The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Sol 17


Wow. Just… wow.

It’s been hours, and I still… yeah, just… wow.

Okay, Watney, pull it together. Generations of historians, scientists, and flat Earth nuts are waiting for you to say something coherent enough to pick apart. And future psychologists are going to have a field day, so don’t disappoint them.

Let’s start with that little problem I mentioned. It’s water. NASA sent along a water reclaimer that filters and distills used water- not just piss, but also shower and decontamination water and excess humidity from sweat and exhalation- and renders it not just drinkable but absolutely pure. It’s a heavy and expensive piece of equipment, but it’s not as heavy or expensive as it would have been to haul up two liters per day per astronaut to drink for a thirty-one day scheduled mission plus emergency reserves, hygiene allowance, and decontamination shower use.

As I mentioned yesterday, there’s technically lots of water under the Martian surface. Problem: it’s hard to get out, and it’s contaminated with perchlorates. Experimenting with means of using local water instead of shipping it up is a large part of the whole Ares program, as a first step towards possible colonization and terraforming. All of that is a fancy way of saying we can’t do it yet, at least not safely.

NASA actually sent us fifty liters per person, about half what they would have sent us if we didn’t have the water reclaimer. That’s three hundred liters total, or about eighty gallons. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really only twice as much as your average hot water heater holds.

Prime Earth topsoil requires about forty liters of water per cubic meter to stay healthy- just to start with. The plants will continually suck that water out of the soil to make food for me and my guests, so that water will have to be constantly replaced. But just the starting water for my thirsty, thirsty Martian dust is three hundred and sixty-eight liters- a lot more than what we started the mission with. There are a lot of other problems with my plan to grow food, but that’s the first and most urgent one.

Is? I meant was, because it isn’t anymore. Turns out I have all the water I could ever want or need, if I’m patient enough to get it about twelve ounces at a time.

And the reason that problem has gone away is a word I’ve been dancing around in this log, because NASA would have a shit fit if it saw it. To be honest I’m uncomfortable with it myself.

That word is: magic.

I played a lot of D&D as a kid. (Yes, Mark Watney, master’s degrees in botany and mechanical engineering, a geek- who would have guessed? Go figure.) My favorite character was this cleric, and among the spells I had was “Create Water”. I always thought it was a stupid spell, and I never used it. Our DM was smart enough to know that bashing monsters in the head with a mace was fun, but counting every ration to see if you would live long enough to get back to town wasn’t.

(News flash: it still isn’t.)

But as a kid I just didn’t have the imagination or the training to understand just how useful such a spell was. Imagine building a space suit, for example, with that spell built into the life support? Or “Create Breathable Air,” even better! No need to carry around big tanks, no complicated plumbing- just flip a switch and away you go!

Can you imagine that? Good. Now stop imagining, because six of exactly that kind of spacesuit is sharing the Hab with me right now.

Under any ordinary circumstances (for I’m-going-to-die-on-Mars-if-I-don’t-think-of-something values of ordinary) that by itself would be worth a “Wow” or two. But that was the least of my discoveries for the day. And now that I’ve given you all that background, I think I’m able to explain it all without spacing out.

Last night I went ahead and dumped forty-eight liters of water into the dirt in the Hab. Then I added a bit more to replace some runoff that trickled out the bottom and sides, even with my improvised planting-box made of old clothes. I then sopped up the overflow, no doubt rich in those nasty perchlorates, and wrung it out into the water reclaimer to purify. I had to do all that regardless to prepare the soil and to reduce the perchlorate levels in the Hab.

This morning, to the utter disgust of my alien roommates, I began turning the Mars dirt into something that would grow a crop. I began by skimming off the top portion of the planter box, with all its happy, healthy little alfalfa sprouts that full-grown might provide one lunch for an anorexic donkey, and put it in the far corner of the dirt. I then took the rest of the Earth soil, about three-quarters of the total, and spread it in a thin layer across what we brought in yesterday. So far so good.

Next comes the compost. Even on rations my four-legged friends have produced a shit-pot load (see what I did there?) of raw compost material. I’d contributed my own part, of course. I thought it stank before, but when I began stirring it up and spreading it on top of the Mars soil, I almost puked. The smell died down a little once I began stirring the shit, Earth soil and Mars dirt together with a shovel, but it’s persistent. The atmospheric regulator only removes particles beyond a certain size, and the thiols that make shit stink are way too small for that.

Cherry helped me with the disgusting chore. The other aliens made one or two remarks, but otherwise they stayed quiet, mostly because they were trying to keep their own breakfasts down. Cherry didn’t say a word, though when one particularly ripe bit of compost gave off a bubble of concentrated stench she snorted and stomped her foot exactly like a pissed-off horse. It was adorable, and I wish I’d had a camera for that part.

