The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

First published

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

Twilight Sparkle's experimental interplanetary drive has malfunctioned, stranding Starlight Glimmer, Spitfire, Cherry Berry, a changeling and a dragon on a hostile planet in another universe. With limited food supplies, very little magic, no communications with home, and no way to leave the planet, they must survive until somepony rescues them.

Fortunately they crashed right next door to another creature with the exact same problem- a creature named Mark Watney.

They're going to science the buck out of everything- and do whatever it takes to survive Mars and get everybody home.

This experiment in an updates-daily story was made possible by a generous grant from Canary in the Coal Mine and viewers like you.

(Sex tag for crude talk about sex, but no actual sex in the story.)

Sol 6

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The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

with thanks to Lauren Faust, Andy Weir, and Admiral Tigerclaw for the ideas that I’m blending together for this

The Sparkle Drive was the most brilliant advance in Equestrian applied thaumaturgy in history- even more brilliant than the most advanced of Starswirl the Bearded’s spells, as the old time-displaced pony himself grudgingly admitted.

At its core it was a simple teleportation spell. Teleporting from Equus to the moon required immense, almost unmeasurable amounts of magic, as only the Elements of Harmony or similar artifacts could produce. But shorter jumps required exponentially less power, to the point that a sufficiently powerful unicorn could teleport from one end of a large room to the other without even blinking. All of this had been known since the founding of Equestria, but Twilight Sparkle was the one who realized that a million little jumps could make the same journey as one mighty jump for a lot less cumulative energy- and who, with the help of Starlight Glimmer, created an enchanted artifact to make it happen.

The limiting factors for the Sparkle Drive were energy generation and storage (how much magic it could produce in a steady stream) and frequency (how many times per second the spell could fire). The first drive, on a small unmared probe, had only a trickle of magic power and a quartz oscillation system, giving it a jump of about six feet about 32,000 times per second. It flew from Equus orbit to moon orbit- a trip which required two days by conventional rockets- in two hours. The second drive, test-flown by Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle in a standard three-mare capsule, tripled the power and used a computer microprocessor instead of a quartz crystal, made the same trip in twenty minutes. Both flights ended with no mishaps or malfunctions of any kind.

For the third flight the Amicitas, the vessel which had made the first mared trip to lunar orbit, got a total refit. The chemical rocket systems were removed and replaced with mana-propulsion systems, making room for an engineering deck to house the Sparkle Drive and a massive crystal energy storage system. A standard docking port was installed along the dorsal side, allowing the ship to visit the CSP space station and to dock with other ships. The ship would have the most powerful computer available, which could directly control the Sparkle Drive up to a maximum cycle speed of one-quarter megahortz., or one-eighth of the computer’s total potential runtime.

It wasn’t lightspeed. It wasn’t even a percentage of lightspeed. But it was fast enough that, instead of requiring six months for a one-way flight from Equus to the planet Bucephalous under optimal conditions, the Amicitas could fly almost directly there in a little over a day- which was the test chosen for the refitted ship.

The crew of Amicitas Flight Three consisted of two Equestrian Space Agency members, two Changeling Space Program members, and one member of the various lesser agencies which, as the space race had reached its conclusion, folded themselves into one or the other of the two organizations. Cherry Berry, the world’s most experienced space pilot, commanded the flight, with the changeling Dragonfly serving as chief engineer and computer officer. Fireball, the world’s only dragon astronaut, was chosen as second in command for his EVA and survival experience. Starlight Glimmer, as one of the two designers behind the Sparkle Drive, came along to make sure nothing went wrong with it, doubling as science officer. The final seat went to Spitfire, the only member of the crew with no space flight experience, as the only pegasus member of ESA available for a multi-day flight outside of Equus local space.

The launch, via conventional rockets attached to the ship, went flawlessly, as did the docking with CSP’s space station to test the new docking port. After a brief visit, the ship detached, used its magic-powered thrusters to separate itself from the station, and waited until its orbit brought it into line with the distant red dot which was Bucephalous before activating the Sparkle Drive and streaming away in a blur of magical light.

For seventeen hours everything went perfectly. The drive teleported the massive ship and its crew four meters at a time, two hundred and fifty thousand times per second, across the interplanetary void. The crew ate, slept, arose, and ate again, taking watch in shifts in case something went wrong, which it didn’t.

Until it did.

The flight ought to have been perfectly safe. The Sparkle Drive didn’t actually alter the non-magical momentum of the ship; between every teleport it moved at only orbital speeds, limiting potential damage from space dust and micrometeorites. As a double protection, the standard teleportation spell the drive used contained safeguards that would ensure that the destination was empty, thus avoiding either collisions (bad) or two objects sharing the same point in spacetime (worse). The spell would automatically displace the ship just far enough in whatever direction to avoid an encounter.

Unfortunately the ship, and the Sparkle Drive, had three flaws, one which should have been caught by the drive’s designers, one which nobody could have predicted or recognized until it struck, and one which nobody could have done anything about in any case.

Flaw #1: while the spell used by unicorns and alicorns limited itself to three dimensions of motion for its emergency displacement, that limitation had accidentally been left out of the Sparkle Drive’s spell matrix.

Flaw #2: the Sparkle Drive, and indeed every single propulsion system on the refitted ship, depended upon the rules of physics and metaphysics in Equus’s high-magic universe, and no one had taken into account how they would function if those rules suddenly changed.

Flaw #3: all contingency plans for the ship, and indeed for all space flight since the beginning of Equus’s space race, depended upon the instant, constant, never-failed communications with the ground provided by the telepresence spell installed on all ships.

A microasteroid, about the size of a coarse bit of beach sand, floated into the Amicitas’s flight path.

The Sparkle Drive’s teleportation spell automatically displaced the ship to avoid it.

And all Tartarus broke loose.

AMICITAS-3 MISSION DAY 2

Spitfire’s head spun as Amicitas bucked like a stallion stung by a hornet and almost every light in the bridge went out, along with three-quarters of the control displays. She moved automatically as she heard the order to suit up, floating over to her suit’s storage locker along the back wall, removing it from the recharging systems, and sliding herself into it. Drill after drill after drill on the ground had left them all able to go from street wear to full pressurization in under a minute, even under the most disorienting conditions the boffins could think up.

“Suit clear!” Dragonfly, as always, was the first to report finished. In drills Spitfire had regarded changelings shapeshifting during the process as dirty rotten cheaters, but now she was more concerned in finding out what had just happened to the ship.

“Suit clear!” That was Fireball, the dragon. Thumbs helped.

“Suit clear!” Cherry Berry. Experience helped; this was, after all, the only mare who had landed a ship on two different bodies besides Equus.

“Suit clear!” That was her own voice, piping up from sheer, well-drilled habit.

“Ugh… ugh… suit clear!” And that was Starlight Glimmer, who as a unicorn ought to have been faster.

“Emergency power!” Cherry Berry’s ability to put steel into what was normally a squeaky, inoffensive voice never ceased to amaze Spitfire. She’d seen the pony on the ground panic just like your average pony, scream and run and be totally useless… but put her in a ship and she became the proverbial steely-eyed missile mare.

Under any other circumstances, Spitfire thought, I’d be in command. I’m a major in the Equestrian military with so much pegasus flight experience, so much leadership experience, it’s not worth counting. And here I am, the oldest pony on the ship, and the only rookie. Even Starlight’s flown once before. So my proper role is to sit down and shut up until and unless somepony gets hurt.

From squadron commander to field medic. How the mighty have fallen.

The emergency lights came on around the bridge, relieving but not eliminating the gloom. Cherry Berry returned to the commander’s seat, while Spitfire eased herself into the pilot’s chair. The names were misleading: the commander flew the ship unless and until she needed the pilot to take over, and in the meantime the pilot monitored readouts and called the commander’s attention to anything that needed it. “Baltimare, this is Amicitas,” Cherry said, activating her headset. “We’ve had a problem, over.”

Silence.

“Baltimare, this is Amicitas, please respond, over.”

Nothing.

“Horseton, this is Amicitas, can you hear me?”

Not even static.

“Shoot.” Cherry Berry shifted in her seat. “Starlight, Fireball, check the ship. I want to know if we’re losing air.”

Dragonfly tapped one of the displays. “Cabin pressure holding steady at one atmosphere, Cherry,” she said. “Life support exchange crystal working at standard volume.”

“Check the ship anyway. Fireball, you may end up going outside, so be ready. Spitfire, keep trying to contact the ground. Dragonfly, I want a diagnostic on the telepresence matrix.”

As Starlight and Fireball went aft to check the engines, Spitfire split her attention between repeating calls to the ground, first via telepresence, then via the backup radio. “Baltimare, this is Amicitas, comms check…. Baltimare, this is Amicitas, comms check… Baltimare tracking, this is Amicitas comms check on backup… wait…” She went silent, then ran the radio through all its preset frequency settings to verify what she thought she saw. “Commander? I’m not picking up the ESA satellite network. At all.”

“Do you think we lost the antenna?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Indicator light is green,” Spitfire replied. “And I’m getting all sorts of static. Just no signals from the satellites.”

Dragonfly peeked out from under the control console, closing the panel she’d been looking into. “Telepresence crystal is intact,” she said. “But it’s got no power.”

“Isn’t the spell supposed to work so long as either side is getting mana?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Yeah,” Dragonfly nodded, hissing softly. “I really don’t like this.”

“Spitfire to engine bay,” Fireball’s voice rasped over their headsets. “Medical emergency. Spitfire to engine bay for medical emergency.”

Before Spitfire could do more than undo her straps, Starlight Glimmer’s voice cut in, gasping, “Belay that… I’m all right… Dragonfly, have you tried to use any magic since… whatever… happened?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Don’t. I just gave myself a mild case of magic exhaustion by trying to cast three spells at once. Commander?”

“Yes?” Cherry Berry asked. “I’m here.”

“We’re in serious trouble,” Starlight Glimmer’s voice grew a little stronger as she continued. “The drive crystal’s intact, but my scan failed before I could verify it as undamaged. The electronics and power feeds all look intact. But every single power crystal is shattered. Worse than shattered. Gone to dust.”

“There are a couple of bolts floating around back here,” Fireball added. “And I see some distortion in the walls. That bang we felt was probably all those gems going bang.” A low growl, and then, “Waste of a couple days’ meals.”

“Break out the spares, then,” Cherry Berry ordered.

“We haven’t got any,” Starlight moaned. “The power array was massively redundant. Twilight and I figured that we’d be fine if a few of them burned out or even blew out. We never imagined they’d all blow up at the same time…”

Cherry Berry groaned. Spitfire felt surprised at how good that groan made her feel. She’d expected a whimper. “Okay, so what have we got left, then?”

“Two backup mana batteries for bridge systems,” Dragonfly recited. “Eight mana batteries for the maneuvering thruster blocks. And the batteries in the suit thruster packs.”

“What about the main thrusters?” Cherry Berry asked.

“They were powered from the drive’s supply,” Starlight Glimmer groaned. “Consider them dead.”

“Wonderful,” Cherry Berry grumbled. “Well, we’ll think of something. Get up here and strap back in.” She leaned back in her flight chair, taking a couple of deep breaths. “At least we have air and water still, so that still works. And we still have thirty days worth of food.”

“More than that,” Spitfire said. “Amicitas was originally a seven-mare vessel. We have thirty days of rations for Fireball, and then thirty days for six ponies. And there’s only four of us.”

“Three,” Dragonfly added. “I'm a changeling, not a pony. I don’t have to eat normal food. Not much, anyway.”

“Good,” Cherry Berry said. “But Fireball can eat our food if he needs to. So we can wait a while for rescue. How are our other consumables?”

“Thrusters show 100% mana levels and steady,” Dragonfly reported. “Electric… er…” The changeling hit a switch, and somewhere amidships something whirred. “Deploying backup solar arrays,” she said. “Electric charge was dropping like a brick.”

The rear doors to the bridge opened to admit Fireball, who pulled himself through the hatch with one arm while dragging a limp Starlight Glimmer with the other. Spitfire was out of her chair at once, ignoring Starlight’s protests and helping Fireball guide her to her flight chair. “Hold still,” she said, going to the first aid cabinet to fetch basic tools.

“Never mind that,” Starlight said weakly. “You’d need me to unsuit for most of that anyway. I just need time to recover my magic.”

Spitfire blinked. She wasn’t exactly a close friend of Twilight Sparkle’s student and collaborator, but she knew full well she was one of the most powerful unicorns in Equestria, with an almost bottomless supply of magic. Her recovery times from powerful spells were so close to instant as… “How much time?”

“Commander,” Starlight said, ignoring the question, “we need to shut down all non-essential magic-powered equipment right now. I think we’re in a magic-poor environment for some reason.”

“Um, yeah,” Dragonfly muttered, looking at the console. “That lines up with what I’m seeing here. The bridge magic batteries are down to about one-third capacity.”

“Do it.”

Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Spitfire began hitting switches, deactivating the telepresence spell, most of the remaining interior lights, and various other little systems that made life on the ship nicer but didn’t contribute to staying alive. Finally Dragonfly said, “OK, we’re stable enough… nothing’s drawing magic now except the nav-ball and control systems… but we’re not gaining anything back.”

“That’s impossible,” Cherry Berry said irritably. “Magic permeates the universe. It’s stronger around life, but we ought to be getting more mana than just barely enough to run that.” She threw a hoof at the one thing remaining illuminated on the control panels, the mostly-brown navigation ball.

The words mostly brown echoed in Spitfire’s head, looking for something to connect to.

“Mana permeates the universe around Equestria,” Starlight Glimmer replied. “It’s possible that there are magic-rich and magic-poor places-“

“But Bucephalous isn’t one of them!” Cherry Berry insisted. “We sent a probe to orbit it! We know it had more than enough magic for the telepresence spells to work!”

The word orbit echoed in Spitfire’s head, looking for something to connect to.

“Bucephalous was in a different place in its orbit!” Starlight Glimmer snapped, getting a little of her energy back. “There’s so much about this universe we don’t know that-“

Spitfire’s hooves reached for the controls, activating the reaction wheels and putting the ship into a slow tumble. Almost immediately something big and rust-red appeared in the windows in front of the ship.

“Spitfire, what are you- oh sweet Celestia!” Cherry Berry gasped, looking out the window. “That’s Bucephalous! We shouldn’t be anywhere near that close!” The red planet almost filled the windows.

“I noticed the nav-ball,” Spitfire said shortly. “Prograde marker’s well in the brown. If we were still in solar orbit, as we should have been, it would have been in the blue. So I-“

“That’s NOT Bucephalous!” Starlight Glimmer shouted, the edge of terror creeping into her voice. “Those volcanoes are all in the wrong place!”

Dragonfly leaned up and activated the backup map systems. Normally the course projections would be relayed from the ground, but Amicitas was the first Equestrian spaceship to have an on-board backup. The map showed a single sun and a single planetary orbit, the computer redrawing that orbit several times a second in a most doubtful dance. Dragonfly zoomed the map down to the planetary level. “Definitely not Bucephalous,” she said. “Alexander’s missing, and instead there’s two asteroids orbiting really close… and whoa,” she gasped. “At least eleven satellites where there should be only one.”

“Not important now,” Cherry groaned. The projected trajectory showed the ship on a head-on collision with the planet in about forty minutes. “Starlight, is there any way to feed bridge power to the main engines?”

“We’re not in our own solar system anymore!” Starlight moaned. “We might not even be in the same universe!! Oh, what have I gotten us all into now?!?”

“Stay WITH me, Starlight,” Cherry Berry said in a tone that Spitfire, military to the core, couldn’t help but admire. “Work the problem! Can we get power to the engines?”

Starlight Glimmer spent a couple of seconds panting for breath, doing a rapid in-out motion with her left forehoof as she did so. “Right. Um. Yes. It would take about ten minutes. But both batteries at full charge would only power the engines at full throttle for about three seconds. The batteries are backups. They were only meant to power the bridge, not the engines.”

“And we don’t have anything close to full charge,” Cherry Berry finished. “And we’d lose most of the controls to do it. So all we have left is the RCS system. Can we at least dump bridge power to those?”

“Not without a spacewalk,” Starlight said. “The thrusters replaced chemical thrusters and are similarly self-contained.”

“Okay. Good news is, that makes things simple,” Cherry Berry replied in a truly military moment of black humor. Part of Spitfire found time to wonder if the earth pony’s parents had worn the uniform at some point in the past. “Okay. Spitfire, watch the levels in the thrusters. I want to know if they drop below twenty percent. That’s my safety margin. We’re going to shallow out our approach enough so that, if we’re lucky, we skip off the atmosphere and back out into space. If we’re less lucky, we make a controlled landing.”

“And if our luck’s out,” Dragonfly muttered, “we have a Bad Day.”

“Bad day?” Fireball asked, not having heard the capital letters. “You mean this doesn’t already qualify as a bad day?”

“We are NOT having a Bad Day!” Cherry Berry growled. “I am going to land this ship and we are all going to be rescued and everything is going to work out just fine!”

Spitfire took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. On the one hand, Cherry was saying and doing all the right things, shutting down panic, presenting as much confidence as possible under the circumstances, and working the problem.

On the other hand, numbers didn’t lie. The planet, the not-Bucephalous or whatever it was, was dead in the way of a ship going at Equus-orbital speed and accelerating. It would take a Faust-delivered miracle to save their lives.

“Starlight, remove one of the batteries and get me back the main engines,” Cherry said. “Even a few seconds at low thrust is better than nothing, and we might regenerate a little bit of power. Fireball, secure everything as tightly as you can. Then both of you get back here and strap in. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.”

Spitfire tightened her straps and nodded agreement. It would, indeed, be a very rough ride… and they could only hope the stop at the end wasn’t lethally sudden.


Magic thrusters in an alien environment had unpredictable consequences.

Below and ahead of the ship, as it struggled to convert vertical speed into horizontal, a dust storm already quite powerful by standards of the tiny desert world’s meager atmosphere blew to titanic proportions, bearing down on the largest artificial structure then currently standing on the planet. Millions of miles away, observers on another planet noted the sudden and inexplicable change in the storm and warned the occupants of that artificial structure to prepare to evacuate both it and the planet it stood on.

Knowing none of this, the ship’s pilot used every trick she’d learned or guessed at from dozens of re-entries in various craft, goosing the thrusters as gingerly as possible and tapping her hooves in insuppressible anxiety waiting for their charge levels to creep back up. By skill, by luck, and by urgent prayers addressed To Whom It May Concern, she managed the miraculous by converting a collision course into a clean atmospheric re-entry. But the impossible eluded her, as the drag of the planet’s sparse air and dust grabbed the ship and refused to let go. The ship’s lifting body slowed too rapidly to remain aloft, but not rapidly enough to permit a controlled landing on the uneven terrain below.

In desperation the emergency solar panels, stowed early in re-entry, were redeployed. They ripped away from their moorings almost instantly, barely slowing the craft.

The emergency drogue chute was deployed, and then the emergency landing parachutes. All lasted only a couple of seconds before being ripped to pieces.

Finally, with no options remaining, the pilot raised the nose as high as she could and tried to stall the craft. The thrusters, taxed beyond their power to regenerate charge, sputtered and died. The reaction wheels, kept in constant use, drained the electrical batteries to zero and automatically shut down. The ship, with no further active control systems, nosed forwards again of its own accord, gaining just enough lift to bear it over the rim of a shallow canyon.

And then there was the ground, and the ship no longer had power to lower its landing gear, to operate its controls, to do anything.

With a crash loud enough to actually just be audible in the sandstorm outside, the ship belly-flopped at high speed onto the alien soil, skidding along on a rising wave of loose dust and small rocks. Boulders clipped the stubby fin-wings, sending the ship rotating first one way and then the other as it skidded on, but somehow or other none rose directly in its path.

A low slope rose underneath the ship, and the nose began to dig into the dirt, braking the vessel until at last, with a final tortured scream of metal, it shuddered to a halt, having left a scar several kilometers long behind it.

Five space travelers, secure in their spacesuits, survived, in a ship without power, without air, without water, without magic.

And as they recovered, all five noticed a blinking beacon on the tiny nav-balls built into the displays of their space helmets…


The last man on Mars sat in his habitat, all alone, and typed.

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happens, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

He paused, deciding that was as good a place to end the log entry as any, and moved the cursor to the save button.

There was a knock at the door.

His fingers returned to the keyboard.

And apparently I’m also insane. Must be blood loss. I thought I just heard someone knocking on Airlock One. But that’s impossible, because everybody else left on the MAV, and that’s a one-way trip.

There was another knock, more insistent.

Holy shit. It happened again. Something is actually knocking on the airlock door.

Mark Watney saved the entry, got up from his chair (ignoring the freshly stapled wound in his side) and went to answer it.

Sol 7

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On what should have been the morning of Sol 7 and what, instead, was past midday of Mission Day 131, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) carrying the five surviving members of the Ares III expedition docked with Hermes, the ship that had brought them to Mars and which would carry them back to Earth.

NASA mission protocol in case of a mission abort like this one was strict, and such aborts had been simulated multiple times during the crew’s years of training. The Sol 2 rock samples, taken from the landing site and loaded in the MAV immediately so the mission wouldn’t be a total loss in case of abort, would be offloaded- twenty-five kilograms, or about one-twentieth the amount allotted for the mission. The MAV would be undocked and programmed for station-keeping, becoming yet another communications relay satellite in Martian orbit. Then Hermes would engage one of the pre-calculated burns to carry it back to Earth as quickly as possible. The sooner Hermes left Mars, the less time and energy would be required for the long trip home.

First off the MAV was Beth Johannsen, mission systems operations officer and computer technician. It was her job to inspect Hermes and make sure the most expensive ship ever constructed by mankind was ready for flight. Normally she would have a second crewman to assist with these inspections, but circumstances had changed.

Next came Alexander Vogel of the European Space Agency, mission chemist and navigator. The German scientist pushed one of the two plastic bins of rock and soil samples ahead of him, floating his way towards the science lab where they would be stowed. The samples, strictly speaking, were not his job, but again circumstances had changed.

Major Rick Martinez, US Air Force, mission pilot and second in command, came next, pushing the other sample container. Martinez had been the practical joker of the crew, reveling in the stereotype of irrepressible flyboy. Today he was as grim and focused as the strictest drill sergeant could ask for. He had saved the MAV from tipping over in the unprecedented storm that had forced the mission abort, and he would perform any orbital maneuvers required for Hermes’s trip home.

Finally, reluctantly, the last two crewmembers emerged. Commander Melissa Lewis, US Navy, mission commander and mission geologist, floated through the airlock followed by Chris Beck, mission doctor and EVA specialist. Lewis hadn’t said a word when Vogel had offered to take the soil samples to the lab in her place. In fact, she’d said precious few words to anyone after ordering the launch of the MAV. Beck, worried for her mental health, had decided to stick like glue to her at least until Hermes completed its Earth transfer orbital burn- a maneuver which would require three orbits of Mars and take most of an Earth day to complete.

Lewis barely noticed him, nor cared, but she was aware enough of her surroundings that she cared about not caring.

Buck up, Melissa, she chided herself. You’re the mission commander, and you still have four other astronauts to get home safely. They’re depending on you for leadership and morale. They need certainty right now, not a skipper whose head is in the clouds!

Yeah. Four other astronauts. Five minus one.

Her mind still gnawed on the empty sixth chair in the MAV, the one reserved for Mark Watney, mission engineer and botanist. So Johannsen saw Watney knocked flying by the antenna that impaled him. So Watney’s biomonitor showed his life signs at zero just before going dead. That’s no excuse. I should be bringing five astronauts back, not four. I failed.

No. Freak accident. Freak storm. You broke mission protocols trying to find him. You did everything possible.

Did I? Did I really? There must have been something else I could have done. I could have ordered abort sooner. I could have kept us closer together. I could have ordered tethers.

Based on what? You had no way of knowing. It could have been Johannsen, or Beck, or you. There was nothing…

… there had to be something…

Absorbed in her mental loop, she allowed Beck to guide her to the bridge. Once there, she found her own workstation- Beck knew better than to go so far as to help her sit down and strap in. The incoming-message light flashed on her terminal. No surprise there. NASA, after all, had listened to their comm chatter throughout the abort and launch, even if they couldn’t contribute anything in real-time from four light-minutes away. NASA had received their first (terse) report on the loss of Watney, and now doubtless they wanted to respond.

Without waiting for Johannsen, whose duties included message downloads, she keyed up the message to her station’s terminal and hit play.

The image of Mitch Henderson- the square-headed, square-jawed flight director and head of Mission Control for Ares I, II and III- popped up onto the screen. That’s odd, Lewis thought. Way outside protocol. Where’s our normal CAPCOM?

“Hermes, this is Mitch Henderson,” he said. “We know the loss of Mark Watney has hit you all very hard. Mark was a very special man and a true astronaut, and he will be sorely missed by everyone in the program.”

Beck let out a soft sigh at these words. Lewis ignored him and forced herself to breathe normally. Commanding officers maintained discipline, after all, no matter the provocation.

“Normally our focus at this point would be solely on getting the rest of you safely home to Earth as fast as possible,” Mitch continued. “But Dr. Kapoor-“ Venkat Kapoor, the overall head of Project Ares- “-has a new mission task for you.” He paused, looking down at a fistful of papers in his hand. “We ordered a scan of all satellite photos from the period immediately before and during the mission abort. One of our satellite operations workers, a…” Mitch squinted at the page. “… a Mindy Parks… spotted something in photos taken by two different satellites. We’re sending you hi-res files of the pictures, but for now, here’s the first pic.”

Mitch’s face was replaced by a full-color satellite photo. Mars filled the background- an entirely different region of the planet from Ares III’s Acidalia Planitia.

But in the foreground, where nothing ought to have been, there was something pink. Pink and, insofar as the handful of pixels could determine, pointy- two things that no asteroid or meteor known to man ever was. The brilliant pastel color of the… whatever it was… stuck out like healthy skin in front of Mars’s eternal smashed thumb.

“The second picture isn’t as good,” Mitch said, “so we’re not going to embed it in this video, but it shows an object about the size of an MAV during landing phase entering the dust storm about seven minutes prior to your abort. According to Parks, the times of the two pictures give a rough trajectory for the object that should have had it impacting Mars about ten kilometers northwest of the Hab about two minutes prior to your abort, with an uncertainty radius of about thirty kilometers. Obviously that didn’t happen.”

Lewis’s eyes had focused so hard on the little pink thing in the photo that she could still see it when the screen switched back to Mitch Henderson.

“To be blunt, we don’t know what this is, and we’re afraid to guess,” Mitch continued. “But Dr. Kapoor persuaded Teddy Sanders-“ that was the current NASA chief- “-that, at minimum, this would be an unprecedented chance to observe the immediate aftermath of a meteor strike on the Martian surface. Anything more than that,” he added, his lips compressed in obvious disapproval of what he was saying, “is considered unwarranted speculation at this time.”

Unwarranted speculation? Lewis thought. That’s obviously no asteroid fragment. It’s just possible a Kuiper Belt object would be that color, but we would have seen its cometary trail months ago, if it could even survive this long. So, what are you left with if the thing can’t be natural?

“I personally want to emphasize,” Mitch added, “that this is not our idea of a prank or joke. Nobody here at NASA would do any such thing immediately after the loss of one of our own. The attached pictures are legitimate and unretouched, taken directly as we received them from the satellites. This is very real and very serious.

“It’s so serious that we’re not bringing you back home yet.” Mitch pulled one of the papers out of his hand and took a closer look at it. “Included in this message is a series of possible orbital adjustment programs for you to select from, depending on how soon you can complete Hermes’ pre-flight checklist. We’re going to put you in as low an orbit as we dare. Hermes’s cameras are as good or better than anything on the satellites, and with your ion engines you can dip into the fringes of Mars’s atmosphere without serious risk of deorbit, at least for the week or so we’re extending your mission by.

“Your mission will be to examine the area where we project the object came down, to a range of double the computed cone of error. Once you find it, get all the pictures you can and send them back to us.” Mitch cleared his throat, looking obviously discomfited, and added, “Obviously this will also include the area of the Hab. Dr. Kapoor also wants pictures of the hab with an eye towards re-using the site and unused supplies for a future Ares mission. But in light of the loss of Mark Watney, that task is strictly optional. If you feel uncomfortable with it, we’ll leave that to the satellites.

“Also,” Mitch said, raising his tone a little and saying each word with slow, careful weight, “you are not, I repeat not, to detach the MAV at this time. We want to use Hermes to put it into an orbit that overflies the search area as frequently as possible. We’re still working on the procedure for that, but we’ll have it for you as soon as it’s ready.

“Again, we are grieved to hear about Mark Watney, and if there’s anything any of us at NASA can do to help, let us know. I’ll be here at CAPCOM for the rest of the day to answer any questions you have. Henderson out.”

The video ended. Lewis shook her head, shocked, confused, sad and excited all at once. This might be the thing that every astronaut hoped for, above all else… but… but!!

“Commander, you want me to gather the rest of the crew?” Beck asked quietly. “I think they all need to see that.”

Lewis nodded. “Yes. Please. At once.” She stifled a sob, taking deep breaths again as she keyed up the two images Mitch had mentioned in his message and displaying them on her screen. The little pointy thing in one picture, the less obviously pink speck pushing a massive shock wave in front of it through the trailing edges of the dust storm.

Why, she thought, why is it that the biggest discovery in the history of space flight has to happen at a time like this?

ARES III LOG ENTRY: SOL 7

Isn’t this just my luck? Here I am, Mark Watney, the first human being to meet intelligent life from another world. Lucky me. Problem is, nobody will ever know until both me and the intelligent life are all long dead.

I’m typing this while we eat a late breakfast or early lunch. None of us know whether or not my guests can handle Earth food, but from what I understand we don’t have much choice. Anyway, it balances out- my five crewmates leave for Hermes, and hey presto, five aliens show up to take their places at the dinner table.

I know what you’re thinking; I ought to be rationing my food to make it last, not giving it away to interplanetary hoboes. And you’re not wrong. But if I understand the pictures these guys have been drawing, these guys are just as marooned as I am, and I figure our mutual odds of survival increase if we work together.

And if worse comes to worse, I can kill them and eat them, right?

Ugh. I just looked one of them in the big, adorable, trusting eyes, and I felt so guilty about that stupid joke. No, I’m not going to eat anybody, not even if they drop dead of natural causes. (Or of NASA’s cooking, which is a distinct possibility, but nobody’s grabbing their throat and choking yet.)

Obviously we don’t speak each other’s language. They speak something that sounds a little like Welsh. Well, like I imagine Welsh sounds, anyway- I’ve never heard it. But the alien language is all high nasal vowels and gargles, and every other consonant is L.

So we’re communicating by whiteboard. Sort of like the party game Pictionary, except we’re all on the same team and we’re playing for keeps.

Did I mention that four out of the five aliens can only hold a marker with their teeth? I don’t even want to think about how many brain cells they’re losing to marker fumes every time they draw a picture.

As near as I can figure it, this is their story. They come from a planet that looks a lot like Earth, but the continents are all different. They took off in their ship headed for the next planet out in their solar system, just like we did in Hermes.

But their ship broke somehow. I don’t know how. The alien drawing the picture just drew black smoke trailing from the back of their little rocket, and one of the other aliens got into a big argument about it. I guess she wanted to make the point that smoke doesn’t look like that in space, and the one drawing the picture wanted to keep it simple. Me, I thought these aliens must be really similar to us if a trail of black smoke means “my aircraft is broken” in their culture like in ours.

I wonder what else is common in our cultures.

I wonder if I should delete my web browser history just in case.

Anyway, whatever broke on their ship, it sent the ship to Mars instead of where they were going. And boom, they crash-landed.

The next part is kind of fuzzy, though. All the aliens tried two or three different pictures to tell me the next part, but none of it made sense. My best guess is, the crash took out their ship life support somehow. Maybe there’s a hole in the hull, maybe their oxygen tanks ruptured, I don’t know. But then they showed me the displays inside their space suits, including what looks almost exactly like an old Apollo-era navigation ball, and then drew that with a blinking light on it, followed by the aliens, single file, walking up to a crude drawing of the Hab.

So, obviously the Hab beacon still works. It’s probably the only communications device that does. The radio produces nothing but static. Not surprising, since I was impaled by a piece that broke off from the antenna farm during the storm. I already know the main satellite dish is gone from my walk back to the Hab yesterday. So all that’s left is the beacon, which has its own internal antenna. But it’s only rated for about twenty-five kilometers, and it’s send-only, because duh.

So, my best guess is, they’re stranded, and they’re stuck living with me for the duration. The last time I had roomies picked for me like this was my first year in the dorms back at the University of Chicago. Down side: no privacy for when my nonexistent Martian girlfriend who lives in Canada comes over. Up side: no problem finding players for my D&D campaign!

Damn, now I wish I’d brought my dice.

So, who are my new roomies, you ask? Well, I don’t have their names yet, but I can describe them pretty well, so you can look at the pictures I’ve taken and know who I’m talking about.

Four of them are quadrupeds, ungulates to be exact- that’s right, they have four hooves and no hands. And not split hooves either- what they have is kind of like horse hooves, except instead of being black and shiny they’re the same color as their pelt. And speaking of, three of the four are covered in fur of colors not normally associated with animal life. But then again, it’s aliens, so what do I know?

Hell, I watched these creatures remove spacesuits with locking seals and zippers and the whole nine yards- spacesuits nowhere near as advanced in design as mine, by the way- with no help from me or from each other. No thumbs, no fingers, and no fuss. And I still don’t understand how the fuck they did it. Somehow they can grab a zipper with a hoof and pull it, because aliens.

I get the feeling I’m gonna be saying “because aliens” a lot.

The first of these little horse alien things is pink- pink like your kid sister’s Pretty Pansy Princess Playroom Set- with a kind of poofy blonde mane and tail hair. She’s the friendliest of the bunch. She also did most of the drawing during our attempts at communication. Every time there the aliens had a discussion or argument, she had the last word, so I’m guessing she’s their leader- their equivalent of Commander Lewis. There’s this sort of brand or something on her butt- I’m reluctant to examine it too closely, lest I start the first interstellar sexual harassment lawsuit- but it kind of looks like a cluster of cherries.

“But Mark,” I hear you say, “this is an alien! Its planet’s biosphere must be completely different to Earth’s! How can it have a picture of a cherry on its ass?” To which I reply: that’s what it looks like, so that’s what I’m calling her. Cherry.

Then there’s the second one- the one who fussed over drawing black smoke pluming out of a spaceship. This one has a unicorn horn, which I’m guessing makes her a different species. I could be wrong. Maybe it falls off like antlers out of season, or maybe she’s a genetically altered uber-whatever, or maybe it’s a sex toy she had surgically implanted for whatever reason. But I’m going with unicorn horn because her brand isn’t cherries, it’s a really abstract wavy magical spark thing. So I’m calling her Magica for now.

Anyway, besides the horn, Magica’s coat is this really pale violet I don’t know the name for. Her mane and tail are dark purple with streaks through it, kind of either turquoise or teal, I don’t know which. She kind of looks tired all the time, and the other aliens are all a bit worried about her. I hope she didn’t have internal injuries during the crash.

One other thing about Magica. The first thing my visitors did after they came in and took off their suits was look for the bathroom. (And can you blame them? Their last potty break was in another solar system!) But after that, Magica came to me and used her hoof to go through numbers with me, then prime numbers, then squares, then cubes, then Fibonacci’s sequence- all by stomping her foot. Obviously this can only mean one thing: she’s a sci-fi geek who’s read all the classic first-contact stories. Guess the good things are truly universal!

Now onto the third alien. Remember how I said the pink one was sort of like Lewis? Well the third alien acts like Lewis. She’s the only one I haven’t seen smile even once. She’s always looking so serious, so on-duty. I don’t know how quadrupeds come to attention, but I think she’s doing it all the time. About the only thing that spoils it is her eyelids. They tend to stay half-closed all the time, which would give her a sleepy look if she didn’t have the alien equivalent of resting bitch-face.

Instead of a unicorn horn, this one has wings. That’s right, wings. Six limbs. I don’t know what for- last night she tried flying in the Hab, and she was barely able to get into the air flapping like a chicken the whole time. They’re clearly too small for sustained flight. She’s got pale orange fur and hair that’s brilliant orange at the roots but dark orange at the ends, and her brand is of a fireball, so I’m calling her Fireball.

Now for the fourth one. Everybody’s seen at least one Alien movie, right? Well, imagine a xenomorph crossed with Cherry or Magica or Fireball. That gives you some idea of the fourth alien. It has huge glowing pale-blue bug-eyes- not compound eyes, but no irises or pupils like the other aliens have. It’s black from horn to toe except for its eyes and a pair of bug-wings (which work even worse than Fireball’s- the bug tried to get airborne until her wings sounded like an outboard motor and never left the floor). And, strangely enough, it has holes all through its extremities- holes like her grandmother was a block of Swiss cheese or something.

Buggy (as I’m calling her for now) poked her nose into absolutely everything. She was the one who found the toilet and showed the others how to use it. She didn’t use it herself, and even more strangely, she refused a meal-pack last night and today too, though she did steal my cup of coffee. I’ve had to gently guide her away from more sensitive things several times, including twice while I’ve been typing this.

And then the last one, whose sole resemblance to any of the others is that he speaks the same language. For one thing, he’s a he- or so I assume, since his voice is like two octaves deeper than any of the others. Also, he’s not a quadrupedal ungulate, he’s a bipedal reptilian, standing on two long rear legs that would be almost human except for a few minor differences, like clawed feet, scales, digitigrade legs- you know, trivial stuff like that. The others occasionally stand on their hind legs to reach things or even take a few steps upright in a sort of awkward way, but he’s the only one who stays like that all the time. He also has a spiked tail, about half the length of his legs; his spacesuit is the only one that has a special limb made just to hold the tail.

He’s slightly taller than me- which makes him about a head and a half taller than Johannsen or any of the other aliens standing on their hind legs. He makes up for it by being skinny as hell- like a snake with arms and legs, but a dragon’s face. He’s mostly white with a red trim along the sides of his body and in a sort of V around his neck. He has dark yellow ridges down his head and spine, like Godzilla’s only rounded and blunt. The top ridge is fat and kind of leans forward over his forehead, making it kind of look like combed-back hair. I haven’t decided yet whether to call him Puff or Kirk because of that.

The other aliens being ungulates, I’m treating them as herbivores until I learn differently, and so I’ve been giving them the vegetarian dinners. About one-quarter of all the meal packs have vegetable protein instead of meat; it keeps better longer and it’s cheaper, a double win for NASA. But Puff is an omnivore, and by omnivore I mean that he didn’t even unwrap or heat up the meal packet. He just bit into it and ate the whole thing. Though to be honest, he might have been showing off. The guy just exudes machismo.

Okay, I’ve blown more than half an hour writing this up, and I need to stop for now. If all six of us are going to live together, I need to make sure everything’s up to scratch. That means cleaning the solar panels and making sure they survived the storm OK and then doing diagnostics on all the mission-critical equipment- the oxygenator, the atmospheric regulator, the water reclaimer.

And I also need to clear off at least one of the rovers. If the Hab systems check out, then tomorrow I’m going to have my guests take me back to their ship. If anything can be salvaged from it- especially food- that needs to be done sooner than later.

I just hope it’s within the ten kilometer limit specified by mission regs. If the rover runs out of juice away from the Hab, it’s going to be a mighty long wait for AAA service to show up with the jumper cables.

Sol 8

View Online

HERMES – ARES III MISSION DAY 132

“Found it.”

Martinez’s words yanked Lewis’s attention from her own terminal. “Where?”

“Site Epsilon,” Martinez said, setting the telescopic stills camera to photo-taking mode. “It left a scar a good three kiometers long leading up to it. Led me right to it.”

Lewis’s hands flashed across her terminal. “Site Epsilon? But that’s ten kilometers due east from the Hab! NASA’s projection said northwest of the Hab. That’s out on the edge of the error cone!”

“I know, right?” Martinez grinned as he watched the photos coming in. As low as Hermes was orbiting, they had only a couple of minutes before the site passed out of range. Mars’s rotation would carry the site away by the next orbital pass, which meant the next window for photos of the site would be the following sol. “This thing definitely wasn’t a dumb rock. Somebody was flying it.”

“Found it,” Lewis said. “You weren’t kidding about that scar. The darker substrate stands out like- whoa.”

“Yeah, what I thought too,” Martinez replied. “That’s definitely a spaceship of some kind.”

“Was a spaceship,” Lewis corrected. “Nothing we could build would ever fly again after that kind of impact.”

“I don’t think it was an impact,” Martinez replied. “An impact would have made a crater just like a meteorite. I think whoever was in that attempted a controlled crash landing. And they might have succeeded.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No debris field,” Martinez replied. “Or not much of one anyway- just a few bits and pieces mixed in the furrow.”

“That can’t be right,” Lewis said, shaking her head. “How fast do you think they were going to leave a furrow that long?”

“I’m gonna leave that to the eggheads back at NASA,” Martinez said. “On Earth I could calculate it, but lower gravity? One five-hundredth the air pressure? I’d be guessing and you know it.”

“I suppose,” Lewis nodded. “We’re passing out of range. Send NASA the map coordinates and-“ Her eye caught something in her screen. “Pan east from the crash site. Due east about five kilometers, quick!”

Martinez ordered the camera to do so, snapping fresh digital photos all the while. “All right, done, but why?” One photo, now barely as good as any of the survey satellites in normal orbits could produce, caught his attention, and he flipped back to it. “What is that?”

Lewis held the video camera on the site as steadily as she could manage, despite orbital velocities carrying Hermes away faster than a bullet. “It’s a rover,” she gasped. “That’s one of our rovers!”

“Nah,” Martinez said. “Can’t be.” He studied the picture more closely. “Can it?”

Lewis groaned in frustration as the site passed beyond the video camera’s ability to pivot. “We both trained to recognize the rovers from overhead,” she said, “so we could optimize our landing position. I know that silhouette anywhere.”

“If it is…” Martinez’s sallow face went pale. “Oh, God. You know there’s only one person who could be driving it.”

Lewis leaned back in her seat. “No,” she whispered. “Johannsen saw him blown away, His life signs went zero. The alien ship must have had survivors, and they salvaged the rover from the hab.”

“They figured out the rover’s computer operating system?” Martinez asked. “The airlock controls, the driver unlock system, the whole thing?”

“Yes, I know it’s improbable,” Lewis said. “But Watney surviving is impossible. So that’s the only explanation.”

Martinez looked at his commander’s face and decided to let the matter rest for now. “I’ll make the report to NASA,” he said. “Why don’t you put in some time in the gym?”

“Can’t,” Lewis replied. “We might need to do a burn to maintain this orbit. I need to be on the bridge for that.”

“That ain’t happenin’ in the next hour, commander,” Martinez said. “Go blow off some steam. You’ll feel better for it.”

Lewis opened her mouth to say something, then settled for unstrapping herself. “I’ll be back in one hour,” she said. “You have the bridge.”

Martinez acknowledged, watching her leave, then shaking his head as he tried to figure out how to tell NASA…

… and, in fact, what to tell NASA. Good news- we found Mark! didn’t seem like a winner.

Besides, Lewis might be right. Sufficiently advanced aliens in a pinch could, given the incentive of being shipwrecked on Mars, learn how to drive a rover really, really quick.

But in his gut Martinez knew better.

And what I think, Commander, he thought to himself, is that you know it too.

When he began typing, it wasn’t the report to NASA, but an intraship message to Dr. Beck.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 4

ARES III – SOL 8

Dragonfly allowed herself a sigh of relief as the air from the emergency tanks filled the cabin of the Amicitas without leaking away. They couldn’t remove their space suits- the ship might have canned air, but it didn’t have heat, and the natural temperature on this planet was so far below freezing that even brief exposure might mean frostbite.

The backup air tanks and the manual pump to put as much of the air back into said tanks were Changeling Space Program ideas, ideas Dragonfly was very proud of. Changeling ideas were smart ideas. It had been a pony idea to put the main air and water supply systems in the engineering bay, on the theory that a crash would always be nose-first and that survivors would be safest in the back of the ship.

As it happened the tail of the ship had struck first, cracking the bottom of the hull open like an egg and venting the engineering deck to the outside. The life support crystals, sensing loss of containment, had automatically shut down. And since the system that teleported warm air and hot water from Baltimare directly to the ship drew its power from the Equus end of the connection, it could only be reactivated from that end. Without communications, that wasn’t going to happen.

But the good news was, the airtight hatches between compartments- another CSP idea, thank you very much, even if it had come from a minotaur and not actually a changeling- had held and were holding. The habitat and docking chamber and the bridge both would hold air. And an inspection of the wrecked engineering bay revealed that the main life support system and its crystals were also intact, so if they could ever contact Equus again, they could be reactivated.

Unfortunately that was about the only thing positive about the engineering bay. The impact had shattered the Sparkle Drive’s main crystal, destroying the spell array. The crash had damaged two of the three main drive thrusters, making them unsafe for future use even if they could recover enough magic to get them to fire. The hole in the lower deck revealed one of the main structural girders had snapped- which meant, all other considerations aside, the ship would never fly again.

She couldn’t see the monkey-alien’s face through his reflective visor, but she could feel his emotions, and she knew he agreed with her.

She’d watched the stranger constantly during the slow ride from his little dome back to the ship. There hadn’t been that much else to watch. The planet, or at least this part of it, was flatter than the Appleoosa prairies, with only a random network of little gullies and the occasional small crater or hillock to break the monotony. (Of course, their ship had managed to plow straight into the one hill of any size, a flat round thing mostly covered by loose soil about a kilometer across and maybe eighty meters taller than the surrounding plain at its highest point.)

The alien had gabbled along for the whole trip in its rover, never mind that Fireball and Dragonfly couldn’t understand a word he said. Wabbapeepa babaraba, over and over for half an hour. Cherry Berry, lucky pony, had led the way on hoof and so hadn’t had to listen to him. But on the whole the alien seemed friendly to a fault, cheerful and jovial in a way that simply went against Dragonfly’s common sense.

Still, she hadn’t minded much. As ship’s engineer it was her job to show him around the ship. The engineering bay, where most of the damage was, had been the first stop. Now that that inspection was concluded, they could repressurize the ship long enough to check the ship’s stores, especially the stuff in the small refrigerated compartment (yet another pony idea).

Standard food packs were vacuum-sealed to prevent spoilage, which had the side effect of also protecting the contents from near-vacuum and extreme temperatures. But the ponies had insisted on a little fridge to store perishables from home as a morale booster. Dragonfly herself had insisted the ice box be airtight and thermally sealed because, as she’d said at the time, accidents happen. Thus, those perishables were probably safe- were probably the warmest things on the ship by now except for the four astronauts- so long as noling opened the door before the habitat compartment was repressurized.

“Six PSI air pressure,” Dragonfly said, shutting the air valve. “That’s enough to operate in.”

“Good,” Cherry Berry nodded, her broad grin visible through her helmet. “I’m going to take our guest with me to help inventory the food stores. Check and see if the mana batteries have recharged.”

“Tell him to keep away from my sapphires,” Fireball grumbled. “Reserve battery two is back in place.”

As the monkey-thing and Cherry Berry stepped through the hatch to the habitat compartment (left open to allow the emergency air in), Dragonfly trotted to her station and opened up the tool compartment. The thaumometer ran on environmental magic, so it didn’t surprise Dragonfly that it failed to activate when she pulled it out, but once its leads were connected to the points on a mana battery it should show some reaction.

When she attached the leads to battery #2, the one retrieved from the engineering bay, nothing happened. That battery was dry, if it still functioned at all- it had come loose during the crash and tumbled all over the place. Starlight Glimmer would be able to test it properly, but she still hadn’t recovered fully from her magic exhaustion, and so Spitfire had kept her back at the Monkey House to watch over her.

When the thaumometer was attached to battery #1, the indicators flickered and the needle twitched for just a second. Then they too died. So battery #1 had recharged at some point- but only a very, very little, so little that the thaumometer had eaten two days’ worth of recharge in one second.

That… that was bad news.

And there was only one thing to do with bad news, but since there wasn’t any place safe for Dragonfly to hide on the planet, she went to tell Cherry Berry instead.

In the habitat compartment the monkey was gingerly examining the reference books and flight manuals on the bookshelf. One by one he put them in one of the two big plastic bins he’d brought from his dome. Obviously he found them fascinating, almost as fascinating as he’d found the dead instrument panels and computer displays on the bridge.


Meanwhile Cherry Berry was carefully bringing out the small sealed carton of fresh cherries from the fridge. Dragonfly didn’t need changeling empathy to know that the pony was simply longing to taste them. Noticing her, the pink pony said, “So, what did you find out?”

The sound of Cherry’s voice caught the attention of the alien, who turned to face her. Dragonfly sensed shock running through him, and she heard, muffled by his space suit and hers, something that sounded like, “Wubba yuck?” Gently but firmly he reached down and plucked the clear plastic carton of cherries from the commander’s hoof, holding them up at eye level and staring.

“Jairease,” Dragonfly thought the monkey-thing said. “Buddy gumby jairease.” He opened the carton, ignoring the loud protest from Cherry Berry, and took a single cherry out, rolling it between his suited thumb and forefinger. Then he pushed a couple of buttons on the front of his spacesuit, reached up…

… and unlocked his helmet locking ring and, with one hand, pulled the helmet off his head.

“What’s he doing with my cherries??” Cherry Berry bellowed. “They’re going to freeze! They get all mushy when they thaw out!”

Dragonfly was shocked for better reasons than stupid cherries. The temperature inside the Amicitas was the same as outside- roughly twenty-five degrees below. Only an idiot would deliberately expose themselves to that…

… just to eat a cherry. Which he did, idly closing the carton as he chewed. “Isha jairee,” he muttered. He swallowed, spat the pit into one of the tubs, and then added, “Buckets goal,” tossing his head as he handed the carton back to Cherry Berry before jamming his helmet back onto his head, locking the seal, and reactivating his life support. “Weerhe buckum goal.”

Wasting no time, Cherry Berry swiftly put the carton and its twin from the fridge into the second plastic tub. “That’s all you get, you… you… you cherry thief!” she snapped.

The monkey paid her no attention. Kneeling down to examine the little fridge, he pulled out the other delicacies within- a basket of sapphires, which he tossed into a bin without a second glance, five wrapped sandwiches, a small birthday cake (Pinkie Pie had insisted, as a precaution against “birthday emergencies”), and then, finally, the salads. Those he pulled out and examined very carefully.

“Luscious,” he muttered. “Mommapo. Googumbra. Mabre garrot?” One salad aside. “Slaa. Fuggum goal slaa.” Another. “Afafwa spous. Chess lye girf!!”

And then Dragonfly felt the alien’s emotions shift from shock and disbelief to wild, almost insane enthusiasm. “Spous. Afafwa spous. Afafwa fuggim SPOUS!!”

There were half a dozen alfalfa sprout salads, unseasoned, in the fridge- the ponies all liked them but didn’t agree on seasonings. The alien took them all and slammed them into the plastic tub as quickly as he could, putting the other salads back in place. He closed the tub, double-checked the seal for tightness, and picked it up, hauling it as quickly as he could in this weird planet’s light gravity. “Gummon!” he shouted. “Weega taco! Arrieup!”

Cherry Berry looked at Dragonfly. “Do you think we got a defective alien or something?” she asked.

“I think I’d better start pumping the air back into the tank,” Dragonfly said, shutting the fridge door again. “Our ride back to fresh air is about to leave with or without us.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 8

I saw their ship today. Bright pink, 1950s style curved fins, and heart shaped overlays on its windows. Pretty Pretty Princess Goes to Mars. I could feel my testosterone screaming as it died in agony from the sheer cuteness of it.

Nothing that cute deserves to be wrecked like that.

The ship skidded along the surface for a couple miles before it hit Site Epsilon. Site Epsilon is a mud volcano, or at least that’s what we think it is. It was going to be our last geology activity of the mission if everything else went according to plan, scheduled for Sol 28. Lewis, Vogel and I were going to do geology, chemistry, and soil samples there. There’s a slightly larger mud volcano another ten kilometers northeast of Epsilon, but that’s outside the mission operational radius of our rovers.

New, in addition to looking like a Care Bear threw up on it, it probably kind of resembled a cross between a cartoon rocket and the space shuttle. I don’t know how it worked- there’s nothing inside but habitat and engines, no fuel storage of any kind that I could see. Sufficiently advanced technology, I guess. I always called bullshit on that sort of thing when I read it in a book, but now that I’m face to face with aliens on a daily basis, it makes more sense.

Of course Mars did a number on the thing. The outer hull is crumpled like an accordion all along the bottom where it skidded along the ground. Two of the three engine bells in back are dented and cracked. The inside isn’t much better. The rear airtight compartment, what looks like their warp-drive section, has a crack about four feet long and a foot wide at its longest point. Using suit lights I can see Martian soil through the crack. Worse, I can see a metal structural member sheared in two, with one loose end half a foot higher than the other. You don’t have to have a masters’ degree in engineering like I do to know that this ship is totally unsafe to fly again.

That said, I spent a couple minutes examining the torn metal, and I’m impressed. The aliens built their ship like a fucking tank. And I don’t mean like an air tank or a water tank, I mean slap some treads on this thing and put a gun turret on their upper docking port and you could take on an entire panzer division in this thing. I found a small bit of loose hull metal and carefully fished it out of the crack, careful not to tear my suit on the jagged edges. When I get time I’m going to use Vogel’s chemistry lab to analyze it, but I can say now, it’s an alloy I don’t remember seeing before- looks like iron, light as aluminum, tougher than both.

That probably explains why the rest of the ship is in as good condition as it is. The other two sections of the interior are still airtight. No power, but the aliens had a manual emergency air system for situations like this, along with a manual air lock. After we re-sealed the hatch to the engine room, they opened a valve and let a thin atmosphere of pure O2 into the ship. It was still cold as hell- Mars laughs at ship insulation- but we had air if we needed it.

I only took a brief glance at the control systems, but everything looks distinctly Apollo-era, or maybe very early shuttle era. There’s only two very small computer screens, but a ton of digital readouts. Most of the gauges are simple mechanical dials. There are a ton of switches and push-buttons.

Strangest of all, there’s two joysticks, for pilot and co-pilot. How do aliens use a flight stick with hooves? And how does Strong Bad type with boxing gloves on? Tune in next time, when these questions may or may not be answered!

But as I said, I only took a brief glance at all that. I did notice that five of the seven flight couches are shot to hell. That is, the emergency impact protection systems, what would be crumple zones on your car, gave their all to protect the aliens when they crashed. Two of the couches were intact, and going by the number of alien house guests I have and the lack of gruesome dismembered alien bodies on the floor, I’m guessing they were empty.

But all that was completely unimportant once I got a look at their pantry.

Like NASA, the aliens included a small refrigerated compartment to keep comfort food fresh for the crew. In our case, NASA sent us some refrigerated Idaho potatoes. The plan was to use them as part of a freshly cooked Thanksgiving meal somewhere around Sol 16 or 17. In the aliens’s case it was a basket of rocks (seriously, does Puff need to prove his manliness on a daily basis? “I’m so tough I eat rocks for breakfast! And I don’t mean that metaphorically!”) and a bunch of salads.

Earth style salads. With Earth type veggies.

Cherry’s butt has cherries on it because there are actual cherries where she comes from. I stole one from her (and you better believe that pissed her off), took off my helmet in that goddamn freezing cold ship, and ate it.

(Hey, I checked my suit readouts first. If six PSI of pure oxygen was good enough for the Mercury 7, it’s good enough for me. But on second thought, it was also good enough for Apollo One, so maybe that’s not such a good benchmark.)

It was the best fucking cherry I have ever eaten, and speaking as a master of botany, that is an expert opinion.

It wasn’t just cherries. They also had garden salads with lettuce and cucumber and tomato and that. They had a couple tubs of cole slaw. I couldn’t believe it- how in the hell could aliens from another star have the same rabbit food we do?

(I shouldn’t say that. They're herbivores. It’s probably speciesist. Mark Watney, interstellar diplomat, that’s me.)

And then my mind focused on the other salads… which were plain alfalfa sprouts.

On Earth I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Alfalfa is the preferred horse feed because it’s a perennial plant that produces forage several times a year and provides the best nutrition per pound for hay that you can imagine. Within its limits it’s a hardy plant that can be grown, with care, in a broad range of environments. It would only make sense that, if horse aliens had Earth roughage, they’d prefer alfalfa two to one.

(Of course, I could be wrong. I can just imagine alien kids now whining, “I hate alfalfa! I wanna cupcake!” And Momma Alien is saying, “You don’t get any dessert until you clean your feedbag! And have you finished your homework yet?”)

But the thing is, these were fresh alfalfa sprouts. Really fresh. Like, on your local supermarket shelves today fresh. And they’d been kept in an airtight, temperature-controlled container.

Which means they might still be viable.

So I slapped them in one of the airtight sample tubs and rushed for the airlock.

I chivvied the aliens back out of their ship somehow- God, how I hated waiting while the bug and the dragon worked a pump handle, of all things, to try to recycle as much as they could of the emergency air. If we do this again I’m going to bring a tank from the Hab to use. Once we were all back in the rover I lead-footed it back to the Hab, with Cherry sitting on the tub with her cherries in it all the way, giving me dirty looks all the time.

The first thing I did when we got back, after plugging the rover in to recharge, was unpack the alfalfa sprouts. There’s about fifteen cups worth of sprouts, and even after however long in that container they smelled sweet and fresh. I washed them carefully, got out the Earth soil that was supposed to be the control for my botany experiments, and planted them all very carefully.

If this works… if this works there’s a chance we might just survive long enough for Ares IV or for the aliens’ buddies to come rescue us. We’ll know in about seven sols.

I ought to be rationing my food packs, but today was special. The ponies loaded a couple dozen of their own food packs into the other tub, and so we’re sharing a meal without actually, y’know, sharing meals. For myself, I grabbed a Salisbury steak meal with mashed potatoes and green beans.

I gave Cherry my cherry cobbler. All is apparently forgiven.

Sol 9

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY FIVE
ARES III SOL 9

Starlight Glimmer ate her cheesy mushroom omelet with delight. She’d let the alien- Mahrq, she thought he called himself- have a little taste, and his eyes had gone wide with shock. That suited Starlight just fine, because as grateful as she was for his generosity with his food supplies, she was already tired of one bean-based item after another.

Maybe his species, whatever it was, depended on legumes. (He looked like a human from Sunset Shimmer's mirror world, but his coloring was all wrong and he wasn't skinny enough. Besides, the mirror world was supposed to be a secret.) Or maybe he just really, really liked them. That might explain why he stole all the remaining alfalfa salads and planted them in what looked like a Manehattan window-box made of clear plastic.

And what was he even doing with a window box in his little space base? He wasn’t using plants to clear carbon dioxide- he had a machine for that. He’d explained it using pictures on a whiteboard after pulling Dragonfly away from its controls… just as he’d done with the water machine… and the air purifying machine… and practically everything else that had a button, a switch, or a screen on it. The changeling had found them all that first night.

They needed to understand what their host was thinking- understand how he thought in general. Starlight Glimmer was certain of that, and she’d spent most of her enforced bed rest focused on that problem. So long as they were dependent on the strange biped, they needed to do their best to understand him…

… and when their food supplies ran out, they would be really, really dependent on him. And that subject needed to be brought up sooner rather than later.

“Cherry?” she asked, calling the mission commander’s attention from her bowl of cereal (Health Nut brand Frosted Mini-Haybales, with a single sad cherry lingering on top, being saved for last). “I think we need a crew meeting. Now, please.”

Cherry sighed, jamming her muzzle into her bowl and gulping down the remaining cereal, cherry and all. “Fine,” she said. “Everypony, huddle up by the bunks.”

Spitfire had already been next to Starlight, enjoying her usual power breakfast (scrambled eggs and alfalfa-seed muesli) as she watched over her patient. Fireball, who had been dithering between adding one of his limited supply of sapphires to his otherwise mostly ordinary pony-style breakfast and warning the alien away from his tiny hoard, left his breakfast on a worktable and walked over. Dragonfly, who had been watching Mahrq dividing up his own breakfast and putting a bit of it in the dome’s refrigerator, wandered over to them last, completing the group.

The alien noticed the gathering and reached for a whiteboard and marker. Starlight held up a hoof and shook her head, and Mahrq shrugged and returned his attention to breakfast. That was another mystery Starlight wanted to explore: why did the alien have such similar body language to the rest of them? Nopony really needed Dragonfly’s buzzed hints to know how he was feeling about something, and simple signals like yes and no and stop and don’t were perfectly clear between them.

“Okay, everypony,” Cherry Berry said, “Starlight has something she wants to talk with us about.”

“Er, yes,” Starlight said, bringing her attention back to the most urgent matter. “You did say the food stores on the ship were in good shape, right?”

“So far as I could tell, yeah,” Cherry Berry nodded. “The crash didn’t break anything there that I could find.”

“Right. So, follow me on this. We had lunch and dinner and then breakfast before the incident,” Starlight said. “And then dinner last night and breakfast this morning came from our supplies, and lunch again. So we’ve used up two days of rations for three ponies and a dragon, right?”

“I see where you’re going with this,” Cherry Berry said. “I’ve been worried about it too. Amicitas launched with thirty days’ rations for seven crew pre-packed, according to standard procedure.”

“Yeah, I nearly learned how important that was the hard way,” Fireball interrupted.

“Ahem.” Cherry shot the young dragon a look before continuing, “We replaced one set of thirty days with dragon-specific rations, but that still leaves us a pretty good surplus, right?”

Starlight shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. Look at the situation. We can’t talk to Cape Friendship or Horseton Space Center. We don’t really know where we are, and we couldn’t tell them if we did. That means…” She paused, suddenly realizing that saying help may never come was about the least helpful possible thing she could say. She edited it to, “We could be waiting for a really long time for rescue. At least as long as it takes to build a rescue ship.”

Cherry Berry nodded slowly. In addition to her astromare duties, she’d spent a lot of time overseeing rocket construction. “Okay. So we have to ration our food, is what you’re saying?”

“That’s not a problem for me,” Dragonfly said. “If you can spare me a couple heartfelt hugs a day, I’ll be fine on a bit of water.”

“Grrrr,” Fireball rumbled. “But it’s a big problem for the rest of us. I need at least a little gem content every day to stay healthy, and I can’t eat raw hay like you ponies can. So some of your food packs are useless to me, and all of my food packs are useless to you.”

“So you need more rocks,” Dragonfly hissed. “Go outside, there’s plenty of rocks.”

“Yeah, I could eat those.” Fireball’s voice rose, causing Mahrq to look up from his breakfast again. “And you ponies could eat fresh roadapples, too. How healthy would that be?”

“Eyuck,” Spitfire said, making a face. “I know what you mean, I read up on dragon first aid and all, but did you have to say that while I’m still eating?”

Fireball slumped, sighed, and muttered a not terribly sincere, “Sorry.” After a moment he added, “But you get my point. Dragons need gems. No substitutes.”

“How many sapphires do you have?” Starlight asked.

“Thirteen. I could eat all that for a single meal and still have room, but I need to space them out for when my food packs run out.” The dragon slumped a bit more, which looked all the more dramatic given his slender build, and added, “If I can stop myself from eating ‘em, that is.”

“Is that why you ate the alien food packs whole like that?” Starlight asked.

“Nah. The wrappers actually give me indigestion. I just wanted to freak out Monkeyboy over there.”

“So, not a substitute?”

“Not even close.”

“Right. That means Fireball begins to suffer malnutrition in about a moon unless we ration. Sooner if we depend too heavily on Mahrq’s food. As for the rest of us,” she added, “we began with what amounts to sixty days of full meals for the three of us, designed for full active days, as if we were spacewalking or re-entering every day, right?”

“That’s right,” Spitfire nodded, having crammed hard to learn the ins and outs of pony, changeling and dragon nutrition for the mission.

“We can cut that by a third- or a quarter at least- and if we restrict our physical activity, we should be fine,” Starlight said. “That would buy us fourteen or fifteen more days. But after that,” she sighed, “we’ll be totally dependent on our host. And I get the feeling he can’t afford to be so generous with us as he’s been these last three days.”

The others nodded. That first night, when the six of them had been drawing pictures to communicate, the alien had made it clear he’d originally arrived with five others of his species; that the storm had forced them all to leave; and that he’d been injured, lost, and left behind. He was now marooned and awaiting rescue. That was why the shipwrecked pony crew got bunks to sleep on, and why the alien had so much more food than he could eat at once… and it was also why he needed every bit of that food.

“I don’t see the problem,” Spitfire said. “Look, that thing he spends half his time typing on-“

“I think it’s a computer,” Dragonfly interrupted. “It kind of looks like my video games back home.”

“It might be,” Spitfire admitted, “or it might be two-way television, or something else, but whatever it is it’s way ahead of anything we can make back home. And the lights?” She pointed at the overhead canvas and network of plastic poles, all brilliantly lit by strings of tiny bulbs. “It even feels like sunlight! We can’t do that back home without magic! His people are obviously way ahead of us. Why don’t we just hitch a ride with him when he leaves? Just get on with it and ask him to take us with? Wherever he comes from, it can’t be more hostile than out there!” She pointed a hoof vaguely outwards.

“Spitfire, how long would it have taken us to make a round trip from Equus to Bucephalous without the Sparkle Drive?” Starlight asked. “Twilight and Dr. von Brawn told us this in training, you should know.”

“Best alignment of the planets? Six months round trip if we only do a fly-by,” Spitfire rattled off from memory. “Longer if we orbit. So? More advanced aliens!”

“We can’t assume that,” Starlight said. With a grunt of effort she wrapped Spitfire’s plastic spoon in her magic and lifted it up, setting it down again a few seconds later. “The ambient magic in this room, right now, is just enough for me to do that without tapping my reserves,” she said. “Between that and what Dragonfly reported, I’m thinking that this world- possibly this universe- doesn’t have a universal magic field. All it has is whatever magic energy is given off by life itself. And that isn’t enough to run the Sparkle Drive on, or anything like it. Which means rescue is at least months away.”

“Our suit systems work just fine,” Spitfire insisted.

“Those systems,” Dragonfly put in, “are specifically designed to run from a pony’s own magic field. They even work for changelings, and we leak very little magic, believe me. It doesn’t take much power at all to do that.”

“And I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Starlight said, “but your suits have been dipping into the EVA thruster batteries all the time we’ve been here. Our magic fields are weaker, too. They’re not strong enough even to run the suit systems alone.

“Back home we could stay in the suits for days, with air and water from the ground and everything else regenerating itself. Here? I recommend limiting EVAs to eight hours maximum. After that navigation and comms are dead until you recharge. And don't even think of using the thrusters.”

Fireball shrugged. “And where are we going to go?” he asked. “Walking for my health here doesn’t really appeal to me.”

“My point is this,” Starlight said. “We need to think long-term. All we have or ever will have is our ship, Mahrq’s base here and the junk the storm left behind, and whatever we can scavenge from this frozen Tartarus of a world. And we need to make it all stretch as long as possible, and use as little as possible as we can.”

“At least we’ll have plenty of air and water,” Cherry Berry said, “so long as our suit life support works.”

“And above all else,” Starlight continued, “we need to learn to communicate with our host. I have an idea for that,” she added, looking at Spitfire, “but it might mean another couple days of bed rest.” She turned her gaze to Cherry and added, “The next time somepony goes to the ship, we need to bring back one of the batteries. It should recharge here with all of us together, and we might need-“

Mahrq had disposed of his meal pack, and he was pulling one of the space suits from the recharging rack.

“Where’s he going?” Dragonfly asked. “He feels a bit worried and depressed.”

“I’ll ask,” Starlight said, pushing the lap-tray she had been using aside and dropping off her bunk onto all fours. “Spitfire, be ready to catch me.”

“What are you doing?” Spitfire asked in a tone that added, whatever it is, you shouldn’t.

“An adaptation of Bit Lead’s Universal Decryptor,” Starlight said, walking over to the alien. “The spell gives you the meaning of a coded message even if you haven’t got the code. I just have to broaden the parameters and make it two way. I just hope it works.”

“You’ll wind up back in that bunk,” Spitfire warned.

Starlight Glimmer ignored her. The whiteboard Mahrq had picked up earlier was still on a nearby worktable, as was the marker. Taking a deep breath, she ignited her magic, picked up the marker, and levitated it over to where Mahrq was slipping into his spacesuit, tapping him on the shoulder with it.

The alien flinched, looked behind him. His eyes widened as he saw the perfectly ordinary marker surrounded in a turquoise glow, as it floated back to where Starlight Glimmer stood and dropped back onto the worktable. Leaving his helmet behind and his suit only half-secured, he walked over to where she stood, sweating slightly and taking deep breaths.

She obviously had his full and undivided attention. She still didn’t understand his language, but she was pretty sure the first word out of his mouth was some form of How.

Okay, Starlight Glimmer. You’re the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. Deepest magical reserves known since Starswirl’s prime. You’re able to go horn to horn against an alicorn princess and win. You can do this.

I can do this.

I hope I hope I hope.

Her horn lit up again, this time a lot brighter, and the field enveloped both Starlight and the alien. The drain was intense from the start, and Starlight’s knees wobbled. Have to make this quick. “Can you understand me?” she asked. “Keep it simple- I can’t do this for long.”

The alien gabbled something, and overlaid on top of the nonsense Starlight heard the words, “How doing this you?”

Success! The spell would need refining, but success! “No time to explain,” she said. “Where are you going?”

More gabble. “Out the side. Stupid is you.”

Look who’s talking! No, that’s unfair, the answer was obvious. “Why?”

Gabble, gabble. “Looking for orbit plate. Radio breaking. Fix without cannot it.”

She was coming close to the end of her reserves. She had to cut off the spell or pass out. “Draw it, we’ll help,” she gasped, and then killed the spell, falling to her knees.

In an instant Spitfire was beside her, having leaped across the room. Yay, low gravity, Starlight thought idly as the Wonderbolt picked her up on her back and carried her back to the bunk.

Mahrq moved to follow, then stopped, picked up the whiteboard and marker again, and drew something quick and rough. He turned the whiteboard to show them.

Cherry recognized it first. “That’s a tracking dish,” she said.

“Parabolic radio antenna,” Dragonfly corrected, “but yeah.”

“He said his radio was broken,” Starlight said, still a bit shaky. “Spitfire, I’m fine. I didn’t trigger a magic exhaustion relapse.” But it had been a close thing. She had to find some way to reduce the power consumption of that spell. So much tweaking…

“You mean he’s not talking with his people?” Spitfire asked.

Starlight Glimmer sighed and allowed Spitfire to put her back in the bunk. It was easier than fighting it. “To be honest,” she said, “I don’t think his people even know he’s still here.”

HERMES – MISSION DAY 133

“Okay, everyone stand by,” Lewis said. “Martinez, once we lock cameras on the Hab, engage the roll program.”

“Roger,” Martinez said.

“Johannsen, Vogel, you have the cameras. Vogel, we want a survey of the site. Johannsen, focus on the Hab with the video camera. We want to know if there’s anything moving down there. It’s a long shot, but if the aliens are using the hab for shelter, it’s our best shot at getting pictures of them.”

Ja, commander,” Vogel replied. Johannsen nodded.

Dr. Chris Beck, who had no role in what was about to happen, floated by the bridge doors with one hand on the railing and watched. For the first time in days, Ares III was a tightly functioning team again. Lewis had pulled completely out of her fugue, kicking ass and taking names, and everyone else’s morale had risen along with hers. And all it had taken was the possibility of live aliens on the surface.

Well… that, and the other possibility, but Martinez had warned Beck, and Beck had warned Vogel and Johannsen, not to bring it up around Lewis. That other possibility was now the eight hundred pound gorilla, or rather the one hundred seventy pound botanist, not on the bridge.

After yesterday’s brief glimpse of the rover approaching the alien crash site, Lewis had put together a plan and gained NASA’s approval. Hermes would be put into a slow forward tumble in its orbit, carefully calibrated to keep the cameras pointed at the landing site as long as possible. Today in particular Hermes’ sky-skimming orbit passed almost perfectly over the Hab, making it a better choice for focus than the alien ship, as eager as NASA was to get more images of the latter location.

“Video camera lock,” Johannsen reported. “Recording.”

“Stills camera lock,” Vogel reported. “Receiving data.” He looked at the pictures as they came in, just as Johannsen’s eyes were locked on the rapidly magnifying image on her own terminal.

“Pitch program engaged,” Martinez said from his station, as Hermes echoed with the soft thumps of attitude jets firing across the immense vessel. “Executed nominally. No corrections required.”

“Getting clear pictures of the antenna farm,” Vogel reported. “Is very scattered debris, rocks and sand. Total destruction.”

“Focused on the hab,” Johannsen said. “Rover 2 is parked by the recharging port near Airlock One. Rover 1 is still partially covered in sand.”

“MAV landing stage is intact,” Vogel reported. “MDV is missing- no. MDV moved laterally some two hundred meters. Obvious hull damage.”

“Two minutes to closest approach,” Martinez reported.

Beck couldn’t help smiling. This was almost how it had been before Sol 6. This was how a crew ought to function- especially a crew eight months from home.

“Movement!”

All heads turned to Johannsen, though Vogel’s turned right back to his own terminal as Johannsen continued, “Movement at Airlock One- somebody’s coming out!”

“Refocusing on Airlock One,” Vogel reported.

“One… two… three suits,” Johannsen reported. “One orange, two white. Two of them look… really odd…”

“One minute to closest approach,” Martinez said.

“The orange suit and one of the white suits seem long,” Vogel said, looking at the first pictures of the airlock. “Perhaps extra large backpacks? Very hard to see from above.”

“Fourth suit!” Johannsen said, followed by a gasp. “White and red! It’s one of ours!”

“On my screen,” Lewis ordered. Beck, uninvited, guided himself to the commander’s station so he could look over her shoulder. There, on the screen, a tiny dot reached even tinier arms towards the airlock controls, obviously keying the doors shut again.

Mein Gott,” whispered Vogel.

“I knew it!!” Martinez cheered triumphantly.

“Mark,” Johannsen murmured.

Beck was right next to the commander, and thus he was the only one who heard her moan, “Oh God, I left him behind.”

“Minds on task, people,” he said, startling Lewis. “There’s a lot of pencil-pushers back on Earth who are going to want to see all of this.”

But it was too late. The mood was broken, and Beck could sense they were back to being five people instead of one team.

And for all he wanted to celebrate- hey, that was his best friend back from the dead!- he couldn’t help worrying about the others.

Especially Commander Lewis.

Sol 10

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LOG ENTRY – SOL 10

It’s a shame the History Channel changed its name to RealTV. I have the perfect concept for a show: the Psychic Aliens Show. (Because as we all know, psychic aliens are responsible for everything, from the Egyptian pyramids to the Indian pyramids to the Mayan pyramids to Stonehenge to the Nazca Lines to why the Bulls have sucked rocks ever since Michael Jordan’s final retirement.)

And the best part is: we could film it all right here in the Hab!

Sorry, but I’m still just overwhelmed by the stuff I told you about in yesterday’s entry. At least one of the aliens has telekinesis and some form of telepathy that translates their language. But I’ve gotta say, the translator is a long way from Star Trek. For one thing, here’s a transcript of my chat this morning with Magica, which lasted about ninety seconds before she fell over again:

MAGICA: Healthy sunrise. Where we?

WATNEY: This is the Hab, mission Ares Three, in Acidalia Planitia, on Mars.

MAGICA: (shakes head adorably, probably got a long string of absolute gibberish) Identity yours?

WATNEY: My name is Mark Watney. Call me Mark. What’s your name?

MAGICA: (gives me a funny look) You identified on behalf of planet? (Note: I’d forgotten, but I looked it up as a kid, and sure enough, “Mark” comes from the Latin Marcus, ‘dedicated to Mars’. Nobody knows what Watney means.)

WATNEY: (shakes head) What are your names?

MAGICA: (points to self) Starwhite Mirage. (points to Cherry) Very Cherry. (points to Fireball) Slobberflame. (points to Puff Brannigan) Ball of Fire. (points to Buggy) Flying Dragon.

WATNEY: (sighs, because nothing can ever be easy, can it?) I’m going back out to try one more time to find the comms dish and see what I can do with the antenna farm.

MAGICA: Okay. Help we. (falls over, translation ends)

And in exchange for that incredible insight into alien language, psychology, and mental prowess, Fireball (the fuzzy one) gave me the ugliest looks for the whole damn day. This time she went out with me and Puff (or Fireball, or whatever- Macho Lizard) for the final search for the missing dish, I think to make sure I stayed the fuck away from Magica.

But seriously, let’s talk about names for a minute. Starwhite Mirage? Very Cherry? Those make as much sense as Mark Watney, I get that. The psychic translator probably just had an advanced-aliens brain fart. (If sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, what does that make a sufficiently advanced brain fart?) But Slobberflame? Who would name their daughter anything like that? And Ball of Fire- or Fireball? Yes, it’s a good name for a dragon, I admit that, but it’s inconvenient that his name just happens to be what I’m calling the flame-pony. And Flying Dragon? Why is that a name for a bug, when there’s an actual dragon right here?

Yes, I know, I’m ranting about silly things. The sad thing is, it’s the most productive thing I’ve done today.

It’s time to face facts: the dish is gone, and the communications array, all of it, is trashed beyond repair. I could wire the remaining pieces together, but there’s no point. There’s not enough bits of the array to pick up a signal from Earth all put together. The thing had a lot of pieces and took up a lot of ground for good reason.

And I could make a replacement dish from scrap around the Hab, but that’s not the big problem. When the dish sheared off it took the motor with it- the motor that points the thing at Earth and keeps it pointed there while Earth and Mars move and rotate. Even if I could replace that, and I can’t, the aiming software for the antenna wouldn’t know what to do with it.

I’ll have to ask my new friends if they have help on the way, but otherwise I’m on my own, which means it’s time to think long-term survival.

Thankfully the Hab itself is perfectly intact after the storm, as is everything inside it. I have air, water, food and shelter for a good long time. I can even share all the veggie meals with my new herbivorous friends and still have over two hundred sols of food without rationing.

The problem: it’s four years until Ares IV shows up. The math is a little complicated, but it works out like this: four years is a fuckton more than two hundred sols. Metric or imperial fuckton, it doesn’t matter, because I’ll be over a thousand sols dead either way.

Of course, if NASA doesn’t know I’m still alive, Ares IV won’t be prepared to rescue me. And Ares IV sure as hell won’t be ready to rescue five aliens, assuming Big Momma Alien hasn’t already come to take them home.

So I have two major priorities: restore communications with Earth, and find some way to keep eating until Ares IV arrives. Once I solve those, I can solve the third problem: getting to Schiaparelli Crater, where the Ares IV MAV is. It’s about 3200 kilometers away, and the current maximum range of my rovers is 35 kilometers.

Your homework for tonight, class, is to do the math and tell me how well that works. Be sure to show your proofs step by step.

In the meantime I’m going to start rationing food- actually I already began yesterday. Our meal packs are calibrated to provide plenty of energy for highly active astronauts in a hostile environment. That means they have a lot more calories than a bare survival level, and a lot more protein than you’d normally need on Earth. That’s good, because although I have all the vitamins I’ll ever need thanks to the medical stores, I am really going to need protein and calories for the long haul to keep from starving or wasting away in Mars’s subtly lethal 0.4 g.

If I restrict my physical activity to only the absolutely essential effort- only the stuff that keeps me alive- I can cut my rations to three-quarters without suffering any serious ill effects. In particular I need to put some protein aside for rainy days. If I were alone that would extend my food supplies to about Sol 400.

I need to figure out a simple way to explain this to my guests in less than a minute. I don’t think it’ll take too much explaining. They have a lot less food than I do, even if Buggy still refuses to eat more than a bread scrap or two off my plate. (And I think she was only humoring me doing that. She’s obviously trying to act adorable for my benefit. The scary thing is, it’s working.)

But rationing the food packs isn’t going to be enough. I’m working on a plan for that, and those alfalfa sprouts I put in the experimental soil are just the start of it. Half a cubic meter of loose Earth topsoil is not going to feed six people for four years no matter what you plant in it. I’m going to need more.

And I have an idea for how to get more… though I think my guests really aren’t going to like it.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY SIX

Ponies, changeling and dragon looked at the large plastic sample tub, at the recycled and already rather grody sponge wipe sitting on a smaller closed tub next to it, and at the picture the alien- Martian Redbarrel? What a bizarre name- had drawn on the whiteboard.

The picture was very graphic, very disgusting, and very obvious in its meaning.

Still, despite that, and despite the language barrier, Cherry Berry spoke for her entire crew when she asked the question.

“You want us to whaaaaat?”

Sol 11

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“Let’s make this fast,” Annie Montrose growled as she stepped into Teddy Sanders’ office. “I’ve got five cable news networks demanding hourly updates, never mind all the print and web outlets. And in case you haven’t noticed, we are getting totally fucked out there.”

Teddy tugged a corner of his desk blotter, trying to remove a slight crease from it. “That’s out of our control,” he said. “All we can do is deal with the situation as it is.”

Dr. Venkat Kapoor, leaning against the wall in one corner of the room, ignored Annie’s usual profane complaints about the difficulty of her job. His focus was on Mindy Park, who sat in one of the plush guest chairs and tried to fold herself into nonexistence.

Mindy had been the first one in satellite control to spot the UFO in one frame of satellite coverage of Mars during the abort. Rather than go through normal channels, which could have taken days or even weeks, she’d jumped six levels of management and contacted him directly, just in time to stop Hermes from breaking orbit. And that had led to the new, and even more exciting, images…

That kind of initiative in a young employee, Venkat thought, deserved reward. And the proper reward for a job well done in a government bureaucracy was… well, an even tougher job, and one you almost certainly didn’t want.

Welcome to the big leagues, Ms. Park. Let’s see how you do.

“How is our message performing with the public right now?” Teddy asked Annie.

