The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 276: Sol 534

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“Commander, could I have a minute of your time?”

Lewis walked over to Martinez’s station. In a couple of weeks they’d have to stop Hermes’s rotation in preparation for docking with the MAV- with Phoenix, as the ponies now called it- so for now they’d enjoy the artificial gravity while they could. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “That looked like a successful sim run to me, even if you and Johanssen ended up having to take Hermes to them rather than the other way round.”

“Yeah,” Martinez said quietly. “That’s kind of the problem. It should have failed.”

Lewis cocked her head. “Explain.”

“We were throwing what we thought was a no-win scenario at them,” Martinez said. “Two-thirds booster failure. That by itself should have meant no rendezvous. Sparkle Drive failure. And a fuel leak in the second stage that reduced its burn time by ten percent.” He called up the MAV’s internal camera recordings and rewound through the simulation. “But they worked the problem, and I mean radically. They dumped the Drive and all its batteries out the airlock before igniting the second stage. Their food, too. And one of the RTGs. Freed up six hundred kilos. Then they burned the second stage, then exhausted the primary maneuvering thrusters and the magic thrusters, then found a way to hook up their last magic battery to recharge the magic thrusters, and ran through that.”

“I had to reprogram the sim on the fly to account for all the changes,” Johanssen said. “It wasn’t made to account for such radical measures.”

“And once Johanssen put the numbers in- the lighter MAV, the estimated delta-V of the maneuvering thrusters, all of it- the sim says they made it. Just barely within the ability of Hermes to go to them for a docking one day later than scheduled.” Martinez shook his head.

“They were talking about getting out and pushing if necessary,” Johanssen said. “The pony suits have MMU systems built in. They figured each suit would give about 1.5 meters per second more delta-V to the MAV capsule.”

“What did the computer say?” Lewis asked.

“I didn’t try it,” Johanssen said. “We have no data on pony suit thruster performance. And they didn’t need to do it in the sim.”

“And that’s not the weirdest thing,” Martinez said. “Look at their faces. Cherry’s especially.” He called up the interior cam view of the pilot’s station, of Cherry Berry grimly giving orders, facing one setback after another without even blinking. “She didn’t get angry. She didn’t even get rattled. Hell, commander, I would have gotten pissed off after the third system failure!”

“I am failing,” Lewis said dryly, “to find a problem with this situation, Major.”

“The problem is, what do I tell her?” Martinez said, throwing his hands up at the screen. “Congratulations, you beat the no-win scenario? Could you give me Captain Kirk’s autograph while you’re at it? This shouldn’t have happened! There must be something wrong with the sim!”

“What you say,” Lewis replied, “is Good job, Commander Berry.” She pointed at the screen. “Broken sim or not, she did exactly what she ought to on launch day. She stayed calm, worked the problem, and tried unorthodox solutions. If you call that cheating… well,” she shrugged, “it’s not like space plays fair, either.”

Martinez nodded. “True,” he said. “But it’s still a cooked result. It has to be. I don’t like having it stand as something they can rely on during the real launch.”

“Which is more important?” Lewis asked. “A pilot who knows something can’t work, or a commander who will try anything if it means the survival of her crew?”

“Trick question, commander,” Martinez said. “You need both. But I get your point.”

Lewis gestured at the screen again. “How’s she coming along overall? Is she ready to fly?”

“She never makes the same mistake twice,” Martinez said. “And she has the reduced control systems down cold. Spitfire and Starlight Glimmer are coming along well. And Dragonfly has done okay in about a dozen sim runs substituting for any one of the three.” He shrugged. “You can never have too much sim time, but I’d certify Cherry to fly right now, for sure. Especially after…” He shook his head and gestured helplessly at the screen again.

“The words are, Good job, Cherry,” Lewis repeated, returning to her own station.

Martinez shook his head again and keyed on the outgoing comms. “Good job, Cherry,” he said. “We took some extra time to look things over, but we just can’t suggest anything to improve on your performance. That was really amazing.” He grinned and added, “We especially like how you stayed calm through all of that. You didn’t even blink. Excellent work. Over.”

“I’m going to archive this sim and send it to NASA for deeper analysis,” Johanssen said. “I still think my adjustments to the sim glitched.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Martinez said. “Be sure to include a note that I didn’t make this up.”

“Why don’t you tell them?”

“Because if I tell them, they won’t believe me.”

The delay between Hermes and Mars had closed to only about a minute, so Cherry Berry’s reply came only moments later. “Thanks, Rick,” she said. “As for staying calm… well, you kind of have to. Fear catches, you know? Besides, I’ve done all of that before. It wasn’t anything new. Over.”

Martinez froze. Johanssen looked up from her console, eyes wide. Lewis got back out of her seat and walked back over to Martinez’s station.

Martinez, after a quick look at his crewmates, keyed on his microphone. “Er, could you repeat that last, commander? Did you say you’ve thrown stuff out of a spaceship before? You’ve burned maneuvering thrusters for delta-V before?” A hesitation, another glance at the other two. “You’ve got out of a spaceship and pushed before? Over.”

A minute passed.

“Yes, I’ve done all of that,” Cherry said. “It kind of sucked- that is the right word, yes? It kind of sucked at the time, but anything that gets you back home safe is good. Over.”

Martinez looked at Lewis. “You know what that tells me?” he asked. “It tells me that she was in at least one situation where she had to do all that before. And she lived.”

“And they let her go up again,” Lewis added. “I don’t know what that says about their space program.”

“I think I understand now why she stays calm in all the sims,” Johanssen said.

“You think this launch is going to be as bad as whatever that was before?” Lewis asked.

Martinez threw up his hands in surrender. “I don’t think it can be worse,” he said. “But now I have another problem.”

“What now?”

“When I write my report to NASA certifying Cherry to pilot a MAV,” Martinez said, “I’m gonna have to give my reasons. How do I phrase it so they don’t ground her for reasons of obvious insanity?”

Lewis nodded judiciously. “That’s a real problem,” she said. “But it’s not mine.” With a little smirk she turned and went back to her own station.

Muchas gracias, Commander,” Martinez muttered.

Author's Notes:

The thing about the Changeling Space Program was (and is) that you learn how to get out of the kind of trouble NASA would never let you get into in the first place.

I don't know if the specifics I mention here happen during or after the CSP story proper, but I'm officially saying that at least once Cherry has had to perform the Scott Manley Maneuver.

Next Chapter: Sol 538 Estimated time remaining: 2 Hours, 29 Minutes
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