CHAPTER ONE — THE MARTIAN SIX
“You’re witnessing history in the making, folks. In just a few minutes, the Martian Six will be revealed for all the world to see.” A well-dressed reporter spoke into the lens of a large news camera. Journalists from every outlet swarmed the lawn of the Man on Mars headquarters. Security guards lined the perimeter of the impressive industrial building, checking credentials as only the elite filed inside.
Emma raced her run-down sedan into the jammed parking lot, passed a “Lot Full” sign.
“Come on,” she mumbled to herself as she scoured the area for a space to leave her car. Emma checked the clock for the millionth time, praying the numbers would somehow stop ticking away. She sped past a fire hydrant red zone and slammed on the brakes, causing her worn-out workbag to fall off the front seat. A blue credential badge flew out and onto the floor. She cranked the car in reverse and dipped into the illegal space. Emma grabbed her bag from the floor and booked it toward the front door without noticing the fallen credentials. She pretended not to hear the meter maid calling after her. “Excuse me, you can’t park there.”
Emma’s petite heels pounded the pavement as she weaved past clusters of people loitering around the media event. She pushed her way to the front, taking a breath only when she reached the door.
“Badge?” a security guard asked. She nodded and reached into her bag. The knot in her stomach rose to her throat as she desperately searched for the blue lanyard she received only a half-hour before.
“No badge, no entry.”
“I have one, I swear,” she promised without taking her eyes from the contents of her tired workbag, which was falling apart at the seams.
“Step aside, ma’am. I’ve got to get everyone in. They’re starting in five minutes.”
“I said, step aside.” The security guard waved on the next person in line. Accredited journalists pushed past, forcing Emma toward the back of the line. Tears welled inside her brown eyes. Sweat dripped down her forehead as she took in the surrounding chaos. Security pushed back an increasing number of people that came to see the show. Some wore alien costumes. Others held signs to get the media’s attention. A lucky few gave commentary to the countless news cameras spread across the lawn. Another security guard pushed Emma closer to the fray. Think quick. Five minutes. There’s still time.
Emma ran past the throngs of people, out onto the sidewalk, and toward the rear of the steel building. In the very back, a tall metal fence blocked an unguarded entrance. She took a deep breath and scaled the fence with her heeled feet. Emma struggled to pull herself up and over, but with true grit, she swung over the fence and climbed down the other side. She skipped over to the large steel door that stood between her and the story. It was locked.
“Damn it!” Frustration choked Emma from the inside as she paced in front of the barrier to entry. Her desperation increased with each step she took.
“Can I help you?” Emma looked up, startled. A man in his mid-twenties, around her age, peered out from around a nearby dumpster. Emma was relieved he wasn’t wearing a security uniform.
“Can you let me in?” she asked.
“Sure.” Emma exhaled immense relief.
“What’s the magic password?” he asked with a smile.
“Look, I don’t have time for this. I’m from the Sentinel. I have a badge, but it’s gone. I’m usually super organized, but my boss gave me this assignment at the last minute because the senior reporter called in sick. It’s a huge opportunity for me, my first big gig as a field reporter. Will you please just let me in?” Distress oozed out of Emma’s forced smile. The man smiled genuinely in response and pulled out an ID card, which he scanned. The thick door clicked open.
“Anyone willing to scale a fence in those shoes deserves to be let inside.” He ushered Emma inside and pointed her toward a sterile corridor. She thanked him profusely as she raced away without looking back.
The press conference was already under way when Emma entered the room stuffed with unruly reporters. She was skinny enough to elbow her way up a few rows from the back as if at a general admission concert, the crowd slowing inching toward the coveted front row. Steven Gross, the Communication Director of the Man on Mars project, stood at a podium wearing a designer three-piece suit. His hair was perfectly coifed and his white teeth sparkled like a toothpaste commercial. He delivered his speech like a motivation speaker.
“Ever since the world’s leading scientists launched the Man on Mars project, hundreds of thousands of people volunteered to be the pioneers of the last frontier. They sent in detailed applications explaining exactly why they’d make the perfect pilgrim. Thousands of people begged for the one-way ticket, for a chance to make the history books as one of six to colonize Mars. We’ve chosen to send regular citizens because we aim to establish a permanent colony on the red planet. A colony composed of everyday people who represent the rich variety of society. They will leave Earth behind forever. Mars will be their new home. This is no small task, and after months of arduous deliberations, we have finally chosen the Martian Six.”
