Blair Ortega had never expected the Ares IV mission to Mars to be easy. A pragmatic man practically from the time he was born, Blair had always approached life as a challenge to be overcome, and Mars had been no different.
He'd never been swept away by the idealistic fantasy of the dashing astronaut hero.
Part of that was a product of growing up in a military home under the parental guidance of a very logical, no-nonsense Navy father. Blair's father had never been one to shield his son from the realities of life, especially not after the death of Blair's mother.
Blair didn't resent his father for his strict upbringing, not the way many children in similar situations did.
He'd always found that his father's pragmatism made more sense than anything else, and had imbued him with a steady disposition that helped him excel when he joined the Navy.
The Navy was where he'd originally met Melissa Lewis. They'd never been close, her serving on a submarine and he on an aircraft carrier, but their ships had been based in the same port. They'd become casual acquaintances over early morning coffee, but hadn't kept in touch when Blair left life on a ship for life as a test pilot.
It hadn't been until Blair joined NASA, only a few weeks before the Ares III launch, that they'd reconnected. It had been surprisingly easy to build a casual friendship, and Blair had been looking forward continuing that friendship when Lewis returned to Earth.
Then the Ares III disaster had happened, and the Melissa Lewis that returned to Earth was not the same as the one who left.
On the outside, she had been the same competent, collected commander that everyone knew, but Blair, experienced at seeing underneath military masks, had seen the devastation inside.
He had seen the way she withdrew, the way she put up even more walls than usual, the way she constantly, silently battled with the terrible what ifs. She'd lost a member of her crew, and no matter how many review boards and NASA planners concluded that she'd made the right decision, Watney had been someone under Lewis's responsibility and he'd died on her watch.
He'd seen the weight of his loss bend her shoulders every day since she'd come back from Mars.
He had no idea how badly the news that she'd left Watney behind alive was going to hit her.
But he knew it was going to be rough.
Seated in front of the computer operations desk with the hum of the Hab's machinery in his ears, he let himself have a quiet moment to breath then firmly pushed his worries from his mind. There was nothing he could do about them now. Earth was a long way away and there were much more important things to think about.
And most of them had to do with Mark Watney.
The rest of the crew, he knew, was still firmly contemplating the miracle of Watney's survival.
Well, he amended to himself, Newman would be more concerned with Watney's physical condition than anything else.
But the rest of the crew hadn't yet thought beyond their astonishing discovery. He could see them across the Hab — Dale, Fowler, and Griffith — clustered together and casting looks towards the curtained-off medical area with astonished smiles on their faces. They were riding the high of Watney's return from the dead.
They hadn't yet considered how complicated their mission was about to get. Disregarding Watney's physical condition — and Blair didn't have to be a doctor to know that it was very very bad — their mission now had to accommodate seven astronauts instead of six.
And somehow, they had to find a way to get all seven of them off this planet in a vehicle only designed to carry six.
A vehicle that also hadn't been designed to be used as an active living space for three to four years.
There were going to be a lot of challenges now that no-one had anticipated.
That's not to say that Blair wasn't thrilled to discover Watney's survival. It was a miracle that no-one had even considered possible. The kind of miracle you got in fiction and Hollywood.
Not in reality.
And the reality of it made this already challenging mission that much more complicated.
Easy there, Blair thought to himself. Don't get overwhelmed by this thing. Just solve one problem at a time.
He drew one of the crew's tablets towards him and began methodically making notes about everything they would now have to consider, every new parameter that Watney's survival meant for the mission.
He couldn't make any decisions without more information from Newman and consultation with NASA, but he could certainly be prepared for the discussions that would follow.
He had documented most of his growing mental list when footsteps behind him drew his attention away from the tablet. He looked up and found Newman standing a few feet away. Her mouth was pulled down into a frown and she blew out a frustrated breath when he met her gaze.
"That bad?" he asked, recognizing the tired slope of her shoulders.
She shook her head, leaning against the edge of the desk. She rubbed a hand over her eyes before answering.
"It could be worse," she said. "Don't get me wrong, it's bad. Very bad."
She paused and sighed.
"I've never seen anything like this," she admitted. "Well, not outside of a textbook."
"Lay it out for me," Blair said.
