Chapter 1: Lost
Peeta is abandoned on the surface of Mars and must figure out a way to make his supplies last for four years.
This chapter is pretty long and encompasses the first five chapters of The Martian. Haymitch, Katniss, Seneca, and Johanna will make an appearance in Chapter 2.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"He's alive." Katniss gasped, looking at the newest photoset from Mars. She had double checked, triple checked. Her heart pounded as she picked up the phone. "This is Katniss Everdeen in SatCon, get Haymitch Abernathy...yes, I'm aware of what time it is. It's an emergency...Yes, I'm sure! Good." NASA was about to be in the middle of a PR shitstorm.
Two hours later, Katniss found herself sitting across from a very disheveled, very disgruntled Haymitch Abernathy. Katniss may have preferred to face a firing squad at that moment. "It's the middle of the night and I've got about two hours of sleep. This had better be good, Sweetheart."
She's never been one to break news gently or to have much tact so she just delivered the truth bluntly. Leaning forward, Katniss looked Haymitch in the eye and said, "Peeta Mellark is alive."
Mars: Population 1
Peeta Mellark was roused from a deep and profound desire to just fucking die by the shrill oxygen alarm in his flight suit.
"I'm alive. Holy shit. I'm alive!" Peeta thought to himself, "Why am I not more dead?" His head throbbed. His side hurt like he'd just been skewered by a communications antenna. Okay, that's because actually was skewered by a communications antenna. His congealed blood sealed the hole in his suit, but it was still seeping out air. The alarm going off signaled a fatal amount of oxygen was filling his suit now. That damn alarm wasn't doing anything for his headache. He must've been knocked out for a while. For his suit to be filled with 85% oxygen meant it had already used up all the nitrogen, the CO2 absorbers were full, and the suit was venting CO2 and backfilling with oxygen to keep itself pressurized.
With a groan, he rolled over, brushed off the red Martian sand that had covered him while he was unconscious, then stood unsteadily. He reached for the patch kit stowed on his helmet and in a swift motion ripped the antenna from his flesh and suit, gasping at the searing pain. Trembling, he applied the patching resin. The suit repressurized, still with the oxygen that would kill him if he didn't get back to the Habitat or home away from home soon.
Peeta trudged up the hill, over the sand, toward the white canvas Habitat as quickly as he could, which was not very fast with his injury and in the low gravity of Mars. He was glad that the Hab had survived the dust storm's high winds, but he was dismayed to see the MAV was missing. The crew was gone. He was stuck on Mars and help was 140 million miles away. He didn't fault them. He'd have done the same thing in their position. They saw him hit by the antenna and thrown backward. The pressure in his suit dropped to zero. He looked down. The antenna took out his bio-monitor making his vital signs looked flat-lined. His crewmates would have thought he was dead. And the raging sandstorm made it too dangerous for them to come back for his body. No, they were not to blame, but it was one hell of a situation to be in.
He stumbled through the airlock and stomped into the Habitat. Even in low-gravity he stomped, much to the delight of his crew and his own consternation. Everything he did was loud. This was ironic in the silence of space. They were always teasing him about it. God, what he wouldn't give to have one of them here to tease him about it now.
He leaned forward panting from the pain and effort of his "hasty" return and took off his helmet, his blonde hair sweaty and matted to his head, and shed the trashed flight suit. He went to Rue's med station and with shaking hands got out the elaborate first aid kit. Peeta chuckled to himself, "Dammit Jim, I'm a botanist, not a doctor!" Gritting his teeth, he injected himself with a local anesthetic and cleaned out the deep wound. He sutured his torn flesh back together uttering a string of profanity with each stitch. He was so ready to crash in a bunk and sleep the night away, but first he attempted to fire up the communications array to talk to the MAV or the Hermes. No dice. He knew it was futile, but he couldn't help it. He had to try. He had seen the satellite dish blown away himself and pulled the reception antenna from his own body. There were backup forms of communication, but they were tied to the MAV. The MAV was gone, ergo no backups. The day had been long and stressful, he'd bled a good amount, had been unconscious for hours, and the MAV and crew were gone. He was done, so done with today. Before going to bed, he started a log. Who knew if or when anyone would ever see it or read it, but he started one nonetheless. He wanted there to be a way, someday, for people to know what happened to him. Or it would prove to be one of the most crazy fucked up journals he ever kept, chronicling his adventures as a Martian. When he finished his log entry, he ate one of the meal packets and collapsed on his bunk, exhausted, and went to sleep.
Peeta Mellark was stranded on Mars. He had no way to contact his crew, no way to contact NASA, was in a Hab designed to last 6 people for 31 days. He could run out of food. He could run out of air. He could run out of water. The Hab could breech and he'd just kind of explode. Right now he was thoroughly fucked. But things could be worse. He could be dead.
A Spark of Hope...
Peeta had stayed after school again to work on a senior project and was now putting away art supplies in cabinets and washing the brushes in the sink when his art teacher, Portia approached him. "Have you given any more thought to applying to that art school I told you about?"
Peeta shook his head sadly, "My parents would never even let me apply to an art school, much less go to one."
"You don't know until you try." Portia encouraged him. But Peeta did know. He knew all too well the control his mother had over his life. And how she felt about art. He was lucky to get to take these classes in high school.
Portia continued, "Peeta, you have a unique talent for..." she searched for the words, "seeing beauty where it is unexpected, in things often overlooked by others." She was right. His choice of artistic study did not involve the typical things his fellow classmates used. When they sketched flowers, many students chose lilies, tulips, or roses, but he chose a dandelion. When they painted a landscape, the others chose classically beautiful rolling hills or towering mountains, he chose an overgrown field, filled with wildflowers. It wasn't particularly pretty, but it captured his attention and then everyone else's when he painted it.
"I have a wrestling scholarship to Texas A&M," Peeta countered, "My parents won't want me to give that up."
"Let me send in your portfolio," Portia insisted, her big brown eyes pleading with Peeta, "I'll talk to my friend Cinna, who is the dean of admissions at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and if you're accepted, which I know you will be, we could help you find scholarships and financing."
"I appreciate all that, Portia, really I do..." Peeta began.
"Maybe if you're already accepted your parents will reconsider," she added hopefully.
Peeta relented. Maybe if he did get in, showed he was worthy, that his art was good enough..."Okay, Portia, let's do it," he agreed with a small smile. Peeta didn't have a lot of hope, but there was a spark and he was willing to give it a shot.
The next day, Peeta woke with a little more hope than he went to bed with. He got up stiffly, still quite sore from yesterday. As he ate his breakfast ration and drank some coffee, he made a mental list of all the things he'd need to do that day, or Sol really, as days on Mars are 40 minutes longer than Earth-days, NASA uses the term "Sol" to distinguish them. He'd check on things inside the Hab first, then don an EVA suit and begin assessing things outside. Inside, he'd run diagnostics on the computers, the oxygenator, the water reclaimer, and the environmental regulator. He'd also inventory his supplies. Outside, he was sure he'd have to clean the solar panels as they were more than likely covered in sand from the windstorm yesterday. He groaned at the thought. He'd check on the rovers. See if he could recover the satellite dish, even though success in that department was slim. He wanted very very badly to be able to communicate. He tossed back the last of his coffee and got to work.
It took some time, but Peeta managed to finish the diagnostics. The good news was that everything was in good working order. There was reserve O2 in case the oxygenator needed repairs and there was reserve water if the water reclaimer had issues. He also noted that the fifty days worth of food for six people meant that he had three hundred days worth of food for just himself and that if he rationed it he could make it last four hundred days. The medical station was well stocked for pretty much any health need that could arise. It did not escape his notice that there was enough morphine to administer a lethal dose. If it came down to a slow death by starvation or a swift painless death, he knew what choice he'd make. He was getting morbid. He shook his head and pushed those dark thoughts aside. He was finally ready to put on the bulky EVA suit and head outside.
Externally, the Hab structure was sound, though its white canvas exterior was a slightly dingy color after the sandblasting it received yesterday. The rovers were undamaged, but needed to be dug out from all the sand that had accumulated on them during the storm. He'd start that tomorrow. A circuit around the site revealed that the satellite dish was probably long gone, but he wouldn't give up on it just yet. Peeta found the MDV pretty banged up, but still probably good for parts if he needed them. The MAV's landing gear and fuel plant were intact as well.
If nothing else, Peeta knew that humans would be back on Mars in four years for Antares 4. Well, that is, unless the program was canceled due to his untimely death, though that was debatable. He just needed to survive that long. And he needed some way to let them know he was alive. This communication barrier seemed insurmountable, but one thing at a time. Right now, he needed to clean the solar cells. Over two-thousand square feet of 'em. Whee.
He ended the day feeling the good sort of tired that comes from a hard day's work. He was satisfied with his progress, had a plan of how he'd spend the next several days. Now, he was ready to get back inside the Hab, eat, and crawl into bed.
He arched his back and looked up. Butterscotch sky, red earth, and slightly bluish sunsets. How desperately he was going to miss the colors of Earth with its greens, and browns, and blues, the riot of color of blooming flowers, and the changing watercolors of sunset. Living on Mars was like living in a monochromatic photograph. The painter in him whimpered at the colorless existence stretching before him.
Over the next several sols, he dug out the rovers, kept the solar cells clean, did some EVAs in a rover to search for the satellite dish, but after rambling around without seeing any indication of its whereabouts he gave up on finding it. This was a blow because without it, there was no way to create a signal strong enough to reach anyone who might be listening. The communications array was a mess. He might as well yell up at the sky for all the good it would do him. He considered trying to make his own crude dish, but it's such a specialized piece of equipment, he couldn't just MacGyver one together with tinfoil and gum. He hung his head, put his hands on his hips, and huffed in frustration. He still had other problems to tackle.
Peeta Mellark needed food, but this was Mars, he can't exactly go foraging. Additionally, with thin atmosphere, no air pressure, and lifeless soil, he wasn't going to be farming on Mars either. Meanwhile, while he had been supplied with Earth soil and a few packets of seeds, they were pretty much worthless to him. The soil might have filled a couple of shoe boxes and the seeds were for grass and ferns. The intention had been to grow hardy plants and record how they handled growing in Martian gravity. The next Antares missions would build on the results of this experiment. Peeta scrapped that and began to work out how to make more soil. And come up with something to plant in it. He had nothing to grow, little soil to grow it in, and little water. But he was a botanist dammit, he should be able to think of something!
He contemplated this while eating a three-fourths portion of dinner one night, reclining, his feet propped up on a work table. Suddenly, his eyebrows shot up. Some of the food packs included peas and beans. They were dried, but not sterile, they could be planted to grow food. He got up and started rummaging through the food supplies and he found something he hadn't thought about since it came up in the supply probe while the Hermes was in Earth orbit. A bag of twelve whole fresh potatoes. Not freeze dried, not mashed or flaked, legitimate real potatoes that could be planted to grow more potatoes. He snickered remembering how he had been helping Marvel unload the probe and stow the supplies. He ran across the potatoes and he shoved two of the individually vacuumed sealed root vegetables down his shirt and turned to Marvel, who laughed hysterically. Then he had his own idea. Commander Odair heard the laughter and noticed the two had gotten off task and came to see what was going on. The sight that met him, Peeta with potato "breasts", and Marvel with a significant "bulge" earned him a, "Dammit Mellark!" He and Marvel fist bumped. Odair ordered, "Get back to work!" barely hiding a smirk. If only Odair knew he lived for that. If only Peeta knew that Odair actually knew that. Mellark's antics, while unprofessional, and sometimes crude, kept the crew in good spirits even through the most stressful situations, so he allowed it. "They're natural!" Peeta had called after Odair's retreating form. Odair shook his head. He couldn't imagine flying without him.
NASA had sent the potatoes along because the crew would be spending Thanksgiving on Mars and the NASA shrinks thought it would be a morale booster or bonding experience or some shit to cook a meal for Thanksgiving. "Well thank you NASA, you may have just saved my life," Peeta thought to himself as he packed all the food back in storage.
Screw the beans and peas. Peeta knew these potatoes, while not the most flavorful, or the most enticing fare (how the baker in him sobbed), were assuredly the most calorie dense of all his possibilities. He had plenty of vitamins in the medical supplies and there was five times the normal amount of protein in the food supplies, so he didn't need that either. He just needed calories. If he was going to grow food, this was his best bet. Still, he needed soil to grow them in. And water. But one thing at a time.
Everyone on the mission had two specialties. Peeta Mellark was the lowest man on the totem pole of command, the youngest astronaut on the six man crew, making him effectively the grunt of the mission. He was a botanist and mechanical engineer, so kind of like a fix-it man with a green thumb. It was a lucky skill set to have in his decidedly unlucky position.
Peeta chuckled to himself when he realized something. As the sole member of the crew left on Mars, he was now "Commander Mellark". The Commander went back to his botanical puzzle and his dinner.
Martian soil, while totally lifeless, is not totally useless. It still has minerals that can benefit and support plant life. It's just that Earth soil has got a lot more going on. It has bacterial activity and certain nutrients provided by animal life and the breakdown of biological material. If Peeta wanted to use Martian soil to grow his potatoes, he needed to add biomatter. There were two ways to get it. One was a compost pail that he'd throw food scraps in after his meals. The second way was going to be pretty crappy. Literally.
The Hab had sophisticated toilets that vacuum dried and sealed the crew's crap and then deposited the bags on the surface of Mars. So Peeta, on another EVA, collected the crap, put it in a large bin, added water to rehydrate it and then subsequently added his own "deposits". You can imagine how it smelled. The worse it smelled, the better because it meant things were happening. "My ass is doing as much to keep me alive as my head," Peeta thought.
When he was ready he was going to mix the crap with the Martian soil and the Earth soil. He wouldn't plant in it right away as the beneficial bacteria needed time to spread through the Martian soil. He'd give it a week, then double the Martian soil and let the bacteria spread again. After a couple doublings he'd finally be ready to plant the first potato plants.
He got an early start on digging and bringing Martian soil inside the Hab. It was the only place to grow the potatoes. Peeta was cool with that. He didn't mind walking on dirt. In fact, he planned to use the whole Hab for his "Keep Peeta Mellark Alive" project.
He still needed to get water. He knew recipe, take hydrogen, add oxygen, burn. But how. This was the question that puzzled him as he scooped dirt with a trowel-sized shovel and filled small bins then dumped the small bins into a large bin, while he spread the dirt on the floor of the Hab, and while he ate his three-fourths portion meals. Well that and how the Mockingjays were doing this season.
Getting the sand was backbreaking work and he still had to clean off the solar cells. Peeta was sore and tired at the end of the day. It had been a long and tedious process. Peeta was nothing if not dogged at achieving a goal so he was going to keep at it, determined to get this "farm" up and going ASAP. His life depended on it. It would take time. As it turned out he had nothing but time on his hands. And thankfully, plenty of vicodin in the med supplies.
"Happy Thanksgiving!" Peeta said to himself. It was now Sol 16, 10 Sols since the shit hit the fan and he woke up to a new hellish existence. His missed his crew every day. The sandstorm came up suddenly, and according to procedure they donned their flight suits ready to evacuate whenever the winds threatened the MAV. If it hadn't been for the sandstorm, Thresh would have discovered that his EVA suit had been switched with Rue's. Big man in a tiny suit! What Peeta wouldn't give to hear Finnick yell, "Dammit Mellark!" again. He snickered at that. He loved pranking the crew. While they were up on the Hermes he had called Domino's to order pizza. Delivery in 30 minutes or it's FREE! The call routed through Houston control so it looked like a local number. And there was the head-shaving incident. That earned him a "DAMMIT MELLARK!!!" In. All. Caps. He laughed out loud when he remembered that one.
However, while he missed his crew, he thought more about his family today. It was undoubtedly a pretty sucky Turkey Day for them. What with him dying and all. He really really really wished he could let them know he was okay, today more than ever before. His family didn't need him, but he figured- he hoped- they missed him, but he knew they'd mourn and move on. The family always got together for Thanksgiving. Dad started baking days ahead and still cooked an epic feast on Thanksgiving proper. Rye and Dells would be there with their three kids: Matthew, Sarah, and Emily. Bannock and Kelly had their twins Graham and Poppy. God, he loved those kids. They were the ultimate fan club and they could never get over their Uncle Peeta being an astronaut. He had even gotten them a behind-the-scenes tour at Johnson Space Center. He was their hero. Unbidden, the thought of having his own kids someday popped in his head, his own little ones to join the fray with their cousins and wreak havoc on holidays and birthdays. He shook his head to clear it. This wasn't the time for such thoughts. There was far too much to do and far too long before such dreams could even remotely become a reality. As of right now, he was much more likely to become a permanent fixture on Mars than anything else.
While he hadn't been able to figure out how to make more water, Peeta had 300 liters of reserve water. If he sacrificed 250 liters of it to the dirt gods, he'd only be able to "farm" two-thirds of the Hab. It was less than he wanted, but it was a start. He was a baker though, and used to making things from scratch and improvising. He could do this.
Today's big project was mixing the soil he already brought in with the "fertilizer" he'd collected and some of the water and sprinkling it with the Earth soil. The smell was awful. Peeta gagged and had to walk to the other side of the Hab several times, but he couldn't really escape the smell. And it wasn't like he could open a window. It was really hard to eat dinner. Still after a while he got used to it.
The methodical, repetitive process of digging in the Martian sand reminded Peeta of kneading bread in his family's bakery. He got in a zone where his mind was focused and purposeful. The scoop-dump, scoop- dump of the sand replaced the familiar knead-turn, knead-turn of the dough. It was a relief from the plaguing questions that always found him in quiet moments. Scraping away at the Martian earth was a respite. While it was physically taxing, he found he enjoyed it. He also enjoyed the exhaustion that allowed him to fall quickly into a deep sleep at night. It still surprised him, though, how quickly he was filling the Hab.
"Mom! Dad!" Peeta called as he tore through the house. "I got in!" he exclaimed when he found his parents in the kitchen cooking dinner. His mom was at the stove and his dad was making rolls at the kitchen island. "I got in!" He said again, grinning wide, his face jubilant, his body humming with his excitement. This was one of the proudest moments of his life. SAIC was a tough school to get into.
"Got in?" His mother answered coolly.
"The art school! In Chicago!" Peeta's mind was all exclamation points right now. "Portia sent my portfolio and a recommendation along with my application and I got in! I can't believe it!"
"That's great son!" His father smiled at him from across the island.
"You are not going to art school," His mother answered definitively from the stove, her back still to him.
"What?" Peeta's mouth gaped in shock at his mother's statement.
"You are not going to some pansy art school. You'll go to a real college and get a real degree. Ever heard the term "starving artist"? No one will want your art, Peeta. It's fine hanging up around home or at the bakery, but you'll be jobless and penniless if you pursue art."
Peeta shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't believe this was happening. "But..." Peeta began. He looked to his dad for an ally, but his dad was very absorbed in making the rolls. "Dad," Peeta called with a tremulous voice, longing for his dad to look up at him and put his mother in her place for once, for once. Just this once.
"You got the past eighteen years of my life," Peeta began, directing his comment at his mother, "but this is my future!" Anger was rising in him now. "You don't get to decide my life!"
"I do when I pay the bills and give you a roof over your head," His mother volleyed condescendingly. It was just so damn easy for her to dismiss his dreams and trample all over them.
Peeta fisted the acceptance letter that had filled him with such exuberance moments before, hot tears filling his eyes, and he turned and ran out of the kitchen and then up the stairs to his room and slammed the door. The tears flowed freely as his body was wracked with sobs. He did not come down to dinner. Eventually he was spent and began to doze. When he woke up, the sun had set and it was dark out, the moon low on the horizon and stars twinkling in the sky. He rolled out of bed and walked over to the telescope that set in front of his bedroom window, a gift from his paternal grandparents when he was twelve. "During the day, it looks like the sky's the limit, but at night you can see so much further," his Danish grandfather said wistfully, "Don't ever settle for reaching for the sky, reach for the stars boy!" he encouraged young Peeta. Peeta's hand glided on the smooth barrel of the telescope, the cool metal soothing to his hot skin and similarly his hot anger at his parents. He took one last look at the acceptance letter from the art school then balled it up and threw it in the trash. He knew he was worthy of it, but he couldn't run away or make it on his own right now. He was still stuck with his parents, but he could still aim for the stars. He'd go to school and get as far away from here as he possibly could.
I did it! I did it! I did it! Peeta did a happy dance. In a week's time Peeta had managed to fill two-thirds of the Hab with Martian soil. He was elated to have this leg of his project done. He also mixed the soil mixture from Thanksgiving, which had become rich and lovely, with more of the new soil, enacting his first "dirt-doubling". He was feeling really good about it all when he sat down to a well-deserved dinner.
Then, listening to Rue's indie folk music he started to do the math calculating crop yields. And his spirits fell with a crash.
Peeta sat dejected, his blond hair rumpled from running his hands through it, and dropped his head on the worktable. Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! The numbers never lie. With two-thirds of the Hab used for farming, he'd only be able to extend his four hundred day food supply by an extra ninety days leaving him far far short of the necessary four years worth of food to make it to Antares 4. While he was busy digging and brining in soil he had felt so positive, he was actively working, he had a plan, he was going to make this work. But the math, the numbers, he couldn't escape the reality that all of it wasn't enough. And now he was depressed. He got up from the table, curled up on his bunk and closed his eyes and for the first time allowed the tears to flow. He fell asleep exhausted and drained, absently stroking the nylon band of his watch.
Peeta was never one to stay down in the dumps for long. The part of him that charmed teachers into being lenient on his grades, or even forgoing that end of the year English essay, or charmed his friends into going along with his crazy escapades was going to charm the hell out of this impossible math quandary. The numbers don't lie, so he was going to have to change them. With a new morning he gave more thought to his crop yield equations.
His circumstances were vastly different than that of the common farmer. A notable difference was that his "farm" was environmentally controlled. There would be no storms, no frosts, no drought (if he could somehow conjure water- still working on that). Moreover, there were no pests, no blight, and no competition from weeds or other plants. This meant that straight up he should get a better yield than he initially imagined.
He figured he could farm more intensively than a typical farmer because he didn't need to worry about depleting the soil. He wasn't exactly planning to farm on Mars for the next 20 years, so he could plant more plants, closer together, and when the potato plants matured, he could put more soil on top of them so they could continue growing.
He also needed to dedicate every possible inch of space to the "Keep Peeta Mellark Alive" project. Looking at the Hab with new eyes he realized he could sacrifice the crew's bunks and two of the three worktables. His mind flashed on the rovers and scrapped that, but the emergency poptents would work. This would double his growing space. That plus the better yield he already expected improved his odds greatly. He wasn't going to get all the calories he wanted, he'd still be in danger of starvation, but he was a lot closer to a four year food-supply than he was before.
That meant a helluva lot of digging again, but it would be worth it. Plus, while tiring, he actually didn't mind the digging so much. He'd continue digging and bringing in more dirt while keeping up with the dirt doubling he'd been doing to innoculate the soil with beneficial bacteria and biomatter.
He was going to need a lot more water to make this work. But as always, one thing at a time. He'd worked out adjusted yields and figured out how to increase available growing space and that was enough for now.
Satisfied with his work for the day, Peeta ate his dinner ration while listening to Rue's folk music again.
Despite the hopeful conclusion the day before, Peeta woke up in a pissy mood. He kinda just wanted to kick and slam everything. He even chewed his food like he was trying to kill it again. Rather than continue working on how to make water from nothing, he decided the best thing to do was keep his hands busy so he went out to dig. After getting a couple of loads in, he was exhausted. A dust storm blew in and lasted two hours and when it dissipated, Peeta stomped over and got the EVA suit back on, stomped into the air lock, went back outside and cleaned off the solar cells and stomped back to the Hab. He was the very image of his once chubby little five year old self having a pouty day.
It was a good day to start the first seed crop of potatoes. While he was stuck inside during the dust storm, he cut each of the twelve potatoes into large chunks that had two eyes each for sprouting. He left them on the bench for a few hours to dry up a bit before planting them in the original corner where he had brought in the first loads of soil.
Peeta needed a distraction. Rue's folk music just wasn't going to cut it today. He foraged through Thresh's things and found his thumb drive. He loaded it up. What do you know? 1950's B sci-fi movies. Well, let's get started. Peeta fell asleep watching the Japanese one about the giant prehistoric turtle from hell. Okay, it was technically from the arctic.
It had been nearly a month of Sols and Peeta had found a working rhythm and routine. He woke up to the brightening florescent lights each morning. He washed his face and shaved. Even on short supplies, this simple act made him feel more human. He'd have his breakfast ration and coffee and tick off a mental to-do list then get started on the day's tasks. There was always some routine maintenance or cleaning or whatever to do in addition to his projects.
Peeta's "farm" had grown nicely. He had managed to move all the soil he needed into the Hab, including covering the worktables and bunks. He still didn't have the water he needed, but he had some ideas. Some really bad ideas.
Peeta's big project today was setting up the poptents. He had known for several days that he wanted to attach them to the Hab, but after hours of trying to figure out how to get the poptents' airlocks and the Hab's airlocks to play nice, he gave up and decided to keep them separate, citing irreconcilable differences. They were entirely incompatible. However, with the standard valves and tubing, he could attach the poptents to the Hab's air supply. He'd have to do an EVA to work in the poptents each day and he'd lose a bit of air every time, but the Hab would make up for it. It wasn't ideal, but it would work, and the extra growing space was worth it.
Peeta deployed the first tent, disconnected it from the rover, and moved it closer to the Hab. After hooking it into the Hab's air supply, he repeated the process with the second poptent. Once they were set up, Peeta added sand to them as well. They were ready to go.
With art school off the table, Peeta enrolled in Texas A&M where he had a full-ride wrestling scholarship, double-majoring in botany and mechanical engineering. He knew there was a new NASA program that would be sending astronauts to Mars, and every astronaut had two specialties so the crew could do as much work as possible with as few people as possible. He excelled in his studies, but continued to pursue art in his free time. The first two summers he took summer classes and worked at the bakery, but the last two he had internships with labs.
He got into the Master's program with ease and in two years graduated top of his class with honors. His professors and mentors Dr. Fabian Gloss and Dr. Howard Blight recommended him highly to their old chum Haymitch Abernathy, Director of Mars Missions, and Peeta became the youngest astronaut to train for a Mars mission. He was slated for Antares 3 with Commander Finnick Odair, Thresh Somers, Marvel Reardon, Dr. Rue Atwood, and Clove De La Rosa. In two years they'd be on a spaceship headed for Mars.
Turns out the determination, focus, and creativity that made him such a good artist made him a brilliant problem solver. If the crew had issues with such a young grunt being added to their mission, they soon got over it. He was a valuable asset and they were lucky and glad to have him. He had an easy-going disposition that allowed him to get along with pretty much anyone. Despite having a charming and open personality and being clearly sensitive and compassionate, he seemingly was impervious to harsh criticism and comments from others. No one could faze him. How had such a sweet, good guy, gotten so tough?
The more they got to know him the more they loved him. He was funny and kept them laughing. He was such a smooth talker. He could convince anyone of anything. His prank calls were the stuff of legend. He had some sort of sixth sense of when the others were about to explode and he could diffuse the situation deftly. Whether it was his genuine care, his jokes, his pranks, or his sunny demeanor, he was always ready to brighten people's day. His inherent steadiness brought calm wherever he went. And there was the baking. Anytime the stress ran high, he showed up with a marvelous assortment of baked goods that helped everyone to calm down and keep going without breaking down. He was good and they loved him for it.
Peeta Mellark had a bad idea. In fact, it was a really dangerous idea that provided multiple opportunities to turn Antares 3 into the Peeta Mellark Memorial Crater. But if the really bad, really dangerous idea worked, he'd be a genius, making water from scratch.
Peeta knew that basic recipe for water-it had been banging around his head for weeks-take hydrogen, add oxygen, burn. What he didn't know what how to do it. Getting the oxygen was easy enough. The MAV's fuel plant was designed to pull CO2 from the thin Martin atmosphere and what do you know? The Hab had a machine specifically made to separate O2 from CO2. He'd bring the CO2 filled tank into the Hab, open the valve, and release the CO2 into the Hab. The oxygenator would pull the excess CO2 out of the air and separate the O2 from the CO2. All he needed was to hook the MAV into the Hab's power supply.
No, the real problem was how to get hydrogen.
He had hydrogen.
But getting it would most likely kill him.
There were two sources of Hydrogen available to Peeta Mellark. One was the battery cells of the Hab, but if he destroyed those to get at the hydrogen, it would put the Hab at risk. The Hab ran off battery power at night and he'd lose that buffer if for some reason the solar cells were covered and he couldn't clear them or they malfunctioned or something. Additionally, there wasn't enough hydrogen in the batteries to make all the water he needed anyway. But he knew where there was. His mind turned to the MDV. The MDV had been lying on its side ever since the epic sandstorm of doom that left Peeta stranded on Mars. Now, it would become a key to his survival. The MDV had hydrogen. Lots of it. But it was in the form of hydrazine a.k.a. rocket fuel. Hydrazine was a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen.
Liberating hydrogen from the hydrazine would give Peeta the other half of the ingredients he need to make water.
It was also incredibly dangerous.
Peeta figured if he ran the hydrazine over an iridium catalyst it would separate the nitrogen and hydrogen that made up the hydrazine. Then by funneling the now superheated hydrogen up through a chimney, he could burn it on the other side. The burn would cause the hydrogen to combine with free oxygen in the air of the Hab and make, you guessed it, water! The excess water would be pulled out of the air by the water reclaimer. Chemistry, being the sloppy bitch it is, ensures some nitrogen and hydrogen won't react, adding the lovely smell of ammonia to Peeta's increasingly hellish existence.
Peeta wondered if he'd lost his sanity, but he was out of time and out of ideas. He needed water and lighting rocket fuel in the Hab was the only way to get it. Well, here goes nothing.
Peeta had a half ration for dinner. All he managed to do was think up a plan that would most likely kill him. Showing at Thresh's Cinemas tonight was the one with the giant eye surrounded by a cloud that decapitated people in the Swiss Alps. Heartwarming stuff.
Peeta Mellark could die today.
He was done with thinking and ready to put his plan into action. After the customary breakfast ration and coffee and thinking through the day's plans, he put on his EVA suit.
He'd hooked the MAV's fuel plant into the Hab's power already and it had been pulling CO2 from the atmosphere since yesterday.
Outside, under the tiny sun, Peeta went to the MDV and pried off its access panels to get at the hydrazine tanks. He was going to set them in the shade of the Hab, but thought better of it and put them in the shade of one of the rovers. If they did explode while he was outside, he'd rather blow up a rover than his house.
Then he dug the reaction chamber out of the MDV. It was tricky but he managed to get at the catalyst he'd need to separate the hydrogen and nitrogen.
He vented the CO2 tank from the MAV into the Hab and started it on refilling, then back to work with the MDV.
He brought the reaction chamber in along with all six of the hydrazine tanks. If one blew, they all might as well blow, there was no tangible difference. He was ready to start making water.
He copied the log he'd kept faithfully since Sol 6 over to both rovers, just in case.
Peeta was ready for the grand experiment. He wore the lining of his EVA suit, including the gloves and booties for protection. He breathed oxygen from a tank on his back. The hydrazine was toxic and he DID NOT want to breathe those fumes.
His "mad scientist" set up was arranged on the remaining work table. There was a sort of reaction bowl where the iridium catalyst resided. The table was surrounded by a "tent" made out of large plastic bags that Peeta had cut along the seams and taped back together. From the top of the tent emerged a small tube scavenged from Rue's EVA suit. The goal was to pass a very slow flow of hydrazine over the catalyst which would separate it into hydrogen and nitrogen. The superheated hydrogen would go up, through the tiny tube chimney, and Peeta would be waiting with some fire at the end of the tube to burn the hydrogen which would make it react with the oxygen in the air creating water. The water vapor in the air would get captured by the water reclaimer. At the end, Peeta would have water, or be a crater.
Sol 33 (2)
"I-have made-water!" Peeta grunted like a tribal native as he did an awkward primal dance around the Hab. "I," he thumped his chest, "have made" he gestured to his mad-scientist set up, "water!” he swept his arms encompassing the whole Hab. "Ihavemadewater. Ihavemadewater. Ihavemadewater!!!!" He was fist-pumping and jumping up and down. He was truly jubilant. His whole life depended on this insane idea working and it DID!
He lit rocket fuel. In the Hab. On purpose. And right now, his plan was working! He was more than happy, he was way fucking over the moon.
Now he just had to keep at it till he had used up all the available oxygen. That was going to take a while.
The next day he was exhausted. He had been up all night with the hydrazine contraption and had made water continuously. He had gotten used to the alarms. There was the fire alarm, of course, then the low oxygen alarm as he used it up, then there was the high humidity alarm, and finally a new one, the water reclaimer was full. That's the kind of problem he wanted to have. Then he had to figure out where to put the extra water and finally decided to use Clove's EVA suit. She didn't need it anymore and it was too small for him. If it could hold an atmosphere of air pressure, surely it could hold some water. He emptied the water into the suit and continued his water-making.
"God it's hot." Peeta panted. It was hot. So hot. And humid to boot. It was like a tropical jungle in the Hab now, between the heat of the reaction and the water he'd put into the air, it was really uncomfortable, but he couldn't be unhappy. Not one bit. He relaxed and let the Hab clean up his mess. The water reclaimer chugging away to pull the water out of the air, the environmental regulator was replacing the oxygen he had used, though nothing could take the temperature down. Mars is fucking cold, so they didn't see the need to include an air conditioner for the Hab. Eventually the heat would dissipate, but it would take longer.
Peeta recorded his success in his log then ate his breakfast ration and fell into a deep and well deserved sleep.
The Hab. Was a bomb.
All it would take was an errant spark and Peeta would have his own Martian Hindenburg.
Peeta was hunkered down in Rover 2 with nothing but a protein bar and Finnick's boy band music. Godammit Finnick!
He had spent two days trying to figure out how to diffuse the bomb without killing himself, his potatoes, or the billions of tiny microbes in his lush and lovely soil.
It had all started two days ago. He had been steadily making water for some time, but his crazy set-up wasn't producing as much water as it should be. By his calculations, he should have made 130 L water, BUT he had only made 70 L. That's not just a little bit off, it was WAY off. So, where was all the water? Sure the dry soil would soak some up, but where was the rest?
The second tip-off that things weren't going right was the oxygen level in the O2 tanks. It was steadily gaining, which meant he wasn't burning off as much as he thought. If the oxygen wasn't burning off it wasn't combining with the hydrogen to make water. The gain in the O2 tanks meant that the Hab was steadily filling with hydrogen which meant that...the Hab was a BOMB!
He got in his EVA suit, took a quick air sample, and skedaddled (ran for his life) to Rover 2. The analysis finished in moments and sure enough: Nitrogen was 22%, Oxygen was 9%, and Hydrogen was a whopping 64%! "Dammit Jim I'm a botanist, not a chemist!” Peeta grumbled to himself as he ran his hands through his hair trying to come up with a plan to deal with this.
Peeta's first solution was to drop the oxygen level to 0% and burn the hydrogen in bursts using a flame and an O2 tank. But there was a major problem with that idea: no oxygen in the Hab would kill the soil microbes. Though the potato plants wouldn't give a fuck how much oxygen there was.
So, his second solution was to induce a "winter" by lowering the temp in the Hab. Lower the temp, then the bacteria would hibernate while he burned off the damned hydrogen. And he could leave the oxygen level at 1% and still be safe. But the cold would kill the potato plants. Back to the drawing board.
Okay, third solution: he figured he could pot- or in this case "bag"- the potato plants and put them up in a rover while he dealt with the Hab. Only then he had to figure out how to get the rover to keep the heat on while unoccupied. It took the better part of a day to figure that one out, but there wasn't much else to do when you're living in a rover.
So, he had a plan, bag the potatoes, drop the temp in the Hab, trick the regulator to pulling all the O2 out of the Hab's atmosphere, leaving 1% O2 for the bacteria. Once the bacteria get the memo that it's time to hibernate, he'd start burning off the hydrogen. Sounds like a winner.
If the water-making set up was dangerous, this was suicide.
He'd put this easy peasy lemon squeezy plan into action tomorrow.
It was all going great...until the explosion.
One minute, Peeta was standing on the worktable, happily burning away the hydrogen with his oxygen torch, making more water by the way and the next minute, he was thrown across the room, the Hab was in disarray, his ears HURT and he was too dizzy to stand up. What the HELL just happened? He felt around his head and didn't find any injury, but he was missing his breathing mask. He needed to find a way to breathe. The Hab had no O2, he'd seen to that by "tricking" the environmental regulator into thinking the Hab was 100% oxygen so that it pulled O2 from the air like a champ. He couldn't find the O2 tank he'd been using in the mess, so staggered over to Clove's suit, which he had dubbed the "Cistern", cranked on her O2 and took several deep gulps of air. He looked around the room and could not immediately figure out what had caused the explosion. With another big gulp of air, he held his breath and stumbled over to the regulator, the bag he'd used to "trick" it was blown off in the explosion. He had to reconnect power to it, but that was it. It sensed the low oxygen and went right to work bringing the oxygen back up to normal levels. All the while blaring the low-O2 alarm. The alarms were getting so common now that Peeta barely paid them any heed. He hustled back to Clove's suit to gulp more air, still reeling. What the hell happened?
In a few minutes the regulator had the Hab back up to normal O2 levels so he could relax and move more freely. He checked himself over. Oh, shit! The outermost layer of clothing was burnt off completely, the second layer was thoroughly singed and burnt through in places, but the layer closest to his skin was still fine.
Peeta checked the main computer to help him figure out what happened. The temperature had surged to 15 degrees C. Something very hot and very explodey happened.
Peeta grabbed a proper meal, Rue's thumb drive (he was not listening to Finnick's boy bands tonight), and headed for Rover 2 again. There was no way he was sleeping in a Hab that had a history of exploding. After all that work and getting blown up, Peeta was exhausted. He'd have to do a million equipment checks and diagnostics tomorrow and figure out what the hell happened.
Running diagnostics all day was boring as all hell, but Peeta's life depended on those machines so it had to be done. He couldn't just assume that the explosion did no long-term damage. As each system checked out, Peeta breathed a little easier. The Hab was holding pressure meaning no leaks, all major and minor systems were functioning normally. Even the microbes in the soil were okay. The only thing besides the temp jump the day before was a brief split-second jump in pressure.
While he cleaned up the mess from the blast, he began to piece together what had happened. He was dumb and his dumbassery almost got him killed. Not the sandstorm, not the antenna, not lighting rocket fuel in the Hab, just one simple colossally dumb mistake.
This is what happened:
Once he had sufficiently psyched himself up, Peeta returned to the Hab. He set the temperature to 1-degree Celsius so the Hab would get nice and cold and the bacteria would think it was winter and hopefully hibernate. Then he spent a bit trying to figure out how to charm the environmental regulator, but it was impervious to his charm, so he had to use brute force. Taking a bag and filling it with 100% O2, he taped it to the main intake vent and a sampling vent. He taped over the top of all of the other sensors. The regulator thought, "Oh shit, O2 is 100%, I need to pull O2 out right away!" It worked great!
While the temperature dropped and the oxygen was being pulled out of the air, Peeta bagged up the potatoes and then tried to figure out how to get them to the rover-turned-nursery. He grabbed Marvel's EVA suit, put his potatoes in, and hauled it to the rover. He jimmied the heater to stay on while he was gone. Then he returned.
The Hab was getting cold. He shed his EVA suit, and donned Marvel's and then Finnick's uniforms over his own. The three layers didn't entirely keep the chill out, but it helped. He bundled up on a bunk, waiting, waiting, waiting. At last, the temperature had been 1-degree C for an hour, long enough to get the bacteria to get the idea that it was time to chill out. Once oxygen in the Hab dropped to 12% he strapped on an O2 tank and started breathing the canned air. Once it was 1% he cut the power to the regulator. Now, he was ready. He got a second O2 tank and slung it over a shoulder, and using a small air hose from Rue's EVA suit and exposing the wires from an LED flashlight so that they sparked, he was able to make an oxygen torch. The hose gave him control of the oxygen flow while he burned off the hydrogen. Standing on top of the work table, he reached up and lit the torch. Sure enough he had a nice jet of flame. It was working! He was clearing out the hydrogen while incidentally making more water.
But, Peeta realized, he hadn't considered the canned air. He forgot something really important. The O2 tank mixes room air with the O2 which you breathe in and then exhale. When you breathe air, you don't use up all the oxygen, and so the air you breathe out contains some percentage of oxygen. With every breath, he was adding more and more oxygen to the system, until BOOM! The oxygen he had been exhaling ignited causing an explosion.
The simple decision to NOT wear an EVA suit almost got him killed. He was really going to have to be more careful.
It was a good thing he had burned off most of the hydrogen before the explosion because otherwise, he'd be dead right now.
Peeta cued up a new movie courtesy of Thresh's thumb drive, kicked up his feet, and sat back to enjoy a full ration for dinner. Tonight's movie was one where this team of scientists goes to an exotic island to retrieve a rocket, but they leave the hot locals behind and climb this mountain for goddamn ever and at the top there's this jungle with dinosaurs. It makes no sense. How the hell is there a jungle at the top of an alpine mountain? He can't remember if they get the rocket or not. He fell asleep before the end.
Back on Track
Peeta ignored the brightening florescent lights, indicating it was time to wake up, and curled deeper into his bunk, stubbornly keeping his eyes shut. He was sleeping in today. After several nights of cramped sleeping in the rover, the bunk felt fucking luxurious.
When he was finally ready to get up, he swung his legs over the edge of the bunk, arched his back, lengthened his limbs in a long stretch and let out a low long moan. Then he attended to his usual morning needs, shaved, got dressed in his mercifully unburnt uniform, and sat down to breakfast.
He donned his spacesuit and went out to retrieve the potatoes. They were still happy and healthy. He couldn't help the burn in the back of his eyes when he saw the little sprouts forming. Back in the Hab, he planted the potatoes again in that original corner of soil. He gently, almost reverently, covered them in the lovely red-brown Martian soil and sat back on his haunches kneeling in the dirt, and smiled. This wasn't chemistry, medicine, bacteriology, nutrition analysis, explosion dynamics, or any of the other shit he'd been doing lately. This was botany. He was sure he could grow some plants without screwing up. His chest constricted as he looked at the little sprouts, his life depended on them. Godspeed little taters. I'm depending on you.
After nearly killing himself twice you'd think he would quit dicking around with the hydrazine, but he had only made a fraction of the water he needed. He still had 470L to go. This time though, he wouldn't count on a clean reaction and would pause the water-making to do a "hydrogen cleaning" so the hydrogen wouldn't build up to kill-Peeta levels again.
He'd have a ton of down time each time he waited for the CO2 tank to fill up, so he'd be watching a lot of Thresh's movies. How he longed for his sketchbook, but there was no way for him to be allowed to bring it. There'd be a lot of things he's miss terribly before this was all over. He rubbed his nylon watchband and thought of home.
MDV= Mars Descent Vehicle- it is how the crew makes it down to Mars from the Hermes (essentially a shuttle service between Mars and Earth). Taxi!
MAV= Mars Ascent Vehicle- this is how the crew makes it up to the Hermes at the completion of the mission, or evacuation, whichever comes first.
1 Sol = 24h39m35s
for the solar cells- 2152.78 sq ft = 200 sq meters
NASA generally operates in metric, but I'm an American and English measurements make more sense to me so if I change a pertinent metric unit to an English unit, I'll give the conversion in the notes because pretty much the rest of the world uses metric.
Some music that kinda put me in the mood for this chapter, though the lyrics aren't always perfect: Evanescence-"Bring Me to Life", 3 Doors Down- "It's Not My Time", Linkin Park- "New Divide" (made me think of Peeta's Mom and rift between Peeta and his parents), 3 Doors Down- "When I'm Gone"
Chapter 2: Found
Peeta's family has buried him. The nation has mourned him. NASA has had a final memorial. It's time to move on and focus solely on getting the crew home and preparing for future missions. Only there's a problem. Peeta isn't dead. Katniss Everdeen, a recent college graduate discovers that Peeta is alive and now NASA must respond.
Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX: 2 Months After the Antares 3 Disaster...
Today was a sad day, but the late December sky was clear blue and the sun shone brightly. You wouldn't know that a memorial for the young astronaut, Peeta Mellark, had just taken place. There should be dark clouds. And rain. The tangible sadness of a slow, soaking, drizzly rain.
Haymitch Abernathy sat slumped at his desk. He was never one for public appearances, but this ranked up there as one of the worst he ever had to be a part of. So many people had spoken. There were touching eulogies from Peeta's family, meaningful speeches from the crew who were still hurtling through space. Then there was the carefully crafted PR piece by that Seneca Crane bastard. Hell, even President Snow came and commended Peeta's valiant sacrifice for science, for NASA, for human exploration. America was blessed to have such a fine young man blah blah blah. Haymitch couldn't wait for it to be over and get back to his desk, and more importantly, the flask he kept tucked in the top drawer.
Haymitch Abernathy, director of Mars operations, declined to give a speech for Peeta. Declined is a polite term for it, though. He flat out refused despite the pressure put on him by Seneca (it would make NASA look bad) and Johanna (it would look like he didn't care). Haymitch certainly cared, but he knew that Peeta Mellark was dead and no shitty speech was going to bring him back.
He sat, ruminating, gazing out the window, taking occasional sips from his flask, when an abrupt knock drew him out of his reverie. "Yeah?" He looked up to see NASA's silver-tongued administrator, Seneca Crane, enter. Haymitch, all rough skin and wrinkled suits, hated the man with his impeccably crafted beard and always flawless everything. They saw eye-to-eye on very little, or really nothing at all.
"The memorial service was nice," began Seneca as he sat across from Haymitch. Haymitch didn't respond. A memorial for a twenty-seven year old astronaut who died alone on another planet. There's nothing nice about that. "You didn't give a speech," Seneca started again. He was fishing for a response. Haymitch continued to stare out the window without answering. "Kind of surprising for the director of Mars operations..." Seneca prodded. Haymitch glared.
"Cut the bullshit, Seneca. Why are you here?"
Seneca dropped a folder on Haymitch's desk. "Your request for satellite imagery of Antares 3 is denied." Haymitch expected this, but it was frustrating.
"What for?" asked Haymitch.
"We're a public domain organization. Any images we receive will be available to the public within twenty-four hours."
"So? So! Peeta Mellark's body is still there, within fifty feet of the Habitat, with a damned communication antenna sticking out of it. Tell me a scenario in which that image will be a good thing!"
"One that gets us Antares 6," Haymitch answered evenly. "We're currently funded for five Antares Missions. With Antares 3 still mostly intact, we could probably get Congress to let us go for a sixth mission. We'd be able to do it at just a fraction of the cost," Haymitch explained. It was all there in the folder if Seneca would have bothered reading it. Haymitch knew the Hab and rovers should be fine; they could take a lot of punishment. The only reason the crew left was because the MAV was threatened by the storm.
