Parallel Universes

DISCLAIMER: I'm just borrowing these characters and their story, they're not mine.

*A/N*IV is refering to their emergency plan should their supplies fail to reach them. (you know, the one that sounded like a horror movie waiting to happen.) As for those references, I could not resist. Not even remotely sorry.


"One universe has us right, of all the millions stacked on millions. So it's not this one. I can live with that.
The world is full of wonders and a hundred years ago the moon was too much to dream of touching.
Look how far we've come."

Elizabeth Hewer


I

Chris squeezes his eyes shut, hoping that when he opens them again they'll stay open for more than two minutes. This shift just doesn't end.

He grabs the patient data the nurse hands him and is halfway through the door before he even glances down at the information, which is a rookie mistake Chris is definitely too old to make.

Seeing "aged 29" and "female" on the clipboard is a surprise, but doesn't quite prepare him for the woman in the patient chair who looks like she's trying to disappear in her hoodie.

Those brown eyes look deep enough to drown in.

Put yourself together, Chris, goddamn it. He clears his throat.

"Erm. Miss Johanssen?"

"Hm?"

Clearly not a morning person. He should not find this attractive.

Gotta be the lack of sleep.

"Hi. Chris Beck." He doesn't introduce himself with the whole title. He never does.

"So, this is your," he needs to look down at the clipboard again. Damn it, he's acting like this is first day at work. "...your fifth checkup, right? What mission are you on?"

"Ares III," she replies, and manages something like a smile.

"Mars. Man, I'm jealous." He throws her a grin that he hopes looks a little more convincing than hers and files through the attached data. "Well, those all look pretty good... you'll launch in two months, right?"

"Next month, actually."

"Oh God, it's October already? Goddamn it. I work too much." He sighs. "Sorry. Been a long shift. Anything in particular you'd like to discuss?"

"I'm just here 'cause NASA says I have to be."

"Been ill lately? Headaches?"

"No. All good." Again, that wobbly smile.

Damn it, she's cute.

Hold it together for a couple more minutes. Jesus. He needs sleep. (And possibly a date or something.)

Luckily, the actual examination doesn't take very long.

She manages an actual smile for him when she says goodbye, and he tries not to let that make him feel special.


II

Beth never was one of the popular kids, but turns out guys at college don't mind so much that she's cleverer than they are, and a hardcore nerd. She signs up for a mars mission before she turns thirty.

Her crewmate-to-be, Beck, is smart and damn attractive and he's got those warm blue eyes and an addictive smile. He also has an undying crush on her, and she spots this in the third week.

Chris, up to this point, has had one meaningless relationship after another and he can't do that anymore. He's starting to feel old. He wants more. Beth promises to be more.

He's not one to go against rules, and when his commander tells him to back off, he does. But then he reconsiders. Thinking like this is exactly what got him a life of work and work and nothing but work, and if there is one thing that's worth abandoning his principles for it's gotta be love, right?

And he does love her. He does.

Dreams change.

They stumble headfirst into an unplanned, exciting, completely irresponsible affair, until he decides he doesn't want her taking the fallout of his life decisions.

Beth isn't exactly up for his idea, but he doesn't let her talk him out of it.

He goes to see Lewis. He can tell she's sorry to let him go, even contemplating to keep him anyway, but he takes that decision from her and hands in his resignation. They go to space without him, and he watches the launch on TV, alone, shut inside a hotel room, and it breaks his heart to think he won't see Beth for nearly two years.

But he chose this and he'll see this through. He waits. He writes.

Beth cries a couple of times, especially in the first months, and her crewmates pretend not to notice.

He's still waiting when they land. She in his arms before she even goes to hug her parents (they never stop holding that against him), and she moves in with him as soon as NASA lets them go.

... and they try, they do. He's still just as in love with her as he was when she left, and she still loves him back. And they try so hard.

But there are two years' worth of infinite star-filled emptiness between them, and Chris knows all about the theory of what that does to you, but in the end, he just wasn't there, and he can't make up for that.

On the third anniversary of her landing, he takes a job in a clinic in Jersey, with two suitcases to his name. It's not exactly a wordy goodbye, to put it mildly. They both cry.

(There are awkward birthday cards with two lines of text and a whole encyclopedia of regrets tucked between the letters.)

(By the time he gets married, they know the steps of their dance. He invites her, she declines, he calls to say so sorry you won't make it, she says so sorry I won't get to see you, and it's both a lie and the truth and it stings a little but it goes away.

When Beth gets married, it's the same.

He considers sending a picture of his newborn son, but decides against it. Maybe she has kids too by now. He doesn't really want to know.)

(Contact ceases rapidly.)

(He never forgets her.)

(Her husband finds a stack of postcards and a wedding invitation among her stuff from the mars mission, held together with an elastic. They're old, the wedding invitation on top dates back ten years. Christopher Beck. He's never heard her speak of that man, or for that matter heard her mention this wedding they were apparently both invited to.

