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Red Planet Deception
Margaret Rustburg stares off into a sky that isn’t blue as Lieutenant Waters, or rather his body, is lowered into the ground. The makeshift casket hits the ground five feet below her. Some of the men start throwing dirt on top of the casket. But the dirt isn’t a normal shade of brown; it’s red. In fact, the dirt isn’t even terrestrial. It’s Martian dirt. Lieutenant Waters is the first person to die on a planet other than Earth.
Almost two years ago, Margaret sent in an application to be the first college student on Mars. Some kids study abroad in France, some in Russia, some in South Africa, but Margaret wanted Mars. And she got it. Even though hundreds of applications were sent into Project Red Planet, it was her application that the scientists and engineers had chosen.
Margaret had no connections that enabled her to be the first college student on Mars. She just worked harder than anyone else. She was always the top student in her class, always president of whatever she could be, always seeking the top internships. Margaret deserved to be a member of one of the crews going to Mars. And because of government budget cuts, her crew would be the last to travel to Mars for a good period of time.
Margaret’s family and friends were not supportive of her decision to go to Mars. “Think of all the risks!” her mother told her. “It’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done – letting you go, honey,” her dad explained in a soft voice to her.
During Margaret’s last week at campus before going to training, her ex-boyfriend Greg confronted her about the Mars trip. “You could die, Marge!”
“Thanks for being upfront with me.”
“You’ve been upfront with me plenty of times. And you know what I’m saying is true.”
“Greg, I could die in a car crash on Earth or from a stroke or something.”
“But there’s a greater chance of something happening to you in space.”
“This has been my dream, though. You know it as well as I do! Traveling to that Red Planet – it could change my future.”
“But what happens to the future of us, Marge?”
“Greg…there’s no future where we’re going to be together. You know it’s true. We fought for each other but we both lost the battle.” Margaret had tears welling up in her eyes, yet she tried to hold them back.
“I think our relationship is worth the fight,” Greg said quietly. And he walked away.
Margaret has not seen him since.
As the dirt keeps piling up to cover Lieutenant Water’s casket, Margaret realizes that his family will never see him again. The last time they had seen him was over a year ago – the morning before the ship blasted off to take them to Mars. No one ever thinks the last time spent with someone is actually going to be the last time. And then it is, and you can’t travel back in time. Margaret was barely able to travel to another planet, so she knows traveling back in time to return to Earth is impossible.
One person in the crew starts to sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” Margaret stares at the somber faces of her crewmembers. There have been rough days on this expedition to the Mars. A leak in their habitation dome had caused there to be a deficiency in oxygen. Several people were forced to undergo medical care. A few members of the crew had become severely sick from some of the space food. Of course, space food has never been particularly appetizing, but it was awful that so many of the crew had become sick from it.
“Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
The captain begins to speak about Lieutenant Waters:
“The last words of President Grover Cleveland were, ‘I have tried so hard to do the right.’ Because of his sudden, unexpected death, Frederick Conner Waters was unable to claim such majestic words as these as his last. However, his life more than exemplifies the words of President Cleveland. In everything Waters did, he tried to make sure he made the correct choice. Whether it was flying a plane in the Air Force or taking care of his two young boys, Waters tried to always make the best decision and gave everything his utmost. It has been my privilege to work with him as a part of Project Red Planet. I daresay that without Waters’ knowledge and skills, we would not be on Mars today. I think Waters would consider it an honor for him to be the first man buried on a planet other than Earth. He invested a big part of his life into making this planet habitable, and he deserves more than anyone to have his body rest in peace here.
