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The Martian and the Earthlings

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Mission Day 688

So, the shower thing didn’t go quite the way I was expecting. I mean, look, I’m a big boy, and I can clearly take care of myself (for a really long time) but it turns out broken ribs are no damn fun. Even with pain meds. Beck had to adjust the water for me, and keep me from tipping over, because I’ve completely lost my “space legs”, and the subtle “uphill” and “downhill” of the rotating section, which is where the shower is, had me sliding sideways whenever I tried to bend over far enough to wash my ass. And when I tried to grab on to a handhold hard enough to keep from falling, I nearly fainted. So Beck did the stuff I couldn’t reach, tut tutting all the while about the raw places that I got from wearing the same clothes so many days in a row. He hauled me back to sickbay in nothing but a towel and spent half an hour applying salves and antibiotic ointments. At least Johanssen’s not the doctor aboard.

***
“So how is he, really?” Commander Lewis asked Beck, and the doctor wobbled a hand in answer before swallowing the mouthful she’d interrupted.

“Exhausted, and in a lot more pain than he’s going to acknowledge.” Beck eyed the remaining few bites of his lunch wistfully, but elaborated. “I had him start on applesauce and crackers, and if that doesn’t give him trouble he’ll have scrambled eggs when he wakes up, but NASA’s not going to want him off a controlled diet for a couple of weeks. We’ll push the calories -- I’ve got him on an IV right now -- but some of that stink was ketosis.”

“Even with all those potatoes? I thought ketosis was a low-carb thing.”

“It can be a low-calorie thing too. I mean, you saw how much weight he’s lost.” Beck shook his head. “Part of me wants to stuff him with every kind of meal we’ve got aboard, but the rest of me knows that if he can’t manage to keep down what he’s eaten, he’s going to break the rib that’s only cracked on top of the two that are already broken.”

“And he’s going to hate being stuck on the bland foods. So you came out here to eat some of Vogel’s sausage where he couldn’t smell them instead of joining Mark on the bland stuff in solidarity?”

“Well, yes. It’s not as if the rest of us can’t ...” Beck stopped. Looked up at her. “Wait. Wait. That’s an idea.”

******

Mission Day 689

God, I missed these guys.

Beck was hanging around when I woke up. He appears to have made it his mission in life to keep me from faceplanting. Says he’s not bored enough to want me adding a broken nose to his work schedule; I’ve got enough interesting damage to last him for a while. I told him to go fuck himself and he blushed and admitted he has a better option. Apparently Lewis has decided that she couldn’t live another 500 days watching him pining after Johanssen when Johanssen was clearly pining right back so he’s moved in with her. Johanssen, that is, not Lewis.

There may be a problem with my quarters, though. Martinez moved into Beck’s room because it was getting too hot in his place and mine is right next door. They think it’s a problem with the coolant, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Ha! They have not acquired my mad Martian survival skills. It may take me a while to think of a clever plan, but just you wait....

Martinez, by the way, stopped by while I was trying not to cry over my breakfast. Beck’s limiting me to scrambled eggs to start, and while he was busy apologizing for it, my taste buds were trying to wake up after their long potato nap. Martinez being Martinez, he offered to make me hash browns once I’m allowed to have something less bland. I offered to stuff a potato up his tailpipe if he tries it. And I don’t mean the one in his car.

Thing is, when he sat down to eat, all he put on his plate was scrambled eggs too. And a cracker. Which he shared.
***

 

When Mark Watney drifted up into the command module, Rick Martinez was going through his calculations one more time, hoping to see something he hadn’t seen the last five times. He looked up though, when Mark came in, and waved at Johanssen’s chair. “Looking for a break from gravity?”

“Yeah,” Mark said, moving carefully from handhold to handhold before strapping himself in. He had to adjust the straps -- Johanssen was dinky, and Mark was twice her size even now. “Broken ribs aren’t much fun, even at Mars equivalent.”

Martinez shrugged. “Sorry. I’d set the rotation lower for a few weeks, but we’re going to need every erg we can get out of the fuel we have left. And bringing the wheel up to Earth’s gravity so we’re not all wimpy when we get home is already on the list of ‘things we might have to skip’.”

Mark grimaced. “Sorry about that. If I hadn’t blown out Pathfinder, maybe I would have realized how fast you’d be going on the backswing. I could have turned some of the water I left in the hab back into hydrazine before I started for Ares 4.”

“Did you have a lot of water left?” Martinez asked, interested.

“Enough for a hot bath,” Mark admitted with a rueful quirk of his lips.

