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Illustration by Shane Rebenschied
The Mission

Philip is convinced he is ready for a one-way mission to Mars—but first he’ll have to survive the next 24 hours.

By Kass Morgan
From the September 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: to synthesize ideas from a story and an article about the desirable traits of a Mars colonist

Lexile: 1090L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, character, setting, text structure, inference, theme

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I pause outside the glass door. You can do this, I tell myself. This isn’t like school. No one’s going to recognize you. Or if they do, they won’t care.

I smooth the awkward wrinkles in my shirt. I bought four shirts for these interviews, and none of them fit me right.

If I get through this round, I’ll never have to choose another outfit again. It’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine.

The door slides open. There’s one other applicant in the reception area. She’s wearing a plaid shirt and black jeans, and is sitting with one of her studded boots tucked underneath her.

I check in with the cheerful receptionist bot at the front desk, then lower myself into a chair and pull out my tablet. I make a halfhearted attempt to start my homework. If this thing works out, no one is going to ask me to hand in my assignments before I leave.

They started with 20,000 applicants. It’s a small group now—but it’s filled with only the strongest candidates.

I look over at the girl. There’s a hardcover book in her lap. A library book, I realize, catching a glimpse of the plastic wrap on the front. Peering over my tablet, I see her lower her face to the book and inhale—like you’d do with a freshly baked cake, not some moldy library book that’s been in a hundred strangers’ bathrooms.

“Want to take a whiff?” the girl asks, one eyebrow raised. “This is my favorite smell in the world.”

She shoves her book toward me. Startled, I lean back.

“I get that people think real books are old-fashioned, but it’s not poisonous.’’ She laughs, and I brace for the rush of prickly shame that’s become so familiar. But her laugh is playful, not mocking.

 “Don’t you wish you could inhale stories straight into your brain?” she says.

I consider this. “I’d rather remove stories from my brain.”

“But don’t you want to remember everything, in case you’re chosen?”

Before I can answer, a voice calls from behind us. “Blythe Cohen?” I see the receptionist bot standing by the door. It’s a newer model, one that uses the right inflection to ask questions. I wonder if they’ll release the next model before I leave. If I leave.

The girl picks her bag off the floor and slings it over her shoulder. “Good luck,” she says with a smile.

“Yeah, thanks. You too.”

Blythe Cohen. Why does that name sound familiar? I do a search and my eyes widen at the results. She’s the girl who invented that technique for cleaning up oil spills—when she was 12 years old. She was on all these talk shows and even got to meet the president. Why would a girl with the opportunity to make Earth a better place want to leave it all behind?

Ten minutes later, the bot calls my name and leads me to the conference room. Ten people are seated at the long table. There’s Lauren, the director. Tessa, the psychologist. And Cheung, the engineer who oversaw some of my tests, including the one where I had to build an engine underwater.

“Philip, good to see you. Please take a seat.” Lauren smiles warmly and gestures toward one of the empty chairs. “Thanks for joining us for the final round of evaluations.”

“I’m happy to be here.” For the first time, I don’t fight the tingle of excitement spreading through my body. This could really happen. In a few months, I could be leaving all this behind. I won’t have to finish that history paper. I won’t have to make up excuses for why I’m not going to graduation or—my stomach twists—prom.

“As you know,” Lauren continues, “we’re not just interested in your scientific aptitude. It’s essential that your personality complements the other members of your team.” She glances at her tablet. “You scored 91 in empathy, which is good but could mean you’d have a hard time sacrificing an individual for the good of the group, if necessary.”

I remember some of the terrible questions the psychologist had asked me. What would I do if we started to run out of oxygen? Would we give medicine to someone who was close to death?

“Your overall leadership score is 68. Not a huge concern, as long as we balance the team properly. And let’s see . . . problem solving: 91. Patience: 57. That could be a problem but not a deal breaker.”

She goes down the list. It’s not the most fun thing in the world, being analyzed like this, but it’s got nothing on those 534,656 comments on VidHub.