Emma knew very well that this “arduous selection process” was based more on television ratings than anything else. For the last six months, one hundred finalists moved into a huge house together and agreed to have their lives taped, twenty-four-seven. Viewers at home voted for their favorite applicant, and the hopefuls with the least amount of fans were booted. Ratings, advertisement dollars, and telephone voting charges picked the Martian Six. Skill and intelligence had nothing to do with it. The fight-filled commercials meant to drive ratings disgusted Emma, so she boycotted watching the elimination process on TV. Having no clue who any of the applicants were, she’d have to fake her way through this assignment. Emma wished she had received the gig much earlier so she could spend hours researching everything from top contenders for the Martian Six to the average temperature on Mars. She liked to do her homework and being prepared was her armor against the chaos of the world. This was her first real shot, and she hated herself for choosing not to watch the highest rated competition elimination show of the century.
“Now without further ado, I’ll present to you, the Martian Six!” The Communication Director’s voice boomed as cheesy music played. “Jack Carter.”
Jack, a twenty-year-old with a mohawk, howled like a wolf and ran through the curtains. He threw his muscular body into a handstand, dangling himself like a piece of meat for the reporters to devour. Cameras flashed, reporters called his name, and Jack howled again before pacing behind the table like a wrestler walking the ring before a championship fight. He banged on his chest like Tarzan, and the Communication Director reminded him to take a seat.
Jessica Jewel was announced next. She was a skinny blonde with big boobs popping out of her tight top. “That’s one way to make sure the colony procreates, but how will she fit those things into a space suit?” the sleazy male reporter next to Emma joked. Emma glared at him in response as Jessica jumped up and down, jiggling her assets for the cameras. Jessica posed like an X-rated Marilyn Monroe and giggled like a naughty schoolgirl. Jessica was no doubt beautiful, but this mission would require intelligence and grit. For the sake of the colony, Emma hoped Jessica would transcend her stereotypical behavior. Despite being so different on the surface, Emma could relate to Jessica in terms of being in a high-pressure position surrounded by mostly men. Personally, Emma never thought she needed to get breast implants, although some of her previous boyfriends might have disagreed. She liked being natural and was perfectly satisfied with her supple B-cups. Unlike Jessica Jewel, Emma wore little makeup and preferred to leave her dark brown hair as it was, instead of bleaching it with harsh chemicals every month. Emma was always more focused on learning something new than on how she looked.
“Ryan Clarke,” the Communication Director announced through the microphone. The man that helped Emma inside the back entrance casually stepped out from behind the curtain, modestly nodded, and offered a small wave. He closed his eyes against the blinding lights of the flashing cameras. When he opened them, Ryan locked eyes with Emma. Without breaking his gaze, he took a seat at the table.
Ryan’s humble demeanor surprised Emma. She pictured the Martian Six as boisterous reality TV stars, nothing like the simple man that came to the rescue in her desperate time of need. Emma wondered how he made it through the superficial selection process. She kept her eyes trained on him, examining his every detail like Sherlock Holmes. Ryan had short brown hair, but not too short like a military kid. His posture was strong, but not too rigid. His hands looked soft, and she guessed correctly that he spent more time pushing papers than doing any hard labor. He was fit enough to swing a hammer, but educated enough not to have to. He wore an understated suit and tie, but nothing name brand, so he wasn’t some bored rich kid trying to get back at mommy and daddy. Why did he sign up for this suicide mission? And how did he win over the hearts of the voting public? Emma was so fixated on Ryan; she didn’t catch the name of the next member of the Martian Six. Luckily, the overly tan man leapt out of his dramatic surfer-stance pose and spoke into the microphone with a thick Australian accent. “That’s Gregg with two g’s.”
The next woman called was Dezzy, a slightly overweight woman from Amsterdam. Her smile was bigger than her face and she chuckled for the reporters. Emma guessed that she was so jovial, the other contestants didn’t feel threatened by her, and therefore, underestimated her chances of being chosen. Last but not least, the final member of the Martian Six was Amy, an African-American woman with a Brooklyn accent. She ran behind the rest of the chosen ones, giving and getting exaggerated high-fives as she called out, “Give me some sugar! Alright! Woo!” Her presence was larger-than-life, and Emma was glad to see three of the six chosen were women.
