After all of the jumping around and cheering and hugging was done, Mindy Park sat back down and pulled up her satellite imagery again. If there was one thing that made the glorious PR director Annie Montrose happy it was pictures, and no one would have better pictures of Mark Watney's dramatic rescue than Mindy's satellites.
First things first, none of the satellites had been affected by the Hermes' maneuvering shenanigans or the Ares 4 MAV's stumbling launch. Orbital corrections might not be her current area of responsibility, but she felt vaguely proprietary after all of this time.
Next up, she looked through all of the photographs from the time of the launch, flagging the best ones as she went. She thought she actually had one of the canvas "nose" of the MAV ripping free. She sent that one to image enhancement along with an early photograph of the engines starting during the launch and two of the set angled away from Mars which had caught the Hermes. There were a number of lovely but empty starscapes of the region where the projected MAV orbit would have been, but none of the satellites had been angled correctly for the MAV in its actual orbit or for Beck's EVA to retrieve Watney. It would have to do.
She typed up a short summary for the usual crowd, sent it off, and was finishing up a more detailed one for Annie when her email pinged in a reply to the summary. It was from Venkat and said only "Conference Room 3!", so she sent the details to Annie, closed down the secondary station where she'd been working, and headed over. She didn't remember a meeting being scheduled, but maybe someone had forgotten to put her on the invite, or maybe a telemetry question had come up.
When she reached the conference room doorway, though, a woman whose name she couldn't remember -- someone from one of the guidance systems? -- stumbled out into the hallway with a bottle of champagne and a stack of plastic cups. Deftly she poured some and deposited the cup in Mindy's hands, then belched and yelled "Woohoo!"
"Woohoo!" yelled a whole lot of people in the room. Somebody was playing unidentifiable music on tiny speakers.
Mindy peered in, wondering if Venkat had meant some other room 3, but there he was, plastic cup in hand, in the middle of the crowd. "Mindy!" he called. "Come on, celebrate! You drink, right?"
Mindy took an obliging gulp of her champagne and then had to cough as it bubbled up her nose. "I do," she managed to say, and Venkat grinned.
"To the photogenic Mark Watney!" he said, raising his cup.
"Mark Watney!" yelled everyone who had heard him.
Mindy took a more cautious sip and then raised her own cup. "To the Ares missions!" she said as loudly as she dared.
"To Ares!" people yelled, and Mindy felt the warm glow of success.
Venkat fumbled to answer his phone, listened for a minute, then covered the receiver with his thumb and called to Mindy, "How long until the enhanced images are ready?"
Mindy pulled out her own phone and refreshed her email. "They're there now," she said, seeing the notification. "I guess everyone's still excited."
Venkat nodded his thanks. "You can get them now, Annie," he said. "No, because the MAV orbit was too low. Mm-hmm. Yes, but not in this news cycle. Okay. Okay." He tucked his phone away, found another bottle, and topped up Mindy's cup. She could see piles of party food on the conference table: not the usual uninspiring catering, but the sort of thing people might have been stashing in their desk drawers: candy bars, dried fruit, espresso beans, and other essential junk foods. Probably all of the catering was wherever Annie was still managing the news. Mindy pulled her peanut butter cups out of her purse and swapped them for one of the choco pies someone had given.
Venkat's phone rang again, and Mindy saw with surprise the way his face lit up as he answered it. "Hello, darling!" he said. "Yes, it's all true. I know! Me too. Yes. Probably not until late, sorry. Yes, I hope so. Love you too!" He put his phone away again and said to Mindy, "My wife's been looking forward to this day for months."
Mindy raised her cup to him. "To what passes for normal schedules around here," she said, and Venkat clunked his cup into hers.
"Hear hear," he said.
"This is CNN's Mark Watney Report. Less than a day after his dramatic rescue, Mark Watney himself has recorded a message from the Hermes for us."
The screen goes dark and then, in a dramatic burst of static, shows the head and shoulders of a thin, pale man against a backdrop of white struts and stars. He beams and waves at the camera.
