by Kris Overstreet
with thanks to Lauren Faust, Andy Weir, and Admiral Tigerclaw for the ideas that I’m blending together for this
The Sparkle Drive was the most brilliant advance in Equestrian applied thaumaturgy in history- even more brilliant than the most advanced of Starswirl the Bearded’s spells, as the old time-displaced pony himself grudgingly admitted.
At its core it was a simple teleportation spell. Teleporting from Equus to the moon required immense, almost unmeasurable amounts of magic, as only the Elements of Harmony or similar artifacts could produce. But shorter jumps required exponentially less power, to the point that a sufficiently powerful unicorn could teleport from one end of a large room to the other without even blinking. All of this had been known since the founding of Equestria, but Twilight Sparkle was the one who realized that a million little jumps could make the same journey as one mighty jump for a lot less cumulative energy- and who, with the help of Starlight Glimmer, created an enchanted artifact to make it happen.
The limiting factors for the Sparkle Drive were energy generation and storage (how much magic it could produce in a steady stream) and frequency (how many times per second the spell could fire). The first drive, on a small unmared probe, had only a trickle of magic power and a quartz oscillation system, giving it a jump of about six feet about 32,000 times per second. It flew from Equus orbit to moon orbit- a trip which required two days by conventional rockets- in two hours. The second drive, test-flown by Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle in a standard three-mare capsule, tripled the power and used a computer microprocessor instead of a quartz crystal, made the same trip in twenty minutes. Both flights ended with no mishaps or malfunctions of any kind.
For the third flight the Amicitas, the vessel which had made the first mared trip to lunar orbit, got a total refit. The chemical rocket systems were removed and replaced with mana-propulsion systems, making room for an engineering deck to house the Sparkle Drive and a massive crystal energy storage system. A standard docking port was installed along the dorsal side, allowing the ship to visit the CSP space station and to dock with other ships. The ship would have the most powerful computer available, which could directly control the Sparkle Drive up to a maximum cycle speed of one-quarter megahortz., or one-eighth of the computer’s total potential runtime.
It wasn’t lightspeed. It wasn’t even a percentage of lightspeed. But it was fast enough that, instead of requiring six months for a one-way flight from Equus to the planet Bucephalous under optimal conditions, the Amicitas could fly almost directly there in a little over a day- which was the test chosen for the refitted ship.
The crew of Amicitas Flight Three consisted of two Equestrian Space Agency members, two Changeling Space Program members, and one member of the various lesser agencies which, as the space race had reached its conclusion, folded themselves into one or the other of the two organizations. Cherry Berry, the world’s most experienced space pilot, commanded the flight, with the changeling Dragonfly serving as chief engineer and computer officer. Fireball, the world’s only dragon astronaut, was chosen as second in command for his EVA and survival experience. Starlight Glimmer, as one of the two designers behind the Sparkle Drive, came along to make sure nothing went wrong with it, doubling as science officer. The final seat went to Spitfire, the only member of the crew with no space flight experience, as the only pegasus member of ESA available for a multi-day flight outside of Equus local space.
The launch, via conventional rockets attached to the ship, went flawlessly, as did the docking with CSP’s space station to test the new docking port. After a brief visit, the ship detached, used its magic-powered thrusters to separate itself from the station, and waited until its orbit brought it into line with the distant red dot which was Bucephalous before activating the Sparkle Drive and streaming away in a blur of magical light.
For seventeen hours everything went perfectly. The drive teleported the massive ship and its crew four meters at a time, two hundred and fifty thousand times per second, across the interplanetary void. The crew ate, slept, arose, and ate again, taking watch in shifts in case something went wrong, which it didn’t.
Until it did.
The flight ought to have been perfectly safe. The Sparkle Drive didn’t actually alter the non-magical momentum of the ship; between every teleport it moved at only orbital speeds, limiting potential damage from space dust and micrometeorites. As a double protection, the standard teleportation spell the drive used contained safeguards that would ensure that the destination was empty, thus avoiding either collisions (bad) or two objects sharing the same point in spacetime (worse). The spell would automatically displace the ship just far enough in whatever direction to avoid an encounter.
