The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 178: Sols 309-310

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[08:03] JPL: Daily check. Solar activity subsided a bit, so maybe comms will be better today. We estimate Sol 318 will be LOS day, after which Hermes will attempt to acquire Pathfinder’s signal every day until it works. With luck that’ll be Sol 328. Hope all of you are all right.

[08:42] WATNEY: We’re fine, but it’s bugging me why you told us not to build the engine carriage mounts on Rover 2. You have a reason. If data loss is the problem, just keep resending until it gets through. In the meantime, we’re staying busy doing science to magic, or magic to science, whatever. Waiting on your answer. – Mark

[09:41] SYSTEM: ERROR - Destination reports Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Message Not Sent

[09:42] WATNEY: system_command: REPEAT

[09:42] SYSTEM: Last message resent.

[10:41] SYSTEM: ERROR - Destination reports Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Message Not Sent

[13:19] WATNEY: system_command: REPEAT

[13:20] SYSTEM: Last message resent.

[14:18] SYSTEM: ERROR - Destination reports Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Message Not Sent

[14:19] WATNEY: system_command: REPEAT

[14:19] SYSTEM: Last message resent.

[15:30] WATNEY: About fucking time.

[16:28] SYSTEM: ERROR - Destination reports Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Message Not Sent


Starlight Glimmer shut off the field projector, looking with pride at the six new ordinary-sized mana batteries she’d made. With Mark’s people not explaining why carrying the three Amicitas main engines to Schiaparelli was no longer a priority, she’d decided not to make the four jumbo batteries originally scheduled for today. Besides, skipping those meant she could spare a little juice for experiments on the rainbow crystals.

Over the past few sols she and Mark had devised and carried out several experiments with the accidental enchantments in the crystals. The results both comforted and baffled her, for various reasons.

Experiment #1: Did the rainbow crystals store mana? According to Dragonfly’s thaumometer, yes, though even the ones in the center of the cluster, those which couldn’t infect other crystals anymore, didn’t store much. They were vastly less efficient than the purpose-enchanted batteries, if the average readout was an indicator.

Experiment #2: Did a crystal have to be growing out of the wall to be infected? Answer: no. Five crystal chunks cut from Lunch Buffet had been set in places where they could sit on top of certain rainbow crystals; all but the smallest had been enchanted within two days of being put there.

Experiment #3: Did a crystal have to be touching an infected crystal to be infected? Answer: too soon to be conclusive about it, but the crystals set a ponylength away, out in the open, hadn’t been infected in four sols of sitting there.

Experiment #4: Was there a size limit for the enchantment? Answer, based on observation: yes. Crystals smaller than Mark’s thumb remained in the field of rainbow crystals which hadn’t been altered. Possibly the enchantment couldn’t all fit. With careful examination (squinting) Starlight could make out a few random-looking traces of magic, but not the strange random patterns of the full enchantment.

Experiment #5: Would an already enchanted crystal be infected? Answer: apparently not. Starlight had laid the battery enchantment on a hoof-sized crystal and stuck it between two larger rainbow crystals. It still sat there, unaffected, three days later. More observation was warranted, but it looked like the batteries and the solar relays were safe. (It had occurred to her that she could probably think of ways to make a viral enchantment that would attack the batteries and sun crystals. It also occurred to her that Mars was not the place to even consider trying it.)

Experiment #6 (today): Would a rainbow crystal take an enchantment? Answer: surprisingly, yes, though with difficulty and with much reduced efficacy. Starlight had enchanted two of the rainbow crystals with a standard lighting enchantment. Now they glowed, if only feebly.

Experiment #7 (also today, using one of the infected crystals from Experiment #2): Could a rainbow crystal be dis-enchanted? Answer: not completely. As with any enchantment, bits of it tended to persist. But the portion of the random tangle of enchantments Starlight had broken had apparently broken the whole thing; the crystal was still a rainbow of colors, but the pattern hadn’t shifted.

Experiment #8 (begun today, incomplete): Would the enchantment affect non-crystalline rocks?

Experiment #9 (also begun today): If you enchant a rainbow crystal, would the added enchantment propagate along with the random one?

For this experiment the remaining three cut crystals Starlight had allowed to be infected were placed in small sample boxes Mark provided. One was filled with other cut crystals; this would be the control. One was also filled with cut crystals, but the infected crystal had the light-producing added enchantment. The last infected crystal was placed in a box of random non-crystalline surface rocks collected midway through the rover drive out to the cave that morning. In two or three days, they’d know the results.

Mark took the last photo of the post-magic round for today, charting the continued expansion of the rainbow crystal field and documenting the start of the three experiment boxes. “Do you want to write up the results?” he asked. “Or should I?”

“I’d better do it,” Starlight said. “I’m the one who’s been translating our concepts into English for your scientists. And I also have to send reports home.”

