The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 18: Sol 26

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Cherry Berry shifted the limp space suit on her back and switched on the water spigot, counting to fifteen slowly as the trickle of water poured from the drinking-straw onto the reddish-gray dirt at her hooves. For once things were going smoothly. Everypony was too busy to argue or make trouble, which meant she could focus on her own task and relax.

The next three days had been planned out. Tomorrow would be more soil cultivation, digging up the treated soil and spreading it on top of half the remaining Martian dirt. Everypony would be involved in that. For the next two days, the castaways would split into two teams. She, Mark, and Fireball would spend the two days out at the crash site doing a thorough walk-over of the hill atop the crystal cave, looking for cracks, fault lines, or other hazard that might cause trouble once they began work inside. Starlight Glimmer, Dragonfly and Spitfire would stay at base and carefully disassemble the starboard side of the ship’s hull around the engineering deck, removing its airlock and extracting the emergency electric heaters.

Fireball and Spitfire had wanted to exchange mission assignments, and each had made a good case. Fireball’s strength would be useful in disassembling the ship safely, and Spitfire had experience in exploring and inspecting terrain. But Cherry had held firm. Spitfire absolutely had to be wherever risk of physical injury was greater, and in this case that was the salvage project. And since Starlight and Dragonfly were also both needed for any work on the ship, that left no one to fill Fireball’s spot on the site survey team. Thankfully both accepted the assignments without any further argument.

Now, while Cherry and Fireball applied water to the dirt to prepare it for mixing with the live soil (and even Cherry, who lacked her family’s talent for farming, could sense how horribly sterile the dirt brought in from outside was), Dragonfly and Spitfire thrashed out safety protocols for the salvage operation. Starlight was sketching some sort of magic array on a whiteboard, while Mark carefully inspected the double handful of potatoes he’d had in storage. He’d cut two of the twelve apart already, each into four pieces, and he was planning cuts on the third one with the same expression Cherry had seen Rarity use when working with a particularly expensive and hard-to-find fabric.

She eased herself over a few steps, counted to ten, then depressed the switch to pour more water onto the dead soil. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, off. Several feet away Fireball bent to do the same thing, holding his suit over one scaly arm while using the other to guide the neckhole where the water was wanted. Click, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, click. Cherry nodded her head in approval and began her next spray.

A soft whispery hiss reached her ears. She looked up to see Mark set his knife down very carefully, his already pale face going ash white.

Air leak!

“SUIT UP!” As soon as she shouted the command she shrugged her own space suit off her back, pulling down the zipper so she could slip her hind legs in. She rushed to get her legs in and the suit torso pulled up to where she could slip in her forehooves, re-zip the zipper and close the outer seal over the zipper. She reached for her helmet, which wasn’t next to her… because this isn’t a drill and we’re not on the ship, stupid! she thought.

She looked up from her own work to see the rest of her crew in complete chaos.

Fireball, now in his own suit except for the helmet, was bounding across the dirt floor to the alien spacesuit racks, where the others’s suits and all the helmets lay jumbled in a pile. The other three Amicitas crew were already there, trying to untangle the remaining three suits, passing helmets back and forth, trying to find the right one. (Unlike the alien suits, which all had the same size and design of helmet, the pony space suit helmets weren’t interchangeable. Dragonfly and Starlight required helmets different from Cherry and Spitfire’s to make room for their horns, and Fireball’s long neck and head required a different helmet from any of the others.)

“Keep calm!” Cherry shouted, forcing herself not to gallop as she moved over to the total clusterbuck by the suit racks. “Check the helmet! If it’s not yours, find the person it belongs to! And don’t try to find your own helmet until you have your suit on!”

Almost the moment she arrived, a helmet rolled to her hooves. It was hers. She grabbed it in her forehooves, put it on her head, and seated it in the suit’s locking ring. She reached a hoof to the locking ring tab…

… but the ring wouldn’t engage. As she tugged and twisted the metal ring, she heard something softly crunching in the ring’s threads.

Oh buck oh buck oh buck. “Check your locking rings!” she said, keeping her voice firm and steady. The ship’s in a flat spin, but you can pull out if you keep your head and take the recovery one step at a time.... “Make sure they’re clear of dirt and debris! If there’s some inside, get a buddy to help clear it out!’

Two of the other suits had crud inside the suit neck, and a third had dirt on the neck of the helmet. Starlight and Dragonfly used quick bursts of magic to blow away the dirt, and then finally helmets began going on heads.

“Suit clear!” Fireball reported.

After a burst of magic from Dragonfly, Cherry’s own locking ring engaged, clamping down on the base of the helmet to form an airtight seal. She switched the air feed on with one hoof, taking a sweet breath of Equestria-scented air. “Suit clear!” she said.

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

Cherry did her own rapid visual check- yes, all five of them had their own suits on.

Wait a minute… five?

Turning around carefully, Cherry found Mark watching them with bemusement. At first glance he appeared calm… but Cherry noticed him tapping the work table with the tip of his knife, beating out a most unsteady rhythm.