Unfortunately the ship, and the Sparkle Drive, had three flaws, one which should have been caught by the drive’s designers, one which nobody could have predicted or recognized until it struck, and one which nobody could have done anything about in any case.
Flaw #1: while the spell used by unicorns and alicorns limited itself to three dimensions of motion for its emergency displacement, that limitation had accidentally been left out of the Sparkle Drive’s spell matrix.
Flaw #2: the Sparkle Drive, and indeed every single propulsion system on the refitted ship, depended upon the rules of physics and metaphysics in Equus’s high-magic universe, and no one had taken into account how they would function if those rules suddenly changed.
Flaw #3: all contingency plans for the ship, and indeed for all space flight since the beginning of Equus’s space race, depended upon the instant, constant, never-failed communications with the ground provided by the telepresence spell installed on all ships.
A microasteroid, about the size of a coarse bit of beach sand, floated into the Amicitas’s flight path.
The Sparkle Drive’s teleportation spell automatically displaced the ship to avoid it.
And all Tartarus broke loose.
AMICITAS-3 MISSION DAY 2
Spitfire’s head spun as Amicitas bucked like a stallion stung by a hornet and almost every light in the bridge went out, along with three-quarters of the control displays. She moved automatically as she heard the order to suit up, floating over to her suit’s storage locker along the back wall, removing it from the recharging systems, and sliding herself into it. Drill after drill after drill on the ground had left them all able to go from street wear to full pressurization in under a minute, even under the most disorienting conditions the boffins could think up.
“Suit clear!” Dragonfly, as always, was the first to report finished. In drills Spitfire had regarded changelings shapeshifting during the process as dirty rotten cheaters, but now she was more concerned in finding out what had just happened to the ship.
“Suit clear!” That was Fireball, the dragon. Thumbs helped.
“Suit clear!” Cherry Berry. Experience helped; this was, after all, the only mare who had landed a ship on two different bodies besides Equus.
“Suit clear!” That was her own voice, piping up from sheer, well-drilled habit.
“Ugh… ugh… suit clear!” And that was Starlight Glimmer, who as a unicorn ought to have been faster.
“Emergency power!” Cherry Berry’s ability to put steel into what was normally a squeaky, inoffensive voice never ceased to amaze Spitfire. She’d seen the pony on the ground panic just like your average pony, scream and run and be totally useless… but put her in a ship and she became the proverbial steely-eyed missile mare.
Under any other circumstances, Spitfire thought, I’d be in command. I’m a major in the Equestrian military with so much pegasus flight experience, so much leadership experience, it’s not worth counting. And here I am, the oldest pony on the ship, and the only rookie. Even Starlight’s flown once before. So my proper role is to sit down and shut up until and unless somepony gets hurt.
From squadron commander to field medic. How the mighty have fallen.
The emergency lights came on around the bridge, relieving but not eliminating the gloom. Cherry Berry returned to the commander’s seat, while Spitfire eased herself into the pilot’s chair. The names were misleading: the commander flew the ship unless and until she needed the pilot to take over, and in the meantime the pilot monitored readouts and called the commander’s attention to anything that needed it. “Baltimare, this is Amicitas,” Cherry said, activating her headset. “We’ve had a problem, over.”
“Baltimare, this is Amicitas, please respond, over.”
“Horseton, this is Amicitas, can you hear me?”
Not even static.
“Shoot.” Cherry Berry shifted in her seat. “Starlight, Fireball, check the ship. I want to know if we’re losing air.”
Dragonfly tapped one of the displays. “Cabin pressure holding steady at one atmosphere, Cherry,” she said. “Life support exchange crystal working at standard volume.”
“Check the ship anyway. Fireball, you may end up going outside, so be ready. Spitfire, keep trying to contact the ground. Dragonfly, I want a diagnostic on the telepresence matrix.”
As Starlight and Fireball went aft to check the engines, Spitfire split her attention between repeating calls to the ground, first via telepresence, then via the backup radio. “Baltimare, this is Amicitas, comms check…. Baltimare, this is Amicitas, comms check… Baltimare tracking, this is Amicitas comms check on backup… wait…” She went silent, then ran the radio through all its preset frequency settings to verify what she thought she saw. “Commander? I’m not picking up the ESA satellite network. At all.”
