“Mnrrn,” Johanssen grunted.
“Pretty sure that’s a no,” Watney guessed.
The crew ate in silence. Johanssen eventually trudged to the ration cupboard and got a coffee packet. Clumsily adding hot water, she sipped it until wakefulness crept in.
“Mission updates from Houston,” Lewis said. “Satellites show a storm coming, but we can do surface ops before it gets here. Vogel, Martinez, you’ll be with me outside. Johanssen, you’re stuck tracking weather reports. Watney, your soil experiments are bumped up to today. Beck, run the samples from yesterday’s EVA through the spectrometer.”
“Should you really go out with a storm on the way?” Beck asked.
“Houston authorized it,” Lewis said.
“Seems needlessly dangerous.”
“Coming to Mars was needlessly dangerous,” Lewis said. “What’s your point?”
Beck shrugged. “Just be careful.”
Three figures looked eastward. Their bulky EVA suits rendered them nearly identical. Only the European Union flag on Vogel’s shoulder distinguished him from Lewis and Martinez, who donned the Stars and Stripes.
The darkness to the east undulated and flickered in the rays of the rising sun.
“The storm.” Vogel said in his accented English. “It is closer than Houston reported.”
“We’ve got time,” Lewis said. “Focus on the task at hand. This EVA’s all about chemical analysis. Vogel, you’re the chemist, so you’re in charge of what we dig up.”
“Ja,” Vogel said. “Please dig 30 centimeters and get soil samples. At least 100 grams each. Very important is 30 centimeters down.”
“Will do.” Lewis said. “Stay within 100 meters of the Hab,” she added.
“Mm,” Vogel said.
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Martinez.
They split up. Greatly improved since the days of Apollo, Ares EVA suits allowed much more freedom of motion. Digging, bending over, and bagging samples were trivial tasks.
After a time, Lewis asked “How many samples do you need?”
“Seven each, perhaps?”
“That’s fine,” Lewis confirmed. “I’ve got four so far.”
“Five here,” Martinez said. “Of course, we can’t expect the Navy to keep up with the Air Force, now can we?”
“So that’s how you want to play it?” Lewis said.
“Just call ‘em as I see ‘em Commander.”
“Johanssen here,” came the sysop’s voice over the radio. “Houston’s upgraded the storm to ‘severe’. It’s going to be here in 15 minutes.”
“Back to base,” Lewis said.
The Hab shook in the roaring wind as the astronauts huddled in the center. All six of donned their EVA suits in case of a breach. Johanssen watched her laptop while the rest watched her.
“Sustained winds over 100kph now,” she said. “Gusting to 125.”
“Jesus, we’re gonna end up in Oz,” Watney said. “What’s the abort windspeed?”
“Technically 150kph,” Martinez said. “Any more than that and the MAV’s in danger of tipping.”
“Any predictions on the storm track?” Lewis asked.
“This is the edge of it,” Johanssen said, staring at her screen. “It’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”
The Hab canvas rippled under the brutal assault as the internal supports bent and shivered with each gust. The cacophony grew louder by the minute.
“All right,” Lewis said. “Prep for abort. We’ll go to the MAV and hope for the best. If the wind gets too high, we’ll launch.”
Leaving the Hab in pairs, they grouped up outside airlock 1. The driving wind and sand battered them, but they were able to stay on their feet.
“Visibility is almost zero,” Lewis said. “If you get lost, home in on my suit’s telemetry. The wind’s gonna be rougher away from the Hab, so be ready.”
Pressing through the gale, they stumbled toward the MAV.
“Hey,” Watney panted, “Maybe we could shore up the MAV. Make tipping less likely.”
“How?” Lewis huffed.
“We could use cables from the solar farm as guy lines.” He wheezed for a few moments, then continued. “The rovers could be anchors. The trick would be getting the line around the-“
Flying wreckage slammed Watney, carrying him off in to the wind.
“Watney!” Johanssen exclaimed.
“What happened?” Lewis said.
“Something hit him!” Johanssen reported.
“Watney, report,” Lewis said.
“Watney, report,” Lewis repeated.
Again, she was met with silence.
“He’s offline,” Johanssen reported. “I don’t know where he is!”
“Commander,” Beck said, “Before we lost telemetry, his decompression alarm went off!”
“Shit!” Lewis exclaimed. “Johanssen where did you last see him?”
“He was right in front of me and then he was gone,” she said. “He flew off due west.”
“Ok,” Lewis said. “Martinez, get to the MAV and prep for launch. Everyone else, home in on Johanssen.”
“Doctor Beck,” Vogel said as he stumbled through the storm, “How long can a person survive decompression?”
“Less than a minute,” Beck said, emotion choking his voice.
“I can’t see anything,” Johanssen said as the crew crowded around her.
“Line up and walk west,” Lewis commanded. “Small steps. He’s probably prone; we don’t want to step over him.”
Staying in sight of one another, they trudged through the chaos.
Martinez fell in to the MAV airlock and forced it closed against the wind. Once it pressurized he quickly doffed his suit. Climbing the ladder to the crew compartment, he slid in to the pilot’s couch and booted the system.
Grabbing the emergency-launch checklist with one hand, he flicked switches rapidly with the other. One by one, the systems reported flight-ready status. As they came online, he noted one in particular.
“Commander,” he radioed, “The MAV’s got a 7 degree tilt. It’ll tip at 12.3.”
“Copy that,” Lewis said.
“Johanssen,” Beck said, looking at his arm computer, “Watney’s bio-monitor sent something before going offline. My computer just says ‘Bad Packet.’”