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The Lottery

We must not be afraid to sacrifice.

By Laura PresleyPublished 10 months ago 9 min read
Runner-Up in New Worlds Challenge

No one can hear you scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. It feels a little dramatic, honestly. The airlock seems to be doing the job just fine.

Doesn't mean Cap isn't trying, though. No matter how much the ship's computer requests her compliance, she's still pounding steadily on the glass and cussing up a storm. Her fists are swollen. One leaves behind faint red smears.

I'd probably feel bad for her if she hadn't killed my friends.

Heart rate elevated. Please inhale slowly, the ship says. One. Two. Three. Four.

I inhale. I press the intercom button. "She's right, you know."

The pounding stops. Cap extends one middle finger and then the other. Both nails are gone, the skin slick and black. Her nose is broken.

I guess we've both seen better days.

Please exhale fully, the ship says. One. Two. Three. Four.

Good old Odysseus, still looking out for everyone. Even those of us who don't deserve it.

"Just say you're sorry," I say. "Jesus, Cap. You owe them that much."

She spits blood on her boots. I reactivate her sound transmissions against my better judgment.

"Owe them?" she says. "Owe them. I don't owe them anything."

I think about Bliss, sending holos home every Sunday and never getting a response. About Niner and the son he'll never see again.

About my father.

"It's funny, you know," I say. "We used to say the same thing about you."

Pioneer five thirteen, says the ship, not unkindly. Heart rate elevated.

I know, Odysseus. I know.


It's just luck, you know, says the cowboy. He's slumped comfortably in the safety harness while the rest of us fidget, chin nearly touching his chest. No sense being upset about it.

"Luck!" the blonde girl says. Even in the flightsuit there's something soft about her: it could be the blur of her pink cheeks, or the furious way her shoulders shake. "How could this happen."

"Easy," the cowboy says. "News said for years it was coming. People came up with all kinds of roadblocks even - recycling, electric cars, you know, real do-gooder programs. All-for-one kind of shit. Problem is, turns out the all didn't give a good god-damn about the future. Just the now."

The cowboy might be a few years older than me, but I remember my father complaining first about the electric cars -

twelve dollars a gallon Marcy it's robbery

and the grid collapse that came shortly after, the rolling outages that left millions without electricity for days and then weeks. The hospitals turned to hot boxes in hundred and thirty degree heat. The highways clogged with cars and corpses.

"The top shelf, though, well," says the cowboy. He taps the toes of his space boots together. "Those folks are always worried about the future, aren't they. Always looking for a way out."

A week after my mother died the President was on every channel, looking exhausted in his wrinkled suit. My father didn't bother calling him a liar.

My fellow Americans, he said. We must be brave in these strange new times. We must not be afraid to sacrifice.

The cowboy has it right - when the highest and mightiest realized they were aboard the Titanic, they did what the highest and mightiest always do: plotted to save themselves.

But someone had to pave the way.

The President put his head in his hands.

So did my father.

A lifetime away from my ghosts, the cowboy is still talking. The launch sequence for Odysseus is down to three minutes, the numbers ticking steadily away.

"Good news is, you can make rocket fuel with water, right? All you need's for that hydrogen and oxygen to loosen up a little. Problem is, water's expensive to launch. A water bottle? Few thousand dollars, easy. You want to launch enough for a fuel tank?"

The cowboy whistles, low and sharp. Incredibly, he laughs.

"So say you take the cost out of it. Make the fuel someplace else. Someplace average folk don't have to think too hard about it. Don't have to get their hands dirty."

The Pioneer Program will investigate the untapped resources our moon has to offer, said the President. A lottery system, to allow every eligible citizen the opportunity to see the wonder of space and serve their country. Serve their fellow man.

"Serve the rich folks their rocket fuel at the wholesale price so they can escape the sinking ship," says the cowboy. "Well, hell. How noble of us."

The blonde girl makes a sound. I think she's crying. I wonder if I should be crying, too.

I can't. There's nothing for me here anymore.

Ninety seconds. A brisk, stone-faced nurse administers a sedative to each of us through the medi-port at the base of our skulls. The door seals behind her.

We must not be afraid to sacrifice.

The cabin lights flicker and everything gets dark. We leave Earth without even a chance to say goodbye.


I stop counting the days. Counting is for people who have something to look forward to. People who think they're going home. I have nothing but the narrow corridors of Odysseus and my fellow Pioneers. Past that is nothing, just this strange new horizon and a thousand nameless stars.

The sour-faced cowboy calls himself Niner; the crying girl is called Bliss. We share a set of bunks in the low barracks. There's an empty mattress above me, although the roster lists Pioneer fourteen eleven as our roommate. I ask the hospitality robot why and its smooth face flickers.

"Pioneer fourteen eleven ceased flight compatibility before launch," it says.

Bliss takes a long breath. She's been calmer since the last medication increase, her eyes wide and glassy. She doesn't scream in her sleep anymore. It's an improvement.

"You mean they killed themselves. Why would anyone do that?" she says. It's sweet. Or sad. Maybe she still thinks things are going to get better.

