Saying “I don’t want to be here” is not the same
As saying “I want to not be here.” It rains
And it rains and it rains the things I haven’t said.
-- jessica goodfellow, navigating by the light of a minor planet
The first week back-- that first week, Earth feels like a heavy, surreal dream. Other than Watney, not a one of them has had their feet on a planet in over two years, and not on soil in even longer than that. They struggle with gravity in the way they first struggled in the absence of it. It feels weighty. It feels like a metaphor.
Beth's mouth feels swollen when she tries to speak, like even her voice is taking more work.
"It is," Chris tells her when she mentions it the mess on the third day, the crew still sitting down to share meals in order to create some semblance of normalcy. "Our tongues got used to working in zero-grav."
Her spoon drops into her cereal with a low clang. "Are you shitting me?"
"Scout's honor," Chris intones, holding up two fingers in salute, his lips twitching before breaking into a grin when Beth scoffs. She reaches across the table and pulls up his ring finger.
There's a surprising amount to do now that they're home. It turns out a lot of people want to talk to them, from Teddy Sanders to a very sharp lady in PR, to technicians Beth has never seen before, scores of nerds worming their way out of the woodwork to shake their hands, welcome them home. It's overwhelming after years sharing quiet with five other people, accompanied by the sounds of domesticity - Martinez on the comms, the Commander humming a comforting static in the background; even Vogel's reassuring deadpan. The world is so loud, she thinks. There's so much static at work. How did she ever bear it?
The crew of the Ares III mission has the dubious honor of sharing the world record for most time spent off-planet, and there are more than a few concerned glances from the medical personnel as the team goes through fitness tests. "The human body isn't meant to undergo the pressures of life off-planet for that long," Chris says. "Loss of bone density, muscle atrophy, vision impairment - all these injustices against our bodies."
"We knew what we were getting into," Lewis reminds them. Beth thinks that's not strictly true, but she watches Martinez and Watney battle it out over the last slice of toast, watches Vogel sneak it out from under their noses, and she catches Chris' eye -- he's laughing, and she's smiling too, and she has no regrets. They'd make the same decision again.
The routine turns out to be a comfort. They wake up, hit the gym for rehab tests and fitness maintenance, grab breakfast together then go into extensive debrief. It makes sense to Beth: routine is how they'd survived the monotony of the journey. Lewis had been firm that they should allocate time in their day to tasks – to work and leisure; to food and rest. Beth had been skeptical at first, but she'd eased into it. It had helped, knowing that at one hour she had to be in one place, the next, somewhere else. It had made the vast openness of space bearable, if not quite manageable.
Chris is working with the medical teams, still hip-deep in his responsibilities. Beth wants to tease him about it, but it’s hard in the face of his earnest interest. After they’d left Mars under the shadow of their loss - before they'd discovered that Mark was still alive, still back there - he'd told her how this felt like something he could offer. She'd scrambled for his hand, wanting words to assure him that it was enough – more than – that she felt it too, the yawning chasm of their shared grief, and the need to prove her worth in the absence of being able to do something, anything, to undo what had been done. Later, when they heard about Mark, it would feel like something that had been done to them, but at least then they had the benefit of knowing there was a solution to figure out. It helps to be more than just a pair of hands, Chris had said, but they put their hands to use regardless.
Now he's keeping a weather eye on their development post-descent, but also with a keen eye to maintenance and environment modification. "It's not data anyone could have expected to farm just yet," he says, mopping up stew from his plate, "but we made it possible, and now we can look at what it would take to sustain us for further exploration, out to belt, maybe, or Jupiter. Manned missions to the edge of the galaxy, even."
"Bro, we just got back." Martinez looks equal parts horrified and fascinated by Chris' ability to fall into his 'nerd zone'. "You think maybe we can take a breath before finding new ways to scare the shit out of--" Beth starts to grin, helplessly; Lewis groans, "Martinez, please,"--
"Deep space exploration, Martinez," Chris goes on; "think about living on Mars, living on a moon somewhere--"
"Yeah, all right Mr. Spock," and that's Watney, right on cue; Beth laughs outright at the outrage on Chris' face as Watney flashes him the Vulcan salute, some part of her still giddy at the notion that humans could go so far in her lifetime, even having been on Mars. It's still so much. There's still so much out there. She catches Chris' eye and smiles, softer now, though no less amused; sneaks her hand up by her waist, wriggling her fingers before splitting them, eyebrow raised.
"Live long and eat your dinner," Lewis says, and that sets them all off: Martinez and Watney groaning, Vogel tipping back in his seat, Chris shaking his head, still smiling whilst Lewis smiles, too, pleased with herself at making the boys crack more than at the wordplay. Beth laughs, thankful for small mercies.
It’s good to see the Commander smile; she and Martinez have been fielding a number of increasingly difficult questions from management, including, it seems, Annie Montrose’s mounting insistence on some airtime with the crew. Lewis, backed by Mitch and even Vincent Kapoor, has been resisting, but it’s only a matter of time before someone has to bend, and it’s not likely to be Annie. They’re famous now, apparently.
For her part, Beth spends her days talking to people about the systems on the Hermes - the modifications she’d made in-flight, as well as suggestions for an overhaul of the environmental controls to increase their longevity. Some of this is a bluff to cover for the change in their living arrangements on the last leg home, but a lot of it is actually relevant. Work is already underway with the Chinese on the craft that will take Ares V back out to Mars to pick up where they’d had to leave off. Riding off the back of the combined rescue effort, NASA had secured early funding for the continuation of the Mars missions, so Beth has been fielding questions about the ease of operations, the flex capacity of the nav systems, whether or not increased detail about the flight suits should be on the monitor - handling these interrogations via email was one thing, but now that she can see these people face-to-face it’s even more wearing.
“I just want to leave Houston for a while,” she opines to Vogel, regretting it almost immediately. “Sorry, I know we’re all in the same boat and you’ve got your family--”
“It’s all right. I understand.” Vogel’s quiet constancy is as much a boon now as it was in flight. “I’m beginning to get cabin fever.” He pushes her a cup of coffee, sweetened to her liking, before pouring his own and adding a careful drop of creamer, the way she’s seen him do a hundred times before. She could make the crew’s coffee in her sleep, she thinks. “Ironic that I am feeling it most now.”
Beth knows what he means, but she feels it too. “We’re so close to being actually home, you know?”
“And yet,” Vogel smiles, taking a sip, “not home. Not yet.”
The strangest adjustment, other than gravity, and people, and the change in surroundings -- the strangest adjustment is having to sleep alone. Beth struggles with it, finds herself haunting the tech labs or the mess in the small hours of the morning, even going as far as to seek out the gym in the hope that she can tire herself into slumber.
That’s where Chris stumbles onto her, two weeks after touchdown, trying to match her PB on the treadmill. “You shouldn’t overdo it,” he says, startling her from her focused reverie. He wanders over as she pulls out her earphones, slowing the machine down to a gentle walk. “Typically people are in bed at this time of night.”
They’ve been careful since landing - never standing too close, never alone together for too long. Beth is careful to sit opposite Chris in the mess, and never next to him. The crew has been helpful in their own way, finding reasons to join them, to distract people from scrutinizing them, but Beth feels split open with yearning. Sometimes Chris catches her eye - in the mess, or during rehab - and it must be all over her face, she thinks, everything she wants; everything she has to keep to herself now.
They’d discussed it beforehand, in the days before the Hermes re-entered the earth’s orbit, and Lewis has been especially insistent - not unkind, but serious about a need for propriety, at least for now. So Beth understands the spaces between them, has been guilty of creating the distance too, but her stomach tightens with nerves regardless. What if it didn’t mean to him what it had meant to her? What if what they’d had couldn’t be sustained out in the open? What if it was a dream? She has so many of those these days, and never of earth. Never of home. Maybe, she thinks, maybe this isn’t home now.
She catches Chris looking at her, his mouth softened by concern, slowly becoming aware that she hasn’t answered him. She chooses not to; turns the remark back on him. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”
He eyes her carefully. “That’s my line, isn’t it?”
They grin at one another helplessly - the tension breaks for a moment. They’re thinking of the same thing, Beth knows -- similar conversations on the Hermes, months ago, years even, back when they’d first embarked and she’d felt overwhelmed by the prospect of so many more days in the boundless openness of space. He’d come to her then, too, gentle, stoic Dr. Beck; offered her sedatives or an open ear. God, how many times had she taken him up on the offer? How many times had she returned it, at first in the communal spaces of the ship, and later in the comfort of her quarters? More than she can count; enough times that neither of them had to ask.
“You should get some rest,” he says, the way he always says it - like it matters to him that she take this kindness for herself. She supposes it does.
“I will if you will,” she answers, letting her fondness color her words. Chris holds out his hand to her; she steps off the treadmill and takes it; follows him out, like she has a hundred times before; tries not to think about daylight, or promises she can’t keep.
A couple kilometers outside the compound, past the wired fencing and flood lighting, is a stretch of dustland that was probably a test site for something or other at one point, but these days sits empty. Beth had chanced upon it early on in the program, liked the quiet and the view. There wasn’t a lot out there, even with tourist traffic to the visitor center, and she used to come out at dusk to watch the night come in.
She had to borrow a vehicle from transport to make the trip this time, but Beth’s steely-eyed enough to get what she wants when she pushes for it. Sure, she’d had to barter with one of the EVA mechanics to get the keys, and even then she’d ended up with a beat-up jeep that looks not long for the world, but it’s freedom so she took it with only minor complaint. She climbs onto the hood of the car, settles back with her phone, feet kicking lightly at the bumper before remembering the car doesn’t belong to her. The notifications come through in quick succession when she switches the cell back on; she’s been dodging calls from home, overwhelmed by her family’s affection and concern. It’s not like she hadn’t missed them - she’d cried when she’d seen her dad again - but she’d never really needed her family to hold her hand. They’re solicitous now, and it feels heavy. She clears off her missed calls, and scrolls through her messages, before slipping the phone and her hands into her pockets. In the distance she can see a plane heading in towards the mainland. She kicks at the car bumper; stops; rubs her thumb over her phone; rolls her shoulders. Settles. Sighs.
She’d layered up in ops because the fans run full tilt to protect the tech from the heat. It’s been giving Beth sense flashbacks to the Hermes which was always a couple of degrees shy of optimal, but it’s disorienting to look around and not see familiar bulkheads. Worse, still, to step out of the compound into Houston’s dry heat. She’s been working up a sweat ever since she left the labs, and she’s sticky with it now, her undershirt sticking to the skin of her back.
She’s in the middle of stripping off her sweater when she hears a car pull up. The engine cuts off; the door swings open. She hears feet fall to the ground, a little too forcefully. It’s Chris.
“It’s beautiful out here,” he says, before turning to look at her. He’s leaning on the roof of the car, door still open, one foot on the jamb. From where she’s sitting, he’s one long line of kindness marred by apprehension. “I can see why you come here to hide.”
“I’m not hiding,” she scoffs.
“So what are you doing here?”
Beth quirks a wry smile. “I needed the space.” She frowns. “How did you find me?”
Chris looks away, rubs a hand through his hair. “I, er. Vogel said--”
“What the hell - did Alex rat me out?” She knows as she says it that she’s over-loud, Chris’ face tightening as her voice rises with faux incredulity. She softens her awkwardness with a small smile, pulling her leg up to her chest in an effort to stop kicking at the bumper.
“Not exactly,” says Chris, ducking back into the car, “but he said I might find you out here.” He emerges again with a six-pack in tow. “You want me to go?”
“...I guess you can stay.”
The beer is terrible, some cheap brand knock-off Chris had hit up a gas station for, and too warm to be palatable, but Beth likes the weight of the bottle in her hand. It’s darker now; the sun has fallen behind the terrain, and the temperature is dropping. Chris is ungainly next to her, too long to lay down on the hood, but too stubborn not to try regardless.
It’s been four hours since Mitch Henderson announced his retirement, and Beth wants to break something. It feels like their fault. Mitch is a good man; he let them make their own decisions with all the facts at their disposal, and they’re ready to step up and accept responsibility. Hell, the Commander has been in and out of discussions with her superiors for weeks now, but she’s doing it with shoulders back. No retreat, no surrender, and all that jazz. But to have Mitch take the fall for them, for something the public isn’t even aware of, makes it feel like a fuck-up.
But they did fuck up, right? How else do you explain Watney being left out there?
It’s not something she’s going to put down anytime soon.
