The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 51: Sol 89

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“That should not have happened.”

Venkat leaned over Mindy Park’s shoulder and tapped her computer screen with the back of his pen. The screen showed the immediate aftermath of the previous day’s Hab breach. By day’s end Watney had changed his rock message to read, “Sol 88: Hab breach. Repaired. One injured. Crops set back. Att contact via Pathfinder.” Now NASA was in full post-incident analysis mode, with Mindy leading the image analysis team while Venkat himself took a personal role as investigator.

Venkat liked his new role. Teddy wanted a preliminary report by 3:00 PM today. This gave Venkat an excuse to use his scientific training… and, just as good, an excuse to turn his phone off for the duration.

“Why not?” Mindy asked. “The air pressure not strong enough to lift the airlock?”

“Oh, no,” Venkat shook his head. “There was enough air pressure in the Hab to make the world’s deadliest potato cannon. If the entire force of the escaping air had been applied to the airlock, the acceleration would have turned Watney and White Boxy to soup.”

Venkat tapped the screen again. “But that could only happen if the system were designed to do that, with a rigid gun barrel or at least a collar. But the airlock canvas anchoring system stayed with the airlock. The canvas ripped around it. And an escaping fluid under pressure always seeks the path of least resistance. The escaping air should have shredded the canvas but left the airlock alone.” He traced the outline of the hole in the sagging Hab canvas. “Instead the canvas tears around the airlock as neat as you like, compressing enough of the escaping air to provide about twenty meters per second of acceleration. That’s a lot less than its full potential, but it’s still a lot more than it should have been.”

“It’s not impossible,” Mindy pointed out.

“No,” Venkat admitted. “But we could simulate this a million times and never get anything like this result. I don’t trust it.”

“Okay,” Mindy said. “Can we do anything about it?”

“That’s a question for the engineers,” Venkat said. “I’m a physicist. But there are a couple of obvious things we can do, if Mark gets Pathfinder working and we get a solid communication link. We can give him procedures for inspecting the Hab canvas for other flaws, telling him what to look for. And we can have him alternate between Airlocks 2 and 3 for all future EVAs to reduce stress on the canvas.”

Venkat tapped the screen again. “But this will be more useful for Ares IV and V. We’re going to spend months re-testing the Hab canvas and its connection to the airlocks. We might have to redesign the airlocks themselves, maybe give them the same rock anchors the Hab floor uses. That won’t help Mark, but it might save the lives of future crews when we do extended missions.” He stood up straight, stepping back from his perch over Mindy’s shoulder. “Next image, please.”

Mindy advanced the sequence of photos of the Hab. For several stills, taken at various angles by passing satellites, nothing changed, except for one still in which White Hen was visible walking around the Hab in the direction of the alien wreck. Then a picture showed three of the aliens- Tall Boy and the two Oranges- standing next to the detached airlock. “What’s that red on Tall Boy’s suit?” Venkat asked, pointing to the image.

“No way to tell,” Mindy said. “It’s only a few pixels. But if I had to guess, that red looks a lot like our EVA suit color.”

“Show me the next picture.”

Mindy clicked her mouse, advancing the sequence to the next picture.

“What’s that discoloration on the airlock?” Venkat asked.

“I don’t know,” Mindy said. “I noticed it yesterday when the pictures came in. But it’s not a satellite malfunction. All the other photos taken by that satellite are normal.”

Venkat pointed at the discoloration. “That one little spot makes it impossible to see what’s going on there,” he said. “Any chance of a hack? Of outside interference?”

“The picture went up on the big wall the moment it came in,” Mindy said, pointing to SatCom’s main projection screen. “We all saw it at the same time. If someone altered the image, they did it on the satellite end.”

“Double-check with IT on security anyway,” Venkat ordered. “Next image.”

The picture changed.

“Yes, there’s Mark!” Venkat said. “And that must be White Boxy he’s carrying out. And which Orange is that?”

“Not enough behavior clues to know,” Mindy said. “Leader and Random look exactly the same from orbit.”

“So at some point one of them entered the airlock after it detached,” Venkat murmured. “How does that work?”

“Is something wrong with that?”

“Something big is wrong with that. We were never able to replace those stupid safety-glass helmets for the Ares missions. When the airlock detached it would have been about like getting hit by a semi truck at between forty and fifty miles an hour. No way Mark’s helmet could have withstood that impact. So when the airlock opened, there’s no way he could avoid exposure to Mars atmosphere.”