But that isn't the kind of question the hospitality robot is designed to answer, so it says nothing, as much a hostage to its coding as anyone. Niner sighs and sets his dog-eared paperback aside - The Martian Chronicles, left in the drawers like a bedside Bible. Someone's idea of a joke, just like everything else about Odysseus and its passengers.

"Listen, kid. Back home I had a friend, ran himself into trouble one too many times. Got caught up in a cell long enough for his boy to go from diapers to driving in the meantime."

The robot scans our temperatures and doles pills out into open palms: purple for sleep, yellow to supplement our vitamin intake, orange for the low-gravity nausea. Bliss has half a dozen others that she swallows dry, grimacing after each one.

The bot stays long enough to record our taking them, then excuses itself. Niner keeps talking.

"So he gets out, and he tries to go straight. Applies for some jobs. Tries to collect some shit owed him. Except he can't. Only thing the world hates more than a criminal is a convict."

Something about the way he says it: Bliss turns away and reaches for her pillow. I wonder for the first time if she has a record.

I wonder if we all do.

There's no way to check anymore. Pioneers don't have access to other Pioneer logs. There's no way to find out anything off-mission but to ask a stranger and trust their word.

Niner rubs his hand across the stubble on his chin; in another few days, the robot will insist he shaves to meet hygiene protocols. "Anyway. Few months go by. No job, no money, no place. Not a friend in the world. Kid won't take his calls. Can't even afford a pack of cigarettes. So what's he do?"

I don't mean to answer, but I do, surprising all of us. "He robs a place," I say. "Or something. Something stupid. Doesn't matter, he gets caught doing it."

Niner makes a finger gun and pulls the trigger. "Exactamundo," he says. "He gets caught. And he goes right back to jail. Do not pass go. Never does get a pack of cigarettes."

Bliss mumbles something.

"What's that?"

"I said, where were you?" she says. Clearly, this time. She's leaning forward, her eyes wide and bright. She smells faintly like the powder we use in place of soap now, dry and chemical. "You said he was your friend. But you also said he didn't have any friends."

Niner smiles. It isn't happy.

There was no friend.

And I know why he went back, the same way that I know why Pioneer fourteen eleven couldn't accept their lottery winnings with the rest of us.

Better to have a home that hates you than to be without one forever.


After everything, the moon is almost a disappointment.

Odysseus lands while everyone is sleeping; we settle in a canyon miles away from any of the Apollo sites, the higher-ups determined to protect history from Pioneer vandalism. It's funny, in a way; hundreds of us have been taken from our homes without hesitation, but we draw the line at disturbing orphaned flags and century-old footprints.

Or maybe it isn't funny at all. I'll have plenty of time to decide.

Our surface suits are bulkier than the streamlined flight suits, designed to keep us from tearing holes in them during our work shifts. There are plenty of other jobsite hazards without risking an oxygen leak. Their supply of Pioneers might be bottomless, but they can only ship and sustain so many of us at a time. Our predecessor, Pioneer Ship Anticlea, hasn't shown signs of life for almost two years.

Best not to think about that yet.

At first glance, everything is grey: the hills, the rocks, the sloped, shadowy craters. Even the things our fellow Pioneers built or brought here: aluminum mining towers, spidering towards the heavens, the wide, domed communications disc, all of them dusted in fine silver crystals. The rovers, parked in perfect, patient rows. Grey. Grey. Grey. I hesitate before looking up, half expecting Earth to be the same color.

But no; there she hangs, like an oil painting on black velvet, awash in distant greens and blues that feel impossibly bright. It's like seeing a ghost, or watching a loved one sleep: silent, curiously lonely.

If I raise my thumb, I can erase it from the sky completely.

Although lunar gravity has been explained to us, we shuffle in careful, clumsy circles, as though afraid to fly away. Each step feels timid and somehow tender, the way you might move across a trampoline.

No surprise to anyone that it's Niner to take the first true leap, a bound that carries him effortlessly across a boulder half as big as himself. His boots make divots in the sand.

"That's enough, Pioneers. Formation."

Crew Member Delta Four, alias Cap, has made it clear that she alone is in charge of the mining assignments and monitoring the worksites.

She has also made it clear she finds our company unbearable.

We stumble into something passable for rows, bumping into each other at the elbows, still getting used to the helmets' field of vision. The sky is too open, too endless. It feels real in a way that Odysseus does not. I'm suddenly grateful for the nausea pills.

"You aren't here to enjoy yourselves," Cap says, "You're here to work. In case nobody's told you yet, the work is hard. There's no room for sloppiness. Frankly, some of you won't make it. And frankly, I don't care."

Of course she doesn't. Cap thinks her rank is a leg up on all of us, that her assignment here isn't proof of equal exile. Cap thinks she's going to make it home again, and if she doesn't, she'll blame us.

"Well," she says. "This is it, Pioneers."

She claps her hands together, briskly. There's no sound.

"Let's get started."

Sci FiAdventure

About the Creator

Laura Presley

Laura Presley is a firm believer that magic is real and birds are not. She lives and works in Ohio with her husband, their brood of wildlings, and their excessive number of rescue animals.

IG: @makeshift.martha

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