“What would you have done,” Beth asks, “if it had been you out there?” It’s a conversation they’ve had before under the cover of darkness, the only time they’re willing to face the horror of it head on. Now, in the last light of the waning day, she feels overexposed.
She sees Chris angle towards her from the corner of her eye but keeps her gaze forward. He is characteristically quiet - not shy, but thoughtful. She’s always liked that about him, that he takes the time to think about what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it. “I think,” he says at last, “that I would have died out there.”
That makes Beth look. Before, when they’d spoken about it, they’d gone over the opportunities available to them in the Hab; whether or not they would have thought about contacting earth in the same way, and their lack of aptitude with agriculture. Chris had said he’d have at least been able to sort out the puncture; Beth knows she could have established comms with NASA, but neither of them ever voiced their lack of self-sufficiency otherwise.
When news had reached the Hermes that Watney was still alive, Chris had walked out of the room. She’d found him, hours later, sitting in the medical bay, staring off into the distance. I told the Commander he was dead, he’d murmured. No-one knew, Beth told him; There’s no way any of us could have known.
“If it had been anyone else, we would have died.” He looks her in the eye. “That’s the fact of it.”
Beth throws back the rest of her beer, then reaches for another, nodding at the half-empty bottle by Chris’ head. “Drink up. You need it.”
“It’s bullshit!” Three bottles in and she doesn’t feel so reticent. The sun’s gone down; in the distance she can see the coming and goings of flights into Ellington, and beyond that, Houston actual. Somewhere in the intervening time, Chris had turned on the headlamps on his car, and now is sitting upright, his legs folding over the hood of the jeep. Beth has turned towards him completely, legs crossed so that her knees brush his thighs. It shouldn’t be intimate, except that everything between them is.
“It is that,” Chris agrees, taking another sip of his beer. He’s nursing his second, but he’s not made moves to stop her rip through her own, probably resigned to knowing he’ll drive her back. Beth’s beginning to feel the chill, even having pulled her sweater back on, but it’s not unpleasant.
“It’s bullshit that we weren’t told he was back there, it’s bullshit they weren’t even going to tell us we could help him, it’s bullshit that the Commander and Martinez are being raked over the coals--” She slams her bottle down; Chris winces. “It’s bullshit that Mitch is being, what, ousted? Moved on? And for what?” She bites her lip; settles back a little. “I can’t believe it. I wasn’t even supposed to be here.”
She’d never really thought about space travel, not in a meaningful way. Ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and at least three others in her class would have said astronaut. Not Beth. Beth wanted to build apps, even back then, and she’d started early. Just stupid things - games, mostly, before she leveled up to getting those games to talk to each other so that if you played one, it would benefit the player to hit up another two. That ended up being a focal point: developing her own Internet of Things, working off the back of smart houses and looking into how to build everyday items in a way that anticipates consumer need. Out of milk? Your refrigerator is linked to your internet grocery account. Taken a certain number of clothes off hangers across a period of days? Your laundry is ready to go at the end of the day. She’d re-coded the voice control in her parents’ smart speaker the week after they’d bought, stopped it from being brand-dependent, and renaming the disembodied voice to Arthur. Arthur, where are Mom’s earrings? Arthur, what’s the weather like in Arkansas? Arthur, what’s the meaning of life?
Even when Brett Parker had approached her in San Diego, she’d been working on her post-grad and arguing with Tommy Nelson, her MD, on the best direction for her company. They were five people strong, but they’d been careful to target businesses that need holistic, networked solutions - not just software and support, but cross-functional applications. Tommy had six years on her and acted like he was her dad. Beth wanted to push up into the big leagues, try to bid for government contracts, but Tommy wanted to play it safe and stick to the markets they already had a foot in. Parker’s invitation to the SpaceX mission was a welcome distraction, and six months later she’d convinced NASA to let her try for the program. No-one was benching her on earth, no way, no how. If Mars was the endgame, then Beth was going to Mars.
“You go where you’re meant to go,” Chris says, startling her from her wander down memory lane. “There isn’t anything that isn’t meant to be.”
“Yeah, okay Democritus.”
“Hey, no--” he knocks his legs into hers, “I really do think that. Not some que sera whatever, just. You were given this choice and then you followed it through. We were given a choice.” He shrugs. “You really think we were ever not going to go back for him?”
“Of course not.”
“Exactly.” He reaches for her, encourages her to shuffle around until he can fit his arm around her waist. He’s warm where their bodies meet, and if Beth weren’t already flushed from the alcohol, she would be now. “I’m angry for Mitch too. But it’s done.” He cups her face with his spare hand, eyes flicking to her mouth, before leaning in closer to brush his lips across hers. “It’s done.”
She reaches for him, kisses him back, scrabbling for his arm to give herself leverage, and getting her legs caught up with his. Chris slides back a little, and then there’s a muffled scrape as a bottle slips off the hood and smashes on the ground. They freeze, startled, before dissolving into laughter, Beth tucking her face into his neck. It takes a moment or two of pushing and pulling, but Chris rearranges them, pulling Beth back in between his legs so he can wrap his arms around her properly. He’s wearing a woolen sweater, and it smells like him, and cheap beer, and fabric softener. He’s so warm. That, at least, hasn’t changed.
“Do you know what you want to do next?” he asks, rubbing her back slowly.
She hadn’t sold the company before leaving earth, but Tommy can have it. She thinks her next move is probably going to be to cybernetics, and that’s only if NASA won’t let her work on the modifications to the Hermes for Ares V. There’s a high probability that they’ll say thanks but no thanks. She should know: she’s done the math. It doesn’t matter. She’s willing to go to the Chinese if that’s what it takes, and she says as much.
Chris’ hand stills. “You’d want to stay?”
Beth looks up. From this angle it’s difficult to see Chris’ face, but she can see the telltale signs of confusion, and possibly disappointment, even in the low light.
“Well, yeah,” she says. “There are no other jobs in the world like this one. No better opportunities.” She relaxes her fingers from where they were clenched around his sweater, tries to smooth out the wrinkles. “I thought-- you’ve always--” She frowns. “It always sounded like you’d want to be where Lewis is, you know? Running a mission.”
Chris settles his hand against her head when she tries to pull back, so she goes back willingly. He takes his time, as usual, stroking her hair. In the distance a flight comes in to land at the airfield, and shortly after, another takes off.
“I was like, what, 13 when the Curiosity landed?” he says eventually. “It’s the Olympics and that’s all that anyone is talking about. I get into school, the same as any other day, and my science teacher, this guy who always looked a little like he wanted to be anywhere else, he gets all the class in, and he pulls down the shades in the classroom. Big theatrics.
“It takes him five minutes just to get everyone to shut up, even with the lights down, and then he’s messing around on his laptop, which was weird because the teachers didn’t use laptops in the classrooms. And then he brings up this picture of this dust - it’s basically sand - and he says, ‘This is Mars’. And he clicks through about forty pictures, some of them kind of nonsense from where I’m sitting, and some of them look like-- it’s just desert. But it’s Mars, it’s this other planet that we’d always known about and suddenly, it was real to me. Mars is a place we could reach in our lifetime.”
“I was 10 when NASA published their paper on the EM Drive,” Beth says. She’s careful to match her tone to his, not wanting to disturb the moment. “I didn’t really know what it meant, but it was clickbait on some website. ‘Mars in Seventy Days?’ I remember thinking, holy shit, you know? Are we going to be living on Mars in the next ten years?”
She slaps his chest lightly. “I was a kid.”
“Be lucky if it’s the next fifty at this rate,” Chris laughs, before sobering. “I remember that. I was a senior.”
Beth feels his shoulders shake; knows what’s about to come next. “Don’t--”
“Not all of us get to skip out early.”
This time she thumps a little harder. “Shut up!”
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry.” He squeezes her shoulder. “I read that too. I was about to head into six years of medical training, minimum. It had already been in my mind, the idea of going into space, but I think that’s what solidified it. Humans on Mars.”
“Some real Star Trek shit,” Beth says with a smile.
“Yeah.” Surprisingly, Chris doesn’t take the bait. “I’ve been working at it for a long time. And you’re right, I look up to Lewis. On our way out there, I thought, yeah, I could see myself where she is. But now…”
“What?” Beth asks, sitting up properly, despite Chris’ protests. “It’s tainted? Is that what it is?”
“No, I just,” he looks away, makes a small noise of frustration. “I don’t know that what I want is out there, anymore. Maybe what I want - what I need - is closer to home.” In the light of the headlamps his face looks hollow with weariness. It’s the same fatigue that’s plagued them all to some degree, but on Chris is looks heavy. He looks like a man who got to the end of his journey and didn’t like what he found.
He blinks rapidly, catching himself in his own languor, and offers a small smile. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “It’s okay. I’m just-- I’m considering my options.” He rubs her shoulder again. “You’re freezing. Come on.” He hops off the jeep and reaches out to help her down, but Beth is nothing if not stubborn, so she slides off of her own accord, grinning when Chris rolls his eyes. There’s glass underfoot - the bottle, she remembers - and she tugs at the hem of her sweater where it had gathered up at the back. Chris has already grabbed the rest of the beer, empties and all, and he nods towards his car.
“I’ll drive you. We can come back in the morning.”
“I’m not supposed to come back without it.”
“You can’t drive it, Beth,” Chris says, dumping the bottles into the trunk. It rattles dangerously before settling.
“No, I know, but--”
She bites her lip. “If I don’t bring it back, EVA won’t let me take it out again.”
Chris looks at her from over the roof of the second car, door open, his arms resting on top like when he’d first arrived. Beth suffers a flash of déjà vu remembering it - thinks what he used to look like in the door to her quarters, on the threshold of the mess, further back to when she first caught sight of him during training. Six years or more she’s been looking up to find him in her orbit.
“I’ll bring you out if you need to be here,” he assures her, words weighted down with what isn’t being said. It’s a promise, but it feels like something else. It feels like something more.
“I know you will.”
Beth didn’t have a lot to do with Chris until Vincent Kapoor confirmed the final selection for the Ares III crew, and the team - because suddenly they were a team - began the process of training for their specific mission together. Back then he was still Dr. Beck, Connecticut-born overachiever - Watney’s words, as though they weren’t all overachievers. Beth had graduated high school early; the Commander was career Navy, about to be the first woman to lead a manned mission to Mars; even Watney had a doctorate under his belt. No-one should have been throwing stones. But Beck had been stern-browed and aloof. It had taken a while before Beth realized that his distance was a cover for an endearing shyness.
They had maintained their own fitness schedules outside the mandatory gym time they were allotted, and she’d pass Beck as they did their respective circuits of the complex. Beck had the gait of someone used to military drills; her own style was more college casual runner. Sometimes she’d circuit with Watney who she’d acquired as a fan somewhere along the way, and who kept a good pace for a guy who hated running. It wasn’t clear to her why he’d latched on to her of all people, but he was a nice enough guy whose prevailing opinion was that she was a nerd - not that it was a label she’d ever shirked, and the guy was into plants, so what did he know?
She’d also taken an immediate liking to Vogel when he’d transferred in from the ESA, and it wasn’t that unusual to find them in one another’s company, especially as Beth had written the OS he would eventually use to navigate them to Mars and back. She hadn’t been sure how their partnership was going to go until the day she’d discovered an error in their path trajectory calculations that even Vogel had missed.
“You’re very young,” Vogel had remarked, looking over the calculation and accepting the fault.
“And you are very German,” Beth had answered, not looking up from her console. That had been that.
Vogel is cleared to return to the ESA three months in. He’s still required to check in with his stats but the term of his secondment is more than up, and he’s ready to go home. The news breaks at breakfast, the team searching vainly in hope of more coffee when Mitch’s junior, a kid Beth has only seen a couple of times, drops by and pulls Vogel out of the room. He goes, flicking a glance first at Lewis, then Beth, and the mood in the room plummets whilst he’s outside. They can see him through the glass, and Beth sees the exact moment he relaxes.
“They’re sending him home,” she says, shooting a glance over to Chris. His face is drawn, but he’s watching her and not the scene at the door, and she feels conflicted. She looks down at her plate, tucking her hair aimlessly behind her ear.
She hears the door swing open. “All right, man!” A chair screeches across the floor as Martinez jumps to his feet, walking over to shake Vogel’s hand. “Freedom!”
