In the Shadow of Watney (The Martian Fan Fiction) By Andy Sima
Two men, the wrong men, sat before the court, arrested on suspicion of negligent homicide. It was strange to think that two high-ranking members of NASA could be involved in such a crime as that, because it was strange; these two men were innocent. The two scapegoats fidgeted in their chairs, both anxious to hear what evidence would be brought against them as the trial moved into the prosecution’s speeches.
The old prosecutor, a senator staunchly against NASA’s high level of funding, but still in the dark about the true, sinister, nature of the case, stepped up before the court and began to give his evidence. He held only a few papers as his “Exhibit A” evidence, but something about his eyes told the two defendants that it was going to be powerful. The old prosecutor coughed quietly and began to speak, with a slight smile.
“According to the United State’s Government,” he said, “to become an astronaut, one must meet certain physical and psychological requirements, including, but not limited to; 1,000 logged flight hours, a height between 62 and 75 inches, freedom from dependence upon drugs, tobacco, or alcohol products, and freedom from any outstanding psychiatric problems.” The courtroom was silent. “I intend to prove to you that the death of the Ares 4 crew could have been prevented by these two men, and both had enough knowledge to stop it, but both were negligent, as shown by their lack of prevention.” Though no one but the two men knew it, they actually could not have stopped it. No one could have. But the two men knew they were to be the ones to take the blame. That had been established by their superiors long ago.
The old prosecutor coughed again. “I will start by reading from the journal of Stewart Murdoch, botanist on the Ares 4 mission to Mars. It begins as so…”
The day that Watney made it back to Earth was the day I began to hate Mars.
While the world rejoiced at the success of his survival and collectively flung money at NASA for future missions, I, a member of the Ares 4, sat back and waited for the clamor to die down. It didn’t.
At one of Watney’s many reception parties, all of which I was somehow invited to, someone commented about how the whole affair was the “new Apollo 11.” Someone else called it the “modern Apollo 13.” All agreed that it would generate the same patriotism and sense of achievement that the aforementioned Apollo missions had. I had my doubts that they were correct, but as it turned out, Ares 3 did become the new Apollo 13. Space travel is “in” again.
Ares 4 had to be pushed back an entire mission cycle because NASA let Watney use our MAV, which, as everyone and their brother knows at this point, is a one-time-only thing. NASA also felt that the data and small rock samples Watney collected from the Schiaparelli crater and the surrounding areas are more than enough; NASA didn’t feel the need to send another manned mission there, so they changed our landing site. Just my luck.
It could have been us, Ares 4, that got the spotlight. We should have been the ones to come home famous and loved, because NASA expected to find traces of ancient microscopic life forms on our trip. My commander tells me I’m wrong and that those traces were never the intention of the Ares 4 mission, but what does she know? She isn’t the botanist on the mission. Oh, that’s another thing, too. I’m in the same spot in the crew that Watney was. I’m effectively his little brother. No one ever remembers the little brothers.
My psychologist says that my jealousy is just a manifestation of my nerves. He says I should try writing out my thoughts and observations. He says my nerves are normal and shouldn’t interfere with my performance. But I know better.
I, Stewart Murdoch, could have been the hero. I should have been Watney. But no, he had to go and steal the spotlight. Whatever. I can make my own spotlight.
I staggered across the recreation area, desperately trying to grasp at the revelation the edge of my mind. Before I could, though, some infernal sound distracted me and pushed the thought out of my reach. I glanced at the tennis court, only to find some of the other members of the Ares 4 mission playing a match.
The tennis ball bounced back and forth across the field, like a satellite in orbit, constantly spinning. Alex Vahn seemed to predict where the ball would land and smashed it, deafeningly, back towards Carissa Cayle, shattering the muggy air and my concentration. George Todd appeared to watch enviously as Alex displayed the skills that made her famous at NASA among tennis fanatics. George was one of those fanatics, though I was discovering that his interest bordered on obsession and distracted him from his job. It was one thing for George to enjoy learning about his newfound passion, but it was something else entirely to focus on tennis, and specifically Alex’s tennis, more than Mars. He’d been like that ever since that first party when Watney got back, and we presented him awards of bravery and other such public-relations boosters. I’d first heard the whispers of my approaching revelation after the award ceremony, too.