Anyway, she couldn’t hear that soft hissing anymore through her helmet. “Starlight,” she said, “ask Mark what that sound is.”

Starlight nodded, walking slowly across the dirt to Mark’s worktable. Her helmet and Mark’s head lit up with the usual lights of the translation spell, and the two exchanged words- Starlight’s clearly understood, Mark’s mostly unintelligible.

“What’s that hissing sound? …. What do you mean, not dangerous? … Then why did you turn white when it began? … Say that again, please? … uuuugh… thank you.”

The light ceased, and Starlight flopped on her flank.

“Well?” Cherry asked.

“He says it’s a mild dust storm,” Starlight said. “He says it’s too weak to be dangerous. His house was designed to withstand more. And then some nonsense about rising fissures.”

“So it’s not an air leak?” Cherry asked. Before Starlight answered, she added, “No, don’t ask him again. If it was a leak he would have said so.”

“So, false alarm, then?” Fireball asked.

Cherry gave this a moment’s thought. “No,” she said carefully, “not a false alarm at all.”

“How do you mean?”

Cherry turned her body to face everyone except Starlight. “Look at what just happened,” she said. “It took more than four times as long as it should have for us to get suited! We haven’t been taking care of our equipment, and we haven’t been drilling with it. And if this had been a real emergency, some or all of us might be dead! Remember what happened with the cherry spell a few days ago? If the canvas had breached, would we have been able to get suited in time?”

The room went silent except for the soft crunching of a couple of uncomfortable suit-clad hooves making little gouges in the dirt.

“Starlight,” Cherry continued, “when you feel up to it, talk with Mark. We need a proper place to store our suits when they’re not in use. The bottom of a closet isn’t enough. Dragonfly, you’re in charge of making sure our suits get maintenance. We’ve done multi-day missions before, so you know what to do.”

“Sure thing, boss mare!” Dragonfly said.

“And Spitfire,” Cherry said, “once we have a storage spot for our suits, you’re in charge of safety drills. Work out the new procedure to work with whatever space Mark gives us. You have full authority to call instant drills whenever you like, without warning, however many of us are here, so long as the drill doesn’t interfere with operations.”

Spitfire stood straighter than Cherry could remember her standing since before she was chosen for the mission. One space suit covered foreleg snapped up in a perfect salute. “Yes, ma’am!” she said enthusiastically.

“Right,” Cherry said, returning the salute. “Everypony, suits off. Put your helmets on your bunks for now, until we get our storage space. Suits too, except Fireball and me. Then everypony return to what you were doing.”

“What about me?” Fireball asked, sounding a little put out. “Don’t I get a new job?”

Cherry shook her head. “You had your suit on first,” she said. “Your helmet locking ring didn’t jam. You were prepared, and we weren’t. You don’t need another job.”

“No,” Fireball said flatly. “Maybe I do.” He reached up, twisted open his helmet’s locking ring, and pulled the helmet off. “The only reason my stuff was clean and separate from the others was dragon instinct and luck. My suit is part of my hoard. I didn't actually think about it.” He growled softly to himself before adding, “I don’t trust my instincts. They tell me I’m invincible. This is my third space emergency, and the first two times my instincts made things worse instead of better. I wasn’t good this time,” he finished with a snarl twisting his muzzle, “I was just lucky.”

“We were all lucky,” Cherry said. “Everypony remember that: today we were all lucky. Dismissed.”

Helmets came off, suits were thrown on bunks, and Cherry and Fireball returned to watering the dirt. As Cherry adjusted her suit on her back again, she noticed Fireball staring at her. “Is there something else you wanted?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” Fireball said, the gruffness in his voice mostly gone. “It’s just good to see the steely-eyed missile mare back again.”

Steely-eyed? Cherry thought. Where do they get these roadapples? I thought we were going to die. I panicked and ordered a suit drill without checking with Mark to see if it was a true emergency. And if it had been an emergency, Fireball would have been the only survivor because I haven’t been looking after my crew properly. I was scared out of my bucking mind the whole time, and if I’m angry now it’s because I almost got myself killed.

“Thank you,” she said dully. She forced her knees not to knock, reached a hoof to the suit controls and switched on the water. She focused her rattled mind on the numbers. One, two, three, four, five…

Author's Notes:

Yes, Cherry should have restarted suit drills three sols before. But she's not perfect. Again, outside her flight obsession she's a very ordinary pony.

Found out today I'd let two bills go overdue. This project is eating nine-tenths of my mental focus. I'm definitely not going to be able to keep up this production much longer, but I'll keep plugging until forced by circumstances to reduce.

Annoying thing: two days ago I wrote a thousand words for the next chapter of Changeling Space Program, and I'm going to throw every bit of it out. It just plain doesn't work. It's terrible. This sort of thing happens sometimes when you write.

Next Chapter: Sol 30 Estimated time remaining: 28 Hours, 35 Minutes
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