The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 135: Sol 231

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The cave farm had to be tended. The crops needed watering, the plants trimmed and cared for (and, if necessary, weeded out). Crystals needed to be harvested for Fireball’s meals- and also for six new batteries, which would have been on the schedule for tomorrow, had events gone according to the best laid plans of ponies and man.

Oh, and there was the bug, too. Stupid troublemaking bug.

The farm had to be tended, and Mark needed to be there to help, even if he was off in some weird post-changeling trance. Fireball had insisted on two counts; first, they needed the rover to get the salvaged battery cases to the cave for the new batteries, and second, Fireball couldn’t walk back and forth. Unlike the ponies, his feet had claws on them, and even if he kept them filed and rounded down, they wore on the insides of his suit boots and gloves, just as the tips on his wings wore on the inside of the suit.

So Mark had to drive the rover… if he could be coaxed or bullied into it, given his condition.

He hadn’t called Miss Johanssen’s name when he woke this morning. That had been taken as a good omen. He ate a full breakfast, which was even better. It had taken constant prodding and pleading by Cherry Berry (who, Fireball thought, was welcome to the job of Markherder), but the tray was clean when she took it away.

But the struggle to get Mark to put his spacesuit on swept all good omens aside and replaced them with bad feelings all around. He wasn’t interested in the least. Finally Starlight recruited Fireball’s help and, with some heavy levitation and brute strength, the human got stuffed into his suit, one component at a time. Everyone was relieved when Mark, apparently from muscle memory alone, automatically activated his suit systems the moment the helmet assembly latched onto the suit torso.

And then it was “come along, Mark” to the airlock, “wait just a minute, Mark” during depressurization, “over here, Mark” to Rover 2, “thank you so much, Mark,” while he, Starlight and Fireball waited for Rover 2’s airlock to pressurize, and finally, “Mark, sit down right here, all right?” to get him to sit in the driver’s seat. Only it never took only one command. Oh, no. For Fireball it was almost half an hour of a single, highly repetitive stream of words, all in that annoying chirpy patronizing pony sound.

The thing which annoyed Fireball most was, he couldn’t object. Trying to take Mark along had been his idea. Also, he’d tried roaring at him, and roaring hadn’t worked. He’d shown his teeth, kept them about four inches from Mark’s nose long enough for the monkey to count all of them, and he had taken about as much interest as Fireball would have in a movie about the Great Accountants of the World.

(Dragon accounting was very simple. Your hoard had Income. If at any point your hoard had Expenditure, you had done something very wrong.)

But Mark was in the seat. It had required the better part of an hour to get him in it, but there he was. This had better work, Fireball thought, or else it’ll be most of another hour to get him back into the Hab.

“Okay, Mark,” Starlight said, still using her gentlest talking-to-skittish-animal tones. (Fireball always thought the most skittish animal in such conversations was the pony.) “I saw you activate the rover dozens of times when we drove to Pathfinder, but I don’t remember exactly how, so… could you activate the rover, please?”

Mark sat, immobile.

“Come on, Mark,” Starlight wheedled. “We have to go to the farm today- remember the farm? But we need the rover to make that happen. So Mark, could you reach your hands out to the keyboard? Reeeeach out…”

Not a twitch.

“It’s time to log in to the rover computer, Mark. Log in.”

That got a response. Mark’s hands slowly reached to the computer. Muscle memory took over from there. His fingers didn’t fly across the keys as they usually did, but they moved quickly enough. With the computer booted up and the rover controls lighting up, his hands automatically moved to the gear select switch, set it to “R”, and then came to rest on the steering yoke.

That, however, was as far as it went. Mark with hands on the wheel was just as statuelike as Mark at the breakfast table, having to be begged to take a bite.

“It’s going to be a long drive, isn’t it?” Fireball muttered.

“Not if I can help it,” Starlight grumbled, in a voice that, for the first time, betrayed how fed up she was with coddling Mark. She put the sweetness back into her voice, saying, “Thank you so much, Mark. I think I can handle it from here. So if you’ll just move to the back…” She reached a hoof to the steering yoke.

Mark batted it away, not hard enough to sting, but enough to surprise the buck out of both Starlight and Fireball. This done, he returned his hand to its position on the yoke.

“Er… if you want to drive, Mark, that’s fine,” Starlight said cautiously. “First we need to turn around…”

Mark’s foot found the accelerator. The rover moved slowly backwards, and Mark slewed the steering wheel hard right, performing a slow U-turn until the rear of the rover faced the Hab. This done, his foot slipped off the pedal.

“Okay, good,” Starlight said. “Now we need to go to the cave, Mark. Can you drive us to the cave?”

Mark’s spacesuit helmet was still on his head. Neither Starlight nor Fireball could see his face. But they both could imagine those unseeing eyes, that blank, indifferent expression, gazing out to infinity as his foot came down on the throttle like a supply probe in final descent.

