The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 65: Sol 103

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As much as they wanted to, the crew of Hermes couldn’t all be present on the bridge for the radio test. Duties and experiments couldn’t wait indefinitely. Vogel had his crystals, Beck had both Watney’s plants and Hermes’ life support to watch over. Lewis had the three kilos of Mars surface samples allotted to her from the case collected and stowed in the MAV before the abort.

So only Martinez and Johannsen were awake and on the bridge during the dog-watch, the time appointed for the first comms check using the alien radio. Johannsen had installed the software which would allow Hermes’s communications systems to recognize an analog voice radio transmission and convert it into a form the computers could process. Now she watched her workstation as she switched from digital reception on the high-gain antenna to analog, waiting for a signal.

Under normal circumstances the current arrangement would be a direct violation of flight protocols. Hermes was supposed to keep the high-gain antenna pointed at Earth at all times to pick up signals and transmit telemetry in the clear. But that had changed when NASA realized that Hermes’s low-gain antenna put out a vastly more powerful signal than the ancient, feeble high-gain antenna on Pathfinder. This led to the inevitable decision to use Hermes as a comms relay, with the high-gain picking up Pathfinder’s signal and the low-gain relaying it, cleaned up slightly, down to Earth. Ever since then the high-gain and low-gain antennas had pointed in almost exactly the opposite directions that the rulebooks laid down for them.

“High-gain tuned to 86.8 megahertz,” Johannsen reported. “Awaiting signal.” The signal would require six minutes to arrive from Mars, assuming it was sent on time.

“So,” Martinez said, “which one is your favorite?”

“Beg pardon?” Johannsen asked.

“Which alien is your favorite?” Martinez asked. “You must have read the report on them.”

“I don’t know,” Johannsen said. “All we have is their photos, their mission profiles and histories, Mark’s logs, and whatever Dragonfly says on the Pathfinder chat. We don’t really know them, do we?”

“My favorite’s Spitfire,” Martinez said.

“Really? And not Cherry Berry?” Johannsen asked. “I would think you’d pick the flight veteran over the rookie.”

“Spitfire’s no rookie,” Martinez said. “She was commander of this ‘Wonderful Thunderbolts’ squadron back in her own world. That’s like a combination of our Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels, if I understand right. Closer to the Blue Angels, since they were the go-to guys for astronaut recovery. That makes her top of the game in flight where she comes from- and she does it with those two itty bitty wings!” Martinez rolled his eyes back and muttered, “Man, I’d love to have wings like that.”

“I see,” Johannsen said.

“Of course,” Martinez continued, a smile slowly spreading across his face, “if I had wings, my wife would need wings, too. What we’d get up to in a cloud! I wonder if it’s like an air mattress or a waterbed!”

“I don’t want to hear it, Rick,” Johannsen warned.

“Fine, fine,” Martinez muttered. “Anyway, it’s not just Spitfire’s record. Look at her face. That alien just oozes confidence. I’m sure Cherry Berry’s the best rocket jock the aliens have, but she looks…” He threw up his hands, helpless to avoid his final verdict, “… kinda goofy.”


“Now Beck,” Martinez continued, “Beck prefers Starlight Glimmer. But then you know he thinks flyboys like me are all crazy. He likes a scientist.”

“Have you asked everyone this?” Johannsen asked.

“Yep. Believe it or not, Vogel is a Dragonfly fan. He says she makes him laugh.”

“Really?” Johannsen actually turned in her seat to face Martinez. “Vogel said that?”

“Gotta love those inscrutable Germans,” Martinez grinned. “You wanna guess who Lewis likes?”

“Cherry Berry, obviously.”

“Nope. Try again.”

“Um… Spitfire?”

“Nope! She actually likes Fireball.”

Johannsen’s face screwed up in confusion. “Fireball?” she asked. “Why? Both Dragonfly and Starlight use one word for his personality: ‘grumpy.’”

“She says she’s going to take up painting when she gets back to Earth,” Martinez said. “So she can paint him on the side of a van.”

Johannsen glared at Martinez. “You’re putting me on,” she said.

“Yes, I am,” Martinez said, chuckling.

Shaking her head, Johannsen turned back to her console. “Should be getting a signal starting about twenty seconds from now,” she reported.

“Cool. Cross your fingers,” Martinez said, his smile fading. He leaned a little bit forward in his chair.

