A few tastefully puffy clouds surrounded the bright sun that shone down on the Griffon Sea, Horseshoe Bay, and the long cape that divided the two. That same sun shone down most brilliantly on the complex of glass-walled buildings that stretched across the base of a smaller cape that jutted north from the large one. Five years before the little peninsula had been too modest for even a name… before the space age arrived. Now it was Cape Friendship, home of the Equestrian Space Agency and the crown jewel of Princess Twilight Sparkle’s efforts to advance the boundaries of knowledge for all Equus’s many speaking peoples.
Twilight Sparkle, the founder of the space program, sat at a table in the environmental systems building, going over the plans for the Sparkle Drive yet again. It wasn’t her space program anymore- Moondancer now headed the ESA, just as the changeling Occupant had assumed full control of operations at Horseton. But it had been the ship she’d designed, the engine she’d created, and the spell she’d personally enchanted into the main drive crystal, and so she still felt responsible.
She hadn’t been on the grounds for ten days, because friendship problems and princessly duties waited for no mare, not even the lost crew of Amicitas. But even away from here, she’d spent any time she had alone gnawing at the problem, trying to figure out exactly where she’d gone wrong. And, now that she had a day to spare, it just felt proper to be back on site working hard to solve the problem she’d created.
Her only comfort lay in the knowledge that, wherever they were, the missing astronauts weren’t dead. The moment when the environmental supply system for Amicitas had gone to fail-safe mode had been bad, and the moment when the environmental systems for each of the five space suits had done likewise, all at the same time, even worse. Twilight had wanted to die. Queen Chrysalis, livid at the loss of her changeling and the pony pilot who had made her dreams reality, had been prepared to fulfill her wish. Only Moondancer and Occupant had been able to talk each around into waiting and seeing if the suit systems came back on.
And fifteen hours later, come back on they had, all five of them. When that had happened, Twilight had reactivated Amicitas’s air and water, only for the fail-safe to kick in again almost instantly. And when the suit life support had turned off again on all five suits, they tried the main system a third time, only to see it shut down again. The obvious conclusion was that the crew had found shelter of some kind, but not aboard their own ship… wherever it was.
Wherever they were.
The ship had been tracked by tracking spell and the telepresence spell for its entire flight until, not far from its destination, it had vanished without a trace. The ship hadn’t been destroyed. It hadn’t become invisible. It hadn’t teleported someplace else in one huge bounce. It had simply ceased to exist. Attempts to trace the ship through the life support system had led nowhere- literally so, the traces returning no pings at all. Experiments in using the same connection to re-establish a telepresence connection had been attempted using the space station and a couple of old changeling-built capsules, ending either in failure or in the destruction of the life support crystals on both ends.
Dr. Warner von Brawn at Horseton was already at work designing a rescue ship, to be assembled in orbit using the same sort of infrastructure as the space station. But construction hadn’t even been scheduled… because there was no clue where Amicitas and her crew were or what the conditions were. Were they in orbit or on a planet? Were they alone? Were they free or prisoners? Too much depended on those answers to commit to a ship design that might be useless on arrival.
And, also, before any ship could be launched, the Sparkle Drive had to be fixed. Any rescue ship needed the Sparkle Drive… but not if the Drive would strand the rescue party just like the crew of Amicitas.
“Oh! Excuse me, princess!”
Twilight looked up. A pony she didn’t know, a young earth pony with a cutie mark of what looked like a blotch of some sort of runny liquid, had entered the otherwise empty room, a coffee cup held in one forehoof. Though more expressive than Maude Pie, the newcomer didn’t seem prepared to win any awards for Equestria’s Funniest Face. “Good morning!” she said. “Please don’t mind me, I’m just working.”
“It’s one in the afternoon,” the earth pony said, looking a bit concerned at the purple princess. “How long have you been in here? And where’s Hall Monitor?”
“I told her she could go home for the day,” Twilight said. “I’ll talk with Moondancer about it before I go home… er… I’m sorry, what was your name again?”
“Drying Paint,” the pony replied. “I was hired two weeks ago to watch this room.”
“Oh,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Er, have you had any experience in space flight before?”
