The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 228: Sols 423-424

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Seventy-one point seven five kilometers!

AND, this time, a full fucking tank of pirate-ninjas long before sunset!

We are celebrating, and honestly this time. I’ve broken open two of the meal packs and divided up bits here and there to give us all at least one flavor that isn’t alfatato.

(God, that’s a horrible thought; a genetically engineered spud that tastes like hay, or a bean that grows taters on the stalk. I hope I never live to see it. Of course, somebody will read this and think, “What a neat idea! And I’m sure Mark Watney will be honored to see the product of his genius in person!” Well, future reader, let me be clear: if you do make it, keep that shit the fuck away from me unless you want to wear it. I like to think of myself as a gentle and nonviolent person, but I have my breaking point, and that will be it. Fair warning.)

Okay, to explain the solution: hothouse roofs.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.

On Sol 421 we went to the cave. Cherry drafted Spitfire to help her tend to the farm, including all the just sprouted new potato plants. The rest of us went and harvested the best remaining big chunks of rock crystal. These had to be absolutely clear, so sunlight could pass through. It wasn’t easy, since we already used the best crystals in the cave for the jumbo booster batteries, but eventually Starlight said she could use extra magic to alter the shape of the quartz to fit what we need.

Which she did next. We made thirty rather thick slices of crystal and laid them out in a large open spot at the back of the farm. (We only need twenty-eight, but spares.) A bit of magic later, Starlight had the thick chunks of crystal turned to really thin sheets, one meter wide by two meters long each. They’ll just barely fit through the cave airlock this way, but we had to do it here, because of the next step in the process.

The problem with crystal is, it can actually be more fragile than glass in certain ways. Cracks in glass propagate slowly, because the molecular structure is irregular. The whole definition of crystal is that it has a very regular structure, so if a crack finds one of its lines of cleavage, it’ll zip right down it, and all you have left is shards. And that’s a major concern, because these are thin sheets of crystal glass that will have to deal with every bump and jolt along the way, plus a daily temperature swing of between sixty and seventy degrees Celsius from hot to cold and back.

So we decided to add a lamination layer to our crystal panels to make them more resistant to breaking- and to make it easier to replace them when we have to.

That was Dragonfly’s job. She wasn’t happy about it, but she didn’t need much persuading. She cooked up a clear form of goop in her guts and spread it with surprising evenness across each of the slabs- surprising because the process involved projectile spitting the stuff from a few meters away, then wrapping the overflow around the edges of the slabs. She then nibbled off the excess gunk to recycle it.

Seriously, changelings are adorable, but they’re also gross as hell.

Anyway, we didn’t take the slices out to the rover immediately. There was no point in exposing them to the aforementioned temperature extremes until they were installed. And installation would require a bit of preparation. Besides, the laminate needed some time to cure properly.

Yesterday we took the full Whinnybago out almost to Site Epsilon. There we found a spot in the gully nearest to the mountain where someone standing on top of the bank could almost look straight down at the trailer. We then went to the cave, loaded the panels onto the roof (we’d removed the saddlebags for this operation) and carefully drove the things to the trailer. We then went back and fetched eight magic batteries, because what came next was going to take a lot of juice.

The frames of the solar panels are not designed to be opened up, at all, ever. In fact, they’re designed to hold together despite tremendous stresses, because they have to ride a resupply mission that launches at accelerations no human could tolerate and then land on Mars in a giant tumbler with air bags and everything. But there is a little lip sticking up from the surface of the actual panels, so that when they’re stacked you don’t actually have the panels rubbing against each other. That’s what we had to work with- that and a lot of pony magic.

Fireball and I spent nearly two hours and six batteries standing on thin air with nothing between us and broken everything except the willpower of a unicorn. We “stood” on either side of each panel as, one by one, the laminated crystal sheets were levitated down to us so we could carefully and precisely seat them in the lip of the frame. Thankfully, they were a perfect fit. We were very careful, both for the sheets and for the integrity of our spacesuit gloves. But the thick layer of clear laminate around the edges protected us. We got through all twenty-eight without a hitch.

Then Starlight put us back on solid ground so she could finish the job. She snugged up the lips of all twenty-eight panels to hold the new panels firmly in place, using the wrapped-around laminate as a sort of rubber gasket. And then she stretched the crystal. She didn’t make two big meter-square pyramids per panel, as I’d suggested. She had a better idea. She made a bunch of little pyramids- fifty of them, twenty centimeters on a side, per panel, with rounded and reinforced edges and peaks. As she pointed out, the smaller each pyramid is, the less distance the sides will wobble on each bump, and the less likely they are to crack or break. It’s a damn good idea, and I give her full credit for having it.

In addition to turning the roof into a giant cheese grater, she laid a very simple zero-power refraction enchantment on the panels; any light, from any direction, that hits the glass gets transmitted through and directed straight down on whatever part of the panel is directly below.

Let me tell you, it makes the panels look freaky as hell. They’re not totally black, because a lot of light gets reflected off the original solar panels, and much of that escapes back out the pyramids normally. But any light coming, for example, from the sky or from landmarks behind the pyramids gets sucked down inside them. So when you look at ‘em, all you see is a distorted reflection of the solar cells, plus a little bit of glare reflected off those cells. And that glare is never anyplace you’d expect to see glare, like on the tops or edges of the pyramids. Very Uncanny Valley of the Kings.

Then we drove back to the Hab. On the way back one of the crystals broke, and we had to replace it with a spare, using the last of the batteries we got from the cave. After seeing the damage, Starlight says she might be able to repair them en route, and if they can’t be repaired, we’ll bring enough crystal on the Schiaparelli trip to replace about one-third of them. But for now, we wanted to go with all original installation for the test.

Now, why are we going to all this trouble? Simple. Before, each solar panel had two square meters of surface area. With the new crystal bubbles, they have a surface area of 2.8 square meters each.

Now, it’s not perfect. At early and late hours of the day you’re still dealing with a shallow angle of attack on the solar panels which reduces their effectiveness. But the slightly higher profile of the pyramids catches more of that light, sooner and later, than before… and from about 0930 to 1500 hours Mars time, when the sun is shining down on the entire surface of the pyramids all at once, we’ll get as much as a forty percent boost to our recharge power- in theory.

Today we tested the theory. Net result, averaging out recharge rates over the day: 120% power gain on the altered panels, in round numbers, over what we had. Hence seventy-one and a bit kilometers, plus full batteries long before sunset.

It’s not all clear gain. Power consumption per kilometer is up, because we added about a ton and a half of material to the top of the trailer. Even stretched thin, quartz weighs a LOT. But we still have a significant power surplus now. With this boost we could technically start a little later, drive a bit longer, and still have a full battery. And if we get into serious trouble, we might need that. But I’d prefer to stick with seventy or seventy-one kilometers per day and just enjoy having more power than we need. With that in mind, we’re still going to pre-bake all our potatoes and keep an eye on power consumption.

Margins are nice to have. In the time we’ve been stuck here on Mars, we’ve had margins and not had margins, and it’s a lot more fun to not have to worry quite so much about everything going to shit and all of us dying because we just had to have one fresh baked potato.


Back at the Hab. None of the pyramids broke on the two-day shakedown.

The next time we take out the Whinnybago, it’ll be when we leave the Hab for the last time. Testing is done. All that’s left is to load this puppy up, cross our fingers, and hope nothing goes wrong.

Author's Notes:

Buffer is one and a bit, as I try to push forward.

For reasons why my energy is down, check my latest blog entry.

Next Chapter: Sol 426 Estimated time remaining: 7 Hours, 3 Minutes
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