The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 114: Sol 200

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Of course there had been more subsidence today. Of course there was, Dragonfly thought. Why wouldn’t there be? More subsidence every single day since the Cave Fart.

It was a good thing they hadn’t turned the water back on after repairing the heating system on Sol 197… or Sol 198, either. The cave would have had been full of water again. As it was, it still stank of black, sticky, gooey mud, which was really weird considering that Mars dirt began either reddish or grayish.

After seeing their work undone again on Sol 199, Dragonfly and Mark had gone into conference. The two of them agreed that re-burying the water heating system wasn’t an option until the soil stabilized, which might not be for months. They also agreed that the cave was losing the war for heat to Mars without the water heating system, even with all the space heaters reinstalled and active. So, the water heating system had to be reinstituted, but it had to be a closed system, or at least mostly a closed system… and, for the time being at least, it couldn’t be reburied.

But the question was, how could they heat the water? Bringing in the Hab’s water reclaimer was out; without that the Hab plumbing didn’t work. (Anyway, it was acting up after three straight days of heavy sludge rinsed down the decon shower drain, and maintenance on it would be top priority after the current project.) Building a fire was out; the only stuff they had that would burn, aside from food, would burn a little too… well… explosively. With toxic gases for by-products. And sticking the heaters into water would just break the heaters.

Then Mark mentioned the one thing he did have that produced heat. It wouldn’t do as good a job as the just-below-boiling water from Equestria had done, but fifteen hundred watts distributed around the area through metal pipes might be enough to, Mark said, “tread water” and stop the cave’s internal temperature from dropping back below freezing.

Which is why, this afternoon, Dragonfly was staring with undisguised fear at the Death Box.

It was in one of the largest clear plastic sample bags, sealed in Mars’s barely-present atmosphere, which made it almost as good as a vacuum seal once brought into the pressurized cave. The bag was submerged in a large plastic tub full of water, one of Mark’s sample containers, with the clear lid modified by Dragonfly to include two pipe attachment points. The evil, therefore, was in a can inside a bag under water inside a box, and this fact didn’t make Dragonfly the least bit happier about being within a mile of the thing.

She’d put it off as long as she could. She and Mark (with Fireball’s help) had turned strips of Amicitas outer hull into combination skids and legs for the pipes to sit on, up in the air about half a meter above the currently uneven surface. This had taken a while, not least because Cherry Berry and Spitfire were dragging dirt from the pit dug at the back of the cave to fill in the new sinkholes, which meant working around the pipes without stepping on the surviving plants. And, when the harvest came in three weeks, the pipes would have to be either reburied or moved to get them out of the way.

(The only one not working in the cave today was Starlight. She, of course, stayed back at the Hab. She was feeling better, but she still had four days of no magic to go before Spitfire would check her over again. And anyway, the less she used her patched suit the better. So she was spending the day reading documents on Mark’s computers while Mark’s people used the idle Pathfinder chat to send more books. Before long Harry Potter would run out, but Dr. Kapoor assured them that he was sending a classic series to follow.)

But the pipes were eventually reassembled (again) and installed on their new feet, and the little pump from Amicitas’s heat control system was installed and wired up to the cave’s solar farm (which now had ten solar panels stolen from the Hab to power everything, plus the Hab battery for nighttime operations).

All that remained was to connect the ingoing and outcoming water feed lines to the box with the RTG in it and turn the whole system on.

Dragonfly felt like there were two spirits by her, the ghost of the cave farm and the ghost of the RTG. The cave farm whispered, I’m sick. I’m cold. Help me.

The RTG rumbled, I don’t care. Do what you like. I’ll kill you eventually.

Dragonfly shook her head. I must be cracking up, she thought. It’s that darn mystery hunger again. It’s making me hear things. And being in the cave isn’t helping much anymore. I wonder if Mark will give up some potatoes to plant the edges of the cave? The plants will be cold, but we don’t need them for food anymore, not really. Anything so long as it’s alive…

“Dragonfly,” Mark said gently, “you’ve been staring at the box for ten minutes. You want me to hook up the system?”

“No, I’m good,” Dragonfly said, adding a moment later, “Thanks, though.” With both hooves she rested each feed line on top of the hookups. She spun each union around in her hooves, down the threads she’d carved herself in the pipe sections salvaged from broken bits. She took a pipe wrench in her fangs and used it to finish tightening the unions until the gasket was fully compressed in each connection. The process took about four minutes total.

Mark, as ever, radiated admiration. He never failed to be impressed at what ponies (or changelings) could do with only hooves and mouth for manipulators. “Okay,” he said. “Cross your fingers.”

Not for the first time, Dragonfly was tempted to perform a partial shapeshift, turning her forelegs into griffon claws, so she could do that exact thing. Instead she stepped over to the life support box and, for the first time since the first sinkholes appeared, she activated the main water flow.

In moments the pipes became hot, too hot to handle comfortably. None of the connections leaked. Good, she thought. Got it right first time.

She’d installed one of the spigots from Amicitas near the life support box, at the highest point in the pipe system, to allow air in the pipes to bleed out. When steaming hot water began coming out, she used her own magic- just a tiny bit, but she felt it drain her- to shut the faucet. The other spigot remained at the lowest end of the pipes, so the system could be drained if and when it got too cold and needed refreshing, or when the crops finally dried out enough to require more water.