“Okay, we’ll take a few questions now,” the Communication Director stated. The swarm of reporters screamed out for Steven Gross’s attention like little kids seeking validation. Emma hadn’t been in the field much, but she knew how this worked. The seasoned reporters at the top papers bribed their way to the front row. They probably already had exclusives lined up right after. There she was, crammed in at the side of the room like a dog begging for scraps. They would never call on her. Just as she suspected, the reporters in the front row were selected, asking generic, pre-approved questions about what it was like to be one of the chosen six. They’d ask the real questions in their exclusive. Emma perked up when it was time for Ryan to answer. He spoke quietly, and Steven Gross told him to move closer to the microphone so everyone could hear him.
“I’m glad the whole process is over. Now, the work begins. The next two years of training will be intense, but that’s all that matters.” Ryan looked right at Emma when he answered. Without thinking, she took the small window of opportunity and called out a question a split-second after he finished his response.
“Ryan! Emma from the local Sentinel. Can you tell us what that training will entail?” She spit the question out like it was dynamite ready to explode in her mouth. Ryan smiled at her, and she felt fireworks exploding, this time inside of herself. She shook off the emotion, chalking it up to being excited to get a question out on her first major assignment.
“Well…” Ryan started to answer, but the Communication Director cut him off. “That will be revealed in the next installment of media,” Steven Gross answered elusively.
“Does that mean the TV show will continue?” Emma asked forcefully. It was rare to get two questions in, and the surrounding reporters were ready to suffocate her with their evil stares.
“While the television series will not continue now that we have our Martian Six, there will be a feature documentary that will be distributed theatrically worldwide. That’s all I can say at this time.” The Communication Director took a few more questions from the front of the room, knowing these would be safer for him to discuss. Emma was proud of herself for getting a nugget of information out of him that was supposed to remain hidden from the public for a while. That was why she got into journalism in the first place. She wanted to unveil information that was purposely held from the general public, meant to keep the masses blind and uneducated.
Emma looked back at Ryan, and couldn’t help but smile. She felt indebted to him for allowing her voice to be heard through the jungle of noise, not to mention getting her into the building in the first place. Her inquisitive nature gnawed at her with a deep desire to know more about him. She was drawn to anomalies, things that seemed slightly out of place. Ryan Clarke definitely fit the bill as he sat quietly at the table of outspoken personalities.
“Thank you, that will be all for today,” Steven Gross wrapped with. The Martian Six stood up as the cameras attacked them with their flashes. Several of the front row reporters approached the Communication Director, probably to initiate their previously paid for exclusives. Other reporters made a mad rush to the front, trying to pin down one of the media darlings, like Jack Carter or Jessica Jewel. Emma, being the underdog, went for the only thing that felt real.
“Ryan!” she called out just as he was about to duck behind the curtain, away from the prying eyes of the reporters. Her voice made its way through the crowded room and tickled his ear. Ryan grinned as he turned around to greet her. He looked at Emma with deep, penetrating eyes. She hadn’t paid him much attention when they first met, but now she noticed him up close for the first time. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something so magnetic about him. He was traditionally handsome, but there was a glow to him that had nothing to do with his fit body, chiseled cheekbones, or straight white teeth. And God, did he smell good. Emma stood there for a moment without speaking.
“Hello,” Ryan said to jumpstart the conversation.
“Emma, from the local Sentinel,” he finished her sentence. She felt like a schoolgirl who just found out the cutest guy in class knew she existed. She laughed nervously.
“Yeah, right. Hey, thanks again for letting me in back there.” Her heart pounded so hard in her chest, she wondered if he could hear it.
“I knew it meant a lot to you,” Ryan said as he slid his hands in his pockets.
“I’d love to talk to you more, get to know you better. Maybe we could get together sometime?” Emma stammered out.
“Are you asking me out on a date?” Ryan asked with a smirk.
“Oh, no. I… I’m asking you for an exclusive interview,” she responded, trying to keep her cool. “This is my first big assignment, and it’d really mean a lot to me.”
