Vogel stood agape as a shocked expression swept across his face.
Martinez looked to Lewis. She leaned forward and pinched her chin.
“I know that’s a surprise,” Mitch continued. “And I know you’ll have a lot of questions. We’re going to answer those questions. But for now I’ll just give you the basics.
“He’s alive and healthy. We found out two months ago and decided not to tell you; we even censored personal messages. I was strongly against all that. We’re telling you now because we finally have communication with him and a viable rescue plan. It boils down to Ares 4 picking him up with a modified MDV.
“We’ll get you a full write-up of what happened, but it’s definitely not your fault. Mark stresses that every time it comes up. It was just bad luck.
“Take some time to absorb this. Your science schedules are cleared for tomorrow. Send all the questions you want and we’ll answer them. Henderson out.”
The message’s end brought stunned silence to the bridge.
“He…He’s alive?” Martinez said, then smiled.
Vogel nodded excitedly. “He lives.”
Johanssen stared at her screen in wide-eyed disbelief.
“Holy shit,” Beck laughed. “Holy shit! Commander! He’s alive!”
“I left him behind,” Lewis said quietly.
The celebrations ceased immediately as the crew saw their commander’s inconsolable expression.
“But,” Beck began, “We all left togeth-“
“You followed orders,” Lewis interrupted. “I left him behind. In a barren, unreachable, godforsaken wasteland.”
Beck looked to Martinez pleadingly. Martinez opened his mouth, but could find no words to say.
Lewis trudged off the bridge.
The employees of Deyo Plastics worked double shifts. There was talk of triple shifts if NASA increased the order again. No one minded. The overtime pay was spectacular and the funding was limitless.
Woven carbon thread ran slowly through the press, which sandwiched it between polymer sheets. The completed material was folded four times and glued together. The resulting thick sheet was then coated with soft resin, and taken to the hot-room to set.
LOG ENTRY: SOL 114
Now that NASA can talk to me, they won’t shut the hell up.
They want constant updates on every Hab system, and they’ve got a room full of people trying to micromanage my crops. It’s awesome to have a bunch of dipshits on Earth telling me, a botanist, how to grow plants.
I mostly ignore them. I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the best botanist on the planet.
One big bonus: Email! Just like the days back on Hermes, I get data dumps. Of course they relay email from friends and family, but NASA also sends along choice messages from the public. I’ve gotten email from rock stars, athletes, actors and actresses, and even the President.
The coolest one is from my alma-mater, the University of Chicago. They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially “colonized” it. So technically, I colonized Mars.
In your face, Neil Armstrong!
I go to the rover five times a day to check mail. They can get a message from Earth to Mars, but they can’t get it another 10 meters to the Hab. But hey, I can’t bitch. My odds of living through this are way higher now.
Last I heard, they solved the weight problem on Ares 4’s MDV. Once it lands here, they’ll ditch the heat shield, all the life support stuff, and a bunch of empty fuel tanks. Then they can take the seven of us (Ares 4’s crew plus me) all the way to Schiaparelli. They’re already working on my duties for the surface ops. How cool is that?
In other news, I’m learning Morse Code. Why? Because it’s our back-up communication system. NASA figured a decades-old probe isn’t ideal as a sole means of communication.
If Pathfinder craps out, I’ll spell messages with rocks, which NASA will see with satellites. They can’t reply, but at least we’d have one-way communication. Why Morse Code? Because making dots and dashes with rocks is a lot easier than making letters.
It’s a shitty way to communicate. Hopefully it won’t come up.
All chemical reactions complete, the sheet was sterilized and moved to a cleanroom. There, a worker cut a strip off the edge. Dividing the strip in to squares, he put each through a series of rigorous tests.
Having passed inspection, the sheet was then cut to shape. The edges were folded over, sewn, and resealed with resin. A man with a clipboard made final inspections, independently verifying the measurements, then approved it for use.
LOG ENTRY: SOL 115
The meddling botanists have grudgingly admitted I did a good job. They agree I’ll have enough food to last till Sol 900. Bearing that in mind, NASA has fleshed out the mission details of the supply probe.
At first, they were working on a desperate plan to get a probe here before Sol 400. But I bought another 500 sols of life with my potato farm so they have more time to work on it.
They’ll launch next year during the Hohmann Transfer Window, and it’ll take almost 9 months to get here. It should arrive around Sol 856. It’ll have plenty of food, a spare Oxygenator, Water Reclaimer, and comm system. Three comm systems, actually. I guess they aren’t taking any chances, what with my habit of being nearby when radios break.
Got my first email from Hermes today. NASA’s been limiting direct contact. I guess they’re afraid I’ll say something like “You abandoned me on Mars you fuckwits!” I know the crew is surprised to hear from the Ghost of Mars Missions Past, but c’mon. I wish NASA was less of a nanny sometimes. Anyway, they finally let one email through from Martinez:
Dear Watney: Sorry we left you behind, but we don't like you. You're sort of a smart-ass. And it's a lot roomier on Hermes without you. We have to take turns doing your tasks, but it's only botany (not real science) so it's easy. How's Mars?
Dear Martinez: Mars is fine. When I get lonely I think of that steamy night I spent with your mom. How are things on Hermes? Cramped and claustrophobic? Yesterday I went outside and looked at the vast horizons. I tell ya, Martinez, they go on forever!
The employees carefully folded the sheet, and placed it in an argon-filled airtight shipping container. Printing out a sticker, the man with the clipboard placed it on the package. “Project Ares-3; Hab Canvas; Sheet AL102.”
The package was placed on a charter plane and flown to Edwards Air Force Base in California. It flew abnormally high, at great cost of fuel, to ensure a smoother flight.