AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 19
ARES III SOL 23
It was done, for now.
Fireball and the monkey both stank, even more so than the habitat in general. The dragon longed for a nice long lava bath, or failing that ten minutes in the decontamination shower. But the alien ape, despite several longing looks in the direction of the shower stall, had made no move to take off his equally stinky clothes. And if Mark was going to tough it out, then so would Fireball. It was a matter of principle. No alien, especially a mostly furless, scaleless, clawless, tiny-toothed monkey alien, was going to out-tough a dragon.
But both of them washed their hands in the chemistry lab sink, because nobody wanted to have horseapples on their hands when they were eating.
Cherry Berry, on the other hand, was in the shower, scrubbing industriously. She’d been the only pony helping the dragon and the human with the dirt-doubling project. The others had retreated into their space suits the moment Mark had opened the compost box. They still wore them, though the eight-hour self-imposed safety limit had to run out pretty soon. Starlight Glimmer and Dragonfly had one worktable covered with whiteboards and the manuals from the ship, while Spitfire had taken her medical manual and retired to a bunk. But Cherry had been up to her hocks in very smelly dirt and… other things… all day.
She emerged with two of the alien’s stupid sandwich baggies on her forehooves. (The alien kept dirt and pebbles in them, but Fireball had seen ponies use them back home, and they were sandwich baggies. He still didn’t know how a pony ever unzipped one without a unicorn to help.) The improvised plastic booties made sense, since the just-turned portion of the habitat’s new dirt floor included the part immediately in front of the shower. While Mark settled to his favorite work table and opened his picture-typewriter thing, Cherry walked over to the kitchen area and opened the refrigerator.
Well, walked wasn’t the word. Trudged was more like it, just like a dragon who’d been told by the Dragonlord that if they wanted any more gems for their hoard they’d have to go dig in the dirt. (And come to think of it, hadn’t he been digging in the dirt all day? Fireball felt he deserved some gems, even if it was mostly boring bland quartz.)
She walked over to a table, put the one and a quarter cartons of cherries on it, and pushed a stool up to sit on. Perched precariously on the stool, which had been built for tall bipedal aliens with no tails, she opened the basket and sighed a sigh that sang of more tragedy and heartbreak than a Smoky Mountain balladeer.
That sigh made Fireball’s spines tremble. After her first objections Cherry had personally overseen the composting without more than the occasional expression of disgust. She’d gone through the day’s hard, filthy work of moving and mixing dirt without a murmur. But now she looked ready to cry…
… and oh, how Fireball hated ponies crying. For some reason it got contagious.
Slowly, reverently, the pink pony removed her forehoof protectors, opened the mostly-empty fruit carton, and took out a cherry, rolling it between her hooves.
“What’s the matter, commander?” he asked as politely as he could bring himself to manage around ponies.
“They’re starting to go soft,” Cherry said. “Look, there are bruises on each of them.” She pointed into the basket, but Fireball shrugged. Fruit was fruit to him. “If I wait any longer, they’re going to spoil. So today’s the day.”
Oh. Fireball remembered Cherry mentioning something like this at some point- that at some point she’d have to either devour or throw out the fresh cherries she’d been carefully doling out to herself. Apparently the Time of No More Cherries had come.
“Yeah, that’s tough, commander,” he said, not particularly sympathetic.
“You understand what this means, though,” Cherry Berry continued. “You were looking at the same problem until a couple days ago.”
“That wasn’t the same at all,” Fireball replied. “I was going to suffer malnutrition before the geeks found that cave. You’ll still have healthy meals and then alfalfa to eat, if Mark the Monkey there can grow anything here.” The words were angry, but his tone remained soft, and Fireball didn’t understand why. Yes, sapphires were his favorite gem and plain quartz down near the bottom, but the spice of smoky quartz and the juiciness of citrine and amethyst would help with that, and… where was he going with this thought?
“But now you’ve got a gem mine,” Cherry said, putting the cherry in her mouth and, in a few moments, spitting out the pit onto the table. “Even in Equestria, famous for its magic and wonders, nopony ever had a cherry mine,” she continued, chewing bits of cherry in her cheek.
