The Thing About Heroes…
by David Edward Wagner
It’s funny when I think about it now, but for a while there we were heroes. We were all anyone could talk about. The poets called us ‘pioneers,’ the press called us ‘new urban pilgrims,’ but through all the celebration and ceremony, all the parades and endorsement deals, I think it was my mother who actually called us what we were.
She set down her drink when I told her I had been accepted and she looked me in the eye. “You’re crazy,” she said and I just laughed and hugged her, told her that it was an honor, a privilege, that we’re paving the way for future generations. After a silent moment, tears barely restrained behind brown eyes, she finished her drink and just said, “You’re all crazy then.”
Those were the days, training from dawn until dusk, flight simulations, exercise regimes, equipment seminars, psychological conditioning. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, damn difficult, and more than once I wanted to quit, going as far as sneaking off base one night for a last round of whiskey and casual sex at the first bar I could find. But they came for me, they took me back and asked me if I wanted to continue and I said yes. After all, I was a hero.
Two weeks from that night, I shipped off to New Mexico and the final stage of preparations. Three months later, I took my last walk under blue skies, waved my last farewells, felt the wind and sun on my bare face one final time. I climbed onto the ship, heard the door seal and ninety minutes later we launched.
Next stop, Mars.
We were the first, postmodern trailblazers heading straight into that next last final frontier and we were good. We did our jobs, built our colony and sent our data at the scheduled intervals, becoming media darlings with interviews, live feeds, countless articles, dramatizations, hell, we even had a video game created about us, “Rovers of Mars.” We were well taken care of and never wanted for anything.
In the year after our arrival, we methodically built ourselves a life, established our small town and constructed our glass-domed bio-preserve. Then five months later the supply ship was late, they said it was due to increasing hostilities in the Syrian-Saudi conflict. Lines were being crossed daily and both ground and air wars were raging on all fronts. We went a little hungry but the ship finally arrived. With our supplies came a message: conserve.
It’s growing worse, they wrote, and it is getting more difficult to divert the finances and attention the colony needs. So we were careful. We were cooperative.
Two months later we received a radio transmission, barely audible through all the static and popping. It had finally come down to bombs, they said, nuclear and chemical. Things had gotten bad and were only becoming worse: Washington, Colorado, and California were gone, crops would grow no more on the windswept fields of the Midwest. Europe was mostly a memory, only the Scandinavian countries remain relatively intact and the Middle East had become primarily a series of smoking craters.
They told us all further shipments were delayed indefinitely, pieces were being picked up, resources scavenged for, political alliances and neighborhood gangs being formed. Electricity was still intermittent but getting more reliable, basic lines of communication were slowly becoming re-established. They were too uncertain of their own survival to be able to be focused on ours, but if the tenuous truce held they may be able to get the base together enough to send a shipment within a year. They could make no promises.
We tried not to panic. It will be okay, we told one another, they won’t forget us. They kept us up to date for as long as they could but eventually the information streams stopped coming. Only silence greeted us on the other end when we radioed for news.
Our greenhouse was constructed but the hardware to make it run was coming with those next few shipments. As the supplies ran short, we maintained our composure and we did what we could, growing scrawny plants in our houses, moving in together and turning whole domiciles into quasi-greenhouses, figuring out ways to more efficiently collect and reclaim water.
It’s been two and a half years now since the last message was received and only one hundred and thirty colonists remain of the original seven hundred. Malnutrition, suicide and the rot are taking most of us. The rot, that’s what we call it, the dust disease, turning your lungs into driftwood. I can feel it creeping into my joints, my arms hurt, yesterday I coughed up blood, but just a little. Still, I know it’s just a matter of time.
She was right, you know, I understand that now. I've been thinking about her a lot lately. Last night, I ate my final protein bar and couldn’t help but remmeber the fried chicken mom used to make when I was a kid. I tried to make it once, as an adult, but it wasn’t the same. It never is, is it?