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Gravity is a Harsh Mistress

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The Hermes was amazing. I mean, I'd known that when I’d been aboard for the trip out, but it seemed so much bigger and brighter now that I was on my way back to Earth. When Beck left me alone in his room, which doubled as the sickbay, he told me to hang tight and let the drugs do their job -- “then for god's sake, take a shower.”

Shower. Man. It seemed like decades since I had even seen one. As I lay in bed, I tried to calculate it in my head, but more than my eyesight was fuzzy. Okay, Mission Day 687 minus the time we spent going out...which was...124 days...so...a year and a half maybe? Whatever. More than a year without a shower.

The gravity on Hermes was a little more than on Mars: 0.4 g on Hermes to 0.38 g on Mars, and that small difference pressed down on me, making it hard to sit up in bed. Beck said it was normal, that the reduced calories and restricted activity from my trip to Schiaparelli crater had led to some muscle atrophy, just like someone who had to spend extended time in the hospital.

My heart was okay and my body worked, but my muscles would need to be built up again. My broken ribs made it tough to breathe, and the thought of just getting up to take a shower was a little daunting.

I managed to prop myself up enough that I could swing my legs over the edge of the bed, hissing as they sparked with some sort of nerve pain. Not good, but probably not bad either, otherwise Beck wouldn't have left me alone.

The sickbay had the bed anchored in the middle, so Beck could move around it easily to treat someone if there was a disaster. There were stacks of supply boxes along the white walls, with stuff for the treatment of everything from constipation and backache to arrhythmia and kidney stones. Fortunately there was nothing wrong with me that food, exercise, and time couldn't cure.

There was also an attached bathroom, while the rest of the crew had to share. Once I got myself sitting up, I wasn't sure I could make it to the shower and back. My starvation diet hadn't left me with a lot of reserves. Plus the shower was its own challenge: it didn't operate like an Earth shower, more like a combination hand shower/water vacuum. You ran the sprayer over a section of your body, wetting it without a ton of water rushing down you and into a basin. You soaped, then ran the vacuum sprayer over your body again, rinsing off while the waste water went into the recycler. It was efficient, and you got clean, and that was the best part about it.

Even if I got to the shower, I wasn't sure I could stand long enough to lather, rinse, and repeat. I sat on the bed for far too long, trying to decide if I would break any more bones if I fell. But trust your doctor, right? Grudgingly, I ended up calling Beck for help. "I don't think I can stand right now," I said truthfully. "My eyesight is shot, my feet are tingly, and I'm not sure I can find the door."

"Yeah, okay. Be there shortly." His response sounded a little forced, like he was trying to be casual but was still concerned. I thought I heard someone else with him, but couldn't make out the voice. "Should I bring anyone else?"

"Nah, I'm good. Just need a little assistance."

Beck hesitated, and I thought he might press me on my response, but he let it pass. "Sure, no problem."

Still, I wasn't surprised when Johanssen showed up with him. She had her laptop and a tray of food with her -- crackers, a cup of broth or soup, some protein thing that looked egglike, and a cup of the most delicious beverage I could recall, real fresh-made coffee -- and set them both on the table.

"I knew you had my back," I said reverently and nodded at the coffee. "Thanks."

"Us coffee addicts have to stick together."

Beck smiled at her, a little glint in his eye that told me they had become a lot closer than I remembered, lucky guy. "So which is it, Mark. Coffee or shower?"

"I think for everyone's sake, I should go for the shower. I almost wish I could take the food in there with me. I haven't eaten much of anything in months."

"Chris thought you might prefer a sponge bath today," Johanssen held up a pack of moist towelettes and shook it. "Get through it quickly and get your coffee while it’s hot."

I shook my head. "Nah, no bath. I have been dreaming of that shower ever since Beck mentioned it."

"Beth and I will walk with you," Chris said. "Let's get you off that bed."

I ignored the hand he offered, and levered myself off the mattress and down onto the floor. Not even a minute later, my legs were shaking. "You sure this is .4 Earth normal?"

"Absolutely." His brow knit in concern as he looked at me, and I could tell that his deep space medical specialization was making him worry like hell, but he shook it off. "Okay. Broken ribs, so I'll take this side." Chris carefully took my arm and gently wrapped it around his waist. "How's your breathing?"

I took a deep breath. No pain, and not much worse than I remembered. "Good." I felt solid standing next to Chris, stable and strong for the first time since I woke up on Hermes. I wasn't going to fall hard enough to break anything with him beside me.

"Excellent. You really were doing a lot of research on Mars, weren't you? No one ever thought to combine calorie restriction and low gravity bone density loss with long haul trucking before."