“Has anypony tried?” As pointless as the idea seemed to Fireball, some pony somewhere HAD to have done it. Ponies were like that- the more stupid the notion, the quicker they wanted to put it into practice.
“There’s never been any reason to,” Cherry sighed, swallowing. “The cherry orchards around the country produce several harvests a year, so even in winter there’s not really a shortage. And with proper earth pony care and attention you can grow a tree from pit to fruit in about two years. Nopony imagined you’d need cherries someplace where absolutely nothing could grow.”
“Hm. So what you’re saying is, you haven’t tried.” Before Cherry could respond, he bellowed, “YO! Starlight, c’mere!”
Starlight and Dragonfly looked up from their conference. Shrugging, the two slipped off their own chairs and trotted over, shaking a hoof now and again as dirt clung unpleasantly to them. “You roared, Fireball?” Starlight asked dryly.
“Yeah. The commander wants more cherries,” Fireball said. “How do we get more?”
“How do we get more? We get rescued, that’s how. That’s the only way.”
“Don’t you have some sort of mushy-gooey pony magic,” Fireball said, making oogy-boogy motions with his claws, “that’ll make new cherries appear?”
Starlight rubbed her head. “You two,” she muttered, “you two just interrupted an important planning session about what parts we’re going to need to rip out of the ship to make the cave airtight. For this. And we’re saving the first aid kit for major trauma, which means I have to live with the headache.”
“Just answer the question, Ms. Magic-Solves-Everything,” Fireball snapped back.
“Fine,” Starlight retorted. “If a unicorn knows where some cherries are nearby, she can teleport them to herself. A really powerful unicorn or alicorn on the top of her game can transmute something else into cherries. But I can’t remember even an alicorn creating anything, much less cherries, out of nothing but magic energy. At least, none that wouldn’t just vanish when the spell ended!”
“So no cherries out of nowhere.”
“Weren’t you listening? NO!”
Fireball didn’t like the unicorn’s tone of voice, but he settled for a snort without any flame in it. Flame was hard to come by here for some reason, and even dragons were cautious about dragonfire in enclosed places. “What was that middle part? Something about turning something else into cherries?”
“Transmutation,” Starlight said. “Can be temporary or permanent depending on how much magic power you put into it. Takes serious concentration and a strong ambient magical field.”
“Which we don’t have,” Cherry Berry sighed, in the process of eating her third cherry.
“We’ve got the magic batteries,” Fireball pointed out.
“For emergencies!” Cherry snapped.
“And in this environment it’d take a lot of charge to transmute something permanently into a cherry,” Starlight continued. “And before you ask, no, I can’t make it cost less energy. I could use dark magic, but there's always a bigger price after the fact- usually that it forces you to cast more dark magic spells. The cleanup is always more expensive than any savings from the original spell.”
“So give it a try,” Fireball said. “Let’s see how much juice it sucks up, and maybe we have a solution to the food problem in general. Heck, it would be worth it to get all this dirt out of here!”
Hah. There, he’d thought of something. He wasn’t just dumb muscle. By making this about more than cherries, he’d taken away Cherry Berry’s argument about the magic batteries only being for emergencies. The food issue was an emergency… well, not exactly, since everyone could see it coming, but it was definitely the most important issue facing them. If magic offered a solution, it had to be tried.
And sure enough, Cherry Berry, mouth full of cherry, didn’t say anything when Starlight looked to her for confirmation.
“All right,” the violet unicorn said. “Dragonfly, please bring me whichever battery has less charge on it. Also, I’m going to need something to transform into a cherry. Something we’re not going to need back.”
Fireball had just the thing. After all, there were precisely three things they now had more of than they needed, right? And air and water weren’t going to work for this. He went to his newly expanded gem hoard, rustled through the bits, and pulled out the smallest piece, an irregular fleck of carnelian. It looked like a cherry, and it was about the size of a cherry, and…
It took him two attempts to set it on the table in front of Starlight and let go. Parting with any part of a hoard… well, it went against everything dragons believed in. But if it prevented more pony crying, fine.