"Greetings, Earthlings!" he says. "My name is Mark Watney, first Mars colonist! I'm looking forward to my journey to your beautiful planet." He laughs. "I am so glad to be coming home to Earth, you know, it's amazing. What's even more amazing is just how many people worked so hard to get me here. I owe you my life," and he chokes up for a minute. "Thank you," he says. "Earth is definitely my favorite planet and it's all because of you guys. Well, and the life-sustaining climate and the food. But mostly the people."
Watney looks to the side and then back at the camera. "I'm sure you folks are looking forward to hearing my tales of Martian derring-do! Don't worry, I have some great stories to tell you all. My data allotment is already up for today, but I am going to tell you everything, I promise. See you soon, Earth!" He waves again as the video disappears in another dramatic cut.
"Astronaut Mark Watney, ladies and gentlemen, alive and well!"
Venkat leaned against her console and offered a coffee which Mindy took eagerly. She popped the lid off of it and chugged half.
"Reacclimation going well, I take it?" he asked.
"Oh, uh, thanks," Mindy said belatedly. "And yeah, I'm fine. It's like jet lag, but...space jet lag, so it's cooler."
"And how's Mars?" Venkat gestured toward her screens.
"Everything is exactly where it was last time I looked," Mindy said fervently. She gulped the rest of the coffee. "That's good, right? There shouldn't be anything down there anymore. I mean, aside from the rovers and the leftover equipment from the Ares missions and all that."
"That's good," Venkat said, and Mindy relaxed into her seat. "Thanks for checking, though."
"Yeah," Mindy said. Was this awkward? Venkat was usually too intense to be awkward.
"Look, we should go out for coffee sometime soon," he said. "Real coffee, by which I mean no more than ten percent coffee by volume." Mindy laughed obligingly, trying to work out what he was getting at. "I'd like to spend some time talking with you about your career. Now that your mornings are actually in the morning again, do you want to meet up at the good coffee shop across the parkway?"
"Wow," Mindy said. "Yeah, definitely. I could definitely have some coffee and talk about my career in things other than staring at photographs of astronauts."
"So here's the thing," Venkat said.
"I don't like the sound of this."
"The thing," Venkat said, "is that when you had to stare at a photograph of an astronaut, you studied mission records, learned Morse code, and collaborated with the NSA in order to understand what you were staring at."
"I'm not saying it wasn't interesting stuff," Mindy said. "Especially now that we know he, you know, won't die."
"What I am saying is that you acted intelligently and decisively in a high-stress environment, and that's what we need in NASA leadership," Venkat said.
Mindy put her coffee down. "Leadership?" she echoed.
"Yup." Venkat thumbed through his calendar. "Thursday work for you? Half an hour early?"
"Um," she said. This was not where she expected this to go, but hey, at least she could get her advice over coffee instead of by antiquated camera rotation. What would Mark Watney do? she asked herself, and said decisively to Venkat, "That would be super!"
"Here," Venkat said, holding out his phone, and she tapped it with her phone to formally accept the meeting invite.
"Got it. Space mentor powers, activate!"
"You are way too young for that reference," Venkat said. "I know that because I'm too young for that reference."
"You're too old for that reference," she told him. "It's hip again but you missed the window."
Venkat threw up his hands. "I'll see you on Thursday," he said, and stalked out.
"Space mentor!" Mindy told herself gleefully. "Space mentor!"
"This is CNN's Mark Watney Report. Today we are going to play for you a brief interview with Mark Watney himself. Because the Hermes is still close to Mars, we are not able to interview him live. The following is a recording edited for clarity."
Two pictures cover the screen. On the left is a NASA publicity photo of Mark Watney in his flight suit minus helmet looking hale and hearty. On the right is one of the newer photographs released of Mark Watney floating on the deck of the Hermes looking gaunt and pale and just as cheerful as in the earlier photo.
Audio begins: "Hello, Mark. My name is Cathy Warner, with CNN's Mark Watney Report. Thank you for speaking with us today."
"I heard I was big news," says Mark Watney's voice, "but you're doing a whole report just on me personally?"
It's clear that the audio engineers have worked hard to match the levels on the two audio tracks, but Cathy's is still noticeably cleaner. "Mark, we do a whole report on you every weekday."
There's a low whistle. "I guess I should be all modest here, but having spent an awfully long time recently with nobody to talk to except myself I have to say that I really am that great of a conversation topic, it's true. So what are we talking about today, Cathy? I assume your viewers already have the facts from NASA, right?"