Seneca shifted in his chair and stroked his beard. Additional missions were appealing. On the other hand, the nation had followed the crew's evacuation and Peeta Mellark's death closely and there had been heavy scrutiny and criticism. The Memorial brought closure to everything. Releasing new images of Antares 3 would open up the can of worms he had worked so hard to put a lid on.
"Maybe...in a year..." Seneca hedged, "when the body has had time to...decompose or be covered in sand..."
Haymitch scoffed. "His body's not going to decompose on Mars and a year is just too long. We need to know the status of the site now so we can determine what needs to be sent and start the proposals to Congress. A year's delay is just too much. Depending on what we find, I think we'll only need two or three resupplies to make the Antares 3 site ready for a full mission again." Again it was all in the folder that Seneca obviously hadn't bothered to read.
"So what do you propose?" Seneca asked, leaning back. He brought his elbows to rest on the arms of the chair and rested his chin on his steepled fingers.
Seneca was cracking, Haymitch could see it. He went in for the kill.
"I'll tell you what. You tell them that Antares 6 is going to collect Peeta Mellark's body and bring it home. That'll move public support in your favor and win Congress's favor too. Anything to make the constituents happy. If we strike now while the iron of public opinion is hot and while this whole thing is still fresh in their minds we'll be more successful. Do this in a year when everyone has moved on and it'll be a lot tougher to get support."
Seneca considered Haymitch's words for several tense moments before nodding. "We'll do it. I'll let Johanna know so we can have a statement prepared for the press."
Haymitch smirked to himself after Seneca left. He knew the way to Seneca's heart: money and adoration. Then another wave of sadness washed over him when he thought of a lone body on Mars waiting years to come home.
Katniss Everdeen was a fresh face at NASA. Having just graduated the past spring with a Master's in Mechanical Engineering, she was hired right away to work in Satellite Condition or SatCon for short. The night shift in SatCon was nothing to write home about. Actually, it had been a little bit of a letdown. For whatever the reason, Katniss had expected more. More what? She didn't know, but she certainly didn't expect to feel like she was working the nerdy version of a photo counter at the drugstore. Still, she got her pay check, could live successfully on her own, and was no longer struggling as she had in the past. And she had to admit, she liked the quiet and interacting with as few people as possible. Though it did make calling and visiting her sister Prim difficult with her days and nights flipped.
She sipped her coffee and shuffled through the work orders. In addition to monitoring the position of satellites around Mars, she sent emails to different departments as their requested imagery became available.
A new work order caught her eye. The director of Mars operations, Haymitch Abernathy, had requested imagery of Antares 3. Why would he want imagery of that site now? It had been avoided like the plague since Peeta Mellark's death. They obviously didn't want images of his dead body getting out. Press was bad enough without that. Seventeen images had been captured. She leaned forward and pushed her braid over her shoulder. With trepidation, she clicked on the file and began to open the images.
At first she was nervous about what she would see. She could feel the adrenaline beginning to flow in her veins, making her heart stutter. She was the first person to see these images. Like a child, Katniss covered her face, then began to peek through her fingers. She felt really strange about the idea of seeing a real dead body. She could handle dead animals- gut and skin them even- but people were another thing and it made her squeamish. When the thing she feared most, Peeta's body, didn't show up, she dropped her hands from her face and began to scrutinize the image closely, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. There was no body, no body at all. She clicked through the images. The Hab was intact, that should make Abernathy happy, but there were bits of canvas next to the Hab. What were those? She pulled up the mission specs on NASA's intranet. After rapidly educating herself, she returned to the photoset. Then she noticed some other odd things in the photos. She picked up the phone. "Hi, this is Katniss Everdeen down in SatCon....Yeah, doing good...Um, could you send me the mission log for Antares 3...I need it right away....Yeah....Okay, good. Thanks. You too."
Katniss looked closely at all seventeen satellite images and at the six Sol mission log. Then back at the photos, and back at the log. At the end of an hour she felt her chest constricting and she had to focus on breathing deeply. It couldn't be. But it was. It was impossible, but the truth of it was staring her in the face.
"He's alive," Katniss gasped, looking at the newest photoset from Mars. She had double checked, triple checked. Her heart pounded as she picked up the phone. "This is Katniss Everdeen in SatCon, get Haymitch Abernathy...Yes, I'm aware of what time it is. It's an emergency...Yes, I'm sure! Good." NASA was about to be in the middle of a PR shitstorm.
Two hours later, Katniss found herself sitting across from a very disheveled, very disgruntled Haymitch Abernathy. She may have preferred to face a firing squad at that moment. "It's the middle of the night and I've got about two hours of sleep. This had better be good, Sweetheart."
Never one to be good with words or to break news gently, she just delivered the truth bluntly. Leaning forward, Katniss looked Haymitch in the eye and said, "Peeta Mellark is alive."
Katniss pulled up the images and proceeded to show Haymitch what she saw. First, there were two bits of canvas next to the Habitat. "These are the poptents from the rovers. I checked the logs and they never deployed the poptents. And here, the rover...um, Commander Odair used Rover 2 on Sol 5, and when he returned, he plugged it in to charge it. But, on Sol 6, with the dust storm, no one used the rovers. But here, in the image, you can see Rover 2 is unplugged and turned around." Her voice was shaky, but she was confident in her analysis.
Haymitch eyed her. These small things seemed easy to explain. Maybe the pop tents deployed on their own because of the force of the storm, or it was some sudden back up maneuver in case the crew didn't make it to the MAV. The rover being turned around didn't mean anything big, maybe they had gotten ready to use it and didn't say anything.
Katniss continued, "....and then there are the solar cells. They should be covered in dust, but they're clean." Haymitch thought maybe, just maybe, a wind could be strong enough to clean the cells without depositing more dust, but the "coincidences" were adding up. She went through the rest of the photos where she noted other anomalies around the Antares 3 site. His shoulders slumped under the weight of Katniss' news and subsequent proofs. He'd have to contact Johanna and that bastard Seneca. This was going to be big and there was little time to prepare any sort of response, much less figure out how to rescue Mellark.
"Fuck!" exclaimed Johanna.
"Really, Johanna," Haymitch reproached.
Haymitch sat at the immaculate mahogany desk of NASA administrator Seneca Crane with NASA's director of media relations, Johanna Mason. He wished for his flask right now. He was still running on a measly two hours of sleep and Seneca and Johanna weren't doing much better.
"How certain are you that Mellark is alive?" Seneca asked, his piercing blue eyes reflecting his skepticism.
Haymitch shrugged. "Ninety-nine percent? I mean, this could all be coincidence, but that's a lot of coincidences all piling up into one hell of a mistake." He was so tired and was in no mood to argue.
"Double fuck," said Johanna Mason.
"Not. Helping. Johanna," said Seneca. Turning to Haymitch he asked, "What makes you so sure?"
Haymitch sighed, leaned forward, and tossed the Satellite pictures on Seneca's desk. He slid the first images to Seneca, who automatically lined it up with the edge of his desk. "For starters, there's no body."
Seneca was nonplussed. "It could have been buried by the sand."
"And the poptents were deployed."
"Could've been deployed by the crew," Seneca returned.
"There's no record of it in the logs."
"Maybe they deployed them and didn't say so."
"That's doubtful." Haymitch rubbed his dry irritated eyes.
"The storm triggered something in the rovers that caused the poptents to deploy," Seneca suggested.
"Triggered both poptents to deploy and line up neatly next to the Hab?"
"Noted. What else?" Seneca asked.
"Well, there's the rovers themselves," Haymitch began, "Commander Odair was the last one to use Rover 2, and when he did he plugged it in to recharge it. That rover is now facing the other way and is not plugged in."
"So maybe they used it again, but in the chaos neglected to log it."
"That's not possible," Haymitch answered, "The sandstorm on Sol 6 aborted all operations. The solar cells are also clean."
"Another wind, say...20-25 miles per hour could have cleaned the previous sand off without depositing more sand." Seneca was grasping at straws, reluctant to admit Peeta Mellark could be alive.
The only thing worse than a dead astronaut on Mars was a live astronaut on Mars.
Lifting another picture and sliding it across to Seneca, who unconsciously straightened it, Haymitch continued, "And here's the clincher. The MDV has been deconstructed and the MAV's fuel plant has been removed. There's not even the remotest hint of this in the Log and no reason for the crew to have done this. In fact, messing with the MAV would have been dangerous. Peeta is down there. He is alive. And he is apparently up to something. You have Katniss Everdeen from SatCon to thank for noticing all that, by the way."
"Not helping Johanna!" Seneca and Haymitch said together.
Johanna huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why don't we go down to CAPCOM and talk to Commander Odair and the crew to see if they have an explanation for the discrepancies in these damn pictures?"
Seneca and Haymitch exchanged knowing looks.
"What?" Johanna asked.
Haymitch slouched and looked away. Seneca stared down at the photos.
"What?!" Johanna demanded. Her eyes darted between the two men.
Haymitch looked back to Seneca indicating he needed to answer. Seneca coughed.
Johanna's eyes widened in understanding before Seneca could say anything. "Oh. They don't know," she said quietly. "And you aren't going to tell them." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. "Why the hell not?" Johanna's voice reached normal Johanna levels, which is to say, loud.
Seneca finally found his voice. "We don't want them to be...distracted."
Seneca sighed. It was like Johanna had this daily "fuck" quota and she was going to use it all up in this one meeting. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "The crew is already mourning Peeta Mellark's death. What do you think would happen if they found out they left a living crewmate behind on Mars?"
Johanna turned to Haymitch, looking for an ally. "Surely you're not on board with this."
Haymitch slumped a little under her scrutiny.
Haymitch and Seneca did not often agree, but this was one of the o.o1% of times they did. "Let them deal with it when they aren't flying a damned spaceship around," he muttered.
Johanna wasn't convinced. "This is going to be the biggest news since Neil fucking Armstrong walked on the Moon. Just how exactly to you plan to keep the crew from finding out?"
Seneca folded his hands neatly in front of him and answered evenly, "Easy. We control all communication with them." Anxious to make a plan, he pressed forward. "So what can you do for us, Johanna? When do you want to go public."
Johanna huffed, "I can hold the pictures for 24 hours. Prepare a statement. Call a press conference. We're going to have to admit we believe he's alive. We don't want people piecing it together themselves; we'd look like assholes. Do you have any idea of the magnitude of the fucking shitstorm this is going to be?" Johanna asked. Seneca shrugged, they'd already been through that for the past two months. This incensed Johanna further. "You don't have to face those damn reporters every day. I do! Who else knows? I don't want this leaking before we have the images and statement ready to go."
"No one except us three and Katniss Everdeen in SatCon," Haymitch answered.
"Well make sure no one else knows. I'll talk to Katniss myself. What about Peeta Mellark's family? Better they hear from us than the news."
Seneca leaned back in his leather chair, "I'm going to drive up to Panem today to tell them."
"I'm sure they'll be glad to hear he's alive," Johanna offered.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that." Seneca sounded genuinely sorry. "He'll likely starve to death before we can rescue him."
"JOHANNA!" Haymitch and Seneca yelled in unison.
Johanna left to talk to Katniss, Seneca made final preparations to leave for Panem, and Haymitch went back to his desk and flask and stared out the window. Peeta Mellark was alive. And right now it felt like there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do about it.
"Shit," said Haymitch.
Katniss heard a sharp knock on her office door. "Come in," she called. She was weary. She didn't know how she managed to process the imaging requests she had done. After looking at imagery of Antares 3 she was emotionally and physically spent. And no amount of caffeine could overcome the exhaustion she felt.
"Katniss Everdeen?" asked the lithe brunette from the door. Katniss nodded in affirmation. "Johanna Mason, director of media relations." Johanna crossed the small room and held out her hand. Katniss shook it weakly. She had no idea what to expect. Johanna had a formidable bearing and Katniss found herself speechless in her presence.
"I want to talk to you about the Satphotos you got from Antares 3." Again, Katniss nodded. Johanna continued, "At this time you are among the only four people in the world that know Peeta Mellark is alive. Tomorrow we will hold a press conference when we release the photos." Katniss nodded again to indicate she was listening. But she was uncertain why the director of media relations was talking to her. "So, Brainless, I want to warn you on pain of death to not spill the beans before then." Katniss gulped. Who would she tell? "Second, you are going to be there. After the initial announcement we'll need you to be prepared to answer questions."
Katniss found her voice now. "What!" she squeaked.
Johanna rolled her eyes. "Look, you're the first to see the photos. You're the one to tell Haymitch. You read over the mission logs before talking to Haymitch. At this time, with Haymitch and Seneca, you have the expertise, you're the SME."
Katniss looked uncertain. She didn't feel special. She certainly didn't want to face the sharkpit of reporters. "I-I...don't think...I can do that," she said haltingly, her heart pounding. "Surely you have someone more qualified....I mean, I've only been here half a year and..." Katniss was wringing her hands wanting very much to not have to do what Johanna said.
"Well, don't worry about it Brainless, you'll probably only need to advise Haymitch or Seneca. But we need you around during the press conference so make sure you're here."
"But I work night shift."
"And? I work day shift, but here I am at four in the freaking morning because someone called an emergency meeting," Johanna retorted.
"Okay." Katniss finally relented. She never wanted to be the center of attention, she didn't want to be the SME, she just wanted to go home in peace and quiet, have a microwave dinner, and sleep, but it looked like she didn't have a choice.
It was Johanna's turn to nod now. She made for the door and, turning back, said, "Good, see you tomorrow. And remember: Not. A. Word. Got it?" Her eyes flashed dangerously.
Katniss nodded again.
"Because if you do, I'll bury an axe in your face." Katniss believed her.
Haymitch lifted his head from his desk and smacked his lips. He'd been out for a while. Katniss's middle of the night wake-up call and his subsequent meeting with Seneca and Johanna had been draining. It was about mid-morning now and the sun shone through his windows. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands through his lanky salt-and-pepper hair. Squinting in the sunlight he gazed out the windows and considered the next step. He frowned when he found his flask was empty.
It was clear from the pics that the comm array at Antares 3 was trashed, but there had to be some way to communicate with Mellark, some sort of back up or alternative. He picked up the phone. "Chaff! How you doin' you old bastard?...Heh, I've been better...Yeah, look, I have a situation and I need your best people, as many as you can spare to work on it....I want to find out if there is any way to communicate with Antares 3...Well, you know how I wanted to score a sixth Antares mission?...We just got the imagery back last night....Annnd, there's a problem. Are you alone?....Chaff, we're pretty sure- like nearly 100% sure- that Mellark is alive." Haymitch pulled the phone from his ear to protect his hearing from Chaff's exuberant reaction, then just as quickly, put it back to yell at him, "Hey! HEY! Cool it, will ya? No one can know about this right now!...No, kidding. So, like I said, we need to figure out a way to communicate with him. If he had a way to send a message, he'd have done it by now...So, what I want is for your people to figure out any possible way to communicate with him, we'll cover overtime, extra pay, whatever, just get them working on this right away. And make sure it's people we can trust as they aren't making the announcement until tomorrow....Thanks man, I owe you one!...Ha! You got that right!...Yeah, I'm sorry too. I'll be in touch."
It had long been dark out when Haymitch found himself sitting with the Leeg twins. Nicknamed Leeg 1 and Leeg 2, Alice and Lucy were Chaff's best "men" in NASA communications. They were brilliant, if quirky, women. Haymitch didn't know whether to be pleased or concerned by how quick their work was concluded, but from the looks on their faces, it didn't appear he was getting good news. Dammit, he could use some good news today.
"There's no way to communicate with Antares 3," said Alice. Well she certainly doesn't beat around the bush.
"No way?" Haymitch repeated, disbelief written all over his weary features.
"None," reiterated Alice.
Haymitch flung himself back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling and rubbed his face then sat back up to face the twins. "Are you shi- kidding me? You had twenty experts working on this for twelve hours. We have a multibillion-dollar communications network and you can't find any way to talk to him?"
"It's impossible," said Lucy.
"And why the hell is that?" Haymitch exclaimed before catching himself. "Uh, I'm sorry. Please, explain."
"He doesn't have a radio," said Alice.
"Actually, he's got a radio, but he doesn't have a satellite dish," corrected Lucy.
"The thing is, without a dish, the signal would have to be really strong," said Alice.
"Like, melt the pigeons strong," added Lucy, helpfully.
"Like barbecue the squirrels strong."
"Like fry an egg on it strong."
"Like roast a-"
"Ladies!" Haymitch interrupted.
"Sorry," they said in unison.
"Tangent," whispered Lucy.
"We thought we could use the Martian satellites," started Alice.
"But the math doesn't work out," supplied Lucy, "They just don't have the juice. They'd have to be eleven times more powerful."
"Fourteen times," interrupted Alice.
"Eleven times," corrected Lucy.
"No, fourteen times," Alice reiterated, "You're forgetting the amperage for the heaters."
"Fourteen times," conceded Lucy.
Haymitch's eyes bounced between the two women. It was like watching a ping-pong match. "Ladies, I get the idea. Please. Continue."
"Sorry," they answered in unison.
"So, please explain to me how a single sandstorm took out all communications at Antares 3? I mean, there are backups." Haymitch redirected the conversation.
"Failure of imagination," answered Alice, "Totally didn't see it coming".
" A chink in the armor," added Lucy, quietly.
"But the backups!" began Haymitch again, frustration evident. "We had backup comm systems?"
Alice took a deep breath. "There was one main system and three backup systems," she began, "The primary comm system was routed through the satellite dish. And all the backups were routed through the MAV."
"Yeah, the MAV is like a communication machine," said Lucy, "It can talk to Earth, Hermes, Martian satellites..."
"It would take a meteor strike to take out its ability to communicate," said Alice.
"Or driving it into the sun..." said Lucy.
Haymitch narrowed his eyes. The women straightened in their chairs.
"But Commander Odair and the crew took the MAV when they evacuated," said Alice.
"So four communications systems became one," said Haymitch beginning to put it together.
"And that one was destroyed in the storm," Lucy completed the thought.
Haymitch was floored. How could they have overlooked this? "You mean to tell me they never supplied a backup system of communication in the Antares Habitats?"
"Well, they never saw the need," said Lucy.
"They never expected to have people on Mars without the MAV," said Alice.
"Yeah, what are the odds?" said Lucy.
"One in three based on empirical data," said Alice.
"That's pretty bad if you think about it," said Lucy thoughtfully.
"Shit," said Haymitch.
The next day
Johanna Mason was indeed the formidable woman Katniss found her to be. The same was true for Seneca and Haymitch. While she and Haymitch could exchange witty, sometimes caustic banter, neither man ever wanted to be on her bad side. That bull dog exterior is what made her fantastic in media relations. She had a thick skin and an "I don't give a fuck" attitude that helped her keep her composure even under the heavy criticism following Peeta Mellark's death. However, she found herself pacing nervously in the green room working to breathe deeply. Most press conferences were easily predictable, interesting for a day or so, and the news moved on to other things. This press conference would go down in infamy as she announced NASA's biggest fuck up in history. It would be remembered forever. Every word she said or move she made this morning would be etched forever on the public consciousness. Everyone would remember where they were when they heard that Peeta Mellark was indeed alive on Mars. News stations would play the video over and over. This was going to be a defining moment in her career.
It was finally showtime. She schooled her features, her stony exterior not giving away her nerves. Steadily she made her way to the pressroom and took the podium. Taking a deep breath, she addressed the crowd of reporters.
"We have an important announcement to make so if you will all please take your seats."
The hum of light chit chat died down, reporters found their seats, photographers and cameramen readied their cameras vying for the best shots.
"What's this about Johanna? Something happen with Hermes?" queried Cressida, a rather striking reporter from NBC.
"Please take your seats," Johanna repeated.
When everyone was settled Johanna began her prepared speech.
"This is a short but very important announcement," Johanna said, "I won't be taking any questions at this time, but we will have a full press conference with Q&A in about an hour. We have recently reviewed satellite imagery from the Antares 3 site and have confirmed that astronaut Peeta Mellark is, currently, still alive."
Utter silence. A beat. Then the room exploded with noise.
A Week Later....
Haymitch and Johanna stood onstage in the pressroom along with countless other NASA managers and executives. They were surrounded by reporters desperate for the next piece of news, however minor. A week after the staggering announcement, it was still the top story on every news outlet in the world. NASA could report that Peeta Mellark wiped his ass and they'd be all over it.
Haymitch leaned in to Johannna. "I'm getting sick of these daily press conferences," he said out of the side of his mouth.
"I'm getting sick of hourly press conferences," Johanna replied. She thought she had been put through the ringer when Peeta Mellark died, but that was nothing compared to this. The reporters were relentless in pursuit of more information.
They noticed the reporters turn and saw Seneca stride up on stage. He squared some flash cards in his hands and addressed the reporters, "Sorry I'm late. Let's begin, shall we?" He flashed a brilliant smile. The reporters showed their eagerness to get started. "In the nine days since announcing Peeta Mellark's survival, we've had a massive show of support from all sectors...."
"That smile is a money maker," Haymitch muttered to Johanna, "If I tried to flash a smile like that, the room would clear out."
Johanna fought to keep her composure, and mumbled back, "I'd be more likely to just flash them."
"Shit, Johanna," said Haymitch.
Now it was Haymitch's turn to fight to keep a straight face. Seneca continued his speech, "...shows the level of support everyone has toward helping us. The public is engaged and we will do our best to keep everyone informed."
"Don't dish it if you can't take it," said Johanna.
"That's why you're my favorite, dear."
"Not much competition there," said Johanna.
"You don't have much competition anywhere," Haymitch said, still staring at Seneca.
Johanna shot him a quick look and went back to staring at Seneca.
Seneca went on to announce a daily segment on CNN to keep everyone informed on Peeta Mellark's situation, that satellites surrounding Mars were set on trajectories that maximized viewing time of the Antares 3 site, and expressed the hope of catching Peeta outside sometime so they could assess his physical health. "I can't promise we'll succeed in rescuing him, but I can promise this: The entire focus of NASA will be to bring Peeta Mellark home. This will be our overriding and singular obsession until he is either back on Earth or confirmed dead on Mars." Seneca concluded the press conference and they cleared out of the press room.
After the press conference, Seneca came to Haymitch's office.
"Nice speech," Haymitch offered. His voice was gruff with exhaustion, but he was sincere.
"Thanks. I meant it. We're going to do all we can to rescue Mellark."
"I believe you."
"So what did you want to talk to me about?"
"Well, I've been talking to the folks at JPL and we've come up with an idea. It's risky and definitely dangerous," Haymitch said, "but the Antares 4 crew is totally on board with it and willing to try. Actually they're pushing pretty hard for it."
"That makes sense," said Seneca stroking his beard. "Astronauts inherently gravitate to risk. And they're noble to a fault. What's the plan?"
Haymitch described a maneuver in which the MDV for the Antares 4 mission would be "misused" to land at Antares 3, pick up Mellark, then fly horizontally to the Antares 4 site.
"How will they carry the extra fuel?" asked Seneca.
"By dropping the base weight."
"But it's already as light as possible. Everything in space travel is. How are they going to make it lighter?" asked Seneca, his natural skepticism returning.
"They'll remove safety and emergency equipment and add on fuel tanks," answered Haymitch.
"So we'll risk six more lives for the sake of one?"
"Well, I think the Antares 4 crew should stay on board the Hermes and the pilot should just descend and pick up Mellark, then return to the Hermes. But that would mean scrubbing the whole mission. They'd rather risk death than give up the mission."
"Astronauts," said Seneca.
"Astronauts," agreed Haymitch.
"Well, that's a ludicrous idea and I'll never okay it."
"We'll keep working on it," said Haymitch, "make it safer."
"Can Mellark even survive until Antares 4?"
"Work on that, too."
"Yeah, got it," said Haymitch.
Seneca stood, putting his hands on his hips, and looked out into the deepening twilight outside of Haymitch's windows. "What must it be like?" He wondered aloud. "He's stranded out there. Alone. He knows we believe he's dead and that we've all given up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man's psychology?" He turned back to Haymitch, "I wonder what he's thinking right now?"
"Damn, I really need a haircut."
SME (prounounced "smee")= Subject Matter Expert
30kph= just under 20mph, so I used 20-25 mph in the chapter (for the winds knocking sand/dust off the solar panels on Mars)
Some songs that I liked the "feel" of while writing this, though the lyrics are imperfect:
Autumn Tree- Milo Greene
I Found You- Anthony Evans
Chapter 3: Modification
Peeta pimps a rover and rides dirty.
Peeta felt himself waking out of sleep, but he resisted. He had just had a blissful dream and he wasn't ready to let go. There had been warm golden sunlight, the sweet smell of fresh grass, teasing scented whiffs of Linden trees and wildflowers, and the laughter of children like tinkling chimes. He felt warm, loved, and...at peace for the first time since...ever. He was no stranger to using his imagination as an escape from his abusive mother, the stresses of college, or the intensive training for the Mars mission. In fact, he had painted a picture of a very similar meadow when he was in high school. But then it was about what he wanted to feel. In this dream, those feelings were real. He wanted to freeze this moment in the meadow and linger in it for a little while longer. Yet, he felt himself rising closer and closer to full consciousness. The golden sunlight replaced by cold florescent lighting, the sweet scent of grass and flowers replaced with the rich earthy smell of the soil he had worked so hard to create, and the laughter of children replaced by the various whirrs, beeps, clicks, and mechanical hum of the Hab. Rising, he gave in to reality, treasuring his dream in his heart as one more reason to continue fighting in this wasteland of death and oblivion. He scrubbed his face with his hands and ran them through his newly cut hair and got up.
Things were good. Peeta was doing well here on Mars. His farm was thriving and his potatoes had grown perfectly according to plan. He had finished making water a long time ago. Nothing had conspired to kill him in weeks. And Thresh's B sci-fi movies were keeping him disturbingly entertained. Yep, things were stable. It was time to start thinking long-term.
He needed to be proactive.
He still had no way to communicate with NASA and even if he could find a way to do so, there was no guarantee they could rescue him. NASA projects take years. He needed to be ready to make it all the way to Antares 4.
The Antares 4 crew would be landing 3200km away at the Schiaparelli crater. He had to figure out how to trick out the rovers for a long overland journey. The rover would need to be a miniature traveling Hab. He'd need food and water, and a way to get air and deal with waste. He would have to become his own little NASA doing his own experimentation and it would take a lot of time. He had lots of that, almost four years in fact.Thankfully, being a mechanical engineer this project would be right up his alley.
There was too much to think of at one time, so he broke it down into manageable steps.
First: pick a rover.
Peeta chose Rover 2 as his target as he felt a bond with it after spending two days in it during the Great Hydrogen Scare of Sol 37.
Second: power. The mission only had a 10 km operational radius, but as the astronauts wouldn't always travel in straight lines, NASA designed the rovers to go 35km on a single charge. Peeta looted Rover 1's battery and installed it in Rover 2. "Ta-da! I just doubled my fuel charge range," thought Peeta. The charge for one battery was 9000-watt-hours. So two batteries gave Peeta 18,000 watt-hours. But he wouldn't just be using the rover for an EVA, he'd be living and sleeping in it. This meant that the heater, which used 400 watts, running all day and all night, would eat up 9800 watts. That was over half of the power supply every day! Losing so much energy to heat alone drastically shortened his potential range of travel. That was not acceptable.
Peeta figured the rover was well insulated and that he if he wore extra layers, then maybe he could be his own heater and avoid running the one in the rover or run it only minimally.
Life support and computer systems needed minimal power so most of the conserved power would go toward motion.
It took 200 watts to go 1 kilometer, so 18,000 watts gave a daily range of 90 kilometers with a top speed of 25 kph. Not that Peeta would make it that far, as terrain, hills, and powering through sand would all reduce efficiency. But still, that was a good range. Some back of the napkin math told him that it would take at least 35 sols to make it to Antares 4, so he decided to make it a round 50 sols, for margin.
Now, how to power a rover on the move? Peeta would need to take some of the solar cells. By looking up specs and comparing them to what he already knew about the rovers, he figured he would need fourteen panels. Thanks to the fine taxpayers of America he had some of the most expensive and most efficient solar paneling ever made. Thank you taxpayers!
Peeta figured he'd drive in twilight as he'd only have about three and a half hours of driving each day. Then he could put the solar panels out to soak up the sun all day. They'd fit decently on the roof, thought he had to be sure to secure them well, since they'd hang over the edge a bit. As long as they were happy, Peeta would be happy. It would be dull as hell waiting for them to charge all day, though.
Tomorrow's mission, remove the battery from Rover 1 and move it to Rover 2.
When Peeta was eleven, his oldest brother Bannock, then sixteen years old, got a new-to-him 1985 Chevy Monte Carlo. It was black with red trim and needed a lot of work. Every day after the bakery closed Bannock would work on that car. Peeta sat close by and watched.
"Hand me that wrench?" Ban asked, holding out his hand, palm open.
"Which one?" Peeta asked.
"The 10 millimeter."
Peeta handed it over.
Ban huffed, "It doesn't fit. Try the 8 millimeter."
Peeta searched the array of wrenches and selected the correct one.
"Damn," came his brother's voice, muffled under the hood. "I think it's English units. Try the 5/16 inch."
Again Peeta consulted the array of tools before him, selected the one his brother had asked for, and handed it to him.
"Eureka! It fits."
They continued in this way. The most Peeta saw of his brother that summer was his legs sticking out from under the Monte Carlo or his backside as he bent over it. He spent those months with grease perpetually under his nails. Peeta sat by on an upturned bucket, keeping his brother company, soaking up the names of all the tools and engine parts and learning his brother's meticulous process. He always laid the parts out a certain way so he'd remember how to put them back together, occasionally sketching a rough diagram or taking a picture with his cell phone.
No matter how late it was or how tired he was, Bannock always cleaned his tools and put them away where they belonged. "So they're always ready when I want them," Ban had told him. This made a great impression on Peeta and stuck with him when he pursued engineering and later trained for Mars. The methodical process, the precise placement of parts, always cleaning up and putting things away. In a way, Ban paved the way for Peeta.
During the hazy evenings and late nights Peeta sketched. He sketched Bannock working, the car as it crept out of dereliction to being a respectable vehicle again, the various parts and tools, Bannock's greasy hands, as well as his usual fare: pictures of the bakery and breads, birds and squirrels, landscapes, his family, other people they knew, the house.
Rye never had the patience to sit and watch Ban and his attempts at rendering assistance were usually the opposite of help. He spent most of his time with friends, but was nice enough to bring out water or snacks if asked.
Two weeks before summer was over, Bannock cranked the engine and it purred to life. The clunker was given new life. Bannock turned to Peeta with a smile, "Want to go for a ride?" he asked, nodding at the car.
They cruised around the small down of Panem, then out beyond the town limits driving for a half hour before turning around to come back. It was getting late and Bannock pulled up to a fast food joint and bought burgers for them. Peeta had never felt closer to his brother than in that moment, sharing milkshakes and burgers on a sticky summer night, the old Monte Carlo that they had worked on in the parking lot, and fireflies in the field beyond.
When he was 16, Peeta's dad gave him his old Honda Civic when he upgraded to a newer model. Well, we can't all have Monte Carlos.
It was actually pretty easy to do. Well, taking the battery out that is. Just a matter of removing a couple of clamps and disconnecting some cables and Rover 1's battery dropped right out. Then Peeta manfully lifted it and carried it over to Rover 2. Okay no not really. That's what he wanted to happen. What really happened was the battery was heavy as hell and he had to drag it over to the other rover.
Then he had to figure out how to attach it. Peeta stood back, hands on his hips and looked between the battery and Rover 2.
It couldn't go under the rover, there was no space.
It couldn't go over the rover; he planned to stow the solar cells there.
It certainly couldn't go inside the rover.
It would have to go around the rover.
There was a long strip of canvas about 1 meter wide by 6 meters long as well as extra resin that was meant for use to repair the Hab in case of a breeched hull. Peeta used some of this to fashion crude saddle bags for the rover. He cut two long strips, which he fashioned into loops. Then he added large patches on each end and tossed the saddle bags across the rover. With difficulty, he got the battery in one side of the saddle bag, then filled the other side with rocks. Once the weight was balanced, he was able to pull the rock side down so both sides were equal. It seemed secure, but he'd find out how well it worked when he was able to take a test drive.
He unplugged Rover 2's battery and plugged in Rover 1's then went inside the rover to test things out. Everything powered up and was operational. Then he took a quick test-drive to see how the sling held, even seeking out the biggest rocks he could find. The whole thing held. Hell yeah! He pumped his fist in the air.
He contemplated wiring the two batteries together to have one continuous power source but he figured, fuck it, he was fine just doing a quick EVA to swap leads. Keep it simple stupid was the best policy. He was already misusing so many things: he turned an EVA suit into a cistern, the Hab into a greenhouse, he used rocket fuel to make water, and had abused the life-support systems of the Hab mightily. It'd be nice to not push it where he didn't need to. He'd have to swap the leads during charging, too, but he was okay with that.
Peeta spent the rest of the day sweeping off the solar farm. Soon he'd be looting it.
When the crew first descended to the Antares 3 site, everything was in "boxes", so to speak, from the presupplies; they had to set the whole site up themselves. While some of the crew members set up the Hab, Peeta and Thresh set up the solar farm. It was mission critical so they drilled the hell out of it for a solid week back home. The solar cells were set up on a lightweight lattice that made them sit at a 14 degree angle. "Something about maximizing efficiency or energy," Peeta thought, but couldn't remember the specifics. He was glad for the experience because he was a lot more confident about dismantling them.
It wasn't a problem to remove some of the solar cells for the rover. The Hab was only supporting one person instead of six. Some could be spared.
He knelt down among the solar cells. He had three down and eleven to go when he felt a burn in his sinuses. Oh, God no! He tried sniffing, snorting, scrunching his face muscles, shaking his head back and forth, but it was futile. He needed to sneeze and there was nothing he could do about it. He craned his neck to aim low so as much of the sneeze droplets as possible would miss his face plate. Ah-choo! NASA had a proper procedure for everything, even training the crew on how to sneeze in their space suits. They were nothing if not thorough.
That mini-crisis over, Peeta finished looting the solar farm.
Time to stack the cells on the rover.
There was a large canvas bag for rock samples on the roof. Peeta balanced on the side of the rover, tugging at it and looking it over. He wanted to remove it, but as he pushed it around on the roof, he thought, It might provide useful cushion for the solar cells. He decided to leave it. The solar cells stacked nicely (they were designed to) and they sat nicely on the roof (they were not designed to do that). They hung over the right and left sides a little bit, but it wasn't like he was going through any tunnels so that wasn't a big deal.
Peeta took more of the Hab repair material and made straps out of it to tie down the solar cells. Handles already on the rover made good anchor points for the straps.
Peeta stepped back and admired his handy work. It was noon and he was done! He went back in the Hab and had lunch, then tended to his potato plants.
It had been 39 sols since he had first planted them, or forty Earth days. Though they were smallish, they had grown nicely, and they were substantial enough now to reseed. He spent the afternoon cutting them in to small chunks with one eye each for sprouting, mindful to handle the plants gently and to keep the greens intact. He had grown quite attached to these plants. Aside from himself and the microbes in the soil, they were the only living things on Mars. He replanted them carefully. Good job guys, keep up the good work. I'm depending on you, you know.
There was a girl in his botany class that Peeta always thought was a crazy hippie, but the she insisted that talking to plants helped them grow, referencing some Korean study or practice or something. Peeta thought it was stupid, but here on Mars, he saw it differently. He had made fun of her then, and now he thought she'd laugh if she could see him talking to his plants, petting their leaves, playing music to keep them company when he left the Hab...
After all the physical labor of the past couple of days Peeta was ready to relax. He was in the mood for something different, something not a movie and not music. Some rummaging through Rue's computer turned up classic novels. Dozens upon dozens. It was all the books Peeta was supposed to read in high school, but between work at the bakery, extracurricular activities, friends, Cliff's notes, and being generally good at bull-shitting, he never needed to read them. Well now I have my chance. Where to get started? Pride and Prejudice. Guess I'll be getting in touch with my feminine side.
Peeta had fully charged the rover the day before, donned three layers of clothes that morning, and set out with the rover. He drove about 1 kilometer away then began driving back and forth over 500 meters until he realized he was packing the sand down, making a more efficient surface to drive on. So he began to meander over new terrain, always within a short walk of the Hab. But he had to abort after an hour because his dudes were about to freeze solid. He had hoped that being bundled up, he wouldn't need to use the heater, but the cold sank relentlessly into him. He wasn't able to overcome it so he made a beeline back to the Hab.
This was a setback.
He needed heat.
Heat sucked power.
More power diverted to heat meant less for forward motion, which meant his eventual trip to Ares 4 would become impossibly long.
Peeta's water alchemy was madly dangerous and his hydrogen exorcism was a bit shy of suicidal.
Well, his new idea was worse.
Four kilometers due south was a heat source. A fabulous red hot heat source, so hot you could fry an egg on it.
The only problem was that it was radioactive.
An RTG is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Fuck the long fancy name, the important part is, it's a big ol' box of plutonium, but not the kind used in atomic bombs. Though it is plutonium-238, it is not able to sustain fission. It does, however, become blazingly hot as its radioactive decay produces heat, which is then turned to electricity. An RTG is only about 5% efficient at producing electricity, and this one produced a lot of electricity. It was hot. Damn hot. Even with its shielding. Perfect, thought Peeta.
NASA didn't normally send incredibly dangerous radioisotopes on manned spaceflight missions, but the Antares missions on Mars were an exception. They needed to reliably power the MAV while it built up fuel over a period of more than a year (up to 48 months if necessary). The MAV was mission critical. They didn't want to risk scrubbing the mission because of some sand covered solar cells. When the Antares crew arrived on site, they very carefully removed the RTG from the MAV and the Commander deposited it way the hell away from the Hab and the other astronauts, marking it so they'd know to leave it alone.
Peeta was going to go and get it.
This would be a good second test as he'd drive the rover over real terrain rather than near the Hab and he'd see how his solar cells handled the jostling.
He decided to name the rover missions Sirius, after the Dog Star. So nearly freezing to death was Sirius 1. Tomorrow would be Sirius 2.
Out of sight of the Hab for the first time, Peeta was struck by the vast aloneness of Mars. He had known he was alone, but out here, surrounded by nothing but endless desert, he felt it.
The RTG was easy to find. Commander Odair had buried it on top of a hill and planted a green flag on top of it so the others could avoid it. Peeta drove straight for it, dug it up, and put it in the rover.
Probably not what the Commander was going for.
In the ten minutes it took Peeta to drive back to the Hab, the interior of the rover climbed to a toasty thirty-seven degrees Celsius. There was no question the RTG would keep him warm.
Once back at the site, he very carefully tore out the plastic ceiling (with a hammer), and the foam insulation (also hammer) so the excess heat could bleed off. Then he took the RTG out of the rover. He could feel the heat through his gloves, it was that hot. The rover cooled and Peeta had lunch. He suited up again, put the RTG in the rover and measured how fast it heated up. This time it was slower, but the heat still climbed,so Peeta removed a bit more insulation until the RTG was fighting a slowly losing battle. The RTG heated the cab, but the cab gradually bled off the heat and the temperature would drop. Peeta fashioned the insulation he had removed into a big square that he could tape it to the ceiling of the rover. Too cold, put the insulation up, too hot, take it down. Like co-workers fighting over office AC controls.
Now he was ready for Sirius 3, which would be a repeat of Sirius 1, without the freezing bit.
Peeta was halfway through Sirius 3. And it was going well.
He had gotten up earlier than usual and set out with the first light of the tiny Martian sun to begin the mission. He started with a full charge then did laps around the Hab, working to keep on fresh ground. The first battery lasted a little under two hours. He did an EVA to swap the batteries then kept on driving. He stopped before the second battery ran completely out of juice. He still needed to power the rover while the batteries charged. In the end he drove 81 kilometers in three hours and twenty-seven minutes. That was great!
Another EVA to set out the solar panels. While not heavy, they were awkward and last time he had Thresh's help. It got easier, though, when he decided he didn't need to carry them, but could just drag them. The taxpayers of America would be delighted to see these expensive feats of engineering and science dragged across the rock strewn hell of Mars.
Solar cells set up, Peeta just had to sit back and wait. And wait. And wait. Well, he had time to catch up on his log and to read.
"Elizabeth Bennett is one feisty lady. She's not afraid to say what she's thinking and is willing to stand up to intimidating authority figures, and she doesn't marry a guy just 'cause he was loaded. I like her," thought Peeta.
He looked up from reading. The solar cells nearly finished charging and watched the strange bluish sunset. Back on Earth sunset was his favorite time of day. Here on Mars, if he ignored the sky, he could almost imagine he was in a south-western desert landscape. But the sky, with a small sun, different moons, and grey to butterscotch coloring gave away that he was in a totally alien place.
As soon as the batteries were charged Peeta went straight back to the Hab. He was thrilled. Sirius 3 was a resounding success!
With the power supply worked out, Peeta was ready to move on to the next steps of preparing the rover for a long trip: Supplies and life support.
Food and water were easy.
To deal with carbon dioxide, he'd bring along extra CO2 filters. He still had plenty of hours of CO2 filtering available. He had started with 1500 hours of filters plus 720 for emergency use. He had only used 131 hours so far leaving him with 2089 hours of filtering left or 87 days worth. Plenty for his needs. The carbon dioxide filters were all standardized so they could be interchanged between various applications (NASA learned that lesson from Apollo 13).
Now to deal with oxygen. He would need the oxygenator for the Antares 4 trip, but he didn't need it yet. Instead he'd take a couple of extra O2 tanks. They could sit in the rover and be connected to the O2 tanks that were already there so they could equalize with each other.
The Hab would take care of itself while he was gone, but what about his potato plants? Peeta planned to dump most of his water in the ground since he wouldn't be there to water them. Then he'd turn off the water reclaimer. The water would stay present in the atmosphere making it humid as hell. Water would condense on the wall, but it would keep the potatoes watered. He hoped the electronics would be okay. The other problem was he wouldn't be there to exhale carbon dioxide, which the plants needed. He already had a solution for that. Over a month ago, he had used the MAV fuel tank to collect CO2 from the Martian atmosphere. He then vented it into the Hab to be captured by the oxygenator which would make oxygen for making water. He'd repeat the process to give the plants the CO2 they needed and turn off the oxygenator.
Power, food, water, oxygen, CO2 filters for the rovers. Water and carbon dioxide for the plants. That was everything for Sirius 4.
The rover readied. The Hab prepared. Peeta was ready to make a multiday field trip. A twenty-day round trip. And he knew exactly where he was going.
He'd leave tomorrow.
So, I stuck with metric for this chapter. There was so much of it and the numbers were nice and round, so I kept them. The English unit conversions are below.
3200km to Schiaparelli crater= 1988.39 miles
Initial rover range 35km= 22miles
Ideal extended rover range 90km= 56 miles
Rover top speed 25kph= 15.5mph
37 degrees Celsius= 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit
Thanks for all the kudos and comments! I am so pleased people are enjoying this fic!!!! Please continue to leave feedback and ask questions :)
Also thanks to LoudMan1 who asked about astronauts sneezing in their spacesuits that gave me something to help make the fic a little more "real".
Song list for this chapter: 1. Stay Gold by First Aid Kit, 2. Low Rider by War, 3. Ridin' by Chamillionaire, 4. Renegades by X Ambassadors, 5. Daylight by Mike Tompkins
I also do not currently have a beta, so if you want to beta for me that'd be pretty cool as I have an adverb addiction, punctuation problems, and adding -ing issues and a habit of redundantly repeating myself over and over.
Chapter 4: Watched
Katniss adjusts to living on Mars time.
NASA tries to figure out what Peeta is up to on Mars.
Caesar Flickerman interviews people.
Haymitch has a Coke.
I am so thrilled with the Kudos and comments!!! Thanks to everyone who has taken time to read my story and give feedback!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katniss awoke to the shrill alarm on her cell phone. Her head ached and her eyelids felt like lead. This was getting harder every "morning". She groaned as she shut the alarm off. She sat up and stretched, then proceeded to get dressed in the near darkness of her room muttering a string of obscenities. "Fucking intergalactic babysitter." She shoved one leg in her black yoga pants. "Stupid astronaut can't stay with his group." She shoved her other leg in the yoga pants. "You learn that in fucking Kindergarten." She snapped on a bra. "What the hell kind of kid were you growing up?" She pulled on a soft green Henley and wove her hair in a quick braid- her go-to hairstyle. Living on Mars time was an ass-kicker and fashion was out the window along with sleep and a social life. It was like living with perpetual jet lag.
It wasn't like she had much of a social life anyway. But if she wanted to have one, she couldn't now.
She moved into the kitchen where the microwave clock glowed 12:13. Katniss knew it was "p.m." because she had gone to bed in the wee hours of the morning and because the sun glared in the windows. She continued her tirade as she made coffee in the Keurig and got a Greek yogurt and banana for breakfast.
"How do you take your coffee Mr. Mellark?"
"But it's so bitter."
"Like your soul."
"I wouldn't be bitter if it wasn't for being stuck on effing Mars time."
"Try being stuck on Mars."
"Oooh, burn. Still, Mars-time plus Earth-sun sucks."
"As Gramma Mellark used to say, 'This too shall pass.'"
"Do you even know what that means?"
"It means you want to be treated like a little boy."
"Don't look at me that way. You're the one that needs a babysitter."
Katniss shook her head. The longest conversation she had had lately was with an astronaut that wasn't there.
She grabbed her purse and keys and left for Johnson Space Center for another day of watching over Peeta Fucking Mellark.
Suddenly, she burst back through her front door and ran to her room to retrieve her cell phone. "Fuck you!" she called to the astronaut who wasn't there, but who she imagined would chuckle at her if he was.
That cell phone was her lifeline.
Shortly after Haymitch assigned her to Mars and Peeta, Katniss realized he tended to follow the same routine every day. By 9 am local time at the Antares 3 site, stuff moved or changed so she knew he was up. Haymitch decided to make this work in their favor by having Katniss live on Mars time, like they did for the Mars rover missions: Sprit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Haymitch had Nancy "Wiress" Ng, program Katniss's phone to keep Mars time. She'd wake up when Peeta did and go to bed when Peeta did. She probably took a crap when Peeta did too. Her life was tethered to the stranded astronaut until he was rescued or...she didn't allow herself to consider the alternative. Even if he was a thorn in her side.
Darius, her neighbor and landlord in their shared duplex, was on the doorstep, returning home for lunch when he heard the expletive from his normally quiet and reserved neighbor. He paused wondering what caused the outburst, then went inside shaking his head, perplexed.
