Teaser Tuesday: CLIMBING OLYMPUS

Another free sample of one of my SF novels, CLIMBING OLYMPUS, just reissued in trade paperback and all eBook formats by WordFire Press. As humans transform a planet, the planet transforms them…

This novel is also part of a name-your-own-price bundle, running for only ten more days, BookBale, which includes books by Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom, Nancy Kress, Mercedes Lackey & Andre Norton, Joe Haldeman, Robert A. Heinlein, Mike Resnick, and Robert J. Sawyer.

They were prisoners, exiles, pawns of a corrupt government. Now they are Dr. Rachel Dycek’s adin, surgically transformed beings who can survive new lives on the surface of Mars. But they are still exiles, unable ever again to breathe Earth’s air. And they are still pawns.

For the adin exist to terraform Mars for human colonists, not for themselves. Creating a new Earth, they will destroy their world, killed by their own success. Desperate, adin leader Boris Tiban launches a suicide campaign to sabotage the Mars Project, knowing his people will perish in a glorious, doomed campaign of mayhem—unless embattled, bitter Rachel Dycek can find a miracle to save both the Mars Project and the race she created.

Rachel Dycek

Under a salmon sky, the rover vehicle crawled over the rise, looking down into the cracked canyons of Mars. Without a pause, the rover descended a tortuous path into the gorge, feeling its way with a thousand sea-urchin footpads.

The site of the old disaster lay like a broken scab: fallen rock, eroded fissures, and utter silence.

Alone in the vehicle, Commissioner Rachel Dycek held a cold breath as she looked through the windowport at the debris crumbled at the bottom of the toppled cliffside. The avalanche had been enormous, wiping out all thirty-one of the dva workers who had been tunneling into the canyon network of Noctis Labyrinthus, the “Labyrinth of Night.”

Around Rachel, the wreckage still appeared fresh and jagged. Even after a full Earth year, the pain burned inside her. Another loss, the largest link in a long chain of disappointments, against which she had kept her face of stone. Russians were good at enduring, but inside she felt as fragile as stained glass.

The weathered rock walls of Noctis Labyrinthus formed barriers of reddish oxides, gray silicates, and black lava debris—all sliced a kilometer deep by ancient rivers. For millions of years, the entire planet had barely changed. But now, after six decades of terraforming activities had bombarded the planet with comets and seeded its atmosphere with innumerable strains of algae and free-floating plankton, Mars looked raw. The terraforming had awakened the planet like a slap in the face—and occasionally Mars lashed back, as it had with the avalanche.

The rover’s engines hummed, and the telescoping sea-urchin feet underneath made popcorn-popping sounds as the pressurized vehicle scrambled effortlessly over the rough terrain. Letting the Artificial Intelligence navigator pick its best path, Rachel brought the rover Percival to a halt next to a stack of granite boulders. Back at Lowell Base, operations manager Bruce Vickery had reserved Percival for later in the day to check his remotely placed instruments, but Rachel had traveled only a hundred kilometers. She had hours yet before she needed to worry about getting back.

Alone in this desolate spot, Rachel felt as if she were entering a haunted house. She listened to the intense, peaceful emptiness. Then she began working her way into the protective environment suit. The slick fabric was cold. The chill never went away on Mars—but it slithered up her legs, hugged her waist and shoulders, and clung to the damp sweat of her hands as she worked her fingers into the tough gloves. It took her fifteen minutes, but Rachel was accustomed to suiting up by herself; she didn’t like the interference of too many hands.

Technically, she was not supposed to be out in the rover by herself, but Rachel was still commissioner of Lowell Base—for the moment, anyway—and she could bend the rules. She had logged her intentions on the vehicle assignment terminal as “historical research.” Duration of outside activity: half a sol (which was the correct term for a Martian day, though the fifty human colonists at the base simply called them “days”). And she had set out across the sprawling wilderness by herself, leaving Lowell Base behind.

