“What’s going on up there?” Lewis radioed. “You went quiet. Respond.”
“Standby,” Martinez replied.
“12.9 degrees,” Johanssen said.
“It is working,” Vogel said.
“For now,” Martinez said. “I don’t know if maneuvering fuel will last.”
“12.8 now.” Johanssen supplied.
“OMS fuel at 60 percent,” Beck said. “How much do you need to dock with Hermes?”
“10 percent if I don’t fuck anything up,” Martinez said, adjusting the thrust angle.
“12.6,” Johanssen said. “We’re tipping back.”
“Or the wind died down a little,” Beck postulated. “Fuel at 45 percent.”
“There is danger of damage to the vents,” Vogel cautioned. “The OMS was not made for prolonged thrusts,”
“I know,” Martinez said. “I can dock without nose vents if I have to.”
“Almost there…” Johanssen said. “Ok we’re under 12.3.”
“OMS cutoff,” Martinez announced, terminating the burn.
“Still tipping back,” Johanssen said. “11.6… 11.5… holding at 11.5”
“OMS Fuel at 22 percent,” Beck said.
“Yeah, I see that,” Martinez replied. “It’ll be enough.”
“Commander,” Beck radioed. “You need to get to the ship now.”
“Agreed,” Martinez radioed. “He’s gone, Ma’am. Watney’s gone.”
The four crewmates awaited their commander’s response.
“Copy,” she finally replied. “On my way.”
They lay in silence, strapped to their couches and ready for launch. Beck looked at Watney’s empty couch and saw Vogel doing the same. Martinez ran a self-check on the nosecone OMS thrusters. They were no longer safe for use. He noted the malfunction in his log.
The airlock cycled. After removing her suit, Lewis made her way to the flight cabin. She wordlessly strapped in to her couch, her face a frozen mask. Only Martinez dared speak.
“Still at pilot release,” he said quietly. “Ready for launch.”
Lewis closed her eyes and nodded.
“I’m sorry, Commander,” Martinez said. “You need to verbally-”
“Launch,” she said.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied, activating the sequence.
The retaining clamps ejected from the launch gantry, falling to the ground. Seconds later, preignition pyros fired, igniting the main engines, and the MAV lurched upward.
The ship slowly gained speed. As it did, wind-sheer blew it laterally off course. Sensing the problem, the ascent software angled the ship in to the wind to counteract it.
As fuel was consumed, the ship got lighter, and the acceleration more pronounced. Rising at this exponential rate, the craft quickly reached maximum acceleration. A limit defined not by the ship’s power, but by the delicate human bodies inside.
As the ship soared, the open OMS ports took their toll. The crew rocked in their couches as the craft shook violently. Martinez and the ascent software kept it trim, though it was a constant battle. The turbulence tapered off and eventually fell to nothing as the atmosphere became thinner and thinner.
Suddenly, all force stopped. The first stage had completed. The crew experienced weightlessness for several seconds, then were pressed back in to their couches as the next stage began. Outside, the now-empty first stage fell away, eventually to crash on some unknown area of the planet below.
The second stage pushed the ship ever higher, and in to low orbit. Lasting less time than the massive first stage, and running much smoother, it seemed almost like an afterthought.
Abruptly, the engine stopped, and an oppressive calm replaced the previous cacophony.
“Main engine shutdown,” Martinez said. “Ascent time: 8 minutes, 14 seconds. On course for Hermes intercept.”
Normally, an incident-free launch would be cause for celebration. This one earned only silence broken by Johanssen’s gentle sobbing.
Four months later…
NASA was loathe to waste research time. Trips to and from Mars were as busy as surface operations. The crew had almost caught up with the backlog of work. The schedule had been made for six, not five.
Beck tried not to think about the painful reason he was doing zero-g plant growth experiments. He noted the size and shape of the fern leaves, took photos, and made notes.
Having completed his science schedule for the day, he checked his watch. Perfect timing. The data dump would be completing soon. He floated past the reactor to the Semicone-A ladder.
Traveling feet-first along the ladder, he soon had to grip it in earnest as the centripetal force of the rotating ship took hold. By the time he reached Semicone-A he was at 0.4g.
No mere luxury, the artificial gravity kept them fit. Without it, they would have spent their first week on Mars barely able to walk. Exercise regimens could keep the heart and bones healthy, but none had been devised that would give them full function from Sol 1.
Because the ship was already designed for it, they used the system on the return trip as well.
Johanssen sat at her station. Lewis sat in the adjacent seat while Vogel and Martinez hovered nearby. The data dump carried emails and videos from home. It was the high point of the day.
“Is it here yet?” Back asked as he entered the bridge.
“Almost,” Johanssen said. “98%.”
“You’re looking cheerful, Martinez,” Beck said.
“My son turned three yesterday,” He beamed. “Should be some pics of the party. How about you?”
“Nothing special,” Beck said. “Peer-reviews of a paper I wrote a few years back.”
“Complete,” Johanssen said. “All the personal emails are dispatched to your laptops. Also there’s a telemetry update for Vogel and a system update for me. Huh… there’s a voice message addressed to the whole crew.”
She looked over her shoulder to Lewis.
Lewis shrugged. “Play it.”
Johanssen opened the message, then sat back.
“Hermes, this is Mitch Henderson,” the message began.
“Henderson?” Martinez said, puzzled. “Talking directly to us without CAPCOM?”
Lewis held her hand up to signal for silence.
“I have some news,” Mitch’s voice continued, “There’s no subtle way to put this: Mark Watney’s still alive.”
“Wha-“ Beck stammered.