The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 118: Sol 207

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Author's Notes:

So in this chapter I was going to have Mark moan about how winter was coming soon and the plants would go to sleep, etc. etc. And I decided I wanted to know exactly how much time before winter solstice Mark had.

Now, according to the trajectories Andy Weir worked out, which required that Ares III be on the surface during Thanksgiving, Sol 6 is November 12, 2035. Sol 206 is June 12, 2036.

As my most recent blog post says, I did some research and found out that November 12, 2035 in Mars's northern hemisphere is the absolute dead of winter.

So I get to spend the rest of the evening going back through four months of daily posting and adjusting every mention of Martian climate- temperatures, length of days, etc.- to what it really should be. Because I have a Twilight Sparkle in my head who's in a tizzy about this.

Thanks very much for your hand-waving on this point, Mr. Weir.


Today is a day of rest, and both physically and mentally, we all needed it. We spent ten days doing all we could to salvage the cave farm after the minor case of compartment overpressure on Sol 196, and then I spent yesterday doing a lot of badly overdue maintenance work on the Hab. Today I’m resting my sore back, and the aliens are lounging about except for Dragonfly, who went by herself to the cave to do the daily maintenance check.

So: sitrep time.

THE HAB – No signs of weak spots anywhere in the canvas or around Airlocks 2 and 3. The atmospheric regulator and oxygenator are working at 97% of rated efficiency, which is pretty good considering they’re dealing with, among other things, fur. Cleaning out the filtration system was NOT fun. We’re truly lucky the filter system uses non-disposable, cleanable filters. As it is, I could start a fire with the lint and crap I cleaned out. And I might need to, so I’m storing it in a small sample bin against the day we need it.

Side note: I made the comment about becoming a hoarder, and Fireball asked what was wrong with that. I said nothing if you’re a dragon, but humans generally don’t hoard gold and gems and like that. We tend to hoard old newspapers, used wrapping paper, dirty dishes, old prescription medicine, and cats. Cherry began wishing we had some newspapers, and Starlight wanted wrapping paper, and Spitfire wanted more medicine, old or not, so I don’t think I made my point very well.

Anyway, there is one big problem: the water reclaimer. With all the toxins present or potentially present in Mars soil, a decon shower was an absolute necessity. Ares I proved that. But the decon shower was meant to deal with light to moderate amounts of regolith clinging to spacesuits, clothes or skin. It wasn’t meant to deal with viscous stinking black mud full of bacteria of all kinds. It shut down twice in the past week due to clogs, which I had to locate and clean out before we could wash.

And yesterday it shut down again for an entirely different reason. The wastewater holding tank had silted up.

By wastewater I don’t mean the toilet. The toilet has its own system for extracting the water from urine and feces before vacuum-sealing them and dumping them in little baggies behind the Hab. (Which it doesn’t do anymore, because despite months of crapping and pissing into a bucket, we ran out of the baggies for the toilet ages ago.) No, the wastewater tank is where the drains go from the lab/kitchen sink and the decon shower. And that was mostly full of sand and mud- to the point that it couldn’t hold any more. When the holding tank is full, the reclaimer treats it as a malfunction and shuts down until the engineer (me) addresses the situation.

Getting the muck-filled tank out was a minor adventure. The valve was almost locked up from silt, so it took half an hour to close it so I could disconnect it without dumping water everywhere. I couldn’t lift the thing, and I think I may have hurt my back trying. Eventually I got Fireball to do it. I’ve since replaced it with the only substitute I could find- one of the empty CO2 tanks from the MAV fuel plant. It’s a lot smaller than the water tank, but the valves and couplings are standardized sizes. It works well enough in the short term to get the reclaimer running again.

Once I had the old tank out, there were two ways to address the problem: magic the gunk out with my handy-dandy unicorn (she slices, she dices, she makes julienne fries!), or flush the thing out until the muck is rinsed away. Unfortunately my unicorn is on strike because of the magic battery thing, and she refuses to recognize hygiene as an emergency. (Which, considering how badly we have to stink before we rinse off, isn’t that big a change…)

So, rinse out the tank it was. And rinse. And rinse. And rinse and rinse and rinse.

The problem is that a lot of Martian soil consists of basaltic dust. When you get basaltic dust wet, it clings together, and sometimes it goes so far as to form chemical bonds. The ancient Romans added it to quicklime to make the world’s first underwater concrete. Add to that the discharge from soil bacteria of both the oxygen-breathing and sulfide-breathing kinds, and you get the kind of clogs Drano just won’t touch.

So I ended up contaminating about eighty percent of the Hab’s store of fresh water trying, and mostly failing, to convince the crud in the tank to leave. What came out was invariably black as sin and stank really badly. We took it to the airlocks and dumped it.

We’ll gradually get the water back, of course. The ponies water the Hab farm every day using the nearly infinite supply from their space suits. What the plants don’t turn into more plant material they aspirate through the stomata in their leaves. That puts humidity into the air, which gets absorbed by the atmospheric regulator and shunted over to the water reclaimer, which cleans it and stores it. And if we really need it, we can ask the pony bosses to override the suit shutdown failsafes and- very slowly- refill the Hab’s storage tanks from them. But for right now, no showers for anybody.

I refuse to recognize this as an insoluble (pardon me) problem. I’m looking through the limited inventory of chemical agents in the soil analysis lab, trying to find something that’ll loosen up the crap in the tank without attacking the tank or plumbing. And if worst comes to worst I can just wait until Starlight builds more batteries and decides there’s enough magic sparkles in the bank to empty hardened Mars muck out of a bottle.