 “After you complete your final evaluation, the committee will make their selections. So, Philip, I’m going to ask you one more time.
Are you sure you’re ready for a one-way mission to Mars?”

Images flash through my head. Saying a tearful goodbye to my parents. Joking with the reporters at the launch, knowing that it doesn’t matter what I say because I won’t be around to see people making fun of me online afterward. Climbing the stairs, strapping into my seat, feeling the violent rumble of the rockets. Watching Earth fall away and the sky fade as the windows fill with stars. Knowing that next time I set foot on solid ground, it’ll be in a world without oxygen, but also without VidHub, a world where only intelligence and bravery will matter.

“I’m absolutely sure,” I say.

I meet with a psychologist named James. He’s a cheerful youngish guy with dreadlocks, wearing a tie and the kind of immaculately pressed shirt I am sure you only get from having a team of house elves dress you every morning. He guides me down a series of hallways, the last of which leads to a set of frosted-glass doors with the words Isolation Chamber etched on them.

“The final test is to see how you deal with isolation and boredom,” James says. “We’re putting you in two at a time to see how you interact in a stressful situation.”

“What’s stressful about sitting in a room for 24 hours?” I ask.

“When was the last time you sat in a room doing nothing for one hour? No phone. No tablet. No TV.”

Actually, this sounds like a dream to me. I’ve spent the past few weeks staring at my phone like it’s a bomb that’s about to explode. Or rather, a bomb that’s already exploded and will continue to do so indefinitely.

 “Everyone all set?” a cheery voice calls. It’s Tessa. When I see who she’s walking with, my stomach lurches. “Philip, this is Blythe. You’re going into the isolation chamber together.”

“We’ve met,” Blythe says, grinning at me.

The isolation chamber is a tiny square room that looks like a futuristic jail cell. It’s bare except for two benches wedged against the walls and a metal table with two bottles of water and a stack of protein bars.

“Bathroom’s there,” Tessa says, pointing at a room the size of an airplane lavatory. I make a mental note to go easy on the water. And the protein bars, for that matter.

A technician hooks me and Blythe up to sensors to track our heart rates and brain activity.

“If you need anything, press the call button,” Tessa says. “Otherwise, see you in 24 hours.”

The door slides closed; the lights go out except for a dim bulb in the ceiling. Blythe flings herself onto a bench with a loud sigh, and I sit gingerly on the edge of the other.

“How many times have you done this?” she asks.

“It’s my first time,” I say.

“This is my third round. The first time, I was with a girl named Maddie. She didn’t talk much, which was a little weird.”

I wonder how Blythe is going to describe me after this.

“The second time, I was put with this guy Jordan. He thought the committee was analyzing everything we said, so he only talked about chemistry, physics, and astronomy. I’d be like, ‘Hey, Jordan, can you pass me a protein bar?’ and he’d be like, ‘This protein bar would weigh only half an ounce on Mars. The gravitational force is only 38 percent as strong as Earth’s.’”

“So they’re not listening to what we say?” I ask.

“They probably are. But I don’t think it’s to see how much Mars trivia we can drop into conversation. They want to see how we relate to each other and how we deal with boredom and stress and stuff.”

She jumps to her feet. “Do you want to have a dance contest?”

“What? No.

 Just the thought of dancing in front of another person makes my heart race, which is kind of a bummer because now the committee is going to think I’m not comfortable in small places.

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, there’s no music.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem.” She clears her throat, tosses her head back, and starts to sing loudly and off-key. “I’d stop the world and meeeeeelt with you.” She waves her arms while she sings, and despite myself, I laugh.

“What is that?” I ask.

“It’s Modern English. Don’t you like ’80s bands?”

“No, not particularly.”

“You probably haven’t listened to enough,” she says, flopping back on the bench.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for an ’80s music fan.”

“What would you have pegged me as?” Blythe asks eagerly.

“Nothing. I don’t know. Sorry.”

“No, tell me. I’m curious.”

“I guess I assumed you listened to cool independent stuff.”

“Like the Starfish Amputees?”

