The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 283: Phoenix Day 22

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Well, I finally got Starlight’s broken computer fixed. Not that it took a lot of work- it didn’t take long to get a unicorn here to disassemble the computer so I could show the purple princess what the keyboard relay switches looked like so she could copy and replace the broken one under the zero key. But it took three weeks because… well… because we’ve been busy.

It feels a little strange, seeing the “day” instead of “sol” in the log header. But it’s just another reminder that a sol is a Martian day, and the reason I’m using “day” instead of “sol” is that I’m not there!

Every day it hits me all over again: I’m not on Mars anymore. And for the last two weeks I’ve been on an alien world- the good kind, the kind where you can walk outside without a space suit, where leaves blow in the gentle, dust-free breeze and ponies sing and tuxedoed dragons bring you breakfast.

(I’m not kidding about the tuxedoed dragon. There was one, about one-third Fireball’s size. Starlight says his name is Spike, and she was almost as thrilled to see him as she was to see this pale blue unicorn in a witch costume… but I digress.)

Anyway, the last time I made a log entry I was helping with the final preflight checks. And as you probably know, the launch went a little bit off course. A bit of magic failed, a bit of human technology failed, and a lot of imagination and communication failed. Net result: we were way the fuck out in deep space, trying to put the pieces back together for a second bite at the apple.

But the good news is, the pony space programs picked up the magic surge- not from the boosters, which were too far away from our life support, but from our brief faster-than-light jaunt. Sixty-four billion teleportation spells gave them enough data to finally pinpoint our universe- well, nearly. They used a probe first, and it took three false starts before they finally found us.

It took them some time to rescue us, though. When they first got to our universe, they popped in in roughly the same position they occupied in their own world- very low Earth orbit. They popped in just long enough to find where we were and send a message. Then they went back home, where magic energy is super-cheap, and spent a few hours crossing over a hundred million miles of empty space before popping back into our zero-magic environment practically on top of us.

Of course their docking ports and the Phoenix’s didn’t match up. They had a solution for that: grab us with the claw from a giant crane machine, and then pop back to their universe. Once over there the ponies could use their suit thrusters- which never once got a single use on Mars- to transfer to the mother ship. That was, as psychiatrists say when talking about PTSD patients, a memorable experience…

“Have you got your comm crystal on, Mark?” Starlight Glimmer asked.

“Yeah, it’s right… huh.” Mark patted the chest of his space suit, remembering. “Dunno why, except habit. I don’t have its battery. We had to reinstall it in the thruster, remember?”

“You’re in our universe now, Mark,” Starlight said, grinning. “Put your helmet on and say something in pony.”

“What.” Mark, halfway to putting his helmet assembly over his head, paused. “You actually want me to say something in your language. And, if this works, whatever obscene thing I say, everyone and their uncle will hear.”

“They’re probably hearing now,” Starlight said, pointing to her own headset. “Just do it.”

“O-kaaay,” Mark said, muttering under his breath, “One small embarrassment for man, one giant diplomatic fuckup for mankind.” He put on the helmet, sealed it, activated his life support (which immediately warned him that his CO2 filter was saturated- dammit, he should have brought spares), and thought carefully about the various things he’d picked out of private pony gabbles over the months. “Comm check… I am Mark Watney. Give me to but princess.

There was a bit of laughter over the channel, followed by a deep female voice saying what Mark made out as, “Don’t worry, the butt princess is ready and eager to meet you,” followed by a younger-sounding voice making flustered horse noises.

“Well, it works,” Mark muttered. “Happy now?”

“Cheer up, Mark,” Starlight said. “You technically didn’t say anything dirty this time.”

“Oh yeah? Then what was the laughter for?”

“Um… changing the vowel sound for our word for ‘your’ makes it the conjunction ‘but’. Which is also the first syllable for-“

“The question was rhetorical, Starlight.”

“Suit check.” Fireball, after all that time on Mars, had finally entered his competence zone, and he was making the most of the moment. “Pressure good?” When everyone confirmed good seals and pressure, he said, “Mark, listen. Small gap between hand holds on Phoenix and ladders on Harmony. Crew from ship coming to guide us over. We use our jet packs. You link arms with me when I say. We have me on one side, crew on other. We get you across. Just hold on and be calm. Okay?”

