The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 186: Sol 330

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“’They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam. ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’”

Spitfire squirmed on her sleeping roll. Normally she was glad for Dragonfly’s turns at reading. (Truth be told, she was glad for anyone else other than herself to take a turn.) But the longer Dragonfly went into this section about the aftermath of the Battle of Bywater, the more stilted the changeling’s reading became, as if, for some reason, she was suddenly having as many problems with Mark’s language as Spitfire did. And that couldn’t be right.

But there she was, squirming and squinting and stammering her way through the very last act of the War of the Ring. Was there something wrong? Was this some side effect of Dragonfly’s two months in that cocoon?

“There was a… surly… hobbit… lounging… over the low wall of the mill-yard. He was grimy-faced and… black-handed. 'Don't 'ee like it, Sam?' he sneered. 'But you always was soft…’” After a second of silence Dragonfly pushed the computer away, muttered, “Excuse me,” and trotted away, heading for the back of the cave with increasing speed.

“Dragonfly!” Mark was on his feet almost instantly.

“No, you keep reading,” Spitfire said. “I go talk.” After all, she was the fastest one there, and the only trained fighter, if this was Dragonfly about to go buggy again. She couldn’t fly much better than a chicken in the haze-thin magic of the farm, but with her suit off she could use that tiny bit of magic plus her wings to catch up to Dragonfly.

By the time Spitfire was past the farm and galloping along the water runoff trench, Dragonfly had ducked behind the curtain of insulation that covered the entrance into Tangled Hallway. Getting through the cluster of crystal shafts wasn’t as hard as it used to be, since two of the biggest had been sliced neatly out for the giant battery project, but it still forced her to slow down for a minute, until she could work her way into the more open Lunch Buffet.

When she got there Lunch Buffet was empty, but Spitfire could still hear a faint sound of hooves from deeper into the cave. She galloped on, the magic of the farm a bit fainter but still enough to give her wings a bit of boost. It took seconds to cover the length of the Buffet, and then it was through the Crack and into the Orb.

Starlight had made multiple solar relay crystals for the Hallway and Lunch Buffet because of their frequent trips to mine for battery crystals or Fireball’s meals. But the ponies very seldom had any reason to go through the Crack, and so the Orb, with its flattened almost-sphere shape and its irregular bands of every color imaginable- the single largest space without crystal pillars in the cave- had only one light. And this far away from the sources of heat and magic, Spitfire began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, pulling in her now-useless wings and slowing her running speed a bit.

Still no sign of Dragonfly.

Then it was into the chicane of Toothpaste Tube, the third narrow part of the cave. For a moment Spitfire was reminded of the hidden passage into the heart of the Lonely Mountain- five feet tall and three may walk abreast- but it wasn’t like that in the least. The passage was taller but also narrower, constricted by some truly ancient collapse and reopening of the lava tube when it was still forming, creating a double-S-curved hallway studded with little crystals, so that you couldn’t see more than five ponylengths ahead.

And then the final chamber, the Bed of Nails. A remnant of the deep Martian chill that had once ruled the cave lingered here, in the very back, dispelled only a bit by the single shining crystal immediately above the outlet from Toothpaste Tube.

Here Spitfire came to a stop. There was no point to continuing. Only a few steps from the entrance the tips of quartz crystals jabbed through the surface of the cave’s dirt floor. The dirt ceased completely, at least to pony eyes, about thirty meters into the long, somewhat narrow chamber. And then, about eighty meters beyond that, there was a place where no crystals reflected light back from the lone light source; the gray rock wall that marked the end of the cave after Starlight had permanently sealed off the granite rubble that lay at the heart of Site Epsilon.

No hoofsteps. No movement. No changeling.

At least, no visible changeling.


For a moment Spitfire considered conducting a systematic search by herself. Then she shook her head and turned back, a bit more slowly than she’d come, to go get the others for a proper search.

She spotted Mark as she re-entered Lunch Buffet, sitting on one of the fallen, broken shafts that tended to line the edges of the Buffet and the farm. She picked her pace up again, rushing over to him. “You Mark?” she asked, adding in quick Equestrian, “Or am I going to have to fetch a stick?”

“Me Tarzan. You… very much not Jane,” Mark replied, adding in a mutter, “Damn, but I’d like to meet a Jane around here.”

Spitfire’s confusion froze her in place for a second. She shook it off, grumbling, “You Mark, yep. Dumb no-sense… er, nonsense… joke. Okay.” She took a deep breath, then yelled, “Why you back here alone??”

Mark shrugged. “Got curious. Also, you are back here alone.”

“I am…” She’d never liked the Wonderful Lightning work-around, or any of its cousins, for Wonderbolts. She settled on, “I am military! This my job!”

“If one of your subordinates went running off by themselves to search for a lost comrade,” Mark said, “what would you do to them afterwards?”

Spitfire shuffled her hooves. “I… would… smile,” she said. “Hug. Say all right. Make them cake. A REAL cake,” she added in a louder voice, because a blatant lie can only be improved with volume.