Rachel sealed the suit and powered it up. A thin hiss echoed in her ear, and the stale metallic smell of manufactured air spilled into her nostrils. Pressurized, the suit puffed up, pushing the fabric of the suit away from her skin and making her feel less confined. The oxygen regenerator on her back burbled as its chemicals reacted to make air thick enough for her to breathe.

Lowell Base environment suits were lighter, more streamlined than the bulky monstrosities the original visitors to Mars had been forced to wear. After many decades of terraforming, Mars was more hospitable to human life, nearly as pleasant as the worst day she had lived through in Siberia.

Rachel clambered through Percival’s sphincter airlock and stepped out onto the powdery red dirt of Mars. With a crackle like wadded tissue paper, the cold wrapped around her body, and she turned up the suit’s embedded heaters so that she could stand tall.

On the eve of her forced return to Earth, Rachel Dycek felt a profound sense of displacement. But she wanted to return to this place one last time, to see her shattered expectations, to see the buried dreams of Dmitri Pchanskii and his dva group who had given up everything for Mars, even their lives.

One Earth year ago today, a team of surgically augmented humans, the dvas, had been mining the labyrinth, using explosives to uncover channels of primordial ice. The blasting brought down a huge section of the canyon wall, burying everything beyond hope of recovery….

Standing next to the rover, Rachel felt the weak but insistent wind push against her suit. Rust powder gusted into the air in tiny whirlwinds. She had been on Mars for a decade now, and she no longer felt light and springy on her feet. The red canyons, the extinct volcanoes, the growing tendrils of green in sheltered areas, no longer awed her. She had lost the energy for enthusiasm.

Rachel picked her way into the rubble, half expecting to hear some sound, some echo of the rocks crashing down into the gorge…the screams of dying dvas, pitched high in the thin air. All the tracks from the Lowell Base rescue missions and search parties had long ago been wiped away by storms and sifting microfine dust. Nothing left, just dreams.

In one wash of sloughing boulders that fell slowly in the low gravity, but with just as much mass and just as much inertia, thirty-one of Rachel’s best dvas were lost—a sixth of their population. Rachel could not understand why her augmented human beings had been fated to suffer such disasters.

The dvas, an English bastardization of the Russian word for “two,” were the second and most successful phase of humans surgically altered to live in the rigorous Martian environment. Performed under the bright lights of world scrutiny, the dva surgery had been much more successful than the great gamble of the adin, Rachel’s secret initial phase.

The dva volunteers had been willing individuals, rather than subjects pulled from Siberian labor camps. The first three shipments of dvas were tough and dedicated workers, while the fourth group of fifty were true jewels, members of the intelligentsia who had volunteered for the augmentation surgery because they considered it their duty to the human race. A brilliant flash of glory, now smothered forever.

Dr. Dmitri Pchanskii himself, a talented Belorussian obstetrician and surgeon, had set an example as the leader of the fourth group of dvas. Watching his outspoken commitment, other medical professionals and scientists volunteered for the extreme surgery, with the justification that becoming a dva would be the best way to do research on an alien world. After the surgeries, they could be part of the environment, studying Mars hands-on, the same way field researchers studied Earth.

Firebrand legal representatives for the dvas had even demanded of the UN that their clients actually “own” the land they worked, not just receive lifelong leases. A Volga German lawyer named Rotlein had played on public sympathies—everyone admired the dva bravery, especially after learning of the horrors that had befallen the adin phase. Why not throw the dvas a bone? The dvas would probably not live long in such a harsh environment anyway….

For a time, the dva project appeared to be a complete success. Over the years, the dvas had received enormous, robotically piloted shipments containing the modules for Lowell Base and the four other human bases scattered across the surface of Mars. Before the first unmodified humans arrived to stay, the dvas completed all the prep work, like servants sent ahead to prepare the master’s room. Three years after the last dva landing, Rachel and fifty others arrived at Lowell Base to prepare for the “Grand Opening” of a terraformed Mars.

