It was the end of a very long day and Teddy Sanders wanted nothing more than to fall into bed. Kapoor's early morning wake-up call had been just the beginning. The news of Mark Watney's survival had set off a frantic buzz within NASA, albeit a contained one.
They wanted to keep the news as quiet as possible to prevent anything from leaking before tomorrow's press release. That meant that those who already knew had to be threatened into silence and closely monitored and that none of them could really begin any kind of in-depth investigation into how this disaster had happened.
Teddy knew that Venkat had spent the day quietly looking into what information he could uncover without revealing Watney's survival to even more people, but Teddy himself had had no time to follow any of the details.
He'd spent the day updating the President, then key members of Congress.
The news of Watney's survival was going to thrill the world, but it was the shit-storm of questions and consequences for NASA that Teddy was really worried about right now. And now, after a long day of phone calls, Teddy could at least say that he wasn't the only one worried about the coming disaster.
He allowed himself a moment to pull down the professional mask he had cultivated and slump in his chair.
Mark Watney was alive.
Teddy let that thought circle his mind, a small smile stretching his mouth. Part of his mind was still ticking over the problems of telling the world and dealing with the fallout, but for now Teddy shoved those thoughts into a dark corner and just let himself enjoy this revelation.
Mark's death had been a devastating to blow to everyone at NASA, and though Teddy had never let himself show it, he'd been no less affected than any of his colleagues. In a way, every NASA employee was his responsibility, and losing one on his watch had been hard.
Standing in front of a crowd of Mark's friends and family — in front of the world of spectators both grieving and guiltily fascinated — to give a eulogy for Mark had been even harder.
Getting Mark back was a miracle, no matter what the consequences.
Thank God, he thought, Mark Watney is alive.
Outside the large windows of his office, the sun was already sliding down towards the horizon. On a normal day, Teddy would be thinking about sending a few more emails, wrapping up the day's work, and going home to a quiet dinner and a good book.
Unfortunately, the day's work was far from over.
A firm knock on his office door interrupted Teddy's meandering thoughts. He straightened in his chair, smoothing the expression from his face, and turned. Annie hovered in the doorway, eyebrows raised and a questioning tilt to her head.
"Annie," he acknowledged, waving her in.
She headed straight for the espresso maker in the corner of Teddy's office and set a triple shot brewing.
Teddy hid a wince. A triple shot this late in the day was a good indication of Annie's current mood — and of how stressful her day had been.
Annie was just settling into one of Teddy's armchairs when Venkat slipped through the door. He didn't look nearly as frazzled as Annie, but there was a definite weight to his shoulders, and his normally neat appearance was more rumpled than Teddy had seen in, well… in four years.
Since the disastrous Ares III evacuation.
Mark Watney, causing trouble all the way from Mars, Teddy thought, and for the first time in years, the lingering specter of Mark Watney and Mars didn't cause a stab of guilty pain.
Venkat mimicked Annie's actions, making himself an espresso before slumping into another armchair. The three of them sat in silence for a few moments, Annie and Venkat sipping their drinks while Teddy enjoyed a moment to let his mind go blank.
Finally, Venkat looked up and met Teddy's eyes.
"So," he said, "how was your day?"
Teddy matched his sardonic smile with one of his own, while Annie snorted from her seat.
"Anyone know when Mitch is due back?" she asked.
"He called an hour ago from the airport," Teddy said. "He should be here any—"
Teddy broke off, staring in astonishment as Mitch Henderson shuffled into the room. The man's face looked terrible. His nose had clearly been broken; dark bruising was spreading across the ridge and circling both eyes and trickle of blood rimmed one nostril.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asked, stunned.
Annie and Venkat turned in their seats and both looked shock at Mitch's appearance.
Mitch winced and dabbed at the blood with a Kleenex crumpled in one hand.
"Caroline Watney," he said.
"Caroline Watney broke your nose?" Venkat asked, sounding amazed.
Mitch nodded gently then sent a glare in Annie's direction.
"She punched me," he said, "when I asked her to work with us on a statement about Mark's survival."
Annie shrugged. "It had to be done," she said. She glanced at Mitch's face and winced. "I'll admit though," she said, "that I didn't expect her to punch you."
Mitch sighed and slumped into a chair.
"It's fine," he said. "If that's what she needs to get through this… well, I don't think we're in much of a position to argue."
Teddy hid a wince as Mitch's comments highlighted the looming issue in the room.
"Have we made any progress on explaining this disaster?" he asked.
"Well, we have the basics of a statement to release, and most of the media have confirmed that they'll be at the conference," Annie said. "What I still need is answers to the inevitable questions about how the fuck we missed knowing that Mark was alive for four years."
"Venkat?" Teddy asked.
Venkat sighed and rubbed a hand over his face.
"I have some answers," he said. "Keep in mind, though, that I've been trying to keep this news quiet for now, so I haven't been able to get all the information yet…"
"Yes, yes," Teddy said, motioning for him to continue.
