• 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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Sols 52-55

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 49
ARES III SOL 52

TRANSCRIPT – WATER TELEGRAPH EXCHANGE, ESA BALTIMARE and ESA SHIP AMICITAS

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, use suit SG for responses, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, copy transmit via SG suit, over.

AMICITAS: DF – all crops planted. Alien wants to use ship radio to attempt to contact his people. Request second attempt Comm Alpha and Comm Gamma. Over.

ESA: Stand by, over.

ESA: Ready for Comm Gamma, over.

AMICITAS: DF – Initiating Comm Gamma, over.

AMICITAS: DF – Comm Gamma concluded. Negative response on radio. Over.

ESA: Confirm negative connection on radio, no signal received. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – standing by for Comm Alpha, over.

ESA: Comm Alpha result negative this end. We calculate insufficient magic on your end for connection, over.

AMICITAS: DF – copied. Any better ideas, over?

ESA: Please confirm report ample quantities of enchantable crystal, over?

AMICITAS: Confirm quartz and related crystals, plenty of them, over.

ESA: Prepare for long message tomorrow regarding modifications to telepresence array for replacement crystal for comms system.

AMICITAS: Copy long message tomorrow to modify comms. Twenty-five hours from now? Over.

ESA: Confirm twenty-five hours mark. Go for alien use of non-magic radio systems. Out.

MISSION LOG – SOL 55

Well, I just finished putting the pony radio back together for the last time. I’m pretty sure everything’s the way I found it, not that it matters.

It’s been a frustrating four sols. It began with a conversation with Dragonfly about their radio. The pony ship’s primary communications system used magic, and it’s offline, despite several attempts to fix it. (They’re going to make a replacement core for their magic radio, but that has to wait until Spitfire clears Starlight for more magic use. She’s gone nine days without so much as a spark from her horn.) But they did have a normal, electromagnetic radio for emergency use, and Dragonfly showed me the specs on it.

The pony radio uses frequency modulation and a combined transceiver antenna. The antenna was under the skin of the ship on top of the cockpit, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to get to after Fireball gave me a boost. So far, so good, right? I could loot the thing, hook it up to the Hab radio, and contact NASA via relay through one of the orbiting satellites overhead, right?

Well… no. The Hab radio isn’t broad-spectrum. It broadcasts X-band microwaves, and the pony antenna isn’t built for that. I tried it anyway, because what the hell. I tried about a dozen different adjustments, anything I could think of that wouldn’t result in breaking the Hab radio or frying the antenna. I even let it just sit in place for a day, hoping the Hab computers would make the connection, even briefly, to one of the orbiters. It never happened. The equipment mismatch is just too great. I’d have better luck building a new transmitter from scratch.

So I reinstalled the antenna on the pony ship and tried using their radio as it is. Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with that.

The first problem is that the pony radio is pure analog. It’s a backup for voice comms only, not for the ship’s computer to speak to ground computers. I actually opened up the radio assembly with Dragonfly’s help, and it was like I was looking at the innards of that radio Gilligan and his friends used to keep track of the outside world. No integrated circuits, no chips- just big old transistors and resistors and capacitors, all of which are colored and shaped similar to the Earth variety.

That doesn’t sound like an issue, but it is. It means the pony radio and the Hab systems are totally incompatible. All of the Ares III communications are digital. It has to be, because analog voice broadcasts, even in FM, require more power than the Hab can ever provide to get back to Earth. Digital signals are 1’s and 0’s- full strength on or completely off- so they’re easier to pick up.

Even with digital, getting a signal back and forth isn’t easy. One of the reasons the Hab had a large directional radio dish and an enormous antenna farm was to enable broadband data transmission to and from Earth. Even at closest Earth-Mars approach, the period when we’d be on the surface, the distance between the two planets would seriously weaken signal strength, and the weaker the signal is, the slower data transmission will be.

Continuous video feeds like you get from the space station were out of the question. Even recorded video messages eat a shitton of bandwidth, so NASA restricted those. Voice communications were reserved for flight operations that Mission Control would want to monitor, because even digitized sound is bandwidth-heavy. As much as possible we were encouraged to use text files like this log, because ASCII text is bandwidth-light.

How serious is this constraint? Well, Curiosity didn’t have the big dish or antenna farm- it just had three small antennae and an occasional connection to satellites overhead. And its direct data transfer rate to Earth was at best 32 kbps- not even good enough for streaming audio. At maximum separation, that drops to 0.5 kbps. That’s why Curiosity mostly talked to its orbiters, which had more power and better transmitters. But even then, if you were trying to watch Twitch by that connection you’d spend more time buffering than watching.

Anyway, the satellites orbiting Mars are also all digital. They wouldn’t know what to do with an analog signal if they detected one.

All of that is Problem One. Problem Two is a more fundamental one: the pony radio is hard-wired to a range of five frequencies, all between 86 MHz and 109 MHz. In other words, it transmits right into the teeth of nine-tenths of the commercial FM radio on Earth. Unless the radio telescopes NASA uses are all dialed in to the exact spot on Mars to hear it, the signal would be swamped by local broadcasting.

I tried to fix this. I disassembled the radio, looked carefully at its wiring chart (which didn’t help- the equipment looks the same, but the diagrams are nothing like Earth wiring charts apart from lines), and tried like hell to think of some way of rewiring the radio that wouldn’t risk permanent damage. But in the end, I came up empty.

So, now everything’s back where it belongs. I’m pretty sure the pony radio works, up to a point. But it’s not useful to me unless I can get in contact with NASA and get some help from the other end on making it work as a backup connection.

Open the safe with the key you will find inside.

Long story short: I can’t build a working radio that will contact any of the orbiters, much less Earth, with the materials I have at hand. The only way I’ll be able to communicate with Earth is if I go out and buy a new radio.

… wait a minute, that’s actually not as stupid an idea as it sounds.

Let me look at a map. The ponies will have to wait for their language lesson a few more minutes.

Author's Note:

Yes, that's right- all those pictures you see from the surface of Mars? Turns out they're really low-quality, highly compressed image files, especially the early probe photos. If you think your cousin out in West Elbow, Kansas is deprived because he's still on dialup, give a thought to Opportunity or Curiosity and know true pity.

Finished the rewrite on tomorrow's post. That, plus keeping the buffer up to three chapters, ended up being 2200 words written today, more or less.

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