Haymitch was uncomfortable. He did not like public appearances, but the recording studio set up in the media room was torture: bright lights, make up, appearing on live TV, talking to a camera instead of a real person. He had done it plenty of times before, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
Countdown. Lights. Camera. And they were on.
"Good morning! Caesar Flickerman here with CNN's Mellark Monitor, where we keep you informed about astronaut Peeta Mellark, whose plight on Mars has captured the attention of the nation and the world. Several EVAs, what are they for? And what do they mean? And later, an update on plans to rescue him." He flashed a megawatt smile to the camera. "Joining me from Houston this morning is NASA's director of Mars operations, Haymitch Abernathy! Mr. Abernathy, welcome to the show."
"Thank you for having me," Haymitch answered stiffly, talking directly to the camera.
"Now, tell me, what is the status of the most watched man on Mars?"
"He's, uh, doing well, as far as we can tell. He's busy. He's healthy."
"So, Haymitch, the satellite images coming in lately show Peeta making a lot of EVAsss." He lingered on the "s" letting it out like a short hiss. It was Caesar's trademark. It grated on Haymitch's nerves.
Haymitch smoothed his tie. "Yes, we've observed him making alterations to Rover 2. He added the battery from Rover 1 by putting it in a homemade saddle bag of sorts. The next day he removed 14 solar cells from the solar farm and put them on the rover's roof. "
"What do you think he's up to?"
"Our analysis is that he's preparing to make a long journey. We have observed him doing incremental tests: driving aimlessly for an hour before heading back for the Hab and another time driving four kilometers and back."
"He's loading up supplies."
"Any idea of where he might go?" asked Flickerman.
"The only place for him to go is Antares 4. He doesn't know that we know he's alive and that we're watching him. From his perspective, the only hope of rescue is the Antares 4 mission."
"It appears he intends to leave soon. What do you think?"
"Well, he knows the MAV is already at Antares 4, so he might be trying to get to it. If he did, he'd be able to contact us."
"That would be a good thing right?"
Haymitch scoffed. "No, actually, it's not. There's nothing there but the MAV. To drive thirty-two hundred kilometers one way, on short supplies, over dangerous terrain, to use a radio? The risks far outweigh any benefit. It isn't worth it. He'd be leaving the safety of the Hab and all of his life support systems behind."
"It sounds like you'd rather he stay put?"
"Absolutely. And that's what we'd tell him if we had any way to communicate."
Caesar's brows furrowed and he stated knowingly, "But he can't stay put forever, can he?"
"We're working on that. We have a plan to land the MDV from the Antares 4 mission at the Antares 3 site to pick him up."
"I thought that idea was scrapped. It was too dangerous," said Flickerman frowning.
"It was. We're working with JPL on making it safer." Haymitch did not like the rescue plan being challenged by this talking head.
"Does JPL have enough time to make modifications and test them?" asked Caesar. "I mean, there's only three and a half years until Antares 4 launches..."
Haymitch felt defensive. "The Lunar Lander was built from scratch in seven years."
Beaming, Caesar laughed, dispelling the mounting tension. "You're right about that! So, tell me Haymitch, just between you and me, what are Peeta Mellark's odds?"
Haymitch's weariness showed in his tired features and slumped shoulders. He heaved a big sigh. "The odds are not in his favor, but we're going to do everything we can to bring him home alive."
"Well, he's had quite the piece of bad luck, but we wish him all the best of luck. We'll be sure to be paying attention. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us."
"Thank you Caesar."
Haymitch got out of there as fast as he could, and back to his desk. He had his flask out in record time and enjoyed a long tranquilizing drink. Dealing with talk show hosts was the worst. The Worst.
Katniss did not know what to expect when Haymitch asked her to come to the next directors' meeting. She was silently grateful that Prim wasn't in class when she had called. Prim helped her pick out a charcoal grey pencil skirt and a light yellow blouse. At Prim's insistence she wore her hair down in waves rather than her usual braid. It made her look more mature, Prim said. She meant to shower, but the hot water went out. Again. She hoped Darius would fix it quickly.
She opened the door to the conference room and took in the sight before her. Everyone in here was a director. Even Haymitch Abernathy was four levels of management above her. He sat on the other side of the table drinking coffee. Next to Haymitch, Katniss recognized Johanna Mason, whom she met before, scrolling through messages on her phone. On the near side of the large table was Plutarch Heavensbe the director of JPL typing furiously on his laptop. And there were others, some of whom she didn't recognize.
Katniss was still standing in the doorway when a tall man brushed past her. "Excuse me," came the deep voice. Then he narrowed his eyes and looked at her more closely. "Who are you?" he asked not even bothering to mask his surprise. Katniss looked up and noticed he had dark hair and grey eyes, like hers.
Overwhelmed by the room full of big wigs, Katniss blushed furiously and answered, "Katniss," so quietly that the man could barely hear her. His eyes went distant for a second and he turned his head, attentive to his earpiece. Then he gave a short nod and turned his attention back to Katniss and resumed the conversation.
"Catnip?" he asked with a frown, incredulous.
"Katniss. Katniss Everdeen," she said getting irritated with the brusque man.
"Why are you here?" he asked, sipping his hot coffee carefully.
"I'm from SatCon."
"You a director?"
"No. I just work there, I...I'm nobody..." Katniss was getting more embarrassed and more indignant the longer she talked with Tall, Dark, and Rude. And handsome...but mostly rude.
"Gale, leave her alone!" Haymitch called across the room and waved Katniss over to the seat next to him. "I put her in charge of tracking Mellark and of getting the imagery."
"Where's Robert Mitchell?" asked Gale making his way to his own chair.
"He's busy," said Haymitch. "Sweetheart here is handling all the Martian satellites and keeps them pointed at Mellark for us."
"Well, for starters, she noticed he was alive when the first images came in."
"What? So she gets a promotion because she just happened to be in the right place at the right time?"
"No, she got a promotion because she figured out he was alive. Stop being a jackass, Gale. You're gonna hurt her feelings."
"Didn't think of that. Sorry Catnip."
"Right. Katniss. Sorry."
"S'okay." Katniss shrugged. It wasn't okay, but she wasn't going to mouth off at a director.
Plutarch paused typing and looked up from his laptop. "Where's Seneca? I've got a plane to catch. I want to get this meeting started."
"Quit your bitching," said Johanna. "None of us wants to be here."
"He'll be here," assured Haymitch.
Gale Hawthorne swiveled his chair back and forth while he listened to the occasional message in his earpiece. He was the flight director and the earpiece allowed him to listen in on real time comm chatter from Mission Control.
Haymitch turned to Johanna and asked, "So, how'd I do on Flickerman's show this morning?"
"Weeell, you shouldn't say things like 'bring him home alive'. It reminds people that he might die," Johanna answered.
"Like they're going to forget that," Haymitch scoffed.
"You asked for my opinion. Don't like it, go fuck yourself," Johanna retorted.
"You're such a delicate flower. How'd you end up in media relations?"
"Fuck me if I know."
"Your place or mine?"
At that moment Seneca breezed through the door. Despite the wear and tear that everyone was feeling since finding Peeta Mellark alive on Mars, Seneca hardly showed it. He was still perfectly put together; the only sign of weariness was the slight purple shading under his eyes.
"Sorry I'm late," he removed folders from his briefcase and stacked them neatly as he took his seat. He looked across the room. "Looks like we're all here," he stated. "Let's get started." Wasting no time he turned to Haymitch. "Haymitch, what's Mellark's status?"
"Alive and well. No change since the e-mail I sent this morning."
"What is the status of the RTG? Johanna, does the public know yet?"
"The public hasn't figured it out and we're not obligated to inform them of our analysis of the imagery. So, so far, so good."
Seneca turned his attention back to Haymitch. "Why would he want the RTG?"
"Heat. He wants to make a long journey in the rover, but the heaters take a lot of power. The RTG is hot. Using it for heat is a great idea, actually."
"But isn't it dangerous?" asked Seneca.
"Well, as long as it's intact, no. Even if the container cracks it would still be fine. If the pellets inside crack, he's a dead man."
"Let's hope that doesn't happen," said Seneca. His eyes darted to Plutarch. "How are plans for the MDV coming along?"
"We had plans for the MDV and you rejected them." Plutarch sulked.
"Come on Plutarch."
Plutarch took a deep breath. "We have an idea to lighten the MDV. It can be its usual weight for landing, then drop weight to make the lateral flight to Antares 4. So we're working on making a detachable hull and heat shield. They're running the numbers now."
"Good. Keep me posted." Seneca turned his sharp gaze to Katniss and smiled. "Welcome to the big leagues Miss Everdeen."
"Thank you, sir."
"How's our coverage of Mellark?"
"Generally we have excellent coverage, except every forty-one hours there's a seventeen minute gap. The orbits work out that way," she explained.
"Good. You had an immediate answer. I like when people are organized." He gave her an approving nod.
"Thank you," Katniss said quietly.
"I want that gap down to four minutes. I'm giving you total authority over satellite trajectories and orbital adjustments. Starting now. Make it happen."
"Yes sir," Katniss said. Though, she had no idea how she was going to do it.
"Gale, your last e-mail said you had something urgent to discuss?"
"Yeah, when are we going to tell the crew that Mellark is alive?"
Haymitch grunted. "Gale, we discussed this."
Gale pressed his lips in a fine line. "What's the problem? Do you think they can't handle it? They think they lost a crewmate. They're devastated."
"And telling them they abandoned a crewmate? You think that's going to make them feel better?"
"They deserve to know the truth. We can't keep them in the dark."
"It's best for them to focus on getting home!" insisted Haymitch.
"No! I'm the flight director. I decide what's best for them and I say we tell them!" Gale's steel eyes flashed hotly.
Everyone sat speechless watching the two men argue. Katniss was stunned by the intensity between them. Gale and Haymitch stared each other down across the room. All eyes shifted to Seneca.
Seneca's penetrating blue eyes flitted between the two men, then huffing he said, "I'm with Haymitch. We don't tell the crew until we have a solid plan. Some hope. There's no point to do otherwise."
"Bullshit." Gale leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "This is total bullshit." His voice cracked on the last word.
The room was silent. Seneca waited a few moments for the tension to pass. Then proceeded, nodding toward Plutarch. "Okay, you guys are on the rescue option." Then he turned to Haymitch. "But how does he stay alive until Antares 4?"
Haymitch glanced quickly at some of the paperwork before him. "Our problem isn't going to come from equipment failure. All of the systems should continue working as long as there's someone there to fix problems as they arise. The real difficulty is food. Mellark's going to starve to death once his food runs out in a year. We need to send him food supplies. Simple as that."
"Can we land an Antares 4 presupply at the Antares 3 site?" Seneca asked.
"That's what we were thinking," said Haymitch. "Only they weren't set to launch for another year. They aren't anywhere near ready. Beyond that, with the positions of Earth and Mars, we figure it will take nine months to get the probe there. Peeta should have three hundred and fifty more days of food. That means we need to get the probe ready in three months."
Plutarch nearly choked. "It takes six months to properly prepare a probe. We normally pipeline a bunch of them at once. We're not set up to make one in a hurry."
"I'm sure you can find a way, Plutarch," said Seneca.
"The overtime alone will be a nightmare."
"You work on getting us that probe; I'll work on getting you the funding."
"There's also the booster," Haymitch said, clearly uncomfortable with the information he had to relay. "The only way to get a probe to Mars with the current positions of the planets is to use a Super-heavy." He rubbed his face. "The only Super we currently have available is the Delta IX rocket that's at the Cape for the Saturn probe. We'll have to steal that. I talked to ULA, and they just can't make another booster in time."
Seneca stroked his beard thoughtfully. "The EagleEye 3 team will be ticked, but okay. We will delay their mission if JPL gets the payload done in time."
Plutarch rubbed his eyes. "We'll do our best."
"He'll starve to death if you don't," Seneca said.
After a few more exchanges, Seneca concluded the meeting and the directors all filed out. Katniss muttered under her breath, "Astronauts are crazy."
She didn't think anyone heard her until Johanna piped up, "What did you expect, Brainless. It takes a special person to strap a rocket to their ass and blast themselves into outer space."
The lights of the Johnson Space Center glowed outside Haymitch's office windows. It was late at night and normally, he'd be at home at this hour. Instead he was typing an e-mail to a congressman. He hated begging, but NASA was in desperate need of emergency funding to cover all the overtime, new projects, and everything else they were doing to rescue Peeta. Haymitch found himself doing a lot of things he normally wouldn't do: changing shift schedules, altering fund allocations, juggling projects, and out-and-out looting of other projects. But he was willing to do anything to bring Peeta Mellark home, as evidenced by his ass-kissing and groveling to the prominent congressman on the committee that could approve emergency funding. You owe me Mellark.
A soft knock at the door interrupted him. "Come in!" he called gruffly and he looked up to see Katniss enter.
"What's going on, Sweetheart?"
"He's on the move."
Haymitch's eyebrows furrowed. "Another test drive, you think?"
She shook her head. "No, he drove straightaway from the Hab for almost two hours, did a short EVA, then drove again. I think the EVA was to change the batteries."
Haymitch leaned back in his chair. "Well, maybe it's an overnight test?"
Katniss shrugged. "If it was just another test, wouldn't he stay within sight or walking distance of the Hab?"
"How far did he get?" asked Haymitch.
Haymitch let out a low whistle; that was a good bit of distance. What was that boy up to?
"Shit," he cursed under his breath. "We've had teams run the numbers on that set up of his and there's no way to make it to Antares 4 with it. He never loaded up the oxygenator or the water reclaimer." He huffed in frustration, "He'll die before he gets there."
Kaniss's brows furrowed. "I don't think he's going to Antares 4...Well...I mean, if he is...he's taking a weird path."
"He's driving south-southwest. Schiaparelli crater is southeast."
"Hmm...Well, what's he doing right now?"
"He's got the solar cells out now, charging. The last time he did that, it took twelve hours, so I was going to go home and try to get some sleep, if that's okay."
Haymitch leaned back in his chair. "Sounds good. Keep me updated. Let me know if he heads back for the Hab or continues this course."
"Yes, sir," Katniss said and left, grateful to get some extra rest.
The brass fanfare of Flickerman's show announced a return from commercial break.
"Welcome back folks! Coming up on the Mellark Monitor we will be talking to Dr. Roman Aurelius about Peeta's mental state, but first, we have Jennifer Jackson from the United States Postal Service. Welcome to the show Mrs. Jackson," said Caesar flashing his smile.
"Thank you for having me, Caesar." Jennifer nodded.
"So, it sounds like the Antares 3 mission, or really, Peeta Mellark caused a bit of a stir at the USPS. Tell us about it."
"Ah, yes, well, when he died, we released a small run of Peeta Mellark commemorative stamps. Twenty-Thousand to be exact," began Jennifer, "We wanted to honor his memory. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
"But he wasn't dead."
Jennifer cleared her throat, then spoke, "No, when we found out he was alive, we immediately stopped production and had the stamps recalled."
"Why is that?"
"Well, you see Caesar, the postal service does not issue stamps for people who are still living. We managed the recall quickly, but thousands were already sold. It is the first time something like this has ever happened in the history of the United States Postal Service."
"I bet those stamps are worth a pretty penny now, huh?" suggested Caesar with a smile.
"Well, I don't know about that. I mean, they'll be rare, but not super rare," said Jennifer seriously.
Caesar nodded and gave a bright smile. "Alright folks, if you were lucky enough to buy one of the Peeta Mellark commemorative stamps, I suggest you hang on to it! Jennifer Jackson, thank you so much for coming to visit us today and talk to us about this unusual stamp mix up and postal service first."
"Thank you, Caesar."
"Let's welcome our next guest, Dr. Roman Aurelius, flight psychologist for the Antares missions, who we hope will shed some light on Peeta's mental state. Dr. Aurelius, thank you for coming on our show."
Dr. Aurelius nodded. "I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me and for all you do to keep Peeta foremost in the public consciousness."
Caesar beamed at the flattery.
"So, Dr. Aurelius," Caesar began, "Did you get to know Peeta personally?"
Dr. Aurelius nodded again. "Yes. I did psychological evaluations of the whole crew every month before launch."
"What can you tell us about him?"
"He's a good-natured guy all around. Remarkably observant and intelligent. He's a particularly resourceful problem-solver. But he also loves to joke and make people laugh. In fact, that's why, despite his age, he was chosen for the mission."
"His age?" Caesar interrupted.
"Yes, Peeta was the youngest person ever assigned to a Mars Mission. When you have 6 people who have to live in close quarters with each other for over a year on an intense mission, they need... social compatibility, to be able work together and get along well. Peeta got along with everyone, but more than that, he brought the best out in each member of the crew."
"So he was a catalyst, you're saying?"
"Yes, exactly! A catalyst." Dr. Aurelius nodded enthusiastically. "Everyone was better for having known him. It was a terrible blow to the crew when he 'died'." Sadness flashed across Dr. Aurelius's face for a moment. Then he smoothed his features and pushed the glasses up the bridge of his nose.
"It's been reported to us that the crew is not yet aware that Peeta is alive."
"That is correct. The higher ups thought it was best for them to not know. It was a tough decision to make I am sure."
Caesar nodded seriously, then asked, "So, tell me Dr. Aurelius, what do you think Peeta's mindset is on Mars right now? How is he handling the stress? I mean, he's alone, has no idea we're trying to help him..."
"When they were in the end stages of preparing for the mission, the crew was stressed, exhausted, and moody from the grueling training schedule, Peeta included, but the way he showed it was different. His response to stress was to crack more jokes, play pranks, and bring in baked goods. He got people laughing and feeling content. So that is probably what he is doing now, using his humor to distract himself from the stresses of being abandoned on a lifeless planet."
"The imagery coming in shows that Peeta has been very busy, what's your take on all his activity?"
"Well, I think the activity is a good thing. It shows he still has hope. If or when he gives up hope, he'd stop working so hard; he'd stop trying. But I also think he wants to be able to make it to the MAV in the Schiaparelli crater."
"That's what Haymitch Abernathy suggested in his interview. Why do you think Peeta would attempt such a perilous journey to the MAV?"
"Communication. When you know you're going to die, you want to reach out, to be heard."
"So you think Peeta just wants to talk to someone before he dies?"
"But he hasn't given up yet, right?"
"No, not yet. But if he does, survival won't matter anymore. He'll get out to the MAV and reach out, then...well, there's enough morphine in the supplies to give a lethal dose. It's a better way out than starving to death."
Caesar blinked. There was a palpable pause.
"We'll be right back."
Haymitch sat drinking coffee and typing on his computer when the phone rang.
"Haymitch Abernathy." He grunted out the greeting.
"Hey, Haymitch. Plutarch Heavensbe."
"Plutarch! Thanks for calling me back. I know you don't have a lot of time." Haymitch stood and walked over to the window.
"Yeah, no problem. What did you need to discuss?" asked Plutarch.
"Well, I was thinking about the presupply probe." Haymitch gazed out at the cars in the parking lot, squinting at the sun's glare off the windsheilds. "We still have no way to talk to Peeta and let him know we're sending it...So how can we let him know when it lands?"
"We've been working on that. We thought about having the probe send a radio beacon."
"It would have to be a strong signal, though. The receivers in the Hab and rovers are just not that sensitive."
"But Mellark may not even be listening," said Haymitch. "Why would he be?"
"We've thought about that too. We are working on a mechanism that will release bright green ribbons with the words 'PEETA, TURN ON YOUR COMM' printed on them. It would detonate a thousand meters above the surface. The bright green will show up the best against the Martian sky and soil."
"Hmph." Haymitch muttered turning back to his desk. "That could work. He'd only need to notice one."
"But, Haymitch, if he's really making a trip to Antares 4 in that cobbled together Mellarkmobile of his, this...will all be for nothing. I mean we could land the probe at Antares 4 if it comes down to that, but without the Hab, well..."
Haymitch slumped back in his chair. Plutarch didn't need to say it. Haymitch knew it too. If Peeta was headed for Antares 4, he was a dead man.
At the vending machines, Haymitch grunted in frustration at the sparse offerings, evidence of long hours for everyone. He was hungry, but the cafeteria was closed. The best candy bars and snacks were all gone. He selected pretzels (it was either those or the mini rice cakes) and got a soda. The Dr. Pepper was out so he had to deal with Coke. He checked his cell phone on the way back to the office and saw he had an e-mail from Katniss. Mellark is on the move again.
Haymitch decided to go pay her a visit. He turned around and headed for SatCon. When he got there, he found her at her computer still studying the imagery and pulled up a chair.
Katniss pointed at the image that she had been looking at. "Look, he's still going in a straight line. There's no way he's headed for Antares 4."
"How far is he now?"
"One hundred and fifty kilometers."
"What are those? The solar cells?"
"Yeah, he drove two hours, did a short EVA to swap batteries, then did another two hour drive and set out the solar cells to charge." She rubbed her eyes. They were getting sore from staring at the computer screen for so long. And she brushed some of the flyaways from her face.
"What is that boy up to?" wondered Haymitch aloud. They both peered at the screen.
"Wait a minute...Wait just a god damn minute," he said and he grabbed a pad of post-it notes and a pen. "Give me the coordinates for the Hab there, Sweetheart." She gave them and he wrote furiously. "And his current location." Again he scribbled as Katniss rattled off the latitude and longitude of Peeta's location.
He moved through the small office looking on the walls and shuffled through stacks of paper.
"What are you looking for?" asked Katniss.
"A map," answered Haymitch.
"We have digital maps on the computer," said Katniss, confused.
"Not that I can write on!"
"The break room." She led him down the hall and around the corner to the breakroom that serviced most of the nerd-dungeon in the basement of Johnson Space Center.
"Yes! It has latitude and longitude lines!" said Haymitch crossing the room and pulling a table away from the wall so he had better access to the map. He looked at the post-it and, with a sharpie, marked the location of the Hab in the middle of Acidalia Planitia on the map. Then looking back and forth at the coordinates and the map he marked the second location, where Peeta was currently waiting for the solar cells to charge.
"Hey! That's our map!" complained a technician who happened to be in the break room. "You can't draw on that!"
"I'll buy you a new one," said Haymitch absently, double checking the coordinates.
Haymitch stepped back. "A ruler. I need a ruler."
Katniss looked around but didn't see one, so she grabbed the binder from the flustered technician.
"Hey!" protested the technician.
"We'll get you another one," said Katniss. She turned to Haymitch. "Here." She handed him the notebook. Using the technician's binder as a straightedge, he connected the two dots and continued the line further south-southwest from Peeta's current location straight through to a bright yellow dot.
He stepped back, with his hands on his hips, grinning from ear to ear. "Peeta, you sneaky, clever bastard."
"Pathfinder," said Katniss cautiously.
"Yep. He's going to Pathfinder. He can definitely make it there and back with the supplies on hand," said Haymitch gesturing along Peeta's path on the map.
"And bring Pathfinder and Sojourner back with him," added Katniss.
Haymitch pulled out his cell phone. "That boy knows what he's doing. We lost contact with Pathfinder in 1997. There's no telling whether the solar cells just got dirty or there's a larger problem, but Peeta's an engineer; fixing things is his job. If he can get it online again, we might be able to communicate!" he said dialing a number. He waited for a response. "Plutarch? Yeah, it's Haymitch. Listen, Mellark's not headed for Antares 4...He's headed for Pathfinder!...Yeah, it's a total game-changer...Okay, look, you dig up everyone that was on that project and get them to JPL and I'll catch the next flight out."
He walked briskly out of the break room shaking his head. "Son of a bitch," he muttered under his breath, still grinning.
Katniss stood in the break room a little longer, gazing at the map. She traced Peeta's path with her fingertips.
At the end of her shift she discreetly removed the map from the wall, folded it up, and took it home.
JPL= Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California
ULA= United Launch Alliance a 50/50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin to provide access to space. They are essentially rocket scientists.
3200 kilometers = 1988 miles
I compulsively listen to music when I write, but struggled to find much that fit the emotional tone of this chapter. However I have a few songs. It's about "feel" more than "lyrics" though the lyrics matter in some songs or just a portion of them anyway.
"She Hates Me"- Puddle of Mud, for when Katniss is cussing out Peeta while she gets ready for work.
"Kryptonite"- 3 Doors Down, for when they think Peeta is on his way to the MAV
Chapter 5: Driven
The potatoes grow.
Peeta gets a radio.
Thanks to everyone for the kudos and comments! Please keep 'em coming!
Also thanks to my husband and hard-core Mars lover who edited this and helped me science it up.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was still dark when Peeta's eyes fluttered open, greeted by the myriad of LED’s and digital displays. He ran his hands through his hair and rubbed his face, trying to scrub away the fatigue. With a groan, he sat up and put on his watch.
Biscuits, he thought. He missed biscuits. Buttery, flakey, hot, right out of the oven.
Nice crispy bacon with some snap to it. Rye liked it floppy. Peeta thought that was gross. Rye would even eat the floppy, fatty ends off of other pieces of bacon. Peeta thought that was revolting. Ban didn't like bacon at all. Peeta sometimes wondered if Ban was adopted.
He missed his bothers.
He missed so many things.
He missed everything.
He reached up and stretched, or tried to stretch, and shift around in the little nest he'd made himself to sleep in, but with every move he bumped into something. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The inside of the rover was about the size of a van. Plenty of room for an ordinary EVA, but he'd been living in it for eight days. Sitting and driving. Sitting and reading. Sitting and watching B sci-fi movies. Sitting and eating.
It was becoming claustrophobic. He couldn't wait to get back to the wide open space of the Hab and his potatoes. He hoped they were doing okay. He had left Rue's folk music playing for them. That left him with only Finnick's boy bands. Goddammit Finnick!
Every morning he woke in darkness. Checked his oxygen and carbon dioxide levels right away. Washed his face, brushed his teeth. Even on short supplies, his little routine made him feel more human, but he skipped shaving. The stubble was getting itchy. He couldn’t wait to get a clean shave back at the Hab. He didn't want to come out of this looking like fucking Robinson Crusoe.
Then he had a breakfast packet and some water. It was crucial to eat first because what followed next could earn a place in Dante's Inferno.
He was living on a planet that had pretty much nothing to offer him, and everything to take, one that seemed to be forever at odds with him. It meant he had to make every single thing he had last. Meant, well, that he saved...everything, and that included his own piss and shit.
Peeta had worked hard to make that damned water- nearly blowing himself up even- he wasn't going to waste it. So, instead of peeing and letting it boil off in the Martian air, he saved it in a bin. Each time he opened that bin, the rover smelled like a rank truck stop bathroom. He'd run the saved urine through the water reclaimer when he got back to the Hab.
He saved his shit too. It was precious manure for his crops and he was the only source, after all. He had gotten practiced at crapping in a bag. If the bin of piss smelled bad, just imagine what it was like after he did the other thing.
Once he was finished with that lovely routine it was time to go out and stack the solar cells on the rover's roof and hit the road. When he first started the trip, he laid them out all organized, but that had devolved to just dropping them wherever.
After securing the cells, he hopped back in the rover, turned on crappy boy band music and drove at the blistering speed of 25 kph. Warp speed. Engage!
The RTG was working fabulously as a heater and Peeta was comfortable in a pair of cutoffs he made from a uniform and a thin t-shirt. As expected, he kept the piece of insulation duct-taped to the hull until the cab got too warm, then pulled it down until the cab got too cold. Up, down, up, down, all damn day. At night, it was cold enough outside that the RTG's heat bled off sufficiently so he didn't have to get up to pull the insulation down. That was a mercy. Sleep was crappy enough without having to wake repeatedly to adjust the insulation.
After about two hours of driving, he got out and switched the battery leads. Then he had another nearly two hours before the second battery ran out of juice and he stopped for the day. Then he set out the solar panels and just waited. Meanwhile, Peeta had classic novels to read (he was half way through The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes now) and movies to watch.
While driving, the sky changed from black, to slate, to a dark rose. Soft, pale light bathed the interior of the rover as the tiny cornflower blue sun crested the horizon and lit the alien world anew. Finally, the sky settled on a light gray or butterscotch depending on how much dust was in the air. He had to admit, that amidst all of his other difficulties, this part was truly beautiful.
All that driving and waiting gave him a lot of time for thinking. And he was thinking…there was no way this set up would get him to Schiaparelli Crater.
This trip, of a little over twenty sols, was like a small scale model of what he'd have to do to get to the Antares 4 site. He had to be prepared for that trip to take up to fifty sols. He would need the water reclaimer, the oxygenator, more food, more water, more power. More of everything. This rover was maxed out as it was. How was he going to pack the rest of all that stuff and still have room for himself. He had time to figure it out, but sometimes it was overwhelming.
Eventually it got dark. Peeta got tired. He slept in a veritable rat's nest of food packs, water tanks, an extra O2 tank, piles of CO2 filters, box of pee, bag of crap, and his personal items. He had made a bed out of a pile of the crew's jumpsuits and his own pillow and blanket.
Peeta looked out into the gathering twilight and watched the stars appear. They were absolutely brilliant here with little atmosphere to block or scatter their light. He searched for a certain bright spot...it should be…near the horizon...there! Right there! Earth. Home. He felt a tug of longing on his heart, like an invisible tether still anchored him to Earth spanning all those millions of miles. It was so far away. One hundred forty million miles was such a long distance that it became an abstraction in Peeta's mind. It was so hard to fathom, even though he had traveled all of it.
It would be February soon. He imagined what his family would be doing. There'd be Valentine's candy on the shelves. Everything would be decked out in pink and red. The Mellark family bakery would be making heart shaped sugar cookies with pink sprinkles and cupcakes with red, white, and pink frosting.
Rye's birthday was in February. He'd be 29. Peeta couldn't wait to give him hell when he turned 30 next year. Now, he wouldn't be there to do it. Well, there's always 40.
He nestled down amidst his piles of junk and went to sleep absently rubbing his watch band with his thumb.
He was getting close. By his reckoning, he was about 100 kilometers from Pathfinder. Navigation had been tricky. There weren't exactly any gas stations to stop at and ask for directions. He had planned to use digital maps and follow prominent features or landmarks. But the Hab was in the flat plain of Acidalia Planitia. There were no goddamn features to look for or navigate by.
Next, Peeta tried making a compass with a needle from the med kit and using electricity from the rover to make an electromagnet. But Mars doesn't have a global magnetic field. On to Plan C.
Peeta relied on Phobos. The moon, Phobos, made an east to west circuit of the sky twice a day. Using its known position, he could make a pretty good guess of where he was and whether he was headed in the right direction. Peeta wasn't sure if following the god of Fear was the best thing, but it was all he had.
On the third sol after leaving the Hab, he entered a valley, which he named Odair Valley, for the charismatic leader of the mission. As the current Commander of the mission and the King of Mars, it was his prerogative to name shit. Three sols later, he exited the valley and was once again in a featureless expanse relying on Fear to be his guide.
But today he came up on a small crater, not much more than five kilometers across. It didn't even have a listed name, but it was on the maps. So finally, Peeta had something to navigate by. He was on target. He named the small crater Lighthouse of Alexandria because it finally helped him know where he was and guide him the rest of the way.
Now that he found the Lighthouse of Alexandria, navigation would be much easier because after the small crater, there was Hamelin crater, and after that, a pair of hills, known as Twin Peaks, would guide him straight to Pathfinder.
It was the end of his driving day, so now he had twelve hours to kill before it got dark and it was time to go to sleep.
He was close. Damn close. So close he could taste it, but the batteries ran out of juice with only twenty-two kilometers to go. With Lighthouse of Alexandria behind him, Hamelin crater next to him, and the Twin Peaks in the distance, he had all the landmarks he needed to get to Pathfinder.
When he first started out, the terrain was pretty flat and the rocks weren't that big. The rover had a good clearance, so he was able to drive right over them. Now, he had to pay attention. The terrain was rockier and some of the rocks were big enough that he had to drive around them. It was becoming a chore and it slowed him down.
He set out the solar panels in a haphazard fashion as was his current habit. It was nice having at least one thing that didn't need to be done exactly a certain way. After setting them out, he just stood there. He wasn't ready to get back in, but there wasn't much else to do out here.
He decided to do a circuit around the rover to see how it was handling the journey. It was dusty, with scuffs and scratches from the dust storm of doom. The grousers protruding from the silicon rubber tires were hardly worn at all. There were some dings and dents on the anodized aluminum wheels between the grousers, but nothing to worry about. The wheel-flexures were still just as sturdy and shock absorbing as ever. A peek under the rover satisfied him that the four-wheel free-pivoting suspension system- a hotly contested deviation from the rocker-bogie system that had been favored by NASA since the inception of planetary rovers- was holding up well. Each wheel moved independently of the other wheels, with its own drive and steering actuators housed internally. It’s one reason why it took so much power.
All in all, this was encouraging. Normally, a rover was just for quick, out-and-back EVAs, but he had been long-haulin' it across Mars. He couldn't help but be impressed with how well his modifications worked. If he did manage to make the journey to Schiparelli Crater, it was good to know the rover’s drivetrain had the stamina to make it.
He walked to the back of the rover, ready to climb into the airlock, then hesitated, turned on his heel, and walked back the other way. He'd been cramped in that smelly box now for days.
It felt strange, just walking away from the rover like that. But at the same time it was liberating. He got about a half kilometer away, far enough to lose that claustrophobic, walls-closing-in-on-you feeling that had been growing on him, but close enough that he still felt safe.
He started walking circles, then he started skipping. Literally skipping. He felt like a little boy, but skipping was the fastest way to move in Martian gravity; it felt good.
He kicked a rock. That rock hadn't moved in millions of years, and likely wouldn't move again. He was the first to kick that rock. That was a pretty neat feeling. He was the first to even be here. Everywhere he stepped, touched, he was the first. Get out of the rover? First guy to be there. Climb a hill? First guy to ever climb that hill. He turned around to look at the rover, he was the first to drive so far on the surface of Mars. First! First! First!
He was rarely first at anything. Third son of a baker. Came in second to Rye at the Texas State Wrestling Championships. Sixth man to join the Mars crew. The fifth to leave the MDV. The seventeenth to walk on the surface of Mars. He even had it tattooed on his shoulder.
The whole crew got tattoos. Clove De La Rosa almost chickened out. She was afraid the needle would hurt. The woman could throw a knife fifty feet with deadly accuracy, but was scared of a friggin' tattoo needle. Peeta made sure she didn't back out. He reminded her that she had survived the centrifuge, the vomit comet, and had fixed a simulated computer failure while being spun around upside down. She was still uncomfortable with the needle. Peeta promised to go first and then hold her hand through hers. And that he'd bring her any baked good she wanted everyday for the next month. With his encouragement, teasing, cajoling, and bribing he got her in the tattoo chair. His hand was sore for a while, but Clove got her tattoo- number fifteen- and the whole team had their "numbers" on their right shoulder blades.
Now, he was the first to live on Mars for more than thirty-one days. The first to grow crops on Mars. He turned a full three-hundred and sixty degrees taking in the expanse all around him.
He was the first person to live completely and utterly alone on another planet.
He missed his crew. What he wouldn't give to talk to them again. To anyone, really. About anything. For five minutes. Just five minutes.
However, he had been continuing to keep up his log. The log was like a conversation. A one-sided conversation. It was scientific, even if rather candid at times. He wondered if he should maybe go back and edit it, but he didn't know how. Even if he did die on this God-forsaken planet, they'd know what he had to say, dammit!
And tomorrow he'd be the first to recover a Mars probe. He might actually get to talk to someone before he died.
When he got back to Earth, he'd get a number one tattooed on the other shoulder. He fucking earned it.
Katniss was nervous when she noticed that Peeta did not return to the rover. What are you up to Mellark? The next images showed him going around the rover. Is there a problem with the rover? The cells? He was out further from the rover again. Get back in the rover. Further. Please. Further still. He was now about a half kilometer away from the rover. Get back in the damn rover, Mellark! She twisted her braid, anxiously waiting as each image came in and he was still meandering around on the surface of Mars. With each passing minute, her agitation mounted. I mean it Mellark. I just want you to know I am really, really mad at you right now.
She decided that stressing over Mellark wasn't going to help and soothed herself thinking he had been cooped up in that rover for a long time and just needed to stretch his legs. Honestly, it was surprising it had taken this long. She went to the break room and paid a visit to the vending machines. They had recently refilled them so Katniss had no problem getting a Sprite and cheese popcorn, her favorite snack.
She walked back to her desk hoping for a change, but he was still out there, apparently on top of a hill. Katniss paced, chewing her thumbnail worriedly. She was afraid he could get into trouble outside of the rover. He could twist an ankle on one of those rocks! Or fall and tear his spacesuit! This new location was much rockier than Acidalia Planitia where the Hab was. And he was clambering around like a little boy in a play ground.
Finally the imagery revealed he was on his way back to the rover and then he was nowhere to be seen. Katniss surmised he was safe and sound inside the "Mellarkmobile" as some of the directors called it. About time. Katniss breathed a sigh of relief, a little surprised at just how worried she was about her charge. She lowered her head to her desk thoroughly exhausted. Don't you ever scare me like that again!
I did it! Peeta could have jumped up and down for joy if he weren't in the rover. I did it! I did it! I did it! He suited up faster than ever and skipped over to the lander. This whole harebrained scheme of his worked! The alterations to the rover worked! His navigation worked! And here, in front of him, was the lander. He knelt in the sand and marveled as he reached out and touched it. He had to feel it, to make it real. Although it was nothing but a 200 kilogram broken radio right now, he had a good shot at fixing it. And if he fixed it? He'd be able to communicate with NASA. He might even get rescued!
3 He'd been running on just a little spark of hope that he could survive to Antares 4. But with the lander in his possession, he felt that spark in him surge into something stronger.
The lander had been folded into a tetrahedron that was covered in canvas balloons to cushion its landing on Mars. It bounced and rolled, came to a stop, and deflated the balloons. Then the tetrahedral shape opened up here on site. The part of the lander Peeta wanted sat in the middle of the three solar panels that had unfolded after landing.
It was half covered in decades-worth of windblown sand. Peeta was back to the very familiar practice of digging. A quick search revealed the location of Sojourner. Peeta tucked the tiny rover in the airlock of Rover 2 and went back to work on the lander.
Peeta needed to pry the hinges off the lander's panels to get to Pathfinder in the central panel. NASA is all about weight. So things like probes and landers can't take much abuse. When Peeta took a crowbar to the hinges of the panels, they popped right off! The panels were too heavy to lift and move away with torn, sand-filled balloons attached. He went back to the rover, got some strips of canvas and twisted a simple but strong rope. He tied one end to a panel and the other end to the rover. He put Rover 2 into reverse and with its exceptional torque he was able to pull the panel away like a redneck pulling a stump. He repeated this procedure for each of the panels. He then dug out the bottom of the central panel and cut away the balloons.
Now to get the damn thing on the rover. He wished he could just lift it. It was heavy, sure, but in Martian gravity, he could have lifted it. (He had been lifting hundred-pound sacks of flour at the bakery since he was a teenager.) But there was no way that was happening in this awkward spacesuit. Plan B: tie a rope to it and haul it up to the rover's roof…Scrap that. The lander might be broken, but he didn't want to make it more broken. Plan C. Oh God, Plan C. Build a ramp. Out of rocks. And sand.
He'd get to that tomorrow.
He had already tucked Sojourner into the rover's airlock, so he hopped in himself and then passed through into the rover. He was done for the day and he wanted to get to bed early. He had a hard day's work ahead of him in the morning.
He actually set an alarm; he wanted to get up early today. There was a lot of hard physical labor ahead and he needed as much time as possible to do it. Today he'd build a ramp out of rocks and sand just like the ancient Egyptians did to build the pyramids. He got through his god-awful morning routine (well, only the last half was really awful), then suited up.
The first few rocks were easy. He thought it would be a piece of cake. Until a half hour later he was bent over panting. The rocks, while not exactly heavy by themselves, built up. They just kept feeling heavier. There was no way he could finish the ramp if he was already this tired. So he upped his oxygen. Not a good practice long term, but this was kind of important.
With some experimentation he found thirty degrees was the steepest angle he could manage safely. He had to get the ramp to reach over two meters to the rover's roof. With a thirty degree angle he'd have to extend the ramp at least four meters away from the rover. It took several hours, but he did it. He stomped up and down the ramp to test how sturdy it was. It was funny him trying to stomp as he just stomped anyway. On their first hiking trip together, Marvel told him he walked like a rock. A few passes up and down the ramp, Peeta was confident it would hold. Then he dragged the lander up and deposited it on the roof. He smiled. The ramp worked like a charm. He even used it to stack the solar cells in their now tall single stack. A thrill went through him as he lashed everything together, securing it to the roof.
He was about to pull the rover away, when he thought of the ramp. If he pulled away now, it would collapse. And the large rocks could damage the rover. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. He got out again and pulled the ramp down. It had taken most of the day to build it, but only an hour to dismantle it.
He was exhausted and sore when he finally laid down to sleep in his rat's nest. But he was also almost foolishly happy. Tomorrow he'd begin driving home with his two hundred kilogram broken radio.
Mars has weather, but it's not at all like Earth. On Earth people check the daily weather forecast so they know if junior needs a jacket or a parka that day or if they need to take an umbrella to work. Mars temperatures are fucking freezing every single day. And rain? Never happens. Hell, there are rarely ever any clouds. On the few days there were clouds, Peeta was grateful for the battery storage at the Hab because the solar cells don't perform nearly as well with cloud cover. Snow actually does happen, at the poles.
And seasons. Earth at least had warm and cold seasons, even if the changes were mild. For Peeta, growing up in Panem, TX, winter wasn't shockingly cold and snow was pretty much rare or never happened. But there was a hot summer and mild winter; seasons changed. Elsewhere there were beautiful fall colors. A few years ago, Peeta flew with his then girlfriend, Glimmer, to New England to see the spectacular fall colors. They stayed in a Bed & Breakfast in the North Country of New Hampshire for a weekend. They couldn't stay long, but it was indelibly imprinted on Peeta's memory as one of the most beautiful experiences of his life, even if it was now tinged bittersweet by memories of Glim.
There are seasons on Mars. Cold. Colder. Damn cold. And how-is-the-air-not-solid-yet-cold. To a human it was just one endless winter.
Autumn and winter on Mars brought windstorms and their associated dust storms. They were the most definite form of weather on Mars, showing up on the heels of summer's dust devils. The strong ones kicked up dust and really strong ones could give a sand blasting. Like the windstorm that caused Peeta to be abandoned on the planet.
Thanks to the quiet non-weather during his journey, Peeta was able to retrace his own rover tracks for several sols, after that, he had the hills and the Odair valley. Once he was out of the valley he was back to navigating by Phobos. Persistent light winds had scoured his older tracks from the surface of Mars.
He wished he had built little stacks of rocks, for markers, on the way down. In the vast expanse they'd have been easy to spot. Like the ones he and Marvel had used when hiking sometimes. Marvel liked to go hiking for fun, but also to build endurance for the mission. Peeta couldn't remember what they were called, but in the absences of trees and painted blazes, there were rock piles that helped mark the path and guide the way. "Oh, well," Peeta thought, "live and learn." He knew the Hab beacon reached forty kilometers, so as long as he got within that radius of the Hab, he'd be able to follow the beacon home.
Peeta was always considered an optimist, but he wasn't foolish. He'd known from the beginning just how slim his chances were. He'd been wrestling against the odds since he woke up face down in the red Martian sand. But now, he was truly optimistic that he could get off this planet alive.
In fact, with this in mind, he began taking rock and soil samples with each EVA. Switch battery cables, take a rock sample. Set out solar cells. Another sample. Another EVA. More samples! At first it felt like a duty, but then it got fun. Peeta looked forward to bagging rocks. It felt good to just be an astronaut again. Not a reluctant farmer. Not an electrical engineer. Not a long-haul trucker. An astronaut. He missed it.
Today, while driving, he got a blip. He was still one hundred kilometers away from the Hab so he had no idea how the signal managed to get that far. The blip was only two seconds, but it was reassuring. He was headed in the right direction. He'd be home soon. The long boring-ass days were wearing on him. He was an astronaut and long-ass trips were his business, but that didn't make it easier. He logged. He read. He watched Thresh's movies. He took rock samples. He walked a bit after setting out solar cells. Just a couple more days and this would be over.
He got a solid signal from the Hab today. He was only 24,718 meters from home. He'd be there tomorrow. Hell, he could walk from here.
All this sitting and lying down in cramped quarters had screwed his back up pretty good. He wished Rue were here. She'd be able to fix it. And give him a heath lecture to boot. Why didn't you do your stretches? Are you taking your vitamins? Drinking enough water? How are your bowel movements? You need to eat more fiber. More fruit. More vegetables. Take better care of your body, Peeta...Normally, her lectures made him roll his eyes. He'd welcome a health lecture now.
One of the toughest training experiences for the Mars mission had been the three-day "Missed Orbit" MAV test. They had to practice for the contingency that due to a second-stage failure, the MAV didn't get high enough in orbit to rendezvous with the Hermes. In that event, NASA would remotely operate the Hermes to lower its orbit to meet with the MAV. It could take as long as three days. The six-man crew was crammed together in an ascent vehicle meant for a twenty-three minute flight. The first day, it was easy to pretend they were on a car trip. By the end of the second day the stress was showing. They needed space that they wouldn't get for another thirty-six hours. They were tired because they got shitty sleep. The MAV wasn't designed for sleeping. There wasn't much to keep busy with for all those hours.
Peeta was looking for a way to dissolve the tension, and found "Instructions for Proper Docking and Mating Procedures" in the simulator's computer and began to read. He read it in a sensual tone,
as if reading a romance novel. Commander Odair was the first to catch on to the unintentional nerdy innuendo and giggled. He was the only man Peeta knew that giggled. Then the others caught on quickly after that. When he finished they took turns, finding interesting sections, and reading them to each other in funny voices. By the end they were laughing hysterically.
Eventually the fun was over and they dozed fitfully.
On the third day of the MAV test, they were "feeling cramped" meaning "they were ready to kill each other". They had one last night to get through and three days of being cooped up and two nights of shitty sleep wasn't helping at all. They tried the manual thing again, but jokes just aren't as funny the second time around. Peeta had a new idea, but he had to wait for the overnight shift to come on. The overnight flightsim controllers were a little more laid back than the daytime crew. He needed to ask them for a huge favor.
Peeta wanted to make a phone call.
At first the SimSup (simulation supervisor) said no, but Peeta turned the charm all the way up and eventually they put his call through on speaker phone.
A cheery customer service representative answered on the first ring. "Thank you for calling Whitney Brothers Chrysler, Jeep, and Mazda! This is Vinia speaking! How may I help you?"
Peeta winked at the crew then schooled his features. "Yes, I hope you can help me out here. I'm calling to make a complaint," he said with an affected accent.
Vinia replied, "Okay, I'd be happy to help you. Can you tell me the nature of the complaint?"