"The biggest problem is the malnutrition," Newman said. "I'd need to review his medical file to be sure, but I'm estimating that he's lost between 30 and 40 per cent of his original body weight, which puts him firmly under the label of starving. He's been able to take in regular protein and vitamin supplements from the stores left with Ares III, so we likely won't have to worry about things like anemia, scurvy, or pellagra, but I'll keep an eye out. The bigger problems will be bone loss and muscle atrophy. The lower gravity on Mars won't help matters there."
Blair sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
"What's his long-term prognosis?" he asked.
Newman bit her lip, clearly thinking. "Considering what he's been through, his condition is about as good as could be expected. But long term starvation like this can have lifelong consequences. Watney will have to be medically monitored probably the rest of his life."
"Not that NASA wouldn't do that already for a man who's spent four years on Mars," Blair interjected.
Newman acknowledged his rare flash of sarcastic humor with a nod and a brief smile of her own.
"Our worry now will be getting his weight back up and getting him stable enough for the trip back to Earth."
Blair frowned. "Is that a concern?" he asked.
Newman nodded. "Spaceflight itself isn't too taxing. A zero gravity environment would actually take some of the strain off his body. It's the journey up to the Hermes that I'm worried about."
"Launching into orbit puts an incredible strain on the body," Blair said, realizing where the doctor was going.
Newman nodded. "And right now, there is no way his body could take that kind of strain. If we tried to launch now, it would kill him."
"Let's try to avoid that," he said.
"Agreed," Newman said. She opened her mouth to say something more, then seemed to hesitate.
Blair raised an eyebrow in silent encouragement to continue.
Newman sighed. "There is also his psychological condition to consider."
She saw Blair's deepening frown and elaborated.
"I know he didn't seem too bad earlier," she said, "but we have to remember that he's spent four years completely cut off from any human contact. And dealing with the fact that, from his perspective, his crew abandoned him. No matter what he shows on the outside, no man can go through that and not be profoundly impacted. We could be dealing with PTSD, depression, high stress, mood swings, social anxiety as well as separation anxiety…"
Blair sighed and leaned back in his chair, contemplating the implications.
"Do you have a sense of Watney's current state of mind?" he asked.
Newman shook her head. "He's been fairly closed off, which alone tells us something. I remember Mark Watney being quite the social personality before Ares III launched."
Blair nodded slowly. "I remember the same."
He'd never really interacted with Watney when they'd both been on Earth, but he'd seen the other astronaut around the NASA campus and at NASA events. Watney had always struck him as lively and outgoing, and that impression has been reinforced by Watney's often-humorous management of the Ares III mission's social media presence before their launch and during the journey to Mars.
It was a sharp contrast to the man he'd spoken with briefly outside the airlock, but they'd only exchanged a few dozen words.
He would withhold judgement under he'd gotten a better sense of Watney's current status.
"Is he up for visitors?" Blair asked.
Newman nodded. "He's as stable as he can be," she said. "There are no urgent medical issues and I've got him started on IV fluids. He's still riding the adrenaline high of being rescued, but that won't last forever. I figured that you'd want to talk to him before he falls asleep. Get something of a debrief before calling NASA."
"Good," Blair said. "Any kind of detailed debrief can wait until after we've talked to Mission Control. God knows they'll probably have more than enough questions of their own. We don't need to make Watney go over it any more than is necessary, but you're right, I do need something to tell NASA."
He got to his feet and gestured towards the curtained-off corner of the Hab.
"Shall we, Doctor?"
She nodded and pushed away from the table. He followed her across the open space in the center of the Hab. He was aware of the curious gazes of the rest of the crew and gestured for them to return to their work.
If necessary, he could brief them on Watney's story later.
Right now though, he didn't want to crowd the man.
Blair slipped through the curtain and into Newman's small medical area. Watney was no longer stretched out on the repurposed lab table, but seated in the much more comfortable chair Newman used when taking the crew's vitals and blood work. His eyes were closed and there was an IV in one arm. A quick glance told him that Watney had taken a shower and that Newman had found him a spare set of Griffith's clothes to wear.
Griffith was the smallest man on the Ares IV crew, but even his clothes hung off Watney's gaunt frame.