(What was less adorable was Cherry beating me to the decon shower and using a triple ration of water to clean off. I’m beginning to wish I’d never showed them how to use the thing, and I dread the day when the very limited supply of soap and sanitary wipes runs out.)

And that was our morning- playing in shit and smelling the sweet, stinky smell of survival. Let’s just say it was no trouble at all to eat only a half-meal ration for lunch, for any of us.

After lunch I sat down and began thinking about ways to get more water. Using the perchlorate-laden ice from the permafrost layer of the Martian soil was the safest option, but it was also the most labor-intensive and least likely to work. I could raid the hydrogen fuel-cell batteries the Hab uses and burn it to make water, but I don’t want to risk my electricity supply, which is the one thing I don’t have to worry about if I leave it alone.

And there’s one other option so suicidally insane that, now that the problem is solved, I’m leaving it out of this log. Sure, it would probably have gotten me the water I need, but it could also kill me and my little friends about five ways from Sunday. I am so glad I don’t need to try it, and I hope it never comes up again.

I was looking over my options, just about to decide that maybe I didn’t need to fill the whole hab with dirt after all, when Starlight came over for our daily chat. It’s pathetic how much I’m coming to look forward to a minute or so of badly mangled English every day (not counting the far-too-many times a day my buddies repeat and mangle Beatles lyrics).

STARLIGHT: Food we have problem. (Note: this almost sent me into a hysterical laughing fit- and not entirely for good reasons.)

ME: I know. I’m working on it.

STARLIGHT (insistent): No! Earth not enough! Not enough Earth everybody feed!

ME (trying not to think about that- one impossible thing at a time): We have a worse water problem.

STARLIGHT (puzzled): Water problem?

ME: Yeah. I need to find more water to grow things.

STARLIGHT: Is that all? Need you how much?

ME: You have some in your ship?

STARLIGHT (getting tired and shaky again): This watch!

Her horn stopped glowing, and she called the other aliens into one of their little huddles. They do that every once in a while, and usually there’s at least a brief bit of shouting, but this time the conversation was really short. Then each of them pulled their suits out of the neat little piles they made beneath the recharging rack where all my redundant suits live. Fireball fetched a couple of flasks from the chemistry lab and brought them over… and then two more… and then another.

And about a minute later, sitting in a row on the table in front of me were five flasks full of water. Well, not perfectly full, but the amount added up to a little less than two liters.

And I knew that none of them had gone anywhere near the water reclaimer valve or any of the Hab’s water taps.

There weren’t enough flasks left in the chemistry lab for a repeat performance, so Fireball grabbed a plastic tub and took it over to the suit area. Meanwhile I took the water and put it in the water reclaimer- might as well store it somewhere, right?

The tub took longer to fill, but Fireball eventually carried a plastic bin full of lovely, clean H2O over to me, set it at my feet, and gestured to it. I took it, slowly poured it into the water reclaimer, and set it down- and immediately Fireball took the bin back to the suit area.

Now I got curious. The Ares III suits hold two liters of water each for astronauts to sip on during EVAs. I’d assumed the alien suits had a similar function and that they were draining their suits to contribute to the cause. But the flasks plus the tub added up to about what I’d expect to see if you drained all the water out of six EVA suits- and more than I’d expected to come out of the smaller alien suits, even with those huge backpacks.

The tub was half-full again when I got over there. The aliens had the helmets off their suits and were holding the neckholes over the tub. Each suit had a little hamster-feeder nozzle, just like ours, where a thirsty alien could turn its head slightly and take a sip whenever needed. The nozzles on the five suits were being turned on and off, about thirty seconds at a time, to spray thin streams of water into the tub.

The language barrier is cracking enough for us to understand a few words- basic things like “yes”, “no,” “don’t” (I get a lot of mileage out of “don’t”), and “draw.” Another one we’ve figured out is “how.” So when I asked how they were doing that, Cherry handed me her suit, even unfastening the snaps on the back of the backpack so I could see its workings.

There are no tanks of any kind in the suit. Not water, not air, nothing. Not one.

The backpack isn’t for life support. It’s a complex thruster pack like a compact MMU, with armrests and hand (hoof) controls that pop out when the wearer’s arms are in a certain position. There’s not even a fuel tank for the thrusters, though: the little thrusters are all connected to a large slice of pink crystal, solid all the way through.

Unbelievably, all the life support fits in a little bitty box on the front of their suit, about the size of my two fists put together.

And all the while I was examining that suit, the four others kept pouring water, a squirt at a time, into that tub.

I babbled something like, “This is impossible, how can anything do this?”

Starlight lit up her horn and said one word. The translation came through as: “Magic.”

