Mark’s grave was a monstrosity.
Chris shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the breeze that carried with it an early-autumn chill. He stood at the foot of the grave and craned his neck. It was over six feet tall and ten feet long, with a stone base that extended two feet around the headstone in each direction. Mark Donagh Watney, PhD, read the inscription, followed by his birthdate and an engraving of his face in profile. The deathdate had been removed long ago.
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night. Chris reached out and traced the quotation underneath Mark’s name with his bare fingers. The stone was so cold it almost burned, but he didn’t pull his hand away until he heard the crunch of leaves behind him.
“What the hell kind of name is Donagh, anyway?” Chris asked as Mark approached. He tucked his hand back into his pocket and didn’t even bother asking how Mark had found him.
“Donagh,” Mark corrected, though Chris couldn’t hear the difference.
“That’s what I said.”
Mark shook his head, a small smile tucked in the corner of his mouth. “It’s Irish.”
“I know that.”
“Means warrior, if I remember right.”
Chris snorted, because Mark was a warrior like a shark could be considered a giraffe.
“Why the hell haven’t they taken this thing down yet?” he muttered, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the stone. Of course he knew the answer. The cost to remove the headstone had been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Watney family after Mark’s return, an outrageous figure that they couldn’t pay. Mark, for all his fame, still only made the mediocre salary of a government employee, and he didn’t have the means either to remove his own headstone. Besides, he said with his usual infuriating practicality, he’d be needing it at some point down the line anyway. No use in getting rid of it just yet.
“I could call up Vogel,” Mark said finally after a moment of silence. “He could fix up a bomb for us. Cook it up in the kitchen, bring it down here in the middle of the night, and boom. No more headstone.”
“I wouldn’t be too hasty about that,” Chris said. “You might need it sooner than expected.”
An awkward beat of silence, and then: “You’re angry.”
“You’re damn right I’m angry.” Chris turned on his heel and strode away. He’d almost made it to the gravel path before Mark caught up with him.
“Wait - Chris, hold on!” He grabbed Chris by the elbow and spun him around. “Look, I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I should’ve told you before the crew was announced this morning.”
“No shit,” Chris snapped at him.
“But this mission is a great opportunity -”
“You’re going back into space! What the hell kind of opportunity is that? Have you forgotten what happened the last time you ventured off-planet?”
A shadow passed over Mark’s features, and Chris instantly regretted his words. Of course Mark hadn’t forgotten about Ares 3. Nine years down the road, and he still woke in a cold sweat in the middle of the night at least once a month.
“I gotta do this, Chris,” he said quietly, dropping his hand from Chris’s arm. “You know that.”
“Yeah, because it’s big and beautiful and greater than you,” Chris recited bitterly. He’d heard the words enough over the years. “But I made a promise, Mark! I was never going to leave you behind again. I go where you go. Remember that? And now you’re going back to fucking space, where I can’t follow you!”
Because the irony of it all was, Mark was the only one of them who hadn’t mutinied, and therefore was the only one still allowed to travel into space. Of all of them, he was the least likely to want to return to that godforsaken frontier, but he was the only one NASA continually asked to go on missions. And for nine years, Mark had turned them down. Until now.
Mark at least had the decency to look ashamed for a brief moment. “I didn’t ask to do this, Chris. They approached me. I’m not doing this to you on purpose.”
“Yeah? Well, it feels like you are.”
Virgo 2 was due to launch in eight months. Its three-day journey would take it to the Moon, where it would drop off a new batch of scientists at the meager lunar base established by Virgo 1. They would bring with them supplies to sustain them for their ten-month stint on the desolate world, as well as the means to add on to the lunar base. The plan was that by Virgo 5, due to launch at the end of the decade, a sprawling and permanent base would exist on the Moon. It would sustain up to fifty people at a time, indefinitely. It had to be self-sustaining - needed to be able to produce its own crops and recycle its water - because it was a stepping stone to establishing a colony on Mars. The Minos program, slated for launch in the early 2060s, would send a group of humans to live on that barren planet permanently.
