It was a surreal combination of the thrill of victory and lead shot in my stomach when the head of the review board said, “Congratulations Dr. Danque, the board has decided to offer you a slot in the Settler program.”
It was the culmination of what I’d spent my adult life trying to accomplish, but the moment had a bittersweet tang to it. Ella would be devastated. I was devastated. It was so unfair, she was just as strong a candidate as I was. Why did they offer me a slot and not her?
“Thank you, ma’am, it’s an incredible honor, and of course I can accept it immediately.” I tried not to show the emotions boiling inside of me.
Deseree Hollan, according to the name placard in front of her seat, got a half grin on her face and said, “Well young lady, we certainly appreciate the prompt decision.” Looking over to one of her colleagues she continued, “The clerk will record that the candidate has accepted our offer.”
“So recorded, ma’am.” The gentleman at the end of the table tapped it in.
A sheriff’s deputy came walking out of the corner with a bible under his arm.
Turning back to me Hollan continued, “Dr. Danque, considering you’ve committed, would you care to take your oath now?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
The sheriff offered me the bible, and I placed my hand on it. “Dr. Janet Danque,” Hollan began, “The future of mankind being our purpose, do you now and for the rest of your life pledge your allegiance to the Mars Colonization Force?”
“Knowing your return to Earth in this life is doubtful, do you freely and knowingly surrender to the Force all your worldly goods and fortune?”
“Survival on the colonies being perilous, and your fellow colonists being your only hope of survival, do you commit your body, soul, and honor to the colonization of Mars? Do you further surrender to the Force all your God given rights, and swear to follow the orders of the officers appointed above you?”
Hollan nodded, “Very well then, colonist Danque. Congratulations again. You may see the registrar to be issued your new identity card. As I’m sure you’re aware, the next training cycle begins in three weeks. You are free to do as you please until then. You’ll be contacted by our lawyers to sign the documents needed to surrender your assets, and to receive your training orders. I don’t need to tell you that you’ll be unlikely to see your family again once training starts, do I?”
Like it wasn’t one of only two thoughts running circles in my head at the moment. “No, ma’am”
“Very well. Dismissed, colonist Danque.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” I said before turning to go.
As I walked to the doors at the rear of the courtroom, Hollan called back, “David, show Mr. Benedito in, please.” The bailiff nodded and held the door open for me as he glanced at his clipboard. “Mr. Aaron Benedito?” he called.
I turned down the hall towards the county registrar’s office as a small guy in glasses answered, “Here.” Too small, I thought, and his glasses were the killer. The Force wouldn’t take less than 20/20 vision, unless he had a PhD in low gravity hydroponics. I wondered how he’d even gotten this far.
The Buncombe County registrar’s office was full of its usual traffic, birth certificates, property deeds, and marriage license requests. I may have been a colonist now, but that didn’t excuse me from having to stand in line. A cute couple in front of me was clearly there for a marriage license. Watching them try to keep their hands off each other kept my mind on Ella.
We’d met three years ago at a week-long colonist preparation camp. A hundred like-minded colonist wannabes spending a week living in spartan colony-simulating conditions, learning electronics repair, construction, and hydroponics. And then there was Ella, grass-green eyes, built like a Greek goddess, and she was scary smart with a sense of humor to match.
Ella had done it all by herself. Grown up in the slums of Detroit in and out of state fosters. Like me, she’d figured out that humanity was not on its upward arc here on Earth. Too many people, and not enough resources. She managed to do well enough in school to get a scholarship to a modest college though. She followed that up with a masters in bio-medical engineering from Johns Hopkins. The Force likes bio-med engineers, but what they really need is doctors. So she rolled right into medical school there at Hopkins.
I had grown up in a family that was at least initially middle class. Dad was an engineer, mom was a nurse, I never really realized money was a limited thing until around my twelfth birthday. Dad lost his job, and had to take a lower paying position. Mom then took a pay cut to keep hers. My parents killed themselves trying to keep it together for me. They both periodically would take second jobs, when prices spiked.
