HERMES – ARES III MISSION DAY 132
Martinez’s words yanked Lewis’s attention from her own terminal. “Where?”
“Site Epsilon,” Martinez said, setting the telescopic stills camera to photo-taking mode. “It left a scar a good three kiometers long leading up to it. Led me right to it.”
Lewis’s hands flashed across her terminal. “Site Epsilon? But that’s ten kilometers due east from the Hab! NASA’s projection said northwest of the Hab. That’s out on the edge of the error cone!”
“I know, right?” Martinez grinned as he watched the photos coming in. As low as Hermes was orbiting, they had only a couple of minutes before the site passed out of range. Mars’s rotation would carry the site away by the next orbital pass, which meant the next window for photos of the site would be the following sol. “This thing definitely wasn’t a dumb rock. Somebody was flying it.”
“Found it,” Lewis said. “You weren’t kidding about that scar. The darker substrate stands out like- whoa.”
“Yeah, what I thought too,” Martinez replied. “That’s definitely a spaceship of some kind.”
“Was a spaceship,” Lewis corrected. “Nothing we could build would ever fly again after that kind of impact.”
“I don’t think it was an impact,” Martinez replied. “An impact would have made a crater just like a meteorite. I think whoever was in that attempted a controlled crash landing. And they might have succeeded.”
“What makes you say that?”
“No debris field,” Martinez replied. “Or not much of one anyway- just a few bits and pieces mixed in the furrow.”
“That can’t be right,” Lewis said, shaking her head. “How fast do you think they were going to leave a furrow that long?”
“I’m gonna leave that to the eggheads back at NASA,” Martinez said. “On Earth I could calculate it, but lower gravity? One five-hundredth the air pressure? I’d be guessing and you know it.”
“I suppose,” Lewis nodded. “We’re passing out of range. Send NASA the map coordinates and-“ Her eye caught something in her screen. “Pan east from the crash site. Due east about five kilometers, quick!”
Martinez ordered the camera to do so, snapping fresh digital photos all the while. “All right, done, but why?” One photo, now barely as good as any of the survey satellites in normal orbits could produce, caught his attention, and he flipped back to it. “What is that?”
Lewis held the video camera on the site as steadily as she could manage, despite orbital velocities carrying Hermes away faster than a bullet. “It’s a rover,” she gasped. “That’s one of our rovers!”
“Nah,” Martinez said. “Can’t be.” He studied the picture more closely. “Can it?”
Lewis groaned in frustration as the site passed beyond the video camera’s ability to pivot. “We both trained to recognize the rovers from overhead,” she said, “so we could optimize our landing position. I know that silhouette anywhere.”
“If it is…” Martinez’s sallow face went pale. “Oh, God. You know there’s only one person who could be driving it.”
Lewis leaned back in her seat. “No,” she whispered. “Johannsen saw him blown away, His life signs went zero. The alien ship must have had survivors, and they salvaged the rover from the hab.”
“They figured out the rover’s computer operating system?” Martinez asked. “The airlock controls, the driver unlock system, the whole thing?”
“Yes, I know it’s improbable,” Lewis said. “But Watney surviving is impossible. So that’s the only explanation.”
Martinez looked at his commander’s face and decided to let the matter rest for now. “I’ll make the report to NASA,” he said. “Why don’t you put in some time in the gym?”
“Can’t,” Lewis replied. “We might need to do a burn to maintain this orbit. I need to be on the bridge for that.”
“That ain’t happenin’ in the next hour, commander,” Martinez said. “Go blow off some steam. You’ll feel better for it.”
Lewis opened her mouth to say something, then settled for unstrapping herself. “I’ll be back in one hour,” she said. “You have the bridge.”
Martinez acknowledged, watching her leave, then shaking his head as he tried to figure out how to tell NASA…
… and, in fact, what to tell NASA. Good news- we found Mark! didn’t seem like a winner.