I tried to explain that there was no such thing as magic. Magic is just something you don’t understand how it works yet. But of course the translator was off again, and Starlight wasn’t listening anyway. Instead she was saying something to the others in an enthusiastic tone. Cherry looked doubtful, but she nodded her head, and while the others put their suits away again Starlight dragged out one of those boxes salvaged from their ship.

I’d already guessed it was some sort of battery, and what happened next confirmed it. She stuck a couple of broken antenna pieces from the destroyed communications array (I don’t know when she brought them in) onto what looked like power leads. She then made a sign with her hooves as if she were holding a camera. She had to make it twice before I figured out she wanted me to record what she was about to do. I got one of the hand-held video cameras out and set it to record. Once she was sure I was watching, Starlight flipped a switch on the battery, and things changed.

You’ve seen a Jacob’s ladder before- you know, the things in mad scientist labs that have arcs of electricity rising up the two antennas? Well, this began sort of like that, except instead of an electrical arc it was a rainbow, one sparkly happy rainbow after another. When the first rainbow hit the tips of the antennas it burst, and the light in the Hab changed. Colors became brighter, with a strong lean towards primary colors and pastels. Even the mix of shit and Mars dirt changed color, looking… well, shittier.

All of the aliens smiled, stretching their limbs and turning this way and that as if basking in sunshine. Spitfire spread her wings, and with a single flap she took off, making laps around the Hab, faster than I could follow her with the camera. Dragonfly took off next, chasing the pegasus around and around until I got dizzy. I must have got dizzy, because after the second pass I lost Dragonfly and began seeing aliens I never met- a blue pegasus with rainbow hair, a dark pegasus-unicorn hybrid, and what looked like a hawk made of fire.

Then Fireball rose slowly into the air. I haven’t mentioned the tiny wings on his back because I thought they were vestigial and unimportant, but they lifted him up, one beat per second or so picking him off the ground and letting him hover. All the time he stared at me with this smug bet-you-can’t-do-this expression on that pointy face of his.

Starlight made a noise, and I turned the camera to her just in time for her to vanish in a flash of light. I felt a tap on my knee, and there she was. Somehow she’d just… well… jumped… about four meters instantly. Giggling, she did it again, reappearing back by the box.

Sitting on the memory card of the camera right now is mankind’s first positive proof that teleportation is possible. Think about that.

Then the arcs coming out of the battery began to sputter. The flyers all made hasty landings, and Starlight turned off the switch. The colors in the hab immediately went back to normal, the pale NASA-psychologist-approved colors unenhanced by any unnatural effects.

Starlight staggered, leaning on that box to keep her feet. The others sort of wilted, sad expressions replacing the happy ones from just a moment before. It broke my heart to watch. Then Cherry walked over to Starlight and hugged her tight, and after a moment I heard her sobbing. The other aliens joined the hug, even Fireball, who obviously had to force himself into it… but I saw tears on his face, too.

We pulled out the markers and whiteboards after that for a really intense session of Pictionary. I now have a clearer idea of what happened to these aliens than I did before.

The aliens all look different, but they come from the same world, and it is quite literally and unironically a magical land full of rainbows and clouds and sunshine and candy, not to mention every mythical creature you can imagine. They drew me unicorns and pegasi and bug-horse things and dragons, but they also drew griffons, hippogriffs (not the same thing as pegasi, apparently), a hydra, a manticore, a minotaur, and a couple of other things I don’t recognize without my Monster Manual handy.

Starlight did most of the drawing for the aliens. At one pont she filled the whiteboard trying to explain magic. She used her translation spell to give the name for her race, and it came across as “pony”. Makes sense. But apparently all ponies have magic. Unicorns like her cast spells, but pegasi like Spitfire use their magic to fly and, apparently, make clouds. And ordinary ponies like Cherry work with the soil, farming or mining, apparently- and their magic makes them extra strong.

Once I’d taken a photo of that (she insisted- she’s big on having all of this documented for some reason) Starlight took both the whiteboards and drew a big circle and a little circle on each. On one board the big circle was their world- loaded with the six-sided stars she used to mean “magic”- and a Mars-like world, also with some magic, and with more magic in space between them.

On the other board she drew a couple of stick-figure men and a tree in the big circle, plus a couple of six-pointed stars. That, apparently, was Earth. She added a couple of craters to the small circle, then drew a stick figure with a space helmet. That was Mars.

And then she drew a big X across Mars and another big X in the empty space between.

Finally, she drew a little spaceship rising off of the first whiteboard’s Earth, making a dotted line to show its path towards the other Mars. And then she drew a cluster of radiating lines and made a “poof” noise as she spread her hands- hooves, I mean. Teleportation, or so I guess.

When I nodded, she drew the ship again on the second whiteboard, near to the Mars with the stick-Watney on it. She drew the plume of black smoke, the same black smoke she’d complained about when Cherry had drawn it. She drew a magic star, then X’d it out savagely, then drew a spiraling doodle down onto Mars.