“Okay, we can go out on an interview,” Ryan answered with a chuckle. Emma blushed behind her smile and swallowed her nerves.
“Great! Well, here’s my card.” She pulled out her business card and handed it to him. Ryan studied it more carefully than she would have liked. It hadn’t been updated with her new title yet.
“Great, I’ll call you,” he said before ducking back behind the curtain.
Emma left the conference on a natural high, her body tingling with excitement. Nothing could take her down a notch, not even the sixty-dollar parking ticket waiting on her car.
Emma went home to her tiny studio apartment, and a quick recap article poured out of her fingertips and into her computer. Besides divulging the names of the Martian Six, which was all that was required of her, she also uncovered the upcoming documentary and capped it off with a few probing questions about the challenges the mission faced. She sent the announcement to her boss with a request to write a full feature after she scored the exclusive interview with Ryan. Emma was excited for the opportunity to show what she was capable of. If she played her cards right, she’d be writing headline news from now on. No more small human-interest stories that gained little attention and no notoriety.
Eager to know more about Ryan, she searched for him online. Emma poured over the fan sites and press pages, and inhaled all the episode clips she could find. She discovered that he had a Masters Degree in Public Policy, with a minor in Biology. Ryan was single, with no siblings. His parents died in a car crash a few years earlier, leaving him with no immediate family.
I can relate to that, she thought. Her mother died a year ago of breast cancer, and she hated even admitting she had a father. At least she was close with her sister, Ashley. Without the stability of siblings, she empathized with the innate loneliness that Ryan inherited the day his parents died.
Being a journalist gave Emma a hardened edge, but when she watched the televised clip of Ryan telling his fellow housemates why he should be picked, she wept like a baby. His answer was the antithesis of someone pandering for the public’s vote. “When my parents died, I did a lot of soul searching. I wondered… why? Why did they die? Why do we live? What am I supposed to do with my life? I don’t have answers to these questions yet, but what I do know is this… Life is so fragile; we never know when our time will come. I might die on Mars, but if giving up my life gives the future of mankind more time to figure out why it exists and what happens next, it’d be worth it. I’d rather give my life to a cause than to a car accident.” Emma wondered what Ryan’s parents were like, but she only found their obituary online. She imagined them as old-fashioned and kind, the type of conscientious parents that raised their son to truly listen and treat others with respect.
Emma spent the rest of the evening binge watching the Martian Six elimination show. It didn’t surprise her to see that Jack divided the house in half, demanding everyone pick sides and create strategic alliances. Ryan refused to play into Jack’s game and instead went to each person individually to discuss where he stood on that round of eliminations. He even explained his stance to the man he nominated to go home. “I have no family here on Earth, and of course there’d be things I’d miss. But I’d rather sacrifice my future on this planet than see someone with a family go up there. So that is why I regretfully vote for Mark. I’m sorry man, but I believe your children would thank me.” The camera panned to Mark, an applicant who Emma didn’t recognize in the final six. He nodded knowingly and hugged Ryan.
Clip after clip, Emma was amazed at Ryan’s stellar behavior amongst the manipulated circumstances of reality TV.During a difficult simulation challenge, he was the only one that listened to the quiet and unassuming contestant, Grace, and championed her strong ideas without passing them off as his own. He remained unwaveringly calm when a blue-haired applicant, Maximilian, tried to instigate a meaningless fight with him in the fourth round of eliminations. During one timed challenge where contestants where forced to choose between saving one team member and diffusing a fake bomb, Ryan somehow did both.
Emma couldn’t get enough and watched clips until the wee hours of the night. She especially loved Ryan’s speech in the final episode. “I hope I’m fit enough to endure the harsh tests we will no doubt face. I hope I’m smart enough to problem solve the inevitable things that will go wrong. I hope I’m free of attachments, so I can make any sacrifice necessary to keep the colony alive, and hopefully thrive. I’m ready to put my life on the line, but if there are people more qualified then me, than I fully support them in their journey. This isn’t about me; it’s about evolving the human race. I want what’s best for the mission, and for the future of mankind.”
Emma sat in her pajamas with tears in her eyes. She had never met a man like Ryan. He was a far cry from the bad boys she dated in college, that’s for sure. There was loneliness in his voice that stirred her from inside. She wanted to reach into her computer screen and grab him, hold onto him and never let go. Just like he won over the world’s hearts, he had won over Emma’s.