“Suit yourself,” Mark said. “Just let me know when you’re done so we can do the reading for today. It’s the last chapter of The Two Towers.”

Starlight shuddered. Spitfire and Dragonfly had turned out to be right on the money with their predictions, but the giant monstrous spider had come out of nowhere. She had nothing against spiders- the star spiders that hung around the half-restored Castle of the Two Sisters were cute and unusually friendly for denizens of the Everfree- but she drew the line at giant pony-eating monster spiders.

They discussed the final chapter of The Two Towers on the rover drive home, after renewing the previous day’s agreement that Dragonfly keep her big mouth shut.

In Starlight’s opinion there was too much Shelob, which is to say, there was some Shelob. But at least she hadn’t won. On the other hoof, Samwise hadn’t won, either…

“I feel so bad for Sam right now,” she said. “I’ve felt like that so many times- so many days when it seems like every decision I make is wrong.”

“Welcome to Planet Fireball,” the dragon rumbled ruefully.

“Welcome to Aragorn,” Spitfire added. “Remember the boat place? The orc attack?”

“But that came out okay in the end,” Starlight said. “Sam’s all by himself, Frodo’s a prisoner of Sauron’s orcs, and Gollum’s around somewhere getting ready to kill them. What can Sam do to make that right?”

“It’ll be a while before you find out,” Mark said. “The last book of the story, Return of the King, begins by going back to Gandalf and Pippin.”

“Oh, come on!” Cherry Berry protested. “Another switch? I don’t even remember what they were doing!”

“Riding to Gondor,” Starlight muttered. “But the thing is, I can’t see what Sam could have done differently. Letting Frodo get taken was the wrong move in hindsight, but if he’d stayed and tried to fight a whole squad of orcs? That would have been worse.”

“Sometimes you don’t have good choices,” Mark said quietly. “And nobody knows the future.” He paused. “Er, do people know the future? Where you come from, I mean?”

“Some say Sunbutt does,” Fireball said. “All those pony future stories come from someplace, yeah?”

“Sunbutt?” Mark asked.

“He means Princess Sky-and-Stuff,” Starlight muttered. “In a very crude and insensitive way.”

“It part of my charming personality,” Fireball said primly.

“Hint, Fireball,” Starlight replied, “don’t take charm lessons from Mr. Furley.”

“Starlight, why don’t you just use her pony name?” Mark asked. “You don’t call me Dedicated-to-Mars anymore.”

“For us names have meaning,” Starlight replied. “Many ponies change their names once they know what they’re going to do with their lives. For us a name tells other people who we are.”

“All right,” Mark said. “So what does ‘Starlight Glimmer’ tell us about you? That you’re almost invisible on a moonless night?”

“Er… um… look out for that rock!”

It was the same rock the rover drove over without so much as a scraping sound every day, so Mark didn’t bother to look. “Fine, the meanings of names are important to ponies,” he said. “But not to humans. So why not just use the pony version?”

“We did a couple times, remember?” Starlight said. “You can’t pronounce it.” And if you shift the vowel sound you can't pronounce, depending on which vowel you substitute, you either get nonsense, the word for a strong aroma, or the word teat. And knowing you, Mark, the minute you got to Equestria it'd be Princess Teat this and Princess Teat that, and Celestia would be very disappointed in us all...

She tried hard not to imagine how much Luna would laugh about it, and failed.

Before the conversation could continue its concussed wandering, the rover arrived back at the Hab. Inside, there was a message waiting for them on the main computer chat window, one the castaways had been expecting since dawn.

[06:41] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[07:44] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[08:47] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[09:51] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[10:54] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[11:57] JPL: All right, Mark, here’s the short version. Our work on modifying the Ares IV MAV has hit a roadblock. Turning the MAV descent stage into a zeroth ascent stage doesn’t work- the built-in engines are just too weak. Even with your friends’ engines running full blast, it wouldn’t do more than get you about a kilometer off the surface, and there’s a significant chance of plowing back into Mars during staging.

We considered putting the engines on the first ascent stage, but they’d burn out less than halfway through its burn, which means they’re practically negative delta-v unless you can make them disintegrate on command. We could throttle them back to half power and give up some efficiency, but that doesn’t give the ship the push it needs to break away from Mars.

We need to know: is there any way to make the engines lighter? Is there any way to increase thrust, even if it means burning out sooner? Is there any way to decouple or, if all else fails, destroy the engines and batteries once they’re used up?

Please ask your friends to study the problem. If we can’t use the pony engines, then we’ll either have to use the Sparkle Drive in atmosphere or scrap the Drive and go for a really risky all-or-nothing Hermes rendezvous. I can’t tell you how much we dislike either option. So please, give us something to work with.

This chat is having serious trouble with the solar flare activity just now. Thankfully Hermes isn’t in the path of any CMEs. Respond tomorrow via the pony radio- we want to see if the signal’s any clearer. We’ll be listening from 0830 hours Hab time.