Besides, Lewis might be right. Sufficiently advanced aliens in a pinch could, given the incentive of being shipwrecked on Mars, learn how to drive a rover really, really quick.
But in his gut Martinez knew better.
And what I think, Commander, he thought to himself, is that you know it too.
When he began typing, it wasn’t the report to NASA, but an intraship message to Dr. Beck.
AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 4
ARES III – SOL 8
Dragonfly allowed herself a sigh of relief as the air from the emergency tanks filled the cabin of the Amicitas without leaking away. They couldn’t remove their space suits- the ship might have canned air, but it didn’t have heat, and the natural temperature on this planet was so far below freezing that even brief exposure might mean frostbite.
The backup air tanks and the manual pump to put as much of the air back into said tanks were Changeling Space Program ideas, ideas Dragonfly was very proud of. Changeling ideas were smart ideas. It had been a pony idea to put the main air and water supply systems in the engineering bay, on the theory that a crash would always be nose-first and that survivors would be safest in the back of the ship.
As it happened the tail of the ship had struck first, cracking the bottom of the hull open like an egg and venting the engineering deck to the outside. The life support crystals, sensing loss of containment, had automatically shut down. And since the system that teleported warm air and hot water from Baltimare directly to the ship drew its power from the Equus end of the connection, it could only be reactivated from that end. Without communications, that wasn’t going to happen.
But the good news was, the airtight hatches between compartments- another CSP idea, thank you very much, even if it had come from a minotaur and not actually a changeling- had held and were holding. The habitat and docking chamber and the bridge both would hold air. And an inspection of the wrecked engineering bay revealed that the main life support system and its crystals were also intact, so if they could ever contact Equus again, they could be reactivated.
Unfortunately that was about the only thing positive about the engineering bay. The impact had shattered the Sparkle Drive’s main crystal, destroying the spell array. The crash had damaged two of the three main drive thrusters, making them unsafe for future use even if they could recover enough magic to get them to fire. The hole in the lower deck revealed one of the main structural girders had snapped- which meant, all other considerations aside, the ship would never fly again.
She couldn’t see the monkey-alien’s face through his reflective visor, but she could feel his emotions, and she knew he agreed with her.
She’d watched the stranger constantly during the slow ride from his little dome back to the ship. There hadn’t been that much else to watch. The planet, or at least this part of it, was flatter than the Appleoosa prairies, with only a random network of little gullies and the occasional small crater or hillock to break the monotony. (Of course, their ship had managed to plow straight into the one hill of any size, a flat round thing mostly covered by loose soil about a kilometer across and maybe eighty meters taller than the surrounding plain at its highest point.)
The alien had gabbled along for the whole trip in its rover, never mind that Fireball and Dragonfly couldn’t understand a word he said. Wabbapeepa babaraba, over and over for half an hour. Cherry Berry, lucky pony, had led the way on hoof and so hadn’t had to listen to him. But on the whole the alien seemed friendly to a fault, cheerful and jovial in a way that simply went against Dragonfly’s common sense.
Still, she hadn’t minded much. As ship’s engineer it was her job to show him around the ship. The engineering bay, where most of the damage was, had been the first stop. Now that that inspection was concluded, they could repressurize the ship long enough to check the ship’s stores, especially the stuff in the small refrigerated compartment (yet another pony idea).
Standard food packs were vacuum-sealed to prevent spoilage, which had the side effect of also protecting the contents from near-vacuum and extreme temperatures. But the ponies had insisted on a little fridge to store perishables from home as a morale booster. Dragonfly herself had insisted the ice box be airtight and thermally sealed because, as she’d said at the time, accidents happen. Thus, those perishables were probably safe- were probably the warmest things on the ship by now except for the four astronauts- so long as noling opened the door before the habitat compartment was repressurized.
“Six PSI air pressure,” Dragonfly said, shutting the air valve. “That’s enough to operate in.”
