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“Hey, mind if I sit here?”
Beth looks up and blinks in surprise. Everyone else has been avoiding her since yesterday, some more overtly than others. She’d spoken to Mark Watney a few times before in training exercises, but they weren’t friends, and she hadn’t been expecting him to stick his neck out for her.
She glances around, but there are other places to sit, so it’s not from lack of options.
His smile is starting to dim when she turns her attention back to him, and she realizes that she’s been quiet for a socially unacceptable amount of time.
“Sure,” she says, too loud, and cringes a little away from the attention they’re no doubt receiving.
Watney's smile perks back up, and he sets his lunch tray down, joining her. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”
“Well, yes,” she says, “But I don’t mind.” She grins to let him know she means it, and he smiles back.
“What are you reading, then? Am I interrupting something good?” Watney asks.
She hates that question, usually, but it’s obvious that he’s trying. Instead of deflecting, she pushes the tablet toward the center of the table so he can see the screen.
“Is that… a reddit forum?” Mark asks, amused. “Jesus, isn’t that website older than you are?”
“Yes and yes,” she says, “It has a bunch of documentation on python and older codes that NASA’s current language is based on.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Mark says, “Because coding is actually fairly organic or some shit the way it develops, right?”
“Yeah, actually,” Beth says, “Because people write code. They get into certain habits and shorthands from the code they learn and use. I found an error in the Hermes source code that I think is from an incorrect translation of an older section.” She peeters to a stop, and even though he doesn’t look bored or dismissive like most people would, she can’t help adding, “Sorry, you probably don’t want the details.”
“No, please. I mean, go ahead, you’re welcome to tell me, but I have to warn you, it’d be a waste,” Mark said and pulled a face. “I’m passable with code, and I mean I literally passed the entrance test to get here, but I have a feeling I’d be out of my depth if you’re in Hermes source code and schooling all of NASA during the first two weeks of training.”
She blushes a bit, but grins at the implicit compliment.
“I don’t mind, though,” he continues, “At the very least I’d recognize all the big words you’d use, even if they didn’t make sense in order. One of my roommates in college had a programmer girlfriend for half a semester, and she used to come over and talk about her project all the time. I never understood a fucking word of it, but I couldn’t tell if that’s because it was so far over my head or because she was high as hell.”
“But I’m sure you stayed sober and took notes, right?” Beth teases him.
“I was sober, actually. No one ever believes me, but I swear on a fucking stack of bibles that it’s true,” Mark says, “Marijuana makes me nauseous as fuck. That roommate was also in my botany program, and he said that I was wasted as a botanist because I couldn’t use my skills as God intended.”
That makes her laugh, an honest giggly sound, but it draws stares, and she stops as quickly as she started. It reminds her why he’s here, and after a second, she says, “You don’t have to worry about me, you know. I’m fine.”
“Of course you are,” Mark agrees, a hint of confusion in his expression, “Believe me, I don’t worry about anyone who can stand up for themselves like you did. A jab right to the throat, and you didn’t even kill him for grabbing you like that, which shows more self-restraint than I probably have.”
She’s trying to think of a diplomatic way to ask why he’s here if that’s true, which must show on her face because he smiles.
“This isn’t concern,” Mark says, waving his hands back and forth between them, “This is solidarity.”
“Solidarity against assholes?” she asks, because the program is a lot more Hunger Games than cooperative team effort, despite NASA’s best intentions, and she doesn’t expect to be solid with anyone here.
“Yes,” Mark agrees immediately, “But also hopefully we’ll be crew some day, you know?” He shrugs, looking a little uncomfortable for the first time.
She gets that, though. She doesn’t really want to talk about feelings either, so she grins and says, “If we’re crew, I’m definitely boring you with all the gritty details.”
Mark smiles, delighted. “Bring it on.”
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She wouldn't say that she and Mark are the best of friends after that by any stretch, but she definitely makes an effort with him that she doesn't bother with for the rest of the candidates. They eat together fairly often, and she invites him to join her for her morning runs.
