• 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 56


“Aa, aa, aa,” Mark said, “Hand, an, apple.”

The crew members of Amicitas chanted along with Mark for the sixth day in a row. Usually this ritual came right after an episode or two of The Electric Company, after dinner, but today Mark wanted to do it right after breakfast. Dragonfly wondered what caused the change.

“Eh, eh, eh,” Mark said, leading the next line. “Lend, men, English.”

She could sense Mark’s eagerness for something or other, but Dragonfly was pretty sure it wasn’t eagerness for more English lessons.

“Iih, iih, iih. Hit, tin, pimple. Aah, aah, aah. Top, common, ostrich. Uh. Uh. Uh. Punt, under, cup.”

Mark had explained the ritual by saying that, when he’d been taught another language in school, one of his teachers had drilled them on pronunciation with a daily ritual like this.

“Ay, ay, ay. Made, quaint, mistake. Ee, ee, ee. Heed, sweet, fever.”

None of them knew what three-quarters of the example words meant, but the ponies enjoyed chanting together. Dragonfly enjoyed the enjoyment. And Fireball… didn’t object.

“Eye, eye, eye. Tie, file, crocodile. Oh, oh, oh. Row, over, floor. Yuu, yuu, yuu. Usually, rule, ukulele.”

Fireball didn’t object to much anymore. Dragonfly knew he wanted to, that his guilt trip over almost killing everyone was fading. She could feel him swallowing blunt remarks about this or that thing all the time. In fact, right now, she knew he wanted to say something vulgar. Then he looked at Mark’s earnest face, felt a bit of shame, and chanted a little louder.

“Ur, ur, ur. Hurt, her, bird. Ar, ar, ar. Mark, target, pirates.”

That last word didn’t make sense, but it still made Mark laugh a little inside, so Dragonfly enjoyed the emotional tidbit and didn’t ask for the explanation.

“Or, or, or. More, pork, story. Oi, oi, oi. Foil, oink, spoiled. Ow, ow, ow. Bow, owl, couch. Aw, aw, aw. Raw, maul, awed, Uh, uh, uh. Book, took, nook. Ooo, ooo, ooh. Screw, blue, cockatoo!”

As the last line ended in pony laughter, Dragonfly could only think, How do they get by with so few vowels?

With the introduction over, Mark took out a whiteboard- now a slightly gray board, since even dry-erase markers leave a residue over time. He wrote the word Sols on top of it and then, on the left end, wrote the word 6. “We met on Sol 6,” he said. He then wrote Sol 1412 on the far right end. “Ares IV comes on Sol fourteen-twelve.”

Everyone nodded, including Dragonfly. This had been explained to them before.

“Ares IV is not coming here,” Mark said carefully. This got a couple of blank looks, and he changed it to, “Not. Come. Here.” He wrote a long word, a strange-looking one even in Mark’s alphabet. Schiaparelli. “Come Schiaparelli Basin.” He turned his little thin computer so the screen faced the ponies, showing a satellite map of Mars. “We here,” he said, pointing to a flat, low-lying area in the top center of the map. “Ares IV come here.” He pointed to a very large crater well east and south of where he’d pointed before.

“How many kay?” Starlight asked.

“How far is it?” Mark corrected her, being careful to enunciate clearly. “Thirty-two hundred kilometers.” He drew a long line on the whiteboard, labeling the left end 0 and the right end 3200. “This is what the rover can do,” he added, and made a little mark just barely to the right of the 0, adding the number 35 to it. He pointed to the enormous difference between the two and finished, “Too far to walk.”

Dragonfly could sense that he meant the last line as a joke, but none of the others, herself included, found it funny. Not only was Mark’s ride home not coming for four years, but he’d have to journey halfway across Equestria to meet them. On this planet. The prospects, even for a changeling, were appalling.

“So I need,” Mark continued, once he figured out no smiles were coming, “to change the rover to go farther.” He paused, then wrote several words on the board, reading them aloud. “Change- to make different. Modify- to change something else on purpose.”