“How the fuck do you think?” Annie retorted. “We’re a fucking laughingstock. Even the most shit-for-brains gomer from East Armpit, Wyoming knows there’s not the slightest possibility that Russia or China got a ship to Mars without anybody knowing! Right now we’re the only people in the world who don’t think it’s aliens! Even the conspiracy nutjobs think the aliens have been there all along and we've been keeping them secret until now!” She ran her hands through her hair from frustration. “Christ, I miss the gold old days when we could wave a wand and say those magic fucking words, ‘national security,’ and hush up anything we fucking well wanted to!”

“That was then and this is now,” Teddy replied. “What about Watney? We still don’t know for certain that’s him down there. An alien might be using his suit as a spare. And Hermes only caught him outside the Hab or rover once. The satellites can’t see him as anything more than a dot.”

“You have to admit, Annie,” Venkat added, “we’re on a lot firmer ground when we say ‘wait and see’ about Watney.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” Annie said dismissively. “And I can point that out until I fucking well turn blue, and it’s all pissing in the wind. And you wanna know why? Because those people out there want to believe, Venkat. They want to believe Watney is alive even more than they want to believe in aliens!”

“Okay,” Teddy shrugged, “so we need a new message. What should it be?”

“Not my job,” Annie said firmly. “My job is to be the pretty blonde still-vaguely-fuckable public face of NASA who puts as much ketchup as possible on the shitburger before it goes out. You’re the one who decides what goes in the shitburger.”

“Annie,” Venkat asked, “how did you get to become director of media relations anyway?”

“Simple,” Annie replied. “I worked like hell, and any time some asshole got in my way, I kicked him in the balls. Eventually I ran out of balls to kick, and then I was here.”

“I can see that,” Venkat admitted, “but why go to all that trouble to get the job?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“If we can get back on topic,” Teddy said, unruffled by the byplay, “let’s assume that we have Watney and an unknown number of aliens stranded on Mars. Can we talk to them? Venkat, what did your boys say?”

“Not a chance,” Venkat said. “Without the dish the Hab hasn’t got the broadcast strength to reach the satellites, let alone Earth. And without either the dish or the array, he can’t hear anything we send him unless we’re right on top of him.”

“Aren’t there backup systems?” Teddy asked. “Please tell me this isn’t another thing like the surface EVA suits.”

“Not like that,” Venkat said, shaking his head. “This wasn’t a contractor issue. This was a design lapse on our part. All the backup systems were in the MAV, on the assumption that anything that took out the main communications system would constitute grounds for abort. As one of my tech supervisors put it, nobody ever thought someone would be on Mars without a MAV.”

“So there’s nothing?” Teddy asked.

“There’s one thing, but it’s a longshot,” Venkat said. “The rover antennas are mounted outside the pressure vessel but under body trim, for protection against sand and rocks. They were designed to communicate with the Hab from as far as forty kilometers away… assuming an intact comm array. It’s still not strong enough to reach Earth or the satellites, or vice versa… but it might just be enough for brief communications windows with Hermes.”

“Explain,” Teddy said.

“Normally Hermes wouldn’t have the broadcast power to reach a rover on the surface or vice versa,” Venkat said. “But right now Hermes still has the MAV attached for deployment as a communications relay. The crew could network the two communications systems and double both broadcast strength and reception capacity.”

“Okay, I can see that,” Teddy said. “But there’s a reason you didn’t lead with that plan.”

Venkat nodded. “Given the limitations of the rover, Hermes would have to be within about a hundred and fifty kilometers for a clear signal. That’s just too low. Atmospheric drag would be enough that Hermes would have to fire its main engines almost constantly to prevent orbital decay. It would also damage the ship’s radiator vanes, reducing the safe power output of the ship’s reactor. And, of course, it would mean putting Hermes even deeper into a gravity well we want to get out of as soon as possible.”

“How long could we sustain it,” Teddy asked, “if we did it?”

“Based on the testing we did for the missed orbit abort scenario?” Venkat asked. “Three, maybe four passes, maximum, with at best three minutes of transmission time. After that damage to the ship becomes too severe to risk, leaving aside the waste of fuel. And it would only work if Watney was in the rover, with the radio turned on, during those three minutes. Otherwise it’d be a total waste.”

“And that’s too much risk for too little reward,” Teddy nodded. “Yes, I understand now. Keep your guys working the problem. We still have a couple days before we need to order Hermes home, and maybe we can think of something clever to boost that signal.”

“We’ll try,” Venkat said.

Teddy turned his attention to Mindy. “Miss Park, it’s good to meet you,” he said. “Dr. Kapoor speaks very highly of your initiative and observational skills.”

“Sir,” Mindy peeped.

“We need positive proof that the unknown people at the Ares III landing site are Mark Watney and aliens,” Teddy said. “We already look foolish for not knowing, but if we say definitely that it is Watney and aliens and not, say, some insane billionaire civilians from Earth, then we’ll look doubly foolish down the line.”

“That’s no lie,” Annie grumbled.

“So,” Teddy continued, “what can you do to get us proof that we’re not already doing?”

“Er,” Mindy said, and then, “Well, Dr. Gaither is already giving top priority to Ares III and second priority to Site Epsilon. We’re adjusting orbits to maximize satellite coverage. But it’s very difficult to determine anything from overhead views. Even the Hermes photos and video are all from directly overhead, and they suffer from the relative speed of the ship compared to the Martian surface.”

The more Mindy talked, the more comfortable she became. Venkat nodded to himself. All of this was common sense to him, and probably to Teddy, who had held two lower administrative positions within NASA before becoming chief administrator. Annie tended to forget these details, with her relentless focus on the next day’s message. But by reviewing the obvious Mindy was calming herself down and buying time to think. Venkat approved… provided it didn’t turn into outright stalling.

“Most of our survey satellites have a very limited amount of propellant for orbital adjustment,” Mindy continued. “I’ll have to check the stats for each satellite, but I’m pretty sure that if we bring a satellite low enough that a view of the horizon can be magnified enough to show the alien’s shapes from any angle other than overhead, we’ll lose the satellite. It won’t have the thrust to return to its former station, and it might not even be able to maintain the lower orbit against atmospheric drag. Um.”

For a moment it looked like Mindy was done, but before Teddy could dismiss her, she took a breath and pressed on, rushing and stumbling over her own words. “But it’s much easier to prove that it’s Watney and not someone else wearing that suit. Satellite resolution is just barely enough to tell the difference between Watney’s helmet and the aliens from overhead. Yesterday and day before yesterday he was the only person in the rover for EVAs. He’s the only one who cleans the solar panels. When we first spotted him three days ago, he was the last one out of the Hab so he could operate the controls. He was the last one into the rover and the first one out- which makes him the driver. There are probably other tests we could think of, but the pattern strongly suggests that he’s the only one familiar with our equipment, which makes it almost certain that it’s Watney.”

Teddy’s eyebrows had gone down during Mindy’s explanation of why the satellites couldn’t see the aliens from the side, but by the end of her frantic confirmation of Watney’s identity they were up near his neatly brushed hair. “That’s impressive,” he said once he was certain Mindy was done. “Very well reasoned.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mindy muttered.

“Annie, can we use that for the press?”

“Oh, fuck yes we can use it.” The perpetually angry Annie looked like she’d been thrown a life preserver, even if she didn’t particularly care for the person throwing it. (That was nothing against Mindy: Venkat had yet to meet a human being Annie sincerely liked.) “We can use every bit of it. Miss Park, if you can go over all that again for me after we’re done here, I’d really appreciate it.”

“’Kay.”

“Venk, I want Miss Park in charge of monitoring Watney and his guests,” Teddy added.

“Already done,” Venkat said.

“I also want the gaps in our satellite coverage cut down to the absolute minimum,” Teddy continued. “Miss Park, you have total authority to make that happen. Will the Ares III MAV help with that problem?”

“Um, no sir,” Mindy said. “The MAV’s only remaining external camera is the docking camera. No magnification. It’s only useful as a relay satellite.”

“I understand,” Teddy said. “And I think this is all leading up to an emergency resupply mission for Watney. His food won’t last until Ares IV unless those aliens have a supply they can share with him.”

“We have to assume they don’t,” Venkat said. “The odds against our body chemistries being compatible are astronomical. And given the size of their ship, there can’t be a great amount of food on board.”

Teddy nodded. “And if they could contact us or rescue him themselves, I’d have to think they’d have done it already.” He shook his head and tried to straighten his desk blotter again, hands fidgeting. “I had intended to embargo all photos of the Ares III site for a year to prevent the media using pictures of Watney’s corpse. That might have killed the Ares program entirely. Now that he’s apparently alive and well, I’m glad it didn’t turn out that way. We can begin work on designing a resupply probe and have it ready for launch by the first feasible launch window.”

“Why not send it now?” Annie asked.

“Besides the fact we don’t have the probe yet?” Venkat asked. “And we weren’t even going to tool up for Ares IV presupply for over a year yet? Right now Earth and Mars are in almost perfect position to launch something from Mars to Earth. That makes it the worst possible time to launch something from Earth to Mars.”

Teddy nodded. “I already spoke with Bruce Ng at JPL. According to him, the heaviest lift booster we have available is the one scheduled for the Eagle Eye Three Saturn probe, which is due to go to the launchpad in about four months. He says it has about enough power to get to Mars right now, if all we send is a grapefruit. Everyone else's heavy lifters are all accounted for.”

“Well, shit,” Annie said. “Okay, so I bullshit the press about our rescue plans for now. I give them Park’s logic about Watney. What do I say about the aliens?”

“Tell them that, until we get more data, aliens are as valid an explanation as anything else for who’s on Mars with Watney,” Venkat said.

“But don’t confirm that it’s aliens,” Teddy warned. “Just let people know we’re open to the possibility.”

“Fuck. Thanks for the impossible mission.” Annie pulled out a notepad and scribbled something down. “I’ll have a statement prepped in an hour, once I’m done with Miss Park.”

“Good.” Teddy stood up. “I think we need to bring in Bruce and Mitch Henderson for the next meeting. We need to get to work planning both a resupply mission and a rescue mission.”

“Why not both at once?” Annie asked.

“If Watney rations his food, he can make it stretch maybe four hundred days,” Venkat said. “That’s not long enough, but maybe he can figure out some way to extend it even more. We have no idea what the food situation is like for the aliens, but it’s probably not good. That means all possible weight on the resupply mission has to go towards food, and lots of it, but we can do that quickly. But a ship that can land, pick Watney up, and return to Earth is just too heavy- out of the question except during a Hohmann transfer window. The next one of those doesn’t open up for twenty-one months. And we know for a fact Watney can’t wait that long without a resupply.”

“Shit,” Annie gasped. “How badly fucked is he?”

“Pretty badly,” Venkat admitted. “But we’ll think of something.”

LOG ENTRY – SOL 11

So, remember how I said I could cut my rations if I restricted my activity to only the stuff I needed to do to keep from dying?

Yeah, so of course I spent the day out at the alien spaceship, loading all their food packs into the rover (and there were a lot of them- barely room for me and Puff, or Fireball, or whatever) and bringing them back to the Hab.

It sounds stupid- why not let the ponies do it? It’s their food.

Well, it began with this morning’s psychic conversation with Magica, or Starlight- not Starwhite- which went like this.

STARLIGHT: Trying thing new. Your being name?

WATNEY: Mark Watney.

STARLIGHT: Mean anything your name?

WATNEY: (heroically suppressing a Yoda joke) No, it doesn’t mean anything.

STARLIGHT: Our names all meaning have. I Starlight Faint-Flickering-Light, our commander Cherry Berry. Him Fireball. Her Dragonflying. Her Spits Flame.

WATNEY: Oooooooh. Starlight Something, Cherry Berry, Fireball, Dragonfly… Spitfire?

STARLIGHT (surprised and happy): Yes! Yes, that’s it! Much is better!

SPITFIRE: (not affected by spell, says something warning to Mirage/Starlight, sounds like someone on BBC clearing her sinuses)

STARLIGHT: Not much time. Must ask. Why potty box?

(Note: I’m pretty sure, in their place, I would have asked, “Why the hell do you want me to shit in this box?” a lot sooner, language barrier or not.)

WATNEY: Compost. Need soil. I’m a botanist. I’m going to grow food. Have you got any seeds?

STARLIGHT: (pokes Spitfire) Show your breakfast him.

(light show ends, Starlight gasps for breath and trembles but doesn’t fall over; Spitfire brings one of their cereal food packs and opens it)

WATNEY: Wait a minute… is this alfalfa seed?

(aliens look blank, then Starlight takes a deep breath, and the twinkly lights come back)

WATNEY (points at planting box, then at food pack) Alfalfa? Same thing?

STARLIGHT: Yes. Same thing.

WATNEY: God, yes. Anything you have with fresh seeds in it, I need.

(Starlight falls over at this point, and the translation ends, which is good because I’m sure I don’t want to know what Spitfire was saying to me as she carried her patient back to bed)

So yeah, it turns out that Spitfire eats nothing for breakfast but a cereal that is about two-thirds or more alfalfa seeds. Not surprising- alfalfa seeds are mildly toxic for humans, but they’re a popular animal food supplement. And the other ponies have a couple of snacks and things that also use them. So we went back to the ship, this time taking one of the Hab’s O2 tanks- heavy as hell, but it only takes a little bit to fill the parts of the ship that still hold air. And if I need more oxygen, I can always use the fuel plant from the MAV landing stage to bottle up Martian air, release it into the Hab a little at a time, and let the atmospheric regulator work its magic on it.

I could have gone through the food packs on the ship, but it’s still cold as hell in there- too cold to take off the suit for more than a couple seconds. And since the food had to come to the Hab eventually, we just decided to take it all. It took several trips back and forth through the airlock, which was a chore, but at least we didn’t need to wait on that manual pump that only puts maybe half the air back into the tank.

But about midway through that chore I began thinking about something else: salvage.

I was the mission engineer for Ares III. I know the basics of all the mission equipment, and I know how to look up anything I don’t remember immediately. It was my job to repair anything that broke- under constant NASA supervision, of course, but I had to be ready in case there was a communications breakdown. And right now, with my life on the line (to say nothing of my guests) I’m seeing everything in terms of survival resources.

I don’t know the systems in this ship, but some of them have got to be useful. The problem is, it’s ten kilometers each way. That’s inconvenient and slightly dangerous if the rover breaks down. The aliens have no problem covering that distance- they can gallop or run across the Martian terrain a lot better than I can manage with my bunny-hops. For me it’s a long distance hike (hop?) with a lot of things that can go wrong.

And the rovers, although they have a short travel range, produce one hell of a lot of torque… and they’re already rigged for towing.

I just have to figure out a way to get the thing out of its hole and onto wheels. I need to think about that part.

I wasn’t the only one thinking about salvage. Fireball brought back two objects from the control cabin. One looks pretty beat up, but the other looks almost new. Starlight was thrilled to see them when we got back, and she kept poking and prodding at them while the rest of us sorted through several hundred food packs. Well, when I say us, I mean them, because I can’t read the labels. The letters look so close to Roman letters, but the words are nonsense. So I just contributed the one thing I could- thumbs- and opened the ones they handed to me.

Good news: there were a fuckton of alfalfa seeds. Score!

Bad news: by the time we were done, we’d pretty much destroyed about fifty to sixty of their food packs. That’s a huge dent in the alien food supplies. And I don’t know where we’re going to replace them from yet.

Worse news: nothing else in the salads is viable. The seeds in the tomatoes and cucumbers in the garden salads are immature. Not that either is among my top candidates for saving our lives, as water and nutrient hungry as both crops are. Everything else was cut, peeled, shredded, etc. into uselessness.

Tonight I’m going to begin inventorying my own food supplies for anything that might be viable. The grasses and ferns NASA sent for my experiments are inedible to me and not much good even for ruminants, so those are non-options. I do have one very good candidate for a crop, but I don’t have much of it, so I want to examine all my options.

Starlight really is very happy about those box-things we brought back from her ship. I tried to ask her about them, but she shakes her head. She’s not going to tell me until our morning mind-meld, I guess.

I broke my rationing and had a full meal pack for dinner. I’ve done a lot of work today, and it’s still not over.

Oh, speaking of rationing, that brings up another problem that I have: CO2 filters.

The oxygenator in the Hab breaks down CO2 into carbon and oxygen using flash-heating and electrolysis. There are similar, smaller systems available for spacesuits, but we didn’t get those. The first contractor NASA hired to make the new suits went bankrupt without producing a single suit, never mind the sixty suits required for all five Ares missions. So, with mere months to go before launch, NASA handed it off to the same company who built the rovers.

And since the rovers (for even more stupid reasons) use disposable CO2 filters, they decided the suits should use filters too- because that way they could use the same filters.

Nobody at NASA thought much about this minor issue. They were a lot more upset about the major fuckup in the suits- the stupid, idiotic safety-glass visors. Because, apparently, the manufacturer thought they were cheaper than impact-resistant clear plastic and anti-radiation overlay, as used by, well, practically every other space suit EVER. But the suits were delivered too late to replace them without missing Ares I’s launch window, and budgets and politics prevented replacing them afterwards.

And compared to the visor issue, having CO2 filters instead of a self-contained oxygenator system was beneath NASA’s notice, because the filters are small and lightweight and they could afford to send a lot more than we’d need for a grand total of ninety hours of EVA per person.

So, instead of a rover and suit that can scrub CO2 indefinitely- and we’ve had the technology to do that for a while- I have one with a very limited number of EVA hours.

Specifically, about fifteen hundred hours to last me four years.

Hooray, Not Invented Here! You just screwed me over royally.

I wonder how the aliens do it? I’ve never seen them recharge their suits yet, and they’re not tapping my water supplies for their EVAs.

Another thing to ask during mind-meld time, somewhere in between “how do you wipe your ass with hooves?” and “So, is that thing on your head a pickle or are you just glad to see me?”

Yeah, that one was bad even by my low standards. I’m gonna get back to work.

LOG ENTRY – SOL 11 (2)

I dug out Johannsen’s media storage drive. We all were allowed to bring digital media of whatever entertainment we wanted on the trip. I left mine on Hermes because, stupid me, I thought I’d be too busy and excited to bother with it. I didn’t find Martinez’s or Beck’s, but the other three left theirs behind. Vogel’s is all in German, so it’s not much good to me.

Johannsen turns out to be a major Beatles fan- all their music, plus a lot of Lennon and McCartney’s solo work apparently. Also a ton of Agatha Christie novels in text and some prehistoric computer games. But Beatles is okay for now- I just want some noise besides alien-Welsh and the Hab machines humming.

I mention all this because the aliens are starting to sing along. They can’t understand the words, but they’re pretty good at mimicking, and all of them can sing. Even the dragon has a better singing voice than I do.

So I’m working on food inventory to a chorus of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

It’s beautiful and spooky at the same time. And it makes me really, really homesick for some reason. Which is bizarre, because when I was growing up my parents were Nirvana fans.

Sol 12

View Online

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY EIGHT
ARES III SOL 12

“Spitfire,” Starlight Glimmer said, the sound of fraying nerves popping through her low-toned voice, “if you try to put me back in bed I will bucking well use my last ounce of magic reserves to throw you through the airlock. Without opening it!”

“Spitfire, please, back off a bit,” Cherry Berry said, stepping between the other two ponies. “And Starlight, I know you’re tired, but we shouldn’t argue in front of Mark.”

Once nudged to neutral corners, the pegasus and the unicorn mumbled brief apologies. Cherry let out a sigh of relief. I’m so not cut out for this, she thought. I fly the ship. That’s all I do, I fly the ship. I’m not a leader!

She so wanted another cherry just then. She’d had one fifteen minutes before. She now had fifty-two left, and once gone there would be no others, and she’d had her one for the day, but how she so very badly wanted one. In truth she wanted a whole basket, enough to wash the stress of being a fake leader away. But even one would steady her nerves.

But no. There would be bad days in the future when there were no cherries left. And they wouldn’t keep forever in the human’s ice box, so sometime in the next week or two she would probably have to scarf them all anyway. So she needed to learn to handle life without cherries.

Life without cherries. It hardly seemed worth the effort.

Focus. Everypony’s looking at you, even Mark. They’re waiting on you, Cherry. “What did he say, Starlight?”

“He says alfalfa and potatoes,” Starlight said. “He’s a farmer- at least I think he said he’s a farmer. He said he had parts of plants and tinkering. For some reason he thinks that will make it work, but our alfalfa sprouts and seeds and his fresh potatoes are the only viable crops he can find.”

“So, is he going to go out and plant them today?” Cherry asked.

“No. ‘Need plan,’ he said, so I’m guessing he’s going to stay in today.” Starlight Glimmer’s mouth curled into a frown as she added, “He also said he’s working on a plan to move the ship.”

“What??”

“That ship’s not going anywhere!” Spitfire insisted.

“It’s half buried in the ground!” Fireball added.

“And there’s a break in the rear quarter that could make the whole back of the ship fall off!” Dragonfly finished.

“That’s what he said!” Starlight snapped. “And it makes sense, too. We can’t keep going miles back and forth every day, especially if we’re going to limit EVAs to eight hours or less. We lose over an hour just for the round trip!”

“But it’s impossible without magic!” Spitfire insisted.

“Then we’ll just have to use magic,” Starlight Glimmer said, smiling. “Both the emergency mana batteries still work. They’re up to just over one percent charge now. If we all spend the day here doing nothing, and if I push magic into one of them-“

“What is WRONG with you??” Spitfire shouted. “Are you TRYING to kill yourself? Every day you cast that spell to talk with Mark, you get mostly nonsense back, and end up flat on your flank! You need to rest, for Faust’s sake!!”

“Spitfire,” Cherry Berry said, bringing the Wonderbolt to attention.

“No, let her talk,” Starlight Glimmer said. “She has a point. But I can’t rest.” She forced herself to stand a bit straighter, to pretend she wasn’t as tired as she obviously was. “Look at all the things our host has! Machines to make this place livable! Cameras and recording devices and computers unimaginably superior to our own! Power tools and spare equipment-“

“Yeah,” Dragonfly butted in, “and the only time he was ever angry at me was when I found his tools and began poking through them. I just wanted to see what I could recognize.”

“And what do we bring to the table?” Starlight asked. “A pile of alfalfa seeds, a broken spaceship, and magic. Dragon magic. Changeling magic. Pegasus magic. Earth pony magic. And unicorn magic. That’s all we have. Spitfire’s right that we don’t have much, and that we risk hurting ourselves if we use it. But if we don’t use it at all, we die. That’s all there is to it.”

The group went silent, so silent that Mark got out of his chair and walked over to them, an inquisitive look on his strange flat face.

“Is that the deal?” Cherry Berry finally asked.

“That’s the deal,” Starlight said flatly, her temporary energy burned out, as she finally allowed her rump to touch the cool Hab floor. “No magic, no ponies. As it is, I think Mark would have a better chance at survival if we weren’t here at all.” She stared Spitfire in the eyes as she added, “We have an obligation to do everything possible to be less of a burden on him.”

Cherry Berry tried to keep her face blank, but in her head she thought: Wow. I think I know how she persuaded all those ponies to give up their cutie marks now.

Spitfire was the first to break eye contact, but only for a moment. “My official duty,” she said slowly, “is to ensure the health of the crew of Amicitas.”

“Precisely my point,” Starlight began again, but Cherry Berry put a hoof on her shoulder. It was time to stop this.

“Okay, that’s all I need to hear,” the pink earth pony said. “Spitfire, if any of us shows actual symptoms of magic exhaustion, you can make us take a break. But we’re going to use Starlight’s plan.” There. Decision made. Cherry turned to Starlight and said, “So what is your plan?”

“Life generates a magic field,” Starlight said. “The more life, the more magic. Growing crops means a lot more life and a lot more magic, so we want to help Mark as much as possible with that.”

“But how is he going to grow anything?” Fireball asked, waving a clawed hand at the airlock. “That isn’t exactly central Fillynois out there!”

“I don’t know,” Starlight admitted. “I’ll ask him when I get a chance. But he’s going to need a lot more compost to make it happen.” She looked straight at Cherry Berry as she said this, leaning a little forward on her forehooves.

“What are you looking at me for?” Cherry Berry asked.

“Earth pony magic,” Starlight replied.

“What? What does that…” The light dawned. “Oh no. Ooooooooh, no. Nononononono.”

“You’re an earth pony. You have a unique connection with the soil.”

“Growing cherries is not my special talent! Eating cherries is my special talent! That was why I left the family farm!”

“But you can still make things grow, right?”

“Well… kind of, yeah,” Cherry admitted. “But nothing like other ponies!”

“Better than any of us?”

Cherry looked around, sighed, and slumped in defeat. “But I hate messing with night soil!” she moaned.

“Twilight tells me you used to do it all the time,” Starlight said. “When you used to do all those odd jobs around Ponyville.”

“But then I was chasing a dream!” Cherry insisted. “My dream of flying!”

“Well, now we’re all chasing a dream,” Starlight replied. “A dream of not dying. So put on your big-horse saddle and get composting.”

“You did say,” Fireball chipped in, his voice dripping with amusement, “that we’re going to use Starlight’s plan.”

“Well… shoot,” Cherry Berry swore.

“Close,” Dragonfly said, and everypony, even Cherry, chuckled at that.

“But we need to keep at least two ponies here,” Starlight said. “I’ll go with Mark and take one battery with me. I think I can get the ship out of the hole if we can get a twenty percent charge to start with. But the other battery needs to be here recharging, and the more ponies present, the better.”

“Not it,” Dragonfly said immediately.

“Double not it,” Fireball added.

“You’ll need me to lower the landing gear,” Dragonfly continued, “and to fix the wheels if they’re broken.”

“I’m the strongest one here,” Fireball said. “I can help dig out the ship, at least. But I’d probably sterilize the cra... the compost.”

Starlight looked at the two of them, then at Spitfire. “I wanted Spitfire with me,” she said at last. “She’s not wrong about the risk. And… I’m not very good at judging risk.”

The Wonderbolt considered this, then shook her head. “They’re both right,” she said, shaking her head towards Dragonfly and Fireball. “You’ll need them to move the ship. I’ll help with the KP.” She smiled a little and added, “Usually I’m handing out the punishment details, not taking them.”

Cherry Berry let out her breath. Thank Faust for crises that averted themselves. If only all their arguments dissolved that easily. She so hated when these conflicts popped up. If she were in a flying machine, any flying machine, she’d know exactly what to do. Otherwise… otherwise she just wanted a princess to show up, or even Queen Chrysalis on a good day, to tell her and everypony else what to do.

Look at Spitfire. She was backing down to prevent conflict and taking responsibility. She’d been a leader for years. She knew how to handle fractious ponies. Okay, there was her short temper and lack of patience with civilians… and all four of the others were either civilians or Dragonfly…

Or Starlight Glimmer! She knew what needed to be done, and she could persuade the other ponies to do it! Okay, so she once persuaded a whole village into giving up their individuality and making her their supreme leader… and she thought magic was the solution to absolutely everything, like the time she swapped the princesses’ cutie marks… or brainwashed Twilight’s friends… or almost destroyed all of space and- yeah, maybe not…

And what about Fireball? He’s big… and loud… and large… and really surly and grumpy all the time… and, well, not Fireball then.

And Dragonfly? Intelligent, experienced, tough… flighty, adrenalin-addicted, so self-centered it was a miracle they didn’t need to account for her ego in orbital trajectory calculations…

Oh, buck me, I really am stuck with this job, aren’t I?

“Okay, if we’re agreed,” she said, “I’ll go get the markers and show Mark what we intend to do.”

“Tell him about the landing gear!” Dragonfly insisted. “We never dropped them, and the wheel well covers are reinforced for re-entry heat. They’re probably still good!”

New crisis, Cherry Berry thought. How do I draw a picture that says our spaceship probably doesn’t have a flat tire?

Sols 13-15

View Online

HERMES – MISSION DAY 138

The image of Mitch Henderson appeared on all the workstations on the bridge for the second time in about eight minutes.

“Mitch Henderson here,” he said. “Commander Lewis, we’ve already taken into account your arguments about the durability of Hermes and the superiority of the pictures you’re taking over anything the satellites can perform. And believe me when I say this was a very hard decision to take. But Mr. Sanders and Dr. Kapoor have decided that the ongoing risk to Hermes is no longer worth the images you’re getting.”

The flight director took a deep breath and added, “And I have to say I agree fully with this decision. It might be different if we could use Hermes and the MAV as a combined communications platform, but yesterday’s experiment shows that it just won’t work. The range is too great, and either Watney’s rover can’t receive or he’s turned the radio off to save power. Either way, we feel further monitoring of Acidalia can be conducted adequately by the survey satellites, and that top priority is now bringing you and Hermes home.”

Mitch leaned into the camera for this part. “I fully agree with you that an astronaut’s whole career is about risk. And I admire your willingness to continue to risk your lives for Watney and his guests. But you’re also risking Hermes, and the best chance we have for rescuing Watney requires Hermes intact, functional, and back in Earth orbit for refit. The sooner we do that, the better prepared we’ll be to rescue Watney.

“That’s not saying that you’re unimportant. We’re bringing you back because your lives are our top priority. But if we put Watney’s life ahead of yours, we’d still make the same decision. That’s what I’m saying.”

Mitch took a deep breath and leaned back. “At the top of the hour Houston time we’ll be transmitting the trajectory programs for the two orbital burns required to raise Hermes back to a safe circular orbit,” he said. “After that you’ll set the MAV to satellite mode and deploy it, and then begin your Earth injection orbit burn, which we’ll send you once you acknowledge receipt of the orbit adjustment programs. Charlie will be back in the CAPCOM seat for those.

“We know you want to help, but facts are facts. You can’t get back down to Watney. Watney can’t get back up to you. The Ares IV MAV won’t make enough fuel for even the missed orbit emergency scenario until at least Sol 443, and Watney can’t reach it right now anyway. And you can’t talk to Watney. You’ve done what you can. It’s time to come home.”

Mitch’s lips moved for a second or two longer, as if he wanted to say something else, but all that came out in the end was, “Henderson out.”


The video ended.

Vogel sighed and leaned back in his seat. “So,” he said, “we tried.” He hadn’t expected Lewis’s protest to change NASA’s decision, but he’d been silently impressed at how much passion she’d put into her message while remaining quiet, clinical and professional in her speech. Vogel approved; it was almost German.

And, truth be told, he wanted to stay longer himself… if only… if only…

“There should be something we can do,” Johannsen murmured.

“You know there isn’t,” Martinez said, slapping the armrest of his flight seat. “We’re separated just as much as the rich man from Lazarus.”

“It bought us one more pass,” Lewis said at last. “Cameras ready?”

“Video camera all green,” Johannsen said.

“Stills camera ready,” Vogel said.

“Closest pass in seven minutes… mark,” Martinez reported.

“Focus on the crash site,” Lewis said. “Mark was out there yesterday. That’s our best chance to find him… and say goodbye.”

“Not goodbye,” Vogel said, and to his own surprise his normally soft voice came out with a harder edge than he’d intended. He forced himself to relax as he added, “Say auf Wiedersehen. Until next we meet.”

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 10
ARES III SOL 14

“You know,” Fireball admitted to his copilot for the day, “I never thought I’d be using this seat again.”

Through a lot of digging and a truly idiotic display of unicorn stubbornness, what was left of Amicitas had been pulled from the Martian surface the previous day. For a wonder the landing gear had been mostly intact, with only one tire requiring an emergency repair. Cranking the gear down had taken the whole morning, with Fireball helping lift one corner of the ship after another while the alien stink-ape and Dragonfly worked the manual cranks.

Even with Starlight Glimmer trying to help lift again with her telekinesis (again? As if yesterday hadn’t been enough), there was still a little charge left in the mana battery, so Dragonfly had reinstalled it into the ship. The mana-to-electric converter still worked, but they’d shut down absolutely every system on the ship, working or not, to spare power for the one system they didn’t shut off: the steering system for the front landing gear.

Now they crawled along behind the ape’s little scooty-car. To be fair, the rover was towing something so many times its own weight that even Fireball, for all his contempt for the alien, was almost impressed. Almost. Actual impressedness failed because, apparently, the combined car and spaceship couldn’t move any faster than Crackle after she ran her head into a stalagmite… again.

Something plugged Fireball’s sinuses, and he mustered up a tiny bit of flame to clear them out. Am I actually missing Crackle? he asked himself. This place is getting to me.

“What’s wrong?” Dragonfly asked from the copilot position.

“Nothing,” Fireball lied. “Just the scenery reminds me of home. Nothing important.”

“Not me,” Dragonfly said. “The Badlands are desert, but at least it’s an indifferent desert. This place actively hates us.”

“You’re imagining things,” Fireball grumbled.

“I don’t know,” Dragonfly said, the changeling never taking her eyes off the rover ahead of and below them. “The queen always says that when she’s in orbit she can feel something that loves her unconditionally. I never got that. But here I can feel this… this…” The changeling’s face scrunched in concentration. “I guess it’s like a whisper, or maybe a really thin haze of pure hate. We don’t belong here. We aren’t wanted.”

“That suits me fine,” Fireball said. “I don’t like this place very much either, and I’m leaving first chance we get.”

“I wonder if Bucephalous is like this?” Dragonfly muttered.

“But what I was saying,” Fireball said, not liking the touchy-feely direction Dragonfly wanted to go with the conversation, “was this looks like a lot of the dragon lands. It just needs a couple more cliffs and some volcanoes, and some breathable air, and it’d be just like home.”

“Amicitas, Starlight Glimmer.” The suit communications systems, being totally magical, wouldn’t talk to the alien’s electronics, but suit to suit communications among Amicitas’s crew functioned perfectly. “Rock ahead on the right side. Mark’s steering left.”

Amicitas copies steer left,” Fireball replied, nudging the flight stick. The sudden sound of the motors that rotated the front landing gear echoed through the otherwise silent ship.

While I’m on,” Starlight added, “suit battery check. Forty percent here.”

Fireball checked his. “Fifty-two percent.”

“Thir… that can’t be right!” Dragonfly tapped her own visor, but the projected numbers didn’t change. “Thirty-one percent here, Starlight.”

Roger. I’ll tell Mark we need to abort the tow and return to his base in one hour.”

“Starlight, how much farther is it?” Fireball asked.

I can’t read Mark’s controls yet. At a guess, we’re a little more than halfway there. Straighten wheels.”

“Straightening wheels,” Fireball reported.

“Thirty-one percent,” Dragonfly muttered. “And I’ve been doing the least work of the three of us.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Fireball chuckled. “Got the munchies for juice instead of love?”

“Don’t laugh,” Dragonfly said. “To us changelings it’s one and the same thing. And it’s not like I get much of a snack off of you.”

Fireball laughed anyway. “So why do you keep hanging around me anyway?” he asked. “If you’re not playing with that ape, it seems like you’re my shadow.”

“I spend time with everyling,” Dragonfly replied. “But you don’t. You keep your distance from everyone.”

“Yeah, I do,” Fireball grumbled, “I don’t particularly like any of you. I think you’re all nuts.”

“Even the alien?”

“Especially the alien. No dragon would keep giving his limited food to strangers.”

“He is kinda pony-like, isn’t he?” Dragonfly said.

Fireball thought about this. The alien smiled a lot, he kept trying to talk to people who didn’t understand him, he didn’t give a toss about gems (and that, in Fireball’s book, was pure insanity), and he seemed to enjoy tinkering with broken things and playing in mud. “Now that you say it,” he said, “I can kinda see it, yeah.”

“Crazy like the rest of ‘em.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“And we non-ponies gotta stick together.”

Now that Fireball wasn’t necessarily on-board with. “Is that why you keep bothering me?” he asked.

“Mm,” Dragonfly hummed, and her suit’s thruster pack shook as her wings vibrated unconsciously under her suit. “It’s more that you look lonely, and out of all of us, you dislike me the least.”

“Well… um, yeah.” Darn it. The bug had steered the conversation into downtown Feelingsville anyway. “I owe you. I owe you big time.” He smirked a bit and added, “I might even actually like you if you weren’t crazier than all the ponies put together.”

“I resemble that- oh, no,” Dragonfly moaned. “Not another bucking one.”

In front of the rover another shallow gully stretched across their path.

“Starlight, Amicitas,” Fireball said, “applying brakes.”

Thanks, Amicitas,” Starlight said. “You know the drill.”

“Yeah, I know,” Fireball grumbled. “We’ve only done it three times today. Ohhh, my back.” As the ship went from crawling speed to dead stop behind the rover, he added, “Whose bright idea was it to make the landing wheels on this thing so bucking small?”

“Pony ideas,” Dragonfly hissed as she shut off the power.

LOG ENTRY – SOL 15

I think that might have been the worst three days of my life.

It took three days of incredible hard work and concentration, but we finally got the alien ship back to the Hab. The morning of Sol 13, I didn’t think we could do it. The morning of Sol 14, I could see how we were going to do it. And by the time we got back to the Hab, I was wondering why we were doing it.

And let me be plain, what we accomplished was a miracle. Only the alien obsession with making their ship as unbreakable as possible and damn the weight kept the landing gear intact and deployable. Even so, without Macho Dragon and Starlight, we’d still be shoveling dirt and rocks with our hands. (Yes, hands. I have a couple of rock and soil sampling tools, but they aren’t built for moving large amounts of material. For removing loose debris, hands turned out to be faster.)

First… I should probably treat Fireball with more respect. He is so much stronger than he looks. I don’t even want to think about how many tons that ship weighs, but time and again he was able to pick up the nose or one fin just high enough for long enough for someone else to wedge a rock underneath or crank down those landing gear. If he offers to arm-wrestle me, I’m going to pretend I sprained my wrist. I just hope he doesn’t start demanding my lunch money. I can’t take that kind of wedgie.

And then there’s Starlight, my little psychic horsie genius. I found out during this trip that I’ve been spending a week and more living with Yoda and Captain Caveman wearing a two-man horse costume.

On Sol 13 we’d spent half our EVA time shoveling rubble and getting nowhere when Starlight hauls out one of those boxes salvaged from their ship and says the alien equivalent of, “Hold my haybale, I got this.” And then she lights up her psychic power and picks up that huge ship just like Luke’s X-Wing, I shit you not.

And then, just as the ship is in the air and turning its nose our way, the sparkly light flickers, and I can just hear Captain Caveman saying, “unga-bunga- magic power give out,” and the ship drops at a glorious slo-mo 3.7 meters per second per second right back onto the dirt. (You want to know how loud a sound has to be for you to hear it in the thin Martian atmosphere? That loud.) And then we carry her back to the rover and drive back to the Hab to let her sleep it off.

And then she got to do it again, and again, and again, and so did Fireball, all the way back to the Hab. It’s only ten kilometers, but it ended up taking us most of two sols.

Why, you ask? First, because I couldn’t use the rover’s built-in towhook. The towhook assembly is specifically designed so the two rovers can link together. In addition to mechanical clamps it includes power cords and air hoses so they can share electricity and life support. It was designed that way in case one rover broke down on an EVA. But the practical upshot is that there’s a lot of things there designed to withstand the kind of forces produced by towing one rover’s mass across the Martian surface.

At a very rough guess, the alien ship weighs anywhere between twelve and twenty times as much as one rover. So after about ten seconds of careful and deliberate consideration I said “fuck it” and decided to tie the tow ropes directly to the rover’s frame.

Now, rope of the kind you would buy at your local hardware store was not considered a mission-critical supply by NASA’s mission planners, an oversight I hope you historians of the future will correct for future interplanetary missions. I didn’t have any.

But I did have a lot of power cable of various lengths as redundant replacements for practically everything, from solar panels to field equipment to Hab systems. I was going to braid them together for strength and use them to tow the ship, but it turned out I didn’t need to. The aliens apparently had emergency parachutes as a fail-safe. I think the ones they used during landing automatically detached and blew away during the storm. But they were so crazy-prepared that they actually had duplicate parachutes on board the ship so the chutes could be re-packed for future use! Even NASA doesn’t go that far.

That gave me all the rope I needed, though it’s really weird rope. The substance it’s made out of feels all rubbery. It kind of looks like rubber too- black with ugly green streaks running through it. But it doesn’t get brittle like rubber would in the dry, freezing Martian environment, and it was plenty strong once I found tie-off points inside the front landing gear well.

But let’s face it, it was still rope and not a proper trailer hitch, and the only thing securing rover and ship together was some knots based on what I remembered from Boy Scouts and astronaut survival training. No way I could risk top speed in that.

So, that was the first problem. The second problem? Power. I’m lucky we’re in Acidalia Planitia, which is mostly flat. If we’d had any serious long upgrades to navigate- or worse yet, downgrades- it would have been game over. The rover’s four wheels each have their own electric motors that put out incredible torque, but they were working to overcome absurd amounts of inertia. And inertia is a constant. Earth gravity or Mars gravity, doesn’t matter, it’s the same either place.

So I spun the wheels a lot until I kind of learned just how to feather the accelerator. And since we couldn’t rely on the alien ship’s brakes to be reliable, once we got started at all, we didn’t dare move more than about one kilometer an hour.

Which brings us to the third problem: wheels. The rover is a big, jacked-up vehicle with a high ground clearance and independent suspension that enables it to drive across or even over some pretty large rocks without trouble. The wheels are 1.3 meters tall each.

The alien ship’s landing gear, on the other hand, are about half that- smaller than the tires you’d see on an eighteen-wheeler, and way smaller than the tires on a jet liner or the old Space Shuttle. And although the rear landing gear were just barely long enough to allow the wheels to drop out, the front landing gear is long and spindly by comparison, and I don’t care what kind of unobtanium they use to build their ship, hitting even a small rock square with that would ruin your day.

Thankfully, somehow or other, the dragon and the bug were able to get their ship’s steering working, which made dodging rocks easier. But it also meant I couldn’t go very fast, because I had to steer around rocks I normally wouldn’t give a second thought about to keep the ship on flat, solid ground.

And that brings us to the last, and worst, problem: the surface.

From a distance Acidalia looks flat as a pancake. It’s one of the least cratered regions of Mars. We specifically landed here not far from Marth Valles because it’s part of an ancient alluvial fan, where runoff from Arabia Terra flowed into what was once Mars’s biggest ocean and deposited all sorts of sediments.

But the thing is, that ocean dried up when Mars froze. And just like you see pictures of cracked soil like in all the news coverage of the Second Dust Bowl, when Acidalia dried up it cracked too… on a huge scale. So today the surface is large sections of almost perfectly flat ground (save for a crater or two and the resulting ejecta) broken up by broad but (thankfully) shallow ravines. The banks are about a meter tall on average, and the exposed soil is really crumbly. That surprised me, considering how solid the surface is under the top layer of loose dust and sand, but then I wasn’t the mission geologist. Lewis was.

The rover alone can handle those gullies without even slowing down. (25 kilometers per hour top speed, remember? I could pedal a dirt bike faster than the rover.) But towing the alien ship? Not a chance in Hell.

We crossed ten of the things between the Hab and Site Epsilon, and without Super Lizard and Captain Caveyoda the first one would have been the last. Every time we had to stop, carefully plan the descent into the ravine to keep the alien ship from rolling over, tow it as close as we could to the other bank, untie the rover, run the rover up the far bank, and retie the rover. And then, with Fireball pushing from behind and Starlight using the Force to lift the ship’s nose until the front landing gear cleared the rim, we hauled the thing up through all that loose, wheel-grabbing soil. Then we’d carry our little unicorn heroine back to the rover to recover and spend another hour or so creeping along the Martian surface to the next gully, at which point we started all over again.

We didn’t even consider doing it all in one go. We came back to the Hab every night to recharge the rover and the EVA suits, not to mention us. We really needed it. Thank God it’s over. Now, instead of driving the rover for half an hour to reach the alien ship, we can walk just past the solar farm to the north- three minutes of EVA at most.

Starlight’s in her bunk now, and Spitfire looks like she’s considering tying her to it. I don’t think that would slow her down much. Between lifts she rode with me in the rover. She didn’t use her mind-meld on me at all the last three days- probably saving herself for all the lifting- but she smuggled a whiteboard and marker onto the rover on Sol 14 for communication.

The good thing about driving at one kilometer per hour on Mars is, you’re highly unlikely to hit a dog or something when you aren’t paying attention to the road. So when Starlight and I weren’t reinventing hieroglyphs, we began teaching each other math.

That’s where things get really weird. Because not only do the aliens have Earth food, they have Earth numbers.

Well, close enough, anyway. Their 2 and 3 are slightly different, using sharp angles instead of curves. But it’s still a base-10 counting system using recognizably Indo-Arabic numerals. Their basic mathematical operators are the same. We had to get into calculus before some of the symbols became different, and even then they have some close variation on the Greek alphabet. She recognized most of what I was doing and jumped ahead of me a lot.

It didn’t work the other way. She threw several things at me that I didn’t recognize and still don’t. Apparently they were advanced enough concepts that explaining them through simple pictures wasn’t going to work, because every time we hit that point Starlight would move on to something else.

I took a photo of the last board full of math. Half of it is a circle surrounding a seven-pointed star. It looks like something you’d use to summon a demon with, if you were willing to sell your soul for an A in trigonometry. Instead of runes it’s full of equations using symbols only half of which are even vaguely familiar with me. However many years it is before you find this log, o intrepid reader, I suspect it’ll be at least that long again before anybody on Earth understands this.

But that’s all over with. That alien ship is parked on its wheels with a nice adorable landing ladder deployed from under its airlock doors just a short walk away, all the better to eventually raid it for spare parts. The rover is hooked up to Hab power to recharge. And I’m sitting down to my first full meal pack in days because, Goddamn it, I’ve earned it.

Dragonfly still hasn’t eaten a full meal pack of any kind since we’ve been here. I offered her a share of this meal pack, but she waved a hoof no, and then thanked me anyway with a hug. It was so cute, in a nightmare-from-hell-wants-cuddles way, that it left me weak in the knees.

But what’s her deal? Is it guilt? I mean, sure she didn’t perform miracles like her unicorn and dragon buddies, but she worked at least as hard as I did. I really need to ask Starlight about that.

But first food and bed. I’m hungry and I’m really, really tired. I think tomorrow I’ll take it easy and do something fun.

Playing in the dirt comes to mind.

Sol 16

View Online

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 12
ARES III 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.

LOG ENTRY – SOL 16

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.

Sol 17

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LOG ENTRY – SOL 17

Wow. Just… wow.

It’s been hours, and I still… yeah, just… wow.

Okay, Watney, pull it together. Generations of historians, scientists, and flat Earth nuts are waiting for you to say something coherent enough to pick apart. And future psychologists are going to have a field day, so don’t disappoint them.

Let’s start with that little problem I mentioned. It’s water. NASA sent along a water reclaimer that filters and distills used water- not just piss, but also shower and decontamination water and excess humidity from sweat and exhalation- and renders it not just drinkable but absolutely pure. It’s a heavy and expensive piece of equipment, but it’s not as heavy or expensive as it would have been to haul up two liters per day per astronaut to drink for a thirty-one day scheduled mission plus emergency reserves, hygiene allowance, and decontamination shower use.

As I mentioned yesterday, there’s technically lots of water under the Martian surface. Problem: it’s hard to get out, and it’s contaminated with perchlorates. Experimenting with means of using local water instead of shipping it up is a large part of the whole Ares program, as a first step towards possible colonization and terraforming. All of that is a fancy way of saying we can’t do it yet, at least not safely.

NASA actually sent us fifty liters per person, about half what they would have sent us if we didn’t have the water reclaimer. That’s three hundred liters total, or about eighty gallons. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really only twice as much as your average hot water heater holds.

Prime Earth topsoil requires about forty liters of water per cubic meter to stay healthy- just to start with. The plants will continually suck that water out of the soil to make food for me and my guests, so that water will have to be constantly replaced. But just the starting water for my thirsty, thirsty Martian dust is three hundred and sixty-eight liters- a lot more than what we started the mission with. There are a lot of other problems with my plan to grow food, but that’s the first and most urgent one.

Is? I meant was, because it isn’t anymore. Turns out I have all the water I could ever want or need, if I’m patient enough to get it about twelve ounces at a time.

And the reason that problem has gone away is a word I’ve been dancing around in this log, because NASA would have a shit fit if it saw it. To be honest I’m uncomfortable with it myself.

That word is: magic.

I played a lot of D&D as a kid. (Yes, Mark Watney, master’s degrees in botany and mechanical engineering, a geek- who would have guessed? Go figure.) My favorite character was this cleric, and among the spells I had was “Create Water”. I always thought it was a stupid spell, and I never used it. Our DM was smart enough to know that bashing monsters in the head with a mace was fun, but counting every ration to see if you would live long enough to get back to town wasn’t.

(News flash: it still isn’t.)

But as a kid I just didn’t have the imagination or the training to understand just how useful such a spell was. Imagine building a space suit, for example, with that spell built into the life support? Or “Create Breathable Air,” even better! No need to carry around big tanks, no complicated plumbing- just flip a switch and away you go!

Can you imagine that? Good. Now stop imagining, because six of exactly that kind of spacesuit is sharing the Hab with me right now.

Under any ordinary circumstances (for I’m-going-to-die-on-Mars-if-I-don’t-think-of-something values of ordinary) that by itself would be worth a “Wow” or two. But that was the least of my discoveries for the day. And now that I’ve given you all that background, I think I’m able to explain it all without spacing out.

Last night I went ahead and dumped forty-eight liters of water into the dirt in the Hab. Then I added a bit more to replace some runoff that trickled out the bottom and sides, even with my improvised planting-box made of old clothes. I then sopped up the overflow, no doubt rich in those nasty perchlorates, and wrung it out into the water reclaimer to purify. I had to do all that regardless to prepare the soil and to reduce the perchlorate levels in the Hab.

This morning, to the utter disgust of my alien roommates, I began turning the Mars dirt into something that would grow a crop. I began by skimming off the top portion of the planter box, with all its happy, healthy little alfalfa sprouts that full-grown might provide one lunch for an anorexic donkey, and put it in the far corner of the dirt. I then took the rest of the Earth soil, about three-quarters of the total, and spread it in a thin layer across what we brought in yesterday. So far so good.

Next comes the compost. Even on rations my four-legged friends have produced a shit-pot load (see what I did there?) of raw compost material. I’d contributed my own part, of course. I thought it stank before, but when I began stirring it up and spreading it on top of the Mars soil, I almost puked. The smell died down a little once I began stirring the shit, Earth soil and Mars dirt together with a shovel, but it’s persistent. The atmospheric regulator only removes particles beyond a certain size, and the thiols that make shit stink are way too small for that.

Cherry helped me with the disgusting chore. The other aliens made one or two remarks, but otherwise they stayed quiet, mostly because they were trying to keep their own breakfasts down. Cherry didn’t say a word, though when one particularly ripe bit of compost gave off a bubble of concentrated stench she snorted and stomped her foot exactly like a pissed-off horse. It was adorable, and I wish I’d had a camera for that part.

(What was less adorable was Cherry beating me to the decon shower and using a triple ration of water to clean off. I’m beginning to wish I’d never showed them how to use the thing, and I dread the day when the very limited supply of soap and sanitary wipes runs out.)

And that was our morning- playing in shit and smelling the sweet, stinky smell of survival. Let’s just say it was no trouble at all to eat only a half-meal ration for lunch, for any of us.

After lunch I sat down and began thinking about ways to get more water. Using the perchlorate-laden ice from the permafrost layer of the Martian soil was the safest option, but it was also the most labor-intensive and least likely to work. I could raid the hydrogen fuel-cell batteries the Hab uses and burn it to make water, but I don’t want to risk my electricity supply, which is the one thing I don’t have to worry about if I leave it alone.

And there’s one other option so suicidally insane that, now that the problem is solved, I’m leaving it out of this log. Sure, it would probably have gotten me the water I need, but it could also kill me and my little friends about five ways from Sunday. I am so glad I don’t need to try it, and I hope it never comes up again.

I was looking over my options, just about to decide that maybe I didn’t need to fill the whole hab with dirt after all, when Starlight came over for our daily chat. It’s pathetic how much I’m coming to look forward to a minute or so of badly mangled English every day (not counting the far-too-many times a day my buddies repeat and mangle Beatles lyrics).

STARLIGHT: Food we have problem. (Note: this almost sent me into a hysterical laughing fit- and not entirely for good reasons.)

ME: I know. I’m working on it.

STARLIGHT (insistent): No! Earth not enough! Not enough Earth everybody feed!

ME (trying not to think about that- one impossible thing at a time): We have a worse water problem.

STARLIGHT (puzzled): Water problem?

ME: Yeah. I need to find more water to grow things.

STARLIGHT: Is that all? Need you how much?

ME: You have some in your ship?

STARLIGHT (getting tired and shaky again): This watch!

Her horn stopped glowing, and she called the other aliens into one of their little huddles. They do that every once in a while, and usually there’s at least a brief bit of shouting, but this time the conversation was really short. Then each of them pulled their suits out of the neat little piles they made beneath the recharging rack where all my redundant suits live. Fireball fetched a couple of flasks from the chemistry lab and brought them over… and then two more… and then another.

And about a minute later, sitting in a row on the table in front of me were five flasks full of water. Well, not perfectly full, but the amount added up to a little less than two liters.

And I knew that none of them had gone anywhere near the water reclaimer valve or any of the Hab’s water taps.

There weren’t enough flasks left in the chemistry lab for a repeat performance, so Fireball grabbed a plastic tub and took it over to the suit area. Meanwhile I took the water and put it in the water reclaimer- might as well store it somewhere, right?

The tub took longer to fill, but Fireball eventually carried a plastic bin full of lovely, clean H2O over to me, set it at my feet, and gestured to it. I took it, slowly poured it into the water reclaimer, and set it down- and immediately Fireball took the bin back to the suit area.

Now I got curious. The Ares III suits hold two liters of water each for astronauts to sip on during EVAs. I’d assumed the alien suits had a similar function and that they were draining their suits to contribute to the cause. But the flasks plus the tub added up to about what I’d expect to see if you drained all the water out of six EVA suits- and more than I’d expected to come out of the smaller alien suits, even with those huge backpacks.

The tub was half-full again when I got over there. The aliens had the helmets off their suits and were holding the neckholes over the tub. Each suit had a little hamster-feeder nozzle, just like ours, where a thirsty alien could turn its head slightly and take a sip whenever needed. The nozzles on the five suits were being turned on and off, about thirty seconds at a time, to spray thin streams of water into the tub.

The language barrier is cracking enough for us to understand a few words- basic things like “yes”, “no,” “don’t” (I get a lot of mileage out of “don’t”), and “draw.” Another one we’ve figured out is “how.” So when I asked how they were doing that, Cherry handed me her suit, even unfastening the snaps on the back of the backpack so I could see its workings.

There are no tanks of any kind in the suit. Not water, not air, nothing. Not one.

The backpack isn’t for life support. It’s a complex thruster pack like a compact MMU, with armrests and hand (hoof) controls that pop out when the wearer’s arms are in a certain position. There’s not even a fuel tank for the thrusters, though: the little thrusters are all connected to a large slice of pink crystal, solid all the way through.

Unbelievably, all the life support fits in a little bitty box on the front of their suit, about the size of my two fists put together.

And all the while I was examining that suit, the four others kept pouring water, a squirt at a time, into that tub.

I babbled something like, “This is impossible, how can anything do this?”

Starlight lit up her horn and said one word. The translation came through as: “Magic.”

I tried to explain that there was no such thing as magic. Magic is just something you don’t understand how it works yet. But of course the translator was off again, and Starlight wasn’t listening anyway. Instead she was saying something to the others in an enthusiastic tone. Cherry looked doubtful, but she nodded her head, and while the others put their suits away again Starlight dragged out one of those boxes salvaged from their ship.

I’d already guessed it was some sort of battery, and what happened next confirmed it. She stuck a couple of broken antenna pieces from the destroyed communications array (I don’t know when she brought them in) onto what looked like power leads. She then made a sign with her hooves as if she were holding a camera. She had to make it twice before I figured out she wanted me to record what she was about to do. I got one of the hand-held video cameras out and set it to record. Once she was sure I was watching, Starlight flipped a switch on the battery, and things changed.

You’ve seen a Jacob’s ladder before- you know, the things in mad scientist labs that have arcs of electricity rising up the two antennas? Well, this began sort of like that, except instead of an electrical arc it was a rainbow, one sparkly happy rainbow after another. When the first rainbow hit the tips of the antennas it burst, and the light in the Hab changed. Colors became brighter, with a strong lean towards primary colors and pastels. Even the mix of shit and Mars dirt changed color, looking… well, shittier.

All of the aliens smiled, stretching their limbs and turning this way and that as if basking in sunshine. Spitfire spread her wings, and with a single flap she took off, making laps around the Hab, faster than I could follow her with the camera. Dragonfly took off next, chasing the pegasus around and around until I got dizzy. I must have got dizzy, because after the second pass I lost Dragonfly and began seeing aliens I never met- a blue pegasus with rainbow hair, a dark pegasus-unicorn hybrid, and what looked like a hawk made of fire.

Then Fireball rose slowly into the air. I haven’t mentioned the tiny wings on his back because I thought they were vestigial and unimportant, but they lifted him up, one beat per second or so picking him off the ground and letting him hover. All the time he stared at me with this smug bet-you-can’t-do-this expression on that pointy face of his.

Starlight made a noise, and I turned the camera to her just in time for her to vanish in a flash of light. I felt a tap on my knee, and there she was. Somehow she’d just… well… jumped… about four meters instantly. Giggling, she did it again, reappearing back by the box.

Sitting on the memory card of the camera right now is mankind’s first positive proof that teleportation is possible. Think about that.

Then the arcs coming out of the battery began to sputter. The flyers all made hasty landings, and Starlight turned off the switch. The colors in the hab immediately went back to normal, the pale NASA-psychologist-approved colors unenhanced by any unnatural effects.

Starlight staggered, leaning on that box to keep her feet. The others sort of wilted, sad expressions replacing the happy ones from just a moment before. It broke my heart to watch. Then Cherry walked over to Starlight and hugged her tight, and after a moment I heard her sobbing. The other aliens joined the hug, even Fireball, who obviously had to force himself into it… but I saw tears on his face, too.

We pulled out the markers and whiteboards after that for a really intense session of Pictionary. I now have a clearer idea of what happened to these aliens than I did before.

The aliens all look different, but they come from the same world, and it is quite literally and unironically a magical land full of rainbows and clouds and sunshine and candy, not to mention every mythical creature you can imagine. They drew me unicorns and pegasi and bug-horse things and dragons, but they also drew griffons, hippogriffs (not the same thing as pegasi, apparently), a hydra, a manticore, a minotaur, and a couple of other things I don’t recognize without my Monster Manual handy.

Starlight did most of the drawing for the aliens. At one pont she filled the whiteboard trying to explain magic. She used her translation spell to give the name for her race, and it came across as “pony”. Makes sense. But apparently all ponies have magic. Unicorns like her cast spells, but pegasi like Spitfire use their magic to fly and, apparently, make clouds. And ordinary ponies like Cherry work with the soil, farming or mining, apparently- and their magic makes them extra strong.

Once I’d taken a photo of that (she insisted- she’s big on having all of this documented for some reason) Starlight took both the whiteboards and drew a big circle and a little circle on each. On one board the big circle was their world- loaded with the six-sided stars she used to mean “magic”- and a Mars-like world, also with some magic, and with more magic in space between them.

On the other board she drew a couple of stick-figure men and a tree in the big circle, plus a couple of six-pointed stars. That, apparently, was Earth. She added a couple of craters to the small circle, then drew a stick figure with a space helmet. That was Mars.

And then she drew a big X across Mars and another big X in the empty space between.

Finally, she drew a little spaceship rising off of the first whiteboard’s Earth, making a dotted line to show its path towards the other Mars. And then she drew a cluster of radiating lines and made a “poof” noise as she spread her hands- hooves, I mean. Teleportation, or so I guess.

When I nodded, she drew the ship again on the second whiteboard, near to the Mars with the stick-Watney on it. She drew the plume of black smoke, the same black smoke she’d complained about when Cherry had drawn it. She drew a magic star, then X’d it out savagely, then drew a spiraling doodle down onto Mars.

I took photos, the whiteboards were erased, and Starlight began drawing again. On one whiteboard she drew the flag-emblem that was on the shoulder of her suit and Spitfire’s; on the other she drew an American flag. Then, below the flags, she drew a column of images: a single pony or human, a pair of ponies/humans, and a large collection of plants, animals and people.

On the pony-flag whiteboard, she drew a large magic star next to the solo pony. The pair of ponies got a marginally larger star. The group of ponies and tree and critters got a significantly larger star than that.

The stick-man on the American whiteboard got an asterisk. Two stick-men got a blotch that was just barely recognizable as a star if you squinted. The collection of people, plants and animals got a star less than half the size that the other whiteboard had for the solo pony.

I took photos of that, and of one other drawing; of magic stars flowing into the box and coming out again through the power leads.

There were a lot of other drawings, by some of the other aliens and quite a few by me, but you won’t find those on this computer, so there’s no point in my describing them to you. That was all trying to work out details and asking questions back and forth.

I will describe one, though- the one that I drew that solved the problem for me. All it was was a standard x-y-z corner axis diagram… and then, going off in its own direction, a fourth axis, a w axis. When I drew that Starlight nodded, smiled, and tapped her nose with a hoof. (So apparently we also share at least some metaphors.)

Starlight and her friends didn’t come from another world across the galaxy. They came from Earth- not our Earth, but an alternate one, in an alternate parallel universe. In that universe what we call magic is a fundamental force of nature, and it has rules and laws that can be studied and exploited. Starlight’s people built their ship to run almost entirely on magic, with some electronic backup systems.

But somehow, some way, their ship glitched and jumped from their universe into ours. And our universe’s physical laws are different- a lot different.

They’re not totally incompatible. Apparently magic does exist here, or something close, but it’s really thin compared to what the aliens are used to. Back home it’s a universal constant; here, the only source is life.

And Mars, outside this Hab, is dead, dead, dead. No magic… except for what we, here in the Hab, produce with our every breath.

For the minute and a half or so that battery was running, the interior of the Hab had more or less the same universal conditions that the aliens took for granted. And that minute and a half, according to Dragonfly, ate up two entire days worth of recharging.

I asked about the group hug. If I understood the answer, they’re homesick. It was the first time they’d realized just how far from home they really were, and how different this universe is. Before now they were overwhelmed with surviving or getting to know me.

Man, I thought I was fucked. I'm never more than two astronomical units from home. Gravity aside, everything works the same here as at home. I haven’t lost an entire vital physical function. No wonder my guests are on edge half the time. I don’t blame them.

And now I understand why Starlight is always wobbly after our brief chats, and why the others are worried about her. She was the magic specialist in the crew, and she’s used to doing absolutely everything with magic. And apparently trying to do magic without any energy is like running on a strained ankle, only a lot worse.

But there is good news. The ponies can’t talk with home, but they’re not one hundred percent cut off. If they were their life support wouldn’t work, and they’d have died probably before they crashed. But their air and water are automatically teleported from their homeworld to here through a couple of crystals which, small favors, are powered from the magic-rich end of the trip. On this end they burn no magic at all, but they provide a quite literally unlimited supply of air and water.

The ship had one of these systems too. When the ship crashed and the engine room broke open, the sudden rush of air was detected on the other end, and the connection was shut down. The suits have a similar fail-safe, which is why the ponies turned off their water taps every thirty seconds or so. If they ran them longer the other end would think something was broken and turn off the system. And since they can’t actually talk to the other end, that would leave the pony in question without a working spacesuit.

I asked about the box. Their ship had dozens, maybe hundreds, of them to power their main engines. The crash destroyed them all. They’re down to the two emergency batteries now, and neither one has had a full charge since they salvaged them. But two is better than none, as Starlight proved all the times she lifted their ship during the salvage operation. It means that, if it’s important enough, they can still use their magic for brief periods.

That’s pretty much where we left off. It’s past dinner time now. Drawing pictures, even line-art sketches and stick figures, takes a lot of time. I need to find time to work with Starlight on learning their language. I’m outnumbered five to one, so it makes more sense for me to learn theirs than for them to learn mine. I’m not looking forward to it. I barely got by with French in high school and college, and I’ve forgotten most of it since. All I really remember is the bad language, which aside from “Merde!” is mostly religious.

But still… magic! Wow!

Skeptic Mark is still complaining there’s no such thing, but Scientist Mark wants to know how it works and Geek Mark wants to cast Magic Missile, and Doesn't Want to Die on Mars Mark will use anything no matter how incredible to live until rescue comes, so Skeptic Mark is outvoted three to one.

So… yeah. Wow!

Sol 18

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 14
ARES III SOL 18

“I can do that,” Dragonfly said, watching over Mark’s shoulder as he dismantled the pre-launch power supply plug next to Amicitas's main airlock.

“Didn’t you say he was happier doing it?” Starlight Glimmer asked from inside the open airlock. For the time being the ship was depressurized, at least until the alien finished patching Amicitas into his base’s electrical system. After examining options and considering safety, the launch plug had been considered the best place to tap in- safer to get to than the exposed stump of the emergency solar array on top of the ship, less trouble to work around than a direct cable into the control cabin.

It was a working day for everyone. It had begun with Starlight using her spell to suggest that Amicitas would provide more growing space for crops. The hole in the engineering deck had grown substantially during the Great Tow, but the other two compartments remained airtight and, at least theoretically, capable of supporting life.

So everyone had gone outside and, after Mark spent a few minutes cleaning off the solar panels, they had pushed and pulled the ship around the solar farm and right up to Airlock Three and its power outlets. After that, while Cherry Berry, Spitfire and Fireball worked on bringing more dirt into Mark’s base, Mark, Dragonfly and Starlight had cracked down on figuring out how to get electricity from the base to the ship.

The solution had been reasonably simple, and it was all Mark’s idea. He pulled a voltometer out of his tools and showed it to Dragonfly, who produced the pony version of the same device. The two then took readings of the rover recharge station, the rover heater, the broken stump of the communications dish, and a base power outlet. The readings weren’t quite identical, but they were close enough and consistent enough that you could convert one to the other by a very simple calculation.

The three of them had gone back into the base for a short period of time so Dragonfly and Starlight could check the brittle freeze-dried ship manuals for precise power requirements for the various devices on board and communicate the numbers to Mark. Then, armed with knowledge and a large box full of electrical parts, the three went back out, and there they had remained.

“Yeah, he’s happier this way,” Dragonfly said, “but I’m not. He won’t even let me touch his tools. All I do is make sure he doesn’t fall off the boarding ladder.”

“Put yourself in his place,” Starlight said reasonably. “Would you let another changeling touch your tools?”

“What? No!” What a silly question! “They’d only break them and you know it!”

“And I’m sure Mark feels the same way.”

“But it’s not the same thing at all!” Dragonfly pointed out. “I’m not just any changeling! I’m a trained engineer and pilot! I’m responsible! I would never break someling else’s tools!”

“You know,” Starlight said, watching nervously as Mark perched on a bit of metal he’d clamped to the top stair of the boarding ladder, “for an empath you’re not very good at understanding what the other person feels.”

“Not true,” Dragonfly said firmly. “I understand what you feel just fine.” Let’s see… as tempting as it was for Dragonfly to lie at this point, the short-term push in the desired direction wasn’t worth the long-term damage to a relationship that circumstances required be maintained. “You’re pleased with yourself because you’ve figured out ways to help us survive, and nopony else has.”

“Yes, I- wait, WHAT?” Starlight lunged out of the airlock, almost shoving Dragonfly off the ladder. “Would you care to repeat that insinuation, please?”

“Well, look at the facts,” Dragonfly said. “Spitfire’s too focused on taking care of you, Fireball doesn’t do anything unless someone asks him, I’m getting nowhere with my efforts to cultivate Mark as a source of information, and Cherry Berry spends so much time keeping everypony on speaking terms she can’t think straight.”

“Those aren’t facts, those are gross exaggerations,” Starlight said without thinking. A moment later she added, in a softer tone, “What was that about Cherry Berry again?”

“Well, you know the arguments you and Spitfire are always having?”

“Yes, because she treats me like I’m her baby chick instead of a grown unicorn!”

“And you know how Fireball is always getting on everyling else’s nerves?”

“He’s a dragon. Spike excepted, that’s what you’d expect from a dragon.”

“Well, Boss Mare’s always the one who settles the arguments, right?”

“Well, sure,” Starlight said. “She’s the leader. Of course she settles the arguments.”

“And then later she comes to you and talks to you, right? Says something about cheering up or relaxing or something and some bug-barf about understanding how the other pony feels.”

“It’s not bug-barf!” Starlight insisted.

“Yeah, well, she does that with everyone. In fact, that’s all she does!” Dragonfly insisted. “At least when she’s not playing in this monkey’s mucked-up sand. By the way, let me tell you that even by changeling standards-“

“I am not having a conversation about the smell in the base,” Starlight insisted. “We can’t do anything about that. Get back to Cherry Berry.”

“All right,” Dragonfly said agreeably. “What I’m saying is, she wastes so much time trying to get the rest of us to play nice that she isn’t coming up with any ideas herself. You know that. You’re the only one besides Mark coming up with ideas to save us all.”

“Look, that just isn’t true,” Starlight insisted.

“Is.”

“Isn’t.”

“Is.”

“ARGH! Stop it!” Starlight snapped.

“It’s a good thing our suits are on the private channel,” Dragonfly said. “Otherwise Cherry would be on her way over here to break us up.”

Starlight stifled some particularly irate horse noises with difficulty, took a deep breath, and said, “I am pleased with myself, yes. I’m also worried because we aren’t even close to safe yet. And I am most definitely not pleased at being the only smart pony in this crew, because I’m not! Dumb ponies don’t fly rockets!” She glared right into Dragonfly’s unblinking eyes. “Not even you, as much as you act stupid to get on everypony’s good side.”

“Is it working?” Dragonfly asked, grinning her toothiest changeling grin.

“Oh, I give up.” Shaking her head, Starlight looked at Mark. “Is he done yet?”

Dragonfly looked back at Mark. “Looks like he’s got the voltage regulator hooked up to our power feed… ah, and he’s splicing a spare power plug on a line so he doesn’t have to hard-wire the ship in to his power. Good idea! Yeah, he should be done any minute.”

“Good,” Starlight said. “I’m going to check the switches in the cabin and make sure everything’s disabled. Don’t let him plug that in until I’m finished.”

Dragonfly had done that earlier during their first EVA, and had done it before that during the tow, but she didn’t mention that. “OK, will do.”

Starlight glared at the changeling. “You better not forget,” she warned.

“Didn’t you just say there weren’t any stupid ponies or changelings on this ship?” Dragonfly asked.

“Whatever.” Starlight turned and marched back through the open airlock into the ship.

There we go, Dragonfly thought. Seed planted. It’ll cost me a bit of love in the short term until Starlight gets over her annoyance. I’ll have to make it up from the alien. Meantime I better let Starlight take the lead on showing the alien how the ship works. I’ve pushed her as hard as I dare for now.

I just hope this gets her to be more aware of the others, and especially to lighten up on Spitfire and Fireball. All this butting heads is making me sick, and Cherry’s worry tastes almost as bad as what she spends an hour every day wading in.

Mark stopped working, turning on hands and knees and motioning Dragonfly to make room for him to get off the improvised scaffold.

Dragonfly, drawing herself up into the absolute picture of eagerness-to-please, stretched a hoof out to take the toolbox from Mark's hand. Mark drew the toolbox back towards himself and gestured, a bit more firmly, for Dragonfly to please move over.

Darn. I never get to do anything fun around here.

Sol 19

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LOG ENTRY - SOL 19

It was kind of chilly this morning. The Hab is built to run off of half the solar cells it actually has and only four of the twelve renewable fuel-cell batteries in case a presupply flight crashes, but it wasn’t built to recharge the batteries on something the size of Skylab or the space shuttle. We went into low-power mode not long after I hooked up the electricity to the alien ship, and Mars and thermodynamics did the rest. Even with the atmospheric regulator and oxygenator providing heat, it wasn’t much above freezing when we woke up.

I did a quick EVA to unhook the power long enough to warm the Hab back up and make breakfast. The aliens- you know, I’m going to stop calling them aliens. They’re three ponies, a dragon… and whatever Dragonfly is. Starlight’s tried five different times to tell me what the bug is, and I get five different answers- “bug”, “fairy”, “changer,” “exchanged,” and “Doris.” Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.

So, the pony crew gathered together in another meeting during breakfast, and sure enough they had another of their little squabbles. This time, though, it was Cherry against the four others, and for a moment I thought there was going to be a mutiny. Then they quieted down and began working with the whiteboards, writing in their language.

I haven’t mentioned their writing yet, except to mention that they have more or less our numbers and something very similar to Greek letters. Well, it turns out their regular alphabet has twenty-six letters, same as the English version of the Roman alphabet. The letters are similar, but not identical, so every time I look at their writing I have the feeling that if I squint I can read it. I tried. It doesn’t work.

Anyway, Starlight and Dragonfly did most of the writing, with occasional questions from Cherry. Spitfire never said a word after the writing began. Fireball held his peace until the end, when he said something very long and grumpy-sounding. Funny thing is, he didn’t look annoyed. If anything, he looked worried. I’ve never seen a worried dragon before. Considering how tough he is, I wondered what dragons have to be worried about.

Well, I found out. As soon as the meeting broke up, Starlight and Spitfire came over to me. Apparently it was time for our daily mutual dose of babelfish.

Transcript of the conversation:

STARLIGHT: Benign pre-noon.

WATNEY: Good morning to you too, Starlight. What were you talking about?

STARLIGHT: Need stones.

WATNEY: Okay, we can-

STARLIGHT: Is important: Stones. Gems. Crystals. Rocks. (Note: under the translation spell I heard Starlight say the same word in her language four times running. The spell offered a different translation each time.)

WATNEY: What for?

STARLIGHT: Cherry fix ship wants, need engine crystals. I magic more want, need gems batteries. Fireball gems eats, almost out.

She turned off the spell at that point and showed me the other whiteboard, the one with the big pretty pictures for pre-K students and ignorant aliens. It showed a drawing of what had to be their warp drive or whatever with a big wedge of crystal surrounded by gadgets. Next to that was a cutaway diagram of one of the magic batteries the ponies had salvaged from their ship. Finally, there was a cute drawing of a little green and purple dragon- definitely not Fireball, who is white and red with rounded gold spines- snacking from a bowl of cartoony faceted gemstones.

We erased the board (after I took a photo- Starlight wouldn’t let me otherwise) and got to picture-talking, while Cherry and Dragonfly went out to do systems checks on their ship and Fireball and Spitfire worked on bringing in more dirt.

I tried to supplement the pictures with the few words of their language I’ve picked up, but Starlight kept looking at me funny. Eventually she made an eating motion with her hooves and mouth and repeated a word I’m not even going to try to transcribe. Its vowel sound was somewhere between a short U and the sound a horse makes when it’s begging for sugar or apple slices.

I couldn’t even come close to reproducing it. Starlight had no problem with “eat”, though. Typical. First I had to deal with sufficiently advanced technology, then sufficiently advanced magic, and now I’m confronted with sufficiently advanced nasal passages. My plan to learn the pony language may have just hit its first hurdle.

Aside from that things were pretty grim, especially for Fireball. Turns out that he has at most twenty-five days of food at short rations. His meal packs are specifically formulated to include little bits of gemstone, sort of like onions in meatloaf or sprinkles on a cake.

He also has a few stones as snacks, which he’s been trying not to eat if he can help it. He’s got ten left, all this rich blue color. I think they’re sapphires, but I’m not sure. The smallest one is about the size of a value-menu hamburger, and on Earth would probably be enough by itself to buy me a mansion in River Oaks or some similar swanky neighborhood. Here it’s just food, and food only a dragon can eat.

Once his rations and the gems are gone, Starlight thinks he’s going to begin suffering from malnutrition. He can eat other meal packs- he can technically eat almost anything- but he needs at least a few gems to stay healthy.

I’m not going to question how that even works, especially since I’ve been dealing with the results of his meals for the past week or so. His shit stinks just as bad as the rest of it, and aside from being slightly drier and more powdery inside it’s not all that different. Which doesn’t make any sense, but if NASA wanted someone to make sense of such things they’d have sent up a wizard instead of a botanist.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe NASA has any wizards in the astronaut corps yet. Another thing that needs correction, all you historians and scientists of the future reading this. I’m sure that, given the opportunity, hundreds of candidates with a master’s degree or higher in Applied Thaumaturgy or similar disciplines will jump at the chance to join. Start printing those applications now, is all I’m saying.

But I’m getting away from the problem. The ponies need gems to feed their big muscle man (dragon). They need bigger gems to rebuild their magic batteries. And they need at least one huge gem to replace their warp drive. Why I don’t know- that ship of theirs is about as safe to fly as a cardboard box. But maybe they’re thinking contingency plan, and I can’t blame them.

The thing is, Mars has lots of crystals, at least in theory. Mars rovers and orbiters, and also Ares I and II, have discovered traces of a lot of precious and semi-precious gems, though so far the only crystals we’ve actually found bigger than sand grains are hematite, magnetite, gypsum and olivine. Starlight vetoed them all. Fireball can eat olivine, but it’s too brittle to use for their technology. Gypsum, of course, is worse- you can crumble gypsum in your fingers. And hematite and magnetite, according to Starlight, won’t even take a magic charge because of electric interference.

After spending an hour looking through the geology reference manuals NASA provided us with on my computer, she identified quartz and ruby as the ideal materials. That’s a problem. Ruby is unknown on Mars, and we’ve only found traces of quartz and feldspar from orbit in places where really old volcanoes have eroded away.

The problem is (if I’m remembering my briefings correctly- I was Lewis’s backup for geology work) most of the really hard gems and crystals are associated with either metamorphic rocks or light, slow-cooling granite formations. And the thing about both granite formations and metamorphic rocks is, you usually find them in mountains. And Ares III is in the least mountainous region on the entire planet.

Leaving aside crater ridges, you can see from the hab clear to the horizon 3.4 kilometers away. Even the mud volcano Starlight and her friends crashed into is below the horizon, too low-slung to see from here. The closest known traces of quartz are in Arabia Terra two thousand kilometers away, and the most promising locations for mining are in the two volcanic provinces, Tharsis and Elysium… each halfway around the planet from here.

Instead of mountains, the Hab sits on an unknown depth of ancient alluvial deposits which buried any early volcanoes this area had before the first multicellular life appeared on Earth. There’s some low rock outcrops nearby surrounding a crater, but the first look seems to indicate they’re layered, sedimentary rocks- no good for gems. The only gems larger than a grain of sand we’re likely to find here will be inside meteorites, created by ancient impacts during the dawn of the solar system.

Oh, perfect. As I’m typing this Johannsen’s Beatles collection has cycled round to a particular song. I’m sure you can guess what it is.

Ponies from the skies need diamonds…

That’s it. I found Beck’s personal data stick; let’s see what’s on it…

… medical journals. Directories and directories of nothing but medical journals. Dammit, Beck, you're a cool guy, but you have no life whatever.

So that leaves Lewis’s data stick. I’m a little reluctant to look into it, probably because she was our mission commander. But I’m just about sick enough of the lads from Liverpool to take the plunge.

Food. Water. Gems. And now entertainment.

Mars, could you please give us one little gift?

Sol 20

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In the dawn of the solar system dozens of rocky planetoids swarmed inside the orbit of Jupiter, colliding with one another and sweeping up the fragments back into themselves.

One such early planet took a glancing blow from a smaller planetoid, losing its first primordial atmosphere to the impact. The strike carved out a massive basin which filled first with lava and then with water, as volcanoes, comets, and the remaining bits of the smaller planetoid created a new atmosphere, thinner but still substantial. Other fragments coalesced in orbit as a series of moons of varying size in less than stable orbits.

The planet was large enough and hot enough to have a differentiated interior, complete with an iron inner and outer core whose rotations and convections created a magnetic field that protected the atmosphere from the solar winds. Above that a water-rich mantle thrust bubbles of magma up through an already thick crust, finding weak points to vent the little world’s internal heat.

At one such point, not far from the original edge of the great basin, a long rift formed, part of the planet's billion-year flirtation with plate tectonics. A chain of small volcanoes formed, insignificant compared to the titans which would come later. Each had its short three or four thousand years of glory, spewing sulfur and ash and light fractionated lava, before its caldera cooled and sealed. Fresh magma rose from the depths, found no vent, and remained, waiting, deep below the surface. As more magma rose, the subterranean pools collected and joined, the internal heat and fresh supplies of lava from the depths of the young planet keeping the reservoirs hot and fluid.

Millions of years passed. The basin became a great ocean, swallowing up the volcanoes and washing away their ashy layers, replacing them with sediment from a great river. Beneath, the magma chamber cooled and warmed, freezing and melting as fresh lava sought a path to the surface only to be denied by the pressure of uncounted waters.

The ocean water seeped through the compacting sediment, through the remains of the volcanic shield, down to the hot magma chamber. The water eroded pockets in the older volcanic rock around the magma, pockets which filled with gas and then with hypercritical water. The magma rose and fell, its heavier components sinking back through the cracks into the mantle, the lighter components mixing with water to form a mineral-rich mixture. The relatively low gravity of the planet allowed these pockets of air and mineral water to grow larger than on any on its nearby rocky cousins, despite the weight of rock and sediment layered atop them.

The planet cooled, reheated briefly by the impact of its largest moon and uncounted smaller asteroids as the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn migrated outwards in the chaotic dance of planetary orbits. The crust thickened, but for a very long time enough heat flowed through the closing rift to keep the magma chamber viable. With every surge and ebb of fresh magma new pockets were created, merging with one another, filling with mineral-rich water that began, slowly, to redeposit its mineral wealth on the walls of the pockets.

Deep inside the planet the iron core froze completely, ending the magnetic dynamo which had protected the planet. Solar radiation began bombarding the world, breaking apart water and whisking the atmosphere away a whisper at a time. The planet’s orbit widened, gradually tugged away from its star by the gradual migration of the gas giants, eventually bringing it to the edge of the asteroid belt created by the gravitational chaos of the giants’ passing. Receiving less heat from the sun, losing its atmospheric blanket to the vacuum of space, the planet cooled even faster.

The great basin, which was the planet’s first ocean, was also its last, as the poles froze, as the ice retreated into permafrost or into polar deposits that ebbed and grew with the long seasons. Without water the early tectonic plates ceased to move, first seizing up and then freezing up as the rifts connecting to the mantle choked with congealing lava.

