The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 123: Sol 215

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“… but why? I still can’t get over it!”

“Cherry, English, we’re with Mark, remember?”

“Okay. Why did Snape kill Dumbledore? How could he do that? I thought he was good?”

“Snape swore a magic oath, Cherry. Unicorns used to do that sort of thing, about two hundred years ago. We quit because ponies found themselves compelled to-“

“What’s compelled?”

“Forced against their will to do really horrible things. Maybe Snape didn’t want to kill Dumbledore, but the oath forced him to so Draco’s mission wouldn’t fail.”

“But… but… I don’t have the English… rrgh! Snape could have found another way!”

“What I don’t understand is why Dumbledore let Snape kill him. Obviously he knew it was coming. But instead of trying to stop it, he deliberately prevented Harry from doing anything until it was too late! And I don’t see what that gains him!”

The discussion of the ending of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which they’d finished off the night before, continued in the rover’s back seat. Meanwhile Dragonfly stood as close to Mark’s driver seat as she dared- as close as she could trust herself, and silently prayed, Please, please don’t ask my opinion. Don’t even ask me to speak. Please, please, please.

She’d all but confirmed that she was starving for magic. Not for love- her holes were mostly closed, that particular hunger virtually sated. But she’d awakened that morning feeling hungrier, in that weird way she’d only experienced on Mars, than she’d ever been in her life. Ever. She was ravenous. Part of her wanted to grab the nearest pony or dragon or human and suck them dry of love, and another part knew it wouldn’t help a bit because love wasn’t what her system craved.

That second part of her held majority rule for the moment, but the parliament of her mind was going through one vote of confidence after another, with a mental MP or two defecting with every vote.

She’d responded to the first good-morning greeting with a hiss, and she’d had to do a lot of verbal tap-dancing to write it off as bad feelings over the ending of the sixth Potter book. But ever since then she’d remained as silent as possible. She didn’t trust herself. The next word out of her muzzle might be the ancient Changeling word for “prey”, or “dinner,” or, “Nothing personal, but the miracle of nature has decreed it is your turn as the Blue Plate Special.” All the same word, and a very short word if you didn’t count the duplicate S’s after the third, but that was because ancient Changeling was barely different from the random sounds made by a mindless animal.

Because, of course, a changeling starved, angry or afraid beyond endurance usually was a mindless animal.

The breakfast hug hadn’t helped. If anything it had made keeping control harder, because every instinct Dragonfly had screamed at her to take advantage of such willing prey. And given how she felt, the last thing she wanted to do was to join Mark, Cherry and Starlight Glimmer on a trip to the cave farm.

But she had to, and she’d begged to be allowed to come. She’d had to beg because, on Mark’s home world, many things were happening this day: two launches of resupply ships and the close fly-by of the ship that would bring the supplies, and rescue, to Mars. Everyone wanted to keep posted on events, even Cape Friendship back in their home universe, and Dragonfly was the best English speaker and surest Mares-code hoof in the crew. But she’d begged Mark, and Mark had agreed, and Cherry Berry and Starlight hadn’t wanted to override him, so the job of relaying the news from the Hab to the cave had been left to Spitfire and Fireball, the two worst English speakers and code-tappers.

The reason she’d had to come was that today, after multiple delays, Starlight was finally going to make more magic batteries, which required using two or three of the existing batteries to create a magic field to work within. That field would ease the hunger, as it had done before, and keep Dragonfly safe and sane for a little while longer.

It had worked the last time they’d made batteries. The problem was, that had been thirty-two days before. The previous two times, it had been less than twenty days between field events. If it had helped before, it obviously hadn’t helped as much as she’d wanted to believe.

“Mark? What do you think?” Starlight asked. “Why would Dumbledore let himself be killed?”

Mark, Dragonfly sensed, was amused by the question- not that he found it funny, but amused anyway. “I’m not saying,” he said. “I’ve read the next book and you haven’t, not yet. We can talk about it after you get through the Deathly Hallows.”

“Oh, poo,” Starlight muttered. “Dragonfly-“

Rover 2, Amicitas.” Fireball’s gruff voice echoed through the rover cabin through three headsets and, in Mark’s case, a bare chip of quartz.

Friendship, this is Friendship Actual,” Cherry Berry responded. “English only, please. Remember protocol.”

Fireball growled, but before he could say anything in either English or Equestrian Spitfire jumped in. “Message from NASA,” she said. “Sleipnir 4 is safe orbit. Probe passes internal checks. Lightning strike during launch caused no malf… malfunction. All go for Hermes inter… inter..”

“Intercept?” Starlight suggested.