Starlight raised a hoof. “Purpose?”

Mark tapped his head. “Intent. Plan. Mean to do it. Not accident.”

Starlight nodded, lowered her hoof, and let Mark proceed.

“Also,” Mark said. He drew a little rocket ship. “Ares IV has six crew.” He drew six little stick Marks. “Six come down. Six go up.” He added a seventh stick-Mark. “Maybe seven. NASA,” he pointed to the swoosh patch on his shoulder, “NASA smart, figure something out. But twelve?” He drew a stick-dragon and four stick ponies, then crossed out all of them plus the seventh stick-Mark. Shaking his head, he said, “Can’t work. People get left behind.”

Now Dragonfly felt real anger rising in Fireball. The dragon leaned forward from his sitting position. “Leave us here?” he rumbled.

Mark, to his credit, didn’t blink. “No,” he said firmly, looking Fireball straight in the eyes. “When we go, all go. To stay here is to die. And nobody dies.”

Dragonfly almost stomped her hooves in pony-style applause. Mark meant every word- she could feel it. There was no joke, no brag, nothing but firm resolve in him.

“But NASA doesn’t know.., um, does not know we are here,” Mark said, forcing himself to slow his speech back down. “We need to tell them, six people here, need rescue. With years to plan, they think of way to get us all home.”

“But you no talk home,” Cherry Berry pointed out.

“I can’t talk with home,” Mark restated correctly, “yes, that is true. The radio,” he drew an antenna with lines radiating from its tip, “was broken on Sol 6. I can’t fix it.” He pointed to Schiaparelli Basin again. “Radio here works now, but there is no Hab there. No food, no cave, no farm. If we go now, we die.”

Starlight raised her hoof again. “Why radio there, if no one can live there?” she asked.

Mark drew a tall triangular object on little legs. “M. A. V.,” he said, and wrote out the words: “Mars, Ascent, Vehicle. Ascent means going up. Vehicle is a thing that carries people, like a car or-“ he almost pronounced the pony word correctly- “Amicitas.”

“M. A. V.” Starlight said, and the others, including Dragonfly, repeated it after her.

“M. A. V. makes its own fuel,” Mark continued. “But it takes time.” He wrote 500 Sols next to the MAV. “So it comes before anything else- er…” Anything else had been a phrase too far for everypony except Dragonfly, and Mark saw it in their faces. “It comes here first, makes fuel, then everything else comes. People come last of all.”

“So no radio here,” Starlight said, pointing to the soil floor. “Radio there, can’t use. So what do?”

Mark clicked a button on his computer, and several spots lit up on the map. “Other radios on Mars,” he said. “Maybe fix one of them. But I have to get to them first.” He set aside the first whiteboard, which was rather full now, and pulled out a second, drawing a very poor sketch of one of his rovers on top of it. “So modify rover now, test it, see it work, then go get radio.”

He smiled at the others and added, “Today we work on plan to do that- all of you and me. Together.”

Dragonfly looked at the numbers on the whiteboard, her mind entirely focused on the problem. She’d always had an un-changeling-like interest in making things work, and this problem was a lot more interesting than designing a self-deploying parachute or a functional space toilet (both of which she’d done). It wasn’t as much fun as pulling seven G’s during a hard re-entry, but she always felt happy and proud of herself when the job was done.

“Rover battery has nine thousand watt-hours,” Mark said. “Don’t ask how much a watt-hour is. Not important.”

The others shrugged and moved on. Dragonfly disagreed- the conversion from Mark power units to pony power units would be important in the future- but for now she realized explaining the conversion would distract from the goal. Since only Mark parts would be used on the rover, only Mark measurements were needed for now.

“NASA made the rover-“

“Made?” Fireball asked.

Dragonfly forced herself not to groan. They’d had the verb conjugation for “make” two days ago. She’d paid attention, because “make such-and-so” was one of the biggest contributors to the larva-talk problem.

