• Published 2nd Jan 2018
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The Maretian - Kris Overstreet

Mark Watney is stranded- the only human on Mars. But he's not alone- five astronauts from a magical kingdom are shipwrecked with him.

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Sol 16


“We’re supposed to be rationing, you know,” Starlight protested as Spitfire pushed the full, uncut meal (Horseton Special Blend Spicy Gumbo with Beans and Rice) in front of her.

“Patients get full nutrition,” Spitfire said coldly. “Now put your nose in that and eat. If I see that horn light up even for a second I’ll play with it like a foal with a doorstop.” A moment later one of Mark’s glasses, filled with a white liquid that was probably reconstituted milk, got set next to the plate.

Starlight set aside the whiteboard and began eating lunch. The food didn’t take her mind off the urgent problem she’d spent the past hour going round and round in circles over. In fact, she barely tasted the food at all. (Fortunately for her, her body had more sense than her mind, pausing every thirty seconds or so to grab the glass in her hooves and take deep swigs of the vile spice-quenching liquid that might have once been milk before it was captured by the princesses and sent to Tartarus for its crimes.)

She hadn’t spoken to Mark at breakfast; her horn was sore and she was tired, both signs of another bout of magical exhaustion. But she’d been curious when he took two shovels, the two largest plastic bins in the base, and Cherry, Dragonfly and Fireball out the airlock after breakfast. Obviously something had been planned while she was still asleep, and she didn’t know what it was.

She didn’t figure it out until the airlock reopened some time later to admit Mark and Fireball, each carrying one bin filled with Martian soil. Together they took the bins to the far corner of the base… well, not that far- Mark’s shelter was about the size of a modest one-story family cottage- and dumped them out into an area of the floor Mark had carefully cleared.

After seeing that she’d used her magic, you bet, sore horn or not, to ask very specific questions.

Q: Why are you bringing dirt in here?

A (allowing for the spell’s hit-or-miss translations): To grow food in.

Okay, that made sense in one way, but in another way not. Nothing could grow outside, true… but this was a small habitat with six beings living in it, and the box that nopony wanted to talk about, currently hidden behind a privacy curtain at the back of the bunks, made it smell more like sixty persons even with the lid closed. The available space wouldn’t even make a good hobby garden.

Q: Show me on the whiteboard how much alfalfa you think you can grow.

A (translation spell off, Mark used his typing screen thing for a moment, then wrote the answer on the whiteboard using the numbers Mark and Starlight had practiced during the Great Towing): 1.5 kg / m2 / 65 days. (Mark drew a sunrise to indicate “day”.)

Starlight recognized the “kg” as one of the symbols on a device Mark kept on one of the worktables. She’d dragged him to it and pointed, and Mark had put his coffee mug on it. (She assumed it was a coffee mug- it was almost the right shape, but the handle was far too small to slip a hoof inside.) A display on the side lit up with a number next to the “kg” symbol. Ah! So this was a scale, and kg was a unit of weight. She wondered what it stood for.

That left one part of the equation unexplained, so she’d lit up her horn again.

Q: Draw me how big one of these is (pointing at “m2” on the whiteboard).

A: (spell off, Mark draws a picture of the outside of his base, then an equals sign, and the symbols, “92 m2”)

Starlight had thanked him, taken the whiteboard in her forehooves, and staggered along on her hind legs back to her bunk, using one last bit of magic to bring the marker after her. Halfway back Spitfire had taken both whiteboard (in her wings) and marker (in her teeth) away from her, growling dire imprecations about ponies who didn’t know when to quit. Meanwhile Mark and Fireball, taking a couple of smaller bins with them, went back out for more digging.

Once back in her bunk Starlight had wheedled her grouchy nursemaid into taking three random food packs from their supply and putting them on the alien scale. The numbers were large enough to read from across the room, and when Spitfire dropped the third pack onto the scale they read 1.2. So, Starlight mused to herself, whatever kg stands for, it looks pretty close to a pony kilogram. It might even be a kilogram. I wonder if the old kingdom system of measurements line up as well? Do Mark’s people have pounds and quarts and hooves? We really need to work on the language barrier.

But that was idle thought. For simplicity’s sake she used Mark’s numbers, taking the marker in her teeth and sketching out the math on the whiteboard.

The astromare rations were high-energy meals that provided considerably more calories than your average pony required. An ordinary working pony needed about two pounds, or one kilogram, of food per day and could get by on slightly less if they didn’t do much. (Starlight still wondered how Pinkie Pie lived on a diet of almost all sugars and starches in quantities double what any other pony consumed without becoming a blimp. Somehow she stayed only slightly chubbier than her friends… and skinnier than certain other citizens of Ponyville like, for example, Spoiled Rich… or, she noted with chagrin, herself.)

So, call it a dead minimum diet. Eight-tenths of a kilogram per pony per day. Leave Fireball and Dragonfly out of the equation; Dragonfly didn’t need solid food, and Fireball claimed he could eat raw hay but couldn't digest it. Just keep it simple: three ponies equaled 2.4 kg of alfalfa every day, if they sat around doing nothing.