“No,” Drying Paint admitted. “My previous job was as line judge for professional snail racing. Before that I was a telegraph operator. Before that I was a volunteer for the Thaum Decay Observation Project.”
“The what?” Twilight asked. “But thaums don’t decay.”
“Professor G. Steven Hawk said they do, only very slowly,” Drying Paint said. “So slowly that the universe isn’t old enough for one to have decayed yet. But he’s sure that, any day now, one will, and he’ll be there to observe it.”
“Riiiiight,” Twilight said. “Well, er, just get on with whatever you were doing.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Drying Paint pushed a metal chair up to the table across from the bank of readouts for every environmental support spell currently in use, got up on it, folded her forehooves together on the tabletop, and stared off into space.
Twilight tried to return to her work, but the other pony’s presence distracted her. After about three minutes of failing to read her own notes she looked up to see Paint in exactly the same position. Four minutes after that she looked up again to find the earth pony unmoved and unmoving. She stared at her for two straight minutes before Paint blinked once.
“So,” Twilight said, struggling to find something to say to break an awkward silence, “enjoying the job?”
Paint shrugged almost imperceptibly. “It’s a living,” she said.
AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 28
ARES III SOL 31
“So,” Dragonfly asked Cherry Berry, “what do you think is the deal with humans and clothes?”
“What do you mean?” Cherry asked, switching off her suit’s water feed.
Dragonfly switched her own suit’s water feed on, releasing a stream that turned to large drops before slowly splattering onto the cultivated Martian dirt. “You notice that when Mark takes a shower- which he does a lot less these days- he always undresses and dresses behind the curtain?” She switched her valve off again.
“No, I haven’t noticed,” Cherry Berry replied in a tone that added the unspoken words or cared. She turned her own suit’s water back on, tapping the seconds off with her hoof.
“And that you never see humans without clothes in those movies Mark shows on his computer?”Dragonfly asked. She switched her water back on. “Granted, that ‘Daisy’ human came pretty close once. If she’d been a pony, you would have been able to see her cutie mark.” She switched the water back off.
Cherry Berry, who had switched her water off midway through Dragonfly’s musings on Daisy Duke’s wardrobe, switched her water back on. “I really haven’t given it any thought,” she insisted. “It just doesn’t seem all that important to me.” She switched the water off and took a couple of steps to the next patch of soil that needed water.
Dragonfly switched her water back on and followed, leaving a trail of spatters behind her. “What I’m thinking is, ponies have fur, right? But Mark doesn’t seem to have any except on his head and face. Maybe he’s ashamed.”
“Dragonfly, your water,” Cherry Berry warned.
“Maybe humans see all the other mammals,” Dragonfly continued, too caught up in her idea to hear the warning, “and think, ‘I must hide my shame, so the other animals never know-‘”
“DRAGONFLY!” Cherry Berry shouted. “Your WATER!”
Dragonfly blinked. “What about my-“
The dribble from Dragonfly’s drinking straw ceased. The lights on her life support system went out.
“-water?” Dragonfly finished, looking down at her suit. “Um… uh oh,” she said. She frantically flicked the switch back and forth, stomach sinking to new depths with every click.
“Please tell me you just switched it off.” Cherry Berry said.
“What’s going on?” Spitfire asked, adding, “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,” before switching off her own suit’s water.
“I think…” Dragonfly gulped. “I think I just bucked up… I think I just-“
Twilight Sparkle looked up from her notes. Two of the Amicitas crew suit readouts had lit up- but only the water feed. The air feed remained inactive. For what seemed like a very long time the two water lights remained lit. Then, just as a third water light lit up without its corresponding air light, the first two switched off. “What’s that?” she asked. “Are they really thirsty for some reason?”
“It does that sometimes,” Drying Paint said, not moving her head. “It goes away after a couple of hours.”
“But didn’t you report this to anyone?” Twilight Sparkle insisted.
“I wasn’t hired to report,” Drying Paint said. “I was hired to watch.”
Twilight Sparkle’s jaw dropped. “But… but don’t you ever tell anypony what you see?”