Somehow, seeing Watney clean and dressed in new(er) clothes that weren't soiled from four years of wear just highlighted how poor the man's condition really was. Blair could barely believe that the man was alive.
Blair cleared his throat softly and Watney opened his eyes. Sunk deep into Watney's skeletal face, their blue color highlighted how pale and fragile Watney's skin was.
Still, Watney managed a small smile in Blair's direction. None of its warmth reached the tired pain in Watney's eyes and the motion made the skin of his face pull grotesquely over his cheekbones.
"Hullo Commander," he said. "Doc said you wanted to talk to me."
He looked even more exhausted than he had when they'd gotten him out of the EVA suit. Blair felt a sharp stab of sympathy for the man and regretted the necessity of this conversation.
"I just need to get a little information about how you survived out here," he said apologetically. "Just enough to have something to tell NASA."
Watney shrugged. "I figured," he said. "This is going to cause quite the shit storm back home."
There was a small flash of humor in Watney's eyes, there and gone in an instant, and Blair let himself smile in response. Emotion, even a brief one, was a reassuring sign of Watney's mental state.
"Things are going to be interesting enough out here," Blair said. "I don't envy them back home."
"Home," Watney said, his eyes going distant. "It's funny, I've spent so long imagining going home, and trying not to imagine going home." He met Blair's gaze. "It still doesn't really feel real."
Blair didn't know how to respond to that. He had no frame of reference, no procedure, for dealing with a man who'd barely managed to survive for four years on a deserted planet.
Before Blair could figure out what to say, Watney shook himself from his thoughts.
"Pull up a seat commander," he said, gesturing to the lab table. "It's a long story."
Blair crossed the small space and hopped up onto the table in front of Watney.
"Do you want us to stay?" Newman asked, leaning against the counter running around the Hab's edge. Stein stood just a few feet from her, shifting from foot to foot.
"You should probably stay, Doc," Watney said. He looked at Stein and hesitated, clearly wrestling with whether he wanted her to hear the story.
Stein, observant as she was, quickly recognized Watney's dilemma.
"Why don't I go check in with the rest of the crew," she said gently. "I'm sure there will be plenty of time to hear your epic tale of survival in the future."
Watney's relief was palpable and Stein slipped out through the curtains. He tried to school his face back into neutrality but hadn't quite managed it by the time he met Blair's gaze again.
"Where… where should I start?" Watney asked.
"The beginning," Blair said. "How did you survive the incident on Sol 6?"
Watney snorted. "Incident," he said. "Storm from hell and murderous communications equipment, and it's called an incident."
Blair winced inside and reminded himself that this was all very personal for Watney. He wouldn't appreciate the clinical terms NASA's review board had reduced the whole thing to.
"I survived," Watney said, "by sheer dumb luck. I assume you know the basics of what happened?"
"A storm forced the evacuation of the Ares III crew," he said. "They reported that during the evacuation you were struck by some piece of equipment—"
"Hab communications dish and antenna," Watney interjected.
Blair accepted the information with a single nod.
"You were struck by the Hab's communications array and thrown some distance from the crew," he continued. "Your biomonitor readings indicated a suit breach and a flat line before losing signal entirely. The crew attempted to find you but the MAV was tilting beyond its safe point and they were forced to leave."
He hesitated, then added, "They didn't want to leave you. They didn't know you were alive."
Watney blinked at him in confusion, then seemed to realize what Blair was getting at.
"No, I never thought they did," he said. "A piece of the array went through my suit — and me — and destroyed the biomonitor. I knew the crew would have thought I was dead. But… they still looked for me? That…" He swallowed hard. "I didn't know that."
Blair reached out and laid his hand over Watney's.
"They looked for you," he said.
Watney gripped his hand tightly for a minute and Blair pretended not to notice the tears in the other astronaut's eyes. When Watney's fingers finally loosened, Blair withdrew his hand and let Watney compose himself.
Watney looked up suddenly, his expression urgent. "They're okay, right?" he asked. "The rest of the crew? They're okay? They made it home okay?"
Blair nodded. "Yes," he said. "They made it home okay."
He debated for a moment telling Watney how hard the man's presumed death had hit the rest of the crew, but Watney looked so relieved to hear that the crew had made it home safely. Blair didn't have the heart to ruin Watney's genuine joy. There would be plenty of time to tell Watney later.