Peeta answered, "Well, I just bought a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon from you guys and it's a piece of crap."
"Oh, my. Is it manual or automatic?" Vinia asked, unperturbed.
"Automatic. I've driven a manual all my life, but this automatic is crap." Peeta made sure to sound indignant.
"Okay, automatic. And what seems to be the problem, sir?" Her voice was still perfectly sweet. Her typing could be heard in the background.
"Well, I bought the car two days ago and it worked perfectly in the daytime, but at night it won't drive. Won't go anywhere."
"Well, that is unusual," Vinia conceded.
Peeta worked to suppress a smile. "Yes, I get in, I put it in "day mode" it works fine. I go out with my friends, it gets late. I put it in "night mode" and it doesn't work. Now I'm stuck on the road. I can't get home."
Vinia's voice echoed through the small chamber. "I'm sorry sir, I don't follow you. You say "day mode" and "night mode", but I don't see where these are features of the Jeep Rubicon..."
"Basically what happens is during the day, I put it in 'D for day mode'."
Vinia broke in. "Sir?"
Peeta continued, "And then tonight I put it in 'N for night mode'."
The crew was dying trying not to laugh out loud. Thresh's vein was popping out on his forehead. Rue covered her mouth her big brown eyes filled with mirth.
Vinia tried again. "Sir? You realize 'N' is for 'Neutral' right?" She began chuckling. "And the 'D' is for 'Drive'?"
Peeta sighed dramatically. "Ah, well you see this gear box is wonky."
Vinia laughed in earnest now. The crew was still trying to hold it together.
Peeta continued, "Because, yesterday, I was sitting at a light, and this guy in a truck was looking at me. And he was challenging me with his eyes. I could see he wanted to race. So I put it in 'race mode'."
The crew lost it.
"And hit the car behind me."
The overnight controllers lost it.
Everyone was laughing now, including Vinia.
Once she calmed down, Vinia said, "Oh, you made me laugh so hard. That's the best laugh I've had in a while!"
Peeta grinned. "You're very welcome!"
"You've made my night. I wish I had a recording of this." Vinia lamented.
"Well, you've made our night too." He smiled. "Thanks for playing along. I'm Peeta Mellark and my crew is with me: Commander Odair, Thresh Somers, Dr. Rue Atwood, Pilot Marvel Reardon, and our Sysop, Clove De La Rosa. We're astronauts from NASA and we're doing this test and we've been crammed together for three days and they won't let us out until the morning. The crew was ready to kill each other until I talked the night crew into letting us call you. You're our savior, Vinia."
"Oh, really? You're the team that's going to Mars?" Vinia asked.
"Wow! Can everyone hear me?"
Peeta looked around. "Yes."
"Hi!" The crew answered in unison.
"Well, keep up the good work guys. I'll be watching the launch and will be sure to keep up with the mission."
Commander Odair wiped the tears from his eyes and broke in. "Thanks Vinia. We appreciate you. You've helped us get through this difficult test and make this night a little more endurable."
"Well, you guys have a good night. Let me know if you have any more troubles. And for what it's worth, the '1' and '2' don't stand for 'warp speeds' okay?"
Peeta laughed. "Thanks for the tip! Goodnight, Vinia."
The call disconnected. The crew slept fitfully for a third night and were let out for a hefty and well-deserved breakfast the next day. They had made it through what they believed was the worst possible experience that could happen to them.
Now, with the Pathfinder trip for comparison, a few days in the MAV was nothing, but at least he could get out of the rover to do the battery changes and set out the solar cells and even take short walks.
Peeta would give anything to be crammed in the MAV for three days with the crew again. He missed them so much.
He hoped he could get Pathfinder working again.
One short hour drive and Peeta was finally back at his Little Hab on the Prairie.
He disembarked from the rover and when he got inside the Hab he ran circles and waved his arms and jumped around like a little kid. The Hab, that had felt constricting as he planned out his potato farm, now felt cavernous and huge!
He fired up the oxygenator and the atmospheric regulator, and checked air levels. Turned out there was plenty of CO2 for the crops without him breathing for them. It was kinda intimate when he thought about that. That he breathed for them. He did an exhaustive check of his potatoes and examined their green leaves and stalks. He gently took a quick swipe of the soil to look at the potatoes growing underneath. They had fared well. "Look how big you've gotten!" Peeta cooed at them. He knew it was silly, but it felt good anyway.
Then he poured the stored pee in the water reclaimer and dumped his bags o' crap on the ground. The smell made him gag, but once he got the crap mixed into the soil with a shovel, the smell mellowed a bit and was just tolerable.
He had dumped most of his water in the ground when he left which made the Hab very humid. Humidity can trash electronics so he did an exhaustive set of diagnostics on everything. It was boring, yet so important. So much of what he did was boring or involved waiting. He could be waiting for four years. He might as well get used to it.
He was tired from driving, and exhausted with the whole journey he had been on the past twenty-two sols. He'd give anything just to curl up on his wonderful bunk and sleep, but he still had a lot to do.
He returned the solar cells to the solar farm. Then he had to get Pathfinder down. There weren't a lot of good rocks to build a ramp, but he didn't need them. He found one of the MAV's landing struts worked perfectly as a ramp. Then he had to decide what to do with Pathfinder. Take it in the Hab? Leave it outside? Ultimately he decided to keep Pathfinder outside. 1. It was too big to get in the Hab anyway, and 2. The Hab's canvas was made to block the dangerous radiation from the sun, and that same material would block any signals sent by Pathfinder. So, outside it would stay.
The worst thing he had to do that day was get back inside the rover and drive again. He no longer needed the service of the can of radioactive death that was the RTG. He decided the site where Commander Odair originally buried it was perfect so he drove the four kilometers due south, found the hill with the green flag, and buried the RTG in the ground.
That night he enjoyed sleeping in his own bed.
Today was all about repairs. Peeta decided to work on Sojourner, which he nicknamed Sojo, before going outside to deal with the lander. He deposited Sojo on the worktable. "Let's get you cleaned up little lady," he said. He carefully cleaned the solar panels and the rest of the small, microwave-sized rover. He pried open the panel covering the battery and removed the battery to check it, but it was dead. His deft fingers moved nimbly as he checked out all of the rover's moving parts and electronics. Finally, he set a flexible lamp to shine right on the solar panels. It was time to go outside.
"Time to go check on your daddy," Peeta said to Sojourner.
Outside, Peeta piled up leftover parts from the MDV to make a makeshift worktable and ramp. Then he dragged the heavy-ass lander up the ramp on to the workbench. He forgot his tool kit. He stomped back into the Hab to get the toolkit, glanced at Sojo and the plants, turned on music, and left again.
With the tool kit, he was able to remove the access panel to the lander easily enough. He marveled for a minute thinking of the people who had put it together decades ago. He was the first person to touch Pathfinder since it was loaded in the launch vehicle on Earth in 1996.
He poked around a bit before removing the battery and taking it inside the Hab. It was a 40 amp-hour Ag-Zn battery with an optimal voltage of 1.5 Volts. He checked the battery with his electronics kit, and as expected, it was dead. He could shuffle across carpet and hold more charge. This was actually good news because it meant that Pathfinder died because the battery died and hopefully not from some massive electronics failure. Plus now he knew that the lander needed 1.5 volts and he just happened to have voltage controllers in his kit. So he connected the voltage controller to a power line and ran the power line out of the Hab to Pathfinder.
Now, he had power to Pathfinder, but he needed a way to heat the electronics. It's important to keep electronics above -40 degrees C, but today was -63 degrees C. Too cold. He didn't want to use the native heaters because they had been frozen on Mars for decades. He was afraid if he fired them up he'd fry the whole thing. Instead, he went over to the gutted Rover 1 and removed it's environmental heater, hooked it up to the Hab's power, and placed it in Pathfinder, where the battery used to be. Pathfinder now had power and heat. It was time to just sit back and wait.
He felt like a kid on Christmas and bounded out of his bunk as soon as the lights began to brighten. He had slept fitfully, eager for morning, for the moment of truth. He rushed through his morning routine and almost didn't shave, but he'd regret that later, so he did it. He yanked on his EVA suit and was out the airlock in record time.
But the lander's high gain antenna hadn't moved. No movement meant no contact. His face fell. He was disappointed, but didn't despair. Maybe it needed more time. He had only just fixed it yesterday evening. Daytime was the better time to send and receive signals. Besides, no one was exactly listening for a message from Pathfinder back on Earth.
His only hope was that SETI or the Deep Space Network would pick up Pathfinder's signal. If they caught a blip from Pathfinder, they'd tell JPL, then JPL would triangulate the signal, find that it's at the Antares 3 site, that it's him, and they'd tell the lander where Earth is and the lander would move the high gain antenna toward Earth.
It was too soon to give up hope. Peeta was nothing if not one hopeful bastard.
He went back inside the Hab to continue waiting.
Meanwhile he checked up on little Sojo. A whole night and day in the nice warm Hab and had bright lights shining on its sparkling clean solar cells and it was not looking lively. It was likely that the batteries could no longer hold charge, the same problem Pathfinder probably had. Or it could be running some sort of extended self check or waiting for a signal from the lander. Only time would tell.
He still had other things to keep him busy in the Hab. He tried to distract himself while he waited.
Pathfinder LOG: SOL 0
BOOT SEQUENCE INITIATED
LOSS OF POWER DETECTED, TIME/DATE UNRELIABLE
VXWARE OPERATING SYSTEM (C) WIND RIVER SYSTEMS PERFORMING HARDWARE CHECK:
INT. TEMPERATURE: -34 DEGREES C
EXT. TEMPERATURE: NON FUNCTIONAL
WIND SENSOR: NONFUNCTIONAL
ROVER RAMP: NONFUNCTIOANL
SOLAR A: NONFUNCTIONAL
SOLAR B: NONFUNCTIONAL
SOLAR C: NONFUNCTIONAL
HARDWARE CHECK COMPLETE
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL...
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL...
LISTENING FOR TELEMETRY SIGNAL…
SETI= Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, it's a scientific institute that uses Earthbound radiotelescopes to pick up signals from space
The prank call is based on a prank call my husband found on his Twitterfeed one day. If you search YouTube for "prank call day mode night mode" you will probably find a video with the audio of the call. It's hilarious.
Let me know if you have any questions.
I'll be posting pics of Pathfinder and Mars to my tumblr for this chapter.
Chapter 6: Contact
JPL/ Haymitch contacts Peeta.
Darius gets a kiss.
Jo gets a pic.
Seneca and Gale come to an understanding.
Thanks for the comments and kudos and all your encouragement! This chapter is a whopper. I got it out just in time for The Martian coming out in theaters!
Thanks to my husband for reading it over for me.
I've dropped a few Star Wars quotes into this chapter and a few THG quotes too.
This is a slooooow build/ slow burn fic, but I promise you Everlark is coming.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Pathfinder Control, JPL- Pasadena, CA
The smell of peanuts, coffee, and body odor permeated the small conference room turned impromptu Pathfinder Control. Everyone had been running on little sleep, fueled by pizza, Red Bull, Dr. Pepper, and doughnuts. A menagerie of machines littered the tables and a set of shelves on one side of the room. Endless coils of wires and cords wended their way between machines and under tables.
Technicians, engineers, and controllers had worked around the clock to find antiquated computers, repair broken components, and install hastily made software that allowed the old system to interact with the new Deep Space Network. Some of the technicians hadn't been home in days, and took what snatches of sleep they could. In the corner, a pile of pillows and blankets testified to how precious a commodity sleep had become. There was equally little time for personal hygiene, which accounted for the BO.
Haymitch stood at the back of the room, one arm crossed over his chest and the other arm folded with his hand resting on his jaw, staring at a monitor. Waiting. Dark shadows bloomed under his eyes. His long salt and pepper hair lay limply on his head. His grey eyes were weary, but eager.
Plutarch Heavensbee burst into the room and wrinkled his nose. "My what an incredible smell you've discovered!" he commented, picking up a peanut canister and helping himself to a handful of the nuts.
"It could be worse," retorted Haymitch.
"It's worse," said Plutarch, handing the canister back to Haymitch, who helped himself to another handful.
Despite the fact it was 2:30am local time, all the techs sat alert at their stations. The AP news team was crammed off to the side, trying, and failing, to stay out of the way as they recorded the momentous occasion.
The sun had just risen on Sol 97. Earth and Mars were in a better position to communicate. Peeta would soon be up. They would know today if the whole Pathfinder trip had been successful.
Together, the small crowd of men and women waited with bated breath.
"Something's coming in!" exclaimed the technician nearest Haymitch, "Yes...YES! It's Pathfinder!"
The room erupted in cheers and applause.
Plutarch slapped Haymitch on the back, "We did it! We did it!"
Haymitch's reaction was more subdued. This success was a huge step forward, but with 140 million miles separating them from Peeta, even a big step was so far short.
Haymitch gave a little half smile to Plutarch, then turned to the technician nearest him. "Hey, what did you say your name was? Ted? Tim?"
"Well, Thom, what's next?"
"We automatically sent the return telemetry signal. That will get there in eleven minutes. And when Pathfinder gets it, it will start sending high gain transmissions. It'll take eleven minutes to get back so that means twenty-two minutes bef-"
Haymitch cut him off. "Boy, I've been in this business since you were in diapers. I don't need you to explain transmission times to me."
"Sorry," answered Thom contritely, "You never can tell with managers..."
Plutarch asked, "So what was in the signal we got?"
Thom answered, "Bare bones. Just the hardware check. Most of the systems are nonfunctional because of the panels Mellark pried off."
"The camera?" asked Haymitch, his voice gruff with long use.
Thom swiveled his chair to turn back to Haymitch. "It says the imager's working."
"Then have it take a panorama ASAP."
"Consider it done."
Just then Haymitch's cell phone rang. Johanna. He excused himself from the room with its loud buzz still going on. Plutarch continued chatting amiably with Thom while they waited on the next transmission.
Johanna began immediately. "I saw everything on livestream. Looks like you pulled it off old man."
"It wasn't just me. These guys have been working around the clock." Haymitch demurred. "And Plutarch-"
"Yeah, I know, but you spearheaded it," Johanna insisted.
"Yeah? That's all you have to say? Just fucking 'yeah'? You don't sound very excited."
Haymitch sighed. "There's just so much more to do. Anyway, am I ever that excited?"
"No, I guess not. Press conference is in an hour. Try to sound a little enthusiastic."
"I'll be sure to smile."
"Please, don't. You ready?"
"Well, go get 'em, Tiger. Maybe you could imagine them all in their underwear, or that they're all whisky bottles or something."
"Johanna, you're a wonderful human being."
"That's true, dear. I'll be in touch."
"Got it. Bye."
Haymitch sent a text before going back in.
H. Abernathy: We've got a signal, Sweetheart. Just thought you'd like to know.
SatCon- Houston, TX
Katniss had gotten in at 4:15 am today. Her days were getting closer to Earth-time again. That was good. In about a week she'd be golden, then, in two weeks she'd be on late shift, then in 3 weeks she'd be overnight again. She was pulling up the first batch of images with a hot mug of coffee (little sugar, lot of cream) in her hand. Peeta had had Pathfinder back at the Hab now for a couple of days and she hoped he'd be successful at communicating with JPL. What she was really worried about was how they were going to communicate with him. After realizing he was going after Pathfinder, she looked it up on the intranet. It had almost nothing movable. It really was just like a box. With a camera. But the camera was on a boom that could lift it up so it could take panoramic pictures of Mars. She wondered if it was even possible for NASA to do more than just look at the Antares 3 site.
Her phone buzzed suddenly on her desk, making her jump, incidentally sloshing coffee on her shirt. "Shit!” she cursed under her breath, then checked her phone. It wasn't a call. It was a text. From Haymitch.
H. Abernathy: We've got a signal, Sweetheart. Just thought you'd like to know.
She replied, fingers shaking so much it was hard to type on her tiny phone screen.
K. Everdeen: Thanks for letting me know. Glad I'm here. Must stink there.
She knew they'd been pulling long hours; many of the technicians were camping out at JPL. She easily imagined their hygiene suffered. She knew all too well how easy it was for that to happen, her own blanket and pillow were tucked neatly under her desk.
H. Abernathy: You don't even want to know. Keep up the good work.
K. Everdeen: I'll try.
Katniss was relieved they had a better way of knowing how Peeta was doing than what they had thus far.
After a night of fitful sleep, anxious to check the lander, Peeta was up at dawn.
He had suited up and just exited the air lock when he looked over at Pathfinder and saw, unmistakably, the antenna had moved!
"It worked! Holy shit! It worked!" he said, moving over to the lander.
"They know I'm alive," he thought to himself and bit his lip to stop it from trembling.
He laid his gloved hand on top of the lander. "Good job." Then he bent down and laid his helmeted head down on it. "Thank you," he whispered.
In a stupor he walked back to the Hab. He had often imagined what his reaction would be: jubilant fist pumping, excited yelling, hooting and hollering, doing a back flip (he never could do one on Earth), flipping the whole fucking planet off since it seemed to be out to get him.
He did none of those things.
Inside the Hab, he shed his EVA suit, knelt in the dirt, and cried like a baby. He was no longer alone.
All cried out, he felt at peace. A sort of heavy calm. Like being enveloped in a warm, heavy blanket. It was a good feeling, though it was not at all how he expected to feel. He hadn't felt that way in a long time.
He wiped his eyes and calmed his breathing. He had a lot to do, namely, figure out how to talk to a camera platform, to people for the first time in months. It was time to get to work!
He also thought he really would need to be more careful about log entries...
JPL - Pasadena, CA
Haymitch wished that bastard Seneca was here. He loved attention and being in the spot light. Press Conferences were his bread and butter. For Haymitch they were a form of torture. He hated them, but they were a necessary evil. Right now, public support meant more funding, which in turn meant a better chance of rescuing Mellark.
He sighed resignedly and climbed the stairs to the podium in the JPL pressroom.
"Thank you all for coming. We have successfully received a signal from Pathfinder and just over a half hour ago received the first high-gain transmission. We will have panoramic images available in about an hour. Questions?"
The sea of reporters clamored.
Haymitch pointed at Caesar Flickerman. Best to get that windbag out of the way first. "Go ahead, Caesar."
Caesar beamed at the favoritism. Haymitch smirked at his mistake. "Thank you Mr. Abernathy. Have you heard from Mellark?"
"No. We can only hope that Mellark will have some sort of message when we take the panorama."
"Have you had any contact with Sojourner?"
"Is anything wrong with Sojourner?"
"I can't even speculate on that. We have no way to communicate with Sojourner directly and there's no telling why Sojourner isn't talking to the lander. It's been on Mars for decades. Anything could be wrong with it."
"Aw, C'mon Haymitch! What about best guess?"
Haymitch huffed. "Best guess? It's inside the Hab. The lander's signal wouldn't be able to penetrate the Hab canvas."
Haymitch was done talking with Caesar.
He pointed to a new reporter, "You!"
"Cressida Troy, NBC News," Cressida said, "How will you communicate with Mellark?"
"That's up to him. All we have is a camera. He could potentially write us messages, but our ability to communicate back is severely limited." He shifted on his feet. "We’re not sure yet."
"The only moving part on the lander is the camera. That's it. We're relying on Mellark to come up with something. He's resourceful. We just have to wait and see what he comes up with. We'll, uh, follow his lead."
Haymitch pointed at another reporter, "Go ahead."
"Jill Watson, BBC. With a twenty-two minute transmission time and nothing but a single rotating platform to talk with, it will be a dreadfully slow conversation, won't it?"
"Yes it will." Haymitch confirmed.
They were picking at everything that plagued him: would they be able to communicate at all, the slow transmission times, even if they worked out a system, how would they be able to tell Mellark everything they needed to? The frustration welled up in him.
"That's all the questions we'll take for now. We'll be back in an hour once we have the panorama done."
He hurried off the platform, out the door, and down the hall.
He was much more at home in the claustrophobic Pathfinder Control than in that damned pressroom.
"Got that panorama yet?" he asked Thom.
"Yeah, but we're staring at this blank screen because it's way more interesting than pictures from Mars."
Haymitch smirked. He was going to like this kid.
Plutarch made his way across the room from where he talked with some of the techs. He was always talking to everyone. "He should do the press conferences," Haymitch thought sourly.
Eyeing the clock on the wall, Plutarch said, "A few more seconds!" His eyes were alight with excitement.
The room quieted to a tense silence.
"Getting something," Thom announced, "It's...it's it! It's the panoramic!"
Pictures appeared on Thom's screen, filling in from left to right. It was a painfully slow process with a twenty second delay between images. Haymitch and Plutarch couldn't help themselves, they began calling out what was in the images.
"Martian surface....more surface...."
"I think that's the MDV in the background there...."
"The corner of the Hab..."
"Hab!...more Hab...rover and more Hab..."
"That's a message!"
"What's it say?" called someone else in the room.
"It says, 'I'll write questions here...Are you receiving me?'" Plutarch read the card Peeta had placed at the camera's level.
"That's it?" asked a technician.
"Wait," said Haymitch, eyes narrowed at the screen, "There's another card. It says, 'Point here for 'yes'.'"
Plutarch chuckled. “It’s like those notes you pass in elementary school. ‘Do you like me check yes or no.’”
Thom said, “Well, I don’t like him. Where’s the ‘no’?”
Haymitch straightened up. "Shut up, Thom. Finish the panorama and then point that damn camera at 'yes'. Take a new picture every ten minutes until we get a new message."
There was palpable excitement in the room. They had their first message from the stranded astronaut.
Sol 97 (2)
Peeta had waited in the Hab, his leg jumping from nerves. He couldn't focus on anything, so he just waited. When what he supposed was enough time had passed, he went out again.
The camera moved. It moved!
He skipped over (the fastest way to move in low gravity).
"Yes!" They said, "Yes!"
He hadn't been this excited about a 'yes' since prom night. His knees buckled. He knelt in the Martian sand, a myriad of emotions flooding him: relief, happiness, pride, excitement.
He could talk to them, but he had to figure out how to help them talk to him. "Yes/ No" questions only went so far. The camera could move three-hundred sixty degrees. At first he thought he could write out the alphabet and they could spell out messages, but that would be limiting because there were no numbers or symbols. He also had limited cards and too many cards set up around the camera would make it difficult to discern which card the camera was pointed at. He needed something better. Like ASCII. Clove had ASCII tables on her computer. All computer geeks do. With numbers and just a handful of letters, NASA could write anything. Using a pair of hexidecimal digits, they could create any character: letters, numbers, punctuation, etc.
So Peeta made the cards for the code: 0-9 and A-F and placed them evenly around the camera with a place for him to leave his own messages or responses.
He got another card and wrote, "Spell with ASCII 0-F at 21 degree increments. Will watch camera starting at 11:00 my time. When message done, return to this position. Wait 20 mins after completion to take picture (so I can write and post reply). Repeat process at top of every hour."
The first message came right at 11:00. Peeta stood by, ready with the ASCII cheat sheet he had made and a handy dandy antenna to write out the letters so he didn't forget them.
I'm healthy-no physical issues. Hab intact. All components working within operational parameters. Gutted Rover 1. Modified Rover 2 for long trips. Growing crops. Situation at Antares 3 NOT crew's fault. It was just bad luck.
Antenna punctured flightsuit. Decompressed suit. Took out biocomputer. I lost consciousness. Crew thought I was dead. Blood sealed hole. Suit repressurized. Woke up hours later. Crew gone. Not their fault.
Growing potatoes in the Hab in cultivated soil. Long story. Extreme botany and scientific badassery. Extends food supply, but not enough to reach Antares 4. Plan to drive modified R-2 to A-4 site after successful trip to pick up Pathfinder.
Three hours, three messages. Peeta was worn out. This was so slow. It was amazing to contact NASA, but at the same time, it was frustrating. They needed a faster way. A better way. And he was out of ideas and out of options. He wondered if they were feeling the same irritation.
Time for another message.
Wow! Government watching me with satellites? Need tinfoil hat. Any ideas to speed up communication? SPEAK & SPELL taking all damn day.
"Placed Sojourner 1 meter due north of lander. If can contact Sojo, I can write numbers on wheels. You could send six bytes at a time."
This would be a good development and one he had hoped for since scooping little Sojo out of the dirt two weeks ago.
"Damn," thought Peeta. He really hoped it would work. There was nothing else to say. They had his status, the highlights of events on Mars. They apparently had some satellite thing going on, which now made him subconsciously look up at the sky more often. He wondered how much they watched, had been watching, him and why on Earth- Mars- he never thought of that before. He kinda wanted to look up and wave for the picture.
He just wrote a short note back to NASA...
"Damn. I'm out of ideas. Need faster communication."
…and then went back in the Hab to wait for the top of the hour. "Man this process is tedious," he thought. But he was still so grateful to be talking to people again.
"Good," thought Peeta. It was getting later so he decided it was best to wrap up for the day. He posted his last message.
"Earth is about to set. Resume 08:00 my time tomorrow morning. Tell my dad I'm okay. Give crew my best. Tell Commander Odair his boy bands suck. And tell Rue I want to start a book club."
JPL- Pasadena, CA
Haymitch was pleased when they were able to contact Mellark, but he was just as quickly frustrated by the painfully slow communication, especially as they had a hell of a lot they needed to be able to share with him if they were going to get the boy off mars. This Speak & Spell method wasn't going to cut it. It only took a few messages for Haymitch to be thoroughly frustrated with the new communication method. Really it only took the first message.
Between the third and fourth messages he went first to his desk, then scrapped that idea and found a small unused conference room on another floor that looked out over the hills to the north.
He dialed Chaff.
"Chaff," came a rough voice on the receiver.
"Chaff, you bastard!"
"Haymitch, you asshole!"
"I need your help."
"Haymitch you asshole!"
"Okay, okay, I'm listening."
"We've been able to contact Mellark."
"I saw that. Congratulations!"
"Well, the method we're using sucks."
"Yeah, we have to spell words out and condense things and he’s hand-writing responses back to us."
"Well, that'll never work."
"Shit Chaff, will you listen?"
"I am listening, you said you needed my help and the current method of communication sucks. You want to have my people help your people."
"Why the hell not?"
"We already established that our department can't help you talk to Mellark. The Leeg twins talked to you about it."
"I know, I remember, but I thought with Pathfinder, maybe we could work something out you know between the satellites or, hell, I don't know." Haymitch rubbed his face and leaned his forehead against the window.
"Listen, Haymitch, my group can't help you, but I know someone who can, and you already know her, too. Nancy Ng. Nicknamed "Wiress". She's the top software engineer at NASA and she's already there, at JPL, working on software for the Antares 4 mission. She might be able to help you. She's knowledgeable about the missions and their components. She's incredibly intuitive though her mind can kind of wander sometimes, so try not to be your usual dick self around her okay?"
"Thank you, Chaff. I appreciate it, and yeah, I'll try to be nice."
"You owe me one."
"One more Scotch?"
"Yeah, that last one was fabulous! Best Scotch I ever drank!"
"Well, I'll send you another then."
"If anyone can get that boy home, it's you."
"Thanks Chaff. I'm doing my best...We're all doing our best."
“You’re still an asshole.”
Haymitch smirked and hung up.
The phone call to Nancy was brief, but she was willing to help. In fact, some of her people were already part of the team that assembled Pathfinder control and created the patches that allowed Pathfinder to talk to Deep Space Network. This was great news. She'd be by to see him after taking some time to familiarize herself with Pathfinder.
The leaky faucet had kept her up all of the previous night. So when she got home from SatCon, Katniss knocked on Darius's door. He was already home from work too.
She told him about the leaky faucet and he came over to take a look at it. If he noticed the map of Mars on her living room wall, he said nothing.
"If I fix it today, will you give me a kiss?" he asked teasingly in his Irish lilt.
"If you fix it today, I'll give you three kisses," Katniss answered.
"Alrighty then, I'll get right to work," said Darius, clapping his hands and leaving to get his tools.
Katniss went out on her run.
The cool February air nipped at her nose. Her calves burned and sweat trickled down her temples, between her breasts, and between her shoulder blades. Inspired by Peeta's daily walks after setting out the solar panels to relieve himself of the cramped rover for a time, she realized that she had been cooped up in SatCon for much longer. With all her focus on Peeta and adjusting to living on Mars time she had let her runs lapse. Not anymore. At first she couldn't figure out how to schedule in a run when her schedule was different every day. So she simplified it. If she got up and it was light out, she ran. If it was dark, she ran when she got home. If it was still dark, she'd skip her run that day, it would soon be light again. It was working well. She felt refreshed and invigorated after a run in a way that the endless cups of coffee from the SatCon break room could never produce. It cleared her mind and helped her think better.
When she returned, Darius was gone, but the sink, Oh thank goodness! the faucet no longer leaked. And the work space was already cleaned up.
She got a shower then went over to give Darius his prize.
He answered the door, clearly having just showered himself. "Satisfied with my work?" he asked.
"Definitely," she answered. She was thankful to have such a good-natured and attentive landlord.
"Here to give me my prize then? I've not forgotten, you see. You promised me three kisses," he said with a waggish grin.
A small smile played on her lips. Katniss held out her hand. In it were three Hershey's kisses. He took them happily, enjoying their little joke.
"You know, my Gran knows about our little arrangement," he said conspiratorially tapping his temple.
"Oh, really?" said Katniss.
"Yeah, but she doesn't know that the kisses are only chocolate. I'll have a lot of explaining to do if she ever comes for a visit," he said with a smile.
Katniss gave a soft laugh. "See you later Darius." She let herself back into her side of the duplex and he locked up and headed for Ripper's bar.
A busy break room, JPL, Pasadena, CA
Haymitch's makeshift office was set up in a break room at JPL, down the hall from the ad hoc Pathfinder Control center. He had to deal with a steady stream of overworked employees using the vending machines, but he had a coffee pot close at hand that site services kept full at all times and in their lapse, a technician dutifully refilled it. They soon learned to not pester the surly Mars missions director, so even though they moved through the room with frequency, they disturbed him as little as possible as they patronized the vending machines.
He shuffled papers on the folding table that was now his desk. A person approached him. Without looking up he said, “The Dr. Pepper’s out and I don’t know when site services will be back to refill the fridge.”
The small Asian woman shuffled her small feet. “Uh, actually I was here to see you, Mr. Abernathy.”
He looked up. “Oh! Mrs. Ng! Yes, pull up a chair.”
Wiress dove right in. “Pathfinder has two comm systems: One for talking to us and one for talking to Sojourner.” She smiled thinking of the small rover. Haymitch waited patiently for her to continue, remembering Chaff’s warning. “If we send a software update, we can get Pathfinder to talk to Rover 2 instead of Sojourner. Then you can type messages and Mellark could read them on the Rover’s computer and he could type responses back.”
This was fantastic news!
Haymitch grinned and said, “This is fantastic news!”
Wiress looked downward. She didn’t look like it was fantastic news.
“We can update Pathfinder from here…”
“But….” Haymitch felt like there was a big ‘but’ hanging on the end of that sentence.
“But not Rover 2. Mellark will have to update Rover 2 himself.”
Haymitch rubbed his chin. “So you think he can handle running a software update?”
“I have guys working on the software update. It’s twenty meg minimum…”
“And…” Haymitch prompted.
Wiress focused again. “If we sent it via your current ‘Speak & Spell” method it would take three years sending one byte every four seconds.”
Haymitch snorted. “So why are we talking?” He didn’t have time for games.
“Because software engineers are sneaky devils.” Wiress grinned.
Haymitch leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “Enlighten me.”
Wiress went on to explain a “chink in the armor” or loophole. They could exploit the loophole and hack the rover. Rather than send an endless string of code, they could send a series of twenty instructions. It would open the door for Pathfinder to talk to the rover. Then Pathfinder would beam the update to the rover and they’d be in business.
Haymitch’s sleep-deprived brain took several extra moments to process what Wiress told him. And when it did, a genuine smile broke across his face. It was like a Trojan horse.
“Nancy, if this works, I’ll buy your whole team autographed Star Trek memorabilia.”
“I’m more of a Star Wars fan myself.” She demurred. “The original trilogy, only, of course.”
Nancy left to rejoin her team.
Another tech approached Haymitch, “I can’t find any Dr. Pepper. Are we out?”
Haymitch sighed. “Yeah, and I don’t know when site services refills the fridge.”
He really did need to just make a sign. He was just starting to look for a Sharpie when the phone rang. Johanna. Shit.
“This is Haymitch.”
“I need a picture of Mellark.”
“Well, hello to you, too.”
“Cut the bullshit.”
“We can’t do it.”
“Fuck you, Haymitch. I’ve got everyone breathing down my neck. Your taking all sorts of effing panoramas, can’t you get just one shot with your star boy?”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Why the hell not?”
“He writes the messages in the Hab and leaves them for us, then goes back in. We transmit at the top of the hour, but he’s watching for the bytes.” He sighed heavily, “It’s just not easy.”
“Just fucking tell him to wait.”
“He’ll be in his spacesuit; you won’t even be able to see his face.”
“I need something.”
“Shit, okay, in a few days. We’re trying to patch Pathfinder to the rover-”
“FUCK! Haymitch! This, THIS, is all anyone’s talking about. It’s been months! They’ve been looking at satellite imagery of Mars, of the Antares 3 site, of the Hab, of the rover. They need something! Get me a fucking picture!”
Haymitch huffed. “Fine, we’ll try to get you one tomorrow.”
“Great,” said Jo, “Looking forward to it.” Haymitch could hear the fake smile in her voice.
“It’s been great talking to you, dear. I do so love our little chats.” It was his turn to fake smile.
“Fuck you, Haymitch.”
The rushing sound of a river filled his ears. Boulders dug into his back and reeds surrounded him. He was so thirsty, but he wasn't hungry. Hadn't been hungry in a while. He was sore all over. It was like he had tousled with his brothers, only ten times worse. Why was he so sore? He had been alone for a long time, kept company only by birdsong, the scuffle of squirrels in the trees, and the occasional unseen creature crashing through the underbrush. He remained undisturbed, but felt unsafe. He was concealed, but felt exposed. He reached for the water but nearly cried out in pain and rolled back. Then soft sounds, like the whisper of wind, a soft voice calling his name, and boots swam into his view and he smiled. He was found! He attempted to roll and sit up again...
but fell out of his bunk, his limbs tangled in his blanket.
He shook off the dream, it was early, but NASA would be talking to him today! He was excited, despite the weird dream that haunted him for a bit as he still worked to wake up. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and plodded through his morning routine, there was no rush. He did some random diagnostic stuff. He didn't need to, but he needed to keep busy. Then with nothing else to do and an hour till 8am, he laid back down in his bunk to read, picking up where he left off in The Scarlet Pimpernel. He hoped he'd find out if the Scarlett Pimpernel was able to survive the death trap set for him by Chauvelin.
“Talking to NASA would have been like a fun game if the stakes weren't so high,” Peeta mused as he memorized half bytes, looked up their equivalents in the ASCII cheat sheet, then marked the character in the Martian sand with one of the antennas from the worthless comm array. Ironic. Still using the antennas to communicate, only in a much more rudimentary fashion.
He read over the now completed message.
It reminded him of when he and his brothers puzzled out vanity plates. Ban was always the fastest, but Peeta had been able to figure out some of the more cryptic ones. Rye just laughed at them and tried to come up with what he'd get on his plates someday, which was usually some crude baker innuendo that was too long to fit anyway.
It took Peeta a minute. JPL had started dropping vowels to economize messages. "Can...hack...rover...to talk to Pathfinder...prepare for long message." Once he discerned the message, Peeta's expression brightened. Using the rover would be a game-changer. Communications would be faster and they'd be able to write more back and forth. He left a sign that said, "Roger" then waited in the Hab until the next transmission.
When it was time, he went back out, and nosed around the comm array. He wanted the longest antenna he could get.
Then he cleared a large swath of sand so he had plenty of room to write. The long antenna allowed him to reach any point without having to step into the cleared area.
Then he stood by. Waiting. Doodling with the antenna, then sweeping the sand clean again with his boot.
At exactly the top of the hour, the camera moved and the message began.
Peeta stared. Shit....Okay. By the end of several minutes Peeta had the whole thing decoded.
JPL wanted him to "Launch 'hexedit' on the rover’s computer, then open the file '/usr/lib/habcomm.so', scroll down until the index reading on the left of the screen is 2AAE5, then replace the bytes there with a 141-byte sequence NASA will send in the next message."
He got that.
He was however, perplexed by the end of the message. They wanted him to hang around for a pic. He wasn’t special. Why they wanted his picture was beyond his comprehension. They couldn't see any part of him anyway. Even the face plate obscured his face. Whatever. What NASA wants, NASA gets. Especially if they were going to rescue his ass.
Peeta copied the message down in the Hab for future reference, then wrote a short note and went back out. But instead of pinning it to an antenna, he remained.
When the camera servos whirred to life and the camera clicked, it captured Peeta, giving a "rock on" hand gesture and a card that said, "Wassup?" He stuck his tongue out too, but they couldn't see that.
"What the fuck was that?!?" Johanna demanded of Haymitch without preamble.
"Why hello, dear, how are you?" Haymitch mocked.
"Don't bullshit me Haymitch. I asked for a picture and I get what? A-a...Dude bro?"
"I don't see why that's a problem."
"Waaasssuuupp?," Johanna exaggerated the very casual greeting. "What am I supposed to do with that?"
"Have you met Peeta Mellark? This is just like him. Seriously Johanna, that boy just did you a favor. What was your goal with the pic?"
"To have something to give the media and the masses. To keep his story compelling and maybe make it more personal."
"Well, he just made himself more relatable with his humor showing through."
"But I wanted-"
"Look, this isn't about writing the all-time drama of the century-that's been done for us. If you wanted to sway public favor to Mellark, I'd say you've been successful. Loosen your corset. Have a drink."
Johanna huffed. "Fine, but I want a pic of his face ASAP."
"Shit, Jo, we can't do that."
"Why the fuck not?"
"Because if he takes his helmet off, he'll die." Haymitch pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Look, I've got to go, I've got some programmers from JPL that I need to talk to, it's urgent."
"Haymitch!-" Johanna tried again, but the call was already disconnected.
Nancy "Wiress" Ng stepped forward, soft steps in well-worn flats. "It's really not urgent...I could come back."
"Haymitch looked up at her, "No, that's fine. What did you want to see me about?"
"Well, we were thinking...the rover hack may not be entirely straightforward. We may need to do some back and forth communications with Mellark."
"That's fine," said Haymitch gruffly.
"Well…" She hesitated to say it. "If we could shorten transmission time..."
Haymitch smirked. "You have an idea of how to move Earth and Mars closer together?"
"I'd like to use Hermes..."
"It would be faster..."
"De La Rosa could walk him through it, as the mission sysop- she's the expert..."
"No. I'm sorry, but no. We'll just have to deal with the slow transmission times."
"With all due respect sir, if telling them could help Mellark-"
"But it won't help them. They're in space. If you look at the odds, they're in more danger than Mellark. At least he's on a planet."
Wiress moved to the door and sighed resignedly, "Fine, we'll do it your way....the slow way."
SatCon- Houston, TX
Katniss printed off the new image of the stranded astronaut and tucked it in her purse then went back to examining satellite imagery and keeping up with orbital telemetries.
Sol 98 (2)
NASA was going to send a 141 byte message...in half byte increments. Peeta knew drawing in the sand wasn't going to work this time so he decided to bring a computer with him. He could just type the message as they sent it. It didn't need air to work and the electronic components would stay warm enough.
No sooner had the air lock door opened than the screen on the computer went black. Liquid Crystal Display. Damn! It either froze or boiled off. He shook his head at the boneheaded mistake. He really needed to be more careful.
He headed back into the Hab for a camera. They were specifically designed to work on the Martian surface.
NASA sent the half bytes, Peeta looked them up on the ASCII table, drew the character in the sand then took a picture with the camera.
It took for-goddamn-ever to get all 141 bytes, then he still needed to transcribe them in the Hab. By the time he finished, it was late. The sun had set. It was time to eat and kick back and relax. His brain was too fried for Rue’s novels tonight, so he watched "Gamera" again. It was one of the first movies he watched after finding himself alone and even though he had watched pretty much all of Thresh's movies, it remained one of his favorites.
The day had been mentally taxing and not even the destruction of Tokyo could keep him awake. He was soon curled up in his bunk, asleep, his hair a messy mop of blond curls.
JPL- Pasadena CA
It was 4 am. Gradually, their "days" marched to normal Earth days. Not that that mattered much for the men and women in Pathfinder Control. They were pulling extra shifts and still working around the clock.
Thom's tall frame was folded in the small swiveling office chair. He scratched at his dark beard nervously as he waited staring at the blank monitor.
Peeta was up early again without even trying. He was eager to input the 141 byte hack into Rover 2.
Afterward, he did his normal daily routine. He checked on the potato plants (they were thriving). Did a few routine diagnositics (they were boring). Swept off the solar cell farm. Had an early lunch. Tried and failed to read the next chapter of The Scarlet Pimpernel. He was jittery with nerves and didn't know how long to expect the patch would take, it couldn't be much longer.
Haymitch and Plutarch came in with Wiress. All gave little coughs and wrinkled their noses at the notable smell of too many bodies and warm machines in too small of a space. Haymitch maneuvered Plutarch next to Thom. Wiress stood on his other side.
"How long will the patch take?" asked Plutarch.
"Should be pretty much instant," said Wiress.
"Mellark entered the hack in the morning..." she paused for a few moments, then continued to speak, "It worked. We updated Pathfinder. We sent the patch which Rover 2 should have received.”
Haymitch added, “All we need now is for Mellark to restart the computer and execute the file."
He climbed in to the rover's airlock. Once in the cab, he shed his EVA suit. He rebooted the computer. His heart thudded. This was it. If the hack worked, he'd be in business with NASA.
"We're in!" announced Thom.
"We did it!" exclaimed Plutarch.
"No shit!" said Haymitch.
"It worked," Wiress added quietly, sighing in relief.
[11:18] JPL: Peeta, this is Haymitch. Good job, boy! We've been watching you since Sol 49. We're making plans to rescue you with the Antares 4 MDV. Working on sending a resupply probe soon. Genius move with rover refit, getting RTG, and retrieving Pathfinder. It's a game changer, boy.
[11:29] Mellark: Thank you! I'm really looking forward to not dying. I just want to make sure you know that my being stranded here is not the crew's fault. It's just bad luck. They did the right thing. Side Question: What did they say when they found out I was alive? Also, "Hi, Dad!"
[11:41] JPL: Estimated food would last 400 days. Sending resupply. Did not know you had food you could grow. Tell us about your crops. Side Answer: We did not tell crew you were alive. They need to focus on their own mission.
[11:52] Mellark: Crops are potatoes they sent for us to have at Thanksgiving. But with limited space, it's not sustainable. Best case scenario, potatoes extend food supply to Sol 900. Side answer answer: What in the hell? Tell the crew I'm alive. What the fuck is wrong with you?
[12:04] JPL: Sol 900 is great news! That gives us extra time to prepare the resupply probe. Also we'll get botanists on board to double-check your work. Just to be sure. Side note: Watch your language boy. Everything you type is being broadcast live all over the world.
[12:15] Mellark: Look! A pair of boobs! -> (.Y.)
Haymitch snickered. Thom chuckled. Plutarch guffawed. And Wiress blushed.
A new message came in.
[12:17] Mellark: Anyway, any last words of advice before I go?
Haymitch shifted on his feet and rubbed his face. A fresh wave of worry washed over him. The communications made them feel closer to Mellark, but it was an illusion. His melancholy thoughts surfaced, Embrace the probability of your imminent death and know in your heart there is nothing I can do to save you. Instead he leaned forward and typed, “Stay alive.”
[12:28] JPL: Stay alive.
Peeta laughed at that. It was absurd. What else had he been doing all this time? He sent out a simple response, “Roger.”
Seneca Crane's office, Johnson Space Center- Houston, TX
Seneca returned the phone to its cradle, his heart bursting with pride. He had just gotten off the phone with the President of the United States. President Snow was pleased with the efforts of NASA and JPL to rescue Peeta Mellark and pledged his full support. (He was also up for reelection this year.)
Restless, Seneca got up and went to his office windows. As was his habit of late, he searched out the small red dot in the sky and contemplated the plight of the stranded astronaut. He heard the quick stride of purposeful footsteps coming down the hall then stop at his office.
"I was expecting you," Seneca said without turning.
Gale Hawthorne paused in the doorway, confusion clouding his features. "You were?"
Seneca turned his intense blue gaze on Gale and explained, "Haymitch is in Pasadena. He's not here to argue. It's just you and me. Go ahead." He gestured at Gale.
Gale was frozen in place, still dumbstruck. He came all hell and fury, prepared to present and defend his case. "W-What?" he stuttered.
"Go ahead and ask me. That's what you've come for isn't it? That's why you're here?"
Gale faltered. "Well, yeah, um..." He cleared his throat. "I wanted to ask for...permission," he gritted the word out, "to tell the crew on the Hermes about Mellark."
"I knew once Haymitch left you'd be here sooner or later and I've given it thought. I told you months ago: If we had hope, we'd tell them. Well, we do now. He's got the potatoes, we're sending a resupply, and while the method is practically medieval, we're communicating with him. So, yes, go ahead and tell them."
Gale's fire was snuffed out. He expected an argument, heated words, a confrontation. His body coursed with adrenaline and now there was no fight to be had.
He nodded and shifted on his feet.
Seneca turned back to the windows. "We have hope, but if you consider the odds..." he said sadly.
Gale didn't need him to finish that thought. He knew what he was hinting at. Mellark could still die on that godforsaken planet. The crew could end up mourning him a second time. All their efforts could be for nothing.
He also knew that long shots were shots nonetheless.
The oldest son of a widowed single mom, he didn't just grow up on the bad side of town, but the worst side of town. At fifteen he fought a man who laid hands on his mother. His nose still had a bump from where the man broke it, but he never came back and no man mistreated his mother again after that. He worked through high school, giving every extra dollar to his mom to help take care of his siblings. Then he joined the air force, and later, joined NASA in Mission Control. The odds said he should be a criminal, an addict, an alcoholic, a deadbeat. Instead, he was successful, had a lovely wife, and two great kids. His mom eventually remarried a good man, also widowed, and his brothers and sister all went to college. Posy would graduate this spring.
His fire rekindled and his eyes flared as these thoughts flashed through his mind.
"Never tell me the odds," he said hotly and left to give the Hermes the news about Mellark. Damn the odds, Mellark would make it back.
Gazing out the window, into the night sky, Seneca whispered, "Hang in there Mellark, we're coming."