Starlight poked it with her hoof, verifying that the thing was a rock and not a fruit. “Maybe something a little bigger?” she suggested. “If this works we won’t be making food one berry at a time.”
“Just make with the light show, magic pony,” Fireball grumbled.
Mark, attracted by the noise, stood up and walked over, pointing to the little gem and asking, “Wux gnaw hingawn?”
“Cyaunts,” Starlight replied. The ape cocked an eyebrow, then leaned over the table to watch with interest.
Dragonfly brought the battered emergency battery #2 over to the table. “It’s only got six percent,” she said.
“That’s fine,” Starlight replied. “If this spell takes more than that, then it’s too expensive to use for food.” She flipped the switch, put one hoof on a mana terminal, and focused her mind on the spell.
The pebble, clipped off the edge of one of the narrow spots in the crystal cave, danced and spun, rising into the air in a sphere of light.
Sweat dripped down Starlight’s face, matting her mane to her forehead below her horn. “It’s… resisting…” she grunted. “More… power…”
The battery beeped and went dead.
A moment later the spell collapsed, and the piece of carnelian shattered with a deafening crack. A second crack sounded a split second later, followed by tiny glossy grains of semi-precious mineral settling down from the air onto the tabletop.
The underside of a table, Fireball realized, is particularly uncomfortable when four other bodies are pressing as tightly as possible against your own. Despite that he let the monkey expose his head first, because after all, it was his space house. Let him fix it.
A few moments later the alien said something in his sheep language, and the other bodies surrounding Fireball shifted away. Finally freed, he climbed out from under the table. Mark was standing next to a storage cabinet across the hab from where the group had been working. There was a huge dent in the cabinet door with a small hole in the center. Mark wrenched the bent door open, reached in among several plastic containers, and pulled out a piece of carnelian, about half the size of the original.
Without saying a word, Mark pointed first to the hole and then up at the fancy rubber canvas that was all that separated the warm, thick air inside from the freezing, almost nonexistent air outside.
Dragonfly was the first to speak, remarking, “I, um, I feel a sudden urge to visit the little changeling’s room.” She picked up the mana battery and carried it with her back to its usual resting spot.
“Six percent on one battery,” Starlight said, voice shaking wildly, “spell fails for lack of power, and the resulting backlash nearly kills us all. I think this experiment is over.” She laughed a hysterical laugh, shoved a hoof into her own mouth, and fled the table.
Mark pulled out a camera, took several photos of the hole inside and out, and then returned to his thing full of buttons and began typing about twice as fast as he had before. Cherry, still in shock, swiped up a hoofful of cherries and jammed them all into her mouth at once. The pits came back out, one by one, set carefully aside as she chewed.
Fireball stood, and watched, and thought, for about three minutes. Then, without saying a word, he stood next to Cherry, took the remaining carton of berries, and opened it. With a single flick of a claw he sliced a cherry open, and with a second flick he extracted the pit. Two more flicks, one more cherry pit, set carefully in the upturned lid of the carton. Another pit followed, and another, with the pitted cherries getting dropped into the top of the almost-empty carton in front of the pony.
“Hmmmph…what are you doing?” Cherry asked once her mouth was free enough to talk.
Fireball didn’t answer. Flick, flick, plunk, plop. Flick, flick, plunk, plop. Flick, flick, plunk, plop.
In two minutes the job was done. All the remaining cherries were pitted, and the pits gathered in one carton. The other carton sat in front of Cherry.
“Eat,” Fireball muttered. “They’ll only go bad if you don’t.”
He paid no attention to the utter confusion on her face, and he didn’t see her jaw drop when he walked over to Mark and practically slammed the carton full of cherry pits into the alien’s gut. “You!” the dragon growled, having got his full attention. He pointed a claw to the carton and shouted, “Make these grow! Understand?”
There. Job done. Fireball went back to the lab sink to wash the cherry juice from his clawtips.
Stupid pony crying disease, he thought. It’s contagious even when they DON’T cry.