I took photos, the whiteboards were erased, and Starlight began drawing again. On one whiteboard she drew the flag-emblem that was on the shoulder of her suit and Spitfire’s; on the other she drew an American flag. Then, below the flags, she drew a column of images: a single pony or human, a pair of ponies/humans, and a large collection of plants, animals and people.

On the pony-flag whiteboard, she drew a large magic star next to the solo pony. The pair of ponies got a marginally larger star. The group of ponies and tree and critters got a significantly larger star than that.

The stick-man on the American whiteboard got an asterisk. Two stick-men got a blotch that was just barely recognizable as a star if you squinted. The collection of people, plants and animals got a star less than half the size that the other whiteboard had for the solo pony.

I took photos of that, and of one other drawing; of magic stars flowing into the box and coming out again through the power leads.

There were a lot of other drawings, by some of the other aliens and quite a few by me, but you won’t find those on this computer, so there’s no point in my describing them to you. That was all trying to work out details and asking questions back and forth.

I will describe one, though- the one that I drew that solved the problem for me. All it was was a standard x-y-z corner axis diagram… and then, going off in its own direction, a fourth axis, a w axis. When I drew that Starlight nodded, smiled, and tapped her nose with a hoof. (So apparently we also share at least some metaphors.)

Starlight and her friends didn’t come from another world across the galaxy. They came from Earth- not our Earth, but an alternate one, in an alternate parallel universe. In that universe what we call magic is a fundamental force of nature, and it has rules and laws that can be studied and exploited. Starlight’s people built their ship to run almost entirely on magic, with some electronic backup systems.

But somehow, some way, their ship glitched and jumped from their universe into ours. And our universe’s physical laws are different- a lot different.

They’re not totally incompatible. Apparently magic does exist here, or something close, but it’s really thin compared to what the aliens are used to. Back home it’s a universal constant; here, the only source is life.

And Mars, outside this Hab, is dead, dead, dead. No magic… except for what we, here in the Hab, produce with our every breath.

For the minute and a half or so that battery was running, the interior of the Hab had more or less the same universal conditions that the aliens took for granted. And that minute and a half, according to Dragonfly, ate up two entire days worth of recharging.

I asked about the group hug. If I understood the answer, they’re homesick. It was the first time they’d realized just how far from home they really were, and how different this universe is. Before now they were overwhelmed with surviving or getting to know me.

Man, I thought I was fucked. I'm never more than two astronomical units from home. Gravity aside, everything works the same here as at home. I haven’t lost an entire vital physical function. No wonder my guests are on edge half the time. I don’t blame them.

And now I understand why Starlight is always wobbly after our brief chats, and why the others are worried about her. She was the magic specialist in the crew, and she’s used to doing absolutely everything with magic. And apparently trying to do magic without any energy is like running on a strained ankle, only a lot worse.

But there is good news. The ponies can’t talk with home, but they’re not one hundred percent cut off. If they were their life support wouldn’t work, and they’d have died probably before they crashed. But their air and water are automatically teleported from their homeworld to here through a couple of crystals which, small favors, are powered from the magic-rich end of the trip. On this end they burn no magic at all, but they provide a quite literally unlimited supply of air and water.

The ship had one of these systems too. When the ship crashed and the engine room broke open, the sudden rush of air was detected on the other end, and the connection was shut down. The suits have a similar fail-safe, which is why the ponies turned off their water taps every thirty seconds or so. If they ran them longer the other end would think something was broken and turn off the system. And since they can’t actually talk to the other end, that would leave the pony in question without a working spacesuit.

I asked about the box. Their ship had dozens, maybe hundreds, of them to power their main engines. The crash destroyed them all. They’re down to the two emergency batteries now, and neither one has had a full charge since they salvaged them. But two is better than none, as Starlight proved all the times she lifted their ship during the salvage operation. It means that, if it’s important enough, they can still use their magic for brief periods.

That’s pretty much where we left off. It’s past dinner time now. Drawing pictures, even line-art sketches and stick figures, takes a lot of time. I need to find time to work with Starlight on learning their language. I’m outnumbered five to one, so it makes more sense for me to learn theirs than for them to learn mine. I’m not looking forward to it. I barely got by with French in high school and college, and I’ve forgotten most of it since. All I really remember is the bad language, which aside from “Merde!” is mostly religious.

But still… magic! Wow!

Skeptic Mark is still complaining there’s no such thing, but Scientist Mark wants to know how it works and Geek Mark wants to cast Magic Missile, and Doesn't Want to Die on Mars Mark will use anything no matter how incredible to live until rescue comes, so Skeptic Mark is outvoted three to one.

So… yeah. Wow!