“8 seconds, Dr. Beck,” Vogel radioed.
“Copy,” Beck said as he hastily latched the front of his suit to the front of Watney's with tether clips. “Connected,” he said.
Watney released the straps on his chair. “Restraints off.”
“We're outa' here,” Beck said, kicking off the chair toward the opening.
The two men floated across the MAV cabin to the opening. Beck reached out his arm and pushed off the edge as they passed through.
“We're out,” Beck reported.
“5 seconds,” Vogel said.
“Relative velocity to Hermes: 12 meters per second,” Johanssen said.
“Thrusting,” Beck said, activating his MMU.
The two accelerated toward Hermes for a few seconds. Then the MMU controls on Beck's heads-up display turned red.
“That's it for the fuel,” Beck said. “Velocity?”
“5 meters per second,” Johanssen replied.
“Standby,” Vogel said. Throughout the process, he had been feeding tether out of the airlock. Now he gripped the ever-shrinking remainder of the rope with both hands. He didn't clamp down on it; that would pull him out of the airlock. He simply closed his hands over the tether to create friction.
Hermes pulled Beck and Watney along, with Vogel's use of the tether acting as a shock absorber. If Vogel used too much force the shock of it would pull the tether free from Beck's suit clips. If he used too little the tether would run out before they matched speeds, then it would have a hard stop at the end, which would also rip it out of Beck's suit clips.
Vogel managed to find the balance. After a few seconds of tense, gut-feel physics, Vogel felt the force on the tether abate.
“Velocity 0!” Johanssen reported excitedly.
“Reel 'em in, Vogel,” Lewis said.
“Copy,” Vogel said. Hand over hand, he slowly pulled his crewmates toward the airlock. After a few seconds, he stopped actively pulling and simply took in the line as they coasted toward him.
They floated in to the airlock, and Vogel grabbed them. Beck and Watney both reached for handholds on the wall as Vogel worked his way around them and closed the outer door.
“Aboard!” Beck said.
“Airlock 2 outer door closed,” Vogel said.
“Yes!” Martinez yelled.
“Copy,” Lewis said.
Lewis's voice echoed across the world: “Houston, this is Hermes Actual. Six crew safely aboard.”
The control room exploded with applause. Leaping from their seats, they cheered, hugged, and cried. The same scene played out all over the world in parks, bars, civic centers, living rooms, classrooms, and offices.
Mitch haggardly pulled off his headset and turned to face the VIP room. Through the glass, he saw various well-suited men and women cheering wildly. He looked at Venkat and let out a heavy sigh of relief.
Venkat put his head in his hands and whispered “Thank the gods.”
Teddy pulled a blue folder from his briefcase and stood. “Annie will be wanting me in the press room.”
“Guess you don't need the red folder today,” Venkat said.
“Honestly, I didn't make one.” As he walked out he added “Good work, Venk. Now get them home.”
LOG ENTRY: MISSION DAY 687
That “687” caught me off guard for a minute. On Hermes, we track time by mission days. It may be Sol 549 down on Mars, but it's Mission Day 687 up here. And you know what? It doesn't matter what time it is on Mars cause I'M NOT FUCKING THERE!
Oh my god. I'm really not on Mars anymore. I can tell because there's no gravity and there are other humans around. I'm still adjusting.
If this were a movie, everyone would have been in the airlock and there would have been high-fives all around. But it didn't pan out that way.
I broke two ribs during the MAV ascent. They were sore the whole time, but they really started screaming when Vogel pulled us in to the airlock by the tether. I didn't want to distract the people who were saving my life so I muted off my mic and screamed like a little girl.
It's true, you know. In space, no one can hear you scream like a little girl.
Once they got me in to Airlock 2, they opened the inner door and I was finally aboard again. Hermes was still in vacuo, so we didn't have to cycle the airlock.
Beck told me to go limp and pushed me down the corridor toward his quarters (which serve as the ship's “sick bay” when needed).
Vogel went the other direction and closed the outer VAL door.
Once Beck and I got to his quarters, we waited for the ship to repressurize. Hermes had enough spare air to refill the ship two more times if needed. It'd be a pretty shitty long-range ship if it couldn't recover from a decompression.
Once Johanssen gave us the all clear, Dr. Bossy-Beck made me wait while he first took off his suit, then took off mine. After he pulled my helmet off, he looked shocked. I thought maybe I had a major head-wound or something, but it turns out it was the smell.
It's been a while since I washed... anything.
After that, it was x-rays and chest bandages while the rest of the crew waited outside.
Then came the (painful) high-fives, followed by people staying as far away from my stench as possible. We had a few minutes of reunion before Beck shuttled everyone out. He gave me painkillers and told me to shower as soon as I could freely move my arms.
So now I'm waiting for the drugs to kick in. My ribs hurt like hell, my vision is still blurry from acceleration sickness, I'm really hungry, it'll be another 211 days before I'm back on Earth, and apparently I smell like a skunk took a shit on some sweat socks.
This is the happiest day of my life.
Watney finished his two slices of pizza and a coke. He had another half-hour to kill before going back to Johnson Space Center. Leaving the pizzeria, he sat on a public bench just outside.
Next week would be busy. He would be meeting the Ares-6 Engineer. He had read her file, but had never met her in person. He wouldn't get much time to relax after that. The following six weeks would be filled with constant training as he tried to impart as much knowledge as he could.
But that was something to worry about later. Right now, he took a deep breath of the fresh air and watched the people go by.
“Hey, I know you!” Came a voice from behind.
A young boy had strayed from his mother. “You're Mark Watney!”
“Sweetie,” the boy's mom said, embarrassed. “Don't bother people like that.”
“It's ok,” Watney shrugged.
“You went to Mars!” The boy said, his eyes wide with awe.
“Sure did,” Watney said. “Almost didn't make it back.”