“Okay,” Mark said. “I trained for spacewalks before.”

“Good,” Fireball said. “How many you make?”

“Almost one,” Mark admitted.

“Yeah. Hold on strong and be calm.”

It took two full cycles of the airlock to get all six of the crew out of Phoenix. By that time three other figures floated around Phoenix, thruster packs deployed. Mark spared a moment of envy for their bright, clean, un-patched space suits, which shone in the sunlight compared to the dust-covered, dust-scoured, goo-spattered garments which just barely separated the Phoenix crew from a very bad day.

Two of the figures were either ponies or changelings- the reflections off the helmet visors made seeing faces impossible. The third figure had a suit with actual hands- or, at least, three fingers and a thumb on each forelimb. This figure was apparently male, judging by the laconic voice that exchanged rapid-fire pony talk with Fireball after pointing to Mark.

“Okay, Mark,” Fireball said in English. “Follow me up the hand holds. Wossname the griffon will help us when we get to top of Phoenix.”

So, that’s a griffon.

Mark obeyed, struggling to keep his feet from drifting away from the ship, always having at least one hand on the grips scattered all over the MAV exterior specifically for use in situations like this, where direct docking with Hermes was impossible. (The engineers had never imagined a MAV being within forty million kilometers of any other spaceship after leaving Earth.) He took it slow and careful, letting Fireball set a slow pace, while the others activated their suit jet packs and floated around the linked spaceships, out of sight.

And then there was no more Phoenix to climb- just the gigantic claw gripping its exterior, about fifteen meters of robot arm, and the massive bulk of the central shaft of the pony starship.

“Okay, Mark, wait here,” Fireball said. “We come back for you.” That said, he pushed gently away from the ship and activated his thruster pack, the two control arms popping up directly under his own arms, joysticks fitting neatly into the dragon’s hands. There was a brief firing of jets as the suit stabilized, and then Fireball floated back, the griffon astronaut maneuvering to float by his side.

“Okay, Mark,” Fireball said. “You need to wait to we turn round, then let go ship and drift up to us. We be close, like two meters close. Very easy. Very safe. You get to us, you grab on, one in each hand. Then we all go to Harmony. Okay?”

Mark looked at the dragon and the griffon in their space suits. He then looked down at Phoenix, and even further down at the absolute and total lack of anything beyond Phoenix and the two aliens for about five million light-years. “One question,” he said. “Have you two ever done this before? I mean, two MMU packs towing an astronaut without one?”

“Nope,” Fireball said. Mark could hear the grin. “We going in history books. Again. When you’re ready.”

As the two used their thrusters to turn their backpacks to Mark, he reflected, It’s not like I didn’t know all these aliens are insanely casual about total disaster. And if I miss, there’s not one but two warp-capable ships right here to come get me. But…!

Very, very cautiously, Mark turned himself so his back was to Phoenix, his grip maintained by one handhold. Then, very, very gently, he pushed off, releasing his grip.

Two meters had never been so terrifying in his life. Those two meters would give him nightmares for weeks.

Of course, the forty meters that followed that, riding the backs of two imperfectly coordinated astronauts around a tangle of obstacles towards an airlock, would live in his nightmares forever…

Once on the pony ship, I got to meet my friends’ top bosses. The bigger of the two was obviously Dragonfly’s mom. The family resemblance was uncanny, except that Chrysalis has hair (long, greasy, bright blue-green) and actual eyes with pupils (slitted) instead of the big shiny blue eyes Dragonfly has. And Chryssy’s wings glittered the way Dragonfly’s did when I first met her… and she had no holes at all, except for the big crooked horn on her head with bends that suggested holes. When I got through the airlock she was ranting and raving at Starlight, apparently furious at Dragonfly’s physical condition. When Dragonfly tried to defend her, she switched targets without missing a beat, dressing down our poor love-bug just as thoroughly as our science wizard.

The other one managed to break off the chain of abuse. Twilight Sparkle is, if anything, even cuter than Cherry Berry, with the biggest, most innocent eyes I’ve seen on any pony before or since. (And I’ve visited a couple of pony elementary schools since.) Somehow she derailed Chrysalis mid-rant, said a few well-chosen words on the tune of “we’re all so very happy to have you home,” and ended by giving Starlight a warm embrace. Chrysalis actually hugged Dragonfly at the same time, which I’ve learned since is maybe the third public display of affection the bug-queen has allowed herself, well, pretty much ever.

