The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 9: Sols 13-15

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The image of Mitch Henderson appeared on all the workstations on the bridge for the second time in about eight minutes.

“Mitch Henderson here,” he said. “Commander Lewis, we’ve already taken into account your arguments about the durability of Hermes and the superiority of the pictures you’re taking over anything the satellites can perform. And believe me when I say this was a very hard decision to take. But Mr. Sanders and Dr. Kapoor have decided that the ongoing risk to Hermes is no longer worth the images you’re getting.”

The flight director took a deep breath and added, “And I have to say I agree fully with this decision. It might be different if we could use Hermes and the MAV as a combined communications platform, but yesterday’s experiment shows that it just won’t work. The range is too great, and either Watney’s rover can’t receive or he’s turned the radio off to save power. Either way, we feel further monitoring of Acidalia can be conducted adequately by the survey satellites, and that top priority is now bringing you and Hermes home.”

Mitch leaned into the camera for this part. “I fully agree with you that an astronaut’s whole career is about risk. And I admire your willingness to continue to risk your lives for Watney and his guests. But you’re also risking Hermes, and the best chance we have for rescuing Watney requires Hermes intact, functional, and back in Earth orbit for refit. The sooner we do that, the better prepared we’ll be to rescue Watney.

“That’s not saying that you’re unimportant. We’re bringing you back because your lives are our top priority. But if we put Watney’s life ahead of yours, we’d still make the same decision. That’s what I’m saying.”

Mitch took a deep breath and leaned back. “At the top of the hour Houston time we’ll be transmitting the trajectory programs for the two orbital burns required to raise Hermes back to a safe circular orbit,” he said. “After that you’ll set the MAV to satellite mode and deploy it, and then begin your Earth injection orbit burn, which we’ll send you once you acknowledge receipt of the orbit adjustment programs. Charlie will be back in the CAPCOM seat for those.

“We know you want to help, but facts are facts. You can’t get back down to Watney. Watney can’t get back up to you. The Ares IV MAV won’t make enough fuel for even the missed orbit emergency scenario until at least Sol 443, and Watney can’t reach it right now anyway. And you can’t talk to Watney. You’ve done what you can. It’s time to come home.”

Mitch’s lips moved for a second or two longer, as if he wanted to say something else, but all that came out in the end was, “Henderson out.”

The video ended.

Vogel sighed and leaned back in his seat. “So,” he said, “we tried.” He hadn’t expected Lewis’s protest to change NASA’s decision, but he’d been silently impressed at how much passion she’d put into her message while remaining quiet, clinical and professional in her speech. Vogel approved; it was almost German.

And, truth be told, he wanted to stay longer himself… if only… if only…

“There should be something we can do,” Johannsen murmured.

“You know there isn’t,” Martinez said, slapping the armrest of his flight seat. “We’re separated just as much as the rich man from Lazarus.”

“It bought us one more pass,” Lewis said at last. “Cameras ready?”

“Video camera all green,” Johannsen said.

“Stills camera ready,” Vogel said.

“Closest pass in seven minutes… mark,” Martinez reported.

“Focus on the crash site,” Lewis said. “Mark was out there yesterday. That’s our best chance to find him… and say goodbye.”

“Not goodbye,” Vogel said, and to his own surprise his normally soft voice came out with a harder edge than he’d intended. He forced himself to relax as he added, “Say auf Wiedersehen. Until next we meet.”


“You know,” Fireball admitted to his copilot for the day, “I never thought I’d be using this seat again.”

Through a lot of digging and a truly idiotic display of unicorn stubbornness, what was left of Amicitas had been pulled from the Martian surface the previous day. For a wonder the landing gear had been mostly intact, with only one tire requiring an emergency repair. Cranking the gear down had taken the whole morning, with Fireball helping lift one corner of the ship after another while the alien stink-ape and Dragonfly worked the manual cranks.

Even with Starlight Glimmer trying to help lift again with her telekinesis (again? As if yesterday hadn’t been enough), there was still a little charge left in the mana battery, so Dragonfly had reinstalled it into the ship. The mana-to-electric converter still worked, but they’d shut down absolutely every system on the ship, working or not, to spare power for the one system they didn’t shut off: the steering system for the front landing gear.