Mark was only going to be a little over two hundred thousand miles away. A baby step compared to the one hundred and forty million miles that had separated Ares 3 from Earth. But still, for ten months, he was going to be where Chris couldn’t reach him, couldn’t help him, couldn’t save him.
“It’s not gonna happen again,” Mark said quietly. “No dust storms on the Moon.”
“Sure, because that’s the only threat you face out in space,” Chris snorted. “There’s absolutely no risk of habitat failure, of decompression, of a micrometeoroid strike, of the booster failing upon liftoff, of -”
He broke off and shook his head.
“You never used to be like this,” Mark said after a beat, and Chris gritted his teeth at the quiet accusation in his words. “You’re USAF. You’d been flying longer than any of us by the time they started putting Ares 3 together. Shit, Chris, you used to give me heart attacks with some of the stunts you pulled in training!”
“Yeah, and then I grew up!” Chris snapped at him. “Suddenly it wasn’t just me anymore, it was you and me, and I had someone else that I wanted to live for. Someone I’d lay down my life for. Someone I declared dead and left behind on a desolate planet! Someone who could’ve slipped through my fingers, who almost died out there in the void. Damn it, Mark, don’t do this to me again! And for God’s sake, don’t do this to yourself.”
Mark sighed. “I knew letting you watch those videos was a terrible idea.”
“Do you think there was any way you could’ve stopped me?” Chris shot back.
NASA had finally returned to Acidalia Planitia with Ares 6, and during that mission they retrieved Mark’s video logs from his time on Mars. Those had been transmitted back to Earth just this past year, and released to the entire world. Mark’s fame had been renewed, and interested in the space program spiked once again. But a part of Chris died with each of those video logs, as he watched a hollow-eyed Mark record his successes and failures. He died a little with every bruise, scrape, and black eye Mark endured; as he became more and more emaciated.
“I’m going to the Moon, Chris,” Mark said with finality. “I’m going to the Moon, and I’m going to work my infamous botany powers and colonize it. It’s pretty neat, you’ve got to admit. First man in history to colonize two celestial bodies. And I’m doing it so that the generations who follow in our footsteps will be able to sustain themselves on Mars, on Titan, and beyond. I’m doing something that’s bigger than me, that’s bigger than any of us. It’s just ten months, and then I’ll be back again. And I swear to you, after that, I will never go into space again for as long as I live.”
“I’d have made you promise me that nine years ago if I thought then that you’d be stupid enough to do something like this.” Chris pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. It was barely six in the morning. In the pre-dawn gray of Arlington, everything seemed just a little bit surreal. Including this conversation. He dropped his hands and sighed. “I need a fucking drink.”
“I do have some standards, and one of them is that you shouldn’t drink before at least ten in the morning.” Mark put a hand on the small of Chris’s back and steered him toward the path. “So in the meantime, can I buy you coffee?”
“That’s a start,” Chris said. “You’re going to owe me for this, Watney. Big time.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking about that, actually.” Mark put his hands in the pockets of his light jacket. They walked comfortably side-by-side, arms occasionally brushing. “Everest.”
“You’re always going on about how you miss having the time to climb and we never did get that honeymoon, so…” Mark shrugged. “Everest. I know a guy. He can get us onto an expedition next year, after I return.”
“You think you can just bribe me -”
“ - With phrases like tallest mountain on Earth and first man to go to Mars and also scale Everest?” Mark broke in. He smirked. “Yes, I think I can.”
Chris sighed, fighting down a smile. It faded quickly when he thought about Mark on the lunar base, only a thin wall separating him from the vacuum. “I’m still fucking terrified, you know.”
“I do.” Mark linked his arm through Chris’s. “Ten months. Piece of cake. It’ll be over before you know it. And then I’m yours forever.”
“I thought you already were mine forever.”
Mark pulled Chris’s hand out of his pocket so he could lace their fingers together. They paused on a street corner. Mark turned to look at him.
“I was yours the moment you handed my ass to me in the gym on our first day of training as a crew. I’ll be yours the rest of my days.” Traffic cleared, and Mark started to cross the street, tugging Chris with him. “Come on. Coffee.”