Things settled down after that. Cherry and Chrysalis exchanged a few words, which Starlight later explained were a series of gentle one-upsmanship lines: “Oh, so you’re still alive? Well, enjoy the ride and watch me NOT take the ship into another universe.” “Nice to see you, too. Sorry I didn’t bring more souvenirs from the universe that I got to see and you didn’t.” Stuff like that. Then we got to see a ship’s doctor, who didn’t like what he saw in any of us, and then we settled in for the trip to the pony world.

I would just as soon have gone back into Phoenix and asked them to drop me off, but apparently Twilight has plans for me and Phoenix. Besides, the doctor didn’t like what he found on me, either, so I got an E-ticket down to Ponyworld to heal with the others. Fortunately they had a capsule ready capable of seating seven, even though my seat was a little cramped compared to the others’.

We spent a week in quarantine, partly to get adjusted to full gravity after a year and a half at 0.39 G… and partly because, after less than a day on the pony starship, the pony space station, and the pony re-entry vehicle, we all caught massive colds. We’d been isolated with one another for a year and a half, with less than optimal nutrition and physical deterioration from low gravity, so our immune systems were an all-you-can-eat buffet for germs. Even with the best magical meds pony ingenuity could provide, it was a miserable week, made worse by having to learn how to walk all over again.

There were some benefits. For one thing, now that she was back in her natural habitat with no limits on her Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Starlight Glimmer finally got that Babelfish translation spell working properly. (Imagine her chagrin when she found out that yes, Celestia was the actual proper translation for the sun princess’s name.) And Dragonfly put on at least five kilos while in quarantine. Now, as I type this, she’s almost back to the way she was when I first met her. Her wings are even starting to sparkle again.

Also, one of Starlight’s friends, a white unicorn pony with purple hair, took every measurement imaginable, went away, and came back the next day with brand new, clean, pristine clothes. Perfect fit. She even made new mission patches for me, perfectly matching both the old Ares patch and Spitfire’s medallions. It had been almost two years since I last wore freshly laundered clothing. Putting them on felt wonderful. It felt like safety.

And after quarantine was done… well, things happened. Beginning with the first tickertape parade I’ve ever been in, even if I was riding in a horse-drawn (well, pony-drawn) carriage…

My arm’s going to fall off, Mark thought as he waved, and waved, and waved at tens of thousands of cheering ponies lining the streets and hanging out of the windows of the main drag of the ponies’ largest city, the one Starlight had once referred to as “Hair Hat City”. The new and improved translation spell corrected that to one of a multitude of horse puns Mark had begun to recognize over the past four days: Manehattan.

Practically everything about the city reminded Mark of the theory of parallel Earths. Of course it wasn’t a perfect parallel. The continents were a bit different, with Equestria- the pony nation- being centered on the closest equivalent of North America. There were no Great Lakes, and thus no Chicago, the area being replaced by a long barrier of snow-covered mountains that separated Equestria from a smaller nation called the Crystal Empire. But this city had a Broadway (well, “Bridleway”) full of theaters, an iconic bridge, and a gigantic Statue of Harmony standing on an island in the harbor.

It was New York, if New York was about one-tenth the size and full of ponies.

“Hey, look at that!” Fireball, sitting next to him, pointed at one of the marquees. The spell didn’t help with writing, so Mark couldn’t read it. “Says ‘First Mare: the Cherry Berry Story’! We gotta get tickets for that! I want to see how mad the boss mare gets when she sees how they act her out!”

Mark could just hear Cherry Berry’s voice over the crowd, from two carriages ahead. He couldn’t understand the words, but he could guess that she had also seen the marquee, and she wasn’t going to wait for the curtain to go up before she got good and mad…

… I have witnessed the moon being set and the sun being made to rise- yes, you read that right- using magic

The mug was too small, and its handle was too big and loose around Mark’s fingers. The coffee inside was plenty black, though. He sipped it as quickly as he dared. “Why are we up so early?” he asked. “And can’t we have breakfast first?”

“Didn’t you like the donuts?” Starlight Glimmer asked.

