The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 174: Sol 303

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


“We’re here.”

Starlight Glimmer looked up from the computer screen, where an image of Dragonfly’s now unoccupied cocoon sat in front of what seemed like an aura of rainbow light rendered in crystal. “Oh?” she said. “Sorry, I was just thinking.”

“What abou- oh,” Dragonfly said, looking over the unicorn’s shoulder at the screen and seeing the pic. “Tired of me already?”

Although the tone was teasing, Starlight Glimmer felt a shiver through her body at the words. “Don’t you ever think of going back into that thing,” she snapped, closing the image viewer. “And no, I wasn’t thinking about that.”

“Young ladies, don’t make me turn this car around,” Mark said. “Really, don’t. I may have to swap batteries anyway, so I want to make this trip worth the trouble.”

They had come ten kilometers east-northeast of Site Epsilon, to another volcano or hill or something- this one with two peaks, each considerably taller than the squat mound of Site Epsilon. Mark had parked near the base of the volcano, Rover 1’s battery back in its saddlebag for this trip, the RTG providing a surplus of heat for the interior of the rover. The side of the mountain sloped up gently ahead of them.

“Which way to the best source of salt?” Mark asked.

“I know a gem-finding spell, Mark,” Starlight said. “But no pony I ever met had a talent for finding salt in the ground. Sorry.”

Mark shrugged. “Eh,” he said. “Let’s just drive a bit farther, then, and see what’s on the other side.”

The rover crawled slowly but steadily up the side of the volcano, aimed directly at the saddle between the peaks. It took only a couple of minutes to reach the crest of the slope. The ground rolled away, and then the rover lurched as Mark slapped on the brakes. The ribbed wheels of the rover dug in to the loose dirt and rocks, slid a little, and then ceased all motion.

“Whoa,” he said.

“Not funny, Mark,” Starlight said.

“No, seriously,” Mark said. “Suit up. We need to go out and see this.”

Ten minutes later the three of them stood on the mountain, staring eastwards.

Unlike the gentle slope on the western side of the hill, the eastern face dropped away fairly steeply not far from where Mark had stopped. Below and before them extended a large bowl, interrupted by a tongue of plainsland jutting into the bowl from the south, a small mesa jutting up from the tip like a sphinx almost totally worn away by winds.And beyond this, beyond the bowl, beyond even the horizon, a long curved ridge rose in the hazy distance; the rim of a massive impact crater.

And in this one vista Mars appeared to be throwing its entire limited range of colors at the eye. The twin peaks of the mountain shone almost white with light-colored material that could be ejecta or could be ice. The mountain slopes were the reddish gray that dominated Acidalia Planitia. The bottom of the bowl, on the other hand, lurked in a shadowy near-black that not even the distant but bright noonday sun could lighten. The wind-gnawed mesa on the outcrop, by contrast, practically glowed rust-red in comparison, and the distant crater rim, softened by distance and the pathetically thin air, shaded into the pink.

And from a point just below the southern rim of the bowl, between the outcrop and the southern mountain peak, something sparkled.

Mark held out the arm with the camera on it, refocusing it to maximum magnification, watching the output projected onto the inside of his helmet. “Oh my God,” he gasped. “Holy shit. I can’t believe I’m seeing this.”

“What is it?” Starlight asked, her eyes following the line of Mark’s stiff arm. “More quartz?”

“Oh, it’s rarer than that,” Mark said. “What temperature do your suits say it is?”

“Um…” Starlight refocused her view inside the suit, to the readouts just below the faceplate. “One degree above freezing.”

“That’s what I thought,” Mark said. “The conditions have to be absolutely perfect for this to happen. Temperature within a one or two degree band. Air pressure near absolute peak for this planet. It must be a lot higher down there than it is up here.” His voice sped up and dropped as he continued, becoming a rapid-fire mumble.

“Mark, what is it, please?” Starlight asked.

“It’s water.” Mark’s pointing hand extended a finger. “We are witnessing something that no other astronaut is likely to see here for centuries- natural running water on the surface of Mars.”

