The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 237: Sol 450

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Friendship, Hermes. NASA confirms you as go for Sirius 8 at least as far as the headwaters of Mawrth Vallis. That portion of the trip should take you fifteen sols. Once out of Mawrth, we expect to detour you around the leading edge of the sand storm, which should be creeping up on you by then. The storm is currently about six hundred kilometers across and moving due west at four kilometers per hour.

“In unrelated news, we thought you’d like to know that Dr. Beck formally proposed to Johanssen yesterday. They asked me to perform the ceremony, but I had to remind them that naval captains aren’t authorized to conduct marriages, even less so mission commanders appointed by NASA. So that’ll have to wait until after landing and quarantine, at least. Beck asks me to tell you he wants you to be best man. You can imagine what Martinez had to say about that.

“Finally, a quick status update on our mission: Hermes just crossed back over Earth’s orbit on the outbound leg of our flight. We’re catching back up to Mars quickly and are well on course for rendezvous with you on Sol 551- Hermes mission day 689. If the Sparkle Drive doesn’t work out, then Ares III will surpass Gennady Padalka’s lifetime space flight record of 879 days. Even if you count our time on Mars as breaking the chain, in a few days we’ll eclipse Valeri Polyakov’s record of 438 days continuously in space. Yes, I looked it up. Just wanted to say, you’re not the only one going into the record books for all this.

“See you in about a hundred and four days. Hermes out.”

Dragonfly awoke, uncomfortably chilled. Compared to the temperature outside on Mars’s surface at midnight, it was still warm and cozy inside the cave, but in terms of the controlled environment she’d become accustomed to since the Bad Old Days Which Are Now Over became over, it was less warm than she liked it. She wanted more sleep, and to get it she needed more warmth.

Sol 450 had involved quite a lot of hard work in space suits. Each of the fifteen jumbo batteries, each weighing three hundred kilograms, had to be carefully moved into the cave air lock, then out onto the surface and down the side of what Mark now called Amicitas Mons to the rover. There each of them had to be carefully threaded through the complex saddlebag harness so they could hang from the straps without swinging against the big metal support beams running up from the chassis.

While Fireball, Mark and Cherry Berry conducted this operation, the others hauled out the normal-sized magic batteries- twenty-one of them, leaving nine in the cave tethered to the core of the rainbow crystal infection. Then came the Sparkle Drive core, last of all, secured as carefully as possible in a padded mount in the Amicitas bridge.

After that came the personal effects. Cherry’s tree branch, transplanted into a small plastic box, had been stuffed into Mark’s spare space suit and carefully carried down to the ship. Two more boxes followed, filled with cherry leaves to be used for making tea from hot water from the life support system. Another box followed that, containing eight small rainbow crystals that Starlight wanted to get back home for study. Etc., etc., etc.

And then, once all that had been done, Spitfire had pulled out a disc of metal salvaged from Amicitas, followed by a larger chunk of the same material. Mission medals, she said, for the six of them, so that a tiny bit of the ship could go home. After a brief argument (which, for once, Starlight lost), one of the batteries being left behind was tapped for enough juice to cut five more discs and to engrave them with the same message in Equestrian and English:


And, in the center of the disc, in place of any symbol or more uplifting motto:


Once all of that had eventually been done, and after a meal made mostly from grazing a substantial portion of sweet-smelling alfalfa blooms, they’d laid out their sleeping rolls, laid down by the entrance, and talked like they’d never talked before. They talked about the indignity of mixing crap into Mars dust by hoof, about hours and hours spent watering plants a dribble at a time, about how they might do it differently if they ever had to do it again. They talked about disco music, about television, about the books in the small digital library NASA had sent them. They talked about their near-death experiences and about the beauty of the world that kept trying to erase the word near.

Not one word was said about the trip to Schiaparelli. The evening had been about memories- the past, not the future.

And, eventually, with no artificial lights except the motes of light from the heater-element rainbow crystals, they’d fallen asleep.

Now Dragonfly was up. Unlike the others, she could see in the almost total darkness, at least well enough to find the pile of sleepers who, three hours before, had been five astronauts lying on five sleeping bags. Fireball and Mark lay at the bottom of the pile, and the three ponies sprawled across the top.

Grumbling a little in ancient Changeling (which sounded not like a hiss, but more like a soft chitter), Dragonfly dragged herself to the pile and squeezed herself between Mark and Fireball on the bottom of the pile. It would be warmest there, between the internally heated dragon and the almost furless human. And if Mark poked her flank, well, she was the one crew member who definitely would not kick him in the gut.

