They make their way back to the HAB in near silence. The only sound is Mark’s pained wheezing breaths over the comms and the sound of their feet on the dirt, the hitching gait Melissa’s taken up to ease the pressure on her injured ankle.
It’s not working too great, but Melissa keeps going, her teeth set. Her head is killing her, her ribs protest every time she takes a breath, but she keeps walking. She and Mark have thrown their arms around each other in an attempt to support the other, and finally--finally they get to Airlock 1. Once it’s repressurized, Melissa moves fast, yanking her helmet off, helping Mark to do the same. “We need to get that out,” she tells him, and Mark nods, his face a grimace of pain.
She puts one hand on his shoulder to brace herself--and Mark--and gently closes her fist around the antenna sticking out of his chest. “Ready?” she asks. Mark dips his head in assent, and Melissa doesn’t hesitate as she yanks it out.
Mark’s sharp cry makes her want to wince, as does the blood smeared on the antenna, her hands, but then she frowns as she looks at the jagged edge.
Mark confirms her fears. “It’s still, it’s still in--”
“Shit,” she mutters, helping him to the sickbay, where he starts stripping down to the waist. She limps about for supplies, and finally makes her way back to Mark, who’s trying to keep himself calm, blood oozing sluggishly from the hole in his chest.
Melissa drags a chair in for her to sit on, grabs the pliers--Mark’s already shot himself up with painkillers--and after one look into his face to make sure he’s onboard, gets to work.
Later, her stomach will lurch at the memory of it, using the pliers on his flesh, having to staple the wound shut--but when she’s in the moment, her hands are steady and her breathing is even, right up until she verifies that all the shrapnel is out of Mark’s body.
After she’s put the bandages on, Mark says, his eyes closed as he sits back in exhaustion, "Well. Fuck."
"Yeah," Melissa says, in complete agreement. "That about covers it."
The events of Sol 18 will be analyzed by NASA, the media, and, eventually, by a congressional hearing.
This is what everyone can acknowledge to be true--during the trek to the MAV, the communications satellite is ripped from its moorings and careens through the air, knocking both Commander Melissa Lewis and Astronaut Mark Watney off their feet and into the air.
Mark was impaled by a piece of the satellite, which ironically kept him alive but took out his bio-monitor and comms, leaving the crew to think that he was dead.
Melissa went tumbling head over heels through the air, eventually landing on the ground in a crumpled heap. She hit her head on the inside of her helmet, there was a sharp pain in her chest, and her ankle--
"Commander! Mark! Commander, can you hear us?"
This is what Melissa tells NASA, what she says in the TV interviews, what she will testify to under oath in front of the congressional committee--she was too far away for the crew to rescue her, not in the time they had before the MAV would've tipped. Because of her difficulty breathing, because of her injured ankle, because the comms and bio-monitor were on the fritz--
--because the best-laid plans so often go astray--
--Melissa had only a few moments to make the best call she could.
"You have to go. Martinez, I am giving the order, you launch now." It hurt so much to talk, to even breathe, her head was spinning and her vision was blurred but she meant it, every word.
There was only static to answer her, the comms having finally failed, but a few seconds or minutes later, there was the blinding light of the engines firing, and as the MAV launched into orbit, Melissa slipped into unconsciousness.
“Mark, you have got to stop moving around so much,” Melissa tells him. “We can’t have these staples popping out all the time.”
“Commander, with all due respect,” Mark starts, and Melissa knows where this is going, so she cuts him off by briskly stapling the injury back together again. Mark hisses sharply, but continues in a moment, reaching for his shirt, “It’s not like I can leave you to do all the work by yourself. You’re hobbling around on one leg, your ribs are still busted to hell, and you’ve probably got a concussion. What part of that sounds like I should just laze around in my cot and leave you to do all the work?”
“The part where I’m still your commanding officer and can tell you what to do?” Melissa says, but she keeps her voice light as she says it. Mark raises an eyebrow at her, and Melissa exhales. “Just take it easy, okay? No need to have you bleeding all over the HAB.”
“I’ll take it easy if you start taking the Vicodin,” Mark counters, and Melissa shrugs.
Mark pauses at her easy concession, and then he squints at her. “Are you lying to me?”
“Yes,” Melissa admits, and grabs the makeshift crutch Mark had fashioned for her and, as Mark put it, hobbles off before Mark can do anything more than yell, “Oh, come on,” after her.
If Melissa’s honest with herself, she knows she’s pushing it. She’s breathing easier than before, thank God, but she’s still got the headaches, and the less said about her ankle, the better. Mark has a valid point, she knows that, it’s just--
She needs to keep moving. She needs to be active, to focus on making an inventory of their remaining supplies, the tools they have available, rather than letting herself dwell on the impossible, terrifying situation they’re in.
Mark finds her glowering over the rations. “No matter how much you glare at them, they’re not gonna multiply.”
She flicks her gaze over at him, but smiles a little. “But what if I glare really, really hard?”
Mark laughs at that, and then winces. “Ah. Maybe ease up on the jokes until my staples come out?”
“I’ll spare you my stand-up routine,” Melissa says.
He smiles at her, sweetly, and says, “Come on, let’s talk through this shitstorm we’ve landed ourselves into.”
Melissa raises a dubious eyebrow at him, but when Mark leads her towards one of the consoles, she follows, leaning heavily on her crutch.
What Mark means, as it turns out, is creating another video log. Melissa has to restrain the urge to flick her bangs out of her eyes--she’s never been entirely comfortable in front of the cameras, much to the despair of NASA’s PR department, and these are hardly ideal circumstances.
Melissa knows the reasoning behind Mark’s insistence on making these, she even agrees with it, she just--isn’t comfortable.