"Good," Watney said, looking relieved. "That's… that's really good."
He rubbed a hand over his eyes. "I always assumed that they had," he said. "It was how I got through it, knowing that at least the rest of the crew was okay. You know?"
Blair nodded. He did know. He knew exactly how Watney felt, how a man could resign himself to a terrible situation as long as he knew his crew, his friends, his family was safe. Blair could see, in Watney's face and body language, how that single thought had kept the man going through his ordeal.
He glanced at Newman and could see the same profound realization in her face.
"So, after getting hit," Watney said, dragging the conversation back to less emotional territory, "I was out for most of the night. The suit breach was small and between the rod still in it and my congealing blood, it managed to keep the atmosphere loss to a pretty slow trickle, so I didn't die of decompression."
He paused and one corner of his mouth curved up into a smile.
"Obviously," he added.
He shook his head and the smile disappeared.
"I knew that, without the communication system, there was no way to talk to NASA or let anyone know that I was alive. So my only option was living long enough to meet Ares IV. You guys."
"How did you manage that?" Blair asked. "Stein said something about potatoes?"
"NASA packed potatoes for us for Thanksgiving. I turned most of our Hab and both the rovers into farm space and managed to get the potatoes to grow. With some very very creative usage of space and very careful rationing, I figured I would have enough."
"It seems like your math was right," Newman said.
Watney shrugged. "It almost wasn't. I had to cut my daily intake down way farther than was comfortable." He paused and held out his hands, looking at the paper-thin skin stretched over his bones.
"Definitely farther than was healthy. I started on ¾ rations, but my math said it wouldn't be enough. I had to cut down to ½ rations and turn some really unconventional places into farmland."
"But you made it through," Newman said.
"It was a lot of luck," Watney said. "Even the best botanist on the planet, which I was—"
Both Newman and Blair let out little snorts of laughter at that and Watney smiled at them.
"Even I shouldn't have been able to make the potatoes last," he said. "On Earth, they wouldn't have. But it turns out that the minerals in the Martian soil make potatoes grow like crazy."
"Really?" Blair asked, leaning forward. Soil fertility on Mars was one of the experiments Ares III had been meant to perform four years earlier, but the evacuation had made that experiment — and all the others slated for that crew — a loss. Some of those experiments had been passed on to Blair's crew, but in a reduced form.
Watney nodded, responding to Blair's question. "I think I got the specific mineral composition isolated before I left the Hab, but I… or someone… would need to do experiments to confirm. And I wasn't about to experiment with my food source."
"Smart move," Newman said.
"Well, it barely lasted me as is. The last thing I needed was to sacrifice any of it for experiments that could be just as easily run by people who had, you know, actual, other food. I'm thin enough. I don't want to be any thinner."
"We'll have to do some work to get weight back on you," Newman said, "but I'm confident that we can."
Watney nodded. "That's good to hear," he said, another tiny small pulling at the corners of his lips. "I don't think 'starving Martian' is a good look for me."
Newman grinned. "Maybe not starving Martian," she said. "But 'first man to colonize another planet' sounds good to me."
Watney blinked, but Blair nodded.
"That's right," he said. "I heard somewhere that once you've grown crops on a planet, you've officially colonized it."
"First colonist on Mars," Watney said. There was a hint of rueful awe in his voice, but also so much pain. "I guess I can't say that Mars was all bad then. Still a bitch though."
They lapsed into silence and Blair didn't push the conversation. He wanted the chance to gather his own thoughts and to give Watney a chance to gather his. They'd barely gotten started and had already been through an emotional rollercoaster.
This, more than anything Newman or the NASA psychologists might say, told him just how much damage four years of isolation and starvation and desperate struggles for survival had done to Mark Watney's psyche.
"So," Blair said finally, awkwardly. "When did you leave the Hab? Why?"
Watney rubbed a hand over his face.
"I was planning to stay in the Hab until halfway through year four when I'd have to make the journey to Schiaparelli," he said. "Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be possible. I ended up leaving after less than a year."
He caught Blair's curious look and elaborated.
"About 10 months after… the evacuation… the airlock on the Hab blew out. Cause my situation wasn't fucking bad enough. The Hab depressurized and I lost most of the potato farm. It was only by sheer dumb luck that neither of the rovers was connected to the Hab at the time, so their tiny potato farms survived."