But, when a project was as large as an entire planet, the work never ended. Pchanskii’s team of dvas had been searching for subterranean water in Noctis Labyrinthus. But Pchanskii had been a surgeon on Earth, not a geologist or a construction engineer. He had not understood what he was doing when he blasted the fragile rocks.

When Lowell Base received no progress reports from them for several days, and with a large seasonal dust storm approaching, Rachel had dispatched a search team. She herself had rushed out on the rescue mission, as others watched the green-and-pink skies thicken with approaching waves of dust. Rachel had stared at the fallen rocks, the sheared-off cliffs, and the fine dust that refused to settle, whipped back into the air by precursor gusts of wind.

As much as a week could have gone by since the collapse; little wonder they found no survivors, no sign at all.

With grim irony, Pchanskii’s avalanche had exposed a rich vein of water ice that looked like a steaming white gash on the rock. It created a thick, temporary fog in the canyons as the ice sublimed in the thin air….

The weather satellites politely advised everyone to take shelter at the base and ride out the storm. The rescue team, unable to recover dva bodies or precious equipment from under tons and tons of rock, was forced back to the base. Later, after the abrasion from the month-long storm, there had been little point in even looking.

Pchanskii’s group had been swallowed up by the tumbling walls of rock, but Rachel was left to face the avalanche of recriminations, and “I-told-you-so”s, and the sadly shaking heads. She had endured it, barely flinching, with no more than a tic in the right eye and a grim twitch at the corner of her wide mouth.

She could no longer deny that the entire dva project, her brainchild, was at an end, with only a few messy loose ends to tie up: 150 dvas still toiling on the surface of Mars, while spacesuited humans plowed ahead with their own work. In a few more decades, neither surgical augmentations nor environmental suits would be necessary to survive in the cold, brittle atmosphere. The remaining dvas were obsolete, the program a dead end, and they would live out their lives on Mars with no hope of returning to Earth.

Now, Rachel’s decade as commissioner seemed like such a grand folly. She stared at the motionless rubble in the canyon and listened to the whispers of wind and the burbling of her air-regeneration system.

In the first launch opportunity from Earth after the dva disaster, the UN Space Agency had dispatched a new commissioner along with a dozen more mission members assigned to Lowell Base. Jesús Keefer, her replacement, would arrive tomorrow. The Mars transfer vehicle was already in orbit. She craned her neck, looked through her polarized faceplate up into the frigid sky that sometimes showed a few bright stars even during daytime when the dust or the algae clouds weren’t too thick; but she saw no sign of the orbiter.

She stayed at Noctis Labyrinthus for a few useless and depressing hours. Finally, leaving the wreckage behind with the wreckage of her dvas’ future, Rachel returned to the rover, brushing the clinging dust from her thermal suit.

She should get back to the base and put her things in order.

***

Jesús Keefer

The Mars transport slid into high orbit as if with an exhausted sigh after the long marathon across interplanetary space. Then, in a leisurely manner over the next two days, the captain damped velocity to shrink and circularize the orbit in preparation for deploying the lander to the surface of Mars.

During the final weeks of the slow approach, Jesús Keefer ran thin fingers through his neat, dark hair and watched the disk of the planet grow larger. Though the ground-based sensors indicated phenomenal improvement in the Martian environment, sixty years of aggressive terraforming had left little to be seen from this high up. It seemed disappointing, as if belittling the extensive efforts of mankind. But then, Mars was a big place.

Finally, Keefer distinguished a tinge of green through the on-board telescopes, a smear of murkiness in one of the deep canyons, which he insisted on showing to Tam Smith, the young agronomist, and Chetwynd, and Ogawa, and Shen, and any of the other passengers bound for Lowell Base. Everyone quickly learned to avoid him when his enthusiasm began to get out of control.

