Any time that Venkat Kapoor's phone rang at two o'clock in the morning, he answered it with a feeling of dread in his stomach. No-one called NASA's Mars mission director in the wee hours of the morning with good news.
The last time he'd gotten an early morning phone call, it had been to report the evacuation of the Ares III crew and the death of Mark Watney.
So when he woke from a sound sleep to the shrill ringing of his phone, he glanced at the clock, noted the time, and groaned before climbing out of bed. He crossed the room in the dark and lifted his phone from its spot on the dresser.
"Kapoor," he said, answering the shrill ringing.
"Brendan Hutch here," said the voice on the other end.
Hutch, Venkat knew, was the back-up mission director for Mitch Henderson on the Ares IV mission and ran Mission Control during the night shift. The dread in his gut solidified.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"We have an unscheduled message for the Ares IV crew," Hutch said. He sounded uncharacteristically hesitant. "It's…"
"It's what?" Venkat said, starting to get impatient. "What's wrong?"
"Sir, I think you need to come in," Hutch said instead of answering the question.
"Damn it, just tell me what's going on," Venkat said.
"I… sir… you really need to come in."
Venkat sighed and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
"Alright," he said. "I'll be there in an hour."
He hung up the phone then stood for a minute in the dark.
An early morning call and a mission director so spooked by whatever was going on that he was reduced to stuttering and couldn't even tell Venkat what the problem was — Venkat had a terrible feeling that whatever was going on would be just as terrible as the Watney disaster four years earlier.
And that was absolutely the last thing NASA needed right now.
Their position was still shaky — you didn't need Annie Montrose's PR savvy to know that a dead astronaut did not play well with the public — and it had been surprisingly difficult to get the Ares IV mission off the ground.
Only the fact that the MAV was already there and the pre-supply missions were already in the pipeline had saved the project.
The discovery that the Ares III mission site was completely destroyed had put a huge dent in the possibility of an Ares VI mission, and even the Ares V mission was looking a little shaky (despite already having Congress approval and funding).
The last thing NASA and the Ares program needed right now was another disaster of the Watney scale.
These thoughts consumed Venkat all the way from his home in the Houston suburbs to Mission Control in the Johnson Space Center.
One look at Hutch's pale face and set expression, mirrored on the faces of every member of night shift staff, and Venkat knew that whatever was going on was worse than anything he was imagining.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?" he said, shrugging out of his coat and tossing it into an empty chair.
"No. Yes. Maybe. Probably not," he said.
Venkat raised an eyebrow and Hutch shrugged.
"It's one of those good news, bad news situations," he said.
Venkat sighed and pressed a hand over his eyes.
"Give me the bad news first," he said.
Hutch made a complicated face.
"I can't," he said. "It's really all the same news."
Venkat stared at the man for a long moment. It's too damn early in the morning for this crap, he thought.
"Just… take me through it," he said. "Start at the beginning."
"A little over an hour ago," he started, "we received an unscheduled communication from the Ares IV crew."
Venkat felt his stomach drop. He'd known, he'd known, that it was something wrong with Ares IV.
Hutch caught his expression. "The crew's okay," he said, "and so is the Hab, the MAV, and the Hermes. Everything's on schedule and they haven't encountered any problems."
Venkat blinked, feeling off-kilter. That wasn't the update he was expecting.
"Then what's the problem?" he asked.
Hutch grimaced again.
"I think it's easier if you just watch Commander Ortega's message," he said.
He nodded to the CAPCOM officer poised at the station next to him and the weedy man (whose name Venkat could never, for the life of him, remember) opened up Ortega's message.
The commander's face filled the large screens at the front of the room. He began to speak and within seconds any other thought was driven from Venkat's mind.
"Mission Control, this is Ares IV Actual and I have to report a pressing development to our mission." The commander paused and a brief flicker of complicated emotion raced across his face. For an officer as stoic as Venkat knew Ortega was, it was startling to see.
He seemed to come to some sort of decision and braced himself before continuing. "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."
Venkat felt like the world had dropped out from underneath. He stumbled backwards blindly, leaning heavily on the edge of a desk as his legs went weak. He was aware that Ortega was still speaking but he sounded far away. The commander's words looped in his mind.
Mark Watney is still alive. Mark Watney is still alive. Mark Watney is still alive.
He gave himself a mental shake and forced his focus back to the commander.
He didn't have time now to give in to the mounting hysteria.
"—have all the details yet, but Watney's given us the basics," Ortega was saying when Venkat refocused on him. "His injury on Sol 6 was superficial, but destroyed the biomonitor, which is why the crew thought he was dead. He insists that his situation wasn't their fault; he wanted to make sure you knew that."