The cards are signed Love, Chris.

He puts them back and tries to forget all about them, but sometimes she looks so distant and he starts to wonder if it's not just space. If maybe he's competing, after nine years of marriage, with some kind of ghost.)


III

This could be me, she thinks, watching the IT- guy strapping into his seat on the screen. She could've done that, instead of being CEO. Would've been more fun, she guesses.

But in the end... going to space has gotta be the dream of millions of people, and they can't all go.

They look nice, though. The crew. The commander, she thinks they said her name was Lewis, looks really strict, and that German chemist looks like a very serious kind of guy, but the others look like they might be fun to be around.

Also, they have a damn handsome doctor on board.

Beth grins to herself, and turns up the TV.

At least she gets to watch the launch. Surely doesn't equal actually going to space, but better than nothing.

She's happy with what she's made of her life. No, really.

(She tries not to remember what else she could have made of it. At least not too often.)

(She's nearly thirty, and too old to dream of the stars.)


IV

Mum, Dad, Amy -

I know NASA will have helped you do the math. We would have died either way.

It was a simple decision. Lewis chose Beth because she's the youngest, and the only one who's able to take this ship back on her own. At this point, she's the only one who has a chance to make it.

I'm glad it wasn't me. This isn't a gift. What she'll have to live with - I'll rather be dead.

Anyway, that's not my reason. I would've died for all of them, but surviving her, I'm pretty sure I couldn't have lived with that. I've been in love with Beth ever since we started training. We were told we'd lose our jobs if we started anything. We didn't entirely listen. I love her. I do.

I want you to know I'm going out without pain, and I don't regret my choices. We had to try get Mark, and now we gotta try and get Beth back, if only so our families get something to bury - Mark's will never have that luxury, and that sucks. You will.

Please accept our decision. Please try not to miss me too much.

Please try to be nice to Beth. She's been through hell by the time you read this.

Hey. At least you can say I died for love, for some bigger purpose. Don't know how much consolation that is, in the end, but it looks fucking great on paper, doesn't it?

I'm so sorry I have to do this to you. It's okay to hate me for it.

I love you all.


V

"You were a sniper?" Mark asks, looking surprised.

"Got some training. Nothing spectacular, I mean I wasn't bad, but in the end I'm no soldier."

"You'd look good in one of those old uniforms," Mark says with a sly smile and winks at Johanssen, who hides her face in her hands but not before the others notice the slight blush on her cheek, proving her thoughts went along the same lines. Chris tries to hide his smirk in his coffee cup, unsuccessfully.

"Can you imagine us, during that kinda time?"

"Yeah, right, Mark. You in World War II. You'd be the first idiot to get stuck behind enemy lines," Chris gives back, mirth in his blue eyes. "Now that rescue would've made for a great story. A movie, maybe. Make for a cool title, too... Saving Private Watney."

Beth smirks. "Where'd the rest of us be?"

"Vogel would probably be a crazy scientist hiding out in America, like Einstein," Mark says and Vogel laughs.

"Well, Martinez would've probably been Air Force or something, right?" Lewis suggests.

"Fighter pilot. I like it," says Rick with a smirk. "And you, commander?"

"Probably running about Cabinet War Rooms, telling those Brits what to do," Vogel chips in and Lewis flashes them one of her rare smiles.

"That sounds about alright."

"Johanssen, though, she's hard," says Mark, staring ponderously at Beth who grins at him over her coffee cup.

"Working for some Howard Stark kinda guy, like on Agent Carter, maybe?"

She smiles. "Nice one, Martinez. What about Chris?"

"The first guy to get shot trying to get Watney," Chris says with a shrug, and Mark shakes his head.

"Like you'd even make it to the warzone, Beck. You'd probably fall off a train on the way there."

They all laugh. "Or that."


VI

"Chris?" she whispers into the darkness of their hotel room, playing with the ring on her finger. It feels a little strange, she's never worn rings before, but to be fair, it's only been there for twelve hours or so.

(She's definitely not going to sleep with it for the rest of her life, but tonight, taking it off seems absurd.)

Chris hasn't taken his off, either. (But she wouldn't put it past him to actually go to sleep with it for the rest of his days. He's a goddamn sappy romantic, after all.)

"Mmh?"

"Remember when Mark got all philosophical on us and made us think of alternative universes?"

He laughs. "I'm not gonna forget that too soon. I liked the one where Vogel was born on a moon of Jupiter. Was that Rick's idea?"

Beth grins. "No, I think Alex came up with that himself."

He's quiet for a moment. "It's kind of weird to think there might be universes where none of us ever met." His voice is tender, and extremely quiet, hardly more than a whisper. It's a familiar sound, and she supposes she falls back into that hushed voice, too, at night.

(It's hard to go unheard in a space ship, but they've mastered the art, and old habits die hard.)

"Where we don't end up right here."

She links her fingers with his and runs her free hand through his hair. "I'm glad we're in this one."


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