"That's me. A researching demon."

"Shut up, you two." Johanssen tucked herself against my other side, the one without the broken ribs. "Don't worry, the docs have a huge physical therapy plan all set out for you. Chris will make sure you're fine."

It sounded like hell. "Can't wait. Are you sure you're okay?" I asked her. "Apparently I am not the studly, attractive man you might remember from the trip out from Earth. Not to mention I hear I smell kinda ripe."

"I know." She gingerly patted my arm. "Chris had me inhale menthol before we came here and it worked for me. I can't smell a thing."

"Well, that explains why you're here. Vogel, Lewis and Martinez must still be able to smell." I squeezed them both for luck. "Let's see if I can make it across the floor." I hummed the song "Put One Foot in Front of the Other" and could feel Chris shake with suppressed laughter. Johanssen was too young to catch what I was doing, though, which made me sad. Don't kids watch "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" anymore?

The bathroom door was a lot further away than I expected, and my thighs were ready to give out by the time I reached it. A shower chair had been built into the tiny compartment, and I collapsed into it as soon as I could. "Fuck. That was tough." I looked up at Johanssen. "I've changed my mind. Get my tray. I'm never getting out."

She glanced significantly at Chris. "We figured this might happen. That's really why we both came."

"We'll take care of you, Mark." Chris squatted down beside me, while Johanssen moved around behind me and tugged at the straps on the disposable gown I wore. "We'll scrub while you rest."

"Sure, but this is only temporary, you know." I shifted slightly so that Johanssen -- Beth -- could pull my gown off. She didn't say anything, but I felt her flinch as it came off. I knew it was involuntary, but still, I was ashamed of how I looked. I imagined her trying not to look at the bruises, scrapes, scars, and weird scaly patches that covered my skin. "Just until I get my strength back."

"Oh, Mark." Beth sounded sad, and her voice had a little catch in it as she spoke. "You always were our favorite."

That made me smile, easing a bit of the shame I felt at being so banged up, even though I didn't know exactly what she meant. She started up the shower, and a wave of warm water ran along my shoulders and the back of my neck. "I'm going to work on your hair first, okay?"

"Sure, no problem." My chest felt tight as her fingers followed the hand shower, soaping up my scalp. I sat up more, pulling my shoulders back, and took a deep breath. It felt really hard to breathe.

"You okay?" Chris asked, and I had to open my eyes to look at him; I must have closed them after I felt Beth flinch. I guess I didn't want to see either Chris or Beth look at me with pity.

I was used to being a strong guy, and I had figured my way out of an impossible situation, surviving on Mars on my own. I didn't want to be the weak guy, an invalid, and there was a part of me that was worried that my strength might never come back.

There wasn't any pity in Chris's eyes that I could see, but neither was there the clinical detachment I expected of a doc. I guess being my doctor as well as my friend was playing havoc with his emotions too.

"Just...it's intense." I kept my eyes open and stared at Chris, trying to ignore my awareness of Beth's hands touching my skin. Lifting my arms so she could run the shower over me and down my chest, I focused on the sensation of the water and the light suction cleaning me, rather than the soft feeling of Beth's skin against my own.

Intellectually, I knew that this was part of Chris's job, the care and maintenance of the crew’s physical well-being, but that didn't explain why Beth was here and why they were both being so fucking careful with me. I mattered to them, I guess. But their kindness was killing me. I like a little distance in my relationships, and I had run out of jokes. I couldn't put up a wall between us any more.

I used Chris's shoulders to lift up a bit so Beth could reach everywhere, but couldn't stand for long. Damn, it had been a long time -- too fucking long -- since anyone had touched me.

My stomach did a weird loop as Chris tugged my slippers off. My feet looked bad, the nails yellow, too long and cracked. Seriously, what were these guys doing here? I must look like some kind of freak show, with all the damage of my life on Mars written in the muscles, skin and bones of my body.

Chris didn't care. He picked up my foot and ran his finger along the underside of it -- checking reflexes, I guess. "Do you want me to trim these?" he asked as he touched my toe.

The feel of Chris's skin and Beth's hands moved from a pleasurable, slick sensation to a painful, prickly one, almost as if my body was rejecting the contact. It shoved its way under my skin and up my arms and legs, becoming a tight, hard knot in my chest.

I couldn't breathe.

"Mark?"

I closed my eyes and shook my head, unable to speak.

"Mark?" Beth squeezed the back of my neck, and I gasped for breath, flailing my hands. "Chris, help."

