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Which Way to Go

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For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world.




Two days after Mark's rescue -- timed that way, she's sure, because any earlier could have been considered a jinx to the mission -- NASA sends a library's worth of material on how to deal with someone suffering from PTSD caused by extreme isolation and abandonment.

They're a dry read. Most of the texts are virtually identical and all come to what is essentially the same conclusion -- maximise healthy routines, and let Mark set the tone and speed of his own recovery and reintegration into the crew. It's also exactly what she had planned on doing anyway so, after a couple of nights skimming through chapters like "changes to eating habits" (he was all but starved for seven months; any change to that can only be an improvement) and "nervous tics such as talking to oneself" (she'd be more worried if he wasn't talking at all), she files them away on the network in the same folder she created for the data dump they sent the last time they left Mars (PTSD and the death of a team mate) and goes back to her umpteenth re-read of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

As far as she's concerned, she'll worry about PTSD symptoms when Mark starts complaining the computer systems on the Hermes hate him.




Mark was very clear through all their communications that leaving him behind was not her fault but a) she's never not going to blame herself for that; and b) typing the words on a computer when you don't know if you'll ever actually see the person again... well.

They're taking turns keeping him company in the sickbay while he transitions from near death to approaching mostly healthy, and Melissa's about three chapters into her book when she realises Mark has woken up from his nap and is just quietly watching her read.

"Just so you know," he says, "I really do blame the antenna. And the storm. And the incredibly insane bad luck that resulted in that antenna severing my bio-monitor at that exact moment in that storm."

Her fingers tighten around her tablet. "Mark --"

"I mean it. Meant it. I have never -- and will never -- blame you for what happened."

He can say that. And maybe even believe it. (Maybe.) But it was her mission. Her mission, and her call, and dead or alive, she left him behind. She will never be able to be okay with that. When she says, "and I will never stop being sorry," she wishes it wasn't so goddamned inadequate.

He stares at her, and she stares at him, and she knows this is a stalemate they'll never, ever be able to break, and she thinks he knows this too, because when Beck comes in a couple minutes later to check his vitals, Mark's attention changes willingly enough.

Melissa can't say she's not relieved.




His worst idea on Mars, he tells them one night, is when he tried to celebrate Christmas. Not that first Christmas, the one that they were meant to all celebrate together on the Hermes, a month into their journey home, but the second one. Two months before their rescue and hope holding on by a thread on the horizon.

"I had it all planned out," he says over dinner. "A bunch of snowmen -- sandmen -- and a big ol' SANTA STOP HERE sign. I figured I could send a still frame through Pathfinder and the kids back home'd get a kick out of it, you know?"

Vogel smiles. "What happened?"

Mark's meatloaf disappears in about three bites. "Mars," he says simply. "I could wet the sand enough to mould the figures into shape, sure, and the overnight chill would frost 'em up nicely, but the moment the wind would pick up they'd just crumble away."

On the Hermes they had spent the day running hull breach drills, and in the evening they listened to Vogel's collection of Christmas songs in Russian, and Johanssen had made the lights on one of the auxiliary panels in the briefing room flicker in time with the music. They all had a chance to talk to their families and, after dinner, Martinez read aloud the story of the Nativity while they waited for Mark to come online and talk to them.

Mark continues. "So then I thought -- polydimethylsiloxane."

Johanssen looks intrigued. "Silly putty?"

"Kinetic sand, actually. But yeah -- same thing. I took the sealant we'd brought for the hydro-valves and..."

Melissa knows how this story must end -- Mark would have told them all about it during their conversation that night if there'd been a 'Christmas' photo from Mars -- but Mark's relentless determination to find a solution for every problem is compelling.

Leaning back in her chair, Melissa cradles her cup of coffee and enjoys the story.




It's no secret that Melissa's favourite place to go on the Hermes is the cockpit. They all have their little retreats, the corners and corridors and airlocks they retreat to when they need to escape and just be for a moment, and for her it's floating in the dark, just watching the stars slide by.

She asks Mark, once, if he found something like that on Mars, if there was one place over all others that he preferred when it all just became too much, and she is expecting him to name a spot in the HAB or the rover -- definitely some place that didn't require a suit -- but he tells her instead of one of the nearby ridges outside, and how he could sit there for hours, sometimes, just staring at a horizon that was familiar and alien all at the same time.

(And that's so close to how she feels about her stars that for a moment she can only stare at him.)

"Now, though?" he continues, when she doesn't immediately say anything, "now it's Airlock 1."

She narrows her eyes. "Isn't that where Beck and Johanssen..."

Mark's expression is too innocent to be anything other than evil. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

She laughs.



The End