Now they crawled along behind the ape’s little scooty-car. To be fair, the rover was towing something so many times its own weight that even Fireball, for all his contempt for the alien, was almost impressed. Almost. Actual impressedness failed because, apparently, the combined car and spaceship couldn’t move any faster than Crackle after she ran her head into a stalagmite… again.

Something plugged Fireball’s sinuses, and he mustered up a tiny bit of flame to clear them out. Am I actually missing Crackle? he asked himself. This place is getting to me.

“What’s wrong?” Dragonfly asked from the copilot position.

“Nothing,” Fireball lied. “Just the scenery reminds me of home. Nothing important.”

“Not me,” Dragonfly said. “The Badlands are desert, but at least it’s an indifferent desert. This place actively hates us.”

“You’re imagining things,” Fireball grumbled.

“I don’t know,” Dragonfly said, the changeling never taking her eyes off the rover ahead of and below them. “The queen always says that when she’s in orbit she can feel something that loves her unconditionally. I never got that. But here I can feel this… this…” The changeling’s face scrunched in concentration. “I guess it’s like a whisper, or maybe a really thin haze of pure hate. We don’t belong here. We aren’t wanted.”

“That suits me fine,” Fireball said. “I don’t like this place very much either, and I’m leaving first chance we get.”

“I wonder if Bucephalous is like this?” Dragonfly muttered.

“But what I was saying,” Fireball said, not liking the touchy-feely direction Dragonfly wanted to go with the conversation, “was this looks like a lot of the dragon lands. It just needs a couple more cliffs and some volcanoes, and some breathable air, and it’d be just like home.”

“Amicitas, Starlight Glimmer.” The suit communications systems, being totally magical, wouldn’t talk to the alien’s electronics, but suit to suit communications among Amicitas’s crew functioned perfectly. “Rock ahead on the right side. Mark’s steering left.”

Amicitas copies steer left,” Fireball replied, nudging the flight stick. The sudden sound of the motors that rotated the front landing gear echoed through the otherwise silent ship.

While I’m on,” Starlight added, “suit battery check. Forty percent here.”

Fireball checked his. “Fifty-two percent.”

“Thir… that can’t be right!” Dragonfly tapped her own visor, but the projected numbers didn’t change. “Thirty-one percent here, Starlight.”

Roger. I’ll tell Mark we need to abort the tow and return to his base in one hour.”

“Starlight, how much farther is it?” Fireball asked.

I can’t read Mark’s controls yet. At a guess, we’re a little more than halfway there. Straighten wheels.”

“Straightening wheels,” Fireball reported.

“Thirty-one percent,” Dragonfly muttered. “And I’ve been doing the least work of the three of us.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Fireball chuckled. “Got the munchies for juice instead of love?”

“Don’t laugh,” Dragonfly said. “To us changelings it’s one and the same thing. And it’s not like I get much of a snack off of you.”

Fireball laughed anyway. “So why do you keep hanging around me anyway?” he asked. “If you’re not playing with that ape, it seems like you’re my shadow.”

“I spend time with everyling,” Dragonfly replied. “But you don’t. You keep your distance from everyone.”

“Yeah, I do,” Fireball grumbled, “I don’t particularly like any of you. I think you’re all nuts.”

“Even the alien?”

“Especially the alien. No dragon would keep giving his limited food to strangers.”

“He is kinda pony-like, isn’t he?” Dragonfly said.

Fireball thought about this. The alien smiled a lot, he kept trying to talk to people who didn’t understand him, he didn’t give a toss about gems (and that, in Fireball’s book, was pure insanity), and he seemed to enjoy tinkering with broken things and playing in mud. “Now that you say it,” he said, “I can kinda see it, yeah.”

“Crazy like the rest of ‘em.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“And we non-ponies gotta stick together.”

Now that Fireball wasn’t necessarily on-board with. “Is that why you keep bothering me?” he asked.

“Mm,” Dragonfly hummed, and her suit’s thruster pack shook as her wings vibrated unconsciously under her suit. “It’s more that you look lonely, and out of all of us, you dislike me the least.”

