The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 33: Sol 48

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It’s time to begin organized language lessons.

During TV watching time, the same thing happens about twenty times each night. One of the ponies asks Starlight what X word in English means. Before Spitfire made her go cold-turkey on magic, she’d cast her translation spell and ask, and I’ll repeat the word five or six times until Starlight gets the same answer often enough. Sometimes, if the concept is complex or obscure- for example, Danny Partridge talking about royalties- the spell will just choke and Starlight gives up.

Now, with Starlight forbidden from using magic at all, we just bounce around the few words of English we share (sometimes with me guessing at a pony word- that never works out well). That works well enough that, most of the time, we get the idea across without having to resort to whiteboard-talking. I think the ponies have got somewhere between one and five hundred words this way, depending on how much the individual cares. Starlight and Dragonfly are the top students, Fireball the bottom of the class by a mile.

But though this exercise builds vocabulary, it does nothing for grammar, which is why Cherry still said “good-good clobber” when I gave her my cherry cobbler for lunch. (Me, I think the stuff is pretty vile compared to what Mom makes in the summertime. But Cherry is obviously an addict undergoing serious cherry withdrawal symptoms, based on how she savored every single bite. I wonder if there are any Google listings for “cherry rehab clinics on Mars.”)

And after several days of The Electric Company plus Starlight not being allowed to use magic, Starlight and Dragonfly are both beginning to ask about grammatical rules and writing. Starlight didn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t expected Dragonfly to take so eager an interest. So, after thinking about it, I’ve decided to have an hour of English lessons every sol when duties permit. Basically I’ll take one episode of Electric Company and build off of it, so it’ll really be an hour and a half.

Speaking of writing, I’m glad that NASA sent us a couple cases of markers (double redundancy in case a supply ship went missing or a Hab breach caused the opened markers to boil off). In fact, if we get in contact with NASA, I’m going to ask them to send more. None have died yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

My right arm still itches, and by “itches” I mean about ten thousand classically trained tap-dancing fire ants are doing a constant recital between my shoulder and my elbow. Believe it or not, that’s a good sign. All that itching tells me that I haven’t lost nerves along with the outer layer of skin that’s been coming off with every wash over the last couple of days. There’s huge patches of raw, fire-engine red skin on my arm now, but the blisters are gone. So is the actual pain. It looks like I’ll eventually make a full recovery.

Unfortunately I can’t afford to take any more days off. Tomorrow we go to see how the cave is faring. If the temperature in the farm area is above freezing, we’ll start hauling in the soil we banked from the last dirt-doubling. We don’t have time to let it properly infect the cave’s soil, though; once all the cultured dirt is in and rotated into the old soil, we go straight to planting.

Cherry and I went through the food packs, and we’ve revised the numbers. The pony food packs run out on Sol 90 at the current ration, assuming Dragonfly keeps living on nothing but air. After that my meatless food packs extend that to Sol 117. After that I have to start dividing up multiple food packs to provide vegetable content for the three ponies that eat food. There are a lot of reasons why I hope to avoid that, but the biggest reason is that I’ll end up wasting food from spoilage if I do that- and not just any food, but the high-protein stuff that I need to ration the most.

Under perfect conditions it takes a minimum of sixty days for alfalfa to go from seed to first cutting, and ideally you should allow ninety days instead for the root system to develop. These conditions aren’t just less than ideal, they’re barely tolerable.

To give you an idea how bad things are, I’ve just done a quick inspection of the alfalfa starter crop, the one I was going to use for seed. The stalks are surprisingly tall, considering how shallow the soil is. Under normal circumstances they’d almost be ready for harvest. But the plan was to use these plants to make seeds for future crops. In order to get seeds, you need flowers. And before you get flowers, you get buds.

There isn’t a single bud on any of these plants. And given the age of the sprouts, there should be at least the signs of developing buds.

Bear in mind these are alfalfa plants from an alien world in an alternate universe. It’s possible they have some behavior, some requirement, something I’m not aware of. But it looks like alfalfa and smells like alfalfa and grows like alfalfa, so I’m treating it as alfalfa. And when alfalfa does this it usually means the plant is under stress. The alfalfa isn’t budding because it’s pouring all its energy into growing stems and roots and hasn’t got a surplus for reproduction.

I took photos and measurements, and I dug up a few plants to document the roots. Without a control group this isn’t much of a scientific experiment, but whatever data I can collect might be useful for future Mars colonists. (See attached documents.) Long story short, the measurements don’t line up with the lack of flower buds. If the plants were under enough stress to not flower, they shouldn’t have grown as tall as they have. And given the stunted roots, I don’t know how they grew so tall anyway.

So, change of plan. I’m going to let the remaining starter alfalfa grow as it likes. If there’s no sign of buds by the time I harvest the seed potatoes, then I’ll cut the alfalfa at the same time. It should yield almost a day’s food for the ponies. The plants I pulled today will get chopped up (especially the roots) and added to the cave farm soil to make doubly certain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are there when the alfalfa seeds sprout.

But my point is, with results as odd as this, we can’t rely on Earth or pony benchmarks for growing. We need to plant as quickly as possible, to give the plants all the chance we can give them to prosper. It’s going to take every trick I can think of to make this work in time. And there’s no more time to spare. We have to make this happen now. Every day we lose is lost food, and lost food is lost margin for survival.

Bleargh. This is depressing. I’m going to call the ponies together for some educational television time followed by some probably-less-educational Watney time. I hope it takes my mind off of wondering what the pony words for “I’m hungry” are. If the cave doesn’t work, we’ll know the words soon enough.

Author's Notes:

Maybe the alfalfa in the cave will do better.

Wrote 2300 words today, keeping the buffer at 3... though the back half of what I wrote today is probably going to have to be expanded a lot to be worth posting.

Next Chapter: Sol 50 Estimated time remaining: 26 Hours, 47 Minutes
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