The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 111: Sol 195

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Let’s talk about food.

Today is my fourth day in a row on the strict potatoes-garnished-with-dried-alfalfa diet. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say I have no desire to talk or even think about that now.

I have 313 food packs remaining for myself and 49 reserved for the three ponies. At two-thirds rations, that’s about 140 days for me and seven days for the ponies. Since we have to reserve seven days of food for the MAV in case we have to attempt a run for Earth, all 49 vegetarian food packs have be set aside for that, plus sixteen of my own.

Each pack averages a weight of about 350 grams. That means the total weight of those food packs is 126.7 kilograms, give or take a few. The weight of the food packs for the ship is only 22.75 kilograms, but the gang of geniuses they have working out how to get us to Schiaparelli and into space via the MAV aren’t happy even about that. If they could figure a way for us to live off love like Dragonfly for a week (one week’s supply of love at full rations weighs 0 kilograms), they would.

The thing is, obviously we don’t have enough food packs for the trip to Schiaparelli plus however long it takes to get the MAV ready for liftoff. That means we’ll have to haul hay and potatoes with us- a LOT of hay and potatoes.

The current plan is to get us there on Sol 501, allowing fifty days for whatever modifications we need to make. Right now the dream team at JSC is estimating a trip of one hundred days, what with delays and the extra weight on the rover motors and like that. Their idea is to basically stick the Rover 1 chassis under Friendship, add a couple of wheels, and make it a sort of travel trailer for Rover 2.

Yeah. A really big, really heavy travel trailer. You might even say a Whinnybago.

And that much weight will gut our daily travel range, which is why the boffins are only estimating an average of 35 kilometers per day, even if we use the Schwartz.

So we’re spending the day today completing the strip job on Friendship, ripping off every bit of the outer skin. Once we’ve done that, we build a huge pile of rocks for the middle to rest on, remove the thrusters and main engines from the tail, and then lop off the back half of the ship. That will require magic, and Starlight insists that no major spells get used until the next round of battery making, so that last step won’t happen for a couple weeks yet. But we’re going to get rid of everything we can, inside and out, in the meantime.

Cabinet doors for the living quarters and galley? Gone. We may go for the cabinets themselves later- the compartment was built around them, so getting them out the airlock door will be a challenge. Copilot flight controls? Good-bye. Two spare flight couches? Adios. (Which still leaves five, three of which were rebuilt using MDV flight seat parts, to be installed into the MAV when we get to Schiaparelli.) And as we can think of parts that won’t be needed either on the trip or at its destination, they get dumped too. The less our custom-built Whinnybago weighs, the less power it takes to make it move, and the farther we can go before stopping to recharge.

But the thing is, we need food, and we need space. Space is a more urgent issue, in a sense, because we have very little of it and we need as much as we can get just so we don’t feel like we’re trapped in a rolling sardine can.

Here’s the deal. The food packs we’re taking on the trip, as I mentioned, mass over a quarter of a metric ton. But they’re packed specifically to be compact and to stack perfectly, so they take up as little room as possible. The pony ship originally had storage space for over 600 food packs, so the cabinets will hold the ones we have pretty easily.

Raw alfalfa and frozen potatoes aren’t as compact- or even as light. It takes about a kilo of alfalfa and/or potatoes to equal the calorie load of three-quarter meal pack rations (about 800 grams). The potatoes take up about half again the space that meal packs do. Hay rolls take up double the space of meal packs.

Luckily we also have Fireball, who gets by on a couple bites of quartz because quartz is damn dense and heavy. But we’ll still need a minimum of 157 kilograms of quartz for him for the trip.

So: for one hundred and fifty days, we need to add 607 kg to the load, on top of the 127 kg we already have for the remaining food packs. In round numbers, that’s three quarters of a ton and enough space to fill all the cabinets and the bunks in Friendship’s habitat compartment. And that’s before we load any of the other shit we’re going to need.

That’s too much. We’ve already been told that the trip will rely on the Friendship life support system, linked up through the tow hook couplings to Rover 2. No oxygenator, no water reclaimer, no atmospheric regulator, and not more than fifty liters (50 kg) of water as an emergency backup supply. And if the weight budget for this trip is too tight to carry along the main backup system for a thing that absolutely can’t be repaired if it breaks, that’s when you know NASA has pushed way past safety margins and into Are You Fucked In the Head Land. We can’t afford three-quarters of a ton for food.

I’ve proposed two solutions. First, figure out some way to make the trip shorter. One hundred sols in transit, to be blunt, is an absurd amount of time anyway. And the shorter the transit time, the longer we get to spend in the relative spaciousness and security of the Hab, and the less food we have to haul along on the trip.

The other solution is for me and Starlight to duplicate the Pathfinder trip. Rover 2 as currently modified, plus the fourteen solar panels we used for that trip, can travel twice as far per day as the estimated top range of the Whinnybago. So I carry a bunch of food packs- one hundred days’ worth, basically- and leave them at a cache ten days’ travel towards the MAV (say 700 km or so), someplace where we can find it easily on the trip itself.

(Why a hundred days? Ten days in Rover 2 will be twenty days for the Whinnybago. Five people will be eating meals for those twenty days, which means when the rover and trailer reach the cache, the number of total meals eaten will be one hundred.)

This second solution has problems. For one thing, it only saves a little less than eighty kilograms. It requires me to be shut in the Rover with Starlight (or somebody) for another twenty day stretch, and the first time we did that we might have killed each other if Mars hadn’t tried to kill us both first. And the first time we did that we had sealed meal packs, not loose, prone-to-spoilage hay and potatoes. But the boffins might be able to turn the idea into something workable.

