AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 41
ARES III SOL 44
Even though built from the products of Equestria’s most advanced metallurgy and engineered to withstand the forces of atmospheric re-entry, potential crash landings, and changeling accidents, the Amicitas’s cargo airlock was still breakable. Indeed, under the circumstances, it was quite literally irreplaceable. It couldn’t just be dragged or thrown up the slope to the cave and then crammed into the mouth. It had to be handled delicately.
That was why Starlight had levitated it onto the rover’s cargo rack and why Spitfire and Dragonfly had strapped it down securely and ridden atop the rover with it. It was why Mark had driven the rover at less than half its top speed, taking a gentle hour and ten minutes to drive from the Hab to the cave. And, since Starlight needed to conserve magic for the sealing spell to come, that was why the three strongest people were hand-carrying the massive assembly up the slope by hand and hoof.
Hand, and hoof, and aching, aching back. Cherry Berry hadn’t missed the strength boost earth pony magic normally provided this desperately since the crash.
“Commander,” Fireball said quietly from one end, “I’m pretty sure I could carry this myself if you’ll just-“
“Shut. Up,” Cherry Berry gasped from under over two tons of metal. “Keep. Going.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the dragon said. He’d been very quiet since the explosion- to which Cherry said good. She didn’t know if it was guilt or her truly heroic chewing-out after the fact, and it didn’t really matter. If the accident taught him to be more careful, that was fantastic. But right now, with about half of the weight of the airlock on her spine, shoving her mercifully padded and overengineered suit backpack onto her like a second skin, she was in no mood to appreciate such things.
“Not pfahr nou,” Mark chipped in, trying to lift more on his end of the airlock. The alien voice irritated Cherry right now, too. More and more Mark was using that patronizing, talking-to-children tone of voice with the ponies. Cherry didn’t think he even realized he was doing it. But that same tone of voice was in the adults talking to children on Partridge Herd, and to a lesser extent all over Electric Store. Nopony appreciated being talked down to, even if in an unfamiliar language. Cherry appreciated it least of all from a tall biped who probably wouldn’t last five minutes in a wagon harness.
Yes, Fireball probably could have carried the whole thing on his back with Mark and Cherry to steady the load. And Mark probably only meant to encourage her with his words. But Cherry had grown sick and tired of playing in, put politely, mud. She was tired of sitting back and overseeing things while others did the actual work most of the time. She wanted something she could do, herself, to show her strength, her experience, her value.
So here she was, destroying her vertebrae and wrecking her knees and fetlocks, hauling a super-technological empty metal box up a hill.
“Okay, stop!” By now everypony knew those two words in Mark’s language, so Spitfire said them in English instead of Equestrian. She didn’t know the words for the rest of it, so she switched back to her native tongue for, “Boys, pick up! Up, Mark! Dragonfly, get Cherry out!”
The load rose off Cherry’s back, more due to Fireball’s efforts than Mark’s. Cherry flopped to the Martian sand and gasped for breath as Dragonfly hooked her forelegs with her fetlocks. “Good job, boss!” the changeling said, hauling the exhausted pony out of the way. “Okay, she’s out!”
“Okay, set it down easy, boys. Down slow, Mark!” Spitfire shouted. With a faint crunching noise the airlock touched down, and Fireball and Mark stepped away. Mark stumbled a bit, looking ready to join Cherry prone on the dirt.
Ha, Cherry thought mirthlessly. What did he do to wear himself out? I had most of the weight. On my shoulders. And pelvis. And oh, oh, oh, my back.
Spitfire looked her over and shook her head with disapproval. “You’ve caught Starlight’s insanity,” she said. “Is there something about this planet that makes people suicidally stupid?”
“Is the cave ready?” Cherry gasped, not yet ready to pull herself back onto her hooves. Maybe Fireball could carry her back to the rover. Yes, that sounded like an excellent idea.