Their last gasp financially was to get me through my undergrad without any significant debt. After that they were forced to take the government support. With that went the house, the car, and access to any real medical care. About fifteen years ago, before I even went off to college, I’d realized Earth was coming apart at the seams. The places not periodically ravaged by the plague of the year were turning into giant slums. The governments were nationalizing more and more, and at the same time caring for more and more of their citizens directly. Even at fifteen, it was evident to me that this wasn’t going to be sustainable.
Like Ella, I did the math. I’d enjoyed life sciences in college, and doctors had the highest acceptance rate of any profession that applied to become a colonist. My grades and test scores got me into Stanford Medical School. I did a residency, and eventually got licensed as a trauma surgeon.
Ella had done the same. Trauma residency, then took a fellowship job with a nearby charity hospital. We had all the same colonist-wannabe friends, but somehow never met until that week at the immersion camp. Both being doctors, we’d been paired up with other members of the “medical corps” in our pseudo-colony. Being trauma surgeons living in the same town, we got to talking. It didn’t take long from there for us to figure out a good way to stay warm at night.
The couple ahead of me got sent off to sit before a desk and hold hands. The clerk called, “Next” and gave me a wave.
I stepped up to the counter, “I need to surrender my ID card, and get a colonist card.”
His eyebrows popped up, “Oh…Well congratulations, I guess. I’ll need your ID, your work pass, and benefits card, please, if you have one.”
Handing over two cards, “No benefits card.”
He tapped the retinal scanner and I obliged, leaning in to be scanned. He lined my cards up and began tapping at his station in a painfully slow manner. “So, did I hear correctly that all you guys have to learn Chinese to be colonists?”
He shook his head, “That just strikes me as weird. Of all the nations participating in that damn colony effort, why do they want everyone to learn the language that only one nation speaks?”
I considered how best to answer. I didn’t get the impression he really wanted to know the extent and nuance of exactly how that decision was made, so I took the easy route, “I think the majority of the early colonists were Chinese, and they apparently started marking everything up there in Mandarin script. The rest of us just have to cope with it.”
He glanced over at me, cards forgotten, “Aww hell, didn’t most of the first wave die anyway?”
“Most of the Trailblazers died, but there were only a thousand of them, and about a dozen of them did survive. The second program, the Pioneers, were heavily Chinese as well though.”
He shook his head again as he turned back to his station. “I’m sorry, I know you’re excited and all, but I gotta admit I think you guys are nuts. Letting them own you, shove you in a great big freezer for a couple years, and when they thaw you out, you’re on a planet where you can’t breathe the air. Oughta just let the Chinese and damn Indians ride those damn colony ships.” His pecking seemed to slow even further.
Comments about his current dependence on a government that couldn’t even start to pay its bills seemed ill advised. I could have made any of a dozen sharp responses, but given that the bureaucrat had my IDs and controlled the issue of my colonist card I chose discretion as the better part of valor, “A chance at a once in a lifetime adventure, how could I say no?”
He stopped working to look at me again, which annoyed me more than his reply. “I could come up with several ways to say no to that one, only a few of them are polite. What do your parents and family think of you disappearing off to Mars permanently?”
At least he’d given me the chance to get a dig. “Actually, I have no family. Mom and Dad were on government benefits. Mom got cancer. Dad died of sepsis from a wound that didn’t even require stitches. I was an only child.” If the significance of that statement occurred to him, he didn’t show it. He simply resumed fiddling at his station.
“Okay, give me a minute.” He stood and walked through a door in the rear of the room.
I glanced over my shoulder at the line behind me while I waited. It was now seven deep. Four clerks were behind the counter trying to look busy while ignoring the line and open stations. This was just another example of how minimal sustenance and shelter didn’t inspire a great work ethic.
