Julia Maciel flew all night. The distance between New Jerusalem and Olympus Mons was about 5300 kilometers; their training plane maxed out at about 600 km/h. With decent wind, Julia calculated the trip would take about eight hours. Kenyatta, Deleuze, Stuart and Isabel slept doubled up in their gunner’s chairs, but Julia had to remain awake. Well, it was nothing she hadn’t done before, on patrols. She listened to her favorite Mars bands – nothing from Earth. Music was an all-nighter’s best friend. The quickest course took her over Mars’ vast North Ocean. She watched as the massive ice floes shifted and squirmed. They seemed alive…alive to the possibility of Mars being alive. Terrans always commented on the north ocean as the easiest way, other than the g and the yellow sky, to know that you were on another planet – the waves just moved differently.
The adrenaline of her narrow escape kept Julia’s blood pumping for a while. As she grew exhausted, with thousands of km to go, she maintained alertness by puzzling over why her mother had let her go. Well, Mom prided herself on knowing people’s motives and outcomes almost before the people knew them themselves. She would have seen her flying east before Martina had interrupted. Julia made a mental checklist – Mom would have guessed:
- That I want to see the Tharsis Bulge before I die, considering I have a big holo in my room
- That I refuse to fight for pacifistic reasons
- That I refuse to fight because I don’t want to take orders from Martina
- That I like being rebellious, going against the grain, having fun
- That I want to help Kenyatta and maybe his friends
- That I want to find Petraeus Aquinas
…any of which may have been partly true. Now Julia asked herself if perhaps her mother was relying on her, Julia, to rebel against her or Martina’s authority? Perhaps to find Aquinas without officially looking? If Julia really wanted to rebel, should she turn her bird around and go back to base? This was the sort of double-reverse-psychology that her mother regularly did with the Senators.
Sooner than she expected, Julia saw the half-light before dawn. There was something special about flying eastward, away from the sun, and then watching it rise on the horizon. Her whole body tingled. Julia wondered if this the quasi-religious feeling her passengers felt about this mountain and this man…or perhaps it was just exhaustion.
Daylight spread over the landscape; when Julia saw the ocean meet the shore, she knew she was close. A few minutes later, Julia saw a certain bulge in the distance and looked down at a couple of readings. She had made good time.
“Guys,” she called over the local com. “You might want to wake up for this.”
Julia heard stirs, then gasps. Her jet-mates had been waiting for this for years. From their current distance, you had to know about the look of Olympus Mons to recognize that it was even a mountain. It didn’t have the instant drama of Mt. Sharp.
But oh, how it got bigger. As they approached, the rise on the horizon became the horizon.
“Can’t we get higher?” Stuart asked on the com. “So we can see the whole thing?”
“We’d have to be in space,” Julia replied. “This training plane can’t do that.”
Olympus Mons was roughly the size of Arizona. The grade of the mountain was typically about 5% – from their perspective it looked like a hill that went on and on and on. And on.
Julia wondered how this – and the rest of the Tharsis Bulge – had appeared to her grandparents’ generation. Barren, of course. Since terraforming had been concluded, most of equatorial Mars averaged a temperature around 300 Kelvin, but the volcanoes here were higher than the Himalayas. These days, the foothills of Tharsis were heavily pine-forested, not unlike Alaska. Julia could make out lava trails through the forest, but only with difficulty. Of course, Julia knew that that the Tharsis forests contained animals that one probably wouldn’t find in Alaska, as part of the Noah’s Ark Project from terraforming. But she couldn’t see those creatures from up here.
Up here was becoming relative. The plane was now within a kilometer of the grading surface, and getting closer.
Stuart called, “When are you going to pull up?”
“Not so fast!” Isabel sounded giddy. “I like looking down at all of this.”
“Well,” answered Julia, “I am tired and need to land at some point.”
“Julia,” Kenyatta asked, “any chance we can see the mouth?”
“Sort of,” said Julia. She pulled up on the joystick, making the plane’s angle match the mountain’s. “This plane’s not insulated for outer space. I’m not sure how it’s going to feel when we’re twenty-two kilometers up. Anyone feeling colder yet?”