“We’ve harvested all the crystals within sixteen hooves of the entrance,” Spitfire said. “We’ve put some in bins to take back today, but most of them will just sit out here until we need them.”
“Good,” Cherry wheezed. “How’s Starlight?”
“Pushing too hard, like usual,” Spitfire grumbled. “Book says she should have been in bed for a week after that level of magic overstrain. She’s risking permanent damage, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Cherry replied. “So’s everypony else. I’m told death is quite permanent.” She groaned. That last sentence was such a Chrysalis thing to say. She’d spent far too long working for the queen-bug, hadn’t she? Yes, she had. She could see it in Spitfire’s face, since the reflective helmet visor was retracted on her suit.
Cherry watched the pegasus swallowing the words Smart aleck and replacing them with a forced, “Yes, ma’am.”
As embarrassing as that yes-ma’am was from the ex-Wonderbolts commander, Cherry hurt too much to care. Anyway, time was pressing. They couldn’t stay out in their suits all day like they could back home. “Okay,” she said. “Get me out of the way, and tell Starlight it’s showtime.”
A minute later, leaning against Dragonfly for support, Cherry Berry watched as the airlock lifted into the air and floated with speed and precision into the cave mouth that had been specifically widened and smoothed and dug out to admit it. Of course, Starlight wasn’t showing off; the speed was absolutely necessary to save power in the magic battery for the more important spell.
Sealing spells were common among the more accomplished mages of Equestria. Dozens of spells created magical doors that couldn’t be opened without the right spell or password. Unfortunately, Starlight had explained, most of those spells were useless here because they were really force-fields that required a constant supply of magic that this Faust-forsaken planet just didn’t provide. But there had been one such spell she’d read once in Twilight’s books that turned the doorframe itself into the door, reshaping the doorway and walls to make it appear as if no door existed. With a minor tweak, she’d said, the spell could seal up all the empty space around the airlock- making the material airtight in the process.
And, for once, it looked like Starlight had gotten the spell right on the first go. Cherry gasped as the now-toothless cave mouth warped and stretched almost like lips, pulling down from above and up through the dust and soil. In about thirty seconds the cave was gone, at least as far as the outside world could tell. In its place sat a smooth low-sloped hillside with a lump jutting out of it and a large metal door cut into the end of the lump.
Spitfire had, of course, spent the whole period of spell-casting right next to Starlight. Cherry could hear her over the suit comms, grumbling, “Okay, that’s two ponies done with work for the day,” as Starlight released the spell and folded like a road map. “Three if you count Mark. Fireball, come get Starlight. Cherry, I recommend lunch break at the rover.”
“Agreed,” she said, still leaning on Dragonfly. “Workers first. Spitfire, Fireball, Dragonfly, go eat.”
“No, ma’am,” Dragonfly insisted. Cherry felt something tapping on her thruster backpack. “I need to open up your suit and make sure nothing’s broken.”
“No,” Cherry said, sighing. “Starlight and I are probably going to spend the rest of the day in the rover. That means we go in last so we won’t be in anypony else’s way.”
“Then I’m staying out with you,” Dragonfly said simply. “Suits aren’t anything to joke about.”
“Fine. Let’s get back. Spitfire, you and Fireball eat with Mark. We’ll wait outside.”
Cherry managed to get off the hillside without being carried. Fireball’s claws were full with Starlight and the magic battery, and Mark was leaning a hand on Spitfire’s helmet to keep his own balance. So long as she could walk, she couldn’t justify burdening anypony else.
Once Mark, Fireball and Spitfire were in the rover, Cherry signaled Starlight and Dragonfly to switch suit comms to the private channel. “Is that the last bit of magic you have to do?” she asked Starlight. “Because you need to lay off for a while, for Spitfire’s sake at least.”
“Can’t stop yet,” Starlight said weakly. “Have to seal the back of the cave. Also need light. If I can cut some prisms off the crystals on the ceiling, I can enchant them to absorb sunlight and beam it into the crystals they came from. It’s an ancient Crystal Empire lighting trick. Uses the sunlight to power the spell- very efficient if it works.”