“He seems to be okay here,” Mindy said. “Maybe he was able to open and close the airlock quickly enough to avoid decompression sickness.”

“Maybe,” Venkat hissed softly. “But how? He reports one injury, and from the look of these photos it was White Boxy. But we’ve known the helmets were flawed for years. We just haven’t been able to get the money for replacements.” He tapped the computer a little more forcefully than the image warranted. “Well, we’ll get it now, for sure! This is exactly the sort of contingency that we need shatterproof helmets to prevent!”

“We can’t confirm that Mark’s helmet was broken in the breach,” Mindy pointed out. “All we know for certain is that the Hab breached, and that Mark and four of his guests are okay, and that Mark walked them through the Hab repair procedure.”

“But we can make some good guesses,” Venkat said. “That red on Tall Boy’s suit. You said it looked like the color of our surface suits. Assume it is. That would suggest that Mark’s suit was damaged in some way. Maybe he repaired it well enough for it to last until he could receive a new suit from the aliens.” He pointed to the screen, which showed five splotches of color around the inner airlock door. “That’s what I’m going to report. It’s the best guess we’ve got until we start testing.”

“If Pathfinder works, we can ask Mark directly,” Mindy said.

“That’s true,” Venkat replied. “But the way Mark’s luck is going, I wouldn’t bet on that.” He considered the bad luck of the Hab breach with the good luck of being suited up when it happened. “One way or the other.”


No repairs today. Yesterday hit us all a lot harder than any of us realized.

I didn’t get much sleep last night. We all had repeated training on how to repair the Hab in case of something exactly like this happening. I walked my helpers through the procedures step by step, using the spare hab canvas and the fresh seal-strips and resin to do it right. We tested the repairs for pressure and eliminated any possibility of a leak. The Hab was stronger than ever. But that didn’t stop me from waking up from night terrors and cold sweats, expecting a new blowout at any moment.

But it wasn’t PTSD or whatever that woke me up the fourth time. It was sobbing.

Cherry’s English has improved a lot since Starlight and I left on the Pathfinder trip, but it’s still rudimentary. Starlight’s eagerness for new words and proper grammar spoiled me. But the two of us managed to have a long, quiet conversation in the pre-dawn hour. She blames herself for the accident, for not warning us about the potential leak. I tried to take her mind off of it, to tell her it was an accident, but she wouldn’t hear it.

Right now Cherry reminds me of Lewis more than ever. I can’t imagine what Lewis is going through right now. She has to think she left me behind to die. But whatever is in Lewis’s head is also in this alien pony’s head. I’m pretty sure Lewis wouldn’t break down into tears in front of the rest of us, which is why Cherry saved it until the rest of her crew was asleep. But the threat of losing Starlight and me was too much for her to swallow.

Eventually everybody else woke up. It was almost that time anyway. So I decided to get everyone together by Starlight’s bed for an impromptu post-accident inquiry. I figured it was the best way to get Cherry beyond her guilt and get everyone else moving forward again.

Most of the conversation was in English. Starlight’s getting pretty fluent and Dragonfly’s not far behind her, but the other three are talking in a mix of isolated words and catch phrases from Lewis’s TV collection. Occasionally the conversation broke down into a rapid-fire exchange of pony talk which Starlight or Dragonfly translated after the fact.

The first part of the inquest went over what I was told yesterday, fleshing out details. Cherry still thinks they knew something was wrong with Airlock 1 days ago. The rest of her crew disagrees. They all say they didn’t know anything at all for certain. Spitfire had a strong suspicion for about the past two weeks, but no evidence. Fireball insists that they only stopped using Airlock 1 because of excess caution- my words, not his. And Dragonfly kept repeating that none of them had any way to know in advance what would happen.

They’re right. The seal where the hab canvas panel attaches to an airlock is hidden on one side by the flange that the canvas is glued to and by a locking gasket on the other side. A small tear could form in between the two metal pieces, and it would be totally invisible. The gasket isn’t designed to be removable once clamped down- why would you weaken a seal you want to keep airtight? The metal and resin would slow any air leak that formed to a point that it wouldn’t trigger an alarm on the atmospheric regulator.

And so I told them: if I’d been alone, I would never have seen the accident coming. What happened was just bad luck. Just like the accident that stranded me here was just bad luck. I don’t think Cherry bought it, but it’ll take time. Worst case, her whole crew agrees with me.

