The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 284: Phoenix Day 23

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The six astronauts, having spent the morning undergoing a battery of medical tests, sat in Cape Friendship’s cafeteria, eating lunch.

“Cherries again??” Starlight Glimmer asked as Cherry Berry, last of the group, walked over to the table, tray in her teeth.

“Cherries still,” Cherry replied as soon as she set the tray down. The meal, indeed, was the Cherry Berry Special, a combination Cherry had apparently ordered often enough before the last flight of Amicitas that it had been permanently added to the cafeteria menu. Diced cherry salad, cherry omelet, cherry torte, lime gelatin with cherries, and cherry leaf tea. This fit the pattern of the period since splashdown on Equus, with Cherry Berry ordering any and every cherry option on the menu wherever they went, if cherries were to be had at all.

“I hate to say it,” Mark said cautiously, “but if you keep this up, you might begin to feel about cherries the same way you feel about hay and potatoes.”

“Blasphemy,” Cherry said, and plunged her muzzle into the fruit salad.

“I am ready,” the ESA flight surgeon reported, “to give the results of today’s tests.”

The audience sat at a conference table, all three of them. On one end, Twilight Sparkle; on the other end, Chrysalis; and in the middle, Celestia, present as the eldest of the alicorn princesses and, as such, the highest ranking ruler of Equestria.

The doctor flipped a page on his clipboard. “All the subjects have suffered significant bone and muscle atrophy compared to pre-flight tests where available,” he said. “Messages relayed from Mr. Watney’s world through the Angel Eighteen probe have given us enough basic information to make an educated guess about his bone and muscle status prior to his launch. However, substantial recovery has already occurred, along with rapid strengthening of immune systems. All subjects are improving and expected to improve over time.

“This is most notable in the cases of prolonged magic deficiency. As you recall, all our people showed signs, from significant levels in the pony crew to serious in Fireball’s case to near-fatal in Dragonfly’s. Symptoms in the pony crew members included faded coats, cutie magic atrophy, and in two cases a minor decrease in racial magic talents. Starlight Glimmer is the exception, in that her spellcasting skills have actually strengthened to the point that she is having to learn how to channel less magic.”

Flipping another page, the doctor continued, “On to individual cases. Starlight Glimmer is the least affected by magic deficiency, probably due to her frequent channeling of raw mana as described in her preliminary report. The break in her right forelimb is completely healed, with a minor deformity which can be corrected without surgery with the assistance of a competent alchemist. However, her muscular atrophy is the greatest of the three ponies, and I would recommend therapy and a strength training program before any return to space flight.”

Another page flipped. “Major Spitfire is a worse case. Although her magic deficiency symptoms were the worst of the three ponies, they pale by comparison to her physical ailments. Her lung capacity has increased somewhat since her first post-return examination, but it still lags behind her pre-flight norms, and there are some indications of scarring inside her lungs. She’s lost significant bone and muscle mass. She no longer shows any outward signs of altitude or depressurization sickness, but I would regard her as in potential danger of a relapse for another three months at least. Given the nature of her injuries I would recommend a prolonged treatment plan and an indefinite removal from the flight list, except that the major has already resigned from the astronaut service and requested the reactivation of her EUP commission.”

Flip. “Cherry Berry is the least concern of the crew. Her symptoms of magic deficiency have almost totally vanished. She’s regained significant muscle mass. Bone mass lags, but if we can get her to eat something besides cherries that may change.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Chrysalis muttered.

“Our sole concern with her at this point is psychological,” the doctor continued. “She is one of two crew members who consistently performs below pre-flight norms on mental acuity tests. For that reason I recommend, at the very least, a leave of absence from the space program and recommendations for therapy. On strictly physical terms, she could fly tomorrow.”

Flip. “Fireball has suffered more significant magic deficiency symptoms. His natural strength, endurance, and resistance to damage as a dragon are all markedly reduced. He also has a minor mineral deficiency- he hasn’t had any gold in over a year- which is being corrected. But as one of two crew members who suffered no major injuries aside from environmental effects during his experience, I limit my recommendation to temporary removal from flight status. This, again, is academic, since Fireball has also resigned from the astronaut corps.”

Yet another flip. “This brings us to Dragonfly.”

Chrysalis leaned forward over the table.

“Dragonfly’s symptoms of magic deficiency, per se, have reduced rapidly since her return,” the doctor said. “However, the secondary effects on her body left by those symptoms are slow to heal. She’s still down ten percent off her pre-flight weight and shows massive reduction in stamina and strength. She shows the worst drop in mental acuity of the group, which is disturbing, because her scores were second only to Starlight Glimmer’s pre-launch. It’s too early to tell,” he continued, turning to the last page on his clipboard, “but my recommendation is, barring more positive signs in future examinations, that Dragonfly be permanently debarred from future flight status.”

“She’ll fly again,” Chrysalis muttered. “Watch and see.”

Looking at the last page, the doctor said, “Finally, the alien, Mark Watney. Our judgment is uncertain where it comes to the human. We found some cracks in his rib cage in our first examination, on Concordia, and again during quarantine. Those have responded well to treatment. Based upon the past two weeks, we can suppose with some certainty that we have no immediately lethal diseases which he might transmit to his people once returned. We already assume no truly dangerous microbes have made the transit in the other direction. He shows no ill effects from direct exposure to high magic levels.