Starlight groaned. “Look, it had better work, all right?” she asked. “We have a total of six light fixtures in the ship, one bulb each, and four spare bulbs that survived the crash. We can’t use them to light the cave. And Mark’s shelter needs all its lights for its farm, so we can’t steal those. And I don’t have the energy to turn the cave roof into a giant airtight skylight.” She sighed. “But I can get the solar enchantment done tomorrow, and once the prisms are enchanted anypony can set them up. Maybe I can rest after that.”
“Okay,” Cherry nodded. “Tomorrow you can do that while the rest of us are turning the soil and preparing the plumbing for the farm. And after tomorrow you’re confined to quarters.”
“Excuse me?” Dragonfly asked. “What do you mean ‘us’? You need to rest too, boss.”
“You need an earth pony to pull the harrow,” Cherry groaned.
“We’ll figure something out,” Dragonfly insisted. “You need to rest.”
“I need to do my share,” Cherry insisted.
Dragonfly shook her head inside her helmet. “Cherry, you don’t have to prove yourself to us,” she said. “’Specially not to me. We’ve been working together for four years. We know you’re doing your job. You always do.”
“My job is getting all of you home,” Cherry said. She waved a hoof at the Martian landscape, the small mounds of ancient ice volcanoes and rock outcrops dotting the orange-tinged horizon. “Is this home? No? Then my job’s not done yet.”
“For today it is, boss,” Dragonfly said quietly. “We can take it from here today. Just relax.”
There was a companionable silence. After several minutes Cherry broke it, asking, “How are you doing for food?”
“Still behind,” Dragonfly admitted. “Becoming that human from Mark’s crew photos and movies took more out of me than I expected. And I didn’t dare feed off of him in that condition. He was in and out like the bird in one of those Germane clocks.” The changeling made a circling gesture with her hoof near her helmet to indicate Mark’s state of non compos mentis. “Becoming that human was the only way I could get him to hear me. And I don’t think I could have fooled him in his right mind. Couldn’t get her voice right from the little we saw of her.”
“How much of his language do you know?” Starlight broke in.
“At least as much as you do, I think,” Dragonfly admitted. “I have more free time than the rest of you, so I spend a lot of it around Mark. And remember, I was one of the queen’s best warriors and infiltrators in the bad old days. Learning how your victims speak is a prime skill for infiltrators. Helps us keep our cover.” She smiled smugly and added, “While you’ve all been laughing at stupid humans or singing words you don’t know, I’ve been working.”
“Good. That kind of working could help us stay alive,” Cherry sighed. “Do you think you can get him to focus on more language lessons? That new silly show of his gives us sounds and written words, but we’re still missing a lot of vocabulary.”
“Maybe,” Dragonfly drawled. “Will I get in trouble for snacking?”
Cherry snorted. “We know you’re already doing it,” she said. “Just don’t suck him dry. I’ve noticed him get dizzy a couple times when you get too close.”
“Sorry. But I’ve never had anyling else think this form,” Dragonfly pointed to herself, “was cute. Well, aside from Ad Astra. And that nutty Canterlot entomologist. And- well, it’s pretty rare, anyway.”
The rover airlock door began cycling, and Cherry motioned the others to switch back to all-call. “Everypony, group hug for Dragonfly when we change meal shifts.”
Cherry half-expected Fireball to make a crack about a lazy bug, or Spitfire to make a remark about Dragonfly getting fat. Instead all she got was, “Yes, ma’am,” from both. A week ago Cherry would have been delighted to do without yet another round of bickering and the inevitable argument to follow. Now she wanted the bickering- and the spirit that came with it- to come back.
Out in the almost-bright Martian noonday, a dark shadow still hovered over the castaways, and Cherry Berry didn’t know what to do about it.