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Romance at Mission Control

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You didn’t have to check the calendar to know that it was Monday morning.

Apart from the sound of typing, yawning and occasional compulsory conversations, mission control was quiet. The whole room seemed to be running on coffee, and Mindy was no different from the rest; she was currently hunched over in her chair and hugging a large coffee cup in her hands.

Right now, she was staring at Mars, which wasn’t unusual by any means. She was filling in for a friend of hers at satcon, doing her old duties for today. It might’ve felt nostalgic, if her old job wasn’t so bloody boring that she didn’t bother to have such feelings. She had forgotten how tedious this could be, processing images of a red and dusty rock instead of looking for a stranded astronaut.

Mindy finished processing the last set of images and started to type out an email with one hand, while her other still held onto her coffee cup like onto a lifeline. This part of the job was formulaic enough that she didn’t really have to think about what she was doing.

As her tired eyes remained fixed on the screen, she didn’t notice when mission control suddenly seemed to become busier with people murmuring and shoving each other, while the wheels of their work chairs rolled on the floor softly.

Mindy only noticed that something was amiss when she got the peculiar feeling at the back of her, like she was being stared at. She raised her head, and it was then that she realized that someone was standing in front of her work station, while everyone else in the room looked on.

Mark Watney had some dark circles under his eyes, but otherwise he looked as cheerful as ever, his usual grin that could light up any room in full effect.

“Morning”, he said. “You seemed so absorbed in your work that I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Mark”, was all Mindy got out in her shock as she leaned back in her chair and stared.

He was wearing a smart dress shirt and jeans, and Mindy was pretty sure that he was wearing more makeup than she was. She, on the other hand, had almost slept in and had had barely enough time to brush her teeth and pull on some clothes before running to her car. On instinct, her hand went up to her updo and the strands of hair that had fallen out of it.

Mindy realized she still hadn’t managed to properly greet him and croaked, “Um, hi. Morning. Hi!”

Great. She felt her cheeks heating up, and she resisted the urge to crawl under the desk.

“You’re difficult to locate, Miss Park”, Mark said, leaning against the wall of Mindy’s workstation. “I thought you had your own big shot office now, but I went by and you weren’t there.”
“I do”, she replied, her voice normalizing as she recovered from the surprise. “I’m just filling in for someone for today. Doing my old duties.”

“Yeah, they told me, that’s why I came here”, he replied and grinned as Mindy looked annoyed.

“Then why did you -”

“I wanted to give you crap for having a big shot office, of course”, he said with mirth, and Mindy rolled her eyes.

“Of course you did. But what are you doing here? In the building, I mean?”

“Press business to do a bit later”, Mark replied with a grimace. He gestured to himself. “They got me ready for it already. I look ridiculous, don’t I?”

That explains it, Mindy thought. Her eyes lingered as she looked him over. “Y-yeah, ridiculous. That’s the word I’d use.”

Still aware of the eyes watching them, she glanced around. The other workers were doing a very poor job of pretending they weren’t listening in. Mark didn’t look bothered, but enough was enough.

She squared her shoulders. “Where are my manners?” She pulled up a nearby empty rolling chair. “Do sit down, if you want.”

Mark smiled softly and went around the row of stations as eyes followed, and came up next to her. Mindy glared at the onlookers, who finally got the message and quickly ducked their heads.

“That is the largest coffee cup I’ve ever seen”, Mark said as he sat down, nodding at the object that Mindy was still cradling.

Mindy smiled nervously, aware that they he was sitting very close to her. The last time they’d seen each other, they’d been much closer, touching even, but she was somehow almost as nervous now. This was her workplace, and he was here. She’d been watching him on another planet on screens in the same room they were in now, and now he was sitting next to her, so close that she could smell his cologne.

“It’s Monday”, she said in her defence after a beat.

“So it is”, Mark replied as he seemed to be testing the chair he was sitting in, moving his feet against the floor and making the chair roll softly back and forth. As he noticed that Mindy was watching him with a raised brow, he grinned. He grabbed the edges of the chair with both hands and lifted his legs up, spun it like a little kid and made a few wooping noises.

Mindy laughed heartily, and some of her nervousness flowed out of her with the sound.
“You seem to be enjoying mission control.”

“So far, yeah. You’ve got comfortable chairs”, he said as he set his feet back on the ground. “I’ve never actually spent much time here, I’ve just been here in passing.”

Mark gave the room a pensive look before turning back to Mindy. “But what about you? You’re doing your old job. Feeling nostalgic?”

“Not really”, she replied with a small smile. “I’d forgotten how bloody boring this is.”

“Boring?”

“Yeah, you know, when you’re processing images of a dead rock and not tracking every movement of a stranded astronaut, it gets kind of repetitive”, she said, her smile turning wry.