“They were good donuts.” Correction: they had been excellent donuts, glazed using genuine sugar, with no “better living through chemistry” and so fresh they were still warm. Pony Joe, whoever he was (or was it a chain name?), knew his business. And, most important of all, they were not potatoes. “But we were up past midnight, and it’s before six in the morning.”

“Correction,” Starlight said. “It’s five fifty-eight.” She pointed over the tall stone walls, at the turrets and parapets and towers that looked like a blend of Cinderella and the Arabian Nights, glued up here on the sheer side of a mountain. “Now keep your eyes on those two balconies. And on the sky.”

Mark tried. The moon was off in the west, about to sink behind a distant line of hills. A faint glow lit up the eastern horizon, miles and miles of rolling farmland viewed from an altitude of what appeared to be half a mile above the base of the mountain.

He’d made the mistake of going out to the outer city walls when they’d arrived by train the day before. It was worse than when he’d gone downtown to the observation deck of what had then been Sears Tower. It had given him a brief flashback to that memorable spacewalk.

He closed his eyes, turned until his body faced the castle again, and looked up. There, on balconies extending from towers on opposite sides of the castle, two large ponies appeared, one almost invisible against the night sky, the other with a brilliant white coat visible even in the dim light from the city streets.

Light shimmered around the dark pony. Shadows moved. Mark looked to the west just in time to watch the moon zip behind the hills and out of sight.

Then much brighter light surrounded the horn of the white pony. The sky exploded with light and color as the sun rose, covering as much sky in seconds as Mark would expect it to traverse in an hour.

Mark found himself being supported by his unicorn companion. “What’s the matter?” Starlight asked. “Not enough coffee?”

“Buh… bwah… you know exactly what’s the matter!” Mark said. “Celestial objects just do not move that fast!”

“Welcome to Pony-land… um…” Starlight shrugged, a bit embarrassed, and corrected herself to the term the new spell had given her, “I mean Equestria.”

… I have toured the space centers for the two space programs that put my friends in space, and seen the records of their first steps into space- only, from their point of view, about five years ago…

“And this,” Cherry Berry said, pointing at another of the giant posters on the Horseton Space Center museum wall, “is Mission Eight, the first rocket to make it out of atmosphere.”

Mark looked at the design and, not for the first time, plumbed new and deeper definitions of the word appalled. “Well, first,” he said, “how did that not fall over and blow up on the pad?? That thing looks like a ballerina on point if a ballerina had three arms!”

“Well, we had good reasons at the time,” Cherry said. “I guess you had to be there.”

“Second,” Mark continued, deciding not to dare wading into that conversational morass, “you launched people in seven atmospheric-only rockets before you tried for space?”

“Oh, a lot more than seven,” Cherry Berry said. “In the early days everybody had a space program. But the changelings launched seven. I flew three, Chrysalis flew two, Dragonfly one, and one was unmared.”

“One was what?”

“No one in it.”

“And that’s my third point,” Mark said. “You told me it was almost a year before you even considered sending a rocket up without a crew. What the hell? NASA did multiple unmanned launches for every flight system before risking any lives!”

“Yes, well,” Cherry said, “we hadn’t invented robot controls when we started. Robots were just a fairy-tale, like hobbits and Expecto Patronum.” She pointed at a somewhat more humble poster. “This was our very first ever launch. Mission Zero.”

Mark looked at the… thing.

“That,” he said carefully, “is a cardboard box.”

“Yep,” Cherry agreed.

“Sitting on a big metal trash can.”

“That’s right.”

“And somebody thought this was a good idea??”

“Not me!” Cherry said emphatically. “Which is why this poster has the words it does.” She pointed to the writing at the bottom.

“The spell doesn’t translate writing, remember?” Mark said. “What’s it say?”

“It says,” Cherry replied, reading out loud, “This is Why We Do Not Do This.”

Mark looked at the poster again. “That’s a good name,” he said. “That’s a very good name.”

Dragonfly poked her head into the museum area. “Are you two still here in Boringsville?” she asked. “Come on, I’ve been waiting a year and a half for my turn on the Fun Machine! Let’s go already!!”

To be fair, the Fun Machine was pretty nice, although I don’t get the same absolute pleasure the changelings seem to. Apparently it’s a changeling trait to really love free fall and high winds.

