The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 152: Sol 253

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Fireball wrapped his arms around the pillar of quartz and tried not to think about irony. Of course this didn’t work, merely ensuring that his mind was flooded with mental images of being flattened under a couple tons of clear crystal.

“We really need to do this?” he asked, eyes glancing at the two circles of blue light humming like spinning saw blades far, far too close to him. “This feels like a bad idea. Like one of my ideas.”

“Quit whining,” Starlight grumbled, concentrating on moving one magic disc a few centimeters, then the other. “Just be ready to take the weight when I make the cuts. If the crystal drops, it could crack and ruin everything. Then we’d have to do this all over again.”

Mark, whose sole purpose was to carry the magic battery Starlight was using for this chore, wisely said nothing.

“That’s what you think,” Fireball grumbled, in a pat English phrase he was coming to love more and more by the day. Of course, what he was thinking was: here lies Fireball; eating quartz kept him alive, lifting quartz killed him.

That, of course, assumed the unicorn didn’t slice him apart just like she’d sliced the ship apart the day before.

“I said, quit whining,” Starlight said, nudging one disc down a hair, then nodding her head.

“Dragons do not whine,” Fireball said firmly. “When we say something, we say it hard.”

“D-plus,” Starlight said, and the discs leaped forward.

Fireball realized that the slab of rock in his hands now needed his active support about three seconds before he realized that Starlight’s flashy cutting spell hadn’t touched him. No time to be relieved, though; the quartz, being smooth as glass- being crystallized glass- tried to slide out down his arms to the dirt. Fireball tried to grip it tighter, his arms wrapping around the tree-trunk thick crystal hard enough for the edges to dig into his scales.

Then magic enveloped the crystal, lifting it out of Fireball’s arms, carefully turning it sideways, and then- very carefully- lowering it to the floor.

With the big rock on the ground, Fireball did let out a sigh of relief, a bit of black smoke coming out with it. “Why didn’t you do that first time?” he asked.

“I’d have to cast two spells at once,” Starlight said. “At home I could do that, no problem. Here, on battery power? Not a good idea.” The violet unicorn walked slowly around the shaft, inspecting this and that. “Looks good,” she said. “No flaws, no cracks, more than big enough. Stand back, please.”

The segment of crystal shaft, cut from the middle of a slab running a bit diagonal of floor-to-ceiling, could have made over a dozen of the core crystals for regular magic batteries by itself. It could even have made four of the three-meter tall magic batteries Mark’s bosses had suggested at one point. However, since it was one of only two shafts both large enough and flaw-free enough to do that, this rock would be used to make eight crystals for the more reasonably proportioned jumbo batteries- thirty centimeters square in cross-section, one hundred fifty centimeters long.

Of course there was waste. Quartz, of its own nature, prefers a hexagonal structure. The batteries were built to nest together as rectangles- cubes, originally, but rectangular prisms now in an attempt to store more power with the materials at hand. Slices of quartz had to be cut off in much the same way a potato might get peeled, anywhere except on a planet where the vital nutrients in a potato peel were too precious to waste. This was done with careful slices by the blue blades, magic clipping away the old six corners to leave only four. The ends, likewise, were trimmed to make all corners square.

Then, once the trimmed slab was removed from the waste, Starlight carefully recalibrated her cutting spell again, and then sliced- one, two, three- cutting the slab into eight perfectly identical sections. A normal battery, like the one in Mark’s hands all the time this went on, massed sixty kilograms. Each of these eight freshly cut sections tipped the scales at three hundred kilograms.

That was the reason Fireball was involved at all- weight. Starlight could only lift heavy things while the battery was within reach; without her magic, she was as weak as any ordinary pony. Mark was a bit stronger, but even in Martian gravity he couldn’t pick up even one of the final segments by himself. Fireball was the only one strong enough to hold up over two and a half tons of rock for long enough for Starlight to switch spells… and, likewise, he was the only one strong enough to carry the crystals, one at a time, out of Tangled Hallway and up to the front of the cave where they could be assembled into batteries.

Fireball didn’t complain. It was what he could do. He wasn’t the technician or engineer or wizard. He held the tools, lifted the heavy loads, and did as he was told. He could do two things reasonably well: fly a rocket, and spacewalk. Since neither skill was helpful in any way on the surface of Mars, he helped out as he could, and although he complained about a lot of things, he never complained about his work.

Except when the work threatened to kill him, that is. He was still a young dragon, and three tons of rock placed just so could still ruin his day.

One by one Fireball hauled the more workable slabs of quartz to the cave entrance, snacking on flakes from the trimmed-off pieces as he did so. He helped Starlight Glimmer slip the battery casing onto the base of each, bent the metal frame according to her instructions so it would hold the base of the crystal.