Beth gets to her feet with the rest of them, but her chest feels tight, and she hangs back from the melee of congratulations and warm wishes. Vogel seeks her out over Watney’s head and quirks an eyebrow in question, but Beth just smiles tightly, inclines her head at the door back to the labs and leaves before the others notice her retreat.
Vogel finds her at one of the management consoles an hour later, head deep in the base code of the Hermes OS, marking up the sections she thinks can be gutted or retrofitted for other purposes. She’s been at it since before they touched down, combing over her old work and eking out the now-obvious flaws. The decision had been made earlier that month to begin the update to the craft, and Beth feels resentful of whoever will get to occupy the space. Her possessiveness feels stupid except that she’s had apartments she’s lived in for less time than the Hermes, and none of those had half the memories she associated with the ship.
She’s brought out of her concentration by Vogel settling a stool next to her and sliding over a take-out cup of coffee. The brand on the side indicates he’d been over in Ops, but it also means he’d shelled out for the good stuff. She feels ashamed of her behavior - had ever since she’d worked out what was going on that morning. Nonetheless, she looks at Vogel askance. “Something you need to tell me, Alex? You break something?”
Vogel is indulgent; he smiles, grinning when she takes a sip.
“Oh god, that’s good. Thank you.”
“You should give it up,” he says. “You might get more sleep.”
“No,” Vogel says, firm. “You are not.”
Beth leans back in her chair to look at him properly. It’s one of those ergonomic nightmares that should be a gift for all the time she spends hunched over a desk, but she’s a little too short for it, and someone’s snapped off the lever to adjust the height. She spends the entire time sitting on the lip of the seat regardless, so it’s all sort of moot point.
She chooses to ignore the comment on her insomnia which is recurrent and has less to do with her state of mind than it does her inability to switch off. Vogel had been the one to keep her company on the journey out to Mars, finding himself struggling to sleep without his wife and the comforts of home. They’d spent a lot of time that first year on the ship talking about their lives and playing cards, or working on improving the Hermes SysOps in their downtime. On the way back - both times - she’d slept better, but she’d had more incentive to stay in bed even when she didn’t. “I’m sorry for bailing on you this morning,” she says, low and earnest. “I’m happy for you, I am. You’ve been waiting for this a long time.” When the crew of the Ares III had first landed, Vogel’s wife had been among the waiting family members, but Vogel had sent word in the weeks before asking her not to bring the children with her. When Beth had asked him about it, he only said that it was unfair to expect his wife to wrangle the entire family half-way across the world, though Beth had suspected even then that he was nervous about what they would think of him - how much they had changed in his absence, and how much he had in theirs. But as time wore on, so Vogel’s desire to just get home had grown, and the announcement that morning was the start of a series of steps that would get him there at last.
“It will be strange,” is all Vogel says, “to be there when the rest of you are not.” His mouth curls in consideration. “Good, probably.”
“It won’t be the same here when you’re gone,” Beth says. She turns to tap at the console a couple of times, embarrassed to find that her eyes are stinging. “What’s the plan?”
Vogel shrugs. “I have three weeks. Time enough to finish the nav handover, a few interviews--” Beth scowls; the press has been an unexpected burden “--and then Paris for a few days, and then home.” The smile that breaks out across his face is infectious, and she finds herself grinning back at him.
“Home.” She shakes her head. “You’re almost there.” She bites her lip on her next words but then says them anyway. “What are we going to do without you?”
Laughter startles Beth into looking up; Vogel is shaking his head. It’s an affectation, she thinks; something he picked up from her. She’s not sure what she’s taken from him in return. “You don’t need directing anymore. You’ve always known where you’re going. And you’ve been running circles around me--” sometimes literally, Beth remembers “-- this whole time. I think you’ll manage. Even if you don’t want to.” He gets to his feet. “Do not avoid me,” he says, “and Beth?” He pauses, waiting until he has her full attention. “You should talk to him.” He raps his knuckles lightly against her head, then leaves her to her work and her coffee. Beth watches him leave, and catches movement in the room across the hall. She looks over to see Chris paused in whatever he was doing, watching Vogel leave. He glances back at her and freezes, caught. He looks at her for a beat, then closes the door.
Beth goes back to the console.
It had taken Martinez to cement the bond between them all. Watney seemed to know everyone pretty well already, having a natural disposition towards friendliness without detouring into awkwardness the way Beth was prone. But it was Martinez who would instigate a little friendly competition to their days. No-one was exempt, not even the Commander, and he kept a painstaking account of everyone’s respective losses. Beth had been pleased to find she wasn’t trailing the group - that honor fell alternately to the Commander, who tended to default out, or Martinez himself who had a habit of betting large and not following through. “Bet I can last longer than you,” he’d mutter, making his way past the group and towards the zero-grav simulator, prompting a stream of pledges and counter-wagers, nearly always from Watney.
The Major had actually won that bet, Watney being the only one fool enough to take him on, but Beck's performance had outpaced the entire crew. “Dang,” Martinez cheered when Chris had emerged with nary a wobble to his step. “Doc’s got chops!”
Martinez was loud, and rarely still, and Beth found herself laughing with him against her will. During the launch simulation Watney bet two beers that Martinez couldn’t complete the flight activation process “without fluffing it at least once”.
“I’ll take that bet,” Beck piped up.
Watney’s head had swung round before a grin took over his face. “All right, doc!” Beck seemed a little uncomfortable with the direct appraisal, but he had an edge of pride, too, like he couldn’t keep it off his face.
“Three if it’s the first sequence,” Beth said. Watney cheered; Martinez gave a token protest (“Barred Johanssen! Home-side advantage!”) but Beck merely nodded, and gave a small smile, the others carrying on in the background. “Deal.”
“I’m with Johanssen.”
“Et tu, Vogel? Et tu?!”
Beth had won. Obviously.
They had ended up at a dive bar in the nearest town, Watney crowing over Beth’s win like it had been his own, and Martinez offering up weaker and weaker defenses of his performance. Beck had tagged along with Lewis - difficult to say which one was more surprising - and Beth had taken it as read that Vogel would be there
It was the first time all six of them had gotten past the formality of the selection process and really let go. Vogel turned out to have a filthy sense of humor, and Beth could see Watney and Beck being charmed by his deadpan pathos. Even the Commander’s wry facade cracked under the gentle pressure of a couple of beers, breaking into laughter as the night wore on. Beth didn’t pay for a single drink, and every time a new round was bought, Watney would toast “to Johannsen’s superior nerd brain!” and they’d groan and drink.
In the morning Beth had felt like she’d been run over by a truck. She’d headed out of the compound, hat drawn low over her ears, nearly obscuring her eyes, and headed to the treeline to begin her circuit. She hadn’t anticipated company, but she rounded the building to see Watney and Beck making time by her unofficial starting point, looking like the newly-risen dead.
“She lives!” Watney had yelled, before wincing.
“Oh god, please shut up.”
Watney had looked at her appraisingly. He must have found what he had been looking for because he’d grinned, the expression taking over his face. It had been cheering; she’d smiled back helplessly. “Didn’t think we’d see you this morning. You have a wooden leg under the table last night?”
“I’m not just a nerd.”
“Iron liver, am I right?”
“Part cyborg,” Beck offered up carefully, as though unsure of his welcome. “It’d explain some things.”
“I’ve seen those movies,” Beth had said, turning to begin her stretches. “The robot kills everyone.”
“I believe it,” Vogel said, approaching from behind. He’d looked fresh, better than the rest of them. “The Major?”
Watney had laughed. “DOA. These military types - no stamina.”
“I’ll remember you said that, Watney,” Lewis yelled, bringing up the rear. Vogel shot a look at Beth; Lewis didn’t tend to join them. It looked like she’d already done a couple of laps.
“With all due respect, Commander, are you sure you’re human?” Watney was still the only one who could get away with talking that way to Lewis - or, at least, the only one stupid enough to chance it.
She’d flashed a brilliant smirk in reply. “Guess you’ll have to chance it on the ship.” She came to a halt next to Beck. They had an understanding between them, not necessarily verbalized, but Beth had long since seen the Commander’s appreciation of Beck’s no-nonsense approach. A relief, no doubt, next to Martinez and Watney’s two-man show.
“Where’s the Major?” Beck asked.
“Oh, he’s up.” She tipped her head in the direction she’d run from. “He’s a little under the weather today.”
“No retreat, no surrender!” The call came from around the side of the building, rough, but loud.
Vogel had raised his eyebrows. “I think I’m impressed.”
“All right, pair up,” the Commander instructed as Martinez stumbled into view. “5k; let’s move.” Beck caught Beth’s eye as he fell in next to Watney, giving her one of those stoic nods. She returned it, bringing up the rear with Vogel.
From that morning on, they’d run as a team.
Martinez corners her in the lab a few days later. “Are you sulking? I’m not coming in here if you’re sulking.”
“Good afternoon, Major.”
“Yeah, don’t give me that.” He grabs the same stool Vogel had brought in a few days before and straddles it next to the bench she’s working on. Today she’s building a new framework for the environmental controls on the Hermes, the ones that had taken a dive halfway back to Mars. If she’s picked that particular problem somewhat pointedly, that’s between her and the code. “What up, Johanssen? What gives?”
Beth knows better than to deflect or demur. Martinez is the epitome of ‘dog with a bone’ and she’s too tired to go seven rounds with him. Plus, the sooner she gives in, the sooner he stops prodding at “--hey, what the hell?” She slaps his hand away from the laptop where he’d taken to pressing random keys. “That’s someone’s life you’re messing with.” It’s nothing a couple of ctrl-Zs won’t fix, but she’s not in the mood to re-do work she’s already done twice. When she finishes fixing the mess, she hits save and compile, then pushes the laptop back.
In a rare display of patience, Martinez waits her out. They spend a few moments trading facial expressions before he wrinkles his nose, shoves his thumbs into the corners of his mouth and sticks out his tongue.
“I thought we were deciding who could pull the stupidest face,” he says, surreptitiously wiping his hands on his pants. “You should know better. I was born this way.”
Beth huffs a laugh and gets to her feet. “Coffee?”
For all that they were never especially close, it’s not that surprising that the Major had come to check on her. They all did it for one another on the Hermes, especially the first time they made the journey back. She’s lost count of the times she and Chris swung by Martinez’s quarters on their way to eat, making sure to include him. That there had only been six of them in the first place had made Watney’s absence keener, and Lewis had impressed on them early on that they’d need to pull each other up - even her. So trekking to the mess a step behind Martinez is oddly comforting, especially when they come upon Lewis who has had the same thought as them and has just finished brewing a fresh pot.
“Johanssen.” She nods at Martinez, flicking a glance at him in question.
Beth ignores them - the whole team has a habit of speaking without saying anything, a shared mannerism that’s been frustrating Annie Montrose no end. The woman is sharp as hell, but she didn’t seem to understand that the Ares III crew was not going to be pitted against one another. They had undergone an Odyssey and somehow emerged whole. No amount of provoking was going to upend that.
It’s not like Beth is exempt from it - she’s done the same with Vogel even before they’d left earth - but lately it’s been eating at her. Lewis and Martinez, all of them, they act like she can’t see them, Mom and Dad trading assessments over her head.
Lewis pauses at Beth’s side before reconsidering, turning tail as Beth pours a second cup of coffee for Martinez. She leans back against the table as the Major fusses with creamer and packets of sweetener.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Are you going to apply for the Ares V selection?”
She’s surprised him, she can tell, though he doesn’t stop the careful motion of pouring and stirring. Something in the set of his shoulders gives him away.
“Has anyone said anything about it to you?” Beth presses.
“We only just got back, and you want to race off again?” Martinez asks, mirroring her pose.
“That’s not what I asked.”
He shrugs. “I still don’t know if I’m going to get court-martialed for what we did up there. Hard to see them letting me go again.”
Beth takes a drink from her mug, wincing at the bitter taste. Of course: military grade coffee, just the way Lewis likes it. “But would you want to?”
“Of course,” Martinez bites out. “In a heartbeat. But that’s not going to happen for me now. I don’t see it happening for any of us.” He clicks his tongue. “I mean, shit, we’ll be lucky if they keep any of us on even as consultants.” He looks at her seriously. “Seems to me the doc’s got the right idea, maybe.”
“Seems to me that’s not anybody’s business,” Beth snaps. “I’ve got work to do.”
She leaves the mess the way she had come, letting the doors swing shut behind her.