But then, Melissa didn’t sign up for the Navy, for NASA, to be comfortable.
Mark breezes through the intro, saying, “So, the good Commander and I have been going over our current situation, and we’ve come to the obvious conclusion that we’re pretty much fucked right now.”
Melissa can’t help but raise another eyebrow at him, and Mark raises his own, silently asking, You going to argue?
She can’t, and she won’t, so Melissa exhales. “We’re stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with the Hermes or NASA. Everyone back home thinks we’re dead, and the next manned mission to Mars won’t happen for another four years.”
Mark nods, and continues where she left off. “If the oxygenator breaks down, we’ll suffocate.”
Melissa says, “If the water reclaimer breaks down, we’ll die of thirst.”
“Let’s not forget that if the Hab breaches, we’ll just implode,” Mark offers.
Melissa’s mouth twists as she finishes, “And if our luck miraculously holds and none of those things happen, we’re still going to eventually starve to death when our food runs out.”
Laying out their situation in such stark terms should have Melissa lightheaded from panic, should have her stomach sinking in despair.
But Mark is watching her now, his gaze solid and steady. And when Melissa looks at him--when she looks at him, she sees her crew, she sees an anomaly that shouldn’t have been able to survive that storm, but somehow did anyway, despite impossible odds.
They’re still alive, despite all the reasons they shouldn’t be.
“So yeah,” Mark’s saying now, “--when we say that we’re fucked, we know what we’re talking about.” Despite his words, though, he’s still looking over at her, still waiting for what she’ll say next.
He’s waiting for her to lead, and in that exact moment, Melissa finds herself able to say what needs to be said. “We’re not dying here,” she tells Mark, tells whoever will watch this video, years down the line. “Neither one of us is going to die on this planet.”
Melissa has no idea how much her words will be tested in the following months. All the same, when Mark looks at her right then, he smiles a little bit, as if he believes her.
They leave the cameras running for their brainstorming sessions. Despite the fact that Melissa is still the commanding officer of their makeshift crew of two, Mark’s really the MVP of their outfit, given that he’s not only a mechanical engineer, but a botanist. So he takes point, as it were, and Melissa is there to help him bounce ideas, test his theories, poke holes until they come up with a plan that won’t get them killed.
Obviously, the first step is rationing. That’ll only get them so far, but it’ll get them somewhere. Once they get through that math, which is both very basic and very depressing, it’s time for the Hail Marys.
Like farming the Thanksgiving potatoes in their own shit.
Mark tries and fails to hold in his laughter at Melissa’s reaction, grinning widely at her as he says, “No offense, but you should see your face right now, it’s incredible.”
“Oh, I bet,” Melissa says in her driest possible tones. She’s gotten into the habit of playing the straight man to Mark, and it’s an easy role to fall into, especially when Mark just looks so delighted at every deadpan crack she makes. “What about the water issue? We’ll need far more water for the crops than we’re capable of getting right now from the water reclaimer.”
“Yeah, I have an idea about that,” Mark says. “But you’re not gonna like it.”
“I’m gonna like this part less than harvesting food in my own shit?” Melissa asks, skeptical.
As it turns out, Mark’s right. Given that the plan consists of setting a fire inside of the Hab, however, Melissa thinks she has an airtight excuse for her alarm.
They spend days going over the math, triple-checking everything. Melissa is the one to catch the biggest flaw, looking over Mark’s equations and going, “Nope, this is wrong.”
“What is?” Mark asks, peering over her shoulder.
“You haven’t accounted for the oxygen,” Melissa says, and when Mark blinks in confusion, she elaborates. “The oxygen we’ll be exhaling, Mark. Your calculations don’t account for the extra oxygen we’re exhaling into the atmosphere.”
“Oh,” Mark says. “Oh, fuck me.” He shakes his head, and huffs out a rueful laugh. “Thank God for you, Commander.”
Melissa exhales, and goes into the breach. “Melissa.” As Mark looks at her, she shrugs, and explains. “It’s a bit ridiculous to cling to rank under the circumstances.” The circumstances being that, if things go well, they’ll be trapped together alone on this planet for four years. Melissa’s career military, but Mark isn’t, and Melissa’s speculating he’ll respond better to a loosening of the rules than rigid adherence to a professional code of conduct that has no bearing on their current situation. He’s a good guy, a good astronaut, and Melissa’s willing to bet he’ll follow her orders, whether or not he’s calling her Commander when he does it.
“Oh,” Mark says, and Melissa doesn’t need to be a shrink to accurately note the surprise on his face.
“It’s just a thought,” Melissa says, turning back to her tablet.
“No, no, it’s--” When she looks back up, Mark looks abashed, and he’s close enough that Melissa can see the faint flush to his cheeks, the pink spreading along the back of his neck and the tips of his ears. It’s surprisingly endearing, almost as much as the way he awkwardly says, “It makes sense. Melissa.”
Melissa holds back her smirk, but only just. “Keep practicing, it’ll come easier to you.”
Melissa’s the one who sets up the strict schedules. As tempting as it is to pull figurative all-nighters to solve the issues of food and lack of communication, they need routines. They’ll need off time to recharge. So she sets up a schedule, specific meal times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She sets up time for them to work on their problems and insists that in the evenings, they give their brains and bodies a break.
Mark, for all his tendency to be a workaholic, jumps at the chance. He’s a social guy, an extrovert, and even though Melissa had meticulously scheduled in “private time” to make sure they had a little breathing room to themselves each day--so far it’s just easier, more pleasant, to spend her free time with Watney. To have a friendly face in front of her, a human voice in her ear to block out the sound of the storms that still occasionally rage over their heads.
Tonight, Mark is looking through Melissa’s music collection. To be more specific, he’s giving her shit over her music collection.