Anyway, after that I visited Cherry and Starlight’s home town and met the greatest pony heroes ever- not that I wasn’t warned…

After a delicious pancake breakfast in Twilight Sparkle’s castle, the astronauts went out to spend the day in Ponyville, Mark leaned over to Starlight and whispered, “That’s the fourth time I’ve seen that pink pony with the goofy hair spying on me.”

“Just ignore her,” Starlight said. “That’s Pinkie Pie, and there’s nothing you can do about her. At some point in the next hour a surprise party is going to happen. It’s inevitable.”

“Relax,” Cherry Berry added. “Pinkie’s parties are always great. You’ll like it.”

“Okay, but what about the orange pony with the poofy black hair?” Mark said. “I’ve seen him twice. The one carrying a rubber chicken.”

“Really?” Fireball asked, actually smiling. “That’s Cheese Sandwich. He actually threw me a party once for my molt. It was just him, me, and the three monsters trying to eat me, but we all had a blast!”

“Really?” Spitfire asked. “How long ago was that?”

“Maybe ten years, little more,” Fireball said. “He was just starting out, I think. Only got better since.”

“So both Pinkie and Cheese Sandwich are doing a surprise party for Mark?” Starlight said.

“For all of us,” Dragonfly pointed out. “Pinkie did promise us all our missed birthdays. Pinkie promised.”

Somewhere in the background, a tuba played two notes.

Duuuuuuun… dun.

“What was that?” Mark asked.

The two tuba notes repeated: duuuuuuuun… dun.

“Don’t ask,” Cherry and Starlight said in unison.

The tuba began playing the same two notes over and over, very slowly at first, but gradually gathering steam: duuuuuuuuun dun, duuuuuuuuun dun, duuuuuuun dun, duuuuuun dun dun DUN dun DUN dun DUN dun…

“Oh, come on!!” Mark snapped. “This is music from my world!!”

A French horn played a quick fanfare in a very minor key as the two curly-maned ponies in question poked their heads out of a nearby bush, smiled sinister smiles, and vanished again.

“Including that French horn!” Mark added.

“We don’t try to figure out heartsongs because heartsongs are really personal,” Cherry said.

“We don’t try to figure out party ponies,” Starlight finished, “because ponies who try go nuts.”

And as the group of astronauts approached the center of Ponyville, the tuba music grew louder, even though the only musician Mark could actually see was a grey earth pony playing a cello…

… with hooves.

This entire planet, Mark decided, needs a ring of orbiting signs pointing down that read, THIS WAY LIES MADNESS.

I finally got to see the Everfree Forest, which is kind of like the real-life nightmare world of ponies. I don’t find it quite so scary, but there were a couple of things there which will give me nightmares for a while…

Six figures ran for their lives down the forest path. Not nearly far enough behind them came the sounds of howling, snapping wood, and crashing underbrush.

“Keep running!!” Cherry Berry yelled.

“I… AM… running…” Mark gasped. “Why don’t… we just… teleport out?”

“I can’t teleport us all when we’re this scattered!” Starlight shouted at full gallop.

Just above their heads, Fireball, Dragonfly and Spitfire dodged back and forth between the overhanging tree branches. “This is your fault, Mark!” Fireball shouted down at them.

“How?” Mark asked between gasps for air. “All I did… was collect… a plant sample! Fallen wood! With mold!”

“You pulled part of the tail off a timberwolf!” Cherry shouted. “I’m sure we warned you about timberwolves!”

“Where… back home… timberwolf… is a kinda dog!” Mark gasped. “Wild… dangerous… dog! Not… animated… kindling!” Mark looked up, tripped and almost fell over a root he didn’t see, recovered, and shouted up, “You breathe fire… burn ‘em!”

“Can’t!” Fireball shouted back. “It just makes ‘em mad!”

“Run faster!” Dragonfly called, her own breath a little labored. “They’re catching up!”

“Gotta get off the trail,” Mark wheezed. “Let’s lose ‘em… in those blue flowers!”

“MARK, NO!!”

And that’s how I learned that small-town Ponyville has a full-service, five-star spa.