*Good Luck Peanuts are a long standing tradition at JPL. This significant part of JPL mythos dates back to 1964. Up to that point, the Ranger program (designed to take the first closeup pictures of the moon) had been a stunning disaster. Ranger 1-6 had all had some malfunction: some never made it to the moon, others overshot, one landed, but never sent pictures. By late July 1964, JPL was poised to launch Ranger 7 to the moon. Tensions ran high as another failure would mean "personnel changes". On launch day, Mission Manager Harris Schurmeier passed peanuts around. He figured techs could either eat them or play with them; it would give them something else to focus on. Ranger 7 went perfectly from launch to the mid-course correction. The next day they woke up to find stunning closeup images of the moon. The first ever taken for all the world to see. So from then on, when there's a significant event going on, JPL has peanuts for "good luck". I included them here :) So have some peanuts (if you're not allergic) and think of JPL and rockets and good luck vibes.
The next chapter will swing to the crew's POV. Time to go visit Commander Odair, Marvel, Rue, Thresh, and Clove as they will play an increasingly important role in the story.
Songs for this chapter are: Ok Go "This Too Shall Pass", Green Day "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", Tokio Hotel "1000 Oceans", Sara Bareilles "Satellite Call", Bastille "Overjoyed", Coldplay "Sky Full of Stars", and Killers "Be Still"
Chapter 7: Crew
A recounting of Sol 6 from crew's perspective.
Fastforward to present day.
Crew finds out Mellark is alive.
I am so thrilled that so many people are enjoying my fic! Thank you so much for the kudos, comments, and follows. It means a lot. I go back and reread the comments to motivate myself when new chapters start kicking my butt.
I hope you enjoy getting to meet the crew! They will play an increasingly important role as the story progresses.
There are a few Firefly quotes in there for you, if you were a fan of that show.
Many THG characters never had last names so here are the crew's names because in NASA you refer to each other by surname so familiarize yourself with them now so you know who's who. This was really hard for me, but I felt like to stay true to the scientific/ NASA side of things I had to use surnames too.
Commander Finnick Odair, geologist
Pilot Marvel Reardon
Ship's doctor, Dr. Rue Atwood
Sysop Clove De La Rosa
Chemist, Thresh Somers
And Mechanical Engineer/ Botanist Peeta Mellark
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Chapter 7: Crew
Pre-dawn Sol 6
Darkness filled the Hab. The only light came from LEDs that glowed like tiny unblinking eyes in the various machines and computer equipment that made life on Mars and this mission possible, and from the faint blue lights that encircled the base of the Hab to guide the feet of wakeful astronauts.
Even in the dark one could make out Dr. Rue Atwoods’s med station tucked into an alcove in one wall. Clove De La Rosa’s computer console was in a similar alcove. In the center of the large room were three work tables: Thresh Somers’s small chemistry lab, Commander Odair’s geology lab, already populated with sets of baggies containing samples, and Peeta Mellark’s biology station with a set of racks and small fluorescent lights ready for him to start the botany experiments today.
The kitchen was a small affair with a bit of counter, a tiny sink, and an equally tiny microwave. A bin filled with assorted breakfast packs sat on the counter. Mellark had set it there ready for the morning to make wake-up a little easier. He was always doing little things like that.
On another wall, there was a small room with a toilet and sink, and a shower was to the right of it.
The astronauts slept in three sets of two bunks: Odair and Reardon shared a bunk, Atwood and De La Rosa were together, and Somers was with Mellark. The bunks were big enough that they could sit up in them and use them as a couch, giving them each some personal space.
The astronauts slept deeply. Mellark even had a small smile as he had some pleasant dream.
The soft breathing and quiet snores of six sleeping astronauts mingled with the hum of the environmental regulator, the occasional gurgle of the water reclaimer, and the murmur of the compressor as the oxygenator clicked off and on.
Three airlocks gave access to the Martian surface.
Outside, the inky night was coming to an end. The two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, cast a faint silvery glow on the dome of the Hab and the two rovers, which were pulled in close, plugged in and charging in preparation for today’s EVAs.
Twilight on mars was always lengthy compared to Earth’s due to dust lofted high in the thin Martian atmosphere, but this morning dawn came early, even for Mars, as the sun’s rays cast a feeble light off the dust clouds gathering in the east.
A storm was coming today.
The dust glowed faintly for a while before the pale blue of dawn began. The black veil of night peeled away; the stars dimmed and finally disappeared. The colors of dawn spread across the sky turning it from black, to grey, to a deep butterscotch yellow. Though the sun remained hidden by a wall of dust.
With the rising of the sun, the lights in the Hab began to wink on. Commander Odair was the first to wake. He bounded out of bed, instantly alert, thanks to years of Navy training. Reardon was right behind him. An Air Force man himself, he was able to keep up with Odair with ease. Odair called out to the crew, “Rise and shine! Sol 6! Let’s get moving!” He was met with a chorus of groans and moans. “Aw, c’mon guys, you already got an extra forty minutes of sleep.”
Atwood sat up, but made no further move to leave her bunk. Somers swung his legs over the edge of his bottom bunk and rubbed his face. De La Rosa pretended to hear none of it. Mellark rolled over to face the rear wall of his bunk, and that was his mistake. Reardon pounced on him, knowing he was awake.
“C’mon, Mellark, up and at ‘em!”
“I am a large, semi-muscular man and I will dump your ass outta this bunk.”
“I can take you. I am a wrestling champion, you know.”
“He’s right,” Somers butt in, “He can kick your ass.”
“Shut up, Somers,” said Reardon.
Reardon yanked Mellark’s blanket off. Mellark curled up tighter trying to preserve the lost heat and pulled his pillow tight around his head. It was his second mistake, Reardon pulled it away easily. Mellark rolled over and glared.
“Commander Odair! The bad man took my pillow!” Mellark mock-pouted.
“Reardon, give it back. Mellark, get your ass up,” answered Odair.
Mellark looked at Reardon again and snorted, “Ugh! Reardon, couldn’t you at least get dressed first?”
Reardon was still in his moisture wicking under shirt and boxer-briefs, otherwise known as NASA’s standard-issue pajamas.
“What, do you find this…distracting?” he asked suggestively.
“If you weren’t already married, I’d take you in a manly fashion,” Mellark deadpanned.
“In your lonely pathetic dreams,” Reardon retorted.
“I’m trying to think of how you two could be any cruder… Nope. Not coming to me,” said Atwood.
Somers leaned out of his bunk and reached up to giver her a high five.
“Girls!” Commander Odair called out in warning.
“See how I’m not punching him, I think I’ve grown,” Reardon said with a smirk.
Mellark gave up. He sat up and slid into his uniform. He walked over to the kitchen and began to pass out breakfast packs while everyone made their coffee. “Atwood, what’re you in the mood for? We have eggs, eggs, and oh, look! More eggs.”
“I think I’ll have the eggs,” she said with a smile. He tossed her an egg pack and the hot sauce.
“Somers, what about you?”
“Is there oatmeal?”
“Yeah, actually, there is.”
“I’ll take that then,” Somers said, and Mellark got the pack out and began nuking water in a mug for him.
“De La Rosa?”
“De La Rosa?”
“Hey, De La Rosa?”
Mellark was met with a death glare and grunt from De La Rosa.
“Hey, Mellark, you know she takes a while to boot up in the morning,” said Reardon, “Computer engineers.”
Mellark grabbed his own breakfast and joined the others. De La Rosa sat on the counter with her coffee. Once she finished her coffee, she grabbed a breakfast pack as well.
“Ah! She lives!” called Reardon.
After breakfast, Commander Odair outlined the plan for the day. He and Reardon and Somers would do an EVA to collect rock samples for his geology study and deeper samples for Somers’s chemical analysis. De La Rosa would check in with NASA about the meteorology for the day. Odair was looking forward to taking a rover out, but with the storm coming, he wanted to be sure to get the all-clear from NASA. Mellark would start growing his plants. Atwood made sure the med supplies were in order and was prepared to help Thresh and Finnick when they came back with samples.
Commander Odair and Reardon had suited up quickly and were already out on the Martian surface. When they looked east, they saw the dust clouds rising. Still, they were far away. Reardon did the digging and collecting. Odair bagged and tagged. “My handwriting’s better,”” he commented when Reardon groused about digging and shouldn’t the Commander be getting his own samples.
Mellark hung back, cleaning up the packets and mugs from breakfast. Somers took some time to prepare his station to work with the samples he’d take today. An alert came over the comm. De La Rosa got the message from NASA that the storm they had been expecting would be strong. She alerted Reardon and Commander Odair that they would not be taking the rovers today. Odair concurred and said they’d keep EVA’s within one hundred meters of the Hab.
Mellark made his bed and casually looked over his shoulder at Somers. Somers chatted with Atwood before moving to get his EVA suit on. “Bingo!” thought Mellark. He had switched Somers’s suit with Atwood’s. He was moments away from a very gratifying “Dammit, Mellark!”
Another message came in. The storm was moving faster than initially anticipated. De La Rosa had radar up. She let commander Odair know the storm was fifteen minutes out and that they should wrap up what they were doing and return.
Somers left the suit on the hanger.
“Bummer,” Mellark thought.
Instead, Commander Odair and Reardon came through the airlock, shed their EVA suits and the whole group waited anxiously to see what the storm would bring.
Sitting in the Hab, waiting out the storm, while the canvas billowed and the supports groaned and creaked, reminded Mellark of the times severe storms would roll through eastern Texas on their way to Arkansas and beyond. His family would hover in the basement with a weather radio and flashlights. It was dark and frightening, the storm raging overhead and no way to know what was happening, wondering if they’d wake up in the morning to a drastically altered reality. Even now, there was no way to know for sure what was happening outside. The Hab had cameras, but the view was obscured by the dust, there was nothing to see.
The Mars mission was the mission of a lifetime. The whole crew sat there hoping that this wasn’t it, that this wasn’t the end, that a windstorm wouldn’t scrub years worth of work and billions of tax payer dollars. It wasn’t worth it.
Commander Odair and De La Rosa continued talking back and forth about wind speeds and the location and direction of the storm. The final, fatal flaw, was not that the Hab could breach; the Hab could take the abuse of the storm. No, it was the MAV. NASA did not expect Mars to throw up such an unusually strong storm. The MAV was in danger of tipping.
“The winds are over 100 kph now, gusting to 125 kph, and we’re just on the leading edge of the storm.” De La Rosa looked up at Odair, who was at her side looking at the computer with her. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Commander Odair turned to Reardon and asked, “What’s the abort wind speed Reardon?”
“Abort wind speed is 150kph,” said Reardon, “It can tip the MAV.”
Odair nodded and turned to the crew. “Get your flight suits on. We’re going to wait this one out in the MAV,” he ordered.
The crew groaned. Mellark cursed under his breath. They should have had something, done something, so they wouldn’t need to scrub the mission for some damn wind.
“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” said Atwood optimistically. Somers smiled at her.
“We’re going to be cutting it close if the storm is already this bad,” said Reardon as he shrugged his flightsuit on.
They grouped by twos outside of Air Lock One. Reardon and Odair in the lead, followed by Atwood and Somers, and Mellark and De La Rosa brought up the rear.
They huffed as they walked angled into the wind that was doing its best to beat them back. The dust in the air made it difficult to see. They homed in on Commander Odair’s beacon as he led them to the MAV.
Mellark, struggling in the effort to walk into the wind said, between huffs, “You know, maybe we don’t need to leave, what if we…anchor the MAV down…with the rovers and some cables…from the solar farm. Then we could-”
Suddenly, Mellark was gone, hit by debris and blown backward toward the west, along the path of the storm.
De La Rosa turned to her left. “Mellark?” she called “Mellark!”
There was no answer.
“What happened?” Odair asked.
“Something hit him,” De La Rosa reported.
“Mellark! Report!” Odair called over the radio.
“MELLARK! REPORT!” he tried again.
Still no answer.
“He’s offline,” De La Rosa reported. “I’ve lost him! I don’t have his signal.”
“Commander,” said Atwood, “Before going offline, his decompression alarm went off!”
Commander Odair took a deep breath and tried to get a handle on a situation that was rapidly spiraling out of control. He turned to Reardon and said, “Reardon, you get to the MAV and prepare for launch. Everyone else home in on De La Rosa’s Beacon. We need to go find Mellark. De La Rosa, where did you last see him?”
“He was next to me, then he was blown back, to the west.”
Shoulder to shoulder the team headed west, blown along by the wind that threatened to knock them over at every moment. Dust swirled around them and small rocks pelted their suits. They drug their feet, for stability, and also so they wouldn’t accidentally step over Mellark.
In the MAV, Reardon passed through the airlock, removed his suit, and slid into the pilot’s couch. He reached for the Emergency Launch Checklist. With long practiced efficiency, he flicked switches rapidly, bringing systems online one by one. He took note of one in particular.
“Commander Odair, be advised that the MAV is currently at a seven degree tilt,” Reardon reported.
“Copy that. At what point can it not recover?”
“12.3, sir. At that point it will not be able to rock back.”
“Copy, Reardon. Keep us advised.”
“De La Rosa,” Atwood said, looking at the small digital screen on her arm, “Mellark’s bio-monitor sent something before going completely offline, but I can’t tell what was sent. It just says ‘Bad Packet’.”
“I have it, too,” De La Rosa confirmed, “Hold on, let me see what I can find out.”
Reardon’s voice rang through the comms again, “Commander, we have a message from Houston. The mission is officially scrubbed. The storm’s going to be too rough.”
“Copy,” Odair said.
“And…sir, they sent that four and a half minutes ago, while looking at satellite data from nine minutes ago,” Reardon said.
“Understood, Reardon, continue prepping for launch.”
“Copy,” said Reardon.
De La Rosa said, “Atwood! I have the raw packet. It says: BP 0, PR 0, TP 36.2. That’s it. That’s as far as it got.”
Atwood said, “Copy. Blood Pressure zero. Pulse Rate zero. Temperature normal.”
The whole crew was silent for a moment, still shuffling westward, the storm raging around them.
“Temperature normal,” said Somers, a note of hope in his deep voice.
“It takes a while,” Atwood’s voice wavered, “It takes some time to…cool.”
Reardon’s voice broke through the thick silence, “Commander, be advised that the MAV is now tilting at 10.5 degrees. Gusts push it to eleven.”
The margin of safety narrowed.
“Copy,” said Commander Odair, “Are you ready for launch?”
“Affirmative. Ready for launch.”
Commander Odair had a tough choice before him, find Mellark, or get the crew to the ship. He felt they must be close, but it was impossible to see in these conditions and they were walking further and further away from the MAV which was getting closer and closer to tipping while the wind, and dust, and debris pounded them. He could lose them all.
With a thick voice Odair ordered the crew to turn back, home in on Reardon’s beacon, and prepare for launch. Reluctantly they turned back. He wanted to continue looking for as long as possible, but he couldn’t risk the crew.
“Reardon, if the MAV tips past 12.3, and I’m not able to make it back. You launch. You got that?”
“I’m not leaving without you, sir.”
“I don’t want you risking the whole crew.”
“That’s an order, Reardon!”
“Understood, Commander.” Reardon’s voice was tight. Barely even able to process the loss of one crewmate, he couldn’t imagine losing the Commander as well.
Odair continued west, first shuffling his feet, then on hands and knees, hoping against hope that he’d find his missing crewman. But he wasn’t there. The storm was blinding.
Odair spoke up over the comms again, “Do you think we can use IR from the rovers?”
“Negative,” answered De La Rosa, “The IR can’t penetrate the dust.”
“What about the MAV’s proximity radars?” Odair asked. He was grasping at straws now.
“Negative, Commander,” answered Reardon. “They’re for detecting the Hermes. The tiny amount of metal in a spacesuit won’t even register. I’m sorry sir, but Mellark is…,” He swallowed, it was so hard to say it, “Mellark is dead, sir.”
“I’m not giving up!” Odair called back.
“Commander, the MAV’s tilt is now 11.6 degrees. A good gust and it will tip,” Reardon reported.
“Copy,” said Odair, his breathing labored by the effort of being in the storm for so long, “I’m coming back.”
“Copy,” said Reardon. “Shit! Everyone, strap in! We’re tipping!”
“Tilting at 13 degrees,” said De La Rosa. The supports on the MAV groaned under the shifting weight.
“We can’t recover from that,” said Somers.
“We can’t leave without Odair,” said Atwood.
“We won’t,” assured Reardon, “I have a trick up my sleeve.” And he fired up the OMS thrusters on the leeward side of the MAV. By firing this set of thrusters, he could offset the tilt caused by the winds and stay on the ground a little longer. Blowing the covers off the thrusters on the nosecone would make launch bumpy, but he had ‘golden hands’ and could handle it. He was not going to lose his best-friend and commander on the same day.
Reardon said, “De La Rosa, keep an eye on those readouts.”
“Copy. Tilt still at 13 degrees…now 12.9 degrees…12.6…” The tension in her voice eased with each positive increment.
Odair fought his way back to the MAV. There was no finding Mellark in all of this and he was probably, most likely, certainly dead. With a heavy heart and leaden feet he climbed the ladder into the MAV.
“Almost there…,” said De La Rosa, “Okay, we’re under 12.3.”
The crew breathed a sigh of relief.
“OMS cutoff,” Reardon announced, terminating the burn.
De La Rosa continued, “11.6….11.5…and…holding.” She let out a long exhale.
Odair finally emerged into the cabin and took his place next to Reardon.
Five crewman sat in a circle of launch couches. Mellark’s space gaping in it’s emptiness, as though even the MAV felt his loss.
“Still at pilot release,” said Reardon to Odair, “Ready for launch.”
Odair closed his eyes tightly. This was it. Then he nodded.
Reardon’s voice came thickly, “I need verbal…”
“Launch,” said Odair hoarsely.
“Yes, sir,” said Reardon as he ignited the engines for launch.
The MAV shuddered as the engines roared to life. After a moment of inertia, the MAV lifted off from the surface. The increased g-forces pushed the astronauts into their couches. The wind sheer threatened to push the MAV off course, but the computers angled the MAV into the wind, keeping it on course as it continued to surge through the atmosphere gaining speed. The now-open OMS ports caused the MAV to shake and rattle, but Reardon was handling the flight beautifully, keeping up with necessary adjustments.
The first stage burnt out and fell away, lightening the load of the MAV considerably and temporarily reducing g-forces on the astronauts. They were weightless for a few moments. The second stage fired right on cue and the crew sunk into the couches again as the MAV was thrust upward further from Mars. Now free of the atmosphere, there was no more air resistance, and this stage of flight was as smooth as the previous stage was rough. They were now free of Mars on their way to rendezvous with the Hermes.
Normally, they’d celebrate a successful launch, but the crew sat unmoving, each face wet with tears, with only the sound of Atwood’s soft sobs breaking the silence.
Four months later …
It had been four months since the crew left Mars. They had mourned their fallen crewmate, and finally life was getting back to normal. A new normal. They took their meals together, did their science experiments (Atwood tried not to think about why she was growing plants in zero-g), took care of little repairs on the Hermes, and communicated with NASA and their families.
They were able to laugh again without considering it a sacrilege. Reardon had gone to pack up Mellark’s bunk and found the fake puke he had brought. He chuckled and hid it in Somers’s bunk who found it and smiled then tucked it in Atwood’s med station. She giggled and secreted it in De La Rosa’s computer console who bit her lip remembering her friend. Then she put it in the shower where Odair found it. He startled, then whispered, “Dammit Mellark,” around the lump that formed in his throat. Now, it was a running joke as they found and re-hid the fake puke. It was a way of keeping Mellark’s memory alive and helped them to feel like he was still there with them.
Today there would be a data dump. They looked forward to “Dump Day” as emails, pictures, and videos from family and occasionally friends helped take their minds off their life in space.
“Reardon,you look as giddy as a school boy. You expecting something special today?” asked Atwood as she joined the others around De La Rosa’s console.
“Yeah, it was my boy’s third birthday this week. I’m sure my wife will send pictures.” Reardon grinned. He was one proud papa. “What about you, Atwood? Anything special for you?”
“Nah, just a paper I wrote a couple years ago going through the peer review process. It will probably be published later this year,” replied Atwood. She turned to Somers. “Somers, you got anyone special back home you’re hoping to hear from today?”
Somers shook his head modestly. “Just my grandma and my sister. My grandma doesn’t like to use fancy technology much. But my sister will sometimes include something from her in her own messages.”
De La Rosa said, “I’m getting a knife catalog.”
“Figures,” snorted Reardon.
Commander Odair bounded in just in time. The data download was nearly complete. How he bounded, even in space, was a mystery to the crew. He rubbed his hands together in expectation. He loved hearing from his wife and kids. He and Annie were used to separation, but that didn’t make it easier. To see her again in the video messages breathed life into him. And seeing ten year old Ridley and five year old Quinn meant so much to him. They were growing up before his very eyes. It wouldn’t be much longer, just six more months, and he’d be able to hold them all in his arms again.
The crew gathered round as De La Rosa downloaded everything (mail, messages, further instructions from NASA about their experiments, and a system update for the Hermes-that was for De La Rosa) then uploaded it to each crewman’s account. They were about to run off to their respective bunks to watch and read their messages when De La Rosa spoke up.
“Hold up guys! There’s a video message. It’s for all of us. And it’s from Gale Hawthorne.”
They crowded around the console. De La Rosa played the video.
“Hermes, this is Gale Hawthorne. There is some news that I felt that I should be the one to share with you, personally.” Gale on the video visibly took a deep breath before continuing. “There’s no easy way to say it, and no gentle way to tell you, so I’m just going to be blunt.”
“When isn’t he blunt?” Reardon joked from the back of the crowd.
“Shut up Reardon,” said Odair.
Gale, looking dead on at the camera, unblinking, unwavering, said, “Peeta Mellark is alive. We’ve known this since Sol 49. He was hit by a communications antenna and the decompression knocked him out. It hit his bio-pack, too, making it look like he was dead. But he says it’s not your fault. He makes sure to say it every time we talk to him. We’ve found a way to communicate with him via a patch between Rover 2 and Pathfinder. That’s some crazy shit right there, what he did to get Pathfinder. Anyway, look, I don’t have much time, but I thought you should know and I wanted you to hear it from me first. It’s only right. I wanted to tell you right away, but the other directors wouldn’t let me. I’m sorry they kept this from you. We’re working on a rescue plan. Don’t worry. We’re going to bring him home.”
The video ended with Gale’s sad grey eyes promising them he would keep his word to bring their crewmate home.
De La Rosa leaned back in the chair. “He’s alive,” she said, disbelieving.
“Shiiiit,” said Reardon running a hand through his hair.
Atwood wept. Somers put his arm around her, his eyes misty, too.
Odair’s mouth gaped. “I left him behind.”
“We all left him behind,” said Reardon.
“No!” Odair insisted, “You followed orders. I left him behind.”
De La Rosa spoke up, “You did what you had to do.”
“De La Rosa’s right,” said Somers, “You went back, you tried to find him. There was nothing more you could do.”
“We all thought he was dead,” Atwood said, her voice shaky.
“You can’t beat yourself up over this Commander. It was just shit luck,” added Reardon.
Commander Odair looked at his crew. They didn’t understand. They couldn’t. He stalked out of the room.
How close was he to finding Mellark prone on the surface of Mars? Inches? Feet? What he wouldn’t give to have a second chance to find him. He was forgetting the blinding sand, the powerful wind, the urgency of the need to launch. He had made the best decision he could given the circumstances, but now he only felt like a failure. He had grieved Mellark’s loss. Not a day went by that he didn’t miss the jokes, the banter, the friendly face, and the strong work ethic of the man, and now, that good, kind, gentle soul was left in utter isolation, marooned on a godforsaken planet by his own crew. By his own Commander. By him.
Odair went to his bunk, not even able to open his “mail”. He just sat there, staring, his eyes rimmed red and the moisture of tears under them. He got out his piece of rope. Annie insisted he pack it. She knew rope soothed him when he was stressed or upset, tying and untying the knots that he had learned as a boy fishing with his father.
He began to run the rope through his fingers, deftly winding, looping, and knotting it, then slipping the knot loose again, his mind filled with tortuous thoughts.
Knots, knots, tie and untie, tie and untie. They followed orders, I left him behind. Knots, knots. Tie and untie. Tie and untie. They followed orders, I left him behind. Knots, knots. Tie and untie. Tie and untie. They followed orders. Knots, knots. I left him behind. Tie and untie. Tie and untie. They-knots-followed orders-knots. I-tie-left him behind-untie. I-knots-LEFT-knots-HIM-tie-BEHIND-untie. Knots, knots. Tie and untie. Tie and untie.
Songs for this chapter are: "Dawn" from the Pride and Prejudice soundtrack, "Paradise" by Greenday, "Good Riddance" by Green Day, "When I'm Gone" from Epic Orchestra by BobGmbH on YouTube, "21 Guns" by Green Day.
Chapter 8: Katniss
Darius sees Mars.
Haymitch explains things.
At last, we get to spend some time with Katniss!
I would like to thank @greenwool for betaing this for me and helping me with my characterization of Katniss in this AU as well as just helping me transform this chapter from the first draft to what it has become.
Thanks to my husband who also pre-reads and edits and helps me with nerd-speak and wordsmithing.
Thanks to my son who, when asked randomly one day what he'd buy to take hiking, rattled off a list that became Katniss's shopping list.
And thanks to everyone who has given a kudos, subscribed, bookmarked, or left a comment. They all mean so much to me. I am so glad you are enjoying this story!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katniss should have been more specific. She had wanted more from her job. Now she thought that she should have wished for more vacation days or more hot cocoa in the break room. Instead, she got more responsibility, more visibility, more recognition. After those first seventeen images came in and she realized that the astronaut that everyone thought was dead was actually alive, she found herself on the fast-track to promotion and involvement in one of the biggest events in the history of NASA. Even Apollo 11 and 13 would pale in comparison to the massive rescue effort necessary to get Peeta off Mars.
She was now a fixture at directors’ meetings, press conferences, on conference calls, and was, as Johanna had pointed out, the SME. She found herself running to catch up, studying everything she could find on the mission: training manuals, equipment specs, logs, training videos, crew bios and files- everything- so she could better interpret her observation of Peeta’s movements on the surface and deliver improved analysis of the imagery. That’s what she told herself. It had nothing to do with her growing fascination with the man who occupied most of her waking hours as he plodded around on Mars.
JPL being able to directly communicate with Mellark had been a relief. Two-way comms now superseded satellite imagery in monitoring his status. It also took some of the pressure off Katniss. They had another grunt in SatCon take over weekend work so she could have some time off; and this weekend she finally felt relaxed enough to take it.
At first she thought she’d sleep in, but she realized that was a hopeless cause when she woke up on time, which was around 7:10am. She decided to go for a hike instead of a run.
Getting out of the city and venturing a familiar path with nothing but a water bottle was freeing. Sam Houston National Forest had some good trails, though she missed the beauty of the mountains.
Born and raised in western Virginia, Katniss loved the Appalachian Mountains and the way the land seemed to rise up in gentle folds to embrace her. The low mountains were beautiful without obscuring the sky. Their summits might have clouds resting on them or sometimes in late fall or early spring they’d have a little bit of snow that didn’t reach the valleys. The shady gloom of the valleys had an almost magical quality as though she was deep in the forests of fairy tales. Katniss felt secure in the woods. Secluded in the crevices of the mountains, she was at home, at peace.
She paused in her hike. She’d already gone a few miles and she sat on a fallen log and took a long drink of water. Walking south from the northern trailhead for the Lone Star Hiking Trail, she’d passed through woods, crossed a creek, and walked through a place where the trees were thin and the forest floor was covered in ferns. This was one of her favorite trails because this section was surreal and felt like something from a fantasy novel and reminded her of the feeling she got in the shadowed valleys of her mountain home.
Those days of getting lost in the mountains came to an end when she was eleven. Her mom fell into a deep depression after her dad died. Katniss tried to shield Prim from the worst of it and keep them both going to school, looking presentable, and made the most of what was in the cabinets. Her mom finally got help when the cupboards were empty and an eviction notice was on the door. She returned to nursing and took a job transfer to Florida as the mountains held too many memories that haunted her and threatened to send her back to the dark place she had worked so hard to escape from.
Katniss was angry at her mom for checking out like she did after her father’s death and she resented the move to Florida deeply. She missed the cool clean air of the mountains and how she could lose herself in them. In Florida she didn’t have the same freedom that she had back home. Florida was hot, flat, and humid. The lack of sheltering terrain and lush green trees made Katniss feel exposed and the sun was glaring. But most of all she hated being so far from where her father was laid to rest and the familiar places they both shared. It was like her mom want to forget everything, but Katniss clung to her precious memories like a lifeline.
Reaching a good turnaround point, she took another long drink of water and had a small snack of dried fruit. Just enough to give her energy and keep her moving until she finished the trail and could get a late lunch. A light breeze blew at the wisps of hair that had fallen out of her braid and cooled the sweat on the nape of her neck. While she finished her snack, she looked around enjoying the scenery. This trail, while lacking terrain, was the closest thing in eastern Texas resembling her past mountain rambles.
It had taken her a couple of years to adjust, but she found that living in New Smyrna Beach, Florida had its perks. For one, the light sand and clear blue water of the beaches was spectacular. Katniss eventually was allowed to go to the beach pretty much anytime she wanted. She also enjoyed waking up early and going out to watch the sunrise and maybe get a little fishing in on the weekends. Swimming in the warm, salty ocean was vastly different than the cool mountain lake she had learned in with her father, but it still made her feel close to him. Living an hour north of Cape Canaveral, they often made the trek to see launches. Whether they were supply payloads, tests of new launch vehicles, or launching crews into space, they were there.
When Katniss was a senior in high school, her mom took off work and drove her and Prim down to Cape Canaveral to go and watch Antares 1 launch. Katniss was awed to witness the first manned mission to Mars lift off.
Her love of the mountains and forests of her childhood home was equaled only by her love of the stars. Her father said some Native Americans called them “spirit campfires”. It made them feel warm, inviting, and close rather than impersonal, distant balls of burning gas with no purpose. Just as sure as the well-worn trail that passed beneath her silent feet on her hike this morning made her feel closer to her father, so did the sky and stars beyond.
As a high school student the idea of a career at NASA, studying the stars, and helping forge ahead with new science and discoveries thrilled her.
Now, years later, she was working for NASA. She had fulfilled her dreams.
Katniss came to a clearing on the trail and gazed up at the cloudless blue sky. Dream and reality collided. It was amazing sending humans to Mars, but there was still so much risk. Was it all worth it? The glory of pushing the boundaries of human exploration had always carried behind it a shadow of death. Whether it was ships lost at sea, colonies vanishing without a trace, or the fateful Apollo 1 disaster, death was a companion to exploration.
She pushed these negative thoughts aside, choosing instead to fill her lungs with the fresh wild air of the forest that surrounded her, losing herself in the nature before her: the bare trees, the underbrush, the crunch of leaves under her boots, the dusty dry smell of the trail that mingled with the rich tangy scent of rotting leaves, the squirrels bounding and bouncing from branch to branch. She listened to the sigh of wind, the bird calls, and the creak and clack of the naked branches.
Katniss finished the hike with a spring in her step, her braid swaying, and headed back to her car.
She went to her favorite sandwich shop in Huntsville, just on the north side of the forest, and texted Prim. It was nice to just focus on ordinary everyday things and not the life and death struggle that was playing out on Mars.
Two hours later and back at home, she took a nap. When she woke, Katniss had to shake off the cotton-head feeling that lingered from sleeping too long. The sky was already transitioning to pale yellow and orange as the winter sun set early. She nuked a meal from the freezer, grabbed a cider from the fridge, and took everything to the living room to catch up on her favorite shows on Netflix.
It had been a long time since she had had such a lazy day. She enjoyed it, but couldn’t help wondering if she was missing something important, or feeling as though she really should be the one in SatCon right now. Though, in all actuality, with a 7:10 am wake-up, by now Peeta Mellark was, like her, finished with his day and was probably kicking back in the Hab with his pre-packaged dinner watching whatever shows he could find on his crewmates’ thumb drives. She snorted a little laugh imagining how similar their activities were, even though they were on different planets.
Thanks to her nap, Katniss wasn’t tired at her normal bedtime, so she grabbed the quilted throw blanket off the back of the couch and another cider from the fridge, and went out to the back patio she shared with Darius. She pulled one of the metal chairs out from the table and dragged it to the edge of the patio to get a clear view of the sky. The racket made her cringe, and she hoped that Darius wasn’t asleep. Then she wrapped herself warm and cozy in her quilt and curled up in the chair.
Katniss looked up into the dark night sky, her eyes tracing the contours of the constellations her father had patiently taught her on their camping trips. Sometimes Mom and Prim came along, though usually they stayed home. Katniss treasured this time alone with her dad whether hunting or camping. He understood her. Her independence. Her directness. He loved and accepted her as she was and encouraged her love of nature. In so many ways they were kindred spirits, except he had a readier smile and was more easily affectionate. She missed him so much, but now the memory of him evoked a dull ache rather than the acute pain it had caused for so long.
Finally, Katniss let her eyes rest on a shining red dot between the trees, Mars. She struggled to make sense of the reality that there was a person all the way out there, alone, hoping for rescue.
She heard the door open and shut behind her.
“Mind if I join you?” Darius asked.
“No, go ahead,” Katniss answered with a smile.
A chair scraped against the patio and settled next to hers and Darius came around and lowered himself into it. He sat quietly sipping the beer he brought out. He looked up. “You want one?” he asked, waggling the bottle at Katniss.
“Nah, I’m good.” She lifted her own hard cider to show him.
He smiled. “How was your day off?” he asked.
“Good. Went for a hike. You?”
“Ah, did some yard work,” he said, gesturing at the yard.
“I noticed. It looks nice.”
They continued to sit in silence.
“The stars are beautiful,” Darius ventured.
“They are,” Katniss answered.
“Looking at the stars makes me think of my dad,” Katniss found herself saying.
“Yeah, we used to go on camping trips together or hunting. He taught me the constellations and their stories,” she said. She remembered how he would take her arm in his and point out the stars connecting the dots until she could see the picture emerge.
“Your dad sounds like a good man.”
Katniss nodded, a lump forming in her throat. Even after all these years it was still hard to speak of her father’s death.
Darius’s face softened in understanding.
“Star-gazing makes you feel closer to him. Is that why you went to work for NASA?” he asked.
“Yeah, might have something to do with it.”
They sat in silence once more. Katniss appreciated that Darius didn’t feel a persistent need to talk. The silence didn’t feel awkward at all. Though granted, lacking loquaciousness, he was still the one who tended to break the silence.
“So that astronaut,” he began to say, “do you think…I mean…can they really…rescue him?”
Katniss thought for several moments.
“I think so, yes,” she said slowly, “I think they can do it.” They have to do it, she thought to herself.
Darius nodded an affirmative.
Katniss pointed up, to the bright red dot she had been contemplating before Darius came out. “You see that star there? The reddish one, between those two tall trees?”
Katniss leaned over and pointed so they were both looking at the same spot.
“You see that bright star there?”
“That’s Jupiter…now, there’s a reddish star right next to it.”
Once he had it, she settled back in her own chair.
“So that’s where he is,” said Darius thoughtfully, “We’re looking at him, after a manner of speaking.”
“Whoa,” he said in awe.
They passed another quarter of an hour in silence sipping their drinks. Darius rose, “Well, I think I’ll be going in now. I’m on duty tomorrow. And, thank you, for letting me join you and showing me Mars and all.”
Katniss smiled up at him. “You’re welcome.”
“Mind if I join you again sometime?”
“Any time, Darius.”
Katniss wasn’t ready to go back in yet, so she pulled her blanket tighter around herself. Though the day had been pleasant, almost warm, the evening was chilly.
She spent Sunday tending to the household tasks that had fallen by the wayside over the past few months. All in all it was a quiet restful day.
Monday, she was back in SatCon and working long hours gathering and analyzing satellite images from Martian sunrise to Martian sunset. The familiar monotony was broken up by live comms between Peeta and NASA.
Their exchanges amused Katniss. She could sense Peeta’s latent frustration with a faceless bureaucracy dictating his life after months on his own. She saw her own fierce independence mirrored in him. Once you’ve been self-reliant, you don’t really go back. How could he depend on people who were millions of miles away when there were immediate things that needed fixed or tended to. Peeta had nothing to lose in his situation and his snarky commentary came out frequently, though he was mostly respectful. She imagined he must be happy to have contact with other humans now, although it was a double-edged sword as it invited their interference. After all that silence, now NASA wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
She kept up with the satellite coverage of Peeta’s movements and of the Antares 3 site, getting a little uptick in her pulse when she actually captured one of him outside. All in all he was elusive. The only time she could be sure of catching him was on solar cell cleaning day.
Her daily schedule followed the cycle she had fallen into over the past several weeks: wake up, run, shower, eat breakfast, work 12-ish hours downloading satellite pictures, analyzing them, and sending them along to Haymitch, sprinkled with the occasional conference call or consulting Haymitch or Seneca at a Press Conference. Then she went home, had a microwave dinner, watched a little Netflix to unwind, and headed to bed and then started it all over again when the alarm went off.
Thursday was another slow day in SatCon. The images streamed in steadily, but there was effectively no change in Mellark’s status. So Katniss used the down time to watch training videos. They had hours and hours and hours of video of the crew going through training to prepare for Mars. She watched the crew’s interactions, paid attention to the equipment they used, but found herself inexplicably drawn to the young blue-eyed astronaut. An unlikely candidate for the crew, he’d be the youngest man ever sent to Mars. But the more she watched she saw why they chose him, and why they were so devastated to lose him. He brought a steadiness to the crew. He had an uncanny knack for solving problems in unique ways that even the technicians overseeing the training couldn’t predict. She also couldn’t help but notice he was broad-shouldered and strong; he was pleasing to look at. His voice was masculine, but gentle. His eyes, whenever he looked at the camera were kind, his smile a mixture of sweetness and shyness, his laugh was infectious.
Katniss started watching the videos to learn more about the mission, but now she was intensely curious about her charge. This man was a mystery to her. The son of bakers, he became an astronaut. From Small-town, USA to Mars, how on earth did he get on such a path? He had ongoing pranks with his fellow crew, but nothing that hurt or offended anyone, just light-hearted stuff. Katniss thought that Odair side-eyed the crew a little wistfully sometimes, even while reprimanding them, he looked like he wanted to join in. In tense stressful moments, Peeta kept it together the longest and managed to keep the crew calm. Katniss wanted to know more and more about him.
She broke away from the video to download the latest batch of satellite photos.
Later that day, Katniss sat slumped at her desk, her head resting in her hand as she flicked through the set of images. Suddenly she sat up and peered closely at the screen. Her breath caught as she zoomed in. Was that what she thought it was? Yes! A dark face mask against the light colored EVA suit. He was looking up! He was looking at her. Well, not at her, but at the satellites she was in charge of. He knew she was watching. Well, not her exactly there either. He had no idea she was even alive. But he looked. And her heart beat a little faster.
He knew they were watching him via satellite now. How often did he look up like that she wondered? Katniss squeezed her eyes shut and tried to reach for him across the millions and millions of miles across space, to send her thoughts into his mind, to let him know he was not alone. But he was. And she couldn’t help him. She felt foolish, but she continued to stare at that image for a while longer before finishing the rest of the images. He was cleaning the solar cells. And eventually he disappeared, having gone back into the Hab. She was surprised at the odd feeling of sort of missing him.
From then on, she kept a keen eye out for him looking up again. It was already unusual to catch him at all, but to catch him looking up? Well! That made her day, her week, her whole endless series of shitty months since first finding him alive.
The next Saturday, her schedule had rotated enough that her wake-up time was 11:50 am. With the sun well into the sky, she made breakfast. Although it was lunch time for normal Earthlings, it was breakfast for Martians. Her hike last weekend had whetted her appetite for the outdoors. So this weekend she decided to solo camp in the forest along the shore of Lake Conroe. She got on I-45, heading for Sam Houston National Forest and some of her favorite trails again.
It was nerve wracking. When she made the decision to solo camp two-hours away from Johnson Space Center and NASA, Katniss just thought it’d be invigorating to get outside and immerse herself nature. But as the miles stretched behind her and she thought about how long she’d be gone, she had time to doubt and second guess herself. What if something happened and she wasn’t there? Should she just turn around and go back home? But she was this far already, she might as well finish it. Plus, she had decent cell-coverage; they could call her if they needed her.
She stopped in the small town of Panem for supplies. It was the nearest town to her chosen trailhead. She parked in the small parking lot of the grocery store. Inside, she picked up some bottled water. While she had a durable Nalgene bottle at home, she preferred the thin plastic bottles of store-bought water because she could crush them when she finished them, and they’d take up less space in her pack. Then she picked up some beef jerky and trail mix for protein, dried fruit for energy, and some Cup Noodles because they were cheap, filling, and gave her something warm to eat on a chilly night. She’d eaten a lot of Cup Noodles growing up and in college. “Tastes like home,” she’d joke with Prim when she came to visit.
Finally, she found a decent brand of instant coffee. She hadn’t been a fan of coffee till she started working at NASA. Her dad drank coffee religiously. He’d let her smell the grounds before he brewed them in the morning. She always liked the aroma of fresh coffee grounds, but she hated the bitter taste of the finished coffee. Even now the smell of coffee reminded her of early mornings with her dad. Her mom drank coffee too, but she discouraged her girls from starting that addiction if they could avoid it. Katniss was content with black tea until finally, working the overnight-shift in Satellite Condition, she broke down and became a regular coffee drinker. She experimented until she found she liked it best with a little sugar and a lot of cream. It overcame the bitterness without being too sweet.
The last item on her list, fuel for the personal camp stove was over in the outdoor section with picnic products and grilling supplies. Finally, her shopping list complete, she made her way to check-out with her items and headed back out to the small parking lot and looked around.
Panem always struck her as timeless, but not as though something from a century ago was preserved, like a museum. Neither was it entirely modern. It kept an air of quaint fresh innocence of time past while growing up with the town and the world around it. The stores had attractive hand painted signs that were slightly weather-worn giving them an inviting lived-in feel. Large bay windows displayed their goods. Some shops boasted of having free wi-fi. Above the shops were apartments where some merchants continued to live, others were rented out. There was something that made the community feel close and warm like no one was a stranger here.
Normally, when she left the store, she’d just get in the car and leave in a hurry to get to the trail, but this time she was brought up short by the delicious aroma coming from the bakery. Realizing this was the Mellark’s bakery, the very place where Peeta Mellark lived and worked was intriguing. She had only been in Panem a couple of times before, and that not for longer than necessary to procure backpacking supplies. It wasn’t until news reporters interviewed Peeta’s family that she learned he was from this small town.
It smelled wonderful. Even outside, the scent of fresh baked bread and warm sugar enticed her and made her stomach rumble in anticipation.
Standing at the window, she looked in awe at the display of beautiful cakes, breads, and pastries. The bell above the door gave a cheerful little jingle as she walked in.
“Be right out!” called a man from the back. It was late-afternoon by now, almost closing-time for the bakery. They were cleaning up the back and finishing up the last orders for the day.
Katniss took advantage of being alone to look around. There were a handful of cafe tables and chairs against the windows. Glass cases in front of her displayed cookies, muffins, pastries, and a few other items. Behind the counter was a wall of wooden shelves with baskets for many types of bread though only a few had bread left in them. Several paintings hung on the buttery yellow walls, simple light fixtures hung from the ceiling, and the wood flooring had a dark stain between dark mahogany and ebony. Everything worked together to give the place a cozy, homey feel. Katniss could easily imagine a little family coming in on Saturday mornings for breakfast pastries or kids stopping by for cookies after school. She had to wonder why anyone would want to leave?
Lost in thought, she startled a little when the man called out again. He burst through the door to the storefront a little flushed and short of breath. “How can I help you?” he asked kindly as he took his place at the counter.
Katniss regarded the stocky blond man then looked down at the cases. She was flustered to see a man who looked so much like Peeta standing right in front of her, but wasn’t. They had the same blue eyes, the same build (though this man was heavier set), the same smile (though this man had a beard).
“Um, some of those cookies, please,” she said pointing at the lemon sugar cookies.
“Sure! How many?”
She didn’t know. Just one to try? A couple for tonight? More for tomorrow? Sensing her indecision the stocky blond, “Rye”, his name tag said (she recognized it from the memorial service and news interviews), spoke up again.
“Well, we’re past the busiest part of the day. Normally cookies are a dollar each, but I’ll give you six of them for $3.”
“Oh, um..” Katniss hesitated.
“It’s really okay, it helps me get rid of ‘em and will help you have more to enjoy or share,” Rye said smilingly.
“Okay,” Katniss acquiesced.
“Anything else? Coffee? Tea? Soda?” Rye asked. She noted that Rye’s voice was deeper than Peeta’s.
Katniss didn’t need a drink so she surveyed the cases again and her eyes fell on the cheese buns. “Just…um…those cheese buns…all of them.” Katniss knew the savory rolls would be nice to snack on tonight and make a decent breakfast in the morning.
“Sure thing!” Rye turned to get an additional white paper sack and package the four rolls for her.
Katniss paid, her heart rate climbing all the while, and rushed out of there. It really rattled her to be so close to Peeta’s brother.
She got a hot sandwich from the little diner across the street, knowing she needed to eat before going hiking. She sat on a stool at the bar along the diner’s front window. Incidentally, this gave her a direct view of Mellark’s Bakery. Katniss watched as Rye, who seemed about Peeta’s age, maybe a little older, cleaned up the storefront, sweeping and putting chairs up. A blond woman helped him out. A sister? No, Peeta had only brothers, from what she could remember. At the memorial service, his dad stood with two younger men. No sister. No mother either. Employee? Yes, but the way she and Rye interacted it was clear they were more. Yup! That was a real kiss. Then she saw the glint of rings. Married. She must be Rye’s wife. So Peeta’s brother runs the bakery now with his wife, Katniss surmised.
She tore her gaze away from them and instead focused her attention on the people walking on the sidewalk, teenagers loitering on a corner, men and women filtering in and out of shops, and people walking their dogs. The grocery store she had gone to was up the street. She had seen a yarn store nearby as well. Her mom might have loved it once. Her mom no longer knit, but it had been a way she showed her love to her family by knitting them scarves and hats and mittens to keep them warm. It was like a hug you could wear. She hadn’t knit anything since…well, a long time.
Eventually her attention was drawn again to the couple across the street as they finished closing up the bakery. They reminded her of happier times: the adoring way the woman looked at Rye, the way he clearly aimed to please her. Their intimacy as they seamlessly worked together to close up the bakery punctuated with little touches and kisses was just like her mom and dad.
Her dad seemed to be everywhere lately, in the stars, in the woods, in the bakery across the street.
Katniss wondered what it would be like to have someone there. Really there to come home to. To share the big things and the mundane things with, like the couple across the street. She had a couple boyfriends in college, but they never got that serious. Her focus was always on Prim. Now, Prim was in college and no longer needed Katniss to look out for her like before. But the sudden stab of pain that shot through her at the memory of the tragedy that ended those happy times as a family and effectively her childhood, drew her abruptly from her reverie.