Luckily, Melissa has no shame when it comes to this subject. “I’ve never hidden my love of disco,” she says with a shrug.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think it was this bad,” Mark says, looking up from the laptop with an exaggerated look of horror on his face. “Seriously, Commander. A month on Mars, and you brought nothing but disco? A little variety would’ve killed you?”
“Well, what did you bring to Mars, then?” Melissa asks him, reasonably enough.
To her surprise--and delight--Mark blinks, then slowly turns red. “Um.”
“Oh boy,” Melissa says, feeling the grin start to spread across her face. “I’m going to enjoy this, aren’t I.”
Ignoring Mark’s flustered protests, she boots her own laptop up, and quickly trawls through the music folders that Mark’s shared with her. It doesn’t take long at all for her to see what has Mark blushing so badly.
She finally lifts her gaze back up, and Mark turns even redder at the huge, surely ridiculous grin splitting her face right now. “Oh, I see now.”
“Look, Commander, Melissa--”
“No, no, this is wonderful. This is some good, good stuff here, Mark.”
“I grew up with the music--”
“I bet you did,” Melissa says, laughing outright now. “Did you borrow your mom’s eyeliner as a kid, too?”
“No,” Mark insists, but in a way where Melissa would bet the house the answer is really yes. In response, she only grins as she hits play.
Patrick Stump starts wailing away from the laptop's speakers, and Mark can’t hold it in anymore, a rueful chuckle escaping him even as he insists, “The disco is still far, far more embarrassing than this.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Melissa says primly, but she’s smirking as she says it.
“One night and one more time, thanks for the memories, even though they weren’t so great…” As the song continues, Melissa hums along, and when Mark finally groans and puts his face in his hand, she gives into temptation and cackles in delight. Her ribs don’t ache at all under the strain, and she counts it as a victory, almost as much as the sight of Mark’s blushing face.
The entire morning, Mark’s been looking at her left hand. Or, more accurately, what’s not on her left hand.
“I put the ring away with the rest of my things,” Melissa explains, not bothering to look up from the instant coffee she’s stirring. Mark freezes guiltily next to her, and Melissa gives him a wry smile. “You were very loudly not asking, so I thought I’d just tell you.”
“I’m just a little surprised, that’s all,” Mark says. He pauses, but he asks the question. “Why take off your wedding ring?”
Melissa takes a long sip of her coffee, delaying her answer. “It was a distraction.”
Mark doesn't leave it there, not that Melissa really expected him to. “It’s okay to think about your family, Melissa.”
Melissa looks at him. “I have a job to do here, Mark. I’ve got potatoes to farm, I’ve got to make sure you don’t blow yourself up, I can’t get distracted and weepy every time I catch sight of my left hand.”
Mark’s mouth twists for a moment, then he says, very gently, “So don’t wear the ring, if you don’t want to. Just talk to me about it.” Melissa goes still, and Mark adds, still so careful, “If you want to, that is.”
It’s a bad idea. She has problems to work on, a mission to complete, a crew member to take care of, and yet the words rise up, despite herself. Mark is, in a very real sense, all that Melissa has out here--and there’s a tiny part of her saying that if she can’t talk to him, now when they’re dancing on a cliff’s edge of survival, then what’s the point?
“I keep picturing him at the funeral,” she says, shaking her head. “Most of it, I can push to the side but--imagining him at the funeral.” Melissa’s never considered herself to have much of an active imagination, per se, but she can see the image in her mind’s eye as clear as anything, Robert sitting in his seat, head bowed as he receives the folded flag. She sees it clear as day, Robert’s composed face in the bright sunlight, his white-knuckled grip on the flag in his lap.
She can see it so clearly, and it hits her like a blow to the stomach every time she does.
“I was career military when I met him, I keep telling myself that it’s okay, he knew what he was getting into when he married me.” Melissa gives a bitter smile, shaking her head. “It doesn’t help. Nothing does.” She inhales and finishes up, saying, “So I put it aside, and I work the problems in front of me, and I do my job.”
She looks up at Mark, and she says, “So let’s do our jobs, all right?”
“Okay,” Mark says, gently nodding his head. “Let’s work the problem.”
Melissa looks at the work laid out in front of them, and sighs as the solution finally occurs to her. “I know how we solve the heating problem with the rover.”
“Yeah?” Mark asks, perking up.
“Yeah. All we need is a little plutonium, and as it turns out, I know exactly where it is,” Melissa says, adding dryly, “given that I’m the one that buried it.”
“I'm just saying,” Mark says, doing a truly abysmal job of hiding his apprehension, “I could be the one to go after Pathfinder.”
“Yes,” Melissa says, “Except that I'll be the one doing it.”
“If something goes wrong--”
“Then better it happen with me in the rover than you,” Melissa says briskly, but the unhappy pinch to Mark’s mouth has her adding, in a gentler tone, “Mark. One of us has to stay behind, and it should be you.”
Melissa’s confident in her abilities, but that doesn't change the reality that Mark’s degrees in botany and mechanical engineering are, right now, more valuable than her own. If something goes really wrong, better to have Mark in the relative safety of the Hab.
All the same, it'll be over twenty sols away from the Hab, away from the only other living being on the planet, and on the day of her departure, Melissa has a hard time hiding her own unease. Mark has been engaged in elaborate--and mostly unnecessary--inspections of the modified rover, until Melissa finally has to clear her throat. “Mark, I'm ready.”
“Yeah,” Mark says, “I know.”
He doesn't make a move towards the Hab, and Melissa doesn't move towards the rover. “Well, I'll suppose I'll just have to suffer through the boogie fever without you,” Mark says at last, and Melissa can't help but smile.
“Give it a chance, you'll learn to like it,” she says.
