The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 172: Sol 296-297

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[08:02] JPL: Good morning, daily check-in time. We trust everyone’s fine. Today is the summer solstice at the Hab, so enjoy the sunshine and warmth while it lasts. Our forecasts show a possibility of temperatures in positive digits C for brief periods over the next week before a light dust storm currently in Syrtis reduces insolation and drops temps down for a couple of days. However, Dr. Keller asks me to remind you that sunbathing is not encouraged, both because spacesuits are not made for bikini modifications and because there’s absolutely nothing except distance from the Sun to shield you from UV rays.

[08:41] WATNEY: Summer solstice?? Why didn’t you tell us before! We missed it! I can’t believe we missed it!

[09:20] JPL: I assume this is one of the ponies. I can’t imagine Mark being that upset over a solstice. Is it part of your culture?

[10:03] WATNEY: Starlight Glimmer here. We hold the Summer Sun Celebration on the longest day of the year, celebrating the rule of our Princess All-The-Skies (not the right translation). We stay up all the night before partying and then watch the Princess raise the sun in the morning. (Yes, I know, rotate the planet, but it’s traditional to call it sun-raising.) After Hearth’s Warming, it’s the most important holiday of the year.

[10:43] JPL: I see. Our scientists are still screaming about magic strong enough even to rotate an Earth-sized planet, by the way. But this is the solstice in the Martian northern hemisphere, not your home world. I assume the two don’t line up?

[11:21] WATNEY: Sorry, we’re busy now. Have to get ready for a belated Summer Sun Celebration! – Starlight --- Because what else do we have to celebrate on this rock? – Mark

In Equestria it was the depths of winter, with Hearth’s Warming less than a month in the past. On Earth it was late September, with summer lingering with its tropical heat at Johnson Space Center in Houston. But on Mars it was the first day of summer, and the three ponies had drafted the three non-ponies into the excuse to declare a holiday, survey the slim options available from what they had in the Hab, and prepare an all-night Summer Sun Celebration party.

For snacks Starlight Glimmer sliced potatoes extra fine with a trickle of magic and baked them in the atmospheric regulator’s heating elements, making their best attempt yet at chips. She used up most of the current supply of salt in the process- a trip to collect more would have to be scheduled in the next few days- but the results actually crunched, and not in the same way charcoal did. All in all, almost not terrible.

There was no party punch, alas, but Cherry Berry did harvest quite a few cherry leaves and, with care and precision, converted them into quite a lot of cherry leaf tea, a drink which, though not fruit punch and definitely not alcoholic, beat plain water. (Coffee, alas, was a thing a hundred sols in the past.)

Spitfire had volunteered for party games, which consisted of retrieving the whiteboard stashed at the cave farm, adding it to the whiteboard still at the Hab, and then brainstorming ideas for charades/Pictionary/etc. She also found one of the abandoned spacesuit undergarments from Mark’s old crew, collected a few antenna fragments, and hung the jumpsuit from a cabinet, pronouncing it the Mars Sharpshooting Challenge, or Pin the Antenna in the Watney. Starlight and Cherry had protested, but Dragonfly, Fireball and Mark all laughed at it, and they held the majority.

The choice of party music was left to Mark, but he declined, pointing out that since this was a pony holiday, human music would be inappropriate. “Besides,” he said, “I’ve done enough working to Beatles songs and disco. I want time off from them.”

So, when the party began, it began with the three ponies singing traditional songs of summertime, in the original Equestrian… followed by a tune with different words, but a very familiar tune.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” Mark protested, stopping the singing. “I thought we agreed, no Earth music!”

“We’re singing in pony,” Cherry said innocently.

“So you translated Celebration,” Mark said. “It’s still a disco song!”

“When we get back home,” Starlight insisted, “it’s going to be a traditional pony song.”

“At ALL our holidays,” Spitfire added, barely stumbling over the word holidays.

“From the top, girls?” Cherry said, giving a four-count beat with her hoof.

Mark’s hands left her, and Starlight Glimmer recovered her balance, four hooves dancing on the little area cleared of potato plants for the duration of the game. Somewhere ahead of her was the target- Spitfire’s tasteless re-enactment of the accident which had left Mark stranded here to greet the Equestrian shipwreck victims.

Well… fine. If Mark wasn’t bothered by the game, she wasn’t either. In fact, she was going to win it. Granted, her magic wasn’t good for much more beyond holding the antenna piece in the air without a battery, but it had been good enough to enchant a tiny bit of dirt to send a signal only she could detect. And she could feel it, right… over… there. So all she had to do was walk towards it, over it, and stick the stupid bit of metal right in the hip of the coveralls.