"Dios mio," Blair breathed, "how did you survive?"
Watney huffed a laugh and his lips twitched into a deprecating smile.
"By being in the airlock when it blew out," he said.
Blair shook his head in astonishment, marveling at this man's horrible, incredible luck.
"Is that when you injured your leg?" Newman asked.
Watney glanced down, pressing a hand to his right thigh. Blair remembered seeing him limping when they'd brought him into the Hab but hadn't known that the limp was the result of a injury instead of just an effect of malnutrition.
"It looks like a bad break that healed wrong," Newman said for Blair's benefit. "We only have basic equipment in the Hab though, so I won't know for sure until we get back up to the Hermes and I can get some more detailed scans."
Watney grimaced and rubbed his thigh with one hand. It looked like an absent gesture, a nervous tic that had developed over the years.
"I don't think I broke it in the airlock depressurization," he said. "I definitely injured it, because it hurt like hell for weeks afterwards and I could barely walk on it. But I think the actual break happened later."
Newman nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe a deep bruising or very mild fracture then," she said.
"Do you know what caused the depressurization?" Blair asked.
Watney nodded. "I checked the airlock after and found tiny tears in the canvas," he said. "I figure the strain of pressurization and depressurization was finally too much."
"That makes sense," Blair said.
"It lasted a lot longer than it was supposed to," Watney said, "so there's that. But it got me thinking. If the canvas could give out here, then was it weak anywhere else?"
"I'm guessing you found something."
"Yeah," Watney said. "Three more weak points around the Hab. One at the secondary airlock and two more where the canvas changed shape for the living quarters and lab space."
"Is that what made you decide to leave?"
Watney nodded. "I had no idea how long it would be before those weak points tore through as well," he said. "And I couldn't count on being lucky enough to be suited up and in the relative safety of the airlock the next time it happened. I figured Mars was giving me the warning that it was time to go. And since she usually doesn't warn a guy before she fucks him over, I paid attention."
He sighed and looked down, twisting his fingers in his lap.
"I still don't know if that was a good decision," he said.
"It was," Blair and Newman said in unison.
Watney blinked in surprise.
"How do you… know?" he asked hesitantly.
Blair shared a look with Newman, then sighed and explained.
"About a year after the evacuation, Director Sanders finally agreed to Kapoor's requests to point a satellite at Acadalia Planitia. They pictures they got…"
He paused and shook his head.
"The Hab was gone," he said, watching Watney's face fall into shock. "They saw some debris, but not enough to really know what happened. The leading theories are that the Hab was destroyed by a storm of a strength they'd never recorded before, or that it was the result of not being able to follow the full shut-down procedures because of the rush of the evacuation. Either an equipment overload or even a tear in the canvas could have caused an explosive decompression that destroyed the structure."
Watney blew out a breath and leaned back in his chair.
"That's… wow…" He met Blair's eyes. "I'm glad I left," he said.
"We're glad you left too," Newman said.
Watney's mouth twitched and something conflicted worked itself across his face.
"Why didn't they look earlier?" Watney finally asked.
Blair sighed, wondering if it was a good idea to tell Watney this. It would have been so easy for NASA to realize that Watney was still alive if only they'd taken a few pictures of the Ares III site. But they'd intentionally stopped looking, and that had condemned Watney to four lonely, dangerous years on Mars.
He glanced over at Newman and found her frowning as well. She met his gaze and gave a little nod, then a shrug.
So she didn't disapprove of telling Watney, but was ultimately leaving it up to him.
He glanced back at Watney and found the man studying him with a small frown. There was a sharp intelligence in the other man's eyes, but they were also the eyes of a man who'd gone through hell and come out the other side.
Watney deserved to know.
He deserved to know every detail that had contributed to his abandonment, and he deserved to pass judgement on all of them for it.
"The official line is that the satellites were dedicated to other projects," Blair said.
Watney raised his eyebrows. "Right," he said. "And the fact that one of those satellites was supposed to be watching over Ares III at Acadalia Planitia for another 24 days after the evacuation? Come on. What's the truth?"
