Yolanda joined the ration queue, glad to see the fiery sun just setting on the horizon, the sky a dazzling red and orange. It would be cooler soon and she would be able to breathe without feeling the dry dust taste in her mouth.
The queue was quiet, the people patient and resigned. It was the final draw tonight, after dinner, but there was no air of excitement. There had been so many draws and the people that were left accepted their fate. The young still had hope in their eyes but Yolande had hope only for her son, Mikel.
When she was young a stream bubbled and raced over the stones beside her house. As the years went by it became a trickle and then a dry, dirt channel. The river it had joined became a thin, precious reminder of what had been Sometimes it rained but the voracious sun sucked it up. That was the beginning of the end.
The queue was getting shorter and she had reached the gate of the compound. It was huge, as was the fence around its perimeter, impossible to scale and necessary, at first. Now nobody had the energy to climb it. Yolanda stood on tiptoe to look for Mikel. She was so proud of him, working there, earning a larger ration than the non-workers, like her. He was strong and healthy and deserved a place, a life, but the draw was impartial, apparently.
When it began they sorted everyone into categories, builders, electricians, doctors, scientists, spaceship engineers and pilots. Yolanda was a teacher of young children and although it was acknowledged teachers were useful they were not essential as pioneers. Mikel was a space engineer. He knew that gleaming silver ship from the toilet to the computer but that did not give him an automatic ticket on it.
In the past three years five ships had left Earth and begun the journey, and this was the last. The first ship was nearing its goal, a planet slightly smaller than Earth, orbiting a sun that was stable and aeons away from dying. It had water and a primitive, possibly hostile, population of humanoid creatures. Going there was risky and a gamble but Earth was now a desert, so there was no choice.
She spotted him at last, tall, handsome, healthy and her heart ached for him to have this last chance of life, a future full of possibilities. She waved smiling and when he responded her feelings swung to a selfish desire for him to stay with her.
Yolande reached the front and was handed her bread, soup and water. She took the tray to a table and sat next to Aaron. He was a little older than her and was a good friend.
‘The way I see it, Yolanda, when they’ve gone, those left will have access to all this.’ He waved an arm to incorporate the whole compound. ‘We’ll have better food, twice or even three times a day, better housing, as much water as we want and less people to share it with. Yes, I’ll see out my days in some comfort, compared to now.’
She put down her bread and hugged him to her. “You are so lovely, Aaron. Only you could see something good coming out of this last draw.’
They continued eating, in companionable silence, both of them thinking of the future. One with calm acceptance the other muddled and agitated. When they had finished their meal she took the trays to the chute and wondered as they sucked into the void how they were cleaned. Was there a worker washing them up in the old fashioned way? She thought it more likely there would be something clever like a molecule agitator to remove particles and then a flash-heater to kill germs. She shrugged and looked around for Mikel. There he was, smiling, as he approached.
It was a long hug. It might be their last. The chosen person would board the ship immediately after the draw. It would take off three hours later to give all other personnel time to get into the deep bunkers.
‘Whatever happens, Mum, there’s something I’ve got to say.’ He paused for a moment, ‘I want to thank you for all the love and support you’ve given me. You believed in my ability and pushed me to become an engineer and I’m…’
She reached up and put her finger over his lips. ‘Enough, Mikel, I did the same as any loving mother. You don’t need to thank me. Just do the same for your child, if you should be so blessed.’ Her voice turned into a whimper as she struggled not to weep. He hugged her to him as the bell rang. It was time.
Everyone turned to look at the huge screen. There was a fanfare and the words, ‘The Final Draw for a place on Explorer Six’ appeared. The crowd was silent, holding a collective breath. They let it out with a sigh when, ‘Mikel Shan, welcome aboard,’ flashed up and continued to flash.
Yolanda felt her legs beginning to buckle but Mikel held her tight, his heart thumping with excitement, relief and grief.
Then a voice shouted, ‘It’s a fix! Everyone knows the expedition needs Mikel. He’s the best engineer of the lot and they can’t afford to go without him. It’s a fix I tell you.’ The crowd began to murmur and the noise gradually increased to a pulsing shout. ‘Draw it again! Draw it again!’
Aaron pushed forward and stood on a bench glaring at everyone until the chanting stopped and there was a restless quiet. ‘Now most of you know me. You know I have no axe to grind. My name wasn’t even in the draw because I’m over fifty. You also know I’m a programmer, top grade.’ He paused and people nodded.
‘I will go to the keyboard and put up the list of names for all to see. Then we’ll know for sure if it was a fix or not.’ He strode over to the computer station and the people waited, talking quietly, their eyes never wavering from the screen.
Suddenly a list appeared in alphabetical order and it slipped slowly up until it stopped at Shan Mikel, highlighted in red and flashing. There was a collective moan. The draw had been fair. It was all over.
Yolande gave her son a final hug and a kiss that broke her heart, but she resolutely pushed him away from her. ‘Send messages for as long as you can, and work hard servicing that ship so you all get there safely.’
‘I will Mum, you know I will.’ They were both crying as he turned towards the ship, climbed the steps and entered the door that shut behind him with a hiss and a final clunk.
Yolanda stood, bleakly looking at the door, until Aaron put his arm around her and together they entered the deep bunker.