When my judgmental bureaucrat returned, he sat down and placed a red colonist ID card on the counter in front of him. “You ask me, it’s a waste of perfectly good labor and money to be sending y’all up to Mars. Got enough need down here, why are we shipping able bodied doctors like yourself off to some rock to die? My daddy died in the influenza incident of ’61. Weren’t enough doctors to even treat all the sick, how’s shipping them off to Mars going to make that better?”
Sitting here waiting for the governments to fix the problems hadn’t been a winning strategy for the last twenty odd years either. “Sorry to hear about your dad.” I conceded, “Like I said, I lost my parents to simple conditions too. My thought is that at least the Mars colony has started shipping resources back to earth. More fuel and nanomaterials to help bolster the economies. Maybe enable us to train more doctors someday.”
“Nice doctor like you should just settle down and find herself a husband here on Earth. You ain’t gonna solve any problems out there.”
“Well, you may recall the doctors on the colony pretty much cured osteoporosis. Living in low gravity gave them some very direct motivation. Maybe someday we’ll be able to develop a vaccine for Marburg up there.” I even managed to say it with a straight face.
This earned me a grunt and more typing, “Just another minute and I’ll have you on your way to that journey you’re so excited about.” He scowled at the screen for a minute before asking, “Hey, how reliable is that freezing thing they do to you guys? You freeze most anything and it dies, I’d be scared.”
I wanted to reach across and shake him. Demand that he shut up and issue my card. “The cryo-sleep technology is actually decades old. It was one of the enabling technologies for colonization. They’ve got it pretty well figured out. Last I heard, Pioneer achieved ninety-five percent survival rate, Settler will probably do better.”
With a final few taps, he shook his head, and slid the red card across the counter to me. “Well, good luck. Hope you live long enough to cure Marburg.”
I took the card and looked down at it. My ID number was official. I was colonist M-DJ5487. The goal I’d been chasing for the last ten years of my life had been achieved. And, what had I done?
“Ma’am?” the clerk asked, knocking me out of my reverie. I gave him a nod and turned to go. I was still holding the card in my hands as I walked down the courthouse steps. I wanted to celebrate, and if I was going to celebrate, I wanted to celebrate with Ella. I turned for the train station.
The train ride was the first time I got to swipe my new card. I got a small rush when the system recognized my red card and acknowledged my name. It was real. What was I going to say to Ella? She’d be destroyed. She was no less committed than me, probably smarter than me. Our resumes were nearly identical as far as the Force was concerned. When she’d had her interview last week, she’d come home in tears. We had considered applying as a couple, but couples applications have a horrible acceptance rate. I guess it goes to show that rarely are both spouses deemed suitable for colonization.
They tried to keep the colony population at 40/60 male to female. So lesbians were considered to be a stable population set, as long as they were willing to be artificially inseminated and carry children for the colony. That was the official line at least. But, Ella could have been deemed unsuitable for fertility or genetic reasons. Or, something cropped up in her psych profile. We’d never know.
Helping me with my last minute interview rehearsals was all that seemed to pull her out of her funk for the last several days. I didn’t want to think about having to leave her behind. But I had my red card in hand, there was no going back now.
As I rode the train home, we passed the government housing units. The folks that got off on that stop had functional clothes, even if they were different combinations of nearly identical pieces. They were going back home to eat their soy burgers for dinner, and rest up so they could go back to their government jobs tomorrow for another ten hour shift. Ella wouldn’t end up here, she was too smart, too strong, too resourceful. The government would keep paying doctors enough to keep them off benefits. They’d learned from Europe’s mistakes.
I ran through a dozen different ways to tell her. None of them would have worked. I even considered lying to her, telling her I’d been rejected. But it would only have bought me a few hours before I had to swipe my new colonist card somewhere where she could see it.
Approaching the door to her apartment, I steeled myself, and chose the best of my bad options. I took a deep breath, and swiped my card for access. Ella had given me access, and I’d been all but living here for most of the last year and a half. The lock popped open, and I slid the card into my back pocket. As I’d expected, she was home early. She wanted to be here for me. I found her in the kitchen, making dinner, coq au vin was one of my favorites.
