Chris died quickly and unexpectedly.
Mark was the last of them to find out, having been asleep when the alarms started going off. He had to claw his way out of the blankets and, half-asleep, grope about in the dark until he found his clothes. By the time he left the med-bay-slash-Chris’s-cabin, someone had shut off the alarms. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes from start to finish, and it most likely was a glitch in the system. They had been experiencing a lot of those lately, as the Hermes’s stressed systems started to fail.
He found the rest of the crew in the gym. Vogel had out a can of sealant and was applying it to a spot on the wall, near one of the portholes. Lewis and Martinez were kneeling on the floor. Johanssen had her back to them, a hand over her face. Her shoulders shook.
Mark noticed the pool of blood first. It took him a moment to connect it with Chris, who was sprawled on his back, empty eyes fixed on the ceiling.
He halted mid-step. The room swam.
“Mark.” Lewis never used their first names, and he felt like he had been punched in the gut.
“What happened?” Mark didn’t recognize his own voice.
“Micrometeoroid strike.” Vogel sounded calm, but when he turned around, Mark could see the strain around his eyes. “I’ve sealed all the breaches, Commander.”
“Thank you, Vogel.” Lewis’s response was automatic. She slipped briskly back into her role. “Johanssen, open a comm to Houston and advise them of the - accident. They’ll want to inform his family right away. Let them know that we will be taking care of the body as mission protocol dictates.”
“I don’t understand.” Mark couldn’t move, couldn’t think. Couldn’t do anything but stare into Chris’s wide eyes. Absurdly, Chris’s headphones had remained on his head, and Mark could hear the tinny music still playing through the speakers.
“Looks like he took two to the throat and one to the head,” Martinez said, his voice thick with grief. “He didn’t stand a chance. Fuck.”
Mark saw them then. The three wounds materialized as Martinez spoke. One was squarely between Chris’s eyes, like a bullet. Another micrometeoroid had gone through the center of his throat, and the third had ripped through the side of his neck.
That one must have been the first strike, Mark thought dully. Chris’s palm was smeared with blood, as though he’d clamped his hand to the side of his neck. It would have been only seconds between that and the fatal blow between the eyes, but for those heartbeats, Chris must have been terrified. In agony. It would have been the last thing he felt.
“Mark.” Lewis’s voice again, bringing him back to himself.
“Why was he here?” Mark didn’t realize he had asked it out loud until all three of them turned to look at him. “He was supposed to - he shouldn’t have -”
He couldn’t say anything more. Chris was supposed to be asleep next to Mark. Asleep for another four hours, because they were both on day shifts this week and they didn’t have to be up until seven for those.
But he knew Chris struggled with insomnia sometimes, and this wasn’t his first nighttime session in the gym.
“Vogel, would you get one of the body bags?” Lewis asked. “Martinez, I’m going to need your help lifting him. I’m sorry.”
“It’d be my honor, Commander,” Martinez said softly. He passed his hand over Chris’s face, closing his eyes. Lewis removed the headphones and carefully pulled the music player out of Chris’s pocket. She stopped the music and set it aside.
When Vogel returned with the body bag, the three of them carefully sealed Chris into it. Vogel and Martinez carried him to the airlock. Lewis turned to Mark.
“I’ll take care of the blood,” he said, before she could open her mouth and ask if he was all right.
Lewis hesitated, and then nodded.
“It’ll take an hour for the body to freeze entirely, and another for it to be processed,” she said. “When it’s done, I’ll let you know.”
It took Mark the better part of an hour to scrub Chris’s blood from the floor and dispose of it per NASA’s strict instructions. He did it without gloves, his only violation of mission protocol. He wanted to feel Chris under his hands one last time.
He couldn’t recall their final moments together with any clarity. It was just like any other night, and thus hadn’t made much of an impression on him. Days and nights bled together when they got into a routine that had little variation. Had he remembered to kiss Chris before he fell asleep? Had he wished him good night? Had he told Chris that he loved him? Mark couldn’t say with any certainty. He thought he remembered doing so, but then, that could have been two nights ago, or three.
Lewis gathered the crew in the common area at six. Mark sat between Johanssen and Vogel on the long couch. Martinez and Lewis both sat in the pod-shaped chairs facing them. A low table was bolted to the floor between them all, and now a blue container sat on top of it.
Mark couldn’t keep from staring at it, trying to reconcile the fact that the man he had held last night - and the man he had seen lying on the floor not three hours ago - had been reduced to less than fifty pounds of dust and packaged neatly in this container.
A U.N. charter forbade littering in the void - including the disposal of bodies, should an astronaut die in space. They had all signed on to the mission with the knowledge that if they died, their bodies would be frozen and then vibrated until they shattered. Disintegrated. Dust to dust.
Chris especially had known what it would mean if he died out here, known that NASA’s strict procedures regarding astronauts’ bodies would be in contradiction of his own faith. He had never been much for religion anyway, he told Mark, but on more than one occasion - before Ares 3, before training, back when they had only been applicants with an outrageous dream - Mark had accompanied him to temple.
“The first time I met Chris,” Lewis said quietly, breaking the brittle silence, “was in a Houston bar right before they announced the crew. I was told ahead of time who I would be commanding, and I recognized him right away from his file photo.”
“Don’t tell me he hit on you, Commander!” Martinez’s eyes lit up with sudden glee.
“No, nothing of the sort,” Lewis said, allowing a small smile at the memory. “I will say that it was karaoke night, and our Doctor Beck thought he was a very good singer. Especially after a couple of shots. Thought he was quite the dancer, too, though I’m not sure everyone agreed.”
