My name is Robert Feldman, and I’ve been preparing for this mission my entire life. Don’t get too excited though, because the shuttle taking me to Mars is still 15 years away from launching. If the training is any indication of what to expect, then it is going to be the most terrifying experience I can imagine.

So why has training already began? It’s simple math really. The manned mission to Mars has a conservative expense estimate of over 100 Billion dollars. If anything goes wrong, then the chances of financing another journey in lieu of the more practical exploration and colonization of nearby asteroids is slim to none. That means the crew has to be absolutely perfect, and the cost of extensively training us for over a decade is still insignificant compared to the potential disaster from our slightest mistake.

There will be numerous expeditions before NASA decides we’re ready, including a 2020 Rover launch, a year-long training session in the space station around 2024, and then a prolonged orbit around Mars in the early 2030s. After that, the colony will be established, although there is no way for our current level of technology to allow a return journey. We will be terminally isolated, depending entirely on our self-sustaining efforts to survive.

Earth’s conditions will always be as volatile as the arbitrary leaders controlling launch codes, and I firmly believe the long term survival of our species is dependent on our ability to spread across the stars. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to this cause. From my masters in engineering to my thousands of hours of flight experience in the air force, I’ve honed every aspect of my mind, body, and spirit, to help transcend humanity into the heavens.

So you can imagine how excited I was to finally receive the phone call from Nigel Rathmore (Administrator at NASA). I had barely been winded from my 8 mile run that morning, but just hearing his voice on the line was enough to make my knees weak. I kissed my wife, and we both laughed and cried, knowing the implications this decision would have for us. I love her with all my heart, but she understands that is exactly the reason why I must go. It was time for the official training to begin, and I was ready.

The training on Earth is divided into three segments: Technical Training (the mechanical skills required), Personal Training (psychological profiling and mental preparation for the unnatural ordeal), and Simulation Training (which will expose us to the conditions we’re expected to face).

This isn’t the story of how I learned to build circuit boards though. The technical training is hardly worth mentioning, and neither I nor the other astronauts alongside me encountered much we hadn’t already prepared for. Besides myself, there was Isac (the gentle Norwegian giant), Linda (might be cute if she learned to extract the Truss Rod from her ass), and Jean-Claude (French guy with a superiority complex). I would have enjoyed this part a lot more if I hadn’t known that the colonization shuttle was only being designed to house two astronauts. That means they not only expected two of us to fail, they demanded it. These people who I spent my every waking day with weren’t friends; they were competition.

On the second day, we began our first personal training segments, and I was already hoping that Isac be the one to graduate with me. The thought of spending the rest of my life trapped on an alien world with Linda barking orders or Jean-Claude condescendingly redoing my work was absolutely loathsome.

We all underwent thorough psychiatric screenings that day. They told us that by the end of training, we had to look forward to up to a year of solitary confinement to monitor our stability. During that time, we wouldn’t be allowed to even speak to another human on the phone, as it was simulating the event of a communications breakdown.

As the days went on, the tests became continually more grueling. I could tell the NASA administrators had actively designed this course to cause as much physical and mental discomfort as they could. We were a piece of equipment, as sure as any support beam or fuel cell, and if we were going to break, then it would be better for it to happen now while we could still be replaced.

Physical endurance was pushed to its limit as we jogged behind jeeps across searing sand dunes. Our bodies underwent the pummeling of artificial dust storms in wind tunnels, all while undergoing blindfolded obstacle courses meant to simulate the storms which ravage Mars and block out over 99% of the sun. Some nights we would be locked in a freezing chamber which approached the -70C nights on Mars, and our vitals were measured as layer by layer of protective clothing was stripped away until they could record the exact moment we lost consciousness.

Jean-Claude was the first one to contract pneumonia from the bitter cold. That didn’t stop them from forcing him back into the chamber the next night. He tried to get out of it, but they told him that he would be cut from the entire program if he skipped a single segment. That night Isac offered one of his outer layers to him, but Jean-Claude was too proud to accept. They had to carry him out on a stretcher, and I didn’t see him again after that.

