The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 103: Sol 187

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Venkat stumbled into Teddy’s office. For once he was the last to arrive. Teddy was standing, not sitting, behind his desk. Annie paced with barely restrained fury from one side of the large room to the other. Mitch, rumpled and worried-looking, had abandoned the couch in favor of Venkat’s preferred wall-propping position. “I was giving Mark his orders for the day,” he said. “What’s the emergency?”

“Congress,” Teddy said, in a tone that suggested he’d be spitting the word if Teddy Sanders were a man that spat anything. “The House Subcommittee on Space Exploration just ordered a special commission to investigate SpaceX operations in light of the launch failures of Sleipnir 1 and 3. Apparently the chairman isn’t satisfied with how SpaceX is handling its internal investigation. And they’ve ordered SpaceX to halt all operations until the committee is chosen and seated.”

“What??” Venkat gasped. “They can’t do this! We need boosters for Sleipnir 4 and for the Sleipnir 3 refueling! It’ll be months before anyone else can deliver a booster with the power we need!”

“I know,” Teddy said. “I’ve got a plane waiting on the tarmac at Ellington Field. I need to make the case before the committee members in person that we need those boosters to ensure the continued well-being of our people on Mars.”

“The ranking minority member’s a real choad,” Annie put in. “I think he got himself on the committee just so he could attack NASA. He thinks we’re wasting money that could be put to useful things like battleships and tanks and observation balloons.”

“And not everybody on the majority is on our side,” Teddy added. “But popular opinion is still heavily on Watney’s side, and especially on the ponies’ side. I’m going to use that to pry at least two more SpaceX rockets out of the committee’s grip.”

Mitch cleared his throat. “How long is that going to take?” he asked, in nothing like his usual I-don’t-give-a-shit-about-your-feelings tone.

Teddy shrugged. “As long as it takes,” he said. “We need those boosters, and we need them in less than three months to do any good.”

“What was their projected delivery date?” Mitch asked, a little more forcefully.

Venkat supplied the answer on Teddy’s behalf. “Three weeks for a simple Sleipnir 3 refueling mission, assuming no more foul-ups. Seventy-two days for a brand-new Red Falcon ready for Sleipnir 4.”

“That’s cutting it tight,” Mitch said. “Really tight. Teddy, don’t you think you should reconsider-“

“Project Elrond is dead,” Teddy said firmly. “That decision has been made. We’re committed to Sleipnir 4 and Ares 3B, Mitch. Now we have to go out and make it happen.”

The director of NASA picked up his briefcase. “Everyone, we’re going forward as if nothing happened this morning. I hope that it will un-happen not later than tomorrow afternoon. Venk, get with Bruce. JPL used up almost all the available spare parts for Mars supply missions building the first three Sleipnirs. Now he’s building Sleipnir 4 from scratch, and our suppliers are dragging their heels. Do what you can to energize them.”

Venkat nodded. “I’ll do all I can,” he said.

“Annie, do everything you can to salvage SpaceX’s reputation,” Teddy continued. “We need pressure off them and on Congress. Don’t be afraid to appeal to the sympathy of the voters.”

“Like I don’t do that every fucking day?” she growled.

“Mitch, keep working over the data logs from Sleipnir 1,” Teddy finished. “And get your teams ready for Sleipnir 4. Make sure the pad crews at KSC are ready to roll the instant we get booster and probe delivered.”

“Will do,” Mitch replied, still quiet, but with a different tone in his voice.

“Sorry to cut this short,” Teddy said, “but I’m late.” And without further comment, he strode out the door, leaving the other directors behind him.

Annie lingered only a moment longer than Teddy. “I’ve got to get some releases written ASAP,” she said. “Christ, this is going to take some fucking finesse.” And she was gone, leaving Venkat and Mitch standing looking at each other.

Mitch spoke first. “What are the odds on Sleipnir 4, really?” he asked.

Venkat shook his head. “The bottleneck is in the tumbler landing systems,” he said. “The air bags for the tumblers are made out of hab canvas, and the contractors already gave JPL all their backstock for the first three Sleipnir probes. The manufacture requires chemical processes that can’t be accelerated. They just finished cutting the pieces for the Ares IV Hab, so they’re starting from zero. It’ll be a month before JPL gets the raw fabric for Sleipnir 4’s air bags and parachutes, and JPL will have to assemble them themselves. That on top of machining the hull, assembling the electronics, building the thrusters and everything else. It’s going to be tight, Mitch. It’s going to be damn tight.”

Mitch nodded. “About what I was thinking,” he said. “Well, we’ll be ready.”

“I know you will, Mitch,” Venkat said. “Just try not to break too many knuckles, okay?”

Mitch rubbed his own knuckles absently. “You mean like Teddy just now?”

“We need to keep focused on task,” Venkat said. “And our task right now is Sleipnir 4, followed by Ares 3B. Which reminds me, I have to talk with Lockheed about how construction of the next MAV is going.”

“I’ll talk with the SpaceX engineers,” Mitch said. “I’ll try to be gentle, though.”

“You know,” Moondancer said over her stack of books, “there are reasons why we generally don’t build houses or buildings with magic. Wood and bricks and iron take much less work.”

“Not helping,” Lemon Hearts said. “Anyway, we don’t need Starlight to build a house. We only need her to make about an inch-thick layer of solid, continuous, flawless quartz crystal over a surface about fifty-eight thousand square meters in size.”