“Maybe. Never heard of them.”

“Yes!” She reaches out to give me a high five.

Confused, I tap my palm against hers. “What did I do?”

The Starfish Amputees are a made-up band. It’s a game I play to see if people are fakes or not.”

“Isn’t that kind of mean?” I ask.

“I don’t think so. I never call them out on it or anything. I just like to know, for myself.”

After a moment, she sighs. “I’m going to miss concerts,” she says wistfully.

I’ve never been to a concert, and if I’m chosen for the mission, I probably never will. There’s a lot I’m going to miss out on, but more terrible things I’m going to avoid.

“Are you OK?” Blythe asks.

“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “So why do you want to be part of this mission? I hear the music scene on Mars is pretty quiet.”

“Some things are worth sacrificing for.” She lets out a long breath. “Instead of talking about the things we’re going to miss, let’s say the things we’re happy to leave behind. I’ll start. Mosquitoes.”

“All right . . . um . . . OK, the typing dots,” I say.

“Like when you’re texting?”

“Yeah. I’m not going to miss when they go on for too long and you know the person you’re texting keeps deleting their message and starting over.”

“I hadn’t thought about that. Yeah, I guess we won’t be texting anymore,” she says. “OK, my turn. Unloading the dishwasher.”

“Shopping.”

“Poison ivy.”

“Dancing.”

Blythe laughs. “No way I’m giving up dancing.”

“Fine, but no one’s going to make me feel guilty about not dancing,” I say. “No more bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, weddings.”

“Sounds like you’ve had quite the busy social life.”

“I’ve been very busy awkwardly standing on the edge of the dance floor, pretending to check my phone,” I say.

“We’re definitely not leaving awkwardness behind. What could be more awkward than living on top of six strangers?”

“Lots of things. Trust me.”

In the dim light, I see Blythe’s expression change. “Like what?” she asks softly.

My heart starts pounding a warning. Don’t tell her. This is my chance at a fresh start. I can’t ruin it now. I force a smile. “Nothing. I was just making a joke. A stupid one.”

“Can I ask you a personal question?” she asks. “Who are you worried about leaving behind?”

“My parents,” I say. “You?”

“My grandmother. I know she’ll be proud of me, but I can’t imagine saying goodbye to her.”

“What about your parents?”

“They died when I was little.”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

 “Two fewer people I’ll make cry if I leave.”

“Yeah,” I say. I’ve never seen my parents cry, but when I told them I’d made it to the final round, there was a look in their eyes I never want to see again.

Just then, a shrill wail rips apart the silence. I gasp and Blythe lets out a yelp.

  “Fire alarm!” Blythe yells, lurching toward the door. There’s no handle, so she bangs on it.

I hurry to stand next to her. “If it’s a fire, they’ll come get us,” I say.

But Blythe keeps banging on the door and pressing the call button. “Let us out. Let us out!”

“Blythe,” I say. “It’s all right. There’s no smoke. The door isn’t hot. It’s probably just a drill.”

Now I do smell smoke. I walk around the tiny room, sniffing.

“Do you smell it?” she asks.

“Yeah. But this is a new building. It’ll have state-of-the-art sprinklers and fire doors.”

“We’re going to die in here,” she says, her voice breaking.

“We’re not.” I squeeze her hand. “We’re going to be OK.”

But real smoke is filling the room, burning my throat with each inhale. I look for something to use to break the door, but there’s nothing. That’s the point of the isolation chamber.

That’s when it hits me.

“This is part of the test,” I say. I lead Blythe to one of the benches. “We need to relax, to show that we don’t panic in emergencies. All we have to do is stay calm.”

After a while, she stops shaking. And then, suddenly, the alarm stops, leaving a ringing in my ears. The smoke dissipates slowly. 

“You were right,” Blythe says, letting out a long sigh. “Thank you, Philip.” She puts her hand on my arm, melting something inside me. I jerk away.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah. I’m fine, totally fine.”

“What is it? What happened to you?” she asks softly. “You can tell me.”

