There's only room for one person to be fucked up on Ares 3, and that honor belongs solely and singly to Mark 'Insert Coping Mechanism Here' Watney. So Beth is not so much fucked up as she is just fucking tired.
Three months back on Earth -- three months home -- she gives up, flies to France, and lets Aunt Diana cluck over her. There's a quilt that Nana Etta made that's falling into scraps in a basket in a corner, just waiting for someone to take the time to mend it, and Beth sucks on her fingers from pin-pricks and tries to piece it together correctly while Aunt Diana catches her up on the family news. The family is vast and epic and mostly Beth has been avoiding them. She's not really been up to dealing with people. It's hard when your entire world has been six people for so long.
"The crew picked me to survive," she tells Aunt Diana over dinner the first night, picking at the noodles. It's not the first time she's told people, hell, she'd even told her dad before they knew if she'd have to do it. She's told it in her official report and to a variety of NASA shrinks since then. It just feels different when she tells Aunt Diana. Sometimes it doesn't feel real and sometimes it feels too real, but with Aunt Diana, it feels safe. "They were going to make me eat them."
"And you agreed to do it," Aunt Diana prompts.
Beth shrugs. "Yeah, well, I kinda had to. But what do you say to that? What do you say when someone offers to let you eat them? What do you say when someone promises they'll die so you can survive?"
What Beth had actually said at the time was, "okay, Commander," because she hadn't thought it would come to it. But if it had come to it, she would have done it. She would have eaten them, she would have survived. She's not sure how she would have handled it, but she'd've done it. It seems so very far away here, and that's the point. She's surrounded by safety. Aunt Diana could defeat an army and everything about this house is a refuge.
Agatha Christie volumes line the walls, well-worn and well-loved. Beth had grown up on them, those comfortable murder mysteries that the storied Nana Etta had loved so much, and so of course Beth had brought electronic versions of them to Mars with her. It was a little bit of home, a little bit of safety, like the inside of a hug, maybe even a talisman. And then she'd left Mars behind too quickly, like a jolt, like a hit to the head, and these last years have been not what she expected. All those years of training, all those years in space, and not even a week on Mars to show for all of it. They'd trained for Mars and all they'd done instead was survive space. And her crew picked her to survive. They'd lose themselves, they'd give up on Watney, all for her. All for the youngest.
Beth's been the baby her whole life. She's always been the youngest in the room. She's gotten patronized, she's gotten special treatment. Other people could fuck up and get reamed out. Beth fucked up and she got understanding: of course she shouldn't be held to the same standard, of course it was okay if she couldn't keep up. But then why even let her in the room. If they didn't think she can handle it like a big girl, they shouldn't even let her in. It's not fair to anyone, least of all her. And she'd fought her way through it and she'd impressed the selection board and she'd made it to Mars.
And then her crew had decided, you know what, let's save the baby.
And she knows it wasn't like that. She knows she's being unfair to them. She knows it was because they decided that she had the requisite skills to get herself back. But Martinez is the pilot and he has a young son. He could have managed it, too, and he has more to live for than she does. Beth's got a future, but she wouldn't be leaving behind any orphans. She'd leave behind a family, but they could survive without her. She wasn't vital to anyone's happiness.
But Lewis had picked her and Beth had respected that and gone along with that, but now that she's home, she can't look around without guilt. Even if everything had gone wrong, even if everyone had died, there'd still be a good chance Beth would be here. Beth would be here, the sole survivor of Ares 3, the hand-picked witness to stand up to the world and tell their story.
Aunt Diana knows what that's like. She's seen her share of years, out-survived her share of people. She's the self-appointed protector of Beth and her entire sprawling family, and Beth may be thirty-two, but she leans in to Aunt Diana like she can't anyone else. She can cry here without feeling bad about it. She can feel guilty without that low, angry fear. There's somewhere for all these emotions to go, and Beth really just needs to feel safe right now.
"I know a little bit about mutiny," Aunt Diana says. Beth knows this story. She knows how Aunt Diana's family didn't want her to go to war. She knows that Aunt Diana committed mutiny herself. She's not sure how much she believes Aunt Diana's stories about how there were no other kids except for her, but even if that was just an exaggeration, Aunt Diana knows all about being the youngest. Every time Beth's seen Aunt Diana, she's never felt patronized. She's never felt like she had to do extra to prove herself, to prove her right to be there. Aunt Diana's her favorite relative for a reason.