“Of course I do,” Drying Paint said. “Moondancer comes at the end of every shift and asks us what we’ve seen. For example, today I would say that Spitfire, Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Fireball all took multiple drinks of water averaging twelve seconds per drink every half minute or so for… if it goes like it usually does, about two hours.” She pointed a hoof to another set of lights and said, “I would also tell her that Leonid took normal sips of water five times between 1 PM and 3 PM during his spacewalk and that Rainbow Dash’s respiration suggests she took a nap in her capsule from about 2:15 to 2:40 PM. And-“
“I get the point!” Twilight said hurriedly. “But these lights aren’t normal, are they?”
Drying Paint’s hooves returned to their folded position on the tabletop. “They’re not abnormal.”
Twilight groaned, settling back to her own work. She could go chase down Moondancer and ask for an explanation, but it wouldn’t do much good and it would waste Moondancer’s time. Besides, Paint was probably correct. The water drinking was certainly strange, but by itself it didn’t mean-
A buzzer sounded on the board of lights- the buzzer indicating that the life support spell’s fail-safe had kicked in and shut the valves leading to the transport crystals. A large red light lit up on one of Amicitas’s suit life support indicators.
“Oops,” Drying Paint said. “That’s never happened before. Looks like Dragonfly got a bit too thirsty.”
“Wait a minute,” Twilight mumbled, “Changelings almost never get thirsty.”
“Probably just a careless slip.” The earth pony left her perch on her chair and walked over to the control board, tapping the switches to reset Dragonfly’s life support. The air and water lights flickered on; the air shut off, and after a couple of seconds, so did the water. The alarm didn’t come back on.
“Back to normal,” Drying Paint said, returning to her post.
“-bucked up big time,” Dragonfly said as water suddenly spattered on her forehooves.
Cherry Berry released a huge sigh of relief as the changeling scrambled to turn her suit’s water back off. “I can’t believe how lucky you are sometimes!” she snapped. “You be more careful!”
“In fact,” Spitfire added, “why don’t you go show Mark how to work your suit?” The alien had been walking around the dirt-covered floor with a small sample box full of water, slowly adding water and kneading it into the surface with his fingers. “If you can’t use it responsibly-“
“It shouldn’t have come back on,” Dragonfly said, looking at her suit.
Dragonfly pointed to her suit. “My suit life support shouldn’t have come back on,” she insisted. “So far as anypony back home knows, when a suit’s fail-safe trips, it means a dead astronaut. And anyway, all the main crystals are run from the same building in Baltimare. They’re so reliable nopony bothers to watch them any more. So the suit shouldn’t… have… unless…” Pale blue eyes widened, and perforated wings buzzed under the loose space suit fabric.
“Unless what?” Cherry asked.
“Shut up,” Dragonfly said. “Gotta think a bit.” She’d had the training, hadn’t she? Working with Occupant, working at Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, training to control all the unmared probes and satellites launched by the Changeling Space Agency… but she hadn’t used it in months. Usually some other changeling or pony had their hoof on the key… but…
Keep it short. Keep it very short. What was the most important message she could send, if she could send a message? And how few letters could she make it? ALL SAFE SEND HELP? NOT DEAD YET? PLZ SND MOR SNAX?
Her eyes lit on the Amicitas’s main environmental system, the coupling for the water system and the mount for the ventilation system both disconnected, leaving a simple box with a few switches and lights on its front. She trotted over and switched the feed modes from automatic to manual and switched the manual water switch on.
She trotted back over to the dirt and said, “This is important. Real important. Listen to my rhythm and copy it exactly, okay? Everyling copy it exactly!” She held her suit carefully over the dirt, put her hoof on the suit’s water switch, and began switching it on and off in a rapid but careful rhythm.
Dash dot dot dash dot dot dot dash dot…
“It’s doing it again!” Twilight Sparkle shouted. “And it’s even weirder this time!”
Dragonfly’s water light was now pulsing in an irregular manner. The flickering on and off almost seemed to have a rhythm, but the only thing Twilight made of it was that something was making the water feed stutter in a way that ought to be impossible.
“There’s no explanation for this!” the princess shouted. “Miss Paint, please go get Moondancer right now!”
“I’m watching the board,” Drying Paint replied, not moving a muscle.
