"Dad, they are here." My son, M.J., stood in the doorway of the kitchen. I hadn't wanted him to fly out just to be here when the NASA representatives showed up, but when you're eighty-nine your children don't always listen to you.
"Tell them to sit down, I'll be there in a minute." I walked over to the sink and rinsed my coffee mug out and placed it in the drainboard. The brown and red leaves were falling off the maples in the backyard, being blown in a whirlwind by the wind. Another Connecticut winter was coming, I should have moved south years ago.
I'd been dreading this day for ten years, ever since NASA had announced its plans to return to Acidalia Planitia.
I almost wished that I had died before Watney 1 returned from its yearlong mission of revisiting the Ares 3 site fifty years after the tragedy that had killed Mark. Beth hadn't made it, she had died of cancer five years ago. Of the five of us who had returned in 2036, only two were still alive. Vogel was somewhere in Germany. Beth had exchanged Christmas cards with his wife, but after she and Heidi passed, Alex and I hadn't bothered to continue.
The two representatives from NASA stood up as I walked into the living room, they were wearing matching blue blazers with the NASA emblem sewn on the breast pocket. A video screen and two black binders were on the coffee table. "Dad, this is Erica Sinclair and Scott Bishop with NASA."
"It is an honor, Dr. Beck, to meet you."
"What did you find?" I had hoped it was nothing. For years after we returned I was haunted by the thought of Mark's body buried in the sand, but I'd come to accept it. We had all known the risks but I'd thought it was a shared one. I never imagined returning without him.
After the Watney 1 mission had been announced there'd been talk of bringing his body back. Beth, Vogel and I had protested strongly against the idea. I'd even flown to Houston to make sure that the fools at NASA, who had not even been born when Mark died, understood that he should be left where he was.
"Perhaps we should all sit down." M.J. said.
Impatiently I sat down in my armchair, cursing under my breath as pain shot down my leg. I should have had the hip replacement done years ago but hadn't bothered. Now arthritis was eating away at the joint and reminding me every day of what a fool I was.
"What did you find," I repeated.
"Not what was expected-" Bishop started to say but I cut him off.
"You didn't go looking for his body. They promised me—"
"No, not at all." The woman shook her head. Her hands were clenched in her lap and I was confused by the tears in her eyes. "There was no sign of his body and they didn't seek it out. The remains of the Hab and rovers were still there, under several feet of sand. They were able to dig through and recover the digital records and other materials."
"So what is the video screen for?"
"Dad, they found out—" M.J.'s voice cracked and he couldn't go on. I looked accusingly at Bishop who seemed to be the only one who had his act together.
"What don't you want to tell me?"
"Mark Watney did not die on Sol 6." Bishop said, looking me straight in the eye. "He lived at least until Sol 124."
"The day of the evacuation, it was assumed Watney had been killed during the evacuation when he was hit with—"
"I know what the fuck happened, I was fucking there." I shook my head at them. "How dare you come into my fucking house and make up this bullcrap. Is this a fucking joke?"
"Dad," M.J. was kneeling by my chair. "Dad, they aren't lying. He left video records."
"What Sol did he die?" My mind was spinning and I couldn't make sense of anything they were saying to me.
"He recorded his final messages on Sol 124. There is nothing after that, so we assume he died sometime soon after."
Sol 124? That had been over four months after we'd left the planet. I could feel my heart pounding and I prayed for it not to give out on me before I found out what had happened to Mark.
"Director Patel asked us to express NASA's deepest sympathies for—"
"Cut the NASA crap, I spent thirty years putting up with it. What's on the player?"
"Watney recorded nearly ten hours of reports over that four month period. He knew that it was unlikely that they would be found but he was an amazing scientist. He wanted to live long enough to be picked up by Ares 4 but things went wrong for him."
The chit was trying to tell me how amazing Mark was and she'd never met him. "And it is all there? On that player?"
"That has all of his official reports and the final messages he recorded for you and the other members of Ares 3 and his parents."
"Did you watch those?"
"Just the official records, sir. Not the personal ones. Director Patel and a video technician who converted the video into a format that would play on today's players are the only one who have seen those. NASA will be holding a press conference tomorrow to make the announcement that he did not die when expected, and the official reports he filed will be released to the media but not any personal ones."
"Press conference tomorrow? You better be sending someone over to Germany before Vogel finds out on the five o'clock news."
"Yes, Dr. Beck. Another team is at his house."
"You can leave now. Leave that stuff here." I motioned towards the player. "I'm not going to have you sitting here staring at me while I watch."
"Show them to the door."
M.J. looked like he was going to argue but for once he didn't. I was vaguely aware of the three of them talking far too long out on the front porch. I got up to pour myself a whiskey, but my hand was shaking so badly that only some of it made it in the glass.
"Let me." M.J. took the bottle from me and filled the glass half full. Beth and I had obviously done something right to raise a son who didn't question the need for a drink at ten in the morning.
"Ice?" I shook my head. "Sit down, I'll bring it over for you."
The chair groaned as I sat back down and again the video player was glaring at me. "Here you go."
I took the glass and took a solid two swallows, the whiskey burning my throat, just like it had when Mark and I had drank from a flask two nights before Ares 3 launched. "Our last drink for an entire year. May as well make it a good one," he'd said.
"Did you know? Is that why you flew out here?"
"Director Patel called me and warned me that they had learned that Mark Watney hadn't died the first day, and that it could be…disturbing. I had no idea that it was more than a day or two—"
"Disturbing? Is that what she actually said? Mark lived for four months after we left and she called it disturbing?"
"Goddammit, if you say Dad one more time, or try to stop me." I took another sip of whiskey. "How do you run that thing?" I motioned with the glass towards the player.
"There's a remote." He picked it up from the table. "Just hit play or stop."