"Well," Venkat said, "there are a few things we do know. We know why Mark wasn't able to contact us from the Hab after the evacuation."
"I was wondering about that," Annie said. "Didn't the mission have three redundant communication systems? How could they all have failed?"
"They didn't," Venkat said. "The problem was that all the communication systems required either the MAV, which was gone, or the Hab's own communication dish, which was destroyed. We built in all these redundancies, but we just never conceived of anyone being on Mars without the MAV."
"What about the Ares IV MAV? Do we know why didn't he contact us when he got there?" Mitch asked. "Is there a problem with the MAV's communication systems?"
Venkat winced. "No," he said, "the problem was on our end."
Teddy raised his eyebrows. "Explain," he said.
Venkat sighed. "Obviously, we don't know the whole story from Mark's end," he said. "We'll have to wait for a more detailed debrief to get that. What we do have is an incident log from two and a half years ago — about the same time Mark would have reached the Ares IV site — of some unexpected connection requests from the MAV."
"Oh God," Mitch said, dawning horror on his face.
Venkat shared a pained look with him before continuing.
"At the time, the connection was deemed a computer glitch — something in the MAV's communication systems engaging when they weren't supposed to. JPL wrote a patch for the MAV that shut down the communications system completely. Stein and Fowler were supposed to re-initialize it and run a full diagnostic."
There was a moment of heavy silence.
"So…" Annie said slowly, "what you're saying is that Mark tried to call us and we… what? Hung up the phone?"
"More like we cut the phone line, cancelled the calling plan, and deactivated the phone's ability to do anything," Mitch said.
"Well… shit," Annie said. "So we fucked up with the MAV. That's on us. The media's going to have a fucking field day with that. But if that's all, I might be able to spin it. Somehow."
Venkat's wince was clearly visible, no matter how he seemed to be trying to hide it.
Teddy felt a terrible sinking feeling in his stomach.
"That's not all, is it?" he asked.
Venkat shook his head.
"The satellites," he said, and Teddy's guilty feeling multiplied exponentially.
He knew where this was going.
"What about the satellites?" Mitch asked, looking between them.
"We should have been able to see some indication of Mark's survival on the satellites taking pictures of Acadalia Planetia," Venkat said.
"Why the hell didn't we?" Mitch asked.
"Because I told Venkat not to take any pictures of the Ares III site," Teddy said.
"What?" Annie said, voice shocked.
"Why the hell not?" Mitch said. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at Teddy. "Did you know?" he asked.
Teddy flinched minutely backward.
"Did I… did I know?" he asked, shocked. "You really think I knew Mark was alive and… what? Intentionally ignored it?"
He knew the shock, the almost betrayed emotion, was evident in his voice and he couldn't care. He knew he took a particularly practical and economic approach to his job, but the idea that anyone would genuinely believe that he would knowingly abandon one of his astronauts…
Mitch sighed and shook his head.
"No," he said. "No, I don't." He paused and met Teddy's gaze. "It's just been one of those days."
He didn't say sorry — wouldn't ever say it — but his expression was apologetic.
"Good," Teddy said, "because I didn't know. I made that decision to avoid having a picture of a dead astronaut on the front page of The Washington Post."
"Yeah, that would have been bad," Annie said. "On the other hand, that explanation is not going to fly with the media. Not with Mark being… you know… still alive. We're going to get a lot of heat for not confirming his death."
"Legal said the same thing," Teddy said heavily.
"Christ, is Legal involved already?" Mitch said.
"They were my first call," Teddy said.
"How bad is it?" Venkat asked.
"Well," Teddy said, "I'm sure no-one is surprised that they're reopening the Ares III Sol 6 investigation."
"Obviously," Mitch said with a huff.
"They're also beginning a new investigation into NASA's responsibility for failing to realize that Mark was alive before today." Teddy sighed and let his weariness show on his face for a moment. "They're already talking about lawsuits and settlements."
"Who's heading the investigation?" Venkat asked.
They all winced. Alicia Koats was the most outspoken, intense lawyer in NASA's Legal department and a woman who had never hesitated to hold NASA fully accountable for their faults.
She would have a great deal of material to find them at fault for here, Teddy thought.
"Well that's going to be a fun experience," Mitch muttered. "What with leaving Mark behind alive and not confirming his death and somehow not noticing him on the satellites for four years." He turned to Venkat. "How did we miss him? I understand why we didn't see him at Acadalia Planetia. We weren't looking. And by the time we did, I assume he had already left?"
"Right," Mitch said. "But then he drove 3200 kilometers across Mars and spent three years living in the Ares IV MAV. We've had satellites pointed at Mars and Schiaparelli almost constantly for that entire time. How did we miss him?"
That was a question Teddy wanted answered too.
Venkat shook his head. "That we don't know," he said.
Teddy raised his eyebrows and Mitch snorted in disbelief.
"What the hell do you mean, we don't know?" he demanded.