“All go for Hermes in-ter-cept burn,” Spitfire pronounced carefully, “at 13:17 hours Houston time. Sleipnir 5 currently go for launch on s-ched-u-lee from Ji… Ji…” She broke down and added in very testy Equestrian, “Don’t ask me to report in English when the stupid names aren’t in English! How do you even pronounce this J-I-U-whatever?

“Jiuquan,” Mark chipped in, having understood the important part of the rant. “It’s in China.” He then made a noise which, if one was of a generous mind, sounded like the Equestrian for, “Not your sheath.”

There was a profound silence which Dragonfly, to her own surprise, found easy to break. “Mark,” she said, “remember when we asked you to stop trying to speak pony? We really, really meant it.”

“What did I say this time?” Mark asked, sounding (and feeling) defeated. “I meant to say not your fault.”

“Not telling you,” Dragonfly said.

“How bad?”

“You didn’t actually ask us to bed,” Dragonfly replied, cutting off the words this time. “Other than that… pretty bad.”

“I continue,” Spitfire said in a tone that, in either English or Equestrian, meant shut up right now.Sleipnir 5 currently go for launch on s-ched-u-lee from Gee-You-Kwon at 13:03 hours Houston time. Hermes closest approach to Earth currently est… est… I will get this myself… est-i-mate-duh at 13:38 hours Houston time. All systems go at this time. Message ends.”

Friendship Actual confirms, Friendship,” Cherry Berry said. “Good work.”

“I’ll have some lessons for- ow!” Starlight rubbed her flank where Cherry had swatted it with a foreleg. “I mean, good job, Spitfire.”

Fireball’s chuckle rattled over the comms. “Signing off until more update from Earth,” he said. “Friendship out.”

The magic-based communications system the ponies used and the electromagnetic radio used by humans weren’t compatible. The jury-rigged replacement antenna for the Hab radio couldn’t reach over the Martian horizon, resulting in a maximum range of just under four kilometers. That meant the only long-distance comms the castaways had was the pony comms, and even then only when Amicitas’s telepresence spell was activated. Without that the suit comms, powered solely by the wearer’s own magic, reached at most two and a half kilometers. But the telepresence spell sucked up mana battery charge like a salt addict, so it could only be activated a few minutes at a time to conserve power.

As a result, Spitfire sat alone in the Hab, while Fireball sat, miserably cold even in his spacesuit, in Amicitas. When NASA sent a status update over the Pathfinder chat, Spitfire would tell Fireball, and Fireball would connect a mana battery, activate the telepresence system, and contact the others. Once contact was established, Spitfire would report, and then the system would shut down again.

It was ridiculously complicated, but it worked.

“Okay,” Mark said, “one burn down, two to go.”

“Three burns? I thought there were only two supply ships,” Cherry Berry said.

Sleipnir 4 is only in orbit right now,” Mark said. “Sleipnir 5 will launch straight from China without orbiting, because Hermes will be almost overhead at launch time. But Florida is on the other side of the globe, so Sleipnir 4 had to enter orbit first and swing around to get moving in the right direction. After a couple orbits, it’ll be right over China along with Hermes at the right time.”

“I understand,” Cherry said. “Sort of like your first orbital mission, Dragonfly.”

Dragonfly didn’t answer. That mission had been her finest moment as a pilot, back when they were still using one-pony capsules, back before she became a full-time engineer. But as much as she might have liked to brag about her heroic and death-defying CSP Mission 21, her struggle to appear normal while a starving monster rattled its cage inside her dampened her enthusiasm about the subject.

“What was that bit about lightning?” Starlight asked, and Dragonfly mentally thanked her for changing the subject.

“Normally launching into more than twenty percent cloud cover is a flight-rules violation,” Mark said. “But the weather forecast for Florida was for afternoon thunderstorms. I guess the storms came in early and NASA decided not to wait for better weather.” He shrugged, his hands still on the rover’s steering wheel, and added, “It’s not the first time NASA launched into bad weather and got away with it.”

“That phrase sounds just as bad in English as it does in Equestrian,” Cherry Berry muttered in her native tongue.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that?” Mark asked.

Dragonfly mentally beat her inner monster with a stick until it retreated, then found her tongue to say, “You could say ‘got away with it’ was the unofficial motto of my people’s space program.”

“Really?” Mark asked. “Why am I not a bit surprised?”

