The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 101: Sol 185

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Spitfire removed her helmet as Airlock 2 closed behind her. It always felt good to go out to the cave and stretch her wings, even if she had to flap constantly to remain airborne. At least now it was actual flight, with direction and purpose, and not the bad chicken imitation that ensued when she tried to fly in the Hab. She couldn’t go fast at all, and she couldn’t hover or carry anything with her, but it was still flight, of a sort.

Spitfire considered proposing a research project for Twilight Sparkle or her egghead classmates from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. A low-magic environment like the cave farm (and not an almost-zero magic like the Hab) might make a good training ground for fliers who needed to exercise physical strength rather than magical talent. And those with both, like herself and (for example) Rainbow Dash, would enjoy the challenge.

In front of her Cherry Berry and Dragonfly took off their helmets and walked over to the suit storage cabinets. Spitfire still called drills once or twice a week, and three drills ago a suit hadn’t been in its proper place when the drill was called. Starlight Glimmer had left it on a worktable after using it for communications with Equestria, and as a result she’d scrambled to the lockers, found it missing, and only then remembered where it was. Spitfire had delighted in informing her that she’d “died” in the drill. It had been a timely reminder that one lapse in judgment could mean death in an emergency.

So the suits went to the lockers, even if the wearers would have preferred to keep them on to keep their hooves clean for lunch.

Spitfire felt good about herself these days. She had purpose. She had duties to carry out almost on a daily basis. Once a week she collected the vital signs data for all the Amicitas crew including herself, entered dutifully into Mark’s computer for transmission to Earth and transmitted via the water telegraph to Equestria. She kept an eye on Starlight Glimmer’s broken foreleg, which was mending quite nicely despite some remaining soreness and fatigue. She performed safety drills- not just the suit drill but the other applicable drills Mark had shown her from his crew’s mission training. She split duties with Dragonfly in running the improvised simulator outside, occasionally taking a turn in the hot seat herself, learning to fly human-style spacecraft.

And twice a week she went out to the cave farm to help tend it, though she saw that less as duty and more as reward for other jobs well done.

“Oh hey, you’re back,” Mark said from the food storage area. “I got something special for you.”

It took Spitfire a few moments to mentally translate the words. It had been a long time since Mark’s words had been nonsense in her ears, but she still had to work for each sentence. “Special?” she asked.

“Is it hay surprise?” Cherry asked. “Again?”

“Nope.” Mark pointed to the microwave tray, which held two freshly warmed meal packs. “I decided to thank you for those stories from your world by giving you all a bit of my meal packs today. Each of you gets a little special something!”

Spitfire’s eyes widened. After weeks and weeks of alfalfa, potatoes, or alfalfa and potatoes, a taste of something, ANYTHING, seemed heavenly.

“First, everybody gives Dragonfly her meal.” This was a minute or two of group hugging, during which everybody focused on their most positive thoughts of her. Spitfire focused her thoughts on an incident from three days before, when the changeling had got Cherry to flub a MDV flight sim session by jamming a maneuvering thruster full on thirty seconds into the flight. Granted, Cherry had demanded the same sim over and aced it the second time around, but it had been satisfying to watch the steely eyed missile mare flustered for once.

So long as it was in the simulator, that is.

“All right, first, Fireball,” Mark said. “You’ll have to provide your own gems, but here’s a spaghetti and meatballs entrée.” He slid one pouch off the tray onto the worktable in front of the dragon.

Fireball blinked. “How did you know?” the dragon asked.

“Know what?”

“Spaghetti is my favorite meal in space,” Fireball said, stumbling around the word favorite. “Meatballs not, but I don’t mind. Thank you.”

“Um… no problem.” Mark said. “I just remembered seeing you eat spaghetti a few times when you first got here. Um… enjoy?” His smile returned as he pushed a smaller, but familiar-looking pouch towards Cherry Berry. “You know what this is, don’t you?” he said.

