The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 167: Sol 286

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AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, use suit SG for responses, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: Preparing for second attempt to revive Dragonfly as per prior report. Advise when ready to trace spell, over.

ESA: Preparing to track your spell now. Tell us when you’re ready to cast and we’ll ask you to hold if necessary, over.

AMICITAS: Roger, stand by, over.

ESA: Standing by, over.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Cherry asked.

“Not really,” Starlight said around a mouthful of cable. “Stand back and try to not be magical?”

Cherry Berry hated to be useless. There was work that needed to be done, and she could only stand there as Starlight Glimmer finished connecting all the cables to every magic battery she could find.

This time all the cables were connected, clamped or even spliced directly to a single battery, rather than in series, and that single battery didn’t have bunny ears on it this time. This was because, rather than creating a magic field, Starlight had decided to pour the magic directly into Dragonfly. And rather than attach cables to the cocoon and risk frying the changeling inside, Starlight was going to channel the mana directly, allowing her to regulate the flow and to sense feedback…

… and, incidentally, risking frying both the changeling and the unicorn, a point which everyone else had raised repeatedly and loudly.

But Starlight had won the argument by pointing out that they didn’t have time or magic energy for a third attempt. If this didn’t at least produce some visible reaction, another approach would have to be taken. With this in mind, Cherry had asked Mark for a spare of one of the plastic dome support poles from the Hab, so that a really big stick would be available without anypony resorting to the maiming of one of her cherry trees.

But aside from keeping the two-meter section of flexible plastic (its internal elastic removed so it could be separated from the rest of the assembly) under one hoof, there was very little Cherry Berry could do. Spitfire, who likewise wanted to do something, had claimed the duty of telegraphing to Equestria, her hoof hovering over the water nozzle in the neck of Starlight’s old, torn space suit. Fireball, who was quite happy to do nothing if nothing needed doing, sat well away from the others and watched. Mark, who probably felt like Cherry did, paced.

Starlight flipped switches on the batteries, one at a time. The terminals of the final battery, half-covered under the multiple cable clamps, began to spark and sizzle with barely restrained magic. For this experiment every battery would be used- nineteen regular batteries plus the four jumbo batteries for the future MAV modifications. Every single spark of magic that the ponies could muster in this Faust-forsaken wilderness, without any reserve, was going into this shot.

Finally only the last switch remained, the switch that would set the final battery from recharge to release. Starlight stood with her forehooves resting on the terminals, surrounded by cables, facing the cocoon. “Ready for experiment,” she said.

“Send to Twilight Sparkle,” Cherry ordered. “Ready to cast. Standing by for final go or no go to proceed.”

Cherry Berry heard the sound of soft splashes and clicking of hoof on plastic as Spitfire tapped out the message on the water nozzle. A universe away, a light would blink on a panel being watched by a dozen ponies plus a changeling or two and possibly a minotaur. One of them would have a hoof or other appendage on the switch that worked the water flow override, ready to send the response.

More splashing sounds followed. By now all of them except Mark could read the incoming water telegraph by sound alone. But Spitfire repeated the message aloud in English, not because Mark was there, but because it was protocol: “Message from Twilight Sparkle: ready to track, all go to proceed.”

Cherry Berry took a deep breath. “Mark, Fireball, stand ready to help if the spell gets out of control.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mark said simply.

“In your own time, Starlight,” she continued. “It’s your show.”

She watched as Starlight steeled herself, slipped a hoof down to flip the switch, and then slapped a hoof on either terminal of the battery. In a blink her eyes went solid white, glowing, as an unseen updraft picked up the hair of her mane and tail and waved them wildly in the air.

The unicorn’s jaw set. Her brows dropped in concentration, her muzzle scrunching slightly.

And then magic too bright to look at, brighter than the anemic sun outside the cave, exploded from her horn, a column of raw power twice as tall as the pony at its source, roared out like a waterfall and slammed into the cocoon, the overflow splashing into the crystals studding the cave wall behind the cocoon.

Cherry Berry squinted, half-shielding her eyes with one raised hoof. This wasn’t like the feeble imitations of Equestrian magic that the field projector produced. This surpassed that- it surpassed natural Equestrian background magic. It even went beyond the power unleashed during the final battle in Canterlot, when she’d been present, shackled and chained, while Twilight’s friends rescued the princess from the power-mad Storm King.

