It's not unknown, is the thing. There's all these stories about shipwrecks and people suddenly waking up different from how they went to sleep. Whatever evolutionary force made us like this wanted to make damn sure the human race continued. It's why NASA balances the Ares crews so carefully: two alphas, two omegas, and two betas who swear up and down they'll be okay if their reproductive assignment decides the human race is in trouble and therefore vital action is necessary.
As one of those betas, I can confirm I am totally cool with this, I signed all the paperwork, I got the sign-off from the shrinks. I don't feel any sentimental connection to my biological configuration, and I'm always up for a new medical adventure. Oh, and also, it hasn't happened. The other two Ares missions went fine, and it never happened to a space station astronaut. It was just in case, you know? This ain't an exact science, we're still figuring all this stuff out.
But, well, now I'm the guy stuck on Mars and now this is all less academic and more highly relevant.
The problem? We don't know much about what triggers this, but the few studies we have (where are, admittedly, not much and not great) indicate that it doesn't seem to happen when the group knows they're going to be rescued or reunited with the larger population at a certain point. It's only when the sense of "oh fuck, we're really on our own" kicks in that you get those legends where the population switches off every two years who inseminates, who gives birth, and who gets a bit of reproductive rest. And then once they get enough of a population boom to feel more settled and secure, it all levels out and no one ever switches again. Maximum human race continuance, minimum stress on the bodies.
But no one really actually knows for sure. This ain't exactly something you can reproduce under laboratory conditions.
So here I am alone on Mars, the farthest from any human pheromones that any other human has ever been. I don't need my old biology professor to warn me. I know I'm in for a hell of a time. With any luck, my body will get the message that there isn't enough food for both me and a child, and so will decide that keeping my beta biology is what's best.
But who knows. This could get very exciting, very quickly.
Status update: we have achieved very exciting, very quickly!
I was always going to need to find a way get in touch with NASA, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some additional urgency making me go after Pathfinder now.
I need an alpha to tell me if it's supposed to itch like this.
I am in touch with Earth! I am also touching myself a lot. Becoming an alpha involves a whole lot of itching. Whoever the guy they have talking to me in Houston is, he's not got much sympathy. He just keeps relaying questions from the scientific community. They are making me keep a record of my daily vitals and also making me write a detailed personal log of my physical changes. Invasive, yes, but no Mars astronaut has much expectation of privacy, and it's For Science in a way few things can ever achieve.
The shift to alpha from beta is a little brutal. I've been having hormonal shifts like hell, but it's worth it. This is what we came to Mars to do! Well, not have no one watching while someone experienced a very rare medical phenomenon, but to explore! And I am now exploring my new alpha genitalia and secondary sex characteristics, a lot. Man, Beck is gonna be so mad that I'm the one stuck here instead of him. He's probably flying around up there ranting about how Mark "Space Plants!" Watney will write about all of this as some kind of botany metaphor and completely neglect the actual medical phenomena occurring, and how the scientific record is losing so much because I'm the wrong kind of scientist. He is probably wishing he could switch us so he could be stranded instead, because at least then the notes would be useful to later researchers.
Hey, speaking of botany, the potatoes are doing well. Which is great, because they've warned me all this itching means that once the transformation is complete, I might be going straight into a rut. And then I'll just be trying to rub off onto every surface imaginable, and those poor potatoes don't need to see that sight. I'll lock myself in my bunk and, just, make sweet sweet love to the Hab. My dear wonderful Hab.
We are going to make beautiful Hab babies together. They will be made of canvas and sexual frustration.
(Medical log for today, just to annoy Beck: succeeding in growing potatoes and in not growing a brand new human being.)
[10:43] WATNEY: Houston, if you have not yet informed the Hermes of my survival, I need you to do that ASAP. I need to consult with Dr. Beck about a personal medical issue.
[11:05] JPL: Mark, we can arrange for you to have a confidential medical discussion. What's up?
[11:29] WATNEY: It's related to a matter on which Beck is the only expert.
[11:44] JPL: Repeat, what is the issue regarding? We have experts here.
[12:39] WATNEY: No go, need Beck. He's my only hope.
[13:03] JPL: What?
[13:30] WATNEY: Situation is sensitive. Get me in touch with Beck.
[09:13] WATNEY: Hey, Beck, you left behind 4 different kinds of birth control and 6 kinds of heat suppressants. Which ones should I take?
[09:29] HERMES: You have no need for birth control, Watney. You should also have no need of a heat suppressant. NASA says you've done an alpha shift.