Honestly, she thought he'd decline because this was in addition to the large amount of running NASA already requires. Beth ran cross country in high school and college, so she loves it, but she's heard Watney bitch about it several times.
He's here, though, slumped and blinking owlishly at her in the streetlight as she scrapes her hair back into a ponytail.
“I hate every part of this, just for the record,” he says through a yawn.
“Suck it up, Watney,” she replies as she starts stretching. “No one’s making you do this.”
“Ha,” he says, standing up and matching her movements. “I had ‘needs improvement’ on endurance in my last evaluation. Not even running is going to keep me from going to Mars.”
“That's the spirit,” Beth says and starts running without warning him, automatically following her favorite trail. Watney swears behind her and catches up as she grins into the cool wind. “Keep up,” she adds.
“Fuck you,” Watney replies, but not with any actual venom, so she just laughs and keeps running.
It's a challenge to match her pace to his, to go fast enough to push him but not her top speed that will leave him in the dust. It's a skill she remembers from training with a team but that she hasn't exercised in a long time.
They're quiet, letting Beth count her stride with rising factorials instead of simple integers, until Watney starts to show some strain at the 5 mile mark, his breathing too fast and uneven.
“I’m surprised you haven't asked me why I want to be an astronaut,” she says, mostly to get him talking.
“Uh, same reason as the rest of us, probably? To be awesome and go to Mars,” Mark says, huffing with exertion. “Why?”
Beth gives a little laugh. “That’s it exactly, but the other guys in the program don't seem to get that. They've all asked me.”
“Well, fuck ‘em,” Mark says. “I mean, I know we're not chosen yet or anything, but I am fucking stoked to go to Mars, and I can't imagine why anyone else wouldn't feel the same way.”
She smiles wide and lets the silence fall comfortably for a few minutes, as they hit mile 6, the trail close to looping around and leaving them back where they started. “So you always wanted to go into space?” she asks, partly to keep him talking and partly because she’s curious.
“For as long as I can remember,” he replies, “And according to my mom, before that. I actually applied for Ares I but I didn’t make the cut.”
“You must have been pretty young,” she says as she slows their pace down incrementally, using the last stretch as a cool down.
He spares her a sideways glance, no doubt because she’s in a glass house when it comes to age, but then says, “Yeah. Another degree and some life experience, and here I am. What about you?” Mark asks, “Were you writing space code from the cradle?”
“Pretty much,” Beth says and considers giving him the answer she gave NASA and the other recruits about being inspired by the women before her, Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, among so many others. It’s true, but it’s not the whole story. It’s not the beginning for her. “My dad and I always watched sci-fi together. It was kinda our thing. I grew up with Star Trek and Star Wars, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica.” She shrugged. “I just decided to see what was out there for myself.”
They’re jogging slowly now, the building where they started in sight. “I have two responses to that, and I mean them both equally,” Mark says, breath coming easier now, “First, hell fucking yeah.”
Beth stops where they started, back full circle, and stretches her legs, beginning with her ankles and calves. “And second?”
Mark mirrors her movements, still following her lead, and says, “Jesus fucking Christ, you are such a nerd.”
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She keeps her eyes on Watney’s empty chair all the way to the Hermes. The acceleration pushes her head and stretches the muscles in her neck harshly, but she can’t look away. Closing her eyes only replays the image of the impact, Mark hit and thrown away from her, disappearing into the violence of storm. When they reach orbit, the weight of acceleration lifts, but it just reminds her of Mark’s utter joy the first time they were weightless, and she can't help the sobs that quietly escape her control.
She’s in charge of comms, but Lewis is the one who contacts NASA once they’re safely aboard the Hermes. They weren’t sure if any of their transmissions had made it through and have to report Mark’s death, the words heavy in Lewis’ official tone. Houston is silent for much longer than the light travel time, and they all wait, gathered together on the bridge. Lewis stands at attention as much as is possible in zero gravity, watching the clock.