Watney, it had transpired, was a bit of a boy scout, something Beth had discovered whilst they were mining germination charts to take with them on the trip. The idea was to see whether or not anything could actually grow up on Mars, and Beth was writing a program that would integrate software Watney was already using with the Hermes’ research index. If she was tweaking the piece-of-shit database as she went, no-one was going to notice. Probably. “I hate third-party apps.”
Watney seemed amused by Beth’s enthusiasm, though not unencouraging. They’d spent a few days mapping out the finer detail of his approach, which was when she’d learned about his time with the Peace Corps. “It was like taking a gap year to become a farmer, except it was my job, and I was out there for two years.” He hadn’t wanted recognition for it. “It was a lot of digging and plumbing, really.”
“But now they have sustainable solutions to their farming problems, right?” Chris asked.
“Well, yeah,” Watney agreed, “but that’s not--” Beth pulled a face at Chris like can you believe this guy? “I’m not the expert on growing things.”
“You’re not? I’m sorry, what’s your specialism?”
“I was there for the theory. And the muscle.”
(“What muscle?” Martinez had yelled from across the room, only to wince when Vogel kicked him in the shin.
It was Watney who’d pushed for more portable tech, the idea being that they could log their findings on site instead of heading back and forth from the Hab, but it hadn’t looked like any of those would be ready before Ares IV. It would be Beth’s secondary - tertiary? - assignment to judge how well portables operated in the unusual atmospheric conditions, and see whether the blind tests they’d done in the simulated environment held water. Beth had been more concerned about dust, but she’d look into that when they reached.
In the end, what she wrote for Watney turned out to be a form that would dump his data into a spreadsheet.
“This is the future of space tech?” Watney asked. “A spreadsheet? Billions of dollars of American money, and this is what you’re giving me?”
“No,” Beth rolled her eyes, “but this will do the job. Stopping to put your findings into a tablet is just a waste of your time. You do nearly everything by hand.”
Watney had shaken his head in mock disappointment. “Here I thought you were going to build me, like, I don’t know, a space tractor--”
“A ‘space’ ‘tractor’?”
“--and you’re giving me...spreadsheets.”
“You could do it with a pencil and a notebook,” Beth said, “and anyway, I don’t build the hardware. I just write the code.” She’d huffed a laugh. “How were you going to get a tractor out there?”
By this point Watney was outright talking over her. “Raising my hopes is what that was. False expectations. False advertising!” He’d looked over to where Vogel was walking Lewis and Martinez through the changes to the piloting system. “That’s a punishable offense, right Commander?”
“Interrupting me a third time is a punishable offense,” Vogel deadpanned, not looking up from his work.
Watney froze, locking eyes with Beck who’d merely raised his eyebrows in reply, before slowly swinging around until his back was to the other group, eyes comically wide. “So... Spreadsheets.”
“Oh my god.”
The hour between Martinez remote-launching Watney’s MAV and getting him back on board the Hermes had been the longest hour of Beth’s life. Everyone’s elation had been underpinned by the stunned knowledge of how close they’d come to fucking it up. Watney was exhausted, wildly underweight, and had two cracked ribs for his troubles. Even Lewis had taken a hit to the chin, the gash there garish and pink, stark against her pale skin.
They had to relocate to the flight deck whilst the ship re-pressurized; Watney was slow-moving, even in the zero-grav his body giving in to the pressures of his unorthodox take-off, the stress of the space flight, and the overall nightmare of his experience. He had fallen asleep soon after Chris strapped him into his seat, conscious of his injuries. Even taken up with trying to get the Hermes back in order, Beth hadn’t been able to stop looking over to check on Watney. The third time she had, Chris had dropped his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently in reassurance. It had helped, but she hadn’t stopped looking and checking. She thought she would have to look for the rest of her life.
Mars had changed Watney, of course. For all that he had maintained his customary sense of humor, he would break into moments of silence that the rest of them couldn’t breach. It didn’t seem to matter that they were all together again. Some days it was like he was still planet-side, alone, and without hope. He’d rouse himself, of course, but sometimes it was better to leave him in his quarters.
Beth had taken to cajoling him to the gym, and he would join her on the treadmill. On a good day she’d have to force him to stop - feign exhaustion, or just cut him off. On a bad one, there was no talking to him, so Beth would have to enlist Chris or Lewis, and that could start an argument. They’d always been a peaceable crew; NASA had selected them for that very reason. But it’s hard to get through a person’s trauma. Watney had never blamed them, not for a second, but it was still the five of them on one side, and him on the other, always reaching, but never home.
He hadn’t been joking about the potatoes either. “Martinez, you put that fucking thing on my fucking plate, and I swear to god--!”
Chris had monitored Watney closely, made sure he put the weight back on, made sure he didn’t overdo it in any capacity. NASA made people available to talk to Watney, but having to wait 20 minutes for an answer to anything he’d said meant it wasn’t a worthwhile effort. Instead, the Commander was careful to offer up time to him.
One night after dinner, Watney looked around the table, carefully pausing on each one of them.
“You know, I, er, huh.” He’d laughed, self-conscious. “I hadn’t given up, not really, but, um. I really. I thought I was going to die out there, you know.” He’d cut off their murmurs of protest. “It’s not that I didn’t know you’d do what it took, I just.” He smacked his lips. “What happened to our 30-day mission?” He looked around again. “You guys have given me years, and given me years back, too. And I’m grateful. Thank you for that.”
“You’d do it for us, brother,” Martinez had said, speaking for them all.
“Absolutely,” Watney replied, nodding, unable to meet the weight of their sympathy and care. “In a heartbeat.”
Using the gym at night is beginning to be something of a liability, so Beth takes to avoiding it, choosing to get out of bed earlier and circle the compound instead. It reminds her of before - inevitably, everything now is before and after - of her first days in the selection process, and the haptic feedback she gets from putting her feet to the ground instead of the treadmill is comforting.
She has a couple of routes - they’re not particularly challenging, but she tries to get in an hour or so before she has to report in for the day. Today the air is biting, winter having dug in its heels for the season, and she watches her step over the rougher parts of the terrain. She doesn’t mind the cold. It’s bracing. Rounding the quad she’s surprised to see a figure standing with their back to the wall; surprised further to see that it’s Watney.
“Mind if I join you?” he calls out as she nears. “I promise not to slow you down.”
She smiles in reply, gives him a nod; instinctively drops her pace a little as he falls into step. They don’t talk for the first kilometer or so, though Beth keeps shooting him glances in anticipation. Just as she thinks he’s not going to bother, Watney speaks.
“This has got to be the most normal thing I’ve done in weeks.”
Beth is startled into laughter, the same way she was when she first heard his voice over the MAV comm link, talking about Iron Man and puncturing his suit like a maniac.
Watney protests. “Hey, I’m serious! Everything else has been tests or interviews, or Martinez trying to convince me that tater tots aren’t the devil.”
That much Beth is aware. She’s witnessed more than one scuffle in the mess over hash browns. “Potatoes saved your life, Watney.”
“My life doesn’t need saving anymore.” He cuts a glance in her direction, but she doesn’t meet his eyes. “And the psych evals. Oh god. Who knew they’d be worse in person? And Flemyng - did you know that guy still has a job? Oh yeah. He’s running the whole show now. They put that guy in a position of authority.”
Beth does know this. After they’d picked Watney up, and begun the trek home again, NASA had been careful to make psychologists available to each of them, a method that had gone down about as well as when Watney had been forced to try. It wasn’t that it hadn’t helped to say things out loud, just that the method available to them was not responsive enough, and since they’ve been back on earth, the face-to-face sessions have felt abrasive. Flemyng is nothing if not patronizing towards Beth, and she’s not surprised that Watney took against him.
It’s getting close to the top of the hour by the time they draw back to where they started, and Beth has picked up a well-earned sweat. Watney, too, looks good for it, much better than the times he tried to kill himself in the gym on Hermes. He’d kept up a steady stream of talk for much of the route, only pausing on the slight incline, but rousing with a second wind as they began to circle back. It’s been fun. She had forgotten what it was like to have him for company. They’re all trying so hard to keep pace with one another still, but with less than two weeks to go before Vogel leaves, Beth can feel the fractures setting in.
They stop at the low wall that circles the quad, and start their warm-down stretches, Watney preferring to start with his calves, whilst Beth sinks to the ground and works on her hamstrings. It’s a mistake; it leaves her vulnerable, and makes it difficult to get away when Watney starts up again.
“Nobody signed up for three years in space,” he says. Beth looks up, feeling caught. “We all thought there’d be other opportunities.”
“What are you doing? Please stop.”
But Watney is undeterred. “We figured we’d spend a year and a half heading there and back, and then some of us would get to gear up for Ares IV, and maybe we’d normalize travel to Mars. We thought we had time.” He switches legs. “I used up that time--”
“I did, I know that.” He sighs heavily. “That mission, it’s changed everything for me. I know I’m never going back out there, not as part of Ares, and I don’t know that I’d want to, not really.” He stops stretching, crouching down so he can look Beth in the eye. She feels overwhelmed - guilt mixed in with sadness, and an edge of desperation, wanting to explain that she doesn’t blame him and it’s not Ares itself that’s put her where she is right now, but she can’t find the words. “I am now in the part of my life that comes after Mars, and I am going to be here for the rest of my days. I have had my fill. And if there’s one thing I learned out there is that the cliché is true. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You have to make the most of what’s in front of you.” He reaches for her shoulder. “Johanssen-- Beth. Best of the big-brained nerds. Don’t let the important things pass you by.”
He shakes her a little, offering a wry smile, and Beth tries to smile back, though it feels awkward on her face. When it seems like Watney’s waiting for a something more, she nods. “Okay. Yeah. I hear you.” She grabs for his hand; squeezes tight. “I hear you.”
Watney gets to his feet, and they finish their stretches in quiet. When they walk back in for report, he stands by her side, and he stays with her for the rest of the morning.
“I keep dreaming about Mars,” she says, “but it gets conflated, you know? With what happened.” She bites her lip. “I worry,” she nods, agreeing with herself, “that I’m… forgetting.”
Chris waits her out, just like always. He’s always had a talent for knowing when to speak and when to wait. With Beth, there’s a lot of waiting.
In the end, she looks him straight in the eye.
“I don’t want to forget.”
By the time they boarded the Hermes, there was a bond between the members of the Ares III mission. That was by design, Beth supposed, and yet it was so surprising to her - she who had never undergone the usual rigors of social training, and had skipped out on a lot of the norms of growing up by virtue of accelerating past those fundamentals - it surprised her that she had managed to make a space for herself there, with that crew, at that time. She was the youngest by a few years, which was not new to her, but she was also only onboard because she had forced her way there. It wasn’t that she hadn’t excelled at the training, like the rest of them, but she hadn't come to the project organically. She had felt such lack of surety in her placement to begin with. Wanting something enough is not substitute for earning it. And so she earned it.
The Hermes had already made the trip to Mars twice by the time Ares III get up there, and the base code is kind of archaic for the work they’re doing. SpaceX had brought Beth to NASA because she had a strong foundation in advanced systems theory, and the original design of the Hermes OS - a beast the team back at NASA had called v1.6.7 whilst Beth preferred to refer to it as Dolios - was built on the concept of advanced microservices, the idea being that each system worked independently of the others, and could exist and function autonomously, but was placed in a network so that information could be accurately replicated across multiple databases. Beth had been working on a number of co-dependent and independent systems that would form the basis of smart houses, where a reduction in replication of data meant that linked systems could work in part collaboratively and in part independently.
“Wait,” Chris had shaken his head, “what does that mean?”
“I’m really, really good at what I do.” She’d managed to hold a straight face for two beats before breaking into laughter.
“I don’t get it,” Chris said, “but it sounds cool.”
“Stick to aiding the ailing, doc.”
There wasn’t a great deal to do on the journey out there. The last three weeks of the trip were reserved for pre-descent checks, a rundown of expectations for the thirty days they’d be planetside, and a chance to check over their equipment. Beth was going to be in charge of getting the comms running and integrated with the tech at the Hab, and with the suggested changes NASA had already approved and implemented on the Hermes, she was going to be tasked with updating the OS at the site. It had been launched three years prior to their arrival, which, incidentally, was around the time she was introduced to Vincent Kapoor for the first time.
So the days passed under a regime of routine. The Commander led by example, starting the day in the gym, and followed up with a number of hours working on their individual specialties, tasks that were broken up by strict meal times. Otherwise they were free to make the most of their leisure time, and everyone had brought films and music along with them - Beth had downloaded a ton of books, including a couple of coding programs, the kind of thing they’d started giving to grade-schoolers a few years before, except Beth was trying to become fluent in some of the older code that the Hermes was built on because she had a pretty good notion of how some of it was going to backfire on them at some point.
