The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 27: Sols 40-41

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There wasn’t much left.

In four hours of working the pile of perchlorates had been whittled down only as high as Fireball’s hips and only slightly wider than himself from snout to tail. In another two hours the job would no longer be one for shovels so much as brooms and dustpans.

That was a shame, Fireball thought, all of that spicy stuff getting dumped for the thin Martian wind to carry it off. He wanted some for later. All that bland, flavorless plain quartz was going to get really boring, and Mark was stingy with his ketchup supply. He needed something to make the wait for rescue endurable, and this perchlorate sauce looked perfect for the job.

Of course Mark wasn’t going to give up any of his bins or flasks to hold the stuff. He’d made it clear in no uncertain terms he didn’t want this white-and-yellow-striped gunk anywhere near his shelter. But he couldn’t object if Fireball kept it in the Amicitas galley, could he? The lights were back on over there, and some canned air, and even a little heat. He could just eat his meals on his own ship if he wanted to, and what was the monkey going to do about it?

And besides, if nobody else wanted the stuff, why shouldn’t he take it? It was his, if nobody else wanted it.

Yes. It’s yours, Fireball. Just take some.

It was lunchtime, and everyone prepared to return to the rover for lunch. Mark was working at the knots he’d used to harness the bossmare and the bossy mare to their sleds. Dragonfly was hoisting the magic battery onto her back, while Starlight sat down and trembled after four straight hours of telekinetic shoveling. No one was paying any attention to Fireball.

A small part of Fireball shouted, You idiot, if you’re waiting until nobody can stop you to do a thing, it’s a bad idea!! Leave the crap! The unicorn can summon up more if I want it!

But the rest of his mind shouted back Mine, and Mine is a siren song very few dragons can resist. Also (and this is true of most thinking creatures), the worse the idea you have is, the harder it is for you to not follow through on it.

From one of the tool pouches on his space suit Fireball removed the sturdy plastic wrapper of one of his last few meal packs. He’d saved a couple of the packs for when he just couldn’t stand quartz another day, but he’d also saved some of the containers, partly because he was a dragon, partly because it was just barely possible they could be reused somehow.

Like now, as he walked over to the pile to use it as a scoop for a healthy helping of perchlorate powder.

The meal had been prepared by a changeling chef, who answered with equal ill temper to Carapace or Heavy Frosting, at Horseton Space Center. It had been magically vacuum-sealed in a cheap, airtight plastic, produced by the same Manehattan manufacturing firm used by both Changeling Space Program and the Equestrian Space Agency. They had been stored in fireproof lockers, but no thought had been given to making the packets themselves fireproof, on the grounds that, “If those things are on fire in space, you probably have much bigger worries already.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its hundreds of civilian contractors had employed no such laxness. They had gone to absurd lengths to ensure that nothing short of a welding torch at close range would even cause the carbon-fiber and plastic of the mission’s equipment to smoulder. The off-the-counter food bags used for soil samples would burn, but only reluctantly and only after melting. Despite Mark Watney’s intense worries on the subject, had they used the sample bins to bail the perchlorate out of the cave, likely nothing would have happened.

And, likewise, if the perchlorate had remained the same sub-freezing temperature as the rest of the cave, little would have happened. But it hadn’t. Very slowly the perchlorate had been reclaiming the trace amounts of water in the air around it and the soil beneath it. Absorbing water warms up perchlorate considerably. The upper layers of the pile pressed down on the lower layers, adding a tiny fraction more heat. With every shovel, every scoop of magic, every compacting and disturbance and friction on, through, and within the pile, the whole picked up a tiny, tiny fraction more heat.

The pile was still cold, but not cold enough.

The empty packet, while not an active fire risk in normal circumstances, would burn under the right conditions.

Fireball stepped as close to the mound as he could without stepping in it, leaned his sinuous body forwards, and carefully scooped the packet into the slimy dust. On the first pass the packet wouldn’t open enough to let any in. A second attempt achieved little better, as the clingy perchlorate gunk refused to admit the edge of the pack.

On the third attempt, the gunk around the packet began to bubble and pop. Fireball dropped the packet and took a step back, watching in confusion as the bubbling and popping built up.

A flame erupted from the mouth of the packet.

Something surprisingly fast and heavy tackled the dragon and knocked him away from the pile.

A second later, the perchlorate pile exploded.


AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

BALTIMARE: Baltimare calling Amicitas, where have you been? Over.

AMICITAS: CB – Accident. Alien, two crew injured. Tests postponed indefinitely. Will call. Over.