Mark scoffs dramatically. “I'll learn to tolerate it out of sheer self-defense, you mean.”
“Tomato, tomahto,” Melissa says, and over Mark’s laughter, says, “If I can give your beloved Fall Out Boy a chance over the trip, you can learn to like ABBA.”
Mark theatrically groans, but falls silent at last. Finally he looks at her, and Melissa is close enough to Mark that she can see him smiling inside his helmet. “Good luck out there, Melissa.”
It's one of the few times he's used her first name without stumbling over it. “I'll see you when I get back, Mark.”
Driving away from the Hab is...not a pleasant feeling. To distract herself, Melissa sets up the camera to create a video log. She still feels stiff and awkward while making these, but it has to be done.
She talks about how she plans to navigate her way to Pathfinder, mostly by Phobos, given the lack of landmarks in the valley they're in. “I'll pick up soil and rock samples during each EVA. Might as well take advantage of being the first person out here, behave like a real astronaut.”
“I'm signing off now, but just to show Watney that I'm a woman of my word…” She hits play, and as the music fills the rover, she gives her driest possible look at the camera. “He'd better be listening to ABBA, that's all I'm going to say.”
Melissa can't say she was ever a fan of bands like this as a kid--she’d taken a ridiculous pride in being a throwback to an earlier era--but even she can admit the songs are catchy. The second time she catches herself humming along to the chorus, she laughs at herself a little and sings along for real, shifting to nonsensical la-las when she can't make out the lyrics.
This has been, by far, the absolute worst road trip Melissa has ever been on in her life.
And if this mission is a success, she and Mark will have a far longer trip to make to the Schiaparelli crater, and right now, Melissa can barely stand to think of it. God, that'll be hell.
And if they get the opportunity to really go, if they can make contact with NASA and find a way off this planet, Melissa will get down on her knees and thank whatever higher power is out there for the privilege.
She knows that, but it doesn't make this trip any easier. The rover stinks to high heaven, the cramped quarters has her back aching, and the solitude--
Melissa knows the trick to getting through deprivation is to focus on what you have, versus what you don’t, but she can’t seem to stop herself; she keeps waiting to hear Mark’s voice in the rover, in her ear. She keeps looking over her shoulder, expecting to find Mark behind her, cracking jokes about the smell and the lack of scenery.
He’d probably try and name the valley after her, actually. Say something like, under the circumstances, I think we’ve earned the right to name something after ourselves, don’t you think?
It’s easy to picture his reactions, easy to hear his cheerful voice, and that’s exactly what Melissa tries so hard not to do, tries to drown out her imagination with music, with the sound of her own voice singing along, until her throat goes dry and her voice cracks on the glory notes.
She sleeps poorly during the downtime, her back is a mess, and at the lowest moments Melissa wonders if the smell is ever going to leave her nostrils. And it’s so frustrating, so irritating that Melissa can lock away the memories of her family, Robert, the crew, home--all of that she can shut up in a corner of her brain without ever looking at it--but Mark Watney is the thing she can’t shake, the one thing she can’t keep herself from missing.
So yes, this road trip sucks. But, eleven sols into the trip, Melissa finds Pathfinder and the Sojourner rover to go with it, and that is what’s important.
Twenty-two sols after leaving the Hab, Melissa finally returns, Pathfinder safely strapped to the roof of the rover and Sojourner stashed inside. Her heartbeat’s speeding up a little at the sight of the Hab--and then she sees Mark in his EVA suit standing outside, waiting for her, and the grin is spreading across her face almost before Melissa realizes it.
Mark’s already speaking through the comm before Melissa’s even exited the rover, saying, “Nice work!”
“Piece of cake,” Melissa huffs, groaning a little as she finally steps outside--her back is not happy right now. Still, she’s grinning broadly as Mark comes over, so clearly delighted that Melissa has to laugh a little as he claps her on the shoulders, beaming at her, at the sight of Pathfinder, their potential salvation, gleaming under the sun.
They could start work on getting Pathfinder running today, but Melissa’s back is a wreck, and Mark seems content to wait until the morning, when they’re both in better shape. Inside the Hab, Melissa glances over at the potatoes, which are still thriving, thank God. “Nice work on not blowing up the Hab,” she says to Mark, who dips his head in a show of humility.
“Well, I do aim to please.” He’s shooting her a sideways glance, though, and asks, “How’s your back?”
Melissa would shrug, if her shoulders weren’t so damn stiff. “I’ll live,” she says, but Mark looks skeptical.
“Here, let me show you what I put together,” he says. “Had to cannibalize Johannsen’s cot to put it together, but I think it’s worth it…”
What it is, Melissa finds out, is a functional bathtub.
“Oh my God,” Melissa says, disbelieving.
“Right?” Mark says, proud and rightfully so.
“I love it. Go away, Mark, I’m going to get into this bathtub and stay here for days,” Melissa says, still staring.
Mark laughs, but once the bathtub is filled, he actually does leave her to it--there’s still plenty to be done with the rover, and Mark had insisted on finishing it himself. “You’re no good to the mission if you throw your back out,” he’d warned, and Melissa had listened, for once. So once he’s gone, Melissa strips down and climbs into the tub. Mark made a makeshift curtain out of canvas, so Melissa is just fine with staying in this blissfully hot water for as long as possible.
By the time Mark comes back to the rover, having safely dumped the RTG four miles away from the Hab, where it won’t break open and poison them with deadly radiation, Melissa is clean for the first time in weeks, wearing dry clothes she hasn’t been sitting in for over twenty-two sols, with her damp hair tied back loosely from her face.
“Better?” Mark asks as he strips out of his suit.
“Yes,” Melissa says, serenely, but Mark doesn’t seem convinced.
