One Way Ticket

The man’s signature lay wet and glistening on the page. His hand lifted and the ink smeared a ghastly trail of black. It’s possible that he would have sat there for eternity, unable to look away from the dark smudge seeping into his hand, had the attendant not shaken him gently by the shoulder and directed him to a waiting area. 

He took in his surroundings for the first time since entering the facility. The room was gently lit room and chairs were organized in neat rows. A dark podium stood at the front of the room. Behind the podium lay a door, where attendants of various sorts flitted back and forth as they went about their duties. Above the door, in block lettering:

US MINING CO

Although there were several other people in the room, none seemed to be aware of the other’s presence. Each shared the same expression: eyes dull, shoulders slumped, and mouth slightly gaped. A soft noise came from one individual, who was breathing heavily and showed visible perspiration through his issued work clothes. 

The attendants were now finalizing their duties, eager to be home and away from the oppressive atmosphere that was taking over the waiting room. The lights dimmed and the door opened. A figure in a dark suit took his place behind the podium and unfolded a worn piece of paper from his pocket. Without looking at the occupants of the room, he began to read. His voice echoed unnaturally in the small area.

Thank you for volunteering and welcome to the 14th Division of the US Mining Asteroid Division. US Mining leads the way in space and atmospheric mining, and your participation in the program is a testament to your patriotism. With that being said, I am happy to confirm that your stipend has been approved and your family will be receiving a weekly allowance per the …

The voice continued to drone, but the man was no longer listening. He closed his eyes and remembered the months that had lead him to this moment. 

A cramped apartment with leaky faucets. 

Empty wrappers strewn among the table, mixing freely with overdraft statements and the occasional forlorn lottery ticket bought in a moment of rare optimism. 

His wife’s face, once beautiful but now gaunt with hunger. 

The sounds of his daughter’s cries late in the night when she thought her parents were asleep. 

Loud machinery from his job, aching joints and muscles.

A perpetual hunch, stemming from physical labor and an unimaginably heavy emotional burden.

The newsletter slipped under his door that promised hope. 

Physicals, mental examinations, and statements of intent. 

News briefings on the men chosen to leave the planet. 

Widows and children standing at the launch pad. Tears streaming down their faces.

Packing in the night, writing the letter that said goodbye but also promised security for his family. 

Arriving at the station, ushered by grim faced men and relieved of his personal belongings.

Motion in the room stirred him from his reverie. The figure at the podium had finished speaking, and the others were now shuffling towards the door. Instructions filtered through the speakers, guiding the crowd towards the departure station. Windows pockmarked the walls, and the hulking mass of a shuttle was visibly steaming in the early morning air. A crowd had begun to gather, no doubt the families of those in the current batch. 

The man knew he would not see the faces of his loved ones again. He had not told them of his sacrifice. Instead he had left for work as usual, hoping that his letter would say everything he could — and couldn’t. 

As the men began to strap in, each seat snugly encased their heads and bodies. Biometrics and vital signs streamed from their personal devices into a small display at eye level. As he sat back, he noticed a blinking indicator that signified a voice message. He patched the audio through and heard his wife’s voice. Excited, her voice was barely coherent:

I’m not sure why but I just felt like today was our day so I stopped on my way home and bought it! I know you always say I shouldn’t but this time felt different and it was. Honey, we WON! I can’t believe it, you’ll never need to work again and we can afford to send our little girl to school now. Call me as soon as you can, I love you.

The message ended. The man stared straight ahead, completely still except for a vein pulsing in his neck. All at once, he was pressed back into his seat. The noise from the rocket became deafening as it lifted from the planet’s surface.