The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 149: Sol 250

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Venkat sat at Teddy’s desk. It was a nice desk, and the chair was identical to Venkat’s own, but he didn’t really care. He was watching the computer, waiting for Pathfinder’s restart diagnostic to complete transmission. The fact that the Deep Space Array was picking up Pathfinder’s signal- or, rather, that Pathfinder was in any condition to send a signal- was the single largest piece of good news today.

Teddy, equally impatient but better at not showing it, stood behind him, addressing the others. “What are the long-term consequences of the storm?” he asked. “Can we expect a second strike in two weeks?”

“What storm?” Randall and Mindy had been dragged from their normal duties for this top-tier meeting. “The storm began to fizzle almost as soon as it crossed the Hab, from what we can tell. Yesterday morning it had shrunk to half its size, and this morning we couldn’t find it. Which is the exact opposite of what should have happened, but I could say that for every single stage of this storm’s life.”

“Um, I have a possible reason for that,” Mindy said. “I did some more back-tracking of the storm based on our earlier work. The earliest sign of weather that might have triggered the storm was a low-level circulation kicking dust into the Martian stratosphere in Chryse Planitia on Sol 234. The prevailing winds in that area were blowing directly from the Hab.”

“So the Hab caused the storm?” Teddy asked.

“Um. The engine power test was on Sol 233,” Mindy said. “And based on our trajectory projections, on Sol 6 the storm blew up in strength within a few minutes of the alien ship’s entry into atmosphere.”

“So, not the Hab,” Teddy correct himself. “The magic engines.”

From the couch, Mitch chuckled. “They use magic,” he said. “Their crew includes a unicorn AND a pegasus AND a dragon AND a shape-shifter. Why shouldn’t they have engines that run on butterfly wings?”

Venkat looked up from the computer at Annie. “That’s a joke referring to the chaos-“

“I got that one, Venkat,” Annie snapped. “Shit, I’m only a press flack, I’m not one hundred percent fucking useless. Only ninety-five.”

“How confident are you in this conclusion?” Teddy asked.

“It’s not a conclusion,” Mindy asked. “Um, sir. But this is a possibility based on technology we know nothing about, used by people who tell us it’s experimental even for them. I think we should assume the worst case scenario until more data comes in.”

“I agree,” Bruce Ng said over speakerphone from California. “We can live without further engine tests. Tell them not to fire the engines again until Sol 551. Potential danger eliminated.”

“What about on Sol 551?” Teddy asked. “Is there a danger that this effect would endanger the liftoff?”

“Possible but unlikely,” Bruce said. “The speed of sound on the Martian surface is two hundred sixty meters per second. Once they’re going faster than that, they’ll be leaving any thruster effects well behind them.”

“Okay,” Teddy said. “Randall, try to find any evidence for or against this hypothesis. Quietly. This conclusion does not leave this room.” He looked at Annie and added, “If anyone outside NASA proposes it, say that we haven’t seen sufficient evidence to reach such a conclusion.”

“If it gets that far, they’re going to ask if it’s safe,” Annie said. “They’re going to ask me if I would take a ride in the thing! What the fuck do I tell them? That I’m allergic to horse hair?”

“Tell them the alternative,” Mitch growled, without Annie’s sarcasm, “is for the Hab crew to wait for the next passing alien spaceship and hope they can hitch a ride.”

“Okay, we’ve got the reboot diagnostic log in,” Bruce said. “We lost the rotor for the imager, possibly the imager itself. But the antennas and radio still check out.”

“Probably dust,” Randall said. “It’s hard to be certain, since the storm hit the area at night, but the lightning we detected seemed to center on Site Epsilon. We know for a fact there was no lightning west of the Hab.”

“And even if lightning struck the Hab, there wouldn’t be any outward signs if it struck metal,” Venkat said. “Burn marks require oxygen. Mars doesn’t have any. You wouldn’t know if lightning struck unless the target melted.”

“Anyway, the link’s back up,” Bruce said. “We should have the chat going now.”

Venkat typed.


[10:28] JPL: Testing. Mark, please respond as soon as you see this.

[10:57] WATNEY: This is Starlight Glimmer. Mark’s doing maintenance on the water reclaimer. Will I do?

[11:25] JPL: Good. Mainly we needed the response. The storm did one bit of damage, or else the static discharge we had you trigger did: the rotary motor for Pathfinder’s stereo imager is dead. It could be shorted out or just jammed with dust, but Pathfinder’s internal test says it’s nonfunctional. Considering that’s the one part of Pathfinder we could afford to lose, that means we dodged a major bullet. But this link works again, at least for now, so that’s good news.

[11:54] WATNEY: About that- I’ve been thinking. Once we’re on the move in the Whinnybago, we won’t really need the data link. And once we get to Schiaparelli, we’ll have the MAV’s comm systems. So how about we modify the procedures to leave Pathfinder behind when we leave? This is Mark, by the way.

[12:22] JPL: We’ll talk about it. Right now we’re opposed. The Friendship radio telegraph is slow and uncertain, and we’d rather use it only for backup.

[12:49] WATNEY: Four hundred kilos. That’s all I’m saying. Four hundred kilos we don’t absolutely need to haul thirty-five hundred kilometers. Also four hundred and nine watts per hour we don’t have to burn. Nine and a half kilowatt-hours per sol… God, we need a better name for that.

[13:20] JPL: We’ll think about it, Mark.

[13:48] WATNEY: Pirate-ninja. That’s what we’ll call it. A kilowatt-hour per sol is a pirate-ninja.

[14:16] JPL: Don’t make me revoke your naming privileges, Mark.

Author's Notes:

The buffer is at zero. I just had no writing time or energy today, and I need to go to sleep early so I can hit the road early and keep out of the worst of the tropical storm that's about to hit Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

What Venkat says here is true. Without oxygen, lightning strikes leave a lot less evidence behind. Especially considering how comparatively weak lightning would be on Mars.

When I first took notes for this story, I had three points on communications: (1) Pathfinder would get fried, (2) it would NOT be due to the bodged drill, and (3) the pony radio would keep operating. But one thing and another kept pushing back the day of the engine test (the thing I decided would lead to a dead Pathfinder), and by the time I got there I'd changed my mind.

In the book Mark loses communications at a critical time- when NASA is working on telling him how to modify the rover to get him to Schiaparelli. He ends up having to do it almost entirely by himself, figuring everything out. But the slightly superior connection he has in this story, and the longer time frame, and above all the absence of a need to convert the sample drill into a cutting tool, mean he's already got the full procedure lined up.

Long story short: if Mark loses Pathfinder now, it doesn't add much to the tension of the story. He's got all the info he needs at this point. And even if he didn't, he's got a Morse code connection via the pony ship.

So... if killing Pathfinder doesn't improve the story at this point... why kill Pathfinder?

Of course, if I discover a reason for Pathfinder to die in the future, death will be arranged- lightning, meteor, fifty-foot-tall mutant Dragonfly, or just old age.

But as Watney points out, on the trip it will be dead weight and a major energy expenditure. (Almost all of the power required, BTW, is for the Rover 1 space heater that allows Pathfinder to remain at operating temperature. If Mark had a second RTG, he could stick that under Pathfinder and run the probe off one-tenth of the electricity the RTG puts out.) So Pathfinder's days are likely numbered anyway...

... and Watney gets to coin "pirate-ninja" after all. (oldlady)Isn't that nice?(/oldlady)

Next Chapter: Sol 251 Estimated time remaining: 14 Hours, 21 Minutes
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