Ortega hesitated, then let out a breath. "I genuinely believe that he holds no animosity towards the Ares III crew. He seemed very concerned about their status and very relieved to know that they had made it home safely. Once they're briefed, I think it would be beneficial to Watney to be able to contact them again. I think he would benefit a great deal from their support.
"Following their evacuation, Watney survived the first year in the Ares III Hab, but a major decompression forced him to abandon the Hab. He's spent the last three years living in our MAV, which, as I noted, is where Stein discovered him earlier today.
"His physical and mental condition is as good as could be expected considering his situation. He managed to survive by growing potatoes from the supplies sent for the Ares III Thanksgiving meal and eating starvation rations. I'm sending along Dr. Newman's preliminary medical report, but to summarize, we're dealing with malnutrition and all its accompanying physical effects, and some lingering injuries that never healed properly.
"Watney's psychological condition is harder to get a read on, but he's lucid and seems fairly stable. We're seeing obvious signs of the strain he's been under, but it will take a while to get a point where we really know how he's doing.
Ortega sighed. "I realize that this is going to have significant impacts on our mission, not the least of which is finding a way to get Watney home with us. On that front, Newman reports that Watney will require some not-insignificant recovery time before his body will be up to the strain of the MAV launch. She's put in a request to Medical for some help with the assessment there.
"I have Stein and Fowler assessing the MAV for any wear and tear that might have come from three years of continuous use, and Griffith and Dale are cataloguing Watney's scientific data." Here Ortega let out a small, wry smile. "Apparently Watney completed all the Ares III experiments and has been collecting data nearly continuously since the evacuation, so we have four years of scientific data and samples to sort through.
Ortega's face grew serious. "The crew is stable and we will maintain our current schedule until we receive further guidance from Mission Control. Ares IV Actual out."
The message ended, freezing the last frame of Ortega's serious face on the screen. For a moment, all Venkat could do was lean back and breath and just process.
He couldn't even begin to consider the implications of what he'd just learned. That would come later.
Once he could get his mind of its endless loop of Mark Watney is alive.
He finally looked up to see Hutch watching him with an expression of profound sympathy on his face.
"I know how you feel," Hutch said, breaking the tension.
Venkat huffed and shook his head, but a tiny smile tugged at his lips. At least he wasn't going to be alone in dealing with this.
In fact, he thought, realization dawning, this was probably how the entire world was going to feel when NASA broke the news to them.
It was going to be utter madness.
Venkat winced inside, already envisioning the incredible positive and negative backlash that would descend on them. He suddenly felt incredibly sorry for the NASA PR department. His own role was going to be difficult enough.
Focus on the present, he thought, shaking off his dire future imaginings.
"Who else has seen this?" he asked Hutch.
"You and me, obviously," Hutch said. He nodded down at the CAPCOM officer seated next to him. "Miller was the one who first received the message. The rest of the night shift has seen it."
Venkat looked around the room, seeing four other personnel at various stations. All of them were busy trying to look like they were busy, but Venkat could see them watching the little drama from the corners of their eyes.
He didn't blame them.
"So that's seven people," he said. "Anyone else?"
Hutch shook his head.
"I locked down the information and you're the first person I called," he said. "I figured you would know who else needed to be informed immediately and how to do so."
Meaning Hutch hadn't wanted to be the one to get Mitch Henderson, Annie Montrose, or Teddy Sanders out of bed at three o'clock in the morning and pull their worlds out from under them.
Or, at least, that he wanted back-up when he did.
"Good work," he said, nodding to Hutch. "Now we need to get Mitch, Annie, and Teddy in here and figure out how we're going to handle this news. Start making phone calls."
Hutch grimaced but obligingly turned to the desk phone at the CAPCOM station.
Venkat watched him punch in the first number then straightened to draw the attention of the rest of the room. All five personnel immediately focused on him and he had to hide a private smile. He knew they'd been paying more attention to him than to their work.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "as you know, we've received some incredible news from the Ares IV crew. I'm absolutely astounded and delighted by Mark's survival, and I'm sure you share my sentiments. I'm also sure you realize how much of an impact this news will have on the rest of NASA and on the world. Disclosure of this information must be done properly, and through NASA itself." He paused and stared down each person. "Until you are told otherwise, consider this information classified. You are not to speak about it to anyone outside of this room until you are given leave by myself, Director Sanders, or Ms. Montrose. Am I understood?"
He was gratified to see serious expression and firm nods from everyone in the room.
"Thank you," he said.
He turned back to Hutch to find the man hanging up the phone.
"Everyone's on their way," Hutch said. "They'll be here within the hour."
"We'll have to wait for them before we make any decisions about this," he said. "But in the meantime… where can a man get a good cup of coffee at this time of night?"
Hutch laughed and pointed Venkat towards tiny table in the back corner of the room where one of the night shift crew had brought in their personal, miniature expresso machine.
Thank the gods, Venkat thought, and went to acquire some very necessary caffeine.