“Do you think we lost the antenna?” Cherry Berry asked.
“Indicator light is green,” Spitfire replied. “And I’m getting all sorts of static. Just no signals from the satellites.”
Dragonfly peeked out from under the control console, closing the panel she’d been looking into. “Telepresence crystal is intact,” she said. “But it’s got no power.”
“Isn’t the spell supposed to work so long as either side is getting mana?” Cherry Berry asked.
“Yeah,” Dragonfly nodded, hissing softly. “I really don’t like this.”
“Spitfire to engine bay,” Fireball’s voice rasped over their headsets. “Medical emergency. Spitfire to engine bay for medical emergency.”
Before Spitfire could do more than undo her straps, Starlight Glimmer’s voice cut in, gasping, “Belay that… I’m all right… Dragonfly, have you tried to use any magic since… whatever… happened?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Don’t. I just gave myself a mild case of magic exhaustion by trying to cast three spells at once. Commander?”
“Yes?” Cherry Berry asked. “I’m here.”
“We’re in serious trouble,” Starlight Glimmer’s voice grew a little stronger as she continued. “The drive crystal’s intact, but my scan failed before I could verify it as undamaged. The electronics and power feeds all look intact. But every single power crystal is shattered. Worse than shattered. Gone to dust.”
“There are a couple of bolts floating around back here,” Fireball added. “And I see some distortion in the walls. That bang we felt was probably all those gems going bang.” A low growl, and then, “Waste of a couple days’ meals.”
“Break out the spares, then,” Cherry Berry ordered.
“We haven’t got any,” Starlight moaned. “The power array was massively redundant. Twilight and I figured that we’d be fine if a few of them burned out or even blew out. We never imagined they’d all blow up at the same time…”
Cherry Berry groaned. Spitfire felt surprised at how good that groan made her feel. She’d expected a whimper. “Okay, so what have we got left, then?”
“Two backup mana batteries for bridge systems,” Dragonfly recited. “Eight mana batteries for the maneuvering thruster blocks. And the batteries in the suit thruster packs.”
“What about the main thrusters?” Cherry Berry asked.
“They were powered from the drive’s supply,” Starlight Glimmer groaned. “Consider them dead.”
“Wonderful,” Cherry Berry grumbled. “Well, we’ll think of something. Get up here and strap back in.” She leaned back in her flight chair, taking a couple of deep breaths. “At least we have air and water still, so that still works. And we still have thirty days worth of food.”
“More than that,” Spitfire said. “Amicitas was originally a seven-mare vessel. We have thirty days of rations for Fireball, and then thirty days for six ponies. And there’s only four of us.”
“Three,” Dragonfly added. “I'm a changeling, not a pony. I don’t have to eat normal food. Not much, anyway.”
“Good,” Cherry Berry said. “But Fireball can eat our food if he needs to. So we can wait a while for rescue. How are our other consumables?”
“Thrusters show 100% mana levels and steady,” Dragonfly reported. “Electric… er…” The changeling hit a switch, and somewhere amidships something whirred. “Deploying backup solar arrays,” she said. “Electric charge was dropping like a brick.”
The rear doors to the bridge opened to admit Fireball, who pulled himself through the hatch with one arm while dragging a limp Starlight Glimmer with the other. Spitfire was out of her chair at once, ignoring Starlight’s protests and helping Fireball guide her to her flight chair. “Hold still,” she said, going to the first aid cabinet to fetch basic tools.
“Never mind that,” Starlight said weakly. “You’d need me to unsuit for most of that anyway. I just need time to recover my magic.”
Spitfire blinked. She wasn’t exactly a close friend of Twilight Sparkle’s student and collaborator, but she knew full well she was one of the most powerful unicorns in Equestria, with an almost bottomless supply of magic. Her recovery times from powerful spells were so close to instant as… “How much time?”
“Commander,” Starlight said, ignoring the question, “we need to shut down all non-essential magic-powered equipment right now. I think we’re in a magic-poor environment for some reason.”