As the waters retreated they continued to erode away the remnants of the ancient volcanoes birthed by that first immense impact. But beneath the surface the great magma chamber retained enough heat, even as it died, to create children, a field of new volcanoes that spewed water and ice instead of molten rock.

And under the surface the water remained, still liquid, still dissolving and redepositing its minerals, inside the great gas pockets.

But nothing lasts forever. Even meteor impacts, even the cracks around the boundary of the ancient basin, could no longer sustain the magma chamber. A billion years after its birth it froze solid, never to melt again.

Inside the air pockets, the water drained or froze or sublimated away, leaving behind the work of uncounted millennia.

Billions of years passed. The axis of the planet tilted back and forth. The polar deposits of ice and carbon dioxide thawed, shifted, and refroze. The crust, despite its thickness, flexed and shifted. The giant volcanoes elsewhere on the planet continued to grow, changing the planet's balance on its axis and occasionally unleashing cataclysmic eruptions that launched lava and stones beyond escape velocity, out into the vast gulf between planets.

As the all-but-dead world changed ever so slowly with the eons, the layers of compacted soil and rock eroded away from above the magma chamber. The ever-diminishing winds of an already rust-covered planet blew across the dry ocean floor, carrying away material to form dunes around the poles. Now and again small asteroids would penetrate the wispy atmosphere and strike the surface, one of which penetrated the soil on top of the magma chamber and created a new hole that accelerated the process of erosion.

Slowly, slowly, the frozen magma chamber emerged from its coat of looser material. The crater at its top gave it a superficial resemblance to the nearby dead ice volcanoes it had sired. It shed its remaining detritus at its feet, blending in with the surroundings, its hardened core bidding defiance to the now feeble and tenuous wind of an almost dead world.

And then, as the next world closer to the sun entered a cycle of ice ages punctuated with brief warm periods, one of the great air pockets, with its deposits left behind by the ancient boiling waters of Mars, broke through to the surface. Dust and the occasional runoff of perchlorate-tainted ice water flowed into the open chamber little by little. The winds and dunes sealed the opening, then revealed it, then resealed it, each cycle depositing a bit more soil and ice into the immense chamber below.

The chamber sat, still mostly buried under a gray gravestone itself mostly buried by sand, and waited for its treasure to be discovered.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 16

ARES III SOL 20

For the three thousand four hundredth and umpty-second time Spitfire wished that her space suit had wings.

She’d never really appreciated, even when injured and temporarily grounded, how confining it felt to be required to go everywhere on hoof like an earth pony or unicorn. But that was before she’d spent over two weeks either trapped in her space suit or inside an alien structure some ten yards on a side. That was before she’d spent all that time, except for a couple of minutes, with only the faintest scrap of pegasus magic, unable to fly properly or sense the air properly or, well, do anything properly.

Every day she woke up feeling like somepony had replaced her horseshoes with magic weights that made her feel fifty pounds lighter but held her to the ground like a magnet. She woke up grumpy and went to bed grumpier.

And she couldn’t tell anypony about it, because Wonderbolts don’t whine.

She could have taken it better if she’d had proper duties, a daily schedule, some structure to work in. But Spitfire had been a last-minute addition to the crew, a political decision to keep the balance of pony races and space agencies. She’d been promoted up and out of the Wonderbolts and then been placed at the bottom of the crew seniority rankings. And she’d been given a whole whopping three weeks of supplemental field medic training to go with the standard stuff she’d had when she first joined the Wonderbolts Reserve on her way up.

So this was her life now: standing on a hillside on an alien planet with no magic, almost no air, and with her wings securely bound to her sides by the Celestia-bedamned spacesuit, her only duty something for which she was minimally trained and not in the least talented, shadowing a unicorn ex-con who was such a bucking genius that she kept experimenting with new and innovative ways to commit suicide via magical burnout, and all the time wishing for somepony to either ask her for orders or to give her some.

But the only pony around at the moment was Starlight bucking Glimmer.

“Look,” she said to the unicorn in question, “we brought that battery for a reason. Use that instead of your reserves and maybe we’ll get somewhere before you pass out.”

“I only need to run Rarity’s spell for a couple of seconds at a time,” Starlight Glimmer insisted. “And with just enough power to take a bearing. I can do that easily so long as I don’t keep the spell running.”

“We’ve taken five bearings since we got back to this lump,” Spitfire said. “And it’s kind of hard to triangulate a location when none of the bearings converge.”

A few steps away, the alien Mark, face hidden by the reflective plate of his own spacesuit, stood patiently, one of his little shovels in his hands.

“I’m sure there are gems here somewhere!” Starlight insisted. “The spell’s picking up large deposits! We just have to keep searching!”

Spitfire shook her head. The one duty she’d been given, and half the time her patient and her superior officer wouldn’t let her do it. “Fine, cast it again,” she said. “But we’ve been walking all over this hill for hours! We didn’t find anything in the trench we carved coming down, and we haven’t found anything around the hillside!”

“But the spell says it’s got to be here!” Starlight Glimmer’s horn lit up, and for a second or two the ground around them glowed a faint blue in the dim orange light of Mars’s far-too-distant sun. The unicorn’s head jerked down hard and she cut the spell instantly. “See? This time the spell says it’s right underneath us! Quick, start digging!”

Sighing, Spitfire began pawing at the ground with her forehooves, The top layer of fine dust moved aside easily. The second layer of coarser material compacted by billions of years parted more reluctantly. The third layer, reached far sooner than Spitfire expected… was solid gray rock. “Huh… you may be right, Starlight. Come look at this.” She also waved to Mark, who straightened slightly at the sign of a potential discovery and walked towards them.

Three steps later the tall alien’s leg plunged into the ground, and he flopped back onto his flank, his arms flailing, his shovel flying off to one side.

“Mark!” Starlight Glimmer abandoned the exposed bit of rock and dashed over to where the alien sat on the dirt.

“Don’t move him!” Spitfire urged. “We don’t know what he fell into! His suit might be damaged!”

Starlight pulled up well before reaching him. “Oh. Right.” She carefully worked her away around Mark, avoiding the sand trickling down into the growing cavity around his right leg, until she could approach him from behind. Spitfire was afraid she’d try lifting him out of the hole, which after a day of spellcasting would definitely leave her exhausted or worse- again. But instead the unicorn put her helmet visor gently up against the back of Mark’s helmet. Spitfire heard over their suit-to-suit comms two carefully pronounced words in Mark’s language: “Syuut. Okeh?

Mark nodded. As Starlight put her helmet back into contact with his, Spitfire heard a distorted noise which sounded vaguely like, “syuut okeh.” With a slight shift of his weight he brought his right knee back above the surface of the sand, then very slowly and carefully scooted himself back, raising the half-buried leg higher until the boot surfaced, leaving him free again. Even then he continued to scoot back, Starlight keeping to his side, until he was a good three pony-lengths from where he’d fallen in.

With Mark’s leg freed, sand poured into the void where it had been. An overhang appeared as the Martian dust shifted into the growing hole and then- thank Celestia!- a row of large white crystals like teeth in a monstrous upper jaw.

“Success!” Starlight Glimmer cheered, stepping forwards. Mark grabbed her with his gloves and hauled her back, pointing to the continual cascade of sand and dirt into the growing chasm.

“Listen to him!” Spitfire said. “Don’t do anything until it stabilizes. That overhang might collapse at any time, or the sands might suck you down into the hole.”

“But I can just-“

“And absolutely no magic!” Spitfire snapped. “We can go get the battery from Mark’s carriage if we need it, but you’ve cast enough spells on your own resources for one day!”

“Fine,” Starlight said grumpily, as Mark finally got to his feet and nudged her farther back from the hole.

After about twenty minutes the small landslide stopped. The sinkhole had grown several hooves wide, the part under the overhang about two hooves high, not high enough to crawl under. Mark retrieved his shovel and gave the now uncovered ledge that had prevented him from falling through a hard strike, and it broke off and crumbled, revealing more of the hole, with a sparkling mixture of crystal fragments mixed with the usual Martian soil. Waving the other two away, the alien began digging, flinging little bits of soil away with the too-small shovel, occasionally inverting it to beat a bit of harder material around the edges of the hole into submission.

Twenty minutes later the hole was large enough for him to stand in, and he did, focusing on scooping dust and sand out of the overhang. After another ten minutes of this he set the shovel on the edge of the hole, turned on the flashlight built into his suit’s right arm, and stuck his arm inside the overhang, waggling it around.

Then the alien stiffened, still with his arm stuck in the ground, unmoving.

“He’s got caught on one of those crystals!” Starlight insisted.

“No, I don’t think so,” Spitfire said cautiously. She didn’t know what he was doing; what was the point of shoving his flashlight into the hole when his eyes weren’t at a level to see what was inside?

Then, very carefully, Mark pulled his arm out, turning off the flashlight. He picked up the shovel again, motioned the ponies to stand back, and then attacked the sand under the overhang with a passion that defied all common sense. Despite the awkwardness of his suit and the small size of the shovel blade, dust flew.

“What is he doing?” Spitfire mused aloud.

“I’m going to get the battery,” Starlight said. “He’ll hurt himself if he keeps going like that. Why does he want to go deeper anyway? We’ve got perfectly good gems right there!”

“Hm… yeah, I think you better do that,” Spitfire said.

It took about fifteen minutes for Starlight to make the round trip from the rover, battery pack strapped to her spacesuit with improvised belts made by Dragonfly for the purpose. (It had cost half a food ration, after which the changeling had spent half an hour behind the Curtain of Infernal Stench before emerging with a changeling-rope harness perfectly fitted for the battery. She’d said, “Don’t ask,” and nopony had wanted to.) “I’m going to tell him what I’m about to do,” she said as soon as she got back.

“Can you spare the charge?” Spitfire asked.

“The battery’s showing thirteen percent charge,” Starlight said. “Twenty percent was enough to pick up the entire Amicitas. All I’ll be doing is shoveling loose dirt.”

“You be careful anyway,” Spitfire warned, knowing it wouldn’t help.

Starlight stood atop the overhang and waved her forehooves until she got Mark’s attention. Only then did she light up her horn again, and then only long enough to tell him to move. Mark waved one of his arms in a gesture Spitfire didn’t recognize, and Starlight responded by pointing a hoof imperiously, ordering him out of the hole. Mark shrugged and picked himself out of the hole, which he’d expanded enough that it was chest-deep to him now.

Satisfied, Starlight unstrapped the battery and set it down. She put one forehoof directly on the exposed leads as she flipped the switch on with the other. Almost instantly a large scoop made of turquoise light appeared in the air above the hole, plunging into the sand and flinging it well downslope and out of the way.

After about a minute of this Mark waved his own arms for attention, and Starlight cancelled her digging spell and shut off the battery, still showing most of its charge. Her horn lit up again, and the unicorn’s magic surrounded her helmet and Mark’s as they exchanged a few more words. Finally Mark pointed into the hole, through the overhang where he’d been digging. It was Starlight’s turn to shrug and obey, a little weak-kneed as she cancelled the translation spell and eased her way down into the hole.

“You’re pushing yourself again,” Spitfire said.

“Spitfire,” Starlight said, sounding quite confused, “he wants me to go into the cave and look at something. And apparently a ‘green lamp’ has something to do with it. I don’t understand.”

“I thought you were working on that translation spell,” Spitfire said.

“It still doesn’t do idioms well,” Starlight admitted. “I don’t know how to fix that, and anyway it’s better if we just learn the language.”

“Mind your hooves,” Spitfire said. “If you get stuck don’t try to free yourself. Mark and I will get you out.”

“It’s all right. The surface is just like a sand dune back home…” Starlight paused. “Gotta turn on my suit lights, it’s dark in h- oooooooh my Faust.”

“What?” Spitfire danced on her hooves, wanting to follow Starlight into the little cave, afraid of what might happen.

“It’s… it’s incredible,” Starlight gasped. “It’s like the caverns under Canterlot!”

Spitfire stopped dancing. “You mean the big, crystal-filled, prime security risk caverns civilians like you aren’t supposed to know exist?” she asked.

“I…. may have learned something about them when I was still a crazy Twilight-Sparkle-stalking supervillain,” Starlight Glimmer admitted. “Anyway, can you bring the battery to the mouth of the cave? I need to make it big enough for Mark to come inside. He needs to see all of this.”

“See what? That we’ve got enough gems to feed Fireball for a while?” Spitfire shook her head and silently damned all geniuses whose brains ran ahead of their mouths. “That’s nice, but what else is there?”

“What else is there?” The unicorn’s voice over the magic comm link was triumphant. “The solution to all our problems, that’s what else!!”

LOG ENTRY – SOL 20

Greetings from the Fortress of Solitude!

Well, not really. I’m writing this from Rover 2. We’ve run out of EVA time for the day, and once I finish writing this down we’re going back to the Hab for more tools, more planning, and probably that birthday cake that was in the ponies’s refrigerator. It’s going to go stale if it sits any longer, and today’s find deserves a celebration!

This morning we went back to the crash site- Starlight, Spitfire and myself. Site Epsilon is the only chance we have without modifying the rover to find the kind of gems or crystals that Starlight wants. When we started out I didn’t think there was any real hope of finding anything of the kind. But it’s critical to the ponies that we get some kind of gems, for Fireball’s sake if nothing else, so I thought we’d give it a try.

We spent a good four hours wandering all over the northeast side of Site Epsilon. Starlight seemed to be dowsing or something for the crystals, but every time she did it she pointed a different direction. So we made circles, digging down in the soil a couple of feet, hitting rock we couldn’t penetrate, and giving up. NASA never imagined a need or desire for an Ares crew to engage in heavy mining operations, so all I had with me was a sample shovel, a hammer for breaking small rocks with, and a chisel for breaking whatever I want with. None of that is going to penetrate bedrock.

Eventually it wasn’t the pony magic that discovered it. It was good old human clumsiness. My right foot found a hollow patch under the soil surface and punched straight through. Fortunately the initial hole was only a bit wider than my suit leg, so I wasn’t swallowed up completely. Even more fortunately, the surface was only moderately compacted sand and nothing harder or sharper, so my suit didn’t get torn or damaged. Otherwise this log would only be continued if the ponies took typing lessons from Strong Bad.

I very carefully extracted myself from the sinkhole. Sand continued to pour in once I removed my leg, and the abrasion widened the hole pretty quickly. Apparently the void under the surface was pretty big, because a good portion of the hillside eventually got swallowed up by it, revealing an overhang that looked kind of like the upper jaw of a troll, complete with diamond teeth. (Okay, not diamond, because diamonds don’t work like that. White quartz. But still very toothy-looking. I wouldn’t want to be bit by that mouth, anyway.)

We’d found what we came for, completely by accident and in spite of every bit of common sense. Which, to be honest, is par for the course for Mars. Every probe and crew that have landed here have found something totally contrary to what they expected, so why should I be any different? Of course, having found it, we immediately explained it away so it wasn’t surprising any more, but hindsight is always easy to peer review.

But I wanted to see just how much we had to work with and how hard we’d have to work to get it. Quartz, if that’s what those crystals are, is really hard stuff- it’s one of the defining levels of the Mohs scale, 7 or 8, I forget which. I don’t think I’ve got anything that’ll cut it, so I went digging, first widening the hole so I could work in it, then working my way under the troll teeth, looking for some broken or fallen bits that we could just pick up and take home.

The dirt that had fallen into the hole had piled up and turned out to be solid enough to stand on. That let me climb into the hole, make it deeper, and then work on clearing out the space under that overhang. There was a danger that the sinkhole would sink further or that I would get trapped in sand again, but I didn't care. We needed those gems, and I was going to get them, one way or another.

Once I had a good sized opening I turned on the camera and flashlight on my right arm. All the Ares surface suits have them. Because our ability to see side to side is restricted by the spacesuits, we have to turn our whole bodies to see things not directly in front of us. The cameras project an image into our helmets so we don’t have to stop and turn all the time. Plus the camera feed can be viewed by the crew still in the Hab and retransmitted to Earth for further review. It’s not a perfect system- I’d have put it on my left arm so I can use the light and have a tool in my right hand at the same time- but it works pretty good.

But if the mission had gone to spec, and if I’d done something like this, NASA would have ordered me strapped to a bunk for the rest of the mission, and Lewis would have done it, because it would have meant I’d gone crazy. NASA never considered the dangers of jumping into a Martian sinkhole and sticking one arm of your spacesuit up to the shoulder into a strange hole on an alien planet because they all expected our mothers would have taught us that when we were five. Really, they’re obvious, as obvious as the sharp pointy crystals right in my faceplate at the top of the hole.

The first view made one thing obvious: the hole was deep and went a long, long way back into the volcano. At first I thought it might be a lava tube, but that didn’t explain the crystals. I don’t know if crystals can grow in a lava tube, but I know I never saw the two together in nature during my training as Lewis’s geology backup. And that training wasn’t all it could have been, because we were so busy training for ten thousand other things, and anyway all NASA really wanted from us was to say what stuff looked like, pack up the really weird bits, and haul five hundred kilograms of it back to Earth for the real geologists to poke at for the next hundred years.

But then I caught sight of the sides of the hole. Crystal. Big-ass crystals. Crystals absolutely everywhere. There were even a couple of shafts of crystal that looked as thick as I am that went from ceiling through the floor.

I began digging the hole out bigger so Starlight could go in and see for herself. After a few minutes of this Starlight pulled out her Box o’ Magic Juice and ordered me out of the hole. In about a minute she’d done more than I’d managed in half an hour with the sample shovel. (Maybe she ought to be supervising the Hab soil project instead of Cherry? Just a thought.) Then she went in (after I told her she needed to go look)… and she stayed in. Spitfire took the battery in to her, then came back out and shoved me until I got the idea that we should, as the saying goes, “de-assify the area”.

Once we were clear, Starlight did something, probably magical, that sent tons of loose dirt flying out of that cave mouth like ammo from a marshmallow gun. When she was done the magic battery was empty, but so was the mouth of what turned out to be a really big cavern once you got past the entrance.

There were a couple of tight spots, but we were able to go back quite a long way- hundreds of meters, anyway. And let me tell you, it’s truly amazing. It looks like a gigantic geode that grew and absorbed smaller geodes. Most of the crystals are white, but there were a lot of yellow and red ones and even some purple. They come in all sizes, and I do mean all, from tiny enough to be set in a ring on up to shafts as big around as I am.

And they’re hard. I had a knife in my tool pouch, so I tried to scratch several with it. No good. After the fifth failed attempt, I scraped the flat of the blade across one of the crystal points, and it left a shallow gouge down the steel. Definitely quartz or something harder.

We didn’t find any loose broken bits on the floor, but there’s a reason for that. The floor is hard-packed Mars soil, sloping down from the entrance. I have to bend a bit to get in without risking a scrape from the troll teeth, but ten paces in I can stand straight with no problems, and twenty paces in I can’t reach the ceiling. Apparently this cave or lava tube or geode or whatever it is opens to the surface periodically. Sand blows or falls into the hole until it fills, and then it hardens by compaction, leaving a brittle shell up top and opening a hole underneath. Eventually something happens- a meteor strike or a dust storm or something- the hole reopens, and the cycle repeats. And every time it does more sand slides further back into the cave, filling it in a bit at a time.

I think I might have seen a twinkle of crystals on the floor on the edge of my suit lights when we finally turned around to get out of the cave. Other than that, there’s at least a thin layer of dirt all the way down. Hell, it could be a really deep layer. We have no way of knowing how deep the original cave went. But any crystals that broke off of the walls and ceiling would have been buried by sand and dust ages ago.

Anyway, we now have crystals. Santa came early this year. I haven’t got a damn thing that will cut them, but Starlight doesn’t seem bothered about that. She’s much more excited about the dirt and the open space inside.

And I think I’m on the same page as she is, but to be sure we need to do a proper exploration of the cave. That means we’re coming back tomorrow. Yes, we retreat for now, but we shall return… armed with SCIENCE!

Sol 21

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MISSION LOG – SOL 21

We have returned bearing soil samples and dragon take-out. Fireball gets to choose one from column A (quartz), one from column B (different colored quartz), and one from column C (other different colored quartz). The rest of us have to make do with three-quarters of a technologically advanced microwave dinner each.

Fireball seems to have mixed feelings about the discovery. On the one hand, plain white quartz (which is the clear majority of what’s in the crystal cave) is like tapioca pudding for dragons, according to Starlight. On the other hand, he was thrilled at the small number of yellow, red and purple crystals we brought back with the white… and he was downright giddy at the double handful of dark grey crystals. He’s busy now slowly crushing them into powder with his claws and scooping the dust into one of my test tubes. It kinda looks like a pepper shaker now.

But the key point is, barring a cave-in, he’s set for food for the duration. With fully charged suits and fresh CO2 filters in my case, Starlight and I explored the cave from mouth to back today. I dug out the entrance some more so I don’t have to duck to get in, and that’s still the narrowest point in the cave except for one.

I don’t think the cave is really all one geode. There are places where the crystals change color slowly, like a Photoshop color gradient, but there are also tight points where the crystals are white on one side of the narrowing and orange or purple on the other side. And there are little pockets everywhere, sort of like cubbyholes, with other varieties of crystal. Best guess, a bunch of air pockets opened up in the molten rock, and what with one thing and another the bubbles grew together. Somewhere in the past the barriers between the geodes broke or something, and then mineral deposits sealed them together.

All told, the cave goes back almost to the center of Site Epsilon- a good six hundred meters deep. There’s only a bit of sand and dust at the far end, not enough to cover up the gems, so I’m guessing that the opening hasn’t been open for all that long geologically speaking. Over a billion years this place would have silted up solid. Anyway, we only walked as far as it was safe to, and we didn’t step on any exposed crystals. My light was good enough to see a gray wall barren of crystal at the far end, which I’m guessing is an old magma chamber.

But most of that is academic. Right now we’re focused on practical matters, namely: how can we use this cave?

Well, obviously we can harvest crystals from it. Starlight used her magic and that battery of hers to cut samples enough for two sample boxes off the walls. Seems I was more right about her being Yoda than I knew, considering that her horn makes a dandy lightsaber. Most of one bin is going to be Fireball’s nom-noms for the next month or so, but the other bin has four chunks taken from the really huge crystals, each absolutely flawless and about the same size as the one in her magic battery. No points for guessing what she has planned there.

But that’s a minor issue. The major issue is: can we turn that cave into a farm? The second chamber or so in, about eighty meters from the entrance, is almost perfect for our needs. It’s at least twenty meters wide and a good two hundred meters long- which would probably make it gigantic even among Earth caves, and probably wouldn’t work at all here except for Mars’s 0.4g and a couple of crystal shafts that run from ceiling to floor here and there.

That’s where I took most of my soil samples using the sample drill. I filled up about two dozen sample bags with dirt from ten centimeters, thirty, and even fifty- that’s about twenty inches down in American measurements. I’ll run them through the same soil tests I used on the surface dirt around the Hab, but that won’t happen for a couple days.

While Starlight and I have been raiding Superman’s underwear drawer, everyone else has been finishing the all-important job of covering the Hab with ten centimeters of Martian dirt and soaking it down to flush all the nasty perchlorates to the bottom, where we won’t be breathing toxic dust 24-7. We now have ninety-two square meters of mostly barren soil in the Hab. Tomorrow we add yet more water, but otherwise we rest, because the next day is the first of what I call “dirt-doubling.”

The first batch of dirt we brought in, with its Earth soil and compost mixed in, is coming along nicely. It already looks like well-watered and fertilized reclaimed desert soil… which, well, it is. I’ve checked in the microscope, and the Earth bacteria are coming along nicely. And- best of all- the perchlorate-eating bugs have done their job. Perchlorate levels are down by three-quarters from the levels measured outside.

But that’s only 15 square meters, leaving 77 square meters of mostly raw, bacteria-free, unfertilized soil in the hab. So my plan is to dig up the dirt full of Earth bacteria (except for the bit that’s growing the starter alfalfa crop), spread some of the untreated Mars dirt to cover the bare area, and dump the treated soil on top of it, along with the current contents of our communal shit bucket.

That will be mostly me doing it, with Fireball maybe helping. That leaves the ponies with the most dangerous job: talking Fireball into helping me do it. It’ll also be a long, physically challenging job, so I’m not planning on doing anything else that day. Only after that’s done will I tackle the soil samples from the cave.

It’d take at least two, and more practically three, dirt-doublings before we’re ready to plant. I’ll probably start the potato seed crop after the second doubling- we’ll see how the first one goes. But that’s just for the available floor space in the Hab. We’ll need about half as much again if we try to turn the alien ship into a second area. And if we turn the gem cave into a farm, we’ll need as large a collection of dirt as we can fit into the rover to kick-start the soil already there.

I admit, making a farm in a cave is really ambitious, but Starlight thinks all the major problems can be addressed through low-level magic. I don’t know about that. I’ll try to remember to talk to her about it during Guess the Context Time tomorrow. She’s too tired for more magic tonight.

For my own use, here’s a rundown of all the problems I can think of with growing things in the cave.

1)LIGHT. The cave is dark as hell once you get more than three steps from the entrance. I don’t have any mushroom spores, so we need to get a lot of light in there for edible plants to grow. The Hab lighting is specially designed LEDs tweaked to replicate Earth levels of sunlight, including small amounts of infrared and non-sunburning ultraviolet wavelengths. The pony ship uses, I shit you not, incandescent bulbs.

2)HEAT. The Hab has a full heating system in addition to several systems like the atmospheric regulator, the oxygenator, and the water reclaimer that produce heat as part of normal operation. The polymers of the Hab canvas and floor are efficient insulators designed to reduce the heat lost to Mars’s atmosphere. The cave, on the other hand, is underground and actually a couple of degrees cooler than the surface. The dirt and rock will represent a massive heat sink that will make warming the area enough for plants to live a serious challenge.

3)AIR. Our inspection didn’t reveal any skylights or other openings that might allow air to vent to the surface aside from the entrance, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t cracks or something hidden behind the crystals. And even if there aren't, geodes are porous, so I have to hope the soil on top of the cave makes a good seal. Also, I simply haven’t got enough O2 or N2 in the Hab to fill that vast a space. Assuming we can seal the entrance, which is a big damn if, we either need a large-scale source of breathable air or a source of air the Hab systems can convert to breathable air to replace what we’ll have to steal to fill the cave.

4)WATER. The pony suits are holding up for the Hab dirt project, but a cave farm would be a lot bigger and a lot thirstier. Also, there’s almost certainly permafrost in that soil if it goes as deep as the ceiling is high. Too much water, or contaminated water, might be as big a problem as too little, especially since the cave won’t have a water reclaimer to take the excess out of circulation.

5)ACCESS. We need to get in the cave to tend the farm, and we need to be able to get harvests out. Sealing the cave isn’t enough; we need an airlock. I have materials for Hab canvas repairs which would let me detach one of the Hab’s three airlocks for this purpose, but I think the cargo airlock from the alien ship would be a better bet. It doesn’t risk our safe haven, and it’s currently attached to a section of the ship that can’t hold air anyway. The docking port would also work, except it’s much smaller- I’d have to crawl through on hands and knees- and removing it would make the central compartment of the ship uninhabitable.

6)SOIL. Or more specifically, perchlorates. If the concentrations are like the surface, the Earth bacteria can cope. If they’re higher, there could be problems. And in any case, first we need to create enough Earth-type fertile soil to get started with, or 1 through 5 are all pointless.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure the thing I’m forgetting will come round to bite me in the ass.

Even the ponies are beginning to tire of non-stop Beatles. Tonight I’m going to show them Vogel’s family photos. They’re the only non-text thing on his media drive. I figure we can use them to start language lessons and give the ponies a look at what life is like on Earth.

And after the ponies are bored of family photos (which, in my personal case, usually takes about seven minutes), I’ll have no choice but to raid Commander Lewis’s media stash. Please, Commander, have something educational. Something that encourages development of vocabulary. Something. Anything.

MISSION LOG – SOL 21 (2)

I got bored of the photos before the ponies did. They were talking about the pics for a couple of hours, and of course I didn’t understand a word. They were too excited to explain anything by Pictionary. But finally their interest tapered off enough for me to pull Vogel’s stick and slot in Lewis’s.

So what does our esteemed commander, who has been both a carrier pilot and a nuclear submarine officer before joining NASA, bring to the table?

Sitcoms.

1970s sitcoms.

Shitty, terrible, horrible TV sitcoms from the 1970s. And she’s absolutely filled the stick with them.

Well, to be fair, it’s not all sitcoms, but look at the list.

Barney Miller.
The Bionic Woman.
BJ and the Bear. (What?)
The Bob Newhart Show.
The Brady Bunch. (I saw the movies as a kid. I will NEVER be THAT bored.)
CHiPs (apparently only the first three seasons. Hm. Wonder why.)
The Dukes of Hazzard (the whole run, even though it had more 80’s than 70’s seasons).
The Electric Company. (What?)
Grizzly Adams. (No, seriously, what?)
Happy Days.
Kolchak: the Night Stalker (huh, this one actually sounds interesting).
Kung Fu. (Honestly, what were you smoking, and will it grow in Martian soil?)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Odd Couple (I was in the play in high school. How about the Odd 6? Can a man, a dragon, and four quadrupeds live in the same apartment without driving each other crazy?).
The Partridge Family.
The Rockford Files.
Sanford and Son.
The Six Million Dollar Man.
Starsky and Hutch.
Three’s Company.
And, finally, Wonder Woman. (I have the feeling I’d enjoy this one more if I was alone in the Hab…)

OK, so there’s some action-adventure, but half the stuff here is sitcoms. And no cartoons. Not much sci-fi. And I should be grateful, no variety shows or game shows or anything like that.

But really, Lewis… would it have killed you to have even one season of Sesame Street or something? Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? Smurfs? (No, wait, Smurfs was 80s, not 70s.)

Oh well. At least I’ve heard of Partridge Family. It’s got music- ponies love music- and it can’t possibly be as bad as the Brady Bunch. Let’s try an episode.

MISSION LOG – SOL 21 (3)

Yes, it can be that bad.

And the ponies are demanding I play it again so they can learn the theme song. They don’t even speak English and they want to learn the theme song.

I think I’ve created several monsters.

Sol 23

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 19
ARES III SOL 23

It was done, for now.

Fireball and the monkey both stank, even more so than the habitat in general. The dragon longed for a nice long lava bath, or failing that ten minutes in the decontamination shower. But the alien ape, despite several longing looks in the direction of the shower stall, had made no move to take off his equally stinky clothes. And if Mark was going to tough it out, then so would Fireball. It was a matter of principle. No alien, especially a mostly furless, scaleless, clawless, tiny-toothed monkey alien, was going to out-tough a dragon.

But both of them washed their hands in the chemistry lab sink, because nobody wanted to have horseapples on their hands when they were eating.

Cherry Berry, on the other hand, was in the shower, scrubbing industriously. She’d been the only pony helping the dragon and the human with the dirt-doubling project. The others had retreated into their space suits the moment Mark had opened the compost box. They still wore them, though the eight-hour self-imposed safety limit had to run out pretty soon. Starlight Glimmer and Dragonfly had one worktable covered with whiteboards and the manuals from the ship, while Spitfire had taken her medical manual and retired to a bunk. But Cherry had been up to her hocks in very smelly dirt and… other things… all day.

She emerged with two of the alien’s stupid sandwich baggies on her forehooves. (The alien kept dirt and pebbles in them, but Fireball had seen ponies use them back home, and they were sandwich baggies. He still didn’t know how a pony ever unzipped one without a unicorn to help.) The improvised plastic booties made sense, since the just-turned portion of the habitat’s new dirt floor included the part immediately in front of the shower. While Mark settled to his favorite work table and opened his picture-typewriter thing, Cherry walked over to the kitchen area and opened the refrigerator.

Well, walked wasn’t the word. Trudged was more like it, just like a dragon who’d been told by the Dragonlord that if they wanted any more gems for their hoard they’d have to go dig in the dirt. (And come to think of it, hadn’t he been digging in the dirt all day? Fireball felt he deserved some gems, even if it was mostly boring bland quartz.)

She walked over to a table, put the one and a quarter cartons of cherries on it, and pushed a stool up to sit on. Perched precariously on the stool, which had been built for tall bipedal aliens with no tails, she opened the basket and sighed a sigh that sang of more tragedy and heartbreak than a Smoky Mountain balladeer.

That sigh made Fireball’s spines tremble. After her first objections Cherry had personally overseen the composting without more than the occasional expression of disgust. She’d gone through the day’s hard, filthy work of moving and mixing dirt without a murmur. But now she looked ready to cry…

… and oh, how Fireball hated ponies crying. For some reason it got contagious.

Slowly, reverently, the pink pony removed her forehoof protectors, opened the mostly-empty fruit carton, and took out a cherry, rolling it between her hooves.

“What’s the matter, commander?” he asked as politely as he could bring himself to manage around ponies.

“They’re starting to go soft,” Cherry said. “Look, there are bruises on each of them.” She pointed into the basket, but Fireball shrugged. Fruit was fruit to him. “If I wait any longer, they’re going to spoil. So today’s the day.”

Oh. Fireball remembered Cherry mentioning something like this at some point- that at some point she’d have to either devour or throw out the fresh cherries she’d been carefully doling out to herself. Apparently the Time of No More Cherries had come.

“Yeah, that’s tough, commander,” he said, not particularly sympathetic.

“You understand what this means, though,” Cherry Berry continued. “You were looking at the same problem until a couple days ago.”

“That wasn’t the same at all,” Fireball replied. “I was going to suffer malnutrition before the geeks found that cave. You’ll still have healthy meals and then alfalfa to eat, if Mark the Monkey there can grow anything here.” The words were angry, but his tone remained soft, and Fireball didn’t understand why. Yes, sapphires were his favorite gem and plain quartz down near the bottom, but the spice of smoky quartz and the juiciness of citrine and amethyst would help with that, and… where was he going with this thought?

“But now you’ve got a gem mine,” Cherry said, putting the cherry in her mouth and, in a few moments, spitting out the pit onto the table. “Even in Equestria, famous for its magic and wonders, nopony ever had a cherry mine,” she continued, chewing bits of cherry in her cheek.

“Has anypony tried?” As pointless as the idea seemed to Fireball, some pony somewhere HAD to have done it. Ponies were like that- the more stupid the notion, the quicker they wanted to put it into practice.

“There’s never been any reason to,” Cherry sighed, swallowing. “The cherry orchards around the country produce several harvests a year, so even in winter there’s not really a shortage. And with proper earth pony care and attention you can grow a tree from pit to fruit in about two years. Nopony imagined you’d need cherries someplace where absolutely nothing could grow.”

“Hm. So what you’re saying is, you haven’t tried.” Before Cherry could respond, he bellowed, “YO! Starlight, c’mere!”

Starlight and Dragonfly looked up from their conference. Shrugging, the two slipped off their own chairs and trotted over, shaking a hoof now and again as dirt clung unpleasantly to them. “You roared, Fireball?” Starlight asked dryly.

“Yeah. The commander wants more cherries,” Fireball said. “How do we get more?”

“How do we get more? We get rescued, that’s how. That’s the only way.”

“Don’t you have some sort of mushy-gooey pony magic,” Fireball said, making oogy-boogy motions with his claws, “that’ll make new cherries appear?”

Starlight rubbed her head. “You two,” she muttered, “you two just interrupted an important planning session about what parts we’re going to need to rip out of the ship to make the cave airtight. For this. And we’re saving the first aid kit for major trauma, which means I have to live with the headache.”

“Just answer the question, Ms. Magic-Solves-Everything,” Fireball snapped back.

“Fine,” Starlight retorted. “If a unicorn knows where some cherries are nearby, she can teleport them to herself. A really powerful unicorn or alicorn on the top of her game can transmute something else into cherries. But I can’t remember even an alicorn creating anything, much less cherries, out of nothing but magic energy. At least, none that wouldn’t just vanish when the spell ended!”

“So no cherries out of nowhere.”

“Weren’t you listening? NO!”

Fireball didn’t like the unicorn’s tone of voice, but he settled for a snort without any flame in it. Flame was hard to come by here for some reason, and even dragons were cautious about dragonfire in enclosed places. “What was that middle part? Something about turning something else into cherries?”

“Transmutation,” Starlight said. “Can be temporary or permanent depending on how much magic power you put into it. Takes serious concentration and a strong ambient magical field.”

“Which we don’t have,” Cherry Berry sighed, in the process of eating her third cherry.

“We’ve got the magic batteries,” Fireball pointed out.

“For emergencies!” Cherry snapped.

“And in this environment it’d take a lot of charge to transmute something permanently into a cherry,” Starlight continued. “And before you ask, no, I can’t make it cost less energy. I could use dark magic, but there's always a bigger price after the fact- usually that it forces you to cast more dark magic spells. The cleanup is always more expensive than any savings from the original spell.”

“So give it a try,” Fireball said. “Let’s see how much juice it sucks up, and maybe we have a solution to the food problem in general. Heck, it would be worth it to get all this dirt out of here!”

Hah. There, he’d thought of something. He wasn’t just dumb muscle. By making this about more than cherries, he’d taken away Cherry Berry’s argument about the magic batteries only being for emergencies. The food issue was an emergency… well, not exactly, since everyone could see it coming, but it was definitely the most important issue facing them. If magic offered a solution, it had to be tried.

And sure enough, Cherry Berry, mouth full of cherry, didn’t say anything when Starlight looked to her for confirmation.

“All right,” the violet unicorn said. “Dragonfly, please bring me whichever battery has less charge on it. Also, I’m going to need something to transform into a cherry. Something we’re not going to need back.”

Fireball had just the thing. After all, there were precisely three things they now had more of than they needed, right? And air and water weren’t going to work for this. He went to his newly expanded gem hoard, rustled through the bits, and pulled out the smallest piece, an irregular fleck of carnelian. It looked like a cherry, and it was about the size of a cherry, and…

It took him two attempts to set it on the table in front of Starlight and let go. Parting with any part of a hoard… well, it went against everything dragons believed in. But if it prevented more pony crying, fine.

Starlight poked it with her hoof, verifying that the thing was a rock and not a fruit. “Maybe something a little bigger?” she suggested. “If this works we won’t be making food one berry at a time.”

“Just make with the light show, magic pony,” Fireball grumbled.

Mark, attracted by the noise, stood up and walked over, pointing to the little gem and asking, “Wux gnaw hingawn?”

Cyaunts,” Starlight replied. The ape cocked an eyebrow, then leaned over the table to watch with interest.

Dragonfly brought the battered emergency battery #2 over to the table. “It’s only got six percent,” she said.

“That’s fine,” Starlight replied. “If this spell takes more than that, then it’s too expensive to use for food.” She flipped the switch, put one hoof on a mana terminal, and focused her mind on the spell.

The pebble, clipped off the edge of one of the narrow spots in the crystal cave, danced and spun, rising into the air in a sphere of light.

Sweat dripped down Starlight’s face, matting her mane to her forehead below her horn. “It’s… resisting…” she grunted. “More… power…”

The battery beeped and went dead.

A moment later the spell collapsed, and the piece of carnelian shattered with a deafening crack. A second crack sounded a split second later, followed by tiny glossy grains of semi-precious mineral settling down from the air onto the tabletop.

The underside of a table, Fireball realized, is particularly uncomfortable when four other bodies are pressing as tightly as possible against your own. Despite that he let the monkey expose his head first, because after all, it was his space house. Let him fix it.

A few moments later the alien said something in his sheep language, and the other bodies surrounding Fireball shifted away. Finally freed, he climbed out from under the table. Mark was standing next to a storage cabinet across the hab from where the group had been working. There was a huge dent in the cabinet door with a small hole in the center. Mark wrenched the bent door open, reached in among several plastic containers, and pulled out a piece of carnelian, about half the size of the original.

Without saying a word, Mark pointed first to the hole and then up at the fancy rubber canvas that was all that separated the warm, thick air inside from the freezing, almost nonexistent air outside.

Dragonfly was the first to speak, remarking, “I, um, I feel a sudden urge to visit the little changeling’s room.” She picked up the mana battery and carried it with her back to its usual resting spot.

“Six percent on one battery,” Starlight said, voice shaking wildly, “spell fails for lack of power, and the resulting backlash nearly kills us all. I think this experiment is over.” She laughed a hysterical laugh, shoved a hoof into her own mouth, and fled the table.

Mark pulled out a camera, took several photos of the hole inside and out, and then returned to his thing full of buttons and began typing about twice as fast as he had before. Cherry, still in shock, swiped up a hoofful of cherries and jammed them all into her mouth at once. The pits came back out, one by one, set carefully aside as she chewed.

Fireball stood, and watched, and thought, for about three minutes. Then, without saying a word, he stood next to Cherry, took the remaining carton of berries, and opened it. With a single flick of a claw he sliced a cherry open, and with a second flick he extracted the pit. Two more flicks, one more cherry pit, set carefully in the upturned lid of the carton. Another pit followed, and another, with the pitted cherries getting dropped into the top of the almost-empty carton in front of the pony.

“Hmmmph…what are you doing?” Cherry asked once her mouth was free enough to talk.

Fireball didn’t answer. Flick, flick, plunk, plop. Flick, flick, plunk, plop. Flick, flick, plunk, plop.

In two minutes the job was done. All the remaining cherries were pitted, and the pits gathered in one carton. The other carton sat in front of Cherry.

“Eat,” Fireball muttered. “They’ll only go bad if you don’t.”

He paid no attention to the utter confusion on her face, and he didn’t see her jaw drop when he walked over to Mark and practically slammed the carton full of cherry pits into the alien’s gut. “You!” the dragon growled, having got his full attention. He pointed a claw to the carton and shouted, “Make these grow! Understand?”

There. Job done. Fireball went back to the lab sink to wash the cherry juice from his clawtips.

Stupid pony crying disease, he thought. It’s contagious even when they DON’T cry.

Sol 24

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MISSION LOG – SOL 24

Well, the cave farm project just ran into a problem. Actually, problem is the wrong word, because NASA uses the word “problem” to describe an issue that can be overcome. This is more of a “contingency”, which is what NASA calls it when the only thing you can do is sweep up the debris and begin the investigation.

The dirt doubling went well. The ponies have been watering the dirt regularly, twice a day, using their spacesuits. I’ve committed two-thirds of the stockpiled water to the soil- two hundred liters total- but levels in the water reclaimer’s tanks are rising from humidity taken out of the air. If this keeps up we’ll eventually have damp, fertile soil and full water tanks as well.

I’ve been doing a lot of EVAs recently, what with the cave and salvaging the pony ship and all, so I decided to stay indoors today. I had those soil samples from the cave to analyze, and I need to think about how we were going to turn the cave into a farm anyway.

My biggest concern about the cave was air. That cave is a giant geode, and geodes are porous- otherwise the water couldn’t get inside and, duh, you wouldn’t get a geode. The good news is, it’s not Swiss-cheese porous, and most of the cave is buried under several feet of compacted sand and permafrost. But a billion microscopic holes will leak air just as efficiently as one really big hole, and I hadn’t come up with a solution for that. Still haven’t.

But the soil samples changed my priorities. Air is no longer my biggest problem. My biggest problem, to put it in numbers, is 2.3% perchlorates. Or, to be more accurate, 1.5% potassium perchlorate and 0.8% magnesium perchlorate in the two deepest samples, with the more shallow samples tapering off to a low of 1.2% combined perchlorates.

Still: shit.

The perchlorate-eating bacteria in my Earth soil are reducing the perchlorates in the Martian soil we’ve brought in here because the soil is shallow (which allows for oxygen to penetrate through the whole layer) and because the perchlorates are comparatively low. By the time the bacteria manage to get down deep enough to eliminate all those perchlorates thirty centimeters down in the dirt, the ponies will be out of their food packs and possibly out of all the vegetarian options in my food packs. We can’t wait that long.

“But Mark,” you say, “don’t you only need the topsoil?” With potatoes that would be true; their root system is shallow. But alfalfa is just the opposite. A mature alfalfa plant sends down roots an average of five meters in depth, and can go twice that far in search of groundwater if necessary. Here in the Hab I can maybe counter for that by providing tons of water at the surface, but in the cave there’s no Hab floor to stop the roots. They’re going to go down as far as we can heat the soil, and they’re going to bring back up whatever they find- including those toxic perchlorates.

So, right this minute, the cave farm idea isn’t looking so hot. I’m sitting down now considering my non-cave farming options.

The Hab floor is already covered with dirt. I don’t want to fill the airlocks, because in case of emergency I might want to use those as secure storage areas. They all have automatic cutoff valves on their air lines in case the Hab ruptures so that whatever air is inside them will stay there. I could repurpose the bunks and worktables for more surface area at two square meters each, give or take, but that would put the ponies out, and anyway I want a clean bed and a clean worktable for myself.

I need at least one rover operating to get me to the Ares IV MAV four years from now, and for safety’s sake I need to keep both intact. Something in one or the other might break, and the only spares I have are two spare wheels with motors. Farming in them is no go, especially since the interiors are about the same as a large van- not more than three square meters each of space.

But each rover has a pop-tent in case of emergencies. The pop-tent is built to automatically deploy from the rover’s airlock in under a second, using the rover’s air to inflate. And once inflated the pop-tent’s interior is a lot roomier than the rover’s interior- with a floor that almost precisely ten square meters in size. So that’s twenty square meters more farmland.

Problem: thanks to Not Invented Here, the rover and pop-tent airlocks aren’t compatible with the Hab airlocks. I should be grateful, though- pop-tents are for emergency use only and are intended to be used only once. I don’t know if it was NASA paranoia or the contractor’s mix of genius and idiocy that made them give the pop-tents their own independent airlocks, but whatever it was, I’m grateful. They’re crappy airlocks- nothing more than two doors and a couple of hand-valves, and they’re inefficient as hell- but they’ll make it possible for me to convert them into food production.

Better yet, they come with separate air valves that are compatible with the Hab’s exterior air links, because NASA absolutely insisted that all hoses, valves and cables be standardized. That means the pop-tents can run on the Hab’s heat- no supplemental heating required. The interior lighting isn’t as good, but I think it’s good enough. Better than nothing, anyway.

The only other thing I have is the MDV. The storm, and the debris from the antenna farm, absolutely wrecked it. One of the landing legs is collapsed, and there’s four separate holes in the hull. And the space inside is tiny anyway. It was made as light as humanly possible and just barely large enough to get six human beings from Mars orbit to the ground safely, with seventy-two hours of life support in case of major problems setting up the HAB or launching the MAV. I could waste half my spare Hab canvas (6 sq. m, for emergency repairs only) re-sealing the MDV, but considering the small interior and the lack of convenient air and heat, it’s not worth it.

All that leaves is the pony ship. The engineering section has that big hole in the deck, and I can’t patch that without removing the entire outer hull in that section. Even then it could blow out at any time. That leaves the flight deck and the mid-deck. I’ll have to measure to be accurate, but call it forty meters of surface area. It has incandescent bulbs and windows for lighting. It can’t be hooked to the Hab’s air or heat, and I don’t know what heater systems it has with its main life support offline. But if it’s the difference between starving and not starving, we’ll make it work somehow.

So- if the pony ship can be made into a second greenhouse, that brings me up to a total of approximately 152 m2 of farmland. The question is: will that be enough? If not, how much time will it buy us? I’ll work on that tomorrow.

For tonight it’s more Partridge Family. Last night Starlight used her magic to ask me where the people were that were laughing now and again. I had to tell her I didn’t know. Then she asked me why they were laughing, and I had to admit I didn’t know that either.

MISSION LOG – SOL 25

Transcript: conversation between Mark Watney and Starlight Glimmer:

STARLIGHT: Good mor-ning, Mark! (note: spell is not active yet- Starlight actually said this in English! She’s picking up more words! And her pronunciation is pretty good!)

WATNEY (trying to say the pony equivalent of “good morning”: Bo-rIIIYYneduh!

STARLIGHT: (rubs head with hoof, then stands on hind legs to put same hoof on my mouth) Don’t. (Note: English again.)

WATNEY: That bad?

STARLIGHT: Yes. Bad-bad. What do morning?

WATNEY: There’s a big problem with turning the cave into a farm. I’m trying to figure out if we can do without it. (Note: This was too much for Starlight, and she turned on the translation magic. I repeated it.)

STARLIGHT (translation): What was problem? Help I possible?

WATNEY: Not unless you can get several tons of perchlorates out of soil.

STARLIGHT: Say word again. (turns off spell)

WATNEY: Per-chlor-ates.

STARLIGHT (reactivates spell): What be by-made-of-green? Why you want? (Note: Starlight said “perchlorates” in English, and the spell tried to translate it anyway, as “by-made-of-green”.)

WATNEY: Don’t want. I want to get rid of ‘em. They’re toxic chemicals. Poisonous.

STARLIGHT: Chemicals? (turns off spell, fetches whiteboard and marker, draws out chemical notation for sucrose- well, symbol-12, symbol-11, symbol-22, so I assume sucrose- a model of a water molecule, and organic molecule chains for butane and ethyl alcohol) Draw! (Note: Starlight’s favorite English word so far.)

WATNEY (signals for spell, waits): Do you know the periodic table?

STARLIGHT: (shuts off spell, spends a couple moments mumbling to herself, then brightens as she works it out) Yes! (draws a very quick and rough outline that mostly matches the normal periodic table, but no details)

WATNEY: (calls up reference app on computer, pulls up periodic table for Starlight’s benefit, then writes “K Cl O4” and draws a potassium perchlorate graph with the potassium ion hanging off the perchlorate molecule; then: “Mg ((Cl O4) X 2)” and a magnesium ion flanked by two perchlorate molecules)

STARLIGHT: (looks at periodic table, at my drawings, scribbles something in her own language at bottom of whiteboard) Yes fix! (Note: again, no translation spell.)

WATNEY: You mean you can fix this?

STARLIGHT: Slow. (another favorite of Starlight’s in the last couple of days)

WATNEY (spacing words out carefully): You-can-fix-this?

STARLIGHT: Can-fix-this. Yes.

WATNEY: You can remove perchlorates from tons of soil?

STARLIGHT: (turns spell back on): Idea I have. Need work time on it. Done be it can, don’t worry!

(Starlight’s looking tired at the point, so I signal to end the conversation.)

I should have asked her about the air problem. That’s almost as urgent, really. I’ll have to carry air in tanks to the cave and release it, and then I’ll have to bring Mars air into the Hab for the oxygenator and atmospheric reclaimer to make breathable.

I have a plan to do that. The MAV spends years on the surface of Mars making its own fuel by combining hydrogen brought from home with carbon from Mars's atmosphere. The fuel plant is in the landing stage, so the crew left it behind when they launched, and it survived the storm intact. That means I have a machine that will compress Martian air into liquid and store it in a tank. If I want oxygen I have to release the air in the Hab and let the oxygenator work on it, but that's doable. The problem is, it’s a slow process, and if we plug the cave and air still leaks out faster than we can bring it in, there’s no point.

But obviously Starlight has a magic solution on her mind. I’ve noticed that her first reaction to any major problem is to whip out the old Box of Sparkly Lights and Shit. I especially noticed that the other day when she accidentally turned a pebble into a bullet and came within twenty degrees of aim of putting a hole in the Hab canvas. I have no clue what kind of “science” she was trying, but I’m glad she didn’t try it twice.

It’s pretty obvious that her crewmates already know about her magic-mania. A lot of their arguments are making a bit more sense in retrospect. The gauge on those batteries barely rises overnight, and I’ve seen myself just how fast that charge can be burned off. Obviously they want her to save the magic for really important things.

“Aw, but all the other unicorns back in Pony-land get to have neato magic all the time!” “We’re not in Pony-land now, are we? Now eat your gruel and get back to scrubbing the dirt!” “Aw, you never let me have any fun…”

Yeah, I know that’s not up to the usual rapier wit you’ve come to expect from intrepid space explorer Mark Watney. The truth is, I’m not in the mood. I just finished crunching some numbers, and the news is even worse than I thought.

A mature stand of alfalfa, under normal proper care, will produce about three and a half short tons of fodder per acre per harvest. The four ponies, being a lot smaller than Earth horses, only require about two pounds of food per day. (I’m counting Dragonfly, even if she almost never eats. How is she not starving? She looks just as energetic and healthy as the day they arrived. Must ask Starlight.) I did the math, and if I don’t allow for any safety margin whatever, 220 square meters would be enough to feed the four of them from one harvest to the next.

Note I said them, and not them plus me. I can’t eat alfalfa. Oh, I could eat the leaves, but not the stems. My gut can’t digest the cellulose. I’m assuming theirs can, and so far none of them has done anything to discourage me on that point. No, for me it’s potatoes, potatoes, and more potatoes, once the food packs run out.

But the thing is, remember yesterday’s math? If we convert everything that will hold air and carry dirt except for our bunks, our tables, the airlocks and the rovers, that only gets us to roughly 152 square meters. That’s not enough even if Dragonfly turns out to be a magic bug that lives off of sunshine and hugs. And even then, that would leave a grand total of no square meters for me to plant potatoes in.

So, what happens if I go the other direction, abandon the alfalfa, and plant nothing but potatoes? Sure, the plants and non-tuber roots are all poisonous, but I’ve seen the ponies shove their noses into mashed potatoes with gravy from my food packs with no problems. (I haven't told them how the gravy is made.) I’m assuming the tubers are safe for them.

With potatoes the math gets worse. Sure, I can cram potato plants on top of one another until there’s more spud than dirt underfoot come harvest time- it’ll destroy the soil after a few harvests, but I can do it. But absolute best case scenario, I figure, is about 2200 potatoes every sixty to seventy days. That’s about 5500 calories per day between harvests, as long as the soil holds out. It would work fine for just me, and maybe all right for three people if we tightened our belts and spent all day in bed.

But 1100 calories per person is sub-survival levels. It’s starvation. And after a week at that level we wouldn’t be strong enough to tend the plants. So that’s no good.

And, by the way, all of these estimates are based on the most optimistic yield. It’s based on the total absence of parasites or diseases and on constant daily attention to the plants. If I can’t convince the alfalfa to grow properly despite the shallow soil, or if the potatoes refuse to grow tubers because the soil’s too crowded, or if any number of other things go wrong, all the numbers I just threw out there go down, not up.

The goal of all this has to be to grow food faster than we can eat it, so we have a reserve when the food runs out or something happens or, eventually, when the soil depletes itself. That’s the biggest long-term problem. The alfalfa will help with that by fixing nitrogen, but it sucks up loads of potassium and phosphorus. The dirt around the Hab has both of those in abundance in the form of billion-year-old volcanic ash, but it’s not an infinite supply. In deep soil, bacterial action will bring some replacement minerals up from below, but the Hab can’t hold deep soil. When this dirt goes dead, we have to have enough food to last us the rest of the way to rescue.

The Hab won’t be enough. Perchlorates or not, we need that cave.

I just noticed something: Dragonfly can do magic, too. I just saw her levitating a marker like Starlight sometimes does. Her magic is green, not light blue like Starlight’s. Weird.

They’ve taken over the privacy curtain by the shit-box and are sketching out diagrams on it. Looks like they’re working on a procedure to remove the cargo airlock from their ship. Obviously they think they can make the cave airtight. Starlight certainly doesn’t seem to think the perchlorates will be a problem.

I just hope they’re right.

Sol 26

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 22
ARES III SOL 26

Cherry Berry shifted the limp space suit on her back and switched on the water spigot, counting to fifteen slowly as the trickle of water poured from the drinking-straw onto the reddish-gray dirt at her hooves. For once things were going smoothly. Everypony was too busy to argue or make trouble, which meant she could focus on her own task and relax.

The next three days had been planned out. Tomorrow would be more soil cultivation, digging up the treated soil and spreading it on top of half the remaining Martian dirt. Everypony would be involved in that. For the next two days, the castaways would split into two teams. She, Mark, and Fireball would spend the two days out at the crash site doing a thorough walk-over of the hill atop the crystal cave, looking for cracks, fault lines, or other hazard that might cause trouble once they began work inside. Starlight Glimmer, Dragonfly and Spitfire would stay at base and carefully disassemble the starboard side of the ship’s hull around the engineering deck, removing its airlock and extracting the emergency electric heaters.

Fireball and Spitfire had wanted to exchange mission assignments, and each had made a good case. Fireball’s strength would be useful in disassembling the ship safely, and Spitfire had experience in exploring and inspecting terrain. But Cherry had held firm. Spitfire absolutely had to be wherever risk of physical injury was greater, and in this case that was the salvage project. And since Starlight and Dragonfly were also both needed for any work on the ship, that left no one to fill Fireball’s spot on the site survey team. Thankfully both accepted the assignments without any further argument.

Now, while Cherry and Fireball applied water to the dirt to prepare it for mixing with the live soil (and even Cherry, who lacked her family’s talent for farming, could sense how horribly sterile the dirt brought in from outside was), Dragonfly and Spitfire thrashed out safety protocols for the salvage operation. Starlight was sketching some sort of magic array on a whiteboard, while Mark carefully inspected the double handful of potatoes he’d had in storage. He’d cut two of the twelve apart already, each into four pieces, and he was planning cuts on the third one with the same expression Cherry had seen Rarity use when working with a particularly expensive and hard-to-find fabric.

She eased herself over a few steps, counted to ten, then depressed the switch to pour more water onto the dead soil. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, off. Several feet away Fireball bent to do the same thing, holding his suit over one scaly arm while using the other to guide the neckhole where the water was wanted. Click, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, click. Cherry nodded her head in approval and began her next spray.

A soft whispery hiss reached her ears. She looked up to see Mark set his knife down very carefully, his already pale face going ash white.

Air leak!

“SUIT UP!” As soon as she shouted the command she shrugged her own space suit off her back, pulling down the zipper so she could slip her hind legs in. She rushed to get her legs in and the suit torso pulled up to where she could slip in her forehooves, re-zip the zipper and close the outer seal over the zipper. She reached for her helmet, which wasn’t next to her… because this isn’t a drill and we’re not on the ship, stupid! she thought.

She looked up from her own work to see the rest of her crew in complete chaos.

Fireball, now in his own suit except for the helmet, was bounding across the dirt floor to the alien spacesuit racks, where the others’s suits and all the helmets lay jumbled in a pile. The other three Amicitas crew were already there, trying to untangle the remaining three suits, passing helmets back and forth, trying to find the right one. (Unlike the alien suits, which all had the same size and design of helmet, the pony space suit helmets weren’t interchangeable. Dragonfly and Starlight required helmets different from Cherry and Spitfire’s to make room for their horns, and Fireball’s long neck and head required a different helmet from any of the others.)

“Keep calm!” Cherry shouted, forcing herself not to gallop as she moved over to the total clusterbuck by the suit racks. “Check the helmet! If it’s not yours, find the person it belongs to! And don’t try to find your own helmet until you have your suit on!”

Almost the moment she arrived, a helmet rolled to her hooves. It was hers. She grabbed it in her forehooves, put it on her head, and seated it in the suit’s locking ring. She reached a hoof to the locking ring tab…

… but the ring wouldn’t engage. As she tugged and twisted the metal ring, she heard something softly crunching in the ring’s threads.

Oh buck oh buck oh buck. “Check your locking rings!” she said, keeping her voice firm and steady. The ship’s in a flat spin, but you can pull out if you keep your head and take the recovery one step at a time.... “Make sure they’re clear of dirt and debris! If there’s some inside, get a buddy to help clear it out!’

Two of the other suits had crud inside the suit neck, and a third had dirt on the neck of the helmet. Starlight and Dragonfly used quick bursts of magic to blow away the dirt, and then finally helmets began going on heads.

“Suit clear!” Fireball reported.

After a burst of magic from Dragonfly, Cherry’s own locking ring engaged, clamping down on the base of the helmet to form an airtight seal. She switched the air feed on with one hoof, taking a sweet breath of Equestria-scented air. “Suit clear!” she said.

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

Cherry did her own rapid visual check- yes, all five of them had their own suits on.

Wait a minute… five?

Turning around carefully, Cherry found Mark watching them with bemusement. At first glance he appeared calm… but Cherry noticed him tapping the work table with the tip of his knife, beating out a most unsteady rhythm.

Anyway, she couldn’t hear that soft hissing anymore through her helmet. “Starlight,” she said, “ask Mark what that sound is.”

Starlight nodded, walking slowly across the dirt to Mark’s worktable. Her helmet and Mark’s head lit up with the usual lights of the translation spell, and the two exchanged words- Starlight’s clearly understood, Mark’s mostly unintelligible.

“What’s that hissing sound? …. What do you mean, not dangerous? … Then why did you turn white when it began? … Say that again, please? … uuuugh… thank you.”

The light ceased, and Starlight flopped on her flank.

“Well?” Cherry asked.

“He says it’s a mild dust storm,” Starlight said. “He says it’s too weak to be dangerous. His house was designed to withstand more. And then some nonsense about rising fissures.”

“So it’s not an air leak?” Cherry asked. Before Starlight answered, she added, “No, don’t ask him again. If it was a leak he would have said so.”

“So, false alarm, then?” Fireball asked.

Cherry gave this a moment’s thought. “No,” she said carefully, “not a false alarm at all.”

“How do you mean?”

Cherry turned her body to face everyone except Starlight. “Look at what just happened,” she said. “It took more than four times as long as it should have for us to get suited! We haven’t been taking care of our equipment, and we haven’t been drilling with it. And if this had been a real emergency, some or all of us might be dead! Remember what happened with the cherry spell a few days ago? If the canvas had breached, would we have been able to get suited in time?”

The room went silent except for the soft crunching of a couple of uncomfortable suit-clad hooves making little gouges in the dirt.

“Starlight,” Cherry continued, “when you feel up to it, talk with Mark. We need a proper place to store our suits when they’re not in use. The bottom of a closet isn’t enough. Dragonfly, you’re in charge of making sure our suits get maintenance. We’ve done multi-day missions before, so you know what to do.”

“Sure thing, boss mare!” Dragonfly said.

“And Spitfire,” Cherry said, “once we have a storage spot for our suits, you’re in charge of safety drills. Work out the new procedure to work with whatever space Mark gives us. You have full authority to call instant drills whenever you like, without warning, however many of us are here, so long as the drill doesn’t interfere with operations.”

Spitfire stood straighter than Cherry could remember her standing since before she was chosen for the mission. One space suit covered foreleg snapped up in a perfect salute. “Yes, ma’am!” she said enthusiastically.

“Right,” Cherry said, returning the salute. “Everypony, suits off. Put your helmets on your bunks for now, until we get our storage space. Suits too, except Fireball and me. Then everypony return to what you were doing.”

“What about me?” Fireball asked, sounding a little put out. “Don’t I get a new job?”

Cherry shook her head. “You had your suit on first,” she said. “Your helmet locking ring didn’t jam. You were prepared, and we weren’t. You don’t need another job.”

“No,” Fireball said flatly. “Maybe I do.” He reached up, twisted open his helmet’s locking ring, and pulled the helmet off. “The only reason my stuff was clean and separate from the others was dragon instinct and luck. My suit is part of my hoard. I didn't actually think about it.” He growled softly to himself before adding, “I don’t trust my instincts. They tell me I’m invincible. This is my third space emergency, and the first two times my instincts made things worse instead of better. I wasn’t good this time,” he finished with a snarl twisting his muzzle, “I was just lucky.”

“We were all lucky,” Cherry said. “Everypony remember that: today we were all lucky. Dismissed.”

Helmets came off, suits were thrown on bunks, and Cherry and Fireball returned to watering the dirt. As Cherry adjusted her suit on her back again, she noticed Fireball staring at her. “Is there something else you wanted?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” Fireball said, the gruffness in his voice mostly gone. “It’s just good to see the steely-eyed missile mare back again.”

Steely-eyed? Cherry thought. Where do they get these roadapples? I thought we were going to die. I panicked and ordered a suit drill without checking with Mark to see if it was a true emergency. And if it had been an emergency, Fireball would have been the only survivor because I haven’t been looking after my crew properly. I was scared out of my bucking mind the whole time, and if I’m angry now it’s because I almost got myself killed.

“Thank you,” she said dully. She forced her knees not to knock, reached a hoof to the suit controls and switched on the water. She focused her rattled mind on the numbers. One, two, three, four, five…

Sol 30

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MISSION LOG – SOL 30

It’s been a very busy few days. The dirt-doubling went smoothly. The seed potatoes are in the ground. The pop-tents are up and connected to Hab air. The MAV’s fuel plant is now sitting next to the Hab, ready to compress Mars air into convenient liquid form whenever I want it. The pony ship has been stripped of most of its outer hull, along with the cargo airlock, some associated wiring, the ship’s main environmental system, four heater units, and a ton of plumbing that I have to assume is its cooling system. Site Epsilon has been thoroughly observed and documented by video (see attachments), and no major faults, sinkholes, etc. were discovered.

Today we’re all taking a day off. The ponies just finished what looked like an emergency suit drill, and it looked a lot more orderly than the total clusterfuck during the Sol 26 dust storm. In fact, they looked like a professional, well-trained, and only occasionally lethally negligent team.

I’ve forgiven them for the ballistic pebble, but I haven’t forgotten. And neither has my subconscious. I had a nightmare last night about Dragonfly and Starlight playing laser tag with their horns and me running around to patch holes in the hab canvas because Fireball had stolen all the suit helmets and buried them in a pile of gold coins.

The ponies are beginning to lose interest in the Partridge Family, since the kids stopped touring and mostly became a garage band. Last night we left off at the episode where Danny does something precocious that lands the rest of the family in trouble. I’m going to try something different today- as far from Shirley Jones and the Moppet Show as Lewis’s terrible taste in entertainment will go. After one episode of the Partridges, of course- the ponies still like the show, and it’s going to be a long four years. Any entertainment resource has to be explored.

But I have to choose something really visual for the next show. Starlight Glimmer told me this morning she won’t be using any magic for the next seven days. No more mind-meld spell. No more conversations in almost-English, except for the words she’s already learned. That’s going to make language lessons tough.

Why the cutoff? Because using Starlight’s horn to cut apart that magic metal they made their ship from has used up their batteries again. And Starlight’s plan to deal with the perchlorates in the cave soil apparently requires a lot of magic- more than she used to lift their ship out of its crash site. So she’s going to focus on conserving energy and pumping her own reserves into the batteries to save up for that.

I used our talky time to focus on water. The soil is beginning to dry back out. We’ve all been too busy with EVAs the last couple days to do anything about watering the place, and we’ve fallen behind. We probably shouldn’t even be taking today off, but it’s been one thing after another for days, and we need a breather. Tomorrow we get right back to it, because in three or four days we have to do another dirt-doubling to get the soil needed to fill the pop-tents. Starlight agreed, so tomorrow is going to be all about watering and turning the dirt.

I feel kind of strange today. This would have been my last full sol on Mars, if the mission hadn’t gone to hell on Sol 6. We’d be loading the MAV with the select soil and rock samples and labeling the rest for some future expedition a hundred years from now to pick up. We’d be talking about rendezvous with Hermes on Mission Day 156 and the two hundred and forty day return flight to Earth. Lewis would be in charge, NASA would be looking over our shoulders on a ten minute time delay, and I would be wrapping up my Mars science, following orders, and having the best time of my life.

Instead I’m getting ready to play movie theater operator (without popcorn) for five aliens who are going to run out of food in another fifty-five sols unless we make a whole lot of miracles happen. And I’m doing science while my guests are doing magic, not because NASA says so, but because we want to still be here when Ares IV arrives on Sol 1412.

It’s a melancholy thing to think about.

I mock Lewis’s taste in entertainment, but given how incredibly silly the descriptions are for these shows, maybe she had the right idea.

I just had a thought. Lewis is apparently obsessed with the 1970s, and Johannsen’s Beatles collection plus the collected works of Agatha Christie make it clear she’s an Anglophile. So why couldn’t they have joined forces and brought to Mars the absolute pinnacle of television entertainment- Doctor Who? It’s 1970s kitsch with a British accent and the kind of horror mixed with optimism that would really get an astronaut out of the space hammock every morning. And the 1970s were the time of Jon Pertwee and Tom friggin’ Baker- the two best Doctors ever who weren’t David Tennant!

Not to mention we could really, really use a TARDIS right now. It wouldn’t even need to be able to fly. I’d just want all that interior space, including the giant wardrobe full of clean clothes and- gasp- individual bedrooms.

Individual bedrooms. Such luxury. I could even forego the swimming pool in the middle of the library.

Okay. Enough moping. We’ve done family, so how about some action that doesn’t require much talking to explain? Dukes of Hazzard it is.

MISSION LOG – SOL 30 (2)

Car jumps, dynamite arrows, and humans acting silly. The ponies are a bit confused, but the bug and the dragon love it- especially the dragon.

I have apparently just changed Fireball’s opinion of my entire species. I’m now his best friend in the entire world. (Okay, there’s only five choices he could have, but still…)

Also, I now know the pony word for “car”. I know because Dragonfly said it, and within a second all four of the other aliens said in the same breath the pony word for “NO”. I don’t regret teaching the ponies how to operate the airlocks, but I don’t think I’ll teach them to drive the rovers any time soon…

Sol 31

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A few tastefully puffy clouds surrounded the bright sun that shone down on the Griffon Sea, Horseshoe Bay, and the long cape that divided the two. That same sun shone down most brilliantly on the complex of glass-walled buildings that stretched across the base of a smaller cape that jutted north from the large one. Five years before the little peninsula had been too modest for even a name… before the space age arrived. Now it was Cape Friendship, home of the Equestrian Space Agency and the crown jewel of Princess Twilight Sparkle’s efforts to advance the boundaries of knowledge for all Equus’s many speaking peoples.

Twilight Sparkle, the founder of the space program, sat at a table in the environmental systems building, going over the plans for the Sparkle Drive yet again. It wasn’t her space program anymore- Moondancer now headed the ESA, just as the changeling Occupant had assumed full control of operations at Horseton. But it had been the ship she’d designed, the engine she’d created, and the spell she’d personally enchanted into the main drive crystal, and so she still felt responsible.

She hadn’t been on the grounds for ten days, because friendship problems and princessly duties waited for no mare, not even the lost crew of Amicitas. But even away from here, she’d spent any time she had alone gnawing at the problem, trying to figure out exactly where she’d gone wrong. And, now that she had a day to spare, it just felt proper to be back on site working hard to solve the problem she’d created.

Her only comfort lay in the knowledge that, wherever they were, the missing astronauts weren’t dead. The moment when the environmental supply system for Amicitas had gone to fail-safe mode had been bad, and the moment when the environmental systems for each of the five space suits had done likewise, all at the same time, even worse. Twilight had wanted to die. Queen Chrysalis, livid at the loss of her changeling and the pony pilot who had made her dreams reality, had been prepared to fulfill her wish. Only Moondancer and Occupant had been able to talk each around into waiting and seeing if the suit systems came back on.

And fifteen hours later, come back on they had, all five of them. When that had happened, Twilight had reactivated Amicitas’s air and water, only for the fail-safe to kick in again almost instantly. And when the suit life support had turned off again on all five suits, they tried the main system a third time, only to see it shut down again. The obvious conclusion was that the crew had found shelter of some kind, but not aboard their own ship… wherever it was.

Wherever they were.

The ship had been tracked by tracking spell and the telepresence spell for its entire flight until, not far from its destination, it had vanished without a trace. The ship hadn’t been destroyed. It hadn’t become invisible. It hadn’t teleported someplace else in one huge bounce. It had simply ceased to exist. Attempts to trace the ship through the life support system had led nowhere- literally so, the traces returning no pings at all. Experiments in using the same connection to re-establish a telepresence connection had been attempted using the space station and a couple of old changeling-built capsules, ending either in failure or in the destruction of the life support crystals on both ends.

Dr. Warner von Brawn at Horseton was already at work designing a rescue ship, to be assembled in orbit using the same sort of infrastructure as the space station. But construction hadn’t even been scheduled… because there was no clue where Amicitas and her crew were or what the conditions were. Were they in orbit or on a planet? Were they alone? Were they free or prisoners? Too much depended on those answers to commit to a ship design that might be useless on arrival.

And, also, before any ship could be launched, the Sparkle Drive had to be fixed. Any rescue ship needed the Sparkle Drive… but not if the Drive would strand the rescue party just like the crew of Amicitas.

“Oh! Excuse me, princess!”

Twilight looked up. A pony she didn’t know, a young earth pony with a cutie mark of what looked like a blotch of some sort of runny liquid, had entered the otherwise empty room, a coffee cup held in one forehoof. Though more expressive than Maude Pie, the newcomer didn’t seem prepared to win any awards for Equestria’s Funniest Face. “Good morning!” she said. “Please don’t mind me, I’m just working.”

“It’s one in the afternoon,” the earth pony said, looking a bit concerned at the purple princess. “How long have you been in here? And where’s Hall Monitor?”

“I told her she could go home for the day,” Twilight said. “I’ll talk with Moondancer about it before I go home… er… I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Drying Paint,” the pony replied. “I was hired two weeks ago to watch this room.”

“Oh,” Twilight Sparkle said. “Er, have you had any experience in space flight before?”

“No,” Drying Paint admitted. “My previous job was as line judge for professional snail racing. Before that I was a telegraph operator. Before that I was a volunteer for the Thaum Decay Observation Project.”

“The what?” Twilight asked. “But thaums don’t decay.”

“Professor G. Steven Hawk said they do, only very slowly,” Drying Paint said. “So slowly that the universe isn’t old enough for one to have decayed yet. But he’s sure that, any day now, one will, and he’ll be there to observe it.”

“Riiiiight,” Twilight said. “Well, er, just get on with whatever you were doing.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Drying Paint pushed a metal chair up to the table across from the bank of readouts for every environmental support spell currently in use, got up on it, folded her forehooves together on the tabletop, and stared off into space.

Twilight tried to return to her work, but the other pony’s presence distracted her. After about three minutes of failing to read her own notes she looked up to see Paint in exactly the same position. Four minutes after that she looked up again to find the earth pony unmoved and unmoving. She stared at her for two straight minutes before Paint blinked once.

“So,” Twilight said, struggling to find something to say to break an awkward silence, “enjoying the job?”

Paint shrugged almost imperceptibly. “It’s a living,” she said.


AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 28
ARES III SOL 31

“So,” Dragonfly asked Cherry Berry, “what do you think is the deal with humans and clothes?”

“What do you mean?” Cherry asked, switching off her suit’s water feed.

Dragonfly switched her own suit’s water feed on, releasing a stream that turned to large drops before slowly splattering onto the cultivated Martian dirt. “You notice that when Mark takes a shower- which he does a lot less these days- he always undresses and dresses behind the curtain?” She switched her valve off again.

“No, I haven’t noticed,” Cherry Berry replied in a tone that added the unspoken words or cared. She turned her own suit’s water back on, tapping the seconds off with her hoof.

“And that you never see humans without clothes in those movies Mark shows on his computer?”Dragonfly asked. She switched her water back on. “Granted, that ‘Daisy’ human came pretty close once. If she’d been a pony, you would have been able to see her cutie mark.” She switched the water back off.

Cherry Berry, who had switched her water off midway through Dragonfly’s musings on Daisy Duke’s wardrobe, switched her water back on. “I really haven’t given it any thought,” she insisted. “It just doesn’t seem all that important to me.” She switched the water off and took a couple of steps to the next patch of soil that needed water.

Dragonfly switched her water back on and followed, leaving a trail of spatters behind her. “What I’m thinking is, ponies have fur, right? But Mark doesn’t seem to have any except on his head and face. Maybe he’s ashamed.”

“Dragonfly, your water,” Cherry Berry warned.

“Maybe humans see all the other mammals,” Dragonfly continued, too caught up in her idea to hear the warning, “and think, ‘I must hide my shame, so the other animals never know-‘”

“DRAGONFLY!” Cherry Berry shouted. “Your WATER!”

Dragonfly blinked. “What about my-“

The dribble from Dragonfly’s drinking straw ceased. The lights on her life support system went out.

“-water?” Dragonfly finished, looking down at her suit. “Um… uh oh,” she said. She frantically flicked the switch back and forth, stomach sinking to new depths with every click.

Please tell me you just switched it off.” Cherry Berry said.

“What’s going on?” Spitfire asked, adding, “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,” before switching off her own suit’s water.

“I think…” Dragonfly gulped. “I think I just bucked up… I think I just-“


Twilight Sparkle looked up from her notes. Two of the Amicitas crew suit readouts had lit up- but only the water feed. The air feed remained inactive. For what seemed like a very long time the two water lights remained lit. Then, just as a third water light lit up without its corresponding air light, the first two switched off. “What’s that?” she asked. “Are they really thirsty for some reason?”

“It does that sometimes,” Drying Paint said, not moving her head. “It goes away after a couple of hours.”

“But didn’t you report this to anyone?” Twilight Sparkle insisted.

“I wasn’t hired to report,” Drying Paint said. “I was hired to watch.”

Twilight Sparkle’s jaw dropped. “But… but don’t you ever tell anypony what you see?”

“Of course I do,” Drying Paint said. “Moondancer comes at the end of every shift and asks us what we’ve seen. For example, today I would say that Spitfire, Cherry Berry, Dragonfly and Fireball all took multiple drinks of water averaging twelve seconds per drink every half minute or so for… if it goes like it usually does, about two hours.” She pointed a hoof to another set of lights and said, “I would also tell her that Leonid took normal sips of water five times between 1 PM and 3 PM during his spacewalk and that Rainbow Dash’s respiration suggests she took a nap in her capsule from about 2:15 to 2:40 PM. And-“

“I get the point!” Twilight said hurriedly. “But these lights aren’t normal, are they?”

Drying Paint’s hooves returned to their folded position on the tabletop. “They’re not abnormal.”

Twilight groaned, settling back to her own work. She could go chase down Moondancer and ask for an explanation, but it wouldn’t do much good and it would waste Moondancer’s time. Besides, Paint was probably correct. The water drinking was certainly strange, but by itself it didn’t mean-

A buzzer sounded on the board of lights- the buzzer indicating that the life support spell’s fail-safe had kicked in and shut the valves leading to the transport crystals. A large red light lit up on one of Amicitas’s suit life support indicators.

“Oops,” Drying Paint said. “That’s never happened before. Looks like Dragonfly got a bit too thirsty.”

“Wait a minute,” Twilight mumbled, “Changelings almost never get thirsty.”

“Probably just a careless slip.” The earth pony left her perch on her chair and walked over to the control board, tapping the switches to reset Dragonfly’s light support. The air and water lights flickered on; the air shut off, and after a couple of seconds, so did the water. The alarm didn’t come back on.

“Back to normal,” Drying Paint said, returning to her post.


“-bucked up big time,” Dragonfly said as water suddenly spattered on her forehooves.

Cherry Berry released a huge sigh of relief as the changeling scrambled to turn her suit’s water back off. “I can’t believe how lucky you are sometimes!” she snapped. “You be more careful!”

“In fact,” Spitfire added, “why don’t you go show Mark how to work your suit?” The alien had been walking around the dirt-covered floor with a small sample box full of water, slowly adding water and kneading it into the surface with his fingers. “If you can’t use it responsibly-“

“It shouldn’t have come back on,” Dragonfly said, looking at her suit.

“What?”

Dragonfly pointed to her suit. “My suit life support shouldn’t have come back on,” she insisted. “So far as anypony back home knows, when a suit’s fail-safe trips, it means a dead astronaut. And anyway, all the main crystals are run from the same building in Baltimare. They’re so reliable nopony bothers to watch them any more. So the suit shouldn’t… have… unless…” Pale blue eyes widened, and perforated wings buzzed under the loose space suit fabric.

“Unless what?” Cherry asked.

“Shut up,” Dragonfly said. “Gotta think a bit.” She’d had the training, hadn’t she? Working with Occupant, working at Cherry’s Rocket Parts and Odd Jobs, training to control all the unmared probes and satellites launched by the Changeling Space Agency… but she hadn’t used it in months. Usually some other changeling or pony had their hoof on the key… but…

Keep it short. Keep it very short. What was the most important message she could send, if she could send a message? And how few letters could she make it? ALL SAFE SEND HELP? NOT DEAD YET? PLZ SND MOR SNAX?

Her eyes lit on the Amicitas’s main environmental system, the coupling for the water system and the mount for the ventilation system both disconnected, leaving a simple box with a few switches and lights on its front. She trotted over and switched the feed modes from automatic to manual and switched the manual water switch on.

Yes. Perfect.

She trotted back over to the dirt and said, “This is important. Real important. Listen to my rhythm and copy it exactly, okay? Everyling copy it exactly!” She held her suit carefully over the dirt, put her hoof on the suit’s water switch, and began switching it on and off in a rapid but careful rhythm.

Dash dot dot dash dot dot dot dash dot…


“It’s doing it again!” Twilight Sparkle shouted. “And it’s even weirder this time!”

Dragonfly’s water light was now pulsing in an irregular manner. The flickering on and off almost seemed to have a rhythm, but the only thing Twilight made of it was that something was making the water feed stutter in a way that ought to be impossible.

“There’s no explanation for this!” the princess shouted. “Miss Paint, please go get Moondancer right now!”

“I’m watching the board,” Drying Paint replied, not moving a muscle.

“This is an order from your- now another one’s doing it!!” Twilight pointed to Cherry Berry’s water light, which matched the rhythm of Dragonfly’s light for a few beats, then stopped. “Will you please go get Moondancer?!”

“I am watching the board,” Drying Paint insisted, as Cherry Berry’s light began to match Dragonfly’s pulsing again, this time joined by Spitfire’s. Spitfire’s light dropped out after a few pulses, but Fireball’s light took its place, and it never stopped, matching Dragonfly’s pulse for pulse.

A few seconds later, four of the five Amicitas suits were pulsing the same irregular beat in perfect synchronization.

“If you don’t go get Moondancer, I will!” Twilight insisted. “She needs to know this right now! What do you have to say to that?”

“I,” Drying Paint said. “N. W. A. T.”

“What? You’re not allowed to go crazy now!” Twilight Sparkle shouted, her wings flapping with her agitation. “Give me a straight answer!”

