The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 188: Sol 332

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



ESA: Baltimare calling Amicitas, over.

AMICITAS: Amicitas calling Baltimare, this must be urgent, what’s up, over?

ESA: We are testing a solution for your ascent vehicle boosters. If successful we will send performance data and design guidelines. This will require very long messages in next couple of weeks, over.

AMICITAS: Good to hear. We’ll be ready, over.

ESA: Basic plan: enchant three durable crystals, current estimate 100 kg each, and mount them on underside of first ascent stage above engine bells of ascent vehicle. The enchantment will link all three crystals to each of fifteen repulsion field projectors which will draw power from the oversized batteries you have made. The link will ensure that the ship, and only the ship, is lifted by the full, focused power of the enchantments. The enchantment will be set to “away” without directional input, so steering of the craft must be done using chemical rockets on board. Over.

AMICITAS: Good idea. Any preliminary numbers?

ESA: System not yet tested with target blocks. Prior tests without blocks show lack of control but minimum potential acceleration of over 1200 m/s of a seven ton object in under one minute, over. We expect final system to be much more efficient.

AMICITAS: That’s groundbreaking! Development of this system would vastly reduce weight and cost of launch vehicles! Excellent! Over.

ESA: We still need to do more tests. We don’t want to send you up on a single test. But we can give you a head start based on what we learn from the first test, over.

AMICITAS: Very happy to hear! We’ll be waiting! Amicitas out.


The shutters remained down on all the portholes around Hermes, as if the largest spaceship ever built by mankind was about to undertake an aerobraking maneuver. No such maneuver was on the schedule for another year or more, of course. Today, and for many weeks prior and many weeks to come, the shutters held out a force more potentially deadly than air at hypersonic velocities, a force more unavoidable than micrometeorites, space junk, or any other merely physical obstacle.

The shutters held out the sunlight.

At a mere ninety-five million kilometers away from the Sun, Hermes currently absorbed two and a half times the solar radiation- light, heat, and even nastier stuff- that it would ever encounter in Earth orbit. Most of the photons in the visible and infrared range reflected off the reflective white paint and the silvery cooling fins of the ship, but enough remained behind to strain the cooling systems on board to their absolute limits. The cooling pumps remained at their top speed almost constantly, despite the ship rotation that both provided Mars gravity in the habitat ring modules and, as a bonus, provided a passive thermal control, or PTC as it was called in the Apollo days- or, more popularly, the “barbecue roll.”

For harder radiation, Hermes had the lining of its hull plus an experimental electromagnetic field generator which, in deep space, generated a bubble much like that of the Earth in miniature. Twin slightly offset poles, one just below the vehicle airlock at the nose of the ship, the other just above the exhaust ports of the VASIMR engines. Here, in theory, charged solar wind alpha and beta particles would be grounded, relatively far away from the astronauts. If Hermes had had an atmosphere the auroras would have been fantastic- and frightening- but in the near-vacuum of space, nothing showed from outside of this extra (theoretical) layer of protection.

And, of course, there was the final defense: in case of a solar storm powerful enough to endanger astronaut health beyond the safety margins set by NASA, the crew would evacuate the rest of the ship and retreat to the chamber most securely sealed from radiation and best provided with redundant cooling systems… the reactor room.

Watney and Martinez had both laughed and joked about the irony of getting as close to the little reactor as possible to get away from the products of the really big reactor outside, when they were first briefed on the procedure. That had been over three years before. Now Watney was on Mars, and Martinez no longer felt like laughing- not merely because the danger-room scenario was a serious possibility, but because getting fried by one of the Sun’s little temper tantrums ranked maybe fifth on his list of things to worry about today.

Number four was his bunk. He’d noticed two weeks before that he was sweating at night. When he was awake he didn’t feel particularly warm- hey, not compared to his time at Edwards AFB- but sweat glands didn’t lie. There was something wrong with the cooling system near his cabin. He’d have to talk with Johanssen, maybe Beck too, about it.

Number three was training for the MAV launch. All MAVs could be remotely piloted; after all, that’s how every MAV had been put on the ground except for the very first. But NASA hadn’t decided yet whether Martinez would fly the ship remotely or if the pony commander, Cherry Berry, would fly it manually. And more to the point, NASA hadn’t nailed down the final parameters for the modified ship, which made it impossible for either pilot to fly simulations. Martinez wanted to get started training, and the sooner the better.