"That's right. We have the facts and now we're looking for the stories. Can you tell us what a typical Mars day was like for you, beyond the potatoes and the dreaded disco?"
"Hah, that sounds like a great title for an autobiography, doesn't it? Well, the Ares missions are scientific at heart. I couldn't cover everyone's areas of expertise, of course, but there were a number of experiments which I could run by myself to continue the mission. Remember we aborted the mission on Sol 6, so there were 24 sols' worth of things left for six people to do. And I'm the first person to live on another planet for over a year, so I like to think that the scientific community gained a lot of knowledge from my little accident. Also I watched a lot of old TV shows."
"Your contributions to science have been amazing, Mark, but I have to ask: what sort of TV show do you pack for a mission to Mars? Sci-fi?"
"Oh, they weren't mine. Like an idiot I left my own personal allotment up on the Hermes. I thought, 'Oh, I won't be down there for long and I'll be busy the whole time.' You'd better believe I regretted that. No, Commander Lewis had a huge stash of TV from the nineteen-seventies. It was amazing, and by amazing I mean mentally scarring. I brought sci-fi, and it's got to still be on board somewhere. I should make her sit down and watch it with me."
"That does sound like a fair exchange. Well, we're out of time for today, but I hope we'll be able to talk again soon."
"Looking forward to it, Cathy. Thanks for calling."
The pictures disappear, showing Cathy in the studio again. "There you have it, folks," she says. "Always bring your own entertainment when travelling to another planet."
Annie frowned at Mindy when she followed Venkat into the meeting. It was a faint frown, but that was still enough to be terrifying.
Thankfully, Venkat immediately said, "She's shadowing me today."
Annie nodded. Brendan Hutch, sitting next to Mitch Henderson, held out a hand to her and introduced himself.
"Mindy Park," she said, shaking his hand. "SatCon, when I'm not being a shadow."
"Ah, I've heard of you," Brendan said. "You're the one who first realized Mark was still alive, weren't you?"
"That was me," she said with a polite smile.
"Good work," he said.
"Thanks," she said, and then everyone had to sit down as several more people came in.
"Okay," said Venkat. "Let's talk about the rest of the Ares 3 mission. Dr. Keller, how is Mark Watney's recovery going?"
"Dr. Beck reports that Watney's two month checkup shows no problems with the healing in his ribs, so at this point we're mostly concerned with the starvation aftereffects," Dr. Keller began.
Mindy took out her tablet and stylus for note-taking. Venkat took his own notes when he needed them; these were for Mindy so that she would remember what questions to ask him, Venkat had said. Venkat asked the flight surgeon a clarifying question about Watney's recovery time in varying gravities, then another about his return to light versus full duty. Then Annie asked a question about the long-term complications Watney might experience.
Most of the people at the table were just listening carefully. Annie was jotting down specific points and across the table Mindy could see that Brendan was also taking fairly extensive notes. She wondered if he was here on his own recognizance or if he was also being a shadow, probably Mitch's.
At the end of the meeting Mindy made a final note to herself: 'M.H. Ares 4???' Mitch had been named as the flight controller for Ares 4 as well as 3, but now Mindy was wondering if he was planning to step down after Ares 3 landed. She would have thought that his star would be riding high from the successful rescue, but maybe the stress was getting to him at last. Or maybe it was politics again, ugh. For a guy with a physics doctorate and a lifelong obsession with Jupiter, Venkat spent a lot of time dealing with politics.
("Jupiter?" she'd asked. "Not Mars?"
"Well, all of the planets, of course. And Pluto and assorted asteroids and comets. But there was just something about all of those moons.")
"Brendan, Mindy, stay for a minute," Venkat said as everyone was leaving.
"Right," Mitch said. "Okay, you two, we're going to swap for the rest of the day. Mindy, come with me." Venkat nodded at her and sat down next to Brendan.
Mindy hurried after Mitch as he strode out of the room. "So," he said to her, "flight control. What's your first question for me?"
"Uh," Mindy said, clutching her tablet self-consciously and wondering if he'd been reading her notes as she took them. She took a deep breath. "So, are you still planning to be the flight controller for Ares 4?"