BALTIMARE: Please repeat, did not copy. Your hoof is too slow. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Accident. Alien, one crew injured. Teqqq

BALTIMARE: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: DF- Accident. Alien, one and only one crew injured. One other crew very hungry. No tests until next contact. Over.

BALTIMARE: QC – You are all ordered to not die until I get there. Over.

AMICITAS: When? Over.

BALTIMARE: TS – Working on that. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Going back to bed. Will drill commander more on code. Out.

BALTIMARE: One or two crew injured? Over.

AMICITAS: CB – Two. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – One. Over.

BALTIMARE: Copy two crew injured. Awaiting your signal, out.


I’m lying in my bunk. Fireball brought me the laptop to write this on, and also to tell me “sorry, big sorry.” He must have learned the word from Starlight or Dragonfly, because I don’t think he knew it even in his own language.

Good news: I’m alive. I survived a pile of perchlorate decomposing and spraying fragments of itself around like napalm. I survived another breach of my spacesuit, followed by first and second degree burns on my upper right arm where the suit breached.

Bad news: I hurt. I hurt like a motherfucker. Did I mention second degree small blistery burns on my upper arm, requiring me to lie on my back or my left side? How about an even worse decompression headache than I had after waking up on Sol 6?

Here’s how it happened, as well as I can piece it together. It started two sols ago, with Fireball’s re-creation of the Cinnamon Challenge. Apparently he wanted some more, and rather than tell anybody what he was doing, he snuck an empty food pack into his EVA suit to get a stash for later.

I can’t blame him that much. By the time we were knocking off for lunch yesterday, I’d almost forgotten that we were shoveling a combination of two potentially dangerous oxidizers. It just hadn’t done anything. And, after all, he’d eaten some of it with no worse result than one flaming belch. Sure, he forgot the danger. But I had too, so I can’t blame him completely.

Of course, the drugs might have something to do with that. Spitfire gave me some of the really strong painkillers from their medicine kit. Wheeeeeeeee! I’m still feeling some pain, but at the same time I’m feeling so pleasant and well-adjusted towards the world that I almost don’t care. This stuff will be outlawed the minute we establish full diplomatic relations with the pony government, I’m sure. I’d be scared of the danger of addiction, but hey, the main alternative in my medical supplies is your choice of opiates, either pill form or injection. So who am I to judge?

Back to the explosion. I had just untied Spitfire when I noticed Fireball crouched over the mound. We’d really reduced it down and were on pace to get back to base early, but there was still a good bit there at lunchtime. At first I was curious; why was he farting around with that stuff? Had he decided to picnic on the grounds instead of going back to the rover with the rest of us?

I was already walking over to him (carefully, because all appearances to the contrary I hadn’t become a complete idiot) when he sprang back up like something had bit him. Then I saw the food pack. I shouted at him to get away, but of course he couldn’t hear me- their suits can’t hear my suit radio. And then I saw the first flame shoot out of the pack’s open mouth.

Yeah. Open flame around magnesium peroxide and an organic fuel source.

Can you say, oh shit? Sure, I knew you could. And I’ll be waiting here until your mommies get done washing your mouths out with soap.

I ran three steps to the right to get a good angle and then turned, got a running start, and slammed into Fireball’s side to knock him out of the way. Even taking into account Martian gravity he was surprisingly light. He hit the crystals on the far wall of the cave, fortunately not hard enough to break or puncture his suit.

Unfortunately Sir Isaac Newton is a bastard, because by imparting all my momentum to the dragon I didn’t have much left for myself, and what I did have left me off-balance. So I had just about time to catch myself from falling and take one step forward before the perchlorate pile went up.

It wasn’t a Hollywood explosion. It was more like a mudpot letting off an air bubble, spattering its surroundings with stinky mud. That is, if the mud was on fire. A huge blob of it hit my right side, which was facing the pile, and the part that hit my upper arm was burning.

NASA spacesuits are designed to withstand high temperatures and be extremely fire-resistant, but the slimy perchlorates clung to the suit and ate happily away at my sleeve. I couldn’t drop and roll because there wasn’t enough space around me not covered in decomposing perchlorates, and it only took a couple of seconds for the crap on my arm to eat a hole in my suit.

Then things really got interesting. And painful.

I don’t know how long it was after that, but it can’t have been more than a few seconds, because I’m still alive. I must have passed out at some point, but I can’t remember exactly when. (Reminds me of a couple of parties I attended at the University of Chicago, though I think only one of those involved fire.) When I came to I was in the rover, wearing my grubby jumpsuit but not my spacesuit, my right sleeve half burned off, and an unconscious unicorn in full spacesuit beside me.