Warm and cozy once again, she drifted back to sleep… and dreamed…

Spitfire dreamed.

“Say, who is that pony?”

“Don’t know. Should I recognize her?”

“She seems a little familiar.”

“Oh, her? That’s Spitfire. She used to be a flyer.”

And just like that, the Canterlot mares walked down the street, leaving Spitfire alone in the rain, wearing a cloudbuster jacket that looked suspiciously like Wind Rider’s.

Behind her, towering twenty hooves tall on the side of a shop, hung a poster: YOUNG? FIT? BRAVE? JOIN THE WONDERBOLTS! The face on the poster was hers.

Had been hers. Three years ago.

She could sense she had wings, kind of. They remained folded at her sides. The thought of opening them, even for a moment, made her gasp for air. Something held her to the ground, tighter than a leash.

Once I was a hero, she thought. Once I turned green flyers and self-obsessed prima donnas into the world’s elite flying team. Then I could have had anything- anyone. But all I wanted was the job, the job of flying and leading flyers.

I could have had a relationship, started a family. Now I’m a broken-down has-been, all alone. The world flies on without me.

And then a group of kids- human kids, with human clothes, with incredibly familiar human faces, running on the streets of Canterlot- ran up to her. “Hey, look!” shouted the youngest girl. “It’s a pony!”

“That’s a pegasus!” a boy hardly older than the little girl snapped, the You Idiot tone drenching the words.

“Wow!” the girl said. “Can you fly, Ms. Pegasus?”

“Well… yes,” Spitfire admitted, spreading her wings and flapping them enough for a slow hover. “But not as well as I used to.”

“That’s not right,” one of the slightly older girls said. “With wings like that, you should be a fantastic flier.”

“Yes,” Spitfire said quietly, “I was.”

“No,” said the oldest girl, who reached up where Spitfire hovered and stroked her orange fur. “You will be.” She waved around at the alleyway, which had changed into the walls of the crystal cave, leaving only a narrow gap to the open blue sky. “We watched you practice here, all the time. Why did you do that if you weren’t going to fly again?”

And then, with a firm shove from the hand against her chin, the human teenager sent Spitfire skywards in a streak of flame. Darkness fled, along with crystals and castles and children. The air boomed around her, sending the clouds scattering.

Spitfire soared.

Fireball dreamed.

The hoard was immense. He was immense. Before long he’d have to seek out a different cave; if he dug this one any wider, the mountaintop would probably collapse on top of him.

It was a good life. Go searching for treasure when he felt like it, eat some crystals, then go home and sleep. Sleep was fun. Sleep was relaxing.

“Good morning!”

But sleep apparently wasn’t on the program.

Standing in a little hole in one side of the cave (five hooves high and wide enough for three ponies to walk side by side) was a short blue figure, like a dragon with a beard. Indeed, like a particular dragon with a particularly silly beard…

“Ember,” Fireball asked, “why are you wearing a ridiculous fake beard?”

“I’m looking for a dragon who might be interested in having an adventure,” said the interloper.

“Adventures? No thank you!” Fireball said firmly. “I’ve had quite enough of adventures! All an adventure is, is being miserably bored or miserably terrified, one or the other! Nasty things! Make you late for dinner! No, we don’t want any adventures today, thank you! My adventures are over! Try asking a pony!”

“Haven’t you heard?” the Ember-like dragon wizard asked. “Adventures don’t really have an end.”

“They do for me, Ember or whoever you are,” Fireball insisted. “I just want to be left alone for a century or two. Just me and my treasure.”

“Oh, really?” The intruder strolled over to a little plinth Fireball had carved out of a stalagmite. “Then you won’t mind if I take these pieces of junk and-“

“Get away from there.”

Fireball punctuated the roar with a blast of flame- just a warning shot, but close enough to make the little wizard-Ember thing duck and take a couple of quick steps away from the plinth. “But why?” it asked when the fire died away. “It’s just some paper, a bit of pony pot-metal, a cheap sapphire, and a magicked-up bit of rock crystal. You couldn’t swap it away at Rainbow Falls, not for a broken goose quill.”

“That’s right,” Fireball rumbled. “I couldn’t.” He looked with fondness beyond the normal dragon possessiveness at the bric-a-brac on the plinth. A disc of steel, a little rusty, with names and other things scrawled on it in two languages. A cheap sapphire, the very last one he’d saved from hundreds of days on an alien world. A bit of quartz that, if you waited long enough, would change into any color of the rainbow while you watched. And a small bookshelf full of books, four of which, bound in bright red, sat in a place of pride alone on the top shelf.