“Well… um, yeah.” Darn it. The bug had steered the conversation into downtown Feelingsville anyway. “I owe you. I owe you big time.” He smirked a bit and added, “I might even actually like you if you weren’t crazier than all the ponies put together.”

“I resemble that- oh, no,” Dragonfly moaned. “Not another bucking one.”

In front of the rover another shallow gully stretched across their path.

“Starlight, Amicitas,” Fireball said, “applying brakes.”

Thanks, Amicitas,” Starlight said. “You know the drill.”

“Yeah, I know,” Fireball grumbled. “We’ve only done it three times today. Ohhh, my back.” As the ship went from crawling speed to dead stop behind the rover, he added, “Whose bright idea was it to make the landing wheels on this thing so bucking small?”

“Pony ideas,” Dragonfly hissed as she shut off the power.


I think that might have been the worst three days of my life.

It took three days of incredible hard work and concentration, but we finally got the alien ship back to the Hab. The morning of Sol 13, I didn’t think we could do it. The morning of Sol 14, I could see how we were going to do it. And by the time we got back to the Hab, I was wondering why we were doing it.

And let me be plain, what we accomplished was a miracle. Only the alien obsession with making their ship as unbreakable as possible and damn the weight kept the landing gear intact and deployable. Even so, without Macho Dragon and Starlight, we’d still be shoveling dirt and rocks with our hands. (Yes, hands. I have a couple of rock and soil sampling tools, but they aren’t built for moving large amounts of material. For removing loose debris, hands turned out to be faster.)

First… I should probably treat Fireball with more respect. He is so much stronger than he looks. I don’t even want to think about how many tons that ship weighs, but time and again he was able to pick up the nose or one fin just high enough for long enough for someone else to wedge a rock underneath or crank down those landing gear. If he offers to arm-wrestle me, I’m going to pretend I sprained my wrist. I just hope he doesn’t start demanding my lunch money. I can’t take that kind of wedgie.

And then there’s Starlight, my little psychic horsie genius. I found out during this trip that I’ve been spending a week and more living with Yoda and Captain Caveman wearing a two-man horse costume.

On Sol 13 we’d spent half our EVA time shoveling rubble and getting nowhere when Starlight hauls out one of those boxes salvaged from their ship and says the alien equivalent of, “Hold my haybale, I got this.” And then she lights up her psychic power and picks up that huge ship just like Luke’s X-Wing, I shit you not.

And then, just as the ship is in the air and turning its nose our way, the sparkly light flickers, and I can just hear Captain Caveman saying, “unga-bunga- magic power give out,” and the ship drops at a glorious slo-mo 3.7 meters per second per second right back onto the dirt. (You want to know how loud a sound has to be for you to hear it in the thin Martian atmosphere? That loud.) And then we carry her back to the rover and drive back to the Hab to let her sleep it off.

And then she got to do it again, and again, and again, and so did Fireball, all the way back to the Hab. It’s only ten kilometers, but it ended up taking us most of two sols.

Why, you ask? First, because I couldn’t use the rover’s built-in towhook. The towhook assembly is specifically designed so the two rovers can link together. In addition to mechanical clamps it includes power cords and air hoses so they can share electricity and life support. It was designed that way in case one rover broke down on an EVA. But the practical upshot is that there’s a lot of things there designed to withstand the kind of forces produced by towing one rover’s mass across the Martian surface.

At a very rough guess, the alien ship weighs anywhere between twelve and twenty times as much as one rover. So after about ten seconds of careful and deliberate consideration I said “fuck it” and decided to tie the tow ropes directly to the rover’s frame.

Now, rope of the kind you would buy at your local hardware store was not considered a mission-critical supply by NASA’s mission planners, an oversight I hope you historians of the future will correct for future interplanetary missions. I didn’t have any.

But I did have a lot of power cable of various lengths as redundant replacements for practically everything, from solar panels to field equipment to Hab systems. I was going to braid them together for strength and use them to tow the ship, but it turned out I didn’t need to. The aliens apparently had emergency parachutes as a fail-safe. I think the ones they used during landing automatically detached and blew away during the storm. But they were so crazy-prepared that they actually had duplicate parachutes on board the ship so the chutes could be re-packed for future use! Even NASA doesn’t go that far.