“It is a pretty boring rock”, Mark agreed, nodding. “Nothing interesting ever happens.”

“Speaking of that, how about you?” Mindy asked, gesturing at her screen where one of them was displaying an open email window, and the other a closeup of a satellite image from Mars. “Any nostalgia?”

As Mark turned to look at the picture and the color drained from his face, Mindy’s stomach plummeted. She could have hit herself. She hadn’t given him any warning, and now Mark looked like he’d just seen a ghost. Though Mark mostly seemed to be handling everything really well, there was no way that he had gotten off a foreign planet without any trauma.

“Nah”, Mark said, his expression blank. He didn’t take his eyes off the picture as he asked, “Where is this from?”

Mindy glanced at bottom of the image. “It is from… Tuscaloosa”, she replied, but Mark didn’t react. He was sitting very still, almost frozen, as he stared at the screen. Mindy almost wanted to wave her hand in front of his face, but didn’t dare. She wasn’t sure if he was breathing or not. As time went on and Mark didn’t move, Mindy asked carefully, “You okay?”

Mark finally turned, taking in a long, shuddering breath, ducking his head and hiding it from her view. After a moment, he waved his hand to push the matter aside. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.”

Mindy was still frowning, so Mark gave her a small smile. “As I said, I haven’t been here a lot, yet. I’m actually feeling curious. Do you still have the satellite pictures that made you realize I wasn’t dead?”

Mindy’s frown deepened. “Of course. But are you sure you want to see those?”

Mark nodded slowly, looking pensieve for a moment before he replied, “I do. I’ve always thought that it’s best to just, you know, rip off the bandaid. I wanna see what tipped you off.”

“Okay, then”, Mindy said and began typing. She bit her lip as she pulled up the images. “You know, these were actually ordered by Venkat. I’m just the one who happened to look at them first, so -”

Mark held up a hand, apparently prepared for it. “Save it. Venkat warned me you would keep insisting that what you did wasn’t a big deal. The fact is, it is and you did save me. And that’s the end of that discussion. Walk me through it.”

Mindy felt her cheeks flush and she hung her head, the few loose strands of her hair falling to frame her face and partially hiding it from view. She took a few seconds to compose herself.

“Okay, then”, she said again. The images were ready, and four of the 17 images, two on top and two on the bottom, filled the screen. Mark leaned in to study them more closely. Mindy kept an eye on him as he did so, but she didn’t notice anything alarming, other than the fact that he was unusually quiet.

Mark leaned back in his chair, his gaze still fixed on the screen. Finally, he cleared his throat, and his smile looked a bit strained as he waited for Mindy to go on.

“I wasn’t asked to look at these, only to process them, but I did look. And the very first thing was actually the fact that I couldn't find… uh… “ Mindy faltered, grimacing.

“My body, yeah”, Mark said, nodding. “But it could’ve been covered by sand.”

Mark seemed relatively unfazed by the thought, so Mindy dared to go on. “Yeah, but see this? Your popup tents didn’t deploy themselves.”

“Someone else could have set them up before they left”, Mark noted.

“I checked the logs, that didn’t happen.”

“Well… Lewis could have forgotten to do that”, Mark said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

“Really, Commander Lewis forgot to do something?” asked Mindy, incredulous, and now she noticed that Mark was biting his lip to keep from grinning, and her annoyance flared.

“Have you been conspiring with Venkat or something?” She asked, as she spun her chair to face him and crossed her arms across her chest in a gesture that hopefully looked at least a little intimidating. “Why are you trying to argue that you actually did die? Did we bring back an alien instead of the real you?”

Now Mark did grin. “Yeah, sorry to break it to you.”

Mindy gave him a glare before continuing. “Anyway, Venkat did raise that argument, but that’s quite an important thing to forget. And before you say that they could’ve been auto deployed, don’t, because we know that it’s very implausible, especially with the way they were set up, and we also now know that didn’t happen.”

Mindy said all this quickly in all go so Mark wouldn’t interrupt her, but now she took in a big gulp of air before continuing, while Mark watched her go, looking a little amused.

“Then look here, at the solar panels? I noticed that they were clean, when there should have been sand all over them. And here? Venkat looked through the logs, and the Rover 2 was in the wrong position, facing the wrong way. And you had also vandalized the MDV and the MAV”, Mindy finished, a little out of breath.

“Vandalize is a strong word”, retorted Mark. “I prefer ‘repurposed’”.

Mindy snorted and Mark gave the images another searching look. Mindy noticed how it lingered on the Hab and Rover. His expression was almost fond, but there was some moisture gathering in his eyes. Mindy turned her head away, not wanting to intrude. She wasn’t sure if Mark remembered their moment on the dance floor, but she felt like she’d already seen much further into his facade than Mark maybe would’ve wanted her to.