This was met with a chorus of Nooooooo. So she kept climbing – and climbing. Julia said, “We’re at the height of Mount Everest – ten kilometers. This is as high as commercial airlines ever go.”
“Keep going!” said her “crew.”
12 km, 16 km, and then 20 km. The pine forest below gave way to snow covered ledges…but they didn’t look craggy, like a Terran mountain range, more like a series of mashed wedding cakes. Julia had her cabin’s heat on full-blast, yet her teeth were chattering. Her passengers had each other to stay warm. Finally, Julia’s instruments informed her that she was seeing the top of Olympus Mons. “G-g-guys? S-s-see th-the c-c-caldera?”
“YES!!!” they shouted back. Julia remembered that her dashboard could activate instant hot water. She did it and swilled back a gulp. Ahhhh. “Twenty-two k m, people. Let’s peer inside and then get the jībā back down the mountain.”
“Why can’t we fly over the mouth?” Stuart asked.
“Besides the fact that my hands are going numb,” Julia answered, “the answer is Phobos, which is currently in range.”
“If they wanted to shoot us down,” Stuart complained, “they would have done it by now.”
“Stuart, are you stupid or something?” Kenyatta asked. “If they shot us down anywhere else, we’d still chute and land fine. That’s not gonna happen if we’re shot down over the universe’s largest known bed of hot lava.” Julia smiled. There was the man she loved.
And there, coming into their peripheral view, was the inside of the mighty volcano. Kenyatta was exactly right, and that’s why Julia rode just above the lip of the caldera with one eye on her instruments. Phobos could jam her radar, but it was a lot harder for them to hide an incoming nuke or laser blast. She’d see it coming, but she’d only have a second or two to try to dodge it. Her mother must have let her go on purpose…but still, in a civil war, no point in taking chances.
The mouth, or top, of Olympus Mons wasn’t perfectly even. It was about 60 by 80 kilometers wide, and you couldn’t see one side of it from the other without getting a lot more elevation – which they wouldn’t be doing. There was plenty to see from here, just peeking inside the massive opening.
“Lava!” Deleuze shouted. “I see lava!”
They all did. Julia took another look at her instrument panel. “The lava bed is about five kilometers down, guys.”
“Fire and ice, guys,” Deleuze referred to the intermittent sight of the lava far below, contrasted to the icy edge of the mountain mere meters away. “Fire and ice!” Julia poured herself more hot water. It was…astonishing. Worth the trip, Julia decided.
“This is unbelievable,” Stuart exclaimed. “This is like when Balboa first saw the Pacific Ocean.” Not a bad analogy, Julia thought, since Balboa was nowhere near the first person to see it, and he probably had no idea what he was seeing. On the other hand, Balboa’s ancestors hadn’t radically altered the topography of the Pacific before he got there. Olympus Mons had lain dormant for eons until people began nuking the ground under it. Julia knew every generation thought they were living through the most consequential time in human history. But still, it was hard not to have that feeling when one considered the recent decades on the fourth planet from the sun.
“Wave bye-bye, people,” Julia said. “We’re going down the mountain again.”
“Oh, come on, Julia,” whined Stuart. “Just a little longer.”
“Oh, come on, yourself,” Kenyatta blandished him. “Wherever Aquinas is, I think we can safely say he’s not here.” Julia certainly wasn’t going to argue with that.
Halfway down the mountain, Julia could feel the blood returning to her extremities. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Julia watched as the icy landscape below turned back into woodlands. She told herself she was not going to cross the ice line again. No one could live up there for twenty hours, never mind twenty years.
“You have the coordinates, right?” asked Kenyatta. They were headed for the last known location of Dr. Aquinas and his ED-210, or whatever was left of it.
“I do,” Julia said. “We’re going there. And then I want to sleep for at least a few hours.” What she would do after that, she still wasn’t sure.
After another ten minutes in the air, Julia said, “This is it. And this is nothing.” The escarpment consisted of lava-flow-blackened stone beds alternating with pine forest that the lava had missed. But the scale was staggering – the equivalent of 100 Mauna Keas, a part of Earth that Julia knew well, it being featured on her favorite sim.
“Try to put us,” said Stuart, “right on top of where the machine was.”