Mitch stopped in the hall and stared at her, then abruptly started laughing. "Yeah, you sure are Venkat's latest project, aren't you. I can totally see it." He walked off down the hall without answering her question and she had to jump to catch up with him again. "Let's talk about the history of the flight checklist."
"This is CNN's Special Report Series on Mark Watney and the Ares 3 Mission. Today we have another interview with Mark Watney for our viewers. While the Hermes is closing in on Earth daily, we are still not able to interview him live yet. The following is a recording edited for clarity."
Two pictures flash up on the screen. On the left is the familiar waving astronaut in his flight suit. On the right is a new picture of Watney, still floating on the Hermes but looking very nearly healthy.
"Hello, Mark. Thanks for talking with us again. Last time you joined us we discussed your dramatic trek through the dust storm to reach the Ares 4 site in Schiaparelli Crater. Do you want to tell us how it felt to reach your destination at last?"
"Sure, Cathy," Mark says. "Seeing that ascent vehicle waiting there for me was what really brought everything into focus. Everything up to that point had been about surviving on Mars, but suddenly I had a new task: surviving getting off of Mars."
"I understand that your flight from Mars to the Hermes was quite dangerous. Were you confident in your part of it?"
"By the time the danger was happening, my part was done, really. I just needed to get the upgrade package to a ragtop convertible and sit in the chair. It was all in Martinez's hands at that point and his piloting had saved my life once on this trip already so yeah, I felt pretty confident."
"Major Martinez saved your life during the mission? Can you tell us about that?"
"Sure. You see, the descent vehicle we used on Sol 1 needed enough fuel to get us down to Mars in the first place, which means enough for the landing and also enough for any unexpected maneuvering we'd have to do to stick that landing. The thing is, Martinez landed us on a Martian dime. Boom! Right into the sweet spot the first try. That means there was plenty of extra fuel left for me to scavenge later. I turned that fuel into water for my crops and then I turned the leftovers back into rocket fuel for liftoff. Don't tell him I said that, though. Just because his piloting is frickin' perfect every time doesn't mean he should get a big head about it."
"No promises on that one, Mark. It's great that you have such trust in your crewmates."
"These are a great bunch of people. Me included, of course! That's a big part of NASA's training, right, learning to trust your fellow astronauts in flight. We may all be a bunch of hardcore individualists, me included, of course, but when we're up here we know we can count on each other. I mean, Commander Lewis got this gang of nutters to turn around and come all the way back to Mars just to get me, you know?"
"We're all glad to have a happy ending to this story. Mark, thanks again for chatting with us. We're all looking forward to hearing more of your story next time."
Cathy smiles into the camera once again. "The whole Ares 3 crew are to be congratulated again on a successful mission in spite of truly staggering difficulties. And remember, next week we will be passing along viewers' questions to that crew, so be sure to call the number on the screen to let us know what you want to hear."
Mindy dropped into the spare chair in Venkat's office and sighed. "I thought I was done with squinting at photographs of Mars rocks," she said.
"None of us on Ares are ever going to be done squinting at photographs of Mars rocks," Venkat told her. "How are discussions of the alternate Ares 4 sites going?"
"We're going to start launching presupplies--" Mindy started, and then corrected herself: "I mean, you are. They are. The Ares 4 presupply team will be."
Venkat waved her corrections off. "Go ahead and say 'we'," he told her. "Don't worry, I'll give you plenty to do to keep you involved."
"Well then," Mindy said, "We're going to be tossing those presupplies across the solar system in a couple of months and they -- the Ares 4 site team and I'm definitely not one of them -- they're still arguing over the new site, the one near Watney's Entrance Crater."
"You haven't talked them out of it?" Venkat said.
"I'm just telemetry," Mindy reminded him. "I met with the site team to go over the sheer volume of orbital reconnaissance already done for the original landing and how we just don't have that much detail yet on the proposed site, but they aren't really interested in my opinions on the other factors and a lot of those are more important for the final decision."
"Who's on which side?"
"Stephanie and Eugene are still in favor of the old site. Rebecca's the one who has been making the strongest case for shifting northward and she's been swaying most of the others. She does have a point that landing at the original site risks running afoul of the first MAV's landing struts."