“If you say so,” Mark said. “Why don’t you go back and see how big a cake Cherry Berry has for you?”

Spitfire couldn’t help flinching at that reminder. Darn it, she’d spent too long being at the top of the command chain. Even after a year on Mars, she kept forgetting to subordinate.

“Go on,” the human continued, giving the pony a gentle shove to the shoulder. “I’ll be right here.”

“No, you go back,” Spitfire said. “Get others.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Mark said. “I’ll be fine right here. But you could ask Starlight to rig another battery for a few extra minutes of bzzt-bzzt.”

Spitfire didn’t argue, but she didn’t go farther than just behind the first couple of shafts in the Tangled Hallway, either. She stopped, carefully took a few steps in place to mimic the sound of a pony walking away. She hadn’t even finished when she heard Mark justify her paranoia.

“How long are you going to stay a crystal?” he asked, his voice carrying out of the Lunch Buffet chamber. “It wasn’t hard to spot, you know. I’ve come back here often enough to know how many of these fallen crystals there are. And there’s definitely one too many on this side of-“

“Mark,” Dragonfly’s voice interrupted, “I’m over here.” The last word was accompanied by a soft whooshing sound, like a rather large gas stove being ignited and then immediately shut back off.

“Oh! Um.” There were a few soft, crunching footsteps, and Spitfire used them to ease as close to the entrance to Lunch Buffet as she could get. “Doesn’t that burn a hell of a lot of magic?”

“Yeah.” Dragonfly sounded despondent, defeated, resigned to whatever came. “But I thought I only had to do it for a few seconds at a time. But you wouldn’t leave.” A deep, heartfelt-sounding sigh. “Can’t I be alone for a few minutes?”

“That depends on what you want to be alone for,” Mark said. “If you’re making Cocoon Number Two back here-“

“I’m not.” Another deep sigh. “Look, today’s chapter, and the one before. The good guys won, yippee. Everything wrong is being made right. But then the hobbits get home, and it’s all bad,” Dragonfly said. “It’s all terrible. All the happy, cheerful stuff that makes the hobbits sound exactly like ponies is being wrecked, just because it’s fun to wreck things. That’s not right.”

“Well, no, it’s not,” Mark said. “But that was Tolkien’s point. War changes the home front, even if home isn’t on the front lines. And Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all changed, too.”

“I guess,” Dragonfly sighed. “But I listened to all the stuff about tearing down, burning, spoiling things, locking people up, all the nastiness… and I began thinking…” A long pause, and Spitfire had to focus her ears very carefully to catch the bug’s next words: “What would have happened if our invasion had succeeded all those years ago?”

Mark waited for quite some time before asking, “What do you think would have happened?”

“Changelings would have been changelings,” Dragonfly said. “We would have terrorized ponies because it’s fun. We would have sucked them dry, because why not? We’d have locked up or enslaved the ones that put up any fight. And we would have stolen anything we liked and smashed the rest, because why not? We didn’t make it. It was all just pony junk.”

Another sigh. “And I would have joined in. I would have been proud to join in. Victorious changeling warrior. Beat the ponies. No more hiding. Food forever. Do what you like, because it’s all free.”

“You think you’d act like those orc-men,” Mark said.

“I know for a fact I would have,” Dragonfly said. “Fair dues, right? Rules of war. Too bad for ponies.” A sniffle. “That was before I knew ponies for anything other than food or targets. I hadn’t met Cherry then-“ A soft gasp. “Faust, I hope I didn’t meet Cherry then.” Prolonged silence, followed by, “I don’t really like myself right now.”

“Uh-huh. That settles it.” Quite a lot of dirt-crunching happened before Mark resumed. “I’m staying right here. The last time you were in this kind of mood alone, you canned yourself for two months. Or else we both go back together. We should probably do that anyway, since Spitfire and the others are taking a FUCKING LONG TIME TO COME LOOKING FOR US.”

“How did you know she was there? I mean, I knew, but how did you?”

Spitfire blushed, nose to hoof.

“Just as I said- they were taking too long. Either she never went and was listening, or else they were all listening. I’d guess the first, since I don’t seem to do a very good job of acting like me.”

Changeling snort. (She did that really well.) “Liar.”

“Maybe.” Soft soil-moving sounds. “Look. In a couple weeks you should be able to email Dr. Shields again, and she can talk you through this better than I can. But here’s the facts.” Pause. “Yeah, you’re pretty terrible.”


“Hey, don’t blame me. You’ve spent a lot of time trying to make yourself look terrible to us. Well, guess what? We agree. You’re a vicious evil little cuddlebug, and we don’t care, because we can see you’re more than that. You’re trying to not be evil.” More dirt noises. “You would not believe how many people there are who act evil, revel in acting evil, and then demand that they be loved for it.”

“I’d believe it. Look who I have for a mother.”