"PR," Blair said. "Mission Control will never come out and say it, but the reason they kept the satellites far away from Acadalia Planitia was PR. They didn't want a picture of a dead astronaut on the six o'clock news."
Watney snorted. "Because seeing a dead astronaut is so much more tragic than being the dead astronaut. Or leaving an astronaut behind." He sighed and took a deep breath. "I guess I can understand. And I made it through."
Blair blinked and shook his head. "I'll be honest," he said. "I thought you would be more upset."
Watney met his gaze and there was something dark and complicated in the other man's expression.
"Getting upset isn't going to help me survive," he said. "It does exactly the opposite."
His eyes went distant and he clasped his hands together, running his thumbs across his wrists.
Blair swallowed and let the subject go. But he wouldn't forget. No matter what Watney said, the man was clearly much more impacted than he was letting on. And being rescued wouldn't necessarily make any of that impact better; it might actually make everything worse.
The mind had an incredible ability to protect itself and keep a person going until it was safe to break down. Blair had seen it time and time again while in the military — service men and women who were collected, cool, and stable in the worst combat situations, but who had complete mental breakdowns as soon as they were "safe."
Blair, Newman, and the rest of the crew would have to keep a very close eye on Watney.
"How did you manage to get to Schiaparelli?" Newman asked finally, breaking the heavy silence.
A light came on in Watney's eyes and the smile he aimed at Newman looked more genuine and less painful than anything Blair had yet seen.
"I scienced the shit out of the rovers," he said with a grin.
Blair couldn't help the laugh that escaped him.
"Seriously," Watney said. "Extreme science. They're Franken-rovers now, but they got me 3200 kilometers to here so I'm pretty proud of them."
"Leah mentioned something about your crazy rovers," Newman said. "Something about holes in the roof and saddle bags?"
Watney nodded. "The holes were so that I could fit in the oxygenator, water reclaimer, and atmospheric regulator from the Hab. I figured I would need them at the MAV. I know the MAV has its own systems for emergencies, but if Mars has taught me anything, it's that there's only good things to be had by having back-ups. And the saddle bags you're disparaging let me bring all the Hab's solar panels to recharge the rover batteries. It was the only way I could get the rovers to travel this far."
"3200 kilometers," Blair said. "I can barely imagine it."
"I can barely imagine it, and I lived it," Watney said.
"Was it a difficult journey?" Blair asked.
Watney shook his head, then shrugged.
"For the most part, it was pretty monotonous," he said. "I actually got bored. The only thing that kept me from going crazy was collecting samples and doing what little science I could."
Newman blinked. "You're saying you have scientific data and samples from your entire journey from Acadalia Planitia to Schiaparelli?" she asked, sounding stunned.
Blair understood the sentiment. That kind of scientific data was something NASA couldn't even dream of and couldn't buy even with a dozen more Ares missions.
Watney grinned. "I have scientific data and samples from the day Ares III evacuated until… well… yesterday."
Blair leaned back, stunned. "NASA is going to love that," he said.
"They'd better," Watney said.
Blair shook his head, still marveling at what Watney had accomplished. To be struggling for survival every minute and still find the time —and dedication — to do scientific work…
Blair didn't think he would be able to do the same.
"Of course, it wasn't all smooth," Watney said. "I had to outrun a monster of a dust storm around the Marth Crater—"
Blair opened his mouth to ask, but Watney didn't pause.
"Then there was the almost-disaster getting into Schiaparelli."
"What happened?" Blair asked, straightening in his seat.
Dust storms around the Marth Crater were interesting, but not immediately relevant to the mission. A problem in the Schiaparelli Crater itself — the exploration of which was Ares IV's purpose on Mars — had the potential to directly impact his crew and their mission.
"Well, you know how the entrance ramp to the crater looks all smooth and solid?"
Blair nodded cautiously.
"It's not," Watney said flatly. "That pretty picture is just Mars luring you into a terrible trap before she screws you over."
"What happened?" Newman asked.
Watney sighed. "I made it most of the way down the ramp, then the rover's wheels hit something. I'm guessing it was a sandy patch that wasn't nearly as compacted as the rest of the ramp. Next thing I know, me and the rovers are rolling ass over tea kettle down the side of the crater."
He paused and glanced at Newman.
"I'm pretty sure that's when the actual break in my leg happened," he said.
