“Sorry,” Johanssen mumbled. “Watney's my crewmate. I can't just let him die.”
He sighed. “I wish we'd raised you to be more selfish.”
She chuckled quietly.
“How did I end up in this situation?” He lamented. “I'm the district sales manager of a napkin factory. Why is my daughter in space?”
“You were always scientifically minded,” he said. “It was great! Straight-A student. Hanging around nerdy guys too scared to try anything. No wild side at all. You're every father's dream daughter.”
“Thanks, Dad, I-”
“But then you got on a giant bomb that blasted you to Mars. And I mean that literally.”
“Technically,” she corrected, “the booster only took me in to orbit. It was the nuclear powered ion engine that took me to Mars.”
“Oh, much better!” He said.
“Dad, I'll be all right. Tell Mom I'll be all right.”
“What good will that do?” He said. “She's going to be tied up in knots until you're back home.”
“I know,” Johanssen mumbled. “But...”
“What?” He said. “But what?”
“I won't die. I really won't. Even if everything goes wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
Johanssen furrowed her brow. “Just tell Mom I won't die.”
“How? I don't understand.”
“I don't want to get in to the how,” Johanssen said.
“Look,” he said, leaning toward the camera. “I've always respected your privacy and independence. I never tried to pry in to your life, never tried to control you. I've been really good about that, right?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“So in exchange for a lifetime of staying out of your business, let me nose in just this once. What are you not telling me?”
She fell silent for several seconds. Finally, she said “They have a plan.”
“There's always have a plan,” she said. “They work out everything in advance.”
“They picked me to survive. I'm youngest. I have the skills necessary to get home alive. And I'm the smallest and need the least food.”
“What happens if the probe fails, Beth,” her father asked. This time, he was uncharacteristically firm.
“Everyone would die but me,” she said. “They'd all take pills and die. They'll do it right away so they don't use up any food. Commander Lewis picked me to be the survivor. She told me about it yesterday. I don't think NASA knows about it.”
“And the supplies would last until you got back to Earth?”
“No,” she said. “We have enough food left to feed six people for a month. If I was the only one, it would last 6 months. With a reduced diet I could stretch it to 9. But it'll be 17 months before I get back.”
“So how would you survive?”
“The supplies wouldn't be the only source of food.” she said.
He widened his eyes. “Oh... oh my god...”
“Just tell Mom the supplies would last, ok?”
Taiyang Shen's con-trail wafted in the chilly Gobi sky. The ship, no longer visible to the naked eye, pressed onward toward orbit. Its deafening roar dwindled to a distant rumbling thunder.
“Perfect launch,” Venkat said enthusiastically.
“Of course,” said Zhu Tao.
“You guys really came through for us,” Venkat said. “And we're grateful!”
“And hey, you guys get a seat on Ares 5. Everyone wins.”
Venkat looked at Zhu Tao sideways. “You don't seem too happy.”
“I spent 4 years working on Taiyang Shen,” he said. “So did countless other researchers, scientists, and engineers. Everyone poured their souls in to construction while I waged a constant political battle to maintain funding.
“In the end, we built a beautiful probe. The largest, sturdiest unmanned probe in history. And now it's sitting in a warehouse. It'll never fly. The State Council won't fund another booster like that.”
He turned to Venkat. “It could have been a lasting legacy of scientific research. Now it's a delivery run. We'll get a Chinese astronaut on Mars, but what science will he bring back that some other astronaut couldn't have? This operation is a net loss for mankind's knowledge.”
“Well,” Venkat said cautiously, “It's a net gain for Mark Watney.”
“Mmm,” Zhu Tao said.
“Distance 61m, velocity 2.3m/s,” Johanssen said.
“No problem,” Martinez said, his eyes glued to his screens. One showed the camera feed from docking port A, the other a constant feed of the probe's telemetry.
Lewis floated behind Johanssen and Martinez's stations.
“Visual contact,” Beck's voice came over the radio. He stood in Airlock 3 (via magnetic boots), fully suited up with the outer door open. The bulky SAFER Unit on his back would allow him free motion in space should the need arise. An attached tether led to a spool on the wall.
“Vogel,” Lewis said in to her headset. “You in position?”
Vogel stood in the still-pressurized Airlock 2, suited up save his helmet. “Ja, in position and ready,” he replied. He was the emergency EVA if Beck needed rescue.
“All right, Martinez,” Lewis said. “Bring it in.”
“Distance 43m, velocity 2.3m/s.” Johanssen called out.
“All stats nominal,” Martinez reported.
“Slight rotation in the probe,” Johanssen said. “Relative rotational velocity is 0.05rps.”
“Anything under 0.3 is fine,” Martinez said. “The capture system can deal with it.”
“Probe is well within manual recovery range,” Beck reported.
“Copy,” Lewis said.
“Distance 22m, velocity 2.3m/s.” Johanssen said. “Angle is good.”
“Slowing her down a little,” Martinez said, sending instructions to the probe.
“Velocity 1.8... 1.3...” Johanssen reported. “0.9... stable at 0.9m/s.”
“Range?” Martinez asked.
“12m,” Johanssen replied. “Velocity steady at 0.9m/s.”
“Angle is good.”
“Then we're in line for auto-capture,” Martinez said. “Come to papa.”
The probe drifted gently to the docking port. Its capture boom, a long metal triangle, entered the port's funnel, scraping slightly along the edge. The port pulled the boom in, aligning and orienting the probe automatically. After several loud clanks echoed through the ship, the computer reported success.