That gave me all the rope I needed, though it’s really weird rope. The substance it’s made out of feels all rubbery. It kind of looks like rubber too- black with ugly green streaks running through it. But it doesn’t get brittle like rubber would in the dry, freezing Martian environment, and it was plenty strong once I found tie-off points inside the front landing gear well.

But let’s face it, it was still rope and not a proper trailer hitch, and the only thing securing rover and ship together was some knots based on what I remembered from Boy Scouts and astronaut survival training. No way I could risk top speed in that.

So, that was the first problem. The second problem? Power. I’m lucky we’re in Acidalia Planitia, which is mostly flat. If we’d had any serious long upgrades to navigate- or worse yet, downgrades- it would have been game over. The rover’s four wheels each have their own electric motors that put out incredible torque, but they were working to overcome absurd amounts of inertia. And inertia is a constant. Earth gravity or Mars gravity, doesn’t matter, it’s the same either place.

So I spun the wheels a lot until I kind of learned just how to feather the accelerator. And since we couldn’t rely on the alien ship’s brakes to be reliable, once we got started at all, we didn’t dare move more than about one kilometer an hour.

Which brings us to the third problem: wheels. The rover is a big, jacked-up vehicle with a high ground clearance and independent suspension that enables it to drive across or even over some pretty large rocks without trouble. The wheels are 1.3 meters tall each.

The alien ship’s landing gear, on the other hand, are about half that- smaller than the tires you’d see on an eighteen-wheeler, and way smaller than the tires on a jet liner or the old Space Shuttle. And although the rear landing gear were just barely long enough to allow the wheels to drop out, the front landing gear is long and spindly by comparison, and I don’t care what kind of unobtanium they use to build their ship, hitting even a small rock square with that would ruin your day.

Thankfully, somehow or other, the dragon and the bug were able to get their ship’s steering working, which made dodging rocks easier. But it also meant I couldn’t go very fast, because I had to steer around rocks I normally wouldn’t give a second thought about to keep the ship on flat, solid ground.

And that brings us to the last, and worst, problem: the surface.

From a distance Acidalia looks flat as a pancake. It’s one of the least cratered regions of Mars. We specifically landed here not far from Mawrth Valles because it’s part of an ancient alluvial fan, where runoff from Arabia Terra flowed into what was once Mars’s biggest ocean and deposited all sorts of sediments.

But the thing is, that ocean dried up when Mars froze. And just like you see pictures of cracked soil like in all the news coverage of the Second Dust Bowl, when Acidalia dried up it cracked too… on a huge scale. So today the surface is large sections of almost perfectly flat ground (save for a crater or two and the resulting ejecta) broken up by broad but (thankfully) shallow ravines. The banks are about a meter tall on average, and the exposed soil is really crumbly. That surprised me, considering how solid the surface is under the top layer of loose dust and sand, but then I wasn’t the mission geologist. Lewis was.

The rover alone can handle those gullies without even slowing down. (25 kilometers per hour top speed, remember? I could pedal a dirt bike faster than the rover.) But towing the alien ship? Not a chance in Hell.

We crossed ten of the things between the Hab and Site Epsilon, and without Super Lizard and Captain Caveyoda the first one would have been the last. Every time we had to stop, carefully plan the descent into the ravine to keep the alien ship from rolling over, tow it as close as we could to the other bank, untie the rover, run the rover up the far bank, and retie the rover. And then, with Fireball pushing from behind and Starlight using the Force to lift the ship’s nose until the front landing gear cleared the rim, we hauled the thing up through all that loose, wheel-grabbing soil. Then we’d carry our little unicorn heroine back to the rover to recover and spend another hour or so creeping along the Martian surface to the next gully, at which point we started all over again.

We didn’t even consider doing it all in one go. We came back to the Hab every night to recharge the rover and the EVA suits, not to mention us. We really needed it. Thank God it’s over. Now, instead of driving the rover for half an hour to reach the alien ship, we can walk just past the solar farm to the north- three minutes of EVA at most.