“I’ve never told anyone this story, but it is my favorite involving Freddy Waters. I was sitting in the cockpit of our ship a couple of days before we blasted off for Earth. I was scared. I’d captained missions to the Moon, but this was Mars, so much farther away than Earth’s natural satellite. I thought everyone had gone home, but Waters was still there, working his butt off, of course. He came inside the cockpit when he saw me inside. ‘How’s it going, Captain?” he asked me. ‘Just thinking about the mission, Waters.’ He said, ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, too. I don’t want this mission to fail. It’s so important if we want our habitation on Mars to last.’ And I said, ‘I know, son, I know.’ Then Waters shocked me but left me in awe. He said, ‘But I’ve also been thinking: It’s okay if we fail. Because even if we fail, somebody somewhere will rise up and take our place. And they’ll learn from our mistakes. From our failures. If we mess up, it won’t be in vain because someone else will learn from our mistakes and make their mission a success.’ Then he stared me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Ultimately, this journey upon which we’re embarking isn’t for the advancement of Project Red Planet; it’s for the advancement of the human race.’
“Waters is right. He will always be right in that regards. And he will be greatly missed by his wife Stacy, his boys Conner and Will, his friends on Earth, and, of course, his friends here on Mars. We wish you could be here with us right now, Waters, but may God bless your soul.”
Tears are flowing down everyone’s cheeks. But the teardrops flowing down Margaret’s cheeks are different from everyone else’s. Their drops fall because they have been tricked. Her drops fall because she felt the enormous magnitude of truth.
Only Margaret knows the truth: Lieutenant Frederick Conner Waters killed himself.
Captain had asked Waters to stay at the habitation while almost everyone else returned to Earth within the next month. Waters wasn’t supposed to be one of the crew members staying, but Colonel Webster had gotten so sick from the food poisoning, there was no way he could stay without having constant medical care. Waters and another member of the crew would be left on the Red Plant, thousands of miles away from any other humans. Waters would be trapped far, far away from his wife and children, and he would be left on the planet for a varying amount of time, perhaps 20 years or more. The government was going to withhold funding from Project Red Planet because of the sad shape of the economy, so it could be a long period of time before anyone could come back for Waters. And Waters knew he could die before he had a chance to return to Earth.
The night before Waters’ death, he entered Margaret’s sleeping quarters.
“Margaret,” he said, “I’m very sorry to disturb you.”
“Lieutenant, what’s the matter?”
“The captain has asked a big favor of me.” Waters was staring off into the distance with this lost expression on his face.
“He wants me…actually, he’s commanded me to stay here at the habitation with Green while everyone else returns.”
Margaret interjected, “But Webster is supposed to stay.”
“He’s too sick from the food poisoning.”
“Oh.” There was a long pause.
“I don’t think I can stay here.”
“I don’t know if I could either.” Margaret began to think of her mother and father and brother and friends and Greg.
Sometimes, people like Margaret have to leave home. They have to make an escape so that they can feel that nostalgia associated with memories of home. And then, when they finally return, the memories of home can come to life, and they realize that the memories are nothing compared to actually being there. The memories are empty compared to the warm embrace of one’s mother, holding hands with a lover, or scratching behind the ears of the family dog. People have to leave home so they can understand what it’s like to miss its familiarity.
“I could be stuck on this awful planet until I die.” Waters eyes were filled with tears.
“We could return in around eight years.”
“You know as well as I do that no one’s going to return that quickly. It’ll be more like 20 years. Maybe I’ll die tonight and not have to deal with anything.”
“Maybe. I guess you never know. But I hope not.”
“I hope so.” Waters whispered as he left her sleeping quarters.
Margaret didn’t sleep well that night and woke up early. She went to Waters’ sleeping quarters so she could somehow give him some encouragement. But when she walked in, she found him dead.
He had taken a cyanide pill.
Margaret hid the evidence of his suicide, so everyone else would believe he had simply experienced a sudden, tragic death.
Margaret wipes the tears that won’t stop flowing down her face. She realizes that in the end, Waters really hadn’t tried to do the right. But maybe no one would have.
The next day, Captain summons Margaret to his headquarters.
Captain looks her steadily in the eyes. “Margaret, due to Webster’s food poisoning and Waters’ untimely death, we’re going to need someone else to stay here at our habitation. I know I’m asking a lot, but would you be…”
Margaret does not let her captain finish asking his question. She knows what he wants.
And Waters wasn’t the only one with cyanide pills.