“U. R. N. T. H. E.” Drying Paint swallowed, pointing to the lights, and added quickly, “Writeitdown N. W. A. T. E.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Mare’s code,” she gasped. She knew Mare’s code, but she’d never seen it used with lights- only with telegraph or radio. She scrambled for her notes and a pencil, grabbing both with her magic as she said, “Keep calling out the letters! And you just got yourself lifetime employment by the crown!”

Drying Paint read off letters, and Twilight wrote them down until they repeated, then continued writing them down until they repeated again.

TURNTHEMAINWATERON

“Turn the main water on,” Twilight gasped. “Turn the main water on!!”

Sighing, Drying Paint began to leave her chair.

“No!” Twilight shouted, running for the large panel that represented Amicitas’s life support. “I’ve got it! You just keep watching!”

“That’s my job,” Paint said simply.


“How much longer do we have to do this?” Fireball grumbled, keeping his on-off switch in rhythm with the dots and dashes of the rest.

“Just keep going!” Dragonfly shouted. “Somepony’s watching! Somepony has to be watching! We just have to wait for them to figure-“

The lights on Amicitas’s life support pack came on, and a blast of water erupted from the hose nozzle on the front, spraying water halfway across the Hab. Mark, startled, ran to a cabinet to get a bin to catch the water, only to come to a stumbling halt as the water shut off as quickly as it had begun.

“They heard us,” Dragonfly gasped.

Starlight, who had been lying in her bunk napping to conserve energy, jumped out and walked over. “What was that splashing?” she asked.

“They heard us!!” Dragonfly cheered.

“They heard us!!!” Fireball roared.

“They heard us,” Cherry Berry sighed, falling to her knees, then on her rump, on the wet dirt.

The main water activated again, sending another blast of water, then another, then burst after burst of water in short staccato splashes. Mark maneuvered a drawer from one of the Hab cabinets under the falling water, then ran to get a second basin for when the first filled up.

“E-S-A-F-5-4… D-E… B-L-M-E-S-A… K,” Dragonfly said, calling out the letters one at a time. As the rhythm of splashes began to repeat, she said, “Cape Friendship calling ESA Flight Fifty-Four, that’s us!”

A universe away, Twilight Sparkle wrote down letters and numbers as Drying Paint called them out, the latter’s eyes locked on Dragonfly’s water light.

BLM-ESA DE ESA-F54 K

“Yes! Yes Yes YES!!” Twilight Sparkle cheered. “We have communication! They’re TALKING TO US!!” With a surge of magic power she launched a spell bolt through the room’s sole window, smashing its glass out in the process, and causing a flare to light up Cape Friendship like a second sun.

“That’ll get Moondancer here!” she said. “Now to find out what’s going on!”

MISSION LOG – SOL 31

Well, now I’ve seen everything- a musical number featuring three ponies, a horse-bug-thing, a dragon, and the most water I’ve ever seen wasted since Lewis treated us all to a day at Schlitterbahn.

I only caught part of it on camera. Whatever they were doing caused their ship’s main life support system to reactivate, and it was splashing water everywhere- more water in one spot than I wanted. I want moist soil in the Hab, not mud, and I definitely don’t want my nice new topsoil washing itself through the access panels into the delicate electronics of all the machines that keep me from dying a frozen airless death on this planet. But I did catch some of the dancing and singing and, above all, the united rhythm of all five aliens splashing water out of their suits all over the place. Video file attached.

Even Fireball was smiling and laughing. He was even laughing harder than he had when Roscoe put that police cruiser into the pond for the third time in the same episode- and that’s saying something. The dragon really likes his car wrecks.

They’re still celebrating. The waterworks ended with a long series of sputtering splashes from their ship’s water supply. I caught most of that and fed it to the water reclaimer. Before long I’m going to have to improvise a cistern- the main water tanks are virtually full, despite all the water we’ve put into this soil.

But hey- fourth world problems!

Just a minute- Starlight is finally coming over to me. She said she wasn’t going to use her translation spell. I wonder if she’s going to change her mind, or if she’s going to use what little English she has.

MISSION LOG – SOL 31 (2)

Transcript of conversation between Starlight Glimmer and Mark Watney (note: all in English- no translation provided)

STARLIGHT: Mark! We talk home!

WATNEY: You talk home? Your home? You talked with your home world?

STARLIGHT: Yes! Dah dah dah talk! Home knows!

WATNEY: They know you’re alive?

STARLIGHT: Alive! Yes! Home knows alive! Good! Good-good!

WATNEY: That’s wonderful!

STARLIGHT: What word “rundafla”?

WATNEY: Won-der-ful, it means… it means good-GOOD-good!

STARLIGHT: Run-da-fool…

WATNEY (feeling a bit of a killjoy here): ONE-DUUUR-FULLLLL. Wonderful. Talking with home is wonderful!

STARLIGHT: Yes! Wonderful-wonderful talk home!

WATNEY: What did they say?

STARLIGHT (shrugs): Say “how is.” We say how. Talk again day.

WATNEY: That’s it?

STARLIGHT: Bad. (gestures to the churned-up soil)

WATNEY (decides now is not the time for more language lessons): OK, I gotcha. Tell me when next talk.

STARLIGHT: Okay!

Well, shit. They turned their water supply into a telegraph. It’s a very messy and inconvenient telegraph, but it’s something.

They spoke with their home world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m stoked as all hell for them, but I am so fucking jealous right now. Some of us haven’t got magic plumbing that connects us to Venkat Kapoor’s private executive john.

Hell, even if I did, I don’t know Morse code. We had a lot of totally useless survival exercises and training, more for team building than for the extremely tiny chance our landing shuttle came down in the jungles or the Sahara. Unfortunately learning Morse code isn’t much of a bonding experience.

Time to remedy that. Let’s look through the useful information NASA packed along with me to see if there’s a Morse chart…

… yes! Yes, there is, under Emergency Communications Protocols! Thank you, legacy info from seventy years ago! I’ll never make fun of NASA’s ossified bureaucracy ever again!

Now, how do I use it? Radio’s busted, so unless the ponies have something I can repurpose, that’s out. This communication is going to be one-way. I have to focus on something NASA can’t help but receive.

Rocks. There are quite literally tons of rocks out on the surface. And there’s tons more around the edges of Site Epsilon’s slopes. I can spell out dots and dashes with those, and it’ll be a lot easier to read from orbit than Roman letters. Come to think of it, why didn’t I try Roman letters before? “SOS SEND FOOD AND HAY” wouldn’t have been that hard.

Yeah. This is a plan. I’ll make the same message twice- once north of the Hab and once just west of Site Epsilon. A satellite has to catch it at some point.

Now I just have to plan my message. Keep it short, use the texting 1337 5kllz I learned when I was eight. It’ll still take a lot of rocks to be visible from orbit.

But still… a message home! Damn, what a great idea!

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

(note: all standard telegraphy / Mares Code shortcuts and abbreviations translated)

ESA: Amicitas, Baltimare calling, over.

AMICITAS: Baltimare, Amicitas calling, over.

ESA: Status, over.

AMICITAS: Five crew landed safe. Ship wrecked. Hostile planet- no breathable air. At surface base with one alien, also marooned. Rationing food. Alien sharing food, attempting to grow more. Need rescue. Water is messy, will contact again after 24 hours. Over.

ESA: Copied. Stay safe. Out.

Sol 32

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Music crept slowly into the brain of Venkat Kapoor. He rolled over in bed and put a pillow over his head to shut it out. The pillow failed to block his wife’s elbow in his ribs. Prodded into full wakefulness by spouse and ring-tone, he reluctantly pulled himself out of bed and groped for his phone. “Hello?”

“Dr. Kapoor? This is Mindy Park.”

“Is it PM or AM?” Venkat asked drowsily.

“I don’t know. I’m living on Mars time now,” Mindy said. “It’s mid-morning there. But the latest Mars satellite pics show Watney doing something weird. You’d better come in and see.”

Had Venkat been twenty years younger, the sleepiness would have fled instantly. But middle-aged scientists and high-level bureaucrats found sleep hard enough to come by even when the job wasn’t devouring them. “I’ll… be there shortly,” he said around a yawn. “But what can you tell me?”

“He’s rearranging the solar farm,” Mindy said. “He’s made a giant letter M so far. And the aliens are gathering rocks and piling them up just north of the solar panels.”

It wasn’t coffee, but the news made a decent substitute. “Keep everything you’ve got focused on the Hab,” he said. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”



Teddy flipped through the printed photographs, removing them from the paperclip one at a time and sliding each to the back of the stack as he looked at them. “Morse code,” he said. “Clever.” He made a face as he looked at the last panel. “Leet-speak? I thought we were done with that in the twenty-oughts. I always hated that garbage.”

“It does save on characters,” Mindy said quietly. “Um. And it takes a lot of rocks to make a message readable from space, even with maximum magnification and image enhancement.”

’Alive Sol 32. Hit by antenna. Freak accident. Not crew’s fault. Better. Rations end Sol 307. Five aliens, food ends Sol 85, Sol 118 with Ares rations. Growing more.'” Teddy looked up from the page. “Sounds pretty bleak for the aliens.”

“Couldn’t he have told us more?” Annie asked. “We already knew all that shit except for the alien food situation.”

“It took him seven hours to lay that message out,” Venkat pointed out. “After he spent an hour moving the Hab solar cells to spell out MORSE. And he had help doing it.”

“And it took almost every rock within two hundred meters of the Hab to make,” Mindy added.

“Well, shit,” Annie snorted. “When will he make another message?”

“He probably won’t,” Venkat said. “He has no way of knowing when we see his message. He doesn’t even know we’re looking.”

“How can he not know?” Annie asked. “Of course we’re fucking looking! Who wouldn’t be fucking looking?”

“Ahem.” Teddy raised his hand. “Annie, if not for the aliens we wouldn’t have been looking. That was my decision and I own it, and I’m glad it wasn’t carried out. But Venkat’s right. Watney has no way of knowing that we’re watching him.” He tapped the paper in his hand. “But I’m most interested in the last two words. ‘Growing more.’ What do you think that means, Venk?”

Venkat shrugged. “I think it means he’s attempting to grow more food,” he said simply. “He’s a botanist. Before he applied to the astronaut corps he was doing field work in Africa reclaiming deserts.”

“It’s one of the reasons we accepted his application,” added Mitch Henderson from where he slumped in a chair.

“Do you think he can do it?” Teddy asked.

“I haven’t a clue,” Venkat said firmly, “but it doesn’t matter what I think. Watney thinks he can.”

“How would he go about doing it?” Teddy asked.

Venkat shrugged. “I can call in some experts if you like,” he said. “My guess is he’d take every container in the Hab, harvest water from the Martian permafrost, and try to build a hydroponic garden.”

“Um,” Mindy interrupted. “I don’t think that’s it. Remember all the EVAs Mark and the aliens did? We couldn’t figure out what they were doing? But they kept going to and from the airlocks. Maybe they were gathering topsoil.”

“That can’t be right,” Venkat said, shaking his head. “Martian soil is poisonous, and anyway the Hab’s not big enough for conventional agriculture.”

“Get in those experts,” Teddy said. “Have them check both scenarios. Ask them if Watney could get enough clean water for a hydroponic garden and if the Hab has enough materials to build one. Ask if Martian soil could grow crops, what Watney would need to do to make it work, and if the Hab could grow enough crops for six people.”

“Will do,” Venkat said, making a note.

Teddy turned to the speakerphone. “Bruce, how soon can we send a resupply mission to Mark?”

“Not soon,” the voice of Bruce Ng, chief of Jet Propulsion Laboratories, replied. “We’ve run rough scenarios ranging from a launch today through the next Hohmann window in twenty-one months. Right now is the worst possible time to send anything to Mars. It’d take four times the usual delta-V from Earth orbit to reach Mars, and nothing we send for the next four or five months will get there any sooner than maybe Sol 570.”

“Talk me through it,” Teddy insisted.

“Right now Earth is ahead of Mars in their orbits around the Sun,” Bruce said. “A direct flight would require cancelling Earth’s orbital momentum and offsetting solar gravity in addition to the acceleration required to reach Mars. Nothing mankind has ever built could do that. So instead whatever we launch has to go up like a mortar, way above Mars’s orbital path, to allow Mars time to catch up in its orbit. The probe would then encounter Mars on its path back down towards the Sun.”

“What are the numbers if we do that?” Teddy asked.

“Still lousy, but doable at least,” Bruce replied. “Launching today, like I said, would take four times the delta-V from orbit that our supply missions usually use. The heaviest lifter we currently have available is the Eagle Eye 3 probe’s booster. Launching today, it could land a three hundred kilogram payload on Mars.” The speakerphone went silent for a moment as Bruce paused for breath. “Note that’s not three hundred kilograms of food. That’s three hundred kilograms of food, the thing the food rides in, and the landing system that gets the food down intact and on target.

“The delta-V numbers improve with every day that passes, because we have to cancel out less and less of the Sun’s gravity on the trajectory. By the time we could actually launch- say in one hundred days- the potential payload goes up to nine hundred kilograms. Again,” Bruce’s voice warned, “that’s probe and food put together.

“But the really bad part,” Bruce finished, “is that the trajectories all end up with an arrival date somewhere between Sol 570 and Sol 610. Nothing we do with Eagle Eye will make that any faster.”

“Keep working the problem,” Teddy said. “If necessary plan for a double resupply mission. We’ll find another booster somewhere. But we need to find some way to get more food to him as soon as possible.”

“It’d help if I knew how large a resupply we were sending,” Bruce pointed out.

“That’s something that confuses me about Watney’s message,” Venkat added. “He says he has food for three hundred days. We already figured that by himself, if he rationed his food, he could last until Sol 400. But he also says that the aliens will run out of food on Sol 85, and then he says ‘Sol 118 with Ares rations.’ But the math doesn’t work. There must be some reason why the aliens only last until Sol 118 but Watney lasts until Sol 300.”

“Maybe ET has a food allergy,” Annie tossed off irritably.

“That’s a good idea,” Teddy said.

“The fuck you say!” Annie snapped. “It was a joke!”

“I’m serious,” Teddy said. “Maybe there’s only a few Earth foods the aliens can eat. Venk, have the Ares dietician go through the surface supplies for Ares III and categorize all the meals for known allergens and by general food type. You’re looking for something that makes three-quarters of the Ares meal packs unsuitable for aliens.”

Venkat made another note and kept quiet. He’d intended to do that anyway, but it never hurt to get your boss’s backing. It especially didn’t hurt when things played out so that the boss thought it was his idea.

“But getting back to the food,” Teddy continued. “The best analysis we have of orbital photos of Watney’s guests suggests that they have similar mass to humans. So assume similar food requirements. Six people, enough food to last until supplies can arrive in the next normal Mars launch window.”

“That’d be Sol 856,” Bruce said. “Let’s assume the probe arrives on Sol 556, I don’t know how. Three hundred fifty days of rations to provide a margin, for six people, at one kilogram per day, is twenty-one hundred kilograms.” The phone just barely picked up the JPL chief whistling through his teeth. “Eagle Eye 3’s Delta IX isn’t going to cut it. How soon can we get SpaceX to prep a Red Falcon first stage?”

“I’ll ask, but don’t get your hopes up,” Teddy said. “When I spoke with them last they were still backlogged on preparing for Ares IV presupply flights.” He paused, then flipped the last page in his hands and replaced the paperclip exactly as it had been when he’d received the photos, setting them down neatly on one corner of his desk blotter. “Speaking of Ares IV, there’s been a change in plans. The president has decided we’re not going to wait for Ares IV to rescue Mark Watney. The chance to make formal diplomatic contact with intelligent alien life makes the rescue mission urgent, assuming an alien rescue mission doesn't happen soon.”

“Excuse me?” Bruce Ng asked. “Does the president think we’re going to just drive there?”

“No. He expects us to take Hermes.” Teddy placed his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Hermes will dock with the space station for refit in seven months. The next Hermes launch window is in twenty-one months. That gives us fourteen months to refit Hermes to support a crew of nine instead of six.”

“And how does he propose Watney and his friends get to Hermes?” Venkat asked. “The Ares III MAV is currently relaying satellite signals four hundred kilometers over his head.”

“Worst case scenario, he travels to Schiaparelli and uses the Ares IV MAV,” Teddy said. “Ares III-A can take a MAV to Mars to replace it, instead of an MDV. Alternately, if we can contact Watney, maybe he can use the Ares III MAV’s fuel plant to make enough fuel that a MAV can be landed at Ares III, fueled immediately, and launch.”

“I’ll try to find someone to run the numbers on that scenario,” Bruce said doubtfully.

“Don’t let it distract you from our top priority. Supplies for Watney first. Then rescue.” He turned to Mitch Henderson, who had kept unnaturally quiet for most of the meeting. “Mitch, I want you to pick a three-man flight crew for an Ares III-A mission. They won’t be landing, so we don’t need more crew. A pilot, a doctor, and a biologist. The most diplomatic astronauts we have- remember they’ll be dealing with intelligent alien life.”

“They’ll be dealing,” Mitch grunted, “with intelligent alien life that’s spent more than two years living with Mark Watney.”

“Good point,” Venkat said. “Better send a psychologist instead of a biologist.”

Everyone laughed except Teddy, who merely made a note on his blotter.

Sighing, Venkat doodled on his own notepad. “Hermes was built to last a minimum of five missions,” he said. “With regular refits it’s rated for thirty years. And its life support margins are broad enough that the only issue with nine crew would be crowding. It’s doable.”

“Why not just send the Ares-III crew back out again?” Henderson asked. “Lewis, Martinez and Beck, anyway. They have extra motivation to see Watney home safe.”

Teddy shook his head. “When they get home they’ll have been in space a year,” he said. “They need rest and recovery time, not training for a new mission as soon as they touch down. Better a fresh crew. And besides,” he added, leaning on his desk again, “every astronaut in the world already has all the motivation anyone can ask for to bring Watney home.”

Every head nodded agreement with that.

TRANSCRIPT – WATER TELEGRAPH EXCHANGE, ESA BALTIMARE and ESA SHIP AMICITAS, AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE MISSION DAY 29

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas. You’re early, over.

AMICITAS: Ready for large amounts of water, over.

ESA: Detailed description of flight and landing. Include any conclusions you have formed. Over.

AMICITAS: SG - Flight normal until mid-morning day 2. System fail-safe shutdown accompanied by shattering of all main engine batteries. Only two emergency magic batteries survived. All locally magic-powered systems shut down due to lack of environmental magic. Performed controlled crash forty minutes later using magic reserves in emergency batteries and thruster batteries. Conclusion: unexpected teleport into parallel world without universal magic field. Over.

ESA: Repeat no universal magic field? Over.

AMICITAS: SG- Confirmed. Only source of magic here is life-field. Currently only life on this planet is Amicitas crew, one alien, few plants. Over.

ESA: Understood. Time check your location? Over.

AMICITAS: DF – One hour before noon local time. Planet’s day longer than normal. Over.

ESA: Copied. Prepare for long message tomorrow beginning twenty-one hours from now. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Will empty the buckets for you. Out.

Sol 33

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 30
ARES III SOL 33

As a Wonderbolt and a trainer of Wonderbolts, Spitfire had had basic field medic training, though admittedly most of it ended with “get a real doctor as soon as you can”. She’d had a compressed three-week course after she’d been picked for ESA Flight 54, which became the third flight of ESA Amicitas. And these days she spent at least two hours every day swotting up on the contents of her medical textbook, which now had over thirty pieces of the alien’s small supply of transparent tape holding together the brittle pages.

But none of that limited training included one word about what to do with a unicorn who had clearly cracked up.

She watched as Starlight Glimmer spent her tenth consecutive minute banging her head into one of Mark’s storage cabinets. She’d already decided to put Starlight to bed and break open the aspirin bottle once the unicorn wore herself out or knocked herself out- and Spitfire would have taken either end of a bet as to which it would be.

On a whiteboard nearby lay the transcription of a message long enough that Mark had been forced to pull one of his ex-crewmates’ space suits off the rack and begin dumping excess water into it. (Needless to say, the Hab’s soil needed no further watering this day.)

REF S DRV SPECS SHOWS DIM LMTR MSSNG FRM S DRV TPT SP ARRAY. REF YR RPT INCDT HYPOS OBJ AVOID PARAM TRIPPED RSLT UNTRCEBLE 5D JUMP & NOVEL PWR SURGE TO FUEL JUMP. SURGE OVRLD BATT, ATT MORE PWR DRAW COMP, NOVEL MG VACUUM RSLT FAIL CASCADE MN PWR. FAILSAFE FAIL DUE TO NOVEL UNANTCP COND. TRACE OF ENV SYS SP INCONCLUSIVE DUE TO LOW SIGNAL, NOVEL VECTOR. PREP 2ND MSG PROCED CYCLE TELP SP. CT WHN RDY.

Starlight Glimmer had gone straight to the ship manuals after hearing the message, tearing two freeze-dried pages in her rush to look up the Sparkle Drive spell array. Once she did, she dropped the book and began her percussive psychological self-analysis, leaving Dragonfly to translate from geek-speak and abbreviation into proper Equestrian.

Apparently the Sparkle Drive had tried to move out of the way of some unseen object in its path. By some oversight the spell hadn’t been limited to travel in three dimensions, so it made a small five-dimensional jump. That jump soaked up far more energy than normal, essentially draining the engine’s array of over a hundred magic batteries. The batteries, suddenly starved for power, tried to compensate by drawing more power from the universal field. But here, in this universe, there was no such field, and the strain of trying to draw energy from a vacuum, added to the Sparkle Drive’s load on the system, had caused at least one battery to shatter.

With one battery down, the load increased on all the others, and like crystal dominoes they disintegrated in a chain reaction. The fail-safes which should have shut everything down in case of a failure cascade hadn’t worked because they, too, relied on a universal magic field for power. Only the two emergency batteries, being disconnected from the main circuit, had survived.

And now Baltimare waited on them to reply so they could send instructions that might- just might- result in re-establishing the telepresence spell and proper, non-soggy communications.

Mark wandered over, looking with concern at Starlight. “Whut sarong whicker?” he said. Of course it would be their self-designated translator who went nuts first, Spitfire thought. But the first word was probably what.

Du bahd,” Dragonfly replied. When Mark made a more-please roll of his hand, the changeling added, “Du Roscoe.”

Dihpstix,” Fireball added.

Mark thought about this a moment, then screwed up his face so his eyes were crossed and the teeth in his upper jaw jutted out. He pointed to his face, then to Starlight. When Dragonfly nodded, Mark sighed, reached over and picked up Starlight and carried her to her bunk, repeating, “Hiss alight, hiss alight…” in a gentle voice.

The others let out their breath. “Well, that’s solved,” Cherry Berry said. “Spitfire, what would you have done?”

Spitfire shrugged. “I’m no shrink. If she were a pegasus, I would have told her to take two laps of the obstacle course and hit the showers.” Actually she would have relieved her of duty and called a psychiatrist in to determine if she should be washed out of the program. In short, she would have hoofed the problem over to somepony else as fast as possible. Which, to be honest, was what she’d just done.

“She’s not crazy,” Dragonfly said. “But she is really ashamed of herself. I think she blames herself for our being here.”

“Yeah, she should,” Fireball growled. When the other three stared at him, he added, “What? It’s true!”

“Not helpful,” Cherry Berry insisted. “Now go get some more of those plastic bins. We’re wasting Twilight Sparkle’s time here.”

Spitfire went to tend to Starlight, who was now babbling something to herself about seeking efficiencies and reduced thaumic churn. She hated being here. She hated being so useless. She hated being so helpless.

Fluttershy should be here, she thought. Fluttershy would have Starlight Glimmer back on her hooves in minutes. Fluttershy would be able to talk to Mark directly. Fluttershy would have the training for her position and the experience to be on an equal level with the others. I’m just a waste of food here.

Then she had a second thought. No, Fluttershy shouldn’t be here. How would she deal with being away from her animals for a month? And how would they cope without her? At least the Wonderbolts are in good hooves back home.

Then a third thought: None of us should be here. Mark ought to be on his way home, and we ought to be getting our third tickertape parade as the heroes who first orbited Bucephalous. And it’s nopony’s fault that we are. This situation is just bucked up, is all.

But I still hate being so helpless.

Maybe, she thought, having Cherry Berry in charge instead of me is a good thing.

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

(note: all standard telegraphy / Mares Code shortcuts and abbreviations translated)

AMICITAS: Procedures copied for communications experiment Alpha, experiment Beta, experiment Gamma. Alpha not possible at this time due to conservation of battery power for food production procedure estimated four days from now. Over.

ESA: Understood. Prepare for experiments Beta and Gamma in twenty hours time. Over.

AMICITAS: Negative. First available time for tests three days from now due to food production procedures. Over.

ESA: Explain nature of food production procedures. Over.

AMICITAS: You really don’t want to know. Over.

ESA: Fine. Will expect contact sixty hours from now. Over.

AMICITAS: Copy contact sixty hours, out.

Sol 36

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 33

ARES III SOL 36

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

(note: all standard telegraphy / Mares Code shortcuts and abbreviations translated)

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: DF – go for communications experiment Beta. Over.

ESA: Copy go for comm Beta. Stand by. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – dragonfire spell collapsed this side of air transfer system, leaving small pile of soot and ash. Over.

ESA: Copy no joy on dragonfire. Status on experiment Gamma? Over.

AMICITAS: DF – go for communications experiment Gamma. Over.

ESA: Copy go for comm Gamma. Stand by. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Unable to decipher message due to disorientation of life support alarm. Could not concentrate on blinking warning light.

ESA: Copy no joy on cycling suit life support. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – our host is annoyed. Too much water. Over.

ESA: Disable water outflow. We can use indicator light as signal. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – unable to disable flow without permanently disconnecting water flow. Water flow needed for future food production procedures. Over.

ESA: Understood. Will await your signal for comm Alpha. Out.

MISSION LOG – SOL 36

Dirt doubling yesterday. It’s a good thing ponies are so resilient, because two days after her breakdown Starlight was able to put in a hard day’s work, and we needed every hand or hoof we could get.

For one thing, I decided to dig up and separate the alfalfa sprouts I’d planted, and that ended up taking me all damn day. I had to let the ponies and dragon do the actual dirt-doubling in the rest of the hab because the sprouts, which are a good two feet tall now, had grown huge root complexes so entangled with each other that I couldn’t pull them apart without killing most of them. My fault- I planted them way too densely and the soil is way too shallow for them- but it was still a lot of delicate, painstaking work.

The alfalfa plants spent the night sitting with their roots in water in a large sample bin. Today I replanted them a little looser to allow them to grow. They’re doing surprisingly well for the non-optimal conditions.

My ultimate plan for these plants isn’t food. In the short term I’ll use these plants to infect the rest of our farm soil, here and in the cave if we get that going, with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots. I can’t be sure the alfalfa seeds from the pony packs have those bacteria. They probably do, if they’re viable at all, but I feel better with a second source. Of course alfalfa plants naturally inhibit their own seeds from sprouting right next to them, but I’ll only have them in the ground next to the seeds for a couple of days- just long enough to give the baby alfalfa a nice case of the nitrate cooties.

But beyond that, these plants are seed plants. As long as I have a potato I can grow more potatoes, but our alfalfa seed stock is finite. I figure we have enough for almost an acre, and if we can cultivate an acre of Mars we deserve to go down in history right next to both George Washington Carver and Merlin. But that assumes all the seed is viable and that something doesn’t happen to kill off the plants.

So, if we lose the plants, I want a way to restart the farm. If the Hab and the cave fail at the same time we’re just plain fucked- and not just for food. But if one or the other fails and we can fix it, we can use the soil from the good one to restart the farm- if we have seeds.

So these plants are going to be allowed to flower. Normally you don’t do that, because the optimum balance between nutrition and digestibility of alfalfa is the day the first flower buds begin to open. After that the plants become woody and harder to digest.

Alfalfa requires insects for pollination, but we don’t have any. What we do have are cotton swabs from the geology kit, my medical supplies, and the pony first-aid kit. (Though I’m not sure I’d want a cotton swab after a pony has held it in her teeth…) When these plants bloom we’re going to spend a dull, dull, dull couple of days passing pollen from one itty bitty flower to another, all in the hopes that the mommy pistil and daddy stamen love each other very, very much. And four weeks after that- seeds, dozens of seeds per plant!

Look at me- I’m actually coming up with backup plans. That means I’m moving beyond basic survival. I’m actually feeling good about my situation for once. I think I might even believe I could survive this! So far everything’s been going my way!

Sol 37

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MISSION LOG: SOL 37

I am fucked, and I’m gonna die, and it’s all the ponies’ fault!

Okay, that’s not fair. It’s not all their fault. It’s not even all Starlight’s fault, even if the whole mess was her idea. I’d assumed that she knew as much chemistry as I did, and so I never pressed her on her brilliant plan to clean the cave of perchlorates. If I had, we wouldn’t be piled in the rover with my foot to the floor retreating back to the Hab, or as I like to call it, “safe blast radius.”

And the hell of it is, we have to go back. Site Epsilon doesn’t have another cave. Even if all else fails, we need the quartz and other gems for Fireball to eat. Which means, oh archaeologist of the distant future, if you find this record inside an ancient rover sitting next to a collapsed cave, it’s because we died trying to clean up the largest spill of pure anhydrous perchlorates in recorded history. The least I can do is tell you why.

Today, after cleaning off the solar cells, I drove Starlight and Spitfire out to the cave. Starlight brought with her one of their magic batteries. The gauge showed almost two-thirds full, which is pretty impressive considering she lifted their entire ship on just about twenty percent. (Hint: if I screw up and trigger a pony-human war, Earth’s best hope is to surrender immediately. If all unicorns are like Starlight we’d never stand a chance. All hail our adorable pony overlords! Let's just hope they don't kill us all by ACCIDENT!)

I had no idea what the ponies had planned. But considering that for almost a week we’d been watering the Hab from an infinite supply of water, plus the other amazing things pony magic can do, I had just sort of imagined that Starlight would raise one mighty hoof and just command all the perchlorate begone. And Starlight saw that it was good, and said it was good, and it was good, etc.

Well… no.

Based on the conversation Starlight and I had after the fact, magic has definite rules and limits. And one of the big ones is, magic can’t create or destroy matter or energy from absolute nothing. In theory enough magic power can be converted into matter, but no single pony is powerful enough for that. Even just moving matter around is pretty costly.

So Starlight’s brilliant idea was to make a magic spell that specifically sought the two compounds that make up 99% of the perchlorates in the soil- potassium perchlorate and magnesium perchlorate. The magic would pull the perchlorates out of the soil and put them someplace where it would be easy to remove them. That would turn a nearly impossible act into merely a lot of hard physical labor.

All of this sounds good, right? Wrong! And it’s because of how perchlorates work. How is it possible that this unicorn, obviously the smartest out of the group of aliens who are all presumably the best and brightest their world has to offer, doesn’t know anything about perchlorates? They’re used in solid rocket fuel, for fuck’s sake!

The perchlorate ion is made of one chlorine atom and four oxygen atoms in a fragile covalent bond. It’s an efficient oxidizer. It’ll make things burn very, very quick and hot.

The problem comes when you want to stop it burning. You can’t. The protocol for a perchlorate fire is to dump sand on it and try to scatter the fire, then wait for it to burn out on its own.

To make things even worse, the perchlorate ion bonds with other ions to form various acids and salts. This means, in addition to oxidizing stuff while burning, the perchlorate dissolves and burns stuff as its (usually metal) ion goes flying off to do other shit.

Now, this isn’t so bad when the perchlorates are diluted with water or other substances- at least not the light perchlorates. Perchlorates of heavy metals are on every chemist’s Nope Fucking Nope list. And the rare organic perchlorates are considered to be bad ideas by any scientist who hopes to go to their grave with all ten fingers still attached.

But Starlight’s spell didn’t say “grab the perchlorates and whatever’s right around them.” Oh no. It said, “Do you swear to fetch the perchlorates, all the perchlorates, and nothing but the perchlorates? I do!”

So Starlight set up on the entrance side of the first big hall, where we’re planning to have our farm, and began sending out pulse after pulse of magic light in strobes down the cave, so far as I know clear to the back. And every pulse brought back fragments of white or yellow powder, which accumulated in a ball floating in midair. And that ball grew… and grew… and kept right on growing.

I tried to stop her, but Starlight was so wrapped up in the spell she didn’t really see me. Spitfire stopped me from shaking her, probably for the same reason you’re not supposed to wake a sleepwalker. And having seen what happens when a spell fails (see the infamous Bullet Bead of Sol 23), I came to my senses and left her alone, watching that giant ball of pure firestarting poison continue to build.

When Starlight shut off her spell there was still juice in her battery. She didn’t even fall over. In fact, she turned to me and looked up at me like a dog I once had. See, Mark? I did the neat trick! Now where’s my Milk-Bone?

And while she was doing that, the enormous pile of perchlorate dust flopped to the ground. It was a short trip, but it took a while for the ball to become more of a mound. When it settled the pile was maybe three meters tall and as wide as the chamber itself.

I don’t think one sand bucket is going to be enough.

Now, if it was just potassium perchlorate, I woudn’t panic. Potassium perchlorate is well-behaved so long as you don’t get above two hundred and fifty degrees Centigrade. It’s mildly toxic and mildly corrosive, but ordinary precautions will handle it.

But forty percent of that ball of death was magnesium perchlorate. Potsassium perchlorate has only one perchlorate ion. Magnesium perchlorate has two, plus that hungry Mg++ ion. On rare occasions magnesium perchlorate has been known to spontaneously combust, or to ignite by friction, just from touching certain substances. The safety rules for magnesium perchlorate tell you to keep it away from acids, all flammable organic compounds, and aluminum.

Problem: my sample shovels are aluminum.

Problem: so are large portions of my space suit.

Problem: all my sample bins are plastic, i. e. organic. (For dilute magnesium perchlorate in Mars soil this would be perfectly safe. All the plastics and carbon composites on the mission are rated non-flammable. For 100% pure perchlorates, though, all bets are off.)

Problem: large portions of all our space suits are also organic. (Fireproof, but pure magnesium perchlorate…)

And big, gigantic, horrible, no-good problem: if the magnesium perchlorate finds something to ignite it, the resulting fire will be more than hot enough to decompose the potassium perchlorate that makes up the other sixty percent of that damn pile.

So I grabbed a pony under each arm (thank you 0.4g Mars!) and fled for the rover, where Starlight and I had what the diplomats call “a frank and open exchange of ideas.”

We can’t give up on the cave. Somehow we have to think of a safe way to get all that crap out without actually touching it. But I’m sure as hell not sticking around while I think about it, not when there’s even a remote chance that the Martian soil itself- chock full of iron oxide, potassium, phosphorus- might be enough to set that crap off.

The gem cave is now a bomb.

Sol 38

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 35
ARES III 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.”

MISSION LOG - SOL 38

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.

Sol 39

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MISSION LOG – SOL 39

My back aches and my head hurts. This is worse than the Big Tow.

Remember my bright idea? It turns out the ponies were right there with me. And it works, too, but it took a lot of work to do it. It literally took minutes to find two pieces of the pony ship’s dismembered outer hull large enough to be repurposed as sleds, and minutes more to shape them using careful application of highly advanced Earth technology (beat it with a hammer). The parachute rope used for the tow was repurposed to make towing harnesses for Cherry Berry and Spitfire to haul the sleds with, and that took about five minutes tops.

And then we all spent seven hours out at Site Epsilon. Starlight and Dragonfly used magic to shift perchlorates onto the sled. Fireball and I shoveled using smaller pieces of hull plating with the edges rounded off to prevent our gloves getting sliced up. Cherry and Spitfire hauled sleds out, dumped them downslope away from the rover, and came back in, not quite in perfect sync but close enough.

The pony ship outer hull is chemically indistinguishable from steel- there must be some kind of magic process they use to make it more durable. It’s had some form of rust-proofing or something, so it’s safe to dump a bunch of oxidizer onto. Which, oh my God, we did. Back and forth, shovel it on, dump it off, as fast as possible. We took turns in the rover eating cold food packs- full rations today with this level of work. Even Dragonfly had little nibbles from everyone else. I still need to get the story from Starlight about the bug’s dietary habits.

The hard work paid off, though. I figure we got just past halfway done today, even with all the non-perchlorate soil we had to scoop up along with the perchlorates. I think we made close to ninety trips in and out, and even though Spitfire could only haul half the load Cherry did, it was enough to drop the mound about level with the top of Fireball’s helmet.

By tomorrow we should be done. Of course, after this there will be a large no-go area at the bottom of the hill, until the Martian wind blows it away. Unfortunately, the Hab is downwind of the site, but one crisis at a time.

I am a bit concerned about the rest of our pile of boom. Originally the stuff was absolutely dry, but this morning it was a bit clumpy, and by the time our EVA time ran out there was some sort of slime forming on the surface. My best guess is, what very little water vapor is in the air in the cave is getting sucked up by the perchlorate. That’s what it does, of course, besides make thing burn really hot and fast- it dries the environment.

But for all my worries, the gunk has been very well behaved. We haven’t seen so much as a spark out of it. I guess- I hope- the Martian environment is keeping it too cold to react to anything. By the end of the day I was more worried about the patch on my suit than the perchlorate. You see, I’m using my flight suit- the one that got harpooned on Sol 6 and which I patched after I pulled the antenna out of my pelvis. I figure this is like my second-best clothes, the kind I’d use working on a car. If something happens to damage the suit, assuming I survive somehow, it won’t be my good space suit that got fucked up.

Time to sign off for now. It’s been a long day, and we’ve all earned an evening of relaxation with the Future Washed-Up Child Actors Club followed by a few episodes of Car Chases Without Context. At least tonight I can be guaranteed that Starlight won’t ask me to explain why the police officers are allowed to keep their jobs if they’re (a) crooked and (b) too dumb to realize it’s possible to arrest people when they’re not in a car.

MISSION LOG SOL 39 (2)

TRANSCRIPT: CONVERSATION BETWEEN DRAGONFLY AND MARK WATNEY (note: translation spell not used)

(note: towards the end of an episode of Dukes of Hazzard, some late 1970s/early 1980s country singer is performing, because apparently celebrities drive on two-lane roads in rural Georgia between gigs in the middle of nowhere just so they can be written citations by corrupt deputies)

DRAGONFLY: Good music! Why they make?

WATNEY (torn between Watsonian and Doyleist interpretations and limited by a vocabulary which probably doesn’t go beyond a hundred words): Er… bad cops stop. Say you break law, play or else.

DRAGONFLY: Oooh. What if Partridges stop? They play too?

WATNEY: Um… Partridges in California. Dukes in Georgia. Different places, far apart.

DRAGONFLY: Look same.

WATNEY (head beginning to really hurt, figuring out how to explain): You know it’s not real, right? Make up. Make in same place.

DRAGONFLY: Ooooh. So can do! Rosco make Partridges play!

WATNEY (surrendering): Fine. Whatever. Write your fanfic. I’m sure it’ll get a million hits.

And the hell of it is, I’m writing this at three in the morning because my subconscious decided to write the fic for the bug and show it in my dreams. Apparently some part of me ships Shirley Jones and Denver Pyle. Why? If it was David Cassidy and Catharine Bach it’d make some sense.

God, I’m cracking up. If this keeps up I’ll be writing my own fics in which the eldest Partridge son drives the bus off a cliff and dies as karmic retribution for stealing my Daisy Duke waifu.

That settles it. Tomorrow after we’re done with the perchlorate removal, I break open a new series. Something that doesn’t tie my brain in knots. Six Million Dollar Man, maybe?

Sols 40-41

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 37
ARES III SOL 40

There wasn’t much left.

In four hours of working the pile of perchlorates had been whittled down only as high as Fireball’s hips and only slightly wider than himself from snout to tail. In another two hours the job would no longer be one for shovels so much as brooms and dustpans.

That was a shame, Fireball thought, all of that spicy stuff getting dumped for the thin Martian wind to carry it off. He wanted some for later. All that bland, flavorless plain quartz was going to get really boring, and Mark was stingy with his ketchup supply. He needed something to make the wait for rescue endurable, and this perchlorate sauce looked perfect for the job.

Of course Mark wasn’t going to give up any of his bins or flasks to hold the stuff. He’d made it clear in no uncertain terms he didn’t want this white-and-yellow-striped gunk anywhere near his shelter. But he couldn’t object if Fireball kept it in the Amicitas galley, could he? The lights were back on over there, and some canned air, and even a little heat. He could just eat his meals on his own ship if he wanted to, and what was the monkey going to do about it?

And besides, if nobody else wanted the stuff, why shouldn’t he take it? It was his, if nobody else wanted it.

Yes. It’s yours, Fireball. Just take some.

It was lunchtime, and everyone prepared to return to the rover for lunch. Mark was working at the knots he’d used to harness the bossmare and the bossy mare to their sleds. Dragonfly was hoisting the magic battery onto her back, while Starlight sat down and trembled after four straight hours of telekinetic shoveling. No one was paying any attention to Fireball.

A small part of Fireball shouted, You idiot, if you’re waiting until nobody can stop you to do a thing, it’s a bad idea!! Leave the crap! The unicorn can summon up more if I want it!

But the rest of his mind shouted back Mine, and Mine is a siren song very few dragons can resist. Also (and this is true of most thinking creatures), the worse the idea you have is, the harder it is for you to not follow through on it.

From one of the tool pouches on his space suit Fireball removed the sturdy plastic wrapper of one of his last few meal packs. He’d saved a couple of the packs for when he just couldn’t stand quartz another day, but he’d also saved some of the containers, partly because he was a dragon, partly because it was just barely possible they could be reused somehow.

Like now, as he walked over to the pile to use it as a scoop for a healthy helping of perchlorate powder.



The meal had been prepared by a changeling chef, who answered with equal ill temper to Carapace or Heavy Frosting, at Horseton SpaceCenter. It had been magically vacuum-sealed in a cheap, airtight plastic, produced by the same Manehattan manufacturing firm, as used by both Changeling Space Program and the Equestrian Space Agency. They had been stored in fireproof lockers, but no thought had been given to making the packets themselves fireproof, on the grounds that, “If those things are on fire in space, you probably have much bigger worries already.”

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its hundreds of civilian contractors had employed no such laxness. They had gone to absurd lengths to ensure that nothing short of a welding torch at close range would even cause the carbon-fiber and plastic of the mission’s equipment to smoulder. The off-the-counter food bags used for soil samples would burn, but only reluctantly and only after melting. Despite Mark Watney’s intense worries on the subject, had they used the sample bins to bail the perchlorate out of the cave, likely nothing would have happened.

And, likewise, if the perchlorate had remained the same sub-freezing temperature as the rest of the cave, little would have happened. But it hadn’t. Very slowly the perchlorate had been reclaiming the trace amounts of water in the air around it and the soil beneath it. Absorbing water warms up perchlorate considerably. The upper layers of the pile pressed down on the lower layers, adding a tiny fraction more heat. With every shovel, every scoop of magic, every compacting and disturbance and friction on, through, and within the pile, the whole picked up a tiny, tiny fraction more heat.

The pile was still cold, but not cold enough.

The empty packet, while not an active fire risk in normal circumstances, would burn under the right conditions.

Fireball stepped as close to the mound as he could without stepping in it, leaned his sinuous body forwards, and carefully scooped the packet into the slimy dust. On the first pass the packet wouldn’t open enough to let any in. A second attempt achieved little better, as the clingy perchlorate gunk refused to admit the edge of the pack.

On the third attempt, the gunk around the packet began to bubble and pop. Fireball dropped the packet and took a step back, watching in confusion as the bubbling and popping built up.

A flame erupted from the mouth of the packet.

Something surprisingly fast and heavy tackled the dragon and knocked him away from the pile.

A second later, the perchlorate pile exploded.


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

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

BALTIMARE: Baltimare calling Amicitas, where have you been? Over.

AMICITAS: CB – Accident. Alien, two crew injured. Tests postponed indefinitely. Will call. Over.

BALTIMARE: Please repeat, did not copy. Your hoof is too slow. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Accident. Alien, one crew injured. Teqqq

BALTIMARE: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: DF- Accident. Alien, one and only one crew injured. One other crew very hungry. No tests until next contact. Over.

BALTIMARE: QC – You are all ordered to not die until I get there. Over.

AMICITAS: When? Over.

BALTIMARE: TS – Working on that. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – Going back to bed. Will drill commander more on code. Out.

BALTIMARE: One or two crew injured? Over.

AMICITAS: CB – Two. Over.

AMICITAS: DF – One. Over.

BALTIMARE: Copy two crew injured. Awaiting your signal, out.

MISSION LOG – SOL 41

I’m lying in my bunk. Fireball brought me the laptop to write this on, and also to tell me “sorry, big sorry.” He must have learned the word from Starlight or Dragonfly, because I don’t think he knew it even in his own language.

Good news: I’m alive. I survived a pile of perchlorate decomposing and spraying fragments of itself around like napalm. I survived another breach of my spacesuit, followed by first and second degree burns on my upper right arm where the suit breached.

Bad news: I hurt. I hurt like a motherfucker. Did I mention second degree small blistery burns on my upper arm, requiring me to lie on my back or my left side? How about an even worse decompression headache than I had after waking up on Sol 6?

Here’s how it happened, as well as I can piece it together. It started two sols ago, with Fireball’s re-creation of the Cinnamon Challenge. Apparently he wanted some more, and rather than tell anybody what he was doing, he snuck an empty food pack into his EVA suit to get a stash for later.

I can’t blame him that much. By the time we were knocking off for lunch yesterday, I’d almost forgotten that we were shoveling a combination of two potentially dangerous oxidizers. It just hadn’t done anything. And, after all, he’d eaten some of it with no worse result than one flaming belch. Sure, he forgot the danger. But I had too, so I can’t blame him completely.

Of course, the drugs might have something to do with that. Spitfire gave me some of the really strong painkillers from their medicine kit. Wheeeeeeeee! I’m still feeling some pain, but at the same time I’m feeling so pleasant and well-adjusted towards the world that I almost don’t care. This stuff will be outlawed the minute we establish full diplomatic relations with the pony government, I’m sure. I’d be scared of the danger of addiction, but hey, the main alternative in my medical supplies is your choice of opiates, either pill form or injection. So who am I to judge?

Back to the explosion. I had just untied Spitfire when I noticed Fireball crouched over the mound. We’d really reduced it down and were on pace to get back to base early, but there was still a good bit there at lunchtime. At first I was curious; why was he farting around with that stuff? Had he decided to picnic on the grounds instead of going back to the rover with the rest of us?

I was already walking over to him (carefully, because all appearances to the contrary I hadn’t become a complete idiot) when he sprang back up like something had bit him. Then I saw the food pack. I shouted at him to get away, but of course he couldn’t hear me- their suits can’t hear my suit radio. And then I saw the first flame shoot out of the pack’s open mouth.

Yeah. Open flame around magnesium peroxide and an organic fuel source.

Can you say, oh shit? Sure, I knew you could. And I’ll be waiting here until your mommies get done washing your mouths out with soap.

I ran three steps to the right to get a good angle and then turned, got a running start, and slammed into Fireball’s side to knock him out of the way. Even taking into account Martian gravity he was surprisingly light. He hit the crystals on the far wall of the cave, fortunately not hard enough to break or puncture his suit.

Unfortunately Sir Isaac Newton is a bastard, because by imparting all my momentum to the dragon I didn’t have much left for myself, and what I did have left me off-balance. So I had just about time to catch myself from falling and take one step forward before the perchloride pile went up.

It wasn’t a Hollywood explosion. It was more like a mudpot letting off an air bubble, spattering its surroundings with stinky mud. That is, if the mud was on fire. A huge blob of it hit my right side, which was facing the pile, and the part that hit my upper arm was burning.

NASA spacesuits are designed to withstand high temperatures and be extremely fire-resistant, but the slimy perchlorates clung to the suit and ate happily away at my sleeve. I couldn’t drop and roll because there wasn’t enough space around me not covered in decomposing perchlorates, and it only took a couple of seconds for the crap on my arm to eat a hole in my suit.

Then things really got interesting. And painful.

I don’t know how long it was after that, but it can’t have been more than a few seconds, because I’m still alive. I must have passed out at some point, but I can’t remember exactly when. (Reminds me of a couple of parties I attended at the University of Chicago, though I think only one of those involved fire.) When I came to I was in the rover, wearing my grubby jumpsuit but not my spacesuit, my right sleeve half burned off, and an unconscious unicorn in full spacesuit beside me.

Apparently Starlight had the presence of mind to see what was happening, drain all the magic battery’s remaining charge into herself at one shot, rush over and teleport us into the rover, carefully leaving my compromised flight spacesuit and all the perchlorates behind. That quick bit of magic saved my life. It also knocked her flat on her magical little ass.

She’s still sleeping in the bunk next to mine. Cherry Berry says she hasn’t woken up yet. Even through the painkillers, I’m worried.

I don’t remember much of yesterday after that. I think I must have been in shock. (Which, come to think of it, explains why every blanket in the Hab was on me when I woke up this morning, except for the one Starlight was using.) From what I gather from the ponies, I was the only one that got splashed by burning perchlorate. Once Starlight and I were out of the cave, the others hauled ass the non-magical way.

I remember Dragonfly coming in by the rover airlock and coaxing me to the driver’s seat. She even went so far as to imitate the General Lee’s horn to make sure I got the message.

But I may have dreamed that, because I think I also remember Johannsen standing next to me, leaning over my shoulder. “Go, Mark,” she said. “You can do it.”

Come to think of it, it must have been a dream. It’s been over thirty sols since I last saw my crewmates, after all. But there she was, in coveralls as grungy as mine, right next to me. I think I said, “I love you.” (And if Beck ever reads this, he’s going to be pissed, but hey, buddy- if you don’t tell your crush how you feel, what I do with her in my dreams is nobody’s fault but your own.)

And she said something really profound: “Love makes us alive.” I’m going to have that carved on my tombstone, assuming I get one.

On second thought, no, that’s a stupid idea. I just had a mental image of a horde of zombies chanting, “Heeearts… heeeearts…”

Anyway, dreams or hallucinations aside, I got the rover back to the Hab somehow. I remember none of the driving, aside from what I just mentioned. The ponies got back first and brought me my good EVA spacesuit- at least, I remember them coaxing me into it. I definitely remember the pain that woke me up when the right sleeve brushed past the burn on my arm. And I remember the pain again when Fireball grabbed me by the same damn arm to help carry me from the rover airlock into the Hab airlock.

I also remember them carrying Starlight into the Hab. And then Dragonfly. I was a little surprised by that. I saw the bug up and around today, but she’s not looking well. When they first arrived her wings glittered. They’re not glittering anymore, and I think the holes in her wings and legs are a bit larger.

Why have I never got round to asking about how Dragonfly works? Now the only pony I could ask about it is out like a light.

Long story short; it could have been worse. I lost a suit, but it was a suit with a hole in it already, so I don’t miss it much. I’ll have to wear dressings on my arm for a couple of weeks while the burn heals. I might have some scars there that’ll look like chicken pox scars. And I’ll have to limit my activities, let the ponies do more things for me.


And Fireball. Especially Fireball. He owes me big, and I think he knows it, especially considering he’s bringing a steaming meal-pack over to me. I’m so glad I showed the ponies how the microwave works.

Going to eat and rest now, after cuing up something random from Lewis’s 70s TV Hall of Crap. Don’t feel like watching a show about a cyborg right now… the ponies won’t enjoy most of the non-musical sitcoms until they get more language…

“The Electric Company.” No description aside from “PBS 1971-1977.” Well, if it’s PBS, it’s probably good to doze off to.

MISSION LOG – SOL 41 (2)

The ponies have spent all day around my bunk watching this silly, didactic, juvenile, kickass show. This is SO going on the daily rota. Before Partridge Family. Maybe instead of Partridge Family.

And Starlight just woke up. She’s flopped onto her side so she can see the screen. Poor thing, she looks absolutely wiped, but she’s nagging at me in broken English to quit typing and play more.

I think things are going to be okay. But that could just be the drugs again.

Sol 42

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“Hello,” said Cathy Warner, using her look of Serious Concern for the four million viewers on the other side of the camera lens. “Thank you for joining us. Tonight on the Watney and Company Report: an update on what happened at Site Epsilon. What is the current condition of Mark Watney? And why are his alien visitors so interested in a mud volcano?

“My first guest this evening, here to discuss today’s breaking news from the surface of Mars, is Dr. Venkat Kapoor, director of Mars operations for NASA. As ever, Dr. Kapoor, thank you for coming.”

“Always a pleasure, Cathy,” Venkat replied.

“I’m sure our viewers already know about the new line added to Watney’s Morse-code message to NASA,” Cathy said. “’Sol 42 Burns, Healing.’ What does that mean in the context of Mark Watney’s survival on Mars?”

“First,” Venkat said, “I’d like to say that we’re all relieved to know he has survived. Mark Watney is demonstrating exceptional resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, and we regard every day he survives as a victory over a very hostile environment.”

“But the reference to burns,” Cathy said. “Doesn’t that mean he was caught in the apparent volcanic eruption at Site Epsilon two days ago?”

“Allow me to correct you, Cathy,” Venkat said. “We don’t know that it was a volcanic eruption at all. We saw a brief plume of smoke, that’s true, and whatever happened forced Mark and his alien friends to evacuate. But we only saw a little bit of heating on satellite infrared scanners, and spectroscopic analysis of the smoke shows mainly chlorine and oxygen gases. No sulfides, no ash, no methane or carbon monoxide- none of the gases you’d normally expect in a volcanic plume.”

“But there was clearly an eruption of some sort at Site Epsilon,” Cathy pressed.

“We’re still figuring out what happened there,” Venkat pressed. “Mark’s new note gives us one bit of data: whatever it was, it burned him somehow. So heat was involved, possibly an eruption of a kind we don’t know about, possibly a steam eruption, possibly an equipment fire, or possibly some Martian phenomenon we don’t yet understand. There is so much we still don’t know about the planet, after all.”

“Does this injury spell a setback for Watney’s efforts to survive until a resupply mission can arrive?” Cathy asked.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that Mark was able to lay out the new message himself,” Venkat said. “The aliens helped him to gather the rocks, but he was clearly outside doing labor himself. That strongly implies that his injuries are neither life-threatening nor crippling, and that he’ll soon be back at full strength.”

“Speaking of the aliens,” Cathy continued, “we noticed that only two of the aliens appeared in the photos with Watney today. Two of the others were photographed walking to Site Epsilon with a large piece of wreckage, presumably from their ship.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Venkat said. “We know one of the ones who went to Epsilon was the alien we refer to as ‘Tall Boy.’ But we don’t know if the other one was Orange Leader or Orange Random. As you see in today’s photograph, whichever of those two went to Epsilon, the other was with Watney. Based on behavior in the photos, we’re pretty sure the second alien with Watney is White Hen. White Boxy doesn’t seem to have left the Hab today.”

As the interviewer and interviewee spoke, an infographic popped up on the jumbo screen behind them, listing the names of the aliens.

NASA TEMPORARY ALIEN DESIGNATIONS

TALL BOY – white suit, bipedal, casts longer shadow than Watney

ORANGE LEADER – orange suit, always in front when walking long distances

ORANGE RANDOM – no regular behavior pattern

WHITE BOXY – white suit, often standing next to or carrying box of some sort

WHITE HEN – usually stays very close to another, usually White Boxy

“Do you think Boxy suffered the same kind of injuries as Watney?” Cathy asked.

“Not enough data,” Venkat shrugged. “It could have been related, or not. We did happen to get a picture of the aliens carrying Orange Random from the rover into the Hab on Sol 40, so it’s possible it was also carried that way. We didn’t see Mark carried in, but he must have been.”

“There’s been some speculation,” Cathy said, “that the irregular driving of the Rover after the Sol 40 evacuation of Site Epsilon was because an alien was at the controls. Can you say anything to that?”

“Not really,” Venkat said. “We think it possible but unlikely. Until Sol 40 Watney was always the last into the rover and the first out, which is in line with his being the driver every time. We’ve seen the aliens use the air locks themselves, but never the rover until Sol 40. And we have no direct evidence that they drove it then. So we’re betting that, despite whatever injuries he suffered, Watney was driving himself home.”

“So the irregular driving would be caused by his injuries?” Cathy asked. “Or shock from the eruption?”

Venkat shrugged yet again. “We’re only speculating,” he said. “But consider this. In order for Watney to be burned, either his suit had to have malfunctioned in a spectacular way, or something hot must have breached the suit. The suit’s flame-resistant and has a sophisticated temperature regulation system to prevent temperature extremes from affecting the wearer. So if we assume a suit breach, then we also have to assume decompression and lack of oxygen. Yet somehow under those circumstances Watney was able to get to the rover before he lost consciousness and trigger the airlock’s emergency mode. That would have taken almost superhuman effort.

“So, given those circumstances. He’s in the rover, recovering from rapid decompression and recompression. He’s probably had at least a brief period of unconsciousness. And he’s burned somehow. Under the circumstances there’s no surprise that his driving would be a little erratic. It would be more surprising if it wasn’t.”

“Now for the big question,” Cathy warned. “Why are Watney and the aliens so interested in Site Epsilon?”

“Presumably they think it holds something key to their survival,” Venkat said. “One of the alternative theories we’re pursuing is that there’s still some vital piece of salvage from their ship, something that was cast well outside the main debris field, that they think or thought would be useful, and that it blew up in their faces when they found it. But until we get some new information, it’s all speculation for now.”

“One final question,” Cathy said. “Can you give us an update on rescue plans for Mark Watney and the aliens?”

“For the aliens,” Venkat said, smiling a little, “you’ll have to ask their head of Mars operations, whoever and wherever they are. We’re still working on details for an eventual rescue mission, but in the meantime we’re putting together a series of resupply missions. SpaceX has repurposed two of their Red Falcons that were scheduled for Ares IV presupply flights, and we’re hoping those boosters will be ready within about five months. Those, plus the Delta-IX we’re borrowing from Eagle Eye 3, should be enough to send three different probes with a year’s provisions for all six beings on Mars, plus two replacement radio systems for the Hab.”

“Provisions for all six?” Cathy asked.

“Yes,” Venkat said. “We know the aliens have been eating at least some of Watney’s supplies. Based on his first message we’ve worked out that he’s set aside all his vegetarian meals for them, and apparently nothing else. So we’re currently assuming all five of the aliens are vegetarians and can safely eat the plant-protein meals included in the Ares III presupply. Most of what we send will be more of those.”

“With ketchup, I hope?” Cathy asked.

“Definitely plenty of ketchup,” Venkat said. “And hot sauce.”

“Thank you, Dr. Kapoor.”

“My pleasure.”

Cathy turned her attention to the camera. “When we come back, a volcanologist explains the probable origins of the ice volcano we call Site Epsilon, and a biologist offers a new speculation on what might be lurking underneath the alien spacesuits… after this.”

Sol 43

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MISSION LOG – SOL 43

My arm hurts, and the raw skin under my dressing itches like fuck, but I can’t touch it. I’m off the magic pony pills, and I’m not feeling any withdrawal symptoms, aside from the nagging reminder that aspirin doesn’t do shit.

But survival demands I get off my ass, so I put in a full day’s work today. So did Starlight, who is obviously still in bad shape but won’t stay down. Spitfire’s mad at both of us- especially Starlight, after she snuck around her to make me a magic spacesuit comm that can talk with theirs. It consists of a brick-sized magic battery from their ship, an enchanted gem from Fireball's snacks, and a few other odds and ends, all of which I have to wear inside my suit, but it works.

When she found out we intended to work, Spitfire almost hit the dome, she chicken-flapped so hard. She wanted to ground us, but we insisted: if everybody doesn't work, everybody dies. The pony food packs are counting down to starvation, and once they’re gone I only have a few days’ worth after that before they begin starving. The only way crops will be ready in time is if we get them planted now.

The boom on Sol 40 might have got NASA’s attention, so yesterday I added a couple of words to my doctoral thesis written in Morse code just north of the solar farm. True, “Burned, healing” will make NASA worry if they read it. But if they read my message before seeing smoke coming from the cave, me saying nothing would make them worry a lot more.

Of course, the odds are they haven’t noticed either one. As big as the perchlorate explosion was close up, it was less than a fly’s fart so far as the surface of Mars was concerned. They’d have to have been looking right at Site Epsilon to notice anything. An hour either side of the explosion, there wouldn’t have been anything to see. But there’s a chance, so I updated my rock blog.

Today was a dirt doubling- probably the last, but definitely the most ambitious. All the dirt in the Hab and pop-tents is now fertile, but we need starter dirt for the cave farm, assuming that’s still workable. So today Fireball carried one bin of dirt at a time out to the alien ship for storage. It has air and heat now, thanks to their life support system and Hab power running the one heater they left inside, so the soil bacteria will survive there. Meanwhile Cherry, Dragonfly and Spitfire dragged even more Martian dirt inside to replace all the dirt that got put in storage for the cave.

I should have helped with that, but I had other things to do. Also, I figured I could make Spitfire happy and get out of the way while all sorts of human germs and pony germs and dragon germs and whatever-Dragonfly-is germs get stirred up and tossed into the air. And she’s right to want me out. Burns are really susceptible to infections. I could get tetanus, or e. coli, or flesh-eating bacteria. Or some magical pony super-bug that leaves me perfectly healthy except that my hair turns green and my arm falls off for no apparent reason.

This is a serious concern. If my arm falls off, NASA will kick me out of the space program, and I’ll not only be stranded on Mars, I’ll be stranded and unemployed on Mars. I only hope I can get the unemployment office to do direct-deposit, because I don’t think my bank has a branch out here.

Okay, enough lame jokes. Yes, I spent a couple of days worrying about cross-species infections, all War of the Worlds and shit. But I didn’t mention it here for the same reason that I eventually got over it: we’re all living in the Hab now, so it’s inevitable that we’ll be exposed to each other’s bacteria. Nothing can be done about that, even if we weren’t wading in each other’s shit every week to produce fertile soil for our upcoming crops. We either risk death by disease, or we guarantee death by not working together and doing whatever we can to save our butts.

And, up to now, it’s actually worked out okay. Starlight keeps pushing herself to exhaustion, and Dragonfly appears to be running out of steam, and of course I got myself burned like a stupid action hero, but nobody has actually gotten sick. The Ares-III crew was in strict quarantine for two weeks prior to launch specifically to rule out most contagious diseases hitching a ride and ruining the mission. Maybe the ponies did something similar, or maybe magic pony arm-stealing germs don’t like the taste of poor mundane Mark.

But accepting unavoidable risk is one thing, and tempting fate is another. Even if all the bacteria we have left are the happy healthy kind, the good kind in the wrong place can be just as bad as the bad kind. Since the air in the Hab was full of ‘em today, my burned arm got a fresh sterile dressing and Starlight and I decamped for the cave.

My flight suit is wrecked- no surprise. The right arm is gone completely except for the electronics. Same deal with most of the torso. The helmet might still be good, and my left glove would be salvageable if there were some point to it without the right. The life support systems are charred and probably wrecked, but I might be able to use it for spare parts if I get that desperate. I still have my EVA suit, which was built more rugged to deal with being on a planet instead of a spaceship. I also have several other EVA suits, if it comes to that.

There’s still a good bit of perchlorate left scattered around. The eruption scattered the stuff enough that it dropped below decomposition temperature rapidly once the fuel was gone. What’s left should be easy to clean up. About a quarter of what we dumped down the hill is already blown away or sloughed into the soil. I say good riddance. If I think of some insanely suicidal plan for our survival that requires me to make solid rocket fuel I’ll ask Starlight to revive that spell. Until then I don’t want to see even a speck of pure perchlorate salts ever again.

That wasn’t the reason we went, though. We already knew that from the report Cherry and Fireball gave us. Today was about making the cave airtight.

When we went into the cave we took a magic battery and two ten-liter tanks full of compressed liquid CO2, produced by the MAV descent stage’s fuel plant. Of course, this wasn’t a fart in the wind so far as pressurizing the cave was concerned. The open space inside could be anything from 10,000 to 50,000 cubic meters, and twenty liters of liquid CO2 would only fill forty cubic meters to one atmosphere’s worth of pressure. Releasing it all in the cavern at once would raise the existing air pressure by about one-tenth- call it 0.1 pounds per square inch instead of 0.09 psi. (The Hab’s one atmosphere internal pressure, the same as on Earth at sea level, is 14 psi.)

But Starlight said it was enough, and I guess she was right. She used the battery to create two airtight force fields, sealing off the cave in both directions just far enough for the two of us to stand between. I opened and closed the valves on the CO2 tanks and watched the pressure readings on my suit to keep the area in our slice of cave at one-tenth of an atmosphere (1.4 psi, or fourteen times Mars’s normal pressure).

We walked the length of the cave doing this. Starlight was wobbly on her feet to begin with, and by the time we got to the end of the dirt floor she was ready to pass out again. Still, she used one last burst of magic and all the remaining CO2 in the tanks to get a reading clear to the far end of the cave. I ended up carrying her and the battery back to the rover; I’ll go back for the empty tanks tomorrow.

The news is actually pretty good. In fact, I’d call it suspiciously good. The cave leaks like a sieve at the entrance, but Starlight says she can fix that when the ponies put the airlock in place, ideally tomorrow. And there’s another substantial leak way at the back, almost in the middle of the hill. But most of the cave is actually airtight. I don’t know if the permafrost or compacted soil on top of the cave is creating a seal, or if the air leaking is too low for Starlight or my suit to detect it, or what. But it does mean that, after a couple of magical welding jobs, the cave will hold air.

And doing the math, it’s just now sinking in to me how much air it would require. NASA provided us with 350 liters of compressed oxygen and nitrogen. That’s enough for one atmosphere pressure for the rovers, the space suits, and the approximately 240 cubic meter interior space of the Hab, plus a significant reserve, but it’s not a drop in the bucket for the cave.

Assuming 25,000 cubic meters from entrance to rear, it would require 12,500 liters of compressed liquid air to fill the space to one atmosphere. The most oxygen I can safely transport at a time is fifty liters, and replacing that requires seventy-five hours of run time on the MAV fuel plant plus whatever time the oxygenator needs to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. If I had to fill it myself, I’d run out of food long before there was enough air for my crops.

Luckily I don’t need to. The pony ship’s environmental system is back up and running, complete with its direct connection to their home world’s atmosphere. What would take me over a year will take them a matter of hours. Best yet, their system also provides Earth-levels of carbon dioxide (well, almost- 0.028% CO2 instead of our global-roasting 0.045%, but that’s still plenty for plants). That limits the amount of Mars atmosphere we’ll have to bring in for our farm to thrive.

(Fun fact: plants give off almost as much CO2 at night as they absorb during the day! Photosynthesis turns CO2 and water into oxygen and sugar, but at night plant metabolisms reverse the process and use the sugar to live and grow on. That’s why Earth still has so many green things without requiring CO2 atmospheric levels that would kill most animal life on the planet. But once we really get going with the plants that little difference will swamp whatever the aliens and I contribute with our own lungs, so the occasional hit off a Mars bong will be required to keep our crop nice and mellow.)

Anyway, we’re back at the Hab now, and the dirt doubling is over- probably the last one we’re going to do here. Dragonfly, bless her perforated heart, has just sweet-talked Spitfire away from doing her vulture imitation over Starlight’s bed. I’ve gotta do something nice for that bug soon. But first my three-quarters of a dinner, and then tonight’s line-up of fine quality viewing.

Leading off with The Electric Company. Of course, my mind is still blown by the fact that Morgan Freeman was once young. And, apparently, a hippie. Or a beatnik. Or a hippie beatnik. Or something. I wonder if the bug will write a sequel to her fanfic that has the Duke boys rescue Easy Reader from one of Boss Hogg’s schemes. I’m sure there could never be anything problematic with that idea whatever.

That’s sarcasm, by the way.

Sol 44

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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.”

“If?”

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.

Sol 45

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MISSION LOG – SOL 45

Another long day of work, another day closer to planting crops. Today was all about turning soil, and all of us were doing that except for Starlight. She was doing this really clever thing with the ceiling crystals, cutting caps off of some of the bigger ones, slicing them into these neat spiky flower shapes, and turning them into some sort of sun relay. Spitfire took them topside and lined them up directly above the cave, and now the cave has light- a lot more light than I’d have expected. Starlight tried to explain- something about extra surface area of the flower-cut crystals- but Spitfire sent her back to the rover before she could finish.

The ponies have done a better job than I’d expected of breaking up the dense Martian soil in the cave. Of course, Starlight’s spell provided a head start, providing a lot of microscopic voids that loosened the dirt enough for our makeshift sled-harrow to get down into it. It also helped Fireball and me shovel out the channels for the ponies’ neat idea for attacking the heat problem in the cave.

On Earth, once you go beyond a certain level below the surface, it begins to get hotter. Our planet has a thin crust and a lot of internal heat. If Mars has any internal heat left, it’s hiding it very, very well. The cave is actually slightly colder than the surface. And since it’s mostly buried under rock, soil and permafrost, warming up the interior means battling one of the worst heat sinks of all time.

The pony solution? Steam heat.

Let me explain the logic. The pony ship mainly relied on their ship’s atmospheric exchange magic for cabin heating. There were only a few emergency space heaters in the ship, and when I tested them they turned out to be just as thirsty for electricity as expected. It’s like they just grabbed a space heater at a flea market or something and stuck it into their ship. Each one sucks up almost 200 watts of electricity. We’re going to use them anyway, because we need all the heat we can get down there.

I could yank the larger heaters from the rovers, but we need those to not freeze driving to and from the cave. Besides, just the little heaters will require eight solar panels from the Hab plus one of my hydrogen fuel cells to keep them running at night. More heaters like that will take the Hab below a safety margin I’m just not ready to exceed yet.

We have the pony ship’s air working again, and I’ve taken advantage of that at the Hab to shut down all the air systems and do a full diagnostic. (Everything checks out, by the way.) That means we can install the pony life support box in the cave and use it to fill it up with nice temperate pony air. Problem solved, right?

Well, not really. There’s hundreds of meters of geode cave beyond this first chamber that will be Fireball’s dinner for the next four years. Also, the roof of the chamber is several meters high at its highest point. The warm air will circulate back in the cave and up to the ceiling, and there’s dick we can do about that. That means the air will cool, sink, and circulate back to freeze the crops.

That’s entropy, folks- even when you get a free lunch, there ain’t no free lunch. All we can do is improvise a thermal blanket from pony ship insulation, hang it over the entrance to the next chamber, and hope for the best.

But in addition to providing air, the pony life support provides water- both cold and hot, because hot water is what the ponies use to reconstitute or heat up meals in flight. The ponies have kept the hot water deactivated because, up to now, all we’ve needed is cold water, and the hot water flow is about one-fifth that of the cold water.

Why is this, you ask? Because although the ship only had a few emergency heaters, it had a lot of cooling hoses and pipes. In space you don’t have air or water to equalize heat. You have one side of your ship baking in the sun (if you’re lucky enough to be near the sun) and the other side freezing in shadow. This heat differential is bad for equipment and can even endanger the crew, so there are ways to deal with it. Insulation works, and the old “barbecue roll” used by Apollo works just fine, but in this case the ponies went with a heat exchanger system tucked between the outer hull and the pressurized compartments- all provided with fluid from the ship’s cold water supply.

Water is definitely not the coolant NASA would have chosen. There are lots of chemicals which have a wider range of liquid states and a greater heat-exchange efficiency. But the ponies have all the water they want practically free and can replenish it in-flight if there’s a leak, and apparently they can’t do that with the other options. (Besides, I can’t help feeling like Dragonfly or Fireball might be tempted to drink the radiator fluid.)

As a result, there are dozens of meters of plumbing, all with fittings designed to fit the cold water terminal on the life control box. And today Dragonfly fitted them all together into long rows, and Fireball and I buried them all a couple feet into the soil. There’s one fitting sticking up at one end to hook to the life support box and another fitting that will have a valve. That’ll be left open to let water circulate through the system, and the outflow will be used to water crops or just allowed to trickle off downstream into the back of the cave.

The neat trick- and the ponies have already arranged for this with their folks back home- is that the cold water and hot water can be switched. All it takes is swapping two crystals back home. So instead of cold water suitable for redistributing heat under a spaceship’s skin, the pipes will be filled with literally boiling water at one end and will release barely-above-freezing water at the other end, if it works.

Net result: the cave will never be tropical, and we’ll probably wear our suits in here just for comfort- not a phrase you normally hear from an astronaut. But the actual ground where the plants will be rooted should be warm enough for them to live. And some of that subsurface heat will spread above the surface and add to what the air, the heaters, and Starlight’s magical sunlight system provide, and that in theory should protect the plants above ground.

The main problem with this system is that it seriously constrains the area we can cultivate. The chamber is twenty-one meters wide at its widest point and about one hundred ten meters from the inner airlock doors to the narrow bit at the back. Eyeballing it, it’s a bit less than half an acre. But the area covered by the improvised hydronic heat system is a lot smaller- an area of about sixteen meters wide by forty long, or six hundred forty square meters.

Granted, that is a huge improvement over the Hab. My math shows that, if the field is one-quarter potatoes and the rest alfalfa, the cave would be enough by itself for an almost indefinitely sustainable food supply. But there are problems, of course, the biggest being that almost three-quarters of the ground in the room will be sucking away heat from the remaining one-quarter. Ironically, this cave is too damn big.

But it’s what we have. The next chamber is a forest of shafts of crystal- there must have been a mineral spring in that chamber for a while before it merged with the others. Getting equipment through that into the next room would be a major pain- and so would getting harvests out again. And if something does go wrong with this cave, we really do want to be as close to the exit as possible.

Tomorrow we hook up the electrical systems and life support, turn it on, and leave. There’s going to be a huge wind when the air comes in, and we really don’t want to be around for that. After that we take a couple of days off to let our brilliant improvisation do whatever it’s going to do, and then- assuming nothing new explodes in our faces- we take the surplus cultured soil out there, mix it with the harrowed topsoil, and begin planting seeds.

Two days in the Hab suits me just fine. I’ve been burning through CO2 filters- curse you cheap idiot government contractors! Staying inside means I’m not using more filters.. Besides, my potato seed crop has sprouted, and I’d like to spend a bit of time giving my future food supply some TLC.

And maybe we can have a marathon TV day and consign the Partridge Family back to the Stygian depths of the 1970s whence they came, never to return. That’s one thing I honestly like about Dukes of Hazzard: no twee children. Seriously, if I want any more overwhelming cuteness, I’ll…

… yeah, who am I kidding? The alien commander is pink and has eyes half the size of her head. Even the insect-like horror has puppy-dog eyes (without pupils). I’m going to be the first human to contract diabetes on Mars.

Sol 47

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 44
ARES III SOL 47

Starlight Glimmer looked at the whiteboard, which showed two pictures. One was a globe turning on an axis; the other was a sun and a planet orbiting it, a large circle and arrow defining the orbit.

“Day,” Mark said, pointing to the globe. Then, pointing to the orbiting planet, he added, “Year.”

“Day, year, yes,” Starlight responded. This was so tedious, but anything that got words out of Mark. The other Amicitas crew members had their ways to pass the time; Starlight used her free time to wring more English out of their host. She had to, now, since both Spitfire and Cherry Berry had decreed an absolute two-week moratorium on further unicorn magic.

Mark then drew a smaller globe, adding a little Hab and Amicitas to it, then drawing the rotation arrow around it. “Sol,” he said. “Little more than day.”

Sol.” When Amicitas’s ship clock had been reactivated, Starlight had found out that Equestrian time and this planet’s day didn’t line up. The day here was between thirty-seven and thirty-eight minutes longer. It made sense that Mark had a different name for it, in retrospect.

Then Mark drew a second orbit outside the first, sketched a little Mars next to Earth, and added an arrow, showing it moving in the same direction- counterclockwise- as Earth. “Little less than two years,” he said.

“What days?” Starlight asked.

“How many days,” Mark corrected. “Six hundred eighty-seven.”

That made sense. Longer, slower orbit obviously meant a longer year.

Then Mark drew a funny-looking squiggle by Earth. “Hermes,” he said. “Ares Four.”

Hermes was the name of the ship he’d come by, the one that had left him behind. His crew had been Ares Three. Obviously he was talking about the next mission.

Mark drew a dotted line from the Earth to the Mars on his drawing. “Four years,” he said. He wrote a note by the little Mars: Sol 1412. “Go home four years.”

That… well, that was ridiculous, and no question about it. “Why four years?” Starlight asked. “Why… big…”

“Why so long?” Mark prompted.

“What ‘long?’”

Mark held out his arms as wide as he could vertically. “Tall,” he said. He shifted them to bracket a horizontal space and said, “Wide.” He then held one to his chest and the other as far forward as he could. “Long.” He brought the outstretched hand back almost to his chest and finished, “Short.”

Starlight wasn’t sure she was absorbing all this, but for now she got the idea. “Yes, why long?”

“Home not know we here,” Mark said, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. “Ares move every four years.”

“Need talk home sooner!” Starlight insisted.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Mark muttered.

“What ‘kidding?’”

Mark groaned and shook his head in frustration. “Never mind,” he said. “How soon you home get here?”

Yes, that was the trick, wasn’t it? “Not know how,” Starlight said. “We come accident.” Accident was the longest English word in her vocabulary, but it got a lot of use. “Home not know how come Mars. Here Mars,” she added, pointing down to the ground to emphasize this planet and not another alternate world.

Mark shook his head, sighing. “Damn,” he said.

Starlight didn’t know that word, but she was pretty sure it was profanity of some kind, considering how Mark used it when he got upset. “Yeah, no damn kidding,” she replied, using the same surly undertone he’d used before.

This triggered a laughing fit in Mark which took almost a minute to subside.

“Somebody call lunchtime?” Dragonfly asked, popping up next to Starlight.

“What? No! I mean…” Starlight took a deep breath, deliberately pushed away her annoyance, and focused on her thoughts of Dragonfly the inventor, Dragonfly the pilot, Dragonfly the schmoozer, Dragonfly the buttinksy… no, that was the wrong track. Dragonfly is my crewmate. She’s helped save our lives a couple of times already. She’s clever and concerned and fun to be around. And she needs our love.

Despite her intense concentration, it took quite a long moment before she could embrace the changeling, and the hug only lasted a couple of seconds.

“Er… thanks, I’ll take all I can get…” The changeling’s ear-fins twitched uncertainly. She pointed to Mark, adding, “But I was making a joke about him.”

Mark, meanwhile, watched all of this with interest. “Hello, Dragonfly,” he said slowly.

“Hello, Mark,” Dragonfly replied. “What are you doing?”

Mark’s eyebrows jumped. “Well!” he said.

“Not how are you doing,” Dragonfly corrected, “what are you doing?”

Starlight looked at Dragonfly. “You can make grammatically correct sentences in his language?”

“Some simple ones, yeah,” Dragonfly replied. “I’ve been watching what Mark does with his computer. The last couple nights I’ve been getting up and turning it back on to watch more of that educational show.”

“You what??”

“Don’t let on, he might get upset,” Dragonfly insisted. “So, Mark, what are you doing?”

Mark glanced back and forth between the unicorn and the changeling, looking like he’d rather not be caught between the two. “We are talking about days and years,” he said deliberately, pointing to the whiteboard. “And space.”

“Really? Sounds like fun,” Dragonfly said. “How many years… um… darn it, how do I say this…”

Mark wrote a number on the whiteboard: 41. He pointed to himself. “Forty-two years old,” he said. “How old you?”

“That wasn’t what I was going to ask!” Dragonfly protested.

Starlight Glimmer pointed to herself and said, “Twenty-six.” She nudged Dragonfly. “Tell him how old you are.”

“I don’t know how old I am!” Dragonfly hissed back. “The queen’s only been giving out birth certificates for a few years now! It was years before I ever stuck my head above ground! Anyway, what’s a year to a changeling?”

Starlight narrowed her eyes, smirked, pointed at Dragonfly and said, “Thirty-one!”

“Nark,” Dragonfly grumbled.

“Did I guess it?” Starlight grinned.

“Mark,” Dragonfly said, changing the subject, “how many years space?”

The alien didn’t answer immediately. He leaned back in his chair, twiddling the marker in his fingers, thinking carefully about the question. Finally he took the whiteboard and erased it, then wrote a number on the far right of the board: 2035. “This year,” he said. He drew a line back to the left edge of the map, wrote the number 1957, drew a little ball with antennas- a little like the much-ridiculed Stayputnik- and said, “First make-moon. Satellite.”

“Satellite.” Starlight repeated. An artificial satellite, she guessed. She wondered why Mark’s species began with robots instead of piloted craft. It seemed to her like doing it the hard way round.

A little farther on Mark drew a little rocket and the number 1961. “First man in space.” A little farther on, he drew a little rocket sitting on a planet and the number 1969. “First man on moon.” He drew a little can with wings above a curved line; 1971. “First space station- first place to go that stays in space.” A winged thing vaguely similar to the Amicitas; 1981. “First ship go back space, use again.”

After a bit of thought, Mark back-tracked on the line, drawing a planet-with-Hab for Mars underneath it. 1965. “First make-moon fly past Mars.” A second line to 1969. “First make-moon orbit Mars.” 1974. “First make-moon land Mars.” 1997. “First rover land Mars.” And, finally, 2027. “First man land Mars.”

Starlight wondered about all of this. Mark was the product of over seventy years of his species learning how to fly through space, developing all sorts of technology without the benefit of magic. That was incredible. That was amazing. That was-

“Slow,” Dragonfly said. “Why slow?”

“Slow?” Mark asked, obviously dumbfounded. “Slow because hard, that’s why!” He handed the marker to Dragonfly. “How long for you, then?”

Dragonfly took the marker in her hooves, adjusted it so she could grip it in one perforated fetlock, and drew a new line on the whiteboard. On the right she wrote the number 1009. “Us this year,” she said. On the left of the line she wrote 1006. “First rocket.” She then dragged the marker back and forth above the line several times. “All that,” she said.

Mark’s jaw dropped. “Aro tellyng me you whent phrm your first rocket phlyte to here in four years??”

“Slow, please,” Starlight warned. “All words not have.”

Both Mark and Dragonfly threw up their forelimbs in frustration. “All space, four years?” Mark asked, sarcasm bleeding into his voice.

“By my long-devoured cocoon,” Dragonfly groaned to Starlight over Mark’s simplified response, “you know we sound like stupid little children, right? We have got to -”

“Will you two stop it?!” Starlight shouted in Equestrian.