Finally, Mitch’s voice comes crackling over the radio, solemn but steady, “Roger that, Hermes. I know it’ll be hard, but for now, let’s focus on getting you home as quick as possible. Begin departure checks. We’ll send an updated course heading.”
“Wilco, Houston. I’m turning you over to Johanssen to begin sysops check procedures. Vogel is standing by for new telemetry. Hermes-Actual out.” Lewis turns to them. “You heard the man.”
Beth settles in her chair, strapping in automatically, and keys the comm control to her station. “Houston, this is Hermes, beginning departure checks. Go ahead on new telemetry when ready.”
Martinez takes the pilot seat next to her as she pulls up the reactor readings (all systems nominal) while she waits for NASA to get back to them as fast as light can travel. The rest of the crew drifts away, intent on their own tasks, but Beth is already buried in the numbers, hyper-focussed as her fingers fly across the keyboard.
Houston is paranoid, as per usual, but they still manage to complete all checks and rechecks in 19 hours. Twice Chris shoves a bottle of juice and a snack pack at her, apparently knowing better than to try and get her to leave her station. She chokes them down, nauseated each time, but she ignores it and continues working through the checks.
She’s well past NASA’s allowed on-duty limit, but no one says anything as she runs sysops for the course correction, counting down the seconds to the gentle burn that points them in the right direction so they can begin their slow crawl away from Mars.
Beth babysits the reactor acceleration for half an hour, eyes itching with exhaustion as she checks and double-checks the numbers. She’s honestly surprised it takes him as long as it does when Chris shows up.
“Beth,” he says quietly.
“Dr. Beck,” she replies, which is a dick move, but she can’t take him treating her gently right now.
“Johanssen,” he says in kind, and it’s strange that she can’t read anything from his voice, but she doesn’t look away from her monitors. “I’m removing you from duty for the next twelve hours.”
“I’m fine, Dr. Beck,” she answers.
“You haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours, so no, you’re not. Also, it wasn’t a suggestion.”
Beth snorts at the idea of him trying to order her around. “I need to finish this.”
“No, you don’t,” he says firmly, “You need to eat and get at least eight hours of sleep.” He waits, but she continues to ignore him. She hears a rustle of fabric as he moves, but she keeps her eyes on the screens even though they’re starting to blur. “This isn’t going to bring Mark back.”
“I know,” she replies flatly.
His arm comes into her vision, reaching for the clasp on the straps of her chair.
“Don’t,” she hisses, popping them free herself and spinning up and away from the chair to face him, ready to argue and snap and scream at him for interrupting, but the words die in her throat when she looks at him finally.
He looks exhausted, as if every part of him is wilting. His face is red, and she’d never have known from his voice, but he’s crying. Instead of falling down his face in downward tracks, the tears gather at the corner of his eyes, floating gently in front of his face. He waves a hand in front of his eyes and sends the bigger clumps spinning away from him, one side of his mouth pulling up in rueful acknowledgement.
“Chris,” she whispers.
He reaches out and she takes his hand, his warm fingers wrapping around her thin, cold ones. His touch crashes into her, making her breath catch for a long second as all the emotions she’d been pushing down suddenly come roaring back, and when she breathes out again it’s a sob.
Chris pulls them together and holds her as they spin around in the small open area of the bridge. She tucks her face into his shoulder to muffle her sobs, wrapping herself around him as tight as possible, but she can’t stop crying.
Eventually she quiets, even though she knows tears are still flowing out and wetting Chris’ sweater. He rubs a broad hand up and down her back. “Do you think you can eat?” he asks.
She shakes her head no.
“Okay,” he says, “Bedtime, then.” She nods but doesn’t let go of him, so he grabs onto the nearest chair and propels them gently down the corridor. All Beth has to do is hold on, and that’s no hardship considering how she can’t convince herself to stop clinging.