She hadn’t liked to interrupt Vogel too much who, of all of them, seemed to be suffering homesickness the most. Not that anybody could blame him, what with having been separated from his family for almost a year before launch. But Beth hadn’t had those kinds of ties for a while now, even though she loved her family as much as anyone. She’d tried to give Vogel the room he needed, and a few weeks in he seemed to have accepted his lot. “It wasn’t a secret that I would not be able to see them,” he said when they finally spoke about it.
“Still,” she’d sympathized, “it’s hard.”
“Yes. It is.”
The best fun to be had, as always, was with Watney and Martinez, and whatever dumb thing the two of them had decided was going to be their beef for the duration. Watney had become fixated with this idea about Aquaman and whale, and Beth wasn’t really sure what that was about, but she’d heard some of it after the isolation trials down on the earth, and it had been four months since then. The guy couldn’t let it go. It was kind of amazing that he could continue to generate new thoughts about singular subjects, that were actually old thoughts but never expressed in quite the same way twice over.
“Yeah, but it’s a whale! It doesn’t make sense!”
“Oh my god, it’s for kids.”
“Adults read them too, man.”
The Commander had looked about ready to separate the two of them permanently when Beth arrived for lunch, running behind having spent the time since breakfast plugged into the mainframe and trying to decipher what it was that was tripping the environmental systems on the aft. She hadn’t found the bug just yet - something was clearly not jiving with the new code - but it was something to sink her teeth into.
“Are they still talking about this?”
Chris had leaned in her direction. “The Commander’s about ten minutes away from shoving them out the airlock.”
“It’s that military reserve,” he’d joked. “Breeds a high tolerance for pain.”
One of the stranger developments had been the slow realization that Dr. Beck had a sense of humor. There’d been hints of it back on earth, but Beth hadn’t really spent that much time with him. The other was that, though a stoic, Chris could be persuaded to blush without much duress. Martinez had cackled at the discovery, and the innuendo had followed had been enough to make them all avoid eye-contact with him for a couple of days. Beth found it endlessly endearing. He hadn’t turned out to be as inflexible as she had first assumed.
“You should eat,” he said, pushing a meal pack her way. “Zero-grav is the real killer out here.”
“Have you eaten?” Chris asks. Beth’s still haunting his doorway, having not been invited in.
“Not yet.” She’d actually avoided dinner for the first time in five years, not appreciating the veiled glances - all those conversations happening over her head. Now it seems Chris hadn’t been there either. “Did you-- are you hungry?”
He gets to his feet slowly, hands on his knees. She can see the line of discord in the way he holds himself. She put that there, she knows.
“You should eat.”
She nods, agreeable. “Okay. Sure. You too.”
The mess, she realizes, is relatively public, which is probably why Chris had brought them there. He takes his time piling his plate, and Beth is half done by the time he seats himself opposite her. They’ve been sitting at angles for weeks now, never quite in one another’s line of sight, but never quite out of it either. What in those first weeks had been a comfort recently had become an itch in her periphery. Had she known before how much time he spent looking in her direction? It’s so strange now to look at him head-on in a place where they’re not buffeted by the rest of the crew. Beth has gotten used to being perpendicular to him of late, and there’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but she doesn’t want to go looking for it.
“What exactly did you think you were going to lose,” he asked, “that the rest of us wouldn’t lose too?” He chews angrily for a moment, piling his fork high with rice and vegetables. The food here is bland and uninteresting, but everything is exotic cuisine after the ready-packs they had devoured back on the Hermes. He swallows, reaching for a cup of water. “Did you forget that we were all there too?”
“I don’t think.” She stops abruptly, unsure how to proceed. There’s a reason she’s been avoiding having to have this conversation. “I think that you and I, our lives intersected at this crucial point, and we got this chance to live it out, you know?” She leans towards him. “We were in this bubble, and then -- it wasn’t the best way it could have happened, but that storm? That terrifying thing, it bought us time.” She forces herself to take a breath, glancing quickly around the room. They’re late; there’s hardly anyone here - maybe a couple of guys from one of the research quarters, and some people she’s never seen before who have that glazed look to them, the way newcomers tend to. When she looks back across the table, Chris looks livid.
“What are you talking about?” he hisses. “I don’t see it that way. I walked onto the ship knowing I had a job to do, and when I turned around, what I found was you.” He’s shaking, he’s so wounded, and Beth -- shit, Beth knows she’s fucking this up because what she wants to say is, I want what NASA can offer, and I want to have it with you, but she also knows that she has to be able to explain it to him, explain what she’s scared of, and why what they have looks so different from where she is. But Chris is still speaking, like a dam has broken somewhere; like he can’t stop the flood with just his two hands.
“I came here -- I came to NASA knowing I would go to space. I worked at it. I did the time.” He takes another bite of his food. “I already had my medical degree when I joined the air force, and I only did that because I wanted to be certain I would pass even the highest bar to get onto this program. When people use the word overachiever, I feel pride.” He stabs at the food on his plate. “I have a specialism in aerospace medicine. I did five spacewalks before I was even selected for the Ares III mission.” He scoffs. “My whole life has been about what we did. My whole life.”
“Then you understand,” Beth says, excited, “you understand why--”
Chris drops his fork onto the table. The noise reverberates around the hall; conversations halt, the noise drawing attention from all corners. Beth forces herself to sit back in her seat. She realizes her arms are crossed, but then doesn’t know what to do about it. She feels so exposed. She feels so heavy with sadness. Chris looks away, resting his head on his left hand, and drawing patterns onto the table. “I’m done with it. I don’t want to go back there.” The hollows of his face stand out like brands. “There’s got to be other directions for travel.”
The bug in the environmental system never quite disappeared. Beth had it narrowed down to one of three options, the last of which was that it was a piece-of-shit code, and no amount of re-directs was going to fix the problem. But the climate controls were built into the root code, and trying to excavate it was too dangerous - that code controlled oxygen redistribution, temperature, the damn re-pressurization schedule. It was a mess, and she wasn’t sure how it had gotten that way, because the whole point of microservices was--
“So you can’t fix it?” Lewis asked.
“It’d be like taking out a load-bearing wall.”
Lewis had sighed; it was another thing to stack onto the pile of problems she’d been amassing since the storm hit. It was below leaving Watney out there, but not much could top that. Beth had felt responsible, but she had inherited this problem. It was just bad timing. “I know I said you and Beck could bunk together, and I’m not retracting that, but this is not.” She had pursed her lips. “Short of working a mechanical fix to the cooling pipes, there’s nothing we can do?”
Beth had shaken her head. “I’m trying to isolate the issue, but the problem is that one instruction hits the message queue, and it triggers events across each microservice. Except the same message that could re-pressurize the ship after a decompression is also responsible for regulating oxygen flow, which integrates with the water system and decontamination. I could change the message, but I don’t know how that might impact other microservices that are running. There are just too many.” She’d thrown her hands up. “I can find it, but it’s going to take time.”
“Work on it,” Lewis had instructed. “If nothing else maybe we’ll have a solution for the next mission.”
She’d exited the room, signaling an end to the conference, and Beth had tipped back in her seat enough to send it skidding back a pace. The scratch of metal on metal made her cringe.
Later, in her quarters, she’d sat on the edge of her bunk whilst dressing for bed and relayed her guilt to Chris. He’d told her what she’d already concluded. “This isn’t your fault. You’ll find the flaw, and you’ll find the solution. Didn’t you say it was a million lines of code?”
“A million million.”
“So, it’ll take time. We’re not going anywhere for a while, right?”
She looked back at him from over her shoulder and grinned. “You reckon we’ve got time to kill?”
Chris had grinned too, reaching out to bring her closer. “I think I can make some.”
Later still, after they’d caught their breath, she’d run her finger over his face, equal parts unwilling and unable to keep from touching him. “Where did you come from?” She’d asked. “Think of all the millions of choices we made, every decision that was or wasn’t ours, that brought us here.”
“You brought us here,” Chris said. “I distinctly remember trying to veer towards my quarters, but you’re pretty strong, you know--”
“Shut up! You know what I mean.” She brushed her thumb over his cheek.
“We went where we were going,” he’d answered after a beat, running his hand over her shoulder. “And now we’re here.” Kissing her forehead, he reached down to pull the blankets up around them both. “You need to sleep. Come on.”
She’d stolen another kiss before settling in to sleep.
It’s innocuous. Even with all the hints he’d dropped over the weeks, she felt blindsided. They’re out past the boundary again, this time with a truck - she doesn’t even know where he finds them, but he hasn’t driven the same one twice - and they’re tailgating, which apparently is a thing that they do now, like they’re going through their teens again. Flight activity at Ellington seems especially high that night, and the glow from the airfield lights up the sky in an artificial dawn.
It’s a week before Vogel’s clearance to go home will come through, but the notion of it has been rolling around Beth’s head for days. She’s trying not to be so selfish, but she can’t verbalize what the crew means to her. “Nobody outside of us knows what it was like to be up there - to lose him, and then to know that we had left him, and he had lost us instead-- there’s no-one else who knows.”
She knows Chris knows what she means; they’ve talked about it enough times. He knows, too, that this togetherness is a new thing for her, and she’s jealous with it; she wants to keep how she feels. Right now it’s like the bottom is coming out from underneath them. It turns out she’s not great with change.
“He’s been gone from home a long time,” is all Chris says.
“I know," Beth says, “I know that, and I am the last person who wants to keep him from his family, but,” she looks down at her hands, feeling small; “I can’t stop thinking that we had all these firsts - our first space walk as a team, our first briefing, our first, I don’t know, breakfast. And now they’re queuing up, all these last times.” She shrugs, fists curled into the sleeves of her sweater. “The last time we put on our flight suits. The last time we were on the Hermes.” She looks at him, smiles sadly. “The last time we get to be this crew.”
“We’re always going to be the crew of the Ares III,” says Chris. “Nothing can change that.”
“But it’s over.”
Chris doesn’t have anything to say to that, not that she expects him to. They’re on different sides of this, she can tell, and it’s not that he’s not sympathetic, it’s just that he has other expectations. And, it turns out, other plans. He scuffs his sneakers into the dust before speaking.
“Dad says there’s a position in surgery going at the Hope Memorial.”
Beth looks up. “He works there, right?”
Chris nods. “Yeah, back in Hartford. He’s on the board.”
“I thought your dad was a surgeon?” She remembers it coming up early on. Martinez had made some bullshit quip about Chris following in his father’s footsteps, and even though he hadn’t said anything at the time, the broad line of his back had gone rigid.
“He is,” Chris frowns in confused amusement. “He was telling me about the vacancy.”
It takes a long moment for the penny to drop, but when it does, Beth straightens. “Are you serious?”
“Well, yeah.” Chris sits up, too, less amused now. “I need options. They’re never going to let us back up there, and, you know, I’m pretty happy with that.”
“You’re happy?” Beth asks. Her mind is ticking over. Things feel like they are moving away from her a rate of knots.
She hops off the truck bed, shoving her hands into her jeans pockets and looking away. She had thought - she doesn’t know what she thought, but she was riding on there being a chance, at least. A slim one, sure, but it’s not like she hadn’t had to push to be considered for selection in the first place.
She scrubs a hand over her head, shoves it back into her pocket; she bounces on the balls of her feet. Her lips feel raw. She’s always biting them, an old habit. An old tell that’s lingered.
“Can you take me back?” She says, turning back to face Chris. He reaches for her; she evades him. “Now. Please.”
Chris’ expression shutters. His arms drop to his sides. “Yeah. No problem.”
They had forgotten to be subtle.
Some of it had been the elation of getting Watney back, but mostly it was carelessness, and Lewis would have had their hides if she’d been in the room. Beth had gotten so used to searching Chris out in medical, and she’d been going there to stop in on Watney every now and then, that it had seemed so natural to lean up on her toes and brush her mouth against Chris’, just once, just gently; a parting thing.
“What the fuck?”
Chris had caught her when she stumbled in surprise, and they’d both swung round to find Watney in the doorway. Beth cursed herself, her negligence, but it was Chris who stepped towards Watney.
“I can explain…”
“I’m a botanist,” Watney said, “I’m pretty sure I know what that was.” He’d looked over Chris’ shoulder to peer at Beth. “So is climate really on the fritz in Martinez’s room, or is that just some bullshit?”
