Ben Bova is an American writer and editor with a significant and prominent influence on science fiction and nonfiction. He is a former editor of Analog Science Fact & Fiction Magazine, and has won multiple Hugo Awards as Best Editor. He is a past president of the National Space Society and the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Many of his sci fi stories are futuristic, and “The Grand Tour” is a series of futuristic novels about exploration and colonization of the solar system. A major theme of the series is the search for life on other planets. Ben Bova was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for “Titan” in 2006.
The short story “Mount Olympus” is set in the same milieu as the “Mars” series of novels — “Mars” (1992), “Return to Mars” (1999) and “Mars Life” (2008). The major characters in the short story are also part of the novels.
Ben Bova: “Mount Olympus” (c) 1999.
Analog Science Fiction and Fact Magazine, February 1999.
Tomas Rodriguez is an astronaut and Mitsuo Fuchida is a biologist. They are members of an exploration team on Mars. Rodriguez and Fuchida fly to Mount Olympus for a first brief survey of the main caldera. Their exploration very quickly turns into a challenge for survival, and ultimately the lives of both men depend on each other’s courage and willingness to risk their own life.
The six-member exploration team has been on Mars for about six weeks. It is the morning of the scheduled exploratory trip by Tomas Rodriguez and Mitsuo Fuchida to Mount Olympus. The rest of the team will remain at the expedition dome on the Martian surface.
Wearing their spacesuits, the two men are in a two-seater rocket plane, going through a systems-check before takeoff. The rocket plane is an ultralight aircraft, essentially the size of a very large model airplane. The rocket engines, under the broad wings, provide the energy for liftoff. Solar panels on the upper surface of the wings provide electrical energy for the motors of the 6-blade propeller which powers the plane at higher altitude flights.
The spacesuits have internal life-support systems, controlled through a wrist keypad. A battery pack on the back of the suit provides electrical energy to various components of the suit. Radio units on the suit arms will provide a communications link between the two men, and to the comm center in the dome.
The other members of the team watch the takeoff on a display screen. Jamie Waterman is the mission director, and Stacy Dezhurova, an experienced Russian cosmonaut, is the flight controller. Trudy Hall keeps track of the computer systems. Vijay Shektar is the medical doctor for the team.
The twin rocket engines fire up, the plane rolls down the short runway, and lifts off the ground in a cloud of Martian dust, into the sky.
Rodriguez is an experienced pilot. He became a jet fighter pilot after college, went on to become an astronaut and was accepted to go on the expedition to Mars. Fuchida is a licensed pilot to fly ultralight aircraft. He is a biologist, and his plan to explore Mount Olympus was accepted as part of the expedition to Mars.
As they fly towards Mount Olympus, Fuchida has a sense of an unexplained fear. The Martian terrain and environment is very different from Earth. Mars is arid and dusty; the air is mostly carbon dioxide. Temperatures are frigidly cold, at subzero levels. The atmospheric pressure is very low compared to that of Earth. The spacesuits with their life-support systems can provide only a limited time for survival, if something were to go wrong with the plane or while the men are on Mount Olympus, far from help.
Olympus Mons or Mount Olympus is the tallest mountain in the Solar System. It is more than twice the height of Mount Everest. The immense height and very gentle slopes of Mount Olympus make it appear to extend far beyond the horizon. An inactive volcano, it is estimated to be more than ten millions years old.
In late afternoon, the two men land on the summit of the mountain. Rodriguez lands the plane in an area relatively free of large rocks, near the caldera, although the surface is rough and strewn with small pebbles. At night, the outside temperatures will plummet to 150 below zero. The plane’s electrical systems are set to run on batteries with stored solar energy, and the two men spend the night aboard the plane.
In the morning, Rodriguez and Fuchida prepare their equipment for the exploration of the caldera. They walk slowly and carefully over the rough pebble-strewn basalt to the caldera. On Mount Olympus, the subzero temperatures are even lower than elsewhere on the Martian surface. Carbon dioxide in the air condenses to form a very thin layer of dry ice on the pebbles and rocks, creating patches of very slippery ground.
At the caldera, Fuchida and Rodriguez find themselves staring into a deep abyss. The caldera is of immense width, stretching from horizon to horizon and dark shadows hide most of the caldera’s rocky walls. Fuchida as the scientist, and an experienced cave explorer, will descend into the caldera, to make observations and collect rock samples. Rodriguez, as the astronaut and pilot, will remain at the rim. Their suits are equipped with radio units and a buckyball tether line will transmit their radio communications.
Rodriguez sets up solar powered geology/meteorology beacons at the rim of the caldera, to measure air temperature, humidity, wind velocity, ground tremors, and heat flow from subsurface basalt layers. Fuchida notices that the heat flow from subsurfaces at the summit is greater than observed down at their expedition dome site. He wonders if the greater heat energy would be sufficient to support microbial lifeforms. He attaches various tools and equipment to his suit belt, and puts on the climbing harness over his suit. Rodriguez anchors a winch into the basalt ground at the rim and a tether line from the winch is attached to Fuchida’s climbing harness. Virtual reality cameras on Fuchida’s helmet will record this historic first descent into the caldera.