Number two was Mark Watney in general, with his friends somewhere far back down the list. Oh, the aliens were cool, but Mark was his crewmate and friend. They’d spent years training together, only to be split apart by a chain of freak accidents. Now they were on their way to get him back, and not a day went by that Martinez didn’t pull out the rosary he’d made to replace his lost crucifix and say a silent prayer for the continued well-being of his buddy.

Normally Mark would be on top of the list, but yesterday something new had bumped it out of the way. Now Martinez sat in the pilot’s seat on the bridge, trying not to jump up every thirty seconds and look over Johanssen’s shoulder at the controls for Hermes’s radio systems. Since yesterday the Hermes computers had tried to establish contact with Pathfinder. Not only was Hermes well ahead of Earth in orbit around the sun, it was three light-minutes closer to Mars. Thus it only made sense to resume the communications relay through the ship… if, that is, Pathfinder still functioned at all.

Johanssen wasn’t even on the bridge at the moment. He was alone. Johanssen was doing diagnostics on the reactor. Lewis and Vogel were in the lab performing their scheduled experiments- NASA wasn’t going to waste extra time in deep space- while Beck was in his bunk-slash-sickbay checking samples taken from the crew for signs of radiation exposure.

So, when Johanssen’s console beeped, it took a moment for Martinez to realize that he needed to attend to it… and another moment to realize that it was the thing he’d wanted to attend to for a day and a half. The data link to Pathfinder was re-established. Pathfinder was still up and running… and, if the sun would settle down, they could talk to it.

Martinez opened the ship comms. “Status update,” he said. “We have signal acquisition of Pathfinder. Repeat, we have signal acquisition of Pathfinder.”

“On my way.” Lewis’s reply came immediately- no hesitation, not even a gap between Martinez’s last syllable and her first.

In less than a minute they were all there- all five of them- huddled around Johanssen’s terminal. Not that it made any sense- they all knew that any message they sent wouldn’t bring a reply for almost an hour, best case. But they still all wanted to be there as Johanssen sent the command to initiate chat and the simplest possible message:

[13:21] HERMES: test

And they waited, making the occasional bit of small talk, for the fifty-one minutes before any response could arrive, but mostly waiting in silence.

Then the responses came- or tried to.

[14:16] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[14:18] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[14:19] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

[14:20] WATNEY: Frodo lives!

[14:22] SYSTEM: ERROR - Signal Corruption Exceeds Recovery Threshold – Unable to Display

The first message bounce produced groans. The second, surprise- they hadn’t expected multiple replies in quick succession. But the last message bounce barely registered.

“Frodo lives?” Vogel asked. “Does this have some special meaning?”

“I read about it,” Lewis said. “But I thought I was twenty years too young to have seen it firsthand.”

Martinez couldn’t help grinning. “Better hope the signal clears up pretty quickly,” he said. “If that’s the last signal the Hab sends in the clear, the conspiracy kooks are gonna get a lot more mileage outta that than ‘Croatoan’.”

“I think we should look on the bright side,” Vogel said.

“What’s that?” Beck asked.

“Only two words made it through,” Vogel said. “And neither one was ‘fuck’.”

Author's Notes:

Five out of six castaways sent a message in reply to the test message.

I don't know who didn't send a message.

I don't know who sent the message that got through (though I suspect Dragonfly).

And I don't know any of the others apart from the first, which was Mark saying, "Received. It's really damn good to hear from you guys again."

I am in Kansas City now. I didn't quite get to finish unloading the van because of the massive black ant infestation (the infestation was massive, and so were the ants) I discovered once I got down to the gridwall layer. So before I checked into my hotel I went to a grocery store, bought some ant spray (foaming stuff- didn't see that on the label) and applied liberally.

Sausomecon, by the way, is at the KCI Events Center on Ambassador Dr. on the opposite side of I-29 from the airport, just barely south of 635. Basically, if you see a bunch of cheap airport hotels and a dinky convention center in land which otherwise hasn't been touched in about thirty years, you're in the right neighborhood... assuming you're in Kansas City, that is.

In fact, this is so far out, and so thinly populated, I'm not entirely sure it IS in Kansas City...

Next Chapter: Sol 333 Estimated time remaining: 10 Hours, 32 Minutes
Return to Story Description


Login with