She thinks she might have to let go when they get to the tunnels, but Chris wraps an arm around her waist and compensates for her weight seemingly effortlessly until he’s carrying her to her room.
When the door closes behind them, she manages to release her grip on him so that he can set her on the bed. He gives her a protein shake and a bottle of water, which she manages to drink most of before changing into fresh clothes.
It’s not until she’s in bed completely that she realizes he’s not making any attempt to join her. She grabs his wrist when he straightens up. “Where are you going?”
“I already slept,” he says, but he’s not meeting her eyes, and she can see the tear tracks he’d been missing earlier lining his face. He’s also not pulling away or giving her a pressing reason he needs to go.
“If you leave, I’m going back to work,” she says, and it comes out more vicious than she intends, some of the earlier anger turning it into a threat. “I can access the systems from here just as easily.”
She startles him into looking at her again, and whatever’s on her face must convince him that she’s serious. “I can always shut you out of the system,” he reminds her.
She doesn’t even dignify that, simply lifts her eyebrows and looks back at him. There’s not a computer system on this ship she can’t get into, valid passcode or not.
“Sorry, forgot who I was talking to for a second,” he says with a short, humorless laugh, and he leans away toward the door, wrist still in her grip, to press the comm button. “Vogel, this is Beck. Johanssen and I are off duty unless there’s an emergency.”
“Copy.” Vogel’s voice comes through the speaker, hollow, and Chris thumbs the comm off again.
She gives him his wrist back long enough to undress and join her in the tiny bunk, and then she arranges them so that she’s mostly on top, holding him everywhere she can reach. She rests her head against his chest so that she can hear his heartbeat, steady and alive and slowing gradually into sleep in the quiet dark.
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The popping of the cork sounds wrong, a celebratory burst that echoes through the ship when they’re still somber and in full regalia from filming the eulogies, but it’s the only alcohol on board, a reward intended for the completion of a happier Mars evacuation that never happened.
Lewis fills the clear plastic flutes that the champagne was packed with and passes them out. She lifts her glass, bearing military straight, and toasts, “To Mark Watney.”
“Mark Watney!” they all repeat, raising their glasses and then taking a sip. It fizzles on Beth’s tongue, and she’s hardly swallowed before Martinez lifts his glass again.
“He was an exceptional bastard, a good friend and crewmate,” Martinez says.
It breaks the tension and gets a laugh out of them. “Here, here!” Chris calls, and they all click their plastic flutes together and drink again.
Martinez comes up with funnier and funnier toasts until the champagne is all gone, and Beth can’t stop grinning. She hadn’t eaten much today and isn’t much of a drinker regardless, and she thinks the champagne went to her head more than the rest of the crew.
They linger in the Rec, unwilling to break up the party. “He always had a snappy comeback,” Martinez says. “You guys are a poor substitute. No one can keep up with my witty repartee.”
“More like, no one else will argue with you like a five year old,” Lewis says, and they all laugh when Martinez pouts.
“Hey, Vogel,” Chris says, “Remember that time you got Watney smashed?”
“No,” Martinez gasps as Vogel nods, “Without me?”
“It was the day I briefed him on chemistry and my experiments,” Vogel says. “I did not think few beers would have such an effect! We were in America. They are so weak.”
“Watney had driven them out to the bar,” Chris says.
“No American license,” Vogel supplies.
“And so Mark texts me to come pick them up,” Chris continues. “I knew something was up before I got there because it was an excessive amount of exclamation points, even for Watney, and when I get there, lined up on the table in front of them are, like, twelve shot glasses, several of them already empty.”
“I don’t know how he ordered them!” Vogel says. “I stepped away to get a water from the bar.”
“And he shoves a shot in my hand when I get there and gets us to drink by toasting to Mars and our good fortune to be crewmates on Ares 3.” Chris falls silent, and Beth leans against him, closer than she normally would.
