“Copy that. All stations: Flight Director shift change.” He took his headset off and rubbed his eyes.
Brendan Hutch took the headset from him and put it on. “All stations, Flight Director is now Brendan Hutch.”
“Call me if anything happens,” Mitch said. “If not, I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Get some sleep, boss,” Brendan said.
Venkat watched from the observation booth. “Why ask the Timekeeper?” he mumbled. “It's on the huge mission clock in the center screen.”
“He's nervous,” Annie said. “You don't often see it, but that's what Mitch Henderson looks like when he's nervous. He double and triple checks everything.”
“Fair enough,” Venkat said.
“They're camping out on the lawn, by the way,” Annie said. “Reporters from all over the world. Our press rooms just don't have enough space.”
“The media loves a drama,” he sighed. “It'll be over tomorrow, one way or another.”
“What's our role in all this?” Annie said. “If something goes wrong, what can Mission Control do?”
“Nothing,” Venkat said. “Not a damned thing.”
“It's all happening 12 light-minutes away. That means it takes 24 minutes for them to get the answer to any question they ask. The whole launch is 12 minutes long. They're on their own.”
“Oh,” Annie said. “So we're just observers in all this?”
“Yes,” Venkat said. “Sucks, doesn't it?”
LOG ENTRY: SOL 549
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't shitting myself. In 4 hours, I'm going to ride a giant explosion into orbit. This is something I've done a few times before, but never with a jury-rigged mess like this.
Right now, I'm sitting in the MAV. I'm suited up because there's a big hole in the front of the ship where the window and part of the hull used to be. I'm “awaiting launch instructions.” Really, I'm just awaiting launch. I don't have any part in this. I'm just going to sit in the acceleration couch and hope for the best.
Last night, I ate my final meal pack. It's the first good meal I've had in weeks. I'm leaving 41 potatoes behind. That's how close I came to starvation.
I carefully collected samples from my entire journey. But I can't bring any of them with me. So I put them in a container a few hundred meters from here. Maybe some day they'll send a probe to collect them. May as well make them easy to pick up.
This is it. There's nothing after this. There isn't even an abort procedure. Why make one? We can't delay the launch. Hermes can't stop and wait. No matter what, we're launching on schedule.
I face the very real possibility that I'll die today. Can't say I like it. It wouldn't be so bad if the MAV blew up. I wouldn't know what hit me.
If I miss the intercept I'll just float around in space until I run out of air. I have a contingency plan for that. I'll drop the oxygen mixture to zero and breathe pure nitrogen until I suffocate. It wouldn't feel bad. The lungs don't have the ability to sense lack of oxygen. I'd just get tired, fall asleep, then die.
I've had my last Martian potato. I've slept in the rover for the last time. I've had my last EVA on the surface. I'm leaving Mars today, one way or another.
About fucking time.
Everywhere on Earth, they gathered.
From Trafalgar Square to Tienanmen Square to Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.
In Chicago, a couple clutched each other's hands as they watched. The man held his wife gently as she rocked back and forth out of sheer terror. The NASA representative knew not to disturb them, but stood ready to answer any questions should they ask.
“Fuel Pressure green,” Johanssen's voice said from a billion televisions. “Engine alignment perfect. Communications 5 by 5. We are ready for preflight checklist, Commander.”
“Copy,” came Lewis's voice. “CAPCOM”
“Go,” Johanssen responded.
“Go,” Johanssen said again.
“Go,” said Martinez.
“Go,” said Watney from the MAV.
A mild cheer coruscated through the crowds worldwide.
Mitch sat at his station in mission control. They monitored everything and were ready to help in any way the could. The communication latency between Hermes and Earth made any such need highly unlikely.
“Telemetry,” Lewis's voice said over the speakers.
“Go,” Johanssen responded.
“Recovery,” she continued.
“Go,” said Beck from the airlock.
“Go,” said Vogel from beside Beck.
“Mission control, this is Hermes Actual,” Lewis reported. “We are go for launch and will proceed on schedule. We are T minus four minutes, 10 seconds to launch... mark.”
“Did you get that, Timekeeper?” Mitch said.
“Affirmative, flight,” came the response. “Our clocks are synched with theirs.”
“Not that we can do anything,” Mitch mumbled, “But at least we'll know what's supposedly happening.”
“About four minutes, Mark,” Lewis said into her mic. “How you doing down there?”
“Eager to get up there, Commander,” Watney responded.
“We're going to make that happen,” Lewis said. “Remember, you'll be pulling some pretty heavy G's. It's ok to pass out. You're in Martinez's hands.”
“Tell that asshole no barrel-rolls.”
“Copy that, MAV,” Lewis said.
“Four more minutes,” Martinez said, cracking his knuckles. “You ready for some flying, Beth?”
“Yeah,” Johanssen said. “It'll be strange to sysop a launch and stay in zero-g the whole time.”
“I hadn't thought of it that way,” Martinez said, “but yeah. I'm not going to be squashed against the back my seat. Weird.”
Beck floated in the airlock, tethered to a wall-mounted spool. Vogel stood beside him, his boots clamped to the floor. Both stared through the open outer door to the red planet below.
“Didn't think I'd be back here again,” Beck said.
“Yes,” Vogel said. “We are the first.”
“We are the first to visit Mars twice.”