This story is by Samantha Campbell and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
By 2026, the Mars One mission aims to begin human colonization of Earth’s neighboring planet. The crowd-funded mission will cost an estimated six billion dollars, with over half of the budget allotted to lift-off and landing functions. All astronauts considered for the trip will be volunteers with a passion for space exploration and scientific discovery. Out of many thousands of applicants, the current pool has been narrowed to 100 semifinalists, which will then be narrowed again and from whom a television audience will select four to be sent on the first trip. They will undergo rigorous physical, psychological, and intellectual testing and training in order to ensure that the mission will be successful.
* * * * *
The café was small and dimly lit with a bar in the center of the room around which a group of people was seated and speaking to the bartender. As we walked in, the conversation quieted, and the bartender made eye contact with me as we settled into a booth in the farthest corner of the tiny room. It was warm and just quiet enough so that we could talk, but the group of people at the bar wouldn’t be bothered to listen. They were already so enraptured in their own conversation, which I couldn’t understand but apparently was quite comical. My companion, on the other hand, understood every word, and a smile danced across his face as the bartender-slash-waitress made her way to us from behind the bar. He ordered a beer, and I poorly formed a sentence that maybe could’ve been an order for a cappuccino. For the first time in a long time, maybe because of the combination of my unfamiliarity with the language and the excitement of sitting across from someone with whom I felt a significant connection, I was nervous. My mind was racing and I felt my heart skip a beat as our legs brushed under the table.
We had discussed the basics long before we had met for the first time. Names, ages, what we studied at university had all been covered in the full year that we had spent corresponding before I took initiative and booked my flight. Now, I was here, in a bar, drinking coffee and making eyes with a person who I had met just a few days before, but about whom I had dreamt a million times. Had it really only been a few days? I mused to myself and smirked. I wondered what he was thinking of, as he spoke quickly and quietly. I struggled to understand him, and our differences were apparent. Admittedly, the transition from writing to speaking was a difficult one; I was much less polished in person. As for him, he was much quieter than I anticipated. He spoke volumes with his smile and with his eyes. I was comfortable in his proximity, attracted to his intellect. I wanted to hear his opinion on everything. So I took the first step and pressed on, trying to get inside of his mind.
* * * * *
Every 26 months after initial colonization a new group of four additional astronauts will join them to expand the colony. The organizers and investors for the Mars One mission hope that the astronauts will be as prosperous as the great adventurers before them – the Vikings, ancient Chinese, and Old European explorers among others who shaped our modern world throughout history. It seems that civilization has unanimously decided on the next frontier: outer space.
* * * * *
“I still think it’s almost completely ridiculous to send someone who was chosen through a glorified game show on a six-billion dollar trip to outer space to never have them return again,” I commented as the waitress brought our check. We had been discussing Mars One for just over an hour, and he had pointed out to me that the people sitting at the bar were definitely friends with the bartender-slash-waitress — it seemed that we had unceremoniously crashed their Sunday night into Monday morning party. We paid, gathered our things, and made our way out into the chilly Viennese air.
“Is it more or less crazy than giving a man three ships and telling him to find a new way to sail to India?” he asked in an unmistakable German accent that I had grown quite fond of over the previous two days.
“More,” I replied quickly, “Christopher Columbus knew that he would find something, and the Dutch East India Company had plenty of money to throw around.”
“So they were guaranteed success?”
“Not exactly, but their margin for error was small enough that it was worth a try, and look how it turned out!”
I was met with his signature white flag response – a shrug and an eyebrow raise. I knew I had won.
* * * * *
There’s a great possibility that the colony will either fail miserably or run out of funds.
Once settled on Mars, the astronauts will likely be unable to procreate and sustain the colony on their own.
The volunteers that are sent to Mars can never return to Earth under any circumstance.
* * * * *
We were climbing a staircase now, and I realized that a person that I had known for less than 48 hours was leading me through a city with which neither of us was familiar. It seemed like we were in a shady part of town. I hesitated for a moment and he gave me a questioning look. Deep down, I knew that this could possibly be the dumbest thing I’d ever done. I also knew that it was getting late and the trains would stop running in an hour or so, and so did he. Despite that, I wanted to keep going. We stopped at the top of the stairs and he gestured for me to look up past some houses at the end of the road, and I saw it. A large, white box settled on top of what was previously an anti-aircraft tower during World War II when Vienna was occupied by Germany. He had mentioned the day prior that it had been remodeled into a zoo and aquarium, on top of which sat the art installation. Smashed to Pieces (In the Still of the Night), it read. I stood watching it for a moment until his laugh pulled me away from my thoughts and back to Earth. I turned to look at him as he finished rolling a cigarette; I laughed, too, and held his hand for the first time.
For a second, I felt like maybe I understood Mars One. Even though it would probably fail, and even though it seemed a little bit ridiculous, it could be possible. Maybe he had won that argument after all.