Even looking at her made my heart ache. Tight pants, those green eyes, and only Ella could rock short blond hair quite like she did. She noticed me as I came around the corner. Her face froze. I’d never seen her that tense. “Hey”, was all she managed to say.
Seeing her so tense, and looking her in the eyes, whatever plan I had disappeared from my mind. She hadn’t even tried to start a conversation.
First things first. I pulled the red colonist card out of my pocket and held it up, trying to smile.
I can only imagine that the look I had on my face when I heard I’d been accepted must have matched the explosion of both joy and anguish that came across hers. “Oh my God, you did it!” She flew across the gap between us, wrapped me in her arms, and locked her lips on mine.
I felt the tension melt away. For a moment, I forgot I was going to be leaving her in three weeks. In that moment, I got to have both victory and love. That kiss was the only celebration I ever really managed.
We stayed locked together for more than our usual time. Neither of us wanted to let that moment go. When we finally parted, we were both grinning. She laughed, “You took so long, I figured you either got accepted, or were crying your eyes out on a bench at the train station. I was getting worried.”
I laughed, and found myself at a loss for words. As I stood there searching for something to say, I saw it happen. Reality set in, her lips kept smiling, but her eyes started shifting nervously. I managed to murmur, “I don’t know what to say.”
Pain flashed across her face, to be quickly chased away by another genuine smile. She turned to check the pot on the stove before glancing back and saying, “I can’t blame you, it’s a lot to take in. Relax, I’ve got a treat in the fridge. And, I made coq au vin.” She opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Champagne, actual French Champagne, I’d maybe had two bottles of it in my life.
“How’d you know I’d get accepted?” I asked
“Didn’t. We were going to be celebrating one thing or another.” She laughed awkwardly, “It was a safe bet.” She pulled a pair of short tumbler glasses out of a cabinet. Neither of us owned anything as frilly as champagne flutes.
She handed me a glass and toasted, “Here’s to a mission accomplished.” I clinked glasses and tried to smile. I’m sure it cost several days worth of even a surgeon’s salary, but that had to be the driest, nastiest bubbly I’ve ever had.
I laughed as I remembered, “The clerk at the registrar told me I should stay and find a husband.”
Ella chuckled and began plating, “He’s just clueless and bitter. Stuck in his allocated job, no way out.”
I watched her bring the plates to the table. “At least he hasn’t signed away his life. He gets two days a week off, can’t work more than ten hours at a time.”
Ella sat and pointed to my chair, “Relax, hon, you’re scared. It’s normal.”
I joined her at the table, and took a couple bites before continuing, “El, this sounded like a better idea when I thought we’d both be accepted or rejected together.”
She didn’t look up from her plate. “I know.”
We ate in silence for several minutes. I gulped down my Champagne, hoping some alcohol would help me relax. “You’re not stuck though, El, not like he is. You’ve got enough hydroponics capacity to feed an army, and you’re a doctor with all kinds of other skills. You aren’t going to end up on government benefits.”
She refilled our glasses and confirmed, “No, I’m not worried about being forced onto benefits.”
“If I hadn’t—“
“Don’t.” She interrupted in her I’m-not-angry tone, “Can we not do that? It’s done, you’re going, and I’m not.”
I nodded and fought the urge to cry as we finished dinner.
She poured the last of the bottle into our glasses, “This morning Robertson was happy to hear I’d be staying. He was very encouraging when I expressed interest in being department head.”
“Good, you deserve it.”
After we finished our plates, we sat in silence, sipping awkwardly at the nasty Champagne. Ella rose and came around the table to me. She offered her hand, and drew me to my feet. Caressing my cheek she stepped in close, and gave me the most gentle, chaste kiss she ever had. Her face crumbled into pain as she whispered, “You should go now, Jay.”
“No! Not yet, babe, we’ve got three weeks, please!”
She blinked hard and murmured, “Jay, what we had was too special to let it be ruined. I want to remember us like we were.”
“Come on, El, please, we don’t have to do it like this.” I pleaded
“We’re over, honey, was dinner not proof enough?”
