The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 180: Sol 314

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“Are you telling me,” Teddy said carefully, “that the aliens might have accidentally set up a gray goo Doomsday scenario on Mars? And they’re not telling us about it until now?”

“No,” Venkat said, “I’m saying the exact opposite. Something weird happened, they performed some experiments, and they’re fairly sure it’s not a gray goo event.”

It had taken three iterations over three days, but the report had come in over the Pathfinder chat from Starlight Glimmer, who had sent it- or the abstract, anyway, since a proper report would be much longer- one line at a time, with the lines numbered, thus:

[08:15] WATNEY: (1) Starlight Glimmer here. Posts are numbered; reply with any numbers not received and highest number post received so I can re-send only those missing.

[08:17] WATNEY: (2) The method used to successfully revive Dragonfly had an unexpected effect. We became curious and began an investigation.

[08:19] WATNEY: (3) It seems I accidentally produced a strange random enchantment in the crystals behind Dragonfly’s cocoon, and it appears to be self-replicating.

And so on. There were forty-seven lines in the initial report, not all of which related to the rainbow crystals described on lines 6, 7 and 8. Two-thirds of the lines made it through the increasing solar interference on the first pass, but three lines persistently got eaten and required a total of six repetitions before they got through- by which time Starlight had added seventeen lines of follow-up report, all without any response by NASA aside for requests to repeat lines not received.

“The rainbow crystals go inert in the absence of magic,” Venkat said, repeating a point he’d made in the presentation to Teddy. “And apparently, since our universe doesn’t have a magic constant higher than zero, magic doesn’t propagate well through solid objects. It tends to either be absorbed or reflected away. And the enchantment requires crystals above a certain size threshold to function. So it’s safe to say that the enchantment is confined to the crystal cave. Which, of course, is already contaminated all to hell with Earth bacteria, plant life, and our castaways.”

“But the fact remains that it was a possible global catastrophe,” Teddy said, “and the crew didn’t see fit to tell us until now.”

“Bear in mind it’s getting impossible for them to tell us anything,” Venkat replied. “And anyway, if they had told us, what could we have done? We know nothing about magic beyond what we read in Starlight Glimmer’s reports. But there on Mars we have a magic expert plus Mark Watney, a trained and experienced scientist. They saw the problem, tackled it systematically and scientifically, and their preliminary report is that it’s a non-issue. Absolutely harmless.”

“All right,” Teddy said. “What does this absolutely harmless enchantment do?”

“It stores magical energy,” Venkat said. “It uses that energy for two things; duplicating the enchantment in crystals in physical contact, and changing the colors of the crystal without changing the chemical composition. According to Starlight, you can add at least one enchantment to it, and the new enchantment will replicate with the old, but the new enchantment will function a lot more weakly than if it were placed on a clean crystal.”

“So,” Teddy said, “not particularly useful?”

Venkat shook his head. “Starlight used a line of her report to make clear that a purpose-made enchantment would be an order of magnitude more efficient than the random one. The main curiosity is that, according to her, it follows none of the ponies’ known rules about enchantment design. She doesn’t know how the enchantment does anything that it does, only that it does it.”

“I see,” Teddy said carefully. “Are there any long-term consequences from this?”

“Only one, at least as far as the wild crystals go,” Venkat said. “Any enchantment is difficult to remove once laid on. It’s always easier to destroy the enchanted object than to clear it of spells. The wild enchantment is easy to break, but almost impossible to clean completely. So any infected crystal becomes almost useless for future applications in pony magical technology.” Venkat allowed himself to smile just a little as he added, “However, a pre-existing enchantment immunizes the crystal from the rainbow infection.”

“So you’re saying they can contain the infection.”

“It’ll probably contain itself,” Venkat said. “It’s spreading at about a meter every five sols. At that rate the first chamber of the cave might not be completely converted by the time Ares IV lands on Mars years from now. And that’s assuming the farm doesn’t die when Mark and the ponies leave, which it almost certainly will without the heat and air cycling provided by the pony life support system. Without the farm, the crystals won’t have any magic, and the enchantment will shut down.”

“All right. Good.” Teddy nodded. “I’m still disappointed that they waited until now to present this to us, but I can see where the decision came from. And, for once, this doesn’t actually present any problems for the rescue plan.”

“Well,” Venkat said uncomfortably, “yes and no.”

“Yes and no?” Teddy asked. “Explain, please.”

“One of the last experiments they did with the rainbow crystals was to see what they’d do outside,” Venkat said. “They already knew the crystals wouldn’t infect ordinary rock or sand or even small crystal pieces. But even surrounded by crystals, outside on the surface of Mars they did nothing.