She got up and threw her trash away, then gathered her things and walked back to her car. She left Panem and before long was deep in the center of the forest at the parking area for her chosen trailhead.
Her hike led her east through woods to Lake Conroe, then suddenly swerved westward and meandered through more woods before turning back east to the lake again. Turning north she followed the edge of the lake for a little while before choosing a place near the shore to camp for the night. It was only about 3 miles. Short, but challenging as she raced the sun to her campsite. She set out a small tarp and set her well-worn pack on it. She spent some time choosing a spot for her camping hammock. She found it at a ‘garage sale’ at a large outdoor retailer where customers could sell old gear. She still got a lot of use out of it.
She hung a tarp between two trees with the hammock slung underneath. Then she attached the under quilt under the hammock and laid the top quilt inside it. Then she walked down to the lake for a bit. When she returned to her little primitive campsite, she rearranged the smaller tarp so she could lie down on the ground with her backpack for a pillow and look up at the sky. Watercolors bled above her as the sun set.
It had been dark for a couple of hours when she felt hungry again. She lit her tiny camp stove and heated water for the Cup Noodles. When they were finished, she reached for the cheese buns and beef jerky to eat with them. The sugar cookies made for a pleasantly sweet dessert afterward and it made her thankful for Rye’s generosity.
Satisfied, Katniss laid back to look at the stars. It was times like this, at night, after they had eaten and were feeling warm and full and drowsy, that her father would tell her the stories of the stars and constellations. There was one about naughty children who ran away and became the Pleiades star cluster. Another about two canoes in a boat race down a river in which the canoes were the belt and dagger of Orion and they were going down the Milky Way and the star Sirius was a boulder in the Milky Way “river”.
But Katniss’s favorite one of all was the story of the Four Great Hunters and the Great Celestial Bear that told the story of the Big Dipper. Perhaps she liked it because they were hunters like she and her dad. Perhaps it was because they willingly faced danger to protect those they loved. Perhaps it was because when the odds weren’t in their favor, they defeated an impossible foe. They didn’t give up. They kept on going, despite great hardship.
She began to recount the story to herself just the way her dad used to tell it, even as the Big Dipper, or Great Bear, began to rise in the sky.
One day, the people of the village discovered the tracks of an enormous bear in the woods outside of their village. They were much too large to be from an ordinary bear and the people were frightened. They knew it was the Great Celestial Bear. Each morning the tracks were closer and closer to the village. The people began to stay inside. The children did not play any more. The men were hungry and restless. The birds no longer sang and the game stayed away. The four Great Hunters decided it was time to do something before the Great Bear came to the village itself. They rose up and said they would track this bear and kill it.
Their uncle tried to stop them. He said, “The Great Celestial Bear is magical! You will put yourselves in great danger if you follow it. It will trap you with its magic and destroy you. Then what will we do?”
But the oldest of the brothers said, “We have something other men do not.” He petted the dog who always stayed faithfully by his side. “Notice the patches?” He rubbed the dog’s head and brought Uncle’s attention to two dark patches above its eyes. Uncle nodded. “Four-Eyes here can follow any trail, though it is days-cold. Though other men may give up or lose their quarry, Four-Eyes never loses the trail. So you see Uncle, we have our own magic.”
The Uncle was impressed, but not convinced. “The Bear is very large,” he said, “how will you bring it down?”
Here a younger brother spoke up, “The same way we do any game, Uncle, we will chase him long and far until he tires and then kill him.”
The Uncle realized these Great Hunters were determined to pursue the Great Celestial Bear, so rather than discourage them, he gave his blessing. They began to go to the woods. The youngest, who was fat and lazy complained that he was hungry and shouldn’t they stop and eat first? The others made to leave with or without him, and groaning, he joined them with only a sack of pemmican.
They searched for the Bear’s trail.
The lazy fat brother was hungry so he reached into his pemmican sack for some food, but when he drew his hand out it was covered in white worms! He told his brothers, “Look what the Bear has done to my pemmican!” The Bear had used its magic to spoil their food so they couldn’t eat it. But the brothers would not give up or be deterred.
Just then, Four-Eyes picked up the Bear’s trail and led the chase!
The Great Bear had hoped to come up behind the brothers and catch them, but they caught sight of it first. It was gigantic and white. It was unlike any bear they had ever seen! They all yelled and chased after the bear with renewed vigor.
The Bear was used to people being frightened, but these fierce wild men were charging at it along with their dog leading the way, barking loudly. So the Great Celestial Bear, feeling fear for the first time, turned and ran. It ran and it ran, through thickets and swamps, up hills, and down valleys. The brothers would sometimes lose sight of the Bear, but they soon saw him again as they crested each new rise. Finally they started up a long mountain trail. Still they did not tire of pursuing that Great Bear.
The fat lazy brother pretended to fall and twist his ankle. “Brothers!” he called, “You must carry me!” The brothers would not leave him behind so they picked him up and took turns carrying him and his spear while they pursued the Bear. The Bear was tiring, but so were they. They did not fall behind, but they could not get closer either.
Day turned to night. The ground was dark beneath them. Yet still they ran on.
Four-Eyes caught up to the Bear and nipped at its tail as they ran. They neared the top of the mountain and the fat lazy brother said, “Brothers, my leg is well now. You can put me down.”
Now, his brothers were very tired, but the fat lazy brother was rested, so he was able to run faster than them all. He caught up with the Bear and thrust his spear right into the giant beast’s heart and its blood spilled out.
When the other brothers arrived to the top of the mountain, their youngest brother had already started a fire. He said, “Come, let’s eat! We have been running for a long time and we are all hungry!” So they cut up the bear, and cooked it, the fat dripping from the fire, and they ate the meat victoriously. They had pursued and killed the Great Celestial Bear!
They ate and celebrated until even the fat lazy brother was full, which was no small feat! Then they lay back, drowsy and satisfied.
The oldest brother looked at his feet, and startled. “Look below us!” he cried out to his brothers. And they looked. And they saw thousands of bright lights in the darkness below them, above them, and all around them. They were not on a mountain top; they were up in the sky.
And it was so- the magical Bear’s feet had taken it high above the earth as it tried to escape, but four brothers’ strength and endurance and determination to not give up carried them up the strange trail.
Then the little dog, Four-Eyes yipped. And they looked. And the bones began to rattle and come to life again.
The Great Celestial Bear rose up and ran off. The Great Hunters took up their spears and renewed the chase again. And so they go, around and around every year.
Her dad said that the Native Americans believed that the Bear’s blood spilled down coloring the leaves in the fall and the fat that dripped from the brothers’ fire became the snow that coats the earth in winter.
Katniss was pleased with herself how at much of her father’s tale she remembered.
She had once had a low opinion of the lazy brother. She even complained to her father about the unfairness of the ending. But now, she wondered if he really was clever and it was all just an act. Or was he clever and lazy? He was the one that alerted the brothers to the Bear’s proximity by noticing that it had magically altered their food and then by having his brothers carry him, he preserved his strength to make a run at the bear later when they were all weary.
Finally weary herself, she changed out of her day clothes into warm sleeping clothes, then scooted into her hammock and pulled the top quilt over herself and went to sleep.
Sunday, she woke late and had a breakfast of trail mix, some more of the cheese buns, and instant coffee mixed in water. “Trail coffee” was an ordeal and was simply a way to get caffeine in so she didn’t get a headache. She could pack sugar and powdered creamer but since this was a simple solo camp, the first she’d had since the fall, she was more interested in bare bones than comfort or pleasure.
She texted Prim as she sat on a stump soaking in the late-morning’s rays. Prim informed her she’d be able to come home for Spring Break. Katniss was torn between excitement to see her sister again and knowing that with her long work hours and having very little time off right now, she wouldn’t get to see much of her. Prim assured her that with many of her friends being in town, she’d have plenty to do.
Katniss broke camp and packed everything up, including trash, and hiked back to her car and made the two-hour drive home.
She felt refreshed in a way that she hadn’t in a long time. She was going to have to do this again she thought to herself, as she slid into slumber in the comfort of her bed at home.
Another week passed like the previous week. Long hours. Satellite images. Snarky banter between Peeta, JPL, and NASA.
On Thursday, there was another director’s meeting. Like most director’s meetings, it wasn’t the most exciting, but Katniss paid keen attention as Seneca caught up with the progress each group was making toward Mellark’s rescue. Johanna updated about PR. They discussed who was going to be interviewed by Ceasar Flickerman on CNN next week and what was and was not on the table for discussion. JPL was still scrambling to get the resupply ready and to keep comms patched between Peeta and Earth. NASA was working furiously to provide all the necessary training and support for the rescue effort. Katniss didn’t have much to add. Two-way comms let them talk to Mellark directly and she still downloaded satellite images all day everyday and sent them to Haymitch.
They were becoming a haggard bunch, and they were a long way from rescuing Mellark. She wondered how they were going to make it until Antares 4.
Gale Hawthorne continued to side-eye Katniss as the only non-director in the directors’ meeting, though he no longer questioned her presence there.
Near the end of the meeting, Seneca revealed that an independent board had been established to review the events of Sol 6 that left Mellark stranded on Mars. Katniss was blindsided by that turn of events. As the directors heartily gave their assent she kept her own disapproval to herself. They talked of “safety” and “responsibility” and “margin” and “procedure”, but she felt what they really meant was “liability” and “blame”. Eventually the meeting was dismissed.
Katniss followed Haymitch into the hall.
“You’re not really in support of this are you?” she hissed at him.
“What are you talking about?” Haymitch swung around and faced her abruptly.
“The inquiry!” Katniss said.
“Sweetheart, it’s procedure,” he said turning around and continuing to walk down the hall forcing Katniss to follow. “If a significant event occurs a review board is formed to figure out what went wrong and how to improve things in the future.”
“But you know what happened! They thought he was dead,” she said.
He turned to face her again. “Yeah, but we have to look at everything: meteorology, communication, relay times, equipment specs, abort procedures, human factors. It’s our responsibility that as much as humanly possible we prevent this from happening again.” He looked at Katniss seriously.
“Mellark told you everything. Even he said it was an accident!”
“This is NASA, Sweetheart! Accidents here kill people!”
“But he’s not dead.”
“And now we have to figure out how to get that boy off Mars!”
“They did the best they could with what they knew!”
“I’m sure the board will come to the same conclusion,” Haymitch drawled.
“And if they don’t?”
“Well, the crew, especially the commander, will likely face disciplinary action.”
“They’re looking for a scapegoat you mean.”
“Look, Sweetheart, I don’t like it any more than you do. In fact you sound a lot like Mellark right now. He’s already said he’ll publicly refute anything the board says against Odair.”
“He’ll have to get in line.”
“You know, I like you; you have a lot of…spunk.”
He sighed deeply and looked Katniss in the eye. “Look, Katniss,” he began and Katniss knew he was being serious because he rarely used her name, “You’re what, twenty-three? Twenty-four?”
“I’ll be twenty-five in May.”
“Ah, you’ll be twenty-five in May…Well, it’s been over thirteen years since our last serious incident. You would’ve been a bit young to remember it, but the thing is, that these inquiries really are standard procedure. It should have been started a long time ago really, but with the crew mourning and us scrambling to deal with the news coverage and setting up the memorial and all, we just…” He huffed. “We didn’t get it done. It should have been done. It has to be done. I understand you feel…protective...of Mellark because you’re watching over him everyday, but I don’t think they’re looking for someone to blame. The board is professional and independent. They’re mainly looking to improve procedures and design specs so if a storm like that pops up again, we don’t have another stranded, or worse, dead, astronaut on Mars. They’re not the enemy. Okay?”
Katniss pressed her lips in a tight line and nodded. Haymitch really was trying to placate her and had taken the time to explain things. She still disagreed, but it was no good continuing to argue. They had formed an odd sort of friendship, even if he frustrated her.
“Good.” He nodded, then turned to walk back to his office. Katniss continued standing there for a few minutes watching him go before finally heading back to SatCon.
That weekend, she was still frustrated over the inquiry. Under the guise of safety she felt as though they were really just looking for someone to blame so missions to Mars could continue. Mercifully, the soothing soft patter of rain and the comfort of her blanket-nest made it a bit easier to relax. She was so warm and comfy under her blankets that she hardly left her bed. She curled up with books she hadn’t touched in months and she watched Finding Nemo and Princess Bride, two of her and Prim’s favorite movies to watch together. And it was lovely catching up on sleep.
Tuesday evening, Katniss stood in the doorway of her house and looked at the picture of Peeta, tacked up to the wall with the map of the Martian surface and said, as she now did every time she left, “Stay safe.” Despite everything, the inconvenience of her intense vigil over him, the long hours, living on Martian time, which was its own special hell, and everything else, she had come to care for the idiot. She didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.
Along with the usual things she did every day, Katniss had tracked a sandstorm this week. NASA meteorology had been on it for weeks, but now it was drawing close to the Antares 3 site. They assured her that while moderately strong, it wouldn’t pose the same threat the first storm had and the most Peeta would have to do would be to clean off the solar cells and double check for any potential damage.
Meanwhile, Peeta had been working with NASA to troubleshoot the malfunctioning water reclaimer.
One of the exchanges between Peeta and NASA could be summed up as:
Peeta: The water reclaimer is acting up.
NASA: Here do this series of tests to diagnose the problem.
Peeta: All of the tests came back negative. It’s not the electricity, or computer components, the compressor, or the temperature.
NASA: We don’t know what else to do.
Peeta: I think it’s a clog, how ‘bout I take it apart and check it out.
NASA: Don’t do that! You’ll fuck everything up and die!
However, Peeta decided he jolly well fucking could and hours later…
Peeta: I took it apart. It was a clog. All fixed now.
Katniss couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her. That he could maintain a sense of humor, even with everything he had been through, only increased her respect for him.
By the end of her shift, Katniss knew that the storm would pass overnight on Mars (daytime for her). She worried about Peeta, wakened by the storm, no comms with NASA overnight, just having to wait it out. With the Hab routinely silent most of the time, the sounds of the storm would be disconcerting: the wind howling, the canvas shifting with the wind, the supports creaking a little with the strain. She did not sleep well that day.
The next day, she woke early for her shift at 7:50pm, and drove anxiously to NASA. Meteorology had said there was nothing to worry about. But, her stomach was in knots. She had a bad feeling about this. She rushed through security and down to SatCon. She brought the computers to life and started the process of downloading the first batches of imagery.
They revealed that everything was…absolutely okay. The solar cells were covered in a thick layer of dust, but everything else was fine. She exhaled in relief. She settled in for another routine day of watching the astronaut. Once her pulse calmed and she had cleared all the images and sent them along to Haymitch, she went to the break room for a coffee.
When she returned, she curled into her chair and blew on the coffee to cool it. She took a few tentative sips while she waited on the next batch of photos. When they arrived she leaned over and clicked on them. What she saw nearly made her drop her coffee in her lap. She set it quickly on her desk. She couldn’t breathe, for a moment, she couldn’t even speak. It was as if all the air in the room had been sucked out. The world slowed, seconds felt like minutes, it couldn’t be real, what she was seeing couldn’t be true. Oh, God, no! Peeta! Her pulse jumped and her breathing was rapid and shallow. Mechanically she flicked through each image. There was no denying it. She was looking at a flattened Hab, debris scattered in a conical field away from it. Air Lock 1 lay deflated 50 meters away. She picked up her cell phone and texted Haymitch. Emergency. Hab breach. Sending you the images now.
I hope you enjoyed getting to spend more time with Katniss!
The story of The Great Celestial Bear is an old Cayuga tale that I shortened to fit here.
Songs for this chapter are 1. At a Glance- Message to Bears 2. Winter Winds- Mumford and Sons 3. To A Poet- First Aid Kit 4. Shenandoah (Across the Wide Missouri)- Randy Granger 5. Into Dust - Mazzy Star 6. Midnight Dove- Shawn James 7. Flight of the Silverbird- Two Steps from Hell 8. Heart of Courage- Two Steps from Hell 9. Star Sky (Instrumental version)- Two Steps from Hell 10. Wake Me- Message to Bears 11. Here it Goes Again- OK GO
If you enjoy sci-fi Everlark, I'd like to recommend Synth by @midnighteverlark and Abeyant by @ENTRL4L as I am enjoying them immensely. The updates take time but are worth the wait.
Chapter 9: Airlock-Part 1
“GODDAMMITALLTOFUCKINGHELL!” Peeta roared.
The expletive echoed in the now-deflated airlock and rang in Peeta’s ears.
As a man who rarely raised his voice, even in anger, the sound of it shocked him.
Hours ago strong Martian gusts shaking the Hab jerked him from sleep. He stared wide-eyed at the bunk above him, tensely waiting, just as he once had during thunderstorms when he was a kid, hardly daring to breathe in those silent seconds between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder. He listened, his jaw locked tight and his heart in his throat, as the storm raged outside, pelting the Hab with small bits of basalt, which bounced and skipped over it’s surface. Every snap of billowing canvas and creak of the Hab’s frame made his heart jump. He reached down, searching in the darkness for Reardon’s suit. It was still there. He let out a choked sigh of relief. He had pulled the suit over a while ago-in case of emergency (he liked to be prepared for contingencies). He sure hoped he wouldn’t need it tonight. He shouldn’t. NASA meteorology had told him, though the storm was the strongest since Sol 6, he had nothing to worry about. Small comfort when all that separated him from an inhospitable world was a thin bit of canvas.
Gradually, the storm dissipated and Peeta relaxed. He curled on his side, arm tucked under his pillow. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, but sleep eluded him. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, he gave up on sleep, and with a groan, got up and groped his way to the kitchen to make coffee.
While it nuked, he washed up and shaved. He was groggy and slow-moving as he went through his morning routine and sat down to breakfast. He rubbed his eyes and slapped his cheeks to wake himself up. Not even the jolt from his morning coffee could help him shake his lethargy.
Now that he had contact with NASA, he checked messages in the rover first thing, but this morning he was worried about how Pathfinder weathered the storm and he needed to clean the solar cells and check them for damage. It would be sweaty, annoying work and he didn’t look forward to it.
He shrugged on his EVA suit, picked up his tool box, and went into the airlock. He stood there idly, waiting for the airlock to depressurize, his mind wandering, when suddenly a galaxy of stars burst in his skull as the back door of the airlock slammed into him and it shot like a bullet across the surface of Mars.
When it finally skidded to a stop, the airlock landed on its side. Peeta lay there, stunned. A hissing sound came from somewhere inside. Warm, sticky blood clung to the side of his face. The airlock had rolled and tumbled, banging him up, shattering his face plate, and nearly knocking him senseless. And his shoulder hurt like hell. He winced as he maneuvered painfully in the tight space to look out of the porthole in the door. He was about fifty meters from the Hab. It was deflated with a sea of debris between him and it. But that was nothing.
His suit was puking air. The airlock was breached. He would be dead in a matter of minutes.
He had fought so hard for months to survive against all odds but he would die here and now. He would run out of oxygen, his lungs would burn, he would choke and gasp a little, and finally just go to sleep. It would all be over. What a bullshit way to die.
“Fuck this planet. Fuck that Hab. Fuck this airlock. Fuck this fucking space suit. FUCK NASA!”
He sat down, head between his knees, hands on his helmet, chest heaving, waiting for death to take him.
But with his mighty yell and all his fucks given, the frustration left his system and something deeper still motivated him. He couldn’t just lie down and die. He didn’t become a wrestling champion by giving up when he faced a tough opponent who seemed to beat him back at every turn. He kept attacking, changing tactics, looking for an opening, a weakness, and then exploiting it.
An opening . The leak.
The walls of the airlock lifted away from him and Peeta watched with acute interest as the wrinkles in the canvas gradually smoothed. The airlock was beginning to repressurize with the air from his suit. But it was still leaking. Badly. If he could find the leak, he might be able to seal it. If he could seal it, it would buy him some time to think himself out of this epically shitty situation. But he couldn’t move in the tight space with his bulky EVA suit on. With some squirming and wiggling and a few painful yelps, he had the suit off. He could just hear the hiss of air somewhere near his feet.
He crouched over, wiping the blood from his eyes, and examined the canvas, but could see nothing.
He needed fire again.
What was it with him and fire?
He looked for something to burn. The EVA suit was decidedly not flammable. His clothes were not flammable. Not even the thread in his uniform could be used for fire.
He rummaged in his tool box, but as expected it turned up nothing. His tools were all metal or nonflammable plastic.
His mind raced. Every second he lost precious air. He wiped the blood from his face with his sleeve and ran his hands through his hair nervously while he thought.
With a sharp knife from the tool kit, he cut a lock of his hair.
How would he light it?
Never underestimate a determined arsonist with a tank of pure oxygen.
He pumped the oxygen concentration to 40%. Then he used a plastic tool to build up static charge. By touching it to a metal tool, he could get a spark. Meanwhile, he tried not to think about the fact that this was exactly how the crew of Apollo 1 died.
He tested out the spark. It worked!
The first time he lit the hair, his breathing dispersed the smoke too much for it to be of any use. He held his breath and lit a second fire with a new lock of hair, but air flow from the EVA suit was still moving the air around too much in the phone-booth sized airlock. The third time, he shut off the air from the EVA suit, held his breath, but still moved too fast to position the fire near where he thought the hole was. The fourth time was the charm: he held his breath, turned off the EVA suit, lit the hair, and held it steady. A thin stream of smoke wafted from the smoldering hair and Peeta watched intently as it threaded through the air and disappeared through an imperceptible crack in the floor. That was it! He marked it with the smoking ruin of his hair then gulped air, turned the EVA suit air back on and twisted to get the patching resin off his helmet.
He checked himself even as he reached for it. He would need that resin to patch his suit. As soon as he activated it, he’d have 60 seconds to use it before the resin turned hard as a rock. There wasn’t enough resin, or enough time, to patch the hole and the suit.
Instead, he dug almost frantically in his toolbox for the duct tape and taped over the tear in the canvas. Then he rocked back on his heels and waited. His blue eyes fixed on the tape, watching for any sign that it would rip.
Fifteen minutes later, the airlock was still pressurized; the tape was holding. With a relieved sigh, he leaned against the wall of the airlock. Now he had to think himself out of the rest of this crisis.
He needed to be able to get out of the airlock to safety. Whatever “safety” was, he didn’t have a damn clue, but he’d need an intact suit to get there.
So that was his next step: fix the EVA suit.
The only thing he had capable of patching his helmet and holding pressure was…the EVA suit itself. He’d have to cut his suit, but at least he had control over the location and size of hole he’d make. He ultimately decided to use the left arm. In doing so, he’d be one-handed when he left the airlock. But that would give him a good sized rectangle of fabric to patch his faceplate and a seam he could easily seal at the same time. Peeta nodded to himself, satisfied with this plan.
The cut on his forehead finally stopped bleeding, but it throbbed whenever he bent over-which happened a lot in this small space. He swiped the last bit of blood from his face and wrinkled his nose as the metal tang of it mingled with his sweat and the smell of burnt hair.
First, he needed to chip the rest of the polycarbonate visor out of the helmet. It was useless at this point and he didn’t want shards of it getting into his eyes or puncturing the patch for that matter. He drew the helmet into his lap and got to work. It was easier said than done; the polycarbonate was specifically engineered to not chip or break easily and all Peeta had was a hammer and a screwdriver. He had to pause his efforts whenever his left hand cramped or his right arm felt like jello. It took a long time, but he finally removed the troublesome plastic.
Then he cut the lower part of the left arm off his suit and cut along it length wise. The EVA suit fabric was thick and tough, but he cut through it with ease; those shears from his toolbox were strong as hell. He positioned the resulting rectangle of fabric over the opening in his helmet.
He had to be fast. When he opened the resin, it would immediately begin curing. He’d have to spread it thin to have enough for the facemask and to seal the arm hole.
It was the moment of truth. He broke the valve. The two chemical components mixed to make the powerful adhesive. Peeta used his fingers to spread it around the visor opening, then spread the rest on the arm seam. Sweat beaded on his brow and dripped off the tip of his nose as he bowed his back and leaned over the suit. He used both hands to press the EVA suit fabric to the helmet and his knee to press on the arm seam. His shoulders quivered with the effort to hold still while he counted tensely under his breath, waiting for the resin to cure.
When time was up, the left arm of his suit was sealed shut and the fabric was sealed around the visor opening.
He had also glued his hand to his helmet.
“ Shit ,” he muttered under his breath.
That resin was some of the strongest adhesive known to man.
He stretched and fumbled in his toolbox for a screwdriver. Very carefully, he pried his hand free without ruining the seal on the helmet and without flaying his skin. He managed to be successful, but he’d have hardened resin stuck to his hand for a couple of days.
He tested the suit by setting it to 1.2 atmospheres of pressure. The suit inflated quickly; the arm seam strained, but held, and the fabric over the faceplate bowed out a little, but also held. Good. But the readouts showed that it was absolutely pissing air. Not good.
He had a sealed airlock and a usable suit. Now to get to “safety”. The Hab wouldn’t do, so it looked like he’d be hiding out in Rover 2 again. The Great Hydrogen Scare of Sol 37, The Pathfinder Retrieval Journey, and now, The Hab Breach of Sol 119. Rover 2 was like his good-luck charm, or “congratulations-on-not-dying” charm. Whatever it was, it had been his safe haven, and would become so again.
He checked his arm computer. The digital readouts told him how much oxygen and nitrogen he had left. He converted the numbers in his head. If his math was right (and it usually was- he’d been doing these calculations for months) he had plenty of air, but the suit lost air faster than it could replenish it thus experiencing a gradual loss of overall pressure. The speed of pressure loss meant that once he left the airlock, his spacesuit would last…four minutes. Four . In that four minutes he needed to make it to the Hab, find a new suit in all that chaos, and get to Rover 2.
If he was wrong it’d be his own damn fault, but he wouldn’t have long to worry about it.
Some additional mental calculations told him that it would take nearly 30 seconds to make it from to the Hab. And he also had to get through Rover 2’s air lock. Every single second was precious. He had to shorten the time he spent outside. How? He couldn’t go faster. He needed to shorten the distance he had to travel.
He’d have to roll the damn airlock.
At first he launched himself at the wall, but that did nothing except make the airlock slide a little. Then he tried to get airborne and kick the wall. That also only managed to make the airlock slide a little without making any real progress.
He looked around the tight space and thought about how to not only get the airlock to move, but how to push with enough force to get it to roll. Another idea struck him. He turned around, scooting his feet as close as he could to the edge of the “back” wall. Then he launched up and backwards to the opposite wall of the airlock, landing the full force of his body up near the top seam. It worked! The airlock rolled over to the next side.
With each side measuring one meter, he’d only have to do this fifty more times. His back was going to hurt like hell before this was all over with.
He grit his teeth, crouched down, and leapt again.
SatCon, Houston, TX 8:30pm, Tuesday night- Immediately following Hab Breach
Katniss sat on the edge of her chair, leaned into her computer, mouth parted, her eyes darting around the screen as she studied image after image of ruin.
She waited with bated breath for each new set of satellite photos and picked at the end of her braid. Her coffee sat forgotten on her desk, getting cold.
There was no movement.
Why hadn’t he moved?
Fifteen minutes after the disaster, Katniss scanned the newest set of images and compared them to previous ones. Toggling between them, one tiny detail stood out. It wasn’t enough to ensure Mellark’s safety, but it let her know his location. The airlock was no longer a deflated heap of canvas; the sides were smooth. It had filled with air, most likely from Mellark’s EVA suit.
She texted Haymitch: New set of images show airlock repressurization. Mellark must be there. Sending images.
She continued to sit, eyes glued to the monitor. Her mind fixated on Mellark, watching for any sign of life. She hated this feeling of helplessness. She could only watch. And wait.
Haymitch’s Office- Houston, TX 9:30pm
Haymitch watched the screen as a steady stream of NASA engineers and mission specialists logged in. The emergency call out had been issued almost as soon as Katniss sent him the images of the Hab breach. Now an hour later, they had almost all of their essential experts on the various components of the mission present.
The keys clacked under his assault as he hammered out an email to brief each of the experts on the situation with the Hab and relay relevant imagery that Katniss provided. The usually disheveled Mars missions director was in rare form, directing and shifting the slow moving gears of NASA in place to assess and respond to this event.
Haymitch: Any sign of Mellark?
Katniss: No movement.
Haymitch: Keep me posted.
Katniss: Will do.
At 10:30 pm, two hours, after the Hab breach, Haymitch locked up his office and walked briskly to the conference room. When he entered, all eyes swiveled toward him, then diverted downward to stare at notepads, pens, and coffee mugs.
“You want to explain to me what in the hell just happened?” Haymitch demanded, beginning the emergency meeting abruptly. He leaned forward on the table bearing his weight on his hands.
The room full of weary NASA engineers leaned back, their eyes wide.
Thomas Homes cleared his throat and was the first to speak, “Our best guess is fatigue in the Hab canvas.”
“No shit Sherlock,” Haymitch drawled, “but why? What caused it to fail? We need to know that if we’re going to keep our astronaut alive until we can rescue him.”
“We’ve got the materials folks at JPL working on that, sir,” answered Homes.
Haymitch frowned, but accepted the answer. Then he pointed at Henry Mitchell. “Mitchell, based on the imagery, where is the breach?”
“We’re almost certain it was at Airlock 1. Explains why it’s now fifty meters from the Hab and why there’s so much debris, since the hole would be huge.”
“Can it be repaired?”
“Yes. It’s a big hole, but they have an extra sheet of canvas in the supplies as well as plenty of seam seal. They’ve been through training to perform this sort of repair.”
“They trained in pairs, though.” Haymitch rubbed his scruffy chin in thought. “Can he do it alone?”
“It won’t be easy. He’ll have to improvise. But yes, he can do the repair solo.”
Haymitch’s eyes narrowed. “But he used a good bit of canvas to make the battery sling for the rover,” he countered, “Will he still have enough?”
“Yes, based on the estimated measurements of the sling, he should have plenty to fix the Hab.”
When he looked to the botanists, they wouldn’t look back at him.
They shook their heads miserably. Finally dropping her pen on the notepad in front of her, Dr. Angelina Martinez addressed Haymitch.
“Can you explain to me precisely what that means?” Haymitch asked, irritation evident in his tone.
“It means,” she began, “That it’s finished. It’s over. Mellark’s potato plants are dead. The soil is dead. There is no chance of him growing anything else. What he achieved was…remarkable. But with the explosive decompression, there is no air, and the temperatures are at minus fifty degrees Celsius. It’s actually a miracle the potatoes would have been flash frozen-instantly preserved. We think he can still use them for food.”
“Food,” Haymitch muttered to himself, then, “ Shit ,” he cursed under his breath. This was going to seriously screw with Mellark’s food supply and therefore the timing of the resupply.
The botanist continued, “Based on the number of plants he had, which were almost ready for harvest by the way,…we estimate about five potatoes per plant…He has enough food to last him through Sol…” the botanist faltered and looked at her notes.
Her colleague leaned over and whispered.
“Sol six-hundred,” she finished.
“Wait!” said Haymitch, “What about the poptents?”
Dr. Martinez shook her head, eyes downcast, “They were connected to the Hab’s power and air. When the Hab decompressed, they did too. Any plants in the poptents would suffer the same fate as the ones in the Hab.”
Haymitch ran his hand through his hair and turned away from the multitude of eyes all staring at him. Taking a deep breath, he composed himself and turned back around. “Okay,” he began slowly, “Hab systems?”
The meeting continued as each group briefed Haymitch on the likely status of each Hab component, the rovers, what was lost in the debris field, and the prognosis of fixing the life support systems, etc. It was all so much to take in. Haymitch worked to keep it all straight, jotting pertinent information in his notepad, but the food supply and resupply probe niggled at him.
As soon at the meeting was over, and the men and women all filed out, Haymitch pulled his phone from his pocket.
“Heavensbee,” came the curt answer.
“Listen, we’re gonna have to move up the resupply launch.”
“I had a feeling. How much are we talking about?”
“Two hundred days sooner.”
Plutarch let out a low whistle. Haymitch listened as he muttered on the other end of the call, doing the mental calculations.
Finally, Plutarch spoke again, “Allotting thirteen days for mounting the probe to the booster...we’ll need to have the probe ready for launch in...forty-eight days.”
“That sounds about right,” Haymitch said.
“Well that’ll be an interesting challenge,” said Plutarch, “Alright, I gotta go!”
Haymitch hung up hearing Plutarch fuss to himself about time and funding.
His eyes filled with worry. He wondered if all the overtime and money in the world would be enough to get the resupply probe off the ground in time.
Seneca’s Office, 11:30pm
Haymitch was already in Seneca’s office when Johanna showed up. Seneca gestured her over to her usual chair and shut the door behind her.
He looked fresh and crisp and not at all as though it was closing in on midnight. Meanwhile, Johanna had the look about her that said, ‘don’t fuck with me’ (which regardless of her expression, was always good advice). And Haymitch was his usual rumpled, disgruntled self.
Seneca started. “Alright Haymitch, tell us what’s going on.”
Haymitch leaned forward; he handed a set of images to Seneca and a matching set to Johanna.
“Just prior to 20:30, our time, the Hab breached. We don’t know the cause yet, but preliminary feedback from the engineers is that it was fatigue in the canvas at Airlock 1. One of our guys, Henry Mitchell, suggests it must’ve been right on the seam to cause the airlock to detach completely like this. Folks at JPL are doing materials testing as we speak to figure out the cause of the fatigue and also to find out if we need to be concerned in the future.” He sighed heavily and ran his hands through his lanky salt and pepper hair. “Everdeen in SatCon has reported that the airlock has repressurized so we feel pretty confident that’s where Mellark is, but there’s been no movement. We have no way of knowing his status, if he’s injured, or what. There’s just not much to go on.”
Seneca sat, his elbows on the armrest of his chair, fingers steepled, dark brows knit together. His intense blue gaze was cast downward to the photographs that told the tale of devastation. He took long minutes to draw his thoughts together.
Finally, he looked to Johanna. “We’ll need to hold a press conference. We’ve been holding Mars imagery for six hours. That gives us till what? Two-thirty?”
“Correct,” said Johanna.
“Think we can hold it for longer? We can go for up to twenty-four hours-”
“You’re going to just sit on this?” Johanna asked.
“What would be the point of releasing the images now?”
“Honesty? Openness? Transparency? Public fucking relations?” Johanna’s voice rose.
Haymitch leaned back in his chair and looked between them. He wasn’t sure how strongly he felt either way.
Seneca glanced between the images and Johanna. “If we delay, we’ll know more about the situation. I just don’t think it’s safe to-”
“The people are all about Mellark! They’re invested in his story,” Johanna interrupted, “If we suddenly hold on to images they’re going to know something’s up and be so far up our asses that it will be…just…ugh-” Johanna cut herself off at an uncharacteristic loss for words. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to gather her thoughts. Opening them again, she trained her large, wide-set, brown eyes on Seneca’s blue ones. “I think it’s best to be forthright and honest. I’m all for holding our cards close to our chest. We don’t have to tell them everything, but if we wait, we’ll turn people against us-”
“If we don’t wait, we could turn people against us, just by virtue of the fact that their favorite astronaut might very well be dead!”
“We don’t know that!”
“And just what do you think they’re going to think when they see this imagery?”
“We’ll tell the truth: the Hab breached at Airlock 1. The airlock’s repressurization lets us know where Mellark is and that is all.” Johanna sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose as though she were trying to ward off a headache. “If we are open about it, I think public opinion will be in our favor.”
Haymitch took all of this exchange in and spoke up. “I’d like to give it just a little more time, to give Mellark, if he’s still with us, a chance to act. If we see something that indicates his status, that he is at least alive, then I’d feel much more confident addressing the public.”
Seneca said, “The sun will set on the Antares 3 site around eight a.m. our time. It’s unlikely we’ll get any further indication of his status after that point; satellite imagery would be useless and he wouldn’t be able to use the radio overnight either. So would that work for you, Johanna?”
“I still think it’s too late.”
Seneca sighed. When Johanna made up her mind, there was no changing it.
“Four a.m. then,” Seneca suggested.
“I’m with four a.m.,” Haymitch interjected. “That’ll give Mellark four more hours to make a move.”
Seneca nodded at Haymitch and looked at Johanna and raised his eyebrows in question.
Johanna huffed and leaned back in her chair and muttered, “Fuck.”
It was as close to an assent as they’d get.
Seneca gave a curt nod and said, “Alright, hold those images for two hours, hopefully it’ll be overlooked. You can set up the press conference for four a.m. which will be just in time for the early news cycle. The news will probably break before anyone knows we delayed the images by very long and we’ll promise an update at eight a.m. our time.”
There was no movement.
Yet . Katniss tried to remind herself. But as each hour slipped away, she wondered what could be going on in that airlock.
She was already exhausted. Today it felt like she had lived several lifetimes, curled in this chair, looking at this computer screen. It was time for her to eat something, but she couldn’t tear herself away from the steady stream of imagery.
She leaned back and rolled her neck trying to ease the tension that had settled in her shoulders from hunching over the computer all night.
A knock at the door got her attention and she turned, brushing the flyaways back from her face.
The door opened and Haymitch poked his head in. “Hey, Sweetheart,” he said as he entered the small workspace.
“Any further word on our boy?”
Katniss shook her head. “No. The airlock stayed pressurized. That’s about it so far.” She gestured weakly at the computer.
Haymitch took a seat and asked, “Have you eaten yet?”
Again Katniss shook her head. “No.”
“No,” she answered. Just then her stomach growled. She sighed. “Yes. But I didn’t want to leave.” Her cheeks heated with embarrassment. She was mortified. Haymitch was amused.
“Be right back,” Haymitch said with a smirk and left.
He returned with two foil-wrapped sandwiches, bags of chips, a couple pieces of fruit and some sodas and bottled waters. It was an armload and Katniss had to jump up and open the door for him.
“Thank you, Haymitch,” Katniss said and gave him a small smile.
At first she picked at the sandwich, pulling out the meat and nibbling at it, but after a few good bites, appetite won out over nerves and the sandwich vanished. Haymitch was only halfway through his when Katniss balled up the wax paper and foil from hers and tossed them.
A half hour passed while she and Haymitch ate the rest of their meal together, exchanged small talk, and paused each time new pictures were available. There was still no sign of Peeta, but something was happening. Katniss thought she noticed a shift in the airlock’s position. She queued up three pics side-by-side that covered the past hour.
Her heart lept. The changes were subtle, but she pointed out the faint tracks and small movements to Haymitch.
“The airlock is moving,” she said, “But how? Is he sliding it, rolling it? It’s inching closer to the Hab.”
Haymitch leaned in closer and zoomed in on the image. “A different face of the airlock is pointed up each time. See-here there’s no door, then there’s the door, and then no door again.” He observed. “He must be rolling it. This is good news. The boy’s okay if he’s able to move the airlock like that. Can’t be easy. Good work, Sweetheart,” he said with a grin, “Email these images to me so I can share them with Johanna and Seneca. I gotta go. Keep me posted.”
Katniss bit her lip to keep from grinning like an idiot. “Will do, Haymitch.”
It was everything they could hope for. Mellark was alive.
Press Conference-Houston, TX, 4:00am Wednesday Morning
Seneca strode to the podium, holding a single note card written in his own precise script, and addressed the crowd of gathered reporters.
“Good morning. Thank you for coming. It is with a heavy heart that I report that the Hab breached at the Antares 3 site just prior to 8:30pm our time, around 8am Mars time, yesterday. Astronaut, Peeta Mellark, is at this time, alive. We anticipate being able to provide an update at 8:00am. That is all we have for now. We will not be taking questions at this time.’”
He left the stage amidst of a swell of unanswered questions, the strobe of flashes and clicks of cameras going off. He shut the door, sealing out the din, and leaned against it. He tipped his head forward for a moment and sighed. He took a deep breath, stood up straight again, and walked down the hall to the back stairs to make his way back to his office. He didn’t owe those reporters a damned thing more this morning.
Darkness fell over the Antares 3 site on Mars. The sun came up over Houston. And Katniss prepped herself for a long “night”. She took advantage of the now-open cafeteria to get a hot breakfast then went back to her desk. There was no way she could go home with Mellark still stuck in the airlock. With the last light of the Martian day, she could tell he’d made it about half way to the Hab, but each roll was taking longer and longer. He still had a long way to go and he must be exhausted. She knew she was drained and all she’d done was sit in a chair and worry and communicate with Haymitch.
With breakfast eaten, she cut off the lights and got out the pillow and blanket she’d brought in when she first began this project. In the darkness there’d be nothing to see, therefore no imagery. Her sleep came in snatches between which she’d wake up, heart thudding, mind racing, as fresh worry over the stranded astronaut toiling in the dark to get to safety washed over her.
Alright, I skipped preliminary notes because I knew you'd want to dive right in.
As normal, big thanks to hubby who prereads and edits. And this time he gave me some great one-liners. Also big thanks to @greenwool for being an amazing beta and helping me get this polished and published. The first big paragraph is essentially a synthesis of both of our writing :)
Additionally big thanks to all of you for reading and taking a chance on this fic. Thank for all your comments and messages. Each and every one means so much to me. I go back and reread them while I'm writing to keep me motivated and because you give me so much encouragement. And I love replying to your comments.
Apollo 1: On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1: Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, died when a short circuit sparked and ignited a fire in the high-pressure, pure-oxygen environment of the command module. The three astronauts tried to escape the inferno, but were unable to open the hatch because: 1. hatch opening procedures took too long and 2. the pressure inside the capsule made it impossible to open the inward-opening hatch and it took rescuers too long to get to them. The inward opening hatch was illustrative of the Germans* still thinking "machine" not "people". Modifications after the fire were: 1. making the hatch easier to open and 2. changing it's design so that it opened outwardly, 3. ensure materials used in spacecraft were as non-flammable as possible, and 4. changing out pure-oxygen for a different mixture of air with 34% oxygen. The tragic loss of the three astronauts likely saved the lives of many more because of the culture-shift that occurred in NASA as a result.
*Germans and American spaceflight- Wernher von Braun along with many other captured Nazi rocket scientists were the backbone of the rocketry program that led to the development of NASA and American space exploration. During early space flight it was clear they were focused on the "machine" of the rocket not the "people" piloting it. In a way, the space race was really a competition between USA-captured Nazis and Russia-captured Nazis. But they don't teach you that in school.
Songs for this chapter are: Starset-First Light, Starset-Antigravity, Imagine Dragons-Bleeding Out ,Starset-It Has Begun P!nk-Try, Two Steps From Hell-Victory, Skillet-Whispers in the Dark, Two Steps from Hell-Glory, Starset-Telescope
Finally, thanks for reading, I love writing this story for you and can't wait to get the next chapter finished for you.
Chapter 10: Airlock-Part 2
Peeta gets a new suit.
The media speculates.
This is Part 2 of Chapter 9: Airlock. Be sure to read Part 1 first. I broke it up for easy reading.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A thin stream of light poured through the small porthole window of the airlock door. Peeta had been rolling the airlock all day and all night. It only worked one in ten tries. He had to stop often to stretch or rest. Or sit there steeling himself to get up and body-slam the wall again. It was now Sol 120. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept. He hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours. He hurt all over: his legs ached, his head throbbed, and he knew the muscles in his back were fucked up.
He peered out of the window and saw with relief he was now only ten meters from the Hab. The debris field lay between him and it. There was no rolling over that shit.
He slid himself into his EVA suit, more slowly than usual, with a generous amount of cursing. He tucked his left arm close to his body, leaving the remainder of the left arm of his suit swinging free, and twisted his helmet into place.
Even with EVA suit material covering his faceplate, he wasn’t blind. He had an arm-mounted camera that acted as his eyes. Astronauts can’t turn their head to look at things in an EVA suit, so they have to turn their whole body, which is cumbersome. Instead, they have cameras mounted on their arms that project the scenery onto their faceplate, like a heads-up display. This makes work easier because they can look around with ease. It was yet one more small detail that was going to help save his life. The camera projected a view on the EVA suit material faceplate-substitute. It was a little distorted and uneven, but Peeta could see.
Now was the moment of truth. The second he opened the airlock, he’d begin losing air and pressure in the suit.
In four minutes he had to be safe inside the rover or he’d be unconscious and, in short order, dead.
He took a deep steadying breath. With trembling hands he twisted the manual valves to equalize the airlock with the outside air pressure. He wasn’t interested in being shot across Mars again. He pushed the door open and climbed outside. With quick careful steps, he darted through the debris field trying not to think about everything that was out there and everything he’d lost. He was focused on his goal: get to the Hab, get a new spacesuit, make a break for the rover.
Only it wasn’t so straightforward. He got into the Hab easily enough (through the gaping opening where the airlock used to be) and Reardon’s suit was near where he expected it to be, but he had only one arm to hold up the Hab canvas and the suit was trapped under one of the science tables from the middle of the Hab. When he let go of the canvas it weighted down the the table. He was strong. He knew that. But it was awkward and difficult to hold up the canvas, lift the table one-handed, and grab the suit at the same time.
He was running out of air.
He couldn’t yank on the suit and risk damaging it.
He breathed raggedly. His heart hammered in his chest. He was running out of time.
He had to leave for the rover. Now. He took one last look at the suit that was within his reach, but not his grasp.
In a sudden movement, he twisted off the helmet and ran.
He was gasping for air now. The rover. His safe-haven was in sight.
He staggered the final few steps to the rover and slapped the button that would open the rover’s airlock. The door released and swung open. He collapsed inside, closing the door behind him. Darkness closed in on the periphery of his vision. As he lay there, his ears popped with the loss of pressure, he saw stars, his lungs burned, he gasped and worked his jaws like a fish out of water, trying desperately to pull non-existent air into his lungs. Then a mechanical hum reached his consciousness, his ears popped again, his vision cleared.
He was safely in the pressurized airlock of the rover with his badly damaged suit, his new helmet, and with it, extra patching resin.
With an effort he got on his hands and knees, then hit the control panel that gave him entry to the rover’s main compartment.
Despite his exhaustion, he tried to send a message through to NASA but it was a nogo. Pathfinder was powered by the Hab, which was currently offline. Just one more in a long line of problems he needed to solve. He managed to survive the night and get to safety, but he was a long way from ensuring his survival of this catastrophe. With nothing left to do, he gave in to the overwhelming desire to close his eyes and go to sleep.
Houston, TX-Wednesday night
Wednesday on Earth was waning. Katniss gave up on sleep. She folded her blanket and tucked it under her desk with her pillow. She freshened up in the restroom, finger combed her long dark hair, her slender fingers easing through the snarls, and rebraided it. The cafeteria was still open so she headed there to get a hot meal before the long night ahead of her.
At last Sol 120 dawned and satellite imagery started pouring in.