“You know,” he said, “we could… um… cut… um… not hole, but… ditch? Ditch in crystal. Make frame hold better.”

“Bad idea,” Mark said before Starlight could. “When we launch this whole thing’s going to vibrate like a sonufa… like you wouldn’t believe. There’s a chance the crystal might break just from that. Making a notch for the battery frame would just be giving the break a head start.”

“He’s right,” Starlight said. “We’ll have to build some kind of brace for the upper part of the crystal to keep it from shaking straight to pieces on liftoff. But no more cutting than we’ve already done.” She looked at a whiteboard, which held an intensely complex diagram, shaped like what you might get if a magic circle, a figure 8, and a snowman had done something to annoy Discord.

“Couldn’t we use scrap from your ship to make bigger battery frames?” Mark asked. “We could make them from scratch. They’d be a lot more secure.”

“Maybe,” Starlight said. “If we were at home, sure. But I’m not sure about my skills here. If I messed up rebuilding the terminal-to-array connectors, I’d ruin an old battery and not get a new one. Dragonfly would have been the one to ask for that.” She looked more closely at the diagram and added, “Please be quiet now, I need to concentrate on the new enchantment array.”

“How many are you going to do?” Cherry asked.

“Only four,” Starlight said. “The same number I would have made of the ordinary batteries. Now please let me concentrate, this is really important.”

Mark pulled the last of the six reserved batteries over to the work site and began cabling four of them together. “Fireball, can you get the field projectors? You know…” Mark made buzzing sounds while waving a hand to mimic the rising sparks the thing made.

“I know what the thing is, Mark,” Fireball growled. For the first time in far too long, a tiny flicker of flame escaped his nostril.

“Okay, okay,” Mark said. “Just didn’t know if you knew the words.”

“I know words, Mark.” Fireball growled. For some reason the human really got on his nerves today.

“Fireball, he didn’t mean to insult,” Cherry said. “Let it go.”

“But he keeps doing it!” Spitfire shouted. “He says he’ll stop, but he does it anyway!”

“Hey, come on,” Mark insisted, “that’s not goddamn fair and you know it!”

“Spitfire, you’re not helping!” Cherry said, stepping between the pegasus and the human.

“I don’t care!”

“What the hell do you want from me?”

“Maybe treat us like-“


Fireball jumped backwards, losing his balance as his instincts forgot Mars gravity and propelled him much harder than necessary or expected. The flash of light had reminded him all too forcefully of the lightning strikes a few days before.

From the way the others lay scattered around the dirt, the same thing had happened to them.

Except for Starlight, who floated in the air, glowing from the cable of pure magic pouring from the battery which had been sitting next to her. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU ALL?” she shouted, her voice echoing from the walls of the cave. She pointed a hoof behind her, at the cocoon hanging next to the cave wall, guarded by a little low-slung robot. “NOT IN FRONT OF DRAGONFLY!”

Fireball’s gut tried to curl up on itself. He’d forgotten all about Dragonfly. All he’d had in his head was this… annoyance…

Why had he been so annoyed, anyway?

Starlight settled to the ground again, releasing the magic. The cord that had connected her to the battery vanished. “All of you,” she said, “email Dr. Shields tonight. Now go apologize to Dragonfly.”

Fireball was last to hug the cocoon and rumble, “I’m sorry,” but only because he’d been farthest from the cocoon at the start.

The new batteries were made, and the magic field allowed to run until the batteries ran out, in almost complete silence. Nobody looked at anyone else if they could help it. And, after another round of hugs and apologies to Dragonfly, they departed in silence.

Halfway back to the Hab, Mark broke the silence. “Why are we getting on each other’s nerves all of a sudden?” he asked. “I feel like I can’t say anything without setting someone off.”

“Nerves,” Spitfire said. “We had close call. On edge. Tense. Not better yet. Seen it after monster fights sometimes.”

“All of us,” Starlight said firmly, “need to talk to Dr. Shields.”

“Never needed a shrink in the old space race,” Cherry grumbled.

Fireball bit his tongue to keep himself from delivering the obvious comeback to that. Anyone familiar with the old space race- not just the changeling program, but all the space programs that everyone and his cousin started up- knew everyone involved needed a psychiatrist, or maybe two.

But right now wasn’t the time to mention it.

But there was one important question.

“Starlight… this email,” Fireball said. “Is it gonna be graded?”

“Ask Dr. Shields.”

And on that note, the silence returned to stay.

Author's Notes:

Well, that ended up going a little gloomy. I just typed and let things go where they would.

But yeah, it might be nerves... or something else.

Next Chapter: Sol 256 Estimated time remaining: 14 Hours, 6 Minutes
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