"Not to mention that Watney left behind an amazing range of samples that we'd like to be able to collect," Venkat said.
"Yes, but he deliberately left them a quarter kilometer out from the MAV," Mindy said. "Assuming a clean landing, they aren't in any danger."
"Assuming a clean landing, yes," Venkat said.
"Okay, but it doesn't have to be all that clean," Mindy said. "The angle the presupplies will be coming in, there's less than a tenth of a percent chance of impacting near his sample site."
"Yeah?" Venkat said. He leaned back toward his laptop and typed that in. "That's good. But we're also going to need to put down a new MAV and we're not going to have Martinez or anyone else in orbit this time to set it down with realtime pilot controls."
"We put down the MAV for Ares 1 without a pilot right there," Mindy pointed out. "And it was within 112 meters of the target. Or we could actually send the new MAV with Ares 4 and have the pilot -- Lu, right? -- have him land the MAV before taking the MDV down."
"We considered that," Venkat said. "It's a higher risk of scrubbing the mission if anything fails, though. It puts the whole crew through a dangerous spaceflight with no reward at the end of it."
"We could send them with two," Mindy suggested. "If one fails, the second one might work. And if the first one works, there's Ares 5's MAV already in place."
The corner of Venkat's mouth ticked up. "Yes, we're actually still discussing that possibility."
"I'm not thinking of anything new, huh," Mindy said.
"It's new to you," Venkat said. "It shows you're synthesizing the information and coming up with good questions."
Mindy blushed with pleasure.
Mark is freshly scrubbed and stuffed into a clean jumpsuit for their first post-landing press conference. He steps up to the podium, waits for the screaming to recede a bit, and says into the microphone, "Hello, I'm Astronaut Mark Watney and I'm really glad to be home." More screaming. "You love me, you really love me," Mark says, wiping at an imaginary tear.
"Marry me, Mark!" someone in the audience yells.
"Wow," he says. "Wow, uh, maybe we should start with dinner first. Take me somewhere that serves zero potatoes and ask me again; I'll probably say yes."
Annie Montrose leans toward Mark and speaks too low for the microphone to pick up.
"Okay," Mark says, "apparently I'm supposed to make some professional remarks now, but I'm really not sure what the professional way to say 'I love everyone in this bar' is, so I'm just going to have to wing it. I've been told that some crazy number of people all over the planet were involved with getting me home, and here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to meet every single one of those people, shake their hands, and look them in the eye when I say thank you. That's my plan."
Mark steps up to the podium, waits for the screaming to recede a bit, and says into the microphone, "Hello, I'm Astronaut Mark Watney and I'm really glad to be home." More screaming.
"Jeez," said Mindy. She huffed at the TV above the bar. "The same clip, over and over," she grumbled, and Venkat twisted in his chair to see what she was complaining about. "It's like he's the fifth Beatle or something."
"I'm pretty sure that that reference actually pre-dates NASA," Venkat told her.
Mindy blinked. "1961, first Mercury launch," she said. "And the Beatles weren't really big until the mid-sixties or something."
Venkat saluted her with his lemonade. "I suppose your trivia could be worse," he said. "It could be disco."
"Could be disco!" echoed Mindy, clinking her iced tea. "So, hey, is Watney actually going to come around and shake everyone's hand or was that just a PR thing?"
"Both, definitely both. Which I'm pretty sure he didn't realize when he said it," Venkat said, sounding smug. "It's one thing to hear that people all over the globe were working on this and another entirely to be handed a publicity tour schedule that's booked out for the next three years instead of the typical six months."
"Sheesh," Mindy said. "But when's he getting to us?"
"Looking for your moment in the sun?" Venkat teased.
"You know, given that the Taiyang Shen was supposed to be a solar mission, that's a bit insensitive," Mindy said.
"Could be worse. Remember when Mark called Iris the 'gay probe' on the Pathfinder connection we were broadcasting to the world?"
"Ugh," Mindy said. "So, um. Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier in the mentoring thing but it's not supposed to be an issue but then again," and she flapped a hand toward the TV.
Venkat raised his eyebrows. "Mentioned what?"
"I'm bisexual," Mindy blurted.
"Huh," Venkat said. "Me too."