A few minutes later the rover arrived at the cave farm. Two airlocks later the four of them got to work. Cherry Berry and Mark spent the first hour working on the farm itself, checking the surviving plants and the transplanted cuttings and sadly weeding out the plants which hadn’t made it. Dragonfly and Starlight Glimmer set up six empty battery casings salvaged from the old Sparkle Drive power array, then went back into the deeper part of the cave to find suitable crystals to put inside them, plus about a hundred kilograms of smaller crystal cuttings of various colors for Fireball’s meals for the next month.

If Starlight was the scientist, Dragonfly’s job today was bottle-washer. She carried things and did what she was told, leaving Starlight to do the precise selection and cutting of the crystals. That suited Dragonfly fine on multiple levels. She could lift things and zap things with her magic, but not while her system was starved for the stuff. And even in a proper magic environment, she didn’t have the fine control for cutting things that Starlight had. So she happily carried one heavy load of shiny rocks back and forth from the Lunch Buffet and Orb chambers to the work area at the front of the farm, basking in the momentary relief brought by the splash-over aura of Starlight’s cutting and telekinesis spells.

Of course, that splash-over awakened the beast and made it hungrier than ever for more, so she was more than happy to be given a task that involved walking a couple hundred meters away from her most likely victim over difficult terrain with a heavy load on her back. The effort distracted the beast long enough for Dragonfly to be sure of her self-control on the way back.

Once the crystals were harvested, it was Starlight’s and Dragonfly’s task to install the blank crystals into the battery casings. That did require a little magic, and Dragonfly couldn’t avoid it this time, but at least she had access to one of the existing magic batteries for the task. It was a struggle to keep herself from draining the battery dry at one shot, but she did her part and had three casings firmly clamped around new crystals with some power still in her battery at the end, if only a quarter what Starlight had left in hers after the same operation.

Then, finally, came the time Dragonfly had been waiting for- mentally pleading for, to be honest. She and Starlight hooked up the Jacolt’s ladder rigs to two fresh, full batteries and wired the remaining three fresh batteries together in circuit so Starlight could draw on them all for the enchantment process. This done, Dragonfly took several steps away from both Starlight and the batteries, just in case.

Starlight switched on the Jacolt’s ladder rigs, and sparks of pure magic began rising up the aerials and dissipating through the chamber. The colors brightened, boldened, became more bright and cheerful. The millions of crystals on the walls and ceiling sparkled and danced with light. More sparks danced around the terminals of the other batteries, full and spent alike, as they sucked in the increased ambient energy.

And unnoticed by anyone except Dragonfly, the air around herself and her suit became marginally darker by comparison.

Everyone else was watching Starlight and the light show as she poured magic into one crystal after another, enchanting each as deeply as she could, as quickly as she could. The magic field generators spewed mana prodigiously, as intended, using up in minutes what it took weeks to replace. It would take about ten minutes to enchant the six crystals, and then Starlight would shut the field down as quickly as possible to preserve the remaining charge for emergencies.

Dragonfly’s mind registered that fact, but most of it was temporarily elsewhere. The sheer relief of no longer being in urgent, desperate need of magic overwhelmed her. In one way, it felt like the most intense cramp ever had suddenly released, relaxing from agony into nothing. In another it felt like being a fish that had just been dropped back into the water.

The waste product from a cast spell? Drizzle. The flow from a mana battery while levitating something? A garden hose, and one with a kink in it at that. The artificial magic field was a pool, a lake, submerging Dragonfly in magic the way Faust had intended, drowning the inner beast.

Part of her wanted to change, to disguise herself as anything, anything whatever. Her innate nature had been denied for so very long, and it wanted release. Of course that would be disaster with Mark watching- he’d report it to his people, who would go into a panic like the ponies in the Bad Old Days Which Need to Stay Over- but a small part of her just didn’t care about anything except magic, sweet magic, being back again, and the world as it should be.

But Dragonfly’s mind wasn’t washed entirely away by the incredible rightness of being. She noticed the darkness around herself and remembered why most rockets were painted white or coated in reflective metal; black absorbs heat. Black absorbs everything. Her body had been so magic-deprived that it was visibly sucking it out of the air. If someone noticed, there would be trouble.

And, having experienced it before, she knew that the moment the field shut off or ran out of power would be extremely painful. She needed hours, possibly days, in the field to fully recover. Minutes were only enough- maybe- to hold off utter collapse. So, as much as Dragonfly wanted to enjoy the feeling of not being in constant pain, she had to steel herself against its sudden return- because, considering how bad she’d been this morning, it would be really bad afterwards.

So she stood and watched, silent, as Starlight enchanted the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth new battery. The new battery terminals sparked in the artificial magic field with every surge of the Jacolt’s ladders, demonstrating a successful enchantment.

And then Starlight’s hoof reached for the swithes to the batteries producing the field, and Dragonfly grit her fangs against what was to come.