Mark froze, then bent his head. “Sorry,” he said quietly.

Dragonfly took a moment to follow suit, but the changeling had the good sense to do it before she said anything else. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. “I’m sorry, Starlight. But we really need to work on learning his language the right way.”

“We’ll start tomorrow,” Starlight sighed. “I don’t have the energy for it right now. But I am curious…” She took the whiteboard and eraser from Dragonfly, cleared the board, and then took the marker in her teeth and began drawing. First Cherry’s cutie mark, then her own, then Spitfire’s; then the emblem off the changeling flag; then a cute little dragon.

“Why do you keep drawing Spike instead of Fireball?” Dragonfly asked.

“Shut up,” Starlight grumbled, adding a drawing of a CSP-style rocket stack launching, complete with flaming clouds of rocket exhaust. At last she showed this to Mark, then turned back to writing with her teeth. This would be so much easier, she thought, if they’d let me use my magic again. I’m feeling much better… my horn only throbs a little now.

Spitfire was easy: a single hash mark.

For herself, three hash marks.

The Spike-and-not-Fireball representation of Fireball got six hash marks. Dragonfly, nine.

And then Cherry Berry. That took some counting, and Starlight made a couple of corrections before settling on twenty-eight.

Twenty… eight… flights?” Mark gasped. He glanced over at Cherry Berry, who was doing something with the dirt near the mostly-grown alfalfa sprouts.

Starlight nodded. Then she tried to draw a small version of Mark’s flag, messed up, erased it, and drew the swoosh pattern on the patch on his other shoulder. “You?” she asked.

Mark groaned and held up a single finger.

“Ha-HA!” Dragonfly cheered triumphantly. “Ask him his word for ‘rookie,’ Starlight!”

Ha-HA yerzelph, Dragonfly,” Mark said. “How many days in space, hm?”

Starlight thought about that. According to reports from home via water-telegraph, this was ESA-54 Mission Day 44. She wrote a 44 next to each symbol for the Amicitas crew, then a plus sign, and then paused. For Spitfire she added a zero. Starlight had had one short visit and one three-month shift on the space station, so she added a 96 to her own. Fireball had had one three-month station visit and Dragonfly two station shifts plus her moon flight, so… Starlight did a bit of math… 103 to Fireball, 193 for Dragonfly plus a little circle for her moon landing, plus the word “Moon” spoken.

And then Cherry Berry. Minmus mission. Moon mission. Space station launch. So many other flights, including VIP flights past both the moon and Minmus… It took more calculation, but she finally settled on 198 plus two moons. “Moon, small moon,” she said.

Mark took the marker and wrote next to the swoosh symbol 47 Sols + 124 Days. He then scratched out 47 Sols and wrote instead 49 Days, and then added an equals sign and 173. “Ha HA ha,” he said to Dragonfly as he capped the marker with a deliberate flourish.

“Still want me to ask him for the word ‘rookie’?” Starlight asked smugly.

“Feh,” Dragonfly grumbled. “I still say more launches is a better metric than more days in space.”

MISSION LOG – SOL 47

I learned an interesting factoid from my guests today: they’ve only been flying into space for four years.

That’s right. They went from Sputnik and Mercury to warp drive in four years. And in that four years they have had DOZENS of flights, and apparently half of them included Cherry in some fashion.

In fact, if I’m understanding this right, Cherry has landed on both their homeworld’s moons. That means I’m sharing this Hab with the pony version of Neil Armstrong. Or possibly Alan Shepard. Or, considering the sheer number of launches, the pony version of the Mercury Seven, the New Nine, and the Next Thirteen all at once.

But apparently this is Cherry’s twenty-eighth flight in four years. Let’s say they launched their first rocket on January 1, 1006 and launched the flight that landed them here on December 31, 1009 (their dates). That’s an average of one launch every seven weeks or so.

One launch every seven weeks. For just Cherry Berry.

I don’t think NASA has allowed the same astronaut to launch more than once every two YEARS.

And how much training can you cram into seven weeks? Less, really, since Cherry Berry has apparently got almost two hundred days in space counting her time here. I was training as part of Ares-III for five YEARS.

Much becomes clear about my guests. Many of the questions I’ve been asking about them now have a simple, easy to understand, impossible to refute explanation.

Specifically: these ponies are all CRAZY!

Sol 48

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MISSION LOG – SOL 48

It’s time to begin organized language lessons.

During TV watching time, the same thing happens about twenty times each night. One of the ponies asks Starlight what X word in English means. Before Spitfire made her go cold-turkey on magic, she’d cast her translation spell and ask, and I’ll repeat the word five or six times until Starlight gets the same answer often enough. Sometimes, if the concept is complex or obscure- for example, Danny Partridge talking about royalties- the spell will just choke and Starlight gives up.

Now, with Starlight forbidden from using magic at all, we just bounce around the few words of English we share (sometimes with me guessing at a pony word- that never works out well). That works well enough that, most of the time, we get the idea across without having to resort to whiteboard-talking. I think the ponies have got somewhere between one and five hundred words this way, depending on how much the individual cares. Starlight and Dragonfly are the top students, Fireball the bottom of the class by a mile.

But though this exercise builds vocabulary, it does nothing for grammar, which is why Cherry still said “good-good clobber” when I gave her my cherry cobbler for lunch. (Me, I think the stuff is pretty vile compared to what Mom makes in the summertime. But Cherry is obviously an addict undergoing serious cherry withdrawal symptoms, based on how she savored every single bite. I wonder if there are any Google listings for “cherry rehab clinics on Mars.”)

And after several days of The Electric Company plus Starlight not being allowed to use magic, Starlight and Dragonfly are both beginning to ask about grammatical rules and writing. Starlight didn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t expected Dragonfly to take so eager an interest. So, after thinking about it, I’ve decided to have an hour of English lessons every sol when duties permit. Basically I’ll take one episode of Electric Company and build off of it, so it’ll really be an hour and a half.

Speaking of writing, I’m glad that NASA sent us a couple cases of markers (double redundancy in case a supply ship went missing or a Hab breach caused the opened markers to boil off). In fact, if we get in contact with NASA, I’m going to ask them to send more. None have died yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

My right arm still itches, and by “itches” I mean about ten thousand classically trained tap-dancing fire ants are doing a constant recital between my shoulder and my elbow. Believe it or not, that’s a good sign. All that itching tells me that I haven’t lost nerves along with the outer layer of skin that’s been coming off with every wash over the last couple of days. There’s huge patches of raw, fire-engine red skin on my arm now, but the blisters are gone. So is the actual pain. It looks like I’ll eventually make a full recovery.

Unfortunately I can’t afford to take any more days off. Tomorrow we go to see how the cave is faring. If the temperature in the farm area is above freezing, we’ll start hauling in the soil we banked from the last dirt-doubling. We don’t have time to let it properly infect the cave’s soil, though; once all the cultured dirt is in and rotated into the old soil, we go straight to planting.

Cherry and I went through the food packs, and we’ve revised the numbers. The pony food packs run out on Sol 90 at the current ration, assuming Dragonfly keeps living on nothing but air. After that my meatless food packs extend that to Sol 117. After that I have to start dividing up multiple food packs to provide vegetable content for the three ponies that eat food. There are a lot of reasons why I hope to avoid that, but the biggest reason is that I’ll end up wasting food from spoilage if I do that- and not just any food, but the high-protien stuff that I need to ration the most.

Under perfect conditions it takes a minimum of sixty days for alfalfa to go from seed to first cutting, and ideally you should allow ninety days instead for the root system to develop. These conditions aren’t just less than ideal, they’re barely tolerable.

To give you an idea how bad things are, I’ve just done a quick inspection of the alfalfa starter crop, the one I was going to use for seed. The stalks are surprisingly tall, considering how shallow the soil is. Under normal circumstances they’d almost be ready for harvest. But the plan was to use these plants to make seeds for future crops. In order to get seeds, you need flowers. And before you get flowers, you get buds.

There isn’t a single bud on any of these plants. And given the age of the sprouts, there should be at least the signs of developing buds.

Bear in mind these are alfalfa plants from an alien world in an alternate universe. It’s possible they have some behavior, some requirement, something I’m not aware of. But it looks like alfalfa and smells like alfalfa and grows like alfalfa, so I’m treating it as alfalfa. And when alfalfa does this it usually means the plant is under stress. The alfalfa isn’t budding because it’s pouring all its energy into growing stems and roots and hasn’t got a surplus for reproduction.

I took photos and measurements, and I dug up a few plants to document the roots. Without a control group this isn’t much of a scientific experiment, but whatever data I can collect might be useful for future Mars colonists. (See attached documents.) Long story short, the measurements don’t line up with the lack of flower buds. If the plants were under enough stress to not flower, they shouldn’t have grown as tall as they have. And given the stunted roots, I don’t know how they grew so tall anyway.

So, change of plan. I’m going to let the remaining starter alfalfa grow as it likes. If there’s no sign of buds by the time I harvest the seed potatoes, then I’ll cut the alfalfa at the same time. It should yield almost a day’s food for the ponies. The plants I pulled today will get chopped up (especially the roots) and added to the cave farm soil to make doubly certain the nitrogen-fixing bacteria are there when the alfalfa seeds sprout.

But my point is, with results as odd as this, we can’t rely on Earth or pony benchmarks for growing. We need to plant as quickly as possible, to give the plants all the chance we can give them to prosper. It’s going to take every trick I can think of to make this work in time. And there’s no more time to spare. We have to make this happen now. Every day we lose is lost food, and lost food is lost margin for survival.

Bleargh. This is depressing. I’m going to call the ponies together for some educational television time followed by some probably-less-educational Watney time. I hope it takes my mind off of wondering what the pony words for “I’m hungry” are. If the cave doesn’t work, we’ll know the words soon enough.

Sol 50

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 47
ARES III SOL 50

“Dinner time!” Cherry Berry called out.

By now mealtime on rations had become a routine. The meals followed a rotation: Fresh, Halves, Nibbles, and Leftovers. A Fresh meal was a meal pack opened, roughly one-quarter of it plated and set in Mark’s ice box for later, and the rest eaten. Halves was half a meal pack plus the remnant of Fresh. Nibbles was a nibble out of a meal pack plus the rest of Halves. Leftovers, of course, was the end of the cycle, when no new meal pack was opened.

This didn’t apply to Fireball, of course- he got full rations of all the quartz and quartz by-product he cared to eat. The tradeoff, of course, was that Fireball was expected to do more heavy labor than anypony else. But since the explosion- or, as Spitfire called it, the “cave poot”- Fireball hadn’t been eating his limit as he had before. In fact, Cherry had made herself his “dinner buddy” to make sure he ate the equivalent of a full ration.

It also didn’t apply to Dragonfly, for different reasons. Dragonfly’s meal was her fellow crew members- that is, such love as they could donate to her. Thus, before anypony else ate anything, the crew of Amicitas gave Dragonfly a long group hug before each meal, focusing on their love and respect for their fellow astromare.

Under normal circumstances Dragonfly was the first to report for meals, changelings being by nature shameless when it came to their food source. But this time, even after the other four crew and Mark gathered by the galley, Dragonfly didn’t show.

The Hab was not particularly large, and it had no interior walls. It took no time at all to spot the changeling perched on a chair facing the wall next to Airlock 2. “Dragonfly, it’s dinnertime,” Cherry said. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” Dragonfly said.

Time out,” Mark said.

“Time out?” Cherry thought about this for a moment. “What did you do, Dragonfly?”

“Mark caught me using his computer,” Dragonfly said sullenly. “He made me sit here, and every time I tried to get up he sat me back down again. I don’t know why.”

Cherry couldn’t help giggling. “He’s put you in the corner,” she said. “It’s a punishment for very little fillies.”

“Be glad he doesn’t have any paper,” Spitfire added. “You could be wearing a dunce cap.”

Dragonfly blinked, leaning over the back of the chair. “What’s that supposed to do?” she asked. “How is this a punishment?” Her ear-fins flipped back. “Wait a minute, did you say this is a punishment for larvae?”

“If you don’t want to be punished like a child, don’t act like one,” Cherry replied. “Mark, Dragonfly go?

Mark shrugged. “If she learned her lesson- er, if she know not do again.”

Cherry looked at Starlight. “What’s the Mark-word for ‘incorrigible’?”

MISSION LOG – SOL 50

Apparently I have a hacker in my midst. (Hackers in the Midst, the new nature documentary about computer criminals in their natural habitat, coming soon from National Geographic!)

After we got back from today’s seeding of the cave (four hundred square meters of alfalfa, with about two hundred reserved for potatoes later), I went back out to clean the solar farm. When I came back I found Dragonfly with my computer open, going through my files. I don’t know where she learned how to do it or how long she’s been doing it, but I put her in the corner until dinnertime. I was afraid the other ponies might get upset, but they seemed to find it funny.

The odd thing is, she was watching something I’d missed on Lewis’s playlist of 1970s trash TV. Specifically, Superfriends. I’d thought Lewis didn’t have any cartoons apart from parts of The Electric Company, but if I’d picked one horrible cartoon for Lewis to have in her collection, Superfriends would definitely be it. And Lewis was wise to hide it in a subdirectory, because I would have given her all kinds of shit over it.

After dinner I introduced the ponies to it. And for the first time the ponies, changeling and dragon all turned their noses up to it. A bit of whiteboard talking explained why. It turns out superhero comics exist on their homeworld, and none of them are fans. Starlight tried to watch with polite interest, but she was the first one to get restless. The others just didn’t care.

I can’t blame them. This isn’t like the Marvel cinematic universe movies from when I was in high school and college. This is pure crap.

The biggest issue I have with Superfriends is that it’s been made so kid-friendly that there’s no conflict- as in none at ALL. Here you have DC Comics’ greatest heroes (plus Aquaman), and they never actually fight anybody. There isn’t an actual bad guy in the entire first-run series. They’re all natural disasters or bumbling scientists.

And even then half the problems are caused by two teenagers with a mental age of about nine and their Scooby-Doo knock-off dog.

Seriously, where are Wendy and Marvin’s parents? When is the call going to come in to Child Protective Services? “Yes, officer, there are two children hanging around superheroes. They’re allowed to go into horrible danger every day! Volcanoes, train tunnels, alien spaceships! And their legal guardians are nowhere in sight!” It’s like Superman and Wonder Woman went to the Albus Dumbledore School of Child-Rearing.

With Batman it makes some sense. There’s Robin, who’s about the same age or slightly older than the kids. We already know Bruce Wayne is into child endangerment. But Jon and Martha Kent didn’t raise Clark that way! And Hippolyta didn’t… um… sculpt Diana that way… I guess?

Anyway, the kids are just too stupid for words. This show is just plain bad, and not so-bad-it’s-good bad.

And don’t get me STARTED on Aquaman…!

Anyway, we did language lessons for an hour, and then we returned to our regularly scheduled programming. We finished up Partridge Family today. Tomorrow night I finally get around to Six Million Dollar Man.

Oh, and since you’re wondering: the planting is going just fine. Tomorrow we plant one-quarter of the Hab in alfalfa. The rest of the Hab, and the pop-tents, will go for potatoes. Taters will do fine in shallow soil, and the alfalfa I’ll maintain here is more for soil nitrates than for the food it’ll provide the ponies. The soil just isn’t deep enough here for alfalfa to prosper anyway.

After tomorrow the farm project will be complete except for tending the crops. I’m thinking about what comes next. I need to talk to Starlight about a few things before I make plans, though.

And then I need to talk Dragonfly into giving the others typing lessons.

Sols 52-55

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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.

Sol 56

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 53
ARES III 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 = 9964.

18000 – 9964 = 8036

8036 / 200 = 40.18 km

Dragonfly cocked her head in confusion. “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.”

“Glue?”

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.

Sol 57

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 54
ARES III SOL 57

Dragonfly, what are you- no don’t do that- don’t- no no no- oh fuck SPITFIRE!!

Spitfire sighed. She had her suit on except for her helmet, ready to join Cherry Berry for the hike to the gem cave. Since the rover wasn’t going to be available for a while, the ponies were going to have to get used to the walk- not quite an hour each way at a leisurely pace, fifteen minutes at a bouncing gallop in Mars’s light gravity. But time was pressing, and the last thing she needed was for some changeling shenanigans to cost them time checking the soil and watering the hopefully-soon-to-sprout crops.

Spitfire, come here! Dragonfly’s eaten something!

The last few days, with the regular language lessons and the lack of Starlight Glimmer’s magic to translate, had seen rapid improvements in the ponies’ ability to understand the alien biped. She was pretty sure she knew what he’d just said, if for no other reason than that it made perfect sense for a changeling to eat dangerous things. If a thing was annoying, it made sense for a changeling to do it.

Yes, Mark?” she asked in his language, walking over to the work table where Mark had been gluing together large strips of canvas to make the rover saddlebags.

How do you make Dragonfly throw up?” Mark asked, making a hand gesture to convey the idea of tossing one’s cupcakes.

Dragonfly not throw up,” Spitfire replied, trying to make it clear by tone that Mark was asking for a thing that didn’t happen.

“Shows what you know,” Dragonfly muttered in Equestrian. “I can throw up just fine if I eat too much pony food. Anyway, he’s overreacting.”

“What did you eat?” Spitfire asked, also in Equestrian.

“I tasted a bit of his glue,” Dragonfly said. “A little ball of it. It cures really quick, you know.”

What?” Spitfire galloped to the box that contained the ship’s library from Amicitas. “What were you thinking? That could have been poison!”

“It isn’t,” Dragonfly said complacently. “I just wanted to know if I could make more of the stuff. I don’t think I can. It doesn’t taste familiar at all. Not like any of the glues we changelings use.”

“Open your mouth.” Spitfire practically wedged her hoof under Dragonfly’s fangs, paying no attention to the come-on-seriously look the changeling gave her. “Say ahh!” Only a moment later did she realize that, even if she had the mouth-light to see by, she couldn’t see down Dragonfly’s throat around her own hoof.

Dragonfly carefully disengaged the pegasus’s hoof from her fangs. “Spitfire, honestly, listen,” she said. “I’m not being silly and I’m not being foalish. There aren’t many things that can poison a changeling, and most of those things are magical. There’s no magic here. Mark’s glue is just a couple of really complex and disgusting-tasting carbon compounds that make a really powerful resin when mixed. It would probably kill a pony, but only because it would permanently glue your mouth or throat shut. I don’t have that problem.”

“Obviously,” Spitfire said.

“Now, just tell Mark I’m fine, okay?” Dragonfly asked. “I know you’ve got a hard job, but you don’t have to worry about me for now.”

Spitfire reached over Dragonfly’s back and hooked a hoof under one of the changeling’s wings. “Those holes are still too big,” she said. “You ought to be recovering better.”

“I was worse off than this a lot of times before the space program,” Dragonfly insisted. “But if you keep caring about me like you do now, I’ll be hole-free in no time!”

Spitfire rubbed her temple with one hoof. This is not the job I wanted, she thought. This is not the job I chose. I should be running Equestria’s top flight team and training the next generation of Celestia’s defenders of the air. I’m a flyer, not a doctor! “Mark?” she said hesitantly.

Yes, Spitfire?”

Dragonfly not hurt. Dipsticks not get sick.”

“Aw, now that’s harsh,” Dragonfly complained in Equestrian.

Dragonfly, don’t do that again,” Mark said. “You scared the sh- you make me afraid. Very much.

I won’t do it again,” Dragonfly replied. “I needed to know something.”

Mark’s eyebrows made a run for his shaggy hairline, but the alien refrained from asking. Instead he said, “Please go with Cherry today,” and returned to his work.

“You heard him,” Spitfire said. “You’re going to be farming with us today.”

Dragonfly shrugged. “I could use a walk,” she said.

Spitfire bit her tongue on what she really wanted to say. Ever since crashing on this planet, she’d gradually come to understand why Queen Chrysalis was so grumpy and evil most of the time. Imagine having to deal with thousands of Dragonflies, every single day…

If Cherry Berry can put up with all those changelings for four years, she’s Wonderbolts material. Or maybe we can talk Twilight Sparkle into making her an alicorn. Can she do that? Wouldn’t hurt to-

Spitfire’s thoughts got interrupted by Mark’s voice. “Oh, Spitfire, need to ask: what does Dragonfly eat?

Spitfire saw the changeling stiffen. Aha, she thought.

The problem was, she didn’t have enough English to explain changeling appetites for emotions. She could only think of one thing to show Mark. She focused on the silly things Dragonfly did every day, the harmless antics, the often useful information, her absolute fearlessness in the air (a trait Spitfire would admire more if she didn’t think it came from pure stupidity)…

… and then, armed with all the positive feelings for a crewmate and wingpony she could muster, she leaned forward and cuddled the changeling tightly. “Dragonfly eat this,” she said over her shoulder.

When she let go and looked at Mark, she couldn’t tell what the expression was on her face. Definitely not belief or understanding, though.

Whatever,” he said. “I’ll ask Starlight sometime.” Apparently done with ponies for a while, he returned his attention to his pieces of canvas.

Dragonfly let out a slow breath. “He didn’t believe you,” she said.

“I’ll tell him again once I have more words,” Spitfire said.

The changeling’s ear-fins drooped. “Please don’t,” she said quietly. “I need his love too. And you get more love if your… subject… doesn’t know you’re eating it.”

Spitfire’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not getting enough at all, are you?” she asked.

Dragonfly shrugged. “Everyone else is on rations,” she said. “Why not me?”

Voices warred with one another in Spitfire’s head. This is a trick, one voice screamed, a trick for sympathy. Don’t trust changelings! Another voice countered, We aren’t loving her enough! She’s going to starve! And a third voice chimed in, What kind of ponies are we, that we can’t provide enough love for a friend?

“I… have to think about this,” she managed to say.

“Please don’t tell anyling else,” Dragonfly murmured. “Your pity is edible, but your self-anger spoils it. If you tell the others, they'll feel the same way.”

“I’m not much for secrets, changeling,” Spitfire muttered back, no real heat in the words.

“Please?” Dragonfly asked. “Also, try to lighten up a bit on Starlight? Every day you two argue about-“

“Get your suit on,” Spitfire barked, louder this time. “And seal the compost bin. You get to carry it to the cave.”

The changeling trotted over to the spacesuit storage area. Spitfire watched Dragonfly go… and noticed Starlight Glimmer, sitting on a stool on the far side of the Hab working with one of Mark’s spare computers, also following the changeling with her eyes.

Pegasus stare met unicorn stare, and after a long moment, Starlight turned her attention back to the computer.

Yeah, maybe I will lighten up, Spitfire thought. In three days. Starlight’s horn wasn’t sensitive to touch anymore, but a bit more time to heal couldn’t hurt.

In three days, then.

Sols 59-60

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MISSION LOG – SOL 59

Well, tomorrow’s the big day. The harness for Rover One’s battery works well. The fourteen solar panels stack stably enough on top of the rover, although I have to use the ponies’ parachute rope to keep them there. I have three layers of clothes- mine under Martinez’s under Vogel’s- for insulation in case Fireball’s flame isn’t enough to counter Mars’s freezing temperatures. And I’ve loaded the equivalent weight of twenty-five days worth of food and water for two people into the back of the rover. There’s barely space left for me, my passenger, and our port-a-john.

Better yet, in the loading process, I found a whole bunch of spare CO2 filters. Apparently NASA decided to pack the rovers full of emergency reserve filters, because they don’t weigh much and the space in the rover was otherwise empty, so why not? I’ve been worried sick about my EVA time, considering how much suit time I’ve put in these past weeks, but the new supply is more than half the supply I had before. That’s more than 800 hours of EVA, or almost twice as much as I’m going to use on my entire upcoming trip.

Still better- I found Lewis’s personal bag tucked under the driver seat. She’d been scheduled to do a long EVA on Sol 7. She even had a flash drive in the kit- yay, more entertainment! I just hope she has better taste in driving music than in television.

And, best of all, the experiment with turning off the Hab’s oxygenator worked. So long as at least three of the pony suits are operating, there’s enough air exchange to keep the CO2 levels from spiking. What the magic life support doesn’t take care of, the plants seem to catch. So, despite my having stolen more than a third of the Hab’s power generating capacity for the cave and for the rover, our power budget is firmly in the green.

Now, I’m not leaving the hab tomorrow. Fuck, no. I’ve only done a bit of testing between the hab and the cave to make sure nothing falls off. But I am doing the first long-term test to see how far I can get with the two batteries and no heater. In fact, it’s not really a test, unless you count Mercury, Gemini, and early Apollo flights as all “tests.”

I know, that’s what they were, but NASA didn’t call them that. NASA called them missions. And since I am the sole representative of NASA on Mars- hell, I AM NASA on Mars- I can call what I’m doing missions, too.

But it’s not a mission without a fancy mythological name. So… since this is about testing our rover modifications, I’m calling tomorrow Sirius 1.

Sirius. Because dogs. Get it? If not, then fuck you.

Now, I need fancy mission goals and protocols, because these are things NASA does.

So:

Sirius 1 Mission Goal: find out how far I can drive, in kilometers, on the charge in the two batteries, without the heater.

Sirius 1 Mission Protocols: (a) Drive as far as I can, in kilometers, using the two batteries. (b) Don’t turn on the heater.

Huh. It sounds better when NASA does it. Maybe there’s a class that teaches them to write in engineer jargon and bureaucrat jargon combined. There probably is- I just skipped it.

Anyway, I’ll stay in sight of the Hab at all times, so Fireball and I can walk home if something really bad happens. I’ll just drive back and forth on a half-kilometer or so stretch of Mars and watch the mileage log on the rover computer. When the battery hits 5% charge, I stop and swap the power cable to the second battery. (There’s a small emergency battery built into the rover that’ll cover life support for the ten minutes or so that’ll take.) When that hits 5%, I stop, set out the solar panels, and see if my math is right.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow. The only thing I dread is waking Fireball up. I want to drive in pre-dawn time as much as possible so I have as much of the Martian winter daylight as possible to recharge. That, unfortunately, requires waking a large reptile up at oh-God-thirty in the morning.

I wonder if Spitfire will lend me a feather.

MISSION LOG – SOL 60

Sirius 1 is complete!

And by complete, I mean “pulled the plug after an hour and a half,” but hey. Even Neil Armstrong aborted a mission once. So I’m calling it a “successful failure,” in that I didn’t achieve the mission goals, but we got back to the Hab safely.

Things started out fine. Fireball didn’t complain about waking up early. We suited up, got into the rover, drove out about a kilometer to the first gully towards the cave, and began driving back and forth along the rim of the gully.

Things began to go sour when I plugged Lewis’s data stick into the rover computer. I should have known better. Lewis has collected what I suspect is every disco song known to mortal man on that one flash drive. At least, I hope it’s every disco song known to man, because I don’t want to live in a world where there’s even one disco song more.

(Come to think of it, so long as I stay on Mars, I’m guaranteed of that. Silver linings and all that.)

Fireball hates disco even more than I do. After two songs he turned it off. But after fifteen minutes of silence he turned it back on again. After one song he turned it off again. And then he turned it back on, kind of sheepishly, and it stayed on the rest of the trip.

Fireball had damn good reason to be sheepish, too. It turns out he couldn’t sustain a flame for more than a minute or two without triggering some sort of coughing fit. The fit sent clouds of smoke through the rover, which probably saturated the CO2 filters. I don’t know for certain, because the alarm never went off. Fireball had his suit on with the helmet off the whole time, which meant that we got the benefit of air exchange through his life support. It took its own sweet time clearing the smoke away, though.

By the time he turned the music back on for good, he’d given up on trying to relight his flame. It was already pretty chilly in the rover by then. Fireball’s suit air just couldn’t keep up with the rover’s heat loss. The rover’s got the best insulation NASA could devise- the contractors didn’t cheap out on that, at least- but it was competing with a Martian pre-dawn temperature of ninety below outside.

So, from about half an hour into the mission on, we were down to nothing but body heat. And that didn’t last long at all. Three layers of clothes helped, but not much. Half an hour after the music returned, my teeth were chattering and my hands and feet were getting numb. But I soldiered on, trying to push my limits.

Then I looked at Fireball. Remember, he was wearing his spacesuit and getting a constant direct rush of warm air from his homeworld. Despite that, I could see he was suffering pretty badly. At about the ninety-minute mark, he was barely moving at all.

Once, not long after I joined the astronaut corps, I went to speak at a special event in Houston. It was summertime, and the hotel had cranked the AC up to the max, especially in the green room where I waited with a couple of the other guest speakers. And somebody, for whatever reason, had put a stuffed iguana in the middle of the conference table. I got curious, and I was just about to touch it to see what it felt like when its head sloooooooowly moved and one beady eye swiveled almost imperceptibly to watch me. It wasn’t a stuffed iguana at all- it was somebody’s pet, and it was so cold it was on the verge of torpor.

Fireball looked like a white-red-and-gold edition of that iguana.

Jeopardizing my own life is one thing- it’s quite literally what I’m paid to do, even when I’m not stranded on a hostile planet with no hope of rescue. But putting somebody else in jeopardy is just plain wrong. I cranked the heater up to maximum and beat it directly back to the Hab.

Now I’m thinking- well, sulking, really, and I know I’m sulking because Dragonfly just hugged me and told me not to feel so bad. But I’ve got a real problem, and I need to figure out a solution.

Fireball is out as a traveling companion. He never complained once the whole time, unless you count his playing with the radio a complaint. But he appears to be even more vulnerable to cold than I am, and his internal fire just doesn’t work as a heat source. And I can’t drive without a heat source that works a lot better than body heat.

I don’t have to turn the heater on all the way. I could turn it way down. How low can I turn it so that I almost, but not quite, freeze to death?

Blurgh. My head hurts, and in a few hours it’ll be English Time with Professor Watney again. I need some honest relaxation time. I think I’ll crack open another of Johannsen’s Agatha Christie e-books. It’ll be nice to lose myself in the life of someone more intelligent than me for a while.

That’s not saying much. After today, I’m not saying Poirot is smarter than me. I’m saying Hastings is smarter than me. And when you fail to reach the mental benchmark of a World War I infantry captain...

… yeah, today was that kind of day.

It could be worse. I think I’m still outdoing Bertie Wooster.

Sol 62

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“Sorry I’m late,” Teddy said as he entered the room. He walked to his desk, set his briefcase on top of it, removed several folders, and stacked them tidily on one side of his blotter. As he turned to sit down, he looked around the room and froze. “Where’s Miss Park?” he asked.

“Still in SatCom,” Venkat replied. “It’s just past dawn at the Hab. She has to monitor the satellite footage for EVAs.”

“Understood,” Teddy nodded, taking his seat. Everyone else was present. Venkat propped up a wall as per his preference; Mitch sprawled on the couch, his eyes apparently closed but the earbud in his ear turned up so loud that Venkat could hear it buzzing from across the room. Bruce Ng had flown out from Pasadena, and based on the bags under his eyes he was wishing it was dawn here instead of 8:30 PM. And, of course, Annie had her eyes locked to her phone, sending one text after another, putting out media brush fires one at a time.

“Venkat, what’s Watney’s status?” Teddy asked.

“So far as we know, alive and well,” Venkat said. “No EVA yesterday, but Tall Boy went out to clean the solar panels, and the two Oranges and White Hen went to Site Epsilon and back, spending about five hours EVA. It’s two weeks now since we’ve seen White Boxy.”

“Do you think something’s happened to Boxy?”

“No way to know,” Venkat said, shrugging. “Mark hasn’t updated his message, so for the moment we’re just assuming some illness.”

“Any more clues about what the aliens are doing at Site Epsilon?” Teddy asked.

“No idea. But we do have one new bit of data. There’s a small temperature anomaly that shows up on the weather satellites’ infrared sensors. It shows up much better at night than in the daytime.”

“Temperature anomaly?” Annie asked.

“There’s a little spot on the northeastern edge of Site Epsilon that’s a lot warmer than anything else around it,” Venkat said. “In the last few infrared measurements of the site there’s a slight warm spot extending almost to the center of the site, but that one little spot is really warm. As much as twenty degrees above the baseline temperature at night.”

“Something to do with the crash site?” Teddy asked.

“Nope. The crash site is on the southeast edge. Wrong part of the site altogether.”

“Keep working the problem,” Teddy said. “Bruce, any progress on a supply mission?”

“It’s slow,” Bruce said. “We’ve been discussing strapping Delta-IXs onto the sides of a Red Falcon to try to get enough delta-V for a straight shot, but the engineering doesn’t work. Also, we need two to try it, and the only Delta-IX we have is Eagle Eye 3. It’ll be months before ULA can turn out another one.”

“What can we do with what we have?” Teddy pressed.

Bruce shook his head. “For the next two to three months? Nothing. If we launched Eagle Eye 3 to Mars tomorrow, its payload wouldn’t be much more than one box of crackers and a greeting card wishing him good luck. And the earliest that would get to him is Sol 332. If we add enough weight to make it worth the trip, the arrival date gets pushed clear back to Sol 613.

“But Space-X has promised three Red Falcons ready to fly in four months. In an ideal planetary alignment each Falcon could lift thirty-four thousand kilograms to Mars. But with the alignment we have four months from now, we’ll only get about one metric ton each. To feed Mark and his guests, plus a new radio and a couple of other things, we’ll need all three plus Eagle Eye 3. But they won’t arrive until Sol 578 at earliest.”

“By our best estimates Mark and his friends will all be dead by then,” Teddy pointed out.

“I know,” Bruce shrugged. “But I can’t move the planets, and I can’t change gravity. We can get a ship there in time with not enough food to hold out, or we can get enough food there too late for it to do any good.”

“Keep working the problem,” Teddy said. “Have you tried making the final stage lighter?”

“Well, I-“

Bruce was interrupted by Venkat’s phone ringing. Venkat pulled the phone out of his pocket, noticed the name on the screen, and accepted the call. “What is it, Mindy?” he asked. “We’re in a meeting… he is? That’s good, but is there a reason why this couldn’t wait? … Which protocol? … oooooooh, God. Ooooooooh, God. Don’t take any high-magnification photos of anything in that area, but keep watch on the Hab and the area south of there. I’ll be down there in half an hour.”

“What is it, Venkat?” Teddy asked as the director of Mars operations put his phone back in his pocket.

“Watney’s taken the rover south of the Hab,” Venkat said. “Mindy thinks he’s going to where Commander Lewis buried the RTG.”

“He what?” Mitch jumped up from the couch, eyes wide open.

“Oooh, Christ,” Bruce moaned.

“Are you sure about that?” Teddy asked.

“Wait a minute, hold on,” Annie said, looking up from her phone and waving a hand. “Remind me again, what the fuck is an RTG?”

“Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator,” Venkat explained. “It’s what a MAV uses for power while making fuel. We use it because the MAV is too mission-critical to rely on solar power alone. Curiosity also had one, and each of the Viking landers had two.”

“Big whoop,” Annie said. “What’s so bad about it that you look like you’re having a coronary?”

“It’s a fifty pound box that contains a bunch of iridium pellets,” Venkat continued. “Each pellet contains a ball of plutonium-238.”

“Plutonium?” Now it was Annie’s turn to be shocked. “Fuck me! And you let astronauts dick around with that stuff?”

“It’s in iridium-covered pellets inside a graphite-lined case,” Venkat explained. “Both layers have to fail in order for there to be any danger.”

“But it’s almost certain death if both layers do fail,” Teddy pointed out. “Which is why mission protocol is to get the RTG at least four kilometers away from the Hab as soon as duties permit. Commander Lewis performed a solo EVA and did that on Sol 4.”

“But why send it up at all?” Annie said. “And why the fuck does Watney want the damn thing?”

“The RTG does two things,” Venkat said. “It produces one hundred watts of continuous power. That power is generated from heat caused by the plutonium’s natural decay. It’s not an actual reactor. Fifteen hundred watts of heat gets converted into one hundred watts of electricity. He probably wants it for one or the other.”

Bruce was typing on his laptop. “One hundred watts won’t buy Watney much extra distance per day on his trip,” he said. “We’re still assuming he’s modifying the rover for a long journey, right?”

“Right,” Venkat said. “Eventually Ares IV, but we hope not yet.”

“Let me get some people working the numbers on how much more distance he gets if he doesn’t have to run the heater in the rover,” Bruce said. “But just off the top of my head, I think it doubles his daily travel range. If he’s done the same math, then it makes sense.”

“But that’s what I don’t understand,” Venkat said. “Watney knows there’s nothing at Schiaparelli except the MAV. He can’t survive there. So why is he doing this now?”

“I’ll call in Dr. Shields,” Mitch said. “This is a psychological problem. She knows the crew better than any of us. If anyone can guess what’s in his head, it’s her.”

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 60
ARES III SOL 62

Cherry Berry began peeling off her space suit the instant Airlock 1’s inner doors opened into the Hab. “What is he THINKING?” she shouted in Equestrian to anyone who might care.

Starlight, who had been practicing typing on one of Mark’s spare computers, looked up. “He’s standing right behind- SPITFIRE!” She dropped off of her work stool and galloped through the stand of young potato plants towards the sweat-soaked commander. “Cherry, what happened to you?”

“Oh, I just popped back to the Badlands Hive for a few minutes,” Cherry said quietly. “At high noon in mid-summer. Only it wasn’t the Badlands, it was the inside of Mark’s bucking rover!”

Mark hadn’t unsuited. After a brief curious glance at his irate partner for Serious Two (whatever that meant), he walked over to where he kept his tools, selected the largest hammer from the kit, and grabbed a roll of grey tape. This done, he left Cherry in good hooves and stepped back into the airlock, closing it and beginning the depressurization cycle.

Spitfire, meanwhile, had given Cherry the once-over. “It only looks like a lot of lather,” she said. “Some water and a bit of salt and she’ll be fine.”

“How did you get so hot?” Starlight asked.

“You remember that box Mark told us about last night?” Cherry asked.

“Yes,” Spitfire nodded. “He told us it was extremely dangerous and that we absolutely were not allowed to touch it, move it, magic it, or eat it. We were all there, Cherry, of course we remember.”

“He told us it was warm,” Cherry said. “He didn’t tell us you could fry eggs on it!”

“Really?” Starlight asked. “It’s got a metal inside that’s only theoretical to pony science, I know that. But I didn’t know it got hot.”

“Mark had the heater off for the trip back,” Cherry said. “It took less than ten minutes, but in that time it got hot enough in the rover that I wanted to shave my fur off! And I have been to the Badlands in summer, so I know what I’m talking about!”

“Well, he did need heat,” Starlight pointed out reasonably.

“Nopony needs that much heat!” Cherry insisted. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with the shower. A nice cooooold shower.” Ignoring the raised eyebrow this brought from Spitfire, the pink pilot pony stomped across the Hab to the decon shower… until she got to the potato plants, at which point she stepped as lightly as possible.

After that short trip with the alien, staying at base and tending plants definitely looked like the better option to her.

Sol 63

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MISSION LOG – SOL 63

Today we write to you from the rover. We’re halfway through Sirius 3 and things are going well.

I say “we” because, once again, I’m not alone. This time my traveling companion is Starlight. This time there aren’t any clouds of smoke, and there isn’t any gasping for breath in the sudden unexpected heat wave produced by the RTG. The patch of insulation I reassembled is doing its job of keeping just enough heat in the rover to keep things comfy despite it being nighttime on Mars outside. If it gets too hot, I can yank it out again.

We set out just before dawn and drove past the little crater northwest of the Hab and then made large laps of the complex, staying out of the gullies for the most part. The first battery lasted just under two hours. After a quick EVA to switch the cables, we drove until the second battery was down to 10% charge. Result: 82 kilometers in 3 hours and 31 minutes.

Of course, this was the absolute best case scenario. I’ll have to climb down and up through gullies in Acidalia Planitia, and then there’ll be more rugged territory closer to my destination. I can’t even guess how much that’ll eat into my efficiency. And, of course, climbing up onto crater-ridden Arabia Terra on the trip to Ares IV will be much worse.

I was able to stretch the battery a little by turning off the oxygen pump. Starlight’s open suit provides enough oxygen for the both of us and seems to do all right at whisking away carbon dioxide. I keep the circulator fans on to keep the air mixed, because Starlight’s suit system doesn’t have much circulation pressure. It wasn’t built to be the life support for a van-sized pressure vessel. The rover fans prevent the bad air from collecting somewhere and maybe choking us in our sleep.

After the drive I set up the solar cells. Starlight was given permission to use magic again a couple of days ago, but she left the magic batteries in the Hab for this test. Besides, though I’ve seen the ponies do amazing things with hooves in space suits, I don’t want to stake my life on how they handle the solar panels. They’re pretty awkward to handle, and I’m better built to do it.

Then we sat through the long Martian day, with one quick EVA to swap the power cable again. Mostly we stayed quiet. Starlight said nothing at all while I was driving. After we stopped for the day she tried to strike up conversations, but it’s clear she doesn’t trust her English for all the questions she has. We tried talking about who we have back home (her friends, my parents and my fellow crew), but that ran out pretty quickly. We tried describing our worlds, and that ran aground on vocabulary issues pretty fast. Finally she asked me to read aloud from the Agatha Christie book I’m currently on, and I did that for half an hour until my throat got hoarse. (Or was it hoarse got my throat? Rimshot!)

Anyway, the batteries were both fully charged almost exactly at sundown. If I were relying on solar panels alone it might have been iffy, but remember that the RTG is a generator, too. I brought it for the heat, but it also produces one hundred watts all the time whether it’s plugged into anything or not. So why not plug it in?

It’s clear the RTG worries Starlight. Apparently ponies have never felt the need to explore nuclear energy at all. Considering their methods as applied to other technologies as I’ve observed them so far, their world ought to be grateful. But she does understand radioactivity to an extent, to the point that she’s twice tried to find a place for the shitbox farther away from the hotbox. The problem is, there’s very little room to spare in the rover, and I’ve already put the honey bucket as far as I can from the RTG. But it’s still too close for Starlight.

She reacted to it better than Dragonfly, though. Dragonfly took one look at it and bolted back into the Hab. Starlight tells me the bug let out quite a hiss.

With reflexes like that, I think Dragonfly might have a bright future as a NASA safety engineer. It’s a shame that her actual insanely risky thoughts override those reflexes so often.

In a minute I’ll shut this down and declare bedtime. The computer and interior lights don’t burn much electricity, but they do burn some. Even though tomorrow’s drive will be less than a kilometer, I want to start the habit of conserving power for driving.

Tomorrow, once we get back to the Hab, I need to do final prep work for the trip. I need to load food for myself and for Starlight (who I assume will make the trip with me, along with her life support saving suit), water for me, and my tools. But I won’t get to leave the next day, because it’s time to dig up the seed potatoes, replant the plants they grew from, and use the spuds to start the food crops in both the Hab and the cave.

ETD for Sirius 4, to Ares Valles, Carl Sagan Memorial Station, and back, is one hour before dawn three sols from now- Sol 66.

By my math, I’ll get back from the trip almost on the day the pony food packs run out.

God, I hope this trip is worth it.

Sol 64

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 62
ARES III SOL 64

“I’m jealous,” Dragonfly said. “You’re going to spend twenty days all alone with Mark.”

She and Starlight were carrying saddlebags full of Mark’s food packs out to the rover. Mark had picked them out himself, saying that the few remaining pony food packs should remain behind for those who would tend the crops. Mark had his hands full with a large plastic bin full of water.

“You could take my place,” Starlight said. “I think we all know now you know his language better than any of us.”

“Bad idea,” Dragonfly said. “I have to stay with the best source of love, remember? And as nutritious as Mark’s turned out to be, he’s only one person.” She hissed softly and added, “And besides, there’s the Death Box.”

“Are you going to go on about that again?” Starlight grumbled, waiting for Mark to open the rover airlock. “First you were talking about how this planet hates us.”

“It does!”

“Right. And now you’re calling the Artie Gee the Death Box.”

“Starlight, I’ve flirted with the Pale Horse more times than I can count,” Dragonfly said. “It’s fun. But when I look at that box I can see the Pale Horse staring back at me, and she’s saying, I’m not fooling around this time.” Inside her spacesuit, the changeling shuddered. “It’s not that the box wants me dead. Or everyone dead. Or even everything dead. It doesn’t care. It just is death- death in a really thin wrapper.”

“Looked around lately?” Starlight barked back. “We’ve spent the past two months keeping death out by a series of really thin wrappers.”

Dragonfly shook her head. “I still don’t- hey, Mark, let me help!”

“He doesn’t have his crystal on,” Starlight said. “He can’t hear us.”

“But that water’s heavy!” Dragonfly insisted. “I can get it- here, Mark, I have it-“ The changeling tried to shove her way under the tub that Mark was struggling to balance on a spacesuit-padded knee while keying the rover airlock open with his free hand. The shove unbalanced the tub of water, and he fumbled with both hands to keep it from dropping and possibly losing its airtight lid.

“Oops!” Dragonfly reared up, helped steady Mark, and then sat on the rover step, looking obviously contrite. Mark, after a few moments of recovery, set the tub down carefully and then patted Dragonfly’s helmet before motioning her back out of the way.

“What’s wrong with you?” It was Starlight’s turn to shake her head. “What made you think that was helpful in any way?”

“Hey, I’ve got a strong back,” Dragonfly insisted. “I’m not the bossmare, but I’m strong enough! Maybe if I give him another hint-“

“Right, that’s it. I know you’re not that stupid. Can we have a talk?” Starlight pointed back to the Hab. “Inside the airlock?”

Uh-oh. Dragonfly didn’t like that tone. “Why not out here?”

“Because I don’t want Mark to watch us having another fight,” Starlight growled. “Especially since he’s picked up a lot of words in Equestrian, even if he can’t pronounce them.”

“But you said he can’t hear us inside his suit,” Dragonfly insisted.

Now, bug.” The ice in Starlight’s voice made the ambient temperature (a clear late-winter day of twenty-five below) tropical by comparison.

“Yes, ma’am,” Dragonfly said. She double-checked the settings on her suit to make sure the two of them were still on the private channel instead of the crew-wide channel. Yep. Private conversation. She tapped Mark on the knee, used a hoof to indicate that she and Starlight were going back, and waited for Mark’s wave of understanding before following the unicorn into the airlock.

Starlight didn’t bother beginning the repressurization cycle. The instant the outer door was shut she rounded on Dragonfly, snarling. “All right, you. I spent my formative years learning how to wheedle, ingratiate, manipulate, and intimidate ponies into doing what I wanted. I’m trying to be a better mare, but I remember all the little tricks, and you’ve been using them non-stop ever since we got here.”

“I’ve always thought you’d make an excellent hive-queen,” Dragonfly said.

“See? That!” Starlight pointed an accusing hoof at Dragonfly. “That right there! Gratuitous compliments! Kissing up! Offering to help at every possible opportunity! Acting like an adorable moron! Every chance you get, going off alone with one of us and chatting us up! You even do it with Mark, although in his case you mostly act like a puppy who wants attention!” The unicorn’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your game?”

Dragonfly sighed. “If I tell you, it won’t work anymore,” she said. “And it’s really important that it work.”

“Is it the love thing?” Starlight asked. “We all take turns hugging you twice a day! Three times sometimes! I put all my care and concern into that hug! Isn’t it enough?”

So. No, this wasn’t going to go away, was it? Why did ponies have to be so difficult? “You left home at a young age, didn’t you?” the changeling asked. “And you set up your own village, starting it by yourself, recruiting ponies one by one. You thought it was hard work, right?”

“Of course it was hard work!” Starlight insisted. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Did you ever go days at a time without eating?” Dragonfly asked. “Weeks?”

“Er… no?” Starlight said, confused. “I worked hard so I’d always have something, even if it wasn’t very good.”

“I have,” Dragonfly said, all her ingratiation put away in a box, leaving only pure warrior drone. “Every changeling has. Depending on infiltrators to steal love and bring it back across hundreds of miles to the Hive without getting caught or sidetracked. Living so poor that the only clues we had that there was such a thing as not being poor were the little gadgets, knick-knacks and other things infiltrators would bring back with them. Imagine working hard, day in and day out, and having nothing at the end of the day for it. If you can. I don’t have to imagine, because I lived it!”

“So this is about the love thing,” Starlight said.

“No,” Dragonfly said. “This is about the hate thing. This is about the anger thing. Yes, I’m hungry. All changelings are at least a little hungry all the time. But the hugs you give me would be enough if you weren’t all getting on each other’s nerves all the time and making me burn love to keep from getting sick from your bad feelings!”

Starlight blinked. “Why didn’t you-“

“Fireball doesn’t like us because we’re not dragons,” he said. “He respects Cherry Berry because, well, she’s Cherry Berry. And he respects me because I saved his life. But he doesn’t like any of us, and he resents having to work with us. And he hates himself most of all, because he thinks he doesn’t belong here.”

“Well,” Starlight said, “that’s just-“

“Spitfire rides you about your health because that’s practically her only duty,” Dragonfly said. “She feels useless all the time because she’s trained to be a flyer and a commander, and here her only role is medic- for which she’s had all of six weeks’ training total.”

“How do you-“

“Cherry Berry thinks she’s a fraud,” the changeling pressed on. “She wants a princess to come along and take the responsibility off her shoulders because she doesn’t think she can handle it. That’s why she defers to you so much of the time- you sound like you know better than she does.”

“But… well… I-“

“And you,” Dragonfly said, a little maliciously, “spend all of your time so focused on the problem of the moment or your personal issues that you don’t notice or care what any of the others are feeling or saying. Except me, because you’re worried I’ll go feral and start sucking everyone dry.”

“That is not true!” Starlight stomped a hoof, the otherwise silent motion sending vibrations up Dragonfly’s hooves.

Dragonfly took a deep breath, swallowing a lot more malicious things she wanted to say. No one knew better how to destroy a pony than a changeling, but she didn’t want to destroy this pony right now. “Maybe it’s not,” she admitted quietly. “But going by the emotions I get off you all, it’s not far from it. Cherry in particular is a nervous wreck, and I’ve worked with her for years. I know her pretty well.”

“But Cherry’s the steely eyed missile mare!” Starlight insisted.

“Is she in a rocket right now?” Dragonfly asked.

“Technically-“


“You know what I mean.”

“Well… she isn’t, no,” Starlight admitted.

“Does it look like she’ll get to fly another rocket any time soon?” Dragonfly pressed.

“No, it doesn’t.”

“That’s just it. She has confidence in herself where flying is concerned. Give her a flying problem and you can follow her to Tartarus and back. But in every other respect,” Dragonfly paused for emphasis, “she is an absolutely ordinary pony. She’s not a seventh Element of Harmony.”

Starlight made an odd noise, then shut her mouth firmly. Dragonfly nodded. Good, the pony knows when it’s not time to be pedantic.

“So she needs help holding this crew together,” Dragonfly continued. “We only trained as a unit for, what? Three weeks? Not important, because it was only going to be a five-day flight, right? Just go out to Bucephalous, orbit, take photos of future landing sites, and come back. And all of us were either senior pilots, design geniuses, or experienced leaders. We could do the job for five days.

“Well, it didn’t work out that way. Cherry Berry doesn’t know how to keep us going. Fireball doesn’t care. Spitfire doesn’t want to step out of line. And you’re too wrapped up in numbers and magic to notice.” The changeling shook her head and sighed. “So who’s left?”

“I’m guessing you?” Starlight said.

“Right. I’m doing it for my own benefit, sure- I get more food and less poison this way- but I’m also holding the crew together. I’m the silly crazy bug. I’m the cute adorable alien pet. I’m Miss Helpful, Miss Eager, Miss Comic Relief. And all the time I’m not just making you all like me more, I’m making each of you feel a little better about yourselves and each other.”

Dragonfly dropped her spacesuit-covered rump onto the cold deck and finished, “But that only works so long as the target isn’t aware I’m doing it. Once the victim gets suspicious, it’s over.” She pawed the deck with a forehoof and added, “All of that is Infiltrator 101, by the way. This is how changelings survive- by each of us doing our part for the team.”

Starlight, considerably deflated, stepped back, bumping into the inner airlock door. “I, um, I’m sorry,” she said. “But, well…”

“But changeling, yes, I got that,” Dragonfly snorted. “For the record, I’ve never actually lied to any of you.”

Starlight Glimmer hung her head as much as her suit would allow. “Is it really that bad?” she asked.

“Bad enough,” Dragonfly said. “By the way, you being away is about a wash on the negative emotions thing. You won’t be annoying Spitfire or vice versa, but without you she’s going to feel even more useless than before. I don’t want to think about how bad it would be if Mark wasn’t here to distract us.”

“And in a day or two he won’t be here,” Starlight muttered.

Dragonfly nodded. “Hopefully he’ll leave his television library with us. I think I can keep up the English lessons, and that’ll keep us working together on something besides farming.”

Starlight nodded inside her helmet. “I’ll ask Mark about that…” She froze. “I just had an idea. You know how Cherry wanted to try to build a new ship from the parts here?”

Dragonfly flinched. Now who was acting dumber than they were? “That’s impossible!” she insisted. “Mark’s MDV is smashed half to pieces, and the only thing the MAV base has on it is the fuel plant we’re using for extra carbon dioxide! And neither of them are compatible with what’s left of Amicitas in any way! It took over a week for us to talk Cherry Berry down from that idea!”

“You know it’s impossible and I know it’s impossible,” Starlight said. “But it’s worth suggesting as a busy-making activity. So long as ponies have a job in front of them, they tend not to ask questions. Keep them busy, and they won’t make trouble.”

“I’ll think about it,” Dragonfly admitted.

“In the meantime,” Starlight said, “apology hug.”

Dragonfly was grateful for a snack remarkably free of suspicion for a change, even if there was a decided soggy-raisin-cereal taste to it.

Sol 65

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 63
ARES III SOL 65

Cherry Berry smirked as Mark spent half the time in the cave staring at and examining the alfalfa shoots that rose from the cultivated soil like shaggy fur. She wasn’t a farmer by talent, but apparently she’d done well enough to make a plant scientist like Mark speechless.

She liked being in the cave. It was still chilly, but no more so than an early spring or late fall morning. The crystals lit up the inside of the cave as bright as the barren world outside, if not more so, thanks to Starlight’s ingenious enchantment. And with the alfalfa sprouting, Cherry felt a little more… alive… than she did in the Hab. And definitely more so than when she poked around Amicitas.

Poor Amicitas. Most of the pretty outer hull had been ripped away in the salvage operation. The hole in the engine bay had stopped growing, but mainly because the weight of the cargo air lock had lightened the load on the airframe there. Two of the three main engines were permanently out of commission. And yet… and yet…

Cherry Berry still spent a fair bit of time sitting on the commander’s crash couch, bent as it was from the crash, thinking and wishing. If only there were some way…

“If bad thing happens to Hab,” Mark was saying, “don’t try to fix it. Come here. Bring food. I can fix Hab when I come back.”

“Yes,” Cherry said, followed by a relatively new phrase, “I understand.”

“Dragonfly asked that I leave the TV… television… with her,” Mark continued. “I’ll set up a computer for that. Keep up on language lessons!”

“Electric Company. Ah, ah, ah, hand, an, apple,” Cherry chanted.

“Right,” Mark said, chuckling. “What else… right, keep Dragonfly away from don’t-touch places. Trim back potato plants so they don’t overlap.” He made a gesture with his hands. “Don’t handle potato plants with mouth. Poison.”

“I know potato plants,” Cherry Berry insisted. “We have potatoes home.”

“Make sure the tents get water. And… er…” Mark threw his hands in the air. “I guess that’s it.”

“Okay, I understand,” Cherry nodded.

“I won’t be back before twenty sols,” Mark said. “Should be back by twenty-four sols.”

“I understand.” Cherry tapped the neck of her space suit; her helmet was set neatly beside the others near the airlock. “I talk Starlight any time. Be good to her.”

“I will.” Mark raised an eyebrow. “What’s the range… um… how far can you talk on your suits?”

Cherry shrugged. “Suits only, three kilometers. But can use ship. With ship, anywhere… well… anywhere back home,” she said. “Here, not know. Never been… er… here everyone same place usually.”

“Never been apart,” Mark said, holding his hands parallel to each other and moving them away from each other.

“A part of… oh, I understand. Apart.” Cherry nodded her comprehension. “We use ship all sundown.”

“Every sundown.”

“Every sundown,” Cherry repeated. “Short message, save power.”

“Good. I understand.” Mark knelt down and ran a hand across a couple of short stalks of alfalfa. “On Earth this would be right,” he said. “If warmer and brighter. How you do it?”

Cherry couldn’t help giggling. “Magic!”

Mark mumbled some nonsense that sounded like, “Tasket sealeak western, gitta seal lianser.”

“Sorry?” Cherry asked.

“Nothing,” Mark replied.


“You’re out of your mind,” Fireball said.

“No, hear me out,” Dragonfly said. “It’s only until Mark gets back. Then we’ll have the radio from that old probe, and it won’t be important anymore.”

“I’m not going to lie to her,” Spitfire insisted. “And she’s our commander, not some cadet I can assign busy-work to.”

“Look, it’s not lying,” Dragonfly said. “It won’t hurt us to at least go through Mark’s lander and the fuel plant and see what can be salvaged. We already know his lander controls were wrecked when the storm sent it tumbling, but we could salvage the rockets, right? Buck, we could salvage the bolts and rivets!”

“Anything we tried to build, if it got off the ground, would shake itself to pieces before we made orbit,” Fireball insisted flatly. “And if you haven’t noticed, none of us are minotaurs or alicorn princesses.”

“Though Mark does look a bit like a skinny albino minotaur,” Spitfire reflected.

“Guys,” Dragonfly said, “would it hurt you any to try? It’d cheer Cherry up. And besides, what else are we doing with our time? Two hours of watering plants each day, alternating between Hab and cave? This gives us something to do. We need something to do, especially Cherry. I thought Starlight was nuts when she suggested it, but the more I think about it the more I think she’s right. We can at least try it.”

The dragon and the pegasus took a long look at Dragonfly, then a long look at Cherry Berry, who stood at the other end of the cave field talking to Mark.

“All right,” Fireball said at last. “We can begin by double-checking the seats in the lander. Ours are in bad shape, and Mark needs one shaped for him anyway.”

“What kind of fuel does the lander use?” Spitfire asked. “Is there any left?”

“You should probably be the one to ask,” Dragonfly said. “I… er… I may have played the ‘cute but crazy alien’ card one too many times with him.”

Fireball and Spitfire looked at each other, then at Dragonfly. “I know exactly how to break this to you, bug,” the dragon said.

“Cute is a matter of opinion,” Spitfire finished. “But crazy is a cold hard fact.”

“Written in stone by Faust Herself,” Fireball agreed.

Dragonfly’s ear-fins drooped. “Really feeling the love, guys,” she mumbled.


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

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

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, who is this, over?

AMICITAS: SG – Upgraded telepresence array ready for repeat of Comms Alpha. ….. Over.

ESA: Confirm Comms Alpha test? Signal not clear, over.

AMICITAS: Affirm Comms Alpha. Still learning code. Over.

ESA: Stand by. Recommend postponing test until tomorrow, over.

AMICITAS: SG – will not be here tomorrow, over.

ESA: Good. Test postponed for twenty hours mission time, over.

AMICITAS: SG – negative. SG will NOT BE HERE. Over.

ESA: QC – your hoof is terrible. Also, Princess Smart isn’t here today. Friendship or princess things. Over.

AMICITAS: SG – Tell her am going with alien on trip to salvage radio. Estimated duration 23 to 24 mission days, over.

ESA: QC – Please confirm trip with alien, confirm number of passengers, method of travel, over.

AMICITAS: SG – Confirm trip, alien plus SG, alien autocart, over.

ESA: QC – No DF? Over.

AMICITAS: SG – DF remaining at base, reason low love reserves. Urgent perform Comms Alpha today while SG is here to boost power, over.

ESA: QC: Stand by, over.

AMICITAS: SG – Standing by, over.

AMICITAS: SG – Standing by, over.

AMICITAS: SG – Standing by, over.

ESA: QC – Moondancer is here and will operate test on this end. Stand by, over.

AMICITAS: SG – Standing by, over.

ESA: MD – Begin Comms Alpha when ready, over.

AMICITAS: Comms Alpha in progress. No connection. Boosting signal using backup battery, over.

ESA: Confirm no signal. No result on boost, over.

AMICITAS: Boost discontinued, over.

ESA: Discontinue Comms Alpha. Our best assessment further attempts Comms Alpha futile. Dimensional interface either absorbs or blocks connection of telepresence. Over.

AMICITAS: Understood.

ESA: QC – Tell DF scheme harder, over.

AMICITAS: Repeat, please? Over.

ESA: QC says DF needs to scheme harder, over.

AMICITAS: SG – DF is already scheming as hard as she can, over.

ESA: QC – That’s not hard enough. Out.

AMICITAS: SG – back in 24 days, out.

Sols 66-69

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MISSION LOG – SOL 66

Made 79 kilometers today. Everything is working well. Acidalia Planitia is just as boring as you’d expect.

Starlight Glimmer brought three things with her: one of the magic batteries with an absolutely full charge, a whiteboard, and a sample bag full of markers. (Okay, that's more than three things. Bite me.) Now that she’s allowed to levitate things again, she’s going whole hog on writing lessons. She’s already mastered typing… by which I mean, she’s able to hunt and peck individual keys on the computer without mashing eight at once. Her speed is terrible, but she’s practicing.

Starlight likes disco. I think this is a sign that she has been hiding her true evil nature all along, but her dark side cannot resist the primitive synthesizers and thumping beats- the same ones that give me headaches. That said, she’s making a list of the relatively slower and quieter songs, because the peppier ones make her want to dance, and there’s no room in the rover for dancing.

There’s no room in the rover for much of anything. We have a free range of movement consisting of the airlock area, the driver seat, and a small, pony-sized section of the passenger bench. Everything else is either filled or obstructed with the piss-box, the shit-box, the hot-nuclear-death-box, the clean-water-do-not-get-this-mixed-up-box, the tool-no-hyphen-box, and fifty days of food. There’s just barely enough room for us to get in and out of suits when it’s time for an EVA.

I’m going to read more Christie to Starlight now. I’m quite surprised to learn that the ponies have mystery novels too, and horror, and other genres dealing with death. As happy and upbeat as they are most of the time, I thought they’d be more freaked out about a murder. But Starlight isn’t bothered. In fact, she seemed to approve when Poirot arranged things so that a murderer who could never be arrested met an unfortunate end.

Hopefully she can restrain her requests for me to spell out words to one per paragraph. I have definite mixed feelings about teaching a cute violet pony how to spell “exsanguination.”


“Starlight Glimmer, Amicitas. Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas, do you copy?”

Amicitas, Starlight Glimmer. All going well here.”

“Good to hear, Starlight. Hello, Mark, hear me?”

“Hiya.”

“Good test. Starlight, we’ll call every day this time.”

“Copy, Amicitas. We’ll keep in touch. Starlight out.”


MISSION LOG – SOL 67

I haven’t spoken about my sex drive in this log. Sex is the one taboo NASA drills into our heads never to mention in any document that might ever see the light of day. So far as NASA is concerned all its astronauts are unattainable, asexual plastic models of perfect moral rectitude. Which is a load of bullshit, but the training is fierce, and it includes a couple of major black eyes astronauts gave the agency because of it, so it kind of sticks.

But I have to mention it here, because right now Starlight Glimmer and I aren’t on speaking terms with one another, and I have to figure out how to explain why in the least X-rated fashion without descending into NASA jargon.

Last night was the second time we’d slept together in the rover. During the one overnight of Sirius 3 we just slept in our respective seats. Starlight got the better of the deal, because I don’t sleep well in a chair. The driver’s seat is comfortable enough while driving, but there’s no way to turn on your side or even to tilt your head. So last night I cleaned off the whole passenger bench so I could turn it into a bed and claimed that.

Starlight apparently decided to join me during the night, because I woke up with my arms wrapped around her. The back of her head was just under my chin.

When I awakened I had… I’ll refer to it as a condition which is frequent in the human male when he has an urgent need to urinate immediately upon awakening.

I want to emphasize that, although at times I have been made keenly aware that four-fifths of my list of guests is female, the gross anatomical differences mean I have no interest in, well, unauthorized fraternization during the mission, as NASA might put it. If the Martian queen appears on the Martian roadside with her thumb sticking out and a sign reading ARES VALLES OR BUST, all bets are off, but not the ponies. What I woke up to was pure autonomous reflex due to a full bladder and nothing else.

My attempts to get out from under the pony woke her up.

I have to mention at this point that, due to the heat of the RTG, I was only wearing a makeshift short-sleeve shirt and cutoffs. Starlight, as is the pony preference, was completely nude.

So her first sensation upon awakening was of something poking her in what college zoological anatomy taught me to call the flank, a place that no female ever wants to be poked unexpectedly and that no equine likes to be poked at any time whatever.

There are two permanent hoofprints in the back of the passenger bench. Fortunately Starlight was sleeping on her side, which means those two permanent hoofprints are not in me. This means none of my bones are broken, none of my organs are ruptured, and if and when the time comes I will still be able to sire children. But it was a close call neither of us want to risk again.

Starlight activated the translation spell long enough for me to apologize and explain, and she reassured me that something similar occurs with males of her species, but that was the last word we exchanged all day. It was a long, silent 76 kilometers.

Starlight is wearing her under-spacesuit garment, I’m in mine, and the brick of insulation has been removed so we don’t sweat ourselves dry. Tonight I’m probably going to get to use it as a pillow here in this damn driver’s seat.

It’s going to be a long twenty days.


“Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas.”

Amicitas, Starlight Glimmer. All go here. Out.”

“Starlight, is something wrong?”

“Mission proceeds as planned. Starlight out.”

“Can we speak to Mark?”

“Starlight Glimmer out.”


MISSION LOG – SOL 68

When I woke up this morning, Starlight was hiding behind the passenger couch, peeking over the back of it like a little kid.

The glare she was giving me wasn’t a little kid glare, though.

I don’t think I did anything in my sleep, but apparently there’s not going to be much conversation today, either.

Well, out to collect the solar panels, and then onward. Personnel problems or not, Pathfinder isn’t going to jump on Sojourner’s back and come to me.


“Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas.”

Amicitas, this is Starlight. Mission proceeds. Out.”

“We need to ask Mark something about his lander. Specifically, what fuel it takes.”

“He’s not available right now. We’re very busy here. Save battery power. Out.”

“Starlight, what’s wrong? It might help if you-“

“The magic battery will power the main telepresence spell for no more than twenty-five minutes on a full charge. Conserve power. Starlight Glimmer OUT.


MISSION LOG – SOL 69

I woke up this morning with Starlight in my lap. There wasn’t a repeat of Sol 67’s incident, mostly because the weight of her rump and rear hooves had cut off all circulation to my legs. She ended up going EVA to pack up and secure the solar panels. I couldn't.

After we stopped for the day it was her turn to apologize to me. She doesn’t remember joining me in the chair. She’s really spooked out about this. She shifted from English to pony-talk three times in fits of panic-babble. She tried to reassure me that she had no feelings for me “that way”.

We’re talking again. After two of these incidents in three days, we kind of have to. Today’s language lesson was really filthy, or would have been except Starlight insisted I not use any bad English words. Where the fuck’s the fun in that?


“Starlight, this is Amicitas, Cherry Berry speaking. We need to ask Mark about the fuel used by the Emm Deevee. Please put him on.”

“Hey, Mark, get your bucking crystal on!”

“One bucking minute, Starlight.”

“… Starlight, why the buck did you teach Mark the word ‘bucking’ in our language, and how did you get him to pronounce it properly?”

“It’s a long and mutually embarrassing story, Amicitas. We’ll explain when we get back. What do you need to know?”

“We need to know what the fuel is. We’re surveying what can be salvaged from the ships if we need to try to get off this rock in a hurry.”

“I’ll ask him. Mark, what the buck makes your lander fly?”

“Who the buck wants to know?”

“Answer the bucking question.”

“You know what, Starlight, buck it. Mark, I give Dragonfly wrench, open MDV, find out.”

“The buck you say.”

“Not joke, Mark.”

“Okay. Sorry. Please don’t do that. Rocket fuel in MDV is very dangerous.”

“We know. What kind fouel?”

“Fuel. I explain to Starlight. She tell tomorrow.”

Okay. Thank you, Mark. Talk to you tomorrow, Starlight. Amicitas out.”

Sol 70

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Crates and consoles wrapped in plastic littered the small warehouse on the grounds of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. Interspersed among them stood seventeen JPL engineers: software specialists, hardware engineers, testing specialists, and four octogenarians who had been called back from retirement to contribute their expertise as the last surviving members of the original Pathfinder team.

And in the center of it all stood Bruce Ng, standing next to a freshly uncrated, just retrieved from the Smithsonian, duplicate Pathfinder. This had been the fully operational duplicate used to test fixes for problems that came up during the surface mission. Until now it had been a museum piece, part of the grand exhibit celebrating Project Ares and the history of Mars exploration. Now it, like the old men, had been called out of retirement.

“Okay, here’s what we know,” Bruce said, barking out facts machine-gun style. “Mark Watney is driving south-southwest of the Hab. He’s on more or less a direct route to Pathfinder. There’s only one possible reason for him to go there- to salvage the radio. And we have until the day he gets back to the Hab to figure out how to receive whatever message he sends us and send one back he can understand.”

Bruce pointed to Pathfinder. “We’re going to have to assume that Pathfinder isn’t significantly damaged by forty years on the Martian surface and that it’ll reactivate with no problems once it has power again,” he said. “If Pathfinder can’t boot up or produce a signal, we can’t do anything to help, so we aren’t going to test those scenarios. But everything else is fair game.

“In the next two weeks you’re going to put together whatever you need to get this machine working and talking again. Then we’re going to learn the operating system and how to tweak it. We’re going to simulate malfunctions with the memory, with the imagers, with the high-gain antenna tracking system, and Sojourner. We’re going to brainstorm and test ways to produce actions on Pathfinder that Watney might be able to interpret as communication. And we’re going to do it knowing that two-thirds of the original technology we used forty years ago was thrown out as obsolete while most of us were still in grade school.

“All right, everyone,” Bruce sighed, “think of this as the biggest retro-gaming project of your lives. If you can build a MAME arcade cabinet, we can do this. Let’s get started.”

Crates were opened.

Plastic was tossed away.

Things were plugged into wall sockets.

One of the old Pathfinder hands paused when his cel phone rang. He shrugged at Bruce, who gave him an exasperated look little different from his usual look, and took the call. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said. “Grampa’s a bit busy right now.”

The phone’s speaker buzzed in the old man’s ear.

“No, I’m going to have to miss your party,” he said regretfully. “NASA called me in to help them work on something that’ll help that poor man on Mars.”

Excited buzzing.

“Yes, and his cute friends too.”

More excited buzzing.

“Well, I don’t know about that, darling. We don’t even know if Orange Leader speaks our language.”

Buzz, buzz.

“I’m not surprised. Tall Boy is the biggest, and Jimmy always had a love of anything big.”

Buzz, buzz, buzz.

“Honey, there are a lot of people here with me who are going to do their absolute best for all of them. But they’re kind of waiting on me, so-“

Buzz, buzz!

“Well, I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I figured I’d wait until we could talk with the astronaut and maybe get better pictures.”

Buzz, buzz.

“Don’t listen to him. For all we know they could be puppy dog aliens. Or kitty aliens too. What does he think they are?”

Buzz.

“Well, it’s possible. Why does he say that?”

Derisive buzz.

“Kitties are not girly. And ponies are not manly. You can like whatever you like, and don’t let Jimmy tell you any different. Now you tell him to behave, and once my job is done here we’ll all go up to the mountains before the ski season ends.”

Buzz buzz!

“Love you too. Bye-bye.”

He put the phone away. “Sorry,” he said.

“Can we get on now?” one of the other engineers said tonelessly.

“Not helpful, Tim,” said Bruce. “Roger, we all understand, but please turn off the phone for now?”

The work of reviving Project Pathfinder resumed.

Sol 71

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 71
ARES III SOL 73

“SUIT UP!”

Spitfire spared only a second to watch the dragon, the changeling, and the pony jump from their bunks, abandoning Dukes of Hazzard (and why did they bring in these other cousins, Coy and Vance, who looked almost exactly like Bo and Luke? Made no sense) in a mad scramble for the suit storage locker. Then she was off too, leaping for the locker, opening it, and pulling out her suit and helmet.

No undergarment in an emergency. Suit on. Check seals. Helmet on. Activate life support.

“Suit clear!” Dragonfly.

“Suit clear!” Cherry Berry.

“Suit clear!” Fireball.

“Suit clear!” Herself. She checked the time. One minute eight seconds. Improvement. And the confusion and chaos that had accompanied their earliest suit drills was gone, replaced by quiet efficiency.

Not efficient enough, though. She was certain they could get it in under a minute.

“End drill,” she said. “Good job, everypony.”

“Third time today,” Fireball grumbled, but he left it at that.

“Thank you, Spitfire,” Cherry Berry said, sounding a little winded.

“Need help there, Cherry?” Dragonfly asked.

“I’ll be all right,” Cherry said. “Just having a Ponyville moment.”

Cherry had never explained the phrase, but Dragonfly had figured it out and told Spitfire about it. A “Ponyville moment” in Cherry Berry’s vernacular meant a panic attack that would pass in a few seconds. Ponyville had always had more than its share of minor (and occasionally major) disasters and emergencies, thanks to being on the edge of the Everfree Forest. The citizens’ default procedure in such events was (a) panic, (b) look for somepony else to save them, (c) panic a little more because they were so good at it, (d) start cleaning up the mess because it was already over.

Spitfire wasn’t worried about the commander, though. Cherry Berry had been cool and methodical- and fast- during the drill. The reaction didn’t set in until after, just like after an unusually hairy Wonderbolts flight. And in any case, Dragonfly could handle her.

All in all, Spitfire liked how things had been going. She ran daily (or twice-daily) suit drills, plus evacuation drills to Airlock Three (the closest one to Amicitas) in case of a sudden breach. The plants in the Hab seemed to be prospering, and the alfalfa in the cave was outright thriving. She’d kept Dragonfly under observation, noticing with pleasure that the changeling’s holes were- very slowly- shrinking. Fireball’s flame had come back, though he only used it for very brief bursts. And Cherry Berry…

… well, the commander definitely had a spring in her step after reviewing the options presented by Mark’s few remaining ship parts.

For one thing, four of the six seats in his lander were still intact, after dust and rocks had been cleared out of the breached capsule. They were the wrong shape for ponies, but the shock absorbing systems underneath them could be adapted to repair the flight couches on Amicitas.

For another, although the engine bells on the ground stage of the MAV were considerably smaller than the main engine bells on Amicitas, they were compatible. Dragonfly and Fireball had already removed the lower two Amicitas main engines in their entirety for examination. Full diagnostics would have to wait for Starlight Glimmer’s return, but at a first look it appeared the crash damage had been limited to the bells.

Better yet, the MDV apparently had a bit of fuel remaining- not much, but some. Once Starlight sent messages back reporting the exact nature of the fuel- hydrazine with some sort of metal that allowed it to be used as monopropellant- Dragonfly had been the very first to put the fuel system off limits. Cherry Berry had agreed instantly. Still, any upward thrust potential was welcome.

And finally, removing most of Amicitas’s outer skin had freed up dozens of potential mounting points to connect Mark’s landers to. Hooking the spaceship parts together wouldn’t be completely impossible. Cherry Berry had taken great pleasure from that bit of news.

Spitfire had been sure to keep her grounded, though. The ship’s outer ribs had fractured in two places, along with the pressure vessel of the engineering deck. That would have to be cut away, which also meant losing the entire tail of the ship, including the rear landing gear and the engine housing itself. Starlight hadn’t even begun making replacement magic batteries or a new Sparkle Drive. Neither the Amicitas nor the half-wrecked lander had been designed to control a hodge-podge of unrelated ship bits.

And finally- assuming they somehow got off the surface in whatever they built- once up, the ship could never, ever land again. Without Amicitas’s outer hull, the ship would be less aerodynamic than a brick. It would have little to no resistance to re-entry heat. She’d made it very clear to Cherry that taking off was a one-way affair; if launched, it was success or bust, no turning back.

Cherry Berry had accepted that verdict with perfect equanimity. She knew it was a horrible risk and almost certain to fail, she said, but she wanted the option to be there.

So the days fell into a new routine: mornings spent on EVA, with two ponies at the cave farm every other day. Afternoons were spent either planning possible salvage of this or that bit of spacecraft or else working on the Hab’s farm. Evenings were for English lessons and silly human television. (They were rerunning Partridge Family with Mark gone. They’d tried a couple of the other shows on his computer and learned quickly that their English wasn’t strong enough yet to understand why the invisible people found everything so funny.)

She and Cherry had reduced meals to two-thirds rations in order to stretch out their ship’s supplies a little longer before falling back on Mark's supply. Half a meal for breakfast, a full meal at lunch, and leftovers for supper. Cherry had set back two of her own meal packs for last- her two remaining cherrychanga meals, prepared by Pinkie Pie herself. On one she’d scrawled LAST in English in marker, and on the other MARK THANK YOU FOR THE CLOBBER. (Spitfire was pretty sure the word wasn’t “clobber”, but it wasn’t her place to correct the commander about an unimportant thing.)

Spitfire spent every day busy, as did the others. She had purpose and drive again, as did her commander and crewmates. Yes, everything was going just fine.

Except…

… something felt wrong.

She didn’t know exactly what, but for three nights her sleep had been restless. Whenever she worked on the Hab farm she sensed, in a vague and useless way, that something had changed. When she tried to follow up the sense, though, she ended up with nothing except worry.

That worried Spitfire, especially since she’d never been a pony to worry herself out of a good mood before. She’d been the most confident pony on Equus before becoming an astromare.

Whatever. She still felt good. So good, in fact, that she was going to give Dragonfly a bonus late-night snack-hug. After all, the bug had been the one to push the ship work, even if she refused to take credit for the idea.

And who knew? Impossible might not be.

But for now, suit off and back to the television. She had five bits (to be paid upon return home) riding on who wrecked their police cruiser first this episode, Roscoe or Cletus.

Sol 74

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MISSION LOG – SOL 74

Hello humans who read this! I am Starlight… sorry, I can’t find a good English word for mine last name. Mark lets me write this using the dictionary in his computer.

There is a page with pictures of animals on it. The animal closest to what I am is “horse.” But it’s not quite right. Your horse has a strange face and a really small brain. Too I have a horn and your horse does not.

Mark does not want to write today. He went EVA to walk for a while. He is angry. So am I. We hate this rover. The rover stinks from our bathroom. We have to save it for the farm, but it’s really bad. We can’t move because the rover is too full. We can only get space if we wear our suits and go outside, but that is a lot of trouble. We can’t get more than six hooves away from each other. Mine legs hurt from not moving so long.

Mark thinks we get to Pathfinder in two or three more sols. The ground is different here. Where Mark lives is flat. Here there are hills and valleys and a lot more rocks. Mark can’t drive as fast as he wants. The rover moves when we drive over small rocks. Today we had to back up and go around a field of rocks too big to drive over. We drove seventy-two

“Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas.”

kilometers today.

“Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas, do you read?”

“Reading you clearly, Amicitas. I’m kind of busy now, over.”

“Just the daily status check, Starlight. How are you doing?”

“About eight words per minute.”

“Sorry, Starlight, I didn’t copy that.”

“I said we’re fine, Cherry. And I know you’re fine, because you would have called sooner if something happened.”

“Oh… well… okay, then. Until tomorrow, Amicitas out.”

Writing this took me half an hour. I am learning to type but I am slow. I need practice. I need to tell humans how our magic works and how our technology works. We need humans to help mine people find us and come get us. For humans to help us we must help humans.

Too this helps me learn more English. It is strange how English and our language are different words but in the same order. Our numbers are near the same. There are other things I can’t talk about now. Maybe

Mark is back in the rover. He wants me to stop now. I hope I talk with you again.

Sol 77

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MISSION LOG – SOL 77

We found it!

It took a bit longer than I wanted, because our navigation system isn’t perfect and there are a lot of small craters and rocks here in Ares Valles. It’s like we’re driving across the face of an immense acne-ridden teenager.

But we found Twin Peaks this morning and drove towards the hills until we saw the lander. Or, at least, the bits of the lander still above the surface.

Forty years ago when Pathfinder landed, it landed on a mostly flat plain surrounded by small hills and craters. Since then, somehow, it’s picked up and held enough wind-blown dust to create its own sand dune. Only the masts were above the dust level when we arrived, and if the sun hadn’t hit one of those bits at just the right time we might have driven past, or even over, the old space probe. And wouldn't that have been the perfect ending to this trip?

Once we were sure what it was, we parked the rover, got out, and set up the solar cells for charging. Sure, we’d only done about twenty kilometers today, but we’d arrived, so why not get the charge back? Once that was done, Starlight and I began carefully moving the Martian dust off of Pathfinder .

Once we’d got down more or less to the tetrahedron panels, I took a moment to find Sojourner. It was almost right next to the lander, as it turned out. It probably used up its battery life in some sort of contingency mode, continually pinging Pathfinder and wondering why the mama ship wouldn’t answer anymore.

I threw Sojourner in the airlock- it’s less than half the height of a pony and a bit less long than one, so it fits easily. Pathfinder is much larger, and getting it home required some careful consideration.

Starlight brought out her magic battery, which she’s barely touched this whole trip. I knew she was going to try to lift the thing, but I had no clue about the actual mechanics of unicorn telekinesis. I didn’t want to risk her hauling the thing up by the antenna or the imager mast and breaking the most vital bits of the lander off. So I stopped her long enough to explain what we were up against.

Pathfinder and Sojourner together were almost six hundred kilograms of mass at launch. That’s not counting the parachute, heat shield, the landing platform with its retrorockets or winch, or any of the other stuff that got it to the surface. Of all of that, the only things still attached were the balloons that inflated long enough for the lander to bounce and tumble to a stop on the surface. Those balloons stayed attached because there was nothing to cut them off.

Once the lander stopped rolling, it unfolded three triangular petals, all covered with solar cells. That done, it unrolled a little ramp and released Sojourner. And that, aside from its high-gain antenna and stereoscopic imager, was the last time Pathfinder moved… until today.

