You wake up with a hatchet over your head.
They had her present her plan after two months of work. Two months of interdepartmental meetings and memos and her own obsessive drafting and redrafting at the kitchen table in the spare apartment she rented in Atlanta. She studied bank vaults and internet security measures and asked around for the extension at the CDC for the team tasked with safeguarding the lone smallpox vial. She did her homework and then she made her pitch.
“Three firewalls,” she said. She held up three fingers.
The first is the box.
The second is the lab.
The third is the station.
If all three are compromised, “You know what to do,” she said after a pause. And they did. They had their packets open to the final pages of the classified dossier: CONTINGENCY EFFORTS IN EVENT OF FAILURE OF FIREWALL 3.
Miranda doesn’t know when they decided to change protocol.
When they crash land on Mars, she doesn’t crack her helmet but she does crack her head. Her head rattles around in her helmet, and she smashes her temple against the edge, hard, blood matting the side of her face as she blacks out.
When she comes to, she can feel the wet spreading down the side of her face, blood smeared rather than dotting and floating the way it would have back in orbit. Gravity holds her down, an unwelcome friend with its arms wrapped too tight around her. David is silent, unmoving and unsee. Panic kickstarts in her chest. She doesn’t mean to think it, but there it is: I can’t do this alone. It horrifies her as she realizes just how true that is. Miranda has prided herself her entire life for her independence, her ability to go it alone, and now, here she is, facing the exact opposite as the truth.
She has an awful headache already and she must have bitten the inside of her cheek because she can taste blood. She can’t move. Adrenaline spikes at that as she tries to turn her head to see, but her field of vision is limited by the helmet, by the blood smeared over the glass. She takes a deep breath. She has to remember to breath normally. She has enough O2, and there hasn’t been a breach in her suit, and those are good things, she tells herself. Good, good things. She used to be better at latching onto the good, but it’s been a long time. It’s been eight months. She tries to slow her breath even more, listen for – for anything. There’s no sound from David, and there is no sound from Calvin. She tries to move again, but – the gravity, she reminds herself. They had talked about this. The Martian gravity – they wouldn’t be used to it.
Space travel is not just an exploration of the limits of human endeavor, but human anatomy.
It takes too long, but she does it: Miranda slowly and resolutely finds her strength, nauseous the entire time. They only have so much O2. She is relying on the HAB being depressurized. If not, if not, then –
“No,” she whispers. She can almost lift her arm. That’s progress. She says David’s name again, and nothing. She has to get up. She can barely see out of her right eye, her lashes sticky with dried blood. She can see David’s feet, but hardly, just outside her limited field of vision. So he’s here. He’s at least here. He’s here, but he’s not moving. Her immediate thought is that he’s dead. It was all for nothing: he’s already dead. She says his name again, more insistent, but then it dawns on her: the comms are out, even the link between them. She mutters, “Fuck,” under her breath repeatedly. She clenches her abdominal muscles and struggles to sit up. She’s sweating, drenched in her suit.
The contingency plan for Firewall 3 she had helped draft was to push them out to deep space. This is a new plan. This is Mars. She does not think they are meant to come back from this either.
If anyone was to ask her now if it was worth it to come to space, her answer would be an automatic no. She has been playing beat the clock ever since she got up here, her stomach knotted up since she left Earth’s atmosphere. It was never the worries she anticipated – getting sick, having to use the bathroom, disliking her crew mates, getting sucked into the dark unforgiving void that is space – but instead an altogether different animal. There was that deep clenching fear she would feel each time Rory headed out for a spacewalk. That he wouldn’t return from it. She thinks it’s wrong they lost him inside the station, as if she was being told: there are worse fates than the ones you feared. She worried for David. She hadn’t anticipated that, even after being told of her extracurricular mission pre-take-off: report any psychological anomalies evidenced by Team Member David Jordan. Sometimes David was wrong, so impossibly wrong, she couldn’t figure out how a human like him was put together. He was antisocial but not, fearful but brave – he was an exercise of contradictions that constantly met in dead-ends, his own personal firewall erected to keep other people out. To keep her out. She should have understood that, but she couldn’t. Each time she crawled into that coffin that served as her bed, she would worry. She had never had a fear of confined spaces until she had to spend each night in that excuse for a bed. It reminded her of Snow White’s coffin. All that glass, the endless sleep – dependent on someone else to wake you up.
Miranda is up now, but barely. Just standing is proving an impossible effort. She takes her first step forward and her legs cave out from under her, as if they are made of rubber. She can see David head-on now at least. She starts to lift her arm, as if to bat at her own face, get some of the blood out of her eyes, but she can barely lift her arm. She barely remembers there’s a helmet in the way.
