“Get started. I’ll find you the money.”
“There’s also the booster,” Venkat said. “The only way to get a probe to Mars with the planets in their current positions is to spend a butt-load of fuel. We only have one booster capable of doing that. The Delta IX that’s on the pad right now for the EagleEye 3 Saturn probe. We’ll have to steal that. I talked to ULA, and they just can’t make another booster in time.”
“The EagleEye 3 team will be pissed, but ok,” said Teddy. “We can delay their mission if JPL gets the payload done in time.”
Bruce rubbed his eyes. “We’ll do our best.”
“He’ll starve to death if you don’t,” Teddy said.
Venkat sipped his coffee and frowned at his computer. A month ago it would have been unthinkable to drink coffee at 9pm. Now it was necessary fuel. Shift schedules, fund allocations, project juggling, out and out looting of other projects… he’d never pulled so many stunts in his life.
“NASA’s a large organization,” he typed. “It doesn’t deal with sudden change well. The only reason we’re getting away with it is the desperate circumstances. Everyone’s pulling together to save Mark Watney, with no interdepartmental squabbling. I can’t tell you how rare that is. Even then, this is going to cost tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars. The MDV modifications alone are an entire project that’s being staffed up. Hopefully, the public interest will make your job easier. We appreciate your continued support, Congressman, and hope you can sway the Committee toward granting us the emergency funding we need.”
He was interrupted by a knock at his door. Looking up, he saw Mindy.
“Sorry to bother you,” Mindy said.
“No bother,” Venkat said. “I could use a break. What’s up?”
“He’s on the move,” she said.
Venkat slouched in his chair. “Any chance it’s a test drive?”
She shook her head. “He drove straight away from the Hab for almost two hours, did a short EVA, then drove for another two. We think the EVA was to change batteries.”
Venkat sighed heavily. “Maybe it’s just a longer test? An overnight trip, kind of thing?”
“He’s 76km from the Hab,” Mindy said. “For an overnight test, wouldn’t he stay within walking distance?”
“Yes he would,” Venkat said. “Damn it. We’ve had teams run every conceivable scenario. There’s just no way he can make it to Ares 4 with that set-up. We never saw him load up the Oxygenator or Water Reclaimer. He can’t possibly have enough basics to live long enough.”
“I don’t think he’s going to Ares 4,” Mindy said. “If he is, he’s taking a weird path.”
“Oh?” said Venkat.
“He went south-southwest. Schiaparelli Crater is southeast.”
“Ok, maybe there’s hope,” Venkat said. “What’s he doing right now?”
“Recharging. He’s got all the solar cells set up,” Mindy said. “Last time he did that, it took 12 hours. I was going to sneak home for some sleep if that’s ok.”
“Sure, sounds good. We’ll see what he does tomorrow. Maybe he’ll go back to the Hab.”
“Maybe,” Mindy said, unconvinced.
“Welcome back,” Cathy said to the camera. “We’re chatting with Marcus Washington, from the US Postal Service. So, Mr. Washington, I understand the Ares 3 mission caused a Postal Service first. Can you explain to our viewers?”
“Uh yeah,” said Marcus. “Everyone thought he was dead for over two months. In that time, the Postal Service issued a run of commemorative stamps honoring his memory. 20,000 were printed, and sent to post offices around the country.”
“And then it turned out he was alive,” Cathy said.
“Yeah,” said Marcus. “We stopped the run immediately and recalled the stamps, but thousands were already sold. The thing is, we don’t print stamps of living people.”
“Has this ever happened before?” Cathy asked.
“No. Not once in the history of the Postal Service.”
“I bet they’re worth a pretty penny now.”
Marcus chuckled. “Maybe. But not too much. Like I said, thousands were sold. They’ll be rare, but not super rare.”
Cathy chuckled then addressed the camera. “We’ve been speaking with Marcus Washington of the United States Postal Service. If you’ve got a Mark Watney commemorative stamp, you might want to hold on to it. Thanks for dropping by, Mr. Washington.”
“Thanks for having me,” Marcus said.
“Our next guest is Dr. Irene Shields, Flight Psychologist for the Ares missions. Dr. Shields, welcome to the program.”
“Thank you,” Irene said, adjusting her microphone clip.
“Do you know Mark Watney personally?”
“Of course,” Irene said. “I did monthly psych evaluations on each member of the crew.”
“What can you tell us about him? His personality, his mindset?”
“Well,” Irene said, “He’s very intelligent. All of them are, of course. But he’s particularly resourceful and a good problem-solver.”
“That may save his life,” Cathy interjected.
“It may indeed,” Irene agreed. “Also, he’s a good-natured man. Usually cheerful, with a great sense of humor. He’s quick with a joke. In the months leading up to launch, the crew was put through a grueling training schedule. They all showed signs of stress and moodiness. Mark was no exception, but the way he showed it was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing.”
“He sounds like a great guy,” Cathy said.
“He really is,” Irene said. “He was chosen for the mission in part because of his personality. An Ares crew has to spend 13 months together. Social compatibility is key. Mark not only fits well in any social group, he’s a catalyst to make the group work better. It was a terrible blow to the crew when he ‘died.’”
“And they still think he’s dead, right? The Ares 3 crew?”
“Yes they do, unfortunately,” Irene confirmed. “The higher-ups decided to keep it from them, at least for now. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision.”
Cathy paused for a moment, then said. “All right. You know I have to ask: What’s going through his head right now? How does a man like Mark Watney respond to a situation like this? Stranded, alone, no idea we’re trying to help?”