The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 15: Sol 21

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We have returned bearing soil samples and dragon take-out. Fireball gets to choose one from column A (quartz), one from column B (different colored quartz), and one from column C (other different colored quartz). The rest of us have to make do with three-quarters of a technologically advanced microwave dinner each.

Fireball seems to have mixed feelings about the discovery. On the one hand, plain white quartz (which is the clear majority of what’s in the crystal cave) is like tapioca pudding for dragons, according to Starlight. On the other hand, he was thrilled at the small number of yellow, red and purple crystals we brought back with the white… and he was downright giddy at the double handful of dark grey crystals. He’s busy now slowly crushing them into powder with his claws and scooping the dust into one of my test tubes. It kinda looks like a pepper shaker now.

But the key point is, barring a cave-in, he’s set for food for the duration. With fully charged suits and fresh CO2 filters in my case, Starlight and I explored the cave from mouth to back today. I dug out the entrance some more so I don’t have to duck to get in, and that’s still the narrowest point in the cave except for one.

I don’t think the cave is really all one geode. There are places where the crystals change color slowly, like a Photoshop color gradient, but there are also tight points where the crystals are white on one side of the narrowing and orange or purple on the other side. And there are little pockets everywhere, sort of like cubbyholes, with other varieties of crystal. Best guess, a bunch of air pockets opened up in the molten rock, and what with one thing and another the bubbles grew together. Somewhere in the past the barriers between the geodes broke or something, and then mineral deposits sealed them together.

All told, the cave goes back almost to the center of Site Epsilon- a good six hundred meters deep. There’s only a bit of sand and dust at the far end, not enough to cover up the gems, so I’m guessing that the opening hasn’t been open for all that long geologically speaking. Over a billion years this place would have silted up solid. Anyway, we only walked as far as it was safe to, and we didn’t step on any exposed crystals. My light was good enough to see a gray wall barren of crystal at the far end, which I’m guessing is an old magma chamber.

But most of that is academic. Right now we’re focused on practical matters, namely: how can we use this cave?

Well, obviously we can harvest crystals from it. Starlight used her magic and that battery of hers to cut samples enough for two sample boxes off the walls. Seems I was more right about her being Yoda than I knew, considering that her horn makes a dandy lightsaber. Most of one bin is going to be Fireball’s nom-noms for the next month or so, but the other bin has four chunks taken from the really huge crystals, each absolutely flawless and about the same size as the one in her magic battery. No points for guessing what she has planned there.

But that’s a minor issue. The major issue is: can we turn that cave into a farm? The second chamber or so in, about eighty meters from the entrance, is almost perfect for our needs. It’s at least twenty meters wide and a good two hundred meters long- which would probably make it gigantic even among Earth caves, and probably wouldn’t work at all here except for Mars’s 0.4g and a couple of crystal shafts that run from ceiling to floor here and there.

That’s where I took most of my soil samples using the sample drill. I filled up about two dozen sample bags with dirt from ten centimeters, thirty, and even fifty- that’s about twenty inches down in American measurements. I’ll run them through the same soil tests I used on the surface dirt around the Hab, but that won’t happen for a couple days.

While Starlight and I have been raiding Superman’s underwear drawer, everyone else has been finishing the all-important job of covering the Hab with ten centimeters of Martian dirt and soaking it down to flush all the nasty perchlorates to the bottom, where we won’t be breathing toxic dust 24-7. We now have ninety-two square meters of mostly barren soil in the Hab. Tomorrow we add yet more water, but otherwise we rest, because the next day is the first of what I call “dirt-doubling.”

The first batch of dirt we brought in, with its Earth soil and compost mixed in, is coming along nicely. It already looks like well-watered and fertilized reclaimed desert soil… which, well, it is. I’ve checked in the microscope, and the Earth bacteria are coming along nicely. And- best of all- the perchlorate-eating bugs have done their job. Perchlorate levels are down by three-quarters from the levels measured outside.

But that’s only 15 square meters, leaving 77 square meters of mostly raw, bacteria-free, unfertilized soil in the hab. So my plan is to dig up the dirt full of Earth bacteria (except for the bit that’s growing the starter alfalfa crop), spread some of the untreated Mars dirt to cover the bare area, and dump the treated soil on top of it, along with the current contents of our communal shit bucket.

That will be mostly me doing it, with Fireball maybe helping. That leaves the ponies with the most dangerous job: talking Fireball into helping me do it. It’ll also be a long, physically challenging job, so I’m not planning on doing anything else that day. Only after that’s done will I tackle the soil samples from the cave.

It’d take at least two, and more practically three, dirt-doublings before we’re ready to plant. I’ll probably start the potato seed crop after the second doubling- we’ll see how the first one goes. But that’s just for the available floor space in the Hab. We’ll need about half as much again if we try to turn the alien ship into a second area. And if we turn the gem cave into a farm, we’ll need as large a collection of dirt as we can fit into the rover to kick-start the soil already there.

I admit, making a farm in a cave is really ambitious, but Starlight thinks all the major problems can be addressed through low-level magic. I don’t know about that. I’ll try to remember to talk to her about it during Guess the Context Time tomorrow. She’s too tired for more magic tonight.

For my own use, here’s a rundown of all the problems I can think of with growing things in the cave.

1)LIGHT. The cave is dark as hell once you get more than three steps from the entrance. I don’t have any mushroom spores, so we need to get a lot of light in there for edible plants to grow. The Hab lighting is specially designed LEDs tweaked to replicate Earth levels of sunlight, including small amounts of infrared and non-sunburning ultraviolet wavelengths. The pony ship uses, I shit you not, incandescent bulbs.