Oh, how much Katniss wished it were a nightmare and she could wake up and it would be Tuesday evening again, and everything would be fine, but no: the Hab was still flattened and the airlock was poised at the edge of the debris field. Then the airlock was flattened again. Had he left it? Had he run out of air? A new image showed a white smudge between the Hab and Rover 2. He was getting to safety! They’d hear from him soon right?
Hours later, there was no message and just an educated guess he got into the rover.
By end of her shift there was still no message.
The silence was deafening.
Thursday Morning- Houston, TX
Thursday morning brought clouds and eventually rain to the Houston area. Katniss ran home and showered and grabbed some spare clothes and returned to NASA. She couldn’t stay home while Mellark’s fate hung in the balance.
Prim had been texting her since the news about Mellark broke, but Katniss had remained reticent. Sure, she had the satellite photos, but she knew as much as anyone else, which wasn’t much. Katniss’s tight lipped responses were driving Prim nuts. She could easily picture her little sister’s fair cheeks tinged deep pink in frustration, but there was nothing she could do about it.
There was still no change in Mellark’s known status. Alive, but unable to communicate. Any injuries or other concerns were as yet unknown and could not be known until Mellark contacted them again.
The geniuses at NASA worked around the clock to better understand the ramifications of the explosive decompression in the unforgiving environment of Mars.
The latest updates Seneca released to the media were that JPL had determined the breach occurred when friction in the Hab canvas, caused by the overnight windstorm, warmed up the resin in the ninety-degree seam between Airlock 1 and the Hab dome, making it malleable. It stretched, and the opening reached a critical point that then ripped open even larger, leading to a catastrophic failure of the entire airlock seam.
There was ongoing discussion on manned-spaceflight blogs and messageboards. Was the failure due to fatigue from repeated use? Or was there was some other reason the Hab couldn’t stand up to a moderate strength storm? Was there a blemish in the canvas to begin with? The storm one storm shouldn’t have been enough to have caused the tear; otherwise it would have failed during the storm on Sol 6.
Commentators on 24 hour-news channels had a heyday with the news:
Cressida Troy (NBC): Our next guest, Dr. Cho, is a former NASA medical contractor. Dr. Cho, is it possible this was not an accident?"
Dr. Cho: "It is worth considering that the Hab breach may have been an intentional act by astronaut Peeta Mellark, very possibly as a way to end his life in a quick and publicly visible way."
Cressida: "Why would he do such a thing?"
Dr. Cho: "Storm events on SOL 6…PTSD likely covered up by terse transmissions, depression possibly a contributor as well…perhaps he thought this would give closure to friends and family."
"BREAKING: BBC-News has learned that atmospheric scientists on a professional meteorological forum are suggesting that a rare but significant lightning strike from the departing dust storm struck the Hab, precipitating the breach.
NBC: "Planetary experts have confided with NBC News that, though unlikely, a small meteor, or even small black hole, could have struck the Hab, damaging it, and dooming our favorite astronaut."
Caesar Flickerman (CNN): "...Are you suggesting that Martians attacked Astronaut Mellark?"
'Expert': "Well, not in a "War of the Worlds" or “Edgar Rice Burroughs” sort of way, but yes. I think it is highly probable that there is life in the Martian soil, something like our yeasts, molds, or fungi. It is likely that the Hab fabric, possibly even the adhesive epoxy, is an attractive food to these organisms, and that their consumption of this newfound food gradually weakened the material until it finally failed."
Caesar Flickerman: "And the preceding Antares missions were unaffected because?"
'Expert': "I wouldn't say they were necessary unaffected, but that the Hab material was not critically weakened during the short duration of those missions. It is also possible the organisms that damaged the Antares 3 Habitat are local to that region of Mars."
On CNN’s “The Mellark Monitor” a panel of experts speculated about whether Mellark could survive the disaster much less survive until rescue. They pointed fingers at higher ups in JPL and NASA, called for reviews, resignations, etc.
NASA and JPL worked in an even closer-knit partnership than usual. They had to keep this from happening again. Mellark still had most of the next four years to go and the Hab was already falling apart.
Katniss lay on the floor. She should have been sleeping, but instead she lay there wide-awake, flipping a nickel-sized token over and over in her fingers thinking about the stranded astronaut. His kind eyes, his shy smile. He was funny, hard working, good. He was stranded. So alone. He didn’t deserve to die. Especially not like this.
She had gotten the token when she went to the gift-shop to replace the map from the break room that Haymitch marked up. At the register they had a small box of mission tokens. One for each Antares mission so far. “Collect all 3!” The front was an image of Mars and its two moons and the name of the mission and the back was the Hermes with the crew’s names engraved around the edge. At only a dollar each, they were just a run-of-the-mill add-on purchase. But Katniss found herself getting one and keeping it in her pocket. Anytime she was particularly nervous about Mellark, or really just anything now it was becoming habit, she’d slip her hand in her pocket and rub her thumb over the engraving or flip the coin over and over.
She looked up from the coin to a picture next to her computer.
Mellark smiled out of the NASA-commissioned portrait, erect and confident. He was wearing the deep midnight blue uniform peculiar to the Mars missions that he filled out handsomely and that made his blue eyes pop. An American flag was to his right and a map of Mars hung behind him.
“Hang in there Mellark,” Katniss whispered, “Just hang on.”
Thursday night marked the morning of Sol 121 on Mars.
Katniss was relieved to get back to work. She studied each new set of satellite photos. At last, an hour after dawn on Mars, her labor was rewarded : a little white blob was next to the rover.
He stayed there.
Schematics on the intranet showed that the rover had external EVA air tank refill hoses. He must be refilling the tanks in his suit. It took a long time too, by the looks of it as each new batch of images from the satellites ringing Mars revealed he was still standing there.
Relief washed over her. For some reason he couldn’t communicate, but for now just seeing him was enough. She felt like she could finally breathe again.
Peeta stood outside the rover looking for all the world like he was filling up the tank with gas.
Actually, in a literal sense that was true.
The rover had an external EVA tank refill port. It was painfully slow. Damaged as his old suit was, it wouldn’t have worked, but with a new helmet and freshly resealed arm seam, he could refill his air tanks.
Peeta was grateful to not only be able to see, but now he had time to figure out a way to extricate Reardon’s suit without damaging it and maybe get some idea of the state of the Hab.
He unplugged and got to work. It was still a chore moving through the Hab as he was still one-handed, but he was able to find a pole to leverage the table that was pinning Reardon’s suit and pull it free. He dragged it back to the rover then spent the afternoon running diagnostics on it. The conclusion: he had a fully functional suit!
He also grabbed extra food. God, but he was starving. Full rations today! Rehydrated NASA-issue chicken stir-fry never tasted so good. He wished he’d grabbed some supplies from Rue’s med-station, but the decompression had made things such a mess and he was lucky to have a suit and food.
He also wished he’d nabbed another uniform. This one was sweat-soaked and blood-stained. He looked down. It hung noticeably looser on his frame. He tried to ignore the irrefutable fact that he was short on calories every single day, and some of those days involved vigorous manual labor, but he was gradually losing weight. He let out a sigh. There was nothing for it but to just hang in there. NASA was sending food…
His poor potatoes. The farm had been wiped out by the blast. But he couldn’t dwell on that right now, he needed to figure out just how he was going to repair the Hab and get everything up and running again.
He was frustrated by not being able to communicate with NASA. They doubtless were worried, but they must’ve seen the airlock move via those satellites they’d been using to spy on him-like some weird, fucked up guardian angel. He found himself looking up from time to time, despite the fact he couldn’t see them. It was disturbing yet comforting; they were looking out for him, but were impotent to help. Especially in times like these.
That night, Peeta sat in the rover, finally safe, completely exhausted. He took off his watch and looked at the little strip of ribbon he had sewn onto the band months ago. It reminded him of his family and home, his nephew, Matthew, and promises.
Three weeks before launch, his brothers helped him empty his apartment and put his things in storage. They put his motorcycle in the unit last. He looked at it wistfully as they shut the garage style door and he put the padlock on it, not to be opened again until fifteen months later when he was back on Earth.
He spent that night at Rye’s house. The next day, his dad came over and his brothers grilled, his nieces and nephews played, and his sisters-in-law intermittently chatted, tended to the kids, or helped set things out for the meal.
Peeta tried to remember every detail, their laughs, their eyes, their smiles. His father’s strong arms wrapped around him. His nieces’ and nephews’ sticky hands and popsicle stains on their lips, the baby’s babble that was beginning to sound more like actual words, the twinkle in Rye’s eyes when he teased him and the serious way Ban looked at him, each in their own way showing how much they loved him.
Once he left them tonight, he wouldn’t see them again until after the mission. His heart hurt with already missing them; he was going to treasure up this time of laughter and smiles and love before he left.
His brothers teased each other like always, his dad chided them like always, the little ones vacillated between shrieks of delight and periodic outbursts of tears. It was hot, but the breeze felt good. The food on the grill smelled amazing, it was his dad’s own special recipe. Kelly’s fruit salad was the perfect cool crisp accompaniment to the warm weather, hot burgers, and salty chips.
After grilling they all went indoors to cool off and watch a movie while the little ones napped. They had a round of leftovers for dinner. Ban and Kel scooted out with the twins after dinner so they could give them baths and get them to bed. Even with it being the last time they’d see Peeta for a long time, they had to keep their twins on schedule, or there’d be heck to pay.
Rye and Delly got their kids cleaned up and Peeta was grateful for some time alone with his dad.
Later, Rye came down.
“Matty’s asking for you. Says he wants ‘Uncle Peeta’ to tuck him in,” Rye said, smiling.
“Sure thing.” Peeta got up from the chair and made his way upstairs and down the hall to Matthew’s room.
He had painted it for him when he was just a toddler: dark blue with shooting stars, swirling galaxies, clouds of nebulas, and colorful planets. He had posters all over the wall of the Apollo missions, the shuttle missions, and of the first Antares missions as well at the famous rovers, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. He even had a small one of Pathfinder and Sojourner, only slightly less well known, but essential in development of missions to Mars.
His twin bed was adorned with rocket ship bedding. He had a little shelf of NASA vehicles, and a little desk where he had drawn endless pictures of rocket ships and planets and aliens.
Peeta found him all snuggled in bed, his hair damp, and his face still pink from his mother’s scrubbing. Despite her best efforts a faint popsicle stain still remained around his lips.
“Hey Matty,” Peeta greeted his little nephew softly.
“Hi Uncle Peeta,” he returned and Peeta thought he sounded a little sad.
“You want me to read you a story?”
Matthew pulled out a small stack of books and Peeta settled on the bed next to his little nephew and started in on the first book, Roaring Rockets .
As he closed the final book, the one about being the first kid on Mars, he turned to kiss the sleepy boy on the head, his silky blond hair now dry and smelling of apples from the shampoo Delly used. Peeta smiled. He associated apples with his little nieces and nephews because of that kids’ soap. It was funny the way scents stuck with his memory like that. He couldn’t eat an apple now or apple pie without thinking of downy blond heads, big blue eyes, and bright smiles, and Emily’s little dimples.
“You’ll come back, right?”
“’Course,” Peeta replied with his usual easy confidence.
“Because, sometimes…” the boy’s voice drifted off and his eyes flicked to his shuttle models and back.
“Aw, Little Buddy, I know.” Peeta pulled his little nephew in close for a hug. “Sometimes some pretty scary things have happened, huh?”
The boy nodded.
“But I’ll tell you what, we’ve, uh, learned from those things. Um, some people study what happened and they make new…rules…to follow so no one else gets hurt.”
“Or dies,” Matthew stated with a directness peculiar to kids his age.
“Or dies,” Peeta conceded. “But there have already been two successful trips to Mars. They’ve got this pretty well dialed in, Little Buddy. It’ll be easy peasy lemon squeezy.” He gave Matthew a little tap on the nose.
The little boy couldn’t help but chuckle at his big grown uncle using that silly phrase he and his sister used.
“You know what? When I’m gone, you’re going to go to Kindergarten and it will be fall, and then winter, and you’ll have your birthday and then it will be spring, and then summer again, and then, when it’s fall again and you’re starting first grade, I’ll be home. And you’ll have to tell me all about school and your friends and show me how well you can read and how you can count to a hundred-”
“And my artwork!” the boy added. He liked to draw and paint and do crafts and show his creations to his doting uncle.
“And your artwork!” Peeta enthusiastically agreed.
The boy’s smile shrank and he became thoughtful again. He twisted to get his teddy bear from beside him and handed it to Peeta.
“What’s this Little Buddy?” Peeta asked, “Want me to tuck him in too?” He was prepared to give the bear a kiss and tuck him in as Matthew sometimes insisted on.
Instead, in a small voice, Matthew replied, “No, I-I want you to take him.”
Peeta's eyes got misty. “Oh, Matty,” Peeta's breath shuddered.
“Then you’ll have to come back, to bring him back to me, and he’d get to go with you to Mars even though I can’t.”
“Matty, I can’t do that. You love Bill-the-Bear, I can’t take him from you, and you know you’d miss him too much.” Peeta’s voice was hoarse as he talked around the lump in his throat.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, buddy, but I can’t take Bill.” He tucked Bill in next to Matthew.
Matthew's little lip pooched out in a frown. His fingers fiddled with the blue and grey plaid ribbon around the bear's neck lost in thought. Then he untied it and held it out to Peeta. "Could you take this?" he asked, his eyes were getting shiny with the beginnings of tears.
Peeta took the ribbon in his hand. He smiled sadly, tears pooling in his eyes. “Sure Matty, I can take the ribbon.”
“And you can think of me.”
“Yes, I’ll keep the ribbon with me and think of you, and your sisters, and our whole family.”
A little tear trickled down Matthew’s cheek and he gave a watery smile. Then he nodded, seemingly satisfied his uncle had accepted his little token.
It was getting late and Peeta had been upstairs for a while.
“I’ve gotta get going, Matthew, thank you for the ribbon, I really will keep it with me, always.” He let out a shaky breath as he hugged his nephew close.
“Thank you Uncle Peeta, I love you.”
“I love you too Little Buddy.”
“Promise you’ll come back?”
“Promise.” He mustered the best smile he could even as a tear slid down his own cheek.
Peeta gave one last kiss on Matthew’s head and rose to leave. Matthew snuggled down in his warm covers and turned on his side to go to sleep. Peeta shut off the light and smiled when the stars he had painted continued to glow, bathing the room in a faint, soft light.
He shuffled back downstairs and took his leave of the rest of the family and they gave him their love.
Two hours later he was at the extended-stay hotel where he’d spend the next week before leaving for Cape Canaveral and the crew quarters where he’d live until launch.
He sat in a chair looking at the ribbon. Then he got out the travel sewing kit he kept with his things and with the tiny scissors, cut off an inch of the ribbon. He threaded a needle with black nylon thread and sewed the small scrap to his watchband. He examined his handiwork with a smile. It was a little coarse, but would serve him well. The ribbon would be with him, always, a reminder of what he had to return to, of who he would return to when he came home. He thought happily of that reunion. All the kids would be so much bigger and Matty would be able to read by then. His heart swelled with love for the people who meant so much to him.
He put his watch back on and rubbed the strap with his thumb as he closed his eyes and waited for sleep to take him. It connected him to his family; it tethered him to Earth. He was glad he hadn’t given up. He would continue to fight this god-forsaken planet for as long as possible. There was still hope. He could repair the Hab. He’d hopefully be able to communicate with NASA and they’d work together to make a plan to get him home despite this colossal setback.
Enough laying around, it was time to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Today he would repair the Hab.
But first, he got out his first message since the Hab breach. He lined up rocks near the rover so they spelled out “A-OK”. That should take care of NASA crapping their pants about him.
He now had a fully functional suit with two arms and went back into the Hab. The last time he’d been in there, he was laser focused on getting Marvel’s suit, this time he had more time to survey the damage: overturned tables, debris everywhere, drawers and cabinets blown open, their contents scattered.
And the farm.
The frozen plants crunched under his boots making him cringe. They were supposed to get him to Sol 900 with a resupply coming to Mars on Sol 856. Now, with no way to grow more food, by Sol 856 he’d be long dead.
He had to swallow the bile that threatened to rise. It was all so overwhelming. One thing at a time, he reminded himself, like a mantra, one thing at a time.
His back still hurt like a bitch, but the work gave him something else to focus on, so he was grateful.
He secured the poles back in their seatings, recoupling them in a few places, giving the Hab a frame again. The canvas still hung loosely. He was able to find the spare canvas as well as the seal strip. He’d be able to fix the Hab, that was good news.
They had trained for this, but it was awkward and unwieldy doing it alone. There was no one else to hold up the canvas while he worked on the seam or to help press the seams together while the resin in the seam seal cured. But he got it done. Like everything, he found a way and got shit done. Sweat dripped in his eyes and down his back by the end from exertion.
With the repair done, he worked on getting the Hab back online. He had no idea how the computer fared under such severe circumstances. He nearly wept with joy when it powered back up, albeit a little slow, and then the other systems began to power up and the lights winked on. He was going to be okay…mostly.
The food rations were unaffected by the blast. They were little ice bricks for now, but when life support was fully functional again, they’d thaw. He wondered how the medicine would be affected by the temperatures, but took an educated guess that it’d be fine too. Thanks to NASA’s planning, the science-lab components were nearly indestructible, so he at least didn’t have to deal with shattered glass. They were all in good enough shape to use again. The water situation would be okay too. He still had Clove’s suit full of water, which was now slowly sublimating ice. There was plenty of water in the reserve tanks, too.
He started the process to pressurize the Hab, then went out through Airlock 2 to Pathfinder. It just needed to be cleared of sand, it looked okay in all other respects. He still had the whole solar cell farm to clean off too. But right now, he needed to talk to NASA. so he walked over to Rover 2.
He booted up the rover’s computer and typed:
“ Please work. Please work. Please work ,” he chanted to himself while he waited for a reply, hands clasped, his blue eyes fixed unwaveringly on the display.
Cheers erupted at JPL.
Seneca hung his head in relief.
Katniss’s shoulders released the tension they’d held all week.
The silence was broken.
Thanks to my husband who prereads, edits, and helps me wordsmith. Also, he came up with the entire news-media montage in this chapter, so give him a hand! :)
Thanks to my beta @greenwool who has helped me and guided me in the discipline of writing and helps me take this fic to the next level. Be sure to check out her fic, R A D I O. It's an intense zombie!Everlark fic and it will keep your heart racing!
Thanks to all of you who read and comment and give kudos. I enjoy replying to you :) Every e-mail that comes with your comments or that I got a new kudos makes me smile. So really truly thank you! I hope you enjoyed reading this chapter and I can't wait to get the next chapter written for you!
Songs for this chapter: Two Steps from Hell-Strength of a Thousand Men, Linkin Park-Castle of Glass, P!nk-Try, Radical Face-Welcome Home, Two Steps from Hell-Skyworld, Linkin Park-Irridescent, Starset-Dark on Me
For fun, the stack of books Peeta reads to Matthew is: 1. "Roaring Rockets" by Tony Mitton, 2. "How Many Stars in the Sky" by Lenny Hort, 3. "If You Decide to Go to the Moon" by Faith McNulty, 4. "You are the First Kid on Mars" by Patrick O'Brien.
Chapter 11: Iris
The clock ticks.
Plutarch gets stuff done.
Beetee has an idea.
Prim visits Katniss.
JPL: Received! You gave us quite a scare there, boy. We got your A-OK message. Thanks for that by the way. What’s your status?
Mellark: Physically, I’m okay, besides a minor cut on my forehead and a lot of soreness.
JPL: Our analysis of the imagery shows a complete detachment of Airlock 1. Is that correct?
Mellark: If by “detachment” you mean “shot me like a bullet across the surface of Mars” you’d be correct. By the way, who am I talking to?
JPL: This is Haymitch Abernathy. JPL is routing all of your communication to me. You’ll be talking directly to me from now on. What’s the status of the Hab?
Mellark: Hey, Haymitch! I’ve repaired the Hab and repressurized it. The patch seems to be holding. I just got the power back on before messaging you earlier. Air and water tanks are intact. Computers all seem to be functional, I’ll run diagnostics as soon as I’m done talking here. Mission rations were unharmed. Farm is dead. I’ve collected the potatoes. I count 1841. Between the potatoes and mission rations I’ll start starving on Sol 584.
JPL: We figured. Botanists here hoped you’d have enough to get through Sol 600. Tell me about the Hab systems.
Mellark: Oxygenator is functioning perfectly. Environmental regulator is okay. Water reclaimer is completely offline. Water freezing probably burst some tubing. Doubt it’s anything I can’t fix. The main computer is up and running. Any idea what caused the Hab to blow up?
JPL: Best guess is fatigue on the canvas seam near Airlock 1. The pressurization cycles combined with added stress from strong storms didn’t help. Advise you alternate using Airlock 2 and Airlock 3 for the duration of the mission. Also, we’ll be sending you a checklist for a full canvas exam.
Mellark: Yay! I get to stare at a wall for hours! Let me know if you find a way for me to not starve.
JPL: We’re already on it, boy.
Saturday, March 10 (Sol 122)
Plutarch bustled into the project planning room at JPL headquarters, late, with an armload of documents and a messenger-style leather satchel thumping his hip with his hasty strides.
The room was large with rows of tables. Dry-erase boards lined the front of the room. A rolled up projection screen and a projector hanging from the ceiling made the room feel more like a mini-college auditorium than a conference room.
Plutarch took his place at the front of the room. He grabbed a dry-erase marker, fumbled it, bent over searching for it, found it, and shot up again. All the while talking to the group of department heads and lead engineers assembled before him.
“Well, uh, good afternoon! Oops! Ah! Here we go. Thanks for coming. I trust everyone is doing well.”
Murmurs circled the room as no-they obviously were not doing well. They had worked so much overtime that they had gone days without seeing the sun. Plutarch included.
“All right.” Plutarch brought his hands together in front of him in a resounding clap. “I called this meeting because that Iris probe you’ve been working on? Well, our timetable has just changed.”
“And we have to have the probe ready for launch much sooner than we thought.”
“How soon are we talking about?” Ed Mitchem asked.
“Two-hundred days sooner.”
Cries of disbelief echoed in the room.
“Iris needs to be ready to launch in forty-eight days.” Plutarch continued.
There were muttered curses with a ‘Jesus’ from the back.
“So we are here to figure out just how exactly we’re going to accomplish that.” Plutarch plowed ahead, undaunted.
“You’re shitting us right? There’s no way,” came a voice from Plutarch’s left.
“If we don’t do this, Mellark dies.” He let out a deep sigh. “We have to try.”
The group sat up in their seats and got their pens in hand.
“So first, we’ve got to figure out what stays and what goes.” Plutarch turned to the board. The pressure gave him a clarity of focus that little else could. When others might crumple under the weight of it, or be paralyzed with indecision, he planned and delegated, undeterred. It was an odd mixture, how his body coursed with the frenetic energy of it, but his mind was unwaveringly calm. He pushed the team steadily towards their goal with his strong will, his can-do attitude allowing no room for giving up in defeat.
A young Indian woman, Remi, spoke up first, “We have to figure out priorities. Obviously food first. Anything beyond that is a luxury.”
“Wait. How are we landing this thing?” Neil asked.
Without missing a beat, Plutarch answered, “Bounce and roll.”
“We’re not going to use a powered-descent lander? Shit ,” said Jason from Plutarch’s right.
Neil nodded agreement and said, “No, he’s right. That saves both time and weight. The precision landing gear is expensive time-wise; it takes longer to build and has a lot more check lists and testing procedures.”
“Exactly!” Plutarch pointed at Neil, he had written “food” under “Stays” and “precision landing gear” under “Goes”. “Next!” he called out.
Dan Jensen spoke up, “If we are doing a bounce and roll landing. We won’t be able to send some of the more sensitive equipment…so that scraps what? The water reclaimer, oxygenator…” He ticked them off on his fingers.
“And environmental regulator,” added Kenneth from the back. He was the same guy who said ‘Jesus’ earlier. He slouched in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. “Whose idea was this landing anyway?”
Plutarch turned back around to face the group and his eyes searched out Kenneth. “Mine.”
Kenneth huffed. “And launch? We don’t have time for ULA to build a launch vehicle.”
“We’re using the Eagle Eye 3 booster.”
Low whistles went around the room. Someone muttered, “Big ass booster.” Someone else whispered, almost reverently, “That’s a Delta IX.”
Plutarch continued, “It’s big and it’s fast. It’s the only launch vehicle that can get the payload to Mellark in time.”
“The radio can stay,” Jason added, “The radios are robust and have handled tumbler landings before.”
Remi piped up again, “And maybe some thumb drives with messages from loved ones, music, new TV shows?”
Hums of approval sprinkled the room.
Plutarch’s marker squeaked as his fast, slanted writing filled the board. The list under “Goes” seemed to get longer and longer, while the list under “Stays” remained woefully short.
Zoe Pelletier’s eyes brightened and she raised her hand then dropped it, shaking her head at herself. Damned classroom set-up. “But we do have some advantages,” she said. All eyes swiveled hopefully in her direction. “A lot of components have already been built for the Antares 4 mission.” A lot of heads nodded. “If we can steal a Delta IX booster from Eagle Eye 3 team, we can get components from the Antares 4 team. That should speed up production and parts of assembly.”
“Yes!” Plutarch agreed and wrote, “Loot A-4” on the board, then enthusiastically circled it.
Instead of focusing on the impossibility of the new timetable, they were finding solutions.
Now, this meeting was rolling.
Saturday, March 10: Houston, TX- Spring Break with Prim
Katniss wasn’t home when Prim got in late Friday night. She hated that she wasn’t there to greet her sister. At the end of her shift Saturday, she packed up her things and dragged herself home, thoroughly exhausted by the events of the week, but relieved that Peeta was safe again. He repaired the Hab today and all systems were functioning within operational parameters.
She stood on the porch fumbling for her keys, when the door swung open revealing her baby sister. A thrill ran through her and she forgot her exhaustion. She dropped her things right there and pulled her sister close in a fierce hug.
After Prim’s squeals died down and Katniss finally released her, Prim moved into the house, and Katniss shouldered her backpack and came inside. Prim followed her upstairs and plopped down on her bed and chatted all about school, midterms, her roommates, and plans for spring break while Katniss cleaned out her backpack. Once Katniss got her stuff put away, they headed downstairs to the kitchen.
“Hungry?” Katniss asked.
“Sure,” Prim answered, “I had a late breakfast, but I could definitely eat again.” She sat at the small cafe-sized table Katniss kept in the kitchen.
Katniss rummaged in the fridge and pantry. “Ugh. I should’ve gone shopping before I came home.”
Katniss threw her frozen dinner in the microwave and started the timer (she didn’t even need to look at the instructions anymore). She found a few pieces of fruit that weren’t overripe or badly bruised and stood at the counter chopping them. They could have been eight and twelve again; it was so familiar.
“Sooo, I was talking to Mom about summer break...”
“A week at the beach together would be nice. Or even just a weekend.”
“We have beaches here.”
“Mom would like to see you.”
The knife slipped in Katniss’s hand.
“I can’t get off work,” she said with a huff as she started slicing again, “I only just started getting weekends off again.”
“No one else can download pictures and look at them?”
“It’s not like that. I’ve studied the mission, I can pick up on subtleties someone else might miss.”
“Sounds like a cop out.”
“I really need to be here, Prim.” She couldn’t stand the idea of being far away even if it was a convenient excuse to not see her mom. What if she had been in Florida when the Hab blew? And she had to work out flights to get back. The hours between her and SatCon would have driven her wild with uncertainty.
Prim looked away. Katniss let out a relieved sigh. The conversation about their mom was over. For now.
“Bringing work home with you?” she teased as Katniss plopped a plate of fruit in front of her.
Katniss, who had grown accustomed to the map and picture on the living room wall, was momentarily at a loss for words. “Oh, uh, yeah, that. It’s nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Just...Haymitch drew on the map and it had to be replaced. I thought it would be interesting to bring home.” She turned to get her meal out of the microwave and sit next to her sister.
“And interesting to bring home Peeta Mellark’s picture?” Prim pointed out the photo Katniss had taped over the top left-hand corner of the map. It was the first photo they’d gotten of Peeta from Pathfinder-the one with the “rock on” hand gesture and a sign that said, “Wassup!”
Katniss’s cheeks heated at the insinuation and she stabbed at her food. Prim’s grin was wide as she flustered her sister.
“Do you have a poster of him somewhere in here?” she asked her bright blue eyes wide with a spark of mischief.
“No, I don’t,” Katniss insisted, keeping her head down. But she did have that one picture in her purse. And another at her desk. Prim didn’t need to know that. She wouldn’t understand. Katniss lived, breathed, ate, and slept Mars now. It made perfect sense to have a few pictures of the astronaut she watched over everyday around. It wasn’t at all what Prim was insinuating. Prim, who always kept posters of boys on her walls.
“I’ve seen him on the news. He’s amazing. He’s so strong and optimistic...and you can’t deny he’s handsome.”
“It’s not like that. You know me. It’s just…it keeps me focused.”
Prim snickered. “ Focused ?”
“On my job,” Katniss snapped, “Now, shut up and eat your pears.”
Prim mercifully let the subject of Mom drop for a few days. It was midweek, while they were sitting on the back patio, a cider in Katniss’s hand and a lemonade in Prim’s when she tried again.
They had been watching the breeze sway the trees, and the clouds pass overhead, musing on whether they might venture to Galveston to walk along the shore and go to “Olympia Grill” or the “Fin and Feather”, Prim’s favorite seafood restaurants.
Prim was staring down at her lap when she took a couple of deep breaths and said, “I like being here with you.”
A smile bloomed on Katniss’s face. “I like having you here too, Little Duck.”
“It’s just...I really...wish...you’d come home sometimes.”
Katniss stiffened in her chair, blindsided by the sudden shift in conversation. “This is my home,” Katniss replied flatly.
“You know what I mean Katniss.” Prim sighed. “Home to Florida. And Mom.”
“I can’t do that, Prim. I thought you understood that.”
“I do!” She amended. “But...don’t you think eleven years is enough?”
Katniss sat silently staring off into the trees.
“I know what happened, Katniss. I know it got bad. But Mom came back to us.”
“How did I know she wasn’t going to check out again?”
“You couldn’t. But you keep pushing her away, keeping her at arm’s length. You’re punishing her over and over for something that was out of her control. Don’t you think it’s time to stop? To let her back in?”
Katniss’s heart pounded. She had to work to keep her breathing calm. She wasn’t ready to have this conversation now. Wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready.
“I don’t know if I can do that, Prim.”
Prim flopped back in her chair with a huff.
“I’m tired of feeling like a kid getting shipped between custodial parents. I want us to be a family again. A whole family. All together. Without feeling like I’m constantly having to choose. I feel like no matter what choice I make, I’m hurting someone.”
“I can’t help you with that.” Katniss’s voice was tight and strained. She chanced a glance at her sister and instantly regretted it when she saw the tears brimming on the bottom lashes of Prim’s big blue eyes.
“She made a mistake Katniss. We all make mistakes. But we forgive, we move on, we give each other second chances.”
“It wasn’t just a mistake Prim. She almost let us starve! You have no idea everything I had to do.”
Prim shook her head. “I know more than you think. I know you didn’t buy the food, or find money, the damaged boxes, old produce...I eventually figured it out.”
Hot tears began to well in Katniss’s eyes.
“I’m so sorry Prim.”
“Don’t be.” Prim’s voice was softer now. “You did what you had to do to survive. To keep us together, alive. I know that. But I can’t go on with you and Mom ignoring each other. You don’t have to start having heart-to-heart deep conversations or anything. Just, be in the same room, eat dinner, and maybe some time on the beach.”
Katniss shook her head sadly. “I don’t know if I can do that.”
Prim’s hand gripped Katniss’s gently. “Promise me you’ll think about it?”
Too overcome for words, Katniss could only nod.
Satisfied Prim leaned back in her own chair.
“We should go to Olympia Grill. There’s a new putt-putt place nearby, if you’re up for it.”
Relieved, Katniss agreed. And just like a commercial break, the conversation about their mom was over and they were back to discussing plans for the rest of the week.
It had been a good week. Katniss got home later every afternoon. Prim made lunch and they watched tv shows together. Katniss was appreciative for the home cooked meals instead of the Boston Market dinner of the day. They had a good trip to Galveston, though the outing cut into Katniss’s sleep hours. They enjoyed playing card games and fought about what tv show they’d watch. Prim met up with friends while Katniss slept through evening and early night. She was often still awake when Katniss got up at 11pm or later to go to work.
As any visit with her sister did, this one flew by. It seemed no sooner had Prim fairly well moved in that she was packed up and hugging Katniss on the front porch of the shared duplex, her friends waiting impatiently in the driveway.
“I’ve gotta go. I’ll miss you,” Prim said.
“I’ll miss you, too.” Katniss hugged Prim close.
They stood there for many long seconds.
“Um. You can let go now,” Prim teased.
Katniss let her arms drop slowly. She could never let go. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” Prim said and turned and jogged down the steps towards her waiting friends.
She tossed her stuff in the trunk then smiled at Katniss and waved. “Bye!” she called out one last time.
And Prim hopped in the car to head back to Dallas.
Katniss sat on the steps alone for a long time afterward.
JPL: Good news, boy! We’ve got a way to get you food.
Mellark: That is good news. I look forward to not starving.
JPL: It’s an alteration of a plan that’s been in the works for a while. We won’t be able to send an oxygenator, water reclaimer, or any other special components or sensitive equipment since we won’t be using a powered descent, but you’ll get food and a radio.
Mellark: That sounds great! I can keep stuff running here. So you’ll get no complaints from me. By the way, all Hab systems are now fully operational.
JPL: That’s good to hear. How’s your water supply? Any idea how much you lost in the blast?
Mellark: I have 620L remaining. Lost 300L to sublimation. With water reclaimer operational again, it’s plenty.
JPL: Good. Keep us posted on any mechanical or other issues.
Mellark: Will do.
JPL: They told me to tell you that the probe they’re sending you is named Iris, after the Greek goddess. She is the messenger of the gods and the personification of rainbows.
Mellark: Gay probe coming to save me. Got it.
Offices at Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX- four weeks after Hab breach
Beetee Latier’s office was small. Bookshelves crammed with well-worn books lined the walls. His desk sat on one side of the room covered in stacks of paper. This haphazard organization would have bewildered anyone, but Beetee could find anything in a matter of seconds. His office mates would sometimes test him, asking him for this or that paper they knew to be buried in the stacks. He always managed to produce the sought-for paper with alacrity, much to their undying delight and his own puzzlement when the proffered paper was no longer needed. Their game made no sense to him. On the opposite wall from his desk was a chalk board. He’d been given a dry erase board, but after brushing past it several times, and inadvertently erasing parts of important equations, he’d asked for, and received, a chalk board. Then, even if he accidentally swiped it, he didn’t lose all the work he had done. His walls were covered in posters and pictures of space, satellites, and planetary orbits.
Though it was dark outside and all of his office mates had gone home, Beetee was at his desk. He lifted his glasses and peered under them at his computer screen. He turned to sip his coffee, but finding the mug empty, frowned, set the mug down again, then turned back to work. As an astrodynamicist his work was usually fairly straightforward. He calculated the exact orbits and course corrections needed for any given mission. Normally he started with a given launch date and calculated the orbital path. This time he had to calculate a path, but had no firm launch date. He’d never done anything like this before. He had to rewrite his program to work backwards.
He ran one last test and leaned back in his chair satisfied that it worked. There was now one course for each day of the twenty-five day launch window for Iris. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose then returned them, blinking. His fingers tapped softly on the keys as he wrote an email to his boss.
“….all 25 courses take 414 days, and vary only slightly in thrust duration and angle. The fuel requirement is nearly identical for the orbits and is well within the capacity of Eagle Eye’s Delta IX booster.
“It’s too bad. Earth and Mars are really badly positioned. Heck, it’s almost easier to-”
He stopped typing.
He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hand over his now balding head. His eyes widened. “Oh,” he said, then gasped, “Oh!”
He grabbed his coffee cup and went to the break room for a refill.
Conference room, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX- Four weeks until launch
Seneca strode into the conference room and looked at the people surrounding the tables. This was what he lived for. NASA’s most brilliant minds were assembled here, like a parliament of genius and he was the prime minister. There was a lot to cover. Everyone was working furiously on getting the Iris probe ready for launch on a much tighter schedule. Seneca set his briefcase at the head of the table and drew out a neat stack of papers.
“Thank you all for coming,” Seneca said, “I know you all are busy, so let’s get started.” He never failed to start a meeting quickly. He tapped the papers to square them in front of him, gave a quick glance to the top sheet before looking at Haymitch. “Tell me where we’re at on the mission team.”
Haymitch leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows. “The mission team’s ready.” Then he chuckled to himself. “There was a bit of a pissing match-”
“Language.” Seneca quietly chided.
“There was a bit of a turf war ,” Haymitch restated, “But we’ve ironed out those details. Antares 4 was mad that it was their probe and Antares 3 was mad because it’s their astronaut and thus technically still their mission.”
Seneca’s brows knit together. They didn’t need departmental disagreements jeopardizing this mission. “Do you anticipate any further…friction?”
“Nah, Antares 4’s gonna have their hands full with presupplies for the rest of their mission, they won’t miss one measly probe.”
Seneca nodded. “Alright, Flight.” He turned to Gale. “Where are you at on launch preparations?”
“We’re ready to go,” Gale said, “We have a control room set up. We’re running simulations every day. I’ll oversee launch then hand it over to Haymitch’s guys.” He gestured toward Haymitch who nodded back.
This was going well. Seneca was pleased. He braced himself, then looked at Johanna.
“Well, the public is fully engaged. CNN’s Mellark Monitor with Caesar Flickerman is getting top ratings.”
“The attention is good,” Seneca affirmed. Public support meant congressional support, which meant more funding for the rescue, which didn’t seem to have a cap.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Johanna hedged, “But they also know Mellark is fucked-”
“Language!” Seneca hissed, his eyes widening.
“They also know Mellark is fucked if this launch fails. And if it fails, we’re fucked. They’ll have our heads on a-”
“I’m sure we needn’t be so dramatic, Johanna…” However, her words rang true. This had been one long media frenzy since Sol 6. If they came this close to helping the lost astronaut only to blow it now, with so many people engaged, there would be an enormous backlash. It could be the end of manned missions to Mars.
“I’m just saying, there’s two sides to having so much public attention.”
Seneca nodded and said, “You’re right. Thank you, Johanna.”
He turned to a new page in his notes then looked to the door of the conference room and gestured for someone to enter.
A dark-skinned woman entered the room, her curly hair tied with a brightly colored hair scarf. She was tall, held herself erect, and moved gracefully. Every eye in the room was riveted to her as she stood at the head of the conference room table next to Seneca.
“Everyone, I’d like to introduce Janet Paylor. She was the scheduled pad leader for the Eagle Eye 3 launch, so she’ll be helping us with Mellark’s resupply now. Thanks for joining our team, Janet.”
“No problem. Glad I can help out.” Janet said with a smile and nodded to the room.
“What can you tell us about the booster?” Seneca asked as Janet settled into one of the few remaining seats near the front of the room.
“Well, the booster is doing as well as could be hoped for. It was prepared for launch, but has been held for Iris. Boosters…aren’t meant to sit upright like that for so long. But we’ve addressed that issue. We’ve drained the fuel to prevent corrosion and added external supports. It was safer than dismantling it or trying to get it horizontal again. I also have my people making extensive inspections every three days, part of which is running diagnostics on all systems. I can guarantee you the booster will be ready and waiting for your Iris probe.”
“Thank you, Janet,” Seneca said, and turned over another sheet of paper, “And that leads to our next question. Plutarch, how is Iris coming along?”
“We’re behind.” Plutarch slumped. He didn’t beat around the bush. Seneca liked that about him, but he didn’t like this news.
“How far behind?” Seneca asked.
“Is that as far behind as you’re going to get? Or do you see potential for further delays?” This was concerning. The schedule was rigidly tight. They didn’t have two weeks.
“Well, we have 19 days left of work on the probe and we still have 13 days to mount it to the booster and complete all the final diagnostics and inspections before launch. But anything could happen. There are always problems...delays.”
“How much extra time will you need to finish?”
“If I had to give you a number,” Plutarch scrunched up his face in thought, “I’d say we need fifteen extra days.”
Seneca nodded and jotted down a note to himself.
He addressed Dr. Abioye Adeyemi, the flight surgeon for the Antares crews. “Dr. Adeyemi, what can you tell us about Mellark’s health? Can he last an extra fifteen days until we get the probe to him?”
“He’s going to be in a malnourished state. He’s at minimal calories, but still does a lot of physical labor. He has undoubtedly lost weight. He won’t have much in reserves when the probe gets to him. He’ll need to have the energy and alertness to drive a rover to get to the probe. You need to land that probe as close to him as possible.” Dr. Adeyemi jabbed his finger at the table. “And you need to get it to him as fast as possible.”
Haymitch cleared his throat, “I’m with Dr. A, here. With a tumbler, you’ve gotta be prepared that it could take days for Mellark to reach it. Remember rovers don’t have a lot of range. Not even his Mellarkmobile with all of its modifications can go very far when you consider just how far the lander can end up from him. He’d have to be strong enough to go out searching for it and return with it. That’s…he’s not going to be able to do it if he is literally starving for days waiting on it. The landing date needs to be firm.”
Dr. Adeyemi nodded in affirmation. “Yes, Haymitch is right. While Mellark could last longer than a week with no food at all, by the…say…fourth day, he’d have impaired mental faculties and he’d be so weak, he would not be able to operate the rover. He’d even have trouble staying awake. It is imperative this probe launches on time.”
“So we get time somewhere else,” Seneca said. Turning to Plutarch he offered, “I can get you more overtime.”
“Nah,” Plutarch said dismissively, “I’ve already got people working around the clock. Money and overtime can’t fix this.”
“Then we get it on the booster faster. Paylor? You said it takes thirteen days to get the probe on the booster and ready for launch, can we shorten that in any way?”
Paylor considered for a moment before speaking. “It only takes three days to mount the probe to the booster. The next ten days are for testing. We can mount the booster in two days with enough overtime, so that just leaves the testing process.”
Seneca referenced his notes before asking, “Janet, how often do the tests reveal say a flaw or an error that would prevent launch.”
Janet Paylor was ever ready with her answers, “In about one in twenty launches we’ll have a problem kick back that needs to be solved, but in all of those, only about half of the problems would have resulted in a failed launch.”
Haymitch leaned forward and asked, “So if we skip inspections, we have a one in forty chance of mission failure?”
“That’s, two point five percent,” said Seneca, doing the math in his head quickly, “Normally, that’s grounds for a countdown halt. We can’t do that.”
“ Normally was a long damn time ago,” Haymitch drawled, “Can anyone think of a safer way to get more time?”
The room was silent.
“I’m with Haymitch,” Gale spoke up, “We just don’t have enough time. We’re going to have to be willing to take some risks. Speeding up the mounting process and skipping inspections buys us eleven days.” He gestured to Plutarch. “If Plutarch can pull a rabbit out of a hat and get done sooner,” He waved his hand toward Paylor. “Janet can do some inspections. And malnutrition notwithstanding.” Here, a pointed look at Dr. Adeyemi. “I’m sure Mellark can stretch the food supply an extra four days.”
Dr. Adeyemi stuttered, “I-I can’t…r-r-recommend-”
Seneca shook his head. “It’s too risky,” he rebutted.
Unable to remain seated, Gale stood up and leaned on the table. “Look.” He swallowed thickly. “We have procedures. I know and you know that skipping procedures means risk-and NASA is built on minimizing risk. But right now, if we focus on covering our asses , Mellark dies! Do you get that?” His voice rose. “You perform all those tests and Mellark will starve to death in safety. And the whole effort will have been wasted when food arrives for a dead astronaut.” He looked around the room and his nostrils flared as he exhaled heavily through his nose.
Haymitch nodded at him in a show of solidarity.
“And if the launch fails? What then?” Seneca asked cooly.
“It fails.” Gale admitted simply. “But at least we went down swinging. If we sit on our hands dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ when we know every second counts? And we have a successful launch that gets there too late? What then? We still failed. It’s a risk no matter what we do. And I say we skip inspections. I’d rather take that risk and get the payload to Mellark in time.”
“And I cannot approve that.” Seneca dug in.
Plutarch interrupted, “If we are able to finish even a little bit early, we might be able to get some inspections done.”
“And many of the inspections are redundant-to verify results,” Paylor added.
Seneca took in what they had to say. His hard blue eyes lingering on Gale’s smoldering grays. Finally after interminable minutes, he looked down, shuffled through his notes and neatened the stack. Clearing his throat he said quietly, “Plutarch, get that probe finished. Janet, we’ll get you that overtime funding, you get the probe mounted in two days. And we’ll do minimal inspections so we can launch in time. Dr. Adeyemi, you make the food last another four days.”
“Uh, Beetee?” his boss, Mike, called from the doorway.
Beetee didn’t hear him. He was leaned forward in his chair focused on his computer screen. His mug sat close by, filled with yet more coffee. The trash was overflowing with takeout containers and wrappers. Papers and printouts were piled on his desk; his usual haphazard organization was looking more haphazard than usual. He had been working long hours.
Mike took in the scene before him and he felt a little concerned for Beetee.
“Beetee!” he said more forcefully.
Beetee startled, then turned and looked at him over his shoulder, blinking owlishly.
“Uh, I was just coming by to check up on…” Mike’s voice trailed off as he looked around the room. “Um, on the orbital adjustments for the, uh, satellites…Beetee?”
“What are you doing in here?”
“Oh! Just, a, uh…side project.” He gave a small smile.
“Okaaay,” Mike said slowly. “Well, just be sure you get those satellite adjustments for me.” He began to leave.
“I need some supercomputer time.”
“For satellites?” Mike asked and turned back into the room.
“No. For this project.” Beetee gestured at the computer and a stack of printouts next to it.
“Sure, that’d be fine, but you need to do your real job first.”
Beetee blinked at the computer, then rubbed his balding head. He faced Mike again.
“Is now an okay time for a vacation?”
“Well...” said Mike, quickly thinking it over, “...sure.” Beetee had been working long hours on the Iris probe, he could use a break from work. “Why don’t you head on out, get some rest.”
“Oh no. I’m not leaving.”
“Well, then, about those satellite adjustments…”
“I’m on vacation.”
Mike walked away shaking his head.
Mellark: Hey, how’s my care package?
JPL: Coming along. A little behind schedule. We’ll get it done. We want to get you back to work, boy. They’re putting together a science schedule. We’ll send it to you as soon as it’s complete.
Mellark: Good, I’m bored as hell and have sat on my ass long enough. What sort of fun stuff am I going to be doing?
