THE ELCANO SYNDROME • by Gustavo Bondoni

“It’s the tallest mountain in the solar system,” Campbell said.

“Yes, but it’s on Mars,” I told him.

Knowing Campbell, that was going to be a problem for me if not for him. The space race had originally been reserved to governments, but, as public support for exploration waned and personal wealth increased, government presence in space had been replaced by private citizens. After more than two centuries dormant the gentleman explorer had resurfaced; like their 19th century predecessors, they were completely insane.

“That’s what makes it worthwhile, my dear Mirabelli.”

He was the worst of them. Record runs to the moon had evidently lost their appeal. Now he wanted to climb mountains on Mars. And, despite my better nature, I would be going with him. Damn. “How are you thinking of paying for this little trip?”

“Here we are, in the Drones club, one of the most exclusive establishments in London, nay, the world,” he said theatrically, “and you ask me that? Annoy me not with such trifles.” He knew I hated it when he got Olde English on me, but he was right; this was one of the few places on Earth where a conversation like ours would not only not be ridiculed, but would be met with enthusiastic support. Tradition and the quest for glory, forces much stronger than self-preservation or common sense, dictated this.

Campbell knew that. He looked at the table next to ours, grinned at me, and dived in.

“Excuse me, Lord Belanor, could I have a word with you?”

Ten minutes later, it was done. We were going to Mars.

***

Olympus Mons. Even the name is titanic. I had expected to be impressed, but it doesn’t look like much from orbit, just a larger crater on the surface. Campbell, however, was exultant.

“We’re already in rarefied territory. Are you aware that only eighteen human beings have ever seen Mars from orbit before us?”

We were very aware of it indeed. After six months on the ship with him, it had become impossible not to be unaware of any of the “firsts” that this expedition entailed. Avoiding him was impossible, since we had to spend most of our time in the gym to counteract the effects of weightlessness, and to stay in shape for the climb. He’d been repeating this particular tidbit unceasingly since we’d entered Mars orbit two days before.

We boarded the shuttle, and, two hours later, we were standing, fully suited, on the surface. The awe I felt at the enormity of this was only slightly dampened by Campbell’s statistics.

“Seven people. Only seven people have been here before.” Then he looked around, opened his arms and turned his body. “Team, welcome to Olympus Base Camp!”

Now the mountain was impressive. A gently rising slope at first, it grew in inclination, becoming looking nearly vertical towards top. Its sunlit flank cut a magnificent outline against the greyness of the Martian sky. I just stood there looking at it for a while, finding myself suddenly short of breath.

Campbell saw my expression through the face-shield.

“Now do you understand?”

I nodded. I knew he was after glory and immortality, but it occurred to me that there were certainly less inspiring ways of attaining them.

The climb itself, on the other hand, didn’t worry me overmuch. Most of the slope could be walked and gravity was just under 40% of Earth’s, so lugging supplies would be a breeze, especially since our suits were servo-assisted. The main danger on this hike would come from the fact that we couldn’t remove our suits, due to the temperature and lack of breathable air.

Air supply, on the other hand, would not be a problem. Campbell had come up with a semi-rigid balloon system to carry oxygen. These balloons were partitioned, with helium occupying half the chambers for buoyancy and our Oxygen filling the rest. They were necessarily large, but self propelled: fans running on electric motors giving directional motion, and tiny rocket thrusters available for use toward the top of the mountain, where the atmosphere would be too thin for natural buoyancy to keep the balloons afloat.
Each balloon was tethered to a climber with enough oxygen for the climb as well as a decent safety margin. We wouldn’t be climbing down; pickup would occur at the top in ten day’s time.

***

Watching the red and green light approaching through the Martian night, I knew that, for the first time, I understood Campbell completely. He had done what he came here to do. He would go down in history as the first man to climb Olympus Mons.

And the first to die doing it.

Me? Well, it would fall to me to explain that the climb had been going smoothly, that every calculation had been spot-on, that it was going to be a cakewalk.

And then, with sad eyes, I would tell the watching world that we hadn’t expected the wind to come up when it did, that the fans couldn’t cope, that we’d had to drag the blimps through the sky, using much more energy, and therefore air, than we’d expected.

I wouldn’t need to tell them about the six climbers who’d decided to turn back, calling for an emergency pickup mid-mountain. They’d have given their own interviews.

I’d tell the viewers that Campbell had known it would be close, and that we’d risked going on anyway. Then I’d shrug and say that Campbell had been a bigger man than me and needed more air. That’s why he’d asphyxiated an hour before the pickup, while I could have sat there for two more.

What I would never be able to make the countless new Campbell-worshippers understand is that I would have given anything to trade places with him at that moment.

But there were other ways. I was certain that nobody had yet landed on the surface of Venus. Or been inside Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Hmm…


Gustavo Bondoni  is from Argentina, but his professional life makes it more likely that you”ll be able to find him at your local airport, in Mexico, or online.   He writes science fiction and an occasional literary piece (just to throw off the critics).

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