And to my surprise, I do.

I tell Blythe about Ava, the girl I’d liked since third grade. How I somehow worked up the nerve to ask her to prom. I explain how my phone slipped out of my sweaty palms and broke before I’d even said a word. I tell Blythe how it took three tries for Ava to understand what I was asking. How she said no. How a wave of nausea crashed over me, and I threw up in the trash can. Right next to Ava’s locker.

“Of course, someone filmed the whole thing and put it on VidHub,” I say. “I’m sure you saw it. Everyone’s seen it.”

I was sitting in the kitchen, having a snack, when my friend Alex sent me the link to the video. It was a few hours old, but it already had more than 20,000 views. It hit 50,000 before I got up from the table. By the next week, there were over 10 million views and it was all anyone at school could talk about.

 “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t get out of bed,” I continued. “Eventually, I stopped going to school. Then I heard about the Mars mission.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” she says. “People will move on eventually. They always do.”

“I know. But the thing is, I’ve always known there was something wrong with me. I just didn’t expect the entire world to find out all at once.” Something in my chest cracks, releasing a wave of pain.

“No, Philip,” Blythe says. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing.” Her face brightens. “You know what you should do? Make a response video!”

“I know you’re some kind of genius, but that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” I say.

“I’m serious! It’d be powerful. You can make a statement about not living in fear, how it’s better to fail than to never try at all.”

 

“I’ll think about it,” I say, just to get her off the subject. “What about you? Why would a girl with every opportunity on Earth leave it all behind?”

Blythe is quiet for a moment. Then she smiles. “I see it as a chance to build a brand-new society on an untouched planet,” she says. “We have the chance to do something right, and I want to be part of it.”

I sift through the countless arguments popping up in my head. But as I see the sparkle in her eyes, the words fall away. “They’ll be lucky to have you,” I say.

“They’ll be lucky to have you. I just want to make sure you’re in it for the right reasons.”

“You mean, not as a way to get out of prom?”

“If we’re both selected, we can organize the first prom on Mars.”

“I am not traveling 259 million miles to join the Martian prom committee,” I laugh.

We must have dozed off because when the door slides open, Blythe and I are jolted awake.

“Hello,” Lauren says cheerfully. “Everyone OK in here?”

I exchange a glance with Blythe. “Yeah, all good,” I say.

“Great.” James smiles. “We’re going to take each of you off for debriefing.”

Blythe turns to me.

 “I’ll see you later,” she says.

As Lauren starts to lead her away, I call out, “Hey, Blythe?” She turns around. “Want to get coffee or something after this?”

She smiles. “That’d be great. I’ll meet you outside after debriefing.”

I am seated back at the long table in the conference room. This time, only Lauren is there.

“You did very well,” she says.

“Thanks. The fire simulation was brutal though.”

“I know. But it’s essential that we see how you perform under pressure. The real test was to see how you and Blythe work together. And your dynamic is exactly what we’re looking for on the team.”

Excitement fizzes through my chest and a grin spreads across my face. This is it, I think. Blythe and I are going to Mars.

 “Oh, dear,” Lauren says quickly. “I wasn’t clear. I’m afraid you weren’t selected for the mission.”

Her words land like a punch to the gut, knocking the air out of me.

“But you just said . . .” I trail off.

“Yes, it’s a difficult situation. You see, we have to think about how the new colonists will interact with the team we sent six months ago. There’s a young man on that team we think will do well to balance out Blythe’s exuberance, but we wanted to make sure. You and he have the same personality markers, so we figured you’d be a good test case.”

The room starts to spin. “I was never a real candidate?” I croak.

“Oh, no, of course you were! You made it all the way to the penultimate round. But we only brought you in for this final round so we could keep evaluating Blythe. Sorry to mislead you. We couldn’t have chosen Blythe without you.”

I take a deep breath. “Can I tell her all this?”

Lauren shakes her head sadly. “I’m sorry, Philip. Blythe’s on her way to the shuttle. Tessa put her on the helicopter a few minutes ago.”