Newman winced. "Yeah, that would do it," she said.
"How did the rovers survive that?" Blair asked.
"Hell if I know," Watney said. "No, that's not true. JPL designed the rovers to be pretty hardy, and I'm betting yours are even better than ours. So JPL's design genius and more dumb luck got the rovers and all the equipment through that roll. I only ended up breaking one solar panel and upending my farm."
He huffed. "I ended up more damaged than the rovers or my equipment."
He sighed and tugged idly at the hem of his shirt.
"I'm lucky that I wasn't in any rush to get to the MAV. Getting the rovers righted—"
"Righted?!" Blair interjected.
"Right, yeah," Watney said, shaking his head and visibly refocusing. "Didn't I mention, the rovers didn't come to rest upright? My rover was on its side and the second rover was completely upside down. No idea how the canvas bubble for the Big 3 didn't burst, but I'm really glad it didn't. In the end, the actual mechanics of getting the rovers righted was easy enough. Doing it on a broken leg was another challenge."
Newman winced. "We need to get some real scans of that leg as soon as possible," she said. "You may have done some permanent damage."
"Pretty sure I did," Watney said. "That break was three years ago and I'm still limping. The pain comes and goes, but it never really went away either."
Newman sighed and muttered to herself. It sounded like she was planning a litany of medical testing for Watney just as soon as she could.
Blair glanced at the other man and saw that he looked just as enthused as anyone would be when confronted by a doctor planning to run every test in the book on him.
"Were you at least able to at least rest the leg for a while?" Newman finally asked.
Watney nodded. "As much as I could," he said. "After I got the rovers righted and everything squared away, I think I stayed parked out there for at least a week."
He caught Newman's look and rushed on. "I would have stayed longer, but I needed to get my farm back up and running. And I wanted to get to the MAV before any of the Hab's systems conked out. I didn't really have a choice about staying. I splinted my leg before I left and stayed off it as much as I could," he added.
Newman subsided, not looking mollified, but seeming to admit that Watney had done the best he could in his trying circumstances.
"Were you able to stay off it once you got to the MAV?" she asked.
"Once I got the farm set-up and the Hab's systems and solar cells wired into the MAV," Watney said.
"You connected the solar cells to the MAV?" Blair asked, surprised. The MAV was designed to draw power from the fuel it generated from stored hydrogen. Converting it to solar energy would have been a feat of engineering.
He tried not to think about the potential damage to the MAV's systems. He'd have to get Fowler to run a complete and very thorough diagnostic and inspection before they even considered launching the MAV.
"Yes," Watney said, drawing Blair from his thoughts. For a moment, Blair was confused, then realized that Watney was answering his question.
"I didn't want to use up all the MAV's fuel before you lot even got here," he said.
"Yeah, that would have been awkward," Newman said.
"Is that why you didn't use any of the pre-supply materials NASA sent for this mission?" Blair asked.
Watney blinked, looking a little stunned.
"You know," he said slowly, "I didn't even think about it… Why didn't I think about it?"
His gaze went unfocused and he began murmuring under his breath. From what Blair could make out, it sounded like he was calculating resource costs and benefits of using the Ares IV pre-supply materials. He seemed to have completely forgotten that Blair and Newman were there.
Blair exchanged a worried look with Newman and decided it was time to wrap up the discussion.
There was a great deal about Watney's story that Blair still didn't know, but that would have to wait. He had enough to pass on to NASA and he could tell was Watney's strength was flagging. Newman's worried frown told him that she wanted Watney resting as soon as possible.
"I think that's probably all I need for today," Blair said, startling Watney from his reverie.
Watney frowned. "Are you sure?" he asked, but something in his expression looked relieved.
Blair nodded. "I'm sure," he said. "You'll probably have to go through this story another dozen or so times with NASA, so don't worry, we'll hear it all."
Watney grimaced. "Should just send them the damn logs," he muttered to himself.
Blair thought about asking but he could see Watney's posture drooping.
It could wait until tomorrow, he decided.
"So," Watney said, then had to stifle a yawn, "what's next?"
"Next, you get some rest and fluids," Newman said.
"Food?" Watney asked, almost plaintively.