Apparently Starlight had the presence of mind to see what was happening, drain all the magic battery’s remaining charge into herself at one shot, rush over and teleport us into the rover, carefully leaving my compromised flight spacesuit and all the perchlorates behind. That quick bit of magic saved my life. It also knocked her flat on her magical little ass.

She’s still sleeping in the bunk next to mine. Cherry Berry says she hasn’t woken up yet. Even through the painkillers, I’m worried.

I don’t remember much of yesterday after that. I think I must have been in shock. (Which, come to think of it, explains why every blanket in the Hab was on me when I woke up this morning, except for the one Starlight was using.) From what I gather from the ponies, I was the only one that got splashed by burning perchlorate. Once Starlight and I were out of the cave, the others hauled ass the non-magical way.

I remember Dragonfly coming in by the rover airlock and coaxing me to the driver’s seat. She even went so far as to imitate the General Lee’s horn to make sure I got the message.

But I may have dreamed that, because I think I also remember Johannsen standing next to me, leaning over my shoulder. “Go, Mark,” she said. “You can do it.”

Come to think of it, it must have been a dream. It’s been over thirty sols since I last saw my crewmates, after all. But there she was, in coveralls as grungy as mine, right next to me. I think I said, “I love you.” (And if Beck ever reads this, he’s going to be pissed, but hey, buddy- if you don’t tell your crush how you feel, what I do with her in my dreams is nobody’s fault but your own.)

And she said something really profound: “Love makes us alive.” I’m going to have that carved on my tombstone, assuming I get one.

On second thought, no, that’s a stupid idea. I just had a mental image of a horde of zombies chanting, “Heeearts… heeeearts…”

Anyway, dreams or hallucinations aside, I got the rover back to the Hab somehow. I remember none of the driving, aside from what I just mentioned. The ponies got back first and brought me my good EVA spacesuit- at least, I remember them coaxing me into it. I definitely remember the pain that woke me up when the right sleeve brushed past the burn on my arm. And I remember the pain again when Fireball grabbed me by the same damn arm to help carry me from the rover airlock into the Hab airlock.

I also remember them carrying Starlight into the Hab. And then Dragonfly. I was a little surprised by that. I saw the bug up and around today, but she’s not looking well. When they first arrived her wings glittered. They’re not glittering anymore, and I think the holes in her wings and legs are a bit larger.

Why have I never got round to asking about how Dragonfly works? Now the only pony I could ask about it is out like a light.

Long story short; it could have been worse. I lost a suit, but it was a suit with a hole in it already, so I don’t miss it much. I’ll have to wear dressings on my arm for a couple of weeks while the burn heals. I might have some scars there that’ll look like chicken pox scars. And I’ll have to limit my activities, let the ponies do more things for me.

And Fireball. Especially Fireball. He owes me big, and I think he knows it, especially considering he’s bringing a steaming meal-pack over to me. I’m so glad I showed the ponies how the microwave works.

Going to eat and rest now, after cuing up something random from Lewis’s 70s TV Hall of Crap. Don’t feel like watching a show about a cyborg right now… the ponies won’t enjoy most of the non-musical sitcoms until they get more language…

“The Electric Company.” No description aside from “PBS 1971-1977.” Well, if it’s PBS, it’s probably good to doze off to.


The ponies have spent all day around my bunk watching this silly, didactic, juvenile, kickass show. This is SO going on the daily rota. Before Partridge Family. Maybe instead of Partridge Family.

And Starlight just woke up. She’s flopped onto her side so she can see the screen. Poor thing, she looks absolutely wiped, but she’s nagging at me in broken English to quit typing and play more.

I think things are going to be okay. But that could just be the drugs again.

Author's Notes:

I very nearly split this in two chapters, but the first part would have been far too short. So no, no cliffhanger this time.

By the way, spoiler alert: this is more of an injury than Watney suffers in the original book, pretty much ever, until his MAV launch at 12g.

By itself potassium chlorate absolutely would never do this. Magnesium chlorate... just barely might, under perfect conditions. Perfect conditions definitely wouldn't include "significantly hydrated," but... well.

And, of course, it's worth reminding folks that Changeling Space Program in particular cuts corners so radically that a NASA Health and Safety Officer ought to have their will made out in advance, in preparation for the coronary they'll have when they see what's going on. Flammable food packs are definitely legit for them.

Certain vague things will be explained as the story continues, but the more alert will be able to add two and two.

And yes, psychological studies have proven this: the smarter you are, the harder it is for you to change your mind or your plans based on new information. This flavor of stupidity is built in to the human brain, and from all evidence, the pony brain as well. I'm assuming it's very common for any life form that thinks similarly to humans.

Next Chapter: Sol 42 Estimated time remaining: 27 Hours, 30 Minutes
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