing with his father. To all of the hours spent reading and growing together, to all of the wonder and love that they shared. Thomas crawled back to his team and shook them awake. “It’s time to finish this.” Thomas shouldered his pack ceremoniously.
21.23km – Olympus Mons Summit
The team wept together as they summited the mountain. Euphoria spread smiles on their faces. Taking a moment for himself, Thomas opened his pack and carefully removed Dune from its place. “We made it, Dad,” he whispered, “What is the son but an extension of the father?” Opening the book, Thomas removed his father’s ashes from a hollowed out compartment. He threw them into the atmosphere knowing that together they stood on the shoulders of giants.
Main Image: NASA Olympus Mons on Mars