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you took a Vicodin?”
“We need to save the Vicodin, Mark,” Melissa starts, defensively, and when Mark raises an eyebrow, realizes she’s just proven his point. “Okay, fine, my back’s still a little stiff. A good night’s sleep in my cot and I’ll be fine by morning.”
“Or--” Mark begins, and promptly shuts his mouth, which is enough of an aberration that it has Melissa’s eyebrows going up towards her hairline.
“Or?” she prompts, curious, and yes--Mark’s definitely blushing now.
“I was just going to offer to work the kinks out of your back,” he says, with a credible show at covering his awkwardness. “I know I’m not Beck, but I figure since I’m here…”
“Okay,” Melissa says, after a half-beat. “Yeah, that would be helpful, thanks.”
Nowhere in her many, many seminars on leadership did it cover letting a subordinate give you a backrub--and if it ever was, it would’ve been under the slide titled Don’t Do This. But Melissa’s back does hurt, and Mark’s here and it makes sense. It’d be far sillier to make a big production out of it, or risk serious injury.
All good reasons, and yet Melissa’s not prepared for her reaction once she’s facedown on the cot, and Mark’s hands are on her back.
It’s not just that she feels vulnerable in this position, it’s not just that Mark’s hands feel good on her aching muscles, warm and firm and so skilled at finding the worst of the knots and kneading them loose. It’s the intensity of her response that catches her by surprise, the overwhelming relief at being touched after so long--
Melissa’s lying on her stomach, her head resting on her folded arms, so it’s the easiest thing in the world to hide her face in the crook of her elbow, so that Mark can’t see...whatever is on her face at the moment.
“All right?” Mark asks, so maybe he can tell what’s going on with her after all. Some of it, anyway.
Melissa has to swallow twice before she’s sure that her voice will work the way she wants it to. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Okay, I’m gonna just dig in a little more here, tell me if it’s too much,” Mark says, and Melissa nods, right before his thumbs start to dig into the muscle, right at the worst of the knots, and Melissa hisses into her pillow in mingled pain and relief.
By the time Mark’s finished, Melissa’s practically melted into her cot. Half-asleep, she manages to lift her head up to mumble, “I owe you one, Mark.”
Her eyes are falling shut, but she still hears Mark’s chuckle. “Let’s just call it even, huh?”
Melissa would say something, but she’s falling asleep before she can reply.
They sit together and watch the antenna of Pathfinder, stubbornly staying still despite all their work. A watched antenna never spins, Melissa thinks to herself, and bites back a rueful smile.
“It’ll work soon,” she says instead.
“Yeah,” Mark says, his voice weary. Melissa turns her head a little, and sure enough, inside his helmet, Mark’s eyes are drifting shut.
“You could take a rest,” she offers. “I can keep watch.”
Mark assents, and soon Melissa is left to stare alone at the antenna, Mark a comforting dead weight against her side. Melissa keeps her breathing steady, her mind clear, and she keeps on waiting.
When the antenna finally spins, Melissa lets out a little yelp of surprise that has Mark jumping up from his seat, disoriented, demanding, “What? What happened?”
“It moved,” Melissa breathes out, staring wide-eyed at the antenna. “Oh my God, it’s pointing at the yes sign. It’s pointing at the yes--”
Mark shouts joyfully, arms outstretched in victory while Melissa starts to laugh, her vision blurred until she blinks the tears away.
Turns out that it’s very awkward hugging someone in the EVA suits, but somehow Mark and Melissa manage just fine.
"Holy fuck, it worked," Mark breathes out as the screen lights up with words. Melissa's chest, her entire body, feels too small for the joy she's feeling right now, huddled up with Mark in the rover, able to truly communicate with NASA, with home at last.
This is Vincent Kapoor. We've been watching you since Sol 49. The whole world's been rooting for you guys. Amazing job, getting Pathfinder. We're working on rescue plans. JPL is adjusting Ares 4's MDV to do a short overland flight. They'll pick you up, then take you with them to Schiaparelli. We're putting together a supply mission to keep you fed until Ares 4 arrives.
If Melissa wasn't already sitting down, her knees would've gone weak at the last sentence. Supply mission. Staying alive until the Ares 4 mission. Everything they've been working towards, and it might actually be within reach.
"Jesus Christ," Mark's saying now, sounding as overwhelmed as Melissa feels. They share a dazed, disbelieving look, and then Melissa laughs.
"You'd better start typing," she tells him, and Mark beams as he turns, his fingers flying over the keyboard.
"Glad to hear it," he says as he types, dictating his words. "We're really looking forward to not dying." As Melissa snorts, he continues, "Commander Lewis and I want to make it clear it wasn't the crew's fault." Melissa sobers, and Mark finishes, "How did they react when they found out we were alive?"
He hits enter, and they wait.
And keep waiting. "Send another message," Melissa says after a second. "See if they're still receiving."
Mark does just that, and finally they get a response.
We haven't told the crew you're alive yet. We need them to concentrate on their mission of getting home. There's more from Vincent, asking about the crops Mark had mentioned during the earlier rounds of Speak-and-Spell with the ASCII table, but Melissa can't focus on that, she's too busy gaping at the words "we haven't told the crew", while Mark repeats, in a tone of growing outrage, "What the fuck. What the fuck?"
Melissa should be calming him down, she should be taking over the keyboard--from the way Mark's now banging at the keys, he's likely dropping the word fuck everywhere in his replies to Vincent and JPL, but--
But Melissa isn't in that rover. She's back on Sol 18 of the mission, the storm raging around her as she's lying in the Martian soil, dazed and injured and ordering Martinez to leave her to her death.
