The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 248: Sol 482

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


The rock sat on other rocks, as rocks sometimes do.

To differentiate it from other rocks, it sat with its ends supported by two carefully constructed rock cairns, lifting its middle up and away from the ground. On its underside a small bit of clear quartz had been carefully attached, pointed straight down towards where a slightly larger bit of quartz lay. That second crystal chunk was connected by a series of cables to a much larger, metal-wrapped chunk some twenty meters away, which in turn was connected to a switch, which itself was connected by ten meters of changeling-made rope to the hand of a figure in a somewhat worn-looking space suit.

The rock didn’t know it yet, but it was about to go for a ride.

Spitfire, having retired inside the Whinnybago after helping gather the rocks for the launch cairn, stared through a cockpit window and allowed herself to feel jealous of a rock. Your life sucks, she thought to herself, when a rock gets to fly and you don’t.

“If my calculations hold up,” Starlight Glimmer was saying over the comms, “the missile should reach two hundred fifty meters per second at about one thousand meters altitude. The shockwave should begin to form there, clearing out the skies without sending the missile on an escape trajectory.”

“If you say so,” Mark said. “Fireball, is the camera rolling?”

“No,” Fireball said, sounding confused. “Camera in my hand. You want me to roll the camera?”

“I meant, is it recording?” Mark asked.

“Ooooooooooooh,” Fireball replied. “Is it recording? That different. Recording now.”

“You did that on purpose,” Mark said. “I’m proud of you.”

“Back on task, everyone,” Cherry Berry said, standing near Spitfire and watching through a different window. “All go for launch in ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

Dragonfly, also inside and safe, paced the small open area of the bridge.

“Six. Five. Four.”

Spitfire put one forehoof on the bulkhead next to the window, watching the dust-blurred figures, a hundred meters away, leaning towards the ship as they prepared to run like hell from the launch zone.

“Three. Two. One!”

A hundred yards across the rubble-strewn surface of Mars, Mark yanked the rope that triggered the switch and began half-bouncing, half-running for the rover.

Unlike the first time they’d done this, with a much larger and heavier projectile, Spitfire could follow the ascent of the rock with her eyes. It got faster in a hurry, and in a couple of seconds it left the limited visual range of the porthole, but it had definitely been slow by comparison to the original booster system test.

“Tracking missile drifting west,” Fireball said. “Not gonna drop on our heads.”

“I’m back at the ladder,” Starlight panted. “Climbing up now.”

“And I’m right behind,” Mark said. “I don’t see any shockwave, though.”

“Lost target,” Fireball said. “No shockwave. All I see is a kind of swirl in the dust.” Pause. “Got a breeze.”

“Shoot!” Cherry Berry snapped. “Why didn’t it work? Not fast enough?”

“It’ll get faster as it gets higher,” Starlight said. “And most of the dust is upper-level atmosphere. Give it time.”

Spitfire continued staring out the porthole. She could see dust, the thicker, grittier dust that the weak dust storm couldn’t pick up, dancing in little clouds and gusts from the surface. A roller-wave of the stuff rippled across the slope towards the launch point. Another one rolled away from the rover towards the launch point.

And the haze seemed to dance and twist around the launch point… almost as if…


Updraft plus heat from friction, as the rock continued to accelerate past the speed of sound.

“Commander,” she said in Equestrian, “I strongly urge we get the others in at once. Leave the equipment outside.”

Cherry Berry turned to look Spitfire in the eye. She stared for just a moment, then turned back to the window. “Emergency abort,” she said in English. “Everyone back in right now.”

“What for? Just a little breeze,” Fireball said.

“Not for long,” Spitfire said, this time in English. “Dust devil forming. Tornado. Get inside right now!

“Just a minute!” Starlight said. “Let me go back and get-“

“No.” There was a bit of rustling, and then Mark’s voice continued, “I’ve got Starlight. Fireball, get that door open.”