Mark reached over and activated the breaker switch in the improvised power cable for the water pump. With a soft little whir the pump came to life, and very softly water began to slosh in a circuit through the pipe system.

“Okay!” Mark said, smiling for the first time in a couple of days. “Looks like we have a winner!”

Dragonfly did not do as she wanted to do and run for the airlock or the rear of the cave. She put her wrench and her other tools back in the Amicitas tool box, ready to take back to the rover and to the Hab. She then joined everyone else in relaying sample boxes of water from the “well” to the airlock, where they would be dumped out down the slope, where the water would freeze and sublimate away. After all, they still had two hours of EVA time before they had to go back to the Hab. Two more hours to do everything they could to salvage their food supply and their magic recharge source.

Two more hours in the close vicinity of a metal can with dozens of fins that kept muttering, in a voice only Dragonfly could hear, Death. Death. Death.

My queen, please come and get me, she thought. I want to come home.

Chrysalis floated in her space suit, about twenty meters away from the actual work being done, and watched as two engineers double-checked the clamps and struts connecting the final piece of CSP Concordia to the rest of the ship.

She regarded the two engineers with… not scorn, exactly, but a particular form of condescension. One was a yeti, wearing the orange of CSP. The other was a hippogriff, wearing the white spacesuit of ESA. Both were rookies; this was their first flight, under Chrysalis’s direct command.

What a strange thing this must be for them, she thought. They weren’t part of the space race. They don’t understand what it was like in the early days. They think this is great adventure. They never experienced the real thing, the true ragged edge of the envelope, when we knew we didn’t know what we were doing.

Today we think we know what we’re doing, and we hope it fools the rest of the universe.

Behind her, and in front of her, and all around her, the spirit Chrysalis usually felt in space- and invariably felt when she went on EVA- giggled indulgently. For a moment Chrysalis thought it would speak- it did that, sometimes- but all she got was the empathic equivalent of a comforting, understanding hoof on her shoulder.

Sighing, Chrysalis turned her attention from the rookies to the new module of the ship- the space station with engines, really. She’d seen it under construction at Cape Friendship. Twilight Sparkle had outdone herself. The one module weighed more than the rest of the ship combined. It had to. It contained the new, adjustable Sparkle Drive and more mana batteries than anyone had ever thought to put together before. Adjusted one way, it could probably do several times the speed of light. Adjusted an entirely different way, it might just go to another universe and get back without stranding its crew… maybe.

And because Chrysalis would never not be Chrysalis, a part of her brain calculated that the magic in those batteries at top draw would let any magic-wielding pony or changeling go hoof to hoof with Celestia herself and likely win, provided that Celestia could be persuaded to remain within a hundred yards of the massive freight train that would be required to haul the things around. But maybe…

No. Schemes another day. My subject and my top pilot need rescuing first, and I suppose so do the others. Now if only they could find them.

There had been a blip, just barely above the level of static, in Twilight’s magic tracking system a few days before. It hadn’t produced meaningful results, so Angel 9 would launch programmed for the same narrow range of possible worlds as Angel 8 had been.

It would help if Angel 8 hadn’t disappeared without a trace on its third hop, checking a universe only an inch and a half away from their own. Chrysalis was beginning to share Twilight’s frustrations with the probe, even if expensive blindfold dart-throwing at universes was better than no clue at all.

I’m ready to save them, Faust take it. Where are they?

Seven figures stood around the scorched metal object that had essentially destroyed Fluttershy’s yard.

Sunset saw the lettering, half-burned, on the side of the probe:


Using the flap of her jacket, she grabbed the handle of the least-bent door of what looked like a cabinet and yanked it open. Bits of glittering, razor-sharp precious stones tumbled out. A wire sparked and popped.

“Okay,” she said. “We can’t let the authorities find this. Whose garage can we stuff it inside?”

Twilight Sparkle- still Sci-Twi in Sunset’s mind- bounced up and down on her toes. Even under the streetlights, in the pre-dawn gloom, they could all see the immense grin on her face…

Author's Notes:

The thing about subsidence is, it keeps going. It almost never ends with just one instance.

I live in sinkhole country. The same salt domes that trapped oil to produce the first Texas gushers also occasionally melt away and produce sinkholes. Often this is with human help, as with the case of the old salt mine which collapsed and essentially swallowed up an entire lake in Louisiana.

Or, much closer to home, this: https://www.beaumontenterprise.com/news/article/For-Daisetta-residents-sinkhole-is-just-scenery-4339141.php#photo-4297827 This one stopped growing after a couple of days. Others have grown for a week or more before the subsidence finally ended.

And then, in those cases where people try to fill in the holes, the new earth usually subsides, because it takes time and pressure for moved earth to compact properly.

Thankfully, the cave farm is a much, much, much smaller system, and the damage is limited. But it's still going, and as more water gets very gradually purged from the depths it will settle more. When Starlight's back on magic, something will have to be done to ensure the substrata are stable again.

But in the meantime the ponies are taking a reader suggestion. Having the pipes in the air will be NOWHERE as effective as buried, and the 1500 watts of heat are almost certainly far less than was was pumped through the system from Equestria before. But this stopgap is better than nothing.

In other news, one of my other stories won one of the Everfree Northwest Scribblefest prizes. Check out "For Love of the Love of the Game" if you haven't already.

Next Chapter: Sol 201 Estimated time remaining: 17 Hours, 50 Minutes
Return to Story Description


Login with