Cherry still thought of herself as reasonably young, but she’d had a lot of experience in a wide variety of places- whatever she needed to do, within reason, in pursuit of her dreams of flight. And this, bar none, was the second largest expenditure of pure magic she’d ever witnessed.

(The single largest such display she’d witnessed at a distance of many miles, and given the destruction involved in Twilight Sparkle’s battle with Tirek, she was desperately grateful for that.)

Even the outermost edges of the aura of that monster beam of magic had power. Cherry looked down to see tiny buds of alfalfa bursting from the soil, thrown up by the root system of the nearby plants in response to her earth pony magic absorbing and relaying the mere fringes of the beam. Spitfire, her wings spread but motionless, had risen from the surface. A trace of smoke emerged from Fireball’s nostrils.

And at the far end of the beam… darkness. The core of the beam seemed to swirl like a tornado, or like a whirlpool, sucked into the depths of a shadow that clung to the cocoon like a hood. But even that shadow couldn’t suck down the entire beam, and the excess on either side sent rainbows showering from the quartz around it, set loud echoes of chimes and clinking ringing down the cave.

The beam continued to pour it on. Cherry glanced at Starlight, could just see sweat pouring down her face, lather building on her body. But her glowing eyes remained steady, locked on target, her lips pulled up in a snarl as she hammered the cocoon with all the magic power the farm and the ponies could store up in two weeks.

And under the beam the shadow melted, broke up, faded to nothing. The whirlpool dissipated, vanished into the pure light of the massive beam. The magic didn’t notice. Its wielder didn’t care. It poured out, on and on and on, spraying, splashing, saturating its target…

… until, with a suddenness matched only by how it began, it ceased. Starlight Glimmer slumped over the battery, back rising and falling as she gasped for breath.

Two weeks of the feeble trickle of magic absorbed by the enchanted stones, released in about a minute and a half. That was all.

“Mark! Spitfire! See to Starlight!” Cherry shouted, breaking the shock of the experience and setting her fellow castaways to movement. “Fireball! Help me secure the batteries! Shut them all down, quick!” Indeed, even with the batteries utterly drained, little sparks of mana danced across Starlight’s hooves as the batteries concentrated the magic collected from the life in the cave into two little points.

Mark and Spitfire hauled the unicorn off the battery and over the cables, laying her on her back on a sleeping mat. Cherry went down one row of batteries while Fireball took the other, flipping switch after switch back to recharge. The sparks on the battery terminals ceased.

And as soon as the clicking of switches stopped, she heard the splashing of the water telegraph. “Spitfire, send ‘repeat message,’” she ordered.

Spitfire gave a look at Starlight, who had quite clearly tried to pour herself out with the contents of the batteries. But she was breathing regularly, if deeply, and didn’t appear to be in pain, so obedience won out over her medical duties. She walked over to the suit, tapped out a few characters, and waited and listened to the response. “Twilight calling Friendship… we almost had you… can you recast for two full minutes, over?”

Starlight sat up, bolt upright. “Recast??” With a second movement as sudden as the first she put herself on her hooves, snorting. “Recast?? What does that…” She tried to take a step towards the spacesuit being used for the telegraph, and that proved to be a mistake. Her left foreleg buckled, and she flopped face-first into the dirt.

“Easy, Starlight,” Mark said, running his fingers through her mane. “Just relax for a-“

Buck relax,” Starlight snorted. She tried to stand up again. “Give me that suit. I want to tell my teacher exactly what I think of-“

Water mist sprayed into Starlight’s face, and she flinched back, hissing. Mark hit her with another squirt of the mister from his botany experiment package and said, “No! Down! Bad unicorn! Bad!”

“Grrrrr!” Starlight raised a hoof to shield her face from the water, and she flopped forward again. Defeated, she remained prone, looking at Spitfire and saying, “Message to Twilight Sparkle from Starlight Glimmer: ‘I exhaust Cherry Berry’s entire vocabulary at you.’ Those exact words. Send it!”

Cherry Berry nodded to Spitfire, who shrugged and tapped out the message. “Feel better?” she asked once the last character had been rendered into the soggy soil.

“Much,” Starlight moaned. “Seventeen sols of magic at one go, and she still expects me to do it again. She does the impossible so often she forgets other ponies can’t…”

“How are you?” Cherry asked.

“I’ll be all right with some rest,” Starlight said. “I’m just really tired. Have you ever ridden a tatzlwurm and steered it where you wanted to go?”

“Um, I’m pretty sure nopony has,” Cherry said.