Alex, who I noticed was attempting to hide tears of what I could only figure was sadness, blasted the ball back to Carissa, who cowered in apparent fear from the ball, but managed to return it. George’s eyes bulged with an undisguised sense of primordial attraction.
After what seemed to me like dozens of consecutive hits, the ball finally moved to a place where Carissa couldn’t reach it, and it sailed past her on its own mission. Sweating profusely and gasping for much-needed air, Carissa leaned forward, hands on her knees, corners of her mouth turned upward in a smile facade, but the corners of her eyes turned downward in subconscious terror. I watched, sickened by her emotions. Didn’t she know we had more important things to be doing? That I had more important things to be doing?
“You beat me again,” Carissa said to Alex. Alex did not return the smile or the fear.
“Yes,” Alex responded. Her blonde ponytail fell lightly down her neck. I could tell Alex’s mind was preoccupied, much like mine, by the tears she wiped away from her eyes. Tennis was the least of her worries, as she was overcome with what I could guess was a sudden, pressing, wholly unexpected desire to forget about NASA and Mars and everyone here in order to go curl up somewhere and… cry? That was what I suspected, though I couldn’t know for sure, despite my budding heightened awareness of everything. But her strange bout of depression was getting the best of her, and her eyes refused to stop leaking tears, though her face remained stony.
George clapped enthusiastically, eyes ready to burst from his skull like overripe grapes. “That was simply phenomenal! Downright artistic! The definition of sports!” he said, his irritating British accent only slightly present. He moved toward Alex to put his arm around her shoulder. She shrugged his arm off, quickly. George’s smile tilted in what looked like confusion, eyes squinting slightly.
“How’s my form, George?” Carissa volleyed to the two across from her.
“Oh, just beautiful!” He said. He consulted a clipboard he had in his hand. “Did you know that when you wear your blue skirt your returns at fifteen percent more accurate?” Carissa’s smile dropped and the fear in her eyes spread to her lips. George continued. “And Alex, are you aware that you’re serves have been becoming progressively more controlled? Over the past thirty-seven games, the accuracy of yours shots has increased by exactly forty-five point two percent. Trust me, I’ve triple-checked the math.” Alex lifted her eyebrows in surprise, but didn’t pay that much attention.
Carissa attempted to mask her fear as she spoke, though I noticed it creep into her voice. “You’ve been keeping track of-” It was at that moment that I decided to reveal my presence, and I cut her off mid-sentence.
“How is tennis supposed to prepare us for Mars?” I shouted through the fence, fingers gripping the diamond-shaped wires that divided us. Carissa leaped up in surprise, like a gazelle finding a lion hiding in the grasses. All three, I’m sure, noted that my eyes were bloodshot and my face was sagging. I hadn’t slept in days. Or perhaps a week. I was well aware, though, of what I looked like. I hadn’t really slept all that well since I shook hands with Watney, and I’d been sleeping less and less as my revelation came closer and closer.
“When was the last time you slept, Stewart?” Carissa asked.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ve got work to do. Mars is approaching, and I need to make my own spotlight,” I said. Carissa stepped back, eyes suddenly opening wide like the darkness of space.
“Is Mars really that close?” she yelled. “Has NASA made everything safe enough?”
I was looking at the ground now, not paying attention to the three tennis players through the fence, as the revelation was nearing me again. “No,” I whispered, divine inspiration cutting clearly into my mind with the force of one’s head hitting rock. I walked away, dazed, thinking about how I had to find the flight psychologist. I would begin my new calling immediately.