“It’s for real,” Beth said, sheepish. “The Commander said--”
“Are you trying to tell me that Lewis knows about this?” Chris had taken another step forward, but Watney burst past him, gathering Beth up in a - in a hug? He lifted her up until only her toes were brushing the floor, her arms clamped to her sides. Over his shoulder she’d caught Chris eye, mouthing what? but Chris could only shrug wildly in reply.
“I! Am so proud! Of you kids!”
“Oh my god,” Beth had groaned. “Would you put me down, you Neanderthal?”
“You’re provoking your injuries,” Chris added.
“Who knew you had it in you!” Watney was still going, wriggling his eyebrows when he heard the innuendo in his own words. “You guys have broken some world records!”
“That’s what Martinez said,” Beth said helplessly.
Watney had been so happy for them, it was mind-boggling. Even Martinez had only really been excited about the prospect of what he termed “deep-space nookie”, a phrase that got him shunned from Chris’ workspace. But Watney’s mad rush of enthusiasm was founded in something rich and earnest, and that’s what made Beth hug him back in the end.
Well. As much as she could.
“Jesus. Put her down, Watney.”
She follows him back to his quarters, dinner sitting heavy in her stomach. Chris hasn’t been able to look at her even once, but like a fresh bruise, Beth can’t stop prodding him. She needs him to know why she took a step back. She needs him to know what the last few weeks of distance have been about.
She doesn’t let him close the door on her; follows him in and shuts and locks it behind her. When she turns around again, he’s sitting on the edge of his bed, face in his hands. The sheets are otherwise pristine; hospital corners; a single pillow. She used to tease him about his military precision. Now she keens at seeing it.
“I feel like you already made your decision.”
“Maybe I have,” Chris says, dropping his hands. “Maybe you made it for me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I haven’t seen you in days,” Chris rebuts. “Every time I turn a corner, you walk in the other direction. I couldn’t even get you to look at me and now you’re ready to talk? That’s bullshit, Beth, and you know it.”
“I do,” Beth insists. “I get it. I’m sorry. You took me by surprise.”
“How?” Chris gets to his feet in a rush. “How could this be a surprise? We are done here. Do you not see that?”
Beth bristles. “I think that even if we weren’t you’d still be leaving.”
“Yes! Of course!” he gestures wildly in a fashion she’s never seen from him. His height seems enormous to her for a moment. “I stood in the door of the airlock and I watched Melissa Lewis navigate her way to Watney, and then I saw the two of them swing round, over and over, and I didn’t know what it mattered that I have the most EVA experience of anyone on this base, because in that moment it didn’t help.”
Beth is bewildered. “You brought them in!”
“After Lewis got him!” Chris takes an unsteady step back. His hands comb back over his head, forcing his hair out of its customary neatness. “What was I doing up there? What was the point?" He swallows thickly. “That’s when I knew for sure. That’s when I made up my mind. It’d been up there for a while, but I just-- that’s when I was certain.” He rubs at his jaw.
The silence between them is amplified by the noises beyond Chris’ door. Someone walks down the hall. Elsewhere a plane flies overhead. Beth can hear a clock somewhere in the room. There are chasms between them.
“I am really, really good at what I do,” she says at long last. “I can take what I learned here and I can make money off it, for sure.” She leans back against the far wall, unable to go further forward, but unwilling to leave just yet. “I just don’t want to.” She sniffs, rubs at her nose. “You said to me that we go where we’re meant to go, and that’s how I ended up at NASA. I don’t really believe that, because it’s not like I looked to come here. I didn’t do what you did. This opportunity came to me, and then I put my hands on it, and I made it happen for myself.” She bites her lip. “I don’t want to build smart houses out of devices. I don’t want to make glorified light timers. I want to work here.”
“They don’t want you, Beth.”
She shrugs, eyes burning. “They didn’t the first time around either, but I’m still here.” Her eyes spill over; she squeezes them shut, but it doesn’t help much. When she blinks them open again, Chris looks wrecked. She wants to walk over to him and put her hands on his face. She wants to touch the parts of him that are hurting, and heal them. But she doesn’t want to give up on any chance that will keep her at NASA. “I can go back to my degree or to my company at any time. But I have to exhaust every option here first.” She wipes messily at her cheeks. “I didn’t even know this was an option for me when I was growing up. Think what I could have done if I’d started sooner.”
Chris is shaking his head. When he looks up, his face is wet, too.
"It was you, you know that right?"
The non-sequitur throws her. Beth shakes her head.
"I would watch you - forgetting to eat, not being able to sleep, shifting up and down that ship and I just-- I wanted to be where you were, all the time. I wanted to make you get some sleep. I wanted you to eat more, take better care of yourself." His voice is so soft, Beth strains to hear him. "I came off that spacewalk and I checked Watney's ribs, and I remembered how you looked at me less than half an hour before. I remembered your hands; the way you moved. I remembered your smile." He shakes his head again; wipes a hand over his face. "I watched you with Watney and I wanted to take you home." He swallows again, licks his lips. Beth feels wretched. "I've accepted the job. I leave the same day as Vogel."
It wasn't that Beth didn't like the Commander, but it was very clear to her early on that Lewis was her boss and not her friend. That didn't mean they weren't friendly – Lewis was the easiest person to work for because she wasn't interested in hot air, but at the same time she knew that life wasn't all black and white.
The decision to go back and get Watney changed all of that for Beth.
After that moment-- after they voted unanimously to execute the Rich Purnell maneuver, Beth took on a new appreciation for Lewis. She was so steadfast in her convictions, and yet honor-bound. She'd always been a badass in Beth's eyes, but her response to the ASCII file? Game-changer.
That's why, when she had approached Beth and Chris in medical the week before they were due to re-enter earth's orbit, her wariness had surprised them.
They'd long since stopped flinching whenever a third person entered the room, and when Lewis came in, Beth was sitting cross-legged on the inspection table, working on the message queue re-write that she was going to have to force down NASA's throat some time in the near future.
"Commander?" Chris had gotten to his feet.
"Good, you're both here." She looked back at him. "You can sit down, Beck. This won't take long."
It had been her somber tone of voice that had first made Beth straighten, and she'd shot a look at Chris as he gently lowered himself back into his seat. "What's going on?"
Lewis had leaned back against the wall next to the door, hands clasped behind her back, and ankles crossed in a display of outward calm and nonchalance. If Beth hadn't been able to see the whites of her knuckles, she might have thought the pending conversation was going to be casual. It was, in fact, anything but.
"I know you're both aware that when we made the decision to implement the Purnell maneuver, we did so with the knowledge that we would face serious repercussions once we got home."
Beth and Chris both nodded.
"I have already been informed that both the Martinez and I will be asked to report to a preliminary council to determine whether or not we were in breach of conduct." She had smiled tightly, a sharp, humorless expression. "I don't want you to worry about that. I'm sure Mitch Henderson and Vincent Kapoor have your backs, and Teddy Sanders' priority is keeping space exploration on the budget.
"A lot of people are going to have a lot of questions. You already know there's been an incredible amount of interest in the mission, disproportionate to its aims." Beth had scoffed, eliciting a real smile that time. It had soon disappeared. "If – when – somebody asks about the living arrangements on board, you're going to say that it was a late-term arrangement."
It was Chris that straightened that time around. "But the climate controls—"
"It doesn't matter. You and Johanssen are in contravention of NASA instructions. You were anyway once we decided to go back for Watney, but that at least had public support." Lewis looked back and forth between the two of them, speaking slowly and emphatically. "I am asking you — I'm telling you, as a friend and as someone who cares for the both of you, you need to reel it in. You have enough on your plates already."
"We understand," Beth had said, looking over at Chris. "Damage control."
"I'm not asking you to lie," Lewis had been quick to insist, "not really. I am asking that you just lay low until they don't have the authority to hold it against you." She had looked so pained in that moment, that Beth had wanted to stand and embrace her in reassurance. Chris, too, looked fragile, but he'd nodded, given his agreement.
Beth looked back at the Commander. "It was a late-term arrangement."
Lewis nodded. "Exactly."
In the month after Vogel's and Chris' departures, three things happen in quick succession.
Firstly, riding a wave of public approval and with continuing goodwill with the CNSA, NASA gets approval for the funding needed to make Ares V a reality.
Secondly, Lewis and Martinez are saved from court martial, but not from disciplinary. The dates for their meetings is announced at the same time as NASA's renewed commitment to the Mars missions.
Thirdly: someone tells the tabloids that Dr. Chris Beck and Ms. Beth Johanssen had shared quarters on the Hermes for almost half the mission.
"Were you aware of this?" Teddy Sanders slams the offending paper onto the desk in front of Beth and Lewis. Beth is wide-eyed, nervous about what this means for her prospects, and generally not great with disappointed figures of authority. Annie Montrose looks on from the corner of the room.
"Sir, with all due respect," says Lewis," the press is spinning one line in my report out into something that it absolutely wasn't."
"And what exactly did that one line say?"
"We acknowledge that some of the crew doubled-up for the last leg of the journey home because a malfunction with the onboard environmental systems meant that two of the rooms were no longer habitable." Lewis looks Sanders dead in the eye, and she doesn't flinch once. "Watney and I shared one room—" Beth can't believe what she's hearing, "—and Beck and Johanssen shared another. I would have brought Johanssen into my own quarters, but at that time we were still engaged in shift hours, and Johanssen and I were scheduled to report in at the same time." Lewis shrugs. "It made more sense to pair up people who worked alternate shifts."
Sanders has a dogged glare, but he lowers his voice. "We're lucky it came out after funding was approved." He looks over to Annie. "What's your take on this?"
"It's not the best news I've ever heard, but you've got a plausible enough cover story." She throws a glance in Lewis' direction with her last comment, but it bounces right off. "I'm a little concerned about accusations of impropriety affecting the mission aims, but I don't think it's got legs." She tilts her head in Beth's direction. "Dr. Beck left the program last week, is that right?"
Lewis answers. "That's correct."
Annie nods thoughtfully, before turning back to Sanders. "I can work with that. It's a non-story."
They're dismissed shortly after, but Beth can feel her face burning up. "Commander—"
"Don't say a word. Just look ahead, and keep walking."
Beth does as she's told.
The so-called news does the rounds in a few of the glossies, enough to warrant a call from her parents, but not enough to rouse Chris from the woodwork. Watney is given leave to visit his parents for a couple of weeks, and then he and Annie will start a press tour to try and head off some of the worse comments about the cost of his retrieval. He's a charming guy and all, but Beth wonders if it's just going to add fuel to the fire. Then again, what does she know? She spends her days in a corner of the mess, having been evicted from the labs by yet more newcomers. She's almost done with the first version of her message queue re-write. Even if NASA doesn't want it, working through the structure has taught her a lot. It's going to be worth something to someone somewhere.
Martinez spends most of his days off-compound. His wife and their daughter have started renting a flat in Ellington, and he tries to spend as much time with them as possible. He never brings them to the compound. He and Lewis both still meet Beth for breakfast, but with half their number missing, and Lewis increasingly being called upon by the Navy, it's getting hard to maintain their routines.
Martinez asks her about the gossip rags. "Is this why you two idiots stopped talking to each other? This is your cover?"
"Martinez…" Lewis warns, but the Major remains undeterred.
"Seriously, between you and the doc, my blood pressure's gone right through the roof." He sneaks a piece of toast off Beth's plate before she can stop him. "How is it our own little Romeo and Juliet can't keep their shit together long enough—"
"That's enough, Major!"
"—you know he's sulking, too, right?"
That gets Beth's attention. "You've spoken to him?"
"You haven't?" Martinez throws up his hands. "This? This right here? This is the problem. You need to com-mun-i-cate. You kids; don't even know you're born. Hey, where you going? You going to finish that?"
Beth's had enough. She piles her dishes back onto her tray and pushes back from the table. "Have a good day, Commander. Major."
She hears Lewis berating Martinez in her wake. "—not to mention, Romeo and Juliet both died."
"Are you kidding me? That's how that ends?"
When she takes her work to Vincent Kapoor, he spends ten minutes scrolling through it before leaning back in his seat and appraising her carefully. He still chews on the legs of his glasses, Beth notes; some things never change.
"This is what you've been doing this whole time? Re-writing the entire OS?"
"Yes." If Beth sounds defensive, Kapoor doesn't respond to it. "It needed doing," she adds belatedly.