Confident of victory, Starlight strode forwards. She stepped over her magic mark, rubbing it out as she did so. She reached forward with her levitated antenna piece… and forward… funny, she should be hitting the cabinet by now…

“Okay, that’s enough.” She felt the antenna get plucked out of her magic, as a hand reached down to remove her blindfold. “If you’d kept going you might have punctured the Hab, and that would ruin the party.’

Starlight blinked. She’d missed the cabinet and had been reaching the antenna through a gap between cabinets. Sure enough, at the height she’d been holding the antenna at, nothing stood between it and the canvas dome.

As the others laughed, Starlight sheepishly stood aside while Mark put the blindfold on himself. This time Fireball spun him around several times, leaving the biped very unsteady on his feet. He swayed, tottered, then brought himself back into balance, not moving until he fully reclaimed his equilibrium.

Then, with cautious footsteps, he went straight forward, antenna extended ahead of him just above his waist height… and missed the inner bullseye by a whisker, poking his antenna into the fabric directly into the hip.

After a round of congratulations, the antenna was pulled out and handed to Fireball, then to Dragonfly. Fireball’s attempt clipped the left edge of the jumpsuit’s torso, while Dragonfly stuck Flat Mark in the right thigh.

And then, finally, Spitfire took her turn. “Spin me more,” she said. “Two times more. I train for this. I train others for this.”

“Did you hear that, Fireball?” Mark said, grinning. “The lady wants extra spin.”

“I hear,” Fireball said, also grinning. The blindfold went down, and then Spitfire went up, Fireball rotating her in every axis of rotation possible, tossing the pegasus like pizza dough for about thirty seconds before gently setting her back down and giving her the antenna.

To her credit, Spitfire didn’t squawk or protest, and she only wobbled a little where she stood. “I not wobbly like Mark,” she said. “I train.”

“Feh,” Mark said. “You have four legs to my two.”

“Training.” Spitfire took two steps, and immediately it became clear she hadn’t recovered her balance yet, at least not for walking. She stumbled one way, then the other, and then without realizing it the antenna she held in her teeth met resistance.

“OOOOOOOOOH, ouch,” Mark groaned, while all the others laughed.

“What? What?” Spitfire released her bite on the antenna and raised a hoof to remove the blindfold.

“Congratulations, Spitfire,” Mark continued. “If Mars had done that, then the future Mrs. Watney would have had to adopt.”

The antenna clung to its tenuous grip, directly in the crotch of the spacesuit undergarment.

The laughter didn’t stop for a couple of minutes, after which Spitfire was unanimously voted the winner.

The clock said 03:15. Sunrise was due at 05:24 Hab time. The games had been played out, and after some begging Mark had consented to put Johanssen’s Beatles tunes on for background music. The six of them sat on their bunks, sharing the small sample container still half-full of homemade crisps, sipping cold cherry leaf tea and talking.

“You know,” Spitfire said, looking at her cup, “this would be more… more… more a party if we had… er… secret add to drink?”

“Alcohol?” Mark asked.

“Yeah, right,” Fireball grunted. “I need to be more flammable.”

This got a couple of punchy chuckles.

“Yeah, well, that wasn’t going to happen,” Mark said. “NASA doesn’t allow booze on flights except for very unique circumstances. Martinez had some four-ounce bottles of sacramental wine for Communion on Hermes, but that was the only alcohol we had outside the medical cabinet.”

Spitfire blinked. “Drinks in med kit?” she asked.

Mark shook his head. “Denatured alcohol,” he said. “Definitely not safe to drink.”

“Shoot,” Spitfire muttered.

“You know,” Dragonfly said, “we don’t have holidays like this in the Hive. Occasionally Chrysalis orders a triumph, and then there’s a gorbfest whenever the love harvests are particularly good…” She paused and thought about this. “You know, we haven’t had a gorbfest in years, and we really should, considering how well we eat these days.”

“Huh. Sounds a little like Thanksgiving,” Mark said. "This gobfeast thing- why are you all flinching?”

“Don’t mind us,” Starlight said hurriedly. “You nearly got it right.”

“This time,” Spitfire muttered.

“You have it when you have a lot of food, right?” Mark said. “Like the Thanksgiving my crew was supposed to have?”

“Thanks… giving…” Dragonfly said the two parts of the word slowly. “It’s not quite the same thing, I think. We’re supposed to thank the queen for our food, no matter how much or how little there is. Gorbfest is just about having lots of food and being almost not hungry for a day.”

“Huh. Back home it’s not just a harvest thing,” Mark said. “It’s a day when family members come back from everywhere they’ve moved to so they can see one another and be together for the day.”

“That’s sweet,” Cherry said.

“Yeah,” Mark said. “It reminds us why we moved out.”

