AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY FIVE
ARES III SOL 9
Starlight Glimmer ate her cheesy mushroom omelet with delight. She’d let the alien- Mahrq, she thought he called himself- have a little taste, and his eyes had gone wide with shock. That suited Starlight just fine, because as grateful as she was for his generosity with his food supplies, she was already tired of one bean-based item after another.
Maybe his species, whatever it was, depended on legumes. (He looked like a human from Sunset Shimmer's mirror world, but his coloring was all wrong and he wasn't skinny enough. Besides, the mirror world was supposed to be a secret.) Or maybe he just really, really liked them. That might explain why he stole all the remaining alfalfa salads and planted them in what looked like a Manehattan window-box made of clear plastic.
And what was he even doing with a window box in his little space base? He wasn’t using plants to clear carbon dioxide- he had a machine for that. He’d explained it using pictures on a whiteboard after pulling Dragonfly away from its controls… just as he’d done with the water machine… and the air purifying machine… and practically everything else that had a button, a switch, or a screen on it. The changeling had found them all that first night.
They needed to understand what their host was thinking- understand how he thought in general. Starlight Glimmer was certain of that, and she’d spent most of her enforced bed rest focused on that problem. So long as they were dependent on the strange biped, they needed to do their best to understand him…
… and when their food supplies ran out, they would be really, really dependent on him. And that subject needed to be brought up sooner rather than later.
“Cherry?” she asked, calling the mission commander’s attention from her bowl of cereal (Health Nut brand Frosted Mini-Haybales, with a single sad cherry lingering on top, being saved for last). “I think we need a crew meeting. Now, please.”
Cherry sighed, jamming her muzzle into her bowl and gulping down the remaining cereal, cherry and all. “Fine,” she said. “Everypony, huddle up by the bunks.”
Spitfire had already been next to Starlight, enjoying her usual power breakfast (scrambled eggs and alfalfa-seed muesli) as she watched over her patient. Fireball, who had been dithering between adding one of his limited supply of sapphires to his otherwise mostly ordinary pony-style breakfast and warning the alien away from his tiny hoard, left his breakfast on a worktable and walked over. Dragonfly, who had been watching Mahrq dividing up his own breakfast and putting a bit of it in the dome’s refrigerator, wandered over to them last, completing the group.
The alien noticed the gathering and reached for a whiteboard and marker. Starlight held up a hoof and shook her head, and Mahrq shrugged and returned his attention to breakfast. That was another mystery Starlight wanted to explore: why did the alien have such similar body language to the rest of them? Nopony really needed Dragonfly’s buzzed hints to know how he was feeling about something, and simple signals like yes and no and stop and don’t were perfectly clear between them.
“Okay, everypony,” Cherry Berry said, “Starlight has something she wants to talk with us about.”
“Er, yes,” Starlight said, bringing her attention back to the most urgent matter. “You did say the food stores on the ship were in good shape, right?”
“So far as I could tell, yeah,” Cherry Berry nodded. “The crash didn’t break anything there that I could find.”
“Right. So, follow me on this. We had lunch and dinner and then breakfast before the incident,” Starlight said. “And then dinner last night and breakfast this morning came from our supplies, and lunch again. So we’ve used up two days of rations for three ponies and a dragon, right?”
“I see where you’re going with this,” Cherry Berry said. “I’ve been worried about it too. Amicitas launched with thirty days’ rations for seven crew pre-packed, according to standard procedure.”
“Yeah, I nearly learned how important that was the hard way,” Fireball interrupted.
“Ahem.” Cherry shot the young dragon a look before continuing, “We replaced one set of thirty days with dragon-specific rations, but that still leaves us a pretty good surplus, right?”
Starlight shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. Look at the situation. We can’t talk to Cape Friendship or Horseton Space Center. We don’t really know where we are, and we couldn’t tell them if we did. That means…” She paused, suddenly realizing that saying help may never come was about the least helpful possible thing she could say. She edited it to, “We could be waiting for a really long time for rescue. At least as long as it takes to build a rescue ship.”
Cherry Berry nodded slowly. In addition to her astromare duties, she’d spent a lot of time overseeing rocket construction. “Okay. So we have to ration our food, is what you’re saying?”
“That’s not a problem for me,” Dragonfly said. “If you can spare me a couple heartfelt hugs a day, I’ll be fine on a bit of water.”
