The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 113: Sol 197

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[13:08] WATNEY: system_command: STATUS

[13:08] SYSTEM: Last message sent 04h31m ago. Last message received 04h56m ago. Last ping reply from probe 04h16m ago. WARNING: 50 unanswered pings.

[13:08] WATNEY: system_command: PING

[13:10] SYSTEM: No reply within 100 seconds. Repeat [Y/N]?

[13:11] WATNEY: Y

[13:11] SYSTEM: Reply received in 0.021 seconds.

[13:21] WATNEY: Okay. Venkat, I’m in Rover 2 about midway between the Hab and Site Epsilon. I’m afraid my detailed report on the Sol 196 cave incident will be delayed. I’ll send an abstract tonight.

Starlight Glimmer awoke this morning with a killer headache. According to Spitfire she’s running a fever brought on by magic strain and magic exhaustion. The two of them stayed in the Hab while the rest of us went to the cave to get the deep soil samples I’d need to test for a proper investigation.

We didn’t get any soil samples, at least not the kind I wanted. When we got to the site we found major subsidence and flooding in the farm area. Apparently the permafrost layers that used to be methane hydrate deposits collapsed after we left the cave yesterday. There are sinkholes all over the farm area ranging from ten centimeters to over a meter in depth, width averaging about 1.4 meters. Several of these sinkholes- the biggest ones- formed right dead center of the farm, breaking two of the water heating system lines and allowing water from the lines to fill and overflow the nearby sinkholes.

The farm is currently sludge.

I can’t tell you what bad news that is. The methane release caused a bloom of anaerobic bacteria. Removing the methane would have eventually caused those bugs to die off as oxygen seeped back down through the cultivated Martian soil. But excess water in the soil produces wetland conditions- which anaerobic bacteria love.

The rest of the day, and probably tomorrow and the next, is going to be extremely hard labor, at least up to our eight-hour EVA time limits. Cherry Berry and I spent this morning salvaging all the plants we could from the flooded area and replanting them. It’s probably a lost cause. I’ve already seen signs of root necrosis on the deeper roots of a lot of the alfalfa, and the wet conditions will make it worse. The potatoes aren’t as badly affected- they’re much more shallowly rooted, and their planting area was downslope and in a cooler patch of soil. But if we get much more than half the planned alfalfa harvest, it’ll be a miracle.

Meanwhile Dragonfly and Fireball worked on repairing the heating pipes. Until we get the soil leveled and partially dried out again, the water heating system has to remain offline. We can’t afford to add any more water to the system right now. (God, I remember when I was worried I wouldn’t have enough water to grow food with. Now I’m trying to figure out how to purge the crap from my topsoil…)

The current plan is to dig a well at the back wall of the chamber, as far downslope as we can go. We’ll manually bail out the water from there, which means a lot of backbreaking walks carrying sample bins full of water out to the airlock to dump downslope. In fact, considering all the water we’ve added over the past hundred and fifty sols, that’s probably going to have to be a daily chore from now on. We’ll use the dirt we dig out of the well to refill the sinkholes, once we’ve pulled all the possibly still living plants out of them and replanted them elsewhere.

You know, before I became an astronaut I never believed I would be so desperate as to even attempt to transplant mature alfalfa one fucking plant at a time. That’s how bad it is right now. We don’t have enough seed left to replant the entire affected area. And if any of the plants in the non-subsidence areas die from root necrosis, that loss is permanent. We have to at least try to save every plant we can, even if I know nine-tenths of the plants that got flooded are already dead.

So yeah, it’s fun times here. No magic for at least a week, maybe two. At least half the alfalfa crop wrecked, maybe more. Tons of back-breaking labor staring us all in the face.

So, fun times all around. How are you today?

[13:44] HERMES: We’re all good, thanks.

[13:46] JPL: Us too. Don’t rush the report, Mark. Your survival takes top priority. I’ve got our botany team started on water remediation for your system.

Spitfire watched, impassively, as four muddy, mucky, and smelly space suits exited Airlock 3. Without argument, without a word at all, the four figures, two bipeds and two quadrupeds, lined up for the decontamination shower.