Spitfire watched the window more intently. More dust continued to ripple towards the launch point. A column of it could be seen clearly now, borne up by the air rushing to the launch site in the wake of the massive artificial updraft.

“But the battery!”

“People before equipment,” Mark insisted. “Starlight, quit wiggling!”

"I'll stop wiggling if you put me down!!"

The trailer rang with the sound of the outer airlock door slamming shut.

“In,” Fireball said simply. “Cycling airlock now.”

Outside, the sky grew darker, as for the first time the dust began to hiss against the hull, mixed with the occasional clatter of pebbles as the winds picked up.

“I don’t know if you care,” Dragonfly said, “but Mars is talking again.”

Cherry Berry sighed. “What’s it saying? ‘Die’ again?”

“No,” Dragonfly said. “Hear the clicking of rocks? That’s what laughter sounds like in Old Changeling.”

The planet was laughing at them.

Outside, the storm took the energy given to it by the launch… and it closed in, hungry for more.

The battery, still connected to the enchanted repulsor crystal, gave it all it had.

Two frantic hours passed, during which two magic batteries were used up to safeguard another EVA. The launch system had been retrieved using Starlight’s force field spell, but only because they had to go outside to install a rapidly improvised tarp over the forward cockpit windows. This was composed of the remaining spare Hab canvas and all the sleeping bags, hastily stitched together with thin changeling rope. The rover windows had shutters; Amicitas didn’t, and although it had stood up to worse storms in the past, the crew hadn’t been totally dependent on it for a living environment at the time.

The storm continued to pelt the ship with dust and larger particles. The crew, looking out through the smaller, thicker portholes and airlock windows, saw only a slightly less than pitch black environment outside.

According to the clock on one of the laptops, it was just past noon, Mars time.

“Right,” Cherry Berry said, pulling Spitfire away from a porthole with one hoof. “Why didn’t it work?”

“Too slow,” Spitfire said. “Too slow, too small to make a big, um, shock wave like before. But fast enough, big enough, to… thing follows boat in water?”

“Wake?” Mark suggested.

“Pulls air up behind it,” Spitfire continued. “Rock gets faster, heats up. Hot air goes up. Makes updraft. Updraft causes dust devil, tornado… worse.”

“And heat makes weather stronger,” Starlight sighed. “More violent. We made it worse.”

“Okay,” Mark said. “We can try launching another rock with more power. Or a bigger rock. Or both.”

“We’d be fooling with a phenomenon we clearly don’t understand,” Starlight sighed. “I should have known better.”

“Are we getting any power from the solar panels, Mark?” Cherry asked.

“They’re pissing out a few watts, but that’s all,” Mark said. “We can’t drive on that, even if we did go EVA again to pick up the panels around the rover.”

“Okay. What can we do for power, then?”

“Well,” Mark said, “if the launch had failed in a less shitty way, I was going to try to remove the motors from the wheels on the landing gear. If we could find a place to mount them inside, Starlight could spin them with magic to produce electricity. They’re not as efficient as proper dynamos, but they’d make some power. I figure rotating one of them at, oh, about two hundred revolutions per minute would produce one kilowatt-hour per hour.”

“Which means a thousand revolutions per minute,” Starlight said, her face going from concentration to shock as she did the math, “to recharge the batteries in twelve hours. Assuming I could keep it up for that long.”

“Also assuming we could spend two to three hours on EVA just to dismount and remount the wheels,” Mark added glumly. “Further assuming removing the motors is easy. I’ve never done it. Further assuming we could get them mounted in here.” He gestured to his suit, which lay on the deck behind the co-pilot seat. “None of which makes a damn, because I can’t go outside with that stupid safety-glass faceplate while the wind is throwing gravel around.”

Spitfire tuned out the conversation after that depressing series of broken assumptions, turning to look out the window again. Stupid Martian storm, she thought. Give me twenty Wonderbolts and enough air and magic to get airborne, and we’d knock that storm out, one-two-three.