“I make today, I made yesterday,” Mark explained. When Fireball nodded and leaned back, he went on, “NASA made the rover to go thirty-five kilometers on one charge. Five hour planned EVA, eight hour at most. Recharge at Hab.”

Charge was a word that had come up when discussing the emergency mana batteries. Dragonfly and Starlight knew it, but the changeling hadn’t known whether or not the others did until she saw them nod understanding.

“If I leave the Hab, I have to take something with me to charge the battery,” Mark continued. “The solar panels-“ Mark had to draw a couple of them, since the phrase wasn’t familiar to the ponies yet- “can be taken from the Hab and used to power… to recharge the rover.”He pointed to the rover. “Problem: can’t fit the panels inside the rover. Need space… need room inside for food, water, potty.”

Everyone else made a face. Potty was a word they all knew far too well. They had grown used to the stench from the compost bin, but nobody liked it.

“Put up on… er…” Cherry Berry reached a forehoof up to pat the top of her own head. “Put here up on rover,” she said.

“Put them on the roof?” Mark asked, pointing to the top of the rover drawing as he said the new word. “Okay, we’ll use the rope for that.”

“Charge while… er… charge while Bo-Luke?” Spitfire struggled.

“Driving,” Mark said gently. “No, can’t charge while driving. Need too many panels. Have to stop, spread like outside Hab, wait.”

Dragonfly reached over to Mark and grabbed the marker in her fetlock. She scribbled the equation 800 / 35. “You say the radio is eight hundred kilometers, yes?” she said slowly, being careful of her pronunciation.

“The closest radio, yes,” Mark said. He held out two hands, bringing them progressively closer together as he added, “Close, closer, closest.”

Dragonfly finished the math; twenty-two and six-sevenths. She scratched that out and wrote 23 instead. “Twenty-three days there, twenty-three back,” she said. “Too slow.”

“Yep- I mean yes, too slow,” Mark nodded. Need to go farther each sol. Need more power.”

“Glue solar panel to outside rover?” Dragonfly suggested.

Mark’s face twisted. “I’d rather not… I mean no,” he said. “I have glue, but it doesn’t come off.” His hands mad a motion of sticking two things together.

Dragonfly made a screwdriver motion with her hoof.

“Definitely no screws or bolts,” Mark insisted.

“But you need more power,” Dragonfly insisted. “Where can you get power?”

“Other rover?” Starlight suggested.

“Yes!” Mark said, pointing at Starlight. “I can take,” he mimed taking something in both hands, “the battery from Rover One.” He scratched out the 9000 on the whiteboard and wrote above it, in smaller numbers, 18,000.

Voila! thought Dragonfly. (Voila, she had heard, was Prench for, “I’m done, now pay me.”) “So now you go… um… two-times… the, er… length?” Her voice faltered, stumbling across words she hadn’t picked up yet.

“Double the distance,” Mark nodded. “Distance is length for a place instead of a thing. The distance from the Hab to the cave is ten kilometers.” He then held up one finger after another, saying, “Single… double… triple.”

The ponies, Dragonfly and Fireball all nodded.

“So, if I use all that power to drive…” Mark did the math on the whiteboard: 18000 / 200 = 180 / 2 = 90 km. “Two hundred watts per kilometer. Ninety kilometers a day,” he said. He sighed, shook his head, and continued, “But I can’t do that.”

“Why can’t?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Rover uses power for other things too,” Mark said. “Lights. Fan.” He made a little whirring sound in his throat, twirling his finger in a circle. “And heater. Especially heater. Heater uses four hundred watts.” More math on the whiteboard:

400 X 24.66 = 4 X 2466 = 9864.

18000 – 9864 = 8136

8136 / 200 = 40.68 km

Dragonfly cocked her head in confusion. "Near thirty-five kilometers again!” she protested.