"We don't know," Venkat repeated. "To find out, we'll need to comb back through three years of satellite images and SATCON records. And we'll need to take a much closer look at the images the satellites are sending us of Schiaperelli."
Mitch opened his mouth, but Venkat spoke over top of him.
"And I can't do that," he said, "without the help of the analysts, orbital specialists, and basically all of SATCON. Who don't know that Mark is alive yet. I had thought," he added, meeting Mitch's gaze and then Teddy's, "that we were trying to keep this quiet until we had a chance to officially release the news."
Teddy inclined his head in acknowledgement.
"We are," he said. "Once everyone's been informed, how long do you think an investigation will take you?"
Venkat shook his head. "I wish I could tell you," he said. "I don't even have an estimate yet."
Teddy sighed but nodded. He'd been hoping that they would have a lot more — and better — explanations to give the press than.
"Alright," he said. "Keep me informed."
"Annie?" Teddy asked, turning to the Public Relations Manager. "Any thoughts on spinning this for the press?"
"Spinning what?" Annie asked. "That we don't really know all that much, and what we do know is that we fucked up?" She sighed and massaged her temples. "I think we're going to have to go with what amounts to 'no comment'. Especially with Legal opening an investigation. We tell the press we're still investigating and that we can't release any information until the investigation is complete. They won't like it, but we can make them accept it."
Making the press accept it would, unfortunately, be his job.
"Send me what you have so far for a statement," Teddy said.
"I'll need to make some edits, but you'll have it within the hour," Annie said.
Teddy nodded, but Annie had already turned to her phone, furiously tapping away at the screen.
There were a few moments of silence in the room as the group of NASA executives contemplated the massive mess they were wading through. Mitch sighed and slumped back into his chair.
"It's been a long day," he said, one hand pressed gingerly over his eyes.
"It's not over yet," Venkat said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Teddy saw Annie's confused expression as she paused in her typing.
Venkat must have seen it too. "Someone still has to tell the Ares III crew," he said.
Annie and Teddy both winced, but only Annie allowed the expression to show on her face.
"I'll tell them," Mitch said.
When Teddy looked over, Mitch met his gaze.
"I think one punch to the face is enough for today," Teddy said.
Mitch shook his head, then winced as the sharp motion obviously aggravated his broken nose.
"They're my crew," he said. "I have to be the one that tells them."
Teddy traded glances with Venkat. Of the three of them, Mitch was on the lowest level in the NASA hierarchy, so either Venkat or Teddy could over-rule him. And news this big should probably come from someone at Venkat or Teddy's level.
But Venkat nodded, easily ceding the responsibility to Mitch. Venkat, Teddy knew, wasn't doing it to shirk his duty, but merely in recognition of Mitch's closer bond with the crew. Venkat had always been more in tune with these emotional interactions than Teddy, but he was equally a pragmatist. Teddy had always appreciated that pragmatism in the face of Mitch's unrelenting idealism — idealism that often clash with Teddy's cautious approach to NASA's operations.
Today, though, Teddy intended to take full advantage of Mitch's ability to be open and emotionally connected to the crew.
In this situation, he thought that might go over better with the crew.
And though he'd never admit it to anyone, Teddy wanted to avoid having to confront NASA's failures (his failures) for another day. And the crew would never let that happen.
"Alright," he said, nodding to Mitch. "We've asked them all to come in for an urgent meeting this evening. They should be here in about an hour and a half. Conference room seven." He paused and took in Mitch's tired appearance and the deepening bruising around his nose. "Take a little time to clean up," he added.
Mitch grimaced and nodded.
"Annie," Teddy continued, "I'd like you to sit in with Mitch. The crew's going to have to speak with the media. Maybe not right away, but it's going to have to happen. I want them prepared."
"I'll put some preliminary notes together," she said, "but we'll want to hold off putting the crew in front of the media for a while. At least until we have a better handle on this situation."
They sat in silence for a few moments before Venkat sigh and pushed to his feet.
"If there's nothing else," he said, "I'm going to get some sleep before tomorrow's circus."
Teddy nodded in dismissal, and Venkat and Annie both headed for the door. Annie was buried in her phone, furiously typing, and Teddy guessed she was revising the press releases and speeches for tomorrow morning.
Mitch lingered for a moment then sighed and followed the others out the door.
As the door closed behind Mitch, Teddy allowed himself to slump in his chair and press his hands over his eyes and just breath. He'd never been the kind of person who looked back and dwelled on past mistakes. In the wake of the Ares III disaster, he'd concentrated on moving forwards.
On moving NASA forwards.
But now, for the first time in his life, he desperately wanted the opportunity to go back and make different decisions.
He didn't want to have to concentrate on going forwards.
Ironic, considering that going forwards was now more important than ever.
For Mark's future and NASA's.
Next time: NASA tells the Ares III crew.
Thanks for sticking with me through all the delays! I haven't given up on this, and your comments keep me writing :)