“Cherry clobber!” Cherry Berry gasped, leaping onto a stool and working at the pouch with her hooves.

“Um, that’s cherry cobbler,” Mark muttered.

Cherry didn’t answer. Steam wafted up from the vent hole, and her eyes rolled up in olfactory bliss.

“Ooooookay, Cherry’s gone for the day,” Mark said. “Starlight, I have scrambled cheesy eggs with hominy grits for you.”

Scrambled eggs wasn’t Starlight’s favorite anything, but after a lot of only two things to eat she was happy to get it and said so.

“And finally, Spitfire,” Mark said, and his grin spread even wider and toothier than usual.

Spitfire prepared herself. The monkey was plotting something. Whatever this was, it wasn’t good.

“NASA doesn’t send fish in meal packs,” Mark continued. “It doesn’t keep well, and it stinks up the spacecraft. But I know you like crunchy things. Crunch, crunch, crunch.”

Payback was an Everfree timberwolf, and Spitfire suddenly smelled the foul breath of the magical monster breathing down her neck.

“So I found the next best thing. For you I bring… bacon!”

Mark opened the final pouch and, carefully, spread eight rashers of red and white marbled meat onto the microwave tray. Each slice made a slight clink sound as it hit the tray.

“Now, I love bacon,” Mark continued. “It’s made out of pig bellies, you know. But it’s just so salty and so crunchy and so greasy. It’s like carnivore candy, you know?”

Spitfire’s stomach did a barrel roll and a dive to port.

“But the thing is, it’s important to remember and honor the pigs who gave their lives to bring us such a delightful and nutritious breakfast,” Mark said. “So as you eat this, I want you to think of those pigs.” He pushed one strip of bacon towards Spitfire and said, “This one was named Porky.”

By now Starlight and Cherry were also watching Mark in complete horror, even the smell of cherries forgotten. Fireball, on the other end of the spectrum, was smirking even as he used a spoon to stir in small chunks of topaz into his spaghetti. And Dragonfly wasn’t smiling or laughing, but she looked far too obviously innocent to actually be innocent.

“This was Petunia,” Mark added, pushing a second strip towards Spitfire. “They went to the slaughterhouse together, their last thoughts of the happiness of the people who would devour them.” Another finger, another rasher. “This is Wilbur, also known as Zuckerman’s Famous Pig.” Another strip. “And this is Babe, a well-known public speaker.”

Spitfire finally found her voice, if not her courage. “You absolute feather-plucker,” she said in Equestrian.

“Oh, no, I don’t want any,” Mark said, deliberately misunderstanding. “You can have Porky and Petunia and Wilbur and Babe. And Miss Piggy, Hampton, Pua, and finally, the great star of Hollywood, Arnold Ziffel.” Push, push, push, push. All eight strips now sat on the tray just under Spitfire’s chin, which was a bit slack from shock. “So honor their memory, and eat up. Don’t let their noble sacrifice be in vain.”

Spitfire stared at the slivers of meat and fat. She knew how this worked- she’d seen it during her career many times, from both sides. It was part of the pecking order. She’d got Mark good with her fish prank, and now he wanted to tie up the score. And the only way she could win, to deny him his victory, was to eat, and eat it all, and at least pretend to enjoy it.

For a moment Spitfire considered backing out. If she did, Mark would have a laugh, and then, knowing Mark, he’d pull out some other little treat from his food packs for her and say nothing more about it. In fact, she thought she could guess what it would be, since at least once before she’d seen the combination of eggs, grits, bacon, and cream cheese Danish in Mark’s breakfast meals.

She could practically taste that Danish.

Which is good, said her pride, because while you’re thinking of that Danish, we’re eating pig flesh. Because no monkey is going to make a monkey out of me.

She scooped up a slice in one hoof and bit.

She didn’t like the fat and grease at all, especially not the coating it quickly left on the inside of her mouth. But the muscle fiber was indeed quite crunchy and had a certain tang to it… and the saltiness lingered on the tongue, almost but not quite overpowering the greasiness.