Next day I got to ride in a hot-air balloon, which works a little differently than it does on Earth…

“So let me get this straight,” Mark said, looking around the oversized basket. “This balloon is going to Spitfire’s home town of Cloud Valley.”

“Cloudsdale,” Starlight corrected.

“Cloudsdale,” Mark said. “But where I come from, you need an engine to steer a balloon. We call those airships.”

“We have those too,” Cherry said. “The controls are a bit more complicated. I’ve been allowed to fly them a couple of times, but I don’t have a license yet.”

“I don’t see an engine here,” Mark said.

“Well, it’s like this.” Cherry patted the balloon. “This is my excursion balloon, the one I use for charters. To steer it I pick a specific altitude.”

“We control our wind,” Spitfire added. “Blows one way one level, different on another. Like streets in sky.”

Cherry nodded. “Most of a balloon license is learning where those paths are across Equestria,” she said. “But my personal balloon- well, technically it’s Twilight Sparkle’s, but she hasn’t asked for it back in years and years- that one’s enchanted so I can steer it any direction.”

“On calm wind levels,” Spitfire agreed. “Only works with pilot. If rope breaks on ground, it flies away like normal balloon.”

“That… almost makes sense,” Mark said. “Except for the part about a full time astronaut plus corporate executive- you did say you run an employment agency?”

“Cherry Berry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, Inc.,” Cherry said, nodding.

“But you take charter flights?”

“Well, yeah,” Cherry said, smiling. “A girl’s gotta have something to do on the weekends.”

I have toured a factory where they manufacture weather. Yes again, you read that correctly: weather factory. Full on industrial, right down to required hard hats.

(Side note: ponies wearing hard hats and lab coats are adorable-squared. Especially since, considering all the other things I’ve seen about pony society and psychology, I would never have guessed hard hats would have ever been invented here…)

“… the water gets mixed with air here and shifted to storage tanks here. By altering the compression and circulation within the tanks, we can produce any kind of cloud from fluffy white decorative cumulus clouds to heavy stratonimbus to stable construction-grade nimbocrete. And this system controls the static polarization within each cloud, which lets us vary the lightning output from practically zero to the ever popular ‘joy zapper,’ also known as the Rainbow Dash Special.”

Mark boggled at Spitfire, who had been speaking almost non-stop since they set foot on the city built of clouds. (Fortunately, the very first words she’d said were, “Mark, stay on the paved parts.”)

“And over here we have the rainbow mixer,” Spitfire continued. “Natural rainbows occur in many places around Equestria, most notably Rainbow Falls, but we use careful resource management and proprietary technology to mass-produce rainbow fluid that lets us install rainbows practically anywhere, either temporary or permanent, for any conceivable requirement.”

“Spitfire,” Mark said, “this is amazing.”

“It sure is,” Spitfire said. “Tastes pretty good too, if you like spicy things. Just a little at a time, though.”

“No, I- well, yeah, all of this is really amazing,” Mark said, pointing at the rainbow-striped pool at their feet and the transparent pipes of brilliantly primary-colored fluids transporting raw materials to it. “But what’s really amazing is how much you’re talking.”

Spitfire pointed to Starlight, whose horn continued to shine steadily and brightly. “Hey, when I can speak my own language,” she said, “I can say plenty. It’s not my fault your language makes me sound like I crashed into a mountainside.”

“Hey!” said a nearby worker with a barbell cutie mark clearly visible below his lab coat. “I only did that nine times!”

“Anyway, let’s check out the planning office,” Spitfire said. “Cloudsdale Central Planning sends out weather schedules to all the districts of Equestria and even beyond. They also dispatch first response units, including my Wonderbolts, for all weather-related-“

“Wait a minute, Spitfire.” Mark pointed at another lab-coated, hard-hatted pegasus, who was pushing a large metal barrel across the factory floor on a two-wheeled dolly. “What’s he doing?”

“Dunno,” Spitfire said. “Let’s ask.” She flapped over to him, obviously laboring a bit due to her still not fully regrown feathers, and said, “Hey, buddy. What’s with the barrel?”

“Cleaning out Rainbow Mixer #3,” the worker said. “See for yourself.” He lifted the lid, showing that the barrel was mostly full of liquid.

Plaid liquid.

“Ugh. Toxic waste,” Spitfire said.

“Yeah,” the worker agreed. “At least we got to it before it went argyle.”