Anyway, I knew when it was time to stop beating the not-at-all-dead horse. I moved on and asked the others how Cherry did after the accident. All of them told the same story. Cherry took command immediately. She got her crew organized in seconds and put together a solid plan using the available resources to get me and Starlight out of the broken airlock. She did everything a commander’s supposed to do.

I don’t think we really convinced Cherry. I do think hearing what we all had to say made her feel better, though. She felt even better once we ate breakfast. She gave me one of her meals today. It looks like a chimichanga, but instead of meat it has dried cherries and cheese inside. It’s a long way from delicious- chimichangas are not the kind of food best suited to sit in a vacuum-sealed package for months at a time- but it wasn’t bad. I tried to give her half of it, but she insisted I eat it all.

After the inquest, nopony felt like working. So, as senior NASA personnel on base and King of Mars, I decreed a vacation day today. No work for anybody. I pulled out all the surviving computers and set up a networked game of hearts. (It comes preinstalled with the operating system, along with solitaire and Minesweeper.) We watched some TV, beginning with a marathon of Sanford and Son. The pony language skills are just about up to it, with some occasional translation from Starlight and a bit of explanation about racial issues from me.

And that’s how we pissed away a totally uneventful day. I’m hoping we all sleep better tonight, because it’s back to work tomorrow for certain. Tomorrow’s the end of the pony food packs.

It wasn’t quite a total loss of productivity. I finally got the straight story on Dragonfly today. It began when Fireball asked Dragonfly if she wanted another of his food packs for lunch. I’d been so used to the bug not eating that I asked. It didn’t take long to realize Dragonfly didn’t want to talk about it, but this time I insisted on straight answers, and I got them.

It turns out Dragonfly is actually the most magical creature in this Hab. She doesn’t eat food, except for a few scraps here and there and some water. She lives on- you will not believe this- she lives on love. Now I understand why she acts so puppy-like around me: she thinks she has to in order to get enough to eat.

But, in addition to being some sort of Star Trek emotion alien, Dragonfly is also the next best thing to a 3-D printer. NASA considered sending a printer along with the mission, just like they use on the space station, but they decided the weight wasn’t worth the limited use it’d get during a mission. Well, I haven’t got a printer, but apparently I have all the slime, goo, and rubbery substances I could ever want, provided I give Dragonfly food to make it out of.

We spent a lot of the afternoon talking, with Dragonfly almost glued to my side. Strangely, it was Dragonfly who pushed away from me. I thought it was about my smell- I haven’t fixed the water reclaimer yet, and with that offline so is the decon shower. But although Dragonfly agrees with everyone else that I really, really need to clean up, that wasn’t the reason she put distance between us.

Apparently it’s dangerous when a bug-pony takes too much emotional food from one subject too fast, and Dragonfly doesn’t want to knock me on my ass by overeating. She also said if I find myself feeling tired or “not-want-do-nothing-at-all” (depressed), that’s a warning sign. Ditto with bells on if I find myself unable to think of anything except her.

Well. So Dragonfly is a soul-sucker, and the ponies now know the English word for “parasite”. Good educational moment all around, then.

But given the choice between worrying about a big-eyed bug pony who actually knows which end of a tool is which, and the cold, hostile, impersonal planet just outside the canvas dome, I know which I’m going to waste my energy on. In fact, I’d like a plush Dragonfly to cuddle like a teddy bear while I’m thinking about how we’re all one more Hab canvas failure from sudden painful death.

On second thought, make that a plush Spitfire. Dragonfly might be able to stop the leak, but she’d give me warning.

Ah, who am I kidding? If I could copyright all their images and license them to toy companies, I’d be a billionaire overnight. Cute alien plushies for all!

Anyway, we’re all tired and it’s time for bed. Tomorrow I fix the water reclaimer and begin waking up Pathfinder. In the meantime… g’night.

Author's Notes:

We haven't heard the last of Cherry's guilt trip yet.

NASA has just begun post-incident investigation on the Hab blowout, but already Venkat has some shrewd questions to ask. And, for the first time, the satellites caught a shot of magic in use... not that that helps the analysts now.

Wrote a 1500 word chapter, so I still have a buffer of 1. Now to finish up the day's sales, pack up, get home, and at least partially unload the van so I can hand it to the body shop tomorrow morning.

And thanks to AdmiralTigerclaw for dinner last night- very nice to meet in person!

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