“This was a bad idea!!” Fireball shouted as the rover lunged forward, hitting its meager 25 kph top speed almost immediately.

“What? This was YOUR idea!!” Starlight shouted back.

“That should have been your first warning!” Fireball snapped.

What with the many trips to and from Site Epsilon by this point, a track had been worn down into the Martian soil. The points where that track went across the gullies that criss-crossed Acidalia Planitia had worn down and shallowed out almost into proper ramps cut into the banks.

By the time the rover coasted to a stop at the northeastern base of Site Epsilon, that track had been worn down noticeably more. The nerves of the passengers got worn down even more than that. But despite the top speed and lack of interest in the obstacles along the route, the rover hadn’t actually hit anything, for which Fireball was grateful. “Walking ten K don’t look bad anymore,” he rumbled.

“Your idea,” Starlight snapped back.

More coaxing got Mark out of the seat, through the airlock, and out onto the Martian sand to meet Spitfire and Cherry Berry (who, having heard everything on their own comms, asked no questions). Mark had to be led by the hand up the slope, and halfway up Starlight threatened to pick him up and levitate him to the top even without a battery, but they got to the cave entrance eventually.

Once inside the cave, the ponies and dragon doffed their spacesuits and stacked them carefully next to Dragonfly’s abandoned suit. “Okay, everyone,” Cherry Berry said, “I want all you to say hello to Dragonfly and give her a big hug. It’s been three days.” To demonstrate, she began walking to the spot near the entrance where Dragonfly’s cocoon hung.

“Dragonfly?” It was the third word Mark had said since getting drained, and it got everyone’s attention. Mark’s head slowly turned to face Cherry, mirrored space suit faceplate staring directly at her.

“Er… yeah, Dragonfly,” Cherry agreed. “Let’s go say hi, okay?” She pointed to the chrysalis, a brooding black against the wall of milky crystals.

Mark’s helmet tracked towards the cocoon. Fireball could tell when he saw it, because in that moment his body language changed completely. He stood up straight, stiff, his hands coming up in some confused compromise between warding and reaching. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he bounded over to the cocoon, turned to face Cherry, and raised his arms to block her way. “What do you think you’re DOING?” he shouted.

“Mark?” Cherry asked cautiously.

“Haven’t you ever watched a sci-fi horror movie in your lives?” Mark continued, his voice carrying on in full rant mode. “When you see an egg or a pod or a cocoon or anything like that in a space cave, especially if it’s black, you leave it the fuck alone!! Look, the thing even has ‘LEAVE ME’ written on it, don’t you think that’s a clue?? You definitely don’t go poking and prodding and wishing it hello and…” He trailed off, looking down at his hands, then around at his surroundings. He uncoupled his helmet linkages and lifted the assembly off his shoulders, revealing a face full of confusion. “How the hell did I get here?” he asked. “And why do I feel so damn tired?”

Fireball let the ponies run to Mark. He was content to walk over in a slow, dignified manner that definitely wasn’t a sulky trudge and to wrap an arm around the group hug in a definitely draconic sign of comradeship and not in any way mushy or gooey. And he kept a most appropriate silence, but that was mainly because Starlight Glimmer and Cherry Berry were too busy talking over one another for anyone else to get a word in.

Eventually the group wandered into the field and over to The Stump, where Mark sat down and slumped. “Okay,” he said, “now that we’ve all been glad I’m back, wherever the hell I went, could one of you- and only one of you- explain what the fuck is going on?”

Explaining took some time.

Mark’s questions, which he withheld until the end, were brief and to the point. "So... 'changeling'?" he asked.

"Yes," Starlight said. "The pony word more or less means 'child of change.'"

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.

“Because we were worried about Dragonfly after the perchlorate explosion,” Starlight said. “She burned up a lot of love getting you home, and for a while she wasn’t getting it back. She was afraid that without you, she’d starve.”

“So… I wasn’t hallucinating when I thought I saw Johanssen in the rover,” Mark said cautiously.

“No. You were in very bad shape. Dragonfly transformed so you’d listen to her and get you all back to the Hab.”

“And when she saved me from the falling engine, she literally burned herself up to do it,” Mark said. “Okay. But you tell me she knew she was having problems. Why didn’t she tell me? Us?”

“Because-“ Cherry Berry began, but Starlight stopped her.

“Mark,” she said, “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t before. It’s something I’m really very ashamed of, which is why I haven’t told you before.” Starlight’s forehooves made circles in the soil. “When I was young I lost a friend after he got his cutie mark. He was pretty much the only friend I had. There were issues… I won’t go into details, but as a result I grew up believing that cutie marks were evil, and that pony society would be better if no one had a cutie mark- if everyone was exactly the same.