“But that made Starlight curious about something. They assumed that their magic batteries recharged faster when close to life and not at all away from it, but they hadn’t really questioned whether the batteries could recharge on the opposite side of a wall from life. So they conducted two experiments, with controls. In one case they compared a battery in the Hab with one immediately on the other side of the Hab canvas- even giving it a stand so it wouldn’t be blocked by the Hab flooring or internal components. In the other, they compared a battery sitting just outside the cave airlock with one of the ones charging normally inside the cave.

“The results were really clear-cut. In both cases, the battery outside didn’t recharge at all. In fact, both batteries actually lost a tiny bit of charge.”

“What?” Teddy asked. “Lost charge?”

“The battery casings have readouts on them,” Venkat said, “to show charge level. Also control systems to balance load and charge levels. It’s a very tiny power draw, but it’s not zero. In their home universe that’s not a problem, because the universal magic constant would more than cover the loss. There the batteries function more like power collectors and regulators than actual storage units. But on Mars, in our universe?”

“No recharge,” Teddy said glumly. “And that means any batteries carried on the outside of the Sirius tandem rover won’t recharge at all.”

Venkat nodded. “Starlight says that once they get moving, magic use will have to be reduced to emergencies only. The big batteries for launch- however we do it- will have to be fully charged at the start of the trip and topped off from other batteries right up until launch.” He took a deep breath to steady himself, then continued, “That means any procedures we suggest during the trip will have to be based entirely on non-magical resources. Mark and his equipment, basically.”

“Let’s hope they won’t be needed,” Teddy said, and then winced a second after he’d said it. “And I just guaranteed they will, didn’t I?”

“Look on the bright side,” Venkat said. “This is Mars we’re talking about. It’s not like it was ever going to go easy on us.”

“Mike, I have a problem,” Rich said.

Mike tried not to roll his eyes. Rich now had an office bigger than Mike’s. The only reason he didn’t get Mike’s job was that he didn’t want it (and, also, both Director Sanders and Dr. Kapoor saw Rich was not supervisor material). Those things which Rich Purnell wanted, he got more or less instantly. It was a tribute to Rich’s innate decency- or, at least, his extremely narrow personal vision- that he showed no inclination to abuse that power… or, for that matter, no awareness that the power even existed to be abused.

“What is it, Rich?” Mike asked.

“This job from Dr. Glimmer,” Rich said, handing Mike a piece of paper. “I don’t have the pony baseline for air resistance to coherent magic. I could assume that their homeworld’s atmosphere has the same properties as ours, but I still need the baseline before I can calculate what it would be on Mars. And I don’t want to get you in trouble again for asking her directly.”

“Thank you,” Mike said. “Well, this job is top priority, so I’ll go straight to Dr. Kapoor with it. But I warn you, our comms with Mars are pretty ratty right now.”

“Solar conjunction,” Rich said. “Yes, I know. I thought I’d go home while I was waiting.” He leaned a bit closer and said in a quieter tone, “I noticed today I don’t smell very good.”

Mike pretended not to hear the soft single beep that sounded from somewhere in the Astrodynamics cubicle hive. Just as he’d pretended for some time now that he knew nothing about the Rich Purnell Hygiene Betting Pool. If he did take notice, he’d have to shut it down, and that would hurt morale more than allowing it to run, no matter how cruel it was to Rich.

But he’d have to talk to Rich again about the subject sometime soon… once he figured out a new way to say a thing he’d tried to tell the man about a dozen times with no success. In fact, he might have to just start ordering him home again every so often, blessings from on high or not.

“That’s probably a good idea, Rich,” he said. “Other people don’t like being around people who smell.”

“Thanks,” Rich said. “I’ll try to remember that.” And, without any further leavetaking, Rich walked out.

The hell of it is, Mike thought, he sincerely means it when he says he’ll try to remember it.

Shaking his head at some of the strange personalities you met in government work and in space flight, he checked over Rich’s note, found it complete without being too verbose, and got up to take it to the admin building and Dr. Kapoor.

As he stepped out the same door Rich had left by, he heard someone- he carefully didn’t recognize the voice- call out, “Okay, who had five days, four hours, and twenty-two minutes?”

Author's Notes:

I figured it was time to have a peek at Earth again. It felt more interesting to deliver rainbow-crystal experiment results this way.

Tonight's KWLP (9 PM Central, dementiaradio.org) is Anti-Christmas- not in the sense that I oppose Christmas, but that this is the opposite end of the calendar from Christmas. I don't play Christmas music in December because I'm one of those who gets oversaturated with it pretty quickly... but I do like some Christmas music, especially the comedy, so I play it in the summertime.

BTW, I highly recommend that any of you who enjoy my streaming-radio thing join the Dementia Radio FB group. That lets you vote for your favorites of the songs I play each week, and it also keeps you up to date on the other live shows the little organization has each week.

Next Chapter: Sol 316-318 Estimated time remaining: 11 Hours, 19 Minutes
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