In an ideal world I’d have carried Pathfinder intact back to the Hab, There are a few devices on the side panels, but they’re totally unimportant to me except for the solar panels. If I could have brought those home, it’s just possible I could use them to at least partially power my new radio.

The problem is, I had a choice: keep the old solar panels, or keep the new ones. There just wasn’t room on top of the rover for both my fourteen Hab panels and a fully intact Pathfinder . And I couldn’t fold Pathfinder up again because its central masts are fully extended, and without power I can’t retract them. If I could close the panels, I’d be risking damage to those masts.

It didn’t take me long to decide that the side panels had to go. So, one careful application of a highly technical mechanical engineering tool (prybar) later, the central panel of Pathfinder had been sundered from the rest. Only then, and only after Starlight assured me she would lift from underneath, did I step back and let Captain Caveyoda take over.

To my surprise, she only lifted it briefly, just enough to move it away from the detached side panels. She set it down resting on a rock cluster (I’ve looked it up: it was Half Dome Rock) so she could point out why she stopped: the ancient tumbler balloons. At the same time wind-blown sand had covered Pathfinder , it had also found tears in the balloons and filled them with dirt.

Starlight wasn’t willing to slice and dice the balloons away in the same manner she’d cut the skin off of her ship with her horn-laser. “I don’t know what I might mess up,” is how she put it. So instead of one quick cut, we worked together, me with a knife and Starlight with very short, careful bursts of light, and in about fifteen minutes we had almost all the balloon material cut away.

Then Starlight lifted the core of Pathfinder up onto the rover roof, onto the back part of the luggage rack where the surface samples bag made a sort of cushion for it. There’s just about enough room left in front of it for the solar cells in the morning.

We weren’t in any hurry to go back into the rover. I mean, we really, really were NOT in ANY hurry to go back. We’ve ended up tangled in one another’s limbs half the nights we’ve been on the road, partly because eleven days on the Martian surface in a billion-dollar buggy really drives home how lonely it is here… but mostly because there’s no place else in our cramped quarters TO be except right on top of each other.

And that’s leaving aside the stench, the muscle cramps, and the absolute and total lack of elbow room in the thing. We wanted an excuse to stay outside, even if it meant using up CO2 filters I could have saved for later.

So we discussed salvaging the side panels for about an hour.

With its masts extended, Pathfinder ’s core is a little too large to fit in the rover airlock. The panels might have been doable, but just barely, and only one at a time. To make it work at all, one of us would have to be inside the rover while the other stayed outside. It would have taken a lot of rotating to find an angle that would let both airlock doors close. But it might have been doable if the need was really urgent.

I decided it wasn’t. Even with all the food we’ve eaten, the rover interior is still pretty damn full. I don’t think we could have stowed two of those panels inside, let alone all three. And once I restore the panels to the Hab’s solar farm, I won’t really be in any need of extra electricity.

So we’re going to leave them here, a last memory of Carl Sagan Memorial Station until the dust covers them up again. Sorry, Carl, but if you were alive I’m sure you’d say that I should do whatever is necessary to survive. Besides, they’ll find something else to name after you.

We’re back inside the hell-hole which is Rover 2’s cabin again. Time to think about the future.

This whole exercise has been about getting a working radio. I won’t know if Pathfinder is even repairable until I get back to the Hab, but there’s nothing obviously broken. I can use air from a pressure tank to blow away dust from components. I have a small supply of lubricant for the rover wheels which ought to help the bearings in the high-gain antenna and imager rotors. And for any electrical mishap short of an actual fried CPU or ROM, I have tools and spare parts. I’m confident that I can fix any purely mechanical or electrical issue.

The thing is, what next? It’s been thirty-five years since anyone’s even attempted to contact Pathfinder. The signal is stronger than anything the Hab can produce anymore, but it’s still weak compared to practically any radio on the ground back on Earth. I can only hope that somebody notices a microwave signal coming from someplace really screwy, gets curious, and tells NASA to get a couple dozen radio telescopes pointed towards it.

But say they do that. What next?

To talk to them I can write things on surface sample label cards. I have a pack of fifty, both sides usable. But how do I receive a message back? Pathfinder doesn’t have any obvious lights or anything, so duplicating the pony telegraph isn’t going to work. That leaves making Pathfinder move something for me to see. There are only three things Pathfinder can control like that: Sojourner, the imager, and the hi-gain antenna.

Pathfinder needs to keep the antenna pointed at Earth or its best guess at the source of its commands, so wiggling that to talk is out. The imager can only rotate on its shaft- full 360 rotation, but no up or down or left or right. I can’t make that work for much more than yes or no.

That’s why, despite space issues, Sojourner is in the cabin with us now, taking up another corner of our constrained universe. If I can get both Pathfinder and Sojourner going, I’ve got as many as six moving parts- Sojourner’s wheels- that could be used. I could work out some kind of semaphore, or maybe write letters and numbers on the wheels and have NASA rotate Sojourner’s wheels to the right characters. It’s still a long way from actual conversation, but it’s better than yes and no only.

I’ve still got a lot to think about, but now isn’t the time. Now it’s time for Agatha Christie. There’s a unicorn here eager to hear more about the homicidal intentions of humans. And tonight one or the other of us will probably sleepwalk looking for a less miserable place to sleep.

But I’ll tell you this right now: if I wake up and find Sojourner cuddled up next to me, I’m throwing that fucking robot back out the airlock. It can hitchhike to Acidalia Planitia if it feels like it.

Sol 84

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 82
ARES III SOL 84

“There it is.”

Fireball looked up from the section of landing strut he’d brought in the previous day. The storm they’d crash-landed into had ripped it off of Mark’s lander and carried it to the foot of the crater rim northwest of the Hab. It, along with a dozen antenna fragments and other odds and ends, had been the product of a coordinated salvage sweep led by Cherry Berry the day before. Dragonfly had pronounced it non-repairable, and so Fireball was left to carefully disassemble it into its hardware and scrap metal. “There what is?” he asked.

“Didn’t you notice just now?” Spitfire asked. “When the airlock was being pumped out?”

“What, do Cherry Berry and Dragonfly want back in?” Fireball asked.

“No!” Spitfire said. “The air current changed in the hab just now! And when the airlock was empty, it changed back!”

Fireball shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Ugh!” Spitfire waved a hoof at Airlock 1. “I’ve been wondering for days what kept bothering me, but now I know! There’s been something wrong in here, and it’s the air currents!”

Fireball spread his tiny wings and flapped them rapidly. His skinny torso stretched slightly, but his feet didn’t leave the ground. He stopped flapping and said, “I don’t feel much difference. Are you sure about this?”

Spitfire nodded. “Now I am,” she said. “I wasn’t before, but now I am. Now we just have to track down what’s changing the air currents in here.”

Fireball sighed and pushed his stool away from the worktable, leaving new furrows in the all-pervasive soil floor. “Okay,” he said. “How strong a change are we talking about? From what direction?”

“It’s just barely there,” Spitfire said. “Not enough to move a dropped feather. But I could feel it.”

“Blockage in the air ducts?” Fireball suggested. “Maybe there’s dust or something in the atmospheric regulator?”

“Hmmmm,” Spitfire thought. “I don’t think so. It feels like it’s coming… coming from…” The pegasus spread her own wings and took flight. She still had to flap her wings hard constantly to stay aloft, but she had a bit more control now, looking less like a frightened chicken than she had on their first day here. After two struggling loops of the Hab interior she landed where she’d been. “Shoot! I can’t tell where it’s coming from!” she said. “My flapping swamps it out!”

Fireball walked carefully over the dirt, through the rows of starter plants and over the ridges of not-yet-sprouted potatoes, to where Spitfire stood. “Hold your breath,” he said, and then he concentrated on his sinuses, forcing his dragonflame through them just so…

A thin gray stream of smoke wafted from his nostrils. It drifted slowly in the air, spreading thinly, until it got sucked up by one of the atmospheric regulator’s nine intakes. Spitfire studied the smoke, moving carefully around the edges of the slow plume, before shaking her head. “It’s no good,” she said. “I can’t see it. But I can still feel it.”

Fireball shrugged and let his flame lapse. The smoke stopped, and in a few moments the atmospheric regulator filters sucked it away.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” Spitfire asked sullenly.

“It’s not a matter of believing you,” Fireball said. “I just don’t know what to do about it.”

“But… but… nngh!” Spitfire stamped the dirt with one hoof. “Every instinct I have is telling me that something’s wrong!”

“Good,” Fireball said quietly.

“What?!” Spitfire was in the dragon’s face in a heartbeat, wings flapping like mad to maintain an unsteady hover. “What *gasp* d’ya mean *wheeze* by that?” she panted.

Fireball carefully put a clawed hand on her head and pushed her back to the ground. “My instincts always tell me everything is fine,” he said. “I try to ignore ‘em. But if your instincts are telling you something is wrong, listen.” He smiled a little and added, “I trust your instincts a lot more than I trust mine.”

Spitfire, wings folded again, gave this a little thought. Then she trotted to the suit storage area, plopped her helmet onto her head, and said, “Cherry Berry, this is Spitfire.”

“Go ahead, Spitfire,” Cherry’s voice replied over the suit comms.

“When you and Dragonfly come back from the cave,” she said, “could you use Airlock 3 to re-enter? The one by the ship, I mean?”

“Um… sure, Spitfire,” Cherry answered, her voice full of confusion. “Do you want us back now? We’ve barely left the base.”

“Negative,” Spitfire said. “I’ll explain when you get back. But for now just humor me, all right?”

“I keep trying,” Dragonfly cut in, “but you never laugh.”

“Not funny, Dragonfly.” Cherry Berry cleared her throat and said more loudly into the comms, “Understood, Spitfire. We’ll use the back door coming home. See you at lunchtime.”

“Roger that,” Spitfire replied. “Spitfire out.” She replaced her helmet on her suit. “That should do it for-“

A brief hissing sound came from the direction of Airlock 1. In a couple of seconds it was over, and the sounds of Mark’s base machinery echoed unimpeded inside the Hab.

“… now…” she finished.

“Great,” Fireball muttered. “I guess we have a haunted airlock now.” Shaking his head, he walked back to the landing strut. Undoing nuts and bolts, at least, he understood.


“What do you suppose that was about?” Dragonfly asked.

“No clue,” Cherry said. “But she sure- hey, look at that.”

Dragonfly turned on her hooves to watch. “Aw, it’s just a dust-devil,” she said. “We have those all the time back at the hive.”

The two astromares from Changeling Space Program watched anyway as the small, slender whirlwind, visible only from its cargo of light fine dust and its effects on the dusty soil underneath, shimmied and twisted its way towards the Hab, sucked into the microclimate generated by the inflatable base’s waste heat. The closer it got to the Hab, the faster it moved towards it, until it practically collapsed, dropping its load of silt almost directly on top of Airlock 1.

For the briefest moment, the canvas rippled, and then everything was still once more.

With the show over, earth pony and changeling turned again and resumed their hike to the cave farm.

Sol 86

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 84
ARES III SOL 86

A light flickered on the rover’s dashboard, then shone steady for about a second, flickered again, shone, and winked out.

“What was that?” Starlight Glimmer asked.

“Hab beacon,” Mark answered, not taking his eyes off the mostly flat terrain in front of them. There were still rocks here and there, not to mention the annoying gullies and the very occasional crater rim or hill. The rover had returned to Acidalia Planitia, leaving behind the more visually interesting floodplain of Ares Valles. “We shouldn’t be picking it up yet. Must be some freak Mars weather.”

“Um?” Starlight wanted to look up the word beacon in Mark’s computer dictionary, but the computer was an integral part of the rover’s control system. Yes, there was a steering yoke and a throttle control and brakes, just like a parade autocart back home, but there was so much else that had to be controlled. Mark kept one hand near the keyboard at all times while he was driving. “What’s a beacon?”

“The Hab has two radios,” Mark said. “One was for talking to Earth. The antennas for that were smashed in the storm.” He took his hands off wheel and keyboard just long enough to slam fist into hand, demonstrating the word smash. Grabbing the wheel again, he continued, “The other sends one signal on one frequency only. Remember frequency?”

“Yes,” Starlight nodded. She’d practiced that one a lot. It would come in very handy when the time came to communicate with humans on Earth.

“Can’t change the signal, can’t change the frequency, so can’t use it to talk,” Mark said. “The rovers use it so we always know which direction the Hab is.”

“Oh. So… like a… um…” She didn’t have the word, but the Equestrian word was a compound of two others, and considering how similar in structure their languages were… “Like a light house?” she asked.

Now Mark did take his eyes off the nonexistent road for a second, looking at Starlight with surprise. “Lighthouse? Yes, like that,” he said. “But lighthouses tell ships, danger. A beacon says, come here.”

Oh, a beacon! Now Starlight knew what Mark meant- like the lights used to help guide airships into port after dark, or the ancient mountain bonfires the earth ponies had used to warn their tribes of pegasus or unicorn attacks back in the days before unification.

But how would you do that by radio? There were affinity spells that could guide a pony to a place easily- there were affinity spells strong enough to drag a pony there by sheer force, in fact. But radio didn’t drag. Radio was just lazy light.

Aha! Light! If you were following a light beacon, you’d head towards the origin of the light! If you were on the right track, the light would get brighter! So if you had a directional antenna, like a parabolic dish, then the signal would be received most strongly when the dish pointed right at it!

What a simple, brilliant invention! She couldn’t wait to describe it to Twilight Sparkle over the water-telegraph. It would work like a magic beacon for anypony, not just unicorns or those with a magically enchanted receiver. “Good-good idea!” she said.

Mark shook his head, as he did so often when she praised something he took for granted. “Very good idea?” he suggested. “Maybe great idea?”

“What is great?”

“Great means both ‘very big’ and ‘very good.’” Mark glanced down at his dashboard. “Time to stop for today.” He looked around, decided he liked the ground where he was, and eased the rover to a stop.

Starlight could hardly believe she was looking forward to putting her spacesuit on. The suit was cumbersome, stiff, noisy, and generally annoying. Sometimes the helmet would knock into her horn, which was always painful. But the air inside the suit didn’t stink like the inside of a Manehattan sewer. Once outside the airlock, the suit let her enjoy a whole planet’s worth of open space. And, for an hour or two, she could put distance between herself and her traveling companion.

To be blunt, Mark stank. Starlight had met many, many ponies in her life, including not a few homeless wanderers seeking who knew what, and the most stinky, unwashed, hygiene-exempt pony she’d ever met in her life could have served as a large air freshener if you hung him around Mark’s neck. Beyond the poop smell and the pee smell of the rover, there was the sweaty musk of, not to be unkind, one hundred and seventy pounds of monkey fresh from the tree.

I don’t remember Sunset Shimmer smelling like this, she thought. Or any of her friends. Or even that film freak, whats-her-name. He looks kind of like a human, and the word human is apparently the same in both languages, but… argh!

I can’t even talk about it to anypony else, because the mirror is supposed to be a secret!

“How much farther?” Starlight asked.

Mark made a tipping-back-and-forth motion with his hand. “Hundred kilometers, maybe less,” he said. “Two sols to go.”

Starlight frowned. Without a spacesuit, a pony could cover a hundred kilometers in a day without getting very tired. She was tempted to just go galloping over the sand and rock and dust until she got back to the Hab, where the atmospheric regulator filtered out the worst of the poo-stink and where she had her own bunk and, praise Celestia, there was a shower.

Thinking of the shower, she was tempted to rip a piece of the rover saddlebag arrangement off, turn it into a saddle, and carry Mark, suit and all, along with her, if it meant getting the stink washed off of him sooner.

But no. They were a crew. They were a team. They were friends. And friends don’t abandon one another.

Mark finished locking down the seals of his own spacesuit and looked at Starlight. “Going to collect more rocks,” he said. “I’ll be done in two hours.”

Starlight snorted. Suddenly it became much more tempting to abandon Mark and his bucking rocks. She’d hoped that, as one horrid bean-based meal after another got converted into roadapples, and as the pile of food packs shrank to nothing, the rover might have a little more room in it. No such luck. Mark had come over all moon-landing, wanting to take samples for science. As if the rocks were ever going back to Earth! When rescue came, there wouldn’t be room for anything more than the six of them. Even Starlight knew that!

Calm down, she told herself. He’s trying to keep busy and stay sane, just like you are. And it’s only two more days.

“Okay,” she made herself say, wishing she had enough magic to spare for the Bottle-Up spell. Just take all the rage at spending almost all day in a rolling can with a stinky monkey who told incomprehensible jokes in a language she was just starting to understand and who didn’t know excellent breaking-edge music when he heard it…

… put it in a bottle and leave it on Mars, where nopony would ever find it again.

Of course, in addition to magic power, she’d also need a suitable bottle. The closest thing they had was the containers they were using as bathrooms, both of which were almost full at this point. Starlight did not want to think about what emotionally charged magic might do to such… ingredients.

“Okay,” she said again. “I will just… go… over there.” Way over there. About a country mile or two. “Do you have your crystal?”

Mark patted the front of his spacesuit. “Battery and crystal right here.”

Starlight used her magic to put her helmet on, having already skinnied into her suit. “I’m ready, then.”

Together the two squeezed into the airlock. It was cramped, but little more so than the rest of the horrible smelly rover.


“Starlight Glimmer, this is Amicitas, come in.”

Amicitas, this is Starlight. We’re about a hundred kilometers south of the Hab. We should return in two days.”

“That’s great! Everything’s okay here… except… there was something I was supposed to tell Mark, but now I’ve forgotten.”

“If you forgot, it can’t be important.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it is. Um… did I tell you we removed four of the seats from Mark’s lander to install in Amicitas?”

“Yes, you did. Mark said okay, but save the old seats. The metal might be useful.”

“We did. And… well, I can’t think of anything else.”

“How’s the mana battery?”

“Thirty percent charge. We only take it to the ship for these sessions. We’ve kept some charge on it.”

“Okay. Save power. Don’t call tomorrow. We should be within trotting distance of the Hab after the next drive.”

“Roger. I’ll think about it. Have your suit ready tomorrow night just in case I call anyway, though.”

“Understood, Cherry. Starlight Glimmer out.”

Sol 88

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As winter gave way to spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, the prevailing winds of the latitude of the Ares III Hab began to shift. What during the winter ran west to east fluctuated, becoming east to west, with what passed for strong guests in Mars's attenuated atmosphere.

What is winter in a planet's northern hemisphere is summer in its southern hemisphere. Just before the arrival of the Ares III crew on Mars, the warming of the surface in the south produced an unusually strong dust storm, strong enough to cross the equator. By a series of coincidences and unintended consequences, the ESA Amicitas’s unplanned entry into the Martian atmosphere had amplified this storm to levels not seen on the planet since the last major volcanic eruption. These winds had battered the eastern face of the Hab, in particular Airlock 1. Airlocks 2 and 3, facing southwest and northwest respectively, had been sheltered by the rest of the Hab.

Two much smaller dust storms, brief and feeble, had visited the Hab since the day of the Ares III abort and the Amicitas crash-landing. Smaller events, like the dust devil witnessed by two of Amicitas’s crew on Ares III Sol 84, hit the hab almost all the time. By freaks of the gradually warming northern weather, these almost invariably struck the Hab on its eastern face.

Under normal circumstances none of this should have been cause for alarm. The materials the Hab was constructed of, and the methods of assembly, had been tested by NASA engineers in an Earth environment as well as simulated Martian environments. The canvas which made up the inflatable dome of the Hab, in particular, had been tested to withstand wind forces up to Category 1 hurricane levels in an Earth atmosphere. Even the freak storm of Sol 6 posed only a relatively minor danger to the Hab, and the other storms no danger at all.

But the stress tests had never taken into consideration the constant use and abuse the Hab canvas, particularly near its seams with hard metallic edges, would see over a mission extended beyond the planned 60-day maximum. Just as a man can wear a hole into granite with feathers given infinite time and patience, so also can repeated long-term strain on a particular point break down something tested and proven to hold up to abuse in the short term.

The Sol 6 storm had opened a tiny flaw in the canvas, hidden by the two-piece clamp that held it in place around Airlock 1. The flaw flexed with every airlock use, stretching and relaxing as the airlock pressurized and depressurized. The hab’s final human inhabitant preferred that airlock because it was adjacent to the rover recharge station. Its alien inhabitants preferred it because it was the most direct route to Site Epsilon and its massive crystal cave. Thus Airlock 1 saw repeated use almost every sol, with Airlock 3 used solely for visits to the remaining portion of Amicitas and Airlock 2 relegated to the status of storage closet.

No visual search would have turned up the leak. The flange it was glued to hid it from the outside, and a metal gasket that clamped it against the flange hid it from the inside. But even with metal pressing it on both sides, it allowed air to escape through the canvas’s multiple layers into the vastly lower pressure Martian atmosphere outside, a few molecules at a time. The leak was too slow to trigger the atmospheric regulator’s pressure warning alarms. Furthermore, with the pony space suits being used to replace the oxygenator, the tiny fraction of lost air was constantly replaced. Thus, no obvious warning sign existed to cause the occupants of the Hab to take action.

Even when the leak became noticeable to the most sensitive of the alien crew, she couldn’t even identify it as a leak, let alone locate it. She could only tell that the operation of Airlock 1 seemed to make it worse. In response to her worries the aliens discontinued use of that airlock. They then used airtight sample bins to transfer vacuum-sensitive materials from the Hab to their ship and its independent air supply.

But despite the caution, the aliens had no warning other than a vague premonition of danger- so vague that none of them remembered to pass that warning on to the owner of the Hab.

Thus he, and his sole alien companion on his overland trip, returned in the Martian dawn of Sol 88 without a clue that his preferred airlock might be dangerous in any way.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 86

ARES III SOL 88

“Finally!” Mark cheered as a brownish lump rose on the foreshortened Martian horizon. “Home sweet home!”

Starlight Glimmer couldn’t quite believe she’d heard properly. “I thought Earth is your home,” she said.

“It is,” Mark said. His face went pale- well, paler than usual. “Oh my God. Did I just call the Hab home?”

“Yes.”

“I have got to get out of this rover.”

“Yes,” Starlight said firmly. “We have to get out of this rover.”

Mark had put the rover into motion shortly before dawn, picking up the solar panels from their final campsite and securing them to the rover’s roof in record time. Now, barely an hour later, he slowed down for the final approach to the Hab.

There had been a few changes. The MAV’s descent stage had lost its engine bells. The MDV had been moved much closer to the Hab, with only a bit of it visible beyond Rover 1. The remaining debris from the Sol 6 storm had been cleared away. But the Hab itself looked the same as ever- maybe a little dustier, but otherwise just as Mark and Starlight had left it twenty-two sols before.

The rover came to a stop. The instant Mark shut down the rover systems he grabbed his spacesuit, slipping it on with the ease and speed of long practice and urgent need. Starlight followed his lead, digging out her own suit and shutting down its environmental system long enough for her to step into its legs and seal it up.

Her suit had held up extremely well for the wear and abuse it had seen. The rubber soles were beginning to wear down a little- she’d have to talk with Dragonfly about re-soling the suits for everypony. But the joints were still sound, with no sign of fabric wear, much less rips that might lead to air leaks. Starlight wondered, idly, if the other ponies’ spacesuits were holding up as well.

Mark sealed his helmet, activated his life support, and picked up his huge toolbox, which had hardly been opened the entire trip. Starlight was a little surprised that Mark was bringing anything with him at all. A little, but not much; after watching him interact with Dragonfly, she knew that the tools were Mark’s greatest treasure on the planet.

Speaking of… Her own suit secure and active, Starlight used her magic to lift the mostly depleted mana battery onto her back. She secured its carrying harness, wriggled her body to test it, and nodded. “Ready to go, Mark,” she said.

“I’m past ready,” Mark replied, stepping into the rover airlock. “Let’s go.”

Starlight squeezed in beside him, and the inner airlock door closed behind them.


Spitfire set the remaining half of her breakfast food pack in Mark’s refrigerator and shut and latched its airtight door. Nineteen food packs remained of the entire Amicitas supply, counting Fireball’s remaining inedible-by-pony meals. Dinner of day after tomorrow, she figured, would be the last meal with food brought from Equestria.

The crops in the cave were coming along quite well, but the first alfalfa harvest in bulk lay weeks in the future- weeks during which the ponies would have no choice but to steal from Mark’s supply of food. She’d already inspected some of his food packs, with the help of a dictionary Dragonfly had found on the computer used for their nightly television viewing. She wished she hadn’t, and she hoped the harvest came in before she learned the flavors of things that, back home, she would have greeted by name.

The thought gave her more incentive to work hard that day. It was another day for working the cave farm, and it was her turn to walk out with Cherry Berry to the cave. By the time they returned Mark and Starlight would finally be back from their long trip, and-

The air pumps on Airlock 1 began to whirr.

Almost instantly, Spitfire felt the air inside the Hab change in that subtle, disturbing way.

She looked around the Hab interior for the others. None of them stood anywhere near Airlock 1; Fireball was finishing off his breakfast of plain quartz, Cherry Berry was putting on her spacesuit undergarment, and Dragonfly was at the computer staring at diagrams she’d found for the MDV, trying again to make sense of them. Obviously they didn’t activate the airlock controls.

Obviously Mark and Starlight were early. They hadn't announced their arrival on the suit comms- and why would they, since nopony had their suit on yet? But Spitfire had counted on their arriving while her suit was on, so she could steer them away from Airlock 1.

They had activated the airlock, depressurizing it in preparation for entering the Hab.

And, equally obviously, neither of them had been warned not to use the airlock.

The pumps continued to whirr, drawing air out of the airlock and back into the Hab. Spitfire watched the canvas wall around the airlock. Was it flexing? Was it shifting, or was her imagination making her see things that weren’t there? Every instinct screamed at her that she and her crewmates were in danger, deadly danger, deadly and immediate danger.

But she didn’t want to panic. She still couldn’t be sure of herself. Nopony else could feel the air current, and everypony had had a try at finding possible leaks in the hab.

It wasn’t even her hab. The person who knew the most about the hab was about to come in by the airlock. If he didn’t find anything wrong-

Spitfire’s frantic chain of thought ceased as she felt the air current, stronger than ever before, ruffling the fur on her back.

No more thought. No more doubt. Time to act.

“SUIT UP!!!”

The airlock door opened. Mark and Starlight stepped inside.

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

“Suit clear!”

Starlight blinked at the series of suit-clear calls flooding her headphones. “Amicitas, Starlight,” she replied. “Guys, we appreciate the welcome home, but shouldn’t the suit drill wait until we’re inside?”

“This is no drill,” Spitfire’s voice replied over the comms. “Does Mark have that crystal you made him on?”

“Yes, he does. What’s going on here?” Starlight looked up at Mark, who had just finished securing the outer airlock door.

“Mark, danger. Maybe hole in Hab. Careful.”

Mark stiffened. “Hole in the Hab?” he asked. “Where? Hold on, we’re coming in.” His hand reached across the small airlock and hit the button to pump air into the chamber.

The Hab canvas was a triumph of NASA engineering, layers of complex polymers reinforced with a weave of carbon fibers. The material combined unprecedented strength, insulation, radiation reflectivity, and lightness. It had been assembled with care by the Ares III crew on Sol 1, using an equally miraculous resin on convenient seal-strips that formed an airtight seal even stronger than the canvas itself.

As miraculous as the canvas was, it was not indestructible.

As Airlock 1 depressurized, two of the fibers around the flaw in the fabric stretched and failed, snapping apart, making the gap in the weave larger. The rest held, under the tension of more than five thousand kilograms per square meter, as the airlock finished depressurizing.

But as the astronaut began the repressurization process, the airlock began to expand again, causing the flawed canvas to slacken for a fraction of a second. The air pressure of the interior of the Hab pulled it taut again almost instantly, tugging harder on the remaining fibers in the process.

This slight tug, atop the strain already present, proved too much. More fibers parted. The failures propagated up and down the edge where canvas met airlock metal. Without its reinforcement, and with thirteen point nine pounds per square inch of differential pressure backing it, the canvas failed, parting enough for an actual hole, visible to the eye, to appear along the edge of the airlock’s flange.

In less time than it would take that eye to blink, the hole propagated around the entire perimeter of the airlock.

On Sol 88, the Ares III Hab suffered sudden eruptive decompression. The wind generated lasted for only a fraction of a second, but for that second thousands of pounds of force exerted themselves against the metal canister which was Airlock 1.

The airlock, and its two occupants, went flying, soaring for twenty meters before tumbling across the Martian surface for thirty more, beating and battering the people inside before finally coming to rest.

The Hab systems, sensing the sudden and total loss of air pressure, enacted an emergency shutdown. Breakers snapped open. Valves snapped shut. Electrical supply died.

Inside the now all-but-airless Hab, things were chaos.

Inside the airlock, things were worse.

AUDIO LOG – WATNEY, M. – SOL 88

RECORDING…

Ooooh… oh, my head… what the hell happened?

….

You fucking kidding me?

For the record, since my suit is recording all of this, Mars has just given me a wonderful welcome-back-fuck-you gift by waiting until the moment I got back to the Hab to have it breach. And by breach I mean send Airlock 1 flying a good fifty meters, with Starlight and I tumbled like socks in a dryer. I’m having to wipe a trickle of blood from my forehead because my stupid fucking idiotic safety-glass faceplate took the brunt of my impact with the airlock inner door when the thing went flying.

The good news is, my suit had more than enough air in it- fresh O2 and N2 tanks- to fill the airlock. The bad news is, I’m hearing a hissing sound, and I’m really hoping it’s a leak in Starlight’s suit. If it’s not, we’re in real trouble.

Checking my suit air tank levels… yeah, we’re fucked. My suit is still backfilling air. The airlock has a small leak somewhere. I know it’s a small leak because if it was a large leak we’d already be dead.

I’m hearing a lot of pony voices over their comm channel. There’s a real sore spot on my chest where the battery for the crystal communicator Starlight made for me rests. In the bouncing around we took I must have banged my chest against something- maybe my arms. Doesn’t feel too bad, though. I don’t think anything’s broken.

I hear Cherry’s voice now. She’s taking charge.

Watney here, Cherry. I mean Mark here. The glass on my helmet is broken, but I think I’m okay.

I don’t know. I’ll check. Starlight? Starlight, are you awake?

Oh. Oh, this is bad. Cherry, Starlight was carrying her battery when the Hab blew out.

Dragonfly, do you understand me? Good, explain it to Cherry. Starlight was carrying the battery. When the Hab blew out we got shaken up hard. The harness shifted on her and pinned one of her legs. The metal on the battery cut a hole in her suit. Also I think her leg is broken. And she’s out cold. Unconscious. Not awake.

That’s right, she has a hole in her suit.

Also, the airlock is leaking.

Leaking. It has a hole in it. Either that or there’s another Dragonfly in here with me.

No, there isn’t really another Dragonfly in here. I just meant it hisses.

Look, I have to find that leak while I still have air in my suit. My suit has a hole in it too.

The lights? The lights on Starlight’s suit are all green.

She does? Good. I’m turning my air off, then.

What? Okay, I’m waiting.

Oh. Okay, I’ll leave it on. But that means I need to find that leak really quick.

No, I don’t want to wake Starlight. We both took a beating. If her leg is broken, she’s really going to hurt.

Okay. I’m going to turn my crystal off now. I’ll call you when I have something to say. Mark out.

Okay. Have to think fast. Starlight’s life depends on it. If the air pressure drops too low in here her life support will shut down automatically. I have to fix the leak while my suit still has air in its tanks.

So. How can I find that leak?

I need a visible vapor of some kind. The only kind I can think of is smoke. What have I got in here that can burn?

Hair. My hair and Starlight’s hair. But I don’t want to disturb her until I have to, so my hair will have to do.

First step, get out of this suit.

RECORDING ENDED


“I found the magic battery, Cherry!” Fireball shouted. His head poked through a curtain of half-collapsed canvas.

“We can hear you fine,” Cherry replied. “Good work. Dragonfly, what about a helmet for Mark?”

“I’m digging out a whole suit for him,” Dragonfly called, her suit barely visible under a collapsed pile of canvas and poles near the bunks. “Just because we know his helmet is shot doesn’t mean there isn’t damage elsewhere. Plus he’ll need more air.”

“Good call,” Cherry replied. “Spitfire, how about first aid?”

“Nothing doing until we can get Starlight somewhere safe,” Spitfire replied from the hole where the airlock had been. “I’ve got our medical kit here, but I’m taking it back to the ship. That should still have air.” Without pausing for permission, she half-trotted, half-bounced out into the Martian morning light.

“It’ll have power, too,” Dragonfly said. “We kept the electrical batteries charged. They should be good for a few hours.”

“Okay. Fireball, give me the magic battery. What’s the charge?”

“One-third, looks like,” Fireball said.

“Good. You take Mark’s new suit and helmet once Dragonfly digs it out. Dragonfly, I want you in the ship. Make sure it can handle all of us. We need to get Starlight and Mark over there as quickly as possible.”

“Okay,” Dragonfly responded. “Fireball, can you give me a claw over here? I’m having trouble getting the suit off its rack. I can’t disconnect the recharge harness.”

“Just a minute. I’ll be with you once I’ve got the battery harnessed to Cherry.”

“Spitfire here.”

“Go ahead, Spitfire,” Cherry said.

“I’m carrying the medical kit up to the Amicitas crew airlock,” Spitfire said. “Just a reminder, we’re probably going to need both Fireball and Mark to get Starlight up the ladder.”

“Got it. Dragonfly, do you think you can patch Starlight’s suit?”

“If it’s only the fabric, sure. But I can’t do it in vacuum. Also, I’ll need a meal pack to make enough goo for the patch.”

“Can you use one of Fireball’s?”

“Hey!” Fireball protested.

“Have something to say, Fireball?” Cherry asked.

“No, ma’am.” The dragon’s voice softened immediately. “Sorry. Force of habit.”

“So long as the gem bits aren’t too large, yeah,” Dragonfly, said. “I can use it.”

“Grab the one marked ‘Rubblerito with Chococoal Fudge,’” Fireball said, seating the battered mana battery on Cherry’s back and fastening the harness around her. “The burrito’s mostly beans and peppers.”

“Will do. Done with the bossmare yet?”

“Yes, he is. Go get that suit, Fireball. Then let’s go help Mark.”

AUDIO LOG – WATNEY, M. – SOL 88 (2)

I owe Dragonfly a great big thank you. If she hadn’t made me paranoid about my tools with all her poking and prying, I wouldn’t have grabbed them first thing when I left the rover, and I wouldn’t have them in the airlock with me. The toolbox came through the tumbling intact, as did everything inside, including the shears I used to cut several locks of hair and the flashlight I’ve just finished breaking so I can make a spark.

If I hadn’t had the tool box… well, I could have pulled a couple of wires on my space suit for the spark. And I could have removed Starlight’s helmet and bit some of her mane hairs off. But the tools make things much easier. Of course, this might get us both killed, so the tools might just be assisting my suicide here. There is that to consider. Mixed blessings and all that.

Anyway, here’s the plan. I’ve closed the nitrogen valve on my suit completely, so it’s now backfilling the airlock with pure oxygen. The higher the oxygen level in the airlock, the more easily my hair will burn. I’ve removed an LED from the flashlight and used a couple short lengths of wire from the supply in the tool box. Now when I switch the flashlight on, I get a little spark. That’s plenty. With enough oxygen, any spark will ignite almost any fuel.

Thing is, I’ve just described Apollo One. Not the parallel I’d like to have here.

Starlight just groaned. She’ll be waking up soon, I think. I need to hurry up and do this. My air levels are dropping pretty rapidly.

Wish me luck…

END RECORDING


Starlight Glimmer opened her eyes. Her head hurt. Her horn really hurt. And her right foreleg…


Starlight opened her eyes again. This time she tried not to think of the leg.

And failed.


For the third time in as many minutes, Starlight opened her eyes again, just in time to hear Mark behind her saying, “Goddammit! Five times!”

“Mark?” she asked, unable to raise her voice much above a croak.

“Starlight, stay absolutely still,” Mark said sternly. “And when I tell you, turn off your suit air and hold your breath. It’s important.”

“What happened?” Starlight asked.

“Starlight, is that you?” a voice asked in her ear.

“The Hab blew out,” Mark said. “We’re in the airlock and it’s leaking.” She heard the sound of a pair of shears working. “Okay. Attempt number six. Suit air off. Starlight, hold your breath now.”

“Starlight, if you’re awake, please respond,” the voice in her ears said.

Starlight, caught between conflicting orders, decided to follow the orders of the person actually in the chamber with her. She pulled her left forehoof under herself and hit the shutoff switch for her suit life support. This done, she held her breath, trying to ignore the gradual ache in her ears as the air pressure in the airlock began to drop.

Silence. More silence. Starlight could hear her heartbeat in her ears.

“Gotcha!” Starlight heard the sound of Mark’s boot hitting the airlock floor. “Starlight, breathe! Air! Now!”

Starlight switched on her suit air again. A warning beep echoed in her headset; the suit sensed the air pressure was below standard pressure. But between her suit and Mark’s the air pressure returned to normal in a few seconds, and the beep cut out.

Amicitas, Starlight Glimmer,” she said, now that the need for silence was past. “I’m awake. Not happy about it, though.”

“Report,” Cherry said bluntly.

“My right foreleg hurts a lot,” Starlight said. “I think it’s broken. It’s pinned by the mana battery. I can feel air blowing through a gash in the suit there. My head also hurts, but my helmet seems to be intact, I think. We’re losing air, but I think Mark is working on that.”

“Yes, Mark told us that,” Cherry replied. “How much magic is left in the battery?”

“Less than ten percent,” Starlight said. “I used most of it when we recovered Mark’s robot, and I’ve tapped it once or twice for translation spells. I’ve really been working on learning his language.”

“Understood. Now this is important,” Cherry said. “Are you able to cast a forcefield spell to hold the air in for about a minute? We can get Mark a fresh suit if you do. We can also give you the other battery- it’s up to thirty-five percent power.”

The sound of Mark unspooling gray tape from his tool kit echoed through the airlock, momentarily drowning out all other sound.

“I think I can,” Starlight said. “But there’s no point in bringing the other battery. I can’t cast a mending spell on my suit while wearing it.”

“Okay. Dragonfly says she can patch the suit. Are you familiar with changeling goo?”

Starlight found the strength to groan. “I suspect I’m going to be a lot more familiar in a few minutes,” she said.

Before Cherry could continue, Mark spoke up, and his voice echoed in Starlight’s ears as she heard it both from in the room and over her headset. “Watney here,” he said. “Air leak secured for now… I mean, I stopped the leak. Are all of you all right?”

“We are all right,” Cherry said, very carefully, in English. “We have plan. Get you in our ship. Starlight will tell you. Okay?”

“Okay,” Mark said. “I’ll shut up and let you talk.”

“Good. Thank you.” Cherry switched back to Equestrian. “Starlight, when I give the signal you put the air retention forcefield around the inner airlock door. Then tell Mark to open it. Fireball will pass the new spacesuit in for Mark, and Dragonfly will come inside with it. She’ll patch up your suit well enough to hold air. Then Mark and Fireball will carry you over to Amicitas. It still has power and air, and Spitfire’s waiting there to splint your leg. Once we’re all in the ship safe, we can discuss what to do next.”

“Got it,” Starlight said. “I’ll explain it to Mark.”

MISSION LOG – SOL 88 (3)

It’s been a very long, very bad day, but it could have been oh so much worse.

It took two-thirds of the remaining spare hab canvas, but the hole where Airlock 1 was has been patched. Starlight tells me that, once a magic battery is fully recharged, she could properly fix the leak in the airlock, but that could take weeks. We need the hole patched now, so we patched it now. Maybe we’ll find some use for Airlock 1 somewhere down the line, but for now we just have to make do with the two remaining airlocks.

The assembly of the Hab on Sol 1 took four people most of the day. Fortunately I didn’t have to reassemble it by myself; most of it, including the heavy equipment, didn’t move very far. Airlock 1 took most of the blow, with the rest of the debris being small objects like all the open markers we’d been using for whiteboards. I checked four of them; all dead, dried out under their non-airtight caps by the Martian air. Fortunately we have the backup supply, never opened, plus the bundle Starlight brought on the Pathfinder trip.

I owe a lot to the ponies’ foresight, particularly Spitfire. She was the one who first knew something was wrong, or so Cherry tells me. None of the others had a clue that the airlock was about to go, but they were careful enough to move a lot of the potentially air-sensitive material, including most of the medical stores, over to their ship. That included the unused alfalfa seeds, which is a very good thing.

All in all, the hab was open to the Martian environment for about seven hours before we verified a good seal on the repaired canvas. That was more than long enough to kill all the plants in the Hab farm. It’s possible some of the bacteria survived at the bottom of the dirt, but it’ll be days before we know for sure. But the original alfalfa stand is dead at least to the top of the roots, and the potato plants are all goners. The new spuds had just begun sprouting, too. Fuck, what a waste.

It’s not disaster. We have the cave farm. Most of the conditioned soil remained in the Hab, with only the loosest dirt blowing out. We can revive that soil a lot more easily than the effort required to condition it in the first place. We have some spare alfalfa seeds, and we can take some potatoes from the first cave harvest to replant those. But it’s a huge setback.

Every piece of equipment survived the sudden decompression except the computer Dragonfly was using at the time (it took a ten-meter flight across the Hab and hit the ground hard, breaking the monitor) and the water reclaimer. I suspect ice formed in the lines, causing them to burst. That’s not a big problem: I have a lot of hose specifically to repair problems like that. Everything else is working fine, which is how I’m able to type this on a computer plugged into Hab power.

The most serious problem is Starlight. Spitfire did the best she could to splint the broken leg, but that’s all she knows how to do. We haven’t got a doctor to do it properly. The ponies apparently had some magic medicines which accelerate healing, but Spitfire says they’re not working nearly as well as they should. She’s going to be bedridden- all but immobile- for three weeks minimum. Fireball and I are going to get a lot of practice carrying her to and from the john, and I guarantee you all three of us are looking forward to that SO much.

And Starlight’s suit is… well, it’ll still hold air. I got to watch Dragonfly hork up the world’s biggest, blackest loogie right onto the rip in her suit. The suit’s absolutely rigid at that point now- the stuff hardened almost instantly. Starlight tells me it’s permanently bonded to the suit, quoting her, “and magic can’t fix it anymore.” Apparently there are spells that can fix broken things, but not beyond a certain point. Trying the spell now with that goo on would just rip off the patch and make a bigger hole, if I understand correctly.

So, even after Starlight gets out of bed again, her suit is permanently scratched for any further heavy labor. She’s going to be limited to the absolute minimum EVA time. Her suit is compromised, and if it fails irreparably she probably dies here. We can’t risk that.

I need an explanation for how Dragonfly can do things like that suit patch that doesn’t begin or end with the word “magic”. But I haven’t got the time now. I want to get the water reclaimer fixed before bed tonight so I can begin trying to fix Pathfinder tomorrow. That’s going to be a long job if it’s even possible at all, so I don’t want anything else on my plate.

Anyway, summary: today was the worst sol I’ve had on Mars since Sol 6. But it could have been worse. Working together, we got Starlight out of the airlock safely and repaired the Hab in a few hours instead of the couple of days it would take me alone. The Hab farm is dead, but it can be revived- and at least some of the alfalfa will be edible, although freeze-dried alfalfa is going to be a taste pleasure for absolutely nobody.

Mars didn’t kill us today. Life goes on, until tomorrow.

And I’ve taught Spitfire the English words for “suit up.” From now on, when she calls a suit drill, I’m joining in.

Sol 89

View Online

“That should not have happened.”

Venkat leaned over Mindy Park’s shoulder and tapped her computer screen with the back of his pen. The screen showed the immediate aftermath of the previous day’s Hab breach. By day’s end Watney had changed his rock message to read, “Sol 88: Hab breach. Repaired. One injured. Crops set back. Att contact via Pathfinder.” Now NASA was in full post-incident analysis mode, with Mindy leading the image analysis team while Venkat himself took a personal role as investigator.

Venkat liked his new role. Teddy wanted a preliminary report by 3:00 PM today. This gave Venkat an excuse to use his scientific training… and, just as good, an excuse to turn his phone off for the duration.

“Why not?” Mindy asked. “The air pressure not strong enough to lift the airlock?”

“Oh, no,” Venkat shook his head. “There was enough air pressure in the Hab to make the world’s deadliest potato cannon. If the entire force of the escaping air had been applied to the airlock, the acceleration would have turned Watney and White Boxy to soup.”

Venkat tapped the screen again. “But that could only happen if the system were designed to do that, with a rigid gun barrel or at least a collar. But the airlock canvas anchoring system stayed with the airlock. The canvas ripped around it. And an escaping fluid under pressure always seeks the path of least resistance. The escaping air should have shredded the canvas but left the airlock alone.” He traced the outline of the hole in the sagging Hab canvas. “Instead the canvas tears around the airlock as neat as you like, compressing enough of the escaping air to provide about twenty meters per second of acceleration. That’s a lot less than its full potential, but it’s still a lot more than it should have been.”

“It’s not impossible,” Mindy pointed out.

“No,” Venkat admitted. “But we could simulate this a million times and never get anything like this result. I don’t trust it.”

“Okay,” Mindy said. “Can we do anything about it?”

“That’s a question for the engineers,” Venkat said. “I’m a physicist. But there are a couple of obvious things we can do, if Mark gets Pathfinder working and we get a solid communication link. We can give him procedures for inspecting the Hab canvas for other flaws, telling him what to look for. And we can have him alternate between Airlocks 2 and 3 for all future EVAs to reduce stress on the canvas.”

Venkat tapped the screen again. “But this will be more useful for Ares IV and V. We’re going to spend months re-testing the Hab canvas and its connection to the airlocks. We might have to redesign the airlocks themselves, maybe give them the same rock anchors the Hab floor uses. That won’t help Mark, but it might save the lives of future crews when we do extended missions.” He stood up straight, stepping back from his perch over Mindy’s shoulder. “Next image, please.”

Mindy advanced the sequence of photos of the Hab. For several stills, taken at various angles by passing satellites, nothing changed, except for one still in which White Hen was visible walking around the Hab in the direction of the alien wreck. Then a picture showed three of the aliens- Tall Boy and the two Oranges- standing next to the detached airlock. “What’s that red on Tall Boy’s suit?” Venkat asked, pointing to the image.

“No way to tell,” Mindy said. “It’s only a few pixels. But if I had to guess, that red looks a lot like our EVA suit color.”

“Show me the next picture.”

Mindy clicked her mouse, advancing the sequence to the next picture.

“What’s that discoloration on the airlock?” Venkat asked.

“I don’t know,” Mindy said. “I noticed it yesterday when the pictures came in. But it’s not a satellite malfunction. All the other photos taken by that satellite are normal.”

Venkat pointed at the discoloration. “That one little spot makes it impossible to see what’s going on there,” he said. “Any chance of a hack? Of outside interference?”

“The picture went up on the big wall the moment it came in,” Mindy said, pointing to SatCom’s main projection screen. “We all saw it at the same time. If someone altered the image, they did it on the satellite end.”

“Double-check with IT on security anyway,” Venkat ordered. “Next image.”

The picture changed.

“Yes, there’s Mark!” Venkat said. “And that must be White Boxy he’s carrying out. And which Orange is that?”

“Not enough behavior clues to know,” Mindy said. “Leader and Random look exactly the same from orbit.”

“So at some point one of them entered the airlock after it detached,” Venkat murmured. “How does that work?”

“Is something wrong with that?”

“Something big is wrong with that. We were never able to replace those stupid safety-glass helmets for the Ares missions. When the airlock detached it would have been about like getting hit by a semi truck at between forty and fifty miles an hour. No way Mark’s helmet could have withstood that impact. So when the airlock opened, there’s no way he could avoid exposure to Mars atmosphere.”

“He seems to be okay here,” Mindy said. “Maybe he was able to open and close the airlock quickly enough to avoid decompression sickness.”

“Maybe,” Venkat hissed softly. “But how? He reports one injury, and from the look of these photos it was White Boxy. But we’ve known the helmets were flawed for years. We just haven’t been able to get the money for replacements.” He tapped the computer a little more forcefully than the image warranted. “Well, we’ll get it now, for sure! This is exactly the sort of contingency that we need shatterproof helmets to prevent!”

“We can’t confirm that Mark’s helmet was broken in the breach,” Mindy pointed out. “All we know for certain is that the Hab breached, and that Mark and four of his guests are okay, and that Mark walked them through the Hab repair procedure.”

“But we can make some good guesses,” Venkat said. “That red on Tall Boy’s suit. You said it looked like the color of our surface suits. Assume it is. That would suggest that Mark’s suit was damaged in some way. Maybe he repaired it well enough for it to last until he could receive a new suit from the aliens.” He pointed to the screen, which showed five splotches of color around the inner airlock door. “That’s what I’m going to report. It’s the best guess we’ve got until we start testing.”

“If Pathfinder works, we can ask Mark directly,” Mindy said.

“That’s true,” Venkat replied. “But the way Mark’s luck is going, I wouldn’t bet on that.” He considered the bad luck of the Hab breach with the good luck of being suited up when it happened. “One way or the other.”

MISSION LOG – SOL 89

No repairs today. Yesterday hit us all a lot harder than any of us realized.

I didn’t get much sleep last night. We all had repeated training on how to repair the Hab in case of something exactly like this happening. I walked my helpers through the procedures step by step, using the spare hab canvas and the fresh seal-strips and resin to do it right. We tested the repairs for pressure and eliminated any possibility of a leak. The Hab was stronger than ever. But that didn’t stop me from waking up from night terrors and cold sweats, expecting a new blowout at any moment.

But it wasn’t PTSD or whatever that woke me up the fourth time. It was sobbing.

Cherry’s English has improved a lot since Starlight and I left on the Pathfinder trip, but it’s still rudimentary. Starlight’s eagerness for new words and proper grammar spoiled me. But the two of us managed to have a long, quiet conversation in the pre-dawn hour. She blames herself for the accident, for not warning us about the potential leak. I tried to take her mind off of it, to tell her it was an accident, but she wouldn’t hear it.

Right now Cherry reminds me of Lewis more than ever. I can’t imagine what Lewis is going through right now. She has to think she left me behind to die. But whatever is in Lewis’s head is also in this alien pony’s head. I’m pretty sure Lewis wouldn’t break down into tears in front of the rest of us, which is why Cherry saved it until the rest of her crew was asleep. But the threat of losing Starlight and me was too much for her to swallow.

Eventually everybody else woke up. It was almost that time anyway. So I decided to get everyone together by Starlight’s bed for an impromptu post-accident inquiry. I figured it was the best way to get Cherry beyond her guilt and get everyone else moving forward again.

Most of the conversation was in English. Starlight’s getting pretty fluent and Dragonfly’s not far behind her, but the other three are talking in a mix of isolated words and catch phrases from Lewis’s TV collection. Occasionally the conversation broke down into a rapid-fire exchange of pony talk which Starlight or Dragonfly translated after the fact.

The first part of the inquest went over what I was told yesterday, fleshing out details. Cherry still thinks they knew something was wrong with Airlock 1 days ago. The rest of her crew disagrees. They all say they didn’t know anything at all for certain. Spitfire had a strong suspicion for about the past two weeks, but no evidence. Fireball insists that they only stopped using Airlock 1 because of excess caution- my words, not his. And Dragonfly kept repeating that none of them had any way to know in advance what would happen.

They’re right. The seal where the hab canvas panel attaches to an airlock is hidden on one side by the flange that the canvas is glued to and by a locking gasket on the other side. A small tear could form in between the two metal pieces, and it would be totally invisible. The gasket isn’t designed to be removable once clamped down- why would you weaken a seal you want to keep airtight? The metal and resin would slow any air leak that formed to a point that it wouldn’t trigger an alarm on the atmospheric regulator.

And so I told them: if I’d been alone, I would never have seen the accident coming. What happened was just bad luck. Just like the accident that stranded me here was just bad luck. I don’t think Cherry bought it, but it’ll take time. Worst case, her whole crew agrees with me.

Anyway, I knew when it was time to stop beating the not-at-all-dead horse. I moved on and asked the others how Cherry did after the accident. All of them told the same story. Cherry took command immediately. She got her crew organized in seconds and put together a solid plan using the available resources to get me and Starlight out of the broken airlock. She did everything a commander’s supposed to do.

I don’t think we really convinced Cherry.I do think hearing what we all had to say made her feel better, though. She felt even better once we ate breakfast. She gave me one of her meals today. It looks like a chimichanga, but instead of meat it has dried cherries and cheese inside. It’s a long way from delicious- chimichangas are not the kind of food best suited to sit in a vacuum-sealed package for months at a time- but it wasn’t bad. I tried to give her half of it, but she insisted I eat it all.

After the inquest, nopony felt like working. So, as senior NASA personnel on base and King of Mars, I decreed a vacation day today. No work for anybody. I pulled out all the surviving computers and set up a networked game of hearts. (It comes preinstalled with the operating system, along with solitaire and Minesweeper.) We watched some TV, beginning with a marathon of Sanford and Son. The pony language skills are just about up to it, with some occasional translation from Starlight and a bit of explanation about racial issues from me.

And that’s how we pissed away a totally uneventful day. I’m hoping we all sleep better tonight, because it’s back to work tomorrow for certain. Tomorrow’s the end of the pony food packs.

It wasn’t quite a total loss of productivity. I finally got the straight story on Dragonfly today. It began when Fireball asked Dragonfly if she wanted another of his food packs for lunch. I’d been so used to the bug not eating that I asked. It didn’t take long to realize Dragonfly didn’t want to talk about it, but this time I insisted on straight answers, and I got them.

It turns out Dragonfly is actually the most magical creature in this Hab. She doesn’t eat food, except for a few scraps here and there and some water. She lives on- you will not believe this- she lives on love. Now I understand why she acts so puppy-like around me: she thinks she has to in order to get enough to eat.

But, in addition to being some sort of Star Trek emotion alien, Dragonfly is also the next best thing to a 3-D printer. NASA considered sending a printer along with the mission, just like they use on the space station, but they decided the weight wasn’t worth the limited use it’d get during a mission. Well, I haven’t got a printer, but apparently I have all the slime, goo, and rubbery substances I could ever want, provided I give Dragonfly food to make it out of.

We spent a lot of the afternoon talking, with Dragonfly almost glued to my side. Strangely, it was Dragonfly who pushed away from me. I thought it was about my smell- I haven’t fixed the water reclaimer yet, and with that offline so is the decon shower. But although Dragonfly agrees with everyone else that I really, really need to clean up, that wasn’t the reason she put distance between us.

Apparently it’s dangerous when a bug-pony takes too much emotional food from one subject too fast, and Dragonfly doesn’t want to knock me on my ass by overeating. She also said if I find myself feeling tired or “not-want-do-nothing-at-all” (depressed), that’s a warning sign. Ditto with bells on if I find myself unable to think of anything except her.

Well. So Dragonfly is a soul-sucker, and the ponies now know the English word for “parasite”. Good educational moment all around, then.

But given the choice between worrying about a big-eyed bug pony who actually knows which end of a tool is which, and the cold, hostile, impersonal planet just outside the canvas dome, I know which I’m going to waste my energy on. In fact, I’d like a plush Dragonfly to cuddle like a teddy bear while I’m thinking about how we’re all one more Hab canvas failure from sudden painful death.

On second thought, make that a plush Spitfire. Dragonfly might be able to stop the leak, but she’d give me warning.

Ah, who am I kidding? If I could copyright all their images and license them to toy companies, I’d be a billionaire overnight. Cute alien plushies for all!

Anyway, we’re all tired and it’s time for bed. Tomorrow I fix the water reclaimer and begin waking up Pathfinder. In the meantime… g’night.

Sol 90

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 88
ARES III SOL 90

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

AMICITAS (DF): Amicitas calling Baltimare, use suit CB for responses, over.

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS (DF): Long incident report to follow. Report when ready, over.

ESA: Stand by, over.

AMICITAS (CB): I hereby resieeeeeeee-

ESA: Repeat message, not received, over.

AMICITAS (DF): Disregard previous message. Report when ready for incident report, over.

ESA: It’s the middle of the night here, Amicitas. We’re waking ponies up now. Over.

AMICITAS (DF): Standing by, over.


“Let me go!” Cherry Berry demanded over the background noise of water spattering inside the Hab’s decontamination shower.

Dragonfly looked up from where she stood watching Cherry’s spacesuit, lying limply on the Hab’s dirt floor. “Don’t make me build a cocoon for you, boss,” she said. “It would be a huge waste of food and energy, but I’ll do it if I have to.”

Cherry struggled in the grip of Fireball and Spitfire, who struggled to hold the earth pony still. “I order you to let me go!!”

“If you quit, you can’t give me orders,” Fireball said. “If you want to give me orders, obviously you’re not serious about quitting.” He glanced over and down at the pegasus gripping Cherry from the other side. “Or is this pony logic at work again?”

“No,” Spitfire said, “this is just what happens whenever a flyer has a Bad Day and survives. She’ll get over it. We just have to stop her from bucking her career in the meantime.”

“What career?” Cherry shouted. “I’m a pilot, not a leader! If Faust had meant me to be a leader, I’d have a horn and wings!”

“Sounds good to me,” Spitfire replied. “We’ll take ‘em off of Chrysalis. It’d improve things all around, in my opinion.”

“Excuse me!” Dragonfly protested, but only because she’d be expected to at this point.

“I am not a princess!” Cherry thrashed again, almost throwing Spitfire off her foreleg. “I never wanted to be a princess! I just wanted to fly! You’re the leader, you take the job!”

Spitfire wrapped her forelegs tighter around Cherry Berry’s limb. “Commander,” she said in her most formal officer tones, “as chief medical officer of the Amicitas it is my considered opinion that, although you are mentally fit for duty, your current emotional state disqualifies you from making major personal decisions that you might come to regret. It is therefore my duty to refuse your offer of command and to restrain you from resigning said command.”

“Besides,” Fireball said, “Spitfire’s the space rookie here.”

“She was the one who saved our lives,” Cherry pointed out. “I just endangered them.”

“Not my point,” Fireball said. “This is a joint ESA-CSP mission, remember? Starlight Glimmer is second in command.”

“Which she is not physically able to assume,” Spitfire chipped in. “Won’t be for weeks.”

“And after that command follows seniority of first flight,” Fireball continued. “Which means I’d become the next commander. Nobody wants that, least of all me.”

“But Twilight Sparkle and Chrysalis would insist,” Spitire finished. “Everything about this crew is a political compromise, remember? Our bosses won’t want to relitigate all that at this point.”

“They- aren’t- HERE!” Cherry punctuated each word with a powerful twist of her body. This time she managed to shake Spitfire off completely, but this left her dangling in Fireball’s grip.

“They still-“

“You’re right!” Dragonfly interrupted, thinking fast. The pegasus was going for the legalistic argument. That wouldn’t work. Cherry needed more active support. “They aren’t here! They can’t tell us who should be the leader! So it’s up to us to decide, right?” Pause for about a second and half, to give the listeners the illusion that they can agree or disagree. That’s long enough; onward. “So let’s hear it: who else here wants to be the commander? Raise a hoof.”

Dragonfly could feel the mixed feelings coming off of Spitfire. She wouldn’t mind being the commander, but she knew she wasn't the one all the others trusted to lead, here and now. She left her hooves down, and since none of the others wanted the job, no other limbs were raised, except for the one Fireball held in his grip, dangling the commander off the ground.

“All in favor of retaining Cherry Berry as mission commander?” Dragonfly continued.

“Aye,” Spitfire replied immediately. Good, good, Dragonfly thought. She’s backing me up. That should be enough.

“Aye,” Fireball added.

“Aye,” Starlight Glimmer called out softly from her bunk. She hadn’t had her morning painkillers yet, and she was laying on her chest on the bunk so the broken leg could dangle down and keep itself straight.

“And I make it unanimous,” Dragonfly finished. “Your resignation is rejected by the only people who matter. And we’re not going to let you go over our heads with it. You’re the boss, boss.”

The water ceased. A moment later Mark poked his head out, taking a long look at the tableau of Cherry being restrained by Fireball and Spitfire. “What’s all the noise? Mutiny?” he asked.

“What’s mutiny?” Dragonfly asked back.

“Mutiny… is, um…” The decon shower's air dryer kicked in, which forced him to shout to be heard. “Mutiny is when a crew tells the captain, ‘We won’t do what you say anymore!’”

“Oh,” said Dragonfly.

“No,” said Spitfire.

“Yes,” said Fireball.

“Maybe?” Dragonfly asked.

Mark sighed and pulled his head back behind the shower curtain to finish drying and dressing.

“Is it a mutiny when the crew is forcing the captain to keep giving orders?” Dragonfly asked.

“Yes!!” Cherry Berry snapped.

“Look, commander,” Fireball said, “you bucked up. We get that. And I bucked up before you. And Starlight bucked up before that- because I asked her to. But bucking up once doesn’t make you a buck-up.”

Cherry Berry looked up at Fireball, saying nothing.

“Mistakes happen,” Fireball continued. “And this time you weren't the only one to buck up. I didn't warn Starlight and Mark either. Neither did Dragonfly. Neither did Spitfire, and she knew more about the danger than any of us. Do you think we don't feel bad about that? We bucked up exactly as much as you," the dragon said with granite firmness, "so are we all supposed to resign too? ”

“But-“

“No? Good," Fireball said, overriding her. "So the question is, are you a buck-up? No, you’re not. We had that out yesterday with Mark. You had us kicking jack and taking names in seconds after the blowout. You kept us on task during the rescue. And you did what you could to help Mark and me fix the Hab. And you held yourself together until we were all safe and the Hab was fixed.” The dragon stared directly into Cherry’s eyes as he finished, “I couldn’t have done that. So don’t try to stick me with the job the next time it happens. Pull yourself together and get back to work.”

Cherry turned her eyes away.

“Let her go,” Dragonfly said. “She’s not going to try to resign again.”

Fireball nodded, carefully lowering Cherry until her hooves reached the floor again. He straightened up and gave a pony-style guard salute. “Your orders, commander?”

Cherry Berry took a deep breath, wiped her face with one fetlock, and glared up at him. “Report to the medic for your injuries,” she said in a calm, stern voice nothing like her angry shrieks of before.

“What injuries?” Fireball asked.

Dragonfly closed her eyes and closed her ear-fins, but the loud crack of Cherry’s rear hooves delivering a mighty uppercut to Fireball’s snout couldn’t be shut out.

“Consider that summary judgment for dangling one’s commanding officer by the hoof for several minutes,” Cherry said. “Spitfire can fill in the blanks to make it nice and military.” She looked at the pegasus next to her and said, “After you check him out and give Starlight her pain pills, suit up. You’re coming with me to the cave.”

“You broke my tooth!” Fireball wailed, sprawled on his back on the dirt floor.

“I have a pill for that,” Spitfire replied cheerfully. "You'll get over it."

“A pony broke my tooth,” Fireball moaned. “When we get back I’ll never hear the end of this…”

The group broke up. After a couple minutes of no one shouting at one another, Mark shut off the air dryer and emerged from the shower, dressed in the still-stinky cutoff clothes he’d had under his suit when the Hab blew out. “All over?” he asked Dragonfly.

“All okay,” Dragonfly said. “Cherry is still the boss. She tried to quit. We stopped her.”

“Aaaaah,” Mark nodded, finally understanding. “Good. Want to help me fix a robot?”

Dragonfly’s earfins perked up. “Steve Austin?” she asked. “A man barely, barely alive?”

“Er… not exactly,” Mark admitted.

Just then Cherry Berry’s spacesuit began spraying water. “Excuse me,” Dragonfly said. “Talking to home now. Follow you later.”

“No hurry.”

Dragonfly tapped out the code for repeat-signal on her own spacesuit. The morning emergency was over, and the bad emotions had been swamped by a wave of mostly-pure loyalty. And spending a day with Mark would provide more love to wash away the last remaining poisonous guilt.

Maybe the corner really had been turned, at last.

Sol 91

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 89
ARES III SOL 91

“Okay, next page please, Mark.”

Starlight Glimmer watched from her bunk as Mark gingerly turned the page of the Amicitas’s ship specs book on the ground next to her, careful not to flex the brittle page more than necessary. The book was a looseleaf binder, making it easy to keep open while Mark took photos of the two newly visible pages. This done, he sat back on his own bunk and typed on his computer while Starlight used her magic to type on another. He was working on his diary; she was trying to translate the text of the manual so the whole thing could be sent to Earth once a steady communication system existed.

It was a quiet day in the Hab. She, Cherry Berry and Spitfire had eaten the last Equestrian-prepared meal packs except for Fireball’s remaining handful the night before. The morning’s breakfast had been an attempt to eat the small supply of freeze-dried alfalfa left after the hab breach. After a couple of bites the whole mini-harvest had been set aside as raw material for Dragonfly’s future use, if and when more goo and goo by-products were needed. After that they had a second breakfast, splitting two of Mark’s mostly-grain breakfast meals between the three ponies and Mark himself.

The main task for the others today was to mulch up the dead potato plants so they could be added to the compost box and their nutrients recycled into the soil. Mark would suit up about once an hour and step outside to look at the space probe he’d spent the previous day working on. So far, nothing had changed. The smaller robot rover sat on a work table, inert, its battery removed, its solar panels sitting directly under a reading lamp.

When Mark wasn’t committing the robot equivalent of watching snail races, he was helping Starlight with her project. She literally couldn’t do it without him. The digital dictionary in the computer wasn’t up to the task, or her English wasn’t up to finding the answers in the dictionary. She had asked a couple of dozen times already for technical words, and on several occasions she’d asked him to transcribe pony words for units of measurement that didn’t line up exactly with human measurements. And although typing by magic was a bit faster than typing by hoof, the tiny trickle of her inner magic’s regeneration in this universe limited her typing speed.

“Hey, Starlight.”

Starlight looked up from her typing a list of labels for the Amicitas’s heat transfer system to see Spitfire walking over. Another of Mark’s computers was carefully perched on her back. Mark didn’t even blink; he’d seen the ponies use this method of carrying things around, without incident, too often to be worried anymore.

“What is it, Spitfire?” Starlight groaned. “You gave me a dose of bone-knit only an hour ago, and the painkillers are still working fine. I don’t need more medicine.”

Spitfire frowned, and for a moment Starlight was afraid she’d argue the point. But she shook her head and said, “No medicine. I just need help finding that dictionary you told us about.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. “Is there some reason you don’t ask someone who knows better than me?” she asked. She used her tiny trickle of magic to cast a minor cantrip of a glowing arrow pointing down at Mark behind his head where he couldn’t see it.

“It’s a surprise,” Spitfire said, smiling.

“Ooooooookay,” Starlight said carefully, cancelling the illusion. “What are you looking up?”

“Dinner.”

It seemed like every question left Starlight more confused than ever. “Right,” she said. “Let me see.”

Spitfire used her wings to pick up the laptop and turn it so the screen faced Starlight. With a few keystrokes the unicorn brought up the dictionary app. “There you are,” she said. “The tab up top with the long label that begins T-H-E,” she used the English letters, “gives you the thesaurus. If you’re looking for a lot of words for the same thing, that’s where to begin.”

“Thanks,” Spitfire said, turning the computer back around and walking carefully back to the pony-use worktable.

“What was that about?” Mark asked.

“Um…” Starlight tried to remember if the word she wanted had ever been in their English lessons. “Thing where you don’t know something is going to happen until it does? Like a party? Or the inside of a box?”

“Surprise?” Mark asked, his hands miming a sort of explosion.

Starlight looked the word up in her own dictionary and nodded. “Yes. Spitfire has a surprise.”

Mark looked a bit wistful. “I used to like surprises,” he said.

“What happened?”

Mark pointed to the elliptical patch in the Hab canvas where Airlock 1 had been. “I came to Mars,” he said.


MISSION LOG – SOL 91

This morning I woke up to a Pathfinder that wasn’t any different than it was when I left it yesterday afternoon. Considering the lack of vandals on Mars, that shouldn’t be too surprising, but I had hoped for something.

If hooking Pathfinder up to Hab power and adding a heater to warm it up to operating temperatures doesn’t work, I’m going to have to crack it open and see if I can find anything broken that I have tools to fix. If the CPU or the circuit board is damaged in any way I’m probably fucked, but anything else might be solvable.

Right now I’m thinking about backup plans if Pathfinder’s brains are permanently offline. The simplest experiment would be to rip off the low-gain and high-gain antennas and hook them up to the Hab radio and see if that works. That’s a last resort, though, because I don’t think I can do that without irreparably breaking the rest of Pathfinder’s systems.

Another alternative would be to bugger the leads to the high-gain antenna and make a telegraphy key. I’m certain I could get an outgoing signal that way. The problem is, I’ve got no clue how to receive a reply. I don’t know enough about the insides of either Pathfinder or the Hab radio to turn incoming transmissions into either audible tones or something the Hab can read.

And that’s really the key flaw in my plan. Getting an outbound transmission is easy; I have the pony ship radio for that, even if it is fighting with Top 20 Radio and public broadcasting for wavebands.

Wait a minute… here’s an idea. I could use Pathfinder as my outgoing telegraphy key. Assuming NASA’s radio telescopes pick up the unexpected microwave transmission from Mars, I can use it to send instructions to reply by one of the five presets in the pony ship radio. The time lag will be enough for me to move from Pathfinder to the pony ship and await a response. (It’s about 11 minutes lag one-way- Earth is a speedy fuck compared to Mars’s orbital velocity around the sun, and in ninety sols one-way transmission time has almost tripled.)

The pony radio is set up for voice. And analog. I’ll have to include that in the instructions I send them- make the return signal loud and in Morse. It might just be possible to get a voice transmission here from Earth, but signal decay makes that unlikely, and that decay’s only going to get worse for the next two hundred and fifty or so sols.

But yeah. That’s doable, as a last resort. I hope it doesn’t get that far, though.

But that’s days ahead. I want to give Pathfinder at least two more days to heat up. The thin Martian air is all too damn good at whisking heat away, but kind of shit at helping heat transfer into an object, even when the object is literally sitting on the heat source like Pathfinder is.

The thing is, the direct power feed I have running into Pathfinder ought to be powering its internal heaters, if they still work at all. But I don’t have a good way of knowing. That’s why Rover 1’s environment heater is there- a backup in case the on-board heaters are offline. Or stolen. I did mention I couldn’t find them yesterday, right?

Maybe I ought to be worried about Martian vandals after all. It might not be a coincidence that when we got here on Sol 1, neither rover had any hubcaps.

Just sayin’.


“Okay, everyone,” Mark said, “here’s lunch. Enjoy!” He laid a full mealpack each in front of Cherry Berry and Spitfire, then walked over to Starlight’s stool-turned-nightstand to offer her a third.

“Excuse, Mark?” Spitfire asked. “Can ask choose meal?”

Mark walked back over to the other two ponies. “Choose your meal?” he asked. “What do you want?”

“Meat.”

Mark went pale.

“Fish meat,” Spitfire continued. “Cod. Hake. Pollock. Trout. Carp. Salmon. Tuna.”

Mark went paler.

“Sardines. Anchovies. I like anchovies,” Spitfire said. With a large toothy smile she added, “Eat whole. Eat fins. Eat heads. Crunch, crunch, crunch.” She made biting motions in Mark’s direction.

Mark turned slightly green. “Excuse me,” he said, stepping uncertainly in the direction of the little-used Hab toilet.

Spitfire laughed, long and loud. “That got him!” she cheered in Equestrian between fits. “That’ll- ha ha- teach him- ha ha ha ha- to treat us- hee hee- like cows!”

She hadn’t noticed that Cherry Berry next to her had turned even greener than Mark, a sight which looked pretty impressive through pink fur.

“Now maybe we can get some of the good stuff,” Spitfire said. “At least eggs for breakfast. I miss eggs almost as much as my-“

“Spitfire,” Cherry said, gulping a bit of air, “shut up right now and that’s an order.”

And the pink pilot pony pushed her pack away.

Sol 92

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 90
ARES III SOL 92

Cherry Berry stood by Airlock 3 and waited. She and Fireball had planned to leave the Hab via Airlock 2, but just before they could enter the red light had come on indicating the outer door was open- less than two minutes after Mark had gone out.

With only two airlocks left in the Hab, it had been decided to alternate use of the airlocks, and never to have both of them decompressed at once, in an attempt to reduce wear on the canvas dome. Mark had gone out Airlock 3 before Cherry and Fireball had been ready to go. Now he was coming right back in, which meant Cherry not only had to wait for him to finish entering, but she couldn’t use the same freshly recompressed airlock.

But the petty annoyance vanished the moment she saw Mark staggering in through the airlock, groping for the clamps that kept the helmet assembly sealed to the rest of his suit. “Spitfire!” she shouted. “Bring the medical kit! Something’s wrong with Mark!”

Mark paid no attention to the ponies, changeling and dragon gathering around him. His helmet off, the lower part of his suit still on, he collapsed onto his knees, eyes wide, jaw slack. Tears were running down his face.

“Mark! Talk to us!” Cherry said, her brain racing to put together unfamiliar words and phrases into something useful. “Are you all right? Why… um…” She realized she didn’t know the English word for crying, and her questions ran aground.

“It works,” Mark whispered. Pathfinder works. It’s pointing towards Earth. It’s getting a signal.” He put his still-gloved hands on Cherry’s shoulders. “Earth is sending a signal. They know Pathfinder’s here. They know I’m alive!!”

A loud, chest-wracking sob struck the human, and he leaned forward, hugging Cherry tightly and burying his face into her mane. “They know I’m alive!!” he repeated, his voice strangled by his tight throat as he cried unashamedly into Cherry’s hair.

Cherry didn’t flinch or hesitate. She reached one forehoof up to hug Mark back, whickering soft comforting sounds as he cried. Moments later Spitfire joined, as did Dragonfly. Fireball, as always, came last, settling for a comforting claw on the human’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong with him?” Starlight called from her bunk. “Talk to me! Don’t make me burn the whole magic battery to levitate myself over there!”

“He just made contact with home,” Cherry said. “He’s no longer alone.”

“What are we, wet straw?” Starlight replied.

“Not the same thing, Starlight,” Dragonfly called back.

This interruption helped Mark get himself back under control, and he straightened up, releasing Cherry. “Sorry,” he said.

“Nothing needs sorry,” Cherry replied. “Go talk to you people.”

“Talk. Yeah.” Mark scrambled to his feet. “Gotta talk. What do I say? How? Um… camera. Stereo imager. Need sign, need message.” He scrambled to the drawer where the markers that hadn’t been dessicated by the breach were kept. Beside them was the precious fifty sample case labels- the only paper in the Hab aside from the pony flight manuals. He began scribbling madly on one; then, finished with that, scribbled shorter messages on two others. “There! Need height, need…” He looked at Fireball. “Where are the antenna scraps?” he asked.

“Scraps?” Fireball asked.

“The bits of antenna you picked up outside,” Dragonfly said in Equestrian. “Where did you stow them?”

“Under Amicitas, outside,” Fireball said.

When Dragonfly repeated this info for Mark, he scrambled to put the upper part of his spacesuit back on. Barely stopping to check the suit’s seal, he leaped to the airlock, then bounded back to grab the three label cards he’d written on.

“I don’t think we’re going to the cave today,” Cherry said quietly.


An hour after posting his first message, Mark had another two-minute EVA. This time his first words upon removing his helmet were, “They said yes!!”

Cherry, Spitfire, and Dragonfly applauded pony fashion, pounding the dirt floor with their hooves. Fireball applauded dragon-style, clapping his paws. Back in the bunks, Starlight Glimmer called out, “Woo-hoo!”

“Yeah, isn’t it great?” Mark asked. “We can talk! We… wait,” he said, sobering up. “We’re not gonna talk very much if all NASA can say is yes or no.” He began pacing, mumbling to himself so that Cherry could only catch about one word in three, something about “both sides” and “three-sixty” and “askie.”

Finally, nodding to himself, he said, “Fireball, I need fourteen more pieces of antenna.”

“Okay,” Fireball said, reaching for his helmet. He hadn’t bothered to unsuit after Mark’s first short EVA of the day.

Mark counted out eight label cards, pulled a pair of shears from his toolbox, and paused. “My shop teacher would throw a fit if he saw me doing this,” he said just before using the shears to cut the stack of cards in half. This done, he dropped the shears on a worktable, grabbed the marker again, and began to label each card with a single symbol.

“What are you doing, Mark?” Cherry asked.

“We have a code called Askie, Mark said. “A-S-C-I-I. Two hundred fifty-six possible letters, numbers, symbols. Dragonfly, please turn on Computer 4 and search all directories for A-S-C-I-I. I know you know how to do that.”

“Yes, Mark,” Dragonfly said, rushing to the cabinet where the computers were kept when not in use.

“I can use these cards,” Mark said, marking the last one, “to get Askie. Two of these equals one letter of Askie code.”

“Not very…” Cherry didn’t know Mark’s word for efficient. “Not sound very good.”

“Cherry, he’s turning twenty-six letters, ten digits, and I don’t know how much punctuation into sixteen total symbols,” Starlight called from her bunk. “That’s plenty good! Good idea, Mark!”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Mark said. “I just hope NASA does too.”


Spell with ASCII. 0-F at 21-degree increments. Will watch camera starting 11:00 my time. When message done, return to this position. Wait 20 minutes after completion to take picture (so I can write and post reply). Repeat process at top of every hour.

11:00 S-T-A-T-U-S

I’m all right- no physical problems. One spacesuit destroyed, another suit helmet broken, Airlock 1 detached & leaking from hairline crack. One computer monitor broken. All other Hab equipment fully functional. Five guests, one with broken limb, others healthy. All on 2/3 rations pending harvest of crops.

12:00 H-O-W-A-L-I-V E

Impaled by antenna fragment. Knocked out by decompression. Landed facedown, blood sealed hole. Woke up after crew left. Bio-monitor computer destroyed by puncture. Freak accident. Crew had reason to think me dead. NOT THEIR FAULT.

13:00 C-R-O-P-S-?

Discovered large cave at Site Epsilon. Full of quartz. Used resources from crashed alien ship to make greenhouse, 600 sq m under cultivation. Add’l 100 sq meters in Hab, lost in Hab breach, will replant using seed & first harvest from cave.

14:00 W-H-O-G-U-E-S-T-S

Aliens from a parallel universe with different physical laws. Experimental FTL drive malfunctioned, change in physics forced them to crash-land here. Need better communication channel to say more.

15:00 A-G-R-E-E- -- - B-R-G-S-J-R-N-R-O-U-T

Sojourner rover brought out, placed 1 meter due north of lander. If you can contact it I can draw hex numbers on the wheels and you can send me six bytes at a time.

16:00 S-J-R-N-R-N-T-R-S-P-N-D

Damn. Any other ideas? Need more bandwidth. Have photos, movies, other documentation of first contact you really need to see.

17:00 W-O-R-K-I-N-G-O-N-I-T

Earth is about to set. Resume 08:00 my time tomorrow morning. Tell family I’m fine. Give crew my best. Tell Commander Lewis four out of five aliens share her horrible taste in music.

Sol 93

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 91
ARES III SOL 93

The large clock that hung above the tiny Hab kitchen area read 07:59.

The Amicitas crew stood ready, spacesuits and headsets on, but helmets off. Dragonfly had one marker stuck through one of her hoof’s holes, waiting for Mark to call out a number or letter in English so she could write it on the whiteboard. Starlight Glimmer, sitting on a stool with her broken and splinted foreleg in a sling, had Computer 4 opened to the ASCII table Dragonfly had looked up the previous day. Fireball, another marker in claw and another whiteboard in front of him, waited for Starlight to call out the translation of each two-symbol code so he could write it on the board. Spitfire sat next to Starlight, watching over her, while Cherry oversaw everything else.

Overseeing, Cherry reflected, means not doing anything yourself.

“Everyone ready?” Mark asked over the suit comms. “It’s time!”

“All go, Mark,” Dragonfly replied.

“Okay, Pathfinder’s moving…” The ponies waited as Mark paused, then called out, “Four!” A few seconds later, “Three.”

Dragonfly marked each down. Starlight called out, “C!”

“Four! Eee!”

“N!”

Fireball wrote it down next to the C.

“Four! … Eight! … Four! … One! … Four! … Three! … Four! … Bee!”

“H……. A……. K …… R …”

And so it went, halves of letters coming every six to ten seconds. Five minutes later, it was done.

“The pointer just returned to the response card,” Mark said. “End of message. What does it say?”

Fireball picked up his whiteboard and brought it to where Starlight and the others could see it clearly. Starlight spoke for them all: “Mark, are you sure they speak English?”

It’s like the short words we use in water code talk,” Dragonfly added.

“Short words are abbreviations,” Mark said idly. “All right, I’m coming back in. We’ll work it out.”

The letters on Fireball’s whiteboard hadn’t changed by the time Mark finished cycling through Airlock 3. They read: CNHAKRVR2TLK2PTHFDRPRP4LONGMSG.

You’re right, Dragonfly,” Mark said when he looked at the words. “It is abbreviations. Short words. And they didn’t waste transmission time on using the ASCII code for spaces.” He took the marker from Fireball and wrote “FOR LONG MESSAGE” under the end of the string of characters. He then found the 2’s and wrote “TO” under each, then “TALK” between them. “PATHFINDER” came next, and with that solved PRP became “PREPARE.”

That left CNHAKRVR. Mark thought for a moment, then wrote “ROVER” for RVR, and finally wrote in the two words at the beginning of the message.

CAN HACK ROVER TO TALK TO PATHFINDER PREPARE FOR LONG MESSAGE.

“What’s hack?” Dragonfly asked.

“I thought you said humans don’t have telekinesis,” Starlight asked. “How can they do anything to the rover from Earth?”

“What’s telekinesis?” Cherry Berry asked.

Starlight pointed to her horn. “Unicorn lifting,” she said.

“Ohhhh,” Cherry Berry said.

“Hacking is changing instructions on computer,” Mark said. "Pathfinder was built to talk to Sojourner. But Sojourner is broken. So NASA must want to turn the rover into a new Sojourner.

“Is that good?” Cherry asked.