It's Mark's furiously bouncing knee, knocking against her leg, that drags her back to the present, and Melissa comes back to herself to find Mark angrily muttering to himself while he types on the keyboard. Melissa blinks again, and the words he's typing--
He stops typing immediately, though the stubborn set to his jaw tells Melissa he isn't regretting a single thing. "Melissa--all due respect, this is bullshit."
Melissa fixes him with a steady look. "Yeah, I'm well aware, thanks. You still can't say any of that."
His jaw is still set, but Mark doesn’t protest as she pulls the keyboard over and starts to type, carefully deleting Mark’s words--including the f-bombs.
Commander Lewis here. I want to state for the record that both Astronaut Watney and I strongly object to the crew being kept in the dark. They should be told that we’re alive.
Another long pause before the reply, long enough that Mark says, “For the record, this is complete and utter horseshit--”
“Mark,” Melissa says, and she puts a little snap to her voice now. “Enough.” Mark obediently falls silent, but Melissa can read the tension in his mouth, and she knows they’ll be discussing this later, loudly and at length.
Finally Vincent responds, with nothing more than, Your objections have been noted.
“Our objections have been noted,” Mark repeats in disbelief. “What the fuck does that even mean?”
“They’re still going to keep the crew in the dark,” Melissa says, and types out, They’re stronger than you think they are. Knowing we’re still alive isn’t going to devastate them, not when they already think they left me to die on Mars.
Melissa is saying this for Mark as much as for the crew’s sake, she needs to find a balance between following orders and validating Mark’s outrage, but Melissa’s also a realist--NASA is not telling the crew a damn thing until they’ve decided it’s time.
Not that Mark’s going to accept this fact any time soon. “They should’ve told the crew,” he insists later in the HAB. “Jesus Christ, how did Mitch sign off on this--”
“He didn’t,” Melissa says. “It’s likely that Vincent and Sanders went over his head. Which they can do, given that they’re his bosses,” she adds, a little pointedly. For a second Mark looks angry, angry enough that Melissa is bracing herself for the debate, the argument, but then he lets out a huff of breath and stares down at his feet.
“How are you so calm about this?” he asks finally, not in anger, but in genuine bafflement.
Melissa chooses her words carefully. “I’m not calm, Mark. I...this is how things are. No matter how much you might want to yell, this is how things work.” Her stomach can twist at the thought, at the memory of Johannsen calling out her name in fear and despair, Martinez exhorting her over the comms to get the fuck up, Commander, let’s go--
Melissa can know exactly what her crew must be feeling right now, the guilt they’re carrying on their backs, and it still won’t change the fact that she can’t tell them she’s alive, and it’s not her place to tell NASA what to do.
Or to let Mark drop f-bombs on a broadcast that, as Vincent Kapoor had pointed out, was being broadcast live to the entire world.
And like that, Melissa remembers the bigger picture again. “Mark. They’ve got a rescue plan. Today was a good day.”
He gives her a reluctant half-smile at that. “I know, I know.” With a sigh, Mark sits down next to her on the bench. “Today’s a huge win, I just--I want the crew to be in on it, you know? I want them to be celebrating with us.”
“They will be,” Melissa says. “Once we get off this planet, they’ll be celebrating as hard as everyone else. More, even. Can you imagine the toasts Martinez is going to give?”
“Oh God, I hope nobody gives that man a microphone,” Mark says with a shudder, and just like that, they’re on the same page again.
The depth of the adjustment Melissa needs to make now they’re no longer cut off from NASA is staggering. They go out to check emails and the data dumps on the rover five times a day, minimum, and it’s just--jolting, to no longer be a crew of two, but to be connected to pretty much all of Earth.
And Melissa does mean all of Earth. They’ve gotten emails from President Marin, rockstars and celebrities, their alma maters--Mark gloats for hours upon the University of Chicago informing them that thanks to their successful potato crop, they’ve officially colonized Mars.
The best emails, though, the emails that linger, are the ones from their families.
It’d be possible to check the emails separately, but not practical--if NASA sends critical info, they both need to know about it right away, and besides it’s--oddly comfortable, having Mark there, marveling together at the crazy situation they’re in, the fervor that must be happening back home.
At first they’d tried to keep things separate, Mark courteously averting his eyes when Melissa read an email from Robert or her moms, Melissa doing the same when Mark got an email from his parents. But then Mark’s mom had shared that she’d stuck a bumper sticker of Marvin the Martian on her car, and Melissa had burst out laughing when Mark shared the joke, and Mark had felt compelled to share that information in his reply--just like he’s been compelled to share her supposedly inflicting disco on him, or how he caught her singing while tending to the potatoes one time--
And somehow it just becomes natural, simpler, to read those emails aloud to each other. This is how Melissa discovers that Mark is every inch his mother’s son, down to the bad jokes and tragic love for the Chicago Cubs. This is how Mark discovers that Melissa got her love of disco from her mama, that her mom’s taken up pottery as stress relief, that her brother’s finally been convinced into using social media as a way to handle all the media attention.
And of course, Melissa can better keep Mark in check if she’s there in the rover with him.
“No Mark, you cannot tell the team of botanists to go fuck themselves,” Melissa tells him.
“But it would make me feel a lot better,” Mark argues. “They’re trying to micromanage my crops from 140 million miles away, I get to tell them to go fuck themselves.”
“Yeah, except that’s not true. At all.”
Mark gets a mischievous look on his face, and says, slyly, “You know, if I was able to send something else to NASA, maybe I wouldn’t--”
“You’re not requesting sheet music,” Melissa says flatly, picking up this old argument again for what must be the sixth time now. “Just because you caught me singing one time does not make me a human jukebox.”
“You’re the only person on this entire planet capable of carrying a tune, that absolutely makes you a human jukebox,” Mark counters.