Mark specified 1.5 almost-kilograms per em-two, whatever m was, per sixty-five days. In sixty-five days the three ponies would eat a total, on rations, of 156 kilograms in that period of time.

One and a half kilograms multiplied by ninety-two em-twos equaled… 138 kilograms.

That left a shortfall of eighteen kilograms of food that would have to be made up from food packs. And the ponies wouldn’t have any left. At a rough estimate, Starlight thought they had just barely enough food left from ship’s stores to make it to the first hay harvest… if it was planted today. And from the pitifully small area of the floor the first load of dirt covered, that certainly wasn’t going to happen.

That meant dipping into Mark’s food again… and this plan left nothing whatever for Mark, even assuming he could eat alfalfa. Mark was larger than any of them except Fireball, and so presumably he’d need more, which meant a larger shortfall, which…

Oh, Fireball. Growing crops does nothing for Fireball at all.

This isn’t going to work.

And as Starlight automatically finished off her lunch, her mind kept coming back to that point, again and again.

This isn’t going to work. We need more land. And we need crops Fireball and Mark can eat. Mark might be a farmer, but is he a rock farmer? Can you even grow rocks in a low-magic environment?

Fireball had eaten a sapphire each night the previous two nights. He had eleven left. On the other hoof, he’d been rationing a bit before that, so he had twenty-one days of food packs at full rations, twenty-six at reduced rations, remaining. But once those ran out, he would be on the pony food packs or on Mark’s, and from that point on he’d begin to get sick from malnutrition. How sick and how fast, she didn’t know.

Just as she licked the last bit of uncomfortably spicy food off her muzzle, Starlight heard the sound of the airlock repressurizing. Another load of dirt was coming in, and given the time, the others were probably also coming in for their lunches.

Starlight really hoped that was the case. She wanted another crew meeting. She didn’t feel up for any more magical conversations with Mark, but this was a problem everypony needed to be working on.

If they didn’t find a solution fast, somepony would die- possibly everypony.

She stared at the planting box, where a small forest of tiny alfalfa shoots had begun to rise from the soil. A few flecks of green peeked out from a tiny forest of white.

It wasn’t even a start.


Ugh! This is backbreaking work! But it’s better than towing a spaceship, and at least I had a lot of help.

We divided our labor once we figured out the right way to do things. Cherry Berry and Dragonfly can sort of handle a shovel, but Fireball and I can do it more effectively- yay thumbs- and we only have two sample shovels. So he and I did most of the digging while the other two scraped up surface material with their hooves, kind of like dogs in spacesuits. We filled up small sample containers, and then Dragonfly or Cherry would carry the full containers to the airlock and dumped them into the two largest bins I could find. When those got full Fireball and I would cycle the airlock (which takes about ten minutes to pump out or trickle in the air, depending), take the dirt into the Hab, and dump it.

We could have just dug a big hole right next to the airlock, but I don’t want to do that. For one thing, I don’t want to risk being half-awake one morning, going out to clean the solar panels, and falling into a big-ass hole and breaking my neck. I’d spend eternity in Heaven with every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut laughing their asses off at me.

I can see it now. "How did you die, Bassett?" "I missed a runway and flew a jet straight into a factory I was supposed to be inspecting. They found my head in the parking lot." "That sucks. How did you die, White?" "I was martyred in the name of space flight by North American's shoddy construction of Apollo One." "Yeah, that really sucked. What about you, Watney?" "I fell in a hole on Mars." "Watney, you're a schmuck. Hey, go get Gene Cernan, he needs to meet this schmuck, like, yesterday."

But more to the point, once you get more than a few inches into the topsoil you hit the permafrost layer. The topsoil’s dry as hell, but get deep enough and you find more ice than you’d believe possible, and digging through it is a bitch. Our sample drills are built to do it for very short bursts, but shovels? Forget it.

Of course, getting more water with my soil might sound like it’s worth the backbreaking work to ship out the permafrost. Unfortunately along with the water ice you also find a lot of a certain nasty class of substances called perchlorate salts- mostly potassium perchlorate and magnesium perchlorate. I don’t know what they do to aliens, but they’re mildly toxic to humans, and magnesium perchlorate in particular is an oxidizer and color agent used in some fireworks.

Perchlorates are hydrophilic, which means they suck water out of their environment and act as a sort of antifreeze. That's why every now and again you see a new rivulet or some other sign of recent water flow. Ares I and Ares II found concentrations as high as 2% in their subsurface samples, so I’m sticking with the easy-to-dig stuff.

We got fifteen square meters of the Hab floor covered in dirt today. I’m going to try to fill the entire floor space of the Hab to a depth of ten centimeters. Anything more than that and I get too close to the access panels of all the machinery that keeps me alive.

I’m doing more physical labor than I did during the tow, but I’m happier. I’m doing what I was trained for on a scale NASA’s mission planners never imagined. By the time I’m done Mars will learn the true power of the botany side!

I’m happy, but my back isn’t. I just raided the medical supplies for pain killers, skipped right over the acetaminophen and ibuprofen and went straight for the Vicodin. It should kick in just in time for dinner. (Three-quarter ration, sigh; I’m regretting my celebration yesterday, because after today I really need a full meal. But I can’t splurge two days in a row.)