Finally, Mark spoke. “Well, you can keep telling yourself that you were just lucky to be here at the right time, but I don’t think just anyone would have bothered to look at these that closely or would’ve come to the same conclusion. “ There wasn’t an inch of jest or playfulness in his tone, which was rare enough that Mindy leaned in to listen to what he was saying. “And who knows how long it would’ve taken for someone else to notice? Maybe it would’ve been taken week or months, maybe years… And that would’ve been too late. So, thank you.”

He stopped talking and it seemed that he was prepared to stare her down. He clearly meant what he said and he looked so sincere and vulnerable that Mindy swallowed her objections.

“You’re welcome”, Mindy said quietly, her tone earnest, and Mark nodded in acknowledgement. They kept sitting side by side, nervously not looking at each other, and Mindy guessed that Mark had no idea how to continue the conversation after what he’d said. Mindy nudged him with her shoulder, getting him to glance at her, a bit shy, which gave her a sudden urge to squeeze him. But she didn’t, luckily. “You wanna see more?”

They had just reached picture number ten, when the rapid clicking of heels brought them out of their trance, as Annie Montrose strode into Mission control. She squinted slightly as she surveyed the room, and Mindy had the urge to hide. Mark, however, remained in his spot, looking resigned as Annie spotted him.

“Mark”, she said, clearly exasperated as she reached them. “The break was supposed to last 10 minutes. You’ve been here half an hour. Everyone’s waiting.”

“You could have just continued without me”, Mark said hopefully.

“Oh, how I wish we could”, sighed Annie. She seemed to only notice Mindy now, and she gave her a nod as a way of greeting, before she turned her attention back on Mark, for which Mindy was grateful. “My job would be so much easier without you.”

“Just say it, you wish you’d left me on Mars”, Mars quipped, not getting up. Instead, he leaned back in his seat, lifting his legs up so they were resting on the table. Mindy frowned at the remark, but Annie didn’t even blink.

“I tell you that every day”, she replied seriously. If Mindy really squinted, she could’ve sworn that Annie’s lips were twitching slightly.

“Yes, you do, you big executive you!” Mark replied in baby talk, as if he was patronizing a toddler. Annie bristled, and her lips formed into such a tight line that it had to have hurt. Mindy shrunk in her seat, eyeing Mark incredulously. Mindy could barely utter a sentence in Annie’s presence, and Mark had clearly perfected the art of pushing Annie’s buttons.

Maybe Mark sensed the danger as well, as he simply said, in a normal tone, “Go ahead, I’ll catch up in a minute.”

It looked like Annie was clenching her teeth, hard, as she jabbed a finger in the air and pointed it at him. “Mark -”

“No, really. I’ll be right there. If I’m not, I give you full permission to tell Mitch to come and drag me there by the ear. I know he’s itching to do it.”

“We would both love that”, said Annie, and now she did smile briefly. “Fine. You better be right behind me, or so help me, I will send Mitch down here.”

With a final death glare, Annie left, and Mark turned back to Mindy.

“You’re insane!” burst out Mindy, when she was sure that Annie wouldn’t be able to hear her. “Why would you do that?”

“She secretly likes it”, Mark said, unbothered. Mindy doubted the truth of the statement very much. Her eyebrows were still very close to her hairline, which Mark noticed. “She does! Annie’s so intimidating and under a lot of stress, so no one dares to talk back at her.”

Mindy shook her head. “I’ll take your word for it. I’m gonna try to remain on her good side.”

“Understandable”, replied Mark, chuckling. He lowered his legs down from the desk and took one last twirl in the chair, before setting them determinedly on the ground and leaning in to speak to Mindy.

“Anyway… I should go, but I originally came here to ask you one question, but we got kind of sidetracked. Mindy Park, would it be okay if I got your number?”

Mindy blinked a few times. The question had come so out of the blue that she was taken aback. “My… my number?”

Mark nodded. “Yes, you know, so we can text each other while we’re both on Earth this time. In actual real time, even!”

“Y-yeah, sure”, Mindy said, still stammering. What was wrong with her? It was like this was the first time she’d ever been asked for her number. She quickly grabbed a piece of paper from the desk and scribbled out her number, and as she raised her head again, she caught a flash of the relief on Mark’s face. It was replaced by his mask of confidence right away, but it still made her smile. “There you go.”

“Thanks”, Mark said, pocketing the slip of paper. He got to his feet. “I’ll text you soon, so you can have my number, too. I’d better go. Annie doesn’t kid around!”

He waved, and then Mindy was left looking at his back as he strode quickly from the room. A second later, she was trying to look as nonchalant as possible with the whole of mission control staring at her. She returned to her work with her face still feeling oddly heated. She left her phone on her desk for easy access, just in case.