“It was like that anyway,” Starlight said. “The magic wanted to go everywhere. It wanted to do things- anything, so long as it was doing.”

Splashing. “From Twilight Sparkle to Starlight Glimmer,” Spitfire said. “’No need to be so mean. We had you down within two centimeters when we lost signal, over.’”

“There is no way,” Starlight Glimmer insisted, “that I can ride the tatzlwurm for two straight minutes. And if I do, she’ll ask for three, I know it. She’d do it for any pony, because she’s Twilight Sparkle, but sometimes she just doesn’t think.”

Cherry sighed. “Message to Twilight, ‘there are limits. Procedure is ended for the day. Awaiting results, will report, Friendship out.’”

Splashing, and then more splashing. “From Chrysalis to Cherry Berry,” Spitfire reported. “Standing by for report. Chrysalis not out, over.”

Cherry sighed again. “Acknowledge the message and let them wait,” she said. “Then come make sure Starlight’s okay.”

Once the message was sent and Starlight in the care (and custody) of Amicitas’s medic, the other three walked over to Dragonfly’s corner. Normally, the rainbows and sparkle faded from the crystals when the magic projectors were turned off, but the quartz behind the cocoon remained polychromatic in ways almost impossible to describe. Every color of the rainbow, plus several not in the rainbow, remained splashed across the wall, shining more normally under the amplified sunlight from the solar collectors above. A few of the crystals even appeared to be partially invisible.

As for the cocoon itself, the words LEAVE ME had been scoured off the outside. It now gleamed almost as brilliantly as the crystals, a shiny, polished lump of obsidian hanging by a slimy-looking black cord from the ceiling.

Unfortunately nothing else had changed. It certainly wasn’t moving. The flap at the bottom hadn’t unsealed itself.

Mark spoke first. “So… how about those crystals? Making you hungry, Fireball?”

Fireball’s words came deliberately and firmly, and for once almost properly: “It would be a crime to eat any of those. That whole wall would be center… heart… of any hoard at home.”

“I didn’t hear no.”

“Wash your ears.”

“We’ll have to watch and wait,” Cherry said, breaking up the deflection. “We still have chores to do. It’s time to bail out the well again.”

The three of them set to work on tending the plants (including the new sprouts), hauling loads of water from the well up to the airlock, and checking the hot water system for possible leaks. They all had lunch, with Starlight much recovered for a couple hours of rest. They read from the current book, huddling together at the description of the Fellowship’s trek through the caverns of Moria.

Not once did the cocoon stir.

Then everyone suited up and gave the cocoon their goodbye hug, trying to stifle their disappointment… everyone but one.

“I’m staying here tonight,” Starlight said. “Remember that Dragonfly didn’t attack Mark until the middle of the night. Maybe she won’t recover now until later. Someone should be here just in case.”

Cherry nodded. “Maybe we all should stay?”

“No,” Starlight said. “Just me. If something goes wrong, you should be ready to save me tomorrow.”

“Maybe you should not stay,” Spitfire said carefully. “That way, you don’t need rescue.”

“I’ll be all right,” Starlight insisted. “I have a stick.” She patted the plastic shaft Cherry had almost forgotten about.

The last thing Cherry saw as the airlock door closed was Starlight’s smiling face and her hoof waving goodbye.

I hope, she thought, I haven’t just made a horrible mistake.

Author's Notes:

Two centimeters doesn't seem like a lot, does it?

How many hydrogen atoms can you fit on a line two centimeters long?

Rifftrax: Space Mutiny is tonight. I am enjoying my semi-vacation, in particular eating my own home cooking and not having totally screwed it up.

Basically, inside-out stuffed cabbage leaves.

In a wok, brown hamburger meat plus lots of diced onion. Drain, but not completely. Add one small chopped cabbage, mushrooms, diced tomatoes with garlic, and salt, pepper, more garlic, etc. to taste. Cook fifteen minutes or until cabbage is tender.

I made enough to last for days, and I've had five platefuls and not got tired of it yet, so I call that success.

I tell you that because there's not much else to say about this chapter, except to add that Starlight is being a little unfair to Twilight. Twily thinks she came so very close to finding them, and her impossible demands are her passing on her frustration at coming up short to the Martians. Under normal conditions Twilight wouldn't ask the impossible...

... more than once every other week.

Next Chapter: Sol 287 Estimated time remaining: 12 Hours, 57 Minutes
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