The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 13: Sol 19

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It was kind of chilly this morning. The Hab is built to run off of half the solar cells it actually has and only four of the twelve renewable fuel-cell batteries in case a presupply flight crashes, but it wasn’t built to recharge the batteries on something the size of Skylab or the space shuttle. We went into low-power mode not long after I hooked up the electricity to the alien ship, and Mars and thermodynamics did the rest. Even with the atmospheric regulator and oxygenator providing heat, it wasn’t much above freezing when we woke up.

I did a quick EVA to unhook the power long enough to warm the Hab back up and make breakfast. The aliens- you know, I’m going to stop calling them aliens. They’re three ponies, a dragon… and whatever Dragonfly is. Starlight’s tried five different times to tell me what the bug is, and I get five different answers- “bug”, “fairy”, “changer,” “exchanged,” and “Doris.” Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

So, the pony crew gathered together in another meeting during breakfast, and sure enough they had another of their little squabbles. This time, though, it was Cherry against the four others, and for a moment I thought there was going to be a mutiny. Then they quieted down and began working with the whiteboards, writing in their language.

I haven’t mentioned their writing yet, except to mention that they have more or less our numbers and something very similar to Greek letters. Well, it turns out their regular alphabet has twenty-six letters, same as the English version of the Roman alphabet. The letters are similar, but not identical, so every time I look at their writing I have the feeling that if I squint I can read it. I tried. It doesn’t work.

Anyway, Starlight and Dragonfly did most of the writing, with occasional questions from Cherry. Spitfire never said a word after the writing began. Fireball held his peace until the end, when he said something very long and grumpy-sounding. Funny thing is, he didn’t look annoyed. If anything, he looked worried. I’ve never seen a worried dragon before. Considering how tough he is, I wondered what dragons have to be worried about.

Well, I found out. As soon as the meeting broke up, Starlight and Spitfire came over to me. Apparently it was time for our daily mutual dose of babelfish.

Transcript of the conversation:

STARLIGHT: Benign pre-noon.

WATNEY: Good morning to you too, Starlight. What were you talking about?

STARLIGHT: Need stones.

WATNEY: Okay, we can-

STARLIGHT: Is important: Stones. Gems. Crystals. Rocks. (Note: under the translation spell I heard Starlight say the same word in her language four times running. The spell offered a different translation each time.)

WATNEY: What for?

STARLIGHT: Cherry fix ship wants, need engine crystals. I magic more want, need gems batteries. Fireball gems eats, almost out.

She turned off the spell at that point and showed me the other whiteboard, the one with the big pretty pictures for pre-K students and ignorant aliens. It showed a drawing of what had to be their warp drive or whatever with a big wedge of crystal surrounded by gadgets. Next to that was a cutaway diagram of one of the magic batteries the ponies had salvaged from their ship. Finally, there was a cute drawing of a little green and purple dragon- definitely not Fireball, who is white and red with rounded gold spines- snacking from a bowl of cartoony faceted gemstones.

We erased the board (after I took a photo- Starlight wouldn’t let me otherwise) and got to picture-talking, while Cherry and Dragonfly went out to do systems checks on their ship and Fireball and Spitfire worked on bringing in more dirt.

I tried to supplement the pictures with the few words of their language I’ve picked up, but Starlight kept looking at me funny. Eventually she made an eating motion with her hooves and mouth and repeated a word I’m not even going to try to transcribe. Its vowel sound was somewhere between a short U and the sound a horse makes when it’s begging for sugar or apple slices.

I couldn’t even come close to reproducing it. Starlight had no problem with “eat”, though. Typical. First I had to deal with sufficiently advanced technology, then sufficiently advanced magic, and now I’m confronted with sufficiently advanced nasal passages. My plan to learn the pony language may have just hit its first hurdle.

Aside from that things were pretty grim, especially for Fireball. Turns out that he has at most twenty-five days of food at short rations. His meal packs are specifically formulated to include little bits of gemstone, sort of like onions in meatloaf or sprinkles on a cake.

He also has a few stones as snacks, which he’s been trying not to eat if he can help it. He’s got ten left, all this rich blue color. I think they’re sapphires, but I’m not sure. The smallest one is about the size of a value-menu hamburger, and on Earth would probably be enough by itself to buy me a mansion in River Oaks or some similar swanky neighborhood. Here it’s just food, and food only a dragon can eat.

Once his rations and the gems are gone, Starlight thinks he’s going to begin suffering from malnutrition. He can eat other meal packs- he can technically eat almost anything- but he needs at least a few gems to stay healthy.