Mark nodded. “The heater doesn’t run when I’m not in the rover,” he said. “But if I leave the Hab, I’ll… I will be in the rover all the time. So the heater has to run all the time.”

“But thirty-five kilometers is no good!” Dragonfly insisted. “What do?”

Mark shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “Magic? You have ideas?” He tapped his head to remind the ponies what ideas were.

Light flickered in the general direction of Fireball. The dragon, with the first smug expression Dragonfly could remember on him since the gunk went splat, had forced two little flames through his nostrils. For a moment he almost looked like one of the skinny dragons from the lands of the Qi Lin… well, more so than usual, Dragonfly admitted.

Mark’s eyes widened. “Huh,” he said. “Maybe that works.”

“You’re going on a road trip, Fireball,” Spitfire giggled in Equestrian.

It was worth a shot, Dragonfly thought. But she also remembered: dragons dislike the cold even more than ponies. That suggested they weren’t particularly good at warming up the air around them. But on the other hoof, Fireball was volunteering for something and coming up with ideas again- and this one wasn’t likely to get anyling killed.

But there had to be some better way. Maybe suit air could be used to heat the rover? For that matter, would one suit be enough to supply breathable air for two people in the rover cabin?

“Okay, we’ll try that,” Mark said. “We stay close to the Hab until we’re sure it all works. Now, let’s figure out… er… let’s plan how to put the second battery on the rover.”


Mark gave Dragonfly an annoyed look. “No glue.” Then he paused… “Well, maybe glue. But I hope we find a better idea.”

The planning went into details. The second battery would be a pain, since it was too large for the airlock or the luggage rack. Dragonfly suggested various means of just attaching it to the side of the rover, all of which Mark rejected… until she suggested tying it on with rope. That produced the solution.

Mark had a supply of spare canvas for his base if the existing dome sprung a leak. He also had a supply of glue to hold it together. Put the two together, and you got saddlebags for the rover. The battery would ride in one side, and a bunch of rocks would be counterweight in the other side. The bags could be taken off after the trip, so the second battery wouldn’t be permanently attached to Rover Two.

Other things were discussed. Starlight Glimmer suggested navigation aids, particularly navigating using the sun and Mars’s moons. A slightly smaller sample bin was picked to be Mark’s honey bucket- one with a very secure airtight lid. Another bin was picked for Fireball’s rations for the trip, and another to be filled with enough water for the journey.

It was well past lunchtime by the time the basic plans were completed. Everyone ate their ration and then went to their afternoon chores happy. They had worked together. They had helped.

Except Dragonfly, who watched Mark drawing up plans for the canvas saddlebags on a whiteboard. He wasn’t feeling accomplished or satisfied, not in the same way. She thought he felt… smug.

In fact, the way he felt reminded Dragonfly of the queen just as some particular scheme of hers was paying off big-time. But what scheme? All he did was get us all to talk about figuring out…

… stuff where he came up with most of the answers.

Huh. He didn’t need our help for this, did he?

Dragonfly saw it all in a single flash. He’d taken his own planning time and turned it into an extra-long language lesson. He just brought us in to give us something to do. To give us practice in English. He had most of it worked out already.

Dragonfly stifled a grin. I like Mark, she thought. He thinks like a changeling.

Author's Note:

The ponies, especially Cherry Berry, would think Dragonfly just mortally insulted their host, if they knew what she was thinking.

The vowel thing is from my high school days, when our Spanish teacher would begin almost every class with us chanting Spanish vowels and sample words, the last being "bu lu lu". (I don't remember what "bu lu lu" is.) Spanish, by the way, has a LOT fewer vowel sounds- six IIRC as opposed to English's NINETEEN (not counting schwa).

This chapter is mainly, from my end at least, taking an infodump from the book and rewriting it in a totally different fashion that presents the same information. Not the first time, and not the last time, I'll have to do this.

Buffer remains at three. Spent today disposing of trash and assembling grab bags for upcoming conventions.

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