“Very well,” the wizard-thing said. “But be warned; with a wave of my staff I can make your entire hoard vanish except for these things. You would shrink back to a mere dragonling, a whisper of your former might. You’d be driven out of the cave, possibly even forced to move into a pony house somewhere. Or I can just take this nasty junk from your adventures, erase it all, and leave you as you were meant-“

“Stop right there,” Fireball grumbled. “If you think you can take my gold, my gems, and my other junk, go ahead and try. But you will not take the treasure I earned by my blood, by my fear, by my heartbreak. You. Will. Not.” Fireball sat as tall as he could in the cave, his long, snakelike body curling around the little plinth, his disproportionately small wings unfurling to their widest spread. “And if the test of these things is in what I shall give up for them…” He smiled a little. “Then I shall diminish, and go into Equestria… and remain Fireball.”

“As you wish.” In a swirl of blue smoke the fake Ember with the fake beard vanished, leaving behind the words, “But remember that there are adventures yet to come, and deeds to do, before you may enjoy either treasure or mementoes.”

Starlight Glimmer dreamed.

She sat, alone, naked but for her fur, on the surface of Mars. It didn’t seem to be a problem.

In front of her, open and running, sat one of Mark’s computers. It had a smiling pony on the screen that looked very much like a reddish-orange Pinkie Pie, next to the words, “Welcome to Mars Clicker! To make this planet inhabitable, click the left mouse key!”

Starlight read the words, shrugged, and clicked the button.

In the corner of her eye, she felt a hint of movement.

“Congratulations!” the screen now read. “You just moved one grain of dust!”

Starlight clicked the button again. There was another flicker of movement just beyond her field of vision.

The screen popped up a counter: Number of dust grains moved: 2.

3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Every time Starlight clicked the button, she sensed something moving. But if it was only one mote of dust- only one mote, on an entire bucking planet-

A new button appeared: Buy a crystal, 20 clicks!

Starlight’s eyebrows rose. What did a crystal do? She clicked the button a bunch of times, then moved the cursor to the button on the screen and clicked it.

The click counter dropped back to zero.

And there, next to the computer, was a little rainbow crystal. It shimmered at her.

Starlight picked up the crystal in her forehooves and examined it. It changed colors at her, but didn’t seem inclined to do much else. Shrugging, she set it down again and looked at the screen for some kind of hint.

The click counter stood at five.

No, six. What in the world- seven now! Every few seconds, the click counter went up one!

She tapped the left mouse button several more times, saw the click counter ratchet up with each click. A new message appeared: Cost of next crystal 200 clicks!

Shrugging, Starlight clicked furiously for a few seconds. But long before she hit 200, a new message appeared: Buy a friend, 115 clicks!

She shrugged, clicked a few more times, and then clicked the button to buy a friend.

“Hi there.”

Starlight looked to her left. Spitfire sat there, facing her own computer. “What are you doing there?” she asked.

Spitfire clicked the left mouse button on her own computer. “I’m clicking a button,” she said. “Each click moves a bit of Mars dust, you know.”

Starlight shook her head, unable to figure things out. The click count steadily increased, without her intervention. After about a minute she got impatient, hit the button rapidly, and bought her next crystal.

Next crystal at 540 clicks! Next friend at 810 clicks! Buy a sack of alfalfa seeds, 250 clicks!

Starlight continued to click. New options opened up as the clicks came faster and faster; a space habitat, a crystal cave, a bag of soil bacteria, potatoes, cherry pits, a space probe, a space ship…

In an hour Starlight was surrounded by the other five castaways, each clicking their computer buttons with single-minded fervor. Dozens of rainbow crystals lay scattered across the dirt, winking and blinking their colors. Like a picture in a pop-up book, the Hab rose from the ground. Off in the distance, a small dead volcano bulged upwards, then sloughed off a bit of overburden to reveal a familiar-looking airlock.

Starlight stepped away from her computer. She could actually see the bits of Martian dust moving now, dancing in the thin Martian air, moving from place to place. No, wait- that one was a snowflake. And another. And another!

Green patches began to spread across the surface. Potato plants sprouted from the soil, instantly full-grown. The sound of running water echoed out of a nearby gully. Clouds swirled in a sky growing steadily bluer with every moment.

Thunder echoed in the distance. Starlight spun around on her hooves to see, on the foreshortened Martian horizon, an honest, normal, water-laden thunderhead.