I’m not going to question how that even works, especially since I’ve been dealing with the results of his meals for the past week or so. His shit stinks just as bad as the rest of it, and aside from being slightly drier and more powdery inside it’s not all that different. Which doesn’t make any sense, but if NASA wanted someone to make sense of such things they’d have sent up a wizard instead of a botanist.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe NASA has any wizards in the astronaut corps yet. Another thing that needs correction, all you historians and scientists of the future reading this. I’m sure that, given the opportunity, hundreds of candidates with a master’s degree or higher in Applied Thaumaturgy or similar disciplines will jump at the chance to join. Start printing those applications now, is all I’m saying.

But I’m getting away from the problem. The ponies need gems to feed their big muscle man (dragon). They need bigger gems to rebuild their magic batteries. And they need at least one huge gem to replace their warp drive. Why I don’t know- that ship of theirs is about as safe to fly as a cardboard box. But maybe they’re thinking contingency plan, and I can’t blame them.

The thing is, Mars has lots of crystals, at least in theory. Mars rovers and orbiters, and also Ares I and II, have discovered traces of a lot of precious and semi-precious gems, though so far the only crystals we’ve actually found bigger than sand grains are hematite, magnetite, gypsum and olivine. Starlight vetoed them all. Fireball can eat olivine, but it’s too brittle to use for their technology. Gypsum, of course, is worse- you can crumble gypsum in your fingers. And hematite and magnetite, according to Starlight, won’t even take a magic charge because of electric interference.

After spending an hour looking through the geology reference manuals NASA provided us with on my computer, she identified quartz and ruby as the ideal materials. That’s a problem. Ruby is unknown on Mars, and we’ve only found traces of quartz and feldspar from orbit in places where really old volcanoes have eroded away.

The problem is (if I’m remembering my briefings correctly- I was Lewis’s backup for geology work) most of the really hard gems and crystals are associated with either metamorphic rocks or light, slow-cooling granite formations. And the thing about both granite formations and metamorphic rocks is, you usually find them in mountains. And Ares III is in the least mountainous region on the entire planet.

Leaving aside crater ridges, you can see from the hab clear to the horizon 3.4 kilometers away. Even the mud volcano Starlight and her friends crashed into is below the horizon, too low-slung to see from here. The closest known traces of quartz are in Arabia Terra two thousand kilometers away, and the most promising locations for mining are in the two volcanic provinces, Tharsis and Elysium… each halfway around the planet from here.

Instead of mountains, the Hab sits on an unknown depth of ancient alluvial deposits which buried any early volcanoes this area had before the first multicellular life appeared on Earth. There’s some low rock outcrops nearby surrounding a crater, but the first look seems to indicate they’re layered, sedimentary rocks- no good for gems. The only gems larger than a grain of sand we’re likely to find here will be inside meteorites, created by ancient impacts during the dawn of the solar system.

Oh, perfect. As I’m typing this Johannsen’s Beatles collection has cycled round to a particular song. I’m sure you can guess what it is.

Ponies from the skies need diamonds…

That’s it. I found Beck’s personal data stick; let’s see what’s on it…

… medical journals. Directories and directories of nothing but medical journals. Dammit, Beck, you're a cool guy, but you have no life whatever.

So that leaves Lewis’s data stick. I’m a little reluctant to look into it, probably because she was our mission commander. But I’m just about sick enough of the lads from Liverpool to take the plunge.

Food. Water. Gems. And now entertainment.

Mars, could you please give us one little gift?

Author's Notes:

So today was my 44th birthday, and my uncle took me golfing in 45-degree weather on a soggy course. I had some fun, even if I shot miserably.

I came home about 4:30, intending to write my shortest ever chapter and seriously considering having a chapter be one line: "I wonder what the Bulls are doing." (The book has Mark as a huge Cubs fan, but baseball season is long over; Weir threw the baseball lines in as character-building without sticking tightly to the calendar times he used to calculate Hermes's trajectories. So I'm going to make him a Chicago sports fan in general, thought he's not fond of the Bears, is bored by hockey, and despises the White Sox as any good Cubbie would do.)

And then I got writing with what I expected would be four paragraphs summing up "We went place did science"... and it grew and grew, and now it's almost 2300 words. So yeah, you get a normal sized chapter on Sunday.

Yes, it'd be more realistic if Mark learned Pony, but it's more convenient for this writer if the ponies learn English, so that's what's going to end up happening. So the upshot is, Mark can't whinny fluently.

Don't ask where the green and purple dry-erase markers came from.
It's late, so discussions of gem prospecting on Mars will have to wait for another time...

Next Chapter: Sol 20 Estimated time remaining: 29 Hours, 32 Minutes
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