“And when I left home I tried to build that society. And it was terrible. I was a tyrant. I lied to my followers. I turned them against each other to enforce my will. I locked them up and made them listen to messages about my new society over, over, over, until it bent their brains. And I kept telling myself it was all right, because it would end in a glorious new society in which all ponies would be happy.

“Well, surprise! It didn’t work out that way. I ended up fleeing the village I’d created when six very special ponies revealed what I’d done to my followers. And then I got worse, because I wanted revenge on those ponies for destroying my dream. And I… well, I’m not going into details because there are a couple of things I don’t think your species is ready to dabble with. Suffice to say I used a very powerful magic, very stupidly, and nearly destroyed my homeworld.”

Starlight sniveled, and Fireball had to stifle a growl. Ponies got mushy at the most inconvenient times. The pause let Mark interject, “Destroy your world? One pony? How?”

“I’m not saying,” Starlight said. “Your species knows magic exists now, and we’re probably going to end up showing you how to use it. But I’m not going to tell you ways you can destroy yourselves.” She took a deep breath and continued, “But my point is, it took seeing the possible results of my horrible actions to make me realize that I wasn’t the good guy. I was a monster. And the pony who I had been trying to destroy… Twilight Sparkle gave me the chance to not be a monster anymore.”

Starlight pointed a hoof back towards the cave entrance and the cocoon. “I didn’t tell you that before because I didn’t want to be a monster to you,” she said. “And Dragonfly didn’t tell you about her changing, about her hunger, about any of that… because she didn’t want to be a monster to you. Because she didn’t want her species to be a monster in the eyes of your species.”

Mark grunted. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he muttered. He looked at Starlight very carefully. “Mind control? Making everyone the same? Almost destroying the world?”

“I… I was in a bad place at the time,” Starlight said sheepishly. “And… it took me quite some time to get better. And, well… there were setbacks.”

“I think,” Mark said carefully, “I don’t want to tell any of that to the people back home. My nation in particular is a little… vindictive… when it comes to dealing with criminals.” He raised an eyebrow and added, “What you did was illegal where you come from, right?”

“Parts of it, yeah,” Starlight said. “No one ever thought we’d need a law against destroying the world, but the rest of it, yeah.”

“Yeah,” Mark echoed. “The fact that you’re walking around in a space larger than four square meters tells me your people are a lot more about rehabilitation than mine.”

“I don’t know the word ‘rehabilitation’.”

“I mean you ponies are a lot more forgiving than humans.”

Fireball chose this moment to speak up. “Ponies more forgiving than anybody,” he snorted. “Absolutely anybody.” He was proud of that absolutely. He had no idea why that English word stuck in his mind when so many other words just sieved through it like water through sugar-sand, but…

“I’ll bet,” Mark said. He jerked a thumb at Dragonfly. “Same deal with her?”

Starlight fidgeted her hooves. “Forgiving changelings… bug-ponies… is still a work in progress,” she said. “To us they’re really, really scary.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I understand why, now.” He shifted in his seat. “Help me up, please,” he said. “I’m not feeling all the man I should be.”

“You eat almost nothing for three days,” Spitfire accused.

“That would do it,” Mark admitted as Fireball hauled him to his feet. With the support of the Amicitas crew Mark walked over to the cocoon, putting a hand on it. “Hello, Dragonfly,” he said. “I hope you can hear me. I just want to say, the next time you need to suck all my feelings and the will to live out of my ear with a straw, ask first. It’s rude to go all Dracula on someone without asking. I mean, I hadn’t even done my laundry yet.”

Mark eased himself down to the dirt below the cocoon, sitting with those ridiculous long rear legs bent into a triangle, keeping his hand on the cocoon. "It could be worse," he continued. "At least you're not wearing my skull on your belt. And I'm not going to have a little Dragonfly burst out of my rib cage and kill me in a month or so. I'm not, right?" Mark patted the cocoon, adding, "Because if I am, I'm writing you out of my will. My Hawaiian shirts go to Fireball, and my glass aardvark collection goes to Spitfire."

Fireball sat down, as did the others. Obviously Mark didn’t intend to go anywhere.

“So, what’s it like living in there?” Mark asked. “It looks worse even than my dorm room. Well, maybe worse. My dorm room was a little larger, but I had to share it with someone, and he was such a pig…”

The cave needed tending, but it could wait.

Author's Notes:

Woke up a little early this morning, wrote 1800 words, and finished this. Buffer is now at zero, but I'll be home tomorrow.

Dragonfly is staying put for a while longer, but Mark has found his moment of love to pull him out of his trance- love of his crew. (And I'm sure any psychiatrist reading the last few chapters is screaming their head off, "CATATONIA DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT!"

Expect a bunch of short-short chapters coming up; tomorrow I'm going to fluff up the buffer like mad, because before long I'm going to be on the road more days than I will be at home.

Next Chapter: Sol 232 Estimated time remaining: 15 Hours, 22 Minutes
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