“Stuart, will you shut up?” Deleuze sounded impatient. “You want the plane to crush what’s left of the machine?”
“Oh, right,” Stuart answered. “Well, the lava probably moved it. Or what’s left of it.”
“86 this chatter,” said Julia bluntly. “I can’t land on it or even near it. Instruments don’t like any of these surfaces so far…” Julia knew, but didn’t feel like explaining, that the jet used a lot of heat to land and take off. That heat, combined with the weight of the plane, meant that you couldn’t park it on anything as soft as, say, a football field, and expect to get it off the ground again. Out in the wilderness like this, you needed something like a big flat rock. Luckily, her instruments found one, hidden amongst the charred lava remains.
As she set the plane into hover mode, Kenyatta whooped. Julia smiled at that even as she worked to get the jet hovering above the target for as little time as possible – so that the jets didn’t melt the landing rock. She descended too quickly, and righted them just before the landing would have hurt. And then, a soft touchdown. “Well, guys,” said Julia, “Welcome to Olympus Mons.”
They all whooped and hollered. The five young people disembarked and felt the dried lava with their own hands. No ring app could quite give you that feeling. And the air temperature was a perfectly pleasant 8˚C.
Kenyatta hugged and kissed Julia. “Great flying, Jules. This is the greatest thing anyone has ever done for me.” Julia beamed.
With practiced ease, Julia pulled off her chute and turned it into a sleeping bag. The landing rock was hard, of course, but Julia was far too exhausted to care. She jumped inside her bag and fell asleep immediately.
When Julia woke up, she recognized daylight belonging to the late afternoon. Kenyatta was making a fire. “How we doing, sleepyhead?”
Julia stretched her sore limbs. “What about you, you’re not tired?”
“I’ve never felt less tired in my life,” he grinned.
She looked around; the others had set up camp and left. Kenyatta told Julia why he liked their location. Because they were on a slight rise, they could see the top of Olympus. Various pockets of steam were emerging from the ground, but nothing too close. The pine forest was right next to them, and they were only about three km from the old ED-210 – that was where the others had gone. If they walked four km the other way, there was a large river of melted ice flow from the top of the mountain. They could probably survive here for at least as long as the emergency rations held out – for the four of them, about a week. They would kill animals to survive after that.
“You know, Kenyatta, Mars was meant to be like Western America in the 19th century, a place where you could go if you hated everywhere else – only on Mars you wouldn’t have to kill Indians. Or anyone else.”
“This is it,” agreed Kenyatta. “This is the Mars dream. We’ve discovered it’s still alive.”
“Instead of war,” mused Julia, “Why can’t we just divide up all this land? If everyone gets, say, forty acres of this, I don’t think they’re gonna feel like fighting.”
“Well, then it’s not going to be paradise anymore is it?”
“Every war could have been prevented by the rich.” He rolled his eyes. “Never mind,” said Julia, grabbing him. “Today let’s just keep paradise to ourselves.” They kissed deeply, passionately. Julia whispered, “We’re like Adam and Eve.”
“Yeah,” whispered Kenyatta. “What did they do again?”
Julia smiled and began to take off her clothes…until they heard rustling sounds. She quickly re-composed herself as Stuart, Deleuze and Isabel made their way into camp.
“I found it!” Stuart exclaimed. “I got a piece.”
“Oh my God!” Kenyatta said. “Let me see.”
Julia couldn’t help but roll her eyes. They were treating a fragment of the old ED-210 like it was a dinosaur bone. Oh well.
The sun set over their paradise as they ate MREs next to the fire. Their campfire conversation was raucous and high-spirited, about Aquinas, scrolls, rings, and Mars’ relationship to Earth. No casual observer would have guessed they had no alcohol with them.
“So Julia,” said Stuart, “You gonna fly some sorties around the mountain tomorrow, or what?”
Julia cut Kenyatta a look; she had learned how to tell when his black skin turned reddish. “Thanks a lot, Stuart,” he said. “I hadn’t asked her yet.”
“Why not?!” he insisted.
“Julia,” asked Isabel, “Are you going to leave in the morning, when the jet’s fully recharged?” Wind and solar would have topped up the Texrom battery by then.