"I hate that we had to do it," Beth says. "I don't hate that we did it. I'd do it again. I'd do it again even if it meant everyone died and I had to eat them. We had to try."
"Yes," Aunt Diana says. "You have to try to save your friends even if it kills you." Beth rests her head on Aunt Diana's shoulder and Aunt Diana strokes Beth's hair soothingly. "What's your life worth if you don't try?"
Beck and Watney have tiny families, so they don't understand how Beth can get a phone call one day and then suddenly have dinner plans for four consecutive nights with four completely different groups of people. "I won't go to them, so they're coming to me," Beth says, exasperated, as she invites Beck and Watney along. She needs the buffer. Aunt Diana's embrace had been comforting. Everyone else's just feel claustrophobic.
Beck and Watney sit on either side of her as the Portland cousins try and fail to make small talk, as the Atlanta uncles show too much interest in Beck's surgical experience, as the London contingent murder a karaoke machine.
The day after the Australian branch fly home, Beth breathes a sigh of relief and collapses back onto the couch in Beck's apartment. She puts her feet up on the coffee table and waves lazily at Watney, coming through the door.
"No more relatives?" Watney asks. He's been looking better these days, but Beth probably only thinks that because she's seen the baseline. She knows what he looked like After. And this is much, much better than After. But everyone else is comparing Watney to a totally different baseline and Watney's the one who has to listen to them and deal with it. He'll take it from Medical because that's their job. He won't take it from anyone else, so Beth is never going to say anything, even though she's relieved at how much weight he's put back on, at how much better he looks.
"Not until the end of the semester," Beth says, "maybe longer if I'm lucky."
"You could tell them not to come," Watney says, and Beth knows he's forbidden anyone but his own parents from visiting. He's a friendly guy, Watney is, and he's got a lot of friends he's picked up over the years. But he's shut down any overtures. He used to be the most social of the crew, but Beth can see how he's still not too comfortable with people. Crew doesn't count, of course. Crew aren't people. Crew aren't even family. Crew are crew. And so Watney settles down next to Beth on the couch and picks up a book from the side table. And that's another change since Mars. He's eschewed digital as much as possible. He carries a notepad and pen with him everywhere he goes, always writing things down. Paperbacks have been accumulating in Beck's apartment faster than used coffee cups, filling up all the empty spaces, stacked high here and there and everywhere.
"It's not that I don't want to see them," Beth starts. "It's just that..."
"It's just that you don't want to see them?" Watney offers.
Beth shakes her head. "I just wish it weren't so hard." There's those two and a half years on the Hermes standing between her and everyone. Between her and everyone who isn't crew. "I care about them and want to catch up, but I don't want to catch them up on my side of it all. I don't want to talk about myself. I want to hear about normal life. I want to know what their kids did for the science fair, who got which promotion, who's building a useless patio. I don't want to talk about Mars."
It's one thing to talk about Mars with Aunt Diana, who knows what it's like to be alone out there, fighting against something you don't think you can beat. None of Beth's other relatives have been through anything like Mars. The Great War hadn't been Aunt Diana's war until Aunt Diana chose to join it, chose to make herself part of the world. If anyone can understand Beth, it's Aunt Diana. Beth could have gone along with what NASA wanted and she could have told herself she was blameless, that it was too big a risk to take. But like hell could she have done that. Aunt Diana gets it. But it's not something she wants to explain to anyone she'd have to explain it to. Aunt Diana already knows. That's what makes it so easy to talk with her. That's why Beth's phone keeps two timezones, Houston and Paris. When she wants to talk, she wants to talk, not to explain.
When Beth was young, Aunt Diana had told her that sometimes you have to trust someone to know when to sacrifice themselves, and when it needs to be done, when there's no other way, you need to let them. And when they hadn't thought they could rescue Watney, Beth had told herself that over and over again, that Aunt Diana was right, that Aunt Diana knew what she was talking about. But there'd been another way. Thank every single god out there, there'd been another way. And maybe in fifty years, Beth will find a nice way to wrap up her experiences and explain them to a child, but she's not there yet. She's really not there yet.
Watney snorts. "Yeah, tell me about it." He rests his head on her shoulder. "They're putting me back in a training simulation tomorrow so they can worst-case Ares 4. Can you hook up a computer port to my brain so they can just download it all and stop bothering my wonderful strategic mind? I wouldn't mind some debugging, too. I'll pay you in sexual favors."