“Grrrr,” Fireball rumbled. “But it’s a big problem for the rest of us. I need at least a little gem content every day to stay healthy, and I can’t eat raw hay like you ponies can. So some of your food packs are useless to me, and all of my food packs are useless to you.”
“So you need more rocks,” Dragonfly hissed. “Go outside, there’s plenty of rocks.”
“Yeah, I could eat those.” Fireball’s voice rose, causing Mahrq to look up from his breakfast again. “And you ponies could eat fresh roadapples, too. How healthy would that be?”
“Eyuck,” Spitfire said, making a face. “I know what you mean, I read up on dragon first aid and all, but did you have to say that while I’m still eating?”
Fireball slumped, sighed, and muttered a not terribly sincere, “Sorry.” After a moment he added, “But you get my point. Dragons need gems. No substitutes.”
“How many sapphires do you have?” Starlight asked.
“Thirteen. I could eat all that for a single meal and still have room, but I need to space them out for when my food packs run out.” The dragon slumped a bit more, which looked all the more dramatic given his slender build, and added, “If I can stop myself from eating ‘em, that is.”
“Is that why you ate the alien food packs whole like that?” Starlight asked.
“Nah. The wrappers actually give me indigestion. I just wanted to freak out Monkeyboy over there.”
“So, not a substitute?”
“Not even close.”
“Right. That means Fireball begins to suffer malnutrition in about a moon unless we ration. Sooner if we depend too heavily on Mahrq’s food. As for the rest of us,” she added, “we began with what amounts to sixty days of full meals for the three of us, designed for full active days, as if we were spacewalking or re-entering every day, right?”
“That’s right,” Spitfire nodded, having crammed hard to learn the ins and outs of pony, changeling and dragon nutrition for the mission.
“We can cut that by a third- or a quarter at least- and if we restrict our physical activity, we should be fine,” Starlight said. “That would buy us fourteen or fifteen more days. But after that,” she sighed, “we’ll be totally dependent on our host. And I get the feeling he can’t afford to be so generous with us as he’s been these last three days.”
The others nodded. That first night, when the six of them had been drawing pictures to communicate, the alien had made it clear he’d originally arrived with five others of his species; that the storm had forced them all to leave; and that he’d been injured, lost, and left behind. He was now marooned and awaiting rescue. That was why the shipwrecked pony crew got bunks to sleep on, and why the alien had so much more food than he could eat at once… and it was also why he needed every bit of that food.
“I don’t see the problem,” Spitfire said. “Look, that thing he spends half his time typing on-“
“I think it’s a computer,” Dragonfly interrupted. “It kind of looks like my video games back home.”
“It might be,” Spitfire admitted, “or it might be two-way television, or something else, but whatever it is it’s way ahead of anything we can make back home. And the lights?” She pointed at the overhead canvas and network of plastic poles, all brilliantly lit by strings of tiny bulbs. “It even feels like sunlight! We can’t do that back home without magic! His people are obviously way ahead of us. Why don’t we just hitch a ride with him when he leaves? Just get on with it and ask him to take us with? Wherever he comes from, it can’t be more hostile than out there!” She pointed a hoof vaguely outwards.
“Spitfire, how long would it have taken us to make a round trip from Equus to Bucephalous without the Sparkle Drive?” Starlight asked. “Twilight and Dr. von Brawn told us this in training, you should know.”
“Best alignment of the planets? Six months round trip if we only do a fly-by,” Spitfire rattled off from memory. “Longer if we orbit. So? More advanced aliens!”
“We can’t assume that,” Starlight said. With a grunt of effort she wrapped Spitfire’s plastic spoon in her magic and lifted it up, setting it down again a few seconds later. “The ambient magic in this room, right now, is just enough for me to do that without tapping my reserves,” she said. “Between that and what Dragonfly reported, I’m thinking that this world- possibly this universe- doesn’t have a universal magic field. All it has is whatever magic energy is given off by life itself. And that isn’t enough to run the Sparkle Drive on, or anything like it. Which means rescue is at least months away.”
“Our suit systems work just fine,” Spitfire insisted.
“Those systems,” Dragonfly put in, “are specifically designed to run from a pony’s own magic field. They even work for changelings, and we leak very little magic, believe me. It doesn’t take much power at all to do that.”