2)HEAT. The Hab has a full heating system in addition to several systems like the atmospheric regulator, the oxygenator, and the water reclaimer that produce heat as part of normal operation. The polymers of the Hab canvas and floor are efficient insulators designed to reduce the heat lost to Mars’s atmosphere. The cave, on the other hand, is underground and actually a couple of degrees cooler than the surface. The dirt and rock will represent a massive heat sink that will make warming the area enough for plants to live a serious challenge.

3)AIR. Our inspection didn’t reveal any skylights or other openings that might allow air to vent to the surface aside from the entrance, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t cracks or something hidden behind the crystals. And even if there aren't, geodes are porous, so I have to hope the soil on top of the cave makes a good seal. Also, I simply haven’t got enough O2 or N2 in the Hab to fill that vast a space. Assuming we can seal the entrance, which is a big damn if, we either need a large-scale source of breathable air or a source of air the Hab systems can convert to breathable air to replace what we’ll have to steal to fill the cave.

4)WATER. The pony suits are holding up for the Hab dirt project, but a cave farm would be a lot bigger and a lot thirstier. Also, there’s almost certainly permafrost in that soil if it goes as deep as the ceiling is high. Too much water, or contaminated water, might be as big a problem as too little, especially since the cave won’t have a water reclaimer to take the excess out of circulation.

5)ACCESS. We need to get in the cave to tend the farm, and we need to be able to get harvests out. Sealing the cave isn’t enough; we need an airlock. I have materials for Hab canvas repairs which would let me detach one of the Hab’s three airlocks for this purpose, but I think the cargo airlock from the alien ship would be a better bet. It doesn’t risk our safe haven, and it’s currently attached to a section of the ship that can’t hold air anyway. The docking port would also work, except it’s much smaller- I’d have to crawl through on hands and knees- and removing it would make the central compartment of the ship uninhabitable.

6)SOIL. Or more specifically, perchlorates. If the concentrations are like the surface, the Earth bacteria can cope. If they’re higher, there could be problems. And in any case, first we need to create enough Earth-type fertile soil to get started with, or 1 through 5 are all pointless.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure the thing I’m forgetting will come round to bite me in the ass.

Even the ponies are beginning to tire of non-stop Beatles. Tonight I’m going to show them Vogel’s family photos. They’re the only non-text thing on his media drive. I figure we can use them to start language lessons and give the ponies a look at what life is like on Earth.

And after the ponies are bored of family photos (which, in my personal case, usually takes about seven minutes), I’ll have no choice but to raid Commander Lewis’s media stash. Please, Commander, have something educational. Something that encourages development of vocabulary. Something. Anything.


I got bored of the photos before the ponies did. They were talking about the pics for a couple of hours, and of course I didn’t understand a word. They were too excited to explain anything by Pictionary. But finally their interest tapered off enough for me to pull Vogel’s stick and slot in Lewis’s.

So what does our esteemed commander, who has been both a carrier pilot and a nuclear submarine officer before joining NASA, bring to the table?


1970s sitcoms.

Shitty, terrible, horrible TV sitcoms from the 1970s. And she’s absolutely filled the stick with them.

Well, to be fair, it’s not all sitcoms, but look at the list.

Barney Miller.
The Bionic Woman.
BJ and the Bear. (What?)
The Bob Newhart Show.
The Brady Bunch. (I saw the movies as a kid. I will NEVER be THAT bored.)
CHiPs (apparently only the first three seasons. Hm. Wonder why.)
The Dukes of Hazzard (the whole run, even though it had more 80’s than 70’s seasons).
The Electric Company. (What?)
Grizzly Adams. (No, seriously, what?)
Happy Days.
Kolchak: the Night Stalker (huh, this one actually sounds interesting).
Kung Fu. (Honestly, what were you smoking, and will it grow in Martian soil?)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Odd Couple (I was in the play in high school. How about the Odd 6? Can a man, a dragon, and four quadrupeds live in the same apartment without driving each other crazy?).
The Partridge Family.
The Rockford Files.
Sanford and Son.
The Six Million Dollar Man.
Starsky and Hutch.
Three’s Company.
And, finally, Wonder Woman. (I have the feeling I’d enjoy this one more if I was alone in the Hab…)

OK, so there’s some action-adventure, but half the stuff here is sitcoms. And no cartoons. Not much sci-fi. And I should be grateful, no variety shows or game shows or anything like that.

But really, Lewis… would it have killed you to have even one season of Sesame Street or something? Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? Smurfs? (No, wait, Smurfs was 80s, not 70s.)

Oh well. At least I’ve heard of Partridge Family. It’s got music- ponies love music- and it can’t possibly be as bad as the Brady Bunch. Let’s try an episode.


Yes, it can be that bad.

And the ponies are demanding I play it again so they can learn the theme song. They don’t even speak English and they want to learn the theme song.

I think I’ve created several monsters.

Author's Notes:

I wrote this before I corrected myself on the nature of geodes, but I don't think it matters much. Thanks to Admiral Tigerclaw for suggestions.

I get the feeling that Fireball would enjoy Cajun-blackened fish. Or Cajun-blackened almost anything, come to think of it.

Yes, I've given them a cave, but I've also given them a lot of problems. Magic will have to be the solution for at least some of them- no way around that- but sooner or later magic will bite our crew in the butt. It's a good thing Starlight doesn't know Inspiration Manifestation, for one thing...

Family photos would be a lot more interesting if the family were aliens from a planet and a culture you'd never seen before, don't you think? Doubly so if the photos show trees and open water and things while you're on a planet that has none such.

And yes, the time has come for Lewis's TV trove. I decided not to give them Sesame Street (began 1969). And the only reason she doesn't have all of CHiPs is, she hadn't bought the later seasons when Hermes left Earth.

And yes, I absolutely loathe Partridge Family.

Next Chapter: Sol 23 Estimated time remaining: 29 Hours, 3 Minutes
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