David is sprawled out on his stomach. From here, she can’t see any tears in his suit. That’s good. But she can’t see his helmet. If his helmet is cracked, if it broke, then –
She stays on her knees and inches forward. She gets her gloved hand wrapped clumsily around his ankle and she tries to pull. Nothing. She leaves her hand anchored on his ankle and drags herself closer to him. Closer, closer, until her hands have crawled up his body to his waist, her head at his hip. He’s still not moving; she thinks she might throw up. From the effort, the fear. She pushes at his hip, to roll him, so she can see, she can know (she can’t stop picturing it: the broken faceplate, his face blue and warped and dead, dead, dead), and she finally earns a reaction from him: a very low and distant-sounding whine.
“Oh thank god,” she says.
David’s arm is broken, the angle horrifying even in his suit. Snapped, like a twig. Not for the first time, she thinks: they let him stay up here too long. He is looking up at her with dazed shock, saying something she can’t make out through their helmets. “Don’t panic,” she says, shaking her head. “We’re fine.”
It’s rough work getting him to his feet – the gravity bearing down even worse on him. They had managed to navigate their crash trajectory well. There had been just enough fuel left in their thrusters to direct their navigation towards where the HAB was left on the Martian surface, waiting for the next manned mission to arrive. The HAB is right there in front of them. It still feels too far as they make their way over to it, Miranda dragging David.
The comms should be working in the HAB. That was what she kept telling David before the crash. They all knew about the anticipated Ares team, but she can’t remember when they were supposed to launch. That mattered, but not for the comms. The comms should be working. The comms would be ready for them.
It’s impressive though that the HAB is still standing, considering the windstorms that tear through here. They’ll have to reinforce the airlocks. If they intend to stay. They’ll have to stay. She can’t remember when the Ares team was meant to launch.
They finally make it to the airlock of the HAB. Depressurized, mercifully, and Miranda gingerly yanks her helmet off, her gloves, trying to wipe away the tacky blood marring her vision. David is still on his knees, dazed, his broken arm held at a funny angle against his chest. She gets his helmet off for him. Her movements still feel clumsy and too slow, like she’s stuck in a bad dream and she’s going to get caught, she’s not moving fast enough. She had felt that way when she had first arrived on the ISS and had to relearn her own body in the zero G confines of the station. You never got anywhere as quickly as you thought you would, any small movement leading your body to careen into a different direction.
“Hey,” he says softly and then he starts to laugh.
“It’s not funny,” she says quietly, but she can feel her own mouth bending into what feels like a smile. They’re alive.
“We should check the comms,” he says.
The comms are down. Most likely one of those dust storms after all. Or, Calvin. She doesn’t say it out loud. She doesn’t want to bring him back into their thoughts. But he’s there, ghosting along the outer rim of her thoughts, of everything she says to David, a brush of its tentacles to remind: you don’t know if it died.
She had asked David, when they were still en route to Mars, what he thought had led to Calvin and its kind dying out on Mars.
“Same thing that causes most extinctions: no food. They reached the top of pyramid and there was nothing left to eat but each other.” She hadn’t liked the bleak way he said it, how he looked at her.
“So, our own Martian Donner Party then, huh.”
“Something like that,” he said.
Neither one of them are comms experts. They had been brought for their medical expertise. David has had more experience with repairing malfunctioning equipment – Rory used to say the ISS was little more than a lemon of a car cobbled together with junkyard space shit – and he states it simply: he will go.
“Your arm,” she starts, and then, “I’ll go with you,” she says. She can’t explain the horror rising up in her, the thought of him out there without her.
“Someone needs to stick around to see if it works,” he says, and even when he smiles, his mouth is grim.
“Yes,” she says. “Someone does.”
So she goes and she comes back. The comms still won’t work.
Miranda has a black eye for a couple of days and eventually a small scar just above her eye. David’s arm is slower to heal. It’s fascinating in its own way, to study how the human body and human bones knit themselves back together under different atmospheric pressure. She says as much to him one evening, the two of them picking at their limited rations, and he gives her a funny look. “I’m glad you find my broken body so intellectually stimulating.”
“Hard-pressed for entertainment around here,” she says, and she smiles. He smiles. It’s almost like before. Almost.
They have put aside enough morphine to kill the both of them, should it come to that.
It took eight months to reach the surface of Mars.