“See, this is the beauty of outranking you,” Melissa says loftily. “I get to ignore your ludicrous suggestions.” She has a sneaking suspicion Mark eventually will wear her down on the sheet music, but there’s no need to make it easy on him.
Besides, Melissa has very little sympathy for Mark’s dilemma with the botanists back on Earth--not when she’s the one stuck dealing with NASA’s shrinks.
“What on earth has got you making that face?” Mark asks with curiosity, walking up to Melissa as she’s looking over some emails she’d uploaded from the rover to the HAB.
Melissa shrugs. “NASA’s psychiatrists have some thoughts,” she says, keeping her voice deliberately bland, and Mark chuckles. Melissa goes on, explaining, “They’re concerned about the potential for any interpersonal conflict between us while we’re stranded here.”
Mark’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh, really? And what did you say to that?”
“The truth,” Melissa says, leaning back against the counter, the better to play up her nonchalance. “That I can manage you just fine.”
“Is that so?” Mark asks, folding his arms.
Melissa smirks at him. “Mark, are we really gonna try and pretend otherwise?”
Mark tries to hold it in, but the smile escapes him, just like Melissa knew it would. “Nah.”
Melissa smiles back at him. “And that’s just what I told NASA.”
It’s the honest truth, no matter how Dr. Shields and the rest of the shrinks back home fret--she and Mark are fine. They work well together, they’re in sync--for God’s sake, Melissa’s even wearing him down on the disco and the Happy Days reruns. The time Melissa had so scrupulously scheduled for solitude just seems unnecessary now. They’re doing fine.
It’s nighttime, and Melissa is halfway through reading her chapter of Murder on the Orient Express aloud while Mark is heckling from his cot, which is right below hers. (Technically, the cot Melissa’s using now was Vogel’s previously, but she’d moved her things over ages ago.)
“Well, what do you know,” Mark says, sleepily, but she can hear the grin in his voice. “Finally found something the great Commander Lewis is terrible at--French accents.”
“Zis is the most ‘orrible insubordination, I will not stand for such outrage,” Melissa says in her thickest French accent, hamming it up, and Mark bursts into laughter.
“Whatever you say, Pepe le Pew.”
Melissa gives up the ghost and laughs at herself, even as she demands, “Do you want me to keep reading or not?”
“No, no, come on, it’s your turn, it’s your chapter,” Mark says quickly. “Besides, how else am I gonna find out what happens on this crazy murder train?”
“You could read it yourself,” Melissa says, but with no real heat behind it.
“I like hearing you tell it,” Mark says, his voice a little quieter, almost contemplative. Then he adds, more brightly, “Horrible fake French accent and all.”
Melissa smiles to herself, and keeps reading on without any more protests. At the end of the chapter, Mark calls up to her bunk, “Bet you half a potato it’s one of the Americans that’s the murderer.”
“No bet,” Melissa says.
“Come on, Melissa. Half a potato, how can you pass up that action?”
“Quite easily, given that it’s a potato we’re talking about.” Melissa is positively dreading the day they run out of ketchup.
Under the circumstances, under the constant threat of death or disaster that looms over them, the fear that’s a quiet, constant itch in the back of their minds--despite all that, things are going shockingly well. Their crops are growing, NASA is on track to deliver the supplies by Sol 856, and has finally relented on letting Mark and Melissa communicate with the rest of crew on the Hermes--and most importantly, both of them are still alive, still surviving.
Things are going well, so of course it can’t last.
And it doesn’t.
Months later, during the debriefs, Melissa will cut herself absolutely zero slack for not realizing the dangers with regards to Airlock 1. Mark will argue with her, Mitch will repeatedly point out that the brightest minds in NASA didn’t spot the possibility of the airlock failing--and none of it does any good. That failure is on Melissa’s head, and there it will stay, because she will always believe that she should’ve seen it coming. They were using the Hab for far longer than it was intended to be used, had gotten into the stupid habit of using that particular airlock far more frequently than the others, putting it under even more strain--
She should’ve spotted the danger. It was her responsibility, her failing, and Mark nearly died as a result of her mistake.
Two things save them the night that the airlock is breached--the EVA suits they’re still wearing, and the duck tape that they always carry with them. There’s no warning, the airlock is repressuring and then--boom.
The airlock flies and takes them both along for the ride. Melissa’s slammed against the side, momentarily knocked senseless, and Mark, Mark--
Mark’s faceplate has a hole in it, it’s leaking oxygen like a goddamn sieve, and Melissa can hear his terrified, too-rapid breathing, see the light from his helmet casting his face in sharp relief as he comes that much closer to--
“Here,” Melissa says, her voice shaking as she lurches towards him, “Here, I’ve got you, it’s fine, it’s fine--”
Together they get the tape on to plug the hole in his helmet, cover the cracks, Melissa frantically ripping off strips of tape until Mark finally gives her the signal to stop. “Okay?” Melissa asks, and when Mark nods, his eyes still too wide from fear, she rests her hands on his shoulders, holding on just as hard as she can.
“You’re fine, we’re fine,” Melissa breathes out, and Mark shakes his head.
“No,” he says, his voice full of sorrow. “No, we’re not.”
Intellectually, Melissa knows what they’ll find as soon as they exit the airlock. She knows, she’s braced herself, but seeing the little farm they’d worked so hard for covered in frost, all those dead plants…
“Come on,” Melissa says at last, gently tugging at Mark’s arm. Disappointment is thick in her throat, but she keeps it out of her voice as best as she can. “We’ll spend the night in the rover, and we’ll--regroup in the morning.”
It takes Mark a long moment to respond. “Yeah,” he says, his voice flat. “Yeah, okay.”
