It won't be easy talking to a couple about their dead son. It's a lot to ask; that's why I'm asking you. I'd tell you you're my best friend and stuff, but it would be gay.
I'm not giving up. Just planning for every outcome. It's what I do.
Guo Ming, Director of the China National Space Administration, examined the expansive paperwork at his desk. In the old days, when China wanted to launch a rocket, they just launched it. Now, they were compelled by international agreements to warn other nations first.
It was a requirement, Guo Ming noted to himself, that did not apply to the United States. To be fair, the Americans publicly announced their launch schedules well in advance, so it amounted to the same.
He walked a fine line filling out the form: Making the launch date and flight path clear, while doing everything possible to “conceal state secrets.”
He snorted at the last requirement. “Ridiculous,” he mumbled. The Taiyang Shen had no strategic or military value. It was an unmanned probe that would be in Earth orbit less than two days. After that, it would travel to a solar orbit between Mercury and Venus. It would be China's first heliology probe to orbit the sun.
Yet, the State Council insisted all launches be shrouded in secrecy. Even launches with nothing to hide. This way, other nations could not infer from lack of openness which launches contained classified payloads.
A knock at the door interrupted his paperwork.
“Come,” Guo Ming said, happy for the interruption.
“Good evening, Sir,” said Under-Director Zhu Tao.
“Tao, welcome back.”
“Thank you, Sir. It's good to be back in Beijing.”
“How were things at Jiuquan?” asked Guo Ming. “Not too cold, I hope? I'll never understand why our launch complex is in the middle of the Gobi Desert.”
“It was cold, yet manageable,” Zhu Tao said.
“And how are launch preparations coming along?”
“I am happy to report they are all on-schedule.”
“Excellent,” Guo Ming smiled.
Zhu Tao sat quietly, staring at his boss.
Guo Ming looked expectantly back at him, but Zhu Tao neither stood to leave nor said anything further.
“Something else, Tao?” Guo Ming asked.
“Mmm,” Zhu Tao said, “Of course, you've heard about the Iris probe?”
“Yes, I did,” Guo frowned. “Terrible situation. That poor man's going to starve.”
“Possibly,” Zhu Tao said. “Possibly not.”
Guo Ming leaned back in his chair. “What are you saying?”
“It's the Taiyang Shen's booster, Sir. Our engineers have run the numbers, and it has enough fuel for a Mars injection orbit. It could get there in 419 days.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Have you ever known me to 'kid,' Sir?”
Guo Ming stood and pinched his chin. Pacing, he said “We can really send a probe to Mars?”
“It's hardly notable, Sir,” Zhu Tao said. “We've sent several in the past.”
“Yes, I know, but we could really send the Taiyang Shen?”
“No, Sir,” said Zhu Tao. “It's far too heavy. The massive heat shielding makes it the heaviest unmanned probe we've ever built. That's why the booster had to be so powerful. But a lighter payload could be sent all the way to Mars.”
“How much mass could we send?” Guo Ming asked.
“941 kilograms, Sir.”
“Hmm,” Guo Ming said, “I bet NASA could work with that limitation. Why haven't they approached us?”
“Because they don't know.” Zhu Tao said. “All our booster technology is classified information. The Ministry of State Security even spreads disinformation about our capabilities. This is for obvious reasons.”
“So they don't know we can help them,” Guo Ming said, “If we decide not to help, no one will know we could have.”
“For the sake of argument, let's say we decided to help. What then?”
“Time would be the enemy, Sir,” Zhu Tao answered. “Based on travel duration and the supplies their astronaut has remaining, any such probe would have to be launched within a month. Even then he would starve a little.”
“That's right around when we planned to launch Taiyang Shen.”
“Yes, Sir. But it took them two months to build Iris, and it was so rushed it failed.”
“That's their problem,” Guo Ming said. “Our end would be providing the booster. We'd launch from Jiuquan; we can't ship an 800-ton rocket to Florida.”
“Any agreement would hinge on the Americans reimbursing us for the booster,” Zhu Tao said, “and the State Council would likely want political favors from the US Government.”
“Reimbursement would be pointless,” Guo Ming said. “This was an expensive project, and the State Council grumbled about it all along. If they had a bulk payout for it's value, they'd just keep it. We'd never get to build another one.”
He clasped his hands behind his back. “And the American people may be sentimental, but their government is not. The US State Department won't trade anything major for one man's life.”
“So it's hopeless?” asked Zhu Tao.
“Not hopeless,” Guo Ming corrected. “Just hard. If this becomes a negotiation by diplomats, it will never resolve. We need to keep this among scientists. Space agency to space agency. I'll get a translator and call NASA's Director. We'll work out an agreement, then present it to our governments as a fait accompli.”
“But what can they do for us?” Zhu Tao asked. “We'd be giving up a booster and effectively canceling Taiyang Shen.”
Guo Ming smiled. “They'll give us something we can't get without them.”
“And that is?”
“They'll put a Chinese astronaut on Mars.”
Zhu Tao stood. “Of course,” he smiled. “The Ares 5 crew hasn't even been selected yet. We'll insist on a crewman. One we get to pick and train. NASA and the US State Department would surely accept that. But will our State Council?”
Guo Ming smiled wryly. “Publicly rescue the Americans? Put a Chinese astronaut on Mars? Have the world see China as equal to the US in space? The State Council would sell their own mothers for that.”
Teddy listened to the phone at his ear. The voice on the other end finished what it had to say, then fell silent as it awaited an answer.
He stared at nothing in particular as he processed what he'd just heard.