A/N: Not really happy with this chapter, so crit is welcome (needed?).

"What do you have against Aster?" Cameron asked, stretching back in the uncomfortable regulation chair to escape the sea of applications that flooded the table in front of them.

"The year he spent working at his grandparent's ranch, for starters. Dropping out of Harvard mid-degree doesn't exactly suggest reliablity and responsibility."

"You're reading too much into this, Avery." Sidney's disagreement was marked with a sharp scowl. "It could suggest that he wanted to get some experience working the the world. Maybe he needed the money - Ivy League schools aren't cheap."

"Working with his grandparents to gain real-life experience? If he was going to interrupt his doctorate degree to hang out with Granny and Grandpa, Richard Aster is even less intelligent than I thought," Avery retaliated. "Besides, he's on a full scholarship, and he's got plenty of cash in the bank. His stocks are skyrocketing. Why would Aster work such a low paying job when there are thousands of Mexican ranch hands that could do the job for him? Simple. He's burnt out, tired, stressed. He needed a break from the high competition world he thought he would thrive in. We can't have someone who breaks under the pressure like that."

"I still think you're assuming far too much," Sidney said skeptically. "Ryan, what do you think?"

It was two o'clock in the afternoon, three hours before letters - of rejection or celebration - had to be e-mailed to the candidates' dropboxes. Tens of thousands of applicants had to be pared down to a mere two hundred - the lucky few who would be accepted into the first ever Mars Colony Training Center. Those two hundred would eventually been cut down to a skeleton crew of fifteen colonists and five alternates.

The judges were disagreeing, however, and while this wasn't unusual, it was getting close enough to the deadline to cause some concern. Medical and psychiatric records had to be analysed, intelligence and education had to be ranked, and personalities had to be distilled - and time was still ticking.

Ryan sighed. "We don't have time to talk to his family. We need a decision. I don't think Aster's got it, Sidney. Never mind the missed year - based on past performance, I don't think he can make snap decisions with any confidence."

"So that's a no." Cameron nodded, tossed the folder onto the growing rejection pile on the floor, and picked up the next one. "How do we feel about Luca Harbinger?"

Said candidate Luca Harbinger had been checking his dropbox every few hours for the past two days. He knew that the message wouldn't come until five o'clock Pacific on Saturday afternoon (Sunday morning for him), but there was still a strange attraction, the thrill of anticipation and the slight hope that something might be sent early, every time he sat down in front of his laptop.

Logically, he knew the probality of the fated letter being sent early was even more unlikely than thinking he had a chance of getting into the MCTC - but Luca had nothing to do but hope. After all, he got nearly perfect grades, worked out every day, and was mentally and physically sound. He'd even trained in cadets when he was a child, although he'd never actually joined the Austrailian army.

Granted, a narrow specialty like orthopaedics wasn't exactly ideal for a small colony like the one going to Mars, but Luca did have an entire career at medical school to back up his knowledge. Besides, he didn't think the selection committee would be that precise; after all, this was only granting him entrance into the training school, right? They could cross other bridges when they came to them - for now, he would settle with crossing his fingers and hoping for the best.

The alarm on his watch went off unnecessarily at exactly ten a.m. on Sunday morning. Luca was logged on ten minutes early, waiting for the slight chirp that would herald the new message.

And there was the chirp, the unopened message appearing on the screen. "Here goes," Luca told his dog, and clicked on it apprehensively.

We regret to inform you… There it was, the polite decline of his services. Luca half-expected the walls to crumble around him, waves to crash over his head - crushing, destroying, annihilating completely. He wanted to feel something, at the very least - pain, or anger, or humour at his foolishness, at the very least. Instead, there was nothing but numbness, a bland apathy.

Of course it had always been the faintest of hopes and dreams - not quite a

one-in-a-million chance, but one out of thousands, at the very least. And he'd let it grow into something it never should have been; a wild fantasy, of national recognition and his name in the history books as one of the first to live on Mars.

Luca scrolled down to see the list of accepted candidates; 199 of them blurred together, but one immediately popped out at him: James MacDonnell. Best friend since fourth grade, university roommates, natural good-luck charm. Of course James had been accepted. Unlike Luca, he'd gone on from Cadets to join the Air Force, and from there had transferred into the International Space Agency as a pilot. He'd only flown one mission so far, but it had, apparently, been a tough test of skill in which James came out victorious.