I sensed Alex scratch her head and glance at Carissa and George behind me. “Something’s not right with him,” I heard her say, and I knew she hoped someone would disagree with her. No one did.
I shifted down the halls of the building, stealthily eyeing all the doors and hallways. Ever since I had been given the gift of foresight and the gift of knowing what it was I must do, everyone had become an enemy to me. But no one could know that, or they would damage my plans. Of course, if all went well now, they could not damage my plan. I know about inevitability. I know what’s to come. It’s all been leading up to this.
Marie Dugoe, captain of the Ares 4 mission, and my brother Glen Murdoch exited a door down the hall from me, and I jumped out of their sight. But, even with the distance, I could hear them as if they were standing next to me. I knew exactly what they were saying, exactly what they would say before they said it. I could hear the thoughts and electrical pulses in their minds.
“Have you noticed that Stewart’s been acting a little… on edge recently?” Glen asked.
“What do you mean, exactly?” Marie responded. Giddiness rose up inside of me, though it was quickly squashed by irrepressible anger. I was no longer the one in control of my emotions; that job belonged to fate, who dictated how I must act in order to bring about the inevitable. The time was nigh.
“I mean that he hasn’t been himself.” Glen hissed. His eyes darted back and forth, and I felt the paranoia settling inside of him. Good. It is necessary to the ultimate goal. “Ever since Watney got back with the Ares 3 crew, Stewart’s been depressed. Despondent. Quiet. He seldom talks. And when he does speak, he’s snappish. I’ve heard him mumbling to himself, too, talking about how ‘it isn’t fair.’ Recently, though, he’s gotten a lot calmer, and kind of normal, but that’s actually been frightening me more. I don’t feel comfortable around my own brother anymore.”
Marie hesitated. I read her mind and saw her throw out words that would have incriminated her now-fragile grasp on reality. I knew she genuinely believed that there was nothing wrong. “I have noticed Stewart’s actions as well,” Marie spoke, “and have taken it up with our flight psychologist. He said that Stewart had no outstanding psychiatric problems when he was first checked, and that his current actions are simply a result of scattered nerves and worries for the trip. The psychologist said that after events like Watney’s ordeal it is common for individuals to have second thoughts about missions.”
“But none of the rest of us have that problem,” Glen said.
“You’re correct in that regard, yes,” Marie responded. She glanced away from his stare. “Our psychologist doesn’t see a need to worry anybody or postpone the mission.” We all knew that wasn’t the truth. I knew they should be taking steps to remove me from the mission, but I also knew that the fates had intervened to allow me, the harbinger, the remain on the flight and finish my real mission. Marie continued. “He says that Stewart just needs some time to work himself out. But I will take your worries up with our flight coordinator.”
Glen narrowed his eyes. “Did someone tell you to say that?”
“What are you talking about?” Marie responded.
Glen’s face did not change. “I want you to be honest with me. Was there an order from higher up to ignore Stewart’s problems? We can’t be replaced. NASA doesn’t have other astronauts ready. I’ve heard talk in the hallways. Tell me, is there something else going on here?” What was going here was the work of inevitability and the fates. I was their puppet; they were the puppet masters. They told me I was the most willing puppet they’d ever had.
“No, of course there’s nothing else going on here!” she whispered back to Glen. Though her words said no, I could hear her subconscious scream yes, despite her own beliefs. “There’s no secret agenda. I don’t need you going all paranoid on me now. I need as many rational people on my crew as I can get. We can’t have a ship full of loonies. As astronauts, we need the utmost trust in one another.”
“Denial,” Glen said. “Jealousy. Obsession. Depression. Terror. Paranoia. Denial. We’ve all got something, ever since that damn award presentation for Watney,” Glen said, and then laughed, deep and long. The reverberations of his laugh reached my chest and shook me until I almost laughed, too. Marie took another step back. Glen put his arm around Marie’s shoulder, and smiled. “You’re alright, Captain.” Marie blinked and hurriedly removed Glen’s arm from her.
