• 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 38


“Well?” Dragonfly asked. “What did he say?”

Starlight Glimmer tried not to drag her hooves as she walked over to the other members of her crew. Their host, Mark, sat at his worktable in obvious deep thought, occasionally sparing moments to glare at them- at her. “He’s still very upset with me,” she said.

“I could have told you that,” Dragonfly said.

“We used up most of the battery talking about these perchlorates,” Starlight continued, ignoring the bug. “He still doesn’t understand why I didn’t know what they were. The translation spell isn’t good enough to explain.” She allowed herself a moment of grumpiness as she added, “Which is why all of us should be trying to learn his language and not just me, right?”

“Why didn’t you know?” Dragonfly asked. “I knew! So did Cherry! We had to know! We built I don’t know how many solid rocket boosters using the stuff!”

“And we bought them from you and never made our own,” Starlight replied. “Twilight and I focused on magic thrusters instead of chemical ones. We never needed to know the alchemy!”

“Chemistry,” Dragonfly corrected.

Starlight sighed and again, ignored the changeling. “Of course Twilight probably knew. She knows everything. She went to Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns! But I’m a specialist, not a generalist! I know magic because I was a bitter little filly obsessed with changing the world! The only chemistry I know is what I picked up in the margins of obscure magic texts!”

“Calm down,” Cherry Berry said, putting a hoof on Starlight’s shoulder. “We’re not blaming you, and Mark will forgive you soon enough.” After another comforting rub, Cherry Berry added, “So what do we do about it?”

“He doesn’t know yet,” Starlight said. “He says none of his tools are safe to handle the stuff.”

“Yeah,” Dragonfly added. “When we handle the stuff, we don’t use the pure chemical- only about 70% concentration at most. Even then you have to store it in non-reactive metal containers until you mix it with the fuel. And it has to be done in absolutely dry conditions.” The changeling chuckled as she added, “Not exactly tough to do in Appleoosa.”

“How do you clean up a spill?” Starlight asked.

“For a small spill, you dilute it and wash it away,” Dragonfly said. “But you use a hose and stand back, because sometimes it’ll catch fire when it gets wet.”

“Sometimes?” Spitfire asked.

“Yeah, lots about this stuff is ‘sometimes’,” Dragonfly said. “Cherry, remember the time a drum of the stuff spilled and it caught fire just from the shovel?”

Cherry nodded. “And it only happened that one time. We couldn’t make it happen again. Not that a lot of changelings didn’t keep trying. Idiots.”

“Long story short,” Dragonfly said, “the stuff is stable in normal conditions if you leave it alone. Usually. And sometimes it’ll blow up if you look at it funny. But certain stuff will quite definitely set it off- Goddard showed us that in the lab.”

“What kind of stuff?” Starlight asked.

“Metal shavings, if the metal’s reactive,” Dragonfly said. “Magnesium, titanium, and aluminum especially. Also practically any flammable oil or plastic. And even some of the non-flammable plastic. Not flesh, but you get chemical burns if you handle it directly for too long. And, if you get it hot enough, it’ll burn itself.”

Starlight’s jaw dropped. “And you worked with this stuff?” she asked. “You sold this stuff to us?”

“Remember all those times we said we were flying into space in tin cans on top of bombs?” Cherry Berry said solemnly. “It wasn’t a joke.”

“The good news is, ‘sometimes’ in this case is ‘not often,’” Dragonfly added. “We can handle this if we're careful. We just need tools that won’t react to the stuff, and we need to keep the stuff from getting hot.”

“Well, that’ll be easy here,” Fireball rumbled. “This whole planet’s an ice box.”

“That matches what Mark told me,” Starlight nodded. “He wanted to know if I could use magic to make it go away. But there’s so much of it!”

“How big a job are we talking about here?” Fireball asked.

Starlight considered the question for a moment. “Let me get the whiteboard,” she said. “I’m going to tell Mark where we’re going. You all need to see this, because this job is going to take all of us.”

They didn't walk. In the end Mark ended up driving them to the cave, with Starlight, Dragonfly, and a magic battery riding inside with him as the other three clung to the equipment racks on top of the rover. Starlight Glimmer had the distinct feeling he was going along to keep them out of further trouble.

The first thing Dragonfly said when the six of them entered the chamber with the massive pile of perchlorates in it was, “Whoa. Yeah, you do not want to try using a hose on that.”

“That’s going to take weeks to shovel out,” Spitfire gasped.

“If we had a good sturdy wagon, it’d take, oh, about fifty trips,” Cherry Berry estimated.

“How do you know?”

“Hauling wagons was one of the many, many odd jobs I took before I became an astromare,” Cherry replied. “And I’ve hauled dirt a few times. That pile looks like about a hundred and fifty tons, wouldn’t you say?”

Spitfire shrugged. “You lost me,” she said. “The only thing I ever knew about dirt is how much it hurts when you crash into it.”

“Anyway, a sturdy four-pony wagon- a four-wheeler- will carry five tons of dirt easy, even up to eight on flat ground if the wagon’s in good shape. The only hard part is getting the dirt on the wagon in the first place.”

Every spacesuit turned to face Starlight- even Mark’s, although he only looked once he noticed all the others turning.

“Maybe,” she said. “If the magic holds out, and if I don’t collapse. But we haven’t got a wagon.”

“Hey, here’s an idea,” Dragonfly said. “Maybe Fireball could eat it.”

Five spacesuits found something more interesting to look at than Starlight.

“No, I’m serious!” Dragonfly said. “Dragons eat gems and bathe in lava. They’re burn-proof. It’s worth asking!”

“Bug, have you gone bughouse?” Fireball asked. “Count the number of dragons we have here.”