“Good,” Cherry Berry nodded, her broad grin visible through her helmet. “I’m going to take our guest with me to help inventory the food stores. Check and see if the mana batteries have recharged.”
“Tell him to keep away from my sapphires,” Fireball grumbled. “Reserve battery two is back in place.”
As the monkey-thing and Cherry Berry stepped through the hatch to the habitat compartment (left open to allow the emergency air in), Dragonfly trotted to her station and opened up the tool compartment. The thaumometer ran on environmental magic, so it didn’t surprise Dragonfly that it failed to activate when she pulled it out, but once its leads were connected to the points on a mana battery it should show some reaction.
When she attached the leads to battery #2, the one retrieved from the engineering bay, nothing happened. That battery was dry, if it still functioned at all- it had come loose during the crash and tumbled all over the place. Starlight Glimmer would be able to test it properly, but she still hadn’t recovered fully from her magic exhaustion, and so Spitfire had kept her back at the Monkey House to watch over her.
When the thaumometer was attached to battery #1, the indicators flickered and the needle twitched for just a second. Then they too died. So battery #1 had recharged at some point- but only a very, very little, so little that the thaumometer had eaten two days’ worth of recharge in one second.
That… that was bad news.
And there was only one thing to do with bad news, but since there wasn’t any place safe for Dragonfly to hide on the planet, she went to tell Cherry Berry instead.
In the habitat compartment the monkey was gingerly examining the reference books and flight manuals on the bookshelf. One by one he put them in one of the two big plastic bins he’d brought from his dome. Obviously he found them fascinating, almost as fascinating as he’d found the dead instrument panels and computer displays on the bridge.
Meanwhile Cherry Berry was carefully bringing out the small sealed carton of fresh cherries from the fridge. Dragonfly didn’t need changeling empathy to know that the pony was simply longing to taste them. Noticing her, the pink pony said, “So, what did you find out?”
The sound of Cherry’s voice caught the attention of the alien, who turned to face her. Dragonfly sensed shock running through him, and she heard, muffled by his space suit and hers, something that sounded like, “Wubba yuck?” Gently but firmly he reached down and plucked the clear plastic carton of cherries from the commander’s hoof, holding them up at eye level and staring.
“Jairease,” Dragonfly thought the monkey-thing said. “Buddy gumby jairease.” He opened the carton, ignoring the loud protest from Cherry Berry, and took a single cherry out, rolling it between his suited thumb and forefinger. Then he pushed a couple of buttons on the front of his spacesuit, reached up…
… and unlocked his helmet locking ring and, with one hand, pulled the helmet off his head.
“What’s he doing with my cherries??” Cherry Berry bellowed. “They’re going to freeze! They get all mushy when they thaw out!”
Dragonfly was shocked for better reasons than stupid cherries. The temperature inside the Amicitas was the same as outside- roughly twenty-five degrees below. Only an idiot would deliberately expose themselves to that…
… just to eat a cherry. Which he did, idly closing the carton as he chewed. “Isha jairee,” he muttered. He swallowed, spat the pit into one of the tubs, and then added, “Buckets goal,” tossing his head as he handed the carton back to Cherry Berry before jamming his helmet back onto his head, locking the seal, and reactivating his life support. “Weerhe buckum goal.”
Wasting no time, Cherry Berry swiftly put the carton and its twin from the fridge into the second plastic tub. “That’s all you get, you… you… you cherry thief!” she snapped.
The monkey paid her no attention. Kneeling down to examine the little fridge, he pulled out the other delicacies within- a basket of sapphires, which he tossed into a bin without a second glance, five wrapped sandwiches, a small birthday cake (Pinkie Pie had insisted, as a precaution against “birthday emergencies”), and then, finally, the salads. Those he pulled out and examined very carefully.
“Luscious,” he muttered. “Mommapo. Googumbra. Mabre garrot?” One salad aside. “Slaa. Fuggum goal slaa.” Another. “Afafwa spous. Chess lye girf!!”