That wasn’t the only case of sickness either. I don’t think it was part of the original plan, but after that all of us fell sick at the exact same time. Coughing, fevers, sores on our skin – I think they must have given us something to study our immune system. It was bad enough to make me delirious, because I kept seeing flashing lights and hearing an odd buzzing sound. I must have blacked out for a bit, because I got flashes of being taken out and brought into a white washed room. I was put on a metal table, and the faces staring down at me were distorting and twisting into surreal mockeries of what a human face should be. I was afraid, but I didn’t let it show. I didn’t want to give them any reason to cut me out like they did Jean-Claude.

As bad as the physical ordeals were, they were nothing compared to the psychological ones. They’d warned us that they wanted to test our reactions to a variety of situations, but they hadn’t told us exactly what to expect. When they told me my wife had been killed in a car crash and showed me photographs of her mutilated body, I was devastated. They talked me through her death, going into explicit detail about how much she suffered from the shards of glass filling her face like shrapnel as she bled out on the highway. It was a full day before they confessed she was still fine, and that I had passed the test by holding it together.

Maybe I was holding it together on the outside, but on the inside I was pulling further away from everyone. I originally set out on this course for the good of humanity, but it was hard to want to fight for them when everyone I met on a daily basis was there to torture me. I started eating less, smiling less, talking less. The only other person I really opened up to was Isac. Linda had only grown more caustic as she was pushed toward her breaking point, but Isac remained a constant source of warm camaraderie and encouragement. His kindness reminded me that there was still good in humanity, and that it was still worth fighting for.

And did I ever need that reminder. As we progressed further into the simulated training, we were exposed to a wide range of situations including: maintaining daily routines while they starved us, ingesting radioactive material, and undergoing small amounts of auto-cannibalization (eating slices of our own skin). Some of the simulations were just a virtual reality world, while others were so real that they wouldn’t unlock the door until we’d passed out from exhaustion or pain. The line between reality and fabrication grew thinner every day, until it got to the point where I was barely able to distinguish what was training and what was not.

That’s what I need you to understand before I tell you what happened next. There had been so many tricks played on us, so many simulations and improbable scenarios, and we weren’t allowed to question any of them. When they asked us if we were ready for the next test, “Yes sir” was the only answer we were allowed to give. To their credit, the training was making us fearless. That’s why when the three of us were locked in a steel room together, we didn’t even ask what they were going to make us do. We already knew that we could do it.

“This is a simulation game,” Nigel’s voice came through an intercom on the wall. We all stood immediately to attention. He didn’t usually come down to the training facilities himself. The last time he was here, it was because Jean-Claude was being carried out.

“Yes sir,” we all barked with military precision.

“There is an Alien who has infiltrated the shuttle,” Nigel’s voice said. “He has taken over one of your bodies, and is a direct threat to the remaining crew. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes sir.”

“I want you to find out who it is. And I want you to kill them.”

The intercom crackled and fell silent. We all remained perfectly stiff at attention. Slowly – laboriously – we turned to face each other. Isac was the only one to grin.

“It’s just a simulation,” Isac reminded us. “We don’t really have to –“

“That’s what the Alien would say,” Linda interrupted. “If he infiltrated the shuttle, then he’s trying to avoid detection. Of course he would be the one to deny his own existence.”

“Listen to yourself Linda,” I said. “We’re obviously not going to kill Isac. The game is just to figure out which of us the others don’t think belongs. They’re probably going to use this data in their final decision for who the crew will be.”

Linda’s eyes were wild though. The pressure of these tests had pushed us all to the edge, but this was the first time in my life I had ever seen someone start to break before my eyes. She took a step back from us, arms raised as though to fight.