“No babe, we’re both just still in shock. Let’s just go destroy a bottle of vodka together. We can have a good night together, and figure out how to handle this tomorrow. I mean we’ve got three weeks, there’s no hurry.”
“Sweetie, I love you. Like I’ve never loved anyone.” Her head dropped and she continued with her voice cracking, “I don’t want to spend the next three weeks resenting you for what you accomplished and I didn’t. I don’t want to torture either of us with a discussion of our decision to apply separately instead of as a couple.” She stepped back and tears dripped from the end of her nose, “I don’t want to spend the next three weeks knowing that I’m going to lose you. And I sure as hell don’t want to be having any goodbye sex.”
I couldn’t breathe, I stood there with my mouth open. She looked back up at me, wiped at the tears with her sleeve. Motioning back to the bedroom, “Need to get anything?” she croaked
I shook my head. “Please, El” I whimpered
She stepped up and took my hand. She brought it up, pressed my palm to her cheek, I felt a tremor run through my body. She turned it over, and pressed her lips to the back for a few seconds before gently releasing it, and motioning to the door. As I stepped out the door, the last thing I ever said to her was, “I love you, Ella.”
I sat on the steps of her apartment complex and cried for at least half an hour. If I needed any more proof that Earth was going to hell, a dozen residents of the complex passed by me in that time. Not one stopped to ask a young woman why she was sobbing on their front steps.
I completely wasted the rest of my time on Earth. I even went to work for the next three days, until it occurred to me that this was literally my last three weeks on Earth. I guess Ella left me in a bit of a daze.
Even once I realized that I should make the most of the time I had left on my home world, I made a pretty sad showing. I was in no mood to go out partying. I tried hiking, but it left me with too much time to think. The idle time required for a spa visit was a torture. Even trips to the gym were a necessary evil.
Staying busy with travel only kinda worked. I managed to get out and spend a lot of money on some really good meals. Spent a ton of money on the biggest storage chip available, and downloaded half the media known to man onto it. It’s one of the few things I’ll be allowed to keep on my journey. It’s a sad commentary that one of the best conversations I had in those three weeks was with the Force attorneys when they showed up with the official paperwork. Nobody else on this planet understood what I’d just done to myself. Telling folks you’re about to leave the planet for good tends to be a real conversation stopper.
I tried to call Ella a few times, but she blocked me. I even went so far as to rent a new line, so she wouldn’t know it was me when I called. It went to voice-mail. I couldn’t find the words to leave a message. I didn’t bother trying again. I realized there was nothing left to say.
I’d spent the last ten years of my life learning to deal with fear, uncertainty, and pain. I wished I’d spent a few more days reflecting on despair. Suffice it to say that by the time I boarded the lift for lunar training, I was ready to get back to what I’d spent the prior decade preparing for. I cried again on the lift, about Ella. But that was the last time.
Lunar training was easy for me. Several of my cohort had a much harder time. I’d already learned all the things they were teaching us and had spent the last decade of my life practicing the skills. Low gravity was more of a challenge than I expected, but I adapted quickly compared to some others. All but one or two of my cohort made it through lunar training. Many of us were committed long-term candidates like myself. Since medical corps needed no secondary training, when I completed initial training it was time for me to go into storage.
Technically, the term is cryo-sleep. But the reality is I’ll be in cold storage for the next couple months or years, until they have enough colonists to fill a Mayflower-class colony ship. After that, and a five-month trip, I’ll have to wait my turn to be revived. The good news is that medical staff will probably be amongst the first revived. Not that I’d be in a position to care if they left me in storage for an entire year in Mars orbit.
As I lay here in a shallow bed of warm gel, waiting for the anaesthesia to kick in, I’m trying not to think about my choices. And I’m losing that fight. Even the discomfort of having tubes and wires in every orifice of my body can’t distract me from the self-reflection. There’s a chance I’ll never wake up. A chance I’ll never find another person to love.
by Ryan Anderson