“Don’t do that again,” she said, and moved off down the hall. I saw Glen glance around for invisible intruders one last time before following her off.
I knew the final cogs were in place now, in the machine fate had built. And so it was put into motion that the workings of inevitability would be brought to fruition, and I, as the human conductor in this grand spectacle, would relieve my burning jealousy and make my own spotlight.
Spittle coated the old prosecutor’s lips as he finished reading the journal of Stewart Murdoch. He pushed his glasses back up onto his nose. “I now present a previously confidential note from the Ares 4 flight psychologist to the Ares 4 flight coordinator, dated April third, and a newspaper clipping detailing the launch of Ares 4. They should speak for themselves.”
Dear Dr. Bello,
I’m writing to tell you that I do not believe Stewart Murdoch is mentally capable of taking part in the Ares 4 mission. He has shown signs of antisocial personality disorder ever since Mark Watney returned from Mars, and seems to be a danger to those around him. He came to me recently and admitted he had not slept for days. He repeated the phrase “I’ll make my own spotlight” at least four times for no apparent reason. I cannot, in good standing, permit him to participate in this mission as he is now. I know there are yet months before departure, but I do not know if his condition will improve. I do not understand how something so severe and extreme as antisocial personality disorder can develop in a matter of weeks. Personally, it seems as if he caught some sort of ‘disease of the mind’ after coming in contact with Watney. Although I know this is absurd, I am struggling to find any other explanation.
I understand it is your job to take my opinions into account, because you are the flight director. I would recommend that you begin searching for a replacement for Stewart, perhaps from the Ares 5 crew. Glen Murdoch, Stewart’s brother, may also have to be replaced. He shows signs of budding schizophrenia and acute paranoia, though not to the extent of Stewart. An answer for this radical change in their mental health is not within my reach, not without extensive research.
Given limitless resources I would ground the entire team, actually, as all six show signs of mental deterioration and decay uncommon in those who are as highly trained as astronauts. It may be some sort of mob mentality, though I believe Carissa, George, Alex, and Marie would be healthy enough to fly if removed from Stewart and Glen. I will keep a sharp eye on all of them. Please take this memo seriously, as the situation is becoming worse.
The New York Times
ARES 4 MISSION BLASTS OFF TO SUCCESS
Just this morning, NASA’s latest mission to Mars left Earth without a hitch. Six brave astronauts, Marie Dugoe, Carissa Cayle, Alex Vahn, George Todd, and brothers Glen and Stewart Murdoch braced themselves for launch at NASA’s Cape Canaveral base and lifted off to the sound of cheering and joy. Mark Watney, of Ares 3 disaster fame, was in attendance, despite his weakened state after recovering from his illness, and had to say this;
“I think it’s great that people are so excited about space again. Space is awesome! I’ve had my fair share of it, though, so I’m glad it’s them in space now, not me. If I went back to Mars I might get sick again.”
Read more about this new undertaking and Mark Watney’s recovery on page 12.
“And now,” said the old prosecutor to the stunned courtroom, “the most damning pieces of evidence I have to present to you. I have here an email, from this man,” and he pointed at one unlucky defendant, “to this man,” and he pointed at the other unfortunate defendant. They blanched, and they both knew exactly what email he was referring to. “I also have with me a newspaper clipping detailing the result of their negligence. They knew of the problems with the Ares 4 mission, and the causes of the disaster. And yet they did nothing. Let me prove it to you. The email says…”
TO NASA 2
FROM NASA 1[DATA EXPUNGED];
I’m sorry that I have to communicate with such secrecy, but you of all people must know what’s going on before we make the data available to the public, or the rest of NASA, for that matter. It’s about Ares 4. Communications received a short message a little under an hour ago from an unknown astronaut aboard Hermes, the Ares 4 transport ship. Immediately after receiving the message, all communications with the Ares 4 crew, including ship vitals and navigation, were shut off from their end. Something catastrophic happened aboard that ship. Satellites keeping an eye on it sent messages but received no response, not even automatic ones. We can’t see anything wrong with the ship externally, though we have strong suspicions as to what really happened. I cannot share them with you here. Too many chances for prying eyes. Meet me at our old restaurant after work and I’ll talk to you then. This is something that I can only share in person. The ramifications of it are huge and could potentially cripple NASA for generations to come. I will be telling the PR folks is that there was an explosion aboard the Hermes vessel that destroyed communications and life support. There were no survivors. As far as we officially know, that’s the truth. I need you onboard with this. I’ve got word from even higher up than me (you can guess what that means) that this has to stay secret. It’s another one to add to the vault, I guess. Delete this letter after you read it, and erase all traces of it from your system. You don’t know what’s at stake here.