“Um, yeah,” Dragonfly muttered, looking at the console. “That lines up with what I’m seeing here. The bridge magic batteries are down to about one-third capacity.”
Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Spitfire began hitting switches, deactivating the telepresence spell, most of the remaining interior lights, and various other little systems that made life on the ship nicer but didn’t contribute to staying alive. Finally Dragonfly said, “OK, we’re stable enough… nothing’s drawing magic now except the nav-ball and control systems… but we’re not gaining anything back.”
“That’s impossible,” Cherry Berry said irritably. “Magic permeates the universe. It’s stronger around life, but we ought to be getting more mana than just barely enough to run that.” She threw a hoof at the one thing remaining illuminated on the control panels, the mostly-brown navigation ball.
The words mostly brown echoed in Spitfire’s head, looking for something to connect to.
“Mana permeates the universe around Equestria,” Starlight Glimmer replied. “It’s possible that there are magic-rich and magic-poor places-“
“But Bucephalous isn’t one of them!” Cherry Berry insisted. “We sent a probe to orbit it! We know it had more than enough magic for the telepresence spells to work!”
The word orbit echoed in Spitfire’s head, looking for something to connect to.
“Bucephalous was in a different place in its orbit!” Starlight Glimmer snapped, getting a little of her energy back. “There’s so much about this universe we don’t know that-“
Spitfire’s hooves reached for the controls, activating the reaction wheels and putting the ship into a slow tumble. Almost immediately something big and rust-red appeared in the windows in front of the ship.
“Spitfire, what are you- oh sweet Celestia!” Cherry Berry gasped, looking out the window. “That’s Bucephalous! We shouldn’t be anywhere near that close!” The red planet almost filled the windows.
“I noticed the nav-ball,” Spitfire said shortly. “Prograde marker’s well in the brown. If we were still in solar orbit, as we should have been, it would have been in the blue. So I-“
“That’s NOT Bucephalous!” Starlight Glimmer shouted, the edge of terror creeping into her voice. “Those volcanoes are all in the wrong place!”
Dragonfly leaned up and activated the backup map systems. Normally the course projections would be relayed from the ground, but Amicitas was the first Equestrian spaceship to have an on-board backup. The map showed a single sun and a single planetary orbit, the computer redrawing that orbit several times a second in a most doubtful dance. Dragonfly zoomed the map down to the planetary level. “Definitely not Bucephalous,” she said. “Alexander’s missing, and instead there’s two asteroids orbiting really close… and whoa,” she gasped. “At least eleven satellites where there should be only one.”
“Not important now,” Cherry groaned. The projected trajectory showed the ship on a head-on collision with the planet in about forty minutes. “Starlight, is there any way to feed bridge power to the main engines?”
“We’re not in our own solar system anymore!” Starlight moaned. “We might not even be in the same universe!! Oh, what have I gotten us all into now?!?”
“Stay WITH me, Starlight,” Cherry Berry said in a tone that Spitfire, military to the core, couldn’t help but admire. “Work the problem! Can we get power to the engines?”
Starlight Glimmer spent a couple of seconds panting for breath, doing a rapid in-out motion with her left forehoof as she did so. “Right. Um. Yes. It would take about ten minutes. But both batteries at full charge would only power the engines at full throttle for about three seconds. The batteries are backups. They were only meant to power the bridge, not the engines.”
“And we don’t have anything close to full charge,” Cherry Berry finished. “And we’d lose most of the controls to do it. So all we have left is the RCS system. Can we at least dump bridge power to those?”
“Not without a spacewalk,” Starlight said. “The thrusters replaced chemical thrusters and are similarly self-contained.”
“Okay. Good news is, that makes things simple,” Cherry Berry replied in a truly military moment of black humor. Part of Spitfire found time to wonder if the earth pony’s parents had worn the uniform at some point in the past. “Okay. Spitfire, watch the levels in the thrusters. I want to know if they drop below twenty percent. That’s my safety margin. We’re going to shallow out our approach enough so that, if we’re lucky, we skip off the atmosphere and back out into space. If we’re less lucky, we make a controlled landing.”
“And if our luck’s out,” Dragonfly muttered, “we have a Bad Day.”