The terraforming process was working, by God, and it shored up his faith in the slow, long-term project. He cracked his knuckles and grinned like a kid in the small lounge. So much more exhilarating to see the awakening planet with his own eyes, rather than just viewing status reports and video-bursts from the five UN bases on the surface.

Inside the cramped-but-tolerable craft that had been their home for four months, Keefer felt the tug of shifting forces as another short engine burn diverted the craft into parking orbit. Captain Rubens announced over the intercom that orbital insertion was successful. The Mars-bound people in the lounge cheered.

Though the view had changed little over the past few days, suddenly everybody hurried to the lounge viewport. Ogawa and Shen, Chetwynd, and Tam each took turns to gawk, silently jockeying to keep Commissioner Keefer last in line, since he had already spent more than his share of time at the observation scopes.

Keefer simply sat back in his webbed relaxation seat with an inward smile, feeling at peace.

Mars. At last.

He had been only twenty-eight when he had begun working with the United Nations Space Agency on the terraforming efforts. He had served with the ground support staff on Earth, watching the first manned landing in many years. The small multinational team of explorers had collected geological samples, taken data on how much hydrated water in the rocks was boiling out and how much permafrost was thawing and oozing into the soil to chart the progress of the terraforming efforts, already several decades under way. The mission specialists had endlessly imaged sun-exposed outcroppings and sheltered crannies, cataloging which species of the robotically introduced simple plants were gaining a foothold. The astronauts had returned to Earth to a genuine ticker-tape parade, leaving Mars to continue its slow and inexorable progress toward paradise.

Only four years after that, Dr. Rachel Dycek and her team from the Sovereign Republics had thrown everything into confusion with the surprise landing on Mars of the adins—monstrously altered human beings—long before any humans were expected to live on Mars….

Tam Smith moved away from the viewport and gestured for him to look, her wispy blond hair crackling around her head with static electricity. “You’re not fooling anybody with that bored act, Keef,” she said with a smile. “Go ahead, take a look.”

“Caught me,” he answered and launched himself out of the web chair. At the viewport he peered down through a wispy veil of thickening atmosphere, the faint milkiness of high cirrus clouds smeared out near the poles. The bloody-ochre surface carried a flush of olive color, the first heartbeats of new life. He realized he was grinning with glassy-eyed delight, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Ogawa and Shen were chuckling at him and whispering to each other.

What other project could be so grand? Keefer asked himself. This sculpting task could make men approach the level of gods. They were remaking an entire world! This had been his dream since his adolescent years.

Rubbing his black-brown eyes in the lounge’s dry recirculated air, Keefer stretched out to touch the insulated wall of the ship. He pushed away from the port, drifting toward the center of the room. Ogawa and Shen claimed his space to ogle the planet once more.

History would eventually imbue the Mars project with the grandeur it deserved, although the apathy shown by Earth’s general population frustrated Keefer. People had no patience for long-term projects. What was a hundred years or so in the grand scheme of things? The universe itself would blink its eyes in astonishment at how Sol’s frozen fourth planet had suddenly exploded into life.

Long before Keefer had even been born, governmental huckstering had finally brought about a flags-and-footprint manned mission to Mars that managed to accomplish real science as well as take care of the political obligations for worldwide viewers, including the “For All Mankind” plaque.

But during the years of preparation and the actual landing, the world’s space agencies carefully avoided the question of what to do next. Was Mars destined to be a dead end, a dusty trophy like the Moon? The red planet had enormous resources, but the sheer distance and the travel times involved made it unlikely that anything available there could make a difference to lives on Earth.

Seeing that the governments did not have their hearts in exploiting Mars, multinational corporations scrambled to put together their own resource expeditions. Though Keefer had no love for the sheer-profit-motivated industrial mindset, he did credit the multinationals with finally forcing the UN Space Agency into action, to secure a beachhead on Mars before the companies could. In a bold move UNSA absorbed and adopted the other fledgeling programs, arm-wrestled all the competing work into a pool of combined resources, and secured the backing of the major governments. Riding the wave of support, UNSA struck out on a century-long program to make the fourth planet more like Earth, to change its hostile environment so that people could live there.