They traveled the entire way with limited life functions, with Calvin contained, and fear as a bungee cord that kept her tethered to David. They had learned to coexist. With each other. With Calvin, the threat he presented.
Worry consumed her. Calvin. Their O2 supply. Their food. Surviving the crash landing on Mars. It took too long for her to recognize what was abundantly clear on the nav screen. It showed them where they were headed, and it wasn’t deep space. It was where Calvin had come from; it was Mars.
She worried about David.
That entire eight months, David had a hunted look to him that Miranda couldn’t decide was new or if he had always had that, lurking behind his eyes.
Before the discovery, she had been monitoring David’s radiation levels, what space was doing to his body. She worried about reentry, unsure what the Martian atmosphere would do to his body, the stacked pressure of gravity that has been absent for him for going on two years. His muscle atrophy worsened with each scan, and that was before the eight months they spent en route to Mars. David remained indifferent to it all. It was as if, she did not like to think, he never planned to come back from here at all.
Sometimes they hear things, outside the HAB. They both will freeze and they will look to each other but neither will do anything about it but listen. They’ll listen, and they will both wonder the same thing: what if Calvin survived the crash, too.
Sometimes it feels like they are living in the belly of the beast. Sometimes it feels like they never left.
She talks a lot just to give them sound, something to hold onto her. To remind herself of her own history. That she came from somewhere, even if she is going nowhere. She talks about the Ares crew rescuing them, but it’s the sort of talk she imagines abounds among a shipwrecked crew: someone will come for us. Someone has to.
The story can’t end here, they’d say, even as the sharks circled and the waves swelled.
David would apologize to her, sometimes. It was pointless. It was a bit like the inmate apologizing to the prison guard for both of them being behind bars.
Rory was the only one David ever mentioned by name, and she wished he wouldn’t.
“I would’ve done the same thing,” she finally said, interrupting him. “I would’ve shut the door, too. He would’ve shut the door. It’s protocol, David. It’s not personal.”
“It is fucking personal, Miranda. I killed him.” It was the first time he had ever said it so directly out loud and everything in her felt tight, unmanageable.
“No,” but it was barely louder than a whisper. “No, Calvin killed him. Calvin killed all of them. And we all agreed to bring that thing on board. There’s no blame,” she said, her voice dropping down quiet again, said more to herself than to David. “It’s nature.”
She knew that disappointed David. He had come to believe space was a private respite from what he had come to think as earthbound horrors: war, murder, death, despair. None of that was meant to find him here. It was a betrayal, she thought, of the worst kind.
“What would you tell them?”
“What?” she asks. She has stilled, but she has not turned around to face him. It’s the tone that surprises her more than the question: leading, and almost sly. He knows then. Has he always known?
“About me,” he says. “What did you tell them about me.” It’s not a question anymore.
Miranda’s duties were explained to her pre-launch. She was to be the firewall – not just for potential discoveries from Mars, but for the crew.
“I beg pardon?”
She was to be the control for them. To keep them safe, not just from each other, but from themselves.
A file was placed down in front of her. “David Jordan,” her supervisor explained. The longest consecutive time spent in space. Former military. Passed the psych tests, but barely. “Keep on eye on him,” he said. “Report back.”
They sleep in the same set of bunks. At first, it’s like a luxury: to have a bed, an actual bed you sleep horizontally on. She takes the top bunk and David sleeps below her. After the first couple of weeks, the luxury is gone. Any distance between them feels wrong.
David must feel it, too. That night, as she approaches the small ladder, he says her name and he tells her to stop.
“You lonely?” she jokes, but the humor doesn’t fully reach her eyes.
He doesn’t smile though. He is looking at her, his mouth flat and serious. The awkwardness they sometimes crash into during their days (the last year) spent together has coiled into something different, tension thick and wrong between them. She is having a hard time holding his gaze. Sometimes, she thinks, it’s easier not to look at him.
“Come here,” he says, voice as dark as his face. Quiet, too. She hesitates. So he says it again. They never had to ask for each other in the eight months it took to get here. Here, she thinks. Not just Mars, but whatever this is they are in now. Purgatory, she thinks, in her less scientific moments.
Her body moves as if independent of her. As if commanded by him. She freezes then; her knees bump against the side of his bunk and she looks down at him, watches him watching her, as he shifts over. The bunk is tiny; he already takes up most of it. She knows exactly where he expects her to fit.