“Bad day?” Fireball asked, not having heard the capital letters. “You mean this doesn’t already qualify as a bad day?”
“We are NOT having a Bad Day!” Cherry Berry growled. “I am going to land this ship and we are all going to be rescued and everything is going to work out just fine!”
Spitfire took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. On the one hand, Cherry was saying and doing all the right things, shutting down panic, presenting as much confidence as possible under the circumstances, and working the problem.
On the other hand, numbers didn’t lie. The planet, the not-Bucephalous or whatever it was, was dead in the way of a ship going at Equus-orbital speed and accelerating. It would take a Faust-delivered miracle to save their lives.
“Starlight, remove one of the batteries and get me back the main engines,” Cherry said. “Even a few seconds at low thrust is better than nothing, and we might regenerate a little bit of power. Fireball, secure everything as tightly as you can. Then both of you get back here and strap in. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.”
Spitfire tightened her straps and nodded agreement. It would, indeed, be a very rough ride… and they could only hope the stop at the end wasn’t lethally sudden.
Magic thrusters in an alien environment had unpredictable consequences.
Below and ahead of the ship, as it struggled to convert vertical speed into horizontal, a dust storm already quite powerful by standards of the tiny desert world’s meager atmosphere blew to titanic proportions, bearing down on the largest artificial structure then currently standing on the planet. Millions of miles away, observers on another planet noted the sudden and inexplicable change in the storm and warned the occupants of that artificial structure to prepare to evacuate both it and the planet it stood on.
Knowing none of this, the ship’s pilot used every trick she’d learned or guessed at from dozens of re-entries in various craft, goosing the thrusters as gingerly as possible and tapping her hooves in insuppressible anxiety waiting for their charge levels to creep back up. By skill, by luck, and by urgent prayers addressed To Whom It May Concern, she managed the miraculous by converting a collision course into a clean atmospheric re-entry. But the impossible eluded her, as the drag of the planet’s sparse air and dust grabbed the ship and refused to let go. The ship’s lifting body slowed too rapidly to remain aloft, but not rapidly enough to permit a controlled landing on the uneven terrain below.
In desperation the emergency solar panels, stowed early in re-entry, were redeployed. They ripped away from their moorings almost instantly, barely slowing the craft.
The emergency drogue chute was deployed, and then the emergency landing parachutes. All lasted only a couple of seconds before being ripped to pieces.
Finally, with no options remaining, the pilot raised the nose as high as she could and tried to stall the craft. The thrusters, taxed beyond their power to regenerate charge, sputtered and died. The reaction wheels, kept in constant use, drained the electrical batteries to zero and automatically shut down. The ship, with no further active control systems, nosed forwards again of its own accord, gaining just enough lift to bear it over the rim of a shallow canyon.
And then there was the ground, and the ship no longer had power to lower its landing gear, to operate its controls, to do anything.
With a crash loud enough to actually just be audible in the sandstorm outside, the ship belly-flopped at high speed onto the alien soil, skidding along on a rising wave of loose dust and small rocks. Boulders clipped the stubby fin-wings, sending the ship rotating first one way and then the other as it skidded on, but somehow or other none rose directly in its path.
A low slope rose underneath the ship, and the nose began to dig into the dirt, braking the vessel until at last, with a final tortured scream of metal, it shuddered to a halt, having left a scar several kilometers long behind it.
Five space travelers, secure in their spacesuits, survived, in a ship without power, without air, without water, without magic.
And as they recovered, all five noticed a blinking beacon on the tiny nav-balls built into the displays of their space helmets…
The last man on Mars sat in his habitat, all alone, and typed.
So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happens, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fucked.
He paused, deciding that was as good a place to end the log entry as any, and moved the cursor to the save button.
There was a knock at the door.
His fingers returned to the keyboard.
And apparently I’m also insane. Must be blood loss. I thought I just heard someone knocking on Airlock One. But that’s impossible, because everybody else left on the MAV, and that’s a one-way trip.
There was another knock, more insistent.
Holy shit. It happened again. Something is actually knocking on the airlock door.
Mark Watney saved the entry, got up from his chair (ignoring the freshly stapled wound in his side) and went to answer it.