Spitfire and Starlight had spent a very quiet day in the Hab. Starlight had requested one of the computers, sitting up in bed and reading from it for about an hour before she asked for it to be put away again. She’d napped off and on since then for most of the day, not even pretending to be anything other than tired, sleepy, and in a lot of pain. Spitfire had sat on the bunk closest to Starlight’s, watching, and waiting for another request.

She’d offered pain medicine. Starlight had refused, because the bottle was less than half full now. She’d offered fever medicine, not giving Starlight the option to refuse. Starlight took it without a protest.

The Pathfinder chat was up on the hab’s projection screen. They saw Mark’s message of continued disaster in the cave farm. They said nothing.

And now they were back, and the first in the shower, and the first out, was Mark. With his suit mostly clean of muck, he took it off, put it back in its special rack, and walked over to the ponies who’d stayed behind while the work was going on. “How is she?” he asked.

“Sick,” Spitfire said. “Fever. Too much magic.”

“But not too little,” Starlight added, chuckling softly as she rolled over in her cot. “Magic exhaustion from the other side for a change.”

Mark looked up at the projection, which still showed his message to Earth and the brief responses from Hermes and from Dr. Kapoor. “I, uh,” he began, “I see you saw the bad news.”

“How bad?” Spitfire asked.

“Pretty bad,” Mark admitted. “Most of the middle of the farm was gone when we got there- just gone. Sunk and submerged. Most of the water’s seeped down below the surface now, but that’s not a good thing. With the cave sealed above and below, there’s no place for it to go.”

“Sorry,” Starlight said. “My fault.”

“No,” Mark said. “My fault. Twice over. I fucked up.” He sighed and took a seat on the bunk next to Spitfire. “Your people said the cave didn’t need sealing. Now I think they were right. Sealing it raised the temperature, melted the permafrost, released the methane. And we wouldn’t have lost much air through the ground. We could have left it alone, and the water would be draining away to re-freeze somewhere way deep.” He shook his head. “But NASA didn’t want to leave well enough alone, and I trusted them on a question of magic instead of you.”

“Not your fault,” Starlight replied. “If the cave got warm, the methane would have melted anyway.”

“But still my fault,” Mark continued. “I was thinking yesterday that we had to act fast to save as many plants as possible from dying from the bad bacteria in the roots. So I didn’t take time to keep thinking out the plan. I rushed it. And now you’re here in bed, and the farm is half dead, because I forgot about the air already in the room and the space underground the methane took up.” Mark took Starlight’s hoof. “It was a bad plan, and I shouldn’t have dragged you into it. I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t think of it either,” Starlight said. “And I’m supposed to be the mission scientist.”

“But it wasn’t your idea,” Mark said. “It was mine. My responsibility.”

Spitfire spoke up, mostly because she didn’t think she could stand another game of My Fault – Not Your Fault. “What we do now?” she said slowly. It was just so hard to think in English. The words ran away and hid from her.

“We rebuild the farm,” Mark said. “We’ll have to plant the last of the seed. We tried to replant alfalfa from the sinkholes, but I think most of them are drowned. We make up the difference in potatoes. We make more batteries, and we get off this rock before its surprises or our stupidity kill us.”

“But we don’t give up,” Starlight said quietly.

“No,” Mark said. “We work the problem. We find a way to live.”

Spitfire nodded. “Not just live. We find a way to fly.”

Mark nodded, getting back in line for a second, spacesuitless pass through the shower.

While Mark was in the shower, Spitfire spoke with her crewmates. They heard her suggestion, and they liked it. They dug through Mark’s food packs and found the thing in question, four times the size of any other food pack. They hid it, putting the rest of the food back in the cabinet just as Mark was drying off.

A couple of hours later, as suppertime neared, Dragonfly stepped forward. “Your attention, please, Mark Watney!” she proclaimed, causing Mark to look up from the computer he’d been idly pecking at for over an hour.


“I come to you on behalf of a special group of people,” the bug-pony continued, grinning her cute fanged grin. “A group which, one day, everybody will join, but which today it is your turn to join.”

Fireball stepped forward. He’d apparently fashioned a half-dozen used sample labels and some adhesive into a makeshift paper hat, bent and twisted into a cone. “Your hat,” he said.

Mark, puzzled, allowed the short dunce cap to be placed on his head.