Since their crash landing here on Mars, they don’t touch each other. Not really. Not in their day-to-day routine and they don’t go out of their way to confirm human contact between each other. Strange then to feel his body, warm and solid, right there against her own. Familiar, and it’s the familiarity that makes it feel difficult to swallow, like her own chest is too heavy. She wants to call it grief, but the word strikes her as wrong. He ropes his good arm behind her shoulder, his hand wide and settled on her upper arm. She is tucked along his side, her body following the curve of his. She rests her hand lightly on his chest and feels his breath even out, his grip on her arm tighten. For a brief moment, she thinks: there will be no escape.
Deep down she knows: there will be no rescue.
There is a psychology to people who know they are going to die. A lot like the stages of grief – anger, denial, bargaining. Despair. Acceptance. Also, relief. Or at least that is how David behaves.
“If you need to talk,” she had told him, and these were early days; the darkness of the station and the darkness of space that surrounded them implied more intimacy than they had earned. Miranda had let the offer drop, unfinished but understood. And denied.
He didn’t need to talk, he had said. “I’m fine.”
During those eight months, they would lash themselves down to sleep. Their sleeping quarters were in what they know referred to as Calvin territory. So they stayed where they were, the navigation screens glowing bright, and they used the straps that coiled up out of the floor to hold themselves down as they slept. Her body would press into his side and she learned him that way. The tension did not leave him, not even when he slept. One night (was it night, was it day; relearning the concept of time had been the first struggle she had to overcome once she had made it to the ISS; when she had come aboard, Rory had called her the rookie, and after Cat told him she was with the CDC, he had said, “Ah, yes, Dr. Rookie,” like that was the height of humor, and she had laughed, and she did miss him, she missed all of them), she buried her face in the crook of his neck. He smelled entirely human, not exactly good, but biological, real, unlike everything else in the station surrounding them. His pulse stumbled under her nose and her mouth and she wondered which it was: fear or desire or if both were just the same emotion refracted. She kissed his neck, her mouth wet and open, until he finally made a noise. Until his body went lax.
She didn’t know what she wanted him to do to her, if she wanted anything at all.
David does not sleep well. She doesn’t either because she knows this. She is witness to it.
He jerks awake in the night and she never asks him what he dreams. She can feel him though, his fingers as they drag through her hair, as he gathers her body up that much closer to his. Like he wants to meld her to him and maybe then he will find a kind of quiet. A peace. Sometimes he will say her name, quiet and gentle, as if confirming her presence. She never answers him, instead choosing to remain in that state of twilight sleep. She lets him catalogue her body, lets him reassure himself that she’s alive and she’s still here.
That if they can believe it, then everything will be fine.
Miranda is alone in the HAB the first time she hears it – a voice.
Static mars it, but she’s across the room as it crackles, the voice gurgling. Miranda bangs her hip on the low table but the pain doesn’t register; a bruise will, later.
She could’ve sworn the voice had said, “Do not panic.”
David has an accident. He is bleeding, a gash in his side, the blood dark against the cold white interior of the HAB.
“What did you do?” she asks, but he does not answer. He is sweaty and pale, his gaze focused but faraway, like he is figuring something out he has no business to know. Her gaze keeps drifting down from his face to his torn flesh. To the arm still bent in a makeshift sling. Without permission or design, her fingertips pass over the jagged edge of the cut and he winces. She can’t see how deep it is, she needs to know –
She could stick her hand inside him, where it’s warm and wet and entirely him. She yanks her hand back, and she is afraid. She is terribly afraid.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” she finally hears herself say. He never does tell her what happened. She has decided she has no wish to know.
“They’ll come,” David tells her. His smile slants across his face though his eyes are both too bright and dulled.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” he says.
She worries, still. Constantly. The airlock. Their food supply. The stock of morphine she keeps a watchful, possessive eye on. David. Calvin, out there, waiting. David, and what he has become. What she has –
They slept alongside each other each night as they were propelled out towards Mars. David kissed her one night, but it was a parody of a kiss. His open mouth barely ghosted over her own, made her gasp all the same. He had liked that, his hips shifted towards hers. She wondered how long it had been since he had another body like this. He had been in space for well over a year. But his mouth was on hers, barely on hers, like he was trying to re-teach himself human anatomy. The tip of his tongue traced her bottom lip; her breathing coming fast, but she didn’t move. She let him explore. She let him use her the same way she had used him for her assignment. Study him, they had said. Study me, she did not say to him. She didn’t need to.
So much of the things she does anymore she does without thinking. Without comment. They have reached a new level of shared symbiosis. It has been two months and she does not understand how David’s arm has healed.