In her tiny cubicle at work, Emma ate a jelly donut and stared longingly at her computer screen. She was devouring yet another article about Ryan Clarke. He was all she thought about since the press conference. She was like a fangirl, soaking up any little tidbit of information about her favorite celebrity, from the supposed color of his toothbrush to the meaning of his name — which was King of Scholars.
“Where’s my exclusive, Em?” John barked, startling Emma from her infatuation-induced hypnosis. She minimized her web browser, hoping her boss didn’t see her drooling over pictures of her new obsession.
“It’s coming, I promise,” she said with tinge of doubt. It’d been three days and Ryan still hadn’t called.
“I hope so. I’d hate to make you cover that golf resort fundraiser instead,” John said as he passed her cubicle without stopping. John was a cool boss, still in his thirties but already the lead editor of the paper.
“Do people really care if the resort raises enough money to build a new clubhouse?” she called after him.
“Keep asking those tough questions, Em. I love that about you.” John laughed as he walked into his office and shut the door. Emma exhaled as she felt the opportunity slowly slipping from her grasp. If she didn’t deliver on her proposal soon, she’d be sent back to the obscurity of small local news. John had just given her a promotion to Junior Reporter, up from Researcher, and he graciously accepted her proposal to write her first big feature that would probe the Man on Mars project further. With Ryan’s help, Emma knew she could break past the clutter of the announcement. Every other paper just copy and pasted the same information, revealing the same six names as every other outlet. Then the top papers came out with exclusives — from untold behind-the-scenes drama to new details about the release of the planned documentary that Emma helped expose. She needed her own exclusive, knowing any article about the project would get a couple million hits, but she also needed to see Ryan again. She maximized her web browser, and his smiling face filled her screen again.
Why hasn’t he called? She felt like a teenager again, waiting for the phone to ring. Maybe he wasn’t able to talk to the press. She imagined him sequestered in that cold, steel building. Or maybe he lost her card. She figured she better get in touch with him, just to be sure. Emma picked up the phone and called the Man on Mars project, but hung up after getting transferred from one inept assistant to another. There was no way she was getting through. It was up to Ryan to initiate contact, and Emma hoped and prayed to hear from him before John yanked her onto another story that few people would actually read.
“How’s your first feature coming?” Ashley asked as she stuffed salad into her mouth. Emma slammed her head down onto her kitchen table. She loved her older sister dearly, but hated how Ashley always went straight for the toughest questions.
“That good, huh?”
“I really thought I had an exclusive with the most thoughtful, interesting man.” Emma’s insides ached as she talked about him.
“Are we still talking about those trashy reality TV people they’re sending to Mars?” Ashley asked, confused at the emotion in Emma’s cadence.
“They’re not all trashy like I thought. That was judgmental of me to think.” Now Ashley was really confused because her headstrong younger sister rarely admitted when she was wrong.
“He’s different, and we’re supposed to get together, but…”
“He?” Ashley saw right through Emma. “Sounds like you’ve got a crush on this guy, whoever he is.”
“I do not! I just really want him to call me… for the article! So I can get an edge on the competition.” Emma kept speaking as her sister’s dark brown eyes knowingly drilled holes in her story. “So I can solidify myself in the headline news arena.”
As Emma stuffed steak salad into her mouth, her cell phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number. She usually wouldn’t answer her phone at the dinner table, but it might be him.
“Hello?” she answered, her mouth still full of food.
“Hello? Is this Emma?” It had been three days since they met, but she’d recognize his voice anywhere. Her heart dropped into her stomach, and she sucked down her salad, choking herself in the process. Emma coughed and motioned hysterically for Ashley to get her some water.
“Hello? Are you there?” Ryan asked as she coughed and threw back her drink.
“Yeah, it’s me. Who’s this?” Emma asked, pretending not to sound desperate to talk to him.
“It’s Ryan Clarke,” he answered, sensing her embellishment.
“Ryan! Great to hear from you. How is everything?” Emma got up from the table and walked away from her sister so she could speak more freely. There wasn’t really anywhere to go in her small apartment, so she turned her back on Ashley to give herself the illusion of privacy.