“This is an order from your- now another one’s doing it!!” Twilight pointed to Cherry Berry’s water light, which matched the rhythm of Dragonfly’s light for a few beats, then stopped. “Will you please go get Moondancer?!”
“I am watching the board,” Drying Paint insisted, as Cherry Berry’s light began to match Dragonfly’s pulsing again, this time joined by Spitfire’s. Spitfire’s light dropped out after a few pulses, but Fireball’s light took its place, and it never stopped, matching Dragonfly’s pulse for pulse.
A few seconds later, four of the five Amicitas suits were pulsing the same irregular beat in perfect synchronization.
“If you don’t go get Moondancer, I will!” Twilight insisted. “She needs to know this right now! What do you have to say to that?”
“I,” Drying Paint said. “N. W. A. T.”
“What? You’re not allowed to go crazy now!” Twilight Sparkle shouted, her wings flapping with her agitation. “Give me a straight answer!”
“U. R. N. T. H. E.” Drying Paint swallowed, pointing to the lights, and added quickly, “Writeitdown N. W. A. T. E.”
Twilight’s eyes widened. “Mare’s code,” she gasped. She knew Mare’s code, but she’d never seen it used with lights- only with telegraph or radio. She scrambled for her notes and a pencil, grabbing both with her magic as she said, “Keep calling out the letters! And you just got yourself lifetime employment by the crown!”
Drying Paint read off letters, and Twilight wrote them down until they repeated, then continued writing them down until they repeated again.
“Turn the main water on,” Twilight gasped. “Turn the main water on!!”
Sighing, Drying Paint began to leave her chair.
“No!” Twilight shouted, running for the large panel that represented Amicitas’s life support. “I’ve got it! You just keep watching!”
“That’s my job,” Paint said simply.
“How much longer do we have to do this?” Fireball grumbled, keeping his on-off switch in rhythm with the dots and dashes of the rest.
“Just keep going!” Dragonfly shouted. “Somepony’s watching! Somepony has to be watching! We just have to wait for them to figure-“
The lights on Amicitas’s life support pack came on, and a blast of water erupted from the hose nozzle on the front, spraying water halfway across the Hab. Mark, startled, ran to a cabinet to get a bin to catch the water, only to come to a stumbling halt as the water shut off as quickly as it had begun.
“They heard us,” Dragonfly gasped.
Starlight, who had been lying in her bunk napping to conserve energy, jumped out and walked over. “What was that splashing?” she asked.
“They heard us!!” Dragonfly cheered.
“They heard us!!!” Fireball roared.
“They heard us,” Cherry Berry sighed, falling to her knees, then on her rump, on the wet dirt.
The main water activated again, sending another blast of water, then another, then burst after burst of water in short staccato splashes. Mark maneuvered a drawer from one of the Hab cabinets under the falling water, then ran to get a second basin for when the first filled up.
“E-S-A-F-5-4… D-E… B-L-M-E-S-A… K,” Dragonfly said, calling out the letters one at a time. As the rhythm of splashes began to repeat, she said, “Cape Friendship calling ESA Flight Fifty-Four, that’s us!”
A universe away, Twilight Sparkle wrote down letters and numbers as Drying Paint called them out, the latter’s eyes locked on Dragonfly’s water light.
BLM-ESA DE ESA-F54 K
“Yes! Yes Yes YES!!” Twilight Sparkle cheered. “We have communication! They’re TALKING TO US!!” With a surge of magic power she launched a spell bolt through the room’s sole window, smashing its glass out in the process, and causing a flare to light up Cape Friendship like a second sun.
“That’ll get Moondancer here!” she said. “Now to find out what’s going on!”
MISSION LOG – SOL 31
Well, now I’ve seen everything- a musical number featuring three ponies, a horse-bug-thing, a dragon, and the most water I’ve ever seen wasted since Lewis treated us all to a day at Schlitterbahn.
I only caught part of it on camera. Whatever they were doing caused their ship’s main life support system to reactivate, and it was splashing water everywhere- more water in one spot than I wanted. I want moist soil in the Hab, not mud, and I definitely don’t want my nice new topsoil washing itself through the access panels into the delicate electronics of all the machines that keep me from dying a frozen airless death on this planet. But I did catch some of the dancing and singing and, above all, the united rhythm of all five aliens splashing water out of their suits all over the place. Video file attached.