“For services to your crew and yourself below and behind the call of duty,” Dragonfly pressed on, “for using your head only as a place to keep your helmet, and for failing to be absolutely perfect at all times, Mark Watney, you are now a member of the Royal Buck-Up Society.”

The ponies pounded the floor with their hooves- pony applause. Fireball settled for clapping his claws the human way.

After a minute, Dragonfly said, “Now the members of the society will step forward and say what they did to get into the Society.” She bowed and added, “I failed to pay attention when operating my space suit and risked breaking it for good.”

Starlight Glimmer stepped forward, having got off her bunk for dinner. “I tried to cast a transmutation spell without sufficient energy, just to see if I could turn a pebble into a cherry, and nearly put a hole in the Hab.”

Fireball stepped forward. “I try… tried… to take home per-chlor-ate,” he said slowly. “It start…ed a fire that might have killed us.”

Spitfire was so impressed by Fireball’s effort to speak properly that she flubbed her own line. “I forget make sure all know…” She shook her head, ignoring the chuckles of the others as she concentrated and began again more slowly. “I forgot to make sure that every one knew the airlock was dangerous,” she said.

“Me too,” Cherry Berry said. “And we all almost died.”

Spitfire watched as Mark realized it was his turn to speak. “I, ah, I pushed you all into implementing a half-baked plan,” he said. “I forgot that matter takes up space. Twice. And we’re still cleaning up the results.”

“Now,” Dragonfly said, bringing forward the large bundle stolen from Mark’s food supplies, “in honor of our newest member, let us prepare the ceremonial feast.”

Mark looked at the oversized pack. “What’s this for?” he asked.

Spitfire reached a wing up and pointed at the label. “It says ‘turkey’,” she says. “Like ‘jive turkey.’”

Fireball grinned and added, “And you are what you eat.”

Mark couldn’t help chuckling. “Okay,” he said. “I accept this honor on one condition: who can tell me what the most important thing is about fu- er, bucking up?”

Dragonfly said it, and the others said it in chorus after her: “Don’t do it again.”

“Yeah.” He looked down at the long-forgotten Thanksgiving turkey and dressing roll. If it was anything like his other meals, Spitfire thought, it would be a year old and would still taste exactly the same as it did new. Military rations never changed in that respect. “Well, I guess I better cook this thing, huh?”

“By the way,” Spitfire asked, “what is turkey? Besides an insult, I mean.”

Mark’s smile vanished again, but he only paused a moment before he said, “A fat, rather stupid bird, barely capable of short flights. Like a really fat, ugly, long-necked, bald-headed chicken.”

It was Spitfire’s turn to stop smiling. “Oh,” she said. For a second she thought she would pass. After all, feathers meant sisters, right? But then… “How bad fly?” she asked.

“Wild ones, fifty to a hundred meters. Farm-raised, not at all.”

Spitfire considered this, and decided that she couldn’t be bothered to be a sister to a stupid ugly bird that couldn’t be bothered to fly away from a predator. “Can I have some?” she asked.

After all, she reasoned, it couldn’t possibly be as horrible as bacon.

And it wasn’t, but even with gravy and stuffing it wasn’t an experience she cared to have twice. After her small sample she went back to the alfalfa and potatoes the others were having.

Mark put most of the roll in the Hab fridge for later, filling up on potatoes. “Just like Thanksgiving,” he muttered. “Leftovers for a week.”

Spitfire didn’t get that- Mark said a lot of things she didn’t get even when she understood all the words.

But if it meant giving thanks none of them had died, that was fine by her.

Author's Notes:

I ran headlong into a brief spell of writer's block.

I'd originally planned to have this chapter, and maybe the next, be a semi-scientific abstract of Watney's report on the cave blowout. But, at the same time, I wanted the subsidence to happen today, and I only realized after writing up the subsidence that dealing with that would be more important, and honestly more interesting.

But after I wrote the chat bit, I had no ideas where to go with it.

Eventually, after taking my mind off the hook for hours, I decided to move forward Spitfire's team building exercise a day or two.

So, here it is, what I could come up with.

Now I have to figure out what to write tomorrow...

Next Chapter: Sol 200 Estimated time remaining: 17 Hours, 58 Minutes
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