Melissa keeps her hand on Mark’s arm for the short, bitter walk back to the rover.
The following days are a misery. They work to put the Hab back together, get on with the grim, demoralizing work of clearing out the tiny farm on which they’d pinned their hopes, their survival. They patch the Hab back together with canvas, triple-check all the systems, and once the Hab is repressurized and running, Melissa screws up her courage and takes her helmet off, gulping in air and ignoring her racing heartbeat. After a moment, she can even muster up a faint smile to Mark, standing next to her. “Piece of cake.”
“All right then,” Mark says, and takes his own helmet off. Melissa fights back the burst of anxiety at seeing him do it, the irrational desire to tell him to put it back on, to stay safe.
But that’s absurd. They’re not safe here. They’re not safe anywhere on this planet. In about 400 sols, they’ll begin to starve; by the time the probe lands on Mars with supplies, they’ll be long dead. It’s simple math, inescapable no matter how many times they run the numbers, count their remaining potatoes and rations--they’ll be dead of starvation long before any help arrives.
Even after they’ve re-established contact with NASA, the creeping sense of looming disaster won’t go away. It’s not helped by the winds buffeting the canvas that’s sealing up the gaping hole where Airlock 1 used to be, a constant reminder of just how close they are to death.
Melissa has never been so nostalgic for a submarine in her entire life.
One night, she’s jolted out of an uneasy sleep by Mark shouting. Not just shouting--he’s yelling her name. “Mark?” Melissa calls out in response, sitting up in her cot.
“Melissa?” Any lingering sleep she’s feeling is wiped out by the sound of Mark’s voice, the way it cracks around the syllables in her name. “Oh, Jesus,” he mutters next, and Melissa’s wide awake now.
“Mark, what’s going on.”
“I’m fine. I swear I’m fine, you should, uh, you should go back to sleep and…”
“Yeah, not happening,” Melissa says briskly, swinging her legs over the edge of her cot and climbing down. The lighting’s dim, but Melissa can make out Mark’s face, the way he fixes his gaze on her, as if he’s afraid to look away.
“Come on, what is it?” Melissa asks, brushing the hair out of her face.
“You should go to sleep,” Mark says again, and Melissa just gives him an impatient look. Mark sighs and says, “I just--bad dreams, that’s all. It was stupid.”
Melissa looks at Mark for a moment, hearing the winds roaring outside, and asks carefully, “About the Hab breaching?”
Mark’s expression is shadowed, his gaze averted from her as he admits, “I was--it’s the same dream every night. I’m coming back inside through the airlock and you’re...you’re tending the potatoes, or singing to yourself as you’re working on your experiments, but every time, the airlock detaches and I’m inside it and you’re in here. I find your body in here, with the dead plants.”
Melissa doesn’t say anything, and Mark continues, “And tonight when I woke up, for a second, I couldn’t remember if that was real, or if this is real or--” He stops himself and looks at her. “So that’s what it is.”
There’s a speech on the tip of Melissa’s tongue. It’s a decent enough speech, reassuring, kind. Something to bolster morale, paper over the worst of it until morning, until another endless day of fending of disaster as best as they can.
Melissa has that speech ready, and for the life of her, she can’t force herself to make it.
So, tentatively, she reaches out to touch the back of Mark’s hand, just make that bit of contact. Mark instantly welcomes it, turns his hand so that he can hold hers in a tight grip. “I’m not going anywhere,” Melissa says, her voice hushed. She tries for a smile next, adding, “I wouldn’t dare, you’d end up setting yourself on fire the second I wasn’t around.”
“Probably,” Mark says, letting out a shaky chuckle.
He still hasn’t let go of her hand, and Melissa can’t pretend that she wants him to.
Adapt and improvise. Needs must, and what Mark needs--what she needs--is reassurance. So on impulse, on instinct, Melissa takes a breath, and she acts. “Move over,” she tells him.
Mark blinks up at her. “What?”
“Move over, I want to sit down.” Mark does move, and Melissa perches on the edge of the cot. “I can’t make you stop having those dreams,” Melissa says, staring down at her hand, still tangled in Mark’s. “I can’t make myself stop having those dreams either, if we’re getting down to it. But--if I’m here with you, then when you wake up--”
“I’ll see you,” Mark says, and he’s staring at her like--like she found a new food source on Mars, like she's wrought a miracle. Melissa has no idea what to do with that look, the emotion in it, so she looks away, looks up at the bottom of her bunk. Her old bunk now, she guesses. “I’ll see you, and I’ll know where you are.”
“It’s just an idea,” Melissa says. “If you aren’t comfortable--”
“No,” Mark says. “No, it’s--” he clears his throat, “It works for me.”
“Okay,” Melissa says. “Okay, then.” She licks her dry lips. “These cots are really tiny, so you’ll have to move over a bit more.”
Still watching her, Mark complies, and Melissa follows through, climbing into the cot next to him. It’s a tight fit, she’s pressed up right against Mark’s side, Mark’s arm around her shoulders to make room, and despite everything they’ve already been through, the sudden intimacy of it is--shocking.
Mark doesn’t say anything in that moment, not a single word, but he’s warm and solid and there, right there where Melissa can reach out for him, right where she can keep an eye on him to make sure that he is safe and there and alive. In that moment, it doesn’t feel awkward, it doesn’t feel as though she’s crossed a line--it just feels right, and necessary.
“You should get to sleep,” Melissa says after a moment of charged silence. She shuts her own eyes, sure that she won’t actually be able to sleep--and yet, within what feels like just a few minutes, she’s drifting off to the sound of Mark’s steady breathing.
They don’t talk about it the next morning, just get up and get on with the day’s duties, but that night, by mutual and unspoken agreement, Melissa doesn’t move back to her old cot.