By the time Starlight finished reading the chat message for the second time, the others had taken off and put away their suits, except for Dragonfly. The changeling had kept her suit so she could tap out a report home via the suit water spigot.

Starlight considered the problem. Mana batteries required some orderly molecular structure- ideally crystals. And those crystals had to be able to withstand a lot of punishment, if they were going to ride a rocket. There weren’t going to be any weight savings there. Yes, the batteries in the Sparkle Drive’s power array had crumbled to dust, but only under a massive sudden power demand. Maybe she could figure out a way to do that deliberately, but she didn’t think so.

As for making the engines lighter- ha! It had taken years to get them as efficient as they were. It was nearly impossible to create an enchantment for telekinesis. The spell, that most basic spell, practically required a mind to guide it. And anyway, the spell required both a point of origin and a target. Of course, a unicorn with magic to burn could make the two points the same and self-levitate, but experiments in that direction had been almost lethally unsuccessful. Yes, it made the enchanted object ballistic, but nopony had figured out how to control the direction… or how to turn it off before it hit a wall and, if you were very lucky, shattered into uselessness.

The three experiments that had decided to go up might keep going forever...

It had been Twilight who’d decided to focus on converting magic into thrust. That used a variant of a repulsor field spell, much like the forcefields that protected the Crystal Empire. The engine contained the spell, twisted just so inside its coils, and the twisting produced exhaust that could be directed using engine bells or nozzles. Of course, using an ordinary repulsor spell, either a field or a beam, wouldn’t work, because the ship would need something to push against, and space didn’t have a lot of those…

Push. Push. Push.

Dr. Kapoor had used the word. That was what a rocket did, really. The explosion in the reaction chamber pushed outward in all directions. But there was engine bell and rocket in the way in certain directions, and no resistance in other directions. Net result: the ship got pushed in the direction you presumably wanted to go.

But something about the word push gripped Starlight’s mind. There was an idea there, desperate to get out.

Suppose… a repulsor spell wouldn’t do much good in space, but the MAV wasn’t in space yet. And various force field spells and enchantments made it clear that, although you didn’t get telekinesis without a living mind, you could enchant something to kick other things away just fine.

What if… what if we used repulsor spells… to push the MAV away from Mars?

It could actually be more efficient than the engines. A lot more.


“Sssh,” Dragonfly said. “Composing message.”

“Break off. Send stand by,” Starlight said. “I have an idea.”

AMICITAS: Disregard prior signal, stand by, over.

ESA: Is something wrong, over?

AMICITAS: SG – urgent request you test following hypothesis: that repulsorlift spell with large mana battery can lift and launch spacecraft. Urgently need to know maximum distance of effect, whether lift efficiency is stable or degrades over distance, etc. Could potentially save twenty tons on escape rocket weight, over.

ESA: TS – good idea. Do you know how to enchant repulsor spells? Over.

AMICITAS: SG – affirmative. Over.

ESA: MD – I think the spell will lose strength by the square of the distance between caster and target. Really inefficient. But we’ll try it. Over.

AMICITAS: Thanks. Thanks. Out.

The instant she’d finished tapping the sign-off, Starlight leaped back to her hooves. “Mark!” she shouted. “We’re going back to the cave after lunch!”

“What??” Mark asked. “What for?”

“I still have four batteries to make!” Starlight said. “And with the work I have to do, there’s not a moment to spare!”

She'd have to drain eight of the remaining batteries to make it happen, which would mean no expansion of magic field time for quite a while, but she didn't care.

She wasn’t going to miss doing the right thing this time.

If necessary, Starlight Glimmer would do all the things.

Author's Notes:

Well, this didn't really work out how I planned. I would cut out a big chunk of the middle, but the experiment list just kind of sits there like the lump of exposition it is without something to lead into... no matter how lame it is.

Dragonfly was originally going to make the Sunbutt crack, but I decided that she'd only say that at this point, knowing how thin ice she's on after her excess revelations, if she honestly wanted everyone to start hating her. Fireball, on the other hand, has no such concerns.

I cannot think of any magic object in the cartoon, in canon, that automatically picks things up and moves them without a pony controlling them, except possibly the Tree of Harmony. But we have multiple examples of forcefields that expand and hurl things away, so repulsion is where I've decided to go with explaining the new plan.

Someone commented, "YOU MUST BUILD MORE PYLONS."

Well, yeah.

But let Twilight Sparkle design them properly first.

More on that another chapter.

Anyway, this took more writing and more effort than I'd planned- a total of almost 2800 words of writing today- but the buffer's got a whole chapter again.

And finally... I thoroughly regret bringing up the subject of good and evil, comma, the banality thereof. Bad idea. Won't do it again.

Next Chapter: Sol 311 Estimated time remaining: 11 Hours, 31 Minutes
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