“Hell yeah it… um… yes, it’s good,” Mark said, forcing himself to control his choice of words. “If Pathfinder talks with the rover, I can read and write messages on the rover computer. No more need for Askie. Much faster.”

“But NASA is on Earth,” Dragonfly insisted. “How can they change a rover here on Mars?”

“They need me to help,” Mark explained. “The long message coming is probably instructions. Orders,” he added to explain further.

“So,” Dragonfly said carefully, “when you say NASA hack rover, what you mean is, you hack rover.”

Mark mulled this over. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “I guess I’m a hacker now. All I need is a virus and a Russian IP address.”

“What’s virus?” Starlight asked.

“What’s Russian?” Dragonfly asked.

“What’s address?” Cherry asked.

Mark groaned, then looked at the dragon. “Aren’t you going to say, ‘what’s IP’?” he asked.

“I know what IP is,” Fireball said. “IP in that bucking box every day.” He pointed to the Curtain of Stench behind the bunks.

“Oy vey,” Mark groaned, rubbing his forehead with thumb and two fingers.

“What’s-“

“No more English lessons today,” he said firmly, rubbing his forehead a little harder.


“Four… eee… four… five… five… three…” Mark stopped calling out symbols. “Message not over, but they’ve paused. What does it say?” It had barely been a minute and a half.

“It says, ‘HELLO FROM HER MESS,’” Dragonfly said. “But they only used one S.”

“Her mess? With one-“ The ponies heard Mark’s voice catch. “It- it’s Hermes,” he gasped. “They’re relaying- whoops, more letters! Four, cee! Four… eee… Four… three… four… eight…”

The rest of the message took over twenty minutes to receive. Once it was done, Mark came back in to translate NASA’s abbreviations again.

“Okay,” he said at last. “They’re sending another message at the top of the hour. We have to get that one exactly right, because I’ve got to put it into the rover computer letter for letter at a certain spot in the rover prog… in its instructions.”

“Orders,” Dragonfly chimed in.

“Eeeeyeah. Also…” Mark tapped Fireball’s whiteboard, squinted at it, and scratched his hair. “For some reason they want us all outside for a picture in less than twenty minutes. God knows why.”

“Who’s God? Can you ask her?”

“Ah… um… not going to explain that. I mean, I don’t know why they want a photo of us.”

“Maybe they want to see that you’re all right,” Starlight said carefully.

“How?” Mark gestured at the lower part of his spacesuit, which he hadn’t taken off. “When I’m outside all you can see of me is my spacesuit! They can’t even see our face! It’s ridicul… it’s really stupid! It’s Roscoe AND Cletus!”

“Starlight, I didn’t catch all that,” Cherry said in Equestrian. “Did Mark say something about a picture outside?”

“That’s right,” Starlight replied. “The rotating thing on Pathfinder that Mark’s using to get messages from Earth? It’s a camera.”

“Ooooh,” Cherry said. “That’s how it can read those cards, right?”

“Well, yeah. How did you think it did it?”

“I… um… magic,” Cherry Berry mumbled, too embarrassed to say it out loud.

“Wait a minute,” Fireball said. “Even if we leave our sun visors up, the sun’s glare might block out our faces. What’s the point of all this?”

Cherry looked at Starlight. “Could you hold a force bubble full of air long enough for us to take our helmets off for the picture?” she asked.

“Could I, yes,” Starlight said. “Would I, heck no! It’s a waste of magic energy, and it puts us all in danger if I lose concentration!”

“What if we say no?” Dragonfly asked.

“We’re guests here,” Cherry Berry said. “Mark’s people could tell us to leave. We should follow their orders whenever we can. It’s only polite, anyway.”

“But they won’t see anything except our spacesuits!” Fireball roared.

Cherry Berry smirked. “Oh, I’m sure we could come up with something,” she said. "Give me that whiteboard."


“What the fuck is this?” Annie Montrose’s voice snarled over Venkat’s phone line. “Is this some sort of space hippie bullshit or something?”

“You got your picture,” Venkat replied, trying to examine JPL’s latest design for a Watney-feeding space probe while he talked. “Quit bitching.”

’C’mon get happy??’ And a picture of six weird-looking birds?” Annie refused to be mollified, not that Venkat was in much of a mollifying mood. “Is this some alien cultural shit or something?”

“No, it’s American cultural shit,” Venkat said. “and they’re partridges. It’s not my fault you’re too young to remember the reruns.”

“Reruns of- never mind,” Annie said. “Anyway, I can’t see a face on any of them. I need a picture with their faces ASAP.”

“Can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because astronauts without helmets on the surface of Mars tend to die,” Venkat said. “Annie, I have to go, one of the JPL programmers is here and it’s urgent. Bye!”

“But-“

The beep of the disconnected call, Venkat thought, had never sounded so sweet.

Jack Trevor, chief programmer for the revived Pathfinder project, stayed frozen in the doorway. “It’s not urgent,” he said. “I just wanted to say that Johannsen confirmed the 141 bytes that’ll allow the rover to receive the program update. She’s ready to sysop Mark through the process the rest of the way.”

“That’s wonderful,” Venkat said. “Please, have a seat.” The chairs in front of Venkat’s work table were folding chairs stolen from other tables in the rather cramped JPL break room. With all the projects in progress dedicated to saving Mark Watney and his various friends, private work space in the campus had become nigh-unattainable. Venkat was getting tired of answering questions about the contents of the fridge.

“Thanks.” Jack pulled up a folding chair.

“I take it using Hermes as a relay is working well?” Venkat asked.

“Better than expected,” Jack confirmed. “We were getting just under one kilobit per second using Pathfinder’s direct-to-Earth link and tying up the Deep Space Network in the process. Hermes can ping Pathfinder at about thirteen kilobits per second, and of course our uplink to Hermes is much faster. It would be better yet if we could have Pathfinder use the relay satellites around Mars-“

“Yes, but the high-gain antenna can’t track that quickly,” Venkat sighed. “We’re lucky that overjuicing the imager rotor speeds up its rotation. At its designed speed we’d be lucky to transmit fifty characters in a day.”

“Isn’t it amazing what these old probes can do when pushed?” Jack said eagerly. “Speaking of, I’ve got some friends who want to try to revive Opportunity. We haven’t listened for her in four years, and it’s possible the last round of dust storms cleared her solar-“

“On their own time, on their own dime,” Venkat cut him off. “I already crunched the numbers when we first figured out Mark was going for Pathfinder. Three of Opportunity’s wheels were frozen when we last heard from her, and even when all six were working, she couldn’t travel more than a kilometer and a half a day. It’s about three thousand kilometers from Opportunity’s last known position to Ares III. We have too many other, more promising projects to work on.”

“But I can tell them they have permission?” Jack asked, leaning forward. “On their own time and their own money, as you said.”

“Fine,” Venkat said. “But I’m betting they’d have better luck trying to convince a Viking lander to re-launch and fly over to Mark than they ever will reviving Opportunity.”

“You never know,” Jack said as he departed.

Sol 94

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 92
ARES III SOL 94

[11:18] JPL: Mark, this is Venkat Kapoor. We’ve been watching you and your alien friends since Sol 8. The whole world’s been rooting for you. Congratulations on reviving Pathfinder and surviving that Hab breach. We’re working on rescue plans now. Hermes will receive a crash refit and mission-specific redesign and launch back out to you in the next Hohmann window with a minimum crew to pick up all six of you using Ares IV’s MAV. We’re working on supply missions to feed you in the meantime.

[11:29] WATNEY: Glad to hear it. Really looking forward to not dying. I want to make it clear that none of this was my crew’s fault. It was a string of freak accidents. What did they say when they found out I was alive? Also, “Hi, Mom!”

[11:41] JPL: We’ll want to know everything about your guests. You’re official first contact with alien life of any kind, you know. But right now we want to get a baseline for survival. Tell us about your crops. We estimated your food packs would sustain you alone until Sol 300 at ¾ ration per meal. Given your activity we don’t recommend you go any lower. We understand you gave your vegetarian meals to your guests. How are your remaining food stocks? How will your crops affect them? As to the crew, they were the ones who spotted you first. We kept them in orbit of Mars for over a week watching you. But when we couldn’t contact you via radio, we had to get them on their way back home. They didn’t want to leave you, but they had to.

[11:54] WATNEY: The aliens come from a sort of parallel Earth, or close enough. Three of them are equines of some kind. They had large stocks of viable alfalfa seed they were eating for breakfast cereal. We’ve converted a cave into an airtight, heated, illuminated greenhouse with 400 sq m of cultivated soil growing alfalfa and 200 sq m set aside for potatoes. First harvest will be around Sol 110, but most of the potatoes will have to be used for re-seeding and to replant the 110 sq m of farm I had in the Hab and pop-tents. The first hay harvest will be more than double what we need to get to the next one, but after the Hab blowout I’m hesitant to make predictions. What the fuck was with that, anyway? BTW, if crops fail, veggie meals for aliens run out on Sol 120. I run out on Sol 308.

[12:08] JPL: We’ll get botanists in to ask detailed questions and double-check your work. With all your lives at stake, we don’t want to take any chances. We understand that you don’t want to make predictions, but we’d like some numbers anyway. Are your guests true obligate herbivores? Also, please watch your language. Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.

[12:21] WATNEY: Look! Boobies! (.Y.)

[12:28] HERMES: I see you haven’t changed, Mark. This is Lewis.

[12:35] WATNEY: Hey! It is so good to hear from you! How is everyone?

[12:43] HERMES: We’re all fine. We just wish we could have come back for you. It hurt a lot to be so close and yet unable to do anything.

[12:51] WATNEY: There was nothing you could have done. When my biomonitor went dead, it was your duty to get everyone else off this rock. You did the right thing. Now get your asses home safe and I’ll be happy.

[12:59] HERMES: Mark, this is Chris Beck. How are you holding up?

[13:05] JPL: Please, Mark, the language. Also, Hermes, remember this is not a private line.

[13:08] WATNEY: I’m feeling good, but about ten pounds lighter. I’m taking daily vitamin supplements along with my rations. The redundant supplies NASA sent give me enough for five years by myself. I’ve been thinking about giving some to the aliens, though, especially once they go on an all-alfalfa diet.

[13:16] HERMES: Try to reduce your physical activity a bit. We were accustomed to a 3000-calorie diet and an intense activity schedule that burned all those calories. On rations you’ll risk burning too much of your energy reserves, leaving you vulnerable to injury and illness. Also, I understand one of your friends is injured?

[13:24] WATNEY: Yeah. One of the ponies. Her name is Starlight Something-or-Other; we’ve never got a good translation of her last name. She has a broken right foreleg- what would be the humerus on a human. It’s currently splinted, and she’s on permanent bed rest until Sol 110 at least.

[13:25] JPL: Yes, by the way, Mark, we’ll want details on alien anatomy when you can get them to us.

[13:32] HERMES: Oh, that’s not good, Mark. There are tons of complications with a fracture of the humerus. Also, she needs to move and get exercise or else she’s at risk for bed sores, assuming she’s anything close to human. Do you know if it’s a simple or compound fracture? Did the bone break the skin? Have you applied the inflatable cast in the medical kit? It would immobilize it much better than a splint.

[13:38] WATNEY: I have tons of photos, plus my logs. (Warning: I have a potty mouth. Also I got a bit silly sometimes.) You’ll have to figure out a way for me to transmit them, though.

[13:40] WATNEY: Damn. I completely forgot we had that cast. I’ll talk with Spitfire- she’s their medic- and see if it’ll work. The fracture seems to be simple but very painful. She can’t use that limb at all, but she has feeling all the way down, so we’re hoping no nerve damage.

[13:42] WATNEY: Okay, guys, I’m almost two hours past lunchtime, and I’ve been in this rover all day. I’m so glad to be able to talk to you, but I have to call it here. Try to figure out some way for me to slap together a new antenna for the Hab so the Rover can relay this chat to the indoor comps. Also figure out how I can send you attachments (photos, video, etc.).

[13:50] HERMES: This is Lewis again. Stay safe. I’ll buy you a beer when we’re all back on Earth. Hermes out.

[13:51] JPL: I’m putting our best programmers on that right now. I warn you that our bandwidth is very bad and will get worse as Hermes gets closer to Earth. Video is out, and you’ll probably have to resize your image files to under 500K each. Correction- under 200K each. Smaller if possible.

[13:54] JPL: Oops. Understood, Mark. Go eat something. Tomorrow we’ll ask what you have left of the Hab’s comms system so we can work out a procedure for a relay antenna. Also, we have questions about the alien ship’s communications systems. Please be ready for that tomorrow. Kapoor out.

[14:07] WATNEY: Your order for din-dins received and acknowledged with pleasure. Watney out.

Sol 95

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 94
ARES III SOL 95

[08:16] WATNEY: Good morning, Earth! This is Mark Watney, but not for very long. It’s been exactly thirty sols since I personally inspected the cave farm last, so I’m taking Rover 1 out there today with two of my guests. But don’t worry. I’m leaving another of my guests to talk with you and answer your questions about them. My beautiful assistant Dragonfly is the second-best at speaking and typing in English. Unfortunately the great wizard Starlight the Untranslatable Last Name, who went with me to Pathfinder, is the one who’s best at English. She’s restricted to the Hab because of that broken limb, which the inflatable cast just fits on. It's a bit long for her, but it works. Getting her suit on for the group photo three sols ago was a pain for everybody but especially her, so we’re not doing that again just for this chat.

I’m really hoping you guys come up with a procedure for me to repair the Hab radio. Here’s the low-down on what’s left. The actual radio unit inside the Hab is intact. The dish, as you probably know, sheared off its mast on Sol 6, taking the rotors with it. I have twenty-seven antenna fragments remaining, of various sizes, from the antenna farm. The cable that led from the farm to the dish mast snapped about thirty centimeters from the mast. The cable from the mast to the Hab is intact. The beacon system is fully functioning, as are the rover radios.

In addition, the alien ship has two communications systems. One works on principles that don’t operate well in this universe and which I don’t want to explain until you can receive photos. Sensitive stuff. The other is an old analog voice-only radio with five preset channels, all in or near the commercial FM bands. I tried using the alien ship’s antenna with the Hab, but it didn’t work.

I’ve used two of the #7 spare power cables and three voltage adapters to connect the alien ship to Hab electricity. That’s enough to run its airlock, remaining lights, and a little heat. I have a #3 power cable running to the MAV fuel plant for use in powering it to bottle CO2 for feeding plants and other uses. Four #2 lines, a solar farm multi-plug adapter, and a #8 line are being used to power a salvaged airlock and some heaters in the cave farm. All other electronics repair resources remain unused at this time.

That’s all I can think of. If you want to know about anything else, ask my beautiful bug assistant. Back around 13:00! – Mark

[08:34] JPL: Thanks, Mark. For future reference it might be a good idea to repeat the Pathfinder procedure on Rover 1 so you can use your modified Rover 2 for your long-distance EVAs.

We notice you don’t list the antenna farm lattice base in your inventory. I assume the dish smashed it into little bits when it sheared off, leaving nothing salvageable. Also, you don’t mention the MDV radio. We know the MDV was breached during the Sol 6 storm. Do you know if the MDV radio was broken? Can you take pictures of the damage if it is?

Based on prior image analysis our first response is to remove the radio from Rover 1, since you’re using it for spare parts, and set it up in one of the pop-tents attached to the Hab. The antenna cable can be run through a patch kit valve and sealed using the spare antenna gasket from the rover repair kit. The procedure may require depressurizing the Hab, but we’re testing to see if we can eliminate that step without risking another breach. I’ll have more for you on that tomorrow.

Anyway, I’m assuming Mark won’t read this until this afternoon. Is Dragonfly on? Please respond.

[08:54] WATNEY: Hello to Earth! I am Dragonfly. I type slow, so please be kind. I make some answers before time this morning so I can ctrl-C ctrl-V them here if they are what you ask about. (Why is it ctrl-V and not ctrl-P? C is for Copy, why is V for Paste?)

[09:06] JPL: Hello, Dragonfly. I am Venkat. My friends tell me Mark drove off around 08:23. We know Mark likes to play pranks, so we had to be sure this wasn’t one. How do you like living with Mark?

[09:22] WATNEY: Mark is good. He is very patient and kind. He has funny television shows. What is pranks? Is it a game? What are the rules?

[09:35] JPL: A prank is a kind of joke. You try to make someone else scared or confused. They can be mean, but Mark isn’t a mean person.

[09:42] HERMES: That’s what you think! – Martinez

[09:49] WATNEY: Ooooh! I know lots of people who like play pranks at home! Mark doesn’t do that to us. Spitfire played a good prank on him a few days ago.

[09:50] JPL: Hermes, you will have your chance to talk with our visitors. Please leave this conversation to us for now.

[09:58] HERMES: Roger. But Martinez is right. You weren’t there the day he had all our name labels changed on our uniforms when they were in the laundry. We had to report to the sims wearing each other’s coveralls, and Mark was there with the camera. – Lewis

[10:02] JPL: Dragonfly, which of the aliens are you? We only know you by satellite pictures. Here is what we’ve been calling you based on those:

TALL BOY – only one with two legs instead of four

ORANGE LEADER – always out in front

WHITE BOXY – almost always has a large box with her

WHITE HEN – usually very close to White Boxy or someone else

ORANGE RANDOM – could do anything

[10:19] WATNEY: Okay! I can ctrl-V now!

OUR CREW

CHERRY BERRY – Boss. Pilot. Earth horse/pony (don’t know which word is right). Best space pilot from our home. Works hard. Loves cherries a lot!

STARLIGHT LIGHT-THAT-DOES-NOT-STAY-THE-SAME-AND-IS-ALMOST-NOT-THERE (we don’t know the word) – Science and magic. Not a pilot. Unicorn. Keeps working on one thing until it is done and can’t see anything else. Helped make the engine that got us here. Her leg is broken now.

FIREBALL – Pilot, space walk boss. Dragon. Really grumpy. Eats shiny rocks.

DRAGONFLY – That’s me! Was pilot, now engineer. Mark calls me bug-pony- not what I am, but we don’t know the word for what I am. I fix things on our ship if they can be fixed. Was a fighter for my ruler before I went to space.

SPITFIRE – Pilot, medic. Pegasus. Used to be boss of top pegasus flying team and high in pony guard. This is her first time in space.

Typing this: I think Tall Boy is Fireball. Orange Leader is Cherry. White Boxy is Starlight. White Hen is Spitfire. I looked up "hen", and I really won't call her that! And I think I’m Orange Random. What is random?

[10:33] JPL: Thank you for having that written in advance. For Starlight’s name try twinkle, glimmer, or shimmer. You use the words unicorn, pegasus and dragon. Did Mark tell you these are myths- not-true things- on our world? Also, given the group picture we took, you are definitely not horses. Pony and ponies are the better words.

[10:35] JPL: Wait- why do you use the word magic?

[10:51] WATNEY: More ctrl-V!

THE KINDS OF HORSES/PONIES

EARTH HORSES/PONIES – No horn, no wings. Earth ponies are very strong and good with plants and animals. They grow the crops. Their magic is mostly in the hooves.

PEGASUS’S – Wings, no horn. A pegasus flies through the air and makes the weather. Their magic is mostly in the wings.

BAT HORSES/PONIES – Bat wings, no horn. Rare. They come out at night. Don't know much about them.

UNICORNS – Horn, no wings. Unicorns make magic with their horns. They make difficult things.

ALL-CORNS – Horn and wings. Most power ponies. There are only five and they rule the pony lands. Starlight’s boss at home is an all-corn.

BUG-HORSES/PONIES – Not really ponies. We have wings and horns but only our ruler is as power as an all-corn. We used to hide and steal love from ponies, but those were the bad days and things are different now. Our ruler was first in space!

OTHER TALKING PEOPLE THAT ARE NOT HORSES/PONIES: dragons, griffins, hippogriffs, yaks, buffalo, cows, minotaurs, many more that I could not find name for in your dictionary and that Mark could not name.

Typing: So my friends are ponies. Go- whoops! New question, more ctrl-V!

WHAT IS MAGIC?

Mark tells me you do not have magic and do not know what it is. Magic is like gravity or electric. It is a thing that moves other things. In our world it is everywhere. Here it is only where things are alive. There is magic in space at home; here there is not, and that is why we crashed. Most of our ship ran on magic. Now we only have magic when all of us are together to fill our battery about 4% each day.

Magic can do many things. Earth horses/ponies use magic to make plants grow faster and to take care of animals. Pegasuss and bug-ponies use magic to fly. Unicorns use magic to lift things and cast spells that change one thing into a new thing.

In our world much runs on magic. Blimps run on magic. Televisions run on magic. Video games are half electric, half magic. Our ship was the first to run all on magic, no chemical rockets after liftoff.

Mark says you will not believe this. He took many pictures of using magic. He wants you to see them so you will know we are not lying. I lie sometimes but not about this.

Typing: What is your next question?

[12:06] JPL: Mark was right. Did he tell you there is no such thing as magic on Earth? How did your ship work?

[12:42] WATNEY: I don’t have ctrl-V for this. I thought it would wait until we send you our ship books with translate. I try to answer.

Yes, Mark tells us you have no magic. You are wrong. If you have life, you have magic. The more life there is, the more magic there is. I don’t know why you can’t use it.

We don’t know how to say the name of our ship in English. The name comes from an old pony language. Starlight’s translate magic doesn’t work on it. We use big chemical rockets to launch it from the ground. They fall off. Magic batterys then run main engines that push us into orbit and from one planet to another. We have magic talk that lets the ground see our ship on a wall and which lets us talk to one another with no light delay. Much faster than this.

Our flight was test new engine magic that goes much faster than regular engines. Blink-jump very short distances many many many times in a short time. There was an accident. We made the new engine wrong. It jumped from our world into yours. When we got here the batterys blew up except for two use-when-bad-thing-happens batterys and small-rocket-turn-ship batterys. We could not go back home. We could not stop from crash on Mars. When we crash, new engine broke.

Cherry wants to try use our ship, MDV, MAV base to try to make new ship that can leave Mars. We can make new new engine using rocks from cave. New batterys too. But don’t know if we can get off ground with them. New engine very bad use on ground.

[12:55] JPL: Can you tell us how much thrust- how much push- your engines and thrusters make? (A thruster is a small rocket that turns a spaceship.) Also, can you tell us the mass of your ship? If you can, we can do the math to find out if your ship can fly again.

[13:07] WATNEY: Mark here again. Dammit, I didn’t want to tell you about the magic until I had proof. It took a long time before I believed it, and I saw it first-hand. I didn’t want you to think I’d gone crazy up here. Also, the pony ship has a big hole in the bottom in its rear airtight compartment. It’s structurally unsound. I didn’t know they were still pursuing this.

[13:20] JPL: Please thank Dragonfly for talking to us. All of us here are looking forward to talking to him again. And right now we’re choosing to believe in Clarke’s Third Law. Just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it won’t work. If Dragonfly’s ship still has working or repairable engines, we want to explore that option as a backup plan. Do you have photos of the hole?

[13:32] WATNEY: Affirmative. I also have photos of the cave and its crops as of today. The crops are beautiful. So are the crystals. I can’t wait to send the pics to you. Also, Dragonfly is still here, and she’s a bit miffed. Emphasis on SHE. All my guests are female except Fireball.

[13:43] JPL: We’ll work on that. Add to the task list getting a conversion into newtons for the specific impulse of all the alien ship’s surviving engines and a decent estimate of the ship’s current weight. Also an estimate of MDV hydrazine fuel remaining and available water or other hydrogen source for the MAV. We can send that info to Astrodynamics and get an answer about the flight potential of any combination of the components. Also, sorry, Dragonfly.

[13:55] WATNEY: Will do in my copious free time. I’m going to go eat now.

[14:07] JPL: Bon appétit. Will spend the rest of today transmitting emails. You have quite a fan club down here, Mark. JPL out.

[14:19] WATNEY: Really? Can I join? How many UPC codes for the secret decoder ring? Watney out.

Sol 96

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MISSION LOG – SOL 96

The ponies have taken excellent care of the cave farm. I went there yesterday. It’s almost warm in there now. I may suggest pulling one or two of the pony ship heaters so we can get some of the solar cells back to the Hab. Hot air rises, and I’m assuming the air seal on the cave depends on a viable permafrost layer on top of the cave, so having it get too warm inside isn’t a good idea. But since I’m in touch with NASA now, I’ll give all the botanists they say they’re recruiting something extra to worry about by throwing the problem at them.

Seriously, looking at the plants, I felt kind of superfluous. They’re growing at about the same rate, maybe slightly faster, that they would on Earth in proper sunlight. The alfalfa looks almost tall enough to harvest already. The potato plants are flourishing. I dug up two and found half-grown tubers aplenty on them already. Still green, so too soon to harvest, but I have a feeling it’ll be a good harvest when the time comes.

And there are eight other little sprouts, which I know I didn’t plant, running down the eastern side of the cave parallel to the planting area. When I asked about them, Cherry looked positively guilty. Apparently she planted some cherry pits, and they’ve sprouted. I’m not mad at her, but I am puzzled, because what she’s done is absolutely impossible. Cherries require winter cold- a whole winter cold spell- before their pits become viable. And then it takes a lot longer than just one month for the pits to germinate. Some cherry pits never germinate at all.

But there they are- eight little leafy twigs, pretty nondescript at the moment. In a garden I wouldn’t think twice about weeding ‘em out. But seventy-five sols ago those were still fresh fruit. Now, thanks to whatever mojo Cherry has going for her, they’re living, photosynthesizing plants. I’m definitely not weeding these out, and not just because it would break Cherry’s heart. This is magic and botany at work doing the impossible, and I want to document every step from here on out. This shit is what I got my degree for.

Anyway, not much conversation with Earth today. They’re still absorbing the bombshell about magic being a thing. All pony questions are on hold until we get photo transfer capacity running.

NASA wants today’s bandwidth for another update of Pathfinder’s software and to send a new app to the rover which will convert photos into a format the Pathfinder-Sojourner parser understands. If it works, I can start sending the photos I’ve got banked up. Video is still out, though. I’ll be limited in my upload time to the afternoons, after a daily check-in and Q&A with the eggheads back home. Even using Hermes as a relay to cut transmission distance and increase bandwidth, the data’s being pushed through a really thin straw. Maybe a coffee stirrer.

Venkat Kapoor’s flying back to Houston today, so I did what talking I did today with Bruce Ng at JPL. He’s got a breakthrough idea on the task of getting the Hab radio working at least long enough that I don’t have to spend all morning suited up in the rover. Instead of using Rover 1’s radio and a new cable through the wall of the Hab, we’re going to use one thing I actually have a surplus of… suit radios!

Each suit helmet has a little antenna on it. The suits can talk to the rovers over a distance of about two kilometers- a bit better than an Earth walkie-talkie. When the Hab had its full antenna farm, it could hear suit radios even farther than that, but two kilometers is plenty to talk to a radio that’s parked right outside. And since the antenna is already vacuum-safe, we don’t have to worry about sticking it in a pop-tent!

The one problem is this: the Hab radio system puts out a lot more power from its transmitter to the antennas than a suit radio sends to its antenna. The excess electricity could melt the itty bitty antenna. So they’re doing tests at Johnson with spare antennas. (They have plenty now: all of the suit helmets for Ares IV and V have been scrapped, and a new contractor is building replacements with visors that don’t shatter into a billion pieces when the Hab front door suddenly comes flying at your face.) If the output is too strong for the conditions, they want to know what the best way is to reduce or step down the power before I dick with it here.

But assuming they find the solution, in a sol or two I’m going to take the antenna off the helmet I left in Airlock 1 and use some comm system spare parts to hook it to the surviving end of the wire leading to the dish mast. Obviously it won’t talk to Earth, and probably won’t talk to any of the satellites, but it can talk to the rover just fine. And the rover can talk to Pathfinder, and Pathfinder can talk to Earth.

I wonder if this was what the first days of the Internet were like. Maybe I should set a camera on my coffee pot and ask NASA to register me for mars_coffee_pot.com.

Anyway, convo’s done for the day. In a bit I’m going to go help Starlight and Dragonfly work on converting their measurement units into ours so they can tell us how powerful their remaining rocket engines are. Also, I need to nail down for certain the pony radio’s power output and wavebands so we can try to use that as a backup or parallel comms system.

But for now I’m enjoying my email! I haven’t had an email dump since Sol 5!

They’re not sending all of it to me at once, of course. There’s too much. NASA wants to parcel out my bandwidth and my personal time, too. They definitely don’t want me to spend all day responding to thousands of emails. So they’re sending me the cream of the crop.

So far there’s two emails from the President (both boilerplate, ho hum), one email from the Pope, half a dozen rock stars, several from movie stars (the one I really love is the one from Chris Evans- Chris Frickin’ Evans!!), several scientists, and other notables.

But the most important to me was the one Mom sent me. It’s exactly what you’d expect, no surprises: thank God you’re alive, don’t die, your father says hello, we didn’t return your Christmas presents, etc.

I keep going back to read it. It reminds me just how important it is that I not die here.

Anyway, I need to get moving. Cherry is dancing on her hooves waiting for NASA to give her the good word on whether or not we can MacGyver our way off this rock.

Right after I read that letter again.

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

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas via suit SG, over.

AMICITAS: DF - Amicitas calling Baltimare, over.

ESA: Prepare for long message to be relayed to Mark’s people. Over.

AMICITAS: Standing by, over.

ESA: People of the planet Earth! Greetings from the people of Equestria! I, Princess Twilight Sparkle, greet you in the name of friendship and harmony between our worlds and thank you for the generous hospitality you have sh

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltmare, over.

ESA: Why did you turn off suit SG’s life support, over?

AMICITAS: How long is that message, over?

ESA: Not that long. Only about twenty-five hooves or so. Over.

AMICITAS: You must be kidding, over.

ESA: Proper diplomatic relations are a vital part of Amicitas’s extended mission, over.

AMICITAS: Can I speak with Spike or Moondancer, please? Over.

ESA: QC – Cutting in here. I got curious and tripped on TS’s scroll. I’ll explain facts to Princess of Prolixity. What are the limits, over?

AMICITAS: DF- Hello my queen! None of us know half the words in English for TS’s speech. We can’t write down anything longer than a paragraph. And floor in Hab is getting very soggy, over.

ESA: QC – Understood. Stand by for much shorter message, a perfect princess speech. Over.

AMICITAS: Standing by, over.


The first item of business at the meeting in Teddy’s office consisted of a message coming from Mars just before the daily transmission window closed.

Annie spoke for almost everyone when she said, “What the fuck IS this?”

The message, printed out on single sheets of paper for all the attendees, read:

[16:11] WATNEY: This is Dragonfly again. Mark told us not to do this, but our bosses back home wanted to say hello to you. Their first message was too long and with too difficult words for us to translate, so my ruler sends this message instead on behalf of Princess Twilight Sparkle, the founder of the pony space program.

“I am Princess Twilight Sparkle. Hello to Earth. I declare this bridge / bank / library / store open.”

I don’t know what it means, but my ruler says it is the best speech for princessessessessess. Sorry, I’m not sure where you stop writing that word.

(P. S. I had to look up “declare.”)

Teddy Sanders, alone of the group, smiled at the message. “I know what it means,” he said. “Venkat, please send the reply: ‘Tell Dragonfly’s ruler some of us understand completely.’” He shook his head and added, "I only wish I could spike some Congressmen like that."

“Okay,” Venkat said drowsily, still recovering from the red-eye from LAX to HOU. “I’ll do that when we remind them about not using bandwidth during software updates.”

“No, don’t do that,” Teddy said. “Mark can handle that. Just send the diplomacy.”

“What kind of alien fucking idea is this,” Annie growled, “for the first step in interplanetary diplomacy?”

“The kind,” Teddy said, still smiling, “that every history book will print verbatim for the rest of time. I guarantee it.”

The meeting moved on to more important business.

Sol 97

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 96
ARES III SOL 97

[7:49] JPL: Good morning, Mark and friends. This is Venkat Kapoor. JPL is relaying my messages from Houston.

First, regarding the message Dragonfly sent towards the end of our window yesterday: Theodore Sanders, the chief administrator of NASA, asked me to tell you that he understood your message perfectly. For my part, I add: hello to you too, Princess Twilight Sparkle. We hope to meet your subjects in person soon, and yourself as soon as possible.

Mark, you’ll find in your email the detailed procedure for attaching a suit antenna to the communications mast, including the modifications required to step down the transmitter power to a safe level. We anticipate this will require a two-hour EVA assuming the electronics are pre-assembled in the Hab. Once that’s done we’d like you to put together a full report on your farming methods.

The upgrade to the rover’s communications app should be complete. Please install that and respond once the rover computer is rebooted. If reboot fails, leave a message in the ASCII array around Pathfinder. If we don’t hear from you by rover-chat we’ll have Pathfinder run a panoramic at 10:00 your time.

Assuming the upgrade works, please prepare up to six images for transmission to Earth this afternoon, all 200 Kb in size or smaller. For today we want photos of your current farming setup to go with your written report.

Our primary concern is to get a firm estimate of how long you can feed yourselves. The earliest we can get any resupply to you is Sol 500. The positions of Earth and Mars and the limitations of our available boosters make earlier resupply absolutely impossible. We would prefer to target a date not earlier than Sol 580 so we can send enough supplies to be worth the launch. Also, right now we have only one booster available, with two more coming on line in another seventy sols.

We’ve been planning resupply probes since we first learned you were alive, but we’ve just barely begun the actual assembly. One of the delays has been planning for food and other supplies for your guests. With that in mind, we want to spend the rest of the morning talking with Dragonfly or whichever of your guests is available. Please let us know once you’ve finished installing the software update.

[08:09] WATNEY: No small talk? How have you been? Did you sleep well? How’s the wife and kids? My, some weather we’re having, isn’t it?

I’ve copied the basics of the procedure you sent to a whiteboard so I can assemble the transformer. I think I can be done before midday; it’s all commonsense stuff, nice and simple. Once this is done and tested I want to give priority to testing to see if you can receive transmissions from the alien ship’s radio. If so, that gives us a parallel or backup communications channel for when Pathfinder is running data dumps or if it breaks down.

As I said before, I’m a bit reluctant to give firm numbers, but I’m hoping for harvests every fifty-five to sixty sols. Each harvest in the cave farm should produce, in round numbers, about 300 kilograms of alfalfa (about 100 days of food for the ponies) and/or 1800 average-size potatoes (130 days of food for me). Plans to revive the farm in the Hab and re-seed it would produce 15 kilograms of alfalfa (5 days of food for the ponies) and 720 average-size potatoes (50 days of food for me). The Hab farm would have alfalfa primarily for nitrogen fixation; the soil we’ve cultivated in the Hab is too shallow for alfalfa to develop a healthy root system.

The Hab farm won’t be long-term sustainable- not enough soil for rotation. Too soon to know if the larger cave farm can be sustained. I’ll go into more detail in my report.

Starting software update and reboot now. I’ll send Dragonfly out to talk to you once I verify that the update is good, and then I’ll get to work on the radio procedure.

[8:23] WATNEY: Hello! Dragonfly here! Before we talk, our bosses from home have another message for you. This one isn’t so strange. It was short enough that I can remember it all.

“Hello again from (don’t know how to say our home’s name in English). This is Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Being Friends, and Chrysalis, Queen of the Bug-Ponies. Thank you for taking care of our people. We’re sorry we can’t come get them yet, but we’re working on it. Please continue to be their friends. Great things can be done if we work together.”

They also want to know how soon you can rescue us. They want to know all the parts.

Okay, message delivered. What do you want to know?

[8:42] JPL: Hello, Dragonfly. Please thank your bosses for us. We’ll try to set a time aside for direct contact another day. Right now there are two things I want to ask you about today. The first thing I wanted to ask was: how soon can your people come to rescue you? From your message, it doesn’t sound like they’re coming any time soon.

[8:55] WATNEY: We don’t know when rescue comes. I will ask Starlight to contact home so I can give more answer.

[09:07] JPL: How do you talk with home? Mark says you come from a parallel dimension- a different universe.

[09:21] WATNEY: Our air and water comes from home. They are connected by magic. We use a code to turn water on and off and watch the splashes for replies. It’s slow and it makes a mess. We tried many other things but nothing else works.

[09:33] JPL: Did you say your air and water comes from your home? Is there a limit to how much air or water you get?

[09:59] WATNEY: Each life support system has two crystals in it- one for air and one for water. Magic in the crystal connects them to a larger crystal back home- makes them like one crystal. Water is pumped from a tank; air makes a circle back and forth from the air at home. If air pressure on this end drops too low too fast, or if water runs too long, the crystals back home shut off, must be start again by ponies at home. But: main ship life support is made for always-run water flow as we need it. Danger: if life support magic shut off, our space suits do not work. Can’t get more suits.

Starlight has speak with home now. Home builds a big rescue ship now. Twice as big as our ship. Home tests a new engine that can jump from one world to another like how we got here. The first test robot ship did not come back. They also work on a signal a ship can use to find the way back to home. But even if new engine works, home can’t rescue yet because home does not know where we are. They need to know very very good the place or else get wrong world, maybe not get back home again. Until they can find us, can’t rescue.

[10:15] JPL: I understand your answer. We did not think it was possible to travel between worlds as you have done before. We understand that doing it safely and on purpose requires a lot of testing. Tell your people that if we can do anything to help, we will. It will be many hundreds of sols (Mars days) before we can send our own rescue ship. We would be very happy if you could rescue Mark sooner.

[10:18] WATNEY: We would be happy to save Mark too. We don’t know if we could take him straight to Earth. Space in your world has no magic, so it might be danger to stay in your world too long. Home works on it.

[10:30] JPL: I understand. Now for my second question. We want to send more food and other things in case the farm doesn’t work. What kind of food do you eat? Mark mentions alfalfa. Do you have other Earth foods? What can or can’t you eat? Do you eat meat, or only plants?

[10:56] WATNEY: I don’t know all the words. Mark tells us all our food is the same as Earth food he knows. But I will do my best.

The ponies are Cherry Berry, Starlight Glimmer, and Spitfire. Spitfire says they can eat meat if need to, but most ponies get sick think about it. Much like better plants. Spitfire says also eat milk, eggs, but these are not plants.

Fireball is a dragon. Dragons eat almost anything. Can eat meat, but think eat talking people or smart animals is wrong. Can eat some plants, but hay is no good for dragons. Need eat gems, gold at least a little for health. Fireball eats only gems from the cave; cave has gems for very very long time.

I am do not know the word, say bug-pony. Bug-ponies do not need food except very very small bit sometimes. Can use food to make goo, pods, other things. We eat power from good emotions, especially love. Also drink water.

If you send food, send only for Mark and three ponies. Fireball has much food, and I don’t need food. Also please send meals with not so much bean. Cherry doesn’t complain (had to ask Starlight for the word), but Starlight and Spitfire tired of nothing but bean, bean, bean, bean. Spitfire wants to try meat so long as it tastes different than bean and doesn’t come from any person she knows. (Not a joke. She says that.) But Mark is afraid meat might hurt us or make us angry.

[11:08] JPL: You say you eat emotions?

[11:19] WATNEY: Yes, I say that.

[11:30] JPL: Stay there a little while. I need to talk to someone here.

[11:41] WATNEY: OK!

[11:46] JPL: Can you feel the emotions you eat? How is everybody feeling? How is Mark feeling in particular?

[11:59] WATNEY: It is not good to talk about feelings if you don’t need to. It makes people angry. Angry is not an emotion I can eat.

[12:11] JPL: I know, but I am responsible for Mark. I need to know so I can do what I can to make him happy and relaxed and alert.

[12:23] WATNEY: Antenna procedure complete. Mark Watney used to be very happy and relaxed and alert, Venkat, but right now I’m a little annoyed with you. What did Dr. Shields say when you asked her about this?

[12:35] JPL: I apologize, Mark. Dr. Shields was against it, but I overruled her. We’re all very worried about you. You’ve spent almost three months cut off from all human contact, and that has effects. We need to know if something is wrong so we can try to find ways of improving things. Our resources are limited, but we need to at least know what’s wrong if we’re going to do anything.

[12:48] WATNEY: Yeah, I get that. But this is still damn intrusive, and bringing a third party into it crosses a line. I’d be even angrier, but Dragonfly talked me down a bit. By the way, this little chat better not be live to the whole fucking world, understand? Because you and Dr. Shields are one thing, but I don’t want my emotional state in the National Enquirer, and I’m sure the ponies don’t either.

[13:00] JPL: I shut the public feed of your chat off during the rover software update. The entire chat with Dragonfly is confidential for now. Anything about your emotional state will remain confidential permanently. You have my word and Teddy Sanders’ word on it.

[13:11] WATNEY: Good. I just told Dragonfly she has permission to tell you the truth about me. I’m going to go cool off some more. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Stand by for Dragonfly.

[13:26] WATNEY: Okay. Mark is still really upset. Before he was really happy to talk to you. He likes all of us very much. He thinks we are cute. He looks forward to be rescued.

Mark always feels better when he makes things. He likes making plans. He likes it when things work. He likes it less when he has nothing to do. He hates the music disco, but he listens to it because it makes him not think about doing nothing.

I typed more things about my crew, but it got too bad so I deleted it. I don’t have permission from the others and they will be angry if I do it. I will talk with Cherry about it before I do it. You are responsible for Mark but she is responsible for us.

[13:38] JPL: I understand. Please tell Mark I’m sorry again. I won’t ask again about your friends, but please tell us if you think it’s important. Thank you for your help. Please clear this channel and ask Mark to begin the upload. Kapoor out.

[13:49] WATNEY: Okay. Dragonfly out.

Sol 98

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MISSION LOG – SOL 98

I’m a bit calmer today. I’m sorry to have dumped all my rage into my log entry yesterday. I’m just pissed that Venkat Kapoor tried to get Dragonfly to talk about me behind my back. And yeah, a big part of that is me being angry at somebody prying into my head. But Venkat has the right to do that, up to a point. The mental state of astronauts is really important, especially for long-term missions like Ares. Moral and mental stability are the main reason why I made it into the program at all.

But Venkat doesn’t have the right to bring Dragonfly into it. The ponies are not part of NASA. They’re not under his command. They’re visitors who didn’t ask to be marooned on Mars with me. And it’s not fair to take advantage of her like that.

I haven’t mentioned it, but the ponies can be really naïve sometimes. I think Dragonfly thinks she’s a great manipulator, with her puppy-bug eyes and her goofy behavior. But you’ll notice I still haven’t let her touch any of my tools. A human politician would tie her in knots, and the others would be even more easy prey.

So this morning, at breakfast, I had a talk with my guests. I had Starlight rev up that Google-translate spell of hers long enough to get across the core point. Basically I told them that NASA can’t force them to do anything, and if they feel one of Venkat’s requests is intrusive or suspicious, they should refuse until they’ve talked it out with each other.

I hate to admit it, but we humans can be thoughtless too.

Anyway, after breakfast I had to chat with Venkat again. The mini-antenna works. Once Rover 1 is rigged to accept Pathfinder’s radio relay, I’ll take Rover 2 out on a jaunt to see the exact range, which I suspect will be about four kilometers- just over the horizon. While I’m doing that, I’ll probably dump the RTG back in its hole. I’ve been too busy to deal with it, but just because it was one of my two warm and cuddly friends during the Pathfinder drive doesn’t mean I’m inviting it into my house where it can possibly bring us all that gift that keeps on giving, cancer. And Dragonfly will be happier knowing that Death Box has gone away again. She's already delighted that she no longer has to go outside to chat with Earth.

NASA’s got its trained botanists ready, and they started with basic stuff- how long did I let the shit and table scraps compost before I mixed them into the soil, what procedure did I use to mix composted soil with Martian regolith, etc. You know, all the stuff I went into excruciating, technical detail into the small hours last night writing up my official report. But they couldn’t wait for me to upload that, oh no. They want to waste my time answering questions now.

After almost two hours working on that, I finally got the day’s to-do list from Venkat. I get to take photos of the alien ship’s engines and thruster packs. Fortunately Dragonfly didn’t get round to replacing their good engine’s bell with the third bell they salvaged from our MAV. Today’s uploads were my botany report on the farming methods, a list of performance data for the alien ship engines as best we can estimate, and the photos of the engines and of the ship exterior, plus photos of the MAV base and of the MDV, both exterior and interior.

So I had to take a lot of photos, put them into a computer, and reduce their resolution to make them fit in the four-hour upload window. Fun times. I tried to get the equipment in the right mood- “give me resolute, now do charming, give me your good side, there we go”- but broken rocket parts just don’t make good fashion models. Maybe if I draped the spare alien parachute fabric over them? Must ask NASA if muu-muus are coming back.

Starlight Glimmer (she finally has a last name, yay!) is delighted that she can now communicate with NASA directly. She’s monopolized what used to be Vogel’s computer ever since her accident, writing up reports and translating their ship manuals. She’s constantly asking me for technical words. She says she’s almost done. I told her the top priority was the info about the ship radio. Of course she disagreed- she thinks her article about magic should be top priority. With my luck NASA will break the tie by demanding a translation of the pony medical manuals- which are the ones Starlight hasn’t worked on at all.

Anyway- time for English lessons. We’ve begun reruns on Electric Company. After that it’s Sanford and Son, which isn’t the same since Fred went to St. Louis and left Grady to watch over Lamont, as if he needed it. Redd Foxx really is the life and soul of that show. At least Esther is still around to steal a scene every episode or so. I think Dragonfly agrees with me, but Cherry still loves the show. She, Starlight and Spitfire had an argument the other night about whether unicorns or pegasi are the pony equivalent of “honkies.” Fireball broke it up by pointing out that, from a non-pony point of view, all ponies are honkies. And that was the last time the H-word got used in this Hab, at least so far.

Anyhow, after that we’re going to try Starsky and Hutch. I’m told it’s required viewing in every police academy since 2022. At least, that’s the only reason I can think of for why every cop I saw around the time I applied for the astronaut corps had these huge mustaches.


“Rich? Rich, are you in here?”

Mike wandered through the cubicle maze of Johnson Space Center’s astrodynamics department. Most of the workers had gone home for the day, but Rich could usually be counted upon to be a laggard. Under normal conditions Mike had to tell him it was time to go home about three days in a five-day week.

Conditions had ceased to be normal at NASA the day a Mars satellite spotted an alien ship about to crash-land on Mars. But even so, for the most part astrodynamics had escaped the rush of deferred-payment overtime most of the other departments had engaged in. The most work the department saw in a day came whenever JPL called for yet another rough approximation of the available trajectories for a direct boost to Mars using Delta-IX and Red Falcon boosters. Precise trajectories would take time, but the rough numbers JPL was using for ballpark estimates at this point in their design process could be done on a desktop computer in a couple of hours.

Sure enough, Rich Purnell was parked at his desk, idly ticking away at something or other on his computer. He hadn’t noticed the deep shadows outside the windows or the departure of practically all his coworkers. Mike was the only coworker whose name Rich recognized. The man barely recognized that a world existed outside whatever mathematical problem had his attention at the moment. He understood numbers and equations, and he didn’t understand people.

Rich was Mike’s problem child, but he was also the one he could dump any task on, no matter how hard or how difficult, and never get a complaint about working late and being forced to break previous plans, dates, or appointments. Rich never had any of those. In fact, Rich had never taken a sick day except when Mike had sent him home… and after the first time Rich returned the next day, still with a fever, Mike had learned to send him to a NASA doctor first. And vacations? Rich barely understood the concept, and he had something like six months of accrued vacation time, unused, on the books.

Mike had long since come to the conclusion that, if Rich ever got his own office large enough to have its own toilet and space for a cot, he'd never leave JSC.

“Rich?” Mike asked, finally getting his employee’s attention.

“Oh. Hi, Mike,” Rich said. “Is it time to go home? I lost track.’

“Yes, it is,” Mike said. “But I’ve got something I want you to look at when you get a chance. Fresh from Mars.”

That got Rich’s attention. It wasn’t quite fair to say that Rich had no idea that a universe existed outside his equations. He was very enthusiastic about the universe, except for the part of it that was Earth. His interest in his own planet was mostly limited to knowledge of its effects as a gravity well and the ability to manually dial the number of almost every take-out delivery restaurant within thirty minutes of JSC from memory.

“We’ve got some hard performance data on the alien ship,” Mike continued. “The aliens were looking into combining the remains of their ship and parts from the MDV and MAV landing stage into a sort of life-raft. Kind of like ‘Flight of the Phoenix.’”

“There’s no such thing as a phoenix,” Rich said. “Unless you mean the Phoenix lander, and that was a specially built space probe.”

Mike sighed and handed him the thick sheaf of printouts. He’d learned early on that Rich thought better when he had his data on paper, using the computer only for the actual calculations. Any information you sent him by email or on a transfer drive would end up on paper, so why not print it yourself from the beginning?

Rich began thumbing through the pages, looking at the rather grainy photos. His eye stopped at one point. “Two hundred ninety-two liters of hydrazine monoprop?” he asked. “That wouldn’t get the MDV aloft more than maybe a kilometer in Mars gravity. Thrust-weight ratios are too low.”

“We know, Rich,” Mike said. “But we want the numbers to prove it. Take a look at this, take your time, and get back to me when you have some answers.”

“Okay,” Rich said. As he held the papers in his left hand, still reading, his right hand reached for the phone on his desk. Mike recognized the number being dialed as the take-out desk for the Jimmy Chonga’s on I-45.

“Try not to stay up too late,” Mike said, stepping away from the cubicle.

Rich didn’t notice him leaving.

Sol 99

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 98
ARES III SOL 99

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

AMICITAS (DF): Amicitas calling Baltimare, please reply by main ship life support, over.

BALTIMARE: Baltimare reads you, Amicitas. Why the main water? Are you in the cave? Over.

AMICITAS: Affirmative. Needed someplace where a lot of water wouldn’t hurt. Mark’s people have asked to talk to you live about three and a half hours from now. Over.

BALTIMARE: Understood. That will be mid-morning here. We’ll be ready. Over.

AMICITAS: This is important. We will have to translate for both sides. It takes light just under eleven minutes to get from us to their homeworld and vice-versa. And it takes a long time to decode Mares code. And we will only have about four hours before we lose contact with their world for the day. We won’t get more than maybe eight signal exchanges, so it’s really important that you keep it short. Also we are still learning their language. Please keep it short and simple. Do you read, over?

BALTIMARE: Roger, Amicitas. Short and simple. Twilight says it’s important they understand how magic works so they can help rescue you. Also need a history of our space program, over.

AMICITAS: We’re telling them that stuff already. Don’t waste time on anything we can tell them. If they ask, we’ll handle the question here. Over.

BALTIMARE: Roger. I’ll tell Twilight and Chrysalis, over.

AMICITAS: Who is this? Over.

BALTIMARE: Spike. I just got up to get Twilight breakfast and saw the lights flashing in here. She’s not up yet, over.

AMICITAS: Okay. How’s Thorax? Over.

BALTIMARE: Still doing well in the Crystal Empire. He and Chrysalis met at a summit last month. No casualties, over.

AMICITAS: Thanks. Tell Twilight and the queen that they have one hour to tell us anything long they think we need to know in advance. After that I have to trot back to the Hab. Over.

BALTIMARE: I told her. She says Starlight knows most of it. We’ll be ready. Out.


[14:20] WATNEY: Before we begin, I want to report a bit of good news: the Hab antenna kludge just picked up about ten minutes of signal from the northern weather station. So we know its range is at least a kilometer, and we know that one weather station is at least partially functional. When I get a chance I’ll take the rover on a circuit, inspect the weather stations, clean off their solar panels, and see how many I can restore to operating condition. Just thought you’d like to know you’re in danger of actually getting some, y’know, actual science out of us at some point.

Okay, here’s how the system will work. The chat window is on the Hab projector so we can all see it. I’ll type whatever Starlight Glimmer tells me to type. Any questions she can handle herself, she will. Anything else, she’ll sort of Morse Code on her spacesuit water system, and they will respond using another suit nobody’s wearing at the moment.

To be clear, any questions about their homeworld up to the day they left- history, geography, etc.- should be held for another time. My guests can answer them just as well as a princess, and they won’t have to wait for a turnaround on dot-dot-dot splash-splash-splash translation. Also remember Starlight’s English is still half dependent on the thesaurus function of our computers, and she won’t have one for this chat. And her bosses don’t know any English at all. When in doubt, I’ll be filling in the gaps myself, and I may guess wrong. So please, keep it simple and short so we can get the most in before the window closes.

Once you check in, Starlight will contact them and make sure they’re on. Say the word.

[14:36] JPL: Venkat here. Teddy is running late again. Go ahead and get the chat going. Mars rotation isn’t going to wait on us. Also be aware that this chat is being released to the press live. We’re really serious about it this time, Mark: watch the language.

[14:48] WATNEY: Roger. I’ll keep it PG today. We’re connecting the ponies now: stand by.

[14:55] WATNEY: “Hello from (no translation)! Twilight Sparkle and Queen Chrysalis are here. Good morning, NASA Administrator!”

[15:08] JPL: Hello. This is Theodore Sanders, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On behalf of the government of the United States of America, I want to say your people are very welcome here. There are a lot of our people rooting for them.

[15:26] WATNEY: “Thank you! We are told the name of your world is Earth, like soil or dirt. What is the United States of America? Does your world have more than one nation?”

[15:38] JPL: Yes, our world is Earth. What is your world’s name? We can’t translate it. There are about 200 nations on our world; the USA is one of the largest. How many nations are on your world?

[16:02] WATNEY: “The word for our world is an ancient name for horses. Our nation is named ‘land of horses’ in the same old language. There are many speaking people and several horse or pony countries, but ours is the largest. How many speaking people do you have?” (Note: by ‘speaking people’ I think they mean ‘intelligent species.’ Remember each of my guests is a different race or species from any of the others. – Watney)

[16:13] JPL: So far as we know we have only one intelligent species, though a few others come close. There are eight billion of us. Who rules your country? Chrysalis?

[16:27] WATNEY: (Oops. Sensitive topic. Dragonfly and Starlight just had a few sharp words in pony talk. Starlight’s going to answer this one herself. – Watney) “We are not as many people as you, of any kind. Land-of-horses is ruled by Princess Heavens (not the right word) and her sister Princess Luna (the right word). Princess Twilight Sparkle was Princess Heavens’ student before she became a princess. Queen Chrysalis is queen only of the bug-ponies. She has tried to conquer us before, but we are currently at peace.” – Starlight

[16:35] WATNEY: “We’re still working out how to live together. How did you get to space without any magic?”

[16:39] JPL: What can we do that might make it easier for you to rescue your crew and Mark?

[16:47] JPL: Re: last question, Mark can answer better than I. It wasn’t easy. Some people died trying. We don’t want Mark to be another one of those. Can you help?

[16:59] WATNEY: “We don’t know yet. Problems we have: finding your exact universe, landing on planet, picking up crew, leaving planet, getting back home. We don’t think you can help with the first or last ones. Any suggestions?” (Note: my guests’s English is almost good enough for a detailed history of Earth space flight. Starlight’s written up a brief history of her world’s space race, waiting on upload time on Pathfinder. – Watney)

[17:05] WATNEY: “We’re trying to help, but it’s not easy. We’re testing changes to our life support systems that would let us send food, magic power, etc. to the crew, but it’s a problem we’ve worked on for years with little progress.”

[17:11] JPL: We’re working on ways to get them off the planet, at least. We have a ship that could possibly get them into orbit in about a year, but someone has to be waiting in orbit to pick them up. Can you be there?

[17:17] JPL: We’re curious about your experimental FTL drive. Mark tells us you think your crew can build a new one. How does it work? How do you adjust it to compensate for burned fuel, dropped stages, etc.? Our scientists have some clever ideas if we can get one of those working…

[17:30] WATNEY: “If we can find your world, we can be there within a day. But we don’t know how to find your world yet.” (Also, had to explain FTL to the ponies. They say it didn’t actually go faster than light yet- would need more energy than their ship had. – Watney)

[17:40] WATNEY: “The egghead just ran for the doors. I think you just gave her an idea. She invented the drive. She’s changed it about a hundred times since the accident. So far as I know it never adjusted for anything- one setting only. – Chrysalis” (Note: Today we learned ponies and humans both have the term “egghead”. In pony language it really is the pony word for egg and the pony word for head put together. – Watney)

[17:42] JPL: Can you tell us how to make our world more visible to you?

[17:52] JPL: Please tell the princess thank you from us. Do you have any questions for us before we end?

[17:58] WATNEY: “I don’t know. – Chrysalis” (Note: I’m willing to bet what she actually said was, “Bleep if I know,” based on how Starlight hesitated before telling me what to type. And based on her face now, I’d call that confirmed. – Watney)

[18:17] WATNEY: “What are the rules for land claims in your universe? I want my subject and my employees to have someplace safe if you kick them out. – Chrysalis”

[18:30] WATNEY: The Earth transmission window is about to close. Time to say good night, all.

[18:31] JPL: International treaty forbids land claims outside of Earth. Treaties also require all people to come to the aid of stranded astronauts. Your people will not be kicked out under any circumstances.

[18:43] JPL: Thank you for your time, Queen Chrysalis. We’ll do everything we can for your people.

[18:50] WATNEY: “They better not be kicked out. One way or another, we are coming for them. Good night. – Chrysalis” (And that’s all, folks… - Watney)

Sol 100

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 99
ARES III SOL 100

[07:56] JPL: Good morning, Mark. Bruce Ng here today. We want to go ahead and get Rover 1 online as another substitute Sojourner. We’re uploading a patch to Rover 2 which will let you disable direct connection to Pathfinder. It’s important that you do this, otherwise Pathfinder will attempt to talk to both rovers thinking both are Sojourner, and errors may result.

We’ve already sent you a zip file with the Rover 1 patch to let it talk to Pathfinder. Check the usr/bin/upgrades folder, copy the file to a flash drive, and run it on the other rover. For now, leave Rover 1’s radio turned OFF. We’ll switch over the chat and download functions tomorrow.

Since a large part of the day will consist of updating Rover 2, we’re not going to do much chatting today. Instead we want you to queue up the following, in this order:

* Your complete mission log from Sol 6 through today

* Two photos of each of your guests (ideally your oldest picture of each and a picture of each taken today)

* A description of each of your guests and their role on their crew

* A short history of your guests’ space program history- we understand Starlight Glimmer has written one

* The photos of your guests’ technical manuals

* Starlight’s translations of same, as you mentioned

* The other reports Starlight has written, as available

* Any documentation, aside from videos, you can provide on use of “magic”

Don’t worry about files being cut off. The software will restart any file upload tomorrow that it doesn’t have a record of receiving confirmation of delivery. Once the upload begins, Rover 2 will upload through Pathfinder until the queue is exhausted.

We know it will take you some time to collect the data and queue it properly. The Rover 2 upgrade will begin at 08:30 your time and is expected to last not less than five hours. No data will be uploaded until at least then.

If for some reason the upgrade does not synch properly with Pathfinder, turn off Rover 2’s radio, turn Rover 1’s radio on, open the Pathfinder interface, and select “Synch w/Pathfinder.” If that doesn’t work, we’ll check the ASCII dial for a message at 08:00 your time two sols from now and work from there.

There’s an email for you from Dr. Shields. She asked me to make certain you read it.

We’re almost done designing your resupply probes. Construction has already begun. We’ve decided to shoot for a launch date about eighty days from now. This would put the landing in the range of Sol 600. We’re planning on launching on two Red Falcons and, depending on availability, either a third Red Falcon or the Delta-IX being held back from Eagle Eye 3. The combined payload will include two new radios, spare parts for the Hab plus a 3D printer, and enough food to last all of you through Sol 1000. We should have the Ares-3B mission ready to pick you up long before then.

Finally, Dr. Kapoor has a request for your friends. Astrodynamics wants experimental confirmation of the power of the alien ship thrusters. The numbers you gave us for the ship’s main engines make them too powerful for you to test with the tools you have, but we think the maneuvering thrusters are just within tolerances to test on your mineral samples scale. We have a procedure ready for them to carry out that would let us test and verify your measurement conversions. Please ask them if they’re willing.

Have a great day!

[08:13] WATNEY: Thanks for the infodump. I’ll ask the ponies. But I have an alternative. The pony suits have MMU systems built into them. We can get the performance numbers for those and test a pony wearing the suit on the scale with a lot less risk of breaking the scale. Let me know if that works for Astrodynamics.

Good to know the resupply mission is moving forward. I know you’ll do the best job possible. But I have to say, I’m glad you’re not English. The last time a Mars probe was built even half as fast as this, it was Beagle 2.

[08:26] JPL: Pip-pip cheerio to you too, Mark.

MISSION LOG – SOL 100

One hundred sols, and I’m not dead yet. Only 850-something to go.

Today was update day for rover software. The Rover 2 update went without a hitch. Updating Rover 1 so it could take Rover 2’s place as pseudo-Sojourner and radio relay station was a little more problematic. Rover 1’s battery is still slung in its saddlebag on Rover 2, and even plugged into the rover charging station it won’t run with no battery installed.

Fortunately I had mission standardization on my side. I used Rover 2 to tow Rover 1 around the hab to an open power outlet. All the power plugs on this mission are compatible- even the battery socket plugs. So it was easy for me to run a cable from the Hab into Rover 1’s battery compartment. Now Rover 1 thinks it has its battery back, so everything powers up.

Yeah, I could have just put the battery back. But anyone who thinks that’s the simple and sensible option has never tried to lift a rover battery by themselves. Rover 1’s battery is staying put until I get a damn good reason why it should go elsewhere. I may revisit that decision once Starlight’s leg is healed, but until then, hotwiring Rover 1 is the smarter option.

Anyway, once I had Rover 1’s computer online and working on its own software update, I swept off the solar farm and went back in to take some pictures. NASA wants fresh pictures of my guests without their suits on.

Apparently the people back at NASA forgot that the population of the Hab has gone from 2/3 male on Sol 1 to two-thirds female on Sol 100. And actually that’s a bit unfair, because Commander Lewis wouldn’t have wasted any mission time primping for a camera. My guests, on the other hand, freaked.

I should point out that hygiene has been reduced to the bare essentials. Soap, cleaning wipes, and the like were supplied for six humans for thirty days plus a ten-day supplement. There’s no way that’s lasting past Sol 900 with one human, three ponies, a dragon, and a Dragonfly. But we’re making it stretch as long as we can, which means decon showers only when we can’t stand it any longer, my using the electric razor only every third day, and Starlight using a spell every day to sterilize the sanitary sponge.

So to be blunt, none of us looked like fashion models. I looked less like an astronaut and more like a hobo. And the ponies looked like hobo horses. And as soon as they got the idea that they were going to be photographed and shown on Earth, all three of them went nuts.

Fireball and Dragonfly weren’t quite as bothered. Yes, Fireball was first to the suit inspection mirror, but after taking a minute to brush his claws through the spines on his head, and another minute flexing his arms, he was done. And Dragonfly barely looks any different now than she did when she first arrived.

But the other three made up for it. Cherry and Spitfire got themselves jammed in the decon shower stall trying to race each other in. Starlight screamed for someone to bring the magic battery over so she could levitate herself (which is apparently a thing she can do) into the shower after them.

And then, of course, they all wanted a haircut. I confess I wanted one myself, considering I was shaggy enough that my hair didn't fit under my spacesuit headset anymore. But, as it turns out, there are precisely two pairs of scissors available: the metal shears in my tool box, and the shears in Dragonfly’s tools.

Needless to say we put up a fight. Dragonfly lost first, because Cherry gave her a direct order to yield up the clippers and backed it up with some of the most impressive untranslatable invective I’ve ever heard- and I grew up in Chicago. I’m sure that in among the angry horse noises was the F-bomb, the S-bomb, one or two Q-bombs and a Silent-J-bomb. I asked Starlight for a translation and she said, “You don’t want to know.” When I insisted, she said, “I don’t want you to know.” Fair enough.

(Note: pony shears have finger loops just like human scissors. Why? And more importantly, how? Starlight shrugs and says, “Always been that way.”)

I fought rather better, because Cherry isn’t in my line of command. Neither is Spitfire, even if she uses her broken English as effectively as any drill sergeant. She and Cherry tag-teamed me with lectures, demands, and cajolery. They would have been more effective if their English was anywhere close to as good as Starlight’s or Dragonfly’s, but as it was I couldn’t take them seriously.

But I lost, because I forgot I had a telekinetic working against me. I didn’t hear the snaps opening on my toolbox, so the first I knew that Starlight had my metal shears was when I saw them floating past me on their way to the bunks. I could have taken them back, but what would be the point? I can lecture them about it later. In the meantime, I’ll just steal the whetstone from Fireball and spend a few minutes with the shears when I’m not busy.

I don’t think it’ll take much. Horsehair is notoriously thick and coarse, but what the ponies have isn’t horsehair. Oh, they have fur- short, bristly fur that grows, sheds, and grows back to a consistent length. And that stuff is coarse. I know because I have to dig tons of the crap out of the atmospheric regulator’s filters every time I service the thing. I need to remember to have Bruce Ng send a backup filter or two with the resupply. I only have one spare.

But the stuff in their manes and tails is almost human hair, if you discount the fact that Spitfire and Starlight have two different colors of hair in their manes and that Starlight’s hair is of colors not found in nature outside of mollusks. Cherry’s grows in in long, poofy curls that remind me of macaroni and cheese (right down to the artificial-cheese-substitute coloring). Spitfire is happy with a spiky bob cut that really does make it look like her head is on fire. Of the three Starlight fussed the most over her hair and tail, trimming, brushing, trimming some more, brushing some more until it took on this elegant wave. I would have sworn you could not do that with hair without gel, or possibly crazy glue.

And then came the part I hadn’t considered- hoof care.

Each member of Ares III had a personal hygiene kit- personal heads for the electric toothbrush, personal comb or hairbrush, and personal nail clippers, among other things. This last point is important, because untrimmed fingernails or even toenails can pose a risk to the structural integrity of spacesuits.

But the ponies were only expecting to be in space for five days. They had nothing.

Starlight offered to do the other ponies’ hooves for them using her magic, but after watching her use her magic laser to trim the edges of her left forehoof (the unbroken limb), the others were less than eager. I have to say, if I saw smoke rising from someone’s fingers and had them offer to perform the exact same manicure on me, I would be just a tiny fucking little bit reluctant.

Dragonfly, whose hooves apparently don’t grow like that, pleaded ignorance. Fireball, the only one besides me with thumbs, pleaded ignorance.

So yeah, apparently in addition to being the Ares-III botanist and engineer, I’m now the mission farrier. And I spent over an hour learning how- very carefully- to trim alien pony hooves with one of my knives. I took a lot of photos, of course. NASA wants to know about pony anatomy? They should be glad I didn’t ask the girls to moon them.

Spitfire’s were in the worst shape. She told me that back home she spent as much or more time in the air than on the ground, so she wasn’t used to the almost constant wear on her hooves.

Dragonfly took one look at them- two splits and one inward curl- and demanded to see her spacesuit at once. That led to impromptu inspections of the other pony space suits, particularly the inside soles of the hoof-boots. She then demanded two of my meal packs, and I quote, “Packs with most white bread-like stuff in them. Like pasghetti.”

It turns out that at least one layer of the pony spacesuits is made from bug-pony goo- and almost everything that looks rubber on the suits originally came not from a tree but from bug-pony puke. The pony hooves are beginning to cut through the soles. Fortunately Dragonfly can fill the hoof-grooves with fresh goo that will bond and seal to the old stuff almost like a single pouring. But it’s going to cost me almost a day’s rations for her to do it.

Of course I said yes, but not until after the photos were done.

Surprisingly, although Cherry’s hooves were in the best shape, her spacesuit boots were in the worst. She does more EVAs than anyone else, even me, and there was a crack through the inside sole of each of her hoof-boots. The outer soles were beginning to crack, too. Dragonfly reversed the rank-pulling and declared the suit unsafe for EVA until repaired.

I don’t blame her one bit. Damage to the boots of an Ares spacesuit of that degree would be borderline cause to abort the whole mission. At the least the astronaut involved would be restricted to the Hab until launch day. Fortunately the Ares-III surface operation suits (unlike our flight suits) were specifically engineered for high-wear, high-damage hostile environments like the Moon. JPL even risks the wrath of Pele by bringing in fresh lava from Hawaii to stress-test the suits. Mars is a picnic by comparison.

Eventually- long, long, long after Rover 2’s update had completed itself- the ponies finally permitted me to take photos. And then, once I had several shots of each to choose from, they sat me down, cut my hair (surprisingly well, considering Fireball and his thumbs played no part), made me shave, and took several photos of me.

And NASA will have those photos, along with the rest, sometime tonight. They’re all in the upload queue.

Mark Watney, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Well, four, anyway.

I damn well hope at least four.

Sol 101

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MISSION LOG – SOL 101

Good morning, log! Today is a busy day for me, because I’m the only one in the Hab with a working space suit! Dragonfly says the suits are still curing after yesterday’s patching work, so none of the pony crew is going outside today. So, in addition to brushing off the solar panels, I get to do a lot of driving today!

Today’s chores: dump the RTG back in its hole; make a circuit of the weather stations and see which ones can be brought back online; go to the farm and check on things there; and bring back some quartz for Fireball, because he’s running low.

Quite a shopping list I have. Eggs, butter, plutonium, quartz.

Luckily I don’t have to worry about NASA giving me new orders today. Pathfinder is still working through the upload backlog, thanks to the photo session getting pushed back while the ponies had their makeover at Spa Watney. (I don’t blame them. I am, after all, the most popular and exclusive spa host on the whole planet.) So until the upload is completed I’m off NASA’s leash.

I gotta say, it feels nice. There’s a world of difference (see what I did there?) between involuntarily cut off from communications and voluntarily cut off. Earth is still there if I want or need them, but for the time being they can’t touch me for some stupid questions about alien rhizomes or percentages of light converted to heat when transmitted through a magic crystal.

Just got around to reading Dr. Shields’ email. Basically she says she told Venkat off when she found out he ignored her advice. She’s put in for time on the chat to talk with Dragonfly to find out her views on doctor-client privilege and trust issues. And she says that if Venkat or anybody else, even Teddy Sanders, tries this shit again, she’ll resign, call a press conference, and blow the whistle so hard I’ll be able to hear it here without Pathfinder.

Irene Shields might be a head-shrink, but she’s all right.


“Watney’s a dead man.”

The words hit Venkat’s ears at the same time a large pile of printouts, neatly held together by a pair of alligator clips, thudded onto his desk. The bearer of this ill tidings, Sue Douglass, was the head of JSC’s Astromaterials Research labs, which among other things included planetary geology. She was the one who determined which research labs did or didn’t get the priceless mineral samples from Ares I and II, and who would do the same for the quick-stow samples from Ares III’s truncated mission.

“Good morning, Sue,” Venkat replied pleasantly. “Good to see you’re on time for your appointment, which I don't remember you making. I trust my secretary made you comfortable while you waited?”

“I said, Watney is a dead man,” Sue replied. “And so are those adorable colorful aliens who are on the front pages of every paper in the world today.”

“I heard you,” Venkat said patiently. “Would you mind explaining why?”

Sue picked her massive report back up, flipped through several pages, and held it open for Venkat to view. It was a photograph of Watney’s cave farm taken from just inside the impossibly installed alien airlock. What appeared to be half the glittering crystals in the ceiling glowed with a bright light, fully illuminating the dark green plants in elongated rows on the dirt below. More crystals coated the walls, with several running completely from floor to ceiling at odd angles- including one that plunged right into the heart of the cultivated area.

“It’s an impressive sight,” Venkat admitted. “So?”

“So?” Sue asked sarcastically. “So it’s a lava tube. It has to be. It’s not even the largest or longest lava tube we’ve spotted on Mars, though how it got attached to a volcano that small will make somebody’s doctoral thesis someday. Obviously it was flooded with water for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years. Hot, mineral-rich water, to be exact. And those minerals deposited in all the vugs left behind when the first lava flows cooled, first forming a raw quartz overlay, then the crystals we’re seeing here.”

“If you say so,” Venkat shrugged. “I’m physics, not geology.”

“You’re the top Mars man in NASA,” Sue replied. “Which means you know why we knew lava tubes existed on Mars before now.”

“Remind me.”

“Because we’ve seen them. From orbit.” Sue flipped four pages in the report, then jabbed a finger down at a photo of Tharsis taken by a satellite. “And the reason we can see them from orbit is that they collapsed. Lava tubes always collapse, Venkat. They’re infamous for it. The material is weak and brittle and porous as all hell. That’s how you get geodes in them in the first place.”

Venkat grabbed the report and began flipping through the pages at random. “Are you telling me the roof is going to come in on Mark’s farm?” he asked.

“Nooooooo, no,” Sue said. “That would be too easy. That would be what might happen if the cave had been left alone.” She took the report back from Venkat and flipped to the appropriate page, a page full of equations Venkat recognized. “But that cave is full of one full atmosphere of air pressure. And according to Watney’s log, it’s only definitely airtight at the airlock end and at the far end- where the old tube meets what I’d guess it its old magma chamber.

“So do the math with me, Venkat. We know the material making up the cave walls is porous. The only reason we can guess for there not being any leaks right now is a layer of permafrost and compacted regolith on top of the cave. But the more that system heats up, the more unstable those layers will become. Eventually there will be a leak. And you know what happens then?”

“No. What?”

“The Hab airlock happens, that’s what!” Sue jabbed a finger at the equations again. “Except this time it’s at least fifty times as much air and a much tinier hole… at first.” She turned the page to more equations. “The air will leave through the initial breach at the speed of sound- three hundred sixty meters per second at least, maybe faster. The force of the air will rapidly erode the sides of the breach, causing cracks, faults, and blowouts.

“And then, once the air pressure on both sides is equalized, whatever’s left around the breach will be unsupported by the thick cushion of air it had before. The faults will continue to propagate, and the ceiling will cave in, probably in huge chunks.

“In short,” Sue said, closing the report and slapping it onto Venkat’s desk, “the cave will first blow out, and then cave in. And incidentally, anyone inside at the time will be killed by tornado-scale winds, decompression, or falling rock. Have your pick!” She took a breath, sighed, and added, “And even if they all live, there is absolutely no way they could ever repair the farm.There wouldn’t be a hole in the roof, Venkat. There would just be. No. Roof.”

Venkat nodded. “All right, I believe you,” he said. “But the two questions I have are: what can we do about it, and how long do they have before it happens?”

Sue shrugged. “It could happen tomorrow,” she said. “Or it could happen after Ares 3B arrives. We don’t know enough about the composition of the soil above the cave, or for that matter in and below the cave. We have Watney’s analysis,” she said, nudging the report, “but he geared that analysis towards the immediate task of growing crops in what he found.”

“Do you want him to take new samples?”

“Hell, no!” Sue shouted. “The soil in the cave’s contaminated now, and the last thing in the world we want now is anything disturbing the soil on top of the cave. No,” she said. “What we want, ideally, is for that alien to do whatever she did to seal the ends of the cave for the entire cave. Make the geode absolutely airtight. Do that, and the risk of blowout is eliminated so long as they don’t crack the outer layer of quartz in their mining operations.”

Venkat blinked. “Mining operations?” he asked.

Sue rolled her eyes. “Venkat, how much sleep have you been getting?” she asked. “And have you been reading your own chat logs?”

“Not enough,” Venkat admitted. “What did I miss?”

“God knows,” Sue said with feeling, “but in this case you missed two things. The aliens use gemstones and crystals like quartz for their technology. And the dragon eats gems. Without the quartz crystals he has no food supply at all.”

“Okay,” Venkat said, making some notes on a scratch pad. “I’ll talk to Mark about it tomorrow and see if it’s feasible. What about interim precautions?”

“If possible, lower the air pressure to ten PSI inside the cave,” Sue said. “That’s equivalent to the air pressure in La Paz, Bolivia, and they can grow crops there. And monitor the temperature and keep it as low as cultivation will permit. The lower the temperature and the less the pressure differential between inside and outside the cave, the more time we have before the system literally collapses. Also, tell them to stay the hell away from any of the crystals that go completely across the geode. Up and down, side to side, whatever, leave them the hell alone.

“And above all, tell them to be gentle when cutting crystals off the walls. Don’t bend, push, twist, whatever. Straight cut or nothing. Shear forces on the outer walls of the geode are the worst thing that could happen to that setup.”

“Okay,” Venkat nodded. “Can we test any of this in the lab?”

Sue nodded, “I have some models we can put in the partial-pressure chamber and simulate, yes. We’ve already done computer models, but they’re based on incomplete data.”

“Get a proposal on my desk by tomorrow morning,” Venkat said. “You’ll have funding no later than the end of next week, so start lining up your personnel and materials needs now.” He tapped Sue’s report and added, “Also forward this to Director Sanders and email a copy to Commander Lewis on Hermes. Teddy needs to know, and Lewis was the geology specialist for Ares III. She might have some input on this.”

“Right.” Sue nodded, and then, having said her piece, she turned to leave.

“Wait a moment,” Venkat said. “Wouldn’t you be interested to know what I’ve been reading, that has me forgetting Mars chat logs and other reports?”

He swiveled his computer screen so that Sue could see it. The title of the document showing read: INTRODUCTION TO MAGIC THEORY AND ITS RELATION TO PHYSICAL LAWS – STARLIGHT GLIMMER, ASTRONAUT.

“You would not believe,” Venkat said, unable to keep the hunger out of his voice, “how eager I am to make sense of this. And I have several thousand scientists from every branch of NASA except possibly yours demanding the chance to do so.

“And they all want access yesterday.” Venkat sighed. “I’m going to chat with Starlight tomorrow, so this is my homework. I need to know enough,” he said, tapping the screen, “to get to the point where my questions rise to the level of stupid.”

Sol 102

View Online

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 101
ARES III SOL 102

[08:03] WATNEY: Good morning. Quick report on yesterday’s EVA. Southern and western weather stations are fully operational. Northern weather station has lost its anemometer mast and one solar panel, so I’ve set it to daily data dumps instead of constant transmission. Eastern weather station got smashed by debris. Several parts are missing and the CPU is wrecked. Not repairable. The farm is coming along nicely, on pace for a harvest between Sol 109 and Sol 112. I took out some trash to the green flag, but I doubt Martian raccoons will come along to steal it, so it’ll be there if I need it again.

Dragonfly has pronounced the repairs to the pony spacesuits complete, so all the ponies except Starlight are go for EVAs again. This is good, because I need Dragonfly and Fireball to help with the pony radio tests. You do have a procedure ready for that, right guys?

[08:15] JPL: Good morning, Mark. Venkat Kapoor here. We have the procedure, but there’s something a little more urgent we want you to work on today. Since your friends have space suits that provide unlimited Earth-quality air and circulation, and since you have the water reclaimer tank plus a spacesuit full of surplus water, we want you to power down the atmospheric regulator, the oxygenator, and the water reclaimer and do a complete diagnostic and inspection on all of them. We’ve got some bonus procedures in an email to check against specific issues we think might crop up in an extended mission with as many people in the Hab as you have.

While you’re doing that, I’m going to take this chat private and speak to Starlight Glimmer. She sent us some truly fascinating material, and I’m hoping to get some details straightened out. The diagnostics and other procedures will take you most of the transmission window, so you should probably get on those now.

Oh, and one final thing: Dr. Douglass of Astromaterials Research has some proposed adjustments for your cave farm. I’ve sent them to you in an email. Discuss them with your guests and let us know if you decide to go forward with any of them. This has nothing to do with your botany work, by the way. Our botanists here are still arguing about how many things about your farm are impossible. I signed up for nine in the betting pool.

[08:31] WATNEY: You’re still depositing my pay in the bank, right? Take some out and put me down for zero, because if a thing exists, it can’t be impossible. I’ll go get Starlight on a computer.

[08:43] JPL: Sorry, Mark, but Mitch Henderson beat you to it.

[08:55] WATNEY: Well, shit. Here’s Starlight.

[08:58] WATNEY: Good morning! I am Starlight Glimmer, scientist and wizard for our ship. Please, why does your language have a word for “user of magic” when you say you don’t have magic?

[09:11] JPL: Hello, Starlight. In ancient times anything we couldn’t explain was magic. People who could do things others couldn’t were often called wizards… if they were lucky. The unlucky ones tended not to live long.

I’ve been reading your reports. I only skimmed your history and your technical specs before forwarding them to our engineers. But I’ve been focusing on your treatise on magic. Could you answer some questions about it?

[09:26] WATNEY: I’ll try. Be careful: I’m still learning your vocabulary. Also, most of the theorems and equations in the essay apply to our world, which has a universal magic field.

[09:39] JPL: That’s fascinating by itself, Starlight. Our models of physics recognize either four or five primary physical forces, depending on whether “dark energy” exists. None of them are universally uniform. All of them originate from matter in some fashion. A universal force sounds to us like “aether,” a discredited theory that held that some intangible substance permeated the universe in order for light waves and other forces to travel through it. An energy field that is the same at all points in the universe breaks our physical laws.

[09:44] WATNEY: The four physical laws you mention are gravity, electromagnetism, the nuclear force, and… ?

[09:56] JPL: We divide the nuclear force into strong (holds atoms together) and weak (breaks them apart).

[10:10] WATNEY: I see. We regard strong and weak as poles, just like positive and negative in electricity. Very little work has been done with atom physics in our world apart from magic. We haven’t needed to.

[10:23] JPL: When you get back home, tell your scientists about our theory. I’ll have a colleague of mine send you a simple write-up of the theory. We have experimental data that backs it up solidly.

Speaking of experiment, you claim that all life produces its own magic field. Could you explain that a bit more? We’ve never detected it on Earth.

[10:38] WATNEY: Sure. In our universe the strength of the ambient magical field can never dip below what we call the magical constant. But the presence of life forms strengthens the ambient field through production of new energy. We aren't sure how life produces magic, but it does. These fields are only detectable to non-unicorns by changes in the visible light spectrum within the fields. If the field is really strong, it glows as if a spell is being cast.

[10:42] JPL: That’s interesting. So a spectrograph will show the difference between a zone with magic and a zone without?

[10:55] WATNEY: Pardon me, but the dictionary isn’t helpful. What is a spectrograph?