The terraforming process would be costly, but no more so than a handful of short-term missions to Mars. Terraforming involved merely a lot of time, a lot of tedious long-distance maneuvers, remote operations—and thinking on scales larger than anyone had ever tried before….

Keefer found a coffee tube in the wall locker, pulled the zip-tab that made it heat itself, then sucked on the nozzle, careful not to burn the inside of his mouth. He frowned at the taste—he had accidentally removed a tube with cream-and-sugar flavoring. “Want this?” he asked Tam, who took it from him, brushing his dry fingertips with hers, but he was too preoccupied to notice her flirtations this time. Keefer rummaged in the wall locker again until he found a tube marked CREAM ONLY, and sipped idly.

Back at the viewport, shoulder to shoulder with the other four, Keefer saw how the orbit had carried them over Mars. Below stretched the gouge of Valles Marineris, the “grand canyon” of Mars, miles deep in places and wider than the entire United States. In the northern highlands, a giant whitewashed crater marked Encke Basin, the scar left by one of the comets that had been hurled into Mars as the first step in the terraforming process.

UNSA had undertaken a rendezvous mission to Encke as the comet whipped close to Earth on its 3.3-year orbit, detonating precisely positioned nuclear warheads that sent Encke straight to Mars, where it grazed the atmosphere, aerobraking to slow its descent. Thus it burned up and dumped its contents into Mars’s atmosphere rather than ionizing all the gases into space. The comet strike brought with it cubic miles of free water, as well as enough energy of impact to warm the atmosphere. The shock wave and the heat imparted by the collision released an additional four times Encke’s water vapor from the soil into the air.

The resulting Encke Sea had volatilized in only two years, but the changes in the Martian atmosphere were permanent. The upset in the climate and the brief greenhouse effect melted part of the ice caps, which increased the atmospheric pressure further, which melted more….

The escalation had begun. Mars had been locked in an unsteady climatic equilibrium, waiting for a shove from ambitious humanity.

A year later two transports released samples of airborne algae—voracious for carbon dioxide—into the Martian atmosphere. The algae included a dozen different varieties genetically engineered to thrive on Martian conditions. They soaked up the weak sunlight, gathered minerals from the ever-present fine dust that whipped through the air, settled on exposed surfaces, and released bound oxygen. All this laid the groundwork for a terrestrial ecology. Two years later another cargo ship dumped more algae into the air, new strains. Monitors showed measurable improvements in the air concentrations.

That was the year Keefer had been born.

Six years after that, new algae and free-plankton strains were deployed, tweaked to optimize their metabolism in the changing environmental conditions, while the first species grew obsolete in an atmosphere becoming too rich for them.

Nineteen years after the first cometary impact, a second iceball crashed into Mars. The long-period comet Harlow-Burris, previously undiscovered, roared down into the solar system in an orbit that would take it astonishingly close to Mars on its trip through the ecliptic plane. A frantic mission was set up to give Harlow-Burris a nudge and change its course just enough to smack it into Mars, dumping more water, adding more heat, freeing more of the locked moisture and oxygen buried beneath the sands and hydrated within the rocks.

During Earth’s worldwide recession, when Keefer himself began working as a student in planetary geology, most of the cost-intensive terraforming work ground to a halt, but the wheels of nature had already been set into motion. Algae strains continued to swarm over the planet, making the Martian atmosphere thicker in the lowlands, trapping more sunlight, reducing the rocks and the oxide soil.

When humans again set foot on Mars after an eighteen-year hiatus in manned missions, things had changed dramatically. Preparations for a permanent UNSA base were made. Living modules were sent by slow cargo ships, for automatic landing and robotic assembly. Supplies were delivered in cheap but slow trajectories, preparing for the day when people could establish a long-term presence.