“A hot bath?” Martinez echoed, unable to keep the note of jealousy out of the question. The showers on the Hermes got you clean, but they were nothing like a good soaking. “You are the luckiest bastard alive, you know that, right?”

And that, that sparked the patented Watney smirk Rick had been waiting to see ever since they’d hauled his friend back aboard. “Well,” he drawled. “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

*****

Mission Day 690

I keep dreaming that I’m back on Mars. I fall asleep and start to dream and the next thing I know my eyes are open and I’m sniffing as hard as I can, hoping that the eau de other people in the air will make my heart remember what speed it’s supposed to work at. I did it while Beck was in the room looking for one of his gadgets and had to spend five minutes convincing him that I was breathing okay.

It’s better when I go down to the Rec. There’s almost always someone puttering around or trying to relax with a book in that space, so I don’t even have to open my eyes. I can hear them moving and go back to sleeping. It’s more awkward though, when I don’t manage to wake myself up in time. I just about gave Commander Lewis heart failure when I woke up yelling at Sojourner for getting into the potato bins.

Not really. I mean, it’s Lewis. She takes things pretty much in stride. That’s what makes her a good commander. But she did suggest that I try listening to music while I’m sleeping. I told her that disco makes for lousy lullabies, and she said maybe I could just try having a cup of hot milk. Which gives me an idea...

 

****
Alex Vogel was making his way from one assignment to the next when he came across Watney standing just outside his assigned quarters, red faced and breathing hard.

“Are you all right?” Vogel asked. “Shall I summon Dr. Beck?”

Mark waved him off and puffed out a long breath. “I’m fine. Well. Mostly fine. I was just trying to see if I could sleep in my own bed.”

Vogel shook his head and took hold of Mark’s arm, ensuring that there would be no unfortunate accidents. “This you should not have done,” he said, his accent deepening with his concern. “We have not opened the door for some time, and the temperature is almost certainly unsafe for one who is still unwell.”

“Heat can feel good on aches,” Mark said. “In fact, it did feel good at first.” He pulled a face. “I just couldn’t stay in for more than a few minutes. It’s like a sauna in there.”

Vogel stopped and looked at Watney. Watney looked back, his eyes brightening as they both considered the same thought. A sauna? Why not?

*****

Mission Day 691

Got yelled at by Commander Lewis and Beck today, which is good, because I wasn’t sure how to take being treated like I’m fragile. And bonus, I got Vogel into trouble too. Mostly for taking chances with me while I’m walking around like Quasimodo, but also because he and I got so busy trying to figure out how to turn my ex-bedroom into the first space sauna (yay, another first!) that he forgot to go take the measurements on the busywork NASA’s sent up to justify another few hundred days in space.

And yeah, maybe I was risking pneumonia by trying to help shift a box or two, but hey, it’s .2gs at that level. They barely weighed anything!

Martinez and Johannsen came down to see what the fuss was, and the upshot of it is that we’re going to try seeing if we can build up the insulation in that room so that it will get up to proper sauna temperatures. Then we can soak our aches out (in strictly measured intervals) and tell NASA that it’s therapeutic.

Score!

 

*******
“So, NASA wants pictures. Apparently, the whole world wants pictures. So we’re going to have to make you look presentable.” Beth Johanssen settled down alongside the chair where her recently rescued crewmate was drowsing. If he’d been truly asleep, she’d have left him alone, but she’d seen his fingers moving restlessly across the surface of the blanket Beck had dropped in his lap. He blinked up at her, not even pretending to be sleepy.

“What’s not presentable?” Mark asked, all innocence. It wasn’t a very good attempt, compared to how she remembered him pulling the same stunt during training, but she reached over to bop him gently on the head as if it were.

“The beard, for one. And your hair looks like you cut it with a hacksaw.” And the sunburn, which she knew had Beck worried, because it meant Mark had spent too much time out of the shielding of the hab or the rover and that meant an increased risk of all kinds of problems.

“It never occurred to me to bring scissors along from the hab so I had to use what I could find,” Mark admitted, running a hand over the scruff on top of his head.

Johanssen held up the barbering kit. NASA had given the extra task of barbering for the months long journey to Beck, but after the first time he’d lowered Martinez’s ears Mark had petitioned Lewis to make the job rotate to someone else -- anyone else. “Well, if you’ll sit up, I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Mission Day 692

There’s a picture of us that NASA uses for publicity -- you’ve probably seen it. All six of us in our Mars EVA suits with Johanssen seated demurely between Beck and Martinez while Vogel and Lewis and I loom nobly in the rear. We all look like someone took away our last cookie. Well, maybe not Martinez. He might know where the cookies are. Not even three hours of a NASA photoshoot can wear down that guy. Anyway, it was Martinez’s idea to try to recreate the shot for the folks back home. Just to prove that i’m really alive, you see. Because at this distance sending video is still tricky, but still pictures aren’t too hard. I’ll do a video too, for my parents, but I asked Lewis to let me do that one in private, and it can’t be more than a minute or two long.