I even got to see the dragonlands and see a lot of dragons who aren’t Fireball. News flash: my dear misanthropic loner of a macho lizard turns out to be unnaturally sweet, cuddly, and gregarious for his species. Who could ever have predicted that?

That’s sarcasm, by the way…

“Aaaaaah,” Fireball sighed, letting himself sink deeper into the lava pool. “It’s been so long since I did this.”

“I think I’ll pass, thanks,” Mark called down from the ledge thirty feet above. Even at that distance the heat was almost unbearable for a human. The ponies had stayed outside the caldera entirely, partly due to the heat, partly because they wanted to stay within line of sight of Dragonlord Ember. Trust between dragons and everyone else was, at best, fragile.

Fireball shrugged, not having expected anything else, and leaned back into the lava for a moment. Then he frowned slightly. “This gets uncomfortable,” he said, and then a moment later he leaned up. “This gets hot! What the buck?” He splashed his way out of the pool, landing on the edge of the lava and shaking off the already hardening crusts from his body. “What goes on? Am I gonna molt? I did that already!”

“You okay down there?” Mark asked.

“I’m fine,” Fireball growled. “Just something else to thank Mars for.”

“What’s the matter?” a sneering voice asked in Equestrian from directly over Mark’s shoulder. He spun around to look up into golden eyes set in a red face. The dragon attached to the face was about Fireball’s height, possibly a hair shorter, but stouter. And all the machismo and arrogance Mark remembered from Fireball’s first days in the Hab combined in the new dragon’s attitude with a more than healthy dose of contempt. “Big space hero Fireball can’t handle a little heat?”

“Get bent, Garble,” Fireball snarled in the same language, slowly flapping his wings to rise up to the ledge that ran around the inner volcano rim.

“I always said hanging around ponies and bugs would make you soft,” Garble sneered, stepping around behind Mark. One clawed hand came down on Mark’s shoulder- hard. “But now you’re hanging out with monkeys? You’ve really hit bottom, Fireball.”

A flare of flame escaped Fireball’s nostrils. His eyes narrowed. In a soft growl that made Mark, despite a year and a half living with the dragon, shudder from head to toe and clench his sphincters for control, the white dragon said, “Take your claw off Mark Watney.”

“Who’s Mark Watney?” Garble sneered, squeezing Mark’s shoulder. The tips of his claws began to dig into his skin through his jumpsuit. “All I see here’s this stupid trained monkey.”

Fireball’s nostrils flared again. “Mark Watney saved my life,” he growled, even more softly. “He saved us from dying on a world with almost no air, no heat, and absolutely no magic. He found a way to grow food there. He built a machine that took us to a place with an escape ship. He saved the ship from the same kind of disaster that made us crash in the first place.”

“Big deal,” Garble sneered.

“Yes big deal,” Fireball said in the same soft, dangerous tones. “Mark Watney flew from his world to another without any magic, He survived explosions and air blowouts. He ate the same horrible food every day for almost a year so me and my friends would have something to eat at all. Now he’s here, on his second alien world. How many have you been to?” He took a deep breath, which made the flames rising from his nostrils flare brighter. “What lives have you saved? What have you ever done, Garble? In all your life, what have you ever accomplished? Name one thing. One.”

“Hey, I done stuff,” Garble protested.

“Name one thing,” Fireball hissed.


Mark held his tongue (partly because, without Starlight around to run the translation spell, his attempts at speaking pony would make things worse instantly). He really wished Fireball would end this. The more he made Garble squirm, the tighter the red dragon’s claws dug in.

“Nothing? Then take your claws off Mark Watney. And go find something that makes your life worth one-tenth of his, you eggsucking piece of-“

“Hey, calm down, calm down, Fireball!” The pain in Mark’s shoulder almost went away, except for the scratches under his clothes. “I was just playing, you know?”

“I’m not,” Fireball hissed. “Get lost.”

There was a frantic flapping of leathery wings. When Mark turned around, there was no longer a red dragon behind him. “Hey, thanks,” he said, rubbing his shoulder. “But why didn’t you tell him all the stuff you did?”

The corner of Fireball’s mouth turned up. “I still got some doing to do,” he said.