“Is that really a big deal?” Dragonfly asked. “We could probably create a spring if we wanted.”

“From a scientific standpoint, not so much,” Mark said. “We’ve known about the probability of liquid water flows when conditions were right. When humans first made a serious effort to map Mars using space probe photos, they chose for an arbitrary sea level the altitude at which average air pressure would be high enough to allow liquid water under perfect conditions. And then we learned about perchlorates and their antifreeze effects, and saw water-triggered landslides on satellite photos. We knew it could happen.

“But this is a special moment. Everything has to be exactly right for this to happen. Not enough pressure, and water can’t stay liquid. Too cold, and it stays frozen. Too hot, and it boils away instantly. And here we are, at the right time, with everything perfect, to witness a waterfall on Mars.” He patted his arm with his free hand and said, “Which is why all of this is being recorded.”

Starlight shuddered hard enough for it to be visible through her space suit. “If water is as rare as that,” she said, “this really is a terrible planet.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Dragonfly said. “I mean yes, it does want us all dead, but this part of it reminds me a little of the Bad Lands-“ she said it with emphasis on lands- “back home, where our hive is.” She stepped a little closer to Mark. “We gonna go investigate closer?”

“No,” Mark said, shaking his head. “The slopes are too steep. I’m not putting the rover at risk any farther than this. Besides, by the time we got there it would probably be over.” Indeed, the glittering seemed to be diminishing far more than the slow movement of the sun in the sky could explain.

The human dropped his arm, flexing it a bit to relieve the stiffness from holding it in place for so long. “You know,” he said, “this is the sort of thing I signed up for.”

“Being stranded on a desert planet with five aliens?” Dragonfly asked.

“Well, not that part,” Mark admitted. “But think about it. We’re the first to see anything like that on this planet. Hell, we’re the first to stand on this spot, to see this view, to look over that horizon. Everywhere we go, we’re the first there. The first to touch that rock. The first to dig that soil. The first to see, the first to do, first, first, first!” He patted his arm and added, “And now we just have to get home with the news of what we found. That’s what being an astronaut is about.”

Starlight snorted derisively. “Yeah,” she muttered, “and I’m responsible for the first spaceship from my world to visit another world… accidentally.”

“Take your firsts where you can get them,” Mark said. “When you get home you’re going to be a hero for all of time, you know that?”

This time Starlight’s snort was even louder, more of shock than derision. “Me? A hero? For getting us stranded here?”

“For getting us un-stranded,” Mark said. “For giving us a chance to live long enough to be rescued. Without you and your magic there would be no cave farm, no food, and three dead ponies about a hundred fifty sols ago. Without Dragonfly you’d all be confined to the Hab or trying to make do with the spare Ares suits. I got the farm started, and Cherry got it really going. Without Fireball’s strength we couldn’t have moved the dirt or the crops. And without Spitfire watching over everyone, one or more of us would probably be permanently injured.

“We’re surviving, Starlight. We are going to survive this motherfucking planet. And just because we survived this planet for a year and a half, all of us are going to be heroes as long as memory lasts.”

“One thousand years is the traditional pony number for such things,” Dragonfly added.

Starlight flopped back on her spacesuited flanks, head down. “I don’t feel like any hero,” she said. “Cherry, sure, she got us down alive, and I don’t think anybody else could. And back home Spitfire’s all kinds of hero. Even Dragonfly here is a hero among the changelings.”

“Too true,” the changeling in question modestly admitted.

“But I’m a buck-up,” Starlight continued. “Yes, I’ve done a few things, but I cause more problems than I fix. We wouldn’t even be here if not for me- you’d be home with your crew, and we’d be doing, oh, I don’t know what. And I’m just scared all the time, trying to save myself, and trying to think of ways to keep everyone alive a little longer.”

"Which you're pretty darn good at, all things considered," Dragonfly replied.