“And I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Starlight said, “but your suits have been dipping into the EVA thruster batteries all the time we’ve been here. Our magic fields are weaker, too. They’re not strong enough even to run the suit systems alone.
“Back home we could stay in the suits for days, with air and water from the ground and everything else regenerating itself. Here? I recommend limiting EVAs to eight hours maximum. After that navigation and comms are dead until you recharge. And don't even think of using the thrusters.”
Fireball shrugged. “And where are we going to go?” he asked. “Walking for my health here doesn’t really appeal to me.”
“My point is this,” Starlight said. “We need to think long-term. All we have or ever will have is our ship, Mahrq’s base here and the junk the storm left behind, and whatever we can scavenge from this frozen Tartarus of a world. And we need to make it all stretch as long as possible, and use as little as possible as we can.”
“At least we’ll have plenty of air and water,” Cherry Berry said, “so long as our suit life support works.”
“And above all else,” Starlight continued, “we need to learn to communicate with our host. I have an idea for that,” she added, looking at Spitfire, “but it might mean another couple days of bed rest.” She turned her gaze to Cherry and added, “The next time somepony goes to the ship, we need to bring back one of the batteries. It should recharge here with all of us together, and we might need-“
Mahrq had disposed of his meal pack, and he was pulling one of the space suits from the recharging rack.
“Where’s he going?” Dragonfly asked. “He feels a bit worried and depressed.”
“I’ll ask,” Starlight said, pushing the lap-tray she had been using aside and dropping off her bunk onto all fours. “Spitfire, be ready to catch me.”
“What are you doing?” Spitfire asked in a tone that added, whatever it is, you shouldn’t.
“An adaptation of Bit Lead’s Universal Decryptor,” Starlight said, walking over to the alien. “The spell gives you the meaning of a coded message even if you haven’t got the code. I just have to broaden the parameters and make it two way. I just hope it works.”
“You’ll wind up back in that bunk,” Spitfire warned.
Starlight Glimmer ignored her. The whiteboard Mahrq had picked up earlier was still on a nearby worktable, as was the marker. Taking a deep breath, she ignited her magic, picked up the marker, and levitated it over to where Mahrq was slipping into his spacesuit, tapping him on the shoulder with it.
The alien flinched, looked behind him. His eyes widened as he saw the perfectly ordinary marker surrounded in a turquoise glow, as it floated back to where Starlight Glimmer stood and dropped back onto the worktable. Leaving his helmet behind and his suit only half-secured, he walked over to where she stood, sweating slightly and taking deep breaths.
She obviously had his full and undivided attention. She still didn’t understand his language, but she was pretty sure the first word out of his mouth was some form of How.
Okay, Starlight Glimmer. You’re the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. Deepest magical reserves known since Starswirl’s prime. You’re able to go horn to horn against an alicorn princess and win. You can do this.
I can do this.
I hope I hope I hope.
Her horn lit up again, this time a lot brighter, and the field enveloped both Starlight and the alien. The drain was intense from the start, and Starlight’s knees wobbled. Have to make this quick. “Can you understand me?” she asked. “Keep it simple- I can’t do this for long.”
The alien gabbled something, and overlaid on top of the nonsense Starlight heard the words, “How doing this you?”
Success! The spell would need refining, but success! “No time to explain,” she said. “Where are you going?”
More gabble. “Out the side. Stupid is you.”
Look who’s talking! No, that’s unfair, the answer was obvious. “Why?”
Gabble, gabble. “Looking for orbit plate. Radio breaking. Fix without cannot it.”
She was coming close to the end of her reserves. She had to cut off the spell or pass out. “Draw it, we’ll help,” she gasped, and then killed the spell, falling to her knees.
In an instant Spitfire was beside her, having leaped across the room. Yay, low gravity, Starlight thought idly as the Wonderbolt picked her up on her back and carried her back to the bunk.
Mahrq moved to follow, then stopped, picked up the whiteboard and marker again, and drew something quick and rough. He turned the whiteboard to show them.
Cherry recognized it first. “That’s a tracking dish,” she said.
“Parabolic radio antenna,” Dragonfly corrected, “but yeah.”