Her mind got yanked back to the inside of the Whinnybago by the sudden sound of the ship’s radio. “Friendship, Hermes,” it said in Commander Lewis’s static-filled voice. “I don’t know what you did, but it was the wrong thing to do. The whole storm is unraveling and spiraling in tight around Crommelin. It’s like it’s spontaneously re-centering itself. There’s now a dark grey spot on Mars about four hundred kilometers in radius. If you did that, undo it, quick. We’re reading tau levels like we haven’t seen since 2018. If you received this message, acknowledge by Morse key. Hermes out.”

“Fuck,” Mark moaned. He repeated the word, and repeated it again, each repetition shifting up the scale from shock to rage. “Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!”

“Four hundred kilometers radius,” Starlight grumbled. “Why couldn’t it have been diameter?”

“That’s just the dark part,” Dragonfly sighed. “Want to bet there’s a thin dust layer surrounding it? For how far out?”

Fireball moved to the hatch linking the bridge and habitat. “Well, that’s it,” he said. “I’m eat my last sapphire now. Why not?”

“We’re not giving up,” Cherry Berry said firmly.

“Got any ideas left?” Fireball rumbled. “I don’t.”

“Yes! We send up another cloudbuster!” Cherry insisted. “A bigger one, with more batteries! We have the spare quartz for it, right, Starlight?”

“Yes, for several more if we’re careful,” Starlight admitted. “But we don’t know it’ll do anything except make it worse.”

“We know doing nothing won’t help!” Cherry replied. “If we sit here and do nothing, we die. We can’t drive far enough on the power we’ve got to escape. Our only hope now is to knock out that storm!”

“Last time we made the storm stronger!” Starlight said. “If we do it again, the rover might not survive!”

“Then this time we have to get it right!” Cherry barked. “Can’t you add an enchantment to the target? Some kind of storm-be-gone spell?”

“Do I look like a pegasus to you?”

And just like that, the idea snapped into Spitfire’s mind in cold, horrible clarity.

It was a dumb idea- no, strike that, it was literally a suicidal idea. But…

… no, there was a chance. A small, small chance. So many ifs had to fall the same direction.

But nopony else could do it. Only her. The job needed twenty pegasi, but there was only one available.

“Launch me,” she said.

The room froze for several seconds. Then, all at once:

“What the fuck, Spitfire?” Mark asked.

“You nuts?” Fireball hissed.

“Oh my Faust,” Starlight Glimmer gasped.

“You gotta be kidding!” Dragonfly said.

“We are NOT launching you!” Cherry Berry said.

More words followed these, expressing the shock and anger Spitfire knew it would bring. She let it more or less run out, which took several minutes of alternate ranting by one person and shouting by another. She let it run its course, waiting for silence to finally set in before explaining herself.

“Look,” she said, and then glanced to Starlight and muttered, “Explain it to Mark later.” Continuing in Equestrian, she said, “Shooting more rocks into the air isn’t going to work. You need actual pegasus magic up there to disrupt the air currents and break up the storm. Wire in a magic battery to my suit, make sleeves for my wings, and I can do it- and come back safely.”

“You can’t!” Starlight insisted, also in Equestrian. “It’s impossible!”

“No, it’s not impossible,” Spitfire said firmly. “All I have to do is maintain the speed the booster gives me long enough to break the storm. My wings and magic will give me the purchase in the air to steer- not much, but enough. I can do the job, circle around, and let you catch me with your magic before I crash.”

“I refuse,” Cherry Berry said. “You’ll be going faster than sound. The air will be like a wall. A concrete wall, since it’s full of sand and grit. It’s certain death. Permission denied.”

“Cherry, you’re the best at flying machines,” Spitfire said. “But don’t tell a Wonderbolt what they can and can’t do in the sky. I’ve hit mountainsides going hundreds of miles per hour. I’ve overseen tornadoes strong enough to lift water half a mile into the air.”

“On Equus! This is Mars!”