Martinez hooted in delight at the thought. “What I wouldn’t have given to see that. Hey, Vogel, remember that time we put ants in his sleeping bag? Talk about bad dancing!”
Vogel snorted and shook his head. “I had nothing to do with that.”
“Whatever, man.” Martinez waved him off. “It was that first camping trip we took as a crew, the one to Utah?”
Lewis turned to him. “That was you two?”
Mark had a sudden, clear memory of Chris leaping out of his sleeping bag and diving out of the tent they had shared. It was probably the most undignified he had ever seen Chris, hopping around in his underwear in the middle of the night. Mark’s laughter had only lasted so long, though, because the displaced ants quickly found a new home in his warm sleeping bag.
“He was a good man.” Vogel’s accent was thicker than normal. “Brilliant, of course, but what mattered was his heart.”
Vogel thumped his own chest in emphasis. “During the rescue attempt, he told me to cut the tether if he couldn’t reach Mark. I think if I had not agreed to do so, he would have done it himself.”
Mark closed his eyes. He hadn’t known that. The thought of Chris being lost to the void because of him made him feel nauseated - but then, Chris had died anyway.
“He once made me a cake for my birthday and it was terrible.” Johanssen raked her fingers through her limp hair, her gaze fixed sightlessly on the far wall. Her eyes were still red, but at least the tears had stopped. “Right before we left Earth. He couldn’t bake worth a damn, but he made me a cake and brought it to my apartment and we ate the whole thing. Sitting on the floor, of course, because most of my furniture had been packed away already. It was the best birthday I’d had in years.”
Lewis gave a wet laugh. The silence lengthened, and Mark became dimly aware that the attention had shifted to him.
“I don’t really have anything to add,” he said, his gut twisting. “You guys had more time with him than I did.”
He said it matter-of-fact, but it hurt like hell. His crewmates had been granted more time with Chris than he would ever get, and they hadn’t even -
Of course they had loved him. Mark berated himself for the thought.
“Come now, Mark,” Lewis said gently. “You two were thick as thieves before -”
She broke off. Before Mars. Before the universe had ripped them apart in the worst way possible, and then brought them together for a few months of borrowed time before parting them forever.
If only the communications antenna had punctured his torso a few inches higher, and killed him instantly. If only he had never managed to find Pathfinder and Sojourner. If only he had failed to make contact with NASA. If only the base functions of the human brain weren’t hard-wired for survival at any cost. The crew would never have been compelled to return to Mars, and Chris would be watching the sun rise over the Atlantic from the porch of his Connecticut home right now. Safe. Alive.
If only, if only, if only.
Lewis reached for her forgotten mug of tea and took a sip. Vogel drained his coffee. No one said anything, but no one made a move to leave, either.
“It’s Jewish tradition,” Lewis said finally, “not to leave a body unattended until it can be buried. I thought we might be able to honor that custom, at least. I’d like to put him in the cockpit for the rest of our journey, since someone will be in there at all times.”
She touched the box gently, brushing her fingertips along its side. Everyone nodded in agreement.
“My favorite memory of Chris,” Mark said suddenly, and then stopped. They all looked at him, but he shook his head. He couldn’t do this, he couldn’t -
Vogel put a hand on Mark’s knee and squeezed. He said nothing. Mark closed his eyes, hearing the roar of the ocean, feeling the harsh salt-spray upon his face.
“The summer before we were to report to Houston for training,” he said quietly, “Chris and I went to California. We’d never been. We rented a house near the beach, and for four days, it was just us. No one else. We swam and we ate and we laughed and we slept. I can’t remember having a better four days. My favorite part was waking before him in the morning. Watching him sleep. He was - he was so beautiful. I was so goddamn lucky. I thought, when this was all over, I would have him for the rest of my days. It never occurred to me that he would be the one to -”
Mark broke off. He drew a shaky breath.
“It should have been me,” he whispered. “I should have died on that planet. If I had, he would be home right now. Safe.”
No one spoke. Vogel’s hand was heavy on his knee. On his other side, Johanssen was still as marble.
“You were together,” Vogel said in quiet awe, like all the pieces had suddenly clicked into place for him.
“Mark,” Lewis said, her voice unsteady, “we never knew -”
“All this time!” Martinez burst out. “All this time, man, and you never said -”
“We couldn’t,” Mark snapped, suddenly angry. “You know that. Mission protocol prevents fraternization, and even if it didn’t, NASA still hasn’t figured out how to deal with gay astronauts. We don’t exist. Would either of us have been allowed on this mission if they caught even a whiff of what was going on?”
Mark looked away, unable to meet their eyes.
“I loved him,” he said finally. “My favorite memory of Chris is loving him. I’ll never know a better man.”
Johanssen moved first. She slowly uncurled from her tight ball and scooted closer to him, wrapping an arm around his back and resting her head on his shoulder. Vogel slid an arm around his waist. Then Lewis and Martinez were upon him.
He wept into someone’s shoulder. Someone else stroked his hair. A gentle voice whispered into his ear, and a hand rubbed soothing circles into his back. Was this how it had felt, when Chris thought him dead? Worse, probably, because Chris had never breathed a word of their affair. He had gone through it all alone, with no one to comfort him like this.
Someday, Mark knew, he would have to face Chris’s cabin alone. He would have to endure all the celebrations when they returned to Earth alone. He would have to step over the threshold of his Chicago apartment alone, have to sift through the clothes and belongings that Chris had left behind three years ago. And then before him stretched the rest of his life, far too long now that Chris was no longer in it. He ached. He cried. He wanted to scream.
“I loved him.” It was all he could think to say. “I loved him.”