“He said his radio was broken,” Starlight said, still a bit shaky. “Spitfire, I’m fine. I didn’t trigger a magic exhaustion relapse.” But it had been a close thing. She had to find some way to reduce the power consumption of that spell. So much tweaking…
“You mean he’s not talking with his people?” Spitfire asked.
Starlight Glimmer sighed and allowed Spitfire to put her back in the bunk. It was easier than fighting it. “To be honest,” she said, “I don’t think his people even know he’s still here.”
HERMES – MISSION DAY 133
“Okay, everyone stand by,” Lewis said. “Martinez, once we lock cameras on the Hab, engage the roll program.”
“Roger,” Martinez said.
“Johannsen, Vogel, you have the cameras. Vogel, we want a survey of the site. Johannsen, focus on the Hab with the video camera. We want to know if there’s anything moving down there. It’s a long shot, but if the aliens are using the hab for shelter, it’s our best shot at getting pictures of them.”
“Ja, commander,” Vogel replied. Johannsen nodded.
Dr. Chris Beck, who had no role in what was about to happen, floated by the bridge doors with one hand on the railing and watched. For the first time in days, Ares III was a tightly functioning team again. Lewis had pulled completely out of her fugue, kicking ass and taking names, and everyone else’s morale had risen along with hers. And all it had taken was the possibility of live aliens on the surface.
Well… that, and the other possibility, but Martinez had warned Beck, and Beck had warned Vogel and Johannsen, not to bring it up around Lewis. That other possibility was now the eight hundred pound gorilla, or rather the one hundred seventy pound botanist, not on the bridge.
After yesterday’s brief glimpse of the rover approaching the alien crash site, Lewis had put together a plan and gained NASA’s approval. Hermes would be put into a slow forward tumble in its orbit, carefully calibrated to keep the cameras pointed at the landing site as long as possible. Today in particular Hermes’ sky-skimming orbit passed almost perfectly over the Hab, making it a better choice for focus than the alien ship, as eager as NASA was to get more images of the latter location.
“Video camera lock,” Johannsen reported. “Recording.”
“Stills camera lock,” Vogel reported. “Receiving data.” He looked at the pictures as they came in, just as Johannsen’s eyes were locked on the rapidly magnifying image on her own terminal.
“Pitch program engaged,” Martinez said from his station, as Hermes echoed with the soft thumps of attitude jets firing across the immense vessel. “Executed nominally. No corrections required.”
“Getting clear pictures of the antenna farm,” Vogel reported. “Is very scattered debris, rocks and sand. Total destruction.”
“Focused on the hab,” Johannsen said. “Rover 2 is parked by the recharging port near Airlock One. Rover 1 is still partially covered in sand.”
“MAV landing stage is intact,” Vogel reported. “MDV is missing- no. MDV moved laterally some two hundred meters. Obvious hull damage.”
“Two minutes to closest approach,” Martinez reported.
Beck couldn’t help smiling. This was almost how it had been before Sol 6. This was how a crew ought to function- especially a crew eight months from home.
All heads turned to Johannsen, though Vogel’s turned right back to his own terminal as Johannsen continued, “Movement at Airlock One- somebody’s coming out!”
“Refocusing on Airlock One,” Vogel reported.
“One… two… three suits,” Johannsen reported. “One orange, two white. Two of them look… really odd…”
“One minute to closest approach,” Martinez said.
“The orange suit and one of the white suits seem long,” Vogel said, looking at the first pictures of the airlock. “Perhaps extra large backpacks? Very hard to see from above.”
“Fourth suit!” Johannsen said, followed by a gasp. “White and red! It’s one of ours!”
“On my screen,” Lewis ordered. Beck, uninvited, guided himself to the commander’s station so he could look over her shoulder. There, on the screen, a tiny dot reached even tinier arms towards the airlock controls, obviously keying the doors shut again.
“Mein Gott,” whispered Vogel.
“I knew it!!” Martinez cheered triumphantly.
“Mark,” Johannsen murmured.
Beck was right next to the commander, and thus he was the only one who heard her moan, “Oh God, I left him behind.”
“Minds on task, people,” he said, startling Lewis. “There’s a lot of pencil-pushers back on Earth who are going to want to see all of this.”
But it was too late. The mood was broken, and Beck could sense they were back to being five people instead of one team.
And for all he wanted to celebrate- hey, that was his best friend back from the dead!- he couldn’t help worrying about the others.
Especially Commander Lewis.