The five words were swirling through my head as I went into freefall, plummeting through space, fighting for the ability to breathe.
"Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive." "Mark Watney is still alive."
The others were reacting to Mitch Henderson's recorded message with excited chatter and laughter. I could hear them through the fog of crippling pain and I squeezed my eyes shut, covered my ears, as I tried to think.
It was impossible. They had to be wrong, or playing the cruelest kind of joke possible.
Mark was dead. His suit had decompressed. The bio-monitor had shown no life signs. I'd been the one to declare him dead. I'd been the one to tell Lewis to give up her search to save the rest of us, even the very core of my soul was dying as I said the words.
It had been months. Four months. Four months of forcing myself to act as one did when one lost a co-worker, lost a friend, but not like someone who had lost his lover of three years. I had had to grieve in the darkest hours of the artificial nights on the Hermes. It was only then that I tortured myself by remembering the stolen hours and days we'd had together.
The motorcycle touring trip we'd dared to take the summer before last; finally free from the watchful eyes of our NASA caretakers as we rode our bikes around Lake Michigan, staying at out of the way motels where no one knew us. Then those last intense months of Ares training in Houston when we ached to be able to spend our nights together but had had to settle with sitting in the cafeteria eating breakfast inches apart, I'd been so hungry to feel his touch but not daring to even press my knee against his.
We'd spent the most time together aboard the Hermes itself. Semi private sleeping quarters of two bunks each had meant that we'd gotten to spend 124 days almost sleeping together. The bunks definitely weren't built for two and the cramped conditions on the Hermes wasn't conducive for anything more than stolen moments.
"When we get back we are sneaking away and you aren't going to be allowed to wear clothes for a week." Mark had whispered in my ear as we'd worked in Hab laboratory together on Sol 5. The next day the storm had swept in and Mark was dead.
But he wasn't: Mark was alive.
We'd - I'd - left him for dead on Mars. As mission surgeon it had been my call and I'd made it. It was what Mark and I had agreed when we learned we'd be on a mission together. The mission and the crew came first. We had both worked for years to get the dream ticket to Mars. We were going to have all the time in the world to make our relationship public once we got back and our careers and our fellow crewmembers were no longer on the line.
Mark was alive.
He was alive and but was alone on a godforsaken planet with nothing but a millimeter of canvas protecting him from the most inhospitable climate conditions imaginable. The Hermes was already millions of miles away from Mars. With every breath I took, the Hermes was speeding farther away from Mark. There was no going back. He might be alive now but Mark was going to die alone on the planet and there was nothing I could do to help him.