But the big problem is, what this stuff did to the holding tank it might also be doing to the innards of the water reclaimer. This is an issue. A short-term reduction in the use of indoor plumbing is inconvenient. A permanent loss of the plumbing approaches mission-critical.

So I reported all of this to NASA, and my dear friend Dr. Venkat Kapoor reacted in the quiet, professional, understanding way we’ve all come to expect.

[16:42] JPL: Mother, look! Our dear sweet Mark has called us for the first time in days! And Mr. Self-Reliant needs some help. Possibly even, just perhaps, a procedure? Why, certainly, son. Did you bring your laundry with you too?

Yeah. Prick. Sarcasm is my job, not his.

Moving on: one other Hab issue. With one-sixth of our electrical production capacity at Site Epsilon warming the cave back up, we’re beginning to get undercharge on the Hab systems. Too much demand (especially by the half-choked water reclaimer) is my guess. I’ve disconnected the MAV fuel plant and, with great reluctance, the MDV turned flight sim. That appears to have righted the balance for now. it's only about a hundred sols to the summer solstice, and after that the days will get shorter again, so it’s something we’re going to have to watch.

ALIEN SHIP: Chilly as fuck, but it refrigerates rather than freeze-drying the hay stored inside. It holds air fine, and the electronic-only systems are holding up like a champ. The only problem is that the ship has no electrical generation of any kind, so it’s another load on the Hab- and its internal batteries are pretty wimpy. Again, something we’re going to have to watch.

ALIEN SPACESUITS: Dragonfly declared another make-and-mend day for the suits yesterday, and tomorrow I’m supposed to trim hooves again. She ate most of the old freeze-dried alfalfa to get raw material for today’s work, re-soling the suit feet inside and out and then putting patches on the inside of Fireball’s back (wing chafing) and her own legs (hole chafing).

Peculiar thing: yesterday Fireball was complaining that his suit had started feeling tight. That’s a potential game-ender for him. Apparently dragons grow slowly throughout their very long lives, but they never stop growing. And furthermore, dragons sometimes experience growth spurts caused by emotional imbalance or the size of their hoards. It’s an inconsistent and non-scientific phenomenon- and it’s a dragon telling me this, so even they admit it’s nuts. But long story short, if Fireball can’t fit into his spacesuit, he’s trapped on Mars- period.

Except… this morning he was roaring about how someone had stolen one of his five remaining sapphires from his homeworld, plus both his remaining food packs. And then, when Dragonfly asked him to shut up and put on his space suit for further adjustments and patches, it was loose on him. I don’t think you need Inspector Poirot, or even Jim Rockford, to figure out whodunit.

CAVE FARM: I admit, I’ve saved the worst for last.

The Hab farm, bear in mind, is doing just fine- let’s get that out of the way. Today I used my free time to take cuttings of the small stands of alfalfa in between the potato plants and prepared the soil planting tub with fresh cultivated soil for rooting them in. We’ll give it a week to see if they root, and then we’ll stuff the survivors in a space suit and take them to the cave for transplant.

And the fact is, we’re going to need to do this.

Between the methane, the black bacteria, the cave blowout, and the sinkholes and flooding, about sixty percent of the alfalfa crop is dead. Of the remainder, about one-third is plants salvaged from the sinkholes that survived the water and transplanting, and none of them are what you’d call healthy. Another third avoided getting flooded but is still fighting off root rot, so they’ve barely grown at all over the past two weeks. So only about twenty percent of the pre-methane alfalfa plants are healthy and on course for a harvest ten sols from now.

I tried making cuttings from plants which were obviously too far gone to root rot for them to survive, but in most cases I was too late. Only about a quarter of my cuttings have rooted, and it’ll take at least sixty days before we can get any good harvest out of them.

The potato plants are in much better shape. We lost only fifteen percent of those to sinkholes and drowning. Their root systems were too shallow for the anaerobic bacteria to bother them much, so the only plants we lost from non-sinkhole issues were the ones that had all their leaves stripped off during the brief blowout. And anyway we already have a massive potato surplus here in the Hab. so we can afford to lose potatoes in the cave.

The cherry trees all survived, although six of them needed minor tending to the roots. They were planted near the walls of the cave, so they were less susceptible to sinkholes. The one tree that was on a sinkhole edge held enough soil in its remaining root system to avoid toppling.

So, on the one hand, about sixty percent of the plant life in the cave survived and will probably recover. That puts a hit in magic battery recharge, to the point that it’s now barely better leaving them in the cave than having them here in the Hab. But we could replant more potatoes, or even more cherry pits, and get that back in about a month.

But on the other hand, more than two-thirds of the main protein and minerals source for the ponies just bit the dust. We absolutely need to get that back if at all possible.

Luckily, we’re moving towards Martian summer here. Heat and light will be less of an issue. Hell, some days we’ll even have surface temperatures that break the freezing mark briefly. But that’s the only thing going for us.

We have enough alfalfa seed left to replant most, but not quite all, of the sinkhole zones. We’re probably going to use all but a tiny emergency reserve of that. The seedlings I’m trying to start from cuttings will have to make up the difference.

The good news, of course, is that once we get that last good harvest it’ll be okay. I’d like two good harvests, so we can give the ponies more calories from protein than from potato starch. And after that we can just let the farm grow until it’s time to leave.

A lot of work behind us, and a lot of work ahead.

Here’s hoping it pays off.

Next Chapter: Sol 209 Estimated time remaining: 17 Hours, 22 Minutes
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