“I have it, too,” Johanssen said. “It didn’t finish transmitting. Some data’s missing and there’s no checksum. Gimme a sec.”
“Commander,” Martinez said. “Message from Houston. We’re officially scrubbed. The storm’s definitely gonna be too rough.”
“Copy,” Lewis said.
“They sent that four and a half minutes ago,” Martinez continued, “while looking at satellite data from nine minutes ago.”
“Understood,” Lewis said. “Continue prepping for launch.”
“Copy,” Martinez said.
“Beck,” Johanssen said. “I have the raw packet. It’s plaintext: BP 0, PR 0, TP 36.2. That’s as far as it got.”
“Copy,” Beck said morosely. “Blood pressure 0, pulse rate 0, temperature normal.”
The channel fell silent for some time. They continued pressing forward, shuffling through the sandstorm, hoping for a miracle.
“Temperature normal?” Lewis said, a hint of hope in her voice.
“It takes a while for the-“ Beck stammered. “It takes a while to cool.”
“Commander,” Martinez said. “Tilting at 10.5 degrees now, with gusts pushing it to 11.”
“Copy,” Lewis said. “Are you at pilot-release?”
“Affirmative,” Martinez replied. “I can launch any time.”
“If it tips, can you launch before it falls completely over?”
“Uh,” Martinez said, not expecting the question. “Yes Ma’am. I’d take manual control and go full throttle. Then I’d nose up and return to pre-programmed ascent.”
“Copy that,” Lewis said. “Everyone home in on Martinez’s suit. That’ll get you to the MAV airlock. Get in and prep for launch.”
“What about you, Commander?” Beck asked.
“I’m searching a little more. Get moving. And Martinez, if you start to tip, launch.”
“You really think I’ll leave you behind?” Martinez said.
“I just ordered you to,” Lewis replied. “You three, get to the ship.”
They reluctantly obeyed Lewis’s order, and made their way toward the MAV. The punishing wind fought them every step of the way.
Unable to see the ground, Lewis shuffled forward. Remembering something, she reached to her back and got a pair of rock-drill bits. She had added the 1-meter bits to her equipment that morning, anticipating geological sampling later in the day. Holding one in each hand, she dragged them along the ground as she walked.
After 20 meters, she turned around and walked the opposite direction. Walking a straight line proved to be impossible. Not only did she lack visual references, the endless wind pushed her off course. The sheer volume of attacking sand buried her feet with each step. Grunting, she pressed on.
Beck, Johanssen, and Vogel squeezed in to the MAV airlock. Designed for two, it could be used by three in emergencies. As it equalized, Lewis’s voice came over the radio.
“Johanssen,” she said. “Would the rover IR camera do any good?”
“Negative,” Johanssen replied. “IR can’t get through sand any better than visible light.”
“What’s she thinking?” Beck asked after removing his helmet. “She’s a geologist. She knows IR can’t get through a sandstorm.”
“She is grasping,” Vogel said, opening the inner door. “We must get to the couches. Please hurry.”
“I don’t feel good about this,” Beck said.
“Neither do I, Doctor,” said Vogel, climbing the ladder. “But the Commander has given us orders. Insubordination will not help.”
“Commander,” Martinez radioed, “We’re tilting 11.6 degrees. One good gust and we’re tipping.”
“What about the proximity radar?” Lewis said, “Could it detect Watney’s suit?”
“No way,” Martinez said. “It’s made to see Hermes in orbit, not the metal in a single space suit.”
“Give it a try,” Lewis said.
“Commander,” said Beck, putting on a headset as he slid in to his acceleration couch. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but Watn-… Mark’s dead.”
“Copy,” Lewis said. “Martinez, try the radar.”
“Roger,” Martinez radioed.
Bringing the radar online, he waited for it to complete a self check. Glaring at Beck, he said “What’s the matter with you?”
“My friend just died,” Beck answered. “And I don’t want my Commander to die too.”
Martinez gave him a stern look. Turning his attention back to the radar, he radioed “Negative contact on proximity radar.”
“Nothing?” Lewis asked.
“It can barely see the Hab,” he replied. “The sandstorm’s fucking things up. Even if it wasn’t, there’s not enough metal in- Shit!”
“Strap in!” he yelled to the crew. “We’re tipping!”
The MAV began to creaking as it tilted faster and faster.
“13 degrees,” Johanssen called out from her couch.
Buckling his restraints, Vogel said “We are far past balance. We will not rock back.”
“We can’t leave her!” Beck yelled. “Let it tip, we’ll fix it!”
“32 metric tons including fuel,” Martinez said, his hands flying over the controls. “If it hits the ground, it’ll do structural damage to the tanks, frame, and probably the second stage engine. We’d never be able to fix it.”
“You can’t abandon her!” Beck said. “You can’t.”
“I’ve got one trick. If that doesn’t work, I’m following her orders.”
Bringing the Orbital Maneuvering System online, he fired a sustained burn from the nosecone array. The small thrusters fought against the lumbering mass of the slowly tilting spacecraft.
“You are firing the OMS?” Vogel asked.
“I don’t know if it’ll work. We’re not tipping very fast,” Martinez said. “I think it’s slowing down…”
“The aerodynamic caps will have automatically ejected.” Vogel said. “It will be a bumpy ascent with three holes in the side of the ship.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Martinez said, maintaining the burn and watching the tilt readout. “C’mon…”
“Still 13 degrees,” Johanssen reported.