Beth laughs. "We need to get you different books, Watney. You're getting some really weird ideas about relationships."
Beth's always been good at worst-case scenarios. Maybe it helps knowing an actual superhero, but she's never had a problem with it. She'd found her way to NASA originally by helping program the simulators for all the ways life can fuck you up. And she's always been perfectly willing and happy to do it. She knows some of her old coworkers had had issues, but Beth figures, if she's going to help train someone for all scenarios, it's damn well going to be all scenarios. It requires not just creativity, but also ruthlessly comprehensive detail. It's never bothered her that she's thinking up disaster situations or coming up with newer and greater catastrophes.
But there's always been a point to it all. It's always been a job, not a hobby. So nothing really explains why she's been fucking around with a Moon lander simulation of her very own, except probably masochism and, let's be honest, the pure boredom of being stuck on Earth.
Humanity has passed the Moon by. The focus is Mars, and, after that, the Galilean moons, and after those, Titan. The Moon is too close. The Moon's been done. They've left the Moon to the robots and gone on to bigger and better things.
But Beth used to look out her window at the Moon. She wasn't a kid with a telescope; the other visible wanderers were just lights in the sky. The Moon was something she could see. The Moon was real in a way that the rest of space just... wasn't.
No one's talking about going to the Moon. No one's looking for Beth Johanssen Of Ares 3 to design a newer, better, shinier Moon mission. There's not even anyone to pitch this to, other than hobbyists and some random rich people with very strange priorities (hobbyists without a budget, Beck calls them disparagingly). All the big space agencies have other funding priorities. And Beth Johanssen, even of Ares 3, isn't going to be able to go to the Moon by herself, no matter what she tries. Even Aunt Diana's plane can't get that far.
But no one's been to both the Moon and Mars. Beth's not arrogant enough to want to do something just to be the first person to do something, but, hey, it has its appeal. And she wouldn't go just to go. There's no point in that. Why repeat when you can excel?
"I want to make a Moon colony," she announces during the Ares 3 weekly coffee catch-up.
"You and every crackpot out there," Martinez says kindly. And, yeah, that's part of the problem, isn't it? It's a dream no one takes seriously. A lot of people want it. No one serious wants it.
Even not counting Watney, humans have spent more time on Mars than on the Moon. Ares 1 and Ares 2 each spent a month on Mars; all the lunar astronauts combined only spent about two weeks there.
"We jumped ahead so fast, there's stuff we know about Mars that we don't about the Moon," she says, mostly to Lewis, who is sitting across from her and is therefore a perfect target. "I just want to cover all the bases. Be thorough."
"I wouldn't say we jumped fast." Lewis is thoughtful. "We gave up on it a long time ago and when everything started up again, it seemed redundant to go somewhere we'd already been." And Lewis would know, she's been involved in all the Ares missions in one way or another. And now she's out of NASA, out of the military, removed from everything, because of what happened. She won't touch Ares 4. She won't touch Ares 5.
It's not just Beth who could use a new dream.
"I wouldn't mind collecting another hole in my solar system punchcard," Beck says philosophically, his hands clasped behind his head as he relaxes on the couch. It's somehow summer and they're ignoring the barbeque outside because it's too fucking hot, except Beck is nuts, so he keeps looking longingly at the deck. Watney, who is currently willing to go outside only under very specific and circumscribed circumstances, is joining Beth in boycotting the very notion of the outdoors. There's no air-conditioning. Therefore, it is not valid. Beth has strong feelings on this subject.
"Beats Starbucks any day," Watney agrees. "But don't expect me to ever get back into a spaceship again. I'll cheer you on from mission control."
"But just think of how much better the gravity would be," Beth says, not at all serious. If this ever actually happens, she doesn't expect Watney to come along, at least not any time soon. Watney's made his feelings clear. He had enough problems psyching himself up for re-entry; he's keeping his feet on the ground. He's not even taking airplanes if he can help it. Beth respects that. She still hates the sound of a strong wind and probably will for a long time.
Beck, of course, starts singing 'Defying Gravity'. Watney's channeled his previous love of the outdoors into an indoor vegetable garden, which they also don't talk about, but it gives Beth some produce she can throw at Beck's head. The first tomato connects, but Beck manages to duck the rest. "Hey, Watney," Beck asks, "was that included in your musical education?"
"None of you brought showtunes to Mars," Watney says primly. "You're all a disgrace to this country."