[11:08] JPL: A spectrograph is a test we do. We put a prism in a beam of light from something, usually a flame. It makes a rainbow. If the rainbow is big enough, it shows little gaps in the spectrum that indicate the presence or absence of certain elements.

[11:23] WATNEY: Oh! That’s a curious test. We don’t use it. Pegasus ponies make rainbows for weather purposes all the time. I think the strength of our magic field makes light operate a lot differently than what you’re used to. I don’t think your “spectrograph” would work for magic.

[11:36] JPL: That’s unfortunate. What do you use to detect magic fields?

[11:51] WATNEY: We have a device. I can’t tell you its name- ***meter or something. The first part of it is our word for the thing that carries magical force from one atom to another. The one we currently have doesn’t work well because it’s set for our home universe, so anything less than the magic constant barely shows.

I hope you don’t mind if I eat lunch while typing? Spitfire is helping.

[12:04] JPL: That’s fine, Starlight. Can you tell us how to make magic-meters of our own, so we can test and see if Earth has magic?

[12:19] WATNEY: Um, that’s pages 21 through 24 of my essay, with pictures. The steps are really simple.

[12:32] JPL: I think the problem is, you’re assuming knowledge we don’t have. For example… what is an array? What does it do?

[12:48] WATNEY: I’m using your word “array” to refer to an organized magical graph that sets out the instructions for a spell. When the array receives a magic charge, it performs the spell.

[13:01] JPL: Okay. Do we engrave the array into the crystal? You use the word “enchant”.

[13:15] WATNEY: It depends. Powerful unicorns can write arrays with chalk, charcoal, etc. for one-time use. Earth ponies sometimes use gold, copper, or glass to create arrays that unicorns can charge many times. But for arrays that run themselves you need to enchant the object that holds the array. It’s a spell that makes the array a part of the whole.

[13:28] JPL: I’m getting a sinking feeling that I know the answer to this next question, Starlight, but I have to ask it. Assume I’m an earth pony who can’t cast spells. How do I charge a drawn array? How do I enchant anything?

[13:42] WATNEY: Um… you don’t. Only unicorns can do that. I know some alchemists who create medicines with magical effect, but I doubt their methods would work in a low-magic environment.

[13:55] JPL: That’s too bad, Starlight. We can’t even test to see if we have magic unless we have some way of using magic. Do you see our problem?

[14:08] WATNEY: Yes. I’ll ask my teacher at home about it. Maybe we can figure something out.

[14:23] JPL: We’d appreciate that. In the meantime, I have a couple of other questions. Do you understand the concept of entropy? In a closed system everything tends towards maximum disorder.

[14:37] WATNEY: Yes! In the absence of magic a closed system will tend towards disorder. But not chaos. I know Chaos personally, and he hates entropy. He says it’s boring. There are lively debates at home about whether or not our world is a closed system.

[14:51] JPL: Remind me another time to ask you about Chaos. Skipping for now. Doesn’t magic violate entropy?

[15:09] WATNEY: We don’t know for sure. The majority opinion is not, because active use of magic requires an act of will plus magic as an outside energy source. We have a theory that magic exists at a sort of higher energy state than normal matter and energy, so when it’s brought down to our level a little goes a long way. Also, we aren’t certain of the way life generates magic, so for all we know energy might be lost converting food or body activity into magic.

[15:24] JPL: Okay. Last question for today. I noticed that one of your devices in your ship converts magic into electricity. How do you reverse the process?

[15:38] WATNEY: You don’t. All attempts to turn electricity or motion into magic without using more magic have failed. We think it’s because magic exists on a higher energy level, and the cost of making enough electricity to push up to that level is too high. Believe me, if I knew how to do that we’d be halfway to your planet already.

[15:52] JPL: I believe you. I was just hoping we could help in some way, but if we can it doesn’t look like we’re going to use magic for it.

[16:07] WATNEY: I’m sorry. I will ask Twilight Sparkle about it. She knows more about everything than I do. She went to the best school in our land and was the personal student of Princess Sky-and-Everything-In-It. I taught myself.

[16:21] JPL: Based on your reports, you’re very good at teaching yourself. Thank you for your help, Starlight. Please ask Mark to email his reports when he’s done. Venkat out.

[16:34] WATNEY: You’re welcome! I wish it was better. Starlight Glimmer out.

Sol 103

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HERMES – ARES III MISSION DAY 230

As much as they wanted to, the crew of Hermes couldn’t all be present on the bridge for the radio test. Duties and experiments couldn’t wait indefinitely. Vogel had his crystals, Beck had both Watney’s plants and Hermes’ life support to watch over. Lewis had the three kilos of Mars surface samples allotted to her from the case collected and stowed in the MAV before the abort.

So only Martinez and Johannsen were awake and on the bridge during the dog-watch, the time appointed for the first comms check using the alien radio. Johannsen had installed the software which would allow Hermes’s communications systems to recognize an analog voice radio transmission and convert it into a form the computers could process. Now she watched her workstation as she switched from digital reception on the high-gain antenna to analog, waiting for a signal.

Under normal circumstances the current arrangement would be a direct violation of flight protocols. Hermes was supposed to keep the high-gain antenna pointed at Earth at all times to pick up signals and transmit telemetry in the clear. But that had changed when NASA realized that Hermes’s low-gain antenna put out a vastly more powerful signal than the ancient, feeble high-gain antenna on Pathfinder. This led to the inevitable decision to use Hermes as a comms relay, with the high-gain picking up Pathfinder’s signal and the low-gain relaying it, cleaned up slightly, down to Earth. Ever since then the high-gain and low-gain antennas had pointed in almost exactly the opposite directions that the rulebooks laid down for them.

“High-gain tuned to 86.8 megahertz,” Johannsen reported. “Awaiting signal.” The signal would require six minutes to arrive from Mars, assuming it was sent on time.

“So,” Martinez said, “which one is your favorite?”

“Beg pardon?” Johannsen asked.

“Which alien is your favorite?” Martinez asked. “You must have read the report on them.”

“I don’t know,” Johannsen said. “All we have is their photos, their mission profiles and histories, Mark’s logs, and whatever Dragonfly says on the Pathfinder chat. We don’t really know them, do we?”

“My favorite’s Spitfire,” Martinez said.

“Really? And not Cherry Berry?” Johannsen asked. “I would think you’d pick the flight veteran over the rookie.”

“Spitfire’s no rookie,” Martinez said. “She was commander of this ‘Wonderful Thunderbolts’ squadron back in her own world. That’s like a combination of our Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, if I understand right. Closer to the Blue Angels, since they were the go-to guys for astronaut recovery. That makes her top of the game in flight where she comes from- and she does it with those two itty bitty wings!” Martinez rolled his eyes back and muttered, “Man, I’d love to have wings like that.”

“I see,” Johannsen said.

“Of course,” Martinez continued, a smile slowly spreading across his face, “if I had wings, my wife would need wings, too. What we’d get up to in a cloud! I wonder if it’s like an air mattress or a waterbed!”

“I don’t want to hear it, Rick,” Johannsen warned.

“Fine, fine,” Martinez muttered. “Anyway, it’s not just Spitfire’s record. Look at her face. That alien just oozes confidence. I’m sure Cherry Berry’s the best rocket jock the aliens have, but she looks…” He threw up his hands, helpless to avoid his final verdict, “… kinda goofy.”

“Mmm.”

“Now Beck,” Martinez continued, “Beck prefers Starlight Glimmer. But then you know he thinks flyboys like me are all crazy. He likes a scientist.”

“Have you asked everyone this?” Johannsen asked.

“Yep. Believe it or not, Vogel is a Dragonfly fan. He says she makes him laugh.”

“Really?” Johannsen actually turned in her seat to face Martinez. “Vogel said that?”

“Gotta love those inscrutable Germans,” Martinez grinned. “You wanna guess who Lewis likes?”

“Cherry Berry, obviously.”

“Nope. Try again.”

“Um… Spitfire?”

“Nope! She actually likes Fireball.”

Johannsen’s face screwed up in confusion. “Fireball?” she asked. “Why? Both Dragonfly and Starlight use one word for his personality: ‘grumpy.’”

“She says she’s going to take up painting when she gets back to Earth,” Martinez said. “So she can paint him on the side of a van.”

Johannsen glared at Martinez. “You’re putting me on,” she said.

“Yes, I am,” Martinez said, chuckling.

Shaking her head, Johannsen turned back to her console. “Should be getting a signal starting about twenty seconds from now,” she reported.

“Cool. Cross your fingers,” Martinez said, his smile fading. He leaned a little bit forward in his chair.

The time came, and went. For about a minute, Martinez and Johannsen waited, listening to the hiss from the bridge loudspeakers.

Then a tinny, barely audible voice: “… Hermes, this is Friendship. Hermes, this is Friendship. I am broadcasting on 86.8 megahertz. Please respond for comms check. Hermes, this is Friendship broadcasting on 86.8 megahertz. Please respond for comms check.”

“Mark,” Martinez gasped.

And then a second voice cut in, even more staticky than the first: “Hairmeez, thiz iz Friendship. Hairmeez, thiz iz Friendship. Yi aim broadcazzting on aitty-zix point ait mechaherssz. Pleezze rezzpond for commz check. Thizz iz Drakonfly zzpeaking.”

And, finally, a third voice, clearer and firmer than the other two but squeaky and still rather faint: “Hairmes, this is Friendship Actual. We broadcasting eighty-six point eight. Please reeespond? Respond. Respond for comms check. Repeat. This is Friendship Actual. Hairmes, Friendship Actual, comms check. Over.”

After a pause, Mark’s voice returned. “Um, yeah, guys, I taught her what ‘actual’ meant. They wanted to be part of this. We’ll try again at 10:30 our time if we receive no signal. After that we’ll proceed to 92.2 megahertz for the second signal. Um, over.”

Martinez laughed, not his usual rapid-fire bubbles but a slow, almost sobbing laugh. “Damn, Mark,” he said, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

Johannsen took a couple of breaths, turned on her microphone, and said, “Friendship, this is Hermes. Receiving you about two by five, clear but faint. Can you boost your gain? We also receive Dragonfly and Friendship Actual. It’s good to hear your voices. Over.”

With that done, the bridge crew, both of them, sat in silence as the twelve minute turnaround time failed to pass nearly quickly enough.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 102
ARES III SOL 103

[15:25] JPL: Hello, Dragonfly. I am Irene Shields. I am a doctor who studies minds. Our word for that is “psychologist.” Did Mark tell you why I wanted to talk to you?

[15:39] WATNEY: This is Dragonfly. Yes, he did. He also said he will shut down all computers in the Hab while we had this talk. I am in Rover 2 now. I did not know the word before, but there are psychologists at home. They have (look up word) benches.

[15:53] JPL: Good. Our word for a person who can sense the emotions of others is empath. Outside of stories, you’re the first real empath we’ve met. Can you also read thoughts? (Reading thoughts is telepathy.)

[16:11] WATNEY: I sometimes guess what others think, but I do not know. I only taste emotions, not thoughts, not facts in head.

[16:25] JPL: Okay. I’m trusting you to tell me the truth. Trust is very important with psychologists. It’s hard to earn and easy to destroy. If you feel you can’t tell me the truth about something, don’t lie to me. Just tell me you can’t tell me now. Can you do that for me?

[16:40] WATNEY: I can do that. I understand about trust. My job used to be to hide with ponies and get love to feed us. Trust was very important then. Is even more important in space.

[16:54] JPL: Yes, it is. What Dr. Kapoor did before could have damaged the trust in your crew. It is important that trust be strong. What does your crew know about your ability to sense emotion?

[17:18] WATNEY: All know I can do it. All bug-ponies can do it. It bother them but it cannot be

[17:20] WATNEY: changed.

[17:35] JPL: Is something wrong, Dragonfly? Please tell your crew this. We cannot send Mark a psychologist. I cannot be on chat because there are more important things. But I will send you my email address. NASA is setting up email addresses for you all. Mark will teach you how to use them. If there is something you need to keep secret but tell somebody, you can email it to me. Nobody else will read it but me. I promise. Tell this to all the others, including Mark.

[17:48] WATNEY: Nothing is wrong. I will tell them.

[18:01] JPL: Also, I would appreciate it if all of you sent me an email telling me how you feel. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. Just tell me what you’re comfortable with sharing.

[18:05] WATNEY: I will tell them. Do you have any more questions for me?

[18:18] JPL: Maybe by email, where it’s private. For now, thank you and good night, Dragonfly.

[18:24] WATNEY: Good night, Irene. Dragonfly out.

Sol 104

View Online

TO: Theodore Sanders (tsanders_admin@nasa.gov)
FROM: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Reports on Mark Watney

Attached find the summaries for the reports on the topics you requested. It makes pretty grim reading. If you need the detailed reports I can send them, but I think this pretty much says all that needs to be said.

I’ve instructed everyone involved with the making of these reports that NASA’s official policy is optimism. Mark Watney and our alien visitors WILL survive. We WILL send a ship to bring them home. Even so, I have my doubts that we can keep these facts under our hat indefinitely. When the lid comes off, we need to be ready.

Venk


TO: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
FROM: Dr. Ethelbert Keller (keller@nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Nutritional Needs of Mark Watney

Report attached.

I’m sorry I can’t do more than make guesses about Watney’s alien guests. We have to take Watney at his word that Dragonfly and Fireball (Orange Random and Tall Boy) are assured of full rations for however long it takes to be rescued. As for the three creatures Watney refers to as ponies, I am told by the veterinarians I've consulted that alfalfa is as close as can be found to a perfect single-crop grazing diet for equines. The diet would still put them in danger of sodium deficiency (no table salt in their diet). Symptoms include craving for salt to the point of licking anything and everything vaguely salty; loss of appetite; fluid retention; and in advanced cases, nerve damage. Watney should expect a lot of tongue baths whether he likes it or not in his future, as he is probably the only safe source of sodium chloride on Mars.

Watney’s own situation is much less amusing. If he relies on potatoes and the vitamin supplements from the Ares III medical store, he will run into serious protein deficiency within thirty sols of switching from meal packs to potatoes. Symptoms include loss of mental acuity, loss of energy, metabolic dysfunction, muscle loss, enlarged heart, proneness to injury, slow healing, and insulin resistance.

Alfalfa is edible by humans and has a high protein content, but we can only digest flowers, leaves and the younger roots and stems. Beyond a certain point the stems become too fibrous to digest. Alfalfa seeds are high in certain amino acids that cause metabolic imbalances and loss of thyroid function. And since human digestion is not evolved to handle cellulose in large quantities, our ability to extract useful protein from alfalfa is limited. Unfortunately, it’s all Mark has once the food packs run out.

Please advise Mark to plant more alfalfa if possible and to cook and eat the leaves and uppermost stems from each harvest (and flowers if available) while fresh. Dried alfalfa is much less useful, but even drinking alfalfa tea would help a little. This will slow, but not prevent, his protein loss. The only certain remedy is to get him high-protein rations as soon as possible. In the meantime, to reduce protein loss and limit risk of injury I recommend Mark’s physical activity be limited to only that absolutely necessary for his survival and rescue.

Keller


TO: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
FROM: Sue Douglass (douglass517@nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Cave Permafrost Insulation

Preliminary report attached. Long story short: months at best.

Tell Mr. Sanders that he’s correct that the inside of an igloo can be made warm while the outside is quite cold (for Earth values of cold). Ice on Earth is a reasonably effective insulator in the short term. By a process of partial melting and refreezing a freshly built igloo becomes both more airtight and more structurally sound. But Mr. Sanders overlooks a great many factors that render the comparison inaccurate.

First, we know very little about the properties of permafrost and regolith mixes, particularly as they exist at Site Epsilon. We know that lunar regolith makes a very efficient insulator, but testing on Martian regolith to date has not included either pure layers of water ice between regolith layers or a permafrost mix of soil and water, both of which occur on Mars.

Second, the air pressure inside an igloo is roughly the same as outside. This is not the case with the Site Epsilon cave, which the aliens have pressurized to roughly one bar of pressure as opposed to six millibars on the surface.

Third, if a small hole opens in an igloo it doesn’t immediately grow larger through erosion caused by air flow

Fourth, igloos are primarily warmed by body heat or at most an oil lantern. Igloos with large heating systems installed inside tend not to last very long. The Site Epsilon cave uses a combination of electric heaters, warm air circulation, and a hydronic ground heating system to make the air and ground warm enough for plants to grow- which means raising the temperature an average of seventy degrees Celsius above the mean outdoor Martian summer temperature. In winter it's well over a hundred degrees Celsius above the mean. That’s almost double to triple the temperature extreme most igloos face.

Finally, the permafrost layer above the cave is on a slope. Melted ice will not merely run down the walls and re-freeze. It will seek the lowest available level via the path of least resistance, eroding regolith on its way. Given enough time some of it will find its way to the surface downslope of its origin, possibly causing a landslide of the kind we are already familiar with from Opportunity and Curiosity. Such a landslide would inevitably reduce the layer of regolith and ice protecting the cave farm, leading to further leaks and an eventual breach.

The good news is, the primary cause of igloo collapse is heating from outside. That is practically the only problem Mars isn’t going to throw at us.

I’m currently locating sources of synthesized Martian regolith for heat transfer experiments. Details on those experiments will be on your desk tomorrow. In the meantime, until and unless the cave is rendered truly airtight without regard to regolith or permafrost, my recommendations stand.

Sue Douglass, Ph. D.


TO: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
FROM: Michael Bendarek (mbender33@nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Gilligan’s Raft

I finally have the numbers for you. Our four-legged alien friends aren’t going to like them much. Break it to them gently.

The attached report is preliminary, but I had to take the man I had working on it off to begin work on finalizing trajectories for Project Sleipnir. It took a while to shake this out of him, because he says it’s not finished. When I stopped him he was analyzing the alien shipwreck and making mass estimates based on how much could be cut off the fuselage. I had to promise him I’d let him finish the job properly once I had the trajectories in hand.

According to the information given, when whole the alien ship had a thrust:weight ratio of about 2:5. Considering its construction, that’s damn impressive. Given infinite fuel, the ship could almost hover on its main thrusters by itself on Mars. With the outer skin ripped off it, plus the other loss of mass due to scavenging, the ship could probably just about lift off right now, given sufficient fuel.

But sufficient fuel is a major problem.

According to the aliens, the ship originally converted a form of energy unknown to us (“magic”) into kinetic energy (thrust). The “magic” was stored in a series of batteries, of which only two survived the crash. Those two are made of a lightweight but durable crystal, type unknown, plus metal and electrodes of some kind, the whole package about 27,000 cubic centimeters in size and massing an estimated seventy kilograms. One hundred such batteries would weigh seven tons. Even with the materials cut off of the wreck, we estimate that extra mass drops the ship back to hovering at best. We are told the original batteries were larger, but we can't verify that from the pictures.

But weight isn’t the killer issue. The issue is the energy you get for that weight. According to the aliens, the two batteries which survived the initial accident were able to power an engine full burn for only three seconds combined. We can therefore estimate that a full array of one hundred such batteries would provide a single burn at full power of two minutes and thirty seconds. As you know, that’s roughly the burn time of an Ares MAV first stage alone. If we could lighten up the ship somehow to get it to orbit in two minutes and thirty seconds, the acceleration would kill any crew inside.

Using what’s left of the Ares III MAV and MDV wouldn’t help. The MAV has no remaining cabin, and the MDV cabin is breached. The MDV thruster thrust:weight ratio is only 1.05 at best, just enough to slow the ship down to a safe landing once the drogues are no longer useful. Its hydrazine monopropellant is hypergolic, but there’s not enough of it and we can’t make more. The MAV descent engines use hydrazine, but its fuel plant produces methane for its two ascent stages.

Finally, two of the ship’s eight maneuvering thruster banks are reported as destroyed in the crash. It might be possible to reposition the remaining six into a configuration that would provide total control, but there would be zero margin for error both in installation and in piloting.

In short, outside some radical alterations to the remains of the alien ship (assuming the engines could be attached to the ship again afterwards), it can’t make orbit without killing the crew. This is going to be a major blow to the aliens, so try to find some way to soften it.

Mike
Astrodynamics


TO: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
FROM: Mark Watney (mwatney@ares.nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Care to buy a farm?

We’ve looked at the recommendations the geologists sent us. Here’s our responses:

Lowering the air pressure: No go. The pony air supply is a direct link to the atmosphere of their home world. Whatever the pressure is there, it’s going to be here. The only way to lower the pressure on our end is to make a leak somewhere, and doing that will make the air supply shut down. The ponies don’t feel like losing all their atmosphere to Mars, or as I’ve taken to calling it, “Planet Spaceball”.

Lowering the heat: We’re removing two of the space heaters. That’s about all we can do. Again, the air is straight from the pony world’s atmosphere, and we need to keep warming the farm soil to allow the alfalfa roots to penetrate as deeply as possible.

Don’t mess with the support pillars: Duh.

Don’t twist off the crystals from the walls: What, do you think Bruce Banner turned up along with the ponies? Listen, if I had the Hulk here I wouldn't have him picking rocks like fruit. We’d just all load up in the alien ship and have him kick us off Mars! Stupid planet deserves a green gamma-powered kick in the ass anyway.

The crystals are cut by magic laser. Starlight's horn is the only tool we have that can cut them. No torque of any kind involved. The only danger is that removing the weight from the walls might cause a release of tension. There’s nothing we can do about that.

Seal the cave: That’s going to be a long-term project. Starlight’s spell (according to her) was designed to close up existing holes that can be seen. She’s doubtful she can use it on walls where she hasn’t stripped off the crystal layer completely. Also she doesn’t have the energy to do it all at one whack.

But we have a long-term plan that might work. Sol 109 is three weeks from the day the Hab blew out and Starlight broke her arm. It’s also the day we’re due to dig up the cave’s seed potatoes, cut them, and replant them for a full crop in the cave and the Hab. After that we get our first alfalfa harvest. Those things can’t be put off, and we need Starlight’s magic to help with both. The harvest will probably deplete the magic batteries, and after that we need to cut more gems for Fireball’s meals. But after that we can get started on making new magic batteries.

According to Starlight, making magic batteries is one of the easiest spells ever. Practically any magic object is at least part battery, she says. The main difficulty is finding and cutting crystals of the right size, without flaws, for the purpose. Apparently there are places on her homeworld that make the cave farm look dowdy. She was surprised when I told her that the quartz here was gigantic by comparison with Earth crystals.

The more batteries we have, the more magic we potentially have. And beyond a point we’ll have enough magic to seal the cave properly. I don’t know what that point is or how long it’ll take, but it seems like the surest and safest course. In the meantime Starlight's going to work on a better spell for sealing the cave away from the pre-existing holes.

Tell Astromaterials that if they come up with something we can actually do, we’re willing to give it a shot.

Watney


TO: Venkat Kapoor (kapoor@ares.nasa.gov)
FROM: Beth Johannsen (johannsen@ares.nasa.gov)
SUBJECT: Radio test

On Ares III Mission Day 230 Hermes made successful contact with alien spaceship Friendship on all five preset wavebands. 108.4 megahertz produced the clearest signal, but not sufficiently to distinguish it. All signals were faint and with static, but voices were audible and understandable. Full details of all tests, including audio recordings of all transmissions and receptions, attached.

As Hermes approaches Earth the signal from Friendship will grow fainter due to losses from transmission distance. We are currently near the edge of voice communications range. If diagrams of the alien radio wiring are available, I recommend creating a procedure for Mark to build a telegraph key for the radio. I’ve already written a program to allow Hermes to transmit an audio tone that can be used for Morse code. The crew will need drill on identifying and using Morse code for this to be workable.

Beth Johannsen
Ares III systems operator

Sol 105

View Online

Cathy Warner walked out onto the soundstage through a group of life-sized cutouts: five colorful, large-eyed aliens surrounding a single shabby-looking human figure. “Welcome to the Watney and Company Report. Today is the one hundredth Martian day since the freak accident which stranded a member of the Ares III crew and the entire crew of an alien ship from a parallel universe on Mars,” she said. “For one hundred days these six incredibly different people have worked together to survive the hostile Martian environment, cut off from all outside aid from both their homes.

“There have been heartbreaking setbacks, like the explosion which ripped Airlock 1 off the Hab on Sol 88, a little over two weeks ago. And there have been astonishing triumphs, with the aliens establishing a rudimentary telegraph to their home universe on Sol 30 and Mark Watney reviving Pathfinder for a more secure communications route with NASA twelve days ago. And two days ago, for the first time since the Sol 6 accident, the crew of Hermes had voice contact with Mark Watney and two of his fellow castaways.

“But despite these triumphs, the lives of our friends still hang by a thread. The alien food supplies have been expended, and their survival depends on a harvest in the next few days from a farm built in a Martian cave using their alien technology and Mark Watney’s botany expertise. Injuries have taken their toll, with Watney having narrowly escaped crippling burns to his arm, Dragonfly having worked herself to exhaustion bringing Watney back from the fire, and Starlight having broken a limb in the Hab explosion. And who knows what future accidents await them, or Cherry, or Fireball, or Spitfire?

“One hundred days after the Sol 6 accident, the six castaways still do not have a way to escape Mars. NASA administrator Theodore Sanders addressed this issue in a press conference held this morning at Johnson Space Center in Houston.”

Cathy looked up to a dark portion of the studio wall, which lit up with the projection of footage from the presser. Teddy Sanders was his usual perfectly dressed self, standing at the lectern with his usual confidence. “Risk is the business of all astronauts,” he said. “But there is a difference between risks that are taken with careful planning and consideration of the possibilities, and emergencies of the kind Mark Watney and his friends are dealing with today on the surface of Mars. The circumstances they face were entirely unanticipated by anyone here at NASA at any point during the planning for Ares III, and according to the aliens, unanticipated by them as well.

“Our ability to contact the alien homeworld is extremely limited, but I have used that ability to speak directly with my counterparts on their side. And on behalf of them, I can assure you that both they and we at NASA are exerting all our energies to bringing our people to safety- on one world or another.

“Unfortunately the aliens are not yet able to mount a rescue mission. The nature of their accidental trip here means they do not know precisely where our universe is in relation to their own. Thus, they cannot name the day they can send a rescue mission. But today, here and now, I can give you such a day.”

On the screen, for a moment, the gathered reporters rumbled and rustled papers before Sanders could quiet them. “NASA is committed to training and sending an Ares III-B crew on Hermes in the next launch window,” he said. “Thanks to the VASIMR engine on Hermes, we can set a firm date for Hermes to orbit Mars of Sol 768- six hundred and eighty-one days from today.

“That’s almost a hundred days faster than our earlier estimates, but it’s still not what we’d like. As the Hab explosion proved, life on Mars is a precarious thing. The Ares III equipment is now operating well beyond its expected design life, and Mark Watney has to improvise solutions to problems never addressed in our mission planning. Every improvisation uses up resources, both from Ares III and from the alien spaceship, which cannot be replaced. The sooner we can rescue Mark and our alien friends, the less they will have to rely on those very finite resources.

“With that in mind, NASA is offering a prize of twenty-five million dollars to any person or group who can present a workable plan to reach Mars with the capacity to retrieve our six castaways substantially prior to Sol 768 and return them to Earth safely. NASA will award the full prize to the person or group who devises the plan we actually use, and smaller awards to those who present workable plans that, for whatever reason, NASA chooses not to implement. NASA wishes to demonstrate that our top priority is to see Mark Watney and his friends safe on Earth as soon as possible.

“Full details on what we’re calling the Watney Prize will be in the full press release which Annie Montrose will have for all of you after the conference. Questions?”

After a loud roaring scrum for attention, Sanders pointed out one reporter, who asked, “What if the aliens rescue Watney before NASA can launch its rescue?”

Sanders allowed himself a wry little grin. “Then we save a lot of taxpayer dollars and breathe a huge sigh of relief,” he said. “But the difficulties facing the aliens are immense. To give you some idea, until a few months ago our physical models of the universe regarded travel between parallel worlds as impossible. I think the aliens can be forgiven if they find it very difficult to do it again.” A few chuckles, but not many. “So we have to go forward under the most pessimistic expectation: that the aliens will be unable to launch a rescue before we can get there ourselves.”

Another hand, and a voice shouting over the others: “What about the resupply mission?”

“Project Sleipnir is going forward,” Sanders replied. “Thanks to SpaceX, we expect to have three Red Falcon boosters available in fifty days’ time. We are clearing Cape Canaveral’s launch schedule beginning sixty days from now to allow for the mounting, inspection, and launch of three resupply probes with air-bag landing systems, all of which should arrive on Mars with food and supplies well before Sol 600. If the aliens manage a rescue before then, the supplies can be reapplied towards a proposed Ares VI mission to complete the work Ares III was unable to…”

The projection went black, and Cathy looked into the camera. “More on the proposed rescue of Mark Watney and the alien castaways after these messages.”

When the lights came back up on the studio a few minutes later, the cardboard cutouts had been moved to the background to make way for the usual table and chairs. On the studio wall where the NASA press conference had been projected in the first segment, a sequence of drawings, paintings and photographs faded in and out. “The plight of the Martian castaways has captured the global imagination since the first grainy photographs taken by Hermes from orbit showing multiple figures walking the Martian surface,” she said. “But even the most imaginative artist was unprepared for the reality of the photos sent a few days ago, when for the first time we learned what the aliens look like outside their suits. And since then, the Internet has exploded with opinions about the aliens, both positive and negative.

“With me today are Nyota Lincoln, organizer of the #BringThemHome campaign on Twitter and Gemcomm; the Reverend Martin Spenser, whose controversial sermon “Let Them Die” garnered ten million views within a day of being released on streaming video; and John Karoli, founder of the website AresHoax.com. Thank you all for being here.”

The three guests murmured their polite responses. Cathy froze her smile in place long enough to cross some unseen inner fingers and hope that the repeated backstage lectures- “keep it civil or we’ll cut your mike, we don’t care who starts it”- would hold.

Where did her producers come up with some of these people?


“Where do those CNN dickheads come up with these people?” Annie Montrose asked, as the Watney and Company Report descended straight into inanity for what looked like the remainder of the half-hour.

“It’s humanity,” Teddy shrugged. It was after hours, and no one was in his office except Annie, Mitch Henderson, and a worn-out Venkat Kapoor. But Teddy never slumped. Even watching television, with nothing important left on the agenda, he remained seated as rigidly as if they were discussing something vital, like the testing setbacks JPL had encountered with the fabric for the Sleipnir tumbler probes.

“Humanity my ass,” Annie grumbled. “When I was I in college- God I was so green. I decided I was going to bring truth to the masses and improve humanity. By the time I got my degree I’d grown up some, so I came to work at NASA, hoping to make the best humanity has to offer more visible, offer a fucking example to the rest of them. So here I am,” she snarled, jabbing a finger at the screen, “and my job requires me to aid and abet that.”

On the screen, the Reverend Spenser said, “We must always remember that Satan was originally Lucifer, an angel of light. The greatest temptations to evil always come in attractive packages. So these aliens, who are clearly designed to appeal to our most protective natures yet who claim to use the power of witchcraft, are clearly temptations to turn humanity away from the true teachings of God as the end of days approaches.”

“See? You see that bullshit??” Annie snarled. “The better I do my job, the more often shits like him get camera time to smile his plastic smile, brush his plastic hair, and declaim hate and ignorance on fucking live global television. In the name of balanced journalism. Bullshit. And nothing, not the first fucking thing I can do, will prevent thousands of morons from believing every word that asshole says.”

“Should I take this up with CNN?” Teddy asked.

“Fuck no, that’d make it worse,” Annie sighed. “The bastards would attack us for trying to control the media. Again.” She slumped in her own chair and muttered, “Goddamn, but I want a drink.”

“It’s after hours,” Mitch rumbled. “Why don’t you have one?”

“I haven’t had a drop since college,” Annie said. “And these days I don’t dare. If I once crawl into the bottle I don’t think I’d ever come out. Seen too many people fuck themselves that way.”

“How did the speech go over?” Venkat asked, more to change the subject than from any interest. He had to be back in the office at 5:14 AM to match up with Watney’s 08:00 usual chat start. Living on Mars time while juggling all the responsibilities of a NASA project head wrecked sleep cycles.

“Oh, it was a big hit,” Annie said. “Knocked it out of the park. Perfect mix of gravitas, recognition of difficulty, and understated optimism. Everybody bought it except the manned-spaceflight-wastes-tax-dollars crowd and the government-can’t-do-anything-right crowd.” She jabbed a finger at the screen again; why she did so Venkat never understood, because her next words had nothing to do with the conspiracy theorist explaining how NASA’s CGI Mars mission was coming apart due to a disgruntled employee making up cutesy-puke little horsie aliens. “The only problem is that contest is already bringing in get-rich-quick schemes and crackpots. Which I told you it would.”

“It’s still a good idea,” Teddy insisted. “It shows we’re open to outside input, and it might just bring something out we might not otherwise get. I want the word put out to all parts of NASA, by the way. Our top two priorities are, in this order, getting resupply to Mark Watney as soon as possible, and getting Hermes to Mars as soon as possible. Everything else is secondary.”

“Already wrote the memo,” Annie muttered.

“Speaking of secondary,” Venkat asked, “how’s the Eagle Eye 3 launch coming?”

“Re-inspection should be done in another five days,” Mitch said.”We’re launching a month past the window, but Astrodynamics got us a revised trajectory that actually gets to Saturn only nine weeks late. We give up about ten percent of our post-Saturn-orbit delta-V to get it, but we’ll be well within mission parameters.”

“Good,” Teddy said. “We need to clear that mission out so we can bring in the boosters for Sleipnir 1 and 2 when they’re ready. How firm is the delivery date for Sleipnir 3’s booster?”

“Not very,” Venkat said. “SpaceX has dropped everything to get these boosters ready for space. They’re already warning us that some of the Ares IV presupply launches will be endangered because of it. After all, in order to get a useable payload to Mars with the current position of the planets, re-use of the first stages has to be sacrificed.”

“Secondary priority,” Teddy insisted. “Get us those boosters.”

Venkat nodded. He couldn’t help but yawn as he did so.

“But first,” Teddy said, “get some sleep. You need it.”

“I know,” Venkat said. “I just don’t feel like leaving this chair yet.”

They watched the rest of the show in silence, grateful that for the last eight-minute segment the leading cable news channel stopped insulting the intelligence of its viewership and instead showed pictures found on the Internet based on the recent photos.

The last three pictures caught their attention. Even Mitch sat up as the camera lingered on each for about ten seconds.

There was a picture of the entire Ares III crew, including Watney, drawn as if they were from the alien world. Lewis, a long-necked dragon with a smaller muzzle than Firefly but much larger wings draped protectively around the others; Martinez, a bug-pony with a mischievous smile and glowing brown eyes; Johannsen, a unicorn filly levitating a computer with a ray of light from her horn; Beck, a pegasus with a stethoscope; Vogel, a strange eagle-horse hippogriff hybrid with glasses; and sitting in the front, half-covered with dirt, an earth pony Watney making a silly face at the viewer.

The second picture was the reverse of the first- the five aliens drawn as humans. Cherry Berry, a tall slender blonde with a pink jumpsuit and a space helmet under one arm; Starlight Glimmer, who vaguely resembled Hermione Granger with a Marge Simpson hairdo, in a violet lab coat; Fireball, a tall, strong-featured, hawk-nosed man with a perfect Captain Kirk coif; Dragonfly, a smiling African woman with blue eyes and a tattered jumpsuit; and Spitfire, a redhead in sunglasses dressed like the recruiting poster for the Air Force.

And then, the final picture, a mockery of the Last Supper. The shot panned from left to right, showing first the five Ares III crew members on Hermes in various poses; then, in the center, Mark Watney, looking wryly amused but not particularly holy; then the five alien castaways; and finally, in the position of Judas, a Roman centurion fingering a bloody sword and wearing a most unpleasant smile.

At least one artist believed Mars had more trouble in store for the occupants of the Hab.

Sol 106

View Online

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 105
ARES III SOL 106

[07:48] JPL: Mark, this is Venkat again. Thank your friends for the test emails they sent. We’re already receiving hundreds of thousands of emails for them. Like with your emails, we’re only sending up mission critical messages and the most interesting other items. Nobody will get more than ten emails a day. This isn’t because we think you’ll waste your time. It’s because that’s all the bandwidth we can afford to spare.

Right now we’re operating at a peak of 12.6 kilobits per second by relaying through Hermes. Direct transmission to Earth would drop that to about 1.5 kilobits. By the time Hermes begins aerobraking for Earth orbital insertion, that will be down to 0.8 kilobits per second. At worst, during the three week blackout window of the Mars-Sun conjunction (Sol 328) it’ll be down to 400 bits per second- barely enough to sustain this chat, with a minimum response time of about an hour per message. All of that assumes Pathfinder doesn’t break. We’ll never have more bandwidth than we do now until the replacement radio system arrives with the resupply mission, so we need to prioritize data transfer from your end.

With that in mind, we want you to ask Starlight Glimmer and one of your other guests to send us anything and everything they can that they haven’t already done from their ship-board library. Also, we want photos of Starlight and, if possible, Dragonfly using magic. We have our doubters here, as you already guessed, and any documentation helps. Unfortunately the video you took is useless until and unless we get you a radio that can link up with the communications satellites orbiting Mars.

I say ask them because we know you’re preparing for the cave harvest. That is top priority and mission-critical. Our experts on this end tell me they can’t think of anything else to improve on what you’re already doing, and they’re astonished at the results you’re getting based on your photos. If Cherry Berry can give more explanation for earth pony magic beyond “it just happens”, they’d be delighted.

Finally, our media department has a special request for your guests. While Hermes is still in range of voice communications, we want to set aside some time at the end of the transmission window each day for an interview. Obviously there’s no chance of a live interview with even Hermes being just over a six minute one-way lightspeed lag. Instead we’ll provide a set of written questions. We want your friends to read their answers on the radio so Hermes can record it.

We know their English isn’t the best and their accents are weird, but it’s important that the world hear their voices. We think that, the less the public thinks of them as adorably cute faces and the more they see them as real people with real feelings, the more strongly they’ll support our efforts to bring you all home safely.

That’s it for now. Let me know if I can do anything for you.

[08:28] WATNEY: I’ve passed on the word. Fireball is going to get the camera- hooray thumbs!- while I work on assembling the tools for the harvest. The plan is firm: Sol 109 – potato replanting in cave; Sol 110-111 hay harvest; Sol 112 restarting Hab farm with 90% potatoes.

We’re also going to try planting another fifty square meters of alfalfa seed in the ground downstream of the water outlet from the pony hydronic heating system. No idea how well it’ll work, but we agree with Dr. Keller about the protein issue. I tasted a few alfalfa leaves yesterday: not terrible, but I suspect it’s an acquired taste for non-quadrupeds. Anyway, I’m going to need to acquire it before long.

Reaction to the interview thing is mixed. Cherry is lukewarm to the idea. Spitfire just rolls her eyes. Starlight is interested, and Dragonfly is downright eager in a way that makes me worry. The last time I saw a smile like that was on Martinez just before you called us on the carpet over the thing with the public safety video. The only one who actively hates the idea is Fireball, and I don’t know if it’s because he thinks it’s stupid or because he’s embarrassed. His English is the worst of the group.

Anyway, send the questions. You’ve got at least two takers, and probably four if not all five.

And finally… yes, there is something you can do for me. Send me music. Send lots of music. Send any music at all, country, bluegrass, opera, Himalayan monk chanting, oh God, ANYTHING but disco! I have had it to HERE with fucking disco! And just in case you’re wondering, the Beatles aren’t as much of a disco antidote as you’d think. You said yourself the bandwidth is as wide as it’s ever going to get. So send me some low-fi, high-compression music files, whatever… but NOT DISCO. Okay? Thanks.

[08:37] JPL: I’ll look into it. No promises.

[10:49] HERMES: What’s this I see? A heretic who dares disparage the acme of Boomer culture? Next you’ll be claiming that house music was the coming of the Antichrist.

[10:57] WATNEY: Ha ha, Martinez. You have other options. With me it’s this or silence.

[11:04] HERMES: Guess again. This is Lewis. And you do not diss the groove.

[11:11] WATNEY: Last I looked there were about seventy-five million miles between us, so under the circumstances I can speak my mind. Disco is artificial, commercialized, decadent musical pablum. It is an assault on the ear. It is to good music what Red Baron is to good pizza.

[11:18] HERMES: Guess who went into your room and bundled your personal effects. And who has your personal data storage stick in her fingers right this minute.

[11:25] WATNEY: Blackmail, Lewis? That’s beneath you. Also, everything on that stick is replaceable.

[11:32] HERMES: Let’s see… Minecraft, Orbiter, Universal Sandbox IV… the collected Discworld on e-reader… ah, here’s the music section. “100 Best Sci-Fi Themes of All Time.” “John Williams directs the Boston Pops” about a dozen times. And about a hundred video game soundtracks.

[11:39] WATNEY: I have nothing to be ashamed of. John Williams was the most influential American composer of the twentieth century.

[11:46] HERMES: “The Weird Al Yankovic Penultimate Nursing Home Collection.”

[11:53] WATNEY: Five decades of priceless pop culture treasure.

[12:00] HERMES: And a directory labeled ‘Tom Lehrer.’ I know these songs, Mark. And I’m betting your sweet, innocent friends don’t know half of what’s in here.

[12:06] WATNEY: Don’t you have some commanding to do up there?

[12:13] HERMES: Take it back or explain to your friends what comes after, “All the world seems in tune on a spring afternoon.”

[12:21] WATNEY: NNNNRG… all right, you win. There are a few disco songs in your collection that aren’t irredeemable trash. “I Will Survive.” “Hot Stuff.” “Stayin’ Alive.” Those are inspirational right now.

[12:28] HERMES: All obvious, Mark. And I doubt you’ve really listened to the lyrics of “I Will Survive.”

[12:35] WATNEY: Commander, don’t do this to me!

[12:42] HERMES: “He gives the kids free samples because he knows full well…”

[12:49] WATNEY: All right! The Hustle, okay? There aren’t any lyrics, it’s nice and simple, and it sounds like there’s a halfway decent piece of music buried under the bow-chicka-chicka. There exists in the universe one decent disco song. Are you satisfied?

[12:55] HERMES: Three. “Gotta Boogie” by Weird Al and “Dancin’ Fool” by Frank Zappa are both on your flash drive. So you must now admit there are THREE good disco songs.

[13:02] WATNEY: Has anyone told you lately that you are so evil the only reason you don’t eat kittens for breakfast is that NASA hasn’t sent you the procedure yet?

[13:08] HERMES: Not in too long. We miss you here, Mark.

[13:14] WATNEY: I miss you too, boss. All of you. Every day.

[13:15] JPL: We’re still working on the kitten omelet procedure down here. We thought we had it nailed down, but the engineer let the kitten wiggle off the post. You don’t want to know what we did to the engineer.

[13:18] JPL: Kapoor here. I did not write that! That was someone in Pasadena, and they should hope I never find out who it was!

[13:26] HERMES: Give me his name if you find it. I want to buy them a beer when we get home.

[13:33] WATNEY: Two beers.

[13:40] HERMES: I have some things to do, off-day or not. Mark, not all my music is disco. I had some prog-rock on there too.

[13:48] WATNEY: I know. And I may one day forgive you for “Dark Side of the Moon.” It’s like one enormous song except they break it in the middle with that “Money” thing. I get relaxed, get productive, focused on my work, and all of a sudden KA-CHING! Hypnosis broken.

[13:54] HERMES: Suck it up, music lover. Hermes Actual out.

Sol 107

View Online

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 106
ARES III SOL 107

“Mark?” Cherry Berry asked. “What means ‘license’?”

“What does ‘license’ mean?” Mark corrected her automatically.

Cherry rolled her eyes. “What does ‘license’ mean?”

“Where do you see it?”

“Here. In email.” Cherry turned the computer screen so Mark could read it. The text read:

Bandai International congratulates you on surviving on a hostile planet. We just thought you’d like to know that there are millions, even billions of people on Earth rooting for you who can’t wait for you to land safe on Earth where we can welcome you properly.

Of course, a great many people, especially children, can’t wait for your rescue. They want to have you in their lives now, and some unscrupulous people are already taking advantage of them by producing unauthorized dolls and other toys using the likenesses of yourself and your crew. These are generally of poor quality and reflect poorly on you- an injustice we at Bandai wish to correct.

If you agree to license your likenesses to Bandai for use in producing official toys for the children of Earth, we can guarantee that the resulting product will be high quality and faithful to the original (i. e. yourselves). Furthermore, Bandai as a license holder would have legal standing to act on your behalf to punish the greedy people who are making the poor-quality knock-off toys we mentioned.

Attached find a draft contract for you to consult. In the absence of your normal legal counsel, we have approached NASA’s legal department to act on your behalf in this matter. Please contact them if you have any questions on the terms and conditions, which we consider very generous.

Mark read it again, frowned, and said, “License is permission to do a thing. In this case, a company wants to buy your name and face.”

“What??” Cherry Berry’s forehooves flew to her face. “You said you have no magic! I still using those!”

“No, no,” Mark reassured her. “Not like that. They’re asking you to give them permission to make toys of you and your crew. Nobody else would be allowed to make those toys.”

“Oh,” Cherry Berry said, and added in Equestrian, “I wonder how Flim and Flam got into this universe.”

“Sorry?” Mark asked. “I understood ‘how’ and ‘got into this.’”

“Nothing,” Cherry Berry sighed, using the same tone she’d heard Mark use about a thousand times when asked to explain something he didn’t want to. “I need ask home.” She left the computer on the work table, dropping down from the stool she’d been seated on and trotting through the bare, moist soil they’d been preparing for replanting. Starlight Glimmer’s spacesuit had been left on a sample case for ease of communications with Equus. “Dragonfly!” she called out. “Important message home. I want your hoof!”

“Aw, bossmare,” Dragonfly giggled, “I never knew you were interested.”

“Ha ha. Get splashing,” Cherry said as she switched on Starlight’s suit life support.


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

ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: Company from Mark’s world wants to use crew’s names and images to make toys, etc. Please advise. Over.

ESA: Since when did Flim and Flam make it over there, over?

AMICITAS: I know, right? But this is serious. You said cooperate with Mark’s people, keep them happy, over.

ESA: Stand by, will ask Chrysalis, over.

AMICITAS: Standing by, over.

ESA: Open bidding. Ask Mark’s space agency to manage the bids. – C. Also give preference to educational toy makers. – TS Over.

AMICITAS: Thanks for advice, will pass on word. Out.

ESA: Stand by, Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: Standing by, what? Over.

ESA: Since Mark gets messages from home, we think it would be good to send crew messages from here. One per day. Over.

AMICITAS: Understood. When? Over.

ESA: First one now if you like. We have 10,000 and more letters here for all of you. We keep best ones in life support room. Prepare for message for Spitfire, over.

AMICITAS: Ready to receive, over.

ESA: Quote. The Wonderbolts team isn’t the same without you. We fly missing-mare at every show and will fly it until we rescue you. You may have left the team, but you never stopped being a Wonderbolt. We’re coming for you as soon as we can, and when you get back your old job is right where you left it. But don’t ask for your old records, because I kinda broke a few. Stay awesome! – Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolts. End quote. Over.

AMICITAS: Message received. Thank you. Looking forward to tomorrow’s. Out.


Fireball set Starlight Glimmer in the copilot’s seat with a thump. The unicorn grit her teeth to repress a grunt of pain. The bone-knit wasn’t totally ineffective, but it wasn’t the miracle medicine it would have been back in Equestria, either. Her broken forelimb was knitting up, but it was a long way from healed.

“I still think this is stupid,” he grumbled, sitting in the pilot’s seat and reaching over to turn on the backup radio. “Stupid questions. Doesn’t get us any closer to home.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Starlight replied. “And who knows? Friendship can do amazing things. So let’s be friends with Earth, hm?”

Fireball grunted, punched one more button, and spoke. “Hermes, this Friendship on 108.6 maygahurt,” he said. “Hermes, Friendship, comm check.”

“It’s megahertz,” Starlight said. “And repeat it so they get it if they weren’t listening the first time,”

“It’s their stupid idea,” Fireball insisted. “Their idea and their time. They ought to be listening.”

“Repeat it anyway,” Starlight insisted. “Please.”

Fireball rumbled in his throat, but he repeated it, this time pronouncing megahertz correctly.

Five and a half minutes later, both Fireball and Starlight heard in their headsets, “Friendship, this is Hermes, reading you two by five. Ready for scheduled transmission, over.”

Starlight made herself a little more comfortable. This would take a lot longer than the humans were expecting. “Hermes, Friendship, reading you five by five. Broadcast begins…


Johannsen fought the urge to curl in on herself. She trusted her fellow Ares III crewmembers, even if they were all crowding her station listening to this incredible combination of babble and horse sounds.

“Did Mark say this was Welsh?” Martinez asked. “Because it sounds more like horse-Russian to me.”

“No, it is Welsh,” Vogel insisted. “Or possibly Flemish. It is not guttural enough to be Russian.”

“He was wrong about ‘l’ being every other consonant, though,” Beck added, “ ‘L’ is only every fifth consonant. ‘Ch’ is the one that comes every other one.”

“You’re recording this, right, Johannsen?” Lewis asked. “And not any of us?”

“Affirmative,” Johannsen said.

The babble stopped for a moment. Then, in English, the same voice continued, “Greetings, Earth. This is Starlight Glimmer. Some of you have asked the crew of our ship to answer a few questions so you can know us better. To help with this, I have sent this message first in our own language; now I send it again in yours.

“Since our languages are very similar in grammar, we hope this will help you understand our other communications in the future, and that someday we will be able to talk one to another clearly, with full understanding, as friends do.”

“Oh,” Beck muttered, “that explains it. Good idea.”

“Sehr gut,” Vogel agreed.

The interview began, with Starlight reading both questions and answers, leaving a long pause between the two as requested by NASA.

INTERVIEW #1

What is your name? “Starlight Glimmer.”

What did you do on your ship? “I helped create the Sparkle Drive. I was aboard to observe it and to collect science data from a trip to a nearby planet.”

How did you get into space flight? “My teacher Twilight Sparkle wrote a report explaining that our world orbited the Sun and that the princesses moved the world to keep it from freezing one side to the Sun at all times. Almost everyone thought the world was flat before then. Rocket travel was a fantasy. When everyone decided to make a space flight program, Twilight Sparkle made one for our country, and I helped.”

Who do you have waiting for you back home? “I have a lot of friends, including my best friend Tricky and my childhood friend Sunburst. And of course Twilight and Spike and Small Pink Pie and… well, many others.”

What are your impressions of humans? “Humans are very much like ponies. I think we will be very good friends once we can communicate freely with one another.”

Do you look forward to visiting Earth after your rescue? “I would love to see Earth! Your technology is amazing! I can’t wait to see all the wonders you have to show us!”

What will you do when you finally go home? “I will do what I’ve always tried to do, sometimes not as well as others. I will work to make friends and to make the world a better place for everyone.”

What is your favorite disco song? “Dancing Queen.”

If there were one little thing (not a ship) you could have from home, what would it be? “About a thousand sheets of paper. We don’t have any and it drives me nuts!”

What message do you have for the people of Earth? “Everyone can be friends if everyone works at it. Where I come from friendship is the most powerful force in the world. By working together and thinking of one another, we can accomplish anything.”


“That was sweet,” Johannsen said softly.

“A little saccharine if you ask me,” Martinez said. “And that ‘favorite disco’ question? Commander, was that you?”

“I plead the fifth,” Lewis said, not doing well at suppressing a smile.

Over the speakers, the tinny voice said, “This concludes our transmission. Thank you, Hermes. Thank you, Earth. Until tomorrow, Friendship out.”

Sol 108

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 107
ARES III SOL 108

[08:09] JPL: Good morning, Mark. Venkat Kapoor here again. First, I want to let you know that we’re working on some science experiments for you to conduct after your harvest is done. This will be chemical analysis of your cultivated soil from both the Hab and the cave, with surface samples from about one kilometer southeast of the Hab and just downslope of the entrance to the cave to use for controls, plus some other mineralogy and some medical self-checks.

Although one of the JPL techs offered his grandfather’s collection of Jimmy Buffet songs on MIDI, after consultation it has been decided that even low-quality music files are just too large for the limited bandwidth we have. We’ll send a flash drive full of music from around the world of every type except disco on Slepinir 1. Until then, enjoy your boogie fever.

After consultation, the botanists here believe the hay harvest will keep best in the alien ship. It has pressure, some heat, and an atmosphere dry enough to inhibit rotting. Please consult with your friends on this.

Speaking of your friends, I have a number of requests from various departments here for Starlight Glimmer. I’ll begin with those once we confirm you’re up and awake.

[08:25] WATNEY: Good morning, Dr. Kapoor. I know I’ve made some questionable decisions lately, but I just want you to know that I have the greatest confidence and enthusiasm in the mission.

[08:39] JPL: Nice try, Mark, but it’s “greatest enthusiasm and confidence.”

Good morning, Starlight. First, a couple of questions for our media division, following up on your radio interview yesterday evening. Is it true that your people generally thought the world was flat until a few years ago?

[08:53] WATNEY: Good morning, Dr. Kapoor! It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Scholars knew the world was a globe since not long after Chaos ruled the land, but most ponies tended to stay where they were born. And even some scholars thought the sun, moon and stars were part of a sort of dome, beyond which there was nothing. Only after Princess Luna returned, and after Twilight Sparkle became a princess, did we hear the full truth.

[09:07] JPL: Did nobody have a theory that planets, moon, sun, etc. were more than just lights on a wall?

[09:31] WATNEY: No. Why should they? Princess Heavens raised the sun every morning and lowered it every night. You could go to our capital and watch her do it. If she could do that, why not explain anything in the sky as magic lights?

[09:47] JPL: I’m sorry, did you just say your princess raised and lowered the sun?

[10:02] WATNEY: Yes and no. What she really does is grab the sun with her magic and use it as leverage to accelerate the rotation of our world. Since she came back, Princess Luna really does raise and set the moon, though, since it’s so much smaller. She also keeps track of the little stars close to our planet.

[10:15] JPL: This wasn’t in any of the reports you sent. Could you write a new report about your solar system, how it works, and why it works?

[10:31] WATNEY: Sure! I didn’t mention this because it really doesn’t apply to your world. Also, we don’t know what makes our system unstable, so I can’t explain why it is this way.

[10:44] JPL: Thank you. Another request, from Astrodynamics. They’re responsible for plotting orbits and planning how we fly ships. They want to know the following information: the recharge rates of the kind of batteries that you use for your Sparkle Drive; the specific equations for energy input to drive performance; the upper limit on cycles per second; and the limitations on programming the drive for specific coordinates.

[10:58] WATNEY: I can write that for you, yes. Are you going to make your own Sparkle Drive?

[11:11] JPL: I don’t think so. We’re still exploring options for when you rebuild yours, I think. Astrodynamics didn’t say why they wanted the information.

[11:25] WATNEY: We’ll let you know when it’s done. Anything else?

[11:39] JPL: No, thank you. I’ll begin the mail upload to you now; please tell Mark to start your daily uploads as soon as the mail finishes. Venkat out.


ESA:To Starlight Glimmer. Message begins. Quote. The most popular story Tgapt has in her show is how she defeated the attempt by Chrysalis to conquer Equestria, with some slight assistance from yourself. The only thing lacking in my performances is your presence. When you return Tgapt is counting on you to be part of a special show for our fans! Tgapt would have rescued you already, but Twilight Sparkle insists on being the one to do it. Otherwise you know Tgapt would already be there! So stay well until we arrive! End quote. Over.

AMICITAS: Was going to ask what Tgapt was, but we can guess from context. But since when did Trixie defeat Chrysalis? Over.

ESA: In my nightmares. I told her about them, because why not? By the way, you were the hero in the nightmare- Trixie was comic relief. – Chrysalis Out.


INTERVIEW #2

What is your name? Cherry Berry.

What did you do on your ship? I am the commander and pilot.

How did you get into space flight? At home only pegasi fly. But I wanted to fly. I worked hard and began with balloons, then other things. When the space thing happened, I found a program which would let me fly rockets.

Who do you have waiting for you back home? My parents and aunt Celebration, my friend and landlady Gold Harvest- we call her Carrot Top- and all my friends at the Bug-Pony Space Program.

What are your impressions of humans? You look really silly. And you talk down to people a lot.

Do you look forward to visiting Earth after your rescue? Thank you, but I only want to go home.

What will you do when you finally go home? I’ll take time off my job, fly my balloon, rest, and eat all the cherries. ALL THE CHERRIES.

What is your favorite disco song? “Rocket Mare.”

If there were one little thing (not a ship) you could have from home, what would it be? Cherries. Much-much cherries. It’s been eighty days since I had a fresh cherry and two weeks since the last cherry meal.

What message do you have for the people of Earth? With hard work and friendship nothing is impossible. Also, send more cherries.

Sol 109

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MISSION LOG – SOL 109

Well, that was a lot of work!

There were about a hundred square meters of potatoes- about three hundred and sixty potato plants- planted in the cave farm. Today we dug them all up- and I mean all of them. Three hundred sixty plants, each with either three or four small tubers, for a total in the ballpark of fifteen hundred potatoes. That is a lot of spuds.

I had to supervise this- hell, I did most of it myself. We want to keep as many potato plants alive as possible, so that the next crop will grow faster and larger than these little hand-held calorie packs we got today. The ponies aren’t good at gentle because of their hooves and teeth, and Fireball isn’t good at gentle, period. But between me, the dragon, and the pony with a sling on her spacesuit hopping around the cave, we got the job done and didn’t rip off too many leaves or roots.

Fifteen hundred potatoes, each with between six and ten eyes, is a lot more than enough to seed the Hab and the remaining hundred square meters we had reserved for them in the cave. But since potatoes have a shallower root system, I decided to plant the potatoes on either side of the water runoff sluice, which has already eroded a good trench into the cave soil. The space where they were going to go will get some of our remaining alfalfa seed. Based on this harvest, we’ll be in potato surplus long before hay surplus, so giving the good spot to the alfalfa seed only makes sense.

In all honesty, I’m not counting on the new cave potatoes for much. We didn’t cultivate the soil downstream using our improvised manure. It’s got some bacteria and water leeching from the main farm, but it’s going to lack a lot of nutrients and amino acids. So the best we can do is bring the shit box tomorrow, spread the contents on top of the two patches of newly planted potatoes and hope for the best.

The Hab is a different story. We’re leaving the new seed crop of spuds to dry a little, because we’re going to plant them after we harvest the hay over the next couple of days. Most of the time spent is going to consist of ferrying loads of hay about twenty kilos at a time from the cave to the Hab. (Twenty kilos is about all our largest available airtight containers can carry. After the ponies’ experience with the small harvest after the Hab blew out, we’re being careful to minimize any possible exposure to Mars conditions. Normally dried hay is one thing, but freeze-dried, dessicated hay is another. Or it might be that the hay grown in the Hab tasted bad because the plants were stressed, but we’re taking no chances.)

When I get back to Earth I’m going to propose a design for NASA’s first ever interplanetary combine harvester. Or, at the least, a rover with a pickup bed.

Anyway, once all the replanting was done, we still had- I counted them- one thousand, three hundred, and fourteen little spuds. Each one is only about a hundred calories, if that. I’d need twenty of them for a daily minimum recommended calorie count. But 1314 potatoes divided by twenty equals just under sixty-six days of food for one midly-active person.

This is our first successful harvest on Mars, the product of the Hab post-breach notwithstanding. So we celebrated with a little tater feast.

We stuck the unused taters in Airlock 1; they’ll freeze-dry there, but freezing doesn’t hurt potato flavor nearly as much (apparently) as alfalfa. But we brought two hundred spuds into the Hab, washed ‘em, and began cooking ‘em in the microwave, five at a time. (Five is all the Hab microwave can hold, and if these were average sized potatoes it’d be more like three or four.)

Normally you don’t feed potatoes to horses. Part of this is that horses are particularly sensitive to the toxic amino acids in green potatoes, but microwaving breaks those down for the most part. But the main problem is that horses are stupid and will try to swallow potatoes without chewing, so they either choke and die or get colic from poor digestion and die. My guests, not having been raised in a barn (see what I did there?), don’t have those problems, so potatoes are just fine for them.

So… yeah, they were potatoes. Plain, microwave-baked potatoes. Very, very plain, starchy, skin-and-all, microwave-baked potatoes.

We didn’t come close to eating all two hundred. Or even one hundred. Right now my stomach is churning at the idea that I’ll have to eat thirteen to fifteen properly sized spuds PER DAY before too long.

I’ve been rationing the ketchup as if they were Captain Queeg’s strawberries, but today... not so much. In fact, not at all.

After the fourth potato around, I got onto Pathfinder while the transmission window was still open and sent a message:

[18:14] WATNEY: Memo to Bruce Ng at JPL: send ketchup. Send LOTS of ketchup. Also butter, chives, sour cream. Not to eat; by the time they get here I probably won’t want to see another potato so long as I live. But after five hundred sols of spuds, when the ketchup and butter and other stuff gets here, I am going to BATHE in them, because at that point I will have TURNED into a potato.

[18:21] HERMES: And this would change your stunning personality… how, again?

[18:29] JPL: We’ll begin testing to see if we can make a couch out of ketchup packets, just for you, Mark.

Yep, that’s NASA. Can’t ever let a guy have the last word.


ESA: To Fireball. Message begins. Quote. By power of the Bloodstone Scepter you are ordered to not die, nor allow anyone with you to die, until we come to rescue you. You will demonstrate superior dragon strength, courage and wisdom by protecting your crewmates and keeping them safe from harm. This is a command from your lawful Dragonlord, and you shall obey! Got it? End quote. Over.

AMICITAS: Message received, over.

ESA: Sorry, that was more blunt than we’d expected. Over.

AMICITAS – FB- that’s about as pony-mushy as we get, actually. Over.


INTERVIEW #3

What is your name? Dragonfly!

What did you do on your ship? I was the ship’s engineer. If anything broke besides the Sparkle Drive, it was my job to fix it. Also, I’m helping with the other crew members’ English.

How did you get into space flight? My queen said we were going to space, so I volunteered immediately! I’m the fastest bug-pony flier in the group!

Who do you have waiting for you back home? My queen and the rest of the bug-ponies, of course!

What are your impressions of humans? Well, if you don’t count television, I’ve only met the one, but he’s pretty nourishing.

Do you look forward to visiting Earth after your rescue? Of course! I want to meet Venkat and Irene and Mark’s crew and everybody else who made this neat base!

What will you do when you finally go home? Whatever my queen tells me to, of course!

What is your favorite disco song? “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”

If there were one little thing (not a ship) you could have from home, what would it be? A button that I could push to call a ship. Mars is not a nice planet and we all want OFF.

What message do you have for the people of Earth? Flying in space is fun! But not being stranded on Mars. That part sucks. (Is that how you use that word, Mark?)

Sol 110

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MISSION LOG – SOL 110

Forty-nine packs.

On full rations, that’s sixteen days for one person plus one left over.

On three-quarters rations for three people, that’s seven days.

That’s how close we came to extreme measures in feeding the ponies.

Those forty-nine packs are in a separate locker now, all their own, and that’s where they’re going to stay. That’s the emergency reserve for Cherry, Starlight and Spitfire. Along with them are Fireball’s six remaining food packs, which are the only food packs remaining from their ship. (Only he can eat them, because although they’re normal food mostly, they’re liberally sprinkled with chips of rocks, nice and sharp and intestine-destroying for non-dragons.)

Yes, I know they can probably stomach meat if they have to. They shouldn't have to. (Besides, I can still hear Spitfire saying "crunch crunch crunch" in my head. It's really fucking creepy to think about. I suppose I should be grateful we don't have any magic pig aliens in the crew. Earth pigs are cannibalistic given the right circumstances, and I'd never have a good night's sleep again.)

Cutting the hay crop was simplicity itself. Starlight can make her horn-laser turn right angles, because screw the laws of physics, we have a magic unicorn. It took literally the time it takes to walk forty meters to cut the hay more perfectly than any harvester ever did. In fact, the perfectly level remaining stalks look a little creepy sticking out through the fallen cuttings.

No, the time-consuming part of the harvest is hauling our produce back from the cave to the Hab. That’s no surprise- carrying a field of hay twenty-five kilos at a time, as I mentioned before, is bound to be slow. We had two tubs of a size to carry a twenty-five kilo roll of hay each, so we would load those up, cycle out the pony airlock, walk to the rover, cycle that airlock, unload the tubs into the cargo area, cycle airlock, walk up, cycle airlock, start again.

As it was, we got three-quarters of the harvest into the rover before we had to go back to the Hab and end the EVA. We’ll get the rest tomorrow after we unload the rover. Next time, knowing what we know now, we should be able to do it all in one sol.

Yesterday was potato feast; today was alfalfa feast. I even had a small plateful of the stuff, raw and fresh, or as fresh as it could be. The tubs are airtight but not temperature-proof, so it got pretty chilled on the way out to the rover. It doesn’t seem to have hurt. The ponies like this a lot better than what came out of the Hab, though they say it’s pretty bland compared to homemade.

Also they wish they could cook it. Starlight has even given me a word that twists my brain every time I try to figure it out: hayburger. They know what a hamburger is on Earth (and at least two of them would say they know who it is), so Starlight put that word together deliberately. It is a thing that they have, and I’m still wondering how.

But that’s only one of hay’s many uses, apparently. Hay fries (how? And why?). Hay bacon (blasphemy). Hay and anchovy pizza (I think they may have been pulling my leg with that one).

Anyway, I had a little salad dressing, and now I have a little less. It wasn’t that bad. I could get used to an alfalfa and potato diet.


ESA: To Dragonfly. Message begins. Quote. Hello, fellow adrenalin junkie. Finally got yourself in a mess you couldn’t fly your way out of, did you? Just remember, so long as the Pale Horse hasn’t called in all your chips, you’re still ahead of the game. If I could, I’d fly there now and return the favor from years ago. Keep working the problem, and we’ll be there as soon as we can. – Gordon the Griffon. End quote. Over.

AMICITAS: Message received, over.

ESA: Addendum: Like he said, get back to work. I want my flight engineer back – Chrysalis. Out.


INTERVIEW #4

What is your name? Spitfire.

What did you do on your ship? Junior pilot, medical.

How did you get into space flight? I led Won-der-ful Thun-der-bolts team. Bring astronauts back from fly. Train as astronaut, never go up. Spar-kle Drive crew need pegasus, I was best choice.

Who do you have waiting for you back home? Mother and father, fly team, Princess (nAAYYfollII).

What are your impressions of humans? Brave. Can do things. Need di-ci-pline.

Do you look forward to visiting Earth after your rescue? Want see fly machines, cars not on TV. But really want go home.

What will you do when you finally go home? Train. Get healthy. Then fly again.

What is your favorite disco song? “Celebration.”

If there were one little thing (not a ship) you could have from home, what would it be? I want to fly. I was born to fly. I need air to fly, magic too. Sorry not little thing.

What message do you have for the people of Earth? Thank you for having base here when we crash. You save our life. We not forget.


MISSION LOG – SOL 110 (2)

Technically it’s Sol 111, because it’s 03:18 as I type this, using the Hab’s toilet for its proper purpose for the first time in months. I had to. The gas pains were too much to sleep through. Apparently my intestines refused to even try to digest the alfalfa stems.

I know you’re laughing, future historians, NASA engineers, and whoever else reads this. You’re laughing at the mental image of me with my pants around my ankles, seated on a $1.5 million throne, computer on my lap, undergoing extreme intestinal rebellion.

But I don’t care. I am in pain and I want somebody to know, but I don’t want to wake the ponies.

Well, I woke one up anyway. Dragonfly just handed (hoofed?) me a mostly-clean recycled sanitary wipe. I shall be eternally grateful. I want to remember her in my will. Could this log count as a legal codicil?

Sol 111

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Quite literally a million miles from anything, a metal thing about the size of a small bus appeared. One moment it did not exist; the next, it did.

Electronics inside the metal thing went to work. They checked a meter monitoring the drain on the object’s electric and mana batteries. Finding the electric system charging from the solar panels and the mana batteries discharging at an acceptable rate, it abandoned the emergency-revert program and entered its short protocol of exploration.

The object took a series of photographs of its surrounding area, including two that included the blue-white planet and its large gray moon not too far away. It attempted to connect a telepresence spell and failed. It listened for radio signals and found none. It observed the heat from the local star, the lack of air pressure outside, and a few other minor pieces of scientific equipment.

Finally, it triggered a complex spell, one which had its own separate battery. The magic detected a planet of the proper mass within five percent, oriented the craft so the scanning device faced that world, and conducted a rapid, broad sweep of the world and anything orbiting it. It found only the planet and its one moon, and a host of life forms on the planet’s surface. When its scans were later replayed, they would show continents familiar to the beings that created it.

With all experiments having been completed and with mana batteries still holding sufficient charge, the object shut down all nonessential functions, aligned itself with exquisite precision, and ceased to exist again.

And a few inches away in a direction not perceivable by mortal senses, the space probe ESA-58, also known as Angel Two, reappeared, recharged its mana batteries, and reported success to its creators.


“It worked! It worked! It worked!”

The sight of an alicorn princess doing the most discoordinated happy dance imaginable was restricted to the small group of people in Cape Friendship’s research and development main office. Most of the observers thought this for the best.

“Variable magic environment requires variable magic output for spells! Adjustable spell arrays allow for operation of technomantic systems under multiple conditions and for multiple purposes!” Twilight Sparkle hopped, kicked, stepped, and even pronked around the room, oblivious to the others present.

“And more to the point,” a deep and resonant voice cut through the giggling and babbling, “Angel Two detected the interdimensional beacon and followed it home. The backup system wasn’t required.” Warner von Brawn, the minotaur chief scientist of the Changeling Space Program, stretched his beefy arms and added, “Though we should test the backup system live in the near future.”

“Test, schmest! Let’s just go get them!” The lanky, greasy-maned figure seated next to the minotaur rocket scientist- the person who signed his paychecks- slapped a hoof on the conference table. “We’ve got a robot that can hop from one dimension to another. Just keep hopping until we find the one that has our people in it, and then follow the probe!”

“It’s not that simple,” von Brawn rumbled, not the least ruffled. “Starlight Glimmer’s and Cherry Berry’s reports both make clear that the Bucephalous- like planet they crashed on was much closer than Bucephalous should have been when they made their unplanned hop. We have only a vague upper-dimensional vector to trace them by, determined by scans of their life support connections. We have yet to test a piloted ship making the same hop to ensure the system can be successfully run manually.”

“Blah blah blah,” Queen Chrysalis replied. “We’ll work it out as we go. We always have! So quit stalling and do it!”

“Hold yer horses, Yer Queenship,” Applejack, present as Cape Friendship’s senior flight controller, replied. “We ain’t got Concordia’s Sparkle Drive built yet, much less on orbit an’ docked.”

“Oh. Right.” Chrysalis slumped back in her chair. “How long?”

“More testing,” von Brawn said. “At least a month just for the drive, then two weeks to get the drive unit attached to the rest of Concordia.” The minotaur made an equivocating motion with one massive hand and said, “Call it six weeks. Six weeks from whenever the princess stops dancing.”

The words cut through Twilight’s self-congratulation, and the Princess of Friendship finally remembered where she was. “Oh. Right, sorry,” she said, returning to her own seat. “What is Concordia’s status, anyway?”

“Right where we left it,” Chrysalis muttered. “Rainbow Dash and Occupant go up next week to relieve the station-keeping crew. Their mission will also top off the rocket fuel tanks. Fleetfoot and I relieve them two weeks later. After that all that’s left is the Sparkle Drive unit and to stock the ship with emergency food for twelve.”

The others in the room, a mixture of ESA and CSP senior staff, nodded their heads.

Whereas Amicitas had been based on an existing Equestrian Space Agency ship, Concordia was new construction based mostly on Changeling Space Program modular design. The ship was essentially a second space station, manufactured in pieces, launched on boosters, and assembled in orbit. It was as kludgy and graceless as Amicitas had been sleek and beautiful… but the project had gone from blueprints to orbit in less than eighty days. Now it sat in orbit, conventional rocket engines fully fueled and ready to launch it to the Moon or Bucephalous or wherever. It was the largest thing in orbit over Equus that wasn’t made of rock or ice.

“We should probably select the final crew for the rescue mission,” Twilight Sparkle said. “After all, once Mark’s people have their ascent ship ready, we need to be ready to go at any time. We’ll need to train for the mission, probably including a shake-down cruise for Concordia.

“What’s to choose?” Chrysalis muttered. “Me for CSP, Rainbow Dash for ESA- our two best remaining pilots. Pick four other names out of a hat. All we’re doing is popping over a universe or three, making a rendezvous, and popping back.”

“We need an experienced commander and a backup pilot,” Twilight Sparkle insisted.

“Myself and Rainbow Dash,” Chrysalis repeated matter-of-factly.

“And an engineer, someone to monitor the Sparkle Drive, a medic for the ponies, and someone to take care of Mark if his people can’t retrieve him,” Twilight said. “With a racial balance-“

“We take the best,” Chrysalis insisted. “This isn’t a publicity stunt this time, princess. We are going to bring back our own. Dash and I are the best pilots. Find the best medic, the best engineer, and your best assistant for that magic hoppy drive of yours-“

“I’m going myself,” Twilight said quietly.

There had been times, and circumstances, when Chrysalis would have delivered some snarky comment, generally attacking Twilight Sparkle’s fitness for space. This time she simply nodded and said, “All right. Three to go, then. Who else?”

Twilight noticed, allowed herself to feel warm and fuzzy at the changeling queen’s tacit endorsement, and began listing options for Concordia’s engineer.

AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 110
ARES III SOL 111

ESA: To Starlight Glimmer. Message begins. Quote.I know you don’t like to remember this, but we think you need to. You’re very good at making things work even when broken. When you ran Our Little Town, you kept everything running, even after you stole our cutie marks. The food wasn’t good, but we had plenty. The houses weren’t pretty, but we were dry and warm. We lived in a barren wasteland just below the snowline, and we built a town that’s still here. You did that, and you can do it again. We believe you will survive, Starlight, and we’re all rooting for you! – Double Diamond and the ponies of Our Little Town. End quote. Over.

AMICITAS: Message received. Starlight just buried her head in her cot, over.

ESA: Twilight says she believes in Starlight too. And that Starlight doesn’t need to worry about the past. Get her head out of the cot and put it to use, over.

AMICITAS: Who is this, Chrysalis? Moondancer? Over.

ESA: Drying Paint. Just observing. Out.


INTERVIEW #5

What is your name? Fireball.

What did you do on your ship? I was second pilot. Also, if we need go out in space, I go first.

How did you get into space flight? Was ordered to.

Who do you have waiting for you back home? My stuff if no stolen.

What are your impressions of humans? Dipsticks. But you make cool machines.

Do you look forward to visiting Earth after your rescue? Yes. Want to learn to drive a car.

What will you do when you finally go home? Take my stuff back, find cave, tell world to (untranslatable noise).

What is your favorite disco song? The song that plays after turn radio off.

If there were one little thing (not a ship) you could have from home, what would it be? Book of English bad language with pony translation.

What message do you have for the people of Earth? You might be near dragon if you make more car chases.

Sol 113

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AMICITAS FLIGHT THREE – MISSION DAY 112
ARES III SOL 113

[08:14] JPL: Good morning, Mark. Venkat Kapoor here. In your email you’ll find a schedule for your scientific and medical experiments. We’ve highlighted all EVAs required on that schedule so you can ask your friends if they’d be willing to take over as many as they can. We want you to reduce your physical activity and your EVAs wherever possible.

Also please ask permission to take photos and do a close inspection of one of your friends’ EVA suits. We understand all of them were made by the same people. Since they have no spare suits or parts, we want to evaluate the potential for using Hab canvas and sealant for emergency repairs should another accident happen. We want the photos in tomorrow’s upload queue if possible.

In the news today, the Fantastic Four reboot surprised everyone by topping the box office in its debut weekend. The Cubs signed Luis Bautista y Ortega to pitch for them; Grapefruit League play begins tomorrow with the Cubbies facing the Diamondbacks in Tampa.

In less cheerful news, NASA is putting together a committee. They want to see if there were any avoidable mistakes that led you to being stranded. Just a heads-up. They may have questions for you later on.

Finally, although we’re not sending you music, we can send you digital books in text-only format. Today’s download will include a book we think your friends will enjoy. Let us know how it goes over.

[08:31] WATNEY: Venkat, I’ve been playing nice and watching my language for the most part. So it is with deliberate forethought that I tell you that I fucking refuse to cooperate with any motherfucking witch hunt investigation. You’ve got my logs and my incident report, and that’s enough. My flight suit got destroyed in the perchlorate incident before I thought of photographing the damage. I felt guilty before, but now I’m fucking delighted about that, because it’s one thing your inquisition won’t have when they try to nail Lewis to the wall for a freak accident that no amount of chickenshit protocols could have predicted or prevented.

Kindly inform your investigation committee that their mothers were all whores and that their fathers smell of elderberries.

This isn’t a joke and it’s not up for further debate. I’ll do your science and write your reports and poke and prod at my friends here, but where it comes to the investigation I refuse to play. If you want I can put Dragonfly on and let her tell you how sincerely angry I am that this is even a thing.

P. S. Their sisters, too.

[08:53] JPL: Teddy Sanders here, Mark. We understand and commend your loyalty to Melissa Lewis, and we want to make it clear we’re not looking for a scapegoat or a target. We agree that Lewis followed protocol to the letter. Her only error was to spend too long looking for you, and we can’t fault her for that. But we want to be sure that no oversights or misjudgments like the suit helmet visor issue remain which might have protected you from being stranded.

We are coming to rescue you. But once we have you, we have Ares IV, and Ares V after that. A spending bill in Congress is pending to approve Ares VI. We want to make sure that six crew land and six crew leave in each of those missions. So we’re going over the Sol 6 incident with a fine-toothed comb to make sure that what happened to you never happens to anybody else. We won’t ask you to second-guess Lewis and her decisions, but we do have some questions about the MAV, the Hab, the antenna farm, and your flight suit that we hope you’ll answer.

We hope you’ll change your mind.

[09:08] WATNEY: No promises. Thanks for the endorsement of Lewis. I hope you told her all this yourself.

[09:22] JPL: We did. The inquest into Lewis’s actions began on Sol 22 your time and took seventeen days to clear her completely. She was commended for not waiting on Earth to abort the mission, and if she leaves NASA and returns to the Navy she’s been fast-tracked for promotion to captain, depending on a physical fitness review when she lands. We didn’t mention this before because we knew you’d have strong feelings on the subject.

[09:35] WATNEY: No shit. Awaiting downloads. By the way, a quick report: the water reclaimer efficiency is down to 15 liters per day. I’ll be doing a diagnostic this afternoon. It’s not mission critical, since we have unlimited water if we need it via pony life support, but it’s nice to have the system in place.


“Rich.”

Rich Purnell snored.

“Rich.” When raising his voice didn’t work, Mike grabbed Rich’s shoulder and shook it roughly. “Wake up.”

Rich had two means of waking up, when he’d fallen asleep at the cubicle. If he’d only been asleep a short while, he would come to slowly and peacefully. But if he’d had enough sleep to be rested, he would jerk awake with a violent spasm, usually sending limbs flying. If the waker-upper stood too close, they risked an unaimed but surprisingly powerful punch or slap to the face. If they avoided getting hit, they would get their shins barked when Rich’s chair shot back under the sudden shift in his weight. If both those obstacles were avoided, the waker-upper had the dubious pleasure of picking up from the floor Rick, whatever papers or books he’d been using for reference, and somewhere between three and a dozen coffee mugs, mostly other people’s, looted from the break room.

Mike had painful experience of all these things. It was one reason he usually made sure Rich was out of the building no later than six and back in no earlier than nine. But JPL and Kennedy had both requested refinements on the trajectories for the three Sleipnir probes, due immediately, and so Mike had handed the job to Rich.

Luckily, Rich hadn’t been dozing long. His head left the wall of his cubicle slowly, reluctantly. His yawn seemed to echo in the almost-empty Astrodynamics work room; it was still well before shift. The used coffee mugs barely shifted in their huddle (not, Mike was relieved, tower) next to his computer. “Mike?” he asked.

“Do you have those trajectories done?” Mike asked.

“Jus’ got started,” Rich muttered.

Mike’s jaw dropped. “Rich, JPL needs the Sleipnir trajectories now!” he barked.

Rich turned his head and blinked. “Oooooh,” he said. “You meant the Sleipnir trajectories. Yeah, those are done. Just a moment.” His head was moving slowly, but his hands danced across the keyboard, finishing what looked to Mike like an email. Rich clicked Send, and the monitor cleared to desktop. “There. In your email box now.”

Mike didn’t say thank you. “Rich,” he asked carefully, “what other trajectories would there be, besides the Sleipnir ones?”

“The other ones,” Rich muttered. “Is there fresh coffee in the break room?”

Mike weighed his options. Rich got mulish when asked to show incomplete work. It took far too much effort to be worth it most of the time, especially when Rich’s work never failed to check out under peer review. But for some reason Mike wanted to push it now.

But no, he didn’t have time. He couldn’t even send Rich home to sleep and bathe, as he ought to. “Not yet, Rich,” he said. “It’s only seven-thirty. I just got here.”

“Oh.” Rich began looking in the dirty mugs to see what might be left.

“Rich.” Mike put a hand on his best mathematician’s shoulder. “Today I need you to work on adjustments for the Mars recon satellites. We need the best photos we can get of the area around the Ares III Hab for the Sleipnir landings. They’re tumblers, so we can’t drop them directly on Watney. So find me the lowest-energy course corrections to bring the sats in close and straight over, all right?”

“Okay.” Rich picked up a piece of paper to look under it for more coffee mugs, then noticed his own handwriting on the paper. “I need this,” he said, handing the paper to Mike.

Mike read, in Rich’s tiny, sloppy handwriting, under the coffee stains:

To: Dr. S. Glimmer, Mars

From: NASA JSC Astrodynamics Office

Please confirm the following calculations for the Sparkle Drive, assuming a total weight of drive and batteries combined of five hundred kilograms and a p