As disgusting as the idea was, she found herself actually craving the second slice. Which she ate.

As she picked up the third slice, with every eye in the Hab focused on her, she expected Mark to remind her of those names, or to give some other biographical info on her meal, to twist the knife (or possibly the fork). In a similar situation back home, that would be the standard protocol- see what it took to make your teammate crack. But Mark didn’t do that, because (as horrible as he was for putting Spitfire in this position) he wasn’t actually a complete jerk. She heard the crinkle of the wrapping Mark’s people used for food packs and knew, for a fact, he now held the Danish behind his back, waiting for her to cry uncle.

Slice number four, and five, and six went the same way as one, two and three. By the time she swallowed the bits of the sixth slice the salt no longer tempted her. She wanted to be done with bacon, to be done with meat. She was honestly, terribly, desperately sorry she’d ever taunted Mark over his obsessive tap-dancing around his own omnivore diet. Faust as her witness, she would never make a joke of meat-eating ever, ever again.

But her pride still insisted she pick up the seventh slice, put it in her mouth, chew, and swallow.

Her stomach, on the other hoof, threatened to retroactively veto slices one through six.

She ate the seventh slice anyway, chewing slowly, thinking desperately for a way out. And then, finally, she found it.

She pointed to the eighth slice. “His name is Arllnod?” she asked. “Great actor? You like him?”

Mark, whose expression had gone almost as horrified as the other ponies’ faces, blinked and stammered, “Wh-bwuh- uh, he was before my time, really. But I’ve seen a few things he was in. One of the great pig actors of all time.”

Spitfire shook her head. “I’ve not see him,” he said. “You know him better. You bring more honor to his memory.” Her hoof slid the last piece of bacon in his direction.

Mark considered this, shrugged, and forced a weak, shaky smile on his face. “Can’t argue with that,” he said. He picked up the slice, ate it in three quick bites, and then brought out the vacuum-sealed pastry. “Care for dessert?” he asked.

“Later,” Spitfire said. “Bacon is crunchy but very fattening. I need to work it off.” She walked over to the suit cabinets, adding in Equestrian, “Nobody touch that, understand?”

Afterward she was proud of herself for keeping to a slow walk to the suits, then again to Airlock 3 and on out. Somehow she kept the contents of her stomach in place until she got through the Hab airlock, through Amicitas’s airlock, and to the pony ship’s zero-gravity toilet.

The toilet would not so much flush her vomit away as dump it on the ground under the ship, where it would freeze-dry in minutes, making it easy to scoop up and bury someplace. That task would be even more humiliating than stuffing her muzzle in the little metal receptacle intended for the opposite end of pony bodies.

But at least you didn’t show weakness in front of the monkey, her pride said.

And as her stomach found a little bit more bacon it wanted to get rid of, the rest of her mind told her pride to shut the buck up.

He looked at the monitor, at the file, and at its title: “unsere kinder”. All he had to do was attach it to the email with the spoofed sender header, click a button, and commit career suicide on a point of principle.

He’d wanted to be an astronaut once. He’d applied, but he was never fit enough, never quite healthy enough. But NASA never had enough engineers, and it especially never had enough engineers who also had management skills. Granted, his management skills were a lot weaker than his engineering skills, but that was the nature of NASA: the reward for doing your job well was to get a harder job you didn’t like as much. Look at Venkat Kapoor: an astrophysicist whose doctoral thesis had been about supernovas, and somehow he ended up as head of Mars exploration.

So he’d worked his way up in NASA, as high as he could go within the agency. He wore a suit and tie instead of a blue jumpsuit. He’d never get any closer to space than the first class compartment of an international passenger flight, not unless he bought a tourist ticket from SpaceX or Virgin Galactic. (Which he wouldn’t, because as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t justify blowing a year’s salary for an hour or two above the atmosphere.)