Anyway, we all lined up for the picture, trying to look like serious NASA astronauts even without the suits -- they’re back on Mars, and nobody wanted to get into the clunky space EVAs for a two second picture. And then we took pictures. Lots of pictures. Because every single time the shutter went somebody blinked. Or farted. Or giggled. Lewis finally decide to send the one where all of us had lost it, even though Johanssen offered her mad photoshop skillz to make it look like I was a cardboard cutout that had just wandered into the shot.

Kapoor’s going to give us all grief, I just know it. Worth it, though. Definitely worth it.

*****

“Hey, Commander?”

Melissa Lewis leaned back from her console and folded her arms while she watched Watney realize that he couldn’t drape himself against the doorjamb with broken ribs. “Yes?”

“Got a minute?” Diffidence always looked wrong on Mark’s face, but she gave him points for trying.

“Several,” she said, drily, and reached for her coffee. “Something on your mind?”

“Yeah.” Mark sidled over to the nearest chair and sat down carefully. Lewis didn’t let the frown reach her face, but she had to wonder why he was hurting enough to let it show. It wasn’t like Beck hadn’t offered him pain meds. Then again, Mark had been months on Mars with a limited supply of everything, and had probably formed the habit of ignoring pain until he had to dip into that supply. She made a mental note to ask Beck about it, and set the problem aside for the moment.

“Is this going to be a formal report, or an informal bull session?” she asked.

Mark started to shrug and then grimaced. “A little of both.” He fumbled for something in his pocket. “I’ve got something for you. Two things actually. One of which I’m hoping you’ll consider not telling NASA about any time soon, and the other of which I’m kind of hoping you’ll... well... not use against me.” He scratched his head. “At least, not till we’re back on earth. Okay?”

She took a sip of coffee. “Depends on what they are, Watney,” she said. “But I’ll consider it.”

He relaxed a fraction, and opened his hand to reveal two portable computer drives. “The red one,” he said, “is my logs. Every day. Every experiment. Every mistake. Three terabytes worth.”

Her eyes widened. “And you don’t want NASA to know you rescued the data?”

He scrubbed at his face with his free hand. “Well, yeah, I do. Just. Not yet. I mean, you know everyone on earth is looking at our transmissions, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, I know I’m going to get second guessed on everything I did. But I’d kind of like it to be when I’m there to defend myself, y’know?”

She did know. And she nodded. “Do you mind if I take a look? I’d kind of like to know...” She stopped, unsure. “I wouldn’t use it against you, no matter what it says. You know that, Mark.”

“Oh yeah,” he said, easily, a smile lighting up his face. “And if I didn’t want you to look at it I’d probably still be hiding it in my space suit. But it’s got the data for all of the experiments I did for you guys, and I figured the rest of the crew might like not being bored for the trip back.”

She blinked. “You did. All of our experiments?”

He didn’t shrug this time, but it was a close call. “I had a lot of down time,” he said. “And there were like, only five of you, and only a month’s worth of experiments each. I couldn’t bring back samples -- except maybe any dirt that got caught on my clothes. But...”

“Mark, that’s wonderful,” Lewis said, smiling now. She’d been wondering how to make the time fly on the way home, and now she could keep everyone busy doing their actual jobs and not just maintenance. “But what’s the other drive?”

He blew out a long breath and bit his lip before handing it over. “This,” he said. “Is all the personal stuff I could get from everyone’s computers. Including. And I’m serious here, Commander, I really really am trusting you not to misuse use this...” He stopped, as if it was all he could do to get the next words to get past his teeth.

“Including?” Lewis prompted.

“Including the disco music.” he managed. And he looked so wary that she wanted to laugh. But she accepted the gift for what it was, and closed her hand around the drive, surprised by how grateful she was to have it. All the reassurances, all the words in the world -- in two worlds, hadn’t eased the sting of leaving a man behind. Even having him back aboard had failed to banish the ghost of the sword of Damocles, the accusation that must come from him of having failed in her duty. She’d waited, and waited, only to get this token of absolution.

“I’ll use headphones,” she promised, and he sighed and relaxed, the irrepressible grin turning up the corner of his mouth. “Thank you, Mark. It’s good to have you home.”