The platform was bedecked with ribbons, and the soldiers positively sparkled in the gold trim of their dress uniforms, but Thara had eyes only for the ships.
They towered over the field, great obelisks of metal alloy and dark ceramic, the smooth gray of their hulls broken only by the stark white NASA logos.
Colony ships. Astera One, Two, and Three. In a matter of hours they would begin loading, filling the arks with all the technology to carry humanity to the stars. Most of the places for personnel were filled already – those with valuable skills or the money to claim a land-parcel already had their berths. But on each ship, a handful of open spots would be given out to those lucky enough to win one.
Three hundred berths, Thara thought. Three hundred chances to escape this hellhole. And there are only three hundred million people here.
She clutched her ticket tighter, feeling thick cardstock cut into her hand. This was her chance to escape the Colonia, where a corrugated aluminum shack was a luxury. For now, she was still small enough to work in the factory, climbing into the machinery to repair the mechanized assembly line that turned out droids for the Army. But that wouldn’t last much longer.
The woman from the Population Bureau was finishing her speech, something about the next great Frontier and humanity’s drive to explore. Thara snorted. It was all bullshit; everyone knew the planet was dying. Hell, they’d already had to move the launching pads inland. In another year the next third of the country would be underwater.
The man beside her coughed, great hacking sobs that rocked his chest. Blood and phlegm spattered on the ground, and she edged away. Radiation poisoning, most likely, so not really contagious. But better safe than sorry – there were no more pigs, but the avian flus were still deadly.
There was dutiful applause as the suit finished talking, and then the soldiers rolled the giant rotating drum forward. They could have done it all by computer, nowadays, and sent the results to the ‘links. But the Grunts, as the poor laborers were called, didn’t trust computers anymore. And the government was cheap.
The lady spun the drum with great enthusiasm. The big screens were showing a closeup of her face, with its plastered-on smile and fearful eyes. She was a nobody – expendable. From the number of soldiers surrounding the crowd they government was expecting a riot.
She stopped, and pulled open the door of the drum with a clang. Absolute silence, broken only by quiet coughing.
“The -” the woman squeaked, cleared her throat, and began again. “The first number is!” She reached into the drum and pulled out a ticket, holding it aloft so the cameras could get a good view: 23333 090271378.
Thara clenched both fists this time, nails digging into her palms. She didn’t need to check the ticket – she’d spent the whole night staring at it, memorizing it. The number on the screen wasn’t hers. Her number was burned into her brain; tattooed on her eyelids. She chanted it in her head. Two, Three-Three-Three-Three, Oh-Five-Eight-Eight-One, Seven-Five-Oh-One.
Somewhere else in the crowd, the soldiers were escorting the lucky winner away to the Bureau, where they’d be fed, bathed, and issued their standard colonist package. They would be getting out. They would see the stars.
Thara clenched her teeth as the woman handed off the winning ticket to another suited official and reached in again.
One chance gone. Two hundred and ninety-nine to go.