"Oh, no doubt," says Kapoor, gesturing in a small meaningless arc with his glasses. "That's what we brought you on for in the first place." He clasps his hands together on the desk, leaning in as though to impart some advice. "You are a very interesting person, Ms. Johanssen. Smart too, if this," he indicates the code on the table, "is anything to go by. You weren't commissioned to do this work, were you?"
Beth shakes her head. "I started it on the mission. Lots of free time."
It feels like now or never, so Beth musters the reserves of her courage and states her case.
"There isn't anyone from here to Mars and back," she says, eliciting a wry smile from Kapoor, "who knows this code the way I do. I want to know what my chances are to be included in the Ares V team."
Kapoor's head shoots up; his mouth falls open in surprise. She's caught him completely off guard. Her heart sinks into her stomach. Shit.
"Miss Johanssen, I— there is absolutely no chance of your being included on the next mission." He falters slightly. "Is that why…" He looks back at the tablet. He is completely dumbfounded. Beth shakes her head. She feels small; her hands are beginning to sweat. She needs to leave the room.
Despite her overwhelming instinct to feel, she thinks to herself, what would Lewis do?, and she keeps her hands folded in her lap.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I think I have a lot left to contribute to this program."
"And I don't disagree," says Kapoor, getting to his feet and rounding the table. He comes to a stop in front of her and leans back on the desk. Beth feels like she's been called in to the principal's office, more so now than when Teddy Sanders face loomed towards her. "I'll need to review this, get some of the team to take a look." He considers her again. "You should take some leave."
"What if you lock the door behind me?" Beth says candidly.
Kapoor smiles. It's not unkind. "I promise; I'll come unlock the door."
When it comes, the outcome of Lewis' disciplinary is the best thing Beth's heard in months. She cajoles the older woman into joining her for a drink, and the two of them end up in a small bar on the outskirts of Houston. The strain of the past few years makes a rare appearance on Lewis' face, so Beth goes ahead and orders bourbon. She knows it's the right move when Lewis knocks the first one back, throws up her fingers for a second round. "Drink up, Johanssen," she says, nodding at Beth's tumbler as the bartender ambles over with the bottle. "We've only just started."
An hour later, they've retired to a nearby table, and in the background Beth can hear some old country tune playing. Johnny Cash, maybe; it's not her genre. Lewis is as relaxed as Beth has ever seen her, slouched in her seat, tumbler in hand, legs crossed at the ankle. Her hair, which had been tightly braided, is loose now; she'd taken it down somewhere after the second drink. Beth, her chin resting on her folded arms, is nursing her third drink; the Commander had to be on her fourth by now.
"I'll be on enforced leave for a while," she's saying, "and I'll probably miss my next promotion. I'll be moved to a desk job somewhere until no-one thinks of my name and Watney's fate in the same sentence anymore." She's looking off into the middle distance. She sounds so wistful, that Beth wonders if she's imagining things. "They'll never send me up there again." She pauses, knocks the ice around in her glass. "Difficult to justify sending another woman up there," she murmurs, shaking her head. "They have to pick another woman to lead. It'll be such a setback if they don't. I couldn't live with myself."
She looks over at Beth then. "Is it strange that I'm still so hungry to get back out there? Is that madness?"
Beth laughs; it's a hollow sound that comes out as the verbal equivalent of a grimace. "I'd go back in a heartbeat," she says. "You know. If anyone would let me."
Lewis nods slowly in agreement. "I heard you were in with Vincent Kapoor. What happened?"
Beth purses her lips; shakes her head in low dismissal. She sits up to play with her drink. "Oh, you know. He quickly and decisively burst my bubble. I mean," she lifts the glass, readying to take a sip, "he was pretty sweet about it, but he didn't say anything I wanted to hear."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, well." Beth sighs. "I'm sorry your career is going to take a hit."
Lewis shrugs. "It is what it is."
Once the sun goes down, and the bar gets busy with the after-work crowd, the two of them make their slow way in search of food. "I remember this place," Lewis says, "fantastic chicken wings."
It turns out the joint Lewis is thinking of got shut down the year before, but it's been replaced by a generic Tex-Mex place that looks lively if not particularly genuine. They're digging into some nachos, talking about Beth's plans for her upcoming leave, when Lewis brings the conversation back to more pressing topics.
"I owe you an apology," she says.
"What?" Beth is incredulous. "No, you don’t."
"I do. What I asked you and Beck to do: that was completely unfair. It was about covering my ass, and it was the wrong move." She shakes her head, like she's disappointed in herself, and she reaches for her beer.
Beth frowns. "You were doing your job, and it worked out. If you hadn't laid the groundwork, those tabloid stories could have been something else entirely. You were protecting the mission."
But Lewis is still shaking her head. "My job was to protect you."
Beth took a moment to gather her thoughts. "Commander, I appreciate it, but Beck and I, we're grown-ups. We knew what we were getting into." It's only as she's saying it, that she realizes the truth of her words. "We might not have been subtle about it, but there's a reason we didn't flaunt ourselves whilst we were on the Hermes."
Lewis is about to interject, but their server arrives with their food. Beth's not sure she can stomach anything else, but she knows she'll regret it if she doesn't at least try to eat. She can hear Chris at the back of her head – you need to eat - so she reaches for her food. They've ordered a mix of things, chicken wings, burritos, some bite-sized empanadas. Beth starts to laugh: it's way too much.
"You know," Lewis says, once all the dishes have been brought out, "you can call me Melissa."
"Erm, I don't— no. I don't think so."
"Johanssen," Lewis admonishes, before correcting herself, "Beth. Friends don't generally call one another by their rank and serial number."
"I don't know your serial number," Beth says.
"Yes, you do."
"OK, sure, I do." She tears into a chicken wing. "I don't think I can call you by your first name, though."
"I can make it an order if that helps," Lewis says with a smile. "We are friends, right?"
"Then try. Please."
By the time they leave the restaurant, Beth is very, very conscious of being very, very drunk. Lewis doesn't look too bad, but her hers are glazed, so Beth's pretty sure they're both in the same boat. Ha! Lewis is in the Navy, and they're in a boat! Beth starts to giggle, despite herself.
Lewis calls them a cab before sitting down on the curb. She pulls Beth down to sit with her. It doesn't take much; just a sharp tug, and yeah, there she goes.
"You should call Beck," says Lewis. "I think it would do you both some good to talk to one another."
"We talked," Beth protests mildly, "but it didn't help."
"Maybe because you told him you were each on divergent paths," Lewis fires back, but it’s kindly.
"Wait a minute," Beth recognizes the words. "You two shared? I didn't know that."
Lewis laughs. "We're friends. We shared. Is that so surprising?"
"Everything is surprising to me," says Beth, "and everything is hard work."
"Don't give up yet," Lewis tells her, spotting the cab down the street. "I have it on good authority that it's not over until a sizeable woman sings."
Beth squints at the other woman in the dark. "We've spent way too much time with Martinez."
"Tell me about it."
Beth heads home to her parents because even as an adult she doesn't have other options. She could find a place, she guesses, but right now that feels like giving in to her defeat, and also she's not sure what her next move should be. Her parents are happy to see her, but Beth feels misshapen, back in the bedroom she grew up in. The wallpaper's still the same peach shade it's been for years. She snaps a picture and sends it to Vogel. Home sweet whatever. He sends back a selfie with his kids crowded round. It makes her smile, and she saves it.
Back in Houston, Martinez is still rattling around, but when she calls him, he tells her that Lewis – Melissa – has started her enforced leave.
"Shit," Beth is alarmed. "I thought she had some time. Did something happen?"
"Honestly, I think with Watney's fucking press tour and all, they wanted to tie up their loose ends."
"How was your disciplinary?"
Martinez is uncharacteristically quiet, so much so that Beth checks to see if the call has dropped. "Martinez?"
"I don't know what the Commander said, but the up and ups said I was absolved of all responsibility, and that because I'd been acting under orders, I'd get hit with a slap on the wrist, but basically they got nothing on me." He clicks his tongue. "Doesn't feel right, you know?"
"You shut your mouth and count your blessings."
"Aye aye!" He pauses. "You call the doc yet?"
"I'm hanging up on you, I swear to god."
The call comes when she's in the middle of grocery shopping with her mom, and Beth doesn't really know what to do about it, so she keeps her answers short, and then she goes to find her mom again. Once all the shopping is in the car, Beth hits up the classic cinema in the middle of the day and watches B-movies back to back for six hours. She stumbles out into the evening, glut on popcorn and soda, and bored, and lonely, and tired. "Get a grip, Johanssen," she mutters to herself as she begins the walk back to the house. A guy nearby hears her and gives her a look, so she flips him the bird.
That night she settles down in front of the news with her dad. She's debating whether or not to hit the sack when a special report starts up. It's Watney.
She grabs her cell, shoots a text to Martinez. Our boy's on channel 11.
She gets a reply as the segment gets underway. OH YEAH LOOK AT THAT HANDSOME FELLA!!!!! Beth laughs. Of course Martinez is an exclamation-abuser. How did she not know that before now?
Her dad turns the volume up at her interest. "This your friend?" He asks, knowing full well that it is.
Watney looks tired, but affable in that way he has. He instantly disarms the presenter, somehow making Annie Montrose's prepared spiel sound natural. They ask him about the experience, the potatoes, what it's like being back on earth. All straightforward, and similar to questions she's fielded on the rare occasions she's asked for comment. And then the interview takes a turn.
"It cost America thousands of dollars to bring you back to earth, both in terms of the cost of the re-supply, and the loss of the Ares IV mission. Do you think NASA was right to bring you back?"
"What the hell kind of question—?" Beth's phone goes mad; it's Martinez, working up a mood.
Some BS man
"No they should have let me die on that space rock"
Can you believe this woman?
The fuck is Montrose playing at? SHUT IT DOWN
On the television, Watney takes a moment to compose himself before speaking. "You know, an incredible effort was undertaken to save my life, one that I will spend the rest of my days trying to live up to. I can't speak to the cost, only the breadth and depth of my gratitude, both to NASA and to my crew." He nods, rubbing a hand across his mouth. "I am aware, you know, that I have been blessed with remarkable good fortune. And now the onus is on me to live up to the effort that went towards my preservation."
The interviewer seems satisfied. She should; it's an amazing answer.
Nailed it, Beth types out, pulling up Watney's cell number. Worth every cent.
Couldn't even round me up to a dollar, she gets back a few minutes later. That hurts Johanssen.
Well. I kind of have to now.
Beth goes to bed an hour later, but it's a lost cause even before she lays down. She feels so restless, turning one way and then the other. The bed feels so warm, but taking off the comforter leaves a chill. She ends up staring at the dark of her ceiling, thinking about Watney's humility.
His gratitude has always sat with her uneasily, as though there were any question of not coming to get him once they had a way how. She thinks about what it must be like to be confronted by the value of your mortality in front of a worldwide audience. Every breath Watney takes is now under scrutiny. It's too much for Beth, even just thinking about it. She doesn't do well under attention from strangers.
She laughs at herself. No wonder she had loved the Hermes. It was quiet and open, and she could work or work out, depending on her mood. Everyone there was a friend. It took launching out into space to make her feel like she belonged somewhere.
Beth falls asleep around four in the morning, and she dreams she's back in the gym, back on her trusty treadmill. Watney is there, too, but he's not running. He's sitting with his back against the window, arms loosely slung over his knees. He's watching her with a knowing look.
You have to make the most of what’s in front of you, he says, and when she looks up, she can see Chris on a spacewalk, shuffling awkwardly around the airlock and along the side of the ship, disappearing from view as she spins away in the other direction. Her chest feels tight; she wakes with a gasp, Watney's words ringing in her ears.
Don’t let the important things pass you by.
Beth's never been to Hartford before so if nothing else, that's an experience to cross off the list. She'd taken a red eye domestic because it's not like she was sleeping anyway, and it got her into the city by 8 am. She's got the address on her phone, and she gets a cab, but asks the driver to stop a couple of blocks away.
That turns out to be a mistake. It takes less than ten minutes for her to realize she is lost. Checking her cell, there's no data signal. Who are these people? She wanders around a little while longer, until finally she clocks a street sign. After that it's easy. She comes up on 1105 and its neatly manicured lawns, and feels distinctly underdressed in her jacket and jeans. She snaps a picture; sends it to Martinez - how the other half live – before slipping her cell back into her coat and making her way up the drive.