Finally the knot opened just enough that I could say something. "No, no, please don't. I just...Beth. Can you stop for a second?" It was way too much, and I realized I was having a fucking panic attack. "I just...need to breathe a bit."

I didn't know what it was -- maybe it was their kindness, or the fact that I hadn't been around people for so long, or just that I was so tired from simply walking in here -- I started to cry. A big ol' embarrassing sob wracked my chest, and I could feel tears sliding down my face. I wanted to blame it on the shower, but I knew the shower didn't work like that. "This is too much."

The words were pulled out of me, long and low, and I had to clench my hands into fists to keep them from shaking. "Maybe...this is what I can do today. That's all. My hair's clean, so's my chest, and you got my armpits. No one will have to sniff menthol to be near me." I looked up at them, practically begging them with my gaze not to see how broken I was. "Give me a minute, then I can eat."

"I'm sorry it’s so overwhelming to be touched right now. No problem," Chris said, and his voice had a catch in it. "Whatever you want."

"Here," Beth said, opening one of the compressed towel packages and draping it over my shoulder. I could see she wanted to give me a hug, but she kept her distance. "You may want to dry off."

I did. I really did. Beth walked over to Chris and they turned their backs to me, talking in low tones together, not looking at me as I shakily dried off. It gave me time to pull myself back together, and when I was done, I wrapped the towel around my waist and took a couple of deep breaths.

The pain was there, but the pressure eased and I felt like I could face them again.

"Hey, you ready to get me out of here?" I leaned forward in the chair and snagged Beth's hand, leaving my other one open for Chris to lay his hand in it. They held on to me as I shook, either from cold or just in reaction to being with people again. "I think I'm done walking until I can get something to eat."

"Sure, buddy. Sure." He hesitated, and I could tell he was torn about what to do. "Is it okay if I carry you?"

"You're my friend. It's okay." A little laugh escaped me. "I don't think there's any way I'm going to get there on my own."

His shoulders relaxed down to a normal position. "As long as you’re good with it." Then he leaned over and picked me up in his arms. "We'll start on the exercises tomorrow."

I'd never considered what a broad chest he had before. It felt kinda nice, being cradled in his arms and carried into the bedroom. Beth walked beside us, her hand on my shin, which was the only part of me she could reach. I stopped shivering as I lay there, and a gentle warmth spread over me. My crew was good to me.

"Chair or bed?" Chris asked.

I thought for a moment. "Chair. I think I'll be fine once I eat."

Beth whisked around us and picked up a pile of clothing. "Clean uniform," she said. "Chris said you didn't need another gown, and I thought you might like your own uniform." She shook the shirt out and held it up to me. "They might be a little big."

"It's fine. I'll just have to put another notch in my belt. " She threw the shirt at me, and it landed in my lap.

"You say that a lot, you know." Chris set me down in the chair near the desk. "That you're fine."

I had to take a deep breath again. "It got me through a lot when I was on Mars. It’s a habit."

"We're going to have to work on breaking that before you get back to Earth."

I smiled. "I love that I'm going back to Earth."

They helped me dress, one article of clothing at a time, with great care and gentleness. Once I was sitting at the desk, slightly warm food in front of me, I felt better. The eggs and the coffee -- oh, the coffee -- were excellent. I ate what I could and pushed the plate away. "This is perfect, thanks."

"Think you can make it back to the bed okay?" Beth said as she picked up my tray.

"Yeah, sure. It's like, what, five feet. I can manage." I put on my bravest face.

"So let's see you do it," Chris said. "Take a nap. Beth and I will stay."

"Don't be such a mother hen. I'll be fine."

"Fine?" He arched his eyebrows at me. "You didn't look fine to me."

"Me either," Beth said. "I'll sit right here and read my book." She grabbed the laptop that she'd brought with my breakfast tray. "I'm good for a few hours."

"Still reading Hercule Poirot?"

"How'd you know?"

"I read every one of them you had on the laptop you left on Mars."

She brightened, her smile lighting up the room. "Great. We can discuss them once you wake up."

I knew I was outgunned. The two of them curled in their chairs, Beth with her laptop and Chris with his arms crossed, daring me to walk to the bed.

Which I did, slowly, carefully, but on my own before collapsing onto the bed. "In your face, gravity," I muttered as I struggled to crawl under the covers.

Chris walked over and hooked me up to the oxygen monitor, then smoothed out the sheet and blankets on the bed, making sure they were straight. "Need anything?"

I looked around the room, then at Beth and Chris, and couldn't help but smile. I laid my hand over his and gave it a squeeze. "I have everything I need right here."