JPL: Mostly EVAs collecting rock and soil samples and conducting soil tests. Flight surgeon, Dr. Adeyemi is creating a list of self-administered medical tests for you to complete once a week. Dr. Aurelius might have some stuff for you too. This is the best “bonus Mars time” since the Opportunity rover.
Mellark: Opportunity never went home.
JPL: You’re right. Bad analogy.
Launch Day: Houston, TX- 60 days after the Hab Breach
Johanna took the podium alone.
“Good morning and thank you for coming.” Johanna began. “I am pleased to report that the Iris probe is complete and ready for launch. The launch is scheduled for 9:14am Eastern Daylight Time, today.
“Once launched, the probe will remain in orbit for three hours until mission control initiates a trans-Mars injection burn. NASA mission control will handle the launch up through the trans-Mars injection burn, they will then hand the probe over to the Antares 3 presupply team. The probe will take four-hundred fourteen days to get to Mars where it will do a bounce and roll landing, much like MER landers in the past.
“I will now take questions,” Johanna announced.
“What’s in the payload? Anything besides just food?” queried a reporter.
“Yes, we have included a radio and some small luxury items on board,” Johanna answered.
“What sorts of items?” the reporter persisted.
“Two thumb drives with messages and pictures from family and friends, new tv shows and movies, and music. And a letter handwritten and signed by President Snow.”
She pointed out Caesar Flickerman who had raised his hand.
“If this launch fails, will there be a Plan B to fall back on?”
Johanna expected this question and responded confidently, “While there are indeed risks to any launch, we don’t foresee any problems. The weather forecast at the Cape is in our favor. Conditions couldn’t be better for a launch.” She deftly avoided answering Caesar’s question and before he could ask again, she called on another reporter.
“Jill Watson with BBC news. All the talk about rescuing Mellark has been noble; it has moved the masses, but is there a spending limit? How much is too much? Some people are beginning to question whether all this expenditure worth it? Are there not other causes that could use all this funding that’s being invested in one astronaut?”
Managing to maintain her composure and swallow the ‘fuck you’ that was on the tip of her tongue, she answered evenly, “Who’s to put a value on human life? This is not about the bottom line, but about a person in need of rescue. Moreover, if you want to compare ‘value’ consider the intrinsic value of Mellark’s extended mission. In addition to all of the science he has completed and will be able to complete, his fight for survival has given us more information than all of the other Antares missions combined ever will.”
She fielded questions for the next ten minutes, most of them focusing mercifully on specific details of the launch. When the press conference was over she breathed a deep sigh of relief and felt like she should have earned a medal of valor for not losing it on that BBC reporter. She was going to need a stiff drink with Haymitch when this launch was over.
Haymitch stood next to Gale in Mission Control and observed the busy room.
“Well, I’d wish you luck, but I know you don’t believe in it,” Haymitch said with a small smile.
“Luck has no business in spaceflight,” Gale answered gravely.
Haymitch smirked. “Yeah, I agree with you. I believe in men and women doing their best and Jack Daniels when they don’t.”
He reached out his hand and Gale shook it, but Haymitch could see the anxiety behind his eyes.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “You’ve done everything you can. We all have. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
Gale nodded soberly and turned to the control panel before him where he could keep track of the 25 engineers in charge of the hydraulics, pad water deluge system, electrical systems, comms, propulsion, ascent, and flight control, as well as the range coordinator, launch director, and Haymitch, who was the mission director.
He put his ear-piece in and adjusted the bright blue tie his wife, Madge, had made for him. She made one for each launch he oversaw. Since he led blue team, she made an assortment of blue ties. He wore them once and only once, for the launch, and it signaled to his team that after all those sims and drills, this was the real thing.
Haymitch took his place at his console.
Seneca entered the VIP booth, briefcase in hand. When he sat, he cracked it open and pulled out a blue folder, leaving a red folder inside.
Johanna was in the press room standing before a variety of screens that showed all angles of the launch.
Plutarch sat in a crowded cafeteria where most of the employees of JPL had assembled to watch the momentous launch that they’d poured so many hours and blood, sweat, and tears into. Handfuls of others were scattered through out break rooms, watching on tvs there.
Around the world people waited by radios, or watched TVs, or live-streamed the launch on their computers or phones.
In Mission Control, blue team had drilled the countdown Go-Nogo checklist dozens of times and could complete it with speed and precision. They’d practiced simulations to prepare them to deal with potential anomalies. They were thoroughly ready for today’s launch.
But unlike all those practice runs, today there was a nervous tension in the air. A tinge of excitement coating every action and communication.
“T minus ten minutes to scheduled launch, Flight,” the Timer informed Gale.
“T minus ten minutes,” Gale confirmed, “Sterile control room starts now.”
The buzz that had filled the room died quietly to silence, interrupted only by terse, necessary communications between systems engineers and flight controllers.
“T minus five minutes, Flight,” the Timer informed again.
“Status check to proceed to terminal countdown,” Gale announced, then started the script.
“Iris systems propulsion.”
“Ops Safety Manager.”
“Eagle Systems Engineer.”
“Cleared to proceed.”
“LD.” There was a pause. “Launch Director.” Gale repeated.
“Launch vehicle is ready to launch.”
“You have permission to launch,” said Haymitch.
“Proceeding with the count,” said Gale.
The Timer announced, “Launch time is firm at 13:14 Zulu.”
The countdown continued its relentless march of time. Each man and woman manning a console that morning felt every tick of the clock in their chest as their own pulse.
Gale said, “ROC report range status.”
“Range green,”came the reply.
“T minus twenty-five seconds,” the Timer announced.
“Status check,” said Gale, finishing the pre-flight script. Three voices answered him in succession.
“All systems are Go for launch.”
This was it.
“T minus 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6,” the Timer announced.
The whole room held their breath.
“5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”
All eyes were on the screen at the front of the room. Fire ignited under the booster with a flash. There was a pause and then the booster began to inch upward. The crowd gathered at the Cape cheered and waved.
Support arms swung out of the way. Umbilicals released. The booster picked up speed and moved upwards to the sky.
“We have lift off.”
Sighs of relief filled the room, but it wasn’t over yet. It wouldn’t be until the probe reached cruise and they handed over control to the Antares 3 mission team.
Iris moved higher and higher.
“Trim,” queried Gale.
“Trim’s good, Flight.”
The cameras panned up and zoomed in to follow the booster as it soared high over the Atlantic Ocean.
“Altitude one thousand meters,” someone said.
“We’ve reached safe-abort,” another person called out. Should anything go wrong, Iris could crash harmlessly into the ocean.
“Altitude fifteen hundred meters.”
“Pitch and roll commencing.”
“We have an anomaly,” said ascent flight director.
“Be specific,” Gale demanded.
“Just a shimmy. Onboard systems guidance is handling it,” the ascent flight director reassured.
“Keep an eye on it,” Gale said tensely.
“Altitude twenty-five hundred meters.”
“Pitch and Roll complete.”
“Twenty-two seconds till staging,” said Timer.
“Shimmy’s getting violent,” reported the ascent flight director.
“How violent?” said Gale.
“More than we like, but the guidance systems have compensated and adjusted the engines’ thrusts to counteract the shimmy. We’re still good.”
Gale clenched his jaw and pressed his lips in a thin line. “Keep me posted,” he said.
“Thirteen seconds till staging. 10, 9, 8…”
“First stage engine cut off.”
“Separation sequence initiated.”
“Separation of first stage complete.”
“Second stage ignition in 3…2…1. Ignition.”
“WOAH!” exclaimed the ascent flight director. “Flight, we’re getting a large precession.”
“What?” Gale said as his console suddenly lit up light a Christmas tree. A quick scan of the room, and lights were going off everywhere. His heart raced.
“It’s spinning on it’s axis,” said the ascent flight director.
“Force on Iris at seven g’s,” called one voice.
“Intermittent signal loss,” called another voice.
Gale tried to make sense of all the alerts, warnings, and buttons lighting up his console.
“Ascent, what is going on?” he demanded.
“All hell broke loose. Iris is falling off course. She’s spinning like a top, at least 5 rps.”
“Get it into orbit.”
“We can’t talk to it at all.”
“We’ve got signal failures left and right.” Comm reported.
“Get that probe back online!” shouted Gale.
“We’re on it, Flight!” Comm shouted back.
“We’re getting some major g’s, Flight.”
“Iris is two hundred meters below scheduled flight path, Flight.”
“We’ve lost reading on the probe, Flight.”
“Entirely lost the probe?” Gale asked his voice thick. In a matter of seconds a routine launch had gone to shit.
“What about the ship, can we get it back in low-orbit-”
“Loss of signal, Flight.”
“LOS here, too.”
Other than alarms, the room fell silent.
Gale looked around. “Reestablish?” he asked, his voice thin, like it came from somewhere else.
“Unable,” said Comm.
“GC. Vehicle had already left visual range.”
“No satellite acquisition of signal.”
The main screen at the from of the room was black now, with large white letters, “LOS”.
“Flight,” said a voice over the radio, “US destroyer Farragut reports debris falling from the sky. Source matches last known location of Iris.”
Gale hung his head and leaned his weight forward on one hand on the desk, the other was on his hip. He swallowed thickly. “GC, Flight. Lock the doors...Start post-failure procedures.”
Up in the VIP booth, Seneca placed the blue folder, that contained a speech for the press conference immediately following the successful launch, back in his suitcase, and pulled out the red folder that contained the other speech.
Once Haymitch was released from Mission Control, he headed back for his own office, seeking solace in solitude. He collapsed in his chair. He yanked the top drawer open and the flask rattled around, but he just as suddenly shut the drawer again. There was no drinking this away. He suddenly didn't want to be here. He didn't want to be anywhere. Then he thought of the only person he knew he could stand to be around. He knew she cared for Mellark as much as he did, likely more. She'd be alone too. He made his way to SatCon, with purpose if not with speed, because his legs felt leaden. She was not in her office. He smirked. She was so like him. She couldn't stand to be in her office anymore than he in his. The break room was full of technicians still discussing the incident, though a fair amount of time had passed. Katniss was not among them. He nudged open the restroom door and called her name, but there was no answer. He noticed a supply closet at the end of the hall in a neglected little nook. The perfect place. He knocked on the door. "Sweetheart?"
Katniss had been watching live-stream of the launch on the TV in the break room. Her hands clasped tightly together as she mouthed quietly to herself, " Come on, come on, come on ," rooting along with the rest of NASA, the nation, the world, that the probe would make it to the stranded astronaut. When the booster began the pitch and roll maneuver and began to spin on its axis, her heart sank and a lump rose in her throat. Then it became more pronounced, but the gyros were handling it and keeping the probe on course. Then cameras on board the vehicle showed first stage separation. Katniss was relieved. The second stage would get the probe to orbit and from there the third and final stage would point it toward Mars. Right after the second stage fired, the on-board camera blacked out, then turned on, then blacked out again. With each brief glimpse of the probe, it was maneuvering wildly. Finally the screen went blank and camera feeds switched to ground where the launch site, once a buzz with activity was eerily silent. The SatCon techs watched the crowd on the TV who watched unfolding events with horror. News anchors who had been announcing the launch informed viewers that lookouts aboard USS Farragut reported debris had been seen falling from the sky and was believed to be the remains of Iris.
The lifeline Peeta was depending on disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. Katniss walked out of the room in a daze. She felt physically ill. She couldn’t go back to her office, at least not yet. She couldn't face pulling up imagery of the Antares 3 site or of the astronaut.
Instead she went down the hall and quietly shut herself in a closet. Amidst the paper towels, toilet paper, chemical cleaners, and office supplies, she wept. She had hated Peeta and the colossal inconvenience he had been. She had cursed his name every morning, exchanged imaginary sarcastic banter with him over her coffee, she had rooted for him as he retrieved Pathfinder, and had come to truly care about him. She wanted so much to protect him, but she was powerless. She cried herself out and continued to just sit there, staring at nothing in particular, her mind like static.
A quiet knock. “Katniss?” And the door opened a crack.
And suddenly her grief morphed into a red-hot anger. "You lied! You're a liar! You son of a bitch!” She flew at him and beat her small fists on his chest and he let her. “You promised! You said this would work! You liar! You said we could do it," she finished hoarsely.
When she slumped against him, her energy spent, he just held her.
And she allowed him because she knew he cared about Peeta as much as she did, if not more.
"I'm sorry, kid, I'm so sorry," he said as he held her. "We'll think of something. I promise you, we'll find a way."
"You don't need to apologize to me," she said, turning away from him, wiping her eyes.
"I know. I know how much you care about him. You try not to let on, but I can see that you do."
Katniss sniffled. Having to talk about it made all those feelings of helplessness wash over her in a fresh wave. Her knees buckled and she sunk down.
Haymitch lowered himself stiffly to the floor to join her.
"I can't watch him die, Haymitch, I can't," she rasped and began to cry anew. Her legs were drawn up and she wrapped her arms around them and buried her face in her knees. “Please don’t make me watch him die.”
"I know Sweetheart. We'll figure something out. I promise," Haymitch whispered. Though he didn't know exactly how he'd be able to keep that promise.
Mellark: So, how'd the launch go?
JPL: Launch failed.
Peeta felt nothing. He was totally numb. For a long time, he just sat there, thinking nothing, doing nothing, feeling...nothing. Then he somehow knew he needed to move. He got up and donned his spacesuit, and moved mechanically into the airlock of Rover 2. Then just as mechanically walked to the Hab. When he was inside, he took off his helmet, and hung up his suit. He stared blankly at the sealed gash where Airlock 1 was once attached then turned his gaze to the clean floor where he once had thriving farm. That was when the emotions hit, like a tidal wave of hopelessness and despair. His knees buckled and he clutched at his hair. He leaned forward till his forehead touched the floor. His chest felt heavy and ached. He choked and gasped desperately for air. When he finally caught his breath, he wept. He rolled on his side and lay curled there, arms covering his head, as his body was wracked with sobs and he cried long and hard.
He eventually spent himself and got back up. He wasn’t hungry, so he skipped dinner. He tucked himself into his bunk. He lay quietly for a while when all of a sudden his chest heaved and shoulders shook as the emotions overwhelmed him again.
He missed his family. He missed Earth. He’d wanted so very much to get back home. But more than that he mourned losing his future. He couldn’t accept that this was it. This was the sum total of his life and where it would all end. He tried to wrap his head around this slow-motion death sentence, but he just couldn’t. He’d wanted to help train future astronauts, to find love, and have his own kids someday. All these things had once seemed so near and now seemed to recede from his grasp.
The next morning, he lay on his back, his arms behind his head. He stared at the bottom of the bunk above him, thinking.
Mars had him in a full nelson, its fingers on his throat, his arms locked in place and useless. This whole thing had been a meatgrinder from the start. But he wasn’t down for the count yet. He wasn’t going let himself get pinned. They’d think of something. Or maybe he’d find a way out of this. There was still time. A whole year even. No, he was going to keep on fighting, keep on living, and give them time to work out a new plan. He was nothing if not one optimistic bastard.
Thanks once again to prereader hubby, beta reader @greenwool for helping me and pushing me to make this chapter better. It took longer to roll out than I wanted, but it's better for it. Hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what you think in the comments or on tumblr. I love to chat so don't be shy.
NASA History: Gene Krantz is probably the best-known flight director in NASA. He played a prominent role from the beginning of the Mercury program up through Gemini and Apollo. He started out in the Air Force flying F-86 Sabres in Korea, then worked temporarily for McDonnell Aircraft Corporation before finally joining NASA's Space Task Group. In the Air Force, Gene Krantz's squadron had a distinctive insignia and his wife, Marta, once made them all scarves with that insignia on it. At NASA he felt the need for a unifying something, like the insignia had been in the past, and she volunteered to make him a vest. She made him a new white vest for each launch he was in charge of while he was flight director. His team was the "white" team, thus the white vest. It became tradition. In Apollo 13 they have a scene where a runner brings Gene his new vest from his wife. She understood the Air Force culture he had come from and the new NASA culture he was a part of now. I thought it'd be fun to include a nod to that with Gale and Madge. It's her way of supporting him and encouraging the team by giving them an 'insignia' or 'good luck charm'.
Songs for this chapter are: 1. Kings and Creatures- Timelapse, 2. Gabrielle Alpin- Home, 3. Susie Suh- Here with Me, 4. OK GO- Needing/Getting, 5. Audio Machine- Impera, 6. Linkin Park- Lost in the Echo, 7. Lifehouse- Broken, 8. Gothic Storm- Destiny Awaits
Chapter 12: Risk
Peeta writes to his crew.
Beetee has an idea.
Gale has had enough.
REARDON: Hey, man! I’m writing to you because Dr. Aurelius says it’ll help me stay connected to humanity or some shit. I think it’s total bunk, but whatever. Orders. So, I just want to say:
Hey, brother from another mother. You have been my best friend since I joined this crew. You're the best damn pilot I've ever known and you fly the ship like a leaf on the wind. I can’t imagine flying with anyone better.
As my best friend, if, you know, I don’t make it back, I want you to talk to my dad. Let him know what things were like first-hand. Since I won’t be there to do it. I'm not planning to die, but I have to prepare for contingencies. It's what I do.
Also, you can have anything you want from the bakery on the house, forever. Tell my dad I said so.
Tell Ace and Star “Hi” for me. I miss our hikes together. What are those weird rock piles called? I wished I had some when I went to get Pathfinder.
Take good care of Liv and Zach. I know you can’t wait to get home to them. Anyway, be well brother.
Johnson Space Center- Houston, Texas
Seneca listened intently to the voice on the other end of the phone line. They finished what they had to say then waited for his response. He thought about it. What they had to offer. What they wanted in return. He gazed out of the window at nothing in particular and stroked his perfectly manicured beard deep in thought.
Finally, he replied.
NASA had a new rocket. And the Chinese would have an astronaut on Antares 5.
DE LA ROSA: I’m just going to be blunt. You scare the shit out of me. What is it with you and knives? You are such a nerd, but you are terrifying. How’d you manage that?
Did you know Commander Odair warned us not to hit on you? If we did, we’d be off the mission. I don’t think he needed to worry. You seem like you could take care of yourself. I’m pretty sure if any one of us propositioned you, we’d be a eunuch shortly afterward.
It was awesome that you did get the tattoo. You can deal with some serious shit, but lighten up okay? You’re tough, but you’re still a nerd.
Remind me to give you a wedgie next time I see you.
JPL- Pasadena, California
Once again, Plutarch stood at the front of the project planning room. He looked out over the group of exhausted engineers and department heads.
“I am sure everyone has heard the news- the Chinese have given us the Taiyeng-Shen rocket, and with it a second chance to send a resupply to Mellark-”
“Why would they do that?” asked Dan Jensen.
Ed Michem snorted.
Plutarch added, “And to express their appreciation of the generosity of the Chinese, NASA has promised to include one of their scientists on a future mission.”
“Hmph,” Dan huffed.
“Okay! Forget the politics.” Plutarch swept his hand through the air, as if to sweep the topic away. “Leave that to the administrators. We need to focus on building a probe.
“We made history when we completed the Iris probe in sixty-three days. So now we’re going to have to top that by making a final probe in twenty-eight days.”
The number written on the board in red dry-erase marker glared out at them.
“That’s impossible!” Neil declared.
“There’s no way,” said Jason.
“The time alone…” Dan began.
Plutarch pointed at Dan. “We’re going to save a lot of time by removing landing gear completely.”
Shocked gasps and muttered curses filled the room.
Plutarch continued, “We have to get food to Mellark. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Just edible.”
“And just how is he going to get food from a smoking fucking crater?” asked Kenneth from the back.
“That’s what we will be spending our time on. I want to split you up into two teams.” He wrote “Team 1” and “Team 2” on the board circling each one.
“The first team is going to focus on the probe, the hull, the navigation.” He wrote the list as he spoke. “I want it to have a high gain antenna- we need to be able to talk to it. Team two, you’ll be focused on the food. We don’t want him to be eating protein scented sand. Ensure that food can survive a high speed impact.”
He wrote ‘food + protection’ on the board next to ‘Team 2’.
“Dan Jensen, I want you to lead the first team with Remi and Jason. You can hand pick the rest.”
Dan nodded and began to collect his things. He leaned over to a nearby colleague, already beginning the recruitment process.
Plutarch continued, “And Zoe, you lead Team Two. You’ve already done impressive research on securing payloads for interplanetary flight and less than ideal landings.”
Zoe smiled at his praise and gave a quick nod of acknowledgement.
Plutarch looked to his left, “Neil, focus on making the protein bars as robust as possible.” Then he looked over their heads at Kenneth. “Kenneth, I want you on Zoe’s team too. Zoe, you can fill out the rest of your team.
“Alright, let’s not waste time talking here. Go!”
Despite their fatigue, the men and women who had shuffled tiredly into the meeting filed out in record time, energized with new purpose and a raging desire to beat the odds. Slumped shoulders were now squared, and bent backs were now straight. Their faces were a mixture of determination and worry, the desire to push the limits, and the fear that they may not succeed. No one smiled. There was no erasing this weariness that had seeped deep into their bones. They had a month and after that, for better or for worse, it would all be over. Once again, Mellark’s life was in their hands.
NASA: Johnson Space Center- Houston, Texas
Haymitch was buried in emails he needed to write, messages he needed to return, and papers that he needed to sign off on. Dark circles underlined his eyes. He was exhausted, but he pressed on. He could sleep when he knew Mellark was safe.
A knock at the door cut through his thoughts and he looked up to see a head poking in his office.
“Can I help you?” he asked gruffly, irritated at the interruption, irritated that he didn’t know who this guy was, irritated because he was out of coffee and the admin wasn’t there to get him more.
“Actually,” the man began nervously, “I was thinking I could help you.”
“Who are you?”
“Bernard, uh, Bernard Thomas Latier, but most people just call me Beetee. I’m from astrodynamics,” the man answered.
“Okay, Beetee, what have you got?”
Beetee entered the room now and heaved a huge stack of papers on the desk and Haymitch moved his coffee mug only just in time. He gave a bewildered look at the papers. What was all this?
“A way to save Mellark.”
“We’re already working on that.”
“Oh, you mean the Taiyeng-Shen?” Beetee snorted. “That’s impossible; you’ll never get a probe ready in a month.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and blinked. “And crash landing it on Mars? You can’t really be serious.”
“And you think you have a better idea?” Haymitch asked drawing his brows together skeptically and leaning back in his office chair.
Beetee began rifling through the papers. “Yeah, actually. I had a summary here…Ah! Here it is!” He held a paper up triumphantly, then lifted his glasses and peered under them at the paper. He read over it for a moment, then frowned. “No, that’s not it.” He began going through the papers again.
“Why don’t you just tell me this grand plan of yours.”
Beetee blinked at Haymitch, “I, uh, just had such a good summary.” He looked down again. “I’ll find it. Just a minute. Ah! Yes! Here.” He handed the summary to Haymitch.
Haymitch smirked as he took the proffered paper in hand, but made himself read it. The more he read, the wider his eyes got. He studied Beetee. His grey eyes were keen, hopeful, questioning.
“You sure this’ll work?”
“Absolutely.” Beetee’s confidence in his theory was an odd contrast to his nervous mannerisms and habit of speech.
“We’d still need Taiyeng-Shen…”
“It’s essential to the plan, actually.”
“Have you told anyone about this?”
“Who would I tell?” Beetee asked honestly.
“I don’t know, your boss, coworkers, friends?” Haymitch fished.
“I don’t have any friends.”
Haymitch rolled his eyes.
“Well, just...keep it under your hat. Okay?”
“I don’t, uh, I don’t wear hats.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
SOMERS: I've been assigned by Abernathy to do your science. My days are a bizarre mix of fighting to survive and titration. What the hell?
I’ve watched all your B-movies at least twice, some of them more. They are fucking hilarious. Where have these been all my life?!? When I get back we totally need to have movie nights starting with my personal favorite, “Gamera”.
Time is short so I'm just going to shoot straight with you. You need to tell Atwood the way you feel. If you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. She’s really quiet and private so I don’t know for sure how she feels about you, but it’s worth it to find out. And if she does like you? Well, that’d be great. But keep it in your pants till you get back to Earth. You know Commander Odair warned us against that sort of thing.
And Clove and knives. You do not want to get on her bad side. I'm just saying.
Johnson Space Center- Houston, Texas
“The fuck is Project Elrond?” Johanna said as she entered the small conference room on the fourth floor, swiping her phone to cancel the notification. Gale and Haymitch, who stood at the window, framed in late afternoon sun, exchanged glances.
Gale grinned and walked over. “You mean to say you don’t know who Elrond is?”
Johanna glowered at him and took a seat at the glass topped table.
Haymitch chuckled. “The council of Elrond. It means it’s a secret meeting,” he drawled as he walked over and took a seat next to her. Gale sat across from them, next to Plutarch who was working furiously on his laptop.
Seneca arrived and quickly moved to a seat.
Johanna turned to him. “Do you know who Elrond is?” she asked.
“Sure,” Seneca replied, “The head Elf in Rivendell? Lord of the Rings? Everyone knows that…or well most people.” He finished sheepishly under a withering glare from Johanna.
“I’m surrounded by nerds,” Johanna muttered and rubbed her temples. “Did none of you get laid in high school?”
“I went to an all-boys school,” replied Seneca. Everyone turned sharply in his direction. “So what’s with the secret meeting?” Seneca asked.
“You mean even he didn’t know what this is about?” Johanna twisted in her seat to look at Haymitch.
“That would be the point of a secret meeting, Jo,” said Haymitch.
She rolled her eyes.
“Are we about to make a momentous decision?” asked Plutarch finally looking up from his laptop.
Haymitch cleared his throat and began. “I had a visit from someone…unexpected, Bernard Latier. He’s an astrodynamicist and he’s been working on a plan to get a resupply to Mellark.”
“We’re already working on a plan,” said Seneca.
“Yeah, but that plan sucks and this one I think could really work.”
“He’s right,” said Plutarch, “It really does suck.”
“Okay. I’m listening.” Seneca leaned back in his chair with his fingers steepled.
Haymitch cut straight to the chase. “We use the Hermes.”
“What?!” They all asked in unison.
“We mount a resupply probe on the Taiyeng-Shen like we’ve already planned, then send it up to the Hermes. Hermes sling shots around Earth. It’s going to have so much speed that it will be at Mars on Sol 549. Well before Mellark runs out of food.”
Plutarch eyes were alight with the possibilities. “This is huge! Even the Iris wouldn’t land before Sol 588.”
Haymitch continued, “But, there’s more. If Mellark can get to the Antares 4 site and operate the MAV, they can pick him up and have him home in time for Christmas next year.” Haymitch finished on a triumphant note.
Seneca’s brows were pinched in thought. “But the MAV is only good for low Mars orbit.”
“That’s right. It needs to escape Mars gravity if it’s going to rendezvous with the Hermes.”
Plutarch nodded enthusiastically. “It would have to lose weight to reach escape velocity. A lot of weight. I can get my people on that right away.”
Seneca looked skeptical. “Can Mellark even make the journey to the MAV? It’s what? Three-thousand kilometers away…”
Haymitch said, “It’s three-thousand, two-hundred and thirty-five kilometers to be exact.”
They all looked thoughtful. Gale twirled a pen around his fingers.
Seneca asked, “Why not just have them drop the food and then come home. Peeta could use the food until Antares 4 can pick him up.”
“The Antares 4 plan was problematic from the beginning.” The others squirmed. He held back a wince. The Antares 4 plan had been an elephant in the room that they’d been able to avoid once the food issue took preeminence. He felt bad voicing doubt on a long-held plan, but kept going. “But more urgent is the fact that the Hab is already falling apart. One seam blew and luckily Mellark was already in an EVA suit and in the airlock. Had he been outside he could have been hit with debris. Inside he could have been incapacitated by lack of air and damned cold temperatures. He could have died.”
The sobering thought gave him pause and he looked around at the others gathered at the table. All eyes were on him. He had their attention, so he continued.
“Every day on that planet is a risk and fight for survival. You don’t see it in his messages, but you can’t tell me that that’s not hanging over his head. When is the next sudden ‘accident’ going to come? Another blown seam? Critical life support failing?”
He swept his arms in an open gesture as if to encompass all of the unknowns. He got grunts of agreement from Gale and Plutarch.
“Despite what he says, not everything can be fixed. We need to get him off the planet as soon as possible. There’s no way to get Antares 4 there fast enough.”
Seneca, at the head of the table sat near-motionless taking in everything Haymitch was saying. He could almost see the gears turning in the man’s piercing blue eyes.
“We need to send his crew back. And he needs to meet them. It’s his best chance.”
“You think he can make the journey to Schiaparelli crater?” asked Seneca.
“He made the journey to Pathfinder. I have every confidence he can modify the rovers to make a longer journey.”
Plutarch looked between the two men. “We can make the plans here and send them to him.”
“But if we do this…there’s no way for the crew to-They’d be in space for another, what? Year?” asked Johanna.
Haymitch’s face was sober. “A year and a half. I know it’d be a sacrifice. But I think we should ask them. This is truly Mellark’s best bet.”
“No,” said Seneca, “We’ll make the decision here.”
“They’d be for this!” Gale interjected. “I know it. If they knew there was a chance to save Mellark, they’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“We can’t ask them to do this, Gale. They are too close to the situation. We will make the decision and inform them when necessary.”
“We can’t NOT ask them!” Gale said.
“That’s enough, Gale,” said Seneca. He turned his attention back to Haymitch. “When do we need to decide?”
Haymitch double-checked his notes from Beetee. “If we decide to go for it, they’d have to start the burn to accelerate within the next thirty-three hours.”
“That doesn’t leave us much time,” Seneca said thoughtfully, “And if we don’t do this?”
“We crash-land protein bars on Mars and hope that not only will Mellark find them, but that they’ll be in some way edible,” said Haymitch.
Johanna leaned back in her chair and said, “Neither option is ideal.”
“I think sending the crew back is the better option,” said Plutarch.
“Better?” asked Seneca, “It’s risking five more lives for the sake of one. I’d say it’s more dangerous. We could have six dead astronauts.”
“So we waste billions of dollars on probes, overtime, and borrowed rockets for an astronaut we have no intention of saving?” Gale’s voice was heated.
“I do intend to save him. But I want it to be safe,” said Seneca evenly.
Gale shook his head. “Space travel is inherently not safe . They have been not-safe since they strapped their asses on the Delta IV that got them to the Hermes. They have been not-safe since they agreed to the program. They accepted that risk with their eyes wide open. We’re here, in this cozy office, with our feet grounded nice and secure on our planet, and we want to discuss the safety of people who have only millimeters of aluminum hull separating them from the cold void of space. It’s laughable. I can’t believe you won’t send them back to Mellark just to keep them ‘safe’!” Gale flung his arms out in a gesture of exasperation.
“Gale,” Haymitch warned.
“He’s right though,” mumbled Plutarch.
Seneca answered, “I’ve heard your position, Gale, but I have to think of everyone involved. This is a huge decision and I do not make it lightly.”
Gale scoffed, “Thinking of yourself and the bottom line no doubt.”
“Gale!” Haymitch warned again. “You’ve made your point.”
Gale pressed his lips in a thin line. His eyes smoldered. But he remained silent.
Seneca looked carefully at each person at the table. “Alright. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Meet back here tomorrow morning at nine and I’ll give you my decision then. In the meantime tell no one.”
They all left the room with grim expressions.
ATWOOD: I miss your doctor skills, especially when my back is out of whack.
Would you believe I miss your nagging? What I wouldn’t give for a 5 minute health interrogation from Dr. Rue Atwood. I'm drinking my water, taking my vitamins, and my bowel movements are normal. You know you’re the only person I can talk to comfortably about them? Other than my brothers, but that’s different...
Anyway, I think your folk music made my potatoes grow better. I wasn’t a fan before, but I’m definitely a fan now. I’m grateful for it. I’m pretty sure Commander Odair’s boy bands could be used as a form of torture.
I think you have got to be the sweetest, kindest person I have ever known. How you put up with all of us is beyond me. So please accept my heartfelt gratitude for that.
Thanks to your classic novel collection, when I get back to Earth, I'll be the king of book clubs. Take care of yourself. And be gentle with Somers.
The next morning: Johnson Space Center- Houston, Texas
It had been less than twenty-four hours, but already “Project Elrond” haunted the halls. There were whispers at the water coolers and conjecture in the break rooms. It’s purpose was shrouded in mystery, with only a handful of higher-ups in the know. Not even the admins had juicy info to share. It sounded ominous. Time and resources were running out for Mellark and this project was most definitely connected with him.
“No,” said Seneca.
“What?” Both Haymitch and Gale turned to Seneca.
“No. There are too many unknowns. I’m NOT going to risk five more astronauts for the sake of one.” Seneca shook his head. “We can’t do this.”
“There’s got to be a way. I know the crew would totally be on board. Whatever the outcome in the end,” said Gale.
“Another year away from their families? After all they’ve been through, for what might be a fool’s errand that could get them killed in the process? I can’t approve this,” Seneca insisted.
“So that’s it?” asked Gale.
“I want them home and safe. We’ll try the Taiyang-Shen for Mellark. It’s the best we can do.”
“You’re signing his death certificate,” Gale hissed.
“If I am, I am, we’ve done everything we could.”
“Gale,” Seneca said, exasperated.
“I say we let the crew decide. Mellark is their crewmate and their friend. They should at least know there’s an option to save him.”
“And I say, things have been stressful enough for them. We can’t put that burden on their shoulders. We don’t even know if the Hermes can make the trip. It’s always re-outfitted between trips to Mars and things are fixed, upgraded, replaced, restocked. They won’t be able to get those things.”
“We can load as much as we can on the Taiyeng-Shen. Supplies for Mellark and for them,” supplied Plutarch.
“Look. We can’t. We just can’t.There’s too much risk. That’s all.” Seneca was finished talking about this and packed up his briefcase.
Gale fumed. Haymitch slouched. Plutarch looked thoughtful. And Johanna huffed, “Well there goes Project fucking Elrond.”
Standing to his full height of well above six feet, Gale strode over to Seneca. His eyes were liquid mercury. Inches away, Gale spoke in a low voice that was all the more threatening because he wasn’t yelling, “You’re a coward. A goddamn coward.” He stormed out of the conference room and slammed the door.
Plutarch shut down his laptop. Johanna shouldered her tote and stood. Haymitch continued sitting, rubbing his temple.
Seneca looked around at them. “I’m really sorry about this guys.”
Johanna strode across the room and stopped to open the door. Her body tensed. Then she looked over her shoulder, and said, “I was hoping he’d kick your ass.”
Seneca’s adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard.
“If you had balls, we might be able to save Mellark.” And with that she left the room.
COMMANDER ODAIR: I've told you not to blame yourself, but if I know you, I bet you still do. Don’t. You did what you had to and that’s why you’re such a great commander. It was just bad luck.
But on a more serious note: the fuck is up with you and boy bands? I get the knots. I get the trident fetish and all because of your family’s fishing business, but boy bands? Seriously? Even ‘70’S disco would have been better.
I'm glad to have had you as my commander. You kept our rag tag crew shipshape and disciplined, which I’m sure is no easy feat. I wouldn’t want to fly with anyone else.
Give Annie and Ridley and Quinn my best.
Drink some unsweet tea for me ;)
Hermes- en route to Earth
“Come on dammit!” Marvel Reardon smacked the laptop that sat on his lap. Frustrated, he finally got up and went in search of Clove De La Rosa. Maybe she could fix it.
He knocked on the door to the bunk room she shared with Rue Atwood. “Hey, De La Rosa? Got a sec?”
“What, can't open a file?” She smirked at him and her green eyes flashed mischievously. Her hair was in a messy bun. She, like most of the others, had been getting ready for bed.
“Actually, yeah,” Marvel replied sheepishly.
“Did you try turning it off and back on again?”
“Ha-ha,” Marvel answered dryly. “But, yeah, seriously-I tried everything. It’s an email from my wife. Olivia says it’s ‘our son’. There’s no text, just an attachment, so I think it’s supposed to be a picture of him.”
“Well, I'll take a look.” She took the proffered laptop and set it on a small foldout tabletop. Marvel sat next to her, looking over her shoulder.
“Thanks, it’s just, it wouldn't be so important, but it's him . Zach's only 3 now. Seems he changes a little every time I see him.”
“This is weird...” Clove said as she attempted to pull up the file attachment on Marvel’s e-mail.
“He's riding a bike now...” Marvel continued oblivious to De La Rosa’s comment.
“Something’s off with the code. I’m going to pull up the hex editor.”
“It's one of those kinds they make without pedals.”
“He can balance real well now Liv says. He gets up to speed, picks up his feet, and just glides,” Reardon finished wistfully. His hand swooped through the air mimicking the motion.
“Oh that's great! Wait...that's not...” Marvel gazed at the screen, puzzled.
“No. It isn't.”
“Then what is it?”
“A message. Commander Odair should see this.”
The group sat around the table in the rec room. Marvel shared the message with the crew and had Thresh interpret the flight equations embedded in it.
“We have a chance to rescue Mellark?” asked Rue Atwood.
“That's about the sum of it.” Commander Odair leaned back in his chair his arms crossed over his chest.
“I'm in,” said Reardon without hesitation.
“Me too,” joined Somers.
“I'll do it,” said Atwood.
“Why the fuck not?” said De La Rosa.
“Well, hang on now...we can talk this over. It's a huge commitment and-”
“This is Mellark! Hell yeah I'm going back!” said Reardon, “He's my best friend. I wouldn’t be able to face my family or live with myself if I’ve turned my back on him. I'll do it. I'll go back.”
“Same here,” said Thresh.
“We’re going to be going against orders. You know what that means right?”
De La Rosa smirked. “It means I’ve got to get the Hermes on manual mode-100% in our control. There are at least three layers of redundancy I’ll have to defeat.
“In the event of our…death, Mission Control has a backdoor that will allow them to take over the Hermes and get it back to Earth. But it’s an emergency feature and not protected from malicious code.” Her eyes sparkled at the implications.
“You’ll be a hacker?” said Atwood.
“Wouldn’t be the first time.” Clove said with a mysterious smile.
“Really?” asked Somers, intrigued.
“Yeah, just this one time in high school. Grade manipulation. Nothing big.” She waved a hand dismissively in the air as if defeating county school system and rigging grades for her junior class were some inconsequential thing.
“Okaaay,” said Odair, “But it also means we’ll face consequences when we get back. This is mutiny. Plain and simple. We’ll never fly again. Are you sure you’re okay with that?”
There were nods all around. Odair couldn’t help the smile that curled up the edges of his lips. He should have guessed they’d vote to go back. Unanimous. Without hesitation. Damn the consequences.
He’d really lucked out with this crew. He’d been a Navy man and an astronaut for a long time and this was the tightest-knit crew he’d ever commanded. And Mellark had a lot to do with that. There was no way in hell he’d leave him to die on that rock if there was a chance to save him.
They were going back.
They were going to hack the computers and mutiny.
Space pirates indeed.
“We have twelve hours till burn. If you change your mind or whatever, you need to say so before then. Send me a private message. We’ll scrub the Beetee Latier Maneuver and continue home. I’ll never reveal your identity to the rest of the crew. Give it some serious thought. Once we do this there's no take-backs. Got that?”
There were solemn nods all around.
But if Finnick knew his crew like he thought he did, he knew no one would change their minds so he wasn’t surprised when the next morning the crew was all in place in the cockpit to begin the burn that would take them back to Mars and to Mellark.
“Hang in there Mellark,” Finnick said under his breath, “We’re coming. Just hang on.”
Mission Control- Houston, Texas
Gale entered Mission Control and observed the scene unfolding before him. The room, normally the picture of organization and order, was a hive of activity. Controllers called out to one another. A group huddled around a central console pointing and gesturing, clearly frustrated.
Greg Ellis, flight director for White Team ripped his headset off, flung it on the table, and rubbed his face. His shoulders sagged under an unseen weight. His brown hair was disheveled as though he’d been raking his hands through it and tugging at it. He looked up and spied Gale.
Gale saw the man heading his way and braced himself. The scene before him could be for any number of reasons, but he hoped-
“Gale!” Greg called as he neared. Up close Gale could tell the man looked tired. They’d had a long night by the looks of it. “You won’t believe what’s happened. We’ve been working all night to correct it, but nothing…nothing’s worked.” Greg shook his head despondently.
“What is it? What’s happened, Greg?” Gale asked, a knot beginning to form in the pit of his stomach. Maybe something bad had happened.
They walked together to the flight director console. Greg gestured at the console as if it held the answers. “We can’t get in. We can’t fix it. We can’t get them back. It’s going to be too late.”
Gale was getting frustrated with the other flight director’s gibberish.
“What. Happened. Greg.” Gale grit out.
Greg looked up at the imposing figure of Gale next to him and seemed to collect himself and bent over the console. He scrolled up through the communications log, back to the transmission that started it all.
“Here. At two a.m. we got this.” He pointed at the screen. “It was an unscheduled communication and completely cryptic.”
Gale read the message. “Houston, be advised: Bernard Latier is a steely-eyed missile man.” And he felt the tension coiled in the pit of his stomach begin to dissipate.
Continuing, Greg said, “And right after that, the Hermes went through a 27.8-degree rotation and fired thrusters for two minutes and forty-two seconds. We sent them a message, but they didn’t reply. We tried to correct their course adjustment, but we were blocked. We can’t get into any one of the three systems. Our guys are trying to write a code to hack back into the Hermes, but they haven’t been successful. If they continue on this trajectory…they won’t be able to slow down in time. They won’t be able to return to Earth.” Greg slumped tiredly into the seat.
Gale couldn't stop the smile that spread across his face. They got the message. They were going back. “Well I’ll be damned.”
Greg turned around and looked at him. He noted the lack of concern on the other flight director’s features.
Gale said, “They seem to be fine. Don’t worry about them, Greg. Everything’s going to be fine. More than fine.” And with that, Gale put on his headset. The rest of Blue Team filtered in for the shift-change.
Greg was baffled and wondered if he just dreamed it all, until he looked at the monitors again and the data coming in was undeniable. Hermes had made a deliberate course adjustment. What were they up to? What did Gale know that he didn’t? And what did Bernard Fucking Latier have to do with all of it?
After a longer than usual overlap as Blue Team and White Team exchanged information, the White Team filed out drained and exhausted.
With his hand on the door knob, Greg turned back to Gale and said curiously, “You knew, didn’t you?”
Gale looked up from the console. He answered, “Don’t worry about it, Greg.” His tone was clipped, terse, final.
Greg nodded. “Just tell me one thing. Who is Bernard Latier?”
Gale’s eyes were sharp as flint and his lips were pressed in a grim line. “A hero.”
Johnson Space Center- Houston, Texas
Seneca shut the door behind Gale then moved back to his desk. He stared at the tall, dark man sitting across from him. Gale stared back, his steel grey eyes giving away nothing. Then after long consideration, Seneca asked, “Why’d you do it Gale?”
“Do what?” asked Gale, the picture of wide-eyed innocence.
“I know it was you. Don’t you bait me. I don’t know how you sent them that maneuver, But-”
“So what you’re saying is you don’t have any proof.”
“We’re going to figure out how you did it.”
“Well, whatever I allegedly did, do you think that is the best use of your time? I mean, you’ve got a near-Earth resupply to plan, two rovers and a MAV to modify, and an astronaut to rescue.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You’re swamped.”
“You’re making jokes.” Seneca’s hard blue gaze pinned Gale to his seat. “You may have killed them all.”
“Regardless of who sent the… information , the Commander and the crew made the decision to go back.”
“It’s too risky and they were too close emotionally to make a rational decision. That’s why we were supposed to make the decision for them.” Seneca bit out.
“If Commander Odair let emotion cloud his judgment then he’d be a shitty commander, and he is not a shitty commander.”
“If they all die-” Seneca pointed at Gale. “That will be on your hands.”
Gale looked smug. “And if they didn’t do it and Mellark died that’d be on yours.” He leaned back in the chair and stretched his long legs in front of him. “What’s done is done as far as I can tell and this is a waste of time. I suppose you’ll have Johanna tell the press that this was all NASA’s plan.”
“Yes. We can’t have insubordination on the inside and crew mutiny in space. We’d look ridiculous.”
“So I don’t see what the problem is. You’ll look like a hero.”
Seneca shook is head and scoffed. “I desire no credit for such a reckless stunt.” Gale rolled his eyes. Seneca rose from his chair, smoothing his tie, and strode over to the door. “I’m going to figure out how you did it and when I do I’ll be sure you are summarily fired.” He opened the door signifying the meeting was over.
“Okay,” said Gale, holding his hands up in a placating gesture as he rose from his chair, “I’ll agree it’s a huge risk they are taking on. And whoever sent them the course equations was taking a risk.”
He paused at the door and looked back at Seneca. “But if I wasn’t willing to take a risk to save lives…well…I’d be you.”
Mars- Sol 192
JPL: Good news boy! It’s too early to pack your bags, but we’ve got a plan to get you off of that rock.
Peeta: I’m all ears. And hands. And feet. And…well…other things. Anyway, I’m definitely interested in knowing more. What’s the plan?
JPL: We got a second chance to send you a resupply, but instead of landing it on Mars, it’s going to rendezvous with the Hermes. They’re coming back to get you boy. The decision was unanimous.
Peeta: So what do you need me to do?
JPL: We’ll be sending you plans as soon as we finish them. You’re going to have to modify the rovers. You’re going to Schiaparelli, boy! Don’t worry, you still have plenty of time.
Peeta: When will they get here?
JPL: Sol 549, according the the calculations of a very intrepid astrodynamicist, Beetee Latier.
Peeta: Wow, this really is good news! Thanks Haymitch! And tell Beetee thanks for me too.
They were coming back. They were coming back to get him. Peeta leaned back in the seat and looked out over the nearly monochromatic rust-red landscape spotted with darker basalt. He might actually make it after all. A grin spread slowly across his face until he was sure he was smiling like an idiot. He whooped and chuckled to himself all the way back to the Hab. He turned around at the airlock and flipped off the whole planet. “Fuck you Mars. I’m outta here. Gimme 357 Sols and I’m fucking outta here!”
EVERLARK NEXT CHAPTER!!! This author thanks you for your patience.
Also, major thanks go to my beta @greenwool who helps me whip my chapters into shape, my hubs who pre-reads and helps with wordsmithing and sciencing the shit out of this, to @AlwaysEverlark who made an amazing banner for this fic you can see on my tumblr, kleeklutch(dot)tumblr(dot)com, and to all the awesome people who comment on every chapter. I read each and every one of your comments and enjoy them so much. I get back to as many as I can.
Songs for this chapter are: 1. Killers- Flesh and Bone, 2. Linkin Park- Leave Out all the Rest, 3. Linkin Park- Final Masquerade, 4. Starset- Halo, 5. Lifehouse- Halfway Gone, 6. Really Slow Motion- Suns and Stars