She couldn’t restrain the savage hiss that burst from her as the magic field collapsed, as for an instant the contrast between an existence with magic and without became crystal clear. Every tiniest bit of her body screamed for the sudden loss. The beast in her mind threw itself against its prison bars, screaming BRING IT BACK! BRING IT BACK!

The pain didn’t ebb, but her awareness of it did. Other things besides the need of magic returned to her awareness. These included the concerned faces of two ponies and a human. “Are you all right, Dragonfly?” Mark asked.

That question was more important than usual, and the moments Dragonfly took to answer weren’t just to recover her self-control. It hurt… but it usually hurt, didn’t it? She still hungered… but she hungered less than she had before. So, on balance, she probably was all right… for a few more days, anyway. Not that she dared explain any of that to her only food supply. “It… it hurtzz zo much to looozz ze magic,” she managed to say, her changeling accent much more extreme than normal. Bad sign, she told herself. Bad, bad sign.

She wasn’t the only one who noticed. “Can we help?” Cherry Berry asked. “You sound really bad.” Worse sign. Cherry had lived among changelings for years, and she knew what sick changelings sounded like.

Time to lie, Dragonfly thought. Time to lie like you have never lied before. “I’ll be okay in a few minutes,” she said. “But I wizzzsh… I wish it would last longer.”

“Hmmm.” Starlight began drawing numbers in the uncultivated dirt around them. “Based on past consumption levels, if we start a properly enchanted battery on full charge projecting the field, it uses up the full charge in… hm… approximately thirty-seven minutes. In the Hab the battery gains four percent charge per day, on average- closer to six now with the plants, and the farm gained just over seven percent per day before the methane, but let’s stick with pessimistic numbers.”

“Starlight,” Dragonfly interrupted.

The unicorn didn’t notice. “So, twenty days production for thirty-seven minutes. So, to power one battery on field projection for twenty-four and two-thirds hours a day-“


This time Starlight looked up. “What?”

“What are you doing?”

“Working out how many batteries we’d need to create a one-battery-strong artificial magic field without draining stored energy.”

“Too many,” Dragonfly said. “I don’t need to do the math to figure that out. It would take twenty batteries a day’s worth of production just for that thirty-seven minutes. You’d need hundreds to make it run constantly.”

Starlight blinked, did the math anyway, and sighed. “Six hundred and forty,” she sighed. “But once we have twenty-two batteries, we could at least run a field of a half-hour every day.” She paused and reconsidered. “Twenty-eight, that is, because no matter what, we need to keep these six batteries sequestered for nothing but making more batteries.”

“And right now we have fourteen plus one half-power battery,” Dragonfly sighed. “How long until we have enough?”

A moment more of doing sums by hoof in the dirt, Starlight answered, “Fifty-one days, if all goes well.”

Well. That… that might be endurable. Yeah. And there would be two or three battery-making days in that period. And after that, there would be daily magic doses to get her through, possibly even restore her to full health.

And as Dragonfly absorbed that, a tiny part of her mind, a part which hadn’t had much at all to do during the Bad Old Days but which had been given a real workout since the beginning of the space program, said: Who says you’re the only one who hurts? The ponies depend on magic, too. And Fireball? When was the last time you saw him flame? How is he doing? Have you really thought about this?

No, Dragonfly realized. She’d taken Starlight’s consistent post-spell fatigue for granted. Spitfire and Cherry Berry didn’t seem like they were in pain, but would they show it? And Fireball definitely wouldn’t show weakness if he could help it. Just like a changeling, in that respect.

But I don’t dare talk about it. I can’t tell them how bad it really is for me… even if it’s bad for them.

I don’t dare.

Dragonfly thought she heard a cold, deep chuckle from the RTG, which sat unattended, no longer in the plumbing loop, near the airlock. The Pale Horse was laughing at her because she didn’t dare.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Cherry asked, saying the English words slowly but correctly. “We can turn it on again for a little.”

Oh, how Dragonfly wanted it. She wanted it so very badly. But she had to look all right. She couldn’t afford to give any cause for fear, none whatever, either of her or for her. “It’s all right,” she said, which was a lie. “Today was just a very bad day.” That, at least, was pure truth.

Starlight looked at Cherry Berry again. “The next harvest is due in four days. We’re going to re-seed the damaged parts of the farm then, right?”

Cherry nodded, and Mark put in, “That’s the plan. Sol 219 for the hay. Sol 223 for the potatoes.”

“It occurs to me,” Starlight said carefully, “that we’ve never seen what earth pony magic can do here with a field projector running. That might be a good idea. Especially with those clippings you’re trying to plant.”