“What do you think?”

There was a strange human standing next to her- a very little boy, or so it appeared. But when the boy looked at her, his eyes seemed very, very old for some reason.

“This isn’t real,” Starlight said.

“It could be, someday,” the boy said.

“But I didn’t do this,” she insisted. “I’m just one pony. I can’t do this!”

“You don’t have to,” the boy said. He waved a little hand at the place where she’d been sitting. Surrounding her fellow castaways there sat dozens, possibly hundreds, of ponies and humans and other things, all clicking away at their computers. Crystals rained from the sky, half-sinking into the Martian soil as they dropped. More habitats arose, and then followed an immense dome built of hexagonal panels of some kind of glass.

“The process will go on without you,” the boy said quietly. “But it needed someone to make the first click.”

Cherry Berry dreamed.

She walked along the rows of the cherry orchard, wagon hitched to her barrel. This was her life now- the odd jobs she’d done so often, so many times before, in order to pay for her passion.

That passion was gone now. Flying was over. This was her new reality. The earth had reclaimed its own.

“Good morning, little bird,” a slow, lugubrious voice said. A limb which might have been a tree branch or an arm reached out to pick up the pony, wagon and all, and lift her up.

“What- oh- oh, oh my,” Cherry gasped. She looked down at a face surrounded by white blooms, pale bark shining in the sunlight. “You’re- you- are you an ent?”

“What are you doing down there, Cherry?” the cherry-tree ent rumbled. “Don’t you know you belong in the sky?”

“Oh.” Cherry shuffled her hooves on the ent’s spread palm. “But I’m not a pegasus,” she said sadly. “I’m an earth pony. Earth ponies don’t fly.”

Hoom hoom! That never stopped you before!” the ent rumbled, obviously amused.

“That was then!” Cherry waved a hoof at the row of trees, which now stood in front of a wall of crystal. “Now I grow things! I’ve been doing nothing but growing things for over a year! Maybe… maybe I should have been growing things all along.” She looked down at her hooves. “Maybe I don’t belong in the sky.”

One of the trees turned into another ent, smaller and younger than the great creature holding her up. “Well, ha, hm, let’s don’t be hasty,” it said. “After all, we owe our lives to you, do we not?”

Another tree stood up, its features becoming another entish face. “Certainly we would not exist if not for you, even if our existence is only for a brief time.”

A third tree awoke. “But one could say that we belong in an orchard, on a proper planet, not a cave on, ha hm, a glorified asteroid.”

The large ent holding Cherry added, “But we choose to belong here, where we are. I am very much of the opinion that the question of who belongs where is at least partly up to the creature involved to decide. If you want to belong in the air, who am I to stop you?”

Cherry looked back at her wagon. The little cherry branch in the plastic box pot didn’t become an ent, but it did say in a distinct, high-pitched voice, “I am Groot.”

“Ah, but our colleague speaks truly,” the great ent said. “There are always those who will dispute such things. You have met them before, have you not? What did you do about it?”

“I went ahead anyway,” Cherry said quietly. “Their voices didn’t count. But what do I do if the voice speaking against me is in here?” She tapped her chest with one forehoof.

“Ah, hoom, hom,” the great ent said, “well, that is another matter. You must deal with that yourself. But remember that, somewhere, there are trees who are grateful that, hom hoom, you flew and grew.” With that the massive cherry-ent reached its other hand out and plucked away the wagon harness from Cherry’s midsection. “In the meantime, why not have a quick flight? You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

“But I’m an earth pony!”

“Are you?”

Something felt different on Cherry Berry’s sides. She looked to either side, blinking, gasping with shock as a pair of wings spread from her back and, almost without her commanding it, flapped a mighty flap.

Squealing with delight, the blonde-maned, pink-furred pegasus swooped around the cherry orchard, while the great ent and the lesser tree spirits stood rock-still and watched, smiling.

Mark Watney dreamed.

Mark Watney dreamed that he was surrounded by gigantic potatoes, with little arms and legs. In addition to many potato eyes, they had a pair of demonic red eyes overhanging mouths filled with way too many jagged teeth.

“We hear yous been talkin’ shit about us potatoes,” one of them said.

“We been keepin’ yous alive,” another said. “Where’s yer gratitude?”

“Ain’t we good enough for yas anymore?” a third asked.

Mark gave two seconds of careful consideration to attempting to plead his case and to sway the angry produce to his way of thinking.

Then, having considered the notion all the way to the airlock and jettisoned it into deep space, he bolted between two of the spuds of wrath and ran for his life.

