“Oh yeah. Even Watney can't say that.”
They looked at Mars in silence for a while.
“Vogel,” Beck said.
“If I can't reach Mark, I want you to release my tether.”
“Doctor Beck,” Vogel said, “The Commander has said no to this.”
“I know what the Commander said, but if I need a few more meters, I want you to cut me loose. I have an MMU, I can get back without a tether.”
“I will not do this, Doctor Beck.”
“It's my own life at risk, and I say it's ok.”
“You are not the Commander.”
Beck scowled at Vogel, but with their reflective visors down, the effect was lost.
“Fine,” Beck said. “But I bet you'll change your mind if push comes to shove.”
Vogel did not respond.
“T-minus 10,” said Johanssen, “9...8...”
“Main engines start,” said Martinez.
“7...6...5...mooring clamps released...”
“About 5 seconds, Watney,” Lewis said to her headset. “Hang on.”
“See you in a few, Commander,” Watney radioed back.
Watney lay in the acceleration couch as the MAV rumbled in anticipation of liftoff.
“Hmm,” he said to nobody. “I wonder how much longer-”
The MAV launched with incredible force. More than any manned ship had accelerated in the history of space travel. Watney was shoved in to his couch so hard he couldn't even grunt.
Having anticipated this, he had placed a folded up shirt behind his head in the helmet. As his head pressed firmly in to the makeshift cushion, the edges of his vision became blurry. He could neither breathe nor move.
Directly in his field of view, the Hab canvas patch flapped violently as the ship exponentially gained speed. Concentration became difficult, but something in the back of his mind told him that was bad.
“Velocity 741 meters per second,” Johanssen quickly called out. “Altitude 1350 meters.”
“Copy,” Martinez said.
“That's low,” Lewis said. “Too low.”
“I know,” Martinez said. “It's sluggish; fighting me. What the fuck is going on?”
“Velocity 850, altitude 1843,” Johanssen said.
“I'm not getting the power I need!” Martinez said.
“Engine power at 100%,” Johanssen said.
“I'm telling you it's sluggish,” Martinez insisted.
“Watney,” Lewis said to her headset. “Watney, do you read? Can you report?”
Watney heard Lewis's voice in the distance. Like someone talking to him through a long tunnel. He vaguely wondered what she wanted. His attention was briefly drawn to the fluttering canvas ahead of him. A rip had appeared and was rapidly widening.
But then he was distracted by a bolt in one of the bulkheads. It only had five sides. He wondered why NASA decided that bolt needed five sides instead of six. It would require a special wrench to tighten or loosen.
The canvas tore even further, the tattered material flapping wildly. Through the opening, Watney saw red sky stretching out infinitely ahead. “That's nice,” he thought.
As the MAV flew higher, the atmosphere grew thinner. Soon, the canvas stopped fluttering and simply stretched toward Mark. The sky shifted from red to black.
“That's nice, too,” Mark thought.
As consciousness slipped away, he wondered where he could get a cool 5-sided bolt like that.
“I'm getting more response now,” Martinez said.
“Back on track with full acceleration,” Johanssen said. “Must have been drag. MAV's out of the atmosphere now.”
“It was like flying a cow,” Martinez grumbled, his hands racing over his controls.
“Can you get him up?” Lewis asked.
“He'll get to orbit,” Johanssen said, “but the intercept course may be compromised.”
“Get him up first,” Lewis said. “Then we'll worry about intercept.”
“Copy. Main engine cut-off in 15 seconds.”
“Much smoother now,” Martinez said. “It's not fighting me at all anymore.”
“Well below target altitude,” Johanssen said. “Velocity is good.”
“How far below?” Lewis said.
“Can't say for sure,” Johanssen said. “All I have is accelerometer data. We'll need radar pings at intervals to work out his true final orbit.”
“Back to automatic guidance,” Martinez said.
“Main shutdown in 4,” Johanssen said “3... 2... 1... Shutdown.”
“Confirm shutdown,” Martinez said.
“Watney, you there?” Lewis said. “Watney? Watney, do you read?”
“Probably passed out, Commander,” Beck said over the radio. “He pulled 12 G's on the ascent. Give him a few minutes.”
“Copy,” Lewis said. “Johanssen, got his orbit yet?”
“I have interval pings. Working out our intercept range and velocity...”
Martinez and Lewis stared intensely at Johanssen as she brought up the intercept calculation software. Normally, orbits would be worked out by Vogel, but he was otherwise engaged. Johanssen was his backup for orbital dynamics.
“Intercept velocity will be 11 meters per second...” she began.
“I can make that work,” Beck said over the radio.
“Distance at intercept will be-” She stopped and choked. Shakily, she continued. “We'll be 68 kilometers apart.” She buried her face in her hands.
“Did she say 68 kilometers!?” Beck said. “Kilometers!?”
“God damn it,” Martinez whispered.
“Keep it together,” Lewis said. “Work the problem. Martinez, is there any juice in the MAV?”
“Negative, Commander,” Martinez responded. “They ditched the OMS system to lighten the launch weight.”
“Then we'll have to go to him. Johanssen, time to intercept?”
“39 minutes, 12 seconds,” Johanssen said, trying not to quaver.
“Vogel,” Lewis continued, “how far can we deflect in 39 minutes with the ion engines?”
“Perhaps 5 kilometers,” he radioed.
“Not enough,” Lewis said. “Martinez, what if we point our attitude thrusters all the same direction?”
“Depends on how much fuel we want to save for attitude adjustments on the trip home.”
“How much do you need?”