It is night; they are in his bunk together. For the first time, the space feels too small to her. Miranda tries to twist away, but her elbow crashes into the wall of the bunk, her knee cracks against his. A tiny shard of maliciousness tears into her and she finds she hopes it hurt.
And then, there it is: a solid hand on her hip. Like he is trying to restrain her. She stills, aware this is what he wanted, and breathes deeply. She’s painfully aware of the tight grip of his hand on her, five points of pressure and the heat of the palm of his hand. She’s not sure when she diverted from the clinical approach to anatomy to whatever this is, near spiritual in her reverence. She can hear his breath hissing between his teeth. She doesn’t know what he is thinking; she was supposed to know at least that much.
His grip tightens suddenly. He was alone for so long, she tells herself. He’s a doctor too. Maybe they are together here after all, the same page, the mundane rendered impossible, worshipful. She turns her head slightly, and there he is. Do they always sleep this close to one another?
His face is both familiar and wrong. Much thinner than when they first met, the beard grown in full along his jaw and neck. She exhales, noisy in the quiet of the HAB. But the quiet is not a real quiet. There is still the generator that keeps them alive. She has not known quiet since she left Earth. There is always white noise, always manufactured.
He removes his hand from her hip and then guides it down between their bodies. Slowly, giving her more than a million chances to stop him. His eyes are bright and alert in the dark as he watches her; he’s watching her the same way she used to watch him, she thinks dumbly – he’s looking for weakness, he’s checking for cause for concern. His hand stops between her legs. She doesn’t move a muscle, her breath coming fast, her body stiff. He curves his hand, cupping her and she still hasn’t moved, her gaze fixed on his shoulder, the bit of neck she can see, her mouth gone dry.
There is the press of his fingers closer, firmer, against her. He peels the side of her pants down below the sharp blade of her hip. There is a brief pause where he runs the pad of a finger over the jut of bone, something too real and too much like sorrow marring his face before he blinks it away.
Miranda is watching him now. She can’t stop watching him – she never stopped watching him – as she mindlessly, aimlessly, grinds herself onto his hand. He is unceremonious when he slips his hand below the waistband; she isn’t quick enough to bite down on the gasp that escapes her when his fingers find wet flesh.
Maybe he mutters her name. Maybe that counts for something. Everything. She rolls her hips, her thigh bumping against his, side of her hip still exposed, elastic of her underwear biting into her ass where it’s been stretched, the top curve of it bare, the sheet cold against her skin. She has no interest in drawing this out, feels like she’s more exposed right now than she’s ever been.
She can’t look at him now, her eyes are squeezed shut – can feel the heat of him, his body right there, and she lets out a choked noise when he crooks a finger inside herself, body clenching already. She forces her eyes open. He is looking at her like she’s an experiment. A whine sticks in the back of her throat.
It’s overwhelming to have someone else touching her like this, to have him, and she thinks he feels the same because she can feel him grinding against her thigh, cock hard, the barest brush of his lips against her neck, and she’s coming, tries to keep quiet, and oh fuck, what have they done.
She watches him yank his own pants down. She learns what he looks like gripped tight and wanting. She keeps whispering, “oh my god,” under her breath, more and more mournful sounding, even as he pushes into her. She’s lost. She grabs the front of his t-shirt in a fist, and he’s muttering what sounds like yes under his breath as she pushes her pulsing body closer to his. She can feel his body on hers, inside of her, humming, violently alive. It’s like she can feel each and every bit of him, like she is little more than an extension of him now. She can feel the brittleness of her own bones; can feel it when he grips her too tight, the unnatural bend of her wrist clasped in his grasp – it’s as if he could grind her to dust. It’s like she was never real.
Miranda is at the comms, and she has achieved contact. She laughs, the sound quiet and more like a sob than anything else.
The voice on the other end is distant, soft and unfamiliar, but clear. Do not panic, that voice says. They will come. There is nothing to worry about. Everything will survive, even death. The voice is calm and benevolent but Miranda has curled her hands into fists, her nails biting into the meat of her palm. She wonders what it would feel like to believe that voice. The voice is quiet now. She doesn’t trust it, but she needs to hear more.
“Do you copy?” Miranda whispers. Static is her only reply. Was there ever a reply? Is there anyone else, not just in the world, but this universe, than David? David, skinny and bearded now; he should be like her: a wraith, a cold hard relic of who she once was. Instead, she thinks with the same dread as she had listened, he has never seemed more alive.
The wind whips outside the HAB. Panic no longer seizes her heart. She no longer knows what is the wind and what is –
She takes a deep breath. The radio is quiet. It won’t be long now.