Fuchida begins a slow descent into the dark shadows of the caldera. His helmet lamp provides light but he slips and falls on his side as he hits an invisible dry ice patch. He gets up. Rodriguez can still see him from the rim, and is reassured to hear from Fuchida that he’s OK. Fuchida continues to descend towards a sunlit ledge. Rodriguez now appears as a tiny figure on the rim, in the bright sunlight above.
On the ledge, Fuchida chips away at the rock for samples and checks heat flow measurements. He is excited as the heat flow measurements seem to indicate that the caldera may have formed a few million years ago, not tens of millions years ago. Perhaps there may be liquid water trapped in the subsurface rocks, maybe even microbial lifeforms. He sees a crevice at the end of the ledge, which could be the opening of an old lava tube. Rodriguez tells him to be careful, as Fuchida enters the lava tube. It is still daylight, but in the caldera, the ledge is now in the shadows.
Fuchida chats with Rodriguez as he walks deeper into the lava tube, his headlamp lighting the way. The black rock walls are fairly smooth, and he chips away at the rocks for samples. His curiosity mounts when he sees a small alcove that seems a lighter color. A closer look shows a streak of reddish rock, the color of iron rust. He scrapes at the reddish rock and it crumbles easily, unlike hard basalt. His heart is pounding. There must be some liquid water present for the iron oxide to form in the rocks. And there must be siderophiles present, bacteria that metabolize iron and water to form iron oxide!
He places sealed sample bags of the iron oxide into a plastic container attached to his suit belt. And as he does so, he hears rumbling. The tunnel walls shake slightly. And then he is lifted off his feet and thrown against the far wall, as steam explodes from the alcove. The iron oxide layer had weakened as he scraped for samples, and had released the pressure holding back the steam. He had hit a hydrothermal vent!
Stunned, in pain, Fuchida forces himself to keep conscious. He leans against the wall. He does not seem to have broken any bones but his ankle is badly injured – he cannot stand. And his radio and wrist keyboard are dead! That means the suit battery or its electrical connections have been damaged. He cannot activate the suit heater or heat exchange fans or air fans. Unless he gets help very soon, his body temperature will rise to dangerous levels. His only hope now is that his lack of communications will alert Rodriguez.
The tether line is still intact, but Rodriguez is unable to reach Fuchida again for nearly half an hour after their last contact. He calls Jamie at the dome comm center. There is only one climbing harness and Fuchida is wearing it. Jamie instructs Rodriguez to make his way down the caldera along the tether line, as far as he can. They must get Fuchida out of the caldera before nightfall, when the already frigid subzero temperatures will fall even more.
Rodriguez is afraid and shaken. Then he remembers his brother Luis, always reminding him never to show fear. He now faces a dangerous situation but he is courageous. Keeping in mind what he and Fuchida have already learned about the caldera terrain, the slippery patches of dry ice, he grips the tether line, hand-over-hand, and descends carefully and slowly down into the caldera. The only light in the deep darkness of the caldera is that of his headlamp. When he reaches the lava tube, he calls out to Fuchida. There is no response. Either he is dead or unconscious.
Rodriguez continues to follow the tether line deeper into the lava tube, and to Fuchida, slumped against the wall. And he is alive. To hear each other, they have to talk at close range, helmet to helmet. Fuchida is in pain, and feeling the effect of hyperthermia, but his excitement at finding the hydrothermal vent and the siderophores cannot be contained. Rodriguez says “Old Faithful” has struck on Mars!
With Fuchida leaning on his shoulder, Rodriguez follows the tether line out of the lava tunnel and onto the ledge. It is pitch dark as night has fallen. They cannot spend the night on the ledge – they will freeze to death as their suits lose the body heat to the frigid Martian air.
They try to go up together, hand-over-hand on the tether line, but the line slackens as the weight of both men pulls on the winch anchor at the top of the caldera. Back on the ledge, Rodriguez calls Jamie at the dome to alert him to their perilous situation.
Jamie comes up with a plan that is the only way to save the lives of both men. They have only one climbing harness; and the winch can only handle the weight of one person at a time. Fuchida will go up first as he is already wearing the harness, and then send the harness down to Rodriguez. Fuchida is desperately afraid that if he does not make it to the top, neither will Rodriguez. But it would be equally dangerous to leave Fuchida alone in the caldera.
Fuchida hits the winch activation button on the harness, and feels himself pulled up the rock face. The winch stops, and Fuchida is at the top of the caldera.
Rodriguez waits in the deep darkness of the caldera. He reminds himself: never show fear. Then a red beacon light makes its way down to him – and he grabs at the climbing harness. To his amazement, Rodriguez finds that Fuchida has attached the beacon to the harness with duct tape! Rodriguez detaches the beacon, and implants it into a crack in the rock face. A testimonial that they had been there and survived. The beacon battery is solar powered, and with a few hours of sunlight every day, the beacon can collect and transmit environmental conditions in the caldera.
When Rodriguez reaches the rim, he finds Fuchida unconscious at the rim, but still breathing. Gently, Rodriguez carries him to the plane, plugs the spacesuit into the emergency air supply, and reconnects the battery to the suit. He calls the team at the dome. As they talk, Fuchida regains consciousness. And his excitement overcomes all other thoughts as he talks of his discovery in the caldera.