Twilight Sparkle’s old gang from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, along with Sunburst, had gathered in the largest research room at Cape Friendship. Every once in a while Spike would belch and let loose a green flame that would coalesce into yet another book found in the Canterlot royal archives by Celestia herself, by request of Moondancer, Sunburst, or Twilight herself as they thought of them.

“Only fifty-eight thousand meters,” Minuette giggled. “So simple!”

Lyra turned a page in her own book. “We’re talking about an alicorn-level spell, Twilight,” she said. “Would such a thing even be written down?”

“We have to do it,” Twilight replied. “If Mark’s people are right, that cave farm of theirs could fail at any moment. Without that they don’t eat and they can’t recharge the magic batteries they’re rebuilding. So I refuse to believe there is no solution!” She slammed her own book shut, having found nothing of promise inside. “As for power and skill, Starlight’s the most powerful unicorn in all Equestria. She was able to fight me to a draw, remember.”

“Still not helping, girls,” Lemon Hearts repeated. “Let’s focus on the task. The whole cave is lined with silicon dioxide, right? Just not in pure crystal form.”

“It’s practically lined in quartz crystals,” Twilight said. “But not a single crystal, and the cave walls behind it are porous, just like a geode.”

“Okay, so how do we get rid of the pores?” Lemon Hearts repeated. “She used Door What Door to seal the cave initially, right?”

“That’s right,” Twilight said. “But that spell is almost impossible to cast without line of sight, and you can’t recast it without un-casting it first. She can’t use it again without risking a breach.”

“Okay, so what makes quartz airtight, then?” Lemon Hearts asked.

“Heat and pressure deep under the earth’s crust,” Moondancer said, not looking up from her book.

“That’s no good,” Sunburst said, his beard wagging as he shook his head. “That much heat would make the permafrost above the cave explode, wouldn’t it?”

“What about petroculture spells?” Lyra asked. “Wouldn’t the Pies know something about that?”

“The Pie family doesn’t use unicorn spells,” Twilight said. “They pride themselves on marketing only one hundred percent naturally grown rocks.”

“Well, somebody must have used magic to make crystals grow!” Lyra said. “What about the Tree of Harmony? Your castle? There’s got to be somepony who knows how that works!”

“I never questioned it before,” Twilight said. “Well, I did question it at first, but there was always something else to do, and I always believed the Tree of Harmony knew what it was doing, so I never studied it properly.”

“Wow,” Minuette muttered. “All of this trouble just to get rid of a few holes in the rock.”

Pages continued to rustle, but one fewer page rustled than had done before Minuette spoke.

Spike burped, caught the book as it materialized, and said, a little tiredly, “Good Neighbor’s Advanced Wall Mending Spells. Who asked for this one?”

“That was Twilight, I think,” Sunburst said, his own head buried in Flois du Rose’s Dark Side of the Wall.

Twilight didn’t speak.

“Twilight? If you’re done, can you stop sending requests long enough for me to get some water?” Spike asked. He burped a normal burp and added, “And some antacid?”

“Get rid of the holes,” Twilight said. “Minuette, you’re a genius!”

“Of course,” Minuette said modestly. “You can’t be a social secretary to the Canterlot elite without-“

“We don’t need to transmute anything!” Twilight said, warming to her task. “And we don’t need to make the crystals grow or melt! We’re looking at it the wrong way! We need a spell that mends holes- that makes holes go away! That’s all! That’s easy!”

“A spell to get rid of holes?” Moondancer stopped and thought about it. “Cheesemonger’s Mouse-be-Gone?”

“Cedar Chest’s Moth Mender?” Lemon Hearts suggested.

“Midnight Blue’s Shameful Stocking Stitch?” Sunburst added.

Several glares reminded him that, Spike excepted, he was the only stallion in the room. “Where,” Lyra asked on behalf of the majority, “did you pick up a spell like that?”

“And does Starlight know yet?” Minuette added, waggling her eyebrows.

“No, no, simpler!” Twilight shouted. In a flash of magic the books exploded off the table, stacking themselves neatly in a corner in three columns reaching almost to the ceiling. “Clover’s Instant Foundations! Clover the Clever used ordinary soil to form foundations for Canterlot’s oldest buildings by taking away the space between the bits of dirt and rock! It made them stronger than concrete! It’s part of why Canterlot doesn’t break off and slide down the side of Mount Canter!” She pulled out inkwell and parchment with her magic and frantically scribbled notes with a quill. “And I’m pretty sure Starlight already knows the spell!”

In the silence that followed as the other unicorns watched Twilight designing a new hybrid spell on the fly, Spike asked, “So, are you done with all those books, or what?”

Author's Notes:

Buffer of one, done.

Now I have less than half an hour to put together tonight's KWLP (dementaradio.org: tonight's theme, GOOD v. EVIL).

I assume something got fixed in American politics for Project Ares to even be a thing, but human nature is and will remain human nature. Space flight has had its enemies from the beginning- Eisenhower thought it was a waste of money, as did JFK's science adviser Jerome Weisner, and many politicians after them. And they always look for an excuse to throw a wrench into the gears...

Next Chapter: Sol 188 Estimated time remaining: 19 Hours, 29 Minutes
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