The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Sol 7

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?


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.