“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?”
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.