But he’d never lost his respect and admiration for the rare breed of men and women, literally the best humanity had to offer, who faced danger not as a thing to be feared or to be chased, but as one factor among many to be dealt with in pursuit of a higher goal.

That was where he differed with the other “suits”. Teddy and Venkat both thought astronauts were a little insane, that they courted danger, that they didn’t understand the risks. He knew better. Astronauts understood risk better than anyone else. If they didn’t, they didn’t get to become astronauts in the first place.

And to be blunt, if Teddy or Venkat understood risk as well as they thought they did, they’d be up in Hermes and someone else would be behind a desk telling them why they didn’t understand things.

But now it was his turn to balance risk. If he sent his email, his career was almost certainly over. Not that that bothered him much; the NASA bureaucracy would almost certainly let him save face, retire honorably, and take up some sinecure at one of NASA’s contractors. He’d be leaving behind the place he loved more than anything else on Earth, but if it meant saving Mark Watney and the alien castaways, he could live with that.

But the risk wasn’t just his own. What would happen if he sent the email, and the Hermes astronauts decided to use the Rich Purnell maneuver? NASA’s hand would be forced. Their careers would be over, with the absolute minimum face-saving, even if Mark and his friends returned to Earth safely.

Well… that would be their choice. He wouldn’t be ordering them to do it.

But… but Teddy, that cowardly, tight-assed dickhead, was right about one thing. The decision was a foregone conclusion. Hermes could make the trip, barring an unforeseen catastrophe like a microasteroid impact. Modifying the Ares IV MAV for intercept was a lot less certain, but NASA would have almost a year to figure it out. The plan would work. And it was, in the end analysis, less risky than leaving Mark and friends on Mars for almost a year more- two hundred and twenty sols in which anything could happen and almost certainly would. The astronauts would know all of this. Furthermore, Watney was one of their own. Their decision was as predictable as atomic decay.

But… how much less risky was it?

Watney was in no immediate danger, at least no immediate predictable danger. Another fifty sols and he’d have the minimum of food required to survive to Sol 768 and the Ares 3B rescue, assuming Sleipnir 2 didn’t crash and Sleipnir 3 got refueled in time to be useful. Another sixty or so sols beyond that, and Sleipnir 3 wouldn’t matter. Mark has the Hab, the rovers, the alien ship, and that cave, so if any one of those lost containment, he could withdraw to the others until repairs were made. And the aliens could provide all the air and water he’d ever need.

They were all still in danger- danger from the unknown, danger from a lapse in attention or concentration, danger from equipment breaking or wearing out. But was it enough danger to justify sacrificing six careers, and, yes, extending the risk of five other people for a year and a half, to cut out two hundred and seventeen sols of it?

His finger hovered over the mouse button, its cursor pointed at his email app.

Then he shifted it to the other email app, the one for his regular NASA correspondence.

In six more days Hermes would begin braking for Earth orbital capture. It would take a day for the astronauts to initiate the Rich Purnell maneuver, assuming they chose to. Engaging it earlier wouldn’t change the arrival on Mars by a day; it would only slightly reduce the amount of thrust required for the maneuver.

He could wait four more days and see what happened.

And in the meantime, he could ask questions.

He opened his address book, opened a new email message to the engineering department at SpaceX, and began typing.

Author's Notes:

I'm not a practical joker myself. I find practical jokes and pranks generally cruel. But there are times when it can be satisfying. It's too bad Starlight and Cherry became collateral damage for Mark's revenge, though.

Will try to write a bit more tonight. Most of today was doing what had to be done (what could be done) to prepare for the next event- Yellow City Comic Con in Amarillo.

After that I get two weekends off.

By the way, "hay surprise" is a bad joke. "Guess what we're having! ... Surprise! It's MORE HAY!" So of course Mark has tried it a few times already, even though the ponies didn't think it was funny even the first time.

Next Chapter: Sol 186 Estimated time remaining: 19 Hours, 41 Minutes
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