"Okay, give it here and you go off."
"I'm not going to let you watch this alone."
"And I'm not going to let you stay and watch me watching it." Damn kids. "Go in the kitchen, do the dishes. Go rake those leaves outside. Go do something."
"You named me after him, Dad. Mom told me all about him when I was growing up. How I was like him. How much you both had admired him. Don't you think –"
He was right. He'd been burdened with the name Mark, because I hadn't been able to explain to Beth forty-five years ago why it was too painful a name to say. For the first ten years of Mark's life I'd called him every nickname I could think of to avoid saying the one that tore my heart apart. Had finally settled on M.J. and he'd gone by it ever since.
"Okay, just don't say anything. Hit the damn button."
It was wrong, I should have taken a moment to prepare myself for the image of Mark in the all too familiar Hab. I took too deep of breath and started coughing. M.J. was there in an instant, patting me on the back.
"Let me get you some water." He took off for the kitchen leaving the video screen frozen on Mark's face. He was battered, a bruise over his left eye, a blanket over his shoulders, partially covering his bare chest a thick bandage covering his left side below the ribcage. The stubble of his five o'clock shadow covered his lowered face and he had dark circles under his eyes. My beautiful Mark.
"Here, Dad." M.J. took the forgotten whiskey from my hand replaced it with a glass of water. "Are you sure you are up for this?"
"I'm sure." I'd never been less sure of anything in my eighty-nine years. "Start it again."
"This is Mark Watney and I'm fucked…"
We watched for hours, Mark was alive again and in the room with me. He had tried everything to stay alive long enough to greet Ares 4 when they arrived. The determination on his face when he explained his plans. I wish Beth was alive to see how pumped Mark had gotten when the first potato sprouts popped up out of the soil he'd created. The exhausted defeat when he had recovered Pathfinder but had not been able to get it to communicate with Earth. It hadn't stopped him, though. He had continued his one-man colonization of Mars, growing potatoes and recording for science for mankind what it was like to be the only human living on a hostile planet.
I'd lost track of what Sol he was on and was unprepared when his face appeared, a deep gash running from his left temple down and down his cheek, dried blood covering half his face.
"This is Mark Watney. It is Sol 124 and I'm in Rover One. Airlock One on the Hab breeched this morning as I was re-entering after an EVA. The Hab is destroyed. The explosion took out the farm and the oxygenator. I am, once again, completely fucked. This time though…" Mark looked away from the camera, his hand coming up to wipe the blood dripping from his face. "This will be my final report."
His face froze and I was sucked back into the present.
"Dad, let's take a break. We've been sitting here for hours—"
I wanted to ignore him but I knew he was right. I couldn't watch this last one, knowing what was coming.
"Let's go into the kitchen, I'll make some soup, we'll eat and then you can go to bed. We'll watch the rest in the morning."
I let him take care of me. In truth I was too shattered to do anything else. Mark had been dead for fifty years and yet now he was living and breathing in front of me. To watch the final ending would mean I was going to lose him all over again.
Later that night, in the bed that I'd shared with Beth for forty-five years, I stared up at the ceiling. On Sol 124 we had been half the distance to Earth on our return from Mars. Somehow in those horrible months we'd emerged from the loss of Mark and had come together again as a crew. Lewis never had been the same though, her voice shaking the few times she'd had to say his name. Thank God she had died before learning that he'd lived. It was during those long, horrible months that Beth and I had talked into the night. I'm sure I babbled enough for her to know that there had been something more wrong than just losing our fellow crew member, but she had never said anything. We had come together, Beth and I, first in grief and need, and later in friendship, then love.
I waited until I could hear my son's snores coming from down the hall. He had always snored loud enough to wake the devil. Getting up I made my way back to the living room. Grabbing the remote I sat down and went to press play. My finger shook and I wondered if I really wanted to know the rest.
Mark sounded sure and strong as he said talked to the camera. "This is my final report. In the unlikely event that these recordings are found, I would like to reiterate that Commander Lewis and the other members of the Ares 3 team were in no way responsible for what happened to me. They did the correct thing in evacuating the planet after I was knocked out. They had no way of knowing that I had not been died on Sol 6. I will be leaving all the materials I've gathered, along with the recordings and personal effects that were left behind by my fellow crew members in this rover. I'll be making a few last messages for my loved ones, after that I'll be taking a final EVA. This is Watney out."
The screen went blank and I fumbled to figure out how to pull up the directory like I had seen my son use. The final recording was simply labeled Private Message for Christopher Beck.
The screen went blank and then Mark was there, talking straight to me. The blood from his head wound had coagulated, and there were streaks of dirt on his cheeks. He'd shifted to the other seat in the rover, I could see the collapsed remains of the Hab through the window-shield, its canvas flapping in the relentless wind and starting to be covered with the red sand of Mars.
"Chris, this is it. I tried so hard to make it, but lady luck wasn't on my side." His clear blue eyes filled with tears, and he looked away, rubbing at them. The muscles in his cheek tensing as he tried to compose himself. "It was the chance of a lifetime. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
He looked into the camera. "And I don't mean Ares 3. You know that right? I know you're going to go through hell, I'm sorry for that. I hope you never find out that I lasted just a little while longer out here, away from you. But if by some chance a mission comes here and finds out what happened, I want to let you know that I'd do it all again. Every minute.
"Chris, promise me you won't look back. I'm done for but you get to live your whole life. I want you to keep going. I want you to be happy. I want you to let someone into your life and love them as much we loved each other. What we had was real, and beautiful, and I have no regrets, other than wishing that we could have gone on forever." Tears were running down his face. "So, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to take one last walk. And I'll be walking towards you, knowing that you are out there, healthy and safe and heading home."
His hand reached out, cutting off the recording.