[09:51] WATNEY: Yeah, well, I just finished a rut, there's semen everywhere, and now I'm doing an omega shift, so I'm _really_ concerned about self-insemination.
[10:11] HERMES: Not physically possible in humans.
[10:34] WATNEY: Wanna bet on it?
[12:56] HERMES: On second thought, I'm not taking those odds. Give yourself a birth control shot with the one in the yellow wrapper (not green). I can't prescribe a heat suppressant without blood work and a better idea of your current bodymass. Ideally you shouldn't take anything without a physical examination, but we can risk it with the birth control; you may experience all the usual side effects, including nausea, sorry about that. _Do not_ take a heat suppressant. Too many things can go wrong.
[13:19] WATNEY: Roger, Beck.
[13:21] WATNEY: And, hey, as one omega to another: thanks.
[13:40] HERMES: You're taking a heat suppressant right now, aren't you?
[14:01] WATNEY: It's like you know me.
[14:23] HERMES: Have fun with the hallucinations. If you black out for more than three minutes, god help us all.
[14:40] WATNEY: Oh, and hey, can I use the toys you left?
[15:22] HERMES: If you wake up from the hallucinations, sure. It's not like I have any use for them.
Beck's an asshole, but I knew that. I only hallucinated a little bit, and me and Mary Poppins had a great time waltzing. Beck followed up like five times while I was in la-la-land reminding me that the suppressants may not be effective, that they could trigger a heat, that they could send me into heat refusal. Yeah, yeah, yeah, if the heat actually hurts, instead of making me want to get as many things as possible into me at once, I will take some meds and try to sleep it off and hope I don't die. You worry too much, Beck.
Especially since he's saved my bacon in other ways, because, see, two days into the alpha shift, I'd found prepackaged sex toys in Beck's medical supplies and nearly started crying with joy. I'm sure one or two of my crewmates must have smuggled some stuff in with their personal items, but eww, I am not going to use their stuff. But Beck packed a knotting dildo in the medical supplies, all sterile and still in its original packaging and ready for an omega who might really need it. Considering that he and Vogel are the omegas on the crew (not counting me, of course), I'm just going to assume he and Vogel had a nice talk back on Earth about what kind of emergency supplies might be necessary. There aren't any alpha toys in the med kit for Martinez or Johanssen. That's very mean of you, Beck
So possibly this was Beck's personal stash that he dumped into the medical supplies to get them past NASA and their draconian weight requirements, and I'm not going to go through everyone's things for sex help, that's rude, but if it's in with medical, it doesn't count as anyone's, it counts as everyone's. Them's the rules. Therefore, I can see what it's like to fuck myself with a dildo.
And it's kind of amazing. I'm really hoping no heat gets triggered, but I'm going to be here for 4 years if I don't die first, so let's be honest and say that I'm probably going to have a heat. I can't hold it off forever, Beck only packed emergency suppressants. There's nothing long term here. Hopefully my body will give up on propagating the human race and send me back to being a beta, but until then, I've got a really great dildo, and a body that can take it hard and pornographic.
Took two months, but I've finally shifted back to beta. Home sweet default settings. For all that switching, there's a lot to be said for good old fashion beta biology. I won't lie, it's good to see it again and get in some well-practiced masturbation for once, instead of constantly charting new frontiers. You don't always need to try new things. Sometimes what you're used to is damn well good enough.
But I'm also not going to lie and say I didn't appreciate that little Tiresias stroll through how the other folks live.
So I guess the eternal question is, is it better to reign in hell -- okay, no, do alphas or omegas have better sex? Well, I can't answer that one, so let's rephrase that: do alphas or omegas have better masturbation? And I'm sorry, but I've got to hand it to the alphas on this one. I just do. Don't ask too many questions. I already have to get into enough detail on the private medical log that NASA is salivating over.
But, then again, I've had an alpha rut, but haven't had an omega heat yet. So we'll see what I think once I've had one of those.
I lost contact with Earth, and I didn't switch. I'd jump for joy and tell someone, except oh right, I fucking fucked up the motherfucking Pathfinder, and now I can't tell anyone, unless I want to write it out with motherfucking morse code all over the sand for everyone in the universe to see.
So, I guess somewhere deep down, I think I'm getting out of this. I think I'm going to be rescued. I think this entire Rube Goldberg machine of a plan is gonna work. I'm going to modify the rovers, I'm going to load half the fucking Hab into them, I'm going to drive for three months, I'm going to make it to the Ares 4 site, I'm going to get back in touch with NASA, I'm going to modify the MAV per their instructions, and then all of this will work. I'll catch the Hermes and I'll be reunited with the crew, and this will work. I will make it home. I will survive.