"You probably just didn't look hard enough," Beth says. "I mean, Vogel brought German death metal, and I had every song that charted on any of the American charts in the last decade. Statistically speaking, one of us probably brought along some Broadway."
"You also brought 'I Am The Walrus'," Watney says. "I was subjected to that one repeatedly."
Beth shrugs. "Music storage is basically free. You didn't have to listen to my teenage existential angst. If you wanted nostalgia, don't blame me for it." And, hey, Beth would even be sympathetic. The Beatles's 60th anniversary celebrations just happened to occur during a very vulnerable part of her life; she'd listened pretty much exclusively to the Beatles satellite radio station on the way home from mathlete events. She'd named her first independent robot Eleanor Rigby and had scored her first internship's commute with a dedicated, carefully crafted playlist. She still knows which intersections go with which songs and she'll always be humming Blackbird as she makes the final turn towards home.
Safety is safety, so of course she took it to another planet with her. And she'd been kept safe. Beth's not superstitious, but if she'd known the cost of that bargain, if it had ever occurred to her that Watney might have to pay the price, she'd never have done it. But it's okay. She's not superstitious. She's not. She watched Watney get left behind, but they all did. She'd reached for him and hadn't grabbed him, but they'd all tried something. And they'd all failed. They'd all failed Watney, they'd all failed the mission. Watney doesn't hold it against them, but Beth's not sure she doesn't.
"But blaming you is fun," Watney says. "I voluntarily watched 70's television, but why would I ever want to blame that on myself? It was a terrible decision! And I did it to myself! How could I do that to myself?"
"Hey, man, that's between you and your therapist," Beck says. "We just judge you silently."
"And sometimes out loud," Beth says, "but, really, you started it. You had it coming all along," and Beth launches seamlessly into 'Cell Block Tango', because now that she's thinking about it, it's entirely possible that she threw the entire soundtrack to the Chicago revival onto her media stick and forgotten about it. She'd been really into it five years ago and she hadn't been picky when she'd been picking out music for Mars. She'd figured she wouldn't know what mood she'd be in on Mars and so had planned for all eventualities by planning for absolutely none of them and bringing everything.
Beck high-fives her. Watney puts his head in his hands and moans theatrically.
"Okay, new house rule," Watney says. "No ganging up on Mark."
"Overruled," Beck says. "Always gang up on Mark."
"That's it, you've pushed me too far," Watney says and starts singing 'It's A Small World After All' at them.
Aunt Diana's never liked that they named the crewed Mars missions after Ares, and Beth gets it. If she, too, had had to fight the god Ares to end the first World War, she'd also be tetchy about names. Aunt Diana had made her swear that she would keep an eye on the program and watch for any incipient militarism and Beth has faithfully been doing that. She hasn't seen much, but she's pretty aware of how scientific progress makes it into weaponry all the damn time. Beth would love to try to go to the Moon without involving the US military, but, really, she's not too hopeful about that one. She might be in for a lifetime of watching out for incipient militarism. She's okay with that.
The Moon is a pipe dream, but, hey, so was Mars thirty years ago. Beth's got time. No one becomes an astronaut because they want to stay home all the time. They're all addicted to motion, to change. They all want to go somewhere. They all want to discover. They all want to push the limits of human knowledge. It's a journey, and the destination is important, but the journey is just as important. And Mark's the one in this relationship who is, frankly, Odysseus, and Beck's the one who has actually read Homer, but Beth's the one who knows she doesn't really need to have the gods on her side. She has Aunt Diana and that's enough. And Aunt Diana said she might want to come along to the Moon. She's never been there either and she's always interested in learning new things.
Beth Johanssen is thirty-two years old and her eventual obituary is going to read 'Mars Astronaut Dies, Once Hijacked A Spaceship'. She knows it's already written and just waiting for her to die. They'll fill in the minor details later, sticking the remainder of her life into a tiny paragraph at the bottom. She was the fifteenth person on Mars and nothing she will ever do could ever beat that. She'll never be more than that, never be less than that, never be anything other than an Ares astronaut. John Glenn was in the senate for a quarter of a century and the headline of his obituary still called him a 'hero of the space age'. Beth is an Ares astronaut for life and nothing will change that, but nothing could ever beat that.
But you know what? Fuck that. She's got her whole life ahead of her and she refuses to let it all be downhill from here.
Beth may not make it to the Moon, but she's going to land among the stars.