“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.”
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.”