The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 116: Sol 202

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“Here. Dig here.”

Mark shrugged and stuck the well-worn sample shovel into the dirt about three feet away from one of the cherry saplings, directly under Cherry Berry’s hoof.

All that could be done for the food crops had been done, which is why Mark and Cherry could spend an hour tending to the saplings, which had escaped the worst aside from losing leaves during the brief blowout. Despite their best efforts, three-quarters of the plants pulled out of the sinkholes and transplanted were dying. A number of the alfalfa plants in the areas that hadn’t actually subsided were also sick, leaves yellowing noticeably despite the best encouragement Cherry Berry could give. Even some of the potato plants had begun to sicken, though those were responding better to transplantation away from the areas where veins of sticky black goo had crawled up the root systems.

The bad bacteria were a problem that had no easy solution. Starlight Glimmer made it clear that she had nothing- no spell at all- that could tell the difference between beneficial and harmful bacteria. She couldn’t pick them out the same way she picked out grains of perchlorate or salt. Yes, she could kill them, in theory, but she could only do that by killing absolutely everything in that zone of soil- good bacteria, bad bacteria, plants, the lot.

And in practice she refused, because most of the spells that could do that were the blackest of dark magic- cheaply cast spells that, the more you cast them, the more they wanted to be cast. Somehow, despite her obsessions, Starlight had managed to avoid casting dark magic during her (ahem) Bad Old Days Which Are Now Over, and she certainly wasn’t going to begin using the stuff now. So no, directly attacking the problem with magic was out.

There weren’t many other ways of addressing it, either. According to Mark, the best solution on Earth would be to change crops to something that would grow in anaerobic (whatever that meant) soils. Failing that, you drained and drained and drained the land and aereated it thoroughly- turning the soil as deep as you could go. Unfortunately you really couldn’t do that and grow things at the same time. And while Cherry Berry’s natural earth pony magic helped a little, growing things wasn’t her special talent, so a little was all it helped.

Aside from the ongoing problem with the sticky black goo, the problems with the cave appeared to be stabilizing. The subsidence seemed to have, well, subsided. And the well, which had been dug down in the back of the chamber until the shovels started striking chunks of crystal and still-thawing permafrost, had stopped seeping water.

Of course, part of that was because the cave was still getting colder. Two days before Mark had set up a cup midway down the row of trees, half full of water, as a temperature test to see how the cave was doing overnight. This morning there had been a thin film of ice on the surface. The Artie Gee just wasn’t keeping up with the sheer dimensions of the cave and the eternally cold rock of the planet that surrounded it.

As a last desperation move they’d asked Equestria to begin heating the air coming through the life support system. That was bad for the crops long-term, because it would dehydrate and stress the plants. But, as Mark pointed out, you had to get through the short term to reach the long term, so Equestria did what it could.

The problem was, the air intakes for all the life support systems in the combined space programs of Equus were housed in a single building, the air coming through at room temperature. For months that had been all right, because it had been spring and then summer back home. But now autumn was more than half over, and Winter Ramp-Up and Hearth’s Warming were not far off, and with them snow and bitter cold in the Baltimare area.

And the best Equestria could do was put a lot of space heaters right next to the air intake for Amicitas and, well, hope for the best. The alternative- moving the intakes somewhere where the air could be heated to useful temperatures- would require building such a facility and then shutting down life support entirely while the Equestrian end of the system was physically moved. Nobody liked that idea.

Ironically, the seasons were moving in the opposite direction on Mars. Acidalia Planitia was midway through its (supposed) spring. The Martian days were now longer than the nights. Each sol the cave got a little more lighting and heating. Come Martian summer, the temperatures would rise from the -30 to -100 range they'd experienced during the first crash to occasional days when the peak temperature might just get into positive digits. But despite all of that, here and now they were still losing the heat battle to an entire frozen planet.

And the plants could sense it.

“Mark,” Cherry Berry said as Mark was digging for the rot-infested root Cherry had sensed, “the plants are sleepy.”

Mark stopped digging. “Sleepy?” he asked. “Sleepy how?”

Cherry put a hoof on the sapling. “This one thinks winter is coming,” she said.

“Great,” Mark said. “So cherry trees are loyal to House Stark.”

Cherry Berry often couldn’t tell if the confusing things Mark said were due to her struggles with English or his bizarre jokes. “The tree is going to sleep soon,” Cherry insisted. “Leaves go brown. Have to run past them to make them fall off.”

Mark looked even more confused. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Make leaves fall off? Leaves fall off by themselves in the fall. That’s why we call it ‘fall’.”

“In Pony-land they don’t,” Cherry said. “We have Run the Leaves. Earth ponies run through trees, through forests, make all leaves fall in the same day. Keeps trees healthy for winter.”

“Uh huh,” Mark said, returning to his digging. After a couple of shovelfuls of dirt he said, “You know we need at least one more good harvest of hay to make it to Sol 551,” he said. “Preferably more.”


“You know this next harvest isn’t going to be good at all.” Shovel, dump. “In fact, we might need to use most of the harvest to make cuttings and transplant those. We don’t have seed to replace the lost plants, and the conditions suck for starting new seed now anyway.”

“I know all that.” At least, Cherry knew all she understood of what Mark said.

“Which means we can’t afford to have a winter right now.” Mark struck the root, scraped away a bit of black sludge that had crawled its way through the soil to attack the sapling, and chopped away the affected root with the edge of the shovel. “We’re going to have to re-bury the pipes,” he said.

“Yes,” Cherry agreed.

“And let the water run free again.”


“Which will make the anaerobic bacteria- the black shit here- very happy,” Mark finished.

“I know,” Cherry Berry said. “But it smells like our new compost. Won’t it like that too?”

Mark leaned on his shovel, having spread the gunk-contaminated soil on the surface to dry and air out, killing the bad bacteria. “We’re in deep shit,” he said.

Cherry didn’t respond to that. For one thing, she’d avoided that word ever since Starlight had explained it was equivalent to one of the most crude and primitive expressions in Equestrian. For another, she’d spent far too much of her life deep in… horseapples… and was trying to reduce the remaining part of her life where that would be the case.

The problem was finding a way of doing that without reducing her remaining life, period.

“So, given that we are in deep shit,” Mark said, shoveling healthy, dry dirt into the hole made by the root amputation, “why are we spending time tending trees which we’re going to have to kill years before they bear the first bit of fruit?”

Cherry Berry couldn’t speak. Words just failed her. In fact, her eyesight began to fail too, or at least Mark was looking all blurry all of a sudden.

“Oh,” Mark said. “Yeah, I forgot.” He leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s get back to work. Where’s the next tree that needs help?”

It took a shove, but Mark got Cherry Berry back to work. She blinked the tears away and began walking around the next sapling in the row. This one felt a little sleepy too, but it didn’t have any root rot.

Neither Mark nor Cherry Berry spoke of the little moment again.

Author's Notes:

I wasn't kidding about the melodrama. And sorry, but my brain just didn't have any more character-building moment for Cherry Berry in this situation than this.

It's over two hours each way to the concert venue, and I have other errands to run, so see you either late tonight or tomorrow morning.

Next Chapter: Sol 204 Estimated time remaining: 17 Hours, 40 Minutes
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