Wilson stared out through the large, expansive window. Having a window was a privilege, but the view from the 34th floor was depressing. Most of the other buildings were old, dating back to the days when they were meant to shelter people from snow and cold. Now the year-round tropical heat and humidity made mold grow over the city and concrete crumble like wet sand. A gray sea mist was coming in, making the buildings look even sadder. Only the new State buildings, all crystal and steel, stood out in the grayness.
As head of recruitment, Wilson had an office all to himself. On the wall adjacent to the window were framed posters featuring the slogan, “A Second Chance.” Sitting at his desk, Wilson reflected on his success. The Ministry of Life’s space program was about to launch yet another colony ship, the Falcon, on the long journey to GY129. The spaceship would lift off in three days, and Wilson just needed one more recruit to fill the ship with 5,000 qualified colonists.
There was a respectful tap on the door, then a pause before it opened and James Wong entered. Fresh out of National Training, the unremarkable-looking young Junior wore the standard black overalls with the insignia of the State.
“James,” Wilson said. “Come in. I presume you know why you’re here.”
“Yes, sir,” was James’s reply. “At least I think I do. I’ve been told I have a chance of being on the Falcon.”
“A great professional opportunity,” Wilson reminded him. “Are you aware that this is quite an honor for a Junior?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” James replied eagerly.
Wilson gave James his usual talk, finishing up with the Falcon’s mission and how lucky James was to be assigned to the colony ship. He was pleased by how humbly and attentively James listened. He was a perfect Junior, Wilson thought. If he stayed on Earth, he would probably rise to become a high-level official in the Ministry. But he was going to the colonies instead, which was a sign of devotion to the State. Still, he would probably do just as well in the colonies and become a high official there.
“Congratulations,” Wilson said as he logged into System and changed James’s status from Junior to Senior. Then he pulled out a set of dark burgundy Senior overalls, wrapped in plastic. They were identical to the Juniors’ uniforms except for the color. He handed it to James and shook the young man’s hand, surprised at himself for feeling a little bit envious. “Now,” Wilson said. “Let’s get you to the spaceport.” That was where James would receive his final training before boarding the Falcon and departing for the colonies.
They were whisked down in a Ministry lifter, one of the few existing in New Ocean City, then took the elevated hyper loop reserved for ministry officials. The hyper loop was a local, stopping at every station. As they passed Central Supermarket, James gasped at its size. “Back home in New Waterline, the State sent food out to us directly,” James explained. “There was no way for us to get any more than the ration.”
New Waterline, Wilson knew, was a much smaller coastal city. Actually, he mentally corrected himself, it had been a coastal city in the province of Pennsylvania until the waters of the Atlantic finally washed over it ten years ago. He did not tell James that most of the shelves in the Central Supermarket were empty. It was probably just a temporary shortage, Wilson reminded himself optimistically… though less land above water meant less food for rations and almost no luxuries. The State’s official position was that rising sea levels were not an issue that people needed to worry about, but the Ministry’s generous funding of the colonization program suggested otherwise. At least half of what had been State land was now covered by water.
“We used to own a two-bedroom house on the beach,” James reminisced. “It was me and two older brothers and our aunt. My parents left when I was only two. They were chosen to go to the colonies, back when they still had conscriptions.” Wilson nodded. When the first colony ships were being launched, fear of the unknown made voluntary recruitment next to impossible. But as the oceans covered more land and life became harsher, more people signed up voluntarily. Wilson had even turned a few away, though they would undoubtedly make it onto the next ship.
James looked hopeful. “That’s one of the reasons why I signed up. To reunite with my brother, up in the stars. He went to the colonies last year. My other brother died in the New Waterline flood, so I have no one else.”
The sadness on James’s face was quickly replaced with excitement as they approached the Spaceport. They passed through security and into the soaring entrance hall, several stories high with magnificent chandeliers dangling down. It was intended to make prospective colonists feel awed, and it worked.
Another lifter ferried them up to the 22nd floor, the Department of Colonial Training. There, Wilson greeted Leo, the training director, and handed James over to him. “Good luck,” he told James. He nodded to Leo and left.
Just as he was about to get back on the lifter, Wilson heard the sound of laughter echoing sharply in the gleaming hallway. It came from a nearby conference room. The door was slightly ajar, and now Wilson could hear pieces of the conversation taking place inside. He recognized one of the voices: it was Ross, head of Colonization. Thinking he should say hello, Wilson started for the door but then stopped, not wanting to interrupt a meeting in progress. Then he heard Ross speak:
“People are desperate enough to believe anything, I guess. Even if we detected a habitable planet in another system, we don’t even have the technology or resources to go any farther than Mars.” Ross sighed. “Sometimes I feel bad for those people, with their dreams of a Second Chance.”
“Maybe they do get a Second Chance,” the other voice said. “I mean, if there’s an afterlife.” There was more laughter. Wilson almost gasped, but he caught himself. He needed to hear more.
“Besides,” continued the other voice, “it’s not like either of us could do anything about it. Step out of line and the Controllers will find you and throw you into one of the maximum-security prisons. Or worse.”
“I know,” Ross said. “Plus, we’re reducing the population, and that means more resources for the lucky ones who survive.”
“Like us,” said the other voice.
“Like us,” agreed Ross.
Wilson felt his blood turn into ice. He could not believe the State was behind this. All that he had been told, and all he had told others was a lie. How much blood did he have on his hands? How many people had he, as Head of Recruitment, sent off to the “Colonies” that didn’t even exist? No wonder the launch site was so heavily guarded. They weren’t sending anybody into space. They were just murdering people. Now he understood why the State didn’t address the issue of rising sea levels. It was because they didn’t need to. Instead, they chose to reduce the population to allow the decreasing amount of resources to be shared among fewer people.
Then he thought of James. James, who thought he was going to reunite with his brother in the stars. At that moment, Wilson knew he had to get James out of there. He charged back towards the Department of Colonial Training and snatched James right out of the room before Leo’s eyes.
“Just trust me. It’s for your own good,” Wilson said as they entered the lifter. Wilson told James all that he had heard. James almost fainted. Wilson thought they had made it out, but when the doors opened on the first floor, they were met by a squadron of Controllers, armed with laser guns and tasers. Wilson swallowed. “The lifter,” he whispered. “It must be monitored by security.” He felt a second of terror before everything went black.
When Wilson woke up, he was in a small barred cell, alone. James was nowhere to be found. His body ached all over and his mind was frantically trying not to think of what would happen next. Would they torture him before killing him? He knew what the State did to people accused of treason, and he did not see how he could talk his way out of the charge.
When the door opened a bit, he scrambled up, hoping to get some information, at least about James. But it was just a hand sliding in a tray with food and water. For two days, Wilson saw nobody, just that hand sliding in the tray.
On the third day, the door finally opened and two silent guards came in. From their gray uniforms with the State’s insignia, Wilson knew immediately that they were Controllers. They would not speak to him, but just handcuffed him and dragged out of the building and into a prison transport elevated hyper loop with neither windows nor a clear destination.
When the transport finally stopped, he was pulled out again. When his silent guards turned him around, Wilson immediately knew what his fate was.
He had only ever seen pictures of the top-secret launch site, but he knew he was looking at the Falcon; the ship that he now knew would never take off. It looked just like all the ships in the posters. “They must paint a new name on it every time,” he thought. “For the publicity pictures.”
The Falcon was waiting for him, its last passenger. This was his Second Chance.
Frank Yang is a high school student in New York City whose passions range from reading and writing to science and technology.