I’d very much prefer that we work out some way to speed up the trip. It’s the more sensible solution. If we cut the transit time in half- averaging 70 km per day, say- that cuts the food weight by one-third. Saving a quarter ton would be great.

But for me, the most critical food-related thought of the day is that I will not be able to consume any non-potato, non-alfalfa food until Sol 412. Two hundred and seventeen sols from now.

That reminds me: I don’t know how much salt weighs. We’re going to need plenty. In fact, we’re running a bit short right now. I need to talk to Starlight about that.

For now, though, back to work stripping Friendship of everything nonessential, like skin, bolts, cabinet doors, landing gear, wings, thrusters… you know, pissant unimportant things of that nature.

I shouldn’t joke about that. I don’t want to even guess what they’re going to ask us to pull off the MAV. I get shivers just thinking about that…

The crystals embedded within the standard life support system used by all Equestrian spacecraft were corundum- ruby for hot water, blue sapphire for cold water, green sapphire for the air. The crystals were durable, non-flammable, and among the most amenable to enchanting, but a strong enough impact or shockwave could cause them to crack or shatter. With this in mind, the life support system of Amicitas included pressure-wave baffles to limit explosions and small shock absorbing springs to protect the crystals in case the ship hit something hard.

Each crystal was mystically linked to a larger crystal from the same cutting back home millions of miles and several universes away. The large crystal took up water or air on one end of the link, and it came out of the smaller crystal at the other end, continuously, without pause, for as long as the system was active. The air crystal went a bit farther, absorbing and sending air through one side of the crystal, returning it through the other side, allowing for air circulation and eliminating any chance of carbon dioxide buildup.

When not active, the spell interrupted itself. The crystals remained magically linked, but the smaller crystals no longer received or transmitted material until reactivated by either end.

Once you got past the brain-melting complexity of the enchantment required to turn the joined crystals into de facto ends of a magic wormhole, the system was simple and effective. It had only one major flaw, a flaw which Twilight and over a dozen unicorns and non-unicorn scientists and wizards had worked without success to eliminate. The magic link, the teleport-turned-wormhole, handled ordinary air, water, and very simple, stable molecules without a problem… but it absolutely hated complex molecules.

Simply put, almost anything that would burn would, sometimes, do so spontaneously at the other end of the link. This didn't mean there was, for example, a thirty percent chance of all of it going bang; the "sometimes" referred to each individual molecule. If you put in, for example, half a gallon of ethyl alcohol on one end, what came out at the other end was about seventy percent alcohol, thirty percent water, molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, etc., and enough heat to ignite the remaining alcohol if an oxidizer was present. This was done multiple times, with alcohol, with petrochemicals, with a host of flammable liquids and solids, with varying levels of destruction and/or flame.

One infamous experiment involved actual cupcakes. The heat and waste products of the portion of carbohydrates that decayed in transit turned the portion that didn’t decay into a disgusting hot slurry that spattered all over the receiving end of the link.

Ponies, led by Twilight Sparkle, experimented to turn this into a workable rocket engine. The temperatures involved, plus the shock of ignition and air expansion, tended to shatter the life support crystals within seconds. Four years after the invention of the system, the experiments continued, with only modest results at either making a rocket or preventing the system from becoming a rocket, depending on the aim of the experiment in question.

In early days the air system transmitted a pure 75-25 nitrogen-oxygen blend. Experimentation and refinement of the system later determined that ordinary air would be safe, even with its traces of methane. This was fortunate, considering the effects of prolonged spaceflight rations on the digestive tracts of astromares. Trace methane would partially dissociate, oxidize, and disperse, barely raising the temperature at either end. It was, under normal conditions, a non-problem.

But just in case, each life support system was enchanted on the Equestrian end to shut the valves and power down the other end of the system if the crystal on either end of the link warmed beyond a certain point. This was a safety precaution to prevent either fire or possibly poisonous fumes from spreading across the magical connection. Like all the other failsafes on the system, it could only be overridden on the Equestrian end, where the crystal was that powered the shut-down system.

In the cave on Mars, a pocket of methane hydrate thawed in a bubble within a larger block of permafrost. Unlike the prior trickles of methane, mostly captured by the soil and eaten by bacteria, this large, suddenly liberated bubble of gas erupted through the artificial soil, blowing open a vent hole about five centimeters wide and five meters deep.

The gas circulated in the air, joined by more methane given a route to freedom by the miniscule eruption, and gradually drifted towards the air intake of the life support box.

On the other end, the air crystal, which had warmed only a few degrees above room temperature, began to sputter with a fitful, flickering flame, popping again and again with each fresh ignition.

In moments the crystal reached the temperature marked as the danger point, and the failsafes kicked in.

In the life support building on Cape Friendship in Equestria, alarms went off.

In the cave on Mars, air circulation stopped, and the lights of the life support unit, the only light source in the cave at night, winked out.

The cave went still and silent, as still and silent as it had been for billions of years before the intruders came.

And, unsensed by the one creature who imagined she could hear it, I am here became I am in trouble.

Author's Notes:

I've explained the life support in detail in comments and in CSP, but I don't think I've done so in The Maretian before.

Georg thought of "Whinnybago" before I did, so props to them.

Next Chapter: Sol 196 Estimated time remaining: 18 Hours, 30 Minutes
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