"You are?" Mindy said. "Wait, what?"
"It's not supposed to be an issue," Venkat reminded her.
"True. So. That's cool," Mindy said, sure that her face was bright red. She bit down on a sarcastic comment on how often things went how they were supposed to go. "So. Watney?"
Venkat clearly took pity on her and said, "He's still in Washington shaking the hands of American politicians. There are a whole lot of people who kept us funded this election cycle and they all want their photo ops."
"I'm not sure that's who he meant with all of those thank yous," Mindy said.
"I know it's not as cool as orbital mechanics," Venkat said, "but it's just as necessary if we want to keep our space programs running."
Mindy stared at the tablecloth. "I know," she mumbled apologetically.
"How many years did we spend without a human on the surface of Earth's moon once we proved we could do it?" Venkat persisted. "No, I don't need the number. We both know it. But that wasn't for want of scientific expertise."
"I know," Mindy said again. "I just think it probably sucks for Watney."
"Well, next he gets to go to JPL for the Pathfinder team and then it's off to Beijing and Jiuquan."
"Just the Pathfinder team?" Mindy said. "Is that a slap in the face of the Iris 1 team?"
Venkat waggled his hand. "Sort of, but not really. He'll come back for them after meeting the Tiayang Shen team and meet Iris 1 and 2 at the same time. It was mostly the same people. He's getting Pathfinder first because several of those people had actually left NASA for other things or to retire."
"You know, Annie Montrose is an amazing woman and I would not want her job for anything in the world," Mindy said. "And as much as Mark Watney has been my hero and my inspiration and all that, right now I would not take his job either."
"You and me both, my friend," Venkat said.
Mark throws his arms wide and cries, "Home sweet Houston, how I've missed you!"
Mindy tossed the remains of her half-eaten lunch in the trash and milled aimlessly around the lunchroom. Everyone was supposed to be working normally while Watney came around and toured the facility where he'd practically lived for several years. Work was getting done, but the atmosphere was hardly what Mindy would call normal. She decided that another cup of coffee would probably help.
Rich Purnell was standing next to the good coffee maker waiting for it to finish brewing. Mindy grabbed a mug and went to stand with him. "Excited?" she asked.
Rich looked puzzled. "No, these orbital calculations are routine," he said.
"I mean about Watney visiting," she said.
"Oh!" Rich said. "Is that today? I remember the memo about it. That explains a lot."
"Yup!" she said. "I'm surprised they didn't line you up for the management shindig this morning. Rich Purnell, the steely-eyed missile man."
"I wouldn't want that," Rich said. "That sounds like a crowd. I don't like crowds."
"It was a crowd, you're right," Mindy said.
He peered at her. "Are you management? I don't recognize you. I'm sorry if I should."
"No, I'm sorry," Mindy said. "I forgot to introduce myself and I'm not famous like you. Mindy Park, CATO for Ares 4."
"Rich Purnell, astrodynamicist." He stuck out a hand and Mindy shook it automatically.
"Does Venkat know you don't like crowds?" Mindy asked.
Rich tipped his head. "He might," he said. "He knows a lot of things."
"Did you tell him?" she asked.
"No, I didn't," Rich said.
"I'll talk to Venkat and make sure he knows," Mindy promised. "Mark Watney will definitely want to meet you, but he wouldn't want you to be uncomfortable for it."
"That's good," Rich said. "But I already met Alex Vogel and talked to him about the course I calculated for Ares 3. Mark Watney was also an Ares 3 astronaut and I don't think he will have any new questions."
"Probably not," Mindy said, "but it would make him happy to meet you anyway."
Rich thought about that. "All right," he said.
"The coffee's ready now," Mindy pointed out.
"Thank you," Rich said. He poured both of them a mug and walked away.
Mindy set off toward Venkat's office, grateful for something to do. Halfway there she ran into Venkat and Watney walking together. Venkat stopped Watney and gestured toward Mindy with a smile.
Mark beams. "Ms. Park!" he calls. "We meet at last!" He shakes her hand and then throws a conspiratorial arm around her shoulders. "Do you know what we need?" he asked. "We need to take a selfie together."
Mindy laughs in delight. "Wow, we really do," she says, and she pulls out her phone and snaps a picture right there.