James MacDonnell, with a golden path laid out before his feet. Sure, Luca was thrilled for his friend - thrilled, but tainted with creeping tendrils of jealous. James hadn't even told him that he'd applied for a place. He hadn't brought it up when Luca had told him, jokingly, about his application; Luca's stomach twisted queerly when he wonder if that was how James had heard about it. Had he unwittingly become just another stepping stone for Supreme Being Extraordinaire MacDonnell? Oh, the irony of it was just delightful.

Luca Harbinger sighed, and exited his dropbox. No use crying over spilt milk, right? After all, in retrospect, the entire Mars Colony application had been a huge mistake. He was only in his late twenties and already a respectable orthopaedic surgeon. What was he thinking, to leave everything he had behind, and go off to live on Mars? He had friends here, of course, and he couldn't really leave his parents.

He'd been stupid to apply, but there was no harm done - except to his ego, and perhaps his goodwill towards his best friend.

They had all laughed at him.

His father: "James, you've got my sense of direction." "You haven't got a sense of direction, Dad." "I know."

His girlfriend had simply settled for increduous: "You're going to the sixth largest airport in the world - by yourself?"

And his mother, when he called her, gave him some helpful advice in between fits of hysteric laughter: "Maybe you should hire a guide, James."

At the time, it had just been mildly irritating. Now he realized, frustratingly enough, that they were right. James MacDonnell was standing in the Houston International Airport, and he had no idea where he was going.

Oh, this was sure to inspire confidence in the selection committee. Space was definitely a lot bigger than an airport, and if he couldn't even find his way to his next flight - well, he would have a bit more to worry about if he missed his next flight. Namely, arranging some way to get to the newly opened Mars Colony Training Center. He didn't think the directors of the program would be extremely pleased if he was late.

James sighed reluctantly and tapped a the friendliest looking passerby on the shoulder. "Excuse me? I'm looking for gate C16?"

The man immediately brightened. "You're going to there, too?"

"MCTC?" James said tenatively.

"Christian Neumann," the other candidate said, grasping James' outstretched hand and shaking it firmly. "I was hoping they would have sent someone to meet us, but apparently not."

"Well, I guess we're all arriving at different times," James replied, shrugging. "I'm James MacDonnell."

"Nice to meet you. We should get going; I think our flight is boarding right now."

James laughed in agreement. "Hence my earlier panic."

His new acquaintance led the way to their gate, where their charter flight to MCTC was in the process of boarding. They filed through the line, passports waved at attendants - James caught a glimpse of Christian's, German - and found their seats three rows apart. MCTC certainly didn't skimp on comfort - which was reasonable, as they were robbing two hundred respectable professionals of their highly demanded time, for a wild goose chase that only twenty people would come close to qualifying for.

James sighed as he buckled his seat belt. He was, in a way, glad his best friend hadn't been accepted. He'd been surprised, shocked even, when Luca had informed him that he had submitted an application on a whim. Luca had so much going for him - a good job he was happy with, a nice house, family living close by - it seemed a shame for him to give that up. Luckily, all had turned out well, although James wasn't sure his friend fully realized that on anything more than an intellectual level. When Luca had called to congratulate him, he'd seemed uncomfortably strained.

Admittedly, it would have been cool for the two of them to do this together. They'd gone to the same schools, same parties, even played on the same sports teams - but lately they'd started to drift apart. No, that wasn't true - things had been different ever since he'd joined the Air Force, and the boundaries of their friendship had changed again when he had piloted a space shuttle. This was just one more tug on the threads that held them together - and if James ended up going to Mars, it would be a strong tug indeed.

What Luca didn't quite understand was that he and James were very different people, no matter how close they once were. James had the kind of unstable, fractured life that made this kind of long-term departure possible, while Luca existed in a more structure environment.

James' thoughts hesitated to consider whether or not he really would be able to leave the Earth. After all, there was his on-again/off-again girlfriend to consider, and he did feel some affection for his parents, despite not seeing them in years.

And Luca, of course, but there weren't very many other friends he thought he would miss. Most of his Air Force mates were in a state of perpetual drunkenness, which did not create an environment condusive to intimate friendships.

But eclipsing all of that was the fact that James MacDonnell had dreamed of living on Mars since he was a kid hiding under his bed, with his parents having screaming fights two floors below. To be one of the fifteen to actually set up the colony...James almost thought he'd give anything to do that.