There's a large tree to the left of the drive, and it's this that finally convinces her she's in the right place. Chris had told her this story – stupid really, but at the time, the way he'd told it, it had made her laugh until her sides ached. She hadn't known that was a thing that could happen. Anyway, it was outside his bedroom window as a child, and as a teenager he'd tried to use it to sneak out of the house. Fallen on his ass, obviously; broke his arm in three places. "I was grounded for a month," he'd said, grinning at the recollection. "Not like I could go anywhere anyway." The memory makes her smile.
She knocks on the door, and waits. It's a Saturday. Do hotshot surgeons work weekends? The door swings open, bringing her face-to-face with a stranger. He looks like Chris, but he has a neatly-trimmed beard, and a slightly longer face.
"Hello, Mr – sorry, Dr. Beck. I'm Beth Johanssen. I was—"
"I know who you are. Please, come in. Is Christopher expecting you?"
"No, I don't think so." She's led into a wide foyer with tiled floors. She's definitely underdressed. She looks back at the man she assumes is Chris' father. "Pleased to meet you."
"And you. Please, join us for breakfast. My name is Adrian."
"Oh, no, I couldn't – I don't want to intrude."
"Nonsense. I insist."
There's a noise on the stairs; Beth and Dr. Beck senior both turn to see Chris tripping lightly down the steps. He's in his bed clothes – an old jersey that's been softened by use, and sweatpants. She can tell by his disorientation that he's only just woken up, and she sees the exact moment he clocks her.
"Well, I'll leave the two of you to catch up," says Dr. Beck. "Bring your friend in for breakfast, Christopher."
For a moment it's like no time at all has passed. Christopher? She mouths exaggeratedly. Chris' face fights a smile, and then he reaches down and grabs her elbow, pulling her up the stairs behind him. "What are you doing here?" he hisses. "How did you get here?"
"I took a flight, and then I took a cab. Then I walked a little bit—"
"What? I did."
Chris stops at the top of the staircase. He looks at her like he can't quite believe she's there. Beth knows the feeling. She can feel the low swell of panic in her chest. He hasn't touched her – she hasn't let him – in months. He looks sleep-soft and warm.
He pulls away from her abruptly, and heads to a room at the far end of the hall. When she steps in, she can see the tree outside the window. It makes her smile. Chris is sitting on the edge of his bed, a mirror of the last time they'd argued. The memory along causes her heart rate to spike. She feels awful. She realizes she's been staring at him for longer than is socially acceptable.
"Well? You came here. Say something."
She drops her backpack by the door, and thinks about sitting down next to him, but he's so tense, and she doesn't want to make things hard, so she leans against the wall.
"I wanted to see you. I wanted to speak to you. Properly."
"Pretty certain we said all there was to say last time," says Chris. "You didn't have to come out all this way—"
"I wanted to," Beth says, cutting him off, albeit softly. She doesn't want him riled. That's not why she's here. She waits.
He looks her up and down, and she lets him. She can see him cataloging changes, or, at least, she thinks that's what he's doing. She's doing the same thing to him. His hair's a little longer, a little messy, which is new, but not unexpected for the time of day. He looks tired, but that's more in the slope of his shoulders than his face, so she's probably to blame. He has such wide palms, she thinks, hands that are good for holding on to.
In the end, he sighs, relaxes a little now that he's used to having her in his space again. That calm comes and goes, but seeing his shoulders come down from his ears tells Beth they can talk now.
"I'm going to say something, and I would really appreciate it if you would just let me speak." Chris raises an eyebrow. "You can say whatever you want afterwards - you can throw me out if you want; I won't stop you - but just. Please. Let me say what I came here to say."
He makes a rolling gesture with his hand, a sort of, go on then.
"You won't interrupt?" She asks to make sure. "You're not going to like everything I have to say."
"Just get on with it."
"Okay. Okay." She takes a breath. "You were right when you said they wouldn't want me for the Ares V mission." It still stings to say it out loud. She's not over it yet. "It's not like that wasn't something I didn't already know, but I was clinging to hope, because yes. If I were given the chance, I would jump at it if it meant I could go back out there. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm not ashamed of my ambition – no, hang, on," she holds up a hand, silencing Chris' protest. "Please, I have to get through this otherwise, I just, I won't be able to. Please."
Chris nods after a long while.
"Where was I?"
"Right," Beth says. She takes a deep breath, and then another. "I'm not ashamed of being ambitious, and I'm good, Chris, I'm really, really good at what I do. I want my work to mean something. You said – you told me, you walked this path, like, from the start you knew where you were going, and it took this thing with Watney to throw you off that course, but I'm not sure, you know? I don't think that's what it was." She swallows thickly, her throat dry. "I think you looked out of the Hermes and you had a crisis of confidence, and you questioned the value of what you were doing. But don't you see? You help people. You take care of them; you always have." She smiles helplessly, even though her eyes are filling with tears. "I love that about you, I do. I love that you always asked if I had eaten. I loved that you wanted me to sleep at night and exercise during the day, and not the other way around. Your problem isn't that you took the wrong route. The journey was fine. You said it yourself - there are no should-have-beens. You take the road you're going to take, and then that's your life." She sniffs; sweeps her palm over her cheeks one after the after. "OK. I'm done."
Chris nods. She can't read him when he's like this. His face shuts down; his body becomes one long line of tension. It's excruciating. He lumbers to his feet, still nodding.
"Okay. Sure." He looks up. "What the fuck, Beth?"
"Oh god," Beth tips her head back in frustration, "you didn't-- I don't know how to explain it to you any better than that."
"Maybe don't come into my parents' house after a month and a half and tell me I don't know my own mind--"
"--that is not what I said--"
"--and you spring up out of nowhere --
"--out of nowhere and tell me that you love me. A couple of months ago you were telling me that we'd run our course."
"That's not what I meant!"
"So what does it mean?" Chris is shouting now; it's so painful and unfamiliar, and he's so close to her, and so far. "You said our lives had intersected, and we got to live in a bubble and then the bubble burst--"
"No. I said we were given time," Beth says, cutting through his wounded ire. "What I meant was that I didn't know, okay? I was the same as you. I joined the mission looking out at Mars, and then I found you, and we were given this time to work it through. To work out what we wanted." She bites her lip. It's still such a bad habit. She feels raw; chafed. "I want the work to matter. And I want you too." She's crying now, because why not? Nothing about this is dignified. It's all blood. Her pulse is pounding in her skull. She feels so wrung out.
"I felt like you talking about this job was like you making the decision for me," she says at last, voice barely above a whisper. Chris frowns, standing in the middle of the room, as tired as she is, and as miserable. "It was like you had decided that having a life outside what we went through meant severing all ties, and I knew that even if I didn't go back up, I would want to do the work." She shrugs. "You'd already decided. You were talking like I was a sure thing, and I am - I am still a sure thing. But you have to meet me halfway."
She takes a breath; she takes three more.
"It doesn't have to be either-or. We could do both. The only person making us choose is you." She shrugs again, out of words. "We can do both."
Chris deflates. It's sudden and absolute, his whole body just collapsing inwards, and Beth has to speed forward to hold onto him. He falls onto her, all long-limb and sadness, great heaving sobs wracking through his body. Beth cries, too, sobbing in sympathy and out of relief. There had been nights recently when she thought she could never put her hands on him again; that he too was out of reach, like Mars, like Hermes, like the work she needed to do, so she holds on; fists her hands in his shirt and clings, steadfast and clear-headed. They can have the best of both worlds. She believes it. She does.
By the time they've separated, Chris looks like he's run the gauntlet, his eyes swollen. He breaks away to take a shower, and whilst he's gone Beth changes her shirt, throws on some deodorant. That post-flight stagnation tends to linger.
Chris takes her to a nearby diner, yelling from the door of the house that they'll both be back later. They're seated at a booth, and she slides in on the seat opposite him. It's like they're back in the mess. In the background she can hear two kids squabbling - does too! Does not! - and it reminds her of Watney and Martinez. Chris must be thinking the same thing, because he grins sharply when he catches her eye. She laughs, then checks out the menu.
They get coffee - they need so much of it - and they order French toast because it's the smallest thing on the menu. Once the coffee arrives, Beth straightens.
"You should know that Vincent offered me a job."
"Wait, what? I thought you said--"
"I'm the new project lead." She takes a drink from her mug. "I've pretty much re-written the Hermes OS, but it's going to take some time to run it and implement it across the fleet."
Chris looks a little impressed, despite himself. "You cracked it."
"What do you mean?"
"The flaw in the environment code. You cracked it."
Beth smiles. "I took it apart and I put it back together completely different. It's not the same thing."
"It's a little bit the same thing."
"No, it's not."
They smile at each other, still tentative, still feeling each other out, but Beth feels settled for the first time in ages.
"So you'll take the job, then?" Chris asks.
Beth shrugs, but they both know there's no question about it. "It's what I want. I love it. Working over that stupid legacy code was just-- I liked how things came together for me. It was hard, but it was rewarding, and the changes I want to make should improve flight times and thrust vectors - all those things we could have done with when we went back for Watney."
Chris looks down at his mug. "What would I do?"
Beth ducks down to catch his eye, but he won't look at her. "Houston has a hospital, you know. Three, actually. Sure, your dad's not on the board of any of these ones, but I thought that was your thing, stepping out from behind him."
Chris pulls a face of mild agreement. "Something like that." He lifts his mug; peers at her from over the rim. "I missed you. I thought I was going mad." He took another sip. "I was dreaming about you. I'd be outside the Hermes, and you'd be in the gym, and you'd slide right out of view. And when the ring slid back again, you weren't there. It was empty."
"I had that dream," Beth says, reaching for Chris' hand. "But then I woke up."
Nothing comes easy, even then.
Chris is tied into a contract at the Hope Memorial, and he's still bruised from the year they've had. Beth heads back to Houston, and then out to Florida to head up the Hermes project team. She hears from Martinez so much more than she'd ever expected, and through him she hears about the Commander. Lewis is based in Seattle now, which is a long way off, but that distance is relative to Beth these days.
She makes time to talk to Vogel, and she gets to know his kids. His wife tries to teach Beth German and it's coming along, but the syntax differs from code, so she's going pretty slowly. It's fine. She has time.
"And how is the doctor?" Vogel asks towards the end of each call.
"He's good," she can say, with absolute surety. "He's off, you know, helping people, saving lives…"
Her cell chimes, interrupting her. It's Chris.
"…reminding you to eat," Vogel remarks with a smile. "You should take a break."
"What do you think this is? I'm taking a break. I'm braking."
The furor that surrounds Watney never really dissipates, but public consensus is that the rescue mission showed the endurance and reach of human kindness, so these days he just has to tell stories about growing potatoes. He's already booked in with her for Christmas; he's going to stop by and then head back to his parents. Beth is going to suggest a reunion to mark the anniversary of their return. It's around the right time. She doesn't think anyone will say no, though maybe Lewis won't have leave. It's fine; whatever. If Beth can Skype Vogel every week, she can definitely get Lewis in on a conference Christmas…thing.
Chris does remind her to eat, and he also sends her a reminder to sleep. He's called her from the operating table a couple of times now, and each time she's horrified.
"Well, if you were asleep, this wouldn't be happening," he jokes.
She still doesn't really sleep, and there are nights she hits the treadmill, and there are nights she hits the labs instead. But there are also nights when she calls Chris, and he talks to her until she feels the tension bleed out from her back and her feet. She's fallen asleep on him this way enough times that she's no longer embarrassed about it.
Chris goes home for Thanksgiving, and Beth doesn't, which earns her an earful from all sides, but honestly, it's just not her holiday, and she's saving up her leave for Christmas. She can't wait to see everyone again. It never really left her, that feeling that she had found her people at last. She knows better now; she didn't lose them, but it will be good to have them in the same room again. She thinks she's even missed what Martinez tries to pass off as friendly banter.
"You got a temperature?" Chris asks.
"Nobody in their right mind could miss that."
"Hey! You used to think my jokes were funny," she hears him protest down the line. She listens to him moving around his flat - he'd moved out from his parents' a month in, too used to living away from home to fit back too comfortably. He'd admitted at the time that part of the lure of home was of its comforts. "You went home to lick your wounds," Beth said, and he'd acknowledged that it had been something like that.
"I guess the romance is dead."
"The romance," Beth retorts, "is 18 hours away by car, so it's got legs, but it takes time." It feels like a metaphor. Maybe it is.