“But even with the, I admit, limited information given us by his own doctors on his homeworld, we simply cannot make a firm judgment as to his fitness to fly.” The doctor slipped the clipboard into a saddlebag and said, “But based on his experiences visiting our world, I believe it is safe enough for him to have one more launch… to send him back where he belongs. And that, I personally feel, is safest for his long-term health.”

“I see,” Celestia said. “A few questions, if I may.”

“Proceed,” the doctor said.

“How much credence do you put in Starlight Glimmer’s theory that their home planet, which is as full of life as our own, sustains a strong enough magic field for our long-term health?”

The doctor shuffled his hooves. “It’s entirely possible,” he said. “But not proven. We would have to send some astronauts and observe conditions personally to be sure.”

“Very well. Could you indulge me in a hypothetical?”

“Certainly, Your Highness.”

“Suppose that Amicitas had landed with no operating magic batteries at all. None. Yet, despite that, the crew found some way to grow crops and meet all the other requirements of survival.” Celestia steepled her forehooves together on the tabletop, gesturing with them towards the doctor. “Based on the data we have, how long would they have survived? In what condition?”

“Hmmmm…” The doctor sat back on his haunches and considered. “The data we have is, of course, incomplete, lacks a control, and is muddied by the exposures to stored magic the crew gave themselves. But…” He waved a hoof decisively. “Dragonfly would likely have been dead within eighteen months, probably sooner, even given no use of stored magic. Fireball would have begun a slow wasting after about two years, I think, with death within three. The time frame is too uncertain for the ponies, but I would postulate a possible loss of cutie marks within two years and a permanent loss of magic abilities after three to five years.” With one final hoof gesture, he said, “All of this, of course, is conjecture.”

“We understand, doctor,” Celestia said. “Now for my final question. What portion of the damage suffered is truly irreversible- and would be for any other astronauts?”

“It would depend entirely on the pony,” the doctor said. “Cherry Berry and Starlight Glimmer, who suffered the least deprivation, appear to be making full recoveries. Spitfire has medical issues unrelated to the situation that make her example unreliable. And a final judgment on Fireball will have to be made by my great-grandchildren. The only one I’m even close to certain suffered permanent injury is Dragonfly.”

“And for all your training, you are not a changeling healer,” Chrysalis challenged.

“Indeed I am not… Your Majesty,” the doctor admitted. “But I have consulted with a couple, and their diagnosis aligns with mine where Dragonfly is concerned.”

“Very well.” Celestia nodded to a guard, who wordlessly opened the conference room door. “Thank you for your report, doctor. We will be in touch.”

As soon as the door shut behind the pony doctor, Twilight turned to look at the other two. “You heard him!” she said. “Worst case scenario, months or years! And that’s only if there’s no magic at all! If Earth has a magic field, then ponies can survive there just as easily as Mr. Watney does here!”

“I am not risking my subjects,” Chrysalis replied hotly, “on maybe! Or did you not also notice that permanent injury and death hits changelings first? No. Too dangerous.”

Celestia sighed. “I agree with Chrysalis,” she said. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but we just got our friends back. And any new ponies we send in their stead will face the same dangers.”

She bowed her head, closing her eyes as she continued, “And if the dangers are real, then what happens? According to Mr. Watney, it would take his people months to launch a craft that could return our ponies to us, under the best conditions. These are months they might not have.” When she opened her eyes again, the gentle warmth that normally filled them had been driven out by cold determination. “I cannot accept that risk to my ponies, Twilight- the risk that they again might be in deadly peril where none of us could help.”

“But…” Twilight sighed, nodding defeat. “It would be so much simpler if Starswirl would just teach me the enchantment he used to make…” She looked at Chrysalis, who was staring back with unmasked curiosity, and changed what she had been going to say to, “… a certain legendary artifact that would solve the problem.”

Chrysalis snorted at the obvious cover-up, but said nothing else.

“Then I believe we are agreed,” Celestia said. “I’m afraid it will be hard news for them. They have grown close.”

“Let me tell them,” Chrysalis said.

The two alicorn princesses gave her a Look.

“What?” Chrysalis asked. “I can do tact. I just generally choose not to.” She turned her own eyes away and muttered, “Besides, I owe that stink-monkey something.”

“What is the time frame?” Celestia asked Twilight.

“Not immediately,” Twilight said. “We can begin preparations for a return to Concordia two weeks from now. But there’s a couple of other necessary tasks we need to complete first.” Her hoof touched a row of narrow rosewood boxes, lined in silk, each holding a carefully laquered shaft of wood. “And repayment to make for all Mark’s people did for ours.”

The explanation took several minutes, with Celestia doing most of the talking and Starlight running the new translation spell so Mark wouldn’t miss anything. The facts were made plain: health, mental condition, logistics, the known dangers, the unknowns.

When the words ran out, five jaws sagged open. Only Mark Watney appeared unsurprised, though his own face wore an expression of sadness to match the shock on the others’.

Cherry Berry was the first to speak, and she wrapped up all the group’s questions in her first word:


Author's Notes:

Three chapters remain.

No chapter tomorrow, for certain. San Angelo Comic Con has not been kind to me, so I'll be driving well into the night tomorrow to save money on a hotel.

Next Chapter: Phoenix Day 38 Estimated time remaining: 57 Minutes
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