“Um, Fireball, we all know-“

“Count the dragons.”

The changeling sighed. “One. One dragon.”

“Right. One young, small dragon. With only one stomach.” Fireball waved a claw at the giant yellow-white pile of powder. “How much do you think I can guzzle down? Even Torch would have leftovers for a week!”

“It was just a suggestion,” Dragonfly muttered, kicking a hoof in the non-perchlorate dust.

Satisfied, Fireball turned to look at the mound again. “But now you’ve got me curious,” he said. “Starlight, have we got any way to take some of this stuff back?”

Starlight shook her head inside her helmet hard enough to rock her whole upper body. “I am NOT asking Mark about that,” she said. “Not in the mood he's in.”

“Fine.” The dragon tapped his helmet where his chin would have been. “Then can you bring one of the spoons from the ship and give me an air bubble?” He traced the outline of his helmet and shoulders with his claws.

“Er… I think so,” Starlight said. “It’ll eat most of the remaining battery if I do.”

“Shouldn’t we tell Mark?” Cherry Berry asked pointedly.

“He’ll only say no,” Fireball muttered.

“Don’t you think we’ve given him good reason to say no?” Cherry replied. “Considering the last two magical experiments we’ve done?”

“Look, what’s the worst that can happen?” Fireball asked. “I get sick to my stomach, big deal. As long as there’s no arsenic or mercury in that, it won’t kill me. Let’s just do it.”

"Let me rephrase myself," Cherry said grimly. "We should tell Mark. If we want him to trust us again, we should trust him." She waved a hoof at Starlight. "Go tell him what we're going to try. Exactly what we're going to try. Then, if he doesn't say no, proceed, but be as quick as possible,” she said. “We can use that magic power tomorrow or whenever we start shoveling this stuff.”

To Starlight's surprise, Mark didn't have another fit of language so bad it broke the translation spell. In fact, he didn't say anything at all when she told him about the experiment. He just swept his hand in a slow okay, go ahead motion. But even then, Starlight was pretty sure that he was looking at Cherry Berry and not herself when he did it.

Starlight turned up the magic battery and concentrated. The magic stretched, reaching an enormous distance considering the lack of environmental mana, and fumbled for a moment inside the ship. Then it locked on to target and pulled, kicking her in the gut with the effort of summoning even a single teaspoon from six miles away.

In a flash of light one of the steel spoons from Amicitas’s pantry dropped into Fireball’s suited claw.

The dragon carefully wrapped his claws around the spoon and put his free hand to the locking ring of his helmet. Starlight concentrated again, crafting a holding field and wrapping it around his upper body. Fireball twisted the locking ring open, then used both claws to remove his helmet and set it down on the ground well away from the perchlorates.

Mark’s hands moved in a series of confusing, agitated gestures. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) none of the Amicitas’s crew could hear his words or see his face.

As Starlight felt the strain of channeling the magic from the mostly-empty battery into her semi-permeable forcefield spell, she watched Fireball move around the pile, getting as close as he could without stepping on any of the stuff. He reached forward, nimbly scooped a teaspoonful of mixed perchlorates, and carefully walked back to his helmet.

Then- and only then- did he put the heaping teaspoon into his mouth and swallow. After a moment’s thought, he reached down for his helmet, then stopped, stood straight again, threw back his head, and launched a flaming belch that extended well beyond the forcefield and up to the crystals lining the cave’s roof.

Mark jumped at the sight, falling down on his rump.

Once Fireball got his helmet back on, Starlight dismissed the spell, leaning on the battery for support. “That’s all for today,” she said. “The battery might have charge, but I don’t.”

“So how was it?” Dragonfly asked.

“Spicy,” Fireball said. “Definitely not something I’d want to make a meal out of. But I think it’d go really good on all this bucking quartz.”


During the Manhattan Project, the nuclear scientists performed several experiments which put two lumps of uranium together into a critical mass for only a fraction of a second so they could measure the resulting chain reaction. They called it "tickling the dragon's tail".

I think I'm the first human ever to see the same thing done by a real life dragon, though.

But it's given me an idea. Now to see if the ponies are on board.

Author's Note:

Originally this was the ponies pulling another surprise on Watney, but I decided in editing that this wasn't the pony thing to do. Watney lets them do it because the notion of a dragon eating perchlorates inspired his curiosity too strongly for him to say no.

Cherry Berry, in addition to her other responsibilities for Changeling Space Program, was CEO of the front company that manufactured most of the rocket components not just for that program but for all the early space organizations of Equestria's space race. Dragonfly frequently worked with them from the design end of things, in particular inventing the parachute deployment system that became universal for Equestrian spaceflight and overseeing the development of the standard ablative heat shield. Both know about the chemicals that went into the rockets from a practical, respect-the-thing-that-might-kill-you perspective, even if neither can walk you through the chemical equations that produce the boom.

Magnesium chloride is usually kept in metal containers- either steel or specially treated aluminum. Mark's fear of his shovels causing a boom is excessive caution... or would be if not for the fact that in space there is no such thing as excessive caution.

"Okay, but there's one thing I want you to remember."
"If you don't understand it, it's dangerous."
"That's the one thing I want you to remember besides I Told You So."
-- Larry Niven, "Flatlander"

Not at all a universal adage, but very applicable for hostile environments.

This was going to be a test of pre-posting for timed publication, but I can't find the "Publish later" function. Oh well. I leave for an all-day drive from Texas to Birmingham tomorrow. Today I finish loading the van, pick up T-shirt reprints, and put together my show for tonight on dementiaradio.org ! I might not get to write anything today; tomorrow I almost certainly won't. This is why I have a buffer.

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