Starlight’s in her bunk now, and Spitfire looks like she’s considering tying her to it. I don’t think that would slow her down much. Between lifts she rode with me in the rover. She didn’t use her mind-meld on me at all the last three days- probably saving herself for all the lifting- but she smuggled a whiteboard and marker onto the rover on Sol 14 for communication.

The good thing about driving at one kilometer per hour on Mars is, you’re highly unlikely to hit a dog or something when you aren’t paying attention to the road. So when Starlight and I weren’t reinventing hieroglyphs, we began teaching each other math.

That’s where things get really weird. Because not only do the aliens have Earth food, they have Earth numbers.

Well, close enough, anyway. Their 2 and 3 are slightly different, using sharp angles instead of curves. But it’s still a base-10 counting system using recognizably Indo-Arabic numerals. Their basic mathematical operators are the same. We had to get into calculus before some of the symbols became different, and even then they have some close variation on the Greek alphabet. She recognized most of what I was doing and jumped ahead of me a lot.

It didn’t work the other way. She threw several things at me that I didn’t recognize and still don’t. Apparently they were advanced enough concepts that explaining them through simple pictures wasn’t going to work, because every time we hit that point Starlight would move on to something else.

I took a photo of the last board full of math. Half of it is a circle surrounding a seven-pointed star. It looks like something you’d use to summon a demon with, if you were willing to sell your soul for an A in trigonometry. Instead of runes it’s full of equations using symbols only half of which are even vaguely familiar with me. However many years it is before you find this log, o intrepid reader, I suspect it’ll be at least that long again before anybody on Earth understands this.

But that’s all over with. That alien ship is parked on its wheels with a nice adorable landing ladder deployed from under its airlock doors just a short walk away, all the better to eventually raid it for spare parts. The rover is hooked up to Hab power to recharge. And I’m sitting down to my first full meal pack in days because, Goddamn it, I’ve earned it.

Dragonfly still hasn’t eaten a full meal pack of any kind since we’ve been here. I offered her a share of this meal pack, but she waved a hoof no, and then thanked me anyway with a hug. It was so cute, in a nightmare-from-hell-wants-cuddles way, that it left me weak in the knees.

But what’s her deal? Is it guilt? I mean, sure she didn’t perform miracles like her unicorn and dragon buddies, but she worked at least as hard as I did. I really need to ask Starlight about that.

But first food and bed. I’m hungry and I’m really, really tired. I think tomorrow I’ll take it easy and do something fun.

Playing in the dirt comes to mind.

Author's Notes:

Yep, the first chapter that covers more than one day on Mars.

Hermes is flying out of the story for now. I'm still divided in my mind on whether or not they'll return.

A couple of readers suggested that the Hermes crew dump a bunch of food into the MAV and send it back to Mars. The problem with that plan, if you haven't read the comments, is that there's no good reason for NASA to have any system that would allow a used-up MAV to safely re-enter the atmosphere, and several good reasons for them not to have such systems. Also, unless they were somehow able to precisely pinpoint the landing zone, Mark would never know it was there... and pinpointing the landing zone runs the risk of the MAV crashing onto the Hab and killing everybody.

Salvaging Amicitas is, I admit, the least probable part of the story so far, but you know Watney would at least make the attempt. Fortunately he has magic on his side... kind of. In fits and starts.

It isn't just Watney that Dragonfly is working.

When Andy Weir wrote the book he was working from 1990s era photographs of Mars. We've taken better pictures since. It turns out there are a lot more craters than Weir counted on, and of course the cracks in the surface (which are actually a lot more rugged than I'm making them in this story). The best guess as to why the cracks exist are as I said: an ancient ocean drying up some three billion years ago. (Also, in the book Mark makes multiple remarks about the featureless plains the Hab sits on... when, as it turns out, the exact coordinates he gives in the book turn out to be just inside a small, mostly silted up crater.)

The math Watney doesn't get is magic-related. I just wrote a chapter today that will give him a better view of what it means, and that should appear Wednesday.

Next Chapter: Sol 16 Estimated time remaining: 30 Hours, 11 Minutes
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