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Olympus Mons had erupted and I was a witness to its tsunami of tremors. What were the odds? The telescope Dad bought me for my eighteenth birthday had this special feature, or so he mysteriously claimed. What feature, I asked. I would discover that for myself, he replied, before driving off to his part-time gig at NASA. Dad worked in the ‘Gizmo Department.’

It didn’t take long.

Mars’s luminous showcase in the sky was second only to Venus’s the night, I trained my new toy on its surface. Mom’s visit to her sister’s home in downtown Houston meant I had the house, with its spacious balcony, to myself.

The view took my breath away; this cluster of stars so vast I felt I’d landed on another planet. Living in an area devoid of harsh street lights offered such an illusion. After two minutes of calibrating and focusing on my favorite world, I fixed on the familiar pimple I recognized as the Mother Of All Volcanoes in our solar system: sixteen miles high, three times larger than Mount Everest, three billion years old, give or take. This particular telescope had a special zoom lens, I soon discovered, like those in a video camera. Plus boost magnification, a fluorite refractor, (no sub for aperture) fast F/ratio, and cam adaptor. I used these and my eyes were transported to a vision that cloaked my senses like a renegade ink spot.

This was no trick of light. This was real. I’d seen those Hollywood conceptions of Mars. Nothing in them came close to what I was witnessing. Except that I felt as if I was being conveyed to a science fiction movie produced by George Pal or Steven Spielberg. The sensation of looking through the glass chilled my bones. Goosebumps sprouted along my arms and shoulders. I never felt more alone.

Through the eyepiece projection, black smoke billowed and obliterated Olympus Mons’s apex. I zoomed back from the dark, hazy smooch to gauge the overall picture. Sure enough, the magma rolled and widened at frightening speed, its diligence like a non-stop freight train from Hell, scorching everything in its path. I sprinted for the HD screen in my living room and tuned into CNN. No breaking news. Not yet. President Trump’s goodwill visit to Mexico would surely be preempted any moment. A phenomenon was taking place on Mars, damn it. I waited a few minutes before surfing the channels. Zero coverage. I tried again five minutes later. Nada.

I had to leave a message on Dad’s cell, my throat catching.

“Yo, Dad! Are you guys at NASA watching this? Olympus Mons is alive and belching! Call me back!”

I resumed my Mars watch and panned east to west along its sullied terrain.

I zoomed in. Something caught my eye.

I pulled on the focus ring and my gut burned. Fuzzy gray figures were scurrying, fanning out from the molten ebb. The slow ones were devoured while the faster ones scattered from view.

Then nothing.

The dense smoke obliterated the dance of death I’d been witnessing. Blackness prevailed from wherever I swiveled the lens to. I paused and played back in my frazzled mind what I’d seen. No life on Mars? Tell that to God. The exhilaration I felt matched the shock to my system. I felt privileged in owning a device that could showcase such an interstellar cannonball. Were there other telescopes like this? Was my father on to something when he assembled it? Or had he dismissed it as another of his brainstorms that didn’t work, and pawned it off on me?

If only he knew. Call back, Dad.

I flashed on the Martians’ skimpy advent, their presence like an animated cartoon of frenzy and disorder. I looked through the lens again. Mars’s shimmering landscape offered only a picture of smoke and ash. Where were they now, I wondered, whoever they were. What did they look like? I imagined the other beings on that planet having witnessed the horror from a safer distance, sounding the alarm with whatever system they used. Good thing Mom wasn’t home. School tomorrow. She’d have me in bed by now. No way I’d be able to sleep tonight. The images kept flooding my brain: tiny, undefined creatures running from a disaster.

A car screeched to a stop outside. The front door below opened and slammed shut. Footsteps clomped up the stairs.

It was Dad, in his white lab coat. He brushed past me and leveled the telescope toward the red planet.

“Dad, I saw something.”

“Yeah, we saw it, too.”

“Saw what?” Say it, Dad. Say Martians.

“The volcano, of course.” He squinted and groaned. “Damn. The whole region’s blacked out. Can’t see anything.”

“Did you spot them?” I asked.

He frowned. “Spot what?”

How else to put this. The Martians, Dad.”

He stared at me as if I had announced I was leaving home. “The hell are you talking about?”

My eyes bulged. “I saw them! A whole stampede of them!”

He let that one simmer, his mouth a tight line. “Go to bed.”

“It works, Dad, your special zoom lens.”

“Go to bed, David.”

I had to cut off his path to the living room. “Whoa! Just hear me out!”

He whirled to face me. “Look, Dave, when magnification gets too high, subjects become dim and lose contrast, okay? What you saw was a spherical aberration, a geometric pincushion distortion.”


“Stop making excuses for me!” he added, and fixed me a glare that said enough is enough before he padded to his bedroom and slammed the door shut. I didn’t dare tell him that the camera he mounted was unable to take photos. But that otherwise, he had finally assembled an optical design that performed, that justified his sleepless nights and quarrels with Mom.

I turned on CNN again. Just the usual Earthly delights: bombings, shootings, social distancing, and discrepant weather reports. Exams tomorrow. I crawled into bed, my mind clashing with Dad’s defeatist doctrine: another invention of his that didn’t quite work.


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