Mark knelt and put a gloved hand on a pressurized shoulder, leaning into it so Starlight could feel it. “Heroes don’t have to be fearless,” he said. “They don’t have to be extraordinary. I’m not Neil Armstrong. I’m not even Chris Hadfield. But a hero keeps going. A hero survives things that would kill most people. That’s all it takes: don’t die. People are going to look at you, and they’re not going to say, ‘That Starlight Glimmer, she sure screwed the pooch a lot, didn’t she?’ No. They’re going to say, ‘How did she survive a year and a half in another universe? On an almost airless planet? Growing her own food? Building her own escape vehicle? I could never do that.’ That’s what they’re going to say about you.”

“Really?” Starlight Glimmer picked herself off the dirt. “And what are they going to say about you, Mark Watney?”

“They’re going to say, ‘Is that Mark Watney? I thought he’d be taller.’”

Pony and changeling snickered appreciatively.

“But seriously, I’ve been thinking about that,” Mark continued. “How do ponies treat their heroes?”

Starlight Glimmer shrugged. “I live with the six biggest heroes of our time,” she said. “One of them is a princess, and even now half the ponies on the street don’t stop to look at her most of the time. If it’s not Sun-princess or Luna-princess, we don’t seem to get excited.”

“It is so different with humans,” Mark said. “The problem with becoming a human hero is, you can never stop. Do a heroic thing once and you’re a hero for life. That name I mentioned, Neil Armstrong? Huge introvert. He talked to machines more than he talked to people, given a choice. Very private, very mysterious. He was the first human to walk on the moon. And he never had a moment’s privacy after that until the day he died. He wasn’t allowed to do anything, to be anything else. He was First Man on the Moon, forever.”

Mark stood back up, dusting off the knee of his EVA suit. “And I think about that a lot. NASA is spending hundreds of millions of dollars and putting five lives in jeopardy just to get my worthless ass back to Earth. I owe them, and they’re going to collect. Test subject for life for space medicine. Spokesperson at any astronaut event they want. Teacher of the next generation or two of astronauts. I’ve got a job for life whether I want it or not.

“And that’s just the NASA side of things. Then there’s the public. When I get back I’m going to be known as the first guy to colonize Mars. My alma mater actually pointed that out to me in an email- that if you live there and grow crops there, you’ve colonized a place. I’m going to go through the rest of my life as the first Martian. And because of that, every Tom, Dick and Harry is going to think I owe them my time, my ear, my handshake, my endorsement. And they’re not totally wrong.”

He looked out over the bowl. The kilometer-distant waterfall had ceased, the water already vanished completely. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Ever since I really began believing we’d get out of here.”

A hoof touched his suited thigh- Dragonfly’s. “And how do you feel about being a hero?” she asked.

Mark took a deep breath. “I think it’s better than the alternative,” he said. “Now, aren’t you owed some magic-field time? And let’s see how much salt you can find on top of a mountain.”

The answer was: very little. They ended up going back down the mountain and halfway back to Site Epsilon in order to fill the salt box using Starlight’s gathering spell.

Author's Notes:

I wanted to fit in a reference to Log Horizon, but couldn't manage it.

Even in the book, Mark wasn't always down about Mars. Yes, he hated the planet with a passion, but he enjoyed the moments when he could be what his vision of an astronaut was. Not enough to want to go back, mind you, but...

And yes, liquid water is possible on Mars- but just barely possible, and not for very long at all, and not on most of the planet. You need a low-altitude spot like Acidalia or Gusev Crater (or, come to think of it, Schiaparelli). You need very high (for Mars) air pressure (which you'll only find in the aforementioned low altitudes). And you need temperatures just a little above freezing, because at those pressures the range of temperature in which water can remain liquid is very, very narrow.

That one short film, shot on shaky-cam at distance using a suit cam on maximum magnification, would be worth the entire cost of Ares 3 plus the rescue operations by itself. That's how rare flowing water on Mars is. It exists- we've got satellite pictures after the fact- but it's damn rare. And Mark appreciates the moment, even if his companions don't.

PS - in other news, I got the fixed computer for my aunt and uncle today and finished getting them set up. That is now over, for given values of "I just volunteered myself as technical support for life."

Next Chapter: Sol 305 Estimated time remaining: 12 Hours
Return to Story Description


Login with