“Well,” said Julia, “I don’t want to go alone. We came, we saw, no one’s here, let’s go.”
They all scoffed, even Kenyatta. “You have to give us a chance,” said Deleuze. “And that means flying around the area, looking for straight lines or other evidence of humanity.”
“That satellites have missed for 17 years.” Julia’s statement set off a predictable round of zealotry.
“Your mother claims to speak for the common people,” said Stuart. “Well, her imperialism certainly doesn’t speak for me.”
Julia didn’t come here to listen to that sort of talk about her mother. She was about to reply but…
“Personally,” put in Isabel, “I’m glad we have a non-believer out here with us. Makes it more fun.”
Julia wasn’t sure she understood Isabel. When she spoke, Julia looked at Kenyatta. He only had eyes for her, for Julia. And right then, that was all Julia needed to know.
That night, Julia and Kenyatta slept outside in the modified chute. The others slept in the plane, not because they couldn’t sleep in chutes, but because they were afraid of animals. Julia was also wary, but Kenyatta insisted he could handle any intruders, and he wanted to “commune” with Olympus Mons that night.
Julia felt she could hear a distant, yet distinct, bear’s growl. No way could Kenyatta handle a bear. No one could. Even one bear was like a dogpile of men: an unwinnable fight, or at least 90% unwinnable. Unlike her sister, Julia both feared and hated such battles, preferring negotiation instead. But you can’t negotiate with a bear. Luckily, they normally leave humans alone.
Julia barely slept the whole night, intermittently hearing what sounded like at least one bear. But it calmed her to watch Kenyatta sleep. His nose and mouth were exquisite features, her own snoring Mons.
The next day, Deleuze suggested that they begin by walking to the river for a bath. Everyone agreed. Julia knew she stunk.
They locked most of the camp supplies in the airplane, in case of animals. Because the others teased her about refusing to get “off the grid,” Julia even left her ring, something she almost never did. The five brought little more than their clothes and the auto-filtering water pouches that they planned to fill up. At Julia’s insistence, they also brought the plane’s three bos, in case of danger. Julia handed one to Kenyatta, one to Deleuze, and kept the third for herself.
The stream cut a pleasing path through the high forest. They all separated to take much-needed baths. Well, except for Julia and Kenyatta, who got themselves out of the others’ eyeline and then bathed each other.
“Careful!” said Kenyatta. “It’s c-c-cold!”
“Yeah, we’re halfway to the atmosphere, it’s going to be a little cold.”
“Being here with you, Julia…this is my dream come true. It really is.”
“What about Aquinas?”
“I…there’s something I have to admit to you, Jules. I had been thinking of asking Aquinas to return to New Jerusalem. I mean, he’s the one person who could unite the planet, right?”
Julia was stunned. Kenyatta wanted to replace her mother? Had she given him the impression she thought so little of her own Mom? “Huh,” was all she could think to say.
“Oh don’t worry, Julia! Now that we’re here, I see that’s silly. The original plan of staying here with him is much better. I mean, how amazing is it out here?”
The five of them remained at the river for more than an hour, waiting for their clothes to dry. Deleuze finally said, “All right, Julia, you ready to fly?”
“Let’s get back to the jet,” she said. Kenyatta had hurt her, and it was almost worse that he had no idea how much.
“Perfect,” said Deleuze. The five of them began walking back to the campsite.
Julia felt a chill in her bones, and it wasn’t just the Arctic river and climate. She was an outsider here. But wasn’t she now an outsider back in New Jerusalem? Well, maybe just an apostate. When she went back, she’d suffer some kind of punishment, but they’d still need her when the mothership arrived.
But what about Kenyatta? Could she just leave him here? And if so, how was she going to tell him? Maybe fly one sortie with him, and tell him all her feelings. The old breakup in a confined space move? That’s one sim she’d never run.
But she didn’t want to break up with him. Oh, this war…
When they arrived at the campsite, Julia gasped involuntarily. They found the stone and charred-wood remains of the fire they’d built last night and…nothing else.
Their jaws were agape.
Stuart blurted, “Where…the…wángbā…is…our…plane?”
Julia had to admit that this time he had a point.