“Aaaaand that’s not so sweet.” Cherry took a chip on her hoof and munched it. “But that’s after harvest, right? What holidays do you have to begin summer?”

“Well, we don’t have one on the actual solstice,” Mark said. “There’s one about four weeks before, where we remember the soldiers who died to protect us-“

“We don’t have that,” Spitfire interrupted. “Not enough dead guards.” She slammed back her tea, added in Equestrian, “Thank Celestia for that,” and dropped down off her bunk to go get a refill.

“Er… and a couple of weeks after the solstice is Independence Day, when my country celebrates its freedom from the kings that used to rule it.”

“I still can’t get over that,” Starlight insisted. “You have a democracy. We always thought a democracy would fall apart if it got bigger than maybe a city. The Minotaur Isles have the only national democracy I know about.”

“To be fair,” Mark said, “our democracy has come close to failing a number of times. Memorial Day was originally a day to decorate the graves of those who fell when it failed the most.” It was his turn to take a long draw at his drink.

“But no kings? No queens? No princesses? Just people?” Cherry Berry insisted, not allowing any awkward silences to continue.

“There have been a couple of times when that was a danger,” Mark said. “But most of the time my people are happier without absolute rulers demanding worship and total obedience.”

“Wait, no,” Starlight insisted. “Our princesses aren’t like that at all. In fact, Princess… ugh, I wish I could translate that name!” She snorted and continued, “Anyway, she does her best to not be worshiped, and she generally lets ponies alone. And that’s despite all the work she does!”

“And you don’t have anyone like that,” Cherry added. “No one to steady the turn of your planet. No one to guard your dreams. No one to see to it that everyone finds what they’re good at and has a chance at a happy life.”

Mark shook his head. “We just don’t work like that,” he said. “The world turns itself, we have our nightmares, and a lot of people live and die without doing what they want.”

“That’s so sad,” Cherry said. “It’s like your whole world is Free Forever Forest.”

“Because it is,” Mark said. He’d been told about the Everfree and its dangers in the stories the ponies had told of Equestria. “We can’t control the weather. Most animals either run from us or try to kill us, except for the ones we’ve bred for domestication. Even on our farms we have to deal with weeds and pests and droughts and floods. There’s nine billion of us- we make up thirty-five percent by weight of all mammals on our planet- but we don’t really control it in any meaningful way.”

“Of course not.” Dragonfly’s voice was surprisingly quiet. “Haven’t you ponies figured it out yet? This is a Free Forever universe.

The ponies froze at the thought. “A whole universe like the- the-“ Spitfire stuttered as she tried to work around the unfamiliar place-name.

“It makes sense,” Cherry said, dropping into Equestrian. “Sweet Celestia, it makes sense. It explains why this planet is trying to kill us.”

“And Mark grew up in that horrible place!” Starlight gasped, maintaining her English.

“Girls, really,” Mark said, “it’s no big-“

One human found himself at the bottom of a pony cuddle pile. A moment later Dragonfly joined, because lings gotta ling.

Fireball, feeling no compulsion to join, sipped his tea.

“Okay, okay, get off,” Mark said. “Remember, my species is the apex predator slash scavenger slash parasite of the whole planet. Over three percent of the multicellular animal biomass of Earth is us. Three percent for one species. We do all right.” He smiled and added, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the baddest motherfucker in the valley.”

The ponies froze mid-hug. “Mark,” Starlight said carefully, “are you saying you’re one of the monsters of the Free Forever Forest?”

“Well… I’m not saying I’m not…”

The group hug broke up quite abruptly after that.

Fireball shook his head. "Ponies," he muttered.

“Thank you, Mark,” Cherry said dryly. “Now I have no problem staying up to sunrise.”

“All part of the service,” Mark chuckled.

“I think we should drive back the evil forest monster,” Spitfire said slowly. “Make him pay.”

“Oh really?” Mark asked, crossing his arms. “And how are you going to do that?”

“Power of music,” the pegasus said. “Dragonfly!”

“On it!” Before Mark could react, the changeling lunged for the computer and switched from Johanssen’s music files to Lewis’s. The opening bars of “Get Down Tonight” blasted through the Hab’s speakers.

“Nooooooooo!” Mark cried melodramatically. “Curse you! Defeated by the foul, underhanded tactics of boogie fever! But I shall have my revenge!” He lunged forward, grabbed Spitfire by the barrel, and began tickling under her forelegs.

The tickle war lasted halfway to sunrise.

Author's Notes:

In at the wire. Now for bed.

(If you're wondering, today I finally broke a very bad writer's block, despite a mild depressive cycle today, and got some Peter is the Wolf script and layouts sent to the artist. Didn't get started on this until late.)

Next Chapter: Sol 302 Estimated time remaining: 12 Hours, 14 Minutes
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