And then Dragonfly felt the alien’s emotions shift from shock and disbelief to wild, almost insane enthusiasm. “Spous. Afafwa spous. Afafwa fuggim SPOUS!!”
There were half a dozen alfalfa sprout salads, unseasoned, in the fridge- the ponies all liked them but didn’t agree on seasonings. The alien took them all and slammed them into the plastic tub as quickly as he could, putting the other salads back in place. He closed the tub, double-checked the seal for tightness, and picked it up, hauling it as quickly as he could in this weird planet’s light gravity. “Gummon!” he shouted. “Weega taco! Arrieup!”
Cherry Berry looked at Dragonfly. “Do you think we got a defective alien or something?” she asked.
“I think I’d better start pumping the air back into the tank,” Dragonfly said, shutting the fridge door again. “Our ride back to fresh air is about to leave with or without us.”
LOG ENTRY: SOL 8
I saw their ship today. Bright pink, 1950s style curved fins, and heart shaped overlays on its windows. Pretty Pretty Princess Goes to Mars. I could feel my testosterone screaming as it died in agony from the sheer cuteness of it.
Nothing that cute deserves to be wrecked like that.
The ship skidded along the surface for a couple miles before it hit Site Epsilon. Site Epsilon is a mud volcano, or at least that’s what we think it is. It was going to be our last geology activity of the mission if everything else went according to plan, scheduled for Sol 28. Lewis, Vogel and I were going to do geology, chemistry, and soil samples there. There’s a slightly larger mud volcano another ten kilometers northeast of Epsilon, but that’s outside the mission operational radius of our rovers.
New, in addition to looking like a Care Bear threw up on it, it probably kind of resembled a cross between a cartoon rocket and the space shuttle. I don’t know how it worked- there’s nothing inside but habitat and engines, no fuel storage of any kind that I could see. Sufficiently advanced technology, I guess. I always called bullshit on that sort of thing when I read it in a book, but now that I’m face to face with aliens on a daily basis, it makes more sense.
Of course Mars did a number on the thing. The outer hull is crumpled like an accordion all along the bottom where it skidded along the ground. Two of the three engine bells in back are dented and cracked. The inside isn’t much better. The rear airtight compartment, what looks like their warp-drive section, has a crack about four feet long and a foot wide at its longest point. Using suit lights I can see Martian soil through the crack. Worse, I can see a metal structural member sheared in two, with one loose end half a foot higher than the other. You don’t have to have a masters’ degree in engineering like I do to know that this ship is totally unsafe to fly again.
That said, I spent a couple minutes examining the torn metal, and I’m impressed. The aliens built their ship like a fucking tank. And I don’t mean like an air tank or a water tank, I mean slap some treads on this thing and put a gun turret on their upper docking port and you could take on an entire panzer division in this thing. I found a small bit of loose hull metal and carefully fished it out of the crack, careful not to tear my suit on the jagged edges. When I get time I’m going to use Vogel’s chemistry lab to analyze it, but I can say now, it’s an alloy I don’t remember seeing before- looks like iron, light as aluminum, tougher than both.
That probably explains why the rest of the ship is in as good condition as it is. The other two sections of the interior are still airtight. No power, but the aliens had a manual emergency air system for situations like this, along with a manual air lock. After we re-sealed the hatch to the engine room, they opened a valve and let a thin atmosphere of pure O2 into the ship. It was still cold as hell- Mars laughs at ship insulation- but we had air if we needed it.
I only took a brief glance at the control systems, but everything looks distinctly Apollo-era, or maybe very early shuttle era. There’s only two very small computer screens, but a ton of digital readouts. Most of the gauges are simple mechanical dials. There are a ton of switches and push-buttons.
Strangest of all, there’s two joysticks, for pilot and co-pilot. How do aliens use a flight stick with hooves? And how does Strong Bad type with boxing gloves on? Tune in next time, when these questions may or may not be answered!