Vogel picks up the tale. “He insisted, so we all raised the glasses and took the shots.”
“And I almost spat it back out again, because he’d ordered a dozen shots of Jagermeister,” Chris says. “I’ve hated that stuff since I was in med school.”
“Beck makes face,” Vogel says, and when Beth looks at him expectantly, Chris scrunches his face up in exaggerated disgust that makes them all laugh again.
“I asked him what the hell,” Chris says, “And he gives me this amazingly offended look and stage whispers, as if Vogel can’t hear him:
“Jagermeister is German!” Chris and Vogel chorus together amid their laughter.
“As if I am personally offended,” Vogel says and shakes his head.
“Then,” Chris says, “We’re getting him to the car and he accuses Vogel of cheating because he’s not drunk. And Vogel looks right at him and says.” Chris points to Vogel who obligingly says in his driest tone, “My liver is German, too.”
“And Mark screams, “I knew it!” so loudly someone walked over to ask if we needed help,” Chris says. “Luckily he had a rest day the next day, but he must have been in bad shape because when I texted to check up on him, he only said one thing: ‘Germans are evil’.”
“Was it me or the Jagermeister?” Vogel wonders, setting them all off again. Beth is laughing so hard she’s crying, and Chris’ arm is the only thing keeping her in his chair.
“No, no,” Martinez says, wheezing a bit as he tries to speak clearly, “Remember the time with the microwave?”
Everyone nods, laughing too hard to say anything, but Martinez tells the story anyway, and then Lewis tells another, and it feels good, like Mark is with them again, even though he’s gone.
Eventually, they wind down and drift apart, exhausted from the day. Beth still feels a little dizzy and uses it as an excuse to keep leaning on Chris and have him follow her into her room.
“You didn’t tell a story earlier,” Chris says, although he hadn’t pushed her in front of everyone else.
She hums and tries to think. “I liked everyone’s stories. All of mine are stupid, or I’d already told them.”
“You trained with him,” Chris said, grinning a little, “I’m sure we haven’t heard everything. Tell me something new?”
She considers it but then gives into the impulse, one she’d ignored with a little niggling feeling of guilt every time before. “I had a crush on him for a while,” she says.
Chris stills on the bed. “Whoa,” he says.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “I find men who treat me as an intelligent, capable person very appealing.” She nudges Chris, and he smirks.
“Your standards are too high,” he jokes, “You’ll never find a single guy like that on the entire planet Earth.”
“Now you sound like my mom,” she replies dryly, and then asks, “Are you mad?”
“No,” he replies, the easy relaxation seeping back into his body. “When was this?”
“It was about halfway through training, just for a few weeks,” she answers, crowding close to him and resting her head on his belly so that she can look up into his face. “I don’t think he liked me back, though, not like that. I figured friends would be better if we made the mission anyway.”
“I have trouble imagining anyone not liking you,” Chris says, fingers carding gently through her hair. “Did you ever tell him?”
“No,” she says, “I was thinking about it, but I’m, you know,” she waves a hand vaguely and settles on, “shy.”
Chris grabs the hand and kisses the back of it, distracting her for a second, but when he releases it and waits silently, she continues.
“One of the other candidates asked him out before I did. I mean, everyone liked Watney, he was very…” she trails off, unable to find words.
“Yeah,” Chris agrees.
“He said that he wasn’t going to risk his chance to go to space by canoodling,” Beth says picking up the story again. “He actually used that word, ‘canoodling’!” Beth giggles now, and Chris laughs, too, as if he can hear it in Mark’s voice the same way she remembers. “Anyway, I decided to respect that.”
“Lucky me,” Chris says, and his face is too much, she has to twist up and kiss him. He tastes of champagne, and this time she stays distracted.
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Their schedule has been cleared of everything but mission critical tasks after the news about Watney, but Beth wishes it hadn't. She could use the distraction.