“Good. Everything’s good. Sorry I took so long to call. We’ve been sequestered. They wouldn’t let us call anyone until we were completely debriefed.”
“Debriefed? That sounds official.” Emma cringed at herself. She sounded like a giddy girl instead of the professional journalist she strived to be. He laughed a little, which put her more at ease.
“Yeah, things are getting pretty intense around here,” Ryan said, his voice confiding in her that he was more stressed than she had ever seen him in the clips from the elimination process. Emma wondered what trials he already endured since she saw him last.
“Can we meet up?” she asked impatiently. Emma realized she worded the question without mentioning the exclusive interview.
“That’d be great.”
“Name a time and place,” she said with a smile. Emma scrawled an address down on a piece of paper and wished Ryan a good night before hanging up the phone. She walked back into the kitchen, beaming.
“That was him? The mystery man who is different than all the others?” Ashley asked, gently teasing.
“His name is Ryan, and yes, that was him. We’re meeting up tomorrow.” Emma couldn’t contain her excitement. A wide smile spread across her face and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm.
“Emma, I know you haven’t dated since college…” Ashley started, but Emma cut her off.
“I know I’ve made some bad decisions, but I’m not stupid enough to date a man who’s leaving the planet. Don’t worry. This is not a date. It’s for the article,” Emma said, trying to convince herself more than her sister.
“Okay, good. Well, now that you’re in a better mood… I wanted to ask you about something.” Ashley’s voice went down an octave. This sounded serious.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Well, I know you’re not really interested in looking for dad, but —”
“No,” Emma cut Ashley off abruptly.
“Em, my thirtieth birthday is coming up, and I’d like to invite him to my big bash.”
“Why would you even want him there?”
“I don’t know, I just do.” Mist collected in Ashley’s eyes.
Emma shook her head feverishly, but said nothing else. She didn’t want to tell her sister the truth about their estranged father who left them right after Emma was born. Every so often Ashley mentioned the idea of reaching out to find him, but Emma always shot her down. Not because she wasn’t curious, but because she had already found him. Being the investigative type, it didn’t take long to track him down. That was the easy part, but nothing could have prepared Emma for what she found. She expected a low-life type of guy who had every excuse not to follow through on his familial obligations, but the truth hurt much more than that. He actually lived within a few hours drive from them, and worst of all, he remarried and had two new kids he happily looked after. Emma never understood why he chose those kids over her and Ashley. Were they somehow superior to deserve his love? Had she done something wrong to make her father want to stay away? How could he completely abandon them without so much as a phone call or birthday card? She decided these hurtful questions were the few in life better left unanswered, for Emma had a deep-seated fear of the potential answers that accompanied them. And so, whenever Ashley brought up the subject, Emma always had the same response.
“You’re welcome to look for him, but I’m not interested in hearing anything about it.”
CHAPTER TWO — THE INTERVIEW
Emma tried on almost everything in her closet to find the perfect outfit. She rarely gave her wardrobe much thought, but today she dissected it from every angle. The blue dress was too low cut. After all, this was a business meeting. The pinstripe blazer, on the other hand, seemed too uptight. She wanted to look approachable. Emma settled on black dress pants because they hugged her curves perfectly. She paired them with a simple black blouse and accessorized with a pop of color; a ruby red necklace with shoes to match. She remembered that the red heels gave her blisters, but decided to suffer the consequences since the outfit struck the perfect balance between sexy and professional. Finally dressed, she took one last look at herself. She was satisfied with the soft curls she put in her long brown hair, but something was missing. She went into her cramped bathroom and pulled out a tube of lipstick from a small vintage wooden box. She applied the red lipstick carefully, blotted, and then looked herself over.
Too much, she thought to herself. Emma gently wiped off the top layer of the lipstick, leaving traces of the rouge without allowing it to overpower the rest of her simple makeup. Her body trembled with the pleasure of uncertainty as her mind raced with vague visions of how the day with Ryan would progress. At the very least, she would come away with her first exclusive. Maybe she could even strike up a friendship with him. She reveled in the possibilities as she smiled at herself in the mirror. She left her apartment before her nerves sank in. “This is just a simple interview,” Emma reminded herself as she grabbed her car keys off the table. “No big deal.”