But as I said, I only took a brief glance at all that. I did notice that five of the seven flight couches are shot to hell. That is, the emergency impact protection systems, what would be crumple zones on your car, gave their all to protect the aliens when they crashed. Two of the couches were intact, and going by the number of alien house guests I have and the lack of gruesome dismembered alien bodies on the floor, I’m guessing they were empty.
But all that was completely unimportant once I got a look at their pantry.
Like NASA, the aliens included a small refrigerated compartment to keep comfort food fresh for the crew. In our case, NASA sent us some refrigerated Idaho potatoes. The plan was to use them as part of a freshly cooked Thanksgiving meal somewhere around Sol 16 or 17. In the aliens’s case it was a basket of rocks (seriously, does Puff need to prove his manliness on a daily basis? “I’m so tough I eat rocks for breakfast! And I don’t mean that metaphorically!”) and a bunch of salads.
Earth style salads. With Earth type veggies.
Cherry’s butt has cherries on it because there are actual cherries where she comes from. I stole one from her (and you better believe that pissed her off), took off my helmet in that goddamn freezing cold ship, and ate it.
(Hey, I checked my suit readouts first. If six PSI of pure oxygen was good enough for the Mercury 7, it’s good enough for me. But on second thought, it was also good enough for Apollo One, so maybe that’s not such a good benchmark.)
It was the best fucking cherry I have ever eaten, and speaking as a master of botany, that is an expert opinion.
It wasn’t just cherries. They also had garden salads with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and that. They had a couple tubs of cole slaw. I couldn’t believe it- how in the hell could aliens from another star have the same rabbit food we do?
(I shouldn’t say that. They're herbivores. It’s probably speciesist. Mark Watney, interstellar diplomat, that’s me.)
And then my mind focused on the other salads… which were plain alfalfa sprouts.
On Earth I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Alfalfa is the preferred horse feed because it’s a perennial plant that produces forage several times a year and provides the best nutrition per pound for hay that you can imagine. Within its limits it’s a hardy plant that can be grown, with care, in a broad range of environments. It would only make sense that, if horse aliens had Earth roughage, they’d prefer alfalfa two to one.
(Of course, I could be wrong. I can just imagine alien kids now whining, “I hate alfalfa! I wanna cupcake!” And Momma Alien is saying, “You don’t get any dessert until you clean your feedbag! And have you finished your homework yet?”)
But the thing is, these were fresh alfalfa sprouts. Really fresh. Like, on your local supermarket shelves today fresh. And they’d been kept in an airtight, temperature-controlled container.
Which means they might still be viable.
So I slapped them in one of the airtight sample tubs and rushed for the airlock.
I chivvied the aliens back out of their ship somehow- God, how I hated waiting while the bug and the dragon worked a pump handle, of all things, to try to recycle as much as they could of the emergency air. If we do this again I’m going to bring a tank from the Hab to use. Once we were all back in the rover I lead-footed it back to the Hab, with Cherry sitting on the tub with her cherries in it all the way, giving me dirty looks all the time.
The first thing I did when we got back, after plugging the rover in to recharge, was unpack the alfalfa sprouts. There’s about fifteen cups worth of sprouts, and even after however long in that container they smelled sweet and fresh. I washed them carefully, got out the Earth soil that was supposed to be the control for my botany experiments, and planted them all very carefully.
If this works… if this works there’s a chance we might just survive long enough for Ares IV or for the aliens’ buddies to come rescue us. We’ll know in about seven sols.
I ought to be rationing my food packs, but today was special. The ponies loaded a couple dozen of their own food packs into the other tub, and so we’re sharing a meal without actually, y’know, sharing meals. For myself, I grabbed a Salisbury steak meal with mashed potatoes and green beans.
I gave Cherry my cherry cobbler. All is apparently forgiven.