It had been such good news at first, Mark alive despite the odds, but now her head can't stop spinning with everything that could go wrong, with how horrible it is for Mark even if everything NASA sent them goes to plan.
She goes to the gym and monopolizes the treadmill, letting the miles pound out under her feet. She half expects Chris to be the one to come find her, but Martinez is waiting for her, sitting quietly on the weight bench when she finally steps off the treadmill, legs weak and noodly.
“Hey,” she says as she wipes off her face with a towel.
“Hey,” he says. “Everyone's getting together for dinner.”
“Okay,” she says, “let me take a quick shower.” She waits, though, because he came to tell her in person instead of using the comms.
“This is good news, you know,” he says after a pause. “Mark being alive is good news.”
“Of course it is,” she agrees.
“It's not every day people come back from the dead. I dunno, I feel like we didn't take the time to celebrate before the worry and guilt started.” He gives a half smile that he obviously doesn't feel.
“You’re right,” she says as she thinks it over.
“Can I get that in writing?” he asks, his smile turning more genuine.
She punches him in the shoulder.
“Ow!” he says, standing up and giving her a push. “Your fists are so tiny but they hurt so much.”
She gives him a critical look and then pulls him into a hug. He and Mark were the most tactile of all of them, and Mark hasn't been there to rough house in their chosen method of human contact.
“Ugh, you're all gross,” Martinez complains, but he pulls her closer, wrapping her in a big bear hug. Then he pushes her away again. “Shower. Dinner.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” she says with the messiest salute possible. He laughs, looking much much more like himself. “You know Watney's never going to let you forget how much longer he was on Mars than you,” she adds before she goes, “Not after all that shit you gave him about stepping out of the lander first.”
“I know,” Martinez says, groaning, “He’s gonna be unbearable. And just wait, he'll milk this whole thing for free beer forever.”
“The worst.” Beth laughs, but inside she just hopes that turns out to be true.
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“If you’re here about that wild, passionate lovemaking, I have to tell you,” Mark says, wincing as Chris wraps another loop of the tape around his ribs, “My body is not ready.”
“Martinez sent that,” Beth says, but then she smirks, “But I’m certainly not here for the wedgie you promised me.”
“I honestly can’t tell if you’re joking,” Mark says, “Seriously, that’s terrifying. Show some mercy, Johanssen, I’ve had a rough day.”
“Sorry,” she says and walks over to pet his damp hair. She means for it to come off a bit teasing, but when he leans into her touch, she discards her sarcasm and strokes gently over the curve of his head.
Chris tears the roll of tape off and adheres the free end gently. “All finished,” he says, smiling at Beth and then Mark.
“We made you something,” Beth says to Mark, pulling her hand away. “Come see.”
“It’s in the Rec,” Chris says, helping Mark stand.
“That’s really sweet,” Mark says, watching as Beth gathers up all the pillows and blankets from her bed. “But, moving,” he objects.
“You can make it,” Chris says, leading Mark to the stairs, careful of his ribs. “And the lower gravity will be easier on your body.”
In the Rec is a pile of all the soft and squishy things they could find, including everyone’s pillows and a lot of their wardrobes. Martinez had unscrewed one of the chairs to make room for it.
“Closest thing to a pillow fort we could do on short notice,” Beth jokes.
Mark beams at her. “You guys are the best.” He basically collapses into the mound, saved from aggravating his ribs only by the lower gravity and Chris helping him down.
Chris gets him settled, and then Beth crawls in next to him, slipping into the small space against the wall, and Chris lays down on the other side.
“Guys?” Mark asks, sounding vaguely confused. His eyes slide closed even as he speaks.
“Thought you might want some company,” Beth says softly. “You don’t have to be alone.”
“Thanks,” Mark says, voice thick.
“Plus, if we leave you alone for more than a few seconds, you’ll probably find a way to die on us again,” Beth continues in the same soft tone. Chris makes a toneless noise of agreement.
“You know what?” Mark says sleepily, “You can both fuck right off.”