P.S. I can tell you one thing. The message that we received from Hermes before it went silent was just one sentence. “I’ll make my own spotlight.” Tell me if you can figure out what it means.
Your Friend,[DATA EXPUNGED]
The New York Times
ARES 4 MISSION ENDS IN DISASTER
Just this morning, NASA made a stunning public announcement that the ship Hermes, the transport vessel for the Ares 4 crew on their mission to Mars, was destroyed in a violent explosion in transit to the red planet. Annie Montrose, NASA public relations expert, explained the event this morning.
“We don’t know what caused the explosion,” she said, “but it completely destroyed the ship’s communications and life support systems. We received no warning of the explosion beforehand and no indication from the crew that anything was wrong. We lost complete contact with them in the explosion. There are no survivors. We have initialized an investigation into what caused the explosion, and all our energy is focused on discovering the issue and preventing it for the future. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the fallen astronauts. They will be deeply missed.”
Following the massive success of Mark Watney’s return to Earth, this seemed like a high point in NASA’s history. However, some are calling the Hermes catastrophe the “worst disaster since Columbia.” Moreover, NASA has been called into speculation recently as it is believed that they are withholding details regarding the explosion and the crew itself.
In regard to these claims, Mark Watney made a public statement, saying, “The nation and the world have suffered a major blow today. Right now we need to focus on figuring out what happened. Pointing fingers and throwing blame around isn’t going to get us anywhere. I, of all people, know what kind of disasters can happen in space, and I know that we need to work together to get to the bottom of this. Whatever happened, I’m sure there is an entirely reasonable explanation.”
When asked how he felt this was going to affect the public’s view on spaceflight, Watney said, “There is no way to tell what the future holds or how this will affect NASA’s prospects for the Ares 5 mission. Right now, the spotlight is on the Ares 4 mission, and that’s all I can really say about that.”
Our deepest regrets go to those personally affected by this mission. The six astronauts, Marie Dugoe, Carissa Cayle, Alex Vahn, George Todd, Glen Murdoch, and Stewart Murdoch will be in all our hearts. Rest in peace, Ares 4.
The old prosecutor wiped his lips and coughed. “I would like to request a brief recess.” He spoke lowly, but it seemed as if he had said nothing at all. No movements were made in the courtroom.
“Your honor?” The old prosecutor said.
“Granted,” the judge said. Though he spoke quietly, he might as well have cracked a whip; the room erupted into a fervor unmatched by anything else the judge had seen. Reporters leaped like jackrabbits, and cameramen surged like torrents of wind, unseen at the edges of the courtroom. The judge ordered all to be silent, but to no avail.
The news-starved reporters turned as one to the two innocent defendants, sitting pale as the moon, before the courtroom. They knew there was no way out now.
Long after the events of the Ares 4 explosion, the spotlight was now on the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and the scapegoats shifted in their seats, and their superiors, hidden by anonymity far away, breathed easy, knowing they had escaped to hide another day. They were, however, still unhappy with the outcome of events. But there was someone who wasn’t unhappy.
Somewhere in the depths of space, Stewart Murdoch’s frozen body smiled