“That’s the trick then,” she replied. “You’re both the aliens. He was testing me to see if I’d realize it –“

“Listen to Robert,” Isac said. “We’re all in this together, okay?”

“If anyone doesn’t belong, it’s you Linda,” I said. “You’ve always been the difficult one. I’m voting she’s the alien.”

“It’s Isac!” she pointed a shaking finger at him. Her eyes were bulging so badly, I don’t know how they stayed in her skull. “Look at his skin! It’s so pale!”

“Linda get a hold of yourself.” I took a step forward, but she leapt back as though under attack.

“Get away from me! Both of you!” she screamed.

“Sorry Linda, but I have to agree with Robert,” Isac said. “I’m voting you out too.”

That should have been the end of it. The simulation should have ended. The door should have opened. There’s no way they could see Linda’s display and still entertain the possibility that she was a good candidate. But the door didn’t open. We knocked – we shouted – I even tried climbing on Isac’s shoulders to open the ceiling panels. Nothing. Not for over an hour when the intercom came to life again.

“The Alien is still in the room. Kill it.”

This was a test. This had to be a test. My next theory was that they wanted to see how loyal we were to our crew-mates. Isac agreed with me, and Linda couldn’t hope to take us both on by herself. She sat on her side of the room, muttering to herself, while Isac and I sat on the other. We were used to deprivation and isolation. We knew how to wait. Whatever stunt Nigel was trying to pull on us now wasn’t going to phase us. At least, it wouldn’t phase me or Isac.

One hour. Then two. Isac and I chatted amiably to pass the time, but Linda refused to even acknowledge us. Then the lights began to dim in artificial nightfall, and we settled further in to wait. Linda was getting more anxious as time passed. She kept standing to pace every few minutes. Her hands endlessly twisted over one another, so much that the skin was beginning to wear thin. How much of this would NASA have to see before they knew she wasn’t fit for the mission?

I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. It was just so boring in that room, and I was so tired from the previous day of obstacle courses. I didn’t know how long we’d be in here, and we didn’t have many chances to rest, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. Besides, we were being closely monitored, and Isac was here with me. It should have been perfectly safe…

But this was the test I failed. Maybe not in the eyes of NASA, but I failed a much older, much more important test which was woven into the basic biology of my humanity. In the moment my fellow man needed me most, I wasn’t there for him. By the time I woke up, it was too late. Linda had crept over to us through the darkness and wrapped her shoelaces around Isac’s neck. He must have thrashed and struggled, but he wouldn’t have been able to scream through his collapsing trachea. By the time I woke, the door was already opening. There were only two of us left alive.

The training is still going on. Our mission is too important to be jeopardized by my personal feelings. The fact is that I am the best man available for the job, offering the highest long-term chances of survival for the human race. And Linda? Well I guess she was the best woman for the job too. She’d followed orders where I could not. Did something which I could not. If anyone is going to make the hard choice to keep the mission going, then I trust her to do it.

After all, even in the face of such an impossible situation, she still made the right choice. The moment Isac’s body stopped struggling, I saw the creature fleeing from its dying host. At first I thought it was a multitude of worms that were seeping out through his nose and ears, but as they pulled themselves out, it became apparent that they were all connected at the base. The whole front of Isac’s face had to split open to allow its body out, but I hope you’ll forgive me for not wanting to dwell on the specifics. If it was a simulation, then they must have still killed Isac to do it. If it wasn’t…

Well all that matters is that NASA understands the true obstacles which might jeopardize the safety of our species, and they are taking every precaution to ensure I will be ready. I just wish I could still trust them like I used to, growing up with the naïve dream of becoming a spaceman.

As I prepare for the next day of training, I can’t help but dwell on the conversation I had with Isac as we passed the last hours of his life.

“So much work to get to such a desolate, empty planet,” I’d said. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“Not really,” he’d replied. “It’s not about where you’re trying to get to. It’s about what you’re trying to escape from.”

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