Cherry looked dubious. “It can’t hurt,” she said. “But I’m no farmer pony. I don’t have that talent. Don’t… what word… don’t expect too much.”

“I think we’ll all be better for it.” Starlight Glimmer stretched, shaking off her own fatigue. “I think we could stand some lunch. How about it?”

As the four prepared their suits to go back outside, Dragonfly felt Mark’s hand clasp her shoulder and squeeze it gently. “There’s a tradition,” he said, voice pitched low for her alone. “Astronauts try to hide little pains and sickness from the flight surgeon, because the flight surgeon is the enemy. Flight surgeons love to ground astronauts. But astronauts don’t hide big things, because a really sick astronaut puts his crew in danger.” He squeezed her shoulder again and said, “I’m trusting you to know the difference.”

Oh, Mark, Dragonfly thought, if you only knew.

But you mustn’t ever know.


“Rover 2, Friendship,” Fireball’s voice said towards the end of lunch in the Rover. The meal had been cold and cramped, but surprisingly amiable, at least to Dragonfly’s mind. The beast had gone back to sleep, and she’d been able to act a little silly again, but not overdoing it. She still had to be a little ill, after the moment of weakness she’d shown.

Friendship, Friendship Actual,” Cherry Berry said, “go ahead.”

Spitfire’s voice cut in. “NASA report: Sleipnir 5 launch successful. Second stage burnout shows intercept, haha, got it right this time, with Hermes in twenty-five hours, seven minutes. Sleipnir 4 Hermes intercept burn in progress, all systems go for Hermes intercept in twenty-four hours, sixteen minutes. Hermes is es-time-ated well that’s close enough twenty minutes from closest approach to Earth, on course, all systems go, no ob-stay-cleez what is wrong with these monkeys and their language in pro-jec-ted path. Message ends.”

“B-plus for effort, but I’m docking a letter grade for your editorializing,” Starlight responded in Equestrian.

“Girls, please,” Cherry scolded in English. “Message received and thank you, Friendship.

Fireball signed off, and the four astronauts in the rover sighed with relief. “This calls for a celebration,” Mark said. “Who wants dessert?”

“Dessert?” Starlight asked.

“Today’s options on the dessert trolley are,” Mark said, waving a hand towards the rear cargo area, “cold potatoes… cold alfalfa… and today’s special-“

“That wasn’t funny the first fifty times, Mark,” Starlight said, but Dragonfly could sense she was lying.

Maybe things will be all right after all.

On the other side of the solar system, Hermes sped past its home planet, stealing the tiniest fraction of momentum from the quintillions of tons of mass to gain vital meters per second of speed and a small but vital course change that flung it obliquely towards the Sun.

A few thousand kilometers away from Hermes, and slightly ahead of it, two much smaller objects flew on courses which would, very slowly and carefully, approach the larger ship over the coming day.

For the first time in far too long, the people of Earth celebrated an unmitigated success for Project Ares.

Meanwhile, Hermes drew away.

Author's Notes:

Yes, I changed the dates a little. Not because I thought I was off about the dates in the book, but because I forgot that the eight days Hermes delayed in leaving Mars meant they got back to Earth two days later. (It's how the trajectories work.)

"And Hermes drew nearer" was never meant as anything more than a reminder that time was passing, and that it was short. The bit with The Stump, or much earlier in the story the description of how the gem cave was formed, ought to have been enough to remind you that gratuitous narration does NOT automatically mean doom. (Well, in Andy Weir's book maybe, but not here. Sometimes.) It was (I thought) a poetic way of maintaining tension, and nothing more... though I can't say I wasn't amused by the panic.

But anyway, Hermes got the supplies it needed. (I'm not doing a docking scene because there was one in the book, and it'd look pretty much the same.) But is Dragonfly getting what she needs...?

It's worth pointing out that Dragonfly has blind spots as an empath, and one major one is that she overrates her ability to conceal things from people who know her. If I didn't make it perfectly obvious, the other three in this scene are perfectly aware that Dragonfly is a lot worse off than she's acting and doesn't want to admit it. They don't know the reason, but they know the problem and have a pretty fair guess at the solution- hence Starlight's math and her suggestion for what, not long before, would have been flagrant waste of magic resources during the next harvest.

Time will tell if these measures will be sufficient to keep Dragonfly from cracking up. (Of course, that assumes she's sane now...)

Oh... by the way, spoiler alert for those who have waited almost twenty years to begin reading/watching Harry Potter.

Next Chapter: Sol 216 Estimated time remaining: 16 Hours, 44 Minutes
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