And I’ve been someplace that I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone else about, under any circumstances. Considering what happened, I’m just as happy to keep quiet…

A lanky lavender figure tumbled out of one of the mirrors below the Wondercolts statue in front of Canterlot High School. Sunset Shimmer stood close enough that it took only a couple of steps for her to come over and help the new arrival to her feet. “Hi, Twilight,” she said. “So why did you ask me to meet you here?”

“Well,” Twilight Sparkle said, “remember that other world I told you about? The human world that’s different from this one, with no duplicates and different continents and things?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Sunset said. “And our Twilight is still touchy about the subject after you told us to stop poking at that space probe of yours.”

“Well,” Twilight said, “what with one thing and another, we have one of those humans on our world. As a human.”

“Really?” Sunset asked. “And he stays human?” She held up her hands and folded her thumbs in emphasis of her point.

“So far,” Twilight said. “And that’s kind of a problem. We can’t fill all his dietary needs.”


Twilight blushed. “We’re bringing him here so he can have an ethically sourced hamburger,” she said quietly.

“Oh.” Sunset shrugged. “Well, after all this time with the natives, it’s not that big a deal for me. But where is he, then?”

Twilight looked around. “I don’t know,” she said. “He was right behind me, I thought…”

Another figure tumbled out of the mirror portal, rolling and slamming into Twilight’s legs, knocking her into Sunset’s arms.

“You all right?” Sunset asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Twilight said.

A male voice said something in a language Sunset couldn’t understand.

“Oops! Sorry, Mark, let me…” Twilight froze as she looked down at the figure struggling to stand on very wobbly legs.

It was a pony.

Specifically, it was a male earth pony, rust-colored with a dirty blond mane and a cutie mark of a plant seedling overlying a rocket ship.

“Well, buck me,” said Mark Watney.

So yeah, what with one thing and another, it’s been a busy two weeks since we got out of quarantine. We’re back at Cape Friendship now for more medical tests for all of us. That’s why I finally found the time to get some help from a unicorn to fix this computer. (In exchange, I had to show the unicorn, whose name is apparently Lyra Heartstrings, all the neat stuff a computer can do. She was particularly interested in the clips of 70’s television I showed her, though I am happy to say she’s the first pony I’ve met who actively hates disco. She apparently prefers classical. So, no interest in Weird Al, but I had to pry her away from the John Williams.)

Anyway, tomorrow I get to find out whether I’m fit to fly again. I gotta say, as nice as this little vacation is, I’m ready to go home. The pony planet is incredible, and I’m enjoying my time here and absorbing everything I can, but it’s not Earth. It’s not Houston or Chicago or even Fort Wayne, Indiana. And every time I see something weird or magical or bizarrely retro (thatched roofs? Wattle walls? Really?) I’m reminded of that fact. It’s getting fucking painful.

The most striking thing about this vacation- the thing I’ve observed most- is how everything seems to… well… to soften around ponies. For all the dangers of the Everfree Forest, there are a couple of places that are almost tame, like the path between the apple orchards and the old castle ruins. I’ve seen a pegasus plow into the ground at hundreds of miles per hour and walk it off. I’ve seen a swarm of angry wasps get talked down by a sweet yellow pony with pink hair. And I’ve seen farmer ponies that completely justify Cherry’s claims that she’s no farmer. Everything seems to want to cooperate with the ponies, even their predators, in a bizarre way.

I now understand a bit why the ponies are a lot more casual about lethal danger than NASA. But, at the same time, I’m beginning to wonder if our survival doesn’t owe something to pony softness. Maybe this effect carried over to our world. Did our universe, hostile as it is, feel a little sorry for them? Did they make puppy-dog eyes at reality, and have it work?

That’s what I’m thinking about: ponies making sad eyes to get entropy to change its mind, and going home. Not in that order of priority.

Author's Notes:

I think there's only four chapters left. I'm not sure yet, and won't be until they're written, but that's what it feels like.

EDIT: I fully intend to go see "First Man" in theaters. I'm bemused by one reviewer slamming the movie because "Ryan Gosling doesn't give any emotion in his portrayal of Armstrong." Dude... that's what Neil Armstrong was REALLY LIKE.

Next Chapter: Phoenix Day 23 Estimated time remaining: 1 Hour, 5 Minutes
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