The time came, and went. For about a minute, Martinez and Johannsen waited, listening to the hiss from the bridge loudspeakers.

Then a tinny, barely audible voice: “… Hermes, this is Friendship. Hermes, this is Friendship. I am broadcasting on 86.8 megahertz. Please respond for comms check. Hermes, this is Friendship broadcasting on 86.8 megahertz. Please respond for comms check.”

“Mark,” Martinez gasped.

And then a second voice cut in, even more staticky than the first: “Hairmeez, thiz iz Friendship. Hairmeez, thiz iz Friendship. Yi aim broadcazzting on aitty-zix point ait mechaherssz. Pleezze rezzpond for commz check. Thizz iz Drakonfly zzpeaking.”

And, finally, a third voice, clearer and firmer than the other two but squeaky and still rather faint: “Hairmes, this is Friendship Actual. We broadcasting eighty-six point eight. Please reeespond? Respond. Respond for comms check. Repeat. This is Friendship Actual. Hairmes, Friendship Actual, comms check. Over.”

After a pause, Mark’s voice returned. “Um, yeah, guys, I taught her what ‘actual’ meant. They wanted to be part of this. We’ll try again at 10:30 our time if we receive no signal. After that we’ll proceed to 92.2 megahertz for the second signal. Um, over.”

Martinez laughed, not his usual rapid-fire bubbles but a slow, almost sobbing laugh. “Damn, Mark,” he said, “you haven’t changed a bit.”

Johannsen took a couple of breaths, turned on her microphone, and said, “Friendship, this is Hermes. Receiving you about two by five, clear but faint. Can you boost your gain? We also receive Dragonfly and Friendship Actual. It’s good to hear your voices. Over.”

With that done, the bridge crew, both of them, sat in silence as the twelve minute turnaround time failed to pass nearly quickly enough.


[15:25] JPL: Hello, Dragonfly. I am Irene Shields. I am a doctor who studies minds. Our word for that is “psychologist.” Did Mark tell you why I wanted to talk to you?

[15:39] WATNEY: This is Dragonfly. Yes, he did. He also said he will shut down all computers in the Hab while we had this talk. I am in Rover 2 now. I did not know the word before, but there are psychologists at home. They have (look up word) benches.

[15:53] JPL: Good. Our word for a person who can sense the emotions of others is empath. Outside of stories, you’re the first real empath we’ve met. Can you also read thoughts? (Reading thoughts is telepathy.)

[16:11] WATNEY: I sometimes guess what others think, but I do not know. I only taste emotions, not thoughts, not facts in head.

[16:25] JPL: Okay. I’m trusting you to tell me the truth. Trust is very important with psychologists. It’s hard to earn and easy to destroy. If you feel you can’t tell me the truth about something, don’t lie to me. Just tell me you can’t tell me now. Can you do that for me?

[16:40] WATNEY: I can do that. I understand about trust. My job used to be to hide with ponies and get love to feed us. Trust was very important then. Is even more important in space.

[16:54] JPL: Yes, it is. What Dr. Kapoor did before could have damaged the trust in your crew. It is important that trust be strong. What does your crew know about your ability to sense emotion?

[17:18] WATNEY: All know I can do it. All bug-ponies can do it. It bother them but it cannot be

[17:20] WATNEY: changed.

[17:35] JPL: Is something wrong, Dragonfly? Please tell your crew this. We cannot send Mark a psychologist. I cannot be on chat because there are more important things. But I will send you my email address. NASA is setting up email addresses for you all. Mark will teach you how to use them. If there is something you need to keep secret but tell somebody, you can email it to me. Nobody else will read it but me. I promise. Tell this to all the others, including Mark.

[17:48] WATNEY: Nothing is wrong. I will tell them.

[18:01] JPL: Also, I would appreciate it if all of you sent me an email telling me how you feel. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. Just tell me what you’re comfortable with sharing.

[18:05] WATNEY: I will tell them. Do you have any more questions for me?

[18:18] JPL: Maybe by email, where it’s private. For now, thank you and good night, Dragonfly.

[18:24] WATNEY: Good night, Irene. Dragonfly out.

Author's Notes:

Her name in the book really is Irene.

Next Chapter: Sol 104 Estimated time remaining: 23 Hours, 8 Minutes
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