“This is me,” Spitfire replied, thumping her chest with a forehoof. “This is what I was born to do!” She paused, adding in a softer voice, “And this is what I’m sworn to do. A Wonderbolt is still a guardspony first. I serve to protect, Cherry. Even if it means making the final sacrifice.” She looked her commander directly in the eyes and said, “This is not the first time I’ve faced that possibility.”



“Girls,” Mark interjected in English, “either switch back to English or let me try speaking your language again, but don’t leave me out of this.”

“In a minute, Mark,” Cherry said. Switching back to Equestrian, she said, “We’ll have to cut up your space suit and patch it. We’ve got nothing to patch it with.”

“Except my flight coveralls,” Spitfire said, “coated in a flexible airtight goop from Dragonfly. You can do that, right, bug?”

Dragonfly considered the question. “Like your flight suit material? I can get pretty close,” she said. “No insulation, though. You’re gonna be cold. And no reinforcement, either. If the wings breach, you die, period.”

“How fast can you ascend and not black out or be injured?” Starlight asked. “Eight G’s?”

“Eight Equus G’s,” Spitfire agreed. “Let’s say seventy-five meters per second of acceleration. Faster than today’s launch, a lot slower than the booster test.”

“We’ll have to switch off the launch battery after a few seconds,” Starlight said. “Ten seconds will have you going at three times the local speed of sound. Air resistance will destroy your suit if you go any faster.”

“Seven hundred fifty meters per second?” Spitfire nodded. “I can handle that. Rainbow Dash goes faster than that all the time.”

“Have you?” Cherry Berry asked pointedly.

“Watch me,” Spitfire replied, carefully not answering the question.

Cherry shook her head. “This is why I didn’t want to be the captain,” she said. “I’m going to make the wrong decision. And it’s going to get you killed.”

“Say it does,” Spitfire said. “One for five is the kind of trade the officers and guards of the EUP are trained to make.”

“I want zero for six.”

“You’ll get it. I promise.”

“You can’t promise that.”

“Read my lips,” Spitfire said, and then added in English, “I prom-mise.”

Cherry sighed, shaking her head. “Mark,” she said, “you and I have until morning to think of a better idea than launching Spitfire on top of a piece of crystal.” She turned to Fireball, growling, “Got any smart remarks about that?”

“No, ma’am,” Fireball said quietly.

“The rest of you do whatever it takes to make it happen. Including bringing her down safely. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the others chorused.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Cherry whispered to herself in Equestrian.

Yeah, Spitfire thought. Me either.

But at least if I’m going out, I’m going out flying.

Author's Notes:

One of you called this days ago, not in a complimentary tone. But I've had this planned for about a month, and I'm going through with it.

Rising air is what powers thunderstorms and dust devils alike. Tornadoes require rising air, but they also require conflicting air currents to create vortexes. A launched rock producing a wake probably wouldn't start a storm anyplace in the universe... if magic weren't involved. But as I've written before in this story, when magic and Mars meet all bets are off.

Incidentally, for those wondering, Mark is assuming that the rover wheel motors are mounted on the hub. If the motor is mounted so that the spindle turns on the inside edge of the rim instead, then it's going to take a lot more RPMs than he thinks.

To get an idea of how much overdrive would be required, at top rated speed of 25 kmph, a wheel would be turning at 95 RPM, or a touch more than 540 degrees of rotation per second. I honestly don't know how efficient running an electric motor in reverse is for generating current, but I seem to recall it's not all that compared to a proper dynamo. There are losses to entropy, in any case.

And remember that the bearings inside these motors were designed to run at a relatively low speed with zero maintenance and only whatever lubrication was sealed into them during manufacturing. Overdriving them would probably chew them up in short order. Mark has to know that what he's proposing is a desperation tactic and not sustainable.

But on the other hand, it's probably more sustainable than "throw a pegasus at it."

Next Chapter: Sol 483 Estimated time remaining: 5 Hours, 11 Minutes
Return to Story Description


Login with