"Not yet," Newman said. When Watney looked about to protest, she continued. "Seriously. Food is not a good idea right now. Your body isn't used to it and it would just make you sick and miserable."
Watney looked mutinous and Newman held up a hand.
"But," she said, "if you're more stable after some rest, I'll consider getting you something easy to digest tomorrow. Deal?"
"I'm sold," Watney said after a minute of contemplation.
He glanced over at Blair.
"And you?" he said.
"Well, first I have to go spring your miracle survival on NASA," Blair said.
Watney gave him a ghost of a smile.
"Wish I could see their faces," he murmured.
"Oh you'll get to," Blair said. "I'm expecting to wake up tomorrow with a million messages in my inbox. And there's no way any of this is going to blow over before we get back to Earth."
"True, true," Watney said, settling back into the chair. He looked to be about to drop off to sleep and seemed to be drawing comfort from Blair talking.
It made sense, Blair thought. Ares crews got used to living on top of each other and dealing with the noise of the crew around them. After going four years without, having a crew moving and talking around him seemed to be comforting to Watney.
So Blair decided to be a little more verbose than he usually was.
"Then," Blair said, "I have to brief the rest of the crew, and we have to figure out how to get seven astronauts home on a MAV meant to carry six."
"Plus experimental data and samples," Watney said. He was blinking slowly, his eyes taking longer to open with each blink. "Collected the… damn… samples. Can't… leave 'em…"
His eyes closed and his voice trailed off.
Newman sighed and stepped forwards, draping a blanket across Watney.
"I'll type up my medical report for you," she said, "then try and get Watney to lie down in a real bed."
"Give him one of the crew bunks," Blair ordered.
Newman smiled. "That was the plan," she said.
He nodded at her and levered himself to his feet. The curtain around the medical area swished closed behind him as he paused to look around the Hab. On the other side of the open space, Griffith and Dale were conversing over food. Fowler was absorbed in the terminal at his station and Stein was leaning against Blair's own station, clearly waiting for him.
"What's the word?" she asked.
Blair ignored her for a moment and quietly called the whole crew over. The briefing he gave them was short — they'd likely learn the entire story over the next few days, but right now Watney deserved the privacy to decide who and when the more personal details were released to.
As difficult as retelling the story was, Blair was pleased to see that his crew universally expressed sympathy for Watney's experiences and admiration for his tenaciously-fought successes. He knew — and they knew — that Watney's survival was going to change everything about their mission, but none of them batted an eye or voiced a single protest or complaint.
He sent Fowler and Stein off with instructions to start considering the clean-up they'd have to do to get the MAV serviceable and the modifications they'd have to make to get it to carry a seventh astronaut. Dale and Griffith were assigned to review the complete complement of scientific assignments for this mission and start determining which of those could be done in a shorter timeframe.
How long the Ares IV crew and their new member stayed on Mars would be determined by how much work the MAV needed and how much recovery Watney required to be flight-worthy, but Blair knew those questions might not be answerable for a while.
In the meantime, the crew needed to be kept busy.
He watched the crew head back to their workstations for a moment, then settled behind his own terminal to contact NASA. He was lucky that the orbits were still lined up enough to make communication possible at this hour.
Faced with the blinking light of an open connection, Blair gathered his thoughts and began his report.
"Mission Control, this is Ares IV Actual and I have to report a pressing development to our mission." He paused and considered how to go on. Finally, channeling the irrepressible spirit he remembered from Watney's pre-launch videos and social media presence, Blair said what he thought the other astronaut would if he were giving the report: "This will come as quite a shock to the Ares III crew. And to NASA. And to the entire world. Mark Watney is still alive."
It was midnight at NASA Mission Control and only a skeleton crew remained on duty. Most of the personnel had gone home, taking a well-earned break after supervising the successful landing of the Ares IV crew. No communications were planned with the crew until midday tomorrow, and the Martian scientific experiments weren't scheduled to start until the day after.
So the CAPCOM officer was very surprised when a note flashed up on his screen indicating an incoming message from the Ares IV crew.
If he'd known how much chaos that message would provoke, he would've had at least another cup of coffee before opening it.
Maybe changed his shirt too.
EDIT 12/24: The sequel to this work, "tell the world i'm coming home", is now posted here: s/11659655/1/tell-the-world-i-m-coming-home
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