by Robert Pettus
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He likes writing, but he never found the time or the courage to try and regularly do it until quarantine forced him into a much more isolated lifestyle. He was most recently accepted for publication at Apocalypse-Confidential and The Green Shoe Sanctuary online journals. Onyx Olympus is one of the stories he recently wrote.
The rover descended slowly into that ancient, immense crater; its lights flashing in scanning, counter clockwise fashion into the blackness. It was like being swallowed by a beast so great in size you may as well be floating powerlessly through the vacuum of deep space. So massive, that falling was the same as floating. The ship was actually floating, though, or at least descending in a slow, meticulous manner. That was as far as Ariadne knew, anyway. She bounced back and forth across the small capsule – the main ship was left outside, at base camp – and stared out the windows into the blackness. The light shown through that blackness into nothingness. Complete emptiness. It reminded her of her time down in the Marianna Trench, though this was much different even than that, she knew. Not as dark – there aren’t many places in the inner solar system darker than the Trench – but it somehow felt darker. Certainly emptier, which was saying a lot.
She had to stay focused. She was the first cosmonaut – the first space traveler of any nationality, though that didn’t matter to her – to traverse into the depths of this eldritch home of the Gods at night. It had been done during the daytime, and didn’t seem all that bad. What could be much different at night? Life was math, she knew that. If the math checked out during the daytime, if the geography added up, it would also add up at night. Night and day were the same thing, only with the additional absence of the sense to which humanity most pathetically latched itself.
The ship continued its descent. The lights continued spinning. She was a couple miles into the pit, and found herself starting to get bored. There was nothing to look at. No natural landmarks to gaze upon. No wonders of the red planet to take in. Only darkness.
After a time, one of the lights, which had been programmed to hone in on any abnormality or movement, stopped and brightened – blinking three times in rapid succession so as to attract the attention of the ship’s pilot. Ariadne swung excitedly over to the window. She saw nothing.
“Damn thing is broken,” she said to herself, beginning to turn away from the circular window. Before she had completely turned, she in her periphery noticed a dark shadow move briskly past the light. Ariadne again turned to the window, this time her eyes glued to the outside darkness.
There was no more movement. She halted the ship’s descent.
“What the hell could that possibly be?” she said, “There’s nothing down here. We already scoured the whole place yesterday!”
She stared in nervous anticipation for some time, waiting for another shadowy figure to dart across the light. Eventually, she allowed the ship to resume its slow descent.
She was now more than two kilometers into the pit. She would soon reach the caldera, she knew. Olympus Mons hadn’t erupted in over 25 million years, but there had been a noticeable increase in geothermal gradient in recent years, leading to governments and scientists all over the world – including Ariadne and the rest of her Russian team – to begin research on the geological monstrosity. She could now register the increase in temperature, being as close to the bottom of the caldera as she was. She began looking with intense interest at the ship’s monitors. This is what she loved – data. Numbers, volcanoes, and space – those were the three things that had always been most interesting to Ariadne, and she considered herself lucky to have been able to combine the three of them into a viable career. People were always amazed when she told them she was an astrogeologist, but it really wasn’t much of a difficult job when you were as obsessed with it as she was. Now, traveling into the depths of Olympus Mons, she was in her most happy of places.
Staring entranced at the numbers on the screen, she again noticed in her periphery a shadow from outside dart across the window.
Unable to tear herself away from all of the new data being collected by the ship, she at first glanced in reflexive irritation at the reappearance of the shadow, before realizing the more terrifying possibilities of the situation and jumping across the ship to again look out the window.
Again she saw nothing. She took manual control of the lights, shining all of them in the direction of the shadow, still seeing nothing.
“What in the hell,” she said.
Then, abruptly, there came a shaking crash from the other side of the ship. Something had collided into it! Or maybe latched onto it – Ariadne wasn’t sure. The rover shook, its lights momentarily blinking as if to die, before coming back on. Ariadne fell to one knee, grabbing the side of the counter lining the circular interior of the ship before stabilizing herself and once again standing.
The ship was then forcibly pushed, shaking and spinning as it continued its descent much more rapidly than was safe. Ariadne, now on the ground from the impact of the force, stared up, out the cupola. Into the blackness – now quickly fading as the ship sped involuntarily downward – she saw a large figure, its oval shape shifting and blurring, maybe from the deteriorating light, maybe for some other reason. Tentacles like shadows sprung from its side, moving in a fashion unlike any pattern she had ever witnessed in nature, before disappearing.
The figure vanished. That was inevitable, considering the force and speed at which the rover had been flung. Red lights began flashing in the ship. The alarm sounded, notifying an unavoidable impact if the course of the vehicle wasn’t adjusted. Ariadne dove over to the controls, flipping the necessary switches, though not quickly enough. The rover crashed hard into the bottom of the caldera. Ariadne once again fell to the floor, this time spraining her wrist and injuring her forearm.
The havoc of the crash subsided. Ariadne blinked. There were tears in her eyes. She wasn’t sure why. It could be from the pain. It could also be from the unfortunate truth of her current situation. It could also be from the sheer emotion she was feeling from experiencing the reality of the interior of Olympus Mons. It was likely some combination of the three, she knew. She rose from the floor of the ship and looked out. Bubbling lava covered the floor of the caldera, covering and beginning to melt the rover. Ariadne felt the heat through the rover’s floor, jumping from the ground up to the cupola. She manually cranked the circular windowed door open, the ever increasing heat of the handle burning partially through her suit.
She climbed outside, into a molten, dark hellscape. The ship continue to melt. Standing atop it, her boots — as heat resistant as they were – also began melting. Ariadne screamed. Her visor, unable to handle the intensity of the heat, began disintegrating.
Ariadne looked to the sky, upward out of the caldera. Out of the nothingness flew another dark shadow, coming ever closer. Its oval shape slightly cleared as its form – a large eye surrounded by chains of smaller, connected, circulating eyes – came into view. A buzzing sound erupted from the creature, as if to communicate non-linguistically with Ariadne. The noise affected her emotionally. It calmed her involuntarily.
Abruptly, six extending tentacles emerged from within the black pupils of the rotating eyeballs. Those tentacles quickly lengthened in Ariadne’s direction, sprouting, once they became close to her, three more tentacles from the tip of each – a pitchfork-like appendage. These gelatinous tridents then wrapped themselves around Ariadne, pulling her toward the massive mother-eye. Again she screamed. She was brought directly in from of it – its diameter the length of her entire body. It stared at her knowingly. Somehow, it gave a lidless blink. For that brief instant, the darkness of the caldera became somehow infinitely blacker. More alone. Whatever safety Ariadne felt was for a slit second stripped from her.
The communicative buzz continued. It soothed Ariadne.
The creature abruptly flew upward, from the bottom of the caldera into the walls of the volcano. The caves of the interior, though even darker than the outside, quickly became cooler. Ariadne didn’t know where she was going, but she wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t, at that moment, capable of experiencing fear.