Even Fireball was smiling and laughing. He was even laughing harder than he had when Roscoe put that police cruiser into the pond for the third time in the same episode- and that’s saying something. The dragon really likes his car wrecks.
They’re still celebrating. The waterworks ended with a long series of sputtering splashes from their ship’s water supply. I caught most of that and fed it to the water reclaimer. Before long I’m going to have to improvise a cistern- the main water tanks are virtually full, despite all the water we’ve put into this soil.
But hey- fourth world problems!
Just a minute- Starlight is finally coming over to me. She said she wasn’t going to use her translation spell. I wonder if she’s going to change her mind, or if she’s going to use what little English she has.
MISSION LOG – SOL 31 (2)
Transcript of conversation between Starlight Glimmer and Mark Watney (note: all in English- no translation provided)
STARLIGHT: Mark! We talk home!
WATNEY: You talk home? Your home? You talked with your home world?
STARLIGHT: Yes! Dah dah dah talk! Home knows!
WATNEY: They know you’re alive?
STARLIGHT: Alive! Yes! Home knows alive! Good! Good-good!
WATNEY: That’s wonderful!
STARLIGHT: What word “rundafla”?
WATNEY: Won-der-ful, it means… it means good-GOOD-good!
WATNEY (feeling a bit of a killjoy here): ONE-DUUUR-FULLLLL. Wonderful. Talking with home is wonderful!
STARLIGHT: Yes! Wonderful-wonderful talk home!
WATNEY: What did they say?
STARLIGHT (shrugs): Say “how is.” We say how. Talk again day.
WATNEY: That’s it?
STARLIGHT: Bad. (gestures to the churned-up soil)
WATNEY (decides now is not the time for more language lessons): OK, I gotcha. Tell me when next talk.
Well, shit. They turned their water supply into a telegraph. It’s a very messy and inconvenient telegraph, but it’s something.
They spoke with their home world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked as all hell for them, but I am so fucking jealous right now. Some of us haven’t got magic plumbing that connects us to Venkat Kapoor’s private executive john.
Hell, even if I did, I don’t know Morse code. We had a lot of totally useless survival exercises and training, more for team building than for the extremely tiny chance our landing shuttle came down in the jungles or the Sahara. Unfortunately learning Morse code isn’t much of a bonding experience.
Time to remedy that. Let’s look through the useful information NASA packed along with me to see if there’s a Morse chart…
… yes! Yes, there is, under Emergency Communications Protocols! Thank you, legacy info from seventy years ago! I’ll never make fun of NASA’s ossified bureaucracy ever again!
Now, how do I use it? Radio’s busted, so unless the ponies have something I can repurpose, that’s out. This communication is going to be one-way. I have to focus on something NASA can’t help but receive.
Rocks. There are quite literally tons of rocks out on the surface. And there’s tons more around the edges of Site Epsilon’s slopes. I can spell out dots and dashes with those, and it’ll be a lot easier to read from orbit than Roman letters. Come to think of it, why didn’t I try Roman letters before? “SOS SEND FOOD AND HAY” wouldn’t have been that hard.
Yeah. This is a plan. I’ll make the same message twice- once north of the Hab and once just west of Site Epsilon. A satellite has to catch it at some point.
Now I just have to plan my message. Keep it short, use the texting 1337 5kllz I learned when I was eight. It’ll still take a lot of rocks to be visible from orbit.
But still… a message home! Damn, what a great idea!
TRANSCRIPT – WATER TELEGRAPH EXCHANGE, ESA BALTIMARE and ESA SHIP AMICITAS
(note: all standard telegraphy / Mares Code shortcuts and abbreviations translated)
ESA: Amicitas, Baltimare calling, over.
AMICITAS: Baltimare, Amicitas calling, over.
ESA: Status, over.
AMICITAS: Five crew landed safe. Ship wrecked. Hostile planet- no breathable air. At surface base with one alien, also marooned. Rationing food. Alien sharing food, attempting to grow more. Need rescue. Water is messy, will contact again after 24 hours. Over.
ESA: Copied. Stay safe. Out.