The countdown started with a booming voice that flooded the shuttle’s deck.
My teeth were chattering. My bones were vibrating as the engine growled beneath our feet. It was loud. Too loud. I wanted to scream, but there was nowhere for the sound to go before it dissolved into nothing - the same way that I would, like so many had before me.
There were a hundred of us altogether, bound for a new chapter on a new planet. Bound to our seats by plastic handcuffs. Bound to servitude in the new world, should we arrive safely. We were told that others had arrived before us, and the odds increased with each new launch. I closed my eyes and tried not to think of the ship as a coffin - of my charcoal skin floating in the black abyss for eternity.
‘You chose to be here,’ our commander liked to remind us during training, as if we were astronauts who’d chosen to leave our families behind for the thrill of the adventure. It was an excuse only the privileged could afford to believe. My choice was between staying to watch my children starve or leaving behind a steady paycheck in the place of a parent. I enrolled in the program to put food in their bellies.
I could feel my heart beating in my throat. I felt nauseous.
I’d signed up on a Sunday afternoon. I’d slipped out of bed early without waking Maya, knowing she’d change my mind like she had so many times before. I’d left a letter on my pillow and kissed her on the forehead with tears in my eyes. I’d let her down. I’d never meant to. She’d say that it wasn’t my fault - that the small minority with wealth and power were inclined to make things difficult for the rest of us. That the program was incentivizing the disenfranchised with servitude, but only after leaving them - or, us - without other options.
“They call it an opportunity, Dion. Can you believe that?” She shook her head after seeing an advert streaming on the television. “$200 a week to serve some rich assholes on a new planet so you don’t die on this one. And I heard they’re only showing this commercial in the slums…”
I could feel G16 next to me shaking. I moved to hold her hand, but the handcuffs tugged at my wrists. The chip they’d implanted in the back of my neck burned underneath my rough nylon shirt when I moved.
Nobody escapes - very few try, and they don’t last long. I’d thought about it before - we probably all had. But if I managed to get past the locked doors and my commander’s gaze, I’d be tracked down or, worse, terminated by the small chip they’d implanted on my first day. For them, it’d be as simple as pressing a button.
The doctor had pulled a large, black tool out of its case. He’d pressed a couple of buttons on the machine, and a long needle had jumped out of the unit.
“What is it?”’ I’d asked, as a nurse tightened the restraints around my chest and legs.
“This,” he said, setting the machine on the back of my neck, “is your new identity. G17.” The machine latched onto my skin, and I screamed.
Jade would be turning 5 next month. I pictured her on her mother’s lap, singing a song that she’d just made up. Laughing, despite the ache in her stomach and the holes in her shoes. Without me, those would finally be filled.
“The problem is,” G16 had said from her bunk above me, on a night that was too dark to sleep through, “we’re worth more dead than alive, and there’s no hiding it anymore. Our ship could crash on the way to Palazar, and my kids would still get their check in the mail. It’s more than I could ever give them if I’d stayed. More than my parents ever gave me. So, who’s to say it’s wrong?”
“Who’s to say it’s right?” I asked. I tried to picture Maya’s face to keep the darkness from swallowing me whole.
There weren’t any windows on the ship, and I was grateful. I wasn’t sure I could stand watching everything I loved disappear. It’d happen, all the same, but the horror would be blocked from view by a bleak white wall.
I hadn’t seen Maya since the day I’d left. It was one of their rules - a part of an agreement I’d signed when I enrolled.
“They don’t want anyone to know what happens here,” G5 had told me in the mess hall one morning, after I’d asked about visitors. “Think about it. Someone gets wind of all of this, and the bleeding hearts’ll be after them quicker than flies on a turd. You got kids to feed, right?”
“And they’ll keep eating as long as we keep quiet. Lucky for us, there’s systems in place to make it so we don’t have a choice.”
I clenched my fists so hard that my fingernails bit into the skin. I felt a tear slip down my cheek.
They’d told us that we were headed to Palazar - a city on Mars - where we’d build the Albright estate and prepare for the family’s arrival. When he’d announced our departure date, our commander had called us architects of a new world. He’d told us that we should feel honored to work in service of such an esteemed family.
We’d formed 10 straight lines before him as he read a worn-out speech from a wrinkled piece of paper. “Your work will not go unnoticed. Your lives will not be without meaning.” He cleared his throat and continued, “The Albrights’ generosity is without bounds, and you are the lucky heirs of their altruism. As one of the founding families of the NuLife program, you owe them your unfettered gratitude for this incredible opportunity. I hope you won’t betray the faith they’ve bestowed upon you.”
He looked up from the paper and smiled in a way that made my blood boil. “I'll ensure you don’t.”
The space around me lurched. My body felt heavy - pushed back against the seat by a powerful force - an invisible hand that was stronger than me, stronger than all of us, keeping us in place. I thought of Maya as I flew farther away from earth, farther away from her and the life we'd built together, and toward a new life - one that I'd never wanted - one that I couldn't escape.