No time to eat yet, though. I have to wet down the soil we brought in. Remember those perchlorates? They’re all over the surface too, anywhere from 0.2% to 1.4% depending on what part of Mars you’re on. Acidalia’s topsoil has a lower than average concentration, but it’s still 0.3% by weight- way above what would be considered safe back home.

Fortunately the proper way to dispose of perchlorates is- da da daah!- just add water! Which I was going to do anyway for the plants!

Diluting the perchlorates reduces their risk and, coincidentally, makes it easier for Earth soil bacteria to eat them up. There are lots of perchlorate-eating bugs on Earth, and one of my scheduled experiments was to introduce them to Mars soil and see how they performed. It should add extra potassium to the soil- which is good, because alfalfa requires a lot of potassium for maximum yield.

I just realized: today is Thanksgiving. I wonder what my family is thinking. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I know what they’re thinking- they’re thinking I’m dead. Which means the annual feast at my parents’ house is going to be anything but jolly. I just hope NASA didn’t wait too long to declare me dead. I’d hate to think they’d hold my memorial service on Thanksgiving Day. God, that would totally suck.

I’d been looking forward to Thanksgiving. We were going to all cook a communal meal, my crewmates and me. NASA didn’t send us a full kitchen or a whole unboned turkey, but they developed this whole rigamarole to use the microwave, the chemistry lab, and even part of the oxygenator to either heat up or cook from scratch several traditional Thanksgiving dishes.

Sitting in food storage, right now, is a big boneless roll of reconstituted turkey meat with a layer of pre-made stuffing inside. We actually cooked one as part of the training for this mission. It’s not bad- nothing like grandma made, but not bad. But I don’t dare break it out now. I can’t exactly serve meat (okay, meat by-product) to a bunch of obligate herbivores and whatever Fireball is. (Or Dragonfly, for that matter. I keep forgetting she has fangs, but she must have teeth that sharp for a reason.)

But at least I’m not alone today. It’s not my family, and it’s not my crew, but me and the aliens, we’re together, and that counts for something.

I better get to adding that water. I’ve already rolled up a lot of the Ares crew’s abandoned uniforms to make a sort of garden box around my garden, so all I have to do is pour in… let’s see, twelve square meters X 0.1 meter deep = 1.2 cubic meters, which requires 48 liters of water, so…

… wait a minute…

… I need to check my math. I may have a problem.

Author's Note:

I wrote about 1800 words before I had to go run errands... and the first thing I did was yank 1300 of them out and set them aside for another day. The conversation was rushing a character development point far too fast. It needs time to develop more. I wrote a replacement, but it's not as good, and I may substantially rewrite it on posting day (Thursday, boys and girls!).

The #1 critique everybody had about the book and the movie was, "Air doesn't work like that, Andy. Mars never has that strong a storm. The airlock won't go flying fifty yards. A hull breach won't produce twenty meters per second of thrust."

The #2 critique everybody had was, "You left out perchlorates."

To be fair, Weir didn't know. Perchlorates had been discovered on Mars by Spirit and Opportunity, but we didn't know they were a global problem until we specifically sent an orbiter capable of spectroanalysis of the Martian surface. They're everywhere, and unless the Mars soil was specially treated to break them down or get rid of them, anything grown in it would be chock full of 'em.

Long-term exposure to perchlorates does all sorts of bad things, but the most immediate effect is as a thyroid inhibitor. Your thyroid gland is important- you need it for things. After the first major dose Watney would have muscle fatigue and cramps and possibly irregular heartbeat, among other issues. His digestive tract would declare war on the rest of his body. He'd suffer from anemia and possibly even internal bleeding. Suffice it to say that snacking on potatoes loaded with perchlorates all the way to Schiaparelli Crater would be suicidal.

And that's potassium perchlorate, about 60% of the perchlorates on Mars. Almost all the remaining 40% is magnesium perchlorate, which is not only more toxic but, in the right conditions, actively explosive. And for a bit of snark about what happens when you substitute even heavier metals for potassium and magnesium, read this: Things I Won't Work With- Frisky Perchlorates My favorite line, re: fluorine perchlorate: "It’s easily synthesized, if you’re tired of this earthly existence, by passing fluorine gas over concentrated perchloric acid."

In real life, even collecting soil and rock samples will require careful planning, because the perchlorates are quite literally everywhere.

But there is a simple long-term solution: soil bacteria. As Watney points out, there are a lot of bacteria that loves them some nummy yummy potassium perchlorate. That's why Earth's soil isn't as toxic as Mars's- we have life to clean up the mess. Bacteria won't replace air filtering and decontamination methods for future Mars scientists, but my guess is they'll be indispensable for long-term colonization.

I've gone into slightly more detail about the aborted Thanksgiving than the book provides. In the book the feast is just an excuse to give Mark viable potatoes. Here it has Mark losing his whimsy to a bout of melancholy, as he's reminded of just how far from everyone else he is.

He doesn't know that tomorrow he's going to learn that his friends have it even worse...

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