“But you aren’t her.” Scuffle. “Though I can’t blame you for looking up to her. She’s always got a comeback, hasn’t she?” Shuffle. “But the thing is, you didn’t try to take us all over- well, except once. You tried to keep things the way they were. Hell, you even tried to make us all get along even better, even when you had to have known we knew what you were doing.”

“Changeling survival, first day of school.”

“Nope. No sell. See, you aren’t just trying to get yourself off this rock. You want everybody out of here safe. You actually care about us. Would your mom care?”

“Well… look, could you call her my queen instead? ‘Mom’ feels… weird.”

“Okay. So long as you don’t dodge the question.”

“Okay. My queen would want me off this planet. Probably Cherry too- they’re kinda friends, I think. A really weird kind of friendship, even by our standards. But Starlight? Fireball? Spitfire? You?” Pause. “Well, maybe you, because you honestly are delicious. The others could stay here forever as far as my queen cared. Not that Cherry would let her abandon them, but, well, you asked.”

“How would an ordinary, no-wings, no-horn pony make a changeling queen do anything?”

“I did just say it was a really weird friendship they have.”

“Well. Anyway, you’re not her. Maybe once you were. Maybe you were really just a bug who would help destroy pony civilization. But somewhere along the line, that changed. Now here you are questioning what you believe because a book gave you a little hint of what it might be like to be on the wrong end of a changeling swarm. A book made you see something new. That usually means it’s a good book.”

“Is it a good book? I mean, do humans generally think so?”

“It’s regarded as one of the great classics of English literature. Not because it’s the best written thing ever. Big chunks of it are dry as toast, you know that. And we’re not doing the Silmarillon, because the best part of that is still worse than all that crap about Aragorn’s coronation. And only Tolkien could take not one, not two, but three epic love stories, and deliver them as dry as a newspaper obituary.”

“So what makes it great?”

“It’s great for what it is, and what it was at the time. It was the first major fantasy story in centuries to not be a little kiddy story. It was the first fantasy story, well, ever, to portray war as inglorious or tragic in any way. And it was the first fantasy story to put a major effort into building a world that wasn’t Earth, with geography and languages and cultures and traditions and everything.

“But mostly because it was very nearly the first story, of any kind, that said you could be brave without being a fearless killer. For the first time English speakers could read a story about the heroism of mercy, generosity, gentleness, and simple endurance. The hobbits didn’t earn that through wading a river of blood. In the end they won- and they were heroes- because they were simple, humble, nice people. Which is pretty much bass-ackwards from every fictional hero humanity had up to then- and most of the real ones too.”

“Now who’s bragging about being evil?”

“Quit distracting me. Back to my point. You don’t need to be the badass bug. You don’t need to scare us. You don’t need to show your loyalty to Chrysalis every five minutes. Just be you. And if you don’t like who you are, tomorrow you can choose to be a little better you- not all at once, but a little at a time.

“But from where I sit, for something that might have been designed on purpose as a cuddle-toy for Sigourney Weaver’s grandkids, you’re all right.”

Changeling snort. “You were going good until the obscure cultural reference.”

“Trust me, if you ever visit Earth, you’ll find out real quick it’s not obscure.”

Spitfire tried to crunch as little of the dirt under her hooves as possible as she made her way back through Tangled Hallway towards the farm. She didn’t need to worry anymore, and to be honest she shouldn’t have listened to as much as she did. She’d been afraid and suspicious, and if she brought it up now Dragonfly would probably say something about how she ought to be and undo whatever good Mark’s babbling had done.

It might not be a bad idea, she thought, if I spent a little time thinking about who I’m going to be tomorrow, too.

Author's Notes:

The buffer this morning, what with one thing and another, was the first four hundred words of this.

There may have been other stories of heroes whose heroism came from being gentle instead of violent (I mean besides religious figures), but I can't think of any in pure fiction. In order to be a hero (rather than merely a protagonist) you had to be fearless, courageous, and pretty damn bloodthirsty. Indeed, there was nothing particularly noble about the original Greek heroes; the word just meant "someone who does the things you wish you could, but can't." This definition does not always produce healthy role models.

The original backlash against The Red Badge of Courage was because its main character was a coward- a Civil War deserter. People were pissed that someone would dare publish a novel starring such a contemptible creature, because they wanted heroes who feared nothing, heroes who charged right at the rebel lines rather than skulking to the rear and spending almost the entire book feeling sorry for themselves. It, like Lord of the Rings, is taught in classes today because it, too, is a first of its kind. But it does not celebrate kindness; it celebrates heroism in its old form, as kill-lots-of-the-enemy-and-take-his-stuff heroism. I honestly can't think of any original English-language literature that does what The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings did.

And that's just one (if the most important) of the many, many wonderful themes Tolkien put into that series.

I admit it's not an easy read, but the Lord of the Rings series really is a thing more people should read.

And screw Peter Jackson and his crappy movies. Seriously.

In the meantime, I write on.

Next Chapter: Sol 331 Estimated time remaining: 10 Hours, 43 Minutes
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