Listen to this story, narrated by Daniela Acitelli:
Of all the terrible things I saw as a paramedic, the one that most haunted me was the look on a woman’s face as she watched a fire ferociously consume her home with her two small children still inside. Her world was burning.
Usually I dealt with people consumed with fear, anger, confusion, or despair. This woman’s face was devoid of any emotion. All I saw was her eyes darting about as her mind worked furiously. Her life’s meaning and trajectory were gone. She was going to have to start over from this moment, but only if her mind could answer one question.
Without realizing it, she had whispered the question and I had heard her.
Why was this happening? Why do the young perish while the old survive? Why should she keep going when she had lost everything?
If her brain could have chosen to die, in that moment it would have. I had seen dead bodies staring blankly at the world, and that was how this woman looked.
Firefighters were able to rescue the woman’s children. I remember the expression of ecstasy to the point of pain that burst from the woman when she saw her children’s faces again. But her other face, the empty one, was more firmly etched in my mind.
The memory of that face weighed on me, along with other memories, until I finally decided I needed a change of career. When I quit, I had no idea where I would end up. Life, at its best and worst, is unpredictable.
Finding a new career path was frustrating. Weeks’ worth of free time diligently scouring job postings brought no results. I worked part-time as a physician’s assistant to keep myself afloat.
One evening, discouraged and admittedly slightly buzzed, I exclaimed that there was not a job anywhere on the planet that was a good fit, which prompted a Google search for “jobs on other planets”. Giggling at the results, I ended up watching a recent news clip about an actual government-funded space agency that was accepting applications for astronauts to help set up the first space colony on Mars. For the ten-year mission, they needed biologists, chemists, engineers, and medical staff.
The information they had laid out for interested applicants was a tome. I read every word, ignoring the way my skin tingled with the idea that I could do this. I told myself it was just curiosity that kept me reading.
When I got to the requirements for medical staff, I was sobered to find that I met every last one. I didn’t sleep that night, overcome with a desperate excitement that wouldn’t even let me wait until morning to start the application.
The application materials took me just over a week to assemble.
The interview process took six months.
The probationary training, initial selection, intensive training, final selection, mission preparation, and space travel took two and a half years.
And yet I’d swear under oath that, the moment I hit “submit” on my application, I arrived on Mars.
Something had interrupted our communications with Earth. Some of us had donned our protective suits and helmets, then gone outside to check the satellite dish. We relied on communication satellites to keep us in touch with Earth and stave off loneliness. Maybe that was strange, given that our team consisted of twenty people and we were all living in incredibly close quarters. Mars’ first colony was only three connected, temporary structures. “Alone” wasn’t something any of us had been for some time. By this point, we all knew each other better than we knew even lifelong friends back on Earth. With so few social prospects on Mars, you often ended up pouring your innermost thoughts out to someone who, on Earth, wouldn’t have been your type of friend. We all knew now why each of us had worked so hard to get to Mars; not the reasons we had put on our applications but the psychological motivations that might not even have been apparent to ourselves until we arrived here. Some were running towards something: adventure, fame, discovery, becoming a part of history. Some were running away from something: humanity, the often-overwhelming struggles of planet Earth, a life of quiet monotony, trauma.
Still, as much as we opened up to each other, something about being stuck with the same people for a ten-year span made you eager to talk with anyone else. Fixing communication with Earth was a priority.
As soon as we were outside, I noticed something was wrong, as did several of the others. Earth and its moon usually looked like particularly large, bright stars from our view on Mars. Today Earth somehow — impossibly — looked bigger. I pulled out my high-powered binoculars and focused them on Earth.
Instead of a planet, all I could see was a cloud. I knew it wasn’t a real cloud. It was the formless mass of debris that had been home. Destroyed. Completely destroyed.
A minute before, we had been talking to headquarters. All it took was a few seconds and our entire planet was gone.
I dropped the binoculars. They were an expensive piece of equipment that suddenly didn’t matter anymore. I thought I was going to start screaming, but all the emotions that were about to burst out of me seemed to vanish and I was left feeling numb and empty, just staring at the shimmering light that was the remains of home.
Everything I loved. Everything. All of it made into dust.
I turned and looked to my teammates, as though one of them would have the answers now. Every one of them had that same stare. Only six of us had gone outside to check the satellite. We could talk to the others through the communicators in our helmets. I guess we had been outside for a long time and, when we had gone silent, the others had all come outside, too, and seen the same thing we had. They all shared the same blankness.
I remembered that woman then. I thought of her children, rescued from fire then only to die with the rest of the world now. Had those years mattered? How could everyone be gone?
I wasn’t our team leader, but I was the only one not transfixed by the sight in the sky. I had helped so many people in the darkest moments of their lives. I needed to use those skills again.
“We should…” I started, but then I had to pause, not sure what we should do. I tried to think logically, but logic dictated that there was no hope for any of us now. This was not meant to be a permanent colony.
I felt that if I could just come up with something for us to do, it would help. Some action that, when achieved, might lead to some other action, creating a chain that might eventually achieve something useful.
Finally I said, “We should all go inside. There might be a meteor storm. Some of them could get through the atmosphere. We’ll be safer indoors.”
Miranda, our chief engineer, let her eyes sink down to me. She wasn’t just suffering the loss of the planet. She and her fiancé had decided to marry after the mission. He wanted to get married before she left, but she said waiting until she returned was her promise to him that she would survive the ten years and make it back to Earth.
Miranda asked, “What does our safety matter now?”
I didn’t have an answer. I thought of the woman, questioning why she should continue on when she thought her children were gone.
I was starting to cry and I knew that was good. I wouldn’t share in the ecstasy the woman had felt. But any emotion meant that my mind had decided to keep living, if only for now.
Talking through my sorrow, I said, “Because whatever happened there…” Even just pointing where I knew my destroyed home was, I doubled over in pain and despair. I fought to continue. “Whatever happened, as it was happening, destroying everything, I know that some of them looked up to the sky and thought of us. And because of that, they had a moment of peace near the end, because they knew we were here and we could keep humanity alive.
“So we will stay alive and it will be hard and it will hurt. Seven billion people are dead. I’m not going to let their last hope die with them.”
When I heard other voices begin to moan and wail, I knew we would survive. At least another day.