But who knows anything anymore. I'm alone on another fucking planet, it's not like there's any precedent for any of this. Maybe none of us know anything, maybe we're all just reaching. Maybe the entire human body, the entire human reproductive system, maybe it's all fucking nonsense and no one knows a goddamn thing how we got this way, how we keep being this way, how we change when we need to change. Maybe it's hormonal, maybe it's psychological, maybe it's my body trying everything it can to get me to survive, switching everything it can in hopes that this might be the one thing, the thing that makes a difference. Maybe. Or maybe it's all full of crap and no one knows anything. Maybe this means I'm confident I'll survive; maybe it means my body's too exhausted to change anymore.
But I'm going to do it. I'm going to make it. I'm going to survive. As Lewis's music informs me, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll be alive.
I'm Mark Watney. I'm currently an omega. I'm about to embark on the most bad-ass road trip in the history of interplanetary travel. And I will survive.
--And, oh fuck, I think I'm switching again.
I've been cycling through the shifts pretty regularly, enough for me to get used to it and even anticipate them happening, and so naturally I go into a completely unexpected heat five days out from Schiaparelli. Hey, roll with the changes, baby. At least I'm finally out of the dust storm when it happens. So it's a delay, but not a delay that might end up with me dead just because biology is a fuckhead. Yes, that is the accurate scientific term. It's from the Latin.
I manage to stagger out and do an EVA long enough to put out a terse message to NASA, and then I curl up into a ball in the bedroom, hiding from everything. I was wrong, this is so much better than a rut, and also more agonizing, because I'm not having sex. Well, I kind of am, because even though there really wasn't room for it, I brought the dildo along anyway. So it is thankfully not abandoned forlornly back at the Hab, where I could not be using it to fuck myself raw, trying to convince my body that it is, despite appearances, actually having some really amazing sex right now. My body mostly isn't buying it, which is a shame, because I'm doing an Oscar-worthy performance of being really creative and artistic with this fake knot when what my body really really needs right now is a real one, a real alpha fucking me up, oh fuck, oh fuck.
It's incredible, is the thing, and it's also horrible, and that mix of really great and just plain agonizing, just on the edge of too much and not enough, is what tips it over. Being an omega is so much better than an alpha.
But you know what? Being an omega with an alpha around during a heat? WOULD BE SO MUCH BETTER.
Fucking Mars. I can't wait to be off this stupid planet. I can't wait to have real sex. Yeah, sure, I can't wait to eat real food either, but let's be honest. The sex is winning right now. The sex will keep winning until this heat breaks, and even then, I could probably convince myself to keep eating potatoes for the rest of my life if it meant getting fucked just the way I need it.
Wait, no, I couldn't. Sorry. That's too much. Maybe eat something else for the rest of my life. But not potatoes. We are never getting back together. Like, ever.
I have made it to the Hermes, oh dear god, I am not doing that kind of flying ever again. Everything hurts, absolutely everything.
But they warned me this would hurt a lot, so in my defense, it takes me several hours to realize I've done the fastest beta shift in what's probably human history, and it probably happened when I was out cold from pulling twelve g's in the MAV. Which is a fucking relief, let me tell you. If we were unbalanced, all by ourselves for seven months, other shifts might have started happening to try to get us in sync. That would be inconvenient.
Also, my own personal victory: I got off of Mars without my body managing to convince itself to somehow repopulate the human race all by itself! I should get a boy scout badge all of my very own for that.
Once we're all out of space suits and on our way back to Earth and absolutely not going to fall out of the sky and all die very pyrrhic deaths, Beck guides me into the med bay and then stands there, arms crossed, glaring at me. I'm a little too stoned right now to crack under pressure, so Beck says, "I weep for humanity, Watney. I weep."
I nod. That is very sensible. I did my fair share of crying today, too.
"Now I'm going to take your shirt off to check your ribs," Beck says. "Don't you dare do another shift. You haven't had enough calories for that to be safe at all."
I haven't had enough calories throughout any of this for that to be safe at all, but saying that would probably make Beck weep more for humanity. "I'll try to resist your amazing omega sexiness," I tell him. "Being an alpha wasn't too much fun."
Beck sighs. "Don't lie to your doctor. Now let's see your ribs."