Behind him, mixed with the angry shouts and little footsteps of his pursuers, he heard a song strike up:

Attack of the killer potatoes
Attack of the killer potatoes
You planted them to get you through
And never thought the things you grew
Would come right back to feed on you
(Potatoes! Potatoes! Potatoes!)

Attack of the killer potatoes
Attack of the killer potatoes
They’re tubers off in hot pursuit
They’ll eat you up from hair to boots
And then they’ll file a slander suit
(Potatoes! Potatoes! Potatoes!)

You thought they’d keep you all fed
But now they just want you all dead
Your disrespect has got them steamed
They’re madder than you ever dreamed
So better run- or you’ll be creamed
(Potatoes! Potatoes! Potatoes!)

So now we have the chase scene
No butter and no sour cream
Just a man whose name is mud
And some tubers out for blood
That’ll teach you to sass a spud
(Potatoes! Potatoes! Potatoes! POTATOES!)

Dragonfly dreamed.

She was alone, in the darkness. She saw nothing, heard nothing, but she could feel a presence in the darkness with her. Somehow she knew where she was, if where applied.

“Hello?” she said. “It's me again. Are you there? Did I make the right choice?”

The voice was not the cold, indifferent female voice she had heard once before. When it came it was male, ancient beyond words, and tremulous with weakness and senility. “You do not belong here,” it said. “You disturb me. You infect me. You must die.”

“Oooo…. kay,” Dragonfly said slowly. “New voice. Creepy threatening voice. I hope the padded room they give me when I get home has enough space for all of us.”

“You must die,” the ancient voice repeated. “I will kill you.”

“At least I know what my mind’s cooking up this time,” Dragonfly said. “You have got to be my cracked head’s idea of Mars. Well, go away. We’ve stopped all your attacks already, and in a hundred days we’ll be gone, off your stupid soil forever. So just shut up and go away, all right? I have enough voices in my head. No vacancy.”

“No,” the ancient voice whispered. “You will go. Others will come. There must be none. You must die. I will kill you.”

“Oh yeah?” Dragonfly couldn’t see anything in this weird blackout dream, but she could shout pretty well in it. “You’ve done a lousy job of it so far, pal! We survived your perchlorates, your decompression, your methane, your storms, your temperature extremes, everything you could throw at us! Your attacks are weak, you stupid planet!”

Now the voice lost its senile tones and gained a hard edge through the wheezy, whispering sound. “You have to succeed every single time,” it said. “I need only succeed once. I have forever and you do not. You will die.”

“Not today, buckhead,” Dragonfly snapped. “Not tomorrow either.”

“You will die,” the voice repeated, much fainter, as if the effort had weakened it too much to continue.

“We will live,” Dragonfly hissed. “We will ALL live, do you hear me? Do you? DO YOU, you stupid planet?”


The shout awakened the entire pile of sleepers. “What th- get off me!” Fireball snapped, thrashing to dislodge the ponies on top of him.

“Heeeeey!” Cherry half-whinnied. “I was having a flying-and-cherries dream! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a flying-and-cherries dream?”

“What’s all the noise?” Starlight asked, blinking away the sleep. “And what am I standing on?”

“That would be me,” Mark grunted. “Can’t breathe. Off, please.”

“Oops! Sorry.”

“Ow! Watch the wing!”

“Sorry, Dragonfly.”

As the pile unraveled, Mark reached over to the mat where he’d been asleep, found the arm controls of his space suit, and checked the timer. “It’s only forty minutes until we have to be up,” he said. “Might as well make an early-“

“Mark.” The voice was Spitfire’s: low, cold, and sleepy.


“All of you. Lie down. Shut up. Or I will make you.”


“Do it.” That was Cherry Berry, equally cold.


“Flying and cherries dream!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mark and Fireball lay back down. Dragonfly crawled between them. The three ponies flopped on top of them and, in a few seconds, two of the three of them were asleep.

The third whispered, “Mark?”

“Yeah, Starlight?”

“Remember when I said that Cookie Clicker thing was the dumbest game ever invented?”


“It’s dumber even than that.”

The rest of the crew’s final night in the crystal cave, what was left of it, passed in silence.

Author's Notes:

See idea.

See clever idea.

See clever idea not work out in the least the way you wanted it to.

See the clock tick down on the day, leaving no time or energy to redo the idea.

See the publish button.

Click the publish button.

Next Chapter: Sols 451-455 Estimated time remaining: 6 Hours, 14 Minutes
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