As he continued his headlong drive for Mars Mars Mars, Keefer had tried to engender in his twenty-year-old son Allan an appreciation for the magnitude of the terraforming task. Keefer spent two months a year with Allan, who feigned interest whenever he talked to his father; Keefer felt sorry for Allan, because the boy had no burning goal. But Keefer vowed that when he finally set foot on the surface of Mars, waving his gloved hand at the cameras for newsnets back on Earth, Keefer would be waving at Allan and no one else.

The boy was entering college, where he would probably study space science because Keefer had opened all the right doors for him, planned out his courses, urged him to follow a good curriculum, pointed the way. Keefer had worked hard to ensure that his son’s future was established, since his own new job as commissioner of Lowell Base would keep him away for years. Keefer promised himself he would pay the price just to make sure Allan had a clear trail of footsteps to follow….

Now, hand over hand, he pushed his way to the orbiter’s bridge. Captain Rubens sat back with all lights down except for the instrument panels, enjoying the best view available on the craft. The cherub-faced captain bore a wistful expression: he would not be going down to the surface with the rest of them.

Rubens swiveled around. He wore a bulky green sweatsuit and thick socks to insulate him from the ever-present chill on the spaceship. “Ah, Commissioner! I was going to go get you. I’ve contacted Lowell Base because I thought you might want to talk to Commissioner Dycek, but she’s unavailable at the moment. Think that means she’s in the bathroom, or something?”

Keefer didn’t know yet how he was going to deal with Dycek. He had never met the woman, but her work had certainly raised enough eyebrows and thrown a monkey wrench into UNSA’s neatly planned terraforming schedule. Her surprise project had placed augmented human beings on Mars years before any other permanent presence. First the unruly adins, then the more cooperative dvas set up modular buildings and infrastructures that would have taken ordinary humans many years to complete. But though the 150 or so surviving dvas still provided a good pool of laborers, their special skills were no longer really needed, now that the five human bases had expanded their complement of inhabitants.

He nodded to Rubens. “No matter. I’ll have plenty of time to talk to the commissioner once we get down. We’ve got a lot of transition details to work out, but you’ll be sitting on Phobos for two weeks refueling.”

“Yeah. Get some rest. Lander’s leaving early tomorrow morning.”

As a special treat, Captain Rubens allowed his dozen passengers to transmit brief messages back home. Keefer addressed his videoletter to Allan, admonishing him to work hard in school, making chitchat about how much he was looking forward to feeling real planetary gravity again, not just the artificial tug from a spinning ship. He edited his message several times, vaguely dissatisfied that he could think of nothing important to say that he hadn’t already said. As Terrence Chetwynd took his place at the communications station, Keefer pulled himself back to the lounge compartment.

Looking out the porthole, he could see the dark terminator sweeping around the planet, folding the long breach of Vallis Marineris into darkness. He recognized the giant swelling of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the entire solar system, rising to the upper fringes of the atmosphere.

Keefer picked out three smaller volcanoes clustered at the equator: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus Mons, each about seventeen kilometers higher than the surrounding plains, thrust out in a great swelling called the Tharsis Bulge. Lowell Base was centered between Pavonis Mons and the tangled badlands of Noctis Labyrinthus. The other UNSA bases were located at the eastern end of Valles Marineris, at the northern and southern poles, and in the lower part of the Hellas basin

As the orbiter’s local night approached, the twelve new arrivals went to get some rest for the last night in their cramped ship quarters. Unable to sleep, Keefer doublechecked all the preparations himself, then stewed with anxiety for another half a day. Tomorrow morning they would touch down on Mars.

In his mind he pictured the Mars he had read about as a child, the visions that had haunted his dreams after reading Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. A shiver of anticipation fluttered down his back. The UNSA terraforming work was changing the real Mars into the Mars of fiction. And he was a part of it.

***

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