• Published 2nd Jan 2018
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The Maretian - Kris Overstreet



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

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Sol 11

“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.

Author's Note:

Well, now we get our first look at the NASA leadership, or at least part of it. I'll have a lot more to say (and complain) about the book's handling of NASA, in a later chapter's author's note.

Right now I'll settle for one thing: communications.

When I first started taking notes for this project, I planned to give Hermes contact with Watney for the first twenty days or so of his being marooned, using packet-bursts of data during the very brief windows when ship and base were close enough for communications. I based the minimum range on the maximum distance the rover was ever recorded as picking up a signal from, which was just under one hundred kilometers.

No problem, I thought. One hundred kilometers is the official border of space on Earth, right? And Mars has one percent of Earth's air, right? So Hermes should be able to orbit a lot lower, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

First, one hundred kilometers is defined as space because that's the point at which wings and fins stop being useful. At one hundred kilometers you have to be at or above orbital velocity to get any meaningful lift or drag or anything out of a wing. But that is NOT the same as saying there's no air. There's still enough air above one hundred kilometers to slow a craft to a suborbital trajectory. Skylab orbited at almost two hundred kilometers, and it fell out of orbit in seven years. The ISS today orbits at four hundred kilometers, and it still requires thrusters to boost its orbit because of atmospheric drag. There is no clear line at which air stops and vacuum begins. Nature doesn't work like that.

Second, Mars has a lot less air... but, ironically, its lower gravity plus its lack of a strong magnetic field means that its less-dense atmosphere goes a lot HIGHER than Earth's does. I couldn't find any easy or simple answer about the "boundary of space" on Mars or what would constitute a safe orbit, but it became plain it would be a lot higher than one hundred kilometers.

And, finally, there are the reasons presented here. At best the story would require that Hermes catch Watney in the rover. He'd have his radio turned off, because he'd assume there was nobody he could talk to. The only plan was to somehow signal him through the Hab beacon channel... which would require basically jamming the Hab beacon with a much stronger signal from a lot farther away. I toyed with that for a couple hours, decided I couldn't justify it, and accepted that Watney wasn't going to be talking to Hermes.

So, on to the Mars end of today's chapter.

One of the things that the movie actually, honestly fixes over the book is Watney's spacesuit visor. In the movie at one point Watney cracks his suit visor and has to use duck tape to seal it long enough to get to safety (and spare helmets).

In the book the visor is safety glass- the kind in the side and rear windows of your car, the kind that crumbles into ten zillion tiny pieces if it breaks at all. Watney ends up... well, I throw around enough spoilers willy-nilly as it is, so I'll just say the repair requires more extreme methods than duck tape.

Now you'd say, quite sensibly, that only a complete imbecile would make an astronaut's life dependent on a substance that can't handle a solid hit. And there's definitely a case to be made here that Andy Weir screwed up big time.

But I'm keeping it anyway.

First, about a year after the book was first released digitally, a new man-portable life support system was developed that scrubs CO2 from space suit air indefinitely. No filters required at all. So long as you have oxygen and electricity, you're golden. Which means a major tension point in the original novel was rendered twenty years obsolete by the time of the story. But I didn't want to lose that point completely, even if the ponies have something superior to that, so I decided to keep the filters. And who knows? I might find a plot point for them yet.

But second, and more important... NASA contractors have made screwups like this throughout history. Some of it was NASA's fault (the one lesson the space shuttle ought to teach future spacecraft designers is all life-critical infrastructure goes at the top of the stack, not halfway down). But the Hubble mirror? The flawed three-gimbal navigation system of the Apollo command module? Half the systems in the LEM? And even bigger space fanatics than I can think of a long list of other screwups, ranging from the annoying to the mission-critical to the outright lethal, perpetuated by a combination of tight, immovable deadlines and lowest-bidder government contracting, and above all the phenomenon Watney invokes here in my story: Not Invented Here Syndrome.

Ponies love music in general, but given how simple and frequently nonsensical Beatles lyrics are, I suspect a second British Invasion is imminent. :pinkiehappy:

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